The abrupt sensation of locking gazes with someone instead of staring into the darkness shocked Johnsa out of her glide. Once more, her feet snagged a root and she went down with a muffled yelp. Nar reached out, trying to catch her, but only managed to get dragged down himself. The line halted as they waited for the two to stand back up. Pral gave Johnsa a withering look for the hold up, and immediately began moving again when he saw her stand.
“There’s someone out there,” Johnsa said to Pral’s retreating back.
“Ignore it. Keep moving.” Pral’s command was dismissive, but his voice was cold. Johnsa and the rest of the group were surprised by this.
“Ignore it?” Bertran asked slowly.
“But what if it’s someone following us…” Glyc began.
“Or someone who needs our help?” Wenley finished.
“Ignore it!” This time, Pral’s voice was harsh, silencing the questions on everyone’s lips.
At the back of the line, Hosus perked up. This was unlike him. Pral never lost his temper, never lost his composure. What was making him so anxious? She moved up past her companions, who had been stunned into immobility. Standing next to the twins, she quietly asked them to take up the rear and cover their tracks. Her quiet request and light touch on Glyc’s shoulder spurred them from their daze, and they nodded, stepping back and allowing the rest of the group to pass. Hosus moved up behind Pral, following in his footsteps for a moment. She could see tension in his every move, easily visible in his neck and shoulders.
What are you hiding from us now? she thought. She moved to walk beside him, matching his fluid gliding steps. He noted her presence with a quick downward glance but said nothing. From this perspective, Hosus could see the strain even more clearly. Pral’s jaw was clenched, his nostrils flared, and his hand was closing reflexively on the hilt of his sword. Something had him frightened.
Hosus even felt a difference in how he carried himself. Gone was the predatory nonchalance. Gone was the hawk like gaze. In its place was the cringing impression of a cornered animal or a frightened mother defending her young. Hosus felt the slightest tingle of desperation, held tight in check, radiating off of the larger man. Glancing out in the woods, she felt that desperation spike as Pral’s full attention snapped to her.
“I said ignore it,” Pral whispered, the desperation combining with his anger and menace.
Hosus looked up and saw true rage in his emerald eyes. Nodding, she fell back into line, giving Pral his usual space when leading the group. She remained behind him, studying the forest around them as much as his back. What is out there he doesn’t want us seeing?
Pral struck a fast pace after that, blazing a trail through the deepening dark of the afternoon, his footing as sure as ever despite the little light that made it through the canopy. Hosus took mental note that he led them much faster than such travel would safely recommend for the first hour after Johnsa’s sighting. She also watched as the tension seemed to slowly drain from his shoulders and neck the further away they got from that part of the forest, until he seemed as loose and predatory as his usual self.
As they traveled, Hosus pondered Pral’s unusual behavior. He knew the forest too well to be following a general path, and he very clearly knew about whatever Johnsa had seen. He would not have told them to ignore it otherwise, considering his earlier precautions against being followed. So what was out there and how was Pral connected to it? It was idle speculation, but one Hosus toyed with as Pral hustled them through the forest.
The day wore on and the forest got darker. Hosus figured it was approaching evening, but the dense forest prevented the little remaining light from filtering through to the ground. What little light did manage to break through the heavy canopy created long flitting shadows that disguised the thick roots. Brief moments of sunlight dazzled various members of the group, leaving them momentarily blinded, rubbing their eyes and groping their way forward until their night vision returned. Pral was forced to wait several times while the twins rough housed, pushing each other into random patches of light and laughing as the other stumbled blindly on, though he waited in silence.
Pral pushed on into the deepening gloom after even those few patches of illumination were blocked, and for the next half mile everyone had difficulty keeping up. Even after Pral slowed down, the twins were complaining about multiple stubbed toes and bruised shins.
“Do we have to continue on like this?” Wenley whined piteously.
“Yes, why can’t we make camp or light a torch or something?” Glyc followed up.
“No torches. We’re almost there. We’ll make camp soon.”
“Almost where?” Glyc moaned. “I can’t even see where here is. How are we supposed to see where we are when we get there if it’s impossible to see where we are here?”
“Wait…” Bertran started, thinking through Glyc’s sentence. After a few moments of pondering, he shook his head, bewildered. “Never mind. I don’t even want to try figuring that one out.”
Nar chuckled at his brother. “As confusing as it was, I have to agree with the twins. I can’t see my hand in front of my face, Pral. How far away is the camp, and how many more twisted ankles must we suffer to get there?”
Hosus was glad it was nearly pitch black among the crowded trees as she sensed Pral’s patience wearing thin with the irritations.
“I’m not having that much trouble,” Johnsa mumbled.
Despite having said it quietly, everyone heard her. Now Johnsa was suddenly glad it was pitch black.
“Hey, I can see your eyes, Johnsa!” Wenley chimed.
“Yup yup,” Glyc agreed.
Hosus did notice a soft, almost imperceptible red glow coming from Johnsa’s position, though Johnsa had her back turned toward her. She heard Phanza carefully make his way over to the Ramadan.
“Allow me to see, if I may,” he said.
The red glow shifted quickly up and down, following Johnsa’s nod. Hosus could barely make up Phanza’s curious features in the soft light as he examined her briefly.
“How do you feel? Headache? Thirsty?”
“And how does everything look? Your eyes are glowing right now, by the way.”
“Really?” Johnsa didn’t seem quite as surprised as such a revelation might warrant, but she had experienced more than her share lately and was quickly becoming immune to them. “My vision is normal. At least, fairly normal. Everything is still dark, but I can make out the shape of the roots and trees and everyone. You’re all sort of outlined in silver. I didn’t really notice that before…”
The twins seemed quite excited by Johnsa’s newest ability, and despite only being two people, managed to crowd around her and pepper her with questions like children around a favorite uncle who had been traveling.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“What does it make my sword look like?”
“Can you see me now?” This question amused everyone as Wenley hid behind Glyc.
“Three. Your sword looks like a sword. And yes, I can see you. I’m taller than both of you, remember?”
Hosus even heard Pral chuckle at this last comment, though he tried to cover it by clearing his throat.
“Everyone finished marveling? Can we proceed?” he asked in his usual gruff tone. “Even slow as we are, we should arrive by true nightfall.”
“And now we can use Johnsa as our torch!” the twins said with matching grins.
Phanza tsked them. “You two could have the decency to ask her first.”
“If it means we can stop for the night, I’ll be happy to act as a light source,” Johnsa said quickly.
“Excellent,” Pral said from the front, turning and heading off again. He left the others to figure out how to use Johnsa to light their way.
Hosus slowly followed after him, but her attention was focused on the now hurried discussion trying to figure out where to position Johnsa so everyone might have a tiny bit of light to see by. Now that she was aware of it, Hosus felt her eyes using even the very small amount of light from Johnsa’s eyes to pick out the path.
“Johnsa, you take the lead and just tell people how to move. Your eyes don’t give off enough light to actually be used by everyone,” Hosus offered before hurrying to catch up to Pral.
“Wait for us!” Nar called as he filed in behind Johnsa.
Hosus listened as they shuffled after her, Johnsa calling back quiet commands. She glanced back once to see the speed of their progress and very clearly made out Johnsa’s eyes. In the dark, they glowed like coals in a forge.
“Okay, walk straight. No roots in the way,” Johnsa said. She kept her eyes on the ground, looking up every so often to keep an eye on Hosus and Pral, both of whom were managing to make very good speed over the rough terrain without help.
Johnsa tried imitating Pral’s gait again but found it difficult to maintain while concentrating on the ground and her followers.
“Big root in two paces. Make sure to step high. Use your toe to find the top if you’re not sure.”
Johnsa’s commands improved the pace of the rest of the group considerably, and they were able to keep up to Pral’s reduced pace. After another two miles of quiet commands and considerably fewer stubbed toes, Johnsa caught up to Pral and Hosus.
“This is where we’ll be camping tonight,” Pral informed the group.
“I still can’t see where here is,” Glyc said, voicing his earlier complaint.
“Open your eyes then,” Pral said as he pushed back a heavy branch in front of him.
Glyc’s eyes opened wide indeed as he looked through the opening. “Woah.”
Johnsa, who had turned to speak with Phanza concerning her glowing eyes, looked back at what had rendered even Glyc ineloquent. Through the branches lay a large clearing with what appeared to be a large stone table dominating the center of it. The table was twenty feet across, made of a glistening black material that looked like onyx but soaked up the starlight from the clear sky overhead and shone brightly. Along its rim, inch high figures stood out against the black surface, the remnants of an ancient alphabet describing only the dead knew what. Around the table in regular intervals sat twelve stone benches, hewn of the same material, yet unlike the table, the benches absorbed the starlight and became singular patches of perfect darkness around the shining table.
“What is this place?” Johnsa asked. The table and benches were breathtaking. The combination of the light and shadow demanded her attention with the same level of intensity as when she sensed magic, but she did not feel the same hunger, only awe. These were works of art from a forgotten world.
“It is the stone table clearing. It has been here for more than thousand years, but only a few know of this clearing. Fewer still can translate the script along the edge of the table, and none during my lifetime,” Pral explained. “It is a safe place to camp for the night, and we will be able to wake with the light.”
One by one, the members of the group filed through gap Pral held open and stood before the table. The twins were speechless. Nar and Bertran stood transfixed, their eyes brightened by the light shining from the table. Phanza slowly circled the table, his eyes drawn to the script, his right hand held to his face, his face pinched in thought as he contemplated the writing.
Johnsa followed him. Before her eyes, the letters rearranged themselves into a language she could read and understand. She read softly to herself as she worked her way around the table, and when she finished, she stood silently near the opening.
“You understand the writing, Johnsa?”
Pral’s quiet voice did not surprise Johnsa tonight, and she nodded once. She gave him a questioning look as if to ask how he knew. Hosus stood next to him and gave her a measuring look.
“Your lips were moving. I didn’t peg you for one who thinks out loud.”
“This is a holy place, Pral. The inscription describes the world and beyond. The table represents our sun, and the benches represent…well, I think they represent other worlds beyond ours. There are twelve benches, and before each bench there is a different name. Between each name, the inscription describes meetings to decide ends of wars, mass migrations, and stopping the spread of plagues. It doesn’t say who met here though, only that twelve did and the decisions made, nominally under the auspices of each named world. I think they considered each world a god.”
“Makes sense,” Hosus murmured. “We have twelve major deities, after all. Why do you say they refer to worlds rather than the gods then?”
Johnsa shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you. That’s just how it reads to me here.” She pointed to a short section of script to their right. “Here it says, ‘Under the name of these twelve worlds, we here gathered resolve to right the wrongs of our own world. Under the name of these twelve worlds, we here gathered resolve to bring justice to our own world. Under the name of these twelve worlds, we here gathered resolve to ensure peace in our own world. Under the name of these twelve worlds, we do so swear.’”
“Could you have learned that word wrong? Maybe it was mistranslated as world instead of god at some point,” Hosus ventured.
Pral shook his head before Johnsa had the chance. “If my instincts are correct, Hosus, Johnsa has never learned this language, nor even seen it before.” He looked to Johnsa for confirmation, which she gave with a curt nod. “It’s part of her new abilities. She is able to intuitively understand things. Fighting styles and ancient, dead languages for example.”
“Useful,” Hosus remarked, withdrawing her earlier comment.
“Worlds instead of gods. Interesting.” Pral murmured to himself.
“Please Pral. Make sure everyone knows this place is holy. Even if it’s only as a forgotten chronicle of a past time, I get the feeling this place is special in some way I can’t even begin to describe.”
Pral nodded, and motioned everyone over to him, though he had to snap his fingers twice before the twins noticed. When he had everyone’s attention, Pral began. “This is an ancient place, full of memory. We camp here tonight out of necessity; otherwise I would not risk this sacred place. Please treat this place as hallowed ground.”
Nods came all around. “May I inspect the table? I’d like to study the script.”
Pral glanced quickly at Johnsa but acquiesced. “Just be careful. And take Johnsa. She could be useful.”
As Johnsa moved off with Phanza, she caught a snatch of conversation between Pral and Hosus, who was asking why Johnsa should help him since she already knew what it said. Johnsa hesitated, waiting for Pral’s response, glancing back quickly but saw Pral watching her. Johnsa met his gaze, showing him clearly she was waiting for his response, but her wait was interrupted when Phanza called to her from the far side of the table. She almost expected Pral to give her a nod of dismissal but he only watched as she finally gave up and moved off to Phanza.
Hosus noticed Pral’s gaze and wisely held off her commentary until Johnsa was out of earshot. She patiently waited for the end of the staring match, and when Johnsa finally turned away, Hosus let out a soft sigh. The tension between those two was going to be unhealthy for one of them.
“Is sending Johnsa with Phanza going to help him study the table… or study her?” she asked in a much quieter voice.
“Both, hopefully. I’ve always been curious about this table. Now we have a chance to learn about something conceivably from another age.”
Hosus eyed him skeptically.
“We also need to know as much about Johnsa and her abilities as we can. They could be immensely helpful or incredibly dangerous, as you’ve seen. If Johnsa helps him at all with the translation, maybe Phanza will be able to start putting some puzzle pieces together.”
Johnsa kept an eye on the leaders of the group as they spoke between themselves. Even though she couldn’t hear them, she was an adept lip reader and would have been able to follow the conversation had Phanza not kept up a running dialogue concerning the table and the script that distracted her. He was particularly excited about one word that he vaguely recognized from some ancient tome in some library. Johnsa rolled her eyes as she stopped trying to read lips.
“It means ‘Zeruta,’” she said in exasperation.
“As in the god of the harvest? How do you know?”
“Same name, but it’s not referring to the god.” She deliberately didn’t answer Phanza’s second question, but he seemed distracted by the possibility that her translation was correct.
“What does it refer to then?”
Johnsa shrugged. “Do you not know what any of the rest means? Can’t you decipher it at all?”
Phanza shook his head. “I’ve only seen this alphabet once, let alone anything written in it. I have no idea what any of it means. Do you?” The piercing look he gave her made Johnsa very uncomfortable.
Johnsa considered lying but realized it didn’t make a difference. She had already translated it all for Pral and Hosus. If she didn’t tell Phanza, they would, so she nodded.
“It’s a chronicle. The text describes a series of meetings between twelve unnamed leaders,” here Johnsa motioned to the benches, “who met to discuss major decisions. The big ones I see are ending a major war, preventing a deadly plague, and organizing some mass migration. I already told Pral and Hosus this, but what Pral found interesting were the names in front of the benches. In front of each bench is a different name that you would find corresponds to each of the twelve major deities.”
“Really? But they span several different religions. You’re absolutely sure?”
Johnsa started to nod, but shrugged instead. “Not absolutely sure. It’s just how I understand it. And I don’t know the language either, so I’m not sure how I know it.”
“Perhaps it comes from your ability. Hmmm…” Phanza muttered to himself, his lips pursed in thought. Johnsa wondered if he was contemplating her power or the translation.
“Do you happen to know what the names are referring to, if not the gods?”
“As I understand it,” Johnsa began hesitantly, “the names are referring to other worlds. Part of the text at the beginning, near the vows, describes this setup as a scale model of what’s beyond our world. I don’t understand it very well.”
“A scale model of…” Phanza whispered. “Do you know what this means? If the translation is correct, and the model is correct, it could be a breakthrough in astronomical studies. Some scholars have predicted other worlds beyond ours. This would corroborate their theories.” This led to a series of rattled explanations or requested translations as he examined the table with glee.
Phanza’s excitement was contagious, and Johnsa found herself smiling and nodding along, though she had a difficult time following much of what he described. She had to stop him and ask for an explanation when he got into concepts of orbits and revolving stars, and Phanza delightfully went into great detail about the movement of stars in the night sky. The two stayed up whispering by the light of the star table long after the others turned into their bedrolls.
Dawn came early, but Johnsa was only glad to be able to see unfiltered sunlight again, if only for a short time. She had listened to Phanza’s explanations regarding the worlds beyond the world until the moon was high in the sky before an involuntary yawn stopped him mid-explanation and they had decided to sleep. A smile tugged at her lips as she thought about the mage’s child-like enthusiasm for the subject, one he claimed had been a passion of his for many years.
Phanza had fallen asleep next to her, but his eyes opened as she sat up.
“Good morning,” he said with a smile, his eyes blinking slowly as he woke himself up.
“Good morning to you too, sleepabed.”
“Sleepabed? It’s barely dawn.”
“Yes, and you’re the last one up.”
“Really?” He sat up quickly, looking around for Nar, who surprisingly was already awake and stowing his bedroll. “Huh.” Phanza said, looking very confused.
“Stay up late, that’s what happens.”
Phanza eyed her. “I notice you haven’t moved from your blanket yet.”
Johnsa couldn’t help but laugh as she threw back her covers and stretched. “Caught red handed it seems.”
With a smile and a snort, Phanza stood. Offering Johnsa his hand, he said, “Come. Otherwise we’ll miss the group meeting.”
She accepted his hand and pulled herself up. “I wonder when we’ll get out of this blasted forest.”
Together they began to walk around the table before it caught their attention again. In the early morning light, the table looked entirely different. Just like the starlight, it absorbed the soft light and gave it back off, transforming the dark material into a luminescent pearl. In the starlight it had looked beautiful but hard. Now the table looked soft and comforting. It was an amazing transformation, and Johnsa couldn’t help but touch the table, just to make sure it was really there. Her finger met solid resistance and warmth. Johnsa felt her eyes slide closed, and the warmth radiating from the table moved through her, crawling through all of the dark and cold places of her mind, finding each fear and bringing it into the soft morning light. A moment later she opened her eyes again, feeling calm for the first time in days. Her self-doubt was, for the moment, removed, and she felt like herself again.
“I can see why they would meet here,” she said quietly to herself.
Johnsa looked to Phanza. “Nothing. Let’s see what today’s travels will show us.”