The road home had been long and hard. After leaving the Great Library, the caravan of eleven strongwood wagons had had to cross the narrow scrabblerock passes of the snow-laden Dimlit Mountains, carrying ever-dwindling stores of vegetables and roots on wearing iron-treaded wheels. Axles had broken, and had had to be repaired. The bearings in more than one of the perpetual-motion motors on the wagons had had to be repacked. One of the mundi, a bipedal reptilian beast of burden, had fallen into a ravine and was euthanized.
Not one of the Guardians regretted the journey. Several of their own had died defending the Library from those who had threatened it, and their bodies had been borne not with bitterness and defeat, but with joy and admiration. They had paid the ultimate price, had been granted the greated honor that any Guardian could receive: to give one’s life to protect the others.
The Guardians had done their duty, and now had come home.
But as they ascended the last hill, the wind spoke of death. It carried the taste of dry, hardened decay. Something was terribly, terribly wrong.
Immediately the caravan stopped and curled in on itself, the wagons clustered in tight to shield the Ancient One’s litter. The eldest of the Guardians stayed with their leader and the more junior Guardians, including Makkus, Krek, and Tok, spread out toward the crest of the hill.
The mundi snorted and clawed the grassy ground in agitation.
Close to the ground, Tok eased to the edge of the hill and looked down.
Below the Valley of Creation spread its lush rainbow of living colors. It was shaped roughly like an arrowhead, and the silvery blue River Eumea meandered its way gracefully through it, among fruit-tree orchards and fields of melon and chard, small ceremonial gazebos, and orderly rows of massive trees. Opposite Tok and the others, and the arrowhead’s point, rose the alabaster structures of the Hearthstone, the home of the Guardians.
Tok had not seen these trees in over a hundred years. They were incomparably beautiful.
These trees were the center of the Guardians’ lives; they were the most important, pivotal, and sacred things in every Guardian’s heart. They were the Trees of Life.
There were hundreds of the huge Trees: their golden canopies stretched high above the valley floor in an almost unbroken canopy of fire. From here it was difficult to see where one Tree ended and another started, but Tok was able to pick one particular Tree. She was unbelieveably relieved to see that the scent of death had not touched it.
This Tree was hers and hers alone. She had been born of the fruit of this one Tree.
It stood a hundred selfheights tall, unshakable on a root system that spread to encompass many of the Trees around it. Its corrugated trunk was rough, fibrous, and virtually impenetrable. An incomparably sweet sap flowed beneath that incorruptible wood. It was an elixir to animals and Guardians alike: it brought new life to the exhausted and health to the sick.
From the pillar of the trunk exploded a glittering profusion of branches, leaves and fruit through which shafts of shimmering sunlight flood down to illuminate pathes of leafy loam like cathedral skylights. Whenever that fruit fell, animals came from the hills to feed on it. Countless generations of deer, elk, and boarbear had grown strong on that fruit, and it was that fruit that had made the weak girl named Hollsy into the immortal Guardian who called herself Tok.
Birds nested by the hundreds in her Tree, each kind according to its height above the ground. Squirrels, climbing chatterers and tree frogs also made their lives among the woody knots and crevices. Dragonflies and snooters -- arachnids that used foot-long probosces to sip nectar -- patronized the hand-sized blossoms, which were themselves the colors of milk and blood.
Between the Trees were vibrant verdant grasses and fields of bright yellow and violet flowers -- burstblossom and morning’s light -- growing wild and undisturbed. Sunflowers with blossoms a girl-height across faced the sky’s zenith, drinking in the warm rays of the sun.
But even the thousand sweet perfumes of the giant trees couldn’t mask the scent of death. Tok took a deep breath to draw the breeze across the special scent organ in the roof of her mouth. It spoke of slayings committed long ago, of the dead and decayed. In the midst of its thriving life, the Valley of Creation kept a painful secret.
“What happened here?“ Krek asked softly.
Tok thought of the unseen enemies who had followed the Guardian caravan from the great library. Could they have done this? No -- the scent was different.
Makkus made a quick circular gesture.
They knew immediately what to do. Moving in pairs, the younger Guardians swarmed into the underbrush and moved down the hill, spreading out. Tok and Krek moved together, darting from pine tree to pine tree, crawling along bushes of elbow root. More than once Krek scrambled up a tree to search for strange movement in the Valley. Seeing none, they continued until they were far around the Valley, then broke cover and ran into the rows of trees.
The old knotted trunks were wide enough that ten Guardians would have to link hands to encircle one. Their root systems spread out in spider-web fashion, with shoots half as thick as Tok was tall, before plunging into the unknown depths of the earth. Separating but staying close, Tok and Krek moved among the roots, crouched low, advancing through the Valley from tree to tree, heaidng toward the alabaster structures at the apex of the Valley.
The Valley was shaped like a rough arrowhead, and at its point was the Hearthstone, home of the Guardians. Dominated by the vast whitestone dome of the Hall of Meeting, the Hearthstone was a congregation of smaller structures: the apses of the blacksmiths, the cubic long houses that served as communal sleeping quarters, the slender glasslike obelisks in the ceremonial courtyards, the gauze tarps strung on intricate scaffolds of animal bone that protected the melon and maise patches from the harsher rays of the sun.
Tok took a moment to survey the stone abutments on the hills behind the compound, the lookouts. She saw no movement and there was no scent of an enemy tense with anticipation. But she had to assume the enemy was there anyway.
Krek was on the other side of the tree. she raised her bulbous crested head and made eye contact with Tok, then she nodded.
Staying low, they raced across the yellow-green clearings of the practice fields, weaving through the obstacle courses and pedestals of stone. Flashes of movement in her peripheral vision told Tok the others were also coming across the fields toward the Hearthstone’s wall.
The wall, with its wrought-iron gates and elaborately-carved parapet, was more ceremonial than functional, and Tok scaled it and dropped on the ground inside. Krek landed a few girl-heights away. Other Guardians came over the wall. After a heartbeat to take a head count, Krek nodded again.
They scattered in the compound. Tok ran into one of the smith apses. A quick glance to see that everything was as it had been left, undisturbed, and she flashed out the back door and down into a sunken amphitheatre. Through a maze of open-air corridors that thespians used for changing costumes, and through a ceremonial courtyard.
It was in this courtyard that Tok -- when her name had been Hollsy -- had formally accepted Makkus’ invitation to partake of the Tree of Life and become a Guardian. The ceremony had been heartfelt and beautiful. The Guardians had formed semicircles around her, with Krek and the other younger ones nearest her and the more senior Guardians behind them. The Ancient of Days had presided from a high pedestal, welcoming her into the community. Bread, fruits, and wine were passed among the assembly, from senior to junior, until Krek brought the silver tray to Tok. Krek bowed, honoring her, and she had portions of each.
Then Makkus and Krek conducted her to a small wooden hut outside the wall, hidden away in the hills. Left along for three days, Hollsy tended a fire representing the light of knowledge, keeping it lit in its stone hearth with wood sprinkled with incense. It was a time of meditation, of reflection on her life, and of bidding farewell to all she had known, including her own self. She had been warned that in order for the fruit of the Tree of Life to make her immortal, she would first have to die to her present self.
At Shadowfall of the third day, Makkus and Krek returned bearing bamboo containers filled with the fruits from one of the Trees of Life. They set them before her and waited.
The perfumed aroma of the fruits filled the hut, and in moments Hollsy’s mind was taken from her. Something deep within her soul suddenly remembered the taste of Paradise. She ate of them, hardly taking the time to show the unbelieveably sweet and delicious fruit, and gagged many times from eating too fast. And no matter how many she ate, it wasn’t enough. The ravenous hunger did not abate with a full stomach: it only grew to fill her mind and body with an enourmous and irresistable need for the fruit. She was mad with the need to feast.
No new Guardian ever remembered clearly hwat happened after that. All Tok knew was that, as she ate and fell into a hot and tormented sleep, Hollsy dided with temors, hot sweats, and delerium. The Guardian Tok was born with pain, paraoxysms of confusion, and finally with clarity. Reborn, Tok’s mind was clear for the first time in her life, as if she had finally awakened from a sleepwalk that had lasted her entire life.
During the following naming ceremony -- where she accepted her new name -- she came to understand why Guardians took on new names after the change. She felt less like a transformed Hollsy and more like an entirely new person, someone born of the Tree of Life.
A glass mirror showed Tok her new self. Her skin was thick and deeply wrinkled, like an elephant’s skin, and acted as a kind of natural leather armor. Joints had expanded enormously, making her incredibly strong. Her teeth were gone and her mouth had become a hard short beak. The beak was made of greyish-white enamel -- the hardest substance in the body -- and was not pointed or sharp, like bird’s beak.
The part of the change that had so dramatically changed her mind, thoughts, and self was the expansion of her brain. Sunites had known for centuries that the brain was the seat of the soul. Tok’s brain had grown to at least twice the size of Hollsy’s, and her skull had inflated up and back to house it. Her swollen head was surmounted by a serrated bony crest, the proud sign of a Guardian. Seeing herself -- leaning on Krek for support for the bones in her new joints weren’t yet fully hardened -- Tok wept with joy. She was a Guardian!
Now, a mere hundred years later, she and her fellow Guardians were moving to defend their ancestral home. Tok broke from under the courtyard’s obelisk and followed the scent of death to the colonnaded portico of the Hall of Meeting. She ducked to one side, knowing that Krek was right behind her.
Krek broke through the oak doors with a flying kick. Simultaneously the others broke through the other doors. Tok darted through the doorway and rolled to the side, expecting arrows, spears, and claws to be coming at her.
Sunlight stabbed down into the darkness in shining shafts that were thick with dust. Tok’s eyes adjusted quickly, and she saw them. Piled on top of one another, slumped over the back of stone meeting chairs, sprawled carelessly on the floor. All motionless; all dead.
At Krek’s command, they spread out, stepping gingerly, looking for survivors and examining the dead.
A century ago, a messenger from the distant land of Jreo came with the news that an unknown enemy threatened the Great Library. The Library had been the repository for ancient knowledge since before the Ancient of Days had been born; its destruction would have been an incalcuable loss to the culture of Suna and those lands around it. Guardians as old as Tok and older assembled as a task force to defend the Library. The younger Guardians were assigned to stay at the Hearthstone and protect the Sunites.
Those young Guardians, all of whom Tok had known, were dead. Who had done this? And why?
When the last Guardian finished her examinations and shook her head to Tok, confirming there were no survivors, Krek dispatched Theq to inform Makkus and the Ancient. Two others were sent to the lookout nests in the hills. The rest started the grim task of moving the bodies outside.
“They’re dry and dusty,“ said Tok. “This happened a long time ago.“
Tok nodded. “I smell burbur fungus, which takes a long time to grow.“
Then the same thought burst in both their minds. How long had the Sunites been left without Guardians? Had the enemy who had struck here also struck among the children?
“Tok, go!“ Krek ordered. “Assemble the breezecraft and get aloft. See if our children are all right!“
Tok bounded away.
According to legend, it was the Ancient of Days who had learned long ago that an invisible force pervaded the whole world. It was a motive force that caused lodestone and magnetite to move in predictable ways. The Ancient One had named it ik’ta, or magnetism. It was then almost immediately discovered that if one arranged pieces of lodestone on a circular platform and spun the platform, magnetism would keep it spinning, sometimes for years. As long as magnetism pervaded the world, the Guardians had practical perpetual motion machines. The Guardians called such motors itchies.
The breezecraft was one of many devices based on magnetism. It was an ultralight vehicle made of bamboo, with an unpadded cradle for the pilot and a large triangular wing overhead made of linen. A bamboo framework kept the wing rigid. Behind the cradle was a rotary magnetic motor, an itchie, with a giant lightwood propeller facing rearward. Behind the propeller was a vertical rudder and horizontal alierons.
It only took Tok a few moments to assemble the frame and unroll the wing and stretch it over the top. She checked the tongue-and-groove snaplocks that held the lodestone secure in the rotary motor, then grabbed hold of one of the propeller blades. With both hands and a single fluid motion, she spun the propeller. The lodestone orbs caught the magnetic force like a sail catches the wind, and the motor spun up, whirring the propeller strong enough to make the breezecraft strain forward against its tie-downs.
Tok climbed into the cradle and adjusted the propeller’s spin with the craft’s differential gearbox. Next to the craft was a cement handhold jutting up from the grass. Tok grasped it tight and undid the tie-downs. She held the craft down with the strength of one arm until the itchie had transferred enough rotation to the flywheel, then shifted gears and let go.
The craft surged forward. Tok bounced it into the air with her legs and she was airborne. She steered with a bamboo joystick. The Hearthstone compound dwindled and the giant Trees of Life fell away below.
She searched the sky for enemies and found none. So far the Guardians knew of no other society that had aircraft, but it was foolish to assume it would always be so. There were other creatures like the Guardians in the world, others with the exceptional intelligence and abilities the Guardians enjoyed. The enemies who had threatened the Great Library were just one example. The world was vast, with unknown dangers.
Tok rose over the green hills that surrounded the Valley of Creation and passed over the hilltop where the Ancient One and the Elders waited for news of what had happened in the Valley. Tok made a short series of one-handed signals to them, telling them of the massacre of the junior Guardians and Krek’s command to overfly Suna. A hand signal returned by Makkus acknowledged her message.
Tok turned again and followed the River Eumea out of the Valley. It meandered gracefully through the rolling hills, calling trees and verdant shrubs to its banks. Half a daywalk from the Valley was another valley where, centuries ago, the Guardians had erected monolithic stones to form a sacred circle in the grass. This was a ceremonial ground for festivals and bonding rituals. Tok and Krek had been bonded here as sightsisters.
Downstream, the River roared over a high stony cliff to make the Forever Falls, which were often the destination of Sunite pilgrims seeking enlightenment. From here on the river was known as the Zumbriah.
The world was wide and green. Groves of fruit trees and evergreens grew from the crest of every hill, and small lakes and ponds watered the countryside. There were the oranges, reds, and deep glossy greens of cultivated land, and slender ribbons of grey stone that marked the roadways. Those avenues had been laid down by the Guardians long ago, and the Sunites still used them.
Suna was protected by a semicircle of high mountains capped with grey and white snow. Their peaks rose into the clouds and their fertile glacial soil washed into the plain in a thousand snaking streams. It rarely rained in Suna, but the mountains and the Zumbriah kept it lush.
Far beyond the local mountains was the straight chain of the Mountains of Divine Fire. They ran from north to south, and their bases were perpetually hidden in the misty blue of distance. Scrolls in the Great Library said they defined the edge of the world.
Closer to home, Tok reached the point where the Home River met the Zumbriah. She followed the Home upstream until she reached its source: the hot spring in the center of Theresh-tuhmadon called the Blessed Waters.
Tok banked high and circled. The compass mounted on the joystick spun crazily. The magnetism of the spring and the area around it was the strongest anywhere in Suna. Tok shifted down to keep the itchie from overspinning and tearing itself apart. Using no telescope other than her own eyes, she surveyed the city for signs of attack and death.
Thousands of years ago, the Guardians had built a gigantic granite fountain around the hot spring. Its slender spires and hexagonal blocks -- the heights of which varied according to the natural progression of the Fibonacci numbers -- spread around the bubbling and geysering waters. The Blessed Waters was the centerpiece of the city; it was surrounded by concentric circles of offering platforms, on which the Festival offerings were made, larger platforms for the city-wide public sings, and waterwheels that drove the city’s industries.
People, bearing no scent of fear or subjugation, moved fluidly along the elegantly-curved streets. Many of them wore a new fashion -- chitons clasped at the shoulders with jeweled brooches and equally bejeweled sandals -- while some wore the traditional sleeveless top with triangular neckline and skirt, moving either barefoot or in simple deer-skin mocassins. There were no nudists.
That was strange. In times past, at least half the population of Theresh-tuhmadon had been nudist.
From there, Theresh-tuhmadon spread down from the crest of Forever Hill. Wide slate boulevards, apse homes, and clustered blacksmiths wound their ways down the gentle slope. Pyramind-shaped mastubas appeared at regular intervals, except for one: it was placed in a location that unbalanced the aesthetic appeal of the city, and it was imposingly large and garishly decorated with arches, orbs, and statuary. It showed little of the trigonometric wisdom and beauty of the others. It must have been built while the Guardians had been gone.
If the big mastuba was a blemish on Theresh-tuhmadon’s beauty, the buildings clustered against the city wall were an insult to it. Haphazardly squeezed into spaces too small for them, they were ponderously cubical with overly-decorated architraves. Goddesses and goblins looked down on the narrow congested streets, and people pushed their ways along with carts and other wares.
Tok tasted the pungent smell of inadequate sewage and could see rotting garbage lining the streets. There was quite a lot of yelling and shoving. Of course, Tok thought, too many children in one place. Congestion breeds hostility.
There was an alarmingly large number of structures outside the city wall, including the unfinished stone foundation of something as wide as a city block. Tok squinted, reading the force vectors the foundation was designed to support in the number and angle of stone blocks, and realized it was the foundation for a massive pyramid.
What were they building a pyramid for? Thousands of Sunites were laboring on it; the sweat of their effort carried on the wind. No scent of incense burning in the ceremonial prayer of good fortune when building. And harsh orders shouted from foregirls.
Theresh-tuhmadon had not been invaded, there were no scenes of mass death. For that Tok was immeasurably relieved. But a lot had changed while the Gaurdians had been gone. None for the better.
She banked away and upshifted once she was in a region of lower magnetism, and continued over the countryside. She overflew the communes and estates along the Zumbriah and its tributaries, and circled the town at Serena’s Tabernacle. All seemed well. She found the expected number of nudists in the rural areas, and scented clean drinking water and well-disposed of sewage. Fertile fields yielded their crops, and she heard the sound of singing from one commune. The countryside was as the Guardians had left it.
Whoever had attacked the Hearthstone and killed the junior Guardians there had not struck anywhere in Suna. The children were safe. Tok turned back toward the Valley of Creation.
Well, that's all for now, please give Kuyto feedback and encouragement to finish this story.