Friday, March 9, 2012

"Beyond Horizon's Edge" by Mike Lynch







Dawn had just broken over the valley when Jon Evers awoke. Streams of crimson light rained down from above, basking the world in a soothing, tawny glow. He opened his eyes and looked up, but the sight of both suns rising in unison over the thousand-foot walls encircling the valley made him turn away. Jon rolled over and stared at the blades of grass caught in a soft breeze.

He was a man of muscular build and warm features, and well over six feet in height. Despite his physical prowess, Jon felt weak. He had been up late the night before, walking, thinking — trying to decide what he should do. He wasn’t quite sure when he had fallen asleep, or where. At that moment, it didn’t matter much to him. Jon was still thinking.

Both suns broke free from the walls stretching up towards the heavens. Frya and Beldyst were side-by-side, their outermost edges just touching along the meridian. The first day of harvest, he thought, dread pressing down on him like a great weight.

In his mind’s eye, Jon pictured young men sharpening the scythes handed down to them by their fathers, and their fathers before them, while children hitched teams of moohorns to wagons, readying the work animals for the harvest. Every person in the valley had looked forward to this day all year with great anticipation. For Jon Evers, this was the day he had dreaded with equal measure. The very idea of doing the same ritualized activity year after year had become like a death sentence to him — slowly dousing the fire that stirred his soul.

Two seasons ago, he had promised himself that would be his last harvest, but when his father fell ill last year, Jon had no choice but to lead the harvesting party, or risk starvation. This year…this one would be different!

Columns of gray smoke rising out of stone chimneys drew his attention back into the valley as the faint sounds of metal striking against metal rung in his ears. Time had all but run out.

The plan he had formed in his mind the night before slowly filtered into his thoughts. If I’m going to go, then it must be now.

He took in the jagged cliffs above. There was no way he could make it alone, and for a moment, hesitation filled his heart. But when he fixed his gaze straight at the village, a core of inner resolve surfaced. Down there, only timidity existed, and a visceral fear of the unknown. Worse yet, his fellow villagers had no desire to even conceive of a life outside the valley.

He laughed to himself. “Desire.” It was as if every last bit of it had been pounded out of every man, woman, and child, replaced by an immutable sense of duty to the traditions passed down to them from generations past — save one. He just might convince one man to go with him. Logun Moro. He was the curious one; the one who asked questions, or at least listened with a certain measure of empathy when the two of them looked up and wondered aloud if anything existed beyond the horizon’s edge. But as agreeable as he was about such things, Jon also knew the likelihood of Logun leaving with him was another matter, altogether. Then an even harsher truth pressed down on him — if not his friend, who?

The time had come to find out. Jon tucked in his shirt, dusted himself off, and started towards the village.

* * *

Logun Moro bent down and examined the plate of glass he had just cut. Dressed in a work smock and thick, long sleeve shirt, he pressed his finger along the edges, looking for the slightest imperfections. As his father had reminded him time and again, “If you can’t see flaws up close, you can’t see them from a distance.”

A muted smile pushed up on the corners of his mouth. It was perfect.

When he looked at the next item on his checklist, something caught his eye in the distance. Logun brushed back his long wavy hair and peered out the open window. Not something. Someone.

“Jon,” he called out. “It is good to see you, my friend. What brings you to the Craftsman District?”

Jon nodded at the greeting. “I need to speak to you about an urgent matter. It concerns —” Two men who happened by brought the conversation to an abrupt halt. Only when they had moved further down the road did he speak again. “But this is not something we should discuss in the open, where curious ears linger nearby. May I come inside?”

“Yes, of course,” Logun replied. He motioned for him to go through the side door. “I baked a fresh loaf of butter bread this morning. We can talk about whatever is on your mind over a mug of —”

Jon waved his hand. “No, thank you. This will only take a moment.”

A sense of urgency marked his friend’s behavior, something he hadn’t seen in him for a long time. “Alright.”

“I don’t think there’s any good way to say this,” Jon began, “and so I’m going to just say it — I’m leaving the valley.”

Logun let out a hearty laugh. “Leave the valley? Yes, of course. What else could it be?” When Jon didn’t react, an awkward pause followed. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You know there’s nothing up there, nothing but a lifeless plateau.” His tone turned contemptuous. “Only a fool would try something with little chance of success.”

Logun’s words found their target, evidenced by his friend’s crestfallen countenance. But in a blink of an eye, Jon deflected the attack with an even more emphatic rebuttal of his own. “I don’t care about that. I’m still leaving.”

“Why leave? We have everything we need here. I’m mean, you’ve talked about this before, but I thought it was just talk; just a couple of friends going on about something they knew would never happen.”

Jon’s eyes drew narrow. “Maybe for you. Me, I was deadly serious.”

Logun wanted to grab his friend by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. “Today begins the harvest. You know how important it is to have everyone help in the work.” He turned around and threw his hands into the air. “Why are you always looking for ways to go against our traditions? Even as a child you were this way. I’ve lost count how many times you’ve questioned the dictates of the village elders.”

“I don’t expect you to understand, but something deep inside is compelling me to go. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s like an immutable force. And that force is telling me if I wait just one more day, I’ll never leave.”

“Jon…what can I say to convince you otherwise?” Logun searched for something that would change his friend’s mind, anything, but the harder he tried, the more his thoughts clouded.

“You are right about the dangers involved.” Logun saw a watery reflection of himself in Jon’s eyes. “Which is why I’m asking for your help.”

Help? Had he heard him right?

“Alone, I would never make it…but two people, working together, just might.”

The truth of what he said slammed into Logun with the force of a moohorn at full gallop. “You want me to go with you?” he asked, incredulous at the thought. “I have a responsibility to my family, my community. I cannot shirk away from my obligations because you have this idiotic idea in your head.”

Every muscle in Jon’s face drew tight. “I’m going, with or without your help.” He let out a quick breath. “Just once in your life, I had hoped you wouldn’t walk in lock step with everyone else.” He studied his stoic friend. “Perhaps I made a mistake in coming.”

“I just don’t see the community gaining anything from this.”

“The community is only concerned about the harvest, but there’s so much more to life than blindly following the customs and rituals of our past.” Jon spun around and started for the door. Just as he reached the threshold, he paused and looked over his shoulder. “I thought you of all people would recognize that.”

His words cut deep, but the more Logun thought more about them, the more he realized the depth of the affront centered on the realization his friend was right. Since his earliest memories, he wished he was more like Jon, but never had the courage to act on those feelings. The traditions taught by his father were too deeply imbedded. On the other hand, if Jon scaled the valley wall alone, they would probably never see each other again. One wrong step and…the thought of his friend plummeting to his death became too much to bear, and Logun heard himself call out. “Wait!”

Jon stopped dead in his tracks, but didn’t turn around. The tension between them hung heavy in the air.

“If you really plan on leaving, you’re going to need permission from the village elders. You wouldn’t get more than a dozen paces beyond the village before enforcers caught up to you and insisted you return, dragging you back if necessary.”

“And you would help me get the elders’ permission?”

“You’ve been nothing but trouble for me since the first day we met. I see no reason why things should change now.”

Jon spun around. “I —” He caught himself. “When do the first hearings of the day convene?”

After glancing at the suns above, Logun replied, “They may have already.”

“Then there’s no time to waste.”

* * *

Jon burst through the chamber doors, followed by Logun a few steps behind. Startled by the unexpected commotion, everyone inside the hall turned towards the source of the tumult. An uncomfortable silence settled into the room.

As Jon walked towards the front, he kept his thoughts focused on the seven men sitting behind the massive wooden bench. The distinctive black robes worn by each elder denoted an air of authority.

“What is the meaning of this?” one of the magistrates asked. His baritone voice penetrated the uneasy silence.

Before Jon had a chance to answer, Logun stepped in front of him. “Please excuse my enthusiastic friend, Lord Partheny, but there is an urgent matter which requires your immediate attention.”

He leaned forward and studied both men standing before him. “Logun Moro,” the magistrate declared, “I know your father, and I believe this is not the behavior he would expect from you.”

Logun’s head dipped slightly. “You are correct. He would not. But I would not beg the tribunal’s indulgence if this were not a most urgent matter.”

The elder extended his hand towards Jon. “And you. What do you have to say?”

Jon took a step forward. “My name is Jon Evers,” he replied, “but I must differ with my friend. The responsibility for this intrusion is mine, and I humbly ask our claim be heard first.”

“But the proceedings have already begun. You will have to wait your turn.”

Jon studied the men an arm’s length away. Since entering the chambers, they hadn’t taken their eyes off them. “I realize that, Lord Partheny, but I beg the pardon of all since my request must be heard first, nevertheless.”

The elder sat back in his chair, a look of bemused annoyance edging into his features. After tapping his finger on his chin for several moments, he turned to the council member on his left. They spoke in hushed tones before turning to the magistrate on his right. When they had seemingly reached an agreement, he sat forward again. “Rather than one of us deciding which claim should be heard first, we shall give the party concerned the choice of stepping aside.”

The men on Jon’s right huddled together and spoke to each other in whispers. After a couple of nods, the two of them faced the elders again. The taller of the two cleared his throat. “We will postpone our claim.”

Jon flicked a glance at Logun and sighed in relief.

“Since the first party has agreed to defer to your request, you may now approach the tribunal.”

Logun placed both hands behind his back before speaking. “Our request is short and to the point.” He drew in a deep breath. “We have come to seek the council’s permission to leave the valley.”

The words hung in the air for several awkward moments before another elder spoke up. “Leave the valley?” He glanced at the magistrates sitting on either side of him. “Why would you ask for such a thing?”

Jon came alongside Logun. “This is a difficult question to answer, but to put it simply, something deep within me, you might even say a compulsion, must know what lies beyond the valley’s edge.”

“But why now? Why today of all days?”

The question tugged on Jon’s heart as memories of the previous night’s conflict from within filled his thoughts. “As you know, today is the first day of the harvest. If I stay just one more day, then I fear I will never leave. And for me, this is more than I can bear.”

The magistrate next to Lord Partheny spoke up. “Jon Evers, I have spoken to you before about matters such as this, but only on informal occasions. I never imagined you would ever act on your feelings.”

“I act because the very idea of remaining here has become like a kind of death; the death of who I am. The only way I could truly live is if you grant my request.”

When another elder began to object, Lord Partheny held up his hand, silencing him in an instant, as though an unspoken secret existed between them. “Before we give you our answer, I must first ask you a very important question.”

Jon braced himself. His past and his future were wrapped up in what the most esteemed member of their community would say next. He had envisioned this very moment countless times over the years, but now that it had arrived, he felt naked before the actual moment.

“Since you come to this body seeking our permission to leave the valley, will you abide by its decision, even if it means staying here for the rest of your life?”

Jon stood in silent terror. No one had defied the judgment of the tribunal before, ever. Yes, he was determined to leave the valley, but would it come at the cost of violating one of their most sacred traditions? After some thought, a single word formed in his mind, one he never thought he would say, but it was the only one he could give — no. Defying the men that had governed their community was too high a price to pay. “I will.”

Lord Partheny leaned forward and fixed his gaze on Him. “Before I give the tribunal’s decision, I would like everyone not involved with this claim to leave the chambers.”

It didn’t take long for the other claimants waiting their turn to get up and exit the doors behind them.

When the room fell silent again, he continued. “Over the course of our long and honorable history, I cannot recall a single instance when a claim like yours has ever been brought before the council. At present, I am not concerned with that. What does concern me is the fact that the thing you ask goes against our very nature as a culture.” The elder slowly sat back in his chair. “Jon, you have always been the curious one, never content to follow in your father’s ways.”

“Agreed, but —”

Lord Partheny extended his hand. “Please. Let me finish.” A muted smile softened his features. “I suppose everyone here in these chambers has wondered what exists beyond the valley at one time or another. I’ve even found myself looking up and imagining what kind of world might lay beyond the valley’s edge. But those are the thoughts of youth — wistful, and without purpose.”

Jon’s hopes faded with each passing moment. He knew where the council elder was headed in his soliloquy, each utterance more painful than the next.

“At the same time, we have also been moved by your dedication and passion. These are attributes I can respect, and do respect.” When the magistrate cleared his throat, every muscle in Jon’s body tightened. “And we believe these are the attributes someone like you would need to take on so arduous a journey.”

Going? They were letting him go?

Lord Partheny paused and took in both men standing before him. “What I am about to tell you next must be held in the strictest confidence. No matter our decision, you cannot repeat what I am about to say to anyone beyond these chambers. Do you agree to these terms?”

Jon and Logun turned towards each other, and then nodded in agreement.

“As you well know, today is the first day of the harvest. But if the results from the last few seasons are any indicator, the amount of food grown in the village will be just enough to support us until next season. Though people have some idea about this, the situation is far worse than is generally known. That is why we need to know what lies beyond the valley. Is the plateau habitable? The difference between life and death may very well rest on what you find.” As though some kind of metamorphosis had taken place, the elder’s demeanor shifted. “Therefore, as the leading member of this body, it is my decision we approve your request. This council is adjourned.”

Jon suddenly felt very small, and alone. The very thing he had sought his whole life had finally been given to him. He should have been ecstatic about their decision; instead, he wondered if he had the courage to see this through, especially now, when the future of his people hung in the balance.

* * *

After a half-day’s journey under the blistering heat of Frya and Beldyst, Jon and Logun reached the valley’s edge, leaving behind the only home either of them had ever known. The rock face loomed over them like a giant’s castle. Uncounted centuries of rain had washed rock and muddy debris down to the valley below, forming something of a crescent-shaped incline at the bottom-most part of the vertical face. An endless sea of stone marred by cracks and fissures hung over them. The rock was dark, almost black, with streaks of white and gray, like a nest of immense snakes frozen in time.

Jon craned his neck upward. The rim seemed to touch the sky itself, causing his pulse to quicken. “This is what we’ve come for.”

Logun kept his feelings to himself, his face unreadable.

After tightening the satchel on his back, Jon stepped up to the rock face and slipped his fingers into a crack. Getting a firm hold of it, he reached up with his other hand and pulled. When his left foot found a small outcropping, he steadied himself before pushing up. After he had gone about twenty feet, Jon eyed a narrow fissure to his right. He wedged his right foot in the opening and looked down. “You coming or not?”

Logun answered with a hesitant nod, then said, “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing? Small changes every now and then are probably needed in the village, but what you’re wanting…I’m not so certain it will work out the way you hope.”

Jon smiled. “I’ve never been more certain about anything in my life.”

Once his friend’s mind was made up, Logun knew there wasn’t anything he could say to talk him out of it. Rather than argue, he stuck his left foot into a niche and pushed.

Both men grunted and struggled up the sheer face as Frya and Beldyst marked their progress across the crisp, autumn sky. But as the twin suns approached the canyon rim, what little light that remained would soon succumb to night.

“Jon,” Logun panted heavily. “It’s going to be getting dark soon. I think we should find a spot to settle in before we can’t see our hands in front of our faces.”

“I was just thinking the same thing.”

“Where do you think would be the best place?”

Jon looked down a ways and pointed. “We passed by that outcropping about a half an hour ago. The part where it levels off should be big enough for the two of us.”

Logun gripped the rock he held onto a little tighter. “Go back? That’s a lot of climbing in the wrong direction. Maybe we can try for something above.”

A feeling of indecision descended on Jon. Should they take the safe option and backtrack to a relatively safe spot, or press on and hope they found a suitable place before day turned into night?

“Well?” Logun asked. “We can’t hang here all night.”

Jon was about to go with the safe option when he saw something above. “We go up,” he declared. “To that jetty over there.”

Logun tilted his head to one side and smiled. “I don’t know how I missed that. It looks perfect.”

Both men summoned up the last of their dwindling strength and made a beeline for the flattened piece of rock protruding from the sheer face.

As dusk covered the valley in an auburn glow, Jon looked up and gained his bearings. The outcropping was no more than twenty feet, but to him, it felt more like a mile. His arms were all but exhausted, and his back and feet ached beyond measure. He drew in a deep breath and pushed with his legs as his left hand grabbed hold of a rock face. Push…hold…push…hold. He maintained the same cadence until his fingers reached the flattened surface. Just one more step, he thought. Bringing up his right leg, he pushed himself up and over in a single, forceful action.

More tired than he had ever been in his life, Jon lay prostrate on the cool, stony surface for several well-earned moments of rest. When he sensed his climbing partner getting close, Jon leaned over the side. “Take my hand,” he said after extending it.

Logun reached up and grasped it tight. “Pull!” he shouted. Logun scrambled over the top, collapsing onto the outcropping, breathing heavily.

Several minutes passed before either of them had the strength to sit up and look at the vast expanse laid out before them. It was all Jon’s fatigue-laden mind could do to take it in the lush greenery that filled the eastern part of the valley. Reds, yellows, and greens indicated the kinds of crops grown on a vast network of farms connected together in the distance. The village, on the other hand, was nothing more than a circular speck of brown in an otherwise colorful scene. Above it, several hazy plumes wafted up into the crimson sky.

Logun took off his satchel and threw it onto the rock surface. Metallic objects clattering together broke the moment of silence that had fallen between them. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. How about something to eat?”

“I think that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day.” Jon let his pack slip off both shoulders. After he rummaged through the opening, he produced a loaf of bread and a jug of water. As he handed them to Logun, a deep yawn came out of him. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt this tired in my life.”

Logun smiled, then placed his head on his satchel. In a matter of minutes, he had fallen fast asleep.

Feeling the pangs of hunger rumble through his stomach, Jon bit greedily into his loaf of bread. He polished off his meal with a long drink of warm water, downing the refreshing liquid one eager gulp after the other. Soon, his eyes also grew heavy. The last thing he remembered after laying down were the thousands of stars twinkling in the night sky above, then darkness.

* * *

When Frya and Beldyst pushed past the edge of the valley, warm rays of morning light reached across the expanse and gave Jon a gentle nudge. He sat up and rubbed both eyes. When they came into focus, he found Logun sitting against the rock face, a faraway look in his eyes as he stared out into the valley. “You okay?”

A muted grin preceded his answer. “Yeah…I’m fine.” His tone was not so convincing. “I keep wondering what we’ll find when we reach the top. You know, there can be a whole lot of nothing up there.” He turned towards Jon. “Then what? Do we take stock of our meager supplies and head out into the unknown, or do we go back and tell the tribunal what we’ve found? And if there is nothing…what happens to the village?”

“Or there could be wonderful things on the plateau, like herds of moohorns roaming free across the countryside, and orchards of trees, weighed down with the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted.” His eyes brightened. “Don’t forget about the forests, with enough timber to build a thousand houses.” He stopped and stared at the village. “The future of our people is at stake. Those things have to be up there, all of it.”

Logun pressed his lips together and nodded. “I suppose there is only one way to find out.” He reached over and picked up his satchel. “If we start now, the two of us should make it before nightfall.”

“Agreed.”

They bundled their things and plotted the most direct route to the top. Jon took the lead, with Logun staying a few paces behind. The air was cold, and getting colder with each labored step. And the wind. It blew so hard at that elevation Jon had begun to grow concerned. One quick gust and it would be the last step either of them ever took.

“I’m going to try for that cleft a little to my right,” Jon said after he took a short break to catch his breath. As he reached up for it, the muscles in his arm ached with pain. He had hoped a good night’s sleep would bring some relief, but they were just as tender as the day before.

When his fingertips latched onto a small outcropping, the rock he used for support suddenly gave way. Both legs slipped out from under him and slammed into the sheer face, his left knee erupting in pain.

“Jon!” Logun shouted. “Hang on!” He scurried up the jagged surface as fast as his arms and legs could move. When he positioned himself just underneath Jon’s feet, it was then he saw a rivulet of blood trickle down the rock face.

The pain in his leg was excruciating, almost incapacitating. “How bad is it?” Jon asked, concern tinting each word. Logun did not respond at first, which concerned him even more. “Don’t lie to me, Logun. How bad am I hurt?”

He rolled his head to one side. “I can’t tell from here, but you’re losing a lot of blood.” He paused a moment. “Can you stand on your injured leg?”

Jon steadied himself, then swayed his hips over as slowly as possible. When his weight shifted, waves of pain tore through his entire body. “I don’t think I can make it.”

“I can’t just leave you here.”

“What do you suggest? We both know if I can’t go up, there’s only one other choice.”

Logun shook his head. “No,” he declared. “There has to be another way.”

“Then I’m open to suggestions.”

He scanned the area above them, until his eyes focused on a fixed point in the distance. “There’s an outcropping a little above you, and to the left. If I push and you pull, I think you and I can make it together.”

Jon craned his neck upward. “Alright.” He grabbed the rock a little tighter. “Now, how do you propose we do this?”

Logun worked his way up the crevice, until he stood a little below his injured friend. “I’ll hold onto your waist while you push up with your good leg. Foot by foot, inch by inch, we’ll work our way up, until we reach that outcropping.”

Jon nodded, then gathered up what was left of his dwindling strength. As he pulled with all his might, Logun extended his left arm and slung it around his waist, giving him a yank. Finding a rock sticking out of what was an otherwise flat surface, he pushed up a few inches to another crevice. Both men caught their breath before they repeated the same action as before. After several hours of struggling upward, the two finally reached the spot. Only then did they realize it was just big enough for one person. Jon scooted up as best he could, until he laid prostate on the weathered surface.

After drawing in several deep breaths, he rolled over and said, “Thanks. I owe you for that.”

Logun dismissed the compliment with the wave of his hand. “You would have done the same for me.”

“Don’t be so sure. If you were the one with the injured leg, I’d be having this conversation alone.” Both men let out hearty, but exhausted laughs. Only after it fell quiet, Jon said, “And speaking of alone, I think this is where you and I are going to have to part company.”

Logan’s eyes flared outward. “What? You can’t be serious.”

“You and I both know I can’t make it any higher…not in the condition I’m in.” He leaned over and pointed at the route they had taken. “It took us several hours to go just a short distance. How long do you think it would take us to go the rest of the way, assuming I don’t slip and fall, taking you with me? It’s just too dangerous.”

“Maybe you and I can go back down together. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two.”

A smile of disbelief preceded Jon’s answer. “Nice try, my friend.” He patted the stony surface. “This spot isn’t too bad. It will give me a chance to rest, maybe get my strength back. In the meantime, you’ll have to finish the ascent alone.”

Logun remained quiet for a long time. “At least let me bandage your leg,” he finally said.

Jon wished it didn’t have to be this way, but now was not the time for sentimentality. Only one thing mattered, and any unnecessary delay diminished their chances of success. “I appreciate that, but I can manage.” He gave his friend a gentle push. “There’s not much daylight left. If you have any chance of reaching the summit before nightfall, you can’t put this off another second.”

“This isn’t goodbye. I’ll come back for you. Maybe I can make some rope from tree vines, something that will help you up to the top.”

“If there’s anyone who can do it, I know it’s you.”

Logun looked at him with somber eyes. “Take care, my friend.”

“And you.”

Before he had a change of mind, Logun grabbed the first rock within reach and pulled himself to the next crevice. Focusing all his energies upward, he moved like a man possessed, never stopping to rest or taking a drink of water. One single thought went round and round in his head — get to the top as quickly as possible. To do any less meant the death of his friend. He just hoped something up there could be used to help Jon scale the sheer face. After that…well, he would think about that later.

After placing his foot in a small crack, Logun searched for another niche to slip his fingers into. When he looked up, he realized the summit lay just within reach. His heart beat faster, and his breaths grew short.

Logun shunted his expectant thoughts aside, and extended his right hand as high as it could go. As his fingers patted the hard, jagged surface, they bumped into something different than weathered stone. It possessed a roughness about it, long and oddly shaped, like the gnarled trunk of a small bush. Grabbing hold of it tight, he gave the unseen object a good tug first, then scampered up and over the edge, collapsing onto the ground in an exhausted heap.

Drawing in a lung full of air, he rolled over and looked up. His eyes widened at the sight. For the first time in his life, Logun saw the sky in its entirety. He just lay there, unable to speak, until he could no longer keep his feelings bottled up. “How beautiful.”

Images of Jon sitting on the ledge invaded his weary thoughts. It would be dark soon, and dark meant cold. If he didn’t find something to help his friend, the cold, coupled with the loss of blood, might be too much for him.

Logun pushed himself up and got to his feet. What he saw next literally took his breath away. Lying just before him in exquisite beauty was an immense city, more magnificent than he could have ever imagined. Massive spires reached into the sky. Covered in a shimmering material, they reflected the light of both suns creeping towards a distant mountain range, almost blinding him. Other buildings, thousands of them, both large and small trailed off towards the horizon. Then a stray thought hit him. Where are the people? It was only then that he realized how quiet it was. Painfully quiet.

After he took a hesitant step forward, Logun realized massive dunes covered significant portions of the city, like great sienna-colored hills of sand that stood taller than the tallest tree in the valley.

A strong breeze suddenly kicked up, blowing dust around him like a cyclone. He raised his arm and shielded himself from the tumult. When the wind died down, Logun caught sight of an object a short distance away. Rectangular in shape, it stood about waist high, covered in the same material as the buildings. Strange, he thought. The object stood off on its own, as if placed there intentionally.

His curiosity got the better of him, and he found himself staring at the object up close. He became transfixed by the luminescent glow caused by the light from both suns reflecting off the surface. It was as though the world around him came to an abrupt halt, forever frozen between the ticks of a clock.

Then, like some unknown force taking over his will, he felt compelled to touch the object. Logun bent over just a little and extended his fingers, until they came into contact with it. A high-pitched shrill exploded in his ears, causing him to stumble back in pain.

A second later, the same silence as before filled the plateau.

When he focused his attention on the mysterious object again, he realized it was no longer there. In its place, a bearded man stood before him, dressed in strange clothes. He was about the same age as him, though the man bore a melancholy expression. “By the time you hear this message,” he said, “we will have been dead for many centuries. Not because of some natural cataclysm, but through our own arrogance, our own hubris. As armies fought against armies over the dwindling resources offered by our once beautiful world, most of the habitable cities became nothing more than burned out ruins. In the end, Tel’Shyra, the city you see behind me, was the last to survive. But the effects of war have taken their toll, and the land is no longer able to sustain life. Faced with the prospect of global extinction, those who were deemed strong enough to make the journey descended into the valley, hoping a new home can be made for our race. We believe their chances for success are good, and perhaps one day, they will rebuild our devastated world. Those of us who remain will never know, but we can offer you a glimpse of what we once were.”

The man dissolved, replaced by an image of what Tel’Shyra looked like in its glory, before the encroaching desert had buried much of it.

“This is what your people are capable of creating if you do not follow the same path of destruction as your forebears. And if a remnant has survived, there is still a chance our race will thrive again.” The old man smiled. “The time has come to rejoin the world you once belonged to, and begin anew.”

When the image faded, the same rectangular-shaped object appeared. And lying some distance away, Tel’Shyra, looking as it did before the message, old, weathered — dead.

Filled with a sudden sense of rage, Logun picked up the projector and threw it onto the ground, shattering the device into a thousand pieces. “You fools!” he shouted. “You had it all.” His legs buckled. “You had it all…but it wasn’t enough. Is this what you’re offering us if we leave the valley?”

Logun grabbed a rock lying nearby so he could destroy the last remnants of the projector. He wanted to erase all proof of its existence; then smash something else, and something else after that, until nothing of the city remained.

With the rock still clutched in his hand, Logun suddenly stopped, a profound sense of shame filling his heart. He looked at the broken pieces lying by his feet and stared at them. Guilty, his conscience accused. He was just as guilty of destruction as his ancestors.

“This is what change has wrought,” he whispered. Then a sobering truth invaded his thoughts, the realization of which was almost too much to bear. If he chose not to return, how long did everyone in the valley have before they could no longer produce enough food to sustain themselves? If he did return, and told the elders what lay beyond the valley, most, if not all the villagers would undoubtedly choose to return. But with no boundaries to hold them back, would time turn them into the monsters they had become before abandoning Tel’Shyra?

Logun rose to his feet and looked over his shoulder as the suns slipped past the rim of the valley, casting it in deepening shadows. He turned back and stared at the dead city for a long time.

As the last light of day gave way to darkness, a single answer formed in his mind. Yes. In time, they would rediscover the means that brought their civilization to an end. And then their destruction would be complete.

Images of the people he knew, people like Jon, people he grew up with, flashed in his mind. For their sakes, there was only one thing he could do.

Logun fixed his gaze on the horizon, nodded, and then started walking towards it.

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