Both the delirium and the phasing in and out of consciousness subsided one sunny morning. Hales rubbed the sleep from her eyes and looked around. The first thing in her vision was a strange and curious sight.
Either a bird with the qualities of a man or a man with the qualities of a bird stood at the edge of the cave pecking at small stones.
Hales rubbed her eyes again.
Definitely a man with bird qualities.
Hales sat up and tried to stretch the stiffness out of her arms and back while observing the man-bird’s odd behavior.
Without turning he addressed her, in an ancient, almost squeaky voice. “Ah, awake at last!”
Hales rubbed her neck and thought through her memory. She found herself somewhat disoriented.
“How long have I been out?” Her voice cracked and the thirst caught up to her.
“You sound like me,” the man’s wispy white beard moving up and down as he produced his avian hybrid equivalent to a laugh. “There is water in the bowl nearby.” He said seriously as he turned for the first time to point.
Hales followed the line his wing-arm aimed at. The ceramic bowl was within grabbing distance and Hales eagerly drained the life-giving liquid.
Hales talked again after a few minutes of recovery. “Thank you. How long was I asleep?” She set the bowl down.
Hales determined that this man was a crane, the bird parts of him anyways. The long, stick thin legs. The grey feathers and wide wings and pointed beak all were characteristics of a crane. His torso was mostly human, and he had hands as well as wings. The head and neck were fairly evenly split between crane and man. The face was human, other than the beak and feathers, and the beard was of course human as well.
He was taller than herself but probably weighed a fraction. Hales could think of only one person in the entire planet who fit this description but reason and logic forbade her from believing her eyes…
The old man-crane stooped down to pick up another rock. “Three days. You were near death and went into a sleep coma.”
All Hales had as a souvenir from the recovery coma were dreams already fading, like mist caught in a breeze.
She didn’t know what to say but introductions felt appropriate.
“I’m Hales Ailor.”
“Talis Ranis.” He went on to shake the rock, put it up to his ear to listen intently and tapped on it. He repeated the steps in a combination of different orders as the dumbfounded Hales remained at a loss for words.
“What are you doing?” This was not exactly how she thought a meeting with the most famous and probably the most powerful Specter in the world would go.
Talis Ranis discarded the rock and sought out another one.
“Looking for frogs.” He said intently, his focus obviously on his strange task.
“Frogs!” Hales almost spat water out.
“They often get stuck inside of rocks.” Talis said as he hefted one rock, decided it was empty, and moved on to a different one.
So he’s completely lost it. Great!
“Do you have any food?” Hales asked after a half hour watching the legendary Fable pick at stones.
“I will prepare something!” Talis sounded rather excited. He declared he was going to gather ingredients.
He returned to the cave a few minutes later with a handful of different local plants and vegetables.
Without too much effort he molded a pot out of a shaving of cave wall he extracted by slicing a feather through it. Hales noticed the sharpness of the feather. It reminded her of Avaloo Waterfall at the Camp of Awakening. The feather there had been stuck in the stone and split water as it fell.
She decided that was a good way to start a conversation.
“I saw your feather at Avaloo. It’s where I awakened my Aspect.”
“Ah, the Garghent Mountains. Quite a view up at the top isn’t it.” Talis flicked two feathers together and sparks flew on the dried sticks under the pot. Hales didn’t miss the absolute control he had over his feathers. With the fire lit he dumped the ingredients in together. He filled the pot with water and let it sit.
“Legend has it that is where you became a Fable.” Hales said.
“Hmm. Avaloo? What was I doing in Avaloo…” He cawed out in a pattern sort of like a chuckle. “That was where I took my final dump!”
Hales’ facial expression was one of confusion and exasperation and perhaps anxiety and even disappointment.
“I haven’t cooked in over a hundred years so bear with me if I get the recipe wrong!” He made his cawing laugh once again.
“You don’t have to eat?”
“I haven’t for a long time. The universe provides plenty of energy if one develops the means of drinking from it.”
Hales thought for a minute and then, “How did I survive in the desert? I didn’t eat for days.”
Talis stirred the herbal soup and added a pinch of some crushed spice.
“I imagine you tapped into the universe’s energy. From your state, I would think more out of desperation than intention.”
“Will I be able to do it again?”
“You want to go back into the desert already?” Talis laughed at his own joke.
Hales grumbled to herself, “You don’t get much conversation do you?”
Talis handed her the pot and she let it cool off beside her.
She sat with her knees drawn to her chest at the mouth of the cave. If any of her classmates knew what the real Talis Ranis was like they would never have tried awakening their powers. Not that they would believe her if she explained that he was a senile prankster.
“How did you become a crane?” She asked suddenly, trying to gain any useful information from the only Fable known to exist.
Talis let out a sigh, one of irritation and frustration. He started to ramble. “Do you know how annoying it is? Everyone I meet always assumes I am a crane. They never ask me first. ‘Talis Ranis what a fine bird you are, I am ignorant of these things so please educate me as to your specific species.’ They just jump straight to conclusions! But you should see the look on their faces when I tell them! Ha! I am a heron! Not no damn crane!”
Hales raised a brow. “Aren’t they the same thing?”
“The same thing!” He cawed ridiculously, “Cranes fly with their necks out like the stupid birds they are. Heron’s are graceful and fly normally!” Talis Ranis muttered and stormed off brooding.
“Nice one Hales, you meet the mythical Talis Ranis and find the first sore spot you can and rub salt in it. Way to go.” She said to herself.
She tried the soup, it was thick enough to eat with her fingers. So less of a soup and more of a pudding. It didn’t taste particularly good, but her body craved the vitamins in it. She realized too that using the cave wall as a pot added vital minerals like iron. She felt her strength rejuvenating almost immediately. She finished eating and left the pot there.
Standing for the first time since waking up, she took a minute to stretch and test her legs out. Her survival was a marvel. Of that she had no doubt. Meeting Talis Ranis went far beyond a marvel and straight into the supernatural territory. That’s how it felt. He was in no way what she expected, but a senile old man-crane was what she got. Heron! Damn it.
I am going to mess that up again.
She scooped a rock and looked around for him. Talis was standing on his left leg while the right leg wrapped twice around it. His eyes were closed in meditation on a ledge some ways away.
Hales made the trek but found out how much further she still needed to recover.
“This whole mission has been a string of injury and recovery.” She complained. “But I discovered something in the desert. I advanced my powers and I am going to advance it further with Talis here. Maybe I can become a Master,” Hales schemed.
She hiked the steep rocks up to the ledge. Though this cave and cliff system was part of a larger steppe, to the south still lay the endless desert. Hales looked longingly at it. Her mind recalling every vivid detail of her miscarriage…
“I brought you a peace offering.” She held out the rock to Talis. He peaked an eye out but swiftly closed it and turned away with an exaggerated ‘hmph’.
“There could be a frog in here, but I guess if you don’t want it I’ll drop it.” Hales provoked.
Talis snatched it from her hand in a lightning fast motion. Hales barely registered that she lost the rock.
Talis stayed facing away from her as he toyed with the rock.
“I ate all your soup. It was delicious. I am going to want seconds!” Hales felt as if she were babysitting a temper tantrum kid.
“Really?” Talis asked hopefully.
“Really,” Hales forced a smile.
“And what am I?” He pressed, still skeptical.
“A cr-…crey! Heron. Grey heron.” She confirmed. Good save!
Talis narrowed his eyes. “Grey heron or great heron?”
“Great grey heron.”
“That’s right!” Talis squawked as if finalizing the statement into fact.
“Mind if I join you in meditation?” Hales proposed.
But Talis was already back in meditation. Hales took the silence as a yes. She found a soft spot and sat down, legs crossed.
With hands resting on her knees she let her mind clear. Focusing only on her breath. She realized there was too much on her mind to think about before it could truly be at ease.
She killed people. Her conscience was not as sullied as she thought it would be.
Violence is natural. Humans are part of the cycle of nature. Just as a wolf hunts a deer or the deer hunts grass or the grass competes with other grass, killing the weaker plants in the process. She felt sad, but it wasn’t wrong. Pacifism is the same as surrendering. You will be conquered if you do not fight. You have one life before being decomposed and your energy dispersing back into nature. Hales did not plan on losing. Her drive for survival and power outweighed any thought of peace and humility.
That is the way of things. You can rail all you want against that. Ignoring reality is suicide. Hales would kill again, she knew that as an immutable fact. With that understanding she let herself descend deeply into meditation.
Hours passed and Hales returned to the cave to sleep.
The next morning she found that Talis Ranis was unmoved from his spot. His meditation stamina was incredible. Of course it would be. To become a Master took many years by all accounts. Fable was likely that all over again tenfold. Hundreds of years Talis Ranis had lived. Mostly alone, she realized.
Unlocking the secrets of the universe must be a solitary existence…
Hales trained for most of the day. Exercising her muscles and pulling out stars. This area was tranquil, largely untouched by humans for generations she assumed.
Birds, dogs and various other animals and critters would gather near Talis Ranis in his static meditative form.
Hales would join him in meditation, train for hours, scavenge for food and then sleep. A few days went by and Hales felt her body recovering. Her strength and endurance returned as well as her Aspect growing ever more powerful.
It was harmonious here, so far removed from the problems of the world. She could see why Talis Ranis chose such places to meditate.
The greater portion of a week passed before Talis moved from his spot. It was while Hales spun and launched multiple solar discs.
“Instead of tethering your solar systems to your target, attach them to other stars already moving. This will increase their velocity and save you energy in the process.”
Hales didn’t expect Talis Ranis to be here and she jumped slightly when his squawking voice interrupted her concentration.
She was breathing heavily. She nodded in response to his words and tried his suggestion out.
Bringing out another solar disc, she spun it and launched it at a mound of dirt some thirty meters out. While in flight, she tethered another disc to the first one and watched as the second disc gained ground on the first one. The first disc still crashed into the mound before the second disc did, but only by a second.
And then another idea struck Hales. She prepared dozens of stars and planets. One by one she threw them in different directions in front of her. With each preceding star she tethered the gravitational pull of the following one to it so that each new star was pulled by the star that came before. Sending each star in random directions created a wild, swinging, pulling and pushing field of stars moving at breakneck speeds as each star’s velocity grew exponentially as the entire momentum of the swarm increased with every passing second.
It reminded Hales of the electric lamps with pulsating and chaotically spinning lightning. Only this was with stars and planets. And it did behave like a swarm as each object seemed to purposefully avoid the others. None of them collided and this Hales didn’t totally understand. She assumed it had something to do with the gravitational pull exerted by each star and planet.
Regardless of the specific mathematics and physics of why this worked, Hales was awestruck by the scene.
She created a huge planet, big enough that she had to raise her hand over her head. She spun the massive planet and threw it with a flick of her wrist and arm far in the distance. Tethering it to one of the stars in the swarm. The mass of the planet caused the tethered star to be dragged to it which in turn caused all the others to be dragged in the process, like invisible strings yanking at each one.
The planets and stars eventually crashed, causing a fiery and smokey explosion.
Hales’ mind raced at a thousand kilometers per hour. Working out a dozen different strategies at once. Her Gravity Field, what she considered to be her strongest move, could easily benefit from this sort of application of stringing each star to the previous one.
She couldn’t shake the comparison to an electric lamp and a swarm from her mind’s eye. But then she thought that those two things combined are like an atomic molecule, with the electrons racing around the nucleus.
Though there was no nucleus to this power, except for the planet at the end that dragged the entire swarm. So that analogy does work on some level, at least in Hales’ mind.
“Why don’t you use supernovas?” Talis Ranis questioned.
“I haven’t been able to figure out how to apply the necessary pressure to trigger one, at least not by myself.” Hales remembered Edeno and his Loupe Aspect.
“Rotate a star as fast as you can in a clockwise direction. Then rotate a different star counterclockwise and throw it away from the first star.”
“But that won’t…” Hales stammered as her eyes widened. Of course! It was so simple. Just like her Star Shower which uses two stars spinning around and pulling plasma from each other.
In this case, rotate them in the opposite direction and throw them apart. If done with enough force the stars, at least one of them, will have its inertia trying to go in two directions. The center will collapse and the star will self-destruct.
Hales tested it. One star clockwise and the other counterclockwise. She set the clockwise spinning star to hover in place in front of her at a safe enough distance. She hesitated on where to throw the counterclockwise spinning star.
Hales worked out the problem mentally.
Take the first star, rotating clockwise. This will be point A. The second star is rotating counterclockwise and will be B.
A has a set location. B is going to move from point C, me, and influence A.
So which direction does B need to travel, in relation to A, in order for A to collapse into a supernova?
Going backwards from point A would cause the two stars to tumble and rotate around each other, just like in Star Shower.
Going straight from point A does the same. B can’t move parallel to A.
What if B is launched at a forty-five degree angle from point C, either to the left or right of A. Wouldn’t that just cause the same issue? It would be easier if the stars were stuck in place by an indestructible rod.
Talis interrupted her thoughts. “Throw the second star straight up.”
Hales took his suggestion skeptically and launched the second star, the point B star, straight up in the air.
Rotating on two different planes meant that the stars would cause the other to transfer their impetus in directions antithetical to their current rotational direction.
It’s like taking two tops connected by strings. The first top stabilizes at its max speed on a lower board. The second top is placed above the first one on a different board. The string is taut and the two opposite rotating tops wobble and topple.
Placing those tops on the same board will always cause them to spin around until they randomly collide or lose momentum.
What’s needed is not a correct X and Y relationship but the addition of a Z direction. A third dimension.
Hales threw the second star straight above the first star rotating in place. To her surprise, it was the second star in the air that collapsed on its own weight. The supernova was magnificent. The parts she could see that is. The blinding explosion lasted for a split second and then was gone.
In about five minutes Talis Ranis had virtually explained her own power to her, mastering concepts she had spent her life trying to learn, and more recently, applying in the form of her Aspect.
If that’s what he could do with someone else’s power, what could he do with his own?
Hales deactivated Solar and took a seat. Processing through the last few minutes. Talis Ranis approached.
“We have much to discuss.”
“Okay.” Hales managed.
They went back to the cave entrance and Talis prepared another soup. Hales remained silent the whole time. She was finally seeing a more serious side of the Fable.
“You are almost at full strength. You will need to leave first thing in the morning.”
Hales nodded. There was so much she had to go back to. She knew Garghent could defend against any army. But still the lingering worry of her city in ruins ate at her.
“In this cave system I have written down the things I have felt during meditation. The world is going into a period of catharsis. The amount of energy being drawn from the planet is reaching a critical stage. That is not to say that it is going to end or anything silly like that. And I am not going to preach about balance and equilibrium. What I do have to say is this. If you want to survive, you must seize power and grow your strength ten-hundred-thousandfold.”
“There are going to be wars on a scale never before seen by humanity. Of course a battle between termites and wasps are equally as destructive to them, and to them it must feel like the world is ending. Still, a victor emerges and the cycle of nature continues. It will be like this for humans. If you do not wish to see the genocide of any living creature, if you have those you love, you must do all you can to win.”
“What is going to follow you on your path, Hales, is the kind of suffering that will make you want to burn out your eyes. I know the structure of your past and the many like yourself in the city of Garghent. It is going to haunt you and hunt you. Of that you can be certain. Upon awakening your Aspect you must have already accepted your death.”
“Yes I can see in your eyes that you have. Make no mistake, accepting death and giving up are two very different things. Struggle against this world.”
“There is one in particular you must watch out for. He wishes to end humanity. You will know him when you meet him, I am sure. Though I do not know any details. The intuition that comes from meditation can be vague but I have spent decades coming to terms with these feelings. Feeling I can taste in the breeze or feel in the charged air of a summer storm.”
Talis Ranis was silent after that. Hales had long since finished her meal and sat back memorizing every word he spoke.
“How do I become a Master?”
“The answer will disappoint you. I know no way other than to train for a lifetime. Sometimes multiple lifetimes.
Talis Ranis wandered away, needing to be alone.
Hales’ own intuition told her this; Talis expects his own death very soon.
Hales lay down and spent hours thinking endlessly until sleep quieted her mind at last.
Dawn arrived as it always does, and always will. Talis Ranis was busy tapping on stones again.
Hales stretched and washed her face at a stream. Everything was gathered for the trip back to Garghent. Hales had the sense that the trip was going to be uneventful. Her mind had too much to think about for enemies to be in the way. For some reason she just assumed she’d be fine.
She found Talis Ranis, the old crane-man, wispy white beard and long grey feathers. Eyes that had seen the world countless times… And a beak that was apparently best suited for tapping on rocks.
“It was a pleasure, Hales.”
“Thank you. For-”
“No need. We will meet again when the flame seeds touch the invisible moon.”
Hales pursed her lips. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing!” Talis squawked and laughed. “When you get to be my age people believe anything you say!” Talis Ranis turned back to his rocks and kept laughing and cawing to himself, repeating his fake prophecy.
Hales rolled her eyes and started walking north. She’d traverse the steppe, go east toward the coast and then south. After circumventing the desert she could go west again and arrive in Garghent. She could make the trip in just under two months if she kept a fast enough pace.
“Ah, come out little one! There, there.”
Hales glanced back and in the distance she could make out the tiny form of a frog leaping out of a rock held in Talis Ranis’ hands.
I’ll make the trip in a month! I need to get the hell out of here…
Talis Ranis stood at the highest point on top of the cave, gazing south in the desert. The girl was an unexpected visitor, and nearly an unfortunate casualty. What he had been really awaiting was the arrival of an old friend.