A soft knock on the door drew Louise's attention from the book she had been reading. She sat curled in a big armchair in one corner of the clean sunny room, a few metres from Ryan's bed. She no longer glanced up every so often to check on him, because she had given up expecting there to be any change.
The door had already been ajar, and as Louise looked up, Felicity's curly head appeared in the opening.
"Hey." Felicity gave her friend a faint smile as she sidled into the room and leaned against the doorframe. "Um, are you coming to the meeting?"
"Meeting? What meeting?" Interested, Louise closed her book and sat up straighter in her chair.
"There's a meeting in the dining hall. With the city historian. He wants to talk to us about something." Felicity twisted a strand of her hair around her finger as she spoke. "Do you want to come?"
Louise immediately shot a surreptitious glance in Ryan's direction, which Felicity did not miss.
Felicity coughed slightly. "I think you should come." Glancing pointedly at Ryan, she added. "It's going to hurt him to be left alone for a couple of hours. He won't even notice, and really, it's not as though he's gonna go anywhere. Come on."
With a final fleeting look at Ryan, Louise climbed out of her chair, and followed Felicity along the corridors of the large house. The house had belonged to Renaud Mescatto, but was now back in the hands of the city historian who had been its original owner before he was thrown into the underground prison on unspecified charges. The group of teenagers was interested in hearing what these charges were, along with anything else the man could tell them.
Felicity pushed open the large dark wood double doors leading into the opulent dining room. The long table inside could have seated fifty people easily, if not more, they estimated as the walked along it to where the rest of the group sat at the far end. Heavy curtains were drawn across all the windows, save one behind Phil's seat, so the end where they were seated was bathed in bright sunlight.
Phil sat to the right of the head chair – which was larger than the others and brilliantly carved – with his back to the window and his elbows on the table. Chloe was beside him, sitting on the table with her feet on the chair. Sam, Carl, and Olivia also sat along that that side of the table.
Mitch, Kevin, Mia, and Travis sat along the other. Felicity pulled up the chair beside her boyfriend, while Louise took the next one along from that.
In silence, they waited for several minutes. The quiet was punctured every so often by Sam tapping his fingernails on the table top.
Then a door to the left of the table opened, and the historian, Gashvan Reyad, entered the room. He was a large man, both in height and in girth, dressed in a long maroon coat. His thinning hair was sandy-coloured, his aging face wrinkled and marked from his long stay in prison. A long scraggly beard, also sand-coloured, trailed down his front. He reminded Louise of an old bear, and after he had locked the door behind him, he turned and gave the eleven children a weary smile. Reyad carried a sheaf of papers under his arm, which he set on the table as he came to sit at the head.
He cleared his throat, and spoke to them in a low voice. "Good morning, children. I trust you are all well-rested now, after your – ah – recent activities."
There were some mumbled responses at this, and Reyad smiled good-naturedly at their evident lack of enthusiasm.
"You're concerned, yes, that I asked you all here today? Do not be. I have things to say which I think will help you on your quest. You are the saviors of the people, we want to help you."
More mumbling, and some people looked away, embarrassed.
"We're not anybody's saviors." Mitch said quietly, smiling slightly though he was not amused.
"Do not be so sure. The people are free because of your actions and your influence. The Baron and his oppressive rule have been destroyed. Thanks to all of you." Reyad's grey eyes moved around the room, from one face to another. He sat down and shuffled his papers for a little while and before he had a chance to speak again, Sam opened his mouth and said, "Why were you in prison all this time?"
"Oh, my God." Olivia said under her breath, raising her eyes to the ceiling. Chloe rubbed her eyes with the palm of her hand, and Travis only just stopped himself from smacking his own forehead in disbelief at Sam's tactlessness.
Reyad saw the reactions of the others and gave a snort of laughter. "It is a fair question." He trained his eyes on Sam, and said, "In short, I was locked up because I knew too much. Our esteemed Lord Baron had many secrets in his personal life, and I knew them. The Baron did not want his secrets exposed, so he invented a reason to have me put away, so that I could never tell what I knew. The official reason was given as treason."
Sam leaned forward looking interested. "What kind of secrets?"
"Shut up, Sam!" Carl hissed at him.
"Secrets like the disappearance of the Baron's second wife, and others…" Reyad said, and then added quickly. "But that is not important now. Now, I would like to tell you a story."
Kevin and Mitch exchanged bemused glances, then everyone turned their attention to Reyad, and he began his story.
"Many thousands of years ago, on both sides of the divide, the gate between two worlds was open, and people were free to cross between one and the other as often as they wished. We traveled to your world, and the people of your world came to ours. In that time there were many openings, in many places. But the people of the two worlds disagreed over things, and there was a fight. The people began to close the gates, but many were left unfinished. Some became one ended portals, such as the one you encountered that brought you here. It had no corresponding portal to take you back again. The portal you would have used was dismantled a long time ago, by the first Baron of Jugurtha, who hated people from the other side. That particular piece of the mystical white bloodstone was lost. But by studying the notes made by former historians of this city, we may have some idea of where it was taken. I believe you can find the stone you seek in the country of Tallarin, whose king bought the stone from the Baron for a high price. Tallarin is very far from here, many weeks of walking, I fear. But it may be your one and only chance to escape from this world. I can tell you the way to that country, through the forests of Dargath'Til, over the Blacksky Mountains and through the Salt Marsh. I can even give you a map to follow, and supplies to help you on your journey. But as for the trip itself, that you must make alone."
Reyad finished, and looked up from his papers at the stunned and silent teenagers around him.
"But this…this bloodstone thing? That'll get us home?" Mia asked eventually.
"I do not know exactly how it works. But I believe that, once you have the stone, if it is taken to the right place, and the portal reconstructed…then yes, I think it will get you home."
Mia looked around at the others. "We have to do it."
One by one, they nodded. "Of course we do." Carl said, as though the prospect of not doing it was ridiculous. "It doesn't matter how far we have to go, or what we have to do. If it'll get us home again, we'll do it."
* * *
And so the necessary arrangements were made.
The people were sorry to see them leave. Phil admitted that if getting home weren't so important to him, he would have liked to stay and help see the people get back on their feet.
Chloe felt the same for the Refeti. She had wanted to help them with the restoration of their cave systems, besides which, she had developed a special bond with the creatures and it pained her deeply to have to say goodbye.
Most of the group, however, was not at all sorry to see the back of Jugurtha City.
Mitch and Kevin were happy to never have to see the prison building again, especially given the acts they had committed inside it, which they were still trying not to think about. They knew that if Ryan had been able to say so, he would have felt the same.
It still sent shivers up Carl's spine every time he saw all the marks speckled over his arms, especially since he had discovered more injection marks on his thighs. Even though he couldn't remember what had gone inside the medical facility, the knowledge of it was sufficiently horrible to make him feel ill every time he thought about it. He was glad really, that he couldn't remember.
Felicity was disturbed by how close she had come to almost being married to that horrible Baron, and was happier than ever to have been reunited with Travis, despite the fact that their reunion in the upper floor of the Barony had nearly cost both of them their lives. Travis was pleased both and having her back, and at not having to sleep underground anymore. Much as he liked the Refeti, Travis just wasn't an underground sort of person.
A week after their meeting with Reyad, the twelve were preparing to leave the city on their journey to Tallarin to find the white bloodstone.
Well, eleven of them were preparing, and one was still lying upstairs in his darkened room.
A small cart was standing outside the historian's house, where the group were loading it up with supplies like food, sleeping bags, a tarp, various other bedding, eating and cooking utensils, spare clothing, and fire-making supplies.
Louise was in the cart, while Sam helped her load a mattress into the cart, which she shoved up into one corner, and covered with a sheet. All the rest of the supplied were placed around the mattress, but nothing was placed on top of it.
"You know what I wonder?" Mitch asked as he came out of the house carrying a box labeled 'trail mix', which he threw carelessly into the back of the cart.
"Nothing coz you have no brain?" Kevin said sardonically. He had just come up the road leading a camel behind him.
"Ha, ha. Very funny." Mitch said. "No, why does some stuff in the world have strange names like Jugurtha and Tallarin? And then you've got just Salt Marsh. How boring is that compared to all the other names? They got shafted, I reckon."
"Mitch, that's a dumb thing to wonder about. Shut up." Sam, now sitting on the side of the cart, said cheerfully.
Olivia came out carrying yet more supplies. "Kev? That's a camel." She stopped dead and stared.
"Oh, really?" Kevin said mildly, looking round at it. "I had no idea, I thought it was a chicken. Geez, I know it's a camel."
"Yeah, but what's it for?"
"To pull the cart, of course."
"Why is everyone so sarcastic today?" Louise wondered, brushed her hair back and she straightened up, having finished adjusting the sheets on the mattress.
"We're in an unusually good mood." Kevin replied and began hitching up the camel.
A loud bump came from inside the house, followed by Travis' loud voice. "God, would you be careful? We're not trying to see how many walls we can slam into before we got out."
Louise shielded her face, trying to see in through the doorway. The bright light outside made it difficult for her to see the darkened inside. "What are they bringing out? I thought the big stuff was loaded already."
"Yeah, it is." Olivia replied vaguely.
"I think they're bringing Ryan down." Mitch said, completely unconcerned about the fact that his friend was being slammed into walls and corners on his way out.
Louise looked scandalized.
"Okay, watch it. We're almost there." Travis backed out the door, carrying one end of a long stretcher. He continued to back up, until his backside hit the edge of the cart, jolting the stretcher and slamming the front edge of it into Phil, who carried the other end.
"Ow!" Phil cried out, glaring pointedly at Travis, who grinned sheepishly.
"Sorry. You ready for us, Lou?"
"Were you just gonna stand there and wait if I wasn't?" Louise asked grumpily.
"I dunno, we might just have put him down in the dirt." Phil teased.
Louise put on her second scandalized look of the hour. "You would not."
Travis began to laugh, but stopped when he saw Louise glaring daggers at him. Then he shut up, and helped Phil load Ryan into the cart in silence.
When he was spread out comfortably on the mattress, on his side with his hands curled near his face, they left him uncovered because it was hot out and they didn't want him to overheat.
While everyone else fussed around making last minute preparations to leave, Carl used a tarp to make a shade cover for Ryan. Three corners of the tarp were tacked to the sides of the cart, the fourth was held up by a box near the mattress.
"Lucky Ryan." Sam said enviously, gazing down at the other boy as they grouped round.
"Lucky? How do you work that one out?" Mitch asked in amazement.
Sam sighed. "He doesn't have to walk."
"Shut up, idiot."
Now all of them were standing out in the street, some carrying packs of extra stuff on their backs. Olivia held the map in her hands, and she was ready direct them to wherever they needed to go.
They took one last long look around at the city that had been their home for the past few months.
Then Kevin slapped the camel's rear. "Come on, stupid animal. Let's get moving."
"Kevin! Don't call the camel stupid." Chloe reproached. She took hold of the camel's rope and led it off up the street, the rest following in a rather ragged looking procession.
They were dressed in their now clean Refeti-made clothes, loose fitting cream shirts and grey or brown pants, with their own joggers. Their other clothes were stored in the cart. Ryan was wearing a white shirt and soft baggy grey sleep pants, given to them by the historian. He was barefoot.
As they walked out of the city gates and into the desert, a faint breeze ruffled their hair, cooling the hot air slightly. The tarp rustled stiffly. But all in all, the mood was one of calm and relaxation. They could not afford to be tense and wound up at this early stage of their journey.
There was such a long way to go yet.