The Mountain of Sleeping Mother loomed over Trapper, expansive and capped in snow from the past season. Mother had been kind this winter, topping them off with sustaining water to last them well into the dry seasons. Trapper uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving to Mother for the gift. He could already taste the fresh bread from their wheat harvest.
Of course, gratitude wasn't the true reason he had come out on the wide southern valley today. He hoped Keeper and Weaver wouldn't miss him for too long. For his journey, Trapper had risen before the sun today, the stars still gleaming in the heavens above. It was a long travel to make, over the broken stone roads of the ancients and near unto The Ruins. Now the sun was past its apex, its bounteous rays not quite scorching on Trapper's bare shoulders. The season was still too young for that.
Trapper glanced once more towards the Mountain of Sleeping Mother, anxious for his friend to arrive. He was certain he had remembered the correct time.
As if bidden by his worried thoughts, the air in front of him began to ripple. It spread windy waves through the yellow long grass, sending strange tickling sensations across Trapper's skin. He leapt to his feet in surprise; this part never got easier for him, no matter how many times he had seen or felt it.
The rippling in the air coalesced into a glowing archway of light and crystal, shifting and shimmering almost as bright as the sun. Through the opening, Trapper could see into what looked like a dark cavern, as if the inside of the mountain had opened a doorway far down here in the southern valley. Deep within, he caught more flashes of light and shapes of instruments beyond his understanding.
His friend soon stepped through, smiling broadly as he laid eyes on Trapper. Today he had chosen a more casual set of wears, from his animal-skin trousers to a creamy colored buttoned shirt. It was almost as pasty as his flesh, which looked sickly pale and ill equipped for labors under the hot sun. It was little wonder he chose to wear a shirt over his bare chest, unlike the rest of Trapper's friends and family. Such traditions seemed so horribly impractical.
Not for Kaine.
"Trapper of Rabbits!" he greeted cheerfully. "How are you this fine spring afternoon?"
Trapper cleared his throat, feeling the strange tinglings in his mind burst to life. Just like the horrible itching that came with Kaine's doorway in the air, he could never get used to this new sensation plaguing him. Though he had no one to blame but himself. He had asked Kaine to tinker with his mind; he should have known the price.
"Doing pretty well," he began tentatively. The foreign tongue and colloquialisms sprung out of his mouth as naturally as if he had spent his last twenty years speaking as such. It was only the simple matter of shuffling his native tongue to back of his mind until it was necessary again. For now, all his mind knew was Kaine's tongue. "Had a long walk down, but like that was going to stop me."
"No, sir," Kaine said through a chuckle. "Can't keep a good Tasherran down."
Trapper laughed as well. It felt good to have all of these new thoughts and understandings coming to life again. Once he got over the initial jumble in his brain, the new concepts and knowledge seemed hardwired into his true self. Almost made him feel ignorant every time it went away after their visits—and it always made him grateful when Kaine came to visit.
"I see you came prepared," Kaine said, nodding to Trapper's small sacks tied around his waist on both sides.
"I do recall you saying that we could end up spending several days in The Ruins."
"And I told you that you were more than welcome to share my food." As if to taunt Trapper, he reached into one of his trouser pockets, producing a rectangular shaped bar of food.
Trapper turned up his nose. "I'll stick to something a little more familiar to my tastes."
"What, like rabbits?" Kaine said through a grin.
Trapper tapped his pack, starting southward without another word. Kaine quickly followed; his doorway in the air—something he called a Multi-Vector Gate—closing up behind them as if it had never been there. As the two of them started across the vast dips and rises of the southern valley, the land gradually sloped downward towards a whole other set of mountains.
"I see your snowpack lasted since my last visit," Kaine said absently.
"Yes, Mother has been good to us. My village will have more than enough water to plant a good crop this season."
Kaine glanced up at that, turning his head ever so slightly to gaze towards Mountain of Sleeping Mother.
"Funny how that idea stuck around," he said. "I think the people before mine called it something similar. Can't remember where Timpanogos slipped in."
Trapper shrugged. "Does it matter? It sounds like your people have all sorts of strange names that don't mean much of anything."
"All names mean something, Trapper. Just because the Tasherran take a more literal approach doesn't mean our foreign words don't breathe some sort of meaning."
Trapper knew as much from the new knowledge in his mind. But he liked to banter with Kaine. It was good for the pale man to have someone challenge his notions. Just because he could summon doorways in thin air didn't make him all powerful.
"If your names mean something," Trapper began, "then why are they all forgotten to my people?" He glanced at Kaine, grinning a toothy grin for effect.
"That is the question, then, isn't it?" Kaine responded quietly.
Trapper exhaled slowly, slightly annoyed. He had hoped to start some friendly jousting, but once again, he had managed to leave Kaine quiet and unsettled. Usually Trapper was better than this; he knew how to pester the elders in his village in particular, leading them along in conversations they normally wouldn't have cared for. It was one of his favorite games, really. One of the best ways to probe the thoughts of those around him.
Kaine was different. There were certain buzz words or phrases that shut him down. And Trapper was beginning to suspect it came from a discomfort of whatever distance separated their two peoples.
"What do you hope to find today?" Trapper started up again, trying to change topics.
"Echoes, mostly," said Kaine. "Something more than rubble and old junk. Wouldn't that be exciting for a change?"
Trapper shifted the new thoughts and concepts temporarily residing in his brain. If by echoes Kaine meant some sort of residual images of the past, then yes, that would be much more exciting. Trapper had visited The Ruins long before his semi-regular travels with Kaine. And each time thus far they had simply wandered around.
"Why wait so long?" Trapper ventured. "When we first met, I thought you would use your tools to find secrets."
"Ah, so you were bored on our last trip."
Trapper shot him a look. There was no way the pale man was going to turn the banter back on him so easily. "You squatted in the shadow of that one tower for half the day. I was hungry. Someone had to take care of food while you played with rocks."
Kaine chuckled. Trapper grinned, though he hated to admit that the guy had nearly gotten a rise out of him. The man came through mystical gateways in thin air, and on their three dedicated journeys thus far, all Kaine seemed interested in was admiring The Ruins for their view alone. If he had the power of the gods in all of his supernal tools, than why not use it?
"I know it doesn't look like we do much each visit," Kaine began, "but I've been scouting the place out. Collecting limited bits of knowledge. The Ruins are a center point for some big events. And without getting too technical about it, that means there are dangerous remnants that we might accidentally stumble upon."
"Echoes," said Trapper.
"Yeah. Echoes. And I wanted to make sure we wouldn't get hurt tinkering with them directly."
The two lapsed back into silence briefly, though this time Trapper was pleased that his friend seemed a bit more cheerful. Trapper feared that Kaine worried too much about whatever barriers separated their two peoples. When Kaine's modifications to his brain were in place, he understood there was more than just time between the two of them. The earth and heavens were sadly much more convoluted than where and when. And something had happened that bridged their two homes in dangerous ways.
But this was all for entertaining, academic purposes. When Kaine departed and his changes to Trapper's mind lost their hold, he was able to focus on more immediate needs. Such as living up to his name and providing food for his village. As well as earning a few special moments with Weaver. It was time to spend more of those moments this summer, now that Climber wasn't pining for her attention.
The walk was long, and Kaine soon started his usual line of questions about Trapper's life since their last parting. Trapper regaled him with what must have sounded like boring tales of farm labor in the fields and lessons from the elders. But Kaine politely listened to it all, probing with questions to show that he paid attention. Trapper knew the pale man surely came from more interesting places and events, but he put on such a modest tone about it all.
Maybe that was why Trapper liked befriending the guy so much.
By early evening, the two had come to the falling slopes into the southern valley, overshadowed by the eastern mountain front. Gnarled forests dominated most of the valley, taming the prairie landscape with unnatural vivid green. The extra water from Mother over the winter season would provide for it.
And out beyond it lie The Ruins.
"Think we can make it by nightfall?" Kaine pondered aloud.
"If you'll stop dragging your feet. And you're the one with fancy hiking boots made from only the finest materials."
"Ouch. I get it; I'm outta shape."
The pale man picked up his pace noticeably, and they worked their way through the southern valley forests swiftly. There was a moderately direct path that wound through the forest, marked by the old stone roads of the ancients. Most of it had worn away, claimed by Mother over the intervening years. But long stretches of it were hard to miss even through the predominant long yellow grass.
By the time the sun was dipping behind the distant western mountains, the two had cleared the forest. The Ruins stood ahead of them on a raised bluff, ominous in the faded evening light. Or ominous in the way Trapper supposed they must feel to Kaine, if these really were his people who had once claimed these structures. As far as Trapper knew, Kaine was the only ancient he had ever met.
And even Kaine wasn't so sure he was one of Trapper's ancients.
Instinctively, Kaine started for a small wooded hollow where the two had made camp on their previous visits. It was well sheltered from the elements and away from any dens or hunting paths of the larger animals in the area. Kaine never brought a tent with him or any other miracle tools from his home to augment their stay in the wilderness. He simply produced a sleeping mat of unknown materials, but a sleeping mat all the same.
"What do you think you'll find?" Trapper asked, collecting some sticks to start their evening fire.
Kaine exhaled, the familiar unsettled feelings from before weighing heavy in his expression. "Don't know."
Trapper worked silently, considering his next response. He finally said, "What do you hope to find?"
That brought a grin to Kaine's face. "That, old friend, is the question. And I hope we find some lovely scorch marks from whatever fire burned our two worlds together."
Kaine said no more about it for the rest of the night. The two settled in for brief meals, Kaine preferring to stick to his meal squares. Trapper cooked some of his game meat. They eventually retired the flames, resting on their mats while gazing out at the night sky beyond the reach of the tree branches overhead.
Morning came swiftly and nearly dreamlessly for Trapper. He set about to his usual routine, hunting and foraging about. By the time he had collected a decent breakfast, the sun had peeked over the eastern mountains and Kaine still slumbered soundly. He woke to smell of meat cooking on a new fire.
"Mmm, is that breakfast, Ma?"
Trapper snorted. "I am not your mother, little one. You'll have to fix your own breakfast."
Kaine chuckled, shuffling to pull on his shirt.
Not much later, the two finished with their morning activities and Kaine eagerly packed up for their journey into The Ruins. He seemed to be in a much better state of things today, which made Trapper happy.
Halfway up the bluff, Trapper realized Kaine was headed off their usual path.
"We're not going to the south eastern plateau?" said Trapper.
"Very perceptive, my friend. We are most definitely not." And as if to punctuate the statement, Kaine cut into a thick stand of trees along a steeper part of the slope.
Trapper quickly followed, surprised by the sudden appearance of an ancient stairway. The stone worked steps had become cracked and dislodged over the years, thick plant life sprouting in between. But they still formed a passable course in a straight line up between several thick pines.
"You knew this was here, didn't you," Tapper mused aloud, more of a statement than a question.
"Hoped it still was," said Kaine. "But we were so focused on the laboratories that I never had time to come see for it myself."
The stairs topped out at a tunnel, overshadowed by thick vines that left the interior bathed in darkness. Only now that Trapper's eyes could adjust, he saw that it wasn't complete darkness. An opening shown a short ways beyond, revealing more stairs that led up to higher ground. They were going under a bridge, not through a tunnel.
"If we are not going to laboratories, where are we going?"
"The place where dreamers used to dream."
Trapper rolled his eyes. Kaine was feeling unusually cryptic today. Which was odd, because if there was one constant about the pale man, it was how much he loved to ramble on about facts and details. It was how Trapper had learned that The Ruins were actually part of a large school of sorts; back in times when the ancients built their learning places to the size of a village. Kaine had explained how each of the buildings held places of learning for different disciplines, accommodated to the needs of thousands of pupils.
It had made sense then that they would search in a quarter of The Ruins where such studies had focused on more technological things. Things that Kaine had expected in great measure to be responsible for bridging their worlds. With the changes to his brain, Trapper could understand in part how their machines and tools could forge such connections. It was right then that they should search in the ashes of such machines.
Now Kaine was looking for the place of dreamers?
Passing out from beneath the bridge, the two ascended a much smaller staircase, arriving at a large intersection of wide stone pathways. A skeleton of a building stood in front of Trapper, its weary frame and interior reduced to a few metallic strands reaching in vain towards the heavens. More rubble-strewn structures stood to his immediate right, but it was the behemoth on his left that drew his attention.
It was a large, rectangular structure, still standing proudly overhead with impressive brickwork patches of wall not yet eroded by time or disrepair. A massive chunk in the southern wall left a gaping hole through multiple floors of various rooms and hallways, revealing a large courtyard beyond. Trapper followed Kaine up and through the large crack, stepping into the open interior.
"What is this place?" Trapper said, his eyes wandering over the wretched ruins of a once proud plaza.
"It was a Humanities building," said Kaine. "A place to study culture, literature, and other things of philosophy I suppose."
A glorified library, then. It made sense, judging by what remained of the decorations and architecture the ancients had once crafted. Trapper knew from the décor of the elder's huts in his villages that places of the mind and thought were often built to resemble temples or shrines. The ancients had been no exception.
But what did this have anything to do with bridging worlds?
"Kaine, you have me trapped in riddles. We were looking for tools of your people. Now we're in a place of thought and meditation. What does this have to do with our search?"
Kaine produced a small orb from his pack. "We shall soon see, I suspect."
The silvery orb floated up from Kaine's hand, rising to some mid-point above the courtyard. Brilliant rays of blue light streaked from the surface of the orb, moving in waves like the wings of a bird as they stretched out over the empty space. This wasn't the first time Trapper had seen the Remote Sensor, another one of Kaine's mystical tools, but it was always enchanting to watch its weaving of light dance upon the places it searched.
As the blue light moved in geometric formations, Trapper began to notice something. An amber ghost light began to take shape between the movements, swirling and taking shape over one of the remaining walls of the building. Eventually the Remote Sensor picked up on this as well, all of its blue tendrils focusing on this singular point. In time, the amber light grew to resemble a great a maelstrom in the air.
"Holy Mother," Trapper whispered. "What sort of demons did your philosophers dream?"
Kaine stared with focused eyes and set jaw at the new image. Without a word, he set off at a steady pace towards the section of building immediately below the violent imagery above.
He didn't respond. Trapper followed after him quickly. He raced to keep up as Kaine plunged into the building interior, taking rickety staircases up several levels. Trapper didn't trust the strength of this building after so many years, but Kaine had apparently thrown all caution to the wind at this point.
Soon the two of them strode down what Trapper once supposed resembled a regal hallway. Now it was infested with local plant growth, the walls and ceiling peeling and cracked. Mother had claimed these ancient structures, turning them into humid caves with plenty of openings for sunlight from the south. Trapper wouldn't have been surprised to find birds or bats claiming these upper domains as homes.
Kaine finally came to a large room where the dancing of blue and amber light from outside shown in. Trapper realized they were in the heart of the madness they had seen in the sky. The room itself looked no worse than the rest of the dilapidated structure, if perhaps a bit emptier than most. A few rotted chairs were all that remained in the expansive room. It seemed to serve no function other than a gathering place for others to sit.
Kaine flicked his wrist, summoning the Remote Sensor. Its streaks of blue light ceased, the amber light dissolving with it, and the small orb zipped in through the open wall to its master. Kaine held it in an open palm, walking slowly around the center of the room.
"Friend," Trapper ventured, "what have you seen?"
After a long moment of silence, Kaine finally looked up from his instruments. His gaze softened as he met eyes with Trapper. He seemed genuinely surprised.
"This is both what I expected and not what I expected at all…"
Trapper waited, hoping there was more behind the half thought.
"These ancients seemed to have formed a bridge into Eternity itself."
Eternity? Did Kaine speak of the heavens? The place where Mother resided, tending to the needs of her children below? The thought was both astounding and blasphemous all at once.
"Kaine, you wouldn't suggest your people sought the thrones of God?"
Kaine chuckled knowingly. "How many times must I remind you, Trapper of Rabbits? These ancients were not my people. I did not come from a point in your distant past among forefathers to find out why our world has so cataclysmically changed. I came from an entirely other world that can't even be called parallel to yours."
Trapper exhaled, collapsing to the ground and crossing his legs to sit upright. "Then what are you suggesting?"
"You must understand something friend: your world and mine exist in two separate expanses, complete with parallels and worlds without numbers. Yet some violence bridged the gap between two multiverses, and now here we are, as though we existed in one."
Trapper cocked his head. "You speak of the higher echelons of heaven?" Even saying such things felt like a sin on Trapper's lips. These were secrets only the elders of his village kept with great care. To say such things to outsider was to break great vows. But Kaine spoke of such things as if he knew of all their vows.
"Heaven, multiverse, Eternity. There is a cosmic structure to our reality steeped in levels. Even with all of my fancy tools, there's no way I could ever traverse it. But your ancients did. They found a way into Eternity through Starways I can't even imagine. And in the wake of their mass exodus, they seared a bridge between my existence and yours."
Trapper sat in silence for a bit, pondering on this. It still seemed to hint at blasphemy, but he wasn't so sure. There wasn't any exact doctrine on the ancients and their relation to Mother, simply because they had lived so very long ago. No one, not even the elders, could say one way or the other about them.
But what if Mother was an ancient? What if she had ascended through the echelons of heaven, rising above all the others until she was the God that Trapper now worshipped? Had her ascension to divinity forged the bridge that Kaine now used to visit and explore?
"Kaine, you're giving me a headache."
"I know, friend. I know. There's a lot it still doesn't explain, either. Such as why your world contains ruins of a place that should only exist in mine."
"Yet here we are," said Trapper mischievously.
"I need to go," Kaine said abruptly. He pocketed his Remote Sensor, producing another instrument. The one that attended to his gateway. "Forgive me for leaving you so soon. I would have rather liked to make the journey with you back into the northern plains. But this business is urgent."
"So it would seem."
The air warped and rippled in the space between them. At that same moment, Trapper felt the changes begin to take hold of his mind again. As always, with each of Kaine's departures, he would soon return to his native tongue and understanding. It would be sad to lose knowledge of these concepts, but the memories and experiences wouldn't be diluted. And in the darkness of night, alone, Trapper would have flashes of realization and remember what he had once understood.
Whether Kaine realized it or not, he was slowly training Trapper's brain to understand it all.
"I will visit you again before the summer season is past," said Kaine. "Until then, fare thee well, Trapper of Rabbits."
"As to you, Kaine Williamson."
Soon Kaine was gone, the aperture in the air between them winking in a fizzle of ripples. Trapper remained on the ground a few moments longer, reviewing the events in his mind before setting out.
He had lost the understanding of Kaine's miracle tools and tech. And there were more than a few things that Kaine had said that Trapper couldn't quite comprehend now that his native tongue had returned.
But as he made the long walk out from The Ruins, beginning the trek home, he was pleased to note what understanding he had retained. The echelons of heavens were responsible for bringing Kaine here.
And it seemed that mortal men could walk the paths of the immortals.