A wind blew past the remains of a campfire. The embers glowed briefly, then faded once more. One of the bundled forms lying nearby shifted, pulling a blanket tighter about itself. The wind gusted again and Rain’s eyes flickered as he woke. He opened them to see that it was night, the campsite lit by the soft light of the quarter moon. He shivered and sat up, looking towards the fire.
As he moved, he caught motion from the corner of his eye. There was a shadowy form sitting atop the small hill that sheltered their campsite. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out much detail, but he felt as if he was being watched. He blinked, clearing the sleep from his eyes. The form turned its head back to face the darkness surrounding the camp. Rain stood, looked at the dead fire, and wrapped his blanket snug around his shoulders.
I guess we didn’t gather enough firewood. Not much I can do about it, short of setting everyone on fire with immolate.
He looked again at the sentry. Might as well let whoever that is get some rest, now that I’m up.
Carefully, he made his way up the hill towards the figure, mindful of his footing in the darkness. The moonlight was enough to make out shadowy shapes but not much more than that. The sentry’s head turned towards him once more as he approached.
“Rain,” Ameliah’s voice said softly.
“Hi,” he said, taking a seat next to her.
“Woke up. Cold.”
“Sorry, there’s no more wood.”
“Yeah, I figured. Want me to take a turn? Get some sleep?”
“I’m ok. I’ve only been up here for an hour.”
“Mind if I join you, then? I don’t think I’m going to be able to get back to sleep right away.”
“I don’t mind.”
Rain shifted, trying to find a comfortable place to sit on the hard ground of the hilltop. He looked out into the darkness, scanning for the road, but couldn’t make it out. Once he found a reasonably soft patch of dirt, he settled down, content to just sit and listen to the silence. It was the dead of night, with no sounds of birds or other wildlife to break the tranquility. He stared up at the sky, marveling at the luminous display. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and the spray of stars was breathtakingly clear. The crescent of the Moon hung in the distance, low on the horizon.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Ameliah said softly.
“Were there stars there? Where you came from?”
“Of course, but not like this. The sky was too bright in the city to see them. They weren’t the same stars either. Even the Moon is different here.”
“Will you tell me about it? Your world?”
Rain looked over to see her watching him, her face shrouded in the darkness. “I’ll try,” he said softly, looking back up at the Moon. “Where to begin...”
“Start with your home, maybe? What was it like? You lived in a city?”
“Yeah, but nothing like Fel Sadanis. Cities where I come from are… How can I explain? They’re bigger. Thousands and thousands of buildings, all crammed together. Some of them are taller than the tallest trees. That doesn’t even do it justice. At night, it’s all lit up, but not with torches or fires. There are streetlights and neon signs. Neon is…it is like colored light. Blue, green, any color you can think of. Twisted into any shape you can imagine.
“Sounds like the City of Lights.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It might be possible to build something like that here. Like I’ve said before, there’s no magic where I’m from. Who am I to say what you could or couldn’t do with it?”
“No magic, really? It’s not that I don’t believe you, but how is that possible?”
“I don’t know. I could ask you the same thing. How is magic possible?”
“It just is.”
“Humm. Well, where I’m from, we got by with science, with technology. That’s, like, watermills and stuff, but better. More advanced, though, and completely without magic. There were stories, of course. Wizards and witches, druids, paladins, gods and demons...” Rain trailed off, silence returning to the hilltop.
After a minute, Ameliah spoke up again. “Will you tell me a story? Not fantasy. Something real, from your world, so I can understand.”
“Humm.” Rain considered, staring off into the distance. The glowing crescent of the Moon caught his attention. Nodding, he turned to look at Ameliah. “Ok. I’ll try.” He pointed. “You see the Moon, there?”
“My world has a moon too. A bit smaller, and with more… holes. Impacts. We call them craters. Sorry, I don’t know if there is a special word for them here.”
“It’s ok, I understand. Go on.”
“Right.” He nodded again. “Do you know what it is? The Moon, I mean? What it actually is?”
“I’m not sure I know what you’re getting at. It’s just the Moon.”
“Right, but did you know you can go there? In my world, we did just that. We called it the Apollo Program.”
“How?” Ameliah asked, meeting his eyes in the darkness.
“The Moon…the Moon is just a rock. Or, at least, my Moon is. Yours… For all I know, it could be made of magic, or a dragon egg, or maybe cheese.”
“Cheese?” Ameliah laughed softly. “Really?”
“No, that’s just a saying. We never actually believed that, or, at least I don’t think anyone did. Sorry, I’m getting distracted. Anyway, the Moon is a rock and it travels around the Earth, the… Damn it. ‘Planet’ is the word. I… might have picked a bad story to try and explain.”
“It’s ok, go on. The…Earth?”
“It’s the name of the planet. It means, well, just ‘earth’. Like the ground, you know? We capitalize it though, when we’re talking about the planet, just like we do with the Moon.”
“We do the same.”
“Oh, ok, I’ll just say Earth, then,” Rain said, using the word in common. “Anyway, the Moon travels around the Earth in a circle, but way, way up high. In space. I don’t know if that word means the same thing here, or even if you know the planet is a sphere. Gah.”
“I know it’s a sphere. Now that you mention it, I think I heard that about the Moon too. Keep going,” Ameliah said.
“Oh. That’s good then. Wait, how do you know that? Wait, has anyone been to space? Can people fly here?”
“You were telling a story?” Ameliah prompted, a teasing note in her voice.
“Right, right, sorry, got distracted again. Anyway. There were two countries on Earth that were sort-of rivals. A war between them would have been…well, let’s just say the Earth might not have survived if they actually went to war. They competed in other ways. Russia, that’s one of the countries, they got to space first. They sent a man up in a…ship. He went all the way around the Earth and came back to the ground safely. Yuri Gagarin was his name, I think. The Americans, though, they didn’t want to lose. They might not have gotten to space first, but they did beat the Russians to the Moon.”
Ameliah nodded in the darkness, motioning for him to continue.
“They built a ship too. We call them ‘rockets’, by the way. They blast you up into space by shooting a huge flame out of the bottom. The one they used was the most powerful kind of rocket ever made: the Saturn Five. It carried three people to the Moon, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Two of them even went down and walked on the surface. I’ve always felt bad for the guy who had to stay behind in the ship.”
“Mmm,” she agreed.
“They couldn’t stay long, only a few days if I’m remembering correctly. You need to bring air with you; there’s none up there in space. Armstrong and Aldrin launched themselves back up off the surface to meet back up with Collins, then all three returned to Earth. That’s…kind of glossing over a lot. I’m not very good at telling stories, and this all was before I was born anyway.”
“Amazing,” Ameliah said. “And this really happened? They must have been powerful, these people you speak of, to fly so high and for so long.”
“No. Well, yes, I guess. They were strong, but not like you’re thinking. It was the ship, and the people who built it, that made it possible. The ones who went to space, the astronauts, they were incredibly brave and skilled, but they didn’t have magic. Only science.”
“It sounds unbelievable.”
“Yeah. I guess I should have picked a more down-to-earth example,” Rain said, grinning to himself.
“So, have you been there?”
“What, to the Moon? No. Only a handful of people have gone, and the last one was a long time ago. They were talking about going back, but who knows if that was real or just politics...”
“I see,” Ameliah said, then paused before continuing. “I don’t think your story helped me understand your world very much, but I can appreciate the dream of reaching the stars.”
Rain shivered, pulling his blanket tighter again. He heard one of the others shift in their sleep, but then the silence returned. He sat quietly, looking up at the stars and thinking of home.
After a few minutes, Ameliah broke the silence again. “I used to dream of the stars too.”
Rain looked over at her.
“Not to reach them. Just to see them again,” she elaborated.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not from Fel Sadanis, as you can probably tell. I’m not from anywhere, really. I travel a lot. But the place where I grew up, well, you can’t see the stars.”
“It’s underground. Deep, deep underground.”
“Oh? Where is it? Is it far from here?”
“Yeah. On the other side of the Empire.”
“Was it some sort of underground city? What was it called?”
Ameliah laughed softly. “Have you ever heard the saying: ‘When lost in the deep, look to the bright side’?”
“No, but it sounds similar to one that I do know. Does it mean to try to make the best of a bad situation?”
“Yes, exactly. Brightside is… not really a city. It’s more like a camp or an outpost. A hundred people, maybe less. It’s in a cave at the bottom of a deep chasm filled with poison. It’s the only safety down there, though ‘safe’ isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. The name started as a joke, then it stuck. ‘Look to the bright side, you could be lost in the chasm’.”
“That sounds like an awful place to live. Why would you stay there?”
“I didn’t really have a choice. My father was an adventurer. I traveled with him since before I can remember. He brought me with him to Brightside when I was around eight years old. It doesn’t get a lot of traffic because of the poison, but some adventurers go there anyway. It’s a rank 20 zone, so it’s a good place for the strong to test themselves. My father… He was… brave. Like those astronauts you spoke of. I still remember the feeling of the teleportation that brought us there. He must have spent his life savings to pay for the both of us...” She trailed off, her tone growing somber as she explained.
Rain felt a lump form in his throat. “What happened?”
“After we’d been there for a few weeks, he went out into the chasm to hunt. He did come back, but… They couldn’t save him. He…died in my arms. The healers said there was nothing they could do. He’d been gone for three days. It was only supposed to be half that, but something smashed both of his legs. He had to drag himself back, breathing the toxic air the whole time. The poison down there gets harder to cure the longer you breathe it in. None of the healers were strong enough...”
“That’s horrible,” Rain managed.
“And so, I was stuck in Brightside, with no hope of paying for teleportation back to the surface. I had a few skill points saved, my father wouldn’t let me spend them, but once he died... I focused all of them on improving purify as much as I could. If I’d been stronger...” She trailed off.
Rain felt terrible for her, but he couldn’t think of anything to say before she took a deep breath and continued.
“Years passed, and I found a place there, working to cure those who had been poisoned as my father had. Eventually, I started to make some real money from it. If there was one place where it pays to be able to cure poison, that was it. Look to the bright side, as they say. Some of the adventurers even hired me to come out into the chasm with them. Once I’d earned enough, I paid for teleportation back to the surface. I was fifteen when I finally saw the stars again.”
“Wow… Ameliah, I-”
“Thank you. For listening. Don’t worry about me. It was a long time ago,” she said in a tone that made it clear that the conversation was over.
The two sat in silence watching the stars until the sky started to brighten and the sound of bird calls signaled that the world was starting to stir. Ameliah stood and stretched.
“I think I’ll go try to shut my eyes for an hour or so before the others wake up. If you see anything, come get me.”
Rain watched her as she left the hilltop and lay down a short distance apart from the others. He turned to face away from the camp, determined to live up to the trust she had shown him by leaving him to watch alone. After a moment, he angled himself such that he could keep one eye on Tallheart’s slumbering form while still being able to see the road in the slowly building dawn light.
You’re not sneaking up on me today, bub. I’ve got my eye on you.