* Kepra *
Becky decided to walk in silence for the rest of her trip with Hamen. The dwarf wasn’t particularly helpful, and she had a lot to process. She was on another world. This world had dwarves and apparently elves. She’d lost Mrs. Guardman somehow. She had no idea where her friends were or how to get back home. Her life was a lot more complicated now and it made her somber and reflective.
But all these thoughts were driven out of her head as they stepped into the large underground city of Kepra. It was beyond what she’d imagined.
Hamen’s ball of light dissipated as the narrow tunnel opened into an impossibly massive cavern, brightly lit from the hundreds of torches lining the walls which towered high until they were almost out of sight. Becky wondered just how far underground they had to be for this to be possible. They were standing on a small ledge with a stone staircase in front of them that led down to the floor of the cavern.
There were more stone staircases carved out of the rock walls all around them that led to hundreds of shallow caves that served as homes, shops, offices, and much more. It was a vertical maze of stairs and openings, where even within the caves there were hidden stone staircases that led to other places both seen and unseen. Above her, she saw a myriad of wooden and stone bridges that made passage from one part of the city to others much easier. Below her, on the cavern floor, she saw massive stone structures with streets that wound between them, made of white gravel.
Becky’s wonder could not be contained as all around the city she saw hundreds of dwarves going about their business without a care in the world as if this were all perfectly normal, which she realized for them, it was.
Hamen gave her a moment to take it all in before nudging her. “Come along, I need to get you to Chief Findler,” he reminded her as he started down the stone stairs in front of them.
“Huh? Oh right.” Becky followed after him. The stairs were steep and had no railing. Hamen seemed to navigate them easily, but Becky had to walk carefully, her hand on the rock wall to keep from falling.
Once they reached the cavern floor, Becky was able to resume her admiration of the city while following Hamen through the bustling streets.
Becky had expected the buildings to be hastily put together, cavemen-style homes, but this was not the case. The stones were expertly cut, and the buildings were designed with care. They were sturdy, and it was clear most had been built hundreds of years ago and stood the test of time. Likewise, the caves carved into the rock walls were not haphazardly done. Each opening looked as if a professional tool had cut a perfect oval and the wooden doors all looked to be the exact same dimensions, as if mass produced. Becky wondered for a moment where they got the wood from but was distracted from this thought when she almost collided into someone because she wasn’t paying attention to the path ahead.
There were so many people, especially on the road. It seemed unreal. She was able to pick up on many similarities among the dwarves. All of them seemed to wear dark, leathery clothing. All of them seemed to have the same beady eyes and flattened noses. They all had long hair, both the men and the women. Most didn’t reach Becky’s height, though some came close. All of them were stocky or muscular though the women were far more toned than the men and had no facial hair. Like humans, the dwarves came in various shapes, sizes, and skin tones, though for them it was limited to light and pale shades.
Many of them hurried past Becky and Hamen without a glance, but she did notice that there were quite a few stares as she passed. Some of the looks were those of shock, while other faces registered anger or mistrust. It was clear to Becky that most of them did not expect to see a human walking their streets. However, whatever thoughts they had, they kept to themselves.
Hamen was more than aware of the looks, and he quickened his pace, not wanting to test the patience of his fellow dwarves. Becky realized that if she didn’t stop looking around, she might lose the surprisingly speedy dwarf, so she stopped her sightseeing and focused on the back of his head.
After several minutes of moving through the winding streets, it became clear to Becky where they were headed, a large three-story building. The stonework seemed to have a purple tint to it which was the main reason why it stood out among the rest of the buildings, some of which were larger. On the roof was a tall flagpole. Its flag was a field of red with an ornate symbol drawn in the middle. Above the main entrance was a large circular crest divided into seven segments, each in a different color and displaying a different intricate symbol, one of which was the same symbol on the flag. Underneath this were words Becky could not read.
A dwarf at the door, who seemed to be a guard, blocked Hamen’s path as he tried to enter. He said something in dwarfish tongue; his tone sounded curt.
Hamen had to stop himself from rolling his eyes. “Because she’s one of the off-worlders and I’m taking her to see Chief Findler,” he responded with equal curtness.
The dwarf did not seem satisfied as he spoke again.
Hamen’s tone was now exasperated. “I’m not sure why everyone feels the need to tell me that. I’m aware of how long it’s been, but Findler and I have always suspected this day might come. We found her in the halls and it’s clear who she is. Now are you going to let me pass or am I going to have to let myself in.” His words carried the hint of a threat.
The dwarf guard grumbled but stepped aside.
Becky smiled apologetically to the agitated dwarf as she followed Hamen. The foyer of the building was large but simple in its design. The stone that was used for the floor had a high polish that made it look almost like marble, and there were several large columns that seemed to exist more to define the space than to hold up the ceiling.
Hamen walked with purpose, leading her through the foyer and down a narrow hall lined with intricately woven tapestries and several large portraits.
“So why is everyone looking at me like I did something wrong?” Becky asked, highly aware that her voice was echoing.
“Oh, it’s not that, it’s just humans aren’t supposed to be down here, so of course everyone is curious and perhaps a bit suspicious. You’re just an unknown, that’s all.”
“Oh,” Becky mulled that over. “What about you?”
Hamen looked up at this. “What about me?”
“Well, that guard, and the dwarves you were with earlier. Everyone seems kind of wary of you.”
Hamen’s expression turned a bit sour. “It’s just because I’m... different. My people are keen on consistency and tradition. It’s a value to be as unmovable as a mountain. I’m a bit more malleable than some would like.”
Becky pondered this, wondering how Hamen was different from the others. Well, he wore that robe, that was obvious, and he could speak to humans. But were these such high crimes?
They reached a wide staircase and headed up to the second floor. There seemed to be no one in the large building or perhaps they were all beyond the dozens of closed doors that they passed by.
Hamen finally led her to a large set of double doors at the end of a wide corridor. He didn’t knock but simply pushed his way in. The room beyond was not like any kind of normal office Becky would have imagined.
There was no window and no chairs that she could see. Several large wooden bookcases lined the walls on either side, and there was a large stone table, almost the width of the room, piled high with a myriad of papers. A dwarf stood behind the table, perusing some of the documents. He looked up, not shocked at all to see the two entering.
“So, this is the girl?” he said by way of greeting, his tone gruff and a bit hoarse as if this was the first time he’d spoken in quite a while.
“Indeed,” Hamen said. “We found her in the halls between here and Lumite, near the translift chambers.”
The dwarf nodded, coming around the table. “Did you examine her thoroughly? We can’t afford to be wrong about this.”
Hamen nodded. “I was able to scan her adimus upon meeting her. I saw where she was altered, though it’s much greater than his was. It’s almost like she was given the Fantasmal Signature, but it’s not the same as with guardians. Regardless, it proves who she is.”
None of this made any sense to Becky, but she said nothing as Hamen spoke and the other dwarf sized her up, his sharp, brown eyes boring into her.
He finally seemed satisfied and smiled. “It is as we thought. Another off-worlder has finally arrived.” He extended a hand to Becky. “So, you’re the one called Becky Gabbie?”
“Uh, yes,” Becky said a bit taken aback as she shook his hand.
“I’m Xavier Holemon Findler, Chief of Holemon,” he said politely. “I’m pleased to have you here, Becky. Consider Kepra to be a safe haven; no one will harm you. Also, there’s someone you should meet.”
“I already summoned him here,” Hamen said. “I did it shortly before I entered, just before I called up to you.”
“Who?” Becky asked.
The answer came when the large double doors swung open again. There, standing in the threshold, dressed much like the many dwarves she’d seen, was a tall, burly, human male that Becky recognized immediately; it was Bernie Steward.
Becky was so glad to see a familiar face that she ran up and hugged Bernie for several seconds before letting him go. “Finally, I’ve found someone,” she said before taking a step back to look at him.
Bernie was in a pair of rugged-looking brown pants and a short-sleeved green top. Though he basically looked the same as the last time she saw him, his curly, dark-brown hair was longer and wilder than she remembered, and he was far more muscular, almost rivalling Jandor.
“What happened to you?” she asked in confusion.
“That’s a long story,” Bernie chuckled. “Did she just get here today?” he asked looking over Becky’s head to Hamen and Findler.
“What?” Becky raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean ‘today’?”
“Yes,” Hamen answered, “and she came with someone else.”
Tired of being talked about as if she weren’t there, Becky interrupted. “I was in some caves with Mrs. Guardman, but then she disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” Bernie repeated, looking to Hamen.
“Yes, I know.” Hamen nodded. “It could mean many things though. I did send Quarin to check. In fact, I sense his approach, he may have news.”
A third dwarf walked through the door holding a scepter with a clear crystal at the tip. Becky recognized him as one of the dwarves that was with Hamen before and assumed he must be Quarin. He said something in dwarfish tongue which Becky could not understand.
This time Bernie answered. “So that means there’s no way to know who transported her?”
Quarin shook his head as he answered in dwarfish, before turning to Findler and saying something else.
“Really? Hamen and I will go speak with him now. It’ll give these two some time to catch up,” Findler said.
Quarin nodded and the three dwarves left the room.
Becky had an astonished look on her face. “Okay, what was that?” she demanded of Bernie.
“The scepter? Quarin is a mind mage,” Bernie said. “I can explain.”
“No not that,” Becky said with a hint of anger in her voice now. “You understood him. You talked to him, and you both understood each other.”
“Oh, that’s right. I completely forgot.” He smiled reminiscently. “Wow, I’ve been here too long.”
“Too long?” Becky repeated. “How long have you been here?” Comprehension was dawning and she braced herself for the answer.
“Well, ten years actually,” Bernie said sheepishly.
“Ten years!” Becky shouted, “How? We were all just on Earth in that cave an hour ago. What happened? I don’t understand.”
“I was getting to that. Apparently, we were thrown back in time as we transported to Mendala. We think everyone is arriving at different points in time.”
Becky felt her own heart hammering at this news. “That doesn’t make sense. How?”
“I’m not completely sure. Just something that happened with the quickening transport through the rift, I guess.” Bernie shrugged.
“Great, now you’re going to be spewing nonsense words I don’t understand.” Becky started to pace.
“Calm down, Becky. It’s okay, I promise.”
“Calm down?” Becky repeated in a shrill voice. “We’re stuck in the past. How are we ever going to get home? I’m going to grow old here on some weird planet in an underground city full of dwarves.”
“First, you don’t age when you get quickened back in the past. Second, I don’t think we’re in the past anymore.”
Becky was still muttering to herself until she heard this. “You don’t age? How do you—what in the—” She took a steadying breath, but it was clear her frustration was mounting. “Bernie, what’s going on? You’re not making any sense. None of this makes any sense.”
“I’ll explain everything, I promise.” Bernie leaned against the table. “I arrived here ten years ago, I think in the same caves you and Mrs. Guardman landed in.”
“Wait, is that ten Earth years or ten years for this place?” Becky leaned against the table as well, annoyed that the room had no chairs.
“It’s the same, Mendalian years are basically the same length as Earth years. They just have a different calendar. Anyway, when the dwarves found me, they were not happy. They don’t like or trust most humans and they put a lot of effort into living away from the surface world. It didn’t help that I couldn’t understand them at all. I spent a couple of days in jail. Fortunately, word got to Hamen that there was a human in Kepra, and Hamen speaks Common because he’s a guardian.”
“Whoa, back up there,” Becky said, confusion clear in her expression.
“Hamen is a guardian, kind of like a global peacekeeper, and he is one of the few dwarves who speaks the Common language. It’s the language that most people speak on Mendala. Fantasma gave us the ability to speak and understand it when we were back in the cave on Earth.”
Becky nodded slowly, only understanding in part. She hated that Bernie seemed to take so much of this world’s quirks for granted. “I remember him saying something about that, but I don’t understand. Is Common the same as English? Because I’m not speaking any differently.”
“It’s hard to explain.” Bernie thought for a moment. “Think of it like this: Fantasma gave us all an internal translator. When someone speaks, they automatically ‘mentally’ talk in all the languages they know. As long as one of those languages is one we know, our brains just convert it to our primary language. It’s something most Mendalians can do. Does that make sense?”
“So basically, when Fantasma messed with our brains back on Earth, he gave us the ability to understand this world’s Common language, but for us, it still sounds like our own language. So, the reason I can’t understand the dwarves is because Fantasma didn’t give us that language. Since both Hamen and I understand the Common language, he’s the only one I can talk to.” Becky rattled off quickly as everything seemed to click.
“You always catch on fast,” Bernie said impressed. “Anyway, Hamen was able to talk to me and I told him everything I knew: everything about the cave, about meeting Fantasma, and Davron, and the Book of War, and the monsters, and then suddenly ending up in those caves. He believed me, even though the story seemed crazy.”
“Tell me about it,” Becky sighed. “What made him believe you?”
“He did a guardian thing,” Bernie said with a shrug. “I didn’t really understand it, but he could tell that Fantasma had altered me. He also asked other guardians about the events I mentioned, and they didn’t know anything about it. So, he consulted someone that understood how rifts worked and that’s when he realized that I’d been transported back in time. It took about a month to figure out.”
Becky recoiled. “Oh jeez, you were in jail a month?”
“No, once Hamen got involved, he was able to use his influence to get me out of jail and sort of in a house arrest situation. I got a real bed and decent food, but I still couldn’t leave. The whole thing got really political. A human in Glorandor is a pretty big deal, especially some unknown human claiming to be from another planet. So, to make it clear I was still a prisoner, they decided to put me to work.”
“Put you to work?”
“Yeah, they were excavating this huge tunnel system that had caved in over a century ago, so they made me help as a type of punishment. It was really hard. Dwarves are much stronger and more durable than most humans and the few that knew a little Common liked to haze me about this repeatedly. ‘Oh, the big strong human can’t keep up?’” he mimicked a gruff voice. “Worst few months of my life. I think prison was better.”
“Oh wow,” Becky said in awe.
“But then one day the tunnels we were excavating started collapsing. The support beams couldn’t hold the weight and it just started a chain reaction. This was the same day Findler, and some council members, were out there checking on the work. It was chaos, and honestly, I thought about trying to escape while everyone was busy with the cave-in, but then I saw this little kid trapped under some rubble. It was so loud and crazy that no one heard him screaming for help. So, I got the kid free and brought him to safety. Well, it turns out, it was Findler’s son, Elmore.”
“That’s amazing,” Becky said, now fully caught up in the story.
“Well after that, everything changed,” Bernie continued. “I was the human who saved the chief’s son. Findler basically adopted me into his family as a way of honoring what I did, and then people were much nicer to me. I wasn’t just this human intruder; it was almost like I was one of them. Findler stood up for me when the other dwarf chiefs questioned why I was allowed to live among them, and I’ve been able to make a pretty decent life here.”
“But you didn’t try to find the others?” Becky asked in shock. “You didn’t try to get back home or do anything in ten years?”
“Well at first, Hamen thought others would start popping up outside of Kepra over several months, but when it became clear that wasn’t happening, we started doing a lot of research. I learned about rifts, the Book of War, and everything. We were trying to figure out how far in the past I actually went. He also put out feelers through his connections to see if people were appearing in other cities in Glorandor and claiming to be from another planet. Hamen figured that at some point, another person would show up the same way I did, but still be connected to the quickener that sent us here and be able to contact them.”
“What?” Becky looked confused again. “You lost me.”
“It’s what we think happened to Mrs. Guardman. You two arrived but then she was immediately quickened away again, probably by whoever brought us here, someone with Fantasma. That means that she was still connected to that person. When I was quickened to the past, I lost that connection, but she didn’t, which means this could be the present for us now. I’m not sure what happened with you though. Maybe you were just outside the traveler quartz barrier.”
Becky shook her head. “I hate this. Nothing you’re saying makes any sense to me. We’re on this crazy world, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re talking like it’s all normal.”
“I’ve had ten years to learn it,” Bernie said. “I became fluent in the dwarf language, learned mentus and the mentant realm, became a really good hyperball player, and I’m working on becoming a fully qualified channeler.”
“Oh, well that’s lovely. Now all you have to do is get yourself a dwarf-wife, a nice little cave home and start raising half-dwarflings,” Becky mocked.
“I know you’re being sarcastic, but don’t talk like that around the dwarves,” Bernie said seriously. “They’re not fans of interracial coupling and bringing that up, even in a joke, could result in tension all around.”
Becky stared in shock for a moment, but then seemed to come to herself. “Look, if Hamen’s theory is true, and we’re in the present right now, then we need to go and find the others. They have to be here, unless…could some of them be in the future?”
Bernie shook his head. “It’s impossible to quicken forward in time.”
Becky decided to take this fact at face value. “Okay, then we need to search dwarf-land and find the others.”
At this, Findler, Hamen, Quarin and another dwarf entered the room.
“I want to find the others too, but it’s not that simple. They could have landed anywhere,” Bernie said.
“Well, how big is this place? You mean to tell me in ten years no one else has arrived until me?”
Bernie shrugged. “Not that we’ve seen, and yes Glorandor is a pretty big place. Including Holemon, there are seven provinces each with dozens of cities as large as Kepra, so it would take a coordinated effort to search the entire country.”
“I’m afraid it’s far worse than that,” Hamen interrupted. “It appears we’ve made one crucial miscalculation about your situation.”
Becky sighed. “What now?”
“Are we still in the past?” Bernie asked.
“That has yet to be determined,” Hamen said, “but we’ve just found out that it’s possible some of your friends could have landed outside of Glorandor. In theory, they could be anywhere on the entire planet.”
Bernie’s mouth dropped. “Are you sure?”
He gestured to the newest and youngest looking dwarf. “Yes. Elmore just discovered that one of your companions arrived far outside our lands, and they’ve already been here for quite some time.”