It felt like a long time since their last run to Ollyris, even longer since Itanus’ last communique. The Aekan was reclusive at best, and Andy couldn’t remember a time he had done anything with any degree of urgency. She paused and stretched, feeling the tiny mammalian body in her breast pocket rustle and peep its head out to look around.

“Been a while since you’ve been home, eh Leonard?”

The tiny, squirrel-like creature let out a piercing squeak, crawling its way out of her pocket and onto her right shoulder. He always perked up when they went to Ollyris – something about the air here. To her, it was thick, heavy with sweet floral scents and a misty quality. To her little friend, she supposed, it was like going from urban back to rural, being able to breathe easy again. It likely had something to do with the trees. Of all the worlds she had visited, this one had by far the most impressive foliage, with every shade of green represented in the sprawling canopy high above her head. Underfoot, carpets of moss, ferns, and innumerable flora shifted lightly in the warm breeze and dappled light. A few cries like Leonard’s pierced the murmuring stillness, but the peace was palpable.

“Lose your way?”

Andy had almost forgotten that Nat was with her. The tall, thick-figured woman behind her wore her typical severe expression. For being one of the Runners’ founding members, she never seemed to like going on actual runs. Then again, with Nat, it was always hard to tell – she had never been the most expressive of people.

“Nah,” she replied, resuming her trek through the underbrush, “just letting Leonard get some air.”

The two women were undeniably different, but equally close. Nat was in her mid-thirties, although her face belied more years than she had experienced. One couldn’t call her beautiful, but she had an earthy, natural quality about her that was pleasant enough. Her thick, coarse black hair was always pulled back in a sharp ponytail at the nape of her neck, revealing warm brown eyes, lightly freckled cheeks, and a broad, thin mouth on her mulatto complexion. Andy, on the other hand, was much younger, early to mid twenties and sprightly. She was pale as sour cream with a platinum pixie cut, fringe just brushing her unusually vivid blue eyes. And yet, different as they appeared, the ease with which they walked together betrayed their quiet trust of one another.

Andy’s thoughts drifted back to Itanus’ message as they trudged along. It had been urgent, and he specifically requested Nat. That had made her nervous. Of course, she liked being around Nat, but the woman didn’t usually accompany her on mundane runs to Ollyris. Nat was the big guns – head of security in the Town. You didn’t bring Nat on a run unless something big and ugly was planning a rendezvous. Has he found something big and ugly? I mean, we haven’t looked into Ollyris much as runners – there’s nothing here but Leonard-sized fuzzies and smaller … but maybe we just haven’t looked hard enough. The thought made her shiver.

The walk to Itanus’ place was largely uneventful, and the strange trio arrived as the filtered light shifted from clear white to rose gold. The small, shrine-like building was covered in mosses and vines, like a long-forgotten Artemian temple. Leonard ducked back into her pocket, only peeking his tiny black nose out as Andy shifted some of the abundant nature aside, revealing an entrance. The held the way open as Nat ducked in ahead of her, heading down the spiraling stone staircase underground. As they descended, tiny globes of yellow light began to flicker on around them, illuminating the path downward.

“Well, at least we know he’s in,” Andy murmured to herself, “not that he’s ever out.”

Soft light emanated from the exit at the bottom of the stairwell. As they entered that light, a massive room opened before them. The room was shaped a like a nautilus shell, with tall shelving curving around a central clearing. These shelves were filled with countless books, and what walls weren’t covered in shelves were dominated by flat screens covered in pearly runes and glyphs sliding like ticker-tape before their eyes. It wasn’t the first time they had been to the Ollyrian library, but the high vaulted ceilings and echo of their footsteps gave it an awe-inspiring atmosphere that never seemed to fade. In the very center, looking almost small compared to the vastness of the place around them, sat a tall, silvery figure, gently sitting at a small table, sipping a cup of some steaming liquid.

“Ah, Andy – Nat,” Itanus stood, bowing his head slightly and opening his arms in a gesture of welcome. “Please, join me.”

Andy’s heartbeat settled slightly as they complied, Itanus fetching two more chairs from behind one of the many shelves around them. He doesn’t SEEM worried; maybe he was just in a rush when he wrote the message. He poured them each a cup of the hot drink, then sat down himself. Andy’s right leg began to bounce beneath the table, releasing some of her nervous energy. Nat sat motionless, ever on guard, as she stared down the tall Aekan man. Itanus took a long dreg from his drink.

“I have managed to translate more of Pathorn’s writings.”

Andy waited. With Itanus, nothing was ever fast or simple. The man had dedicated his life to the research of Ollyris and the Ollyrian people, and she was convinced that it was due to an intrinsic love of complexity and intrigue on his part. Why else spend every day deciphering one dead language when you could be exploring all the living ones on other worlds?

“There are … implications. For the Town, of course … but particularly for you, Nat.”

He looked pointedly at Nat, who remained expressionless. She hadn’t touched her drink, hadn’t twitched a muscle since they had sat down. Andy knew her well enough to know that this meant fear, deep fear, although the stern woman would never admit so much herself.

Itanus rose again, walking over to a nearby shelf and pulling out a particularly old-looking tome, leafing through it until he found the page he was looking for.

“As I’ve told you before,” he began, “Pathorn Lightkeeper was the leader of the Ollyrians before their apparent ascension. As such, he was also their final leader.”

He sat down again, gently placing the book on the table and tracing his finger down the glyphs.

“Thankfully for us, he was also a prolific scribe. I have only recently discovered his work, but from what I have gathered, he wrote elaborate histories, spiritual texts, and documented the life of Ollyris in its final days.”

Andy’s fingers began to drum unconsciously on the table. Get to the point, Itanus. You’re killing us here.

He took another long drink, as if hearing Andy’s thoughts and drawing out the tension on purpose.

“As I have worked through his spiritual texts, I have found that he was also revered as a prophet among his people. This is no surprise – god-kings are not so uncommon in the histories of the worlds, and Ollyris was undoubtedly a theocracy. Most of them speak of the return of Gadral, the ‘Maker’ come to Ollyris once more leading to ascension. However, there is one passage that speaks of a time beyond the ascension …”

At this, he tapped the book lightly, apparently finding his place, and turned the book toward them. They noticed that the glyphs to which Itanus pointed were in a deep crimson, while the others were in a faded grey-black ink.

“Allow me to translate …” he cleared his throat.

“When the People are as one with the Maker, some branches shall fall dead from the vine. Stars that shone bright shall be tempered – clouds heavy with rain will darken. In the Maker’s infinite wisdom and greatness, these dead branches shall be cast off, unable to withstand the glory of Their presence.”

“Sounds like Ollyris had its own Gentiles …” whispered Nat, more to herself than Itanus.

“But in Their mercy, the Maker desires all near to Them, all praise and joy from all They have created. These dead branches will wither and deaden the others, breaking the Maker’s heart. Unwilling to let go of Their beloved creations, the Maker will build a bridge – a bridge born of the first and the last. When the World Bridge appears, all paths will open, the root of the dead branches shall blaze in fire, and the true vine shall once more support all its living branches, with the People being the first leaves of Spring.”

A near tactile silence followed, each processing the prophecy.

“The People are, of course, the Ollyrians, the Maker being the source of their ascension.” Itanus continued slowly, his voice low and careful. “’When the people are as one’ refers to the ascension itself. This suggests that Pathorn, and by consequence the Ollyrians, were aware of the other worlds before their departure.”

This alone was a revelation. Ollyris was the fifth of ten known worlds, and it was thought that only the first two had ever had contact with others beyond their own. That Ollyris knew suggested that more people had access to the Town between worlds than they had previously thought.

“This, however, is not the most concerning part of the prophecy.” Itanus continued. “This World Bridge – the first and the last. I believe this refers to the first and last worlds created. There will be a child born from parents in each world …”

At this, Nat’s eyes grew wide, her muscles tensing visibly under her skin. Andy instinctively looked over at her friend, ensuring she was alright. She knew Nat’s story – how she had come to the Town from the last world, her own home of Earth. She knew what this prophecy meant.

“You think Mark is the World Bridge.” Nat beat her to the punch. Itanus nodded.

“You know the father is from one of the other worlds and you know that your son was also taken to one of them. This text suggests that the World Bridge is key in this world’s final major prophecy. If you wish to protect both the Town and your son, I strongly suggest you find him again before one of these ‘dead branches’ does.”

Next Chapter: Chapter 1