My guide picks his way across the rocky forest floor and I follow, wiping sweat from my brow. I am unaccustomed to walking so much, but the tiny man with flaming hair steps spryly from tree to tree going up the slope and isn’t even breathing heavily. Once in a while he drinks a strange brown concoction from a canteen, but any pauses to catch breath or stave off hunger have been mine.
“You should get more exercise, Teddy,” he says without looking back. “Concrete jungles aren’t good for anybody’s well-being, be they triaum, human or hama.”
“Yeah well,” I pant, “writing is kind of a full-time gig.” I trip over a root and nearly fall on my hands. The triaum grasps my wrist with surprising strength and I am saved from earning a few scrapes.
“Alright, I suppose you could use another short break,” he says as he leans against a maple. I pull my water bottle out of my pack and down a generous gulp. I am dismayed to find that I have already consumed most of my supply.
“Don’t fret over it,” my companion says. “A triaum can find water in a desert.” There is a long-stemmed pipe in his hands, but I do not recall seeing him pull it out from anywhere. He has no backpack and just the canteen around his neck; the pipe must have been hidden somewhere in his coveralls.
I screen my eyes with my hand and look up at the sun. It is already past midday and I have no idea how far away the Valley is. It is hot even in the shade today. “Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?”
There is a sweet, unusual scent on the air. “Of course I’m sure.” He takes a slow puff on the pipe and blows smoke rings at me. “The rangers watch the entire perimeter, but I know their schedules.” He grins and offers me the pipe, but I decline. I have no idea if it’s sweetgrass or dreamweed or devilshoot in that pipe, but I know that none of them are a good idea.
“Why would they be trying to keep people out? Isn’t the site abandoned?”
He takes another puff on the pipe and points back the way we came with his other hand. “If you still think that your government is hiding nothing, I suggest you turn back now, Teddy. We are going to a place of hard truths and hidden secrets. I took you for a man who believes that the quest for truth must overcome the gnawing entropy of fear. Are you he?”
I wave away the smoke he is blowing in my direction. “I still want to know what really happened, yes.”
He smiles as he taps out the contents of the pipe onto the forest floor. “Good, because that was your last chance to back out of this. The Valley of Tears is just over this hill.” He beckons me onward and I follow.
“They will be watching for you on the way back, Teddy. You should never have told anyone about this project. Other people knew better, but you have the burden of believing in truth as a principle, and for that you certainly have my admiration.” Whatever was in that pipe, it’s making him talk more rapidly, and his gestures are even more expansive as he hikes up the hill with me trailing behind. “I want to help you, you see. Without my help the government will make you disappear and then nobody will ever know the truth about the Valley of Tears. You see, it doesn’t matter how many triaum tell people about it, nobody will listen until a human tells the same tale, and people know that you tell the truth. It’s so rare these days, don’t you agree?”
I am panting heavily, but I can see the top of the hill through the trees. “Do you trust me enough to tell me a simple truth, then?”
He grins wickedly at me and runs up the crest of the hill. I arrive beside him half a minute later, sweating buckets.
“I was the first triaum that they should have killed when they brought us here,” he says. Below us is the Valley of Tears: a green river vale pockmarked by low concrete buildings. It isn’t as breathtaking as I had hoped, but I shiver for some reason.
“Not much to look at,” I wheeze. “What secrets could they possibly be hiding here? UFOs? Are they training spies to fight the Empire?”
“Oh, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, Teddy,” my guide says as he starts to pick his way down the steep, rocky hill. “But to entice you I’ll answer those burning questions you’ve been holding so patiently on your tongue.”
“And what questions would those be?” I ask as I adjust my pack. My shoulders are beginning to ache.
“My name is Yel,” he says.
“Yel what?” I reply. Yel is a common given name for a triaum.
Yel says nothing.
I laugh. “You can’t tell me you’re that Yel. He died during the Tlaca riots.”
“Oh, sweet Teddy, how can you be so naïve after all that you’ve seen and done? You’ll have to publish two books. The second one can be called ‘Yel Is Dead And Other Lies The Government Told Me’.”
I begin to wonder if I can trust anything Yel says, or if that’s even his real name. “If the rangers patrol this area, won’t they catch us eventually?”
“They patrol the perimeter, Teddy. Nobody is allowed to look at these secrets; air patrols make sure the rangers don’t get too curious.”
I wipe the sweat from my brow. “That’s an awful lot of effort to ensure that nobody finds out about something.”
“Which just makes it all the more enticing. You think you’re the first person to come looking for the Valley of Tears? You’re just the first human lucky enough to have my protection.”
“What, are you hiding a machine gun along with your pipe? Or do you have some old triaum magic up your sleeve?”
Yel snorts. “Coming from anybody else, that would have sounded pretty racist. No, the last vestiges of our magic died with my sister.”
I stop walking. We’re about halfway down the hill. I can pick out details in the concrete buildings like doors and windows. There is a chain link fence bordering the compound that is broken in several places.
“I don’t mean to offend you, but I can’t tell when you’re being serious or not. I’ve spoken to several triaum who tell me there’s no such thing as magic.”
Yel sits on a stone and looks down at the Valley. “Any self-respecting triaum would tell that to a human, Teddy, but the truth of the matter is that our magic has been dying for centuries...and Drei was the last ember.”
“Wait, Drei was your sister? Drei the Dreamweaver?”
Yel’s smile is gone, and the fire has left his eyes. For the first time he looks the way most triaum do. He looks like a lost child. “I don’t want to talk about Drei.” He stands up and resumes the hike down the hill. I struggle to keep up.
I hear the distinctive caw of a crow as we reach the chain-link fence. Yel slips through a gaping hole in the fence and I follow. All around me are single-storey concrete buildings and well-trod earth. It is like being inside the skeleton of a city. All traces of life have been picked clean. There is a big clearing in the middle with a barren flagpole. Yel walks up to it and makes a mock salute.
“All hail this land of ours, the United Provinces!” His voice echoes off the barren walls. “Home of truth and liberty, and the land of the free!” He turns back to me. “Don’t you feel free, Teddy?”
His eyes have that slightly crazed gleam again and I look away. A part of me is beginning to regret coming to the Valley, but I still want my answers. “More than you do, I’m sure.”
“Oh, you have no idea how free I feel now, Teddy. Even a triaum can’t appreciate true freedom until it’s taken away from them...which brings me to the reason why we’re here. Follow me.” He enters a nearby building and does not even look to see if I am following.
I follow, of course.
Inside the light of the afternoon sun casts long shadows. Whatever once occupied this building is long gone; only walls, a ceiling and a floor remain. Yel is standing in front of a big metal door with a wheel like you’d see in a bank.
“They can take it all away,” he says, “but the more a thing is hidden, the more it yearns to be found. Scour something with cleansing fire, Teddy, and the ashes will remain, and oh, those ashes will be bitter.” He turns the wheel and the door parts to reveal a staircase, which goes down.
Yel knows I am too far in to back out; he doesn’t have to beckon me to follow him this time.
The basement feels unnaturally cold, and through the light of Yel’s flashlight I can see that it is just as barren as the floor above, only instead of rooms, the basement contains cells with bars.
“So this is where they kept you?” I ask as Yel leads me through hallways of cells. He seems to know where he is going. The basement is much larger that the building above it; likely it is a network connecting many of the buildings underground.
“Only those of us fortunate enough to have outlived our usefulness. Come, here is what you need to see.”
The room is large, at least fifty feet square, and the concrete is all black. There are tiny holes in the walls and two very large ones in the ceiling. Yel aims the flashlight beam at one of them.
“What are those?” I ask.
**TO BE CONTINUED**