Sunday, July 8th, 2012
“All right,” Samantha says as they close the last dozen yards, “here we are. This could be anywhere, but it’s where the Sandstorm Hourglass was first made. Well, and between two doors, and at night. Probably more low-key than our last few dealings. But pay attention, and you might learn a thing or two.” She smiles and pushes at the handle – the door budges, but does not open. Sam looks to the door’s edge at her left and sees hinges, then pulls, and it opens as she chuckles at herself.
On the other side, a man in a black robe sits at a large desk, writing with a quill pen upon a broad sheet of parchment. He pays no mind to the women entering his quarters. On a simple table to her right, Della spots the Sandstorm Hourglass: its wood is a little brighter, its glass is a little clearer, but it looks otherwise identical to the magical timepiece she remembers.
The door shuts behind them, and Della sees another to her right, past the hourglass. They are in a corner room of some apparently circular building, perhaps a large tower, the wall to Della’s left curving around to join the straight wall to her right with the straight wall at her back. A floor-to-ceiling window gives a view of the night sky, resplendent with stars in the dim candlelight from the man’s desk, clouds billowing just beneath them and a gibbous moon shining brightly above.
“Hi,” Samantha says brightly, waving a wooden hand and rising briefly to tip-toes.
The man turns to look at the women, then his eyes go wide and his jaw drops. “Va alar khal ne a khuzha,” he exclaims. Or something like that. Della can’t even place the language, but the man’s tone and body language reveal that he is clearly alarmed – his heartbeat speeds up, and Della can smell his sweat glands opening.
“Ah,” Samantha says. She adds soothingly, “Ah, ahh, ahhh,” then hoists the wooden hoop into the air. She pantomimes babble toward the man in the black robe as she says, “OK, Della, pretend you don’t understand me. Then grab the ring and act like you suddenly do. All right, go.”
Della feigns confusion, then reaches for the hoop as Samantha offers it to her. She grasps it, then Samantha adds in a casually friendly tone, “OK, so now you understand me, so just smile and nod and things and stuff.”
Della smiles and nods and says, “Ahh, yes, I see what you are saying, please continue.”
The man stares quizzically at them for a moment, then rises from his desk and cautiously approaches. He examines the wooden hoop, shrugs his shoulders, and grasps it.
“All right,” Sam says as soon as he’s taken hold of the ring, “you should be able to understand us now.”
The man’s face brightens in response, and he replies, “Why, yes! A marvelous piece of equipment you hold in your hands. It is similar to our own speaking stones.” Or rather, that’s what Della hears in her head; in her ears, she hears the same gibberish he spouted just seconds before.
“Yeah, sure,” Samantha agrees.
“So,” Della hears in her mind, as the man intones a slow khaaa. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Well,” Sam stammers, “It’s to do with that hourglass there. Which I hope you’ve just finished.”
“Ahh,” the man says, “My masterwork.” Or rather, “masterwork” is what Della hears in her mind. The man’s actual syllables, mah-ah’chid-rah, bring up all manner of connotations in her mind, from “final project” to “senior thesis” to “dissertation.” She understands, despite his paucity of words, that the Sandstone Hourglass is a project he has undertaken to demonstrate a mastery of skill for the sake of a rite of passage to higher rank.
“Yeah,” Samantha says affably, “It’s quite a piece of work.”
Something in the turn of phrase must trigger a red flag in the man’s mind, for he asks uneasily, “Is there some trouble with my project?” The very prospect seems to fill him with anxiety.
“Something like that,” Samantha says. “You see, we come from another time,” she adds, to which the man nods easily, “and your hourglass has become, shall we say, something of a hot commodity.” She raises an eyebrow, and the man nods for her to continue. “It’s been taken, we’re not quite sure what for, so we’re here to try and figure out how it works.”
At this, the man nods agreeably, eager to explain the inner workings of his invention. He tugs them by the hoop toward the table on which the Sandstone Hourglass stands, then points at the body of the enclosure.
“It’s ingenious in its simplicity, elegant in its execution,” he explains. “You see, all the ‘grains’ of sand are the same.” Della marvels at the hoop’s power to preserve the subtlety of language she would describe as “air quotes” – the voice in her head rises, falls, and tenses with exactly the right inflection to bring her around to what the man is trying to say. She supposes briefly that such a device might be invaluable to international politics, though it might be challenging to get a hundred-odd delegates to join hands around a wooden ring no more than two feet wide. “When they touch a mirror, the mirror turns them inside-out: white becomes black, black becomes white. Giving all the tiny beads a black outside and white inside was the most labor-intensive part. The mirrors are what do all the work, though.”
The man brings the hoop and his visitors over to the table where the Sandstorm Hourglass sits, doing its thing. “The beads themselves,” he begins again, “have no intrinsically magical qualities. Aside from the process of their making, they are entirely mundane. The mirrors, though, have a specially prepared backing which is thick enough for some light engraving. Each mirror is the same, and the spells do two things: first, they turn inside-out whatever touches them; that was easy. The second part, though, is that they steal a little bit of momentum from the falling white grains, causing them to fall more slowly, and transfer it to the black grains, causing them to rise upward. Getting the engraving to work on all the grains, but without transferring all the white grains’ momentum to a single black grain, that was the difficult part.”
The man looks at his visitors expectantly. The short one with the pale complexion seems as though she doesn’t really understand the principles at work, or why it was such a difficult feat to accomplish. The tall one with the tattoos seems a bit bored, as if she’s heard it all before.
“So, what is it for,” Samantha asks at last.
“For?” The man’s face bears an awkward look of affronted puzzlement. “It’s my masterwork. It shows that it’s possible to create a spell to perform specific tasks on generically-defined objects, without screwing up when those objects need to have different tasks performed upon them.”
“Well, right,” Sam says, “and that’s all very impressive, I’m sure. But what use does it have? What could someone do with it? Why would they want to steal it?”
“I’m, um,” the man stammers. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I can’t think of why anyone would want to steal it, unless your time is truly starved for magical education. It’s not designed to do any kind of work, it’s simply a proof of concept.”
Samantha stares blankly for a moment, trying to reason her way across a missing connection.
“Hey,” Della says after a silent moment. “Where are we?”
“Why, the Ivory Towers, of course,” the man says. “Where else would you find an aspiring mage finishing his masterwork?”
“No, I mean, what country? And what year is it? We come from a place called ‘America’,” Della explains, “in the twenty-first century. Maybe it will help us if we know where and when your masterwork was made.”
“I’m not sure where or when that is,” the man says, “but by our calendar, it is nearly the end of the Fourth Age. Just a couple more centuries to go. And you are standing in the Kingdom of Atlantis.”
“Great,” Della says. “So how does the Kingdom of Atlantis count its ages, then?”
“By the precession of the equinoxes, of course,” the man answers. Sam and Della share a glance that indicates neither of them knows what the man is talking about. “My goodness, what do they teach in your schools?”
“That’s not important right now,” Samantha says, shaking her head. “Look, do you maybe know anything about the seven seals?”
“Seven seals,” the man says pensively. “Seven seals, seven seals – hmm – let’s see.” He strokes his beard for some moments, then says, “No, I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of any seven seals. Sorry.”
The conversation winds down from there, and the women take their leave of their gracious host. They head back into the bramble, and the last writ crumbles as its magic fades away.
Samantha and Della speak little during their journey back to the present day, reflecting on the knowledge they’ve gained and sorting out the questions that remain.
At long last, they come once again to a full length mirror. Samantha steps through, Della follows, and they are back in Samantha’s bedroom in Miami. Samantha puts the hoop back in her hall closet, then leads them through her front door back to Della’s room in Las Vegas.
“Home again, home again, jiggety-jig,” Samantha says when their journey has come to an end.
“Yeah,” Della says, feeling more than a little tired. She looks at her watch: just a few minutes past nine. A slight sense of jet lag descends upon her. “I guess we should go tell Thomas what we found out.”
They head back up the stairs to Thomas’ office to find him speaking with Herman, almost in exactly the positions they left them.
“Yes,” Thomas asks as the women enter. “Did you need something before you headed out?”
“No,” Samantha says. “We’re back.”
“Really? That was fast.”
“For you, maybe,” Della says. Thomas raises an eyebrow.
“We went through the bramble,” Samantha explains. They relate the details of their travels: passing through the trophy room, the museum room with the large stone, the railroad trestle (Della is careful to omit her conversation with the revenant), the temple on the mountain, and their encounter with the mage in Atlantis.
“I see,” Thomas says after listening to the tale. “Well, it sounds like you ladies had a full night. Alice will no doubt be able to make more sense of this than I can. I’ll get in contact with her, and we’ll take it from there. Thank you very much for your help, Samantha.” He inclines his head to her, and she gives a shallow bow in response. “Della, you’re dismissed.”
Della nods and leaves the three of them in the room. Out in the hallway, she closes the door behind her and slumps against the wall. It had been quite a night for her, though it was just beginning for everyone else. Mentally exhausted, she retreats to her room and turns on the television.