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The quest for hope, p.9
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       The Quest for Hope, p.9

           A. S. King
 
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  “That’s a long walk you’ve had,” he mentioned casually. “And you don’t even have any food or water to help your body recuperate.”

  Aliatta’s head shot up in surprise. She was too shocked to say anything in response.

  Levi sauntered over to where she was sitting, passed her a roll and her water skin, and sat down next to her on the forest floor.

  Aliatta took the offerings with a mumbled thank you, her eyes cast downward and an embarrassed flush filling her cheeks. Up until that moment, she hadn’t felt any shame or remorse for the actions she had taken.

  They ate in silence. Levi seemed content to wait for Aliatta to speak. Finally, she did.

  “I should have told somebody,” she muttered, still looking down.

  “That would have been helpful,” Levi agreed.

  “Did I cause a lot of worries?” She looked up at him now, her brows furrowed in concern.

  Levi nodded.

  “I didn’t think to ask or talk to anybody about this.”

  “And you didn’t think to speak to the High King about it, either,” Levi added.

  Her eyes widened in alarm. “Do you think He is upset with me?”

  Levi shook his head. “The High King doesn’t get upset or angry in the way we do with each other. Would He rather have had you confer with Him? Of course, but for your own good. He knows your heart, Aliatta. He understands your desire to see your parents. And He knows that you are just beginning to learn how to walk with Him. Your mistakes do not make Him angry or upset. Oh, Aliatta, you didn’t even think to bring any food and water with you. Do you even know how to get to Zion?”

  “Not … exactly …”

  “We should have studied geography,” Levi said wryly. “And you are planning to travel on foot? That is going to take a while. In fact, it may take long enough for the Dark One to return to Zion. No, he isn’t there now. He has gone to Earlington to search for you and will undoubtedly search the areas to the south before he searches north. We at least have that to our advantage.”

  “We?” asked Aliatta with a hint of hope.

  “You don’t think I came all the way out here just to lecture you? Though you did not ask him, the High King has approved your quest. He sent me to help you and will himself be looking out for us. Now, time for a lesson in Novus geography.”

  “Lessons? Now?”

  “Of course. What better time to learn geography than when you are about to travel across it?” Levi cleared away some of the forest brush to reveal a smooth, dirt writing board. Then he picked up a stick and started to draw. “This is Earlington, and this is where we are, in Crels Forest. It isn’t the largest forest in Novus, but it is certainly big enough. It stretches north for about 50 miles before running into the Teman River. This section of the Teman is only about … 10 miles wide, but over here, to the east, it widens to at least 25 miles. Once we cross the Teman, we’ll be on a flat section of land known as Merchant’s Haven. The Qatan Forest covers most of this area, but the merchants have cleared enough trees to build themselves the settlement of Stratham. To the east of Merchant’s Haven is the ten-mile wide Maarab River and across that river, is Zion’s Island. Seventy-five miles up the coast, in order to better trade with Zion, the merchants built a bridge across the river—quite an amazing feat, actually. That bridge is how we will get to the city.”

  “That’s a long way,” Aliatta grunted.

  Levi nodded.

  “How did you get here so fast?” she asked suddenly. “It took me all night to get this far. When did you leave?”

  “Sometime this morning.”

  “Then, how—”

  Levi smiled. “Would you like to find out? If we are going to get to Zion in a timely and unsuspecting manner, we will need to travel faster than our Adama legs will take us.”

  19

  Transmogrification

  Thus began the lessons on transmogrifying—changing themselves into other animals. Before each transformation, Levi would instruct her as to the nature of the creature—the strengths and weaknesses and the standard creature behavior.

  “The wolf, Aliatta,” he would say, “is a long distance endurance runner. He can run up to 125 miles in a day. Since he never knows when his next meal will be, he’ll often eat up to a fifth of his body weight to make up for the days when he can’t find food. He is fearsome, so he’s left alone by most of the other animals—”

  He would also instruct her as to the spiritual nature of transmogrification. “You first need to be connected to the Spirit of the High King. With this connection in place, you can then turn your attention to the creature whose likeness you want to take on. In this way, you become a creature whose spirit is ultimately connected to the High King—a creature as it was meant to be under the guidance and direction of the ultimate Life Giver. But it is crucial you never forget who you truly are or desire to leave behind forever the Adama form the High King gave you—for if that happens, you can never return to your original state. You would, in fact, begin to lose what it is that makes you human. To go back to your Adama state, you must think about who it is that the High King made you to be. These changes we are doing are temporary. They are meant to serve for a time and not to transform us forever into something other than that which we were created to be.”

  And so their days on the trail passed by. A small breakfast would be followed by a tutorial on a couple of particular creatures. Following this tutorial, Levi would transform into that creature and then guide Aliatta in the transmogrification process. The first couple of lessons were mainly for practice in order to get Aliatta accustomed to changing into something else and then back again. She would need to be reasonably proficient at this by the time they reached Zion if she were going to make use of the skill while they searched for her parents.

  At first, the changes took a long time for Aliatta to complete. She was still learning to connect to the spiritual, and you may imagine she felt some trepidation at the idea of fully transforming into something else, for there was also the unspoken concern that she may not be able to change back. It was, in fact, the changing back part which proved to be the most difficult. Aliatta, like many twelve-year-olds, had not yet acquired a clear picture of who she was. Therefore, when it came time to return to Adama form, Levi would remind Aliatta of who she was and allow her to lean on his confidence until such a time as she could take full ownership of her own identity.

  At some point during the day or night (depending upon the nature of the creature they were at the time), they would travel. Levi used these times to instruct Aliatta on more aspects of the High King.

  “Do you see those stars up there, Aliatta?” he said one night as they flew across the sky. “There are countless numbers of them, and yet the High King knows each and every one of them. Do you realize that you are more beautiful and precious to him than those stars?”

  Another day, as they were walking through the forest, he brought her attention to the multi-colored flowers interspersed among the brush and trees. “Look at the flowers we are walking by,” he said. “Few creatures are even aware of their existence here. No one comes to take care of them, and yet they grow, for the High King himself cares for them. He dresses them beautifully, each one a unique creation. Are we not more precious to him than these flowers?”

  In this way, after a few days’ time (a fraction of the time it would have taken them to travel in their Adama form), they had traversed the Crels Forest, crossed the Teman River to the north, passed through the Qatan forest (bypassing Stratham), and arrived at the bridge which would take them across the Maarab River to the gates of Zion.

  The days of travel had been pleasant, albeit more than a little exhausting, and Aliatta found herself lamenting that this part of the journey was now at an end. There had been freedom and a daily challenge. But from this point on, they would have to use caution. More than one life would be endangered by their presence, and it was almost certain that their travels hereafter would not be nearly
as leisurely.

  After a bit of discussion, and more than a few conversations with the High King, it was decided they would take the form of rats and cross the bridge in a merchant’s cart. They began to keep a close eye on each of the merchants who daily made their way back and forth across the bridge. Levi wasn’t really comfortable with any of them, but at last chose a cart driven by someone who didn’t feel quite as dark as the other merchants. In their rodent form, they neatly hopped aboard the produce-laden cart and enjoyed a smooth ride across the bridge, up the hill, and into the city.

  The hustle and bustle of Zion nearly overwhelmed Aliatta. The streets were crowded and dirty. People were either arguing and yelling at each other or were already engaged in settling their disagreements with full-out fights. Small children ran through the streets, either begging for money or expertly relieving people of their monetary possessions. There was certainly no shortage of rats.

  Levi also found himself shocked by the environment of Zion, though from a different perspective. It was spiritually dark—far darker than any place he had ever been. The air itself felt cumbersome and suffocating. The pain, anger, hatred, lust, greed, frivolity, hopelessness, depression of a thousand spirits assaulted him to such a degree that for a few moments he was unable to maintain a clear connection with the High King. And then he saw it. A shining beacon in the center of the city lit up the sky and gave him hope once more. He heard the High King say, That is the place you seek.

  Come on Aliatta, his spirit spoke to her. I know where your parents are.

  It took him a couple of minutes to get her attention, for she was still stunned by the chaos and conditions she saw all around her. However, by nudging her and chattering to her as much as he could in rat form, Aliatta finally acknowledge him.

  I never thought it would be so bad here. Or did I somehow know? Is this why I never wanted to come? She asked.

  I think you sensed it, though you couldn’t put words to it. I also believe that something in you has maintained a connection to your parents, and through them, to this city. Speaking of your parents, Aliatta, I know where they are.

  A pair of rat eyes widened and brightened. How do you know?

  They’re the only light I can see in this place, and they shine rather brightly for those who have eyes to see. Watch me carefully now. Getting to them may be a bit tricky in this form.

  I think it would be tricky in any form, said Aliatta wryly.

  Levi paid careful attention to where their cart was going, always keeping his spirit focused on the shining lighthouse in the middle of the city. Before long, he and Aliatta jumped off the cart and scurried off on a hectic scramble through the bustling city streets, watching out for busy feet, jumping over random objects, and keeping an eye out for predators. Being in rat form certainly had its advantages, but it also came with its share of disadvantages, like having to watch out for cats who wouldn’t think twice about eating you.

  After what seemed like forever, they arrived at a little wooden house where a white candle shone cheerily in the window. As Aliatta stared at the house, she started to feel very nervous and soon discovered she could barely move. What if they didn’t like her? What if they told her to go back or that it was better for her to become Queen of Novus and they turned her over to the King and Queen. What if—?

  Levi tried to prompt Aliatta-rat forward. After several unsuccessful attempts, he changed his tactic and went directly to the door. As soon as he arrived, the door opened.

  A woman stepped out, causing Levi to do a double-take, for, in many ways, she was a mirror image of Aliatta. A few lines on her face gave evidence to hardships overcome. Her eyes were hazel compared to Aliatta’s eyes of blue, and her hair was light brown rather than Aliatta’s dark black tresses, but her height, stature, and general coloring were definitely those of Aliatta.

  The hazel eyes had been bright and expectant when the woman first looked out, but they turned to confusion as she spotted one rat directly in front of the door, and a smaller one shivering at its edge. She stood listening for a time, then shrugged.

  “Come in, little friend,” she said softly to Levi. “And you too,” she spoke to Aliatta-rat. “It’s ok. I’m not going to hurt you.” When the littlest rat didn’t budge, the woman walked over and gently picked her up. Then she took both rats into her home.

  20

  The Pursuit

  Once inside, the woman set the two rats softly on the floor. Then she knelt down beside them and just sat there, studying them.

  After a few minutes, she spoke. Her voice was soft, hesitant, and carried an interesting blend of confusion and amusement. “Well,” she said, almost to herself. “This certainly isn’t what I’d expected when I opened the door. But I know I heard the High King correctly. He told me to be ready and then to go to the door because the one I had been longing for had returned. But, maybe you two little creatures are to take me to her?” She gazed at them very intensely—searching for a sign. Finding nothing, she leaned back with a sigh. “Or maybe I’m going crazy talking to a couple of rats. What do you think?”

  The two rodents had not moved from the place she had set them. The timid rat was still shivering nervously. The other one, however, seemed to be trying to communicate something to the fearful rat by using a series of squeaks and nudges. Finally, it gave up, scurried over to where she sat and looked her full in the face.

  The message was not wrong, as you will soon see, she heard a voice say. But first, I’m going to do something which may startle you. In fact, both rats will undergo a similar change. Please try not to be too alarmed. We are not who we seem to be.

  She nodded to show she had received the message, wherever it had come from, then gasped in surprise as the rat who’d crawled up to her started to change form. He stretched and grew, and as he grew, the coarse dark hair of the rodent was replaced by a sturdy set of animal hide clothing. When the transformation (which happened in a matter of seconds) was complete, a young man stood in the place where a rat had just been.

  “Excuse me for a minute, Ma’am,” were his first hurried and absentminded words to her in this Adama form.

  “Grace, I’m Grace,” she found herself saying in a rather muddled frame of mind. She had heard tales of these shape-changers but had never in her life actually met one or been a witness to the transmogrification process.

  He met her eyes and nodded to acknowledge the request. “Excuse me for a moment, Grace,” he repeated, this time in a softer and more polite manner. “I promise I’ll give you more explanations soon.” He turned to the other rat and began making a series of squeaks, sometimes stroking it as though to give it some reassurance. Finally, the rat gave him a squeak in response, and he stepped back.

  The woman watched as the transformation she had just seen was repeated in a similar fashion. This change, however, took longer and even contained periods where it appeared nothing was happening (this was a rather awkward stage to behold, as during these pauses there would be a combination of rat and human features). In these moments, the young man would offer words of encouragement, and the transformation would continue.

  Finally, the change was complete. Before Grace, there now stood a beautiful young girl with long black hair and clear blue eyes. Her mother’s heart immediately knew who it was she was gazing upon. With tears in her eyes, she stepped forward and wrapped the girl in a full mother’s hug. Years of yearning, of wishing, of missed embraces all, flooded out of her. She knew it might be awkward for the girl—as indeed it was at first—but Grace was powerless to stop the torrent.

  Aliatta responded stiffly at first, as though the she wasn’t sure what to do or how to respond, but that discomfort gradually faded as she allowed herself to relax into the arms of her mother. So this is what a real mother’s love feels like, thought Aliatta as she revealed in a peace she had never before known.

  When they stepped back, tears were streaming down their faces, and even Levi found himself brushing away a tear or two.
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br />   It was in this state that Elior son of Meir found them. You may imagine the surprise he felt when he beheld the scene before him. He was just returning from his shop in the marketplace where he crafted and sold items of wood, as well as the elegant clothing that Grace tailored. His head was full of the happenings of the day, and he was in the middle of reflecting upon the argumentative customer with whom he had barely managed to avoid coming to blows. How he had longed for the peace and quiet of their home … So imagine, if you will, his surprise at entering his home and discovering not only his wife but two others whom he did not know—all huddled together—chatting and laughing with tears running down their cheeks. What is a poor, exhausted, caught-off-guard man to do?

  As it was, he didn’t do much for the first few minutes. He somehow had enough presence of mind to be sure that the house was secured—all windows covered and the door locked. Then he looked at his wife to the girl … then back to his wife … then to the girl … then understanding dawned. His eyes widened, and his voice was choked up as he turned to his wife and stammered, “Is this … is this—”

  Grace nodded.

  Before Aliatta had a chance to say anything, she found herself wrapped in a huge bear hug by a tall, broad-shouldered man. He buried his face in her hair as he mumbled, “It’s her—my little girl. My little girl has returned—” Sobs shook his large frame as Grace stood by, lending him what peace she could.

  As for Aliatta, she again fought through the initial awkwardness, and then, as she allowed herself to melt into her father’s embrace, realized she had never before felt so much safety and comfort. Is this anything like the love Levi says the High King has for me, she wondered. Is this how it would feel to be fully wrapped in His protection?

  The hugs and greetings, with their emotional deluge, finally ran their course, leaving each member present feeling quite drained. Grace tore herself away from the gathering long enough to set dinner out, and while they ate, Levi and Aliatta shared their stories and adventures.

 
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