Chapter Three

ESCAPE

Bert thought he was dreaming, but the chatter of his two new friends seemed real enough, and he could now understand every word.

“You see Gopin; it is all exactly as I told you, the boy no longer lives in the shade!”

“I knew you spoke the truth Lurbit, and now I see it with my very own eyes. What do you think it means?”

“I know not, but it would seem a miracle has happened, and who are we to ignore a miracle?”

“Your logic as always is flawless,”

“So what shall we do now?”

“I think it best we take him to the council. After all the wisdom of the many is better than that of the few.”

Gopin felt uneasy. “But not since the time of Methiyal, has a son of men walked into the world of the Kern.”

“Your words contain wisdom Gopin, but as you can see, he is not infected. It would seem that a new thing has begun, and it would be wrong not to act.”

“True my friend, your logic as always is flawless; I believe our decision is made for us.”

Gopin turned to Bert, passing him a simple looking necklace. Without having to be told, he put it on his wrist (It was much too small to go around his neck), this seemed to satisfy both Lurbit and Gopin who were watching with rapt attention.

Lurbit reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a small silk bag that was tied at the top with a leather drawstring. With great care, he undid the string and removed a small glass bottle and a spool of silver thread. He unwound the thread and tied one end around his ankle. Next, he very carefully removed the cap from the bottle and dipped the other end of the thread into its inky black contents. When he pulled it out, a large, jet black drop clung to the end of the thread. It was impossibly dark changing the colour of the surrounding daylight into shades of pastel. Lurbit threw the thread onto the ground a few paces from where he stood. Bert watched in amazement as the drop began to spread, causing the ground around it to collapse into its inky blackness. Suddenly a blast of cool air blew up from its depths, ruffling Bert’s hair and bringing a sweet smell, unlike anything he had ever smelt before.

Gopin walked up to its edge, stepped into it and disappeared. Lurbit grasped the back of Bert’s calf, “Quickly now, it’s timely to go.”

Bert was frozen to the spot. Gopin pushed and pulled, trying to coax him forwards, but he was much too small to move Bert.

“Quickly now, quickly now,” he repeated, looking up at Bert, “We must not leave it open much longer.”

Bert, however, was not moving an inch; no way was he going to jump into who knows what. Gopin looked agitated, “A moment longer I cannot wait, surely you must come, but now it must be with haste.”He looked up pleadingly at him, but Bert stood his ground.

“Well I must go, Lurbit will be most unhappy,” He crouched, ready to jump into the abyss.

Behind them screeched the hideous voice of Dr. Volt “There he is, that insolent little devil, bring him to me now!” Out of the corner of his eye, Bert saw a large dog racing towards him with two burly guards not far behind. The fear of Dr. Volt and his hideous asylum gave him no choice but to leap into the unknown, so that is exactly what he did.

Bert tumbled head over heels, falling through the darkness at incredible speed. He felt sure he was about to die yet. Just when he thought he was going to be smashed into mangled pulp, the darkness lightened and the wind decreased. As if by magic, he found himself lying on a soft cushion of spring grass.

While he lay, heart pounding, Gopin tumbled next to him. He was up in a flash and quickly untied the silver thread from around his ankle, which was miraculously attached to the abyss. Taking the mysterious bottle from of his pocket, he removed the stopper and to Bert’s astonishment, wound up the thread pulling the hole up with it. Shrinking to the size of a drop, Gopin shook it into the bottle and carefully replaced the top.

Lurbit removed some old sticks and straw from his pockets and Gopin did the same. These they placed together on the ground and searched the area where the hole had been, carefully picking up the odd bit of soil, a few dead leaves, and other bits and pieces. They threw these on the pile of sticks and lit a fire. The flames leapt several meters into the air, out of all proportion to the tiny amount of fuel. Bert was horrified when Gopin and Lurbit leapt into the midst of the flames. A shower of bright white sparks flew into the air while they casually stood in the roaring inferno. The flames harmed neither. After 30 seconds or so the sparks stopped, and they stepped out of the fire and indicated to Bert that it was now his turn to step into the flames. Bert frantically shook his head and leapt to his feet, ready to make a getaway.

Walking up to him they gently placed their hands on his legs and began to sing. He couldn’t understand a word, yet the song relaxed his whole being and peace flowed through his veins. Cares and worries vanished as hey led the now unresisting Bert into the midst of the flames.

When he stepped into the fire, huge showers of bright white sparks spiralled up from his body, yet the flames didn’t singe so much as a single hair. His clothes and footwear, however, were not immune and were completely incinerated, leaving him wearing nothing but a faraway look. Still singing, Lurbit passed him a long grey shirt and some green pants, which were untouched by the fire. Normally Bert’s nakedness would make him terribly embarrassed, but the songs calmness made shame impossible. When he was clothed, they led Bert out of the flames.

The fire quickly burnt itself out without leaving a trace, not so much as a single blade of grass had been singed by the flames, yet the sticks, straw, and Bert’s clothes, were gone.

As the last effects of Gopin and Lurbit’s song wore off, Bert felt drained, and despite having many questions that needed answering, all he wanted to do was go to sleep. Flopping down on the grass, he curled up and fell into a heavydeep sleep.

His new friends covered him with some furry leaves they plucked from a nearby tree. Satisfied with their work, Gopin took one of the leaves and sat down a few dozen steps from Bert and wrapping himself up in it, leant back against a large tree, ready to sleep. Smiling at his friend, Lurbit placed his hands on Gopin’s shoulders, “All speed will I make my friend, may his sleep be longer than my journey.”

Smiling at his friend, Gopin replied, “May your journey end as it begins.”

While Gopin snuggled into his leaf, Lurbit walked off into the dusk.

Lurbit loved nothing better than a good walk and would have happily hiked day and night until he reached his village. But time was valuable to the sons of men, and for Bert’s sake, he would have to forgo the pleasure of a good walk. Once he was well out of earshot of his sleeping companions, he climbed to the top of a Karapoti tree and whistled into the night.

Hours and minutes have never made a great deal of sense to the Kern, but when the shade fell on the sons of men, they learned about the strange importance that men now placed on it. Normally, Lurbit, who is a Kern through and through, would have whistled just once and waited for the Shrike to come when it had finished doing whatever it is that Shrikes do. But after waiting for an hour or two with no sign of the Shrike, he gave another whistle, as he hoped to get to the village and back before the Bert woke.

The Shrike had been halfway through a particularly good dream when he was woken by Lurbit’s whistle. It was a good dream and he decided to go back to sleep and see what happened next. He was three-quarters of the way through the rest of his dream when he was woken by the second whistle. Never before had Lurbit whistled twice, despite the fact that on some occasions it had taken the Shrike several days to respond. This intrigued the Shrike, so he decided to abandon the rest of the dream to find out why Lurbit had summoned him twice.

This particular Shrike had known Lurbit since he had hatched. In fact, Lurbit was the very first thing he had laid eyes on after emerging from his shell. This is not that surprising, as Kerns have a passion for hunting for Shrike eggs and despite Shrikes laying their eggs in the most devious places, the Kern nearly always find them. This arrangement, however, is not a bad one, as once the Kern have found a Shrike egg they go to great lengths to protect it, which is just as well, as they are easily distracted, and their nests are not well constructed.

Once a Shrike has built a nest and laid its single egg, she then leaves it to its own devices and doesn’t come back until three years later when the egg is due to hatch. Upon their return, the eggs are nearly always gone, no matter what lengths they have gone to hide it. Not because a thief has stolen them, but due to the nests shoddy construction. The reason their eggs are nearly always found is quite simple. You see a Shrike is a dazzling creature, its scales contain all the colours of the rainbow and give off a beautiful light. When seen at night they are so amazing to behold that you immediately forget whatever it is you are doing and stare in wonder.

As the Shrikeling develops in its egg, its scales begin to form and they give off a beautiful light. Now a shrike egg is like a perfect Thermos and does not let so much as a fraction of a degree of heat enter or escape from its shell. Despite heat not being able to escape the egg’s perfect vacuum; light does. So once the Shrikeling’s scales develop and begin to glow, the egg lights up like a beacon. As every Kern knows, the best time to hunt for Shrike eggs is at night.

But that is enough about Shrikes for now.

The Shrike found Lurbit sound asleep in the branches of the Karapoti tree. Usually the Shrike would have waited patiently for him to wake, but because of the second whistle, he decided that it might be a good idea to wake Lurbit, which he duly did. When Lurbit awoke from his slumbers, the Shrike greeted him with his head turned to one side. This was the Shrike’s way of asking, “Why the rush?”

“Best I show you rather than try to explain,” replied Lurbit, climbing onto the Shrike’s back. Once they were airborne, Lurbit guided the Shrike to where he had left Gopin and Bert. As they flew over the pair, the Shrike’s glowing scales illuminated Bert’s face, while he slept under his blanket of leaves. The Shrike was fascinated, as he had never seen a son of men, but it also caused a new and strange emotion to ripple through his body; fear.

Lurbit's village was 12 days away on foot, 12 hours by wing or 1 hour by Shrike. Yes, Shrikes do indeed have wings, and yes, they do use standard flight most of the time. Nevertheless, being incredible show-offs, Shrikes love nothing more than polching.

In fact, there is probably no greater spectacle to behold than that of a Shrike as he is polching. Equally, there is probably nothing more terrifying than to be riding a Shrike when he is. But the Kern are hardy folk and are not afraid of being afraid, which is why the Kerns have always been a race to be reckoned with.

Once Lurbit had shown the son of men to the Shrike, he whispered into its ear that he would like to polch to his village. The Shrike’s scales glowed brightly with excitement. With a loud piercing cry, he announced to the worlds that he was about to polch.

Lurbit climbed into the large wattle-like pouch that hung from his charges throat. Once he was safely tucked inside, the Shrike spiralled upwards with powerful thrusts of his enormous wings. The exertion made the Shrike’s scales glow like a million shining jewels, but better was yet to come.

When the Shrike reached the edge of space, he folded his wings and plummeted like a stone towards the world below, gaining immense speed. A large sonic boom cracked through the air, causing thousands of eyes to look skyward. His speed made his scales glow with fervent heat and huge showers of sparks cascaded from his radiant body. Streaking towards the earth at an impossible speed, it seemed he must surely collide with the world in a fiery blaze of glory, and that is exactly what he did. However, his immense velocity and fervent heat allowed the Shrike to pass through the world’s crust as if it were mere water. When he emerged seconds later in a massive underground labyrinth, his presence filled the inky darkness with light, revealing the immense treasures that lay within this realm. But the Shrike was not here to admire the scenery. With unerring accuracy, he plunged through the floor of the labyrinth and seconds later burst once again through the world’s crust to arrive within 200 paces of Lurbit’s village.

The Shrike flew to the top of a large Karapoti tree and perched in its uppermost branches, where he began to preen himself with great self-satisfaction. Lurbit, who was still tucked away in his pouch, sat patiently waiting for the Shrike to cool down. Unlike a Karapoti tree, he was not immune to the intense heat.

When the Shrike cooled down, Lurbit emerged from his safe haven to be greeted by a large delegation from the village. It had been many years since a Kern had polched and his kith and kin were abuzz with curiosity. Politely thanking the Shrike, he climbed down from the tree and walked over to a particularly stooped and wizened elder named Lima. Looking directly at his face, Lurbit did his best to remain solemn, but couldn’t resist the twinkle in Lima’s eyes and started grinning. Placing his hands on Lurbits shoulders, Lima spoke. “It is good your peace has returned to us Master Lurbit. Our excitement is great and requires the telling of tales.”

Lurbit remained silent, as was proper.

“Come now,” said Lima turning to the crowd. “It is needful that our friend should first satisfy his hunger, lest he faint before our ears grow weary.”

A Kernish village is nothing like the villages of the sons of men. For the Kern could no more live in a building made of dead wood, cold steel, or lifeless brick than a fish could live in clay. The heart of all Kernish villages is a Gnarlish tree, which have existed since the foundation of the worlds. In the nooks and crannies of these large trees, the Kern make their homes, and to live anywhere else is unthinkable. The centre of a Gnarlish tree is hollow, and this is where the common hall is. All decisions are made here, as it is the belief of the Kern that the smell of living wood and the sound of rising sap are essential for clarity of thought.

It’s very dark in the great hall, and no Kern would ever pollute the heart of a Gnarlish tree with a flaming pitch torch. So the halls are illuminated with the scales of the Shrike, which they shed each summer’s eve. Placed in loosely woven baskets they give off a wonderful light, which may be one of the reasons why the Kern so love to feast in the great hall.

As Lurbit ate his meal that night, the hall was filled with the excited chatter of the Kern who were eagerly discussing what in the worlds had caused him to polch. Brushing the last crumbs of his meal from his lap, Lurbit stood up as he cleared his throat. In an instant, the room was silent, all eyes upon him.

Their hushed silence continued through the night as Lurbit recounted his and Gopin’s adventure over the last few days. With great restraint, they maintained their silence when told of the discovery of a son of men who no longer belonged to the shade. But when he revealed that Bert was now only one hour’s polch away, they couldn’t help but gasp with amazement.

When Lurbit sat down, the room was immediately abuzz with excited voices. Lima (the elder who had first greeted him on his return) hobbled over and sat beside him. “Your tale has excited my ears but troubled my heart, not even the Great Book of Woade has predicted such a happening.” After a brief silence, he placed his hand on Lurbit’s shoulder. “Your acts have been according to the way of the Kern.” Lurbit’s heart was gladdened by Lima’s commendation. “You are wise to seek the council of the all, and your request for haste has weight. The brevity of man has indeed made him impatient, so it would be wise to act swiftly for now.”

Rising to his feet, Lima clapped his hands, causing immediate silence.”My friends, it does seem that the worlds have once again chosen to intervene in the ways of the living.” The Kerns murmured their agreement before falling silent. “As the ancient days have so harshly taught us, we must never again turn our backs on the world’s happenings, lest great sorrow falls upon the Kern as it has on the sons of men.”

“May it never be so,” gasped the Kern in unison.

“Aye,” sighed Lima, “may it never be so.”

“Lurbit must return before the rising of the light, so we must for now act swiftly. Our friend seeks your guidance as to the son of men.”

It was very foreign for the Kern to act quickly. For several minutes, they sat in silence, pondering the words of both Lurbit and Lima. The Kern love to ponder and chew over thoughts before acting upon them. In fact, it is nothing for a Kern to dwell on an idea for several months. This can cause even the most patient of tribes to at times grow weary of their company. But tonight this luxury had been removed from the council.

Eventually, a Kern by the name of Garador rose to his feet and stepped forward.”Would it not be wise to return him to the world of men?” Gazing into space, he allowed himself the pleasure of a few more moments with his thoughts. “Indeed Lurbit has acted wisely, but it is the Kernish way to walk upon the world of men, but not since Methiyal, have men walked amongst the Kern.”

Several of those seated nodded their agreement and rose to their feet to stand behind Garador.

The next Kern to rise was Zharin, who stood for several minutes, thoughtfully twirling the end of his beard before speaking. “Indeed Garador has spoken well, but the great urgency has made him walk down a sloping path. Should not we flee the haste of the sons of men and allow the patience of the Kern to guide our path?”

Rising to their feet, a great many Kern stood behind Zharin, leaving roughly an equal number seated.

A long silence followed which was eventually broken by Lima. “My brothers have indeed spoken well, and the astuteness of their words is great. Would it not befit the way of the Kern to take this son of men to the land of the night? Then we can attend to the wisdom of time, and keep his footprints from the soil of the Kern.”

Lima’s words met with the approval of many nodding heads. Those who had remained seated rose to stand behind Lima, and were soon joined by the supporters of Zharin and Garador. Lastly, both Garador and Zharin walked over to Lima, each placing a hand upon his shoulders.

Lurbit had his answer, and without further ceremony, he stole away. Once outside, he tenderly ran his fingers over the comforting bark of the Gnarlish tree. The Kern are not overly sentimental, but leaving their beloved Gnarlish tree was never easy.

Taking one last draught of the tree’s reassuring fragrance; Lurbit headed into the night. The Karapoti tree’s branches were shrouded in darkness and scaling a tree as massive as a Karapoti is no easy task at the best of times, but is near impossible at night. Lurbit had a perfect ally in the Shrike, who was sound asleep in the uppermost branches of the tree.

“Come now my friend,” he called, “we have friends to see and places to go.”

Roused from his sleep the Shrike began to glow, illuminating the branches below. Within minutes, Lurbit was perched beside the Shrike, affectionately scratching the skin under the large scales of his head. As the Shrike effervesced with pleasure, Lurbit whispered in his ear of the need to polch again. The Shrike glowed brilliantly with excitement.

“Ah my friend,” sighed Lurbit as he climbed once again into the Shrike’s pouch. “If only the future were as sure as your aim.” And with that, they soared into the night.

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