Tesley found all that was said remarkably easy to digest. The tea sent a buzz to his brain he’d never felt before, and their purpose became clear. Had that really happened? It didn’t matter. He was exploding with knowledge he never thought possible—wherever it came from.
It took a whole minute into town before Alison spoke the first word. “He claims he left all the clues. Do you really believe him?”
“I think so,” Joey answered. “He gave us another, at least. We should look into it.”
“He said Tesley was the only one who would know.”
She cast him a glare, but it didn’t seem to drill quite as deep as her last.
“I don’t know what it means,” he admitted.
Joey stopped suddenly and caught him. He equated his hand from his own forehead to Tesley’s.
“Yup, you’re taller.”
“The old man, Joshua. He said the God Laser ages you. You’re taller than a month ago.”
“Of course I am. You are too.”
“You’re almost my height! And look—you’re at least two inches more than Alison. There’s no way you were even close to that a week ago.”
Tesley blushed. The situation was so exotic he didn’t know how to respond. “So?”
“So that means you better give me that Laser!” Joey roared. “Oh man, what I’d give to grow a couple more feet. Maybe even age to thirty.”
Tesley smirked at the thought. He wasn’t serious of course; couldn’t be. But it all made sense as mulled it over. Bad coordination, excessively sleepy nights. Why wasn’t he scared by this? Maybe he would be once the giddiness of that tea wore off. This was intense stuff. The God Laser had actually sped Tesley’s growth—and made him older.
Where did this power come from?
“…broken teleports. Hello, Tesley? Broken teleports!”
Alison was nudging him. He’d tuned out again. “Think, okay? Where have you ever been where a teleport broke?”
“Um. I don’t know? Portalways break sometimes.”
“Like in the Cavern,” Joey put in.
“And it took us into their Telly Alley,” Alison finished. “But that doesn’t seem right. The first power heart wouldn’t be there. It isn’t even a city.”
“Is there a particular city maybe? You’ve got to go somewhere when it malfunctions.”
“Yes—you remain in a million pieces sprinkled over thousands of miles of land.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a malfunction,” Joey said.
Alison flicked her hair back. “It isn’t common. It’s pretty big news when it does, but usually people just go missing and they declare them lunatics.”
“I never knew it was so dangerous,” Tesley expressed. “But it that’s so, wouldn’t broken teleports lead everywhere? Isn’t that an answer?”
“I don’t know,” Alison said. “It wouldn’t help us much if it was. That’d be like saying the power heart is the earth itself.”
“It could be.”
A couple on airboards soared out of a jewelry store to the side. Tesley usually never took the time to remark at all the trivialities in a town like Toldulin, but was pleased whenever he did. It felt relaxed, like a retirement town. Older people strolled the streets, shopped at markets, observed from the benches. There weren’t many now, oddly, but that wasn’t uncommon in the mid-day heat.
Tesley spent the next minute of silence pondering the one named Joshua. They all recognized without saying that the man knew far more than he should. Just a recounting of the Great Change alone would have stunned them stoic after his strangely senile impression the first time they’d met. Then he knew of special skills and the God Laser.
A smile parted Tesley’s lips remembering. Warmness rushed through his body from the slanted X around his neck. Sadly, not all had gone well. The man had been extremely hospitable, but also cost them the whole morning. Time had gone like a gale when they were in his house. How that happened was difficult to explain, but the tea was a good guess.
The streets were practically barren now. Once or twice a person stuck their head into the lane, but looked puzzled at its only walkers. In fact, a little anxiety was beginning to wash over Tesley as well. It’d come on gradually.
Alison slowed the pace almost to a crawl and picked up a new subject. “Do you suppose Jake’s Gizmo Emporium would have a suffuser? Like the hologram-thing Aaron had.”
Tesley spotted its neon green letters just ahead. Their hotel had been right beside it, across from the post office. “You actually want to have something of his?” he said reproachfully.
He heard how he sounded and wanted to recant. Alison dismissed him. “It could be useful,” she said. “You never know just when you might need some clones.”
“We really should check in with the League first.”
This last statement came from above—a smooth voice, familiar yet discomforting.
Aaron dropped down from the rafters.
Another followed, and then a third, all by way of the building’s shadowy eaves.
They all disappeared, and at last a genuinely-colored Aaron stood there.
“I don’t like being the bringer of bad news, but someone has to do it.”
“Aaron?” Alison cried excitedly. “Aaron, how are you here?”
“Thanks for the welcome.” He gave a light smile, gorgeous teeth, chocolate eyes. “The truth is, that isn’t positive either.”
“Tell me, tell me.”
He gave Tesley and Joey each a somber glance before continuing. “They let me out on bail, Largodore security did. I convinced them I wasn’t any harm to their cause, being on a similar side myself. I showed them my Task Force card, gave a few references.”
“They just…” Tesley began. “They just let you out after a day?”
“This morning. I know some tops in the Grey system. Sad to say though, this could still put a mark on my record. Assaulting councilmembers is never a good practice to get in the habit of.”
“Have you spoken with the League? They were worried when we told them about you.”
Aaron put is weight squarely one leg. “That’s what I’m here to tell you.” He surveyed again. “Is there any place secure?”
“The… post office bar,” Alison proposed. “Or, or Jake’s Gizmo Emporium.”
They filed into the adjacent technology store. It appeared as Tesley remembered it: flying, spinning, flashing, clattering. Salesmen ran back and forth after potential customers. Holograms and destructive ‘adult-only’ toys were abundant.
Down the rock-look steps they turned into an aisle of medicines. Aaron knelt and crouched as they formed a secret huddle.
“The Renegades were here.”
Alison released an automatic shh! before catching herself.
He lowered his voice. “They were after your League, I think. When I arrived at Toldulin the streets were bare. I sensed something not right, and got out my heat-and-radar sensor. Some figures were where they shouldn’t be, if you get my meaning. I’d look out a window and notice the splotch really referred to a place on the roof, along with more in doorways, around corners, even in bushes.”
Aaron paused to let this soak in. Tesley felt furthest from a sponge as one could possibly be.
“Renegades had this place staked out all morning, waiting,” he went on. “I watched from under the eave you saw. It lasted hours. No one moved. No one breathed. Once in a while I saw some action in my readings under the post office and the hotel. Some casual citizens walked past freely—others disappeared strangely as soon as they were out of my sight. I can’t describe it. Where was the League?”
“In the hotel, we think,” Alison answered. “Although they could have switched to the bar.”
“Right. And somehow the Renegades knew that too. I’m not sure what we should do.”
“Well first we need to figure out just what happened,” Tesley said. “Are you sure no one left in that time? And how did they all disappear afterward?”
“There was some movement,” Aaron reported, “but I couldn’t know who it was. At the end they all grouped into four or five units and vanished. Teleported likely.”
“What about the Abetors?” Joey asked. “Have you seen them?”
“I received word via puddle-splash they were on their way. They mentioned nothing about it, but were evidently planning to meet up with the League. I haven’t told them otherwise. They’re coming.”
“Puddle-splash?” Tesley rubbed his forehead.
“Way of communicating that uses a message-stone thrown across a puddle. It travels across any type of water. It rained this morning, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
They all strained their necks out the window. It looked slightly damp if one used their imagination, but sunny as summer. “We hadn’t.”
“It was brief, actually. Happened when I was under the eave. A leaking eave. Most uncomfortable. Anyhow, the fact is some evil may have befallen the League and we need to come up with some concrete evidence before the Abetors arrive. Trouble is, it may still be dangerous outside.”
“Why do we need evidence for the Abetors?” Tesley challenged.
“We don’t,” Alison piped. “But we need to at the very least check if they were taken to begin with. There’s an ever-so-slim chance the League escaped.”
“They haven’t been captured yet,” Joey added.
“Okay. So we need to take a look around the inn and post office in case they left some blaring clue of their whereabouts.”
“Teleport dust, perhaps.”
They’d all risen, and Aaron with Alison strode out the aisle. They never answer his clueless questions. Aaron was his usual business self, and the rest immediately assumed the same.
Aaron checked his heat-sensor now. It found nothing, but there’s always the chance of a Renegade masking device or trip-teleport somewhere—meaning touch one spot and they all come rolling in. Tesley wasn’t really positive about that, but it sounded good.
There wasn’t much else for it. Aaron dashed alone across the lane, waited, and beckoned for the others. Together they ducked around back and descended into the bar.
It was torn top to bottom. Ransacked, burned. Chairs turned over, carpet ripped up, glasses broken. Every door was knocked off its hinges. Tesley wondered where all the people had gone; if the Renegades led them go or took as prisoners. Or worse.
They did some combing themselves. Tesley kept his eyes open for any teleport dust, whatever that was. Not much use. The floor was blanketed in scraps of paper and shards of glass. It’d be like finding a grain of sand.
A few minutes by and they proclaimed a lost cause. Joey declared it more likely they’d been in the hotel anyway.
Similar results there. The place was a mess, and only slightly less so because there was less to wreck. Holes made the wall look like cheese. Light fixtures were shot out. Piles of black soot lay about and stained cloth scraps that used to be blankets. Not a soul in sight.
“I found some dust,” Alison announced. She pointed to barely a dozen golden specks beside what remained of a bed. “That means someone used a portalway. Who, we have to figure out.”
Tesley touched the bed knob and watched the whole frame collapse. Aaron admonished him for being loud.
And to think he’d slept on one of these very same velvet cots the night before…
“I think they came in this way,” Joey said by the door. “The lasers are pointed from the hall.” He stepped in. “Then they gave this room a sweep before moving on to the next.”
“But why are there so many holes?” Tesley asked. “Haven’t they used lapidifiers in the past?”
“Good question. Maybe that means they weren’t having success and needed to tear the place up.”
“Meaning the League had some time to react. It can’t be all lost then. And I can’t imagine them…” The word froze for a moment. “Killing.”
“No. Especially since there’s no blood.”
Tesley considered himself silly for even entertaining such a thought. Surely the Renegades weren’t that serious?
They decided to clear their minds of this and settle back in the corner of Jake’s Gizmo Emporium. Joey constructed a little table there of transforming toys, along with four message-seats. A regular tea party, without the tea.
The consensus: hope. That’s all they could do right now. And in the meantime, the Abetors were supposedly on their way. Yeah, right. Aaron kept insisting they were due any minute, but not a mark was made in the watched puddle outside.
“If they don’t want to come, no one’s stopping them,” Joey commented.
“They said they would,” Aaron repeated. “And whenever Reuben puts his mind to something, he does it.”
Tesley rolled his eyes. The guy idolized Reuben. But he didn’t know his true nature. Or what they suspected.
Aaron kept his eyes out the window even through Joey’s mock pouring of their tea. No salesmen had approached this front nook yet. Maybe he’d scared them all off.
“Did you find anything out while I was gone?” he asked, unmoving.
“Actually—” Joey began.
“No,” Tesley cut in. “Nothing worth speaking of besides the final clue. You could take a look at it if you like.”
Aaron looked now, raised eyebrows and bouncing sight hinting he did. Alison held out her ink note and waited until he turned even more confused.
“My ink. Funny, isn’t it? Only I can read the final clue.”
“Seriously. I want to see it.”
“This is it. Do you need me to read it for you?” She smiled.
“Yeah. Go for it.”
Alison recited. It sounded different this time to Tesley. He now understood the message: Chamber of Light—fictional. J.S.—Joshua Starbearer, a.k.a.: “old man.”
Aaron’s put his hand to ear in thought after making her read it a second time. “And do any of you have an idea where this might be?”
“No,” Tesley answered promptly. “Except… we’d have to find the Chamber of Light, right?”
“Good. I think you should look into that. The League didn’t know either.”
“Tesley…” Alison gave him a screwed expression. “We can trust him.”
He gulped and glanced between them both. “Are you sure?”
“He’s helped us, gotten captured…”
“About what?” Aaron demanded.
“The clue,” she said. “We have a lead.”
“Ye-ess?” Aaron prompted, leaning forward.
Tesley gazed around in awkward silence. He wished it could stay like that forever. Expectant faces, all on him. It must have lasted a good minute before Alison spoke again.
“It’s fine.” She sounded disappointed. “If you don’t trust your friends, or feel against it, that’s okay. I’ll respect your decision. Tell him or don’t, Tesley.”
“I—” He cleared his throat, but was still hoarse. “No, I agree with you. It might not do much good as it is.”
He coughed and now wished he did have some tea. “We talked with someone like a founder this morning. He told us he knows the clues well and gave us the next. The J.S.—that’s his initials. He told us—he told me—to go where broken teleports lead.”
“Teleports. He said it was part of my experiences, as if he knew. I can’t even remember any place I teleported back then except Tanburk with the Leaguers.”
Tesley felt his blood rush to his brain. He became suddenly fixed in the thought. His heart sped and X amulet quivered. No… couldn’t be.
“Really.” It seemed Aaron paused for an equal eternity. “That’s interesting. So the Chamber of Light is in some city that contains a crossroads for incomplete teleports. I know some of those. In fact, I have a pretty good guess.”
“You do?” Tesley was shocked.
“Of course. How did I not see it before? Contristo.”
“And that is…” Alison pressed.
“Up by Aldencros in the northern mountains. Their Cross is the largest I know of, almost a whole market square in size. Plus, I heard of a—what was it?”—he looked down to his side—“An exhibit there. Called the Room of Light. There could be a correlation.”
“Makes sense,” Joey agreed.
Tesley was having a hard time even listening in. His whole mind was blocked by one thought. He didn’t want to go to Contristo. Contristo wasn’t the First City.
Like really, how could it be a city he’d never heard of?
“It’s logical,” Aaron went on. “Hidden high in the mountains, massive, and has the place in the clue.”
“He told me my experiences though,” Tesley grit. He didn’t know whether to mention what the man had told them about the Chamber.
“Maybe he thought you’d know about it. It’s pretty common knowledge.”
“An old man too,” Joey said. “He could have got a fact screwed up.”
Had Joey forgotten already? The events were just swirling down in a whirlwind. Tesley felt swept away.
“Contristo sounds decent enough to try at least,” Alison consented. “We need a city to go for.”
“It’s perfect,” Aaron insisted. “We better go as soon as possible. The best way we can help the League is to finish this quest.”
“I guess the Abetors can wait, since they aren’t showing,” Joey said.
“Couldn’t we at least give thought to another?” Tesley pleaded over the rising voices of his companions. “Like—like…”
“What?” Alison tilted her head.
Aaron put his hand on his shoulder. “Time, my friend.”
Tesley caught sight of a set of detonating babushka dolls. He wished he could test one.
The four of them whisked outside. Destination: Teleportation Cross. Aaron led with a swift step down just three buildings.
“I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before,” he mumbled over and over. “Room of Light. But then we didn’t have this clue.”
He turned to them before the booths. “I have a new trick up my sleeve I learned in the Incarcerator. One of the Greys and I hit it off. He gave me this.”
Aaron held up an apparent red marble. Then he lifted his slife and touched them together. An extension.
When their turn came, he waved the slife in a circle around the keys. It beeped. He spoke the location “z99” and the world spun—without ever giving a name.
“Nowhere to get contraband like from the authorities,” Aaron said when they stepped out.
Tesley felt a knock in his chest, followed by a shiver—it was utterly frigid. The door wasn’t even open, and icicles crept the cracks. Mr. Conductor at the podium wore a wool robe at least a foot thick. Ten other refugees huddled in the far corner.
“Looks like we came in an ice storm,” Joey remarked. “Does this place have a weather tower, Aaron?”
“Actually, yes. They’re probably just giving the drums a break. It’ll be back to seventy before you know it. We might as well wait here.”
“It came on pretty fast,” the conductor spoke, overhearing. His voice shook with his shivers. “They didn’t even announce it till ten minutes ago. I swear, those weather operators are getting more careless by the day.”
In the meantime they dipped into the restroom. Tesley found the faucet was too frozen to even work and left feeling unpleasant.
Five minutes later the storm indeed subsided, leaving him wondering what the purpose was. There was no way any place on earth could have been that cold. With below freezing and blue fingers inside, what was outside like? Regardless, it was now seventy and sunny.