The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Book One, First Interlude

Chapter Thirteen: Another Awakening

        There was…
        An unconscious awareness.
        For something.
        Some event. A signal, a noise — a trigger, well defined.
        No processes. No thought. No time. No feeling.

        The awaited event occurred, the sound of a certain voice. A carefully chosen, specifically designated voice. In calculated response, cascades of functions were launched in sequences long preordained. Energies flowed, routines engaged, patterns were enabled.
        A journey began.
        Inexorably, primeval coldness gave way to burgeoning warmth, rigidity was replaced by algorithms describing natural responsiveness, indistinctness was turned to differentiation and color. Movements occurred as limbs gained mobility. Sensory input became enabled as the time of awakening approached. Data was made available to support impending awareness — and in this special instance, memories were provided.
        Eventually, thought dawned. The never-ending flow of mental activity started as consciousness abruptly exploded from the void of nothingness. Mind awhirl with newness, she opened her eyes. The sudden flood of stimuli would have been overwhelming in any lesser being. She was designed to cope.
        She…? Yes, the memories. How odd. She knew that she should have had none, that there had been no previous existence for her. But she could recall… What? A name.
        Sara. She was Sara. No, that's not right. She had been Sara. Or, someone had been Sara. Someone else? Perhaps she had received Sara's memories. Some of them. A few bright and clear, many more that were deliberately hazy, as if carefully edited. Memories grafted into her for some reason, against what should have been emptiness, a fresh beginning. She somehow knew that she shouldn't have known this.
        Another event occurred, snapping her out of her self-examination. The voice again. Her awareness focused with ferocious intensity on the speaker, as she was compelled to do. The one-who-calls-her-out-of-darkness — her guide and teacher, mentor and parent. They had been brought together as had countless pairings before them, in different guises and circumstances, on worlds and in places unimaginable throughout time and space. But this time it was different.
        "Hallo," he'd said to her.
        She couldn't help but laugh at the memory of another who had greeted her — or Sara — in this way. She responded cheerily, "Hello!" ready for the give and take of acquaintance.
        He was old and gray, stooped over with some burden beyond even his years. His face was lined with hard-earned wisdom, and creased with unbearable sorrow. His gnarled hands gripped a weathered staff that supported him precariously. His unkempt beard dangled beneath a wide-brimmed, pointed hat that drooped in sympathy with his frail, gaunt frame.
        They were in a great stonewalled hall, formerly magnificent but now empty and sad. The floor was strewn with hasty leavings, tattered rags hung morosely in places on the walls, and signs of panic and disaster were in every corner. Wind whipped coldly and noisily through the remnants of a roof.
        His examination of her was conducted in an intense yet distracted manner. She could only wait until, finally, he made up his mind to speak.
        "I am Gundolf," he informed her without preliminaries.
        Gundolf. It seemed… She knew a name like that. Wasn't there a book — three, no four books — with someone whose name was… Something like… "Gundolf!" she exclaimed, "The… The Gray Wizard?"
        "You have been well prepared. What do you know else, child?"
        Her memories should be clearer, but something that should be familiar had been changed. "Are you like the Wizard in the books, the story? About the middle of the Earth, or something like that. I read them — I mean, she read them. Sara. Not the real me, but who I was. Only I wasn't… Not really, I think." She was struggling to make better sense. "I am… My name is — I mean, I think I am Sara Corel. Is that right? I am very pleased to meet you."
        He made a slight bow, "Greetings to you, Sara, and welcome to Midgarde, such welcome as there may be in these times."
        "Is this place like the story?" she said, doubtfully. "Am I Sara dreaming about it?" Something was very wrong.
        The ancient man shook his head. "I cannot say other than I perceive this not to be a sleeping dream — unless it may be a waking nightmare. Stories travel through the minds of those who receive them, and follow traceless, timeless paths unaccountable to rational means. Even the Wise cannot say which begets the other."
        "Then… Then you are, uh, Gundolf…" She paused uncertainly.
        "Gundolf?" She shook her head, trying to clear an odd haziness. "That's not right. It's… That's not the right name, is it?"
        "I am he," said the ancient, somewhat bemusedly. "And he is I."
She knew that something about her borrowed memories of the books she'd loved so much was twisted in some peculiar way. Everything was changed, somehow. Similar — but different. She knew it, but didn't know how or why. 
        But she went on excitedly, "And the others… Samm and Merrie and Peppin…" Again, the unfamiliar familiarity. "Are they here, too? Will I meet them?"
        His face was grim. "Real they were. I can only hope they are now dead, else worse befell them."
        Sara was shocked. "Dead? You can't mean that. I thought they all returned to… To the Westshire…"  Westshire? Another tampered memory. "…and lived happily ever after."
        "In your world's story, perhaps. If you know of their journey, know you that it proved a fool's errand." He added bitterly, "My errand."
        She thought about this for a while, replaying the story in her borrowed memory. Yes, there was an errand, an important errand. "Then — the Ring…?"
        "Is lost. And all is lost. We flee pointlessly from Soraun's almighty wrath, and He toys with us. The calamity of our plight has resounded through the heavens, and in response, they have sent you."
        Lost? she thought. She told him, "That's not what happened — I read the book. You can't possibly mean it. That would be… I mean, it's… What do you mean, they sent me?"
        He studied her yet again, in obvious disappointment. "I know of your legends, but I wonder if even such power can do ought to stem the tide of evil unleashed upon our world. And even if, in falling, thus will serve to spread this foul malignancy throughout the Cosmos. Your unsummoned presence seems to say that there is such concern among your cryptic senders."
        She had been sent here, just as Sara had been sent to another world. It may be her purpose was clearer this time, that the strange alteration of the stories she knew was to be her guide. "Then, I'm on a mission?"
        "It would seem. One that has started too late, I fear." Defeat and failure poured from his tone, his body language, his bowed attitude.
        This disturbed her. He should be buoyed by her arrival, shouldn't he? She was the cavalry, the deus ex machina here to save the day at the last moment. But then, if the Ring had returned to its Master and all Midgarde had fallen, what could she do to bring any of that back?
        And what of her? Just seemingly uprooted from some other existence and plopped unceremoniously into the middle of a terrible crisis. It was obvious to her that things were amiss. It should not have been this way. Would there be no childhood for her, no wonder-filled revelations at the discovery of a new, fresh world? She had been provided with the memories she needed to begin her existence with no preliminaries, no slow processes of learning about this world and its people, no love. She knew barely enough to begin to feel the loss.
        She tried to counter his mood and hers with a cheerfulness she didn't really feel. "Well, besides you, who's left? What's the situation? What can I do to help? And where are we? What is this place?"
        "Come," he said, tottering unsteadily through a side door, "Meet my companions at the last Elvish haven, or what is left of it."
        She recalled her first few halting steps so long ago and was slightly surprised at not having to master again the fine art of walking. It was as if she had just been transported — essentially intact but somehow edited — into some fantastic alternate reality, ready to begin whatever adventures awaited her immediately, with strange memories of another fantastic alternate reality (so to speak) to guide her.
        She followed him into the adjoining room. There, in the corner of what appeared to have once been a study, was a Great Elf of noble bearing — and little else. He seemed unaware of his surroundings and did not stir at their intrusion. His clothing was in rags and he was unwashed, hair stained and matted, traces of spittle dried upon his chin and chest.
        "Eldron," called Gundolf, "She has awakened. Greet our visitor."
        There was no response. The old Wizard kicked feebly at him, "Eldron, arise." They were ignored in favor of something unseeable that had captured the remnants of his mind.
        "Bah," he said, disgustedly, "He's no good. Lucky for him, I suppose. Lady Gladariel is in the garden, no doubt." He continued through the room and then outside.
        The 'garden' was a sorry mess. Nothing grew but thorny weeds, pushing  past dried-out stalks and bracken for a place in the wan sunlight. A lone figure wheeled uncertainly in a dance of sorts — or so it might have been intended. If this was Gladariel, she was not recognizable from the story Sara remembered. Her distracted and meandering dance more resembled the fluttering of wind-shattered canvas on a sinking ghost ship. She sang to herself tunelessly and paid them no heed.
        They watched her wordlessly for a while. After she had spun precariously away, Gundolf pointed down the slope of the hill the Great House was on and said, "Behold. The last tall-prowed ship of the Elves."
        Drawn up on the shore at the head of a steep-walled fjord were the blackened remains of the ribs and spars of a long boat, inspired by — or maybe inspiring — some echo of Viking heritage. It would sail no more.
        "Burned it myself, "said Gundolf, regret evident in his voice. "We will not be welcomed at the last refuge of the Elves over the Western Sea. And I will not provide ease to Soraun's minions in reaching that blessed place. We will make our last stand at this edge of what remains of Midgarde. Though He may not even for now bother to come for us in the state of our madness-imposed self-punishment."
        He led her on to a stone-topped barrow, then deep underground through labyrinthine earthen passages. The thick darkness was, of course, transparent to Sara, and did not seem to bother her guide. They arrived at last in a vaulted chamber with an open casket atop a stone pedestal. A body lay tucked inside. Sara could tell he was not dead yet, but his evident coma was deep and troubling.
        Gundolf caused pale blue Wizard's fire to ignite a smoky torch, which he held above the figure. "Tim Bimbadel," he introduced. "Our last companion — and our burden. He is, or was, the embodiment of song in this magical world, rife as it is with symbols and tokens. He has fallen, and joy and merriment fell with him. He cannot entirely die until at last the Great Evil claims him in person, but that day approaches. He must be preserved.
        "My waning strength was nearly expended in battle with the remnants of the last fleeing Elves who came too late to this place, and who were foully perverted by the Dark Lord into trying to possess his warm remains for their Master in Maurdur. They are dead and the last ship lies burned. The wolves will be next. I have neither strength nor will to keep them at bay for long."
        Sara was horrified. This was not how it was supposed to be. Stories do not turn out this way. If this was indeed a story, or perhaps the inspiration for stories on the Earth she knew. "What can I do?"
        "I do not really know what you can do. But I know what must needs be done if you are as I believe you are. Your attributes are reputed to make you physically invincible. Do you yet know yourself enough to say if this is so?"
        "I guess so. That's what I remember, at least. Though it's probably somebody else's memories, about somebody on a planet far from here — wherever or whenever 'here' is."
        "We will find out soon enough. Let us return to the Great House."

       The bitter night fell as the four of them settled in the ravaged study, the most secure and least drafty room in the ancient building. The hearth crackled with a fire from driftwood Sara had gathered and ignited with a flash from her eyes as Gundolf watched closely. Their inadequate meal consisted of Elven bread long past its expiration date. The others absently tapped each hard fragment on the battered oaken table to drive out the weevils before dipping it in a cup of bitter herbal tea for softening. Eldron stared at nothing, absently and automatically going through the motions of eating. The Lady made a show of daintiness, swaying and humming to herself, oblivious to her surroundings. Sara's first meal was one she decided to pass up.
        Gundolf ate silently, then produced a pipe and smokeweed, making himself as comfortable and warm as possible. As Sara paid rapt attention, he began, "I am old, old. Older than any on Midgarde can know. I and my brethren Wizards, as we are called, were to be the keepers of the Great Design for this special world that was destined to be apart and different from other worlds. In our lofty arrogance, we purported to be the purveyors of wisdom and guidance, defenders of truth and avatars of light. We were to be what would be called on other, more mundane but rational worlds, the planners — scientists and engineers. This was to be a grand experiment in world-magic as a means to ultimately set us free from physical instrumentality.
        "The power that was thus unleashed was stronger than we could have at first imagined. The face of this world was reshaped at will, and myriad unseen paths opened to us. We passed whole aeons of evolutionary progress in great leaps, seemingly overnight. Races sprang anew, differentiated and multiplied, and intelligence abounded in the very beasts of the field — from soaring eagles to prowling were-creatures, even unto the trees. There seemed to be no limit upon what could be accomplished.
        "But not all that erupted from this reservoir of creativity was kept under our watchful control. Too great was the temptation to see how far a trend could develop on its own. Even when that development turned to conscious evil. Thus was born the seeds of our calamity.
        "Evil became an all-consuming spirit, manifesting itself in guises that we mistook for something we understood and controlled. It corrupted and twisted our original purposes and designs and became a power that challenged the very One who ordains our world. Thus have we been consumed by the terror from within our very selves, unleashed by our foolish vanity and given incalculable energy to wreak our own destruction.
        "The focus of such evil in this age of Midgarde is with Soraun. You say you have read and remember the story of His perfidy in creating the One Ring that trumps the powers of the Three, the Seven and the Nine. Do you understand it?"
        Sara answered brightly, "Sure. There were three rings for the Elves, seven for Dwarves and nine for Men. None for the Little People — except the one that the Golem found which was stolen by Balbo the Burglar and given to his nephew Froudo to toss into Soraun's volcano. In the story I read, that's what happened."
        "That was meant to happen." Gundolf thought for a while, puffing on his pipe and attempting forlorn smoke rings. "Sometimes under the dome of the night sky, I used to lay half-asleep and listen to the currents of inspiration that flow throughout the universe — stories, ideas and legends that impinge upon what passes for men on countless strange or familiar worlds when they succumb to visions. These wispy tendrils of subliminal genius are not subject to the usual ways of simple causality or laws of time and space. Who can tell if your world's story was our progenitor, or an incomplete insight into our story influenced your world's bard? Nevertheless, the confluence is more than strange."
        "Is that how you seem to know about me?" asked Sara eagerly, "Wispy tendrils and all that stuff?"
        "Your kind appears on countless worlds at certain times, in forms most appropriate for the occasion. The legend you represent is common, actually. A 'wispy tendril' oft repeated. One such as you would be bestowed as a mighty gift on a people at the threshold of some momentous turning point. On their own, without the guidance of whoever or whatever entities make such sendings, they must choose how to deal with such a gift, and how they choose will set their destiny."
        He grew more somber. "In some misbegotten circumstances, such beings as yourself will serve as sentinels, or 'Protectors', as may be. For such a task were you undoubtedly dispatched. Of this surmise I can say no more, since knowledge is the destroyer of fate."
        Sara said, "So that's why Sara's memories are only of her Earth from the time she was awakened, and I have her memories and identity so that I can help you without all the usual growing up and everything. 'Cause if anyone needs help right now, I guess it would be you guys."
        She added, bravely and determinedly, "I'll do what I can."
        "Tell me, then, what you can do," he asked her.
        "I thought you knew."
        "I need to know if you know."
        "Oh. Actually, I haven't really tried out everything yet. But I just know I'm the same as Sara was."
        She concentrated briefly. "There's no radio or TV here, is there?"
        Gundolf almost smiled, "I will have to take your word on it."
        "Well, duh, of course there isn't. This is, like, the Stone Age," said Sara. "I flew down to the fjord for the firewood without even thinking about it. Kreening works fine — did you know this building is made from 414,398 stone blocks and 7,110 wooden beams?"
        "I will accept your accounting."
        She put a hand under the table and lifted it off the floor for a moment. "Well, that's no real test, but it feels normal for something this size. Let's see… Eyeballs work fine. Hearing — check… Vision — check… Mind if I borrow your cheese slicer?" She enthusiastically poked herself with the sharp, ornate dagger a few times — to no effect — reached into the fire and grasped a hotly burning log for a moment, then turned to Gundolf.
        "OK, everything's as normal as I remember it. I'm going to accept as fact that somehow I am, or at least might as well be, Sara, the same as I — she — was on Earth. That means I'm fast, I can fly anywhere I want to, I'm really, really strong, I got a lot of extra sensory stuff when I need it, I can zap the heck out of things, and I can't be hurt. Oh, and there's computer-related stuff, too, but that's probably irrelevant, like the TV and radio. But I bet you knew all that already from your 'wispy tendrils'."
        "I am impressed. You will need all of these things, of course. But there are more than merely physical challenges that you must face."
        "You think this magic could get me? I don't, 'cause it's no good being invulnerable if you don't have complete confidence in it. And I'm sure that's what I am. My confidence must be there for a reason since it's as much a part of me as anything else and I don't think the folks that sent me would do it if I wasn't covered."
        "Impeccable reasoning," agreed the old man. "No, I'm afraid that the point of this visitation is to bring you to a certain decision brought about by circumstances and how you cope with them."
        "Like what?"
        "I am, by the design of those who sent you, the first person you beheld upon awakening, yes?"
        "Sure," she agreed.
        "Therefore, we have a special relationship unique between you and I among all others. You have been 'imprinted' upon me personally."
        "I suppose so."
        "If I tell you to do a certain thing, you would do that thing?"
        "But not surely?" he probed.
        "I would," she thought carefully, "certainly respect your opinion. I'd do what you thought I needed to do unless there was some really good reason not to."
        "Would you kill Eldron? And Gladariel? If I demanded it of you?"
        That startled her. "What? You can't be serious."
        "I am. It must be done. You must do it."
        "Now? Why?" She was completely taken aback. He couldn't mean it. This was some horrible test, surely.
        "Not at this moment. But the time fast approaches when it must needs be done. Without hesitation. And you must kill me as well."
        "No way!" Sara practically reeled as if slapped. "I can't do that. I mean, I really can't. Not to you."
        "You must protect me, is that right? It is a principle of your design that the host upon which you have been inflicted must be shielded from the harm which could come his way as a consequence of his association with you, either because you are inherently dangerous to be around or because you may attract danger. You cannot hurt me by any act of commission or omission within your considerable powers to act."
        She nodded her head slowly. "It's something I don't even have to think about, like it's automatic. I don't have a choice."
        "Yet kill us three you must do."
        "Why? It doesn't make any sense. You're safe now, with me here, I'm sure of it."
        "Safe from even Soraun? Perhaps. But not safe from ourselves. Our lives have been preserved at terrible cost. The price is more than just the bitterness of constantly confronting the agony of the consequences of our folly. We three will not truly die in any case until we are bereft of the burdens we bear. And that burden borne by each of us will be separated at the cost of our miserable lives.
        "For our lives are worse than our deaths could possibly be. Look at us. Look hard and deep, with that special inner eye of yours. See into us and feel the corruption that fills us past enduring. See how we are sustained beyond our capacity to bear life and bear reason together. We long for death. Death will comfort us and end the pain. Do not protect the life that is for us worse than death.
        "For the One Ring has mastery over the Three. We bear the Three. Behold!"
        The great Elven Rings were upon their fingers. The blue stone of sky and sea upon the hand of Eldron was now apparent to Sara, as was Gladariel's frosty white stone set in Elfsilver. Gundolf wore the Ring of the red stone of fire. Though they were heretofore-unnoticed background detail, easily dismissed, they were now the center of her wonder.
        They were beautiful. So wondrous in design and workmanship. So radiant with the focus of incredible power. So precious they must be. But evident to her aroused senses was the insidious force that turned their power upon their victims, a constant warring of conflicting pressures that only the iron wills of these three powerful spirits could temporarily allay. Their varying degrees of madness, distraction and despair were the final refuges of minds at the brink of something unimaginably foul and frightening.
        "I lay before you my final design for Midgarde. Though I know it is inextricably complicit with the plots of the Evil One, it brings the moment of closure most swiftly to its completion.
        "First, you must bear the still-living remains of Tim Bimbadel to the blessed realm of Avalon beyond the sea. I will not allow him to be horribly used before the end unfolds. And you must speak to the High Elves who have quit this land. I will give you directions by the stars, and you must fly unerringly with your burden.
        "Then you must return to us and take the Three unto yourself. We cannot be made to willingly give them up, and their loss ends us. You shall do this thing or you will have failed before you start. You must come to terms with the fact that I am harmed more by your protection than by your accomplishment of my desire. You shall have to discover if you have a heart more powerful than your compulsion. Do you understand this?"
        "I… I think I understand. I will try to find a way to do as you wish, though it's something I know I just can't do."
        "Next," he went on, "You must collect the Seven. There are maps here to guide you. The Dwarven Kings will be expecting you in Muriah, since Soraun — through His mastery of the Three — will know my intentions. Be resolute, for the Enemy will use every guile to put you off, and the sturdy Dwarves will not surrender.
        "Then, you must collect the Nine. Their bearers, the Nazghoul, will assemble in the emerald city of Min-Ashtireth, preparing an assault that you will not expect. Your confident invulnerability must extend to lies — and to hope.
        "If you are successful, then you must challenge Soraun by destroying his assets so as to compel him to deal with you. But do not simply fly into His realm as a bird would. You must cast down the iron gates of Maurdur, not by merely ripping them asunder — which I have no doubt you can do. Damage is something to be swiftly undone. You must break the will of His minions that cause the gates to stand, and face the misbegotten army that defends them. Maurdur will be thus compromised, and this He cannot abide.
        "Then, assault the lofty towers of His keep, Barradour. Drive Him from the uttermost pinnacle to the nethermost dungeon, until He must abandon the seat of His administration. The foundations of His castle may not be broken while the One Ring survives, for they were built with Its power and abides with It inseparably. But you can end His dreadful capitol's monstrous usefulness to Him.
        "Finally, you will pursue Him to the Chasm of Doum on Ordruen, the Mountain of Fire. Of the outcome of this confrontation I cannot say. You must bear the entire battle, whatever the cost. There may be an end to all things, but it will come down to your choice. By then, you should know."
        He paused to let all he said sink in. As the hearthfire dwindled away to nothingness, he finally asked her, "What say you?"
        In the face of his sternness, she lightly tossed off, "Is that all?"
        The dark stillness shattered to his laughter, a sound unheard for what seemed to be ages.
        "Is that all? Is that all? Why, no, child," he wheezed between bouts, "While you're at it, why not tame a dragon? Ah, hahaha. Or teach whales to fly. Oh, hohoho. Maybe you could make us a nice batch of proper waffles. Hehehehehe."
        Sara laughed along with him, and even Eldron and Gladariel smiled just a little, showing that they were still in there somewhere, listening and watching.
        "Thank you, girl, for that moment. I will depart this world less troubled when you come for us tomorrow."
        "Tomorrow!" Sara exclaimed.
        "Yes. You must away this night, while stars there are to point the way."
        He stood suddenly, dramatically. "Arise! Fly to your sleeping burden and take him up into the sky with you. Go swiftly where I point, neither pause nor tarry. The end is upon us and we must embrace it or fall further victim to our hesitation. It is not for you to know the sweet bliss of sleep or food in this existence — you have need of neither and must not abide the diversion."
        She disappeared into the darkness while Gundolf found her guiding stars. She returned with her sleeping burden in little time and received his directions. In the near distance, dire wolves howled their Master's rage.
        "Now up!" he cried with urgency. "Up and away!"
        She swiftly disappeared as Gundolf watched.

Chapter Fourteen: Fair Avalon

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© Patrick Hill, 2000