The door led into a featureless tunnel of the same purple glass. Light shone evenly from the walls so that there was neither shadow nor sense of depth. After a few minutes, Fred ceased talking and fell back, allowing Strin to lead. Fred glanced behind every so often, but he saw nothing. Doors passed to the left and right at times, but they were always closed and would not open, the only markers in the monotonous expanse.
The tunnel seemed endless. It curved slightly inward and downward, a giant spiral slowly boring into the center of the planet. The purple walls darkened and became blue. The two passed a few Eomite crawlers as they walked—small, slug-like mechforms making their slow, steady way along the ceiling and walls. One protruded feelers into an exposed section of the glass, examining and testing wires and other inner workings.
After a long while, perhaps an hour, perhaps two, Fred pronounced with finality, “We’re going in circles.”
“Fred.” Strin said the word calmly, but full of meaning—meaning that Fred was wrong, that Fred had known he was wrong when he had said it, that Fred had proceeded to say it anyway, and that he should have kept quiet.
“I’m cold, too,” Fred said.
They continued walking. Nothing changed. On the left, a door approached. It whirred open as they neared. Strin and Fred looked at one another, then entered.
Inside was a large chamber, larger than the one in which they had fought the mechform. It was a cavern of real rock and real stone, and its torches painted the room in flickering shadows. The room was roughly circular, and in the center stood a raised platform surrounded by steps. The platform was cut rock also, and at its summit stood the side of a ring, not of stone, but of some black, foreign material. White slashes marked the ring in an unknown language.
A figure clothed in thick, dark robes stood beside that black ring, staring into it. None of the figure’s flesh was visible, nor any hint of what sort of creature it was. Strin and Fred stopped at the base of the steps. It made no movement to indicate it was aware of their presence.
“Strin Telnok. Fred Milish.” The words came slowly, with a pause between each, like words mentally rehearsed before being spoken. They were clear, crisp, and valued; it was a voice that relished speaking because it seldom did so. “Come.”
They climbed the steps. “If he’s Eomite,” Fred whispered, “he certainly talks better than that floating head.”
Strin silenced Fred and stood to the right of the figure. Fred settled at Strin’s right. The ring of black seemed to be the edge of a well, but there was no water within the well. Instead, it was dark within, blacker than the bowels of the planet where it seemed to lead, but it was not emptiness: the well held something. There was no reflection on its surface and no evidence that light could touch the surface and survive. The liquid—if it could be called a liquid—was as flat as the glass of a silent lake, as ephemeral in appearance as smoke, as sturdy in actuality as diamond.(1)»
As they glanced into that well, Strin and Fred felt their attention drawn farther in. They strained to focus on some presence beneath the layers of darkness and intertwined within those layers. They felt that it was beyond them to see it and yet knew that they were on the edge of revelation. Images, voices, spurts of emotion; of personality; of place appeared to them and they sought to understand each, but the snatches moved too fast and died too quickly.
There was an ever-swelling fog of the deepest black, like dark waters engulfing a drowning man; Strin and Fred stood amidst the flood, in the center of it, and clawed against its tide. Pangs of destruction shot through them, along with jolts of despair, but glimmers of hope played on the surface above them. The voices of many spoke to them, each like an instrument, some deep and powerful, others light and dancing—and they recognized some. They held weapons in their hands, power flowed through them; their muscles ached, they bled. Strin felt his shoulders bend beneath the burden and heard his body crack in desolate silence. Fred vomited. His skin wasted away and brushed off in great sheets of ash. Hands gripped him, holding him together, and Strin felt the same hands as he desperately ran. There were screams, death, crying—of victory and of pain, and of desire given form. Ideas, faces, glimpses of dreams and reality—writhing veins of black and a great mountain of shattered glass, madness laughing, and beauty screaming—it was too much. They snatched for an image, an emotion, a single stable fact. Words without sound spoke to them:(2)»
The end is as the beginning was:
All history’s a trial.
Again, again the ancient conflict comes,
Now, neither beginning nor end.
Their eyes tore away from the well. The torrent ended.
Fred shook his head. “Wh … ?” He shook it again. “What was that?”
“The Well of Time,” the figure said.
“Thanks. That cleared it all up.”
“Fred,” Strin reprimanded. The figure put a long, gray hand on Strin’s shoulder.
“You are both young, without knowledge or wisdom. The Well of Time was constructed long ago to aid the world. It was a gift to us who wished to obtain wisdom. We were still whole then.” The clear voice trembled with the last words, then steadied. “Through it ripples the future flow of time. All is known by He Who Controls Time, but not all has yet been decided by those within time.(3)» That has yet to be. One can see the large ripples, the movements of the world, if one can interpret them. One can see the flow of time, but not the outcome. We are not wise enough. We will never be. We used to wish we could redirect what we saw. Some believe we still can. I no longer know, but we will try.” The figure fell silent and turned to stare into the Well.
“What does this mean then, what we’ve experienced?” Strin asked. “I don’t understand.” He had seen himself in the middle, though he did not know of what event.
“That is knowledge you must learn with wisdom. I can give knowledge, but not wisdom.” The figure seemed to be speaking to himself, or to others not there.
“Then why show this to us when we don’t understand? Why the test? There must be some reason.”
The figure turned to look at Strin. Its face was hidden in the darkness of its cowl. “Even a glimpse of a map can steady the mind when one is lost. Now, when the time comes, we will assist you.(4)» I cannot say more than that, though I wish to. You must leave. Your reason for being here is fulfilled.”
“But … ” Fred never finished the sentence; he blacked out.
They woke the next morning in their beds in the Crystalline Castle, just as one would have expected them to.
Hil’muv’tak studied the Well, searching for images he may have missed. He searched the Well continually; he always found new images, shadowy and indistinct. They would focus as the days passed. He only hoped he understood them when they did, for even when they were clear, they often eluded his comprehension until the event had passed. He knew too little of the world to understand, and the Well understood the world too completely to explain.(5)»
He pulled back his hood. He did not wear it normally, but for the humans he had. His was an Eomite face, but devoid of machinery. It was wrinkled and scarred, gray like his hand, and misshapen. Only the natural, the pure, were allowed in this chamber. But because he was unaltered, the others did not trust him. He had tested Strin and Fred by the mechform, as the others had wished. He had told Strin and Fred nothing of the future, as the others had wished. He knew little of certainty that he could have told them. The others must now consider his claims, for Strin and Fred had passed the test. The two’s forthcoming actions must prove to the others that Strin and Fred were worthy of their aid. That was all that mattered.
If Hil’muv’tak read the Well correctly, the Kingdom would need their help—both Strin and Fred’s, and the Eomites’—dearly in the days to come.(6)»