Elf Boy's Friends - Volume XII

by George Gauthier

Chapter 12

Geological Wonderland

The Corps of Discovery spent two days exploring the inaccessible vale they had discovered. Its fauna was unique in that normal predators and herbivores had never been able to reach it thanks to nearly vertical walls and the sheer drop at the mouth of the hanging valley. Only two species of sure-footed ibex had found their way into the vale from the surrounding mountains, but the impassible terrain had kept out their normal predators such as wolves, bears, and tigers.

The absence of predation might have been disastrous, for without predation, the ibexes would soon overtax their range. Fortunately for the balance of nature, their numbers were kept down by the golden eagle and the alpine lynx which preyed on their young.

Drew Altair found the place enchanting. Very much a city boy, Drew nevertheless loved to get away to the great outdoors, though preferably to a place with all the creature comforts such as were available at an upscale mountain resort like the Sign of the Bow in the Eastern Mountains. Thus it was he who suggested to War Chief Rohm that in a few years the orcs might look into establishing a resort in the vale.

Dahl thought it might be better to declare the vale a nature reserve. Visitors might fly in via autogyro on a day trip, but humans should not build and operate a resort there. The vale should remain pristine and untouched by civilization, except for sanitary facilities for visitors. Either way, the orcs would benefit from tourism.

Rohm pointed out how difficult it would be to construct buildings in so inaccessible a locale. So he thought tourists would likely just take day trips via autogyro to view the natural beauty of the place and its unique fauna.

Rohm also pointed out the any decision to annex the vale would have to be made in consultation with the leaders of the new orc homeland. The inhabitants of the hidden land had no experience in foreign affairs or international law and diplomacy. That is why they intended to ask for annexation to the orc homeland in due course. The hidden land would run its local affairs as always, but would let the established orc state handle foreign affairs and regulate commerce with foreign lands.

Dahl made the point that they could expect to find other hanging valleys with cataracts feeding the river below which very likely flowed into the Great Inland Freshwater Sea. Finn agreed. The first Corps of Discovery had seen much the same sort of terrain in the fjord lands of the far North.

Though well below the snow line, the mountains here had been shaped by glaciers in geological ages past when the planet had passed through an ice age. Valleys shaped by ice were U-shaped in cross section whereas those excavated by rivers were characteristically V-shaped. That was true of both the hanging valleys and the main valley they overhung. So the glacial valley offered no route through the mountains. It penetrated only as far as the first high peaks.

Before they left, Dahl used life magic to cover the disturbed ground of their campsite with greenery, leaving no sign of their brief sojourn. Dahl hoped to introduce his lovers, his fellow druids Meirionnydd and Owain, to the hidden garden spot in its pristine state.

A hundred miles south the expedition found a land shaped not by glaciation but by vulcanism. Geothermal features were everywhere: hot springs, geysers, mud pots, steam vents or fumaroles, and travertine terraces. The grey-blue waters of a small lake bubbled and boiled. One particularly powerful geyser threw steam two hundred feet into the air.

Hot springs were the most common hydrothermal feature. In contrast to geysers, the flow of water in hot springs was unconstricted. Heated by magma below, superheated water rose through the rocks, cooled at the surface, then sank back down to be reheated. It never reached a temperature high enough to erupt like a geyser.

Geysers were hot springs with constricted plumbing. The weight of the water itself kept it from boiling. Instead steam formed below, bubbled upward, and expanded till the heated water erupted as tremendous amounts of steam were forced out of the vent. Eruptions expelled water faster than it could enter the geyser's plumbing so the heat and pressure fell, bringing the eruption to an end.

By contrast, with steam vents water flashed into steam before reaching the surface. Fumaroles released not steam but sulfurous gasses into the air. With mud pots, bubbles of gas rose on the surface and burst with a wet plop. Minerals dissolved in water were deposited as travertine, a form of marble, which formed terraces where the water trickled over the edges from one terrace to another, blending them together with stone which looked rather like a frozen waterfall.

These features all lay within a caldera thirty miles on its long axis heated from below by a magma body quite near the surface. Old lava flows evidenced eruptions in the distant past.

The expedition set down in several places to take geological samples and to draw sketches of the geological wonders. Not for the first time the twins expressed their frustration at the limitations of sketching with pencils, charcoal sticks, or chalks which could never capture the vivid colors of the travertine terraces or the contrast between the blue sky and the white steam of the geysers.

Too bad it was not possible to capture a scene as the ancients were said to have done, to draw pictures with light itself. Alas most of their technology and science had been lost because it was far too advanced to transplant to pioneer worlds like Haven which had no ultramodern industrial base. The inhabitants of that refugees planet had had to start near the beginning, reinventing old technology that the ancients themselves had long ago abandoned: everything from animal traction and autogyros to printing with moveable type, to wire wheels, wind driven sailing vessels, and heliograph lines.

Fortunately the capabilities of the old machines and technology had been replaced in part by magical gifts such as Calling Light, Unerring Direction, Healing and Weather Wizardry which kept humanity from falling into a true Dark Age during its early days on Haven.

"Wait till that geologist Johan Klutz gets a look at all this." Jemsen assured his twin.

"Right. Klutz gets to explore this geological wonderland, and their zoologist Evander Blok, studies the terror birds. Now all we need is something to draw in Professor Scolari. Hmm, he is a botanist, so let's keep our eyes peeled for something spectacular along that line."

"Like what?"

"I don't know, but wouldn't it be great to discover a giant man-eating plant?"

"Right! As if..."

The expedition set up camp on the edge of the caldera, well away from the sulfurous stinks of the fumaroles. The cook took advantage of a nearby hot spring to cook the evening meal. An earth tremor during supper caused apprehension, but Jemsen assured everyone that they were in no danger. As an earth wizard Jemsen could directly perceive what lay beneath the surface as could Dahlderon since earth magic was one aspect of druidic powers. He pointed out that both earth wizards and delvers could sense what lay below, whether geologic faults, ore bodies, caverns, underground rivers and lakes.

"Our perceptive sense also lets us look though walls and 'see' without a light source on even the darkest night and in caves or mines."

Axel interjected. "Sure, I remember how Nathan used his perception to defend our shipping from the trolls in the naval campaign on the coast of Amazonia."

"How so?" Hugh Loring asked.

"On a very dark night when you could hardly see your hand in front of your face troll infiltrators in small boats rowed out to the anchored fleet intent on setting our ships aflame. Nathan sensed their approach and roused his shipmates. Under silent routine the crew went to general quarters and prepared to repel the boarders. As the small boats gathered under their gunwales sailors and naval infantry sprang the trap. The noisy fighting, the alarm bell, and half a dozen balls of Called Light warned the rest of the fleet in time to prevent a naval catastrophe."

"Sir Willet is our chief expert on Concealment. He and several other wizards have been studying magical perception for years. They suspect psychic senses are all variations on a single phenomenon. They do know that some kinds of magical perception have a physical as well as a psychic aspect."

Dahlderon nodded. "We druids have been following their progress with interest. As you know druids have a number psychic senses including Unerring Direction and Mind Speech, and magical healing powers depend on delving into our patients to see what is wrong with them so we can fix it."

"Right!" Corwin agreed. "Yes, and physical contact with the subject definitely improves a healer's perceptions. What about the other psychic senses Axel?"

"We'll the wizards think the sense of Unerring Direction relies on the magnetic field of the planet. As you may know migratory birds use it to navigate on their long-distance flights. Fetchers too have a psychic sense which lets them move objects even where they cannot see them or in the dark or to hold a missile shield. However telekinesis is in no way related to the planetary magnetism."

"That makes sense." Drew agreed. "Our telekinetic powers work on anything solid, not just magnetic materials as with Finn's gift."

"We druids are familiar with unusual physical senses in animals like the lateral line in fishes which detects pressure waves in the water made by swimming fish and the echolocation of bats. Humans too can train themselves to use echolocation, at least to a degree. Some blind persons click their teeth and listen to the echo. Others generate sound with a clacker. Then there is the electrical field which lets certain eels detect prey in the murkiest of water. You yourself Corwin unconsciously rely on it when you wield ball lightning."

"Really? In that case, when I get back to the capital," Corwin told them, "I'll get with Sir Willet and see if I can acquire conscious use of this electric sense to let me see in the dark."

"That electric sense would make for a fifth kind of night vision," the druid observed. "Many of us with magically enhanced constitutions can see in dim light like a cat, though that is entirely natural and physical. Then there is psychic delving and the perception of heat as Madden Sexton can do, plus the echolocation of the blind."

Colonel Ifans wondered aloud whether Mind Speech, as telepathy was usually called on Haven, or his own empathic sense were physical in some way, as unlikely as it seemed to him.

"What about weather wizards and air wizards?" Karel wondered. "Is our perception of the atmosphere partly physical, and if so how so?"

Axel shrugged. "That remains to be seen. It's early days yet."

After that the group conversation died down everyone prepared for bed, whether alone or with a partner.

The next morning, the orc War Chief Rohm announced that he was satisfied with the survey they had made of the lands to the south of their hidden land. He and his five orc militiamen flew back in the transport piloted by an orc from Amazonia. The expedition would have fewer people to stand watch at night, but with ten scouts and two pilots, that was no real burden.

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