Rowan stepped onto the spongy earth floor and a small ache fluttered through his chest. This was his favorite place. He had a hammock and a small stock of canned beverages a mile or so to the south. There were few predators in this forest capable of causing him harm, though he couldn’t say as much for the smaller species that inhabited the branches above. The ache wasn’t regret or guilt or envy, it was from a sadness that he could not stay here, and an even greater sadness that the forest may not be here if he ever had another chance to visit. It wasn’t very often he happened upon the forest at the end of the world. With a sigh, he turned back to the heavy wooden door just as it closed with a thud. The door looked out of place here, set in the middle of a boulder that sat nearly thirty feet wide and half again as tall. Rowan suspected it was a perfect sphere that was half-buried in the soft earth. He would never know and he never felt the need to know. He didn’t have to think about anything while he was here. That’s why he liked it so much. He could just be. Except the hour had grown critical.
He opened the thick, wooden door with little effort and tried to peer inside at his next destination. It was pitch black. It always was until he stepped through, but he liked to prepare himself nonetheless. He took a deep breath and went inside. The damp heat of the forest vanished as he was assaulted by the crushing weight of freezing water. His buoyant body began floating above the door. He had entered the door at the bottom of the ocean. His least favorite place. He began swimming, propelling himself toward the stone door that remained open as the current coursed through its frame. His arms pushed and his legs kicked but he continued to float upward. His woolen trousers and leather boots offered little assistance in his attempt to sink toward the door. His thin, cotton shirt enveloped him like smoke. Before the panic welling inside him could surface, he remembered what to do and began to slowly let the air out of his lungs. The stream of bubbles shot upward until he became suspended. He moved neither upward nor downward. He let more air out and he began, slowly, to sink until his heavy boots touched the ocean floor. He leaned, walked and floated his way to the door and pushed it shut against the current. Then he opened it and stepped through as quickly as he could.
He fell onto the cobblestone of Harehall Lane. Several people bustled by giving his sprawled-out form a wide birth. He gulped in lungfuls of air as water pooled around him. The iron gate clicked shut behind him as he gathered himself on his feet. His limbs burned from the lack of oxygen and he continued breathing heavily as he got up and made his way up the street toward Doctor Nesbitt’s place.
Rowan didn’t bother with entering the back door, as was Nesbitt’s strict request to maintain his secrecy regarding his function as a member of The Foundation. He didn’t bother because his news was urgent and he was certain Nesbitt would scold him for seconds lost, so he burst through the front door, through the foyer, and into the study. Nesbitt was not in the study so he wandered through a hallway until her heard shouting behind him.
“I don’t care how it got here. Clean it up immediately. I don’t want to see a single drop when I return.” He recognized the voice as Mistress Beatrice. Despite his instinctive nature to avoid the bitter old woman, he forced himself to intercept her.
“Mistress Beatrice. Ma’am, I-”
“You!” her eyes blazed as she watched his saturated clothes continue to drip onto the hardwood. “I should have known it was you. No matter. Perhaps this will finally convince the doctor to be rid of you for good. Come.”
He did not argue. He knew full-well what any retort would earn him, and silence would get him to the doctor faster so he followed obediently as she navigated the halls. They ended up in the observation room where the doctor would meet patients outside of the hospital and others who could not afford house calls. Mistress Beatrice rapped on the door and entered.
“Doctor Nesbitt, sir, I found this rascal running through the foyer sopping wet. I am unsure where all he has trespassed, but I have set Wilkins to cleaning up before the floor is damaged.”
Dr. Nesbitt held a hand up to stop her. She hesitated, obviously prepared with a rant to destroy any reputation Rowan had, but she remained silent at the doctor’s order. Nesbitt glanced at Rowan briefly but managed to take all of him in. He returned to the little girl sitting in a chair against the wall and finished wrapping her arm in a cotton sling.
“Make sure you are gentle with the arm for at least two weeks. That means no fetching water. If your mum has issues with this, have her come speak to me. Come back if it still hurts next month.” He ushered the girl out of the chair and stood. “Beatrice,” he stared her straight in the eyes, “please see little Alana to the door.”
“Beatrice.” His inflection froze her. Her temper from moments ago seemingly vanished. “I will have words with the boy.” The answer offered little satisfaction but she accepted it as if they were a promise of punishment. She guided the girl from the room and disappeared. Nesbitt shut the door behind her.
“This better be urgent. We agreed only the back door, and only after the streetlamps were lit. If this is simply a lapse…”
“The Anvil has broken,” Rowan nearly shouted.
Nesbitt’s eyes bulged and he stumbled. Rowan helped him to a chair. “Who has confirmed it?” he asked.
“Aedmon himself. I heard it from Maltair and was sent to notify everyone.”
“Are any other messengers active with this knowledge?”
“None that I know, but I have not seen any since given the order.”
“I will tell any who arrive here. Now go. Tell as many as you can. I fear there is little this world can do in its current state, but I will do what I can to prepare and assist. Spread word of my intentions. They will know what little I can offer.” Nesbitt got up and ushered him to the door. “Run. Do not stop until they have all been told. We will not last without everyone present. We may not last even then.” The last sentence he said as if to himself. Rowan did not wait long enough to hear what followed. He ran through the halls, his clothes still dripping a trail behind him, and out the front door. He sped across the cobblestones to the iron gate and opened it. His breathing was heavy but he took a breath and stepped through.
The heat hit his face. The world was on fire and the arid earth absorbed the few drops that still fell from his clothes. The air soon ate away the remaining moisture. He hated this place, but it was the location of another member, perhaps the strongest, so he continued through the blazing air toward the mountain across the barren land in front of him. He ran despite the heat. He ran as if the world were ending. For all he knew, it may have already started.