They came out into a wide, U-shaped valley encircled by craggy, grass-covered hills to the north. Far to the south, the hills opened out into a flat field planted to the horizon with corn. Gigantic towers, hundreds of meters high, dotted the plain like petrified giants, shepherding the space between earth and heavens. No two were alike, though all had metal aerials pointing at the sky.
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The valley itself lay nestled in the bowl of the hills, the open land at its center dominated by farms and sprawling, many-tiered gardens. The northern side, which lay deepest in the shadow of the highlands, was home to a small village. Terraces marched up the gentler slopes, joined to one another by narrow pathways and crumbling stone steps. The air was alive with the smell of herbs and sweet grass. A sky made of deep, endless blue looked on them from above.
"Good lord," Liam said. "This is beautiful."
Isaac smiled. "We caught it at the best time. This is late summer, just before harvest. A couple weeks from now, and the nights will start getting chilly."
"You didn't tell me you lived in the Garden of sodding Eden. I'd like to bottle this and take it back with me."
They followed a stone-walled path down into the Vale, flanked on both sides by high walls of vegetation, behind which could be seen latticed garden walls. Isaac led them now, taking forks with a casual sureness. Insects hummed in the undergrowth, dancing like dust motes in the tall bushes. A bumblebee the size of Liam's hand droned past, buzzing like a miniature tanker truck.
Their path ended before an open yard, flanked at the far end by a two-story farmhouse. A large fountain stood in the center of the yard, white paint flaking away from the stone surface. It was silent, and appeared to have been turned off a long time ago. A pool of still water sat in the lowermost bowl, glimmering as tiny fish swam about within.
Isaac put out a hand to halt Liam. "Hold on a second," he said. "I just need to make sure the perimeter's off." He approached the front gate and examined a metal pole. Machinery of some kind had been grafted onto the pole, the mechanical bits strapped and soldered into place. Isaac peered at this for a second before gesturing Liam inside.
"What was that, then?" Liam said. "Security system?"
"Sort of. If it's turned on, and something large breaches the perimeter, it projects an ultrasonic 'go away' noise to frighten it off. Most people don't hear it, but it drives the dogs nuts."
"Most people?" Liam peered at him. "You hear it, don't you?"
Isaac sighed. "Yeah. Drives me nuts, too."
The screen door banged open and a pair of dogs charged down the porch steps. The leader was a ridiculously handsome dog-wolf hybrid, coat sleek and bearing regal. Behind him came a smaller, ham-shaped dog with walleyes.
They zeroed in on Isaac and made for him at a run, mobbing him as he knelt down to pet them.
"The big one is Tibalt," Isaac said. "The little one that snorts a lot is called Magoo." He scratched her behind the ears. "Hey there, Maggs."
Tibalt approached Liam and sniffed at him cautiously. Liam put out his hand for the wolfdog's inspection. Tibalt sniffed at this as well, appeared to consider the matter, and then turned around to allow Liam to pet his back. There seemed to be no question that Liam would do this. He did it. Tibalt, for his part, remained still, to show that he did not actively disapprove of the proceedings.
"I thought it'd be you."
Isaac looked up. "Hey, ma."
Isaac's mother stood in the doorway, her hands braced against the doorframe. She wore a flower-print blouse and faded jeans with dirt-marks at the knees. Her hair was done up in a tight coil behind her head.
She came down the steps and gave Isaac a hug, the dogs parting reluctantly to let her pass. She held him at arm's length and looked at him. "Let's have a look at your eyes."
"Come on. Head back, hold still."
"Come on. It'll just take a second. I want a good look at your irises."
Isaac tilted his head back and held still. "Ma. I don't believe in iridology."
"I know. This is for me, not you." She peered down at him. "Good. You look clear. You've been taking good care of yourself?"
"Enh. Well." He shot a guilty look at Liam. "I've been trying."
"You could've called, you know."
Isaac winced. "Sorry. I meant to, but I kept getting distracted..."
"Well, you're here now. Does your friend like hugs?"
Isaac looked at Liam.
"He does indeed," Liam said.
She hugged him. "Mandy Angelus."
"William Steiner. Call me Liam."
"Good to meet you. Will you be staying for dinner, Liam?"
"I should like to, if that's all right by you."
"Good." She turned to Isaac. "I'll get Sam and Peter on the line, get them down from the towers and have a proper dinner for a change."
Isaac blinked. "You don't eat dinner together anymore?"
Mandy blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. "It's all Peter's doing," she said. "He kept saying he couldn't make the time for it with exams and all, so finally Sam starts saving him a plate for when he gets home. Well, one thing after another, and everybody seems to eat when they want to now."
"Hm." Isaac crossed his arms. "I go away for-" He paused. "Um. Ma. How long have I been gone, subjectively?"
She bent down to stroke Tibalt. "About eight months, by our calendar," she said.
"I go away for eight months, and-"
"I'm just saying-"
"You're just talking, you mean." She gestured at them. "Come on in the house and I'll find you something cold to drink. Isaac, I'm going to give your dad a call. If Shellie comes by, tell her we're having dinner early." She turned toward the kitchen. "Just sit down, and I'll bring out some cider." Her voice trailed off as she moved through the house.
Liam sat down on the worn sofa. Isaac sank into the the wing-backed chair facing it, and put his feet up. The air was warm and slightly indoor-stale after the summer sun outside. Tibalt and Magoo bumped around the house, clearly excited that something new was happening. A thin brown tabby cat poked its head inside, then backed out in a hurry when Magoo snuffled into her line of sight.
"Do any of the cats have names?" Liam said.
"Not really. They're all barn cats, descended from the few that survived the big cats and wolves in the hills long enough to install themselves here. They don't really do anything, and they're a pain in the ass, but they're like crickets. It'd be weird not having them around."
Isaac's mother returned with a pair of glasses. "Sam's on his way," she said, handing one to each of them. "He said he'd find a way to get Peter down for the evening. I'm going to finish the weeds in the back garden. Just give a yell if you need anything." She went out through the back door.
Liam peered at his glass. "This is cider, is it?"
"It's 'still' cider," Isaac said. "I mean, it's not carbonated. Not like that glucose crap the pub has."
"I like that glucose crap."
"That's because you don't know any better," Isaac said. "You'll learn." He grinned and sipped from his jelly glass. "Mm. Now it feels like summer."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.