I moved to the hill among the low mountains when I was still young. Many people came here for many different reasons, but I came because in this place I could feel the spirit. I came from the long valley -- a land with few places for the spirit to dwell. it was the spirit I had missed all my life, without knowing it. 

During the summer people left the hill to work or to be with their families. Our duties for the year were done, and I along with a few others were staying to enjoy the hill through the summer, while we had time to savor the land. My friend Shandra lived down the hall from me, and she loved the hill as I did. 

One overcast day Shandra and I decided to go for a picnic. We walked along a path we hadn't traveled before, making little noise with the clouds hanging so heavy over our heads. "You know, someone once told me the 'this place is no more magic than any other', but I don't believe it," I commented. 

"It is a nice place, isn't it?" Shandra answered. 

"Nice? I don't know," 

"What do you mean?" 

"It certainly is a beautiful place, but I don't know that I would call it nice." 

"That's what I meant, Moraina. But why don't you think it's nice?" 

"I don't think everything here is nice. It feels powerful, but not entirely benevolent." 

"Well, sure. It's a dark day. We'll have to come out again in the sunshine. It's very peaceful." So Shandra didn't feel it. I hadn't been sure. 

"We should hike over by the river sometime," I suggested. 

"Yeah, we should. It's really nice over there, especially since the river's a bit higher this year." We headed up the path in silence. 

We went up the hill until it looked like the top -- we couldn't see out in every direction like you might expect at the top of a hill, it just didn't seem to go up anymore. We decided to stop for our lunch. The day was not quite perfect -- a little cold for a picnic, so we didn't sit down for long. When we couldn't stand staying in the same place any longer, we left our bags to go exploring. 

As I gazed up through the clouds I noticed the twinkle of a star. I tripped over something and stopped walking. 

"What's wrong?" Shandra asked. I became acutely aware of everything around me -- the slope of the ground, the placement of the rocks, the movement of every leaf. The sun had partially come out, causing a half-lit effect. It was strangely quiet and yet I felt I could still hear running water in the distance. 

"Do you hear water?" 

"I don't hear anything. Are you all right? You look pale." We sat down and I told her what had happened. She listened quietly, but the look on her face told me what was in her mind. 

"You must have been dreaming," she said, "You've been right beside me the whole time." I smiled up at her. 

"Well, that's never happened to me before. Sure was weird." I tried to laugh lightheartedly to put Shandra's mind at ease. She returned the smile, and said "you know, something like that happened to me once. I don't even remember what it was about now, but it freaked me out at the time." 

We walked on through the scattered sunlight. 

As I lay on my bed late that night I replayed the afternoon's events. It seemed so real that I couldn't believe it was a dream -- especially in the middle of the day. I was thinking of the sound of water as I drifted off to sleep. Suddenly the room became cold, an absolute cold, and a wind with it that stole my breath. Then it was gone. The blood was pounding in my head. I got up to check the windows -- they were shut tight. I stepped into the hall, and everything was just as always. No one was up, so I went back into my room. There was no way I could sleep, so I turned on the TV. The screen blurred before me as I listened to the senseless babble, eventually fading out to slumber. 

I slept restlessly with many dark dreams I couldn't understand. 

The sun woke me up early -- I had forgotten to pull the blinds shut. I realized that I was more awake than I had been for months before, despite my fragmented sleep. I needed to get out of bed, even though I had no reason to get up so early. I took a quick, cool shower and went out for a walk; thinking all the time of what had happened the day before. 

I strolled through the redwoods along the creek. the air was moist and cool. I walked along the creek until I no longer recognized anything around me. And I kept walking, losing all track of time. The trees swayed, ushering in the mist. 

The water in the creek had gone underground. I continued down the creekbed, which had become very rocky. The for now was getting quite thick. I slowed down, so I could see my way across the rocks. The fog got even thicker, and I had to stop and wait for it to clear. I soon became too cold to just sit out in the fog, so I cautiously started moving. I took four steps before I fell. 

The rocks I expected to hit never came. I didn't even feel like I was falling after a while, I was just floating in the fog. The warm mist seemed to support me. It got lighter, and I expected the fog to clear. Instead, it became thicker. I gently touched moist ground, and the fog was instantly gone. I gazed around, but everything looked the same as it had before the fog came in. I found myself drawn further down the creed, even though I knew I should be heading back. But for some reason I couldn't turn back, I had to see what was ahead. As I walked along I tried to see if anything looked out of the ordinary. It seemed quieter, but I didn't know if that was because of the fog. I became uneasy in the stillness. The trees stood tall and silent, not giving me any clue as to what secrets the forest held. As I was looking around I noticed a break in the rock wall beside me. I moved forward to take a closer look. The opening was about four feet high, and two feet across. I went in as far as I could without a light, and listened carefully. 

There were squirrels running through the trees overhead as I walked back up the creek bed. When I got back I found Shandra and told her about the cave. We decided to go explore it later that afternoon. 

We tromped down with out flashlights and out grubby clothes. We arrived at the rock wall, but I could not find the opening. We looked up and down the wall, but there wasn't more than a crack in the whole length of the face. There certainly wasn't anything here, so we wandered around the forest for a few hours. I resolved to try to find the cave myself the next morning. 

I woke to a cold, gray sky, and despite the early hour was again extremely alert. I got my water bottle, flashlight, and jacket and set out down the creek bed. The gray sky made the darkness of the ravine even deeper. The day had the feeling like something was going to happen. I ran over in my mind the possibilities of what I might find at the cave. Soon I noticed I was at the rock face again, and the cave was not there. I was disappointed, but I kept on up the creek bed. The ravine became narrower and steeper. the sky darkened, but I couldn't tell whether the dense trees or dark clouds were the cause. I became aware of the quiet, and the sound of raindrops hitting the foliage above me. I kept on, picking my way across the rocks and fallen trees. The rain became hard enough for me to put up the hood on my jacket, and I decided I better turn back, rather than get stuck in such a narrow gulch during a rainstorm. 

The rain fell harder. I looked around for a way out of the ravine, but the rain turned the banks into muddy slides. I continued downstream, trying not to fall on the slick rocks. The rain was coming down so hard I couldn't see, so i decided to just sit it out. A cloudburst like this couldn''t keep up for much longer, and I was already as soaked as possible. I felt around for a moderately flat rock and sat myself down on it. The rain isolated me. I could barely see the rocks beneath my feet, much less the sides of the ravine. I stared into the rain, and slowly became aware of a light glimmering off to my right. I stumbled over towards the light and found a cascade of water covering the entrance to the cave we couldn't find the day before. I ducked into the cavern, and once out of the deluge, rummaged through my pack for my flashlight. The glimmer had gone, and the only light I was getting was from the dimly lit outside world. I inspected the cave. The hard packed floor felt dry, and sloped gently uphill. I walked up a few yards to a flat spot and sat down. The ceiling was fairly low, and I could not see outside. I took off my pack and got settled. Soon the rain had lulled me gently to sleep. 

I awoke to a sense of urgency in the air. I still heard the roar of the downpour, and as I looked towards the outside, I saw that the water had risen into the cave. I went to look out, and saw a river ten feet wide, the current carrying branches, tires, and old engines downstream with it. I had no choice but to go further into the cave, as the water had by no means stopped rising. I got my pack and my light and walked toward the back of the cave. 

I picked a spot that looked sufficiently high where I could keep an eye on the water and settled down once more. Soon I heard that ringing sound again. I looked into the darkness of the cave, and saw a light swinging toward me. A small face peered at me, and bid me welcome. 

"We have been waiting. Follow me." I, too, had been waiting, and I got up to journey into the cave. I had a difficult time keeping up with whoever it was I was following. The small body ducked through tight places and scrambled up slippery spots as though simply walking down a road. The creature waited as i searched for footholds to ascend the rock walls. No conversation was offered, and I was kept wondering about what I would find. 

I was nearly at the top of a particularly steep spot when I felt myself begin to slip. Frantically, I grasped at the rock wall, feeling my nails break and the flesh of my fingertips coming off. It was no use. The last thing I saw before I hit the rock below was the creature peering down at me from the top of the ledge. 

"Help me!" I didn't vocalize, as I knew it would be in vain. My body was crushed against the rocks, and I was dead. 

But there was awareness. The creatures underground revived my cold, still body. I felt nothing but weakness. 

"We will save you, but you must promise never to leave. We have work for you here." I didn't see the point in remaining dead, presumably I could always kill myself later if it came to that, so I agreed to their terms. I was carried the rest of the way to their home. They talked freely now, since I would never relate their story to the outside world. 

"We have lived here for thousands of years. When the first normal animals came to this place, we began building our current home, for we knew the humans would not be far behind. We heard of your impending creation from the essence, though it was helpless to stop your destruction of our beautiful world. And now, we will remain in the bowels of the earth until the humans have left." 

"Who are you? What am I to you? Why have you brought me here if you hate the humans so?" I began to fear what I would find. 

"You may call us the Omaj. As for your other questions, you shall see." The curt manner indicated the discussion was over, and I wondered whether I should have chosen death. 

I was quite sore now, and exhausted from my fall, so I fell asleep on the long trip underground. I woke and we were still traveling. 

"Did you know I would fall?" I asked my captors. 

"That is our protection against the outside. Should someone find our cave when we don't wish it, they would not get past that point." 

"Then how did you manage it so easily?" 

"When you have so much time, anything is possible." I thought about this for a while. 

"Am I the one you were looking for?" 

"You were able to see the cave. You visited us the other day. Not everyone can see... We were waiting for the one who could. You found us, and we knew." She seemed sad, and I wondered why. What could be hinging on my arrival? 

"What if I had chosen death?" 

"We knew you wouldn't. You are the one." I wasn't sure if wanted to be the one, but here I was, and there was little I could do to change my situation. I turned my thoughts to my surroundings. We were coming to wider and wider places, and rooms with torches on the walls. 

"How many live here?" 

"We are forty in number. Soon there will be too many for this place." They carried me through large halls, occasionally passing onlookers. We finally arrived at a small chamber, and they set me down on a soft mattress. 

"You remember our bargain?" They asked. 

"Yes." A motion was made and a young Omaj ruched in with a glass in her hands. 

"Drink this." I drank, and was soon dreaming. My dream turned to the terror of falling and I awoke in a sweat, my heart pounding. I cautiously sat up. The soreness had gone. I got up and felt around the total blackness of the room. The chamber was small, and I soon came to the door. There was no latch and it pushed open easily. I stepped into the hall. I walked to a torch several yards down the hall, lifted it out of its holder and proceeded down the hall. I wasn't sure where I was going or what I was looking for, but I could see no harm in searching around a bit. The Omaj may not have been entirely friendly, but they did not seem as though they would do anything more to harm me. I came to a wide spot in the hall. 

"So you have rested. Good." He spoke in a gravely voice. I made out the figure in the corner of the room. He looked older than anything I had ever seen, with skin the color of hundred-year-old newspapers. I realized I could hear water running. I had been here before. 

"How...?" 

"You remember. We had hoped... This shows that you will be suitable." I crossed the room. The floor was hard packed dirt, swept clean. 

"What do you know of our world?" I demanded. 

"We know some, but we need to know more. That is why you are here. For now, you may roam freely about our place. There is nothing here that we need hide from you." The old one in the corner fell silent. I glanced around the room, and back at him. He paid me no notice, absorbed in his own thoughts. I went through the room in the direction I had been heading. The hall narrowed again, and the sound of water became stronger. I decided I would find the source. 

I came to another room, not large, and this time well lit. There were shelves along the walls, and cushions along the floor. I perused the shelves. Unfortunately, all the books and papers were in characters I could not understand. I looked through a volume, and found a few illustrations, but I could not interpret them. I wondered if I would really be staying here forever. It was a thought which had not come to me until now, and I still had in my mind that I would get out somehow. this did not seem like such a bad place. I would like to learn their language, but I would prefer to go back to the green hill. 

I moved on down the hall. 

As I walked through corridor after corridor I began to wonder if I would be able to find my way out. I quickened my step, trying to remember the way I had come. Every turn looked the same. I was becoming quite frantic when I realized that I couldn't really get lost, the Omaj wanted me. They'd know where I was, or how to find me. Or at least I hoped they would. I was talking myself into calmness when the young Omaj appeared in the corridor. 

"I'll show you to your quarters," the Omaj said, and turned to set off down the hall. this time I tried to remember my surroundings so I could get around by myself in the future. 

"Here we are. In the morning I will get you." The Omaj was gone before I could say a word. I went into the room, smaller than the room with the books, but not cramped. The furniture consisted of a bed and a table with a pitcher of water on it. Well, if I wasn't getting any food, at least I wouldn't die of thirst. After drinking some water, I put out the light and got into the bed. The soft mattress was covered by a heavy blanket, which I pulled up high around my face. I closed my eyes to make an effort to sleep. I had little doubt that sleep was a long way off, and I went over the motives of the Omaj in my mind. 

"Good morning, follow me please." I had slept better than I thought, and morning came quickly. I jumped out of bed to catch up to the Omaj already down the hall. She took me into a long, low room with many tables, and brought a dish of cooked roots. I ate quickly, but didn't miss the delicate flavor of the dish. We then went into the same room with the old Omaj, who was still in the corner. He bid me welcome, and indicated that I should sit on the cushion in front of him. 

"Why am I here?" I asked. 

"We need you to tell us about the humans." 

"But why? Can't you find out yourselves? You brought me here, you must have knowledge of humans." I replied. 

"But we do not know what it is to be human. And you are here. Start with the people of the green hill." I decided to save my questions for later. Maybe I would find out more through his questions. I began to tell him what I could of the people on the green hill. He directed my answers toward the attitudes of the people, and their beliefs. The Omaj listened thoughtfully and carefully, and scribes quickly penned my words. I spent many hours describing about people's jobs, and families, and about the arts, writing, the media, and politics. I told him about the state, the country, and other countries. I had talked for so long my voice was barely audible, but the Omaj asked me more. When I couldn't go on, he became angry. 

"Words, images. Actions have become obsolete in your world. Appearances of emotion mean more than the emotion itself. The connection with the earth was once very important to humans. But their ability to grow away from the earth has become a source of pride. 

"The essence is disturbed that the humans feel little attachment. The essence wants to know what can be done to prevent this in the future. Humans are weak people who could not bear the power of the earth and so turned away." The old one leaned back in his seat. I knew his anger was not for me alone, but I felt it as though it was. I found enough voice for a reply. 

"I have not turned away," 

"You, no... you would not be here." He seemed weary. 

"Surely there are many like myself." 

"You are here, others are not."

"Now, I am here. There have been others. 

"Now is all that exists. You have felt the earthquakes. The essence is telling us that the time is near. We wish to learn about your culture before it is gone." The old Omaj closed his eyes, and the room began to empty. I looked around and caught the eyes of the young Omaj. I asked if she could join me for the remainder of the afternoon, and she said she could. We walked down the hall in silence for a while. 

"Do you feel the same way about humans?" I eventually asked. 

"They haven't done much to change my opinion," she replied. "But you seem different," she quickly added. I made no comment, and we continued to walk without speaking. I let the day's proceedings fade from my mind. 

"How old are you?" I asked her. 

"I was born after the Great Earthquake," 

"But if you're almost ninety, how old is the one who interviewed me?" 

"Marek the old one saw the arrival of the ones who worship the cross when he was my mother's age. His offspring are now elders." I learned the young Omaj was called Tlerat, and we became friends. She was the only Omaj of her generation so she had no constant companions. I was often given free time which I would spend with her. I accompanied Tlerat one day as she was teaching the very young Omaj the passageways of the village. We had covered some distance of tunnels, Tlerat, the three younger ones, and I. The younger ones were speaking excitedly to Tlerat. She laughed. 

"They wish to visit the surface. Would you like to come along?" 

"Oh, yes! I've been in these tunnels long enough." We took a turn uphill and soon the torches were not needed. I wondered if this would be my opportunity to escape. As if reading my mind, Tlerat spoke. 

"Now, this will not be the same world as the one you know," she said, giving me a cautionary glance. I returned her look, and continued following. So there was no way back from here. Well, at least I would see the forest again. By now there was daylight filtering through the trees overhead. I quickened my step, my excitement at being in the woods matching that of the younger ones. Tlerat began her lesson about the forest. 

"To most humans, these trees stand tall and silent. But they aren't silent for those who know what to listen for. They take interest in those who are attuned to their power -- those who are not do not exist. Only the results of their actions affect the world... The human without knowledge of the essence is nothing in Towardennan. the essence knows of them by these actions, and is troubled." Soon the redwood duff was underfoot, and the sounds of the forest, which had once seemed quiet were now loud in my ears after the silence of the village. We were on a path much like the one Shandra and I had been on the day of our picnic, in another world. I wondered how long I would be with the Omaj. The sessions with Marek were exhausting, even more so now that his questions were more specific, demanding all I could tell him on subjects I wasn't even aware I knew about. He couldn't ask much more, it seemed to me. His intimation that humans would soon be killed by the essence scared me. He seemed to be in contact with the essence, and the Omaj did not seem like the type who would lie. But what was 'soon' for the Omaj? Maybe things could change for the humans in time to redeem themselves to the essence. I hoped so. 

"Moraina?" Tlerat was gazing at me questioningly. 

"Yes?" 

"Would you rather see the creek or the meadow?" 

"Either one would be fine," I answered, her voice bringing me back. I looked around the forest, once more able to appreciate all its power. The squirrels and birds reminded me how much I had missed them. A snake crossed our path, and I watched it go through the undergrowth. Soon I could hear the sounds of the creek, and the path began its descent. The creek was not large, but it flowed quickly. Tlerat and I sat on a log while the younger ones played in the water. I sat on the end in the sun, and the warmth on my face felt wonderful. I stretched out to feel the sun on my whole body, and I noticed Tlerat regarding me curiously. 

"You enjoy the sun so -- you must miss it," she observed. 

"Yes, very much." 

"We shall have to come here more often. But now we must get back. These young ones have other learning today." Tlerat gathered the young ones and we started back up the trail. 

The next day, Marek ended the questions early, so I took the opportunity to ask about Rowardennan, which Tlerat had mentioned. 

"Rowardennan is one place where many humans still feel the spirit. That is how we found you," Marek began. 

"But what is it?" I interrupted. 

"Rowardennan is the essence of all that is life, and your elf land holds the key to finding it. There you will find a reflection of all that is invisible to humans in the world you live in. Think without time, think beyond yourself. Think of eternity and beyond. What lies within your grasp is a small fraction of what exists on this world. This creation will end soon, and the essence will continue without humans. All that humans have brought to the world will not exist, but the constant in the universe will remain." Here Marek paused, and regarded me thoughtfully. 

"I think we know enough from you. We will now give you the opportunity to learn from us. But I know of your longing to be with the humans. You may decided whether you would like to stay and survive the distress of the essence, or return to the world of the humans. I know you have friends here, and you would be treated as one of us. Go now, and make your decision." Marek turned from me. 

"But you said I was never to leave! Why have you changed your mind?" 

"That was just to make sure you were the right one. There is no great harm in your leaving. Even if you tell your story, no one will believe you. And you will never again be able to find the cave entrance on the creek. The best that can come from your leaving is that you may impress upon some humans the importance of the power of Rowardennan, and the essence. 

A small green snake with a yellow stripe down its back watched me walk, wishing me well. I stopped and asked its advice, knowing it was here for me. I enjoyed being here, but never to leave? The snake wound once around my ankle and started off down the hall. I followed it. We went through many passageways -- some I recognized, some I did not. We met no one on our silent path. 

Eventually we arrived. The snake stopped and turned. 

"You have been given a choice. I am your agent. You must choose now. You will never learn the deep magic if you leave. All you will take with you is your knowledge of the earth and our life here. If you stay, you will never be able to share even this information with the people of your world. We trust you will do your best, whatever your decision." 

"May I see anyone before I choose?" 

"No. Your decision must be influenced by no one." 

"May I have some time?" 

"Oh, yes. Take all the time you need. We want you to be certain of your choice. I will wait with you." I put up the torch I had been carrying and sat down on the cool dirt floor. The snake curled up and left me alone in the room. Closing my eyes, I imagined my life with the Omaj. It would be pleasant, and I would learn so much that would be impossible to learn from anywhere else. I wondered if I would have any contact with the Omaj or their ways if I left. And I realized I had already made up my mind. 

"We will miss you." The snake startled me. As I opened my eyes to look, the snake left the room by the way we had come. Left to myself, I took a long look around the room. In thee dark corner a small light shone. As I walked toward it, the air grew colder and blacker despite the hint of light. I chose my steps carefully. Soon I could no longer sense walls about me, and when I looked up I saw stars. There was a faint breeze. Gathering my bearings, I spotted the lights of a parking lot. I moved through the brush to the lights, but hesitated at the edge of the asphalt. A rustling in the grass caught my attention, and I saw the tail of the green snake moving off. 

I sat in the dead leaves and cried.

Epilogue

I never forgot what happened that summer, and I have frequently regretted my choice. For if I had stayed, I would have learned much, and become close to the Omaj -- I would have eventually lost the longing to return to the world of my birth. I did not wish I had never met the Omaj. The wonders I was shown still lurk in my dreams. But by returning to this world with so much knowledge I have doomed myself. Knowledge is power, and with power comes responsibilities and complications. I saw even more clearly all that the Omaj despised, and did all I could to fight it, but it could never be enough. Too many years had gone by without the link with the essence for the link to be reestablished in my lifetime. And the end would be soon -- unless the Omaj, and others like them, were having better luck than I in convincing the essence to give a little more time. Humans are stubborn creatures, slow to accept change of any kind. Not that I would have been any help if I had stayed with the Omaj, but at least my life would have been spent learning about the power and wonder of the world instead of the force which was ever faster rotting it away.
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