“The haggard man went from being nervous and bothered,” Peter said, “to being as giddy as folk celebrating the year’s harvest at Autumn Fest. The man jumped for joy and did a jig, shouting for all the world to hear, ‘It worked! It worked! She came to me!’ Then he danced some more. Finally, he calmed down enough to climb up on the oxcart and lower the lantern into a sack that he promptly threw over his back.

“But he wasn’t able to celebrate for long. His machine was still shaking and rattling and groaning like a shack in a tornado.” The mechanism in the bottom layer was straining to hold back the disc in the middle layer, and their struggle was getting to be too much for the machine to bear. Even from far away, Peter could hear the machine’s metal parts rattle and clank, and its oak timbers begin to crack and break.

Aaron had been holding his breath listening to Peter’s story, but now he had a question that couldn’t wait. “The man apparently had what he wanted. Why didn’t he turn off the mechanism on the bottom and let the disc in the middle run free?”

“The man tried,” Peter exclaimed, “but I don’t think the machine could slow down now, sir. Oh, he pulled on a bunch of levers and twisted a bunch more of knobs, but they were frozen stiff as if covered in winter ice. It was because of the witch light, sir, or at least that’s how it seemed to me.” 

Peter was right. When the haggard man whispered his wan magic spells, the rich veins of magick lacing the mountain resonated and echoed back enchantments a thousandfold times as powerful. The more magic the man used, the more eldritch light shone up from the ground, penetrated the moving parts of the machine like daggers through the heart, and pinned the controls in place.

“I told you, sirs,” said Peter, “strange things happen on that mountain. The man tried to stop his machine, but it was out of his control. The man must have feared the worst by then, because he jumped off the oxcart with his sack over his shoulder, and quickly backed away from his machine.

“The team of oxen had already panicked and scattered. The tethered packhorses also panicked, but before they broke their hitches and stampeded after the oxen, the haggard man managed to wrangle one for himself.” Fearfully looking back over his shoulder, the haggard man managed to drag his lone packhorse whinnying and snorting to the cover of some solid, man-sized boulders. The boulders were about as big and far away from the out-of-control machine as were the boulders Peter was hiding among, but in a different direction. Peter could see from his distant vantage point that the haggard was taking cover, and so the shepherd thought it wise to do the same.

The replicas of the stars on the middle tier of the haggard man’s machine were cosmically linked to the empyreal stars in Heaven. Through the cunning use of magic and alchemy, the relentless courses of the stars themselves were impeded by his machine holding back the replicas. But not even a machine built of sturdy oak timbers reinforced with thick iron plates, and powered by an unheard of steam-driven apparatus, could long resist the cosmic forces straining to restore the balance in Heaven. 

At last, with shrieks of metal and cracks of timber, the haggard man’s machine was overwhelmed by the cosmic forces. Suddenly, the man’s machine exploded in a blast of white steam and purple smoke, spears of broken oak timbers, twisted shrapnel of base and precious metals, and jagged shards of crystal as sharp as razors. Debris from the exploding machine arced high over the mountainside in Land, hurtled through the veil between Domains, and rained down on the grassland in Sky.

The battle between cosmic and manmade forces had been won by the Cosmos, and the machine had been destroyed. In the aftermath of the battle, the stars in Heaven begin to swarm back to their proper places and courses. The “strange event in the sky” was over, and the natural order of the heavens was returning to normal.

Miraculously, the haggard man had escaped the cosmic battle with both his life, and the prize he had slung over his back. And of the two, the one he cared about most was the latter. The haggard man calmed his frightened packhorse enough to mount the beast, and together they galloped down the mountain to safety.

“When the smoke cleared,” Peter said, still amazed that he too had survived, “there was nothing blocking my way back home. The man’s machine was no longer barring the path. I climbed down from my hiding place and began making my way along the route home. The cold fog and glaring witch light were fading fast. I feared that the Cosmos would soon mend the torn veil between Domains, so I scrambled across the flats as fast as my old bones could carry me. 

“Mind you, most of the debris from the exploded machine had disappeared, but some still littered the mountainside. I feared they still had bad magic in them, and I expected to have to edge my way around them. But as the veil between Domains began to fade, the debris began to wane from Land and wax into Sky. That’s when I gave up all hope of trying to understand the enchantments around me; let the sorcerers figure it out. I just wrapped the lost lamb tight in my plaid, stayed on the path home, and climbed back up the heights into Sky.

“The fog began to clear, and I knew I must be back in Sky because I could hear my sheep dogs bark, and then I could hear the lamb’s mother bleat for joy because she could smell her baby was near. As soon as I reached my flock, I drove them out the meadow and back to the shelter of their sheep pen as fast as I could. Then I raced home, joyful to be alive, as quickly as when I was a spry, young shepherd boy.”

Peter let out a deep sigh of accomplishment and settled into his chair. It was as if he had been carrying an enormous burden for a long time, and he had just put it down. “Well, m’lord, that’s the end of my story. After that, everything Duke Northstorm said happened afterwards is true, as far as I know.” 

Galwynn opened his eyes fully, sat up straight, and said, “Thank you, Peter, I have been enlightened. And understand, my friend, it is no small grace when a Master of Enlightenment gives you that compliment.” 

Feeling profound gratitude for Kevin’s help and encouragement as he told his tale, and not being sure where to rest his gaze, Peter merely looked down at the floor. “Thank you, m’lord,” he said, modestly. “I was just trying to help—and of course, to slag off sodding Duke Northstorm!”

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