Another part of the Macrobia project. This episode takes place in the middle of the book. Comments welcome.
Malchius had not seen any of the others for quite a while. The afternoon was getting late and it was high time he got back to the others. He saw off a little ways a smoke or haze, that seemed to be coming from the very rocks themselves. The haze was perhaps half a mile from where he was standing and he really should have returned to the meeting stone, but as it was, his curiosity got the best of him. Presently he reached the spot and sure enough, smoke was rising from a mound of orange-red colored rocks. He stepped closer for a better view. Suddenly, Malchius felt the ground give way beneath his feet. He grasped vainly but everything he touched fell down with him. Fortunately, except for a few bruises, he was unhurt. He scrambled to his feet and dusted himself off. He had meant to climb up and out of the hole he had fallen into, but something held him back. It was not a hole he had fallen into but rather a sort of tunnel. Not a very long one for he could see a golden-colored light coming through the other end.
‘It’s fairly safe,’ he thought. ‘Perhaps climb up at the other end.’
So, to the other end of the tunnel he went. What Malchius saw the moment he stepped into the golden light nearly took his breath away. He found himself standing at the base of a natural amphitheater. The place was rocky as the rest of the mountain but, unlike the areas lying outside the tunnel, none of these rocks were ice-covered. Mounds of smoking rocks and a faint hint of sulfur met his nostrils. But the most exciting thing about the place was the large tree that grew in the middle. He had never seen anything like it his entire life but he knew that the search was now ended and that the old legends were true.
The first thing he did was to take a drink from the spring that rippled from the base of the tree. It was the coldest and most refreshing water he had ever tasted. The tree itself resembled an enormous fern. The bark was thin and papery and gave off an agreeable odor. The Sephirotic Tree was laden down with large copper-colored fruits that looked like apples, but on closer inspection, he found that they were more rounded like oranges only much bigger. Malchius remembered Merops’ warning about the Guardian. He walked up to the great leafy fronds and plucked a single branch of leaves. He secured them in his small leather pouch. Gradually, the desire increased until almost without his realizing it he plucked one of the great copper fruits off a limb. He had to wrench and twist it fairly hard to do so.
‘What harm could there be if I take just one fruit?’ It’s very selfish for any Guardian to have such a wonderful tree all to himself. Why think of all the people one could help if a wise and benevolent ruler, an immortal.’
"Oh!" he said aloud. He was startled at how loud his voice sounded in that lonely and desolate place. He felt an urgent need to make for the tunnel. He turned and made quickly for it. Now, what happened next Malchius could never quite explain. Halfway there he seemed to hit a brick wall. It seemed to him that the very air became thicker. At the time, he said later, it felt like he was swimming against some invisible current. Very slowly Malchius made his way back to the tunnel. When he was just in reach of the entrance, the temptation to turn back to the Sephirotic Tree reached a peak. He slowly turned to catch one more glimpse of it before returning.
"I’ll just sit here for a spell. Surely that’s not forbidden." But deep inside himself he knew that this was the one thing he must not do.
Now it is a curious fact of nature that the longer one goes about trying to justify an act that is itself not wrong, but, will almost inevitably lead to a wrong, one generally succeeds. That is exactly what Malchius was doing. He convinced himself that he wanted one more look at the fruit. He stood up and took a step toward the Sephirotic Tree. At once, the invisible wall seemed thinner. He took another step. The boundary lessened even more. He took three more steps and the wall pretty much vanished altogether. Malchius sat down. His mind was clearer than it had been a moment ago.
"No. I’d better simply return. I’m sure to be late now as it is."
He stood up again and made for the tunnel. Immediately, the air thickened as before only this time it was stronger. Malchius knew he was in trouble. He had already wasted precious time tarrying here and now was caught. Resolutely, he set himself, tightened his belt, and ran for the tunnel. The barrier was stronger than ever yet he made it. He stumbled to the ground in exhaustion. After a few minutes a deafening boom! aroused him to his feet. He felt the ground tremble and shake and he had trouble with his footing. Malchius ran through the tunnel blindly with last remaining strength he had. Half a minute later he came out the other side safe and sound albeit extremely dusty.
He easily climbed out and soon was on his way back to camp. Soon, he saw the familiar dark blue of Myridon sitting hunched over a fire. Myridon was intensely interested in the description of the Sephirotic Tree and the sight of the leaves made him even more frantic with excitement. At this time the others began arriving.
"Some kind of invisible wall of resistance, eh?" remarked Basnu. "Now I wonder if that was the Guardian?"
"Couldn’t be," replied Aidin.
"Why not?" asked Atma.
"Invisible walls and great invisible beings aren’t the same," said Aidin. "What’s your opinion Myridon?"
"I have no opinions," said the wizard. "However, I will venture a possible explanation. The Guardian was not there at Malchius’ arrival. In his absence he contrived this spell to keep out trespassers. There is another possible explanation as well. The invisible wall was the Guardian. At any rate we can’t go back and look."
"Why not?" queried Basnu.
"Did not you just hear Malchius? Only by a great will was he able to muster the needed strength to leave the domain of the Sephirotic Tree and if it were not for the earthquake that may not have happened."
"It seems our quest is finished."