The flashlight's narrow beam cut through the darkness, illuminating the narrow deer track through the dense wood that camouflaged the Mountain.
"I'm telling you, Markus, you've never seen anything like it," promised Kurdy as he led the way with long, confident strides. "Hell, I've never seen anything like it and I've been around."
Behind him, Markus was finding himself hard pressed to keep up with his guide. Kurdy walked through the night-shrouded forest as easily as if it were a brightly lighted hallway. To Markus it was a hazard of gray and black shadows, tree roots eager to trip, and low lying branches intent on slapping bare, unprotected faces. And it was cold. Bitterly cold. The sort of crisp, frigid night that made him long for a cup of hot coffee and a warm blanket.
Several yards ahead, Kurdy paused to look over his shoulder and patiently waited for Markus to catch up with him.
"It's worth it, believe me."
"If I didn't believe it, I wouldn't be here." Markus took advantage of the respite to catch his breath. The air was a bit thinner up here and the bitter cold was making his lungs ache. "Much further?"
"Just over that ridge. There's a clearing."
"And that's where we'll find this wonder of yours?"
"Not exactly mine," said Kurdy as they resumed walking.
"Ah. Let me guess. Smith?"
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Because it's Smith," replied Kurdy, as if that were explanation enough. Reaching the top of the ridge, he reached down and offered Markus a hand, pulling him up the steep slope the rest of the way.
"Thanks," said Markus gratefully as he moved to stand beside Kurdy. "Now what's this -- " he began. The rest of his sentence caught in his throat as the world suddenly opened into a panorama of crisp beauty.
They stood near the edge of a shear drop off of the mountain into the valley below. The heavens stretched all around them and to the horizon like a giant planetarium, so close Markus felt as if he could touch it. That vast velvet canopy set with a million diamond-bright stars and a full moon ---
No, notthe moon! A star! A single, incredibly brilliant star! High overhead, it outshone everything in the night sky. Radiant beams flickered and danced from a dazzling center, so incredibly white that Markus had to shield his eyes with the flat of his hand. As if it were their own sun he was looking at and not one a million light years away.
"Pretty incredible, huh?"
"It is that," Markus admitted. It was a glorious sight!
"It's been like that for about a week," said Kurdy, arms folded across his broad chest. "It almost feels like a spotlight, you know?"
"We're probably witnessing a supernova that happened thousands of years ago. It would take that long for the light to reach earth. The death of a sun. Beautiful but sad in its way."
"Not death," said a quiet voice from behind them and to the left. "Birth." Mister Smith stood in the shadows -- may well have been standing there all night -- his battered old knapsack resting on the ground between his feet. "It's a sign."
Kurdy rolled his eyes. "It's a star."
"That's what I said."
"Are you suggesting that a Messiah has been born somewhere in the world?" asked Markus with a wry smile. "That is the usual symbology behind a star foretelling a birth, isn't it?"
"Sort of. But it's not that kind of birth." Mister Smith turned his face to the night sky. "God says, there is truth in music if you know how to listen."
"Don't start with that cryptic shit," groaned Kurdy. "Just once could you spell it out so we don't have to play 20 questions?"
Mister Smith smiled in spite of himself. "Sorry. Not much I can do about that. I just repeat what I'm told. Half the time I don't even understand it."
"I think I can make a reasonably educated guess at the meaning behind this one," said Markus. "You're talking about that old Christmas song, aren't you?"
In a hushed voice, Mister Smith recited, "They look'd up and saw a star, shining in the East beyond them far; and to the earth it gave great light, and so it continued both day and night."
"Noel. I remember it. It's been a long time since I've heard it." Markus' expression turned grave. "But if it's a birth that's being heralded, shouldn't we be worried rather than joyful? The only thing shining in the East right now is Daniel and his legions. He's the only star there and not a particularly bright one. We know the horrors he's capable of. We've seen the deaths. The slavery. The bloodshed. Tell me, Mister Smith. With what we know about Daniel, how is a star shining in the East a good thing?"
Mister Smith turned to look at Markus with guileless hazel eyes. He lifted his hand and pointed back over the trees, in a direction opposite from the celestial phenomenon.
"That's East, Markus. This," he said meaningfully, pointing to the dazzling star overhead, "Is West."
Markus opened his mouth to comment then closed it again, the words left unspoken. Instead, he looked up at the beacon in the sky. A supernova, surely. Light that had traveled for thousands, possibly millions, of years to reach them at this exact moment, when the Alliance was in its infancy. When a new world and new hope for the future was being forged. Being born! A supernova whose light would very probably continue to shine, day and night, for weeks – possibly months – to come. Directly over Thunder Mountain.
"Mister Smith, sometimes you frighten me."
Kurdy just snorted. "Next thing you'll be telling us is to expect three Wise Men knocking on the front door."
"No." Mister Smith smiled enigmatically and said, simply, "They're already here."