They say you can never go back, or at least that’s what Brine had always heard. Now, however, as he stood staring at the massive slabs that comprised Castle Arn, he came to the realization that one actually could go back, but only if one were willing to suffer a nervous breakdown of the severest degree. He knew this because, as he peered through his seeing lens at the ominous gray walls and looming black spires, he was having a nervous breakdown of the severest degree.
     His heart felt as though it was trying to break free of his chest and his arms felt as though they had worms writhing beneath the skin. Clear lines of sweat coursed rivulets down the side of the head and a dark stain of perspiration spread ominously down his front. He was shaking, too, his whole body quivering like a pudding.   
     Anyone watching from the towers would have no alternative but to perceive the disciple as an epileptic suffering from a seizure. He clearly was not cold, not with the blistering sun in the sky and the heavy robes on his back, and clearly there were copious amounts of salty fluid oozing from his pores. They would have no idea that Brine was coming undone on the inside.
     Of course, Brine had no idea why he was coming undone on the inside. It wasn’t as though he were risking attack by scaling the castle walls or infiltrating the sewer system. And it wasn’t as though anything bad was going to happen once he was inside.
     At least not to him.
     He drew what felt like his hundredth warm and dusty breath and tried, once again, to steady the hand holding his monocle. And when this failed to work, he raised his other hand and grabbed the monocle-hand by the wrist. It continued to shimmy—for no other reason than the stabilizing arms was doing a good deal of shimmying itself—but the vibrations were more tolerable and he could see that something was wrong with the setting before him.
     He brought the circular glass closer to his eye and squinted, searching for the cause.
     Is it the standards? he wondered, studying the gray swaths of cloth hanging motionless and still in the suffocating air. The battleaxes painted thereon were still double-headed and still drawn with the same green paint he’d always associated with pea soup, but still there was something wrong.
     Is it the dimensions? he wondered.
     He wiped an irritating trickle of sweat from his brow and decided that, yes, the dimensions were wrong. The old banners had faded in the sun and someone, for whatever reason, had drawn these new axes to a much smaller scale. He had no idea why they would do such a thing—perhaps they were running low on pea-green paint that day—but the emblems were clearly smaller than the ones he remembered.
     In fact, generally speaking, much of what he was seeing appeared smaller than before. He moved the seeing lens from the turrets on his right to spires on his left and each appeared somewhat shorter than he recalled. And to tell the truth, hadn’t the gate been thicker as well? Hadn’t it spanned the length of three cottages and required a team of men just to open?
     If so, they’d downgraded the gate as well, because what Brine saw before him was barely the width of one cottage and the two men standing to either side could have swung it wide with little or no discomfort.
     Feeling the first signs of lightheadedness coming on, Brine turned to the surrounding cottages and gave them a quick appraisal, finding that they, too, had suffered a slight reduction in size. Doorways he’d have run through as a child were now so low that he would have to duck. And windows he’d have wriggled through as a boy were now barely large enough to receive his head.
     In many cases, he could not only see the wooden shingles of the rooftops, but he could see over them to the city beyond, in some instances all the way to the southern edge of Onador, a destination that, as a child, had felt like the other end of the world. It now appeared to be no more than ten blocks away.
     But how could he be wrong about a trip he’d made so many times as a boy?
     He could see Kline’s bakery along the way, the store where he used to rest his weary legs and think, as he did, that he’d very much like one of the Kline’s famous sourdough rolls. He also recalled thinking that it was most unfair for the Kline’s to pipe that tantalizing aroma into the streets.
     After the Kline’s, his next resting place was Baufle’s smithy, an establishment owned by a stocky little man with a glistening bald head and thick, soot-covered arms. Brine couldn’t remember the man’s first name, but this something-or-other Baufle did not like spectators, especially young spectators.
     Brine would stop there as long as he could, mesmerized by the glowing orange steel and the brilliant yellows sparks, Baufle’s hammer crashing down again and again on the nearly-molten slab of ore, the force of the blows reverberating through his teeth. And then Baufle would take notice and shoo him down the street.
     By then, Brine was usually feeling refreshed and ready to finish the last of his everlasting journey, a journey that now appeared to consist of two rows of residential cottages and one overgrown lot of comparable size.  
     But how can that be?
     Brine removed the monocle, cleaned it on his sleeve, and plopped it back into place. The distance from Baufle’s smithy to the Kline’s appeared to be less than the distance from Baufle’s to the Sway, and the distance from the Kline’s to where he stood now appeared to be shorter still, which meant he was either losing his precious mind or the city of his youth was shriveling like a grape.
     He lowered his gaze from Kline’s bakery to the alleyway before him, half-expecting a dwarf or gnome to come waddling around the corner, one of the many citizens of Onador having kept pace with their city’s dwindling size.
     No one came around the corner, human-sized to otherwise, but it had started him to think; When he finally met the people of his past—the people he’d left behind—would they appear to have shrunk as well? Would he be looking down the tops of their wizen heads and listening to their faint and squeaky voices?
     He didn’t think so. For one thing, the shepherd boy had looked and sounded normal, as had the handful of other Jashians he’d seen milling about the city: the children skipping on the walks, the women hanging out their wash, the old men watching from their stoops.
     If there was anything wrong with these good people, it was their quantity and not their size. He supposed he’d been aware of this strange paucity of life, somewhere back in the recesses of his mind, but he had not paid it much heed.
     With his body unaccustomed to travel and his mind absorbed with thoughts of Olymun and his inexplicable note, Brine had not had much time or energy to worry about the number of live bodies he’d met along the road. What was more, he hadn’t expected to meet many bodies along the initial stretch of road, those sections leading through the blistering wastes of the F’kari and the remote hills of Lathia, places where vacuity was the norm and solitude a way of life.
     But Jashandar, on the other hand, was a different story. With its temperate climes and fertile soil, the Kingdom of Jashandar fostered a progressive way of life unknown to the struggling lands to the south; boys herding sheep and girls gathering berries, men guiding plows and women hewing wheat. And within the city, the level of activity was simply staggering, mills grinding, markets clogged, the air heavy.
     Brine pocketed his monocle. He didn’t need it to see that the images of his childhood were grossly out of place. Details might be lost on his miserable eyes, but movements were not, or in this case the lack thereof. He needed no visual aid to pick out the vacant alleys and empty streets, the faceless windows and figureless doors.  
     In a way, it was like a hole had opened in fabric of space and sucked out the citizenry of Onador, taking with it his hope and his memory and much of his past.
     …there are less of us…a voice whispered…less than once were…
     Brine spun towards the castle, another shudder of nerves washing his shoulders and an urge to run for the hills threading his mind. He found the strength to resist and focused instead on the feeling from his dream, the feeling that wasn’t a feeling at all, but the voice he’d heard while reading his letter, the one that had urged him home to this castle.
     …and for all those seeking their purpose…their God will provide…
     And with that, he drew a precious breath of air and started towards the gate, shuffling his sandal-laden feet and closing on the guards.