I spent the first couple of days riding due north out from the Outposts. The land immediately outside the gates consisted of rolling plains and forests. Wild herbs and roots grew thick in the fertile soil and game was plentiful. I never understood why they didn’t expand the Outposts to include this part of the countryside and made a mental note to discuss the matter with the manager when I returned. Whenever I had brought up the subject before, they seem afraid to expand their borders for some reason and it seemed to me that this land would be ideal for them. The fertile ground and abundant hunting and fishing would support them for years if they would just make use of it.
I made the edge of the foothills at the end of the second day and camped under a sky full of stars. I was up early the next morning and my horse, Lil’ Red was as anxious as I was to tackle the mountains before us. We spent the next week climbing the foothills, hunting and harvesting fresh roots and herbs as we came across them. The nights grew progressively colder as we headed up into the highlands, but game was plentiful and I hadn’t needed to touch my supplies of food. Time passed uneventfully as we ascended higher and higher into the mountains and I found myself attaining a measure of peace that I hadn’t experienced in quite a while. My horse found plenty of grass to graze on and didn’t seem to worry about predators. On the second night after traveling through extremely rugged mountains, I sheltered under some trees with a roaring fire to ward off the cold. The next morning when I awoke, the ground was dusted with snow that didn’t melt during the daytime as we continued to scale the mountains.
On the third day in the mountains, Lil’ Red and I crested a ridge that made me feel like I was riding on the top edge of the world. All around us were chains of lower mountains, valleys and plains and the widest expanse of the bluest sky I had ever seen. I reined in Lil’ Red so I could sit and take in the scenery spread out before us. I grew dizzy as I gazed down on the lower mountains radiating from the chain we had ascended, looking at the snow and tree lines and realizing for the first time just how far we had come. Before vertigo got the best of me, I kicked my horse in to motion and we descended a steep mountain that bordered a vast rocky plain that extended past the horizon.
As we descended, I was able to make a closer examination of the land that stretched out before us. As we neared them, I saw that the plains were fairly hilly and the land looked like it had been blasted repeatedly by a greater power than any I had ever seen; there didn’t seem to be any plant or animal life whatever out there, just ruined earth and massive boulders that appeared to have been tossed about by a careless giant. I scanned the sky in front of me and didn’t see any birds above the land before us and nothing moving beneath us. Turning in my saddle, there was plenty of animal life both on the ground and above us and I was more than a little unsettled at the thought of nothing living in the plains to which we were descending. I turned around to face our descent and took time to study the land before us. The ground consisted of sand and hard packed earth, strewn with the scree from whatever had erupted out there. Boulders were pushed up out of the ground like broken bones through skin and the smaller rocks seemed to be the jagged scars of the earth and were strewn about like the broken remains of teeth. I jumped off my horse and decided to lead him down the last of the mountain, due to the steepness and pitfalls on the trail we were following. We rounded a boulder and I stumbled onto a patch of ground that gave way under my feet and fell over an small outcropping of rock, receiving a deep, nasty gash across the palm of my left hand when I tried to break my fall. After cursing mightily, I decided to take Lil’ Red back to the Outposts out of concern for his health. The ground was so treacherous, I couldn’t risk him getting an injury.
After dressing my wound, I spent the rest of the day unpacking everything, taking out what I could carry with me and repacking the rest onto Lil’ Red for his journey back over the mountains. I was pretty sure he would find his way home again, but sad that I had to leave him behind. Lil’ Red had proven his worth to me several times over the years and was just about all I had left of my former life. As I laid out my supplies, I was glad I had brought sturdy clothes because I had a feeling I’d need them before my trek was over. After my fall, I was glad I had thick clothes because I had a feeling I would need their protection in spite of the heat. It was warmer on this side of the mountains and the wind was steadier and smelled slightly of sulfur. The lack of anything living in the flats disturbed me more than a little and I thought it might not be a bad idea to hunt for extra food before making the trip back down onto the blasted plains. That night Lil’ Red foraged for what sparse grass grew on the side of the mountain and I had some more of the game fowl I had cooked up the night before and turned in for a good night’s sleep.
A couple of hours after turning in, I was awakened by someone screaming my name. I sprang to my feet, sword drawn and crouched in a fighting stance as I stared wildly about me. Since we hadn’t seen another living being since leaving the Outposts, I was instantly alert and scanning the darkness around me for danger, Lil’ Red’s reins in my other hand, just in case a speedy departure was called for. As I whirled in the darkness, I felt a sense of relief at the sight of a familiar person. I straightened up and lowered my sword in relief. It turned out to be the Sorceress whom I had befriended shortly after my exile in the Outposts started. In my loneliness, I hadn’t realized who or what she was at the time because it wasn’t important.
The Sorceress was someone who few people have ever seen face to face, and for the few that had seen her, the descriptions of her appearance varied widely. She kept to herself in her rooms at the Outposts, having food and other supplies delivered straight to her door and left outside, emerging only at night to drag the supplies inside. I had encountered her only because I happened to be out for a walk late one night and saw her struggling to move the heavy boxes and bags into her apartment. I helped her without asking and we started talking and hit it off. We talked until the sun was coming up and then she kicked me out so we could both get some sleep. To me, she is dark complected, with curly, shoulder length, auburn hair and the cheekbones and face of an angel. Most of the time we had spent together, she had smiled and even laughed at me, but not this time.
Now she was royally pissed at me and made no secret of it. She had found the farewell letter I had left for her explaining my extended absence from the Outposts. I knew when I dropped it in the post that I should have said my goodbye to her in person, but I’ve never been too good at saying goodbye and had been hoping to avoid a messy scene. I had a feeling if we had started talking, she would have done her best to talk me out of leaving and all of her reasons would have sounded so right at the time. After I recovered from my initial shock of seeing her standing before me in a nimbus of flames, I realized that I shouldn’t have been too surprised that she found me.
I talked to the manager of the complex and her neighbors and tried to find out more about her, but the information I got from my various sources was sketchy and somewhat contradictory. The stories I heard were wildly inconsistent, but the one thing they all agreed on was that she was a woman of prodigious powers. Although I had spent a night talking to her, everybody I spoke to gave me a different physical description. I started to doubt that I had even seen what the Sorceress really looked like.
The few meager details I managed to get from her about her past life was impossible for me to verify, and again, she had told different stories to everyone who had ever gotten close enough to her to ask. Some people said she was from a large city from deep in the Southern lands. This city is as famous for its beautiful women as it was for the heat and humidity of the region. Another woman I talked to said that she knew for a fact this was where the Sorceress was from. She had actually been inside her rooms and reported that it was so hot as to be unbearable. She remembered the Sorceress laughing and replying that she liked it hot because it reminded her of home. It was said of the women from the South that when they speak, honey drips from their mouths and they have a way of turning a man’s head and emotions around so he can’t think straight. The Sorceress radiated heat and sultriness and seemed unconscious of the effect she had on men.
Other people insisted that the Sorceress came from the cooler coastal climes on the opposite side of the world -- from a great Golden City high in the mountains that overlooked the Chasms at the End of the World. The people that held to this theory insisted her powers were hereditary, coming from her father who was a renowned Shaman in that part of the world, and had been passed down through generations, culminating in her. Still others insist that the Sorceress came from a land halfway around the world in a Dark Continent where all sorts of magic, both black and white, were practiced. These people said she had helped heal the poor and needy before something bad had happened and she wound up making her way to the Outposts. The reasons for her being there were as murky and unprovable as the rest of her past. I did know that a lot of the population of the Outposts were there because of problems the had elsewhere and somehow the y had drifted out here to the edge of nowhere because they had nowhere else to go. Some of them were making a fresh start, others were taking a break from the world, but a third group had retired there because they had given up on life and were waiting to die. The Sorceress and I had spoken some on this topic and she wanted to know which group I fell into. I wasn’t sure and told her as much and she smirked at me over her glass of wine. When I asked what she thought, her reply was that she wouldn’t tell me because that would change the ultimate reason. I asked her about her past and she regaled me with yet another story that made me doubt the other stories I had heard about her. I didn’t know which, if any, of these stories were true, but I the one thing I did know was that she tracked me down with relative ease and was now standing before me in magnificent, angry glory. Had she not been so daunting, I might have fallen in love with her at that moment.
Instead, I had to deal with a Sorceress on the warpath and do my best to calm her down. At that moment, I was scrambling to come up with an explanation that would mollify her and perhaps prevent any harm from coming to me. She was irate, not only at my leaving her, but for sending a note instead of saying goodbye in person. I tried to explain my reasons, but I saw quickly that she was only growing angrier as the flame around her leaped into the sky. In desperation, I told her that this was a journey that I needed to make alone and she refused that explanation, too. I watched as the aura around her crackled, grew in size and intensified in color as her mood darkened. She waved my attempted explanations aside and angrily informed me that she had “Chosen” me to be her companion and that as a result, any trials or travails I faced meant she would be by my side and we would face them together.
I didn’t understand what she meant by my being Chosen, and she explained that our spirits were now entwined and we were as one; what happened to one of us would now happen to both. She grew angrier at my look of consternation and a bolt of flame shot up into the air. After that release of power, she started to calm down and the nimbus around her lightened to a more pastel shade. She asked if I was taking care of the gash on my left hand and what I was doing to help it heal. She reached out to take my hand in hers and I pulled away from her. Again, I told her that she couldn’t accompany me on my journey, as I didn’t know what dangers I would be facing and it would be better for me if I didn’t have to worry about her. I informed her that I refused to be responsible for placing her in danger and that she was better off remaining at the Outposts. With her voice trembling with anger, the Sorceress informed me I that I no longer had a choice in the matter, that she would be with me no matter what happened. After a couple of hours arguing the matter, I had to concede defeat and let her take a look at my hand. She clucked over me and informed me that it didn’t look too bad, but that I needed to keep it clean in order for it to heal properly. I rolled my eyes at her and was rewarded with a glare as she straightened up.
Even though she still looked angry, I could tell the Sorceress was starting to soften. Before leaving me, she leaned over, gave me a soft kiss to my forehead, bade me to sleep well and disappeared into the night. Before she left, she told me that she would meet me again and that she would be there when I needed her most. As her voice faded away, I heard her assure me that my horse would be fine on his journey and she would ensure that he made it home safely. The next morning, with a lighter heart, I packed Lil’ Red with everything I wouldn’t need for the next stage of my journey and sent him on his way back to the Outposts.
I descended the mountain and started my journey into the blasted plains. Knowing now how treacherous the terrain was, I picked my way through piles of gravel and around deep pools of dust that seemed to fill the the low areas between the mounds of ruined rock. I learned the hard way to avoid these innocuous seeming pools. Not realizing the danger, I started across one of the patches which seemed solid until the crust I was walking on snapped and I sank almost up to my hips in fine powder. Although the dust on top was motionless, it felt like there was a swirling current underneath that was threatening to drag me down and out toward the center of the pool. I started to flounder around as I strove to get back to the gravel and realized that the movement was causing me to sink faster. The silt was uncomfortably warm and it burned my skin through my clothes. In spite of my discomfort, I took a deep breath and slowly turned around so I was facing the pile of rocks closest to me. I started pulling clothes out of my pack and tying them together to form a rude rope. I made a loop in one end and tossed it toward one of the larger rocks on the pile. I missed the first time and was forced to throw my pack onto the pile of rocks so I could concentrate on getting out of the pit. On my second throw, the loop barely hooked over a jagged piece sticking out and I started pulling myself toward solid land.
The rock broke as I made my way slowly to the edge and I was forced to stop and try again. It took me a few more throws to get the loop around another rock and I started pulling myself closer to the gravel. I had just reached the edge and was pulling myself onto solid ground when the loop broke, sending me tumbling back into the pit. I lay on the surface of the silt, not moving, except to pull the line back to me. Although the crust hadn’t broken, I saw several deep cracks radiating from my position. I sat up slowly and examined the jagged edges of what had been the loop and saw that the surface of the rock had abraded the clothing. Cursing, I retied the loop, allowing my legs to sink beneath me as the crust started to buckle, so I was upright again. I tossed the loop a few more times and finally had it secured on a solid looking rock. I pulled myself out of the pit gain and collapsed on the hard gravel as I regained my breath. I retrieved my pack and drank deeply from my stores of water and pulled out a hunk of broiled meat to restore my strength. After I had rested a while, I repacked my gear, using the shredded clothes to tie my bundle together and started making my way through the ruined terrain. I hiked through the tortured landscape for another long seven days. I hadn’t seen any signs of life, neither plant nor animal, and heard no sound except for my tortured breathing and my exertions as I scrabbled through this hellish landscape. Even the wind didn’t make a sound as it scoured the rock and sand. As I traveled deeper into the plains, the wind picked up and turned from warm and comforting to hot and desiccating. As soon as I took a drink of water, I could feel the moisture being sucked from my body. My lips were chapped and my body was starting to look like beef jerky. I realized that if I didn’t find relief soon, I should perish from either madness or dehydration and neither one was an attractive proposition. The gash on my palm that I had received earlier in my journey had turned a rather nasty red with a faint greenish yellow tinge around the edges. It oozed pus where the skin broke open from being stretched too tight and I could see red streaks starting to move up my wrist. I was afraid to use my rapidly diminishing supply of water to clean the wound, but I couldn’t let it get any worse, either.
As unattractive as the prospect was of adding more heat to this desolate place, I started a small fire and started hunting for a suitably sharp rock. I finally came upon one that suited my needs as far as size and sharpness and stuck it in the fire to sanitize it. After I could see the edge of the rock starting to glow, I wrapped my right hand in a shirt, pulled the rock out of the fire and proceeded to reopen my wound. The stench of searing flesh and infection was almost overpowering, but I had to stay with what I had started. I watched grimly as pus and blood boiled out of the fresh cut and spattered onto the ground. I continued to apply pressure to my hand until the infection appeared to be gone and the blood was pure red. I peered into my hand and tried to pick out any shards of rock and bits of dirt that I could find. The pain was dizzying and more than once I felt myself growing faint. Once I was satisfied that the wound was as clean as it was going to get by applying pressure, I used some of my precious water to rinse the gash I had made. I removed the cloth from my right hand and used it carefully dry my palm and bind up the wound to keep the dirt out. I wound the cloth tightly several times and tied it off using my free hand and my teeth. I warmed some food over the dying flames and settled down to get what rest I could before continuing on the next day.
The next morning, I pulled myself up onto a boulder that loomed higher than those around it and scanned the horizon around me. Off to my right, I spotted what looked like a depression in the otherwise flat plain and it seemed that the air around it wavered. Thinking there might be a source of water there, I headed out for it immediately. I found that distances were deceptive on the ruined plains and it took me three days to arrive at the edge of the depression. At the bottom I saw what appeared to be a stream cutting through the lowest part. Throwing caution to the wind, I ran down to the edge of the stream and pulled up short on the bank. The water was black and thick and oozed along the bottom of the bed. There appeared to be an yellowish, oily skin on top of it, which gave the impression of the liquid not moving at all.
Remembering my experience with the dust pool, I tied one end of my ruined clothes around my waist and secured the other end around a spur of rock that rose up from a nearby boulder. I slowly waded into the viscous liquid and stood for a moment, waiting for something to happen. Outside of the bottoms of my pants getting stained, I couldn’t see or feel anything happening in the water. I bent down and scooped up a handful and examined it closely. As the water drained from my palm, I could see that the black color was from thousands of tiny filaments that floated in the water. As they came in contact with my skin, I felt a burning itch start and it felt like the tiny strands were trying to take root in my skin. I immediately jumped out of the stream, letting the water in my palm drop onto the dust and rocks around me. I scrubbed my palm on the rough fabric of my jeans until the burning itch went away. When I reexamined my palm, I could see tiny holes where the filaments had touched and the skin around each hole was red and puckered. I took a look at the water that had spilled onto the rocks and watched the filaments writhe and die as the water around them evaporated.
Watching the strands die, I felt my palm start to itch again. I poured some of my drinking water on it and saw a few more filaments get washed away onto the rocks. I returned to the boulders on the crest of the depression and made my camp for the night. I skirted the edge of the depression until I came to the place where the stream emerged from under ground. I headed away from it, hoping to come across a source of fresh water sometime soon.
A few days later, I stumbled upon the first sign of life out here in the blasted plains. After staggering to a stop to rest, I wearily pulled myself to the top of a boulder to survey the land and have another sip from my rapidly dwindling water supplies. I heard a soft scrabbling sound in the rocks ahead and to the left of me and I jumped down and ran forward to investigate. Even though I was anxious to see what kind of animal was ahead of me, I pulled my short sword out of its scabbard as I approached the source of the unexpected sounds. I rounded a group of boulders and found a severely wounded man who was trying to pull himself into a shelter that had been dug out under a large boulder. He had heard me coming and fearing for his life, he had been trying to secrete himself in the shelter carved out under the giant rock. I have to admit that the sight I presented to him must not have been very comforting -- wild haired, unkempt and waving a sword to ward off attack. Once I realized I was in no danger, I lowered my sword and slowly approached the stranger.
The man was clearly dying, his right ankle had been smashed and twisted and fresh blood had soaked through his pants where he had reinjured himself trying to hide from me. I could see bone fragments sticking out from the bottom of his pants where his foot used to be and the skin at the end of his leg was black and leprous. The surrounding flesh was swollen by infection and turning greenish black as his flesh rotted and the smell was enough to chase buzzards away. The man’s eyes were bulging and wild and his weak rants and ravings were clearly aimed at intimidating me so I would leave him alone. I quietly sheathed my sword in its scabbard and as gently as I could so as not to alarm him and inspected the man’s leg to see what could be done. His skin was hot to the touch and no matter where I laid my hands elicited moans from the sick man. Unfortunately, he was too far beyond my meager abilities as a healer and I doubt that even the Sorceress or any of the Gods or Goddesses she might believe in could have restored him to health. It was clear that his end would soon come and all I could do was give him what small comfort I could.
I managed to calm the man down and get him to lie still. I shared what little water I had with him and managed to get him to swallow some bread and dried fruit that I had moistened first. This led to a violent fit of coughing, but eventually his fits eased and he was finally able to lie back and relax. We talked a little during one of his rare lucid moments and I found out he was only a couple of years older than me, but you would never have known it by looking at him. He looked like he had aged two years for each one of mine and I wondered whether it had been his former life, or the time he had spent out here in the blasted plains. He wanted to talk to me then, but was too weakened by his failing health and deteriorating mental state to say much else that was rational. I poured a little of the water I carried with me onto a cloth and bathed the man’s brow to help cool him down. He gave me a look of gratitude before closing his eyes and I did what I could to make him comfortable.
Soon afterward, the man fell into a fitful sleep, punctuated by low moans and the occasional severe body twitch. Each twitch caused a cry of pain from him and I felt helpless because there was nothing I could do to ease his misery. I didn’t doubt for a minute that the poison in his leg was working its way through his body hastening his end. I watched over him while he slept, cooling his fevered brow with a damp cloth when he needed it and dabbing his lips to add to what scant comfort I could provide. Shortly before sunset the man awoke and seemed to be somewhat lucid. He was still wracked by fever and his eyes bulged out of his head, but he was able to hold a rational conversation. I introduced myself to him and gave him a little more water and some meat broth that I had heated on a small fire I had built. The broth seemed to bring on a coughing fit that left the man weakened, but I could tell he was grateful for the food. His fever had finally broken, but only because death was fast approaching. Sensing his time was near, the man wanted to talk; I was the first living thing he had seen in over three months of wandering these plains and he wanted to relate his history to me and have me carry it back to what remained of his family. He said he had died on the inside a long time ago and now he was dying on the outside; one could not live if he was already dead and now he knew that his time had come. He had made peace with his God and was ready to go. This, then is his story:
“My name is Juan Godfrey Cardenas and I hail from the coastal City of New Castillo. I have been wandering these plains in search of a most wondrous gift to give to my two sons. I had heard rumors of the existence of this gift for years, and decided I must have it for my boys, for they are the most important parts of my life. They live with their mother back in New Castillo and have ever since the time of my Banishment. New Castillo prides itself on being modern and calls itself the City of Light, but I found out the hard way that there is very little light or anything that passes for modern once you have been turned out of your home. I was Banished by the local judges for a crime I didn’t commit, but with no way to prove my innocence, I was doomed to wander the the lower levels of the city until I could redeem myself and earn my way to a higher level. I was deprived of my name, my estate, my property and my money and exiled to the lowest economic levels of the City to try to earn my existence or to perish. After two years, I was close to perishing and made the decision to leave the city and earn my fortune elsewhere before returning to reclaim my birthright. Before I left the City altogether to atone for my alleged sins, I received permission from the High Priests to go home one last time for a couple of hours for one last visit with my sons.
“I had already wandered the city for nine months before I was deemed cleansed enough by the High Priests for an initial interview, but it took another year and a half before the appropriate payments could be made to the people responsible for arranging the visit to my sons. Although I wasn’t allowed to use my family’s money, I found a way to get word to them and it took almost all they had to get the arrangements made. Finally I received word that I and my family would be allowed one last visit with my sons and it was a joyous occasion for all involved. I was contacted by a Legal Representative of the High Priests three hours before I was to be allowed to see my boys and told the good news. I cleaned myself up as best I could and made my way to the Learning Center that my children were attending. This was a different Learning Center from the one they had attended when their mother and I had been together, so there were papers to be presented and Identifications to be checked before I was allowed to be escorted to where my sons were.
“When my older son first saw me, he broke the discipline learned at the Center and ran toward me and leaped into my arms. We hugged and kissed and told each other how much we loved and missed each other. I was then escorted to a small outer building by my older son and one of his new friends to gather up my younger son. On the way, I was informed that my younger son was being held for by teacher for fighting. He had apparently taken offense at things the other children had been saying about him and the disgrace brought to his family by my actions.
“Again, more forms needed to be signed and Identifications checked before my children were allowed to vouch for me. When my younger son saw me, he too, ran across the room and leaped into my arms. He had drawn a birthday card for me with all the members of our family on one side sitting down to cake with a lot of candles on it. The words “I Love You” were written on the cake. On the other side, the candles were blown out, there was a huge chunk missing and we all had cake in front of us. I kept that picture until I started my journey, when I returned it to him for safekeeping.
“We left the Learning Center and got into the conveyance that had been provided for me by the High Priests for this visit. I took the boys to a local restaurant that specialized in serving children. On the way, they chattered about the recent entertainment they had seen, including a holiday parade they had gotten to attend. As we sat and ate, they told me about what they had been doing -- my older son showed me where he had lost another tooth and they informed me how their holiday had been and what they were doing at the Learning Center. After their meal, the boys went to climb and play and get their youthful energy out. I just sat and watched them with a new fascination. They ran and yelled and were happy just to be boys; occasionally they would come back to the table to get a drink, and then they would be off again. They spent over an hour in the play area and seemed happy to have the freedom to just be little boys.
“Eventually, as with all good things, it was time for my visit to come to an end. We went back out to our vehicle and inched our way into the mass of people who were on their way home at the end of their day. We did the crawl across two lanes of traffic and eventually onto the quiet street where my ex-wife and children lived. I released them from their seats and unloaded them onto the sidewalk in front of the house. The boys were excited to show off their new room and all their belongings, but their mother refused to let me into her house. She was shamed that I was allowed in her neighborhood and was afraid that if she let me in, it would cause talk among the neighbors. I made sure that the boys had everything they had brought with them and that everything made it into their new house. I needed to speak to my ex-wife to tell her about the trouble our younger son had gotten into and offered to pick both boys up at the Learning Center when classes let out to make things easier for her. She very nastily told me that she had already dealt with the problem and that, thanks to her efforts, our son had been reinstated to the class without penalty.
“As I was pulling away from the curb, I turned and looked back and saw my older son standing in the front yard looking sad. I stopped and climbed down and he ran to me and jumped in my arms one last time. With his voice breaking, he said he wanted to come with me as he hugged me tightly. At this point, we were joined by my younger son who hugged me also and just kept kissing me, tears streaming down his face. I could have hugged them forever, but it was time for me to be on my way as the priest who was driving, reminded me. The last thing I saw before I turned the corner was the two of them standing in front of their house, waving goodbye to me.”
At this point, Juan Cardenas was interrupted by a coughing fit and lost consciousness. I sat up with him for the rest of the night, hoping to hear the end of his story, but he never awakened. I continued to bathe his brow and wet his lips in an attempt to make him more comfortable, but there was nothing more I could do for him. The look of incredible relief and peace on his face ameliorated the effects of the stresses he had been under and he looked younger than I thought possible. I sat watching him until he passed on and buried the man under the boulder where he had sought his final shelter.
Afterward, as I was preparing to leave, I found a small store of dried foodstuffs and a bottle of rancid water that the man had hidden when he had heard me coming. I went through his meager supplies and found a flattened scroll at the very bottom. I unrolled it and held my nose as the smell of dried blood assailed my nostrils. I took the scroll out into the sun and read the same story Juan had told me before. There were a few more details and personal notes to his sons that I felt I shouldn’t read. After verifying that the ink Juan had used had indeed been his own blood, I ducked back inside to gather up the rest of his belongings. In the dirt, I found a bone shard, sharpened and discolored on one end and realized he had used a piece of his own shin bone to write his final missive. I added his stores to my supplies, carefully packing the scroll and bone to protect them and set off again the next morning after climbing up on the boulder to get my bearings. I determined to find his sons and give them these last relics of their father so they would know what kind of a man he had been. As I surveyed the territory around me, I thought I saw a tree off in the distance -- I hoped it was really there and not just the beginnings of delirium setting in. It had been a while since I’d slept well, and I felt like I needed to get through this plain before I met the same fate as Juan Cardenas.
Three days later, I was almost out of the game that I trapped and cooked back in the mountains and realized that I must soon break open the stores of food that I had taken when I left the Outposts. The total lack of any other kind of life continued to unnerve me. The lone tree that I had spied after burying Juan Cardenas didn’t appear to be getting any closer and I was getting frustrated with my lack of progress through the desolate landscape. The silence, which had been unnerving at first, was still unbroken except for the sounds of my exertions. I didn’t even notice it anymore and started taking it for granted. The wind blew constantly and the loose sand and fine grit got everywhere and into everything causing me constant irritation. My eyes were so dry and my lips so chapped, that I had to resort to using my precious drinking water to keep them moistened. The atmosphere was so arid, that my eyes tended to stick together whenever I blinked and it was torture trying to pry my eyes open when I first woke up in the morning.
I was visited by the Sorceress a second time and she was more content and happier than she had been on her first visit. She let me know that Lil’ Red had made it back to the Outposts and she had made sure he was properly stabled and my belongings stowed safely in my rooms. She hinted that my time of trial might soon be coming to an end, but refused to give me any details. I growled at the Sorceress that her scant assurances didn’t make me feel any better, even though she explained that to expose too much detail would change the course of the future. She also refused to tell me how much longer it would take me to cross these plains -- I had lost sight of the mountains behind me long ago and there seemed to be no end to the jagged landscape ahead and on all sides of me. Every so often I would scale one of the smaller boulders to see how much farther there was to go, but the plains stretched to the horizon and I was losing my enthusiasm for the chore. I had to stop climbing the boulders altogether when the cuts on my hands became too painful to allow me to continue doing this. Not even my pair of heavy leather gloves lasted very long out here. The rocks were so rough and the edges so sharp that even the thickest hide was soon sliced and abraded through to nothing. Fortunately I was able to protect the gash on my left hand to prevent any further infection from setting in.
My hands were so stiff and raw from scrabbling over boulders that I had trouble holding my food and canteen and setting up camp at night. Fortunately, the nights were warm and the moon bright so I didn’t have to light a fire. If the nights down here had been as cold as they were in the mountains, I would surely have perished within a couple of weeks. Instead, I lay in the soft sand with a sky full of night lights and rested as much as I could under those circumstances. I was worried about the lack of any sort of life or the means to sustain it, even this far out, because I knew there was a real possibility of running out of supplies before I made it across the plains. I was trying to be conservative with my food stores to put off the eventuality of starvation as long as possible.
I had packed a lot of dried foodstuffs when I left the Outposts because I wasn’t sure what I would run into out here, and now I was glad that I had taken as much as I did. The curious thing was that even with the constant heat I wasn’t as hungry as I thought I would be, just extremely thirsty. The Sorceress had warned me about this. She insisted that I needed to eat to keep my strength up, but so far it didn’t seem like I needed to and the thought of dried food only made me thirstier. The raging thirst that I was dealing with was something else altogether. I felt like I couldn’t keep enough moisture in my body -- it seemed to evaporate as quickly as I drank it and even my lips felt worse after the water dried on them. I hoped I would come across a river or a body of water sometime soon, or it seemed that I would perish before I made it across those plains.
The heat during the day was becoming worse and I noticed the ever present but faint sulphurous smell in the air grew as I traveled onward. I’d spotted geysers in the distance, spewing what appeared to be water dozens of feet into the air, and my hope to finally renew my stores of water spurred me on in that direction. When I arrived at the edge of the field of geysers, I found a layer of an impossibly fine dust coating everything. As I looked over the field, I realized that this layer of new dust obscured what little features the land had and made it impossible to see the dust pools which had already proven troublesome. This slowed my progress as I was forced to test each step to make sure I was on solid ground. Something else I noticed was that this dust was unusually warm and a couple of times I actually burned myself when I stumbled and fell into a pool of it on the ground. I didn’t know what it was made of, but it seemed that the deeper I journeyed into these plains, the more plentiful the dust geysers became and the hotter and more sulphurous the air was. In the distance, I noticed a distinctly different color to the geysers -- these seemed to be more red, yellow and orange ones than the clear/brownish ones I’d come across to this point. Even though the heat was prohibitive, I’d started toward these geysers to find out what they were made of. These new geysers appeared to be more liquid than the ones I’d come across so far, and I still had the hope of finding water there.
As I approached the multicolored geysers I could feel the already torrid heat increase and it felt like the air was growing thick with humidity. The ground shook as the geysers exploded out of the ground and then fell back to earth. A couple of times the tremors caused me to lose my balance and fall among the sharp and uncomfortably warm rocks. As I ventured closer to the geysers, I noticed a slight mist in the air that turned out not to be water like I had hoped, but even finer dust than I had already encountered since entering this land of geysers. I tied a rag over my nose and mouth to try to filter out the worst of it, but I wasn’t entirely successful. Still I persevered, hoping to find some source of liquid in this parched land. I managed to get as far as the edge of the geyser field when one erupted uncomfortably close to me, covering me with burning red dust as I lay on the ground where I had landed from the force of the explosion.
This was much worse than the dust from the brown geysers and I sprang to my feet screaming as I fled from the field. Besides the temperature of the dust, within seconds of touching my skin I felt like I had been dipped in an acid bath. I had started to sweat and as the dust came into contact with the moisture from my body, the burning increased in intensity as it reacted with my sweat to spread over more of my body. I ran back as fast as I could toward the relative safety of the brown geysers, pulling off my clothes and trying to dust myself off as quickly as possible. I dropped to the ground in a relatively rock and dust free area and rolled around to try to neutralize the burning sensation on my head and hands. After scrubbing myself all over with the brown dust, I could no longer feel the acidic burning on my skin. I stooped to pick up my clothes and watched them fall apart in my hands -- apparently the acidic burning I had felt wasn’t totally my imagination and I wondered what damage had been done to my skin. I did manage to get my few belongings out of my pockets before my clothing disintegrated altogether and pulled out some fresh clothes from my pack. By now I had calmed down a little from my exertions and realized how thirsty I had become. I rubbed my hands across my mouth and felt like half the skin on my lips peeled off.
As much as I’d tried to keep them moist, my lips and my hands looked like they had been mummified. I’d tried every trick I knew to stave off dehydration, but nothing seemed to work and my condition was getting worse. In spite of this, I was determined to carry on and see what was ahead of me. I trusted the Sorceress’ words as she had a deep faith in her religion, and firmly averred that all would work out for the best. I hadn’t had so much faith in my religion lately, simply because of all the troubles I’d faced recently, but I had faith in her faith. As far as my God, I felt like I’d been tested and found wanting somehow -- like my faith wasn’t good enough when times got hard for me. I’d wanted to believe in a benevolent and caring God, but it’s hard to do so when you feel like your God is laughing at you and screwing with your life for no other reason than his own amusement.
During my stay in the Outposts, I made the acquaintance of what I can only describe as a Goddess, who shares many similar characteristics with a woman from my distant past, particularly in the psychic energy department. The Goddess had helped me get through some very difficult times with her insights and humor and I owed her a debt of gratitude that I can almost certainly never repay. She had walked the Path I was on and knew what was to come and had guided me through the most difficult times. She had let me know what was to come as much as she could has often pointed out the correct path to take. Her gentle humor and wisdom were a rarity in my world and she had earned my loyalty, trust and friendship. Unfortunately, being a Goddess meant that I couldn’t have her undivided attention. She had other demands on her time and often I was left alone during the darkest times to figure out a way to make it through to the next day.
I had also befriended an Assassin who swore she had nothing but the kindest of feelings for me. She was recently in the healer’s den where I was training, with an illness involving the respiratory system. She would be fine she informed me with a wink, as she was too evil to die of natural causes. We seemed to see eye to eye on a lot of issues, and if nothing else she was even more hard core than I had recently become. She recently handled a minor but troublesome problem for me in her own inimitable style and has offered to handle more for me, as the first one was so much fun. I had to admit, she has a certain style that I liked, and as much as I would have liked to unleash her against the Princess who has bedeviled me, I’ve told her that this target was off limits for now. Based on the handiwork of hers that I’d witnessed, the Princess was lucky I’ve held off on hiring her. The Assassin was brutal, yet classy -- definitely a tough act to follow.
Sorceress, Goddess and Assassin -- an unholy sort of trifecta that had been of tremendous help to me in getting through my darkest hours. I was lucky to have met those three in my travels, but was aware that their help and support was probably transitory at best like every other relationship I’ve had. They had supported me with their wisdom, knowledge and unquestioning love and I was truly blessed by their presence in my life.
These thoughts were with me as I resumed my way back toward the tree I had thought I had seen when I buried Juan. After traveling for days and not seeming to make any progress, I was surprised when I painfully pulled myself up onto the top of a boulder and realized the tree was on top of the next hill. I sat down and rubbed the grit out of my eyes and looked again. It was indeed a tree I had seen in the distance and if I hadn’t been so dried out, I would have cried with joy. I scrambled off the giant rock, scooped up my pack and staggered as fast as I could toward my goal.
When I reached the tree, I dropped to my knees, exhausted and stared at what I had been running toward all this time. The little oasis at the top of the hill offered little comfort; the tree itself was barely alive and the ground around it was covered with sticker plants that, though easily cleared away, left their droppings in the sand and made it uncomfortable to lie down. There was a small pool of water under what would have been the canopy of the tree and it was covered by a black oily film. After my previous experiences I was wary of the water, but driven forward by desperation. Underneath, the water was sweet and delicious, but the film on top made getting to it a chore.
I carefully scooped the oily substance off the top of the pool, throwing it onto the sticker plants. The leaves turned black and shriveled and I banished the thought of what this substance could be doing to me. I was focused on getting to the water and determined that nothing was going to keep me from slaking my thirst. I piled the sticker plants in a pile and lit them, watching the thick black smoke rise up in the still air. I dumped out what was left of my water around the base of the tree and started refilling the containers. After they were all full, I dunked my head into the pool and scrubbed at my dry scalp. When I came up for air, I felt remarkably refreshed. I quickly stripped and jumped into the water to finish scrubbing and then cleaned my clothes in the cool water. As I scrubbed, I noticed that the water was continually circulating, so I as able to drink from it again a few minutes after I had hung my clothes up to dry. After two days spent resting and refreshing myself, I headed back out into the scree and boulders to try to find a way out of this land. I managed to scramble up onto one of the larger ones in the field to scout ahead. From what I could see, the rocky terrain gradually gave way to sand, which in turn became rolling dunes and what appeared to be a vast desert. I returned to the oasis for another day gathering my strength, eating and resting. The next day, late in the afternoon, I set out with my back to the field of boulders that I had just come from.
I traveled at night as much as I could. As soon as I realized the night was waning, I dug into the eastern face of the sand dune I was on and crawled into the hole to wait out the worst of the heat. Three days out from the oasis, I started seeing signs of life as a shadow passed over me. From the size of it, I would say it had to be a rather large bird, either a vulture or a condor. Where there’s life, there’s hope and looking up was enough to make me give up on that hope. The bird I saw was a vulture and as I watched, he wheeled around and made another pass over me. He followed me the rest of the day, never coming nearer, but constantly circling. The presence of the large bird brought others of its kind. As I trudged along, I realized that after my exertions in the field of boulders, and with the oppressive heat of the desert, I wouldn’t be able to keep traveling even at night. It seemed that the deeper I traveled into the desert wilderness, the hotter it became so that even rest was impossible.
After two more nights of traveling, I crested a high dune just as the sun was coming up and was greeted by the sight of a range of majestic mountains rising up from the desert floor. Even though the mountains were distant, the sight of snow capped mountains gave me hope; at that moment I would have gladly traded bitter cold for the relentless heat I had suffered through for the last several weeks. I estimated that the base of the mountains was at least another day or two from me, but it lightened my heart somewhat to know that soon I would be out of the desert wilderness. The vulture still accompanied me circling high overhead even though I had been traveling at night. It was there in the mornings when I went to sleep and still there when I woke up in the evenings, watching me with its unblinking gaze the whole time. After a few days I noticed that it would land nearby when I made my camp in the morning and was still sitting in the same position, waiting for me when I got up in the evenings. I was worried not only by the giant bird’s boldness, but also by the state of my supplies. My food and water were running low and now it became a race as to whether I should make it out of the desert before I ran out of both. I watched the giant bird as I made my camp for the day and chewed on some dried beef, washing the salty remnants down with a few drops of water. The bird ignored the handful of sand that I threw at him out of defiance and I tried to ignore his presence as I settled down in the hole I had dug for myself in the soft sand.
I staggered out of the pit I had dug in the dune around sunset. After a short meal of dried meat and vegetables and a few sips of water, I set off toward the mountains, my heart considerably lighter than it had been in days. I made good time that night, buoyed by the knowledge that the mountains were closer with each step I took. I was relieved to find that I was still half a day’s walk away from the mountains when the sun came up the next morning. The snow reflected the pink and orange of the rising sun and the dark purple shadows beckoned to me. I resolved to carry on and push on through until I gained the grass and trees of the lower slopes. By this time I was heartily sick of the sand and everywhere it had gotten into. As it was still relatively cool out and the sand was lessening in depth and seemed firmer, I was able to make better progress and arrived at the foot of the mountains around mid-morning.
I stumbled out of the sand and up the rocky slope at the foot of the mountains before falling to my knees and kissing the ground. The dirt was firm and cool under my hands and my relief from being out of the heat was palpable. About fifty yards above me, I saw green tufts of grass starting to grow among the rocks and hard packed dirt and soon I had scrabbled up the side of the hill and was walking in a field of ankle deep grass. I laid down for a few minutes, soaking up the luxury of cool grass under my body, the soft, springy plants providing a comfortable mattress for me. I closed my eyes and started to relax, but was jolted back to awareness by a large body passing in front of the sun. The passing shadow of the Vulture reminded me that I needed to be on my way, so I forced myself to my feet and started looking for a place to rest. A little further on, I came upon a small stream that was fed by a waterfall tumbling down from the heights above me. I took this opportunity to drink deeply from the cool waters. I then plunged into it, clothes and all and proceeded to get as clean as I could. The water was deceptively cold, but I endured it gladly after the excessive heat that I had passed through. I scrubbed myself with handfuls of sand from the bottom of the stream and could feel the pain from my cuts and burns being taken away by the water, being replaced by a sense of health and well being. After a thorough soaking, I undressed and laid my clothes on the bank to dry and jumped back in to wash the sand out of every crevice and relaxed as the cold water washed over me.
Much refreshed and in better spirits, I took my time getting dressed, packed up the clothes that were lying on the bank and started to hike higher into the mountains. The vulture had landed on a low hanging branch while I was in the water and had watched my ablutions with great interest. I took some time to refill my water containers and make a large meal out of my dried food. As soon as I started walking again, the vulture took off and continued its circling. As I progressed higher and the air cooled down, I started paying more attention to the land around me. I found some small bushes covered in round, black berries and after a short debate, hunger overcame caution and I popped a couple into my mouth. They were slightly sweet and delicious and I soon had picked the bush clean before I had eaten my fill. I spit the seeds onto the ground around the bush and poured a little water onto the soil. Having fresh food after eating dried fruit for so long raised my spirits and made me feel a lot better physically. I walked a little way further before I found a suitable spot to camp for the night. It was at the edge of some woods, and there was soft grass to lay upon and plenty of firewood available. I pitched my tent, found some more berries to snack on, built a fire and slept like the dead.
Some time after dark, I awakened unexpectedly, eyes wide open and ears alert for the slightest sound. I didn’t know what it was that woke me up from my slumbers but in a heartbeat I was up and had slid out the back of the tent so I was cloaked in the darkness. A knife I had made from one of the razor sharp rocks from the blasted plains in one hand, my short sword in the other, I waited for any sign for the cause of my unease. I crouched in the darkness, straining to hear any noise that didn’t belong in the night, eyes scanning the night around me. I backed away from the tent and quietly circled around my campsite, trying to catch sight of whatever it was that had awakened me. As I kneeled behind a tree, I could sense rather than see, a shadow in the darkness moving ahead of me. Although there was no moon, the shadow was darker than the night. I quickly closed the distance between us as quietly as I could, but still couldn’t make out clearly what it was. The shadow edged around a large elm tree and I hurried around it to try to get the jump on whatever it was. I stopped on the other side of the tree confused because there was nothing there. I crouched lower and looked around me, alert for any movement.
Suddenly a wave of sorrow, pain and tears more intense than anything I had ever felt before flooded over me and I dropped to my knees, at the overwhelming sensations. I heard a soft sound behind me and whirled around to see the shadow was behind me, looming in the darkness. It moved from where it had been concealed against the trunk of the tree and closed in on me, wrapping me in its inky black arms. Before I knew what was happening, I had dropped my weapons, helpless in its grip and sobbing uncontrollably. I felt the shadow as it leaned close to my ear and started whispering to me in a soft, oily, insinuating voice.
“Your Princess doesn’t love you anymore,” it whispered silkily. “She despises you and the ground you walk on and has vowed your humiliation and destruction. The young Princes don’t love you either. They live in abject fear of you that is rapidly growing into hatred. They can’t stand to be in the same room as you and only want the attention of the Princess. And your Queen doesn’t love you either. She is false in her devotion to your cause and laughs at you to her retinue and proclaims you a fool to all who listen to her. Everyone knows you’re being duped except you. When your back is turned everyone is laughing and pointing because of the pain you have caused them in the past. Nobody loves you. You are less than unworthy, you are worthless. If you died now, nobody would mourn you. You are nothing but a source of bitter amusement for people who are better than you, and an object of scorn for those you’ve long considered beneath you. You are being played for a fool in front of the whole world and soon will be exposed, naked, bare and defenseless for all to see. And you can’t even try to end your life because of your so-called code of honor, so your only path is to accept that you are a failure and are unworthy to be loved. To live forever, unloved, lonely, morally bankrupt. Soon the whole world will know all about you. . .”
The shadow was leaning closer now, its malicious glee radiating out and engulfing me as I sobbed harder, blinded by tears. I found myself on my hands and knees, I wanted to give up and die so badly, but as the shadow pointed out, that wasn’t an option. I was blind with anguish and drowning in psychic pain that was almost physical as the dark being tightened its grip on me. As I sank deeper into my sorrow, the shadow continued to whisper in my ear all the things that I feared, pulling me down deeper into the helpless depths. I wanted to cry out for help but there was no one to reach out to. For the first time ever, I truly felt alone and friendless. The shadow’s silky, insinuating voice kept up the seductive monologue of hopelessness and helplessness, reducing me further, holding me in its thrall until a tiny voice whispered to me from my right side.
“Listen to me and don’t think. Your thoughts will betray you to the dark being. Don’t think, but believe in what I say if you want salvation. You are not alone. You are loved. Reach out quickly to your left, grab tight and hold fast.” And the voice was gone as quickly as it had come.
Knowing deep down that the voice was right and that I had to act quickly, I emptied my mind, concentrating only on the sound of the shadow’s voice and snatched a handful of air with my left hand in a lightning movement. I felt my hand close around something fairly insubstantial, but still solid. The shadow writhed and tried to escape, its monologue unexpectedly cut short, but I held tight just as the voice had commanded me. I clenched the shadow harder, feeling my hands grow stiff with tension. Within a few minutes the shadow became still and melted away, out of my grasp. Immediately, my sense of well being came back to me. I could sense other shadows in the darkness around me, but now they were keeping their distance. I felt strong and sure of myself again. Even though I was shaken by the things the shadow had whispered to me, I knew that the attack was over. I grabbed my weapons, staggered to my feet and faced the dark beings, daring them to come within my grasp. One by one they melted away and soon I was left with only the ordinary shadows of the night. I made my way back to the fireside and fell back asleep.
The next morning I awakened and, remembering what had happened the night before, decided to backtrack and follow the stream I had come across the previous day. I examined the woods closely as I walked, but everything seemed normal with no sign of any unusual activity from the night before. As I worked my way steadily uphill, I started to notice animal spoor close to the water and several variety of nut-bearing trees along the banks. The thought of eating fresh meat and anything different from the dried fruit and berries made my stomach rumble and stimulated my imagination. As I traveled that morning, I felt like I was being watched and not just by the ever-present vulture. To take my mind off of my troubles, I made plans to try my hand at some hunting and trapping at my first opportunity.
Around noon I came across a small outcropping of rock that formed a small cave by the side of the stream. From what I could observe, the cave had been carved out by flood waters and the water in the stream seemed to be somewhat lower than normal. The sandy bottom of the cave promised a comfortable resting place and there was even room for me to set up a small fire. Dropping my supplies in a corner at the back, I decided to this would be a good place for a little hunting and set out to see what I could find. I spent the better part of four hours gathering firewood and trying various methods of enticing small woodland creatures into my stew pot before I was successful in bagging a medium sized squirrel. With a few fresh nuts from the trees, a handful of fresh berries and some dried vegetables that I had left, I managed to eke out a passable stew with some roasted meat left over from my meal. With a warm dinner inside me, washed down with some sweet water from the stream, I was ready for a good nights sleep. I laid some fresh wood on the fire to keep any wandering animals away and fell asleep almost immediately after laying down.
I woke with a start from a dream that I was being smothered. What awakened me was the realization that it wasn’t a dream -- once again I was under attack from the same shadow beings that had beset me the night before. This time it was a much larger shadow, taller, heavier and thicker than I was and lying directly on top of me. I tried to sit up, but someone was sitting on my chest. As in the night before, this one leaned toward my ear and spoke in a smooth, oily whisper.
“I’m going to kill you tonight. What you did last night to our brother upset us terribly and you are going to pay dearly for your transgression. You are going to die a horrible death, all alone, and I’m the one who will be the cause of it. I’m going to smother you slowly and will get great pleasure in watching as the life leaves your body. You will lie here unmourned and forgotten. And nobody will miss you, because nobody loves you. . .”
As he spoke, I could feel the weight of his body pressing down on me more, making it difficult to breathe. I had no doubt of his intentions as he continued to speak softly in my ear in a way that was designed to rob me of any hope. I could feel an intense sadness wash over me as the shadow continued his monologue. The more the shadow spoke, the heavier his body became until my breath was coming in shallow, ragged gasps and it took almost all of my energy just to breathe. Tears were streaming down my face and spots were swimming in front of my eyes as I struggled to breathe. I knew I had to muster a defense fast or the shadow really would do what he promised. I tried to move my arms and legs, but the shadow held me pinned to the ground. I was starting to black out now as the my ability to breathe was gradually restricted to shallow breaths, and those were becoming few and farther between.
I raised my head and with the majority of my remaining energy managed to gasp out, “I don’t need. . .their love. . .to survive.”
This unexpected comment caused a moment of uncertainty in the shadow, which relieved the pressure on my chest enough to allow me to take a deep breath. I took a second deep breath and grasped the shadow by the throat, which moved him off me a little further. With the pressure reduced on my limbs and the oxygen flooding back into my system, I managed to struggle up into a sitting position, but I lost my grip on the dark being’s throat. The shadow leaped off and crouched beside me and restarted his destructive monologue as I continued to breathe deeply. I turned to face him, getting as close as I could. I was still too weak to mount much of a defense, but at least I could breathe again.
“Don’t think you have won,” it said angrily, “this is only a reprieve and the night is just beginning. We will not stop until you have left this earth.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I replied taking a deep breath, “I’ve already beaten you and I will beat you again.”
“No, you will go to sleep. And when you do, I will kill you then. I will smother you while you rest and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
I glared at the shadow being. I knew he was right about my needing sleep, but I was determined not to show my fear. “You’re wrong. I’m too strong for that, I’ll outlast you.”
“No,” he persisted. “You are tired. You need to sleep. When you close your eyes and go to sleep, you will die at our hands. It’s as simple as that.”
I tried to conceal the finger of fear that I felt deep inside me. Deep down I knew the shadow had made a valid argument, but I couldn’t let him know how scared I was and rolled over with my back to the embers of my fire. I felt a stirring of hope as I remembered the lies he had already told me and I thought he might be telling me another one. As soon as I closed my eyes, I felt the shadow try to lay on top of me again. I sat up in my bedding for a second time and rolled away from the fire, so the shadow was between me and the light of the flames.
“I told you. You’re tired, so, so tired. You have to sleep. And as soon as you close your eyes, you’ll die,” the smooth insinuating voice whispered again to me. “I can out wait you. You’re mine. Close your eyes and it will be all over. Make it easy for me, and I’ll make it as easy as I can for you.”
For a moment, I considered giving in, but I knew that would be the worst sort of wrong I could commit. “I’m not scared of you. I’m stronger than that; you. . .will. . .not. . .kill. . .me!”
I closed my eyes two more times, and each time the shadow tried an assault on me as soon as my body relaxed. I was starting to panic because I was so tired, felt weak and just wanted to close my eyes and rest. I knew I couldn’t stay awake all night and there were always later nights to think about. This was a war of attrition, and it was one the shadows would win. I didn’t even know if they could be killed. I just knew that this was a pivotal night in my dealings with the shadow beings. I turned back toward the shadow.
“Do your worst,” I snarled, hiding my fear, “you can’t kill me and you know it. I know who you are and I’m too strong, too mean and if you get too close, I’ll do worse things to you what I did to the other one last night.” I thought about making a half hearted snatch at the shadows’ head. The shadow shook its head slowly at me.
“Don’t even try. You have no idea what it is you’re dealing with,” it said quietly. The shadow didn’t move any closer to me, but remained crouching by my side. “As soon as you enter the world of sleep, you are mine.”
I gave the shadow being an ugly chuckle. “As soon as I enter the world of sleep, I will kill you,” I replied with a calm certainty. “I don’t care how big and nasty you are in this world, you’re a shadow, an insubstantial being, and if you mess with me again, you will pay the ultimate cost. I know how things work in the world of dreams and so do you; and if you know anything about me, you know I’m a man of my word.” I laid back down and rolled over. I could feel the shadow staring at me and decided to ignore it. Soon I was deep asleep and didn’t wake until morning.
I decided to stop running from the shadows and show them I wasn’t afraid of their presence. I spent the next four days camping out in the same spot, hunting and stocking up my food supplies. I didn’t know where I was going or what I would find, but after my experiences in the blasted plains and the desert, I wanted to make sure I had enough food to get me through whatever was ahead. The shadows left me alone the whole time I stayed there. I figured they were either working on another attack or had decided to leave me alone and find easier prey. At the end of the fourth day, I was thoroughly exhausted and after a light supper, I laid down to fall asleep.
As soon as I closed my eyes, I was visited by a friend of the Vampiress. I had forged a bond with her when she needed a knight in shining armor and I had pledged to her that my door would always be open if she needed me. This bond had been forged as a result of my being nice to her against the advice of her close friends. They had feared for me more than for her, but I had seen in her what they had not. Now we were good friends and in spite of appearances, she had turned out to be a force of good in my life. Her showing up like this was totally unexpected and out of character for someone as shy as she was. I tried to talk to her, but she just stood there and watched me, a concerned look on her face. When I tried to reach out to touch her, I was unable to raise my arms and all I could do was look at her without being able to move. I got the feeling she was watching over me rather than just watching me. I tried to explain that we couldn’t meet in this fashion, that I needed healing myself, but she continued staring at me silently. Giving up and exhausted, I laid back down to close my eyes and a shadow appeared next to her. Neither the shadow, nor the Vampiress acknowledged each other’s presence. The shadow addressed me in much the same way as its predecessors had and its oily, insinuating voice grated on my nerves.
“I’m here to kill you. As you sleep, you will die. You are not loved by anyone. Soon you will be dead. . .”
I interrupted the monologue and dragged myself to my feet. “Look. I’m too tired to deal with you. If you’re going to kill me, do it now. If this is the best you can do, go fuck off!”
The shadow stared at me silently for several minutes. After a few minutes of staring at each other, I walked away while the shadow continued to stare. The Vampiress appeared next to me, put her arms around me and without saying a word, gave me a hug. Everything went black after that, but I felt her arms holding me the rest of the night.
The next morning, I awakened, hungry for the first time in days, feeling more rested than I had in a long time. I decided it was time to leave my little idyll and move higher into the mountains. The day dawned sunny, but chilly as I packed up my supplies and made ready to move to higher ground. There were blank footprints on the ground, that bespoke the struggle that had taken place the night before and a second set that were in one spot only. I paused to consider what the footprints meant and sent off a quick prayer of thanks. Even though it was sunny, there were a few clouds on the horizon, so I changed into heavier clothes, ate a final warm breakfast, doused the fire and started hiking higher into the mountains. The going was easy and I made good time, stopping only for a brief lunch. As I ascended higher into the mountains, the temperature started to drop and clouds that had been on the horizon started rolling in and crowding together in the sky. By mid-afternoon, it was decidedly colder and there were small snow flurries in the air. I started looking for some dry wood and a place where I could have some shelter from the night.
I made my way to a stand of trees and started setting up camp for the night. I strung a length of cloth between some branches to make a rude tent and to block the wind that was kicking up and started a small fire. I gathered up enough wood to keep me warm for a couple of days and scouted around for some signs of animal life. I found some the spoor of small animals about, so I knew I wouldn’t starve. I finished setting up camp and settled down for a good night’s sleep.
In the morning, I awakened to find six inches of snow and the sight of the Vulture warming his wings against the embers of the fire. The Vulture calmly hopped backward while I piled more wood on the fire and stoked the embers back to life. The giant bird watched me as I made my morning preparations for the day, and hopped back up to the fire as soon as I had moved away. We spent the time as I ate breakfast mutely staring at each other. As soon as I had finished eating and cleaned up my plates, the Vulture shook himself once, and took off into the sky. Although I didn’t see him the rest of the day, I felt his presence on and off as I traveled through the forest. I spent most of the rest of the day setting traps for small game and scouting around for interesting places to venture. For now, the only paths led higher into the depths of the mountains.
The next day was even colder and brought more evidence of fresh snow. Again, the Vulture was watching me and warming himself against my fire. We stared at each other silently again as I breakfasted and prepared to go out. I felt like he was waiting for some kind of response from me, but I didn’t know what he expected. If he wanted to communicate with me, I was going to let him make the first move. I spent the day checking my traps and bringing the animals in that I had caught and skinning them. I cooked up most of the meat and left a few chunks and the bones out for the Vulture. The next morning, the scraps were gone and the Vulture was warming himself by the fire again, this time glaring at me as I slept. The Vulture seemed somewhat impatient and took off as soon as he saw I was up and around.
Following the Vulture’s example, I hurriedly packed and ate breakfast and set off into the mountains. Although the fresh snow was fairly shallow when I started, as I worked my way up into the mountains, the snow deepened, slowing my progress. Three days hiking brought me to the peak of a ridge of mountains. The vista offered by the height of the range was as breathtaking as the wind that kept the peaks scoured clean of unpacked snow. The wind that screamed and whipped the drifted snow around encouraged me to keep moving down into the valley below. The snow was mid-thigh at this point and had drifted deeper, slowing me down dramatically. By the time I had pushed halfway down the mountain, the snow was chest deep and I was unable to push my way through it. Exhausted, I decided to backtrack and hike sideways around the valley where the snow didn’t appear to be as deep. I stumbled into to a small group of trees just night was falling and set up camp as quickly as I could. My hands were numb, I was chilled clear through and I couldn’t get my fingers to work properly. It seemed that everything I did took three times as long as it should and the gathering darkness didn’t help my situation any.
The wind picked up and blew my supplies around before I could get everything satisfactorily anchored to the ground and create a shelter for myself. I started a small fire behind a blanket I had thrown up and piled wood next to it to dry out and kept the flames stoked throughout the night. I have never spent a night as bitingly cold and windy as that one and hoped I never would again. The wind howled through my camp like a pack of ravenous wolves and I felt like every time I started to drift off to sleep, it was time to add more wood to the fire so I could stay warm. I ate a minimal breakfast the next morning and, feeling none too rested, continued my way around the valley. As I kept to the woods, the snow gradually tailed off to being only knee deep and my travels became faster. After two more days, I reached the far side of the valley and prepared to start my ascent on the opposite peaks. I woke up early in the morning and by mid-day, I had reached the crest of the valley.
Looking down, there was a small dip that led to an even higher peak. I sighed at the stupidity that had led me higher into the mountains and started to hike my way around the dip and found a small cave to sleep in for the night. Even though it was still early in the day, I was spent from my exertions from the previous days and from the lack of sleep. Again, the temperatures were bitterly cold, but being inside a small shelter with a fire seemed like heaven. The next morning, I set off early, hoping to scale the mountain before night fall.
I had hiked almost a third of the way up the mountain face before stopping for lunch. The wind had picked up, blowing the snow and loose ice from the face of the mountain down into the valley below it, adding to the white depths below. As the snow became less, black ice took its place, making the ascent even more treacherous. I was reduced to scrabbling for hand holds in the slippery ice while laying prone. I broke my stone knife trying to chip suitable holes in the ice sheet to pull myself across which left another nasty gash on my hand and was eventually reduced to using my broadsword for this task. After a what seemed an eternity of agonizingly slow progress, I finally made it to the edge of the ice shelf and was able to pull myself to more solid ground.
Toward late afternoon, I realized that I needed to find shelter for the night. I scouted around and found a deep cave a few hundred yards up the mountain that would serve my purposes. I dragged my belongings into the cave after me, started a small fire, collapsed and fell asleep. I awoke a sometime later in the mountain twilight, stiff and cold, face to face with the Vulture that had tracked me since my time in the desert. I don’t know if it was the bird’s presence or some other warning that awoke me, but I leaned toward some other reason for waking. I scrambled to my feet, reaching for my broadsword, but it was nowhere to be found. The Vulture was the only being I know that didn’t betray its presence by having an aura to be felt. By the Vulture’s side was a new stack of firewood. I regarded the giant bird for a while, wondering why it was there and what it wanted. Eventually, the cold overcame my hesitancy and I decided I needed to rebuild the fire. Cautiously edging my way around the giant bird, I fed a few small pieces of wood into the embers, along with a few twigs and leaves that were scattered around the floor. The small pile started to smoke and soon a small flame became visible. I slowly added a few larger twigs that were thoroughly dry and within minutes they were burning, too. After I had placed some of the logs the Vulture had brought over the small fire, I backed away and retreated to my pile of provisions.
Keeping one eye on the giant bird, I heated up some of the meat I had cooked previously and threw the Vulture a few pieces of meat and bone which he devoured immediately. It seemed that he was as famished as I was. After the warmth of the food and fire had permeated both the cave and me, I started taking stock of what supplies I had left. While I busied myself, I ignored the giant bird while he watched me silently and without moving. When I had finished taking inventory and repacking, the Vulture shook itself, spread his wings to their full span and started the most curious transformation I had ever seen.
After several minutes, the giant vulture had been replaced by a tall, skeletal man dressed in black from his neck to his hands and all the way down to his ankles, which only seemed to accentuate the whiteness of his skin.
“You have lost the Vampiress,” he whispered to me in a husky voice. His voice sounded as if he hadn’t used it in a long time and I was bothered by an accent I couldn’t place.
“That’s old news. I lost her ages ago when she abandoned me,” I croaked back to him, surprised at the sudden venom and hostility in my voice.
“She left you for your own good, and hers,” said the Vulture in a stronger voice. Now that I could hear him better, I realized his accent was British, definitely upper class.
“That’s the key phrase -- she left me.”
“Yes, but you are a stronger person now, a better person. Why do you run from your problems?”
The Vulture gave me a grim smile and waved his hand to indicate the cave. “Why are you out here, then? You had friends and family, you moved away and left them. You had friends at the Outposts and you left them. too. You have hurt everyone who loved you and was close to you and then you abandoned them.”
“That hurt goes two ways,” I replied, stung by his criticism. “I was hurt by the Princess long before she left me; and that’s the operative phrase -- She. . .Left. . .Me. I came home to an empty house, found myself left all alone, and then was abandoned by the Vampiress when I needed her most. Since I had nobody in the City I could depend on, I moved to the Outposts. And then. . .things happened. . .It was time to leave.”
“You had abandoned the Princess long before she left you.”
“No, I was there for her right up until the end.”
“Only physically. You had your bags packed at one point and were ready to walk out,” the Vulture pointed out.
“But I didn’t leave. I stayed until after she walked out on me.”
“Only because the Vampiress talked you into staying. She was a good friend to you.”
“I’ve never denied that.”
“But you’ve never affirmed it either. You have never defended her or acknowledged all she did for you.”
I could feel my face flushing from anger. “That’s not true. She was a good friend in a time of need, but she turned her back on me when I needed her most. And for the record, I have given her credit for trying to help keep my relationship with the Princess together.”
“But you haven’t given her credit for everything else she did for you. In fact, you deny and repudiate it in order to salvage whatever respect and friendship you can. Why deny that she made your life easier during this time?”
“I don’t deny it. She was a boon to me during those troubled times, right up to the first time I lost her.”
“And then?” the Vulture looked at me piercingly.
I looked down for a moment as my emotions started to rise. I quickly mastered them and looked the Vulture in the eyes. “And then I lost her the second time. The way things were left between us, I thought she was gone for good and it almost broke me. I felt lost and adrift, with no one to guide me. I had to figure out how to make my own way again and was just starting to come to terms with everything that had happened when things spiraled out of control again, and. . .”
“Yes.” I hung my head, face flushed with shame.
“By “things”. . .you mean the Vampiress getting back in touch with you.”
“Yes, that was one of them. It was a confluence of events that indicated to me it was time to move on. I did not make that decision lightly.”
“Why did the Vampiress reestablishing communications disturb you so much?”
“Because it reawakened feelings that I thought were dead, and that angered and scared me -- it still does. Also, because of the way it hurt when she left, I determined that it would never happen again. It was better that I pushed her away for good rather than go through that again. I can’t be that weak again! I was angry that I could still be so weak as to have those old feelings again, so I bolstered my internal defenses and built higher, thicker walls so that nobody will ever hurt me the ways both she and the Princess did. And now you’re telling me that she’s left me again.”
“How did they hurt you?”
“By getting inside my defenses.”
“But you let them inside.”
“Yes, you did. At some point you made the decision and now you have to live with the consequences. Do you think that by erecting better defenses you will heal yourself?”
“Yes I do, and what’s more important, I won’t get hurt anymore.”
“That’s not the same thing. Think about what you are giving up by doing this. Not only are you shutting other people out, but you are locking yourself away. You may have lost the Vampiress as a friend for good as well as forgoing other relationships that could help you heal.”
“I can’t afford to have the Vampiress in my life right now or ever. She said that very eloquently the last time we talked and she was right. I realize that what she said about hurting me worse if she stayed was right, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, especially the way she went around doing what she did.”
“What did she do that was so horrible?”
“She wasn’t honest with herself and she wasn’t honest with me about her motives or her mate.”
“Wasn’t she just trying to protect you?”
“That’s what she claims. Then she severed all avenues of communication with me, abandoned me, and then came into my life again all sweetness and sunshine when I was at the lowest point in my life. What does she want from me now? How can I trust her when she’s lied to me? What else has she lied about?”
“You don’t know that she lied to you; those are your perceptions and could be leading you to a false conclusion. What else was there to lie about?”
“Her so called ‘friends’.”
“What about them?”
“How do I know they really exist? I used to talk to them all the time, and now none of them can get word to me? I opened up my heart to them, talked to them, played with them and fell in love with them. How do I know the Vampiress wasn’t playing me for a fool the whole time?”
“Look into your heart. The answer is there.”
“I no longer trust my heart.”
The Vulture sighed deeply and tossed another log onto the fire. “Then, my son, you have not long to live. Without trusting your heart, how long do you think you will survive in this world?”
“My heart is still there. . .it’s just that I’m taking care to protect it better. I don’t want to get hurt again. Besides, I don’t need to trust it to survive.”
“Getting hurt is part of being human, part of how you grow. You just pick up the pieces and carry on and learn from your experiences; and this is one area you have been sorely lacking in for a long time. I see no old scars here, just new ones from what you have been through recently. Though they are tender now, over time they will heal and become one with you and make you stronger.”
“But they hurt so much.”
“As well they should. The pain now will fade, but what remains behind will be both stronger and wiser and you have the potential to become a better human being in the long run.”
“What about my marriage to the Princess.”
“Sadly, that has run its course. Everything has its time in this world, and that part of your life is now over, never to be regained. That doesn’t mean, however, that you won’t meet someone later on that will be right for you.”
“I thought that marriage was supposed to be forever.”
“Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. The right person for you now may not be the right person for you to spend the rest of your life with. That’s part of the growth process. Think about the person you are right now and how you were five years ago, ten years ago and even twenty years ago. There is the evidence of your growth.”
“But I’m still basically the same person. How can I continue to grow, or even exist, when the foundation I have built my life upon is crumbling away?”
“Look at the foundation of your life that is ahead of you and ignore what is behind you.”
“But everything I’ve ever believed is part of that foundation. I can’t just ignore it.”
“It is also part of the foundation for what lies ahead of you. You can still have the things you believe in, but you need to move forward and experience new growth, otherwise all will crumble and fall around you and you will be lost forever. You know that change is a part of life. You felt the same sense of your foundation crumbling before, when you went through major changes and survived just fine. And you knew marriage wasn’t always forever -- you’ve had ample proof of that.”
“I thought my marriage would be forever, though; that I was a better person than everyone I knew who had gone through a dissolution of marriage.”
“Dissolution of any marriage isn’t a matter of who’s a good person and who’s not, nor does it mean that a person is worse than anyone else. It’s about two people re-separating their combined life into individual lives again. The process of destruction is painful and sometimes prolonged, but from that comes new life, if you let it. Like the fire that destroys part of a forest, the part that is dead is only like that for a little while. Slowly, life comes back. Some parts will be the same, but a lot of it will be different.”
“I. . .can’t. I just. . .can’t.” I hung my head again, this time to hide the tears that were brimming my eyes.
“Can’t what? Can’t live again? Can’t let new life in? Feel love again? Let the Vampiress be your friend again? What can’t you do?” the Vulture leaned in close as he pressed me for answers.
“Any of that!” I shouted at him. “Don’t you understand? I can’t go through this hurt again! Being abandoned by the Princess and the Vampiress at the same time was almost too much for me! I can’t afford to have that kind of love enter my life again and I couldn’t handle the pain of separation, especially not at this time! I’m too vulnerable right now, and too weak -- the Assassin was right about that. I can’t ever be weak like this again!” I glared at the Vulture as tears ran down my face. He just stared back at me impassively, not moving or blinking. After a period of time he spoke again.
“The Assassin is wrong,” he declared. “Being able to love and be loved is not a weakness, it is the greatest strength imaginable. So much is possible when you have the capacity to love and without it, nothing is possible. The reason you awoke just now, is because the Vampiress severing her link with you. You are now truly alone in this world. You must stop running away.”
“I’m not running away from anything,” I snarled.
“Running toward something can be the same as running away from something,” he replied, holding my eyes with his.
“And what exactly am I running toward?” I asked, exasperated by the bird’s manner.
With that final word, the Vulture spread his arms, turned and had re-transformed into a giant bird before he reached the opening of the cave and flew off. Even though the cave was fairly warm, I still shivered to myself as I wrapped a blanket around myself and hunched over the fire and tried to stay warm.
I don’t remember going to sleep that night, I must have because when I awoke it was with a start of surprise. The Vulture was back in his man form, crouching in front of the fire warming his hands and staring intently at me. As if anticipating my needs, a larger stack of firewood was piled up along one of the caves walls and a couple of dead rabbits were laying next to me. I pulled the blanket I had been sleeping in tighter around me as I huddled close to the fire. I couldn’t get warm all of a sudden and the thought of solid food made my stomach reel. The Vulture started speaking.
“You’ve lost the Vampiress, you know,” he croaked again at me in his long-unused voice.
“You told me that last night,” I replied somewhat irritably.
“But you didn’t listen,” he admonished me. “You need to do what’s right and try to make it up to her before it is too late for apologies.”
“You’ve hurt her deeply,” the Vulture replied patiently, “you need to apologize to her and atone for your actions.”
“How did I hurt her?”
He looked at me for a moment, disbelief flitted across his face. “You can’t really be serious,” he said, “by all the things you’ve said and thought and felt, you have wounded her beyond belief.”
“I was just being honest.”
“You still hurt her. Some of the things you said were hate filled and spiteful.”
I flushed, and this time not from the fever I was feeling. “She hurt me,” I spat at him. “She turned my life upside down, lied to me and then walked away and left me to deal with the wreckage she helped cause. The things I’ve said and thought and felt were genuine feelings.”
The Vulture contemplated me for a moment before speaking. “But the wreckage was not all her fault. Surely you acknowledge your role in all this.”
“Your marriage was not destined to last, you know,” he sighed. “This ending was foretold by the Sage long before you entered into it.”
“I know, but I thought the Sage was wrong. As for my marriage to the Princess ending, it would have died in its own time. I know that now.”
“So that’s why you blame her? For causing the more rapid demise of your marriage? By accelerating the proces, she has saved you from a lot of unnecessary pain. How do you know the part the Vampiress played in all this wasn’t her proper role in the demise of your relationship?”
I shook my head stubbornly. “No, I can accept the role that the Vampiress played and my own actions in what happened. What I blame her for is her own lack of honesty toward me and toward herself; it denotes a lack of respect for both me and herself. I can forgive a lot of her actions, but this lack of respect is not one of them. She should have been able to talk to me honestly, one-on-one. I think I deserved that much.”
“So what are you going to do now?” the Vulture asked as he leaned back on his haunches.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. If what you said yesterday is true, she has shut off all avenues of communication again.”
“You must repair the damage you have done.”
“How can I do that? She made it very clear she doesn’t want to hear from me. I can’t communicate with her without breaking my word, and even if I do, there is no guarantee that she would listen to anything I had to say! Besides, if I’m running toward death as you claim, it won’t do much good to start communications with her again,” I replied hotly.
“She still loves you very much, although not in the same way she once did,” the Vulture replied quietly. “That is why she had to set you free. It was for your own good as well as hers, although it hurt her as much as it did you. The torment that you both have gone through was sad to see, but necessary for both of you to survive. She then came back to you, held out her hands to you in peace and you turned around and snapped at her. That’s a very poor return for as good of a friend as she was to you.”
“She wasn’t a good friend to me. She abandoned me.”
“You told me yesterday that she was a very good friend to you. She was forced to leave you because it was the right thing to do for both you and her.”
“But I needed her,” I said, once again, my eyes burning with tears.
“You did just fine without her support.”
“It was so. . .hard.”
“Yes. It was. For the both of you,” the Vulture replied gently.
“She lied to me!” I said with renewed vehemence.
“It was to protect you as well as her. You would have done the same thing in her position, and you already have.” the Vulture stared at me pointedly.
“No, I haven’t. I’ve been aboveboard in all my dealings.”
“What about your dealings with the Assassin, the Goddess, the Sorceress and the Cat? Have you been completely honest and aboveboard with them?”
“You know I have,” I replied, my head starting to spin a little.
“You know each of those women love you in their different ways and feel like they possess something special with you -- that you have healed them each in a certain way? They each feel you are theirs exclusively.”
“I have never told any of them that. I’ve made no commitments to any of them, I am completely self-sufficient. I always have been and will continue to be. Next time I’ll be more careful about who I give my heart to.”
“You’ve told the Sorceress that you love her,” the Vulture said accusingly. “Do you?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Even though you feel she hasn’t been completely honest with you?”
“I’m still willing to give her a chance.” I replied with another shiver.
The Vulture stared at me for several minutes as if weighing my words. He frowned and continued to eye me without blinking. Finally he shook himself, opened his mouth as if to say something further and then closed it. He sat a while longer, watching me shiver by the roaring fire. Without a word, he rose, pulled the skin off the rabbits, impaled them on long sticks and started cooking them over the fire. As they became done, the Vulture deftly pulled pieces off the skewer and handed them to me to eat. I managed to choke down a few mouthfuls in spite of the warnings of my stomach before I was overcome with a sudden fatigue. My head continued to reel even after this short meal.
“Time is running out for you. You must make amends with the Vampiress,” the Vulture announced, “before it’s too late.”
“Why should I do that?” I asked querulously.
“She can be of help to you.”
“No. She can no longer help me. I’m as poison to her, as she is to me.”
“That is all in your mind,” said the Vulture “Go to her as soon as you are able, talk to her and make amends.”
“I. . .can’t. After all the things that have been said. . .” The tears were threatening to overflow again.
“You both have much to straighten out and apologize for. All the voices that talk to her can’t persuade her now, it’s up to you.”
“I still don’t acknowledge the existence of those who talk to her.” I replied defensively.
“After all the things she allowed you to see? After she let you inside her own defenses? Don’t you realize how she feels about you?” the Vulture asked incredulously.
“I’ve never seen any evidence of it in the things she has claimed to be true. All I ever hear is how blissfully happy she is in her marriage and her life without me. She loudly proclaims her love and adoration for her mate every chance she gets. The Vampiress has clearly moved on without me and is ecstatic about it. That hurts worse than anything -- knowing that she has somehow moved on in her life without me and acts as if I didn’t make a difference in her life at all. I feel like I’m stuck in an endless swamp.” The tears were now streaming freely down my face. I could no longer hide the emotions I had been struggling to hold in check since the Vulture had started conversing with me.
“She is incomplete without you.” the Vulture said quietly, as if taking pity on my sudden vulnerability. “She needs to hear from you. You know what to say.”
“I. . .can’t.” I sobbed. “I would need to go through one of the others first.”
“Even though you doubt their existence?”
The Vulture cocked his head and looked at me. “Would that make the truth easier for you to accept?”
“Yes,” I said quietly, hanging my head. Fresh tears continued their journey down my face, splashing on the floor of the cave.
The Vulture considered me for a moment. “It will not be easy to arrange. It will cause much upheaval in her mind, and possibly some damage. Whoever came out wouldn’t be able to talk to you for very long in any case. In fact, they may feel hostility for you for disturbing her equilibrium.”
I nodded. “I understand. I’ve been waiting for over four months for some sign that these others really exist and that they weren’t just a cruel head game.”
For the first time, the Vulture showed signs of impatience. “Why would the Vampiress do that to you?”
“I don’t know. For fun? Out of boredom? Why do people play the games they do? I don’t have an answer to that. If this was all a deliberate game on her part, it’s too subtle for me, but these are the doubts I’ve been plagued with for the past several months.”
The Vulture leaned forward again. “Have you ever considered that there was no game at all. Maybe this is just the way events played out and there is no more to your situation than this.”
“But how can I be sure?”
“You have to have faith. Faith that she was really honest with you right up to the last month that you knew her, and faith that she only lied to protect you.”
“But what about that last month?” I asked, “her words and actions throw everything else into doubt.”
“Trust your heart, he replied gently. “You know deep within you what the answers to your questions are; stop trying to come up with a different answer than what you know to be true. Let go of your anger -- it is destructive to yourself and to the others in your life. Whatever anyone else may say, you know the truth deep inside. Stay on the side of that truth and everything else will take care of itself.”
The conversation stopped there as the Vulture carefully laid me back down. I spent much of the next couple of days sleeping huddled by the fire. the Vulture was there when I awoke and took care of me with a tenderness that was unexpected. He cared for all my needs, feeding me and keeping the fire stoked until I recovered from my fever. He talked to me whenever I was conscious and able to converse rationally, but I didn’t remember much of these conversations afterward. Somehow his words stuck with me -- that when I needed them again, I’d be able to remember what he told me.
The Vulture was watching me when I awoke on the third morning. He was roasting fresh chunks of meat in the fire and handed me a plate when he saw that I was up. The meat was swimming in a broth that smelled delicious. I realized that I was ravenous as I accepted the plate from him. As I was eating, the Vulture cleared his throat and started asking me questions again.
“So why do you abuse the Vampiress?” he asked hoarsely.
“Why do you keep bringing her up?” I asked irately. “We’ve already talked about her quite a bit.”
“Because you’re still not listening. Why do you push her away?”
“I told you. We’re not good for each other. The changes we would bring to each others’ lives would be unacceptable. And she’s made it pretty clear she wanted nothing more to do with me.”
“She’s already explained that to you, and you know it’s only a temporary arrangement. Why do you continue to abuse the one person you so desperately want to talk to?” the Vulture asked, pressing me hard now for answers.
“I can’t talk to her. She forbade it and made it clear that I had no choice but to agree to her terms.”
“But she came back to you -- and you continue to flail out at her like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. Doesn’t the fact that she came back to you voluntarily mean there’s been a change in her terms?”
“No, it doesn’t; she’s only doing it to make herself feel better, she doesn’t really care about me. I need her to keep her distance so I can defend myself.”
“Why do you feel the need to defend yourself from her?”
“It’s not just her. It’s from everyone.”
“And yet you let the Assassin and the Cat in. Do you trust them any more than you do the Vampiress?”
“No. I haven’t let anyone in like that.”
“Apparently you have,” the Vulture persisted. “Have you found what you’re looking for?”
“No, you’re wrong. And no, I haven’t. I doubt I’ll ever find it again.”
“That’s a pretty strong statement,” the Vulture replied. “Why are you so sure of that?”
“Because a love like that only comes along once in a lifetime,” I said, looking down. “It took me forever to find it the first time and when I thought I found it a second time, I turned out to be painfully wrong.”
“Why do you think you were wrong?”
“Because of how things have turned out. Both women left me. . .left me feeling betrayed, broken and abandoned.”
“Do you still not acknowledge your role in all this?” the Vulture asked impatiently.
“No, I acknowledge my part, but what more can I do? The ramifications of the mistakes I’ve made have made it impossible for me to have any contact with either one.”
“You will find another. Perhaps you already have and just aren’t aware of it yet.”
“No. I won’t. The Princess was the first love of my life and there will never be another.”
“And yet you found the Vampiress.”
“No, she found me.”
“And yet you seemed to have found some magic there,” the Vulture said quietly. “Why do you think you won’t find that magic again?”
“I just. . .can’t.”
“You’ve said that before, but you never specify what it is that you can’t do. Is that your stock answer for avoiding things? What are you so afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of being hurt again. It’s been so painful. Some days I just can’t function because of the pain; all I want to do is just curl up in a little ball and die. Don’t you understand what these women have put me through?”
“Those days are behind you now. You’re stronger and even the bad times aren’t as bad and don’t last as long; you know that.”
“Now they are, but I don’t want to go through this ever again. It was rough the first time and so much worse the second. I can’t face that kind of pain ever again.”
“You can and you will. Pain is a fact of existence, and every adversity you face in life enables you to face ever greater challenges. That is what enabled you to handle the death of your grandmother with such grace, and it is what you will use when faced with greater trauma in the future. But that still doesn’t answer the question of why you lash out at the one person who wants to help you, and that you so desperately want to be helped by. Why have you never contacted her since she first tried to come back?” the Vulture sat back on his haunches and looked at me expectantly.
A sudden anger flared up inside me. “I was angry, confused. I was angry with her for leaving me, angry at myself for still loving her and confused that I should feel the way I did after what she did to me. All I knew to do was lash out at her.” I hung my head, suddenly tired and ashamed at the sudden outburst. “And I didn’t want to hurt her by dragging her back into all the drama,” I whispered.
“But you hurt her so much worse by your actions. You shut her out entirely with no chance of coming back. She reached out to you and you repaid her efforts with venom and anger,” prodded the Vulture.
“What was I supposed to do?” I shouted, “welcome her back with open arms? Act like nothing had happened and try to pick up where we left off? Even I could, that would never have happened. I helped heal her and her friends, supported her emotionally and psychically when she was at her low point and how did I get repaid? She rejected me and walked out on me and did her best to burn the bridge behind her. I helped her just like I’ve help others since then, but in her case, I was tossed aside as soon as she was done using me. I just want to know one thing -- who’s going to help me? Who’s going to help me heal?”
“How do you know she wasn’t going to help with that?” asked the Vulture quietly.
“But can’t you see I can’t have her around me right now! We’re poison to each other until my dissolution of my marriage from the Princess is finalized. I can’t risk any contact with her in any fashion for both of our sakes, but especially for hers.”
“So you still care for her.”
I hung my head again and whispered, “Yes.”
“You need to tell her that.”
“You know that I cannot.”
“It will help with the healing process for both of you.”
“But if it’s too late for me to patch things up with the Vampiress, then any attempt to contact her would be an exercise in futility. If I am truly alone as you say I am, then any attempts at communication will be ignored.” I retorted.
The Vulture shrugged. “You must still try. If it is truly too late, you will have lost nothing. Make the attempt and see where it leads you -- at best you will put yourself on the path to healing.”
“Is there no other way?”
“There are, but this way is the best. You need to heal the breach you have caused. What about the others you have met -- haven’t they provided what you are looking for?”
“No. There are possibilities. . .but in the main, no.”
“Not even the Cat?”
“I thought she would, but no.”
“It seemed that she filled that void somewhat.”
“Yes, physically she did,” I laughed. “A little too well.”
The Vulture cocked his head at me. “Why do you say that?”
“There were too many similarities to what I’ve become used to. . .with the Princess. . . I thought that was what I wanted, and it turned out not to be true.”
“Another lesson learned” said the Vulture satisfied.
“Yes, but fortunately not a painful one, though.”
“But not enjoyable, either?”
“Yes and no. I’m hoping to continue at least a friendship.”
“Do you think that’s possible?”
I paused before answering. “I don’t know, but I hope so.”
“Ponder on what we’ve discussed over the past several days and see what you can do. The Vampiress needs you and you need her, at least for the time being. The time is coming for a resolution of all your problems and your life needs to be in order for things to go satisfactorily. I will be keeping watch over you for a while longer; my time here is almost done.”
With that the Vulture stood up and shook himself and started his transformation back into animal form as he headed for the opening of the cave. I spent the rest of the day packing my things and getting ready to depart early in the morning.
I traveled high in the mountains for another week. The weather cleared on the second day out and I ventured higher to catch more of the sun throughout the day. As the snow started to melt in the warmer days, I progressed faster through the valleys and across the peaks. Although the days seemed warmer, the nights were still extremely cold. Most nights I managed to find an overhang or small cave to camp in, but for those few nights spent under the stars, I had to dig into whatever snow drifts I could find and use the surrounding snow for insulation, like the sled dogs in a book about the Arctic north I had read as a child. At the end of the week, I stood on what turned out to be the final peak in the mountain chain and looked down on a series of rolling hills that spread out far beneath me. I made my final mountainside campsite that night, enjoying the view of a twilit valley below me in spite of the continued cold temperatures. I sat by the fire watching shadows creep across the hills below me. As the light faded, the valleys turned purple and the purple crept up the hill sides until it hung like a mist over the lowlands beneath me. I ate a hearty meal that night and turned in early. I slept without dreaming and awoke late the next morning, taking luxury in the thought that soon I would be out of the mountains and away from the cold weather for a long time.
It was midafternoon when I took a break from making my way down the steep mountainside. I had left the snow and rocks behind me and was now in knee deep grass that was still mostly yellow from the winter weather. I found a patch of shade beneath a stunted tree and drank a little from my dwindling water supply. After resting a while, I started my descent again. I was crossing a rocky patch when it broke loose and I found myself falling in the midst of a small avalanche. The rocks carried me over the edge of a precipice and I found myself falling through twenty feet of air. I handed hard on the ground below and lay there for the longest time as I tried to catch my breath. I staggered to my feet to survey the land around me and was met with a surprise that left me speechless.
Behind a small copse lay the remains of a cabin. I staggered over and examined the ruined walls and what was left of the sagging roof. Inside the single room was a hard packed dirt floor that led to a large fireplace on the opposite wall. The roof had partially collapsed, and where the sun had hit the floor, weeds and other plants were struggling to grow. The front door was partially opened and I pushed it in further and examined the interior in more detail. The large window by the door was still intact and I rubbed some of the dirt and grime away to let more light in. I picked my way past the rotting table and chairs and detritus of the former resident when a large shadow flashed overhead, causing me to jump into the shadows. Moments later, the Vulture appeared in the doorway.
“You seem to have a knack,” said the Vulture smiling and looking around the ruined room. He picked his way through the room over to where I stood.
“What are you talking about?” I asked tiredly.
“First you lose the Vampiress, then you gain her back, then you lose the Sorceress and she comes back to you also. Now I hear you’re adding the High Priestess to your harem. You have quite the knack.”
I whirled around glaring and that’s when I saw a sight I had never thought to see; the Vulture was standing there with a twinkle in his eye and his lips twitching. As hard as he was trying to stay serious, even I could see it was a failing effort.
“You’re life is coming into balance and you are just now starting to realize the power that you have,” the Vulture said with a chuckle in his voice.
“I don’t have any power.”
“Oh but you do. More than you realize.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t done anything or communicated with those women in any way.”
The Vulture continued to smirk as he leaned against one of the ruined walls. “Just because you don’t remember your dreams doesn’t mean you haven’t any. You’ve spent your whole life accumulating Personal Power and now you deny having it?”
“I don’t deny pursuing it, I just don’t have the sort of power you’re talking about.”
“Then how do you explain it?” he asked, as if leading me down a path I didn’t want to go on.
“You radiate pure light. You’re very easy to track that way, especially at night.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked incredulously.
The Vulture shook his head in exasperation. “What you’ve been radiating is the white light of pure joy. That is what attracts people to you. They feel better just being around you. Haven’t you noticed the effect you have on everyone you come in contact with?”
“That has nothing to do with me.”
“If not you, then who? It has everything to do with you,” he replied in growing irritation, “what these people take away when they talk to you is a feeling of warmth, happiness and safety and the possibility that things will work out for them for the better. Things suddenly become possible for them because you’ve changed them. You change their perceptions of their lives and what they can become. It all comes from you.”
“I haven’t changed anybody. And I don’t know what you’re talking about as far as the High Priestess or any of these other women. They have no interest in me whatsoever.”
“Don’t they? Are you truly oblivious to who and what you are? I think they see in you what I’ve seen. It’s what everybody sees and what attracts them to you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. Stop denying what I’ve told you and think about it for a moment.”
“There’s nothing special there. I’m just me.”
“You didn’t notice the subtle changes in tone when they spoke to you? The light that flashed in their eyes when they looked at you? I know you’ve noticed other things about them.”
“I. . .”
Why are you red all of a sudden?” The twinkle was back in the Vulture’s eyes.
“Nothing. . .Wait. . .How can I possibly be doing all these things you say I’m doing when I’ve been out here traveling for weeks?”
“It’s happening, trust me. There is more to life than what happens on the physical plane. Just because you aren’t in their presence physically doesn’t mean that you don’t have an effect on them just the same.”
“How is that possible?”
“You have the power within you. Look inside yourself -- all the answers are there.”
The Vulture stood watching me a few minutes longer and then swooped out of the room laughing. It was a sound I never expected to hear from him and it’s a sound I never wanted to hear again. Even when he appeared happy, he seemed to radiate a sense of decay and destruction. I shivered in spite of the heat and decided to keep moving. I found a creek nearby and refilled my water jug. I unwound my fishing lines and dropped them in the water and then proceeded to set up my camp. The Vulture didn’t come back to me that night, nor did he make an appearance for the next week. I thought about our conversations, but failed to come to any of the conclusions he apparently wanted me to.
Days later, when I reflected back on the conversation in the cabin, I still got chills at the memory of that awful laugh. Clouds were starting to roll in and I decided that some shelter would be a good idea, so I returned to the cabin and made room for myself. I stocked the room with plenty of firewood and used some of the fallen timbers from the roof as kindling. I set up my camp next to the fireplace, including my bedding, using some of the furs from the animals I had killed to set up a barrier to keep the worst of the wind and rain out of where I had set up my camp. When I finished, I started a fire in the fireplace and warmed up some supper. As I ate in the dying daylight, I looked around and wondered who had built this cabin and what had happened to him. I didn’t sleep well that night as a result of my conversation with the Vulture and was up an hour before dawn packing what few possessions I still had with me.
Leaving the cabin behind, I made my way down the mountainside to the rolling hills below, enjoying the breeze that was starting to warm. The dead, stiff grass barely moved, but here and there were the faint green signs that life was on its way back to the hills. The occasional tree provided an oasis of shade, but for now the sunlight wasn’t too intense and the summertime heat was still a long way off. From time to time a bird or small mammal would startle and bound off in erratic directions, but outside of the cabin, I had seen no other evidence of human life.
The Vulture had left me alone since our last conversation and as the days passed, I noticed that I had stopped sleeping again. I slept when I needed to and then, for only for a short period of time before moving onward. I didn’t know what was going on, but I felt strangely compelled to keep moving as much as possible. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I could feel the compulsion to keep moving pulling at me.
I left most of my belongings behind at the cabin. I thought they would provide a nice mystery for whomever stumbled across them in the future. I carried only what I needed to hunt for my meals, what little food I had left, enough blankets to fashion a tent and keep warm with and the means to make a fire. I traveled now with almost the bare essentials, but even those felt like they were too much of a burden. The only luxury I allowed myself were the pictures of the Young Princes that I had been carrying with me ever since I left the Outposts.
The hills called to me and the dead grass seems to push me on toward my destination. Even though I was short of sleep and felt like I no longer needed food, I still had a lot of energy. On through the cool nights and the gradually warming days I walked. The fresh air felt good in my lungs and it seemed like I was making excellent time, although it was hard to tell because of the lack of features in the hills. I couldn’t even sense the Vulture above me anymore. I didn’t know if he was still there or if he had delivered his message and then turned back to wherever he came from.
For the first time I felt like I was totally alone since arriving at the Outposts. There wasn’t even any pain to keep me company. There was only contentment, acceptance of my circumstances and a general feeling of well being. Circumstances were out of my control and there was nothing I could do to change them, so I accepted them instead. I floated along, feeling more substantial than I had in ages, but at the same time, I didn’t feel like I was making an impression on this world. Looking back, I couldn’t see my footprints from where I came from, just endless hills of waving grass; to the front and sides were the same hills with an occasional tree breaking up the endless sameness.
On and on I marched and now I was noticing small changes in the landscape. The hills were smaller now and starting to flatten out. Everything seemed to have a slight downhill slant to it also, as if leading me toward something. The only reason I noticed the change in topography is because after walking all night, the going seemed to be much easier and the shadows seemed longer in the daylight. My feet were eager to get to the end of their journey; it was as if they could sense that I was almost there. I felt ready to be done with this.
Whatever it was I was going toward, I felt ready for it. I had been stripped to my bare essence and there was nothing to do but complete the trip. Up ahead, I could see a boulder rising up out of the ground next to a tall, but severely twisted tree. Something told me that was where I needed to stop and rest. My feet started dragging as I made my way closer to the tree. Suddenly, I was overcome with feelings of tiredness and fatigue that weighed on me like a shroud. I just wanted to sleep, but could not until I reached the sanctuary of the boulder and the tree.
I stumbled and fell, but somehow got up. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open and focused as I stumbled toward my goal. I wove my way toward the only two features on the plain before me, and time dragged on forever and it felt like I wasn’t making any progress. I closed my eyes just for a second in a prolonged blink and suddenly I was standing in front of the boulder, with no memory of getting there.
The boulder jutted high into the air and projected an overhang on the side away from the tree, that covered a small hollowed out space in the ground. Dead grass had been piled in the hollow to form a kind of mattress. The warm wind beckoned me to lie down and close my eyes. I resisted the pull of my fatigue and did a slow lap around the tree. Several of the branches had been broken off and their charred remains lay on the opposite side of the sleeping area. Distractedly, I wandered over and knelt in the pile of soft grass. I caught traces of a faint aroma from the grass as I knelt there and felt sleep beckoning to me. As I was lying down, I noticed something written on the lower reaches of the giant rock and snapped awake. Underneath the scrawled writing was a small stick with a blackened end.
Now I lay me down
in the presence of the Lord,
My final rest I take
in His generous sward.
Tomorrow I board the ship
that takes me heaven bound,
Singing hymns of hallelujah,
never again to touch the ground.
I’m going Home to Father
I’ll see my family and friends,
and lay me down in happiness
in the Land of Love without end.
I don’t know how long I slept. I know a good portion of it was spent in the deep oblivion of dreamlessness. As for the remainder of the time -- I was tortured by dreams of my childhood and visions of the Sorceress. In the childhood dreams, I was being confined and caged, trapped amidst the mud and manure of the family farm. My father was extremely angry with me and determined to keep me there, but I never could figure out why. At his command, all of my friends refused to help me, but stood around staring at me as if I were a wild animal on display. I had to figure out on my own how to escape; the only way out was open defiance, but I didn’t know for sure who or what I was defying. It was clear to me that even though my dad was issuing the orders, he wasn’t in charge. The smells and sounds, accompanied by the feel of cold manure as it clung to my bare feet was all too real, as was the bouncing in the small cart I found myself driving as I raced over the uneven ground in the corral and pastures of my home. The small green hills, the narrow, tall metal tower, our house, all were there as I tried to reach the cattle guard that was my exit to freedom. The Sorceress was also there, mostly as an observer. She seemed none too pleased by my attempts at freedom, even when I tried to change the dream. For some reason, she seemed to be the source of the pursuit, trying to stymie every change in tactic. I was finally able to escape to freedom in my dream, only by trying the unexpected. I turned unexpectedly and pinned her to one of the stone walls with my forearm and pushed the tip of my knife into the soft skin beneath her chin. I whispered my demand to be set free and pressed the knife a little harder to make the demand real. She nodded silently and I stepped back, suddenly feeling free again. I left the Sorceress behind in the dream, looking angry, not only at my defiance, but also of my flight to freedom. I knew by her demeanor that I would never see her again.
When I finally awoke, it seemed to be mid-morning. How long I was asleep, I had no clear idea, but there were clues around me. The blackened stick had been moved and underneath the previous writings on the rock were three fresh vertical marks. Nothing else seemed to be disturbed around me and I found even this little change somewhat unsettling. There was no other clue that anyone had been there at all to visit me or what their intentions had been. I scanned the ground for footprints, but there were none but mine. My possessions seemed to be as I had left them and I pawed through them to make sure they were all still there.
I walked out to the shade cast by the tree and surveyed the countryside around me. The hills were a little greener than they had been before I went to sleep and a gentle breeze from the south warmed me. As I gazed closer at the fields, I could see bright dots of color where flowers were starting to bloom. There was a faint tang in the air that I couldn’t quite place -- something deep in me recognized the smell and yearned for it, but I couldn’t quite place where I had smelled it before.
Suddenly ravenous, I tore into my meager stores, finishing them without really tasting what I was eating. I finished up by draining the last of my water and then burying the scraps and containers at the foot of the tree. I felt it was time to finish my journey and I was ready to go. Squaring my shoulders, I set off walking into the breeze. The day gradually warmed as I walked downhill, but never uncomfortably so. The grass became greener and I started noticing small birds overhead for the first time in weeks. Rabbits and other small game leapt out of the grass, bounding off in different directions. I considered stopping to do a little hunting, but my compulsion pulled at me stronger every time I thought about halting.
After a couple of hours of walking steadily downhill, I came to a hill that seemed to stretch upward forever. The springiness of the grass impelled me on and I started to ascend the giant hill. So lost had I been in the wonder of a new day, I hadn’t noticed the hill until I was literally at its base. Up and up I went at a steady pace, never tiring. Indeed, I seemed to gain energy from the hill and the smell on the breeze was even stronger now. In what seemed to be no time at all, I had scaled the hill and was looking down at a totally unexpected sight.
On the other side of the hill, the ground dropped steeply, giving me a view of a grand vista, including a large bay that stretched to the horizon. Wisps of sand started making inroads on the grass about two thirds of the way down and the grass was gradually replaced by low dunes leading to a beach. In the distance sunlight danced off the brilliant blue waters that reached to the horizon. The salty tang in the air hit me full force, answering the question that had gone begging all morning. The breeze had picked up and in the distance I could see a red flag fluttering on a pole that rose from a small shack squatting in the sand next to a long dock. I broke into a run, my momentum carrying me well into the dunes before I had to slow down and catch my breath. As I stood bent over, my hands on my knees, I started laughing. The sound started low, in my stomach, bubbled up to my chest and burst forth into the air. I don’t know what possessed me, but I had to let the laughter out.
For the first time in a eons I felt I could laugh without effort and with genuine happiness. My laughter gave me the impetus to continue on toward the beach. After crossing the last dune, the beach flattened out as the sand compacted into a hard surface that didn’t hold footprints and sloped gently down to the impossibly blue water. Directly in front of me was the small wooden shack with the red flag fluttering in the breeze and the rickety wooden dock that jutted out into the bay. The dock looked impossibly long and narrow and was missing boards as it stretched into the bay. It leaned drunkenly to one side and seemed like it was ready to collapse into the water at the slightest touch. Outside of the shack sat an old man playing cribbage by himself and drinking out of a large brown earthen jug. He seemed not to notice me standing there. I walked up to him and asked him who he was.
“Sorry, I can’t hear you,” he bellowed in a surprisingly deep voice, “the wind’s too strong!”
Indeed, the wind had picked up somehow without me noticing; it was no longer a refreshing breeze, but seemed to be building to a gale force. The flag above us snapped in the wind and was standing straight out from the pole and it seemed that the pole was leaning with the force of the wind. I found myself leaning into the wind trying to keep my balance. The old man looked at his cards, discarded one and moved a peg around forward a few spaces. Then he put his cards down, turned the table around, picked up another hand that had been laying there under a stone, studied it for a few minutes, discarded with a smile and moved a peg from the other row further around the board. The wind didn’t touch the cards and it seemed that the rocks holding them down were to hold them in place while the old man spun the table. The game continued for a little while longer with the man pausing only to take a long pull from the jug. One of the pegs reached the end of the board and the old man looked up at me with a smile.
“Sit down and take a load off, sonny,” he said quietly.
Now that the game was over, the wind had died down to almost nothing. He handed me the large jug to drink out of; even though the day was warm, the liquid inside was cold and the bubbles tickled my nose as it poured down my throat.
“Thanks for the drink,” I gasped, “I really needed that.”
“I know,” said the old man. “It’s a long way from that tree,” he said with a smile, “I’ll bet you were famished when you awoke, too.”
I stared at him, the refreshment he had given me a sudden weight in my stomach. “How did you. . .”
“Know?” he interrupted with a laugh. “I checked on you every day sonny. You’re not the first one to make the journey, but you did pick a more roundabout way than most! One would think you really didn’t want to make it here.”
“Make it where?” My eyes narrowed at him, my hand eased down slowly and clutched at where my sword used to be.
“Why, right here, of course. You’ve reached the end of your journey. I must say, I was getting worried about you.” He started dealing a fresh game of cribbage. “But I knew sooner or later you would show up, either here or somewhere else.”
“What do you mean here or somewhere else?” I asked irritated by his cryptic answers. “What is this place? Where am I?” I could feel the first stirrings of panic and anger beginning to set in.
“Just what I said, you’re at the end of your journey” the old man replied, “cut the cards, sonny.”
“Why do you keep calling me sonny,” I asked with more than a little irritation in my voice. “Where am I and what are you talking about?”
The old man threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Why, you’re on the beach -- didn’t you know that? And you’re sitting outside of my house!” The old man roared again, took a long pull out of the jug and looked me straight in the eye for what seemed like an eternity. “Besides, you always wanted to be called sonny when you were younger. . .don’t you remember? Now. . .you gonna play, or just sit there with smoke comin’ out of your ears?”
I glared at the old man for a moment longer and then looked down at the card he had played and threw a card on top of it. We played a couple of hands in silence; I wasn’t really concentrating on the cards, but on where I was and what was happening to me. As I contemplated my cards, a thought occurred to me.
“How did you know I wanted to be called sonny?” I asked him.
“Because that’s what they called your grampa,” the old man said discarding and moving his pegs forward. “You admired him and wanted to be called sonny, too.”
My jaw dropped. Nobody had every known how much I had admired my grandpa, much less my childhood dream of being called by his name. All of a sudden the old man stood up.
“Lunch time! Come on in out of the sun and make yourself comfortable.”
We entered the little hut and he motioned me to sit on the bed while he prepared the food. Even though the hut was small, it didn’t feel cramped. The one room was tidy, and while everything looked extremely old and worn, it was in good shape and added to the comfort I felt while I was there. There were shelves on all the walls, each one filled with books, bits of flotsam from the beach or artifacts from far flung places. I recognized a set of glass mugs from the Golden City in my home land and a wooden flute that looked like it had been carved from the ebon trees of the Northron Climes.
The old man brought over a tray covered with thick slabs of bread stuffed with different meats and cheese and vegetables. He slammed the old jug on the floor between us, took a seat in an old rocking chair and we proceeded to eat our fill. The bread was fresh, the meat tender and well seasoned and the vegetables tasted like they had just come out of the ground. I tried to ask the old man several times where he had gotten such wonderful food, but every time I opened my mouth, he handed me the jug to drink out of. When we had eaten and drank our fill, the old man let out a loud belch, picked up an old ceramic pipe and lit it. After a couple of good draws to get the coals going, he passed it over to me. Not wanting to be rude, I put the end in my mouth and inhaled some of the sweetest tasting smoke it had ever been my pleasure to breathe.
We smoked in silence and then the old man started talking to me. As we talked, I noticed a fatherly expression on his face that made me want to pay attention to him. At first we just made small talk -- I told him of my life, my exile and how I had wound up at the Outposts and of my quest to explore the Forbidden Lands. We talked and smoked and drank until at some point I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I knew, the old man was gently shaking my shoulder, waking me up.
“Wake up, sonny,” he said gently, “it’s time to go.”
“Where are we going?” I asked sleepily.
“Your ship has come in,” the old man replied with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. “It’s time to go now. Come on.”
I groggily followed the old man outside and was awakened instantly by the chill breeze coming off the water. The sun wasn’t up yet, but the horizon was starting to light up in a blaze of color. We walked out onto the rickety old dock and down to a small sloop moored at the far end. The boat hadn’t been there yesterday and there was no sign of the crew or of anyone else for that matter. I turned to ask the old man how the boat had arrived, but the severe look on his face precluded any questions. He motioned me into the boat, untied the lines from the pier and climbed in after me.
“Do you know anything about sailing, sonny?” the old man asked as he unfurled the sails.
With a yawn I shook my head in silence, afraid all of a sudden to speak aloud.
“That’s okay sonny, you’ll learn. Off we go now,” he said in that gentle voice as we headed out to sea.