There are days in our lives, moments, when you forget about all else that has happened in your life. You forget all the worries and cares, all the miseries of years gone by that had been clawing at you all your life. All the struggles you've faced, all the turmoil, they vanish like they were never there. And all the pretenses and set visions for everything—think this and do that—are laid to rest, are made anew. So, walking along and breathing, you don't feel you're dragging a weight everywhere you go. That weight you regarded as yourself.
As Johne was walking along in the fields, he experienced one such moment.
It came to him out of nowhere, as they were walking through a bunch of pink and purple flowers taller than Nemmy. Watching as they swayed back and forth in the breeze, he felt he was no longer a man named Johne Atticus Hawthorne, but a pure and nameless form. And this nameless form took in the world around it with awe. The ripples of the water, the glint of the sun, the sway of the tree branches in the wind. Each one of these things took its heart and lifted it upon higher and higher levels.
The people around it even became brighter and more beautiful. The laughter of Nemmy made it smile, and watching Pierrot's antics made that smile grow ever wider. And Candice, she was a strange part of the nature around her. A weed, but a weed outshining everything in the garden it invaded. That'd make you want to cut down everything else so you could care for it as your one precious thing.
But a different kind of weed invaded into the garden of the form's mind before too long. One that always comes back, one no matter how hard and fast you try to kill it, will always rise from whence it came. Reality. A terrible biting thing with no beauty which wraps around your skin and makes you blister. Reality came back to it, Reality gave it back all his memories, and it found itself as Johne Atticus Hawthorne again. Found once more all the regrets and guilt, miseries and failures, dreams and hopes. Reality killed every glitter of sunshine.
Even with all this power, Johne found Reality's bite had grown weaker in the new world he had found himself in. A world so void of Its ever apparent stains and touches. Walking along, he didn't stumble as Reality sunk Its jaws in, only frowned at the things filling his heart once more.
"So, Pierrot," Johne said, kicking a pebble into a nearby pond. "Would you mind telling me a little about you and Nemmy?"
"What about us?" asked Pierrot, spinning a plate on top of a stick balanced on his nose. "I am Pierrot, she is Nemmy. Nothing more is needed."
"What about what you were before each other? What did you do, Pierrot, and you, Nemmy?"
"Oh, none of those things matter, Johne. What matters is the present, and the present right now is me and Nemmy."
"Pierrot Nemmy's friend," Nemmy said, tossing her bunny on top of the spinning plate without knocking it over. "Pierrot always be with Nemmy."
"But what about before Pierrot?"
"Pierrot always with Nemmy. Pierrot never leave Nemmy."
"But Candice said—"
"I think you should stop, Johne," Candice said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "A lot of people here are like that, it's just different for you and me. The moment they find that other person, they forget everything else, simply everything. They can't imagine what it would be like without them, so they can't remember a time when they weren't with them. I think it's better that way."
"But what about us?" Johne twirled around, walking backwards and staring at his feet. "I still remember everything. I can't forget."
"It's not wrong to be that way. We simply get to keep our old lives and our new ones as well."
"Candice, about our lives..." he said thoughtfully. "Those books you showed me at your house, were they around when you first came there?"
"I told you, I don't remember coming there, I just remember always being there. And everything else was always there as well, except for the little ones. They came later, but I don't know when."
"But you do know you can't have just been there, you can't have always existed there?"
"Do you feel bad about not being able to remember your old life?"
"I've forgotten a lot of things over time, but if they were important, I wouldn't have forgotten them. Whatever I was, it was not important, only what lay ahead. Taking care of the little ones and waiting for you to come, those things were important. Those things I never forgot to do."
"But how did you know there was a hero waiting out there for you? How'd you know you'd go on an adventure?"
"I read all the books and always felt I had some story waiting for me. But I knew that story wouldn't work with just one character in it. I knew I had to wait for the right person for the story to get moving. Like Pierrot, it didn't matter why I thought those things, only that they turned out right in the end. And I am here right now doing those things."
"I like the way you are, Candice," he said, turning around. "I admire you greatly."
"Same to you, Johne."
"Wait," called out Pierrot, the group halting before his outspread hand. "What's this?" He pushed some vegetation aside from an old wooden board. "'Tutain'. This mean anything to you?"
"Tutain," Candice said. "That's the village with the green water Ray talked about, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Johne replied, not entirely sure of himself. "That was the place—"
"Big smoky!" Nemmy cried out. "Big smoky in the sky."
All their heads turned up to the sky. As Nemmy had said, there was 'big smoky' coming out in the distance. A giant thick cloud of suffocating pitch-black smoke rising and twirling upwards like a horrid tornado of death. It corrupted the clouds around it, staining them as well, and far away little ash flakes fell as gently as snow.
"Pierrot," Johne said. "What direction is that sign pointing to?"
"That way." And Pierrot's finger pointed out towards the deathly cloud.
"Big smoky," Nemmy repeated, picking her bunny off the ground by the shattered plate.
Johne ran ahead of all the others, mind blurring inside him. They called out for him to slow down, but he couldn't—part of him wouldn't let him stop. He had to make it to where the smoke was coming from, had to make it there before it was too late. Too late for what, he didn't know, all he knew was that he had to get there. Get there quickly.
With every resounding step the pain in his foot came back even stronger and slowed his stride. He struggled to breathe, wheezing out and heaving his breath. His legs became stiff and burned with a terrible fire. He stumbled along, a puppet whose strings are all being pulled tightly in different directions. Eventually his body collapsed against a tree, the dark clouds above him, black snow falling on his shoulders.
His whole body hurt, and he shook his head, panting. Then something caught his attention not too far off in the road, something of an unusual shape and make. It wasn't too far away, so he stopped his rest and trudged toward it. Its horrid stench filled him as he leaned down to examine the twisted thing. His face grew pale as he realized what he was staring at, gears twitching in his machinery, his head turning quickly to look over his shoulder at the town. His feet exploded in the mud as he continued to run, leaving the body behind him.
The body was different than the ones he had seen in the theatre. It disturbed him more than seeing all the corpses clapping. It felt like a pair of scissors had been driven into his head, that the blades were ever so slowly being pulled apart until his skull would crack open. A body, its limbs unnaturally twisted about itself, covered with mud. The driving force was not that alone, but the fact it still felt alive. Even with its legs twisted around its head, the face looked as if it would open its eyes at any moment. That's why he had to run.
With every step he hoped and wished, prayed and pleaded, begged and demanded it not to be. That the thing he had seen was the only one of its kind, while whatever lay ahead might be horrible, it wouldn't be in the same way. He shut his eyes as the black smoke danced around his head level, as he knew he was moments away from its source. He begged again, out loud so the earth and Heavens may hear. It wasn't fair. No one was supposed to die in his story.
His feet stopped, and he lurched forward, covering his mouth. His stomach felt like someone had poured sewage down his throat. But it was a smell that caused it, a taste in the air. A smell of singed hair, of burnt meat. He could taste the flesh, the smoke, all inside of him, and he didn't want to open his eyes. If he opened them he was afraid they might never close again. That he would be suddenly frozen into his place for all of time to forever watch what lay waiting beyond his shut eyes. Holding his breath, he knew he couldn't do that.
Johne opened the gates to let the light back in, opened them, and all the nightmares that lay on the other side filled in his being.
Every house in the village was aflame, fires searing upwards, buildings collapsed within themselves. Beside these buildings, laying in the streets, hanging off a tree, or simply sitting around, they were gathered. All the townsfolk out to greet the hero. A girl slept soundly, her white hand holding a singed doll. A boy leaned on a tree branch, his thin little arms swaying about in the wind. In the town square as it was, many were about. Mouths gaping open, some together, some apart, all was fine.
His body fell to the ground as he began to throw-up. He lay heaving until streaks of blood shot out from his throat. The burning acid washed away the taste. He pounded his hands into the ground, splattering the mud all about him as the tears kept on. Crying until his nose clogged up and he could no longer smell. But no matter how many tears he shed, he couldn't wash away the things set before him like an unholy crucible.
Every single one Johne could see clear as day. When his throat could bring up no more, when he could no longer beat his fists or yell, the tears stopped. And he stared. Stared out at the large banner sign of the town's name. Red dripping words were scrawled over it, followed by a smiley face for a period.
"Johne..." he heard a voice from behind, faint and low.
He turned around, trembling as he saw his companions. Pierrot had himself wrapped around Nemmy, whispering all things nice and kind to her, taking her behind the Snailmobile. She didn't seem to be crying, so maybe he had saved her before she had seen anything. Beside Johne, Candice stood, the scene crashing through her and piling into her heart. She did not cry as he did. She did not gasp to breathe in the poisoned air. She did not fall to her knees and pound the earth. She was just there, as if the thing Johne feared would happen to him, happened to her. Frozen and still, the frills of her dress were the only thing moving on her.
The frozen thing then fell onto its knees, wrapping its arms around Johne. It still did not cry, but he could feel its fingers digging into his back as if hanging on for dear life. In her grasp he found an opened door and glimpsed inside that she felt exactly as he did. So he held as tightly as her, a certain strength and courage growing in him that comes when you know there is one person beside you. One person to hold onto when all else fails. When the world is burning around you and Death is swinging his scythe like a madman.
"It'll be all right," he said, gritting his teeth, keeping his feet firmly in place. "I...I'm the hero. I'll stop this. It won't happen again, 'cause I'm going to kill the Scrangly Man. And he won't hurt you, Pierrot, Nemmy, or anyone else. Because this is our adventure, and...and none of us die. We win, and there's a happy ending."
"Are you sure you still want to do this? I never expected it to be this bad, but...I knew it could be. I didn't tell you what you could be getting into."
"What we are getting into. I can't turn back now, not while that thing is still alive. Not when it could do something like this again. I'm the only one who can stop it—I'm the hero, so I can't run. E-even if I want to run so badly, I can't." His legs stiffened as he rose up onto his feet, lifting her with him. "But if I can't run away, I won't let myself stand still either."
"And I'll be there when the time comes. You aren't going to face the Scrangly Man alone."
"I don't know if I could ever do it alone." He looked into the sky, not finding the glimmer he had hoped to see. "So, are you ready to continue on?"
"Whenever you are."
He let her go, the dark path they would have to tread looming before them.
Nemmy and Pierrot stayed behind. The Snailmobile was far too big to go through the town without hitting into any of the townsfolk, and Pierrot dared not on his life to leave Nemmy alone or bring her along. So they promised to wait at the signpost until the others came back for them. That left Johne and Candice alone to walk amongst the flames.
Side by side they walked with each other to have something to lean on. Their steps were slow and creeping movements which meant everything had more time to burn in. They had to stay away from the fire. They had to stay away from the bodies. And sometimes, they'd be the same to avoid, with the flames making their nest upon the peeling flesh of this or that poor soul. They did not know what they were searching for, only they had to find something. That they had to do it quickly.
They came to a stop when some of the townsfolk piled together blocked their passageway. Johne took the hand off his mouth he had been using to keep the smoke out, and took hold of Candice. He lifted her above them, placing her on the other side. Afterwards, he took as a large a step as he could, but it wasn't enough to stop his shoe tip from scraping over one.
"This town leads nowhere," he said, coughing. "What are we supposed to do?"
"I don't know. This all couldn't be for nothing."
"Candice..."He gripped her shoulder tightly. "Look over there."
"He seems to be moving."
"Hey!" he called out, running ahead towards the man lying on the ground. "Hey, are you...y-you..."
The man continued to move as they came by. His head jerked back and forth, his body slightly rocking, as a raven stood pulling at his eye. It had the orb in its grasp and was tugging at it, ever so gentle not to break the thing it held. The other eye had already been taken away, a black empty hole left in its place. But that was not the only hole. A bloodied red cavity lay in his chest, pecked open and leaking. The man's legs were held on by thin sinews and strings. As the last freezing shock of horror and disgust left Johne, the raven gently pulled out the eye with a low popping noise.
"You damned bastards!" His feet flung out at the bird, it fluttering away a few feet when he swung. "Give it back...give it back!"
He ran forward, trying to stamp out the creature, but it kept flapping ahead right when his foot smashed down. His arms reached out to grab it, but his fingers scraped by its tail feathers. Candice tried to pull him back, but he hated the bird, he felt the bird was to blame for everything that had happened and if he could snap its neck, the fires would go out. Would never have been. And it taunted him, keeping that eye away.
"No," he let out as it flew into a charcoaled house, flames long done with it. "You won't get away."
"Johne, it's just a bird," Candice said, said as he beat upon the locked door. "It didn't kill the man, so what's the point in killing it?"
"I have to kill it." He shoved his shoulder to the door. "I want to kill it."
The black door finally splintered away, Johne stumbling inside. The raven stood in the room, eyeball still in its beak, not very far away from the window it had flown in from. But Johne's anger was temporarily suspended when he heard noises. The loud shuffling of spiked feet, the fluttering of wings, followed by chaotic caws that peeled away his control.
It was the corner of the room where he saw them. A horde of ravens all gathered tightly together, flapping their wings like madness embodied. They were surrounding something, and as he leaned closer, he could see objects held in their beaks. Old needles lay clamped in their maw, long black thread tied around the shining silver, cold sparkles shining as they were pulled down and up. Some held a dark wrinkled material resembling burlap, going one by one into the center. Transfixed by this, he little noticed when the one holding the eye went into the group.
As a raven flew up biting a piece of string off it all snapped back into him.
He ran forward and kicked his legs out, swatting them away in pairs. But no matter how many he kicked, there were still more crowded into the corner. What at first was eight, turned twelve, turned to twenty. Until they filled the air, swirling around him, snapping their beaks at his flesh. Jabbing into his back the needles they had been using, ramming into him like a powered fist. And when he finally stopped swinging, there lay eight needles in his back along with thirteen dark bruises.
"Johne," Candice said, swatting away the ravens as they flew past her out the door. "Johne, are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm all right." He pulled out a needle, it not hurting as much as he thought it would. "I got what I deserved for being stupid."
"You weren't stupid, you were just angry. I'm angry too. But killing some birds is not going to help anyone, even if it feels good when you're doing it, it won't."
"I know, but..." He blinked, fixated on the corner with its mass of drifting feathers.
"Johne?" she asked as he crawled towards the corner almost a trance. "What is it?"
"I don't know," he replied, picking up the thing the ravens had been working on.
He held in his hand a most strange and unusual doll. It was about a foot tall, made of a rough black fabric with feathers and blackened corn husks woven into its frame. Its body was a sort of rectangle in shape, no neck connecting its head to its body. Its little arms and legs were round like a teddy bear's, floppy dog-ears on the side of its head, and it had a mouth that was lightly sewn shut. This doll had a pair of eyes focused straight at Johne. A pair of eyes, with one he recognized oh so clearly.
"What the hell?" he whispered, turning it around in his hands. "What in the...God."
He squeezed the thing tightly, then his grasp weakened. Something was within it. A soft and squishy object that pressed in like a squeaky-toy when he grasped it. But after he let go, the thing began to press itself, in and out, in and out, a low watery sound being squeezed through with every beat.
The eyes of the thing twisted towards Johne, its chubby little arms wiggling around. His hands dropped it as if he had been holding hot embers. It flopped when it hit the ground, but quickly shook its head, lifting itself onto its feet. It looked up to him, then to Candice, gazing thoughtfully between the two.
"Hello!" it said happily.
"Hello," Candice said, crouching down next to the doll. "And who might you be?"
"Well, I know what I was." It flapped its arms back and forth. "But I don't know what I am now. Anyways, my name...funny, can't remember it. Oh well, what's your name?"
"I'm Johne," he said, finding the thing in its own disturbing and terrifying way a little bit friendly looking.
"And I'm a doll," it said, slapping its chest. "I used to be a man, but now I am a doll. A doll with no name." It waddled towards Candice, its little eyes on her the whole time. "Would you like to name me?"
"No, I think you should wait and see if you remember your old name."
"You..." Johne said slowly, pacing about the room. "Are you...? Are you the man we found out there? The one, the..."
"The dead one with his legs falling off?" Johne nodded his head slowly. "Oh, that was me about an hour ago, but now I am this. Oh..." It tugged at its ears. "I'm sorry if you had to see me, I must have been a terrible sight without my eyes or heart."
"And this doesn't bother you? It doesn't bother you that you're dead, your village was killed, and ravens put you into the body of a doll?"
"But you have to look at it my way. One, the man is dead, but I am still here. Two, the whole village is gone, but I survived. Three, if I wasn't in this doll, I'd be dead. Right now I couldn't be more grateful for everything that's been given to me. I get to live while so many others are dead. I am not sad. I am not angry. I can only be happy."
Johne softly stared at the little thing, remembering a failed relationship of his. They all failed after she had left him, and they turned into empty pleasures after he gave up trying to find anyone to stay with. The woman, she was older, but he had no problem with that, and she was kind to him. She was very spiritual, always talked about how anyone could possibly be sad while they were still breathing. While life poured through their veins—that greatest of all joys—how could they be? And he was happy for a while with her.
But the problem was she actually loved him. He had lots of girls who had liked him, desired him, kind of loved him, but real love was burning acid to his skin. She didn't care how horrible he was, all the bad things he did, for love made her forget those things. Love made her want to be with him, forever, to bind him to her. He had thought about putting those shackles around him and her, but he realized what the end would be. She wouldn't be able to lift him up, no, but be dragged under the waves with him to be drowned.
He left her, never telling her his reasons, and until a simple moment of staring at a doll, he hadn't realized how much he regretted that choice. How much it hurt him.
"So why did the ravens save you and no one else?" Candice asked, the sound of her voice pulling Johne back into the present.
"I didn't have many friends," it said, stomping towards the open door and peeking at his old hometown. "The people around here didn't like ravens. They said they stole children's souls in their sleep. But they were my friends. In my lonely walks in the woods, they'd always be watching. They'd sit beside me as I threw stones into the pond. They were nice to me because I was nice to them. I used to fix their wings and legs when they got broken by someone throwing a rock at them. I fixed them. In return, they have fixed me."
"I'm sorry," Johne quietly said. "I hurt them too."
"They're used to pain, but you didn't get any of them too bad."
"So..." Candice said. "Do you have anywhere to go?"
"No, do you have any ideas?"
"Do you happen to know where any kingdoms or castles are?"
"Of course," it said, marching forward. "Take a left at the crossroads, then after that keep on the main road the whole while and eventually you'll get there. I used to live there, but the city air wasn't good for me and I do love trees so much."
"Would you like to see it again?" Johne asked, scooping up the little thing, putting it on his shoulder. "We're heading there ourselves."
"If I'm not too much of a bother, I would love to come along. So why are you heading to Castle Maerd?"
"We're on an adventure," Candice answered, standing on her tip-toes to pat the thing on the head.
"An adventure? I've always wanted to have one of those...never got quite round to it though. Can I be part of the adventure, can I? I promise I won't be a problem. I'll stay out of your way and all."
"You're already part of it," Johne said.
And despite all the horrible things surrounding them, all three marched forward with a vision of a brighter future coming their way.