“He who is full loathes honey,
but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.”
The morning sun broke the horizon as the man set his gaze on the expansive, barren field. No grass, no trees, no hint of life. He took a slow, deliberate breath, drawing in the crisp morning air.
He scanned the sterile expanse as if seeking something. Blueprints rolled up under his arm, the plans assembled themselves afresh in his imagination. The beginnings, the tools, the workers, and the final, glorious result—the largest, most spectacular work ever attempted. It would take many years to build, and a lot of good men and women would die in the work. But this structure would save far more lives than it would cost.
A firm hand on his shoulder interrupted his mental survey. The gesture fortified the man, and he felt his father’s love.
“Shall we get started?” His father’s powerful voice filled the morning air as if the sun had risen a second time, giving life to the ground and making time itself roll forward.
The man tensed in glad anticipation. “Let’s get to it!”
So the work began.
The foundation stage would be slow, arduous, and costly, but the man smiled when he considered the completed project. He slid his hand along the blueprints. He would review them often—not because he needed to, but because he loved seeing in them the impeccable reflection of his father’s love and wisdom.
The words shook the ground. “Son, this is where it all begins.”
Adam yelped and jerked backward. The man also startled, jumped back, and fell, spilling his bag of oranges all over the ground.
“Sorry,” Adam said. “I didn’t mean to … Are you okay?”
The man slowly gathered the oranges within reach and pushed them into his bag—all the time keeping his eyes fixed on Adam. Then he stood and retreated a few more paces.
His eyes expanded to match his large, round head. He was a short man with a hunched back and a kind face. He scratched his balding head, then maneuvered toward his stray oranges, glancing down at them only for a split-second at a time then returning his gaze to Adam.
When he had retrieved them all, he spoke. “What are you doing down here, boy? I’m not interested in going to the high country, so why don’t you just go back—”
“I’m … lost.” Adam climbed out of his hiding place and stood. “Can you help me?”
The man’s eyes enlarged even more. He studied Adam for a moment, then pulled an orange from his bag and held it out, keeping his distance, as if offering a morsel to placate a dangerous animal.
Adam took a tentative step toward the man, then another, and accepted the gift.
The man watched as Adam peeled it, separated a section, and slipped it into his mouth. The sweetness of the orange sent tingling pleasure down his spine as he devoured the remaining sections.
The man smiled, relaxed his posture, and extended his hand. “I’m George.”
The gesture exposed wide gold bands on the man’s wrists. They looked to Adam like golden handcuffs.
Adam wiped his sticky hand on his pants before shaking George’s. “My name’s Adam.”
“For a second there I thought you were from the high country. But … you’re not, are you? Where are you from?”
Adam opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t even call to mind the name of his hometown.
“Um, well, you see, I … there this pond.” He pointed. “I think it’s that way, or … that way? I’m not …” He scratched his head.
“You live in a pond?”
“No, I … I was swimming in a … it was dark and when I—”
George chuckled. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. You’re welcome to walk with me if you like. I’m headed to the city.”
The two began walking. “I was just on my way back from the southwest orchard.” George held up his bag. “That’s my favorite place for citrus. Peaches are better in the south orchard. Come to think of it, the oranges aren’t too bad there either, I guess, but it’s harder walking with all the hills and such. Probably not for you though. Obviously, you kids are used to that kind of terrain, but it’s tough for us lowlanders. I could handle it better before I hurt my knee. Slipped on a muddy spot a few years back and took a tumble down that hill right over—”
“So … there’s a city near here?” Adam interrupted.
“A city?” George stopped. His round eyes became slits and his bulbous forehead wrinkled. He looked Adam up and down with the same wary eye as when they first met. “You’re being serious, aren’t you? You really don’t know about the city. Amazing.” He shook his head. “Well, you’ll get some funny looks. Just … don’t talk to anyone. And don’t make eye contact.” Then he resumed his steps.
Adam stood for a moment, looked back toward the pond, then jogged to catch up.
The path soon widened into a road. Good, Adam thought, it will be easy to find my way back.
George set a pace that was as brisk and relentless as his conversation. “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know about the city. Of course, I haven’t met all that many children. The ones I have met are all mountain people. I suppose that’s why you didn’t want to tell me where you’re from. You are from the high country, aren’t you? But you ate the orange. And you don’t really look like one of them. Of course, how would I know since I’ve only met—”
“Are you saying there’re no children in the city? How could there be a city with no kids?”
George gave Adam another puzzled look. “You would know that a lot better than I. You’re one of them, aren’t you? Unless you’re really not from … I think maybe we should get you to a doctor. Did you take a fall or something? Do you really not know where you’re from?”
“I’m not hurt. It’s just that I …”
Adam’s words dissolved in his throat as they topped the rise and the city came into view. He caught his breath. He had to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun reflecting off the buildings, towers, pillars, and the wall surrounding the city—all of which looked to be made of gold.
“What’s wrong?” George asked.
“It’s … the gold—it’s … amazing!”
George took Adam’s arms and pushed up his sleeves. Then he pulled Adam’s collar aside and frowned.
“You don’t have any gold?”
“What happened to it?”
“I’ve never had any gold.”
George rubbed the band on his arm. Adam took that as an invitation and reached to touch one of the bands. Fire shot through Adam’s arm. He jerked it away, but the burning continued. Blisters had already formed on his fingers.
“What are you doing?” George said. “Are you crazy? Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t know it would … Why doesn’t it burn you?”
George laughed. “Burn me? It’s my gold!”
Adam waited for an explanation but got only a blank stare from George. Whatever.
Adam looked again at the city. Even the houses were gold. “Is everyone there rich?”
George frowned. “Some are a lot richer than others. But then again, no one in the city is poor—at least not as poor as the mountain people. I assume they’re poor. Their kids sure look like it—no gold, tattered clothes. Then again, maybe they just look like that to fool us. Wouldn’t surprise me. I suppose anyone who lived up there would have tattered clothes, but you’d think …”
George kept talking, but Adam stopped listening as they approached the gate—and the gatekeepers. Two mean-looking men glared at Adam. Both men were younger and a lot bigger than George.
Adam halted. His body tensed, ready to run.
George didn’t seem to notice that Adam stopped walking, and his rambling warnings about the high country continued until the men stepped in front of him and blocked his way.
George eyed the men, then looked back at Adam.
Adam searched George’s face. He doesn’t seem worried. Or does he? Would George help me if …. Maybe I should go back to the pond.
Adam scanned the area. If they came after him, he’d run to his right, downhill. I’m fast. I think I could get to those trees before they caught up to me.
The men at the gate sized George up, then moved around him with menacing eyes on Adam.
Adam prepared to bolt, but George stepped in front of the men, blocking their way.
“He’s with me,” George said with a firmness that surprised Adam.
The taller and grumpier-looking of the two men kept his gaze on Adam. “This city doesn’t need any—”
“He’s harmless,” George said. “He’s not from the high country. Like I said, he’s with me. Now move aside.”
Grumpy finally took his eyes off Adam and focused again on George. Adam waited. If they attacked George, should he try to help? How could he?
For a tense moment, no one moved. Then George pushed past the men and Adam hurried to his side, putting George between him and the men. They continued on the road into the city. Only after several backward glances was Adam satisfied the men weren’t coming after them.
“Don’t mind them,” George said. “Those two are in charge of closing the gates for the night. They’re just nervous about locking down the city with a child—or someone who looks like a child—inside the walls.”
“Why?” Adam asked. “Why would they be afraid of children?”
“Whenever children come to the city, they always try to convince people to go to the high country. They don’t get many takers, but those who do go are usually never seen or heard from again. Their homes lay abandoned and eventually the looters clear ’em out. Most folks believe the mountain people send their kids into the city to lure people up to the high country where they are easy pickin’s.” Then he added quietly, “Most of us have lost loved ones to the mountain people.”
“So everyone will think I’m one of the mountain people?”
“Some will, I suppose. Or, maybe not. I guess it depends. As long as you don’t pressure people into going to the high country or to their magical little cabin. I think that’s what lures people the most. Everyone loves a story of magic. Myself, I’m a man of facts and hard evidence. I live in the real world. That’s why I love the writings so much, because …”
Again, Adam tuned out as George rambled. The remark about the magical cabin caught his attention. Is he talking about the cottage? Is it a bad place? Do only kids see it? Adam had tried to go there. Would the mountain people have captured him?
Then he remembered the birds. It was almost like they were trying to protect him from going toward the high country. Could someone have sent the flock to save him?
Adam decided not to say anything about what he had seen—not to George or anyone else. The cabin didn’t matter now anyway. If anyone knew the way back to his own world, they would most likely be in the city.
Adam started at the crash of metal-on-metal as the gates slammed shut, the sound reverberating down the street.
George looked back at the gates and then at Adam. “Why so jumpy? You don’t have to worry about those guys. If they were going to hurt you, they would have done it at the gate. That they let you in means you are safe now.”
“It’s not the men. It’s …” Adam looked again at the gates. “I don’t want to stay here overnight. I only came with you to see if someone could help me find out how to get home. I can’t stay here. My parents will be looking for me.” Adam’s voice cracked at the mention of his parents.
“Trust me,” George said, “you don’t want to be outside the city at night. You wouldn’t last two hours. They’ll open the gates again in the morning and you can come and go as you please.”
Adam had no reason to doubt the man who had just risked his own safety to protect him. Still, the feeling of being trapped …
The same terror that had gripped him when he first came out of the pond returned with a vengeance.
Adam set his jaw. I will not get stuck here. Tomorrow I’ll go back to the pond and figure out how to get home.
The road from the gate led directly into the center of town. It ended at the most magnificent of the structures Adam had seen in the city.
George drew a deep breath, palms on his lower back, taking in the view. “This is the library,” he stated, as though he’d built it himself. “It’s where the writings are kept.”
After a pause, Adam realized George was expecting a reaction to this revelation, so he raised his eyebrows. At least he thought he did. But George saw through it.
“Are you serious? You haven’t heard of the writings of the prophets either? Maybe you did grow up in a pond,” he said with a wink.
Adam didn’t smile.
“You’ll want to spend a lot of time here. The prophets are known as ‘the Great Ones.’ They are the king’s council, and they built this city. Their writings are the definitive revelation of history, the nature of the world, and the way to life and good days.”
“The city has a king?”
“He’s not just the king of the city. He’s the king of the whole world. He has awesome power. He can bring rain or storms. The grass of the field and the birds of the air do his bidding. And he uses all of it to protect our freedom.”
Adam turned and faced the building. “Are there maps in the library? I need to find out about the pond I … fell into.”
“I don’t know. Could be. I haven’t read all the writings. No one has. But they would be the place to check. If it’s not in the writings, it’s unknowable.”
“Is that all they have in the library—just the writings of the prophets? Nothing else?”
“Nothing else is needed. I think there might be some other volumes in there, but no one ever reads them. Why would they? If a prophet didn’t write it, it’s not verified. Just superstition. People in this city don’t have much patience for that sort of thing. Superstition is what makes the mountain people so dangerous. They use it to brainwash people—and to justify all their crimes. It’s why I’m thankful for the writings.”
With that, George stopped talking—a rarity for George—and turned again to look at the library. It took Adam a moment to realize what that meant. George expected Adam to go in.
After a few slow steps toward the main entrance, Adam realized George wasn’t coming. He took a few more strides, then turned again to George who nodded toward the door. With a sigh, Adam ascended the steps to the front door and pulled it open.
One final glance over his shoulder. His only friend in this world was now walking away. Will I ever see him again? What am I supposed to do now? Where will I stay? Once again he felt lost, alone, and desperate.
Adam gripped the door handle harder, steeling his resolve. If I have to stay in this library all night, I will figure out where that pond is and find my way back home. I will not get stuck in this city.
Adam stepped into the cavernous central room which opened into ten other rooms around the perimeter. The central space formed a giant sphere, a hundred feet from floor to ceiling. Adam stood on a glass floor that spanned the bottom third of the sphere.
Thousands of books filled carousels throughout the rooms. The books all looked the same—dark brown hardcovers with the title in gold print on the spine.
People sat at tables and desks immersed in study. One man wore gold rings on nine of his fingers. A tenth ring sat on the desk, and the man stroked it as if petting an animal. Others caressed their gold watches. The only patron that took notice of Adam was a tall, elderly man with a long face and a stern jaw. A large gold amulet dangled from his neck. He looked up from his book and scowled at Adam.
Adam turned his attention to the woman sitting at the front desk and was met with another frown. He wondered if children were even allowed in this place. Why was she glaring at him? I don’t belong here. These people don’t like me. I want to go home!
Adam thumbed a tear from his eye and was turning to leave when the woman said coldly, “May I help you find something?”
“I … what … does that mean?” He pointed to a mural hanging from the ceiling that spanned three stories. It depicted a human face, but with eyes that were much too large—as if greedy to observe every object in the library. The pupils reflected each book, each person—everything. And the reflections somehow seemed sharper in the pupils than in real life.
“That’s a portrait of one of the Great Ones,” the woman said. “He built this library.”
Adam stood enthralled. The spell was broken only when the tall man rose abruptly from his table.
Two others stood and approached Adam. He stepped back and lifted his hands in defense. But they passed Adam and continued toward the exit. Dozens of others now streamed to the doors.
Adam heard muffled shouts. He joined the throng to see what was happening outside.
A crowd filled the street, their attention fixed on someone standing on a stone wall, addressing them. A small number seemed to be listening. Others were angry. A few shouted over the one speaking.
Adam moved to where he could see. The speaker was a girl! She looked about Adam’s age—maybe younger. Her clothes were torn, her face scratched and dirty. She shouted, “Don’t touch the gold! It has been cursed—”
The rest of her words were drowned out by the jeering crowd.
“Get out of here!”
“Tell your people to leave us alone!”
Adam overheard the couple next to him. “Poor girl,” the man said.
“She’s not well,” the woman answered. “Her mind is gone.”
Adam puzzled over the girl’s words. Don’t touch the gold? Why not? What did she mean, it was cursed?
Adam stepped closer. The girl caught sight of him and stopped in mid-sentence. With pleading eyes she began again. “You are in danger here. You must escape while you still can.” Her gaze never left Adam.
Is she talking to me? Adam looked around to see if people were taking notice of him.
The tall man from the library and another man took hold of the girl, one on each arm, and escorted her toward the city gate.
The girl didn’t resist, and the crowd disbursed.
Then she jerked, surprising the men, and wrested an arm free. She turned and tossed a small object she’d been holding.
It bounced on the pavement near Adam. A piece of wood, smooth as if worn from use, rolled to a stop. But before Adam could move toward it, one of the men snatched it up, secured the girl’s arm again, and resumed the escort.
Twisting in their grasp, her eyes locked on Adam and she pleaded again, “Don’t touch the gold!”
Funny thing about being under water. You can’t stay forever, but for as long as you can hold your breath it’s pure freedom. Free from chores, from trouble, even gravity.
Adam hung in weightless bliss just under the surface and smiled at the muffled sounds of his little sister’s squeals and giggles as she splashed in the shallow water. Hearing her laugh was the best.
He waited for the sound of his big brother diving in. Adam had won the footrace to the pond, but not by much.
He blew the air out of his lungs and sank to the bottom. Relaxed in the weightless haven, he took a moment to enjoy the cool stillness and the refracted sun beams piercing the clear water. I would stay down here all day if I could. Every care seeped from his body into the quiet sanctuary.
The water darkened, and he lifted his face upward. What happened? He vaulted from the floor like a missile.
A few strokes and kicks should have brought him up, but …Wow. It’s deeper than I thought. He strained against the water as he swam upward. Why is it taking so long?
He looked around him. Was the water getting darker?
His smooth stroke turned to a panicked thrashing. He pumped harder, arms flailing. He pressed his lips closed with all his might as his lungs screamed for air.
Dad? He expected to feel the rescuing grasp of his father or big brother any moment. But no one came.
He kicked harder. Am I even swimming the right way?
He could hold his breath no longer. His thoughts clouded and consciousness began to slip away as darkness closed in.
With one last thrash, he surged upward and broke the surface, gasping precious air. But then it hit him. Something’s wrong. The air—it’s …
He swiped water from his face.
What in the world? Where is everyone? Where is our house?
He swam to a sandbar and waded out of the pond, water raining from his wiry, adolescent frame.
The picnic blanket and all the food were gone. No sign of his family or anyone else. His house, the neighbors’ houses—all gone. Only weeds, rocks, and trees surrounded him.
He could hear his heart pounding in the eerie stillness.
Again, something about the air. He waved his hand back and forth. The air was … thin. Empty. Like the atmosphere itself was dead.
“Mom? Dad?” The sound of his own voice in the silence startled him. Mind racing, he turned a full circle. Am I dreaming?
He started up a nearby rise for a better view, his stomach knotting as he suppressed tears. After a few steps, his pace exploded into a frantic run for a higher vantage point.
Atop the hill, his heart sank. The expansive view revealed only an endless carpet of treetops stretching to every horizon. No people, no roads, not even a path. No sign of civilization.
Reality seeped into his thoughts like ice water, chilling his soul. He was alone in this … place. Tears finally broke free. “Mom!” His voice cracked when he called out. “Dad?” Then he shrieked. “Anyone? Please! Help me!”
He slumped to the ground, pulled his knees to his chest, and covered his head with his arms, trying to wish his way out of this terror. Was he trapped forever in this strange, empty world?
If only his brother were here. He’d know what to do. He rubbed his temples. What would his brother do?
Then he opened his eyes—wide. He couldn’t picture his brother—or even think of his name. What’s wrong with me? The image was blurry, the shapes reminiscent of someone familiar but refusing to snap into focus.
Still, thoughts of his brother, vague as they were, comforted him. Adam tried to imagine him walking up the hill, calling his name.
Then he realized—if they did come, they wouldn’t even know where to look for him. They could be at the pond right now!
He jumped to his feet and ran down the hill back to the pond.
Still no one there.
With a whimper, he began wandering around the tiny lake, searching for a position that would provide a good view of the whole area. If his parents came, he didn’t want to miss them.
He settled on a place near where he had come out of the water and found a comfortable spot to wait. He shivered in the cool air and curled his toes inside his soggy shoes. Why was I swimming with all my clothes on? He tried to replay the moment he’d jumped in. It was no use. It was as if the depths of that pond had sucked in all previous memories like a black hole.
He leaned back against a rock—then bolted upright, turned, and pressed his hand to the boulder. It wasn’t hard like a normal rock. This isn’t right. He ran his hand along the boulder. What is this place?
He picked up a small stone and rolled it in his hand. He squeezed it. Then he ran his fingers through the dirt. Nothing was right. The stone was too light, pebbles too smooth. The soil didn’t dirty his hands.
He examined the landscape. Everything beyond arm’s reach appeared … flat. Almost like pictures on the pages of a storybook. Things seemed real enough up close, but the farther a tree or a rock was from him, the less real it appeared.
He caught his breath. In the distance, purple, red, and yellow rays shot upward. And there were other colors—colors he had never seen. They were rising from … Hey—that’s a building!
He jumped to his feet and squinted toward the building. Now the colors were gone, but he could still see the structure. What happened to the colors? And why hadn’t he noticed that building before?
He closed his eyes to replay what he’d witnessed. The memory arose so vividly it startled him. Yes, he had seen colors. They had radiated from the building. And they moved, shimmering like light reflecting off water. No, not like water. This movement was different. Like the movement of a living thing.
He looked again at the building. It was up in the hills, but he could see it clear as day—an old, ramshackle cottage. The longer he studied it, the more his fascination grew.
That cottage had to be his best chance of finding someone who might help him, but … what caused those lights?
He told himself it was silly to be afraid of colors. What could they do to him? It was probably just the angle of the sunlight—or his mind playing tricks on him. But how could there be colors he had never seen?
Once more, he squeezed his eyes closed. This time the images in his memory were even more striking. And they were more than mere colors. He had not only seen them but felt them—like they held some kind of power. A power that … wasn’t safe.
Maybe going there wouldn’t be such a great idea. If he left the pond, what if his parents came and he wasn’t there? They might not notice the cottage. He hadn’t at first.
He didn’t want to leave the pond, and he didn’t want to stay at the pond. He wanted to go home.
He circled the pond again, watching for a place where he could see beneath the surface. If he dove in, would it take him back home? Or somewhere else? Would he come up at all?
He waded in up to his knees. Then he stood and peered into the murky abyss and shuddered.
He backed out of the water and turned again toward the cottage. In time, a few of the colors reappeared. Something about them tugged at his spirit, drawing him despite his fear—almost as though it were a person, beckoning him.
He blew out a big breath, gave the pond one last glance, and set out for the cottage. If he trained his eyes on it and kept a straight course, it shouldn’t take long to get there.
Within ten minutes he had lost line of sight with the pond. Between him and the cottage lay steep, rocky terrain, and dark shadows haunted the valleys. The knots in his stomach returned.
Something rustled behind him and he spun into a defensive stance—legs planted and hands up. But only trees surrounded him.
He heard the noise again and looked up. A dark, churning cloud rolled toward him.
The cloud resolved into a massive flock of birds. Adam stared wide-eyed, then broke into a smile.
Their wings whistled, and the pitch varied with their speed, creating a delightful symphony. Groups split apart, cutting, darting, and circling in a kaleidoscope of brilliant, dancing color.
One bird lighted on a nearby branch. Its bright purple throat deepened into a darker purple breast with golden bars running down the underside.
While the strange hues of the cottage had frightened Adam, these colors delighted him.
After examining Adam, the bird flew off, rejoining the flock which moved back toward the pond. Enthralled, Adam followed, hardly aware he was walking. Whenever he stopped, the birds circled him, then resumed their progress as if drawing Adam along were a game.
For Adam, it was a game. He waited for the birds to encircle him, watched them go again, and ran after them, laughing.
The entertainment continued an hour or more. But eventually the sounds and movements of the birds grew monotonous, and boredom set in.
Free from the distraction, he reawakened to his plight and the terror returned. What had he been doing? How could he so easily forget his family just because of a dumb flock of birds?
He turned back toward the cottage, now a tiny dot in the distance. That’s impossible. I didn’t wander that far. He sighed. Now it’ll take forever to get there.
A blinding flash and a crack of thunder made him jump. Pouring rain pelted him. Adam dashed for shelter under the trees.
A shiver ran through him. As the storm intensified, he backed further into the refuge, grateful for the leafy haven.
He pushed a branch out of his way, and something soft grazed his cheek. He reached to brush it away. His fingers punctured the fuzzy little ball and dripped with juice. A peach! Adam loved fruit—especially peaches.
He licked his fingers. The juice tasted sweet as candy.
He examined the surrounding trees. I’ve wandered into an orchard!
For the first time in this world, Adam realized he was hungry—ravenously hungry. And the void of longing seemed to arise from deeper inside than his stomach.
The cottage can wait, he thought as he liberated the delicacy from the branch.
He bit into it. Pleasure coursed through him, head to toe. He had the strange thought that he would fight to the death for this peach. And yet, he didn’t finish it. Exhilarating as the first bite was, he wanted another peach—a different peach. He dropped the first one in search of a bigger, juicier one.
He picked another, and another, rushing from branch to branch to fill his arms. The load spilled when Adam’s toe caught on a stray root and he stumbled, landing on his hands and knees with a large green ball beneath him.
A watermelon! This orchard was too good to be true. With a sharp rock and a little determination, Adam soon had red juice running down his chin as he devoured one piece after another.
As he wandered among the trees, everything Adam sampled delighted his palate. This orchard offered every imaginable fruit—and many Adam had never seen before.
Each bite made him want two more. But even after stuffing himself, he didn’t feel full. In fact, he felt empty. Not hungry, but hollow and unsatisfied.
He ate some more and felt even less satisfied. In fact, a growing nausea rose in his stomach as he ate. What’s wrong with this fruit? He bit into an apple. Sweet, but unsatisfying. He chomped another bite. His nausea worsened.
He examined the apple. No worms. Nothing wrong with it. He took another bite. Ugh! He threw it against a tree. It ricocheted and rolled to a stop in the dirt.
Adam stared at the thing and hated it. He went to kick it into the bushes, out of his sight. But when he reached it, he paused. He picked it up and examined it again. He cleaned the dirt off the best he could and devoured the rest of it.
As Adam ventured further into the orchard, travel became easier—level ground and fewer stones and logs to step over. A corridor emerged. This is a path. There must be people around here!
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard movement among the trees ahead—someone walking.
Adam’s heart raced. His darting eyes could make out nothing through the trees. He thought he wanted to find people in this world, but … Will he hurt me? Or take me away? What if it’s not even a person?
Adam crawled into a thicket and froze.
The footsteps came nearer, slowed, then stopped.
After a moment, they started again. Adam held his breath until he could no longer hear footsteps. He silently lifted his hand, pinched a branch, and moved it aside to risk a peek.
His heart stopped when the opening revealed two eyes staring at him a foot away.
The Northridge neighborhood was one of the safest, quietest, and most beautiful parts of the city. Spacious, golden homes with meticulously groomed lawns sat in silent darkness as the neighborhood slept. The only sound was the gentle whisper of the creek that meandered through the community.
The creek was one of the primary reasons Adam had chosen this neighborhood ten years ago. Many times he had followed it out of the city, tracking it for miles in hopes it would take him to the pond that brought him into this world when he was a child. His many excursions south of the orchard in search of the pond always had the same result. He returned to the city empty, frustrated, and lonely.
Over the years, the stream had become his companion. He often came to it when he was troubled. He would sit, sometimes for hours, watching the ever-changing currents, or a standing wave that would slowly build then collapse on itself. The crosscurrents, hydraulics, eddies, wave trains, pour-overs—the rich complexities combining to make a simple stream captivated his mind.
Sitting at the creek was the next best thing to getting out of the city altogether. It seemed his thoughts were clearer when he was away from the city. But even then, memories of his home and family were out of reach. Like a piece of ice in his hand, the tighter he attempted to grip them, the more they slipped away.
His only connection to his arrival in this world was a set of maps he created in his searches—the product of years of surveying the area south of the city, section-by-section. He hoped one day he might show them to the Great Ones. Perhaps they could help him find the pond. Adam prized the maps, keeping them carefully hidden in his house.
Just a block south of the creek, within his lavishly furnished bedroom, Adam had just drifted off to sleep when the piercing tone of the city’s warning siren jolted him awake.
He bolted from his bed, dressed, grabbed a jacket, and hurried out to the street. It was the third time the siren had sounded in as many days.
Already the street had filled with Adam’s neighbors, and the buzz of speculation permeated the nervous crowd as everyone scanned the surrounding buildings.
Adam spotted his old friend George standing between their two houses out at the street and joined him. “Which building is it this time?” Adam asked.
George shook his gray head. “I don’t know. I just heard the siren, same as you. S’pose it could be just about any—”
“There!” a woman shouted, pointing to the north. Adam looked just in time to see a giant dust cloud rising in the place where a beautiful golden high-rise had stood moments earlier.
Within seconds, the sickening boom arrived. So many buildings had fallen lately that the sound had become familiar. It knotted Adam’s stomach. So much suffering. There was hardly ever a building collapse that didn’t bring the little girl’s words back to Adam’s memory. The gold is cursed. Was the city doomed?
Adam and a few others ran toward the collapsed structure. The siren gave a pretty good warning this time. Hopefully most of the people made it out of the building.
As he ran, Adam glanced toward the city gate as he had so many times over the years. He felt a tinge of sadness, remembering that day he first entered this city, so determined to find his way home. He shook his head.
Adam arrived at what had become a familiar scene—survivors searching for loved ones and tending to the wounded, others wandering around in a daze, and many dead.
He was glad to see a medical team already working to set up a makeshift triage area. With each collapse, the workers were fewer. Most people stayed in their homes to protect them from looters.
As he had often done before, Adam gathered a group of men to begin the rescue effort. His position as senior manager in one of the gold mines had equipped him to mobilize people.
One of the many reasons his workers held him in high esteem was how, unlike other managers, Adam was no stranger to hard work. An imposing man, three inches over six feet and the muscles of a laborer, he often dirtied his hands right alongside the miners to help meet deadlines.
“There’s someone down there,” one man said, pointing to the rubble under his feet. “I can hear her.”
A beam jutted from the rubble, blocking access to a hole that echoed cries for help. The men lined up along the beam. The hulking man next to Adam looked like he might be able to move the beam himself.
“On three!” Adam looked down the line to make sure everyone was ready. “One, two, three!”
A chorus of grunts and a shout from the big guy filled the dusty air. The beam rose a few inches, then fell. A second round of grunts also failed as the beam dropped back into place.
Adam gathered several long pieces of timber and steel rods and gave one to each man.
“Wedge your lever under here, here, and here. We’ll use this log as a fulcrum and pry it off.”
On three, the beam rose and fell a foot to the side. Adam moved the fulcrum and they heaved again. Another foot of progress. Three more, and the beam was out of the way.
The group tore through the remaining layers of debris until they could see the woman. But four solid gold pillars blocked access to her.
Two of the men stepped back. A third attempted to push the top pillar, but the moment his hands contacted the gold, he winced and yanked them back.
“I don’t have any of my own gold,” he said. “I can’t do this.”
Adam touched his wrist. He had forgotten his gold bands as well.
Not long after coming to the city, he had caught his knee on the corner of a bench opening a painful laceration. George was with him at the time and pulled one of the gold bands from his own wrist and presented it to Adam.
“This is now yours. Touch it to your knee.”
Adam obeyed. In an instant, the pain dissipated. After a few minutes of contact with the band, the wound had healed.
Adam looked up at George. “When I first met you, you wouldn’t even let me touch your bands. And now you give me one as a gift?”
George removed the other band and tossed it to Adam. “The healing properties only work if it is your own gold. Touching someone else’s gold has the opposite effect. It will burn your skin. Take these and keep them with you.”
Over the years, Adam had accumulated a large stockpile of gold, but none of the pieces were as dear to him as the bands, which he kept as a symbol of George’s friendship.
Adam now understood why George preferred bands over gold worn some other way. Though they looked like handcuffs, they were really the opposite. Having them on his wrists made them easy to apply to an injury while leaving his hands free.
Still, Adam didn’t like wearing them. He kept them hidden in his home. Their value to him as a gift from George far exceeded their monetary worth or healing benefits. This night, however, he wished he had brought them.
“We can’t save her,” one man said, and walked away.
Adam shook his head. Cowards.
One by one the remaining men turned to go.
Adam’s clenched teeth gave way to a lump in his throat when he turned from the men back to the woman. How could he get to her without help?
“I won’t leave you,” he assured her.
He used whatever tools he could—boards, rods, tiles—anything to avoid direct contact with the gold. Still, his hands burned. He could hold a tool no more than a few seconds before the burning from the gold heated the tool so hot he had to drop it. He knew it would be weeks before the burning in his hands would subside, and the longer he did this, the worse it would be. But he couldn’t leave the woman. He kept working.
After two hours, he had removed the gold beams, climbed down to where the woman lay, and discovered what pinned her. A large, stone slab—too heavy to move with a lever.
After several attempts, Adam halted his efforts and sat on a beam to catch his breath and study the impossible task before him.
Then he rose and walked away.
The woman’s sobs returned. She pleaded, “No! Don’t leave me.”
Adam found three women combing through the debris for survivors. After giving them instructions, he returned to the pinned woman.
Minutes later, the three ladies came, dragging a cable. Adam fished it under the slab, then held the other end as he climbed to the top of a steel and brick wall that was still standing. Thirty feet from the ground, Adam secured the cable to the top of the wall.
He climbed down and recruited several men to help. They surrounded a large beam and on Adam’s signal rammed the beam against the wall putting tension on the cable.
Pieces of brick trickled down.
“Again!” The men slammed the wall a second time. Then a third. After the fourth try, the wall creaked, then fell with a crash, pulling the cable and lifting the slab enough to free the woman.
Adam scrambled down to her. “Can you stand?”
The woman moaned through her tears. “I can’t move my legs.”
Adam slid one arm under her back, another under her knees, and struggled to his feet. He carried her toward a triage staging area, ignoring the stinging pain from his burns.
The woman was dark complected with long black hair and bright gray eyes. Holding her made Adam forget his pain. She was stunning.
He knew better than to read anything into her arms around his neck. She was simply holding on while being carried. Still, it filled Adam with desire. He couldn’t help imagining her embracing him out of affection.
But he could tell from her dress and jewelry she was from a much higher class than he. Adam had done well for himself as a gold mine manager and, through some shrewd investments, had amassed a larger stockpile of gold than most in his wealthy neighborhood. But nothing like her wealth. Just one of her bracelets would cost all the gold in Adam’s house.
Get a grip, Adam. You could never be with a woman like her.
Adam set her gently on a cot and pulled a nurse aside. “Is she going to be okay?”
“Looks like severe bruising on her legs. We’ll know more after the doctor examines her.”
Adam stepped back to the cot. “I think you’ll be just fine,” he said.
She reached up and clutched his arm. “What is your name?”
“I’m Adam. I was—”
“I’ve never seen anyone do what you did. I can’t tell you how grateful I am. How are your hands?”
“Oh, they’ll be fine,” he said, turning his palms up, then quickly closing them to hide the burns. “I was happy to help.”
He wanted to say something else, but his mind went blank. He had never met a woman like her. Part of him felt he had no business talking to her at all, but another part of him had the feeling she wanted to talk to him. Was that just hopeful imagination? Or …
“The doctor will see her now,” said an attendant. He and another man lifted the cot and carried her to the examination tent. Adam watched as they disappeared into the tent. His insides ached, as though something had been torn from him.
He returned to the worksite and rejoined his group but couldn’t do much because of his burns. His thoughts kept returning to the woman. It felt good to have saved at least one person—especially someone like her. But so many others weren’t as fortunate. Hours ago they were carrying on with their lives, enjoying their wealth without a care in the world. Now they lay trapped in a mangled pile of twisted metal, bodies crushed, taking their final breaths alone in the darkness.
Adam clenched his fists. “If they’re so brilliant, why can’t the prophets figure out what’s causing these collapses?”
The man closest to him stood straight, looked around to see if anyone else heard, then back to Adam. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Adam said, continuing his work.
The man persisted. “Were you questioning the Great Ones?”
“I’m not questioning them. It’s just …” He waved his arm toward the rubble. “All this suffering and death—it’s getting worse. With all their knowledge of the properties of metals, why can’t the Great Ones discover what’s causing these collapses? Look.” Adam pushed his foot against a steel beam, and it bent and snapped like a dead tree branch. “Every part of this building that’s plated with gold is like this. Those beams over there that had no contact with gold are as strong as ever.”
The man dropped his shovel, took a step toward Adam, and said, “Don’t be an idiot. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Adam had always admired the Great Ones and had spent many hours over the years studying their writings. But while their insights were fascinating, he found them unsatisfying because the topics were mostly confined to the city and the orchard. He found a few references to the pond, but no clues on its location, and nothing at all about the high country or the world he had come from or how he might return.
He didn’t fault them for that. How could they have information about another world? But this—this is a problem in the city they built. They should know why this is happening.
“Can’t you see what’s right in front of your face?” Adam said. “Look around. Obviously, something’s wrong.”
“Sabotage,” the man said. “The mountain people send their kids here and they sneak into the buildings and … do something to them. I don’t know how they’re doing it, but I’m telling you, it’s them. And if you can’t see that, you’re a fool.”
“Maybe I am,” Adam said, and turned to go home.
Normally Adam enjoyed walking at night along the creek that led to his neighborhood. But this time his mind churned in turmoil. He knew something was wrong with the gold, but whenever he tried to think it through, a fog darkened his mind. Why couldn’t he think?
Adam looked at his burns. I need to get home and put some gold on these. Once again, the little girl’s voice sounded in his head—“Don’t touch the gold! It’s cursed.” Why had she said that? Everyone knew not to touch other people’s gold. Was she talking about touching his own gold? Or did she know something about the sabotage even then—ten years ago?
When he came to the street that led from the creek to his house, he paused. His aching muscles and sore feet screamed for rest, and he could do permanent damage to his hands if he didn’t get some gold on them soon. But the peaceful gurgling of the creek soothed his soul. He didn’t want to leave it.
He enjoyed the creek even more on the outside of the wall where it was larger, and the steeper gradient caused rapids.
Adam began walking again, passing his street, following the creek downstream. He needed to get outside the city and think.
When he came to the wall, he waded as far into the creek as he could without losing his footing, ducked under the water, let it carry him under the wall, and came up on the other side.
He made his way back up the bank and continued walking beside the creek until he came to a giant boulder that blocked a third of the creek. He climbed to the top, brushed away some pebbles, and sat, taking in the rhythms of the stream below and contemplating his life in the golden city.
A shiver rattled his body, his clothes still wet from the creek. The chills made his thoughts drift back to that day at the pond. Awakening memories that had slept for many years, he recalled how this world once seemed half real to him. Why was that? Half real compared to what? This is the only world he’d ever really known. And yet, something was wrong.
A sound interrupted his thoughts. Crunch, crunch, crunch—approaching footsteps. Adam stood but quickly realized he was cornered. If it was a wild animal, there was no escape other than jumping into the creek.
It sounded more like a person than an animal, but what person would be out here at night … unless … was he about to be accosted by the mountain people?
Movement between some branches! Was it a bear? Adam stepped back.
There it was again—moving toward a clearing. When it comes out of the trees, will it see me?
The creature emerged. Moonlight reflected off shiny black hair. It was a little girl.
Adam scanned the surrounding trees. Surely this child wouldn’t be here alone. He stepped back and faced the creek. The boulder blocked a third of the current so the downstream side was a large, smooth eddy. He could jump into the eddy, but he had no idea how deep it was. He looked over the side. Better to break an ankle than be captured—or killed.
He turned again and scoured the woods, watching for movement—or an escape route.
“Are you alone?” Adam called, still scanning the trees for others.
He finally pried his eyes from the trees and looked at her.
She gave a shy nod.
“I’m Adam,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“My new name is Kailyn. May I join you?”
When Adam was silent for a moment, the girl smiled, took three quick steps toward the boulder, and with the smooth swiftness of a panther, climbed onto the rock.
Adam took a step back but then relaxed at her disarming smile when she extended her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Adam.”
He shook her tiny hand, surprised both by the strength of her grip and the warmth of her greeting.
If there are others, it shouldn’t be too hard to trick this kid into giving up their positions. “What are you doing out here alone, Kailyn?”
She stepped past Adam to the edge of the boulder and sat down, dangling her feet over the creek. “I was sent for you.”
A chill ran through Adam’s core.
“Sent for me? By whom? Are you … one of the mountain people?”
Adam looked around again. Was that someone moving in the trees? Or just a bird fluttering among the leaves?
“I was sent by someone who knows why you snuck out of the city in the middle of the night, and who wants you to come home to your family.”
“Home? You mean—”
“He knows where you came from. And he—”
“Wait a minute. He knows where I came from? Does he know how I could go back? How does this person know about me? Who is he? And who are you? And why—”
“I told you, I’m Kailyn. And if you come with me, I’ll take you to meet him. He lives in a cottage in the high country.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “The magical cottage?”
“Not magical, but powerful. And beautiful. It has colors that … well, they’re hard to describe to someone who hasn’t seen them. But I promise you, when you see them, you’ll never be the same.”
Adam looked at Kailyn a long time.
“Many years ago, when I first came here, I saw …” He lowered his head and looked down at the water. “Never mind.”
He had long ago stopped believing in the cottage. If it existed, why wouldn’t he have seen it all these years since the pond? If it were clearly visible from the pond, and the pond was only a few minutes’ walk from the south orchard, surely he would have seen it the many times he searched that area.
“Why are you out here, Adam?”
He took a seat next to her and drew a long breath.
“Years ago, when I first came here, there was this little …”
Kailyn gave him a moment, then cocked an eye. “This little …?”
He struggled to make a meaningful summary of what led him to this moment, but the tangle of thoughts refused to order themselves.
Kailyn waited in silence.
Adam sighed. “One of your people came into the city once and told me, ‘Don’t touch the gold.’ I have often wondered why she said that. Tonight especially. After … some things that happened, I couldn’t get her words out of my head, and I’ve been trying to make sense of them. I know it sounds silly, but when something is on my mind, it seems like I can think more clearly when I get away from the gold. That’s why I’m out here.”
Kailyn smiled and swung her legs around to face the city.
Adam hesitated, then turned to look as well. Light from the moon glinted off the buildings.
“What do you see?” she asked.
Adam sat in silence, gazing at the city.
Kailyn gave him a few moments, then leaned toward him and widened her eyes. “Well?”
“I see … gold.”
Adam paused, then frowned. “I see a place where thousands will wake up in a few hours and scurry around in a frenzy, accomplishing nothing. We move things, count things, buy, sell, work, rest—and we build beautiful buildings that fall on us, and we die.”
Adam’s gaze dropped to the boulder, suddenly repulsed by the slumbering metropolis.
“Sorry. I’m usually not this cynical. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Guess I’m just … tired.”
“It’s not because you’re tired. It’s because you can see now. You’re right about the gold. Being near it does cloud your vision. You’ve been out here, what, an hour? And you can already see how pointless your life is.”
“Well, aren’t you little Miss Sunshine.”
“No,” she said with a hint of a smile. “I told you—KAI-lyn.”
Adam tried to read her face. Was that a child-like misunderstanding or mature humor?
“Right,” Adam said, “your new name. Why did you change it?”
“I’m not the one who changed it. Everyone who goes through the cottage gets a new name.”
“What if they don’t want a new name? I don’t think I would. I like my name.”
“Of course you like the name you’ve always had, because you’re still the person you’ve always been. But when you become a new person, your old name will no longer fit and you will come to hate it.”
“Sounds like people who go there lose their identity. Why would anyone want that? I wouldn’t. I may not be the man I ought to be in some ways, but—”
“You don’t lose your identity. You gain it. Right now, your identity is corrupted. When it is renewed, you’ll be what you were created to be.”
Adam eyed Kailyn for a long moment. “The things you say … you don’t really talk like a child.”
Kailyn frowned. “Do I look like a child to you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. No, you’re a big girl. Very mature. And you—”
“Never mind,” she said. “It doesn’t matter right now. Just come with me to the cottage and you’ll understand.” She stood and hopped down off the boulder.
Adam didn’t move.
“I know a direct route. We could be there in two days if we hurry.” She motioned with her arm. “Come on.”
“I … don’t know. I have a lot of work—”
She planted her hands on her hips. “Moving things around and counting them?”
Adam frowned. “You don’t realize what you’re asking. My life is in the city. And I have enough gold now to buy anything I want.”
“Anything. I can buy tools for work—”
“Your work of moving things and—”
“Not just work. We have entertainment in the city. We have flocks of birds with glorious colors. Whenever I need a break or just want to have some fun I—”
“You enjoy some amusement. And what does that do for you?”
“It gives me rest so I can have energy to …” Adam hesitated, not wanting to hear her repeat the description of his meaningless job a third time.
“You work and you have fun.” Her eyes widened, “But what about adventure?”
“Adventure?” It was a new word for Adam, yet somehow he had an idea what it meant.
“The city is obsessed with fun,” she said, “not adventure. That’s because fun is safe. Adventure isn’t.”
“If it isn’t safe, why—”
“Because adventure has higher stakes. The potential for great joy comes only when pursuing things of great value. But that means exposing yourself to the risk of great loss. Fun has little risk of loss and provides only the shallowest gain.
But I must warn you,” she added. “Attaining great gain also awakens dangerous enemies.”
“Right now I don’t care about fun or adventure. You said something about going home. Tell me more about that.”
“That’s the adventure I’m talking about. I can show you the way, but it’s not an easy path. Not everyone makes it.”
“Not everyone? There are … others trying to find their way home?”
“Your family, Adam.”
He turned and studied the creek. Is it possible this strange little child has met my family? Could they be trapped here too? Did some of them … not make it?
“I’ll be honest. Finding my way home is something I gave up on some time ago. Or at least I tried. But thoughts of my family never go away. It’s like they’re built into me.”
Adam tossed a pebble into the creek. “You asked why I came out here. Same reason I always come—to find peace.”
He pointed to the churning rapids. “That’s what my life is like—tumbling, random chaos. It’s why I love watching the river. It calms me. The sounds, the motion, the complexity and simplicity. It’s like a metaphor of my life in some ways.”
Kailyn picked up a stick and climbed back up to where Adam stood. They watched the rapids in silence for a few moments.
She looked down at the placid eddy created by their boulder. “Is that what you want your life to be?”
Adam watched the moonlight glisten off the smooth, quiet surface of the eddy. “I would give all the gold in my house for that.”
Kailyn pointed with the stick. “Do you see where the slow upstream movement of the eddy collides with the downstream current coming around the rock? They call that an eddy fence.”
She tossed the stick into the eddy. They both watched as it floated gently upstream toward the boulder. When it met with the eddy fence, the stick tumbled a couple times, was carried several yards downstream by the main current, and was pulled back into the eddy where it drifted toward the rock again.
The cycle repeated a dozen times. Finally, the stick caught in a swirl along the eddy fence and was pulled under.
Minutes passed. Adam shifted his weight as his eyes darted about the eddy to see if the stick would reappear.
“Do you think it …” Adam looked up. Kailyn was nowhere in sight. He stood and climbed off the boulder. She was gone.
Adam peered into the darkness to the west. What’s out there?
High in the western mountains, a man named Watson and his friend Layth waited in a cavernous hallway within the Ruler’s headquarters as the high country wind howled outside.
Normally, Watson’s profound intellect was sufficient to solve whatever challenge he faced. But now he could only stare at the glistening marble floor, powerless to help the woman he so dearly loved. He winced with each scream emanating from the other side of the door. But this was part of the training, and she had to go through it alone.
Layth nodded toward the sign above the door. “She’ll be strong. You’ll see.”
Watson looked at the sign and touched the patch covering the eye he lost behind that same door. Layth was right, of course. Neither of the men would have survived the battles in the lowlands without the training. And the war to come would require strength, skill, and whatever weapon Abigail was learning to use in that room.
Another of Abigail’s screams penetrated the door. Both men looked again at the sign: Room of Delights. Every room Watson had explored in this building had served to prepare him for the war, but none had been more painful—or more crucial than this one.
“Thank you for coming,” Watson said. “This mission could prove exceptionally perilous. And there is no one I would rather have fighting beside me than you.”
Layth smiled through his red, bushy beard, lifted his massive, scar-patched arm and squeezed Watson’s shoulder.
Watson couldn’t help but grin whenever he saw Layth’s untamable red hair, which insisted on lunging in every direction like a wildfire burning on his head. He considered it a fitting metaphor of Layth’s unpredictable and devastating heroics on the battlefield. Watson had many times seen the enemy run in terror at Layth’s arrival.
What a comical contrast the two of us comprise, he thought. Watson knew his slender build and neatly trimmed beard struck terror in the heart of no one. He could only hope his analytical skills and knowledge of the enemy’s tactics would prove helpful on this mission.
At last, Abigail emerged from the room, her smiling face still bleeding.
“Did you receive your weapon?” Watson asked.
“You’re looking at it,” she said.
“It’s a good one,” Layth remarked. “Perfect for you.”
Watson nodded in agreement. “What is the mission?”
“The most recent collapse in the city revealed a point of vulnerability,” she said. “There is already an operation underway to exploit it, but forces are gathering to defend the city. We are to assist the operation and bring those who are vulnerable here before the city rebuilds its defenses.”
“Ah yes. And assume Layth will be join—”
“No. Only the two of us for now. The Ruler doesn’t want us to …” she turned to Layth and smiled, “attract attention.”
Levi Lamar had hoped to be out of sight before they noticed the bag was missing. But the woman spotted him and alerted the others. Now it was a foot race.
Normally, leaving this bunch in the dust would have been easy. Levi could run like the wind. But the bag of plunder he stole slowed him down.
There is no way I’m getting out of here with this bag. Where can I stash it?
He considered facing his pursuer. The man had forty pounds on Levi but was older and slower. I bet I can take him.
Even if he couldn’t, he would rather lose a fight than run from one. But were there others? He didn’t want to risk losing the plunder. Decent food was a lot harder to come by here in the high country, and this fruit would keep him supplied for days.
He made it across the meadow and climbed halfway up the ridge before hiding the bag in a dense bush on the steep side above the path.
He took off running northwest along the tree line. Unburdened, Levi could now easily put distance between him and the bruiser, who still lumbered through the meadow.
When he was convinced he had made his escape, Levi turned northward and climbed to the top of the ridge. He would make his way east and drop down to where he’d left the bag.
He looked forward to enjoying the fruit. But even more, he loved the chaos he had caused. It was like kicking an anthill.
What could be more fun than taking things from morons who didn’t deserve them in the first place? The more daring the heist, the more satisfying. Levi still relished his recent score in the city—all that gold from one house. A wide grin parted his lips when he thought of some rich snob arriving home and discovering he was no longer rich.
When Levi thought of his victims, he saw his father, drunk, standing over him after a relentless beating. Levi had never exacted revenge on his father, but now years of suppressed rage exploded on anyone who got in Levi’s way.
A raspy wheeze closed from behind. Before he could turn, a blow to Levi’s head sent him to the dirt. He cursed, rolled, bounced to his feet, and faced the assailant. A young guy, maybe Levi’s age crouched, still holding his club.
“I got ’im!” he shouted.
Three others quickly arrived, surrounding Levi.
The kid with the stick won’t be a problem, Levi thought, sizing up the situation. The two standing below him probably weren’t much of a threat either. But the one above him looked like a guy who could handle himself.
In a fight, Levi didn’t care about the size of a man’s muscles. What mattered was his ability to take punishment. This fellow looked to be a hard man who worked with his hands. His pockmarked skin and the stubble on his square, grizzled jaw barely hid a jagged scar. The rest of his face was shaded by the brim of a leather hat that had seen better days.
Levi touched the back of his neck where blood soaked his collar. If this fight was going to happen, sooner was better than later. He launched himself toward the two men below. His fist connected with the first, and the man’s nose broke under Levi’s knuckles.
Using his momentum, he tackled the other man. They tumbled partway down the hill and Levi ended up on top. He gave the man one good shot to the face, knocking him out.
His first impulse was to grab a nearby stone and crush the man’s skull. Levi thought nothing of taking a life, but … not this time.
Levi leaped to his feet. With those two out of the fight, he could focus on the guy with the hat. But he had to get on even ground.
Too late. A stone hard fist pounded Levi with a force that rivaled any punch he had ever taken. And he had taken many. The blow sent Levi tumbling backward down the hill. He grabbed a branch and arrested his fall. In an instant, he was back on his feet, trying not to show his dizziness.
A blow from nowhere cracked the back of his head and he went down. The kid with the stick stood over him. This time Levi couldn’t return to his feet. Through blurred vision, he saw four more men had arrived.
When Levi refocused, the man with the hat stood over him. “You got one last chance, boy. Tell us where the bag is.”
“How should I know where your wife is? Can’t you keep track of the old bag yourself?” The man rewarded Levi’s smart mouth with a boot to the side of his face. Blood filled his mouth.
Merciless pounding followed, and Levi lost consciousness.
A breathless warrior reported to his commander, Adramelech. “The bag is in place. What do you want done with Levi?”
“Let him die. He has served his purpose.”
Levi had stolen hundreds of times before, but he could never have dreamed the sequence of events this theft would put into motion. The world would be changed forever.
Like most people in this world, Levi had been made an unwitting pawn in a war he didn’t know existed. For centuries, an army of warriors from the city battled the forces of the high country. And with the simple placement of a bag of fruit in the high country, Adramelech’s plan commenced.
As Adam approached the city gate, the darkness softened and the first gleam of sunlight painted the clouds, dissolving the blackness into hints of blue. The sunrise was a welcome distraction from his throbbing hands and oppressive fatigue. He loved watching the world come alive like a beautiful woman waking from her sleep. It renewed within him springs of hope.
“Adam, were you out there all night? Alone?” The gatekeeper shook his head. “One of these days the mountain people will get to you and you’ll regret being so reckless.”
“I appreciate your concern. I think you may be right. Last night was …”
“Did something happen out there? You look ... rough.”
“I just need rest,” Adam said.
“Were you at the collapse site last night?”
“Were you the one who rescued Jacqueline Steadman?”
“We helped a lot of people. I don’t know who Jacquel—”
“She was trapped under a pile of gold debris and everyone gave up on her except one man. She said his name was Adam.”
“Oh, yeah, that was me. I was—”
“Adam, do you know who she is? That’s Royce Steadman’s daughter. Steadman owns all the gold mines in the north quarter. And he’s looking for you. One of his men came by here last night asking if you left the city. Do you realize what that means? If you saved his daughter’s life, you’ll never have to work again. You’re about to have wealth beyond anything you ever imagined!”
A surge of adrenaline awakened Adam from his fatigue. “Did the man tell you that?”
“He said, ‘Mr. Steadman wishes to express his gratitude.’ But I know what that means. Steadman once gave a guy twenty bars of gold because he had helped a boy who was being bullied. He’s a generous man. And they say he never forgets an act of kindness.”
A stick in an eddy, Adam thought, smiling.
The gatekeeper gripped Adam’s shoulder. “He told me if I saw you to send you directly to the Steadman estate. If I were you, I’d skip breakfast—skip everything and head straight over there.”
Adam smiled. “If I went now, I’m afraid I’d make a fool of myself. I’m kind of … out of sorts. I’ll get some sleep then go this afternoon.”
A few hours earlier, Adam would have been elated to hear about Jacqueline and her father. But the little girl’s words held his heart and soul captive. He’d been warned that the mountain people were con artists. But how could she know about him—about his family? A world of forgotten desires about home reawakened, and nothing else seemed to matter.
Adam had never been so glad to arrive at the Northridge neighborhood. His gold and a soft bed awaited just blocks away.
But when he turned down his street, howls and cries shattered the morning peace and echoed through the row of houses. He ran to the crowd gathering on his front lawn.
“What happened?” he asked.
The circle opened to reveal the source of the screams. George’s pale, lifeless body lay motionless. His wife knelt over him, sobbing.
A neighbor laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Adam. I know you were close.”
Adam struggled to find words. “He was the first friend I ever had. He … What happened? How did … Was it a looter?”
“I don’t think so. Your house was the only one hit. It had to be the mountain people. They must have gotten into the city somehow before the gates closed yesterday. They were targeting you, Adam. George tried to stop them, but …” The man looked down at George’s body and shook his head.
George’s first and last acts toward Adam had been deeds of friendship—welcoming him into this place when he was alone and defending Adam’s home in his death.
Adam’s arrival into this world had replayed in his head a hundred times since his conversation with Kailyn. Images of George colored those memories. Adam could still taste that first orange George had given him and recalled how George’s unending ramblings had somehow calmed him that day.
Bereft of words, Adam knelt beside the broken old woman and held her.
The authorities arrived and took the body. One by one the others left until only Adam and the widow remained. When her tears ran dry, she stood and touched Adam’s face.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and with sagging shoulders and faltering steps, entered her house.
Adam turned to his own home. The front window was shattered, the door ajar. Do I even want to see the inside?
In his bedroom, the gold-framed bed his weary bones so craved was gone, and with it, the stockpile of gold he had labored all these years to build. The cold, empty shell of his house mirrored his empty soul. He had nothing now but his maps.
The maps! He ran to the closet and retrieved the chest where he had hidden them along with the gold bands he had received from George.
Empty! He fell to his knees, curled into a ball, and wept.
Hour after hour pressed down on him as he peeled back the layers of his grief. Losing his wealth hurt, but infinitely worse, losing the maps. Without them, the door to home had slammed shut forever. He was heartbroken about George. But beneath all those sorrows lay the deepest grief—the crushing reality of the emptiness and utter futility of his life.
Nothing he did mattered. He couldn’t imagine anything he could ever do would matter. His efforts to save the city from disintegration had been futile. He had no idea where he was from, and he had nowhere to go. It wasn’t only this world that was half-real. He had become part of this empty place, and his very life lacked substance. That day at the pond was the last important moment he remembered. He might as well have lived no life at all.
He tried to console himself with thoughts of Jacqueline. She said she wanted to see him again. And the gold he lost amounted to pennies compared to the reward he would receive from Royce Steadman. But right now the only thing that seemed to matter was that empty chest looming in the corner. Why did they have to take the maps?
An hour later Adam walked out the city’s west gate, wondering if he had lost his mind. Each step darkened his world, as if he were leaving life itself behind. Everything he loved remained in the city. But he hated his life there. He refused to look back, knowing if he did, he would be caught forever. He no longer wanted the calm of the eddy. He would take his chances in the current.
He found a road leading westward. It progressively narrowed, like a dead-end path that becomes more overgrown the farther it goes. Clearly, no one had traversed this road in a long time—for good reason, no doubt. But if there was even the remotest chance the cottage was real, he had to find it.
Soon the path disappeared altogether. Adam stood in an untouched wilderness. As he traveled westward, the forest grew darker—and colder, though the sun hung high. Climbing through the crisscross of fallen timber made the trek increasingly arduous.
He wondered at the cold silence. Then it came to him—no birds. He looked around. Not even the birds ventured this far.
He hadn’t noticed it before, but now it was undeniable—a growing sense of dread filled him like a slow leak filling a ship. His soul listed.
He looked back toward the city, but without the road for a guide, he wasn’t even sure what direction the city lay. Every passing hour made his departure feel more irreversible. There was no going back. Once again, his home, his security, his friends—all left behind. The unknown that lay ahead loomed like a dark void ready to swallow him up.
He needed to summon courage. For the first time in years, he tried to imagine his brother being with him. But the stubborn memories refused to emerge. He had no idea what his brother would say or do.
A deep longing to belong somewhere coupled with the terror of losing everything a second time slowed his pace. Pangs of regret at his decision to leave squeezed like a knot being pulled tight in his chest.
Then he shook his head. Get a grip Adam. Remember why you left the city. Trembling, he plodded forward.
Despite his determination, the compulsion to abandon the quest persisted. The relentless thought nagged, Go back! Go back! The strength of the impulse astonished him.
Faces emerged from twisted vines. Gnarled trees glowered at him like frozen demons ready to animate at any moment. Telling himself it was all in his mind didn’t help. It only added yet another layer of fear. Was sanity itself slipping away?
On the other hand, what if his hesitancy was the sanest of his thoughts? He was abandoning security and plunging into dangers about which he had been warned. Was he gaining freedom from an empty life, or walking blindly into a trap like a fool?
The cold penetrated his clothes and chilled him to the bone. He heard footsteps behind him and stopped short, listening. Silence. Turning, he scoured the area but saw no movement. Could it have been the sound of his own footfalls echoing off the trees?
Something touched his ankle. He kicked in a frantic reflex to shake it off. But it held on, squeezing tighter. A snake? No. A vine had wrapped itself around his leg.
He pulled it off and pushed ahead until another vine took hold. The brush before him thickened into a tangle. He searched for a way through, but the foliage had created an impenetrable wall.
Something unnatural was happening. Or was nature itself against him? Or was it protecting him—warning him?
Whatever it was, this excursion into the unknown was clearly over. But in his meandering effort to find a way through, he had lost his bearings. He made his best guess on the direction of the city and began making his way “home.”
A cool breath swept across his face. What was that? He stood perfectly still. The air was … moving.
The stillness of this world that had seemed so strange at the pond was now such a fact of life that air movement seemed an absurdity. Yet, standing still as a statue, somehow the air caressed his face, his arms, his entire body as if he were running or falling.
Goosebumps covered his skin. Every nerve in his body alert. Never before had he felt so small as the very atmosphere moved upon him.
He ventured a tentative step. The breath strengthened. He took another. With every step it increased. Soon he could hardly keep his footing.
As the mighty breath howled in his face, a new word formed itself in his mind. Wind. A strange term, yet it seemed to fit somehow. Had a silent voice spoken this word to him? Or was this a memory from his world?
Sweat beaded on his forehead and he wiped it with his sleeve. After a few minutes of struggle, he turned back to take shelter behind a nearby tree. When he faced westward, the breath, or wind, stopped. Relieved that it had passed, he turned once more toward the city. But when he did, the wind gusted again and halted his steps.
His irrational fears—imagined noises and faces in the trees—evaporated, replaced by a different kind of dread. A force so much greater than he—the world’s invisible blanket, great enough to surround and protect the planet from the deadly hostilities of space, yet close enough to fill his lungs a thousand times an hour, sustaining his life. And now it moved upon him. He would not resist it.
Then he noticed a bright blue substance smeared on his shirtsleeve. He had never seen any tree sap or plant residue anything like this color. As he searched around him for the source, another strong gust arose and he lost his footing. He gripped a sturdy vine to steady himself, and the vine snapped in his fist. Amazed at his own strength, he pulled at another. It gave way like a burnt rope.
He tore at the living prison, shredding branches, vines, and roots. But almost as quickly as he destroyed them, new ones grew in their place, entangling his legs, blocking his way, and pushing him back toward the city.
The wind gusted harder. With a shout like a war cry, he cut into the tangle like a machine.
Finally, he broke through. He started to run, but a backward glance revealed the vines were not chasing him. Instead, they withered and receded to the east.
He sat to catch his breath, wiping sweat and blue residue from his face. What just happened? He took hold of a branch above him and gave it a tug. The branch didn’t move. His strength was back to normal.
Both the wind and foliage seemed to have wills of their own, but with opposite purposes. The wind pushed him toward the cottage, and the plants blocked his way. But which should he trust? In this wind-versus-world contest, which force was working to keep him from something good, and which was working to protect him from danger?
One thing he did know—there were no answers about his family in the city. The cottage at least might hold answers.
He continued westward, keeping a wary eye on the forest around him. The only friendly thing about his surroundings now seemed to be the fruit trees. He stopped whenever he came across one, but the farther he traveled, the fewer he found. Was he leaving his food supply behind?
The wind drove him on.
At last, Adam emerged from the forest and lifted his eyes to survey a sprawling valley that stood between him and the elusive cabin. Still a long way to go, but it would be easier traveling in this grassy, gently sloping valley.
Just a stone’s throw into the meadow, he saw a young man reclining against a rock.
“Hey there,” he called.
The man didn’t respond.
He must be asleep.
Approaching from behind, he scuffed his feet to wake the man up without startling him.
He still didn’t move.
“Hey, friend …” Adam touched his shoulder.
The man turned slightly and slid sideways to the ground.
When Adam saw the man from the front, bile rose in his throat and he gagged. The man had been mutilated. His chest torn open. Blood still trickled through the dirt beside his leg. This had just happened.
Adam’s eyes swept the valley to the west and south, then north. The woods from which he had just emerged were sparse enough to see a fair distance through the trees. The forest to the north, however, was much denser. It was steep, rugged, foreboding country. The mountain people must be in that forest. And they couldn’t be far.
Adam turned back the way he had come and sprinted toward the cover of the trees, his eyes searching the tree line ahead and to the north. When he reached the trees he stopped to gather his thoughts.
Then another grisly discovery. Three more bodies, not twenty feet from the path Adam had been on—all with gaping holes in their chests.
Adam’s own chest pounded. The mountain people, or whoever did this, must be nearby. They might be watching him this very moment from within the black timber to the north.
He considered his options. Continuing westward in the grasslands was out. Too much exposure. The wind had stopped, so his natural impulse was to run full speed to the city—the only place of safety he knew. It made the most sense, but …
Adam didn’t like the idea of having an unknown danger at his back. The best way to avoid being found, he figured, was to keep his eye on the hunter.
Staying as low as possible, he crawled back toward the meadow for an unobstructed view. Just inside the tree line he found a protected position that allowed a northward view. For most of the afternoon he listened intently and kept an intense gaze on the edge of the black timber, watching for movement within the trees.
As the sun dipped to the horizon, a deep chill descended. He would need a fire overnight, but not here—not where the killers could find him.
Movement! Adam caught his breath. Just inside the thick timber … it looked like … legs moving. He strained to see. A tall, dead pine stood higher than the surrounding trees. Right around there. Yes! There it was again. He was sure of it. They were up there.
He reassessed his position and concluded they would not be able to see him as long as he remained still. He kept watching. Soon three of them emerged from the trees into the meadow.
What? Adam looked at the men, then at the pines behind them, then at the men again. His heart raced. No wonder everyone feared the mountain people. The men stood almost as tall as the trees. He wondered if his eyes were playing tricks on him.
Several more giants stepped out from the trees. All were armed—swords, machetes, and clubs. They turned toward Adam. He froze.
There’s no way they can see me in this cover from that distance. But they were all facing his direction. And now they were running!
With their gaping strides they closed the distance with astonishing speed. Adam leapt from his nest and bolted right, farther into the woods.
He was fast, but he stood no chance of outrunning those monsters. They would know he didn’t flee south or west because he’d be visible in the wide-open grasslands. They were coming from the north, so that left only east. If he continued that way, they would quickly overtake him. His only chance of not being found was to get to a spot they had already searched.
When the trees blocked line of sight, Adam cut left—straight north, toward the monsters. His many years of sneaking out to search for the pond without being seen by irritable orchard dwellers had given him the ability to move silently through the woods. His only chance was to approach them head on and pass them undetected.
He crept through the trees, taking care to leave no tracks and keeping wide of the line they had been taking
when he lost sight of them. If they stayed on that course, this should work—unless ... What if there are dozens, or even hundreds combing through this forest?
Sooner than he had expected, footsteps pounded just ahead. He dropped to his stomach and bloodied his elbows pulling himself into a dense thicket that stood less than two feet high and hoped they didn’t trample him. As one after another rumbled past, he thought he’d rather be lying in the path of stampeding buffalo.
A giant foot landed so close it shoved twigs into Adam’s face.
In a moment, the thunderous crashing faded to the south. Evidently, they were still rushing to the spot where they had first seen him.
Seconds later, Adam sprinted northward. His certainty that the giants were the ones responsible for the killings grew each time he had to step over more bodies as he made his way through the trees.
As he approached the dead pine, Adam stopped to listen. Several long moments without a sound satisfied him that they had all left the area.
He would examine their tracks to determine how many there were, then follow them backward and discover where they had come from. Risky, but the more he knew about them the better.
Tracking should be easy. Such men would leave unmistakable prints in the soft forest soil.
After a few minutes of searching, Adam stopped and slid his fingers through his hair. Where are the tracks?
He saw a few indentations that resembled a child’s prints, but the giants left no trace.
Adam watched the western horizon swallow up the last golden sliver of the sun. Darkness fell, and with it, bitter cold. He would have to find cover before building his fire.
While searching for tracks, he had heard movement inside the black timber. But it sounded more like the subtle scratching of animals than the marching noise humans make. Adam wondered if animals had killed those people.
Whatever lurked in those woods, he needed to find shelter. Surely there must be caves in the rugged terrain within the black timber.
With some effort, he broke a sturdy branch from a tree. Probably not much of a defense against a wild animal attack, but better than nothing. He took a breath, peered into the darkness ahead of him, and entered the menacing woods.
An hour of hunting and some welcome moonlight brought him to an opening in the rocky hillside. As he approached the mouth of the cave, he tossed a stone into the blackness, hoping to scare any animal that might be inside. Nothing moved. Another stone. Coast is clear … I guess.
He gathered an armload of sticks and used his free hand to feel his way along the cave wall. A short distance in, he kindled his fire, hoping he was close enough to the opening that the smoke would escape.
Soon the flames warmed him, and he leaned against the side. A wave of fatigue swept over him and he closed his eyes.
What am I doing here? If the giants find me, I’ll be cornered. And who knows what kinds of animals might be in this cave.
Wise or foolish, this cave was his only option right now. And he needed rest.
He drew a startled breath and sat up. What was that sound? The fire was out. He listened. I’m sure I heard someth—
His hair moved. A flailing swing to brush the thing away impacted the side of the cave with a crack. He winced at the shooting pain and pulled his broken wrist to his chest, biting his lip to smother the moans that would give away his position.
He checked his head with his good hand. Probably just a drip of water. Still, he wanted out of that cave.
He rose to his feet. In that same moment, something landed on his back. This was no pebble. It was an animal, and it was biting him. The creature’s teeth punctured Adam’s skin.
Forgetting the throbs of his fractured wrist, he flailed, nearly throwing his arm out of joint in a wild attempt to grab the creature. When he finally got a hold of it, he ripped the animal from his back and flung it with all his strength toward the back of the cave.
Light filled the cave and a man appeared before Adam. A new kind of terror gripped him, and he dropped to one knee.
The man pointed to the depths of the cavern and spoke. “Remember the vigor with which you cast it.”
Adam opened his eyes. He was alone. The cave was dark and Adam had not moved since he had gone to sleep. His wrist was fine, and no wounds marred his body.
He sat up and attempted to gather his wits. The dream troubled him. The first part was nothing unusual as dreams go, but the man—that was different. He seemed, somehow, to be outside the dream.
Adam contemplated the words. Remember the vigor with which you cast it. What did that mean?
A violent shiver shook Adam’s core. The fire had clearly been out for some time and his chilled legs could hardly stand. I need some more wood.
He felt his way along the sides toward the mouth of the cave. Something touched him from behind and an involuntary yelp escaped his throat. He tried to run, but a massive hand clamped down on his shoulder. Adam wondered if his collar bone would snap. This time it was no dream.
A God-like voice bellowed, “What are you doing here?”
Thick, strong fingers clamped Adam’s shoulder and the back of his neck and drove him out of the cave. He stumbled forward and would have fallen if not for the iron grip on his shoulder.
Whoever held him seemed to see in the dark just fine. Arriving outside the cave, the dawn’s first light revealed his captors. Towering before him stood the giants he thought he had escaped. His heart turned to stone.
Up close, the men were even larger than he thought. Standing as tall as he could, Adam barely reached his abductor’s waist. The rest of the men were even taller, and they all glared at Adam.
The tallest of the men, perhaps the leader, spoke first. “Are you lost?” His resounding voice vibrated Adam’s chest.
Adam kept his eyes down. “I … I apologize if I’m trespassing. I’m just passing through and needed some shelter for the night. If this is your land, I’ll move along.”
The man released Adam and the group slowly parted, allowing Adam an eastward path.
“Um … actually … I was going that way,” he said, turning west.
The man from the cave frowned, not moving from Adam’s path. He had a square jaw, fair skin, and blond, curly hair. He glanced at the leader, who nodded, and he stepped out of the way.
Adam began walking, his muscles tensed from head to toe. Would they really let him go that easily? Images of the mutilated bodies assaulted his memory. With each step he wondered—would a sword impale him from behind?
He quickened his step, daring a glance over his shoulder. The giants hadn’t moved. The curly-haired one watched Adam, his expression almost ... concerned? Adam stopped. Why did they want me to go east? His eyes shifted westward. Is there something they know that I don’t?
With tentative steps, he rejoined the giants.
Curly smiled. “Good choice. This isn’t a good place to be alone. You’ll be much safer with us. My name is Alexander. And this”—he extended his hand toward the leader as if introducing a celebrity—“is Doctor Jensen.”
“I’m Adam. I was on my way to find a cottage in the high country. I heard it was—” Adam stopped when he saw their reaction.
The men encircled him and he felt like a sapling in a forest.
Doctor Jensen spoke. “What business do you have with the cottage?”
Jensen’s searching glare gave Adam the sense he was on trial. He decided not to volunteer any more information to these men just yet.
Despite the rough meeting in the cave, Alexander struck Adam as the friendliest of the group, though that wasn’t saying much. Alexander broke the silence. “I don’t think he’s one of them. He’s too big. And look at his clothes. He’s from the city.”
Jensen stroked his thin, salt-and-pepper beard.
“Not one of … whom?” Adam asked.
“The mountain people,” Alexander replied. “They are small, but dangerous.”
“I thought you were the mountain people.”
All the men laughed—except Doctor Jensen.
Adam cocked his head. “So … this isn’t the high country?”
“The high country is west of the river,” Alexander said, pointing across the grassy valley. “Trust me, you do not want to go there.”
“Are the mountain people responsible for the bodies down there?” Adam asked, nodding toward the carnage.
The men exchanged glances. Then Alexander spoke. “You are welcome to join us if you like. You’ll be safe with us.”
“With respect, that’s not an ans—” Adam swallowed his words when Doctor Jensen raised a brow. Adam hadn’t seen it before, but now he wondered how he had missed it—their eyes were huge. He thought back to the mural in the library. Could these be the … Adam’s heart had been pounding with fear. Now it raced with hope.
“Are you the … prophets—the Great Ones?”
For the first time, Doctor Jensen smiled. “We are students. Some call us prophets, but we have no supernatural knowledge. Quite the opposite. We are merely observers of the natural.”
Adam struggled to contain his enthusiasm. “I’ve read many of your writings and dreamed of meeting you someday. I have so many questions. All those years in the city, and I’ve never seen you.”
“We travel wherever our research takes us,” Jensen said.
“Do you know of a pond south of the city?”
“We do,” Jensen said.
“Could you take me there? Or tell me how to find it?”
“Why do you want to go to the pond?” Alexander asked.
“I believe I am from … another place. I need to know how I got here and I believe the pond is the key to—”
“It’s not,” Jensen said. “And there is nowhere you could go that would be superior to the city. It boasts the richest supply of gold and fruit anywhere in the world.” With a sweep of his hand he added, “You can see the scarcity of fruit out here.”
A war between grief and desire erupted in Adam’s chest. Grief, because a decade of hope in the pond as the way home had just been swept away. Desire, because the thought of returning to the gold, fruit, and safe familiarity of the city wooed him.
“I noticed that,” Adam replied. “Is it like this in the high country as well?”
“Fruit is outlawed in the high country,” Alexander said.
“Outlawed? Why? How do they live without eating?”
“People still eat. But they have to do it in secret to avoid shame or disciplinary action from their merciless Ruler.”
“Have you been there?”
Alexander turned his head to the west. “I grew up in the high country. Before I came to my senses, I believed in all that nonsense—the myths, the magical colors—all of it.”
“And the cottage? You’ve seen it?”
Adam sensed from Alexander’s lowered eyebrows the question may have been a mistake. It seemed dangerous to show interest in the cottage with these men. He tried his hardest to sound casual, but he couldn’t restrain his curiosity.
“So, what’s inside?”
“Nothing. I have been through every square inch of that old shack, and I assure you, it is an interesting historical site—nothing more. The uneducated fill the vacancy of the place with contrived fantasies. With a little reading, one grows beyond such stupidity.”
Alexander paused, released a deep breath, then continued. “They believe their myths and traditions because they want them to be true. Rational people have evidence-based knowledge, not blind faith. Take my advice—go back to the city.”
“I’ve tried. But I couldn’t make any headway against the … air. It rushed against me.” Even as Adam uttered the words, he realized how ridiculous they sounded.
Adam cringed when the men snickered. To be thought a fool by such a venerable council mortified him. He craved their approval.
“So someone told you about the wind?” Alexander asked.
“The … wind? No. I—”
“I know the wind can feel very real. I thought I felt it when I lived in the high country. But studies have proved there is no wind. It is amazing what the mind can convince itself of when it really wants to.”
With a roll of his eyes, Doctor Jensen turned and began walking.
“Come on,” Alexander said. “If you have any trouble with the ‘wind,’ we’ll help you through it.”
The allure of the city and the opportunity to spend time with the Great Ones compelled Adam. He’d had quite enough of this ill-fated adventure.
But he hesitated. He remembered the difficulty of getting through the foliage to make it this far and had the sense that a second attempt may not be successful. Was it wise to simply discard all his hard-fought progress?
Trailing behind the others, Alexander turned back toward Adam. “Are you coming?”
After a pause, Adam ran to catch up as the Great Ones departed.
There was a smooth grace to their gait, like animated trees gliding through the forest. Adam wasn’t sure why he would have expected such large bodies to be clumsy, but they moved with a calm majesty he couldn’t help but admire. Every few strides, Adam had to jog a little to keep up.
Soon the wind returned, but the Great Ones didn’t seem to notice. Adam felt it, but as long as he stayed close, the Great Ones served as a windbreak and, with some effort, he kept moving.
The man walking beside Doctor Jensen pointed to the right. Jensen nodded and left the path. The group followed, and within two minutes came to a lone apple tree in a grove of aspen. The giants helped themselves.
Alexander plucked a large apple and tossed it to Adam.
Adam made short work of the crisp, juicy treat. Oh, how he had missed the intense sweetness of the fruit! And it had only been a couple days. He reached for another.
Alexander stood against an aspen, arms and feet both crossed, watching Adam. “That will give you strength to walk. The wind shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I feel stronger already,” Adam said.
Alexander responded with a detailed explanation of the chemical properties of apples and the effect on the human metabolism. Adam couldn’t follow some of the more technical parts but was fascinated nonetheless.
“Can I ask you something?” Adam said. “Do you know of any plants that have a blue sap or residue?”
Alexander eyed him a long moment. “It sounds like you know more of the mountain legends than you are letting on.” He furrowed his brow. “Are you claiming to have seen the … residue? Or did someone tell you about it? Have you been speaking with mountain people? Someone who looked like a child, perhaps?”
“Oh … uh … no, nothing like that. A … friend of mine in the city once told me he explored out this way and got some kind of blue sap on his skin and asked me about it. I just thought you might …” Adam cleared his throat. “You said before the mountain people are small but dangerous. If they are so small, what makes them such a threat?”
“They are devious. Their innocent, harmless appearance is a ploy to make you drop your guard. Then they prey on your psychological needs. Once they have you, you lose all freedom. Everything good is forbidden.”
Adam thought of Kailyn. She looked like a child but spoke with an adult’s intelligence. She had certainly seemed harmless to Adam. He had not only let his guard down but had been convinced to go blindly into the high country. It was just as Alexander described.
Adam opened his mouth to respond but thought better of it. He didn’t know if he wanted to put Kailyn in danger. At least not until he knew for sure who was telling the truth.
When Adam spoke with Kailyn, the cottage had seemed so appealing—a fact that now embarrassed him. But he still had some questions about the city.
“Why are the buildings in the city collapsing?”
“Time to go,” Doctor Jensen announced, and the group made their way back to the path.
Just out of earshot, Alexander and Doctor Jensen were embroiled in a conversation as they walked. Jensen looked back at Adam. Alexander put his hand on Jensen’s back, pleading for something. Finally, Jensen stopped and motioned for Adam to come.
“Alexander is convinced you are a truth seeker.”
“That’s right,” Adam said.
“You have a lot of questions. Would you like to see the answers for yourself?”
Anxiety and hope entwined themselves in Adam’s chest. What would they show him? And why did he ask first? Was he about to see something marvelous … or dangerous … or both?
“Of course,” he said in the most confident tone he could muster.
“Very well. I will do for you what I did for Alexander.”
Taking a bottle from his bag, he poured a clear gel into his hand.
“Keep your eyes open,” he said. Then he placed his hand over Adam’s face, pressing the gel into his eyes.
The cold goo gave Adam chills, then a headache. But it only lasted a moment.
Doctor Jensen pulled his hand away. “What do you see?”
Adam tried to blink, but the thick ointment blocked his eyelids. With effort, he forced a blink. Then another. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust.
Then a whole new world opened before him. He looked at his hands, then the grass at his feet, then a stone. Adam broke into laughter. Like a child with a new toy, he appraised everything around him.
“It’s all so clear. I can see every contour on every pebble. I can see … everything!”
“It’s only the beginning,” said Alexander. “A universe of new knowledge will be within arm’s reach everywhere you go.”
A butterfly floated across Adam’s view. He could see each of the thousands of tiny scales on its wings—and veins that ran through the wings and connected to its ears.
And with the enhanced vision came understanding. It hears through its wings. The creature landed on a leaf and Adam knew it was drumming the leaf with its feet to taste for dissolved sugars. He knew the cool air was near the lower threshold in which it could fly, and that, judging from its spots, it was near the end of its lifespan.
Adam laughed again. “This is incredible!” He turned to Alexander. “Is this why you left the high country? You were given this gift and saw everything clearly?”
“I saw through the myths of the cottage long before I met Doctor Jensen. It doesn’t take special insight. It’s obvious to anyone who isn’t brainwashed—the cottage is nothing but a scam designed to control weak-minded fools.”
“You sound kind of … angry,” Adam ventured. “Did something happen to you?”
The Great One looked down at Adam like a man deciding whether to squash a bug. Then he turned without a word and started back on the path. One by one, the Great Ones rose and followed. Adam trailed, berating himself for asking such a personal question and wondering if he was still welcome in the group.
After a half-hour of walking in complete silence, Alexander slowed to walk beside Adam. “My son. He was … killed.”
“Your son was killed? How—”
“The so-called Ruler claims to have power over life and death, but he did nothing to save him. I begged him to at least give me a reason, but he wouldn’t say a word.”
The minutes passed slowly until Alexander spoke again. “I was desperate for answers, so I turned to the writings. That’s when I realized everything I had been raised to believe was an elaborate fairy tale.”
“How long ago did you leave?”
“About six months. But it seems like years. I’ve learned so much since then.”
“Six months? Is that normal—to go from being a mountain person to becoming one of the Great Ones in just six months?”
“I’m not a member of the council yet. I’m still studying.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, it suits you. I think you’ll make a good addition to this council. And from the way you’ve described the mountain people, it’s hard to imagine you were ever one of them.”
Alexander smiled. “I think I always knew the myths weren’t true. My belief in them was more like suspended disbelief. I told myself it was all true so I could enjoy the stories along with everyone else. But deep down I knew something wasn’t right. If the Ruler were as good as they said, why would he outlaw fruit?”
“So your desire for fruit was part of your reason for leaving?”
Alexander shrugged. “A man’s got to eat.”
The heads of the Great Ones all snapped to the north. Adam thought he might have heard some pebbles rolling downhill for a moment. But now he saw only—There, on the other side of the path—was that a flash of movement? The sudden wariness of the Great Ones assured Adam it wasn’t his imagination. Were they being surrounded by the mountain people? Was a battle about to erupt? And had Adam chosen the right side?
The Great Ones turned to the right, crouched, and arrayed themselves in an attack formation. Glad to be behind the group, Adam leaned sideways to catch a glimpse of the threat.
Is that … Kailyn? Sure enough—the same little girl he had spoken with at the creek sat cross-legged under a tree. She seemed not to notice the Great Ones as she played with toys made of old, splintered wood.
A gust of wind nearly knocked Adam over. Trees bent under the force of the gale, and the girl stood up.
Then the giants—all except Alexander—changed. Doctor Jensen morphed into a massive grizzly bear. Two others became mountain lions, and the rest, wild boars. Alexander, still a man, nudged Adam backward and then stepped in front of him.
The smells of the beasts and the cacophony of growls and grunts assured Adam this was not a hallucination. Wanting to run but frozen in place, Adam reached up and grasped Alexander’s shirt, keeping the giant between him and the snarling creatures, who had now formed a half-circle around Kailyn.
Adam knew he should do something. What kind of coward would stand by as wild animals mauled a helpless child? But he couldn’t have resisted this group when they were human. How could he fight ferocious beasts?
Alexander backed away, averting his face. Adam moved with him.
Without warning, the mountain lions charged Kailyn. In an instant, the smaller and quicker of the two had its jaws around her neck. The other bit into her right leg. She was about to be ripped to pieces and Adam was powerless to help. I can’t watch this.
Just as he turned away, blood-curdling screams pierced the air. But they were not a child’s screams. It was one of the mountain lions.
Adam snapped back toward Kailyn. She had slashed the creature’s throat. The wooden toy, now a double-sided metal dagger, dripped with blood.
The second cougar lunged with unnatural swiftness and strength. Still, Kailyn parried the cat’s every movement with speed, precision, and skill unlike anything Adam had ever seen.
The blade sliced through the air in a blur—a blur of colors that reminded Adam of the ones he’d seen rise from the cottage.
Both lions limped away, trailing blood.
Then with a deafening roar, the bear charged from behind, hitting Kailyn with such force the dagger flew from her hands. The beast pinned her to the ground with its paw.
Without her dagger, Kailyn appeared helpless—like a normal child. She struggled but could hardly move.
The bear roared again, inches from Kailyn’s face, as if trying to frighten her to death before devouring her.
Two other children, a girl and a boy with a patch over his eye, came running from the trees. The girl, perhaps a year or two younger than Kailyn, held a dagger of her own and waved it at the other animals. They backed off but kept snarling as they encircled her.
Kailyn ceased her hopeless struggle. Her eyes showed discouraged resignation to her fate.
The boy took up another of Kailyn’s toys—a small, wooden hammer—and placed it in her hand while dodging the bear’s deadly swipes. But she didn’t close her hand around the hammer. When the boy let go, it dropped to the ground.
The bear’s jaws slammed closed like a guillotine, but the boy was too quick for the beast and once again managed to place the hammer in Kailyn’s hand. This time he pressed it into her palm, forcing her fingers around the handle and shouting, “Take it!”
Finally, she gripped the splintered handle.
Still pinned, she could only swing the hammer a few inches, but the tap sent the bear tumbling. The hulking creature slammed into a tree trunk with the crunch of breaking bones.
The bear lay still.
Alexander and the rest of the beasts took off running. They vanished into the forest to the north. Moments later, the bear came to and staggered into the trees.
Kailyn hugged the boy, then the girl. The strain in her arms and the tearful exchange moved Adam. He had seen plenty of hugs, but none like that one. It was the sort of affection he had always imagined he would have with his siblings if he ever found his way home.
Kailyn turned and started toward Adam, no longer a child. She was a woman, tall and athletic with long, midnight black hair—the same shiny black hair he had seen at the creek when they first met. She also retained the same serious look and confident strength in her movements as when she appeared as a child.
The two friends were also now adults, and the woman, shorter than Kailyn, met Adam’s eyes with a sweet, shy smile that moved him to his core. For an extended moment, he forgot to remove his eyes from hers. When he realized he was staring, he ordered his eyes to avert, but they rebelled.
The man with the eye patch stepped to the woman’s side and wrapped his arm around her. Her smile broadened and she laid her blond head on the man’s shoulder.
Adam’s emotions surprised him. Never had he felt jealousy for a woman he just met. But he couldn’t deny the sense of loss that now stung him. I guess she’s spoken for.
The man presented an aura of gentleness, but the patch on his eye and the ordeal with the bear gave Adam the sense that this man was not one to trifle with.
Adam hadn’t been this bewildered since the pond. Giants becoming animals, children becoming adults, and a battle won with little wooden toys? Could something out here be causing hallucinations—perhaps the blue substance that appeared on his skin when the wind first blew?
“Are you okay?” Kailyn asked.
Adam only blinked.
Kailyn smiled. “I want you to meet my friends, Watson and Abigail. When I told them I was coming to help you, they offered to come along. And it’s a good thing they did. For a moment there I lost my grip on the cottage pieces. Without their help, you and I both would have been in trouble.”
“Cottage pieces? Do you mean the toys you were playing with?”
“I assure you they are anything but toys. They are pieces of the cottage. They have power beyond anything you can imagine. I carry them everywhere.”
“May I see them?”
“Of course.” Kailyn laid them out on a stone as if she were setting out dazzling, priceless jewels. But Adam saw only old, splintered pieces of wood.
Kailyn frowned. “What do you see, Adam?”
“Honestly?” He picked up a piece, flipped it over, then set it down. “They just look like … toys.”
Their obvious displeasure at his answer made him regret the flippant response. These “toys” had just been used with deadly force.
“I take it you’re from the high country?” Adam said.
“Indeed,” Watson replied.
Adam glanced down at the cottage pieces. “Is war coming?”
“War has persisted between the high country and lowlands for centuries,” Watson said. “It is a war your previous companions will soon lose, just as they lost today’s battle. As for you, you must return with us at once.” He picked up the hammer Kailyn had used on the bear. “If you wish to live, do not resist.”
Snapshots of the mutilated bodies at the tree line flashed in Adam’s mind and he involuntarily touched his chest. He was alone with three armed mountain people who had just sliced wild animals to ribbons. He took a step back. “Am I being taken captive?”
Kailyn and Abigail circled behind Adam, and Watson stepped closer. “Why are you touching your chest, Adam?” Watson asked. “Did you see the bodies?”
Adam struggled to breathe. “Was it you who … were those people trying to escape? Or …?”
A strong hand from behind seized his arm.
The strength of Kailyn’s grip surprised Adam. Stronger still was her tone. “There are far worse fates than what happened to those people.”
“Worse than having your chest ripped open?”
She pulled him around to face her. “Adam, listen to me. You’re dealing with powers you know nothing about. And if you’re taken …” Her voice cracked. She released his arm and turned away, hiding tears.
Abigail wrapped her arms around Kailyn and held her.
Kailyn didn’t strike Adam as the type who cried easily. She reminded him of a river that ran slow and deep—calm on the surface, but with unseen power beneath and not easily disturbed. For her to be troubled so deeply, and the way Abigail comforted her—Adam sensed something greater at stake here than what lay on the surface. What did she mean by ‘taken’?
Watson set his jaw and his tone darkened. “There is no fate worse than that which comes to those who walk in the counsel of the little ones.”
“The little ones? You mean the Great Ones?”
A hint of a smile flashed across Watson’s face. “Yes, the ‘Great Ones.’ On this side of the river they are honored, despite their ignorance.”
“Ignorance? Those men are brilliant. Pick any subject, and they can expound on it endlessly.”
“Yeah. Biology, geology, medicine, physics, magnetism, gravity—you name it.”
“Did you ask them what powers gravity? Or magnetism? Are they cognizant of its source? Or purpose?”
“I guess I didn’t ask that.”
“Did you inquire as to the law of cause and effect? When did it begin?”
“Hasn’t that just always existed?”
“Without a cause?” Watson asked. “Are the laws of physics exempt from the laws of physics? The only uncaused effect in the world?”
Watson continued. “I do not doubt their voluminous knowledge of this world. However, their knowledge is limited to this world. Unhelpful for someone who belongs to another world—an unseen world, wouldn’t you say?”
An hour ago, Adam had been in awe of their intellect. After all, the city had enshrined their writings in the library. Would it be wise to brush all their collective knowledge aside? Who is this man to question them? For that matter, who am I to question them?
“How could such intelligent men be wrong about the most important matters of life?” Adam asked.
“Their intelligence goes only as far”—Watson tapped next to his good eye—“as their observations.”
“What other kind of intelligence is there? Isn’t it irrational to believe in things that can’t be observed?”
“It would be if observation were the only form of evidence. But to say that is to revert to the mentality of an infant who thinks the world disappears when he closes his eyes. Just because something is unseen does not disprove its existence. Nor is observation the only means of obtaining knowledge. It is useful for matters pertaining to the body, but not for matters of heart or soul.”
“But observational knowledge can be verified. What other form of gaining knowledge can be trusted?”
“Testimony,” said Watson. “Of all the things you believe, what percentage is from your own experimentation, and how much is from what you have read or been told by a reliable source?”
“I see your point. Most of what I believe comes from reliable sources. But who’s more reliable than the Great Ones? I spent some time with those men. We talked for hours, and there’s no doubt in my mind they care deeply about finding the truth.”
“Mere observation of events without comprehension of meaning is not a discovery of truth. It is half-truth. Less than half, in fact. What good is awareness of objects and processes if one remains ignorant of their purpose and meaning? To truly know what is seen, one must also know the unseen.”
“But if it’s unseen, how do we know it even exists?”
“You doubt the existence of the unseen? Does not that very act of doubting require the unseen powers of your mind, along with unseen motives of your spirit?”
“I guess I can’t argue with that,” Adam said. “But have you ever spoken to those men? They’re so …”
“Did they look big to you?” Kailyn asked.
“Did they look big? They were giants! And then they turned into wild animals.”
“You saw them as animals? Interesting.” Kailyn said. “They aren’t animals. Animals can be defeated with much lesser weapons. What you saw were the powers that control the little ones. Those powers and their minions must have looked to you like animals because that’s the closest thing you know. But that you detected them at all is a good sign. The wind must have been blowing on you.”
“Why did the … ‘powers’ only appear when they saw you?”
“They were there the whole time, but they only become visible to us when the light from the cottage pieces exposes them.”
“That, and the wind,” Watson added. “The wind not only exposes them but also strengthens us to fight them. We have an advantage because the powers are incapable of detecting the wind—as are the lowlanders.”
Adam turned away, clasping his hands behind his head. The more they explained, the more his confusion increased. Could such a story be true? He couldn’t bring himself to believe it. But what did he believe? His imagination searched in vain for a more plausible alternative.
He half expected that when he turned around, the hallucination would be over and they would all be gone. Instead, he found all three eyeing him with curious stares.
He could hardly hear his own weak voice as he forced words from a dry throat. “Why did you ask if they looked big? Don’t they look big to you?”
“Let me show you something,” Kailyn said, walking back toward the site of the skirmish. “If you want to know someone’s true size, look at the footprints.”
Adam examined the tracks leading up to the spot. They were tiny, like the ones he had seen by the dead pine. He checked his own prints. Only slightly bigger. The tracks the children had left at the scene were adult-sized.
“Those men are perceived as great here because of the distortions of reality in the lowlands,” Watson explained. “West of the river, in the high country, reality is more perceptible. There, those men are known as “little-ones” because their souls have shrunk so small that their appetites do not extend beyond gold and fruit. They are masters at hiding their spiritual ignorance behind august knowledge of natural phenomena.”
“We’re too exposed here.” Kailyn interrupted. She pointed to where the powers had retreated. “They will return—probably with reinforcements. Let’s move down into those trees where we can have some cover.”
As they made their way toward the grove, Watson continued his explanation, “To apprehend truth requires both mind and soul. The mind cannot accurately process information without proper attitudes—attitudes it needs to interpret and absorb the information it receives. The way the little ones became so small was by severing the cord that connects mind with soul, leaving their souls to wither. And the mind, no matter how intelligent, cannot draw accurate conclusions when there is a diseased soul. Only an amenable heart and veridical soul discovers a conundrum’s quaesitum.”
Abigail gave Adam a knowing smile. “Sorry, sometimes he can be a little hard to understand.” She winked at Watson and turned back to Adam. “What he means is you can’t know the truth unless your heart is receptive to it.”
What Adam understood of Watson’s words made sense. But then again, he had felt the same way about the Great Ones—or little souls—whatever they were. Nothing, it seemed, was as it appeared, including these “children.”
“What about you?” Adam asked. “Why do you appear as children? Why the deception?”
“How a person appears is determined not by that person, but by the observer. The more highly you regard the one you observe, the larger he is in your eyes.”
“So people grow or shrink based on what others think of them?”
“They grow and shrink only in the eyes of the observers. But those assessments do not determine their true size.”
“Their true size …” The thought seemed simple enough, but the idea struck Adam with force. He had never given a thought to his “true size.” He had always subconsciously measured himself by what others thought—or by his own feelings about himself. But how “true” were either of those?
“Yes,” Watson said. “True size. It is the measure of a man as judged by the Ruler. The Ruler considers great those who are small in their own eyes. Such people appear as children to those who are great in their own eyes, but who lack greatness in the Ruler’s eyes.”
“The Ruler …” Adam turned to Kailyn. “When you spoke to me by the river outside the city, you told me you had been sent—sent by someone who knew about the pond and how I could get back home. This Ruler—is that who you were talking about? If I go with you, will he show me the way to the pond?”
“If you are willing, he will take you home. But you must understand—”
Adam didn’t catch the rest. Abigail had stepped close and touched his arm. His lone thought and his entire consciousness centered on one thing—that touch.
“Come with us to the cottage,” Abigail said, “and you will find your family.”
She sealed her promise with a subtle smile. That smile. This woman radiated beauty with any expression, but each time she smiled, the sun rose on Adam’s world. From a rational perspective, her promises about his family seemed fanciful. But how could any lie arise from the same internal source as that smile?
Rational or not, something in Adam wanted to believe. And everything in Adam wanted to go anywhere with Abigail—even if she was with Watson. Adam had seen the affection between them, but he’d also noticed her ringless finger. There’s always hope.
“I would love to come.”
Abigail’s face lit up like the sky at sunrise. She clasped Adam’s arm with both hands. “I’m so glad! You won’t regret it. Trust me—it will be a lot easier for you to believe when you are in the high country.”
Kailyn’s eyes snapped to the south. Watson and Abigail tensed and began scanning the area—first to the south, then in a full circle.
“Is something out there?” Adam whispered.
“There’s always something out there,” Kailyn said, still studying the trees to the south. “We need to go.”
They journeyed in silence. Watson and Kailyn never so much as snapped a twig, carrying themselves through the woods with the stealth and poise of soldiers on alert, ready to fend off an attack at any moment. An hour passed before they relaxed somewhat.
“I’m starving,” Adam announced. “We need to find some fruit trees.”
The friends exchanged glances.
Finally, Watson spoke. “You will encounter no fruit trees traveling westward. Only those traveling east find fruit.”
“Well then, let’s go east just far enough to find a tree.” Adam turned around and immediately spotted two trees, both heavy with ripe, juicy peaches. “Hey, look. How did I miss these before?”
He started toward them.
He had a vague awareness of some kind of commotion behind him, but the friends’ protests barely registered. It was all a faint, muffled sound, as though unseen hands pressed over his ears. His mind was capable of only one single thought: peaches.
He snapped out of his stupor when he collided with Abigail, who had run ahead of him. She took hold of his hands with a firmness that seized his attention.
The sun lit up her curly blond hair. Every time Adam saw her he noticed something new in her beauty. This time it was the way she would flip her hair to the side when some curls fell down on her face. Now, however, her world-stopping smile was absent.
“Adam, please! If you go east, you won’t stop. The fruit always leads away from the cottage—never toward it.”
When Alexander claimed fruit was forbidden in the high country, Adam took it as an exaggeration. But now, looking at Abigail’s desperate face, realization settled on his mind like a dark cloud. It’s true!
“So eating really is against the law for you people? Why would the most natural function of life be illegal?”
“Not everything that’s natural is good,” Abigail said. “A lot of things about the natural world are broken. What do you feel after you eat fruit?”
Adam shrugged. “Nausea, like anyone else. But everyone knows that can be controlled with moderation. Sometimes I barely even feel it.”
“The reason you always feel sick after eating fruit is that we weren’t made for fruit.”
Abigail’s words did what Adam had thought impossible. They strained his willingness to go with her. The thought of depriving himself of one of life’s greatest pleasures seemed an intolerable prospect.
He had not realized until this moment how much he had come to love this world. He loved the freedom he enjoyed here. He loved the fruit. He loved the ideas of the prophets. He loved the salve they had put on his eyes and the promise of knowledge that came with it. And he sensed all of that was possible only in a half-real world.
Adam pulled his hands from Abigail’s. “Your ruler doesn’t ask much, does he? I’ve already sacrificed my home, my job, and a chance at some real wealth. And now I have to give up eating?”
“Sacrificed?” Kailyn said. “Is that how it feels?”
Watson shook his head. “Is it a sacrifice for a drowning man to let go of the anchor he is clinging to? It is true—you must leave everything behind. But the Ruler will never, ever ask you to make a sacrifice.”
“What does that even mean? Of course it’s a sacrifice if I have to give up everything of value.”
“When you give it up, you will find it had no value compared to what you receive in return. The only demand the Ruler ever makes is that you trade the worthless for the priceless.”
Adam looked again at the trees.
Abigail took his face in her hands. “No. Look at me. Looking at the fruit will only feed your Judas desires.”
“Desires that betray you. Your cravings should be your servants, helping you obtain what is good. When a desire draws you toward what is harmful instead of what is good, it has betrayed you. And strengthening your Judas desires with your eyes is suicide.”
“It’s true,” Watson said. “There is a reason your desire for fruit is so strong. It is not just about pleasure. There is something deep within you that is attached to it. On the day you decide to forsake the orchard forever, that part of you that loves the fruit will resist. It will feel like someone is tearing your insides apart. You will hate the fruit and love the fruit, and that hatred and love will go to war. When the hatred destroys the love, only then will you have an appetite for real food.”
“Real food? Are you saying fruit isn’t real?”
Since Adam had arrived in this world, he had never heard of any food other than fruit. But at this moment, faint memories of his childhood, before the pond, wafted through his mind—memories of eating food that was not fruit. In fact, it wasn’t even sweet, yet somehow still pleasurable and satisfying. Happy, fulfilling times with his family around a dinner table sketched the back of his mind. He could recall nothing specific—only a general feeling that things had been … as they should be. But why was it so hard to remember? Were these memories even real?
Adam gazed to the west. “What is the … ‘real’ food like? Does it taste like fruit?”
“There are banquet halls throughout the high country,” Kailyn said. “That will be our first stop when we—”
“The high country? You expect me to travel all the way there before eating anything?”
“Don’t worry,” Watson said. “If you truly want real food, that appetite will strengthen the wind at your back and you can travel as far as you need to travel. But the only strength the fruit will give you is strength to resist the wind. The wind always blows toward life. Resisting it is the way of death. If you want to live, forsake the fruit and come to the high country where you can dine at the Ruler’s table by the cottage.”
“You talk a lot about appetite and desire. Why is that so important to you? I don’t look at life that way. I think if a man fulfills his duty, he’s a good man—whether he felt like doing it or not. If desire gets on board with duty, great. But character is measured by doing what you ought to do. If I do what’s right, what does it matter what I desire?”
“It’s true that one must fulfill duty. But your highest duty is to have pure desires. Suppose one man gives you a gift, but secretly wants to see you suffer. Another man gives you a gift desiring only your good. Which is the better man?”
“I guess I can see that. But how can I be held responsible for my desires? I can control my actions, but I can’t just flip a switch and change what I desire.”
“No, you cannot. Not with a switch. But you can with a taste. Or even with a gaze. A satisfying taste has expulsive power to drive out disordered appetites. We cannot choose our desires, but we can stimulate them—both good ones and bad ones. Sample the Ruler’s delicacies, and you will see.”
A war raged between Adam’s curiosity and his suspicion. He had been warned about becoming trapped. But with the clear vision he now possessed because of the eye salve, he was confident he would be impervious to deception and could expose myths as myths. He was equally confident he would detect any kind of trap or ambush—especially if they didn’t detect his skepticism.
He manufactured a smile. “I’m convinced. I want to find my home. I will go with you to the cottage.”
As they entered the valley, Kailyn, Watson, and Abigail slowed, then stopped, scanning the landscape.
“The grasslands are dangerous,” Watson whispered to Adam. “Stay here. We will make sure the way is clear and come back for you.”
“I’ll be here,” Adam said.
When they were out of sight, Adam made his way back inside the tree line and took a position against a rock wall that protected him from behind and provided a good view of all angles of approach. Until he knew for sure who he could trust, he would not let his guard down.
He wished he could see the other side of the valley, but it was too far. In fact, he couldn’t make out much of the slope right in front of him. Even shrubs thirty yards away appeared blurry.
He rubbed his eyes, but it didn’t help. The miraculous close-up vision from the salve had so enthralled him that he hadn’t noticed the damage to his distant vision.
He squinted toward three figures approaching from below. Are they back already? Yes. That must be them.
He stepped out to meet them and was greeted by a child’s voice. “Excuse us, sir. Do you need help?” Three smiling young boys stood before him. “Are you going to the cottage?” said the tallest boy.
“I was, but—”
“We can help you,” said the second boy. “Crossing the river can be tricky.”
Adam tried not to stare at their extravagant clothes and gold jewelry.
“Do you have a boat?” Adam asked.
“There are public boathouses on both sides. Anyone can use the boats. But going by yourself isn’t a good idea. You have to make it across before you get to the gorge. Drop into the gorge, and you won’t make it out. But we can get you across.”
Adam studied the boys.
“You’re wondering about the gold?” said the first, holding his necklace. “It came from the cottage. Come with us, and we’ll show you how to use the cottage to get more gold than you ever dreamed possible.”
“I was told I had to leave the gold to go to the cottage.”
“You were told wrong. The Ruler—the one who built the cottage—is the wealthiest man in the high country, and he wants his people to be rich. That’s what the cottage is for. It’s the tool he uses to show his love and generosity.”
“I’ve seen other children from the cottage. They didn’t have gold.”
“That’s because they don’t have faith. If they would believe the gold is theirs and claim it, they’d receive it.”
“That’s how you got the gold you’re wearing?”
“Ha! The gold we’re wearing is nothing. We have barns filled with gold. Follow us.”
The boys ran through the tall grass toward the bottom of the valley, but not directly west as the others had gone. Instead, they took a southwest line.
Skeptical, Adam hesitated. This didn’t sound right. But then again, what reason did he have to trust the others?
The thought that he might recoup his losses and that he may not have to choose between gold and the cottage appealed to him. He didn’t need barn-loads of gold, but if he had enough so he didn’t have to worry about working, that would enable him to spend his time searching for a way home.
Adam ran to catch up. After several minutes, he stopped and scanned the area. They were gone.
He looked back toward the tree line. If he retraced his steps, he might find the spot where the others had left him, even with his nearsightedness. He might also run into whoever killed those people. He turned westward and headed downhill, toward the river.
An hour’s walk brought Adam close enough to the river that he heard the faint sounds of the rushing water below. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement. He turned. Only grass—and stillness. Another movement, to his right. Then a sound behind him.
Something was out there.
In a flash, they sprang on him. Snarling, growling wolves from every direction. He had always been a fast runner, but with adrenaline pumping, he lit out across the meadow faster than ever, flying through the tall grass, hurdling stones and ditches.
A stand of trees appeared just ahead. If he could make that, he could climb out of their reach.
The grass whipped against his arms as he sprinted.
Gasping for air and muscles burning, he assessed the closest tree. With a strong jump, he should be able to catch the lowest limb and pull himself to safety.
He glanced back, and in that instant, he tripped on a rock and crashed face-first on the hard ground.
He rolled to his side, his world spinning. His jaw ached from the impact. When he pushed to his knees, they had surrounded him.
They attacked, snapping and snarling. He struck the first one on its nose, but the next was already upon him. He went down, stabbing at the wolf’s eyes. The wolf parried the effort with ease and countered with a stinging bite. Adam punched, dodged, scratched, and kicked. He grabbed a handful of hair and jerked a set of vicious teeth from his arm. But the pack closed in, mad with the scent of blood.
Adam’s strength, adrenaline, and much of his blood soon drained, as did his will to fight. He rolled to his stomach, covered his face and neck with bloody forearms, and balled up. Hopelessly outmatched, he gave up the struggle.
Sharp teeth ripped into his calf. Another on his foot. Then a powerful jaw crushed his shoulder. He wanted to scream from the pain, but his wind was gone.
A deep growl, inches from Adam’s ear, signaled the killing bite. The creature’s fangs penetrated Adam’s neck with such force Adam expected his spine to snap.
Then, the jaws released. Adam remained still while snarls, barks, and yelps increased then faded into the distance.
He raised his head but saw only what looked like a child chasing other children into the tall grass.
The intense pain of his injuries, fear that they might return, and the realization of how close he’d come to death paralyzed him.
Had he encountered the powers that had attacked Kailyn? Or were they just … wolves? Had those boys lured him into a trap? And who chased them off?
He saw movement again, this time just below his position. A fresh surge of adrenaline made him alert, but not even adrenaline could enable him to run with his injuries.
He summoned the dregs of his remaining strength and pulled himself along the ground through the tall grass toward a small clump of trees where he could hide.
The sounds grew louder—footsteps coming up the hill through the dry grass. Adam stopped. It was no use. He wouldn’t make it to the trees. He lay still, holding his breath. Maybe they won’t see me.
“Adam? Are you okay?” He breathed a sigh of relief at Kailyn’s voice.
“You’re bleeding!” Abigail said, rushing to his side. She steadied him with one hand, and with the other gently touched his leg just below a severe laceration. Her already fair skin paled even further as she discovered his many other wounds. Her voice cracked and then faltered. “Oh my …”
“We need to get him out of here,” Kailyn said.
“Yes,” Adam groaned. “Please. Anywhere but this place.
Watson frowned. “I have seen wolf bites like this before. Men have died of lesser wounds. You will never make the journey in this condition.”
“Let’s at least move him to some cover,” said Kailyn. “He’s exposed in this field. If the powers see him out here …”
“Indeed,” Watson said. “We will carry you to those trees.” Watson put his hands under Adam’s arms from behind, and the women each took a leg. They gingerly carried him into the stand of trees and leaned him against a rock.
A wave of despair overtook Adam. He knew Watson was right. He couldn’t even sit up on his own, much less make the journey to the cottage or back up through the grasslands toward the forest.
“I don’t want to die here,” Adam said.
What had been a curious interest in seeing the cottage now swelled to a driving need to go there. As he felt death encroaching, every other priority faded to gray. He spoke through a stream of tears. “I need to see the cottage. Please. Carry me, drag me—whatever it takes. I have to see it before I die.”
“I’m sorry,” Watson said. “Carrying you would do no good. If you can’t walk on your own, you will have to stay here because progress toward the cottage is impossible when your heart is enslaved to something else. Wolf bites inject poisons that incapacitate desire for good and cause you to love the wrong things. In this case, gold. We could no sooner carry you to the cottage than force a camel through the eye of a needle.”
Adam could feel heavy golden shackles constricting his heart, squeezing tighter, anchoring him to the lowlands.
“How do you treat injuries in the high country?” Adam asked. “If there’s no gold, then—”
“Oh, there’s plenty of gold,” Kailyn said. “But we don’t need our own gold. Once you get your new name, anyone’s gold can heal you. And you don’t even have to touch it. Just seeing them enjoy their own gold heals your wounds.”
In the hills to the north, silent eyes watched from within the black timber. Hundreds of warriors, swords drawn, awaited Anzu’s order.
Anzu turned to Adramelech, the legion commander.
“Hold,” Adramelech said.
He wants to wait for the scouting report? Anzu glanced down at Adramelech. How did a passive, scrawny little worm like him ever make commander? Anzu straightened. “Yes sir.”
Anzu had initially welcomed his transfer to this legion when he was told he’d serve as a lieutenant under a legendary strategist. Other commanders studied Adramelech’s methods on the battlefield, and rumor had it he was in consideration for promotion to the rank of regional power.
But so far, Anzu remained unimpressed. I’m supposed to learn battle tactics from him? Wars are not won with timidity.
An hour passed before the advance team returned. Adramelech had not moved, nor taken his eye off Adam until the breathless scouts arrived with their report. “The area is clear. We are free to engage.”
Hand-picked by Anzu, a detachment of elite warriors waited like a frenzied pack of dogs straining at their leashes, eyes fixed on Anzu’s upraised hand. At his signal, it would be a race for the honor of delivering the lethal blow to finish Adam.
Anzu tightened his fist and watched for Adramelech’s nod. “Now?”
“What is it, Kailyn?” Watson asked.
Kailyn studied the grasslands. “I don’t like this.”
Watson shifted his eyes to the north. “They’re probably close. We need to stay alert.”
“Who is probably close?” Adam asked. “The Great … or, uh … little ones?”
“No. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. Remember when we told you about the powers that control the little ones? Those powers command thousands of warriors. They are the enemy. They are invisible except when exposed by the colors of the cottage. But sometimes it is possible to sense their presence—such when you saw what appeared to be wild animals.”
“You said they’re exposed by the colors of the cottage. I saw those colors, years ago, when I was a child. And I saw them again when you fought the powers. What are they?”
“Those colors give substance to life,” said Watson. “The gray of the lowlands is a sign of deadness. The life of that entire world is draining away. The cottage was designed and built by the author of all life, and those colors are glimmers of his life. His nature is pure goodness and virtue. In fact, it is the source of all goodness and virtue everywhere. It is the source of all beauty and all joy. Everything that is good emanates from his heart. He created the cottage as a way of transferring traces of his nature to us.”
“So when I visit the cottage, I’ll become … better?”
“Not if you merely visit. Only when you pass through will you be transformed.”
Adam shivered and closed his eyes.
“Stay awake,” Abigail said with a gentle touch. “They prey on the weak.” Creases of anguish cut across her forehead as she regarded the lacerations that covered his body. “Why didn’t you wait for us?”
“Some boys came. They said they could bring me to the cottage. I trusted them because they were children.”
“You should have checked their prints,” said Watson. “You would have seen wolf tracks. Everyone’s true nature is exposed by the trail they leave.”
Watson faced the direction they had chased the wolves, then back to Adam. “Even a person who is ostensibly childlike, if he turns your eyes to gold as your treasure, be assured—he is from the city, not the cottage.”
“But they told me to trust the Ruler. Isn’t that the same thing you’ve been telling me?”
“Their lie was not one of words, but of definition. It is true that faith alone is required. But faith is believing what is promised, not believing in what is desired. Your ability to believe has suffered two blows—one from the wolves, who make you trust in the wrong things, and another from the little ones, who infect your eyes with doubt. One prevents faith, and the other misdirects it.”
“You said the wolves injected poisons that make me love the wrong things. Is there … a cure?”
“There is. But you must understand—the cure is excruciating.”
“I don’t care how painful it is. Give it to me. Please. I don’t want to die.”
“You are already dead,” Watson said. “And if you truly die, only then can you live. The cure will destroy the part of you that is dead. Then you can have life that will heal your wounds.”
Adam turned his head against the rock and closed his eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just want the cure. I don’t care about the risk. Without it, I’ll die anyway.”
Watson met Abigail’s eyes and nodded. “He is ready.”
Abigail stepped forward and sat on a log opposite Adam. She took a leather satchel from around her neck and set it on the ground in front of her.
Conversation ceased. The only sound came from far above—the pleasant rush of the wind through the trees. All eyes fixed on the satchel.
“Adam, I want to give you something. You need to take it and hold it tightly in your hand. If you do, it will give you the strength to walk. Will you take hold of it?”
She reached into the satchel, felt around, and lifted something out—an item wrapped in velvet cloth. She placed it on the needle-strewn soil before Adam. She then closed the satchel, fastened the straps, and placed it back around her neck. Then she lifted her eyes to meet his. No one had ever held Adam’s attention like she did at that moment.
Corner by corner, Abigail unwrapped the item, set the cloth aside, and placed the item on the log. It looked like an old gray piece of wood, smooth from wear.
Adam lifted his eyebrows. “A scrap of wood?”
She gently shook her head, then picked it up and held it in her open palm. Now he saw—it was not a mere piece of wood.
As he studied it, he began to perceive subtle streaks of blue running the length of the piece. He ran his finger down the colors then turned it over in Abigail’s hand. On the other side, another color appeared. He had never seen this color before—or any like it.
Adam sat transfixed. The more he studied it, the more colors he saw. “This is amazing. What … how does this …”
“It’s important,” she said, holding it out to him, “that you hold the colors in your mind. If they fade from your memory, study the piece again. That will give you strength to walk.”
Adam took the piece with his thumb and forefinger, turning it and holding it up to the light. Inscribed on the piece were the words, “The banquet is like a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds it and in his joy, trades all his gold for the field.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“Look at it again. What was it that made the man give up everything he had?”
Adam studied the words. “His … joy?”
“Yes! That’s exactly right. Now think—how could joy drive a man to give up everything?”
Adam considered the question, then looked up at Abigail, then Watson, then Kailyn, waiting for someone to explain yet another mystery. When it was clear no explanation was forthcoming, he studied the inscription again. It seemed like nonsense. Adam had felt happiness many times, but it had never driven him to rid himself of his possessions.
A gentle breeze brushed Adam’s face like velvet on his skin. A warm mist enveloped him, and his thinking became clearer. He looked again at the inscription.
Of course! Why hadn’t I seen this before?
“It was the value of the treasure. That treasure must be worth so much more than the man’s gold that he was happy to make the trade.”
Abigail’s smile affirmed his answer and radiated joy.
“Is that what you did, Abigail? Did your joy make you give up everything for a greater treasure?”
Her smile widened.
Adam had puzzled over what it was that made Abigail so attractive. She didn’t have the striking elegance of Jaqueline. She had a pretty face, but it wasn’t without flaws. A scar marred her right cheek, and her thin, curly hair had a mind of its own at times. But none of her imperfections detracted from her loveliness. If anything, they added to it. In this moment, Adam understood that her beauty derived from the joy behind that smile.
Abigail leaned closer. She pressed the piece into his hand and closed his fingers around it, then lifted his hand to his chest. “Hold this close to your heart. Only when you see the immense value of the cottage can you be cured of your love for gold.”
The piece warmed Adam’s hand, as if it were a living thing. He strengthened his grip. The tighter his grasp, the more healing warmth radiated into his hand and chest, spreading throughout his body.
Again, Adam’s desire to visit the cottage eclipsed all competing desires—like the feeling that compels a sick person to find medicine or a dehydrated man to crawl to an oasis in the desert. He rose to his feet. “I’m ready.”
Anzu fumed. “You’re just letting them go? If they cross the river, they’ll be protected by guardians.”
When Adramelech kept silent, Lucius, the other lieutenant, stepped forward. “Morax is in the high country. The commander briefed him directly on his plan.”
Anzu eyed his rival. “What’s the point of that? If we take him now, we don’t need some fancy plan.”
Lucius shook his head. “Adam would still be in our hands if not for your impetuous attack on Kailyn. Now Adam has cottage pieces and has seen the colors. A direct attack now would have even worse results than your last failed attempt.”
Anzu spit his words through clenched teeth. “Adam has not been empowered and has no idea how to use the weapon he holds. A single blow from me, and he will drop it and never take it up again. I’ll go down there and finish this right now.”
“As usual,” said Lucius, “you underestimate the enemy and overestimate your own strength.”
“Maybe you want to test my strength for yourself!” Anzu moved within inches of Lucius’ face, meeting his colleague’s unblinking, icy gray eyes with the challenge of his own red-hot stare. Both warriors gripped their swords.
Adramelech stepped past his fiery lieutenants, closer to the clearing. “You will have your chance at combat soon enough, Anzu. But now is not the time. Adam is not the only one at play here. I have my sights on a greater prize.”
Lucius broke from the stare-down and turned toward Adramelech. Anzu released his sword, but not his angry gaze.
“Commander, if I may,” Lucius offered, “We must separate Adam from this group. If we bring Jensen or Alexander now, their arguments will be crushed again by those three. Adam will see it, and we will risk losing him forever. But if we could get Adam alone, I’m confident Alexander could win him over. If we use a disturbance in the river to—”
“Even if you could separate them, you would still fail,” said the commander. “Argumentation and reason will not work—not now. Arguments are most effective when they agree with appetites. Adam wants to taste the banquet, and a man hungry for the Ruler’s food is hard to deceive. But a man who is craving fruit will open his heart to almost any argument that coincides with his desires. Capture a man’s appetite, Lieutenants, and the rest of him comes easy.”
Neither lieutenant dared argue. Adramelech went on. “If you remember, that is how we captured Alexander. It was not on the strength of arguments. It was by feeding his bitterness and his lust that made him desire the woman more than the cottage. Then he resisted the wind to the point of no return.”
Adramelech faced his two lieutenants. “Adam and the others will be allowed to cross the river without hindrance. No one touches them. Allow them to make their way to the banquet hall. But do not let them take the direct line up the steep face. See to it that they take the long route—the smooth trail along the ridgeline.”
The commander turned away. “Morax!”
The warrior stepped forward, still winded.
“Accomplished, commander. The bag is in place. I had to fell a tree, but I’m confident I’ll be able to lead him right to the fruit.”
“Excellent.” He looked again toward Adam and the three friends. “Excellent.”
As the boat approached the river’s western shore, Adam squinted skyward. “Why is it so bright?”
Kaylyn smiled. “You’ll get used to it. This is how the sun normally shines. You haven’t seen it before because the lowlands are under a cloud.” She pointed across the river. “See?”
Adam turned to the east. “Ugh. That’s disgusting.” He looked up to the mountains, then back to the east. “I’ve lived my whole life in that?”
“You can’t see the cloud while you’re in it. It’s only visible from the light.”
“What causes it? And why does it end at the river?”
“When people eat fruit, they prefer to do it in the dark. They value privacy above all because they believe it gives them freedom. The more people seek privacy, the more the atmosphere itself grants that privacy. Every year, the cloud in the lowlands grows darker. It’s one reason so few people ever escape the orchard. They hate the light.”
Watson hopped from the boat and held bow line while the others disembarked.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Adam said. “I was told crossing the river would be difficult.”
“It often is,” Watson said. “This crossing was uncharacteristically easy.”
Adam shaded his eyes with his hand and craned his neck toward the high country. “Someone must be watching out for us.”
“Do not mistake ease for guidance,” Watson said. “The best path is seldom the smoothest.”
“That’s for sure,” Kailyn said as she stood with her hands on her hips regarding the steep west side of the canyon. “It’s all uphill from here.”
“We’re going up that?” Adam said.
With a tilt of her head and a smile, Kailyn said, “You wanted to see the cottage. It’s up there.”
Twenty minutes of hiking brought them to a large boulder blocking the trail. Kailyn turned to Adam. “You’re limping pretty bad. Do you think you can climb over that?”
“It still hurts, but I feel strong. Abigail was right about the cottage piece. The healing power in that thing is unbelievable.”
“Then get moving.” She tipped her head toward Watson and Abigail. “We don’t want these two to beat us to the top!”
Adam grinned and assessed the obstacle.
Kailyn reached for a handhold to start up the boulder. “Trust me. The climb is worth it.”
“The little ones told me the power of the cottage was a myth. In fact, one of them claimed he had been through the cottage, and it was empty.”
Kailyn laid her forehead against her arm for a moment, then let go of the rock and stepped back down. Her lip quivered. “Alexander,” she whispered.
Abigail and Watson exchanged a pained glance as Watson shook his head.
“You know him?” Adam asked.
“He was my husband.”
“Your husband? You were married to Alexander?” His thoughts flashed to the battle with the powers—how Alexander was the only one who didn’t take part.
“We lost our son and he blamed the Ruler,” she said. “He shipwrecked his faith and started going to the orchard. He left me for a woman he met there.”
Adam’s stomach knotted. He wanted to say something, but …
Kailyn started back up the boulder. “Alexander is determined to destroy faith in as many people as possible. That’s why he put that gunk in your eyes—to keep you so nearsighted that you can’t believe anything that’s not right in front of your face.”
Adam rubbed his eyes and squinted at the path ahead. “Will my eyes ever recover?”
“It’s possible. The remedy for that is the same as for the wolf bites. When faith is damaged—whether by doubt or by believing wrong things, it is restored only through wrapping your hands as tightly around the cottage pieces as you can until you can get to the cottage and receive the cure.”
The climb up the boulder aggravated the throbbing of Adam’s wounds. At the top, he sat for a moment to let the pain subside.
From this vantage point, he could see two paths. The main trail continued off to the right, angling up northward toward a ridgeline. But another faint path led due west, directly up the steep side.
“It’s the shortest route,” Watson said as the group craned their necks at the hillside before them. “That other one is an easier trail, but much longer.”
“No,” Abigail said. “Let’s not take the long way. We should get to the banquet hall as soon as possible. Let’s just go straight up.”
Adam stood, fighting back his pain. “Agreed.”
The group set out on the westward slope.
“It’s different here,” Adam said.
Watson looked at him. “You mean on this side of the River?”
“Yeah, the air is different—like it’s more … substantive.” Adam drew a deep breath and let it out. “You’re different too. You seem more relaxed—all three of you. I take it the powers and their warriors stay in the lowlands?”
“Not always,” Kailyn said. “But we have more protections up here.”
Watson lifted a finger. “Nevertheless, we must not lose our vigilance. The possibility of attack remains ever present. We must stay alert and keep our weapons at the ready.”
Adam looked him up and down. “What weapons?”
“They aren’t the weapons of the lowlands,” Abigail said. She paused and tested three different rocks before finding one that was secure, then committed her weight to it and continued the ascent. “When you go through the cottage, you receive an assignment and a specialized weapon you’ll need to carry out that assignment. The weapon is unique—no one gets exactly the same as you.”
“So what was your weapon?”
Abigail turned and smiled—her most glorious smile yet, radiating a joy that touched Adam’s soul.
“Are you saying that’s your weapon—your smile?”
“It’s the most powerful of all our weapons,” Watson said. “We all envy Abigail.”
“But … how is that a weapon?”
“The only way the enemy can harm us is by corrupting our desires,” Watson said. “The more a person enjoys the Ruler and his delicacies, the more good desires are strengthened and the harder it is for the enemy to pervert them.”
“And it’s a weapon that protects us all,” Kailyn added. “There have been plenty of times when my joy dried up but was rekindled just by being around Abigail.”
“The battles we fight and the enemies we engage are as invisible as our weapons,” Watson said. “A word of encouragement, a good desire, a single moment of relying on a cottage piece—each of those actions can lay waste score a of invisible enemies, and you never even know they were there.”
“And you can also lose a battle without knowing it,” Kailyn added. “They can damage your soul in ways that cripple you the rest of your life without you even knowing it happened.”
Watson held up a finger. “Although, depending on your alertness, you can learn to become more and more aware of what’s happening in the unseen world.”
Abigail shrieked. “Look out!”
A sudden gust of wind roared from behind and, with an explosion of pain, Adam’s legs launched him to his left just as a large rock tumbling from above grazed his foot. He tucked into a roll and came to rest behind a boulder that shielded him from several more falling stones.
How did he make that leap? He was in motion before he even saw the rockslide. He had never moved like that before.
Where is Abigail? Oh, there—safe behind that tree.
His foot was moist. Am I bleeding? He touched his ankle. No, it’s not blood. It’s … blue.
A scream echoed from the hillside. Just below Abigail sat Kailyn facing downhill with Watson at her side, holding her. The danger had passed, but Kailyn’s wrenching sobs continued.
Again, her response seemed out of character. He took Kailyn to be the strongest of the group, and the least likely to panic from a scare.
Adam and Abigail scrambled to her, taking care not to start another slide.
“Are you hurt?” Abigail asked.
Kailyn couldn’t speak through her relentless tears. Abigail sat next to her and held her while giving Watson a bewildered look.
Unable to regain her composure, Kailyn struggled to speak. “It was … just … it looked like …” The spasms in her chest wouldn’t let her form a sentence.
“This is how she lost her son,” Watson whispered. “It was at the foot of a hill like this one. Some rocks gave way and came down on Kailyn and her son. By the time bystanders got them uncovered, it was too late. Kailyn had curled her body around the boy, but the pressure from the rocks smothered him.”
Adam recalled all that had happened since the little ones attacked Kailyn. He saw it all in a new light now. This woman carried such pain, yet her words, her actions—everything—had been for him. She cared more about Adam than her own troubles. Was everyone in the high country like these three? Adam had never encountered such selflessness.
Kailyn leaned her head on Abigail’s shoulder, and the three of them sat and wept. Adam wept too.
Abigail stood. “This isn’t worth it. Let’s just take the ridgeline.”
The group angled across the sidehill and descended to the easier path. Once on the smooth, well-kept trail, Adam limped alongside Abigail while Watson and Kailyn trailed behind.
“Will she be okay?” Adam asked, looking over his shoulder.
Abigail glanced back as well. “She’s strong.”
She turned to Adam. Her brow arched and her cheekbones lifted, tugging at her slightly parted lips. Hope shone from her eyes like sunlight streaming through windows. Her expression was … magical. His anxieties melted.
“So your … weapon—it keeps you from having bad desires? Does that mean you never want fruit?”
“It’s like any weapon,” Abigail replied. “It only works when I use it. If I lay it down, I’m as vulnerable as anyone else.”
“What was the treasure?”
Abigail looked at him. “The treasure?”
He pulled the cottage piece from his pocket and ran his thumb across the words in his joy. “Your joy over the treasure drove you to give up everything to get it. If the treasure isn’t gold, what else is there?”
Her eyes brightened. “Great question.” She lifted her hand to her cheek. “I noticed when you mentioned my smile back in the lowlands, you looked at my scar. Let me tell you the story of how I got both the smile and the scar. It happened in the room of delights—in the cottage. It has a series of stone barriers down the center. The left side is the path of empty pleasure. The right, the way of painful happiness.”
“Wait, what?” Adam wrinkled his forehead. “Empty pleasure I get. But painful happiness?”
“Just listen,” she said. “When you enter the room, you have to choose a side because the floor moves and carries you forward.”
“So you’re forced to choose between empty pleasure and painful happiness? Which side did you pick?”
“Neither side sounded good to me, but I thought pleasure would be better than pain, so I went left.”
“And was it—”
“Adam, just listen,” she repeated, touching his shoulder. “The left side was amazing. Right away I thought I understood why it’s called the room of delights. I’ve enjoyed a lot of pleasures in life. This felt better than all of them. But once I passed the first barrier, the pleasure left me so suddenly that I collapsed on the floor. My energy was gone. Worse than that, hope was gone. The future seemed black as night. All I felt was suffocating despair.”
Her chin quivered, and she dropped her head. Then she drew a deep breath to continue.
“The floor carried me to the second barrier. I didn’t think I could handle any pain, so I chose the left side again. And again, sheer ecstasy.”
“Same result at the end?”
“Worse. This time when the pleasure faded, not only did I have no hope, but I lost my ability to enjoy happy memories. All I could remember were injustices, abuses, and decisions I regret. I was drowning in darkness. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t even have strength for that.”
“So did the floor stop then?”
“It never stopped. That’s the thing about that room. The floor just never …” her words choked off.
“I was still down when I came to the third barrier. I couldn’t even get to my hands and knees. I decided to try the painful happiness side, so I rolled myself to the right. I wanted happiness, and I thought maybe the pain would be mild. It wasn’t. Blades cut into my flesh, blows from rods—I could feel bones breaking. But Adam, I felt like … I was okay. Even through the blinding pain, hope returned. I could enjoy good memories. I was … happy.”
Adam shook his head. “What do you mean? How could you be happy in that much pain?”
“It took several more times on both sides before I realized what was happening. Each time, no matter which side I chose, the Ruler stayed on the right side. When I went left, despair came because I wasn’t near him. So the pleasure didn’t matter. And when I went right, I was close to him, so the pain didn’t matter. That’s the treasure that’s worth so much more than all my possessions.”
“So you were in agonizing pain, but you were happy. You’re telling me the pain was somehow enjoyable?”
She shook her head with a vigor that made her bangs fly. “No! It was miserable. But being near the Ruler affected me more than the pain did. The purpose of that room was to teach me that refuge is better than relief.”
Abigail stopped walking and closed her eyes. “I didn’t notice at first, but if you look closely, you can see something rising from the Ruler’s skin—a kind of blue mist. And if you inhale even a whiff, it fills you with hope, strength, courage, gratitude, insight, and happiness—so much happiness that the pain … it just doesn’t matter.”
Adam remembered the blue residue from the first time he felt the wind, and again at the rockslide. He glanced down at his foot. The substance … or mist, or whatever it was had worn off.
“So you stayed right from then on?”
“Mostly. But there was one other time when I went left. I felt like I needed a break from all the pain. And I had the feeling that my strength and happiness would stay with me even if I went to the left just one more time.”
“Not even a little. The pleasure this time wasn’t as intense, and the depression was worse. Even with the pleasure, I was miserable. Any effort to think happy thoughts only drove me deeper into suffocating darkness. I wanted to die.”
Tears formed in Adam’s eyes. He wasn’t sure if it was compassion for Abigail, or the awareness of how foreign that right side sounded to him, and how familiar the left. Not to the extremes Abigail described, but he now realized that most of his life had been lived in a dull gray version of that left side. Pleasures on the outside, but a low-grade fog of joyless emptiness within.
“So then you chose the right side next?”
“I couldn’t. I was so depressed I couldn’t move. I just curled up on the floor. But then the Ruler picked me up and carried me over to the right side. He held me until we reached the end of the room. By then the blue mist covered my arms and legs. My clothes were damp with it, and I was strong again.”
Abigail resumed walking. Adam stood for a moment, then caught up.
“What is it—the blue stuff?”
“You’ll see when the time is right,” she said with a smile full of mystery. “I don’t want to tell you now because I don’t know if you’re ready. On the day you see what it is, you must decide. And it will be a hard decision. A painful one. That day will be the best day or the worst day of your life. You’ll understand when you go through the cottage.”
“Will I have to go through that room?”
Abigail looked away, drew a breath, then turned back to Adam and smiled. “Not if you can learn the lesson ahead of time by listening to my story.”
“What lesson? That I’ll have to suffer pain all my life?”
“I’ll tell you what the Ruler told me when we got to the end. He said, ‘It won’t be like this every day. Sometimes you can have happy pleasure and painless happiness. But as long as I allow the lowlands to exist, life will often be a series of choices between empty pleasure and painful happiness. The pleasure always looks better at first, but it’s never worth the emptiness it causes.’”
The path took a turn to the west, leading up the ridge. Before taking the turn, they waited, watching the path behind until Watson and Kailyn came around a corner back into view.
“Have Watson and Kailyn … gone through that room?”
“The room of delights? Yes, they have.”
They walked in silence. Then Abigail stopped and took Adam’s arm. “Listen. Don’t worry about the room of delights. For now, just think about the banquet hall. All you have to do there is sit, eat, and enjoy. Trust me—you’ll love it!”
She pointed. “Look. Do you see that clearing? When we get to that, we’ll be able to see the cottage.”
Images of the colors he’d seen from the pond flashed across his memory. His pulse raced. Would his childhood mirage prove real? Would he see the colors again? He picked up his pace.
Memories of the colors infused him with energy. He walked faster.
Soon, he could restrain himself no longer. “Abigail, I hope you don’t mind. I just want to …” He broke into a run.
Thankful to be on a smooth, maintained trail, he flew up the path, forgetting his pain. He pushed faster, rounded a corner, and stopped cold.
A fallen tree blocked the path. It looked to be a live, healthy tree—the leaves still green.
What kind of force could have pulled this tree down and left the surrounding trees untouched? He studied the area, recalling Watson’s warning about the powers. He shuddered. The group was still well behind—why did it feel like someone was with him?
Climbing through the tangle of branches would mean a hundred stabs into his wounds. No way. He decided the best way around the tree would be on the downhill side of the path. He took a tentative step, testing a stone for stability.
Invisible to Adam, Morax laid a grotesque hand on Adam’s mind. No, not that way. The uphill side is the better route.
As Adam transferred his weight, the evil spirit kicked the stone. It slid, but Adam’s hand caught a limb and he kept his feet.
Maybe the uphill side would be a better route. Adam turned, crossed the path, and started up the steep bank on the right side of the path. With the help of some sturdy branches, he pulled himself up the steepest part, sending pebbles tumbling to the path.
The roots of the downed timber had been torn out of the ground as if by a hurricane and now jutted upward far above Adam’s head.
As he worked his way around the roots, something caught Adam’s eye. A bulging burlap sack lay tucked inside a bush a few yards from Adam. He stepped closer. He thought he smelled—.
“Adam, help me.” Abigail was trying to climb up around the tree and kept sliding backward. He maneuvered back around the roots to where he could reach her, anchored himself on the tree with one hand, and extended the other to Abigail. He pulled her up, then Kailyn and Watson. He decided not to mention the bag. They slid down the other side back to the path and continued on.
Adam wondered again about the tree. Something wasn’t right. What made it fall? And why had he felt so compelled to take the uphill side? And what made him look right at that bag in a spot none of the others noticed?
When they crested the ridge, the cottage came into view. Adam saw no colors, but what he did see took his breath away.
“Can you see it?” Abigail asked. “I know your vision is clouded. It’s about a mile that way. If you look—”
“Can I see it? It’s … I can’t even … it’s bigger than the entire golden city.”
Memories of the day at the pond flooded his mind—like it was yesterday. The vividness of the recollections sparked hope. Maybe now he could remember before the pond. His family. He squeezed his eyes closed and strained to recall the last time he saw his parents. He would trade anything for a single clear image. But the pond stood as an iron gate, barring passage of any memory from the other side.
He opened his eyes and pondered the awesome structure. It was huge, yes, but not so large as to be visible from the lowlands. How had he seen it from the pond?
Surrounding the mansion—he could hardly continue to call it a cottage—stood hundreds of smaller buildings. Some were ornate, with opulent decorations and impressive architecture—not as impressive as the buildings in the city, but similar in style. Some were even gold in color. The ones closest to the cottage were the least remarkable, built mostly with wood.
“Are those the banquet halls?” Adam could see the answer on their faces. All three wore the type of smile he could imagine on his own face if he ever found his way home.
Abigail touched Adam’s arm and stopped walking. She pointed to an area just north of the cottage. “You can’t see our hall from here, but it’s on the top of that hill—there. It has such an amazing view of the cottage!”
“That’s why we chose that location,” Watson added as the group resumed walking. “Every week we all gather there to observe the cottage.”
“Why would you do that? I thought you could enter the cottage itself.”
“We enjoy individualized exploration of the cottage daily,” Watson explained. “But many of the most beautiful colors are not immediately apparent. So on the first day of each week we gather, and as we dine, the banquet servers, who study the cottage daily, point out colors we could not see on our own.”
Kailyn stopped short. “Shhh, I hear something.”
In an instant, Watson and Abigail struck a defensive stance, Watson facing the uphill side and Abigail the path behind. Adam peered down the hill and strained to hear.
Finally, he heard it. A faint moan. “Down there,” he said, pointing to a clump of pines just below the path.
They descended to the trees and Kailyn called out, “Is someone there?”
“Help,” came the barely audible reply.
The obvious pain in the faltering voice turned Adam’s stomach. It sounded as though death itself were crying out.
Kailyn slid down the steep bank to the lower side of a large boulder. “I found him,” she called. “Down here!”
Abigail was already making her way to Kailyn, half sliding as the loose ground gave way beneath her feet.
Watson stood above and continued to scan the perimeter.
Adam started downward and quickly realized that keeping upright was not as easy as Abigail made it look. Grabbing branches, stones, and saplings to keep from tumbling out of control, he ungracefully slipped and scuffed his way down.
Arriving at the boulder, he found that Watson had followed right behind him.
After working their way to the bottom side of the boulder, the sight of a brutalized figure brought a lump to Adam’s throat. The man’s right eye had swollen shut, most of his teeth were gone, and patches of his hair had been torn out. His nose was smashed to one side, and an astonishing amount of blood soaked his clothes.
“What happened to you?” Abigail asked tenderly, bending down close to him.
His one good eye rolled back, his face vacant.
Adam stepped back and whispered to Watson. “I’ll be surprised if this man survives another hour.”
Abigail turned to Adam. “Can you carry him?”
Adam looked up toward the trail. “Up that?”
“He’ll die if he stays here,” Kailyn said.
Adam stroked his chin. Bigger and more muscular than Watson, he was the logical choice. But it would be a challenge to make it back up alone, let alone with a man on his back.
“I’ll do it,” Watson said. He knelt, lifted the man to his shoulder, and began the climb. Adam tried to help but needed both his hands to keep himself from sliding back. He scrambled but couldn’t catch up to Watson, who ascended with little difficulty and was the first to reach the path.
“You’re stronger than you look,” Adam said between gasps as he arrived at the path.
“I suspect it was the strength of another,” Watson said. “A guardian, perhaps.”
“They’re invisible to us,” Kailyn explained. “But they can engage the physical world—just like the warriors. The Ruler assigns them to protect us and help us when we need it.”
Sol, Watson’s guardian, had only used one hand to steady Watson and push him up the hill. His other still clutched his sword. Below lay three warriors, all gravely wounded and regretting the decision to engage Sol.
Watson found a flat, grassy spot and gently laid the wiry young man against a tree. They gave him some water and bound up his wounds the best they could.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “I thought I would die down there.”
“You nearly did,” Kailyn answered. “But I’m so glad you didn’t. It would be a horrible thing for a man to die without ever meeting the only one who can give life.”
Kailyn really does have a one-track mind, Adam thought.
“Levi Lamar.” He attempted to shake her hand but winced and gave up the effort.
The movement of his arm pulled his sleeve up, exposing a wide gold band on his wrist. Adam leaned over and pulled Levi’s other sleeve, revealing the matching band. There was no mistaking them. They were the bands Adam had received from George.
“Where did you get these?” Adam demanded.
Levi looked up with a flash of defiant anger. But then the pained look of resignation returned.
“Stole ’em,” he said. “Took ’em from a house in the city.” His eyes dropped to the ground and he added softly, “I’ve stolen … I’ve … done a lot of things.”
Adam’s face grew hot. The man who murdered George and took everything lay before him. Hatred boiled deep in Adam. If the others weren’t here, I would snuff out what little life this piece of garbage has left.
Adam wanted to know what Levi did with the maps, but he didn’t want Levi to have the satisfaction of knowing it was Adam’s house he had robbed.
“Who did this to you?” Watson asked.
“I had it coming. I snaked a bag of fruit from a guy, and he and his friends caught up to me. I think he might have let me go if I would have told him where I’d stashed it. But I didn’t. Instead, I made a crack about his wife. That’s the last thing I remember.”
“What did you do with the fruit?” Adam asked.
“Hid it down that way,” he said, pointing with his chin, then flinched at a stab of pain. “But I don’t want it. Honestly, I’m sick of running after fruit. I’m sick of it all.”
Watson and Abigail exchanged a hopeful smile. Kailyn beamed. Levi said something else, but Adam wasn’t listening. He was lost in thought: That must be the bag I saw at the downed tree. I knew I smelled something.
His stomach growled. He knew he should be concerned about more important things—like learning the truth about why his friend was murdered. But try as he may, his mind could not be diverted from its fantasies about the fruit in that little bag.
Levi groaned as he slid the gold bands off his wrists. “I don’t want these either. Obviously they aren’t doing me any good. Not even my arms have healed.”
They fell to the ground and one rolled until Adam stopped it with his foot. He felt a slight burn through his shoe.
“Take ’em,” Levi said, looking up at Adam.
Watson replied, “They aren’t yours to give, Levi. Nor are they yours to discard. You must return them to their owner.”
Levi stared at Watson like a cow at a new gate.
Of course he’s confused, Adam thought. He doesn’t have a moral fiber in his being.
Abigail knelt before Levi and opened her pack. As she dug around, jealousy boiled in Adam. Is she going to show the same kindness to this monster that she showed me?
She placed a cottage piece in Levi’s hand.
“Read it,” she prompted. “It’s from the Ruler.”
Levi struggled to focus, then read aloud. “Turn to me. I have crushed you to pieces, but I will heal you.” He closed his fingers around the piece, and color returned to his face.
Watson plucked the cuffs from the dirt and placed them back on Levi’s wrists. “We will camp here for the night,” he announced. “Tomorrow is banquet day. In the morning, we will all go down to the hall and enjoy a much-needed feast.”
Then he turned to set up camp. Walking past Adam, he leaned down and whispered, “Don’t worry about Levi. The Ruler knows of his crimes, and Levi will have to stand before him.”
Adam glared at Levi. If I let him live that long.
Adam watched the others drift off to sleep. Even Levi appeared comfortable and at peace. But the hard, cold ground pressed Adam, and each position grew more uncomfortable than the last. It proved the longest, most miserable night he had endured since Levi murdered George.
He imagined the loathsome little wretch with his hands around George’s neck, choking the life out of a good man—one of the best in the city. And for what? So he could rob Adam’s house? The thought sickened him—Levi in his home, in his bedroom, helping himself to whatever he wanted, then taking the maps. An ache in his face made him realize his teeth were clenched.
His eyes moved from Watson to Kailyn, then Abigail. He relaxed his jaw. In a matter of hours he would know. The banquet, the cottage, the Ruler—he would see for himself. Or … would he see for himself how all those people died? Neither the little ones nor the friends had given an answer about the mutilated bodies, and both had strange responses when he asked. Perhaps neither side should be trusted. Maybe he should just return to the city and find Royce Steadman—and Jacqueline. He could be rich, and …
Abigail’s hand on his forehead startled Adam awake. “He has a high fever. And his wounds have reopened.”
Adam squinted his eyes open. I must have finally gone to sleep. As consciousness returned, Adam’s whole body burned with pain.
Kailyn parked in front of Adam and locked her eyes on his. “Is it the gold, Adam? Were you dreaming about the bands? Or the bag of fruit? Something is aggravating these wounds. What are you longing for?”
Adam’s mind raced with arguments for why his desires were perfectly reasonable. And the way everything happened with that downed tree—it was like he was supposed to find the bag of fruit. And … why should he have to answer to these people anyway?
Abigail’s tone was soft. “You want that fruit, don’t you Adam?”
“Of course I want the fruit! Are you going to tell me you don’t?”
“Actually, I do when I think about it. But when I think about real food—the food at the banquet—”
“Enough already about the ‘banquet.’ I’m sick of hearing about it. If you want to be there so bad, go.” He dropped his head. “I’ve had nothing but misery ever since I met you. I’m done. I’m going to go find that bag so I don’t starve to death. And then I’m going home.”
Abigail gently tended his newly inflamed wounds. “I don’t blame you. You’re hungry, so you crave the only food you’ve ever known.”
She pulled a fresh piece of cloth from her pack and tenderly replaced one of his bandages. Adam could hardly look at the disgusting cloth she was handling, soaked with blood and pus.
He had been harsh, almost hoping for a response in kind that would give him an excuse to give up on this agonizing quest. But Abigail’s soft answer robbed him of all excuse.
“How do you do that?” he asked.
“I just snapped at you, and you’re on your knees tending my wounds.”
She shrugged, continuing her work. “The Ruler sent for you. He wants you to come home.” Then she raised her eyes and added, “And so do I.”
Adam flinched at yet another pain in his leg. Something sharp stabbed from his pocket. He slid his hand inside and the object punctured his thumb. He jerked his hand away. But the ache in his leg grew worse, so he reached in again and gingerly took hold of the barbed irritant and pulled it out. The cottage piece Abigail gave him earlier had splintered and become razor sharp. He threw it to the ground.
Abigail stood and drew back. Watson stepped forward. “No. You must keep it. Whether or not you come with us to the banquet, if you wish to survive your injuries, you must never lose that piece.”
“Don’t worry. It may hurt you, but it will never harm you.”
Adam tried to make sense of Watson’s words. It will hurt but not harm? It reminded him of Abigail’s story earlier about painful happiness. He wanted to dismiss the idea as nonsense, but he couldn’t. The appeal of escaping empty pleasure still drew him.
He flipped the piece over with a stick, looking for the colors he had seen before. He saw none. “Why do they come and go—the colors?”
“They don’t,” Kailyn replied. “The cottage pieces never change. What changes is your ability to see. When your vision grows dark, that which is glorious appears dull or even ugly.”
“So what makes my vision change?”
“Your appetites. Whatever your heart craves most determines how well you see. When you desire fruit, the cottage and the banquet lose their appeal. But the more you desire real food, the more you are strengthened to pursue it. That’s why yesterday you had strength to climb all the way up here, but now you only have energy for finding fruit.”
Adam shifted his weight and groaned. He looked again at the cottage piece. “I can’t carry that. It will cut me to pieces. How did it get so splintered?”
“It becomes sharp when it touches your Judas desires,” Watson said. “Think of a porcupine with its quills lying flat. If you move your hand in the direction they lay, they are soft and pleasant. But if you rub against the grain, you catch the sharp ends. When your desires and your will move in a good direction, the cottage brings strength, comfort, and healing. When your heart moves the other way, the barbs catch you to keep you from slipping farther.”
“Believe me,” said Kailyn, “we have all felt those barbs. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite things about the cottage. As painful as it is, I love it because it makes me feel safe. Once it has a hold on you, the cottage will never let you sleepwalk into destruction.”
Destruction. I’ve already been there and back. But then again, so had Kailyn. She had lost her family too. But she seemed happy. Adam had enjoyed moments of levity, but his joy was so … fragile.
“How do you cope with the loss of your husband and child?” The moment Adam uttered the words, he regretted it. “I’m sorry, it’s none of my—”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind talking about it.” She surprised Adam with a smile. “I don’t just ‘cope.’ I’m happier now than I have ever been. When I lost my family, the Ruler made me a promise. He said he would give me a hundred times what I lost.”
“You lost your family. What could he give you that would be worth a hundred times more than that?”
Kailyn lifted a hand toward Abigail and Watson. “Do you remember when they risked their lives to save me from the powers? We are closer than any blood relatives. And a hundred more like them crowd the banquet hall.”
Adam’s whole inner man melted within him. How he had longed for just one brother or sister all these years. George had been a good friend, but not a brother. Friends stay together while interests align. Family members belong to one another. All he had imagined family would be, he saw in these friends.
Kailyn motioned to Watson and Abigail. “Just look at them. Natural siblings, yet the bond they share as members of the Ruler’s household is even closer than blood.”
Natural siblings?Yes, of course! He could see the family resemblance now. His heart raced with renewed hope. Abigail and Watson weren’t a couple. They were brother and sister!
Abigail’s pleading eyes dissolved Adam’s defenses. “Adam, if you want happiness, then forget about that bag of fruit and come with us to the banquet. Real joy only comes from real food.”
“That is correct,” Watson said. “There is a kind of pleasure that comes from fruit—unquestionably, but it is happiness-killing pleasure. The fruit fills your stomach but empties your soul.”
Happiness-killing pleasure? The phrase grated against Adam’s sensibilities. Yet the more he considered it, the more he realized it described his entire life. He turned the idea over in his mind, allowing the eyes of his heart to adjust to the newly shed light.
“Do you know the difference between heart and soul?” Watson asked.
“Never really thought about it,” Adam said.
“Your heart is the part of you that loves and hates. Your soul is the part of you that desires and craves—the seat of appetite. One of the most important disciplines of life is to learn to detect thirst and hunger pangs of your soul.”
“How?” Adam asked.
“When you feel empty, bored, lonely, lost, restless—those are not merely moods. They are the hunger pangs of the soul. And when you are dry, depressed, irritable, discouraged, frustrated or unhappy—those feelings are the thirst of your soul. Just as your body is designed to repeatedly become hungry and thirsty to signal your need for food and drink, your soul is designed similarly.”
Yes, yes. Adam thought of how many of the painful emotions inside him so often had no rational explanation. And all his efforts to feel better had realized only the most superficial and temporary success. But now it made sense. If those feelings were hunger pangs and he wasn’t eating real food, of course he would feel dry and empty. The fruit had indeed filled his stomach but emptied his soul.
“So the Ruler has food that will satisfy those pangs?” Adam asked with a mix of hope and doubt. Such food seemed too good to be true.
Watson answered. “Yes. His food is perfect, reviving the soul, giving joy to the heart, and light to the eyes. It gives wisdom and insight. It fortifies your inner man and keeps you on the path of purity. It empowers, enlightens, enlivens, enables, and enriches your life. It brings comfort and healing. It is costlier than gold, more desirable than any pleasure, and sweeter than fruit from the orchard.”
Watson placed a hand on Adam’s chest. “And that is why he designed your soul to keep drying up. If thirst were not an unpleasant sensation, we would not drink. The same is true for dryness of soul. The discomfort is designed to drive us to the Ruler’s table.”
Adam looked down at Watson’s hand. He had never given much thought to his soul. As Watson removed his hand, Adam’s heart strained to cross the divide. The promise of deep satisfaction of his cravings beckoned him. But each time he began stepping over the threshold of belief, something drew him back.
Abigail extended her hand. “Please, Adam. Just come and give it a try.”
He studied her hand. What seemed before only gestures of friendship now took on a new meaning. Does she have feelings for me like I have for her? He tried not to read too much into the subtle redness that had emerged in her cheeks. She was a woman who blushed easily. Whatever the cause, he was glad for it because it colorized her already vivid smile.
Looking into her eyes—pools of joy and mercy—Adam was sure he had never seen anything as beautiful as what stood before him in this moment. Whatever lay in store, it would be worth it if he could be near Abigail.
Adam accepted her hand and rose on wobbly knees. The group set out for the banquet hall.
As Adam and the group stepped through the splintered doors of the wooden hall just north of the cottage, unfamiliar aromas enraptured Adam’s senses.
Abigail and Kailyn’s conversation sounded to Adam like a foreign language. Filet mignon, rib eye, rack of lamb, garlic potatoes—what were these strange terms? Adam and Levi exchanged puzzled looks. Could they be talking about food that wasn’t fruit?
Abigail’s smile brightened as she greeted more friends than Adam could imagine one person having. A woman hugged her from behind. Somehow Abigail knew who it was, and both women laughed.
The bright faces, the laughter, and the warmth of all the greetings struck Adam. He’d never seen anything like it. The pleasantries among friends in the lowlands didn’t compare. The scene brought back dim memories of Adam’s life with his family before the pond.
Abigail turned to greet another friend. “Tichi! So good to see you. Is Hodia here?”
“Right over there.”
Abigail and the others crossed toward Hodia’s table. Adam and Levi followed.
The inside of this unremarkable pine edifice was nothing like what Adam expected. He had imagined something akin to a museum where people sat quietly and observed the colors of the cottage. But the room bubbled with energy. And the happy, friendly rumble of conversation and laughter accompanied by the clinking of glasses and dishes filled the hall with a mood of celebration.
“I’ve never seen architecture like this,” Adam said. “Such a high ceiling! And …” he pointed to the massive balcony surrounding the room, “what is that for?”
Abigail exchanged a smile with Tichi, then turned back to Adam. “You’ll see.”
Conversations paused as an infectious laugh rang out.
“Layth’s here!” exclaimed Kailyn as everyone at the table except Adam and Levi smiled. Clearly, they all knew that booming laugh.
A patchwork of scars decorated Layth’s leathery skin. Adam leaned close to Watson. “What happened to him?”
“He has faced the warriors in many battles. I doubt anyone in this hall has fought as valiantly as Layth has. The joy you see in him has grown out of the soil of bitter suffering.”
Between smiles, Adam saw pain in Layth’s eyes, and a subtle limp that hindered his quick, powerful stride.
“No one enjoys these dinners more than Layth,” Abigail added.
“I can see that,” Adam said.
Abigail smiled. “I’m not talking about his size. I mean his delight in anything that comes from the chef. You can’t talk to Layth more than a couple minutes without the conversation coming around to the chef and his amazing food.”
As Layth approached the table, Watson rose and the two men embraced.
“Layth, I want you to meet Adam and Levi.”
“Looks like you’ve encountered our canine ‘friends,’” Layth said, noticing Adam’s wounds.
“Uh … yeah,” Adam stammered, surprised by the abruptness of the remark. I guess he’s not the type to waste time on small talk. Adam glanced at Levi, whose injuries were far more severe. Why did he notice my wounds and not his?
Despite this man’s intimidating forwardness and immense size, his genuineness and joyful demeanor drew Adam in. He seemed to know Adam’s troubles, like a lifelong friend who is free to bypass social convention and go right to what matters.
And whatever discomfort Adam felt was more than offset by Abigail’s presence. He could handle anything, it seemed, with her by his side.
And she was. To Adam’s delight, Abigail had taken the seat next to him. She leaned close and grasped his arm. “I’m so excited you came, Adam. You’re going to love it!”
He assumed Abigail was always happy when someone visited the banquet hall for the first time, but he hoped her happiness in having him there meant something more. He sensed it did.
The doors opposite the entrance opened and several men carrying loaded trays began serving the tables. Each person received a different entrée.
Adam eyed the strange objects on the plate before him, then glanced at the other dishes around the table.
“The chef decides what to serve each person,” Watson explained. “He always gets it right. He knows our appetites better than we do.”
“He certainly does,” Tichi added as she received her plate, eyes wide and smiling like someone who had just received a priceless treasure.
When Layth took a seat next to Kailyn, Watson motioned to the head waiter. The tall, stately gentleman approached the table and, standing behind Tichi and Hodia, laid a hand on each of their shoulders.
The gestures of warmth, the familiar yet respectful interactions, their body language—everything about these people gave Adam the sense that they had known one another a long time. Or that they had labored together in some great task.
Layth leaned toward Levi and Adam, lifted his arm toward the waiter, and said, “Charles Baxter. No one serves it up like him!”
Charles smiled behind a gray beard. “It’s not like it’s rocket science, Layth. The chef does all the work. All I have to do is get it from the kitchen to the table without dropping it.”
Adam and Levi, now on their feet, shook his extended hand.
“Pleased to meet you both. I hope you’ll make yourself at home.”
Charles then made his way around the table, hugging each of the others.
Judging by the way he spoke and carried himself, Adam took Charles to be an educated, capable, and distinguished gentleman. And his handshake revealed unusual strength for someone his age. Why is a guy like that working as a waiter?
The round of hugs also puzzled Adam. It seemed presumptuous for a server to take such liberties. But at the same time it seemed beneath a man of his age and dignity. At once, above his station and beneath his stature, yet the friends received it as the most natural gesture in the world.
“Well, I’d better get back to the kitchen,” Charles said. “We’ve got a lot of—”
“Dishes?” Hodia asked, already on her feet. Tichi also stood, dropped her napkin on the table, and started toward the kitchen with Hodia.
Adam leaned in to Abigail and whispered. “Couldn’t that have waited until after they ate?”
Abigail chuckled. “Of course it could!”
“Then why … they seemed so excited about their food and didn’t even get a single bite.”
“Are you feeling sorry for them?” Abigail chuckled again. “They’re in the kitchen now …” she raised her eyebrows, “with the chef. Everyone at this table envies them. If they would have hesitated even a second, someone else would have jumped up. Those two just always seem to beat us to it.”
Adam watched the two ladies make their way across the crowded hall. The way people stepped aside for them, pausing their conversations, the looks of admiration—“Are they rich? Or … famous? Or …”
Abigail cocked her head. “Adam, they’re servants.”
“I should get back there and help the ladies,” Charles said, finishing a brief conversation with Layth. He took a few steps toward the kitchen, then turned, pointed at the group and said, “Remember: Walk with the wind”—Layth, Watson, Kailyn, and everyone else in earshot finished the slogan in unison—“and you won’t want the fruit!”
Gadol surveyed the gathering of humans in the banquet hall. “They don’t even realize we’re here, do they?”
“They should,” Qashar replied. “They’ve been told about us.” He sighed. “They tend to forget there’s more to life than just what they can see.”
“Who’s he?” Qashar pointed toward the door where a hulking guardian had just entered and looked around the room like he was lost.
“I don’t know,” said Gadol. “But whoever he’s here to guard is going to be safe. He’s huge!”
Chayil, the ranking guardian in the group, caught the newcomer’s attention and waved him over. “His name is Nathan. He’s here to guard Levi.”
Gadol’s eyes lit up. “Levi’s getting a guardian? That’s great!”
“Yes. It’s a good sign.” Chayil said.
As he approached, Nathan nodded at each of the guardians in the group, then embraced Chayil. “So good to see you again, old friend!” Nathan stood almost as tall as Chayil and might have been even more muscular.
As he released the embrace, Chayil pointed to Levi. “There’s your man.”
Nathan pressed his lips together and nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem.” Then he turned back to Chayil. “Why me? Is he in danger?”
“Not that I know of. He hasn’t even gone through the cottage yet.”
Nathan gave another thoughtful nod. “You don’t still do the thing with the names, do you?”
The chorus of laughter from the other guardians gave him his answer.
Chayil gestured to Gadol. “He guards Kailyn. Her weapon is strength and courage, so we call him K-lion.
Nathan rolled his eyes.
“Qashar guards Watson, the strategist—really smart. So his nickname is Sol. You know—for Solomon.”
“Clever. What about you?”
Chayil pointed to Layth. “That’s my guy. He’s a handful.”
“I meant your nickname. What do they call you?”
“Well, uh, it’s not really related to his weapon. For some reason they—”
Gadol blurted it out. “Big Red!”
Chayil shook his head. “The man is a legend on the battlefield, strikes fear in the hearts of commanders and powers, and has defeated scores of warriors singlehandedly. And they name me after his hair.” He shook his head again as the others laughed.
Nathan sighed. “I guess there’s no avoiding it.” He turned to Levi. “But if he hasn’t gone through the cottage, he doesn’t even have a weapon. So what—”
“Levite!” Gadol said. “We’ll call you Levite.”
“Seriously? That’s the best you can—”
“Levite it is,” Chayil said.
Nathan/Levite turned to Abigail. “So she’s the one I heard about.” He set his gaze on her guardian. “What do they call you?”
“He doesn’t need a nickname,” Chayil said. “He already has the perfect name to go with Abigail’s weapon. Charis.”
“Ah, Greek for grace and beauty.” He looked again at Abigail. “You’re right. It is perfect.”
As the servers brought tray after tray to the table, Levi leaned toward Adam. “I guess we’ll all be sick tonight!”
Eye’s wide, Adam smiled. “Guess so!”
“No we won’t,” Layth said as he bit into a leg of lamb.
Watson explained. “The chef’s delicacies are unlike fruit in every respect. You may indulge as you please. Indeed, the more you consume, the better you feel.”
“It doesn’t hurt your gut?” Levi asked.
Watson shook his head. “No nausea, no discomfort, no obesity, no adverse effects of any kind. Every bite brings only improved health and growth.”
“So you just keep eating until the food runs out?” Levi asked.
“It never runs out,” Watson said. “That is part of what makes the banquets so enjoyable—the sheer abundance.” He waved his arm in a sweeping motion. “If every person ate all day and all night they would not consume a tenth of the spread.”
Layth raised a fork. “And the great thing about this hall is the wait staff. They make sure all plates and cups are kept full.”
“If you never feel over-full,” said Adam, “and the more you eat, the better you feel, and it never runs out, what makes you stop eating?”
“Only lack of appetite,” Watson said.
“And Judas desires,” Abigail added.
It all seemed far too good to be true. But then again, so many things had turned out to be the opposite of what Adam had expected, he was ready to believe just about anything.
“’Nuff yammerin’ already.” Layth pointed his fork at Adam’s plate. “Dig in.”
Adam took in the feast in front of him and wasn’t sure where to start—mainly because he didn’t recognize anything on his plate.
“Let me help you,” Abigail said as she reached to take a large, red object from the center of his plate. “This is a lobster tail. You crack it open—like this.”
His pulse raced as Abigail’s shoulder pressed against his.
“Here, that’s melted butter. Dip it in there. There you go.”
Adam placed the morsel between his teeth, bit into it, chewed, swallowed, and tasted … nothing. He took another bite. No flavor at all. The food seemed to dissolve in his throat. He bit into a pork chop. It was like eating air. He sampled every item on his plate—nothing.
Adam’s eyes darted around the table. Everyone—including Levi—appeared to be enjoying every bite.
What’s wrong with me? Am I losing my mind?
He surveyed the surrounding tables. To his left, three people ate heartily, but three others hadn’t touched their food. At the table behind Layth, only one person was eating. After a quick scan of the tables, Adam guessed a third of the people were not eating. Maybe half. He understood why. Who wants to eat air?
But what of all the people who were eating and clearly enjoying it? Were they pretending? The words of Alexander floated into Adam’s mind. They believe it’s true because they want it to be true.
A stab of fear alarmed Adam. Was he being pulled into superstition?
Abigail was an emotional person. He could see her being manipulated. But what about Watson? He’s a rational guy. How could a man like him be convinced he’s eating food when he isn’t?
Adam was haunted with a sense that the problem was his. Something was wrong with him. Deep down—deeper than the wounds from the wolf bites, something at the core of his being lay dead. That’s why he didn’t taste the food.
Was that it? Or were all these people being duped by some kind of mind-altering cult?
“I’m afraid I have to go,” he said, standing up. “Thank you for bringing me. I’ve enjoyed meeting all of you. But I need to leave.”
“You can’t go now,” Abigail pleaded. “You haven’t even seen the chef. He’ll come out any minute now. At least stay until then.”
Adam looked toward the kitchen. He hesitated, then said, “I’m sorry. I just can’t be here.”
He was careful not to look at Abigail, knowing if he did, he wouldn’t be able to leave. His steps toward the door were as brisk as he dared without drawing attention. Once outside, he ran.
A cycle of emotions drove his pace. Too many bizarre happenings. Being surrounded by that many unexplained mysteries was … too much.
His run became a sprint, fists clenched. He had given up everything and endured so much. And for what? Lies!
Then he slowed, then stopped. Now what?
He had covered a good half mile before he even thought about his direction. Do I go back to the lowlands? He recalled what had driven him to the high country in the first place. Which was worse—feeling confused and condemned in the banquet hall, or empty and dry in the orchard? Both were unbearable. Faced with those options, he’d rather feel nothing at all. Why go on living?
Whoa—where did that thought come from? He shook his head. “Pull yourself together Adam.”
Big Red stood with Sol and K-lion at the hall door and watched Adam disappear into the distance. All three guardians snapped to attention as Gibbor the Mighty approached from the kitchen. “As you were,” Gibbor said. None of the three had ever met Gibbor before—or any guardian of his rank. But why had he been called? There must be more to this operation than they knew.
Big Red had been the highest ranking guardian in the region before Gibbor’s arrival, and he was the first to summon the courage to address the legendary leader. “Do you think Adam will come to his senses? Or will he go back across the river?”
Gibbor was silent for a long moment, then spoke in a grave tone. “If he crosses the river, it will not go well for him. He will be overtaken by his greatest fear.”
“Bondage?” Big Red asked.
The imposing guardian took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. “Worse.”
Gibbor straightened and spoke to Big Red, K-lion, and Sol with a tone befitting his rank. “Return to your charges and build them up. Tell Levite and Charis to do the same. Especially Charis. I believe the enemy will go after Abigail. Allow yourselves no rest. See that the humans are ready. I sense they are about to be severely tested, and they must not fall.”
“If Adam is taken,” he added, “he will face the darkest days of his life. But it won’t just be him.” Gibbor turned toward the banquet hall. “This whole place could become a pile of rubble.”
Had it been anyone else speaking, Big Red would have assumed that to be exaggeration. But he did not take Gibbor as one to speak loosely. Big Red imagined the magnificent hall falling, and he cringed. How could the fate of one man who hasn’t even been through the cottage affect one of the most powerful banquet halls in the region?
“Abby, wait.” Watson took hold of his sister’s arm. “Don’t go. Stay for the meal, then we can go after Adam together.”
“I want to catch him before he gets too far. Let me go.” She wrested her arm free.
“You need to eat. And … it’s not a good idea for you to go alone.”
“I’m afraid if he sees us all coming, he’ll run. But if it’s just me … I know I can get through to him. He listens to me.”
“Yes, he does. But how much of his listening is desire for the truth, and how much is desire for you?”
Abigail’s face reddened. “You think I’m going after him because …”
Watson clasped her hand with both of his and met her fierce gaze with a tender one of his own. “Abby, I know you have good motives. You want Adam to meet the Ruler. I do too. But we both know other motives can entwine themselves with our good ones. I’ve seen how you look at him, and—”
Abigail turned away. Watson touched her shoulder, but she pulled free.
She turned back and looked up at Watson with glassy eyes. “If we just let him go, what will happen to him?”
Watson took his sister’s hand and placed in her palm a piece of the cottage with a bold inscription. “Do not go near the door of temptation’s house. Her hands are chains. Venture too close, and you will be ensnared. Her slain are a mighty throng.”
Abigail took the piece but didn’t close her hand around it.
Crouched in a cave overlooking the wooden banquet hall, Anzu kept watch. He moved further back in the cave. The guardians surrounding this hall were some of the most dangerous in the region. He knew his chances of remaining undetected were slim, and if discovered, there would be no escape.
Venturing into the high country was one thing, but operating this close to the wooden hall … he wondered if Adramelech had intentionally assigned him to a task that would end in his demise.
The warriors had suffered defeat in the last encounter with Kailyn, Abigail, and Watson, even though the humans had been caught off guard. Now that they were alert, they would be near impossible to defeat as a group. Adam must be kept far from them and from any other cottage people—especially Layth. If anyone other than Abigail followed Adam, Adramelech was to be alerted at once.
Three warriors flashed across the front of the cave. What on earth? Anzu stepped out and nearly collided with Morax. Anzu scowled. “What are you doing here? I thought you were assigned to Levi.”
Anzu’s irritation doubled when Morax ignored the question. Without slowing, Morax and his crew of warriors maneuvered through the trees to the back of the hall.
Judging from the elite team, Anzu figured Adramelech must have sent them on a mission to capture someone from the hall. He figured right. Minutes later, they emerged with their victim.
Hodia? Wow. Even Anzu had to admit, this was an impressive capture.
Morax would have disregarded Anzu again, but Anzu caught his arm and squeezed. “Where are you taking her?”
“To the lowlands. Now let go.” Morax’ hand went to his sword.
Anzu relented. Morax was smaller but much faster, and this wasn’t the place for a skirmish anyway.
“The lowlands? What is that going to accomplish? She won’t take fruit. Hodia hasn’t eaten so much as a grape in twenty years.”
“Yes,” Morax acknowledged with a subtle grin, “and she’s proud of it.”
East of the hall, Lucius receded into the trees, glaring at Adam. “Let me take him now,” he whispered.
Adramelech raised his hand, silencing the lieutenant. He said nothing for several minutes. Then he pointed to the south. Lucius turned to see a petite figure entering the grove.
Abigail stepped slowly, cautiously. “She knows we’re here,” Adramelech said. “Stay quiet. Don’t spook her.”
Lucius understood now what Adramelech meant when he spoke of the greater prize. Abigail’s desires for Adam were becoming strong enough that she would soon be deceivable. They had likely lost Levi, but there was a real chance not only to strengthen their hold on Adam but to capture Abigail as well. And if she fell, a significant number in her network of friends would follow.
Abigail found Adam sitting against a log with his face in his hands. She approached him silently from behind.
Without lifting his head Adam spoke. “I’m not going back, Abigail.” Then he stood and turned to face her. “I’m glad you came. More than you know. But … I …” He turned away. “I can’t go back.”
Abigail took his hand and made him face her. “Why did you leave?”
He sighed. “I know you and your friends enjoy that food, and I respect that. But it’s … it’s just not for me.”
She strained to hide her heartbreak.
Adam went on, “I’ve never been more miserable than I am now. It’s like something is pressing me down. I just want to be happy. I can’t go the rest of my life without fruit.”
“The fruit gives you pleasure, not happiness. You’re only thinking of the taste. But think about what it’s like when the taste is gone and you’ve swallowed. That isn’t happiness, is it?”
“Of course it’s happiness! What’s so wrong about eating fruit anyway? It doesn’t hurt anyone. What is fruit for if not the stomach? And the stomach for fruit. It’s the most natural thing in the world.”
“It’s natural for a merely natural person, but right or wrong has nothing to do with naturalness.”
“Then why is it wrong?”
“Because it dishonors the Ruler when you prefer garbage over his delicacies. And it’s self-destructive. It strengthens you to resist the wind. It blinds you to the colors. It destroys your appetite. And it—”
“Is that why I couldn’t taste the food—because I still want fruit?”
“I think so. Can you run in opposite directions at the same time? Your will can’t do that anymore than your body can.”
Adam huffed in frustration. “I’ve gone all this time without eating fruit, and where has it gotten me?”
“You stopped eating fruit, but you did not stop loving it. Your appetites follow what your soul clings to. And you reap what you sow in your thoughts. A few minutes of letting your affections attach to fruit is like sowing weed seeds in your heart, and the harvest is a whole lot of Judas desires. Every thought you entertain is a step in some direction. If you keep taking steps in your mind toward evil, you will eventually arrive at the destination you’ve been walking toward. But if you kept your thoughts on the cottage—”
Adam turned away, but she stepped in front of him. “Your stomach was not made for fruit. The Ruler designed your body with appetites that can only be satisfied by his delicacies. You are restless, Adam, and you will remain restless until your soul finds rest in the Ruler.”
Adam shook his head. “I’m just not ready. Maybe someday I’ll—”
“No. Today is the day to come. Don’t you understand? You don’t have forever.” She drew a cottage piece from her bag.
Adam lifted his hand. “No, I don’t want another—”
He pushed his hands into his pockets.
Abigail held the inscription in front of his face. He looked away at first but finally read the words. “Seek him while he may be found?”
“It’s a warning. The door won’t stay open forever. The wind will only blow on your life for so long. If you keep resisting, it will stop. And then you can never come.”
She took hold of his arm with both hands. “Come with me back to the dinner. There are some foods you didn’t try. Maybe if you—”
“I don’t think so. I can’t go back there. Being in that place does nothing to make me desire the cottage.” Then he squeezed her hand. “But being with you does. I think if we could be together, over time I would come to desire the cottage.”
She felt her hand tighten around his.
“Come with me,” he said. “Surely the wind will keep blowing as long as you’re with me.”
She withdrew her hand.
“Please, Abigail. I’ll never pressure you to eat any fruit, but I need you to be with me.”
She attempted to turn her gaze from him, but her eyes refused. There was something in Adam she admired. She wanted to be with him. But …
“You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he said. “I’m sure other men have told you that. But for me, it’s more than just your beauty. There is something inside you that comes out through your smiles and your words that activates all kinds of things in me I didn’t know were there—things like compassion and courage and desire for good things. There is a purity in your soul that makes me want to be a better man—the man I should be. Please, just come with me.”
She turned toward the banquet hall and then back to Adam. The high country was her home. The people were family. The food gave her life. But what would happen to Adam if he went back to the city alone? He’d never make it past the grasslands.
Her hair moved in the gentle breeze. The draft carried the stench of the warriors to her nose. She sensed danger.
“I’m sorry. I can’t go with you. Charles always tells us, ‘Walk with the wind, and you won’t want the fruit.’ The wind is not blowing away from the cottage. It never does.”
“I’m not asking you to abandon the cottage—or the Ruler. You can still love him with all your heart and soul wherever you are, can’t you?”
“It isn’t just a matter of my heart and soul, but also my body. I am not my own. I was bought with a price and I must honor the Ruler with both my affections and my actions.”
“Bought with a price? What price?” As quickly as he asked, he raised his hand. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. You may owe some kind of debt to the Ruler, but I’m a free man. And I have to follow my heart.”
“Your heart is the worst thing you could follow. Nothing will deceive you more thoroughly.”
“Abigail, can’t you see that I don’t belong here?”
“Maybe not. But you can change where you belong. Just stay for a while—at least until your wounds heal.”
“I’m stronger now than I’ve been in a long time. I think that means I’m supposed to go. I feel no resistance to walking east, and I am at peace with this decision. If you’re determined to stay, I understand.” He held her gaze with pleading eyes, then turned to go.
After a few steps he turned to her again. “If you ever change your mind, I’ll be waiting for you.”
Abigail watched until he disappeared down a trail leading to the ridge where he had seen the bag of fruit. She leaned back against a tree. Her legs weakened, she slid to the ground, and wept. The wind had enabled her to make the right choice. But why did it have to be so painful?
The breeze brushed her again and she probed deeper into her own motives.
The Ruler had sent her to bring Adam to the cottage. She wanted to please the Ruler, and she wanted Adam to know true joy. Both good motives. Is all that negated if she happened to like Adam? She remembered the day she gave him the cottage piece and noticed the calluses on his hand. She admired a hard-working man. The hall could use more men like him—a man’s man. And a kind man. A man who knows how to treat a woman.
Her thoughts drifted to the time they had spent together. She loved how he made her feel. Abigail attracted the attention of a lot of men, but Adam was different. With him, she felt at once desired, valued, and respected. She could tell her words mattered to him.
She wrapped her arms around herself, aching for his companionship.
Adam made good time down to the river, across, and up through the grasslands. He stayed alert, but the only movement in the silent darkness was his own.
As he approached the tree line, he hoped the bodies would be gone. Instead, to his horror, a new mutilated corpse lay in the path. This one looked to be the most vicious killing yet.
He didn’t want to look, but the thick brush bordering the path forced him to step over the gruesome obstacle. As he did, he felt the blood drain from his face.
It was Levi!
Adam’s first night back in the lowlands dragged interminably. His exhausted body fought his racing mind in the battle for sleep. The grotesque image of Levi’s mutilated corpse refused to leave his consciousness.
He recalled the day he first met Levi. That night, after learning that Levi had murdered George, Adam would have welcomed the sight of Levi’s dead body. But now it broke his heart, as if he had lost another dear friend. Watson’s words rang in his mind—that Levi would have to answer to the Ruler for his crimes. Was the Ruler’s justice that violent?
The thought terrified Adam. But why? I’m no murderer. I wanted to kill him that day, but I didn’t touch him. If anything, I should be rewarded for my restraint.
But then why did he feel so guilty? He imagined himself in the Ruler’s courtroom and shuddered. Did he deserve what Levi got just for having murderous thoughts he never even acted on? It was a prospect he refused to accept … but couldn’t deny.
It seemed like only moments after he finally drifted off to sleep that the light warmed his face. His eyelids refused to open. How could it be morning already? His first sensation was the same as always after going to bed eating fruit—nausea.
He forced his eyelids open, squinted, and realized morning had not come. A shining figure lit the dark landscape in a wide radius. He was considerably larger than any of the Great Ones, more muscular, and dressed in exquisite white robes. Both his face and his clothes emitted brilliant light, and his voice boomed like thunder.
“On your feet, Adam.”
Spellbound, Adam rose in awe of the glorious creature, yet at the same time, something about him set Adam at ease. The great being exuded benevolence and goodness.
“You’ve had quite a restless sleep tonight, haven’t you?”
Adam meant to nod, but his head hardly moved.
“It’s not surprising. Abigail and her friends pressed you pretty hard. They’re friendly, kind—nice folks. But they ask you to believe things that go against everything you observe to be true. I can see how you would be conflicted.”
“Exactly!” Adam said.
“The conflict within you is normal. We naturally want to trust people who show us kindness, and there is great appeal in the things they promise. Food so satisfying that merely desiring it gives you strength? Who wouldn’t want that? But you’re right to be uneasy about Levi and the other bodies.”
“Do you know what happened to them?” Adam asked.
“They were all slaughtered in by the high country ruler and dumped here. It happens routinely, I’m sad to say.”
“May I ask—who are you? And how do you know everything I’m feeling?”
“My name is Michael. I am the chief guardian, and I have come here to help you find your way.”
It was easy for Adam to believe this being was a guardian. In fact, he seemed like something more than a guardian. “Tell me—who should I believe? The cottage people or the Great Ones?”
“If I answer that question, I become just another voice you have to decide whether to believe. How would that help you?”
“Yeah, I … guess you’re right.”
“Every person must answer the question for himself. Never let someone else tell you what to believe. Listen to your heart. What does it tell you?”
Adam considered this. “I feel like the answer is somewhere in the middle. I know I’d be happier if I cut back on fruit. I don’t like feeling sick, and I don’t like losing control when I eat. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think … I think I want to be a cottage person. But I don’t want to take it to the extremes of people like Kailyn or Watson. Moderation in all things, right?”
“You are a wise man, Adam. Few people have the courage to think for themselves in these matters, which leads to extremism on one side or the other. And it is extremism that suppresses freedom.”
Hours later, the sunrise touched Adam’s face. He sat up, fully rested and without a hint of nausea. It was the best he’d felt in a long time, and he was glad to be back in the lowlands.
He stared at the spot where Michael had stood. Was that a dream? A vision? Or was it a real guardian? It had to be more than a dream.
Adam stretched and rose to his feet. He drew in a chest full of the crisp morning air. Then, the sweetest sound he knew touched his ears.
Adam spun. “Abigail! You came!” He wrapped her in his arms. “When did you …”
“I’ve been here a while. I couldn’t … I can’t let you just walk away. I understand why you didn’t like the banquet hall, but I came to ask—would you come with me to the cottage? If you just saw the inside, I think it would change your mind, especially if—”
Adam took hold of her hands and his eyes brightened. “Last night I had an experience that … I don’t know if I can describe it. But everything is clear now.” He squeezed her hands. “I’ve decided I want to be a cottage person.”
“Oh, Adam, that’s wonderful! You won’t regret it. I can’t wait to tell Watson and Kailyn. Let’s go!”
She tugged his hand, but he stood firm. “No. I have to do it my own way, here, in the lowlands. This is my home.”
“Oh … I see,” she said, eyes to the ground. Then she lifted her face with a dull smile—the dullest he’d ever seen from her. “I understand. I won’t pressure you.”
“You won’t have to pressure me. When I’m with you, I don’t need fruit. I’m just not ready to live in the high country. There is so much of the world I still want to explore—with you by my side.”
Adam knew she would miss her friends and the banquets. He felt a little guilty for pressuring her, but maybe it would be good for her to expand her horizons and explore the lowlands. There was more to the world than just the high-country.
Abigail bit her lip, then drew a breath. “I will go with you, but you have to understand—I will not eat the fruit. We can explore, but no fruit.”
“No fruit,” he agreed. “In fact …” He turned to the east, “the orchard is that way …” He glanced to the south, then squared his shoulders due north. “I’ve never explored the northern country. Let’s go this way. It’ll take us far from the orchard.”
They set out on the northward road, and the air was still.
Within an hour, the road narrowed to a path, increasingly rocky and overgrown, then ended at the foot of a sheer cliff.
Adam craned his neck. “Feel like making a climb?”
“Come on. Where’s your adventuresome spirit?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m tired, okay? I’m not going up that.”
“Fine. You have a better plan?”
“It wasn’t far back we passed a trail that branched off toward the northeast. It looked rough, but not as bad as this.”
Retracing their steps, they found the path. Soon that trail ended and they took another branch to the right, then another, until they were traveling due east toward the orchard. In that direction, the rugged paths widened to roads, crowded with travelers.
When the orchard came into view, Abigail stopped.
“We’re going to face temptation,” she said. “We need to be ready.”
“Just walking through the orchard? It won’t be a problem for you, right? After years of enjoying the banquets—I thought that changed a person’s appetites.”
“It does. But memories of the fruit never really go away. I’ve missed several banquets now, and I’m hungry. And I can feel part of me hoping to stumble across some fruit.”
She said something else, but a trumpet fanfare not far ahead drowned her out. A bend in the road lined with trees blocked their view, so they hurried to see what was happening. Progress slowed as the crowd increased.
Adam caught a man in the throng. “What’s going on?”
“The king has come! He is about to make a proclamation.”
Adam took Abigail’s hand and pressed through the crowd. “I’ve lived in the city since I was a kid, and I’ve never seen the king. I’ve only heard about him. Come on! I want to see—”
Adam stopped, let go of Abigail’s hand, and stared.
The crowd chanted, “Hail, King Michael!”
“What’s wrong, Adam?” Abigail asked. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Not a ghost. A guardian. King Michael—he’s the one who appeared to me the night my eyes were opened. Now he’s the size of a normal man. In the dream he looked … different. But there’s no question—it was him. He showed me the truth. But he didn’t tell me he was the king.”
Abigail listened to the king’s speech for a moment, then turned away. “I don’t want to be here. Let’s go somewhere else.” She pushed through the crowd away from the king.
Adam caught up and took hold of her arm. “Wait. What’s wrong?”
“This doesn’t feel right. Something about him … I don’t … Please, can we just go?”
“Abigail, if you only met him, you would—”
“Met whom?” Adam started at the unmistakable voice and turned. King Michael stood before them.
Adam wondered if he should kneel, but something about Michael made him so comfortable that it didn’t seem necessary—or even fitting.
“I was explaining to my friend that she can trust you,” Adam said.
The king smiled. “I don’t expect you to trust me, Abigail. You’ve never even met me. Your caution is wise.”
“How … do you know my name?”
“This is my realm. I know who you are and why you are here. And I must say, I’m impressed. Placing yourself at risk to help a friend avoid over-indulgence—it’s admirable.”
He spoke with disarming gentleness. “I understand your caution, but I assure you—you have nothing to fear here. I respect your convictions, and I will see to it you will never be pressured to do anything you do not want to do.” He turned with a wave of his arm. “Explore the orchard. You are free to leave whenever you please. My most important task as king, in fact, my only task, is to guarantee the most important value there is—freedom.”
The reference to freedom drew Adam’s mind back to his first day in this world. Twice that day he had felt trapped—deprived of freedom. Once when he emerged from the pond and couldn’t find his way home, and again in the city when the gates closed behind him. In the city, he felt trapped by the walls. At the pond, the whole wide world stood open to him. No boundaries, no rules, no authorities. But too many options had terrified him just as much as too few. The strange thought lodged itself in his mind—What is freedom?
Adam couldn’t understand why Abigail’s initial reaction had been so negative, but he was glad to see her face soften as the handsome, amiable king spoke.
Reassured by Michael, and by each other’s presence, Adam and Abigail entered the orchard hand-in-hand. Adam found it easy to abstain from fruit. He contented himself with the beauty of the orchard paradise and its rows of flourishing green trees stretching as far as the eye could see, the refreshing smells of the fruit, and, most of all, Abigail’s company.
As they walked, Abigail removed her belt and started to place it in her satchel. “Let me see that,” Adam said. With a hand on each end, he stretched the belt in front of him. “What are all these inscriptions? Mirror Room … Blood Room … Promise Room—what does this mean?”
“It was a gift. The Ruler gave it to me after my first time through the cottage. It’s supposed to be a reminder of my experiences in those rooms. He told me to wear it in times of danger and it would protect me.”
“Why are you taking it off?”
“It restricts my movement. And it’s rubbing my hip raw. Besides, I don’t sense any danger here.”
As they approached an overlook with a view of the orchard, they stopped to rest.
“Have you ever seen a panorama like this?” Adam asked.
“It’s amazing.” She leaned against him. “I love this spot. So beautiful—and quiet.”
A flock of birds swooped across their view. As they watched the undulating, surging mass, they drifted into a state of peaceful, contented half-sleep.
Watson chewed his last bite of steak as Layth placed his napkin on his plate, leaned back in his chair, and smiled. “Unbelievable!”
“Was it ever!” Kailyn agreed. “It’s too bad Abigail didn’t make it today. She would have loved this spread.”
Layth eyed Watson. “Where is your sister? I haven’t seen her at a banquet for a few weeks now.”
“She is in the lowlands.”
Layth raised a brow.
“She is convinced that, with her influence, Adam will come around. Without her, she fears he would die of his wolf bites. She promised me she intends to abstain from all fruit. She is only attempting to reach Adam.”
Watson’s answer caught the attention of Charles Baxter, who was clearing dishes from the table. “Did you say Abigail has missed the last few meals because she is trying to persuade Adam to come to the meals?”
“She is confident she can win him,” Watson said.
“Why would Adam want to come to a place Abigail is willing to forsake? And how can Adam follow her to a place she is not going? Will she stimulate appetite in Adam by suppressing her own? And will she find the strength to help him by starving herself?”
As usual, Charles’ questions shed enough light on the matter to answer themselves.
Charles sharpened his gaze, put both hands on the table, and rattled Watson’s soul with the strength of his exhortation: “Watson, go get her.”
Suddenly, the room echoed with the sound of sliding chairs. Everyone stood as the Ruler appeared in the doorway from the kitchen, his unflinching gaze fixed squarely upon Watson. Interpreting Watson’s questioning eyes, the Ruler gave a single nod.
Watson had his orders and made his way to the exit.
The Ruler’s voice reverberated through the hall. “Watson.”
He turned. “Sir?”
“I will be with you.”
Watson bowed and disappeared out the door.
Another server stood beside Charles. “Do you think one of us should go with him?”
Charles remained quiet a long moment, then slowly shook his head. “We’re needed here. Now more than ever. I would like to go, but this isn’t a good time.”
“I see,” said the young server. Then he caught Charles’ eyes again. “You’re sure?”
Charles drew a deep breath, exhaled, and stared at the door. “No. I’m not.”
Adam was getting worried. He watched helplessly as Abigail struggled to breathe. Her whole body trembled, and her deep blue eyes flashed fear. They seemed to plead with Adam, Help me.
He touched her forehead. Her fever is getting worse. The illness had come on suddenly and was progressing so quickly that, without medical care, he feared she wouldn’t survive.
“Could it be your body is reacting to the change in diet—going without banquet food?”
She shook her head. “It’s more serious than that. I need a doct—” a fit of coughing interrupted her words.
Adam helped her to her feet, pulled her arm around his neck, and they began working their way toward the city.
One mile of travel consumed the remaining daylight, and Abigail fell limp in his arms. “I can’t go any further.”
In that hour, they had encountered several travelers. Adam pleaded with each for help but wasn’t surprised when they not only declined but appeared angry that he would dare risk exposing them to sickness. In a world that valued body above soul, the present above the future, and comfort above conscience, people avoided disease at all costs.
“Leave me here,” Abigail said. “Go to the city and get help.”
“No way. There are predators out here. You would have no protection.” He took her in his arms and carried her. He made it another two miles before collapsing in exhaustion.
“We are still miles from the city,” he said. “We’ll have to camp here for the night.”
He found a sheltered spot, set Abigail on a patch of soft ground, and as the dark of night descended, they huddled against the cold.
Approaching footsteps caught Adam’s ear. Peering into the darkness, his mind raced to assemble words that might persuade the passerby to at least send some help from the city. But it was not a passerby. The moonlight lit several pairs of eyes close to the ground. When his eyes met theirs, they growled.
The circle of wild dogs closed on the helpless couple like a noose. They sense Abigail’s weakness. Adam searched for a stick or rock but found only twigs.
He threw up his arms and shouted, hoping to startle the canine mob. To his surprise, one dog yelped, rose off the ground, and sailed, flailing into the night sky.
The rest of the dogs left Adam and Abigail and surrounded the attacker—Alexander, Kailyn’s former husband.
The mighty scholar sent two more dogs flying and crushed another with his foot before the rest retreated.
“Are you okay?” Alexander asked.
Adam was at once relieved and concerned. Grateful to be delivered from the dogs, he still feared for Abigail, remembering her last encounter with the Great Ones. He stood in front of her, hoping Alexander wouldn’t notice her.
“Who is this?” Alexander said, leaning to one side. “Is that Abigail?”
He pushed past Adam and knelt beside her.
“You’ve studied medicine, right?” Adam asked. “Can you help her?”
It only took Alexander a moment to diagnose her condition.
“She needs immediate attention,” he said, gathering her into his arms. “We must get her to the city right away. I can treat her there.”
Even burdened with Abigail, Alexander easily outpaced Adam.
“Wait” Adam called.
Alexander gave a backward glance but didn’t slow.
“No!” Adam shouted. But Alexander disappeared into the night.
How will I find them in the city? Will he take her to the other Great Ones?
Adam recalled that in the previous battle Alexander had stayed with him while the others attacked the children. Would he protect Abigail as well? Or …
He pushed to run faster.
“Here, drink this.”
Abigail forced her eyes open and wondered if she was hallucinating. Alexander? Too weak to refuse the cup or to even think about whether she should refuse, she took a sip and laid back.
The soothing elixir tasted sweet and soothed her dry throat. Within seconds, the fever broke and she felt her strength returning.
Alexander gently slid his giant hand from behind her head and she came to rest on a feather pillow. She melted into the mattress as the medicine chased the pain from her body.
“Where is Adam?” she asked.
“Close, most likely. I will go find him while you rest.” He placed a large cup on the table next to the bed. “If the pain returns, take as much of the medicine as you need.”
It wasn’t long before it did return. She grimaced as she reached for the cup and took a sip. It brought relief, but not as dramatically as before, so she took a big swallow. Comfort returned. Her body relaxed, enjoying the softness of the bed, and her worst day soon faded into blissful sleep.
When she woke to full daylight, she had no idea how long she had been asleep. Alexander sat reading in a chair across the room. She turned her head. Adam occupied a stool at her bedside.
Adam smiled. “How are you feeling?”
“The medicine helped.”
She looked at the table. Yes, the cup was still there—along with … Oh my. Grapes? The cluster of tiny green grapes had not been there before.
“Help yourself,” Alexander said, setting his book down.
“No, thank you. But I do want you to know—I’m grateful for all you’ve done.”
“Of course,” he said, now joining Adam beside the bed.
She glanced again at the grapes. “May I ask—what is in the medicine?”
“It’s a complex recipe, but the sweetness you taste is from those little grapes. They have wonderful healing properties.”
“There were grapes in what I drank?”
Alexander smiled. “Don’t worry. They won’t hurt you. You don’t feel any nausea, correct?”
She didn’t, but she wasn’t ready to admit that to Alexander.
“We have conducted extensive tests on these grapes. There are fruits that do great harm, others that harm only when eaten in excess, and others, like those grapes, are good for you. It’s all documented in our studies.”
Abigail pushed herself to a sitting position and glanced again toward the table. An intense craving overtook her. She put her hand on the bunch. “I’ve never seen such tiny grapes.”
“They are rare and difficult to find. Few have ever tasted them. They are used mostly for medicine.”
“I see,” she said, still eyeing the cluster.
Then she closed her eyes, turned to Adam, and reopened them. “We should go.”
Alexander smiled. “That’s fine, if you’re up to it. You’re welcome back any time.”
Abigail slid her legs off the right side of the bed and stood. She paused for a beat, took a quick sip of the medicine, and started toward the door with Adam.
When they first arrived in the orchard, Adam had been painfully aware of the disdainful looks he received from virtually everyone. No mystery why. He was openly associating with what looked to those people like a child. The less traveled paths would reduce their exposure. Adam came close to suggesting it once or twice but couldn’t think of how to say it without Abigail detecting his embarrassment at being seen with her.
Besides, those looks were becoming fewer. Were people beginning to see Abigail as just another woman in the lowlands? If he was honest, Adam would have to admit she looked that way to him. Her child-like joyful spirit and bubbling gratitude had given way to discontent and frequent complaining. She seldom spoke of the Ruler or banquet hall anymore. That troubled Adam, not because he wanted to hear about them, but because recalling them made her happy.
“These paths are so rocky.” Abigail kicked a stone out of the way. “You would think they would do a better job maintaining them with all the people who travel along here.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, not looking up.
“What’s wrong, Adam?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Everything I say, you respond with a mumble—if you say anything. It seems like something’s eating at you.”
He looked off at an imaginary distraction to buy himself a few moments.
“Are you happy, Abigail?”
“Am I happy? You mean, right now?”
“I mean compared to before you left the high country. You used to smile so much there. And I never once heard you complain about anything. Now …”
“I don’t know. You just don’t seem like yourself.”
Abigail progressed several quiet paces. “I’m okay. I guess I’m just … hungry.”
The two walked in silence for half an hour alongside a large vineyard. Abigail veered a few steps off the path, bent down, and picked a single grape. She examined it for a moment, tossed it into her mouth and rejoined Adam.
Neither Adam nor Abigail noticed Hodia sitting on a rise just to the south. She wasn’t sure why she had chosen to sit on that rise and watch the path, but when she saw Abigail, she was glad she had come. What had Abigail been doing all this time in the lowlands? When Abigail ate the grape, Hodia had her answer.
Shaking her head, Hodia turned to go home—oblivious to the arrows the warriors had fired into her heart.
“Look,” Morax said, pointing to Hodia’s tracks. “She’s infected.” The warriors grinned. No question about it—her footprints were shrinking. And her fingernails curled, becoming claw-like.
Abigail’s mind raced. Why is Adam being so quiet? Everyone enjoys a little fruit. What does he expect of me? No one is perfect.
She tried to think about something else—the past, the future, friends, family, a favorite song, the beautiful scenery. None of it brought comfort. She felt incapable of enjoying anything … except, maybe, another grape.
I’ve already blown it. Might as well get it out of my system. I’ll try harder tomorrow. She ate several more grapes. Slowly, the nausea subsided.
When the sun neared the western horizon, they found some level ground and began preparing their campsite. Adam built a fire and dragged a log to it for a place to sit.
In the past, Abigail would have raved about the magnificence of the starry display on a night like this. Tonight, she never even looked up. She only stared blankly into the fire.
“I’m worried about you, Abigail.”
“Why? Because I had a grape?”
“You know I don’t care about grapes. It’s just that … well … I miss …”
“Your smile. I want you to be happy again.”
“Adam, I don’t eat any other fruit. I’m nothing like all the lowlanders, pigging out on everything in sight. It’s just an occasional grape.”
“I told you, I don’t care about that.” After a few moments of silence, he spoke again. “I was thinking we could visit the high country. Maybe go to the banquet hall for a meal. You could see your friends again.”
The fire still held Abigail’s gaze. “I don’t think so.”
“What? Why not?”
“I love my friends, but sometimes they can be”—She searched for the word—“I don’t know, kind of … judgmental.”
She picked up a twig, turned it in her fingers, then snapped it in half and flicked both halves into the fire. She let out a heavy sigh. “I know I shouldn’t be eating grapes.” She looked up at Adam. “I’ll stop. Okay?”
Morning arrived with a chill that awakened Abigail to a world of misery. She sat up in a bed of watermelon rinds, banana peels, and apple cores. Nausea racked her body like a black death devouring her insides, and she lay back down.
She rolled to her side. A cottage piece had slid from her satchel and in the glint of the morning sun, the polished surface reflected her face. She already knew her days in the orchard had not been kind to her body—she had become obese and her hips had twisted causing a severe limp—but the image she saw in the piece startled her. She hardly recognized her own face. It was hideously contorted and much of her hair had fallen out. She pushed the piece back into her satchel.
On the opposite side of the fire pit, Adam stirred, turned on his side, and continued his slumber. In that moment, she hated him. Even more, she hated herself. Why did I follow him here?How could I be so stupid? She never imagined she would lose control like this.
Adam stirred again. With haste, she gathered her things and stole out of the camp. She didn’t want to talk to him. She only wanted out of the orchard.
The density of the trees made progress difficult, but after ducking through a gauntlet of branches, averting her eyes from the fruit, she emerged onto a broad path which widened into a road. She took several brisk steps, then broke into a run. Faster and faster, every step escalated her desperation. Get me out of this place!
Having run to exhaustion, she slowed to a walk on blistered feet. I’m getting nowhere.
Progress was impossible because the wind was against her, no matter what direction she tried. She knew escape would only be possible with the wind at her back, but on every path, she met only headwind.
She had resolved not to touch any more fruit, but the ache in her stomach screamed for attention. How would she escape her leafy prison without strength? She took a few nibbles, but nothing like the excesses of before. She curled up under a large apple tree, buried her face in her arms, and wept.
A sudden warmth in the air interrupted her despair. She lifted her eyes, and before her stood King Michael.
The king radiated light and warmth and exuded the same air of comforting benevolence as before. Still, his sudden appearance startled her. No crowd, no entourage—why would the king be here … alone?
Abigail sat up, then pushed backward in the dirt until her back pressed against the tree.
“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you I was just out for a walk and heard you crying,” he said. “Are you okay?” His smooth, disarming tone calmed her.
“I …” Should she confide in this man? He was friendly and seemed genuine, but …
“You told me I could leave this place whenever I want. But I feel like a prisoner. Can you show me the way out?”
“Of course. There are a hundred different paths. And I will gladly point you to any or all of them.”
Abigail looked around at the several trails she had already tried.
The king smiled. “You feel trapped because you’ve been trained to fear freedom. All those taboos and rigid traditions in the high country—it’s paralyzing. Have you noticed the only one condemning you for eating fruit is you? You feel sick when you eat only because you have been controlled so long by guilt.” He extended his arm. “Why else would you feel trapped in a wide-open orchard with a hundred exits?”
A ray of sunlight lit up a large, ripe peach on a nearby tree. She considered the king’s words. Could it be her conscience was oversensitive? Maybe just a little fruit once in a while isn’t such a big deal. Maybe …
A deep, powerful craving arose within her. But, but ratherStill she couldn’t shake the sense she did not belong here. Her time in the orchard, while pleasurable, had not been happy.
“I will consider what you said. But if you wouldn’t mind, I would very much like you to show me a path out of the orchard.”
“I don’t mind at all. I’ll show you several, and you can take your pick.”
Abigail listened carefully to his directions until she was satisfied she had enough options. She thanked the king and started on the path that seemed most direct.
In under an hour the exit from the northwest sector of the orchard came into view. Only a five-minute walk now stood between her and the border. Soon the orchard would be behind her—along with all her failures and shame.
She thought she heard a noise in the trees and spun around. Nothing there. Then, out of the corner of her eye she saw movement to the north. Her pulse quickened.
She turned her back on whatever was out there and began walking again, forcing her trembling body forward.
Hairs rose on her neck. She sensed the unknown threat closing. She quickened her pace, glancing behind and to the north every few steps. Now faster, almost running.
Calm yourself, Abigail. You’ve been in this orchard all these weeks, and no one’s hurt you. It’s probably just—”
She flinched at the sound of a stick breaking in the woods and burst into an involuntary run. With her deformed hip, she felt as though she were running through molasses—as in a bad dream. But her adrenaline-dosed panic pushed her forward.
Another branch snapped to her right and she caught her first glimpse of one of her pursuers. Her chest tightened. It was one of the little ones she and the others had confronted when they rescued Adam. But now she had no weapons—and no friends.
She looked ahead. Less than a hundred yards to the border. The man to her right was closing fast. She tried to gauge his speed, angle, and distance. It will be close.
Gasping for air, she summoned every ounce of strength for her final push. Her toe caught a root. She stumbled but stayed on her feet, willing herself forward.
Another glance to the right. A tangle of thick brush slowed the man—just the few extra seconds she needed. Thirty feet. Twenty. Ten.
Something clamped down on her ankle like a bear trap and she slammed to the earth. She rolled over and pushed backward with her hands and her free leg, but it was useless. A massive hand held her fast.
When the other man arrived, he caught her flailing arms and held them both with one hand. His other hand smothered her face.
She fought like a wildcat, but they were too strong. Her struggle slowed, then stopped. She went limp.
When the man holding her ankle relaxed his grip, she kicked upward with her free leg. Her foot caught him square in the nose. The man cursed and let go.
This distracted the other man enough that with a strong jerk, she freed her arms. Her hand found a stone and she smashed it against his face.
She scrambled to her feet and looked toward the border but saw only a blurred wall of browns and greens. She blinked twice, trying to clear her vision.
A peach tree stood ten feet away. She saw every strand of fuzz on a single peach, as if looking through a magnifying glass.
With great effort, she tore her gaze away from the peach. When she did, the landscape was so distorted she couldn’t even tell which way led to the exit. Then she spotted a grape, and again she could make out the texture on the grape’s skin.
She rubbed her eyes then looked at her hands. The little one had smeared their salve on her face.
When Adam woke to an empty camp, he began a desperate search. No sign of Abigail. She felt pretty bad after losing control last night—maybe she went back toward the high country. Given his own misery, Adam was inclined to join her. Wherever she was, he wanted to be with her.
He ran due west. If he was right about her returning to the high country, with his speed he would soon overtake her. He ran until he reached the end of the orchard but found no sign of her.
Next, he went to the place where they had first entered the vineyard. From there, he ran along the border. Every hour that passed made him more frantic. Where could she be?
He started toward the city. But where would he even begin to look there? His pace slowed as hope drained away. He raked his fingers through his hair and turned in a circle, as if scanning his surroundings would somehow give him answers.
He hadn’t noticed the breeze until a small gust brought a shower of leaves floating down from the branches above. He watched them land. Once adorning beautiful trees, now dead on the ground, soon to become dirt. That’s life in the lowlands.
Life in the lowlands was futile. The banquet food in the high country was tasteless. And now he had lost the only thing he had left to live for. Abigail had left him.
He dropped to the ground and pulled his knees to his chest. The mix of abandonment, loss, guilt, and despair pressed down on him like a crushing avalanche.
He folded his arms across his knees and rested his head on his forearms. His gaze landed on a fallen leaf. Wait, what is that?
In the center of the leaf, there it lay—plain as day—a curled strand of blond hair. She must have come through here!
He leaped to his feet and ran down the path. But then his pace slowed. Abigail isn’t the only one with blond, curly hair. He could be chasing Alexander. Still, it could be Abigail. He kept running.
Rounding a corner, his hopes fell. A hundred yards ahead stood the towering, blond scholar.
Adam’s first impulse was to hide. He had no desire to talk to Alexander. He didn’t trust him, and he blamed Alexander for getting Abigail started on grapes, which led to … all this.
Approaching him seemed neither wise nor safe. If Alexander wanted, he could crush Adam. But he may have seen Abigail. If there was a chance of finding her, Adam didn’t care about the risks.
The giant turned, and just behind him, there she was.
Adam barely recognized her. Dark, sagging bags burdened her eyes. Her skin had become scaly with oozing sores. Worst of all, no trace of her magnificent smile remained.
“What have you done to her?” Adam shouted. Yes, the man could crush him, but Adam didn’t care. If Alexander took her, it would have to be over Adam’s crushed body.
“I’ve done nothing but help her,” Alexander said calmly.
“It’s true,” Abigail said, barely audible. “He didn’t do anything to me.”
“Let’s go back to the banquet hall,” Adam said. “I’ll go with you. They’ll be able to help you with your … problems, right?”
Alexander turned to Abigail, moved to the side, and swept his arm toward Adam as if to say, “Go ahead, if you like.”
“Go away, Adam. I want to be with Alexander. This is my home now.”
“I said, Go. Away.” She turned and, hand-in-hand with Alexander, set out toward the golden city.
Women had broken Adam’s heart before, but this was different. It felt like more than just the loss of a relationship. That woman disappearing down the path represented Adam’s connection to the high country, the cottage, the banquet. It wasn’t just a piece of his heart ripped away. His only tether to the good just vanished over the rise.
Now he was tethered to nothing. He didn’t belong in either world. His life was pointless, he’d lost everything, and worst of all, somehow it seemed it was his own fault.
The wind gusted and a painful gnawing grew in his stomach. In the past, pangs of conscience struck only after bingeing on fruit. But why now? He had eaten no fruit today. Yet these guilt pangs pressed harder than ever before. He sensed they had nothing to do with any individual failure. It was something worse—something deeper, as if he were failing in his very purpose for existing. The pleasure of Abigail’s company had suppressed these feelings before, but now …
The orchard trees flew by in a blur. Adam was determined to make the trip to the banquet hall faster than it had ever been made, and heaven help the wolf or anyone else who tried to get in his way.
Sheer hatred for the orchard powered his running. Every piece of fruit he saw made him angrier. His greatest fear had always been loss of freedom—to be held captive against his will. But this was worse. Abigail was being held captive by her will. Even if he raised an army to fight the little ones, what could be done about the chains of her own desires?
In that moment, Adam knew there was only one hope for Abigail, and, for that matter, for himself. He must find the Ruler.
When Adam reached the grasslands, he could already see the cottage—exploding with colors. The wind at his back seemed to carry him. Blue mist covered his legs. Streaking through the valley, his feet hardly touched the ground.
Once across the river, Adam dragged his raft into the boathouse.
“Where is my sister?”
Adam let go of the boat and turned. Watson stood in the doorway, fists clenched.
“She’s in the orchard with Alexander. I came as fast as I could.” He stepped closer. “Watson, I tried to bring her back here, but she … wouldn’t.”
Watson turned white.
From outside, Kailyn’s voice rang out. “Watson!”
Both men stepped from the doorway to meet Kailyn and Layth, who had been running. Kailyn spoke between gasps. “We have to hurry! Abigail’s in trouble. We don’t have much—” She noticed Adam. “Adam! You’re not with Abigail?”
Watson answered for him in a low, grave tone. “She has been taken.”
“Oh … no.” She turned her face away, sobbing, “No, no, no.”
“What did you mean when you said we need to hurry?” Adam asked.
Layth answered. “We visited the map room. Destruction is coming soon. Sooner than any of us thought.”
“Not years or months,” Kailyn added. “Days!”
“Destruction?” Adam asked. “What—”
“The city will fall.” Kailyn said. “And no prisoners will survive the battle. We have to get to Abigail before it’s too late—if it isn’t already.”
“The prisoners?” Adam said. “What prisoners? And why won’t they survive?”
“The king of the lowlands captures people by feeding their Judas desires until they love the lowlands more than the Ruler,” Watson said. “When the Ruler comes in judgment, he will offer them amnesty. But all who are enslaved by Judas desires will reject it and will be destroyed.”
“And you think Abigail is …” he turned to Kailyn.
She bowed her head.
Well then, let’s go!” Adam said. “We have to—”
“No,” said Layth. “We’ll go. You’re not equipped.”
The others agreed.
Adam surprised himself when he didn’t argue. As much as he wanted to help rescue Abigail, his desire to meet the Ruler was even greater. When he saw the change in Abigail, something changed in him. Desperation? More than that. It was like the morning sun had broken the horizon on the world—the real world. Values came into focus. He was beginning to see what mattered … and what didn’t.
“Please, hurry,” he said. “Bring her back.” Then he turned and started up the west side of the canyon toward the cottage.
The wind still at his back, Adam scaled the steep side like a mountain goat. As he approached the banquet hall, he felt like a child on Christmas in his excitement to meet the Ruler—and to see the people again. The whole time in the lowlands with Abigail, thoughts of the family warmth he’d seen at the banquet stayed with him, tugging at his best desires.
He pushed through the door and chose a table near the back. A server placed a full tray of food before him and smiled. “Enjoy!”
Adam didn’t recognize anything on the tray. He pushed his fork into a morsel and lifted it to his nose. He inhaled slightly, then returned it to the plate. He surveyed the surrounding tables. There were even fewer people eating than last time.
His stomach tightened and he took a deep breath to suppress rising feelings of panic. What if I still can’t taste it? He eyed his plate as if staring down an adversary.
Then, a hunger pang. It was a strange sensation. A pure, wholesome desire—powerful, yet no threat to his self-control.
He sipped a spoonful of soup. It wasn’t sweet. Nothing like fruit. But … did he taste something?
Another spoonful. Yes. Yes, I think I taste it!
He bit into a roll. Nothing. Some potatoes. No flavor at all. He chewed a bite of steak … delicious! He devoured that piece and started another.
After several more bites he pushed his plate away and braced for a wave of nausea. Instead, a wave of happiness swept over him. He pulled the plate back and wolfed down another piece of meat. He felt ten years younger. He stabbed a morsel of beef and held it up, turning his fork. This can’t be real.
Adam looked up to see Tichi just as a bit of gravy ran down his chin and dropped on a pile of crumbs surrounding his plate. He couldn’t suppress a grin, realizing he must have looked like a wild animal devouring its prey.
Tichi chuckled and took a seat across from him. He sensed her slight frame was a contrast with her true strength, and that wisdom and experience lay beneath her graying hair.
Moments later, Hodia approached the table. Tichi welcomed her with a warm smile. “Have a seat.”
Adam hoped the women wouldn’t ask why he had left last time, or where he had been since.
When the ladies got their food, Adam resumed eating. The more he ate, the better it tasted. He wanted to share his joy but thought it would sound strange that he was excited about something that was so routine for them.
Adam pointed to what looked like a pile of string on Tichi’s plate. “What is that? It smells amazing.”
“It’s called lasagna. And it tastes as good as it smells. Here, try it.” She scooped a portion from her plate to Adam’s, then started in on her meal with obvious delight.
After several ravenous bites, Tichi raised her eyes to Hodia, set down her fork, and let out a sigh. “What’s wrong, Hodia? Aren’t you hungry?”
“Guess who I ran into the other day.”
Tichi raised her eyebrows, prompting Hodia to continue.
“Abigail! And guess what she was doing.”
Tichi broke eye contact and looked back to her plate. Hodia continued anyway. “Eating grapes.”
Tichi looked startled for a split second but didn’t lift her face. She slowly turned some pasta on her fork.
Adam lost his appetite. If Hodia saw Abigail eat the grape, she knew Abigail had been with him at the time. He looked at Hodia, ready to give an explanation, but she would not meet his gaze.
She shook her head. “Such a disgrace.”
Tichi shifted in her chair and looked around. She lowered her voice. “I think the person you should be talking to is Abigail—not us.”
Hodia ignored the remark. “It’s just so disappoin—”
“Hodia! Stop.” Tichi looked straight at her. “If you haven’t even talked to Abigail, I don’t want to hear about it.”
Hodia’s lips tightened. Adam wasn’t sure if the redness in her cheeks showed embarrassment or anger.
“I was simply going to ask your advice on how to handle it. I thought I could come to you as a friend. I guess I was wrong.” Hodia stood and left the hall.
Tichi put a hand to her face, then drew it away—her fingers dripping with blood. Adam had noticed Hodia’s claw-shaped fingernails but never saw her touch Tichi.
Another woman sat next to Tichi and pointed to her laceration. “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I was talking with Hodia and she just … went off on me for no reason.”
“She can be like that,” the woman said.
Tichi nodded. “She thinks she’s so much better than everyone …”
As the women spoke, Adam’s attention fell to their hands. In just the few moments since Hodia had drawn blood from Tichi’s face, Tichi had grown claws like Hodia’s.
Adam stood, taking his plate, and was glad when the women didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps things would be different at a table where people were eating.
As he searched, he saw something that almost made him drop his food. “Levi?”
“Adam! You came back!” Levi wiped his mouth with his sleeve and stood to shake Adam’s hand. “It’s great to see you.”
Adam didn’t take his hand. “You’re … alive.”
Levi smiled and spread his arms. “Good as new. Once I got a few of these meals under my belt, my injuries healed right up.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Adam lowered his voice. “Levi, I saw your body in the lowlands. You looked like your heart had been ripped out. I know it was you.”
“Yeah, I know,” Levi said, retaking his seat. “That’s the old me. When I went through the cottage, the old Levi died.” He buttered a roll. “And good riddance!”
Levi had been stacking his used plates in the space next to him. He pushed the pile toward the center of the table and motioned for Adam to sit.
Adam didn’t move.
“What’s wrong, buddy? You look kind of … rattled,” Levi said. “Oh, you haven’t been through the cottage yet, huh?”
Adam took a seat. “No, not yet. I came here to meet the Ruler first.”
“Good idea. That’s how it was for me too. The last time, the Ruler came out right after you left. I was so blown away, I could hardly talk. Then he and I went down to the cottage and—”
“Just the two of you?”
“Yeah! I couldn’t believe it. He came right over to our table and invited me.”
“What was it like in there?”
“Oh, man, I can’t even describe it. You need to see it for yourself.”
“Did you get a … new name?”
“Sure did! An empowerment too—the gift of faith. He made it so trusting him comes easy to me. It wouldn’t really have been my first choice for a weapon, but he promised me I’ll use it. I have no idea how, but I figure he knows what he’s doing.”
A deafening roar halted their conversation and brought all who were eating to their feet. The sound of the Mighty Wind filled the banquet hall.
Levi leaned close and shouted over the roar. “This is the best part of the meal. In fact, I think it’s the whole point of the meal. The Mighty Wind always blows first. The stronger the wind, the more spectacular the Ruler’s appearance.”
Men with trumpets, French horns, and ram’s horns lined every wall, and the rumble from dozens of timpani drums from the balcony shook Adam’s chest. Cheers erupted but were nearly drowned out by the crescendo of the instrumental fanfare.
A deafening voice rang out from above—“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Ruler of the kings of the earth!”
The great doors from the kitchen burst open and light shot out like sparks from an anvil, flooding the hall—and, it seemed, the entire high country. The hall erupted with thunderous applause, cheers, and joyful laughter.
The Ruler’s face shone like the sun. Adam couldn’t look directly at him, and his first impulse was to duck behind something. But at the same time, the Ruler’s countenance warmed parts of Adam’s soul that he now realized had been cold from the day he was born. The light seemed at once life-threatening and life-giving—deadly, and essential.
The light subsided and Adam saw the Ruler’s face. His knees buckled and he found himself on the floor along with Levi and most of the others around him.
Adam had many times been amazed, but never in awe—not like this. He had felt belittled by those who outshined him in degrees, but never dwarfed by true greatness. Rather than embarrassing him, it drew him in—drew him to not only see the glory but to participate in it. Adam had never felt smaller, but it was an exhilarating smallness, like one standing before a massive, thunderous waterfall that would crush him if he got too close, but that was so majestic that merely watching it fortified and expanded his soul.
He realized now that he had been born with a need to be awed. He was like a child who didn’t know he was thirsty until the first time he drank.
“Did you notice his hair?” Levi asked. The Ruler looked to be in the prime of life, and yet with white hair and a gray beard. Levi turned to a server standing with them at their table. “Tell Adam what you told me about the hair.”
“It points to his existence from ancient times,” said the server, “and to his comprehensive wisdom. He’s the oldest being in existence and has witnessed, understood, and remembered every event stretching back to the very womb of time, comprehending the purpose and meaning of all things. He knows every heart, every motive, every thought, every impulse, every appetite, and can be trusted as a guide to always point his people to the best possible course.”
“And his legs?” Adam asked. “They look like they’re solid bronze.”
The server nodded. “Powerful, immovable, utterly and eternally stable.”
The Ruler’s fiery eyes penetrated to the secrets of Adam’s soul.
His voice shook the hall. He spoke with awesome authority, perfect clarity, and ultimate finality.
“And check out his sword,” Levi said, pointing to the blade secured at the Ruler’s hip.
“With that sword,” said the server, “he will crush all his enemies in perfect justice, spotless purity, and overwhelming glory. He holds in his hand the destiny of every person in existence. He is at once the best friend and the worst enemy anyone could have.”
As the server spoke, awe expanded in Adam like a starburst with rays touching every corner of his soul. In the Ruler’s presence, he felt thoroughly known and understood.
He also felt … dirty. The Ruler’s goodness awakened him to a darkness within him—a darkness utterly incompatible with the Ruler’s goodness. And yet, he didn’t feel repelled. Just the opposite. He sensed it would be possible to be at peace with the Ruler—though couldn’t imagine how. And while Abigail had been his tether to the good, the Ruler now attracted him to the good with irresistible glory.
Adam’s awe gave way to surprise when he saw what the Ruler was wearing. “Is that an … apron?”
Levi smiled. “Isn’t it amazing? He’s the great Ruler of the kings of the earth, and yet he serves every week as our chef.”
Adam scanned Levi’s face, trying to discern if he was serious. “The Ruler is the chef?”
“It’s true. He says serving as chef is an essential part of his work as Ruler because his food is the only source of life. Fruit brings death and misery, and so the only law in the high country is that we must prefer his life-giving delicacies over fruit.”
“That’s the only law?”
“Yeah! You can do anything you want as long as you prefer real food over the garbage in the lowlands. He says that’s the only law because it’s the supreme way to honor him. And because it does the most good for society—and for yourself.”
After removing his apron, the Ruler spoke, controlling his thunderous voice with gentleness and compassion that set Adam’s troubled heart at ease. Still, the Ruler’s voice rattled Adam’s body.
“I am the beginning and the end. I am, I have always been, and I will always be. Why do the powers rage? Will the king of the lowlands take a stand against me? I will crush him, the powers, and their people to powder on the day of judgment. But those who lay down their arms and come to me will be given full pardon. I am a shepherd. I gather the lambs in my arms and carry them close to my heart. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Learn from me, for I am humble and gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Blessed are those who eat at my table!”
As he spoke, some fell on their knees and then on their faces, trembling in awe. Others stood like soldiers at attention, displaying profound respect and honor. Others sat in chairs in deep contemplation.
As the Ruler finished speaking, the best aromas yet wafted from the kitchen.
“Ah,” said the Ruler. “The pies are ready. Enjoy, everyone!”
Before the words were out of his mouth, the servers moved toward the kitchen to bring out the desserts.
The Ruler picked up his apron, but instead of returning to the kitchen, he approached Adam’s table.
“Welcome, Adam. I have so looked forward to meeting you!”
Adam opened his mouth but could generate no reply. His co-mingled joy and awe silenced him. Others had embraced the Ruler. Adam wanted to, but instead he fell again to his knees.
The Ruler extended his hand and lifted Adam to his feet. “Come. I would like you to join me in my cottage.”
Adam lost his breath. From his first day in this world, he had known the cottage was important—more important than anything else. Most of his life he had suppressed that knowledge, but it had always lingered in his soul. In his quest to see it, he had forsaken everything, faced giants, stepped over dead bodies, fought wolves, and gained and lost the most remarkable woman he’d ever known. And now, after everything, he was about to see it. Chills ran through every nerve in his body.
Adam had been so desperate to secure the Ruler’s help in rescuing Abigail, he had pushed his body to the limit in his flight to the high country. He’d envisioned himself crashing into the banquet hall, clutching the Ruler by the arm, and beseeching him to come with him to the orchard. And on the journey, he would pepper the Ruler with the stockpile of pressing questions swirling in his mind.
But now, as they strolled along the path to the cottage, all his anxieties settled behind the solemnity of the moment. Peace fell upon him as he watched the swaying treetops massage the sky in the cool breeze. As urgent as his concern for Abigail was, he sensed the Ruler could be trusted to carry that anxiety while Adam faced the momentous occasion at hand. The mysterious structure that had beckoned him since his first day in this world stood just ahead.
Adam craned his neck before the ancient structure’s towering door. It wasn’t just the size of what stood before Adam, but its magnificence that moved him to his core. It made him feel small and vulnerable, and at the same time supremely honored to have been invited to this place—and by none other than the Ruler himself.
As they approached the doors, Adam wondered how a mere man, who stood no taller than Adam, would open such a gate. He thought not even the guardian from his vision would be able to gain entry. But the Ruler laid a hand on the door and swung it on its great hinges with ease.
As they stepped in, Adam crossed the threshold into what seemed like a different world.
At first, the light blinded him, and the echo of their footsteps in the cavernous foyer sent a shiver down his spine.
As his eyes adjusted, he looked up. A series of plaques along the foyer walls detailed how all things came to be and how the half-real world became broken and lost its connection with reality.
From there the Ruler took him through the only doorway leading out of the foyer. In the next room, a decagon, each of the ten walls emitted a different color.
“These are the ten primary colors,” the Ruler explained. “Each one shows a different shade of the Father’s heart. Together they reveal what he is like—how he thinks about things, how he acts, and what he desires. There is nothing in existence more beautiful than the desires of the Father’s heart. Most of his shades are not visible in this world, but he has enabled humans to view these ten—and thousands of different shades within the ten.”
A circular fireplace heated the room from the center. Adam hadn’t noticed the chill in the corridor until they entered this room and felt its inviting warmth. A marble counter encircled the fireplace and a blue haze filled the room.
“You would do well to spend much time in this room,” the Ruler said. “The more you gaze upon these colors, the more they penetrate your heart. That’s why you are so drawn to people like Kailyn, Watson, and Abigail. Their hearts reflect these colors.”
On each of the walls hung a mirror. Adam stepped in front of the first and was startled to discover the mirror did not reflect his body, but his heart. His surprise turned to sadness when he found no trace of that wall’s color in him.
The mirror’s display of Adam’s inner being was not only visual—it reached all the senses, especially the sense of smell. A putrid stench intensified the ugliness of the image.
He moved on to the next wall, and then the next. Each mirror revealed the same repulsive ugliness—no colors. The realization that he was nothing like what he should be—nothing like the Father—set his heart racing like a criminal about to be caught. He wanted out of this room.
Humiliated, he tried to cover the ugliest parts with his hands. The moment he did so, scorching heat enveloped him from behind. The fireplace had become a raging furnace, and he smelled the hair on the back of his head being singed.
Then he caught sight of the Ruler’s reflection in the mirror. He circled the room, watching the Ruler’s reflection in each of the ten mirrors. The flood of colors proved more than Adam could handle and he dropped to his knees.
He looked again at his own reflection, and terror seeped into every crevice of his soul. Could the monster in the glass really be him—his true self?
He considered the way he had always thought about himself and the way he’d portrayed himself to people. What a lie! I’m a complete fraud. He had imagined himself to be a good man. But the mirrors revealed selfish motives, arrogant pride, ingratitude, and irreverence.
It was clear now—he had always known of the Ruler. He’d known, deep down, there had to be a Ruler, supremely good, and worthy of adoration. He had known these things and suppressed them because he wanted to live for himself. And for that—the realization fell on him like a guillotine—for that, he deserved to die.
The weight of regret and sorrow pushed him from his knees to his face, tears wetting the floor.
The sting of his guilt doubled, doubled again, and a dark wave of dread swept over him. Utterly condemned, his lungs still drew air but in the truest sense, he was dead. This room had killed him by showing him that on the inside, in the ways that matter most, he had been dead all his life.
A gaping hole opened in his chest. His hand instinctively rose to his heart but found only a cavernous void.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “You can’t stay here,” the Ruler said. “Come with me to the next room—the one I built,” he added, with a tone of satisfaction.
Unable to stand, Adam turned his head, expecting to see the Ruler’s feet. Instead, he saw his face. The great monarch had stooped to Adam’s level.
The Ruler stood, took Adam in his arms, and carried him from the room.
When they came to the door of the Ruler’s prized room, a row of towels hung from hooks on the wall alongside the door.
Adam expected this room to be the most ornate and impressive space of the entire building. But when the door opened, an overpowering stench assaulted him from inside the room. The smell of death.
Darkness shrouded the room, and Adam hesitated in the doorway. The Ruler put a firm hand on his elbow and pulled him in.
Adam slipped and fell. Something greased the floor and now covered Adam. He looked toward the doorway where light from the hall shone on the red, tacky fluid. Blood! Something had been slaughtered in this room.
After what he saw of himself in the last room, his only thought was that it should be his blood on this floor. Perhaps it would be—if he stayed much longer.
On hands and knees, Adam slipped and slid back to the door and into the hallway. The Ruler followed and closed the door to the blood room.
Adam sat against the wall in the hallway and looked up at the Ruler. “What happened in there?”
The Ruler sat on the floor next to him. His voice grew somber. “It’s my blood.”
“Your blood? What happened? Who did that to you?”
“My Father,” he said, almost whispering.
“Your … your Father?” Adam could manage no other words.
The Ruler took one of the towels and began cleaning the blood from Adam’s arms and legs.
“But … why? Was he angry with you?”
The Ruler dabbed some blood from Adam’s face. “No. He did it because he was angry with you.”
“Yes, Adam. Remember what you saw in the mirrors?”
Adam hung his head. He didn’t have to ask why the Father would be angry with him. But why had the Ruler been punished for Adam’s evil?
The Ruler seemed to have heard his unspoken question. “He punished me because the punishment you deserved was more than you could take. For justice to be done, it would have had to go on forever. You would have been sent to the lake of fire in outer darkness. I didn’t want that. I knew I could take the full punishment and recover.”
The Ruler moved in front of Adam and toweled the blood from Adam’s hands. “Look at me, Adam. I love you—more than you could ever know. So does the Father. So together we decided I would pay the debt you couldn’t pay.”
The despair of death that had enveloped Adam gave way to glimmers of hope. “So … the Father is no longer angry with me?” he ventured, thinking it was too good to be true.
The Ruler’s answer chilled Adam to his bones. “He is furious with you. As am I. You still bear the guilt of your evil.”
Adam’s stomach pushed into his throat and he slid away from the Ruler. His heart raced. “But … I thought you paid that debt.”
“I did, but for my sacrifice to be applied to you, you must pass through the next room.” The Ruler stood and extended his hand. Adam took it and followed him down the hallway. Their slow steps echoed in the empty corridor as they progressed to the third room.
Adam’s uncontrolled trembling shook his voice. “What’s in this one? I don’t know if I can …”
“Don’t worry. The only thing you have to do in this room is trust me.”
The Ruler smiled. “I know—scary words. But important ones. This is the most comfortable, welcoming, rest-giving room in the house. However, many have died in here. If you want to survive it, you must trust me.”
Two padlocks and several deadbolts sealed the room. Adam lifted his eyes to the inscription above the door: If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all. The Ruler drew a set of keys from his pocket and released each of the locks. Then he threw the door open with a dramatic sweep of his hand. Adam stood in the doorway and all his apprehensions melted away.
A vast hall filled with people stretched before him. He couldn’t even see to the other side. Some relaxed on overstuffed furniture—pictures of contentment. Others slept on beds. Some busied themselves with projects—projects that were humanly impossible. One man brought a stone to life. Another carried a load that would have crushed a normal person.
Everyone looked happy.
The Ruler stepped in and opened a palm of invitation. Adam approached the threshold, then stopped. The room had no floor.
He stepped back and reexamined the activities in the room. People moved about in the normal way, as if on a solid surface.
One man didn’t seem as contented as the others. He reclined in a large easy chair but kept shifting his position and looking down at where the floor should be. Then, he stood. As his weight lifted from the chair, in a flash the Ruler appeared at his side, extending his hand. But rather than taking it, the man flailed in a fruitless attempt to steady himself, then plunged downward, screaming in free fall until he disappeared from view.
When the Ruler returned to the doorway, Adam asked, horrified. “How long will he fall?”
“Until he trusts me.”
“But what if he never trusts you?”
“Then he will fall forever,” came the grim reply. The Ruler then stepped several paces into the room. “Come. You must pass through this room.”
The Ruler’s smile lit up the entire promise room as Adam walked to him across the floorless expanse without sinking an inch. “Excellent!” The Ruler placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Keep trusting me like that, and you will find this room the source of ever-increasing happiness.”
Adam stepped further into the room, lost in wonder.
“The promise room is the Father’s treasury,” said the Ruler. “All his riches are stored here.”
A pedestal near the door captured Adam’s attention. The gleaming, translucent material mesmerized him. He glanced at the Ruler, who extended his arm toward the pedestal. “Feel free.”
Adam stepped closer, hands behind his back, careful not to touch it. He circled the piece. Opposite the Ruler, he stopped short, eyes wide, lowering his face inches from the side of the pedestal.
He stood. “Is this … gold?”
The Ruler smiled. “You’ve never seen gold like that, have you?”
Adam shook his head. “I can … see through it.”
“That’s what pure gold is like.” Then the Ruler motioned with a nod. “Touch it.”
Adam stepped back.
“Don’t be afraid. This isn’t like the gold you’re used to. Go ahead—touch it.”
Adam reached a tentative finger.
The pleasures that coursed through his body startled him. He remembered Kailyn’s words In the high country, anyone’s gold can heal you. At the time, it hadn’t sounded plausible. But here he was, touching gold he didn’t own, and it filled him with sensations of pleasure unlike anything he’d ever felt even with his own gold—hope, contentment, peace, and joy.
The pleasures that came with touching his own gold in the city had always been dampened by anxiety—the pressure of having to guard it and the fear of losing it. But this … the thought of someone else enjoying it only added to his happiness.
Then the Ruler astonished him. “Anything you see in this room, you may have.”
Adam looked around the room again, thinking there must be some catch.
“This is the most important room in the cottage. You will always find me here. When you are afraid, come here and find refuge in my promise of protection. When you are worried, burdened with guilt, angry, needy, tempted, or sad, run to this room. Whatever you need—strength, wisdom, courage, hope, joy—you will find it all here among the treasury of my promises.”
As the words fell from the Ruler’s lips, they anchored themselves in Adam’s heart. No longer did he feel the need to evaluate them or judge their veracity. They now stood as the foundation of knowledge—the standard against which he must judge all other truth claims.
“I trust you,” Adam said.
“Perhaps. But you won’t really know until I lead you somewhere that doesn’t seem best to you. Following me where you already want to go requires no trust.”
Adam shuddered, recalling Abigail’s description of the room of delights. He hoped he wouldn’t have to go there.
After a tour of the promise room, the Ruler led Adam into a lounge area where people mingled, laughed, and enjoyed an array of desserts from the tables. Adam could hardly wait to join in the conversation. So much had happened, and he wanted to share his experiences with like-minded people and hear their stories.
As he approached a dessert table, Adam sensed the Ruler was no longer near him. He turned to see him standing at a doorway to another room.
With a tip of his head, the Ruler vanished through the doorway. Adam leaned to get a glimpse inside. The dimly lit space stood empty, save a table, a chair, and a lamp. Adam looked again around the lounge. Just a few quick conversations, a bite to eat—couldn’t this other room wait?
Feeling the loss of the Ruler’s presence, Adam sighed, turned his back on the lounge, and stepped through the doorway.
Within the room, the Ruler stood at the hand-crafted mahogany table with a rolled parchment. “It’s a map,” he said as he unrolled it and held the two sides flat.
Adam caught his breath. He recognized the area immediately. The map detailed the region south of the golden city, and in the lower right corner, plain as day, there it was. The pond.
Adam’s spine tingled. Tears welled up and choked his words. “Is that …”
“Yes. It is the pond that brought you into the half-real world.”
His heart pounded. “If I go there, will it take me back?”
“Dive into the waters, and you will be as you were before the waters.”
Adam could hardly speak. The greatest desire of his heart—the pursuit of his entire life lay on the table before him. Kailyn was right. The Ruler did know the way back to his family. Adam imagined the reunion—the joyful embraces, catching up, learning all about their lives, and telling them his story.
“Can I go there now?”
“The question is not whether you can, but whether you should. If you go, you will find the pond, but you will not find happiness. You will be happier if you stay here with me. If you go, you can never return. If you choose to stay, you must remain, and the map will be destroyed. The choice is yours.”
The Ruler walked farther into the room, around a corner, and out of sight, leaving Adam alone with the map.
My choice? It’s an impossible choice! In his wildest imagination, Adam could not fathom how anything in the cottage could make him happier than going home. And yet, he didn’t think the Ruler would lie. He studied the map the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.
Why didn’t he just command me to stay here? Or destroy the map and then tell me to trust him? Why force me to make this decision?
The room, lit by windows, grew dark as night fell. He pulled the lamp close to the table. The light revealed something he hadn’t noticed before—an inscription on the edge of the mahogany table. He pushed the map out of the way. The inscription simply read, “In his joy …”
He stood and paced. In his joy? What does that … Oh! He reached into his pocket for the cottage piece Abigail had given him. “The banquet is like a treasure hidden in a field. A man finds it and in his joy, trades all his gold for the field.”
The fog cleared. Yes … yes, I see! This isn’t supposed to be a hard decision. It should be driven by joy.
He recalled the treasures in the promise room. He remembered the Ruler’s magnificent glory at the banquet hall, his colors in the mirrors, and the amazing food and family warmth at the meal. Even the blood room had become dear to him. What could compare to what he received in that room?
A smile overtook his face. Then the smile turned to a hearty laugh. He dashed to the table, snatched the map, and ripped it to pieces.
He ran to catch up to the Ruler, and rounding a corner, collided with him. He would have fallen had the monarch not caught him. They both laughed.
Dagon, the warrior assigned to hinder Adam’s progress through the cottage, could feel the heat from the white-hot tip of Anzu’s sword an inch from his face. “You had one job,” the fearsome lieutenant growled. “How hard is it to plant doubt in a man who has lost everything?”
“I … tried sir. But … the cottage piece. It—”
Anzu thundered. “Do you remember nothing from your training?” He slapped Dagon’s face with the side of his sword. “Use the mirrors, you incompetent little toad.”
Dagon knew anything he said would only make matters worse, so he held his tongue, bowed, and backed away.
Anzu’s death-glare did not relent. “You’re fortunate I have more important business in the lowlands right now. You’re getting a rare second chance. There will not be a third. If Adam is not falling through the floor of the promise room by the end of today, you will fall. Now, get back to the cottage and do your job.”
“I don’t care what it costs,” Adam said. “Nothing compares to being here with you. In fact, I tore the—”
“I saw!” The Ruler pressed his love into Adam with an embrace that satisfied every craving for family Adam had ever had.
He let go and gripped Adam by both shoulders. With the smile of an excited child he said, “Now, come with me.”
They left the promise room through a back door, and the Ruler led him down a long, narrow hall. Adam jogged to keep up.
The corridor appeared to dead end, but the Ruler touched the wall and it opened into a room. Adam entered, and his blood ran cold. “No, not …” He turned to the Ruler. “Please, I can’t. Not again.”
Mirrors surrounded him like ten angry executioners. Seeing the void of colors in his heart had been excruciating before. Now, after learning of the Father’s anger toward him … He covered his eyes.
“The mirrors are not your enemy, Adam. You will learn to love this room. It won’t be easy, but this is necessary.” The Ruler gently pulled Adam’s hand from his face. “Look.”
Adam recoiled from the reflections and covered his face again, but the grotesque image remained burned into his memory. No. No—I can’t be that evil.
For a split-second, a different kind of terror interrupted the agony of his guilt—a dark presence, like when he found the bag of fruit at the downed tree. Hairs stood up on his neck.
Just as quickly, it was gone. Eyes still covered, a new image arose in his mind. He imagined Levi standing next to him by the mirror.
If I look this bad, how ugly must Levi’s heart be? I never did the kinds of things he did. I’ve never stolen anything, never hurt anyone. I was always the first to help when buildings fell. I saved Jacqueline Steadman. Memories of past good deeds played out in his mind with surprising clarity—as if he were viewing them live. His tense muscles relaxed. I am a good person. Sure, I’ve made mistakes, but I’ll make up for them.
Then he felt the Ruler’s penetrating gaze and realize all his thoughts were laid bare before him.
The Ruler raised an eyebrow. “Adam, he who justifies himself will have himself as a defense and no other. But he who comes defenseless—I will plead his case.”
Adam drew a deep breath and blew it out. He squared himself to a mirror and took in the full, sickening image.
All notions of his goodness, all excuses, all rationalizations rang hollow. He deserved condemnation, and he knew it.
He didn’t understand all the Ruler had said about the blood room or what he meant by “plead your case,” but he did know the Ruler was his only hope to escape the Father’s wrath.
He turned from the mirror and fell on his knees. “I’m not in a position to expect any favor from you or the Father. All I can say is please, please—whatever you did in that blood room, apply it to me. Have mercy on me. I have no other hope.”
The Ruler’s face lit up with a smile radiating happiness that warmed Adam to his core. He gathered Adam in his arms and embraced him with tears and laughter—like an elder brother welcoming home a long-lost sibling.
“You’ve done it! You have trusted me instead of yourself. Well done!” The Ruler took a carafe from the circular counter, poured a glass, and handed it to Adam.
Adam held the blue fluid to the light. “Is this the same fluid from the mist?”
Adam peered into the glass. “What is it?”
“It’s distilled from my colors. The Father uses it as a way of infusing his life into those he favors.”
“This fluid infuses life? What does that mean? I’m already alive.”
“No, you died on your first visit to this room. Drink this and you will live forever—even after your body dies.”
Adam downed the glass in one swig.
In a nearby room, a raucous noise erupted—joyful shouts, laughter, and loud music.
“What’s that all about?” Adam asked.
“You! The Father and many of his guardians are in that room, and they’ve waited a long time for this moment.”
“The moment you would taste of the Father’s life. No one can drink of it unless he trusts me more than his own feelings and relies on me instead of his own efforts to make himself acceptable to the Father.
“But … why? Why does one man trusting another matter so much to them?”
The Ruler positioned Adam in front of a mirror. “That’s why.”
Adam forced himself to face the image, bracing for yet another assault from the condemning glass. Instead, he beheld a rainbow of brilliant, gleaming light. The filth now gone, the image bore a striking resemblance to the Ruler himself.
He stared, captivated. “Is this real? It doesn’t even look like me.”
“It doesn’t look like the man you used to be,” said the Ruler, “because that man is dead. I assure you, the reflection is quite real. And every day you walk with the wind, you will grow deeper into that reality. You asked before how a person can have my sacrifice applied to his account. The answer is simple—faith. The moment a person trusts me, I paint that person’s soul with my colors.”
“But my whole life has been … I’ve done things that—”
“All is forgiven! My blood has been applied to your account, so your debt is paid. You have now become my brother, with my colors. And the Father’s anger toward you is erased. His love for you is now just like his love for me, because when you trust me, you are connected to me in the Father’s eyes—grace by association.”
The wind swirled in the room, and a translucent gold chain with a small bar appeared in the Ruler’s hand. He placed it around Adam’s neck. “This is who you are now.”
Adam ran his finger across the inscription on the bar. My new name. But what does it mean?
“That name describes your station in the coming war. You must learn its meaning and master the weapon that comes with it.”
Ever since his conversation with Abigail about her weapon, Adam had daydreamed about when he would get his. What power was he about to receive? The words spilled from his mouth with the eagerness of a child. “What is it? Do I get it now?”
The Ruler’s solemn tone cooled Adam’s exuberance. “It is a weapon, not a toy. Yours will be one of the mightiest of all weapons. But you will face an adversary who has power to sift you as wheat. It will take your weapon and much more to save your friends.”
“Friends? Not just Abigail? Are the others in trouble now too?”
“The battle is the fiercest they have ever faced. And it is about to get worse. Much worse. Watson, Kailyn, and Layth are fighting for their lives at this moment. And the enemy holds Abigail in his clutches.”
A dark terror rose in Adam’s stomach. “Will they all … make it?”
“No, they will not. Life will be lost in this war. But if you master your weapon, some may be saved.” The Ruler began toward the door. “Come.”
A year’s worth of hopes and fears packed themselves into the few minutes of their somber journey down the hall toward the assignment room. Terror at the thought of facing such a powerful enemy and the grief of knowing at least one of his friends would die nearly paralyzed him. And the eerie howl rising from the far end of the hall didn’t help.
But when Adam watched the Ruler, the great monarch’s countenance quelled his anxieties. The Ruler’s expression was serious, but not sad. It was the look of a man embarking on a plan that would be costly, but glorious. The Ruler’s straight back and confident stride infused hope into Adam. By the time they reached the assignment room, Adam was a different man.
The howl had become a roar as they approached, and it was coming from inside the room. The door and the wall surrounding it quaked, as if ready to give way under the strain.
“What’s going on in there?” Adam asked. “Sounds like a hurricane.”
“It is a hurricane,” said the Ruler as he took hold of the latch. “And it’s time for you to meet him.”
*** The End***
To the Reader
Thanks for reading!
If you’re eager to find out what happens when Adam meets the Mighty Wind and what becomes of Abigail and the others, feel free to join my Readers List so you’ll be the first to know when volume two of the series is released. You can sign up at DrichardFerguson.com.
I pray you were edified by the story. It is an extended parable depicting the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—how a person comes to know God. My goal in writing was to dramatize the truths of the gospel in a way that lodges in the reader’s imagination, drawing both mind and heart to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Book two of this series, the story of the attempt to rescue Abigail, is a parable of the Christian life showing how to fight the war against sin and how to escape enslaving sins through walking by the Spirit.
My prayer is that both volumes will not only edify you, dear reader, but also that they might be a tool you could use to disciple someone else or use in a discussion group or Bible study.
The layers of meaning in the allegory are designed to serve readers at every level, so those farther along in the journey of studying God’s Word might help younger believers along as they share their insights. Study guides for both volumes are due out soon.
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