I wake up for the first time on the second story of an abandoned house. My creators have already left. A set of clothes, recordbook and pencil are at my side, so I don't have to take any steps to retrieve them. In the room there's a bed, two steps away, a desk, three steps away, and a door and a window, both five steps away. I climb out the window and skip having to walk through the house.
I hop out the window and almost twist my ankle. There are eight houses on this block, big ones. At least 250 steps around, easily. You have to admire the Builders. To live the briefest of all lives, with no time for creating progeny or finding a partner. Entirely devoted to making not even a whole construction, but a part. Each of these houses probably cost a dozen lives.
A small sign nailed into the grass proclaims this the town of Oro. Eight blocks of eight houses. One dispensary, 70 large steps away. One communications center, 43 large steps away. A hub, 56 large steps away. A library, 92 large steps away. I head for the dispensary.
There are only four other people at the dispensary. A man taps the button for fluids and is given a gallon jug of water. A woman asks for food, and gets several bags of jerky. The couple next to me discusses something in hushed tones, occasionally glancing over their shoulder to make sure I'm not listening in. After a few minutes they come to a decision and place a token into the slot. The machine dispenses a large brown box. They take it and leave. I request food and fluids, and get several bags of chips and orange soda.
I go to the library next. A man is outside, desperately talking to a woman. He's taken 9,000 steps already, he says. Please, I just want to form something before I die. But she ignores him and walks off. When she leaves, the desperate facade disappears. He mutters some swear words to himself before turning back on when the next woman comes past.
I'm not sure what I've come here for. My purpose is to write, not to read. Perhaps if I read others' accounts, I can write my own better. I type in “recordbook”, and a red notebook pops out of the slot. Flipping through doesn't reveal anything interest. A journey through a town, dialogue with a few inhabitants. Well-done, but nothing special. The author plays it safe, keeping the big questions in the corner of the text where they can't be addressed. I deposit it and request another. This one is blue, written in neat cursive script, and absolutely atrocious. The writer has barely any idea what he's doing. The events are muddled and unclear, they hop from place to place seemingly at random, and the prose is blander than week old potato soup. Disgusted, I deposit it and request another.
I flip through sixteen books total, all disappoints. Some were good, a couple even close to great. But they were all uninspired. Safe. The notes my creators left said that writers exist so that other may know the secret truths about that world. That we are to peel back the layers of apathy in society and shake people out of their complacency. To show them new truths they never could have dreamed of. If this is true, none of these people could be considered writers. They lived and wrote only the most mediocre lives. They took no great risks.
Is that what I am destined for? To live nothing of worth, create nothing of worth? And then die? Is that all my creation means? I cannot allow it.
A map taped to the side of the library says the closest town is 516 large steps down the western road, so that's the direction I go.
A man has stopped by the side of the road. Seeing a possibility for an interesting story, I stop to talk with him.
“I don't want to die,” he says.
“None of these people do, but they keep walking,” I say.
He looks up at me. “I'll be dead before I reach the end of the road. I can't do it. Please, let me stay here.”
“Death isn't something to fear,” I tell him. “You should embrace the new journey. Take joy in what your progeny will do once you're gone.”
“I don't have any,” he says. “I couldn't find anyone. I've walked nine thousand, nine hundred steps, and I've got nothing to show for it. Just go, please. I want to be alone.” I try to coax more out, but he says nothing of interest. There's no story here. I continue on.
The town's throwing a massive celebration. A hundred people, maybe more, moving through the streets, dancing, laughing, drinking. The buildings have been strung up with banners and streamers. Confetti carpets the grown. A woman with two large glasses of green, bubbly liquid comes up to me. She shoves one of the glasses into my hands.
“What are you celebrating?” I ask.
She laughs. “Do we need a reason?”
“It's generally expected.”
Again, she laughs, and sips her glass. “Not in this town. We felt like celebrating, so we did. It's not like we've got anything else to do, you know?”
“I wouldn't, actually.”
“Oh, I see.” She raises an eyebrow. “A writer, then.”
“How did you know?”
“You're the only ones that would be wandering around like this. Are you going to drink that, or just stare at it?”
I take a sip. It's cool, and minty. There's a burn to it. “What is this?”
“Mint juice. Come on, I want to show you something.” She grabs my sleeve and pulls. Reluctantly, I follow.
She leads me to the living room of a medium sized house. A man and a woman are already there, talking on the couch. They give us a cursory acknowledgment, then ignore us. The woman who led me here falls into a chair and points for me to take a seat.
“You never said what your name was,” I say.
“Karen,” she says. “Though that's not fair, since you never gave me yours.”
“I haven't decided yet,” I say.
She takes another gulp of mint juice. “Damn, how young are you?”
“Six hundred, eighty-three steps.”
She makes a face. “Well fuck, if I had known that I wouldn't have invited you home.”
“I can leave.”
“Nah, might as well stay.” She stares into my eyes. I hadn't noticed this earlier, but her eyes are beautiful. Brown, with flecks of green and gold running around the center. They stay locked on me, boring through as she takes a last sip from the glass and places it on the desk next to the chair. “Nice to meet you, Elethiomel.”
“That's an odd name.”
“You're an odd person.” Finally she breaks eye contact, to pick up her glass. “Even for a writer.”
“What, you didn't know?” She grins. “You practically wear a fucking sign.”
“I'm not that bad.” I drink again. My tongue is going a bit numb. It feels good.
“Whatever you say.” She draws her legs up, off the floor, and is quiet for several minutes. The two on the couch embrace and lie down. The man whispers something into the woman's ear.
Karen breaks the silence by saying, “What's it like being a writer?”
I shrug. “I'm not the best person to ask that. There are probably four or five older ones within a few hundred steps.”
“Yeah. No. That's not what I mean. Just… you know,” she waves her hand in place of a word, “what's it like to know what you're supposed to do? You've been around to think about that.” She doesn't look at me as she asks the question.
“It's not something I've thought about.” I consider the question for a moment. “Why are you asking? Walkers know what they're supposed to do.”
Karen scowls. “We don't have a purpose, we have a fucking end-state. You guys, builders, writers, whatever, you always know what you should do. We just know what we need to have done, once we're dead. What's that like?”
“Easier than not knowing.”
She lets out a staccato laugh. “Of course it's fucking easy.”
“I don't know what else you want me to say.”
Karen shakes her head. “No, it's fine. Just… I don't know. It's nothing.” She stands and walks to me. Places something in my hand. A gold dispenser token. I look at up at her. Her face is blank. “Well?” she says.
“I can't. I'm sorry.” I hand her the coin and leave the house.
It would have been so easy to take it. To settle down with her, create a progeny, and live a comfortable, happy life. I was almost tempted to. But I could not help but think of the books, back at the library, and what would happen if I had taken her offer. Mine would have joined theirs, mediocre, forgettable, meaningless, another tale of creation and death. That is not the story I'm looking for.
I'm standing at the edge of town with three other people, watching the road. There aren't many people on it now. Most people travel during the day, and the few who don't are at the celebration. Someone gave me a cigarette, and the four of us are smoking. The one who gave me the cigarette's a writer, but he doesn't want to answer any of my questions. So I watch the stars until the cigarette's smoked to the filter and move down the road.
The empty road is relaxing. It's a cool night, and the only noises are the buzzing insects and faint pulse of music from the celebration. For the first time since I woke up, I'm able to gather my thoughts. Where do I go from here? The knowledge my creator's left me with says that it's traditional for writers to travel from city to city along a single road, collecting what stories they can. I can see another city not far off. My estimate would about 500 steps.
But cities are not where you find great stories. You do not create great works by sticking to what is already known. The books in the library told known stories, and were meaningless for it. My stories won't be traditional. I take my first step off the road.
I've come to a small building. It's the only structure I can see in this area, or have seen for the past 600 steps. The walls are crumbling. Someone's covered the south end so thoroughly in graffiti that the brick is no longer visible. The glass in all the windows except one has been shattered. I peer into one on the north wall. There's nothing inside that I can see, but I don't dare shine my flashlight in, so there could be almost anything lurking inside. After listening for a long while and hearing nothing, I risk using the light. There's nothing inside. I climb through the window, lay out my mat, and go to sleep.
I'm woken in the middle of the night by someone holding a knife to my throat. When I open my eyes, I see three men standing above me. Someone, who I assume is the same person holding the knife, is pressing a knee into my back.
One of the men takes a single step forward and squats. He's the shortest of the three, with thick blonde hair pulled back in a short ponytail, and thick, venous arms. His clothes are covered in several layers of filth, so that any color or designed is hidden. His skin is tan and webbed with tribal tattoos. In his hands is a lead pipe. He taps it against my forehead.
“What are you doing off the road, writer?” His accent is thick, but I can't identify it. “Don't you have business elsewhere?”
I try to speak, but fear bests me, and only a small moan escapes. The pressure on my back increases.
“You have come into our home without permission. Wasted the steps of me and my brothers to retrieve you. These are serious crimes.”
“No,” I manage to gasp out, “I don't mean any harm, I promise. I just needed a place to stay the night.”
The man frowns. “There are many other places than this.” He stands, and motions with his hand. The knife slips away from my neck, and the pressure releases from my back. “Stand. You will come with us.”
I move to my feet. Once I do, a hand grabs my shoulder. I don't dare turn to see who it belongs to. “You will follow us,” says the man. “We will take you 400 steps to the north, to our city.”
400 steps to their city. My heart quickens at the number. If that's where they came from, retrieving me has cost each man almost a tenth of his life. Of course they're angry. But why come at all? Something tells me it's best not to question it for now.
The one behind me shoves me forward. “Come,” says the blonde man. He opens the door and waits. I follow.
They lead me across the desert and through the streets of their city to a small black hut. There are no windows. No door covers the entrance, but when we approach, the blonde man raps on the side anyway. He has said nothing since we left the shack where they found me. His comrades have been similarly silent.
“Who is it,” says a heavy, cracked voice from within the hut. It has an accent similar to the blonde man's.
“Rafael,” says the blonde man.
“Enter,” says the voice.
The one leading me shoves me forward into the hut.
The hut is lit by only a few candles. There are no decorations except for two cushions in the back. Sitting on the cushions are a woman and a man. The man has black hair, cropped short, and a square face littered with scars. The woman is blonde, with a round face and smooth skin, except for a single scar running from her forehead to her lips. Their skin is as pale as Rafael's, and similar tattoos sneak out from under their clothing.
The man inspects me without moving. “This is him?”
Rafael nods. “We found him sleeping. He's a writer.”
The man finishes inspecting me. His eyes meet mine, and I'm surprised at how lifeless they are. “Do you know why we brought you here?”
I gulp. “No.”
The man nods. “I didn't expect Rafael to explain. It's a sacred place, you see. Many, many years ago, our city was located there. An infection of the lands forced us to move. When we did so, we dismantled all of the buildings, except for the center.” His voice cracks and grows quieter as he speaks, until it is almost inaudible. One of the men comes forward with a canteen. The elder takes it and drinks, then resums talking. “It is a testament to what we have built. The steps our clan has payed for its continued survival. Using it in such a profane way was unacceptable.”
I had heard of this, in the memories my creators left me. Clans that lived away from the roads, built their own cities, who took great pride in the work of their ancestors. Not enough people traveled off the roads for that to be anything more than rumor. And yet, here they were. “I'm very sorry,” I say.
“Your apologies mean nothing,” snaps the woman. “These four have payed three thousand, two hundred steps to erase the stain you made. You will pay us back with your own.” She rises from her cushion and takes two steps towards me. Rafael's eyes go wide, and he begins to say something, but is silenced with a wave of her hand. “Next to this hut are two stones, one hundred steps apart. You will walk between them thirty-two times. If you do not, we will kill you here, and consider the debt repaid.” I catch a glimpse of her eyes. They're not lifeless, like the man's. There's a storm in them.
In the space of an hour, I've gone from young to middle-aged. Rafael and the woman observe my walk, not speaking as I trudged from stone to stone and back again. When I finish, the woman leaves, and Rafael approaches me.
“You're free to do what you want,” he says, “though I suggest you be careful where you rest from now on.”
I look around, at the surrounding city. There are about twenty houses, made of dark brick, some one story, others two. A few men and women sit by them, talking. One man walks through the rows carrying a bundle of wheat. He disappears inside one of the two-story houses. In the window of the second floor, I see a woman sitting in a chair, drawing on a large easel. It is far from the bustling city I came from, where two dozen people wandered through the streets at any given time, and four dozen more sat in the houses. I can't see any dispensaries or hubs, or any piece of advanced technology.
“If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to stay a while.”
Rafael shrugs. “If you wish. Don't cause any disruptions.” He leaves me, entering one of the single story houses.
I approach a woman sitting by one of the houses. She's smoking a black, hand-rolled cigarette, and glances up as I walk by.
“Hello,” I say. “Do you mind if I sit here?”
She looks me up and down and shrugs. “If you want.”
I take a seat and pull out my recordbook. “What is this place?”
“You would be what they call a writer.” There's an accusatory tone to it.
“I am. Is that a problem?” I don't open the recordbook. Across the street, four men are playing a board game I don't recognize. One nods at me and says something. The others burst out laughing.
“It's an oddity,” she says. “To have your actions predetermined like that… it's not the way things were intended.”
“It's what keeps society running smoothly,” I say, opening the recordbook and beginning my notes. I haven't taken any since Rafael woke me in the hut, but filling that in will wait until I'm finished here. “If everyone did as they liked, we wouldn't have our great cities or roads. People would die of starvation and thirst and lack of shelter. It would be miserable.”
She takes a long drag on the cigarette and blows pitch black smoke. “We do well for ourselves without it. Your cities are too extravagant. Wasteful. How many people die to build one of your houses? Do nothing with their lives but lay down brick and mortar and piping? It's pitiful.”
I wonder how many city-dwellers have come through here. How many times this city has been recorded. I can't be the first, if she knows so much about us. This village is close to the roads. The true wonders must be farther out, where most people fear to waste steps traveling. That doesn't mean this isn't worth the visit, though. “I'd like to hear more,” I say. “Would you mind if I stay at your house tonight, before I leave the village.”
“These houses aren't 'ours', any more than the ones in the city are yours. You can stay in whichever one you wish.” She knocks against the one behind us. “This is where I'm sleeping tonight.”
I nod. “Thank you.”
“Don't thank me when I haven't given anything,” she says. She flicks the cigarette to the dirt, stands and enters the house. I follow.
The house is simple. One floor, all one room. There are five beds laid out in one corner. There's a small kitchen, a bookshelf, and what I assume is a bathroom blocked off by a curtain. The rest is empty. There's a man at the kitchen, slicing vegetables. He greets the woman as she walks in, without looking at her. She says something in return. They speak in a language I don't understand.
The woman moves to one of the beds and lays down, staring at the ceiling. I sit on the one next to her. “So, what's your name?” I ask.
“Kes,” she says. “It was my creator's creator's name.”
“It's a nice name,” I say. “I'm Elethiomel.”
“How nice,” she says. “Why did you come here, Elethiomal? Are you seeking a more interesting story, like the others?”
“I am,” I say. “How many others have there been?”
“Too many,” she says. “They always act as if they know some secret to living that we don't. Like we're a lesser culture, whose only value is adding novelty to their writing. Sometimes your wanderers come through, and they're more tolerable. But usually it's writers.”
“Well, I'm not interested in judging. I'm just looking for interesting stories.” The bed surprisingly soft. More so than the one I woke up. I wonder what they make it out of.
“Many of them have said that. But they always ending up doing more.” She rolls over in bed to face me. “I find your society, what I've seen of it, just as distasteful as you find my own. It's obnoxious, and loud, and most of all, it's wasteful. It uses lives as we use water, or food.”
“To serve a greater purpose.”
“What greater purpose do you serve, writer? Why are you important enough to stand among builders, or engineers, or farmers?”
“I make sure the past is remembered.”
“Perhaps,” she says, and rolls to face the wall. “I'm going to sleep. If you're still here when I wake, please don't talk to me.”
I'm silent for the rest of the night, thinking. The man in the kitchen finishes making his meal and eats it. He lays down in the bed across from me. Eventually, I drift into sleep.
When I wake up, the house is empty. I sit up and look out the window. Outside, Kes and the man from the kitchen are smoking and talking. The man sees me, but doesn't seem to care. Out a different window, Rafael and a man I don't recognize are sharpening swords.
The sun is blazing hot, hotter than it ever was in the city. The streets are more populated than they were yesterday. Groups of people cluster around houses, talking and drinking. There's about twenty people in all.
I approach Rafael. He sets the sword aside and stares at me.
“Yes?” he says.
“I was wondering what other places like this are around here.”
“There's nothing like this,” he says, “Another tribe lives 650 steps that way.” He points in a north-easterly direction.
I nod, thank him, and go on my way.
Most writers don't venture off the roads for the simple reason that they don't want their work to go unread. They fear their works being lost in the desert when they take that final, fatal step. They would rather their works be bland and drab than abandoned in the desert. An understandable sentiment. Sometimes, I feel it too. But either way, lost or lifeless, your works are forgotten. So I'll take the extra steps into the unknown, in pursuit of that greatness.
I stumble upon a village even smaller than the last. In fact, calling it a village is overstating it. I see ten people, several heads of livestock, a small field of grain, and no buildings. Sleeping mats are laid out on the ground around a fire pit. Most of the people are still sleeping, except for a man tending the fire. He looks up as I approach and his eyes narrow.
“Who are you?” He says. His accent is high and thick.
“I'm a traveler,” I say. “Seeking new lands and stories off the roads.”
“The roads? You are a city-dweller?” As he speaks, he picks up a thin metal rod and stirs the coals. Sparks leap from the fire, bounding into the air.
“I am,” I say. “Have many come through here?”
“No,” he says. “You are the second that I've seen, and I've been alive for many steps. The first was panicked, frantic to get back to the road.”
“No. He died here. He was the first who told us about the roads. We didn't know where they were.” He looks at me with a suspicious eye. “You say you are looking for stories?”
“I am,” I say. “I'm a storyteller.”
“How fortunate,” says the man. “I am as well.” He sets down the rod and turns fully to face me. “I will tell you a story. A long time ago, before our clan was formed, a man was birthed. On the outside, he appeared as any other man did. On the inside, too, he felt the same as any other man. All appearances suggested that he was an ordinary man, fated to take many steps and die.
“As his final step approached, the man made preparations. When his final 100 steps approached, he turned to the west, as was custom among his people, and began to walk. Except, when he took what should have been his fatal step, nothing happened. He did not die. His essence was not released. His body remained whole. At first, he thought he had simply miscounted. Such a thing was rare, but not unheard of
“But, he took more and more steps. So many that it would have been impossible to have miscounted. He circled his clan a dozen times, yet nothing happened. Mystified, he returned to the village, and explained what had happened. They did not believe him at first, thinking him a coward who didn't want to take his last steps. But when they saw how much he walked, far more than any man would dream of, they began to think he was telling the truth.
“He took many more steps. Thousands. He walked from clan to clan, telling them of what he had discovered. Like his own, the disbelieved him at first, until he demonstrated it. When they did, many threw themselves at his feet, praising him as a messiah. Everywhere he went, he picked up more followers, claiming that he was The Prophet returned. And he did nothing to disabuse them of this thought. In fact, he welcomed it. Thousands of men and women lived and died in his path. He did not preach anything in particular, only the possibility of salvation if they followed him. And people, desperate fools that they are, believed him.
“One day, his followers had particular difficulty waking him up. They assumed he was only in a deep slumber, as the previous night had been full of festivities. But then they saw that he was not breathing, and his heart no longer beat. Even then, they did not quite realize what had happened. The idea of a man dying and leaving behind was unthinkable, you see. For hours they tried to rouse him. And finally, it dawned on them what had happened.
When word spread, his empire collapsed. People scattered, their hopes crushed. The great camps he had set up dissolved as people pilfered away their contents. There were great battles between various groups of followers, all with their own beliefs on what had happened. Eventually, they quieted, and life in the desert mostly returned to normal. Eventually, the man was forgotten.”
The storyteller stops.
“Is that it?” I ask.
He nods, and stirs the fire.
“That's not much of a story,” I say.
“No, but it's a valuable one,” says the man. “I think it best if you leave before the others wake. They're not fond of outsiders.” He points north. “A large clan lies that way, perhaps 700 steps. They may have something of value to you.”
I thank him, and go on my way.
I walk for 600 steps in the direction he told me, but see nothing. Is it possible he lied? A trick, to kill the wandering outsider? It's possible. But still, I keep walking. It's better than turning back.
I've fallen into a trap. I've walked almost a thousand steps, and still see nothing but sand. No village, no people. Fifty steps ago, I passed the body of another wanderer. The flesh had long ago been eaten away, the bones bleached white. All that remained was a small book, its pages yellowed and torn. The few that were still legible were written in a script I've never heard of. I'm not sure why I took it. It seemed a shame to leave such a thing lost in the desert.
I was wrong about one thing and right about the other. There were, in fact, people. It was also a trap, just not the usual sort. No sooner than 40 steps after I wrote the previous entry, the sand sunk out from beneath me and I fell. Not a long fall, perhaps 10 feet, but as I wasn't expecting it, I landed badly and twisted both of my ankles. I landed in a dark room with a metal floor that smelled vaguely of shit, the only light being provided from the hole I fell through. Even that soon disappeared when it slid back shut. I lay there, on the cold metal, yelling for somebody to please help me. It was silly, I know. If anyone could have heard me, they wouldn't have been the type to provide help. Still, my thoughts were scrambled by fear and pain, and it seemed the right the to do at the time.
God only knows how long I lay there. Long enough for my voice to crack and disappear, and for my stomach to begin to moan in hunger. I crawled across the floor to the wall, tracing the perimeter of the room several times, but could find nothing that seemed like a possible exit. Eventually, the stench, hunger, and pain became overwhelming, and I vomited. Then I crawled back to the center of the room and, somehow, fell asleep.
I was woken by someone kicking my shoulder. They weren't strong kicks, but were enough to hurt when when repeated enough. I moaned and tried to crawl away, but I rough hands grabbed me and jerked me to my feet. Two voices were speaking in a language I didn't understand. The room is still too dark to see anything.
“Please,” I said, “I don't mean any harm. I came here by accident.”
One voice, the deeper of the two, says something I can't understand. The second, higher voice laughed. Is it a female's? I couldn't tell. Possibly.
There's the sound of grinding metal, and we began to walk forward. By my estimate before, it was some 10 steps from the center of the room to the edge. We went that, and keep walking. My eyes began to adjust to the light, and I could just make out the shape of walls to the left and right of us. There was a brighter light up ahead. It grew slowly as we walked.
We went a hundred and thirty-four steps in all before we reached the light. I had to close my eyes for a minute to prevent myself from being blinded. We took a winding path, going slightly downhill. After 35 steps, we stopped. I opened my eyes, and gasped.
We were standing at the edge of a tall cliff. Spread out beneath us was the largest city I had ever seen. Somehow, a massive cavern had been hollowed out, some 300 steps tall, and this is where the city sat. It must have been close to three thousand steps from end to end, a massive circle carved into the stone. Buildings were stacked upon buildings in dozens of layers, made of wood, stone, brick- anything available. Poles criss-crossed between houses. Hanging from them were platforms, that moved slowly from building to building, layer to layer, moving people from one side of the city to the other without having to take more than 10 steps.
One building towered above the rest. Set on the far side of the city, it was carved from the same stone as the cavern, extending from the floor to the ceiling. Hundreds of platforms moved to and from it, some carrying people, some empty. The walls were carved with statues, murals, and decorations, telling a story I couldn't even begin to fathom. At the top, near the ceiling, was a massive semi-circle window, in which a bright light shone.
I glanced over to my captors, finally getting a good look at them. As I had thought, there was a man and a woman. Both were taller than me by several inches, heavily muscled, dressed in loose, white cloth. Their skin was so pale you could see every vein beneath, their hair a dark red. They stared at the building with a reverent gaze.
The woman shoved me forward, onto a wooden platform that jutted from the cliff. I collapsed to my knees, and they stepped on. The man pulled a lever. The platform shuddered and began to inch forward. It rattled as it moved, but it went quickly, and felt stable, though that offered little comfort. I clung to the center of the platform, praying that it wouldn't tip.
Tracing its path, I saw that we were headed for the semi-circular window at the top of the tower. The spot of my execution? It seemed as if my journey so far had mostly involved various people fighting over the right to kill me.
The woman and man continued their conversation. The man kept glancing from me, to the woman, to the tower, shifting his weight from side to side. Even though I couldn't understand them, his words felt like they were growing more agitated. The woman had a playful tone to her voice. She laughed several times, and hardly looked at me or the tower. Once, she tried to reach over to touch the man's shoulder, but he batted her hand away. She seemed more annoyed from then on.
The conversation ceased about 200 steps from window. The two of them stared into, not moving. Inside, I could make out silhouettes of several people moving around. As it grew closer the platform slowed, then shuddered to a stop. The woman reached down and yanked me to my feet.
“You could just tell me to stand,” I said.
She ignored me, instead shoving me forward. I limped off the platform and through the window. Inside were seven people, all as tall, pale, and red-headed as the man and woman. Four were engaged in intense conversation. The other three were watching. They turned to look as I lurched off the platform.
The room was a circle, perhaps 400 steps from end to end. The stone walls were carved completely smooth, and hundreds of small, glowing stones were embedded in them. In the center of it, a small cushion had been placed, surrounded by a ring of stones. The four sat around the ring. The other three were standing back.
She shoved me into the ring, and motioned at me to sit. I sat. So did she, just outside of the circle. The others joined her. They stared at me wordlessly.
“Um,” I said. “Why did you bring me here?”
The looked at each other. One of them, a (relatively) shorter male with a long ponytail, said something I couldn't understand. The whole group laughed. Another female, whose face was covered in scars, spoke up, and the laughter suddenly ceased.
There was a minute of silence, and then a furious discussion began. I couldn't determine exactly what they were saying, but by the amount of pointing my way and angry gestures in my direction, I assumed it couldn't be good for me. At one point, the ponytailed-man stood up, screaming at one of the women, and had to pulled to the side by two others. He sulked in the corner for the rest of the conversation.
It was close to an hour before they seemed to reach an agreement, and most still seemed dissatisfied. The man and woman who had brought me here stood, said something to the others, and walked off. The rest sat in silence, staring at me. I tried to think of appropriate to say.
“What is this place?” I asked. They didn't respond. I don't know why I expected them to.
The man and woman returned. Following them was a much older, much shorter man, and a much older, much shorter woman. As soon as they entered, everyone's head turn to stare. The young man and woman returned to the circle. The older two paced around the room once, then walked to stand just outside of it. The old woman said something. The old man added a question. The young woman nodded and replied.
Attention returned to me. One of the men tried to say something, but was silenced when the old woman laid a hand on his shoulder. He bucked it off and stormed out of the room. A second man sighed and muttered something, to which the old man replied. He pulled a young knife from his robe and handed it to the young man. Then he and the old woman exited the room.
The man with the knife traced a finger along the edge, then slashed at the air with it. He stood and fixed his eyes on me.
I scrambled backward, trying to push myself to my feet, but before I could stand they were on me. Two grabbed my shoulders and slammed me to the floor, while two others grabbed my legs and twisted, pulling me back. I tried to kick out, but their grip was too strong, and my legs were locked in place. The man with the knife stepped over to me and knelt down. He placed a hand on my chest. The knife hovered over me, waiting to make a cut.
He moved his hand across my chest, applying gentle pressure, feeling for just the right spot. When he got to my stomach, he stopped, and looked up the others. The scarred woman holding my shoulder nodded.
“No!” I yelled, trying to wrench myself away. I thrashed in their grip, but it was too strong, and I could only squirm. The man brought the knife up, gripping the hilt with two hands.
I was going to die here. There were too many of them, they were too strong. I could barely move my limbs, and they wouldn't listen to my pleas. So I did the only thing I could think of. I bit the woman.
She screamed, and jerked her hand back. There was a ripping noise as skin and muscle tore from bone. Blood squirted into my mouth, and I spat out the flesh. At the same time, swinging my fist straight into the stomach of the man holding my shoulder. Something flashed in the corner of my eye, followed by pain ripping through my shoulder and back as the knife sliced into me.
I can't quite remember what happened next. I lashed out again, knocking someone away, and managed to get one of my feet free. Kicking out, I pushed another person back, and scrambled to my feet. Someone grabbed me, and I spun around, whipping my fist out. I took a few steps before my ankle rolled, and I fell, landing at the edge of the room. The four of them were rushing towards me.
So I pushed myself off the edge. I'm not sure why. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. The last thing I remember seeing was my captors staring in shock as I fell. Then I slammed into something hard, and everything went black.
I woke up a few minutes later on one of the platforms, laying in a small pool of blood. My entire body hurt. A sharp pain tore through my shoulder, and it felt like on of my ribs was cracked. I looked up. The platform was nearing a tunnel carved into one of the walls. The tower was some 300 steps behind me. I could just barely make out the shapes of several people in the upper window.
Somewhere, a bell was ringing. I could see people on the streets below rushing around. They raced into buildings and slammed the doors shut, shoving each other out the way in their mad scramble to get indoors. They looked like an agitated anthill.
I screamed as the platform bumped into the lip of the tunnel. Pain wracking my body, I tried to push myself to my feet. After several minutes of struggling and cursing as the pain wracked my body, I managed to stand, and began to limp forwards through the tunnel. I risked a glance behind, and saw a second platform, still several hundred steps away, approaching the tunnel. Three figures with weapons stood on it. I swore and began to limp faster.
123 steps in, I came to a wooden door. The wood was rotten, and a rusted metal bar covered it. I tried to move the bar and found it stuck, so picked a rock from the floor and began to hammer at it. After several strikes the bar shattered. I swung the door open, stepped out, and, again, fell.
Perhaps slid would be a better term. I stepped out onto a steep slope of loose dirt, and almost immediately lost my footing. My legs swept out from under me and I smacked into the ground. I tumbled downwards, scrambling for a handhold. My hands clawed at dirt and stone and roots, but they all ripped away in my hands. The tumble finally ended when I slammed into a tree and vomited.
I lay there for god knows how long, unable to do anything but moan in pain. When I did move again, it was nearly dark. Grabbing a low hanging tree branch, I pulled myself to my feet. My whole body screamed in agony, but I pushed the pain aside. Once standing, I leaned against the tree to prevent myself from falling back, and took stock of my surroundings.
The desert was gone. Ahead of me was a massive cliff, with several doors in the side, including the one I had just fallen from. Behind me was a forest. Trees stretched as far as I could see, of all shapes, sizes, and types. The ground was covered in leaves. Several small, furry animals scampered through the brush.
I wanted to stay. I wanted to fall back to the ground and go to sleep and forget the pain for a little bit. But for all I knew, they were still after me, and I was in plain view of the door. So I pushed myself off of the tree and began to limp deeper into the forest. It was slow work. I went from tree to tree, pausing often to catch my breath and lean against them for support. But soon I worked myself several hundred steps into the forest, weaving my way through randomly so that no one would be able to guess my movement. Eventually I collapsed. Unable to move any farther, I went to sleep. When I woke, I began to write.
Since my last entry, the sun has risen and set twelve times. When it rose for the thirteenth, the pain had finally subsided enough for me to begin walking again.
I still moved slowly. But at least now I was able to keep a steady pace, without pausing. Hunger gnawed at my stomach. I had been able to crawl to a nearby stream for water, and feed myself slightly off of the wild brush, but it wasn't enough. I needed food, and I needed it immediately.
The problem was, I knew nothing of hunting, or gathering, or any other skill essential to surviving in the woods. It was pure luck that so far I had not consumed anything poisonous, and it wouldn't last long.
Fortunately, the forest provided. As I stumbled through the forest, I became aware of a loud screeching. Looking around, I saw a large red bird perched on a branch fifteen steps away. Next to it was a nest, and in the nest were five eggs, each twice as large as my fist.
Normally I wouldn't have bothered it, but in my hunger, I discarded all rational thought. All I could imagine was what the innards of the eggs might taste like. I began to drool, and took several steps towards the nest. The bird squawked louder. I took another step forward. The bird leapt from the branch and flew towards me, screeching and beating its wings against my face. I lashed out and caught its face, throwing it to the ground. It writhed on the dirt, righted itself, and launched at me again. This time I hit it with a kick, and it didn't get up from the earth. It flapped and squawked, but one of its wings was bent at a curious angle, and wouldn't move.
I left it and approached the nest. The eggs were green, flecked with white, and when I cracked them open the insides tasted like the sweetest honey. I ate three, and would have eaten the other two, but in a flash of lucidity I realized it would be best to save them. I deposited them in my bag and continued on.
Now, I am sitting by the stream, writing. I don't know how large this forest is, but I pray that what steps I have left will be enough to find someone, or something, else. I've been looking through the book I found in the desert. The language is still unreadable to me, but I can't help but feel a connection to it. I wonder if this is how the man felt, on his last steps, knowing that his story would be lost.
This would not be a bad place to die, I think. Better than the desert at least. In some ways, you could say my journey was successful. This is certainly a new place. I've seen no signs of other people here. I've followed the stream to its end, and can see no signs of the forest ending soon. I ate the last two eggs. It doesn't matter now. At this point, I'll take my final step long before I can die of hunger.
I briefly considered staying. It would be easy, to rest by the stream and take no more steps than needed to get food. But that would be a coward's death, unfitting for someone such as I, who dedicated their life to traveling the unknown paths. So I'll walk until I take my final step, and hope that this book will one day be re-discovered.
This forest does have an end. I stumbled out of the treeline, and found myself on a beach. The sand is fine, and red, and the water so clear that I can see the bottom even a hundred steps away from the shore. All manner of creatures swim beneath the surface, of a hundred different colors. I assume these are fish, though I can't be sure, as I've never seen one before.
I sit at the coastline, feeling the cool water lap at my feet. Several fish swim up to investigate, and I shoo them off. The salt water stings the cuts on my feet, but it's still refreshing. A breeze is running through air.
There is a boat near the water's edge. I imagine it belonged to the corpse I found a dozen steps into the woodline. It's only big enough for one person, but that's all I need, and it's still in workable condition. All I know from the vehicles comes from a single book I read soon after I first woke, but it shouldn't be difficult to figure out how to work it.
I'm going to take the boat across the ocean. What I'll find there, I do not know. The book I'll leave here, in the hope that someone may one day discover it. Whatever I find across the sea, it will be my story alone.