``No, it cannot be,'' she told herself, wanting to deny what she so plainly saw. Her heart raced and her mind emptied as she began to panic. In a flash, smoke appeared before her and the furious cackling of flames filled the air, mocking her, laughing at her inevitable fate. Afraid, she ran to the door, fumbling with the latch as she tried to escape. After what seemed like an eternity, the door opened. She hurried outside, almost running into her husband. She looked about and saw that her husband was not alone. Six other figures joined him on the street; all, including her husband, were clad in full armour, and each wearing a bandanna over their mouths and noses. A sense of dread filled Harrieta.
``What's the matter, Rie?''
``What do you mean? Are you blind?'' she demanded, her dread replaced by confusion, then replaced by anger, ``Why aren't you doing anything? Our house is burning down!''
Angry that they all appeared apathetic to the conflagration that had engulfed her home and threatened the neighbouring houses, she moved to grab her husband's hand, trying to force him to do something, anything, to save the memories that were quickly becoming ash and smoke. Her husband to a panicked step back. Shocked and hurt, she stopped. Had everyone gone mad? She turned around, hoping to catch the last glimpse of her former home.
Indeed, as she turned around, she did catch a glimpse of her house, Before her stood her house, whole and unharmed. There was no smoke, no fire, no evidence at all that the house had been aflame. Confused, she approached the house cautiously, expecting at any moment for the house to become that ball of fire that the was sure it must be. She turned to her husband and his colleagues. She now, once again, took in their appearance. Fear precipitated upon her bones, and breathing became difficult as she realized the significance of their attire. She stuffed her hands in her pockets and approached her husband.
``Honey,'' she whispered, ``why are you here?''
She received no response.
``Silly me, I saw a spark leap from the hearth and I panicked.'' she laughed nervously, ``You know how it is, after being cooped up all winter your mind begins to play tricks on you.''
No one moved. No one spoke.
``I'd um...better get back or there'll be no food tonight.'' she said, and added with a wink, ``My husband gets grumpy when there's no food on the table when he returns.''
She turned to re-enter the house.
``Rie, we heard a scream.''
``Of course dear, I thought the house was burning down. I don't really know what came over me, perhaps I was too close to the hearth, breathed in too much smoke. Don't worry, I'm alright now.'' she continued to walk to her house, each step seeming to take aeons. Dread and hope warred within her. Hope that grew with each step. Fear that they would call her back, calling her bluff.
``Rie, Turn around and show us your hands.''
Sweat rolled down her forehead. Panic started to engulf her. She licked her lips. Thoughts were racing through her mind, a myriad of excuses and explanations flitted by, most too incredulous to be used. Finally, she settled on one, one that she herself began to believe.
``I was just washing our clothes. You know how the lye gives me a rash. It's really nothing. Nothing that requires your attention.''
A murmur passed through the crowd. They looked at one another, some in hope, and some in incredulity. Tension mounted as she continued to walk to the cottage, keeping her hand in her pockets.
``Rie, please don't make this any harder than necessary.'' he said, his voice sounding pinched, ``Just show us your hands.''
Henrietta turned to her accusers. Each one of them had known her for years, for most of their lives. She had grown up with many of them, played with, laughed with, cried with and flirted with them. She had even married one of them. Now, none of them had the courage to look her in the eye. As she scanned the men before her, one by one, they averted their gaze. Angry at what they were implying and terrified that they were right, she jerked her hands out of her pockets and held them out before them. She shook in anticipation.
Her husband approached her. He stuck his spear into the ground and took her hand in his gauntlet. He brought her hand towards his face for closer inspection. For a long moment he stared at her hands, turning them over, scanning them, and then turning them over once more. The silence continued to drag, only to be broken by the occasional stirrings of the wind. The tension in the air almost became palpable. He released her hands. She waited, anxious to hear the result of his examination.
``It is not the Old Mountain.'' he pronounced, ``Go on Rie, you can leave no. I'm sorry.''
Henrietta blinked away tears she had not known were forming and breathed a sigh of relief. She was well! The fear and dread and all the other emotions that had been weighing upon her disappeared. The Old Mountain was a terrible illness. The plague had swept across the ranges and created its own mountains. Mountains of corpses, of victims. Those who contracted the mysterious illness seemed to age preternaturally and soon died. There was no cure, no hope for victims of the sickness. Old Mountain was not the only tragedy to strike the land. The crops too had failed all across the mountain ranges and many had died of hunger. Some said that the gods had abandoned the mountains. She shrugged, what the gods did or did not do was in the realm of the priesthood. She was but a homemaker and these suppositions had naught to do with her. She walked back into her home, allowing the relief to settle in.
``I'm so sorry.'' she heard. Pain flowered in the back of her head and the hallway dimmed, then blinked into darkness.
She awoke tired and groggy. She looked around herself and, for a fleeting moment, wondered why she was sleeping on the floor. Dismissing this odd occurrence, she focused on what she was hearing. All around her was the sound of hammers hitting nails. She rose and looked around once more. She found that the house was dark, barely illuminated. After lighting a candle she went to investigate and found her husband's gauntlets laying upon the floor. She picked them up and placed them on the table. She went from room to room but could not find her mysterious carpenters. Afraid and confused, she went to her bedroom.
All of a sudden, the hammering stopped, which was all well and good because the pounding in Henreietta's head was painful enough on its own. She approached her bedroom, ready to give her husband a drubbing for allowing her to sleep on the floor, and leaving his gauntlets upon the floor as well as her ordeal earlier that day. He should have returned well before midnight and carried her back to bed. She opened the room door and found that, despite the late hour, her husband had not yet returned, to his good fortune.
There was something wrong about the room. Henrietta could not place it. All the drawers were in place and the bed was made. All the laundry was done and placed in her closet. All things seemed to be in the right place and order, and yet there was still something eerie about the room. She wondered when her husband would be back; he was seldom tardy, especially coming home from work. As she pondered what could be keeping him, she realized what was wrong. There was no moonlight coming from the window. She had asked him put in a window in the bedroom so that she could gaze upon the moon as she was wont to do. He had given her the window as gift, in memoriam of their first kiss. She rushed over to the window and flung open the curtains. There she came face-to-face with a board of wood. Her windows had been boarded up.
Understanding was quick to come to her. She realized what had happened and she cursed. She her husband for his cruelty, the gods for the unfairness of it all and cursed herself for her stupidity. He had said that it was not the Old Mountain. He had said it but he had not removed his mask, nor his gauntlets. She'd been the only one of the eight to breath a sigh of relief. His gloves! They were proof that he had been home. She felt so foolish, so betrayed. She began to weep.
Smoke wafted into the air and the room began to glow orange. For a moment, she thought she had been caught in another illusion, another crazy idea her mind made up. This time, though, the arid smoke burned her eyes and lungs. She fell to the ground choking on the poisoned air. Above her an ocean of flame consumed the ceiling, its waves raining down fiery destruction upon the room. The flames surrounded her, blocking her exit. Inching closer and closer, her hair and clothes caught fire.
She began to scream.
He awoke with a start, shivering despite the heat of the day. The terror and despair of the vision lingered even as the memory began to fade. These dreams fatigued him emotionally. While the dream would only last the night and the memory quickly disappeared, the feelings, especially the intense ones, stayed and tainted his mornings. Once the last vestiges of the dream ebbed away, he found his body torn and tattered. Lacerations, small and large, ragged and straight, clean and dirty, all evidenced a night spent rolling around scratching at himself in a vain attempt at extinguishing illusory flames. He cursed. Already, his nights were filled with horror, did they have to taint his days as well?
As if in answer to his unvoiced question, the ground underneath him burst outward. He was showered in scalding hot debris, blasted with with a wave of hot air and shocked into attention at the sheer fury of the event. For the first time of the day, he focused his attention outward rather than inward. He looked around, taking in his surroundings. Shaking his head he closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. When his heart slowed, he dared to open his eyes again. When he did, dread filled his heart.
He dreamt of terrors that infected his body well into the day, now he found that his dreams had grown into reality. All around him the world was aflame. The ground seemed too hot to touch. Wisps of smoke rose from the blackened land, rising to merge with the dark miasma above. Smoke and ash filled the air filled the air creating a false night, lit only by the sporadic bursts of reddish lightning. Pools of steaming liquid, surrounded by orange, yellow and green crystals dotted the blackened land. Behind him sat a vast lake, unlike any he had ever seen. The lake sparkled, not with the reflections of the sun but with its own internal illumination. Yellow and orange with a thin layer of broken black covering the surface, the lake roiled and bubbled and burst. Sometimes there would be small geysers of the viscous, golden fluids, spewing forth high into the sky before darkening, stained by the soot and falling back into the lake. Those drops that did not quite return to the lake would splatter against the earth and give rise to new rock amidst a torrent of smoke and steam.
The sounds of the land were everywhere. There was a tremendous roar emanating from the lake, much like the ocean but much much louder, only the thunder from above was louder. The rumble from the ground was palpable. As the stones rained down from the fountain of gold they chattered, announcing their conception. Some, not read for the world, fell back into the glowing lake with an audible thwack. There were other sounds, sounds that he could not quite place. A crashing perhaps? Hissing? He was unsure whether the sounds were unknown to him or that they were being obscured by the dominant noises of the area.
A thousand fragrances floated through the air. Burned rock and ash were ubiquitous, and made the air difficult to breathe. The air was hot but not dry. In fact, the air was humid, something that he found quite unusual. Though the crystal-lined pools steamed, they did not seem to dissipate and were unlikely to have caused the amount of moisture in the air. A smell, reminiscent of rotten eggs, emanating from these crystalline pools, turned the air rancid. Rotten though they may have been, the scent of eggs stirred within him a fierce hunger. For a moment, he lost himself in his hunger and let himself dream of nicer things. He dreamt of honey soaked bread and a cold mug of mead. He shook himself. He could not be entrapped by his daydreams.
Leaving took top priority. The ground was frying him and the hot and humid air was steaming him; he was being cooked alive. He began to walk away from the molten lake, towards one of the crystalline pools. He leaned down to the foul-smelling water and touched his lips to the water. He scrambled away from the water, wiping his lips with his hands like a mad man. Looking down upon his hands, he saw blood. The water had burned him! Even his arm was beginning to burn, the hair shrivelling and his skin curling. What kind of cursed land was this where even the water burned? There was no alternative. He had to escape and he could not dally. He ran away from the lake, dodging any of the burning pools that came in his way. He had not gone twenty steps before the ground cracked and gave way. His foot slipped into the hole, as if he had stepped on thin ice. Underneath the thin sheet of rock hid a reservoir of water. He screamed as his foot was enveloped in pain. The land was intent on killing him. He crawled, burning his hands upon the ground. At last he came upon the end of the land. He found the source of the mysterious sounds and scents, he had come upon an ocean.
Looking around him, he discovered that he had awoken upon an island of fire, surrounded by the sea. The ocean crashed upon shore. Where the water touched upon the land, vast columns of steam would be born and sometimes, the land would crack. The smell of salt and water displaced the smoke and the ash and burning rock. He began to despair. How could he escape? The land was too hot to bear and the water burned like liquid fire. Was he expected to fly? Once more he began to wonder what this land was. Had the Sun descended, burning away the water and giving birth to new land while willing its properties upon the water? Perhaps he had not been only been cursed but honoured as well. He could be witnessing the Sun reenacting the miracle that began the world.
Miracle or not, he was still stranded. He could neither stay upon the land nor swim away. That is what he thought. That is, until the mist from the surf met his skin and did not burn. He inched forward, unwilling to risk the possibility that his senses were misbehaving. When he felt the splash of water again, and observed that his flesh was still whole, he rejoiced. Not wasting another moment, he dove into the sea. In his haste he forgot one important thing. Sea water makes wounds sting. Upon entering the water, he was inundated with pain. His face, arms, and foot were afire anew. The world darkened and the pain disappeared.
When his eyes opened he almost wanted to shut them once more. The fire island had been teeming with unnatural life, where new rock and sky were constantly being born. Here, in this new land, there was a complete absence of life. Had the fire island been given life at the cost of life in other lands? He had washed upon a land contrary to the one where he woke up in. All around the world was barren. An abnormal quiet had festered in this place. Even the seas seemed muted, devoid of life. He should have heard the wind rusting among the reeds and grasses near the shore. There should have been the sounds of birds screaming for food, and fish splashing in the water. This was a new world. So full of life, and yet devoid of life at the same time. Before his lengthy slumber he thought he had seen all the world had to offer. In truth, he had only scratched the surface. Endless desolate seas, empty barren beaches, flaming scorching islands inhabited the world now. Perhaps the only thing that gave him hope was that the sky did not reflect the land. Stars still dotted the celestial landscape and the moon still hung in the sky. What other astonishing things awaited him? What other horrors?
For a moment he expected the gods to answer him. For a moment all was still. The gods were toying with him, no doubt they would wait until his guard was down before raining down destruction upon him once more. For now, nothing calamitous appeared to be coming his way so he began to decide upon the myriad of decisions that befell him. In truth, there was only one real option. The remaining decisions were merely of the where, the when and the how. The direction; now or later; by water or by foot, these were the choices. Each of these choices were equally valid. He could only hope that what he chose would lead him to civilization, or at the very least a place where the old rules of the world still hold true. His journey began with this hope planted firmly in his mind.
He waited a day before leaving. He slept during the day. He had already seen what daylight had to offer, now was the time to see what surprises night had in store. He awoke to the sun on his face, something that relieved him more than he had expected. Since his initial awakening he had not seen the sun. He had suspected that it still illuminated the world above the clouds of smoke and ash, but he had had no real evidence. The shore stretched towards the rising sun and, as far as he could tell, so did the barrenness. He chose his direction. He would follow the setting sun. This way he would have more daylight with which to explore this new land. Since this direction ran parallel to the shore, he would not be in short supply of water. That is of course, if he could find a way to remove the salt.
He did find a way to freshen his water. A clever system using large stones from the sea and the sun's powerful rays. This though, did not make his trek any easier. In fact, the system reversed his earlier decision to journey through the night. Since he had to wait during the day for the water to collect, his movements were restricted to the night time. Travelling in the night was cold and dark. He would injure himself upon unseen obstacles and often found himself having words with the ground. There was one unexpected boon about this though. He did not have to see the barren wastelands around him.
As far as he had gone, he had still not found anything that could be considered food. Either there was nothing there, or they were very adept at hiding away from him. A week passed and he was finding himself increasingly fatigued and lethargic. Stomach pains plagued him throughout the day. He began to see hallucinate. At first, he was amused by these visions. They would relieve his loneliness. That would soon change when the images began to taunt him. He would see food off in the distance. He would chase after, only to find that nothing but swirling sand.
The sand too was a danger. Some days, dark days, the wind would pick up and the sand would pierce his body. No travelling was done these days. He would hunker down and pray for the wind to stop. Sometimes he would be lucky and there would be a dune, under which he could take shelter. Other days he would weather the storm as best he could. Not a great deal of time passed before he realized he was dying. Either the sand would kill him or the hunger would. He tried to drive these thoughts away, but he longer he stayed in the desert the more persistent the thoughts became. He found solace and no little amusement in a single idea. The idea that his death would provide evidence to future peoples that there was life in this land. His corpse might one day be the source of academic discourse. A barren land with a single life.
His dreams of being an anomaly would end abruptly. In the distance grew a settlement of some sort. Unlike any he was familiar with. The closer he came, the more he realized that this was no mirage of his mind or of the desert. At first he was irked. One dream had died and he could not paint an ironic picture in the history of the land. This feeling passed, and it passed very quickly. This was solid proof that there were others besides him. He was going to live, and he would no longer be alone. He arrived in the dark of night, and he would not truly see the city until the next morning. When he did, the sight took he breath away.
Great stone buildings littered the land. Each building was exquisite. Each seemed to be carved from a single stone. The buildings were diverse in design. Despite the diversity, there was a harmony among the buildings. Towards the centre of the settlement the buildings rose higher and higher, culminating in a single spire that seemed to touch the sky. He had difficulty comprehending the sheer size of the city. Even the largest of his peoples' cities paled in comparison. This city must have housed many hundreds of thousands, perhaps more. And so many houses. Each inhabitant must have been given their own abode. This would be unheard of in his society. This city was so strange, yet so wonderful at the same time.
He would later learn that the appearance was not the only wonder the city had to hold. The central spire's apex was obscured as the spire pierced the clouds. He couldn't fathom why people would want to build so high. The air above the clouds was thin and cold, the wind especially strong. Then he heard it and he understood everything. It, in this case, was the song of the city. The spire acted as colossal flute. The gods would play the flute using the wind itself. A powerful melody swept the city. Though the purpose was unknown, the music was beautiful. He could imagine with ease the people of the city stopping to savour the sound.
The thought brought him back to the moment. He had still not seen anyone. He was not surprised though there were plenty of explanations. A civilization such as this could build down as well as they could build up. They would likely be underground, shying away from the searing sun. They would come out when the sun set. He did not wish to offend them by invading their abodes before then. So he waited. Darkness was a long time in coming. He wasn't sure if he minded. The anticipation was intense. Did he mind the anticipation? Not in the least. Even if there were no people here, he knew that the world had not been remade anew. Here was proof that there people still dwelt on this world. He would find them.
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