From here to nowhere, I studied the lines on my map, the small drawing of trees meant to be a forest, a swirly circle presumed a lake, and a few triangular ridges: Dragon territory.
A few hours more and I’d rest for the night. For now the sun still shone high in the sky (I said a silent prayer to the silent Aren for the long summer days) and with dusk approaching, I still needed to hunt for some food to eat.
The forest was near. I slipped inside and caught some hare I could roast beside a fire. I gathered some fallen twigs and, with the sky beginning to turn purple in the distance, I struck a flint just outside the trees and held in the hare. It roasted clean through and I feasted.
There was a small stream nearby, so I lifted a hand-made torch (all that remained of my cooking fire) and walked to the edge of the trickling water. In the fire light, the once-strong features my beloved had so loved me for were shallow and gaunt. Though after thirteen days journeying, perhaps it wasn’t the water at all playing with my reflection. I ran my free hand through my course black hair and slammed the end of my torch in the ground.
I stripped off my clothes, set them aside, slipped in the cold water and felt like I’d died. It was as cold as ice and as I moved to climb out, the shore drifted farther away and small eddies of frosty, frothy water began pulling me deeper into the river. I pushed back, but then the ground wasn’t beneath me. I thrashed my arms around, but the splashing made it only harder to breathe while I struggled. Then in the firelight, in the water, I glimpsed a face.
It wasn’t a stream at all.
The only way out of the water-demon’s grasp was through it, but as a son of fire, I knew I’d have as much a chance of dying diving under as I did doing nothing. I held my breath, kept my mind on the firelight to guide me, and in a single moment stopped struggling and slipped under.
The water was warmer beneath the surface, but without the light’s reflections, the demon’s face was unseen, as fluid as the rest of him. I’d heard stories, though, the Storyteller always had them, and I knew the only way to kill a river was to dry its heart. I dove in deeper, wishing for the first time I had my armor on–that the metal might weigh me down and make my dive easier. But instead the demon realised what I was doing and began pushing me back.
My chest was starting to feel tight and my lungs were beginning to burn, but I pushed on further and fought against the current with all my might. I wished I had my sword, or my shield, or even my flint–but in the back of my mind I knew all my standard weapons would be rendered useless in a submarine battle against the water itself.
I expelled all the air inside me, knowing I’d have only seconds with empty lungs to guide me deeper. The demon must have thought it had me then, since instantly I felt its hold on me shift elsewhere–instead of pushing me upwards, it was pulling me down. I shut my eyes and didn’t move until it was so warm, the water was boiling around me.
I opened my eyes and scanned the bottom. It was brighter than I’d imagine the bottom of a river being, but inside the demon, it was no surprise. There were skeletons and broken bones all around, spoils and loot that could make a thief proclaim the demon’s stomach paradise, but all I cared about was the source of the light and the source of the heat: The beating red pearl a few yards away. Its surface shone with vermilion light striated with blood-red spirals, but as I stared at it, my vision started getting blurry. I knew I was running out of time.
The demon still thought I’d already drowned, so I took the chance and slammed my feet back against the ground: A cloud of scales and bones plumed upward as I shot toward the demon’s heart. As I sailed over the boneyard, I grabbed a broken arm and–right in front of the light now–slammed its spear-end into the red pearl.
The demon screeched and all the water splashed on top of me, turning the ground to mud as bones and other debris swirled outward, swept away my folded clothes, shattered my torch, and left me lying in the moonlight, naked, caught in a cold breeze.
How lovely, I thought. The life of an adventurer.
* * *
After my encounter with the demon river, I was more cautious around the small streams that pockmarked the forest for the three or four days it took me to traverse its most narrow breadth. Surely, I had heard many tales of the demon rivers, but never with the culprit so far inland. They loved haunting the tributaries near the oceans and seas. Never heard of one haunting a forest before.
I stocked my pack with hunted animals and gathered fruits and nuts before I left the trees, knowing the path in front of me could prove as treacherous as the river tenfold.
There was nothing around for miles, only barren land once fertile but now cursed, but I knew somewhere amid the mess of broken, petrified tree limbs and cracked boulders was a lake so tempting, so pure, it could steal your very soul straight from inside you. Perhaps that explained the demon.
I kept walking. I checked my compass almost every third minute, and even past nightfall, I kept going. I lit a small torch with a stick I’d saved from the woods and used it to guide my path, kept straight with the directions scrawled on the corner of my map. I’d bribed a drunken cartographer into divulging the wasteland’s secret by dressing as his dead wife for a night, and I wasn’t going to lose myself now after that pleasant experience. He’d told me, thinking he was wooing his wife into bed like in old times, that the key to not finding the lake was staying awake. The wasteland changed in your sleep, sent your compasses spinning if you didn’t watch them too long.
He told me dawn was the worst, but didn’t say why. Then he slipped away with a toothless grin, hands already undoing his belt. I slipped off in the other direction.
When the sun started to rise, I knew exactly what he’d meant: The haze of the wasteland made it seem like the light was coming in from all angles, from all sides. It wasn’t blinding, not necessarily bright either, but it was eerie and disorienting. After a while I found myself stumbling over small rocks and bouncing off fallen trunks with my eyes tied to my map and compass, unwilling to look elsewhere.
Occasionally I felt a damp breeze and my heart would flutter, but I kept to my bearings and ignored them.
When the haze started lifting, I knew I’d finally made it out of the wasteland. My relief and gratitude for the drunken man almost made me pity that I hadn’t let him dream any longer. Almost.
* * *
“Yoash,” the king told me as I knelt at his feet. I’d been doing errands for him for years, doing missions and quests and recovering all kinds of rare artifacts for his galleries and armories. Now he finally had me where he wanted me; that is, I’d finally convinced him to put me there.
“My Liege,” I said formally.
I knew she was watching, my beloved. Knew this was an audience she’d never miss.
“Yoash, you have spent many long years winning my favor. I have but one more quest to send you upon, and should you complete it, I shall grant you my daughter’s hand in marriage.
“Yes, my Lord. I accept.”
In my mind I saw the grin on his face, the glint in his eyes, the surprise and horror on my beloved’s face from whichever secret place she watched us from.
“Without even hearing the conditions?”
“For this reward, my King, I would fight the sun itself.”
He laughed, a large bellow I almost choked on, it shook me so much like thunder. “Well, Yoash, fighting the sun may seem a safer alternative after this.”
It was my turn to laugh then, but I wasn’t laughing now as I stared up the mountains. My final challenge awaited me inside. The water demon had not been too much to tear me down. The lake of souls could not tempt me. But here was the beast of earth and flame, the monstrosity of the mountains, the scavenger of the skies. I shuddered as I felt the ground rumble beneath me. Perhaps I had met my match after all.
Not The End