I squinted at him, my vision blurred after copious amounts of transfigured wine. “What do you mean, gone into? Like, into into?”
“Yeah!” He cheered. “Like, have you ever crossed the wall?” He gestured to the edge of our outpost, where a man-high wall had been erected centuries before. Firelight from our campfire flickered across his round face. “Me an’ Tim did it the other week. Made it twenty paces before we turned back.”“You lair, you ran back after twelve!” Tim called from outside the fire circle. The other men guffawed loudly as Branwen tossed an empty mug at Tim, missing him by a mile. “So
The others around the fire began to chant my name. “
I turned and gave a final, wide-toothed smile at the other soldiers. Then I turned and charged through the doorway into the wastes.
As soon as I crossed the doorway, I knew something was wrong with this place.
One step. Two, three, four.
After two steps, I could no longer hear the voices of my comrades on the other side of the wall. After three steps, the warm, golden light from the camp fire was swallowed up by the encroaching darkness. Four steps, and a chill wind seemed to crawl up my back.
Five, six, seven, eight, nine.
On the fifth step, the cold breeze ruffled my loose shirt, and I fought back a shiver. On step seven, something brushed at the edges of my perceptions. This felt different, though, like whatever had brushed me was inside-out. I ignored it.
Ten, eleven, twelve.
Something was wrong- something was very wrong with this place. I’d taken the twelve steps, so why was I still running? I stopped and tried to turn back, but I couldn’t. Something about the landscape in front of me was hypnotic, the way the horizon of blue met the endless plane of black sky. Nothing shone- there was no moon, no stars, nothing. It was impossible to tell just how far out it went, or if it was a mural painted on a wall right in front of my face.
I started to back away from it. It almost seemed as if it was getting nearer, threatening to attack me, engulf me and devour me in its cavernous, horrible yellow maw. Yes, it was certainly getting closer now. Great glory, it was charging me! I spun around suddenly, as if to run. I had to get away from it, hide in the darkness somewhere before it could catch me.
Reflexively, my hand reached for the short sword at my hip, but my grip was weak with terror. I pulled the weapon from its sheath, but I dropped it- it spun once in the air before nicking my pants leg and then landing flat on the blue sand at my feet.
It took a moment, but sudden red pain flared in my leg, causing my whole body to itch and tingle suddenly, and I cried out in shock. When I looked up, I could see the yellow doorway of the wall, and a silhouette inside it, frantically waving its arms at me. A sudden chill seemed to surround me, creeping from all sides as if I’d been plunged into a deep, cold river. The hot pain in my leg snapped me back to reality, and a sudden recognition of where I was hit me like a punch in the gut.
I snatched the blade up and ran as fast as I could, stumbling awkwardly through the dry, powdery sand. A thousand things touched my senses then, cold things, wrong things. I reached out, involuntarily, desperately for magic, for something to help me, but was greeted with a choking, suffocating feeling, as if I'd tried to take a breath underwater. At some point I tripped, rolled over on my weapon and cut myself again, on the arm. The pain galvanized my mind and body, encouraging me with even greater urgency to get out, get out of the desert. I kicked my boots off as I stood and sped barefoot across the sand. Slowly it occurred to me that I was running much, much farther than the twelve steps I had taken to get out.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of horrified running, I staggered back through the doorway of the wall and collapsed into the waiting arms of Branwen, whose face was as white as my linen shirt.
“Tim! Tim, you drunk bastard, bring him something to drink!” he commanded as we settled by the fire. I kept trying to look at him, but my eyes just wouldn’t focus on any one thing. My vision kept darting around involuntarily- that horrible yellow thing that I’d seen in the desert had to be around here somewhere, didn’t it? Hadn’t I seen it in this direction just moments ago?
Then Tim pushed a hot mug into my hands, and I looked up into his ashen face.
“Great glory, you damn fool! What’d ya run out all that way for?” He swore, his voice cracking.
The hot drink wasn’t wine, but it was alcoholic. I sipped it and felt warmth seeping back into my arms and legs, causing my body to sting. I didn’t understand. I’d counted my steps, and then… I tried to remember, but everything that had happened beyond the wall was slipping away like trying to carry water in my bare hands. I moved to take another drink and winced.
“What the,” I said as I noticed the spreading crimson on my pants and shirt sleeve. I tried to look closer, but my vision was still blurry and my mind foggy, like I’d just woken from a long sleep.
“I said, what’d you go all the way out there for man!” Tim practically shouted at me.
“What are you talking about?” I rasped as I finished the drink.
Branwen and Tim hauled me up under my armpits, careful about my wounds, and carried me to the arched doorway in the wall separating our outpost from the desert. Branwen pointed.
At first I didn’t see in the darkness what he was pointing at. Then my eyes rested on two small specs, more than fifty feet into the shadows outside the wall.
I looked down and was surprised to see that I was barefoot.
Those were my boots.
Stay tuned for more to come!