By Brendan Verville
She tightened the blindfold around her eyes and then tilted her head to the side, as if trying to look at something from another angle. She gripped the handle of her sword tight, her jaw working thoughtfully.
Walker watched her vain attempt at protecting herself and noted a meager elegance about her work. He saw a perfect balance. Her legs met at an acute angle as they crossed into the lotus position, and the sword in her hand acted as a weight to keep her grounded. Her back was to the water, and if she chose to let go of that weapon, which outsized her by more than a few pounds, she would go tumbling backward down the hill and into the sea. She couldn’t see the water crashing at her back, but she could hear it, and Walker was sure the noise filled her head.
Her purple robes were torn and frayed at the knees, and the sash had long ago been discarded, making for a loose fitting garment of soiled silk, barely hanging off her shoulders. She had chopped her hair short just recently, and he looked upon her face for the first time, which held a boyish quality he quite admired. Her jewels were gone, traded months ago for spending money. Her slippers were now replaced with hemp sandals, and her arms and legs were ripe with bruises and scrapes. Her face was no longer rosy. It was tan with sun and hard like leather.
She was so beautiful.
Walker tried to keep her mind occupied. He wanted her to forget that they only had a slice of bread to their names and two dull swords to protect them from harm. He wanted her to forget that she would never see again, if only for a moment.
So he told her a story as they sat upon that barren hill, where the grass did not dare to grow, and where a circle of ritualistic stones kept them enclosed inside a pit of spent magic. Walker couldn’t say what that hill had once served as: a refuge, a home, or a place of sacrifice? Now it was there to mark the place of his last stand.
He told her a story. It was the only one he knew.
“Do you know what my first memory is?” he asked her. He leaned against his walking cane and folded into a sitting position. The morning was new all around them and the cool wind picked up, spraying them with ocean foam. He turned up his soiled collar, but she was unmoved, clutching her sword defiantly, staring into the darkness of her blindfold, and into the darkness of her own mind. “It seems so strange, but I was only a lad. I remember looking out at a road, and would you believe that it grew before me, as though it were being paved before my very eyes? I had a knapsack in my arms. I wasn’t sure where I got it. I wasn’t sure what I was doing or who I was. I followed the road and found a cottage. Two people took me in, and they became my mother and father. My father was a magician and my mother a priestess. My father taught me the art of alchemy, which later became my base interest in medicine. My mother taught me about the Oversoul and the path to enlightenment. I never found enlightenment, I’m afraid. I suppose it is too late for that.”
“I know this story,” she told him quietly.
“How? I never told you my past.”
“Next you left your father’s home and met a mentor, who initiated you into your new community. You fell in love with a girl, you won, you lost, and then cut your ties with the world in pursuit of a new beginning, which you saw in me. This is the hero’s journey. We all have the same story. And the journey is also the path to enlightenment. This whole time you’ve been working for one thing.”
“That’s the most you’ve spoken to me in a long time,” he replied. “What part of the journey is this? How far do we have to go?”
“The tower is about to fall. I think we better prepare ourselves.”
He looked out at the horizon in front of him. The camps had not moved for hours. The fires hadn’t even been put out yet.
They were backed into a corner, one they could not escape. Olin had set up four large camps, one in the northwest, one in the northeast, and two in the east and west. Walker could see the smoke from their fires and the flags atop their tents whipping with the breeze. And now they had the ocean at their backs, with nowhere else to go. Soon Olin would send a team of his men up into the hills to scour the area for them. They sat at the top of the tallest hill, where there were no trees to protect them. Certainly they would be found, but they had weapons to defend and the upper ground to their advantage.
To Olin, the general of the Kundal Army, Walker was a kidnapper, dragging Olin’s daughter across the countryside against her will. But in actuality, it was she who came looking for Walker’s help. She was to be the catalyst for a great war, where she would be “kidnapped” by a neutral nation and then rescued. It would all be staged, to use her pretty face to justify a horrendous conflict between kingdoms. When she learned of her destiny, she took a long fall from the castle walls trying to escape. When she woke up, she was blind. Olin sent her to Walker, the medicine man, to aid in her recovery. Instead of healing her, Olin’s daughter asked him to help her escape. They would be on the run, as a couple hermits, living in constant struggle against Olin and his military. Once Walker learned of the horrible war to come, he agreed to help her, and they left the kingdom for good, making do on charities of food and shelter. They moved from village to camp, camp to town, growing ever more exhausted, yet remained one step ahead of her father.
They faced many confrontations with Olin’s army. Once in the Forest of Teluge, Walker broke a rib and lost three fingers. And there was the minor struggle in the Candatt Desert where he was struck by an arrow in the lower back. The battle wounds across his face had long since healed into pink scars, and his frame was gaunt and weary. He had lost much of his fighting spirit over the long year in exile. On the hill of his last defense, there was nothing but his responsibility for that girl to charge his core.
But she had become even stronger. Though she was not able to see. Though she had lost all her youth and royal standing, she was a warrior. The rest of her senses had been heightened, along with an overpowering sense of higher influence, as if the sun shone directly on her, and no one else.
“They know where we are,” she said to him. “They’re coming up behind us.”
Walker turned around and looked out at the ocean. Sure enough, coming up the south side of the hill were two scouts. They were only ants from where he stood, but he could make out their features. Neither of them was dressed in armor. In fact, they were dressed as peasants. They carried no banners or spears or torches. Walker struggled to raise his sword, brandishing it in front of him in a warrior’s stance. His muscles cried out in pain, and his limbs shook.
The two men charged up the hill of dead grass and weeds, shading their eyes from the sun to better see the top. But the distance was much too large for them to see Walker just yet. He still held the advantage.
“They are unarmed,” he said to her. “I can ambush them before they grow close. We have done it before.”
“It is my father, Olin,” she said.
“Your father? But he is dressed as a peasant! He carries no protection, and his escort is a mere runt!”
“He calls for a truce. An understanding. He knows that we are done, and so do we.”
“An understanding? For you to submit to slavery? Is that what you wish?”
“No, I do not wish to go back.”
“Then we will both die.”
She did not answer him, and he took her silence with accord.
He reclaimed his post at the top of the hill and looked down on their guests. They were much closer this time, unbelievably so. He could now see their faces, and one of them was certainly Olin. Around his belt he carried four chalices, which clattered together like golden bells. His black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and his characteristic sideburns were unkempt and bushy. He was just as gaunt as Walker, with black bags under each eye. He appeared to be dying, and he carried with him a cloudy black aura. Walker was sure that he could kill this man.
Olin saw Walker at the top of the hill and raised his hand to gain his attention.
“Dare not come any closer, Olin, or I will send a boulder crashing down on your head!” Walker screamed.
“I come here only for council,” he called. “I bring with me four cups, so that the four of us may drink and come to an agreement. Let us put this ordeal of toil behind us.”
“We care not to hold council with you! Now return to your camps and march at us with all the fury of your men. That is how we must settle this war!”
“We should speak, young captor. I no longer wish to war.” They stopped in their tracks momentarily. The escort patted the dust off his clothes.
“Let them enter our circle,” she said to Walker.
“What? Why would we risk our lives by meeting those devils?” he said.
“Let them speak with us. We will hear what they have to say.”
He reluctantly turned back to address the men, but they were already at the top, only yards away, and they entered the circle of stones. Walker drew his sword with surprise, but she motioned for him to lower the weapon. Olin and his escort stood in place, waiting for an invitation. Walker sat down cross-legged next to her and laid the sword across his lap.
“Come, Father. Sit with us,” she said.
Olin and his escort sat across from them.
“I am happy to see you, daughter,” the general said. “It has been many months. I see that you have met your share of trials. You are so thin and carry so many scars.”
“And I can hear by your voice that you too are worse for wear,” she replied.
“You are not the only one low on provisions,” Olin continued. “My men have very limited supplies. In pursuing you we have lost more people through starvation than battle. I beg of you now, return with me to the Kingdom, to your home, so we can put this horrible journey to rest. Too much has been lost already.”
“We will not surrender to you,” Walker hissed. Olin looked upon him with sadness. He freed the four cups from his belt and nodded to his escort. The escort took out a flagon of wine and filled all four glasses. He then placed two cups in the dirt in front of them.
“I was hoping that we could drink in agreement,” Olin said.
“You will leave us now and cease your pursuit. Besides,” Walker knocked over the nearest chalice, wine soaking into the dirt like blood, “this is poisoned.”
“But she is my daughter.”
“She does not wish to be,” Walker said.
“Why do you not let my daughter speak?”
“Very well, Father, I will speak,” she said. “Long ago my life was drawn out for me, and I saw that this world would fall. If I did not leave the Kingdom, then the end would never come. I now see that I am the Star. I once thought that I was Justice, and maybe I was for a short time, but this sword could not stay sharp forever. Once this world crumbles, I will shine the light over the darkness and guide the Dreamer home.”
“And who is the Dreamer?” Olin asked.
“This man, here.” She pointed a blind hand at Walker. “He was put here in this place to protect me from you. He was destined to bring me to the top of the tallest hill, overlooking the water, so I may rise up into the sky and take my rightful place.”
Olin immediately began to change shape. His neck elongated into that of a serpent, and he collapsed into his clothes. The escort beside him turned into a rotting corpse dressed in black rags, which were almost as frayed as the flesh hanging from his grinning skull. He blinked his eyes at them and drew a dagger from his sleeve.
“You love this woman, do you not?” the serpent asked Walker.
“I do!” he screamed, rising to his feet.
“She has tempted you far more than I ever could!” It laughed. Walker stopped its laughter by chopping through its head with his sword. It fell still.
The sun plummeted out of the sky and collided with the horizon, causing a terrible firestorm, which consumed the four camps. Walker watched all the flags burn up like match sticks. The moon rose up, full and huge, bringing with it a black sky, which spread from north to south like a silky inkblot. Olin’s daughter now shone with a fierce intensity of light. She rose up into the air, still in the lotus position, and hovered below the moon as a bright corona. The Star. Venus. Lucifer. The Light Bringer.
The dead man came at Walker in a whirl of black robes. The whole earth shook as he pounced, and Walker felt the waters come up to consume the land and extinguish the fire. Walker fell over as the dagger plunged into his heart. The last thing he saw was the moon, great and vivid above his head. He died wondering what it had all been for.
“That’s right, Mr. Walker, blink a few times now. Try to move your fingers for us. Very good. Now your toes. Excellent.”
A light burned over his head. It was as big and bright as the sun. He wanted to open his eyes all the way, but the light was much too intense.
“We’ll dim the spotlight for you. Now, how’s that? You can sit up if you like.”
He sat up with the help of the men around him, and they got him to put his feet on the floor.
“We won’t have you try and walk just yet. Just sit there for a moment and answer our questions as best you can.”
The man speaking was short and trim, wearing a white lab coat and latex gloves. There were three other men in white standing around him, and another two men across the room dressed in grey uniforms. They wore guns on their belts. They frowned at him from their place by the door. He looked around the room and saw that it wasn’t much of anything. It was a concrete cell with a large spotlight in the ceiling. There was barely enough room for his bed, let alone the seven extra men. The door looked heavy, locked into place with a steel bar.
“My name is Doctor Reonard,” the little man said. “Do you know your name? Try to speak.”
“Terrance. My last name’s Walker,” he croaked. His hands explored the many different wires stuck to his forehead and chest by suction cups. Those wires led into the ground, into what was conceivably nothing.
“Don’t play with those quite yet. We’ll take them off shortly. Now, you are Terrance. Is there anything else you remember? Think hard now.”
“I remember a hill. There was a star in the sky … I killed a snake.”
The doctor nodded his head. “Memories from the dream no doubt. No, do you remember why you’re here? Do you know what this place is?”
“It looks like a closet.”
“Yes, it’s small to maintain space. We have many occupants here at this facility, and this is all the space that is allotted, I’m afraid. This is a prison cell, Mr. Walker. You’ve been imprisoned here for twenty years. We’ve kept you in a period of rest for that entire time, administered to you by a powerful sedative. We have been monitoring your brain activity here with the wires, to make sure that you are kept under for the remainder of your time here.”
“What’re you talking about? I was never imprisoned. I grew up in Kundal,” Terrance murmured. “I was a medicine man. I was a master of alchemy. The past year I was on the run … I protected the general’s daughter … and …”
“That was a simulation and nothing more. It seemed real, no doubt. It was supposed to seem real,” the doctor said. “We’ve been using experimental technology in the last decade to better control our prison systems. By sedating every inmate, we cut costs of food and clothing, we conserve room, as you can see, and we avoid risk of inmate-related violence, which was an inescapable problem of the past, until now. You were kept alive on a life support system, and twice a day we sent a shock to your brain, allowing your body to wake up and sleepwalk around your room for a short bit of exercise. Now, men like you, who are here to be punished for their crimes, are put into a very deep sleep that can last up to fifty years. And just like a dream, you believe that you’re awake and active during your sleep, living out a very real life. The drug is able to unite the unconscious and conscious hemispheres of the brain, and bring them into a perfect equilibrium, where illusions of the unconscious (or dreams) are acted out as though they are absolutely real, with all the hunger, sleep, and five senses we take for granted here in the real world.”
“How … how could that have been a dream?”
“An understandable reaction. It is disorienting, I know, but it will all start coming back to you. You see, we didn’t create your dream world. You did. We only set the stage. A dream is like an inkblot test. We supplied the blank canvas, and dripped the paint on it. You interpreted the dream for what it was and built it as you went along, becoming stronger and stronger, as it became more and more real. And this was no ordinary dream, am I right? Besides the fact that it was long, you had all the freedoms that you would have in the real world. You could eat food, perform sex, and go to sleep at night without a second thought, and all of it felt extremely real. This technology allows the prisoner the comfort of freedom even in a padded cell. That is the true vision behind this invention. Even the criminal deserves some aspect of comfort, and this dream world allowed you that relief.”
Terrance winced with a searing headache. “But that wouldn’t be real.”
“Yes, certainly, but those twenty years of your incarceration just flew by, didn’t they?” The doctor smiled. “This technology is highly controversial. The argument is that the criminal doesn’t have the time to think about his crime, and truly find his day of judgment, that this dream state is only distracting him with false ideals. Yet the entire prison is run on this technology. Like I say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
“You have to let me go,” Terrance pleaded.
“I’m afraid not. We woke you because this is your day of judgment, Mr. Walker. The agreement is that the sleeper has to be awake for his execution, so he can remember what he did, and pay the penalty for it. I’m afraid that day has come.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong! I shouldn’t be here!”
Terrance attempted to stand and the three men restrained him back into his bed. Seeing how weak he was, he stopped thrashing, but the doctors did not let go.
“You don’t have any memory of what you did?” the doctor asked him.
“No! I didn’t do anything! I protected that woman! I loved her!” Terrance screamed.
“Was her name Maggie White?”
“No! I don’t know who that is!”
“This is common. The subject has a hard time differentiating between his two lives,” he told the others. The doctor extracted a tape player and set it down on the bed. “We tape the confessions of all our inmates, in hopes of jogging their memories at the end.” The doctor pressed play, and Terrance recognized his own voice inside the little speaker.
“My name is Terrance Walker, I am twenty-seven years old, and I was arrested a month ago for murder. Yesterday in court I was found guilty of murdering … of murdering Maggie White, my girlfriend of four years. I held her cap — captive in my basement for two months, in hopes of protecting her from her abusive father. I also murdered her father when he came to my door looking for her. I was … I was only trying to help her.” The voice was softer now, grinding away to nothing. Terrance found that he was starting to cry. “Her estranged father came looking for her after her mother died. He only wanted the money Maggie inherited from the will, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He became physical.” The voice was rising again, now with fire. “She wanted it all to end. She wanted to go to the police, but it was her father, and she couldn’t bring herself to do it. I promised to help her. I offered her my home, and when she was reported missing, I hid her in my basement. I fed her, but when the police started questioning me, I — I panicked and locked her down there. I refused to open the door, fearing … I don’t know. I was afraid that if I opened that door she would leave me forever, after all I did for her. Then her father came to me. He didn’t suspect me of anything. He was worried. He only wanted peace of mind. He heard her screams. I had to kill him. I — I started to pretend that nothing was wrong and that … that there was no one dying in my basement. I went to work as normal. I went about my life. I was burying her father in a cemetery when I was caught … I don’t know. It all seems meaningless now.”
“Mr. Walker, what about the girl’s eyes?” This was a new voice, an unnamed interviewer.
“Oh, that. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Terrance’s voice was so calm, almost mechanical. “When they found her body, some animal had taken them. I’ve seen mice down there before.”
The tape ran out and the doctor pressed the stop button.
“Now do you remember?” the doctor asked.
Terrance continued to weep under the restraints of the three men. “That wasn’t me! I wouldn’t do that to her! I protected her! I kept her safe from him! I’m a doctor! Just like you! Please! Please, you have to know that wasn’t me!”
“That was your voice, Mr. Walker. And that other reality, that was a dream. Whatever you think you did, none of it was real. None of it matters. You killed two people, and now you must be judged.” The doctor motioned for the two guards at the door, and they walked forward to grab Terrance.
“No! No! This is the dream! I’m going to wake up now!” The doctors pressed their backs to the wall as the guards grabbed Terrance under the arms. They lifted him to his feet. He was skinny and small, dressed in a white hospital gown with a shaved face and head. He didn’t have an ounce of muscle on him, and they did not stagger under his weight. They dragged him to the door with ease and forced him into a cold hallway. “I’ll wake up on top of that hill. I’ll find her waiting for me. Please! Please, don’t do this!”
He was dragged into a white room filled with light. The men forced him into a chair and restrained him with straps pulled much too tight across his emaciated chest. A woman stepped up in front of him, holding a syringe. She wore a similar uniform of white like the doctor’s, only hers fanned out into a dress over her knees. She had a white surgical mask over her mouth, and her blonde hair was pulled back into a bun.
“No! No! I didn’t hurt her! I didn’t hurt her!” he screamed as she stuck his arm with the needle.
The woman stepped back and then suddenly changed. She became an angel in an aura of white light. Her wings expanded behind her back, and her hair swept from right to left. The syringe was now a brass horn, and she put it to her lips and blew a call. The white light consumed her, leaving Terrance in a colorless void of silence. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he lay at the base of the hill, the water rolling up the beach and tasting his fingers. He must have rolled down the hill, possibly to escape the man with the knife. Nighttime was gone, replaced by the sun. He was alone, and he bled out from the chest.
The sky was blue and clear. He looked out at the ocean and spotted a boat sailing away from the shore. In this boat was the Star, Olin’s daughter. She was no longer blindfolded, and she did not carry her sword. She had glorious angel wings and a brass horn in her hands. She sat stoically, looking at the hill with a solemn gaze. Even as she drifted farther away, he could see her blue eyes shine in the sunlight.
“This is real,” he told her, and even though it was nothing but a whisper, he knew she could hear him. “This is what counts. You were right, I was always on the path to enlightenment, and that dream, that horrible place, was what I had to wake from. I will die in this world.”
“And now you are enlightened?” Her voice seemed to speak to him from inside his head.
“I don’t know.”
“You must begin again.”
“How is that fair?” he asked. “Why do you get to leave by water while I remain rooted to the earth?”
“Because I am ready to leave, and you are not,” she replied. “I can see again, but you are still blind. You’re back where you started, on the same stretch of ground. But you can start again, and do things differently. But don’t be confused; I forgive you.”
“I’m sorry if I ever hurt you. I’m truly sorry.” He cried into the sand.
“What was your first memory?” she asked. “You were only a lad and you created the road out of nothing, for you to walk on. Do that again. It’s an inkblot test. You create your own surroundings. You make your own meaning.”
“I’ve heard that before. Where did I hear that?”
But the boat had already disappeared over the horizon. He hung his head and fell quickly to sleep. The world reduced into nothing under him. All memory, all thought, all sense and pain were cleared from his slate, giving birth to a new world of darkness. When he opened his eyes, he was only a child, and he carried a knapsack in his arms. A road stretched out before him, and he blinked in bewilderment, not knowing where or who he was. All he knew was that he had a road to travel on. He looked at his hands and saw that he wore handcuffs around his wrists. Was he being punished? What had he been born to carry with him?
The road seemed new, but he started to think that he had done this before in another life, only a dream now, and he would have to do it again. If only he could remember what he had done wrong. He would have to figure that out, he supposed.
He wished that it was easier to remember a dream, especially when the brain was so hell-bent on piecing it together. All those dark visions swam at his back, prodding him forward, and he took his first step into the sunlight.
He looked up into the sun and immediately lost his sight. Soon he would forget what it was like to see altogether. He staggered forward into the dark world, begging for an explanation. He begged for something. If only dreams weren’t so cryptic and senseless, he thought to himself. If only.
Brendan Verville is an English student in Denver, Colorado. His works have been published in the Metrosphere and From the Depths literary magazines, and most recently, his story “Too Much Sleep” was included in Fiction Vortex’s 2013 horror contest.