by Jeremy Bursey
Copyright 2016 by Jeremy Bursey
All rights reserved.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
Thank you for downloading this e-book. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite e-book retailer to discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
Thanks for your curiosity about this double-featured tale of adventurers and their faith in the unseen and in the unknown. Most of what I have to say about these stories, I will say in the author’s note that follows at the end, but I wanted to address their nature before you read. In short, these are similar to parables and not exactly sprawling epics of grand fantasy adventure or overcoming some evil force (at least not in the classic sense). They are based on messages of faith and wisdom. Even though they are written in the style of traditional fantasy and contain elements of adventure throughout, they are nevertheless allegories of biblical themes. Good and evil exist in both stories, and our protagonists do have plenty of conflict to manage. But these stories are based more on the internal conflict than the external. These stories revel in our heroes’ victories over themselves through the power of faith more than the conquest over an evil entity. Regardless of what you may expect from them, I hope you’ll get a positive message out of both. Keep an open mind about their themes and I’m sure you will. And even if you can’t, just remember that there is still plenty of adventure in both stories, and it would be a shame for you to miss out. So, thank you, and enjoy the experience ahead.
War was averted. Or so he hoped. As the moon elevated from behind the Great Mountain, a lone horseman in tin-plated armor trotted along the banks of the Paradise River, breathing in a damaged rhythm behind his mask. Although his rusting sword dangled by his hip, the blade destined to see countless engagements remained untested.
Having wandered for hours along a hillside where the fountains of blood had once slumbered, he stopped beside the water’s edge to labor another breath. His Iberian Saddle Horse bowed down to drink from the calmed edge of the rapids, while he, the rider, removed his steel helmet and tossed it to the current. Where he was going, he didn’t need it.
The rider, Dalowin, stepped down from his four-legged accomplice and collapsed along the shore. With his thighs touching the soft ground, he picked a rock out of a shrub and rolled it between his fingers.
The river crashed and bubbled in its flowing fury, yet he stayed close, hoping the anger would quench him. On his own there was nothing he could do short of tossing himself in, but he waited—for an earthquake, maybe—to give him that jarring nudge. Waiting was folly, however. The natural land had showed him no favor, and it would not begin to favor him tonight. He scooted from the riverbank, plunging the stone in his place.
“Do not be afraid,” said a ghostly voice echoing from the water.
Dalowin jumped to his feet. The words vibrated down to the pit of his heart.
His attention darted everywhere; his chest heaved from the shock.
He gazed into the churning cauldron, but saw, nor heard anything. The mist floated up from the surface, spraying his face like spit from a baby. The surrounding field of wild marjoram enveloped his senses with its sweet aroma. The butterflies fluttered without resonance and he stood there on the shore looking like the fool. His horse glanced up from the river, snorted, then returned to its drink.
“Thank you, Aspyre, for your staunch reassurance,” he said.
The beast didn’t respond. Dalowin chucked another rock. His heart was now calming.
The lucid dream had fought with him three separate times: the first, a week before departure while sleeping in his father’s castle; the second, when his army had split into three parts at the Hill of Resilience; the third, while resting along the banks of the Paradise River. Each time, the vision had replayed the story picture for picture, engraining him with visions of terror. Though the images were short-lived, they had panned out with an orchestral voice so booming that the pieces haunted him in broad daylight.
A castle with four towers stood like a giant at the foot of the hill, with bloody moat on three sides and a mountain on the fourth. A city opened at the base of the drawbridge, surrounding the canal to the edge of the rock. Walls of mortar encased the city, with an inner wall keeping the castle court. The strongholds were covered in venom.
Soldiers with crossbows paced the surface of each protective layer. Scores of swordsmen roamed the city streets. Multiple guards stood outside the gates and pikes stabbed down from the ramparts like wooden icicles.
The son of the duke, regarded among his countrymen as Dalowin the Rabbit, stood on the hill’s peak, surveying the land. Though his army of a hundred horsemen stood loyal to him—or to his father, rather—their presence brought him little comfort. Hundreds more stood between him and the Throne of Destiny, waiting to knock him off his saddle. The sky moved at the speed of an arrow, but he and his men remained frozen in time.
A man in purple robes materialized a few feet down the slope, stretching his hands toward the kingdom.
“The king of this land has defiled his people,” the prophet said. “He must be dethroned. Go and claim the kingdom for your father and the Lord will bless your people accordingly. Do not delay or the city before you shall die.”
Three times Dalowin had wanted to take that first step toward the valley to rush the gates, but three times his courage had failed. With every scuffle of the horse’s hooves, he spun the animal around and charged the opposite hill, fleeing from his own men. And every time he awoke, he lurched into reality with a dry mouth and a shattered will, convincing himself the prophecy was false and the war was never meant for him.
“Do not be afraid,” the voice of ambience whispered.
Bolting upright, Dalowin stared at the water, hyperventilating through the shallows of his lips. Though the signs continued to elude him, something had chased him. He strained his ears to hear it again. Whitecaps broke less than a meter from his feet and the wind echoed through the reeds. But nature, like an irritating mime, lacked speech. Whatever it was, it hid itself. Taunting him. Scolding him.
Confounded by the problem, he insisted the place was cursed.
Weeks ago, his accompanying cavalry had vanished. By his fault. When the three squads separated atop the Hill of Resilience, he had broken rank and dashed for the woods, hoping they had the sense to follow his lead. Without a commander, he was certain—or hopeful—they’d return home. Disbanding them was the only way he knew how to protect them.
In his heart he believed the prophet had fed his father a lie. It was impossible the kingdom below the Hill could fall before his small army. The castle guard clamped the city with the strength of a thousand elephants. Cowardice was the key to his survival.
For many nights, he had rationalized himself to sleep. A dead man never dethroned a corrupt king. An army never rose from a bloody heap. A sound leader was a wise leader and a wise leader was a living one. Leading these people away had left him with no consequence.
He hoisted himself over the saddle and clutched his reigns with eagle claws. He had to depart from this land.
As Aspyre the Iberian Saddle Horse trotted along the riverbank, Dalowin fell asleep. With his cheeks planted in the animal’s mane, a heavy trickling noise filled his ears. He saw only unmistakable darkness, yet imagined the picture of a slanted brook rolling over the edge of a mountain. In the dream, an immense hand leapt from the current and knocked him off his seat, throwing him over the lip of a mighty waterfall. And then, he plummeted, faster and faster, farther and farther, until at last he ripped his eyes open. In his frantic state of alertness, he overcompensated his position and fell off the steed.
“Aspyre, stop.” The beast continued without him. “I said stop.”
When he caught up to his equestrian companion, Dalowin noticed the landscape had changed. Though he could see only by starlight, he discovered he was on the verge of hitting a gargantuan cliff face towering nearly a thousand feet above him.
Pine trees blocked his path, yet a narrow opening etched into the heart of the mountain a short distance down the river. He hopped onto his horse and headed for the break.
As the black sheer rock rose, he saw tree clusters extending over the shoreline, forcing him to waver through the wood the closer he came. It took him nearly an hour to navigate the foliage.
When he reached the cleft, he entered a narrow canyon stretching beyond his sight. With only a few feet separating the wall from the swelling river, Dalowin held his arms close to his sides and took a deep breath. The squeeze brought strain to his triceps, but it was worth him staying dry.
He and his horse traveled along the skinny path for the remainder of the night. With vertical rock faces repeating with each step, the hope for an escape looked slim. The trail seemed like it went on forever. His shoulders trembled with despair.
It was too late to reverse direction; the path had gotten too narrow. The rapids spilled down the declining river, yet the rider knew escape meant braving the current—in all its fury. The path ahead seemed dry, but endless. He considered the path behind.
“You know the way behind you,” said the voice of ambience, barely audible. It sounded like it was riding on the wind as it scraped the rocky edges around him. “Your freedom lies in the risks ahead.”
Once again Dalowin stopped his horse and waited. The voice, though whispering, sounded clearer than ever. The landscape didn’t present change, but the air rustled in his ears. The thought of its warning brought sweat to his brow.
A few minutes passed before he had the courage to move. Only, he resolved he had gone mad, so he attempted to turn the horse around. With a tight grip of the reins, he jerked its neck to the left.
The creature didn’t move. It snorted.
“Aspyre,” he said, rib-kicking the animal, “move it.”
The horse spat; then continued on the normal path. Dalowin kicked it with greater force.
“Aspyre, turn around.”
Five gusts of wind passed before the rider surrendered his effort. The river, meanwhile, continued to splash in his face as it hit the jagged shore at his feet.
The hopeless journey went on for another hour, moving up a leftward bend into an even narrower section of the canyon. With his toes scraping the mountain wall, the horseman dismounted his steed by climbing over its head. He continued on foot, leading the animal by the bit.
He and the horse walked for another mile before the river leveled out and calmed to a trickle. To his relief, the path also began to widen. With a glimmer of hope, he rested against the cliff. The ensuing comfort nearly pushed him back to sleep.
Sometime later, when the morning reached its peak, Dalowin nearly lost his balance. The road before him finally changed. Though the rocky trail maintained its rugged surface, the bordering cliffs tapered off into a series of platforms that formed a cylindrical container rising a thousand feet at its highest point, with the river spilling into a bowl-shaped lake. The entire landscape reminded him of the interior of his discarded helmet, but upside-down, craggy, and full of water.
The river itself, now calm at the mouth of the great pool, branched into three adjoining streams that met at the edges of each shore. The channels, all about thirty feet wide at the mouth, flowed from the spray zones of three large waterfalls. Dalowin took a deep breath as he absorbed the splendor.
Each waterfall spilled from consecutively growing heights: the lowest precipice standing at the height of a tree, the highest at the top of the sheer rock. He also noticed a series of steps ascending the rock face from the base of each surrounding path. Though the segments passing the greater falls were inaccessible—cut off by the adjacent streams—the stair leading up the smallest wall started at the end of the main path.
The majesty of the reflecting pond drew from him a sense of wonder, but the confined quarters still trapped him. He resolved to find a way out. The path he followed reached a dead end. The steps climbing above the first stream appeared to lead to a higher river. He sighed, relieved.
“Come, Aspyre,” he said, “I think we found our way.”
The horse hesitated at the first ascending step; Dalowin helped it navigate the curvature and sharp zigzags leading to the next level. It was certainly no simple ordeal—the steps couldn’t have been wider than his shoulders, making the journey especially awkward for the horse. But with an intense strain on the horse’s bit to keep it level, the difficult task was a successful one. At the top of the stair, he found a small field at the edge of a wood and a stream passing through.
The field was narrow. Trees squeezed it against the riverbanks on one side; the adjacent border cliff tackled it from the other. It was also absent of any defined path, making the river the only clear navigation point for escape. It bent right, about half a mile down the way into the heart of the forest.
As Dalowin mounted his horse, he set course to follow the shoreline. The trip seemed easy compared to the canyon’s claustrophobic road, yet still he had uncertainty. On the one hand, the ground was softer than the former path, making his steps potentially shakier. On the other, the forest was so dense that keeping to a straight line was impossible. His safest measure, then, was to tread the shallows of the river, but that, of course, meant hitting deep pockets, throwing him and his horse off footing. In the end, he realized he had made a mistake coming this far.
“Take the boat,” said the voice of ambience.
Again, Dalowin stopped to listen to his surroundings. That voice—it was driving him mad. And the boat—what boat? He looked around; all he saw was—wait, there was a boat. It was sitting against a small rock just inside the forest. It was wooden, rickety, and far too small for a horse. The voice was clearly suffering from head trauma.
“Leave the horse behind,” said the voice. “I will take care of him. Your journey must continue in this boat.”
“Who are you?” Dalowin asked at last. “Why have you followed me?”
“Set the boat in the river.”
He glanced from treetop to treetop, suspicious of the wind and the birds. But then he laughed.
“Certainly there is no one there. Aspyre, am I imagining things?”
“The horse will not answer you,” said the voice, “for a horse does not speak.”
“But the wind speaks? How is this so?”
“I am more than wind, as I am more than life. Trust My instruction. Set the boat in the river.”
The rider wanted to protest the wind, but realized further response was folly, so he did as the voice instructed—questioning his intelligence at the same time. He climbed off the horse and approached the river. Then he waded in to reach the boat.
“What shall I do now?” he asked, as he stepped into the boat. He could not believe he was listening to the wind, or understanding that which it spoke.
“Let the current carry you.”
Dalowin squeezed into the tiny vessel and waited for the river to respond. It took a moment for the boat to move, but a soft breeze pushed it to the river’s center. From there, the current gained control, leading him down the watery path. Without an oar to steer, he prayed he had made the right choice. Only, when he realized the current did not lead toward the bend as he had assumed, but toward the waterfall, he panicked.
“This is mad,” he said. “I will not do this.”
Before he could take further action, the boat accelerated, pulling him into a forward motion stronger than his ability to resist. He put one foot over the edge in preparation to jump, but he knew he would never make it in time—the water was pulling him too fast. Whether he was ready for it, whether he stayed in the boat, one way or another he was going over the edge. He pressed his forehead against his knees to prepare for his impending doom.
The river hurled him over the precipice. The boat rode the bumpy cascade a pine tree’s distance to the bottom, splashing nose-first into the stream below. The impact submerged the vessel long enough to draw a few inches of water, but not enough to sink it. When Dalowin opened his eyes and looked up, he found himself floating toward the reflecting pond in the middle.
The ordeal left him speechless.
The boat drifted to the next shore where the channel met the lake. As the vessel touched the rocky bank, Dalowin stepped out and kicked the water off his feet. Silence followed. Inside, he shook, but he didn’t know what to do. The gurgling rush of the falls rumbled back to life. The spill of the river rose from his gut and flooded into his cheeks. The dam in his throat couldn’t maintain its hold any longer.
“What illness has struck your reason?” he asked. “You could have killed me.”
As the water dripped from his metallic coverings, a gale blew down from the tallest canyon wall and knocked him into the stream. For one brief moment he was completely submerged. When he resurfaced, the voice reverberated off the rocks.
“Are you dead?” the voice asked.
“No, I am not dead, but I could be.”
“But are you?”
“Could I speak if I were dead?”
“Draw the boat from the water and ascend the next stair.”
“What? Are you mad? After—”
“Do you trust Me?”
“I do not know who you are.”
“In your spirit, you know. Do you trust Me?”
Dalowin kicked his feet against the rocky path. He didn’t need this, nor did he want it. Ambient voices, unpredictable journeys; all he wanted was to go home.
He glanced up to the precipice from which he had fallen. Aspyre, the Iberian Saddle Horse, was looking down at him. He could sense it snorting as it ate of the grass at its feet. Then it turned around and headed for the forested bank of the river above. Dalowin knew he was on his own now. He shook his head.
“What do you want from me?” he asked the voice of ambience.
“Draw the boat from the water and ascend the next stair.”
Dalowin followed the sheer rock with his eyes to the second ledge and shook his head. It was so much higher up than the first.
“As you wish,” he muttered.
It was a difficult reality to process; the voice of ambience was Someone indeed, Someone with an agenda no less, but Someone who knew a lot more than he did, so he complied. Though he couldn’t stifle his resentment, he pulled the boat out of the stream, dumped the water from the hull, and carried it to the adjacent stair, which climbed about a hundred feet to the next level.
The higher ledge resembled the one below, though a bit wider, a lot darker from shadows cast down from the thousand-foot sheer rock, and more unkempt. The grass was wilder and the gnats busier. Dalowin huffed in his exhaustion as he threw the boat to the ground. The second stair wasted his stamina.
The river on the second tier had a wider channel than the first, but flowed a little more slowly. The currents hugging the banks oozed, while the deep regions moved at a resistible speed. The scent of decaying fish emanated from downwind.
“Set the boat in the water,” said the whispering breeze.
“But at this height the fall will kill me.”
He waited for the voice to respond.
“Why do you wish to kill me?” he asked.
“Do you trust Me?” asked the voice, fainter than ever.
Dalowin wasn’t sure what to say. He nodded, though the tear in his eye left him questioning the truth. His fear outweighed his courage.
“Set the boat in the river.”
Continuing to nod, though he didn’t know why, he dragged the boat to the water’s edge. Climbing stairs and falling down waterfalls took its toll on his body. But he pressed on. When he set the boat into the stream, he entered the hull and let it carry him to the next precipice. He held his breath as he drew closer and closer.
Though he could justify survival from the first fall, he wasn’t sure what to make of the second. There was still enough ground presence from the lower tier to sense the swiftness of the drop, but from this level he could not see the bottom. His vision permitted him sight of only the rock wall across the lake, and the huge pit in between. Anxiety tapped him on the shoulder and clawed at his chest as he waited. Then, the river took control of his future.
From this height, his stomach lost anchor. As the nose tipped over the edge, the rush of the plunge engulfed most of his boat. Far below, the central lake expanded across the rocky canvas; then it fled behind the curtain of water closing over his eyes. Within a second he lost contact with all surfaces, feeling only the torrent on his back and his sword detaching from his waist.
The end came as quickly as the beginning had.
When he splashed into the stream, he dropped knees first. His boat landed a few feet to his left and his sword thrusted away like a missile, just inches to his right. Both he and the weapon went under so deep that he hit the bottom. The fall drained him; he didn’t have the strength to kick back to the surface.
“It is not finished yet,” gurgled the voice of ambience. “Remove what armor you can and swim to the boat. I will give you the strength to make it.”
Though he was tired, Dalowin felt the second wind hit him, even at the depths of the stream. Heeding the surge of energy, he unfastened the straps holding his breastplate together and slung it over his head. The strain on his muscles exhausted what was left of his lung capacity, but he was buoyant enough now to return to the surface. Grabbing his sword from nearby, he kicked away from the bottom and rose into the violent bubbles of the falling stream.
When he reached the surface, he inhaled a large volume of air. Survival had never felt so refreshing. It was like watching a ship coming to rescue a survivor from a deserted isle. He whooped with whatever amount of strength he could muster.
Once he got hold of his boat and floated to the shallows of the shoreline, he climbed onto the next rocky platform and fell onto his back. For several minutes, he panted as the sunshine spilled over him from high above the bowl. When his strength finally returned, a swift breeze shot down the sides of the canyon and across his face.
“Dalowin,” said the voice of ambience, “it is time to climb the final stair.”
He didn’t want to argue with the voice anymore. For whatever reason it put him through this trial, he didn’t care. Twice now he had survived the impossible, and it only made sense that he’d survive the next. The commands were strange, even brutal, but he had gotten through them. If the voice wanted him to climb the thousand-foot stair, then that was what he would do.
His legs felt like pudding and his shoulders like fire, but he took up his boat and climbed the final stair. The journey lasted nearly an hour. He collapsed at the top from exhaustion. His heart was leaping out of his chest. But he made it, and the relief of lying still was enchanting.
While he lay supine, resting and staring at the sky, he drifted into a deep sleep. The silence transformed into a burning hill where soldiers lit arrows and sent them off into the valley below. He stood there, shouting at the men as they set the city by the mountain on fire. A smile crossed his face as the castle guard fell off the parapets.
When he awoke sometime later, he sat up to view the landscape. This time there were no cliffs, but a field stretching infinitely toward the skyline, with rolling hills cascading both up the side of a mountain and down the slope of a valley; the stream branched in two directions in the middle. At the top of the waterway, a spring percolated in all of its glory, giving the stream its source of life. At the bottom, two other streams met the first at the mouth of a great river and continued well into the horizon. Thanks to the overwhelming image before him, he couldn’t find his breath.
“Set the boat in the river,” said the voice of ambience, knocking him out of his stupor. The accompanying wind kissed his forehead.
He didn’t argue the voice’s logic. A thousand-foot cataract plummeted down the side of a cliff—certain doom would befit any man attempting to ride it—but he didn’t argue. The voice kept him alive during the first two descents; certainly it would keep him alive during the third. He didn’t know how many limbs would stand with him afterward, assuming he could stand, but that was no longer a concern. What mattered now was that he finished his journey.
He entered the boat, allowing the stream to carry him toward the precipice overlooking the impossible drop, and waited. Only, when he drew near, the voice whispered through the breath of a swift breeze.
“Your faith has saved you, Dalowin. You need not continue this course.” A pause followed. Dalowin searched the sky for validation. “Now turn the boat around and sail for the valley. The waterfall ahead will surely destroy you.”
The sudden realization that death awaited him at the bottom of the fall didn’t faze him. The strength coursing through his blood from having survived two previous drops toughened his will to leap from the boat and force it into the opposite direction. Though his legs fought the weights of his shin guards, he pushed hard from the depths of his gut, keeping the vessel far from the precipice. For several minutes, he struggled to stay afloat as he resisted the currents, but his endurance paid off. As soon as the stream changed direction at the top of the declination, he let the boat carry him all the way down into the valley. Once the water leveled out, he inhaled another desperate breath and pulled himself into the boat.
Without a paddle, the journey voided direction. Dalowin clutched his knees together, believing God would lead him to the next trial. Whatever that was, he figured, somehow, his Protector would take care of him. Shivering from the cold, he looked ahead toward the river, attempting to understand what life test that might be.
“Do you trust Me?” the voice asked from across the grassy fields.
The drenched rider nodded against his elbows.
“Then, climb out of the boat where the three streams meet the Paradise River.”
The mouth of the river was close—maybe a half-hour’s worth of sailing away. Although the stream’s current decelerated at the foot of the hill, it increased speed as he drew closer to the wider body of water. With the two adjoining streams adding pressure to the mix, the boat took off as it crossed the first junction.
The approach took about twenty minutes. Once the nose of the vessel reached the mouth of the river, Dalowin sheathed his sword; then he collapsed over the edge into the refreshing water, taking a drink as his head went under. Despite all of the streams and rivers he had dealt with since late the previous evening, this was his first real effort at hydrating himself. In all of his agonizing punishments, this was his first attempt at healing. A broken twig slipped past his cheeks to commemorate the moment. He caught it before he resurfaced.
When he pulled himself onto the riverbank, he lifted his eyes to discover a welcome surprise. A set of hooves scuffed the grass before him.
“Aspyre,” he whispered, digging his face back into the ground, “you found your way.”
A moment passed before the soft breeze of late afternoon brushed across his back.
“Dalowin,” said the voice of ambience, “you are now fit to fulfill your destiny. Take your horse and return to the Hill of Resilience. May your courage offer you a new name: Dalowin the Falcon, for your stance will be mighty and your attack swift. With My strength you and your armies will prevail against the city of corruption. Ride now, for your army awaits you.”
And so Dalowin rose from his grassy bed and mounted his valiant Saddle Horse, thanking God for his newfound courage. Once he felt situated on the saddle, he raised his nose to the sky and kicked the animal into action. Like an arrow, the equestrian chariot sprinted off down the riverbanks until it met the moon at the place of prophecy. It was there that he met his eager army and told them his story.
The Narrow Bridge
Kirk forgot what peaceful weather looked like, the Storm had raged for so long. The sky swelled with clouds of darkness. The rain whipped about from east to west, blinding him from the road that was forged ahead. Streaks of lightning engulfed his path, offering light to see his map, but filled with enough madness to nullify his comfort. With all the natural chaos, he thought, the sooner he ended his journey, the better.
The map showed a canyon sunk into the road before him, introducing him to the possibility of floodwaters blocking the way. The road behind seemed like the safest place to which to retreat. The trees in that old place, however, were stripped by the elements—scattered branches lay in heaps along the road. Fortunately, he knew where each piece had fallen, so he was content to return to familiar territory, if only to escape the unknown ahead.
Nevertheless, he couldn’t betray the heart that had urged him to continue. The journey had been arduous, but turning back would have made his progress futile. He had to push forward.
He huddled over his soggy map, which dripped on the muddy pathway. There were so many crisscrossing lines covering the sheet that a casual glance might’ve confused a navigator. Fortunately, his chosen path, the only path to reach the mark denoting his destination, was defined boldly in red. Unfortunately, it drove right through the heart of the canyon and over the peak of the mountain summit, both which left him with a deep sense of dread and danger.
He scoured the chart for a way around the obstacles, perhaps one that didn’t even stay on the page. Lines traveled in spiraling motions, winding from one printed landmark to another, none of which presented him with a sound alternative.
With the map failing to show him what he wanted to see, he undoubtedly had to find an uncharted path on his own.
However, the last time he had searched for his own safest path, taking dead end after dead end, he had discovered the hard way that the map was resolute. After staring down the blinding road, looking into only a curtain of water, he figured he had to trust what others had outlined before him, as they were the pathfinders and he was their student. If they were wrong, then the map would’ve never gotten to him in the first place.
By his understanding, the road pushed forth in a northeasterly direction. It looked dangerous from this standpoint, with lightning striking the bordering forest in heavy doses—each bolt sending a new tree bursting into flames, which inevitably would cause a chain reaction that could engulf the entire region. Logic told him not to continue, but logic had no connection with his heart. Treasure awaited him; nothing—not lightning, floods nor mountains—would stop him. He hoped.
Additional paths branched off from the small muddy artery. Each was a wider, though barren road passing over denuded fields, each leading to places that appeared unhampered by the Storm. The paths were flat and easy, with safe spots for veering around deep puddles. Most of them lacked deadly debris, with not one flying branch or piece of bark whipping by. It was the most comfortable this journey would ever get, if he were to choose any of them as his road.
One seemingly inviting road even had a storm shelter erected along its shoulder. It would take a journey for him to get there, but the shelter looked as though it were made of decent wood, which would give him a break from the frightful weather. He also thought he saw the outline of a neon sign deep in the distance—perhaps a diner or a venue for entertainment. But he couldn’t tell for certain, for the place was a great distance away, and, according to his map, the road tangled in many, many directions along the way, and he couldn’t predict how long it would take him to arrive, regardless of which twist in the road he’d take.
Nevertheless, as the Storm wailed louder than ever, Kirk found the prospect of making the distant trip to the neon lights attractive. It would’ve delayed his journey—that much was clear—but he was tired of the leaves, the berries, and the pebbles pelting him, and he believed a reprieve from the pain was desirable.
As he stepped near the branching side road, Kirk halted and meditated. There was no telling whether he could find his way back to this trail or not. According to his chart, each branching road led to more branching roads, which led to more branching roads, which led to more branching roads. Any one of them could’ve had storm shelters, diners, or entertainment venues in place, but this one—this unwavering one—was the only one that would lead him past the canyons, past the mountains, and past all the other landscapes within the Storm. At least, that’s what the map claimed.
Perhaps, through no failure of possibility, an incompetent mapmaker had created the map with a drunken navigator at his side. Perhaps, it was one of many fakes designed to set would-be treasure hunters on the wrong path. Stories had told of such things happening before; civilizations have preserved anonymity over such ruses. If such a decoy existed in his hand, then he would be foolish to continue along this dangerous course. Only a fool would keep traveling within this Storm into the burning forest and beyond, just to reach a place he had never seen before—that might not even exist. It only made sense, therefore, to go to the storm shelter, or the neon sign, or any place he could see with his own two eyes.
But, so far, the map had been accurate. Up to this point, everything it outlined had in fact appeared in the place where it was recorded. Each crossroad had cut across the trail exactly where the map had shown. Even the major landmarks along the red line had emerged from the rainy horizon at the points revealed. Doubting the accuracy of the map seemed more foolish than continuing along this wild road. He decided it was best to keep going, even if flying twigs did blast him in the face.
And so he continued toward the fiery forest, hoping with all hope that the map was telling him the truth.
Several hours into his journey, Kirk incurred bruises, making the narrow road an uncomfortable place to travel. The Storm continued hurling branches and stones at him, throwing also the occasional spark from the forest inferno. He covered his head with his map for extra protection. None of it, however, brought him to crumble under the Storm’s ridicule.
In one sudden moment, however, after a lengthy spell of repetition, the Storm became angry. As Kirk continued to trek along the trail, he felt the wind increasing its speed and its whistling howl through the trees deafening him. Within moments, he thought a tornado had come.
The power of the wind nearly swept him off his feet, threatening to send him into the fire or the unknown beyond. As he quickly slid toward the edge of the road that approached the heart of the burning forest, he caught onto the cleft of a boulder and held on for dear life. It took all of his strength, but, as he hung from the fissure with his feet to the air, he pulled himself down behind the rock and sought cover from the wind’s fury.
Trees uprooted all around him, several of which fell onto the road. To his horror, the raging fires blanketed most of the fallen trunks now set on the path before him.
The wind continued to rage, tossing blazing trees around like a game of pinball, sliding them from one edge of the road to the other. Kirk held his grip as tightly as possible to ensure he didn’t get tossed, too. Even though the boulder absorbed most of the wind’s force, he knew letting go would’ve been fatal. He had to wait for the onslaught to finish.
A few burning trees flew over his head, while another slammed against the opposite side of the boulder. He planted his feet firmly into the ground, pressing hard against the rock to guarantee his steadfastness.
When the wind finally slowed and the trees stopped skidding along the dirt, Kirk got to his feet and breathed again. Only, his heart couldn’t relax—a fallen tree had blocked his path, stretching from shoulder to shoulder with no room to maneuver around it.
There had been many close calls on this expedition since he’d left his garden sanctuary, but each seemed more harrowing than the one before it. The traveler who had offered him the chart months ago, a man who had sought after the same treasure, told him of the burdens that lade the road. Kirk had taken the warning to heart when he set off for the journey, fresh from the greasy tavern in the last valley, but he had quickly forgotten what the message meant when his focus wavered off course.
Kirk realized, as he ducked a few rogue sparks, that, in his plunge toward the unknown, he had dreamed only of the imagined troubles—the things swirling in his head. He had never expected to have to pass through actual fire, or face the brunt of the Storm. The reality of the natural war around him made his desire for the treasure all the more intense.
He climbed to the top of the rock to evaluate the path ahead. To his disappointment, he discovered that many felled and burning trees clogged the road. Some spanned the length of the road, making only the shoulder dangerous, while others lay diagonally or horizontally across the road, making passage through just about impossible. If there were ever a time to turn back, this was it. But, as he looked to the path behind, he discovered that additional trees had already blocked him in.
In spite of the wind’s onslaught, the map, though soaked with water, was still legible. He triple-checked the possibility of an alternative way out, but the map made it clear that the red line was the only way. He stared down the road again. It seemed hopeless.
Regardless, he had to press on, fire or no fire. Staying put would undoubtedly kill him.
It took him a few moments to muster his strength. Once he felt ready to brave the flame, he jumped off the rock and hurtled over the first burning tree. As his trajectory sent him over the trunk, the isolated blaze nearly scorched his legs. But he landed safely on the ground, rolling to absorb the shock to his feet. When he stood again, he brushed the mud off his body.
Then he considered the mud and realized the potential it had in blanketing him from the heat. He dove back onto the soggy road and rolled around until he was caked in it. Then he got to his feet and took a running start toward his next obstacle, hoping he had made the right decision.
The tree ahead failed to challenge him, as it clung primarily to the road’s shoulder. Only the loose branches fanning halfway across the trail posed any sense of barricade. Feeling the comfort to catch his breath, he jogged past the treetop to face his next challenge.
The next one, however, was not as forgiving as the one before it. This tree trunk hung low, diagonally over the road, and stretched from the right-hand forest edge to the interior left. Its branch mass was so thick that the trunk couldn’t lie flat. The not-quite horizontal angle left just enough of space for Kirk to crawl through.
The flames from the trunk almost singed his back, but he made it through unharmed. The next tree stood straight, and the following was leaning but had not fallen completely over. Much of the journey through the forest toyed with his senses, alternating from no challenge to strong enough to grit his teeth. But the last one he faced was by far the meanest of them all.
It clung tightly to the ground, leaving no room to maneuver around it—he could neither swerve to the side nor pass underneath. It spanned a length from deep within the left part of the forest to an equal space inside the right. Its trunk was thick, perhaps the thickest of both sides of road, sporting a diameter of about ten feet. Tangling branches covered it from its top down to its roots. The fire consumed everything it was, licking the rain-soaked sky above. By sights, it was impassable. Kirk fell to his knees in despair.
Is there nothing treacherous along this path? he wondered. Have I traveled for months just for this? So many roads were safe and secure; so many have provided wines and women; so many have offered riches and entertainment. Why didn’t I just take one of those and be done with this?
At that moment, something chirped in the sky. He looked up and spotted a small white bird flying through the pouring rain over the burning logs. As it extended its wings against the intensity of the Storm, it glided, calmly out of sight, down the road beyond the forest.
He was suddenly intoxicated in thought. For his entire journey he had kept his eyes on the road—as he thought he was supposed to—unaware that his guidance could come from elsewhere. Now with wisdom catching him from above, he knew that if a tiny bird could forge ahead, then perhaps there was still a way for him to reach his destination, too.
He sat on the road until he understood. He knew he couldn’t fly like a bird, but he still understood the wisdom attained from the bird. The solution wasn’t that the bird could fly; the solution was that the bird was equipped with the resources necessary to overcome its obstacles.
With all the troubles he had dealt with inside the forest, Kirk had almost forgotten that he was hauling a knapsack on his back. It wasn’t quite as bulky as the packs he had seen other travelers wearing, but it was still large enough to carry his essentials, like food, a canteen, and a blanket. When he remembered he had it, he removed it from his shoulders and unzipped it open. The first thing he found was his blanket.
He pulled the thick woolen sheet from his sack and wrapped it around his mud-caked body. From the combination of the rain outside and Kirk’s insulated shoulders inside, the blanket turned fireproof.
After covering everything but his hands and face, he slid his map into the knapsack and zipped the bag shut. This time he was ready to traverse the final obstacle the forest had to offer—or what he hoped was the last blockade.
He tossed the pack over the fiery trunk as hard as he could. The elements of the Storm were too loud for him to hear any thuds hitting the ground, but it didn’t matter; the bag had reached the right trajectory, so he knew it had gone to the other side. Now he had to figure out how best to reunite with the bag.
The fire raged at its worst, its ferocity increasing every second. The rain could no longer control it, nor could it stop it; it vaporized on contact with this reckless animal. As he caught sight of the inferno rising, Kirk knew he had a fight ahead of him.
With every tiptoe he took nearer to the fallen tree, he felt the vengeance of the Storm’s assault persecuting him. Sparks splattered off the clustered branches. With evasive maneuvering, however, he sidestepped each one. Burning twigs crackled and popped. Embers fell before him. But he pushed forward. Each footprint he left behind snuffed out tiny flames in the mud.
But, no move stopped the heat from intensifying. The closer he got, the more he wanted to turn back.
When he outstretched his hand to take hold of the first branch, he snapped it back—the very shock of heat nearly sent him running. He examined the situation a second time to ensure that he understood how best to overcome it. He really had no clue.
The thickest branches were also the longest, and presented him with the greatest challenge. Although they offered him the best support for climbing over the trunk, they also had the most fire for him to surpass. The smaller branches, the ones like twigs, were nothing more than kindling, and there was no way he could climb them without breaking them, and odds were high he’d still get burned.
As he examined the tree further, he noticed another type of branch adhering to his liking. Where thick wooden arms had once grown, broken stumps were now stuck to various spots around the trunk. Not so much branches anymore, they jutted from its thick body like foot-wide pegs. Even though some were ablaze like the rest of the tree, most remained safe. The biggest problem he saw with them was their massive diameters. He wasn’t sure how he’d get a handhold across their tops. But he had to try. He didn’t have much of an alternative choice. Kirk hacked his way through the loose tangles to reach the closest unconsumed stump he could find.
The first peg was sturdy enough to hold his weight, so it became clear to him that this plan could work, as long as he could reach the others as easily. As he hoisted himself up to reach the next, he felt the pain of intense heat eating up his body. He had no time to wipe away the sweat. Like climbing a ladder, he reached for the next protrusion and then the next until he finally met with a burning one. Then he had to stop and think.
At this point, there was no reason to jump back down, so he buried his free hand inside his blanket and grabbed the fire with the wool. As he made contact, he wrenched the stump until he rubbed the fire out. When the danger was clear, he reached for the next one.
The fire was strongest at the top of the tree. By the time he reached the upper branches, he kicked his feet into the flame and stood on the firm horizontal trunk. Although the blaze danced around him as he found his balance, his wet blanket shielded him from the burn.
It was a beautiful thing, he thought, to stand above the Storm’s worst soldier. But the breathing conditions were unbearable. Thanks to the adrenaline he was feeling since his trek through the forest began, he hadn’t noticed how hard it was for him to breathe. Until now. The smoke was thick and black. His lungs burned not only from exhaustion, but from poor air quality. As he stood at the top of the trunk’s surface, he realized he was wheezing. If he stayed put, he would undoubtedly suffocate.
As he crouched into the fire, he looked into the sky to receive a face full of rain. The feeling of cold water against tormenting heat was bittersweet. But he would not savor the dichotomy of pain. He sprang from the trunk and shot over the remaining branches to the other side and landed on the muddy surface of the road next to his knapsack, rolling through a huge puddle of water that quenched the small fires in his blanket and washed some of the grit off his body.
As he plucked his nose out of the puddle, he looked up to see, to his relief, that the road ahead was finally clear of the forest’s anger. Now he would have a chance to breathe.
Time demanded a small chunk of his life before he could finally reach the edge of the forest. A short distance into a fresh clearing, he found the beginning of the Canyon Deep, a place that stretched farther than the eye could see. At first, he considered it a milestone to emerge safely from the wrath of the forest, but with a beat, he changed his mind. The valley, as he had expected, was flooded.
Now he wasn’t sure what to do.
According to the map, only one path led beyond the canyon—one that went far below the surface of the floodwaters. Though he could see faintly the outlines of trees peeking through the haze on the opposite bank, he couldn’t determine where the path restarted. For all he knew, the straight line ahead would lead him miles off course, even if he could hold to a straight line on such choppy waters.
If he had the ability to even cross the water.
He contemplated performing a breaststroke to the other side and bypass the road completely, a strenuous effort, he knew, but possible to achieve. But the distance was too far. Without a boat or piece of driftwood to carry him, he was stuck.
Like his mind’s tired old clockwork, he pondered over the possibility of turning back. Not that he wanted to waste his many previous steps, but his exhaustion was paramount. He wanted an easier solution, and he wasn’t sure where to find it.
He sat on a rock beside the valley’s edge. If there were anything he could attain in this hour, it was time to think.
Waiting here for the death of the Storm seemed like the best choice for his situation. The valley would drain and he could continue along the soggy path; if only the downpour would stop. Unfortunately, the Storm had raged for so long that waiting for it to pass would’ve been like waiting for the arrival of Judgment Day. He vibrated his lips from discouragement. There had to be another way.
Kirk checked his knapsack for resources. Nothing worked for him. His blanket was drenched. His canteen was too small to drain the valley. He certainly didn’t have enough food to plump him into a sizeable floatation device. Even his trusty map was too thin to support his weight. The knapsack itself was the only thing capable of ferrying him across, and that was based solely on a guess.
He decided to test its buoyancy.
When he set the bag in the water, his heart sank. The knapsack, his dear companion since the beginning, also sank, a whole foot to the bottom. Now he was out of options.
He reached into the shallow water and fished the bag out. After that, he didn’t know what else to do. Even after his successful navigation of the forest, he had drawn himself empty of ideas.
More time passed. The pressure to move ate at his soul. Treasure was waiting to be found, and he was sitting here moping over his failure. Surely, braver men had reached the goal. For him to lose his bearings now, he didn’t deserve to be called a man, much less a brave man. It was a burden he refused to keep. He had to find a boat.
It was unlikely he would find one at the edge of a canyon, but he searched for one anyway. He scoured a mile-wide radius for anything, anything at all resembling a water vessel. After an hour, though, it proved a fruitless endeavor.
Now desperate for any means of success, he returned to the road, ready to do what he feared since coming to this shore. He readied his bag for the great swim. Although his natural buoyancy was so far untested, he believed he could make himself and his bag floatable, so he dumped everything into the mud and went to work.
He took his shoes off first. Without the extra weight on his feet, he thought he could kick a little more smoothly. Next, he wrapped his shoes and his loose items in the blanket. Once everything folded snuggly together, he restored the blanket to the bag, hoping it would center the bag’s weight.
Once he closed the sack and gripped it to his chest, Kirk prepared to swim across the valley, hoping for the strength to reach the other shore. The last time he had tried swimming, he made it a mile before clutching to his floatation device for survival, and nearly puked when he returned to land. This rainborn mini-sea was at least three miles wide. His stomach churned in anticipation of the nausea awaiting him.
With nothing left to keep him at bay, he stepped into the shallows of the water. There would be no turning back. The valley ahead was little more than a wide-open field, so there were no trees or rocks above the waterline for him to grab onto along the way. All he could do was to swim the distance. He took a breath. This would be no simple feat.
When the water reached his chest, he heard the loud crack of thunder burst behind him. At first, he flinched. He remembered once learning about the dangers of swimming in a body of water during a thunderstorm. His first impulse was to race back for the shore he had just departed. But he pushed forward. Then he heard the rumblings of an unearthly growl. Something terrible was happening behind him. He thrashed a wide arc from where he stood, turning to face the horror he was trying to escape.
Three trees were cracking at their bases. Within moments, the first toppled over and came within a few feet of crushing him. Gallons of water splashed hard in his face and much of it got into his nose. Before he could recover from the sudden deluge, the second fell, knocking the first away with a hard splash. The third tree plunged a beat later, creating such a wave that it pushed Kirk clear underwater.
When he resurfaced, he discovered the first tree floating away. He lunged for it and latched onto its nearest branch to hitch a ride.
A few hours later, after a long steady rhythm of him paddling the bark-covered vessel, Kirk and the tree landed at the other side of the canyon. From there, he shouldered his knapsack and climbed off the branch into the shallow water. It didn’t take long for him to fall to his knees and kiss the ground.
When he looked up to estimate the trials he would face ahead of here, he noticed a small cottage along the side of the road. It hugged the edge of a hill and had a pillar of smoke scattering into the rain from the chimney. Slowly, but excitedly, he crawled toward the front door and knocked. A bearded man, probably in his thirties, answered the door.
“Ah, another traveler,” he said, with his hand extended close to Kirk’s chin. “Perhaps, you are here for a rest?”
“Yes,” said Kirk, dropping to the ground. “Most certainly yes.”
The owner of the cottage lifted Kirk to his feet and helped him inside. He guided him to a small couch in the middle of the room. Kirk fell onto the closest cushion and passed out as soon as his head hit the pillow.
When he awoke, he noticed the Owner sitting at a table with a few other travelers. Each visitor had a refreshed look on his face. Plates full of food from turkey to cauliflower sat before them. There was also an empty chair waiting for a body to join, and a full plate sitting in front of it.
“Hey there,” said the Owner. “I see you are awake. Come join us for the feast.”
Kirk had no reason to argue. He was starving.
After spending the next hour talking and eating with the Owner and the travelers, Kirk despaired. The time came when everyone’s plate emptied, and each had to prepare for the journey ahead. Kirk refilled his canteen. The others refilled theirs. The Owner put together a basket of rations for each to carry. When everyone had his gear in order, the Owner sent each on his way with one important word to remember.
He said, “Many of you have traveled this road in isolation, and the journey was made the more treacherous for it. Though you have come this far, at any point you could’ve failed. Some of you started with companions, but lost them when you faced the trial in the forest. Some of you didn’t have company to start. Some companions abandoned the journey early and sought refuge in the shelters and pleasures along the winding paths. A few may try the journey again, but most will not. Those travelers who gave up, I’m afraid, may never reach the great treasure beyond the chasm. As the world behind them begins to burn, they will find that their temporary refuges will no longer save them from the incoming Storm.
“None of you have given up, but the temptation for it has been fierce. You’ve taken a journey of solitude that has left you open for great failure. You may have lasted this long, but the Storm will not relent, and sooner or later the isolated journey will betray you. Through your isolation you will allow the tempest to knock you far off course or out of the adventure completely. But stick together, and you’ll do better to combat the elements. Holding each other accountable to the journey will guarantee that each reaches the end.
“I will also send a particular fellow adventurer to guide you along the remainder of the path. He’ll meet you at the first checkpoint before the ascent into the mountain. He knows the map intimately.
“All of you take care. Endure the remainder of the hike. I’ve seen the treasure for myself and it is guaranteed to blow your mind. Peace be with you.”
With that, the Owner sent them back onto the trail.
The initial hike to the first checkpoint came easily. The road ascended slightly, offering little resistance to Kirk’s calves. The ease did more to lighten Kirk’s spirit than it did to lighten his body.
The rain, meanwhile, continued to fall, but the travelers were equipped with umbrellas and ponchos. One traveler offered to share his umbrella with Kirk. For the first time since he had begun the journey, Kirk saw that he had a fighting chance to reach the end.
When they reached the first checkpoint, a slender man with racing shoes stood by the sign.
“Greetings,” he said. “I’m the Guide you’ve been told about. I’m here to lead you the rest of the way. If any of you should stray from the path for any reason, listen for my call and head back toward my voice. I will not leave any of you behind. We’re a team now. Does anyone have questions?”
Kirk looked around, but none raised his hand.
“Good, then let us make our journey.”
The hike up the mountain took more than a day to complete. On several occasions, as the road grew steeper and the Storm fiercer, each member of the party wanted to stop, but the Guide spurred each one to continue. When they finally reached the summit and had a chance to catch their breaths, they marveled at the view below. A great green shelf stretched for miles halfway down the mountainside, with groups of travelers setting up various camps along the edge. Sheep grazed in the wet grasses near the rocky precipice, while goats chased each other among fields of outcrops. Many campers took shelter beneath the trees, while others stood openly in the Storm. It appeared that the road ended at the ledge where a great dark chasm separated this land from the next. As Kirk absorbed all the sights, the Guide extended his hand toward the field below.
“Each of you have come far to reach the treasure,” he said, “but your journey will mean nothing if you do not make one more important decision. That decision awaits you at the precipice below.”
Across the wide chasm in the land beyond was another cliff bordering the sands and sea of a great tropical paradise. Lush vegetation grew thick around the great beach, which in turn bordered on an ocean that poured a vast waterfall into the great ravine. Past the jungles, golden towers stretched high into the sky, emitting natural light to cover the island. Beyond that, mammoth glaciers sparkled like glitter, scraping the clear blue sky above. The sky, in stark contrast to that plagued by the Storm, had a series of flashing lights racing across the horizon, chasing each other like children. In the middle of the great island, an intensely bright light beamed out like a laser, engulfing the land from one edge to the other. Inside the dome of light, everything glowed without scar or blemish. Kirk thought he was looking at a living fairy tale land.
A clear path stretched across from the edge of the ocean into the depths of the jungle, directly opposite the road below on Kirk’s side of the rift. It was the only path leading into the heart of the golden city from the waterfall over the chasm.
Before Kirk could rub his eyes, the Guide led the group down to the grassy field below.
When they reached the shelf, many of the group members separated from the whole to see what the place had to offer. Kirk, meanwhile, clung to the road as much as possible, looking from one end of the field to the other, gathering what he could from where he stood.
The grassy field stretched for miles in both directions. Each half was remarkably flat, hauntingly familiar to the fields prior to the forest, but with the distinct difference that both dropped into the endlessly deep ravine. Travelers of all races and nations scattered about the field from the most distant rock to the nearest tree, each celebrating the vision of the land ahead, with most running to the edge and back with a shout. Many bodies also danced in the rain as it fell on their faces.
Perhaps, the most startling revelation, however, was not about the simplicity of the field, but the absence of treasure. He thought for sure that he would find some hint of reward when reaching the road’s end, as dedicated adventurers might think. But he found the rift instead. While scanning the faces of the travelers around him, he noticed that most did not have the same understanding that he had. They continued to run around, dance about, laugh, party, and stare into the distance as if they’ve already been paid their rewards.
Kirk reasoned, therefore, that the treasure was perhaps somewhere on the shelf, and that these people had already found it. But his theory had challenges: even the vast majority of people he traveled with were partaking in the festivities without having claimed a single jewel. He was confused.
He examined his map to double-check the location of the treasure, and he found—to greater surprise—that he still hadn’t traveled far enough. The marked spot was not near the cliff, contrary to his presupposition, but rather, beyond the great chasm.
His heart sank when he discovered there was no way to reach the floating island on his own.
The Guide approached Kirk and placed his hand on his shoulder.
“I see you discovered where your goal truly lies,” he said. “But you are perplexed over how to reach it, are you not?”
“Well, yes I am,” said Kirk. “I came all this way just to hit a dead end, and the treasure…how am I supposed to reach it when the road ends here?”
The Guide smiled as he directed his hand toward the island.
“Do not be deceived, Kirk, for the road does not end here. Take another look at your map and tell me what you see.”
Kirk looked at the map and noticed a bridge icon spanning the chasm from the cliff to the island.
“A bridge,” he replied.
“Look at the path again and tell me if you still see a dead end.”
Kirk followed the path with his eyes. To his surprise, he noticed in his second glance a wooden beam hanging over the chasm, stretching evenly from the road at the edge of the precipice to the farther road leading to the golden city. A vertical beam secured the bridge in the middle, and stretched high enough to produce a rectangular mast. On the mast was a red cloth, perhaps there to detect the weather. It was undisturbed by the wind. His mouth dropped as he wondered how he had missed that on his first glance.
“Travelers on this journey have taken few steps along the narrow path, just to allow distraction to get the best of them. The result of their actions has led them to choose the winding roads as their treasure. For those who fought the first temptation, many were lost to the forest when they strayed. Of the few who emerged unburned, many have set up camps in the valley just to get washed away in the flood. Even those who came this far have tried to reach the island by their own methods. Many have come to seek treasure, Kirk, but most have sought it through their own wisdom. Look again at those who have wandered the shelf thinking they know how to traverse the chasm.”
Kirk watched the traveling multitudes dash from various spots around the long and narrow field seeking materials to build their preferred contraptions.
“They think they can get there on their own strength, but the Land of God, the place of your treasure, can be accessed only by taking this bridge. Most refuse to acknowledge its validity, because most believe they don’t need it. Look again.”
To his utter surprise, and horror, Kirk watched as a young athlete leapt to his doom. At first, the man’s actions didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary, for he stretched his legs and shook his arms as if to prepare for a race. Things changed, however, when he sprinted across the field toward the edge of the cliff. Kirk imagined the young man had participated in a dare from his friends, testing how close he could get to the edge before stopping in his tracks. But the young man didn’t stop. Within moments he leapt from the cliff, reaching forth like a frozen mannequin toward the island, and fell headfirst into the deep pit.
Kirk dropped to his knees as the image of the fall burnt into his mind, and he covered his eyes to avoid the sight of further atrocity.
“What was that guy thinking?” he said.
“He was a good man,” said the Guide, “celebrated by his peers for his strength and power, but also a proud man who thought he could get to the treasure on his own strength. Uncover your eyes and look again.”
Kirk raised his eyes to the crowd, just in time to see a horse and rider gallop toward a different place along the cliff. The man whipped his steed fiercely as the stallion blazed the grasslands, knocking other people out of the way. As it drew closer and closer to the edge, however, the horse whinnied in terror and skidded to a stop, hurling the man off its back and into the ravine.
Kirk wanted to cover his eyes again, but the Guide told him to keep looking.
Next, he watched a young woman in short dress gently lay rose petal after rose petal to the ground. She winked at the group of drooling men that followed close behind her, while leading them toward the cliff’s edge. Kirk looked at the Guide and moaned.
“Make them stop,” he said.
“I can’t,” said the Guide. “They choose to do what they will.”
He looked at the young woman with her seduced men-sheep, then cringed as she performed a double backflip into the ravine. The panting guys jumped in after her. Kirk was beside himself.
“Now what?” he said.
The Guide pointed to another girl who carried some books and a basket of pastries. She casually handed the tasty looking sweets to a group of emaciated travelers and read poetry to them as she walked them all over the cliff and fell in herself. Next, came a man who emerged from a cave in the mountain, strapped to a set of wings that he must have personally designed. He dove off the cliff in an attempt to fly across the ravine, but fell short about a quarter of the way and plummeted into the abyss.
“The girl thought she could somehow get over there if she did good deeds, as if goodwill could help her defy gravity, and the inventor, well…he didn’t realize there is very little air pressure in the void.”
“Why do I have to watch this?” Kirk asked.
“So that in your understanding you can show the rest of them why they need to take the bridge. You’ve seen where they failed. Show them where they can succeed.”
Kirk looked at the field again. He noticed that some people sat in the grass facing the mountain. Others continued to devote their attention to their stuff.
“What about those people?” he asked. “Some of them aren’t diving off the cliff. Why?”
“The people with their backs to the chasm and the island don’t want to acknowledge that either exist. They got this far already thinking this was their goal. Even if they can see with their own eyes that the land ahead is real, as is the ravine, in their arrogance they wish to revel in their own knowledge, make their own reality, choose to see what they want, ignore what they don’t, and keep to what they have so that they don’t have to surrender their own will to something they don’t understand, a will, which is to sit comfortably where they are and waste away.
“The ones preoccupied with their toys do acknowledge the chasm and the land beyond, but they have made their toys their treasure. Just like the travelers who were distracted in the winding paths, these travelers are content with keeping their focus on what they have here. And just like the members of the ignorant group, those in the distracted group have no immediate desire to move out of their comfort zones. For those who know the bridge is there, they have come to realize that it is too narrow for them to carry their stuff across. Many believe that makes the bridge a burden.”
“When ironically, it’s their stuff that makes the burden?”
Kirk scanned the multitudes who kept to the field, pondering the reality he was faced with. None of this made any sense to him.
“Will they ever take the bridge?” he asked.
“Some might. You can always remind them why they came this far. God wants to take everyone from this stormy flatland and invite him to His City to partake in the treasure, so there’s no reason for you to keep quiet. The people will never make it if they don’t take the bridge, so be sure to show them the way. And take heart. You may also figure out that many, including yourself, are ready and willing to take the bridge, but they just don’t see it. Not without someone else pointing it out to them. It’s understandable, given how narrow it is, and a casual glance isn’t enough, even though the heart knows something must be there. Showing them the bridge is certainly the best course for ensuring them the chance to even make a choice. But don’t lose heart. Beware that many will not trust its ability to hold them. Those who do not trust the bridge will not come to it.”
“But they’ll jump off the cliff?”
“They believe in themselves more.”
Kirk scanned the region again. More travelers geared up to take the dive. Others planted their feet deeper into the ground.
Meanwhile, the Storm began drenching the field in increasingly heavier doses of rain. Some people left their umbrellas closed, while some danced in the intensifying raindrops. A deep fog drifted down from the mountain. Kirk feared that another gale would soon follow, sweeping everyone off the land, if it didn’t cause a landslide and bury them first.
“Will they listen to me?” asked Kirk.
“They may, but again that’s for them to choose. Your job is to point out the path to them. The rest is between them and God.”
Before Kirk could process the Guide’s words, a small group of travelers came down the road from the mountain and reached the cross-shaped bridge. Like the people in the field, this group consisted of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, from a sweet little old lady to a bald, beefy, pirate-looking titan. Each gave Kirk a friendly smile as one by one they set foot onto the wooden beam. At that point, Kirk noticed a bearded man traveling back and forth from one side to the other leading the people over.
“Wait a minute,” said Kirk. “Who’s that?”
“That’s the Carpenter,” said the Guide. “He made the bridge.”
“He looks familiar. Where have I seen him before?”
“He gave you some food and shelter yesterday when you emerged from the flood. Remember?”
“The guy who owned the cottage? But what’s he doing here?”
“Take a look.”
The Carpenter gently led each new arrival across his bridge to the other side. Each step they took seemed risky, given the narrow nature of the beam, but each one kept his eyes planted in the Carpenter’s direction, and not one slipped. When they reached the other side, the Carpenter walked them through a shower stall that dispersed some kind of red liquid over them.
“What’s he doing to them?” asked Kirk.
“Every traveler who ventures to the sacred land must go through a decontamination process before he is sterile enough to handle the environment. No germs are allowed in that land, so the red liquid, which the Carpenter designed and created himself, eliminates the presence of such undesirable things.”
Kirk wanted to respond, but his last vestige of inquiry escaped him. It appeared that the Carpenter had everything worked out.
When the Carpenter approached the cliff from having taken the last member of the group to the other side, the Guide placed his hand on Kirk’s shoulder.
“Your treasure is on the other side of the bridge, Kirk. You know how to get there. Gather as many people as you can from this field and start walking across. There’s no reason for you not to trust the Carpenter, so make sure you stay focused on him when he leads you through the remainder of the journey. If for any reason you should lose your step, which is possible if you look anywhere other than to the Carpenter, make sure to reach out your hand so he can catch you. It’s as simple as that, so do not delay. For as long as you’re on this side, the wind can sweep you into the ravine at any time. Once you’re on the other side, you’ll no longer be in danger of the ravine, or the Storm.”
At that moment, the Carpenter stood at the edge of the bridge and extended his hand to Kirk. As Kirk prepared to reach back, he noticed a hole in the man’s wrist. He flinched from the sight.
“What happened to you?” he said.
“Nail scar,” said the Carpenter. “It happened while I was preparing the bridge.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes it does. But people are coming over to my sacred land, so it’s worth it.”
Kirk was speechless. All he could think to do was to apologize for the guy.
“Sorry it hurts.”
“I accept your apology. Now how about rounding up some of those confused people in the field and start leading them over here? I’d like to have a party at the Great Castle tonight. All are invited. Spread the word.”
Kirk hesitated briefly as he saw the people in the field carrying on with their own affairs. But once he gathered the nerve to approach them—these strangers preoccupied with futile things—he quickly reminded them why they had traveled the road to begin with. As he pointed out the existence and purpose of the bridge, many of them snapped to attention and headed for it. Even though some continued to focus on their games and such, while others continued to dive off the cliff to satisfy their ignorance or pride, some still reached the foot of the bridge and walked across with the Carpenter without hesitation. Once Kirk traveled from one end of the field to the other and back again, he stood at the foot of the bridge himself and took the Carpenter’s hand.
“You trust me, right?” said the Carpenter.
Kirk nodded as he took his first step onto the wooden plank. He didn’t know why he shouldn’t have trusted the Carpenter, or the bridge. How else was he supposed to get across?
“Excellent. Now let’s go receive your prize, my son.”
And with that, they walked across the bridge to enter into the Land of God, where the Storm had no dominion, where the great chasm posed no threat, and where everyone could fellowship with neither distraction nor obstacle. Kirk felt fresh air permeating over him when he stepped onto the other side. He realized that for the first time he could now truly breathe.
Thank you for downloading Waterfall Junction and The Narrow Bridge. I hope you enjoyed it. If you liked these stories or got something valuable out of them, please leave a review on your preferred retailer’s website, and tell others what you thought, and let me know what you liked (or didn’t like) about it. I appreciate all feedback and support from readers. Thank you.
A Brief History: In 2006, I was putting together a collection of eight short stories for Seven-Sided Dice: The Collection of Junk, Volume 3 and knew that I wanted to end the section with a symbolic story about trusting God in every situation He puts us in and call it “Waterfall Junction.” (I actually ended that section with “The Celebration of Johnny’s Yellow Rubber Ducky,” bringing the total of short stories to nine, but that was sort of a last-minute addition.) My goal was to create an allegory of a message that sometimes God doesn’t make sense (and why should he? He thinks on a higher plane than we do) even though He’s wiser than everyone else, and to base that allegory on a well-known biblical story about Abraham being called to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar—after Abraham had spent decades waiting for a son to arrive. In the story of Abraham, God calls him to sacrifice Isaac on the altar as he would a lamb. Abraham’s heart is very heavy from the request, and he most certainly doesn’t want to do it. But he decides that for whatever reason God wants this, he’ll trust Him, so he takes his son to the altar, puts him on it like he would a lamb for atonement, and prepares the sacrifice. Then God stops him before he can plunge the knife into Isaac’s flesh and tells him to spare Isaac’s life. It was all a test, and Abraham passes. His faith is proven strong, so he is therefore proven worthy to fulfill God’s grand plan for his life, which is to father a nation and ultimately create the line that would introduce the world to God’s Son (who was also made into a sacrifice, not just for Abraham’s sins, but for the sins of the world). It’s all very interesting when you really take the time to read it and think about how everything works together. Anyway, I’ve always found that story fascinating, and I wanted to write something that posed a similar message about rewarding faith, though with different stakes and setting it in a fantastical timeline.
Also in the same collection, and appearing before “Waterfall Junction” rather than after, I introduced “The Narrow Bridge,” which was essentially my attempt to adapt an illustration I had heard about, called “The Bridge Diagram,” while attending the Christian group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college. I thought the diagram was a clever tool for showing the core of the Christian faith, and I wanted to see how it would play out in a C.S. Lewis style allegorical fantasy. Now, I’m no C.S. Lewis, and I know that any attempt to emulate his style will be nothing more than imitation. But I thought this was a great topic for trying to imitate his style anyway. It’s not an easy thing to do, at all. I’m sure I hit below the line. But that’s all right. It’s much more like a C.S. Lewis story than, say, “The Celebration of Johnny’s Yellow Rubber Ducky” is. And I’m okay with that.
I decided to pair the two stories together in a single e-book for the reason that both are Christian allegories, both are somewhat fantastical in setting, and both are short. And, seeing as how they were side by side in my original collection (though in reverse order), I thought it was fitting to keep them side by side in this collection. So there you go.
This electronic version of Waterfall Junction and The Narrow Bridge has been designed and formatted specifically for distribution through Shakespir and its affiliates. It is intended to introduce the author to a wealth of new readers, and for this reason is free to download. If the option is available, sharing this version of Waterfall Junction and The Narrow Bridge is encouraged. Waterfall Junction and The Narrow Bridge’s e-book version was created March 2016.
Jeremy Bursey is the author of many short stories, essays, and poems, along with a modest number of novels and screenplays, each covering topics and genres that differ from what he had written previously. He hopes to bring many of these into the e-book generation over the course of the next few years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Central Florida and currently works at a local college as a writing tutor. He appreciates feedback for anything he offers to the public.
Did you enjoy reading Waterfall Junction and The Narrow Bridge? Then check out these other titles by Jeremy Bursey, available as an e-book at your favorite retailer.
Short Stories and Novelettes
[+ Eleven Miles from Home+]
[+ When Cellphones Go Crazy+]
[+ The Celebration of Johnny’s Yellow Rubber Ducky+]
[+ Zippywings 2015: A Short Story Collection+]
[+ Waterfall Junction and The Narrow Bridge+]
A Modern-day Fantasy Annual Edition
[+ Cannonball City: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year One+]
Check back often at Jeremy’s author page on Shakespir or at his blog (listed in the next section) to discover newly released titles or titles that are on the horizon. More titles are on the way. You can also follow him on Twitter for news and other fun stuff.
Want news about my upcoming books or check if you’ve got them all? Visit any of these links for more information.
Shakespir Author Page:
If you just want general news on upcoming releases, then click on my “Future Books” direct link:
If you want additional info on my e-books past, present, and future, then check the category marked “Published Ebooks” and it will find every post related to them. Or, check the right sidebar for icons of book covers to link you directly to that title’s description and retailers’ location page. You can also click on the main category “Fiction” for other blogs and sneak previews that focus on my fiction.
If you want to ask me a question or offer me some feedback, then feel free to message me on Facebook, and I will respond as soon as possible.
If you would rather contact me through e-mail, please head your message with the name of the book(s) you are inquiring about so that I know to click on it. This is the best way to inform me of errors or issues you may find in this book.
Here you can find out what books I like (or rate and review this one).
What’s next? I am currently updating one of my earliest short stories, “,” into a full-length novel (or at least a hefty novella) for a summer 2016 release. It is about one man’s odyssey through a burning city on the hottest day on record to get back to the home he was once forced to leave and kick out the interloper who stole it from him. After that, I will be revamping my short story, “,” which is about a janitorial trainee who encounters occurrences beyond the ordinary with his once famous mentor at a secluded movie studio while on a quest to find out why the place is going nuts. My plan is to convert it into a novel. I hope to release it for immediate download sometime between August and October 2016. I am also drafting a third novel based on a short story from the 2006 era about a slacker high school student who must help his father win a bet with the principal by graduating with honors. That story, , will come out before the other two, by April 2016.
All three novels are available for preorder. Click on their links for details.
Don’t forget, the [+ sequel+] to my epic novel is also available for preorder, and will be released on May 27, 2016, right in the middle of superhero saturation month at the box office.
Thanks again for your time.
In “Waterfall Junction,” Dalowin the Rabbit (not really a rabbit), head of his loyal army of knights, is commissioned to raid the city at the bottom of the hill and destroy the evil forces that lurk inside. Trouble is, he’s afraid to lead the charge, and he’s even more afraid to send his men into battle when the opposition is so fierce. Therefore, he abandons his army and runs for safety, that he might spare both him and his men. But thanks to a personal journey that leads him to a place where faith and resolve are tested, Dalowin the Rabbit may just get his courage back, as long as the test doesn’t kill him first. In “The Narrow Bridge,” Kirk is an adventurer who’s just trying to find his way to the Land of God, but he faces many insurmountable obstacles along the way, including temptations to wander off course and disasters that impede his forward progress. But his truest test comes when he faces the great chasm between the two lands and the hordes of travelers who think they know how best to reach the other side, and he must decide which of them really knows the truth, for certain death finds those who get it wrong.