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THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 8
After Tarlos finished his story, the boatman leaned against the rudder and did not speak for some time. The man was a good listener. He never interrupted Tarlos to clarify or ask questions, he nodded in understanding during all the right places, and his face showed true emotion by the time the story came to an end.
The Styx moved slowly through the dead country. It was wide and stagnant, and the trees on either side were dark and foreboding.
"Are there any animals here?" Tarlos asked the boatman. There seemed to be a reverence about the place that left as soon as he broke the silence.
"I think so," the man said. "I hear em, but I never see em. Seen crickets, though. Always one at a time, never a group of em."
"I saw a cricket when I came here."
The man smiled. "Might be it was the same one."
The slow current of the river rocked the boat, and Tarlos stood from his sitting position to stretch his legs and peer into the murky water. A blurry reflection stared back at him, and the eyes were sad and lost.
"It wasn't your fault, you know," said the man.
Tarlos spit into his reflection. The glob sent ripples through the water, and the sad eyes that stared at him lost their focus. "I made him go. He didn't want to."
"He wouldn't have gone with you if he didn't want it deep down. There's nothing you could have done to force him to go with you, even if you did beat him at wrestling a few times."
"He let me win."
"That ain't the point."
Tarlos shrugged off the man's words and lay down on his back, staring up at the cloudy blue sky. The sun was high, but it was not as bright here as it was on Earth. He could almost look straight into it without squinting, and yet it lit the world here with the same bright light as he was used to.
The man cleared his throat and swallowed, hand still on the rudder. "How come you think you'd go to that place with the feather-people and whatnot when you can see for yourself that ain't the case? We're all perfectly content here. It's just like old times."
Tarlos shook his head. "This is your afterlife, not mine. When I came to your village, there was a sign that read 'Windmill District.' I don't know what that is. And from what you and the woman at the tavern have told me about your world, I don't think our worlds are one and the same."
The man raised his eyebrows and nodded in acceptance, considering the theory. "I guess that would make sense. After all, I ain't never heard of a place called Kesh, modern or ancient. Some of the things you said reminded me of some ancient civilizations from my world that existed thousands of years before I was born. But they weren't called Kesh. Egypt, maybe. Or...Sumerians, I think is the word. Never was much of a history buff. Maybe the lady at the tavern would know. She always struck me as an intelligent girl. Shame she died so young. You really should listen to her story someday, if you come back this way." The man cast his eyes out of the boat and into the trees, seemingly lost in thought.
"How much farther?" Tarlos asked. He closed his eyes for a nap.
"This is about as far as I've ever been, so I don't know for sure. Can't be much further, anyway. I hope not, otherwise I'm coming back empty-handed."
Tarlos did not ask what he meant by that and instead chose to fall asleep. Nightmares did not come to him.
Two days passed on the stretch of the Styx that was wide and flat and stagnant, and then on the third day the water grew rapids in its stream, and the trees on either side began to thin.
"Never been this far before," said the boatman. Tarlos picked up a hint of anxiety in his voice, and a part of him laughed at the man. It was Tarlos who had to continue to the Ageless Country, and no one knew what awaited him there. If anyone should have anxiety, it was Tarlos.
Ahead, the sky was a pale blue and it met with the Styx at the horizon, and the horizon was near.
"Is it just me or is the river about to end?" asked the man, placing both hands on the rudder, unsure what to do.
The sound of roaring water filled the air, and the man groaned. "Waterfall. Okay, Mister Tarlos, this is where you get off."
Tarlos opened his mouth to protest but kept quiet. He knew sooner or later he and the man would have to part ways, and he did not expect the man to float his boat off a cliff for him.
The man steered the boat to the north bank, and with a crunch of small pebbles and dirt, the boat landed on the shore, and the man jumped out with a rope to tie the boat to a nearby tree.
"Careful not to touch the water," he called back to Tarlos.
Tarlos jumped over the foot or so of water between the boat and dry dirt, and he landed a safe few feet away from the Styx. He turned to the man to thank him for the generous ride, but the man was double-testing the knot and the rope on the tree.
"You aren't leaving?" Tarlos asked him.
"Oh, I will, as soon as I get what I came here for. No offense, Mister Tarlos, but I never would have agreed to float down to the end of the Styx if I didn't have something else to do while I was here."
"And what would that be?"
"A gift for a friend." He pointed downstream. "Is this the way you're going? I might need your help. But if not, we can part ways here."
Tarlos was indeed going that way, and he and the man walked together to the edge of the cliff where the water cascaded down into a small ravine about forty feet below. Beyond the ravine, the water disappeared into a large valley, and the valley was hidden under a dome of dense white fog.
The river ended between two bare trees, and the gushing waterfall fell into the woods among rocks and fallen branches. The water was white and it bubbled and roared as it fell several yards below Tarlos and the boatman. There was no trail to be seen that led down the ravine, and the man half-sat on the steep ground, and he kept one hand on the dirt beside him as he scooted down toward the water.
Tarlos followed the man, using his Power to steady himself, and once stopping the man from tumbling into the ravine when he slipped on some loose rock.
"What makes you think it's down here?" Tarlos asked him.
"Seems to be some sort of law," the man answered when he reached the bottom, and he clapped dirt from his hands and swatted the seat of his pants. "The thing you want most is often in the place you're most afraid to look."
The two walked downstream for some time, and the ravine shallowed and the walls of dirt on either side became easier to navigate beside the water.
"What exactly are we looking for?" Tarlos asked.
"A flower. Look for a place in the clay, probably next to some big rocks next to the water. They like the run-off." The man tipped his wide-brimmed hat back to wipe sweat from his forehead.
"What color?" Tarlos shouted over the roar of the white water.
"What?" the man yelled back.
"What color is the flower?"
"Like this one?"
The man turned and walked back to Tarlos, stumbling once on a protruding granite rock slick with Styx water. He knelt beside Tarlos to get a look at what he found, and a wide grin split his face.
"That's her," he said.
The flower was a deep blue, the color of the sky after a storm has ended and the rains have cleared. Tiny specks of white dotted the inner petals, and the three petals branches off into two points each so that it appeared to have six. In the center of the blue was a small white bulb, and the whole thing sat atop a short and thin green stem. The flower trembled between two granite boulders as it drank in the moisture of the Styx that came through the clay beneath it.
"I never thought the river of death could harbor such beautiful life," Tarlos said.
The man took his hat off, and Tarlos had to keep from laughing. Without his hat, the man's head was comically small, and his large nose appeared even larger now. His hair was thin and plastered close to his head, and Tarlos wondered if he had ever had a full head of hair or if he had always had that thin spot on top. The man picked up a short fallen twig from the ground and gently, carefully, dug a wide circle around the blue flower. He lifted the large clump of clay from the ground, and the small flower came with it. He placed the whole thing in his black hat, then dumped a little more dirt around the edges to keep the flower held in place.
The man sighed and smiled. He wiped his eye with a single finger, then looked at Tarlos. "Thanks for the help. I guess you're going that way." He nodded downstream.
Tarlos nodded. "I'm glad I could help. Thank you for bringing me this far."
"Come see us again if you're ever going this way."
"If the gods will allow it."
The man extended his free hand, and Tarlos grasped it, and then the man turned and made his way upstream to climb the dirt wall of the narrow ravine. Tarlos turned the opposite direction and hiked downstream, and the ravine became ever shallower, and the dome of dense white fog closed in around him as he came into the valley.
Tarlos never saw the boatman again.
He walked through the aspens, which were no longer bare but covered in broad green and yellow leaves. Orange and yellow leaves lay scattered on the ground, and the broken sunrays that came through the branches painted various lines and stripes on the ground, making the oranges and yellows more vibrant in the light and darker in the shadows. Tarlos thought it looked like a beautiful painting.
A small trail appeared beneath his feet after a mile or so, and Tarlos was not sure if he had always been walking on the path or if he had stumbled upon it by chance. Perhaps the trail had manifested itself under his feet not moments ago, leading him where to where he needed to go. And Tarlos was not exactly sure where he needed to go, so he decided that following the thin track was as good of a plan as any. The trail wound through the aspens, and Tarlos followed it as far as it went.
The path was narrow and steep in some places, and it took Tarlos over hills and between rocks, down short cliff faces, and through small canyons. To Tarlos, it felt as if he had been walking for several hours, but the sun had hardly moved in the sky.
To his right, he saw in the distance the cliffs and waterfall that was surely the Styx, and he wondered about the boatman, and how he was faring up the river. The narrow trail led down a series of sloping hills, and the hills were green with lush grass and wet with dew. The grass gave way to grey and black rocks, and the rocks became steep until Tarlos feared he would slide down the rocky slope to his death. He wondered, If I die in the land of death, would I feel any different?
The hills had now become cliffs, and the grass became rock, and the path became a narrow staircase carved into the living stone. Moving backwards, like descending a ladder, Tarlos placed one foot after the other on the stone steps and lowered himself to the bottom of the cliff, which he estimated to be at least two hundred feet below.
The last few feet of the rocky cliff leveled into a rocky hill, and the stone steps were shallow and wide. Tarlos paused, taking a moment to catch his breath, and he looked on to the trees that spread out before him. The place was quiet as a winter night, and all Tarlos could hear was his own breath and his heartbeat in his temples. A breeze blew past him and rustled the leaves of a nearby aspen, but not even that made any sound. Tarlos gave his ears a few light slaps to make sure he had not gone deaf, then reassured himself that he was not because he could hear his own pulse.
The trees were not thick, and they did not give prelude to a larger forest like the one that bordered around the Styx. He could see light through the trees, and he knew that they ended just ahead. He brushed low-hanging branches from his face, feeling that the leaves were soft and the wood was pliable, not resilient and hard like any tree he was familiar with. None but cedar.
The swath of trees was several yards across, and Tarlos had no trouble getting through them. When he came out the other side, his heart skipped a beat as he beheld the land that stretched out before him.
It was a wide valley, and the valley was green with grass and gold with autumn trees. There were entire gardens of flowers that looked to be made of lapis lazuli, and around them were clusters of living coral. From the ground seemed to grow enormous jewelsâ€”emeralds and sapphires, diamonds and pearls, hematite and carnelians. Tarlos marveled at the sight of this alien world, and hope filled his entire being.
He had made it to the Ageless country.
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