With one wavering eye, he read the clock, “1:15 P.M.”
Not a minute more, not a minute less. Sheets of gold slipped between the rivets of the venetian, slicing his shoulders as he rolled away from the clock. How long has it been since I’ve slept this good? Tightening the comforter around him, he burrowed into his pillow. Sleep, my long lost companion, I’ll never leave you. The afternoon sun’s warmth provided a secondary blanket, like the embrace of a lover, seducing him back to sleep. A curve took hold of his lips and crescented into a smile before flat lining.
Tearing off his blanket he bound out of bed, lunged through looming mountains of laundry, hurdled the cat humming on his hoodie, and came to a skidding halt in the doorway. His bare toes cringed as he glanced at his hip, What the…, then back at his bed, of course, where his pump-site lay half buried beneath the folds of his comforter, twisted like a dead viper.
Yet there was no time to replace it. Being on time was far more important than insulin. He ventured to the bathroom where he grabbed a shriveled tube of toothpaste, globbed some onto his brush, and plunged the rigid utensil into his mouth.
“You alright, Joe?”
His brother leaned against the door frame, watching their reflection in the mirror.
“No!” This was the first and last intelligible syllable to escape Joe’s fluoride foaming lips. “Mah hum hite oht hank’d out, I hook hike hit and,” tossing the brush into the sink, he spat, painting the faucet in pale polka-dots before finishing his answer, “I’m going to be late!”
“Oh,” the brother drew back from the mirror, gritting his teeth empathetically, “but you quit?”
Fighting the urge to roll his eyes, Joe took a gulp of mouthwash and nodded as the sting of alcohol swarmed his taste buds.
“Oh wait…” his brother jabbed the roof with his index finger, “you had an interview!”
Joe spewed the alien-green liquid, slid past his brother, and nearly tripped on the dog behind him but saved himself with a last-minute hop.
“And if yall would get out of my way, I still will!”
Flying back to his room, he tore his way into his closet, a small walk-in with a dresser, and yanked the first button up he saw off its hangers. He could hear his brother approaching from the hall, once more hanging in the doorway. Can’t he just let me get ready? Halfway through his buttons, he glanced out the closet and caught a glimpse of his clock’s impatient hands: 1:18. No time for buttons, on to the slacks! His khaki’s lay crumpled in the corner, but a loyal grease-stained pair of black pants – a legacy from his days working in food service – waited on its hanger. As he slid on his pants and stooped to search the past week’s abandoned britches for a belt, his brother wandered into the room.
“What time is the interview?”
“1:30,” Joe mumbled back. Stepping on the crotch of his favorite acid-washed jeans, Joe pulled his belt free. As he slid it around his waist, he snagged a tie off the dresser and charged out the closet. His sibling stepped backwards, out of the way, but the dog stood wagging his tail behind him. He tumbled over the hound and onto Joe’s bed as the dog hit the deck. The cat perked up with a meow.
“Sorry, Stephen,” Joe grimaced, reaching over the embarrassed hound to offer a hand.
“Don’t worry about it.” Stephen shrugged assistance away and laid back, “Need any help? A drive?”
Why can’t you be this helpful every day?
“Yea, grab the mirror,” Joe said. He popped his collar and draped the red tongue of clothe over his shoulders. His brother maneuvered past the debris that was Joe’s possessions, clasped the rectangle of mirror which hid half-way beneath the bed, and held it up for Joe to see.
“You got everything?” Stephen asked.
“Wallet’s in the car…” Joe muttered, his mind attempting to ignore the distracting organisms in the ecosystem around him as he tied his tie, “don’t need my phone…I’ll fix my pump when I get back…”
The little brother lowered the mirror to peer over the obsidian frame.
“Calm down, breathe, you’re gonna be fine, bro.” Stephen wore a smirk that Joe’d been conditioned to recognize as mischevious, but Joe did his best to ignore it, “Don’t give up.”
“I gave up-.” He paused as he slapped himself in the jaw with the necktie, “-a while ago.”
Finally, the job was done and, though the knot was less than satisfactory, the time for perfection had come and gone.
“It’s okay though, I’ve come to terms with it.” Joe shrugged, heading for the door, “I’m not compatible with civilization.” He patted his pockets as he checked one last time to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, all the while he continued his pessimistic tirade, “I have given up on humanity.”
Satisfied, he was about to leave when Stephen wrapped his arms around him, hugging his arms to his sides.
Through gritted teeth, Joe growled, “Bro, I got to go.”
“You’ll be fine,” Stephen said, “don’t give up, I love you bro!”
Joe pried his way free and made it for the door but once again he was halted by the sound of a distinct jingle behind him. Spinning around he found the source of his brother’s odd behaviors: his keys.
“Dude, I don’t have ti-”
“They were in my room.” Stephen stated. He yanked his hand back when his brother reached for them, then declared his ransom, “Tell me you won’t give up.”
“Not cool.” Joe stated, his temper fixing to boil over.
Stephen shrugged, “Just say it.”
The words dove of his tongue, “I won’t give up.”
“That’s the Joe I used to know!”
Stephen tossed the keys, Joe caught them and sped out the door. Despite the situation Joe couldn’t help but emit a bitter chuckle as he, shaking his head, slid his keys into his pocket and sprinted down the stairs. His brother, the cat, and the dog watched him descend from the banister. Though the animals weren’t listening, Stephen felt the need to reassure himself out loud.
“He said he’d be back,” he whispered, “he said that to me…he’ll be back before I can blink.”
– – –
“Oh, come on!”
Joe stared at the light. Glaring, his brow narrowed into a squint as he dared the crimson plastic of the traffic light to rethink its color selection. The light shone back with nonchalant brilliance. The dulled yellow and green bulbs above laughed as their comrade mocked the young driver. Even the summer sun seemed to be chuckling at his situation as it smeared its heat through the rolled up windows of Joe’s Honda Civic. The Alabama sun was killer, but gas prices were much more fatal and if he were to blast the AC, as his dripping pores begged him to, he would be forced to watch the little yellow hand of the gas meter inch its way to the big Times New Romans “E” – and this “E” could be crippling to an unemployed programmer. Instead, he rolled down his windows and sat with his back stuck to the leather by perspiration. His eyes remained locked on the traffic light that swung gently in the wind from where it hung below the overpass. The blaring car radio was his only comfort, though the lyrics seemed to be as jeering as the traffic lights’ glare.
“I’ve gone through life white-knuckled in the moments that left me behind”
“Dear Lord, if you value my future, please turn this light green!”
The light turned green.
Joe’s foot hopped from the brake pedal to the gas as he dropped his eyes back to the road.
He slammed on the breaks. In front of him was an elderly woman, if elderly was even the correct term for her. The stoop of her back was something from the nightmares of an orthopedist. Joe found himself wondering if it was really her back or if it was a pet monkey clinging to her shoulder blades, hidden beneath her floral dress. As she inched along, her head shook, shuddering as if in a frostbiting blizzard instead of a blistering drought. The wrinkles of her face sagged to such an extreme that her eyebrows, with what little colored strands of hair were left, sagged low over her eyes and her cheeks drooped down around her chin like a basset hound’s. She was absolutely ancient, maybe mesolithic, possibly prehistoric. She could’ve counted the seconds she had left to live on two hands and yet she was traveling with the speed of an oak tree.
“They say I’ll adjust, God knows I must, but I’m not sure how.”
Cars flew by Joe on every side as he contemplated the penalty for running the crone over. He quickly assured himself that – although she was crossing the crosswalk while the “DO NOT WALK” sign could be read across the street – he wouldn’t be able to live with the knowledge that he’d killed someone’s grandmother. Great, great, GREAT, grandmother, he corrected himself. His hand nervously felt the center of his steering wheel, his fingertips tap dancing on his horn as his patience or lack thereof toyed with his mind.
“This natural selection picked me out to be-”
The light turned yellow. He looked at the clock above the CD player. It read 1:30 P.M.
“Kill me now!”
“-a dark horse running in a fantasy.”
Finally the lady passed to obstruct the next car and he was free to go. Once again his foot shifted to the gas, the Honda hummed as it struggled to accelerate then sent him flying beneath the overpass.
“Flesh and bone!”
I’m going to be late. There was no doubt of that. It was just a question of how late. His mind was set, focusing on the street before him, focusing on the internal map in the back of his head that gave him directions, focusing on what he would say when he ran in fifteen minutes late, focusing on anything and everything but the traffic light that had been dangling over the old lady’s head. After the hag had passed, he hadn’t glanced up to make sure the light was still yellow. If he had, he would’ve seen that it had been red for at least three solid seconds before his foot fell on the accelerator like a brick.
“And I’m running out of time!”
He also didn’t notice the truck barreling down the parkway towards the intersection.
The truck driver couldn’t have known that a metallic green Honda would come zooming out from under the overpass. All he knew was that as he neared the intersection, his light turned green and that meant that it was safe to go. Joe didn’t notice the semi until the shadow of the massive mechanical head reached out over his car. He turned on impulse and his eyes widened even before his brain registered what he saw. The metal grill of the eighteen wheeler and the two circular head lights on either side gave it an animalistic appearance, as if it were some mythical beast bearing down upon him, lips curled back from its teeth and eyes wide so as not to miss its prey. And in the right side mirror, Joe caught a glimpse of something dark, a figure, possibly a person, a really tall person – but no, it must’ve been a shadow or an optical illusion because it looked almost as though there was a man standing beside his driver side door, right over his shoulder, in the middle of the street.
“Flesh and bone!”
He never got the opportunity to turn and look behind him.
In fact, he didn’t even get the opportunity to be present as the semi-truck plowed into the passenger side of the little Civic and sucked the rest of his automobile beneath the starving eighteen wheels.
Joe was no longer in his car. He was no longer in the intersection. He was sitting on his butt in soft, damp soil surrounded by healthy, green foliage with rotted leaves padding the earth beneath his hands. Monstrous trees climbed into the sky around him, their tree trunks as big around as his car had been long. The trees climbed higher than any tree he’d ever encountered and covered the sky with a dark deciduous canopy. Birds screeched overhead and beasts moaned in the distance. Although he’d heard birds and he’d heard beasts, these creatures sounded strange, different, alien and yet, somehow familiar.
“What just happened? Where am I?” Joe whispered to himself, his heart pounding so fiercely that it was almost painful. His body still trembled and his skin switched from hot to cold. “Am I…am I dead?”
“Yup! Welcome to your afterlife.”
His legs jerked, flinging himself through the air so that he landed on his feet, chest heaving with each frightened hiccup of a breath. He faced the speaker. The speaker was a little man, a very little man, the tip of his head reaching Joe’s hip and Joe was not particularily tall. He was one of three dwarves Joe had ever seen in his life. Yet, this was no ordinary little person. He was wearing what appeared to be a green dress, or rather, a kilt jump suit – as he appeared to be masculine. The top was sleeveless with four small marble-like buttons traveling down the man’s torso until they were interrupted by a leather belt with a gold-handled knife stuck snuggly between the Knome’s tunic and girdle. Below the belt the same green material that was above continued, reaching down to tickle two little brown slippers. The same color, a faded once deep green, cone sat atop the little figure’s scalp. The tip of the cone sagged down the back of his head. As for the man’s face, he was old – old as the lady that had dragged herself across the intersection and possibly older. Yet he was healthy, his face had a few wrinkles, but not many. His age was seen in the grey beard that descended from the cone-hat and tumbled down from his chin, stretching half the distance to his belt before stopping, and in his sparkling blue eyes that radiated the sense of wisdom familiar to Joe from his own grandparents. Yet, the old man’s peculiar height was not his only unique feature. His nose was squashed, it drooped abruptly over his mustache, and his ears, which stuck out goofily from behind his bushy side burns, were pointed at the ends.
“Are you some kind of an elf?”
“Elf?” The little man chuckled. “Hah! I’m hardly tall enough to be an elf. Why would you…” He stopped, mid-sentence, his lips frowning, eyes squinting, then he smiled again and continued, “Oh, that’s right, you meant elf as in a North Pole elf, as in a Santa’s-little-helpers elf. No, I am not a North Pole elf nor a south pole nor any other sorta elf that struts about on Earth, nor – for that matter – am I an electric, earth, water, or fire elf. In fact, I am a Knome and that is spelled with a ‘K’ not with a ‘g’ and not just any ‘k’ mind you, a big ‘K’. Although, I don’t think-”
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but you said ‘on Earth’,” Joe said, completely intending to interrupt, “as if this isn’t Earth?”
“Bingo!” The Knome paused, tapping his bearded chin with his index finger, his eyes drifting into the treetops. “Well…technically this is Earth and Earth is this…but un-technically, you are correct! You’re dead after all. Wouldn’t be much of an afterlife if you were forced to wander around Earth. This world – or solar system, rather – is known as Solaris! But we really should be moving along because there are some people in this universe that aren’t too happy with me and while you might be dead, I’d really rather stay alive. So, if you don’t mind following me, I’ll continue-”
Joe planted his feet firmly in the soil, “Why do I need to go with you? These people aren’t mad at me, I just got here!”
“Well, now that you’re with me they very well might be.” The Knome spoke with the swiftness of an auctioneer, “We really need to leave. I promise all will be explained. Don’t worry, I mean, you can trust me. I just saved your life didn’t I?”
“I thought I was dead?”
“Trust me, you could be a lot more dead than you are now. This world is no eutopia. An alien like you might just find yourself hunted for sport but if you stay with me, I can keep you safe. In fact, you’re probably safer than you’ve ever been with me around. I’m a pretty-”
“Hold up.” Joe snapped, his nerves starting to be tested by the long-windedness of the little man. “Stop talking. I need to think.”
Joe turned away from the Knome and leaned against one of the giant trees that surrounded him. Am I really dead? I mean, he said I was dead…but then he said I could be a lot more dead…then again, who is this ‘Knome’ guy anyway? Why should I trust him? What kind of afterlife is this place? Shouldn’t death be a little more peaceful than this – unless I’m in Hell…no, that can’t be…there’s something familiar about this place…He ran his hand across the flakey brown wood, idle-mindedly peeling a chunk of bark from the trunk. Suddenly, Joe straightened up and ran his palm over his face, a grin stretching across his lips. What am I thinking? Am I crazy? “Solaris”? I’m obviously in a hospital dreaming away while doctors try to figure out if they can get my brain back online with reality. He scraped another sheet of bark off the tree and watched the squirming insects panic in their sudden nakedness. They, the insects, were different – but not too different. Not something beyond the capability of his own imagination. At least when I wake up I’ll have a solid excuse for missing my interview.
Turning to face the Knome, Joe asked, “What’s your name?”
“Ekaf Emanlaer Reppiz!” The Knome said, bowing his head so that the green cone hat flopped towards Joe. Standing upright again, face flushed, eyes flying from left to right, he continued with the same hastiness as before, “Can we go now?”
“Sure, where are-”
Without warning, Ekaf leapt forward, flying past Joe and into the thick brush that surrounded them. Joe stared at the area of woods the Knome had disappeared through and waited for him to return. But he didn’t.
Turning around, Joe yelped and stumbled backwards. A being had emerged from behind one of the giant tree trunks. The person was taller than Joe, at least six foot tall, and was dressed in metal plates held together by chainmail. In the center of his chest there was a circle surrounded by tiny triangles that pointed outward, a symbol Joe easily recognized as a sun. His entire body was covered in armor, from armored boots to his armored gloves, all the way up to his neck. The helmet atop his head was covered in carvings of mythical creatures, dragons and dinosaurs, minotaurs and monsters, and it was crested with horns that cut a line down the middle of the man’s scalp. The sliver of face that was visible was wrinkleless and wispy with eyes that were glossy chrome disks. It wasn’t the armor that made the man look so peculiar, it was the transparency. Joe could see through the man’s flesh. There was no muscle or bone. The man was nothing but a bluish cloud hanging onto a humanoid shape encased in a suit of metal.
The man’s voice was muffled by his mouth guard but Joe could still understand what the man asked, “Where is he?”
Joe stared, breathless, as cold sweat breached his forehead. He could see into the man’s mouth when he spoke, but there were no teeth, no tongue, no throat, just a hole in the smoky existence that was the man. The man drew his sword out of the sheath at his belt. Joe felt a dropping sensation in his gut, the same feeling he got as he fell from the peak of a roller coaster. A single word formed in his mind and his conscience screamed that word to his muscles, “Run!”
Spinning on his heels, Joe froze. Four other ghostly men emerged from the brush. Each had their black swords drawn and each had the pointy emblem of a sun across their chest plate.
“Knome,” the ghost said, raising the tip of his blade to tickle Joe’s shaven neck, “or your life.”
“Okay, okay, listen,” Joe said, trying to keep his body from shaking, “I don’t know what’s going on. I just got here. I think I’m dead. I don’t know…”
Joe stopped in mid thought. He stared at the ghostly knight before him, his brow drawn together. This isn’t real. He closed his eyes. This isn’t real. He bit the inside of his lip. This can’t be real!
Joe opened his eyes. The Knome was standing between him and the ghostly being. In the Knome’s hand was the dagger Joe’d seen earlier, the one with the golden handle, but instead of it being a knife, it was now a sword and a massive one at that. Ekaf had to hold it in both hands and, even still, the weapon must’ve been twice the little man’s height. Joe was positive it weighed more than the Knome himself. The blade was such a pearly white that it almost seemed to glow, bringing vibrant light to the dense wooded forest.
“For knights, you folks really have no manners. However yall may feel about myself, that is no excuse to treat this man – a guest in our world – like a villain! By the Guardians,” he glanced back at Joe, “I apologize, Joe.” Then back to the knights, “Alright. Here’s the deal. I’m quite fond of spirits, you’re magnificiently efficient organisms, so I’ll let all five of you leave, unharmed and I’ll take your retreat as a sufficient apology.”
The spirits didn’t seem to find the Knome’s joke funny. As Joe examined his little savior’s face, he realized it wasn’t a joke.
“You are under arrest, Knome.” The spirit said.
“Joe,” Ekaf said, his eyes not leaving the spirit, “watch out.”
The spirit lunged forward, bringing his sword up then swinging it down at the little man. Ekaf ducked under the swing and took two steps to the right, dragging his blade through the dirt. He brought his sword back, as a baseball player does before their swing, then swung. Doing all this in the time it took for the spirit to recover. He hit the armored legs, knocking the man’s calves out from under him and sending him toppling onto his back. But as the spirit hit the earth, the other four charged from the periphery.
Ekaf didn’t turn, but he heard them coming. He ran forward. Hopping over the spirit he’d knocked down, he kicked off the man’s helmet and ran up the tree in front of him. He was parallel to the ground for a split second before he pushed off the trunk and flipped over the guards running towards him. He landed behind the four and before they could spin to face him, he’d swept their legs out from under them with the flat of his blade.
“Apology accepted!” The Knome cried as the original guard stumbled to his feet. “Now, good day!”
With that, Ekaf turned and zipped off into the woods with nothing more than a nod to Joe. This time Joe followed, crashing through the brush, his arms raised in front of his face to protect from the barrage of twigs and branches. They busted through briars and bushes, ran over rocks and roots, twisting their ankles while getting slashed by tree limbs. Joe’s panting slowly turned into gasping. His gut began to cramp, his head throbbed, but the little Knome in front of him – who’s legs pumped like the needle of a sewing machine – didn’t slow.
Finally, after what felt like half an hour of cross-country sprinting, Joe spoke up.
“Hey, hold up,” Joe gasped, leaning against a tree with one arm and clutching the aching muscles beneath his ribs with the other. “I gotta have a break.”
Ekaf slowed to a stop, standing three yards or so from Joe, eyeing him with bright blue eyes. Stroking his beard, the Knome turned to stare into the woods, patting the golden handle of the knife that was back in his belt.
“What’s with…” Joe said in between pants, “…that knife?”
Ekaf didn’t answer. He continued to stare into the brush. Joe followed his gaze, leaning around the tree trunk. He couldn’t see anything. He looked back to the Knome.
“Are they coming?” Joe asked.
Ekaf hesitated then shook his head and looked back at the young man. “They are, but we’ve got time. We can take a break. What’d you ask me?”
“What’s with that knife?”
Pulling the ivory bladed weapon from his belt, its blade now no longer than Joe’s hand, Ekaf said, “This is the Duikii.”
“Dookie?” Joe snickered.
Offering the weapon to Joe, Ekaf corrected, “‘Dui’ as in ‘dew’ and ‘kii’ like the ‘ki’ in ‘kind’.”
“The Dew Ki?” Joe mumbled as he took the knife, holding it tightly in his fist. The handle looked almost as if it were some twisted limb snapped off of a tree coated in golden paint, but as he held it, he could tell it was made of something much heavier. For a dagger of that size, the thing weighed ten times what he’d expected. Vines of gold wrapped around the hilt, fake leaves and shimmering berries were carved into the side, turning the deadly weapon into an art piece yet, somehow, each curve, each twisted golden greenery, added to the comfortableness of the handle in Joe’s grip.
“One word, Duikii. It’s the brother of the Suikii, Ruikii, and Thruikii. They are the Four Swords, forged by a great Knome named Grandfather. He was legend, shoot, still is.” Ekaf shrugged, his eyes twinkling as he watched Joe flip the dagger from palm to palm. “It’s a charmed weapon so be careful with it, it’s got a few special abilities that-”
The dagger came to life. The vines squirmed around the handle, growing and spreading. The blade, the shimmering radiant white, grew with the hilt, becoming longer and broader. Joe stared, eyes bulging, jaw dropped. The dagger was now the broad sword that he’d seen Ekaf with back in the clearing.
“It can get even bigger!” Ekaf said with a proud grin, as if the sword was his child. “It has killed many a foe and spared many more. That blade is older than you, my boy, older than your planet in fact, and it is sharper and stronger than almost all other weapons – second only to the Mystak Blade-”
“The Mystak Blade?” Joe asked while swinging the sword at imaginary opponents. “What’s that?”
“A sword that makes the Excalibur of your universe look like a twig…”
As Ekaf blabbered on and on about alien weapons, Joe paid little attention. He danced about the brush sparring with the trees. Without disturbing his monologue, Ekaf bowed his head and took his cone shaped hat off. Holding it like an ice cream cone with one hand, he fished inside it with the other. He retrieved a shiny, silver key and a dull plastic cube from within the cone like a magician pulling a bunny from a top hat. Plopping the hat back atop his head, Ekaf held the cube up to his eye. It was tiny, two inches by two inches on each side with a circular button in the center of one of the facades. The Knome pressed the button. With a bumble-bee like hum the cube came to life. The once dull sides became screens filled with miniscule textual options. The circular button became a light, shooting a hologram up a few inches from itself, creating a hovering image that floated in thin air. The fuzzy neon apparition was a word: EMPTY.
“Whoa, what’s that?” Joe asked as he tugged at the Duikii which was now imbedded in a tree trunk.
“You’ve never seen a key?”
“No, the box!”
“Ah, this is a warp cube. See, you came from Earth, which was…” He coughed abruptly, cleared his throat, then continued, “Which is a parallel universe of where you are now – Solaris. This warp cube lets me store items in a currently empty…um…dimension.” As Ekaf spoke, he operated the cube. He tapped a few of the options on the tiny screens of the cube and the hologram word transformed into: SCAN. Joe’s arms fell limp, leaving the sword in the side of the tree. His head cocked to the side as he wondered how – but mostly why – his subconscious had bothered to imagine such a bizzare dream. Ekaf continued, “Despite what you saw with our little tussle back there, the blades and armor and all, this world is not ignorant of science. Our science is just…different, that’s all. You see, we have guns too, however, a good swordsman can block a bullet..”
“Bet,” Joe scoffed.
Joe’s doubt went unheard and the Knome prattled on. Joe’s eyes fell on the key, a large silver key that looked like it belonged in the door of an ancient cathedral. Joe interjected with a query, “Where’s that key go to?”
“Earth…” Ekaf answered, before returning to his prior point of explaining the differences between Earthen and Solarin sciences, “We have motorized vehicles but we also have wind and beast power transportation just like in the olden days in your world…”
Ekaf ran the key through the greenish light that shot up from the warp cube. The key flickered, as if it were just an optical illusion, then disappeared. It was gone, as if it never existed. Then, a few seconds later, the green letters of the hologram were replaced by the key hovering above the cube. With that Ekaf tilted his cone-hat back and slipped the warp cube back atop his head.
“…Most things your people accomplish with electricity, we manage with magic.”
Joe chuckled with bewilderment then changed the subject.
“Who were those guys back there?”
“They were knights…” he hesitated, bit his lip as he pondered, then continued, “from the Key Library, which is where that key came from. You see, I’ve broken a few laws here and there and now and then-”
“So did you use that key to bring me here?” Joe asked.
“Yes,” Ekaf paused, “how’d you-”
“And that’s why they’re mad at you?”
“No, see they-” Ekaf doubled over, hacking as though his lungs sought to flee his body, but the episode was short, Ekaf quickly straightened up, “Yes! They’re not fans of fate tamperers – especially when you go so far as I did. You’re an illegal immigrant, you know? See, there are millions of universes, right? This universe wasn’t necessarily the place your meant to ascend to when you got squashing by the semi. They’re not big fans of that and, though they’re mostly mad at me for doing these sorts of things, they would like to see you go back to where you were before I got in the way-”
“Hold up,” Joe’s head instinctively cocked to the side as his emotions tickled the cognitive switch labeled outrage, “would I be in heaven if it weren’t for you?”
“Heaven can wait-”
“Yea!” Joe scoffed, “That’s easy for you to say!”
“Calm down, maybe you’d be in heaven, maybe not.” Ekaf shrugged, “Solaris may be a tad bit of a let down compared to the city behind your Abrahamic pearly gates but it sure as hell beats the hell out of treading water in some sort of lake of fire-”
“Are you saying there’s a chance I would’ve gone to hell?!”
“I’m saying that at least two-thirds of your fellow Earth-folk disagree with you on the validity of your passport to paradise. Strong faith or not, if I were you, I’d be in no hurry to figure out if you’re right or wrong.”
“Fair enough, I’m here now anyways.” Joe sighed, “Should we keep moving?”
“Yea,” Ekaf nodded, “but we don’t have to run anymore, we’ve got time.”
“Could we just hide?”
“Oh no, we need to keep moving. They can follow the trail of this key, like a hound on the hunt, but now that I’ve locked it safely away, the trail is so faint, they’ll be wandering in spirals. Now, let me get my sword and we’ll go on our merry way. I don’t know if you’ve ever held a sword before but, if you haven’t, get ready to get used to it. Solaris isn’t the safest place, we may have duped those spirits but these woods are home to far worse things.”
“This may be Hell…” Joe muttered under his breath.
The two trudged on, finding their way onto a trail as Ekaf elaborated on the importance of swordsmanship. His voice drained to a dull murmur in Joe’s ears as he took in the world around him. Head swiveling, he stumbled onward like a child. They hiked through crispy leaf laden meadows beneath thick canopies that had emerged from winter like a student from his semester ready to live once again. Cutting through old woods, the trail led them onward into the ranks of new saplings that rose above the ashen remains of scorched forest. Then it curved upward, hanging on the hillsides, and ascended onto orange carpet dropped by shingle-barked pines, before the trail fell back to the valleys. Between the green mountains, simmering streams striped the lowlands, producing thick glossy leafed foliage and bright colored flower buds that eagerly waited to blossom. Each bizarre bird call, each lude leaf, and each strange scent sank into Joe’s brain, planting the seeds of questions, millions of questions, in his mind. One of which he was about to ask when he looked down to see Ekaf had stopped.
Joe opened his mouth but the look in the Knome’s sparkling blue eyes silenced him. Shaking his head slowly, so slowly that Joe wondered whether or not the movement was imagined, Ekaf snaked a hand down to the miniscule hilt at his hip. Ekaf mouthed two words.
The spirits found us! Joe thought, But where are they? Aside from birds, itty bitty beasts, and bugs, Joe only spotted one other living creature: Ekaf. And looking past him he saw nothing but forest. A couple yards from a stream barely a step wide the trail curved left to dodge the base of a hill. Nothing. The valley was dominated by a thick-leafed, dusty-barked bush opposed only occasionally by a tree. Joe couldn’t tell if the bush was one or a million of the same. As far as Joe could see into it, which wasn’t far, the flora made a web of itself. Joe was sure their pursuer wouldn’t be able to sneak through the thick brush and flank them. In some places the plant rose higher than Joe’s head, stacked on top of each other and packed in like sardines as if it were a type of mangrove that grew on dry land. Behind him there was only more of the same.
Foliage but no foes. No one.
Where was the sound of scraping as blades sliding from their sheaths or clinking as armor rattled on running men? They couldn’t have snuck up on us. It can’t be them. Ekaf was no longer watching Joe. His head had stopped shaking and he had turned to look back down the trail. Are we lost? Following his gaze, Joe was just as puzzled as before. For what felt like ten minutes, Joe waited patiently for Ekaf to explain but finally he gave in to his curiousity and asked.
“What is it?”
The Knome didn’t have to answer Joe’s question, the rustling in the brush up ahead did it for him. What had appeared to be two fallen branches began to rise from behind a clump of the entangled shrubs. Joe had barely noticed them before, he’d instantly wrote off their pale smoothness as rotting limbs who’s bark had flaked off. Now, as he watched a beam of light glint off their round, glossy sides he realized they weren’t once part of a plant but currently part of a beast. He was staring at a pair of curved horns.
As Joe’s heart sank towards his intestines, he watched a long black snout lift from the cover of leaves. A fat black nose, dripping with slobber, pulsated in front of beedy black eyes that stuck to the side of the monster’s head. The face was bull-like but the horns were far too large, more like an ox’s, and the jaws were far too long and narrow, almost like a reptile’s. The general size of the creature dwarfed any cow Joe had ever seen. Its shoulders were broader and its back steeped into a hump, just behind the neck, much like a buffalo. But unlike all the animals Joe’s brain attempted to compare it too, he knew this was no herbivore. With a blood curtling growl, the lips rippled, revealing rows of teeth longer than his hand, sharp as the blade in Ekaf’s belt.
“That’s a barren,” Ekaf said, “now run!”
Joe didn’t have to be told twice. He spun on his heels then bolted down the trail, back the way they had come. No sooner did he move then did he hear the beast crash through the forest after them. There was a horrible roar then a loud chink – Ekaf’s fighting that thing? – and Joe, continuing to run, turned his head to catch a glimpse. Ekaf stood with his tiny legs spread and the Duikii stretched, longer than Joe had yet seen it, with the flat of the blade held against the barren’s horns. Joe turned back to the trail in time to see he’d run off. His ankle twisted as it landed wrong in a clump of gnarled brush and sent him tumbling to the right. He fell into the bushes and his head smacked an up reaching rock
Light as white as the pearls atop heaven’s gates filled his vision, but he wasn’t about to stop. Groping the stone he’d bashed, Joe scurried through the shrubbery, away from the trail, then plopped down between roots. Listening, he could hear heavy steps and the same rolling growl he’d heard when his eyes first met the beast. But, as far as he could hear, there was no sign of Ekaf.
Oh God, the Knome’s been swallowed whole! The sound of the steps were now drowned out by the noise of breaking branches. His blindness faded and sight returned but now all Joe wanted was to close his eyes – he knew that the appetite of a beast of this stature could not have been satisfied by a three foot malnourished Santa Clause.
The steps stopped. The growling did too. All he could hear was the beast’s breathing as its hulking head reached over the grove of greenery he hid within. It’s a dream! It’s all a dream! You’re back in bed! You’re late for your interview. Now come on! You’ll be back on Earth when you open your eyes!
A drop of saliva fell onto his shoulder, splattering and splashing his neck.
His eyes opened. He could feel the barren’s warm breath comb through his hair, he could smell it too – like rotten meat. He was sitting beneath the shadow of the monster’s head.
Then he was up. Scurrying to his feet, he tore through the woods towards where he’d last seen Ekaf. Behind him branches snapped and limbs splintered as the predator pursued. Joe burst out of the woods and back onto the trail. Still, there was no sign of the Knome but his sword lay alone on the path beside the stream. Joe dove on it, rolled to the opposite bank of forest, then rose, bringing the blade up with him, ready to swing as the barren closed in – but it didn’t.
Joe lowered his weapon. The barren was there, just across the trail, standing in the shade of the woods and watching him with thoughtless black eyes. Staddling the creature’s neck, Ekaf stroked the beast’s mane with a handful of long fat leaves. Over and over, he ran the leaves down the barren’s head, starting as far down the snout as he could reach and stopping before the mane. With each successive stroke, the behemoth’s head fell a little lower and the growl grew a little softer and there was Ekaf, smiling goofily at Joe, as if it were all some sort of joke. As the adrenaline left Joe’s system, rage took its place.
“What the hell was that?!”
The barren perked up, grunting and refocusing its gaze on Joe. Hocking a loogie on his leaf, Ekaf sped up the rhythm of his petting and shot Joe a pale faced, wide eyed, what-are-you-doing type glare. After the animal’s head drooped once more and the eyelids began to bat like a charitable reader enduring some amature’s attempt at fantasy fiction.
This time, Joe whispered his question, “What’s going on, is that your pet?”
The goofy grin returned as the Knome scoffed silently but still he refrained from answering. The barren had returned to the almost hypnotized state it had been in when Joe had first turned to face it. Its knees began to shudder, its body began to wobble, until finaly it collapsed. Ekaf hopped off the giant carnivore and beckoned for Joe to follow him down the trail. Still fuming and still holding the Duikii, Joe followed. A few yards after they rounded the bend, Joe grabbed Ekaf by the shoulder and demanded an explanation.
“What was that?” He whispered sharply.
“I’ll explain, but keep walking,” Ekaf yanked his shoulder free and kept moving, “and give me my sword back before-”
“No.” Joe snapped.
“Why not?” Ekaf stopped in his tracks.
Joe repeated himself, “What was that?”
“What?” Ekaf asked, “Me saving your life?”
“How’d you know how to put it to sleep like that?”
“All barrens are like that.” He smiled, “I’ve always wanted to try it and, if it wasn’t for you, I probably never would have gotten such an opp-”
“You’re telling me that those things, those giant man eating cows,” Joe shuddered, “will fall asleep if you pet them on the head?”
“Not exactly, you’ve got to use a leaf-”
“A wet leaf.”
“A wet leaf?”
“Or damp grass, a wet towel, shoot, you could use that stupid red ribbon hanging from your neck if you-”
“Baby barrens are raised by their mothers. Their mothers lick them on their heads and it puts them to sleep. It still works once their grown up. The trick is getting back there to pet them. Few get that chance and fewer succeed.” Ekaf explained, “You know how old I am and how long I’ve wondered if that’s an old husband’s tale? Man, you know I think I bet on that once too…if I could only remember who it was…I bet they’d owe me at least a thou-”
“Wait! So you left me alone with that bear, uh, that…”
“…so you could try something you didn’t know would work?!”
“That’s one way to look at it.” Ekaf shrugged, “Another way you could look at it is that I just saved your life…again-”
“I did just save your life didn’t I?”
“Yes, but not ‘again’!” Joe used his free hand to make air quotes, “You didn’t save me from the car wreck!”
“Unless, that is, you would’ve wound up in Hell.”
“Alright,” Joe fumed, having long sense forgotten to whisper, “first off, that’s speculation. You could’ve just ruined my chance to get into Heaven. And second, that isn’t saving my life.”
“Eh,” Ekaf shrugged, “Well, I did save you from those spirits.”
“Spirits that wouldn’t have been after me if not for you in the first place – just like that barren wouldn’t have been after me if you hadn’t brought me here.”
“Still beats Hell.”
“We don’t know if I would’ve gone to Hell!”
“Now we’re just going in circles.” Ekaf stated.
Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Can I please, please, pleeeaase have my sword back?”
Joe handed the sword back. Ekaf shrunk it down and slid it back in his belt.
“The bottom line is,” Ekaf said, “there’s no going back…though I suppose you could die here and see where that lands you.”
Joe rolled his eyes and said, “Let’s go.”
The two continued on down the trail.
“By the way, where are we?” Joe asked.
“I thought I told you.” Ekaf replied, his pace unmarred.
“Well, I know we’re on Solar…uh…Solaris, but I don’t know where on Solaris. If this is an entire planet, like Earth, then this forest must have a name.”
“Ah, see Solaris is the solar system, not the planet. And, specifically, this is Zouzu, Tadloe. Tadloe’s a worm shaped continent and Zouzu is a section of woods and swamps in between the Saluman River and the Green River.”
“No, Zouzu…like ‘zow-zu’. ‘Zou’ meant district to the ancient elves of Tadloe and ‘zu’ meant south.” Ekaf elaborated, “Tadloe is just one of the ten continents beneath Solaris but, long ago, the people of Solaris thought Tadloe was the center of the-”
“Hold up,” Joe interrupted, “how come yall speak English here? Even those spirits spoke English?”
“How come you speak common tongue?” Ekaf countered, then he chuckled and explained, “Long ago the language was called Etihwy, it was an elven language, and the Etihwy elves were magnificent sea farring merchants. They spread the language across the known world and it stuck. Ofcourse, there are dozens of other languages, but almost everyone on this planet – everyone that travels that is – knows common tongue, or Etihwy, or English, whatever you want to call it, so you’ll be able to fit right in…if it wasn’t for that ridiculously narrow bib you got around your neck. What is that? An ascot?
“Its called a tie.”
“That’s a dumb name.” Ekaf giggled, “That’d be like calling my tunic a button. Who the hell came up with that and why do yall wear them? Everytime I go to Earth, near about your day and age, I see folks strutting around in those ridiculous tongued-collars. Rarely see a woman in one, I always assumed it was sort of like a collar for a dog that the women tied around their men. That’s not the case is it?”
“No, its not. Its just the fashion.”
“Fashion,” Ekaf laughed, muttering, “or lack thereof…sorta kinky if you ask me. I mean, after all-”
Joe cut Ekaf off for the ten dozenth time as another question spilled out his lips, “So is it just a coincidence that two different dimensions, or universes, or whatever you call these worlds, developped identical languages?”
“Depends on what type of person you are.” Ekaf shrugged, “There are those who declare everything a coincidence and then those who don’t believe in coincidence at all. Which are you?”
“I suppose I believe there are no coincidences.” Joe stated firmly, “You?”
“Neither.” Ekaf paused to hurdle a branch.
“That wasn’t an option.”
“Wasn’t it?” Ekaf shrugged, “Then I’d say both. Somethings are coincidence and somethings aren’t. The future is no coincidence, but the past is nothing else but one big-”
“Wait, I meant to ask this before, when I asked where we were.”
“Where are we headed?”
“To the northern border of Zouzu, the Saluman River. We’re actually headed for Suinus, the city at the center of Tadloe, built in the base of an ancient crater, but we’ll be camping beside the Saluman River tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll cross it and stay with a friend in the woods one more night before we arrive in Suinus on the third day – where we can get into the Key Library and rid ourselves of this key!”
“Two nights in the woods? We’ll be sleeping in a tent in the same woods as those barrens?”
“On the contrary!” Ekaf raised a finger into the air, “I haven’t got a tent, but on the second night-”
“This is definitely Hell.” Joe whispered.
“Nothing,” Joe replied.
As Ekaf described the accomodations for the next two nights, Joe went back to ignoring him. Despite the frightful incident at the intersection and the disturbing revelation that he was – supposedly – dead, Joe was beginning to feel alright. The strange old man’s words seemed somewhat untrustworthy, but his behavior was beginning to win Joe over. Though this seemed to be a detour from destiny, it was an interesting one nonetheless and this Knome – as obnoxious as he had thus far proven to be – seemed fully capable of keeping him safe. Then there was the fact that Joe was somewhat confident that this was all some coma-induced dream. Might as well try to enjoy it.
He had always been a fan of hiking and, caught up in the world of adulthood, it’d been a while since he’d spent more than a few hours in the realm of the wild. Camping had always been fun but somewhat of a hastle on Earth – considering Joe’s diabetes. Wait, am I still diabetic? He had none of his supplies with him but he could tell that his blood sugar was stable, at least for the moment. I will be severely pissed if I find out that even in the afterlife I’m still diabetic. Despite that warp cube, Solaris doesn’t sound like they’ve got any insulin hanging around. The sun, although hidden behind a roof of leaves, was setting and darkness was falling fast in the woods of Tadloe. His stomach growled. Joe gulped, I’ll know for sure whether or not I’m still diabetic by tomorrow morning.
“How long until we reach this river?”
“Not too much longer,” Ekaf replied, “before Solaris sets completely.”
“Solaris is the sun?” Joe asked.
Ekaf snickered, “You’re pretty clever to be unemployed-”
“How did you know that?” Joe demanded, “How do you know all these things about me?”
“I haven’t been stalking you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ekaf said, “but I did my homework. For instance, I know you’re diabetic, I know-”
“Is diabetes an issue here too?”
Joe cursed beneath his breath, “So yall wouldn’t have any medical supplies?”
“On the contrary!” Ekaf stopped and faced Joe triumphantly, “We have everything you need! We have the ability to cure you!”
“How?” Joe exclaimed.
“Magic!” He winked, then continued his march, “The fella we will stay with tomorrow night, if you’d like, can fix you right up! You’ll never have to worry about diabetes again! You’ll be brand new-”
“I half hoped that I wouldn’t have to worry about diabetes in the afterlife.” Joe stated.
Ekaf cleared his throat but said nothing.
Another question Joe had meant to ask squeazed its way to the forefront of his mind.
“Hey, Ekaf, those knights back there, you said they were from the ‘Key Library’ which, I believe you said, is where we are headed. And you said that that key was the key to Earth-”
“A key,” Ekaf corrected, “a key to Earth, but continue.”
“A key to Earth, my bad, anyways, my question was…uh…is the Key Library a library of keys that lead to different universes?” Joe asked.
“No, its- BLEH!” A fit of coughs wracked the little man’s body with such force that he tossed himself onto the ground. Joe helped him up as he corrected himself, “Kinda sorta…” Ekaf cleared his throat and they trudged forward. “There is a key for just about everywhere and everywhen in the world, in every world. I’m talking past and present and future. If you want to go somewhere, as long as life is there, there’s a key for it.”
Joe was impressed and jealous, “So people in Solaris travel between dimensions all the time?”
“On the contrary, the Key Library, to most, is nothing more than myth. But I swear to you, it is yet another old husband’s tale that turns out to be true. Still, it’d be best if you don’t go spreading its name. People will already be giving us weird looks thanks to the way you’re dressed.”
Joe nodded solemnly, ducking beneath a low hanging branch.
“And those knights, you called them spirits, right?”
“So…they’re ghosts?” Joe asked.
“No,” Ekaf chuckled, as if the question’s answer was blatantly obvious, “a spirit is a species of intelligent beings, like an elf or a dwarf or a human. Spirits are mortals like you and I, and like you and I and all other mortals they can be killed. Beneath that armor, there is a flame in their chests, a purple flame. It is as much a charm as a curse because to kill a spirit, all you have to do is puncture the flame with malintentions.”
“Yes. If you’ve got nothing against the spirit, you can touch their flame – though I wouldn’t go around touching people’s flames,” Ekaf snickered, “that might get you into trouble.”
“Spirits, elves, dwarves,” Joe shook his head. “I’m in Middle Earth!”
The Knome stopped in his tracks and Joe tumbled over him into a bush.
“Lord of the Rings,” Joe explained as he clawed his way out of the foliage, “it’s from a popular series of books back home.”
“Interesting…” Ekaf scratched his beard as he tapped his foot twelve times upon a protruding lithic, then launched off again through the woods revamping his endless speech. “We should find ourselves in a clearing quite soon. We’ll cut through to the east and hop on a trail that’ll take us to the river. Keep your eyes peeled. You’ve seen just about the worst these woods have to offer, but there is one beast that tops it. Don’t ask their name, I don’t want to jynx us. Get used to being amazed because Earth has not prepared you for the types of life that have evolved in Solaris.”
– – –
Joe had no sense of time in this new world other than the sun in the sky. By the time they reached the riverside, the sun had set and the moon was glowing and Joe was ready to call it a night. He was still dressed for the interview – a white button up shirt tucked into a pair of loose fitting black slacks with a plain red tie wrapped around his neck that hung down to tickle his belt buckle and shoes that had never intended to be used as hiking books. His feet throbbed as he helped Ekaf build the camp fire.
They’d decided to bivouac in a clearing atop a bluff that overlooked the river. It was a large body of water, but slow moving. It reminded Joe of the Tennessee River he’d spent numerous summers on back in the States. He stared into the obsidian waters that reflected a distorted starry night sky, a sky like he’d never seen back home on his industrialized planet. A brilliant aray of gassy balls of flame winked at Joe. The swirling masses of distant universes struck him like a wave of warm lake water, squelching his homesickness with awe.
But the awe eventually grew stale. Nauseating thoughts found their way back into his mind. Could I be staring at Earth? Could my loved ones be looking up in the sky right now? Staring at me? His heart throbbed. It’s a dream Joe, you can never tell how long a dream is while your dreaming. This is just a normal dream. You never even got in that wreck. That’s why this place is familiar. This is just a normal dream. His eyes suddenly focused on the moon, or was it a moon? The floating orb was covered with green foliage, misty ribbons of clouds, and navy flats of distant seas. Is that a moon or a planet? Then a new question surfaced as he noted there was more than one – he could count the edges of two other moons stacked one past the other.
“Are those moons?” Joe asked.
Ekaf answered without looking up, “What else would they be?”
“How many moons do you have?”
Ekaf knelt by the fire the two had made. It was a log cabin fire: two base logs running parallel, smaller branches stretching across it and two bigger logs set on top that were perpendicular to the base logs. The pattern was repeated with kindling shoved between each layer. Dragging his eyes from the masterpiece he tended, Ekaf craned his neck and glared at the lunar chain. A smile stretched across his lips and the old face that seemed to be constantly enthralled with the task at hand, whatever it was, suddenly softened. His eye lids sagged, his eye brows relaxed, and he let out a sigh.
“Just three,” Ekaf said speaking slowly for the first time since Joe had met him, “they’re eggs.”
“Huh?” Joe yelped.
“They’re dragon eggs. Moon dragons, we call them.” As he spoke, he snapped the twigs off the limbs piled chaotically beside him then laid them across the fire. “Your moon is one too. It just hasn’t decided to hatch yet. That’s why its still barren and pale. They pick and choose, the dragons do, though some around some planets are duds, I suppose your moon could be a dud too, but, as for ours, they’ve all hatched.” Ekaf nodded, a hint of sadness in his voice, as he nudged a few burning branches nearer to the center of combustion. “The last one hatched not too long ago though he has yet to make landfall…”
“They come down here?!” Joe’s voice cracked as he yelped.
“They must be huge!” Joe exclaimed.
“Solaris is much smaller than your solar system. So are our moons. But yes, they are massive beasts. And they’re absolutely beautiful.” Ekaf sat back down, finally content with his creation. “Few ever get the privilege to ride them.”
Joe looked down from the moons to observe the dancing fire. He frowned.
“You got matches?” Joe asked.
“Nope,” Ekaf said, “never needed em-”
“Magic?” Joe pressed on, joining the Knome at the fire side.
“Yes, but don’t ask me to teach you. I’m a swordsman, my magical grammar is atrocious, just enough to get by. The friend I’m taking you to can help you with that.” Ekaf said, shifting his butt in the dirt until he found a suitable position, continuing to talk all the while, “Shoot, if everything goes smoothly, I’ll send you to a school. It wouldn’t hurt. But that depends if we’ve got the time.”
Joe plopped down across from him
“But for now, we should rest. Enjoy the view and let the dancing lights in the night sky lull you to sleep.”
“Alrighty.” Joe said.
“Why’d you bring me here?”
“Well, for one, if I was about to go to Heaven…I’d consider it sort of rude of you.”
“But you could’ve been going-”
“I know, I know, let’s not get into that again. And I am thankful for you saving my life once I got here. From what I can tell, you’re really looking out for me, which means you probably have a good reason for why you brought me here in the first place…I just want to know why.”
Ekaf looked away from Joe and stared into the fire. “I wish I could explain it all to you in one night, that is, what I brought you here to do, but I can’t…but you shouldn’t be thanking me, I should be thanking you.”
Joe frowned, “Huh?”
“Okay, okay, listen. There were once twelve people here in Solaris, twelve heroes, that we called the Mystakle Samurai.”
Mystakle, Joe thought, where have I heard that?
“Today, the last Samurai, Benjamin Fasthoof, was defeated. I brought you here so that you could save them-”
Joe scoffed as he loosened his tie. He crawled over to where a smooth rock surfaced among the dirt and laid back, cupping the back of his head with his palms. Once settled, he watched his small companion.
“What?” Ekaf asked.
“You brought me here to save your heroes – don’t you know who I am?” Joe laughed, “You spent all day saving my life! Why do you need my help? What can I do that you can’t?”
Ekaf watched the bouncing flames of the camp fire. Tiny red embers rained upwards into the night sky like fireflies, soaring up into the atmosphere to join the galaxies above. He took his hat off and sat it beside him.
“You may not have faith in yourself, but I have faith in you.”
Joe was still unconvinced, “That’s great. Really nice of you. But seriously? Me? Come on now…”
“You don’t really expect me to believe you, do you?”
For a moment, there was silence. Joe was puzzled. In part from the the Knome’s brash claims but also by his suddenly solemn behavior. Whether or not Joe thought Ekaf was making any sense, he would’ve bet money that the Knome was being serious.
“If you don’t trust me,” Ekaf finally said, “then you don’t have to follow me.”
“Ha!” Joe curbed his disbelief and used a softer tone, “Ekaf. If I’m going to wander around these woods alone, you might as well kill me now.”
“Give it time.” Ekaf assured Joe.
This is definitely a dream. Joe thought. The question is, whether I am dreaming in my bed or in a hospital room. Yet, something stood out about the whole experience that led Joe to believe it might not be a dream. There were few dreams he could remember questioning while in the dream. Those few that he did – lucid dreams – then gave him free reign, allowing him to do virtually anything he could fathom. Not in this dream. In this dream he was bound by the same laws or reality that were enforced in his waking life back on Earth. Dream or not, I need to start being serious. An idea suddenly struck Joe.
“You said the Key Library has keys to anywhere and any…uh…anywhen, right?”
“So…could I find a key to Earth, just before my wreck, and stop it from happening?”
“I suppose you could.”
Joe was thrilled, “I can go home!”
Ekaf’s voice was emotionless, “I can’t stop you.”
For some reason, despite having had no choice in the matter when Ekaf brought him to Solaris, Joe felt bad for being so excited at the prospect of ditching the Knome.
“I’m sorry Ekaf, but I have friends and family and responsibilities.” Joe explained, “Besides, I’m no savior. I think we’d all be better off if I went home and you found someone else.”
Ekaf was silent.
“Come on Ekaf,” for some reason, Joe felt he needed some sort of permission, “I’m sure there are plent of other people on Earth – plent of more capable people – that would love this opportunity!”
“True…I understand, Joe. If you don’t want to help me and my people, that’s fine.” Ekaf assured him, “I haven’t saved your life – three times now – and promised you a cure for diabetes in order to guilt you into helping me save the lives of numerous innocent people, I wouldn’t do that. After all, any decent person who has the opportunity to save another life would do so without expecting a reward, I was just doing my part as a half decent person-”
“Okay,” with such an extensive guilt trip, Joe temporarily conceded – at least for the conversation – but he no longer felt bad about backing out, “I get it…”
“I won’t stop you. I won’t harbor any hard feelings either. It’d be my fault really – for misjudging your character. You’ve got responsibilities, you’ve got things to do. I get it, you’re an adult. I’m sure you have a family to care for and bills to pay and-”
“Ekaf. I get it.”
“You really just don’t have time to be good Samaritan, I understand. I just hope you’ll forgive me for taking you away from your busy life for a few days. What kind of person would I be if-”
Finally, the Knome shut up.
“I get it.” Joe growled. He cleared his throat and proceeded with a friendlier tone, “I haven’t decided to leave just yet…I was just thinking about it…what I really want to know is why – why you chose me.”
“It may be difficult, but how about I try and explain it to you?”
“I’d appreciate that.” Joe muttered.
Ekaf’s voice, what with his guilt trip successful, was suddenly that same bouncy and bright tone that Joe’d first encountered further south in the woods of Zouzu. He said, “Alright, well…I honestly don’t know where I should start or if I should even try but I suppose I will start at the beginning.”
“A novel place to start!” Joe chimed.
“Alright then, here we go…the dawn of civilization, well…” He paused to scratch his beard. “Well the dawn of history, beings were romping around long before they began keeping a record. Anyways, history began with the hatching of the first moon and the rise of a man who you will hear plenty about. His name is Creaton Live-”
“Creaton Liveh,” Joe muttered, fearing the Knome was about to digress into a very long speech of irrelevant information, as he had done repeatedly throughout their hike. Who knew you could be bored in dreams? He said outloud, “Sounds intriguing but I’m not sure if I need to get your entire world history. I mean-”
“Oh no, Creaton Live is alive!” Ekaf explained.
“Wait…” Joe frowned, “did your history just start?”
“Questions, questions, questions, I told you it was going to be hard to explain. If I don’t start from the beginning, you’ll continue to assault me with questions. You’ll be confused and I’ll be annoyed. You should trust me, Joe. I’ve gotten you out of two – and, in my opinion, three – sticky situations in the last twenty-four hours. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll start over. History began with a man named Creaton Live. For the Tribe of Live, it was the Year of the Eagle. They didn’t number their years, we started that up later.”
“So year one, Creaton Live,” Joe paused to yawn, “you’ve got to hurry before I fall asleep.”
“If I put you to sleep, just go back and read it later-”
“Read it?” Joe sat up but saw no book in the Knome’s lap.
Ekaf whispered, “I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to the reader-”
“I said, I can ‘reiterate her’ if you fall asleep.”
“Oh, okay…sorry, no more interruptions.”
“Doubt it…” the Knome grunted, cleared his throat, then began, “Year one started the day the first moon dragon was born – a day that every early civilization recorded in some way shape or form.” Ekaf stopped as Joe’s yawn spread, then continued, “But Creaton’s story begins twelve months before…”