It didn't end, of course. It never does when you want it to.
I didn't remember falling asleep, but when I opened my eyes I found myself slumped against the city walls, my back cold with the moisture seeping through my tunic.
I sat up, rubbing my neck to ease the cramps caused by sleeping in an uncomfortable position. Overhead I heard the cawing of crows flying past, and I looked up. Although it was still early the sky was bright, and the flying crows were sharp, black shapes against the pale-blue sky.
My eyes began to tear up, and I wiped them with the back of my hand. The warmth of the sun hadn't yet reached the foot of the city walls where I was sitting and I shivered, weary and chilled to the bone. Get up, I told myself. Get out into the light. I didn't move, and I felt my eyes starting to close again.
Yes, I thought, I should. Dutifully I opened my eyes.
"Not like that. Everyone's fine, they won't need you for a while."
I looked up. The city gates were still closed. I turned my head and saw Rodan with his back to me, appearing to scan the environment. Jared and the soldier were sitting with their backs against the wall, deep in conversation. I sat up and looked around, but the boy was nowhere to be seen.
"I told you so. Now settle down and follow me."
He sighed. "Close your eyes."
I closed my eyes, and I could feel all tension that had been there for as long as I could remember flow out of my body, so suddenly that for a moment it left my dizzy and disoriented. Slowly my body began to topple, falling until I was laying on my side on the stony ground. His voice is beautiful, I thought, and somehow familiar. I wondered where I had heard it before.
"Who are you? What do you want from me?"
"You know who I am. You came here to seek me."
Yes, I thought. My journey is nearing its end.
"Can I see you?"
He laughed. "Would you like that?"
Yes, I thought, my mind quiet and my heart at peace. Yes.
"Come on then. Come out and play."
I stepped forward, and for a moment all went black. When I woke up I was lying face-down on some stony underground, a dull pain throbbing in my right shoulder. I looked up, something warm and wet dripping into my right eye. A black sun was overhead, hanging lifeless in a led-grey sky, and all around me was a mountain landscape in stark black and white. I've been here before, I thought, but when?
A hand started to shake me by the shoulder and I winced, expecting pain that didn't come.
"That's right," Rodan said, "snap out of it."
No, I thought, not now. Not when I'm so close.
A dash of golden-brown appeared before my eyes and then the fox was sitting on the path, washing itself.
"What are you doing here?"
The fox stopped licking its fur to look at me. "No, the question is what you're doing here." She cocked her head. "You aren't dead yet, are you?"
I thought about that. "No," I said. "I don't think so."
"Then you need to go back. It isn't safe for you here."
"I can't." The contentment I had felt earlier had left me, and my cut eyebrow was beginning to sting. I don't know what to do, I silently said. There are so many paths ahead, and I don't know which to choose. Tears were running down my cheeks, and I didn't bother to wipe them off.
"I know," she said, and the next moment the fox was gone, and the lady who had restored my eyesight was standing in front of me. "But this is the path of desolation, and you'll only find death at its end." She reached out as if to wipe away my tears, and I closed my eyes as her fingers nearly touched my skin.
Something cold and wet touched my skin and the next moment I was sitting with my back pressed against the wall, my breath jagged and my heart racing.
Rodan was crouching in front of me, a dripping wet cloth in his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, but you need to wake up. Something's happening."
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