Slowly the man became aware again. He felt like cotton had been stuffed in his ears, and his face tingled with a strange numbness. His thoughts were sluggish and weak.
What the hell happened… He blinked in the darkness as his eyes refocused. I must have blacked out… He looked down.
He was lying propped up on his back in a snowbank. Pierced deep in his chest was a black arrow. He stared down dumbly at the fletching of the arrow – his arrow – not fully understanding.
Wait…when did this…what is this…? He felt like he was suffocating.
Is that an arrow in my chest? Is an arrow in the chest something you survive from? I can’t remember…
Viewing his situation through layers of shock, he could not comprehend the significance of the situation. But as consciousness fully returned, that soon ended. The pain finally hit him.
It felt like something was grasping at his ribs, trying to pry open his chest from within. He couldn’t breathe, move, or feel his legs.
Oh gods. Oh gods no…
He succumbed to a full-fledged panic. The pain was too much to bear. Tears welled in his eyes as he grasped feebly at the shaft sticking out from between his ribs, but it only made the agony worse. His head lolled to his chest as he began to black out again, but he was denied the bliss of the void at the last second.
So there he lay slumped on the frozen ground, gasping and writhing. Slipped between two of his ribs the shaft of the arrow crushed his lungs every time he inhaled. Amid the throws of torturous pain he found that he could breathe small sips of air at a time, agonizing though it was.
With great effort he picked his head up. The world spun dangerously, but still he could see the dark form of the Wood Elf in the same spot, fifteen feet away. It lay hunched on the ground in pain, a grey arrow burrowed firmly in its thigh. Dark arterial blood ran down its leg.
But still the Elf tried to stand. Feebly it propped itself up on the man’s bow, only to stumble and fall back down again.
“Enough!!” The man’s shout was strained and hoarse. “Hasn’t this…,” he paused to catch his feeble breath “…been enough?” The Elf stopped to watch him.
His vision was see-sawing back and forth.
“How much more fighting, and killing,” he threw his trembling hands in the air with each word to emphasize his point. “and hunting, and tormenting must you do before it is ENOUGH!?” He choked on the last word. Blood ran from his mouth and dribbled down his chin like drool. His head lolled uneasily on his shoulders.
He smiled with a wild look in his eyes – his teeth smeared in the red of his own blood.
“And now..!” Deliriously he gestured to the shaft in his chest. “I’m going to die for THIS!! FOR WHAT!!?” He screamed at the Elf, now listening in silence.
The man fell into a fit of wet, bloody coughs.
“WHY,” he shouted with a look of pleading on his tear-streaked face.
“WHY ARE WE FIGHTING?!!” The effort of screaming nearly made him lose consciousness again. Slowly his breath came in a soft, dying squeal. His head lolled back, and he looked up at the dark sky.
“I hate you,” he said, quieter this time. The Elf did not respond.
“I really hate you. I hate you like I hate myself.” His body lay limp.
The pain did not ease.
“I hate this life.”
He cried softly, painfully, staring up at what he could never see.
An unknown period of time had passed before the man came to. For a long while he simply laid there, grappling with consciousness. The Wood Elf laid in the same spot, unmoving.
The wind lashed at the prone man in the darkness. He hardly noticed. The magnitude and severity of the pain he felt put into question everything that had once been reality. What was the world like before physical agony had consumed him? He couldn’t imagine it. How could anything else have ever been?
He felt a powerful urge to cough and tried with all the willpower remaining in his mind to resist. Sure enough, his chest heaved with wet coughing that sent blasts of pain through his body. He blacked out.
In and out – back and forth the world spun. A voice on the wind told him to arise.
But from deep within, another gravity was pulling at him, and the man understood it well – far better than he did the voice on the wind. It was the pull of death.
To the man it represented a sad inevitability – not to say that death saddened him, so much as his yearning for it did. It told him he was not meant to be a part of this world. Perhaps he had been misplaced here. Perhaps he had fought too hard to stay in it.
The pull of death touched him with the heavy hand of existential exhaustion; a soul reminded of its impossibly weighted burden. Like the seduction of sleep it promised him a sort of bliss – a reprieve from all affliction and pain.
The man saw himself sitting on the edge of life and death – both in and out of his body.
He stared over the edge of the precipice. The void beneath yawned into nothingness. It was not the blackness of a pit, but rather a lacking of color and all features: the end of everything. He was afraid of it.
Behind him was a dim light in the distance, far away from the precipice, from where he could perceive sounds and smells. From that light radiated sadness and happiness, joy and despair, and pleasure and pain. Back there was life.
But the yawning void was dragging him in like gravity.
It would be so simple; all he had to do was lean into the pit and fall. It was not hard to do. In fact, it was the easiest possible choice. But still he was afraid.
From the rippling light behind him he heard familiar noises, and turned weakly to look at it, as if caught in a dream. In the light were brief, flashing images of scenes the man recognized. They were from his childhood – from his own perspective. He saw the cruel, grey streets. He saw skyships across smoggy skies. He saw furry white mold on his heel of bread – bread that he had been desperately hungry for.
The scenes flashed by in a rush. His adolescence were mostly filled with memories of Hilda; their first meeting in the jailhouse, her harsh instructing, and his eager learning. He saw her beautiful face – she had always been beautiful to him – with her dark red hair and even darker eyes. He missed her.
The next part hurt him deeply to watch. It was full of snow and loneliness, and ended in humiliation.
Years passed by in seconds.
The flashing memories came to an end. Something felt incomplete. What was it?
I must go north. I must stop what is about to take place. I am the only one who can. It rests on me alone.
But was it worth it? Here was an opportunity to end it, to let all of that go and to experience the peace of the ever-after. How long had he been wishing for this, all the while barely treading the poisonous waters of life? How many hours had he spent waiting with a tired reluctance, like a worn-out clock ticking off its last minutes? Well here it was.
But what would happen if he didn’t take it? What would happen if he were to live? It would come again to take him – of that he could be sure. In fact, death was the only guarantee of life.
Heavy though it was, harrying and desperate though it became, his life was impermanent, along with the pain it brought. It was guaranteed to end at some point, regardless of what he did. So why had he become so immersed in its suffering as to believe it an ultimate truth?
He could not stop death, so why yearn so strongly for something that was inevitable to come? Why struggle against the briefest of pains, knowing full well it was only a fleeting experience?
The iron shutters that had become his eyelids opened slightly. Night or day – it didn’t really matter. Wraith-like aberrations drifted above him. They had hollow faces wracked with their final howls of death. His eyes closed.
He was brought back by the soft squeals of his own dying breaths ebbing from his paralyzed windpipe. In and out. He could hear nothing but that sound, as though underwater with nothing else to listen to. In and out. The pain came now in sharp, knife-edged waves every time he inhaled.
In and out. His whole body tingled with pins and needles. In and out. Suddenly he could feel the presence of something close by. He slowly tilted his head.
Standing next to him – or sitting, rather – was a furred creature of a muscled tan hide. It’s paws were the size of his head. The powerful feline face regarded him in silence, its golden eyes vast and incandescent.
It was no ordinary beast, for in its gaze was the wisdom of centuries, and the patience of lifetimes. The large puma stood, stretched, and slunk several meters away before sitting again, waiting for him. Waiting to lead him to places unknown to see something not yet seen.
The hunter barely understood all of this in the feverish swamp that was his dying mind, and thanks to his complete delirium he did not question it or think it particularly odd in the least – like a dreamer being led casually through a dream.
The grasp of death still clung to his ankles like thick mud, trying to pull him below. But now he resisted it. This creature was about to lead him to something incredible, something divine. Whatever that could be was worth clinging to the laborious shores of life a little longer.
The puma sat there waiting like a statue. He felt nothing anymore. Gently, using the antler longbow as a crutch, he staggered to his feet. The world spun in an odd, feverish haze. His up had become his down, and his left and right no longer mattered.
He had to follow it. He had to see.