“I can barely make sense of it all. The only sound carried across these vast red plains is the wind, hitting us like waves hit cliffs. It carries a smell of burned land, which is worse than any other smell; its message reads that where we tread only death has trod before. The message is a lie of course. We see signs. Others rove this land, co-dependently in a way, I imagine, living with it. We see these phantoms outlined at nighttime. Don’t be mistaken, they are no nomads roaming in search of pasture, moving in a singular direction; distance seems arbitrary to these others, as they are spotted in all directions, and they are not a friendly sight. But as we’re almost out of food and water, the Company’s main concern should lie with finding signs of life. This may seem like a paradox, since we try to avoid these others at all costs, but priorities matter. Without defeating hunger, we cannot hope to survive secondary danger. But I think food and water will only lengthen our ordeal. I do not think we will survive. The others promise the end of life, waiting for us, and every now and then when we think we spot them at the horizon of this desert, fear grinds our bones.
At first we were a hundred soldiers, confident, even arrogant, in search of the Land of Life. It’s written that eternal life can be found there. It’s only a slightest notion to go on, but enough for an adventurer to set as a goal. All of us were disciplined brawlers, adventurers in search for the unknown, just for the sake of it. We cared for nothing but glory. We wanted to be the first. Very soon we found out we were not – no one ever is.
The lands stretch out far and wide before us, with only an old manuscript to lead us on. The parchment had come to us by chance, in a way. A private investor, an art smuggler of sorts, came across it in an expedition of his own. The manuscript talks in riddles and symbols, and has lead us to these lands. But there is no certainty in our quest.
We don’t know how much time we need to sacrifice on this quest. We have discarded this concern early on, when our unease was caused by the first sights of the others who were outlined now and then, like parapets on the horizon. We knew we were being watched. They never seemed to make a move, though, and were gone in the blink of an eye. The Company sent out a search party to take care of this threat. But only foul smells signalled a previous presence of other beings, they say, who some believed are not to be of human nature, and it was presumed that these beings were never far off, watching them.
Nighttime attacks first occurred after a few weeks. They didn’t occur as often as they do now, then just enough to start and make us fear sleep itself. They come into camp with growling sounds, like monstrous shadows. They don’t take many lives, as if they don’t care about that. They want to hit us in the heart of our confidence. They are the land and the land is evil. The fear paralyses and chains us, and we do nothing more than scream in desperation.
This paradox, the search for life but the continuous fear of the only other animated beings out here, is not completely without logic. They are the embodiment of the opposite of life, which is not death, of course. Death is the end of the line, unravelled into nothing, but not separate from it, never that. These others are taking away the will and choice our lives by reigning over our deaths. They bring fear and make us go mad. Some of the Company have already lost control and are no longer agents of their own being. They just are, passive and distorted. We let them walk between us still, while we keep walking in ranks, but they are unnerving; they cry and laugh and shout at the winds. The structure of the world is gone to them. It’s as if fear has pulled them though a threshold, a place unknowable from where there is no going back, because the will to assemble the pieces of the world has gone. The will… It is a word which I did not give much thought to before, but it is, together with logics, that which keeps me from being yanked through that threshold. I know the pull would come suddenly, in a moment of fear, as if I were losing my balance; this evil arm would come from the darkness and, with fingers buried deep into my skin, would pull with overwhelming force, and I would be unable to resist and I would be bursted through the wall of sanity and life into the other side. Sometimes I want to kill those lost ones. They forebode our own faiths, should we succumb.
Two days ago, one of our lost souls attacked one of us. The lost one was screaming for hours and suddenly stopped and turned away from the group. When one of his old mates turned for him to put him on our path the lost one turned, wide eyed and with grinding teeth, and buried his blade in his old friend. He took off after that. We chased him and killed him with many strikes, as if killing him would kill the others out there. That night many of the Company were killed. It was the worst night we’ve had so far. The camp was a pandemonium, and I kept my tent closed from the demons outside and waited while grasping my sword so firmly my fingers hurt, listening to otherworldly growls in our mids. With dawn moonlight gave way for the sun, and pandemonium for silence.
Today there are thirty-three of us left. Seventy-four if you count the soulless. We fear them now alongside the others. They are part of this hellish land, which takes away life. I can’t remember why I would risk everything for glory. Only now I realise what my life means to me, and I am considering to take my own. This act they cannot take from me. I will save it for the end. If the land won’t cannot be reached and when my mind will fall and I will be pulled out of sanity, the last card I will play is cutting my own thread.
To whoever finds this letter: do not venture further into this land. It is a trap. The Land of Life may promise eternity, but I tell you know, the price you pay is your will. I will be long lost when you read this.
754 Age of Exploration”
A horrifying grin stretches across the demon’s face, as he puts the letter back in the bottle and places it back at the last signpost. He examines the fearless, conquered faces of the last of the Company. They stand in silence, capes flapping in the wind, opposing the shadows. Some dark spectres sneer and grin and laugh at the conquered Company. Warm blood on the blades of the Company’s swords glister red in the moonlight, some of it dripping on the red sand. It belonged to the last of the living men. They will follow the demon and in time darkness will fill their empty hearts, and they will grow to understand the essence of life and take it like the shadows did.
“Collect the bodies,” the demon said in harsh language. The lost ones dragged their old friends onto a pile. “They will wither and the land will feed of them. But we must leave them now, there still remains one. We will find him and break his soul.”
Startled, Terrence Elliot presses his back against the bank of a dried up river, deep into the pitch-black shadow cast by an overhead rock. The rough land’s rocks and ridges cast long dancing and twirling shadows under the silvery light of the moon, which is full tonight. ‘I’m breathing too damn loudly,’ he thinks, and tries to control his breath, inhaling deeply and slowly, eyes widened with fear. How do they know he still lives? Did they spot him? No – he had made sure of that. He is out of sight and hasn’t made a sound. They must have counted the bodies and realised that one is missing… Oh hell, it doesn’t matter how they know. He must move and find a way out of this land.
He musters all of his courage and with greatest care peers over the overhanging rock. About a stone throw away from him the shadows are gathered, among them his old friends. But they are lost, he can tell there’s no more life in their eyes. They look at the shadows without confusion and fear, with submission. Never before in his life has he seen something so terrifying as these dark shadows. Great, rough dark creatures they are, looking more like demonic beasts than men. They must be demons, an entrapment of the land, maybe protecting the so-called Land of Immortality, and what lies within.
As Terrence Elliot slowly crawls away from the group, taking care not to place his feet on rocks or dried branches, he thinks about the meaning of this immortality. Do his lost friends still live, with their souls broken, until their bodies abandon them as well? To them life without an end would mean nothing at all. Time means nothing, he now realises. At least he still has his will and with it he can fight. The only thing to defeat are the demons that are hunting him. He must be careful and stay smart, because they will appear more often now – he’s certain of this for reasons he doesn’t understand himself. Most importantly he must not loose control of his sense. Every time he spots the shadows he can feel the threshold of fear and needs to jerk away from it, he cannot allow himself to be pulled into insanity.
Several days he walks, paralleling the route the Company came before, but not in its foot-tracks. The shadows must realise the tracks are his only orientation and therefore his way of of the land. They might set traps. So he keeps a distance. Sometimes, most often at night, he thinks he can hear them talk; sometimes they whisper and moan, sometimes they howl with deep grunting terrifying sounds. And whenever he notices their presence, he wanders off a bit further from his planned way.
His keeps mind set on not giving in to fear and avoiding the shadows. Fear and the shadows are connected, Terrence Elliot knows. Clues are spread out in front of him, like pieces of a puzzle, wherein the connection lies, and how he can put this to his advantage. The one thing he is certain of is that the demons appear to be attracted to his fear. At first he was apprehensive of every far-cast shadow, and every time he was barely able to stay out of sight as they suddenly appeared. So he decided to counter this, to train his mind to see nothing more than the absence of light in shadows. The presence of demons has grown less since he has been doing this. In this way he heads onward, every day until his legs give out, and occupies his mind with questioning the logic shadow demons.
At first he thought the demons were from an other world; they don’t appear to belong in the world he knows. They are out of place. But his perception and understanding has changed.
From the onset of the Company’s quest, shadows started to form living shapes – this occurred less in the beginning than it did at the end, after they had progressed on their route and had experienced more encounters. These demons must have hid from them at first, but as the land had brought fear upon them the shadows must have started to feel strong enough to harm them. The question is why the demons had waited so long to strike. Were they waiting until the Company had reached the heart of the land, to be sure none could escape? Or did they require fear in some way? Maybe they are not as strong as they appear. After all, as far as Terrence Elliot knows, most of the dead have had their life ended by their comrades, who had lost their minds.
More days pass, and he guesses that the end of the way must not be far now, where he will reach known land. But he is out of food, and the lack of it seems to drain his defiance. It is night again, and thick clouds cover the moon and a dark fog drapes the land. Terrence Elliot spreads out his right hand in front of him. He can’t see it, which terrifies him, as he could well be surrounded by lurking danger, just waiting to strike. He closes his eyes and tries to shun his fears, while feeling almost choked by the darkness. ‘If I close my eyes, nothing will happen,’ he whispers to himself, over and over again. Suddenly, a crack startles him like a splash of cold water, and his eyes are wide open now, his chest heaves rapidly. He looks at the direction of the sound – he can’t help himself. Out of the thick blur a dark spectre appears.
“Terrence Elliot,” the demon rasps. He approaches him, and looms over Terrence Elliot with a demonic maliciousness. He grins, showing rows of sharp yellow teeth. Terrence Elliot takes a few steps back, but then stops, taking a last stand, holding on the last of his will. At least he can do this.
“How did you know that I still lived?” He decided to ask.
“We are the land and only exist because of it. You see shadows and here we are. Without a creation of reality, we wouldn’t be part of it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you would understand I would not be here. I am here because you chose to see me. You and your lost comrades.”
“Are you saying you are not real?” Terrence Elliot tried. Something dawned on him, an idea of fear and reality.
“Do you doubt my existence? I stand here before you like a rock or a tree or a river. Would you deny their presence?” The demon took a step closer and was now almost touching Terrence Elliot.
“Then I am real as well.”
“I will not surrender, you know. I will take my own life before I loose my mind.” Terrence Elliot pulls a knife out of his sleeve and waits…
“Why do you not attack me with your knife?”
“I don’t think I need to. You are just a shadow.”
“Does this mean that I am harmless?”
“No. You have killed ninety-nine soldiers, you and your army. But now you’re alone. I wonder why.”
“Others wait in the shadows. Perhaps just can’t see them.”
“That’s a lie. You are the last one, weakened. You don’t scare me.”
The horror of the land played tricks on the minds of everyone who’d dare to wander in, Terrence Elliot realises. Shapes, shades and sounds took shape of shadows and demons. They are real in his mind, but he has the power to deny them and dissolve their existence. After all, he is alone and reality is his to forge.
He takes a step forward, towards the demon. Not so much to his surprise, the demon steps back. One more step, another step back. And slightly, with a sudden grace, the demon lowers his head, casts one last look into Terrence Elliot’s eyes, and retreats into the fog, entrusting him his life, eternally his until death.