the old man looked at his son, the walls of his bed-chamber closing in around him at his final moments. it was not fear that consumed him, but hope, even though his breaths drew shorter and further apart. his son’s words echoed in his ears as he began to see his greatest journey repeat in his mind.
“Do you remember why we are here?”
the world unfolded around him, each wall growing windows turning into floors turning into unfamiliar grounds for exploration. he took the spyglass from his waist, turning it toward the sky. he could see the clouds blossoming into stars into new lands and he reached his hand up to cover their novae and grasp them.
he found himself in a far away place again, this world open to his every whim. the grass unfurled itself in his footsteps, and he heard the echoing song of a maiden.
it was her after all the time and all the years and all the struggles. he had found her once again.
but it wasn’t worth the time. he had given up so much of himself, aeons out of eternal years of wanderlust, whole worlds had come and gone in the time since he had begun his search, and he had not been able to witness their apotheosis.
he stifled a sob, because he knew what he wanted most of all. it was crazy, it was unreal. what if once he found her he found that he could never enjoy the world? would that be worth the terrible and awesome price he had paid? would it be worth the future cost?
the dragon crawled from his mind and blocked the stars and the dreams. it lingered over him, and he felt the chill of its shadow washing over him, turning the glass spires that surrounded him into reflections of night.
he had no other choice, he supposed. so long as he did not have her, he would be fighting the horrors of an unwell mind. he did what he had never done before and took up the sword that hung from his belt.
“I have done nothing to wrong you, yet you remain. Today I will take the first step to the end of this sojourning way.”
so he took the sword and watched it become a lance of light of energy of hope. he pointed it to the sky, and the dragon turned its head toward him. fire glowed in its belly, then its throat, and it began to bellow.
but he had no fear, only eternity, so he thrust the lance into the sky, watching its course arc to its conclusion. the light cracked the darkness, and the shadows gave way to a new dawn.
he would not leave this world so easily, allow it to be destroyed and force him to wander another aeon to find his love.
the sword returned to his belt, he wandered on, hearing the sound of voices from the clearing ahead. it was the court of the fey, and he knew enough to fear them. they were timeless as he, and he heard their jesting.
“Come, join us. We will drink and sing to the world’s end, and beyond.”
he looked over them, a pale and motley bunch. their clothes tattered, the food at their table covered with mold and the brown of decay. even so they were unconcerned by their surroundings. they had found happiness in the petty things, and in their mutual abnegation.
“I will not join you. But there is a chance that one of you could join me.”
a half-real man stepped forth from the company, gaunt and tall. the passion still burned in his eyes that had left his company’s.
“If I go your way, will I meet death?”
“I cannot say for sure. I have gone for so long alone that I know not if the hazards I face are even real.”
“Then why will you not join us, and have safety, and be comforted in our midst?”
“Because I have heard the call, and there is nothing that can replace it in my mind.”
so the figment looked at the wanderer, and made up its mind.
“I will join you.”
and with those words he became real, no longer a thing of the fey half-world. the wanderer and his squire set out, finding a shield from the brambles near-by for the squire’s arm.
they crested rivers and hills before they heard her voice again, echoing in splendor though it were hidden in a cave.
“Is that the voice you heard so long ago?”
“Truly it is,” the wanderer replied, “do you know why I wander now?”
“And it is worth every last moment.”
“I am glad you agree. But what is in that cave?”
they peered at the entrance to the abyss. wicked animal eyes reflected in the darkness, wishing them harm. and they had no light with which to vanquish the darkness.
“We are too young, too inexperienced, to handle this task ourselves. But there is a wise man spoken of who is said to know the gift of light.”
“I am glad you came as my second in my quest. Let us go together to this man.”
the road was steep and rocky, with thorn at every footfall. the effort was almost too much for the wanderer, but he remembered the voice, as he sought out the only one who could teach him. at last they reached the peak, and at its heights a tower glistening in gold and rich dark ebony wood.
its door hung open. the wanderer hesitated.
“Perhaps this man knows too much for us. Maybe he will not take us as a friend. We might be better to go in ignorance, and feel along in the dark.”
but before a reply could come a face appeared in the darkness.
and they found themselves inside
“Tell me, sir, why you live alone out here.”
“A long time ago I heard a voice, and it was so dear to me that I chased it until I found it. And when I found the object of my chase, I learned that she held great truth, and I listened to her truth. Now I stand as a beacon to the world, my tower at the top of this hill, so that all who seek her may find.”
“What kind of person is she?”
“That, you must learn for yourself. It will require of you great sacrifice to reach the truest moment of finding.”
“Are you saying I should turn back?”
“I would do it a thousand times.”
“Then what do I need?”
“You need light to guide you in the darkness, for truth is painful and must be bought with an effort. Let me take your hands and show you.”
the wanderer held out his hands and the squire watched as the old wise man took scrolls of wisdom from the shelves. they wrapped around the wanderer, with a mind of their own, binding him and covering his eyes.
and the wanderer wept from the deepest levels of his heart. he saw that he had become a being of shadow and darkness, no better than the dragon he had slain.
“You will need to build a light within yourself to confront what lies within the cave. If you fail, you will be lost in it forever. Do you still wish to finish your search?”
“Then go, both of you, with my blessing. It may be worth little in the world, but let it be a reminder that wisdom is the greatest of all things valued by man.”
so they returned to the cave, and the wanderer remembered the man’s words. having taken the wisdom into his heart, he found that he did not need to fear the dark so long as he followed its instructions.
his squire, who had also received the wisdom, followed him. in the darkness they came upon a split in the path. one of the tunnels was cramped and twisting, but the wanderer could hear the echoes coming from beyond.
the once-unreal man turned to his companion, however, and spoke:
“That way is difficult, and while you can hear the voice more clearly perhaps you will not be able to reach its end. Surely it becomes too small for anything more substantial than a voice to pass through it.
“I am going to take this larger path. It is smooth, as if many have gone this way before, and much less steep. I can always make my way back if it turns out that I am wrong. I suspect, however, that both paths lead to the same place.”
the wanderer knew that he would not see the squire again, watching him fade back into half-reality as he took the easy road.
so he forced himself through the passage to the depths, trying to keep from slicing himself open on the rock outcroppings like branches bearing poison fruit.
with the wisdom he knew where to put his hands and feet, and he felt comfortable for a while, but the going was slow. the methods took too long, and he thought he could hear the voice growing quieter, not louder.
so in a space he thought was clear, he swung himself out and across the void, reaching for a new handhold that would bring him nearer his goal.
but he misjudged the distance, and felt the cold air of the cave rushing past him. blindly he reached out in the darkness, and felt his hand slice open as it closed on ice.
so he opened his fingers again and fell, landing on the ground beneath him. by some mercy he fell in a safe spot between the basalt spears, and he felt the wind knocked out of him. he said a word of praise over his fortune, which had surely kept him from death.
then he got to his feet and headed deeper.
he saw again the crimson eyes, this time closer. with the truth in his head, he could see the figure for what it was, a monstrous thing with horns and wings, hunched over itself.
“Who are you to enter my domain?”
“I am a wanderer, seeking beauty.”
the creature focused its gaze on him, wretched eyes boring into his soul.
“Do you seek beauty? You have sliced open your hand in haste, fallen to the stone floor. You walked a dangerous path, and did so like a fool.”
the man said nothing, but pushed past, hearing the most beautiful voice again faintly.
“You have not listened to the wisdom! You have rejected it! Your reward will not wait beyond me, as it once did. Look at me—my fate will be yours. You will be lost in the abyss forever if you do not turn back now.”
but the man figured that he would be lost either way, and returned to the wisdom he had learned from the wise man. he found a path for his feet, even across the rough and jagged rocks, and he ignored the pain as he pressed on, leaving a trail as he walked.
“You are pathetic! You can’t even protect yourself from the world. What do you think makes you worthy of finding what you seek?”
he ignored his tormenter and pushed onward, breathing in the cool air and hearing the sound of such beauty beyond. he was so close to victory now.
he could see her, but not by his own sight.
she opened her eyes as her voice carried on strong, smiling at him.
“I wanted you to come, I wanted you to love me. I have been waiting eternities for you to come, I sang to the stars and to all of creation. You have no clue what you mean to me.”
and at that moment he knew he had found his creator, hidden but not lost.
“But why have you hidden yourself away so far, in such a dreadful place, with such an awful thing awaiting?”
once again she smiled.
“What would the search be if it cost nothing? I give my love to all, but it takes a dear cost to bring it to fruition. Everything came from me, but nothing holds value if it is not free to go its own way. Now you have returned, and that is a cause for much rejoicing!”
the caves disappeared, fading into the light of a banquet hall. the wanderer slaked his thirst and ate his fill, then turned back to the woman and asked one last question.
“What should I do now?”
“Go. Lead others to me, let them know the joy that I have shown you. One day, the time will come, and you shall be in glory with me forever.”
so the wanderer took some time to think as the light faded from around him, and he found himself once again outside the cave. he made his way to the wise man, sharing his joy, and they were gathered for a time in celebration, but it would not last forever.
he felt restless, aimless, sitting still among his fellow, and bade his farewell.
“I will return often to visit you, because you have helped me in my great quest and given me such wisdom I could never repay you.”
on his journeys he found himself again at the court of the fey, watching their songs and their revels, and thinking of the glory he had seen.
“Don’t you know there is so much joy waiting just beyond the threshold? There is great beauty that you have never seen the likes of before, and it comes from the one that created and loves us!”
but the fey looked at him with suspicion.
“Did you not depart with one of our number, only to return when he did not? Why should one more of us join you?”
“Because the journey is worth everything, even death.”
one of their number drew forth a spear and pierced the wanderer’s chest, his heart breaking for their wrath as he felt the pounding in his ears spasm and stop.
but he did not die, because the wisdom was in him and ran through him. the light turned the injury away, and he found himself transfigured, standing before the lost, clothed in glory like the hope he had found in the cave not so long before.
“I stand before you changed. Before I had only a premonition of the beautiful thing I would find, but now I have full knowledge. I will help any who wish to come with me.”
the fey were unmoved. they did not want to come with him, because to do so would mean leaving their feast behind.
only one, a woman, the one who had caused him injury, left with him, and he led her to the wise man and through the cave, and watched her join him in glory.
when they returned, many followed their example, and they wed in the spring’s earliest days.
at the moment of his death he realized how many people the wisdom and glory he had loved so well had brought out of the half-real and into truth, and he smiled as he returned to the one who made him.