The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep. The chains prevented him from lying down. Whether it was truly light or dark he could not say, for his enemies had stolen his sight.
In the distance he heard screaming—the unrestrained wails of a man trying and failing to escape the deepest agony. The unnerving cries echoed from higher corridors, dampened by intervening barriers.
After untold weeks in the dungeons of Felrook the prince could guess what the man might be feeling. Never had the prince imagined anguish so diverse and exquisite as he had experienced here.
He stood up straight, taking some of the pressure off of his wrists. If they kept him chained here much longer, he felt certain his arms would detach. Then again he preferred his current accommodations to the previous room, where the floor bristled with sharp, rusty spikes, and lying or sitting required bloodshed.
The unseen, wretched prisoner continued to scream. The prince sighed softly. Throughout his tortures, no matter what toxins they had forced down his throat, no matter what questions they had asked, he had not yet uttered a single word. Nor had he cried out in pain. He knew that some of the potions devised by Maldor and his minions had power to loosen his tongue and cloud his judgment, so after he was captured, he had firmly vowed to make no sound.
His captors had hounded him expertly. They had tried to bribe him with food and water. They had tried to compel him with pain. Some had come and spoken to him calmly and reasonably. Others had made harsh demands. At times he had faced several inquisitors in a row. Other times hours or days crawled past between interviews. He could not name the array of toxins administered to him, but no matter how they endeavored to blur his mind and weaken his resolve, the prince had focused on one necessity: silence.
Eventually he would speak. He quietly clung to the hope that he would ultimately be brought before the emperor. Then he would utter a single word.
Vaguely, gradually, the prince began to recognize that his mind felt uncommonly clear. A headache persisted, and hunger gnawed at him, but he found himself capable of directing his thoughts deliberately, an ability he had taken for granted before all of his food came laced with mind-altering additives. Aside from holding to his governing rule of keeping silent, his thoughts had meandered hazily over the past weeks, and his identity had felt indistinct.
Without warning, the door to his cell creaked open. He tensed, braced for anything. Keep silent, he warned himself. No matter what they do or say.
“Well, well,” said a warm voice that he had heard before. “You’re looking worse every day.”
The prince said nothing. He heard other men entering the cell. Three besides the speaker.
The friendly voice hardly paused. “If you’re going to host a visitor, we had best get you cleaned up.”
Rough hands unlocked the manacles. The prince felt perplexed. He had never been cleaned since arriving at the dungeon. Perhaps this was a ploy. Or perhaps he might finally enter the presence of the emperor!
Large hands gripped his arms. The hands led him forward, then down to his knees. Coarse rags scrubbed his bare flesh. Before long, unseen hands began trimming his whiskers. Minutes later a straight razor scraped across his cheeks.
A man held him on either side, which gave the prince a good sense for how he might attack them. He could use his legs to take out their knees, then get the razor, and add four corpses to his count. Since his capture, he had already slain six guards.
No. Even if he defeated these guards, without his eyesight he would never escape the dungeon. But he might ruin his chance for an audience with Maldor. The prince shuddered faintly. Some of his best men and closest friends had given their lives, and despite their sacrifices he had failed. His only chance for redemption was to come before the emperor.
“You seem especially docile today,” the warm voice commented. “Could it be you have finally resolved to become a model prisoner?”
Biting retorts sprang to mind. His consciousness had felt muddy for so long, the prince felt tempted to answer. Surely there could be no harm in responding. No, even if his mind felt clear, even if this particular question were innocent, if he broke his pattern of silence, eventually his captors would coerce him into revealing secrets. He only had one word to share, and it would be in the presence of Maldor.
“Ready for a stroll?” the voice asked.
The men on either side helped the prince rise, then escorted him from the cell. He took shuffling steps. As always he wished for his eyes, but he resolutely reached out with his other senses, noting the direction and temperature of a draft, the acoustics of the corridor, the smells of rot and burning torches.
After some time he heard a door open, and the prince entered a new room. His escorts forced him to his knees—locking him there with shackles on his ankles and wrists—and then placed a heavy iron collar around his neck. Without another word the guards left. Or at least some of them left. One or more could have covertly remained.
Minutes passed. Hours. Finally the cell door opened, and then closed.
“We meet again at last,” a familiar voice said.
Chills raced across the prince’s shoulders. Maldor had visited Trensicourt years ago, trying to negotiate an alliance. As a boy the prince had studied his every move, this man who his father claimed was so dangerous.
“I promised that one day you would kneel to me,” the emperor said, his tone dry.
The prince moved his arms slightly, enough to jangle his chains.
“I would have preferred voluntary reverence,” the emperor admitted. “Perhaps in time. I understand you have lost your tongue.”
The prince hesitated. He had to be sure. He had learned this word of power at great cost. The emperor could not possibly suspect that he knew every syllable. Otherwise he would never have come here in person. But could the speaker be a trick? An imitator? The prince knew he would only get one chance at this.
“I had no interest in addressing your underlings,” the prince said, surprised by how hoarse and weak his voice sounded.
“The heir to Trensicourt speaks?” Maldor exclaimed. “You inhaled a caustic substance. I had begun to suspect you had lost the ability to vocalize. Truly you possess a will of steel. Had I known you merely required my presence, I might have visited you earlier.”
If he was an impersonator, he was a very good one.
“What brings you down to the dungeon?”
The emperor paused. “I am here to celebrate the end of my worries.”
“You have many kingdoms yet to conquer,” the prince protested. “I am one man.”
“And a keystone is a single block,” the emperor murmured, “yet when it is removed, the structure collapses.”
“Others remain,” the prince insisted. “Others will rise.”
“You speak as though you are already gone,” Maldor chuckled. “My friend, I have never meant to kill you. I only needed to prove that you cannot stand against me. The way to confirm this reality was to defeat you. It pains me to see you like this. I would prefer to clothe you in finery and bind up your wounds. You may recall, I have extended my friendship in the past. Not only did you deny me, but you have fought against me, and urged others to do likewise.”
“You will never have my loyalty,” the prince pledged.
“I wish you would be reasonable,” the emperor lamented. “I am fully aware that none of my servants are your equal. You could be my chief lieutenant. I would make you Lord of Trensicourt, and more besides, free to govern as a king in all but name. I could restore your sight, extend your lifespan. You could accomplish much good.”
“And all of Lyrian would fall under your dominion,” the prince replied. “How do I know this is really you? My eyes are gone.”
“Surely you know my voice,” the emperor said, amused.
“Years ago you spoke to me in the parlor at Trensicourt. I showed you a toy.”
“Has this become a game of riddles?”
“Do you remember the toy?”
“A windup carousel with removable horses. You removed an enameled horse—mostly blue, I believe—and asked me to join you.”
The prince nodded in silence. Only the emperor would know that detail. It was too obscure. With hardly a pause he spoke the Word that he had kept secret since his capture. He could taste its power as it escaped his lips, a true Edomic key word.
The prince waited in darkness.
“What a peculiar exclamation,” the emperor remarked.
Dismay and confusion left the prince off balance. That word should have been the emperor’s undoing! Frantically the prince struggled to recall the Word, but uttering it out loud just once had abolished it from memory.
“You look troubled,” Maldor commented knowingly.
“That word should have destroyed you,” the prince whispered, the last of his resolve withering, his inner world dimming into a cold place where only the ashes of hope remained.
The emperor laughed. “Come now, my stalwart prince, surely you did not imagine me ignorant of your quest! We are conversing, in truth, but not in person. I am using an intermediary. After all, being a wizard should include a few advantages! My emissary can speak with my inflections, and we can readily communicate from afar. But since he is not me, that perilous word can have no effect on either of us. Now that you are divested of your final weapon, why not reconsider my offer?”
“Never,” the prince whispered. All he had left was the fact that he had never let the emperor entice him to switch sides. The prince owed that, at least, to all who had believed in him.
“I am very impressed that you learned the Word,” the emperor went on. “You are the first. I have long promised myself that he who learned the Word would be invited to join my inner circle. You have no more options. Do not perish without reason. Further resistance will bring no reward. Work with me, and you can still accomplish much good. Respond with care this time, for you will not receive another opportunity. After all, you just tried to kill me. This introduction to the hospitality of my dungeon has been gentle compared to the horrors that await.”
Head bowed, the prince remained silent for a moment. After all the planning, the maneuvering, the bold alliances, the narrow escapes, he had failed! He had said the Word to a decoy! He had even anticipated the possibility, but in the end Maldor had fooled him, had ruined him, as happened inevitably to all of his foes. The prince searched inside for hope or faith and found nothing. Perhaps he should accept the inevitable. He was unsure how much longer he could retain his sanity in this unspeakable place.
The prince raised his head. “I will never serve you. You have defeated me, but you will never own me.” He owed these words to those who had died for him. He owed the words to himself. To be destroyed was one thing. At least he had not surrendered.
“Very well. You were my finest adversary, this I acknowledge. But you will break here. You know this. You have my admiration, but not my pity.” Footsteps retreated, and a door clanged shut with the finality of a tomb.
A World Without Heroes
Over the centuries individuals have crossed from our world to Lyrian in a variety of ways. Although some travelers have journeyed between universes deliberately, normally the sudden voyagers are caught by surprise. They become lost in deep caves and emerge into an unfamiliar landscape. They pass through the natural stone arches that occasionally link our realities. They sink into deep wells, enter passageways near mountaintops, or, less often, crawl through petrified logs. But nobody has ever passed from Earth to Lyrian in a less likely way than Jason Walker.
At the age of thirteen Jason resided in the town of Vista, Colorado. Since his father was enjoying a prosperous career in dentistry, and his older brother had just been accepted to dental school, most of his acquaintances expected Jason would one day become a dentist as well. His parents openly encouraged him in that direction. The expectations had rubbed off, and Jason’s vague plan for life included earning a baseball scholarship to a university where he could begin his quest for a dental degree.
He could not recall ever deliberately choosing this course—he had no real passion for tooth repair. The routine struck him as dull and monotonous. Scraping teeth. Taking X-rays. Applying fluoride. Deep down Jason craved something else.
Ever since he could remember, Jason had felt drawn to animals. He read books about them, watched nature programs, and begged for pets. After he consulted with his father, this passion inspired his interest in a zoology major on the way to his dental degree. Unlike many prospective zoology students Jason actually worked in a zoo. Understandably, he had never imagined that his volunteer job might lead him to an alternate universe.
During an unseasonably warm week in late February, Jason leaned against the railing outside the fast-pitch batting cage at the local sports park. Tim stood in the cage, knees slightly bent, chipping a lot of foul balls as he struggled to regain his timing. Matt, the best hitter on their club team, had gone first, blasting nearly every pitch to the back of the cage with his fluid swing.
“Don’t try to murder the ball,” Jason suggested.
“I’d settle for assault and battery,” Tim grumbled.
On the next pitch Tim crushed a hard ground ball to the left side of the cage. Jason alternated glances between Tim and a labeled image in his biology textbook. He was memorizing the human skeletal system for a test.
“Get your nose out of that book,” Matt murmured to Jason as Tim fouled the next pitch back into the netting.
“I have to head to the zoo after this,” Jason apologized. “I won’t have much time to study today.”
“Trust me,” Matt said, nodding toward their left.
Jason turned his head to find a pair of girls coming toward them. They were April and Holly Knudsen, fraternal twins in his grade at Kennedy Middle School. The girls were not much alike in appearance or interests, especially for twins. Prettier and more studious, April was in three of Jason’s honors classes, including biology. Louder and sportier, Holly held a softball bat in one hand and a batting helmet in the other.
Only two girls at school made Jason feel queasy and self-conscious: Jen Miller and April Knudsen. They were pretty, and smart, and seemed down-to-earth. Jason harbored secret crushes on both of them.
“Hey, guys,” Holly called.
Jason tried to smile. He was suddenly very aware of the textbook in his hands. Would it make him look like a nerd, reading a biology book at the batting cages?
Matt said nothing. He seldom spoke much around girls. Jason tried to make his voice casual. “Hi, Holly. April.”
“Getting ready for your last season before high school ball?” Holly wondered.
Tim whacked a hard fly ball.
“Coach Thayer is already scouting Jason,” Matt said. “He might end up pitching for varsity as a freshman.”
It was true. Jason had hit a growth spurt at the end of sixth grade. His hitting had initially fallen apart as he’d adjusted to his height, while his pitching had started to gain some real speed. He now stood almost six feet tall. His hitting was recuperating, and his fastball was up into the eighties, but his control had suffered.
“Wow, freshmen boys almost never play varsity,” Holly admired. “They almost took state last year.”
“I’m not sure how much I impressed Thayer,” Jason confessed. “My pitches were all over the place.”
“Only one guy on next year’s high school team throws faster than you,” Matt said. “When you throw your best stuff, I can’t hit you.”
“I tense up lately,” Jason admitted with a grimace. Over the past year, during games, he had started to feel very self-conscious, and erratic pitches had been the result. He had blown some games by giving up too many walks, and he’d lost a key game with a wild pitch. He had also hit a few batters, and at the speeds he was throwing, that was a big deal. No opposing batters had been seriously hurt, but they could have been.
At first Jason had assumed the increased speed of his pitches had caused the problem. But then Matt and Tim had begun to notice that he routinely threw better during informal games or practices. It bothered Jason to think that he had lost games because he lacked the guts to throw well under pressure. Maybe the problem came from dwelling on how much others expected from him. Maybe he was expecting too much from himself, fixating on perfection. Or maybe his skills were simply fading.
His friends on the team expected him to overcome his control issues and carry them to glory. But he was not yet the star others expected him to become. He sometimes wished his friends would brag about him a little less.
April pointed at Jason’s textbook. “Are you getting ready for the bio test?”
“I’m trying,” Jason replied.
“What’s the name of your cheekbone?” she quizzed.
He resisted a grin. “The zygomatic arch.”
April raised her eyebrows. “Not bad.”
Holly rolled her eyes. “You guys are such geeks.”
“Geeks rule the world,” Jason countered.
Holly grabbed her sister. “We better get over to the softball cage.”
Jason wanted to ask them to grab a snack or something. Well, specifically, he wanted to ask April, but asking both of them would be less intimidating. They were two girls; he was with two other guys—it would just be a small group hanging out. There would never be a more perfect moment to casually approach April. Who knew, they might end up with a study date for the biology test.
But he couldn’t make his lips move in time. The twins were walking away.
“Hey,” Jason called, feeling awkward, squeezing his biology book. “Do you guys want to grab some food when you’re done?”
Still moving away, Holly pushed her hair back over her ear as she apologized. “We can’t. We have to go to our uncle’s birthday party. Maybe some other time.”
“Okay, that’s cool,” Jason said, even though nothing about it was remotely cool.
Behind him Tim exited the batting cage. “You like April?” Tim asked.
Jason winced, stealing a glance over his shoulder. Was he that obvious? “Not so loud. A little, I guess.”
“I think Holly seems more fun,” Matt mused.
Tim tossed Jason the batting helmet. “You’re up. Here’s your chance for back-to-back strikeouts.”
“You’re a riot,” Jason said, sliding on the slightly oversized helmet. A red light glowed near the pitching machine. Jason adjusted the strap on his batting glove, grabbed his bat, entered the cage, and took several practice chops, overswinging at first, then settling into his regular stroke.
“You ready?” Matt asked.
“Go for it.”
The light turned green. Jason crouched into his batting stance, bouncing a little, anticipating the first pitch, trying to ignore the possibility that April was watching. He tended to swing late on the first ball. It hissed out of the pitching machine and blurred past him. He swung way too late.
“He’s a lover, not a hitter,” Tim kidded.
Jason focused. The next ball zipped out of the machine. His timing was right, but he swung too low, and the ball skipped up and back off the bat.
On the third pitch he made a solid connection. The ball rocketed to the rear of the cage, a high line drive.
Matt whistled. “Not bad.”
Jason glanced back at his friends, grinning. Shifting his gaze, he noticed that April was watching her sister enter the fast-pitch softball cage. When he turned to face forward, a ball was streaking toward him. Jason twisted his head just in time to prevent it from striking his face, but the hard sphere thumped against the side of his helmet, knocking it off his head and sending him sprawling.
Artificial turf prickled against his cheek as Jason tried to fathom what had happened. Suddenly Tim and Matt were at his side, asking if he was all right.
“I’m fine,” he muttered, standing up and swaying into Tim, who steadied him.
“You’re out of it,” Matt warned. “You got tagged hard.”
“I’m just a little rattled,” Jason protested, shaking Tim off and heading out of the cage. The ground seemed to be teetering, as if he were balancing at the center of a seesaw. “I just need to sit down.”
Jason plopped onto the bench outside the cage and put his head in his hands. “I should have warned you,” Tim said. “Some of those balls were coming inside for me too. Somebody needs to recalibrate that thing.”
“It isn’t your fault. I wasn’t paying attention. Just bad luck.” He put his face in his hands and massaged the sides of his forehead.
“Maybe we should get you to a doctor,” Matt suggested.
“No, I’m good. It just shook me up a little. Take some swings; I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. Go avenge me. Knock the covers off some balls.”
Jason concentrated on his breathing, trying to ignore the clanging of aluminum bats. He began to feel more centered. He made eye contact with April, who squinted sympathetically. By the time Matt left the cage, Jason could stand without the ground tilting much.
“I want to snag some grub before I hit the zoo,” Jason said.
“Sorry, I’m supposed to meet up with my cousins,” Matt said. “I’ll already be a little late.”
Tim checked his wristwatch. “I can’t go either. You would have been on your own with the twins. My brother is picking me up in about five minutes. We could give you a lift.”
“I have my bike. I’ll catch you guys later.”
Tim and Matt returned the helmets to the counter, while Jason went to the parking lot and claimed his bicycle from the rack. A string of warmish days had melted the snow, even most of the roadside drifts, leaving the streets unseasonably welcoming to cyclists. Although the sky was currently overcast, the temperature remained much too warm for snow. If anything it might rain.
As Jason pedaled up the hill to Anderson’s grocery store, his head began to ache, and he started to feel unbalanced. Rather than push through the discomfort, he opted to walk his bike the rest of the way.
Leaving his bike chained near a soda machine, Jason entered through the automatic door and went to the Chinese food counter off to one side. He ordered the lunch special, and the guy behind the counter spooned orange chicken, beef and broccoli, and chow mein onto a compartmentalized Styrofoam plate. The broccoli was a bright, fluorescent green—a color that would seldom occur in nature. The broccoli always looked that color here, as if it were spray-painted or made of plastic.
After finding a seat at a little table near the deli, Jason started eating. The orange chicken mixed with the chow mein was his favorite, but he only made it through half the food before he began to feel nauseated. He took a long sip of water and rubbed his temples. Then he unwrapped the fortune cookie, cracked it open, and removed the slip of paper. New experiences await on the horizon.
They should be a little bolder, he thought, and assert something like, “You are about to suffer from violent food poisoning.”
Jason headed outside. As he biked farther up the hill, traversing a few crosswalks, his head felt clearer, although a dull ache persisted, pounding a bit as climbing the slope elevated his heart rate. Before long he reached the Vista Point Zoo parking lot. Although the family-owned institution was no match for the Denver Zoo, Vista Point housed a respectable population, with more than four hundred animals representing almost one hundred and sixty species. Typical for an afternoon in winter, the lot was mostly empty.
At his locker Jason pulled on a set of gray coveralls and replaced his shoes with work boots. He was a few minutes early, so he thumbed through his biology textbook. The words seemed a little fuzzy. Closing his eyes periodically, he recited the names of various bones and processes.
Glancing up, Jason noticed the clock. Time to clean the hippo structure.
When he entered the hippo viewing area, Jason paused to admire a glass case on the wall labeled: MONUMENT TO HUMAN STUPIDITY.
It contained various items workers had fished out of the hippo tank over the years: aluminum cans, glass bottles, coins, cigar stubs, two cigarette lighters, a dental-floss dispenser, a pocket knife, a tangled Slinky, a plastic wristwatch, a disposable razor—even a few rounds of ammunition.
Pacing behind his push broom, Jason watched debris accumulate in front of the dark bristles, wondering how some idiot could top the random dangerous items in the display case. Maybe by chucking in a lawn mower. Or a few bars of uranium.
Jason paused to stare over the railing at the enormous hippo resting motionless below the water on the floor of the tank. Hank was the only hippo in the zoo, an adult male with his fortieth birthday coming up in the summer. Jason shook his head. The majestic hippopotamus—hard at work as usual. They might as well replace it with a statue. No visitor would know the difference.
Faintly, on the edge of perception, Jason heard tinkling music rising from the water. Head slightly cocked, he wandered around the area trying to pinpoint the true origin of the sound. As the volume of the music increased, growing richer and clearer to where he could discern different instruments, he returned to the water and had to admit that the melodic strains seemed to emanate from the submerged hippo.
Had they installed underwater speakers in the tank without his knowledge? Some new technique for soothing the obese mammal? Perhaps it was a pathetic attempt to give the hippo more crowd appeal.
The melody was unfamiliar, supported by harmonies and complemented by interweaving countermelodies. A deep, gentle percussion kept time. Jason leaned over the rail, perplexed by the bizarre phenomenon. He wished another person were present so he could verify that he wasn’t having an auditory hallucination.
The hippo stirred, vast mouth momentarily yawning open, and for that instant the music became much louder and more distinct, as if the hippo truly were the source of the elaborate tune. Then the great mouth clamped shut.
The music became muffled again when the mouth closed, but continued to gradually increase in volume. Could the hippo have swallowed a stereo? That was the only plausible explanation, but it seemed just as ludicrous as the idea that the hippo was spontaneously producing the sound.
Maybe there was no music. Maybe he had been thumped on the head more severely than he’d realized. But his mind felt clearer than it had earlier, and the unsteadiness was fading.
Scanning the area, Jason saw no other people around. Would there be time to run and fetch someone else? He thought of the Warner Bros. cartoon about the singing and dancing frog that clammed up whenever witnesses were present.
Leaning his stomach against the top of the railing, Jason teetered far over the metal bar, baffled by the beckoning melody. If he could get an ear closer to the water, he could confirm whether the music was really coming from down there. The hippo remained motionless.
As his ear descended toward the rippling surface, a powerful sensation of vertigo swept over him. Jason overbalanced, lost his grip, and plunged head foremost into the pool above the massive hippo. As if this were the chance for which the lethargic beast had waited its entire captive existence, the hippopotamus surged upward with jaws agape, the music chiming louder than ever.
Before Jason could react, his hands were grasping at a slimy tongue, and his face was sliding against a greasy surface. Sprawled on his belly, he raced along a dark, slippery tunnel. No creature was this big! What was happening? In counterpoint to his distress, melodic music rang clearly as he sloshed along the humid corridor. He tried to brace himself against the rubbery sides to slow his slide but failed, until his arms and head suddenly emerged from an opening in the side of a dying tree, near a river lined with ferny vegetation.
Night had inexplicably fallen. A silver path of moonlight trembled on the water. The music he had heard was coming from a wide raft drifting on the lazy current. He squirmed out of the gap, his coveralls drenched from the plunge into the hippo tank, and turned around to inspect the hollow inside of the tree. The inner walls felt moist and rotten. He could locate no opening save the one through which he had emerged and an aperture directly overhead, at the top of the hollow trunk, through which he could see stars.
This was impossible! Where was the tunnel? How had it led to this tree? Where was the hippo? Where was the zoo? There was no river half this wide in his whole town! Jason blinked, wondering if the blow to his head at the batting cage had knocked him out.
Bracing himself against the interior walls of the trunk, he managed to scramble up until he came out at the top, twelve feet above the ground. Still no sign of a hippopotamus or of the Vista Point Zoo. He did, however, command a clear view of the raft, which had drawn up even with his current location.
Small colored lanterns illuminated the vessel. A narrow man in a pale outfit hammered at a xylophone. A stocky woman blew on a curved flute. Another man alternated between racks of chimes and a tall set of bongos. A flabby woman with at least five chins plucked a strangely shaped stringed instrument. A short figure held an enormous brass horn with tubing that snaked around his broad chest and rested on his shoulders.
The raft swept behind a screen of weeping willows before Jason could apprehend more details, though a few other musicians tinkered with a variety of less discernable instruments. The haunting music permeated the air, floating to him across river and riverbank.
Jason’s head swam with questions. How had he gotten here? Why was it nighttime? How would he get back to the zoo? Falling into the hippo tank was one thing—careless but possible. Passing through the mouth of a hippopotamus into a tunnel slide and coming out of a hollow tree beside a river was tougher to process. Everything he had ever assumed about reality had just been turned inside out. But his surroundings seemed so tangible. There was no denying his senses. He felt the damp, splintery texture of the bark beneath his hands; he smelled the faint odor of decay rising from a standing pool at the river’s edge. Oily sap clung to his skin. He sniffed his palm, and the pungent resin reminded him faintly of Fig Newtons and black licorice, but he had never smelled anything quite like it.
Jason sighed. He knew the difference between the vague impressions of a dream and the sharper sensations of wakeful consciousness. He certainly felt awake. Yet he could not help doubting the unreal situation. Perhaps this was simply a vivid dream. After all, a baseball had bashed him in the head. He could still be lying unconscious in the batting cage. Then he shivered. Maybe he had died—there could have been a clot in his brain. Or maybe the hippo really had eaten him. Could he have crossed over to some sort of afterlife?
He scratched his chin. The sensation felt genuine. His wet clothes clung authentically. His head throbbed gently, and he remained mildly dizzy. Would the symptoms of a concussion persist in a dream? In the afterlife? He listened to the music and the gentle lapping sounds of the river. Wherever he was, whatever the explanation, he remained alert, and he was immersed in a vivid, perceivable environment. He surveyed the vicinity—the mossy trees along the river, the shrubs below, the insects buzzing nearby—mildly astonished at how acceptable the impossible became once it had transpired.
Jason promptly discovered that his immediate problem would be getting down. He sat awkwardly on the lip of the tall hollow trunk, trying to position himself so he could descend as he had climbed. He couldn’t seem to get it right, and he began to experience light-headedness at the thought of sliding down the interior of the trunk, accumulating splinters, before breaking an ankle at the bottom. Attempting to climb down the exterior of the tree appeared even less inviting. Why was climbing up always so much easier than climbing down?
Finally, after many hesitant twistings and turnings, he lowered himself back into the trunk in a position where he could brace himself. Once he had squirmed down to the bottom, Jason exited the hollow tree, glad for the moonlight, and decided to follow the raft, since it represented the only trace of civilization.
Shortly he came abreast with the music, though foliage along the riverbank hindered his view of the vessel. Jason trotted ahead until he found a gap, and he discovered a little hunched figure squatting on a log.
“Hello,” Jason said.
A head whipped around. The face belonged to a kid, maybe ten or eleven. As the boy shifted, Jason realized he had a sizable hump on his back. “Why are you sneaking up on me?” the boy snapped.
“I’m just following the raft,” Jason replied defensively.
Looking calmer, the boy scooted over on the log to make room. Jason took a seat.
“What’s with the musical raft, anyhow?” Jason asked.
The boy turned a skeptical eye. “You joking? That’s the funeral dirge of the Giddy Nine, the best musicians around. Most folks are waiting for them down by the falls. That’s the only part they care about. But I like to hear the music. It’ll be the last time.”
“They’re headed for a waterfall?” Now that he listened for it, Jason could hear the distant roar.
The boy nodded gravely. “They’re trying to make some kind of statement. They were banned from playing together in public. I don’t see how this solves anything.” He gave Jason a hard stare. “You must have heard of them. Right?”
“No. I’m a stranger here. Just arrived.”
“Where are you from?”
“Never heard of it.”
Jason hesitated, unsure whether he wanted to hear how the boy answered. “How about America? Or the planet Earth?”
The boy scrunched his face. “Not really.”
“Can you tell me where I am?”
“The riverbank, obviously.” He returned his gaze to the river with a start. “They’ve passed us by. We’d better move on or we’ll miss the finale.”
Jason tromped along behind the boy, who moved surprisingly fast along a good route that skirted several marshy areas and shadowy thickets. The night air seemed to help his head, although a faint pulsing ache persisted.
They climbed a steep rise crowded with vegetation and came out on an overlook high above the river. The falls boomed louder. From the elevated viewpoint Jason peered upriver to see they were now well ahead of the little craft. The music sounded far away. Looking in the other direction, he could see where the river seemed to abruptly end. The falls.
“We’d better keep moving,” the young boy urged. “We’re ahead of them now, but the river picks up. Soon they’ll be traveling much faster than we can.”
Jason followed the boy down the rise, back under the gloom of overhanging branches. Soon he could hear the water flowing more swiftly. The roar of the falls grew to a constant thunder, drowning out the distant music. Jason found himself short of breath as he hustled to match the increasing pace of his guide.
They came through a dense stand of trees and beheld a moon-silhouetted multitude congregated beside the top of the waterfall. At the very brink of the falls sat a few tiers of makeshift bleachers crammed with spectators. “Find a good spot,” the boy advised before scampering over to the riverbank.
Jason jogged over to the far side of the bleachers, discovering that they came right up to the edge of the dizzying precipice, over which the water tumbled like an endless tsunami. He had been to Niagara Falls once with his family—this looked almost as high with nearly as much water. Cool vapor misted his face.
Jason walked back around the bleachers to the riverbank. People lined the bank upriver from the bleachers for some distance. Some of them looked somber. Others munched on snacks. One group swayed as they tunelessly sang an unintelligible song. Jason moved upriver in search of an open spot. The majority of the people wore simple, homespun clothing, though occasionally he saw a sleek fur coat or embroidered vest. Nobody wore what he considered normal, modern attire.
After jostling forward a little, he found a space that would offer a good view of the craft flowing off the brink, although too far upstream to observe the downward plunge. He stood beside a middle-aged woman wearing a floral bonnet and a dress fashioned from heavy material. She stared anxiously up the river, wringing her hands.
“Can you believe this?” he said.
She turned to him. Her rather wide-set eyes came to his chin. “Can I believe that my brother is about to kill himself to create a ridiculous spectacle?”
Jason’s eyebrows shot up. “Your brother is on that raft?”
“He never had any sense. Or any backbone. He obeys whatever Simeon tells him. That madman has convinced the whole group to throw their lives away.”
She gazed back at the rushing water. The raft was still not in sight.
“Why are you here watching?” Jason asked.
She shrugged, her cheeks coloring slightly. “To show support. The Giddy Nine believe this sacrifice is important. I suppose that whatever happens, it’s better for Darren to leave this world feeling appreciated.”
“Is that what brought all of these people?”
She looked down the line toward the improvised bleachers at the brink of the falls. “These are mostly admirers of their music. Nobody gets what this is really about. I imagine many are here simply because it sounds like great fun to watch a raft full of musicians plummet off an enormous waterfall.”
Jason inwardly conceded that it would be an impressive sight. But at what cost! The waterfall was much too high for any of the musicians to survive.
“I wish there were something I could do,” the woman fretted.
“Why doesn’t somebody try to save them?” Jason asked.
“They don’t want to be saved. This is a funeral.”
Jason looked around. People stared expectantly upriver, some gloomy, some eager.
Should he try to rescue the musicians? It seemed like a tragic waste of lives. If he were out there, no matter what his convictions, he figured he would be changing his mind about going over the falls as soon as he got beyond the point of no return. What sane people would willingly drift off a tremendous waterfall? What sort of useful statement could that possibly make? From what he had been told, it sounded like the others were following the orders of one crazy leader. What if he had brainwashed them, like with a cult? Most of the people on the raft would probably rejoice to be rescued.
“I want to help you,” Jason said in a low voice. “Do you know where I could find some rope?”
The woman glanced at him, hope flickering in her gaze. “You want to stop this? The rescue squad has a rope. Don’t count on them using it.”
“Rescue squad? Where?”
“They’re just a precaution. They’re not far upriver.”
Some in the crowd began to cheer. The raft had come into view. At the very limits of perception Jason heard the music playing.
Leaving behind the group of spectators, Jason took off up the riverbank at a full sprint until he encountered a pair of men. They had a long line secured around the thick trunk of a knobby tree that towered over the rushing water.
“Are you the rescue squad?” Jason asked.
The short man with one arm answered. “Aye.”
“Do you intend to rescue them?” The musicians were approaching rapidly on the swift current. Their instruments screeched and hiccupped as the raft pitched on the foamy water.
“Only if they call for assistance,” the short man affirmed.
Jason saw that the other end of the slender line was affixed to an arrow held by a slim man leaning on a longbow. The three of them stood approximately fifty yards upriver from the falls. The raft was racing along about twenty yards from the bank.
“Will your arrow reach, carrying that rope?” Jason asked.
“Certainly, long as I aim a little high,” the lean man replied.
“You a good shot?”
“Maybe you should just save them. I bet they’ll end up thanking you.”
“Doubtful,” the lean man sniffed. “They didn’t even want rescuers present. I’ll interfere only at their request.”
Jason turned to face the imperiled musicians. If he tried to swim the rope out to them, he would be swept away downstream before he got close. The tree did not overhang the river far enough to climb out to them. Time was running short.
“Try to save them,” Jason insisted. “This is wrong.”
“Not unless—,” the short man began.
“I hear them calling for help,” Jason lied.
“Go away,” demanded the lean man, his wide lips peeling back to reveal yellowed teeth. “The last thing we need is interference from some desperate, aspiring hero. If they really did cry for help, we wouldn’t hear it over your racket.”
“The sister of one of the musicians sent me,” Jason tried.
“I don’t care if the king of Meridon sent you,” the lean man said. “This is their decision.”
The raft would soon draw even with them. There was no time to think. Jason shoved the short man. Caught by surprise, he stumbled back over the steep bank and into the river.
“What’s wrong with you?” shouted the lean man, dropping both bow and arrow to dive into the torrent after his fellow rescuer. The one-armed man had already washed some distance downstream and could be seen flailing lopsidedly. Even immediately beside the bank the current ran strong.
Trusting the lean man to rescue his comrade, Jason wasted no time collecting the fallen bow and arrow. He nocked the arrow and pulled it to his cheek, straining against the heavy tension of the string, one eye squinted shut. He hadn’t handled a bow since earning an archery badge at a summer camp two years ago.
The raft heaved along, twenty yards out, now exactly perpendicular to his position on the bank. Many of the instruments and musicians appeared lashed in place. He tilted the bow upward, hoping he and the lean man understood “a little high” to mean the same thing.
He released the arrow, and it streaked across the distance to the raft, ending its flight embedded in the shoulder of the man playing the bongos. The percussion stopped as the man sank out of sight. The line on the bank continued to uncoil, paying out as the raft progressed rapidly forward.
Jason gasped. Had that really just happened? Shooting somebody had not been part of the plan. He eyed the uncoiling lifeline. Was it too long? It looked pretty thin. Would it hold?
The line pulled taut with a sudden jerk. The raft lurched in response, sending up a spray of water as it swung toward the riverbank. The crowd cried out in astonishment.
Thirty yards downriver the lean man hauled the short man out of the water. The lean man stood watching the raft arc toward the bank, hands on his hips. Something in one hand glinted in the bright moonlight.
Whether or not the musicians wanted to be saved, the raft was going to collide with the bank. The wounded percussionist must have become firmly entangled with some of the equipment, because the strain on the line was extraordinary. Most of the musicians continued to play. A couple of them seemed to be attempting to free themselves from their lashings.
When the raft crashed against the sheer bank ten yards shy of the falls, buckling somewhat, many of the spectators groaned. But moans turned to exclamations as the impact launched the stocky woman overboard along with her curved flute. The ruckus reached a climax as she washed over the brink and down the thunderous cascade.
Jason’s eyes widened in horror, and he felt the bile rise up in his throat, barely able to believe what he had just witnessed. All around him cheering broke out, as the lean man slashed the taut line, and the crippled raft once again surged ahead with the current. Jason thought one person might have jumped from the raft to the bank, but he could not be certain. The uproar from the crowd reached a jubilant crescendo as the raft sailed over the falls directly below the packed bleachers, vanishing with a cymbal crash and a final squeaky note from a woodwind instrument.
Jason stood frozen, feeling like he had been kicked in the stomach. None of those people could have survived!
Knife still in hand, the lean man and his waterlogged colleague were swiftly returning up the riverbank. Jason shook himself out of his paralyzed shock and hurriedly retreated back into the trees away from the river.