The rooster ran out of the coop, jumped onto the pole, and puffing its chest out, cried out to the twilight heavens with all its might. Then, it looked down at the sleeping village, looked up, and cried out again just as the group was leaving its gates towards the Ung’ Mountains, where the sun nearly woke.
At the front was their leader, an elder dressed in an ornamental robe and a golden, sculptural staff in his right hand supporting him when his shorter right peg failed him. Trailing him were five pre-adolescent children, who were all too eager to see ‘it’.
“How does he know of it?” one girl, Shua whispered to her friend Kip.
“He said he had taken many people there,” Kip replied.
“Did he always dress like that?” another girl, Nanda, asked Shua as they giggled.
“Maybe he’s a priest? You know those of the…”
“The Old Order,” the elder said, tapping his staff on the ground and turning to address them.
“No, I am not one. I am, or was, just a traveler who happened across it.”
“Is that why you don’t have one leg?” Odi, their resident giraffe asked shamelessly, much to the embarrassment of his peers.
“Eish!” Nanda reprimanded but was stopped by a hand from the elder.
“It’s alright. Yes, my encounter cost me a leg, but it has helped me lead many others towards it, and now, you too shall see it in all its magnificence.”
“Will we lose our legs too?” he asked again as the others clicked and sighed in disgust, at which the elder chuckled.
“No, my boy. You’ll still be intact. Come now, we have a journey ahead of us.”
With that, they walked down the steps leading to their village, crossed the bridge of the 1-kilometer wide river, which then opened up to a forest, thick with large trees.
“You want us to walk through there?” Shua asked.
“Where wild animals are roaming free?” Kip backed her. They all showed anxiety as they stood, looking at each other, then at the man who walked to and fro before them, tapping the ground severally with his beautiful staff, then stopping abruptly.
“Here we are,” he said, pointing to a path. The others walked over to him, one of them slower than the others. He pulled Nanda, his best friend, back to him.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’ve never seen this before,” he hushed.
“What do you mean? How then do our fathers go hunting?”
“Don’t they normally go around?”
“Please, they walk through it. Are you sure this isn’t just an excuse to go back home?”
“I’m serious. I once followed them, and I’m sure they never used this…” before he finished, she cupped his face with her soft hands and spoke gently.
“Waf, it will be fine. Stop worrying so much and let’s go see it. Besides, he assured us we’d be back in time for the rest to go see it, so we might not spend a lot of time there.” He let out a long sigh and nodded as he held her hands, staring at her as she did at him.
“Yes, let’s go and come back.”
“No one will steal your scrolls from you,” she joked as she pulled him to the others, who had just reached the start of the covered path. The elder smiled, and without saying a word, he went straight in as the others followed him. Waf and Nanda stayed at the back, as he looked at the bridge on his right disappearing.
The path wound like a snake on the grass, cutting through the forest every few minutes with some splitting into left and right turns, an ascent here and a descent there, until Waf was certain that they were lost. He tried to look back, but the bridge was barely even visible, given the thick leaves and the tall trees that let just enough of the waking sun’s light into the forest. He lost his balance while looking around and tripped. He looked at it for a second, then followed it to its tree, the largest one he had ever seen in his entire life.
“Is it just me, or are these trees getting larger?” Odi asked again as the elder turned around, beaming.
“Yes, I’m glad you noticed.” They looked at the gargantuan trees before them, Odi standing beside the root of one, which reached his shoulders.
“Does that mean we are close?” Shua asked, very excitedly.
“It won’t be long now,” he replied, as four of them started celebrating, leaving Waf with too many questions as Nanda knelt beside him.
“What is it now?”
“I’m just…I didn’t think…wow, I never thought for a second that he might be telling the truth,” he answered, a smile slowly creeping on his face, his eyes wide with awe.
“Ala! He smiles at last!” she quipped, pulling him up and wrapping her hand around his waist as they continued with the rest of the pack. They approached a clearing, circular in nature, and from the center sprung up a strange, oblong object that curved at the top next to a strangely even shaped boulder. They thought it was a tree at first based on its color, but upon getting closer they realized it was rust.
“Oh my,” Shua went as they headed to it. The elder stopped in front of them and pointed to the boulder. They walked around its sharp edges, dwarfed in comparison to its overwhelming size. One more corner and they saw another object sticking out of it and go into the ground, leaving a clearing large enough for them to walk underneath it.
“What is this?’ Waf inquired, this time the others also as baffled as he was, almost guessing the answer but not being able to bring themselves to say it. So, the elder gathered them together, and said it:
“This was their well.”
Waf’s heart rapped in his chest, Shua’s hands shook in his own and the others exchanged glances mixed with amazement and fear at their discovery. The old man had been telling them the truth last night, not just a mere ghost story. It then occurred to them that he was indeed telling them the truth, and not another ghost story.
“I…I want to go back,” Shua now said.
“I think we’ve seen enough,” Odi added as the other nodded in agreement.
“Yes, please take us back now,” Waf spoke as his hand throbbed in pain under Nanda’s frightened grip.
“Do not fret,” the elder reassured them, “they no longer live in these lands. Come now, we have to get to our destination. The first group will be up soon.”
He hobbled past the pump’s handle as the others gathered the courage to follow him into another path right ahead of them, wider and taller than anything they had ever seen. Waf and Nanda huddled together at the back, scared out of their wits.
“He was telling the truth, he was telling the truth,” she said, her teeth clattering as she spoke to him.
“Something doesn’t make sense, though,” he said, ignoring her.
“What?” Odi asked as he turned towards them.
“They lived in this world with us, so it’s only right that everything around us should be our size, right?”
“What’s he saying? What are you saying?” Shua asked him, as she and the others formed a circle around their resident scholar as he spoke.
“Think about it. The trees are bigger than usual, the roads are wider, and no one has ever said anything back home?”
“Maybe they never reached this far,” Kip suggested, still reeling from the shock.
“They stayed out the whole day, told us of the forest and its monsters, yet they’ve never reached this part? Wouldn’t they have at least led an expedition to discover the lands?”
“So they never saw them because?” Shua asked, silence befalling the group as they pondered on this strange phenomenon. Then, it dawned on the already shaking Nanda.
“We have to go back,” she whispered, turning back and walking as fast as she could towards the clearing, the others baffled at her rash actions.
“What is it?” Waf asked as he ran in front of her, holding her by the shoulders. Her face was furrowed, her skin lit up with goosebumps and her eyes pierced his own with intense terror.
“You said you had never seen that path before.”
“Yes, what of it?”
“What if what? Please, tell us,” Shua beckoned her, trying to calm her down before she ominously murmured.
“What if we’re in their land and not ours?”
Those words took the souls from the children’s already frightened bodies as they stood there, trying to imagine the possibility. Odi sat down, cradling his legs as he rocked back and forth. Kip paced back and forth, shaking his head vigorously in disbelief.
“That…that can’t be…the path is right up there…we came through there!” Kip stammered.
“What if it’s true?” Nanda went again.
“How then? HOW?!” he screamed.
“I don’t know…I don’t…” Nanda had started before the tears overwhelmed her, being comforted by a teary Shua. Kip went to Waf, who seemed to be in deep thought.
“Waf, you know she can’t be saying the truth. Tell her. Tell her that she’s lying!”
“We could just go back…” Waf started before being interrupted by a suddenly excited Kip.
“I’ll go and check my mark! I made one at the beginning of our journey in the forest, and it isn’t that far.”
“You can’t leave us now!” Shua cried out.
“I’ll be quick, I promise,” he assured her. The others exchanged glances for a while, then nodded in agreement.
“Follow the man, he might be looking for us,” he said as he headed for the clearing.
“With his peg, I doubt he’ll catch up,” Odi joked, trying to lighten the mood.
“You’ll be surprised how fast I can move, boy.”
The elder’s voice startled them as he walked slowly towards them, barely concealing his laughter.
“You know, there’s a reason I only take adults on this trip.”
“Why is that?”
“They aren’t as hysterical.”
“You mean this didn’t scare them, or they just never thought about it?” Waf asked him, to which he stated.
“Their imagination is but a memory of their childhood, hardened by the real world and destroyed by its experiences. They don’t have the luxury of dreaming.”
“What are you saying?” Shua asked him, visibly frustrated.
“Let’s keep going. You’ll see for yourself.”
“Not before you tell us what we’ll be okay,” Nanda said while standing, much to the agreement of the rest of them. The old man chuckled, then leaned by a tree as he calmed the hysterical children down.
“Before they were banished thousands of years ago, our ancestors managed to catch one before it fled. It took the whole continent to be able to relieve it of its head, and that is what we are going to see. Nothing more, okay? Now let’s…”
“I dropped my knife in the clearing,” Kip interrupted, “I was to get some berries for my mother and sister. They’re down with an ailment, and I need to get the berries for them.”
“Oh, so sorry,” the old man said, his hand on the boy’s shoulder in comfort, “but you need not worry. We’re already here.” He pointed to the path that seemed to stop abruptly, like on a cliff, and turned to go there. The others hesitated for a second, then all followed.
They saw a sharp-edged cliff that had trees on both its sides, maybe a valley ahead as the trees disappeared into tufts of leaves. However, he led them to the right, where they saw steps carved into the ground. He led the way, but just as he was far off, the children huddled together and told their Kip.
“Go quickly and come back.”
With that, he took off into the abnormal forest, his body almost floating on the path they walked towards. He turned an absurdly large left corner, then ran straight into the clearing. He looked around for a bit, trying to remember where they had come from.
“Past the pump, twice from the large metal and under the handle,” he spoke, drawing fingers on the sight before him.
“Left!” he squealed in delight as he shot to his left, past the towering structure, up the descent, and into the forest. The winding roads didn’t bother him as much, and when he heard the sound of water rushing, he knew he was home.
“Yes!” he leaped in the air, still rushing towards it. Faster and faster he went, the sight of a raging river looking better to him than it used to.
“Ow!” he screamed as something grazed his leg, sending him to the ground, rolling on the rocks and landing on a soft tuft of grass.
“Aaargh!” he grunted, looking at the fresh cut on his calf, oozing blood and throbbing in pain. He searched for the thing that scratched him, but following the bloody rocks up the low climb he rolled on, must have been in the forest, not in the clearing he found himself in. He stood up to examine it again, rubbed his eyes to confirm his sight wasn’t lying to him, then turned to see the water flowing. It was indeed raging as it rushed downwards from the same vertical structure, that was one with the handle that was previously on the ground.
“Oh, dear God,” he muttered, his feet planted in the ground, the searing pain in his leg nothing compared to the fear that was crushing his heart. This wasn’t real, it couldn’t have been. It was a trick, probably an illusion. He should find the others, yes, maybe they were tricked in the same manner.
“I should find the others,” he said out loud, limping as fast as he could, past the now functional pump and into the wide path. The sun was awake, and it danced with the green leaves from the massive trees, creating a rather beautiful path kissed by its rays, all of which was a momentary distraction for Kip.
Then, he remembered his mission, and headed for the sharp edge, turned right to the steps, and struggled down each one of them. After some steps, he stopped and cut a piece of his cloth to cover the wound. The knife fumbled in his hands and it fell a few feet ahead of him. he went to pick it up and realized that he was at the foot of the sharp cliff, but turned to see yet another one ahead of him. He went over to it, standing carefully at its edge and saw a series of the same before him.
“Steps,” he sighed, fully giving in to his manic imagination. He sat for a while to attend to his wound, shedding a few tears at the pain, then stood up, forcing his spirit to get over it.
“Where are you?” he asked himself concerning his friends, walking to the normal-sized steps and even jogging down them. The larger steps numbered five in total as he stopped in a lush green plain that descended slightly beyond his eyesight then climbed the foot of the Ung’ Mountains that sat right before him.
“Wow,” was all he could say as he marveled the Creator’s work, walking slowly towards the mountains before losing his balance and nearly falling into a deep pit, where he saw his friends gathered in one side, scared stiff to move.
“Look out!” Odi warned, right before the old man hit him on his back, sending him straight into the pit, where he hit his head and passed out for a bit.
He was shaken awake by Shua, who asked the other boys to help him up. He could barely hear them talking with his ears ringing and his head spinning from the fall.
“Oh God,” he heard her say, “you shouldn’t have come here. It’s a trap!”
“But I…I was headed to…I used the same road back…” he slurred, before being slapped into his senses by the Odi.
“What are you saying?!” he bellowed, shaking him vigorously as he broke from his stupor and spoke rapidly.
“I used the same road we used. The same one, then I fell into the clearing.”
“How is that possible?” Nanda asked.
“The forest,” Waf said, “he must know another way into the forest.”
“You remember how he tapped the ground?”
“Guys,” Kip started, oblivious to his petrified friends.
“So, you’re suggesting that he’s some sort of magician?” Odi asked him as he held his shoulders, almost trying to shake the truth out of him.
“Okay? So how do we go home, Waf? Come on, you must know something!” Nanda said, pushing Odi away and facing him, hoping her gaze will coax a solution out of him.
“His staff!” Shua yelped in glee.
“Yes!” Waf added as the others basked in relief.
“We can get his staff and figure out how to…”
“GUYS!” Kip screamed.
“I used the same road we used coming here. I made no mistakes whatsoever, yet I fell into the same clearing. The same one, guys.”
“What does that mean?” Odi asked him, the feeling now gone. Even worse was Waf throwing his head back in realization.
“It’s like some sort of loop. The others tried to get out but ended up here.”
“The others?” Kip asked before they pointed to the other side of the hole where he saw numerous skulls sticking out of the ground. He closed his eyes, almost like he was acknowledging his fate, and turned to dampen the mood further.
“You should know…the clearing was the same, but the pump…it was working…”
“Oh, dear God,” Nanda whispered as the friends huddled together, seeing the old man standing above them, raising the staff and chanting:
My lord, here I am today, your humble servant,
As promised, I have returned.
Accept this humble sacrifice as a token of my gratitude,
For sparing me for all these years.
“SACRIFICE!” They cried in unison, as they saw him look at the mountains and take a step back.
The ground shook beneath their feet. The sun was hidden by something coming from the mountains, a hand it seemed. Its palm rested on the slopes, pushing them down with might to reveal a soft, round face peering right at them. Her long hair flowed to her waist, some entangled with the beads that held a tattered cloth covering her lower body. It swept the mountains as she towered over them, the top of her head just barely reaching the clouds.
One thundering step after another, she walked to the pit and leaned inside looking at the group that held each other, her eyes darting across each one of them. Then, she extended her hand inside to pick the tall boy, kicking and screaming as the others tried in vain to hold on to him, then held him before her eyes.
“PLEASE! PLEASE DON’T…” he began begging, right before she bit into his stomach and tore off his lower body, chewing vigorously as he screamed in despair, then the rest of him head first into her blood-stained teeth, all to the horror of his friends.
The elder looked away as she picked them one by one, the sound of young bones crunching in her teeth was all he could bear. Kip nearly got away when she picked two of them. He must have wriggled out and started running past him, and he was forced to watch her stretch her hand out and catch his tiny legs, crushing them to paste as he screamed for mercy, the type of scream that had no hope in it. As soon as his head was in her fingers, he closed his eyes when he heard a snapping sound, then crunching for a few seconds.
He opened his eyes to meet her gentle looking face right above him, watching him struggle to kneel while raising his hands in surrender, hoping she enjoyed the meal. The last time she didn’t, he lost his leg in her anger.
After studying him for a while, she stood up and began walking towards the mountains, but not before she turned and gave him the same instruction:
The old man nodded and struggled to get up, watching her go back to beyond Ung’ and himself going back to his world to find more for her.