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The day was cool and short marking the beginning of the cold season. After the autumn harvest and the festival celebration honoring the hard work of the village, the young men of the town would be guided to “the sacred place” outside of the town limits. It is here that they would complete the ritual that would make them men. After the ritual, he would be given a house, land and a boat. He would be expected to provide not only for himself, but for the village as well and if he were lucky he would have enough left over to start a family.

It is imperative that he completes the ritual and be allowed to marry. There is a girl in the village that has captured his heart. They had been companions since child hood and had only grown closer through the years. Their closeness worried their parents at first, but in time they saw that they deeply loved one another. There was no doubt in either the boy’s or his parent’s mind who would be his bride. He need only complete the ritual. His skill in the fields and on the water would ensure that there would be enough food and raw materials for him to make his obligations to both his family and the village.

The ritual in itself is a mystery. The elders don’t speak of it amongst themselves and neither do the men of age. Those below the age have only the rumors to guide them. As a child he had been told that the ritual involved the cutting off of one of your fingers to prove your manhood, but he had never seen any of the men return from the ritual with fingers missing. Others whispered of mysteries so horrible that no one of age wanted to speak of them. Truth be told, the passage from boy to man could be a painful often dangerous time for young men. The town had seen many of its youth fall off into the dark realms because they didn’t or couldn’t find their place in this world. The ritual was taken up to bridge that gap between boy and man and to provide understanding. Men never spoke of it because, quite simply, those that didn’t go through the ritual wouldn’t understand. The experience was different for each and so comparing experiences was like trying to explain to a woman what it was like to be a man and vice versa. You may have an idea, but you can never fully appreciate or understand what has transpired. There are three that lead boys into the wild for the ritual. The post usually passes from father to son, but in some cases volunteers are selected and in extreme cases the village council can appoint them.

Griznel was the oldest of the three to still sit on the council. At one time he lead many boys into the wilderness to become men. These days though, he attended meetings irregularly and when he did attend he did little more than make himself comfortable by the fire.

It had been a good year for the harvest of food, but a bad year for the harvest of men. There were two other boys of age that were supposed to take the test. The promise of glory and riches took one while bad luck and mother nature claimed the other. When the night came to decide who would lead young Ranell to the sacred place, everyone was shocked into silence when Griznel’s old but hearty voice claimed, “I will go.”

Ranell wasn’t happy to hear that it was Griznel that would be taking him on his sacred journey. He was old and very thin. He looked as though every type of malady had occurred to his once strong frame. It gave him the illusion of frailty, but one look into the mans dark eyes and you knew that he was a man to be treated with respect and while Ranell did respect the man for his wisdom, he doubted that they had much in common. He was sure that he would probably be bored out of his mind on this trip. He would have much rather Maka take him on the journey. Maka, Chilee his love’s, father also sat on the council and was a guide for the ritual. He would have greatly appreciated the opportunity to chat up her father on how he was going to be able to provide for the man’s daughter. Ranell knew that Maka could be hard on prospective suitors so any opportunity to show his worth he jumped at.

His mother on the other hand was relieved that a man of Griznel’s experience would be looking after Ranell. His father was also quite proud it was the eldest of the council that would take his boy to administer the test. His mother gently chided his father that pride, in too large a quantity, would lead a man to falter, but still his father was proud, even if he did have to hide it.

The day he left it was unseasonably warm and although he protested, his mother made him take his winter parka and long pants. His father agreed, “You never can tell when this weather will turn bitter on you. If that happens you’ll be grateful for the pants and parka”, his father said between gulping bites of eggs and sausage at breakfast on the morning of his departure.

The first day of the journey was uneventful. They had barely reached the outer land of the village before bedding down for the night. Although the walk was relatively flat, both were tired from the journey. Ranell, who was used to hard work wasn’t really used to the type of walking that was before him. He collapsed into his bedroll and immediately fell to sleep.

The second day seemed to be like the first. The walking seemed easier, but the land began to change. It went from the lush green of his village fields to broken walls and scattered litter of the wastelands. Ranell had heard stories about the wastelands, but the sight of them truly shocked him. The land was barren as far as the eye could see. There was really only the path they were on to mark the way. The only reason that was there was because of the generations that had taken the same route to the sacred place. This day was as warm as the one before it, but slowly that changed as evening fell. This time they walked well into the night. Finally, for some unknown reason, Griznell stopped and set up camp. It was after their dinner of roasted rabbit and field greens that the old man spoke to him after he had settled over a small cup of braided berry wine and a pipe of sweet weed. The scent of the weed made both contemplative and the wine, it seemed, loosened the old man’s tongue. It was the first time he had spoken to him since they had set out.

“You look worried.” He said, the smoke gently curling around his around his mouth as he spoke.

“No, not worried”, Ranell, said as he sat there indian style poking the fire with a stick, “I would say concerned, which isn’t the same thing.”

“I see. You have it all figured out then, I imagine.”

“No, quite the opposite. I don’t know if I’m ready for what’s in store.”

Satisfied with the answer the old man tapped out the remainder of the weed to save some for tomorrow’s smoke. He laid his head against the soft weave of his shirt and skirted down towards the fire. Both had taken their jackets off to use as makeshift pillows.

“Get some sleep, eh.” The old man called over his shoulder as he turned his back to both Ranell and the fire. Ranell took this as a signal that tomorrow would hold more walking for them. Hopefully, it would be as flat as today’s journey, but there wasn’t much to look at except for dead trees and the occasional crow.

The next day hadn’t warmed up as the previous two had. Ranell had become grateful for his parka and the long pants as his father had predicted. The two marched forward towards a crumbling building that was unfamiliar to Ranell. The structure was completely foreign and he wondered who might have built it. There were large blocks of stone scattered about that had the old language engraved upon them but they were strewn about the land like a child’s blocks so that the letters were recognized, but not the words.

“What is this place, Griznel?” The boy asked in quiet astonishment.

“It is unknown to me. My father speculated that once it may have been the market place of our ancestors, but the knowledge of what it actually was is forgotten among our people. Let’s not linger here though. Old stones and old ghosts usually occupy the same space.” He said and then made his way through. Ranell could only look in amazement as he walked past the rubble. He wondered if any of his compatriots had seen such things when they left the village. He could only speculate on this since anyone that had left had never returned.

When they reached the edge of the rubble the old man stopped, leaned up against a large outcropping of rock and lit his pipe. Ranell just stood there waiting for what seemed like an eternity. After the brief break the old man tamped down the pipe, replaced it in its pouch and began to speak.

“From here the journey will be a hard one. We will see many things. Some will ring with truth right away others will have to settle in your head before you understand their place in your life, while still others you may never understand. I have been on this path many times and have never from this point on taken the route back. Once we start from here we must finish the journey. Like life one can never retrace ones steps back to the beginning. Do you understand?” The old man recited the speech like a marketer selling his wares in the summer. He said the words, but didn’t feel them.

“Don’t worry,” he added, “I haven’t left one behind yet.”

“I understand”, Ranell said although he could feel his heart beating rapidly in his chest.

Shaking his head in acknowledgement, the old man grabbed his well-worn staff and began to move past the rubble and outcroppings. That night there was no rabbit for dinner. Both ate rations. Ranell had wanted to hunt, but the old man forbade it. He had told him it would be futile, as he knew there was no game afoot.

Ranell ate his ration, and lay awake many hours trying to digest what he had seen. He had understood that his village hadn’t always existed as it did now, but he had never imagined that what lay beyond it’s borders was so bleak. He pondered what tragedy had befallen those people until the sun found him again in the morning.

Griznel had already eaten and was smoking his pipe as Ranell gulped his morning ration. When he finished the two continued their journey. The landscape changed yet again as the two made their way towards their goal. The battered charred earth gave way to rolling hills of wild grass and small shrubs. At one point the two came upon a fenced off portion of land with one lonely gravestone sitting in the middle of it. Ranell shed his pack and was about to investigate when Griznel stopped him.

“You don’t want to go in there boy.” He warned sternly.

“That placed is haunted by the white lady.” He finished, turning on his staff.

“Really!” Ranell said excited by the possibility. As the old man moved on Ranell carefully approached the gate. Upon getting within a couple of feet of it, the gate opened silently upon its rusted hinges. It seemed to invite the young man to come and wander in its secrets. Ranell approached carefully like a deer that senses danger, but can’t resist the prize in front of it. In the distance, Ranell could see a pale girl leaning seductively against the last standing stone. Her deep eyes beckoned him onward towards her. He was about to step across the threshold when a hand clamped down hard across his shoulder. Giving a large gasp he spun around to see Griznel’s stern eyes meet his own.

“I told you to stay away from that place.” Griznel admonished.

“But there’s a girl”, Ranell started to say. He turned back around to point her out, but she had vanished. His eyes searched the high grass for sign of movement, but he saw none.

“There is no girl there boy, only the white lady.” He snaps irritably.

“Who is she?” Ranell asks, still looking for her in the field.

“She is nothing really, but the vapor of a magic long forgotten. Those that enter her grave yard never leave.”

“Why? What does she do to them?” He asks, spinning around to meet the old man’s gaze.

“She doesn’t do anything to them. They starve there gazing at her beauty.” He answers, moving the boy with him further along the path. He looks back over his shoulder once more to see her standing there against the stone. The look on her face puzzles him for she almost looks relieved that he had moved on.

The walk dragged on for what seemed like forever. He was beginning to think that the ritual was nothing more than a long walk in the outer lands to scare the young men of his village. It was shortly after that when he began to hear what he though was the roar of a mighty river.

At first he was just barely aware of it. It throbbed on the outer edge of his hearing. By the time they were ready to camp, though it was a steady thunderstorm in his head. He slept very little that night thinking of the lady and the roar in the distance. When he did sleep he had dreams of people and places that he had never seen in life. Large towers of metal and glass. There were warriors and mages battling and conjuring great beasts. When he awoke he found Griznel already dressed and ready. He was sore and sweat soaked from his nightmares. As he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, Griznel handed him a cup of braided berry brandy. Ranell knew what it was and how rare it was because of its difficulty to make. The old man gave him a look to let him know it was ok to drink. Ranell gulped it in one swallow. The warmth of it spread from his mouth to his toes. It didn’t get him drunk, but it did finally chase away the cobwebs of the nightmares.

Moving through the terrain the sound grew louder all around them. Ranell could tell that they were now by the ocean because of the salt air, but there were no gulls in the area and the cloud patterns in the sky were such as he has never seen. By mid afternoon the sky had darkened considerably, though it was no storm that Ranell could ever remember seeing. The wind blew and howled, but it didn’t rain. This made the journey even harder since the whipping winds blew dust everywhere. Several times they had to stop and take shelter from small tornados that had formed in the increasingly violent winds. The last time they stopped to take shelter they ate a meager lunch and once more sipped the braided berry wine.

Coming very close to him, Griznel leaned in close so that he wouldn’t have to shout over the wind.

“We’re almost there. You must do exactly as I tell you. If you do that you’ll be fine.” Ranell was about to ask what would happen if he didn’t listen, but the old man walked out of the outcropping they were cowering in before he could ask.

Outside the wind was almost painful to listen to as they made their way up the last hill. Once at the crest of the hill the sight laid out before him stung his mind as the dust did his eyes. In the distance there was a gigantic hole in ocean. It appeared as though the ground just opened up near the shoreline and was devouring the ocean. It spilled into the hole on all sides while the wind whipped the clouds over head. He could see now that the clouds swirled down into the hole taking the other clouds within reach. Wisps turned counter clockwise slowly gaining momentum and speed as they approached the center of the hole to be swallowed up. Spray from the falling ocean and static from the clouds would cause large arcs of lightning to shoot up from the spiraling center and spread out into the black sky above. There was a beauty in the symmetry of the spiraling clouds and falling ocean, but to Ranell it appeared that he was gazing into the mouth of destruction.

Griznel steeled himself against the wind and made his way down the path towards the edge of the pit. Ranell saw this and ran to stop him thinking the old man had lost his way.

“We mustn’t go any closer!!” Ranell yelled.

“Closer?” the old man asked. “Why we’re going right into the very center.” He half laughed. “Trust me. We’ll be fine.”

The two heavily dressed figures made their way closer and closer to the edge of the cliff, which was the closest place you could get to the pit. On a large over hang stood a flat alter of rock worn smooth through the ages of being battered by the ocean spray and the whipping winds. Here Griznel set his pack down and rummaged slowly through it. When he finally stood up he had a large tome attached to his arm via a shackle and chain. Across his chest there was a large leather pouch. Carefully he approached the podium and opened the book. Pages fluttered in the wind, but Griznel ignored them. Looking into the wind he started to recite the magic that was written on the pages long ago. Truth be told he didn’t need the book any longer. He had performed this ritual so many times he could cast the spell from memory. As his spell progressed a deep red glow started to emanate from the bag around his neck. Upon finishing, Griznel closed the book and placed it in his parka for a moment. Then he opened the leather bad and stuck his hand inside. After a moment of rummaging around he pulled his hand out and produced a red glowing stone. The stone was round and smooth and about the size of a large walnut. It was bound in a thick leather cord that Griznel had around his neck and every so often if flickered with a red burst. Ranell thought that it was merely reflecting the lightning, but as he watched the flicker became a steady glow. Griznel held it in front of him and began to chant once again. Soon the deep red glow became so bright Ranell was scarcely able to look upon it. Louder and louder Griznel chanted the spell. Finally, just when Ranell though the old man might pass out from screaming so loud he stops, takes the stone from around his neck and throws it into the pit. As he makes his way back from the altar the red glow starts to rise from the pit. In a flash that splits the heavens and drives Ranell down to his knees the rumbling and rain stops.

“You can get up now.” Griznel says hoarsely as he puts the book back into his pouch.

Slowly Ranell gets up and looks around to see whirlwind and the falling water have been stopped by a seemingly invisible force. Upon further examination he can see a small flash of red every time the wind whips around a little harder or the ocean bashes against the invisible field that surrounds them. Griznel has erected a magic barrier around themselves and the pit.

“Lets go.” The old man says picking up his pack and heading down towards the mouth of the pit.

The path to the mouth was sloped steeply and jagged rock stood out everywhere. Only the hardest granite remained. The rest had been swept into the pit. The calmness of the whole thing made Ranell that much more nervous. He kept telling himself that the magic would hold. It had to hold for the ritual had been practiced for many generations now, though the thought of its failure this time weighed heavily on his mind.

“This way.” Griznel barked heading over to a depression in the lip of the edge of the pit. Once there Ranell saw the most amazing thing. A large set of stairs spiraling down the side of the pit leading into the darkness.

“This is where we’re heading. Isn’t it?” Ranell spoke softly.

“Yes. It is. You can already feel it though can’t you.” Griznel says looking at the boy trying to comfort him.

Shaking his head slowly, Ranell replies, “Yes, I think I can.”

“Humph”, the old man snorted, “It’ll get worse, before it gets better.

The walk down the stairs was the worst part of the journey. With every step, Ranell felt his heart grow heavier and heavier. A malaise of sadness swept over both as they descended closer and closer to the bottom. Halfway down they stopped out of sheer exhaustion and lack of light. Griznel produced another stone from the leather pouch and fixed it atop his staff. He rolled the staff between his hands and a bright light began to radiate from the stone to light their way.

Ranell could no longer see the light overhead so he assumed it was night. The rations that were that night’s dinner were bitter and tasteless. Even the water they drank seemed fouled though Griznel minded less than he did.

“We’ll reach bottom tomorrow”, Griznel said sucking on his pipe for comfort. He was unable to light it because of the moisture in the air, at least that‘s what he told himself, “You had better rest. Tomorrow will be very tiring.”

All that night Ranell had nightmares of powerful mages and kings battling for god knows what. Ranell witnessed bloodied battles and scores of fallen knights. He saw and smelled the burning flesh of scorched wizards and toppled towers. He awoke with the taste of sulfur in his mouth and covered in slick sweat from his night’s torment. His clothes were damp to the touch and seemed heavy and coarse against his skin. There was still no light and neither could stomach their rations. Griznel tried in vain to light his pipe, but finally gave up in exasperation.

Breathing a heavy sigh he said, “Well I guess we had better get a move on. Nothing good can come from us lingering here.”

Downward they went. By mid morning Ranell cold see that they were moving towards a glow that was becoming stronger as they descended. Ranell thought of old school fables about a hole that went from one side of the world to the other. “Could this be the sunshine from the other side?” He mused. Soon the humidity and moisture gave way to cool dry air. The mixing caused a light fog to roll about their feet. Ranell shivered as the cold fog tried to slither its icy tendrils into his boots. He had been traveling downward for so long he was beginning to wonder how they were ever going to get back.

The fog thickened so that even though Griznel was right in front of him Ranell had a difficult time seeing the old man. Shapes and shadows began to appear in the mist. Human forms that Ranell thought were only statues would start to appear then quickly disappear as the fog thickened around them.

Ranell stopped to look over the edge of the steps to see if he could see the landing. He could make out some color of gray and gold , but no discernable bottom. As he turned to make his way back down the steps he came face to face with the gaping skull of an armored knight. He screamed and fell back nearly falling off the edge. Griznel, hearing his scream, moved back up the last three steps. He and the boy nearly collided.

“What’s the matter!!” Griznel asked as he grabbed the boy by his shoulders.

“A body. A man in armor.” Ranell gasped trying to calm himself.

Griznel could see the knight through the fog. His armor was split in the belly and a hole was there right below the breastbone. The knight had died with is sword in his hand. The rusty pommel and blade lay across his armored leggings. Griznel turned back towards the boy.

“You’ll see plenty of things like this and more here. Make sure not to touch anything. The dead here don’t like their belongings messed with and there’s no telling what magics the mages cursed their possessions with.”

A few steps later a skeleton appeared through the fog. Torn and tattered his robes were all but shredded. A gold amulet glinted in the faint light and in his arms a book lay clasped close to his chest. At his side a worn black staff lay lazily against the rock. For a moment Ranell was tempted to try and take the book and staff, but Griznel’s words and the foreboding way the skeleton clutched the book kept him from going over to the body. As he walked past, the skeleton seemed to clutch the book tighter and closer to its chest as if protecting the mages magic in death as he had in life.

Slowly, Ranell took one step from the mage, then another. It took him a moment before he realized that he had come to a small bridge that connected the spiral case to what ever was on the other side. Carefully he began to cross the stone bridge that was no more than three or four foot wide. Half way across the fog began to thin and he could see where he was going. He looked off the side of the bridge and saw that the rise continued down into the darkness below. He picked up a rock and tossed it down and waited for the echo. None came. Turning his attention back to the task at hand he continued forward. The bridge lead him to a large rise from which the glow emanated. It was steep and large rocks crowded around whatever was glowing, obscuring it from view.

He had lost sight of Griznel when looking at the mage,
“Griznel!!”, he shouted, hoping that his fear didn’t come through in his voice. He waited for answer, but none came. He shouted again as he made his way up the rise. This time though he couldn’t hide his fear.

“Over here.” He old man replied.

Ranell moved in the direction of the voice. His heart raced as the glow became brighter, but couldn’t quite cut through the fog. He stumbled as the ground changed and became rockier. Again he called out for Griznel and again Griznel’s reply guided him. He began to fear that he would be wandering around in this fog forever when shapes began to appear before him. Quickly he headed towards them. As he did the light began to change. It began to shimmer rather than glow. The closer he moved the more he began to make out. First he could see earth and large cut rocks. Then he could make out some grass and the roots of a large tree. Finally, he saw Griznel himself. He ran over to the old man as soon as he saw him.

“I thought I’d lost you.” He said, but the old man could only stare out in to the distance. Ranell puzzled over this for a moment and then turned around to see what Griznel was looking at. What he saw was the most amazing thing he had ever seen. In the middle of the rise was the largest tree ever. It was so large that it almost touched either side of the pit. The leaves were tiny and shimmered with a light that illuminated everything around it. The branches were thick and rough with a brown bark that would have easily roofed the houses of most of his village. On one branch there hung fruit of pure gold. It glistened and beckoned him as each leafs light glinted off the shiny skin. On the other branch hung fruit of deep ruby. It’s presence troubled Ranell for while it looked inviting it also looked as if it demanded a cost to be plucked and eaten.

The trunk of the tree though had a problem. Where it’s two main branches parted there was a large sword driven between them almost to the roots, but not quite. From the wound sprung a viscous amber that flowed like a small stream and then disappeared into the rocks. To the right of the tree lay the armor of the knight who had driven the sword to its mark. Ranell was lost in the wonder of all he was seeing. It was Griznel’s voice that brought him back to his senses.

“This is a sacred and dangerous place.” The old man began as he made himself comfortable on a nearby rock that closely resembled a chair. “As with everything that you have been through there is a story. It is the story of a young mage knight and the girl he loved. It’s a very old story. Theirs was one of star-crossed love. Do you know this term star- crossed-lovers?” Griznel asked. The boy nodded open mouthed that he did.

Shaking his head in acknowledgment Griznel continued, “Theirs was a love forbidden by god. Her god and his god were both different and the same. Their differences shaped their family’s outlooks of one another you see and as such there was bitterer hatred between both. Destiny and Desire have other plans for us at times though. The two met, fell in love and were to marry in secret. She was going to turn her back on her family, he on his and renounce his knighthood and never practice magic again. They would live simply and honestly as both gods had intended people to live. But as I said, Destiny and Desire sometimes have other plans for us.” The old man leaned against the chair for he was very tired. He drew out his pipe and weed and managed to get the thing to light. The weed seemed to bring strength back to his tired frame. He cleared his throat and continued.

“War broke out between all of the families with different gods who were the same. They each sought to annihilate each other and in doing so they rendered our world nearly dead. After a particularly bloody campaign the knight returned to his keep to discover that, in his absence, a skirmish had broken out within the family of his beloved. In the ensuing battle she was killed. As you can imagine he was very aggrieved. Her death broke the knight. He questioned how a god, any god could allow such things to happen. Driven mad by his grief he decided to find god and ask him. He encountered others in his quest that had suffered under their god as he had and who longed to ask the same question. Soon he had amassed the largest army this world has ever seen and together they set out looking for god. His army followed him to the ends of the world and where they met adversity they fought and killed it or incorporated it into their own ranks. They traveled until they found the beginning of the world and there the tower that keeps it. With his most powerful knights and mages in tow he climbed to the top of the tower, which took days, and, arriving at the top, he found the tree of the world. This tree.” Griznel pointed to the tree behind them with his staff. He stopped, readjusted his position on the seat, relit his pipe and started again.

It wasn’t as it is now. Both fruits grew together mingled within the plant. By now the knight was old and tired. He had spent his entire life searching for god and now found only this tree. He picked a piece of each fruit. First he ate the golden fruit of life and instantly he was restored to the peak of his health and power as a young man. Then he ate the red fruit of knowledge and instantly he cried out bitterly and fell to his knees. In gaining this vast knowledge he came to understand the inevitable conclusion that one reaches when one puts ones faith in gods.”

“He realized that there are no gods.” Ranell chimed in finally finding his voice.

“There are no gods.” Griznel repeated quietly.

“This doesn’t mean that there aren’t outside forces guiding us nudging us in the right direction, but ultimately no one being is in control of the world. Anyway, the knight became enraged. With all of his might he sought to destroy the tree. With his renewed strength he drove his sword has hard as he could through the branches and the trunk. He almost made it through to the root, but not quite. He had failed to kill the tree. His anger had consumed him. Using all of the magic he had acquired in his youth and all the magic his new knowledge now made available to him he sought to sunder the tower. That he accomplished and in doing so destroyed his most loyal comrades and created this pit, which we travel to after the harvest.”

“That still doesn’t tell me why I’m here.” Ranell said.

“You are here to understand. For all of his knowledge and power the knight had no understanding. Had he taken a moment to look further down the path of his life he might have found the peace he was seeking. Instead, though, he let his rage consume him and with him the tower, but not the tree. Even for all of his power and destruction he was not able to kill the tree. We here are proof of that; for if the tree were dead then no life would exist here. So that leaves you with your dilemma and choice. Will you eat of the fruit as did the knight?. Both have their assets and both have their costs as does everything in life. “

“How do I choose?” Ranell asked.

“That is up to you. Ask yourself, what is it you truly want in your life. If you have indeed become a man then the answer will be quite obvious.” The old man stopped, repacked his pipe and smoked quietly as Ranell grappled with his decision.

The power of eternal life with the gold fruit or the ultimate knowledge of the red; he weighed each option carefully. Red or gold, the choices raced through his head. He could have anything he wanted. He could be anything he wanted. The choice raced through his brain till he broke out in a sweat. There was no right answer. He slumped to the ground in despair. Then it came to him what to do.

“I have made my choice.” He stated to Griznel looking over his shoulder.

“Yes. What will it be.” Griznel asked

“I choose neither.” Ranell said flatly

“Come again?” The old man asked.

“Neither. I don’t want either fruit. I would rather be as I am.” Ranell said.

The old man smiled very broadly as this. His eyes filled with tears of joy knowing that the boy had made the wise decision.

“Very well. Lets leave this place. This fog is murder on my old bones.” He said rising from the rock.

“Wait, what ever happened to the knight? Ranell asked.

“No one really knows. Some say that he died and all that is left of him is the armor. Others say that he now wanders the outer lands unable to die and unable to go on living with the knowledge he possesses. Personally, I think that he is waiting.”

“For what?” Ranell asked intrigued by the story of this knight.

“For the end of all things. For the end of time. Perhaps then he will find what he looks for.” The old man started over towards the other side of the grove where there was another little bridge that ran off into the fog on the other side.

“Please don’t tell me that we have to climb back up.” Ranell whined.

“No”, the old man said, “We just have to get out in time.”

“Huh?” Ranell asked as the old man turned around and shouted some magic words up into the air. Soon the red glittering stone returned to his hand and he replaced it in the leather bag around his neck. It took Ranell a moment to figure out what happened, but when he heard the sound of rushing water get louder and closer from above he understood. Griznel for his part made his way to the far wall of the pit and using his staff he tapped out four rocks that opened a thick door in the wall. Ranell meanwhile was starting to feel the sprinkling of rain upon his face. While the tree obscured the storm and sea above them he could feel the fog turning to a light mist and the mist turning to a light rain. Quickly he turned and ran as fast as he dared across the bridge. By the time that he reached the door the light rain was coming down rather heavy and the noise was reaching painful levels. Ranell ran quickly inside as the water started to fall heavier and heavier. Griznel took his time getting into the shaft and then took his time closing the door. While the water ran around the rise, through some magical force no doubt, it did start to fill up the remaining chasm covering both stairs and bridges, only running off through the rocks where it could. Griznel shut the door just in time before the rush of water to flooded and fill the grove around which they were standing. Even through the impossibly thick rock Ranell could hear the water thundering against the door; the noise like curses against them for having been foiled.

Griznel produced some torches and the two made their way out. It took a day and a half before they came out to the other side. Ranell could see that they were in another section of burnt out land like the wastelands they had come upon at the beginning of the journey. That night, Ranell sat drawing in the dust contemplating what he had seen and heard. They would make their way back to the village tomorrow and there would be a feast to welcome him home. After the rations he had been eating a bowl of his mother’s stew would be most welcome. Still there were a few things that plagued his mind.

Sensing that there was something troubling him, Griznel put his pipe down and asked the boy, “You seem to be lost in thought. What is troubling you.”

“I don’t know. I have seen and learned a great deal, but I don’t really feel any different than when I started”, He began still poking at the dust on the ground”, I mean I think I have a grasp of what it is to be a man in the village, but I’m not sure that I’m any wiser now than I was before.”

“That, my boy, is a true sign of wisdom.” Griznel told him. “Get some sleep. We’ll be back in the village by tomorrow evening. I’ll bet you can’t wait to see your girl and have a fine feast.”

“Yes, I do miss her so. What about you? What are you looking forward to when we get back?” Ranell asked as he leaned back on his elbows

“A warm fire, a bowl of stew overloaded with venison, a pipe with some fresh weed and a thick book. That’s what I’m looking forward to.” He finished and laid back.

Ranell thought he was finished. He had just started to drift off to sleep when the old man began to speak again.

“This is my last time to the pit and in the wild. I have grown too old and these trips have taken too much of a toll on my spirit. I have taken many boys to the tree and have had too many disappointments to count. It’s a horrible thing to watch a young man with so much promise fall to the lust for power. There are those that I thought for sure would fall and didn’t and others that I was sure wouldn’t and yet did succumb to the temptations of the tree. Their lives haunt me. Everywhere I look in the village I remember this one or that one. I hear their voices or see something that they made or accomplished. Worse, I sometimes see the men they would have been. The only escape I find is in my own house where there are no reminders of the lives they have squandered. These things didn’t used to overwhelm me, but in my old age I guess I fully realize what a tragedy it is to lose oneself to blind ambition. If there is a god I would imagine that this is his only sin.”

Tears rolled down Ranell’s cheeks as he listened to Griznel speak. Having passed the test he understood the magnitude of the old mans sorrow. He understood what weighed so heavily on his heart when they first neared the tree.

Soon he fell off to sleep. At first it was an uneasy slumber, but soon the feelings of dread passed and the cool night air eased his mind. That night was the first night in three days that he slept a dreamless sleep.

They reached the village mid morning and there was a huge celebration that evening. There was much food, drink and dancing as the village welcomed Ranell back as a man. The partying ran deep into the night, but Ranell managed to sneak away to make some time for his love. She commented how she could see the change in him. He himself wasn’t so sure, but she could see that he had shed his childhood. As they kissed his love for her washed away the lingering memories of the pit and the tree.

The next day, Ranell was to announce his engagement to his beloved. If she accepted they would become husband and wife before the beginning of the next year. Ranell was very nervous as he made the announcement in front of both families and extremely relieved when she accepted. There was a lunch after and shortly after that her father left for an emergency council meeting. After the lunch he was walking back to his house with his parents when the council messenger came and told him to report to their chamber. Puzzled he quickly hurried over to meet them. Upon arriving he was told that Griznel had passed away last night in his sleep. Before he died he wrote a letter to the council naming his successor to take over telling the story and traveling to the pit. He named Ranell.

“Me!!”, Ranell exclaimed rather shocked and a little frightened, “Why would he want me?”

As they brought in the book with its shackle and the leather pouch with its stone the council told him he could refuse if he wanted. The position was voluntary of course. His beloved’s father looked on hoping that the boy would refuse. He knew how hard the life of the storyteller would be on her.

Ranell was besides himself. In the short space of time that the truly got to know Griznel he felt he really understood the old man and what’s more he respected him.

“Normally, this task would pass to Griznel’s son, but since he’s gone…” One of the council members said.

“Gone?. I didn’t even know he had a son.” Ranell said looking at the council.

“Oh, yes. Griznel was the one that took his son out for his test.” One council member said.

“Where did he go?” Ranell asked

“We don’t know”, another member replied, “he didn’t pass the test and never came back. Griznell was never the same.”

Nodding his head, he understood what he needed to do. Ranell picked up the book and put the pouch around his neck. Without a word he turned and left the council meeting. Just like the test he had made his choice.

October 1, 2004

February 17, 2005

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The following comments are for "Broken"
by wrath186

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