Saturday Fiction: Runner [A Tri-star story]

For this Saturday, I had to work past some reservations I had about writing anymore. So I broke some rules. There aren’t a lot of hard rules when writing,  everything is about the moment, but some rules I would never break at my age. Then I decided to do it anyway, for today.

the-crystal-cave-287

They’re coming. The footsteps are there, right out of earshot.

It doesn’t matter how many hills, how many valleys, they are always right there. The wind carries them, a feeling more than a sound, the absolute knowledge of being followed.

He could feel it in his soul, even as his legs burned from running. There was no chance to stop. They would be upon him, seize him, end him.

He fell against a tree, his whole body shaking with the effort to stand. Each breath came as a long gasp, his legs were shivering, refusing to stay locked upright. He pulled the cloth from his cloak and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His fingers clung to the material, not by choice but through exhaustion and desperation.

This was going to kill him, he was sure of it. This was the end of his journey. It didn’t matter where he thought he could make it to, his body gave up, he couldn’t get there. In retrospect, he should have stayed behind, with the others. Maybe he could have done something. They were so afraid, it was going to be terrible.

His heart was beating faster by the second, he could feel it building up inside him. It told him to move, even as his whole body screamed in protest. It told him they were coming, they were right behind him, a thousand footsteps, all coming to trample him into the dirt.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know pain. He had bruises up his sides that said otherwise. He could take the pain. He looked at the back of his hand. Scars ran across his skin, one for each mistake, each time he let himself be caught. Never again, that was the choice he shared with the others.

They just didn’t want to listen. They waited too long, thought they could make a difference. Now they were going to pay with skin out of their hides, and blood on the ground. There was no doubt about it, he had to move, even if his body collapsed to dust.

So he ran, between trees and brush, over roots and holes. He heaved with each breath, and tears came to his eyes, but he ran. With each passing moment it became surviving. Legs pumped their last, his lungs squeezed what they could find. He could faintly hear the wheezing, but he wasn’t hearing much of anything.

The forest started to head downhill. It was briefly a boon, to go so fast with so little effort. Then he realized that stopping was as hard as going, and his body was too far gone for either. His foot caught in a root, and he fell forward into the oncoming darkness of the thick brush. He rolled, his vision swimming, his mind a daze.

It hurt. But he was so tired, of running, and of pain, that that didn’t matter. It could hurt all it wanted. He closed his eyes, and let the hill take him. It was dirty, cold, knobbled. Then, it seemed smooth, and colder, and unbelievably quiet. Then it was nothing, as his mind faded to black.

When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by a glow like a thousand candles. He tried to sit up, but his body protested, and he fell couldn’t do more than roll to his back. The whole room was alive, light bouncing from every surface. It was like the sun living behind a cavern wall, peeking through to say hello.

A cavern? He didn’t remember going to a cavern. He had to have rolled there. The fall knocked him out, he had to have slept, but he didn’t feel the squeeze on his heart of them getting closer. Somehow he felt, safe.

He let out a sigh, and the light in the room danced as if he blew on the flame directly. His eyes opened wide, and he looked all around, but he couldn’t find the candle itself. When he got up, if he got up, he would have to take a look around.

His eyes closed, and he fell back into a sleep.

Next time his eyes opened, the glow was there, accompanied by the warmth of midday. He tried to move, and his limbs responded with tentative success. Each movement was painful, but at least he could do it. He rolled onto his stomach, moved to his knees, and looked around. Each direction lead to more cave, and despite the light, it was impossible to see far. The paths from where he was curled off, the walls of crystallized light blending with each other as they curved. He was in the middle of nowhere, and in the back of his mind, he knew that didn’t make sense.

He struggled to his feet, and touched the wall for support. It wasn’t warm. With how warm the cave was, why wasn’t the wall warm? It chilled him, an unnerving whiplash of senses. Still, he needed to move. He couldn’t just sit in the cave forever, he had to find a way out.

He struck out one direction. There was a limp in his step, and he had to collect himself every few steps, but it was something. He came to crossroads in the cave, paths that veered off in opposite directions, and chose thought about each choice. If he let himself get turned left, he would circle back in time if he was following the left wall. Following the right path would cover straight ground, and eventually lead to a path out. At least that was what his desperate mind told him. He needed out, he had to be anywhere but here.

More cave, more turns, and soon the paths began to look familiar. The same V-shaped fork, the same 4 way, the same right turn with a nook. He took the opposite choices as before, tried to find some place new. The same paths came again. He looked at his feet. There was a ditch run there, as if he had taken those steps a thousand times. It was impossible, and at once, he could feel it in his bones.

What was this place?
He pushed to the next intersection of paths. Hadn’t he taken every path now? Why did his ditch only take one? Why was the other path untouched? That feeling was creeping back, the sensation of being pursued, the oncoming feet. He wiped his brow, let out a sigh.

Maybe this was it. Maybe he was already caught, and this time there was no mercy. He was trapped here, with no chance of escape. It was an endless maze of his own stupid choices. He shivered, and realized the heat of the cave had faded.

There was no point in running.

The thought crept into his mind. If he was dead, if this was what he suspected, he didn’t need to flee. What would come, would come. He could stay there, at the corner, forever.

Still, he held himself up on the wall. He could let go, fall to his knees, wait for the warmth to return. Would it return?

He took a step, closed his eyes, and took another. He walked, not pushing himself too hard, but walked regardless. It all felt like the cave, his fingers on the chilled walls, the uneven ground, the smell of light soil and some distant moisture. He knew where he was, and could go until he was anywhere else.

Then the path warmed up again, and he opened his eyes. He was in a dead end. The lights were brighter than ever, collected into large stones that almost pulsed. He wanted to be closer, needed to be closer. He pushed himself, grunting with each step.

Something was in here. It was the same something that brought him this far into the cave, that much he knew right away. It was like a voice, but it hadn’t said a word to him. Maybe a power, a god even. It pulled him across that place, brought him here for what, to see glowing rocks?

He was close enough now. The wall was mostly one large crystal, bigger than any of the shards that lit his way there. He looked into the surface. He needed to know what wanted him here so badly, what power was strong enough to drag a man across a forest, away from his own kind, through a maze, and to this very spot. What could it even want?

He searched the flawless surface, tried to look beyond the shimmering light. All he could see was a reflection, his own reflection.

He used his cloak to wipe the surface, desperately trying to make it clearer. He looked again, and his own face looked back at him.

Did he always look like that? So dark, the scars, eyes wet and ready for tears. His hair was coming back, his but his face was bruised and knocked here and there. That was him, the same him and yet not.

What was his name again?

In the moment, it didn’t matter. That him from before, it couldn’t go back, not to his life from before. His hand was on the crystal, and he looked around the room.

How did he get here anyway? Who was he running from? That feeling, like someone was right behind him, it felt so distant now, as if it was lifetimes ago.

He looked over his shoulder, and saw a wall of dancing colors, a portal to someplace else. What do they call them? Mirrors?

It felt silly now, to get so lost in his own thoughts, to let himself get so caught up in the past. He had to go back, let the others know what he knew now, what was possible. They didn’t have to be afraid, they didn’t have to hurt.

Still, somehow, he knew they would feel pain. If it was him, there would only be pain. Which meant he didn’t have a choice.

He took his hand off the wall and stood tall. There were going to be changes, starting with him, his life, his heart, his name. He stepped through the mirror.

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