Journey to the West

                                                                                 By Bert McKenzie 

                                                                                  Copyright 2010

 

 


Chapter VII

It was still very dark when Akuta sat up on the reclining platform in his
empty chamber.  Just a short few days before, Alex had been sharing this
room and it seemed full, almost claustrophobically so.  Now the walls
seemed to recede in the darkness until they were miles away.  Could he but
reverse the river of time's continual flow and turn the clock back a short
week, Akuta knew that at this very moment his human lover would be in that
strange state of mini-death that seized these aliens when the sun went
down.  How many nights had the fairy sat or reclined next to Alex, watching
his body while he slept.  Akuta closed his eyes and he could see the
moonlight glistening off the thin red hair that dusted his lover's bare
chest.  He watched as the flat stomach rose and fell with the slow, even
breathing.  Even by Tuathan standards, Alex was an incredibly beautiful
being.  He reached out to gently caress the firm muscles of the sleeping
man, and his fingers closed on empty air.  Akuta opened his eyes to look at
the bare expanse of the empty mattress that covered the platform.  He sat
in darkness, waiting for the tears to come, but this time they didn't.  He
no longer felt the stinging burn of grief.  All that was left was a hollow
emptiness.  Empty like the space beside him on the reclining platform.
Empty like the endless expanse of the room.  Empty like the whole land now
that his soul mate no longer lived here.

In that emptiness, a tiny glow caught his attention.  It was the glowing
warmth of purpose, of decision and action.  Akuta turned to face the glow
and was given a choice.  He could do as his friends bid, turn his back on
the warmth and prepare to live the rest of his existence in the icy fingers
of solitude.  Or he could reach out to the glow, begin to live his life
again by taking the action toward which his inner self was prompting him.
He really had no choice after all.

Akuta swung his feet to the cold stone floor and slowly rose from the
platform.  He hesitated for a moment, letting the chill air caress his nude
body and bring a semblance of life back to it.  Then he reached for the
pile of clothes he had tossed on a stool in the corner, quickly slipping on
warm, woolen breeches and pulling a heavy short tunic over his head.  The
tall fairy then slipped on his soft, winter boots and knelt before a heavy
oak chest that was sitting at the foot of the reclining platform.  Akuta
lifted the lid and reached into the dark interior, carefully removing a
silver long sword in a cloth covered metal sheath.  He strapped the sword
around his waist, and then removed a quiver of arrows and an unstrung bow.
He sat these aside and dug deeper into the chest until he found a small,
silver dagger.  Akuta stood, slipped his breeches down and strapped the
dagger to his bare thigh, then retied the drawstring on his pants,
concealing the weapon.  Next he closed the chest and reached for the bow,
carefully slipping it into its carrying slot in the arrow quiver.  The
fairy then grabbed his heavy cape from behind the door and threw it about
his shoulders.  Slipping his arm through the strap on the quiver, he
quickly left the room.

As quickly as possible, Akuta slipped down the stairs, across the great
hall and outside into the courtyard.  He spoke briefly to the door guards
outside, telling them he was going to visit Dr. Gates in the halls of
healing.  He then quickly crossed to the old worship grounds, trying to
stay in the darkest shadows so that he might be overlooked.  He surveyed
the area to make sure no one observed him, and then slipped through the
stone archway into the sanctuary.  At the far end was the altar, a stone
slab table on a low dias.  Directly in front of the altar was a low, wooden
bier holding Alex's body, wrapped in its flashweed and looking more than
anything like an Egyptian mummy.

Akuta slowly started toward the bier, then froze.  At first he had not seen
the watcher because of his dark, hooded cape, but as Akuta moved closer to
the altar, he noticed the solitary figure.  It had been the custom of the
priesthood to provide watchers for the dead since the far distant past.
Originally it was the watcher's duty to observe the body for any signs of
returning life.  This, no doubt, originated from the olden times when a
person who might appear dead would be in a coma and would later revive.  As
the Tuathans evolved into more sensitive beings, they were able to sense
the spirit and to know when it had departed the body, so the watcher was no
longer needed to see if the presumed dead would come back to life, and yet
the custom of watching lived on to the present now as a matter of courtesy
and respect for the dead.  The current watcher was one of the priesthood
who half sat-half knelt on the flagstone paving several feet in front of
the bier.

As quickly as possible Akuta slipped across the intervening space, sneaking
up behind the unsuspecting watcher.  He noiselessly removed his long sword
from the scabbard that hung at his side and took careful aim with the
blade.  One swift stoke and the man would be decapitated.  Then there would
be no witnesses to his deed.  But just as he was about to strike something
stopped him.  He realized his goal was to restore Alex, but was it fair to
take another's life in the process?  His mind hesitated but an instant.
"Yes," came the resounding reply.  Any action was worth the chance for Alex
to live again.  Once more he prepared to deal the fatal blow when a pang of
guilt struck.  This silent watcher did not need to be here.  He was only
kneeling in the empty sanctuary as a gesture of homage to the recently
departed.  Was it fair to take this innocent life whose only crime was that
of paying respect at the wrong time?  It rebelled against Akuta's moral
fiber.  But still, he had to eliminate the watcher.

He stood with blade poised, balancing precariously on his uncertainty when
a slight sound reached his ears.  It sounded like a gasp, or a sudden
intake of breath.  Akuta glanced up and froze, but the watcher had
apparently heard it too.  He slowly began to turn his head to look in the
direction from which it came.  There was no time to think, only to act.  In
a moment he would be discovered.  Akuta turned the sword in his hands and
swung it, striking the back of the hooded form's skull with the flat side
of the heavy, metal blade.  The watcher fell like a stone.  Then the fairy
turned, taking a defensive stance over the fallen body, sword in hand, and
scanned the area for the author of the sound they had both heard.  But no
one was evident, not a sound nor a glimpse.

Akuta slowly backed up to the bier, keeping a vigilant eye on the empty
sanctuary.  He carefully sat his sword down next to the encased form
stretched out on the low bench, then leaned down.  He reached for the head
and clawed at the dried wrapping, ripping and peeling it back from the face
until he could again look at the object of his love.  In the dim light of
the stars and crescent moon Akuta could see as well as a human could in the
light of day.  What he saw drove a sharp spike through his heart.  Alex no
longer had the devastatingly handsome looks he had possessed in life.
Instead, the face seemed bloated and the closed eyes appeared to be sunken
into their sockets.  The skin over the face was a bluish grey color with
dark splotches on one cheek and the forehead.  Tears again began to fill
the fairy's eyes and he reached down to gently touch a thin clump of red
hair that fell over the cold skin.  Akuta turned his face to the stars and
let out a low moan.

Slowly, the warm glow of his plan reasserted itself and Akuta bent to his
task.  He gently picked up the body of this lost love and draped it over
his shoulder.  He then reached for his sword and headed back toward the
entrance of the worship grounds.

* * *

Sharon had difficulty going to sleep.  She tossed and turned on the soft
cushions in her room and dozed fitfully to be continually awakened by
strangely haunting dreams.  In her sleeping world she was being pursued by
David Strahan.  In real life he had been a research scientist at the same
institute where she had worked.  He had apparently stumbled into the fairy
world by accident and then disappeared.  After she had come here, Robin had
sent search parties out looking for her former colleague without much
success.  If the man still lived, which was doubtful, he was lost somewhere
in the wide expanse of this land.  In her nightmare, Sharon was being
chased by the former scientist.  He was dressed like a rodeo cowboy in
fringe and sequins and kept trying to lasso her with a rope that he spun
over his head.  Finally, the lariat dropped over her arms, pinning them to
her sides.  Dave came forward and whispered in her ear.  "I want you to
have my baby."  She awoke with a start to find a blanket wrapped and
tangled around her, pinning her arms just as in her dream.

Sharon rose and splashed cold water on her face, and then pulled on the
heavy woolen breeches and a thick, long sleeved tunic.  She grabbed a cloak
from a peg on the wall and then stepped out of her room and into the cooler
hallway.  The doctor quietly wandered through the empty corridors of her
Tuathan hospital.  There was very little activity at this time of night.
There were no patients to care for at the present time and most of the
healers and apprentices were in their own chambers meditating or resting.
The fairies did require rest if not sleep, and most of them chose this
early morning hour to fill that need.

Not encountering anyone or anything out of the ordinary, Sharon decided to
go for a walk to try to clear her head of the odd dream images.  She felt a
deep sense of foreboding which she couldn't seem to shake, as of some
disaster looming on the horizon and just waiting to strike.  She stepped
out into the chill air blowing down the mountain side and drew her cloak
more tightly around her.  The girl wandered around the courtyard for a bit,
then followed the winding street between the tall towers and other stone
structures of the palace.  She soon found herself standing before one of
the huge, stone archways that led into the worship grounds.  Sharon slowly
stepped into the opening, her mind lost in thoughts about the strange
religious views these people held who came here for spiritual renewal.

Sharon was about to step out into the sanctuary when she noticed a solitary
figure kneeling before the altar.  It was only then that she remembered
that Alex's body was there, awaiting its cremation.  At first she thought
the hooded watcher must be Akuta, but the figure appeared slighter and
smaller, even at this distance and covered by the enveloping robes.  As she
stood, wondering who it was by the body, a movement caught her eye.  Akuta
was slowly approaching the altar from behind the watcher's back.  Even in
the dim light of the crescent moon Sharon was sure of who he was.  The tall
guard's blond hair and muscular frame gave him away.

Horror gripped her heart as she stood in silent witness and watched Akuta
slowly and stealthily draw his sword.  The metal flashed in the reflected
moonlight as the fairy took aim and prepared to strike the kneeling figure.
He lined the blade up with the watcher's neck, and then drew back like a
baseball player with a bat preparing for a home run.  As she saw the sword
flash in the dim light, the terror rose in her lungs until she wanted to
scream a warning, but all she managed was a strangled gasp.  The faint
sound could not have carried beyond the shadowy archway she occupied, and
yet Akuta froze, glancing in her direction.  She flattened herself against
the wall out of view of anyone in the sanctuary, and held her breath to
keep from screaming.  She was now certain that those incredibly sensitive
elfin ears must be able to hear the loud pounding of her heart as it leaped
in her chest.  When no other sound reached her, she calmed herself a bit
and managed to peak back out into the open worship grounds.  She was just
in time to see the fairy drape the corpse over his shoulder, pick up his
sword and head back toward the opening through which he had entered the
grounds.

Sharon waited until Akuta was gone, then raced to the altar, fearing what
she would find.  Lying on the stone floor next to the low, wooden bier was
a cloaked figure.  She hesitated but a moment, then knelt and pulled back
the hood.  At least the body had not been decapitated.  That was a good
sign.  Sharon rolled the figure over.  It was a young girl, apparently one
of the acolytes who assisted the old father.  Checking the girl, the doctor
found that she was unconscious but apparently unharmed otherwise.  Sharon
stood and thought for a moment, wondering if she should fetch help for the
unconscious girl or go after Akuta.  She knew if she waited he would get
away with the body, and the girl appeared to be alright, so the doctor
turned and ran quietly to the archway through which the fleeing man had
gone.

In the empty street just outside the worship grounds all was dark and
quiet.  Sharon looked around in the darkness but could see no movement, no
trace of where Akuta might have gone with his burden.  In her moment of
indecision she had already lost him.  Sharon took a deep breath and tried
to collect her wits.  She thought of Scott.  He might know what to do.  And
if not, he would be able to get the king's assistance in this matter.  The
doctor turned down the path that led between the halls of healing and the
high council chambers, directly toward the white tower.  In the dark she
took a wrong turn, but quickly discovered her mistake and was soon heading
again in the right direction.

Sharon came to the main entrance of the white tower and was a little
surprised that no one was standing guard.  The main entrance was closed off
by two oversized and ornately carved wooden doors.  In the warmer weather
these had stood open day and night, but with the first snow fall they had
been closed.  But open or closed, day or night, there had always been two
of the palace guard standing by to admit visitors.  Now the front of the
building appeared naked.

Sharon tugged at the handle of one of the huge doors and found that it
opened with surprising ease despite its size.  She slipped into the great
hall and pulled the door shut behind her.  Inside the hall was quite gloomy
and dark, the blackness broken only be flickering candles set in niches
around the outside walls, more as a consideration to the few human
inhabitants than for any other reason.  The big, expansive room seemed even
larger in the dark, its far walls disappearing in the distant gloom.  There
was no one in sight in all the emptiness.  Sharon looked about, and then
started for the wide staircase across the room.  She hoped she could find
the king's chambers in the dark.  She knew it was above somewhere.  If she
met anyone along the way she knew she could ask directions.

The doctor had just started up the stairs when she heard the sound of a
door closing.  It came from somewhere nearby, but on the ground level.  A
figure stepped out from the shadows at the side of the staircase, heading
toward the exit across the great hall.  "Excuse me," Sharon called, but the
figure kept moving, obviously ignoring her.  She was about to return to her
climb of the stairs when she thought better of it.  The person below might
save her quite a bit of wasted time, wandering around in the dark.  She
stepped down the few steps and hurried after the retreating figure.
"Excuse me, my lord."  The man stopped and turned toward her.  She was
quite close to him before she realized it was Akuta.  He eyed her warily,
uncertain of his next course of action.

"Akuta," Sharon said in stunned surprise.  "Where are you going?" she asked
as she looked at the bow and arrows slung across his shoulder.

"Hunting," came the slow reply as he saw her curiously staring at his
weapons.  "There may be trolls in the nearby hills."

"You're going alone at this time of night?"

"Soon it will be dawn," the guard said.  "I wish for an early start."

"Can I...can I come with you?" she asked.  She had to stall him, to find
out what his plans were, to find out what he had done with Alex.

"It is dark and cold," he replied, obviously uncomfortable at being so
delayed.  "You should sleep during this time."

"I couldn't sleep.  That's why I came here."

"I wish to be alone," the man said stiffly, then turned on his heel and
continued on to the big doors.

Sharon knew if she hesitated, or went to find help she would lose him
again, this time probably for good.  The moment he stepped through the door
she bolted for it at a dead run.  She reached it and quietly stepped out.
Looking about, she could see the tall fairy crossing the courtyard toward
the stables.  Sharon kept to the shadows and tried to be as quiet as
humanly possible as she sprinted for the tower stable behind her quarry.

She hid beside the door and waited.  In a moment Akuta came riding through
on the back of a tall, dark mount.  The moment he passed her, she slipped
inside and ran to the stall that held the mount she usually rode when she
wanted to get away for a while.  The chestnut mare seemed awake and alert,
as if she had been waiting for Sharon.  The doctor threw the halter over
her head and opened the gate to the stall, leading the horse out.  The
human climbed up onto the bare back of the animal and quickly urged her to
trot out the open door and down the winding hill to the main gate.  As
Sharon reached the wider expanse of roadway she urged her mount into a slow
gallop and in no time she was approaching the gateway and drawbridge.

At the gateway she was challenged by two guards who blocked her path.
"Where go you, my lady, and on what business?" one man asked.

"Did Akuta just come this way?" she questioned in return.

"Yes," the other guard replied.  "He is leaving to take a royal message to
the eastern border guard."

"Well, he promised me I would ride with him, but I'm afraid I fell asleep
so he left without me.  Do you think I can catch him?"

The men grinned at each other.  How like a human to sleep when it gets
dark.  "Make haste, my lady.  He passed but a moment before.  You should
overtake him before he gets out of the canyon."

The men stepped back and Sharon urged her horse back into a gallop, dashing
across the wooden bridge and into the dark shadows on the other side.
Fortunately the animal had been on many such journeys and knew the twists
and turns of the maze-like canyon well.  Sharon gave her free rein rather
than guide them into a wall in the darkness.  In a few minutes she reached
the end of the rocky corridor where the roadway met the crossroads going
east and west along the foothills and south into the plains.  If Sharon
followed the story told by the guards she would turn east, but something in
her told her Akuta was lying, something fairies just didn't do.  He must be
planning his insane journey to the western islands.  Sharon turned her back
to the first streaks of light in the predawn sky and galloped into the
west.

* * *

"Here's the bowl," Jennifer said, handing Scott a Tupperware container of
water.  "And will this work?"  She held out a small cork from a wine
bottle.

"It should," her friend replied.  "Both of you have your crystals?" he
asked glancing at Rood and Caseldra.  They nodded.  Scott shoved the golden
needle through the cork, and then floated it in the water.  For a moment it
just bobbed there, and then slowly the cork turned in the water, the sharp
end of the needle swinging directly toward the tall elfin guard.  "Rood,"
Scott said angrily.

"I have my crystal.  I swear it," the man said, reaching into his shirt and
pulling out a lump of what looked like rose quarts on a silver chain.

"Then move," Scott ordered.  Rood stepped sideways, but the needle
continued to pint in the same direction.  "That must be the way.  Let's
go."

They opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch.  With Scott
carrying the bowl and watching the needle they left the yard, crossed the
street and headed into the park.  The little band followed their course
down a hill, through the small area of trees, across a railroad track and
on to the river bank.  "Well, he's either dead and at the bottom of the
river or he's on the other side," Scott theorized.

"Great.  What do we do now?" Jennifer whined.

Scott thought a minute, and then seemed to come to a decision.  "Let's go
back to the house and pack a few things, then we'll take your car."

"My car?" the girl asked.

"We don't know how long it's been.  He could be anywhere by now.  We're not
going to follow him on foot, especially across the river."  They started
back toward the old Victorian house.

"What are we packing for?" Jennifer asked.

"It may be a long trip," Scott said.  "With time the way it is, he might be
anywhere from L.A. to Washington, DC by now."

"Scott, this might take weeks.  Shouldn't we go back and tell Robin if
we're going to be here that long?"

"If we stay here a couple of weeks it'll probably only be a few Tuathan
hours," Scott said.  The four slowly filed back inside the house and began
preparing for what might be a long excursion.

 

 

 

 

 

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