The elder told us that twenty of them or even more had died on the way, while trying to get to the spring of life. Regardless, we were lucky to have met him; he told the prince that the spring of life was to be found somewhere between the two mountain peaks that towered over us, and that no living creature had the strength to reach it. Three of the elder’s companions had died; the mountains had murdered them. I’m not sure if the seven or eight survivors turned back after they left Davos here, as I do not know for certain what else happened to the queen, but I guess all of them would be old or dead by now. Then again, maybe not. In that world, there was no history. People lacked a sense of time as we know it. Their collective memory was greatly disorganized. They crowned one king after another, one queen after another, one hero after another, incessantly, yet children couldn’t remember much of the past. They all looked alike anyhow. Nicky would have known to how to explain everything more clearly.
"Why wasn’t anyone able to reach the spring of life?," the prince asked.
"It's difficult… the pathway to the spring is… you have to climb the cliffs. Up these mountains, the cliffs are almost vertical… I tried, but… you need both hands to hold on. I almost reached the spring, but from that wall… the mountains", Davos pointed, "are never at rest, never… they start this way, thrashing their heads just about all day long, then… they get tired… They're tired now, but soon they'll start off… soon they'll begin their fight once more and make a terrible, terrible rattle…"
The elder crouched swiftly, as if recalling an imminent danger was lurking and his sole escape was to lie down on the ground. I looked at him skeptically and pitifully. But after just about five minutes, a sluggish roaring started; the vibration grew in strength until it became as powerful as a throbbing, continuous thunder; hurting our ears, and causing our flesh and bones to quiver. We watched in terror as the two summits of stone rose above the island; now they seemed even closer. We saw them undulating their grey hues, dashing and clashing in full swing, with a heavy, flat rumble, as if they were alive. I've never heard anything more awful in my whole life! The mountains were roaring, shrieking, and banging, smashing giant chunks of rocks that hurtled into the valley. We crouched to the ground instinctively, imitating poor Davos. We tried to shield our ears with our palms, while the ground beneath our feet shook. The protective shield of our spacesuits was so ineffective that when the chaos eventually ceased, we were hardly able to hear each other. So this is what old Davos was trying to warn us about! We knew that this was going to be the most challenging part of our quest. The spring of life stemmed from somewhere in between the two mountains, from a vertical wall. One could not possibly climb the cliffs and use one’s hands to obtain the water of life at the same time; particularly if one tried to do all this once the two giant stone summits have started their rumble.
"Isn't there any other path to the spring?" Brave Soul asked.
"No", came the elder's answer.
"Where’s the spring coming from?"
"Oh, I thought of this… my companions did, too. But they left me here, alone, for such a long time…"
"All right, all right, they left you here", the prince impatiently replied, "but where is this spring coming from?"
"Here it is, see: it comes out from one of the mountains, the one at the right, and it flows into an open cave up there, on the other mountain."
I heard Brave Soul mumbling unintelligibly, then saw him grabbing the wooden cup he had found in the elder's hut and setting off towards the two mountain tops. By himself. He thrusted his sword into the ground, left it there, and departed. I wished for him to come back alive, with or without the water of life. I wondered whether our lasers might be powerful enough to shatter those obstinate mountains to dust.
In that very same moment, we heard the gentle clatter of Hippokalos' hooves.
"Prince, wait!" he shouted.
Brave Soul stopped and watched Hippokalos, intrigued. The old centaur stopped at about two metres’ distance, his head tilted down, and bashfully grouting the ground with his hooves.
"I could help you," he said, avoiding to make eye contact with the brave man who led us all there.
The prince looked at him, even more intrigued.
"If you'd like, then… If… Eh, damn it!" the centaur said, tensed. "You could get on my back! I will climb these rocks for us both. I'm pretty good at it, don't underestimate my hooves. Really, don’t look at me this way! Even my back leg doesn’t bother me anymore, do you understand? I'll do the climbing so you can have both your hands free. You can get the water of life, then we will come back."
I was moved. I felt the emotion as a knot in my throat and I swallowed it to make it go away. Hippokalos, the proud centaur, who would never accept a soul to ride on his back, was now ready to relinquish his pride for this man, who actually had mocked him so many times before. The prince didn't feel much at ease either. I saw him blushing, trying to say something, but he didn't know where to start.
"Well, what do you say? Do you want to do it?" the centaur said, to rescue him from confusion.
He did want to do it. And off they went. After nearly three hours, the deafening rattle resumed. The two weren’t back yet. We threw ourselves to the ground again and when the blare and thundering ended, when we opened our eyes, we saw our two companions in front of us, barely breathing, but triumphant. Hippokalos was covered in sweat, his back was soaking with sweat and his white mane was covered in dust. The prince stopped right beside him, looking at us, while his arms were holding a wooden pot filled with a clear, colourless liquid. Water. I noticed that his face was scratched all over and a strip of flesh from his hip was hanging down, but he was glowing with pride. In fact, Brave Soul was looking like a statue. He did it.
"How do you know it's really that kind of water?" I asked him warily, and immediately I saw him staring back.
He hadn't given any thought to this possibility. An idea crossed my mind:
"You know,” – I pulled out the turtle from the pocket where I was sheltering it. "Let's try it on… him."
The prince hesitated: he wasn’t prepared to waste any of his treasure. However, this seemed to be the only way to find out for sure whether it was really a treasure or not. The poor hero accepted eventually; he slowly tilted the pot right above the turtle, allowing some water to drip on its shell. I was waiting with my breath taken, even if I felt like grinning when I thought about the silliness of the whole situation. Drip, drip, drip... a few droplets fell on the yellowish shell and started to run down playfully, spreading as quickly as mercury. Right away, Brave Soul backed off a few steps, holding his precious pot; we heard a crack and saw a little cloud of smoke coming out from beneath. Next thing we knew, we saw our pal Giovanni, the mechanic, flapping his hands frantically. He showed up out of nowhere, lying with his belly to the ground, and incredibly dirty. This was quite the shock, maybe the greatest one since we’ve landed on Fairia. Giovanni stood up. The turtle had disappeared… But I didn't have time to pull myself together. I heard the prince crying, overwhelmingly happy: "This is it! I made it!", and and out of nowhere, in response, a voice said dryly:
We turned our heads simultaneously. Behind us, out of nowhere, behind us stood the beautiful witch who had made fun of Giovanni. The mechanic turned red and tried to strike her.
"Don't move!" Vickyia held out her hand, and her golden locks, falling gently over her breasts, ruffled in the breeze. "Or," she smiled, "maybe you’d like to try some new sensations?"
Giovanni stopped, and the woman arrogantly stepped between us.
"So, you did it, didn’t you?" she turned to the prince, rather amused. "I see you hurt yourself a little, but this doesn't matter for a hero like you, am I right? I'm sure you won't waste a drop from the water of life to cure yourself,” she told him, pointing to the wound on his hip. "That's why you're the hero. Big deal. And for that, you needed a crossbreed horse. You couldn't do it by yourself."
Her big, green eyes glittered mischievously. This woman couldn't stir the least bit of hatred in me, as I couldn’t make out her “wickedness” too well. She was acting more like a child joyously playing with puppets. I don't know why, but I was beginning to like her more and more. I had the feeling that even the centaur didn't take her seriously or at least he pretended he hadn't heard her.
"As you noticed, I left you in peace until now, even though I could have held back your departure. You can't say I was too mean to you. You did whatever you pleased."
"Did I?” Brave Soul asked. "What about the storm? Or the killer birds? What about the rocks rising from the depths? Or the robbers ready to kill us? And the beast from the straits, who slaughtered my foreign mates, what do you have to say about it?"
A shadow crossed Vickyia's face and her expression froze for a moment. Right then, she was the spitting image of the wooden mermaid that seemed to guide the Skylark over the waters.
"The beast from the straits? What beast?" she said.
"Don't pretend you don't know!" grinned the hero bitterly.
Actually, I thought I saw two creatures, one on each side of the narrow channel between the rocks. However, Vickyia looked shocked. She knew nothing about any beasts. Nicky approached Brave Soul:
"I think she tells the truth, prince. That beast... you know, I think it was something else. It came from a different world, like Hippokalos' companions. Do you remember? In the forest? And the things we saw down the river..."
"Come on, do you really think I would be afraid of anything that I did?", said the woman defiantly. "Maybe" – she sweetened her voice, as if she cared – "...maybe I feel sorry for you. You met your princess, didn't you? I guess you can't wait to cure her, marry her, then live happily ever after. ...or am I mistaken? You see", she added, all the more serious, "I don't know everything either. It seems that things have changed a bit."
Brave Soul couldn't hide a grimace, as he remembered Angelina.
"But now you do have the water of life", the witch went on, and her triangular face glowed diabolically when she added: "However, I advise you not to rush back to your young and charming female hog. I even wish I could help you with it, but I don't know how. What if...? All right, look: I will do so to guarantee this ship won't sail back. Only forwards. You may stay here, as this man (and she pointed to Davos) does", "or you can swim back, build another ship, anything that crosses your mind. Not too many choices, I know. Meanwhile, you can think of the future, as hard as it may be. The ship… errr… Skylark, as you called it, won't get you to your cow-bodied sweetheart, Angelina. If you want to be her king, look for something else. As for your companions, these strangers who have showed up uninvited to our world, they may go anywhere they want. I don't care. They don't fit anywhere here. My only fear is that they may get lost."
She looked into my eyes and smiled. Gently, I thought.
"Believe me, the world is not a spinning wheel. Take my word for it", she added. "If you want to leave, you're free to do it! Just don’t get lost in the dessssert…"
She lengthened the last word unusually, while still looking at me, and I had the feeling of a face I had met before, in a different time, in a different place. My mind recalled the image of the white bodies collapsed in the red-yellowish sand, drying in the warm wind... I asked, swallowing my dry saliva, as I was suddenly feeling thirsty:
"And what is there, beyond the End?"
"Another world… I guess. I don't know; I've never been and I don't intend to ever go there."
"Then, maybe you’ve heard about the story of a stubborn girl. Have you?," the words rolled off my tongue involuntarily.
Vickyia watched me in surprise, and I was glad I had won her attention. She stood silent for a number of seconds. Was it because she didn’t know the answer? Finally, she said:
"No, this story doesn't tell me a thing anymore. As you can see now, there are questions I don't know quite how to answer," said the witch in a made-up, indulging voice, then looked at me again, as if she meant something with that look: "Do you?"
Then she disappeared in a choking cloud of smoke, which faded quickly in the wind. I was probably closer, therefore my nostrils were irritated and I started to sneeze over and over, closing my eyes in tears. A stale wave of heat embraced me and I let myself fall on the hot sand.
Then I screamed. Under my fingers, I felt the sand running through. Above, the sun was shining dreadfully and a strange silence grew around me. I knew it before even opening my eyes: I was in that damned desert again, the place that haunted my dreams, or, for all I know, the place where death was awaiting. I was hot, afraid, angry, and I started to run, cry, and throw myself in the yellow-reddish dust of the dunes, as if I had lost my mind. I will never get out of here! Never! I was running, spitting the sand out of my mouth; I climbed the slippery hills that stretched all over, I slid and I shouted in a hoarse voice, with my mouth dried, sweating, alone, dizzy with heat. So that's what Vickyia meant: I reached the end, the desert, that is. Alone. Or the last one. Or… who could even understand anything from this irrational world in which we had land?
I guess I ran for a few hours or – who knows? – maybe only for a few minutes. After a while I could barely crawl, scratching my skin in the glassy grains of sand, while mumbling curses. I continued to move forward, my head tucked between my shoulders, until one of my hands touched the surprisingly cold flesh of a human leg. I raised my eyes and I saw first, a dirty foot, with chapped skin and blackened nails, then a grey, soiled cape. The face of the man whose legs I stumbled into was hardly distinguishable, while shading my eyes with my hand. I remembered him, I knew him from somewhere… But from where? I stood up, brushing my sleeves, and I looked at him for a long time. The old man was looking back at me, with kindness. He seemed to be waiting for something. I noticed his eyes – deep, green and too young for an old man, as if they were taken from somebody else. Somebody else I knew. But the recollection didn't come. He spoke first.
"You're tired, aren't you?"
I nodded affirmatively. Then I gathered my strength and I asked him, in a rough voice I could hardly recognize:
"Do I know you from somewhere? Did we meet somewhere before, in this bloody world?"
"You forgot!" he scolded me gently. "It doesn't matter: people often forget. Delio is my name and, if you want, I could play you something."
While saying this, he pulled out from under his coat an instrument I didn't recognize and stroked its strings lightly. Unwillingly, I let it slip: "The story of a stubborn girl…"
"I see you didn't forget everything. Or, at least, you remember her. So, maybe the things aren't that bad. Come with me, stranger."
"Where to?" I asked him, but I didn't wait for his answer. I stood up and started to follow him.
The old man had already turned his back and began to walk. We didn't walk for too long: half an hour maybe. We walked down a deep valley, and the air was reeking, stale, as if kept thousands of years in a closed bag. When we then reached the top of the dune, we saw a green patch of tall trees. An oasis! I watched it, not believing my eyes.
"You have reached your destination", the old man told me. "From now on, you'll make it by yourself. Don't be afraid;
Things are as they are meant to be.
"What about you?" I asked, still confused by his appearance.
Again, I didn't get an answer. I turned to him, but he had disappeared. As if he had melted in the hot air. I made for the oasis lying in front of me, frightened it could disappear, as the old man did. I wouldn't have been very surprised. But nothing happened; in a few minutes, I patted the cool bark of the trees, with a sense of relief. Finally, I breathed calmly, soothing my dry nostrils with the wave of humid air. There were tens, hundreds of twittering birds that made me feel indescribably joyous. I saw a thick meadow and I listened to the quick running of a spring. I went further ahead, accompanied by the rude little birds flying joyfully close to my ears. I stepped into a kind of clearing. A basin of a nacreous white dominated its midst. A torrent of clear and – I guessed – cold water dripped into it. In that moment, I didn't care about anything else; I tore away my dusty spacesuit and I threw myself into the basin, so the water should make way into all my pores. I turned on my back, my mouth open under the spring. I swallowed in one breath litres of the cool liquid, then I splashed it with my feet, as a child would, delighted and content. I stopped only when I realized that the birds' chirping turned into a crystal-clear laugh, with a thread of malice in it. I looked around.
The blonde witch, whose image had haunted me since we reached Fairia, was leaning against the nacreous edge of the basin. She was watching my silly play in the water. Her hair, flowing down her shoulders, was barely covered by a green, translucent veil covering her round, white knees. And her eyes, her green eyes – I've just seen them moments ago, haven't I? –, were staring at me. Suddenly, I realized I was naked and I blushed instantly. I felt the tips of my ears burning and my cheeks on fire. With one hand, I picked up the spacesuit floating over the water and I hastily put it on. Slightly amused, Vickyia was watching me. I sensed I had to say something, so I mumbled clumsily:
"So, this must be your hiding place..."
The woman didn't answer, but gazed at me purposefully, and I felt even more uncomfortable. Wasn't there anything clever to say? I threw furtive looks at her sinuous body, and then my eyes stuck to hers, those fascinating green, snake eyes. I made my way into the water reaching up to my waist. I sat on the edge of the basin, next to the witch, and I pulled myself up. In the end, I had the chance to straighten things up with this woman. Why shouldn't I try that?
"It was you who brought me here, wasn't it?"
"I'm glad you understood it", she answered. “Just hold on a moment and think: who called you into this world?"
"Which world?" I wondered. "This miserable desert where all my companions died? This endless wilderness where I would be glad to kick the bucket and to get rid of the crazy visions haunting me? This desert with pyramids, beasts with human heads, corpses and riddles I don't understand? Or…?"
"Or?" she jumped at it, fretting with a strange excitement. "You can't help thinking at it? Or. Or... what?"
The woman stood silent for a moment, then she added:
"Now I know I made the right choice. Listen to me for a few moments, you, leader of the strangers…"
"My name is Ronnie. Ronnie Peterschneitt."
"Okay, Ronnie. Do you really believe that I was mean? Do you think that I actually wanted to hurt you or your companions? I am aware you can't understand what's going on in our world; you wouldn't know how. Your reasoning is so strange, so clumsy! But, at least, you got something right. Otherwise I wouldn't have brought you here."
"Brought me here? What for?"
"Just listen to me. After all the things you had gone through in our world, which would you like to choose? The reality lying beyond the trees around us or… the other world?"
Beyond these trees, out of the oasis… I recalled the corpses lying on the sand, ranging one after the other, the phantasmagoric beast with the head of a woman, ready to sweep me away with a blow of its claws, the appalling drift over the sea of sands, on a ship… What ship?
Suddenly, my mind recollected the image of a young man with long, dark hair, with a strip of cloth covering his forehead. He was perched on the mast of a wooden ship that sailed on a river with green shores and strange beings, the little girl I loved when I was a child, the gentle eyes of a centaur-like creature, half man, half horse – and everything in my head got confused, mixed up, as if I shoved my hand into a ball of knotted threads trying to find its end. And the green eyes of the witch standing next to me. I didn't utter a word.
"Are you aware now of what happened? Did you get at least a part of the picture?" she said. "Everything started to tear down in pieces. The boundaries had been broken, disappeared or became insignificant. Even I am not what I am supposed to be, no matter how hard I try. I think that deep inside, you hate me as much as your companion, the hasty hero. Can you deny it?"
She smiled – this time without any bit of malice, as if denying what she has just said. Her triangular face brightened, and I realized two things: she was about to ask me something and I didn't have the faintest intention to say "No".
"Yes, I am mean, vile, and unfair to that poor prince. Moreover, I had also mistreated you! Hence, you will find hard to believe, but I am going to ask you a favour. Still, you have to listen to me, otherwise" – she moved her arm around – "the sand will conquer the whole world for good. Which one do you choose: the wild wasteland or… me?"
"Which one is real?" I asked shyly for an explanation.
"The reality? Do you see what I mean? This is your clumsy reasoning again! I can't understand you! The reality is this one here, that one outside, the one beyond... It is my reality, or yours, or the centaur's. It is nowhere and it is everywhere; you let it be or you let it vanish." She took a milder tone. "You know, I don't want to harass you. I never did. Things got mixed up a long time before you came here. It's not because of that human horse or your spaceship. But let bygones be bygones; what's mixed up stays mixed up. I don't want anything else but to keep this world together, as it has been until now. It's not a bad world; you know it by now. If you pay attention to me and you do what I ask you to do, the desert will still keep away for a long time. That's why I called you, stranger… Ronnie."
She turned around and pointed to some odd equipment lying on the grass that surrounded the little basin. There was a sort of shirt made of small metallic discs woven closely one over another, silvery pants crafted from the same material as the shirt, and a helmet with a thick sieve to protect the eyes and a white plume. I also noticed something that looked like a long cross; a sword with an emerald hilt.
“I won’t ask you to do anything that you are incapable of. Somewhere, in our world, someone has gone missing. Somewhere, things went awry. Things lost their purpose. Take these and set everything right."
"I still don't understand what you want from me!" I said, stunned. "I don't think you made the right choice in choosing me."
"Oh yes, I did! Believe me, it won't be a hard thing to do. Not at all. I brooded over a lot before choosing you. I know it's not fair to ask a stranger for help, but could you say whole-heartedly that you don't care for anyone from here?"
Translated by Alina RADU