16. Freedom

His uneasy steps carry him over the pile of bones, their jagged edges threatening to pierce his bare feet. A cold blast of air rushes into the cave as he emerges. The man shivers, standing naked in the twilight of the forest, but breathes deeply of the fresh breeze, his shoulders thrown back. A frazzled band of wool cuts across his chest, the long frayed strands of the old strap tossed about by the uproaring wind. His hair too, freely whips around.

He smiles, smelling the odors of morning, the uncontrollable clicking of his chattering teeth filling his ears. Goosebumps spread up and down his body as he steps over the waning numbers of broken femurs and crushed skulls. The soft carpet of fallen needles and leaves feels like a silk rug after traversing the hard cave floor. Shaking legs, stumbling forward, carry the hunter through the twisting paths of the forest.

Halting, he stands with one foot atop rough and course sand, the first traces of the moon ash. As if waking, he drowsily looks down at the patch of pollen. Closing his eyes, he grimaces as the slow burn builds. Taking another step, he plunges his foot ankle deep into a drift of the red dust. One step at a time, he plows through the moon trees’ poisonous pollen, pink hives crawling up his legs. Knee deep at parts, his bleeding shins pour out rivers of blood onto the red powder.

His movement stirs the dust, filling the air with the choking pollen. Bleary eyed, the trees become shadows against light. Coughing, he pushes onward. At every step, the world grows warmer, patches of sunlight steeling his resolve. The refreshing warmth builds as the moon ash diminishes, the sizzling sound of the evaporating pollen filling the valley.

Breaking out of the line of trees, Richard reaches the edges of the shadows, tears streaming from his eyes. The red pollen, sticking to the wetness of his cheeks, paints his face as if he’s crying torrents of blood. Staggering, his bleeding feet, caked with the malicious moon ash, step into the full brightness of the sun. At once, the cleansing light draws out the poison, dissolving the remaining pollen. His tears are dried and forgotten. Rubbing his eyes, he looks around.

The empty road stretches to the east and west, an unbroken line undauntedly mounting hills and gently passing through valleys. He sees its shrinking thread just touching the last small peak before reaching the Hunter’s Mountain. There he knew it to coil, a circling pathway leading up to the very precipice of the sacred, where earth touches heaven. So much for the eastward way. Westward, the hills and valleys slowly merged, the highs growing less high, the lows, less low. He had never traveled very far west, but heard there to be a great body of water, the Forbidden Sea.

“What are you going to do?” the wolf asked. “Do you think your brothers will treat you as anything other than the monster you’ve become? Be assured, I cannot die, those who slay you become me.”

Richard barely remembers remembering, the type of memory so faded that even trying to think of it obscures everything, his mother speaking of the ocean, of a man who ran away on a boat.

“Do you think you can run away from me?” the wolf laughs. “Wherever you are, be it the peak of the mountain or the depth of the sea, you cannot escape me.”

Closing his eyes, Richard turns his face toward heaven, letting the sun’s warmth cover him. He focuses on that little strip of bamboo he’d accepted, the one that lead him down this path, remembering his duty. Picturing his little hovel, devoid of any decorations say for the scores of bamboo strips hanging from his ceiling, he recalls every monster now slain.

“You’ve already tried shooting me,” the wolf mocks, “do you have any other ideas?”

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