Time couldn’t be measured when nothing changed. In the silvery land with the red sky, night never came. The only way in which Holk could gauge the passage of time was his growing hunger and thirst. What few healing mushrooms were left in his pack he conserved like a miser would a hoard of coins.
Thrice he had fallen asleep. Each time upon awakening he would consume only a single mushroom. They did much to revitalize him and ease the ache of hunger, but their effects didn’t last long. Hunger would quickly return.
With naught else to do, his attention inevitably turned toward the nearby cage and the dead man within. Being of average height and bearing what at one time must have been fair looks, the man would have passed unnoticed on the streets of Holk’s hometown. In this alien landscape, the dead man’s normalcy felt wrong though Holk couldn’t explain why.
Sometime after his third sleep period, motion from off in the distance drew his attention. At first he thought it might be more of the cage sections moving about, but that notion was soon dispelled as a mass of gigantic proportions gradually made its way through the forest of cages toward him. Drawing his sword, Holk came to his feet and watched.
It would pause at cages, though not all of them. Remaining motionless for several minutes before each, once as long as ten, it would then move on to the next.
As it drew nearer to the cage containing Holk, its features failed to become clearer. Translucent and bulbous, its shape was in a constant state of flux. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect was how there was little transition from one shape to another. It would go from being very tall and towering over the cages to squat and bulging like a short, fat man.
Whatever this was, it had no discernible appendages, head or anything else one would think to find on a living creature such as eyes, nose or mouth. It slithered…though slithered would not be an entirely accurate way to explain its mode of locomotion. Slithering would indicate a gliding and undulation along the ground. This had none of that. Its lower end did not appear to move, yet it did.
During its pause at a cage forty paces away, Holk noticed something within the creature. Though unclear from such a distance, it grew to clarity when the creature continued its movement through the forest of cages and drew closer. It was a landscape.
Stunted trees and misshapen buildings of an unnatural construction could be seen within the creature. But as the creature moved, so too did the scene within it change. It wasn’t until the creature paused at the cage next to his that he realized what he saw could not be within the creature.
When the creature moved, the scene failed to move in sync with the creature, yet still changed as would a coastal scene viewed through the porthole of a ship traveling upon the ocean; the body of the creature being the porthole.
Holk didn’t have time to ponder this new revelation. The creature had moved from the cage and was coming toward him. Fear welled and he held his new-found sword between them.
The creature failed to respond and continued its ponderous approach.
Thrusting the blade through the bars of his cage, Holk again cried, “Back! Come no closer.”
Either unaware or unconcerned with Holk’s warning, the creature pressed forward. It came to within several feet from the tip of the sword before coming to a halt.
The scene within the creature was now in stark clarity. Beings half the size of humans bearing a dog-like bestiality moved among house-like structures situated among hills and trees. Despite the proximity of such a massive creature, Holk couldn’t help but have his attention drawn to the scene playing out within its bulbous mass.
The beings wore clothes, walked on two legs, and smaller versions of the dog-like beings raced as if in play among the buildings.
Houses? Could they be houses? Had they been humans, he would have thought the scene portrayed the humble life of a small village.
A ripple coursing through the bulbous creature ended his contemplation of the village. Though there were no eyes gazing upon him, Holk knew that the creature was aware of him. Backing to the rear of the cage, he held his sword at the ready and waited.
The creature approached until it practically touched the bars of the cage. Suddenly, red light flared from the gem in the sword’s crossbar. Bright, warm and comforting, the radiance instantly dispelled his fear and renewed his courage.
The moment the light sprang to life, the creature vanished only to reappear twenty feet away. So quick had been the transition that Holk almost hadn’t seen it happen. He grinned at the creature, brandished his sword and stepped forward until the glowing gem had passed through the bars and shone unobstructed upon the creature.
“You don’t like this, do you?”
Time passed as the glow radiated forth. The body of the creature continued changing from one aspect to another, all the while as a whole seeming to remain motionless. After an unknown number of heartbeats, the creature moved off toward a nearby cage and the glow faded to nothingness. Holk watched as the creature wended its way through the cages. When it finally passed out of sight back the way from which it came, he turned his attention to the sword and the gem it held.
Whatever power the gem held, it kept the creature from him when active. The hope that he may make it from this place blossomed anew until his gaze fell upon the skeletal warrior within the cage nearest his and the sword identical to his that was gripped in its bony hand. Obviously, the power of the sword would not affect his escape from this cage, since those who met their doom throughout this land had been unable to do so. Still, he could keep the creature at bay and that was something.
Settling down with back leaned against the bars, Holk glanced periodically toward the horizon into which the creature disappeared. Had it been his captor? Or could it have merely been an inhabitant of this land that just happened by?
The way the creature had paused near the cages unsettled him. What could it have been doing? He had felt nothing when the creature stopped before his cage. It could have been that the power of the sword prevented the creature from causing him harm. Of course, the creature could have been nothing more than a visitor similar to those that would frequent Killery’s Menagerie of Fantastic Creatures that came to his hometown when he was a boy. He, too, would stop before different cages to view odd and fascinating animals.
But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the creature had been the scene of a town peopled with beast-like humanoids. The creature hadn’t been large enough to have an entire village within its body. Holk couldn’t rationalize the inconsistencies and so after a while, believed that he had imagined that part of the encounter.
He had plenty of time to contemplate the creature. Six sleep periods passed before a dark shape moved once more upon the horizon. Just as before, the large bulbous creature worked its way among the forest of cages, pausing at some while bypassing others.
Holk came to his feet and drew his sword. He watched as the creature drew ever closer. In every way save one, this creature was identical to the one that had come visiting earlier. The difference was in its hue, it was somewhat bluer than its predecessor. The reason for the color disparity became clear when the creature paused at a nearby cage.
Instead of a village scene with beast-like humanoids, this creature held a scene of radiant, blue water surrounded by beige sand. A strong breeze blew through tall, thin trees growing along what Holk took to be a desert oasis. When the creature moved in his direction, he could almost feel the heat radiating from the sand.
Again, the light sprang forth from the gem and forced the creature back. This visitor remained motionless nearly twice as long as the previous one had before moving off to wend its way through the cages before once again vanishing from whence it came.
Holk had much to contemplate during the time between his next three rest periods. First and foremost were the creatures and the way their skins appeared transparent to reveal a world apart. Or at least that was how he thought of it for there simply was no other explanation that made sense.
The other item was the sword with the gem that sprang to life whenever the creatures came close. Did it react to the creature, or perhaps it reacted to the threat posed to the one wielding it? Either way, it had definitely saved him twice now.
True, it had saved him. But to what end? There were plenty of men wielding similar weapons scattered throughout this silvery landscape. Each had a sword of similar design so it would follow that they, too, had been safe from those massive, shape-changing creatures. Yet they had died.
A way needed to be divined that would enable him to break free from the cage holding him. Though the sword may keep the creature at bay, it would not fill his stomach or quench the nagging thirst plaguing him. Without food and water, he would soon die.
Two mushrooms remained. He planned to consume half of one after his next sleep period in order to make them last. If he hadn’t figured a way out by the time the last one was gone… Shaking his head, he banished such thoughts; they would only sap what courage and strength was left to him.
A way must be found!
Another creature reappeared after his next sleep period. This one held a scene depicting a dead landscape. Holes of perfect circular symmetry dotted a land barren and lifeless. Most of the depressions ranged from small craters to ones that could consume an entire house. Others were so large that they themselves were dotted with collections of the smaller variety.
Again the sword kept the creature at bay and it eventually continued on. Holk leaned against the bars of his cage as the creature disappeared into the horizon. His strength was waning; eating half a mushroom was not nearly as affective as a whole one. The duration before fatigue set in was greatly diminished. Twice more he slept and twice more he ate half a mushroom.
“Looks like this is the end.”
Staring through the bars to his nearest neighbor, Holk chuckled sadly. “After all I’ve been through, I never thought the end would come in such a way.”
The skeletal visage of the warrior stared silently back.
Sighing, he looked down to where his last remaining mushroom-half rested in his palm. He contemplated eating it and be done with it, but instead slipped it back into his pouch.
His stomach cramped and his throat was parched to such an extent that his voice cracked when he spoke. Despite such discomfort, he would wait until after awakening one more time before eating it; if his will remained strong, perhaps he would wait until the one after that.
“You know, I’ve been through quite a bit these last few weeks.”
Attention again returning to the dead warrior, Holk paused and after a few moments of silence, realized he had been expecting a response. Laughter tinged with a touch of madness boiled forth. He raised his sword in a salute.
“At least we can keep the creature away until the end comes, right?” Again he laughed. When the laughter drew to a close, he lowered his sword.
“But what good does it do to keep it away if you are going to die anyway? Allow yourself to endure a few more days of starvation and thirst? Better to die quickly than to wither away like that.”
Empty sockets in a face withered and drawn failed to deliver a response.
“Did I tell you how I came to be here? You might not believe it, but I was in an area where magical mirrors would transport you from one place to another. Hard to swallow, I know. But it’s the gods’ own truth.”
He retrieved his mushroom half and showed it to his skeletal neighbor. “Got this from there; a whole subterranean cavern was full of these. What I would give to be there now.”
Again he contemplated eating it, but instead returned it to his pouch. “I think I’ll save this for tomorrow.”
Several moments passed while he rested quietly against the side of the cage.
“Any idea what those creatures are that come through here? You might think I’m crazy, but it looks like they have worlds within them.”
He looked questioningly at his neighbor.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if this silvery land was inside one of those creatures? Maybe someone else in another cage in another place will see us sitting here having this talk. Wonder what he would make of it? Probably think he’d lost his mind.
“I have to admit, I’ve considered the fact that my mind has been lost and that this is merely a madman’s delirium.” Patting the ground, Holk shook his head. “But I think not. It seems all too real.”
“So, where are you from? Some place around here? Judging by the number of your fellows that have been entrapped here, my guess would be that you are not, but do know how to get here.
“And that leads me to my next question. Why are you here? War? That would make sense seeing as how each and every one of you are armed and armored. Could it be that you are trying to kill those translucent, world-encasing creatures? They don’t appear to like the glow put out by the gem in your swords.”
Glancing to the sword lying next to him, he added, “It would be interesting to know how it does that.” He returned his attention to his neighbor. “I don’t suppose you could tell me?”
The skeletal gaze offered little explanation.
Holk sighed. “I didn’t think so, ‘twas but a thought.”
He sat talking to his neighbor, not an entirely sane activity, but it helped to while away the time. Beginning with the time just prior to the ill-fated attack that resulted in the annihilation of his fellow soldiers, Holk chronicled for his neighbor the series of events which culminated with his current predicament. By the time the full telling had been accomplished, his eyelids were heavy and he pardoned himself of his neighbor explaining that he must put aside the conversation in favor of sleep.
“We’ll continue our conversation when I wake.” If I do. In his present state, he felt that to be a very real possibility but was far too weary to care.
Dreams of home, silvery lands, and skeletal warriors came to an end and consciousness returned. Cracking open his eyelids, his tenuous state of consciousness solidified in a flash when he spied one of the massive, translucent creatures standing at the bars of his cage.
In the moment following recognition, Holk took in the pastoral scene of wild horses racing across a meadow beneath a blazing sun in a clear-blue sky unfolding within the central body of the creature.
Horror filled him upon realizing that a portion of the creature had oozed between the bars and was slowly engulfing his boots. An attempt to pull his feet free proved futile, they were stuck fast like a fly that had landed on a dollop of honey.
Casting about for his sword, he discovered it lying on the ground next to him. As soon as his hand gripped the hilt, the gem burst forth in an amber starburst.
A fleeting disorientation followed and he was outside the cage; his feet still entrapped within the creature. He scarcely had time for this new development to register before experiencing another bout of disorientation.
The glow continued unabated as he was hit with two more times of momentary disorientation. After the last, his feet were no longer mired within the creature. It had let him go and now stood twenty feet away. Holk felt as if the creature was watching him. But since the creature had no eyes or any other semblance to human sensory equipment, it was hard to tell for sure. Then it hit him:
He was out!
Being in contact with the creature when it translocated away from the red glow must have caused him to accompany it. Coming to his feet, Holk felt renewed hope of survival bolster his strength. He grinned at the creature.
“My thanks for freeing me.”
They faced off with the glowing red sword between them for a short time before the creature moved off. Holk lowered the sword and didn’t sheathe it until the creature moved off and the gem’s glow had vanished.
Turning to glance behind him revealed that the creature had brought him quite a ways from his former prison. He could see where it now sat empty. Now he knew how to escape the cages should he again be ensnared. Worried that another of the cages may appear, he searched the horizons but could not see the tell-tale shadows that had preceded the earlier one’s appearance.
He did, however, discover a brightening of the landscape off to his right. Figuring any sort of change to be a chance at freedom, he made toward it with all speed.
It hadn’t taken long before his newfound strength waned and he was forced to consume the last mushroom portion. The small remnant filled him with vigor and enabled him to quicken his pace even more.
The brightening soon clarified into what looked like a bubble rising from the landscape. It was reminiscent of the way bubbles formed on the surface of water during a downpour. Twice as bright as the land surrounding it, the bubble rose to a height greater than that of King Redstorm’s castle back home. At the base where the bubble met the land, periodic perturbations formed cave-like openings. Holk made for the largest one.
At the edge of the opening, he paused and peered carefully within. The interior was not hollow as one would expect of an actual bubble. Instead, it was solid and formed of the same silvery substance that made the landscape. A tunnel of sorts extended some distance deeper within the bubble until curving out of sight to the left.
Holk felt rather relieved upon leaving the exposed surface of the silvery land and entering an area where there were but two avenues from which an attack could be launched; ahead in the tunnel and behind.
Moving forward cautiously, he set out to see where this would lead.