Ashes

Death was all around me.

I woke up in the dungeon, certain of wasting away another eternity. But I had found an opening that led away from the ground. My luck even threw me a chance savior to complement this discovery.

“Come, you’ve waited for too long,” said the hooded figure. I could not tell if it was death, or if it was indeed some mortal who was saving me. I hadn’t seen the light of the day for so long, yet when his clothed head hovered into sight, I could tell that it was dark outside. There was a lasting hint of smoke and the strong, painful scent of ash. Ash that had formerly been the greatness of an empire. Ash that had formerly been people, and homes and lives.

“How did you find me?” I asked, not wishing to know this savior’s identity. If he meant to wear a hood, it probably implied that he wished to remain a secret anyway and I did not want to lose his good favor by asking him a question that might offend him.

“It is my duty to find that which is hidden,” was the cryptic response.

I decided not to ask him any further questions. Perhaps he was a thief, who had shared the dungeon space with me. Perhaps he too was someone who abhorred secrets and could only express his curiosity by being offensive. Perhaps his crime was so heinous, he would rather leave it to silence.

I had expected that if someday I could flee the dungeon, I would be asked what my deeds were to have warranted criminal punishment. But this stranger in a hood, this man who rescued me, literally pulling on my hands in order to get me out of the coal-filled dungeon remained silent.

“How are we leaving?” I asked, trying to focus on the present. My knuckles and fingers were white with holding on to the rock crevices that dotted the steep upward climb to freedom.

“I have a chariot,” said my companion, in a tone that neither extravagant not modest. A chariot, plain and simple. Horses seemed to paw the ground and I felt the tremors as fingers heaved the entire weight of my body upwards.

When I had finally reached the surface, I was panting and puffing and grunting, much like a petty fugitive. I was given to understand that I would have to move quickly in order to make my escape successful, but I was merely too weak and too exhausted to continue without rest. In this brief moment of respite, I took stock of my scenery.

The sky was dark, yes. But it was still day. Cloudy and seasoned with ash and dust, the diffused light seemed to color everything with a desolate shade of grey, and in the corners where light refused to touch, the grey saddened to black. Perhaps it was my poor vision, but the beautiful green scenery of our countryside was now the favorite color of death. I could not tell if all the land had been burnt or enough dust had settled on them to color them all grey. Mountains, hills, valleys had forgotten what green looked like.

In the midst of this transformed view of my world, silence and the hooded savior punctuated the scenery.

“Wh-what..happened?” I asked more to myself than to anyone else.

“Surely you know of the war?”

Of course I knew about the war. The war was one of the sole reasons that I had been in the dungeons to begin with. But this ominous silence, this grey world did not speak of glorious battle and all it’s frenzied, furious colors and aggressive participants. No, no. This stench was that of defeat.

The contemplative silence was interrupted by a distant echoing screech. It was the cold, echoing kind that made the raw, exposed skin on the back of my neck crawl and my fingers convulsively close in on themselves.

“The dragons came. Your kingdom was defeated,” said the voice underneath the hood. It was perhaps too succinct for me to believe it, especially from a word-of-mouth perspective. But when I saw the black, wing-like creatures I had mistaken for birds grow into something immensely larger with the distance, I felt the full impact of what he had said. Dragons. Blood-thirsty and angry. If they had found us, we were sure to have been decimated. Is that why there was nobody around? Not a single soul in sight?

“Are we the only ones left?” I coughed up.

“It does not matter. We will leave anyway.”

Yes, yes. In a chariot. I was going to run away. From one dungeon to another, I seemed to be constantly escaping.

The carriage of the chariot was an open, iron enclosure. It seemed too heavy to be pulled just by two white horses, yet in my earnest yearning to depart, I was all too eager to forget just how much it seemed to be another method of taking a captive. I jumped into the metal cage, and all too soon the metal locked itself shut.

“What’s going on?!” I said, paranoid, grabbing onto the coarse metal texture of the cage in fright.

“It is a precaution. If anyone sees us, they will think that I am merely transporting you to a greater punishment,” said the voice under the hood, perhaps with a tinge of a sneer.

His lie would have been more believable if I could find any evidence of another person being alive at all.

“Let me go!”

There was no response. He picked up the reins and they burned under his clasp. The horses, threatened by fear, or the spectacle of ruin or through some supernatural strength began their journey across the grey plains.

“Who are you?” I asked. It was time to get some answers. This had been a trap to get me out of prison and in my desperation to escape, I had given in to the traps of naiveté.

The horses’ hooves attacked the ground like alien beasts and the dragons circled in the distance, screeching in joy to each other of probably the singular discovery of viable prey.

“I deserve an answer!” I hollered over the sound of accelerating hooves. The ash kicked up by the horses made me cough, but the metal contraption refused to give in to my persistent claustrophobia.

“You deserve nothing,” said my companion coldly. His voice sounded like the black ooze of hate.

I tried to lean against the metal, but the constant motion chafed my skin. The large gaps of the cage were not big enough to let me out of this sudden dupe either. I had not borne a weapon in nearly two decades, if I could get myself out of here….

But then, as my companion rode on, the grey expanse seemed to stretch to infinity. The hills, the shadows, the sky, they all looked the same. If it weren’t for the hoof-marks left on the dust, I would have imagined we were stationary.

I was however, solitary.

If indeed I do escape where would I go? I had never imagined that such a day would come when I would be granted freedom, if indeed this travesty could be called that, and wonder what to do with it. What was the worth of freedom when all you escaped was from one hell to another?

“Are you enjoying the sights of freedom?” asked the hooded rider, jerking the reins back suddenly and sending me skidding to the back of the cage, where I dangled dangerously over the charred remains of human corpses splayed over the field. A closer look at the ground revealed that we weren’t even traveling on grass anymore. An occasional skull and semi-decayed bone brought fine shades of white into this monochromatic world. For a moment, images of those skulls and bones being a part of a human being, with flesh and blood who walked about and spoke and fought flitted through my head. Perhaps the land had been green then.

I had been asked a question and I did not answer. My rider cracked his flaming whip again, capturing my attention.

“I am not,” I replied simply, exhausted, anxious, tired and saddened beyond measure. It occurred to me that the traveler might be riding me on to death. Surely whatever death he was leading me to would be more pleasant than having my bones picked clean by dragons. I suppose I should not have protested so much about being inside this cage.

“Who are you?” I was encouraged from his last response and roused to a query.

The horses jumped over the debris of homes and villages. I waited in the eternity of the grey of the dried blood and the aura of nausea and hate that encompassed the world.

“Do you know who you are?” asked the rider this time. I did not know how to respond to the absurdity of the question. I obviously knew who I was. I wanted to know who he was, saving me, showing me this, dragging me against my will to some unknown destination that very well could be the fantasy of the dead. For if it was something that I knew for certain, from my time in the dungeon and from my escape outside, death was all around me.

“Yes.”

“Then you should be enjoying the sight of your own handiwork,” said the hooded figure. Perhaps I had inhale too much ash and seen enough dried blood to understand that he was accusing me as the sole cause of this pseudo-complete destruction. Fugitive as I was, I refused to let the guilt of the apocalypse weigh down on my shoulders. Without proof and reason, I did not have to believe this hooded figure’s words.

“Stop your games and set me free.” I countered.

“Set you free? In this land where there is no life and where there is no world?”

“I cannot believe that this is my home. You may have spoken of dragons and destruction and even claim the right to have saved me, but I do not recognize this place and I do not know you.”

“Despite your disbelief, tell me, have I been lying to you?”

I chose not to answer that. Whatever else he was, he had not lied to me. He spoke of the dragons and I had seen them with my own eyes. He spoke of the destruction and I had seen it with my own eyes. Unless his spoken word could conjure up phantoms at his will, he was telling me the truth.

“Who are you?”

The horses were settling down to a gallop. I recognized from the hoof-prints that we had been here before. There was a large hole in the ground, from where it seemed as though robes of a person had been hauled up.

“This happens every time, doesn’t it?” said the rider to his horses. They neighed in response, as if understanding his question. I didn’t understand anything at all. “What is all of this? I demand answers!”

“Quiet,” said the being under the hood. “It is time for you to rest. Here is a spot where the dragons won’t find you.”

The location seemed all too familiar to be unknown. It was the dungeon. Again.

“Why have you brought me here?”

“This is where you rest.”

“Who are you? And what is the meaning of this pathetic realm?!”

“Ask no more and rest yourself. Tomorrow, I will come again.”

The metal locks on the cage opened and against my will I was dragged from it to the ground. For the first time I was holding on to the metal bars in some expression of yearning instead of disgust.

“Who are you?! Please!”

The hooded figure stroked my face with a cold, grey hand. “This world is your hell. Tonight you will rest. Tomorrow, I will come again.”

“Why? To show me the grey world?”

“It is your world. It is my duty.”

“But…but …but…I don’t want to go. I want to escape.”

“There is no escape from infinity. However, there is rebirth. You will forget today and begin anew tomorrow. You will know who you are.”

I was not understanding at all. I am fairly sure this was all a dream. But this dream, and his voice and his cold, soothing touch killed my keen spirit slowly and gradually. The last I remember was him promising to come again….

…..Death was all around me.

I woke up in the dungeon, certain of wasting away another eternity. But I had found an opening that led away from the ground. My luck even threw me a chance savior to complement this discovery…..

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