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The Journey of Impossible Things
People had long forsaken the mythical Journey of Impossible Things. Once, thousands would attempt this pilgrimage, fueled by hopeful whispers of a Utopia-like paradise on the other side of this world. Stories ranged from golden trees, heavy with succulent fruit to an ethereal existence where no hunger, thirst or pain could be felt. But this clinging hope of a better world outside of this one was soon sucked away, replaced by superstitious fear as endless travelers entered the path and never returned. The Journey was labeled as cursed, and only ridiculously brave or foolhardy people ever attempted it.
And I was a mere boy, but willing to undertake what adults would not. Today would be the first of many hardships, yet that light of hope on the other side would keep me going. I grinned, exhilarated by the coming adventure. I slung my pack higher up on my back and took the first step.
* * *
The first crossing was the River. It was notorious for having claimed many lives before the path had even properly begun. Below my feet stretched a steep cliff, and three meters down roared tossing, foaming water in billows of spray. On the other side, a good thirty meters away, stood the opposite cliff. Between these two stretched an old, damp rope, tethered onto a jagged rock at either side.
I took hold of what would soon become my lifeline. The rope’s texture was clammy and rough and quite worn. Gritting my teeth, all euphoria gone, I began to shimmy across. The River below seemed to roar and toss with more ferocity as it witnessed a trespasser inching along its width.
I was about halfway across when it happened. What felt like an enormous hand, impossibly strong but cold and liquid, reached up and snatched me from my rope as easily as plucking an overripe cherry.
Suddenly I was engulfed, freezing water tossing me to and fro, invading my lungs, crushing my bones. Vision refracted, bubbles burst with tiny snaps, billows of water crashed into me from all sides. Just like every other fool, I was going to die within the first crossing.
But then the impossible happened. Perhaps it was a hallucination brought on by teetering on the verge of death, but a voice spoke in my head. It was bizarrely smooth and soothing, contrasting sharply with my chaotic surroundings.
A child? I’ve never taken a child before. The voice sounded surprised, and even a little abashed.
I was quick to take advantage of its uncertainty. Yes! I shouted in my head, while my body began to go limp from lack of air. I’m a child, please let me go! My vision was turning into smeared blurs of color. I had only seconds left. My lungs cried for air.
You’re different in another way, too. You’re not on the Journey for personal gain, are you?
I couldn’t answer, my last breath had been used up. The tossing foam around me was a gentle cradle, and the roar of the water had dulled into a low rumble. My eyes closed, and I waited to die.
Then I was suddenly on cold ground, and my lungs had jump-started with a spasm of whooping coughs. Water poured out of my nose and mouth.
I raised my head, with enormous effort, and saw the most improbable sight in front of me.
A little girl of cherubic beauty stood over my twitching body, quite human looking except for the robes that she wore - deep blue and rippling of their own accord like water down a stream. Her hair behaved similarly, honey blond and undulating gently down her back.
“You?!” I managed to gasp. “The goddess of this mighty river is a little child?!”
She smiled shyly. It was hard to think of her as the monstrous, powerful entity that had almost killed me. I realized that I was on the other side of the River now, splayed across the damp, mossy rock. So I had managed to cross it after all.
* * *
“Why?” I asked her later, when I had recovered. “Why didn’t you kill me? How am I so special, to be able to gaze upon the human incarnation of an elemental goddess?”
She turned emerald eyes on me. “There’s something different about you. Not a drop of greed runs in your veins. Perhaps it is because you’re young and uncorrupted; I hadn’t the heart to claim you.” She sighed, and looked away. “Or maybe it is because I’m getting lenient after so long.”
“How… how old are you?”
“More than a thousand years. Goddesses are the slowest aging beings. In our terms I am still a child, so I was given this river to run.”
Her eyes were back on my face. This time I could see the passage of time inside them; smooth, infinite wells of liquid jewels.
I stood up, suddenly unnerved by such unfathomable age. I slung my pack over my shoulder. “Well, thank you for sparing me, but I must go now.” I studied her face out of the corner of my eye. She seemed almost… timid.
“I was wondering,” she began, halting. “If I could… come with you?” She looked up at me through golden lashes, just like a little girl.
I hadn’t realized that my jaw had dropped until I spoke again. Nothing like this had ever happened. A majestic goddess, offering to accompany a mere human? To them we were ants, brief in lifespan, wisdom and purpose.
“I won’t be a burden, I promise!” she said hurriedly, misunderstanding my awkward silence. “I don’t need food or sleep; I feed off of the air itself.”
“It’s… it’s not that,” I stammered. “But… why?”
“You’re not the only one interested in what lies at the end of the Journey,” she replied, slightly defensive. “It has fascinated even goddesses, but we have always been forbidden to leave our roots.” Her eyes strayed to the River, now a smooth, calm strip of flowing water. “But as I have said before, I am a child. I have a right to disobey before I become a self-important, rigid adult.”
I couldn’t help but grin. Impossibly, we had something in common. “Alright, then. But what should I call you?”
She smiled back. “My name is River, of course.”
* * *
It turned out that River and I had a lot to talk about. Although she’d accumulated centuries of wisdom, she was at a loss to how the outside world worked. Her entire life had been spent in between the cliffs, claiming the lives of passersby.
I tried to not think too much about this. Goddesses were different. What did a human life matter to them? It would be like crushing an insect, albeit a great number of them. One at a time. Over a thousand years.
No wonder she had become weary of this sport.
I was deep into a lecture about how a village water system worked when I caught her staring strangely at me. I instantly began to blush, wondering if I had been far too consumed in the conversation to worry about manners. They’d never mattered much to me before, but you could only insult a goddess once.
River grinned at my flustered expression. “Don’t worry,” she laughed. “It’s just… you’re so different.”
“In… in what way?” I asked carefully.
“Every human I’ve met has been bent on calling me O Mighty Wise One before I claimed them, as if that would help,” she snorted. “But you’re talking to me as if I’m your equal.”
“That’s a bad thing, isn’t it?” My breathing quickened. Bringing a goddess down to the lowly level of man was heresy. I wondered how far I could run before she killed me.
She registered my alarm and put a comforting hand on my shoulder. It felt smooth and cool. “No, it’s not a bad thing. Goddesses are flawed, too. We’re not the perfect beings that most believe. Sometimes I think a good dose of humility, what you’re giving me, is exactly what we need.”
“Right,” I croaked, still prepared to flee.
She finally lost patience and rolled her eyes. “Come now, where’s all your bravery? Keep telling me about those charming water mills; I’m enthralled.” I noted a hint of sarcasm, but I hesitantly resumed talking.
We made it to the Burnt Forest before nightfall.
* * *
This second crossing was an enormous valley, a giant sunken bowl covered in coal-dark, leafless trees. River and I stood at the valley’s edge, gazing down the curved slope into the tangled maze below. The only way to the other side was straight through this sea of black.
The sun was beginning to set, staining the sky ahead a garish orange-pink. It seemed to mock us with its unreachability.
But the concept of giving up never occurred to me. I shifted my pack higher again - more of a comforting habit now - and nodded at River. We began our cautious hike down through the grass, which became progressively yellower and eventually faded into bare dirt.
The forest was easily the most miserable place I had ever been in. The trees’ branches reached out naked gnarled limbs to block out the sky, entombing us in darkness. The only light came from slivers that peeked through, which would quickly be extinguished at the onset of night. The density of the trees required one to constantly wiggle through gaps, and sure footing through the roots was impossible, although River flowed easily through it all.
When I tripped and grabbed a nearby tree for support, a film of coal dust clung to my palm. Upon closer inspection, every tree in the forest seemed to be the same, as if they had been burnt countless times and miraculously managed to stay standing. But it was clear that they were as dead as the dusty ground beneath my feet. I shared a look with River; this was an ominous sign. These trees survived fires, but I could not. River was in her human form, and therefore just as vulnerable.
We finally managed to find a small, circular clearing. With a relieved sigh I dropped my backpack, now streaked liberally with coal dust. It matched my clothes, which looked more black now than beige. To my slight annoyance, River was distinctly unruffled and spotless. She noticed my sour look and giggled. “You have coal dust on your face, too,” she teased.
I scowled more deeply tried to wipe it off, but my hands were filthy as well. If only I had water; my bottle had been lost in the River.
She seemed to read my mind. With three claps of her hands a pure, crystalline stream trickled out of the ground. It soon became drinkable, and I was quick to oblige. It tasted cool and fresh.
“How did you do that?” I asked, wiping my mouth.
“I take some of my powers with me. I can draw water out of the ground anywhere, no matter how deep.” She frowned. “But the rest of this forest is bone dry, completely scorched away. What force could have caused this?”
At the moment I was not concerned with such issues. After quickly rinsing my face, I tried to find a slightly softer patch of ground and lay down.
The last thing I saw was River’s back, calmly looking out into the dark maze and pondering deep mysteries that I would never comprehend. Smiling sleepily, I was out in seconds.
That is, until I smelled something burning.
* * *
“Wake up! Wake up!” A small, cool hand shook me into consciousness. With an irritated groan, I opened my eyes.
A wall of fire was descending on us, rushing past the trees like water through stiff seaweed. My fatigue evaporated and I jumped up, taking River’s hand, and ran flat out in the other direction.
River ended up leading the way, smoothly flowing between the trees with me doggedly following her steps. But I knew we weren’t fast enough. The inferno roared behind us, as if consciously determined to reduce the intruders to cinders. I could feel its heat now, a scorching animal tearing at my back and searing my clothes.
A ragged sweat broke out on my face. We wouldn’t make it, I realized with sudden dread. For the second time in a day, I knew I was going to die.
But I had been wrong before.
We suddenly tumbled into a clearing, the exact one we had just fled. The fire had been intelligently herding us! It now ringed the small, circular patch of ground, blazing ten meters high and forming a circular cage around us. We were trapped.
To my horror, I realized what was happening to River. She knelt on the ground, agonized cries spilling from her lips as she stared at her steaming, melting hands. Water and fire destroyed each other; it was common knowledge. And now, in her helpless human form, she would die.
River gazed up at me, crying. Her tears were the exact color of her eyes, liquid emerald jewels streaming down her face. Tears of helpless pain. I knew then that her existence was more important than mine would ever be, and I could not let her die.
I stood in front of the fire and addressed it directly. “Please have mercy and spare us,” I croaked as loud as I could. The smoke had damaged my voice, and at this proximity the heat was almost unbearable. Blisters burst on my shoulders, and my face felt like a grilled piece of meat. My body was protected by my clothes, but they were already smoking.
A deep, rumbling voice answered in my head. Why should I? It growled. I have taken every life I have ever encountered, including that of the trees. What makes you the exception?
“Because I have a goddess travelling with me, and your power is killing her. Is that not an exemplary reason?”
It is certainly unusual to have a goddess stray from her roots, but that is her choice. She chose to brave the hazards of the Journey; and so both of you will suffer the consequences.
Then I remembered why River had spared me. It wouldn’t make things worse to try.
“Please!” I begged. “I am different from the other pilgrims. Look into me, and tell me there isn't anything worth saving.”
There was a slight pause, and our cage of fire seemed to burn a little lower.
Intriguing, the voice mused. You are a child. You have no greed, only a hunger for knowledge and adventure.
With these words, the fire was immediately extinguished, as if pinched out of existence. I took a deep breath of cool air, not caring that it was laden with dust. I then helped River stand up.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
She smiled, glassy-eyed with the relief that follows excruciating torture. “I will be.” She held up her hands. I noticed, with a few stomach flips, that she had lost three fingers from each.
“Don’t worry; all I have to do is draw up water from the earth again. I can heal myself.”
There was a sizzling sound behind us, and we both turned to confront our new acquaintance.
My jaw dropped. He was a child as well, a boy who looked no older than ten. Again, it was hard to associate him with the inferno that had almost killed us. His skin glowed red-hot and his eyes were the color of mottled, shifting coals. He had a certain beauty about him, but it was dark, intense and fierce, not at all like River’s.
I glanced at her, and was surprised to see a look of deep hatred in her eyes. The boy god returned her look, and I was tempted to run away from such charged atmosphere. As the only neutral side, however, I would have to somehow resolve this.
I stepped in between them, trying not to cringe. “Now,” I began hesitantly. “I think that a resolution can be made here.”
“Don’t interfere,” snapped River. “This is an issue of gods, not humans. For once, shut up and get out of the way.”
“So you can do… what? Kill each other? Just because you are born different does not mean it dictates your choices. You have no reason for such hate.”
“He almost killed me!” she snarled.
“And you, River, almost killed me,” I retorted. “Did I hold that against you? It was the duty you had fulfilled for a thousand years. The same applies to this boy god; he was simply carrying out his role.”
As soon as I saw a flicker of hesitancy in River’s face, I turned to face him. “Do you have a name?” I asked, trying to be polite.
He scowled. “Yes, but I wouldn’t tell it to an ant like you. Nothing but an insignificant bug. What gives you the right to address a god like a little child?”
Apparently, the only thing he had in common with River was his age.
“The fact that you spared my life,” I countered. “You have never done that before, so you obviously believe that I hold a higher status than the ordinary human fodder. And you will listen to me.”
He was still scowling, but the fact that I hadn’t been turned into an overdone steak was encouraging.
“Now,” I said to both of them. “It would turn out best for all of us if you settled your differences.” Their faces looked as if I had asked them to eat each other’s feet.
“Why would I do that?” snapped the boy god after a long pause. “I spared both your lives, is that not enough to ask of me?”
“Not if I want you to come on the Journey with us.”
River looked as if she had been slapped. The boy’s, however, was guarded but slightly thoughtful.
“Haven’t you ever wondered what lies at the end?” I coaxed. “You can come with us. You’re still a child; disobey the rules; it will be the only chance you have. No one else will ever invite you, so come with us.”
“He can’t!” River finally burst out, fueled by my use of her own words. “He’s part of a dangerous, untrustworthy race! We’ll wake up, speared on spits and slowly roasting!”
“Who told you that, other water gods?” I challenged. I turned back to the boy. “Well? What do you say?”
He gave me a sullen look but, to my pleasant surprise, he nodded.
* * *
It wasn’t until after a campfire had been made – with help from the boy god, Pyro -- and I’d settled down to sleep did I comprehend the magnitude of what I’d done. I’d united age-old enemies and persuaded them to join me on the Journey!
With a grin, I prepared to drift off for the second time that night. But then a pair of voices spoke behind me.
It was Pyro, talking to River.
“Have you thought of it yet?”
“Thought of what?” River’s voice was stiff and guarded, but at least she was answering him.
“This little human made us take our human forms, something that most gods never do, and even forced an alliance between us! How did he achieve this?”
To my surprise, River laughed a little. “I’ll never understand it myself. He commanded us like children, as if he were the superior one. We may not be as powerful as we believe; we’ve become stagnant in our self-indulgence.”
Pyro made a scathing noise. “I still can’t believe I listened, following orders like an abashed youngling. By my rights I should roast him right now.”
“But you won’t, will you? This boy has a kind of power, the ability to bring people together. It is remarkable, and makes me feel much smaller than he.”
I was almost sure that I was dreaming. No gods ever talked of humans like this.
“You’re not all bad,” River admitted reluctantly. “In fact, I cannot conjure up a single difference between us.”
“Except for the fact that we’re opposing elements and should be destroying each other right now?” I could almost hear the sarcastic grin in Pyro’s voice.
“Don’t be so dramatic. As human incarnations we just have to avoid physical contact with each other.”
“Why were we made like this, locked in a war of prejudice and hate? It was all cooked up by the old gods, it turns out. I don’t see any reason to hate you, except for the obvious.”
“Maybe it’s time for acceptance and change. We’re still children; we’re the ones who have to move forward.” There was a grunt of agreement, and then silence.
I seemed to slip into a deeper state of unconsciousness, because then I heard no more. And when I woke up, I forgot the overheard conversation and wouldn’t remember it for a long time.
* * *
After River put out the remains of the fire with a ground-drawn stream, the three of us set out. Aside from a few loud complaints from Pyro, who hated such slow traveling because he was used to being as fast as wind in his elemental form, the journey was quite pleasant. And although River and Pyro usually made conversation through me, they occasionally exchanged curt words with each other. This wasn’t much, but certainly better than last night.
Like many hopeful pilgrims, we fantasized about what we would find at the end of the Journey. River insisted that it was a bountiful green country, sweet with fresh streams, waterfalls and rivers. Pyro vehemently refused this theory and insisted on the idea of a massive volcano, swollen with lakes of lava and spitting rock, a fire god’s dream. I was uncertain to how Utopia could accommodate such contrasting forces.
“What do you think is at the end?” River finally asked me.
I shrugged. “That’s what we’re on the Journey for, isn’t it? To find out.”
Both of them whined at me. So I gave in and groaned, “Okay, I think that the end brings you to an ethereal existence, where you live without want for all of eternity.”
There was a short silence.
“But that sounds so dull,” Pyro remarked.
“No fun at all,” River added.
I pretended to scowl, but inwardly felt smug. Pyro and River had finally agreed on something. As long as they could do this, I would be their subject of disdain as long as they wanted.
The next few days were monotonous. Pyro aided us greatly with his sense of direction; this was his territory after all. But even though we made significant progress, it felt as if this maze of darkness would never end. Even Pyro was soon discouraged, unaccustomed to such slow going.
But on the third day, the Burnt Forest began to dwindle. The trees were thinner, less dense and even showed some signs of life. River breathed a palpable sign of relief at this; clearly the absence of moisture had taken a toll on her. Within a few hours of climbing uphill – a chore for me, a breeze for the others – we stood at the other side of the valley. There, we surveyed our next crossing. River practically cheered with joy, and Pyro let out a groan.
Wet marshland stretched ahead as far as the eye could see.
I was inclined to side with Pyro. Like him, I preferred dryness to dampness. The moisture made everything clammy, soaked your clothing, carried disease and kept you cold at night. This was my Journey, and I’d already accepted its potential hardships. But did it have to be this arduous, as if intentionally hindering me? River was already far ahead, knee-deep in filthy swamp water and utterly ecstatic.
Pyro and I exchanged a look, and stepped in.
The ground I had been aiming for was revoltingly spongy, pooling around my foot with algae-green water. Pyro was in greater pain, however; I glanced over my shoulder and realized, amid his moans, that his red-hot skin was cooling into a dull scarlet. This entire crossing would be close to agony for him, just as River had been affected by Pyro’s flames.
River finally realized that her two companions were not as fond of water as she, and quickly turned around to help us. She cheerfully shouldered my pack and even helped Pyro with stepping through the sucking earth. A small canvas handkerchief was the physical barrier she used, to avoid contact with his skin as she led him by the hand.
“How much longer?” was Pyro’s first question as we settled down for the night. He had conjured up a blue fire, much hotter than its red counterpart, in an attempt to drive the chill from our bones.
I huddled close to the heat, feeling the clamminess of my boots and my clothes. Water dripped from my hair, still wet from my recent fall face-first into a pungent pool. River had laughed before adopting a serious face, and Pyro had sympathized.
“Oh, not much longer,” said River. For our sake, she was trying to be solemn. “I can communicate with the water here. I’d say it stretches for about two more days.”
“That’s two days too long,” he muttered. I nodded in agreement.
River pursed her lips. “I suffered through your forest, didn’t I? Unless… unless you want to go back?” She sounded half hopeful, but also half melancholy.
Pyro shook his head. “You’re right; this is just another crossing we have to brave through. I don’t want to go back. What’s there for me?”
River grinned, and busied herself preparing my meal.
* * *
It was almost midnight, with Pyro and River keeping watch, when I was woken by an odd sucking sound. Blinking the sleep from my eyes, I joined the others. “What was that?” I whispered.
They both shook their heads in confusion. The blue fire had been dimmed down, offering little illumination.
I looked at the ground I kneeled on. This had been the only dry piece of land within miles. Maybe just like the clearing in the forest, this was a lure to tempt victims here before they were claimed. And then I realized what the sucking sound was.
The ground was sinking.
“Run!” I yelled. I snatched my bag and splashed into the knee-high water. At this time of night it was freezing and my legs had already gone numb. River and Pyro followed me, the latter giving an involuntary whimper on contact with the swamp.
At first I thought we had escaped danger, but then I felt the earth underneath wrap tendrils around my legs. Utterly helpless, I began to sink like a rodent in quicksand.
Leaving the island had been the trap all along.
Pyro was suffering the same fate, struggling but to no avail. River was impervious, however, and had to watch with horror as the ground consumed her friends.
She went over to me, flowing through the water without a ripple and tugged desperately at my arm. I was already torso-deep in the mud, and my head barely cleared the water surface. We both knew that it was hopeless.
Well this does it, I thought sourly, resigned to my fate. Sucked into the ground and choking on mud was not the honorable death I had expected.
I was about to say my last goodbyes to River when I noticed that her eyes blazed - searing sapphire bright enough to illuminate me. She held her hand out, palm down to the earth and commanded in a deep, multilayered voice, “As one of your kin, I command you to release my companions!”
I shivered at the power she wielded, her force almost tangible in the air. To my relief, I stopped sinking.
River was quick to take advantage of the entity’s questioning pause and easily pulled me out. I stumbled back onto the island, coated in slimy dirt from the torso down.
Pyro had to be carried out in River’s arms; the increased exposure to such cold and moisture had rendered him unconsciousness. She lay him down next to me. “Take care of him while I talk to our little earth entity.”
Just before River turned away, I noticed deep welts and scorch marks on her arms where she had touched Pyro.
I was about to check his breathing before I realized how stupid that was. He was a god; what use would he have for ordinary human processes? All I could do was feel the heat of his skin – barely warm – and assume that its temperature indicated his health. If this was the case, Pyro was in bad shape.
With nothing to do but wait for him to wake up, I watched River’s negotiations.
It didn’t surprise me when I saw that the earth god was a child as well. This was more than a coincidence, but I could not see the reason for it. Were the crossings of the Journey considered to be low positions, only suitable for child gods? I expected that guarding such a sacred pilgrimage route would be the highest honor.
The earth god’s skin was the color of rich moss, and his hair resembled tree bark in its texture. But his eyes were the most captivating, enormous orbs glowing with molten gold. He stood confidently in the water, regarding River with interest but not fear.
She spoke first. “May I assume from the fact you tried to kill my friends that you are the guardian of this crossing?”
He nodded, but did not speak.
“You relinquished them from your grip,” she continued.
"But it was not because of my command, was it? The boy was the one who made you let go.”
I gulped when the earth god looked at me. What had I done to prevent him from killing us? Was he angry at me?
He smiled for the first time, revealing childlike pearly teeth that glowed in his dark-skinned face. “This young traveler is quite the intriguing one. I could not help but let him live.”
So the reason for my survival was because of an earth god’s fanciful curiosity. Once it was satisfied, what would he decide to do?
Would he join us on the Journey?
“Would you like to come with us?” I blurted out.
River turned around to give me a disapproving look. “Bringing Pyro along was bad enough; look what’s happened to him! Encouraging gods to be in their human form is dangerous.”
“You don’t have to speak for him,” I argued stubbornly.
“He can tell me himself. What do you say?”
The earth god frowned. “I’m afraid that River has already predicted my response. We are of the earth and have a natural affinity for laying down roots. I could not imagine leaving my home, which I have guarded for over a thousand years.”
“Oh,” was all I could say.
Why was I even asking? Did I have some sort of obsession with collecting gods, expecting them to flock to me like flies to honey? Arrogance, that’s what it was. I still couldn’t believe that River and Pyro had been willing to accompany me, when what they should have done was snuff out my life.
He smiled gently. “What I can do, however, is take you to the other side of this crossing. In my elemental form, it is easily accomplished.”
“Why help us?” I asked cautiously.
“I have evaluated you to be worthy of the Journey, though I have always claimed the few who managed to make it this far.”
“No one has crossed your territory before?”
“Not one. Are you ready?”
But he was suddenly gone, and River had come back to our island. “Hold on tight,” she told me. We kneeled between Pyro, who was still unconscious.
The ground trembled beneath us. “What….” was all I said before our little circle of land began to fly through the swamp.
I crouched on our floating pancake of dirt, squinting as the wind assaulted my eyes and hair. The only thought I had was to hold on as River had instructed. I did manage a peek over the edge of our island, and saw that we were levitating several inches above the swamp, rushing past all of the soggy ground and pungent water.
I couldn’t help but smile.
We arrived at the end of the marshland in just a few hours. Here, the swamp had dried up into a bed of loose, windblown dirt. As soon we crawled off our transport, it sank into the ground and melted away.
“How’s Pyro?” River asked immediately. I’d hauled him away and laid him on his back. His skin was much warmer now.
“He’s a god,” I said, like I knew anything about them.
“I’m sure he’ll survive this.” As if on cue, Pyro let out a huge, gasping breath like a drowning victim suddenly on land.
River grinned with relief – something I acknowledged with surprise – and knelt next to his heaving form. Her hand hovered right above his skin, unable to touch him.
Pyro coughed, puffs of smoke blooming from his mouth, and sat up. “What did I miss?” he asked cheerfully.
* * *
“Face it; we’re lost!” Pyro announced. But the volume of his voice was absorbed by the mist, muffled by it. All around us were sheets and sheets of fine grey moisture. Even though we were all holding hands – with me in the middle – I still couldn’t see their faces.
It’d been hours. The fog had settled on us within seconds of our arrival, rendering us instantly lost. Even River couldn’t communicate with the water in the air; something was blocking her.
“I have a theory,” I said. “The Journey is known to have four crossings. The guardians have been child gods of water, fire and earth. I’m guessing that this final crossing is guarded by a child god of air.”
“That’s genius,” exclaimed Pyro. When I realized that he was being sarcastic, I began to blush.
“Why, did you know this already? I’m not a god, how could I have known?”
“What we need to do is talk to the guardian,” River said. “I believe that we are destined to wander forever until we fade away; that may be how we are claimed.”
“How do we get out of this?” I asked warily. The idea of dying of hunger was not appealing.
River opened her mouth to answer, but an odd sound cut her off. It was a high-pitched whistling, emanating from all around us. Wind began to lick our faces and toss our clothes, and the temperature seemed to drop ten degrees. We huddled close together, helplessly blind amidst the fog.
All of a sudden the mist parted, revealing a gray sky, a flat plain of dirt stretching ahead and the largest tornado I could ever imagine. An enormous column of spiraling air, it whirled in front of us, easily three thousand feet high and a thousand in diameter. The roar was deafening. Soil that it picked up was flung at us in showers of clod. Multiple vortexes began to spring up, closing in maliciously.
We ran, squinting our eyes against the barrages of dirt and wind and trying to dodge in between the smaller tornados. But with every new turn, a furiously roaring column blocked our path. This was the air god’s attack and the most devastating that we had faced by far. My brain ran in meaningless spirals as I mindlessly dodged death, over and over.
But to our shock, columns of flying earth began to coalesce, forming gigantic hollow cages around the twisters and trapping them in place. With a final blast of dirt-laden air that knocked us flat, the sky was suddenly clear, aside from the astounding sight in front of us.
The child god of air hung suspended upside down above us, in her helpless human form and trussed up in ropes of solid earth. She thrashed furiously and snarled at our gaping faces, her ethereal, translucent hair undulating gently like deep-water seaweed. Her glowing, ice-blue eyes glared at a spot behind us, flashing with hatred, and we all turned to look at our rescuer.
It was the child god of earth. He smiled at us and said, “Is the offer to travel with you still open?”
* * *
The four of us stood together and surveyed our prisoner, still tied up in midair and completely unwilling to communicate with us. Every time we tried to talk to her, she hissed with a contempt so venomous that we didn’t dare continue.
River frowned. “Gods don’t usually behave like feral animals. I wonder what has happened to her.”
“It must be the isolation,” the earth god, Moss, offered. “She has never claimed any victims or interacted with anyone in her whole life. I doubt that she even knows how to speak.”
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Pyro asked pointedly.
Moss looked at him, perhaps surprised by his directness, and responded rather shyly, “I don’t know what I was thinking when I refused to come with you. I suppose I’m getting too old and stagnant. The idea of adventure was the first spark of anything interesting in over a thousand years. So after a few hours of pondering, I followed you.”
“Well thank goodness you did,” I remarked, my eyes flitting to the air goddess again. “You saved our lives by trussing her up.” In response, she snarled at me.
“What do we do with her now?” Moss asked. “Her entire purpose is to stop people from crossing. If we let her go, she’ll kill us all.”
“And we can’t keep her tied up forever. That would be hell for her, eternally unable to regain elemental form,” River added. “Perhaps the only way through is to negotiate with her.”
I sighed, and it turned into a large yawn. “How about settling down for the night? It’s getting dark; maybe a few hours will calm her down.”
So after Pyro had lit a fire, Moss had drawn up edible plants from the ground and River had let me fill my bottle, I curled up on the dry dirt and slept.
* * *
I was woken by a pitiful moan, the sound of an animal in terrible pain. Sitting up, I realized that it was the bound air goddess, making sounds filled with sorrow and helplessness. I crouched with the others, and we all stared in perverse fascination as she wailed.
But it was soon too much for me. “Let her go,” I suddenly said. Moss looked at me in shock. “Let her go!” I repeated. “Can’t you hear that? She’s hurting!”
River and Pyro began to protest, but the earth ropes binding her had already been dissolved by Moss, and she floated down towards us as delicately as a jellyfish in a calm sea.
The air goddess was as beautiful as the others. She was entirely translucent, so light and frail looking that she could have been blown away by a summer breeze. Her hair seemed to have a life of its own, lazily waving and shifting around her even as she sat still. She had bleak and sorrowful eyes, which had shown such fierce hatred only a short while before.
I cautiously approached her, but she showed no sign of wanting to harm me, only defeated despair. I knelt next to her.
Gradually, she looked up.
“Can I call you Veera?” I asked gently. “She was an ancient air goddess, and I think that it’s suitable, unless you can tell me your real name?”
Veera seemed to understand me. She nodded slightly, and tentatively reached for my hand. I unconsciously held my breath, willing myself not to move. Soon her translucent digits touched mine, causing an electric, tingly sensation to streak up my arm. Veera started, eyes widening in wonder, and I realized that this was her first physical contact with anything living.
Before I knew it, she was in my arms, holding on to me as if I were her lifeline. I looked over her shoulder at Moss, River and Pyro, who were all wearing comically human expressions of awe. I grinned at them helplessly, confronted with Veera’s heartbreaking vulnerability. She felt like a child, not a thousand-year-old magnificent goddess. Yet here I was, cradling her as one would do with a distressed toddler.
The most shocking thing was when I realized that Veera had fallen asleep clinging to me. Gods shouldn’t need rest. But her breathing was slow, her eyes closed peacefully. Pyro seemed to know what to do, and scooped her up in his arms. He carried her close to the fire and lay her down comfortably. Veera curled up into a little bundle on the ground and snoozed on.
“We don’t usually need sleep,” Moss explained to me in a whisper. “But when gods go through emotional turmoil or a very traumatic event, even we need some time to recover. I think she’s earned it.”
I nodded numbly, still shocked by her… humanity. This journey had done more than earn myself allies; it had changed my preconceptions too.
“What next?” River asked in a hushed voice. To my embarrassment, they all looked at me for the answer.
“W-well…” I stammered. “I suppose we should take Veera with us. She’s clearly not very happy here.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
“I wonder if she’ll kill me first,” Moss mused. “I’m the one who tied her up, after all.” I noticed with irritation that River and Pyro were nodding in agreement.
“Listen to yourselves,” I scolded. “How can you have such prejudices against Veera? I got you three together, didn’t I? No one has killed another yet. Not even River and Pyro, supposedly sworn enemies.”
“But Veera is a feral god,” River insisted. “There have been others, and they never act predictably.”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to take the risk. I’m not leaving her here, especially since she’s been alone her whole life already. If Veera wanted us dead, we already would be.”
We all glanced at Veera’s sleeping form, so small and vulnerable. She rolled over, hiccupped, and began to snore gently. Even Pyro’s expressions softened.
“Look,” I whispered, so as not to wake her up. “You three have your various elemental abilities. I’m sure you’ll be able to overpower her if you need to. And if she still makes you nervous, keep a watch on her. I promise we’ll be fine.”
Without waiting for a response I lay down, settled myself, and fell asleep instantly.
* * *
We set off next day at dawn for what would be the final stage in our journey. Veera stayed very close to me as we walked, casting fearful glances at Pyro, River and especially Moss. Contrary to their expectations she was not hostile to them, simply afraid. Instead of the snarling animal we’d met at first, Veera was a timid creature clinging onto my arm for dear life. Through our first contact she had somehow formed an inescapable bond with me.
The landscape seldom changed from the endlessly flat, barren plain of brown dirt. Hours passed. Though the Journey had been rarely monotonous, it really stretched out when it did. There was no use asking guidance from the mute Veera.
We stopped at around mid-afternoon. Our surroundings still looked the same; we may as well have not moved at all since morning. Finally, desperation caused me to turn to Veera.
“Do you have any idea how long this crossing lasts?” I asked her. She looked at me in confusion, from the question or the language I couldn’t tell. She finally shook her head slightly, more of a tremble than anything else.
“But don’t you know your own territory? You can communicate with the air, can’t you? Can you tell us how much there is to go?”
“There are trace amounts of water in the air,” River offered. “Now that Veera is no longer blocking me, I can help.” She closed her eyes, and her brow wrinkled in a frown. “Now that is… strange…”
“What?” Pyro demanded.
“This territory is… never-ending…”
“D-did you say…?”
“She’s right,” Moss announced. “The earth says the same. This place is… infinite… like we’ve reached the end of the world.”
“Then what do we do?” Pyro snarled in frustration. “Have we gone on this journey for nothing?!”
I paced in circles, wracking my brains. How could this be? Was the Journey of Impossible Things a complete fabrication? This seemed like a ridiculously cruel trick to pull on so many pilgrims, even for the ancient gods. They were probably laughing at us right now.
What could we do? Go back? I wasn’t about to give up, but this seemed to be the only option. Bitter disappointment flooded me, rising over my head, and I had to sit down with its weight.
The four gods stared at me as I cradled my head. “I’ll go on,” I finally croaked. “If any of you want to leave, now is the time. But I’m continuing.”
River scowled at me. “Of course I’m not leaving you. How else are you going to get fresh water?”
“And how would you light a fire at night?” Pyro added.
“Or have anything to eat?” Moss interjected.
I smiled at them, appreciating their loyal company for the first time instead of their magnificent pedigrees. “Alright, let’s keep walking. Veera?”
I turned to her, but she was kneeling on the ground staring intently at a patch of dirt. Glancing at the others in bemusement, I settled down next to her and looked at the same spot. Then I saw it; the smallest sliver of what looked like blue sky. My hands moved to dig before my brain had caught up.
Veera realized what I was doing and obligingly helped. Soon there was a hole in the dirt the size of my head, and underneath a thin layer of earth was a blue sky, a blanket of mist and a waterfall below us. Somehow, this entire, infinite plain was hanging in midair.
But Moss was quick to refine my theory as soon as he had a look. “We’re not suspended in the sky,” he told me. “This world underneath us is a… hidden piece of land that can only be accessed here. I’m sure that this was done by the ancients.”
“What do we do?” River asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Pyro replied. “We go down.”
* * *
Veera cleared away the mist for us, giving us a better view of the colossal waterfall. The precipice that its river gushed from was at least ten meters below, and the pool that it eventually roared into at least a hundred.
River went down first, dropping from the edge of the hole into the foaming goliath. She landed somewhere amidst the white spray.
Veera was next, floating downwards like a windblown feather.
Moss dropped into the hole as well, and then it was just me and Pyro. I gave him a sympathetic look before I jumped.
For many long seconds there was nothing but my body in free-fall, the air rushing in my ears and the unsettling feeling of having left my stomach behind. Then I hit the pool with a splash and water was suddenly all around me, muting the outside world, chilling my bones. I hung there for a long time; it was so peaceful here. The water was delightfully clear and had a tropical-blue tint. I could clearly see the bottom, about thirty meters below my hovering feet.
Finally, I gathered my strength and kicked out for land. I emerged from the pool, gasping for breath. Perched on algae-covered rocks were Veera, River and Moss. Pyro soon joined us, complaining loudly about the moisture while it steamed off of his body.
I looked around. We were in a circular piece of land consisting of only the pool, the waterfall and a handful of mossy boulders. Surrounding this little clearing were steep cliffs, with no footholds or purchases. Above our heads was a beautiful blue sky; there was no trace of the underside of the dirt plain. Soft tufts of grass and bouncy moss surrounded my feet. This looked like part of a forest, except there were no trees or a way out.
As pretty as this place was, it was still a prison.
“What do we do now?” Moss asked pleasantly. He looked quite at home here, surrounded by so much greenery and life. The rock he sat on could have been his throne.
“Let’s look around,” I suggested, fighting with desperation. “There must be a reason this place was hidden here. It must be the final crossing.
“Or we just marched into a dead end,” Pyro said grumpily. “The ancient gods were notorious for their cruel sense of humor after all.”
* * *
We combed the place for hours, and found no signs of our next move. There was nothing out of the ordinary, not even inside the rocks that Pyro split open for us. Weary with disappointment, I took a swim in the pool with Veera, Moss and River. Pyro stubbornly stayed ashore.
I liked to completely submerge myself underwater, sleepily paddling around and letting the outside world fade away from my eyes and ears. River used her abilities to give me air to breathe, so I didn’t need to surface until I wanted to. It was a curious sensation, inhaling water and exhaling bubbles without drowning. I could take my time to look around.
Lucky that I did, because my eyes caught something I had missed before. It looked like an underwater entrance, on the same side that the waterfall was hammering above. I swam over to it, feeling my ears compressing in my skull from the pressure. Just as I suspected, it was a hole in the algae-smooth rock wall, just big enough for me to fit through. Inside, I only saw darkness.
So I did the only logical thing; I swam right in.
* * *
Five minutes later I rose up to the surface. Moss, Veera, River and Pyro were all back on land. They must have seen my facial expression, because River asked worriedly, “What’s wrong?”
“Come with me,” I said croakily. “That includes you too, Pyro. There’s something I think you all need to see.”
* * *
“What could this mean?” Moss said half to himself. We were all standing in a cavernous grotto, a pocket of air in the solid rock behind the waterfall. The cave was about the size of a small house, but with a ceiling so high the top was invisible in the gloom. Phosphorous rocks offered us some illumination, as well as bouncing the slightest sound all over the cave. To our left was the water, lapping gently at the dark shore.
And Moss was indicating not our surroundings but a quartet of round, worn stones that formed a square formation on the ground. Their shapes were too regular in size and shape to be an accident of nature. On each stone was a unique rune.
Pyro conjured a small fireball in his hand, immediately outshining the glowing phosphorescence and bathing us in warm, golden light. He knelt down and looked closely at one of the stones.
“Look!” he suddenly exclaimed. “It’s the rune of fire!”
Indeed it was. It was a finely carved little symbol, worn away by centuries but still clearly showing a drawing of a flame.
River found her rune too, three parallel waving lines. Soon Veera had hers, and Moss confirmed the pattern by looking at the one left.
“But, why?” Pyro asked. “What’s the point of this? Were we all meant to come here all along?”
And then the realization hit me like a thousand bolts of lightning. The Journey, the crossings, the gods… it all made sense now.
I jumped up, suddenly eager to expel some of this manic energy. I began to pace in a circle around the four gods.
“Something wrong?” Pyro asked.
What a silly question, I thought distractedly. Did I usually do this?
Piece by piece the puzzle fit together, finally forming a glorious, understandable whole. I forced myself to stop, and looked at my friends, identical looks of puzzlement on their faces. Each of them kneeled next to their stone.
“I think I know how to reach the end of the Journey,” I said.
* * *
“River, you once said that children were the ones to make a change. That’s the reason all the crossings are guarded by child gods; so that they can do something different, break tradition. And you did that! You befriended Pyro and vice versa, despite an eternity of hatred and prejudice. A mature god would never have the capacity to.”
“What are you saying, then?” River asked.
“I think… that I was meant to bring all of you with me. The stones here are proof. The only way that any human can come this far is with the support of the guardians, not by somehow dodging them.” I frowned. “But why me? How am I worthy of reaching the end of the Journey? I’m not…”
Pyro scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid. Remember why we all let you go? You have no greed, no hatred in you. That is a precious find, and we all know that. So we let you live.”
“You united us,” Moss added. “Few people can achieve this feat.”
River chuckled. “Yes, you bullied us somehow and forced us to listen to your every word. And for some reason, we did.”
I felt a rush of heat in my cheeks, and it wasn’t altogether unpleasant. I looked down, suddenly shy with their attention.
Veera made a questioning growl, the closest she could come to a question. But we all knew what she meant. What was at the end of the Journey?
And then a warm flow of knowledge trickled into my brain, cemented in utter certainty. I couldn’t say how, but I now knew what had to be done. “Take your stones and stand up,” I instructed them quickly. They did, albeit with doubtful looks, and cupped the little rocks in their hands. I stood in their center so that I could look at all of them. “Now… focus your power on it, if you know what that means.”
The four gods stared at me in surprise, but promptly followed my vague direction. And almost immediately the four stones in their hands began to glow. Veera’s was white, Pyro’s was red, Moss’ was green and River’s was blue. A column of blinding, opaque light spread from the rocks and formed a bright tube around each of them. Suddenly the cave was ablaze with brightness, and I had to squint against it. I looked up; the light columns reached the top of the cave, which was at least a thousand feet high, and began to spread along the walls like a liquid stain. They merged with each other, flowed down the cave walls and coated the ground in light. Soon the only non-blinding spot was the stone square I stood in, with the four gods at its corners. I noticed that their eyes, too, blazed with colored fire, like the time when River had commanded Moss to release me in the swamp. But then the brightness was too much for me, and I clamped my eyes shut. A distant humming sound, rich with power, started to grow, louder and louder until my eardrums almost burst.
Finally there was a deafening blast, and all was silent.
* * *
All around us was a brand new world. On our little stone square, we stared in wonder at sweet-smelling meadow we stood in. The grass was fragrant and green, the clouds white and fluffy. Birds of all sorts flew above our heads and twittered in joy. The sun glowed brightly above, warming our faces.
Automatically I reached out a hand beyond the square, and was met with a resistance. The air rippled like water where I touched it. Another flow of knowledge entered my brain.
“It’s a gateway,” I said to them. “Once we pass into this other world, we can’t go back.”
“Why are we here?” River asked.
“This entire world… is for us,” I replied. “There are no gods to govern it. That’s why we’re here. Four elementals who have learned the gifts of tolerance and love, and one human to open the gates and unite them.” But with these words I also knew one more thing: in this fresh new world, gods could not take human form. This would be our last meeting.
I embraced each of them. Our goodbyes were solemn but not melancholy. Although we’d never talk again, we’d always be near each other forever.
“Are we ready?” They each smiled and nodded.
Moss and Veera grasped hands, and River and Pyro did the same on my other side. I noticed that neither River nor Pyro suffered from the contact. We were past that now.
We then took the first of many steps into our new world, which we named Earth.