"I have a question," I declared. Ehoa turned to look and the Serpent's unblinking eye bored into mine own, inviting me to continue. Before my courage left me, I asked, "If you are powerful enough to turn your allegiance against the Lord Death, are you not powerful enough to destroy him yourself?" Silence followed, and I swallowed, nervous. "Of course I am." "Then...why don't you?" "Because I cannot." Despair ravaged me from the inside. "I don't understand!" I exclaimed, dropping to my knees. "Tell me why?!" The tunnel rumbled as a low hiss came from the Serpent. "Stand, dotard, before I change my mind to assist you." I stood quickly, panic flaring. After a pause, the Serpent continued. "I cannot, because I am not able. I am powerful enough, decidedly. However, it is beyond my scope of reality to defeat him. The reason for this... It must be you. Has that not been made clear?" "I-it has," I whispered. "Then accept it and finish the task." "You can do it," added Ehoa. "Because you are the only one that can." Redundancy seemed to be a running theme in death. That didn't change the fact that I didn't want to. "We must go now," urged the Serpent, and surged forward, forcing me to race ahead in front of it, lest I be crushed beneath the miles of scales.
I couldn't see his face, but his voice, deep and strong lulled me into a trance. He moved closer, and I hardly dared to breathe. I tried to move, but I found I couldn't...or I didn't want to. He grew closer until he stood directly in front of me. Leaning in, with breath smelling like mint, he murmured, "I have been waiting for you."
With these words, the sword he'd been casually holding in his hand now not so much moved as manifested between the two of us, its cold tingle nearly icy agaisnt my lifeblood. With abhorrence, I realised he'd struck a deadly blow - for all my skill, I never saw it coming. 'Sorcery', I thought, and felt my knees give way - the unfairness of it all hurt me more than the wound. "It's alright," the lulling voice of the apparition sounded; "it is part of the Path."
My spine refused to support me any longer. I fell onto my side, my head striking the ground, unable to brace myself. My eyes, flitting to his face, were the only things I could move. He crouched beside my body, looking serene. A gurgled curse struggled to escape my throat, but he held an icy finger to my lips.
"Shh," he murmured. With savage intent, I attempted to bite his finger, but found that my mouth would not - could not - open. "Now, now, my child..." he whispered lovingly, pinching my nose closed. My mind soon realised that I could not breathe. It panicked, wrenching my body this way and that, trying desperately to fill my lungs with air. I laid there, seizing on the cold, hard floor while he looked on. My vision spotted black. The spots grew bigger and stole away my eyes. In my last moment of consciousness, I heard, "Sleep."
Awareness returned - suddenly, in fact so immediate was my resustication that I was profoundly confused by it. The forest floor I had been lying on had turned to desert sand - no, dust - and the wind bore scents that seemed strange to me. The light was dim and diffused in the mist that hid my surroundings from me, but I recognised the figure standing at a distance nonetheless - even with his hood down and his mantle thrown back. -"You!" I bellowed, and had him at swordpoint faster than I could consciously register. -"You're late," he reproached, looking annoyed and pushing the tip of my sword away from his chin with a frown. "It took you a good long while; time flows a lot less fast overhere, you know. And it's not 'me' - call us brothers, if you must: we're alike, but far from the same."
I kept my guard up, bringing my sword threateningly back into its original position. I knew this man, whoever - whatever - he was, had the advantage in this strange place. The only thing I felt I could do was show him that I would not back down. He sighed, irritated. Stepping back, he opened his arms, vulnerable.
"Come, then, have a go," he beckoned. "And when you're done playing around, I shall make tea, and we shall speak amiably by the fire as if old friends." His declaration ignited a fury deep inside me. I thrust my sword at his stomach. With satisfaction, I felt it dig into his flesh. But he did not fall. I looked at him, the sadistic gleam in my eyes fading. He stepped sideways, disengaging the sword from his body. The sudden (albeit familiar) dead weight in my hands caused the tip of the sword to drop several inches. Glancing at his stomach, I observed nothing peculiar. There was no wound. He was...perfect. Confused and angry, my sword entered through his shoulder. Its momentum carried it diagonally through his body, exiting by his hip. He should have been severely severed, but there was nothing. I sensed his tolerant gaze. It made me feel like a child, and I despised it.
"Now, I believe it is my turn." In a moment, my sword was wrenched from my hands. Before I knew it, he was swinging it horizontally, about to cut me cleanly in half. I had no time to dodge or perceive a way to defend myself. I just stood there dumbly. Then I gasped. A most peculiar sensation coursed through my torso. It tingled and burned slightly, but there was no pain. The sword exited my body and was returned to me.
"So you see," he explained, "I cannot kill you, and you cannot kill me. For this, there is a perfectly logical explanation. I, unfortunately, do not know this reason. Come, Warrior. Walk with me." He turned and entered the mist. For the first time with my right mind, I dared speak.
"Who are you?" I asked. A simple question, but justly complicated, for he could be many things. I specified, to be clear: "What do they call you?"
"I," he replied, "am The Wanderer. I trod The Forgotten Path."
That was all I had to go with, for the time being. He took me into the mists a ways, and I noticed he could make it grow less dense and back away a little by waving his hands at it, not unlike shooing away clingy children. I suspected he had soem sort of control over this environment. He stood still, even though there was nothing in particular in sight that he could have stopped for. -"Must be here somewhere," I heared him mutter, poking the dust at his feet in places. Suddenly, the dust rippled and became water lapping at our toes. "Now this gent, I'm sure you've heard of," he told me, and held up two pieces of silver to the ghastly figure that came rowing towards us from an unseen shore, in a ferryboat made of darkest ebony.
He was correct. The Ferryman I had heard of. He is why our people are buried with two coins. I glanced around, wary of seeing the state of those denied passage. Luckily, I saw none.
"You will not see them where the water does not reach," said the Ferryman. He drew my attention back to himself, and I turned my head. His face, nearly inches from mine, bade me jump back in fright. He was cloaked, it seemed, in the very mist itself. It clung to him and turned a deadly black, appearing almost like cloth, but distinctly otherworldly. His face was hidden - or he did not have one, I could not tell. I went to raise my sword, but discovered I no longer had it in my possession. The Ferryman chuckled, a horrifying sound draining me of all mirth I had or had once had.
"You will not need that where we are going," he whispered. Slowly, he took my hand. As the terror in me was controlled enough the stifle the oncoming panic, I realised something. The Ferryman's hands were far smaller than mine. Not to mention...he was not very tall.
"Well..." the Wanderer murmured, "I say gent..." I sighed in relief. The Ferryman was not a man at all - merely a woman.
"Merely?!" the Ferryman shrieked, turning on me. Her grip began to crush my hand. I tried to pull away, but all I did was begin to sink slowly to my knees. "You think that because I am a woman, I am weaker than a man?!" Her voice of rage resonated threateningly, even in the mist. It grated my ears - a terrible sound. I sought to cover my ears, though I had but one hand at my disposal. "You think that because I am a woman I am not capable of devouring your very soul before you step foot in my boat?! You think that because I am a woman, I cannot keep you from your final destination?! I tell you now, Warrior," she spat; "I am a woman, and I have ALL the power!" Then she was silent, and I no longer had doubt in my mind that she was the most dangerous thing I had ever encountered. She must have known it too, for she released my hand and stepped into her boat. Also, I no longer had any doubt in my mind that I was dead. "Take hold of your quarry, Wanderer," the Ferryman ordered quietly; "lest he fall into the water."
The Wanderer helped me to my feet and led me into the boat. "It does not do to insult the Ferryman," he informed me. "She is very prideful." If she heard, she gave no sign, merely pushing the boat along with her pole.
"Where is she taking us?" I asked, my voice hoarse.
"We travel to your final destination," he replied.
"Your final destination. It is not Death's Palace."
"Where is my final destination, then?"
"You tell me."
"You do not know?" I asked, confused. The Wanderer glanced sharply at me.
"It is your final destination, not mind. Why should I know?" I made no response. None of this made any sense to me. I looked over the side of the boat - and immediately wished I hadn't. Those souls denied passage? I found them. Naked, in the water, they swam towards Death's Palace, seeking refuge. One grabbed onto the Ferryman's pole. She jerked it free and smashed the soul on the head. It recoiled and hissed. She paid it no mind, methodically pushing us along as before.