Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Wizard’s Task: Conclusion

It had been a few years since I had been behind the wheel. I was probably enjoying the experience much more than I should have when I glanced down and noticed I had run the 4×4 up to 75 mph. I hadn’t noticed a speed limit sign in a while, but I imagined that these little mountain roads did not top 45. Slowing down didn’t ruin the excitement, but I decided to turn the radio up to enhance my enjoyment. I tuned in the Classic Rock station and enjoyed the last half of Brown Eyed Girl. 
Traffic was incredibly light. Cades Cove offers bike riders the right of way to the park by not opening their gates to cars until 10 am on Saturdays. Once upon a time, I had been an avid biker. Perhaps when this errand was behind me I would buy myself a mountain bike and get back into it. I was feeling good enough that I might actually consider getting back into the real world.  
As I turned onto the main road into the Cove my radio cut out as neatly as if I had pushed the power button. I glanced at the radio and was surprised to see the display still lit. Out of the corner of my eye, I realized I was not alone in the cab of the truck. I swerved in surprise and had to fight the tires back onto the asphalt.  
Sitting in the passenger’s seat looking extremely calm was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He had chocolate-hued skin and caramel colored eyes. His head was bald and his face was shaved clean. There was an odd shape to his eyes and ears that made him look exotic. I couldn’t place his ethnicity. He smiled at me and in an oddly musical voice said,” I’m sorry to frighten you, friend. I rarely see an opportunity to intervene in events that won’t lead to calamity. It was imperative that I speak to you before you enter the enchantment the druids have laid around the Cove. Pull the vehicle over please.”
His accent made me think of warmly baked desert sands. 
I quickly decided that anyone that could simply appear in the truck with me had power enough to be cautious. I found the next pull off and slid the truck to a stop. The man got out quickly and quietly and beckoned me to follow with a motion of his hand. As he slid out of the truck I noticed he was wearing loose fitting clothes that I did not know the proper names for. They were made of a white material that looked a bit like a shiny linen.  
I quit staring and jumped out of the truck. The man was lowering the tailgate. I made sure that my largest knife was still in its sheath at my belt and then walked back to join him. With one long-fingered hand, he motioned for me to sit. I declined with a shake of my head. “Very well. I mean you no harm traveler. In fact, I have watched over you for some time. I am Montu. It would seem your travels have brought you to a crossroads…” 
The name tickled at my memory, but I was too frustrated and feeling the after-effects of the shock of his sudden appearance to think about it. “Let me guess, Montu, you want me to give you the book. You want me not to make the delivery. You want to save me from some dark destiny. Blah, blah, blah. At this point this narrative is boring.” For a moment Montu’s face seemed to sharpen in anger. Something seemed to shimmer at his hip. As soon as he schooled his emotions the shimmer vanished.  
“Quite the contrary, Ethan. I do not fear the conflict that is to come. The Wizard has vouchsafed your survival by giving you the boon of his amulet. You arrive as a messenger, but I notice that you are also lightly armed for battle,” he said with a motion toward the knife I had mostly concealed under my shirt tail.  Confused, I asked,” If you aren’t here to stop me, does this mean you want Andris’s package delivered?”  
He nodded and said,”The old wolf has planned well. His enemies may be right in their resistance, but I do not judge such things. I look to the coming battle with hope for the future. Where there is a conflict there will be heroes and warriors. You could become one of those. I would offer you my blessing.” 
“Aw, Gosh. Your blessing. That gives me a tingle in my coin purse, Monty, but I think I can handle dropping off a book without your bye or leave,” I said with enough venom I was surprised. Montu’s eyes narrowed and his form flickered. As if I were seeing a Mirage his head became that of a Falcon. A crown rested on his feathered brow. The weight of his gaze drove me to my knees. 
A growl rumbled in my chest but was drowned out by a booming laugh from Montu. Surprised I looked up at his face which was completely human once again. He was smiling down at me with a look of genuine amusement. “The wolf has left a deep impression on you. Because of that, I will ignore the anger that is not your own. I also see that I cannot arm you further until your delivery is complete.” He offered me a hand up. I took it and leaned on the truck for a moment overcome with the rush of anger inside me. 
Montu smiled and said,” Once you have completed your chosen task come to the home you have forsaken and you will find me there. I will arm you for the upcoming war no matter which side you shall take.” Shocked I simply nodded. He bowed his head toward me and vanished. From above me in the trees, his voice called,” Another would be savior comes to you swiftly. Be careful in your dealings, my friend, this one has allies even more terrible than your wolf.” 
I sighed and sagged back against the truck. I had just closed my eyes when I felt an arm snake beneath my chin and a voice hiss,” Make the slightest move other than what I tell you to do and I will cut your throat.” I started to nod and thought better of it. The arm was tight against my windpipe and I had to croak out,” Whatever you want.” 
The voice hissed out again,”I have a very large pistol aimed at the back of your head. I am going to release you. You are to come around away from the road. Keep your eyes down as you walk. Do as I say and you will not be harmed.” I agreed quickly. The arm withdrew with lightning speed. I watched the road and walked around the truck. It struck me that cars were passing by, but no one seemed to be paying me any attention.  
I stopped and waited. The springs of the truck creaked and something flew over my head and landed on the far side of me. I closed my eyes. The voice came again. This time it was less of a hiss, but still muffled and strange. It said,” You can face me now.” I turned and was surprised to be looking down at a crouched figure. It had a mask covering its face that was a sort of likeness of a human face that had been stretched and flattened and the nose removed. It was either made of a dark blue stone or very convincingly painted. A pair of deep green and very human eyes stared out of the eye holes of the make. The mask was surrounded by a deep and heavy hood that met with a sort of poncho that covered the figure almost completely. One heavy gloved hand pointed a huge revolver at my face. The other held a huge wicked looking blade at the ready.  
“Give me the book,” the figure said. The cloak or poncho was too thick and voluminous for me to decide if it was a man or a woman. Something about the voice put me in mind of a woman trying to make her voice deeper and huskier. I couldn’t be sure. Apparently, the person didn’t appreciate my musings. It thumbed back the trigger on the revolver and said again,” Give me the book. I won’t ask you again.”  
I smiled. This was a situation I was used to. It wasn’t the first time I had a gun or a knife waved in my face. Living on the streets teaches you to be an apt student of psychology. This was a mugging. This person doesn’t want to fight with me. It just wants to get the book and go. The gun and the knife are props to scare me into complying. It also told me that there was a chance that I scared whoever was under that mask.  
I took a calculated risk. I simply turned and began walking around the truck. “Get back here! I will shoot you,” the voice called. I grinned and said,” No, you won’t. I am leaving. You are wasting my time.” I kept walking. There was a scrabble of gravel and the figure vaulted across the truck to land in front of me. It was an impressive jump. It was also completely stupid.  
I shoulder checked the figure hard before it could plant its feet firmly. The gun hit the ground and slid under the truck. The knife landed at my feet. I kicked it behind me quickly. The figure hit the truck hard enough to dent my door. It let out a very feminine sounding exhalation of breath and then moaned grabbing for its, her, midsection.  
A gloved hand shot out to ward me off. A moment of doubt stayed my advance and I said,” I don’t like being mugged or threatened. Get out of my way or I will hurt you.” The other hand came up in a placating gesture. After several deep breaths, a much higher octave voice said,” I am trying to stop you from hurting a lot of people. Please do not deliver your package to the ArchDruid.” 
I pushed her toward the front of the truck hard enough that she had to work at keeping her balance. I scrambled down and grabbed the revolver. It a big framed Taurus Judge. The heavy draw on the trigger was probably all that had kept it from firing when she had dropped it. I carefully thumbed down the hammer and stood back up.  
She was running toward the knife in the road racing against oncoming traffic. I was certain the Prius bearing down on her had won when she launched into a roll, somersaulted out of it, and landed on her feet facing toward me from across two lanes of traffic. She had even managed to come up with the big knife in a throwing position.  
I calmly stuffed the big revolver into my belt at the small of my back. A few cars passed as we watched one another. Finally, she put the knife away. I shrugged my shoulders. I got into the truck. I drove away calmly. I watched in the rearview mirror as she stood watching me drive away.  
As the road became more steep traffic began to slow to a crawl. People on bicycles that I hadn’t particularly noticed before started to pass me. I locked the doors of the truck and began to enjoy the scenery. There had been enough drama in the last two days that I felt I had more than earned the money Andris Wolfe had paid me.  
I began to see rhododendron blossoms in beautiful shades of purple and white. To my right, the stream burbled happily over rocks. I spotted the occasional inner tube enthusiast trying to get early access to the deepest floating spots. Other than one very scantily clad and buxom young woman in a bikini that was essentially just a few thin neon yellow strings it could easily have been a scene from my childhood. It made me think of picnic lunches with the family. Easter dinner had been spent in Cades Cove more than a few years when I was young.  
I couldn’t reconcile those memories with the idea of delivering some druidic grimoire. It was unearthly and felt wrong. I had hiked trails in these mountains and it had given me the love of traveling on foot that made it much easier for me to adapt to a life lived on the road. I loved to eat food cooked over a campfire. I liked having everything I needed in a backpack hanging between my shoulders. When my life had turned to shit, the road had been a simple transition to a more primal and happier life. Returning to Cades Cove after being gone so many years felt like coming home. It felt very good. It had been a long time since anything had felt good.  
I spotted the sign for the picnic area and hit my blinker. It took several minutes to get through the cyclists and hikers streaming out to the loop road. I managed to slide the big 4×4 into a parking spot near the horse stables. I sat for a minute considering my situation.  
I had been attacked more times in the last couple of days then I had in the past two years living homeless. I knew now that there were wizards, druids, goblins, giants, and I suspected that Montu might pass for a god or at least a demigod. Living on the streets had taught me things too. You don’t carry a knife or gun unless you are willing to use them to kill. More often than not they just gave the authorities something to charge you with when you were searched for the crime of being homeless.  
State Parks should actually be called Federal Parks. Carrying a firearm into a park could have major legal repercussions. The chances of me shooting my way out of trouble were very slim compared to the chance of getting arrested for simply having the guns on me.  
Knives present a much lesser punishment, but I would be better off with something that would fit in my pocket rather than a big blade hanging on my hip. I suspected that I looked more like a hiker than a homeless guy today. I didn’t think that it would do any good to test it with Park Rangers who might find my presence objectionable.  
I also didn’t want to look insane walking into the meeting with nothing but my hands wrapped around an ancient book. I couldn’t play things off as if I were planning to set up a picnic and spend the day reading. I decided instead to take a few things to look normal. I fished out my weather resistant messenger bag and made sure the big book fit inside. It did but did not leave much room to spare. I added my utility knife which I knew was of a legal length to keep me out of trouble, my smallest cast iron skillet which had made a fairly decent club on occasion, my real ID and personal papers, and the truck keys. I stowed everything else into my backpack and stuffed that behind the driver’s seat.  
The walk to the picnic area was a great way to stretch my legs. I fell into an easy pace. As soon as I crossed the road into the picnic area I felt a subtle change in the atmosphere. It felt familiar. I realized I had always sensed the peace and quiet of the place even when my cousins and I had been hooting and hollering children. This morning it felt sacred. Holy.  
I knew immediately when I began being followed. Several people were moving on the banks of the creek opposite me. They were keeping pace but also keeping their distance. Through the exodus of tourists, there were also a few hikers that were moving against the crowd in the same way I was. When I looked around I realized their eyes were all locked on me. Their gazes did not feel friendly or welcoming.  
At the trailhead at the back of the picnic area figures were standing together. One was standing slightly back from the other two. For some reason seeing them made my mouth go dry. I clutched the strap of my bag tighter and made myself put one foot in front of the other.  
The three figures all studied me intently as I approached. They had the uniform that I identified with young Mormons. Each of them was wearing dark slacks, a white dress shirt, and a tie. Most Mormons I had met did not wear hiking boots or sandals as footwear. None of them had ever been barefoot.  
The tallest figure was also the closest to me. He was a few inches over 7 feet tall. He looked like some Frank Frazetta painting of a Viking, all muscles, blue eyes, and pale blonde hair. He had a terrible scowl on his face and was staring daggers at me. He held out a huge callused palm toward me and grunted,” Stop traveler. We have heard of your coming. We want nothing that Andris Wolfe can offer. Turn around and go back from whence you came with all speed.” 
I frowned and said,” I wasn’t paid to negotiate anything. I am supposed to give some Archdruid a book. Once I have done that, I will be happy to leave. Are you the Archdruid?” The big man shook his head and started to speak. Behind him, a whispered conversation erupted. He held up his index finger in my general direction and turned his head slightly to listen.  
I reached into my bag to pull out the book and he growled,”Do not move” without bothering to look fully at me. From behind him stepped a man that would have been huge if I were not comparing him to the Master Race specimen standing in my way. He was 60 if he was a day with a heavily lined face covered in a dusting of short cropped snowy beard. Laugh lines around his blue eyes and at the corners of his mouth gave me the idea that he was a happy man. His buzz cut steel colored hair gave me the odd impression of a military man.  
He smiled at me showing his teeth and said,” Pardon Valken. He takes himself far too seriously, but he is good at his job. I am Darius. What have you brought for the Archdruid?” I reached into my bag with exaggerated care and brought out the book. Valken watched me as if at any moment he would spring at me. Darius made a little noise that sounded a lot like something my fifth-grade teacher did when I turned in my homework late.  
He smiled and said, “Excuse me a moment, sir. I will speak with our companions. While I do so may Valken examine the book magically?” I didn’t see a problem with that and said so. Darius stepped away from us. I moved to hand the book to Valken. He sneered and said,” It is not necessary that I touch. Please hold.” He closed his eyes and breathed a deep breath. He looked as if he were meditating. 
After several minutes of this, I began to feel stupid. Nothing was happening that I could see. I started to sit down and Valken said,” No.” I started to speak and he snarled like a dog. I suddenly was gripped with the fantasy of punching him hard, directly in the balls. I giggled at the thought before I could stop myself. He opened one eye and gave me a glare both curious and somehow angry. It set me off with a laughing fit that I had to fight to control. 
Darius returned. He eyed Valken and then me fighting to keep a straight face. He grinned immediately and said,” As big as he is, it is surprisingly easy to hurt his feelings.” Valken grunted at this. I laughed and said,” He is ridiculous. I want him to put on a white tuxedo and say ‘No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die” Darius nodded and turned to Valken. They had a discussion in a language I could not even recognize. I got no clue as to even the direction the conversation took.  
When they finished Darius said,” I am the Archdruid. I will be happy to receive this book from you.” My bullshit detector went off immediately. I said,” No you aren’t.” I wasn’t sure why I knew it to be true, but I was absolutely certain. Darius looked offended and started to say something else. I cut him off and said,” This little job I have been asked to complete will be done the minute the Archdruid takes this book from me. Until then I am just going to have to wait. Save us both some time and go fetch him.” 
“Her,” said a voice from behind me. I turned and found a short woman looking not a day over 20 walking toward me. She had jaw-length brown hair, brown eyes, and was pretty in a girl next door kind of way. I would have described her as cute rather than beautiful. Still, something about the way she carried herself suggested that there was much more to her than met the eye.  
She was dressed in blue jeans, hiking sandals, and a green flannel shirt which was tied up exposing a very pleasant midriff. She stopped about 4 feet shy of me and said,” The Archdruid is a woman. I am she. You may call me Felicity. What is your name?” 
I stared for a moment. She felt like the Archdruid to me. It felt right. “Ethan,” I answered. 
“Why do you work for the fiend Andris Wolfe, Ethan,” she asked. 
I hadn’t thought too deeply about it. It seemed an easy answer to a very complicated problem. I was curious about his power. I was afraid of him, but I started to like him. It had been a long time since I had a friend.  
All of those answers rattled through my brain, and then I answered honestly,” I don’t know.” 
“Do you know why Andris Wolfe wants me to have this book, Ethan?” 
“He said that he wants the forgiveness of the Druids, but no I don’t know,” I answered. 
“You have taken on a foolish and dangerous burden,” she said.  
All I could answer is,”I know.” 
I slowly lifted the book and held it out to her. Behind me, Valken let out a sound of objection. Darius stepped up beside me. Felicity reached out and took the book from me. She smiled and said,” Thank you. Safe travels, Ethan. You have completed your work admirably.” 
I frowned and said,” That is it?” The Archdruid nodded. I said,” Um… Thank you.” She nodded again and said,” Goodbye, Ethan.” I sighed and started walking. I had taken ten steps when a man’s voice bellowed out, “Take it from her!” I turned in time to see a giant blast of fire spreading out from the group of Druids. Trees sizzled and burst into flames. Cars caught in the blast began to melt and then gave off secondary explosions as their fuel tanks caught. People around me including the druids vanished as the heat simply vaporized them.  
The wall of flame passed over me in flash of light and a roar of sound. I felt absolutely no discomfort. Wolfe’s amulet suddenly was a noticeable weight against my chest. I watched helplessly as the fire spread another 100 feet past me. It consumed everything in its path and left behind only ash. I fell to the ground and was surprised to find the asphalt soft to the touch but cool under my body.  
The flames ended as quickly as they began. In the distance screams and sirens began to fill the void of silence left by the fire. I stood up and looked around me. The once beautiful vegetation of the cover had been burned away along with the picnic tables, grills, and even some of the rocks seemed to have been slagged by the intense heat.  
As I spun in place a blue vortex of light began to swirl from near where the druids had stood only moments before. I rushed forward hoping to find that they had survived through some magical means. Instead, Andris Wolfe stepped from the light followed closely by Githix the Goblin. Wolfe surveyed the devastation with a look of smug satisfaction. Githix spoke toward the portal and goblins began streaming out of it. All of them were armed to the teeth and looked hungry. 
Wolfe spotted me and said,” Very good work, lad. It seems that you completed your task quite admirably. Give me a moment.” He turned to Githix and asked,” What do you think?” The Goblin King sneered and said,” All of the wards were destroyed by your blast. We can invade. The troll warrens may slow us down a bit, but if you unleash your wolves at nightfall they shouldn’t prove much of a problem.” Andris smiled and said,” Wonderful. Tell your boys that I will pay a bounty for the head of each Druid they can kill.” Githix bowed low, gave a horrible call, and raced off into the trees followed by the rest of the Goblins. 

I watched in horror unable to move or speak at the sheer bloodlust coming from the demonic looking creatures. They seemed all the fouler to be in this once peaceful and majestic setting. “Thank you, Ethan,” Wolfe said as he bent down to pick up his book,” I simply could not have done any of this without you.”  

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