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Fantasy

Sky’s Edge

Dear Catherine,

The first thing we learn, when we go on the run, is to never ask questions. Questions are, after all, doorways. Those who are running away lock those doors behind them.

The second thing we learn, perhaps the most disturbing lesson, is that no one is who they seem to be. It is this discovery that makes the runner stumble, and lose their way. More often than not, this insight starts the runner’s mind on the path to the revelation that, in the end, running away is futile.

There is nothing more dangerous than the trapped and cornered animal. Such an animal, with nothing left to lose, and no where left to run, will fight savagely, desperately. Even a cornered coward, such as myself, will do battle with his greatest enemy.

It will come as no surprise to you, then, to learn that you do not know me at all. Nor do I know you, for that matter; it took months after we first met, before I even learned your name. In the years of our quiet association, we may have exchanged a handful of words, and no secrets. But, by the time you read this, I will be running toward, not away, from myself.

There are things that must be told, before I go. Secrets must come to light, at last. Knowing a little about me may help you understand the peculiar circumstances in which you now find yourself. Whatever you do next—run, or stand your ground—I pray this explanation will keep you from being cornered. Yes; even cowards pray.

The first thing I had to do, upon coming to this world, was to amputate the last two digits on both of my hands. It was almost too late, when I noticed that humans here only had five fingers on each hand. A small child was already pointing at me, eyes wide with wonder. I had not yet learned the local language, but there was no mistaking his meaning. “Mommy," the child was no doubt squealing. "Mommy, look! That man's got--" Though I shoved my hands deep into my anorak pockets, the damage had already been done.

Fortunately, the boy’s mother merely gave his arm a scolding shake, her face settling into lines of reproach. I could not hear her words, but she hustled him peremptorily away. Still, I thank that long-ago child for the favor he did me, in the nick of time—so to speak. Over the years, I have often wished him well.

It hurt like hell, that amputation. My howls of agony were echoed by the screaming of the blizzard that gifted me with the isolation of a deserted ski lodge. And, in the end, it was worth it. I believed so at the time, and I believe it to this moment. Almost two hundred years later, when I run my thumbs over the scarred nubs of those “extra,” digits, I believe it was worth it.

I've long become accustomed to the absence of those fingers, although I still count to fourteen—not ten, as the people here do—before starting over. I still catch myself humming the septrains that tell the stories of the Cross-Worlds War. Those stories are all the reminder I need to know that I'd cut off more fingers, if need be, to avoid the horrors that war has brought to so many worlds.

That war is what I was running from, when I arrived. After the Battle of Fifteen Worlds, after I watched my sister and her family first slaughtered, then enslaved, I simply could not fight any longer. I know myself for a coward; I'm ashamed of that. Nonetheless, I ran and ran, until I found this quiet, backwater world-line, where the Cross-Worlds War had not yet come.

It would be more accurate to say that I skied and skied, until ... and so on. Only in the dizzying swoop, the near-weightless, giddy rush of descent, can the freedom of mind and body be achieved, which allows for the transition between world-lines. In your wind-burned cheeks, in the laugh-lines around your mouth and eyes, I have seen your appreciation for these ecstatic moments. It’s one thing that has wordlessly drawn us together. Even while plummeting, ensnared in the ruthless arms of gravity, the spirit soars free. Because you have glimpsed this rapture, and know its power, perhaps you will believe my wild tale …

This is how I came here--swoop after swoop, descent upon sheer, heart-stopping descent, upon world after world. Only to come crashing to another Earth, which the Cross-Worlds War had already corrupted and defiled.

Until, finally, I arrived here, at the base of this mountain. Right away, I could tell that the corruption of the Cross-Worlds War had not yet reached this place. It was this lack of foulness in the aura of your world which tore the whoop of delight from my frozen throat--not so much the slope itself.

My seven-fingered hands, though--ah, how close I came to bringing that foul taint to this world, despite my best intentions. Young, squealing boy-child, whomever you were, I thank you, from the bottom of my coward's heart.

 I have not changed the name of the Sky’s Edge Inn. Its owner was doubtless surprised by my offer to buy it. He was a wrinkled gnome of a man, with a sour scowl perpetually plastered on his craggy visage. His flint-grey eyes only widened the slightest bit, however, when I offered him the fifteen bars of gold, which was all I had fled with. Fortunately, in those days, currency exchange was a far more shadowy affair than it is now. After only a moment, he simply nodded, and scooped up the gold. He was gone, two days later. I wish him well, also, in what little life he had left.

From that former inn-keeper, I learned my second valuable lesson about tarrying on this world. It took a while longer to dawn upon me, though; some score of years, in fact. Looking into the mirror, one cold morning, I realized, with a gut-twisting kind of horror, that I had not aged, the way you do--or, rather, the way you will. Now, you are young and, dare I say, quite beautiful. I am sure the former owner of the Sky’s Edge Inn was, in his day, a striking man. When I met him, his hair was grey and sparse, and his face, as I have said, was lined and pinched. It saddens me that you, too, will someday soon become grey, and that your flesh will bear the relentless sculpting of time. My people’s aging takes place far more insidiously, contained within a vessel which preserves itself for much longer. The careful application of the guise of aging, and the periodic need for a new identity, has served to keep fresh the memory of those I, in my weakness, have condemned. My self-loathing has grown like a cancer.

These, then, are the circumstances under which I came to the Sky's Edge Inn, at the base of Mt. Ciel. For almost two centuries, I have taken such great joy in watching the skiers ride the slopes. I have shared in their adventures, participated in more than one harrowing rescue; I've saved a few lives, come to that. At the end of the day, around a roaring fire, over mugs of wine, or tea, and, more often lately, coffee, I’ve shared the exaltation of newcomers and old hands alike.

It is, I realize now, a poor recompense for the cowardice with which I have lived my life, for that same span of years. For so very long, I have been running away from myself, even though I have been living in the same spot. That is one reason I have to leave.

I am sure you remember the moment you found the Sky's Edge Inn. For my part, I was engrossed in the catharsis of my daily routine. I almost didn't notice you. You came in with the usual crowd, all cold, flushed of cheek, drunk with the euphoria of skiing. You walked, in your ski boots, clickity-clack, across the stone floor. You claimed a secluded seat by the fire.

I would have continued to disregard you, except for the way your eyes briefly met mine, in the mirror above the hearth. I couldn't help but notice the fading bruises on your cheeks; they told more of a story than did your cerulean gaze. 

At your gesture, I brought you a mug of hot cocoa. Your smile of thanks was even warmer than the chocolate. Up close, I read the subtle signs, and recognized a kindred spirit. You, too, were running from some great horror.

Perhaps that is why I have taken you under my wing. Even when you could not afford to pay room or board, I couldn't bear to ask you to leave. Other guests come for the skiing in the winter, or the climbing and camping in the summer. I have come to depend upon your constancy, your steady, nearly silent presence, across a room crowded with strangers. You remind me, a little, of my dead sister.

That is also why I was so very grateful for your absence, on the night they found me, and came for me. They chose their time well. The inn was almost empty, with only a few tired lodgers dozing by the fire. I was, as had been my custom, polishing the stones of the foyer floor, removing the day's boot prints and snow-melt, when the two men walked in. They looked about themselves, seeming not to know where they were. Then, they took off their coats, their hats … and their gloves.

Immediately, I saw their seven-fingered hands. They made no attempt to hide them. Despite the deep calm that I had submerged myself in for so long, I let out an involuntary cry of surprise and terror.

From within my growing state of numb shock, I recognized the rolling syllables of my original world's native language. "We have come for you, General," the taller one, with a patrician nose and aristocratic posture, said.

I had almost forgotten that I had a military rank. Hearing it used again was the last straw, as they say, on this world. The shorter, broader man began to reach beneath his anorak. For a weapon? For instruments of restraint?

It did not matter. Old habits die hard, and kill harder. I reacted. With the merest look, a gesture of my head--not quite a nod, but as casual as that—I reduced them both to piles of ash. This is what I meant, Catherine, when I said that those who are on the run can never afford to open themselves to those around them. Here is one of my most shameful secrets. Knowing it may cause you to despise me, and reject any gifts from me. Looks can kill, among my people, and often do. On your world, this is just an expression. I pray it stays just an expression.

It was an act of brutality so swift and silent, no one sitting comfortably around the fire in the next room even stirred. Quelling by force of will the palsy of panic in my limbs, I calmly swept the ash away, along with the boot prints, and the snow melt from that day's skiers.

The damage done in those few seconds, while weary guests slept by the fire, was irrevocable. For the first time, I could sense the faintest whiff of foulness upon this world’s aura, that is the signature of the Cross-Worlds War, and those who fight in it. I stood, frozen, realizing that I had not run away from anything, after all; I had run far, but with the Cross-Worlds War inside me, the whole time.

One can run from world to world. One can swoop from windy peaks to tranquil plains. One can, in brief moments, transcend even oneself. But, in the end, one cannot outrun one's own moral failings. It is with the deepest shame that I realize I can no longer take refuge in this place. For, if two of my own kind may find me, how many may be close on their heels? I simply cannot be responsible for bringing the Cross-Worlds War to this world-line.

The once-vivid bruises that marred your striking cheekbones, like silent screams, have long since faded. Your youthful face is breathtaking and flawless, once again. You did not run, out of cowardice, but rather out of a need to survive an evil thing. Your need for refuge is more noble than my own.

So, the Sky's Edge Inn is now yours. Send for your family, if you have any, and make this your sanctuary. I have left a detailed description of the daily operation of the Sky’s Edge. I have no doubt that you will very quickly make this place your own, if that is what you desire.

I wish you a long, prosperous and, above all, peaceful life. Tonight, at midnight, I shall don my skis, and take one last, heart-stopping plunge down the steepest run on the mountain. At the moment when flying and falling are wed, I shall walk between the worlds, and go back to my role in the Cross-Worlds War. I am the cornered man. I have no choice but to turn, and fight.

Goodbye, Catherine. Keep yourself safe. Keep this world safe. Find another way to keep moving, that is not running away. If you can.


January 19, 2022 16:13

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2 comments

Lydi B
02:06 Jan 31, 2022

Interesting how you wrote such vivid characters into a letter. By the end, the writer was no longer a coward but a selfless hero. The message that kindness transcends worlds is refreshing and uplifting. Nicely done.

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M. M.
00:36 Jan 27, 2022

A very creative take on the prompt - lots of commas maybe a few too many but otherwise an interesting fantasy. Next time put down sensitive material due to the sinister amputation part which I didn't understand as part of the story but whatever your the writer, I am no expert.

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