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Conflicted in my emotions, I approached my interactions with Shelly with great caution. The greater part of me was drawn to her allure and refused to believe that she could be an interloper sent by the vile Silent Redding. But the small part that whispered in my mind to remain vigilant for any sign, any slip, or so much as a hint of her complicity in his twisted machinations would prevail.

It happened one day when she was trying to make small talk. The stooge was monitoring us, of course. Shelly said, “What are you writing in your little black book?” And that was it. My heart plummeted down a bottomless pit. I excused myself as waves of conflicting emotions slammed into me.

***

My last night in Nod was both immeasurably sad and breathtakingly exhilarating. It began on the path to the hill overlooking the ruined city. The Plague Doctor emerged like a proud bird from the shadow of the trees and greeted me.

“I heard the unfortunate news and I pity your plight, but I think that you are prepared. Your soul has been tempered in the crucible of this land. You know what you must do and all it will take is an unshakable will and the City on the Hill will welcome you.”

It was hard to hear these words. Tears welled in my eyes because I knew what he said to be true.

“I want to give you something before you go. My psychopomps Raven, Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Blackbird, and Magpie shall see you off. Goodbye, Jimmy Branner.”

And then I felt the familiar tug as I began to be drawn away, but this time the crows pursued me like a flurry of black smoke. I sped up and the crows managed to keep pace. When I got to the point when I could sense that the City on the Hill was behind me I tried one last time to glimpse it just as I had struggled every time before. But this time the crows rushed towards my face and I despaired that I had been tricked by the Plague Doctor.

The crows crowded upon the left side of my face and I then realized that they were not trying to occlude my vision, but trying to assist my efforts. I grit my teeth and strained and the crows flapped and fluttered, pushing me ever so much more than I could on my own accord. It was just enough for me to catch a glimpse before I entered the Waking World.

City

Words can’t describe that momentary vision. It was the most incredible sight I had ever beheld. I awoke drained both physically and emotionally. All that I could do was smile and cry tears of rapturous joy.

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