Life Lost

Life Lost

A Story by Dante Carlisle
"

Episode 1 of Aefterlyfe. A new episodic I'm preparing for publication.

"

Life Lost

“How is he?”

“When was the last time he woke up?”

“How long has it been?”

The voices that came to him were those he recognized, even if he couldn't say where he knew them from. Consciousness was no longer a steady stream; it faded in and out like a street lamp that flashes and stutters for hours before flickering out.

He woke in fits and starts, falling asleep in a hospital room, and waking up in an archaic city teeming with the hustle and bustle of everyday life. He fell asleep in confusion, and woke up in confusion.

In life he was near death, but every time he fell asleep he possessed the energy of youth. But he could never touch the dream world. He was a wraith watching the fantastical lives of others while stuck in the boredom of undeath. But there were so many possibilities in this new realm that he couldn't muster the desire to wake up in his hospital bed. The people talking around him would be fine without him.

He spent less time being a part of the universe he knew, and more time in the universe that filled him with questions.

The new world he visited in his dreams was one the man had seen before. As new as everything seemed after a lifetime in the material world of chase and consume, this other universe was old and familiar. But he couldn't touch it. He saw, but couldn't be seen. Heard, but couldn't respond. Felt, but couldn't touch. He recalled this sensation, this waiting, but couldn't recall what it meant.

The days passed, and the man fell from one world to another. One universe to another. He began to forget often about the world in which he lay in a hospital bed. Even his family that was gathered around him began to matter less and less. Family? Those people ceased to be his family before he recalled he had experienced the second universe before. The universe called 'Aefterlyfe'.

The man knew he was making a choice, but it was a choice he had made a dozen times before, if not hundreds. It felt like the easiest thing in the world to begin his release. To leave behind the family crowded impatiently around his fading body.

On the last day, the man opened his eyes in the hospital room that had been his 'home' for the past two months as the shell of his body weakened and died. His son, or the man that had been his son in life sat next to the bed, and the man wondered why he sat there. They had never been close, and many years had passed since they even pretended affection. But, here was his son keeping watch over him as he faded from 'Life'.

“Don't...worry.” The man croaked into the silence.

His son jerked back in shock, disbelief freezing his tongue. His father hadn't moved in three weeks, and the doctor said he had woken for the last time. The doctor had also told him his father would die a month before that day, though.

“Everything-” The old man breathed, “will be...fine.” He wanted to say more, but the body he inhabited in this realm was too weak. After weeks of becoming accustomed to flying through the world as easy as thought, the body in the hospital bed was frustrating to deal with. Why was he coming back to this place? There was nothing here for him any longer.

The son watched the father he never really knew attempt a heartfelt smile. A smile that imparted a sense of well-being and peace that couldn't have belonged to his father. His father had always been hell-bent on stress and action. There was nothing about peace in his life or the way he lived it. But there it was: A smile so peaceful as to seem unreal. It was the first smile of its sort his father had ever worn, and it appeared only when the sharp drone of a heart stopping filled the hospital room.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief to watch a man's suffering end. It was an end that didn't leave any ripple in the world. A death like so many others that happened every day.

But with every death, another life begins.

As the mortal coil of his existence slipped away. The man gazed around his secondary universe. The place he had come to know while lying on that hospital bed, and the place he now recognized as home. Memory flooded back to him, hitting his mind with a wave so heavy he sank to the soft grass and rolled onto his back.

The man stared at the sky and laughed. The memory of his name came back, and the life he had once lived with that name. Countless lives that stretched behind him in a torrent of war and battle.

“Marc,” he spoke his name aloud. His voice was steady. It was strong. Over the years he became used to having a voice that quavered dangerously on the edge of failing. In exultation he lifted a laugh to the sky that rang with strength and youth.

This world was a relief. Now that he knew what this place was. How the secondary universe really worked. The world of Earth, and the 3rd Dimension in general, was a place where time ruled all. In this place, though, time disappeared and was forgotten entirely.

There were countless theories of what the AefterLyfe was. A world where no one aged, and magic was every bit as real as the wind on his face. There were those who called it heaven, and those who called it hell. But that was reaching for something overly complex. It was just a place. A place where things worked differently, not better or worse, just different. Here everyone remembered the lives they led on Earth, but while on Earth they possessed no memory of AefterLyfe.

AefterLyfe was a combination of every universe and possibility that could ever be. All matter became something to be manipulated by mere thought, and nothing was impossible. The only limits anyone found were those they set upon themselves.

The only theory Marc ever heard that he could give any credence to was that AefterLyfe was the 5th Dimension. That was why there was no limit to it. No end whatsoever. Not Geographically, not temporally, not spiritually. No limits. Most people found a place they wanted to stay and created their own world there. Marc refused to believe the place was infinite, though. Instead of settling down, or finding anyone he could spend any amount of time with, Marc wandered for lifetimes before spending the last few hundred years living out his lives on earth.

Marc stood and debated his next move. Philosophy was all well and good, but he had a choice to make. If he died in AefterLyfe he would be sent back to the 3rd Dimension and live out another lifetime on Earth. But, Earth was headed for dark days, and life there lost its luster centuries before.

Five lifetimes passed since he spent any time in Aefterlyfe, which was longer than usual for him. Marc couldn't turn away from adventure. The draw of a world that never ended and possibilities that couldn't be measured was too much for him to ignore. He spent more time battling through the wild lands of Aefterlyfe than anything else. The problem with a world where anything is possible is that there are things in the wild regions that defied explanation. Marc had experience with more of those beasts than he wanted to recall.

The man groaned at the state he was in, “This isn't even armor anymore.” He recalled the last time he was in Aefterlyfe, and it hadn't ended well. The leather covering his body was ripped to shreds, and even had a spearhead caught under one shoulder.

This was the same place he fell before his previous lifetime on earth, which wasn't always the case when waking up. Marc would have rather woken up somewhere different, to be honest. The land he was in was controlled by a group of madmen called the FernFinders. Marc only met them the one time, and he hoped someone had put the faction out of its misery since the last time he was around.

AefterLyfe was full of groups and armies and troupes and parties and kingdoms and countries and every other name for a bunch of people that teamed up against everyone around them. Some were good, some were bad, and some were--

Walking into the clearing Marc had woke in.

“S**t,” Marc muttered under his breath.

Luckily there only seemed to be one of the dirty individuals. He wore hides and large rubbery leaves wrapped around his legs and feet. One eye twitched incessantly, but the other was locked on Marc. He was too skinny, and Marc could defeat him easily in hand-to-hand combat. Except the sickly little man held a rusty machete in one unwavering hand.

For him to be alone meant the rest of the FernFinders either ran him off, or he sneaked away to find ferns for himself. Now that he found one of the giant purple plants he was sidetracked by the stranger.

“Why you here?” The FernFinder hissed and ducked behind the main branch of the fern. The FernFinders lost much of their speech capabilities after so long living on the potent hallucinogens.

“I was just about to leave.” Marc responded, holding his open hands in front of him. It was obvious he didn't have any weapons, but Marc didn't want to give the little guy any excuse to attack. No matter how good Marc was, he didn't want to face that machete with nothing but his bare hands and a set of leathers that was more hole than protection. “I'm just trying to find my way outta here.”Marc took a step away, intent on backing his way out of the clearing if he could. One step, and then another. “These woods are yours, soldier. All yours, and no one else's.”

The FernFinder gripped his machete and scowled. Marc backed up step by step.

By the tenth step back Marc was scowling. “Son of a b***h, but this is a big clearing.” He told the FernFinder, who was now thirty feet away and still hadn't blinked. “It seems obvious you aren't gonna do anything,” Marc turned and shrugged. He wasn't going to be threatened by a crazy guy wearing shoes made out of leaves.

Then he came face to face with the wall of purple ferns on the other side of the clearing.

“You came for ferns!” The FernFinder screeched.

There was no time to even curse before Marc spun to find the crazy man sprinting toward him, machete held over his head and ready to swing. The FernFinder covered most of the distance before Marc had his feet set.

He ducked to the side and caught the wildman's hand as it came down. But a couple hundred years had passed since the last time he went out of his way to fight anyone in hand to hand combat. He wasn't as fast as he had been, and the animal nature of his opponent spoke of years of practice. Marc caught the arm holding the machete.

And it kept right on coming down at his face.

With a jerk he threw himself sideways and suffered a cut on his arm as he fell. It was better than having his head split and going through another life on earth.

He refused to be killed by the FernFinders again. As he hit the ground the little man with the machete spun with a scream as crazy as the look on his face. Marc hit the ground on his shoulder and kicked out at his opponent's leg.

The FernFinder's scream of anger turned to pain as his leg snapped, and Marc kicked out once more to catch the little guy in the head. It silenced him easily, and Marc breathed a sigh of relief. Hitting people in the head didn't always work to put them to sleep. Luckily, this guy hadn't been in the best of shape, otherwise he might have fought unconsciousness and attacked Marc again.

Marc chuckled, “Last time it took five of you little buggers to take me out. Can't let just one win.” He stood and surveyed the cut to his arm. Nothing a bit of focus couldn't fix.

The secrets taught him in a previous lifetime were coming back to him, and the methods of using Prana to do things that were considered impossible on Earth would make short work of healing his arm. Prana was the force that powered every soul in existence. Supposedly the beings on Earth only had a fraction of the Prana they possessed in AefterLyfe, but few ever tapped it. It was the unseen force behind all action in the universe. It made the sun rise, and the clouds cross the sky. And if you learned to feel the life around you, eventually Prana would allow you to focus its powers to manifest as you willed.

He began to search the little man sleeping soundly beside him. First things first, he needed to get away, and to do that he needed the machete the little fella swung at him, as well as the waterskin that swung from a rope around the man's waist.

“Water and a machete...Not the greatest of starts, but better than it could be.” He mumbled at the trees around him. “Now where the hell are we?”

On Earth, discovering direction through the use of the sun was simple. In Aefterlyfe it was much more difficult. There was always some source of light in the sky, even if it was a square-shaped moon the color of a rose. The sun was always a different color, and it rose in a different place every time. Today's sun was more green than the yellow of the Earth's sun, and there was no way to know what direction it rose in. In truth, there were very few ways of knowing direction in Aefterlyfe, and none of them were fullproof.

Luckily, Marc had spent the space between his previous four lifetimes passing through the Great Desert. When he began, the desert had been called Deshret...Marc had hated the name. It was the word for desert in Ancient Egyptian, although no one in the town on the other side had known the meaning.

Deshret had supposedly never been crossed, and no one ever heard again from anyone that attempted to go around. So, Marc had set out to head straight across. He left himself markers of melted sand the size of small boats to keep his direction true, although throughout the years between his lifetimes on earth some had been broken and destroyed. Luckily, giant chunks of glass in the desert were very easy to find, no matter how broken. As long as he went back and found two of his markers it was a simple matter to head back the way he needed. The years had been hard, and he faced monsters the likes of which he never would have thought existed. He also died of thirst twice, which was an unpleasant way to go, but finally found his way to the other side.

The other side. It was a dream he had thought didn't exist after a while. There was a time between his lives on earth where he believed there was no other side. He believed Deshret was the edge of Aefterlyfe, and he was a fool for thinking he could cross it. He was an adventurer beyond all else, though. Even after believing he made a mistake he couldn't bring himself to give up. In the end he found the other side, though. He walked out of the desert like some kind of spirit born of the sands. Of course, after so long in the desert, he guessed that was what he became. He was reborn from the scorching heat and the blinding sun, and came out the other side as something new.

Came out on the other side. Unfortunately the other side held the FernFinders and the last death he experienced in Aefterlyfe. Marc looked around at the horizon, and spotted the haze that sat above the deadly heat of Deshret. That was the direction he came from, so as long as he headed the opposite way he was headed the right direction. There was no way he would cross the desert again and tell the others that you could get all the way across and there was a place on the other side.

All around him was jungle, and trees the likes of which he had never seen. They stood about five meters tall, and he began to look around for one higher than the rest. He needed to see the lay of the land before he chose his next move.

Without hesitation he walked toward the little path at the edge of the clearing. The FernFinder would probably survive the kick to the head, but Aefterlyfe always had other surprises in store. The wildman may not awaken before being sent to Earth by something that wouldn't take mercy upon him for being passed out. Too bad for him.

Marc reached the treeline just in time to hear a yell behind him that didn't match any of the previous sounds of the forest.

“Seriously...” He turned to see at least a dozen more of the FernFinders staring him down from the other side of the clearing.

They wore nothing but whatever the forest provided. The giant purple ferns and whatever salvageable skins they acquired from squirrels and anything else unlucky enough to cross their paths. None of them were particularly large, and considering the likelihood that they ignored hunger in lieu of eating the psychosomatic plants that grew all around them, they would only become more and more withered over time.

“Why you here?!” One of the FernFinders screamed. He had glanced at the body of his fallen comrade on reaching the clearing, but apparently the death of one of their own wasn't that important.

“I'm passin' through. Renewed here ten minutes ago, and now I'm attempting to leave in peace. I hope you'll allow me to do so.”

The FernFinder stared at him and furiously scratched at his face. One of the FernFinders next to him mimicked the action. “Why you kill him?” He finally asked.

“He attacked me, so I defended myself. I don't mean you any harm.” Marc kept his hand clear of the machete by his side. While he felt better being armed, against twelve of them he needed more than a machete.

“You come here to join us?” The FernFinder moved across the clearing toward him.

“Not in particular.” Every fiber of Marc's being said to turn and bolt, but he stood his ground as they approached.

“You kill our friend. Now we need someone.” The FernFinder was about ten feet away, close enough for Marc to see the sores beneath the haggard man's beard.

“I don't think you need anyone. And you especially don't need me to stay here. But,” Marc surprised them all by taking a step toward the leader. “I think you may want me here because you know I can help you.”

The FernFinder stared blankly. “You beat him, so now you with us. That's how it works. Must fight to be a part of us.”

Marc shook his head, “I don't think so. The more people you have here, the more people wanting to share the Ferns after all.”

When the leader of the FernFinders began to itch his face again, Marc pointed at him. “I can stop the itch on your face, though.”

“What?” He never stopped scratching, even to the point that a few of his fingers came away bloody. “How you stop that? Infesty little bugs don't even leave with water!”

Marc nodded, “I know. I had Itchbugs once. A terror, they are, but they can be eradicated if you use the right mixture. I could show you.”

The FernFinder forgot his reticence in front of a stranger and stepped right up to him and nodded enthusiastically, “How!?”
“In exchange for safe passage and a guide to the edge of your lands.”

“Yes, yes! Make itch stop!”

“Alright, then we'll need a few different plants, and a bowl of water to mix them in.”

Without hesitation the leader of the FernFinders waved his equally disgusting friends forward and Marc gave them marching orders. “There are four major ingredients to this,” he explained to the FernFinder. “In all honesty, we'll end up boiling all of these together and then pressing the water out to make a paste, but the four plants will work easily to get rid of them. I had the Itchbugs on the other side of Deshret, but this is about the same climate, so I'm hoping you have the same kind of plants.”

“You know plants?” The FernFinder asked curiously. “Me too!”

“Yes,” Marc nodded amicably. “But knowing more than one plant is useful.”

“I know more than one! Once, I was healer for many people. But, then I found the Ferns, and realized they could heal all.”

“Except Itchbugs...” Marc corrected.

The FernFinder frowned, but eventually had to nod. “I tried Ferns on them, but it only made them angry.” He nodded as if his memory was clearing. “My name is Radik. I lead the FernFinders for many years now. What your name?”

“My name is Marc. Marc Antoni once, though I rarely use the second half any longer. How is it that a healer comes to be out here in the woods hunting the Infamous Ferns?” Marc didn't know if the Ferns were infamous or not, but in a land where one could easily change their entire reality by returning to earth, a psychotropic drug was bound to be famous if people knew of it.

“It's long story.” Radik replied.

“We have a bit before your friends get back. Some of those plants are difficult to find.” Marc laughed. “Go ahead and tell me. I would give much to hear a good tale.”

Radik twitched nervously. “I...I healed lots of people. Once known far and wide as great healer. Even fellow from other kingdom come to me once...Uh.” He frowned in the direction of a noise off in the woods, but ignored the distraction when it didn't repeat itself. “Kingdom called Tessera. He was high official. I cured him of deep chest cough. Fluids in his lungs, and he was slowly dying.” Radik laughed at the memory. “Wasn't nothin' but infection in lungs. Simply needed to be cleaned. Good cleansing smoke helped to heal him fast.”

Marc blinked, “Not many folks that think healing a respiratory infection is easy. That doesn't seem like a reason to be out here, though.”

“Infections is easy to heal. Like I said, smoke from good trees will heal it fast. I was too good, though. Important people, big people, start coming to be healed.” He stared off into space as if only just recalling his past. The look in his eyes changed, becoming more astute. “I was famous. Sometimes I couldn't heal the people who came, but most times it was simple. I even learned to use Prana to heal people that might die. I could bring people who were almost dead back to life.”

The healer's speech improved while discussing his past. Marc doubted the FernFinders had much reason to sit and practice their diction. Radik's mind was probably eaten up with the drug, and his friends didn't likely stimulate him all that much anyhow.

“Until one day there was a sickness I couldn't heal.” Radik frowned unconsciously. “Everyone around me got sick, a wasting disease that wouldn't go away. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. My neighbors went first, then my wife. Then my children. All the while I stayed hearty and hale. I knew everyone near me was dying, but I couldn't do anything to save them.”

“That must've been hard as a healer,” Marc said.

“Yeah...I learned that the sickness had nothing to do with their bodies. That's why I could never find how the sickness was spreading. There were no symptoms but weakness. It seemed like they were just tired, until they were sleeping for all but a couple hours a day. Then you knew something was wrong.” He swallowed heavily. “But by then it was too late.”

“Have you ever learned what it was?”

Radik nodded, “Oh yes. It came about that a message was delivered to me on the day my daughter died. I dug her grave. I wished I would drown in the tears, but then a man approached me.” Radik cleared his throat, obviously not wanting to revisit the memory.

Marc whispered, “You don't have to continue Radik.”

“You wanted the story!” The FernFinder screamed. “You wanted the story...” Radik grimaced, and continued in a softer voice “I'm sorry. It's still hard to think about.”

“What was it the man said?”

“He asked me if I was Radik the Healer. I responded that I was, and he laughed at me.” Radik clenched his teeth, “The son of a b***h laughed in my face as I put the last shovel of dirt on my daughter's grave. When I told him in as calm a voice as I could muster that I didn't appreciate his laughter he simply told me that was his intention.”

“His intention? What did he mean by that?”

“He said his name was Argon, and that he had been hired by a noble in the court of Tessera to make me pay. To make me pay for the fact that I refused to heal the man's son. For the price of six rubies the size of his fist, this man Argon created a spell that killed everyone I loved.”

“Well, that just means they went and spent a lifetime on earth, right? They had to live out their deaths the way everyone else does. Hell, I've died more times than I care to count, Radik. Your family will come back, and they'll come back exactly where you left them!” The FernFinder didn't look up at him, “Don't you understand! That's great news.”

Radik shook his head, “I thought the same thing, Marc. But, the way this ChiWeaver created his spell was to drain the Prana of each and every person close to me.” ChiWeaver was just a way of saying someone spent a lot of time developing their ability to use their Prana. Most places Marc had been through, people hated magic users. Radik definitely shared that hatred. “They didn't just die, they had their souls stolen!”

“Wha--,” Marc was stunned. In all the time he spent in Aefterlyfe, he never heard of that kind of thing. “That's not actually possible, is it?”

“He did. Marc Antoni...With a name like that, I assume you've been around a while. You should know by now that anything's possible.”

The two men ceased speaking. Every once in a while Radik would scratch vigorously at his face, but Marc never moved. A half hour passed before any of his FernFinders came back, but one by one they returned with the different portions of the recipe Marc needed to get rid of the Itchbugs.

Radik had talked as much as he was going to, and Marc wasn't going to push him for more. Once all of the FernFinders came back they began asking in some semblance of the Common Tongue exactly what it was Marc was going to do. He assured them he could cure the itch bugs.

In no time he had a fire going, and created a bowl from a small hollowed out bit of tree bark one of the FernFinders brought him. He mixed all of his different plants inside and added some water to give it a pastelike consistency.

“Alright, all you have to do is rub this paste into your beards, and anywhere else the Itchbugs seem to be hiding. You leave it in for about an hour,” Marc glanced at the thickness of the FernFinders' beards, “And make sure you keep working it in for a bit so it gets all the way down to the skin. You don't want them to keep hiding down deep. It's going to sting if you have any cuts anywhere around there, so beware of that. Not so bad that you'll want to wash it off, but you'll know it's there.”

The FernFinder who had scratched just as vigorously as Radik dipped a hand in and began spreading it over his face. “You don't need to use all of it!” Marc told him as the furiously scratching little man tried to reach in again. “There has to be enough for him, too.” Marc handed the bowl to Radik. “You know what to do?”

Radik took the bowl but didn't respond. “Soap would've worked just as well.” The leader of the group said stiffly.

“Indeed it would, but we don't have any of that, so we have to make do with what the forest is willing to give us.” A part of Marc wanted to be gentle with the FernFinder, but Aefterlyfe wasn't the kind of place where kindness was rewarded, and just an hour before these same people who were asking for his help would have gladly killed him for no more reason than that he was in their forest.

Another reason Marc couldn't bring himself to be nice to the guy was that he hadn't finished the story. Radik hadn't explained how he came to be in the woods leading the FernFinders and eating psychedelic ferns to pass his days. He hadn't explained what he had done to Argon, or if he had done anything. Or who it was that had hired Argon. None of this had been explained in detail, and in a way Marc had to say the guy deserved to be stuck in the wilderness with nothing but his misery for company for not trying to learn more about what had happened to his family.

Marc had a feeling the guy had done nothing to avenge his village, and that was destroying him more than the Ferns he was eating.

When the two FernFinders with the Itchbugs were finished spreading the paste through their beards Radik said to Marc, “I guess it's time we held up our end of the bargain.”

“All I ask is that you lead me to the edge of your realm. I know nothing of the land on this side of Deshret, so any information you want to give me about the peoples around here would be welcome as well.”

Radik scoffed as he stood. “The people are all fools. They seek fame and fortune in a world where it doesn't matter. They pander to kings and leaders that despise them, and then wonder why fortune never shines on them. What more do you need to know? They're the same as people everywhere.”

The other FernFinders looked askance at their leader. Radik had tapped into something of his old life while telling his story, and his speech reflected that. The other FernFinders probably had stories much like his own, but they had given themselves wholeheartedly to the mind numbing oblivion offered them by the ferns. Radik on the other hand, had not.

Marc shrugged, “As you say, they are like people everywhere, but there are always those who have something more to hope for. Your life could be more, Radik. No matter what you say, you haven't given up completely on Aefterlyfe. You're still here after all.” Marc began walking in the direction directly away from Deshret and Radik followed along behind. “I guess we can go this way without anything untoward happening?”

One of the other FernFinders piped in, “The way to Hide City.”

“Hide City?” Marc asked.

Radik failed to respond, so the other FernFinder spoke again. “They build their homes from the hides of animals they hunt, and worship the lights in the sky.” He shivered, “They're strange beings, and enjoy the hunt more than anything. We don't get close to their city, otherwise they'll hunt us instead of animals..”

“As I said,” Radik interjected, “They are like people everywhere.” He pointed to their left. “In that direction you will find the kingdom of Tessera. Where you're looking are the lands of the nomads. As Moriet said, the nomads are a strange group, and they don't welcome outsiders easily. I'm not sure I've ever heard of anyone joining them successfully. They tend to simply hunt and kill anyone found on their lands.”

“Sooo, doesn't exactly sound like the place for me to go.” Marc chuckled. “And what's to the right?”

“Woods.” Moriet answered.

“Exactly. Nothing but woods that direction. The forest stretches as far as I know. Even in the kingdom of Tessera people have yet to bring back anything resembling a map from that direction.”

“Well, that doesn't leave me much choice of which direction to go, now does it?” Marc asked. “It looks like the only place I can get outfitted is Tessera.”

Radik grimaced. “It's not a nice place either. I've told you of my experiences with them. They adore power, and the only ones who have power are those who held it when they carved out the kingdom.”

“As you said. That is the way it is everywhere. I have yet to find many places where life is so great that no one wants to leave. No matter what land you travel through, you're likely to find injustice and hatred. Evil can only win when good men do nothing, though.”

“Really?” Radik asked snidely, “You'd quote that kind of drivel to me? I was a good man, and evil still found me. Don't try to give me lines like that and act as if you know.”

Marc stopped and breathed deep. “I'm tiring of your attitude friend Radik. You made your choice to do nothing in the wake of your suffering. I don't judge you for that; no man may know how much he can take until he's broken. But, if you sit there and act as if no one else has ever known loss, think again. There isn't a man or woman in Aefterlyfe that has never known loss. We all experience it, and we all get over it. You're still getting over it now, but some day you'll tire of this life here in the wastes eating enough ferns to rot your mind away. And on that day, you'll go back to the same life you once knew.”

Radik spit in the bushes, but turned them toward Tessera.

The silence was tense as they walked through the overgrown forests. The other FernFinders wandered off as they headed toward the edge of their borders, until it was only Radik, Moriet, and Marc treading steadily north. Half an hour passed in silence.

“No itch!” Moriet exclaimed suddenly. “Itchbugs are gone!” He spun in exultation to Marc. “You made them go away!”

Marc smiled at him, “Of course. I told you, I've had those suckers before, and cured them the exact same way we just got rid of yours. The little suckers can't stand to be cleaned. If you wash yourself every once in a while, they'll leave you alone.” He looked further down the path toward Radik's back. “And you, have your Itchbugs decided to let you be, as well?”

Radik scoffed, “Of course. It was a simple matter to get rid of them once you had all the right supplies. Perhaps you should spend the rest of your days curing people of Itchbugs in the Utopia of Tessera.”

Moriet frowned, curious once more at Radik's anger. “Why you angry? This good day. Is great day! Itchbugs gone!”

“Yes, Radik.” Marc asked innocently, “Why are you so angry, when such a good thing has happened today?”
“Because of your meddling ways, Antoni!” Radik spun. “I want you gone! I want to forget that you were ever here, that you were able to drag out of me the story of my shame! So now I send you to Tessera, and hope you burn there as I did!”

“You need to be careful what you wish for Radik.” Marc took a step back and set his feet. “If you insist on talking to me as if I am an enemy, I will begin to act as one. I came to this place as nothing more than a traveler, and one that bears you no ill will. I prefer to leave the same way, but won't hesitate to leave this place with someone else in charge of the FernFinders. Make your decision now: Am I your friend, or your enemy? Bear in mind this warning, you won't enjoy the way this goes if you decide I am your enemy.”

Radik clenched his teeth and growled. His eyes traveled over Marc's face as he steeled himself to charge. “You would do well to remember the ways of hospitality yourself, since you think you can threaten me in my own domain.”

“I make no threats, simply defending my own honor as you offer me violent words time and time again. I tell you now, you won't do so again without feeling my wrath. Decide, Radik. The time for talk is done.”

Moriet took a hurried step to the side of the path, vacating the position between the two men staring each other down.

The forest was quiet in anticipation of a battle. Even the animals of Aefterlyfe could feel it when the energy of a place became something violent.

“I will lead you north, Marc Antoni. But after that our time is done. I don't want to see you here again.” Radik spun and headed down the path at a greater pace than before.

Moriet sighed in relief, and Marc winked at him. The FernFinder frowned in confusion, but Marc walked past without an explanation.

Moriet ran forward to catch Marc. He whispered, “What you try to do?”

Marc watched Radik stomping through the forest ahead of them. “He doesn't belong here with you. If he doesn't go back to Tessera and at least try to avenge his family he'll spend eons here in the forest trying to forget. That isn't going to work.” He glanced at Moriet. “How long's he been here?”

Moriet frowned, “Many seasons. Longer than me.”

Marc nodded, “Exactly. And he still hasn't left the past behind. The rest of you are here because you want to. For reasons all your own, or because you don't know what else you need to do. Until you find out what it is you're meant to do, you'll all stay here. The problem is that he knows what he needs to do, and he simply doesn't know how to go about doing it.”

Moriet nodded, but the look on his face said he didn't understand.

Marc tried again, “I'm thinking of taking Radik to Tessera with me. If he doesn't come with me, then he'll eventually try to go on his own, and that won't end well if he doesn't have help. He's not a fighter. He's not someone who knows anything about how to maneuver through court and the kind of people he's liable to run into. So, I'm going to talk him into leaving with me.”

Moriet stopped, “What about me?!”

Marc blinked, “Do you want to come, too?”

“No!”

“Then...You don't have to come. You can go anywhere you'd like. I feel like the FernFinders aren't exactly the place for you, though. As easy an existence as it seems while you're chewing on the ferns, none of it is going to make you feel like you've accomplished anything.” Marc pulled the machete he had taken off the dead FernFinder and began testing the edge. “I've died more times than I care to count. I'm one of those strange individuals that doesn't really mind going back and doing my time on Earth. I'm not scared of death. Either here in Aefterlyfe or back on Earth. I've always been a soldier, and I've always stood for what I believe needs to be done. Even if standing means that my life in this place will end. With what Radik told me, Tessera needs to change, or else it will always be some kind of hell for the people living there.”

Moriet nodded, “Tessera always been bad. I come from east, before nomads destroy village. Now, I live here. What you mean 'bout something more?”

“Something more, as in something more to life. Something to search for. There's more to life than sitting in the woods and getting high on the ferns, after all. Radik knows that, and I know that. Sure, it may be something that could give you release for a good long while, but it's not something that could sustain you forever. I have to keep searching for the place where I belong, although I gave up on finding it long ago. My home is where I lay my head, and chances are I won't do that in the same place for more than a month or two. I have to stay on the move.”

Moriet shivered, “Sounds bad.”

Marc laughed loudly, and grinned at Radik when the scowling leader glared back. “It's not so bad. I see things the likes of which I never would have believed possible. Although this is the longest I've spent in Aefterlyfe in a long time. I normally don't spend more than a few hours here before heading back to Earth. Of course,” he shot a withering look at Moriet, “I'd decided to stay the last time I awoke on the edge of Deshret, and then some of your friends from the FernFinders decided they wanted to kill me instead.”

Moriet blinked, “W�"We killed you?”

“Yup.”

The FernFinder took a step further away from Marc, making the large man laugh.

“Are you mad?” Moriet asked.

“No, it's just the way things work out. If I worried about all the people I've fought coming after me, I wouldn't have time for anything else. That's part of being in Aefterlyfe, you never know what kind of place you're walking in to.”

“What?”

“As we move from place to place in Aefterlyfe, through one life and then the next, we never know what kind of people we'll meet, or what kind of society we approach. That's the beauty of the place, and the fear.”

Moriet took time to study the undergrowth around them rather than respond, so Marc walked along in companionable silence. Just because these strange little folks spent all of their time on large amounts of hallucinogens didn't mean they were all bad. Not after the initial reaction, anyway.

“How is it you guys don't happen to kill every one of the people that comes into these woods? Every time I've shown up I've been attacked.”

Moriet shrugged, “People don't come here. They know to stay away.” He glanced at Marc, “How many places you been??”

“Oh, I've been a lot of places, although I doubt I'll ever find everywhere. I think I've been turned around before, but I've always tried to head the same direction. When I was on the other side of Deshret I was headed toward the haze of the desert. But, now that I've crossed it, I'm heading away from the haze. Eventually I'll lose that marker in space here and have to choose something else. It doesn't help that the damn suns seem to change every other year. Otherwise I could simply use those.”

“I've never been anywhere.”

Marc blinked in shock, “What?”

“Never traveled anywhere outside of that village and this forest. Lived four lifetimes on Earth, and I dunno how long here.”
“That's unbelievable. I haven't done anything but travel since I've been here. My first lifetime on earth I found a woman I wanted to spend every moment with, and when I reached Aefterlyfe I began searching for her. Of course, that was more lifetimes ago than I can recall, and I still haven't found her. Haven't even heard of her, and she isn't the kind to live a quiet life. People would know her name.”

“Who was she?” Moriet asked, obviously intrigued.

Marc laughed, “Really? My name didn't ring any bells? I still use the first name I ever held on Earth, since I'm one of the rare souls that came into being there.”

Moriet stared blankly.

Marc sighed, “She was a queen. A woman without equal, and someone who rose to power through sheer will. I...I helped her, although I think I also killed her.” He became quiet, staring at the forest around him. “She lived in a place that was lush like this. Dense forests, surrounded by a desert the likes of which you can't even believe. I don't know if that was her first life on Earth, or if she's an old soul here in Aefterlyfe. I have nothing to go on here except the possibility that she'll recognize my name if I ever come near her. So, I never keep myself hidden, since my only real chance of finding her is her recognizing me and wanting me to find her.”

“That sounds hard. What if you never find her?”
Marc laughed, “I doubt I will. But, it gives me something to look for, and an excuse to have adventures. That's all I really need, to tell the truth. I enjoy the traveling portions of Aefterlyfe. After that first life on Earth I spent centuries here before I went back. Even carved my own kingdom out in the mountains so far away that I couldn't find it again if I turned back and walked for a thousand years. Although there was a man who taught me the ways of Prana that could probably find it. He knew more about Aefterlyfe than anyone I ever met, and even he said he was ignorant of its ways.”

Moriet looked lost. It was obvious Marc was speaking over his head, but Marc was lost in memories of the people he knew.

“It's been eons since I thought of that place, but it was paradise for a while.”

“What the hell are you two talking about?!” Radik finally turned around.

Moriet flinched in surprise, and Marc laughed. They had reached a place in the forest where the undergrowth thinned out noticeably, and they could see more than ten feet beyond the trail. The path they walked widened from just the game trail it had been all this time, and became something more.

“How much further until we're into Tessera? And then how far until the first town?” Marc asked rather than respond to the taunt.

Radik glanced at Moriet, “Start heading back, I'll catch up to you before long. I need to talk to our friend here. I don't want the others to be left alone too long. Without anyone watching them we're liable to wander back to someone trying to walk the treetops again.”

“Gotcha!” Moriet answered. He looked to Marc, “I almost wish...”

Marc chuckled, “No one's stopping you except you. But you're not ready yet to take on the world. Try to work your way back into reality, and off the ferns, and perhaps you'll find yourself ready to meet the world again before long.”

Moriet nodded cautiously. “Not good to wander without friends. But, if you come back, I might leave with you.” Radik cleared his throat, and Moriet turned and fled along the path. “Bye Marc!”

Radik and Marc watched as Moriet disappeared from sight, then turned to face each other. Radik's face still wore the unhappy expression it had since telling his story, but he wasn't spitting venom at him, yet.

“So?” Marc asked quietly. They both knew what Marc would ask.

“I'm not going with you.” Radik responded quickly.

“Is that what you really want? I could always use a healer along, and sitting here eating hallucinogens for the past few years might have done some things to your Prana that would allow you to heal some folks beyond what I could even fathom.” Marc wasn't sure he wanted someone like Radik along with him, but he felt compelled to help him. “I don't know the area at all, and you seem to be more aware of what's happening in Tessera than someone who eats those Ferns all day.”

Radik grunted, “I don't eat ferns all day. It's been years since I even tasted one.”

“What?”

“I don't eat them anymore.”

“Why? If you don't want to leave, then why don't you leave yourself in some kind of drunken stupor watching the pretty patterns of leaves in the forest?”

“I don't know...”

“Then I can help you out. You're not setting yourself up to stay here in the forest. You're setting yourself up to leave. I've spent more years than I can count trying to explain that to people here. There is nothing that says you can't walk forever in Aefterlyfe. You don't even have to be like me, wandering around and getting in trouble. But you could at least travel. There are things great and small to be seen. Magic and Monuments the likes of which you can't even believe. While traveling through Deshret I found an orb floating in the sky that has probably been there millenia. No idea how it got there, or what it's doing. Just floating. I died from dehydration because I spent too long trying to figure out what the hell the damn thing was doing.” He took a step forward and looked deep in Radik's eyes, “I'm telling you now, the world is not as cut and dried as you think. It's neither good nor bad. It's simply the world. Come with me, explore the places you've never seen. Have a few adventures along the way. I don't understand what's stoppin' you.”

Radik finally broke eye contact. “You know what's stoppin' me. You're not wandering into a place I've never been. You're going to Tessera. The place that began it all for me. I was born in Tessera, and I've spent my entire life there. The place is a cesspit of injustice and hatred, and I expect it's only gotten worse in the last forty years since I've been gone. It's the last place in the world I wanna go, Marc.”

“It sounds like you need to go there. At least to see what's become of the place. To see what happened to the man who's responsible for your life turning out this way. The last thing you need to do is sit here in the woods and pretend that your life's over.”

Radik's glare returned with that statement, “I don't need to know what's happened to him. Hell, I already know what's happened to him. He's gotten fat and lazy as the world treats him well. By now, his son may even be back after a lifetime on earth. And then what? I get to see him happy and healthy, when everyone I ever loved is lost forever!? Why would I do that to myself?”

“Closure.” Marc responded. “You're obviously still letting it rule your life, which doesn't make sense to me. Why not get back at him? Get your revenge? Ruin his world the way he ruined yours. Well, maybe not the same way, I'm not all about destroying souls, but at least destroying his standing. The guy surely has holes in his operation, and even if he is a noble, those people can be taken down just like anyone else. Hurt him the way he hurt you, and then get on with your life. Like I said, you're more than welcome to come with me, I'm wanting to learn what's out there, and company can't hurt when you're on the road. It'll at least make it a whole lot less boring.”

Radik stared at him for a long time. “I just...” He sighed, “I'm not like you, Marc. Most people aren't like that. We don't want to wander and live a life without any comfort or safety. You seem to enjoy the danger and the lack of stability, I don't. I know that when I go back to my forest, I'll have those folks to watch my back, and I'll have a place to lay my head. Hell, I may even decide to try the ferns again and visit once more with my lost family.”

Marc nodded, “Then I guess that's all that needs to be said. I can head north from here and find a village I assume?” Radik nodded, and Marc turned to start north. He stopped after a few steps, though. “Radik, there are a lot of things I don't know about life. And even more I don't know about Aefterlyfe, but pretending like you know what's happened is the worst thing we can do. The instant we lose that sense of wonder is the instant we die. Everything changes, and nothing is forever, but I have to wonder just how destroyed your family really is. I've always been amazed at the ability of souls to keep going when they shouldn't.” He turned back thoughtfully, “On Earth, everyone assumes death is the end, but it obviously isn't. We wouldn't be here if it was. But, I've met a few folks in Aefterlyfe who chose to end their lives through sheer will. They release their Prana back into the universe. But, they weren't destroyed. You can never destroy the energy that went into making that soul. So, maybe there's a place beyond here. Something that is to Aefterlyfe what Aefterlyfe is to Earth? You immediately chose to believe some magician or another that he destroyed their souls, but I doubt he did.”

“What are you saying?” Radik asked cautiously.

“I'm saying I've known some powerful folk over my years, the kind who can literally turn a mountain into a mole hill, and a mole hill into a mountain. From what I learned from them, destroying someone's soul is about the equivalent of destroying the universe itself. Don't automatically assume your family is destroyed completely. They're simply not the same way they were when you knew them. For all you know, they could be watching you right now and wondering why it is that you've taken the path you have.” He smiled gently at Radik as the man processed his words. “Have a nice life, Radik. Perhaps I'll see you sometime in the future, or perhaps not. But either way, I hope you find the peace you're obviously searching for.”

Marc walked away, breathing deep as he once again set out on a road that lead who knew where. He always loved those first steps, and the idea that he was walking into adventures and possibilities that he couldn't even predict.

“Marc!” Radik yelled after him.

When the big fighter turned Radik had chased him down. “Yeah?”

“Oh, quit grinning like that. I'm still not coming with you. But, if you ever happen to run into a guy by the name of Lord Delvik, watch your back. He's bad news, and nothing but trouble comes from getting caught up with him.”

Marc nodded, “Noted. Take care, Radik. And if you decide to head into Tessera, look me up if it's in the next couple of weeks. I'd hate for something to happen to you when I could have stopped it.”

The FernFinder watched as the man who cured his Itchbugs marched toward the seat of power for the most despotic people in Radik's world. There was something in his stance that said he wanted to chase him down and take him up on his offer of a place on the road, but fear held his feet. He couldn't follow him. Not now. Not yet.

“No. Not yet.” Radik whispered and turned back toward the deeper part of the jungle. There was a place to hide, and a lot of thinking to do.



© 2016 Dante Carlisle


Author's Note

Dante Carlisle
Be as tough as you like. Considering this is going to be for publication I'll accept even the harshest criticism and love it. If you're interested in submitting a piece of writing to what I hope will be a growing world feel free to contact me with any questions.

My Review

Would you like to review this Story?
Login | Register




Request Read Request
Add to Library My Library
Subscribe Subscribe


Stats

243 Views
Added on November 23, 2016
Last Updated on November 23, 2016
Tags: Fantasy, Aefterlyfe, Adventure

Author

Dante Carlisle
Dante Carlisle

Chesterfield, MO



About
I published my third novel last Christmas. Working on the fourth, but fair warning none of them are connected. So if you're looking for a stand alone novel to read, check out Regret Nothing, Hiding Bl.. more..

Writing
Finally Finally

A Story by Dante Carlisle





Advertise Here
Want to advertise here? Get started for as little as $5