The Hopeful Wanderer – Forth

A deep groan sounded through heavy fog as I inched my way up to a lane of thin ice running through a frozen lake. Though I was on the lookout for travelers along this lane, I also watched against any misstep that would send me plummeting below to a shivering grave. Several such lanes of thinner ice wound and turned beneath the frozen crust, steel gray water just visible below. Rushing from where one river fed into the lake to where another, far away, led back out. The lake itself stretched to the horizon, reflecting the fog and the white sky back and forth until I wondered if I stood in an upside down world.

As the groan died away, I took one cautious step back from where an ominous crack had split the thinner ice.

In the silence that followed, beneath that crack rushed a dark, amorphous shape, wriggling and reshaping. A water soul. Following by another, and another. All streaking along these icy lanes toward a world I could not reach. Not yet.

With care, I crouched next to the ice lane, little slivers of frost poking at my knees. I pulled off one glove and laid my hand flat over the crack. This fractional fracture, this threat to my very existence, was all that separated me from the other side. An impossible thing, an impossible distance away. Cold nipped at my fingers, leaching the warmth from my skin.

As I contemplated the passing souls, a much deeper cold settled into my bones.

Though I couldn’t swear it happened, as the last of the water souls passed, a vaporous hand had pressed a palm to the ice beneath mine. There for a flash. Gone in a breath. Leaving behind the freezing memory of connection with the dead.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Buried Tracks

At the bottom of a lake long dried up, my hazy gaze rested hopefully on a cloud building in the distance. Dust rose up around my plodding feet, settling on my cracked tongue. The size of this lakebed desert must have grown since the last estimation. I didn’t have enough water to get back; I could only move forward and hope I reached the edge before I ran out.

I tried not the think about how dehydration could have me just walking in circles.

A ridge of reddish rock stretched across my path, a veritable fortress wall. In the distance, it culminated at a former island, towering upward. I had tried to scale the wall only to slide back down on slopes of shale. When I had rolled to a stop at the base, dust in my hair, I picked myself up and followed the wall instead, looking for a break. Better to save my energy.

The cloud inched closer, pure white edges blurring with the horizon.

A break in the wall appeared all at once to my left. In the moment I registered freedom to continue forward, I stumbled on a hard object in the sand, going down to my knees. Tiny rocks skittered away from my hand as I scraped the object free. At first, I frowned, not understanding what I found.

A railroad tie. Attached to a railroad rail. The line passed through the break leading straight to… the oncoming cloud.

I got to my feet as the rippling heat revealed a dark train running toward me from the distance. The cloud of steam puffed upward, better than any raincloud I could imagine.

As the train neared, I stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride. The brakes squealed as the train started to slow.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Preservation Efforts

Without a breath of air to stir them, a plume of snowflakes rose up from the drifts coating the mountainside. Where the morning sunlight had not yet touched, deep blue shadows crept beneath a forest of firs. Nothing moved but the flurry of flakes, whirling around each other, the whole cluster angling upward along the mountain’s flank.

I crouched behind a screen of snow-heavy tree limbs, a tiny encampment from which I had not shifted all night. My legs hurt and snow soaked through the knees of my pants. Cold nipped at my lips. My breath fogged white, then gold, sparkling where the sunlight had just glanced over my shoulder, lancing between the trees down the mountain in a wide ray.

My breathing stopped. In the revealing light, the mysterious plume of snowflakes passing by my hiding place had resolved into a shape. Gold glimmered along the faint outline of a delicate creature – a long low body, tufted ears perked in my direction, pointed nose twitching for scent, one of four paws raised in consideration. Blinding white feathery wings folded along its back.

A breeze had lifted from my back, carrying my scent straight to the creature. All in a rush, it flapped those wings hard, scattering snow in every direction. The whoosh of wind threw flakes in my face, stinging my cheeks. Only four pawprints and the faint pattern of wings on the snow remained.

As well as one feather.

When I lifted the feather and moved it back and forth between shadow and light, it vanished in the darkness, though its icy touch stung my fingertips.

As promised to the people in the town below, hanging this at the community coop would at least deter any more of these creatures from stealing their chickens. That should appease the hunters.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Guard Against

As I passed through a night dark farm, the door of a wood shed near the farmhouse rattled from the inside. A voice from within yelled, “Let me out! Let me OUT!”

I stopped at the door, hand on the cold iron latch, but didn’t open it. “Who’s in there?”

Something heavy slumped against the inner door. “This farm’s guardian. A scarecrow.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “What’s a guardian doing locked up in the wood shed?”

“The farmer gave up on the harvest. Stored me in here.” The voice sounded more angry than plaintive. A thump like a slammed fist made me jump. “I ask you, what’s a scarecrow without crows to scare?”

I shrugged. Unable to argue with that logic, I pulled the door open.

All at once, I was face to face around the edge of the door with a bright orange pumpkin, light from within casting two broad black exes for eyes in stark relief. Body made up of an orange raincoat and red shirt. A trail of holiday lights led away from the back of the scarecrow’s neck into the shed.

The scarecrow’s head tilted as it looked me up and down.

I raised my hands. “Easy…”

“You’re no crow,” the scarecrow observed. A warm scent like decaying pumpkin pulp drifted to me. “More of a wren, I’d say. Now I have work to do. Leave this land.”

The scarecrow thumped and jerked away, headed for the withered cornfield I had cut through earlier. The holiday lights clicked along the ground in its wake, until somewhere inside the shed, the cord popped free from the plug.

The pumpkin in the distance blinked. Blinked. And went out. The scarecrow’s silhouette vanished in the darkness.

“Hey, you’re welcome,” I muttered.

In the trees overhead, a crow cawed.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – No Choice At All

A twinkling deep in the desert brought me to a choice. One that appeared as one light from a distance, but separated into three as I drew near. Beneath the star-splashed night sky, a lone figure stood. Cloaked in black. A bird’s face for a mask. Bone, etched with secrets and mystery.

A trio of candles sputtered upon an iron candelabra. The figure held the candles out toward me.

From beneath the mask, a deep voice reverberated with the tones of the desert. “You may choose, Wanderer.”

“What are the choices?” I asked.

“Blow out the candle that burns with your name, your path, or your past.”

All things I wanted. I considered the candles before me, but none of them showed their secrets. Closing my eyes, I hovered my palms over them, feeling for cold spots. Listening with my other senses. Nothing came to me.

Except.

The barest whisper. Replace me, replace me, replace me… Coming from inside the mask or… from the mask itself. Along with the scent of decay.

When I glanced back up at the figure’s face, the eye sockets of the mask wept tears of blood down the beak. One or two sizzled where they dripped onto hot wax.

“CHOOSE.”

In one huge breath, I blew out all three.

The desert grinned sideways at me.

From the darkness, the figure’s deep voice came. Distraught. Reproving. “That’s cheating.”

A bright flash of orange sparks and blue smoke illuminated the figure for a second. The mask had morphed into the rotting skull of a long-dead bird. The beak clacked once at me and then the figure vanished.

These desert haunts were canny foes. Annoyed at myself for falling for the usual tricks, I scuffed my toe in the sand. “Well, I think I won in the end.”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Tree Huggers

From my angle, arms wrapped around several tree trunks as if holding on for dear life. Just arms, it seemed. Their bodies

hidden

or

gone.

I stood in the middle of a forest wrapped in arms, hyperventilating. Because I could feel a pull, a tug, a call to join. And when I walked around to the other side of the first tree, I found a person… hugging it.

Only. Tree bark overlapped the man’s outline. He had his face pressed so deep into the tree that the bark had conformed to him. Or he to the bark. His hands held on tight, with a white-knuckled desperation.

The other hugged trees had more people pressed against them. As if they had all wandered in from the same direction and just pushed themselves into the side of a tree. Every one of them breathed, but I could not guess at how.

Tugging the shoulder of one woman, I managed to pry her grip from her tree. She pulled away with a sucking pop, her whole front peeling out of an impression the shape of her body.

When she turned to me, she had no face. Just the pattern of wood grain dug into her skin. I stumbled back, but she made no moves to attack or leave. Just stood there. Lost.

I had pulled several others from their trees before I noticed the first few had quietly pressed themselves back into place in their indentations. I watched, helpless, as the rest followed suit, one by one.

I could not save them.

All this time I had avoided looking at one particular tree. This one empty of a hugger. I longed to wrap my arms around its trunk and remain here forever. So instead of rescuing everyone, I saved myself and walked away.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Lent Shape

On the outskirts of a forgotten town, I found a person with a white sheet draped over them.

The sheet covered their entire body. They stood in front of a burnt out building on the side of a gravel drive. Just stood there. All day. No one else came or went. And I sat on a stone wall on the other side of the drive, watching. Waiting to see what they would do.

But in the end, as twilight began to creep up from the horizon, I gave in first.

Gravel crunched beneath my shoes, echoing loud off the nearby building. I approached the seeming specter at an angle, going slow, as if to avoid startling a wild creature. The enshrouded person did not move away.

“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing out here? Are you okay?”

As if to face me, the head turned, tracking me. They made no reply.

I crouched down in front of the person. Even this close, they smelled like nothing more than laundry detergent. “I won’t hurt you,” I said. “I’m just going to check.” Hand shaking, I took the rough hem of the sheet and lifted, peering beneath to see the person’s face.

No one was inside.

Within the human-shaped space underneath, reddish evening sunlight filtered through the cloth on the other side of where the head should have been.

I dropped the hem and backed away, breathing hard.

A muffled voice said, “No one sees me without this on. You were watching, so I stayed.”

Then the sheet made all the motions of someone opening it up. Invisible arms pushed the cloth off and it fell into a heap at my feet.

“Where…” I turned all the way around, but I was alone with the pile of cloth, “…did you go?”


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The Hopeful Wanderer – The Gift of Knowledge

A sense of familiarity closed around my shoulders as I crept through the crumbling ruins of a massive apartment complex. By the several levels towering above me high enough to almost block out the sun and the many rotted out doorways peering down at me, this place had once housed hundreds of people. Now moss clustered on walls and balconies. Debris littered the courtyard floor. Empty storefronts gaped from recesses in the ground level walls like mouths open in surprise that an intruder would set foot in this forgotten place.

In lieu of the collapsed elevators, a massive stairwell at the end of the courtyard circled up and up. But it also led downward. This I followed into a cool underground level, where sunlight never touched. Water dripped somewhere in the distance; moss fuzzed the walls, soft and deep beneath my fingertips as I trailed my hand along the sides. I could see nothing at all.

Yet around a bend, a faint electric buzz started with the sight of a blue-green glow. I stepped through a pair of double doors. Or rather, over them, as both had fallen off their hinges long ago. The sign above the doorway read: Information Technology.

The glow now permeated the room, coming from a moss-covered terminal at the far end. Hologram ports lined the walls, in various stages of takeover by moss and deterioration. But above the active terminal, a shimmering ball of blue quicksilver rippled in on itself, as if lost in contemplation.

When I stopped in front of the holograph, eyes squinted against the brightness, the quicksilver resolved itself into the idea of a face.

“Ah, Wanderer.” Though the AI spoke in a sophisticated accent, the tones kept glitching out, like a bad connection. “You have changed so much, I did not recognize you at first. Less fiery, more subdued.” A plonk issued from beneath the terminal, followed by a hiss as a small cover slid open. “I assume you are here for this.”

From the little cavity behind the cover, I drew forth a slim glass tube, capped at both ends. A little pile of stardust glowed within. Just like all the other caches of stardust I had found, this one’s glow seemed to lead off in a certain direction, pointing more upward than any way else.

I rolled the slender tube between my fingers, watching the way the dust slithered over itself. “Every time I find one of these…” I started. But I couldn’t quite finish the thought out loud. A nagging suspicion. That tug of familiarity with every place where I discovered more stardust. I could not help but wonder… “Who… who gave this to you?”

The AI remained silent. For several moments, I felt studied. “You did,” it said at last. “Centuries ago.”


Thank you for reading the 100th Hopeful Wanderer tale.

The Hopeful Wanderer – Bloodred Blight

Blood, slick and swift, dribbled like drops of rain from the needle tips of a tall, old pine. Red gathered around the base of the trunk, staining scrub, dirt, and stones alike. Lessening along the height of the pine, but climbing ever upward, spreading down limb and bough. A bloodred pool glistened at the tree’s roots, the stink of copper choking the air. I tasted pennies on the back of my tongue.

My boots squelched as I approached the bloody pine, liquid red filling the indents of my tracks. As I drew near, my skin stretched across my bones, losing moisture at once. Beads of sweat dripping from my brow took on a pink hue, mingling with the red at my feet as they fell.

Joints aching, I knelt among the tree’s roots. Clusters of low twigs reached toward me, grasping, ready to hold me here forever.

I withdrew a pocket knife. The blade gleamed, reflecting bloody silver. “You cannot have me,” I whispered through cracking lips.

Upon each exposed root, I carved a different sigil, all for loosening, for shaking, for falling. Blood welled up from each cut, flowing over my fingertips. Sticky. The pine above groaned and shivered with every slice biting into bark.

At last, I stood back, breathing hard, vision blurry. “May the earth rise against,” I gasped.

A rumble started beneath my feet, sending ripples dancing over the bloody pool. Rocks clattered. I stumbled and fell. A crack split the air, followed by a crash as the pine toppled over, its longest branches just brushing my sleeve. Like the fingertips of a betrayed lover.

When I looked, a network of roots lay exposed to the air, dripping blood slowing. Dirt and rocks clogged the pool of blood, clotted like a scab over an old wound.


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The Hopeful Wanderer – Sea Sparkle

Craggy rocks nipped at the soles of my feet as I clambered from a sparkling sea. Close to shore, blue light limned the water around every stone, brightening and dimming with the ebb and flow of the waves. Blue clung to my skin, outlining my toes, creeping up my legs. Growing heavier and heavier. Should the blue weight drag me down, I would drown in water no deeper than my waist. I pushed forward, avoiding the sandy bottom lest my heavy steps pushed so deep that I could not escape.

As I pulled myself out of the water onto a stony outcrop, a large shape moved in the dark. Just visible in the bioluminescent glow. A humanoid creature crouched in the shallows between me and safety. Blue light played across smooth, sharklike skin, revealing a long muzzle and a golden eye staring at me. The mouth parted to reveal rows of razor teeth.

The creature came nosing toward me. I froze, unable to step off the stone, heavy enough now that the blue would pull me under. My knees buckled under the added weight and I sank into a sit.

Blue glowed from within the creature’s gullet as it opened its mouth wide. Webbed hands groped at my safe rock and I scrabbled back as far as I could go. A long tongue slithered out and scooped up the blue sparkles clinging to the hem of my pants.

At once my leg felt lighter.

The glow outlining me dimmed as the creature cleared away every last glimmer. When I could stand, I did so slowly. Eyeing my retreat to the shore, the creature backed away to crouch in the shallows. With a snap, it resumed its meal of the blue glow, spreading darkness ever outward around it once more.


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