Far beyond the prairie and deep within the mountains, lies a misty valley full of ancient trees. At the center lies a jewel of great size and polished sheen, to draw in and slay within the fools who seek its emerald light.

The words of myth rang within the mind of a boy, who slipped and fell and bashed his knee, even through his thick trousers. He slid a few feet before catching himself, the leather of his boots saving his shin from scrapes. As he came to a halt, he lay and groaned, looking up into the sky.

The rocks rose all around him, climbing to the sky, leaving it as only a bright blue scar. He rested on a boulder, with a few rocks for company, and waited for the pain to fade before he carried on. The crevasse was steep, but the stream at the bottom was deep and fast, and he dared not risk getting whisked away by it.

When the pain was dim and nearly gone, he stood to carry on. Ahead he could not hear the music, the woodwind melody. A sweet elusive sound, played by wind rushing through the woods.

He’d followed that sound for days and weeks, following its haunting at twilight. It grew in strength as the sunlight waned and faded with the moon. Right now he had two choices, to continue or to wait. On the one hand, he could hear no sound to guide him. On the other, this crevasse had only two directions: forward and back. Deciding that he could always stop at the first uncertain choice, he delicately clambered across the stones.

The sun came and went, and darkness began to fall. Twilight came to the crevasse early, and with it, a lilting tune. It sounded of pipes and flutes and piccolos, never any brass. Just simple reeds and woodwinds, rising with the breeze to caress the boy’s cheeks. Ahead the stone drew to a line, leaving only a thin crack.

The boy had to toss his pack, knife, and shield through before him, then turn sideways and squeeze to get through. The stone scraped and cut, pressing through the cloth of his tunic, but not quite drawing blood. He stopped and rubbed the sore spots on his chest then bent to strap his things back on.

It was only when he stood, fully equipped again, that he properly took in his surroundings. The music floated around him, accentuating the valley that lay ahead, just down the incline. The sky above was still quite bright, the twilight existing only in the crack behind him, and a thick fog rolled over the trees. It was thick and white and swirled in mesmerizing patterns. It hid everything about the woods except the very tops of the trees.

It didn’t, however, extend beyond the forest’s edge. Instead, it seemed to stop at an invisible wall. Or maybe it was the wall, and the world didn’t extend into it. With trepidation, the boy approached the wall and raised his hand to touch it. It bent around his fingers, soft like winter breath. Both soft and cold, and incredibly old, it gave way before his steps. As he had before, he chased the swaying song, letting it guide his way through the misty greyness.

Far behind the crags of stone and in the valley deep, the hunter is now hunted. Enticements bring fear in the minds of the wise, and fools die gladly in temptress’ arms.

The words of legend echoed in the mind of a young man, who paused to gaze across the valley. He walked the familiar path for the first time, approaching the misty wall. It broke before his waving hand, like winter smoke. It swirled around him and his confident steps, and he listened to the song. It came from all around him, a bit here and a bit over there, but chord by chord he found the source and moved to find his mark. He’d followed the sound for weeks and months, and he wouldn’t give up now.

A wooden clunk cut through a passage of flutes, and pain lanced through his foot. He slowed his pace and glanced down. The offender was a small shield, light and plain, that leaned firmly against a rock. A scrawl of paint adorned the front, and the young man hefted it. He had one just like this as a child. He had dreamed of adventure, of slaying dragons, and swung his father’s knife like a sword. As he touched a reddish stain, another torrent of memory flooded his mind. Save that he had never set foot here before, the memory was his.

In his boyish body, he follows the song with a nervous gait. The mist flows around him, the silhouettes of trees fading in and out as he passes by. He draws nearer, the music louder, and he misses the snap of a twig and the deep-throated growl. A great white wolf tackles him to the ground and bites deep into his neck. The knife and shield and blood fall from him, and the wolf has its feast.

The young man looked ahead as the vision faded, remembering the fangs and pain. He fought himself in confusion. The music, his guide, had led him past all manner of danger. Why then had this… why had he died here? The words of legend echoed again, and understanding filled his mind: he put his back to the treasonous tune and fled. A storm picked up, battering and driving the wind before it. With the swell of the gale, the first brass joined the ensemble. The young man was buffeted this way and that as the storm and song raged. An endless supply of mist flowed to replace what was blown away, growing even thicker as he raised his arms to defend against razor leaves and stabbing twigs torn from the trees around him.

He ran, chased by the trumpeting squall, with barely a thought for the pain panic brought from the cuts through his shirt and his skin. His feet beat as drums on the soft forest soil until, with a crack, some force hit his back and he sprawled to the dirt. He lay there, dazed, until the wind died down.

As he rolled to his back, he saw with relief that the mist swirled gently again. The gale was gone, the music soft. It stretched, moving languidly through the air, enticing and gentle: a lullaby. It soothed his aching body and relaxed his fevered mind.

Nearing the end of journeys and times, trust not those who would offer to guide. Faith will be your undoing, hope your ultimate folly. The treasure of the forest belongs to those who see the truth for itself.

The words of lore reverberated in the mind of a man. He lay face down in the dirt, groaning from the impact in the small of his back. The woodwinds played, gently lulling him to sleep, and he wrenched his arm out from under himself, trying to get more comfortable. As it flopped out to his side, his hand hit something soft and cold. Groaning again, the man looked toward his hand and screamed.

In his scramble to get away from the corpse, his fingers dipped in its blood, and he felt the memory flood. More of a trickle, as the memory was short: just one of dozing off, then waking in painful horror to see… things erupting from his chest. It faded.

The man breathed deep, gasping breaths. After a moment he gathered the courage to look again at the body. It was a young man, laid out as if sleeping. Vines, leaves, crawlers, roots… they all broke through its skin and clothes, and flowers bloomed from its eyes and mouth. Wide, purple flowers, with five petals.

So he had died here, too. First the wolf, now this. He hastily wiped his bloody fingers on the grass. Though he had never tread here before, the blood told him otherwise, showing him his folly and helping him survive.

He heaved himself to his feet and glared at the song. He’d followed its voice for months and years, and it had never led him wrong until today. It seemed to fade before his anger, leaving him in silence.

Finally seeing his surroundings properly, he could feel the mist fading. The thick tendrils narrowed, the opaque whiteness thinned, and before him stood a stone wall, flanked by two trees. The trees stood tall and ancient and clung to their drying leaves. A few of those fell, spinning through the still air to alight near the man’s feet.

The wall had an opening, a high pointed arch that led into a hallway. Upon a closer look, the gray stone had rust-stained bits where hinges would have once held a wooden door. He brushed his fingers against a large rusty patch. Not rust. Blood.

The memory hit him and after it faded he dared to look up. The ceiling of the hallway was much higher than he’d guessed from outside. As his gaze climbed higher he saw more thin silken strands until, in the center of them all, he saw it. He shouted again and leapt back.

A massive, many-legged creature plummeted from its web and dangled exactly where he had stood a second ago. In a fluid motion, the man drew and swung his sword, but sparks flew and the spider’s shell deflected his strike. The impact made it spin around for a few moments before pulling itself back up. It crawled in its web up next to a cocoon that the man could only assume was the body whose blood he touched.

The spider hissed and dropped, but this time the man was ready. With a more measured attack, he hit its shell. It spun again, but more slowly, and his following strike bit into its soft underside. It screeched and thrashed and fell to the stone floor, vanishing in a few puffs of smoke. Panting nervously and keeping his sword at the ready, the man walked warily down the hall.

Save for that one abomination, the walls and ceiling were bare. Patterns in the dust hinted at decorations long since stripped away, and a kind of hollow light entered through high windows. Far from the soft silence of the forest loam or the sweet woodwind song, the stone floors here echoed with every step, casting their sound off the walls and making the man jump occasionally. He passed several doors, but they were all marked with the bodies of boys and teenagers bearing familiar equipment, their blood telling of awful demise.

At last, he arrived at the end of the hall, a metal door before him. No bodies lay here to give him warning, so he steeled himself and gave the door a push. It gave with a horrible iron shriek and stuck on rusted hinges where he left it. Beyond…

Beyond, a few steps led to a courtyard garden, wide and dead. The flowerbeds held shriveled stalks, the pots withered stumps. They were all arranged as if to curate three pathways. Perhaps before it was abandoned this garden had been beautiful, but now it held only the shadow of an echo of beauty.

A scurrying reached his ears, and a glance revealed he was not alone in the garden. Little rodents of some kind, red and white and black, ran among the stalks and between the stumps. The rodents looked harmless, but the bodies made him wary. They were everywhere: stuck headfirst into large pots, tangling by their legs from topiary, scattered in bits through the beds. Carefully he approached the nearest, a child, and reached to touch its blood, bracing himself for the memory flood.

One of the rodents, a white one, scurried up and sniffed the air pointedly. It wanted him to follow it, so he ran after. It led him on a merry chase, around corners and behind short pillars, but an errant vine tripped him and he ground his face into the dirt. Immediately, other vines whipped up and around him, binding and tightening and strangling…

The man gasped as the memory ended. Touching the other nearby bodies revealed similar deaths: no matter which color rodent he followed, no matter how fast or slow he moved, he always died. Sometimes the rodents swarmed him, sometimes the plants ate him. Once, a giant spider erupted from the ground and dragged him away. His head ached with the new memories, and he wept at the pain in them. How many times had he tried to surpass the garden, and how many times had he failed? Every single one. He looked down at the sword in his hand.

Deep within the ruins of once-mighty empires vast, past the slumbering watchmen… There may lie your treasure, yours to claim at last. But think not that your journey ends, for more challenges await. You cannot fathom what sits beyond that furthest of all gates.

The words of truth numbed the mind of an old man, who stood facing a wide, dead garden. Rodents scurried through the plants, and corpses and the scent of death saturated all else. Next to him, one such corpse knelt, its hands on the hilt of the sword rammed through its chest. Suicide, that one. A lot of the dead boys scattered around had been stupid enough to chase the rodents, and most of the dead men had tried to bull-rush their way through. The old man shook his head. Had he ever been one of those fools?

He’d spent years and decades following music, sweet music, to find his treasure. But since he’d left the mist it was silent; now he followed only death and folly. There was something to learn from each one, however. The dead boys trusted, and were betrayed. The dead men had tried brute force, and were crushed. The suicide next to him had come the closest to the solution, but had given in to despair.

So the old man sat, with the patience of his age. Save the suicide, not a single corpse laid upon the steps to the garden: it was safe there. He crossed his legs and closed his eyes and welcomed his thoughts, however they came and whatever they contained. As he waited, he re-lived all his deaths so recently remembered. He thought on the lifetime spent in pursuit of the emerald in the forest, and the lengths to which he had gone to arrive here.

When the hunger came, a few hours in, he shrugged and remembered getting mauled by a wolf. This pain was nothing to that. When the soreness arrived, a few hours further, he remembered getting hauled up by the neck to a spider’s web. This ache was nothing to that.

Even further on, the rodents stopped their scurrying and ran to swarm around the steps. Their tiny throats shrieked little cries of rage; how dare he deny them? After them came the spider, chasing the rodents away. It reared up on four legs, waving the others and gnashing its fangs with fury; how dare he deny it? Finally came the vines, tangling and writhing, shoving the spider aside. They tied in knots and somehow seemed angry; how dare he deny them?

When, at long last, the time came to reopen his eyes, the old man saw with satisfaction that the garden was empty. The flowerbeds were trampled, the pots shattered; nothing was left but patches of dirt.

He forced his aching knees to lift him up again, leaning heavily on his walking stick, and simply crossed the garden. There was a time for patience, a place for inaction, and that time had come and gone. He passed through the door on the other side and found himself somewhere new.

The empty gray sunlight was long gone, and the crypt before him was lit by torches that burned with light violet flames. Two coffins in the center were the room’s only decoration, and a door was set in the wall across from him. Wary from the thousand deaths in his mind, the old man carefully checked the ceiling and walls for spiders, or traps, or anything else. Seeing nothing, he entered. As he neared the center, he could see that the left coffin was carved with the likeness of a regal woman; the one on the right, a man.

They rose up to meet him, with forms of spectral mist. Tired of mind and soul, he didn’t startle. He simply greeted them.

In that strange way particular to dreams, they told him that they guarded the emerald in the room beyond. Their mouths moved, and he understood them, but he heard no sound. He asked what he must do to be allowed past them, and they said he must pass the final challenge. Through the mountains he had shown faith and endurance, in the mist he had demonstrated physical prowess, and in the garden he’d displayed patience. Now he must show them a clever mind. Once he’d proven every required trait, he would be allowed the emerald. He asked what would suffice as proof, and it was then that he finally heard their voices.

They sang out with haunting tones, ethereal beauty. Their voices rose and fell in time with their riddle, to the tune of the forest winds and the whispers of the falling leaves.

“The world is full of hues and shades, each different to another. Every family is distinct in mother, father, sister, brother. The desert is hot, the tundra is cold; fire is young, but mountains are old. Nights fall to black, days rise to light, and we must all learn wrong from right.”

Their song ended with soft vocalizations, and after a moment of silence, the ghostly man said “These things are all opposites, but there is a time when they are not. When is that?”

The old man stood between the two coffins, deep in thought. The guardian spirits floated, and watched, and waited for his answer. Whether he stood for minutes or hours, he could not say. Questions, logicks, potential answers ran through his mind. His whole life had been this journey, just following along. Just seeking out the treasured emerald, yearning for its power.

After all his contemplation, he could think of just one thing. He raised his head and spoke aloud, his voice echoing around the chamber. “No difference can be discerned by those who shut their eyes.”

The guardians slowly nodded, first the woman, then the man, and they fell softly down to return to their slumber, satisfied with his answer.

With nothing left but to assume the best, the old man stepped forward. New enthusiasm filled his stride as he went through the door, checking for tricks or traps like always. As he neared, the room beyond began to glow with emerald light. There, ahead, upon a pedestal, sat a jewel of great size and polished sheen. It shone with inner light, and he felt his breath catch in his chest. After all this time, it was there, right in front of him, scarcely an arm’s-reach away.

He reached out with shaking hands, and his swollen knuckles cracked. At long last he laid his hands upon the fabled gem.

It was warm.

All the words and memories came suddenly to a head, and deep within a hidden tower he awoke upon his bed. He filled the chamber with his screams of pain and horrid dread, until he realized he wasn’t dead. The thousand deaths fought within his mind, tempting him to just give in and leave sanity behind.

That is, they did, until his mind caught up. The dream was over, and in his hands was an emerald the size of a cabbage. The tears of pain streaking down his wrinkled cheeks turned to ones of joy. He’d done it. It was his.

Shaking from excitement, not age, he leapt up from his bed. The bricks were cold against his feet, and his loose silk trousers swished as he hurried to his lab. Myth, legend, lore, and truth all led him to this moment. His crowning achievement, his final victory; pride swelled his chest.

It was warm.

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