--------> For Part 1, click here <--------
“And a formidable one, too,” Cru said, eyeing him slowly, “since he obviously taught Mera well.” He pivoted and headed up the glade’s slope.
Tippy trotted up beside him. “What do you mean?”
“What do you think of her?”
“She’s great,” Tippy said, “almost unbelievable.”
“I agree with you there, man. She’s great at what she does, which is make herself believable.”
“I better fill you in on what’s going on,” Cru said as he examined his bowstring. “Sun Land is what could be called a ‘universal dream world,’ where men like you and me find it by chance in their sleep. As you know, everyone sleeps at different times around the world. Sometimes, though, we may take a nap and then come here at a different time than when we would normally. But once a member of Sun Land, always a member; I can’t remember the last time I had a dream that wasn't here.”
“Why only men?”
“We don’t know, it’s one of the mysteries of this place.”
“We don’t know, it’s one of the mysteries of this place.”
They came to the path and followed it as it ascended the slope and wound through the oaks.
“The important thing you must know is that Kurr, the lord of Sun Land, gives his daughters to torture us.”
“She’s one of them, yeah. When the first men came to Sun Land, they were greeted by hordes of women that met every one of the men’s desires, and they thought it a paradise, as you can imagine.” He adjusted his quiver and exhaled like one with bad news. “But of course, the men soon found Sun Land to be far from bells and whistles. We got a glimpse of the women’s true intentions when the first man was killed (but most people will say he simply went missing) in Lamoor Forest, where the women live. Most of the men ignored the implications of his disappearance, but some, myself included, believe Kurr’s daughters to be utter evil. We call them ‘companions,’ and they stick to us like glue; when we come here, they’re always waiting for us.”
“Mera’s my companion?”
“Indeed. Most companions are unnamed, but we all know hers because she’s ruthless--an excellent deceiver. A month ago, she successfully lured a man, Steve, into Lamoor. We’ve been waiting for his replacement since.”
“So...I’m his replacement?”
“Yeah, you’re getting it,” Cru said, looking at him with a smile. “Once a companion succeeds in luring her man into the forest, a new one is brought here to replace him.”
Tippy looked around the glade. “Where’s Lamoor Forest?”
“Don’t worry, it’s not here,” Cru said, following his gaze. “It’s just outside of the town I’m taking you to now.”
They came to the edge of the glade, where the gradual slope turned into a large hill of grass. The path climbed up the center of the hill and narrowed slightly, due to the long grass that overhung the trail, then disappeared over the crest.
“I mentioned, ‘the guys,’ and ‘some of us,’ earlier; I was referring to the Rebellion. You see, most men who come here love it--they’re the ones who ignore the dangers of Lamoor. They don’t see Sun Land like we at the Rebellion do. We’ve come to despise this place, and as more members of the Rebellion happened to cross paths in the real world, our coup snowballed into what it is today.
“Due to the nature of Sun Land, being a dream, the Rebellion had to coordinate in the real world and devise a way to make our move against Kurr. We found a date and time where the other men--we call them the Others--wouldn’t be dreaming because they would obviously try and stop us. It was a lot of work, but we managed to find a tiny window of opportunity, which is why we must hurry. Many of us have taken days off of work to make it today, and used pills, like we did, to force ourselves to nap.”
“You’re attacking now?”
“Obviously,” Cru said as they stopped at the top of the hill, which overlooked a square-shaped hedge of buildings with a square courtyard in the middle. On the far side of the town laid a wall. In the center of the wall was a closed gate, and beyond the wall was a dark-green mass of trees. “There’s Lamoor Forest,” he said, pointing to it.
“Wait,” Tippy said as something came to mind, “where’s your companion?”
“Knocked out, like Mera,” he said, “I did it as soon as I came here.”
“Where’d you get the bow?”
Cru chuckled. “Kurr and the companions are smart, but they’re ignorant of our ability to sneak around and plan things, both in the real world and here. The Rebellion’s worked for a month making weapons and hid them.” He descended the hill, followed by Tippy.
They came to the buildings and Cru led Tippy through the nearest alley, which was narrow and filled with random yard supplied. He stopped before emerging into the courtyard on the other side and turned to Tippy. “Just so you know, our attack hinges on you.”
“Our leader, Barth, will explain.” He turned and stepped into the open courtyard.
A few men hollered to him from the other side, and he made his way to them. Tippy, grappling with what Cru just said, slowly stepped out too.
“Ah, Tippy!” a short man in a ponytail said as he grabbed his arm in a firm, but friendly grip. He wore a hard leather chest piece and matching greaves. “I know you from the Wall of Souls.” He pointed to a black wall to the edge of the courtyard on their right. “Everyone’s name appears on it when they enter Sun Land.”
So that’s how Cru knew I came here.
“I’m Ty,” the man said with a smile. He nodded towards the opposite side of the square. “Let’s go.”
A group of a dozen men huddled in front of the building to the right of the gate. The building’s door opened, and they filed inside without a word. Ty and Tippy were the last to enter, and before Ty closed the door, he held up three fingers and mouthed, “Three bows,” to someone outside.
“Everyone’s companions knocked out?” A loud voice asked inside the crowded room.
A wave of affirmations responded.
Cru came beside Tippy and nudged him. “See that man in the gray tunic?” he whispered, pointing to the man with the loud voice, “He’s Barth.”
“Neil and Mark getting the weapons?” Barth asked.
“Yup!” Ty said.
“Where’s Tippy?” Barth said, eyeing the men in the room.
Ty and Cru each grabbed one of Tippy’s shoulder and pushed him to the center of the room.
“Ah, welcome, Tippy Cumber,” Barth said, “to the Rebellion.”
The men voiced a wave of deep mumbles and raised hands.
“Cru, did you fill him in?”
Barth stepped up to Tippy. “Well, Tippy, are you ready to lead us into Lamoor Forest?”
“It’s simple,” Barth said, spinning on his foot to face away. “We don’t get new guys here very often, and as it is, you came at the most opportune time.” He turned back to Tippy. “You see, we’ve been planning this coup for a month--ever since poor Steve died. We agreed on having Nate lead us,” he pointed to a young man in mail armor, “since he was the newest member here, but you are now a far better candidate. When your name appeared on the Wall, everyone in the Rebellion was notified and Cru, being your neighbor (a remarkable coincidence, to be sure) immediately connected with you.”
“What do you mean by 'better candidate'?” Tippy said.
“The magic of Sun Land, the same magic our companions use to deceive us, finds its source in Lamoor. Most of us won’t stand a chance attacking the forest on our own because of how long we’ve been exposed to our companions enchantments and their deceptive beauty. You,” he placed his hand on Tippy’s shoulder, “have literally just arrived, which makes you beyond perfect.” He narrowed his eyes and peered at Tippy. “You haven’t let her enchant you, have you?”
“No, no,” he said, holding an expressionless face.
“Good.” Barth’s face resembled that of a father approving his innocent child. He then looked to a man near him. “Get Tippy his armor.”
The man twitched his head to each side and stepped close to Barth. “Uh, he’s too big.”
Barth glared at him, then eyed Tippy and sighed. “Fine.”
“Here’s a helmet, at least.” Another man said as he emerged from the crowd. He held a metal helmet with a long nose guard.
Barth took it and placed it on Tippy’s head. “Perfect?”
It’s too small. Tippy smiled and tapped it in response.
Barth walked past Tippy and stopped at the door. “Everyone be sure to protect Tippy at all costs!”
The men whooped in reply.
Barth smiled and looked at Tippy. “Spear, bow or sword?”
“I don’t...” Tippy said.
“What’ll it be?” Barth said, louder.
Barth gave a quick nod, then unlatched the door. “Time to destroy this accursed dream world.” He swung it open and led the mob into the courtyard, where two men were waiting outside with armloads of weapons. “Give Tippy the best sword!”
Tippy was filed out with the whooping men and was handed a short sword. The momentum of the mob carried him towards the gate. Two men ran up to it, heaved it open, and a draft of cold air seeped into the square, as if to warn the Rebellion of the dangers lurking in the forest.
“Rally behind Tippy!” Barth hollered. “Keep your eyes fixed on him!”
The men raised their weapons in unison, chanting. Tippy was shoved to the front, where the cold draft was strongest. Although the sun shined on the courtyard, the Lamoor Forest was unnaturally dark. Instead of oaks, as in the glade, the forest was riddled with evergreens. Past the gate, a narrow pathway led down a slight downgrade into a narrowing trail.
Tippy couldn’t move, but it wasn’t from fear. The ache in his bones had only grown bolder since he left Mera in the glade. It made the current task seem wrong.
“Let’s go!” Barth roared behind Tippy.
The horde of men chanted again, but Tippy remained motionless. He clenched his sword, bent his knees, and with a single motion, spun on his right foot and shouldered Barth to the ground. Behind Barth was Ty, who had a dumbfounded expression. Tippy shoved him to the side and charged through the mob. He nearly made it through before some of the men grabbed at him, but with wild desperation, Tippy swung his sword and hacked at their arms. He ripped his helmet off and blindly threw it behind him, where it apparently struck someone and ushered a moan.
He broke free of the mob, leaving the injured men howling with rage and pain. Tippy brought his large body to a speed he never knew possible as he dashed across the courtyard. He could hear the thunder of voices and angry shouts behind him, but it only spurred his leg muscles to work harder.
He wedged through the narrow alley and ascended the grassy hill. He glanced behind for the first time and saw most of the men still pursuing him. When he reached the top of the hill, panting and sweating, he scanned the glade for any sign of Mera.
She should be awake! It’s been a half hour? Yeah.
He craved her touch, the coursing tremors and the voice of vanilla. He needed her strength and her presence. “Mera!” he shouted, eyes searching for her green dress and oak-bark hair.
“Mer--” An arrow struck him in the back. He crashed to the ground in a mass of sweat and pain.
Three men dove at him, clubbing, kicking and cursing him. One of them had a rope and began tying him up, but a loud, sustained gust of wind interrupted them. They held their hands up against the elemental onslaught, squinting their eyes to see the source of the gust. Tippy glanced up, and was relieved to see Mera.
She was holding her hands out in front of her, as if controlling the wind. Her face was contorted, her eyes glowed green and her skin was darkened and shiny like a cloven obsidian stone. With a loud pop, the three men attacking Tippy flew backwards through the air; two were thrust against nearby oak trees, thereby falling unconscious, while the third rolled a few times on the ground before scrambling away.
Mera lowered her arms, which made the wind stop. She exhaled with a loud sigh, loosened her shoulders and closed her eyes with her head canted slightly upwards.
“Mera!” Tippy exclaimed.
She remained silent; her only movement came from her heavy breathing.
More of the men filtered into the glade, shouting and whooping. Tippy panicked and rolled to his knees and tried to stand up, but Mera grabbed the back of his neck and heaved him to his feet. She pushed him towards the men.
“Ah! Mera!” he cried, “Wha--?”
“There he is!” the men shouted.
They ran at Mera and Tippy, but she swatted the air and another gust of air threw them all backwards.
She pinched Tippy’s neck harder, making it burn.
“What are you doing?” he said with a squirm.
She pushed him harder. “Move.”
They climbed the grass hill, where more men were waiting. Like their comrades, they were thrown aside by Mera’s elemental magic. Once at the top, she threw Tippy down the backside, which sent him rolling until he crashed into the siding on the nearest building. Before he could react, she grabbed him by the neck again and ushered him through the alley and into the courtyard.
The rest of the men, with Cru, Ty and Barth included, congregated in the center of the courtyard. They watched motionless as Mera controlled Tippy, a man far larger than her, with ease as she marched him across the square. As if they knew her power, they all remained in place without making any advances on them; nobody talked, either. The only sound came from Tippy’s grunts as he continued to squirm in his companion’s grasp.
They approached the gate to Lamoor Forest, which was still open. When Tippy realized Mera’s intentions, his heart sank. “No!”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why?” he squealed.
She pinched his neck harder, oozing blood. “You’re the one who’ll pay for this uprising.”
He tried digging his heels into the ground, but it was in vain, for she merely kicked the back of his knees to keep him walking.
They passed through the gate, which closed behind them with what seemed to be a magic of its own. The cold forest air crept over him like the first winter storm: cold and unwanted. Tippy was undone; his eyes watered and head slumped.
Mera led him down the path, which narrowed as it came to a swamp. The farther they went, the colder the air became. The shadows in the swamp, formed from towering evergreens, were far more than eclipsed sunlight; it seemed like true, materialized darkness.
Mera released Tippy and threw him to his knees, then she walked around to his frontside. She stood there in silence, as if taunting him with her betrayal. A deep groaning came from somewhere behind her. It rattled Tippy’s head with its deep reverberations.
He glanced up at her with wide eyes, but then his heart shrunk. She was no longer the Mera he remembered, but a twisted form of flesh. More loathsome than a witch, her gnarled face and sunken eyes personified death itself. “Poor, poor Tippy Cumber,” she said with a smile. Her voice was no longer vanilla; its stench made Tippy feel like a sun-baked carcass had been placed over his head.
The groan returned, but this time louder--closer.
She kneed him in the side of his face, sending him reeling onto the swamp moss. “Here lies Tippy Cumber,” she said, “the fool with a hollow soul.”
A small twig cracked nearby--in a different direction than the groaning.
Mera looked towards it, then quickly returned to look at Tippy. She grabbed her head and ripped at it with a loud whimper. “Tippy!” Her voice was vanilla again. Through her hands, Tippy noticed her face returning to normal. “Tippy, please!”
“What?” he asked, barely audible.
“It’s all my father! He made me do it!” She stooped close to him. Her witchlike features were gone, and her face was more radiant than before. She kissed him, which sent the warm tremors through him again.
Another stick snapped.
She grabbed his face with both hands. “I’m so sorry. It’s my father’s fault, I swear!”
He was about to speak, but she placed her finger over his mouth.
“I’ll always be yours.” She stood up, looked towards the twig snapping and darted away in the opposite direction.
Tippy tried to move his head and watch her, but it was frozen in place. He tried moving his hands and feet, but they were also immovable. The moss on the forest floor crept up Tippy’s sides and slowly enveloped his legs and arms.
Whatever had made the groans made a final groan, softer and less menacing, before going silent.
Without a sound, the twig-snapper appeared above him. It was a man, clean-shaven and bald. He wore a tattered wool suit coat and slacks. “My name is Karis,” he said. He spoke with a rich somberness, like he was speaking to someone on their deathbed. “Remember that name so you’ll know its me the next time you see it. You’ll need to hear what I have to say, but I can’t tell you until your awake.”
The moss had now submerged Tippy’s body, and when it reached his eyes, he woke up in his house; he had fallen out of the chair and was now on the floor. After a long series of steady breaths he sat up and saw Cru sitting on the nasty couch, glaring at him.
Cru opened his mouth, but paused and lowered his head with a slow shake.
“Shut up!” Cru threw the pill bottle at Tippy, which struck him in the chest and bounced to the floor. The pills rattled inside it as it rolled to a stop on the hardwood floor. Cru leapt at Tippy and pressed his hands into his chest. “Don’t you realize how hard it’ll be for us now? You better pray you’re banished from Sun Land because you’ve just pissed off everyone--everyone. If they see you again...” He gave a final hard press, then stormed to the front door. “You know,” he stopped without looking back at Tippy, “I thought you were gonna die--being taken into Lamoor. Somehow you lived; consider yourself lucky.” He whipped the door open.
“Who’s Karis?” Tippy asked quietly.
“Never heard of him,” Cru said before slamming the door behind him.
Tippy slumped his head and remained motionless for more than an hour. The hardest fact to grasp was that Sun Land was real; he felt it in his bones, which still ached for Mera’s touch. He disregarded her recent malicious antics and convinced himself she was forced to hurt him, as she said. As the night progressed, the ache worsened, but he ignore it by eating more noodles.
He then moped aimlessly around the house until 2 A.M., when he finally collapsed on his bed. Before he drifted off, he entertained the hope that Mera would be waiting for him in Sun Land. He woke up at 9--late for work. In the midst of scrambling to get ready, a realization sank in: he was banished from Sun Land.
He worked for another month until he was fired for consistent tardiness. Cru and Tippy continued to avoid each other, but this time their mutual avoidance was obviously justified. The ache for Mera continued to weigh on Tippy. He sought for every trace of her in the dirty magazines, websites and venues where superficial beauty is flaunted and paraded for the ravenous eyes of men. The images on the page and screen gave him a temporary solace from the ache in his bones, since admiring the beauties gave him warm tremors similar to those he has with Mera. He grew to relish the women--women he considered to be shadows of his Mera.
Yet the ache would always reappear. He spent the greater part of his savings on all the smut that promised the ever-elusive relief from the ache. For three months he indulged in the temporary relief. Yet with each bout of disillusionment came the emboldening conviction that only Mera would satisfy him.
After searching on Craigslist, he found an advertisement for a woman willing to make money with her body. He was appalled at such a move, but the ache surmounted his wits. He grabbed the phone, dialed the number, and within the hour she was in his house. The relief she offered was, again, only temporary. He cycled through the Craigslist women for the next month, in which he spent away the rest of his cash. Yet each time the ache would return and remind him more vividly of Mera.
When he couldn’t afford another Craigslist escapade, he stumbled into the local bar with his last twenty-dollar bill. He secluded himself at a corner booth and drank a single glass of his favorite lager. After the last draught, he stared at the empty glass, contemplating a bold move.
He went to the bathroom and saw a notice above the urinal. Its first lines read: “Charis Church: Newness for the broken. It’s only by charis (Greek for ‘grace’) that the human soul finds its peace.”
Charis...that guy? What’s his name? Karen? No, Karis. He chuckled. The Ch is pronounced like a K, I get it. It would be a church. He left without bothering to read the address or service times, although he did agree with the flyer on one point: he was broken. On the drive home, Karis and the church flyer pressed on his thoughts, and twice he nearly turned around to take a second look. I wonder what that Karis guy had to say? Ah! Probably just to feed me propaganda. He turned on the car radio and drowned his curiosity in classic rock.
Once home, he filled a glass of water, found Cru’s bottle of pills, and swallowed them all. The world blurred, and he slumped onto his nasty couch and embraced the shadow. He smiled and closed his eyes, heart dancing at the thought of seeing Mera’s face and holding her hand. The ache in his bones finally faded as sleep numbed him.
A week later, the police found Tippy’s door unlocked and followed the stench of death into his living room, where his body laid on the nasty couch. Although Cru resented him, he was the one who noticed Tippy’s inactivity and called the authorities. Tippy had no family, so there was no funeral. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in a small cemetery near Rockford.