The Path Ends

Yesterday four more workers died. That made nearly fifty in the last two weeks. But it would not stop the Path’s progress, for Foreman Elias Acunto knew the bricks of the Path had always been laid with blood, and he kept this fact constantly before him to steel his resolve. The paving was a task worth the sacrifice of men. Innumerable men, if necessary. Generations of men. But that did not blunt the pain of the daily attrition.

The men waited upon the cracked earth for his morning speech. It was his job to motivate, to inspire, to remind them of the purpose behind their drudgery. To give their suffering meaning.

When he was young, his soul sang forth his duties. But in the last four years, as his team had driven deeper and deeper into these blasted, lifeless lands, the music had grown terrible and monotonous.

His throat was dry. Elias took a sip of his water ration. He would gladly have swallowed it all in a moment, but it was still hours until the Fire touched the horizon. They worked in the dark, in the relative cool it provided, but still the heat collected them in its hands and pressed them, squeezed them, rang them out like rags, and did not release its grip.

Elias had not returned to the last Way Temple for more than a year. He had thought he would grow used to the brutal days and hopeless night by sheer perseverance. He had not.

He approached the men who waited for his prayer and encouragement. They sat in their rows on the broken ground like discarded husks. He looked at each of them, silently, and they raised their heads in the torchlight to meet his eyes with dulled vision.

His prepared words were meant for other people, for imaginary people. What should be spoken were wordless groans. He fell to his knees. What these men needed, what he needed, were not empty words, but a sign. Were they to continue day after day, laying bricks for the Path through this everlasting hell with no hope of reprieve or success? Did the Fire mean to slay them for their desire to know him?

The words that came were born of the long nights and interminable days, of the heat and starched air, of the primal desire to find the one who hid in plain sight.

“Fire of Life,” he cried, “who illuminates the world and causes all things to grow, who warms the blood and sets the earth about its times and seasons, hear us, I beg you! Relent! We are but men. Relent! We do not make to approach you out of envy or pride. We do not hope to usurp your holy throne. We long to gaze upon you with our own eyes, to see your dwelling place and to worship you. Why do you beat us and flay us? Why do you torture and kill us? We are mere mortals, a breath, and you are everlasting. Have mercy on us! Have mercy!”

The men moaned in agreement, and together they wept.

*     *     *

Up rose the Fire, his light revealing the stark, twisted earth. Up rose the Fire, his gaze consuming the land, until every blade of grass turned black and every puddle cracked. Up rose the Fire, driving men beneath their meager shelters, to writhe upon their mats and gather spit upon their tongue.

And the Path, unbroken from Penquenta, the first city, which ran unerringly through countless miles of plains and forests and mountain, ended in a jagged tear.

Nothing moved. Foreman Elias Acunto lay perfectly still, his vision smouldering beneath closed eyelids. To adjust oneself was to disturb the equilibrium of air and furnace heat.

A cry woke him. Again it came, startling the corpse-land. The air shuddered, as if jolted with electricity, with the sudden spasm of a decapitated animal still thrashing. Elias rose, struggling against the atmosphere, standing as if beneath a yoke. One of his men stood bare-headed beneath the scorching sun and pointed.

In the distance, shimmering, came the glimmer of a man.

They hunkered down again and waited.

The mirage-man stumbled into camp and fell to the ground. Elias recognized him–a scout, one of three sent out a month ago.

Elias dragged him into his shelter. The man’s lips were cracked, and he gulped the dry air, trying to gain some sustenance from the scorched oxygen. Elias allowed the man a few drinks of his own water, knowing well what it would cost him later.

“Does this hell end?” Elias asked.

The man stared and tried to comprehend.

“Is there something beyond? Does this end?”

The man nodded slowly, as if communicating between realms.

“Is it his abode?”

No–no–deliberately, dreadfully, the head shook.

“Then what?”

The lips moved. “The end.”

The scout’s mouth worked once more, liked a man talking in his sleep. The dim flame in his eyes faded.

One more dead.

*     *     *

They survived another day. And another. Water came, three days late, but it came down the long distance from the last Way Temple. They worked and shriveled in the heat. Brick by brick, the Path stretched forward toward its goal, toward the desire of man’s heart since the beginning.

Then, one day, the air stirred. Foreman Elias Acunto felt it. The men felt it. It was a ripple in the coarse cloth of the air.

They worked harder and faster.

And on another day they stood at the edge. The land tumbled down and down before them, a mass of brush and rock and disaster, until it reached a turquoise plain in the far distance. It shone in worship with the reflected glory of the Fire.

Foreman Elias Acunto saw it through tears. He had never before seen such a sight, such unearthly beauty after such bitter hardship. His men were beside him, their faces shining in the light of day.

“Do you see that, my friends?” he told them. “The Fire has heard our prayers. He has had mercy on us. The Path will run straight and will be laid with ease in return for all the days of toil and suffering we have suffered.

“Generations ago, our fathers set out from their land, intent on building a path for mankind to the Flame of Life. We have paved the way, stone by stone, to show the way to the God Who Gives Live, that man might come to him, turning neither to the right nor the left. We have traversed the thick jungles of our birth place, hewing space in the thick wilderness. We have lowered peaks and raised valleys in the mountains that towered to ensnare us. We have crossed plains of endless grass, where in winter snow lay thick upon the ground and in men’s hearts. And we have conquered the barren lands, where the Fire tested us most severely of all. He did this to see if we really meant to find him. And I tell you we are upon the threshold. Look, the way is like glass before us, like a broad road already built.

“We shall cross the great expanse before us, and beyond we shall be with him, in golden light and eternal warmth, where we shall lack nothing and shall praise him forever.”

*     *     *

Before that, however, Elias had to plan the descent. He needed a fresh crew from across the wasteland. He needed an engineer acquainted with such terrain as remained before they reached the brilliant plain below. The Path must remain as smooth and direct as possible, even through these final obstacles.

He sent surveyors to examine the path ahead, including the Field of Glass below.

The operation was transitioning nicely when one of the surveyors returned and took him aside.

“Foreman Acunto, the plain–it is not at all what you think. It is not a surface. It is water.”

“Water?” He could not quite grasp the concept. In all the travels of his people, who had ever seen so much water in one place? “All of it?”

“All of it.”

“How far is the shore?”

The surveyor looked embarrassed.

“Well?”

“We don’t know.”

“Isn’t there a shore?”

“We don’t know.”

“Let’s go around it.”

“We will have to send a long-distance expedition to see if it is possible.”

“Possible?”

“We may not be able to go around.”

“You have no proof of that!” Elias shouted.

“You haven’t seen it, sir.”

“Then maybe I should.”

“Yes sir, you should.”

*     *     *

Foreman Elias Acunto had visited the great grasslands in his youth. As he descended, he told himself that was what it looked like, this endless water. He knew very well it did not. As one got closer, one saw the regular ripples, the rhythmic unevenness of the turquoise surface.

Then he stood on the shore, his feet sinking in sand, and he stared out across the water, the endless, glorious water. The Fire’s cyclopic eye gazed down upon him, watching him carefully, and the god’s flame danced in the distance upon the water in blinding displays of playfulness.

The wind tugged at Elias, like a child pulling at his shirt to get his attention.

Elias stared to the horizon, so different from the heat-baked curtain he had spent years staring at. He tried to pierce the far end with eyesight, tried to glimpse some hope beyond. And as he lost himself between sky and water, he began to understand.

He fell to his knees in warm sand.

The Path would come this far and no further. Here, the Path would end, in warmth and comfort. It would end at the water’s edge. It would end, and men would drowse beneath the Fire they had once sought. They would soak themselves beneath his gaze and grow sleek and beautiful. Here, they would make love and raise children.

Elias moaned in pain, in inexpressible longing. The blood of a hundred thousand men had brought them here, to this lethargic shore. Here, the dreams of an entire people whispered away in soft waves.

Perhaps a bridge? But over such distance? Surely the water was deep beyond, and cold, and turbulent. What men would toil when they had reached Paradise?

Elias waded into the water. It feathered him, massaged him. He closed his eyes and listened to the murmurs.

Here, right here, the Path ended.

He ducked his head and came up again. His eyes burned.

And the taste of tears were on his tongue.

 (END)

The story was prompted by Angi Adams. Her prompt was “Turquoise Tragedy.”

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