Chapter 39: The Mountain
It took about ten minutes for us to reach the camp. Bobbi arrived first and stopped just outside the circle of tents. She ducked behind one of the large stones which lined the ridge’s base and she waited patiently for us to catch up.
When Rick and I joined her behind the stone, we took turns glancing around its edge. Bobbi muttered softly, “I don’t think these people are human.” Her tone was blunt and nonjudgmental, but there was an edge to her voice which was hard to place. I had been told to expect something when I poked my head around that rock, but I was still surprised by what I saw.
“This is what I was talking about!” His whispers were sharp and frenzied, coming out louder than even he likely expected. “We can’t even be sure that anyone we meet is human, or alive, or even sentient!” He was reached his neck around the stone and craned his neck as much as he dared to look out at the camp.
“This doesn’t change anything, guys.” I rolled my eyes, acting as dismissive as possible to assuage their worries. “Just because someone isn’t human in the strictest sense, doesn’t mean that they’re bad or anything. I mean the dead folks back in Denver weren’t really all that nasty or anything, just a little weird, that’s all. Alexander seemed pretty normal on the surface, but he proved to be anything but. Appearances didn’t mean much before all this, between plastic surgery and fashion and all that crap. Why would it mean anything now?” I sighed. “For god’s sake, the sun hasn’t set for months, the dead walk, and people seem to have acquired a deep and refined preference for human flesh. All bets seem off, so why not give these guys a chance before we pass judgment, okay?”
Without another word, I stepped out from behind the rock and walked towards the camp. The tents I passe were an uneven and unmatched mess. Many of the tents seemed to have been stolen from a renaissance faire, being made of plain looking canvas and tied to the ground with a coarse rope. Scattered among these large tents, however, there were others. Some resembled the stereotypical tipi design, while others were barely more than a large blanket held up with sticks. There were even a few modern designed tents made of nylon in various shapes.
A few figures moved around the camp, though the thick cloud cover and distant fires obscured all but vague forms. Despite the indistinct shapes, it was obvious that some of them were not entirely human. None seemed particularly menacing, but it was enough to give me pause.
Once I had entered the heart of the camp, I heard voices call out to inform the camp of my arrival. Figures buzzed about, seeming to take predetermined positions throughout the camp. One figure walked around the fire and approached me.
He towered over me by at least a foot. He wore no shirt and only simple pair of leather pants. Powerful muscles rippled and flowed beneath his skin which created a menacing profile of broad and powerful shoulders. His arms were crossed before his chest, unimpressed and closed against me. His eyes burned like coals as they bored into me. He peered out over a thick beard which ended only inches above his folded arms and his mouth was lost in that tangle of hair.
His most notable feature, however, was the large antlers which stretched forward and up from his brow. They were magnificent examples of the sort of antlers you would expect from an elder deer, with many points and branches raising his profile to unimaginable heights. His neck moved with grace and, despite the unimaginable weight such a display should have added to his head, explaining the thick muscles of his upper body. From the highest tip of his antlers to the bottoms of his thickly cloven feet, he was a menacing sight to behold.
“Identify yourselves.” His voice was deep and booming, sounding of thunder.
“I… I am Susan Tan.” I cleared my throat, in an attempt to disguise how rattled I was by his presence. “I, and my friends, are just traveling trough on our way to Minnesota.” I swept my arm around, to indicate the two behind me, only then remembering that they were quite some distance behind me. Bobbi was the nearest but still hung back a safe distance. I noted that she was still not so far as to be unable to help if I needed it. Rick, on the other hand was still back by the stoneand peeked cautiously from behind it.
The man seemed to either not realize or care about the reluctance of my companions. “And who are they?” Again, his voice seemed to vibrate down to my bones whenever he spoke. It was as if his voice were not mere sound, but the very voice of nature itself.
“That,” I pointed at Bobbi. “Would be Bobbi.” I pointed back towards the rock. “And my nervous friend back there would be Rick.” I shrugged. “Don’t mind them; they’ve just picked up a healthy wariness about anyone we meet that seems even the slightest out of the norm. No offense.” The large man said nothing. Instead, he looked me over with a scrutinizing eye. It felt like he was examining my very soul, reading the very lines of my history and my mind with those darkly burning eyes. His expression never changed. He said nothing. He stood in silence, looking at every inch of my form without any reaction or hint of his thoughts.
Meanwhile, other figures gathered from around the camp. They peaked from around tents and behind stones or the rare tree. They looked curious about the newcomers, but seemed considerably less frightening than their immense leader.
Finally, the large man let out a deep exhalation, blowing my hair back slightly in the process. “You are Untouched. You walk the paths of this world and shape them in your wake. You shall always be welcome among us.” He stepped aside and beckoned for me to pass, and I stepped past him towards the camp’s large central fire. I turned a moment later and saw that the man now restrained Bobbi from passing into the camp. She, to her credit, was putting up quite the fight; struggling and grumbling in his direction.
“Bobbi, stop!” I shouted at her, already deducing that we would each need to pass his inspections individually. There were no blanket welcomes apparently. “Just let him look you over. You’ll be fine, and I’ll wait right here. Just relax.”
Bobbi stopped dead in her tracks, continuing to glare at the large man, but not resisting any longer. Minutes ticked by and the large man finally spoke once more. “You have been Touched. The chaos of this world now lives within you, glowing brightly through an iris wound. Your heart is pure, but full of rage. Your mind is clouded and influenced. Your Touch is stable however. Safe. You may enter.”
As his words flowed over her, Bobbi’s anger abated; returning to her newly constant annoyance. When he stepped beside, she came defensively close to me and glared at the large man. The man stood and waited patiently for Rick to work up the courage to join us.
I sighed and called out to him. “C’mon Rick. We’re not dead, yet. I think we’ll be fine. Just promise you won’t get tied up this time.” Bobbi laughed at my joke, but Rick’s face practically glowed red across the intervening distance as he slowly approached the beast of a man.
The silence lasted longest with him, but the man finally spoke once more. “Your Truth is subtle. You are not Untouched, but you are not Touched either. You are a remnant. Are an empty shell filled with something other. Your fate lies both in darkness and in light. You are in flux and part of you is missing. You belong to another, but they have yet to claim you. We cannot accept you amongst our own.” The admonishment was softer, as if the thundercloud had retreated, but lost none of its power. It was still firm.
“What?” Rick was looking up at the man, confused.
“You’re rejecting him? Why won’t you let him in?” I was upset, remembering my hasty promise of a moment ago.
“You misunderstand.” A pause. “He may come and go from this camp, but he is not one of us. He cannot work alongside our kind, but he poses no threat. Unless the Other comes.” The man turned away slowly and said with finality, “He is nothing, neither threat nor boon to our cause. I care not what he does.”