The Hero's Quest: Chapters 4-6

a writing by Dwayne Leon Rankin

*Chapter Four*
The test: “Of Fire...

Molten was that lake of fire;
With burning rock; with magma dire.
With air so hot; found venting, steaming;
And flicker’ng flames, in silence screaming.

With gushing spouts of flames alight;
Bringing forth an odious night.
Oozing through, and spurting high;
Reaching out into the sky.

Burning; foaming, rising; roiling;
The air itself will soon be boiling.
Frothing forth in flaming red;
That fills each heart with terrors dread.

Seen flaring forth at flames behest;
Fear now reigns within each breast.
This damning sight on earth to dwell;
This lake of fire, come up from hell.

He stood there for several minutes wondering how it was that he was supposed to cross this barrier, because it seemed to him that this was something that was insurmountable. Already he could feel the blast of heat pushing at him; scorching his skin as he took a step back.

Almost, he fell into that bog but had stopped himself at the last moment. He was starting to acclimate to the heat of the lava though; but wasn’t sure if he could take the full blast of it if; not when he got near it. Still he knew that he had no choice.

Carefully and ever so slowly he stepped back onto the shore getting as close he could for the moment. He needed to look around to see if there was any way he’d be able to attempt a crossing; any high reaching bridge of any sort. Anything would be better than trying to wade across.

Presently he spied a small looking craft pulled up on the shore; but he could see that it was still sitting halfway within that burning inferno. “That’s it then” he whispered; with it that close It’d most likely be nothing more than an empty burnt out husk of a shell, with the bottom most likely incinerated by the heat. But when he drew near enough to it, he saw that, much to his surprise, it was still all in one piece. This was utterly impossible he thought; “Well I guess that seeing is believing” he whispered softly while giving off a sardonic smile. His thoughts then once again went back to another time and place.

He’d been walking down a country lane when he’d come across a fire burning furiously. A single man and younger lady, most likely his daughter, were the only ones who were there, but still they were doing their best to battle the flames. Granted, their dwelling was some distance away from any others; but the neighbors should’ve been able to spot the blackened smoke that that was billowing out above their homestead. Quickly he dropped his back and staff and ran over to give him what help however he could. He let go a sigh of relief when he saw that it wasn’t their living quarters; but was rather a small-out building that they’d been using as a small barn.

“Are there any animals inside there?” he hollered out hoping that the man would hear him over the roar of the flames.
“My cow and her calf” was his reply. And from the sound of his voices, those two animals were about his most precious possessions.
“Nothing else?” he’d then yelled back.
“We gots us some chickens out yonder behind this here barn” his daughter replied; “They’re right close to the barn and I be aworryin’ about them” she then added.
“Right, you have another bucket handy?” he asked as he watched them fetch bucket after bucket from the nearby well and toss the water onto the flames.
“Naw, just this one” the farmer yelled out. “I gotta git those critters out o’ there.” I looked at him and said “You stay here and I’ll go and see what I can do.” He then took a blanket that was hanging out on a line drying and wrapped himself in it and said “quick, douse me good now; and make sure that I’m good and soaked” he bellowed out to them both. They saw what he was intending to do and started to object; but he quickly hushed them and said “hurry; time is important.” The two of them looked upon him as if he was crazy so he smiled and simply said “don’t worry, the water in this blanket should protect me from most of the heat.”
They then doused him with several buckets of water until he was completely soaked; both the blanket and his clothes and cloak he wore underneath it. He then pulled the hood up and wrapped the end of the heavily soaked blanket around his face covering his mouth and nose, and then plunged into that burning edifice. And then within a matter of minutes he was heading back out running as fast as he could behind that mother cow and her calf. Behind him came two barn cats and a couple of chickens. The blanket was smoldering; looking like it was about ready to catch fire by the time he threw it off. He then stood there coughing what smoke that had gotten around the makeshift mask and had subsequently started to fill his lungs. Suddenly the small building collapsed as it became totally consumed by those flames. The Hero looked at that pile of burning rubbish and swallowed. Then, upon looking at the face of the man and his daughter before him, he grinned as he wiped away a dark smudge of ask and cinder from his face.

They both had been grateful for his assistance and had insisted on giving him a small token of gratitude for his help. He had taken the small wrapped package and had stuck it into the top of his bag and then removed his cloak and sat down in the sun to dry off. He smelled of smoke and ash but he didn’t mind. He’d spied a small creek down by the side and asked if they would mind if he went there to clean himself up.
“Sure enough we don’t mind. You go on over behind that bush and you’ll have all the privacy you need. My daughter here will cook up some food so that you can have some in store for your travels.”

Then with a smile and a wave, the Hero went behind that bush and disrobed, and then after removing a small bar of soap from his pack, he dove into the job of washing away the stink of fire and flame. He was also able to give his clothing a quick scrubbing as well; but when he picked up the cloak, he found it was not only clean of smell but also free of any stain. He then started to put his wet clothes back on when he heard a small cough from behind the bush. It was the Farmer with a dry robe for him to put on until his clothes were dry. He was surprised at the way it seemed to be the perfect fit for him and his short frame; and the touch of it against his skin, he could tell that it had been made from the finest of wool. He then finished getting dressed and then taking his own cloths he went out and hung them onto the line so that they could dry properly. “My clothes should be dried out in a matter of maybe thirty minutes and then I can change back and return this fine robe to you.”
“Naw, you keep it; it looks good on you and you never can tell, you may find that you’ll have a use for it one day.”
He then gave his thanks to the farmer and the young lady, and then sat down and visited them for the few minutes until his clothes were dry. He then changed back into them; then carefully folded the white robe into a small enough package so that it would fit into his pack. He then got ready to leave when the young daughter came out and handed him a wrapped morsel for him to eat later on.”

The Hero stood there on the brink of that hellish looking lake and touched his pack. He still carried it inside but hadn’t as yet found a time or situation where he would feel comfortable wearing it. He then stepped into that small strange looking craft and then sat down and waited.

As he sat there, he started thinking about how he going to now get this small boat moving out across this lake of fire and brimstone. There was no way that he could use his staff to poll himself across; for the staff it was made of wood so it would most certainly be consumed by the heat if he tried. Then as he was sitting there he gave the small boat a quick glance, trying to see if there was any way he would get this vessel moving. It had the look of a sloop but without the mast that would be set in the middle. He then looked down at the bottom and found a placement where a pole of some sort could be place. He looked at his staff and then with a laugh placed into that setting. Still nothing happened. “Of course” he thought as he realized that he stilled needed something for a sail. The robe... No, nothing that precious; but then he remembered his cloak. It had come through that flaming inferno way back then. It could be that the cloak would also give some protection to his staff. But then he remembered a blanket that he’d packed into his bag at the start of his journey. He quickly removed it and tied to the top of the staff. He thought for a moment and then taking the sleeves into each hand he stood and spread it out. No, that wouldn’t work, he would need to keep ahold of the staff as he, hopefully, flew across this inferno from hell. Then in looking down at the bottom of the small boat, he spied a short length of wood. Just the thing he needed to make his sail. He then picked it up and tied it to the top of his staff with a small piece of the rope that he had. He then and stretched the bottom of the blanket to that small length of wood and then set staff into the hole in the bottom of the boat, setting it up as the mast.
Suddenly he could feel the small boat start to shift across the flaming embers and then out across this maelstrom of fire and flame. He quickly then grabbed ahold of the staff with is other hand to steady himself.

Before he knew it; he found himself racing across the surface of this Dantean like domain. But then as he went out across that burning lake, he found the stench of sulfur go start to grow exponentially as the further out he went. The heat also started to grow more and more extreme, until it became more and more unbearable. Maybe he should return and look for another way he thought to himself; but dismissed such thoughts. So then on he went through that blistering heat determined to continue; for there was no other way to get to the other side. Then suddenly his eyes grew wide and his mouth opened into a silent scream as he burst into flames.

"... and Ice”

On bitter waves the burning came,
Carried on those tongues of flame.
Until at last then came that mist.
That fell against his skin and hissed.

Like ice it was and soothed each burn;
Till soon, the cold, his heart did yearn.
For it stopped that pain found on the skin;
As well the heat from deep within.

But then too cold, unbearable;
That cold, it was too terrible.
Found freezing with a burning cold.
A cold that from his bones took hold

Then on and on that cold then grew;
Upon the winds, on down it blew.
A frozen, frigid stabbing bite;
Relentless was it appetite.

Within the matter of a micro second of time, his clothes were all consumed off of him and he could feel his skin starting to blister. He would have screamed if it weren’t for the fact that the all-pervading ball of tremendous heat had already sucked the very breath from out of his lungs. Fortunately though it was at that precise small fraction of a second that abruptly all the pain that was starting to flow over him stopped. Stopped dead cold; literally with the sudden onslaught of the touch of freezing ice. So cold in fact it was that he found himself going instantly numb.

Startled he looked and saw before him just as he was entering it; a sheet of freezing mist had sprung up before the small skiff he was riding in; and when he had entered therein, a numbing cold then swept over his body, instantly stopping the fierce heat from doing any further harm. Yes, his clothes were all destroyed; well, from the knees up that is. But any part of him that was not within the shelter of the sidewalls of that floating watercraft; or in this case the lava craft, had been caught up in that maelstrom of intensified heat storm and so had suffered the damage. He looked down at his boots and found them still intact but above their rim his skin was a bright fiery red; and now, because of the cold, showing signs of pealing. And it wasn’t long before his whole upper body was showing the same thing. The pain was gone though as well as the dirt and grime that had accumulated on him, even beneath his clothing had been all swept away; burned off by the heat waves that had washed over him as he passed through that plane of ice. His pack was still sitting on the floor of the craft so he knew that he still had the robe that had been given him so long ago.

He had passed through that plane of icy mist that had sprung up and so he was no longer subject to the intensified cold that had come upon him when he had passed through it. But still he was cold; colder than he had ever been before in his life. Even his feet were feeling the gelidity settle into his feet as he felt chilblains forming on the end of his toes and his fingertips. He sat down and dug out robe and drew it over his head. He pulled off his boots then and rubbed his feet. He started to look within his pack for an extra pair of stockings that he could don. But then he remembered, he had given them to an old gentleman several years back.

He’d been traveling up in the North Country where the winters were said to be extreme to say the least. And as he was going he saw an old man sitting there out in the snow while behind him, there sat a small hut with smoke coming out from a chimney on its roof.
The Hero looked at him in puzzlement and asked “Old man, why are you sitting here in the cold shivering when you have a nice warm place to stay in right behind you”?
“Because if I go back in, then I will get warm and then when I have to come back out, it will take me a long time to once more get used to the cold. I am fine now as I sit here” He said with a shaking heard in his voice from the cold.
“Do you have a warm blanket you could wrap yourself in while out here?”
“No, I have no blanket but for the one on my bed and I cannot afford to get that one damp. You see if I did and I went to bed with a wet blanket I would be taking a risk of getting sick and not waking up in the morning. I prefer to wake up.” he then said with a toothless smile on his face. “I can take the cold for the most part” he then added with a laugh.

Upon hearing this, the Hero reached into his back and drew out his wool blanket and draped it over the old man’s shoulders. He then handed over his last pair of warm wool stocking and said “There, now you should be able to stay warmer out here and so not risk getting sick from being too cold here as well as inside at night.”

The old man looked up at the Hero and said with tears in his eyes. “My humble thanks to you young man; you are a true hero.” The Hero looked toward him and said “maybe one day I will be, but for now I am just a traveler on my way searching for a place to find out what and who I am or meant to be.”
The Old man looked at him and smiles and said “My blessings upon you; one day I shall repay you.” The Hero looked and smiles saying “your words have already repaid me in kind. My blessings on you as well Old man, now I shall be on my way.”
The old man had laughed at those parting words from the Hero as if he knew something that this young man didn’t know yet; but one day he would.

The Hero thought back to that old man and the way he’d laughed and started to wonder. He then went back into his pack and much to his surprise a pair of fleece boot liners that looked to be just the right size as to fit inside of his boots. And then when he tried them on, he found that they did. And soon he was on his way once more; but this time it was through a blast ice winds that now beat down upon him.

For two long harsh hours he endured those freezing biting winds as they blew down upon him seeking out each open place it could to crawl in under his cloak and beneath his robe until he found himself freezing once again in this Land of Ice.

And as he went on, he found himself growing more and more drowsy until he could barely keep his eyes opened; but he knew that if he fell asleep, then he would most surely freeze to death. He stamped his feet and clapped his hands as his small boat seemed to fly across carried out on that blast of freezing wind and some hidden current beneath the water. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold out against this unrelenting wind and perpetual cold that was slowing leaching out the last of his body’s heat, sapping out the last of his strength; but still he continued on, never once thinking that he should just lie down to take that final sleep.

As he was sitting there struggling with this, he felt the boat grind to a halt; and then in looking down over the front bow of the water craft he saw what looked like a giant slab of ice. Quickly he drew up his back and took up his staff, and stepped out of the boat and started to walk thinking that in walking his body would generate enough heat to warm himself up with; but too much of his body’s heat was gone by this time. He then went forward one step at a time without stopping; for stopping meant defeat and death; and this he could not; would not accept.

Off in the distance he saw a small building that stood up against a mountain; whether that mountain was one of ice or one of stone, he couldn’t tell, nor did he care, for it looked to be a place of warmth and comfort where he might find a solution to his dilemma. So then on he went, step by torturous step until he finally the entrance to that place. And it was then when he had just reached the doorway that his body gave out and he fell over unconscious, lost to the world.

He woke up several hours later and found himself naked in a room that led down into a dark hole on the inside of the mountain. He looked around to see if he could see his robe anywhere but the only thing he found was his staff leaning there against the wall next to that exit that went down; down into that lightless opening that led deep into the mountain side. And there he went naked and alone with nothing but his staff to help him through the dark places inside.

*Chapter Six*
The Forth Test: The Pit of Black Despair

Deep, deep the blackness went;
Down until one’s soul was rent.
Deep where found, ‘twas nothing fair;
Into that pit of black despair.

And there it was that would one would meet,
The past come back to bring defeat.
Mistakes then brought to light down there;
Within that pit of black despair.

Those choices made found twisted then;
To judge then by the words of men.
Then if you listen without care;
You’ll fall into a black despair.

With not a sound that could be heart;
Not a simple spoken word.
Heard in that pit, within that lair;
Within that Pit of Black Despair.

The Hero then stepped toward that dark and open space and there retrieved his staff. He knew somehow that there would be no trace of light beneath that mountain; nor did he know what he would face. But he had this sinking feeling that if he wasn’t careful, he could very well undo all that he had accomplished to date. He thought back on all his travels and reminded himself of all that he had done; and why he had a done each thing. From the rescue of the young maiden from the gang of bullies; and how he’d handled the situation. He wondered then if she had made it to her destination safely. Maybe he should have accompanied her; or at least offered to go part way to make certain that no other brigands, no matter what their age would come against her. He then thought of the soft scented kerchief that she had given in appreciation of his help. But it was gone now; caught up in the flames that had taken his clothing. He shook his head when he realized that he hadn’t even had the chance to put it to it purposed use.

Other thoughts then intruded; what of the young couple who had been so generous as to gift him that robe of the finest wool, white and soft. He realized too that it was gone as well. He’d put it on after his clothes had all been burnt away. His fleece boots also he’d put on because of the extreme cold. They’d both been in his pack in the bottom of the boat which had survived the onslaught of that torrential wave of heat that had overtaken everything else but himself, his staff, and the cloak that the strange old man had given to him back at the start.

He’d taken that bag up when he left to go over the ice shelf; that much he remembered; but now, upon waking up in this small room it was gone. And not just his pack; but his robe and his boots as well. His original boots, he had given the old man whom he had found sitting out in the cold as well as his wool blanket and last pair of wool stockings. He wondered now what had become of that old man. Was he still alive; and what of the young couple; had they rebuilt their barn? Maybe he should have stayed there to offer his assistance with this. And maybe he should have spoken more urgently to that old man; persuading him to go inside where it was warmer. But he hadn’t, just like he hadn’t thought to escort the young maiden to a place of safety. But all those were of the past and couldn’t do anything about them. The here and now was what he needed to worry about and here he was plodding along completely naked trying to make his way through to the other end with only his staff to guide him; much like when it had guided him through the bog. But there, at least he had a small amount of light to see by and could look toward into the distance ahead; but here within this thick darkness he could not even see where he was going; just that here it seemed as if he was traveling nowhere. It was as if he was caught within what seemed like an endless journey into emptiness; an override nothingness of which there seemed to be no end.

He quickly found out what real silence meant; for it was quiet within this place under the mountain with not a sound to be heard. There was no noise anywhere that he could detect; not any sigh of wind; not the drip of water. No flapping sound; nor scurrying of tiny rodents which would’ve been normal for a cave of this sort. There wasn’t anything at all; it was then he realized that he couldn’t even hear the slap of his bare feet as he walked along. He tried his staff to see if it would cause a sound by banging it down hard against the stone walkway; but even that, he couldn’t hear. Then at these thought, he suddenly shook his head; he had to be careful not to get too discouraged by this dark silence. He just had to keep focused on what he was about and what it was he needed to accomplish.

It seemed like hours that he had been walking before he finally came to a spot that felt different than the rest of the tunnel. He wasn’t sure what it was; but there was most definitely something strangely distinct about where he was standing; but he couldn’t’ quite put his fingers on what it was. It was almost like he was in a large open space; but still closed in somehow. So he did the only thing that seemed sensible for him to do; he stood there and waited.

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