Here it is. This is the last piece of the story. It took me longer than it should have to post, since I have probably been working a little too hard of late, but better late than never. Our protagonist is at a crossroads after the sudden disappearance of his teacher, and a new visitor to the village challenges everything that he knows to be true.
I really do hope that you enjoy the story. As always, you can catch up with the previous posts by following these conveniently placed links:
The small village in the mountains rarely receives visitors. The people generally keep to themselves, gathering food, hunting, or raising and teaching the children. If anyone had been old enough to remember, the last visitor to appear in the village was a beloved storyteller who spun fanciful tales of a fantastic world. He had eventually become a part of the village, holding story tellings each night before a crackling fire. He captured the hearts and minds of all who listened. The children lovingly called him 'Teller' and the name stuck. His time in the village would not last forever, as one winter night he did not show up for the telling, and was never seen again.
His absence was mourned. Some cried. Some simply sat, staring into the fire until their eyes were dry and bloodshot. Others stormed the storyteller's abandoned hut in rage, leaving it in shambles. Still others decided to mount a search party for the man. The children did not understand, nor were they expected to.
Years had passed, and his memory had seeped from the people of the village. Only a few remained who were old enough to remember the man and his stories, and even their memory had grown old and faded. So, it was quite unexpected when another visitor arrived.
The evening sky told of a coming storm, and the villagers had retreated to their homes for shelter, when the hooded figure strode into the village. His dark robe was tossed carelessly about by the rippling wind, the fabric cracking like a whip as it shot from one side of his body to the other.
"Ho there stranger," a voice called out from a nearby hut. The man had to shout to be heard above the roaring wind and creaking trees. "The wind is strong tonight! You should take shelter!"
The stranger turned to look in the man's direction. His features were shrouded in his deep cloak, but a faint smile shone through. He said nothing, but stood as if awaiting an invitation.
The man hesitated, but as the rain began to fall he relented, "If you have nowhere to go, you are welcome to share my hut until the storm passes over. There is plenty of room, and I have hot water on the fire."
Again without saying a word, the stranger began walking towards the man, who ushered him into the relative safety of his home. "You can dry your cloak by the fire here," he said, pointing to a modest wooden drying rack placed next to the flames. "Please, make yourself at home. We don't usually get visitors here. In fact, we never get visitors here."
The stranger lowered himself onto one of the stools near the fire, opting to leave his cloak on and obscuring any physical features from his host. This slightly unsettled the man, but not enough to stop his small talk, "You know, you are lucky that I saw you wandering out there. I'm afraid that the rest of the village is a little," he pondered the next words with a smile, "reclusive, and I doubt you would have found lodging elsewhere."
The unassuming host turned away from his guest and began to prepare tea leaves and mugs on a shelf opposite the fire. "The truth is, I am very interested in meeting new people. Can I ask how you came to this part of the world, and where you came from?" He was attempting to coax some form of communication from the stranger, who sat on his stool in silence, gazing over the fire.
Tea was poured and they both drank the fragrant concoction. The man saw the barest signs of life return to his guest with each sip, and he felt a little more comfortable with the silence. "My name is Merrik," he said, "how are you called?"
"Merrik," a voice emerged from the cloak, and the figure looked up towards his host. The voice was strangely familiar, as something remembered from a dream. The cloak hood fell backwards ever so slightly as the stranger looked up, revealing the distant memory of his teacher's face.
Merrik's eyes widened and heart quickened. He almost could not recognize his old friend, after all it had been many years, and the hood still concealed many of the man's features.
"Teacher, I thought you..." his voice caught in his throat as he realized that something was not right. He could not feel Teacher's usual presence, and his smile was not exactly the same.
"What is it Merrik?" The voice now seemed to resonate with a different timbre than he remembered. He could not discern the difference, he just knew that this could not be Teacher.
Merrik's eyes closed. The motion was silent, powerful, final. The charade melted from the stranger, revealing a dark figure. He was still smiling, but it was vastly different now. The small discrepancy he had noticed from Teacher's smile now fully manifested upon the man's face. Merrik could perceive all of this, even though his eyes were still closed.
A low chuckle rumbled from the stranger, his deep voice resonating within Merrik's chest. "You have not forgotten. I must admit, you haven't aged a day."
Now it was Merrik's turn to be silent. He sat, eyes now open, staring at the dark figure before him. He was strangely affable, but at the same time detestable. His face seemed to shift constantly, never quite settling on distinct features or expression. Only his smile remained constant. It was the one thing that Merrik was certain would haunt him.
"Well this is interesting," the stranger continued, voice as modulating and ever-changing as his features. He seemed to almost purposefully pronounce words incorrectly, projecting his ever-shifting nature onto the language itself. "Expecting your old teacher were you? You have a new teacher now, and trust me I will show you the world." The stranger rose and walked around the fire to where Merrik was seated, frozen, eyes again closed. His voice seemed to settle into the most unsettling tone to Merrik's ears, "I'll show you things you won't believe, and that is no joke."
A frigid hand rested on Merrik's shoulder, and he found himself back on the mountain top. It was the same peak where Teacher had disappeared all those years ago. Memories flooded back to him, unbidden and relentless.
The stranger saw the recognition on Merrik's face and laughed. Like everything else about the man, his laugh was deep, dark, and haunting. It echoed off the distant peaks and carried for miles. "Good. I'm bringing back all the memories. That is what I was aiming for."
Merrik turned toward the valley, and noticed a faint, orange glow. It sent strange shadows dancing across the landscape, seemingly contrary to the storming weather above.
"You have remembered the teachings, but have they remained in you? Do you still have the power to defeat this world?"
The pale orange slowly grew brighter until a brilliant light engulfed the land below their feet. The entire valley was on fire. Flames tore through the trees and consumed the small village. The fire reached into the sky, licking away the rain that was powerless to quench the inferno.
Merrik's heart fell in his chest. He saw, though at a great distance, the huts and gathering halls of his home turned to ash. A brief moment of panic set in, but he once again heard his teacher's voice, the one thing that he would hold forever. This world is not as it appears.
His eyes closed. Two deep breaths. In and out again. When he opened his eyes the fire was gone, the village as if it had not seen calamity, and everything as it had been.
"Very good Merrik. I am impressed. Quite the feat of magic you have performed!" The stranger clapped slowly and took a quick bow. Somehow his smile had grown even larger. He snapped his fingers, "Here's a thought! I just thought of this. I think you're going to like it."
The stranger's eyes closed and suddenly the two men were in a grand building. Merrik was sitting on a large, ornate chair in the center of the room. A group of people were arranged around him, on one knee, heads down. He recognized them as his fellow villagers.
The stranger stood beside him, ever smiling, a look of pride on his face. "King Merrik," he said, to finish his thought from just a moment earlier. "Sounds good, am I right?"
One by one, the villagers rose and kissed Merrik's hand. As soon as they started he rose from his seat. "Stop, please, this isn't real. I am no king."
"Don't kid yourself, you like this. I can see it in your eyes. Ultimate power, influence. Why not? You already control fire with just a thought. These people, these simpletons, would bow down to you with such a small display of that power." The stranger's eyes were practically glowing now. "It would be so easy."
Merrik continued to fend off the advancing villagers who were bent on paying homage to him. It was then that he realized he was wearing a heavy circlet upon his head. He removed it to examine the golden crown inset with diamonds and other jewels, but nothing about it appealed to him. He began to mouth his teacher's words. This world is not as it appears.
"What?" The stranger's smile faltered. "What did you say?"
Merrik turned to look at him, crown crashing to the floor, "This world is not as it appears. I have not conjured fire, nor done anything of my own power. I have simply exposed the world for what it really is. It would be foolish for me to exert control over them, since that control would be meaningless."
"But you saved them. You took away the fire. You could have let them die, but you didn't." The stranger's voice was escalating with each word. "Why didn't you let them die?"
"Because they were not dying. This has all been an elaborate ruse."
The smile was gone now. A new, frightening expression etched across the stranger's face. The world around them grew dark, palace and villagers faded away and were replaced with a village that Merrik did not recognize.
This new village was set in wide open plains, lush with grass. Rolling hills bordered the western sky, and a familiar mountain range stood as a crown on the horizon beyond them. In many respects, the village was like his own, but Merrik knew that this too would be a trick. At least, he thought he knew until he saw Teacher, sitting near the fire in the middle of the village, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.
The stranger had disappeared, but Merrik scarcely noticed as he made his way to an empty seat. As he came within earshot, he recognized one of his favorite stories. It was the same story that he begged Teacher to tell him time and again when he was a young boy.
Questions began to mount inside him. Why was Teacher here, and why had he abandoned the village in the mountains when there were so many left there to help? He waited for the story to finish, Teacher to retreat to his hut, and the crowd to disperse before entering his old master's home.
The old man was standing over his fire, preparing tea, as was his custom. "Ah, Merrik. I was wondering when this day would come." He turned and smiled at his student, wiping any doubt from Merrik that he was, in fact, in the presence of his old friend. "Come, sit, have some tea and we will talk."
The two men sat and talked, slowly sipping at their spiced beverages. They talked as they used to, all those years ago. They talked of life, reality, and responsibility. Everything was as it used to be, but something was still not quite right about Teacher.
The old man finally finished his drink and replaced the cup on the empty chair next to him. His face had taken on a more serious look, as if he had something hard to say, yet could not come up with the words. "This is the final test, Merrik," he said, "the final level of your instruction."
"What exactly is this test, Teacher," Merrik asked. He had finished his drink as well, and laid his cup to rest near Teacher's.
"You have to understand why we do this, why we tell stories."
"We tell stories to reveal how things truly are," Merrik recited the words, remembering the countless times he had been told that very thing.
"Yes, that is what I have told you, but it runs much deeper, and that is why the test is necessary. There are those in this world that can grasp reality as we do, and those who simply cannot. It is our goal to find those who can bend this world to their will, those who can reveal truth as it exists, and bring them in. We are guides to the unknowing."
The last statement gave Merrik pause. He sat back into his chair to ponder his mentor's words. "But, you told me that we are all equals here. We are all enslaved in this world that is false."
Teacher smiled, "Perhaps you have misheard. We are special. We are the ones who can band together and master the world before us."
"This sounds too familiar." Merrik stood and turned from his teacher, fully convinced that he was a fraud. "I won't listen to this, and I am through being toyed with."
He began walking to door, but it vanished along with the rest of the hut, revealing a great, white room. He could perceive the walls and ceilings, though the space was featureless. He turned back to where his master was sitting, but found the stranger standing before him. The unsettling smile that usually framed his face now set fully into anger.
"You are wrong!" The stranger screamed. His voice was piercing, vile, and utterly unforgettable. "You are just another simpleton! You have no understanding of what you can attain with me!"
Merrik was surprised by the calm that he felt in the presence of such ferocity. He could sense Teacher standing next to him, his true teacher, guiding his thoughts and emotions. "No, stranger, you are the one who is mistaken."
This only received a laugh from the shadowed figure. He stood in stark contrast to the pristine white of the room, as he was constantly shrouded in darkness.
Merrik continued, "You fail to perceive that all of this power you speak of means nothing. Any power here is only a glimpse of what is truly out there. The journey we take here is to bring that truth to everyone, not a select few."
"There are only a few who truly understand, or even have the capacity to understand. Take them and rule over them! Bring them to their knees and revel in the glory." The stranger raised his hands above his head, his countenance growing with each word. "I have already shown you what is possible."
"All glory received here is a shallow hole, and I desire to dig deep into the truth. You cannot sway me. I will carry on my teacher's mission to bring truth to all. When they hear the truth, when all have the understanding that I do now, we will bring about a world that will make this one incredibly pale by comparison."
The stranger let out a deafening cry.
"Be gone. You will not have me." The words were as his teacher's: powerful, final.
The stranger's smile returned, as haunting as ever, though Merrik no longer feared it. He grew brilliantly white, blinding Merrik as Teacher had so many years ago. When he could see again, he was standing outside a village much like his.
In a small village, amidst great forest and sprawling lakes, a visitor appeared. If you were to ask any of the villagers, they would tell you that visitors were rare, and often passed through quickly. In fact, the last visitor had come through so long ago that only a few remained who could remember him.
This visitor was different. He gathered the village about him every night, after workers returned from the fields, and the children had finished their instruction.
Around the fire they sat, the sound of hissing logs and the smells of strong tea blending together to create an ambiance that would stir nostalgia within the people for years to come. Against this tapestry of sounds and smells, the visitor would tell stories of a fantastic world.
The stories drew the village back together every night, and were especially loved by the younger villagers. If anyone had been old enough to remember, they would have known the visitor's name was Merrik, but the children called him Teller.