The greatest harm can result from the best intentions. -Stone of Tears
The next day the entire town showed up at the square to hear Padre speak. Standing on a small platform in the middle of the town square, Padre addressed the hundred or so people that lived in the community. "Perhaps some of you have heard of Warren Jeskran. No? He is a member of the Second United Nations, and recently he brought to the board the problem of security." Murmurs drifted about here and there; even in this small village, the people were not totally safe. At least twice in the past three years they'd had to fight organized crime, and it wasn't unusual for various lone criminals to come sniffing around. Padre continued on. "As we all know, evil still stirs in this world, and there are those who wish to keep all people separated and weak, giving them an advantage over others. And so, the UN2 has given Jeskran permission to recruit an army to stomp out these evildoers."
At this the entire town rejoiced, and James and his friend Marcos had to stand on the platform and yell to get their attention. Padre's voice took a new tone as he finished speaking, this time grave and serious. "But in order to join the army, you must survive a bloody competition. There is a forest much larger than most others, two days' north of here, where the competition will take place. The entire area is covered with video cameras, so that nothing goes unnoticed. The competitors will fight each other, and those that survive for three hours will be recruited into the army, assuming they fight in a decent, honorable way." His pause seemed to contain more silence than the entire rest of the world. "It will be difficult, but are there any among us willing to take the risk?" People of all ages and sizes looked at one another, some showing eagerness to help and others shuddering in fright. Then, one by one, young men and women stepped forward. In total twelve hunters and three huntresses decided to join. They all made a promise, however, that none of them would harm any other, on Padre's request. "The world has enough sorrow as it is," he proclaimed to the fifteen. "All I ask is that you don't stoop to killing your own friends and neighbors."
A decision was made to leave three days before the competition, leaving James with little time to practice. His parents worried immensely for him, and his friends did also. He tried to be with them as much as he could in the time remaining, especially his best friend Marcos whose deeply spiritual nature prevented him from joining. Otherwise, when James was alone, he meditated quietly, in the forest or in the town. He hunted as often as he could, trying to hone his abilities as much as possible in the little time left. One day he dug out three or four wooden swords, and he and his friends practiced parrying and thrusting for hours. In the evening he sharpened his blades, wiped down his bow, and fletched arrows until it was too dark to see.
The days flew swiftly this way, and soon James was standing with Padre and the other fighters in the dark wetness of early morning. Family and friends flew by, adjusting and making last minute preparations. Tearful goodbyes were said, and best wishes and good lucks were given all around. Only two hours after dawn, the party set out.
They skirted about, following the old roads but never venturing directly on the path,and instead traveling among the debris from ruined villages and walking under shady boughs when they could. The party marched for hours until the sun rose high in the air and the ultraviolet rays beat down heavily. There they stopped in a small deserted hamlet, resting in the remains of old huts. It was hot and sweaty, but they did not dare travel with the sun so high in the sky. James remembered the report of a wanderer who had passed by the equator. Sometimes the entire population of the village would be outside, he said, lying on the dirt and unable to move. Huge black and brown mounds of cancer covered their bodies, popping at the slightest touch into bloody, pussy messes. In some cases the cancer would cut off circulation to a limb, causing fingers and arms and even legs to rot away in the sun while the people watched, unable to help in the slightest. He said he saw one man whose leg was half-eaten away by maggots living in his rotted skin. It affected their minds too. He recalled watching children run around in circles until they could no longer stand up, clapping their hands together while staring blankly, and screaming out against demons in their minds. They were violent, he'd said, yelling and thrashing and clawing at him with whatever strength they had. Only one woman left him alone, an old maid whose decomposing left arm attracted rats that she bit in two and ate, bones, fur and all. The worst, he said, was the rippled skin on the corpses, as if their very blood had boiled away... Despite the heat, James shuddered, and he tried to think of other things.
A dirt road ran down the middle of the village, little more than wagon ruts packed into the hard earth. They had followed the forest, but it diverted away to the northwest as the first clay hut loomed into view. Two lines of huts followed on either side of the dusty road, but they were empty. Some of the mud huts crumbled at the touch and large gaping holes adorned most of the small enclosures, some even collapsing upon themselves, too weary to stand. The buzz of flies could be heard everywhere, following the smell of death. It must not have been abandoned long ago, James though. Outside the corpses had been reduced to scattered bones, but in the huts some still lay half-decomposed. Padre chose a hut near the forest, before the road bent northwest. There were no bodies, thankfully, and the young people crowded in, trying to escape the harsh sun, dozing wherever they could.
James and a few others sat with Padre, plotting out their journey. The old man pointed a shaky finger at a faded spot on the crumbled paper. Next to it were the words Sol Blanco. "I overestimated the distance," Padre confessed. "We are only two hours from Alde."
An older boy, perhaps eighteen or nineteen, stood up. "If it's that close, let's leave now. We can rest there and make it to Caracas before noon tomorrow."
"Do not be so rash, Alex," Padre snapped. "Can't you feel the heat? The temperature must be at least a hundred, and it will rise even after noon. Do you really want to go tramping across the desert in a hundred and twenty degree weather? We will stay here and sleep during the day. Then we will wake early, before dawn. I want to make it all the way to Caracas tomorrow."
Alex grumbled a bit, but Padre was firm, and no one really wanted to move in the heat. They lay about in a few huts near the first one they had entered, keeping away from the sun and sleeping as best they could. James dozed quietly, still ever alert. The sun had retreated behind the trees when Padre wakened him and sent him off to hunt breakfast before they left.
Though the village was still light, the forest was dark and silent. No sound could be heard but for the soft, light padding of James's feet. Unlike the forest at home, this forest was dry, and he constantly feared he would break a twig, giving away his position. Something rustled in the dry underbrush, and he crouched, silent, waiting. A javelina ran out, squealing. In the blink of an eye an arrow protuded from its side, almost magical in its appearance. James lowered his bow and walked over to the dead animal, bending down to inspect its body. It saved his life. An arrow whipped through the air above his head, so close he could feel the wind of it in his hair.
James swung around, throwing the small hunting knife he carried with him instinctively. He paled slightly as he watched it thud into a hairy man holding a curved sabre who had been sneaking on James; it was the first time he'd ever killed a person. The sound of stampeding feet on dry vegetation sounded off to his right, and James recovered from his shock quickly, whirling around in time to see another man, larger and more powerful than the first, charging through the trees. The huge man screamed in bestial rage and slammed a huge battleaxe into the ground where James had been a moment before, slicing slightly into his waist. He pulled out a dagger, much larger than the small hunting knife, with both edges flaring out into a sharp leaf shape. The man lifted his axe again and James retaliated with an upward thrust that buried the dagger deep into the man's throat. He rolled swiftly out of the way as the axe head thudded into the ground and the corpse fell on top of it, splitting the head in two. James wasted no time as he grabbed the pig and pulled out his knife from the decapitated head, before he ran off to the east, towards the village.
"Die, bastard!" James chanced a look behind him; a third man, tall and wiry, stood with an arrow cocked, perhaps fifty or sixty feet away. James ran on, hoping against hope he would live, always anitcipating an arrow in the back. But it never came, and he didn't stop until he reached Padre's hut, collapsing in the doorway.
"James?" A boy of about fifteen who had been standing guard knelt down beside him. "James, answer me!" The hunter's eyes rolled in his head and he panted heavily. The younger boy's eyes shone with fear. "Padre! He's hurt!"
The old man was already hobbling forward and he fell to James's side. "James! James, who did this to you?"
His eyes rolled in his head as he panted heavily. It was hard to see, all the colors blurring together. "Attackers...in the woods...," he gasped out.
"How many, James? James, how many?" The old man shook him roughly, and James's head began to throb painfully. His tongue felt fat and his limbs weak. "Three...four... I brought you...I brought you a pig..." Other things were yelled, indistinct noises, fading quietly in the background as his vision blackened and he became dead to the world.
Someone was working outside, probably some kind of smithing. A very loud, repetitive pounding flooded through James's being. He tried to call out to whomever it was, but his voice was hoarse and dry and a sound wouldn't come out. He reached out and felt something rough but warm-a blanket covering his feet? And soft grasses near his head... The pounding faded away and he wondered if it might only be his head. He groaned and stirred a little.
"He awakes," an airy, creaky voice declared.
James's eyes fluttered open and he immediately wished they hadn't. The ugliest face he had ever seen was peering down at him, only inches away from his own. It half-leered, half-smiled at him, crooked, rotten teeth showing between the gooey purple gums. The cheeks and long neck were covered in warts. A hand rose up, as ugly as the face with cracked and broken fingernails black with dirt, reaching out at him. The knobbly knuckles stood out above the veracose veins, purple streams stretching into the arm. Back to the face he looked, and he noticed that the green eyes were nearly overpowered by reddened rims. Gray hair, stringy from years of neglect, tumbled haphazardly down. He gulped and tried to shrink away. The black cavernous mouth opened wide and laughed, stinking breath forcing itself down his throat, the voice creaking eerily.
"Hahaha! Look at that! Scared a me, 'e is. I thought yew said this 'un was some kind o' fierce war'yer! Hahahaha, 'e don't look so fierce ta me." She jabbed at his exposed chest, the sharp fingernail cutting into his skin.
She moved away, and James could see he was sitting in a large tent that seemed to be made of some kind of nylon, gray with dirt and age. His bed consisted of several old, tattered blankets and his head was held up by a bundle of clothes that had been wrapped up with a thin rope to form a makeshift pillow. To his right was a cupboard-like structure, tall enough that the tent bulged outwards to accomadate it. The door was slightly ajar and he could see that there were three shelves covered with all manner of small jars and bowls, most of them filled with strange powders or liquids. A sickly sweet smell hung in the air, reminding him of the smell of acid rain.
"How is he?" Padre's familiar voice was a beacon of hope in James's confused mind. He smiled as the hag's face was replaced with the old man's.
"Much better, Padre. But..." James lowered his voice, hoping the witch wouldn't hear. She had turned away and was mixing something with her potions and powders. Padre leaned down to hear him, and James realized that the tent was not as big as he had though; the old man was kneeling down but his head almost touched the roof. Mentally, James shook his head, returning to the original train of thought. "Who is she?"
Padre sneered slightly. "She's a witch-doctor, James. And a crazy one at that. She's part of a cult that uses a combination of healing and a strange religion dubbed 'the poison.' They use trace amounts of otherwise deadly materials and poisons to heal sicknesses, wounds, and, of course, poisonings." He shook his head. "I don't agree with her, but the medicine works, and she was the closest to where you collapsed after the attack, which, by the way, you haven't told us about yet."
Ignoring the last half of the sentence, James asked, "How do you know her?"
"How do I know who?"
"Her. The witch-doctor. You said she was the closest to where I collapsed, like that was common knowledge or something. How did you know she was here?"
Padre sighed slightly. "James, she was just the first person we found. I don't know her at all. Please, just tell me what happened."
Reluctantly, the teen began his story, but as the memories came flooding back, the words tumbled more and more hurriedly from his mouth. When he was done Padre explained, "We didn't stick around long enough to find out who they were. Apparently some mild poison was rubbed onto the axe, she said. Ha ha, but you're strong. You'll get over it quickly." Padre ruffled the boy's hair affectionately.
James sat up, happier now, and eager to show his quickly regaining strength. "I'll be ready to move out soon."
"Good! I'm glad you won't miss the tournament. I'm sure you'll do great." The older man punched him lightly in the shoulder.
James smiled but at that moment a sharp pain ripped itself across his chest. He stopped mid-breath and sunk back down onto the small bed. He gasped slightly, but tried to hide it the best he could. "All I need now is a little sleep."
Taking the hint, Padre quietly tiptoed out of the tent. The old hag had left earlier while James was narrating his story. His eyes closed and he took a sharp intake of breath as the pain came again, this time from his shoulder. He turned in his bed and he fell into a light, restless sleep.