This was the place.
Lyria Penlance pulled in her reins and brought her gnarled appaloosa to a halt.
209 Oakland Road was a simple property, small and square, with a simple house right out of a first grader's sketch book sitting in the center of it, lazily basking in the summer heat.
Lyria leapt from her mount and gently landed on the dusty road. She took a second to fix her wide-brimmed hat before unzipping her saddle-pack and reaching a gloved hand in, extricating the tools of her trade. She led her horse, Daunt, to a frail, old fence in front of the place and tied him there. "If you rip that thing out of the ground, there'll be hell to pay," she warned in mock seriousness. She gave the horse a pat and turned to approach the front door, walking through a small garden of fruits and flowers and past several lawn-gnomes and rabbit statues. She stopped in front of it and quickly made sure she was presentable; pen and notepad in left hand, hat positioned correctly, and hair out of face. Satisfied, she pushed the buzzer.
A few seconds later she began to hear footsteps approaching the door, and soon after that she could see a vague shadow coming down the hall through the opaque door window. The door wafted open to reveal a plump, middle-aged woman. She wore a brown baker's apron that went perfectly with the shaggy brown hair cascading down the sides of her head. The woman reminded Lyria of a mop, a mop with a very, very round handle.
"You're the reporter from weekly?" the woman asked with a tempered smile.
Lyria nodded. "Yep." She extended her hand for a shake. "Lyria Penlance. It's good to meet you."
The woman took her hand with surprising enthusiasm, her smile doubling in size. "Likewise. Do come in, do come in." She spun on her heels and led Lyria into a small hallway. It was filthy compared to the home's gentle exterior; there were soda cans and bags of trash on the floor, the wallpaper was peeling, and the floorboards creaked. Lyria certainly disapproved, but she quickly set that feeling aside. She followed the woman into a small and similarly dank kitchen. "Have a seat. Would you like some coffee?"
Lyria pulled a lopsided, wooden chair out from under a lopsided, wooden table. Dust motes exploded out from under the chair's legs in response to its slight movement. She couldn't pull it out all the way, for there was a cabinet behind, but she managed to awkwardly slide onto it. "Yes ma'am".
The woman - Madge Trufflestomper was her name - waddled to the counter and poured out two cups of viscous, black fluid. She returned and plopped down in the seat across the table, shifting several times until she was comfortable. She pushed a cup across the table to Lyria. Black coffee, as black as a Plutonian night and just as bitter as it was black. Lyria took a sip without complaint, and when it became apparent that no further words were forthcoming from Madge said, "Well I want to thank you for your time, and if it's ok I'd like to get started."
"Sure, sure, go ahead," the woman responded with a wave of her hand.
Lyria brought up her notepad and laid it on the table. She tested her pen on the paper as she asked, "So how long ago did your son leave?"
Madge didn't need any time to think about that one. "It was three years ago, almost three exactly now. It was two days after his 18th birthday. June 20th was the date."
Lyria took a moment to scribble that down. "And what did he bring with him?"
The woman had to think about that one for a moment, putting down her coffee and propping her head up with her arm. "Hmm. Not much. He brought the clothes on his back, a few days worth of food, all of his money, his knife, and his gun." She seemed for a few seconds like she was going to add a couple more items to that list, but only silence ensued.
"Ok," Lyria started again. "And when was the last time you heard from him?"
"Oh, it was about two years ago now, I think," the woman sighed wistfully. "Too long ago."
Lyria nodded. Those were the only questions that she was merely confirming answers for. Now they were going to sail into uncharted territory. "Have you any idea where he went?" she asked.
"Ah, very far indeed." The woman looked up at the cracked ceiling in thought. "He went south to the edge of the known world, met the people there, and then went west to the edge of their known world."
How very romantic. Polished up a bit, that line could be a potent attention grabbed for her article. She wrote it down verbatim and circled it. "Do you know any of the actual places that he went to?"
"Oh yes, lots of them. He wrote to me constantly for the first year. I've made copies of all the letters for you, so you can read them over later."
Lyria smiled. "That will help a lot." That also answered her next question, which was going to concern what exactly he wrote about. "Do you know why he stopped writing?"
Silence. The woman's mouth kept opening like a fish's as if she wanted to say something but kept changing her mind on what exactly she should say. Finally: "I hope so. He warned us in several of his last letters that it was becoming too difficult to mail us. He said he'd probably need to stop soon."
"Hm, that definitely could be the reason," Lyria replied. The only way to send mail across a desert with anything remotely resembling reliability was through a church currier. And their prices were nothing short of exorbitant. But if Snakeboots really did travel as far as Madge said, probably across a dozen deserts, sending mail would cost an absolute fortune. And it probably wouldn't reach its destination anyhow. "Do you know how he sent the mail?"
Madge nodded vigorously. "Oh sure, he sent it through the church. I'm not sure why, but they were taking his mail for free."
"How curious. How curious indeed." She'd have to look into that. Perhaps the local bishop would be able to enlighten her. "Do you know why he left?"
The woman's eyes adopted a faraway look. "Oh, well, he said it was just wanderlust, but we always suspected he was looking for something in particular."
Lyria's eyebrows perked up in interest. "What kind of something?"
But the woman deflated suddenly. "Oh, I don't know. It's just a mother's intuition. I'm probably just making stuff up."
"Don't say that, a mother's intuition is a powerful thing and I'm certainly not one to ignore it."
Madge let out a long sigh and closed her eyes for a few moments to contend with whatever emotion she was feeling. Nostalgic yearning, tinged with sadness, Lyria guessed. Transitioning from feelings to facts seemed to take some sort of toll on her. "Well, all right. I really don't know what makes me feel that way though."
"That's fine," Lyria said, signaling that they were moving on. "Did anyone else go with him?"
"No, it was just him."
Lyria jotted down that last note and then put her pen down. "Well, that was actually all of the questions that I had planned, but I might have more later if you'd be so kind as to take them."
"Oh sure, sure. The more people know about him, the more likely someone is to find him."
"Exactly." Lyria doubted anyone would find him, let alone bring him back. "I think this has the potential to be an episodic story actually. If it's ok for me to publish the letters he sent you."
The woman chuckled lightly. "He'd like that."
Close enough to permission. Lyria stood up and coughed as kicked-up dust drifted into her throat and nostrils. "Thank you again for your time, it was very good to meet you. I'll be in touch." Lyria looked around theatrically. "Do you have those letters you mentioned?"
"Oh, yes, yes." The woman bolted up from her chair and scurried back to the counter, shuffling around various items in a messy drawer beneath it. "Ah, here they are." She waddled back with a stack of papers and placed them in Lyria's hands. Perfect copies of several dozen handwritten letters.
"This really is a big help." Lyria said, casually flipping through them. "Thanks again for your time."
Back outside the sun was beginning to go down, and every shadow looked like a monster ready to tear apart and devour Rassendyl Snakeboots, wherever on this Earth he was. Lyria couldn't help but let out a deep, labored sigh. Well, sad endings may be worse than happy endings, but they're still better than blank ones.