Although Sophie and Will managed to get some sleep, James drove through the night. Quickly and and quietly the car sped across the worn asphalt road. The scenery outside had changed from harvest fields to long stretches of empty land, with paths of gravel near road. Only the occasional abandoned town gave the bleak surroundings any variety. Not that the land itself is infertile, James had thought when he first noticed the change, it's just too close the border. No town could last long while so vulnerable to attack.
As the morning light grew stronger, James gently nudged Sophie awake. Slowly stirring, Sophie stretched her thin arms and yawned. “Good morning,” she whispered, trying to wake Will. “How was your night?”
“Tiring, but I don't think I could have slept even if I had been in a bed. Imagine, Sophie: Orders, straight from Aer!”
“It is exiting, but don't wake up Will, he still needs to rest. You should rest too, James. Do you want me to drive?”
“Thanks, but I'll be fine at least until the border.”
Despite the Knight's efforts, Will was not resting. Although he slept, his nightmares exhausted him in mind and spirit, corrupting the comfort he had found in the company of others. Will wanted to wake up, to lash out at the figures in the shadows, to call out that they were too weak to drag him down, but could not; crippling terror held him back.
Suddenly, the car lurched as it hit a pothole in the road, causing Will to hit his head on the seat in front of him.
“Whoa! Sorry about that, Will,” James called out. “You okay back there?”
“What?” Will asked, still stunned from being so quickly ripped out of his mental prison.
“You hit your head, didn't you?” Sophie said twisting around to face him. “I'd hate to wake up like that.”
“Oh, I'm fine, it didn't hurt,” Will replied softly as he glanced downward to avoid her gaze. They saved me again thought Will, even if they didn't realize it. Why do I always have to be protected by others? I can take care of myself. Even as he thought it he knew it was false, but he again he tried to comfort himself, insisting he was strong enough to stand on his own feet.
Sophie could feel the negative emotions of Will and wanted to reach out and help him, to comfort his heart and mind in some way, but she could think of nothing that would not upset him further. She felt the restraints of her limited experience, and again thanked Aer for a new chance to grow. But if inexperience stops me from helping Will now, what is to say it won't stop me again in the future? Sophie wondered. Should I try to comfort others even if I am not good at it, for the purpose of growing? What if I end up hurting them?
“What's that?” James asked, pointing toward an object far ahead of them on the side of the road. Shaken from her thoughts, Sophie was slow to realize what her fellow Knight was talking about.
“What's what?” she asked.
“That thing right there, at the side of the road.”
“Oh, now I see it. It's still too far away to make out.”
Will also looked, and as he did, the object slowly became discernible.
“It's a man,” Will quietly said to himself. After staring at it for a few more moments, James turned to Sophie.
“We have to help him, if we can.”
“Of course,” Sophie smiled back.
Will had a moment, brief but very real, to also look upon the man with sympathy, but he rejected it. His heart and mind were filled with thoughts against the man: Why help him? He doesn't deserve it. Leave him. He could be dangerous. If he is hurt, too bad: life is unfair. You can't help everyone you see. Leave him. Will would have given a voice to his thoughts, but he feared going against the will of a Knight. Instead, he leaned forward and whispered, “Aren't we in a hurry?”
James did not hesitate to reply, with a tinge of force, “We must help him, Will.”
Will immediately shrunk back into his seat. Thoughts of disgust toward the purity of Knights rose up, and he did not fight them.
Soon they were close enough to get a clear view of the man. He appeared the be very old, and he was covered in strange markings. He withered on sharp rocks near the road, flaying his arms and legs, tearing at himself and everything he could reach. When the car was within a dozen yards, James and Sophie exited the car, while Will stayed and watched from his seat. As soon as the doors open the loud screams and wails of the man reached their ears. Looking at each other in worry, the Knights hurried to where the man way lying.
As they neared him, they saw the nature of the markings on the man's skin. They were Curse Marks, and each one declared that a fatal sin grew within.
James and Sophie were shocked that the man could still be alive, even in his pathetic state, with so many destructive sins inside his heart. The man did not noticed their presence, but continued to tear at the floor and himself. James gathered his courage and spoke with a loud voice, so that even Will could hear him clearly.
“Hear me, wretched man, and repent of your sins while you still live. Death comes quickly, but there is still time.”
The man stopped moving and stared at the clear sky above. For a while he was still, but then, in a voice so soft as to be a whisper, he said, “No, it is too late, my sin is too great.”
Trying to be heard, James shouted, “Repent now and you will be saved! Do not throw away your life, for you are loved!”
What followed next startled the Knights and greatly frightened Will. The man, suddenly standing up, started scratching at his face and neck to the point of drawing blood and screamed in defiance, “No! Get away from me!”
“Stop it!” yelled Sophie, rushing to hold back his hands. The man broke free and violently lunged away. He lost his footing on the loose dirt and fell backwards, hit his head against the jagged rocks, and moved no more.
Will sat frozen in the car, filled with shock.