The windmill and the chasm dwindled behind him, becoming little more than a mirage. The city, meanwhile, hadn’t grown any closer. Bon rubbed his eyes, frustrated; the belief that he would reach the settlement in no time gave him hope for food. He clutched his rumbling belly and grimaced.
Dawning comprehension took him in the passing time. I must be dreaming! he thought. He felt very proud at this revelation. His stomach gurgled again, and he frowned, and that frown only darkened at the pain he felt from pinching himself.Well, then, perhaps this is just a more vivid dream.
The swaying grass tickled his chin, and the peaking sun glowered in the sky, hot and oppressive. Sweat stung his eyes. He defiantly pinched himself again, until tears squeezed from his eyes. “Dreaming,” he grumbled.
A voice barked to his right, in the distance, and Bon crouched. His heart hammered in his chest. Embarrassment burned his cheeks; I’m dreaming! he scolded himself, but even in dreams, things could be frightening. (These phenomena, known commonly as nightmares, can cause great psychological trauma. Giant spiders, mummified zombies, and nudity in the midst of a classroom speech has broken many a man.) He licked his lips. Anxious, he tilted his head toward the previous noise, ears ready and waiting.
The sound came again, though this time with greater definition: it was a sound of frustration.
Bon moved in the direction of the sound, keeping low, listening with greater intent and praying that the sound of frustration wouldn’t turn into something more frightening. He crested the grasses, tuckinng his wings low as he stared through the tufted stalks. He made out a figure, striding through the grasses. They rose to his waist, making him taller than Bon.
“Ow! That’s not pleasant, you know!” the figure complained, and another sound emerged, soft and menacing, from the grasses beneath him.
His face was flushed, whether from the sun or emotion was impossible to tell. His hair was short and dark, and a long, tangled beard hung to the middle of his chest. He seemed to be wearing a burlap sack, and an iron collar swayed around his neck. A chain lowered from the collar and beneath the grass.
Bon considered; Is this the sort of person I wish to encounter? If he’s in chains, it might be that he is dangerous. I don’t want to deal with that, not out here in the middle of a strange place. There was a low, growling sound in that direction, and then the bearded man bellowed again. His eyes bulged and he looked toward his feet with a murderous stare.
“That’s really not necessary, is it?”
A new voice drifted from beneath the grass. “Necessity’s got naught to do wif it, guv. I’m just bloody enjoying myself.”
“We bofe are, yes indeedy,” snarled another voice.
“Splendid. Three people, two of which take pleasure in inflicting pain, and the peaceful one’s in chains!” complained the bearded man. “That’s the nature of things. OW!” He grimaced and hunched over. “Would you please stop that?”
Bon’s forehead knitted. He wasn’t sure that he was qualified to judge anyone, but it seemed to him that the man in chains was far from dangerous. He wasn’t so sure about the bearers of the other voices, but maybe they could give him something to eat anyway. The city in the distance taunted him; had it actually moved further away?
Uncertain, Bon stood up, exposed.
The bearded man saw him. There were still many yards between them, but the look of surprise on his face was evident. His eyes grew to the size of saucers, and his mouth gaped. He also stopped moving. The hissing, guttural voices below grunted in unison, and suddenly there was a smacking sound, and the bearded man’s face twisted.
“Get movin’! Ain’t got all day, do we?”
“But don’t you see–” The bearded man stopped himself, eyes flat. “No, of course you don’t. That’s the drawback of being an ankle-biter. OW!“
“Got short jokes, do ya?” snarled something below.
Bon considered ducking back below; this hardly seemed productive. He’d been spotted. He was getting hungry. This might be the only way to cure his remedies.
“What’s your name, boy?” the bearded man called.
“Wuzzat? Who you talkin’ to?”
Bon looked around, nervous. “I’m Bon.” He bit his lip, and continued. “I’m fairly sure I am just dreaming, though.”
“Well, which is it then? Is you Bon, or Fairlysureimjustdreamingthough?” croaked a voice under the grass.
“Who is that?” gargled the other voice.
The bearded man raised his hands, exposing manacles that were chained to his collar. “Well, Bon, if it is that all of this is just your deranged dream, do this one a favor and wake up, would you?”. He smiled, and he looked tired. “Nothing?”
Bon shrugged. “I don’t think it works that way, sorry.”
“I can’t see nuffin in alla this,” seethed the voice beneath the grass.
The bearded man rolled his eyes. “It was worth a shot, even if already knew it wasn’t a dream.” He sighed. “The name’s Almanack, for what it’s worth. OW!”
“No talking, you!”
Almanack grimaced, then looked toward the ground furiously.
“Bon Fairlysureimjustdreamingthough! Show yerself!” snapped the other voice.
Bon blinked. “Um. I am shown. You’re not.”
There was a silence. Then: “Is that a short joke?”
“I fink it is!”
“No, no, it’s not a joke. It’s just…” Bon looked at Almanack for help, but the bearded man only shrugged. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to show myself to you.”
“Perhaps one of you could climb up on me,” Almanack muttered sourly.
“Boost me,” muttered one voice.
“Why you?” demanded the other.
“Because I’m lighter, ain’t I? Couldn’t boost you wifout rupturin’ something, I couldn’t.”
“Here, now, is that a fat joke?”
“Just boost me.”
And so there was movement below, and suddenly, a small, mottled creature began its ascent up Almanack. If it had claws, it wasn’t hurting the bearded man; he seemed more annoyed than anything. The little creature was wearing a helmet carved from wood, and had a heavy stick bound to its back. Its face was a strange blend of frog and raccoon. Beady eyes regarded Bon with a mixture of disdain and malevolence.
“What’s your business here, Bon Fairlysureimjustdreaming?”
“My name is Bon,” he corrected. “And my business is that I am dreaming all of this. But since I won’t wake up like I am supposed to, I’m also hungry. Do you have anything that you could share with me?”
“You’re dreaming and hungry?” Almanack inquired, doubtful. He twitched, preparing for a smack from his captors, but they’d taken a brief respite from brutality, it seemed.
Bon glared at Almanack. “Are you some kind of dreaming expert? It’s my dream. I can be hungry in it if I choose.”
Almanack spared him his most patronizing nod. “Hungry, dreaming, or not, you wouldn’t want their food,” he confided. “Wouldn’t agree with you. Not entirely sure how it agrees with them. But with them being so disagreeable, I suppose it all works out in the end, dunnit?”
The little beast smacked Almanack’s shoulder with his stick. “Quiet!” He looked back upon Bon, haughty. “We don’t share our provisions, only enough to get to our destination and back. We plans accordin’ly, we do.”
“Does he have anything to eat?” Bon gestured toward Almanack.
“What good is food to a corpse, laddie, tell me that?” the creature barked, and began laughing. It was a scabrous sound, and it made Bon very uncomfortable.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what you sees here is a ghost, in the flesh. Amazin’ innit?” The creature’s face split, revealing a broken nest of teeth. “He might look spry, he might, but believe you me: once we tosses ‘im over the edge, he’s as good as done!” He maliciously poked Almanack and cackled. “Ain’t that right, old son? Betcha can’t wait for yer first flyin’ lesson, eh? Wishin’ you had wings like this little sodder, aintcha?”
“I’d enjoy it ever so much more if you’d demonstrate the proper way to plunge one’s self over the edge,” Almanack admitted, and winced as the stick thumped his head.
“Nobody cares what you want, do they?” The little creature turned its beady state back toward Bon. “Oy, there lad. What are you doin’ out here, really? Don’t no one get lost in the Edgelands.”
“No?” Bon asked. He stared skeptically at the little ugly thing. “And why is that?”
“Because, sonny,” the creature purred. “Nuffing lives in the Edgelands, does it?” It tilted its head and sniffed the air. “Things have changed, so they have. Can’t have some sneakabout makin’ problems, stealin’ our food. Won’t do.”
Almanack’s eyes widened, his bitterness melting into alarm. “Run, boy! Fly if you can!” he cried. “Get away from here!”
“Get ‘im, Slatch!” The creature snarled, and the sudden movement beneath the grass shifted, and Bon watched in frozen terror as an unseen threat closed in upon him.