By the time the snow begin to melt, you're packed already. You're taking the usual provisions: canteen of water, enough food for three days, change of clothes, two pieces of wax covered cotton wool, one flashlight, a gun, a single clip of silver bullets, and a sheet of worn, lined paper, creased and folded a thousand times over, on which these instructions are written. There are other notes in the paper's margins, made by at least four different hands. Who wrote them is as much a mystery as the origin of the instruction themselves.
There isn't another way out. Not for you. Not really.
You wait three days for the first clear night. Leave any sooner and even if you follow the instructions to the letter, it won't work. Leave any later and…well, what happens to a traveler who starts too late doesn't bear thinking about.
The woods are deep and, yes, dark as you expected. You've been here before, but never at night and never going as far as you're going. At first, you make your way guided more by memory than the light in your hands and occasional sliver of moonlight from above. There are no more patrols here anymore and many things that call these woods home, but none will harm or challenge you tonight. It's a small mercy. You'll need what ammunition you have for the road ahead.
You follow the path until the path runs out and you're no longer in a place you remember. Then you follow instinct until eventually the trees begin to thin and you find the river. You're exhausted and your hands are trembling from the cold, but you've got miles to go yet.
You don't bother to check the paper. You've memorized it long ago, and so you know it follow the river, walking against it. There was a warning scratched in faded blue ink near this particular instruction, so you're not surprised when you first hear the soft voices under the current, mingled with the sounds of the rushing water.
They're singing the same song, different verses. Some promise you fame. Some promise freedom. Some promise power, as if offering yourself as direct replacement for the land's current tyrant was ever your goal. You can barely hold back your laughter. One voice—and this surprisingly proves the hardest to resist—promises only sustenance, an entire nation, not free, but well fed and well cared for, forever.
All you have to do is stop. Stop, and come closer to the river bank for a moment. Stop, and join them in the deep dark water for only a moment. Stop, and receive one fulfilled dream for one brief sliver of your time. It can't hurt. At least, not very much and not for very long.
But you're forewarned, so you do stop, but only long enough to take out the wax and plug your ears against their empty promises. It helps a little.
You keep going, staying far away from the river's edge, filling your canteen only with snowmelt.
You walk for an hour. You walk for a day and then for more than a day, though the sun never rises. Your light dies so you drop the flashlight, watch it roll toward the riverbank, watch as something with long, bony arms reaches up to grab it and pull it under the water.
You navigate by moonlight alone from here on out.
You're not sure how long you walk, but by the time you arrive at the lake, see the Southern Cross peaking on the edge at the dredged end, almost all your food supply is gone, despite rationing carefully.
The voices whispering to you from the river are gone, but there's something that sounds almost like a voice in your head now. Something just below the surface of your thoughts scratching at the edge of your attention. Something like an itch you can't quite reach.
You're halfway there.
You stop and rest for a moment at the shore of that great lake and watch the monsters break the surface of the water to frolic in the moonlight. It might be play, or it might be something like a ritual or an elaborately choreographed dance. Maybe it's communication. As you stay longer, you begin to think there's a message there in the waving of their tentacles and claws and webbed appendages, in ripples their movements leave on the water, but if there is, it's not for you. Or if it's for you, you can't read it.
And then, suddenly, the meaning comes to you. You think maybe you should write it down, one more note in the margins of the instructions, but then you remember you haven't brought a pen.
And already it's fading.
You shake your head, stand up, and keep going.
The road, when you find it, isn't a road at first, just some barely visible ruts in the mud. You know to expect this, but something compels you take the instructions out of your pack and read the words written there to reassure yourself one more time.
As you fold up the paper, the wind picks up and tears it from your hands.
You watch it blow away, wondering if someone else will find it and follow what's written there should you fail.
You've left no words to guide them.
Bring a pen, you think you might have written.
You use your first bullet around the time the road becomes gravel. It's one of the slow, shuffling dead you take out with a shot right between its eyes, a shot you take more out of mercy than any real sense of danger.
Later, you regret wasting the ammunition.
The next thing in your way is seven feet tall, all claws and teeth, but with no better sense of stealth.
You have a few more encounters as the gravel becomes pavement, as you finish the last of the food you brought, and as the paved road becomes a highway, first four lanes, then six, and you start to see the shells of long-abandoned ruins by the sides of the road.
Mostly you walk, sometimes you run, sometimes you shoot. Here a pale thing in the form of a woman but with no eyes and a mouthful of fangs, there a leather-winged monstrosity. You suspect your aim has more to do with the magics used to forge your weapon than skill or practice, but you don't mind as long as it keeps you alive.
You know to note the Amoco and then avoid it—it was there on the paper, DEATH written beside it in capital letters, underlined three times in red—but the sign's faded and what's left of the boarded-up building looks just every other boarded-up building until you're right up against it. You stumble into it and the nest of blocksuckers living inside entirely by accident trying to run from the denizens of the other nest living the burnt remains of the grocery across the street.
You're relieved when most of them fall on each other instead of you.
You shoot and then you shoot again and then you run. There are words pounding in your ears, or maybe that's just blood.
You make a left, keep running, run until you reach the train station with a blessing carved above the doorway meaning none of the things you've encountered can follow you inside. You make a right, then take the stairs to the platform.
There you stop for the first time to examine your weapon. There's a single cartridge left in the chamber. You eject and pocket it, then leave the gun on the side of the platform. You won't need it where you're going.
While you wait, you drink the last drops from your canteen and leave that, too.
You already know not to get on the first train, but it turns out to be not an easy mistake to make. When it comes, it's headed in the wrong direction, carrying its passengers or cargo toward the deep west and whatever lies beyond. Its windows are approach black.
The second train is yours. You step through the door of the third car when it opens, approach the cloaked figure you recognize as the conductor, look it directly in the glowing points of red light you see shining out from the shadows where its face should be. You put your final cartridge in its white-gloved, outstretched hand. Silver to pay the ferryman.
As you take your seat, the train begins to move.
You want to stay alert, but it's been miles since you slept, and you drift off without even realizing it.
In your dream, you're drowning. The water is dark and deep. The water is the words pressing up against your mind until they finally burst through the dam of your consciousness. The water is in your mouth and in your lungs and it's dragging you down, down deeper, until suddenly, you reverse direction and you're floating up, up, up towards the light.
And then you wake.
You pull back the curtain, look out the window. Outside, you see only the dark.
You get up to explore. You use the tiny restroom at the end of the car, wash up, change out of your travel-stained clothes into the outfit you've picked to wear for this part of your journey. You throw the rest away before you leave.
The girl is seated by the window in the third car up. You've read to expect her, too, though some of the text in the margins seems confused on this point. Someone met a man instead. Someone met a being who was both or neither, and seemed to be a god.
Whatever she is, for you she's the most beautiful woman you've ever seen, and when she flashes you a gold smile, you know she's the one you're meant to encounter.
You take the seat next to her, because this, too, is part of the ritual, and she brings out her ring of keys. There are keys to bank vaults and palaces and locked rooms where tyrants sleep, to vast libraries and vaults where secrets are kept.
To you, she offers each one in turn, and you refuse, as is required. The one with your name on it is last. A simple key that also bears a number. It unlocks a hotel room, she tells you, where she'll be waiting if you stay on the train past the stop you're intending to make, wait until it reaches its final destination.
This she gives you no chance to refuse. She presses it into your hand as she leans over, places her other hand on your thigh, and begins whispers directions in your ear.
Improbably, here you fall asleep.
The words are filling your lungs.
You wake. Daylight is streaming through the cracks in curtains. How long has it been since you've seen daylight? You pull them aside and realize you're almost at your destination.
There's a tree made of iron that marks the border of the city, but you don't need it to recognize you're somewhere else. Not with the tall buildings, lights on inside some of them, no less, and the smoke rising from the industrial chimneys. Not with the vehicles moving through the streets.
Your heart speeds up as the train hurtles toward the station. There are words pounding in your ears, or maybe it's just blood, and you put your hand to your mouth to keep from speaking too soon. This, too, is a test.
There's a bright light and and a tunnel, and then the train is pulling into the station. Through the window you see people milling around, waiting to board. They're the first real people you've seen since you started this journey, better fed and better clothed than the ones you remember from back home—at least you think so, but that was in another life, and even now those memories are starting to fade—but still moving with a familiar shuffle and familiar downcast eyes. Even here, no one is free. Not yet.
A mechanical voice overhead informs you that this stop is for boarding only. No departures.
You wait for the conductor to pass you on his way to the front of the train.
You stand up, let the room key fall from your hand, move toward the door at the back of the car. You hear a noise like a roar behind you and feel cold fingers grab at your collar, but you're faster. Out the door. On the platform.
There are voices roaring in your head now and you can barely stand it. For that matter, you can barely stand.
You almost fall to your knees, but somehow you run, dodging and ducking through the crowd until finally you run down a dead-end corridor.
There's a symbol painted on the wall. A crown, surrounded by a circle and a slash. The same sign that's on the front of the shirt you chose for this part of the journey.
There was a plan for this, you remember. Something you're supposed to do next.
Instead you collapse, closing your eyes against the rush of words pounding against the walls of your mind.
When you open them again, there's a pair of shiny black boots in front of you. You look up and they belong to a woman. She's wearing a jacket emblazoned with a set of teeth surrounded by a pair of wings.
She turns then, kneels, and greets you.
"Welcome to Delphi," she says.
And then she asks you a question.
You don't quite hear it, but that's okay, because the words that come out in response aren't your own anyway.
And then the crowd is surrounding you. Asking about their future. About freedom. About how to win a war. How to secure a peace.
You answer the ones you can. You're not sure how. Your words are no longer your own. You no longer have a choice.
Someone offers you some water. You're grateful. Also, sorry when you hear yourself tell him about the way he'll die in two days. Slip and fall and it'll all be over, nothing even heroic.
There was no other way, you remind yourself. Not for you. Not really. You needed a way out, and the people needed an oracle.
You've followed then instructions, completed the journey, and now everybody has what they need.
You're speaking, you're drowning in words, you're in the dark, and then you're floating, up, up, up, through an ocean of prophecies.
There was a warning about this, you remember. Something about rising too far, too fast. About someone who wanted too much power? Too much knowledge? Who flew too close to the sun?
Something about how the world got into this mess in the first place.
You struggle to remember and then stop struggling. It's too late now, anyway.
You let yourself float up and away as your voice becomes lost in a sea of cheers.