(In case you missed it, here’s part 1)
“And a formidable one, too,” Cru said, “since he obviously taught Mera well.”He pivoted and strode up the gradual slope.
Tippy trotted up beside him. “What do you mean?”
“Well, what do you think of her?”
“She’s great,” Tippy said, “almost unbelievable.”
“I better fill you in on what’s going on,” Cru said as he examined his bowstring. “Sun Land is a ‘dream world’ for men. Every one of us has one thing in common: we’re trapped. We all stumbled into it in our dreams, but now we can’t get out. Every night, every time we dream, we come here.”
Tippy scanned the oaks. “Only men?”
“As far as I know, yes. Maybe women have their world too, but this place is bent against men.”
They came to the path and followed it as it ascended the slope and wound through the oaks.
“Most love it here (we call them ‘Advocates’) but a few of us can’t bear it–we call ourselves the Uprising. We’ve had enough of never having enough.”
“What do you mean?” Tippy frowned at him.
“Kurr,” Cru adjusted his quiver and exhaled like one with bad news, “and his legion of Daughters are the problem. They all live in Lamoor Forest, and they’re goal is to lure us into it. Our agony is in their allurements, hence our desire for freedom.”
“Hmm.” Tippy glanced behind, then returned frontward. “What happens in Lamoor?”
“We don’t know; every man who goes into it never comes back. Some say they die, and some rumors in the waking world have confirmed this to be true, but the evidence is shaky. We simply don’t know–and no one wants to find out.”
“Well, Mera was taking me to the bluffs, not Lamoor.”
Cru shook his head. “You boil a frog slowly, Tippy. Kurr and his daughters love the game. They savor our agony as we chase the unattainable desire–like a mirage that’s always in sight, but never grasped.”
“Well,” Tippy rubbed his cheek, “I believe Mera’s different; she’s the real deal.”
Cru halted and squared himself to Tippy. “Trust me, man. Mera is not what you think she is,” he waved his hand, as if in an argument, “at least listen to what the others in the Uprising have to say. Maybe they’ll help you change your mind.”
They came to the edge of the forest, where the gradual slope turned into a large hill of grass. The path ascended the center of the hill and narrowed slightly, due to the long grass that overhung the trail, then disappeared over the crest.
They stopped at the top of the hill, which overlooked a square-shaped hedge of buildings with a square courtyard in the middle. On the far side of the town laid a wall, and beyond the wall was a dark-green mass of trees. “There’s Lamoor Forest,” Cru said. “And that wall was built long ago, for unknown reasons. It keeps us from stumbling into the forest–or perhaps it protects us from something inside. We don’t know. Either way, we find solace in it.”
“Wait,” Tippy said, “how did you know I came to Sun Land? Did you see me when I came the first time?”
“You’ll see in a moment,” Cru said, descending the hill.
Cru led Tippy to the edge of the buildings and through the nearest alley, which was narrow and filled with random yard supplies. Tippy’s large frame caught on some shovels and rakes, sending them to the ground.
“Never-mind those, just leave ‘em,” Cru said as he stopped at the edge of the alley and peered into the courtyard. A dozen men formed a tight group on the other side, and a few of them hollered and waved to him. He then left the alley at a brisk walk, with Tippy close behind.
“Ah, Tippy!” A short man approached them from the left. His blonde hair was bound up in a ponytail. He wore a hard leather chest piece and matching greaves. He grabbed his arm in a firm, but friendly grip. “Don’t freak out, I know you from the Wall of Souls.” He pointed to a black wall off to the right edge of the courtyard. “Everyone’s name appears on it when they first enter Sun Land, and there it remains until they die, or go into Lamoor,” he leaned forward to speak in a loud whisper, “which are really the same thing.”
“Ty, no,” Cru said with biting eyes.
Ty adjusted his chest piece and gave a quick nod towards the dozen men. “Fine. Let’s go, then.”
“Tippy, as Ty said, that’s how I knew you were here,” he nodded to the black wall. “And don’t listen to him; we don’t know what happens in Lamoor.”
As Ty, Tippy and Cru approached the group of men, they quietly filed inside the nearest building. Ty and Tippy were the last to enter, and before Ty closed the door, he held up three fingers and mouthed, “Three bows,” to someone outside.
“Everyone make sure the Daughters are unconscious?” A loud voice asked inside the crowded room.
A wave of affirmations responded.
“None of the Advocates know of our plans?”
“Only a few are in Sun Land right now, and they’re roaming the prairie,” a man replied.
Cru came beside Tippy and nudged him. “That man in the gray tunic,” he pointed to a man in the middle of the room, “he’s the leader of our little coup, name’s Barth.”
“Neil and Mark getting the weapons?” Barth asked.
“Yup,” Ty said.
“Where’s Tippy?” Barth said, eyeing the men in the room.
Ty and Cru each grabbed one of Tippy’s shoulder and pushed him to the center of the room.
“Ah, welcome, Tippy Cumber,” Barth said, waving his hand in a slow arch around the room, “to the Uprising.”
The men voiced a rush of deep mumbles and raised fists.
“Cru, did you fill him in?”
“Everything but his job.”
Barth stepped up to Tippy. “Well, Tippy, are you ready to do your part? You’re the one to lead us into Lamoor Forest.”
“Uh…” Tippy’s stomach shrunk.
“Allow me to explain,” Barth said, facing sideways. “All of us here dread falling asleep. We wake up miserable, caught in limbo between wanting and having. Many of us have been enslaved to this dream world for years, but I’m confident that if we kill Kurr, our dreams, and thus our lives, will be freed.”
He turned back to Tippy. “And you, sir, are our best chance to succeed. You see, the more times a man comes to Sun Land, the weaker his defenses are to its enchantment. When your name appeared on the Wall, everyone in the Uprising was notified that we had a newcomer. Fate, it seems, was with us, for Cru, your neighbor, recognized your name and sought you out immediately in the waking world.
“You’re blameless, spotless; we’re not. If we attack without you, we’ll succumb to the pull of our own desire. You,” he placed his hand on Tippy’s shoulder, “are our only hope. With you at the front, we will prevail. I know it’s hard to understand, and we understand the confusion, but take heart: you’re not alone; we’ll be with you the whole way. We’ll protect you.” His face resembled that of a father approving his innocent child. “Do you understand, Tippy? Are you willing and ready? Please trust us.”
He hesitated, then jerked his head downward.
“Yes.” Tippy looked up at him with pursed lips and a nod. “I’m ready.”
Barth smiled. “Get his armor.”
A man stepped up and twitched his head to each side as he examined Tippy. “Uh, he’s too big.”
Barth glared at him. “Just a helmet, then.”
Another man emerged from the crowd holding a metal helmet with a long nose guard.
Barth took it and placed it on Tippy’s head. “Perfect?”
It’s too small. Tippy smiled and tapped it. “Yup.”
Barth walked past Tippy and stopped at the door.
“We don’t know what to expect in the forest,” he said for all to hear, “but all of you must defend Tippy at all costs.”
Barth smiled and looked at Tippy. “Spear, bow or sword?”
“I don’t…” Tippy said.
“Then just pick one,” he said, louder.
Barth gave a quick nod, then unlatched the door. “Time to end it!” He swung it open and led the mob into the courtyard, where two men were waiting outside with armloads of weapons. “Give Tippy the best sword.”
Tippy was filed out with the whooping men and was handed a short sword with a flawless blade and ergonomic grip. The momentum of the mob carried him towards the wall, where a small wooden gate laid buried underneath a layer of moss. Two men ran up to it and pried it open to let a draft of cold air seep into the square.
Past the gate, a narrow pathway led down a slight downgrade into a swamp. It was dark, damp and alien compared to the rest of Sun Land.
“Rally behind Tippy!” Barth hollered. “Keep your eyes fixed on him! When we reach Kurr, unleash everything you’ve got!”
The men raised their weapons in unison, chanting. They shoved Tippy to the front, where the cold draft was strongest.
Tippy couldn’t move. The ache in his bones had taken their toll.
“Let’s go!” Barth roared behind Tippy.
The men chanted again.
Tippy clenched his sword, bent his knees, and with a single motion, spun on his right foot and shouldered Barth to the ground. Behind Barth was Ty, and Tippy also shoved him aside and charged through the rest of the mob. He nearly made it through before some of the men grabbed him, but with wild desperation, Tippy swung his sword and hacked at their arms, emitting howls and curses. He ripped his helmet off and blindly threw it behind him.
He broke free of the mob and lumbered across the courtyard.
“No!” Barth yelled.
“He’s going to Mera!” Cru added.
“Stop him!” others shouted.
Tippy glanced back. Barth was pointing his sword at him; the mob was already in pursuit.
He wedged through the narrow alley and ascended the grassy hill. When he reached the top of the hill, panting and sweating, he scanned the oak forest for any sign of Mera.
She should be awake by now.
His bones could feel her touch, his skin could feel the coursing tremors. “Mera!” he shouted, eyes searching for her green dress and oak-bark hair.
“Mer–” An arrow struck him in the back. He crashed to the ground, full of sweat.
Three men dove at him, clubbing, kicking and cursing him. One of them had a rope and began tying him up, but a loud, sustained gust of wind arose and gushed from the oaks. They held their hands up, defenseless against the elemental onslaught.
Tippy glanced up; it was Mera. She was holding her hands out in front of her, as if controlling the wind. Her face was contorted, her eyes glowed green and her skin was darkened and shiny like a cloven obsidian stone. With a loud pop, the three men attacking Tippy flew backwards through the air; one struck a tree, thereby falling unconscious, while the other two bounced along the ground before regaining their balance.
After they scrambled away, Mera lowered her arms, and the wind stopped. She exhaled slowly, loosened her shoulders and closed her eyes with her head canted slightly upwards.
“Mera!” Tippy exclaimed.
She remained silent; her only movement came from her heavy breathing.
More of the men filtered into the oak forest, shouting and whooping. Tippy panicked and rolled to his knees and tried to stand up, but Mera grabbed the back of his neck and heaved him to his feet. She pushed him towards the men.
“Ah! Mera!” he cried, “Wha–?”
She ripped the arrow out, which ushered a yelp from Tippy, and propelled him back towards town.
“There he is!” the approaching men shouted.
They ran at Mera and Tippy, but she swatted the air and another gust of air threw them all backwards.
She pinched Tippy’s neck harder, making it burn.
“What are you doin–ah!”
She pushed him harder. “Move.”
They climbed the grass hill, where more men were waiting. Like their comrades, they were thrown aside by Mera’s magic. At the top, she threw Tippy down the backside, which sent him rolling until he crashed into the siding on the nearest building. Before he could react, she grabbed him by the neck again and ushered him through the alley and into the courtyard.
The rest of the men, with Cru, Ty and Barth included, congregated in the center of the courtyard. They watched motionless as Mera controlled Tippy, a man far larger than her, with ease as she marched him across the square. The only sounds came from Tippy’s grunts as he continued to squirm in her grasp.
They approached the gate to Lamoor Forest, which was still open. “No!”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why?” he squealed.
She brought her head closer. “You’re the one who gets to pay.”
He dug his heels into the ground, but it was in vain, for she merely kicked the back of the knees to keep him walking.
They passed through the gate, which closed behind them with what seemed to be a magic of its own. The cold swamp air crept over him like the first winter storm: cold and unwanted. The farther they went along the narrowing path, the more bitter it became.
Mera released Tippy and threw him to his knees. She then walked to his frontside. She stood there in silence. A deep groaning came from somewhere behind her. It rattled the ground and Tippy’s head with its deep reverberations.
He ignored it and looked at her with wide eyes, for her beauty was gone; she was a twisted, ruined visage of humanity. More loathsome than a witch, her gnarled face and sunken eyes personified death itself. “Poor, poor Tippy Cumber,” she said with a smile. Her voice was no longer vanilla; its stench made Tippy feel like a sun-baked carcass had been placed over his head.
The groan returned, but this time louder–closer.
She kneed him in the side of his face, sending him reeling onto the swamp moss. “Here lies Tippy Cumber,” she said, waving her hand as if to imagine a gravestone.
A small twig cracked nearby–in a different direction than the groaning. Mera looked towards it, then quickly returned to look at Tippy. She grabbed her head and ripped at it with a loud whimper. “Tippy!” Her voice was vanilla again. “Tippy, please!”
“What?” he asked, barely audible.
“It’s all my father! He made me do it!” She stooped close to him. Her witchlike features were gone, and her face was more radiant than before. She kissed him, which sent the warm tremors through him again.
Another stick snapped.
She grabbed his face with both hands. “I’m so sorry. It’s my father’s fault, I swear!”
He was about to speak, but she placed her finger over his mouth.
“I’ll always be yours.” She stood up, looked towards the twig snapping again, then snuck away in the opposite direction.
Tippy tried to move his head and watch her, but it was frozen in place. He tried moving his hands and feet, but they were also immovable. The moss on the forest floor crept up Tippy’s sides and slowly enveloped his legs and arms.
The groans came once again, softer and less menacing, but then they went silent.
Without a sound, a clean-shaven, bald man appeared above him. He wore a tattered wool suit coat and slacks. “My name is Karis,” he said. He spoke with a rich somberness, like he was speaking to someone on their deathbed. “Remember that name. Your time in Sun Land is now over. I will find you in the waking world…”
Karis still spoke, but his voice faded, for the moss had now submerged Tippy’s ears. When it crept up to his eyes, he woke up in his house; he had fallen out of the chair and was now on the floor. After a few steady breaths he sat up and saw Cru sitting on the couch, glaring at him.
Cru opened his mouth, but paused and lowered his head with a slow shake.
“Shut up!” Cru threw the pill bottle at Tippy, which struck him in the chest and bounced to the floor. The pills rattled inside it as it rolled to a stop on the hardwood floor. Cru stood up and towered over Tippy. “Don’t you realize how hard it’ll be for us now? The Uprising was exposed because of you. You better pray your dreams won’t take you back to Sun Land because both sides hate you now…” He looked away, shook his head, then stormed to the front door. “You know,” he stopped without looking back at Tippy, “We all thought you were gonna die, being taken into Lamoor. Somehow you lived; consider yourself lucky.” He whipped the door open.
“Karis.” Tippy asked quietly. “Who’s Karis?”
“Never heard of him,” Cru said before slamming the door behind him.
Tippy slumped his head and remained motionless for more than an hour. As the night progressed, the bone-ache worsened. He ate more noodles in an attempt to mask it.
He moped aimlessly around the house until 2 A.M., when he finally collapsed on his bed. Before he drifted off, he hoped to see Mera in Sun Land.
He woke up at 9–late for work. In the midst of scrambling to get ready, a realization sank in: he was banished from Sun Land. Karis was right.
He worked for another month until he was fired for consistent tardiness. Chasing the rainbow’s end, he hunted for Mera, finding solace in every magazine and website that paraded the beauty of women for the ravenous eyes of men. For it was there where he found her touch.
He spent the greater part of his savings on a stockpile of food–the rest on smut. The images of women helped alleviate the ache, and the way his insides writhed when his eyes consumed them made him recall the warm tremors he got from Mera.
Yet the yearning ache lingered. He moped around his house and neighborhood with distant eyes. He often stopped at the giant oak tree a block away and stared at it for a minute or two, then returned home and consumed a batch of images.
One morning, Tippy opened the front door to go on another one of these walks, but a little black book and pamphlet laid on his front steps, blocking his path.
The pamphlet read: “Long ago, a small group of men and women defied an empire with their strange belief in Charis. This old Greek word means ‘grace,’ and it jumpstarted what is known to today as Christianity. We invite you to join our group, Charis for the Broken, where we discover how the Grace of Christ has the power to give new life to broken people.”
He stared at it, thinking. Ah, I get it, the Ch is pronounced like a K–Karis. He chuckled and brought the items into his living room, tossing them on the coffee table. Not surprised to see the silver letters, “Holy Bible,” embedded on the binding of the black book, he opened it to the middle.
Religious language and unpronounceable names riddled the pages. He flipped around and came to a section with the title, “Ecclesiastes,” and started scanning the page.
“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
So true. He grabbed a thick group of pages and flipped towards the end. The header read, “Matthew.” Certain groups of words were written in red. The words of Jesus. After scanning through some of them, a simple statement captured him:
“Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
He closed the book and nestled into the couch. The blank TV screen acted as a grainy mirror through which he stared at his slumped form.
The distant sounds of a lawnmower and kids playing on the sidewalk came through the open windows. Vanity?
Placing his elbow on his knee and nestling his chin into his hand, he fixed his eyes on Cru’s pill bottle on the floor and remained motionless for a few minutes.
“Ok.” He went to the kitchen and filled a glass of water. “Sorry, Jesus,” he said aloud as he went to get the pills, “but I know Mera is real.” He picked up the bottle, popped the cap and swallowed them all. The world blurred; the glass slipped out of his hand and shattered on the floor. He collapsed onto the couch and embraced the shadow. He smiled and closed his eyes, mind dancing with thoughts of the green dress, the oak hair and the emerald eyes.
A week later, a nosy neighbor called the police due to inactivity at the Cumber residence. Tippy’s door was unlocked and the officers followed the stench into the living room, where his body laid on the nasty couch. He had no family, so there was no funeral. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in a small cemetery near Rockford.