Beyond The Mountains Part I

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I grew up on a small farm in a place that the elders called "Level 29", but that I'd always known as Hyperian. We had vast fields of fertile crops I'd frolic in them with my older brother in my youth huge forests with all sorts of wonderful and curious creatures crawling around every corner or dead stump, and of course there was the big city. I'd go there with my uncle on special occasions, eating at the fancy restaurants and diners or buying some delicious sweets. But most notable of all, there were the mountains. They glistened brilliantly on the horizon with every sunset and sunrise, beaming back the moonlight to make sure no night was too dark. From my farmhouse on the outskirts of the island, we had the clearest view of them of anyone else, and at the time, I took great pride in that. My classmates would call me "Adam the countryboy", and I really didn't mind it. This was my life: wake up, care for the animals, go to school, and go home to play in the fields until the mountains turned a pretty orange.

One day, my elder brother, Charlie, came home drenched in sweat and covered in bruises and dirt, but more elated than ever. He, 18 at the time, had made the treacherous trek up the mountains and had seen something that we kids were never supposed to see the great blue sea. He fabled a world far away from the one we knew a world beyond this watery border. I called him crazy and told him to rest, but his words, in actuality, ignited a fire inside my heart. I was plagued with the insomnia that comes with having a beating heart, whereas he slept like a baby. "Could there be a whole new world beyond the mountains and even the sea that I'd only heard of in legends? When our island was already so big and vast, was there still more left to be discovered? I thought I'd seen it all, but perhaps there could be more". Grandpa told many tales of such lands, but my mother and father would always scold him when he talked of oceans, jungles, and buildings that reached the clouds. It all became a reality in my mind, and for the next few weeks, I trained my body and snuck small rations to prepare for one of my brother's ventures. He said that there were adults that sat upon walls in the outer mountains. "What could they be hiding from us? It just isn't fair. We should be allowed to leave the island if we want to, to go out and explore the world beyond". Or so I had thought.

My brother raised the idea with our parents once at the dinner table, and he was met firmly with a slap in the face. They had never disciplined us before. If anything, they were too focused on managing the farm to pay us much attention at all aside from the silent meetings at the dinner table. Having never been talked back to for his whole life, this sudden reaction set my brother off. He went running to the mountains once more, and I ran after him, but he was much faster than my little legs could carry me. As we ascended and descended the mountains, I, for the first time, managed to follow him all the way to shore, where it seemed he had constructed a makeshift raft to try to cross the seas. He left me there just as I ran along the coastline, he set off. I screamed and shouted and even tried to swim, but the shore swept me in with each try. He smiled back at me and waved just as he paddled past the strong inner current, and suddenly it all made sense to me. My emotions were calmed, and I smiled back softly. "Make sure you come home safe, Charl! I'd better see you again soon!" I exclaimed. Just as he flipped his thumb, a colossal being it must've been at least five times the size of my house sprung up from the ocean, its fangs sharper than swords and its thousands of beady, crimson eyes glaring my way as it swallowed my poor brother whole. I didn't yell. In fact, I didn't make a single sound. I didn't let myself. I spun around and made a run for the cliff.

I struggled up the mountain as rocks battered down on me for the climb. I slid down the inner walls and scraped and gashed my back on a piece of rebar. I idly walked through the tall grass and into the fields, the marshes drenching my feet and making a squelch with each step. Until I reached my doorstep, my bedroom, my bed, and the end of my dreams, it played over and over again in my head. This must be why the adults didn't want us to know about the outside world to not get our hopes up. Unfortunately, my parents never thought to engrain that lesson into us, or any lesson at all besides the farm's upkeep, for that matter.

My life became bleak from then on. I had no more ambitions I drifted into a well-paying job deep in the city doing office work. I was drowning in papers, but at least my parents were happy to be in the centre of the island. They never spoke of my brother anymore. It was as if he never existed. My uncle had managed our farmland on his own now, but in his old age, I was asked to check up on him just before my 21st birthday. I talked with him for a while about my father; apparently, he used to be just like my late brother. He was full of dreams of going out to sea and escaping this land; he and his best friend were only encouraged by my grandfather's careless motivation. My uncle warned them of the dangers, but they never listened to him. His friend was swallowed up in a similar fashion to my brother, and my father himself was on the boat with him. He narrowly escaped, albeit leaving behind his left eye, which I'd never bothered to question. It made sense to me why he didn't want anything to do with my grandfather anymore and that he would hit my brother for mentioning escape. That conversation brought me back to my senses, I suppose. The break from the endless piles of paperwork opened my eyes.

I was brought back to who I once was, my eyes recovering their hopeful glow. I felt as though I was being strangled and constricted, that there was no place I could go on this island that would appease my reignited hunger for adventure. In the coming years, I travelled nation to nation and town to town on the island, yet no matter how many taverns, government buildings, or mountains I witnessed, I was left deeply dissatisfied, carrying a burden that grew heavier with each step. As I finally returned home, at a ripe 25 years of age, I found myself in my brother's old room. I browsed the relic of time, allowing the nostalgia to wash over me, disturbing the dust that had built up over the years. As I remembered the only times when I was happy with my brother, something caught my eye. There was a journal that sat open, untouched, laying peacefully on his bed. As I picked it up and flipped through the pages, tears flowed down my face for the first time since his death.

I'm going to end up leaving for the other side of the great blue soon. Brother, I hope you understand why I'm leaving you here. I want to experience the world anew; it wouldn't be real if I wasn't alone on the journey. Even though it's been wonderful having you by my side all this time, every man needs time to himself every now and then. I can't stay with my 12-year-old little brother forever. However, I want to see you again some day. Come find me, brother. Cross the seas and let us meet. I've left a sword buried just beneath the sand at the spot where we watch the waves crash by — my friend gave me a pretty good deal on it — so use it to conquer one half of the world while I conquer the other. I'm sorry, and I love you, brother.

I knew that it was stupid. I knew that it was dangerous and that I would probably die trying. But I didn't care anymore I didn't want to continue living this meaningless life trapped on this drab island until I died of old age, and I wanted to finish what my brother had started. It's what he would've wanted. I moved in with my uncle and restarted what my brother had left for me. The spark of wonder relit my pupils, burning as bright as the stars that lit the night sky as I constructed my vessel, trained to exhaustion, and gazed into infinity once my work was done.

Day after day, plank by plank, nail by nail, the vessel sprouted up, as did I. I ceaselessly struck the mountainside with my fists until they were bloody and raw, and I swung the sword until I could cut clean through the stone.

To test the fruits of my efforts, I departed for the big city, where they trained their strongest swordsmen to act as guards, their swords and batons paling in comparison to the priceless treasure that my brother had left to me it was sitting in the sand, just as my brother had left it. I approached the training ground on the edge of the city, my sturdy hand-made boots stomping on the cobblestone road, hard enough for my footsteps to echo into the facility, which was a massive cabin with a fenced set of arenas behind it. The wooden doors swung open as a six-and-a-half-foot-tall, burly, bearded man greeted me.

He scanned me up and down and said, "Who do you think you are, waltzing here with that much of an ego? Quit the clamor if you know what's good for you. If you're here to train for the militia, you best be ready for a beating with that attitude," the man boomed.

I was quite taken aback, but I managed to keep my composure.

"That's quite the way to introduce yourself. I'm assuming that you're a higher-up here, judging by your looks".

"Course I am. What's it to 'ya, bud?".

"Oh, it's not all too important. Could you show me to the arena? It took a lot of holding back during my independent training not to come here had to keep my ego in check until I had the skills to back it up," I replied.

He stared for a few seconds, squinting so that his bushy eyebrows covered his eyes completely. Then he turned around, motioning for me to follow him, accompanying it with a heavy grunt.

We entered the building's main hall, which acted as a cafeteria, a reception counter, and a shop all at once. On the left side was a massive grid of wooden tables and benches filled with men that were feasting as if they hadn't eaten in weeks; the food on their plates could only be likened to complete slop. Dishing out this "food" was a middle-aged woman who possessed an odd resemblance to the man that was in front of me. To the right was a smithy occupied by a dozen or so men, with weapons and armour hung on the walls all around them. They looked to be of comparable quality to my sword, though they paled in comparison when it came to looks and sentimental value. Along the back wall was the registry, sectioned into 10 booths, all of which were taken up by men who filled their clothes quite well.

Just left of the tills and behind all of the tables, there was a hallway leading to changerooms, which was where the man took me.

"Don't I have to sign up to train here? Though I won't complain if I don't, since I'd like to make this quick if possible".

The man peered over his shoulder at me and said, "You really do know how to piss people off, don't 'cha? If you're so desperate for some action, quit yer yammerin' and get goin'".

He returned to pacing down the hallway, then past the changerooms towards a set of doors at the end of it, exiting the building onto a gravel pathway. Ahead of us were training grounds sectioned into a few different areas: sprawling dirt flatlands where men clashed swords freely and honed their technique without restriction; parts of these open areas were fenced off from the rest, populated by training dummies and targets; and lastly, further down the pathway were rope-bordered arenas that acted as the setting for various 1-on-1 battles. Just ahead of us, there were barrels of weapons and armour. We approached the barrels.

"Grab some gear. You're gonna need it." said the man.

"Ah, sure, I'll take you up on that offer. I wouldn't want to waste my precious sword's edge on some small fries." I taunted, plucking out a drabby, chipped blade from the pile.

The man chuckled, leading me to spectate a battle between two men sitting at about six feet tall, and being of similar builds to myself, at least from what was visible beyond their thick steel armour. They each held swords of the same quality, and possessed similar armour, but the difference in strength and skill was obvious. The man with flowing blonde hair escaping his headguard he was a tough opponent. He deflected each attack masterfully, using his momentum to strike blow after blow onto his partner with such fluid motion that it seemed to be over in a mere instant. The two shook hands, and the loser quickly scurried away to the changerooms to assess the damage.

"Hey, Chris, this boy's asking for a beating! Said he was itchin' to fight, but didn't bother throwing on any armour or picking out a half-decent blade, all the while talkin' smack. Don't hold back yeah? Make sure he learns a lesson."

The bearded man shoved me forward, forcing me to stumble over the ropes and into the arena. I approached, and the blonde man unmasked himself, revealing ocean-blue eyes and smooth, white skin. He could be likened to Prince Charming, or some other knight from the fables you'd hear as a kid. He smiled, reaching his hand out to greet me.

"Hey, the name's Christopher. As for yourself?"

I hesitantly accepted his handshake, feeling his firm grip squeeze my hand.

"I'm Adam. Nice to meet you."

"The boss can be a bit harsh at times, but you really should've brought armour and a decent blade. You could get hurt." Chris said.

I'd felt that something was off with him, as though he was acting or putting on a show.

"Sure man, whatever you say. Can we just start now?"

"Ah, of course. Don't let me delay us any further!" Chris exclaimed, stepping back his left foot and slipping his headpiece back on and holding his blade up firmly in front of him with his right hand.

Holding my sword, I took a relaxed stance with my arms at my sides, awaiting the start signal from the bearded man whose name I'd just realized I'd never caught.

"Begin!" he shouted, and with that, Chris lunged forward.

The fact that his helmet hid his expression was useless; his stride was controlled and reserved. I could tell from the speed and precision of his strikes that he was brimming with excitement. I took a nimble step back, firmly grasping my weapon while scanning my opponent's movements. I took a few jabs aimed at his blade to test the waters once his attacks let up, but Chris kept his ground; my blade bounced right off. I couldn't help but let out a snigger as I realized his intent was to embarrass me. It became obvious that he was a man who sat on his high horse and liked to showcase his superiority over others. I pivoted my right leg forward, towards his blade, and swung my right arm with all my might. My blade struck his at a speed I never thought possible, at least not during my training. The technique was sloppy at best, since I had never faced a real person before, but it was enough to send him staggering back, this obviously being a first for him. Frustration now brewing up beneath his helmet, he entered his stance again, only to be met with the same nonchalant counter-stance as before. He was more weary this time, staying in tight as he launched a series of slashes my way. I stepped back, narrowly avoiding each strike until my back was at the edge of the arena. Not missing a beat, he sent a fierce slash aimed at my neck. I barely managed to drop to my knees for an unorthodox counter-slash, sweeping his feet out from beneath him and snapping the dainty weapon I was wielding in half, its tip launching into the air. Chris tumbled onto his back, the broken half impaling the earth beside him, narrowly avoiding his head.

"Ahahaha! Whaddaya know, you ain't half bad, are ya‽ Maybe I was the cocky one after all!" said the burly man, unable to contain his laughter.

I discarded the broken blade's handle, exiting the arena and making my way back home without complaint. I realized I had quite some work to do when it came to technique.

I was ready to set sail. No beast, no matter its size, would have any chance against me. I would make it off of this accursed island, even if it meant my doom.

I sat down for one last hearty meal with my uncle; he knew full well of my plans and what I had to do. The cheddar broccoli soup he made was a favourite recipe of mine, so I got him to make it for me one last time. I raised the wooden spoon to my mouth and allowed the strong, cheesy flavour to coat the entirety of my mouth, enjoying a final moment of comfort. I was never destined to stay in this place. Since I was young, I was always fated to find my way out of the pond and into the ocean. My uncle watched me with teary eyes, grinning softly. "I know your brother and father failed before you, but I can't help but believe in you. Something about you feels different from them; I really mean it. Just promise me one thing, alright? Don't leave your ol' uncle behind forever. Come visit me someday." "Of course I will, and I'll come with souvenirs.” He smiled dearly, tears streaming down his face. I took one more bite from my dish, setting off to conclude the journey that my brother and father had once started many years ago.

The winds were strong that day, more than usual at least. My ship swayed back and forth as the waves beat against the hull. It wasn't anything grand, but it was built to last, so I put my faith in it. I stood idly at the helm as it floated forward, the coastline behind me becoming less and less visible. I was further out than my brother had made it, that was for certain. A bead of sweat made its way from my temple to my neck, anxiety building by the second. The boat rocked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until the rhythm grew stronger; it was now being tossed around in the current. I scanned around. Straight ahead, there was a whirlpool, a massive one at that. I immediately adjusted the sails away from the massive black hole in the ocean that, as far as I knew, reached as far as the ocean floor. It seemed as if it were a void, an abyss of sorts.

As I surveyed the hole and distanced myself, another force launched my ship forward, much more abruptly than before. There was a disturbance in the water underneath, and my heart sank as I spotted its familiar fangs. It leapt out from the depths, barrelling towards the top of my ship, and I pulled out my sword in defiance. It glared at me, and I glared back. It gnawed at me, and I gnawed back. I cleaved a clean chunk out of its flesh with two precise sweeps of my blade in an instant, removing one of its fins. The monster passed over my ship and got sucked into the whirlpool behind me. Perhaps I'd learned some useful swordplay from Chris after all. At least 100 pounds of fresh fish meat landed squarely on my vessel; it seems like a well-deserved meal.

I continued on for days upon days, eating up my rations much quicker than expected. The last of the fish meat was rotten and bitter, and the remainder of my own rations consisted of crackers and wine. Just when I thought lady misfortune had gotten the better of me, I spotted a series of rafts in the distance, and there was movement too. I had finally done it! I'd reached the outside world, and without a hitch too! I gleefully hoisted the sails and let the wind blow me to them, but what was unbeknownst to me was the growing swirl that stalked my every move…


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