Shadow Walker couldn’t understand where the bright light was. It seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. The noise overwhelmed him, seemed to jar his bones and make his teeth chatter. Breathe, he told himself. Breathe. Disgusting. Sour. Rotten. He was spinning. The bright lights changed to blue and then red and back to blue. “I can’t think straight,” he mumbled aloud. Shadow Walker slowed his breathing. The word “inventory” came to mind. He slowly and carefully took stock of his body, part by part. It was all there; sore, but no broken bones. He moved his hand to his head. Apparently, a tree burl had grown on his head. But that cannot be, he thought. I must have fallen. I’m in a hole. He blinked and listened to the roar.
Not a roar. Those are voices. Whose voices? Many voices. They were speaking gibberish. Gibberish he had heard before. ROI and Z-Lotz. Why were people speaking those languages? A picture came to mind — a beautiful young woman bathing. Then, she was speaking. They were pointing to some vines high up in a tree. Another image: crawling through the grass. He drew close to the beautiful woman. Her scent was nice. Not like now. Who was she? She was not the only woman though. There was another. If only the pain were less, I could think better.
The light at least had grown dimmer. He could now make out mountains and in this vast landscape, no plants grew. He closed his eyes and saw the image of another beautiful woman with eyes like those of a cougar. He mumbled aloud, “I wish Cougar Eyes were here. She could translate this sea of words into something I could understand. Where the hell am I?”
He stared back onto the giant landscape. Something was very wrong with it. He blinked a few times and suddenly realized that he was not staring at a giant landscape at all. He stared at a dirt floor a few inches in front of his face. He was lying on his side. He tilted his head to take in the room.
I am in a prison, he thought. But why? He pushed himself up to a sitting position. A single shaft of sunlight struck the floor near where he had just been lying. He closed his eyes and nearly fainted. He sat alone on one side of this prison room, he realized. The other three sides showed a few dozen others hunched against the other three sides. They reacted to him — his sitting up — by pointing and jabbering — but he only caught an occasional word that made any sense: “death” “NUT-PI” “ceremony” “yesterday” or “tomorrow” — he couldn’t be sure which. Again he said and said aloud, “If only Cougar Eyes were here.” Across the room, a thin, frail, long-bearded man arose and hobbled toward him slowly. He stood directly in front of Shadow Walker and then awkwardly sat down in front of him and began speaking — in Veritas!
“Excuse me, Sir. My name is Tree Vines. Did you say ‘Cougar Eyes’ just now?”
“Tree Vines! You speak Veritas!”
“I do. Yes. I am Veritas. But I don’t recognize you. I suppose you have grown quite a bit since I last saw you. But did you say ‘Cougar Eyes.’?”
“Yes. I don’t recognize you either. I am Shadow Walker. Cougar… that’s not right. Tiger Eyes. No. Something. Her name escapes me. I have been struck hard on the head. I don’t know how I got here. Where are we?”
“You are in a place called Hopeless because all who come here, die here, or — or out in the public square. NUT-PI mostly lets us die of slow starvation, but sometimes, he likes to put on a show. I am afraid that is likely your fate. According to what I overheard from the guards, you came here two days ago with a woman. Was this woman by any chance called ‘Cat Eyes’?”
“Cat Eyes! Yes. No. I mean, I do know a woman named Cat Eyes. But that is not the woman I came here with. She’s — her name is — also something to do with cats or eyes or fish. But no. Cat Eyes — not Cougar Eyes — she — I found her in the village of the ROI. Like you, she speaks Veritas, but she also — but I cannot recall how I came to be here. I cannot…my mind is not working properly. I’m sorry. But you speak Veritas. Yet, I don’t recognize you.”
“Nor do I recognize you. Though I have been among the Z-Lotz for a long time now. I set out long ago on a journey to find my daughter, Cat Eyes, and was captured and used as a slave here in their city. My master became deathly ill ….”
Shadow Walker interrupted, “What? Wait. Cat Eyes is your daughter?”
“Yes. Yes. Her irises are shaped like those of a cat. And you know her? Is she well?”
“Tree Vines, the last time I saw her, she was well. She led … several of my tribe went to try to reach the Veritas beyond the Twin Peaks. She went with them. She said that’s where she was from.”
“That’s right! But how — I don’t think they could get there. She was stolen from us when she was young. She was taken by these people who steal children. My wife and I set out to follow the trail and try to find her. Several of our tribe accompanied us. But we came to a sheer cliff. No-one could find a way in or around. The others turned back, convinced there was no way over the mountain. My wife and I stayed and at last, a huge hole appeared in the side of the mountain itself…a kind of giant door. We could see nothing but we were desperate and slowly approached this hole hoping it might lead to her. Before our eyes had adjusted to the strange dim light inside, a troop of horsemen came riding out. They struck us with clubs and I woke up in the City of the Z-Lotz. I was chained and beaten and made to understand that I was their slave. I was never allowed outside my master’s house. I am not sure whether my wife…sometimes other slaves came and I tried to ask about my wife, but we could never talk long. I gave up on life. I poisoned my master, not to kill, but to make him ill, and they found out or rather guessed — and put me in here. But only the ROI and the Z-Lotz know the secret of the giant hole in the mountain. I don’t think she could get through. But why are you here?”
“Tree Vines, it is good to hear someone speak Veritas again. And, it was helped me recall some things, but I am still not — I don’t know why I am here or — we came — there is something here that we need. I came with — a different woman because she was here before and she sees — yes! She is called ‘Eagle Eyes.’ She can see really well. But not well enough to keep us from being captured — or killed.”
“I’m sorry to say so, Shadow Walker, but they are going to kill you. By the light on the floor, I see it is nigh on to the Summer Solstice and they have … festivities planned … in fact, I would do the mercy of killing you, but we must find a way to kill each other or they will have me take your place. They make everyone — even the slaves and prisoners — go and watch the torture death. It would be better to die here.” Tree Vines, shook his head slowly from side to side. “It’s very bad. I’m sorry.”
“Everyone dies eventually. But I am going to kill as many as I can. Meanwhile, tell me as much as you can about this ceremonial death so I can find my best chance of escape, Tree Vines.”
“I will, but what else can you say about my daughter? Please. Tell me. What sort of person is she?”
“Your daughter is strong, beautiful, and very smart. I will give you the short version and if fortune looks favorably on us, I will tell you all you want to know later.”
“Fair enough, Shadow Walker, but — this prison is called ‘Hopeless’ for a reason. NUT-PI uses a special rod to wound people and torture them. No-one has ever come close to escaping.”
“Killing sticks! Yes! That is why we came here. To find out more about them and possibly steal one. My young brother in law, Tu-Swift, was also taken by the People Who Steal Children. We followed the trail and eventually I found him. He was living as a slave among the ROI and they were using him to train horses. We escaped with Tu-Swift, but the ROI followed us and used fire arrows to attack us, but the fire spread by the wind back to their own village and burned it to the ground. Most of them abandoned the wreckage of that village. But beneath the burned armory, we found a wounded ROI man named Jaccim. Your daughter was tending to him. She is a very good and kind person. And, as I said, very smart. She helped Tu-Swift learn to decode markings so that messages may be sent without the sender of the message being present.”
“So, Cat Eyes was not hurt or injured or tortured?”
Shadow Walker sighed. “The ROI…the Z-Lotz…I don’t know for certain. She looks to be unhurt on the outside. But her heart — that I cannot say. She avoids talking much about her time in captivity. But she was very excited to learn that Jaccim knew a way through the mountains. And, we sent a small party to try to connect with the Veritas who live beyond the Twin Peaks.”
Tree Vines chewed nervously on his lips. “You let her go with one of the people who steals children?”
“Jaccim actually seems like a decent person. Your daughter cared for him and I brought him medicine. And, he spent a fair amount of time with us. Tu-Swift vouches for him. What we discovered — actually mostly Cat Eyes — is that the ROI do not seem to even question what they are asked to do. If it’s effective and efficient, they are happy even if it something like stealing children. I don’t think on his own, he is likely to do bad things. Anyway, it wasn’t just the two of them. One of our strongest warriors, Trunk of Tree went as well as Fleet of Foot and two of our friends from the Nomads of the South. Your daughter is very resourceful. She spoke once of poisoning her captors as well. But she didn’t get caught.”
Here, Shadow Walker tried carefully to study the face of Tree Vines to see whether he regarded this as a reproach since he had been caught. There was a frown, but Shadow Walker didn’t think it was from reproach.
“I am — I am glad to know she is alive. But now, I am worried all over again. You let her go with one from among The People Who Steal Children. She is still a child herself. She — you have no idea how she is. And, now, it seems unlikely either of us will ever find out.”
Now, Shadow Walker frowned. “Your daughter is very much a young woman now. She definitely has a mind of her own. She insisted that she wanted to go. We dialogued about the pros and cons, but all of us, most especially your daughter insisted on going — she mainly wanted to see you — and her mother. But what do you mean, none of us will ever know?”
“Shadow Walker of the Veritas Center Place, there is a reason that this prison is called Hopeless. No-one can escape.”
“Tree Vines of the Veritas Beyond the Twin Peaks, I know well why they call the prison Hopeless. It is precisely so no-one will even try to escape. It is a label they chose. They mean to demoralize us. We will find a way out and you, I believe, will yet be reunited with your daughter. She is very resourceful. I told you she helped Tu-Swift decode the marks of the Z-Lotz.”
Tree Vines tilted his head and tightened his lips. “You mentioned these marks before. Do you remember what any of them look like? I wonder…. No, it couldn’t be.”
“Oh, I remember them all! Once Tu-Swift realized that each mark is like a stick figure drawing of someone making a sign, you see, and then your daughter and Tu-Swift together realized that each mark was only the initial sound of the word that the hand signs signify, we were able to decode the entire birchbark collection that Eagle Eyes … managed to take from here.”
“Did my daughter, Cat Eyes, ever mention the work of the Veritas beyond the Twin Peaks to understand the ancient artifacts we discovered?”
“No. No. Not that I recall.”
Shadow Walker glanced around the prison. He noted that none of the others were talking. Each seemed to be cocooned in their own private prison of hopelessness, they all sat, backs to the wall, arms wrapped around their knees, heads down. Perhaps they had sent their souls into another place since this one was so … filled with death. Each of them sees the others act hopeless so they do too. It’s perpetuated from one prisoner to the next. The name — hopelessness — and the expectation — those are better guards, I think, than any of the human ones out there.
“Listen.” Shadow Walker drew closer and began whispering. “I intend to break out of this prison. But I may need the help of others. Do you know which of these men is to be trusted? Is it possible there is a spy?”
Tree Vines inhaled deeply. He had become inured to the stench. “People in here don’t talk much. I’m not sure I’d really trust any of them. On the one hand, they are probably not great fans of NUT-PI. After all, they’re in prison. On the other hand, if they heard of your plans they might inform the guards in the hope of securing better treatment. That’s how NUT-PI operates. He betrays everyone but has everyone believing that they will he lucky exception. Anyway, plans are hopeless. You only have a day — perhaps two — before they will use you for entertainment.”
“What sort of — entertainment?”
Tree Vines drew still closer. “Are you sure you want to know?”
Shadow Walker, despite his body still being wracked with pain, felt a small smile on the right side of his mouth. “Oh, yes. I definitely want to know.”
Tree Vines said, “If you want my advice, spend your last days thinking of something good, not dwelling on the horror that lies ahead.”
Shadow Walker’s smile spread. “I assure you that I will spend very little time dreading. I will spend my time planning, imagining, trying alternatives, imagining consequences, imagining alternative consequences, like a tree growing limbs from trunk, and twigs from limbs and leaves from twigs. I will find a way out as surely as I found a way in.” Shadow Walker paused for a moment and then looked into the eyes of the other man. “And you are coming with us.”
“You really think you can do it?”
“Either that or die trying. I’m not going to spend my days … underground. Now, tell me about how they imagine that they will use my death to provide entertainment?”
“All right. Well, the first thing is that it is always different. But variations on a theme. There will be some sort of sexual perversion involved. You can count on that. And there will be a lot of pain involved. And, the audience of — well, different people are in different positions but everyone is there — even the prisoners. It is our only entertainment — and — you will think me sick — a despicable man — but we all cheer, even though the person being tortured to death is one of us. Crazy when you think about it.”
“Okay, thank you Tree Vines. But I need you to be much, much more specific. What weapons of torture? Where is the person relative to the audience. Where are the prisoners? I realize it may all be different, but there will be patterns and if I can understand those patterns, I can see the weaknesses, the cracks in those patterns, that will always be there regardless of specifics. I already know what some of the cracks are because they are flaws of NUT-PI himself and will always limit his thinking. For instance, he is a colossal coward. And, he assumes (without knowing that he does so) that everyone else is the same. So that colors his predictions. He rules largely through other cowards because he can use fear to manipulate them. But it also means that very few, if any, are truly loyal to him. Even if there are such people, he will never be able to trust anyone. He will not be able to tell who are the few who truly want what he wants or think he is a god from those who will simply act that way to curry temporary favor or avoid punishment. These are general patterns of weakness, but there are many more for a system such as NUT-PI and the Z-Lotz have set up. But I also need to understand their cruelty in great detail so I can see the weakness patterns there as well.”
Tree Vines had a grim look on his face. It was painful to reveal some of the many possible tortures, but guilt tripled his pain. He along with all his fellow prisoners had cheered and he kept asking himself why. “All right, Shadow Walker. First of all, they always have the person restrained in some way. Perhaps his hands will be tied behind his back. Perhaps he’ll be suspended from a pole. Perhaps he’ll have one leg in a chain with a heavy ball attached.”
Tree Vines paused. “Do you want me to go on?”
“Yes. But take yourself back. Instead of saying, ‘sometimes this, sometimes that’ tell me of one particular torture from beginning to end; everything you saw, you heard, you smelled, you felt. Everything. Just like I was watching right beside you.”
Tree Vines paused. He actually found himself smiling. He had been taught this skill at a young age, but he hadn’t used it in years. For the first time in an endless string of gray days in Hopeless Prison, Tree Vines felt hope.