By morning a few of the torches were still smoldering. He knew he should get more rest, but he didn’t want to waste daylight. Dak packed up camp, gathered his bearings, and set out along the old, spotty trail through the forest. Eventually the trees became more spaced out and the forest thinned. At the same time, the steepness of the path began to increase. His legs began to burn as the climb grew more intense. His eyes burned and ached with the lack of sleep. His head hurt. He was worried about his water supply. Was his pack getting heavier? The closer he drew to the sun above the more uncomfortable his sweaty bandage became. He wondered if he should change the dressing soon. He would need clean water, and he didn’t want to use any of his drinking water for the job.
Dak stopped under one of the lonely trees dotting the side of the mountain. He would only allow himself a moment to rest and cool down. He sat and leaned against the tree, craning his neck to look ahead on the trail and see if it would get less steep soon. The heat of the sun radiated off the rocks, making the ground appear to shimmer like water. He took a small drink from one of his water pouches. He still had one that was full for the trip back down the mountain, and the other was a little under half full. He guessed he was about halfway up the mountain, so he wanted to try to conserve water for a while.
His heart jumped and he swung his head to face back up the mountain. He thought he had seen some movement out of the corner of his eye. In the heat of the day very few animals and beasts were active, but something had definitely moved. He scanned around watching for more movement, but saw none. Once his pulse had slowed again he decided to move on. He picked himself off the ground and brushed off, peering in the direction of the movement again, which happened to be the same direction he needed to go.
While still steep, this part of the path was beginning to get a little easier, or at least he felt as though it was easier. Dak remained focused on the spot where he thought the movement had come from. As he got closer he began to make out a shape. Years later he would hesitate to share what he thought he saw, mostly because he was never quite sure. He was sleep-deprived, thirsty, sore, and had taken a couple bad blows to the head not long before. For all he knew perhaps he imagined the whole encounter. But at the time it felt very real.
The shape was long and twisted, sprawled out in the sun on a large flat rock. Before it came into focus Dak was sure he heard something telling him to turn back. It wasn’t as much of a voice as it was an intrusive thought. Sure, he wanted to turn back, but he wasn’t thinking of doing it. Someone or something was making him think it. “Turn back now,” it repeated over and over. “Go home. You don’t belong here.”
He was able to clearly see his opponent now. It was a large snake, at least fifty feet long and nearly four feet thick at its widest point. It was curled around and twisted about carelessly on the surface of the large rock, but during Dak’s approach the reptile gathered itself in and coiled menacingly. The path ran right next to the rock slab, and so he decided to leave the path and go the long way around. As he circumnavigated the rock, the snake’s huge head tracked him and its black eyes remained unwaveringly fixated on him. Dak could feel himself sweating even more than he had when the cat attacked. The “turn back” command echoed louder with every step.
He wondered how fast something that big could move. Would it strike at him if he took his eyes off it? Would it follow him? He could feel himself getting sick. Nervousness and fear became overwhelming. Eventually he got back on the path far enough from the snake that he felt he was safe, but even then he was worried about it. He walked briskly, constantly looking back over his shoulder or even walking backward to keep an eye on the path behind.
The slope was much more gentle here, and with fear driving him forward he make good progress. By the time the sun was getting ready to set he figured he had to be at least two thirds of the way up the mountain. The terrain was fairly flat in many areas, giving him plenty of options for setting up camp. The lack of trees made it harder to set up a fence, but it also meant fewer places for predators to hide. He hoped he would be safe with just a large fire and a few torches stuck in the ground around the tent.
As he set up camp with the last hour of daylight barely holding on to the sky, he saw clouds moving in from the mountain range to the north. They were dark and moving fast. He cooked a quick dinner and managed to retire to the tent just as the first drops of rain began to fall from above. Within minutes his tent was soaked through and there was a river running through his tent. Lightning illuminated the walls of the tent every few seconds, with ground-shaking thunder immediately following. He wrapped himself in his wet blankets, hoping to keep warm, but it was no use.
Soon the wind started to pick up. It shook the walls of his tent, threatening to topple the whole thing. The sideways moving rain had an even easier time finding its way into the shelter, completely negating any protection he had enjoyed before. Dak’s eyes ached for sleep. His cloudy mind couldn’t get the snake pushed from his thoughts.
Dak eventually gave up on sleep. He used his cooking pot to collect rain water and refill his half-empty water container. He lay on the soaked sleeping mat and stared up at the drenched tent. He pondered his encounter with the liar masquerading as the honorable teacher Rhoj. He let himself get carried away in anger again, cursing the man and his greed.
When the sun finally scattered the clouds Dak surrendered to sleep. The sun was at its highest when he finally crawled from his tent and removed his wet clothing. By some miracle Dak found that the contents of his pack, including a dry change of clothes, had survived the night without soaking through. He changed clothes, ate, and let his gear dry a little before packing up to leave.
The wet tent and blankets made his pack feel twice as heavy as before. He looked back along the trail to see if the snake was there before he moved on. His whole body was sore.
The trail wound around the mountain and came to run along a steep cliff. He guessed the drop would be at least a few hundred feet. He stuck to the inside of the curve, as far from the cliff as he could, until he came to a spot where the cliff cut into the path. He could tell there was once a bridge there, but it had long since fallen apart. Now there was nothing more than a few posts in the ground and some deteriorated rope hanging from them down into a gap that was only about five or six feet across. He figured he could toss the pack across and jump.
He took out the rope and tied it to his pack. If the pack didn’t make it he wanted to have it tied to something so he could retrieve it. He hurled it across the gap and watched it roll into a muddy puddle on the other side. It wasn’t a tough toss. The distance wasn’t too bad.
Still holding the rope, as though the pack would hold his weight if he missed, Dak took a running leap to the other side. His heart pounded as he nearly slipped back into the crevice after landing. He made it.
He stowed the rope and shouldered his muddy pack and carried on. The path remained at the edge of the cliff for another hour or so. At one point it ran past the opening of a cave. Inside he could hear sickening sounds, like some kind of great beast eating its victim raw. He hurried past as quietly as he could.
A short distance from the cave the path hit a dead end. The cliff wrapped in on itself and the path ended. To his left, leading up the mountain, there was only the wall of another cliff. He could see that there was a tree at the top of the cliff, maybe thirty feet above. “I guess I have to climb,” he said, wishing he could just pay Jur, the goat cart driver, to help him with this one.
Dak had little experience scaling cliff faces. As a child his parents had taken him to the mountains once, and they say he climbed a ten foot cliff all alone, but he had no recollection of the event. Now he was wearing a wet pack that weight half as much as he did when it was dry, slowly digging his hands and feet into whatever features allowed him enough purchase to support his weight. He breathed dust into his lungs with his face pressed against the rock, leaving a smear of sweat every inch of the way up. His heart beat so strongly against his chest that it threatened to push him away from the cliff he was clutching so dearly. He closed his eyes to squeeze the burning sweat out so he could see again.
His arms and fingers hurt. He looked down and found that he had only ascended a little more than his own height. Less than halfway. He groaned and looked up to find his next hand hold. Tears began to flood his vision. His right foot slipped. He barely caught himself. His heart was pounding. He imagined himself tumbling down and away from this cliff only to spill over the one below, plummeting the full distance to the bottom. He could see himself grabbing desperately at anything he could reach to try to stop his momentum from carrying him over the edge. He saw his own panicked eyes judging and blaming him as he fell silently into the void.
“You can do this,” he told himself, taking some deep breaths to clear his head. The strength in his arms was nearly gone, and his sore legs had to do all of the lifting. All he could do with his hands was hold himself close to the cliff.
Eventually, dirty, scraped, sore, and drenched in sweat, he pulled himself up over the edge of the cliff and grabbed onto one of the roots of the tree. There he stayed for a moment, grasping the root with all of his strength, heaving great breaths in and out, his legs still dangling over the cliff. He cried a little, but eventually collected himself and crawled away from the cliff.
It was getting dark. He figured this plateau would make as good a camp as any. A hundred feet from the cliff he found another tree and set up his tent at its base. This time the rain clouds rolled in earlier. Before he could finish his dinner he had to retreat to the still-damp tent. It smelled bad inside. He would have to make a new one later, he decided. This one had been made from some of the best tent cloth made in his town, with finely carved wooden support sticks and strong cord for tying it down to the stakes. The cord and sticks would be salvaged, but the cloth was ruined.
Dak felt the hairs on his neck stand on end and heard a sharp crack accompanied by a bright flash of light. More cracking and creaking and the sound of something rustling outside, he grabbed his sword and stepped tentatively out to see what was going on.
He couldn’t see anything from the door of the tent, but above him he saw the branches of the tree moving. Maybe it was just the wind? No, the branches were moving too fast. They were moving toward him! He ran. Behind him the tree came crashing down on his tent. Sticks snapped and flew up in all directions. “No!” he cried. “My pack! My food and water!” Dak rushed over to where his tent had stood. He was relieved to find that the corner where his pack had been was not buried by the tree. He used the sword to cut through the cloth and pulled his pack free.
Though grateful to be alive and have most of his supplies, he now realized he had even less protection from the rain. “At least my pack will be lighter,” he tried to chuckle to himself. He watched the rain pound away at the pack, rinsing the mud away. “And cleaner,” he added.
Tears welled up again and fell unnoticed down his rain-drenched cheeks. He dropped to the ground and leaned against the fallen tree trunk, burring his head in his arms to cry. “I should turn back,” he sobbed. This time it wasn’t an intrusive thought. It was his own.
Again unable to sleep, he put himself to work trying to see if he could dig his tent out from under the tree. At the very least he could use the cloth to set up some kind of covering, if he could get it out intact. By the time he pulled the tent out it was morning and the rain had stopped. It wouldn’t have mattered though, as the tent was completely torn to shreds.
Weighed down with exhaustion, needing the rest but once again determined to see if any guru lived atop the mountain, he willed himself on. His broken body refused. Even with the lighter pack he had never had more trouble taking steps. He could feel his lungs getting tight from illness. His throat was sore. Mucus wouldn’t stop flowing from his nose. He had heard tales of men staying out all night in rain storms and falling ill later. It was often fatal.
Dak didn’t give himself time to worry about it. Looking up along the trail he realized he was much closer to the peak than he had initially thought. He took heart and shuffled a little faster along the trail. He was there. He dropped his pack and stumbled about, frantically searching for any signs of life. He calls out. “Tahl?” He tripped and fell to the ground. “Anyone?” He pulled himself up again. On the other side of the summit he called out again. “Hello? Anybody here?”
He paused for a long time, listening carefully. Nothing. Even the trees there were still. He stood at the edge of a perilous cliff looking down on the mountain he had climbed. Though the two peaks were equal in height, this one felt taller to Dak. He could see the other peak, fully illuminated by the sun that hovered high behind him.
He scanned the face of the opposing peak, following it down to the crook between the peaks, then he looked south at the village where he had been raised. He thought of all the people there, living their lie and trying every day to believe it. Why? Why would they do that? Was it true? Would they really find happiness that way? He thought of what it would have been like to find the great teacher here. What a wonderful service it would be, to impart such teachings of happiness, he thought. To share happiness…
The beauty of his view began to sink in, and in a moment of utter clarity he realized something important. He thought back on his journeys. He pondered the service his parents lived out for him every day of their life. He took in the beauty all around him. Turning around he realized that there was a small pond behind him. The whole time that he had felt that he was surrounded by silence, that pond had been letting a small brook flow forth, gurgling a quiet secret. The landscape opened up to him, suddenly spilling forth with sounds and secrets. By the pond there was a tree stump that had obviously been cut by a manmade tool. Dak felt short of breath and filled with excitement. He looked around. On the ground, covered in overgrowth behind the stump, he found a dirt-encrusted axe. He pulled it, yanked it from the ground that had claimed it so long ago. He scooped water out of the pond and used it to wash the axe clean of the dirt and mud that had caked itself on so thick over the years.
As he cleaned the handle he saw that letters had been carved into the handle. As he uncovered them one by one tears came to his eyes. He had found it! He had found what he was looking for.
* * *
“And can you guess what was carved into the axe’s handle, young one?” Dak asked.
The young girl, probably only eight or nine years old, pondered deeply. She sat cross-legged across from Dak, at the edge of the pond. Dak had managed to help the girl clean her face, but the rest of her body was covered in mud and scrapes. She had arrived hungry and crying, but Dak had taken care of that. Now the girl was thoroughly distracted, trying to figure out what the axe could have had carved into it. She pursed her lips in deep thought.
Dak smiled and reached behind him. The axe never left his side. It was his most prized possession. With it he had built his hut, skinned animals, and carved furniture. He kept it in a sling under his robe at all times, always behind him as a reminder.
As he produced the axe from beneath his cloak the girl’s eyes lit up. “Is that the axe?” she exclaimed excitedly.
“Yes,” he said.
He handed it over to her reverently, and she accepted it as though it were a great honor. She turned it over, admiring how beautiful it was. Then she found the word carved into the handle and smiled. “Of course,” she said, as she handed it back to him.