The End of Time – By Nicholas Waln
The circle of entwined trees around the village had been there as long as Mateo could remember, which wasn’t long being a child of six, but they’d also been there as long as the elder could remember, and he was older than anyone else in the village could remember. The instructions not to leave the boundary had been passed down since before the elder could even remember. This of course did not stop Mateo and the other children from playing right at the border.
On this particular day Mateo was dared to stand on the very edge of it. Being one of the youngest of the group, he was used to being picked on but that didn’t stop him from rising to meet their confrontations over and over. He knew his parents would want him to stop but for a child of six, it was hard to parse the teasing from how he should react to it.
“So are you too scared? You’ll end up like the baker did last season.” Ralph one of the older boys taunted.
“No way, I could stand out here all day!” proclaimed Mateo as he balanced on the top of the roots. He tried not to look down
and behind at the cliff and the snow covered wasteland that lay beyond.
There was a slight cracking sound under his feet. He almost jumped off the root but Ralph stopped him with another taunt. “If you move now you’ll prove you’re a coward!” the older boy shouted.
“I’m not afraid!” Gritting his teeth Mateo stood trying not to fall as some of the roots he stood on began to collapse. After a second even Ralph began to look nervous thinking of the consequences if Mateo actually did fall beyond the boundary.
“Ok, Mateo, you proved you’re not a coward, come back…” The older boy pleaded, a level of fear creeping into his own voice.
“No!” The younger responded, “I’m going to settle this now!” With the logic of his age he tried to step even higher up on the roots to prove his point. This, however, turned out to be the weakest spot where the cold, never ending snow had weakened the upper roots that suddenly cracked underneath his weight sending him tumbling off the far side of the cliff.
The other children joined his yell of panic in a collective scream, just in time to see him tumble to the bottom of the slope and stop moving.
“Mateo!” one of the other kids shouted down, the others frozen to speechlessness of his own. “Are you ok?! Mateo?!” He did not respond. Some exclaimed they could see blood pooling around him, but that was likely the imagination of children.
“What should we do?” Another asked Ralph who was still frozen in indecision.
“Go get help!” An older girl who tagged along in the group yelled and ran off before the shocked Ralph could stop her.
It was some time before the yells of his parents up above woke Mateo out of the darkness. He sat up rubbing his head looking around for their voices. He felt like crying, but that’s what babies do he told himself with false reassurance. Night was all around him and he could only see the bleak eternal snow filled wasteland with the single star that still shone in the sky. How did he get here? He couldn’t remember…
“Mateo! Here!” His father’s voice cut through the night and he looked up this time to see his parents and other adults clustered around the edge of the cliff.
“Thank the Hero he’s all right!” Mateo’s mother exclaimed though he thought he heard someone else say it would have been a mercy for him to die in the fall.
“Mateo, can you climb back up here?” His father asked in his reassuring voice he used during stressful situations.
“I-I don’t know…” He said trying to stand up, suddenly feeling very dizzy.
As if ignoring his response, Mateo could hear the elder’s voice chastising his father, “You know no one can reenter the boundary when they leave, not even you, Leon.”
“I have to try. He’s my son.” His father responded to the Elder, “I can’t just leave him out there… to them.” Mateo could see him move closer to the edge of the boundary and several hands reached out to stop him.
“I can’t lose you too,” his mother said between tears. “Don’t leave me alone.”
“Listen to your wife,” the elder said putting a wrinkled comforting hand on Mateo’s father’s shoulder. “It’s best not to watch.”
“Dad?” Mateo called as the group began moving away from the edge. “Dad!” He called again trying to climb up the slope and slipped on a patch of ice. Stumbling to his feet he began moving up the slope once more finally reaching the top. However, the crowd was gone. If it was this easy what was the problem, he wondered to himself until he tried to step over the ring of trees as if blocked by an unseen wall. Pushing harder he began pressing into what felt like unbreakable sheets.
Yelling and pounding against the wall he finally began to really cry. How could this have happened? What was he to do? Sinking down he rested his back against the barrier and stared across the wasteland. The light was fading and it looked as if a storm was coming in. Thankfully there was still no sign of them…
With no other idea of what to do he began to climb down the slope. This time his traverse downward was much easier and he made it to the bottom without the difficulties he had in his assent. Turing around, however, things had changed. There was one now. Coming this way. A sense of panic began to rise in his chest and the urge to run and hide took hold.
Looking around in roots that stretched near the base of the cliff he found a section that had been covered by snow and pushed himself in as far as he could go. They could smell out the living it was said, but what else was he to do? Keeping as still as he could despite the cold, he waited. Soon footsteps in the snow drew closer, each a slow crunch as it approached. The darkness meant nothing to it, neither did the biting cold of the approaching snowstorm. If it did, the village wouldn’t be all that was left of mankind.
When the footsteps were right upon him he held his breath. He doubted it would make the difference but maybe, just maybe, it would. The footsteps drew close then stopped. It felt like an eternity while he waited for a sound, his lungs tightening. Suddenly a frost bitten hand reached into his hiding place grabbing his leg. A scream expelled itself from Mateo’s lungs as he tried to hold onto the roots as it pulled him back out into the starless night.
Kicking with all of his might seemed to do nothing to the hand as it held with an unfeeling grip. This movement did, however, dislodge quite a bit of snow which not only toppled over the entrance but also gave way underneath him, sending his body hurdling down a ramp like shaft. The hand was unable to hold on as he went, and finally the boy landed at the bottom of some kind of tunnel entrance.
Darkness encircled him as the sounds of falling snow over the entrance above faded away. He tried to move but felt stiff as if the darkness itself was holding him down. Far off a small light suddenly flared. It was so small at first, he barely noticed it. When everything is dark, even the smallest light casts away darkness though and one by one light began to appear down what he could now see was a hallway. Slowly the feeling holding him down began to lift.
Standing up as the lights more lights appeared closer to him, he realized they were each a blue flame lighting up wall torches down the hallway. He was standing on the far end of a sealed passageway that gradually sloped down out of view. The walls were illustrated with murals that had faded from time, leaving only etches and traces of their depictions.
Slowly he made his way down the passage, stiff from his fall and unsure of where he was and exactly what was going on. He had heard tails about the crypts of the ancestors, but that was before the return, before the maleficent dead returned in the bodies of others to destroy the living. Now all bodies were burned within minutes, if possible, even with the boundary. But while he had never seen a crypt before, he couldn’t help but shake the feeling that this is indeed where he walked.
Finally reaching the end of the passage, Mateo came upon two large stone doors, each carved with characters and symbols he could not read. They reminded him of the ones he saw in the elder’s books but was always forbidden to learn. Not seeing a way back as an option, he pushed against the door. Nothing. Was all this, the lights, the cold, just for what? A door he couldn’t open? Pushing again with all his strength in desperation, it still wouldn’t budge. His hands began to blister and a carving on the door cut his left ring finger. Withdrawing his hand quickly, sucking on his injured finger, he noticed the droplets of his blood seep into the doors as they slowly began to swing open.
Mateo expected a small dark room or tomb. Instead, what lay before him was a large chamber bathed in the blue torchlight that had lit his way down the corridor. All around the chamber were more murals, but these had been preserved. He could see depictions of the events for The Return that he had been told about. They spray to life in vivid color. The center of the room housed a massive stone rectangular structure that had a statue figure of a man carved into the top as if he were resting on a funeral pyre. This held most of the boy’s fascination as he moved into the room. Briefly looking at the paintings, he instead went straight to the sculpture.
The man was young, or at least appeared to be. He was of that age that Mateo could never guess with adults, but was clearly a grown up, yet not aged like the elder. He was dressed in armor. It was unlike what the village hunters wore, but instead, seemed like the armor that he had always imagined the warriors of old would have worn. In his hands he clutched a long sword and covering his legs was a shield with a dragon etched into its surface. Putting his hand out, Mateo lightly touched the stone, which was warm under his fingers. Wondering why it would be warm, he pressed his other hand against the stone. It was as if he could almost feel a pulse beneath his palms emanating from the stone. Startled, he moved back. What was going on? What was this place? Was his only thought until he noticed the stone face had turned to look at him. There was a smudge where his cut finger had touched the stone, and it was disappearing just as it had done on the door.
Something better described as a feeling, like when you eat something so cold and it freezes your brain, brought Mateo to his knees in front of the stone. The eyes of the carving were boring into him. He clutched the side of his head and tried to stop a boring, icy pain. Soon the pain was all he could remember, his entire world was consumed by the pressure in his head. Two sentences stood out in his mind through the torment.
“You have broken the seal. It is finished.”
Then, as suddenly as it started, the pain was gone. Shaking himself out of his stunned state he was surprised to realize the darkness around him wasn’t due to the pain, but instead the lights in the chamber had all gone out, and the tremors beneath him weren’t his shaking.
Trying to get to his feet, he fell back as the tremors increased. Far above him he thought he could hear screams. Rocks began to fall all around him forcing him to scramble blindly to the side. The ceiling must have been crumbling away and collapsing, he thought, frantically trying to find cover. Screams from the village above shook what was left of the world around him, and he began to cry the last tears that would ever drop on earth.