By Nicholas Fair
Deep in shimmering waters, time unravels like a tapestry. In ancient times, powerful relics known as scrying pools were used to glimpse beyond the clouded present and into the future. This practice was known as augury, and only the sharpest minds and most focused souls were capable of seeing through the effervescent waters. No mortal has practiced augury in millennia, and like many ancient artifacts, scrying pools have all but vanished from existence. If you seek knowledge of the future, you must travel to the edges of the world, following whispers on the wind, to where one of the last surviving few might be.
It had been three days since I caught a glimpse of the leopard that tirelessly hunted me. I had spent every waking moment wary of it since first catching sight of those unnatural, glowing eyes in the underbrush. I made no movement without first thinking where the beast could be watching me from; for it surely it had its eyes locked on me. I could feel them. Persistent. Tireless. Ever-watching.
For the previous seven days, my first week on the mountain had been tranquil. I had climbed mountains like this dozens of times before in all manner of isolated regions across the world. I was no stranger to chilling winds, steaming rains, or rough terrain. But it was on the eighth day of my trek to the peak that two glowing eyes appeared in the darkness. At first I wasn't sure what I was seeing-the dense foliage of the jungle reflected the moonlight and left all manner of horrors to the imagination. But eventually the eyes blinked, and I saw them for what they were as they stared deep into mine and felt fear. I staggered back but held my sight on them; if the beast knew I could see it, it did not show a care. It was watched with a calm hunger that would outlive any prey. A hunger that would wait for me to push myself to exhaustion, make a mistake, or just lose my nerve. I could not afford these. I had come too far.
Over those dreaded next three days, my perseverance paid off. In my life, I have wandered from one edge of the earth to the other: down the deepest ravine and up the highest mountain to see things that no other living being has in thousands of years. I am made of patience, and summoned it all to my side as I continued up the mountain. This was my greatest strength against the leopard: we were two iron wills locked in contest.
But three days is a long time for any man to wander on, unwavering, unrelenting. My perseverance was taking its toll, and I felt my grip on my walking stick waver like my grip on reality. Days without sleep would kill me before the leopard did at this rate: a slip on a rock would make me an easy meal. But I was close. So very, very close. I found myself wondering if I would be made a feast upon making it to the peak. A fitting end, I mused, for a man who had seen all else and had no lands left to conquer.
On the last night, as the full moon rose to its rightful place in the sky, I calculated I was within a day's walk of the peak. Three days of no rest had left me in tatters: my legs screamed, my mouth was dry parchment, and my usually sharp thoughts were a slurry of confusion. I would not survive the trek to the peak, and camp became my only option- a risk, I reasoned at the time, that I had to take. No part of me imagined the leopard had forgotten me, but perhaps, I hoped, it had come to a level of fatigue comparable to my own.
I set up camp as if I could feel the leopard's breath on my neck, surrounding my cot with torches and sharpened sticks. Once I thought my resting place was defensible- though truly nothing would have been an adequate defense. I took a moment to pause and reached into my now almost-empty knapsack.
From within its worn leather interior, I pulled out old scroll a merchant had given me during my last voyage. The torchlight flickering, I squinted my eyes to make out the details of the scroll as I pulled it taught. It felt rough and thick in my hands, its strong parchment intended to weather the ages. As I stared at the parchment, I was flooded by an overwhelming feeling of doubt that perhaps it was a fake, or some sort of fool's errand, and that I had become dinner for a leopard for no reason other than my own lust for adventure. I did my best to quash the idea, but it lingered as my eyes glanced across the paper, eyeing the details of the island I now sat upon. The parchment was an ancient map, outlining the island from coast to coast. Despite the seemingly endless journey I felt I had endured thusfar, the mountain was but a small thing on top of a dormant volcanic chain, surrounded by a few smaller islands home to tropical plants and vibrant wildlife.
At the center of the map was a word scrawled in faded ink: 'Augur'
. This is what had caught my attention those months ago. It was that word that informed me it was my destiny to seek out this island and climb to the mountain's peak; that I had no choice in the matter. I stared at the map through my hazy vision and reminded myself what I was doing here, why I was about to try and sleep in the wilderness next to a lurking predator that aimed to rip my throat out and make a feast of my entrails.
I rolled up the map and prepared for a short respite. Then I heard the faintest snap of a branch. I snapped to attention, my tired eyes scanning the darkness around me past my halo of torches. Across the way, deep in the forest, I saw him. Two eyes, now bold with hunger, teeth and muzzle flickering in the light of my fires.
I reached for the axe at my side, but the leopard was faster. He was upon me in a fraction of a heartbeat. I felt his claws bite into my side and my leg, his jaws into my shoulder. The pain nigh unbearable. But I am marked by scars. I would not die at the hands of a beast, mere miles from my greatest prize.
Letting out a howl, I slipped out from under the raking claws and wrapped my arms around the beast's throat. As I locked my arms, the beast's muscular body writhed and its jaws snapped. Its claws flailed and raked my forearms, my thick leather and pauldrons barely protecting me enough to keep hold. I felt blood pour out of my wounds and threaten to listen my grip, but I grit my teeth and held fast for what seemed like an eternity. The beast seemed not to need air. It bucked and flailed, nearly sending me toppling into my own torches. Then all at once, it stopped. I held tighter, hoping to finish the job, and in that moment the leopard vanished from my grip entirely.
My hands sticky with my own blood and my heart in my throat, the beast that had stalked me was now but mist in the crisp air. I collapsed against my cot, gasping, and looked to my wounds. There were none. I was whole.
When I awoke, the sun was just rising into the sky to greet the dawn. I frantically glanced around in a panic; my heart racing. I had fallen asleep?! My hands patted my torso and legs, instinctively looking for the deep wounds the beast had given me, but found none. The camp around me was torn asunder, claw marks deep in the soil and the now burned-out torches toppled. But I had no scratch upon me. Had this been a warning- or a test?
It took me little more than five hours to finally break free of the canopy line at the top of the mountain. There was no great hall or cathedral at the peak, no temple or even stacked stones. Amidst shrubs and trees, a small stone basin sat atop the highest natural plateau. As I walked closer, I felt my skin tingle with electricity, my eyes unable to gaze away from the etched, old stone. I slung my pack to the ground and dropped my weapon with careless abandon, my eyes unwavering from the runes that seemed to dance in front of me. They were carved in a language I had never seen. The bowl was somehow full of still, clear, water: not a single leaf or mote of dirt impeded its pristine nature.
It was in that moment that I saw the leopard out of the corner of my eye. I spun in a panic, but he did not move from where he stood, yards away. No longer ravenous, no longer tired, he was almost welcoming. I stared deep into those yellow eyes I had once feared and nodded. He tilted his head, almost playfully, as if to agree, and then trotted off into the forest, seemingly content I had made it to the top of the island despite his best efforts.
My gaze returned to the basin and immediately the water began to swirl as if it contained a maelstrom. The sky above me vanished, as did the earth below, and I was cut free of the physical. Instead, I floated in a sea of stars below visions of my greatest explorations. The wide savannah, where I fought the great stone crocodiles, shone above me. The endless sea, where I had met the merchant on the selkie's isle, flashed next. The mountains where I had dodged yeti attacks and led teams of explorers to discover temples to dead gods, the haven of the witches of Urdil, the underground caverns of the blood priests: these and so many more.
One word pried itself free of my lips as I was enraptured in awe: "legacy." These adventures were all behind me, my greatest trials culminating with this peak. I thought to lament my last victory, but in that moment the basin showed me something else. The whole of the world appeared in the stars: a flat disc in the endless expanse above me myself but a speck. That world, our flat earth, turned upside-down before me, and revealed a mirror of itself underneath. New, different, but somehow still the same.
My eyes begged for a closer look and filled with a blinding light. In that moment, I found myself back on the mountaintop. The leopard nowhere to be seen, the scrying pool as dry as if it had never held liquid at all. I grabbed my pack from the ground next to me and glanced upwards at the sky. Night had come quickly. I found myself transfixed; the stars were not ones I could recognize. There were no constellations I remembered. I felt lost.
It was then I realized the true gift of the scrying pool. It had not only shown me my past, but granted me a future: the greatest gift of all for a man who had seen everything. I was in a new world: blessed to ever wander on.
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Nicholas Fair is the creator of Fate Foretold, artist, writer, and avid drinker of fine
teas from far-off lands such as Whole Foods and Amazon.com.