I: The Desert
The Swordsman staggered on, his heavy feet dragging deep grooves in the sand as he stumbled along his way. The sword went before him as it always has, supporting the weight of his bulk. His lips were parched. Cracked. Bleeding. The inside of his mouth would have tasted like sand, but it has been a long time since he had been able to taste at all.
If the Swordsman had known what an oven was, he might have described himself as one. His internal organs felt like they were cooking underneath his skin.
The unforgiving desert sun blazed down relentlessly over the parched plains that went on forever. No wind, no clouds. Only unbearable dryness stretching on in every direction.
Still the Swordsman pressed on. Delirious. Dehydrated. Dying. Too hot – too hot to even sweat. The eyes that had once blazed with intensity of purpose were glazed over in the way that the eyes of dead men did. It was through these blurry lenses that he saw the way that he must go.
The tin canteen hung uselessly at his side. The skin on his back burned in spite of the shirt and the coat draped over it – or perhaps because of it. The twin revolvers in the breast pockets were dangling lead weights. Dead weights for a dead man. The Swordsman’s sunbaked, sand-blasted knuckles were white as they clutched with a faltering, desperate strength on to the hilt of his sword. The well-oiled sheath seemed to be faring far better in the heat than he was.
His lungs burned. He might have gasped in the slow agony that gripped him, but that would be a terrible waste of whatever moisture he had left.
When his legs gave up the last of their strength and gave way beneath him, there were neither the cries of defeat or frustration. The Swordsman simply sank to his knees, hands still clutching onto the hilt of his lifelong companion. His eyes looked up under the shadow of his hat and saw the impossible distance that still laid ahead, and a terrible sorrow filled them in the place of tears.
The last cry of his conscious mind struck his heart with a shard of grief. His head lifted to face his creator and his destroyer both, and his lips parted, offering a last prayer. Reciting last rites. Knelt on the ground as he was, his head lifted to the skies, and his hands held out before him, the Swordsman might have even looked religious. But the exhalation that came was directed to neither gods nor demons.
When the darkness came over his eyes and his mind, he sent his last thought as far as he could before him, and prayed that she would hear him.
I’m so, so sorry.
On the edge of the boundary that separates dreams from reality and death from life, one begins to recall memories lost in the space between worlds. This is the place where the voices of dead relatives and forgotten friends come floating to one’s ears, their words accompanied by the songs of angels and the howls of demons. It was in this place where the Swordsman remembered the things that never happened.
She sat before him. The spring of his rebirth. Her face was radiant as the sun, soft as the cherry blossoms that danced as they fell, like snowflakes on a gentle morning.
Her name came from him in his voice, though his lips never moved; and as she looked up from the steaming cup in her hands, the darkness of the abyss gave way to a garden, and its emptiness filled by the call of the wind and the rustle of leaves.
A sun-touched lock came loose off a hairpin and dangled before her face as she regarded him and saw the sorrow in his eyes, fading away to a tenderness that none other have known. Up came a trembling hand, one with skin tanned a deep brown after weeks spent in the sun, with soot covering the fingertips from the nights spent by the fireside.
He reached for her, but the distance between them was too great to be overcome.
Are you real? His weary heart beat fast as he stretched. He had to touch her. To feel the softness of her skin. To leave soot marks across her cheek. Then he would know that she was there. That she was possible.
But his fingers were not there. He wasn’t really there with her, and neither was she there with him. The garden that was the meeting place of the two was as real as it was unreal; and though he saw her, regarded her, and felt her presence with him and within him, she was only as present as a vivid memory from a distant past.
Yet her voice came from a distant future. Whether it was his future or not, the Swordsman paid no regard. Her lips parted, and this was what she said to him through the connection of their hearts: