Several hours into his journey, Kirk incurred bruises, making the narrow road an uncomfortable place to travel. The Storm continued hurling branches and stones at him, throwing also the occasional spark from the forest inferno. He covered his head with his map for extra protection. None of it, however, had brought him to crumble under the Storm’s ridicule.
In one sudden moment, however, after a lengthy spell of repetition, the Storm became angry. As Kirk continued to trek along the trail, he felt the wind increasing its speed and its whistling howl through the trees deafening him. He thought a tornado had come through.
The power of the wind nearly swept him off his feet, threatening to send him into the fire or the unknown beyond. As he quickly slid toward the edge of the road that approached the heart of the burning forest, he caught onto the cleft of a boulder and held on for dear life. It took all of his strength, but, as he hung from the fissure with his feet to the air, he pulled himself down behind the rock and sought cover from the wind’s fury.
Trees uprooted all around him, several of which fell onto the road. To his horror, the raging fires blanketed most of the fallen trunks now set on the path before him.
The wind continued to rage, tossing blazing trees around like a game of elemental pinball, sliding them from one edge of the road to the other. Kirk held his grip as tightly as possible to ensure he didn’t get tossed, too. Even though the boulder absorbed most of the wind’s force, he knew letting go would’ve been fatal. He had to wait for the onslaught to finish before daring to move again.
A few burning trees flew over his head, while another slammed against the opposite side of the big rock. He planted his feet firmly into the ground, pressing hard against the boulder to guarantee his steadfastness.
When the wind finally slowed and the trees stopped skidding along the dirt, Kirk got up and breathed again. Only, his heart couldn’t relax—a fallen tree had blocked his path, stretching across from shoulder to shoulder with no room to maneuver around it.
There had been many close calls on this expedition since he left his garden sanctuary, but each seemed more harrowing than the one before it. The traveler who had offered him the chart months ago, a man who sought after the same treasure as he, told him of the burdens that laded the road. Kirk had taken the warning to heart when he set off for the journey, fresh from the greasy tavern in the last valley, but he forgot what the message meant when his focus wavered off course.
Kirk realized, as he ducked a few rogue sparks, that, in his plunge toward the unknown, he had dreamed only of the imagined troubles that swirled in his head. He never expected to pass through actual fire, or face the brunt of the Storm. The reality of the natural war around him made his desire for the treasure all the more intense. In his spirit, he knew the chaos wouldn’t end until he found it.
He climbed to the top of the rock to evaluate the path ahead. To his disappointment, he discovered that many felled and burning trees clogged the road. Some spanned its length, making only its shoulders dangerous, while others lay diagonally or horizontally across, making passage through next to impossible. If there were ever a time to turn back, this was it. But he looked to the path behind and discovered that additional fallen trees had already blocked him in.
In spite of the wind’s onslaught or its soaked state, however, the map was still legible. He triple-checked the possibility of an alternative way out, but the map made it clear that the red line was the only way. He stared down the road again. It seemed hopeless.
Regardless, he had to press on, fire or no fire. Staying put would’ve undoubtedly killed him.
It took him a few moments to muster his strength. Once he felt ready to brave the flame, he jumped off the rock and hurtled over the first burning tree. As his trajectory sent him over the trunk, the isolated blaze nearly scorched his legs. But he landed safely on the ground, rolling to absorb the shock to his soles. When he stood again, he brushed the mud off his body.
Then he considered the mud and realized its potential to blanket him from the heat. He dove back onto the soggy road and rolled around until he was caked in it. Then he got to his feet and took a running start toward his next obstacle, hoping he made the right decision.
The tree ahead failed to challenge him, as it clung to the road’s shoulder. Only the loose branches fanning halfway across the trail posed any type of barricade. Feeling the comfort to catch his breath, he jogged past the treetop to face his next contest.
The next one, however, was not as forgiving as the one before it. This tree trunk hung low, diagonally over the road, and stretched from the right-hand forest edge to the interior left. Its foliage was so thick that the trunk couldn’t lie flat. The not-quite horizontal angle left just enough space for Kirk to crawl under it.
Flames from the trunk nearly singed his back, but he made it through. The next tree stood straight, and the following was leaning but had not fallen completely over. Much of the journey through the forest toyed with his senses, alternating from posing no challenge at all to being strong enough to make him grit his teeth. But the last one he faced was by far the meanest of them all.
It clung to the ground, leaving no room to maneuver around it—he could neither swerve to the side nor pass underneath. It spanned a length from deep within the left part of the forest to an equal space inside the right. Its trunk was thick, perhaps the thickest of both sides of the road, sporting a diameter of about ten feet. Tangling branches covered it from its top down to its roots. The fire consumed everything it was, licking the rain-soaked sky above. By sights, it was impassable. Kirk fell to his knees in despair.
Is there nothing treacherous along this path? he wondered. Have I traveled for months just for this? So many roads were safe and secure; so many have provided wines and women; so many have offered riches and entertainment. Why didn’t I just take one of those and be done with this?
At that moment, something chirped in the sky. He looked up and spotted a small white bird flying through the pouring rain over the burning logs. As it extended its wings against the intensity of the Storm, it glided, calmly out of sight, down the road beyond the forest.
“Where did you come from, little bird?” he cried out. “And where are you going? And how can I get there?”
Kirk stared at his hands. They were grimy with mud, stained with burn marks, and streaked with bruises and scratches. They cracked and bled each time he squeezed them into fists. He wished he had wings instead.
He was suddenly intoxicated in thought. For his entire journey he had kept his eyes on the road—as he thought he was supposed to—unaware that his guidance could come from elsewhere.
But now he considered the bird. It had somewhere to go, too, as did Kirk, but the bird had the means to get there. And wherever it was going, it was getting there. Kirk decided he could learn something from the bird. If wisdom was in fact catching him from above, then he knew this much: if a tiny bird could forge ahead in such a treacherous gale, then perhaps there was still a way for him to reach his destination, too.
He sat on the road until he understood. He knew he couldn’t fly like a bird, but he still mined the wisdom attained from the bird. The solution wasn’t that the bird could fly; the solution was that the bird was equipped with the resources necessary to overcome its obstacles.
With all the troubles he had dealt with inside the forest, Kirk almost forgot that he was hauling a knapsack on his back. It wasn’t quite as bulky as the packs he had seen other travelers wearing, but it was still large enough to carry his essentials, like food, a canteen, and a blanket. When he remembered he had it, he removed it from his shoulders and unzipped it open.
The first thing he found was his blanket.
He pulled the thick woolen sheet from his sack and wrapped it around his mud-caked body. From the combination of the rain outside and Kirk’s insulated shoulders inside, the blanket turned fireproof.
After covering everything but his hands and face, he slid his map into the knapsack and zipped it shut. This time he was ready to traverse the final obstacle the forest had to offer—or what he hoped was the last blockade.
He tossed the pack over the fiery trunk as hard as he could. The elements of the Storm were too loud for him to hear anything hitting the ground, but it didn’t matter; the bag had hit the right trajectory, so he knew it reached the other side. Now he had to figure out how best to reunite with it.
The fire raged at its worst, its ferocity increasing every second. The rain could no longer control it, nor could it stop it; it vaporized on contact with this reckless animal. As he caught sight of the inferno rising, Kirk knew he had a fight ahead of him.
With every tiptoe he took toward the fallen tree, he felt the Storm’s assault persecuting him. Sparks splattered off the clustered branches. With evasive maneuvering, however, he sidestepped each one. Burning twigs crackled and popped. Embers fell before him. But he pushed forward. Each footprint he left behind snuffed out tiny flames in the mud.
But no move stopped the heat from intensifying. The closer he got, the more he wanted to turn back.
When he outstretched his hand to take hold of the first branch, he snapped it back—the very shock of heat nearly sent him running. He examined the situation a second time to ensure that he understood how best to overcome it. He really had no clue.
The thickest branches were also the longest and presented him with the greatest challenge. Although they offered him the best support for climbing over the trunk, they also had the most fire for him to surpass. The smaller branches, the ones like twigs, were nothing more than kindling, and there was no way he could climb them without breaking them, and odds were high he’d still get burned.
As he examined the tree further, he noticed another type of branch adhering to his liking. Where thick wooden arms once grew, broken stumps were now stuck to various spots around the trunk. Not so much branches anymore, they jutted from its thick body like foot-wide pegs. Even though some were ablaze like the rest of the tree, most remained safe. The biggest problem he saw with them was their massive diameters. He wasn’t sure how he’d get a handhold across their tops. But he had to try. He didn’t have much of an alternative. Kirk hacked his way through the loose tangles to reach the closest unconsumed stump he could find.
The first peg was sturdy enough to hold his weight, so he realized this plan could work, as long as he could grab the others as easily. Hoisting himself up toward the next, he felt the pain of intense heat eating up his body. He had no time to wipe away the sweat. Like climbing a ladder, he reached for the next protrusion, and the next, until he met with a burning one. Then he had to stop and think.
At this point, there was no reason to jump back down, so he buried his free hand inside his blanket and grabbed the fire with the wool. As he made contact, he wrenched the stump until he rubbed the fire out. When the danger was clear, he reached for the next one.
The fire was strongest at the top of the tree. By the time he climbed to the upper branches, he kicked his feet into the flame and stood on the firm horizontal trunk. Although the blaze danced around him as he found his balance, his wet blanket shielded him from the burn.
It was a beautiful thing, he thought, to stand above the Storm’s worst soldier. But his breathing conditions were unbearable. Thanks to the adrenaline he was feeling since his trek through the forest began, he hadn’t noticed how hard it was for him to breathe. Until now. The smoke was thick and black. His lungs burned not only from exhaustion, but from poor air quality. As he stood at the top of the trunk’s surface, he realized he was wheezing. If he stayed put, he would undoubtedly suffocate.
As he crouched into the fire, he looked into the sky to receive a face full of rain. The feeling of cold water against tormenting heat was bittersweet. But he would not savor the dichotomy of pain. He sprang from the trunk and shot over the remaining branches to the other side and landed on the muddy surface of the road next to his knapsack, rolling through a huge puddle of water that quenched the small fires in his blanket and washed some grit off his body.
As he plucked his nose out of the puddle, he looked up to see, to his relief, that the road ahead was finally clear of the forest’s anger. Now he would have a chance to breathe.