“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway “We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.” ― Edward Abbey “And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you I will show you fear in a handful of dust” ― T.S. Eliot, --- It was less than ten minutes before full dawn, and the eastern sky had already turned the pale blue of day under the morning glow of the clouds. The two night shift guards posted in front of the south southeast gate into the merchant city of Crolis were thus less than ten minutes away from being relieved and getting to go to bed when a silhouette appeared out of the haze of the desert that surrounded the city. One guard interrupted himself mid yawn, quickly straightening to a more professional posture, before nudging his coworker and pointing towards the figure. The second guard, in turn, quickly picked up the long-barreled rifle that was sitting by his feet, leveling it at the backlit figure of the stranger. Crolis posted guards mostly as a formality. While they did have to deal with the occasional wild animal that got too close to the city, the bandits in the area well knew the reputation of the infamous Gunpowder City, home of one of the most influential weapons merchant in this portion of the world. Any bandit group that tried to attack the city would quickly find themselves outmatched both by numbers and by firepower. The rewards weren’t worth the risks. Far better to hit one of the caravans that came to the city on a regular basis, bringing the supplies needed to create their infamous weapons that could not be gathered from the area, and leaving again with a stockpile of guns and rifles. The caravans might be well guarded, but at least it wasn't pure suicide. The guard had picked up his weapon mostly as a formality, just in case the person was mad enough to attack, but they both knew, if there was a lone person approaching the city, there were only two types of people it could reasonably be. Either some insanely lucky bastard had managed to walk through the wasteland from one city to another without stepping into a single voider and being killed by something within it, a nearly impossible feat, or an escort had failed in his duty and lost both his passengers and his partner, something that was, unfortunately, all too common. The two guards waited, all weariness at the early hour forgotten, for the stranger to draw closer. But when the two guards were finally able to resolve the silhouette into a person, both of them recoiled by instinct. The stranger was easily six and a half feet of lean, hard muscle, with a long mass of tangled black hair, and if his statue alone wasn’t enough to be intimidating every inch of his skin, arms, legs, torso, and face was wrapped in bandages that looked as though they had been torn from the bloody corpses of fallen bandits. But all of that was nothing compared to the wrongness that seemed to surround him. It was like he was some twisted monster that had stepped right out of their dreams, and even though there was nothing about him that could truly be described as wrong, he was terrifying beyond all reasonable measure. A tremor raced through the guard's body, causing the barrel of the gun to shake and his finger to twitch spasmodically. The sudden, violent report of the gun shattered the silence of the morning, and the lone escort staggered, clutching at his chest as the already filthy bandages were stained a blackish red. The other guard grabbed the gun from his partner’s hands, yanking it away before he could pull the trigger again. “What the bloody hell was that?” “I... It doesn’t matter,” the other replied, clearly trying to shake the trauma still coursing through his body. “We can make something up. No one is going to care about a lone stranger coming from the wilds. “At least,” he then shot a glare at the other man, and pulled back the gun, the very real fear of losing his job overwhelming the nightmare fear of the dead stranger, “we can as long as you keep your fucking mouth shut.” “You...” but whatever the other guard was going to say, whether insult or agreement, was lost as they both noticed that the staggered form of the stranger escort was righting himself, one blood-darkened hand being withdrawn from his chest. He rolled his shoulders, tested the wound with gentle fingers, and then began walking forward again. This time the guard wasn’t able to pull the trigger, even by accident. The gun fell from nerveless fingers to the ground with a thud as both of them felt their legs turn to water underneath them. The two guards stumbled away from the gates, desperate not to get in between the monstrous stranger and his goal, allowing him to reach the heavy metal gates that blocked entry to the city. If their captains had witnessed the display they would have undoubtedly been killed for incompetence and cowardice, but that was, at the moment, the farthest concern from their minds. All they wanted was to keep the hell out of this monster's way. The stranger leaned up against the door, pushing against the gate. It was heavy enough that it normally took two men and a winch to open the door, but under the stranger's hands it began to move. Finally, he was granted entry to his goal. The guards offered no protest. “Freaks, all of them,” one of the guards said shakily after the gate was closed again, sealing the monstrous form of the escort safely on the other side of a foot of metal. “Anyone who goes out there on their own is an absolute freak.” The other guard could only nod in agreement.