Jeremy Hilder tugged his hood more tightly around his face. If anyone knew that a man of his wealth and status was hanging around external image viet1.jpgsuch seedy parts of town, it could spell the end of his life, or worse, his reputation. What would happen to his family if they found out? He imagined Maria not being able to look him in the eyes; his children’s disappointed stares. He was doing this for them. None of them knew he had been diagnosed yet, and he intended to keep it that way. Jeremy could almost feel the cancer spreading, choking him and taking over his body. There must be a solution, and if he could find it then all the better.

He didn’t want to die. He told himself it was for his family, but he knew he was more selfish than that. His only hope now lay in a distant legend. Jeremy knew he was grasping at miracles, but it was better to die trying. He passed a dingy looking shop with a nasty smell oozing out of the door and made his way through rows of dilapidated houses.

Light spilled out from the doorway of Garaway’s, along with boisterous voices and loud, rambunctious music. Trembling, Jeremy did his best to appear confident as he walked up to the sullen bouncer outside of the door. A massive machete hung from his waist, and he slouched against the doorframe, aware of every passerby. He pretended not to notice Jeremy until he was standing in front of the door. Before Jeremy could enter, a beefy, hairy arm like a tree branch was thrust in his path.

“Name?” he growled.

“Ronald Bauer,” he stammered, and inwardly cursed his inability to stay calm. The bouncer peered at him from beneath bushy eyebrows, and Jeremy shrank behind his hood. Finally, the bouncer grunted, and moved to allow Jeremy to pass. The air he had been holding in his lungs came out in a whoosh, and he gave the bouncer a curt nod before striding a bit more confidently into the gambler’s den.

The scene was as rowdy as it had sounded from outside. Men and women crowded around small tables, howling numbers while waving fistfuls of gambling chips. The scent of body odor and smoke hung heavy and odious in the air. Jeremy clapped a hand over his nose and edged his way around the far wall, where a grizzled old man with a salt and pepper beard sat watching the action, twirling dice between his fingers. He noticed Jeremy standing out in the crowd and watched his approach with some interest.

“Sonny, you look like a fish out o’ water. Can I help you, ‘fore you getcher self robbed?”

Jeremy paled, then bent to mutter to the old man. “I’m looking for someone to help me find the Staff of Aesculapius. Can you help me?”

The old man cackled and slapped his knee. Jeremy glanced around, hoping no one was paying attention to their exchange.

“Sonny, you’d have a better chance findin’ the very last bottle of wine than that ole’ legend. But,” he said, leaning forward and lowering his voice, “I might know a place that it’s hidden. It’s a ways’ walk, but it’ll be worth your while. Whaddya say?”

Jeremy gulped. It would be risky to trust this man, but he had very few options remaining. He thought of the knife tucked into his boot, and felt a little bit better. “Alright, old man, I’ll go with you. Will you be wanting some sort of payment?”

The old man flapped his hand. “No, no; no payment needed. Just an old man helping out a fellow wanderer. Now, let’s get going, shall we?” The old man hopped off of his stool with surprising agility, then straightened his back, joints popping.

***


The ghostly outline of boats in the dark rose up out of the gloom. The normally bustling shipyard was empty this time of night, giving it an eerie, abandoned feeling. Jeremy shuddered as they passed through the ribs of a partially built boat. It was like being inside of a whale’s skeleton. His skin was beginning to crawl, and he suddenly wished he were at home in Maria’s arms. The night was getting cold, the air stinging his nose. The old man hobbled off along in front of him, and Jeremy nearly had a hard time keeping up.

“How much further?” he called, pulling his jacket more tightly around him.

“Not too far! Keep at it sonny, ole’ grandpa here is gonna outrun ya!” The old man chuckled and put on an extra burst of speed, as if to spite him.


Jeremy grumbled to himself and picked up his pace. He scanned the piles of abandoned tools, and began seeing strange figures and shapes, causing his heart to thrum faster like a hummingbird. They finally reached the end of the line of boats, where a cabin with a single candle burning in the window sat cushioned in the inky darkness of the night. The old man stopped suddenly, and Jeremy nearly ran into him.

“We’re here!” the old man said cheerfully. He turned around and beckoned Jeremy to him. “Just through that door there, sonny.” Jeremy took three halting steps forward, then stopped.

“Aren’t you coming with me?”

The old man grinned, showing numerous missing teeth. “Be right behind ya.”

Jeremy nodded. His throat was so dry he could barely swallow, and it felt as though his heartbeat was causing his fingers to twitch. He made the long walk to the entrance of the cabin. He slowly moved his hand to the doorknob. He hesitated, then turned the doorknob centimeter by centimeter. The door swung open, revealing a dimly lit room beyond. He could just make out a workman’s bench and a small table. He heard the old man chuckle.
“Shouldn’t’ve trusted me, sonny.”

Before the horror could sink in, stars exploded across Jeremy’s vision, and he crumpled to the floor.