Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
 
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The Dark Orb

by Gary Shugar




 

The twilight was deepening. He had put off making camp, looking for a dry flat area. He finally came to such an area, but he would have to set up camp and gather firewood in the dark. Off to his right, and deeper in the woods, he spotted a faint light. Could this be the campfire of another hiker? It would be pleasant to have someone to talk to. He had seen no one on the trail for the past three days. If they would share their fire, he could heat some water to make his freeze-dried beef stew. Because the light was off the trail, he reached into his pack and got out his flashlight to pick his way through the forest.

 

As he approached the source of light, he noticed that it was square in shape and appeared to be off the ground. Closer still, he could make out that it was a lighted window in a small cabin. He thought he would knock on the door and ask permission to camp on the property and perhaps get some hot water for his meal. He would then forgo a fire and go to bed early.

 

He knocked on the door and a man opened it. With the bright light behind him, he could not see the man very well. “Good evening, sir,” he said. “It’s late and I was looking for a flat, dry place to pitch my tent for the night. I wonder if you would mind if I pitched it on your property. I won’t build a fire or anything and I’ll be gone first thing in the morning.”

 

“No,” the man replied. “It is going to get rather chilly this evening. You are welcome to stay in my cabin and sleep on the floor by the hearth if you wish.” He then stepped to the side and gestured for the hiker to enter. “Put your backpack on the floor by the hearth. I was just about to have supper. If you wish, I would be pleased if you joined me.”

 

“That’s very nice of you, but I don’t want to put you to any trouble. If I could just have some hot water, I can make my dried beef stew and join you.”

 

“It’s really no trouble,” replied the man. “I have plenty of chicken stew in the pot on the stove.  I think it’s rather good and you would enjoy it. Please join me.”

 

The stew smelled wonderful and the hiker decided to accept his offer.

 

“Have a seat at the table,” the man said pointing to a small table with a blue checked tablecloth and two place settings.

 

“Were you expecting someone,” the hiker said upon seeing the extra place setting. “I don’t want to interrupt any plans you had.”

 

“No, I was hoping you would stop by and grace me with your company. It sometimes gets very lonely out here,” replied the man.

 

With a confuse look on his face, the hiker asked, “But how could you have known that I was coming this way?”

 

“Oh, the forest has eyes.” said the man as though that answered the question. He walked over to the stove and brought a cast iron kettle to the table and set it on an old cutting board to protect the tablecloth. He removed the lid and a wonderfully aromatic steam rose from the pot. He took a ladle and filled both bowls with the thick stew. “Enjoy,” he said as he began to eat his stew. It didn’t take the hiker long to follow suit.

 

The two ate in silence. The hiker was enjoying this meal after many days of freeze-dried meals.   He was offered seconds and accepted, noting that there was plenty of food for two in the pot. As he ate, he took a good look at his host. He was a slim older man, perhaps in his seventies, but he appeared to be in very good shape. His hair was gray and he had a gray moustache. His eyes were green and his skin was tanned like he spent a good deal of time outdoors. His clothes were clean and in good repair, the typical kind you would find on an outdoorsman, jeans and a plaid shirt. The hiker also studied the cabin. It consisted of one room with a fireplace along one wall.  Along a second wall was the small black iron wood stove for cooking. He wondered why there were two sources of heat in such a small space, but was happy for the warmth they provided after many cold nights in a tent. A small single bed was along another wall covered by a white wool blanket with colored stripes, like the kind that used to be traded to the natives, with small black stripes indicating how many beaver pelts it was worth. There was a cupboard and a dresser and a variety of chests. Along one wall was a crude bookshelf filled with a variety of books.  He noted books on science, nature, history, mythology, and numerous other topics. Evidently this was a learned man who enjoyed a variety of topics. His eyes were particularly drawn to several very old dark leather-bound books. Their titles, which appeared to be in gold leaf, were barely visible along the thick spine and appeared to be in a foreign language. These books intrigued him because of his interest in historical things.

 

When the meal was finished, the man removed the bowls and asked, “Would you like a cup of tea?”

 

“Yes, that would be wonderful,” replied the hiker. The man placed two white ceramic cups with thick sides on the table. From a cupboard, he withdrew a box containing an assortment of individually wrapped tea bags and set it on the table. The hiker selected English Teatime and the man chose Earl Grey. He placed teaspoons and a sugar bowl on the table and filled the cups with hot water from a cast iron tea kettle.

 

When each had prepared their brew, the man said, “I apologize for not introducing myself earlier. My name is John.”

 

“And I am Bill.” replied the hiker. “And I want to thank you very much for that wonderful meal.  It really tasted great.”

 

“May I ask, Bill, what brings you to these woods? This trail is not frequented by backpackers.”

 

Before Bill could answer, there was a tapping sound on the window. A crow sat on the outside windowsill and was pecking with its beak. John looked up and smiled and said, “Excuse me a moment.” He walked over to the door and opened it and a moment later the crow flew into the cabin and landed on the fireplace mantle. John went to the cupboard, got a jar lid, then reached into a bag and extracted some sunflower seeds which he emptied into the lid. He placed the filled lid on the mantle next to the crow. The crow seemed to make a small bow and then began to slowly eat the seeds, while looking back and forth between Bill and John. John turned to Bill and said with a smile, “Now that he has been taken care of, we can get back to our conversation.”

 

During this whole time, Bill had been sitting in quiet fascination observing what was going on.   “I like to hike along seldom used trails and I read about this one in a hiking magazine and thought I would try it out.”

 

The crow, who had been quietly sitting on the mantle with his head slightly cocked, suddenly began to squawk and rock back and forth from one foot to the other.

 

“I don’t think my friend thinks you are telling the truth,” said John with an amused look on his face. “Excuse me; I must make a trip to the outhouse. It is a short distance behind the cabin when you need it.” With that he got up and went out the door.

 

When he had gone out, Bill went to the bookshelf to examine the old books more closely. He took one off the shelf and attempted to open it but found that it would not open, although there was nothing holding it shut that he could see. He tried the others with the same result. He then selected a book on native plants of the region and it opened easily. He was paging through this book when John returned. When John entered the cabin, the crow flew to him and landed on his shoulder. It placed its beak near John’s ear. After a few moments, John nodded slightly, went to the door, opened it, and the crow flew away into the dark night.

 

“I hear you were interested in my old books,” said John casually.

 

This remark caught Bill off guard. Before replying he quickly reviewed the events so far this evening. John obviously knew he was coming, having prepared a meal for two. John’s reply that the woods have eyes was a strange one. The crow had caught him in a lie about why he was here and had evidently told John that he had tried to open the books. This was certainly no simple woodsman. He seemed to have some sort of magical powers. Bill had kept his real reason for being there a secret because he knew that most people considered magic to be silly, superstitious nonsense. He wondered if he should tell this man his real reason for being there.

 

Before he could say anything further, John said, “I know these woods very well. You seem to be here for a reason, a quest perhaps, maybe I can be of some assistance if you would confide in me.  However, you are my guest and are welcome to keep your secret to yourself, enjoy a good night’s rest in my warm cabin, and be on your way after breakfast tomorrow.”

 

Bill detected sincerity in the tone of John’s voice and felt inclined to confide in him. John, in the meantime began to wash the supper dishes without pursuing the topic further. Bill joined him and rinsed and dried the dishes. They worked together in silence until the task was done.

 

By now Bill had made up his mind to tell his story to John. After all, if this man thought he was crazy, it wouldn’t make any difference since he would probably never see him again. Besides, John had made no attempt to hide his abilities from him. He figured he had nothing to lose and might gain some valuable information.

 

“Your bird was very perceptive,” began Bill. “I was not being entirely honest about my reason for being here. It has to do with magic, which most people consider nonsense, and I did not wish to appear a fool to you. However, things that have happened tonight make me think that you would not consider magic to be just superstition. Am I right?”

 

“You are,” said John simply. He took one of the chairs from the table to the fireplace and put two more pieces of wood on the fire as if getting prepared to hear the story. Bill brought over the other chair and began his story.

 

“There was a story that circulated in my town that my grandfather had a black orb that allowed him to see into the future. The stories were very vague and only one person, Jacob, a friend of my grandfather, claims to have seen it. He said it was black and shiny and about 4 inches in diameter. Jacob also claimed once to have seen an elf, so he was not considered the most reliable source. Having heard these stories, I asked my grandfather about it several times. He always answered with things like, ‘Bill, you can’t believe everything people say,’ or ‘Do I look like a wizard?’ This always implied that the answer was no, without actually saying so. Eventually I gave up, figuring it was not something that he wanted to talk about.

 

“When grandfather died, I helped my parents sort through his things. He always had a small cedar chest on top of his chest of drawers where he kept small things of sentimental value. On the bottom of the box, I found an old folded piece of 8 by 11 paper with a map drawn on it.  All of the writing was in runes. This fascinated me and I kept it to see if I could decipher what it said. Grandfather had been a Boy Scout and the crude map contained the familiar map symbols used by them. I got a book on runes and found that the words were easily deciphered since the words were in English. He had simply substituted the rune for the corresponding letter. The heading on the map read: Dark Orb Location. There were, however, on the back, a series of runic words that I could not decipher. Writing the letters corresponding to the runes did not yield any identifiable words. Grandfather liked puzzles and I thought this might be a transposition cipher in which one letter is substituted for another. As hard as I tried, and I put in a huge number of hours, I could not make any sense of it.

 

“I had the answer to one of my questions. I now knew that he had owned a black orb and he had hidden it somewhere. Of course, it also crossed my mind that this may have been a game or fantasy and no orb really existed. But somehow I had the feeling from his evasive answers and the local legend that this object did indeed exist. Why, I asked myself, would he have hidden this? Maybe it really did have some sort of powers. Maybe he was tired or afraid of what the orb was showing him.

 

“I really should have just let it go, but it intrigued me. It added a bit of spice to my otherwise rather dull life. I wished I knew what it said on the back because that might have been helpful. I decided I would make an adventure game out of this and search for the Dark Orb. The path on the map started by a symbol for a church, a small square with a cross on top. It said head north on the trail. It also said it was a 3 day journey. Along the trail were streams, swamps and other branches of the trail. This way one would know that if you went past a swamp and crossed a stream, when the path divided you should take the branch to the right. Two tepees apparently marked the places where he camped for the night. I figured that it was only a half day’s journey from the second campsite to the pond indicated as the final location. He probably camped at the same spot the following night on his return trip. There were two big problems. First, where was this trail? The map gave no name to the trail or the church or even its general location. It could be anywhere, and my grandfather had traveled a lot and hiked many trails. I asked my father if he knew of any 5 day overnight backpacking trips grandfather had taken. He only said that grandfather used to do a lot of hiking in the northern part of the state, but he believed he had hiked many trails there and may have gone other places.

 

“The second problem was if I got to the pond how could I possibly find a hidden 4 inch ball.  Perhaps the words on the back were directions. All there was on the map was an X on the west side of the pond.  

 

“I decided to try to find the location of this pond, even If I could not find the orb. Who knows, maybe if I got there something would catch my eye, but I sincerely doubted it. I began researching trails in the northern part of the state that are long enough for a 2 day hike and looked to see if there was a church somewhere near the trailhead. I found a number of possibilities. Since I don’t often have time off from work for a week, I had to use vacation time to do this. That didn’t bother me because I often went backpacking on vacation and this made it seem like an adventure. My first few tries were unfruitful. After a day, it was usually evident that I was not passing the landmarks on the map. This time I think I have found the right trail. The landmarks are all there, and if I am right, there will be a pond after a half day hike tomorrow. If so, I intend to spend several days there looking around, but not really expecting to find much.”  With that he ended his story and looked questioningly at John.

 

John gave a little smile and said, “Well I can tell you one thing. There is a pond about a half day’s hike from here. It is a small one off to the right of the trail. It is about 100 yards in diameter with some marshy areas around it and lots of mosquitoes.”

 

A big grin came across Bills face. “I knew I was on the right trail this time.”

 

“I wonder if I could see this map of yours.” said John. “I am interested in the writing on the back. I know a bit about old Norse languages.”

 

Bill hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he wanted anyone else to see his map. What if John could read the words and would wait until he left, then go and get the orb for himself? On the other hand he knew he had zero chance, without this knowledge, of finding an orb buried long ago. He decided he had nothing to lose. He reached into his shirt pocket, extracted the map, and handed it to John.

 

John looked at the words and said, “Very interesting. Do you mind if I study this?”

 

Bill shook his head no. He felt his eyelids getting heavy. A long day of hiking, a big meal and a warm cabin were conspiring to make him sleepy. “I think maybe I’ll get some rest if that is OK with you. I want to get an early start tomorrow.”

 

John looked up from the paper and nodded.

 

As Bill unrolled his sleeping pad and sleeping bag by the hearth, he watched John go to the bookshelf and remove several of the old books and open them effortlessly. He then began paging through them apparently looking for something.

 

Bill lay down and was almost instantly asleep. He awoke sometime later and found John still awake sitting at the table with several of the books open reading by the light of the kerosene lamp. He drifted off to sleep again. The next time he awoke, John had a small cauldron on the table in which something was burning and giving off a thin stream of smoke. John had a knife with a bone handle and was passing the blade through the smoke. He then stroked the blade along the length of what appeared to be a chicken bone. He only stroked in one direction. After 2 or 3 strokes, he passed the knife blade through the smoke and repeated the same procedure. How long he did this, Bill didn’t know for he had fallen fast asleep.

 

The next thing he knew, John was calling his name. He awoke to the smell of frying bacon. It was still dark outside. John’s bed was unruffled. It appeared he had been awake all night working.

 

“Good morning, Bill,” he said. “Did you have a good sleep?”

 

“Yes, thank you.”

 

“It’s still dark outside but the sun will soon be rising and I have some things to discuss with you before you leave.”

 

Bill walked over to the table and took a seat. John brought two plates of bacon and eggs. The books were back in their place on the shelf and the only things on the table were Bill’s map, another paper with writing on it, and the chicken bone with a string tied to the middle. 

 

“I was up all night doing some research and some preparations. First, I managed to translate the back of the note. It was in a rather obscure Norse dialect, not in English. If your grandfather wrote this, he must have been quite a scholar of the languages. It looked like something I had encountered long ago in my studies. I didn’t remember much about it but with the aid of my old notes and a few hours of hard work, I was able to make the translation. Here is the English version of what it says on the back of your map: From the large Linden tree on the west side of the pond walk twenty paces due northwest. There is a circle of irregular large rocks. Dig in the center about 3 feet deep.

 

“Much may have changed since he buried it. The tree may not still be there, or the rocks may have been covered over. If you are intent upon seeing the orb, I have prepared a ‘finding bone.’  It is only effective over maybe 100 yards. Hold the bone suspended by the string and concentrate on what you wish to find. The bone will swing to point the right direction with the end that has a small dot of red paint I put on it. When you are directly over the spot, it will point downward.  

 

“After finishing these two tasks, I turned to my old books and found something that makes me wish I had not accomplished them. One of the books mentioned three dark orbs that could be used for seeing into the future. They were last heard of in the Palatinate in Germany and were then lost.”

 

“My grandfather was in the Army and was stationed in Germany as a young man,” exclaimed Bill.

 

“The book goes on to say that the orbs are very dangerous. One who knows the future often is looked upon with suspicion. Others also covet the orbs. Several owners have been killed because of them and one apparently saw his own future and took his own life to avoid it. The book says that some authorities think the orbs are evil and actually cause bad things to happen to the owners. The orb requires no magic to activate. One must only concentrate on it with a blank mind. I think your grandfather was a wise man. He probably realized the trouble the orb was causing and hid it away so he would not be tempted to use it. He made a map just in case he would ever be in dire need of it. That apparently did not happen. I can’t tell you what to do, but if I were you, I would head home this morning, or finish the quest, find where it is buried and leave it there.

 

“If you are certain you want to see the orb, I recommend you do so while keeping you mind busy with other thoughts then return it to the ground and destroy the map.

 

“Please stop by my cabin on your return to bring back the ‘finding bone’ and to tell me what you found and be my guest again for the night.”

 

It was now getting light and Bill packed, thanked John for everything, and headed directly away from the cabin to the trail. When he arrived at the trail, he placed 3 stones on the path to remind him where to leave the trail to get to the cabin. The cabin was difficult to see from the trail and he didn’t want to miss it. He then turned right and headed toward the pond. The information John had provided was troubling. He would at least see if he could find the place where the orb was buried.

 

After several hours of walking, he spotted a small pond to the right of the trail. He walked to the west side of the pond, grateful he had put on insect repellant this morning. The mosquitoes were very bad, as he had been told. He found no remarkably large tree on the west shore, so he got the “finding bone” out of his pocket. He held it by the end of the string and concentrated on a black ball. The bone swung and pointed in a certain direction. He followed the bone, repeating this procedure several times. He thought he saw indistinct circles of stones several times, but the bone told him to keep going. Finally, he stood over another indistinct ring and the bone pointed downward. He had found the orb. Having invested this much time in this quest, he could not leave without at least taking a look at it. He got his shovel out of his pack and began to dig.  After a while, he hit some wood, the rotting remains of a box perhaps. After another inch of digging and he hit something hard and black. He carefully uncovered the dirty black ball. He took it to the pond and cleaned it. The surface was unblemished, perfectly black, perfectly smooth and so shiny it reflected his face and the surrounding forest. It was beautiful. He felt a great desire to own such a beautiful thing. John’s warnings were screaming in his mind, but he just needed to own this orb. He wrapped the four inch dark orb in a cloth from his backpack, found a secure and centered place for its weight and headed back to the trail. On the way back to the trail his elation made him careless and he tripped over a rock and fell on his right side. He heard a hissing sound and caught the smell of pepper. He quickly took off his pack and moved away. His can of bear pepper spray had a small hole and was leaking slowly. The top had also been broken and it could no longer be used. Using a long stick, he separated it from the strap on his pack and hit it away from the pack. He then retrieved his pack, and vowing to be more careful, made his way back to the trail. He headed toward home.

 

On the way back, he decided not to stop at the cabin. He was troubled by an uneasy feeling that John was using him to get the orb. His logical mind told him that if John wanted the orb he would not have given him the translation of the direction or the ‘finding bone’. He would have simply waited until he wandered around looking for the burial site and gave up and went home.  John could then use the directions and the ‘finding bone’ to get the orb himself. Despite this there was something telling him not to stop.

 

The sun was almost setting when Bill reached the three stones on the trail. He hesitated for a moment, and then continued on. He walked about a mile then set up his tent in the dark. He did not start a fire but climbed into the tent to get a good night’s rest. With the orb in the pack beside him, he had the feeling that he had accomplished his quest, and yet he felt anxious. Could the orb really be evil? Was it responsible for his fall and the loss of his bear spray? Was it the reason he avoided John’s cabin? Despite his troubled mind, he fell asleep.

 

When he awoke it was light. The sun had just risen and it was time for him to be on his way. He packed up his gear, but before he left, he felt a strange urge to look at the dark orb again. He removed the orb from his pack and unwrapped it. It was really beautiful, and he sat there just staring at it reflecting his face, thinking of nothing, just absorbing its beauty.

 

With a start, he noted a change in the reflection of his face on the orb. His eyes were wide and his face filled with terror. He then saw himself running down the trail being pursued by a giant grizzly bear that was angry, with teeth bared and drool coming from its mouth. The bear appeared to be getting closer to him, as they ran and it looked as though it would soon catch him.  And then the images were gone and he saw just the reflection of his own face. He tried to slow his breathing and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Had he really seen what he thought he saw, or was it just his imagination? Did the loss of his bear spray cause him to have a hallucination?  Was the orb responsible for the loss of the bear spray and was now showing him his future?  Would he survive the bear attack? It looked like the bear was going to catch him.

 

He quickly put the orb in his pack and hurried, almost ran down the trail. He heard a sound behind him on the trail. He turned and saw a bear coming out of the woods onto the trail. The bear stopped on the trail and turned toward him. It growled and bared his teeth and then began running toward him. It was the bear he had seen in the orb. Bill quickly took off his pack and began running as fast as he could. The bear kept coming and growling. He looked back and the bear was gaining on him. He forced himself to run faster. He heard screaming and realized it was him. He no longer thought; he only ran and ran and screamed and screamed. After an eternity, he saw the end of the trail and the church. The bear followed. He leaped over the stone wall of the church yard, but didn’t leap high enough.  He smashed down on his side and looked back. The bear had cleared the wall and was coming down on him. His mouth was open, huge fangs showing, headed toward his neck.

 

*                    *                    *

 

The same morning as he was cleaning up from breakfast, John heard the familiar tapping on his window. John opened the door and the crow flew to him, landing on his shoulder. John’s friend told him he had seen Bill packing up his tent about a mile down the trail. After he packed, he got out of the pack a black ball and stared at it for a while. He quickly put the ball in his pack and hurried down the trail. A small brown bear came out of the woods behind him. Bill turned, looked at the bear, dropped his pack and ran off screaming. The bear was startled and disappeared back into the woods. But Bill kept running and screaming and looking over his shoulder as though something were chasing him, but there was nothing there. The crow followed Bill for a few miles, and the behavior continued. He then flew to the cabin.

 

John got a shovel and hurried down the path. He found Bill’s abandoned backpack and opened it and took out a round object wrapped in a cloth. He also found the “finding bone.” He carried the wrapped orb for some distance from the path, put it down and began digging a deep hole. He was about to drop it in when he had an overwhelming urge to see it. Despite the feeling that this was magic that he should not get involved with, he uncovered the orb. It was beautiful, black, and lustrous. What a wondrous thing to own. “No, I don’t want to own you,” he said aloud to the dark orb. He quickly wrapped it up, threw it into the hole and filled the hole with dirt. As he returned to the cabin, he had to resist the urge to return and dig up the dark orb.

 

*                    *                    *

 

It was a year since “the incident” as he called it. Bill had returned to his senses after about a month on the psychiatric ward. The story he got from the psychiatrist and confirmed by his father was that he had gone for a week of backpacking on a trail that started by a church. Five days later he was found by the church janitor huddled against the stone wall of the church yard sitting, rocking back and forth, and not responding. The janitor had called an ambulance and he was taken to the hospital and admitted to the psychiatric ward. He was exhausted and dehydrated, but only had minor injuries consistent with a fall off the church yard wall. He remembers nothing at all about the trip. The only clue is that he has developed arkoudaphobia, a fear of bears. Perhaps there was an incident involving a bear. Some backpackers had found his backpack on the trail about two days hike from the church. It was fully packed and had a tag with his name, address, and phone number. They brought it out and gave it to his father. Interestingly, there was no bear spray. He always carried bear spray when he hiked in that part of the state. Perhaps he had had to use it on a bear, who knows. He now lives and works in the city. He has no desire to go to the woods. Even the city park makes him nervous, and he will walk many blocks out of his way to avoid even seeing it. Black shiny minerals, like onyx, obsidian or even coal make him nervous. The psychiatrist says the events of those five days have not been lost but are buried somewhere in his psyche. Perhaps psychotherapy could bring them back, but given the amount of trauma they caused, perhaps they are best left buried.


THE END


2022 Gary Shugar

Bio: Gary Shugar is not new to published writing, but this is his first piece of this genre.


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