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For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23 KJV
The next day found them at the home of the Gatherer. It was an older structure made entirely of wood painted white. It looked like, and perhaps was, a farmhouse that the encroaching town had overrun and surrounded with newer homes. Still, it was well kept.
"Good," Leif noticed. "A car is here."
Leif rang the doorbell. A man who could have been seventy answered the door after a rather long time. He looked at each of them intently as Leif explained why they had come. They knew that though they were in Back, here was someone who had completed his own journey and had a deep relationship with the Source. His Sensing was keen.
"Agents, huh? I sensed it the moment I opened the door. And I know why you came. I’ll help you because I sense this is from the Source, but I believe there is more to this than just rescuing a friend."
He said this last part with a piercing look at Leif and Isabella, who had no idea what he meant.
"Come in. You will need all the help you can get if you venture into the Land of Death."
He led them into a room whose walls were lined with bookcases filled with books, parchments and loose papers of handwritten notes.
"I ought to better organize this," he muttered, motioning them to sit. "Do you want anything to drink? No? Okay, where to start."
He paused a moment to gather his thoughts.
"The Land of Death lies south of Back, where you are now, and totally under control of the Pulsing. They don’t let anyone in with their personal car. You can take public transportation part of the way, but you must walk the last part. No one will drive you close, and you don't want to leave your car abandoned.
“The closer you get the greater the sense of dread. I sensed you three had enough of the Source in you to make the trip, or I wouldn't be talking to you now. But as bad as fear and dread are, the worst feeling you will fight is hopelessness. Total, utter hopelessness, for that is the real meaning of Death. Your friend will need to be given hope or he may not come with you. ”
"But how do we give him hope?" Kamiko asked.
"Just being around you again may be enough,” the Gatherer replied. “Or you may have to flow healing face-to-face, but that would be worst case because the enemy would instantly be alerted to your presence.
“A person without hope is continually bombarded with negative feelings and false truths. They have no peace or rest from the torment in their mind. Your friend could be in bad shape. Unfortunately..."
Oh, great, here it comes, thought Leif.
"The Land of Death has gangs of evil people," the Gatherer continued. "They are completely under the control of the Pulsing and they kill anyone they sense who gains any hope."
"So the moment Devan has hope they will know?" Isabella asked.
"Even before that. They will sense anytime you flow truth or healing to him. That is why you must not flow anything or entertain the Beat unless absolutely necessary. And you must not look happy. Don't look anyone in the eye. Keep your eyes looking down. Look totally without hope. Do nothing to draw attention to yourselves. Have a cover story if anyone questions you. These gangs roam around looking for anything or anyone that has life. They have what are called Sensitives, people who can sense the flow, or Beat, or hope. They won’t hesitate to kill you."
The Gatherer paused. They could only sit in silence as they tried to take in what he had said. Isabella didn’t look happy. She had serious doubts about her and Leif's ability to work together as a team as they had on their first journey. And without teamwork, their mission could fail. Which might not be so bad if the consequences were anything other than dying. No, she was definitely not happy.
"I need to tell you more. Do you wonder how your friend is surviving down there? It isn't pretty. It’s the Pleasure Palaces. They cater to a person's lowest appetites. They don't advertise it that way, of course. They present it as a fantasy get-away. But what that means is the ‘guests’ are given total control over another human being to do with as they please, short of killing or serious injury. This often, but not always, involves sex, and degrading sex at that, or whatever else people can think of. The appeal at its core is the control. From stories I’ve collected, you can’t imagine the depths people sink to at these Palaces, women as much as men.
"The travel and lodging costs are ridiculously low. Huge air buses arrive from Back every day, carrying all walks of life: men and women, CEO's and lowly workers.”
"But why would they want to go to such a place?" Kamiko asked.
"Two reasons I have come up with. First, we are born attracted to Death and the things that bring Death. I can’t explain it, but it seems to be a fact. And second, we are born with no meaning to life, apart from the Source, that is. We are born searching, and Death and the Pulsing offer something. All are drawn. It’s a sad situation.”
The Gatherer paused, his shoulders slumped.
"You mean everyone in Back?" Kamiko exclaimed.
"Yes, all are drawn and all go eventually. And more than once. They don’t tell anyone. That's their journey, I guess. How ironic."
"But I never went," exclaimed Isabella.
"Neither did we," Leif and Kamiko added.
"You would have had you not yielded to the Pull. That's how deceptive the Pulsing is. No one can stop being deceived without the Source’s truth."
The three friends sat silent, sobered at this thought.
“Your friend, hopefully, is a support staff," the Gatherer continued. "Kitchen staff, maintenance, that sort of thing. He will likely live in employee quarters. He may be addicted to drugs by now. Pray he isn’t involved in the sexual part of the business, or worse, in the part no one talks about: torture. I haven't been able to find out what that number is."
"What?" Isabella gasped.
"Some people like to inflict pain. I told you it wasn't pretty."
Again the three sat in stunned silence.
"Where and what form will the Pulsing and Death take?" Leif asked.
"Both are dark mists," the Gatherer replied. "Or fogs that can take the shape of a man. They will often be together. The Pulsing acts important but make no mistake, Death is the power behind the Pulsing. As long as people listened only to the Source, the Pulsing was powerless. But when they forsook the Source and followed the Pulsing, Death arose. And when people feared dying, Death became strong. This allowed the Pulsing to be strong.
“You never know where they will be. They roam throughout the Land of Death, their chief domain. They feed on those who have lost hope."
"So all we need to do is look in and around the Palaces for Devan while trying to avoid the goon squads, the Pulsing and Death?" Leif dead-panned. "I didn't know it was going to be this easy."
No one laughed.
"Yes," the Gatherer continued, "it’s a horrible place, always dark. The sun is blocked out. Did I mention that? Only one thing is worse than those trapped in the Land of Death."
"What's that?" Isabella asked.
"Those in Back who think they are okay. They have no hope and don't know it. At least the ones in the Land of Death know they don't have any hope."
Leif was thinking of what the Gatherer said about Death.
"Death appeared when people turned from the Source?"
"Yes," the Gatherer answered.
"So we are to blame?"
"Death was never the intent of the Source."
There was nothing else to say. After they left the Gatherer, Kamiko remarked, "He wouldn’t look out of place in a cave on a mountain top."
Leif had to admit she was right.
On the ride back, each was thinking of what they might be going into. It was not a comfortable feeling.