Jude awoke with the cold light of dawn. Slowly opening his eyes and blinking away sleep, he became aware of the chafing metal digging into his wrists. A thousand thoughts flashed through his mind, but none of them brought any clarity to his situation. Where am I? How did I come to be handcuffed on a barn floor? And above all-
Why can't I remember anything?
Sitting up and ignoring the protests from his stiff shoulders, Jude began to take stock of his situation. Cold blue light filtered in from low clouds. Silvery boards floated above him, dripping the scent of unwashed animals. A rope, frayed at the end, lounged along a cross-beam. The barn was empty, decaying, exactly the sort of place Elizabeth would want to photograph.
Had she been with him? He gasped against the pounding in his head as he struggled to stand, looking for her- for any sign of her. It was the motion of struggling to his feet that dislodged it. A small disk, made of silvery wood, weathered and aged like the barn. It tumbled from his lap, falling to the soft hay without a sound.
Jude hardly registered the disk as he slowly stumbled to his feet and began scanning his surroundings. Was there anything he knew that would help him? Thinking hard he looked for a sign, a weapon, a key... anything that would give him comfort.
There. Leaning against the wall was a tool he had seen in cabins in the mid-west. A long, rusted blade with wooden handles, 18 inches apart. A draw knife, used for skinning logs and constructing cabins. Jude stumbled towards it, his arms still behind his back. He fell hard to his knees, just now realizing the stupidity of putting faith in weapon that he couldn't even grasp. Still, realizing he had something sharp nearby lessened his nerves.
Jude closed his eyes. What now? As he listened to the blood pound through his head, a new noise joined the chorus. At first, he thought someone was screaming in the distance. He listened hard, with his eyes still clenched tightly. It came again, a soft scream following by a whistle. His eyes snapped open and he looked around wildly.
Louder this time, but not quite human.
Finally, Jude looked up to the rafters and nearly fainted in relief. A large, white owl with a heart shaped face stood above him, gripping the rope with large talons. Again, the owl called, this time bobbing its head wildly. Jude had no experience with birds. He had only scene this species, a barn owl, in books. Even so, he didn't think this was normal behavior.
More insistent this time. The owl screamed and spat, jumping as it stared at Jude. Slowly, wary not to spook it, Jude moved towards the center of the room, where he had first come to. The owl's eyes followed him, tracking him like prey as he moved towards the indentation his body had made. As he neared the spot, the owl became still more excited, until he finally looked to the floor and saw it.
What made it stand out? Nothing that Jude could place. Silvery wood in a silvery barn, a small disk lying in the dirt. Nevertheless, the behavior of the owl, whom Jude began to regard as some sort of Guide, filtered through his mind and drew his attention to it. About the size of a drink coaster, smooth and unmarked, Jude decided that it must be important.
The question now, of course: What needs to be done, and how do I do it while handcuffed?
Jude sat down slowly, sliding his hands down his thighs and into the crook of his knees as he did so. Very slowly, he threaded first one foot and then the other through the loop of his arm, leaving his hands in front of him. The handcuffs had left a ring of red and black bruises on his wrists.
Now that he could grab it, he looked towards the Guide for... something. Approval? Excitement? The face of the owl was inscrutable as he picked it up and examined it closely. Along the edge was a series of grooves carved into the wood. Jude couldn't discern a pattern, but he could feel the raised ridges with his thumb as he examined the disk.
Perplexed, Jude wandered the barn, feeling much more awake but no less confused. Here and there, leaning in corners or thrown on the ground, Jude saw tools and tack for animals. In the hay loft, he could just glimpse a few bales of hay with the ancient twine unwinding. As he rounded a stall that he supposed was for a horse, he came across the first thing that didn't seem to belong. An ornately carved table, about five feet long, held court against the wall.
A white cloth was draped across the middle, like an alter at Mass, and a collection of objects was arranged facing him. On the left was a large goblet, made of what appeared to be gold, and filled with a rich, red wine. To the right was a red leather tome, bound shut with a heavy clasp of black iron. In the center of the table was an item that appeared both out of place and out of time. A dagger, black and foreboding, and dripping in what was unmistakably blood.
An untraceable feeling of panic began to well up in Jude's throat. Something had brought him here, bound and cold, with no memories or understanding. His girlfriend was missing, or perhaps never there, and his only friend was an owl.
And here, on top of it all, was some twisted alter with a bloody knife.
Jude began to pace, forcing down his terror and thinking hard. All of this seemed like something from a novel, or a nightmare. As he walked, he noticed the Guide watching him intently. There was something calming about that presence that allowed him to think. He needed to find out who brought him here and why, and this table, as out of place as it was, must have something to do with the twisted game.
Jude wanted his weapon. The thought of the blood dripping from the dagger repulsed him... no. He would take the draw knife from the barn wall. It's weight was a heavy reassurance, the weathered wood scraping his palms as it threatened to splinter. Glancing up, he watched the owl nod reassuringly at his choice.
Weapon now firmly in hand, Jude slowly approached the altar. The hair prickled along his neck as he looked over the items. Lost in thought, he slowly began to notice the wooden disk heating in his pocket, glowing as though it would burst into flames.
Pulling the disk from his pocket, Jude hastily dropped it onto the altar. Shimmering words formed above each of the esoteric objects, as though projected in living flame from the disk.
Over the wine, the flames spelled "Path of Pleasure". Over the knife, "Path of Violence" and over the tome "Path of Knowledge".
Understanding slowly flooded his consciousness. The owl, his guide, needed him to make a choice. Whoever brought him here, whatever the purpose of it all, it culminated in this simple choice. This simple path.
Violence did not appeal to Jude. A few fights over girls and petty arguments aside, Jude had never cared about fighting or war.
Knowledge had an appeal, of course. Given the opportunity, only fools choose not to gain wisdom. But what knowledge could he gain from the otherworldly sociopath who stranded him alone in a barn?
Pleasure had an appeal, particularly in light of the pain in his wrists. But drinking from a glass left by a stranger... Wisdom spoke against it.
Perhaps there was another option? Jude had not discovered a way out of the barn, but the owl seemed oddly approving of his choice in weapon. The draw knife lounged heavily in his right hand, and perhaps it carried with it the power of choice.
His feet moving of their own accord, Jude slowly settled towards the altar.
He set the draw knife down in the center near the front edge, and set the wooden disk on top of it. He was vaguely aware of the owl screaming again, and the flapping of wings. Suddenly pain spiked through his temple as he heard an audible voice.
"The Power of Creation".
The walls of the barn folded outwards as in a high wind, and Jude became aware of the light of the risen sun, visible for the first time since he awoke in his prison.
Jude awoke in the cold light of dawn. He ruffled his feathers and looked down at the sleeping woman, handcuffed and waiting for her choice.
This time, things would be different. A different chooser, a different creator.