The runner had followed the narrow path which continued into a grove of trees. I had not really seen the trees before as the setting sun and the disappearing runner had been the center of my attention.
Now as I walked alone, I became increasingly aware of the ominous presence of the surrounding wood. The darkness engulfed me and the full impact of my solitude became a reality to my consciousness. The road was no longer visible in the blackness of this starless night. I can't really describe my thoughts, I can hardly bring myself to call them to remembrance. Yet I must convey them, for they are related to my encounter with the Prince of Darkness.
There I was, alone and miserable. Tired? No, I was actually exhausted. When the runner left, I followed. I had run and walked and run some more till I could go no farther. Then I collapsed beside the road. My back was up against a tree, only my heels remained on the road itself. Then it happened.
It was late, so very late and my body ached and longed for rest. I had to sleep yet I knew I had to continue. But I couldn't. I no longer cared about sunrise or about running. I only cared about quitting, about sleeping, about easing the pain in my tired and aching body. Still, there was that constant reminder which I held in my hand, that one ray of hope, my free ticket to the great meet. I wanted that, but I also wanted to rest. I had neither.
For in my anxiety and inner struggle I noticed the shoes which were standing beside me. I looked slowly at the ankles and legs of this dark intruder to my solitude. Ever so slowly I lifted my gaze up his tall and supple body till my eyes reached the glare of his stare. My eyes were locked into his eyes. Only in my mind did I see his nefarious smile and hear his honey dripped tongue as he spoke the words I longed to hear.
"Rest, my son, rest with me in the forest."
"I can't," I said, though I wanted to. "I can't, for I'm following the runner."
"What runner?" he replied with great confidence. "There are no runners in my forest. Do you see a runner?"
It is true that there were no runners here, unless one considered me a runner which I knew I was not. Yet I was positive the runner had passed this way. I hadn't actually seen him there, but the road went this way and he was definitely on the road. There were no other roads, no exits or side trails -- only the road and the forest. And this darkness. I was sure, yet I wasn't. For the words of the stranger came again.
"Well," he said, "Have you made up your mind? I offer you rest."
"Yes, I understand, but what of the runner?"
"Forget the runner. Come with me into the forest. The road will always be there, so leave it now and come with me."
"Come where?" I asked. "Where do we go?"
"To my castle," he said, "back in the forest. Come, and I will make you welcome."
"But, who are you?" I asked.
"The Prince," he replied. "The Prince of Darkness. This is my abode and I promise pleasure to all who follow me. Pleasure for the aches in your body, pleasure instead of your anxieties. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure."
Ah, pleasure. I longed for pleasure at that moment. I longed for sleep, for comfort. For an easier task than running. For rest.
"But where are we?" I asked. "That's the one thing I need to know."
"In the Forest of Despair and rightly so. Yet there is only despair to those who try to leave as you no doubt realize from your sorrows. But if you stay, there is only pleasure. There is rest and there is fame. Come with me and I will give you a portion of my kingdom. I will share with you my wealth. I will give you the desires of your heart. Come and the despair will leave you. Come, leave the road and follow me."
Pleasure, wealth, fame. The desires of my heart. Why, I wasn't even sure what they all were, but I knew I wanted them. Just think of it. Me, sharing a part of the kingdom of the Prince of Darkness. Why, even the darkness wasn't so bad with someone to talk to. Yes, I think I'll stay.
In fact, I started to. But as the stranger reached down to help me up, I opened my hand and he saw the ticket. He saw it and his whole being shrank away. His eyes closed and his glassy stare left me for the first time since our eyes had met.
My eyes left his face and returned to my hand. One free admittance, it said. One free admittance. I had it, it was mine and I knew I still wanted it and it was free.
When I looked up, the stranger, the Prince, was gone. Fortunately my feet were still on the road. Only my heels, mind you, but they were still grounded on the road itself. Somehow, I knew this was important, for the stranger had twice asked me to leave the road. I knew I must not listen to his words. I knew there was some importance to my keeping with the narrow way.
And so I pushed my way back onto the road with my hands. Slowly, yet purposefully until my hands finally pushed my entire body back onto the road itself. Soon I was standing again on the solid road.
It's strange, yet true. I felt instantly relieved. I was rested, safe secure. The darkness no longer bothered me. My aches and pains were gone. I was at peace with myself and once again I had found my purpose in life. To follow after my quest. To seek and find that which I had been given.
So once again I set out to follow the runner in search of my free gift which I was sure that I would find if I continued to follow the narrow way. And I was sure I saw a ray of light at the end of the road that left the Forest of Despair.