The Lost One – Part One
Kelgen stood amidst a dying forest, barren in the coming autumn, and looked up. Jethus hung by his neck from the branch of a large oak. The rope that strangled his throat had been pinned down by a stake at one end then tossed over the branch, where he was then forced from this life and into the next, crossing the Ever Door.
Kelgen sucked in a shaky breath. He tried to steady himself, to quell the nausea roiling in his belly. The world blurred, and he had to turn away. A brief respite. That’s all he needed.
Jethus’ eyes were gone.
The sickness built to a crescendo. He relieved the contents of his stomach, using the long sleeves of his white robe to dab away the bile that soaked his lips. He thanked the Three Gods that the morning brought with it a gentle, easterly wind to cool his hot face. The second sun slowly rose to sheath the land in a scarlet sheen.
Red light dawning… how fitting, he thought, forcing himself upright to study Jethus for a final time. The body desiccated, baking as it did for what he could only guess was a few weeks. Blood encrusted the eye sockets. Maggots wormed their way in and out of those pits. Silver plaited hair draped over the shoulders, which could barely hold up the robe and allowed it to shrug halfway down the length of the arms.
The front fluttered open, and the tattered fabric revealed Jethus’ chest had been split wide, cut as if with a serrated edge, and the heart removed. Any attached veins or arteries along with it.
Kelgen shuddered. It was not an image of careful, measured violence but of unbridled rage. From what he could tell, his old friend died experiencing pain that could sear the very soul. Merely imagining it almost brought Kelgen to his knees, but he once again kept his balance, fighting the knots tying his chest tight, and with tears streaming like fierce rivers down his cheeks, he muttered the Beggar’s Prayer:
May the Three bear you well
Across the Ever Door
In this, your passing, I witness you worthy
Your Road has worn its track —
He paused, his every breath trembling. Unable to finish the Prayer, he grasped the corpse of Jethus by the knees and sobbed as if his old friend’s torture had been his own.
Heat rose above the desert’s sands in rippling waves. Ilenia stood on the crest of a dune, waiting. As she had for hours. Her contact was late, not for the first time. Though she grew weary of his constant delays, she begrudgingly admired his consistency. If she arrived before the second sun began its ascent, he appeared when it reached its peak. If she showed at the height of the afternoon, then he came at night. Previously arranged times did not matter, but at least there was a pattern.
Still, patience was not something for which she was known.
Blond locks peeked out from under her turban to obstruct her eyes, and she brushed them away. She gazed across a never-ending sea of sand, dunes like ocean waves spread along the horizon. Nothing but. No sign of him yet. Her good nature was being chafed with each hour gone. And that good nature was hard to attain.
“Is it now?” whispered a gruff voice. She wheeled to face the source, hands on the pommels of the knives at her hips. A black-cloaked old man, stooped and brandishing a gnarled wooden cane, peered at her from within a shadowy hood. His eyes gleamed an icy blue. She saw only a thin outline of his smirk despite the brightness of the day.
She sighed. Her hands moved away from her weapons. “Dammit, Tarthul. For the last time, stop that.”
He cackled. “Foolish girl. Foolish. Thinks that I can stop the power within me from doing as it pleases. Foolish!”
Ilenia narrowed her eyes. The discomfort she felt every time he read her thoughts… She didn’t like being an open book, all her private musings laid bare for some stranger to snoop. And as a graver offense, she didn’t like being snuck up on.
“Then you should be mindful always of what lies behind you, no?”
I will beat you senseless, our accord be damned, she thought, hoping he could hear her. He lowered his hood. Ilenia saw spots splotched over a bald scalp and bleached eyebrows arching over deep sockets, where those blue gems still sparkled.
“How would you see her without my aid, girl?”
She sighed and clenched her jaw. She had to see, to feel Helaia again…
“I did as you asked.” From within the folds of her many articles, sweat slicking her palms, she pulled out an aged glass jar. Around the circumference of the lid was a rubber band that held in place a foil which shone bright under the second sun’s glare.
“I see that you did indeed,” muttered Tarthul, gently taking the jar. He examined its contents by looking through the dusty exterior. Almost as if he admired what lay inside. She shivered. A tingle slid over every ridge of her spine. A price worth the cost, she reminded herself. A price worth the cost.
“Our deal is not yet complete, girl.”
Ilenia raised a brow. “Their deaths for Helaia’s soul. That was our accord.”
Not pulling his gaze from the jar, Tarthul said, “All of them, girl. Down to the last.”
Ilenia fell silent.
“You have until dawn tomorrow. Happy hunting.”
Like a fog departing, the figure of Tarthul dissipated. Ilenia sighed, then navigated down the dune toward greener pastures.
Pallian sat at the bar nursing his ale. His large frame forced other patrons to take stools several seats away. This, he did not mind as he often enjoyed the isolation, but loneliness had a way of taking advantage of sorrow and grief. The quiet moments became the most dangerous.
The tavern was lit by torches burning strong in their sconces along the walls, yet shadows still lingered at the boundaries of their light. Though conversation ensued, the volume was no more than a whisper. Save for the clinking of bottles and drunken shuffling. The door to the establishment opened, letting in soft rays of moonlight before closing off to the world again. Pallian looked in that direction to find Kelgen standing there, seemingly lost.
Tears shimmered in his eyes, and red trails along his cheeks signified that he had already cried much before his arrival. Crimson stained his white tunic, though it did not appear to be his own blood.
Ah, thought Pellian, he found Jethus himself then.
Kelgen went over to where Pallian sat, and the bigger man sipped his drink before he spoke. “Are you all right?” Pallian glanced at his friend, noticed the bloodshot in the whites of his eyes clashing with green irises and the frown taking shape. “I take that as a resounding ‘no.’”
Silence between them, then the barman asked Kelgen his drink of choice.
“None today, Yarden,” came his answer, waving away the question.
“How did he die?” asked Pallian. He quaffed his mug, then set it down.
Kelgen cleared his throat. “He, um.. He had his heart ripped out. How did you know? I only just discovered him this morning.”
Pallian’s response came in the form of tapping his finger on his chest. “Felt it happen. Like a dagger.”
“Yes…” Kelgen stared at the wood finish of the bar. “I forgot your binding. I’m… I’m sorry, Pallian.”
Customers began to filter out of the tavern until Pallian and Kelgen were the only two left. The barman made it no secret that they should leave so he could close shop, dropping hints until finally he said something. “I’ve got a family that would like to see me sometime this week, fellers.”
“Apologies, Yarden.” Pallian gave him a fistful of coins for the drinks and the inconvenience then set out with Kelgen into the night.
The city of Luna En lay in quiet as many of its citizens slept. Darkness shrouded within its walls, starlight falling then fading as the dawning of a new day rose in the east. The second sun whisked the moon from its perch, and it fell beneath the horizon.
Pallian bid Kelgen farewell before he tramped home. Perspiration leaked from his bald scalp. Beefy hands wiped it off like rags in their own right before he gave into the fact that he was drunk and the sweat would not cease to flood his skin until he was lying on his bed.
“One street down, three houses over,” he muttered, trying to remind himself where he lived. Despite his height and girth, his white robe still skittered the ground in his wake. He wanted to tear it off, to burn it to ash, to forget that he was a mage. Nothing good ever came from discovering magic nor the Four Gods.
When his home came into view, a squat clay abode, he paused in his tracks. The front door hung by a single hinge. It creaked as it moved. Blue light danced on the ends of each of his fingers as he approached, caution heavy in every step.
The second sun started to peak over the walls. Its pale brethren would not be far behind. Yet his home seemed to deny the light that should have flooded its innards, instead keeping to the dark like an abyss awoken.
Pallian walked past the swinging door. As soon as he crossed the threshold, a biting cold dug into his skin. Within seconds he shivered, each exhale visible like curls of thin white smoke. Pitch black enveloped him until he could no longer see even the backs of his hands.
“A portal,” he whispered.
“You are correct, Pallian. Shrewd, yes, very shrewd, indeed.” The voice carried a soft baritone, rasped as if the throat was scraped raw.
“Care to show yourself?” asked Pallian. The tips of his fingers continued to burn blue.
“Not just yet. I can, however, tell you my name. Yes, my name. Meaningless to you. But for the purposes of this conversation, it would be easier.”
“And that name would be?”
Tarthul laughed. “Mmm, judging by your tone I’d say it is anything but.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Want? Want? Absolutely nothing, Pallian. Ah, but I have a gift for you. Yes, a gift.”
The blue fire on Pallian’s fingertips doused, and he let loose a sigh. “What is this gift, then?”
“Knowledge.” Tarthul’s voice neared. “A companion of yours betrays you.”
“And how do you know this?”
“Because I am the one who convinced her to do so. Simpler than I initially surmised. Love so often leads those it enraptures to damnation.”
“Ilenia.” He mumbled the name like a curse.
“Do with that information what you will.”
Before Pallian could utter another word, the darkness slipped away, out the windows, through the open door. A scarlet light took its place. Pallian dropped to his knees.