The wandering monk.
It had been a dismal year when he forgot about time, not long after he learned about the sanctity of death. About how life was harsh and cruel, and death was pure and peaceful. It was life that hurt, life that put you on the wrong path and only death could set you back.
He had also learned about the temporality of death, how nothing was truly lost. Dur, god of death, was humanity’s only friend. And taking lives, taking precious lives, was the one truth.
And as for his current path, it had been ordained by Dur long before he’d been born. Everything that had happened, everything he had lived through was only meant to bring him to that senseless state of mind, to make him forget about thirst and hunger and simply trudge up and down what seemed a thousand mountains with no clear end in mind. Everything had happened so he could come to this moment. The man was certain of it. Everything. The war. Death. Losing his mind. All for this. For the never-ending expanse of snow and the ache in his legs and the pain in his heart and the fog in his mind.
Yes, Dur was mercy. Death was life, however strange that might sound. He’d learned that; he’d stumbled into that truth when he wanted only to die. And now… Now… what was happening now? He was going up and down mountains for what? To kill? To die? To find?
For a moment, the man regained his sanity. He fell to his knees on the fresh snow, hearing the cold click of the dagger he hid in his sleeve. He screamed, and with that he remembered he was alive. Memories overwhelmed him. He remembered he was old. He recalled the years and years and years since he’d been called out to war. Decades now.
He laughed pitifully at himself. Decades, that was right, decades. And he was still searching, like the madman he was. He buried his face in his gloved hands. Decades. Whole decades he had lost in the search for something he had probably lost long before. Long before he had learned about the sanctity of death. Long before he’d found Dur. But Dur… Dur…. There had to be a reason for it all.
And with that, he was gone again. He forgot about time and forgot he was old. He needed only to find. Once more, that was the only thing in his mind. The man rose to his feet, eyes brimming with happiness because he knew he was almost there. He could feel it. Yes, Dur was with him once more.
And so the hours left him behind. They flew by two at a time and before long he was at the bottom of yet another mountain, legs ready to collapse. But by Dur, he needed only to look ahead and there it was. Roughly-built of stone and wood, with the trail of smoke coming from the chimney that signified life. The man smiled and laughed with joy.
“Where am I?” he whispered as he walked inside. He could hear voices. “Hello?” he prompted, unraveling his scarf.
“Dur take me,” said a young woman as she appeared at the end of the corridor. “Who are you, now? You’re half dead, here, come, I’ll give you something warm to drink.”
The man stared at her as in a haze. “I was led here,” he confessed. “By Dur himself.”
She gave an unwilling shiver.
“I was led here,” he repeated.
“You’re a monk,” she said, looking down at his clothes.
“Keh,” he scoffed. “A priest,” he muttered, stepping past her.
She nodded. “Bless this house, then,” she said harshly.
“This place is blessed,” he chanted slowly in Iqnie, the language of the faith. “This place, what is this place?” The voices grew louder.
“Nothing blessed. An orphan house.”
That brought the man back, or at least halfway back. “Orphans?” He turned around. He nearly collapsed from joy. Dur had led him towards them at last. “I am looking for three of them. I’ve been looking for three of them,” he breathed out. “Could they be here?” he said to himself.
“Could be,” said the young woman, inching closer. “What are their names?”
“Two girls and a boy. Mila, Hemon, Dalia…”
She shook her head. “I don’t think we’ve got any that answer to those names.”
“They’re my children,” the man continued in a haze, voice trembling. “I lost them in the war.”
“Oh,” she lowered her tone of voice. “I am sorry.”
“The oldest is the boy – he’s eleven. And the girls. The girls are nine and eight.”
“They’ve got light brown hair,” he continued. “Dalia has blue eyes, Hemon and Mila brown. I lost them in the war. They were in Owendale when it was burnt to the ground. I lost them when I came back from the war.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” she repeated for the thousandth time in her life. “I am, I really… Wait. Owendale? But that…”
“Hm?” he asked, slightly shaken from his monologue by her confusion. “What?”
“Owendale was destroyed more than twenty years ago.” She grew scared.
“No, it was…” And once again, he remembered about time. Decades. Yes, decades. He held to the wall for support. Twenty years. “Not eleven, then. Hemon should be… he should be thirty… thirty-four, thirty…”
“Sir?” she said, holding him so he wouldn’t fall.
But he did fall anyway. And the young woman, along with the others that looked over the orphan house, had to drag him to a couch and bring him back to his senses. His ashen face, thin with age and worry, looked peaceful under the soft light of the burning heath, or at least so it seemed to the twenty-odd children that stared at him as he came to.
“What is this place?” was the first thing he said when he woke. But he didn’t wait for an answer before climbing to his feet. He felt ashamed, shaken as he always was after losing his mind. “Oh, forgive me,” he said to the staring faces. “Allow me to bless this house properly as a repayment for your aid.”
He chanted under his breath as he went about the place, scanning every corner, every face of the children that followed him like a shadow. He hated himself for it, but he still clung to the last bit of hope. Dur had brought him here, after all.
But there was no Mila, no Hemon, no Dalia, just a score of orphans, some of who were pleading that the man take them home with him. In the end, it was the one that did not speak at all that caught his eye, the one that was lying against the wall like a broken thing, that one that almost dead from neglect. That poor boy of maybe four or five, with strange scars running down his face, scars that made the onlooker afraid, and certainly kept the other kids, and maybe even the caretakers, away.
The man picked up the broken boy, and made for the door. “He’s the one I was looking for,” he told the men and women in charge. “The one Dur led me to.”
And they let him go. There was barely enough to feed everybody, after all. They watched the man and boy disappear into the mist of snow, feeling nothing but cold. And as for the man, he didn’t have to carry the boy the whole way back. As soon as they had put enough distance, he suddenly recovered his strength. On they went, the man gave the boy a name, took him far to the west, to the strange place he called home, a place that was also atop a mountain. There, with the other priests of Dur, he taught the boy how to read and write, how to count and add, the names of the stars, the tales of the gods, the unfairness of life, the sanctity of death, but, most of all, the meaninglessness of time.
Biography of a Terrible Man
A Tainted Life.
we were born in darkness. We were born at the beginning. The harsh earth bore holes into our feet and the sun pierced our skin. We knew little of kindness and much of cruelty. We are cold and harsh and how could we not, when we are no more than instinct? Raw instinct telling us against all reason to strive to survive for at least one more day. One day.
Moonlight shone heavily on the blood-soaked dagger, sharpening the contrast between the rich crimson and the cold silver of the blade. The glint caught the stranger’s eye before the scent of corpse reached his nostrils. All about him, the forest shivered with unnatural fear. Trees were soon becoming bare, growing undone before the fast winds of autumn. Leaves crunched under the man’s boots and the sound of breathing seemed to hang in the air, though there was nobody there. No one but the strange man, the mercenary traveling with him, and the corpse before them.
The stranger stared at it, jaw clenched tight. The very soil around it had grown red like fire. It made the woodlands seem dead too, ready for winter as they were. It made the world seem dead. Everything was being claimed by the grave, even hope, the substance of men.
Kildar, called Greyskin, kneeled before the body, scarcely wondering who had claimed its life. In those turbulent times, discarded bodies in darkened forests were no objects of curiosity. With war, food growing scarce, and justice lax… every boy knew the exact spot on a man’s head to strike with a shovel.
Greyskin took the dagger in his scarred hand, peeling away the coagulated blood with his fingernails. He stabbed his thumb, allowing blood to drip down the side of his hand as he wondered how so terrible a thing could be so mind-numbingly beautiful. The elements of the earth, he thought, fire, water, earth, and wind, all run within men’s veins and call themselves blood.
He cleaned the dagger with the corpse’s clothes, searching for a sheath, all the time lying to himself, whispering that he did not want it, that it was prudency that said he must keep it in such times. It was not his fault. Nothing was his fault. It was the times he had been born in. It was the dreadful land. It was them.
“Poor wretch,” said Iuthan, the old mercenary traveling with Kildar, kneeling next to the corpse. He searched the body over, looking for anything of value. “Nothing,” he muttered. The murderer must have looted his victim.
There was no sheath, so Greyskin wrapped the dagger, rusty and splintered as it was, in a piece of cloth he ripped from the corpse’s shirt, and stuffed it into his belt.
Nothing for it, Kildar thought, standing up. Time for distance, lest they be blamed for the crime. “Farewell, Man of the Forest,” he mocked the stiff as the two travelers went away in a crunching of leaves.
The commotion would've woken him up, had he not been sitting in the uncomfortable undersized chair since the morning star had appeared in the hazy sky. Long hours he'd spent sharpening his pathetic new blade, dreaming of blood and a dark god. In the cold night, with a tiny window revealing the absolute dark, thoughts unbidden had plagued him. He had once thought leaving had been the hard part, but the real hardship lied in forgetting.
Was a wolf still a wolf if it forsook its nature? If it forgot how to use its teeth? There was no moon to howl to, only hideous grey clouds.
The commotion persisted as Greyskin rose, covered in his long overcoat. The fire in his room had died while he slept and he lacked the will to light it once again. He wondered when he had become so listless.
He opened the door to a world of noise and smells. The common room was packed with people, and a good amount of them were squabbling. Harsh words rung through the atmosphere, high above the blazing fire. Kildar wondered what time it was.
He flitted his gaze toward the tiny window, but if day had indeed come it was a day as dark as early night. The sun tarried beyond the horizon in dusking autumn, dawn coming sluggishly and late, and nearly as soon as the yellow star soared in the east it hastened to dip under the western horizon. For Greyskin it made no great difference. Night was his realm. But he knew even night would betray him come winter.
"What's all this about?" Kildar asked Iuthan as he sat next to him, a cup in hand. He helped himself to a bit of wine as he spoke, eyes fixed on the blazing fire before him and the shouting men.
"Morning, Kildar. This here is Skagard," he pointed to the beardy man at his left. "He's a merchant from the east."
Skagard nodded awkwardly. "Kildar? Never heard such a name before."
"I made it up," came the lie. "Can't remember what my parents actually called me," came the truth.
"Oh," mouthed Skagard. "I'm sorry." He cleared his throat.
"Excuse him," offered Iuthan in a mocking tone. "He has a habit of making people uncomfortable."
Kildar chuckled and scoffed.
"Sounds like a word of Iqnie," continued the beardy man. "Your name. Language of the priests, you know."
And so it was, but Greyskin kept silent. "Does it now?"
"You a mercenary from Sliver Isle, too?"
"He was," interjected Iuthan. "He just quit."
"Oh? Why's that?"
Kildar pursed his lips. Strangers could be so meddling. "I'm going back home," he said, surprised at how words could be lies and truths at the same time.
"Me too," said Iuthan, who was always amiable and jovial. "Just for the winter, mind you. Made a mind to travel together, seeing how dangerous the roads are and all."
"You also come from Messana?" asked Skagard.
"No," was all Kildar answered as he helped himself to Iuthan's water. "What is all the commotion about, then?" He repeated his previous inquiry.
Iuthan shook his head. "Those ones there," the mercenary pointed left, "are Lord Letanus's men."
"Letanus?" asked Greyskin in his breathy voice.
The beardy man made a strange "meh" sound. "A minor sort of lord, by my reckoning," he whispered. Kildar wondered why people were so willing to reveal their convictions to strangers. "Holds the lands over between Mt. Frëidar and the frozen valley."
"Good mines," offered Greyskin, his brown eyes catching the flames. "And those they fight with?"
Skagard pointed right. "Lord Mürim's men."
"Ah, now that's a name I know."
The stranger half-chuckled, half-scoffed in agreement. "Lord War, some call him."
Iuthan shook his head in disdain.
"What are his men doing so far west, I wonder," Kildar thought aloud as he took in the men's faces, all of them pale of skin and dark of hair. They reminded him of the Once-Prince and, with a fell sensation, he realized he missed the wretch.
"Wasting the land, if you ask me," confided the beardy man, stroking his beard.
"Indeed," agreed Iuthan. "The whole North's gone to shit."
"Seeing these rascals," continued Skagard. "I wonder sometimes if the histories lie to us."
"Some breakfast?" asked the innkeeper's daughter as she approached.
"Willingly," answered Greyskin.
"No wonder our neighbors pay us no heed," continued the beardy man. "The cursed Theas'i have long planned to conquer us and Ashkrom would need only a fraction of its strength to burn us all. Petty kingdoms... and we used to the real strength, the real fire."
Iuthan nodded enthusiastically. "How I wish I had been born a hundred and some years ago."
"Yes, and had seen the Kingdom of Itinïa as it once was."
"They call us the Warring States of the North down south, did you know? Not even kingdom anymore."
"Well," Kildar joined the conversation. "Seeing how we have no king..."
"And good riddance, too!" said Skagard.
Kildar laughed. "You don't want to mock the royal family in front of Iuthan. Monarchist through and through."
Skagard scoffed. "What's left of the royal family, you mean."
"You'd rather have Lord War on the throne?" Iuthan rasped out.
"I don't agree with Lord Mürim," said Skagard. "But I'd rather have him on the throne than restore the old order. Who says we need a king, anyway?"
Kildar shook his head softly. He could feel Iuthan tensing up beside him.
"The realm was far better when we had a king," said the mercenary.
"How would you know? It's not as if any of us was alive back then," spit out the beardy man. Greyskin was simply content he did not have a mind to get worked up over politics he could never hope to affect.
"The throne belongs to the royal family by divine right!"
"Divine right! The gods have long since forsaken us."
Now it was Kildar's turn to tense up. "That's blasphemy," he said.
"It is," agreed Iuthan.
"If that's where you stand, why don't you go fight in the bloody war?" asked the bearded man.
"I don't believe in war," replied the mercenary.
"Don't believe in war," repeated Skagard, scoffing.
"I do not fight because there's no one worth fighting for," added Iuthan.
"Not even your precious royals?" condescended the bearded man.
"They are just pawns used by the so-called 'monarchists', I'll admit that much," the mercenary said, lowering the tone of his voice. "If I had a clear view of the war, I'd fight. I don't, so I stay in the sidelines with all those who will not commit themselves to senseless slaughter."
Skagard's breath stuck in his throat.
Kildar laughed. "I know," he said to the beardy man. "Iuthan knows how to end a discussion, doesn't he? It's dreadfully annoying. Makes it seem like he's always the winner."
The tension was eased, and Skagard offered a chuckle. "Should be a politician," he joked.
Around the fire, the quarrel had escalated, and the innkeeper was threatening to throw them all out if they did not clam their mouths. Despite the young hour, some of them were clearly in their cups. Greyskin pushed his wine away in disgust.
Next to him, the bearded stranger and Iuthan had resumed their conversation, though now in a friendly tone. They had managed to return to the subject of their once powerful land, talking about the Kingdom of Itinïa rising from the ashes and springing to life, one way or another. They both believed a strong ruler would unite them all and re-conquer their lost lands back from Ashkrom and Theas. Even expand east beyond Xho.
But Kildar paid no attention to their rambling words. He thought of his past and how distant it was, and yet he could not outrun it. Somehow, he was still what they had taught him to be. His nature had been carved in stone and with each passing day he grew afraid that men could not change. The thought made his heart clench.
Greyskin stared at the men before him, now scattering as their squabble was forced to an end. He saw them as they each sat down, one band far from the other, muttering angrily under their breaths.
Without their shouts, the room seemed eerily quiet. Iuthan spoke rapidly beside him, and his words were like the soft crackling of fire. The long room was warm with timber rafters and mulled wine, but within Kildar's chest, his heart pumped ice.
A minstrel murdered the sudden silence with a small wooden flute and a melody both joyful and sad. It made Greyskin think of simpler times, when everything had been decided for him. He thought of his future and made up his mind for the thousandth time. Reluctance still tugged at him. He had, after all, vowed never to return, and he knew going back meant a great risk to his life. But... If he ached for any semblance of life, which he did with every fiber of his being, he had to forget the past. Forget completely. And that's why he needed to go back to that unhallowed, unutterable place. Back home.
The flute played on, an innocent song crudely strung. "Day's growing old," Kildar stood up.
Iuthan was soon on his feet. "So you're set on leaving? There's always room for you on Sliver Isle, you know."
Greyskin shook his head. "I'll remember that."
"I won't deny you're a somewhat strange fellow, but I will miss you. Quite a bit too."
"As will I," said Kildar as he embraced the mercenary, the closest thing he'd had to a friend since he'd left his home a year back. "Take care of yourself and don't get into any fights."
"Can't promise all that."
"Promise me you'll write, though," urged Iuthan.
"I promise," came the lie.
Gathering his few effects, he stepped out into the nightly world.
Day could scarcely be called so. It was foggy and dark, the horizon veiled completely. The sun was a speck of light somewhere distant and remote, feverish grey.
Kildar looked over his shoulder, but there was no one there. For the hundredth time, it dawned on him that they weren't coming for him, not now, not ever. If he returned, it was by his own will. His life was his own and that was the scariest thought that had ever crossed his mind.
Moose Field was too insignificant and small to be considered a town, yet it could boast a great inn. With what money was left of his time as a mercenary, Kildar stepped inside.
“An autumn for a room, two winters for dinner,” said the innkeeper as he munched on a gargantuan piece of cheese.
“I’ll only lodge a night,” explained Kildar, handing over three coins.
“I’ll be here for three,” said Iuthan, counting coins in his hand.
The proprietor opened a heavy book with his greasy fingers. “Names,” he said, dipping a feathered pen in ink.
“Kildar. “No last name.”
The innkeeper offered a smile of pity, understanding what the words truly meant. “I was orphaned young, too,” he offered.
Kildar nodded. “Condolences,” he said, more for himself than for the greasy man before him.
“Help yourself to some wine,” came the sympathetic words from cheese-covered teeth as a sausage-like hand slid a cup through the counter.
“Very kind,” the reply was dry, yet eager fingers grasped the offered drink.
“I’m turning in for the night,” said Iuthan, making a gesture to decline the drink that was not offered to him.
“Yeah, alright,” replied his companion.
Kildar of the pale, sickly, scared skin sat before the open fire blazing slowly in the middle of the long room. The flames cast specters on his grey face, ghosts that ached to dance in a world of snow. He let the wine slowly drench his tongue and palate, biting the inside of his cheek for no reason.
Deep eyes focused on the flames, he breathed in an air heavy with the stench of life. The rumor of conversation was a tickling in his ear, soft like the murmur of a river. The bard’s voice was low and harsh, rasping out words that seemed to fall painfully against the splintered floor. He struck a lyre, chords rushing out in haste toward the fire, where they burned with joy. He pressed the blade against his finger. Blood once more.
Kildar, once known as Greyskin, shed his fur cloak, hot with wine and dazed thoughts. Life went by so slowly, and what was he to do with it? The thought was followed by the familiar chest-clenching sensation.
His thoughts brought him back to a year back, to the same rundown town, the same inn. Back then he’d been scared, heart beating fast in ecstasy-like eagerness. The world had seemed so big, the opportunities endless. Life had stretched invitingly before him, and it had been hard to even breathe. He had done it; he had despite his doubting his courage.
And now, he was here once more, going back because living was not such a simple thing. He was riddled with shame, fear, and numbness.
It seemed so long ago. In his mind’s eye, he saw himself as a child, as if one single year had changed him so. He’d been terrified back then, wondering if he would have to hide, to run, if they would come for him and what they would do if they did. Now fear had been replaced with indifference. The impatience to begin anew had become a terrible voice within, one that spoke only of regret.
“Coin?” asked the bard, holding his hat out.
“Forgive me, I’ve none,” replied Kildar.
“No worries.” The minstrel smiled with scant teeth. “Any requests?” he asked goodheartedly.
Greyskin shook his head. “Can’t think of any.”
And the flames still smoldered and snow would soon fall. Where to winter? Where to go in a land of nothing?
“South,” said a man in a long overcoat. “Trouble is brewing south, they say,” he told his companion- a thin, sickly fellow.
“War will never stop,” said the bard to a heavy elder.
“It’s man’s nature,” said a drunkard to his cup.
“It’s this wretched cold,” said the innkeeper as he fed the fire.
“Men with wicked minds,” continued the man in the long overcoat.
“Cold, cold,” continued the innkeeper.
“Not so bad, truly,” the said innkeeper’s wife as she held a slice of overripe cheese.
“A matter of perspective,” continued the drunkard.
“Who even remembers what they’re fighting for anymore?” answered the heavy elder to the bard.
“Nobody, truly. Nobody wants to think about it,” continued the man in the long overcoat.
“And why would they?” concluded the drunkard.
Wasted lives, thought Greyskin as his hazel eyes scanned the room. Dur, God of Death, would make better use of them. They should all be his. They belonged to him. He shook his head. No more thoughts of sacrifices. Learn to think of the future. Smile. Come on, smile. There you go. The future and unmade promises. Promises that could say whatever he wanted. Joy. Love. Redemption, even.
Walking on clouds when he should be walking on bones. That’s what the High Priest used to say. Well, Kildar thought, what if I walk on clouds? What was so great about steady ground?
“Drink until it kills me,” said the drunkard.
“And heavy thoughts made light with rain…” sang the bard.
Night overwhelmed day, so that the sun's light scarcely scratched the cold ground. Mist hovered like a shroud that wished to engulf the land. Even the mountains were invisible, down to their very feet. Kildar's own feet were eager to grow lost within the fog, if he did not keep a close watch on them.
He stared at his pale breath as it slowly deserted him, hands stuck inside his pockets. His face was covered with a furry hood and his boots seemed like the paws of a great bear. Within the world's misty mantle, he was blind and deaf. Silence clung at his heels and the only point of light in the sky was a reluctant sun.
Certain he would be ambushed, Greyskin strayed from the road, walking until pebbles became dewy grass. The scent of trees was lost within that of cold haze. He only realized he was cozily within forestlands when he crushed a pinecone under one of his enormous boots.
Kildar reached out with his hands until he felt the ruggedness of bark. He slouched against the slender trunk of a tree, pulled his knees up to his chest, and waited for the fog to disperse. The sun was nothing more than a flickering candle within a mile-long cave, but at least the wind was still.
Despite his best efforts, he fell into deep sleep, only to jolt awake some hours later. He rose, taking once more to blindness. The way was somewhat clearer, and he could make out his hand when he stretched it before himself, along with the leaves on nearby trees. The candle had dipped in the sky, and Kildar knew that dusk was upon him.
No sounds but that of his breath and footsteps. He was becoming lonely, and, as darkness approached, he grew scared he'd gotten lost. He fingered the rusty blade inside his pocket.
Night fell on him, moonless and starless. He was prisoner to the overpowering darkness, but he knew better than to give way to despair. After all, what loss would be if life failed him now? If the cold claimed him, or he fell into a chasm or a stranger's knife? His was a tainted life.
"And if I die, my darling," he sang softly.
"Bury me not on a cold grave,
But lay me on a field of flowers
So I might die as I did not live."
Die as I did not live, he echoed in his mind, the unconscious thought ever-present in the back of his head, the one that whispered men's deaths had far more meaning than their lives. A conviction that had been instilled within his heart when he was a child, ever repeated behind friendly smiles.
The slowest of the wandering stars appeared in the sky, piercing through the diminishing fog. Its oval shape allowed the strange man with greyish skin to find his bearing and set his course straight. West, where even the sun went, and as night thickened, mist thinned.
Heavy-hearted and shivering, he came upon ruins. The moon, now present in the pitch-black sky, shone against white masonry and jagged stone. All throughout the clearing, pillars and great rocks lay pathetically in the dying grass, sickly grey in the pale light.
Greyskin stepped softly, eyes on the scant stars whose light could pierce the dreadful clouds. Into the ruins he treaded, wondering if they had once been great. After over a century of constant war, of factions fighting one another and lords rising and falling, countless cities had been laid waste or abandoned. Their empty windows and lame, expressionless stone had long since become a common sight in the Warring States of the North, once the High Kingdom of Itinïa.
Everywhere they lay, sentinels of nothing. White stone, black stone, burnt stone, decayed stone. Relics of war or forgetfulness, of names long lost and, since none searched for them, they would remain forever gone.
Under the hazy eye of a fraction moon, Kildar slithered shadow-like into the coziness of unbounded stone. He caressed the fallen walls with his frozen hands, while the stars hung suspended in a still sky. Not a breeze to stir his hair or blow him away toward the future.
Then a sight made him stop mid-track. There, within a niche of stone, lay a tiny figurine of a solemn man clutching a massive sword. Kildar knew the solemn man too well. It was Feydor, God of Life, which meant the ruins were beyond Greyskin's realm.
He seized the tiny statue and stared at it with contempt. The priests of Feydor had left it there, probably along with many twins scattered about. It could only mean they had claimed the shattered city as their own. Kildar wished he had seen the figurine of Dur, God of Death, instead, and could breathe with a light heart.
But why should it matter anymore? He scolded himself. It made no difference if a priest of Feydor should walk in and see him there. Not anymore, not now that he had left his dark past hidden atop an icy mountain. No man of Dur would ever sojourn in a land the priests of Feydor had claimed, and would rather brave the night in the wild, open cold. He was no priest of Dur, though.
But habit was a guest reluctant to depart. Once invited, it made itself at home and would hide away whenever the time for farewell approached. Kildar had to turn his nerves into steel to remain where he was, to ignore the instinct that told him to run far. He knew his past would always shadow him if he did not wound it as often as possible. A critical strike and, one warm day, memories would die away and he would be free for once.
Greyskin wound his way deeper into the ruins, head pounding. It felt like he was defying the very gods. He took shelter within the part most complete, where a half-roof and three walls made him even blinder to the vast stretch of world that he could not shut out.
His back stiff and his hands fumbling about nervously, he counted the seconds until the sun would rise over the horizon. He kept his ears wary for any sounds, any whisper the wind blew in his direction, yet nothing came. Eyes closed, he tried his best to fall asleep, unsuccessfully. For him, it was as though he lay deep within enemy lines, and even if the lion has deserted its lair, its stench is still enough to scare away all prey.
Though he usually traveled by night to avoid daggers in the dark, night had proven too mighty a foe and his strength was spent. He still had the statuette of Feydor clutched in his hands, and the way the god stared condescendingly at him made his heart race. He could see the metaphorical blood on his hands, and it was as though it drenched the deity in delicious crimson.
Sun sets over the horizon, world begins to crack, he chanted in his mind. The realm of Dur would come, they said. Death would be the only truth of the world, a world that withered with haste. Darkness to claim every soul. Sunsets, sunsets, sunsets. And I can't help but wonder what it's all for...
A Beacon of Darkness
He was weary of the world, of the land with its slopes and depressions, of men and their ideas. He ached for sweet release, but his roots ran deep into the world he had come to hate. It was a loathing drenched in fear and unwillingness to depart, as if he owed something to life, something of meaning, perhaps.
Peace did not come willingly. He was plagued by dark thoughts. During his year as a mercenary he had spent his nights with an eye on the icy world beyond the frozen window. His life at the barracks had seemed stale, a moment frozen in time. Kildar had made the effort of talking with his companions, unwillingly making them his friends. But he was lonely, and the cold distance ached. The world was but a sliver, and he knew only the paths of night.
Deep-rooted to senseless existence, he remembered gazing at his companions, the other mercenaries, jovial and talkative, their boots buried in heaps of snow. Somehow, they found peace in a world ever fixed in the eye of the storm; unsteady ground ever shifting under their feet and the sky a sickly mockery. Their lives were truly lived, though they did nothing with them, and Kildar could not help but loathe them.
The blame lay with the past and whatever hideous beast had made Kildar's heart its home. A monster they had created, and perhaps that only they could destroy. His thoughts ever flew back to their nest, bidding him return. At first they had bid him go back for revenge, thinking that if they were no longer, and the beast was given ample prey, if the memories burned away in his hate...
Yes, he was weary. Worn of fighting himself, of life under a pale sun. There was no promise on the other side of the horizon, no truth worth hunting. Even mountains failed. Breaths withered away. Souls became sundered. And his heart was as barren as hope.
A year had passed until he realized he could bear it no longer. And so he was returning, seeking the redemption of cowards. He was no coward. He was simply a thrall to memories.
What of Dur, God of Death? He could let himself wonder. Was there room for him still? He had tried to shed him away with his past, but the god kept on following with a heavy step. Kildar could turn deaf ears. Try to shut out the sun with his thumb. Go on with the motions of life until routine itself became life.
Along with the past, Dur was an anchor that weighed him down, even if he locked him in the back of his mind. The problem was not the sadness in his memories, the fear, the undeniable evil. No. The problem was they had a hint of happiness about them, that there was something sickeningly sweet in the recollection, as if the worst of times had somehow been the best of times.
His thoughts constantly made the journey he urged them not to, back to icy peaks and ragged stone. Candlelight on a cold, dark abyss. A glint of something in the corner of an eye, a glint of sweet ignorance. A stirring within that could always be sated.
Greyskin sighed, leaves crunching under his boots. The forest about him was quiet and peaceful, unlike his mind. The monster within begged to be set free. It said it was his nature that made him as he was. Kildar shook his head. His nature had nothing to do with it. He was simply what they had made him. And perhaps if he could erase the memory of every word they had ever shot in his direction, of every pair of eyes, every cursed moment.... Then he might be free from the horrible nature he had been forced to adopt. The yearning would be gone and replaced by one that called only for peace.
But what did it matter when the past was mightier than any foe? The present could scant hold battle against the weight of years and years and years. And him, Kildar of the scarred skin, had lost his mind to memories.
The wind went north and he followed, back to the only place he could call home. Back home under the silver gaze of a loner's moon.
Hours passed by in a flurry. Night covered the earth, once, twice, thrice. The pale man slept nestled in thickets, the sounds of the forest like some nearly forgotten lullaby. His way was unhindered save for the warning from within. Left to solitude once more, his thoughts resumed their frenzy. Reason bade him go anywhere else, force himself upon some sort of life, but whispers were louder and onwards he went.
Mountains came closer; trees grew distant from each other. Rivers appeared at every curve of the earth. And as his destination loomed closer, he felt his heart clench.
The ground rose steadily, and Greyskin followed as one in a trance. Every step was maddeningly familiar, every breath of fresh air a faltering reminder. As he walked he caressed the trees about him, as if commending their long, restful lives. The earth grew steeper.
Steps became tricky, and he took long deviations. After all, there was no need for haste. He would have willingly taken an age to get there. He played with the idea of retiring to the forest forever and living beyond the reaches of society, like some lone beast.
He climbed up a particularly sturdy tree and lay down on a thick branch for hours, doing nothing but staring at the patches of sky behind dry twigs. The heavens moved west and he fell into wakeful sleep, dreaming over and over of falling. He woke up with a sour smile. Not just yet, he thought. He could not die before learning to live. It did not work that way. Not for a man of Dur.
Farther up the mountain. Dur's mountain. Or so he called it. Laymen referred to it as the Gate to the Underworld or the Abyss, simply because upon it laid Death's Shrine. Superstition bade them avoid it. Kildar wondered how men could be so fearful of the inevitable.
He continued on his solitary way, the world growing distant somewhere underneath. Greyskin let his spirit drift away with the gnawing winds as the earth became white beneath his feet. Bare trees marked the silent way up the Abyss, closer and closer toward oblivion.
Kildar stared at the mountains and called them by their names. The Grey Walker. Time. Erebus. The Abyss. The Void. Silver Darkness. The Greater Netherworld. The Lesser Netherworld. Dur cast a long shadow on the land. The Voiceless Rise, Death's Kingdom on Earth. And since few ventured close to the eleven Damned Peaks, they were the most peaceful land in the whole realm.
Because in truth, Death is peace, thought Kildar. Simple. Sturdy. Not like life. Life was complicated and weak. Why pay tribute to such a thing?
He kept flitting his gaze upwards, but fog hid the summit. He could not glimpse the fire in Dur's shrine or any hint that people had settled close to the peak. He tightened his coat and sunk his hands into his pockets.
The frozen wind grew wilder. The great peaks all about him were clad in beautiful silence, and Greyskin wondered if there was any place for him but there, too high up to be seen by human eyes, unmarked by any living...
"Kildar?" said a voice. "Kildar! It is you!"
Greyskin shut his eyes in frustration.
"Oh, Kildar! I knew you'd return!"
He turned around, the maniac wind scattering snow in every direction. A precipice soared a few feet away, and there, muffled by the constant snow, she stood surrounded by bare trees.
"Echo," said Greyskin.
Echo took this as a signal to approach. "Kildar," she said, throwing her strong arms around his neck. "What were you thinking? Oh, it doesn't matter. You're back." She laughed.
Kildar wrenched her arms from his neck, at a total loss for words. He had never expected to see any of them until he was once more inside the Haven, until the final threshold had been crossed. But here she was, all smiles and hope in her eyes. Echo, of all of them.
"Ioene," he called her name softly.
"I knew you'd return," she answered with a satisfied closed-lip smile. "I always knew it. Roderick was willing to bet his hide you'd gone for good, but I knew better," she chuckled. "I know you, you wretch. What in Dur's name had you hoped to find out there?"
Anything, I guess, but the thought never left his lips.
There it was: the familiarity. The journey to the past is always a blur, and he was finally going back home.
It was so easy, falling back into routine, into the life he had tried to leave behind. Once again, there was Ioene, her arm coiled around his. Vulnerable. Trusting. One more time, he was trudging up this same mountain, awed by its silence. And hovering in the air, the unmistakable presence of Dur, bringer of night.
Unmistakable? Kildar shook his head. He'd left the Haven, he'd left home, on the growing sensation that his life and creed were nothing but errors. And he wasn't coming back for reassurance, he had to remind himself. He'd returned for redemption, whatever that meant.
Yes, it hadn't taken Ioene long to trust him once more, while for a long year the mercenaries in Sliver Isle had kept their distance. But he did not blame the latter; in fact, he resented the former.
After all, the hunters were so quick to trust each other while they distrusted the whole world. Life, they held, was worthless, no matter what the rest of humanity claimed.
And just like that, he was back. The wind scattered Echo's babbling, sending a couple of stray words his way, the snow muffled their footsteps, the cold cleared his mind. Old thoughts returned. New doubts sank deep beneath the surface. And Ioene's story of her last hunt, the descriptions of her latest victim, felt like home. Warm, cozy, familiar. Nothing out of place. At last.
"I don't even know what Dur would do with such a tattered soul. She was half-dead when I got there..."
The great hourglass of the world kept spinning. The balance of Death and Life hovered on gossamer strings carefully woven by Dur. This was how it was meant to be. Slowly, gently, unperceivably, the land and people below would fade. The malady of the world outside would die away and its stench only make the truth shine all the brighter.
"In the end I had to chug her out a window..."
He would return to what he'd been long before doubt had made its first appearance. A man at one with Death.
"But the distance! Nearly one month hard riding just to get here. No roads or anything, just mountains..."
Yes, Kildar could feel his old self returning, despite all his inward promises. He could see the truth of what he'd been taught, and that the world was not as the people below saw it. Not darkness and light. Not steady stone. But a trickling thing, like a waterfall, until it slowly drains away. And then the kingdom of Dur comes.
"And if my hunt took long, you should hear about Roderick's. Poor bastard may not be back for years!"
A scattered word that had meaning. Kildar picked it up, dusted it, and threw it back at Echo, "Roderick?"
"Have you even been listening?" she screamed at the flailing wind.
Greyskin hunched and delivered the lie straight to Ioene's ear. "Of course I have."
"Liar!" but there was a smile on her face.
Kildar barely noticed. One name had been enough to bring back the doubts. "Roderick?" he pressed, the world around him dimming with the approach of night.
Ioene struggled closer, battling the elements. "He felt betrayed when you left."
"No, he didn't. You want to make me feel guilty."
"And then he took on an impossible hunt, didn't tell us anything about it, and hasn't been back since."
Greyskin fell silent. He dragged Ioene with his arm, hastening up the steepest portion of the climb. The Haven was coming into view, dim behind a thick cover of mist. And there stood the god; eyes toward the fog, his broad back a reassurance, a guarantee of everlasting protection. The shrine so quiet he could almost pretend to hear the fall of snowflakes. A world of white and black. And the sacred fire like a beacon of truth in a world of stagnancy.
"Maybe he –"
Unexpectedly, Ioene spit on the ground in front of her. "No," she said, pulling him closer. "You are the only deserter." The words were harsh, and Greyskin felt a fleeting moment of panic.
He stared upwards. "The High Priest, do you think he will –"
"That's a risk you'll have to take," Echo replied harshly.
So he would. He felt his chest clench. Silence shrouded them both, and it burned like fire. The searing pain brought him to his knees in front of Dur's statue, tears running down his cheeks and regret gnawing him apart.
And worse yet, there it was. Coming out for air, floating casually to the surface. Tearing his soul in two, sundering his mind.