Thank you for joining me at my new blog at WordPress.  After several months of writing and polishing my craft, I’ve decided that the time is right for me to begin sharing select pieces of my work for free on the internet.  The stories and articles that I will be publishing here are exclusive to this blog, and hopefully, they will continue to evolve and prove enjoyable.  This is a story I finished about a year ago.  I hope you enjoy it!

 

A Devil with a Halo

“We shouldn’t be here.”  Carth pulled his hood over his ears and stopped in the middle of the road.  People from the streets had gathered around the little brown house, trying to see through the windows on the tips of their toes.  Like the healers, they had followed the sound of screaming.

“The hood will do little to hide your mark,” Twelve said.  He pointed to the white band tattooed across Carth’s eyes.  “If anything it makes you look more guilty.”

“Let’s leave then.  People don’t understand us.  It could turn violent.”

“It could.”  Twelve turned from Carth and walked towards the house.  The screams of anguish grew in volume and urgency.  He quickened his stride and placed a clasped fist against the door.  He knocked twice and grabbed the door handle.

“Who are you?”  An unfamiliar voice from behind.  If Twelve turned around they would see his mark for sure.  He swung the door open and took a step inside.

“I know that mark.  You’re one of those veiled killers.”  Twelve lowered his head.  There was no time to address this.

“That’s not true,” Carth said.  “We’re called Veiled Healers.”

Twelve turned around and grabbed Carth by the wrist.  He pulled him inside and slammed the door behind them.  He opened his mouth for a reprimand, but a wail from the next room brought him back to the present. 

The house stunk of sweat and sour milk.  Twelve lead the way down a hallway too narrow to traverse with a normal stride.  The house was sparsely decorated and a shadow painted every floorboard. 

Twelve pushed open the door to a tiny room.  Inside a young woman laid on her back; her naked legs dangling over the side of a filthy feather mattress.  Glossy trails of sweat rolled down her thighs and her limbs shook with chills.  A man with his palms clasped against her hand turned and gasped.  He hadn’t heard the two strangers come in.

“She’s in labor,” Twelve said.  “But something is wrong.”

“I sent for a doctor,” the man said.  “You aren’t doctors.  I know that mark on your heads.  You’re those…”

“Yes, we’re Veiled Healers.”  Twelve pulled the white gloves from his pouch and began to put them on.  “This is what we do.”

“Get out of my house.”  The heat behind his words sizzled the air.  “No killer is going to lay a hand on my wife.”

“We’re not killers anymore.”  Carth swallowed and stepped next to Twelve.  “We don’t even remember our own crimes.”

“So what?  You think that changes what you did?”  The man’s hands clamped hard around his wife’s palm.  “Get out.”

“Enough.”  Twelve burst forward and pulled the man up by the collar.  He shoved him against the wall so hard he could hear his teeth rattle.  “If you don’t stay out of our way, I promise you, your wife is going to die.  Your baby too.”

The man slid down the wall into a sitting position.  Though he made no effort to move, and icy expression clung to his face like a leech.  Twelve squatted over the woman and felt her forehead with his wrist.  He cursed under his breath and turned to Carth.  “She’s hot.”

“Do what you can,” Carth said.  He positioned himself for delivery and wiped his brow.  “The baby is coming.” 

With both of his hands on the woman’s head, Twelve whispered his mantra.  The energy flowed from his chest, down his arms, and out through his palms.  She was so hot he could feel droplets of sweat pushing through his own forehead.  He began to feel dizzy when he noticed that her wailing had changed.  Though it still carried the pain and burden of the world, it no longer had the sadness.

“That’s it,” Carth said.  “Keep pushing.”

Twelve spoke his mantra again, massaging the woman’s forehead with the tips of his fingers.  He could feel the muscles in her head begin to cool.  The shaking in her limbs slowed down and her breathing steadied.

“It’s a girl,” Carth said.  He smiled and lifted a slimy little red body over his head.

The wailing turned relieved breathing and a delicate smile crept onto the face of the new mother.  Twelve exhaled and stood up.  Carth stood beside him with the baby.  “Meet your new baby girl.”

The mother reached out with yearning arms, but she brought them back empty.   Her husband snatched the baby away with a ravenous grab.  “You did what you came to do, now get out.”

“She came close to dying,” Carth said.  “She still needs attention.”

The man shuffled back, one arm wrapped awkwardly around the baby’s chest as if he was hoarding a trophy.  “Leave now or I’ll do what the law should have done to you long ago.”

“It’s okay,” Twelve said.  He gave Carth a pat on the shoulder.  “Let’s just go.”

Carth held out his arms defensively.  “Give us another minute.”

His baby still hooked in one arm, the man pulled a dinner knife off the bedside table and lunged at Carth.  The blade sliced through cloth and caught Carth on the side of the ribs.  He pulled the knife loose and waved it towards the door.  “Out.  Both of you.”

Carth cursed and grabbed at the wound while Twelve wrapped his arm around the smaller man’s shoulders for support.  “Come on.  You’re going to be fine.”

They left the house with Twelve pulling Carth along on his shoulder.  The same crowd of people watched them intently, parting slowly to let them pass by.  Some were nervous, but most simply enjoyed the spectacle of seeing the healers in person.  Twelve felt relieved that none found the courage to try and kill him.  The two left site of the crowd and walked briskly until Twelve no longer felt any eyes upon him. 

“Let me take a look at your wound.”

“Why do they still hate us?”  Carth opened his shirt and grimaced as he peeled cloth away from the cut.  “Even after all that we’ve done for them, they still hate us.”

“They don’t have the luxury of forgetting.”  Twelve placed his palms around the wound.  It wasn’t too deep.  More messy than dangerous.  “You and I are murderers, and no amount of forgetting can change that.  These people view the veil as a free ride rather than a punishment.  Sometimes I agree with them.”

“I don’t remember killing anyone.  All I remember doing is dedicating my life to helping others.  Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“Perhaps.”  Twelve paused to remember the words of his mantra as he ran his fingers along the wound.  “But even if we’re entirely different people now, there are some that will always want us dead.”

“That’s already starting to feel better.  How long have you been a Veiled Healer?”

Twelve wondered if Carth was even listening.  “Fifteen years.”

“And they still haven’t given you back any memories?”

Twelve sighed as he finished with the wound.  He stood up and walked towards the monastery.  “Master Javen tells me that my crimes were so severe that it would be a risk to reveal anything about my history to me.  I have no wish to commit violence, nor any urge to do so.  If keeping me veiled is what it takes to maintain peace, then I am happy to walk this path for the rest of my life.”

“Fifteen years.  That means that whatever you did, you did it as a child.  You don’t want to know what happened?”

“No.”  Twelve pulled away from Carth and kept a step ahead of him until they reached the gates outside the monastery.  A tall iron fence surrounded the building and the men standing watch outside didn’t like the Veiled Healers any better than the rioters they kept away.  Their loyalty was on rent, and everyone within the walls knew it.  Twelve raised his head to show the mark across his eyes and passed through without so much as a nod.  He went to his quarters and prepared a plain pot of rice for lunch.

After an hour Twelve received word that Master Javen wanted to see him.  As he walked down the candlelit corridor to Javen’s chamber, Twelve came to realize that Carth’s words had imprinted themselves in his mind.  Fifteen years.  Fifteen years with no identity and no answers.  Longer than any other Veiled Healer in the history of the order.  He pushed his way through the big oak doors to Javen’s chamber.

“Thanks for coming Number Twelve.”  Twelve shielded his eyes from the light beaming through the window behind Javen.  The sun hung in the sky directly behind Javen’s head, casting a man shaped shadow across the room.

“It’s my honor to serve.”  Twelve bowed his head. 

“Fifty-Seven told me about your success today.  He also told me that you healed his wound on the journey back.”

“Fifty-Sev… oh, I suppose that’s Carth.”

“So he told you his name.”

“Yes, weeks ago.  I had nearly forgotten his number.”  Twelve tried not to sound coy.  “Most of the healers shed their numbers within days.”

Master Javen cleared his throat and stood up.  His beard nearly reached his waist and it moved whenever he did.  He pointed to a piece of parchment stretched out on the top of his table.  “I’ve been examining a record of your deeds since joining the Veiled Healers.  You’ve come a long way and have done some extraordinary things.  Some might say that you have served your purpose in saving so many lives.  They might say that you deserve to know why you are here.”

“And some might say that I’m a snake disguised as an angel.”

Master Javen nodded and stepped closer.  “Which do you believe?”

Twelve shuffled his feet.  He wished he could sense the answer that Master Javen wanted, but there was no reading a face that was shrouded in silhouette.  “I believe that it is impossible to stitch an invisible wound.  I have healed dozens if not hundreds of people.  But what does it matter if I have murdered thousands?  Until I know what I have done, I can never presume to be anything more than a snake.”

“You have not murdered thousands.”  Javen smiled weakly and came close enough that Twelve could smell the flowers woven into his beard.  “Today I wish to give you a gift that should have been yours long ago.”

“A window to my past?”  The urgency in Twelve’s own voice embarrassed him and he lowered his head. 

“Not yet,” Javen said.  “I’d like to teach you the highest technique among the healers.  It is sacred to the Masters and usually kept from the Veiled at all costs, but you are my brightest star.”

“What is it?”

“The ability to erase memory.  The ability to recruit the condemned to our cause and allow them to learn and grow under the same environment that you have.”

“That’s a huge responsibility.  If I were to use it on an innocent person…”

“I know that it’s a risk.  But I trust you.  As you know, each time I consider a Veiled Healer to be saved, I add a flower to my beard.  Today, I add one for you.”

Twelve sighed and peered down at the dozens of flowers poking through Master Javen’s whiskers.  Most had wilted with age and others had lost their petals.  He shook his head.  “I refuse to accept.”

Javen narrowed his eyes.  “How can you…?”

“Show me something from my past.  A word.  An image.  Something.  If you trust me, show me who I am.”

“Number Twelve, you are asking too much.  Even if I grant your request, I have no way of knowing what memories will return to you.”

“Then just give me my next assignment and I’ll be on my way.”

“Damn you.”  Javen stomped his foot and turned away.  “You have no idea what you ask of me.”

“Will you do it?”

“One image.”  Javen reached out with his hands and placed them above Twelve’s eyes.  “Promise me that you’ll still accept.  No matter what you see.”

“I promise.”

Master Javen closed his eyes and Twelve followed.  Javen whispered an unfamiliar mantra for a moment until Twelve found himself in a state of alternate consciousness.  It was like a dream, but lucid and without the illusion of control.  He saw himself standing in a small home with the sour scent of death grabbing him by the throat so firmly that he couldn’t breathe.  He held a wooden club in his right hand.  His grip was so tight that he could feel the sting of splinters gouging into the flesh of his palm.  Before him there lay two dead bodies.  His mother and his father. 

“Awake.”  Javen clapped his hands in front of Twelve’s nose.  Twelve opened his eyes and took a deep inhale of air.  “Now I don’t know what you saw, but that’s all you get for now.”

“I understand.”

“So we still have a deal?”

Twelve nodded and looked Javen in the eyes.  “Yes, of course.”

The following hours proceeded slowly with a series of chants followed by meditation exercises and mental conditioning.  Though Master Javen showered Twelve with praise at his aptitude for learning, the affection in the words only shamed him.  By the time he returned to his quarters, Twelve felt dirty for being alive.  He went to sleep that night wondering if he could use the new technique to remove his own memory again. 

“Wake up, Twelve.”  Twelve opened his eyes to see Carth’s smiling face hovering over his mattress.  “You slept through breakfast and it’s time to go.  Master Javen is taking us along to the jail.  Some young hoodlum killed the owner of one of the taverns.  The guards are turning him over to the Veiled Healers.”

Twelve sat up and stretched his arms.  “So we’re supposed to escort him back and break him into the order?”

Carth’s smile widened.  “Rumor has it that you’re the one who is going to erase his memory.”

“That’s some rumor.”

Carth laughed.  “Okay, I’ll admit it.  Master Javen has been telling everyone.  I can’t believe one of our own is finally getting to do this.  Isn’t it exciting?”

Twelve looked around for his cloak and started to dress.  “I was under the impression that my newfound power was meant as a secret.”

“I guess not.  Here, take this.”  Carth gave Twelve a short sword and sheathe with a white band around the hilt.  Twelve examined the base of the blade and gazed at his reflection.  It was his first time handling a weapon since becoming a healer, and yet it felt sickeningly natural.  “Master Javen is arming us as a precaution.  In case something goes wrong.”

“It’s wise to be safe,” Twelve said.  He finished dressing and went out to meet Master Javen.  The three departed after an exchange of pleasantries.  Twelve found himself clutching the hilt of the blade every time he thought about his vision. 

“We are going to go through the meadow,” Master Javen said as the men came within a mile of the jail.

“Isn’t that slower?” asked Carth. 

“Yes, but from here the road is too well travelled.  The chance of meeting people unfriendly to the healers is too great.”

Twelve followed Master Javen through the meadow while Carth lagged behind by a few paces.  The grass grew nearly chest high and with every step Twelve’s shoes sunk halfway into the ground.  The air was thick with pollen and Twelve could feel his eyes watering.  When the road was no longer in site, Javen stopped and turned around.

“Before we go on, there is something that needs to be done,” Javen said.  He spoke in a hollow tone as if his mouth was dry and he felt no confidence in his words. 

“Whatever you wish,” Twelve said.

“You need to understand precisely why you were chosen to join the Veiled Healers.”

“Here?  In front of Carth?”

“Close your eyes.”  Javen placed his hands on Twelve’s forehead.  Soon he found himself back inside that little house from his childhood.  Again he was holding the club, but this time chasing rats around a small kitchen table. 

“Rynn, you need to stop.”  He saw his father standing above his mother, grasping her forehead with the technique of the Veiled Healers.  “Go outside for a while.  She’s very sick.”

“She’s going to be just fine,” a man knelt down on the other side of Twelve’s mother.  He was a lean middle aged man with a heavy beard.  “A fever to be sure, but nothing I can’t fix.” 

“Do you need help?” Twelve asked his father.

“Not now, Rynn.  Go play outside.”

Twelve’s mother gasped and her limbs began to shake.  His father held her wrist.  “What’s happening now?”

“Nothing,” the bearded man said.  “I’m in control.” 

The woman writhed and began panting.  The panting grew loud and sorrowful, filled with despair unlike Twelve had ever heard. 

“Javen, you’re losing her.” 

“I’m not.  Give me time.”  The bearded man wrestled with his grip and chanted his mantra so loudly that it drowned out his Twelve’s mother’s screams.  With a heavy gasp she drew her final breath.  Her limbs fell flat and her head sunk deep into the pillow.

“Tana.  Tana, wake up.  Stay with me.”  Twelve’s father held his wife and brushed her forehead with his palm.  His eyes grew wet, and Twelve felt the sting of tears welling in  his own eyes.  He inched forward, knowing there was nothing he could do.

“She’s gone,” the bearded man said.  His tone was somber but abrupt.

“You promised you’d save her.”  Twelve’s father stood up.  His face was red and streaming with tears.  He shoved the bearded man so hard that the wall cracked. 

“I did my best.  Keep your hands off of me.”

“You’re a liar.  You’re a liar Javen.”  The bearded man reeled back as Twelve’s father connected a punch to his jaw.  He reached for a sword with the other hand and drew it out. 

“What, are you going to kill me?”  Twelve’s father forced a ghastly laugh.  “Go ahead.”  He lunged forward for another punch, but the bearded man moved to dodge.  He twisted his arm in such a manner that the sword jerked forth.  It stuck into Twelve’s father, cutting him deep below the breastbone.

The bearded man stepped back as Twelve’s father muttered an incomprehensible final word and fell on his back.  Twelve found himself staring down at his parents both mystified and terrified.  For a moment he couldn’t cry.  He turned to the bearded man. 

“Awake.”  Master Javen clapped his hands and Twelve found himself back in the present. 

“Th-that was you.  You killed my father.”

“I can’t apologize to you Rynn.  Nothing I say can ever change what I did.  I go to sleep every night wondering if my lunging forward with the blade was an accident or an act of malice.”  A tear rolled freely down Javen’s cheek.  “You aren’t a killer Rynn.  I abused my power.  I took your memory to protect myself.”

Carth stepped back and doubled over.  He grew pale and looked as if he might vomit.  Twelve couldn’t stand to look at Javen.  His hand danced around the hilt of his sword and he clasped it.

“That sword Carth gave you is the one I used that day.  If you need revenge for your parents, kill me with it.  Carth, you have my word that his actions will be justified.”

“No, don’t do it,” Carth said.  “The healers can’t kill anybody.  If you have to, just take his memory.  Everything is going to be okay.”

Twelve looked back and forth between Carth and Javen.  He’d spent the last fifteen years wondering if he’d deserved to die for whatever crimes he had committed.  And then he’d spent the last fifteen hours wondering if he should kill himself in the name of justice for his parents.  There was little doubt that if he had deserved it, Javen deserved far worse.  He drew his sword.

“Twelve,” Carth stood straight up and spoke with a quivering voice.  “Do you remember what you told me yesterday?”

“I don’t want to talk to you Carth.”

“You told me that people want us dead, even though we’re entirely different people now.”

“Fifteen years is a long time,” Twelve said.  “A man who deserved to die fifteen years ago may have earned himself a second chance.  But you betrayed me that whole time.  You kept me captive.”

“Yes.”  Javen nodded.  His eyes were red and glossy.  “You were always the best healer, and after a time I didn’t want to lose you.  I was afraid of hurting you with the truth.  When I gave you the knowledge to erase memories, I did so hoping that you would find it in your heart to replace me as Master.”

“I always knew the truth would hurt, but I never knew it would be like this.”  Twelve sheathed his sword.  “I’m not going to kill you Javen.  I’ve never been a killer.”

“Then you will take my memories.”

“No.”

“No?  Why not?”

“If you are truly a changed man, then I don’t need to take your memories.  Learn to live with them as I now have to.  And serve the Veiled Healers as the first to never have his memory erased.  If I am to be the master, I mean to see to it that you are not the last.”

“I don’t even know what to say.”  Heavy tears ran down Javen’s cheeks, soaking through his beard.  “Thank you Rynn.”

“Follow me back to the monastery.  We have a lot of work to do.”

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