Tag Archive: fantasy


Sometimes there are advantages to being the last one to arrive.  A Dance with Dragons came out five and a half years after George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows.  For most fans, the wait was excruciating.  After years of wishful thinking and inaccurate release dates, the latest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire is finally available on shelves.  Fortunately for me, I only began reading the series a year ago.

A Dance with Dragons is not so much a sequel to A Feast for Crows as it is a companion piece.  Both novels span the same period of time, but they focus on different characters and events.  When Feast came out, it disappointed a lot of casual readers, despite its literary quality. Adored characters like Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen did not appear in the book, instead paving way for new faces, like Victarion Greyjoy and the Martells of the south.  It was a difficult transition, and ultimately not as satisfying as previous books.

So where does that leave A Dance with Dragons?  Like the previous book, it leaves out pivotal locations and characters, but this time, the split is only temporary.  Towards the latter half of the book, the stories merge up again and many characters featured in A Feast for Crows show up to finish their story arcs.  Ultimately, all of Martin’s decisions paid off.  A Dance with Dragons is a fascinating read, filled with all the emotional ups and downs of his previous efforts while setting the stage for some new and interesting conflicts as the series moves forward.

As has always been the case with A Song of Ice and Fire, the characterization in A Dance with Dragons is the strongest highlight.  Atypically for literature, there isn’t a main character or primary protagonist, but rather a host of interesting characters, each working towards and against one another to achieve their own goals.  While this wouldn’t work in a lot of books, it is actually my favorite aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire.  Martin’s lack of reverence for any one character lends realism to the conflict, punctuated by the fact that anyone can face danger, and anyone can die.  As interesting and well-rounded as the characters are, they are not invincible.  Martin’s characters are human in every sense of the word.  While some are more sympathetic than others, even the despised characters are well-rounded with believable motivations.  This is the best cast of characters in fantasy today.

The strength of Martin’s characters comes largely from the moral issues that each of them face throughout the plot.  In A Dance with Dragons, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen return to the forefront, and despite being half a world away from one another, their stories are similar.  Each takes on a role of authority, and each has their strength and character tested by a whirlwind of political upheaval.

Daenerys Targaryen is an especially interesting case as she has settled in the Eastern city of Meereen to begin her rule as queen.  Though the setting is rich and thick with political intrigue, it is not as immediately accessible to the reader as other locations such as Westeros.  Lacking the familiar setting of swords and castles, Meereen is a land of pyramids, slavers, and scoundrels.  Many of the characters in these scenes are new, and their names are difficult to pronounce.  These little deviations from the norm make Dany’s story harder to follow at first, but as the reader becomes acclimated to the new environment, the story picks up and becomes every bit as interesting as the events on Westeros.  Objectively speaking, the sequences in Meereen are the best in the entire book.

And then there’s Reek, my favorite of the point-of-view characters.  Without giving too much away, the Reek chapters hearken back to what makes Martin such a great author.  There are many authors who depict violence and cruelty in their work, but when Martin chooses to do so, he underlines the psychology and the humanity behind every action.  There is social commentary lurking around every crevice, disguised as fiction even as it asks important questions about human nature.

Though I have little negative to say about A Dance with Dragons, it would be dishonest to ignore the shortcomings completely.  A Feast for Crows had a number of meandering travel-based chapters involving the characters Brienne and Samwell.  I was never a fan of these chapters.  This time, the meandering traveller is Tyrion.  In this case, the traveling is more interesting, perhaps because Tyrion is a more interesting character than Brienne or Samwell.  Even so, a lot of his adventures as he journeys from one place to another feel contrived and somewhat arbitrary.

In addition, Martin has always had a tendency to allow his characters to meet up with one another by chance, no matter how unrealistic that might be given the size of the world.  These chance meetings take place in A Dance with Dragons just like they do in the other books.  It’s a form of Deus ex machina, and even though it works to carry the story from one point to another, it is not masterful writing.

That said, there isn’t a book in the world without its shortcomings, and in this case, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.  The best chapters of Dragons start about three-quarters into the book when many of the conflicts reach their conclusions or jump to new heights.  It’s difficult to pinpoint everything that makes A Dance with Dragons so special, but the characters and their often overwhelming trials define the exceptional quality of the novel.  A Dance with Dragons is an excellent read and it earns my highest possible recommendation.

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Bonded by Blood

I’ve saved this story for last because I believe that it best personifies my goals as a writer.  This is a fantasy story with a protagonist that I consider both interesting and twisted.  Whether this is my best short story or not is difficult to say, but it is probably my favorite of these five. 

 

Bonded by Blood

 

The market smelled different than usual.  While the stale breads and sour cheeses enriched the streets with a welcome hint of familiarity, the finest aroma was in short supply.  I pushed through the crowd and stepped up to the clearing in front of the tonic shop.  There was always a clearing in front of the tonic shop.  I leaned against the support beam and looked back at the pudgy little proprietor in his stained apron.  In all my visits to the market I’d never seen him make a sale.  Nor had he ever shooed me away.  Part of me wanted to eat him, if only for his own sake.  But the skin was too oily and the meat too fatty.  I needed something fresh and palatable.

 

I kept an eye over the crowd and inhaled the warm summer air.  I could smell one of them.  The aroma was faint at first, but with each breath the scent grew stronger.  Like cherries, rain, peppermint, and every pleasant thing woven into one sense-tickling incarnation.  She walked towards me.  Long golden hair and a little pink dress too formal for a pit like this.  Her eyes flickered towards mine.  Pale green like the lake on an autumn day.  My favorite flavor. 

 

She brushed passed my overcoat and stopped at a nearby jewelry booth.  My forehead started to sweat and I could feel my heart thumping.  I scooped up a vial of tonic and unplugged the cork.  The reek of wood alcohol and lavender flushed her from my sinuses, but I kept her visage safely in my peripherals. 

 

She slipped a silver ring over her finger and admired its shine from every angle.  A ray of sunlight caught her in the eye and she smiled, placing it carefully back upon the rack.  clasped the tonic in my palm as she turned away from the shop, heading towards my favorite little side street.  “The deer trap” I called it.  It was the quickest way from one side of the market district to the other, but too dark and narrow to have any shops of its own. 

 

I tossed the shopkeeper a coin over my shoulder.  I heard it clink against the ground. 

 

I followed her, watching each step; praying she would make that turn.  Every third breath I inhaled from the tonic to keep my wits.  She stopped and turned towards the deer trap.  I began to salivate.  This was it.  I followed her under the shade of the towering gray warehouses and under the eyes of no one.  I knew every alley.  Every unspeakable little crevice.  Every dry lump of soil waiting to nest a fresh pile of bones.  I licked my lips and slipped the glove off my left hand.  My nails started to itch.

 

She froze. 

 

And then I froze.  She turned and looked at me with those pale green eyes.  A smile crept onto her face and she opened her mouth. 

 

“Lantern.”

 

I felt a sharp point sticking into the small of my back and I raised both my hands.  A hard, gravelly voice tickled my ear.  “Don’t move mate or I’ll stick the blade so deep you’ll be able to read the inscription.”

 

“Easy now,” I said.  The man smelled like rotting meat and horse manure.  How did I miss him before?  “Take anything you want.  I’m not looking for trouble.”

 

“Yeah, well you better be worth our while.  I saw you waste coin on that pee-water tonic.”

 

“You were tracking me that long, huh?”

 

“I could tell I had you the moment I saw your eyes,” the woman said.  “A free bit of advice.”

 

I felt the man’s meaty paw grasp my wrist.  “What the hell is this?  Jen, you gotta come see.  He’s got claws or something.”

 

So her name was Jen.  I expected something longer and with a “v.” 

 

“Shut up, Reggie.  That doesn’t make any sense,” Jen said. 

 

“No, this guy’s some sorta freak.  He’s got these big long fingernails.”

 

“Please, just take my money and go.”  I clasped the tonic tightly in my right hand. 

 

“I don’t think so.”  Reggie pulled back his blade.  “I’d be doing the world a favor to get rid of a freak like you.”

 

I clenched my teeth and threw the tonic over my shoulder.  Judging from Reggie’s delicious scream it hit him right in the eyes.

 

I turned around and extended the claws on my left hand.  He swung his sword heavily and with the desperation of a dying possum.  I ducked, but the blade clipped my hat and sent it spiraling to the dirt.  My horns exposed, I butted him in the face with my forehead.

 

“W-what are you?”  He dabbed at his lip and checked it for blood.  There wasn’t any yet.

 

I thrust my hand into Reggie’s chest.  The claws plunged through his sternum like butter and I smiled as warm blood pooled up in my palm.  I looked up at his face and bit a healthy chunk from his cheek before letting him drop.  Too chewy.  An insult to the refined palate.  I spit it out and turned to the young woman.

 

“Are you a demon?”  Her legs shook as I grabbed my hat and slipped it atop my head.

 

“No need to be alarmed.”  I approached rhythmically like a snake; arms folded, watching her every breath.  “I promise this won’t hurt.”   

 

“Stay back you foul thing.”  She pulled a small bow from behind her back with an arrow already loaded.  She drew the string.  A snake’s head was tied to the front of the arrow; its mouth agape.  Fangs pointing straight at me. 

 

I stopped to wipe the blood off my mouth and lick my fingers clean.  A nice blend of salty and savory.

 

“So now what?”  I waited to see if she’d struggle at keeping the string taut.

 

“Now you tell me what the hell you are.  And then I shoot you anyway.”

 

“I fail to see the upside.”  I smiled.  “But like so many of you humans I do love talking about myself.”

 

“Stop playing games.  This venom kills demons.”

 

“Then you already decided what I am.”

 

“Demons attack town from time to time but they do it in groups.”  Her arm started to shake.  We both inched forward.  “You’re not like the others.  They sprout from the ground.  They don’t talk or wear clothes.”

 

I sighed.  “A demon walks into a bar.  As you so eloquently pointed out, she’s not wearing any clothes.  Three drunken men tie her to a barstool and indulge every one of their darkest carnal desires.  A few months pass.”

 

“So you’re the punch line.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

I opened my palms and watched her eyes.  I thought I could catch her off guard with a quick charge, but she let the arrow fly before I took a second step.  I had half a snake head embedded in my chest before I could look down.  It burned like hell and put a hole in my coat the size of a copper.  I wrapped my hands around the arrow shaft and pulled it out.  A nice, crunchy sting.  The wounds weren’t too deep but I could feel the cool bite of poison spreading across my chest.

 

I planted my feet and licked my lips.  Nothing left to lose.  Jen would make a lovely last meal.  She still smelled sweet, but more of a sticky-caramel sweet.  The type of sweet that rots your teeth and doesn’t sit well in the morning.

 

Good thing I didn’t have morning to worry about. 

 

I tore across the street and grabbed her by that silky golden hair of hers.  I swung her around and held her by the forearms.  She gasped and flailed with her limbs, but I held on.. 

 

“Let me go.  I can get you the antidote.”

 

“Antidote?  Don’t take me for a fool.”  My grip loosened slightly. 

 

“I keep it in small vials at a nearby storehouse.  In case of an accident.”

 

“I think you’re lying.”

 

“No, but there’s not much time.  If you kill me, you’ll die too.”

 

I released her and she tumbled to the ground.  I watched her sit in the dirt, wondering what it would be like to eat a woman in her own storehouse; antidote in one hand, her heart in the other.

 

She stood up and dusted off her dress.  I expected her to run.  She should have run.  But she backed away slowly, watching my eyes to make sure I’d follow her. 

 

The ground started to shake and we both froze.  The rumble resonated underneath the road, tickling my heels. 

 

“Demons,” I said.

 

“What?  Where?”

 

I opened my mouth but the flaming holes sprouting from the earth answered for me.  Two gaping wounds peeled open from the ground, firing molten rock and smoke into the air.

 

Jen watched, nearly cowering beside me.  I could feel her body shaking and I could smell her fear.  I had to bite my lip to keep from biting hers.  She tried to run but I grabbed her by the wrist. 

 

“In here.”  I shoved her over a hay bale into one of the dark alleys.  It was a great place to enjoy a meal without being seen.  Anything to buy a few seconds.

 

The first demon crawled out of the hole, grasping the cobblestone road with its claws as those waiting below shoved it towards the surface.  Its tongue drooped as it looked past us towards the marketplace.  Screams began to emanate from the shops.  They grew exponentially and I knew that demon holes were already sprouting up everywhere. 

 

Before long the streets became flooded with men and women attempting to escape from the shops.  They screamed and trampled each other in an orgy of panic, aimlessly heading towards a safe zone that didn’t exist.  Every escape route would soon be sealed by another hungry mouth. 

 

Jen tugged on my sleeve.  “We’ll be trapped in here if they come after us.”

 

“They won’t.”  I pierced my forearm with one of my own claws.  I squeezed out a drop of blood and held it over Jen.  “Drink this.”

 

The demons began picking ruthlessly through the crowds without prejudice.  Their scaly violet skin blended beautifully with the carnage around them.  They cut through flesh like crops during harvest.  Men and women fell in a shower of gore and I stood amazed; envious of their efficiency. 

 

Jen stood up intending to join the crowds in their vain effort.  I grabbed her by the collarbone and slammed her against the adjacent wall hard enough to make her vision fuzzy.  I could smell her adrenaline and it made my stomach groan. 

 

“Let me go.  Please.”

 

“Drink my blood.”  I shoved my dripping arm into her face, smearing a good bit under her nose.  I could see a demon watching us from the corner of my eye.  Staring at my prized possession while saliva oozed from its mouth.  “They won’t be able to detect that you’re human if you drink my blood.”

 

“Why do you care?”

 

“We don’t have time for this.”  The demon approached us, tearing through the streets and pushing aside the half eaten corpses in its way. 

 

She pointed towards it.  “There’s one coming.  Let me go.”

 

“If I let you go it will eat you.  And then I’m going to be very upset that I didn’t eat you first.  Drink my blood.”

 

She grabbed my arm, but it was too late.  The demon tore through the hay bale and reached out for Jen with a filthy claw.  I stepped in front of her and swung at the demon’s face with my left hand.  My nails ripped through its jaw, embedding squarely in its forehead.  I could feel its brain tickling my fingertips.

 

I pulled my hand out, but the nail from my middle finger remained embedded in the creature’s skull.  I looked down at my hand.  It was the first time I’d ever lost a claw.

 

“It’s the poison,” Jen said.

 

I showed her my hand, looking at her between my remaining nails.  “You need to get me that antidote.” 

 

“I will.  Do I still need to drink your blood?” 

 

“Well, I suppose you could drink his.”  I ran my finger along the demon’s jaw and collected a small sample of its dark, viscous blood.  I put it in my mouth.  “It’s a bit bitter though.”

 

Jen shuddered and touched the bottom of my arm with her fingertips.  She bent over slightly and sucked a drop of blood off my wound.  She frowned and soured her face, struggling to swallow it.  I felt insulted.

 

“Did it work?” she asked.

 

Her sweet smell dissipated.  I looked at her and felt no more compelled to eat her than a brick wall.  “Yeah.  It worked.”

 

The demons began dispersing as quickly as they’d arrived.  They left a few remains; mostly bone and sheets of skin.  I strolled through the remains looking for anything of value.  A few torn up pieces of clothing.  Some mangled organ meat.  I picked up an arm and looked over it.  Just bone and a few tendons.  Not even worth biting into.  I tossed it back to the dirt.  “Everyone who didn’t get eaten is safe now.  Except from me.”

 

“I don’t feel any safer.”  Jen peeked around the corner of the building with bloodshot eyes. 

 

“I can’t eat you now, so you’re safe.”  I rummaged through the remaining remnants but nothing left passed for dog food.  “Now take me to the antidote before I lose any more body parts.”

 

She sat on her knees glaring at the dirt as if thinking of a lost love.  I knelt in front of her and lifted her chin with my index finger so she’d meet my eyes.  “I said, take me to the antidote.”

 

She pushed me away and buried her face in her elbow.  “There is no antidote.”

 

My hands began shaking.  I could feel the claw on my index finger starting to loosen.  Not one to be left waiting I yanked it out like a loose tooth with my other hand and tossed it aside.  “So I don’t have much time.”

 

“I thought you’d be dead by now.  I didn’t know it would work so slowly.”

 

“It doesn’t hurt yet.”  I started back towards the marketplace.  I figured maybe there’d still be some good meat back around the open air booths.  Maybe I’d still have a shot at the tonic shop owner.

 

“You’re just going to let me go?”

 

“I can’t eat you.  You’re tainted with demon blood.  You’d taste terrible.”  I walked back to the market.  Blood soaked the ground, but the street was abandoned aside from a few bones.  I sat upon the collapsed pillar of a trinket booth and looked out over the street.  Cheap pendants and chains spread across the ground like golden ooze, sparkling under the sunlight. 

 

A tiny silver ring caught my eye.  Half buried in dirt, the side pointed towards me.  I picked it up and blew off the dust. 

 

“Help me.”

 

I shoved the trinket into my pocket and lifted the midnight blue canvas from the ground behind me.  A shopkeeper laid trapped underneath the pieces of a shattered support beam.  I recognized the charcoal beard and weatherworn face.  His wrinkled hands grasped at the dirt and he looked up at me with desperate eyes. 

 

I knew this man.  He smelled so strongly of pepper and seawater that it permeated his merchandise.  At least it used to.  I couldn’t smell him at all anymore.  I sighed and prepared to take advantage of an easy meal. 

 

I extended my claws.  Another one fell out.  The man reached towards me with a gnarled hand.  “Please, spare me.”

 

I looked at my hand and back at the man.  He didn’t look tasty.  He didn’t even look like food.  I retracted my claws and stood up.

 

“What are you doing, demon?”  Jen snuck up on me and I nearly jumped from my skin.  I didn’t have to turn to see her.  I could hear her pulling the string on her bow again.

 

“I was simply going to eat this man.”

 

“No, you’re going to make him drink your blood.”

 

“What?”  The man and I spoke at the same time.

 

She addressed him.  “He’s a demon.  Drink his blood and other demons won’t recognize you as food.  It worked for me.”

 

I shook my head.  “You’re starting to annoy me, woman.”

 

“Yeah, well you should have killed me when you had the chance.”

 

“Vengeance is more of a human thing.  But I’m starting to see the appeal.” 

 

“Y-you’re a demon?”  The man looked up at me; eyes filled with surprise. 

 

I removed my hat to prove it, but both of my horns fell harmlessly to the ground. 

 

“I don’t want to drink his blood.”  The man struggled to free himself, wincing from the pain in his legs.  He looked at Jen.  “Since you drank his blood, can I not drink yours instead?”

 

I shook my head.  “It doesn’t work that way.  You have to drink the blood of an actual demon.”

 

I reached out and offered the man some of my blood.  He licked it off with an almost apologetic look on his face.  I turned to Jen with my head low.  “They shouldn’t bother him now.”

 

“You’re acting different.  The poison must be getting to you.”

 

“Yeah.”  I watched as the last claw fell off my hand.  My head was swimming.  I couldn’t even identify half the emotions racing through.  “If I’m going to die soon, I think it might be a good idea to immunize as many people as I can before that happens.”

 

“Really?”  Jen tilted head back.  “That’s awfully strange coming from you.”

 

“I’ve never faced death before.  Might as well do something with the last few hours.”

 

“You actually want to help the town?”

 

“I don’t know.  I’m not thinking like myself anymore, but I’d like to do this.  Before the demons come back.”

 

She nodded.  And then she smiled.  I felt bad for ever wanting to eat her.  We helped free the shopkeeper and looked around town for people to inoculate with my blood.  We found dozens of them and I felt contented knowing that I had a chance to meet with each of them.

 

“The best place to go next is the hospital,” Jen said.  “Even uninjured people are probably gathered there to meet up with loved ones.”

 

I swallowed and kept my mouth shut.  I only knew the hospital as a place to get a meal that couldn’t run very fast.  People poured out the doors, crying and holding one another.

 

“Hey, listen up.”  Jen’s voice pierced the whines of the crowd like a spear.  “The demons are eventually going to come back, and when that happens, we need a way to survive it.”

 

“There’s nothing we can do.”  A young man in torn clothing clutched his wounded arm.

 

“There is.”  She pointed to me.  “This is a demon.  He’s going to die soon, but before he does…”

 

“A demon?”  The crowd became restless.  I adjusted the brim of my hat to avoid seeing their eyes.

 

“Listen to me.”  Jen raised her voice.  “Each person here needs to drink just a drop of his blood.  I did it myself and I was spared from the demon attack.”

 

“He doesn’t look like a demon.”

 

“How do we know he won’t attack us?”

 

“I won’t drink the blood of a foul creature.”

 

The crowd noise grew overwhelming.  I tried to protract my claws for protection.  But there were none left.  I’d made a mistake by following Jen this way. 

 

A large man with a patchy beard and a belly as big as a wheelbarrow split through the crowd.  He held the edges of his coat and looked my body up and down.  “I know this demon.  It’s the one who killed my wife about a year ago.”

 

I didn’t know if he was right or wrong.

 

The man glared at me with venom in his eyes.  “He chased her down an alley faster than I could keep up.  I never saw her again.  Never even found her body.”

 

Now I remembered.  My heart started to race.  I took a step back.

 

“He’s going to pay for what he did.  Let’s tie him up.  We’ll march him through town and bleed him dry.” 

 

I reached back with a closed fist and punched the man in the nose.  A satisfying pop rang through the air and I prepared to follow it up with a nice elbow to the chin.  He reeled back and I felt pressure on my arm.  Another human clinging to me like a scab.  I kneed the man in the gut, but before long the others swarmed me.  I gasped and struggled, but the weight of their bodies nearly overpowered the putrid smell of their flesh. 

 

“Don’t fight it,” Jen said.  “If you want to make up for what you did, this is what you’ll have to do.”

 

“I’m not that person anymore.”  They tied my arms behind me so tightly that the ropes dug through my skin.  I couldn’t feel my hands.  “I only want to help.”

 

“You’re dying and delirious.”

 

“No, you don’t understand.  You said that venom is toxic to demons, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Maybe only my demon side is dying.”

 

The men turned me around towards the crowd.  So many faces.  Some of them familiar; most of them not.  The large pot-bellied man approached me holding a dagger as if it were a dinner knife.  He sniffled and spit a glob of bloody phlegm into the dirt as he waved the blade over my face.  His tongue jutted out like a dying eel as he calculated precisely where he wanted to make his cut.  He held it to my head.  I gritted my teeth as he raked the blade slowly across my eyebrows.  The sting sent a cool shiver down between my shoulder blades. 

 

The blood tickled as it ran over my cheek.  People began dabbing it with their fingers, sucking up drops of it without ever looking into my eyes.  I peered out for Jen as they forced me to march.  She stood against the backdrop of a dying sun; cold and indifferent.

 

After the villagers finished marching me through town, they threw me into a filthy jail cell without speaking a word to me.  It smelled like decomposing flesh and I cupped the wound on my forehead, worrying that it might get infected.  I kicked the dust and filth away from one little corner of the cell and slept there by sitting upright against the wall. 

 

The first night passed and then the second.  I spent my time counting bricks and watching the guard.  I wondered what he was thinking.  Every hour or so during the day, the guard would bring in new people to cut me open and drain my blood.  I developed scars across my face and arms, but the cutting didn’t hurt anymore.  I began to look forward to it.  As the days passed, I knew with certainty that the venom wouldn’t kill me. 

 

I stopped pleading with the guards.  They didn’t believe I could ever be human.

 

One afternoon as I was counting the bricks on the wall the door to the cell opened with a hideous creak.  I sighed and rolled up my sleeve.  They hadn’t cut above my elbow yet.  A soft voice called to me.  “How are you?”

 

“Jen?”  She wore a burgundy dress and a warm summer smile.

 

“They’re going to let you go.  Everyone in town has tasted your blood.  I’ve been begging them to release you and they finally agreed.”

 

I didn’t know what to say.  I struggled to my feet and stumbled out of the cell with my head hung low.  I didn’t have the words to thank her but I managed a weak smile.  She patted my back as I smelled the outdoors for the first time.

 

 

I sat outside the café across from Jen as I held a fine red wine from the Tistari province.  It had been three weeks since the humans released me and I finally felt as if they considered me one of their own.  I looked down at my clothes and smiled.  A puffy white shirt and functional grey trousers. 

 

The market was beautiful this time of year and I didn’t know of any place to catch a better view.  I took a sip of my wine and leaned back in the chair.  The flavor was rich and fruity with a hint of cedar. 

 

Or so I was told. 

 

Truthfully, I had no taste for it.  The color reminded me of the days when I could drink human blood and feel invigorated with every drop that hit my tongue.

 

I swirled the glass and felt a light rumble underneath my feet.  I smiled and finished the wine in one solid gulp.  Cracks began to form in the ground around me and soon flaming magma sprouted up all around.

 

“What’s going on?  They’re coming again?”

 

I shrugged.  “It will be a short trip if everyone here truly tasted demon blood.”

 

The fiends erupted from the earth in numbers greater than ever.  I lifted my feet onto the table and watched them tear through humans as they cried for mercy.  It was a joyous feast for the ears. 

 

“You said your blood would save us.”  Jen stood up in front of me, tears welling in her eyes. 

 

“I said that demon blood would save you.”  I smiled, noticing the big violet demon reaching up behind her.  “I’m no longer a demon.  I’m a human just like you.”

 

Her blood spattered across my face as she was torn into giblets before my eyes.  I licked a drop off my chin and promptly wiped it from my tongue.  Not quite the taste that I remembered.  Still, with all the new human emotions and experiences stretched out before me, I think I liked vengeance best of all.

Eva and Seth

This is a fantasy short story about a brother and sister and their experiences with a crisis of faith.  I attempted to have it published, but didn’t have success.  Though the plot and pacing are imperfect, I do think that the story touches on some interesting themes that I will revisit in the future. 

Eva and Seth

Seth’s knees buckled and he collapsed like a shanty in a hurricane.  His bag of rice landed on its side, sending a cascade of grains across the dusty landscape. 

“Are you okay?”  Eva tugged at his shirt.  “You need to get up.  The Theran are watching.”

Seth watched the drops of sweat roll off his forehead and disappear in puffs of dust as they hit the ground.  Sharp little pebbles prodded at his knees and he wondered if they’d made him bleed.  He dug his left foot into the ground and tried to lift his body.  It wouldn’t move. 

“You must get up.”  Eva pulled desperately at his arm.  It hurt, but Seth didn’t have the energy to protest.  “There are two nearby.  I can feel their eyes.”

Seth turned his head and saw one of the four-legged beasts grazing among a patch of tall grass.  It snorted, shaking a bug off its shoulders as it foraged for food.  It wasn’t watching him. 

Seth spit the dirt from his mouth and took a deep breath. Teeth grinding, he pushed off of the ground with both his palms and managed to get his feet under him.  The sudden change in position made him woozy, but Eva was there to hold him up.  “They’re not watching us, Eva.  They’re just animals.”

“Don’t say things like that.  I’d have thought your sickness would have taught you a lesson.”

Seth looked down at his fallen bag of rice.  He knew he wouldn’t be able to carry it. 

“Here, I might be able to take your bag for a little while.”  Eva balanced her own bag precariously on her knee while she reached for Seth’s with her free hand.  There was a time that Seth envied her strength.  As his illness became worse, he had needed it.

“This isn’t worth it.”  Seth’s voice cracked.  “I’m going to die before we get there.”

“Quiet you big baby.”  Eva’s eyes betrayed the smile on her lips.  “We’re almost there.  Then you’re going to get better, and we can go home and celebrate with Father.”

“Don’t talk to me about Father.  You could build him a castle and he’d thank the Theran for it.”

“You shouldn’t speak of him that way.”

Seth looked at the ground.  He dragged his feet, following Eva as quickly as his legs would allow.  She hauled both bags in her arms and still moved faster than him. 

“You’re doing fine.”  She readjusted her grip on the bags.

The walk ended with an uphill climb through a thick patch of brush to the top of the highest waterfall in the land.  Seth could feel the cool mist kissing his neck and he sighed, recalling the days that he used to travel here in the mornings and listen to the birds sing in the treetops.

When they approached the top of the waterfall, Eva handed him his bag of rice.  She smiled.  “I don’t think it will matter that you dropped some of it.  The Theran can’t punish you for an honest mistake.”

Seth looked over the edge of the cliff.  The water careened off the cluster of rocks below, shrouding the descent in whitish-blue mist.  He wondered what it would feel like to leap off.  To feel the wind blow through his hair for one last time.  Would the joyous days of his youth flash before him?

Eva leaned over and put her hand on his back.  “Go ahead.”

With his eyes closed, Seth curled his toes and took a deep breath.  He held the bag of rice out in front of him and poured it out into the waterfall.  He couldn’t hear it over the roaring of flowing water, but he imagined that it sounded like rain.

Eva dumped her bag out and took Seth’s empty sack.  She smiled.  “It’s done.  You’ll feel better now.  I promise.”

“I already do.”  Seth sighed and extended his arms. 

A smile broke out across his face and he inched closer to the edge of the waterfall.  The cool droplets of mist condensed across his neck and chest.

“It’s nice being up here.”  Eva smiled and folded her arms.  Seth didn’t move.  He stood with his head tilted towards the water.  “Hey, you alright?  We can go back now.”

Seth bent his knees and jumped down into the waterfall.  Eva reached out reflexively to catch him, brushing the fabric of his pants with her fingertips as he slipped by. 

“Seth!” She stepped up to the edge and threw down the empty sacks.  She swallowed and prepared to dive after him.  There was no other way down, but the rocks were too jagged and the water too shallow.  Seth’s body collided with one of the rocks and got tossed aside like a hailstone against a rooftop.  He disappeared under a cloud of mist. 

Eva’s knees weakened and she examined the water to find him.  She sat on the edge of the cliff, letting her feet dangle over the side.  She’d looked over the side a thousand times and had never seen a way to descend without falling.  But she looked again. 

For a hanging vine. 

For a path of rocks to leap down. 

For a magical ladder forged by the Theran.

There was nothing.  She watched the water pool up around the place where Seth fell.  No sign of him.

“Seth.  Why did you do this?”  She stood up and backed away from the edge of the waterfall.  Staring so far down made her dizzy.  Feeling the blood rushing into her face she clenched her fists and turned to the Theran.  “Why didn’t you stop this?  He did everything you asked of him and you let him jump.” 

The Theran ignored her.  Faces buried in the grass, they pretended not to hear.  She took a step forward.  “Was his sacrifice not good enough?  What more did you want from him?”

They remained quiet.  It wasn’t the first time they had ignored her.  Perhaps she should have been used to it.

Eva held her head and looked towards the sky.  Her legs were tired and the smell of the waterfall made her nauseous.  She thought about the words she would use to tell Father. 

As she began the walk back, she caught eye of the Theran standing around her.  Their vacant eyes seldom settled to meet hers.  They wandered like cattle from one patch of grass to the next, shifting their bulky bodies as minimally as they could.  For the first time they looked like animals.

Eva was startled to see the village when it appeared over the horizon.  Seth and the Theran had consumed her thoughts.  Until now she hadn’t noticed her tiring calves burning with every footstep. 

“Eva.  You’re back already?”

A familiar voice echoed through the woods.  Eva turned to see her friend Ella approaching with a bow slung over her back and a fox dangling by the tail from her hand.  She wore a smile far too jubilant for the circumstances.

“Where’s Seth?”  Ella looked around and then back at Eva.  The smile faded.  She lowered her arms and dropped the fox into the dirt.  “Something’s wrong.  Did the Theran refuse the sacrifice?”

“Refuse?  I don’t know what you mean.”

“Did the waterfall return the rice?”

Eva shook her head and scowled.  “Don’t be absurd.  Have you ever seen that happen?”

“No, but it happened in the ancient times.”

“It didn’t happen this time.”

“Then what’s the matter?  Where’s Seth?”

“He died.”  The words sputtered out before Eva could think to contain them.  The shock on Ella’s face made her regret saying anything.

“But…” Ella looked at the ground.  “You made the sacrifice and he still didn’t recover?  How is that possible?”

“Please.  Don’t make me talk about it.”  Eva felt her throat clenching up.  She wanted to run away.  “I need to talk to my father first.”

“Of course.”  Ella picked up her fox and brushed it off.  She looked tense and unsure how to react.  “Perhaps the Theran can still bring him back.”

“Perhaps.”  That wasn’t how it worked and Eva knew it.  She suspected that Ella knew it as well.  She turned away and jogged towards father’s hut until she sensed that nobody was behind her.  Father was outside crouched over the fire pit toasting thin strips of venison.  Seth’s favorite.  She could hardly stomach the smell.

“Father, we have to talk.”

The old man stood up and brushed the silvery long hair away from his face.  His lips trembled.  “Seth isn’t with you.”

A light breeze blew the smoke from the fire into Eva’s eyes.  The hot sting sent a single tear down her cheek.  “I couldn’t save him.  The Theran…”

“The Theran didn’t save him?  What of the sacrifice?  All that rice.”

“The sacrifice went fine.  He…”  Eva felt another tear tickle her cheek.  She sniffled.  “He jumped off the waterfall.  It wasn’t the illness that got him.  He just spread his arms and… jumped.”

“Idiot.”  Father threw the venison into the heart of the fire and kicked at the flaming logs with a bare foot.  The meat shriveled into ashes.  “Had he no regard for his soul?”

“Father, stop.”  The smoke poured into Eva’s face.  She coughed and stepped back.  “The Theran have no reason to punish him further.”

“You know so little.”  Eva’s father didn’t seem to notice the burn on his shin. 

“Why would you say something like that?”

“Our oldest records state that anyone who takes their own life is doomed to wander the planet forever as a lost soul.  The Theran themselves decreed it.”

“Well, maybe Seth didn’t believe that.”  Eva wondered if she spoke for Seth or for herself.  “He never believed that the Theran were anything but animals.”

The muscles in Father’s neck tightened and contorted.  His face grew as red as the evening sun.  “Then he got what he deserved.  I am ashamed to call him my son.”

Eva watched her father shuffle back to the hut.  He stopped at the doorway and lowered his head.  “Two weeks of rice.  Gone for nothing.”

He disappeared inside.  Eva watched the fire fade into dying coals.  She laid in the dirt and looked up at the sky.  The stars came out one by one.  People passed by.  They stared at her, murmuring to each other but saying nothing to her.  With all thoughts with her brother, Eva closed her eyes and slept. 

#

“Get off the ground, girl.” 

Eva stumbled to her feet.  The early sun blinded her and tickled her nose.  She forgot for a moment why she was outside.  Her father stood above her, dressed in his white ceremonial gowns of mourning.

“Father?”

“Look at you.”  Eva’s father pulled out her sleeve with his fingertips and examined it.  “Filthy.  What were you thinking?”

“I was tired.  I must have accidentally dozed off.”

“That’s no excuse for laying in the dirt like a swine.  Cleanliness is one of our most important virtues.”

Eva lowered her head.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s a wonder you haven’t contracted Seth’s illness.  You should be on your knees thanking the Theran.”

The Theran.  The same creatures who would punish Seth after all his sacrifice and hardship.  If Seth’s soul was to wander around lost for the rest of time, then Eva couldn’t expect better  She swallowed and looked up at her father.  “I owe nothing to the Theran.”

The old man looked at her with stony eyes.  He lifted his hand and struck Eva’s face harder than she thought possible.  Her teeth chattered and she reached for her cheek.  The sting brought tears to her eyes.  When she looked back up, Father had already started off towards the falls. 

A few other villagers followed him in their own white garments.  Eva rubbed her face and wondered if she was even welcome to follow.  With Father gone, she ducked into the hut and looked upon her own ceremonial gown.  It hung against the wall right next to her bed to remind her of lost friends.  She ran her fingers over the soft velvety fabric and up to the copper crest on the left sleeve.   

Cool and smooth. 

A big brown eyesore on an otherwise fine gown.  It meant ‘Praises to the Theran.’  The phrase no longer held any significance.  She put her palm over the top and tore it off in one motion.  She smiled, surprised by the ease of its removal.  Turning away from the gown, Eva saw her bow and quiver propped against the wall next to her bed.  She picked them up and left the hut.

Ella and Victor approached in their own white clothes.  Ella smiled weakly.  “I’m so sorry.”

Victor shook his head.  “Are you sure he didn’t fall on accident?  I just can’t believe Seth would do something like that.”

“I guess my father has already told everyone.”  Eva gripped the limb of her bow.  

“Where’s your gown?” Ella asked.  “Your father will be furious if you’re late to the funeral.”

“I’m not going.”  Eva braced herself for the reaction.

“Come on.”  Ella delicately put her hand on Eva’s shoulder.  “I’d be mad too if my brother defied the Theran, but this is the last time you’ll get to pay your respects.”

Eva threw Ella’s hand off.  “You don’t understand at all.  Neither of you get it.”

“What’s the matter with you?”  Victor stepped forward.

“Follow me.”  Eva gestured towards a small grove of trees nearby.  She cupped her hands to her mouth and looked out across the village.  “Everyone who loves the Theran, follow me.” 

Victor and Ella protested, but since they kept following, Eva ignored them.  She marched towards the grove of trees, itching to lift the bow off her back.  She could sense a few other villagers following close behind.  She felt powerful.  Powerful enough to prove her brother right about everything. 

“There’s one right there.”  Eva stopped before the grove and took aim with her bow.  One of the Theran stood not a stones throw away, shading itself underneath a big oak tree.

“What are you doing?”  Desperation flooded Ella’s voice.  “You’re going to doom the entire village.”

“I want to prove something.”  Eva pulled back the drawstring.  The beast before her rested its head in a patch of grass and stretched out with its two front legs. 

Eva didn’t know if she could do it.  The protests from the crowd blended into a blur of white noise.  Her arm became shaky and she strained to keep focus.  Suddenly a hand bumped her elbow and she felt Victor breathing on her neck. 

She panicked.

The arrow soared through the air and hit the animal between the shoulder blades.  The Theran bucked up and let out a scream that echoed through the forest.  The beast shook from side to side, trying vainly to loose the arrow.  The screaming became louder while the beast thumped its hooves against the ground creating a great cloud of dust.

With a shaky hand, Eva loaded another arrow.  She aimed carefully and fired.  It struck the Theran in the neck.  The mighty animal’s legs shook for a moment and it fell to the earth.  It dug its hooves into the dirt, struggling to move.  Its lower body caked with dirt, it inched along towards the grass.  Too weak in the knees to rise back up. 

Its screams slowed and gave way to delicate whimpers.  Eva held her forehead and watched its lungs rhythmically expand. 

In and out.  In and out.  She could hear every labored breath, but it still wasn’t dying.

Eva sighed and approached the animal, dragging her feet as she got closer.  It raised its head once to look at her, its fur soaked in blood.  It didn’t know her.  It didn’t even know she had done this.  It whimpered one last time as if asking for help.  Eva closed her eyes and loaded one more arrow. 

She let it go.

Noise in the forest ceased for a moment.  Aside from a distant breeze whistling passed the branches, all fell silent.  Eva watched the wind blow through the animal’s fur.

“Why did you do that?”  Ella asked. 

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t understand,” Victor said.  “Why didn’t it stop you?  The Theran are supposed to be all powerful.  Was it just an animal?”

“Yeah.  It’s just an animal.”  Eva returned the bow to her back and turned around.  “Just a peaceful animal.  And I knew that.  But for some reason I had to kill it.”

Ella shook her head.  Her eyes were red and her lips quivered.  “This doesn’t bring Seth back.  If anything it means he’s gone forever.  It means everything we ever believed was a lie.”

“Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything.”  Eva sighed.  “I don’t know where Seth is.  And I don’t know why he left me the way he did.  But I still hope to see him again.”

“We can’t let anybody else see this.”  Ella grabbed the fallen theran by the back legs and began pulling it away from the village.  “Your father would lose his mind.” 

“Yeah.  He probably would.” 

Eva returned the bow and arrows to her hut and draped the white gown over her clothes.  Her father would punish her for being late, but nothing he could do would match the emptiness she felt. 

As she began the long march, she whispered to herself.  “Maybe someday I’ll see Seth again.”

A Devil with a Halo

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.”