As I sat on the floor with my back resting against the wall, my quest to find out about my past began to seem increasingly futile. Why had I locked myself in here, while outside my friends might be dying?
And then I thought, that's what I've been doing for the past twenty years. Always being on my guard, defending friends, killing enemies - had any of it mattered in the end? What I had told him in Azeara's cave had been true - I had shed enough blood for a lifetime.
The air in front of my eyes began to shimmer, and then a tiny flame was burning in mid-air.
"Forget about it," I said.
The flame flickered, and then burned steadily again.
"Who sent you here?"
No visible reaction.
"Oh, be that way, then."
I sat and thought about it for a while. And, in the end - tired of thinking, tired of hiding and tired of running away - I just got up and stepped out into the other world.
I was standing on the mountain path outside the inn, the flame still burning brightly in front of my eyes. Outside the pool of light that surrounded the flame there was only darkness. I began to walk, allowing the flame to guide me.
As I followed the tiny speck of fire up the path, images came and went - Azeara and her father making their way down, a courtier hurrying up to greet them... the little girl in the white dress running towards her mother, and Lowanda bending down to scoop her up in her arms... Beron and his brother riding, racing each other down the road to Stillwater, laughing and shouting...
Wish-fulfilment, I thought. This is getting me nowhere.
It was getting light, with a black sun rising in a greying sky. On either side of the path I could see the farms where, a lifetime ago, I had been looking for work. With the flame still moving in front of me, its golden light the only colour among the various shades of grey, I crossed the border. After a while the flame began to drift off from the path, and when I looked more closely I noticed a goat trail leading up the mountain's slope. I began to follow it, the flame still floating ahead.
The trail seemed to go on forever, steeply winding its way upwards. As I continued to climb I lost all sense of time, of where I was and what I was doing there. Suddenly I realised that my face was wet with tears. Strange, I thought, I didn't realise I had been crying.
I stumbled, and when I opened my eyes again I was lying face-down on the trail. The right side of my face and my right arm and shoulder hurt, since they had taken the worst of my fall. When I looked up I saw a tiny speck of gold disappearing into the distance, and I wondered where Rhiana and Jorden were. I wasn't sure what I was doing in this place, but they ought to be around somewhere.
And then I remembered the fire.
Rhiana and Jorden were unharmed, of course, he had taken them away and they were somewhere safe. But every morning when I woke up I reached out, expecting to find Rhiana at my side and to hear Jorden waking up in the cot in the corner, and every time I thought the pain of being cut off from them would destroy me.
The fire hadn't wanted to let them go, and he had told me to grovel and beg. At first I had just looked at him in astonishment, and then I had been angry. My wife and son were dying, and he was telling me to talk to the fire? He had insisted, telling me that if I ever wanted to see them alive again I had to trust him. In the end I obeyed. I knelt, and pleaded, and I had ended up facedown on the ground, burrowing into the dust to lower myself even further, crying and begging until I had ripped my voice to shreds.
Then he was kneeling at my side, one hand resting on my head, his other arm in a chokehold around Rhiana's throat. My wife was clutching Jorden to her chest, her face a mask of terror. I wanted to talk to her, to tell her everything would be alright, but I couldn't.
His fingers grabbed my hair and he lifted my head, forcing me to look him in the eyes. "They're safe," he said. "The fire has let them go. What do you say to that?"
"Thank you," I whispered. "The fire is good and merciful."
"And what will you do now?"
"I'll do anything. Anything to keep them safe."
He smiled and I tried to smile back, while Rhiana whimpered and struggled and Jorden began to cry. "It's only a very, very little thing I ask of you." He pulled me up by the hair and I cried out, struggling to my knees. "Rid the world of that accursed gift of yours," he whispered, still smiling, his face close to mine. "Storytellers and healers, find them, feed them to the fire. The fire wants them, the fire will cleanse them. Do you understand?"
"Yes," I said. It all made sense, and I would serve him well.
He pulled me even closer to him, his lips almost touching my ear, his breath warm on my cheek. "And when you've found them all, and when you've killed them all, you know what to do. There still will be one left. And something needs to be done about that, don't you think?"
"Yes," I said. I would take my own life and be free. Of course.
"Good," he said. He pulled Rhiana closer to him. "We'll be waiting for you." And then the three of them were gone.
I was still sitting on the floor, my back against the wall. Darkness had fallen, and for that I was grateful. After the fire I had gathered a band of like-minded men and women, and we'd been hunting and burning storytellers and healers until none with the gift were left in the west. I began to laugh. I had wanted the truth, right? Why wasn't I happy?
My hands opened the backpack and began to search within, seeming to be possessed with a mind of their own. I watched them take out the pair of scissors that I kept to clip my beard, and then the piece of mirrored glass. I tested the edge of the scissors' blades with my finger. No, I thought. That wouldn't do. The piece of glass seemed more promising, with a nice, sharp, jagged edge. Again, I laughed. How appropriate, I thought, that the device that showed me my reflection would end up destroying me.
I placed the piece of glass against my left wrist and cut through the veins. I gasped as a burning pain shot through my left arm, and a wave of darkness washed over me. Then I could see again, and as my arm went numb and ice-cold I looked on as a pulsating stream of blood began to flow from the wound.
I must have passed out for a moment, and I was roused by the sound of something heavy that fell against the door and then started to slide down. I froze, and listened to the sounds of a fight and running feet. Then I heard Jadri shout, "Run, I'll keep them as long as I can!" "No, you're the heir to the throne!" Merran, I thought. "Then I should be willing to lay down my life for my country! Go!"
I'm sorry, I thought. I failed you, as I've failed everyone else.
Since I was lying on my side now I must have fallen, though I couldn't remember. It didn't matter. I tried to hold the piece of glass in my left hand, but because there was so much blood it kept slipping from my grasp. Eventually I wedged it between two tiles in the floor and, keeping it in place with the fingers of my left hand, I set to work on the veins in my right wrist. The pain was even more excruciating than it had been the first time, and I nearly passed out again.
For a brief moment I could see the whole of creation, a fault-line of death and destruction running through it from the highest realms of the gods to the deepest recesses of the underworld.
And then there was only darkness.
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