“We’ve got t’leave,” said Orliss.
He spent the rest of the day packing what he needed for the road. Being a hermit, of sorts, there was always a travel bag at the ready.
He opened Meralys’ closet to Jaika; nothing was an exact fit, so she took what felt snug, and left the rest. There were also riding clothes, an unexpected and welcome bonus, so she took those as well.
“We was farmers once, and Meralys loved ‘er horses,” Orliss explained.
“You must tell me more of your life once we’re on the road.”
“I daresay we’ll not have th’ time, missy.”
He still called her ‘missy.’ She’d given up trying to change it. Besides, it could also be her name; no one need know her real name here. As of now, only two men who’d she’d had no intention of meeting, and had stumbled into quite by accident, knew it.
And then she received another startling revelation, from none other than Orliss himself.
“But you must tell me how it came to be that a young woman came to be traveling alone.”
She looked up, surprised, a smile of shocked amusement on her face.
“Your accent’s a ruse,” she said.
He smiled, “You’re quick. A good one, isn’t it?”
“Very much so, but why?”
“Helps me fit in, gain information. When I’m drunk though, it doesn’t seem to be a character. But it was ever my intention to fight back. With you here, that will make it easier.”
“He said we were to be wed. He knew my name, and when he left…I felt…”
“We’ll have to look into all that. Now’s not the time. We need to be gone by nightfall. I’ve a feeling he’ll be back, and he won’t be alone, and he won’t have those dogs.”
She nodded, and couldn’t repress a shudder, which he saw.
She sighed, and composed herself.
He placed a meaty hand on her shoulder. “I know. You’ve been swept up in a series of events that make absolutely no sense to you. I can’t explain how they do. I don’t know why you’re here, or why Dominick is after you, or me, for that matter. He won the war when he killed Meralys, and I was too devastated for thoughts of revenge.
“But I let him take the woman I love from me, and did nothing about it.
“I can’t allow that to happen again, but I can’t promise you it won’t.
“The truth is, the years of dissipation were real, and have taken their toll, but now there’s what’s left, and I have to use it to rid the world of him, and not just for you.
I don’t know the part you play; I’ve read no great books, and there’s no ancient prophecy.
“In fact, we had a somewhat shaky beginning.”
“Yes,” she reddened at the memory. “We did.”
“This is a strange and dark place; you’ve doubtless felt its power. That’s where I’ll need your wood lore; you’re under no obligation to stay, and I can see you to a ship this very afternoon that will give you safe passage, but I’m asking: will you help me?”
“I will help you, Orliss. If it wasn’t for you, I likely would not have survived. He’s attacked me twice, and there’s no denying there’s a bond. I felt it. I have to break it, but I don’t know how, and that’s where I’ll need you.”
“So, partners then?”
His hand was still resting on her shoulder, and she put her own hand over it.
They left the cottage empty and set out for the town to buy horses.
Jaika had to admit that in her travels, she’d never met anyone like Orliss. There was more to him than met the eye. He’d been stinking and drunk, and she’d been violent and desperate and frightened out of her wits, and in a few days, they’d become totally different people, though she was still frightened out of her wits.
Her travels up until now had been solitary; she slept when she needed to, ate when she was hungry, and traveled often to the point of exhaustion, wandering, seemingly aimless, but now knowing it wasn’t.
None of what happened to her now seemed coincidental, but she hoped she wasn’t some sort of celestial pawn, even though the darkly divine nature of her encounter was already a factor.
Gods of the forest, is that why you removed your protection? If so, you’ll not find me a willing puppet to your unknown plans.
The bargain for horses struck, they rode back on the dirt trail that led to the temple.
“I’ve not seen it in many years. I went as far as the tavern, and it seems the devils were content to leave me be, after they destroyed me.
“Now, that’s not the case.”
They arrived on the temple grounds. It sat in the middle, a circle of smooth walls like an aged, empty turtle shell.
The ivy leaves were beginning to turn with the season, as were the trees, edged with the slightest of red and orange and gold.
We must kill him before winter.
She stayed at the top of the trail, holding the reins of their horses as they grazed, and Orliss investigated.
There was no way she could bear to go near it right now; it was enough she might have to later.
He peered through the cracks, same as she did, but he didn’t stay long to observe anything, or so Jaika thought, as he walked around it rather quickly for his size.
She wanted to call out, to ask him if he saw anything, but the demon priest might not necessarily be nocturnal.
Orliss stopped, seemed to be thinking of something, then walked toward the back of the temple, but instead of going around again, he walked through the high wild grass.
Jaika only saw trees and weeds. It seemed to her there was nothing to mark it as a path.
Curious, she dismounted, tied off the horses, and went to follow him.
He was standing at the edge of a cemetery, the stones faded, fallen, and the gates broken. There was a low-lying fog covering the grassy ground, burning off slowly in the mid-morning sun.
She came and stood next to him.
“Most of the people I’ve known.”
She pressed no further, and let him have his moment, and started to walk back toward the horses.
“Don’t go, Jaika.”
She’d learned that when he called her name, things were different, so she stayed, standing beside him, scanning the mossy, discolored markers.
After a moment, she said “We should be going, Orliss.”
He sighed, and nodded. “There’s just one more thing left to do. Something I should have done years ago.”
“We’re going to burn the temple down.”
“Orliss, it’s stone, and there’s nothing in it. You’re not thinking clearly.”
“Oh, stone burns, Jaika. There’re different kinds of fire.”
“You’re talking in riddles.”
“I’m going to bind the spirits in this place.”
She went quiet at that, put some stray strands of hair behind her ear, losing the set of her shoulders, sighing.
“Is this something I should be a part of?”
He turned to face her. His eyes held a tenderness, but also a glimmer of fire.
“You already are.”
“But you’ve burned your books.”
Jaika didn’t want to know, so she asked no more questions.
He sat on the stained marble bench, and closed his eyes.
Jaika took the quiet time to look around.
The gravestones, faded with age and stained with elements, listed precariously in their slots, all but toppled, the names and dates long obliterated.
The high grass extended all across the plot land, and the mausoleum sat squat and dark, a diseased mushroom full of decay and vermin, a black blot on the green field.
She shuddered. There was something tainted and palpable in the air, like demon breath.
Orliss, some memory tapped, began to chant in a soft voice that pushed against the silence, chipping away at it.
Jaika didn’t know if he was praying, or casting a spell, but either way it looked like he would be a while. She went to check on the horses, and stayed with them to reassure them that their riders were still close by.
She ate a small snack while she waited.
The fog had burned off, and the mild warmth and clear skies of the early afternoon belied the peril they faced, and as the morning lazed into the afternoon, Jaika saw spread through the fading mist where Orliss sat.
The nervous horses whickered and stamped, and Jaika moved out of the range of their hooves. Fighting panic, her hand trembling, she drew her short sword, and went to investigate.
Orliss was where she’d left him, but what was in the light got her attention.
There were people, hundreds, of all ages, standing by their markers, but something about them was very strange.
Jaika realized that their features were just the veneer over their bones, and the wounds and diseases that ravaged them were visible: there were murder victims , their ghastly wounds almost translucent in the afternoon sun.
And of those who were mutilated: she could see their severed limbs flickering where they’d been hacked, the bloody stumps of meat and gore still dripping spectral blood.
Those who’d died of diseases, in childbirth, in accidents, all bore the marks of their passing, she saw the skeletons just underneath the veneer of flesh. The people were buried dressed in their finest formal wear, which was now little more than scraps, hanging like dead creepers from their limbs.
Sunken eyes, missing teeth, swollen tongues, open sores, torn female clothing, bruised faces, tilted heads with rope burns on their necks, and heads of glorious female hair ridden with lice, and small children with smiling mouths full of worms and centipedes pushed back against Orliss’ magic with a palpable malevolence.
He might have been marble himself, though his whiskers flew about him like a halo of tumbleweed, and sweat stains ruined his clean clothes.
Vermin began to appear and tentatively sniff at him, and began to snap at his flesh.
They went right through Jaika, as if she wasn’t there at all.
He flinched, and winced, and gasped, but picked right back up and didn’t stop chanting until, finally, he did. As he stood, he brushed the vermin from his body with a fell sweep of his arm, and Jaika gasped as they vanished. It had all been illusion to get him to stop.
A spirit-man came forward, his transparent flesh desiccated, and pointing what was left of his finger at Orliss, he spoke telepathically.
Jaika heard his voice in her head; it sounded like wet, shifting gravel, grating and unpleasant. She bore it for Orliss’ sake.
You should be here among us, priest.
“I know, and I’m sorry, but I’m not.”
We could make it so you are.
“Or you could tell me where Thonian ran off to fight.”
You name him! Oh, your boldness…
“I’ve no time to sit here preening with you; do you know where he is, or don’t you?”
If we did, we would not tell you, for your magic is weak, and cannot compel us. But it is as you say: we know not where he has gone.
Why do you disturb us, Orliss? A woman’s voice was speaking now, as she made her own way to face him. Have any of among us haunted you?
Then why do you seek us?
“This is my friend Jaika.” He extended his arm in her direction, and their broken eyes followed it to land on her. Jaika tried not to tremble.
” Thonian has marked her for his bride. I cannot allow it, and in the process of stopping him I might…I might be able to…free your souls.
The outburst was immediate, with some opting to pass through him and kill him, and still others to finish hearing what he had to say.
The latter won.
This is a bold claim, from a man whose magic has passed into legend.
“And yet I say it.”
Making no promises!
“But telling the TRUTH! DAMN your obstinate, bitter, foolish minds!”
Along with our souls, you mean? The woman spoke to them both, not unkindly.
Orliss seemed to deflate. “I meant…will you help me find him?”
The staring seemed an eternity.
A breeze stirred, and Jaika gagged on the stench from the risen dead, and held her breath; if either of them said anything now, they would lose their cause.
The two spirits that spoke to Orliss conferred, then walked among the others.
The early afternoon went into the late afternoon by the time the two of them returned.
Yes, Orliss. For the sake of our souls, we’ll be glad to help, but if you fall into the river of doubt, the stream of surrender, your souls are forfeit to us.
Are we agreed?
Orliss looked at Jaika, and after considering, she gave him a nod.
“We are,” Orliss said.
Then we take our leave, until tonight.
They slipped back into the ground in clusters, angry at their awakening, but excited to be involved in what could be the ancient land’s new beginning.
© Alfred W. Smith, Jr.
All rights reserved.