It had been many years since he had last been here. On the outskirts of town where unruly hill met trail, the man stood as still as a statue. As his eyes travelled the maze of rooftops and streets, he fumbled with the items in his pocket. Beneath the tangled brush of facial hair, a scowl could just be seen mirroring the man's dark thoughts. Time hadn't paid him any kindness; the taste of betrayal still lingered on his tongue as fresh and bitter as it had been years ago.
The moon beamed at him mockingly, its soft rays unable to illuminate the darkest depths of the man's thoughts. Like a giant lantern, it hung in the sky, caressing the clouds as they glided past. The highest ones, catching the reflected the light of the moon, appeared almost firm enough to walk on.
The man finally stirred and made towards a small hill only a few feet off. Legs shaking as they propelled him up the gentle incline, he pulled a long string of black beads out of his pocket. Grey eyes glanced around lazily as he wrapped the string of beads around his wrist and halted at the top of the hill. The large oak, sitting regally in the center, appeared to tremble in fear as he stood beneath it, or perhaps it was just the breeze.
He shifted his weight as he half-turned to look at the small town now to his left. All lights had long been extinguished and the man was grateful for the additional cover of darkness. The journey had been tiring enough without him having to extend his powers any further. Although he could melt back into the natural shadows if required, he wanted to conserve his energy as much as possible. The journey home would be long and he had little energy to spare.
The voice snapped him out of his thoughts. Tearing his gaze from the town, he turned around and cast his eyes on a shapely woman.
"Moira." It was difficult to keep the fatigue out of his voice.
Sauntering up the final incline of the hill, the woman lowered the hood of her cloak and shook hair out of her face.
"How long has it been?" A tiny smile graced her lips before she stopped two feet short of him.
Sullivan let his eyes wash over the woman's fair features. As far as he could tell, it had been about a year since he had last seen her. He sensed she missed his company, and even the mere thought stirred long forgotten memories.
"A year, I believe," he said, careful to keep the joy of finally seeing her out of his voice. "Has it felt much longer?"
With a frown, Moira nodded. "Yes, it did feel much longer. We were afraid you weren't going to come back this time."
Wondering at the sudden change in her expression, Sullivan asked, "How long has it been?"
Moira tilted her head, brow smoothing as she looked at him carefully. "It has been six years, Sullivan."
Although this information surprised him, he didn't allow Moira to see it on his face. Instead, he examined her features more closely, as if refusing to believe it had really been so long. Her oval face did appear to be more slender. Her eyes even had dark circles underneath them; from what, he wasn't sure, and her hair was more unkempt than was characteristic.
"It was winter when I left?" he asked, turning his attention back to the task at hand. He had been farther East than any of the records detailed, and he now understood why no one visited the mountains past the Tribe of Amon.
"The middle of, yes."
They stood in silence; neither one daring to ask the other what they had been doing for the past six years. Sullivan shifted his feet and let one coil loose from his wrist. The beads clattered against one another, before he draped them between his fingers and began flicking them.
Flick, flick, flick.
Could it have really have been six years?
Flick, flick, flick.
It had only felt like one.
"Why have you come here?" Moira's voice cut through Sullivan's thoughts like a blade through cloth. "You've had a long journey, you should rest in Barrendale."
Somewhat annoyed by the mental intrusion, Sullivan paused before answering, his mind drifting back to where it had ventured. The tales about the East Mountains draining the life out of travellers were true, but Sullivan decided he could afford to expend his magic a little further.
"Only a few hours until sun up," he said, turning his attention back to the town. "We had better take advantage of the dark."
Moira's brow furrowed as she appraised him. "Did the Neor take more than you had agreed upon?" Her voice was cautious as she slid next to him and rested her hand on his shoulder.
A shadow of an expression passed over Sullivan's face before, "No." His voice was hardly louder than a whisper, and he knew he hadn't fooled her. This thought bothered him; he traded too much and now he could hardly weave his magic into a lie.
Shrugging her hand from his shoulder, he said, "There is a woman who wishes to trade a life for her death."
"We don't deal with that sort of magic, Sullivan," said Moira, her forehead crinkled with confusion.
"This is different." He pointed a long, pale finger towards the town. "She can see through the veil of time. She says the child that will be born tomorrow will not be right." A light, the size and colour of a small pearl, slithered out of the tip of his finger and hung in the air. "You must complete the trade and bring the child to me."
"Not right?" said Moira. "How does she mean?"
Sullivan's body became rigid. He lowered his arm and turned to her. "That does not concern you. All you need to know is where the child may be found, and this," here he pointed at the light hanging in the air, "will lead you."
He shoved the string of beads back into his pocket and walked away. "I return to Barrendale," he said over his shoulder. "Don't disappoint me."
Moira watched him descend the hill and disappear into the darkness of the forest. Furrowing her brow, she pulled up her hood and wondered at the cryptic task Sullivan assigned her. He must not have been in his right mind, for this was the first time they ever agreed to a task such as this. Upon seeing him after so long a time, she was relieved to the point of elation, but that relief quickly turned sour once she saw how tired he looked, how pale. Even his magic was sickly.
Casting these thoughts from her mind, she turned and looked at the hovering light, which upon sensing she was prepared to leave, glided towards the town. Affording one last glance at the forest, Moira wrapped her cloak around her closer and followed the orb into Woodell.