The Knight Who Aims for God
Divine winced as he climbed the last stone steps to the tower. The heating runes were carved about a metre below and the stones held their heat, but the air was whimsical and never did. And the cold had sharp teeth – but he was more than willing to bear with its bites if it meant more money at the end of things. And, from the guard tower, he could see the entire western quadrant – the Wild West, as they called it, though their people weren't nearly as savage as they liked to pretend.
Most importantly, he could see the smoke from funeral fires, rising into the black sky. Pale blue, almost grey, smoke, for those not handed a lantern and shown the path…and there were too few priests out west. Still too many, in his opinion. But he had a job because of their incompetence so he couldn't really complain. But even if he could, no-one would listen. No god heard the prayers of the people when the sun left them to wander in darkness until they burned.
This time, he saw a faint blue glow, almost hidden by smoke, yet unobscured by clay homes. The dead was close then, and a shame it hadn't been on his way so he may have bypassed the lookout entirely. Because there was little else to see save the pattern of smoke in the sky: black streets, black houses and the grey wastelands of snow. And the angry blue veins: a stark contrast on white skin, and begging to escape the cold. But there was no true escape from the cold, except the burning days. And it was the days after those that brought the most profit home.
The heated stones sent pulses of heat through his soles. They were too small a comfort to be worth the trip to most but he had an ulterior cause. And then there were the guards always sitting on the seventh and eighth steps from the top: at Heaven's Lookout, as it was now, rarely, called. There was one guard now, in armour from head to toe, more to conduct heat than protect from foes, and he gave him a cursory glance before waving him on. He'd said his part on the way up: "don't let me stop you crazy folk who willingly leave the floor." By floor, he meant the ground indoors: the houses, mostly, or large homes. The heating stones without the frigid air made it by far the most tolerable place in the western quadrant. But they weren't going to pay the price by sitting around.
The stones cooled as he climbed further down, but the biting also waned. It was just a suffocating blanket of cold and he walked briskly to escape it. There was nothing new to see in any case, save mould which had chosen those barely brushed corners to grow and he had no interest in mould.
He was freed of their company soon enough, and greeted instead by the chilling snow. His bare feet left imprints that would remain for an hour or two, before the new falling flakes filled them in, and the snow that already slumbered tried to add their claw marks to his skin: their anger at being trod upon. But the wind and snow and frozen water could bite and scratch at him as they liked, and never injure the skin. And that was a boon well worth the price: the one-off man who'd carved the circle into his back, and the magic's ongoing demands. Expensive on the whole, but why else did he gather spoils except for a comfortable life? Still, he didn't make enough for many luxuries. Just a little more magic than most people had access to and a snowbike to get to more distant scenes. Sure, that meant he could encroach on another mercenary's territory, but there tended to be enough dead to go around. It was an expensive beginning, but the long-term payoff was pretty good.
And he was well-enough used to the dense aura bled by the recently dead. Some never did and that automatically disqualified them from suck jobs, and others were completely immune to the same effect. But he was fine: he could feel the area like shallow cuts stung by silver water: sharp, pesky, but not unbearable. He followed them through the sparse bare trees that may, in another life, had barred intruders from more private soil, until he came almost to the river edge, when his eyes burned and watered as well, from earth-smoke as well as the aura's claws.
They were on this side of the river, though the stones were sluggish and not at all difficult to cross. Two children and their mother: all three soaked but only two trembled. The third - the smaller child - was already dead, and the mother naive. She saw the spirits carved into his skin and hailed him as the saviour he wasn't: the saviour who could bring the dead back into the world of the living. But there was no-one - priest or spiritual mercenary or necromancer - who could do it. And if there was a god above them all, then he was yet to prove it possible to them.
The live child began to wail, and the mother clutched the dead one close and stared, her lips forming too quiet pleas - except the first - for him to make out until he grew closer still. And perhaps he put out the image of a saving grace as he was, marching callously towards the dead - but trial and error during his earliest days had taught him how unwise it was to call at them reality from afar. It ended in either more or no work for him. So he held his tongue until he crouched by their side and fighting for deep breaths. How rare, he thought to himself. Even for a child, it was strong, and then he realised why. Moreson than the others' wails giving strength to the undeparted spirit, but the living child was fast approaching death as well. She had stopped shivering, her wails were soft - and soon, all movement and sound would cease.
It was more the troublesome nature of it all than the pang of sympathy towards the mother that would lose both her children soon that bade him to draw his dagger and carve into the live child's forehead skin, and then again into his own flesh to establish the one-way conduit. The child hissed; he did not for he had carved - or somebody else had carved for him - many a weightier spell than a simple heat transfer, though he fought a grimace as warmth leeched from him and gave way to unbidden tremors and the echo of cold steel cutting into his back. The child shivered too, and the blue of her tongue retreated to a pale pink. The blue lips and fingers and pale skin remained, but that would take more than magic to heal.
"Take her home and dry her and wrap her snug," he instructed the mother and she simply stared at him, jar slack, for a moment before her gaze flickered between her children once more. Her quiet pleas were now dead, her lips unmoving but her eyes still watching, still waiting. His quick and useless show-search for life was entirely for those eyes. "The other's dead."
She jerked, predictably, and what little colour had been in her face slipped away. "Dead?" she asked hoarsely.
"Dead," he repeated, without much patience. "Take the other one before she dies as well.
The woman shook, torn between the dead child and the dying one, and letting go of nor helping neither.
"Take her," he ordered, more sternly.
"Dead," she repeated, as though she hadn't heard the words he uttered after.
A kinder man would have comforted her and coaxed her but he was not. He doubted if there were many of those left in this world where most could ill-afford their necessities, let alone their comforts. And this was his livelihood: seeking the dead and recycling the spiritual energy he siphoned off from them, and it paid well enough.
Still, he required permission from the wailing woman or her dying child: current and fragile custodians of the dead one. Or rather, permission was preferred. Would tamper the chill in the air not from the near-endless winter nor the river water. It seemed to leave the woman and child alone for now, attracted to him, the stranger, that hovered - and would have been stronger still if there was enough awareness in her to recognise the magic he carried on his own skin and on his weapons.
The aura nipped at his skin - still tolerable but enough now to make him scratch at the offended skin before he caught himself. Thin red streaks blossomed into being under his fingertips before fading again and his mind aura lost its hold and, impatient like the child it belonged to, latched on to the next vulnerable one.
The little live girl wailed keenly, eyes forced open by the deep, proving pain, but glazed. The mother held her tighter but what little body head she could offer did nothing to stave off the blue tinge that returned to her tongue. Nothing except her permission, and he asked her again. The child had been too close to death before and now was even closer. "Take her and leave the dead child to me, before she dies and you as well!" Permission may not be enough to save the child, but he was no idealist nor healer. He offered no more.
At last, the threat to her live child had caught the woman's heart, and she sobbed and stood, stumbling under grief and her daughter's weight. The aura dispersed immediately - cut loose - before it attempted to recollect. He thrust his dagger out in front - blindly, and it always was a battle should the trust be parried - and the stone on the hilt began to glow. Softly at first, but as it sucked away with the first strands of soul, the rest came, more concentrated, and the glow grew stronger. He split his gaze between the now visible wispy pale blue strands and the charging stone - a dull brown when they began and now turning slowly watched carefully for any disruption to the spirit's flow, for outside attractions and distractions, for the spirit cringing away by its own violation -
But none of those things occurred before the rune of Saturn on his right arm flared, then dimmed along with the hilt stone and leaving a pleasant, tingling, warmth behind. The stinging aura was gone as well, and the live girl had finally relaxed, shivering again, into her mother's hold. The woman didn't slow; she staggered off still, towards the forest, and he could have caught up to them if he cared to but he let them go. He had no more business with them lest the other girl died as well, and he did not wish for dead, simply watched for it: for the funeral fires the earth lit under the newly dead that only a few select could see, to call those who could send those spirits on.
When he lit a true physical fire for the dead, it was a very different smoke that coloured the sky grey.
Any religious references in this fic are from a mix of religions and other things and not meant to showcase or poke at any one in particular.
Updates are going to be very slow for this...and if I'm telling you that with my track record, that means very painfully slow. :) One of my few fics that's actually drafted in a notebook instead of the computer, and I keep the notebook in my locker at the hospital - so I only have access to it once a week and it's crawling along at about three to four lines a week.
Docs really doesn't like Australian spelling. So many red lines that aren't my fault. :(
Written for the Diversity Writing Challenge, i24 - 50,000-99,999 words total, prompt: randomly generated plot (The story is about a spiritual mercenary escaping the past. It starts in a guard tower in a sunless kingdom. An ancient prophecy plays an important role)