He was supposed to kill Iscara. That was all it should have been. These were the lies Keenin had kept telling himself. Like the lie that it had been worth it.
This night’s dream had Keenin out on the ruined battlefield among the fallen dead to search for Dia. A cold and acrid wind ruffled his hair and stirred the rags of cloths still clinging to fallen corpses. His hand throbbed where he had cut it the night before.
Keenin wouldn’t take a single step more.
He had come here thinking that he wanted to escape his fate. It had been fun. Living was fun. Exciting. Hurtful. Forgiving. Wondering. But it seemed that the reason he wanted to reach Dia was that…
He regretted not letting her go. He should have told Dia that it wouldn’t work for them. Keenin didn’t want her in his complicated life, tied up in his personal problems. And, honestly, it might have been the same elsewhere. He had been a thief. What would he really have done in the town of Stonefield other than pawn off wilted herbs? Keenin pushed himself for her and he wanted things for her, but he didn’t want…
He didn’t want…
There was nothing left to regret when he died. Death had told him so, but surly she would regret. She would ask why she couldn’t save him. Dia should know it wasn’t her fault. That was it.
Keenin had to let go.
He would never have a life worth anything, not while knowing that so many of the deaths to come would be his fault. Maybe he had wanted to be a hero like the ones in books or maybe he wanted a small shop by the edge of the road, but this was the only dream he got; a glimpse of being alive in a future of his making, and it was held together by rotten fate, lies, and meetings with people too incredible to be for him. Neither could he become the man who took personal vengeance on the people around him.
Keenin stared down at the dead eyes of the man who had died from a severed artery on the side of his neck, an unlucky slip of the blade. His anger with fate had burned out. The weight of the dead bodies around him were piling up and killing Iscara would not be enough.
All these stupid, reoccurring dreams were proof.
“I get it,” Keenin told the silent tableau of the dream.
“But why?” Keenin asked the space around him. “Why did Calendor choose me?”
I didn’t want to control any fire, not really, Keenin thought. He had just wanted Tess.
As though having waited for a summons, the death god’s voice was there.
“Calendar is not a spirit that sees good from bad,” the young voice of the god sounded. “He craves to be a champion of change and he saw you on a different path, be that taking revenge for Tess’s death or fighting this war. He is the maker of hero’s regardless of which cause you uphold. He gave you nothing but choice itself. I believe that is what you wanted, Keenin.”
Keenin laughed in contempt. Had that really been a choice, Keenin thought, when he saw only one way to go. These gods and spirits sure were cruel.
“Have you been sending me these dreams too?” Keenin asked.
Whether awake or asleep he had been manipulated.
The death god snorted in amusement.
“Who do you think I am?”
The death god gave no more specifics, but more than one god must have been invested in his sacrifice.
“One more question then. Who is Iscara? I’ve been getting visions, but I don’t understand how this happened.”
“All I can say is that Iscara is a man of wish fulfillment and persuasion. I warned you. You would be smart to let this be the end.”
“Sorry,” Keenin said, turning the death god down a second time. “I have to say goodbye.”
When Keenin finally awoke, sunlight was spilling across the space from the open door of his tent. Harris stood there. He was still dressed in armor, this time in a black color that matched Iscara’s army. Keenin wondered if he ever took it off these days.
“Did I miss roll call,” Keenin half joked.
He knew that Harris and Aron were still serious about this war. Even before Rumin convinced them that this was a proper cause, those two had no intention of falling behind here. They had a future planned for themselves. But knowing the truth, Keenin wasn’t sure that he could keep this up.
“Iscara would see you,” Harris said bleakly.
Iscara. Keenin smiled to himself at the uttering of that name. What a hollow name, Keenin thought. He had known the man all along. Practically since the first day he had known. The dreams had laid the answer bare.
Keenin stretched, pushed back his covers, and pulled on a crumpled white shirt that he had tossed beside his bed the day before.
“I expect that he will forgive my appearance,” Keenin said.
Since Harris insisted on awkwardly maintaining his position in the doorway, Keenin brushed past him to get the infamous meeting over. That’s when Harris roughly grabbed hold of Keenin’s arm and lifted it to reveal the poorly bandaged hand. His friend slowly unwrapped the torn cloth, gently unsticking it from the dried blood, to reveal the swollen gash. The raw wound stung against the open air.
“When did you do this?”
Keenin had been careless in his treatment and had risked infection.
“Is this how you tell us you aren’t going to fight?” Harris accused.
“It was a mistake when I was sharpening,” Keenin responded honestly. “But I have an appointment. Could you wrap it up for me. I’ll go to the medic right after.”
It wasn’t like he would be here much longer.
“Medic first,” Harris insisted.
With irritation, Keenin tugged his arm out of Harris’s grip and put his hands together. There was a sharp searing pain on his cut and when Keenin took his hands apart his palm was lightly burned over. Harris grabbed Keenin’s shirt collar and pulled him face to face.
“Stop pushing us away!” he said angrily. “War doesn’t get easier just because you don’t care.”
Keenin felt bad that he couldn’t tell these friends of his that it was already over. It was his fault. Keenin had known not to get close to them. Now he could only hurt them.
“I hope that Iscara doesn’t have as little patience as you,” Keenin responded.
Keenin saw the hurt in Harris’s eyes before the grip on his shirt released.
“Careful,” Harris warned quietly. “That person isn’t normal.”
“I know,” Keenin confessed gently. “But neither am I. You know that.”
Keenin found his way to the leaders tent. It was square shaped and made of green cloth patterned with mean looking dogs that reminded him of the carved stone castle from his dreams. Seeing that, Keenin took time to think of how hard he had fought to not see the connection. He smiled to himself then and as he moved to enter the tent Keenin closed his eyes before sweeping aside the cloth.
When his eyes opened he found Rumin sitting behind a large desk that was cluttered with books and paper, as well as a plain wooden staff. He didn’t look very impressive dressed as he was in belted orange robe with a brown cloak draped across his neck and covering one arm. Two guards stood at the sides of the space. Rumin might have been there to represent the leader, but the simple answer was that this was Iscara. This guy who liked to make jokes and speak eloquently about better times ahead was the same infamous necromancer.
“You don’t seem surprised,” Rumin said. “You do know who I am?”
“Iscara, was it,” Keenin confirmed. “You said some strange things for just a sword teacher. And I found your notebook in Iscara’s office. Not to mention that nobody ever knew where Iscara was. It’s just not possible to motivate your people if you don’t exist.”
“Can you believe that you’re the only one to figure that out yourself and make it this far,” he said.
“You also pick favorites,” Keenin accused.
Though he heavily suspected that fate had prevented his untimely death. Iscara leaned back in his chair.
“What can I say. You remind me of someone I knew,” Iscara said. “How are you liking war?”
“I’m not,” Keenin said, not caring that he was supposed to be entranced by this person.
“Keenin,” Iscara scolded gently. “You were supposed to come find me if you had doubts. Now look at your miserable self.”
“Either way, I’m not going anywhere,” Keenin stated.
“Truly?” Iscara said. “Then what is this?”
He indicated the staff laying across the desk. The item didn’t have any notable design and looked like any other walking stick.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Keenin said.
The man seemed to be finding any reason to toy with him.
“Try picking it up,” Iscara suggested.
Those were familiar words. Keenin starred longer at the piece of wood, but since looking alone wasn’t enough to confirm his suspicions he rested his hand over the worn surface and felt a hot gust of upward air as Calendar materialized behind him. Keenin could feel the spirit like a cold silent weight, as though it was disappointed, as though the spirit knew Keenin would step off the path.
Though he dared not to speak, Keenin’s hand trembled with recognition and he slowly pulled away.
“I…I’ve never seen this here,” Keenin stammered, cursing inwardly at his lack of composure.
He bunched his fists at his side and looked down, not caring that Iscara knew that answer either way. This item didn’t mean anything he told himself. It could have been a different one or stolen.
“Really. A girl said that she was bringing it for you.”
With a soft thud, Dia fell into view from behind the desk. Her hands and feet were tied, and her mouth covered to prevent her from speaking. Her clothes were so torn that the skirt of her dress looked like rags and only a newly donned grey cloak saved her from embarrassment. Her eyes were full of hurt from his absence, embarrassment at her position, and fear for him. Keenin again looked to his feet, also feeling ashamed that this was how they should meet.
“I would have gotten rid of her for you, but I’m afraid she would crawl back out of the grave.”
Keenin feared that Iscara would hurt her out of curiosity alone.
“D– I don’t know her,” Keenin said, still fixing his eyes on the ground.
If he gave Iscara other things to think about it would be fine.
“Really,” Iscara teased. “So you never noticed that you were being followed by some undead girl?”
Keenin didn’t respond.
“Little girl,” Iscara said to Dia. “Could you tell me where you got my older brothers staff?”
Keenin felt a jolt of surprise at the question. How? How could they be so connected? Iscara pulled the gag away from Dia’s mouth.
“I answered that already,” Dia said stubbornly. “Can I go now?”
Her eyes rested on Keenin hoping that they could leave together or that she could get him out.
“She said that her caretaker had the staff before he died. Is that true?” Iscara questioned further.
Neither of them had known this question would come up. Keenin knew that she didn’t want to talk about painful memories.
“Melsa adopted her,” Keenin explained for her now. “And then he died. I saw the grave myself.”
“Is that what happened?” Iscara asked Dia.
“Yes,” she said bleakly.
Iscara’s lips went thin.
“What a poor child,” he said. “Keenin. You may escort her out as you wanted.”
Keenin felt that he was going to protest, but didn’t know why. Following Iscara’s advice and deciding he should get this out of the way Keenin walked over and reached down to take one of Dia’s bound wrists so that he could pull her up.
“What are you doing?” she questioned him.
Dia wasn’t opposed to getting out or following his lead on a plan, but would this really be best for Keenin. He seemed confused. Keenin recognized this too. He had an odd feeling that maybe he had not wanted to do this before. He looked to Iscara.
“Sir?” Keenin questioned.
He didn’t think that he had been trying to do this, thought it felt ok. Iscara sighed.
“Just take her out of the camp. I don’t want anything of my brother here. Do you understand?”
That did make sense. Keenin pulled out a knife that he always kept in his boot to cut the rope on her ankles so she could walk. Then he pulled Dia up by her still tied wrist and led her to the exit. She didn’t protest.
“Wait,” Iscara said before they could get out the door.
Keenin halted and gripped Dia’s wrist tighter as though still intending to drag her out, but he wasn’t moving forward.
“Let her wait outside. One of you guards take her.”
Keenin raised an arm to block Dia from the guard, but the man was larger and pushed him aside to grab the rope between Dia’s hands and pulled her outside. Keenin felt a small bit of relief thinking that Dia still might escape when this meeting was over. But instead of using the situation for negotiation Iscara turned to the other guard in the room.
“You, guard,” Iscara told the other one. “Lock her up.”
“Keenin,” Iscara said before Keenin could protest. “I’m sure you don’t want to go see her. In, fact, you may not.”
Horrified, Keenin realized that this is what the death god had warned of. Keenin panicked and grabbed the second guards cloak as he passed.
Because of what Iscara said Keenin couldn’t bring himself to go out there, the idea made him numb, but he still had to try and so he held to the guard with the last of his strength.
“You can’t keep him!” Dia yelled from outside, having hearing Iscara.
“Don’t,” Keenin begged the guard.
He had to get her back to Clide. Keenin owed it to them to at least let Dia escape.
“Keenin,” Rumin said impatiently. “You don’t want to do that, do you?”
Did he. His grip failed and the guard slipped from the tent. Keenin fell to his knees in defeat.
“I’m not going to say this is entirely your fault,” Iscara said. “The people I kidnap don’t usually have friends as difficult as yours, but I don’t want you to leave.”
Iscara had done this on purposed to prove what he could do. He had been held back. There might have been a time when Keenin wanted to understand his mentor, but there were too many unspoken words between them. The only thing Iscara was to him now was a demon.
“You promised that I would see her,” Keenin protested.
At the very least this man had said he could fight for her.
“And did you not?”
“You know better,” Keenin told him. “I wish that you cared. I wish that your fighters knew what you were like.”
“What I know,” Rumin said for himself. “Is that you haven’t been fully invested in my fight. What I want is for you to make it up to me tomorrow. I owe it to my people to allow them a day of rest. Because, well, they never seem to tire from working,” he laughed.
Keenin realized that it wasn’t just him or his friends. The entire army was being entranced. It was possible that none of them wanted to be here. Iscara tossed a helmet to the floor that was decorated with feathers to stand out in the crowd. There would be no fight tomorrow Keenin thought. He would make the sacrifice before then.
“I hurt my hand,” is what Keenin said instead.
“Then roast them.”
“Why?” Keenin asked bluntly.
Why fight for control of the city? Meladona had done nothing. The city might have even helped these people who had lost their homes.
“Tell me something first,” Iscara said. “Yesterday you were so entranced, today so doubtful. Why do you think that is?”
Divine intervention, too many bad potions, Keening thought.
“I blindly followed a lot of people,” Keenin told him regretfully.
“Keln,” he said first remembering the thief leader. “Bodwin. Vindice. You.”
The last word came out more forceful then intended as he had not wanted to say death. Keenin couldn’t stop giving the answers, but no matter what he couldn’t let Iscara forbid him from dying. Death had warned him. There had been so many chances.
“There is that,” Rumin said, seemingly pleased to have himself on the list. “As to your question, I started this war to teach the world to pay respect to their gods as my mother wanted. The country my people came from was once very prosperous. We crafted magic amplification and nullification items like the staff. Techniques gifted by our goddess to help our people, but they started to take it for granted. So now this god deemed it fit that I rule the land in her name.”
“Which god would that be?”
“Dear goddess Septose,” Iscara said. “My mother. She is a jealous woman indeed. As am I. You will find that you want to do what makes me happy. Maybe you’ll even forgive.”