Absolution (Version 2 of “Reverse Reflection”)

Clara gazed at the pictures along the wall while she waited. When Greg came down the stairs, he saw her staring at the one of a young man with dirty blond hair and a swimmer’s body. He knew she would assume it was a picture of him.

“I’d tell you it’s not me in that picture. You may think me a liar, but more than likely you would ask…” He paused so she could.

“Then who is it? If not you?”

“My twin brother, John.”

“You don’t have a twin brother.”

“I did. He…died. In a car accident.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I was driving,” he said, surprising himself. He’d never told the story even to his friends. “We had gone to a bar for a friend’s birthday and he had too much to drink so I took the keys from him. I was being responsible, but someone else that night wasn’t. We were hit head on. John died before the ambulance showed up.”


John woke to the calling of his name. He sat up and stretched then climbed out of bed. He came down the stairs and saw a young woman looking at pictures in the hallway. He’d never seen her before, or anyone in this place, but somehow, he felt like he knew her.

“I’d tell you that’s not actually me in that picture. You may think me a liar, but more than likely you would ask…” He paused, letting her.

“Then who is it? If not you?”

“It’s actually my twin brother, Greg.”

“You don’t have a twin brother.”

“I did. He’s still alive.”

“That’s…. good?”

He smiled. “Yeah. It’s good. When the paramedics showed up, they went to him first. I guess we were both on the same time limit, but he got to stay behind.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Of course.”

“Do you ever wish he were here?”

“Yeah, sometimes,” John said, “It’s too late now, but he’ll find his own way.”


“We were pretty close,” Greg said, “Practically best friends. We did everything together.”

“Do you miss him?”

“All the time.” He fell silent. Thoughts rushed through his head. Of John, of what happened. Of his parents. He began wondering where his parents were and then wondered how Clara got in the house. He began to realize he had never met her before but the feeling vanished when she spoke again.

“Come on, I’d like to show you something,” she said and walked out the front door. He followed her outside and into his car. The fact that she was driving never occurred to him.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“It’s a surprise.”

He didn’t argue. He looked out the window at the row of old oak trees that lined the road. The newly formed leaves were still wet with the morning drizzle. They drove in silence. Greg turned and looked at Clara. Taking her in for what seemed the first time. She had jet-black hair tied back in a pony-tail. Her bangs hid her forehead and stopped right above her blue eyes which shone brightly against her fair skin.

She noticed him staring and smiled.

“What?” she asked.

“Have we met before?”

“Here it is.” She slowed the car suddenly and turned onto a narrow road into the countryside. A short distance brought them to a small house with a red roof. It was his grandparent’s cottage.

“Here we are,” she said.

“And why are we here?”

“It’s a surprise, silly.”


“So where are we going today?” John asked as if they had been spending the past several months together.

“There is a place I would like you to see.”

“And where would that be? I can’t be bothered going out to the city again.”

“It’s actually in the other direction.”

“You said we weren’t supposed to go out there.” He paused. Their previous conversation floated through his head while his memory doubted every word.

“It’ll be okay,” she smiled.

He followed her outside and they walked along the dusted landscape away from the abandoned city. He was thankful for the change. He wondered why he never explored outside the city before. He was surprised that he felt nervous.

“Are we able to die here?” he asked.

“Why wouldn’t you be able to?”

“Well,” he paused, “because I’m already dead.”

“You look alright to me.”

“But you know I died.” Another conversation echoed in his mind.

“That’s the only way to leave that other place,” she said matter-of-factly. “Come on.” She waved him to continue and he followed obediently. He was curious.

“Are there ways to leave this place?”

She stopped at this and smiled, “This isn’t the last stop, silly. Let’s go.”

They walked along remnants of the road away from the city.


“Why are we here?” Greg repeated

“It’s an intermediary of sorts.”

“An intermediary for what?”

“Today? For you.”

He gave her a quizzical look, but she ignored him and skipped out onto deep green grass of the field south of the little cottage.

“Aren’t we going inside?”

“That’s not where it is.”

“Where what is?” he called after her.

“The intermediary. Don’t you listen?”

He sighed, trying to calm his nerves before they fired up. She was becoming extremely trying, but he followed her out onto the grass and into the sun. He instantly felt its heat beat down on him. He suddenly felt obligated to see whatever this was through. He briefly looked back at the small cottage where he and John spent every holiday. Then he looked at his car. He couldn’t just go home. She had the keys. He turned just in time to see Clara disappear into a small grove of trees. He couldn’t remember the trees being there before.

“Come on,” Clara’s voice yelled.


They had been walking for hours. John didn’t know who to thank for the clouds blocking the sun so he thanked the clouds themselves.

“Are we almost there?” he called.

“Yes, yes. So impatient,” she called from in front of him.

He looked at her then as if for the first time. She had jet-black hair that fell straight to her waist which swayed side to side when she walked. He began to wonder where they first met when she abruptly turned and stared at him with her bright, blue eyes. A smile flashed across her lips.

“Here we are,” she said.

John looked around at the dirt covered road and vacant landscape. “This is it?”

“No. This is just our turn.” She stepped off the road, onto the dead grass, and walked off in a straight line. “Come on lazy bones,” she yelled back without looking at him, “Unless you have somewhere else to be.”

He tried to think of where else he would like to be, or could go, but nothing came to mind. He still wasn’t exactly sure where he was. He sighed heavily and stepped off the broken road and followed her.


“This is it,” Clara said, popping her head out from behind a tree as Greg entered a small clearing in the trees. In the center was a stone well.

“A well?”

“No, it’s the intermediary.”

“The well is the intermediary?”

“Of course. Take a look,” she pulled him to the edge of the stone circle. He looked down and saw nothing.

“It’s empty.”

She looked inside then checked the watch on her wrist.

“Hmm, we must be a bit early. I guess we’ll just have to wait,” she said and sat down on the grass. She pulled up a few blades and began braiding them together.

“What are we doing here?” Greg asked.

“Waiting now. You’ll see. Just be patient. It will happen in a few minutes.”

He could feel his shoulders tighten as she said the words. He knew he wouldn’t like the answer but he asked it anyway. “And what are we waiting for?”

“For the intermediary, silly.”

He sighed.


“Here we are.”

John caught up to her and looked at the stone circle. “This is it?”

She hit him. “Don’t be silly. It’s inside.”

He looked down into the well and saw nothing.

“There’s nothing in there.”

She looked at her watch. “Hmm. Keep looking. It should be happening soon.”

“What’s going to happen? We haven’t done anything but walk all day and now we are standing at a dry well in the middle of nowhere.” He looked around at the brown fields that surrounded them. “I know there isn’t much going on in this place, but I’m sure there are better things to do than be out here.”

“Oh hush. Just keep an eye on what’s down there.”

He sighed and returned his attention to the well. He glanced at her when she sat down on the dead grass and began ripping blades up. She tossed them into the air but there was no wind to catch them.

“Keep looking.”

“I am,” he said, and turned his attention back to the depths of the well.


Greg kept looking down in the well as she instructed. Nothing happened for a while and he was growing more and more irritated. Then he saw something move. Something was coming toward him. It took a moment before he realized it was water quickly rising. The well was filling up.

“Somethings happening,” he said.

For a moment he thought it might not be water because it was as clear as the air it replaced. It rose to the brim and stopped. He looked down through the water and into the darkness behind it. His reflection soon came into view.

“Now,” Clara said, popping up off the ground, “we are finally here, and with only a minute to spare.”

“For what?”

“Your choice.”

“What choice?”

“You can bring your brother back. If you want to.”

“What?” He looked up from the well and his throat caught.

“At the cost of your own life of course.” She said matter-of-factly.

He stared at her in disbelief. “But…”


“All you have to do is jump in,” she told John.

“Who would ever do that? I mean, yeah it’d be nice to be alive again, but not at that cost.” He stopped looking in the well and focused on her. “No one would make that choice.”

“Some do. But that doesn’t matter. What matters right now is that you only have a handful of seconds to decide.”

“No,” he said, “That’s my decision. Consider it made.”

“Okay,” she said, “but I do have to warn you. Your brother was given the same choice.”

“What?”

“He has the same choice, but vice-versa. He can jump in the well and trade his life for yours. You may see him briefly depending on what he chooses.”

“That’s insane.” He ran back and looked inside. His reflection stared back, as if it had never left the water.


“So I jump in and he comes back?”

“Yes. You may even see him briefly.”

Greg looked at his reflection in the water. “He’ll come out of this well as if nothing happened to him?”

“All in one piece. Healed. Presto. Alive again. That’s the intermediary for you, but time’s running out. You have to choose soon.”

He stared down into the water. It was an obvious decision and his brother deserved it. He reached one hand in and watched it disappear into the blackness behind the surface. The water remained clear but his hand was gone beneath it.

A hand emerged a second later next to where his had entered. Its palm opened toward him. On it, written in ash, was the word Don’t. He stared at it. Then the hand rotated and the middle finger lifted from a clenched fist.

Greg smiled. “You’d hate me for it, wouldn’t you? Dick.”


“That should do it. Now, when will this be over?” John said.

Both of the girls named Clara said in unison, “It already is.”

John looked over to see girl had duplicated. He looked back at the well and found it empty again.

“Congratulations.” The girls said.

He shook his head. “Can you stop doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Talking at the same time.”

“Sure,” one Clara said. “It’s time for you to move on,” said the other.

“So it wasn’t real?”

“Of course it was real.” “Now it’s time to go.”

“Where are we going?”

“You are going on to the next place.” “And we are staying here.”

“What about Greg?”

“He will live his life.” “Until he moves on to his next place.”

“This place?”

“Whichever place is next for him.” “With your decision, he will likely skip this phase.”

John smirked. “Good. He wouldn’t last two days here.”


Greg jumped at the knock on the window. He looked up to see his grandfather waving to him. He was parked in front of his grandparent’s cottage. His grandma waved to him from the front door. He got out and stretched.

“What brings you by?” his grandfather asked.

He didn’t remember driving into the country and wasn’t sure why he had come out this way.

“Just thought I’d come say hi,” he answered, “Get out of the city for the afternoon.”

“Well you’re always welcome out here. Come inside. Your grandma just made some fresh scones.”

Greg let his grandfather guide him toward the cottage. He glanced over at the field south of them. The open ground was filled with nothing but rolling hills of grass. A memory of a cluster of trees flickered across his mind then faded into nothing. Something about him felt lighter. He turned and hugged his grandmother before going inside.

Children of Changyang Mountain (Version 2)

His pack was heavy. The sun was high in the sky, midday, and Haaru had been walking since dawn. The ache at the base of his back had begun and his feet were calling for a short break but he ignored them. He knew his body well after years of travel. Another hour wouldn’t change anything. The forest shaded the sun’s rays from the path and a gentle breeze provided relief from the growing heat. He left the thin, mountain air a few days ago and his lungs weren’t yet adjusted to the dense humidity of the forest. They screamed they were drowning, but Haaru kept on until a new ache began.

He crossed a small stream and stopped. He squatted, letting the earth take the weight of his pack, and slowly untangled himself from the straps. He opened a small side compartment and removed a cloth bag containing his lunch. Roasted fowl, two pears, and a handful of mushrooms. Then he removed his wooden sandals, stained dark with oil and years of use, and tied them to the pack. He sat on a large stone and dipped his feet in a small pool beside the stream. The cool water sent a chill through his bones and permeated the heat still swelling his muscles. He let out a groan of appreciation and enjoyed the feeling for a few moments before turning to his lunch.

Haaru ate slowly despite feeling ravenous. When he finished, he washed the cloth bag and set it beside him on the stone to dry. He pulled his feet from the pool and laid himself across the large stone as well. He felt the warmth of the stone against his back and the cool breeze kiss his sweat-damp clothes. He rested. Sleep threatened to relieve his consciousness several times and he was ready to surrender to it. Then he heard the sounds of children. A faint echo of laughter in the air. Haaru opened his eyes and stared at the canopy above, watching the sky dance with the leaves, until he heard it again.

His muscles were stiff but no longer ached. He wondered if he had rested too long, but threw the matter away as unimportant. He grabbed the cloth bag and returned it to his pack. The laughter rang out again as he strapped his worn sandals to his feet, fitted himself back into the hulking pack and, with a grunt, relieved the earth of its weight. The laughter echoed again. A smile crept across his features. The laughter reminded his thick, cork-like muscles of his own childhood. When he would run endlessly, climb trees, swim for hours. More laughter and this time he managed to grasp its direction. It was away from the path, but he had packed food for several days before returning to the village, and he had a feeling this may be the reason he was here.

The trees were thin, no larger round than Haaru’s thin frame, and the roots protruded from the ground leaving little room to move unhindered. The laughter grew louder and soon danced around him. He couldn’t see anyone, but he knew they were near.

“Hello,” he called out. Silence. “Hello,” he called again.

“Hello,” a muffled voice responded.

It came from a few paces to his right. He froze, slowly turned his head toward the voice, and saw an ancient set of armor leaning against a tree. Moss had covered its entire surface so it appeared as part of the forest itself save for the shape. The voice came from inside it.

“Who are you?” the muffled voice asked.

“I am Haaru,” he said, “and what is your name?”

“Shigeru.”

“Are you here alone, Shigeru?”

“No.”

“Why don’t you come out of there?”

No muffled answer came. A few seconds passed and the breastplate opened. The leather straps, now mostly moss, threatened to disintegrate at the slight movement. The boy emerged and the armor returned to its resting state. Haaru guessed he was nearly five years old. He had raven-black hair and looked half starved. Big brown eyes looked up at him.

“Hello Shigeru.”

The boy smiled politely. Haaru looked around but saw no one else. He looked up into the trees hoping to spot someone. The laughter had disappeared.

“Where are your friends?”

“Mishi is over there,” the boy pointed. Haaru followed the boy’s arm to a moss-covered helmet leaning against a tree. “And Koturo is there, and Jensai, and Mido, and Deku, and-”

Haaru placed a hand on the boy’s arm to stop him. The boy seemed eager to point out all of his friends, but all Haaru could see were sets of armor. Many were no more than broken pieces. All of them were consumed by the forest. Haaru guessed a battle took place here long ago. The bodies left unclaimed.

“How many of you are out here?” Haaru asked.

The boy shrugged as an answer.

“Where are your parents?”

The boy shrugged again.

“Where is home?” he tried again.

“Changyang.”

“Changyang,” Haaru repeated. He was filled with sadness and relief all at once upon hearing this answer. “How did you get here, Shigeru?”

“Orders…sir,” the boy said, uttering the second word as an afterthought.

“Who’s orders?”

Shigeru stood proudly and answered, “General Xing.”

“General Xing,” Haaru repeated the name. He had guessed correctly. These children were his reason for entering the forest.

“How long have you been here?”

“A long time,” a voice called from behind them. Haaru turned to see another boy sitting on a pair of grieves that more resembled tree roots than armor. It was one Shigeru called out earlier. Mido.

“How long is a long time?” Haaru asked softly.

Mido sighed and laid down across the remains of a breastplate.

“We’ve forgotten.”

Haaru looked to his left to find a young boy with autumn hair tied in the traditional top knot.

“I see,” Haaru muttered. Several boys had revealed themselves. Each sitting or standing on the remnants of a set of armor. Many of which were not included in Shigeru’s eager introductions.

“How many of you are there?” he asked again.

None answered. Haaru decided it was time. He bent his knees until the pack rested on the ground. He dug through stacks of parchment, each bound tightly between bamboo planks, until he found his brush, ink, and several blank pages. He sat on the forest floor and arranged the ink and parchment.

“Would you mind telling me your story?” he asked as he dipped his brush in the ink and held it before the parchment. He looked up to see they had all gone. Every child had disappeared without a sound. The breeze rustled the leaves and the sunlight danced on the forest floor.

“Shigeru?”

His only answer was the sound of the forest.

Haaru remained seated with his brush at the ready. As the light began to fade, he built a small fire and prepared for a long night. He pulled several lychee berries from his pack and ate them. Their floral aroma filled the air. He finished, cleaned his hands, and continued to wait as the forest grew dark. His eyes grew heavy but he fought the continuous pull of sleep. He held his brush ready, patiently waiting for the children to return.

He began to lose the battle against his body. His eyelids slowly rose and fell like the waves of the sea. His body twitched and he jerked himself alert upon realizing his lapse. He rubbed sleep from his eyes and found Shigeru standing before him. The other boys were there as well, and behind them perhaps a hundred more could be seen in the moonlight that snuck through the canopy.

“We will tell you our story,” Shigeru said. The boyish tone was no longer present.

Haaru gripped his brush and nodded for the boy to continue.

“Let me first answer your question. There are 147 of us. A relatively small company, to be sure, when speaking of the indomitable army led by General Xing for his eminence Emperor Jiangxi. I, Shigeru Matsushi, am the captain of this company.”

“The fiercest warriors of any battalion.”

“Quiet Mido,” Shigeru chided the boy behind him.

Mido crossed his arms and glared at Shigeru’s back but remained quiet.

“My lieutenant speaks out of turn, but he is correct. We were the highest skilled warriors within the Emperor’s army. Yes,” Shigeru saw the question in Haaru’s eyes, “we are well aware of our current situation. We were monsters of men when we entered battle though we were not quite men in the eyes of many. We have not been children since before we were taken, but we prefer this form.

“I lived on an island beyond where the Yangtze empties into the sea. The General’s men came and took me from my village along with several other boys. I later realized these men were expected as no one protested our abduction. Jensai is the only one here who also came from my village. We were all gathered in this fashion. Stolen from our homes. Most of us merely four or five years of age when we were taken.

“After weeks of hard travel, we were left at a fortification near the peak of Changyang. It was there in the bitter cold we trained. General Xing himself would lead our education when he was in the region, which was often, and it was during his training when we lost most of our brothers. He taught us how to be ruthless, how to end the life of even someone you called a friend, so we learned to live together without forming bonds beyond those found in battle. Our numbers shrank as our training progressed in the harsh conditions of the mountain. Two attempted escape, but there was nowhere to go and they were quickly hunted down. We quickly learned to accept our new lives or accept death. We grew as cold as the snow that never ceased.

“Every day mirrored the one before. We would all wake before sunrise, sweep the snow from the courtyard, spar with fists, then with wooden swords. Before lunch we held a tournament of iron swords. Single elimination. The first cut deciding the winner. The champion would be given an extra portion during lunch. We all desired this as the meager meals we were given served the purpose of providing heat more than it did sustenance. When General Xing visited, he would be the judge of these tournaments and would determine the victor of each fight. It would be many cuts before he made his decision.

“Our afternoons included training on horseback and ranged weapons. No tournament was held in the afternoons. The last hour of the day was reserved for strategy and held inside. We would all go to bed battered and bruised. Many of us with new scars forming. We never left the mountain except to train in different environments.

“Maybe ten years passed this way. Time was lost to us. Known only by the slow growth of our bodies. We became young men and skilled warriors. Then our first assignment was given. General Xing appointed our positions. Ten lieutenants were each given thirteen men. I was given full authority as captain and would fight alongside the remaining eight as an elite unit. We were sent as an advance party to capture a command post west of the Hongshui river. We attacked at night. It was a small fortress but held a garrison of three hundred men. We lost two men but had taken the fortress by sunrise. We spared three of our enemy, the customary number when gathering information, and tied them to wooden posts hammered into the courtyard.

“Two days passed before General Xing arrived. He quickly filled the garrison with his men and questioned the prisoners before issuing our next orders. He never provided more than our next assignment. We performed dutifully and never lost another soldier. Even when fighting outnumbered eight to one. Rumor of our company spread among the enemy as well as among the other soldiers under General Xing until even the emperor learned of our company. We did not know at the time, but this was something General Xing had gone to great lengths to prevent. We wish he would have succeeded.

“The end of the war drew near after three short years. We had conquered the last stronghold and had it prepared for the General’s arrival where he would command the final assault. He arrived behind Emperor Jiangxi whom we were not expecting. Many duties must be completed during the transition of command within a fortress, and we were not yet clean from our fighting when he called us for inspection. We delayed these duties and presented ourselves at full attention in the courtyard for the emperor. He examined every one of us without a word before disappearing into the high chamber with General Xing.

“The next day our orders came. This time we were to gather intelligence without attacking. A scouting mission. The change in tactics was strange, but we were advancing on the final stronghold so we thought nothing of it. It was not our place to question the general. Besides, it was a six-day journey and we were eager to leave the emperor’s gaze.” Shigeru paused and looked at the forest surrounding them. “We were ambushed here. Not by our enemy but by the emperor’s personal soldiers. Our rear guard had spotted them a day prior, but betrayal had not dared enter our minds. We were only concerned with our next assignment and were thus ill-prepared when they struck. But we were not fully caught off-guard. We fought for a full day and night. We slew five for every one we lost, but their numbers were great and eventually overcame our last man. We were left here. No rituals provided for our bodies. Not even those for fit a common peasant let alone those for a warrior of prestige. We were left to rot with the heat of each day, and we have remained in this forest since.”

Haaru finished writing Shigeru’s account. The night had begun to fade but the sun was still a few hours from rising. The fire was mostly embers. Haaru’s eyes had resorted to the filtered moonlight to guide his brush sometime in the night. He placed the brush beside the ink and laid the final sheet of parchment out to dry habitually placing the recently dried sheet onto the stack beside him.

“Tell me, traveler,” Shigeru said, “how long have we been here?”

Haaru considered their account unsure of how to answer. “It has been three hundred years since Emperor Jiangxi was alive.” A soft, collective gasp rustled through the forest like a soft breeze. A low murmur began to spread among them. Shigeru made a simple hand gesture and the forest was again silent. Haaru believed the boy must have been a great leader to evoke such discipline with a simple movement.

“Three hundred years is a long time. Yet you are the first to speak to us.”

Haaru sealed the ink and began cleaning his brush. “I have traveled many leagues and have seen many things. I have encountered several…incidents…that frighten most people, but I know there is a truth behind them that the common man would discolor with his imagination. Many times they do so unintentionally, because they are afraid or are unable to believe what their senses show them to be true. They believe reality is supposed to work within a set of rules. They do not realize there is more than one path that leads to truth.” He combed the wet brush and set it down to dry.

“And you walk several paths?” Mido asked reproachfully. This time Shigeru did not reprimand him.

“Possibly,” Haaru said. He examined the dead fire with a stick. Making patterns in the embers and ash.

“Why did you ask for our story?” Shigeru asked. A hint of command still in his voice.

“I want to share it. Spread it among those who will listen and let history know a truth that was buried by a powerful man.”

“You defy an emperor’s decision?”

“I face no retribution from the dead. However, it is not the emperor I am referring.”

Shigeru contemplated his words and asked in a low tone filled with warning, “You dare bring shame to our general?”

The other 146 children standing within the forest shifted their weight simultaneously. It was slight, and barely noticeable even when done in unison by so many, but Haaru’s skin prickled at the sudden hostility. He did not fear them and convinced himself he would not falter even if they had the means of harming him. Shigeru was the only one who did not change his stance. Haaru saw him at last for who he was. A true commander who possessed the loyalty of his men even beyond death. An allegiance he shared equally with every one of them.

“I only wish to tell a truth hidden to allow a favorable legacy. You are not aware of how history has treated your general. He is regarded as a great strategist. Able to predict his enemy’s intentions. He could capture a stronghold by simply willing it. Your account replaces the fertile soil where his legend has been left to grow wild. With your story told, the world would know the truth that he was just a man. Still a brilliant strategist, but ruthless. A man who built a reputation on the backs of kidnapped children.”

Haaru surveyed the sea of children as best he could without removing his eyes from Shigeru’s. They were still on guard. Ready to attack but waiting for the order.

“Do you not want your story to be told? Do you not want to be remembered?”

Shigeru made a swift movement through the air with his fist. The children relaxed. Haaru found himself unable to do the same. He sat, expectant, awaiting the answer.

“The only home we’ve ever known was Changyang. Our lives before our duty are merely distant memories mixed with dreams. We fought well and obeyed every command our leader gave us. We only served the emperor through our general. The world knows a figurehead does not win the battles they never see. Our legacy lives within General Xing’s.

“Tell us,” Shigeru continued, “since you claim to know of those from our time. What happened to our general?”

Haaru finally relaxed. Their reason was their love of their general.

“He lived a long life while serving his emperor.”

“How did he die?”

“Honorably.”

“In battle?”

Haaru sighed, “No. It was after his final defeat. They say the new emperor attempted to retain him as general of the new armies, but he refused. He chose a warrior’s death.”

The sea of children stirred but the forest remained silent. The sun was preparing to rise and the first birds began to chirp, but the sound did not sway the heavy sadness among them.

“Thank you, traveler,” Shigeru finally said, “you have done us a great service. We have been plagued with uncertainty about those we left behind. General Xing and his personal guard. We feared he too had been defeated by treachery. We are glad to hear he served and died well.”

“Is there more you wish to know?” Haaru asked.

“No. Three hundred years has undoubtedly changed the world we knew. I think it is time we finally departed for our next assignment. Before we are gone, I must ask again. What do you intend to do with our story?” Shigeru glanced at the pile of pages. Haaru placed the final page, having dried some time ago, onto the pile and straightened the stack.

“I have told you my intentions, but it is your choice to make.”

Shigeru gestured, sweeping his arm as if it were a command, and Haaru understood the meaning behind it. He slowly gathered the stack of parchment and hesitated, looking to Shigeru who offered a firm smile, then placed the pages on the dying embers. The parchment smoked slowly before igniting. The flames roared, emitting an intense heat before settling down to a steady smolder. The ink burned bright gold with faint shades of blue-green. Within minutes the parchment was nothing but ash and ember. Haaru could not help but feel a tinge of sorrow as he watched specks of ash lifted into the air only to fall back to the earth like snow.

“Thank you,” Shigeru said. His hand rose in the air and with a sweep he issued his final command.

Haaru watched as a fog lifted through the forest floor and slowly filled the trees. The children did not move but were soon lost to his sight within the thick air. Then, just as quickly, the fog dissipated without even the warmth of the morning sun. They were gone. Haaru sat alone in the forest listening to the sounds of morning.

He rose despite the protest of his body. The lack of sleep made his blood beat thin, but his mind was too active for rest. He returned his brush and ink to his pack and put out the embers with a bowl of water from the stream. A long day’s journey was ahead of him. He would need rest before he made it to the village, but he once again shouldered the massive weight of his pack and began walking carefully through the forest.

Haaru woke on a straw mat. He had arrived late in the evening and was surprised to find he was expected. The village elder had decided to wait for him despite Haaru insisting he would be gone several days. The elder had waved his protest away claiming she was awake anyway and decided to pass the time by waiting. Haaru was too tired to argue and happily accepted the offered room. He had given himself a few hours’ sleep during the day but still had plenty to regain when he finally settled down.

He must have slept as a stone. The sunlight was strong. Children were playing outside. He left his pack in the room and went to find the elder. She was watching the children as the men and women of the village were busy with their tasks. Haaru sat beside the elder and waited for her to begin the conversation. The morning air was still cool but would soon be stifling. He could feel the humidity rising as the sun rose higher.

“I have already told everyone the forest is at rest,” she said.

“There was never any danger,” Haaru offered.

“I was not as troubled by the sounds as the others. I had grown used to them after all these years. I feared them as a child, but age often brings clarity, or faith, and I knew there was no malice lurking within the trees, but it was an unnatural matter. We are glad you happened upon us.”

They sat and watched the children chase each other around the well. Haaru tried imagining the old woman as one of them. This village was old and had known of the unrest in the forest. They knew spirits had gathered within the trees. They simply avoided venturing too far in and never without sunlight.

“I must thank you again,” the elder said, “I know our payment was insufficient for your trouble.”

“It was more than generous,” Haaru interjected. It was enough to keep him fed, which was all he ever needed, and it only cost him some sleep. “Thank you for your hospitality. I will be leaving before midday.”

“So soon?” The elder finally looked at him. “You must still be tired after traveling the forest.”

“I am plenty rested to begin again.” He feet still ached from the long days of walking and his body would benefit from a full day’s rest, but he feared the allure of comfort. He needed to keep moving. There was a legend told about a village near the southern border that caught his ear several weeks ago.

“Will you at least stay for some tea?” the elder asked.

“Tea would be delightful.”

He had tea with the elder and listened to the stories she offered. He listened attentively and answered what questions she had the confidence to ask. She never inquired about the children of the forest. He sensed her reservations and also her respect for him.

He was used to admiration or fear. His work often drew either suspicion or reverence. His results always earned him respect. He was aware of the stories that surrounded him, but he also knew that these were created by the very people who made demons from rabid foxes.

The elder was beyond believing him to be more than he was. Her company was refreshing and he enjoyed their time together. When the sun was overhead, he gathered his things and hoisted the pack from the floor. The full weight settled on him.

Haaru had mastered the art of farewell throughout his travels. He followed the sun as it crawled across the sky then turned south in the evening light. The legend turned over in his head. It involved a pair of sisters. He caught himself guessing at its true origin and turned his thoughts away so as not to cloud his expectations. He would wait until he heard their story.

The Beginning of the End

Rowan stepped onto the spongy earth floor and a small ache flitted through his chest. This was his favorite place. He had a hammock and a small stock of canned beverages a mile or so to the south. There were few predators in this forest that could cause him any harm. He couldn’t say as much for the smaller species that inhabited the branches above though. The ache wasn’t regret or guilt or envy, it was from a sadness that he could not stay and an even greater sadness that the forest may not be here next time. If there was a next time. It wasn’t very often he happened upon the forest at the end of the world. With a sigh, he turned back to the heavy wooden door just as it closed with a thud. The door looked out of place here, set in the middle of a boulder that sat nearly thirty feet wide and half again as tall. Rowan suspected it was a perfect sphere half buried in the soft earth. He would never know and he never felt the need to know. He didn’t have to think about anything while he was here. That’s why he liked it so much. He could just be.

He opened the thick wooden door with little effort and tried to peer inside at his next destination. It was pitch black. It always was until you stepped through, but he liked to prepare himself nonetheless. He took a deep breath and went inside. The damp heat of the forest vanished as he was assaulted by the crushing weight of freezing water. His buoyant body began floating above the door. He had entered the the door at the bottom of the ocean. His least favorite place. He began swimming, propelling himself toward the stone door that remained open as the current coursed through its frame. His arms pushed and his legs kicked but he continued to float upward. His woolen trousers and leather boots offered little assistance in his attempt to sink toward the door. His thin, cotton shirt enveloped him like smoke. Before the panic welling inside him could surface, he remembered, and slowly let the air out of his lungs. The stream of bubbles shot upward until he became suspended. He moved neither upward nor downward. He let more air out and he began, slowly, to sink until his heavy boots touched the ocean floor. He leaned, walked, and floated his way to the door and pushed it shut against the current. Then he opened it and stepped through as quickly as he could.

He fell onto the cobblestone of Harehall Lane. Several people bustled by giving his sprawled-out form a wide birth. He gulped in lungfuls of air as water pooled around him. The iron gate clicked shut behind him as he gathered himself on his feet. His limbs burned from lack of oxygen and he continued breathing heavily as he turned and made his way up the street toward Doctor Nesbitt’s place.

Rowan didn’t bother with entering the back door, as was Nesbitt’s strict request to maintain his secrecy regarding his function as a member of The Foundation. He didn’t bother because his news was urgent and he was certain Nesbitt would scold him for seconds lost, so he burst through the front door, through the foyer, and into the study. Nesbitt was not in the study so he wandered through a hallway until her heard shouting behind him.

“I don’t care how it got here. Clean it up immediately. I don’t want to see a single drop when I return.” He recognized the voice as Mistress Beatrice. Despite his instinctive nature to avoid the bitter old woman, he forced himself to intercept her.

“Mistress Beatrice. Ma’am, I-”

“You!” her eyes blazed as she watched his saturated clothes continue to drip onto the hardwood. “I should have known it was you. No matter. Perhaps this will finally convince the doctor to be rid of you for good. Come.”

He did not argue. He knew full-well what any retort would earn him, and silence would get him to the doctor faster, so he followed obediently as she navigated the halls. They ended up in the observation room where the doctor would meet patients outside of the hospital and those who could not afford house calls. Mistress Beatrice rapped on the door and entered.

“Doctor Nesbitt, sir, I found this rascal running through the foyer sopping wet. I am unsure where all he has trespassed, but I have set Wilkins to cleaning up before the floor is damaged.”

Dr. Nesbitt held a hand up to stop her. She hesitated, obviously prepared with a rant to destroy any reputation Rowan had, but remained silent at the doctor’s order. Nesbitt glanced at Rowan briefly but managed to take all of him in nonetheless. He returned to the little girl sitting in a chair against the wall and finished wrapping her arm in a cotton sling.

“Make sure you are gentle with the arm for at least two weeks. That means no fetching water. If your mum has issues with this, have her come speak to me. Come back if it still hurts next month.” He ushered the girl out of the chair and stood. “Beatrice,” he stared her straight in the eyes, “please see little Alana to the door.”

“But doctor-”

“Beatrice.” His inflection froze her. Her temper from moments ago seemingly vanished. “I will have words with the boy.” The answer offered little satisfaction but she accepted it as if they were a promise of punishment. She guided the girl from the room and disappeared. Nesbitt shut the door behind her.

“This better be urgent. We agreed only the back door, and only after the streetlamps were lit. If this is simply a lapse…”

“The Anvil has broken,” Rowan nearly shouted.

Nesbitt’s eyes bulged and he stumbled. Rowan helped him to a chair. “Who has confirmed it?” he asked.

“Aedmon himself. I heard it from Maltair and was sent to notify everyone.”

“Are any other messengers active with this knowledge?”

“None that I know, but I have not seen any since given the order.”

“I will tell any who arrive here. Now go. Tell as many as you can. I fear there is little this world can do in its current state, but I will do what I can to prepare and assist. Spread word of my intentions. They will know what little I can offer.” Nesbitt  got up and ushered him to the door. “Run. Do not stop until they have all been told. We will not last without everyone present. We may not last even if everyone is.” The last sentence he said as if to himself. Rowan did not wait long enough to hear what followed. He ran through the halls, his clothes still dripping a trail behind him, and out the front door. He sped across the cobblestones to the iron gate and opened it. His breathing was heavy but he took a breath and stepped through.

The heat hit his face. The world was on fire and the arid earth absorbed the few drops that still fell before the air ate away the remaining moisture. He hated this place, but it was the location of another member, perhaps the strongest, so he continued through the blazing air toward the mountain across the barren land in front of him. He ran despite the heat. He ran as if the world were ending. For all he knew, it may have already started.

Burden of Prominence

Sashi was growing tired of her reputation. Even in her self-imposed exile she was visited by a new challenger once a week, and every week she dug a new grave. Becoming the greatest swordsman, in her case swordswoman, was her dream since she was a child. She’d practiced throughout her life, defying her family’s wishes, until she achieved it. Her sword became a part of her. She could survive on her blade alone, and she has done so for the past twelve years.

The emperor’s tournament was where her dream began to sour. Her reputation as a swordswoman was vaguely known in her village, but it was enough for her nomination when the messengers came. She traveled to the capital with excitement, ready to show everyone her swordsmanship, but she was ill-prepared for what was to come. She watched the first match from the fighter’s box. She remembered trying to focus on the fight, but kept stealing glances at the emperor and his elaborate throng of guards. She imagined herself among them. A round of applause had returned her attention to the fight or rather the end of it. The winner was bowing to the emperor while the other lay dead as servants came to drag him away and clean the blood before the next fight. Sashi never looked at the emperor again.

She had entered the tournament believing it would follow the rules of sparring and not decided on fatal blows. After all, what was the purpose of a tournament of swords if only one skilled warrior remained? It was a waste. Sashi had not yet drawn her blade with the intent to kill, but she now knew she must if she were to survive.

Many of the other fighters wielded swords or axes. A few fought with weapons she had never seen before. Many wore armor of either leather or wood. Sashi wore only her grey kimono. She had brought nothing else believing only her sword was needed for these fights. She still believed this but was thankful she had forgone the more elegant kimono she considered wearing in the emperor’s presence. Her grey kimono allowed her full range of motion.

The large men in the fighter’s box believed she was lost and threw her out. She continued watching the tournament with the local peasants in the standing area until her name was called. She entered the fighting ground and was greeted with silence before laughter erupted. Her heart swiftly, as a bird’s after a long flight. The laughter died at the emperor’s gesture and her contender was announced. A large boulder of a man entered wielding a flail nearly as big as she was. One spike would be enough to end her.

The fight began. Sashi dodged the flail and delivered her first cut on the man’s waist just below his armor. It was shallow, barely drawing blood. He grunted and swung again as he turned on her. She was caught off guard and had to dive to escape being impaled. She dodged again and gained her footing. Her enemy was slow but powerful. She would need to rely on her speed and her reach to sneak beneath the man’s armor if she were to stand a chance. She had to draw out the fight and use her superior stamina to her advantage. She used her small cuts to instigate the large man into attacking. He grew tired as the seconds went by. She maintained her efforts and delivered cut after cut. Each one increased the man’s rage and efforts until he was thoroughly spent. Her final cut, though shallow, was still enough to sever the carotid artery.

She fought six more men before she was proclaimed champion in the silence of the arena. The emperor did not acknowledge her victory, and the crowds left disappointed. Sashi went back to her village with the fortune awarded to her hoping to leave the tournament behind. Then the first challenger approached. He came to the village claiming to be the brother of one of her victims int he arena. He further claimed dishonesty was the only explanation for her ability to defeat her brother. She dismissed the claim knowing the truth but accepted his challenge. She defeated him in three blows. When he failed to yield, she delivered a fourth and made his men carry his body back to be buried with his brother.

Three months passed and five more warriors challenged her. Sashi moved to the outskirts of her village where she could face the challengers without causing further trouble for her family. Her reputation spread across the country with every warrior she defeated, and more came to test her skills and prove her reputation was a deceit. Two years passed before her blade proved her reputation as genuine. Then the number of challengers increased. Each one hoping to defeat the greatest swordsman and claim the title for themselves. It was then that she moved to the island of the crescent moon in the southern sea.

Twelve years passed and countless challengers still made their way to her small island to claim their glory. She defeated every one of them. At times she felt her island held more graves than grains of sand. She was alone and surrounded by death. She was growing tired. Her dream had become her cage. Then the emperor’s messenger came.

A new tournament was to be held. As the greatest swordsman, she was expected to attend and again prove herself. She left her island for the first time in over a decade. She wore a grey kimono and brought only her wooden training sword. Her steel blade remained behind on the island where it would become its own legend.

She entered the arena to a hushed silence. No laughter followed this time. Only a deep respect and a tinge of fear filled the air. Her first opponent was eager but fear undid him as her wooden blade cracked his skull and he fell. She fought again and again without rest and without defeat. It seems the emperor had hosted the tournament with the sole purpose of usurping her reputation and grant her title to a new warrior, even if he did not prove worthy of it.

When no warriors remained, she returned to her island expecting many new challengers to approach her. A month passed without a single one. Then a year. She hoped one might come who would want to learn from her. Someone she would pass her title to. She spent the rest of her days waiting for a warrior who would best her. None ever came.

A Desire To Learn

Pyter ran through the cobblestone streets and safely into a deserted alleyway. He surveyed the path behind him to make sure he wasn’t followed then made certain he had an open route of escape should he need one. Satisfied he was alone, and would be for a time, he sat on a pile of trash and got comfortable. His bare feet were black with grime, his pants shredded from the knee down, and his shirt so threadbare any onlooker wouldn’t believe he wore one.

He could have stolen a new shirt or even a coat for the upcoming winter, and he had planned on doing so when he came upon something he treasured more than warmth and protection. He convinced himself the contents of the book in his hands now might even be able to give him everything he needed to stave off the cold better than a piece of cloth or even a house, though he had never known the luxury of shelter. The possibilities within this book were virtually endless. He just had to learn its contents. His hands traced the symbol on the spine and caressed the cover before thumbing it open to the first page.

“Where’d you find that, boy?”

Pyter fell from atop the trash heap and landed on the cool stone. His heart fired rapidly within his chest. He quickly stood and peeked around to the other side of the pile where the voice had come from. Either he didn’t notice the man when he sat down or he didn’t notice the man come sit next to him. Both options scared him because the man had evaded his keen awareness developed on the streets. He should have heard the man’s breath as soon as he entered the alley.

“Who are you?” Pyter asked.

The man’s head shifted but remained hidden beneath the leather hood. Pyter could see a peppered, thick beard hiding the man’s face.

“Just a beggar wondering what kind of book you have there, and where you happened to get it,” the man said.

“All you need to know is that I have it, right? Which you can plainly see.”

The man gave a chuckle and his whole body moved with it. Pyter could see there wasn’t much to the man, but it was more than what would be found on any beggar in this city.

“May food find you,” Pyter gave him the poor-man’s goodbye and turned to make his exit.

“Perhaps it can find you,” the man replied, and held up a whole loaf of bread. It was more than Pyter had eaten in a month and almost enough to tempt him into making a mistake, but years of fighting for scraps warned him of the easy take.

“I think I’ve got all I need. Thanks.” Pyter tapped the book and continued toward the open street. The man didn’t move. Pyter grew far enough away to turn his back on him. As he did, he froze and watched the cobblestone rise before him until it was eight, ten, twelve feet tall. He turned back to the man sitting by the trash pile, but the man still held up the bread in offering. He hadn’t moved at all.

Pyter warily returned to where the man sat and feigned interest in the bread before bolting down the alley and toward his only remaining way out. Again, the stones rose from the ground. He scanned the street for a drain but there were none. He was boxed in completely. The realization of this came upon him and he tried to calm himself. The man was obviously powerful, but he wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

The man rose slowly and removed his hood. He was bigger than he first appeared when sitting. The beard was black but with prominent streaks of white at the edges of his mouth. Vivid, clear eyes the color of an ocean in storm stared at Pyter. A hair-thin scar ran from his left ear, up his cheek, and through his left eyebrow where a few strands of hair were discolored.

“I propose a trade,” the man said, “I’ll give you the bread if you answer my question.” He was still holding the loaf out in offering.

Pyter saw the bread in his peripheral vision. He refused to break eye contact with the man, but then thought to try a sizable risk that could possibly provide the advantage. He looked away and feigned interest in the situation before prompting the man to repeat the question.

“I asked where you got that book.” The man reminded him. He remained in place with the bread offered. Pyter realized the man was also wary of their standoff, but he decided to play along.

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I prefer to hear a man confess his crime before I punish him for it.”

Pyter’s senses returned to high alert. His act abandoned, he prepared for a fight. He just hoped he might still be alive after he lost this one. He prepared to use the only spell he’d been able to learn. His last resort. He muttered the words, summoning the air within the alley around him. He could see the man’s robe flutter toward him and the air obeyed his commands. The man’s eyes never left his own.

When he conjured all he could, he unleashed it down the alley in gust strong enough to send even a horse several feet into the air, but the man remained eye contact before he vanished behind a wall of flame. Fire shot skyward. The wind Pyter had created fed the fire and joined its path upward and beyond the alley. The heat grew and it grew hard to breath.

Pyter fell to his knees cutting them open, but he was too exhausted to feel the pain. He heaved air in and out and was afraid he’d pass out when the flames disappeared and air once again entered his lungs. His vision was blurred but he heard the boots of the man approach. The man picked up the book he hadn’t realized he dropped.

“Who are you?” the man asked.

“Nobody.”

“Every man has a name.”

Pyter continued to regain his breath. The exhaustion threatened his consciousness. He hoped his silence would prompt the man to leave.

“It’s no matter, I suppose, but I hate to see wasted talent. Here.” The man lifted Pyter into a sitting position and gave him the bread and a water skin. He helped Pyter eat and drink a little. The food restored some energy and Pyter finished the meal himself. The man knelt on one knee in front of him. The vivid eyes staring. Pyter found he couldn’t remain eye contact for long, so he looked at the stone beneath him.

“Pyter,” he finally said, “My name is Pyter.”

“Good. You haven’t lost the ability to trust completely.” The man stood. “Well, Pyter, how would you like to leave this behind you?” The man gestured around him before offering his hand to help Pyter up. “I can show you a place filled with these types of books. You can learn as much as you want, and even learn to forget what it means to starve.”

Pyter looked from the hand to the man’s eyes. They no longer seemed rigid, but fluid and warm and even welcoming. They were like a fire on a winter’s night. Pyter took his hand. The two stone walls receded until the alleyway was once again as it had been before their interaction. The man patted Pyter on the shoulder then offered him his robe.

“This will keep you warm until we can get you cleaned up.”

“What about you?” Pyter asked.

The man thumbed the book and winked. “I’ve got all I need, and if you pay attention, you will too.”