How could I resist that face? Those eyes?
"Alright, alright. Gather 'round, children, and I'll tell you one last story," I annouced, as eleven of my grandchildren gathered around my feet and the twelfth slid off of my lap to join them.
I leaned over and tossed another half-log into the fire, my eyes flinching away from the sudden burst of bright orange and red light. I said nothing for almost a full minute, letting only the sound of that fire fill the den. They would be satisfied with whatever yarn I spun for them, but there was one in particular I had held off on. One that had been stewing in my mind for over fifty years. Their parents, my own children, do not even know this story (although they certainly would after tonight), and until that very moment I had never intended to share. Not even my own wife, may the Ancients keep her soul safe and happy, knew it. Maybe her passing is what loosened my tongue and cracked open the door to my secret shame.
"Children," I said, clearing my throat again, which now felt as dry as the Endless Desert, "All of you...," I paused for dramatic effect, and it worked well on them, "All of you were almost never born." Eyes narrowed and mouths dropped open in confusion, but I quickly continued before the questions could come, "As a young man, years before I met your grandmother, I worked as a..." hesitation came now, a final, desperate attempt by my subconscious to stop the story from coming out. But the dam broke and I couldn't stop myself now, "I worked as an apprentice Thanatosian in the temple to Xanth."
I watched as each of the twelve children unconsciously made the circle around their heart with their index finger in the typical gesture of respect for the Lord of Death. Even the youngest, at five, made the sign. And they all looked both terrified and spell-bound.
"I never finished my apprenticeship, as you can undoubtedly tell, but I came very close. This story, my lovelies, is how I came to leave the order and take on the life of a simple baker. I look at all of you there, sitting on the floor, and know that I made the right decision, but a small part of me has always wondered what would have happened had I chosen to stay after that fateful night. Listen well, and know the fear that the Lord of Death rightfully invokes, but also know that He showed mercy to those who deserve it," I swallowed, a large lump forming in my dry throat, "...and maybe even to some who don't."
It was a mid-summer's night, sweltering and filled with mosquitoes and other buzzing insects. The Xanth'el Jungle was a horrible place to those without an intimate knowledge of its secret paths. Aspiring Thanatosians like myself did not know the safe-ways. We were brought to the Temple under a sleeping spell and only shown the way out once we had become full-fledged Acolytes. None of us complained, the apprenticeship mostly involved the cleaning and maintenance of the temple as well as arduous study sessions with the Book of the Dead. My group's particular instructor was a cold, meticulous codger by the name of Errol. He was the perfect image of a Thanatosian monk: emotions locked away and an so strictly adhered to his routine he would, in all likelihood, turn to dust should he be forced to break from it. His gaunt figure wrapped in the black ceremonial robes of the faith combined with the pointed hat and white-wax death mask made him quite the imposing figure. I remember merely being in his presence inflicting feelings of deep fear and respect.
But I digress, this particular night, which would change the course of my life, had begun like any other. I was part of a group of five who were sent out to the front of the temple to wash the black-green marble steps that lead to the dual temple doors, which were embued with the gold-encased bones of the founders of the temple, and held one of the biggest jewel encrusted skulls I had ever seen in my life. Rumors had it that the skull, which split in two when the doors were opened, belonged to the last of the Giants, who also worshiped the Lord of Death, and that his bones were used as part of the foundation of the temple. I'm sure there was some truth to that, but I never got the chance to visit the vast library, which was strictly off-limits to apprentices.
It was late afternoon when we finished, the sun hidden behind the canopy of the dense jungle ceiling. I was soaked to the core with sweat, dirt and dust, and was looking forward to my evening bath when the messenger, panting and looking somehow worse than I, came bursting from some nearby foilage and nearly tripped on the first step.
"I have an...an emergency message for the High Priest from the capital!" The poor man was gasping like a fish out of water.
My quick thinking fellow apprentice, a round faced young woman with dark black hair, who I only ever knews as Kera, grabbed the messenger by the arm without a word and practically carried him up the steps and into the temple. Despite her small stature, she was very strong. I imagine she went on to become a Death-Dealer, perhaps even reaching their highest ranks.
The rest of us exchanged worried glances, it was unusual for anyone to be emotional when approaching the temple. Those of us who hadn't entered true Thanatosian training found it hard to be anything but morose even when we in no one's company but our own.
"What do you suppose that was about, Basil?" whispered Jeroth, walking close to me and leaning in without taking his eyes from the main doorway. Jeroth was probably the closest thing I had to a friend at the temple, and I often ponder his fate as well when lying alone in the dark, in bed.
I dropped the dirty rag into the nearby water bucket and absently dried my hands on my robes. "Mm, no idea. But he did look rather anxious about something, didn't he?"
Several minutes later, Kera reappeared. The rest of us had taken refuge in the shade of one of the massive obsidian columns when she shuffled up. She had let down her hair, which flowed in raven colored waves past her shoulders, and rolled the sleeves of her robe up past her elbows. Her eyebrows were lowered and pointed at dangerous angles and her mouth had been reduced to a small line.
"What's the word?" I asked when it became obvious no one else was going to say anything.
Kera's emerald eyes turned to me and, while I'm being honest with you kids, it sent a burning flash through my entire body and made my heart skip a beat or two. "Cannae be sure," she said in that thick Beruvan accent of hers, "The lad was practically fallin' outta me arms when I got 'im inside. Master Errol was standing there, all wound up like 'e usually is, and I swear 'is eyes got as big as dinner plates when that messanger whispered in 'is ear. The two of 'em up an' rushed off a secon' later, ne'er givin' me the chance to ask wot was wot."
What? No, put your hand down, Milli, we aren't in school. And wipe that grin of your face, I know what you're wanting to ask. Maybe Kera did look and sound a bit like your grandmother but that has nothing to do with this story! Now, stop laughing, this is serious.
The rest of the day went without incident and we were granted a very strange respite from studying that night because Master Errol was "busy with other matters." Now, while we were all relieved, Jeroth, Kera and I couldn't get the little incident with the messenger boy out of our minds. It was obvious the messenger must have been a monk, like we were all hoping to be, as he must have used the safe paths to get through the jungle without a guide. This revelation made the whole situation all that more disturbing because of the amount of emotion the messenger showed upon arrival and the reaction he elicited from Master Errol when they exchanged hushed words.
"I've been chatting up a nice Acolyte the last few weeks," Jeroth said, smiling almost-smugly. If looks could kill the one Kera gave him just then would have struck him dead on the spot, "What? She isn't that much farther ahead of us in our training...so yes, I've been making nice friends with her, and I bet if I talk to her she'll have something to say about the whole thing. I'll go see her first thing in the morning."
And so we separated. I didn't get much sleep that night, and when I did manage little snips of sleep, I dreamt of darkness and glowing eyes.
Strange dreams weren't out of the norm for me since coming to the temple, but none had been as upsetting as the ones I ended up having that night. I dreamt I was trapped in a pitch black, ice cold room, surrounded by a thousand whispering voices urging me to do something, though I can't tell exactly what. I can feel goose-flesh forming all over my body as time goes on, and I feel like something is watching me. Something touched my shoulder and I screamed.
I stumbled out of bed that next morning feeling more exhausted than I had going in. A bit of strong coffee and dry toast from the dining area helped but the sleepiness wasn't going without a good fight. I met up with Kera and the two of us went to the apprentice studying hall to wait for Jeroth and whatever news he might have. The hall was massive, as most things in the temple were. Shafts of yellow light showing through small windows lining the wall just at the ceiling line were a stark contrast to the black and green colors of everything else. Black obelisks stood at regular intervals along the wall between shelves upon shelves of tomes both old and new which pertained to not only the sacred Death Rites of Xanth, but to every facet of knowledge ever explored in our world. Some of the books were bound in the normal way, but there was a section were every tome was bound in the flesh of their authors. There was very little of use to apprentices in those particular texts.
Great chandeliers made of bone and preserved muscle hung from the ceiling, their candles sitting in holders made out of the wrists and hands of the long dead. Each candle burned eternally with magically produced fire, never going out...never having to be replaced. These brightened during the night to give ample light to those burning their fuses at both ends. The study of Death and all its machinations was a never ending ordeal, the completion of which only came with Death itself. And even then, when our souls move on to the next plane of existence, there is an infinite amount of knowledge for all to continue to pursue. Necromatic rituals for calling on the Dead are save for those in the highest positions in the order, but even a child, like all of you my dear lovelies, can speak with the spirits those long past with the proper materials.
Kera sipped on coffee, a strong smelling concoction I can still remember to this day, and I stood leaning heavily against the wall trying to keep my eyes from staying shut for long perods of time. If she noticed my troubles, she didn't say anything. That's just the way she was, and I believe she was a bit jealous of Jeroth's ability to relax completely, as was I. So when Jeroth slid into the study hall looking far paler than usual the two of us straightened up and tried to rush over to him without drawing attention.
"What's the word?" I whispered, placing a hand on Jeroth's shoulder, surprised when he flinched at my touch.
He looked a tad bit embarassed at that as I gently removed my hand, "Ah, yes...yes. Well, I talked to my friend and um..." He spoke softly and, to my surprise, timidly.
"Spit it out!" Kera hissed.
Jeroth's eyes shot nervously to her then back to the floor, "The messenger brought news of one of the sacred museums of Guilermod being robbed and..."
At this point, apparently thinking the same thing, both Kera and I grabbed Jeroth and pulled him closer, uttering a simultaneous "What?!"
"Let me finish," Jeroth pulled away, I let him go but Kera did not.
As you know, children, the sacred museums are the amongst the most heavily guarded sites in the capital. I see the disbelief on your faces, it is much like my own was. But I assure you this is the truth.
Jeroth continued, keeping his voice steady but unable to keep from wringing his hands, "It was robbed, and whoever did it left a note. A taunting note saying they were coming for artifacts in the temple next." The look on my face must have been horrible because Jeroth looked at me and said, with a growing mixture of rage and fear, "Dammit, Basil, this is just what I heard. If you could have seen the look on that poor girl's face as she told me all of this well. . .well, you'd believe it just as I do."
Kera scoffed, letting her hand fall from Jeroth, "What kinna fool would nae only break into a sacred museum, but also leave a note sayin' what they're gunna do next?" Her eyes narrowed, "Even if they try, they'll ne'er get in."
Fear churned in the pit of my stomach, "What...what did they take?"
Jeroth shrugged, "I don't think that was part of the message, why..."
"Because one of the sacred museums has half of the bones of the Most High on display," I said quietly, feeling my companions' eyes fall upon me, "and the other half is located in the Pit, behind the Decaying Altar, and I would bet my robes that it was that particular place that was hit. It's the only one connected with the temple." I kept my gaze on the floor. I remembered going to the museum as a child during one of the very few vacations my family was ever able to afford. I remembered the awe mixed with terror as I stood before the display, and it was right then and there that I decided I wanted to be a Thanatosian when I grew up. Those meticulously preserved bones of the Most High (his torso with fully intact ribcage, his left arm, and right leg) radiated an energy that every person to gaze upon them could feel. They reminded us of our mortality and of the unescapable grip of the Lord of Death. That to be afraid of death is to be afraid of life.
"Xanth's Marrow," Kera cursed under her breath, "The gall of this thief," she had at some point discarded her coffee cup and was now clenching both fists at her hips, "Let them come! If the Death Dealers don't stop them, I will!"
"When...when are they supposed to get here?" I didn't want to know, but at the same time I couldn't help myself.
Jeroth looked at he right in the face, "Tonight."
Finally the levity of the situation breached Kera's tough as nails exterior. I saw her knees almost give out, and when she spoke I'm surprised I managed to stay on my own feet, "But...but tonight is the Pale Heart Purification ritual."