The First Soul
Alden Cherudim, initiate pseudomage of the Tenth Circle, smoothed his white robes, trying to stand taller, and stared at the door of the small wooden house before him. He shivered, the warm summer breeze feeling cold as it wafted through his blond hair, and without thought, he clutched at his robes, wrinkling them again. He looked from side to side quickly, the sensation of eyes on him chilling him further, though nobody appeared to be anywhere in view. The road he stood upon looked empty, following the edge of the plot of land the inhabitants of this house – only marginally larger than a shack – tended. Havershim, this area was called, but this house was miles away from anything resembling a hamlet, much less a town. The only other feature of this empty road was an even smaller shed, leaning against the side of the house, presumably where this farmer kept what tools he used. All in all, there was a dreariness to the setting that made Alden even more nervous. A coughing sound came from inside the house, and Alden looked ahead at the door once more. Mustering up a bit of courage, and taking a breath, he stepped forward and knocked on the door.
“Who… who is it…?” a weak voice croaked, behind the thin door. More coughing.
“My name is Alden. Alden Cherudim. The Circle sent me to tend to you.” Alden touched the door and it creaked, opening enough for him to see an elderly man, disheveled, unshaven, beneath a thin blanket, lying on an old bench. To the left of the door was a small table, a dark bottle tipped over upon it, a small stain near its mouth on the table the only evidence that it once contained anything other than dust.
“Tend? Ah, yes… I’m dying, aren’t I…?” The man sighed weakly, and let his head rest again on the bench. He stared up at the ceiling, his breathing labored. “The Circle only comes out here… for the dying…”
Alden blinked and straightened up, his voice regaining a bit of its normal timbre. “That’s not true. Last week, the Cir-” Coughing interrupted Alden’s retort.
“I’m sure… that I don’t want to spend my last arguing about the Circle, ” the old man said, regaining his breath. He smirked, and turned his head to look at Alden, who had now entered the house and was standing next to the bench. “At least you made it in time.”
Alden smiled and produced a small cup from a pouch on his belt. Holding it out with his left hand, he held his right, palm down, just above the rim. A weak blue light came from beneath his fingers, and he pulled his hand back, revealing clean water in the vessel. He leaned down and placed the cup to the man’s cracked lips and helped him drink.
The man drank, and sighed, coughing once, but releasing the tension in his body. “Alden, was it?”
“Yes – of the Tenth Circle.” Alden nodded his head in a slight bow, setting the empty cup on the table.
“Carr, they call me. Just Carr.”
“Carr,” repeated Alden. “An honor to meet you. Is there anything I can do for you to make you comfortable?”
Carr started to shake his head, and then stopped. “The… the Circle didn’t make it in time for her… my Mel… Will I still see her… you know, After?” he asked, his raspy voice trembling with fear. “She didn’t have her rites.”
Alden paused for a moment, trying to keep his face neutral, before smiling slightly, and nodding. “Of course. Tended or not, all souls are cared for After, for the universe detests waste,” he answered, paraphrasing his master’s teachings. “She will be awaiting you with open arms.”
Carr relaxed again, and settled back on the bench, gazing up at the roof, as if the sky was visible through it. “It hasn’t been that long, you know… since she went to the After. A year or so ago.”
Alden smiled, and looked down at Carr, nodding, urging him to continue.
“She used to have hair – long hair… the color of a field at harvest… and a smile that could warm from anywhere in a room. We grew up together, worked the farm together… Lived together. I miss her…” he trailed off, for a brief second before continuing, a bit more energetically. “You know she had the best bread in this county? The inn up the road always used to buy her bread…” He smacked his lips as though he could still taste it.
“And as we both got older… her hair became silver like the moon… and still shone.” He sighed wistfully, but then, his face darkened.
“And then, a year ago, she got the water-lung. First, she was tired. Then pale. Then feverish. Coughing all the time.” He looked sharply at Alden, “And then… he showed up. One of the ones like you. Fancy robes, and all. Said he was there to ‘tend’ to Mel.” His stare intensified and Alden shifted on his feet, feeling the heat from that glare. “I thought he was a savior. Thought he was there to help her. I asked him to look at her, to cure her, and he just looked her over, and said ‘It appears that I’m early.'” Carr was shaking beneath his thin blanket, and he coughed twice, his body wracking in spasm. “And then… he left.”
He sighed again, his body settling once more on the bench, his gaze returning to the blank ceiling. “I never saw him again.” His voice softened to almost a whisper, “And Mel… my Mel… she passed a week later. I came here after… to get away. It hurt too much.”
Alden stood, silently, just staring down at Carr – at the old man who was abandoned by the Circle – and said mechanically, “I am sorry… that the Circle could not fulfill its duty to your wife,” his mind stunned by the story he had just heard. “May she rest peacefully in the After,” he finished, barely whispering.
Carr shook his head once, and closed his eyes. “You are not to blame, Alden. Tonight, you have done the Circle’s part… for Mel… by listening to an old man. By tending to her memory…” He smiled and coughed once more, weakly, his breathing going shallow and his voice trailing off.
Alden walked over to the bed, and laid his hand upon Carr’s brow. A faint, soft green glow came from his palm upon Carr’s forehead, and the old man wheezed once more, and then was still. Silent. The glow filled the small room, and he lifted his hand, drawing a small golden orb of light from within the man he had just been listening to. He turned his palm up, and stared at the orb – Carr’s soul – that sat so small in his hand. Alden swallowed, entranced by it for a long moment before placing it in a dark cloth bag at his waist. As the soul dropped into the bag, it briefly illuminated the inside of the bag – empty, except for Carr.
My first soul, thought Alden. He thought back through what Carr had said about his visitor the year before and wondered what it meant – why hadn’t the Circle helped Mel? He gazed into the nearly empty bag as if looking for an answer. Finding none, he took hold of the bag’s strings.
Alden almost thought he heard the words “Thank you” from his bag, before it cinched shut.
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