"A new one so soon?" A man said, leaning against a wall. Another man stood beside him. Two dogs rested not far behind the pair. "Thorn and I acquired our apprentices not many years apart from one another, and now we have another coming?" "It seems quite fast. I'm sure Master knows what is best. When we all came to serve the master, there wasn't all that much time between the three of us either." The man named Thorn said. His own apprentice was standing beside him. Their beastly servants stood in front of them. Thorn's apprentice, Devon, sat down on a rock not far from Thorn. "That means all three of you guys will have apprentices now, right? Does that mean I'll get one soon?" "No." Thorn said. "Absolutely not." Ocelotl said. "But I've been doing this for thirty-seven years now." Devon said, pouting. "I work by myself now...most of the time." "You run to Thorn all the time for help. You won't be ready for centuries." Ocelotl rolled his eyes at Devon. "Your apprentice is newer than me. Why are you acting like I'm the greenest person here?" Devon snapped at him. He thought to himself. 'And didn't it take centuries before you had an apprentice anyway?' "My apprentice didn't need my help after a month. Poor Thorn, I know you try hard. You were saddled with such a weakling." Ocelotl smirked. "Hey, don't bring me into this!" Ocelotl's apprentice slunk back away from him. "Speaking of work, do we all have to be here to meet the new guy?" "The master didn't say we had to be here, only that he would be bringing the new one here soon. If you're not interested, go on. Someone should be working anyway. I think I'll go myself. It's Conrí's apprentice. How interesting could his apprentice possibly be?" "Already judging the next guy..." Devon muttered under his breath. "It's easy to judge. Conrí will probably be too busy trying to bed his apprentice than train him. Poor fool will probably need two hundred years to be trained." Ocelotl shook his head. "That's not very nice...I don't think Conrí would be that unprofessional with his own apprentice." Devon said, defending the absent man. "He flirted with you the first day he met you." Ocelotl reminded him. "And he hasn't since." Devon said. "Conrí's been really nice to me." "He stopped because you told him to. He'll flirt with anyone he meets. He still flirts with Thorn." Ocelotl pointed out. Thorn felt the others turning their focus to him, but ignored their invitations to join in arguing about nothing. "Ah, hate to interrupt, but it is alright if I leave, right?" Ocelotl's apprentice asked. "Of course. I'll be leaving myself now. I'd rather not waste time I could be working on watching Conrí embarrass us all." Ocelotl quickly left with his hound beast at his side. Ocelotl's apprentice and his own dog started to walk off. "Well, I'll be going now." "You're really leaving?" Devon crossed his arms. "I'll meet him later. Nothing against Conrí or anything, but I have someone I want to make sure I escort today." He said. "Oh, I see. Good luck." Devon said. He waved. "Thanks." Ocelotl's apprentice vanished shortly after. "Hmm, I wonder who he needed to see." Devon turned to Thorn. "Likely an old friend or a family member is passing today. You know he's quite the sentimental type." Thorn sat down. His beast, a cat, sat in his lap. He petted her head. "Can't say I'd want to see any of my family ever again. But I guess his life was a lot different from mine." Devon sighed. "So, what do you think the new guy will be like?" "I don't know. We're all quite different as we are best suited to guiding different types of souls. The only thing I can say is he will be unlike all of us." Thorn said. "That makes sense. I hope he's nothing like Ocelotl. God, I can't stand him." Devon admitted. "He's the way he is with you because you're playing into his game. He wants to argue with Conrí. If you defend Conrí, he will argue with you too, because it's about Conrí. He actually likes Conrí a lot, but he won't admit it." Devon looked over at Thorn in confusion. "Wait, like he has a crush on him?" "No, nothing like that. Ocelotl isn't attracted to men." Thorn explained himself. "It's more that he likes how kind and gentle Conrí is, and so he pokes at Conrí for things like that. Because he's actually very afraid of Conrí being hurt. In his own way, he thinks by attacking him like that, he'll toughen him up and protect him. Conrí's personality is very similar to Ocelotl's wife." "What?! Really? How do you know that?" Thorn thought back to a moment some years ago. "Once, when I was out on the boat with Rampion coming back from dropping off a soul, Ocelotl's daughter swam over to us. She told us her father was lingering at the border of the fields again, talking with her mother. He complains about Conrí getting distracted, but he speaks with his wife every time he drops off a soul. She joked about it then. Conrí is so similar to her mother that when she first met him, she wondered if he was her in a new form." "No way." Devon's mouth hung open. Thorn's voice became softer. "Before his death, Ocelotl couldn't keep his family safe. He died trying to protect them, but he couldn't rescue them from what was coming. The men in his family were all killed. His wife was raped and forced into a marriage by the man who killed him. His daughter was kept around as a servant to that man's family until he married her off to another man who murdered their friends and family. Ocelotl is quite terrified of seeing kind people hurt. That is why he is so unforgiving toward souls who have lived lives of cruelty and so harsh on Conrí, who will attempt to save even demons who have already devoured souls out of hope even for the most wicked of souls' slim chance of reform." "Huh. I didn't know that." Devon felt a little bad about arguing with Ocelotl earlier. "But still, that's not the right way to go about it." "Oh, I agree with you, but showing his true intentions embarrasses him." Thorn laughed. "Perhaps he is really the one who needs centuries to mature." Devon laughed with him. "So wait, him leaving today, is that more of his 'tough love'?" "I would presume as much." Thorn said. "Does Conrí know?" "I don't know. The way he argues with Ocelotl, I don't think so...unless he is arguing with him like that to hide that he does know. Knowing Conrí, it could go either way. Actually..." Thorn went quiet and stood up. "What?" Devon asked. He noticed the air in the cave shifted. He looked around. Their master, the Lord of Death, appeared in front of the candles. Their colleague, Conrí, stood beside him, with both of their beasts not far from them. Devon could make out a third figure behind them, but couldn't see the person clearly. "Master, welcome back." "Ocelotl and his apprentice are not here." Their master said. "They had important business to take care of. The younger one sends his apologies." Thorn said. Devon noticed Conrí kept his hood on for once. He had only seen him wearing it while working. Under the hood, Conrí's hair looked a mess. His eyes were full of tiredness. The third person stepped ahead. He was shorter than their master and Conrí, but Devon could not see his face. The person had cast a black mist around his face to shroud his appearance. All Devon could see of the face was the hint of his eyes, shifting from blood red to the darkest shade of brown, near black. Devon was more distracted by the man's cloak than his hidden face. While all of the others wore the same cloak of solid black cloth, this man's was made of something else. Threads of black shifted into dark mist along the lower edge of the cloak. A snake's head was embroidered, glowing, along the hood. Its body curled around the rest of the cloak. Galaxies spiraled in between spiderwebs, starry dew resting upon them both. Everything shifted from the deepest red to the boldest blue. Devon could not make out the man's feet, as if they were part of the same mist as the cloak. The figure held his scythe close, one arm skeletal, one not. The scythe was as strange as the cloak. There were minor differences between each blade that they all wielded, but this one was something else entirely. The stranger's blade was double ended, each blade pointed in a different direction. Etched onto the two blades were roses and spiderwebs with jaguar spots scattered about. Along the center, thin and faint, Devon saw strings of what appeared to be golden thread strung between the blades like a harp. Within the strings of gold were even thinner ones, near invisible, making tiny webs with blue drops clinging on as the proof of their existence. "Who are you?" Devon asked the stranger. "Meh, it doesn't matter." The stranger said. "His name is Chase, Chase White." Conrí answered. He sounded exhausted. "Birth name, Chase Rodriguez." The stranger pulled his hood off. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, but Devon suspected that wasn't likely his real age. With as much as this person had changed everything else, he presumed the stranger had taken on an appearance closer to whenever he felt like he was in his prime rather than his actual age at death. Devon could see his strange eyes more clearly now, as they shifted in rhythm with the lights of the cloak. The left half of his face had no skin, exposing his skull. Chase laughed. "Damn, are you going to give them my birth certificate too? Whatever. You can call me Ace, if you want. My fans did." "Fans?" Devon asked. "I was pretty famous for a while. Ace was my stage name." Chase said. "But that was decades ago. Hey, which of these candles is my husband's?" The Lord of Death turned to the candles. "These are for us to go to when they are calling us. You should not be looking into them otherwise." Chase focused on the candles. One of them suddenly flickered. "Oh, it's that one." Chase went over to the candle and put his hand over it to read his husband's future. "Cancer, huh? Well, that sucks." "How can he talk so casually about his husband's future demise?" Devon whispered to Thorn. Thorn shook his head. Chase called out to other flames, getting them to react. "The master told you to leave them alone." Devon said. "I heard what he said." Chase flipped him off and went to the next candle. "A stroke. Didn't see that one coming." "Master..." Devon turned to their master in confusion. "Let him be." Conrí got between them. "He isn't going to listen. So long as he doesn't alter anything, it's fine." "But we're not supposed to..." Devon started to say. "Who's the goody goody?" Chase asked. "My name is Devon." Devon narrowed his eyes. Chase rose from the ground and floated over to Devon. The mist turned to fog and hid his body away. When it cleared, Chase reappeared, now free of any exposed bone, in a white pollera with shifting red and blue, an absurdly elaborate tembleque, and a ridiculous amount of long, gold necklaces. His cloak fell behind his shoulders, barely visible as a thin mist. Chase leaned close to Devon and said. "You look easy to scare. Are you?" "What?" Devon raised an eyebrow. Chase shifted his appearance again, losing all of his skin and becoming nothing but bones. Devon jumped back and fell over. The skeletal figure laughed, engulfed himself in fog again, and reappeared this time with unblemished skin. He let the cloak hang off one shoulder. Beneath the black fabric, he wore only pants, no shirt or shoes. Devon noticed tattoos on his body. Chase caught him staring. He offered his hand to help Devon up. Devon cautiously accepted it. "That wasn't very nice." "Yeah." Chase agreed, grinning. "You like my tattoos? I have another one. Do you want to see it?" "Uh, okay." Devon agreed, not thinking much of it. Chase unbuttoned his pants and unzipped. "Uh, nevermind!" Devon looked away. "Jeez. What's wrong with you?" "A lot." Chase answered. "Chase, please attempt to behave yourself somewhat." Conrí called out to him. "Please, stop bothering Devon." "Alright, alright." Chase rolled his eyes. The master approached Chase. "You have made quite a stir, but we should begin your training. I will instruct you privately for now. Your ability is quite unique. We should put it to good use right away." "Not even gonna give me a tour around first, huh?" Chase joked. "Conrí will do that later. He needs to rest at the moment." The Lord of Death said. Chase looked back at Conrí. Conrí nodded. "I'll take you around later. I haven't slept in a while. Please, listen to the master while I take a nap." Chase bowed. "I'll try. Get some sleep." Chase left with the master. Conrí collapsed against the wall. His hood fell down, revealing his once below the knee length hair was now cut above his shoulders. Devon rushed over to him. "Are you okay?" Devon asked. Conrí nodded, breathing heavily. "I'll be fine. Thank you." "What happened to your hair?" Devon had never seen Conrí with shorter hair before. In all the decades he had worked with Conrí, he only ever saw him with his long hair braided back. He'd never even seen Conrí with his hair down before. "He cut it to make his scythe." Conrí said. "The master?" Devon asked. Conrí shook his head. "That one. He took my hair and made himself a scythe before the master arrived. He turned himself into mist and slipped through me, then cut it off and ripped it through my body before he twisted it into what he wanted." "I...how did he do that? I thought only our master had the power to do that." Devon said. Thorn walked over to them. He knelt down. "Conrí, who is that man? His presence is...terrifying." "Terrifying?" Devon looked over at Thorn. "His energy...it is like the creator's energy...but inverted. It is similar in ways to the feeling of death and decay, and of the river and the night sky...but...different. Like an empty void pulling in and consuming anything it touches. What is he?" Thorn's shoulders shook. Devon was shocked to see Thorn, who was normally unbothered by most things, so terrified. "Conrí?" "He is something that should not exist, born from broken threads and chaos in the emptiness beyond the walls containing our universe. A human soul without a pair, born with power no human should possess, to become something no human can comprehend." Conrí answered. "I saw it, I saw everything when I met him and looked through his future to lead him away from death for a while when he was a child. I saw my own future, I saw every future." "What does that mean?" Devon asked. "I cannot explain to you anything I saw because I do not understand what I saw. What I know is he is not within the order of reality." Conrí covered his face. He took a deep breath. "From seeing through his crossroads, something in me snapped. I have not been the same since, and I cannot undo it. I've seen things the master has not seen. I know things the master does not know. I have seen...things only the oldest beings have seen." "Is the master not one of the oldest?" Devon asked. "No, he is the Lord of Death of Earth. Life and Death are forces throughout all the planets across all the universes." Conrí said. He rubbed his eyes. He was so tired he struggled to stay awake. "...Universes?" Devon's eyes widened. Thorn tensed. "Conrí, what...did you say?" "All paths that can be, every crossroad in every life, shall come to pass, but not within the walls of our universe." Conrí replied. "So, you're saying...in some other life, I didn't kill myself?" Devon asked. Conrí nodded. "Yes." "But that would mean there'd be thousands...thousands of thousands..." Devon said. "Billions..." Thorn added. "Far more than that. In most, we do not exist. Earth does not exist." Conrí explained. "Did you know this?" Devon asked Thorn. Thorn shook his head. "No, I thought...there was only this one." "We are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, far more than you can comprehend." Conrí stood up, then stumbled forward. Devon caught him. "Thank you. I am sorry. I haven't slept in forty hours, and that...that meeting with him took a lot out of me." "You should really make more time to sleep. You're the only one of us still alive." Devon said. He helped Conrí sit back down. Thorn asked another question. "Conrí...what was it about that man that had anything to do with such grand things?" "I cannot say. I have already said more than I should. It's too much to understand. He won't be bound by this location for as long as we will. But there are more pressing matters to deal with in the near future." Conrí ran his fingers through his hair and sighed again. "Our master will leave us soon. His arrival is the signal that the time is coming soon." "What do you mean? But what happens once he leaves?" Devon asked. "He would choose someone to take his place as the Lord of Death, the same as the first Lord of Life chose a successor in my other half when he decided to leave the realm of the living." Conrí said. "That was before either of you became the master's apprentices, but I was there when it happened." "Do you know who he will choose?" Thorn asked. "I've seen it, so yes." Conrí answered Thorn's question, then answered the one he knew Devon would want to ask next. "No, I will not say. You'll know soon enough." Conrí collapsed forward. This time, Thorn caught him. Conrí couldn't bring himself to get back up again. "I'm sorry. I don't think I can move to my resting place." Conrí said. "It's alright. You may rest here." Thorn let him rest his head in Thorn's lap. "I'll wake you when they return." "I am sorry..." Conrí drifted into a deep sleep. Devon reached down and touched Conrí's face. "I've never seen him so tired. Do you think he's okay?" "Something is bothering him. He's not telling us what it is." Thorn said. "The master...he said the master will leave us soon...Who do you think he'll make the new master?" Devon asked Thorn. "Likely myself or Conrí. We are the oldest here. I can't know what the master has planned, but that is what I would assume he would do." Thorn draped some of his cloak over Conrí's body. "It won't be Ocelotl, nor any of you younger ones." "What will you do if it's you?" "I suppose I will fulfill my new duties as best as I can." Thorn gave Devon an answer he already expected. "What if it's Conrí?" "I don't think much would change." Devon watched Conrí sleep. "He's so warm. He's the only warm thing here aside from the candles." "He is quite like a flame, isn't he? An eternally burning candle in a realm of darkness. But he has seemed more worn down since that day he saw his future." Thorn brushed Conrí's messy hair off his face. "I didn't know him before. What was different?" "It wasn't that drastic of a change, but he seems to have less energy since he saw his own fate. His movements are slower." Thorn said. "I don't think the master will be back for a while. Why don't you go back to work?" "What about Conrí?" "I'll stay with him until he wakes." Devon stood up. He sensed Thorn wanted him to leave. "Alright. I'll go. Hey, what do you think that new guy's special power is?" "I don't know, but if the master himself wanted him to use it right away, it must be something very important. I'm sure we'll learn about it in time. Be patient." Devon bowed. "I'll do my best." With that, Devon left. He worked for a few hours, but couldn't keep his mind off of all he had seen and heard earlier in the day. He thought the master would always be with them. Though he had known the master for less time than most of the others, Devon didn't want him to leave yet. Especially not, he thought, with that strange new apprentice now joining them. Conrí looked so pale when he left. Devon's mind created disturbing illusions of futures that he feared could be. Anxiously, Devon returned back to the cave after four hours. Thorn hadn't moved from where Devon last saw him. Conrí was waking up as he arrived. "Sorry, did I wake you up?" Devon apologized. Conrí stretched. "No, I was only planning on taking a nap." "Has the master returned?" Devon asked. "No, not yet." Thorn said. "He'll return in the evening." Conrí got up. He hobbled forward. "I'll be back later. I need to do something before he gets back." "Are you going back to work? Maybe you should rest some more." Devon suggested. He stood in front of him. "I'll sleep tonight. I need to do this." Conrí said. "If you're that worried, you could come with me. I might need some assistance." "Thorn?" Devon looked back at Thorn. Thorn stood up. "You don't need my permission. Do as you wish." Devon turned to Conrí. "Well, let's go then." Conrí used his scythe to maintain his balance. Devon followed him. They passed through a pathway Devon didn't recognize and arrived at a clearing by a river. Wildflowers surrounded them. It felt like it was springtime. "Where are we?" "Outside the human realm. No one will disturb me here." Conrí let his scythe fall to the ground. "What are we going to do...here?" Devon asked. Before he finished speaking, he watched Conrí unclasp his cloak. It fell to his feet, partly covering his scythe. He took his shirt off next, then his shoes and pants. Devon looked away. "Um...why are you naked?" Conrí took a deep breath. He stepped into the water. "I'm going to bathe." "Did we...need to come out here for that?" Devon kept his eyes averted. He thought to himself, 'I thought we weren't allowed to remove our cloaks. Can he do that because he's still alive?' "Cleaning the body isn't the only reason to bathe. I need to do this somewhere pure." Conrí sunk down below the water. "Pure?" Devon waited for Conrí to resurface. After a minute, Conrí emerged. He caught his breath. "Is this a special bath? Like some kind of ritual?" Devon asked. "Something like that." Conrí washed his face off. "Should I be bathing too?" Devon asked, hoping Conrí would tell him no. "No, you don't need to. Unless you want to." Conrí washed his hair. The light caught in the beads of water resting in the golden strands. The droplets sparkled in the sun. Devon noticed something else, but only faintly. When the sun hit the golden strands, Devon saw a slight iridescent effect. He looked again to be sure what he saw was real. "Your hair...did it always do that?" Devon asked. Conrí looked back. "Oh, can you see it? Most can't." "What is that?" "Something in my bloodline. I was the last one born with it--at least in a way that can be seen." Conrí held up the ends of his wet hair with his fingers. "Long ago, one of my ancestors received a special magic that was embedded into hair. His children had children with the magic too, but over time, less and less were born with it and everyone forgot how to use it. I can't use any magic outside of what the master has gifted me, but I know my hair still carries a little of the magic. You must have some magical talent yourself, or you are very pure of heart." "Pure of heart? I don't think I'd want to be that. That's kind of a gross concept, isn't it?" Devon sat on the bank. With Conrí mostly covered by the water, he was less embarrassed to look at him. "What do you mean? Why would purity be a disgusting thing? It sounds as if you have projected something quite nasty onto the concept. Pure means pure. One who lives by their heart's truest desires is pure of heart. There are no barriers between their desires and their actions." Conrí laughed. "Yes, you are quite pure. You always show exactly what's inside of you, good and bad, much like a unicorn. Purity is a neutral state, that is why all young children are pure even when they do terrible things." "Oh, so it's that kind of thing." Devon quickly became embarrassed again. "Wait, are you saying I have no filter?" "I am saying you are rarely dishonest or manipulative about much of anything." Conrí felt over the strands between his fingers. "As for my hair, I know that the magic requires it to be cut. That little was passed down. I was forbidden from cutting my hair as a child. My hair has only been cut three times in my life. The first time I cut it for a fairy in exchange for guidance about my future before I became our master's apprentice. The second time was when the master cut it to make my scythe. And now, that one has come and cut it without asking to make his own blade. But he is also much like a unicorn, a pure beast that acts upon his desires, no matter how kind or cruel they may be." "Did it...hurt when he did that? You look so tired." Conrí sunk a little deeper into the water. He turned away from Devon. "I have never been in greater physical pain. I thought he was going to rip my soul out of my body and take my bones with it." "And...we're supposed to work with this guy? He sounds more like a demon than someone who can guide souls." Devon said. "His purpose among us has little to do with guiding the usual lost souls. His purpose is on the truly lost." Conrí got back out of the water. Devon looked away. Conrí grabbed his clothes and washed them in the water. "What does that mean?" Devon couldn't help himself. He peeked over at Conrí's body, then quickly averted his eyes. 'Why did I look?!' "He can return souls that have been destroyed." Conrí answered. "Wait...you mean the ones demons eat?" "Yes, and the demons we have slain too." Conrí said. "He can restore all of them, a thousand in one swing. But it will return a random thousand, good and bad. The demons will have to be slain a second time. A third and fourth if they are unlucky enough to be restored by him again." Devon felt a shiver down his spine. "Two blades...that's why..." "One restores, the other destroys." Conrí said. He hung his clothes to dry on the branch of a rowan tree. Devon rested under a pomegranate tree across from Conrí. He looked over the many flowers between them; daisies, daffodils, irises, hyacinths, violets, pansies, and many others Devon knew the shapes of and names, but could not pair together. On the other side of the river, a fig tree and a holly were parallel with the rowan and the pomegranate. Every other tree, save one, was a fragile pine. In between the rowan and the pomegranate, towering over all the other trees around them, an old oak resided. Devon knew little about plants, but something seemed strange to him about the arrangement of everything around them. "Restore and destroy...but only restore the soul, right? They're still dead, aren't they?" "Yes. Their spirits will still need to pass down the river of starlight down to the field." Conrí touched his hair again. His hand flinched when his fingers reached the ends of his now short strands. Devon had a thought. "What are the strings for? In between the blades? They were golden...gold..." Conrí and Devon exchanged looks. "Are the strings...is that your hair?!" Conrí looked down. "He couldn't resist snatching it when he came close to me, as if the gold were a lure to him. But in taking it, he has temporarily caged himself. The gold is mine, a means to channel his other power...reorder." "What does that mean?" Devon asked. By now, he had gotten over Conrí's nudity. He forgot entirely about it despite it having embarrassed him earlier. "A manipulation of probability. If he strums them, he can shift a thousand people's crossroads toward a specific set of outcomes. It is like how we can change the stars of a person's fate, but he can do it for many at once without looking into any of them simply by playing and thinking with a specific intention in mind." Conrí sat down. He let the sun dry off his body. "How can he do that? Why does he have that much power?" Devon asked. He was certain if he was still alive, his body would be shaking and his heart racing. "I can't say why. But know that he can. The master intends to have him trained to use these abilities for the betterment of the world, but...even within a cage, a wild animal cannot be tamed." Conrí's eyes were weary. "The master cannot control that one. I can get him to follow my commands to a degree, but I cannot entirely control him either. What will be will be. Good and bad. There is no stopping him once he sets his heart or mind on something." "He must've been able to do magic before he died. I can't see how else he'd already be able to do all this stuff right away." Devon said. He asked. "Do you know if he did?" "He did." Conrí touched the ends of his hair again, then his chest. He thought back to earlier in the day, when he came to collect Chase's soul at the hospital he died at. As soon as he brought him to the river, Chase had already begun to shift his form. When the boat arrived and Conrí offered him the choice of passing on or becoming his apprentice, as he had promised Chase decades before when Chase was a child, that was when it happened. "When he decided to become my apprentice, he wanted his scythe right away. He looked at me and said an incantation he made up in the moment before he stole from me what he wanted." "Do you remember what it was?" Conrí recalled the words as he pictured in his mind what happened after they were spoken. He could see Chase in his mind shifting to mist and slipping in and through him. The coldest of winter wind, so ice cold it burned him. Thinking on it, he could faintly feel the sensation from then, how strange and horrid it felt when Chase pulled the golden strands through his body; how his bones themselves seemed to tremble from that man's touch; how his skin felt as if it would crumble from his body if the bones didn't exit through him first; how his heart stopped beating the moment the mist slipped in through his rib cage. He recalled all of it, and how his very soul ached so greatly for the first time in his life he wished to die. Eyes closed, he spoke the words:
"Essence of back bone,
essence of rib cage,
to cut and trap evil in
a single swing;
essence of heart,
threads of gold,
the power of love and
the power of regret
etched across time
the power to hold,
the power to reform--
give me everything,
then give me more."
"Give me everything, then give me more. How can you give more than everything?" Devon asked, perplexed.
"You can always give nothing as well." Conrí said.
"I don't get it." Devon scratched his head. "Give nothing...but nothing doesn't...add anything..."
"Don't worry on it. Keep your distance from him for now. He will never listen to you. In his life, he only listened to a handful of people. Here, he will only listen to me. It will always be like that." Conrí laughed at himself. "If you could call how he acts around me as listening at all."
"Are you afraid of him?" Devon asked.
"I fear him, and I know I will love him in spite of that." Conrí felt again over where Chase had reached through his chest. "Love as deep as Time's embrace, and just as painful. My apprentice, my master to be."
"Are you saying he will become our new master one day?!"
"No, never." Conrí shook his head. "There is much you don't know, and I cannot answer all of your questions. Not today, not tomorrow. Not in a hundred years from now. Much will change soon. I know those questions are burning at the edge of your mind, but I ask that you spend more of your time listening than speaking. You'll learn more if you become more like Thorn. Observe and become like a river, steady and undisturbed. As you are now, you are always easy to capture."
"I...I know you just told me I shouldn't keep asking questions, but I have...something to ask that isn't about this. Two things actually." Devon stood back up. He walked over to where Conrí was and sat beside him. "May I ask?"
"When I first came here, you didn't seem like you knew who would be picked to train me, but you've seen your future. Were you pretending to not know?"
"When I saw parts of my future, it was only the parts related to Chase. You should know that. When we gaze into the future of a person's soul, we can only see things about them. I happened to be in many of his future memories. But the day you arrived I could not see. I knew you would be close to Thorn at some point, but I didn't know he specifically would be the person who trained you."
"Oh...then you probably don't know about Ocelotl either..." Devon muttered under his breath.
"Ocelotl? What about him?" Conrí asked, curious.
"Ah...nevermind! We don't need to talk about that!" Devon put up his hands. "It's nothing."
"Well, if you don't wish to tell me about that, it's fine." Conrí picked a daisy from the field. "I think I'll be alright. You can go back to work. The master won't be leaving us until tonight."
"Yes. We will all guide him down the river." Conrí offered the flower to Devon. "Here."
"What's this for?" Devon took the flower. He knew he should know the name, but he couldn't think of what it was.
"I thought it might cheer you up. My beloved always brings me flowers when we meet up. He likes to braid them into my hair...though I suppose he can't do that for a while now." Conrí sighed. "Don't like flowers?"
"Not really. Never got why people give them. Also, isn't that more of a gift for a girl?" Devon twirled the flower in his hand.
"Well, some people think so, but I don't see any reason to view it that way. A flower is a gift from the earth. But if you don't want it, that's alright. Let it go. It will return to the earth as nutrients for another flower." Conrí motioned to the ground.
"Sorry..." Devon tossed the flower. "But thanks anyway. You were trying to cheer me up, right?"
"Thank you." Devon leaned back against the tree trunk. "What kind of flower was that? Do you know?"
"That was a daisy." Conrí said.
"Then I definitely don't want it...no offense."
Conrí was taken aback by Devon's reaction. He smiled. "I take it you don't like them...but you didn't recognize what you don't like?"
Devon looked away from Conrí. "It's...that's...I don't want to talk about it."
"Very well. I won't bring it up again." Conrí laughed. He glanced up at the tree, noticing what they were resting under. "You know, one of my grandchildren married one of these."
"A tree?" Devon narrowed his eyes. He wondered if Conrí meant some sort of magical tree spirit.
"No, a Rowan. His name is the same as this tree." Conrí pointed at the tree.
"Huh. I forgot you had kids. How many grandkids are there?" Devon asked. He was glad for the subject change.
"I have three. I had three children and three grandchildren, but all my grandchildren came through my first son." Conrí laughed loudly. "Though on paper, I have no children. Other men are listed as their fathers in records."
"So...are there three moms for these kids?" Devon could hear Ocelotl in his head. He had to admit, he didn't particularly like this side of Conrí either.
"Two. The second mother had twins, but neither of them had any children. They were infertile. Fertility issues are...something that runs strongly in my family through my father's side, who is also not the man listed on my birth records." Conrí laughed again.
"I take it...that runs in the family too." Devon rolled his eyes.
"Oh, no. You misunderstand the circumstances. Things were different back then. Marriages were for property rights, protection, and peace keeping. Most people had lovers. Marrying for love being normal is a more recent concept. Back then, peasants might be so lucky sometimes. My father was my mother's lover for many, many years. They were quite faithful to each other." Conrí defended his parents. "But I am not what you think I am. I know I look quite shallow to you, but it is not how you think it is."
"Really?" Devon didn't believe him.
"I fall in love easily. I am always falling in love, and then getting pulled away to some other place. I know that sounds like an excuse for the long list of brief loves in my past, but it is the truth. For me, falling in love has become a horrid, painful feeling, as much as it brings me joy. When I was younger, before I was immortal, I would allow myself to dedicate everything in myself to whoever I loved because I was always hoping each love would be the one who finally bound me in place. But something always pulled me away. I learned to move on quickly and throw myself into some passion right away because it dulled the pain. Each leaving felt like a little dance with death." Conrí stared up at the sky, then turned his gaze to the river. He went quiet for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was softer. "Now that I am immortal, time moves slowly for me and quickly around everyone else. My loves have never dulled in depth, but now they feel confined to hours even when they are weeks long. It feels like if I blink, the person in my arms will already be dead before me and in my boat."
Devon saw in Conrí's eyes the same weariness he had when he arrived with the new apprentice. "But you've met your soulmate and he's immortal. Why are you falling in love with other people? You can just go be with him."
"I am happy to have him, but it is my nature to always be falling in love. He is the only one who my love does not dull for, but we are always parting." Conrí picked a hyacinth from the field. "He is the Lord of Life and I am the apprentice of the Lord of Death. We are always moving about the earth, keeping everything in balance. We rarely have time to see each other. And it is his nature as well to always be falling in love. He loves as deeply as I do, and his heart breaks as often as mine. In between the falling and breaking, sometimes we can embrace each other. And when we part, my heart breaks again, dying to see him for one moment more."
Devon tried to understand what Conrí was telling him. "Couldn't you try seeing other immortal people aside from him? Aren't most of the people you fall in love with human?"
Conrí laughed again. "Those loves don't die, but everything flows away in the end anyway. I don't belong to anywhere or anyone, except the one who cannot belong to anywhere either. The master was like that when he was young too. He was always falling and breaking, embracing only to part a moment later. At some point, he stopped acting on his heart and let it rot away. He let that rot first before all else on his body finally died."
"The master didn't always look like that? I just assumed...since he's in charge of death that...you know, he was always a skeleton." Devon wondered what the master must've looked like before. "Do you know what he looked like back then?"
"He was the way he is now when I met him, but my beloved showed me with magic what he once looked like. He was rather handsome once, with beautiful amber eyes. Those eyes were the first thing he got rid of, but he didn't let those rot. He took them out like Thorn did." Conrí checked to see how damp his clothes were.
"For the same reason Thorn did. So that he could not be deceived by appearances." Conrí said. "From what I've heard, in the early days once souls needed guiding, the master was much more quick to swing his blade. His rage and sorrow were like hurricanes and floods. The others of his generation, those of Life and Death, of Seasons and Elements, would have to calm him. He regretted destroying some of those souls. He came to see some souls could be reformed with the right guidance. He used to give tests to the living to see where their soul would fall on the scales of good and evil, hoping to shift them toward good. Now that I am here, that is my duty, as is leading those at the edge of death back to life."
"I didn't know you tested people like that." Devon said.
Conrí crossed his arms. "I don't like to, and I don't do it often. Much like the master, I am often saddened by the results. His tests were more complex than mine. He would exchange souls, take a life and return another in its place...depending on the bargain, if the person agreed to the exchange, he often cut them down when that person finally died. I've never done anything like that...I could never end a life early to test another life...but the master was becoming cold again during that time period. As much as he tried to see things fairly and compassionately, humanity had filled the world with a great amount of cruelty."
"Were things worse back then?" Devon asked. "I've always heard we're getting less cruel over time."
"Hmm. That's more a matter of opinion. I wouldn't say it's less so. What is worse--to have a man come and cut your head off to take your wife? Or for the same man to slowly starve thousands and let their roads decay until they collapse in and kill so that man can hoard a little more money? Cruelty comes in many forms. Many don't involve spilling blood, many do. Who's to say what is the cruelest thing? I've carried souls over the river who were so damaged from mental games played on them by their family members that I had to spend months to get them to speak, much less move from the spot they killed themselves at. But no blood was drawn by the ones who tormented those people." Conrí looked up at the sky, then down at the ground. "When people say humanity is becoming less cruel, what they mean is certain types of cruelty are no longer acceptable, but they will continue being cruel in the ways they have accepted as 'unavoidable'. I am weary around people who believe such things. Of course, you and I have also seen many bloody things that the average person in this time period has not. There are always monsters, and they are always good at hiding. People find more in the past because they have not yet opened their eyes to or been able to expose the ones existing in the present. They've become numb to the cruelty they see daily, as all humans have since the dawn of man."
"I can see your point...I guess the people who measure stuff like that really are only thinking about physical violence, huh? But if it's always been like this, what changed for him?" Devon asked.
"We met. When we met each other, we both changed. He wouldn't accept me at first, but I wouldn't leave. I think back then, he was on the verge of giving up entirely on all of us. I don't know what I did that changed his opinion on that, but gradually, he opened up more to me and began to hope again for the future. I can't say the world has gotten any better since then nor that it will ever, but...even with all the cruelty, life is still worth living. It's a rare and fleeting gift that should be treasured. For every moment of cruelty is another moment of kindness somewhere. I think he had become so focused on the pain, he forgot the other side of things." Conrí took his shirt down and rung it out again. He did the same for his pants and cloak, deciding they were dry enough to put on in the warm spring air. Once dressed, Conrí picked up his scythe and put on his hood.
"I think I get it." Devon said. "Thorn's right. You are like a warm candle, but it's not because you're alive. I think if you died, everything you touched would still be warm." Devon gently placed his hand on the top of Conrí's blade. "But maybe you should use this just a little more. You might be too kind for your own good. It's okay to protect yourself, you know?"
Conrí half smiled. "Are you getting on to me now too?"
"I'm just worried...You don't have to try and save everyone. Some people aren't worth trying to save." Devon said.
Conrí pulled his hood down more. His cheeks were red. "I know you're right, but my heart can't act any other way."
Devon smiled. "I guess you were being honest earlier...you really do love too much, huh? Maybe it's better this way then."
"What do you mean?"
"Better that you act on that emotion than shut it away. I love the master. He saved my soul and was the first person to ever really show me genuine compassion, but...I wouldn't want you to become him. I don't want everything that's warm in you to burn out and die." Devon tugged at the ends of Conrí's hair. "I think there's a lot of magic in you and you use it every day, but I don't think it comes from this. You're the actual unicorn here."
Conrí laughed awkwardly. "You're embarrassing me. But thank you for your words. We should head back now and prepare. Tonight will be the last time we see our master within the caves."
Conrí's words pained Devon. For a moment, he had forgot that the master would be leaving them. He didn't want to believe it. He didn't want to lose the first person who had ever wiped away his tears.
When they returned to the cave, their master was standing there with Chase. Ocelotl and his apprentice had returned to the cave. Thorn arrived shortly after Conrí and Devon, returning from guiding a soul. Devon noticed Ocelotl appeared to be on edge. His eyes were fixed on Chase. Chase noticed Conrí and floated over to him. He bowed to him.
"You're back." Chase said.
"How did your training go?" Conrí asked him.
Chase grinned. "It was easy enough. Nothing I can't handle."
"That's good to hear." Conrí leaned heavily on his scythe. He was still very tired.
Chase ignored Devon. He stared at Conrí, his eyes flickering with shifting emotions. Devon couldn't read him well. Chase went quiet. His eyes were dull. Devon was uncomfortable being around Chase, but he didn't want to leave Conrí's side yet either. Uncertain what to do, he moved over to where Thorn stood.
"You are all here now. I had planned on making this announcement earlier, but two of you were missing." The Lord of Death walked forward from the candles. "My faithful children, you have all served me well. I trust you will continue training your own apprentices in the ways I have trained you. Tonight, I will be leaving you."
"Master...what do you mean you're leaving?!" Ocelotl's mouth hung open. "Who will guide us now?! You can't go!"
"I thought I would hold on till the end of this world and collect the very last souls that needed rest here--that one day I would escort even all of you to the other side. But you will all be here after me. Long ago, I swore I would not leave my duties until my first and only servant's soul was cleansed. No pain has ever matched his. This morning, he told me on the boat in the river that he is ready and asked me to go with him." The master put his hand on the head of his beast servant. "I would like you all to come with me in the boats. Leave the beasts of the island to tend to our duties for now. When I reach the other side, I will choose one of you as the new Lord of Death."
There was a heavy silence in the room for a while. A myriad of unspoken words and bubbling emotions filled the space. Ocelotl could not contain himself any longer.
"Master, you can't go! I will not serve another!" He yelled.
"I understand your sadness, my child, but it is my time to rest and I have finally accepted that. I will not leave you in the hands of anyone incapable. But should you refuse to serve the next, you can walk with me to the other side. I'm sure your wife will be glad to see you stay." The Lord of Death put his hand on Ocelotl's shoulder.
"Master..." Ocelotl bowed his head. "Forgive me for my outburst. I will respect your wishes."
"As will I." Thorn said. "When you are gone, I will never forget your words in my actions."
"I know you all well enough to trust I have nothing to fear by leaving you." Their master said. "As much as I will miss you all, I must go. Should you need me, you may call for me at the edge of the river. More than my apprentices, you are my dear family."
"As you are ours." Conrí said. "All the pain within me is worth every moment of agony at your absence, for all my love compels me to wish for your eternal happiness free of any burdens."
"I suppose...I should allow myself to rest. I've never thought I deserved any, that it would be right to hand this burden to another. My last words of guidance to you, my children, is this." Their master put his hand over a very large candle. "Don't hold onto burdens for longer than you need. None of you need to carry the weight of the world forever. When it becomes too much, let it go and come to me on the other side of the river."
Thorn bowed to the master. He couldn't see it, but he knew it was now around sunset. Time was slipping away from him quickly. After having died, he didn't need to think on time anymore. How many days passed didn't matter. Now, every minute counted and he had gotten too used to keeping hours like seconds. The time he shared with the master was now nearly over. The grains of sand that slipped past their souls, ever flowing forward, would part them before he could comprehend the speed at which they were leaving from one another. He wanted to stop that moment there and hold onto it forever, but night came anyway at the time it always did.
None were ready for the journey that night. The master's three apprentices and their three apprentices each took to their own boat with their beast servant. The master chose to sit in Conrí's boat for his journey down the river of stars. Devon and Thorn's boats were at the back. When they reached the field, they lined the boats up along the bank. Two men and several spectral feminine forms of light blue waited at the edge of the river. At their sides were birds and cats made of blue and white lights. The two men both appeared to be young, but Devon sensed one of them was alive.
The living man wore a crown of antlers on his head. His eyes were a bright green, so bright Devon was certain they couldn't have been anything but magical. His hair was shoulder length, a brown that was only a few shades darker than his skin. He couldn't tell his ethnicity from the man's face. His features didn't seem to belong to anywhere specific. Over his shoulders, he wore a cloak made of fallow deer fur. Underneath that, he was dressed in a green robe. Faintly, Devon could see a hint of white light extending from his back to the ground, but the light had no shape and was so faint Devon wasn't sure it was really there. The man wore no shoes. Beneath his feet, red roses grew, then withered, died, and grew again. The flowers were the only ones in such a shade in that place. Blue rose and hyacinth, Love-in-a-Mist, Forget-Me-Not, bluebell, chicory, columbine, cornflower--many flowers decorated the field, caring not of soil, season, or spacing, but none such a shade as the ones that grew beneath that man's feet and none that ever withered. They swayed with a wind that could not be felt by the living, one the red roses were unmoved by.
The other man looked plain compared to the crowned one. He had a big smile on his face. His appearance, unlike the one with the crown, looked more obviously middle eastern. However, something told Devon that the ordinary looking man was not actually human and the form he was seeing was likely an illusion.
Devon looked at the feminine forms. He could see right through them. Devon had never encountered them before. "Who are those women?"
"Those are our counterparts, the Guardians of the Field." Thorn said.
"They're all women?" Devon asked.
Rampion, sitting behind Thorn in his boat, laughed. Devon's current servant, a young woman, rolled her eyes from the other side of the boat.
"Why are you surprised?" Thorn turned to Devon.
"Well, I don't know...we're all men and the Lord of Life is a man." Devon whispered.
"You know there is a Lady of Life too, don't you? Haha, what, did you think only men could be powerful? Our servants don't have to be men, either, remember?" Thorn reminded him.
Devon sunk down in his boat. He quietly asked. "Oh, right. What about their servants?"
"Theirs are not any specific gender either." Thorn said.
Leaning over the side of the boat with his arms, Devon asked. "So, if there's a Lady of Life...who is the Lady of Death?"
"You're floating on top of her right now." Thorn pointed down at the water's surface.
"The river?!" Devon let out a gasp.
"She is the second one, actually. The first one chose to be born after a while. The Lady of Life is also the second, as the previous one gave away her title to live a quiet, less powerful life. The Lord of Life is the second too. That is his father there, waiting on the other side with him now." Thorn used his scythe to motion towards where they were.
'So the one with the antlers is Conrí's boyfriend?' Devon got another look at the man with antlers. "Then, our master is the last to give away his title."
"Yes, he held on the longest."
"Who do you think he'll really choose?" Devon asked in a barely audible voice.
"He's going to choose Conrí or myself. That is what is most likely." Thorn repeated the answer he gave Devon earlier.
"What will you do if he chooses you?" Devon asked him once more.
"My duties, as he expects. But I already told you that." Thorn tapped the bottom of the boat with his scythe.
"Yeah, I know." Devon sighed. He turned forward to watch the others.
Conrí exited his boat and helped their master onto the banks. Then, he helped the master's servant off the boat. The servant discarded the black shroud all the servants wore while on the boats into the river of starlight. The shroud burst into hot white sparks, then faded and fell into the water as blue ash. The servant, a fairy man with violet colored wings, bowed to the master, then hugged him. Devon noticed the servant kept a scar on his chest. Fairies were immortal creatures. They were very difficult to kill. Devon presumed the mark must've been from how he died. He wondered why after finally cleansing his soul that he would want to keep such a deep scar in such an obvious place on his body.
The fairy ran through the field. Devon could see in the distance someone else was running to him.
Their master turned to Conrí and removed his cloak. Underneath, his bones were now covered in dark skin. Hair as black as the cloaks they covered themselves in, gentle amber eyes, rough palms from years of swinging his blade; after decades of serving him, for the first time, Devon was able to see his master's face. Much like the former Lord of Life, Devon sensed that this too was another illusion. The master's features were distinctly African. Devon wondered on the the forms the two had chosen long ago. He remembered Thorn had told him that while the older beings on the earth sometimes needed guidance, humans needed it the most when it came to death. Had the two old masters chosen their forms as they would be the most familiar to the early humans they guided? On that thought, he wondered what ways the first Lord of Life may have interacted with early humans.
"That's...that's really him, isn't it?" Devon asked.
"Is he not what you expected?" Thorn asked.
"I...I don't know..." Devon said. "I've always seen him one way. I think I'd be shocked no matter what he looked like."
"You wouldn't have to worry over things like that if you got rid of your eyes." Thorn said. He sensed something Devon could not. He tightened his grip on his scythe. "He's about to choose."
Devon started to get up. "What should we do?"
"Sit. He won't call me." Thorn said.
"Silence. Bow." Thorn bowed as he spoke.
Devon looked down at the others in the boats. They were all bowing. Devon bowed too.
Their master picked up his discarded cloak and took the clasp off of it. He removed the clasp from Conrí's cloak and replaced it with his. A crown of stars appeared around Conrí's head. Devon had never seen their master with something like that. 'Did you discard that too?'
"To you, my first apprentice, I give my title. Lead the weary of the world to where they must go, and shield them from all those who may stand in their way." Their master said.
"Yes, Master." Conrí's eyes were wet and his voice strained. "Go, rest now. You no longer need to work. And please, be happy."
"I will try."
Conrí hugged the master. "Goodbye."
"We will meet again. It is only goodbye for now."
"I know." Conrí pulled away.
The current Lord of Life approached them. He bowed to the old master and nodded to the spirit of his own predecessor. "Father, Aulus. Good to see you both together again."
"Osán, I leave you with Conrí. Keep an eye on him." The old master said.
"Of course. I am always watching him through the earth and the sea beneath my feet." Osán, the current Lord of Life, bowed again.
Conrí spoke to the former Lord of Life. "Kallias, please care for my master. He has refused himself joy for far too long."
"You are quite right. But in taking his place, do not make the same mistake." The former Lord of Life warned him.
"I will do my best." Conrí bowed to the both of them. "Rest easy, both of you."
Devon watched them from the boat, the gravity of the event happening before him too heavy for him to grasp in the moment. He spoke to Thorn. "The one with the antlers...Is that like our cloaks and scythes? Does the person with the title have to wear it?"
Thorn scratched his chin. "He usually does out of symbolism, but he doesn't have to. Conrí wears it from time to time for fun."
"For fun?!" Devon raised his voice some.
"He wears it often on their dates, typically when he is not wearing his cloak." Thorn said.
"So, Conrí doesn't have to wear his cloak..."
"You are aware you don't have to wear yours all the time either, aren't you? You just can't do your job without it. Conrí rarely wears his among the living. After all, he is alive. He doesn't actually need his cloak for anything but symbolism as well. The cloak binds us and gives us certain powers with our scythe. Conrí only needs the scythe to do his job, but he keeps his cloak to make himself invisible to the living if he wishes or to get in the river." Thorn explained.
"Oh...when I first got here...I thought I had to...I thought I'd lose my physical body if I didn't keep it on." Devon said.
"You can't go down the river without it as a dead person. The river will trick you into getting in it and swept away. Your cloak protects you from that and hides you from those you don't need to see you." Thorn explained to him.
Devon sighed. "I guess I misunderstood some things..."
"So it seems." Thorn cleared his throat. "But that's not what I meant when I said that."
"I don't understand."
"Yes, I am aware of that." Thorn said.
"You're not gonna tell me what that means, are you?" Devon sighed. He was so focused on figuring out what that meant, as many of Thorn's vague answers often kept him busy for hours, he became less focused on what was happening around him. For once, Devon was able to catch what Thorn meant much faster than usual. "Wait, like naked?!"
Thorn yanked at Devon's cloak so hard it knocked him off his boat. "Silence. We're in the middle of a ceremony. Child!"
"I'm fifty-seven at this point, you know." Devon emerged from the water.
"Your mind seems to have not advanced past twenty, however." Thorn muttered under his breath.
Devon's servant let out a deep sigh.
Rampion helped him back onto his boat. "Please, Devon, don't make a fool of yourself. As Thorn's apprentice, you embarrass us both when you do."
"Sorry. I'll be quiet." Devon said.
"You embarrass me too." Devon's own servant said.
"Sorry, sorry. I'll shut up." Devon sat quietly in the boat, keeping his thoughts to himself.
When the ceremony drew to a close, the master called them all from their boats to say their goodbyes. Though he knew they would be parting today, it wasn't until then that it really hit Devon this was happening, that tomorrow he wouldn't see the master with the candles. He would never see that sight again. Those moments would now only exist in his memories, fading like the dying candles they tended to.
Conrí led Ocelotl to the master. Ocelotl could not hold back his emotions. He clung to the master, crying.
"I don't want you to go...Not yet...I can't..." Ocelotl's words became more incoherent the longer he cried. Conrí had to pull him aside and dry his tears.
Ocelotl's apprentice said his goodbyes next. He hugged the master and forced a smile. "I'll miss you. I can come visit you, right?"
The old master nodded.
Chase went up to him next. He simply waved. "I didn't really get to know you, but good luck."
Conrí took Thorn's hand and led him over. Thorn didn't say anything. He clung tightly to the master. The master held him back, just as quiet. Thorn forced himself to let go, his hands lingering close as he let go.
Last, Conrí came to Devon. He walked him over. Devon felt his steps becoming heavier the closer he got to the master. He told himself he would be brave and wish the master well. He didn't want this moment to be a sad one. When he faced the master and looked into his gentle eyes for the first time, he felt the tears beginning to well in his eyes. Fear followed underneath the tide of his sadness.
Devon couldn't imagine his future without the master. Though he usually went to Thorn first, whenever he had an important question, the master was always there. When the sadness of his memories of his life and his regrets crept up on him, he would think of how the master held him so kindly after he killed himself. He would think of how patiently the master waited for him to come with him when he was confused and afraid after his death. And in those moments when the memory of that time could not push away the pain, he would go to the master and the master would hold him again.
The tears fell against his will.
"I'm sorry. I don't want you to go." Devon whispered as low as he could, so none but one could hear him.
"I know, child. But you will be fine without me. Trust in my words one last time." The master said.
"I will." Devon said. He cried. "Goodbye."
Devon let go.
Conrí now faced their master. Devon could see he was holding back his tears. Conrí hugged his old master. "No second thoughts?"
"I am at peace now." The master said.
"Then, go rest. Leave everything to us and worry not." Conrí bowed again. He led the others back to their boats.
They returned to the cave of candles. The space was emptier than before. Conrí stood where the master used to always address them at. His cut hair clung to his face.
"What do we do now?" Devon asked.
"The same as before. We return to work." Conrí put his hand over the candle before him. "Ocelotl, you should take this one."
"Already giving me orders." Ocelotl commented. He forced himself to sound annoyed. Devon could tell it was an act to appear as if nothing was wrong.
"You'll want this one. You won't be escorting." Conrí said, eyes on the flame.
Ocelotl walked over beside him. He placed his hand over the flame. "A monster to cut down?"
"Yes." Conrí turned away from him and walked over to the next candle. "There is no rest for us. Someone is always calling. Thorn, take this one."
"Yes, Master." Thorn bowed.
Ocelotl stood beside Conrí. "Hold on. Did I get that right? You want me to cut someone down?"
Conrí stared at him with empty eyes. "Yes. That is what you want, isn't it?"
Ocelotl looked into Conrí's eyes. Devon felt the energy between the two of them shift. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he thought he could sense Ocelotl's heart break for a second time that day. Ocelotl nodded at Conrí and quietly left. Thorn left right after him.
Ocelotl's apprentice went over to him. "Is there something you want me to do for you?"
"You can take this one." Conrí put his hand over another candle.
"I'll do that, but I mean...for you." The man clarified his words.
"Do your job well. I don't need anything else."
"Well, alright, but if you change your mind..."
Ocelotl's apprentice shrugged at Devon. He went on to his job.
"Chase, come here. I need you to do a task for me." Conrí spoke now to his new apprentice. "You remember what our former master told you to do with the other end of your scythe?"
"Yeah, I remember." Chase twirled his scythe around in his hand. "You want me to get to that, right? Fine."
"Play a song for a while after you return some souls. Work towards shifting things as the master...as you had been instructed earlier." Conrí flinched when he said the word "master". He was the only one with that title there now.
Chase bowed to him and left. Only Devon and Conrí remained in the cave.
"Conrí...er...Master Conrí...are you alright?" Devon asked.
"I will be fine." Conrí focused on another candle.
"You don't look fine." Devon drew closer to him. He whispered. "No one else is here. You can cry now, if you want to."
"You are here." Conrí looked away from him.
"You don't need to look strong in front of me. I'm the weakest person here." Devon said. He grabbed onto Conrí's cloak.
Conrí glanced over at Devon. "Go on to work, Devon."
Devon propped his scythe against one of the walls of the cave. He hugged Conrí. "You don't need to hide it. I know you must be the saddest out of all of us, because you've known him the longest."
Conrí hugged him back. "Thank you for your kindness, but I would prefer to mourn alone."
"Are you sure?" Devon asked.
"Yes, but thank you. Please, respect my wishes." Conrí pulled away.
"Alright, if you're sure...I'll go." Devon picked his scythe back up. "Are you sure?"
"Don't worry. My beloved will be visiting me later. I won't be alone for long." Conrí said.
Devon was worried about leaving him alone, but he took solace that Conrí's most important person would be with him soon. He bowed. "I'll go now. Conrí."
"Don't forget to rest."
Devon went on his way. He hoped Conrí would be alright by himself. The master had chosen him. He told himself to trust that the master wouldn't burden Conrí with something he couldn't handle.
With Devon gone, Conrí stood alone in the cave. He let the silence wash over him before he fell to his knees. Conrí covered his face as he cried. He kept his voice as quiet as he could to not hear himself, but the cave amplified everything. His mind was full of things he wanted to say to the master, but there was no one there to call out to. The thoughts tangled around each other into jumbled sentences that caught in his throat. His cheeks burned with embarrassment at his state. His damaged, messy hair, soaked up the wetness covering his face. Ashamed, pained, he kept his face covered by his hands and buried his hands behind his knees.
The cave filled with another energy. Osán appeared and sat down beside him.
Conrí forced out four simple words. "Don't look at me."
Osán brushed aside Conrí's hands, then cupped his face. He wiped the tears away. "My love, no matter how you appear, you don't need to hide your face from me."
Conrí wanted to protest Osán's words and hide away, but he didn't really want to be alone. He wanted to see the master. He wanted to keep crying. He didn't want to cry anymore. Osán pulled him into an embrace. Conrí allowed himself to cry for a while.
"I knew this was coming...but it still hurts so much." Conrí whispered.
"You know better than most that you shouldn't avoid mourning. This is part of our nature. Let it happen." Osán kissed him on the forehead. "Let the pain be, let it flow, then let it flow away from you. So long as it hurts, you can always come to me and I will hold you close."
Conrí confessed something to Osán. "I am not ready...I don't understand why he didn't choose Thorn."
"You knew this would happen this way, but you don't understand why?" Osán asked.
"I thought I would understand when it happened, but I don't. Thorn is the better choice. Why me?"
Osán looked around the cave. "That one is here, right?"
"The anomaly. He's returning lost souls from the void. To think such a thing is possible."
"That may be why. None can control that one but you." Osán wiped away Conrí's tears again. "Should I stay with you for a while? I'm sure Llywelyn and the others can keep things in order for a while."
"I shouldn't ask..." Conrí rested his face against Osán's cloak. "I might...need that. Why am I this weak? How can I lead them if I am weak?"
"You're not weak. Your heart is much bigger than most." Osán held him more tightly. He touched the ends of Conrí's cut hair. "Your poor hair. Let me at least fix this for you."
"I am the Lord of Life. I can make anything grow anywhere, even here in this place of death." Osán ran his hands through Conrí's hair. From where his fingertips touched, the hair grew out back to its previous length. "There. Why don't you leave it down for a while? I only get to see it down when you've pulled me down into a field."
Conrí felt over his hair. The long, wavy hair rested against the cold ground for nearly as far out as his cloak. "Perhaps I should..."
"You look more beautiful with it down." Osán kissed him.
"You know, I..." Conrí started to say.
"Lovey-dovey already. You've been here less than thirty minutes." Chase rose from the ground in a black fog.
"Did you do what I asked you to do? You haven't been gone long." Conrí said.
"Yeah, I brought about twenty thousand back and had those dogs send the good ones down the river. Didn't know you had so many boats. Those dogs couldn't keep up. Had a huge line waiting." Chase spun his scythe around. "Played a little song for a while after that."
"The boats appear as needed, but we only have so many beasts to aid us here. Did you really return that many in that short amount of time?" Conrí asked, shocked.
"Yeah, it wasn't hard." Chase leaned against the wall. "If you don't have anything for me to do right now, I want to go see my husband for a while."
"Your husband is alive." Conrí said.
"Obviously. I haven't escorted him yet. And I will be the one to escort him. Actually, I have a list of people I plan on escorting when the time comes." Chase said.
Osán watched Chase quietly, attempting to sort out what kind of person he was. Chase caught him staring.
"Oh, am I in your way? Did you wanna fuck or something?" Chase asked bluntly.
Osán's cheeks burned.
Conrí's face went a deep red too. "Ah, no. I wouldn't do anything like that here. Chase, if you are done with assisting those souls, I would like you to play another song for a while. Much is out of balance right now in the world, especially in the human realm. Could you travel around and help move things along a better path?"
"I'll do that for a while after I visit my husband." Chase stated.
"Very well, but don't stay too long with him. That will be more painful for him when you part again. And remember, you must sing when you touch the strings." Conrí reminded him. He didn't bother with trying to stop Chase from his other plans. He was lucky enough to get Chase to do anything he wanted him to do. He would have to allow him things like this to keep him under control.
"I know how to sing and play an instrument at the same time. I did that professionally for years. You don't need to remind me of something so trivial." Chase changed his form to that of an old man. "Guess I should go like this. He might get confused if I show up looking like I'm in my thirties."
With that, Chase disappeared back through the floor.
Osán let out a sigh. "What a strange one he is. That one is...is he really who you say he is?"
"He really must be the reason Aulus chose you. Thorn may be the more practical choice, but that one would never listen to Thorn. For some reason, that one will do as you say, to a certain extent. I doubt he would behave like that for anyone else."
"To a certain extent is the most you can get out of him. Those who he will listen to are a small handful. I suppose I am one of them. Since he is with us now, then...there was never a choice. It did have to be me..." Conrí glanced over at the candles. His shoulders sunk.
"You may be the only choice, but you know, if you think so highly of Thorn, there's no reason you can't rely on him for advice and guidance. A wise master knows when to listen to those in a position beneath him." Osán put his hand to Conrí's face. "Aulus, in his kindness, always let so many burdens fall on his back. Please, let those who love you help you."
"You're right. I may have to rely on Thorn and the others for a while. I hope I don't burden them too much."
"I'm sure they will understand."
"I know." Conrí stood up. "I think I'll be alright on my own. You don't need to stay."
"Are you sure?"
"I'll call you if I need you." Conrí smiled at him.
"If you are certain..." Osán stood up and kissed him again.
"I have many I can rely on, after all. Everyone else is getting back to work. I should work for a little while too." Conrí held Osán's hands.
"Don't work too long. I can tell you haven't slept much." Osán pressed his forehead against Conrí's.
"I won't. I'll only work for a couple of hours, then I'll sleep. Tomorrow night, would you like to meet at our usual place?" Conrí tried to smile.
"I'd love to. Well, I suppose I should be getting back to work too. Take care, my beloved."
"And you, my love."
After another kiss, Osán and Conrí parted ways. As soon as Osán left, Conrí sensed another presence in the cave with him.
A child holding a scythe behind his back stood close to Conrí. Conrí recognized his face.
"I thought you went to see your husband." Conrí said to Chase.
"Mm...I think I messed up something, didn't I?" Chase faced the ground.
Conrí asked him. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know." Chase stared into Conrí's eyes. He seemed to struggle to understand what was there. "Are you mad at me?"
"I dunno. I've been really rude since I got here, I think. I think that Devon guy probably hates me." Chase looked over at the candles, then at Conrí's scythe. "I don't get why I'm here. Why don't you cut me down? I'm not a good person. I'm pretty awful, no matter how hard I try not to be."
The river appeared in the middle of the cave. A boat floated down to them. Conrí had already seen this moment when he looked into Chase's future, but unlike most, Chase had potential futures even after death. He could go down the river today, stay, or cease to be. All were equally likely. If the first happened today, none of the strange things he saw in the future would happen, or rather, he at least wouldn't know for sure certain things would. His life would be a little less stressful by not knowing. Chase was quite a handful. And if Chase left today, he would no longer have any knowledge of his own future either. His future too would likely change due to how interwoven their futures were if Chase stayed. He liked the idea of not having that knowledge.
"You're not awful. You have done bad things. But so long as you're willing to work on doing better, you will never be a bad person." Conrí told him.
"I am ugly." Chase now held his scythe in front of his body. "I was thinking that when I left. You know, maybe my husband will be better off not having to see me again. He deserved better than me. It was pretty selfish of me to allow myself to be with anyone after all the things I've done. But I guess that's what bad people do, huh?"
Chase shifted his form to his early twenties. He turned his cloak blood red. "Cut me down."
Conrí lifted his scythe. "Your sadness is building up. Seems your emotions are a bit delayed even in death. If you let these feelings consume you, I will have to cut you down. You will become a demon."
"I already am. I was born that way."
"No, you weren't." Conrí readied his scythe as a precaution. "No one is born a monster. You're not a monster."
"You know, I thought when I died, everything wrong with me would go away. But I'm still messed up in the head." Chase looked over at the boat. "I don't want you. Go away."
The river vanished.
With that, one of the three possible futures left. Conrí's heart pounded. 'Then he stays, or I destroy him.'
"You know, even if you say I'm not a monster, isn't it cruel to let me be? I have to be like this for eternity? What a sick joke. Just destroy me now." Chase let his scythe fall to the ground.
Conrí dropped his own. He hugged Chase. "I will not. Stay here. I'll help you. Even if it takes thousands of years."
"What for? I'm a burden." Chase said.
"Love is helping carry the burdens of others and expecting nothing in return." Conrí put his hands on Chase's shoulders. "Why don't you go see your husband for a while? I'm sure if you see him, you'll see I'm not the only one who wants you to keep existing."
"Thousands of years, huh? It may take that. There's a lot of darkness in me."
"We have eternity, don't we? What is a few thousand years?" Conrí picked up Chase's scythe and handed it back to him.
Chase accepted it. He sat down and strummed the strings. The scythe produced a harp-like sound. "You wanted me to sing for a while, right?"
"You don't have to do that right now. Go see your husband."
"I will later. Let me play for you. Music is the only good thing I make happen." Chase hummed along with the melody he was creating. "It's the only time my mind is clear."
Conrí sat down beside him. "I see. Then, please, play for me."
Chase played for a while. Conrí didn't ask him what he was wishing into the world with his song. He didn't need to. Somehow, through the notes, he could hear Chase's intentions clearly.
"Hey, is it really alright if I stay?" Chase asked him.
"Even after everything I've done? Even if it takes a thousand years for me to fix myself?" Chase asked, his fingers plucking the near invisible strings.
"I'll be here for you for as long as you need me." Conrí touched one of the strings.
The master and apprentice exchanged looks, but said nothing more to one another. Chase continued on playing, adding words to his song that Conrí was sure was some sort of secret incantation.