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I really did go on for much longer than I needed to. The story just poured out of me, detail by detail. Over the next few bowls of soup, the tavern keep heard my whole life story.
I told him of my interests, the wondrous curiosity that had pervaded my youth. I told him of my home, the one I’d still owned when my time had come. The one that had taught me everything I knew. I told him about my quests that I’d taken as odd-jobs just to make enough money to afford a sword. I told him of my training, about how the Knights of Credon had taken notice of me. I’d never have forgotten that day; it was burned into my memory.
I still remembered their reactions when I’d bested their combatants. I remembered their pure, awe-stricken faces clearly even if their names were… strangely out of reach. They hadn’t wanted to accept that a teenage boy could dance better with a sword than well-trained knights, but I’d damn sure made them. The sweet memory danced in my head as the story poured out. In all of my life, I’d seen few things sweeter than the look of principled admiration on my king’s face as he’d knighted me for the first time.
I could tell the barkeep didn’t believe me as I went on about my experiences as a knight, as I almost bragged about my accomplishments. But really, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I’d wanted, and he didn’t even question me at any point. He didn’t even flinch when I told him about my fight with the reaper itself. He just kept nodding along, listening intently to the crazy homeless man that had just stumbled into his tavern.
“So Death gave you a second chance?” he asked, the question forcing a smile onto my face.
“Yeah,” I replied. I knew that he thought I was crazy, and I couldn’t blame him. I was weak, hungry, and draped in clothes more comparable to rags. My story really didn’t make much sense. And yet, none of that mattered to him; he’d listened anyway.
The barkeep flashed me a smile and humored me for a while longer. “So what is the mighty Agil going to do now?” He rolled his hand, raising it up into the air in an overly dramatic fashion. Normally I would’ve scowled, the sarcasm acting as a threat to my reputation. But his tone was so light that I barely even noticed.
“I don’t know,” I said with a chuckle before the unfamiliar pang of uncertainty stabbed me in the gut. My shoulders slumped as it all set in at once. I really didn’t know what I was going to do.
When I’d been walking, I’d been so single-minded. I’d just wanted to get out of the forest alive. But now, in a warm tavern with a full stomach—in a place where my life wasn’t at risk… I was at a loss. My home was gone, ripped away by the mindless reaper. My body was gone, stripped from me by the bringer of end. My life was gone, now too far out of my reach because of my own stupid actions. What did I even have to do now?
“I suppose you’re going to want to take revenge on Death huh?” the barkeep asked, chuckling. I blinked at him, shaking my head slightly and furrowing my brow.
Taking revenge on death? Could I even do that? The prospect was daunting, seemingly impossible, and I didn’t even know if it was what I wanted. Though, then again… what did I want?
The answer to my question came in an instant, emerging as an island of certainty among a sea of increasing chaos. It was the same thing I’d wanted ever since I’d been a boy. It was what drove me to wield a blade, to master it and its every art.
I wanted to be the best.
For my entire life, I’d worked hard, spending every ounce of my time working toward what I saw as my perfect life. And yet, even after achieving what I thought came as close as I could get, I’d still been beaten by a beast. I’d still been beaten by the reaper, the end of all things. The fact still stung. I wasn’t the best.
At once, a fire ignited inside me, stoked my a force foreign to me. It was the fire of passion, the fire that pushed me on to take the impossible and make it bow before my sword. I wanted to be the best. The beast had tricked me—it had kicked me off the pedestal I’d spent my whole life building up. All with a simple trick. But it had also given me a second chance—a second chance that would be its greatest undoing. A second chance to be the best.
I didn’t even notice the grin growing on my face; I was too lost in thought. But I knew the barkeep saw it as he snapped at me, the sound lifting me out of my stupor. The bearded, sympathetic man looked on me with concern and my grin lowered a hair. I ran my hand—if I could even call it that yet—through my new brown hair.
“Yeah,” I said, remembering his question. My voice was but a shadow of the true passion I felt. “I suppose I do want to take revenge.”
The barkeep smiled back and nodded to me. Even if I was just a crazy person to him, just a bum off the street, he still understood. He looked at me again, his eyes exploring with indescribable interest, and took the empty bowl from the bar. He turned around in a huff, filling my vision with the pale blue shirt draped over his shoulders before disappearing entirely off into the back room.
With his leave, I was left at the counter in a room threatened by silence. All I could hear was the faint crackling of the fire behind me. I relished in the sound. I felt its warmth, letting it melt the worries from my mind. My eyes drooped, the worry giving way to an exhaustion that I’d been ignoring. The white-hot fire of passion I’d felt moments before dwindled, fading from my mind. I dropped my chin on the counter and thought of sleep, almost giving in to it right there on the bar.
The tavernkeep barged back into the room, a loud creak accompanying his entrance. I snapped up, shaken by the sudden noise.
“Do you have a room I can stay in?” I blurted out, my voice filled with desperate sincerity. In my tired state, it was the only thing I had.
He nodded, walking out from behind the wooden bar and up the tavern’s small set of stairs. I let out a small breath, pulling up whatever dregs of strength I could still find. And I followed after him.
He brought me up the old wooden stairs that creaked with every step and into a small hallway. The hall cut deep into the inn, revealing a plethora of rooms housed within. My smile grew wider as I stared at the doors, the prospect of sleep closer than ever before. The gruff man huffed as he stopped at the second door and took out a key from his pocket. The metal jingle rang out in my ears—a pleasant sound that made my foreign heart flutter—and he unlocked the door. Wood swung inward with a creak and revealed an old, cramped space. At once, a musty, unused smell attacked my nose, but I didn’t care. The barkeep’s gesture for me to enter was all I needed.
I nodded a quick thanks and let my feet push me through the door, the squeaking of the floor under me acting as my introduction to space. I pressed in further, immediately finding the only thing that mattered. I completely ignored the scratchy rug and the wooden dresser and the blight-ridden desk. None of it mattered. I’d found the bed.
My body collapsed in an instant as I came up to the covers. Arms flailed wildly as I grasped at the sheets. The not-so-smooth cloth felt like heaven on my skin. I flopped my head on the pillow, feeling the softness coddle my body. My eyes slipped shut, releasing all the tension I’d still been holding in. And, before I’d even noticed, my body drifted off to sleep.
The sun shined down on my face, dousing me in lush, yellow-orange light. Brushing a hand through my hair, I watched the thin blond locks fall through my fingers. I felt warmth on my face, perfect, intricate warmth that I knew I’d only ever feel here.
And glancing around, I watched the slow spring wind follow our simple dirt trail out to the fields. The grass, the wheat, the corn. It all wavered perfectly in the slight breeze. I took a deep breath, smelling the fresh, natural air around me.
“Agil!” a voice called from behind me. It rang sweet in my ears, reminding me of a place somehow even more intimate than my home. It was a voice I would’ve followed through the widest plain, the densest forest, the most desolate desert. I would’ve followed that voice through hell, using only the mere sound of it to push me on. No matter where I went, or what I had to do to get there, if I followed that voice, my destination would always be worth it.
Turning around, I watched the door to our home shut as my wife came out onto the path. The sight alone distracted me from everything. Her brown hair was done in braids—probably the work of a palace girl—and it was decorated sparsely with flowers. I smiled at her, offering the same long smile that tried to replicate just how she made me feel.
“Lynn,” I said. My wife’s name felt like honey on my tongue. “Are you out here to appreciate the scene as I am?” She smiled at me, the subtle wind blowing a strand of brown hair in front of her face. She fixed it quickly, but I didn’t miss the red entering at her cheeks.
Our homestead was large. I couldn’t have denied that if I’d tried. But all things considered, it was modest. With all of my accomplishments—being the greatest swordsman in the land had its perks, after all—I could’ve had almost anything. If I’d wanted, I could’ve had one of the mansion buildings in the city that towered over the rest, only topped in height by the king’s palace itself.
But none of that had mattered to me when I’d picked our house, and it didn’t matter to me now. The simple, sweeping design of our wooden roof was merely a background to the much more beautiful sight walking over to me.
“You’re off for your morning walk?” Lynn asked. I nodded to her with a chuckle. She knew me too well.
“Of course. My duties have slowed down enough that if I didn’t do these every morning, I’d just be sitting inside all day.”
“Is that such a bad thing?” she asked, the slightest laugh in her voice. I stepped toward her, tilting my head.
“I would love nothing more than to lay with you in bed as the sun made its cycles, day after day.” My words made her blush, the slight red color complimenting her hazel eyes. “But I still have status here. I can’t let myself waste away with the king able to call me at any time of the day.”
Lynn draped her arm over my shoulder. “You could retire.”
I laughed. “I’m still at the king’s beck and call, m’lady. Could you imagine what would happen if the king lost that option?”
She laughed at my confidence. I only smiled more. From anyone else, I would’ve taken offense; I would’ve looked them in the eye and reminded them of just who I was. But with her, it was different.
“The world might end,” she said, rolling her eyes playfully. “Everything around us would die if that happened.” Her voice distorted for a second, going to a much lower tone than before as she rolled over the word die. A sharp pang hit at the bottom of my stomach, filling me with a dread that made me double-take.
“I’m just saying that it could be catastrophic for the kingdom.” Her voice returned to normal. “What is the king to do without Agil the Great, at his beck and call?” The burning of my ears was enough to melt all dread away, the little epithet she’d added to my name making me almost too flustered to think.
“You build me up too much,” I started. “Give yourself more credit my dear.”
“Of course,” she teased. “You can build yourself up enough all on your own.” She smirked at me. Or, she made her best effort. No matter how hard she tried, she could never really smirk, only offer a sort of tilted smile. Her teasing had the same effect either way.
“And I’ll build you up as well.” I pulled her closer to me. “We both save lives, you know.”
Lynn blushed, her eyes immediately starting to glare with embarrassment. “You know that’s not fair!”
“I disagree,” I said. “Apothecaries save lives all the time.”
Lynn’s smile tilted again. A wild intent danced in her eyes, one just barely tinged at the back with something I didn’t recognize. “That’s not what I meant. You end lives just as much as you save them, you know.”
I opened my mouth, a retort ready at my lips. I wanted to defend my honor, to tell her how much I truly didn’t like killing and how I only did it for the common good. But she’d heard it all before. And before the first sound even escaped my lips, words were cut off by her lips pressed against mine.
My eyes widened in an instant. Lynn’s kiss was soft and quick, but it was exactly what I’d needed. The surprised look on my face was nothing compared to the absolute peace that followed. On her lips I tasted fruit—somehow—just like always… but there was also something else.
As soon as our lips parted, an unfamiliar taste settled on my tongue. Something bitter and gross, as if I’d tasted decay itself. I scraped my tongue on the top of my mouth and winced at the taste. Then, swallowing hard in hope of washing it away, I only got bile rising in my throat. I swallowed again, forcing the bile down. A pang of painful dread stung my stomach again as I settled. I almost spat the taste out of my mouth.
“Lynn? What the—“ I started, my question furious. I was stopped by her face. With the way she stared at me, her innocent hazel eyes peering into my soul, I couldn’t have snapped at her. The horrible bitter taste faded from my tongue, leaving only the faint, sweet taste that I’d always known.
“What?” she asked. Her eyebrows angled upward and her hand gripped harder on my shoulder.
“N-Nothing, dear,” was all I could muster. Nothing else I could’ve said would have made any sense. After all, what was I supposed to say? Was I supposed to continue with my question, asking why her kiss, which usually tasted sweeter than a plum, made my mouth want to die? No, I couldn’t do that.
“Oh,” Lynn replied, not fully convinced. I smiled at her. She smiled back. “So when are you thinking of heading off?”
I scanned back over to the fields as wind brushed my tunic. The fields of crops, still growing before harvest, and the rolling hills that came after. Even the city, its large monumental walls some of the most impressive I’d ever seen, was far in the distance. I could’ve stared out at the scene for ages.
“In a bit,” I said absently. My right hand fell over the sword on my waist, its presence calming every single thought in my mind. “Right now, I’d rather just watch the world. Just you and me.”
She smiled. I didn’t see it, but I knew that she did. From the corner of my eye, I could see her stepping forward and pressing herself beside me. “Of course.”
And so that’s what we did. The two of us stood there, feeling the warmth of the sun and the brisk cold of the wind, as we stared out at the impossibly quaint scene in front of us. A weight settled on my shoulder. The strands of brown hair spreading out in the corner of my eye told me exactly what it was.
My lips curled up. “I love you, Lynn.”
A sharp breath followed by a giggle was the response I got as Lynn picked her head up and stared at me. I didn’t look back, waiting for the three magical words to come out of her mouth. I’d heard them before, of course. At the dawn of the day after our twelfth date. On the beautiful day of our wedding. On the night my mother had died. I’d heard those three words from her more times than I could count, but that didn’t matter at all. They were still all worth it each and every time.
I focused on her at the edge of my vision. I saw the tilted smile, the long gaze, the slight blush on her cheek. But I didn’t turn her way. Not until I heard the words.
After a few more seconds of silence that I knew she couldn’t bear, I saw strawberry color growing in her cheeks. She threw up her hands, pulling closer to me.
“Fine,” she spat with no malice in her voice. “Agil, I love y—“
My vision flashed black and everything around me went cold. For a moment, I heard the familiar shrieking sound of metal scraping on metal, and I tried to turn toward it. My body went numb, responding blankly to the spinning world—a spinning world that I only saw once it was far, far too late.
Suddenly, my sight came back and the numbness receded. I felt my hand clutched tightly on the blade by my side. The light blinded my eyes, keeping the truth of the new cold world from me for another second. And when I finally saw that truth, I damn-near almost fell to my knees.
Lynn’s body was wilted, matching the now-decaying flowers in her hair as she sprawled on the ground. My eyes widened and my breathing accelerated, thoughts spinning in my head. Scanning over her body, I saw the singular, impossible bloodstain that ripped all the way down her dress. My legs started to shake, threatening to buckle. And my eyes froze on her face, the beautiful, lively face of my wife laid in all too permanent peace while the light drained from her eyes.
“Lynn?” I found myself asking into the air. My hand trembled on my blade; a fear stronger than I’d ever felt before struck itself straight to my core. “Lynn?”
My words fell on dead ears, something I found nearly impossible to accept. The air around me got colder, freezing itself on my skin as new fire pumped through my veins. My mind raced. My muscles tensed. But no matter what, I couldn’t move. All I could do was stare at the death of the woman I loved as the countryside around me froze in its wake.
“Lynn!” a voice screamed. I barely recognized it as my own.
A chill raced down my spine, one colder than the air around me in another act of impossibility. I felt a presence behind me, staring greedily at my back. Somehow, I found it in myself to turn.
“She will not respond to your cries,” the beast said, my vision filling with its tattered black robe contrasting heavily on its bleach-white bone. The air only grew colder, but I found the warmth to draw my blade.
“Give her back,” I ordered. It only chuckled at me. I averted my gaze, only barely avoiding the darkness in its eyes as I held my blade. The scene behind me burned itself onto the back of my eyes.
A second of silence passed. That was all the time I allowed before lunging at the beast.
A flurry of movement took my muscles by storm as I pushed through the frozen air. My blade came down with more power than should’ve been possible and my feet were already moving away. All of my thoughts screeched to a halt in my mind, one singular feeling consolidating as the one and only truth.
The horribly familiar shriek of metal and the tremors spreading out through my arm told me my strike had connected. But not with its bone. I rushed away, my feet beating on the dirt as I navigated a terrain I’d trained on thousands of times. My brow furrowed. My grip tightened. I turned around and—
Unbelievable, inconceivable pain took my body. Everything went numb for a second, leaving only aftershocks bouncing in my skull, but feeling soon came back. And as I felt the horrible metal scythe ripping through my back, I just wished that the numbness had stayed.
I stared it in the face, my now-lazy eyes searching over the bony surface for any explanation. I found none. Only the lifeless, terrifying gaze of the embodiment of decay.
“Not good enough,” was the last thing I heard before all thoughts died. Before the pain became too great and my vision faded into black.
I woke with a start, cold sweat dripping down my back. I coughed, breathing hard as I sat up in the lumpy bed. My hand shook. For a moment, I wondered why, wondered what I must’ve done to myself. Then, as a shadow of pain raced down my spine, it all came back. I grimaced, closing my eyes as the images played back on my eyelids. My heartbeat grew until the sound filled my ears.
I snapped my eyes open and tried to force my body to be still. A ray of sunlight entered my vision, barely catching my eye as I looked over the room. The scraggly sheets, the lumpy bed, the unorganized desk that I knew wasn’t mine. My breathing slowed as I remembered what had really happened—where I really was. The truth of it all stuck out and lifted a million-pound weight off my shoulders.
It was a dream.
The thought repeated, making itself as clear as possible to my addled mind as I stayed sprawled under the sheets. Slowly, my muscles relaxed and my heartbeat slowed back down. The worries of my dream faded into the back of my mind, leaving only the worries of my true situation to fill the void. But I’d already stressed over those. Those were worries that could actually be addressed.
And as I felt the ache in my back from lying far too long in the lumpy bed, I decided to address them. I had to get up.
After a couple more seconds, I pushed the covers off and got out of the bed. As soon as my feet touched the floor, I felt unstable. The world wobbled around me, tilting and shaking every few moments while I tried to regain my balance. Feeling the lack of muscle that I’d felt before, I knew one thing. I wasn’t used to my new legs.
Eventually finding my stance, I stumbled out into the hallway and made my way down the stairs. The crackling fire was still going, or it had been restarted—but either way, it felt good. I blinked my groggy eyes, flicking them across the peacefully still room. From what I could tell, absolutely nobody was around.
The tables were empty. The bar was barren. The tavern looked like a wasteland. So, not knowing what else to do, I plopped myself down on one of the stools and waited. The barkeep had to be around here somewhere.
Then, as if on cue, the burly, bearded man barged out of a wooden door behind the bar holding a plate of food. He noticed me and moved in an instant, placing the plate on the counter before my face.
“Good morning, sir Agil,” he said. I smiled at the light sarcasm. “I do hope you slept well. I prepared a breakfast for you and some supplies you’ll need before you head into town.”
Town? My eyes widened briefly. Did he want me to leave already? I was still getting adjusted to my own body, and I didn’t even know where town was.
The cheery man saw my expression and assured me. “Don’t fret, I’m not kicking you out. I just thought that you’d want to get going as quickly as possible. Sarin is just up the road anyhow.” He smiled at me once again, nodding to the food on the bar.
His smile was infectious. I almost wanted to stay in the tavern forever. But that just wouldn’t do. The barkeep was right, after all. I didn’t want to stay. I had more important things to do and some things to seriously figure out. Things that I knew I wouldn’t be able to accomplish if I stayed in a lonely inn forever.
I showed the barkeep a weak nod. He left again, pushing open the creaky door on his way into the back room. I looked down at my food—a couple of pieces of bread and some warm, nondescript meat. It wasn’t the royal food that I’d grown accustomed to in my later years, but I was hungry, so it would have to do.
I picked up one of the pieces of bread and I started eating.
By the time the barkeep had come back, I’d eaten more than half of the plate while my stomach roared in agreement. Apparently the meal I’d had the previous night hadn’t been enough to satisfy my body’s desperate needs. And the more I ate, the hungrier I seemed to get. As I chewed on with greed, finishing yet another piece of the wonderful sliced bread the barkeep had placed right on the bar, the man dumped supplies out on the counter. I took the time to glance up, the strange assortment of goods stopping me in my tracks A plain brown pair of slacks, a slightly-too-big white tunic, and a leather bag. And, I noticed with a curl of my lip, there was a small curved dagger too.
“Something wrong with the knife?” the barkeep asked, noticing my hesitation. I swallowed the food still in my mouth and squinted.
“No,” I offered. “It’s just not my… weapon of choice.”
The man raised an eyebrow. “Then what would you rather have?”
A smile sprouted on my face, the image rising up in my mind. I looked up at the large man and grinned wildly before he could even react. “Do you have a spare sword?"