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Lucian Homebound
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Short Story

Homebound

By Phillip Vargas, Thomas Cunningham

Lucian sat on a hilltop beneath the shadow of a large banyan tree and scanned the valley below.

Lore

Lucian OriginalSquare Lucian sat on a hilltop beneath the shadow of a large banyan tree and scanned the valley below. His hands rested on his relic pistols. Fingers brushed the bronzed metalwork. The Black Mist rolled across the verdant lowlands, consuming everything in its path. The Harrowing had made landfall on the island several hours earlier.

The light of countless torches moved through the darkness. Clouds of drifting mist enveloped the area. One by one, the fires waned and extinguished, their distance too far to carry the screams of the dying.

One light remained strong. Its pallid green glow floated effortlessly through the Black Mist, seemingly unaffected. The corrupted flames of vile spirits. Lucian’s heart quickened at the sight, and a seething heat flushed his body.

He raced down the hillside, fighting for purchase on loose gravel until he reached the basin. A body lay in the tall grass. Its arms were tightly wrapped around its shoulders, its eyes wide open—inky black marbles stared at a moonless sky. He marched past and continued his pursuit.

It was the fifth body that gave him pause. The old man’s features were twisted in a rigor of pain. Robes shredded. Flesh flayed from the body. The wounds from the scythe unmistakable to the trained eye.

Lucian changed course and followed the trail of bodies to the base of a steep slope. He clambered up the rise, weaving his way through the dense thicket. The screams reached his ears before he crested the remote hilltop.

Black Mist poured across the clearing. It roiled and shifted as malformed shapes moved in the thick haze. A crowd of terrified islanders raced toward a sheer cliff drop and the ocean’s bitter promise of escape. The mist engulfed them all. Frenzied shadows descended upon the poor souls, adding the cries of the dying to the unholy chorus roaring within.

He aimed his pistols at the surging mass. A horde of screeching wraiths spewed out from the mist, charging at him with spectral blades and maws full of jagged teeth.

He fired a blaze of purifying light, immolating the cursed spirits. The blast drove him back a step, and his boot heel found the edge of the bluff. He hazarded a look over his shoulder. Stormy seas crashed against a rocky shore in the darkness below.

Laughter cut through the wails of countless souls. He spun around, weapons aimed at the approaching mist. A beacon shone inside the raging swell.

Lucian holstered one of his guns and reached inside his leather coat. He found the clay grenade and pulled it out. The fist-sized shell bore a proof mark on its rough surface—it was time to see if the old weaponsmith in Bilgewater was right.

He tossed the shell in a wide arc, and when it reached its zenith, he fired his pistol. The grenade erupted in a cloud of silver dust. The dust swirled and remained suspended in the air, creating a shimmering pocket of stillness within the deadly fog, repelling the Black Mist.

Thresh OriginalSquare Thresh stood inside the opening, towering over a young woman. She writhed in agony as chained hooks dug into her flesh, rending soul from body. The Chain Warden lifted his ancient lantern as it started to glow. The woman’s lifeless form collapsed to the ground, and the relic accepted its new prisoner.

The specter turned to Lucian and grinned. “We missed you in Helia, and feared you'd lost your taste for defeat, shadow hunter.”

Thresh tapped the lantern. It radiated as if answering his call.

“How her soul brightens at your arrival,” Thresh said. “The promise you bring. It offers a brief respite from the misery.”

Lucian’s gaze fell on the lantern. Silver dust scattered off the protective bloom of light emanating from the iron-wrought prison. He gripped his pistols, waiting.

“Oh, but failures come with a toll,” Thresh laughed. “They make her agony so much sweeter. All those hopes dashed, like a child against the rocks.”

Lucian’s mind flashed on their last engagement, but he pushed the thought away.

“Do you know her darkest fear?” Thresh said. “Suffering until the end of all things, with you by her side.”

The light from the lantern shifted, its sickly green hue waning. He felt her reach out and embrace him in that warm and intangible way reserved for spirits and memories.

Lucian

His heart warmed at the sound of her voice. Thresh was right. Senna OriginalSquare Senna could feel him every time he neared. Her reach had grown with each encounter, as if in defiance of the Chain Warden and his torments. They had sensed each other the moment he’d stepped on the island.

The lantern shuddered in Thresh’s grasp. Brilliant spirals of light swirled inside the relic, straining and swelling against the container. Thresh eyed the disturbance and simply sneered. Lucian aimed his guns at the tempest forming inside. The lantern’s protective bloom of light began to falter.

Now, my love

Lucian fired his pistols.

The bolts of piercing light burned through the wavering defense and slammed into the iron relic. The lantern swung violently on its chain. For the first time, his purifying fire had struck the ancient prison.

Thresh roared in anger, sweeping the lantern aside.

Baneful tendrils of Black Mist erupted inside the container, overwhelming the spirals of light. The billowing shadows swallowed all semblance of his beloved and the countless souls striving for release. She was ripped away, screaming as darkness spread inside the lantern.

“No!” Lucian screamed, in chorus. “Let her go!”

Thresh laughed. A cruel and taunting howl as Senna wailed in agony.

Lucian’s pistols snapped to Thresh. He focused all his rage into the relic weapons and released a torrent of fire.

The shots engulfed the Chain Warden and ignited his spectral form in a purifying blaze. Lucian dashed forward and fired a second volley, but the shots were nulled by an envelope of darkness reemerging from the lantern.

The flames consuming Thresh died out, quenched by the dark energy. He smiled and held the lantern aloft like some prize to be claimed.

Lucian felt a heaviness press against his chest. The shots that had pierced the lantern’s defenses had been wasted. All around him silver drifted to the ground. Tendrils of Black Mist seeped into the protective hollow created by the grenade, and the opening started to close. The moment had passed, and his beloved still remained imprisoned.

Resigned, he lifted his pistols and charged into the fray.

A blur of motion whipped forward and slammed into Lucian. The chained hook sent him flying across the clearing. He hit the ground, tumbling head over heels on hard gravel until the earth gave way to nothingness, and the ocean rushed up to meet him.

It starts with the laughter… chains drag along stone… echoing in the dense haze… he always turns too slowly… pistol sweeping to meet the gleam… the blaze never erupts… he doesn’t have a shot… she’s standing there… between him and hook…

Confusion sets in her eyes… an inky blackness… she’s screaming now… her entire body contorting… falling to the ground… all her days slipping away… the piercing scream in his head… begging him to run.

Lucian bolted up and clutched his side. Pain shot through his ribs. He eased back down on the sleeping pallet and drew in ragged breaths. Staring up at wood beams and plastered ceiling, he wondered where he was.

Senna’s screams echoed through his mind. He had failed her again. And now he would need to start anew.

He probed the tightly wrapped bandages around his ribs and found dark bruising underneath. The area was tender to the touch.

Salve-drenched leaves rested on his chest. He peeled off the damp greens, revealing blackened lesions where the chained hook had found flesh.

He turned to his side, leaned on his elbow for support, and sat up. Sunlight streamed in through the slats of a window shutter, revealing a large wooden chest sitting in the dim corner of the room. A devotional altar perched on top, brimming with day-old flowers and a carved alabaster turtle. His leather coat and jerkin sat folded on a small table next to the pallet. The relic pistols rested over the clothes.

Lucian’s unsteady hand reached out for the weapons. He inspected her gun first, examining the hewn stone and bronze metalwork as she’d taught him years before. His fingers found a deep crevice gouged in the stone. A gift from their time in Ionia. He smiled and continued with his own pistol. The metal housing on the weapon gave slightly to the touch. The damage was new and would need to be repaired soon.

He stood with a groan and holstered the weapons. Then he placed his hands on his pistol grips, feeling for height and cant. The guns sat slightly askew. He readjusted and checked once more. Satisfied, he reached down for his jerkin and eased his arms through the sleeves, and then did the same with the long frock coat.

Moving to the window, he opened the wooden shutter. Sunlight streamed in from outside, along with the faint sounds of soft crying. The narrow angle offered little more than a view of a winding stream and a thicket of vegetation. It was morning, and the Harrowing had passed.

Thresh would be leagues away.

Lucian needed to reach his schooner and start the hunt again. He gave the room one last sweep and headed for the door.

A dozen bodies lay on the ground outside the house.

A young woman sat among the dead, gently cleaning the body of an old man with a washcloth. She looked up at Lucian, her almond-shaped eyes soft and swollen.

“You shouldn’t be up,” she said.

“I’m fine. Was it you that patched me up?”

She nodded. “I’m Mira,” she said. “We found you near the cove.”

“How long ago?”

“Right after dawn, when I was searching for my father.”

He glanced down at the old man at her feet.

She shook her head, a tinge of frustration in her eyes.

“It’s not him,” she said. “I should be out looking, but we don’t have enough people.”

She picked up a fresh washcloth. “If you’re feeling better, we could use the help.”

Lucian stared at the dead. They rested on beds of freshly cut fronds, some with their eyes still open—inky black marbles staring at nothing.

He turned away. “It should be family.”

It appeared she wanted to say more, but the din of commotion rose from the far end of the village. A crowd gathered around an ox-drawn cart loaded with more bodies. Mira watched the new arrivals for a moment and then hurried out.

Lucian followed at a distance while people approached from various corners of the village. They moved across the cobbled path at their own pace, some more eagerly than others.

The crowd of survivors huddled around a young man. He held a heavy walking stick and spoke in fitful gestures. “They can’t do this! They have no right!” he yelled, pounding the ground with his staff.

“What’s happened?” Mira asked.

“The Naktu are burning the bodies!”

Many in the crowd stirred with anger, joining the young man’s protests. But several other villagers broke down in anguish.

“Who are they?” Lucian asked.

“Fire worshippers,” Mira said, “from the western rim of the island.”

“They’ll burn her spirit,” cried an old man. “They’ll leave nothing for the ancestors.” Lucian could see the fear coming into Mira’s eyes.

She rushed around the wagon, frantically searching through the stacked bodies. There were a few older women among the dead, but most were young men and children. None were her father. She backed away, her face ashen.

The old man let out a mournful sob and held his head. Mira reached out and embraced the elder. She whispered in his ear, and he seemed to calm at the words.

She turned to the villagers. “We need to find our people,” she said. “Where else can we look?”

Lucian watched the crowd deliberate. Numerous suggestions were made and countered. There were too many missing and not enough survivors. Mira had fallen silent, despair on her face.

He stepped forward. “I know where you might find more.”

The lonely hilltop was silent in the light of day. The raging storm had passed. All that remained were the dead, splayed among the bristle willows and the brush.

Mira and her people spread out across the bluff and walked among the fallen. Villagers soon settled over friends and loved ones. The young man with the walking staff dropped next to a woman facedown in the gravel, his anger drained, replaced by sorrow.

Lucian turned his attention to Mira. She crouched over the body of an older woman and whispered in her ear. Perhaps it was a prayer. Lucian couldn’t tell.

She looked up at Lucian. “He’s not here,” she said.

He gazed at the field of bodies. A weight pressed against his chest. She would have saved them, or at least tried. Her kindness was a stubborn thing that wouldn’t allow her to abandon those in need.

Mira rose. “I should get her home,” she said.

Lucian reached down and gently picked up the old woman. She was delicate and brittle in his arms. He carried her to the wagon and carefully placed her on the bed of leaves sitting over the wooden planks. He lingered for a moment. Then headed out to help the others.

They worked past midday. Gathering the dead in numbers so great they threatened to spill out of the wagon bed. Lucian and Mira loaded the last of the bodies while several villagers secured them with ropes.

Lucian stepped back and reached for his side, the throbbing pain spreading to the small of his back. He'd done too much. Even though it wasn't enough. Exhausted, he sat down near the edge of the bluff and gazed at the sea. He had worked up a sweat in the morning heat.

“How are your ribs?”

“They’re fine.”

Mira sat next to him and passed him a water jug.

“Not much left,” he said, feeling its weight.

“You need it more than me.”

He set the canteen down, stood up, and peeled off his long heavy coat. The ocean breeze cooled his skin. Sitting back down, he took a slow drink of water and capped off the empty canteen.

Mira watched the ocean and said nothing for a long time. Out in the distance, a bale of sea turtles breached the surface for air and then dove back into the deep.

“Did you see it happen?” she said.

“It was over by the time I found them.”

Mira glanced down at Lucian’s pistols. “But you’ve seen it before?”

Lucian nodded.

“How does it—”

“Nothing I say is going to help you find your father.”

Mira nodded and bowed her head.

Lucian watched the waves crash on the rocks below, the waters rising with each ebb and flow. High tide would peak soon, and he’d be able to launch. He handed Mira the canteen, rose once more, and donned his overcoat.

“What’s the fastest route to the docks?”

Mira turned to point toward the western slope of the hill and found a band of men approaching. They wore dark robes and were led by a priest holding a wooden mace with a rope-bound obsidian stone.

“Stay here,” Mira said.

Lucian followed, remaining a few paces behind without saying a word.

The young man with the staff marched up to meet the band of men. Several other villagers joined him and blocked their path.

“You are east of the river,” he said.

“We are here to light a path for the dead,” said the priest.

“Those are not our ways,” Mira said, as she reached the group.

The priest laughed. “And when they rise, who will fight them? You?”

The young man clenched his staff. “You think I’ll let you burn my wife, ash eater?” he said, spitting out the words.

The priest scowled and glanced at his men. Lucian spied the man’s fingertips lightly brush the heavy mace, an unconscious tell. The man was eager to strike.

Lucian stepped forward. “The dead won’t rise,” he said. “Not if they're put down properly.”

The priest dragged his gaze over Lucian, taking full measure of the man.

In turn, Lucian bowed his head slightly. And then, in a single motion, he shifted his weight, slid opened his leather coat, and rested his hand on his pistol grip.

The priest glanced at the relic weapons and then back to Lucian’s eyes.

Lucian met his glare and waited for the tell. Even hoped for it.

Mira stepped in between, holding out her arms.

“Stop,” she said. “Let’s not add to the misery.”

She turned to the Naktu priest and his men. “One island. Two people. It’s always been so. We just want to bury our dead according to our ways.”

They all looked to the priest, but the man’s gaze remained fixed on Lucian as he considered Mira’s words. They all waited for his response.

“You can collect your dead,” he said. “East of the river.”

The crowd settled and fell back, all except for Lucian and the Naktu priest. They remained facing one another, waiting for the other to move.

“People should bury their dead as they see fit,” Lucian said.

“We need to find them first, and we can’t do that if we’re fighting,” Mira said.

Lucian remained silent. His fingertips brushed the bronzed metalwork of his pistol.

Mira gently placed her hand on his shoulder. “Please, you’re a guest here.”

Lucian nodded. “Fine. Your dead. Your call,” he said, moving his hands away from his gun. “Western trail to the docks?”

“Yes,” she said, with a heavy sigh. It seemed she wanted to say more, but she simply lowered her head.

“Hope you find your father,” he said, before turning around and walking away.

The docks sat in a sheltered cove. A lonely flotilla of ships swayed gently in the water. Lucian’s schooner was moored at the far end, among vessels laden with unloaded shipments and nets full of rotting fish.

He walked along the pier and heard the scuttling of countless beetles devouring the putrid catch sitting on the trawler next to his ship. It was his third boat, the previous ones lost to inexperience. Learning to sail had been difficult, but far easier than persuading ship captains to chase the Black Mist.

He boarded the schooner and went below deck to check his provisions. A star traker had fallen from the rack, but otherwise, everything appeared untouched. He stowed the instrument back on its shelf and sat on his bunk.

Maps and charts from every corner of the world covered the paneled walls and ceiling. They were marked with water depths, tidal rapids, and seabed features.

He'd been tracking the Harrowing for months. His last excursion had started in Raikkon and led him south to Sudaro. That encounter had sent him racing across the vast ocean only to lose sight of the Black Mist off the coast of those accursed isles. Easterly winds had then carried him to the Serpentine Delta, where he'd finally caught up to the storm.

He pressed a tack on the map, marking one of the numerous islands of the delta. Then he attached a piece of twine to the nail and ran the string back to the marker in the Shadow Isles. That nail held more twine leading north, up toward Sudaro in Ionia. There were dozens of markers dotting the maps, creating a tapestry of the last few years.

Lucian stared at the charts, trying to discover a pattern, but all he could see were his failures scattered across Valoran. He thought of all the times he’d tried to save her and why he’d fallen short. His throat tightened at the memory of Thresh and his misspent rage.

Senna’s screams echoed through his mind.

He shut his eyes and held back the overwhelming despair until all he could hear was the sound of his own heart. Resolved, he turned to the maps and started working.

A pinch of sand still remained in the hourglass when he finished plotting the new course and was ready to cast off. His time was improving, but precise measurements were still difficult to gauge. The Black Mist didn’t answer to the wind.

He stood up from his bunk and adjusted the wrapping around his ribs. The earlier pain now a dull ache. Satisfied, he returned to the deck above and started untying the halyard line to the mainsail. Movement on the shoreline caught the corner of his eye.

Mira was combing the beach.

He watched her pick up a large gourd, shake it a few times, and toss it back on the sand. She turned in his direction and caught sight of him. He simply nodded and continued working. After a moment, she started walking toward the boat, picking up another husk off the beach as she approached.

“They’re calasa fruit,” she said, tossing it to Lucian.

He shook it, noting the sloshing of nectar inside.

“My father always brought a shipment back from Venaru. These can’t be more than a day old.”

“Where are the rest of your people?”

“Most have gone home to prepare their dead,” she said. “Others were headed to the mud caves and the lagoon, but my father was due back here when the storm hit.

“Is your father’s boat docked?” he said, returning the husk.

She shook her head and looked out to the water. A handful of capsized ships and submerged masts stood as watery markers in the shallow depths of the cove.

“Maybe your father never reached shore.”

Mira stared at the calasa fruit in her hand. “We found another ship’s captain, washed up on the beach. Her boat was nowhere to be found.”

Lucian checked the strandline; high tide wouldn’t peak for a few hours. A quick couple of loops and he resecured the halyard.

“Show me,” he said

Mira led him along the shoreline. They followed the winding rim of the cove past a rocky shoal and stopped near a bar of coral reef.

“This is where we found her.”

Lucian studied the sand and found only bits of shells and coral. He scanned the water, searching for wreckage. Calm seas stretched across the horizon.

“He was coming from Venaru?”

“They both were, they traded at the markets.”

“The storm blew in from the east. It could explain why she washed up here,” Lucian said. “Did your father usually make port before or after the other captain?”

“After,” she said, understanding coming into her eyes.

She gazed out at the ocean and took in a deep breath and let out a tremulous shudder.

“He would have been out there alone,” she said.

She bowed her head and stood there a long time, watching the water lap at her sandaled feet.

“What if he washed up on shore?” she said.

Mira lifted her head and looked toward the west. The shoreline continued for a distance before disappearing beyond the curve of the island. The answer to her question laid deep in Naktu territory.

They moved west, past grass-covered dunes and towering sea arches carved by seawater and time. The shoreline soon turned rocky and impassable, forcing them to clamber up a volcanic slope and march across a ridgeline overlooking the ocean. Far off to the south, a stone monolith rose from the water to meet the sky—the Pillar of Sorrows, the tallest point on the Island of Venaru.

Mira scanned the coastline, searching for signs of her father’s boat. She pointed to a colony of dead sea lions sprawled on the rocks below. Seagulls scurried about, picking at the bloated carcasses. Lucian nodded and continued without a word.

The pair made their way down from the ridge crest to a ravine. A river wound through the narrow valley and fed into the sea. It was the natural boundary between the island’s two people.

Mira crossed the river without saying a word.

They climbed up the next hill. Mira scaled the slope with ease, weaving her way through the dense brush while Lucian gradually fell behind. The dull ache of his ribs spread with each labored step. The wrappings had come loose, forcing him to stop halfway up the rise. He tightened the dressing and winced at the worsening pain. His breath drew deep and harsh.

He watched Mira reach the hilltop. She shielded her eyes from the sun and swept the shoreline. Then she stopped. She put her hand to her mouth and reared back a step.

Lucian scrambled up the loose gravel, using the thick branches and vines from the brush for support. He reached the crest next to Mira and peered over the edge. A broken mast was lodged between the rocks below. The remnant of its sail thrashed in the wind.

He searched beyond the debris, his gaze following the twisting coastline to a band of sand bars, down past a chain of barren islets, until it finally settled on a stretch of towering cliffs off in the distance. A colony of seagulls circled the shore.

The body lay sprawled on a boulder of volcanic rock. Thunderous waves crashed against the craggy shore, threatening to sweep it out to sea. A treacherous climb down an almost vertical slope was their only hope.

“It'll be high tide soon,” he said.

Mira didn’t answer. She simply stared at her father.

Lucian reached out and touched her arm. “Mira,” he said.

She flinched. Eyes blinking as if waking from a stupor.

“Tola vines,” she said. “We can use them to weave a rope and litter.”

He watched her head out, understanding for the first time the depth of her conviction. Lucian took in a deep breath and followed.

They harvested a batch of heavy vines from the thicket dotting the hilltop. Lucian braided the coarse strands into rope while Mira’s deft hands weaved a litter to hold the body.

Lucian secured the line to a nearby tree and tested the weight. It held firm. Satisfied, he tossed the rope and litter over the side.

“I’ll go down,” he said.

“It should be me. I’ve been climbing for years.”

“I know how to climb.”

“You were having trouble keeping up.”

“I’ll be fine.”

She shook her head, frustrated. Ears and cheeks flushed red.

“He’s too heavy,” she said. “I can guide the litter. Keep it off the rocks. But I need you to pull him up.”

Lucian looked down at the body. Broad shoulders and thickset limbs from years of battling the sea. Fifteen stone of dead weight. He nodded and handed her the rope.

She moved to the rim of the precipice and slowly backed up to the edge. After testing the rope one final time, her toes eased onto the threshold. She glanced over her shoulder, took a calming breath, and went over the side.

Lucian anxiously watched Mira inch her way down the rope—hand over fist—until she reached a toehold. A few breaths later, she spied over her shoulder, found her next target, and repeated the process.

She did this again and again until reaching a broad ledge a third of the way down the bluff. The wind had picked up, bringing along crisp ocean air. Mira stretched out her arms and shook them loose. Then she looked up at Lucian and signaled everything was fine.

Rested, she grabbed the rope and scanned for another perch. After a while, she looked back up and shook her head. There were no safe holds underneath.“I can pull you up.”

“Not yet.”

Mira studied the rockface to her right. She pointed to a narrow shelf several yards away. Reaching it would require a sideways move. Lucian nodded, then glanced at the shallow waters and jagged rocks awaiting below.

His stomach tightened as she wrapped the rope around her forearm. Then, without hesitation, she took a running start and leapt off the ledge.

Mira swung across the rockface and dropped down on the shelf. Dirt and rock crumbled beneath her feet. Her body tilted to one side, teetered on the edge, and fell.

Lucian watched Mira slide down the rope, kicking her legs for purchase. A foot lodged in the loose dirt and flipped her upside down. Her flailing arms tangled in the vines, breaking her fall in a jolting stop. She wailed in pain.

The line unraveled and she was bouncing off the rocks and into the water.

Lucian scrambled to his feet and grabbed the rope. He was frantically searching for a path down when Mira finally broke the surface.

She fought against the swell, kicking and clawing onto the craggy shore. Exhausted, she collapsed on the rocks. Her chest rising and falling rapidly.

“I’m coming down!”

Mira raised a shaky hand and waved him off.

Gradually, her breathing settled, and she sat up. She stared at her father’s body for a long time. Her hand reached out. She gently stroked his hair. Then she turned him over, laid her head on his chest, and wept.

Lucian looked away, adrift in his own memories, knowing she could remain there forever, anchored to despair.

After some time, she stood up and reached for the litter. He watched her shut away the overwhelming grief and become the dutiful daughter. It was the only way to prepare for the finality of death. She gently pushed the body onto its side, placed the vine-woven stretcher underneath, and rolled it into place. Once secured, she gave the signal to lift.

Lucian grabbed the rope and pulled, hoisting the body while Mira climbed alongside, guiding the litter and keeping it from slamming against the rocks. It wasn’t long before he worked up a sweat, and the dull ache in his side started to sharpen.

The pain worsened with each heave of the rope. It spread across his side until his arms trembled, and the rope slipped. He clutched the vines and wrapped them around a dry stump.

“Is everything all right?”

“Yeah… Hold on,” he said, struggling for breath.

The pain subsided. He glanced over the edge. The litter dangled halfway down the slope. Mira waited nearby, straddling a pair of rocky outcroppings jutting from the cliff face.

Lucian untied the rope and worked slowly and deliberately, bracing himself with each heave before walking his hands down the vines and pulling again. He built up a rhythm like an oarsman and made steady progress.

His ribs spasmed, and his grip failed.

Mira yelled down below.

Lucian fought for air as the rope slipped through his hands. He clenched the coarse vines, searing flesh until his grip finally locked. The deadweight yanked him several feet toward the edge.

He kicked out his feet, gouging twin trenches as the heels of his boots dug into the soft dirt and slid to a stop. Trembling arms strained against the weight. He pulled until the joints in his shoulders threatened to pop. But the litter refused to budge.

The pain in his ribs flared, building to another spasm. He squeezed the corded vine and glanced to his left and right, searching for something, anything, to tie down the rope. There was nothing, there was only him.

He looked out at the sea as his hands started to cramp. His beloved was imprisoned somewhere beyond the horizon. If his journey ended here, his promise would remain unkept. The price was too high.

Lucian shook his head and eased his grip. The rope slipped an inch.

No sooner had he done it than a tightness clutched his chest. She would have never let go of the rope, her stubbornness would have kept her faithful to the young woman below. Especially after all she had risked to find her father.

Desperate, and with nothing left to give, Lucian wound the vines around his forearm just as his grip failed. The rope tightened like a snare around a rabbit and wrenched him forward. He drove his heels into the dirt again, but it was no use. The weight of the dead was dragging him toward the drop.

A blooddrenched hand rose from below and clawed the edge of the cliff. A moment later, Mira hauled herself up, rolled to Lucian’s side, and grabbed the rope. Together they pulled until the body reached the top.

They saw the fires shortly after dark. Lucian and Mira dragged the litter down from the ridge crest, watching dozens of pyres roar to life in the valley below.

The pair stopped to rest beneath the canopy of a banyan tree. Lucian sat and probed his bruised ribs, adjusting the freshly wrapped bindings. Mira gazed at the flames. She exhaled a shuddering breath and wiped the corners of her eyes.

“Your hands,” Lucian said.

She regarded her bandaged palms. A spot of crimson stained the dressing.

“They’re fine.”

“They’re bleeding again. Let me see.”

She held out her hands while Lucian carefully unwrapped the bandages. The rope burns on her palms were slick with blood. He tensed, resentful of all the suffering Mira and her people had endured.

He popped the stopper on his water flask and washed the loose skin where the blisters had burst. Then he cut a fresh length of cloth and redressed the wounds.

“They burn the body and spirit. There’s nothing left,” she said, watching the fires in the distance, her gaze fixed and unwavering.

Lucian didn’t understand their beliefs, but he understood promises to the dead.

“We should get moving,” he said.

Lucian and Mira each grabbed a length of rope and slung it across their shoulders. They pulled in unison, setting the heavy litter into motion, and moved out. Gravel crunched beneath their feet as they trudged up the slope.

They heard the chanting before reaching the crest.

Lucian signaled Mira to stay low and led them to a thicket. The heavy brush provided cover as they scanned the valley and spotted a party of Naktu gathered near the riverside.

They stood shrouded in the shadows of a tree, but Lucian recognized the priest. The man raised his heavy mace, and the obsidian stone began pulsating a bright vermilion. The soft glow revealed a body lying in the grass by the bank. It burst into flames.

The Naktu’s chant rose as the pyre burned brighter. The priest lowered his staff, and the light from the stone waned. The group fell silent.

Lucian drew his pistols.

“What are you doing?” Mira said.

“Ending this.”

She shook her head. “It’s already done.”

He looked past her and started heading out. Mira reached for his arm.

“Why?” she said, her eyes pleading. “Even if you killed all of them, those people would still be ash.”

The Naktu marched along the river bank and gathered around another body.

“They’re east of the river,” he said.

“I know where they are!” she said, her voice loud and defiant. She stepped back and threw up her arms. “You think I don’t want to do something? They’re my people!”

She gazed down at the litter holding her father. Her eyes started to well.

“But… I can’t…” she said, voice trembling. “I need to get my father home. He’s all that matters. Not the Naktu, or what they’ve done. Only him.”

Mira didn’t wait for a response. She bent down to pick up the ropes to the litter and slung them over her shoulders. Leaning forward, she strained against the weight, trying to get the body moving. The litter finally shifted on the rough gravel, and she slowly pulled away, alone.

The Naktu chanting started anew.

He glared down at the men as they gathered around another body. The priest raised his staff and ignited the pyre. Rage flushed through Lucian, but Mira’s words resonated in his head. The anger slowly ebbed. All that remained was a mournful resignation. He holstered his weapons and rejoined Mira.

It was past midnight by the time Lucian and Mira reached the village. Hushed whispers and lingering gazes followed as they arrived at the empty house. Exhausted, the pair unslung the ropes to the litter and sat outside the door. Torch lights burned inside a few nearby homes, but most sat dark and silent.

“We should take him inside,” Mira said.

They cleared the front room and laid out the body on a bed of fronds. Mira poured water into a pot, placed it over the irons, and lit a fire. Warmth bathed the room.

Mira sat on the floor next to her father.

“This is Lucian, Pappa,” she said. “He helped bring you home.”

His stomach clenched at the words. He had faltered at the hilltop. It was only Mira’s resolve that had kept them faithful and carried them until the end.

She gently unfastened the seashell buttons on his tunic and opened the frayed and worn garment. She let out a sob. Blackened wounds marred his arms and chest. Her trembling hand reached out to undo the rest of his clothes. But she stopped short, eyes shimmering and distant.

“I can—?” Lucian offered.

“Please,” she whispered.

He nodded and stared down at the body. The man’s final moments were etched on his flesh. They told of unspeakable horrors and the agonizing end.

A floodgate of memories opened and threatened to drown him in grief. He pushed the thoughts away and focused on the meager solace he could offer.

Lucian removed the man’s boots and untied the cord on his trousers. He tried to roll them off, but seawater had tightened the leather. He produced a dagger from inside his coat. Mira nodded. He cut the woven leg seams and removed the sheared garment.

Mira retrieved the pot from the fire and added camphor oil to the water. A sweet fragrance rose with the steam.

They cleaned the body with linen washcloths, gently scrubbing away dirt and salt and all the impurities natural to the dead. Mira held her father’s hand, taking great care to clean beneath the fingernails. When they were done, she embraced her father tenderly, her eyes shimmering pools of love and sorrow.

Mira stood and went to an adjoining room, and returned with a silver hairpin decorated with agate and coral. She placed the pin in her father’s hands and laid them across his chest.

“It was my mother’s. She gave it to him on their bonding day.”

Lucian glanced at the relic weapon in his left holster. Her pistol, its bronzed metalwork more elegant and intricate than his own.

“She died before my first summer,” she said. “He feared too many years had passed. That he’d grown too old and she wouldn’t recognize him when his time came.”

Mira shuddered, and a wistful laugh escaped her lips. “I always thought it was foolish,” she said, her eyes smiling. “Of course she would know him, and guide him home.”

He thought of the countless souls imprisoned by the Black Mist. Her father now likely among them, tormented and suffering. He didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

“You kept your faith. That’s all that matters,” he said.

Mira remained silent for a long time before finally speaking.

“Is that why you chase the mist, to keep a promise?”

He shifted his body and leaned back. “It took everything from me.”

“So its revenge you’re after?”

Lucian stared at the fire. “It’s different when you see it…” he said.

Mira glanced at her father.

They fell into a deep silence, both lost in their own thoughts. The fire crackled in the hearth and broke the stillness. Mira spoke first.

“I wasn’t there… I don’t know how it was for him… for any of them,” she said, her voice tremulous and soft. “But vengeance isn’t going to bring them back.”

She wiped the corners of her eyes and turned her attention back to her father.

Lucian’s gaze fell to his hands. They rested on his pistols, fingertips brushing the hammered bronze.

He thought of all the times he’d tried to save her and all the reasons he’d failed. All these years, he believed he was beyond vengeance, but the words kept turning in his head.

Thresh’s laughter echoed in his mind, drowning out everything… even her voice.

He shut his eyes and silently repeated the mantras he’d learned so long ago. “Carve away the unwanted. Keep only the stone… Carve away the unwanted. Keep only the stone…”

But the ritual failed to silence the laughter or steady his hands. He gripped the pistols until his fingers ached and all he could hear was the beat of his own heart.

The memories unfolded. From the moment he’d lost her, so many years ago, to his last failed attempt. They all rushed his mind in blinding flashes and deafening roars. His heart raced. He struggled for breath as he witnessed every gut-wrenching scream… every sadistic laugh… and every rage-filled charge. The pattern he’d sought finally resolved in his mind.

A heaviness pressed on his chest as he saw the truth. His anger let him hold on to her. It kept her memory alive without plunging him into a bottomless well of despair. To abandon that rage was to be unfaithful. And yet, it was anger that kept him from putting his beloved to rest. He had promised to bring her peace, but all he had done was add to her misery.

He’d been failing her since the day she died.

Lucian had watched the burial from the deck of his ship. Mira and her people had carried their loved ones on doolies of carved turtle shells. The bodies wrapped tightly in white linen. They were buried at dawn in a deep communal pit on the sandy shore.

“They will be reborn and return to the sea where the ancestors will guide them home,” Mira had said.

Lucian prepared to cast off. He untied the halyard and pulled on the line, hoisting his mainsail. The canvas ran up the mast and unfurled in the wind. He was cleating the line when he saw Mira approaching. He waved her over.

“It was a good ceremony,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said. “For everything.”

Lucian nodded and gazed out to sea, the ocean calm across the horizon.

“Still chasing the mist?” she said.

He shook his head. “Going to bury my dead.”

Mira offered a wan smile. “Maybe after you’re done, you can come back. There’s a place for you here.”

“Perhaps,” he said, but he didn’t believe so.

Lucian watched her stride back toward the shore. She stopped to pick up a ripe gourd, shook it a few times, and kept going, fruit in hand. When she reached the treeline and the path leading to her village, she turned and waved.

Lucian waved back, knowing he would never return.

The Shadow Isles would be the final leg of his journey. No need for another tack or string of twine. He would carve away the anger and keep his promise. All that mattered was putting her to rest. In his heart, he knew it would be his final deed. He hoped to hear her voice one last time.

If he were truly fortunate, she would be there to guide him home.

References

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