He turned the final corner and saw the whitewashed walls of his destination glowing in the moonlight. Direven had always been enthusiastic in his service to the gods. The Sen council had chosen him for that faithfulness nearly twelve years before, and he had fulfilled his Guardianship from the overflowing well of compassion for which everyone in the county admired him.
The Chosen must be grieving deeply, he thought as he took the key from his pocket and unlocked the heavy gate. At least he is not alone with the body. Even for his own death Direven had ensured the child would be supported.
Ari turned and slumped against the wall beside his traditional seat near the speaking tube, rubbing at the deep furrows in his forehead. “Sen, please send me to alert the family. You know how unstable the Second Heir can be and how much that one blames the Chosen for every minor problem in the family. Of all the messengers, I know the Heir best and I’ve calmed him before. Perhaps I can divert him from anger.
Vilando nodded. It would be best to send someone with gods-blessed tact, a gift this youth had in abundance. “When your replacement arrives, go inform the family. I will hold the viewing in the gardens at third moon, since it looks to be a fine day. Entrust the key to your replacement until I return. Only the family may enter for the ritual.”
The youth’s eyes widened as he took the key, and he bowed deeply. “I will strive to be worthy of this honor, Sen.”
No messenger was ever to hold the key except in situations such as this, a one-day pause from most of the rules during mourning for the death of the Guardian.
Vilando sighed. “If the Second Heir’s anger is too heated, remind him how the Chosen is protected of the Gods. Be very specific on the risk to his entire family should the child be harmed.”
“I have spoken to him of this many times, Sen. He does not believe the gods would ever harm a faithful follower in such a way. No evidence could convince him otherwise.” Ari shrugged. “Though in all honesty I think most of his threats are empty air, meant to make him feel powerful.”
Of course it was primarily bluster, but Vilando couldn’t ignore his ability to visibly see the anger behind the frequent threats. There was no telling what the man might say in his grief or how it would affect his family.
“Do what you can to calm him, Messenger Ari. But remember that the gods do not require the impossible of us. Even the most powerful among them will not force anyone to live other than how they freely choose. If the Heir chooses to rant at his grandfather’s funeral the family must survive the dishonor.”
Vilando stepped into the garden and pulled the heavy gate closed. The lock clicked as Ari sealed him in. All the messengers were well trained, but Ari was the best of them. He would soon be old enough to enter into the priesthood and Vilando reminded himself to ensure the boy received that chance.
Gathering himself for the upcoming challenge, Vilando turned to the garden, absorbing a riot of floral scents and the residual heat of the previous day contained by the enclosing walls. It had been years since he last entered this place, back when the Chosen was young enough to be kept in his room without questioning his guardian.
The residue of Direven’s personality filled the place like a deep well of peace and humor. The death was very recent so the essence of his presence had yet to fade. Yes, the viewing must be held here, where the family might unconsciously absorb the comfort of his spirit. Vilando took a moment to pray that a single day would not be enough for anyone to form an entanglement with the Chosen before entering the cabin and following the sound of muffled sobs to its remaining residents.
Ancient Dawin looked up from smoothing the dark curls of the small boy huddled in her arms as he opened the door. “Poor, child,” she murmured gently. “The Sen has arrived to begin the rituals of death. Let us leave Direven to him.”
“No!” the child yanked himself from her arms and turned to the body upon the bed. “He is just sleeping! He must be. Wake up!” He shook the unmoving shoulder, peering into the calm, dark face for some sign of a response. “I need you. Please, please, wake up!” His voice was raw with pleading, and Vilando saw the wide patch of darkened fabric where the Chosen had clearly left earlier tears.
“Remember the bird we found, and the kittens?” Dawin took him back into her arms as the child froze in horror at whatever memories her words brought up. “It is the same as it was with them, Chosen. The gods have called him to their side. Nothing you can do will bring him back.” She drew him from the room, bowing slightly to Vilando as a tear trickled down the deep creases of her face.
Vilando bowed in return, sensing the entanglement between her and the boy as a glowing network of love and compassion. It amazed him how bonds so beautiful and pure could become such a burden when it came to the Chosen. Why would the gods allow something so essential as love to destroy everyone deeply connected to those marked by their call? As a test, it seemed cruel.
Dawin had volunteered to become the child’s secondary guardian when it became clear that Direven would not live past a year. The Chosen was still too young to be left on his own, yet the extreme age of his guardians ensured that he would suffer yet more losses to his small world before the gods claimed him.
Vilando turned back to the body, now empty of the lively presence that had ensured the Chosen would find joy even in his life-long isolation. The brilliant entanglement between the Guardian and the child had blurred into a general glow of fond memories and laughter, emblazoned into the walls.
There would be no ghost to call into the light of the gods this time. Direven had prepared himself well, and there was no spiritual confusion or unfinished work to force his spirit to wander the borders of the physical plain. Vilando began chanting prayers of peace for the grieving souls left behind.
By third moon Direven’s body was properly wrapped with spices and laid out with full formality in the gardens. The flowers he had nurtured so carefully provided a fitting backdrop of brilliant color, brimming with life.
After a brief discussion with Dawin, Vilando had agreed to allow the Chosen to attend the funeral, seated in the shadows of the cottage entrance to avoid accidental entanglement with Direven’s closest family, the only ones permitted to the viewing under these conditions. Ignoring all signs of the impending ritual, the child continued standing beside the body as if waiting for his guardian to return. At least he seemed calmer now.
The crowd of grieving neighbors must patiently wait outside for the traditional march to the burning grounds, a social breach that those who had arrived early for the vigil accepted without a murmur. They all knew the risk of entanglement, for Direven had loved sharing stories of the Curse of the Chosen Ones with anyone who would listen during his hours of freedom. None of them wished to be so bound by the gods.
As the grieving family arrived, the crowd fell back to allow them through. Only one flared vibrant orange with rage and bitterness against the deep purple of grief that permeated the rest.
Vilando met them at the gate with a formal blessing and sighed to see such disrespect for the dead among the man’s own family. The Second Heir had never been interested in self control or in sharing the attention of the head of his family with anyone. Hopefully he would control his jealousy and resentment out of love for his grandfather, though the flares of passion flickering in his aura indicated the hope would be in vain.
Vilando gestured the family toward the body where it awaited their prayers. Seeing their arrival, Dawin tugged the reluctant Chosen toward the cottage entry, whispering to him as he rubbed the tears from his cheeks and bowed with respect to his Guardian before turning away.
At the sight of the child, the Second Heir bellowed with incoherent rage. The Chosen froze, startled by the unfamiliar sound, then turned to see what was going on.
Caught behind the group since he had waited to close the gate, Vilando could do nothing to stop the tragedy he now realized he should have guessed might occur. What fool would challenge the curse of the gods? Of course, there were always such fools as recorded in history. He should have seen enough of the signs to plan for this situation.
But it was too late. Even the First Heir was too caught by surprise to restrain the Second Heir’s sudden charge. Not even his family, so familiar with his bitterness toward the Chosen, had imagined he would bring a weapon to the funeral of his beloved grandfather. None had imagined he would take such a risk in the face of the direct curse upon everyone even remotely connected to the death of a Chosen. Their calls of anguish and gestures of denial had no effect.
The Chosen gazed down in shock at the blooming red on his chest as the Second Heir’s dagger descended again and again. The First Heir had only just reached him to strike the weapon from his hand when the bonds of the gods snapped like tightly stretched bowstrings suddenly cut.
Vilando could see the sharp recoil of that powerful energy as it traced the child’s emotional bonds, so cautiously limited. It didn’t seem fair that the first to die was sweet Dawin, who had been too old and slow to fling herself between the child and the knife. The rest of those blazing white strands traced the strongest emotional connections of the Second Heir, still caught up in his misplaced passion.
The second to die was the First Heir, his hands still reaching to grip his son’s arm even as he fell. Behind them, the rest of the family collapsed as one, even to the smallest child. A single infant remained alive, weeping as it rolled from its fallen mother’s arms.
Vilando watched as the realization awoke in the mind of the Second Heir, his newly gained belief in the god’s curse arriving too late to save anyone. The man had just enough time to turn and see the unforgiving consequences of his actions before the recoil snapped back with even greater intensity upon the one who had begun the destruction. The only one who deserved the curse was the last to fall, his body collapsing across that of his father.
Knees weak from the shock, Vilando sat in the warm sunlight which was still pouring over the garden as if nothing had happened, and tried to absorb the massacre in front of him. The Chosen lay still and silent in a pool of blood. At least he had died quickly. At least everyone had died quickly.
How could the gods redeem this situation?
The intense emotions of the last few moments lingered like a vapor over the scene. The dead had not yet realized their condition, but they would begin to condense into ghosts within the day without proper guidance and prayers.
A key grated in the gate. He heard a muffled grunt of surprise at realizing the lock had not been turned. Sen Giroda was supposed to lead the family prayers, Vilando remembered. He and his fellow priest would be busier than intended setting the ghosts to rest. They might have to send for help from the temples in nearby towns to handle so many sudden deaths.
What could they do about the infant, still wailing where it had fallen?
There was a gasp of shock behind him, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn and explain. After all, the scene was clear enough for anyone who understood the bond between the Chosen and the gods. A gentle hand settled on his shoulder.
“That fool. Who among the sane could predict such a fool?” Sen Giroda patted his shoulder again. “I will call in the soldiers to help us. There is no need to isolate this place any longer. Perhaps one of the witnesses waiting outside can care for the infant.”
A pause, then, “The gods really do take precisely twenty in their revenge, don’t they? Whether innocent or guilty, they do not care.”
Vilando shifted uneasily. “I don’t think they can control it,” he said at last. “What I saw,” he hesitated, “you know of my gift?”
“Let’s say you string a bow very tightly. Can you control who will be cut if that string snaps during use?”
She sighed. “A comforting thought, in a way. In this case I’d prefer the gods be seen as less all-controlling, given the number of innocents who died.” Giroda turned back to the doorway. “I will leave it to the philosophers to debate. For now, there is work to be done.”
Slowly climbing to his feet, Vilando moved to pick up the weeping infant, feeling as if he had suddenly added twenty years to his age. At least one had survived. A tiny blessing amid the madness.
How many times had this happened throughout history for the records to leave such a warning? How many times had the warnings been ignored? He must add his witness to the record and hope it would be enough to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. It didn’t feel like enough, but what else could he do?
He carried the infant toward the gate. Certainly there would be many willing arms waiting to embrace it. He wouldn’t be the only one feeling helpless and longing to take some clear action to redeem the tragedy of the day.
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