The Vanishing Mediator

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just over the next hill

An Easily-Distracted Tale by Chris/0

As an adventure-seeker, I’m really only good at one thing: seeking adventure.

It seems obvious to say it, but the concept is not as easy for many to grasp. Adventure-seekers never plan for retirement. There are only two ways an adventure can end, and for one of them you’re no longer concerned with what to do afterward. Though, maybe that’s the greatest adventure of all.

But who could ever fathom that the world would run out of adventures? I’m ashamed to say that it’s partially my fault. Not that it could have gone any other way; my friends and I would never have succumbed to darker forces as long as souls still burned in our mortal bodies. The concept of good vanquishing evil is a simple one—possibly the simplest of all concepts—and we knew that the greater the evil vanquished, the more good we would do. And… be.

So, with weapons in hand and pure, upbeat spirits, we set out on the most important adventure of our lives. On the side of good: us, as much as we were. On the side of evil: a powerful necromancer, commanding an army of the reanimated dead. Along the way, we gained strength and lost fear. We gained maturity and lost cynicism. We gained two and lost one.

A knock.

Shaking the cobwebs from my mind, I limped across the sitting room and opened the front door to my cottage. Standing on my doorstep, silhouetted against the setting sun, were exactly the people whom I would have expected, if I were expecting anyone.

“Loridan! You roguish lug! How’re you holding up?”

I was wrapped in a near-suffocating hug by arms that were more muscle than anything else, the products of years of intensive swordsmanship. Cator, my oldest friend, had been the point man and physical offensive power on our quest.

Standing next to him was the substitute. Melina. She only waved. I wasn’t sure I had the inner strength to hug her anyway.

Releasing me—or setting me down—Cator asked, “Well, aren’t you going to invite us in?”

“I surely will, as soon as I catch my breath,” I said, not untruthfully.

He laughed in that booming, bass voice that I actually had missed hearing for some time. Melina giggled, and I found a smile creeping across my face, as well.

I cleared my throat theatrically and spoke again. “Won’t you both please come inside? I’ll put a kettle on. I don’t have a lot of food, but I do have some very good tea.”

They graciously accepted and settled in the sitting room, sharing a long seat. They looked almost comical sitting next to each other. Cator, the burly man in earth tones, and Melina, the slight woman in gold and white. After fetching a kettle from the kitchen and hanging it above the sitting room fire, I settled, as well.

Sensing that they had serious questions to ask me, I jumped in with idle chatter. “So, how is life at the castle treating the both of you? I imagine it’s hardly any different for you, though, Melina.”

“One would be surprised,” Melina said. “Since I came back, Father has been far less doting—and not in a distant way, I mean. He seems to understand that I’m a capable person now, which is… Well, to be totally honest, it’s a wonderful change from the old, usual pace.”

“I remember it took quite some finagling to get him to give you up the first time,” I said, nodding.

If I didn’t know her as well as I did, I’d have missed the subtle rolling of her eyes. “Quite right, quite right. Especially since I’d already been kidnapped once. Father was a trifle paranoid that the… three of you were impostors of some variety.”

“But that’s the duty of a father,” Cator added. “And the duty of a king, so you got it twice as much. In the end, though, we couldn’t have done it without you.”

“I… suppose any healing mage would have sufficed,” Melina said carefully. I could tell that she was pretending not to inspect my face for my reaction.

I smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. “No, I know what he means. It would certainly be doing you a disservice merely to credit your role, rather than the person filling that role.”

Cator seemed only now to realize what he had said, and how it could have been interpreted. He looked down and to one side.

“And the castle must be bustling with wedding preparations,” I said, guiding us back on topic.

A broad grin split Cator’s equally broad face, and he scratched at an ear. “Well, you know… Things are always bustling there…”

“And you have very little to bustle,” Melina interrupted. “Honestly, if I didn’t need you there on the day of, I’d just send you on a vacation so that you’d stay out of the way.”

“I imagine his role is somewhat vital,” I joked.

Cator waved a hand dismissively. “She just needs me there for two words.”

“Finally, you understand!” Melina grabbed one of his shoulders and tried her best to shake him. After a moment, he realized what she was doing and flung himself about accordingly.

We all laughed.

“Oh!” Cator said. “I just remembered; Nequillin will be attending.”

“You got a message all the way out to him?” I was somewhat shocked. Nequillin had been the offensive mage of our party; we’d met him in a swamp far, far away. He’d returned there after the necromancer proved less immortal than advertised. He seemed just to value his ascetic lifestyle that much. All gifts had been refused equally as emphatically as farewells were accepted.

Melina nodded excitedly. “Not only did our message reach him, but he sent one back. Ooh, and in a fascinating way! I was getting dressed a few mornings ago, and I saw that the bedroom fire had gone out. So I say to Cator, um… I say…”

“She says,” Cator took over, “that the fire has gone out. And then she asks if I did it accidentally while practicing my palm strikes. I tell her no, and—”

“Palm strikes?” I interrupted.

“Do you remember that old man we met on the coast of the Eastern Sea?” Cator asked.

“How could I forget him?” I chuckled. “His beard was as long as you are tall.”

“Some of the papers he gave us had diagrams for a kind of unarmed combat. But I can’t read the language—it’s all pictures or something. So I have to make up my own names for most of the forms. Anyway, one of the diagrams is for a kind of punch, but you… you, uh…” He held up a hand. Palm out, with fingers curled at the second and third knuckles. “You do it like this. And if you concentrate hard enough, you can hit something from over a body length away. Without even touching it.

“A lot of it is based around feeling the flow of energy in the body, which I remember the man called qi. It’s the same word that they use for ‘air’ or ‘breath.’ The concept is deeply tied to medicine and physical health. In fact, some of the diagrams depict the pathways through which it flows, and how there are points you can strike to disrupt this flow in order to fight more effectively. Strangely, if you put needles in those same points, it’s supposed to relieve certain aches and pains. But I haven’t tried it yet.”

“Hm. That does sound fascinating,” I said.

“Anyway, though,” he continued. “I tell her no, I didn’t put it out. So she goes to relight it—”

Melina took back over, still excited. “—and it won’t light! Every time I brought a match near the tinder, it was as though I was dousing it in water. When I cleared the logs out to start over, an envelope fell out, and it was from Nequellin!”

“He transported the message through fire?” I scratched my head. “This magic stuff always was beyond me.”

Cator laughed. “You and me both.”

“I simply must ask him how he did it,” Melina said, rubbing her hands together. “And I’m sure I’ll get a chance to. He says in his letter that he looks forward to seeing us.”

I whistled, impressed. “Huh. Even Nequillin can get lonely. Or… miss us, or something.”

“Well, it has been two years,” Cator said.

“Two years, really?” I asked. “Where does the time go?”

Melina and Cator smiled.

“No, I mean it,” I continued slowly. “Where does the time go? We should go there. It might be just over the next hill. It would be an adventure. We would go to the place where all the time goes and… and get all of it back. All the lost time. The things that didn’t happen that should have, we could make them happen. And all the things that shouldn’t have happened… we could make them… not happen…”

Melina and Cator’s smiles faded, and they shared a meaningful glance.

“Loridan,” Cator began carefully, “how are you holding up?”

“I’m sure I’m fine.”

“We’ve invited you over to stay at the castle a few times, but you’ve never come.” Melina looked gloomily dour. “Or responded.”

“The invitations must have gotten lost.”

“All of our other letters seemed to make it.” Cator gestured at my legs with a large hand. “And you look as though you’re wasting away.”

“What do I need to stay in top shape for? There are no more adventures.”

“Loridan? Loridan, look at me,” Melina said.

I slowly raised my eyes to meet hers.

She set her jaw and took a deep breath, in and out. “Loridan, when is the last time you left your house?”

My gaze faltered. I looked around the room for something else—anything else—to focus on.

“Loridan,” she repeated. “When is the last time you left your house?”

“I… I don’t know,” I admitted. “I can’t… Has it been two years?”

Quietly, she asked, “Have you even gone to see Serka?”

“There’s nothing to see!” I shouted.

The force of my reaction surprised all three of us. To hide my embarrassment, I got up and moved the kettle, which had boiled down quite low while we were distracted.

“You still have that limp,” Cator said. “If the pain is bothering you, Melina can use—”

“No,” I responded firmly. “I’m sorry, Melina, but part of me still sees you as a substitute. As an ersatz healing mage; only there because of the mistakes I made. I respect everything you did, but there’s only one person who can fix me, and she wouldn’t have to use magic to do it.”

Cator shifted uncomfortably. “Loridan, Serka is—”

“I know that Serka is dead,” I said through gritted teeth. “I haven’t sunk into delusion. And I can’t go see her. There is nothing to see. It is just a rock with her name on it. Not even a body; I get less comfort than other mourners because I know why there’s no body there. I saw her dissolve away…” My voice quavered, and I sniffled. “I made her two promises: that I would never pick another pocket again, and that I would protect her. But with the second broken, I don’t know how I can keep the first.”

I stared at my hands as I continued speaking. “My fingers… They were so light. And then they grew callouses from holding daggers and walking staffs for so long. But now the callouses have worn away, and my fingers itch. They tingle with remembered sensation, and they keep on wanting to move quicker and quicker. I feel lost. I feel purposeless.

“Of all the adventures I’ve sought, only two had a lasting impact on me. All of us, together, was one. And she, alone, was the other. With those both gone, I feel as though the world has run out of adventures for me.”

I wiped my eyes with a shirtsleeve and collapsed back into my chair. I couldn’t bear to look at Melina and Cator, but I could feel their gazes.

Melina suddenly spoke. “Let’s all go together.”

I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly.

She must have read my face because she repeated, “Let’s all go… together. Right now. To see Serka. You say that there’s nothing there; I think you’ll find out differently.”

“But… it’s after sunset,” I said.

Spreading his arms wide, Cator said, “It’s nearly a full moon. And don’t you have torches?”

“I’m not sure,” I lied.

Cator sprang to his feet and went straight into the kitchen. Damn my consistency; he knew exactly where to find them.

Melinda stood up, as well. “Loridan, the castle is a full daylight’s journey from here. We didn’t come all this way just to reminisce. Reminiscing is a crucial part of it, yes, but not just for that. You’re going to come with us, even if I have to carry you.” She thought for a moment, then pointed at Cator, who had just re-entered with three torches. “Even if he has to carry you, I mean.”

Cator began lighting the torches on the sitting room fire, taking care not to set any of my furniture ablaze. He handed two to Melina, who took them outside. One thing you can say about adventuring: it teaches you how to handle torches like a pro.

As he knelt down to light the third, Cator gave the door a meaningful look, then turned to me. “You weren’t kidding,” he said. “About the food. You barely have any. What in the world were you going to do when it ran out?”

I stared straight down at the stones of my floor. “Nothing,” I whispered.

The torch caught the fire. With his free hand, Cator helped me to my feet. He started to say something, but stopped and walked to the door instead.

He paused at the threshold and turned around.

“They’re not both gone,” he said.

Then he went outside.

I stood alone in my sitting room. As I had done for thousands of hours before.

I could simply have closed the door. But I’m sure Cator would have broken it down, and Melina would have been distraught at the unnecessary violence. I could have made Cator carry me. But what would be the point? If there was something of Serka where I thought there was none, was that what I wanted to show her? Me, struggling not to see her. Not to go to her.

But all I really wanted was the opposite. What had been holding me back for so long?

I looked down. While lost in thought, I had walked across the room to the threshold.

I looked up. Melina was holding out a torch for me to take, and Cator was getting his bearings from the stars.

I took a deep breath and stepped outside.