“My name is Jason, of the Yi. I was out to collect some firewood for my cottage before-,” the elder huffed in a series of weak coughs.
“It’s alright now. Rest old man,” the robed man calmed, lifting the elder’s form to a more suitable position on the tree.
As Tristan assisted the robed man’s efforts to heal the elder, Arnold rested his tired legs, his chest still panting from what haste he’d made from the search. Reclining beside him, the large boar’s course hairs prickled Arnold’s arm and agitated his wounds. The youth draped his cloak more tightly against himself.
“This old man has been blessed by the presence of you travelers. Tell me, where are you from?” the man rasped.
“I am not of this pair who found you. When these two saw you collapsed, the youth came running to find me. That is why I’m here,” the robed man replied.
“Right. That over there is Arnold of the Chang, and I am Tristan of Edles. The two of us have been upon the great road in search for the meaning of life. That is what led us to you,” the craftsman added.
Through his straw hat, the mysterious man seemed to eye Tristan carefully as if believing his declaration to be, in part, a folly. However upon examination, the hooded man noted the purely genuine expression transfixed upon the craftsman’s face and therefore continued his examination of the old man in silence.
“The meaning of life?” the old man chuckled lightly, “I too went in search of something similar once. Through many trials and tribulations I endured. Though, as fate would have it, I never found it… And so long I did search… That was long ago however.”
The old man went into another flurry of coughing, his emaciated frame expelling the poisons of his age. Globules of red splatter trickled down the man’s pale chin, leaving a streak in its wake before creating a similar stain on trousers.
“Old man!” Tristan cried out, Arnold leaning closer as well.
“Craftsman, water,” the robed man requested calmly, diverting his eyes momentarily to give the order. As Tristan scrambled off for his gourd, the robed man took his chimed staff in one hand and held it before the elder.
“You are good people… you came to the aid of an old man with nothing to give… I-I thank you for that,” the elder rasped. Returning with a bowl of water, Tristan knelt before the old man and held it out to his lips.
“Drink old man,” the craftsman guided before the robed man took the bowl for himself.
“The water isn’t for him,” he exclaimed, downing the bowl in one motion. “But rest easy old man. Your wounds are not severe, you will survive,” the robed man exclaimed, taking up his chimed staff and, with his thumb and middle finger, forcibly flicked upon the golden bell. A high pitched ring resonated from the staff.
Arnold, his neck craned in the direction of the three men, felt a surge of intense warmth emanating in waves from the source of the ringing. The area around the men seemed to radiate a distinct golden hue as Arnold unwrapped his arms to see that the scratches had disappeared.
“This… this is healing magic! Amazing,” the craftsman gasped in awe.
Arnold looked about the floor around him as new grass blades penetrated the surface of the ground and curled inward at their length. The boar, with a single knowing eye, observed briefly before returning to its slumber.
Narrowing his eyes in concentration, the robed man continued a low chant that carried with the chiming of the bell. Tristan traded concerned glances between the robed man and the elder who, despite the magic, seemed to fall further into weariness. Slowly, the robed man’s strained concentration sobered, a somber façade replacing it. The mysterious man shook his head slightly before allowing the chiming of the bell to dissipate altogether. As the golden glow receded back into the source of the bell, the old man cupped his hand over his mouth, coughing violently and leaving crimson speckles strewn across his palm.
“Old man!” Tristan exclaimed. Arnold stood at this, shuffling over to peer over the robed man’s shoulder.
“There is nothing more I can do here,” the robed man exclaimed, standing and motioning to the boar. The large mammal rose, trailing dirt and torn grass blades as it trotted over to its rider. Stroking its fur slowly, the robed man, with both Arnold and Tristan gaping in disbelief, began to leave down the trail he had come.
“What are you doing? The old man will die here!” Tristan cried after him. The robed man dipped his straw hat but did not turn to face them.
“There is nothing that can be done. It is too late to save him,” the mysterious man replied. “I must leave now.”
The youth, having watched the display, stood hastily, stabilizing himself through the sudden rush of blood to his head.
“Did you not say that the man would survive? How can you leave now when his wounds can be healed?” the youth chided. The stranger halted his step.
“The old man’s wounds are healed. But even my magic cannot save one from old age,” the stranger replied. The colorful beads of the boar’s harness clicked upon themselves through a steady breeze that disturbed the forest trees. The elder’s steady coughs accompanied the ensuing silence.
“So that’s how it is hm?” the old man rasped, breaking the silence.
“Old man…” Tristen started.
“It’s okay young travelers. Like any long adventure everything must come to an end at some point. Beyond my many treks I’ve learned as much. It has been a good life. I have been blessed to have spent some of it with all of you,” the elder smiled. The stranger turned his neck at this.
“But then your search, how about your search old man?” the craftsman asked, placing a hand upon the old man’s shoulder.
“A foolish journey that was. The more I searched the more I realized what I was lacking in my life-,“ the elder spewed out another streak of blood onto the grass beside him, layering the matted grass from where the stranger once knelt.
“What is it then? Perhaps we can find it for you. Tell us what you searched for so long ago,” the youth offered, his heart clenched with a fiery and unspoken fervor. The old man’s recessed lips curled into a genuine smile with which any answer Arnold hoped to receive was buried.
“It’s alright travelers,” the old man started, reaching a thin, veiny hand to each of them. “I am all but prepared to die. I have led a good life and regret nothing of my toils. For now… for now I think I have finally found what I was looking for… Peace…”
What little warmth and color the old man retained quickly flushed from his face as his withered eyes drifted blankly, glazing slightly as they gazed into the void. Tristan shook the man gently, alarmed, causing the elder to slump further down the tree trunk.
Arnold’s downcast eyes met with the stranger’s form, now replaced atop the matted grass and kneeling, providing a silent prayer with clasped hands to the elder. With his last action being the ringing of his chimed staff, the old man rasped his last and fell limp to the golden hue of the bell’s healing light.
As the light receded once again into its source, the boar rustled its harness sending another reverberating ring of sound through the forest wood. Tristan sighed, somewhat disappointed and allowed a searching glance over to the robed man who now simply gazed upon the lifeless form of the old Yi with his hands propped loosely upon his knees.
“You’re a priest aren’t you?” the craftsman asked out of the silence.
“So you know?” he replied.
“And not just any, you’re one from the Vu. Famous for their art of purification and exorcism. Their symbol being the boar,” Tristan elaborated. The youth shifted his eyes confusedly between the two men whose forms remained largely unchanged.
“You are correct. I am Brandon of the Vu as you’ve said. With my heritage I have inherited the family art of purification,” the priest replied.
“It is indeed strange to see one of such noble birth traversing these roads. What brings you out this far?” the craftsman inquired.
A moment passed in which the two kneeling men exchanged a stern and calculating stare. Each of them assessing the other silently and contemplating their next statement. Arnold, feeling the tangible tension surrounding the two, could very easily have constructed a platform on which the complex thought processes of both were mapped.
“A priest cannot stay forever in his home. When the time calls for it, a Vu must embark on pilgrimages to rejuvenate his mind,” the priest replied.
“I see,” Tristan acknowledged, falling into silence.
“The old man, he looked his life for peace and found it here. Ironic isn’t it?” the youth said.
“Indeed. Like you two he went on a long journey to find something he desired so dearly. However he found it within the most unlikely of times,” the priest replied. His dark pupils shifted now to Arnold, eyeing the youth through a space in the straw hat. “Don’t you believe that his story is similar to your own?”
“What do you mean?” the youth asked.
“You have searched a long ways for this meaning of life but have yet to find anything. Who’s to say you won’t find it by the end of your life? Who’s to say you’ll find it at all?” the Vu inquired.
“There’s no stake in doing nothing,” the craftsman said, standing now to accompany the youth.
“In my view, or the view of my family, it has been the long held belief that life is designed to justify the conditions of your soul after life,” the priest said, rising as well. Though Arnold did not notice before, he could see that the robed man towered above him and even the craftsman in height. Atop the massive boar, the priest seemed dwarfed in comparison. Though as he stood before them now, his size plunged them into his questioning shadow. Arnold considered the priest’s words for a moment.
“But then do you know anyone who has truly passed on but returned from the afterlife?” the youth asked. Brandon tilted his head curiously, shifting his scraggly hair to one side.
“Of course not. That is not possible,” the priest replied.
“Then how do you know that something awaits you after life? And who is to say that you are performing in the ways necessary for your attainment of such a desired afterlife?” the youth questioned.
“It has been a long held belief of my clan for many generations. We exorcise demons and know what will become of spirits who become tainted with evil and malice,” the priest answered.
“And this alone gives you, with great certainty, that what you do now will lead to salvation?” Arnold asked. The priest shifted his footing and looked off into the distance, a stray breeze catching and lifting his straw hat off of his head.
“Perhaps not… Help me. We must bury the man,” the priest requested.