The crunching of dried leaves underfoot was rhythmic, slow, and relaxed. His target was unaware of being watched. This was going to be an easy kill; so easy it hardly seemed worth it, but the money was right.
The Wraith waited with rapidly diminishing patience and realized his mid-afternoon whiskey was wearing off. He checked his bag for another flask. No luck. Cursing his tolerance, the scruffy predator leaned against a thick branch and waited. His vantage point in the tree provided excellent camouflage and an easy view of his mark.
Slowly filling his lungs, he closed his eyes and listened. There was a lot to be learned by simply listening. He could tell if someone was careless or cunning, if someone had a limp or a hunched back, even the very mood they were in, if he only listened hard enough. The man, if he could still be classified as such, could hear everything. Not just the chirping of birds and the scurrying of marmots in the foliage. He could hear wolves stalking deer in the distance, fish splashing in the stream a mile away, even the whispered creaking of the trees. It was easy for him, no more strenuous than breathing. Ignoring it was the difficult part. If he hadn’t learned to drown out the damnable cacophony years ago, he might have gone mad. He could hear every creature in a five-mile radius, but not one of them could hear him. It was vital he stay calm while tracking and hunting; if his emotions flared they would sense him, as sure as they could sense a forest fire.
He groaned as he listened to the man’s steps: his prey was in no hurry and would not be in striking distance for some time. With little else to do, he took his knife and began flaying an apple, red from white. He hated waiting.
Idleness was his greatest enemy, static moments tempted bad memories, memories of death, cities in ruin, rivers of blood, lovers engulfed in flame. They were all visions of another life—of a man formerly known as McTrave. He had been a good man, a man operating by the codes of honor and valor, a king among men. That man would be disgusted by what he saw now: a two-bit assassin for hire known simply as the Wraith. It was a name given to him by those who had survived his brief company. He was a horrifying apparition moving through the world. McTrave had died long ago, shriveled and disappeared after seeing everything he cared for reduced to ashes.
After spending years hunting ghosts, the man had given up. The old McTrave thought he could find a way to bring her back, but he’d traveled from one end of Ithiria to the other and—nothing. Each devil he encountered was naught but a waste of time. Any mystic worth their salt knew better than to consort with him; they could sense what he was. They knew to be in his presence was to tempt death. Years had passed and McTrave was no closer to getting her back than he was to finding a way to rid himself of this cursed existence. He was no more than nightmares in a fearsome shell.
With nothing left to live for, McTrave had set to wandering, taking jobs where he could, simply to afford the drink, and doing the one thing at which he excelled: destroying life. He took no joy in his endeavors and was sure to be quick in closing deals. No need to cause the slaughtered more suffering than necessary.
His exploits had become legend. The terrible deeds were even used to frighten children away from the woods. Well, at least he’d achieved some good, he thought as he tossed his apple core, pulled a rolled cigar from his bag, and lit it with the spontaneous flick of a finger. What did he care if he was reduced to a story-book monster? Even the followers of The One True God were starting to adopt his misdeeds into their lore. How he hated the pious contradictions of this new religion. He’d spent years setting fire to their temples, but every time he destroyed one, two more sprung up in its place like some terrible hydra.
The Wraith took one long drag of his cigar, instantly reducing it to ash. Annoyed, he sent the burnt remnants fluttering to the ground, yet another cigar ruined by his infernal temper.
He leaned back, trying to get his mind in the game, and heard footsteps approach. To work, he thought as he cleaned the blade of his hunting knife. He waited as the target leisurely passed beneath his hiding place in the foliage. The man was actually whistling. So jolly, so carefree. For a moment, the Wraith almost hated to strike, but he was in the perfect position. It was keep it clean now or let it get messy later.
With a step, the Wraith plummeted to the forest floor and in an instant it was done. His prey continued a pace before realizing anything was wrong. Curiously, he wiped the blood from his throat and looked at his hand. He turned to the Wraith questioningly, then gurgled as he fell to the forest floor.
“There are worse deaths,” he told the dead man as though it might be some comfort to his corpse.
Just then, McTrave caught a draft on the wind. He smelled something familiar, something he had smelled on the man who hired him. Glaring down, the Wraith used a foot to roll the body onto its back. The man, his prey, was no more than a boy, his facial hair just starting to grow. He couldn’t be older than sixteen. What could a boy of his age have done to deserve death?
Then, he realized what he was seeing: the hair, the eyes. They were identical to his client’s. It wasn’t until then that he understood what he had been paid to do. He was accustomed to dealing with murderers, cheating husbands, thieving employees, revenge, an eye for an eye, the whole bit—but not this. Why hadn’t he noticed before? He steadied himself on the trunk of a tree. What did he care that he had been paid to kill the man’s own son? Why should that bother him?
It was the boy. He had been so happy, so unsuspecting, no idea his own blood wanted him dead. The Wraith didn’t kill children, despite popular belief. True, he was a monster, but even he had his limitations.
“His father would only have hired someone else,” came a creaky voice from behind him.
He didn’t need to turn to know who, or rather what, was there. “I should have asked. I know better than to go into a job blind,” he replied, staring bitterly at the dead boy.
Had he grown so tired of it all that he could let something like this slip?
“You’re burning it,” the voice called.
The Wraith looked up to the smoldering hand print he’d made in the tree.
“Malachi, we need to speak,” the voice, little more than the crackling of burning leaves and smoldering wood, groaned.
“Do not call me that. I am not Malachi.”
The Wraith pulled his hand from the burning bark, cleaned the boy’s blood from his knife, and turned to the thing behind him. The little creature was more rock than man: a three-foot hunk of smoldering volcanic magma with stubby appendages and the vague suggestion of facial features.
“We have nothing to discuss. Now go away.” His growl was both demanding and pleading.
“No, Malachi,” it replied. "This time you must hear me. Things are happening, things you will be part of.”
“Why? Why can’t you find someone else?” The creature of fire had followed him since he could remember, but it had always left when commanded, without question. Why the hell wouldn’t it leave now?
“There is no one else,” the little creature replied. "This is not the existence you wish. Why pursue what you hate?”
“This is all that is left of me,” the Wraith muttered.
The creature looked saddened but did not back down. “I will help you, I know what plagues you. I see it. I feel it.”
“You do not know my pain!” the Wraith hissed, the leaves beneath his feet smoldering.
“Not as you do, no. I see you are tormented. I know you do not want others to suffer.”
The Wraith did not argue.
"Follow me,” the creature said. “I will hide the memories, but that is the limit of my ability.”
The Wraith looked at him fully for the first time. “You can make them go away?”
The little creature hesitated. “It is dangerous. I cannot block one memory alone. I can take all, or nothing. Eventually the effect will wane. When it does, there is no telling what will happen, but it will be painful.”
“I do not care,” he replied darkly. "Anything is better than this torment.”
The little creature sighed heavily. “As you wish.”
“What do you need me to do?” His eyes blazed. “You must guard an item vital to the existence of this world. I will show you.”
The creature started into the woods, moving faster than its stature should allow.
The Wraith followed. He did not want his memories, any of them. He did not care for this life and would do anything to be rid of his past. It seemed amazing that the little creature of fire had been the key to his salvation all along. He knew the creature would not have agreed had it not been desperate for his help, but the Wraith did not care, no matter the danger. If McTrave could not find her, could not die to join her, then the Wraith must forget her. If that meant forgetting everything, so be it.
The smoldering pebble was now but a small pile of liquid magma. As it sank into the table it left a reddish mar upon the wood, one that did not entirely disappear. Angus touched the spot but quickly pulled his hand away. Much too hot to touch.
“Is that normal?” Patrick asked.
“Normal? No,” Angus replied. "Should I have expected it? Yes. This tree is old, connected to the very core of Ithiria. That rock was a fragment of the fire and chaos elements. I should have expected it would leave a mark.”
“Will it go away?”
“I don’t know, but let me worry about that later. We have one last tale to tell and then we can start our preparations for the ball. Banon, your last story if you will."
“Sure,” he replied as he pulled a black barnacle from his pocket. He placed it upon the table to begin his story when the barnacle all but caught fire with a burst of dark energy.
The brothers’ spines straightened—shoulders and backs taut and rigid, their eyes filled with black and snapped towards the heart of the tree. Suddenly, the blackness in their eyes sparked a bright green. A swirling vortex emanated from the tree, circling the room before encompassing the brothers entirely.