Welcome to the end of the world, a familiar voice echoed through the depths of his memory. Though, he could never remember her saying quite those words. A flash of red filled his vision, the color morphing and undulating from livid tones to crimson and, finally, to black. The voice spoke again in a hushed whisper. In the end, will you be there? Fall together, or be cursed to live long... And alone.
He sat bolt upright in the near pitch-black hovel, the only light the dying embers in the hearth. He wiped the nightmare-induced sweat from his brow and looked around frantically, then sighed and lay down amidst the pile of furs. It was only a dream. Always a dream, he thought. And never more than a dream... Ever since the Plague came and took them all away.
After a fitful night, he rose early and lumbered outside to feed the chickens. He usually talked to them as he spread their grain, but today he was silent, his mind preoccupied with the restless dreams of the night before. Had it been three years? Three years since the end of the Plague. Since he escaped to freedom. Since her death. With a shiver, he pulled his tattered cloak snug around his shoulders, grabbed an armload of firewood, and headed back inside the hut to feed the fire and make his breakfast.
Upon ingesting his burnt eggs without fervor, he mustered the will to walk into the nearby city of Kipos. He didn’t know if the dream held meaning or not, but the only other human he still tolerated would. He did not relish the prospect; the swarming crowds were an ominous reminder of the bloodthirsty horde in the Coliseum stands. The subtle rattling of chains and an earthy, herbaceous scent followed him; one, a reminder of his enslavement, and the other of a home he couldn’t remember.
People skittered out of his way when they saw him. Between the tattered pelt cloak he always wore, his large stature, and terrible posture, he resembled a bipedal bear more than a man. He was forgotten once he was out of sight, the only ‘blessing’ granted him from the days of the Plague. Anyone else would consider it a curse.
As he made his way to the occult shop, the voice from his dream whispered still. Would you follow them to Hell? it asked, more sorrowful than mocking. Back then, he would have answered yes without hesitation. Now, he could only wish he had the option. As he rounded the corner and headed up the cobblestone alley where the shop was located, he grimaced, for she would be there. He was not looking forward to the encounter. She was a bad reminder of a previous life who didn’t even know why. It was unfortunate. Of course, his friend was protecting her from the truth, which he had warned would cause only mistrust and heartbreak.
The Magus hummed cheerfully as he shuffled his tarot cards. Incense smoke curled around him, much like the serpent draped around his shoulders. His silvery hair and amethyst eyes looked obnoxiously mystical. At the same time, he chattered about card spreads and how to implement them to the bemused-looking woman sitting across the small table from him.
She merely yawned and asked, “Nari, this is great and all, brings clients in, but when can I move on to runes?”
He stopped shuffling, looking a bit pained. “I’ve told you, I can’t teach you runes, and I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for you to learn them. Anyway, pay attention. I’m leaving town tonight, and you must be familiar enough with even the more obscure spreads that you can read the cards for clients as if I were here.”
She nodded, continuing to look bored, but jolted upright as a knock landed on their door with enough force to rattle the dust off the rafters. With a huff, she stood and stalked to the door, answering it.
The big man filled the doorframe when she opened it, troubled green eyes looking everywhere but at her. She took a step back from the ominous, towering individual, not recognizing him, as always.
“Can I help you?” she asked, fidgeting with the distinct discomfort of her primary egress being blocked.
He winced as that damn dream voice drifted up to him from her lips. “... I need to talk to Magus Nari,” he rumbled. His voice was a little louder than he meant, an edge of agitation reverberating with his deep tone. He then added, “and I’d appreciate it if you would go away.”
Hearing the terse conversation, Nari got up from the table and hurried through the shop to the front door.“Ayu, my old friend! It’s been too long. What brings you to Kipos today?”
He then turned to the woman, whose expression had changed from uncomfortable to perplexed, and offered her a disarming smile. “Smirna,” upon hearing the name, Ayu winced. Nari continued, “would you please go to the market and pick up some of the spiced bread and Turkish coffee we like? I’d greatly appreciate it.”
Before she had a chance to ask how he knew the odd and ominous individual, Nari had ushered her out the back door and onto the street... And she had forgotten she ever saw Ayu the Hermit.
The two men resembled chess gambits from opposite sides of the board; Nari, a white Bishop, aswirl in flowing garb; Ayu, imposing and dark as a black Rook. Once the woman was out of the shop, the men regarded one another, dropping all pretense.
Ayu looked annoyed. “... Why do you keep that Revenant around, anyway?” he growled. “What purpose can it possibly serve but remind us of what’s been lost?”
A pained look crossed Nari’s face. “I feel responsible for her death, and you know that’s but one reason that I brought her back. She wouldn’t have even been in this city if it weren’t for me.”
His expression then brightened. “Besides, there’s more of her in there than you think. You really should get reacquainted with her sometime.”
Ayu’s face further darkened into a scowl. “That would also serve no purpose because she’ll never remember me, anyway.”
Nari laughed. “You could change that if you wanted to, and you know it. But I know you’re not here to complain about a Revenant who isn’t hurting anybody.”
Ayu rubbed his face, looking exhausted. “... Actually, I am, in a way... ”
The Magus sighed. “The dreams have started again, haven’t they.”
Ayu nodded and shuffled to a chair, seeming to melt atop the comically small piece of furniture as he sat. The Magus watched him, a look of concern on his face. When he next spoke, his voice sounded strained.
“I don’t know what to do about them at this point, Ayu. We’ve tried everything I can think of. I am setting out for a place that may have a new herb or potion ingredient, but if you would just talk to her... ”
Ayu thundered, “That’s out of the question! I am not speaking to that Revenant any more than I have to.”
Nari furrowed his brows. “... I’m saying that you may not have a choice. It may be the only way to get the dreams to stop.”
The statement was not the one the Hermit wanted to hear; he stood, tipping the chair into the wall when he did. “If that’s my only option, I just won’t sleep. I am not talking to her.”
He swept out of the shop with more enraged grace than should be afforded to a giant, chains rattling as he vanished down the alleyway. Nari sighed and righted the chair, shaking his head.
Once he was down the street from the shop, Ayu realized he was hungry. With a grumble, he shuffled toward the bazaar down side streets, hoping to avoid the Revenant with each turn.
That endeavor ultimately proved fruitless as he bumped into her a few streets over. There was a commotion with a runaway cabbage cart, and suddenly, there she was. The cart’s brakes disengaged, and it hurtled down the hill through the crowd that gathered every morning in the open-air bazaar. Smirna heard the commotion, saw the cart rolling toward her, cabbages flying everywhere, and jumped out of its path... face-first into Ayu’s chest. As she was wearing a cloak with the hood up, he didn’t recognize her at first.
He took a step back, hands hovering over her shoulders, and asked, more quietly than he meant to, “A-are you okay?”
She rubbed her face and craned her neck to look up at him, her hood falling back. He immediately regretted locking eyes with her as she smiled apologetically.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” That damn voice again. “I didn’t mean to run into you. Are you okay?”
He allowed his gaze to linger on her familiar features for a moment as she tucked a lock of verdant hair behind her ear, revealing a pair of inquisitive, almost catlike, hazel eyes. Don’t do it, he told himself. Don’t you dare allow yourself to get pulled in... But it was too late.
“Um, sir?” The voice shook him from his reverie. “Big fella? You okay?”
He glowered ominously down at her, speaking in what sounded like some mystical riddle, but was just gibberish, then turned and fled. She attempted to follow him, losing his trail in the crowd... and immediately forgot what she was chasing. She turned back to the bazaar, shaking her head. Some days, I feel like I’m losing my mind, she thought in vexation.
This day could not possibly get any worse. Tempestuous thoughts churned through his mind as he made his way back to his home in Tenebris Forest. He was angry; angry at fate for taking her away, angry at Nari for trying to bring her back, and angry at the Revenant for being as she was. Nari is wrong, Ayu brooded. There is no way that soulless Revenant can be anything like the woman I loved.
Yet... She certainly had her eyes, her smile, and that voice... You’re imagining things, he chided himself. Her stupid brother Nari brought her back because he missed his sister. Brought her back...
To these three words, he angrily shook his head. No. He didn’t bring her back; she’s dead, and there is no coming back from that. He created a vessel with alchemy and implanted engrams and traits that would make the animated puppet behave like her, but that soulless thing is not her. Smirna’s gone.
He unconsciously pressed his palm to his chest where she’d run into him, remembering the feeling of her warmth. He inhaled as though he were searching for the scent of rosemary and incense that clung to her skin, then and now. He had stopped walking and was standing in the middle of the worn dirt trail leading from town into the woods, so lost in conflicted thought, was he. You really should get reacquainted with her sometime. There’s more of her in there than you think... Ayu made an involuntary sound of anguish as he bolted down the path toward the woods.
As the trail all but vanished before him, the anguished cry that Ayu made came echoing back at him from the nebulous depths of the forest. He rushed toward the sound, mind purged of thoughts of the Revenant for the moment, focused on a more immediate problem: the Dryad of the Forest was in danger.