Written for a short story writing workshop a few years ago, I’ve always liked this story and have considered expanding on it. It’s in the same world as The Broken Jar, and yet a very different type of story. Hope you enjoy.
After the Dying
Few mourned the last days of the Magi. The priests called it the Reclamation, a time when the old gods asserted superiority over the new. Scholars deemed it the end of an era, the inevitable dwindling of the Magi at the dawn of the epoch of man. Those who lived within Telahn simply called it the Days of Dying.
Oren cared little for such titles, continuing on as he ever had, serving the last of the Magi within the palace. He padded through the palace on slippered feet toward LChail, a polished silver tray held carefully in one hand. Were he even a moment past the midday bell, he would not hear the end of it. With so few remaining in the kitchen, Oren had more to prepare himself. Once such a delay would have been impossible, so many were the servants within the palace. Now, in spite of all that he did, they were commonplace.
Alabaster marble stretched from floor to ceiling along the wide hall, coming to a peak so high above him that he could only imagine it in the shadows. Lanterns set into the ornately carved pillars every dozen feet flickered from the stale air blowing softly through the hall, Aria and Fiama making their presence known, and Oren hurriedly offered the appropriate invocation at each passing, hoping the gods were not offended by his offering.
The bell tolled as he reached the entrance to the chambers. Even weakened, he knew LChail heard the high crystalline note and would be sitting and waiting for his meal. At least the bells were automated. Unlike so many other places within the palace he did not have to fear that the bellmaster would one day disappear.
Oren pulled himself upright and brushed a hand across his pale white robe, feeling the tightly worked embroidery along the collar while smoothing away any wrinkles that may have formed as he rushed. He hesitated before rapping twice on the heavily gilded door. Even after all his years serving within the palace, he still felt awed by the inlays, carefully depicting the gods and the creation of the Magi.
A fit of coughing summoned him to the room.
Oren pressed through the heavy door, closing it carefully behind him, trapping the slow rot of sickness in the room, before turning toward the high backed chair in the corner where LChail preferred to take his meals. It was empty. A half-eaten cluster of grapes sat upon the table next to the chair, the only thing LChail required for his morning meal. The breads and berries sat untouched.
LChail? he asked, pitching his voice low and careful. Even now, LChails senses remained exquisite and he often claimed that Orens voice offended him.
A cough answered him.
Oren turned and saw LChail curled atop the wide bed, curtains draped over the canopy thrown open and disheveled. Only the bed sheets were unmolested. A stack of thick paper lay beside him. LChail, he said, bowing slightly and breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell of his illness. I apologize for the lateness of your meal. He remained bent at the waist as he awaited the inevitable berating.
When it did not come, Oren straightened and cleared his throat. Would you prefer you meal in the bed, LChail?
LChail turned so that his pale face was visible. Bluish veins lined his once perfect face and dried blood spattered lips that turned in a sour smile. Hair lay unkempt as it splayed around him. You mock me with that title, he said, pushing up on quavering arms. He still wore his nightclothes, the crimson silk shirt only half buttoned and falling away from his chest, revealing skin pulled tight across his prominent ribs.
I mean no offense, LChail. He bowed again, holding the tray carefully. If the LChail said he mocked, then he mocked.
LChail closed his eyes, his head rolling slowly as he chuckled richly from deep within his throat. It is ironic that I once dreamed of the title. Had I deserved it I would already be dead. His eyes flickered open and held Oren in a gaze that once made men tremble. Now LChail simply struggled to keep his eyes open. Do you see the irony? The gods surely do, letting me live just long enough He coughed, unable to finish.
Oren stood silently until the fit passed. After, LChail lay back atop the bed, his breathing shallow and ragged, and a sheen of sweat lining his brow. You must eat, LChail.
LChail grunted but did not look over. Food brings me no pleasure, he said.
You must eat to get well, Oren insisted.
His head rolled weakly and he opened his eyes again. A milky film flickered across and he blinked it away. There is no getting well, he said, coughing as if in emphasis. Have you seen any among us recover? The strongest fell first, leaving the weakest to linger, knowing there was nothing we could do but watch our people fade into memory.
But the gods Oren started, cutting himself short. Who was he to argue with LChail? Especially when he was right. There was no explaining the illness, nothing to say why only the Magi fell to it, why some died quickly and others simply lingered.
If the gods cared I would have been healed long ago. Or not gotten sick in the first place. He turned away and sighed. Perhaps your gods could have saved me. At least they have kept you from getting this sickness.
Oren ignored the blasphemy. Only the priests and philosophers dared explain why only the Magi fell to the sickness. I serve you, LChail, and worship the Five. Please, sit and eat.
LChail shook his head in a slow lolling motion.
I am ready to depart this world, he said. I no longer consider this living. Document that for me, he said, weakly pushing the paper off the bed.
Oren ignored the words and carried the tray over to the bed, pausing to pick up the thick paper. Dark stains smeared across several of the pages, as if LChail had attempted writing but failed. He took the pages and set them on the bedside table and covered the LChail with a thin blanket. Such action was more forward than he should be, but he decided that the LChail was sick and needed such attendance. Only a handful of Magi remained and none had been strong enough to perform a healing when well. None among the city knew anything of healing. Even if they did, few cared that the last of the Magi were fading. That left Oren.
After setting the tray upon the bed, careful not to disturb LChail, he moistened a cloth in the cup of water and sponged it across LChails brow, working what sickness he could away from LChails face. For a moment, the veins faded, leaving LChail looking like a memory of his old self.
LChail fluttered his eyes open weakly. Why do you bother? You should go like the rest, leave the palace, find your own way.
Oren dipped the cloth into the water again then twisted it so that water dripped into LChails mouth. I know not any other way, he whispered.
LChail coughed, thick phlegm burbling from his lungs. As Oren wiped it away, he sagged back into the bed, his breathing slow and regular.
Outside the palace, the temple of the gods towered over the city, the five spires staggered around its peak nearly twisting into the clouds. Around the base of the temple stretched the palace in a massive complex that once teemed with activity, the city seemingly birthed by the palace itself. Now, most buildings stood empty. The few, like Oren, who remained within the palace were mostly old and had nowhere else to go, choosing to serve the Magi until their service was no longer required. Beyond that, Oren considered service his duty and the only thing he had ever known. He could not abandon the Magi when they needed him most.
Very little remained of the routine he once knew. Once, Oren had been responsible for directing all of the Sertoris. Now he alone remained. Responsibilities he once had delegated fell to him, leaving him wishing there more time in the day. He chose service over sleep, deciding that he could not rest comfortably if he left the Magi unattended, working himself nearly as gaunt as LChail.
He hurried from the palace, offering the required invocations as he passed through the doors. Rain threatened on the horizon, still a strange sight for Oren. A gust of wind blew in from the water, the crisp salt air clearing away the smell of sickness from his nostrils. The sound from the shipyard of hammers pounding echoed toward him, a reminder than others still lived within the city. All along the coast, shops flourished. Once such a thing would have been impossible; all labor had been needed to serve the Magi.
Oren followed the wide cobbles away from the palace and veered north toward the mill. Before the dying of the Magi, Carter would have come to him or one of the other Sertoris with the paper the Magi required. As the orders became less frequent, so too did Carters inclination to make the long trek to the palace, leaving the task to Oren. Instead of complaining, he made the walk briskly, enjoying the fresh air outside the palace, offering the required invocation to Aria for such a blessing.
Outside the protective walls of the palace, beyond the uniform orderly line of empty stone buildings that once housed the various servants, chaos had erupted. Wooden homes of various color and style sprawled with little apparent semblance of order. Closer to the water, two story taverns, unthinkable and unnecessary before the Days of Dying, offered beds and mead to travelers. Even at this time of day, Oren heard music drifting from closed doors. Savory odors drifted from one particularly garish building with a painted sun rising over a ship for a sign and he felt a flutter of temptation before remembering his duty. Newly built shops had doors thrown open. The nearer he got to the water, people bustled along the street, voices joining a cacophony of noise, as if the Magi no longer mattered.
So much change in little more than two years. He remembered the sense of disorientation throughout the city when the Magi first fell sick, the LChail at the time the first to succumb. When his magics suddenly stopped working, it was as if the gods had forsaken him. The illness spread, rapidly infecting nearly all the Magi, stealing their abilities first, like a punishment. Then they began dying.
In the dark days that followed, people began leaving the palace. Many of the first left out of fear afraid to contract whatever infected the Magi or afraid of spiteful gods. Others stayed on out of the same fears. Some left because they were no longer needed, the Magi they served either dead or dying. Soon only the most faithful remained, tasked with keeping up the palace and burying the dead Magi.
Those that left the palace compound did not go far. Some took their trades and opened up shops but it wasnt until the fisherman banded together and formed the shipbuilders guild, turning the tranquil bay into a bustling harbor, that trade began to flow. Then the city flourished.
Priests from Tellis came to the city, preaching about the old gods, and soon a simple church was started. It had none of the flair or grandeur that the Magi had put into the temple of the gods but something about the squat church standing above all of the lower town brought people peace.
Over time, people like Oren became an anomaly, rarely seen outside the palace and only then when needing to purchase the supplies that had once been produced within the palace. As the last of the Magi grew sicker and died, those visits became more and more infrequent.
Oren reached the newly constructed road running along the shore and glanced at the water. A dozen ships moored along the docks and dockhands bustled with cargo, loading and unloading. The ships sailed as far north as Winsland to the south and east toward the barbaric Pells. Items that once were unobtainable by any other than the Magi, now sat unattended in cargo holds. Change once thought impossible now seemed inevitable.
He turned north and saw the mill set into the hillside, set along the mouth of the Qua River. At the height of the Magi, the mill was held in great esteem. The paper produced was unrivaled by any the Magi could acquire anywhere else and necessary for their documentation. The bundles ferried each day barely provided enough. Now nearly a month had passed since Oren last visited the mill.
He heard the steady murmuring of the great millwheel as he neared. The sickly sweet scent of pulp mixed with the smells of the sea not unpleasantly. A door slammed open and a courier backed into view, pulling a heavily laden cart along with him. He glanced over at Oren, his eyes widening briefly as he considered the robes, before moving quickly along the road.
Oren no longer minded the slight, but could not help but notice. The robes marked him a Sertoris, a direct servant of the Magi. Such proximity once placed him in great esteem.
Gentle rain began falling as he opened the door and, once inside, he wiped a thin hand across his brow in distaste. Inside, the mill hummed with activity. Hammers pounded the pulp rhythmically. Dozens of workers scurried from the slurry to screens, efficiently moving the newly formed sheets into stacks. Nearby, men fed paper sheets through rollers with a steady clacking of gears as they flattened the sheets.
The secret is in the slurry.
Oren turned and saw Carter standing nearby, watching the mill with tired eyes. His balding head beaded with sweat and his brown shirt was already stained. You say that every time I am here, he commented, remembering what Carter had long ago taught him of the process. Never the secret to the slurry, though. Doing so risked his standing with the Magi.
Carter glanced over and shrugged. So I do. He sighed. Once this entire mill worked to make the Magi paper, barely keeping up with demand. Oren did not interrupt his friend to remind him that demand often exceed production. A strange mix they preferred, a combination of hemp, flax, and acampral. Now not much of the paper you need is produced anymore. Cotton and flax slurry is easier to work with. And I still cant keep up with demand. He nodded toward the large vat occupying the center of the mill.
Oren felt a hint of surprise that Carter shared so much. They had known each other a long time, ever since Oren began serving as Sertoris. Carter had learned the Magi demanded paper and set up his mill along the Qua. Over time, the secret to his paper made him invaluable to the Magi. I only need a sheaf, he said, though it was unlikely that the Magi would even use that much.
Carter turned, flickering his eyes over Oren, before turning again to stare out over the mill. Im starting another mill near the Andr, he said finally. Ill need someone here with a strong sense of organization.
Oren recognized the offer. Managing the Sertoris certainly had provided him with an organizational skill and he doubted that learning the intricacies of the mill would take as long as mastering the palace.
I will pass on the word.
His connections were not what they once were, but he still knew many people.
What will you do?
Oren shook his head. I will return to the palace.
Carter smiled. It was sad and mixed with pity that he failed to hide. No. After.
I serve the Magi, he answered.
Pity slowly shifted into compassion. The Days of Dying are nearly over, Oren. All have moved on. You must do the same.
Oren thought of the weakened face of LChail, the mixture of blood and phlegm that seemed to grow thicker each day, and knew Carter was correct. So many had moved on from the palace but Oren could not simply leave the LChail helpless. Or leave the only life he had ever known.
He handed a small coinpurse to Carter without another word. The stitched leather was embossed in the ancient emblem of the Magi, that of the five gods circling a rising tower. Once the leather alone would have been payment enough. Now he suspected Carter would simply remove the gold and discard the rest.
Carter pocketed the money without bothering to count it, handing the stack of paper to him. This is the last that I have.
Oren understood the implication. Carter would no longer mill the special paper for the Magi. It will suffice, he said. And he knew that it would.
Another Magi died overnight, leaving only the LChail and MAnil. Oren heard the gasp down the halls of the palace when Calla found the body. He did not run to her, but hurried nonetheless, suspecting what he would find.
Tera lay motionless in a chair. Impossibly thin, like most of the dying Magi, small purplish blotches now dotted her face, the final common insult to the Magi. Oren did not even need to check to know she was gone. Of course, the feculent rot told him that as well.
A sculpted cherry table lay toppled next to her, as if she had thrashed at the end. A collection of berries spread across the carpet, spilling onto the cool tiles. Calla stood near Tera, a crushed berry bleeding into the carpet and staining her white slipper red.
Calla, he said. When she did not turn, he repeated, Calla?
She turned slowly, her auburn hair swirling as she did. Hollow eyes stared at him.
Fetch Anno. I will notify the LChail.
She shook her head. Anno has left.
Oren frowned, stepping toward Calla and leading her away from Tera, careful to avoid the berries. It would only be another thing he would need to clean.
Where has he gone? he asked, even though he knew the answer.
Calla answered anyway. Lower town. With his family.
Then I will make the preparations, he said. The gods knew he had seen enough of the ceremony to perform it if he must, but Oren felt nervous about preparing the altar. And Anno spoke the words beautifully, knowing the blessings and invocations nearly as well as the Magi priests. Even though he knew he must, he could not match Annos flourish.
You must prepare Tera for the ceremony, he informed Calla.
Calla looked at him, face aghast, as if hed asked her to climb the spire of the temple. I may not touch her!
They stood near the doorway now, his hand holding carefully onto Callas warm arm as he kept her from pulling away. A shiver ran across her skin. Who else can? he asked. You must help in this. For the Magi!
Only the slight flickering of lantern light answered.
She opened her mouth as if to speak before thinking better of it and nodding instead. Oren admired her determination knowing that he could not manage all of the preparations on his own. He left her and hurried to the LChail, knocking briefly. The inlays upon the door seemed to shift as he stood waiting entrance, as if changing into something different.
He heard the weak voice of the LChail allowing him entrance and Oren stepped inside. LChail sat in the chair today, a blessing that he managed to get out of bed, though still wore the same sleeping silks he had worn for the last week. An open book lay across his lap and a long finger propped the pages open. Oren struggled to ignore the musky odor hovering over everything in the room, overpowering even the fresh cut lilacs he had set on a shelf when he delivered breakfast. LChail had reached the point where even bathing would no longer help.
I did not hear the bell. Is it lunch time? LChail said, looking up from the book.
Oren shook his head. I am sorry to disturb you again, LChail, he began. A note of hesitation caught in his throat. Tera is gone.
LChail looked at him with his pale sunken eyes, the bluish veins working across his pale face more prominent today. Tera still lived? he asked slowly.
Calla found her this morning, LChail, he explained.
How did I not know this? LChail asked.
Oren ignored the question. The LChails mind had been fading the last few days. You will need to perform the service, he reminded.
Service? LChail asked.
For Tera. She is gone, he said again. The gods must call her home.
A moment of clarity touched his pale eyes, passing briefly. How many of us remain? he asked.
Oren considered the answer, for the first time in his life thinking to lie to one of the Magi. And the LChail at that! Only you and MAnil, he finally said truthfully.
LChail coughed and a dark smile turned his lips. How much longer will you remain?
I am a Sertoris, he answered. The question had offended him and, seeing LChail wince at the words, he realized that he spoke louder than he intended. I serve the Magi.
Soon enough you will serve a memory, he said and fell to coughing again, the book skidding off his lap and across the floor before disappearing under his bed.
Come, he said. For Tera.
Oren helped LChail to stand. He tottered a moment before summoning a reservoir of strength and followed him down the hall. LChail had grown light and thin, barely more than bones. Oren carried him nearly as much as he walked.
When they reached the door to the temple, LChail hesitated. Pray for me when I am gone, he said.
Oren froze. Never before had he considered what would happen when the last of the Magi died. Such a thing is not allowed, he answered. It will not work for me.
LChail leaned, as if nearly falling. Who else will speak the words? he asked. Who else will ask the gods to bring me home?
Another task thrust upon him and one he felt the least comfortable with performing. In spite of that, he nodded.
One morning before breakfast, Oren found the kitchen empty. The massive ovens were cold and the only smell he noticed was that of stale bread. LChail had eaten little the evening before but Oren remained hopeful that he would regain his appetite this morning. Fresh bread with honey would have done nicely.
Instead, he was forced to scrounge for leftover berries and several day old loaves. The skin on the strawberries was bruised, the grapes shriveled, and the apple he found appeared to be rotting. None of it was fit to serve LChail. Gathering the leftover bread from last night, he set it on the tray he had polished himself and unstopped a bottle of wine, pouring it into a carafe, careful not to spill. He placed a pot of water next to the wine, uncertain which LChail would choose. Likely neither.
As Oren surveyed the kitchen, he did not relish the prospect of visiting the lower town to purchase supplies. He had slept little the last week, and fatigue clung to him like a cloak. He took a quick sip of water, making sure to pour from a different pot than the one LChail would use, and blinked away the tiredness. Too much remained undone.
Only LChail remained now and Oren knew his time was short. MAnil fell to his illness three days ago. After the service for Tera, Oren had managed to convince Calla to stay, to help him with the kitchens, reminding her that LChail needed them. Now, even she had departed.
The morning bell struck before he even left the kitchen. He no longer worried about bringing the meals late. LChail rarely ate what he brought anyway.
As the tolling died out, the only other sound was that of his feet on the tile. He still stepped as softly as he could, not wanting to disturb the healing silence. A few lanterns had burned out, a terrible prank by Aria on Fiama, but Oren had not the time to stop and relight them. Besides, he knew the way to LChails chamber.
There was no answer when he knocked.
LChail? Oren asked as he pressed into the room, a sense of dread washing over him.
He realized immediately that no answer would come. The stench of rot, so quick to overcome the Magi once dead, overpowered the room. LChail lay atop his bed, purple bruising staining his face.
The last of the Magi had gone.
Oren set the tray aside and did not hesitate as he began the preparations. No one would help him with LChail and he felt a great sadness because of that. The Magi deserved more, deserved better.
Dipping a white cloth into the pot of water, he washed LChail for the last time, sponging away blood dried on his lips. Though he tried, the blotches did not wash away. He slipped the silken nightclothes off the Mage and carefully dressed him in his formal robe. As he was once a more substantial man, the flowing robe threatened to lose LChail in folds of deep blue fabric. Oren then tied back his hair and looked upon the LChail.
Tears welled in his eyes but he willed them away.
He carefully lifted the LChail from the bed, surprised at how light he had become, and carried him from the room. As he moved through the hall, a small breeze gusted, as if Aria gave her blessing. The remaining lanterns too seemed to surge brighter as he passed. Oren wondered if all the gods mourned as he did.
As he reached the entrance to the temple, he murmured soft words of thanks to the gods, beseeching them to reclaim LChail.
Passing beneath one of the five archways leading into the temple, walls of black marble soon stretched to the massive dome overhead. Incredibly detailed carvings were worked into the marble, made by Magi craftsmen during the earliest days, impossible to replicate now that men had taken over such work. Rings of colored glass windows set into the stone once shone beautiful pure light upon the altar. With the loss of the Magi, the light seemed muddied and dim.
Oren carried LChail to the altar and set him gently down atop the milky white stone. Once the altar had been raised and lowered from the floor with magic, appearing only for special ceremonies. Since the sickness had befallen the Magi, it was now a permanent fixture. Worked in as much detail as the marble columns, the five-sided altar was breathtaking. Depictions of the five gods Aria, Fiama, Terran, Cqua, and Apriost each decorated a side.
Oren paused, looking at LChail atop the altar. The last task asked of him to pray was the one he felt the least comfortable performing. Such funeral rites had never been performed by any other than the Magi. Even to the last day, LChail had managed to stay upright and say the invocations for MAnil as he returned to the gods. Doing so, in this place, was said to speak directly to the gods.
Who was he to dare speak to the gods?
Oren was not worthy, simply a Sertoris, perhaps foolishly serving the Magi until the last. With the passing of LChail, the Days of Dying were over. Now men would live, once again serving the old gods, and soon forget the beauty and wonder of the Magi and their Magic.
Only Oren could not forget.
Without thinking, the words built slowly in his chest and he stepped delicately, deliberately, around the altar. First Aria, the goddess of wind. He sang to her, letting his voice carry, pulled on a soft breeze up and into the heavens. Solid Terran, god of the earth, received an offering of the soil moved to create the temple. For Cqua, he poured out a rivulet of water, watching as it ran toward LChail. As he stepped around to Fiama, he lifted the offertory flame to the altar. Always the most fickle, Oren held his breath, watching as the flickering flame took hold.
That left Apriost. Oren stood before the greatest of the gods and raised his hands in front of him, the final supplication. Speaking slowly, the words slipped from his mouth and seemed to slither down his arms.
Then he placed his hands atop the altar.
Pain shot through him, agonizing and sweet. Jagged edges of the altar pierced his hands. Blood dripped onto the stone, sliding toward LChail. Oren continued the invocation, speaking now to Apriost, begging him to take LChail.
He felt the power building around him. Water mixed with his blood and the offering of earth and then flames leaped and danced, pulled by Aria. Suddenly swirling, the offerings enveloped LChail, igniting him atop the altar and lifting his body skyward. Relief overcame Oren.
The gods had reclaimed LChail, the last of the Magi.
Oren sagged, falling to the ground next to the altar. There, next to the remains of the pyre, with the last task LChail had asked of him completed, he fell asleep.