It was his turn to light the fires that night.
They ranged around the base of the blank wall of stone etched with the small carvings, the memories of those who had come back.
So many had not.
He could still remember when their little corner of the world had been discovered by the Empire, the little corner where it was ordinary to be extraordinary, where everyone had a gift. They had been useful, of course.
Too useful. And even when the old autocrat had fallen and they were finally free, too few of them had come back. Far too few.
Hence the memorial wall.
A wind stirred the still air, up in the memorial, stirred sparks from the flames and blew them out into the night. He watched them blow past him, unbothered; he was a Fire Marshal after all. He could create fire from the tips of his fingers.
They had made him a soldier, at the front lines of the effort to keep all subjugated parties under control. He had been hated and despised as a traitor, he knew that. He had barely cared.
He could still remember the night one of the little Fire Marshals had crept into his cot beside him. He was already broadchested and muscled then, going shirtless more often than not with the fire that burned within him warming him. The younger fire marshal was no more than a boy, small and shivering with the cold that was dampening his fire, but his eyes were blazing with a light that Khornel hadn’t seen in a long time.
“They say there’s a Man,” the boy whispered. “He walks among Empire and Enchanted alike, and he claims to be the answer to the Prophecies.”
“Which is he?” Khornel demanded. Not much else had mattered back then.
“I don’t know,” the small Fire Marshal murmured, frowning. “When you listen to him, it doesn’t really matter.”
Outside the Airborne were setting up the invisible walls that kept the memorial safe and hidden, safe, too, from the lightning storm raging that night. Eloen would be out there somewhere, he knew, but for once he didn’t feel the desperate need to know where she was every second. For once they were safe.
He glanced across at the mark he had carved into the memorial wall, just one mark carved into it high above the others. Eloen had floated him up so he could write it.
Khristos, was all it said.
The name that had saved him.
He remembered being curled up next to Eloen, quiet and still in the dark, whispering what he knew of the strange Man whose words transcended their wretched circumstances, made it not matter whether they were slave or free.
When he was done, a darker shadow detached itself from the shadows in the corners and slipped away. One of the Shadowed, then. Out of all the Enchanted, Khornel pitied them the most. They could wind darkness around them like a blanket, and the Empire had turned them into its spies.
There were whispers, though, that they were turning on it, hiding their rebellion in their shadows like they hid all their other secrets. Whispers that they were the reason the Emperor was shaky on his throne.
This quiet spy could simply have been listening to listen, or he could be intending to turn Khornel into the torturers at dawn. It all depended on his loyalties.
Knowing Khristos, Khornel was free. He didn’t much care either way.
But nothing happened in the morning. And it could have been his imagination, but he thought there was a darker shadow in the corner when he went on telling Eloen the story the following night.
He could have left the memorial with the fires lit; that was all his job was. But they were drifting back here, more and more of the once-called Enchanted, now that they were no longer slaves. There were some who knew how devastated the area had become and were simply coming back to lick their wounds; there were some who still dreamed fiercely of finding those they had lost here. Either way, if they came to the memorial, they were usually at their lowest points.
And that was why Khornel stayed on the nights he lit the fires on the metal floor. He didn’t feel he could do or say much, but maybe he could be there at least.
A piece of the shadows detached itself from the rest, creeping into the light of the fires. One of the Shadowed. He was still armed, a sword at his hip, a sword slung over his back, nowhere near to feeling safe or letting down his guard; he still kept the dark swirling tightly about him, even as he walked up to the wall and stared up at the etchings in the smooth surface.
And it was as if, as he stared at it, he lost all the last remnants of the hope that had carried him so far and for so long.
“Gone,” he whispered. He braced his arm against the wall and rested his head on it; for a moment he let the shadows fall away, and Khornel could see old, cruel scars tracing up his bare arms.
Then he spun from the wall, his face cold and sharp as he gathered the shadows back around himself, one hand going to the sword on his hip. But he was still young, young under all the oldness the Empire had carved into his face, and Khornel stepped forward and held out a hand.
The Shadowed jumped, his eyes narrowing, and nearly drew a sword. “You – you saw?” he demanded sharply, clearly not liking anyone having seen him in his moment of weakness.
“It’s nothing more than what I felt when I came back,” Khornel said honestly.
For a moment he could see the brokenness in the younger man’s face. “I fought so long,” he whispered. “So hard to come back – and they destroyed it all. There – there’s no home left.”
His face sharpened again. “I’ll kill them all,” he said flatly.
Of all the grieving people who had threatened violence when they came here, the Fire Marshal felt that this lad had the best chance of carrying it through, trained as he was to fight from the shadows and never be seen. And yet that way – causing more brokenness, more death, more pain – was hardly the way to solve it.
It definitely was not Khristos’s way.
It was a dangerous thing to do, holding out his hand again; he knew that if the young man snapped and went dark, his bare chest would be the first the sword sank into. But he had to try.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said softly. “There’s One you can fall on til the end of time and beyond it. You don’t have to be alone.”
The young man’s eyes, sharp in the shadows, narrowed and focused on him. “You’re one of the ones who used to talk about Him in the war, even if it was forbidden,” he said slowly.
Khornel thought back to the Shadowed hiding in the corner as he whispered to Eloen. “Yes,” he said simply.
Wearily, the spy dropped his eyes to the ground and ran a hand down his face. “What does it matter anymore,” he said bitterly, more statement than question.
“You could come home with me,” Khornel offered quietly. He and Eloen had opened their home to those who came back lost, with their homes destroyed and nowhere to go.
The Shadowed stood indecisive for a moment, one hand still on his sword hilt, staring at Khornel’s outstretched hand. Abruptly he came to a decision, and shaking his hand away from his sword he grasped Khornel’s hand firmly.
A hand bigger than a sword, a hand that offered a new world that they could make out of the ashes of the old.
“Khornel,” the Fire Marshal said.
“Khole,” the Shadowed offered in return.
They left the memorial together, its names and markers to all that had been lost, and into a new world, and Khornel knew that Khristos walked beside them.
So it is obviously a terrible idea to commit to posting anything while one is in college. I somehow meant to post here regularly when I joined in 2018, and . . . obviously I haven't. (I'm still in college, so I may post very irregularly, but I'd like to add some bits of my fiction.) This particular bit was written based on "Terra Aeterna" by Efisio Cross and Dave Chappel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ie9fmgCIqvc). Hope you enjoy!