Dawn was the time to gather in the streets, to face the stagnant calm of the gray morn. That was when we saw him come. The people recognize Mr. Illumen by his blue robes, pale as an afternoon sky, and his trembling gait- but on this day he did not falter. He strolled through the city with a purpose, a faint smile adorning his face.
“There goes Sabien,” murmured an observer. “Surely he’s up to something terrible,” drawled another. “What does he do all day, locked up in that dusty home?” “I haven’t seen him leave his hut in three moons.” Mr. Illumen fast approached, and I urged my companions to be respectful. Surely he caught their mutterings: “Why does he wear that dirty old cloak? Doesn’t he realize how suspicious he looks?” “Look at how pale he is… you would think an immortal would care about their body…” Yet the smile never faded from his face. Soon he passed out of earshot, and the townsfolk escalated their barrage. “You’d think he’d be ashamed to show himself around here… after he killed Kiela?” “Disgraceful.”
I decided I would rather not listen to the idle rumors of the close-minded. Sabien Illumen was once my friend, and while I could not ask him to justify his deeds, only he could reveal the truth. I broke from the crowd and caught up to Mr. Illumen.
“It’s nice to see you again Donya,” he grinned as I approached. I joined him on his stroll, matching his heavy footsteps.
“Good morning Mr. Illumen,” I said.
“Again, you can call me Sabien. I am not so far above your class.”
“Sabien…” I tried the word, not quite comfortable speaking the name of my elder. “How have you been? What have you been up to?”
“Oh, it’s been a very productive cycle for me! I’ve located three more ancient specters- Oizys, Mera, Callipses- I found the Dark Words I sought in a dusty tome, and I laid two spirits to rest, those poor Envila twins. But that’s not why you asked, is it.”
“The townspeople are worried about you,” I lied. “You were in a dark place before, and no one has seen you in months.”
“What are you trying to say, Donya?”
“I asked you once if you are an angel or a demon. I’ve thought about that a lot since.”
“Sweet Donya, I am much worse than the angels or the demons. I am a human. I came to this awful city not to die nor to be forgotten, but to live. That is my shameful mistake.”
“Help me understand,” I begged. “You told me about the land you come from… Parada, was it? It sounded beautiful. So why did you come to Qennigax?”
“You remember well!” spoke Sabien. “You’ve known naught but the Shadow Lands, but far to the east is the Land of Light. I had always believed that the West is the land of darkness- now I am not so sure.”
I was intrigued; Sabien had always reviled the city of Qennigax. It frightened me to imagine he had found a redeeming quality in this wretched place.
“I left Parada,” he continued, “because I do not belong in the Land of Light. As you know, I was born many centuries before you; I studied magic, as was the custom of the time. And I was good at it. So good, that I began dabbling in arts no one had even considered before. I studied specters- ghosts, wraiths, banshees, spirits of that sort. I learned to summon them, banish them, bend them to my will. I alone pioneered the art of spectromancy, and I was made an archmage for it. If only I knew what trouble I’d caused.
“It is customary for an archmage to seek immortality. There are only so many capable mages, and we do not yield talent to death. I soon discovered a trick- by capturing the souls of specters, I added their life force to my own, extending my lifetime. But it was too late that we discovered a horrible truth: to practice spectromancy is to allow the lost soul into your own- the spirit becomes unavoidably entwined with your body. Many of my students could not handle this like I can- their flesh paled, their figures wasted, and their straying minds warred with the spirits they possessed. I was forced to shut down the school and leave the land I had tainted. With nothing else to do, I continued collecting spirits, extending my life and warding off Death. My body gave, but I kept my mind.
“What better place to work than Qennigax? The mortal plane is weak in the Shadow Lands, and the spectral plane bleeds into every facet of this place. I see ghosts everywhere I turn. I help them when I can, that is my duty- but when I can’t help them, I use them. I have done terrible things to the dead, deeds that would have never entered my mind before I came here. Oh Donya, this place is evil! I used to roam these streets each morning, pondering how much this city changed me. I came here to chase life no matter the cost, and I soon wondered if it was even worth the trouble.
“Then came the morning they say I killed Kiela. The townsfolk have the details wrong- when I found her at the flesh market, she was already a corpse- a walking corpse, as it were, a revenant I raised to hunt the ones who ended her. I came to regret this choice, and went to the market to end the curse I had caused. You all spurned me for it.
“I walked home destroyed. The silence that day was stifling, and I felt this city’s misery with every step. I was haunted by the spirits of those I had wronged. Their gaunt faces jeered at me wherever I turned: a child whose soul I’d expended to slay a Goliath; poor Elaya, whom I had left in torment; and now Kiela, whose body I had desecrated. As I fled their pernicious glares, it occurred to me that this world is the Land of Darkness, a cycle of suffering with only one escape.
“I returned to my hut and locked the door. I cleaned up a little, and swept the dust away. Then I searched my drawers for a sturdy rope. I tossed the rope over the dusty rafters, and I tied a familiar shape.
“Needless to say, it was much more difficult than I imagined. I stood on that chair for hours, working up the courage to take the final leap. Soon the torment was unbearable- I would have to commit, or to end this folly. I elected to close my eyes, imagining that when I opened them, the situation wouldn’t be so scary. But when I opened my eyes, I was no longer alone.
“I don’t know how it got there, but it never made a sound. Another specter to haunt me, but this one was real- I knew it was right in front of me. It looked almost human, but it had been decaying for years. It seemed that the slightest touch would cause its flesh to slough off. Despite clearly being a human corpse, the creature walked on all fours. Its flesh was a putrid gray color, its eyes were sunken gray spheres. The creature grinned, revealing a twisted jaw of rotting teeth. It was horrible.
“But Donya, it did nothing! It did not attack me, it did not taunt me like the other specters. It just grinned at me. I was not afraid, only mystified, knowing I had just stumbled upon something I had never imagined… this thing came from beyond. Beyond the darkness, beyond the noose, beyond life itself. It lingered for a moment, then bounded silently out of the room. I took the rope off of my neck.
“Do you believe in angels, Donya? Because that is what I saw that day. Without speaking, that angel convinced me to live another day. And most importantly, it convinced me to survive until my last strength. Do you understand why?”
I did understand. I had always seen the beauty in the world; I was glad Sabien had finally recognized it. “Of course,” I replied. “I’m glad you’re finally happy.”
“Oh no Donya, not at all!” The smile was finally gone. “This world is even more terrible than I had imagined. When I looked into the angel’s dead eyes, I knew that I endure a hopeless existence. No, the angel gave me a glimpse into the world beyond. This world is terrible, but there is nothing after! This is the best we can ever hope for. So I will leave Qennigax and seek my guardian angel. And I will continue to prolong Death for as long as possible. I was shown the truth, and now I will never enter the land beyond the noose.