Chapter 1: The Journey

There are various things that keep a child awake in the dark of night. The excitement that comes with the memory of the day, the unrelenting urge to resume the day's unfinished games. Sometimes, it's the fear of the dirges lurking in the corner from tales mothers tell to scare naughty children into decency or simply contemplations of what complex tricks are to be had when the morning comes.

For Sethlzaar, he found it was most often the darkness. In the waking world he found a peace in its presence, a presence that came with a silence. But sometimes in them hilts poked from within, and with them a battle against their beckoning to be drawn from their dark scabbards raged within him.

However, the hilts before him now were very much real, and tonight he had no need to do battle with their beckons because his fear waged the war for him.

They stood, polished browns, in the darkness, their enigmatic blades buried deep within the dirt barely four feet from where he lay. Their appeal, though endearing, stood no chance against the might of the fear instilled within him.

Over four years ago, he was striving for survival deep within the volatile cesspool that was the conisoir. The slums of Dun were no place for children, but like those he had spent his days with, he survived. Thinking of greater things was a sure way to get killed. All that mattered was staying alive and the next meal, a lesson he had learned when exactly, was of no importance.

His earliest memories spoke of a life born within the conisoir. And by his seventh winter he was living under the roof of the Orphanage of Nezimir. And now, within his tenth year he was in the dark night of the open forest, bound for the seminary.

A year ago, when the priest first walked into the orphanage, he had glimpsed him from his place on the floor amidst four... or was it five sets of legs, he could not remember. Curled up as a fetus he had been protecting important places from the barrage of kicking and stumping that made up a better part of his week for the duration of two years. Then, he had wondered at the significance of the man's presence as Mistress Ereden lined them up before him and he asked his questions.

What had first struck him of the priest was the scar creeping its length from the bridge of his nose to stop beneath his left eye. A white line that perhaps added character to the man of Truth. He remembered wondering if it hurt as much as Ventril's, a man he'd known in the conisoir who had a scar running down the left side of his face, making its way past his unseeing eye.

With it, Ventril had spun a tale of his great escapade where he would be found fighting off a saber-toothed snow tiger in the icy peaks of Yggdra, to the north. But even at a young age Sethlzaar had known it to be naught more than a tale. The man had most likely gotten it from picking a fight with a brute over the wrong whore. Everyone knew what kind of man Ventril was. But somehow, he knew he would believe if the priest got his fending off a horde of mammoths.

The man certainly had the feel about him.

The Priest had asked him the same question as he did this morning on that day, and where Sethlzaar said left today, he had said right then. The priest had run his questions and left the orphanage with no other words and Mistress Ereden had taken to tutoring Shallan specially immediately after. And while the other children often snuck peeks at the lessons, Sethlzaar had himself mustering no interest in them, the lack of curiosity perhaps being of a certain laziness or a knowledge of what lessons she taught the bigger boy.

When the priest made his presence today, looking more aged than a year's worth, Sethlzaar had found himself void of surprise. Again, he had spotted him from beneath an array of moving legs, perhaps determined to remind him of the power of moving objects, he had no care of.

In the conisoir, children learned to take more beatings than they were taught to give, and where he knew how to take, the orphanage children proved lacking in the knowledge of how to give.

He never held it against Mistress Ereden for not stopping the larger kids, and ending his plights. She was so old and wrinkly that half the time she fell asleep he would fall into a friendly wager with himself on whether she would wake up.

Suffice it to say, she always did.

Somehow, when it was time for his question he knew with a certainty that his answer would be irrelevant. After all, this time the priest had come for him and now slept soundly a few paces away from him, being the source of the fear with which he stayed away from the hilts before him.

In time, the last embers of the hearth from which Sethlzaar drew his warmth withered into the dull white ash of consumed sticks with naught but the slow rising smoke of its death, plunging the surrounding forest into endless darkness. The night made its final submission into a silence only interrupted by the lullabies brought to life by the chirping of insects and the hooting of owls watching from the comfort of whatever tree branch from which they perched. And with it, Sethlzaar closed his eyes and dreamed a dream of a life unlived amongst an Ayla unsettled.

The sunrise saw them already on horse-back, riding at a steady canter. Sethlzaar trying to forget the bodies the man behind him dropped a day before, found himself—as he always did—unable to forget at his own choosing.

The priest had cut them down with an ease and a speed that had them falling to the dirt before they could take their first swing. And yet, Sethlzaar could not help but think that the man was capable of striking significantly faster than that. Somewhere in him he knew the carnage had been displayed in such speed for his benefit. The man had instructed he learn, and had been certain to teach. The question now was: did he learn? And even if he did, did he want to keep learning?

They rode a week, in silence. The wind blew, weaving its way between the trees to send a cold tingle up Sethlzaar's spine. The journey within the forest was anything but interesting. Around every corner, grunts and groan, stamps and throttles threatened emergence with a fury. And though his mind knew the priest would bring him safely to the seminary, he wondered if he was required to be in one piece.

In the mornings, they broke the fast with stale bread and a sweet water unlike any he had tasted, and Sethlzaar had drunk a lot of things, from the vinegar ginger ale of the conisoir to the fancy wines of the fancy folk who wined and dined with a reckless abandon, all with the riches of the Dunnish people. Nothing with alcohol, though. Old Groc never allowed it.

At night they indulged in smoked meat which the priest always seemed to extricate from one of the sacks atop his horse. Rive, he called it. A priest horse, the first Sethlzaar ever did see. Twice the size of a normal horse if he ever did see one, and he had been graced with a chance at the sight of a war horse during his stay at the orphanage. Dragmund, a hero of the Realm had paid Lord Elamusk a visit in his manor and had made of it a show on the roads. 


Though it had been the largest horse he had seen at the time, it paled in comparison to Rive, not that Rive was considerably bigger, it just seemed considerably deadlier. He had no doubt if the two horses were to ever cross path, Rive, was sure to emerge the victor. 

By the third day Sethlzaar found a sense to return to the orphanage. Even if he did not like the old building, they fed him three times a day and offered him a roof and a warm bed. With the priest, all he had was two meals of stale bread and sweet water when he woke, smoked meat which proved sinewy and battled with the teeth, as if it was not designed for food, at night, and wet trees that always happened to smell like—and he was compelled to believe—something had died in them to sleep beneath.

Save after meals, the only other time he was allowed water from the canteen was at midday, and even then, it was of meagre amounts. He dared to believe the priest treated their mount more considerably than himself.

But of all the discomfort of their journey, Sethlzaar found the night temptations the worst. Every night the priest unsheathed his blades and drove them into the dirt, leaving naught but their hilt to the embrace of the darkness. And while Sethlzaar's fear had sustained him at the genesis, it soon began to wane strongly. If it did, there would be nothing to keep him from pulling the hilts from the dirt. An act that would no doubt cost him something. If not his life, then most likely a limb. When that time comes, he would do well to inform the priest of his shared guilt in the sin.

Whenever the priest rose and retrieved the blades from the dirt Sethlzaar often did wonder if he saw a hint of disappointment in the man's expression. Most unlikely. The only cause for such would be if the priest was looking for an excuse justified before the eyes of Truth to render punishment.

In the orphanage, all the children knew how to do was talk and play. They never displayed an understanding of the importance of silence, talking even in their sleep, their dreams spilling into the waking world. The only brief moments of quiet ensued only after a bout of wailing and irritable sniffles, and even that silence was not of their making, but more something that fell upon them, a compulsion of sorts, beyond their power, like fear.

Even Saelin was guilty of this crime, and though she was the only one dear to him, he'd found her constant nagging an annoyance worthy of a special distaste. One reserved exclusively for her. In the conisoir, a child who didn't know how to hold their tongue would find it forfeit in time.

Even so, the priest was beginning to turn the solitude Sethlzaar found in silence into a form of isolation. He found that even in the sounds of Ayla all around him, there was a deafening silence in the absence of human words.

Even Rive seemed an accomplice in the priest's attempt at his silent imprisonment. The occasional snorts and brays common amongst horses seeming to elude the one he rode, and despite the nature of their first and only other interaction with humans, Sethlzaar found himself looking forward to another ambush, if it would grant him the company of words. Whether he understood them or not was not much of a requirement at this point.

Before the priest's first visit, Sethlzaar had never once set eyes upon one. He had heard stories though. Stories of how they were the foundation on which the Realm owed its expansion. He'd learned well enough at a tender age that priests were to be feared, and now, he had seen it. His fear no longer existed from images conjured up within his mind by words spun into tales of gore and carnage... There were no glories. Priest tales never had space for glories.

Now, he had a memory from which his fear could feed, and grow, and fester, should it choose to. Somehow, he had always thought his fear would lighten when the tales were given life like every other thing he feared. He was wrong. If anything, it proved a greater life source, fueling his fear in the darkness of the night until he had to remind himself of his requirement of air to live.

At the beginning of their second week together the priest spoke. It was a sentence he had not heard much but remembered all too well. The man scratched at his scar from his position behind Sethlzaar, an action he remembered the priest engage in once before at the start of their journey, and never again. He knew with a child's certainty the repercussions of the action. Rive slowed from its gallop, to a canter, to a simple trot, and finally, it stopped, and the priest dismounted.

"Do endeavor to learn something."

The words were spoken calmly, calmer than that of the sisters when they required a child learn the names of all the saints already committed back to Ayla.

The trees rustled, and the cool breeze moved, raising the dead leaves and having them flutter in the air, like ghosts come to haunt the remnants of families long moved on. The wind crept its way on its exodus, carrying with it the cold air of the Sangui rivers to the east. Their location was just a brief stop before its final rest somewhere before the Dun walls.

There was a tranquility to the forest as the priest took his place a few paces ahead of them, one blade drawn and held out to his side in a casual stance. The stance spoke nothing in a man but, in a priest, promised retribution. Ayla came to a still, the only sign of life the whistling of the breeze lumbering across. The insects seized their chirping. The birds brought their songs to an end, like the finality of a dirge beyond the comprehension of man, perhaps sung in memory of a legendary bird. Sethlzaar would never know. Even Rive seemed an audience, waiting in anticipation of what events would take place. The calm that settled upon the forest was unmistakable. It was a calm before a storm.

The ground began a tremor beneath them, increasing ever so slightly, but a constant increase nonetheless. Soon proving itself contagious, the air around Sethlzaar took it upon itself to herald whatever had chosen to wrought itself upon them. A tremor rose to a shake. A shake to a quake. And with it, a stomping.

A Vulcan boar the likes of which the stories Sethlzaar had heard growing up did nothing to justify emerged from within the trees, raging from wherever it had begun its solitary stampede. It was twice the height of the average man by its shoulder, and three times from tusk to tail. With a power to maul down any tree in its path, it bounded towards them. With the calm that had washed over them just moments ago gone like the sun during a blizzard, Sethlzaar caught the faintest of reaction from the priest: a firmer grip on the hilt of his weapon.

Barely thirty feet away, the beast lowered its head. Tusks at the ready. At twenty feet, the priest lowered his stance. His body told of a strength beyond its size...

.... Ten feet...

.... Five.

.... One....

The priest pivoted on his left foot. He placed the other against the dirt to his side, and spun himself from the beast's path. The subtle cape of his faded cassock extended from the collars to cover his shoulders swirled about them in its own display of grace.

The act in itself was void of grace. It displayed the absentminded simplicity of a man who cared naught of the presentation of his actions. It was of a man who struck only for the sake of the kill. Yet, in such simplicity, it was a display Sethlzaar could not hope to attain. The priest's white hair--more grey than it was white--flayed in the air by its ends, revealing the once covered nape of his neck.

There was a howl so loud it could have been mistaken for a roar as blade met with flesh, tearing, digging, and drawing blood in one fluid motion. Vulcan boars didn't roar.

The beast veered to the side, drove into a tree, its weight amassed of muscles bent wood and sheered it from itself. It tore through the tree, felling it, staggered once, then dropped on its side. It gave an attempt to rise, failed, and fell again.

Its labored breath gave way to the claws of death. A final puff of hot air rose from its flared nostril, blending into the forest air. Sethlzaar knew the moment the beast died. With its death, he released the breath he hadn't known he was holding.

The priest walked up to Sethlzaar and Rive. He rummaged through one of the sacks and pulled out a simple rope of woven fiber. Sethlzaar found a slight disappointment in the normalcy of it as the priest tied one end around the horse's neck and the other around one of the boar's hind legs.

Without a command, the horse trotted to one side with Sethlzaar still upon it, and pulled. Its muscles strained and Sethlzaar thought he felt them beneath the saddle. It was uncertain if it was a testimony of the horse's strength or the boar's weight.

When Rive stopped they had moved a fair distance away from the route they had been following. The priest squatted before his prey and with a practiced skill, began slicing away at the beast, the blade, separating skin from muscle. Sethlzaar stood beside him not fully aware of when he had climbed down from Rive, or made the possibly six steps from the horse to him.

"Hold this," the priest instructed.

Sethlzaar held out his hands. The priest dropped an organ in them. Sethlzaar squirmed at the sound of wet plop as it met his hands. Perturbed at the amount of blood that came with the organ, it took him a moment to realize why the blood continued to pool from his hands and onto the dirt. The organ beat in his hand in a gentle rhythm and he realized what he held was the boar's heart.

He squirmed for a different reason now. The disturbance he felt seemed to slither into his mind with each drop of blood. He parted his hands in an attempt to drop its contents. He stopped when he caught the priest watching him. His eyes, black as night, were a sharp contrast to his ominous blue. They watched him like a hawk, assessing, perhaps measuring his worth. They reminded him of old Groc's, but the old man's paled in comparison to the priest's. Where Groc's had felt like he was assessing a man, this felt like the priest was looking through the man to assess the soul.

Sethlzaar put the priest within his fortieth year, the same age as Ventril, three years older at the most. But his eyes bore an age to them. Older than forty years, older even than Groc's sixty... the priest spoke.

"Huh?" Sethlzaar felt stupid for his reaction, but what else was he to do when he had not heard the man.

"I said," the priest repeated with the same calm, "Vulcan hearts can beat for thirty minutes after their death. Makes them deadly."

Something cracked inside the animal. No doubt, its rib cage.

"Deadly?" Sethlzaar asked, despite the taste of bile in his mouth. "But it's dead."

The priest took out his hands and swung them in an arch, letting the blood on them splash against the dirt. The sleeves of his cassock escaped stain from their place drawn up at elbow length.

The priest took his blade from where he had stuck it in the dirt and it came without a trace of blood. "Deadly as an Unsouled."

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