Prologue: The Wandering Monk

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It had been a dismal year when he forgot about time, not long after he learned about the sanctity of death. About how life was harsh, and death was pure and peaceful. It was life that hurt, life that put you on the wrong path, and only death could set you back.

He had also learned about the impermanence of death, and how nothing was truly lost. Dur, god of death, was humanity's only friend. And taking lives, however precious, was the one truth.

As for his current path, it had been ordained by Dur long before he'd been born. Everything that had happened, everything he had lived through, was only meant to bring him to that senseless state of mind, to make him forget about thirst and hunger and simply trudge up and down what seemed a thousand mountains with no clear end in mind. Just so he could come to this moment. Asvard was certain of it. Everything. The war. Death. Losing his mind. All for this. For the never-ending expanse of snow and the ache in his legs and the pain in his heart and the fog in his mind.

Yes, Dur was mercy. Death was life, however strange that might sound. Asvard had learned that. He had stumbled on that truth when he wanted only to die. And now... what was happening now? He was going up and down mountains for what? To kill? To die? To find what?

For a moment, he regained his sanity. He fell to his knees on the fresh snow, hearing the cold click of the dagger he hid in his sleeve. He screamed, and with that he remembered he was alive. Memories overwhelmed him. He remembered he was old. He recalled the countless years since he'd been called out to war. Decades now.

He laughed pitifully at himself. Decades, that was right. And he was still searching, like the madman he was. He buried his face in his gloved hands. An eternity lost in the search for something he had probably lost long ago. Before he had learned about the sanctity of death. Long before he'd found Dur. But Dur... Dur.... There had to be a reason for it all.

And with that, he lost his sanity again. He forgot about time and forgot he was old. Asvard rose to his feet, eyes brimming with happiness because he knew he was almost there. He could feel it. Yes, Dur was with him once more.

And so, the hours left him behind. They flew by two at a time and before long he was at the bottom of yet another mountain, legs ready to collapse. Finally, he was where he needed to be. He had finally arrived. All thanks to Dur. He needed only to look ahead and there it was. A house in the middle of nowhere. Roughly-built of stone and wood, with the trail of smoke coming from the chimney.

Asvard smiled as he walked inside and closed the door behind him. He could hear voices. "Hello?" he prompted, unraveling his scarf.

"Dur take me," said a young woman as she appeared at the end of the corridor. "Who are you? How did you even get through the storm?"

Asvard gave her a blank stare. "Asvard, from Owendale. I was led by Dur himself."

She gave a small shiver.

"I was led here," he repeated.

"You're a monk," she said, looking down at his clothes.

"Keh," Asvard scoffed. "A priest."

She nodded. "Bless this house, then," she said harshly.

"This place is blessed. We were born in darkness, we were born at the beginning, we were born in silence, we were born dying," he chanted slowly in Iqnie, the language of the faith. "This place, what is this place?"

"Nothing blessed. An orphan house."

This sent Asvard into a frenzy. "Orphans?" He couldn't stop himself from rocking back and forth, shifting his weight from the soles of his feet to his toes. Beads of sweat were forming in his temples, and the world around him grew blurry. Dur had led him towards them at last. "I am looking for three of them. I've been looking for three of them. Orphans, I mean. Could they be here?"

"Maybe," said the young woman, taking a few steps away from him. "What are their names?"

"Mila, Hemon, Dalia...Two girls and a boy."

She shook her head. "Nobody with any of those names here."

"They're my children," Asvard tried to keep his voice steady. "I lost them in the war."

"Oh, I am sorry."

"The oldest is the boy – he's eleven. And the girls. The girls are nine and eight."

"I..."

"They've got light brown hair. Dalia has blue eyes, Hemon and Mila brown. I lost them in the war. They were in Owendale when it was burnt to the ground. When I came back from the war they were gone."

"I am sorry for you loss. Wait. Owendale? But that..."

"Hm?" he asked, slightly shaken from his monologue by her confusion. "What?"

"Owendale was destroyed more than twenty years ago." Her eyes grew wide.

"No, it was..." And once again, he remembered about time. Decades. He held to the wall for support. Twenty years. "Not eleven, then. Hemon should be... he should be thirty... thirty-four, thirty..."

"Sir?" she said, holding him so he wouldn't fall.

But he fell anyway. The strong smell of alcohol brought him back, and the world slowly gathered itself back around him. Outlines grew sharp, he was suddenly aware of the texture of a couch beneath him. A hearth was lit up to his right, though its light was partially shaded by the young woman's face, along with twenty-odd children that stared at him intensely.

"What is this place?" was the first thing he said when he woke. But he didn't wait for an answer before climbing to his feet. He felt ashamed, shaken as he always was after losing his mind. "Oh, forgive me," he said to the staring faces."Allow me to bless this house properly to make up for my behavior. Now, don't look at me like that. I'm good. I swear."

He chanted under his breath as he went about the place, scanning every corner, every face of the children that followed him like shadows. He hated himself for it, but he still clung to the last bit of hope. Dur had brought him here, after all.

But there was no Mila, no Hemon, no Dalia, just a never-ending supply of orphans, who, despite his odd behavior and appearance, kept begging him to adopt them.

In the end, it was the one who did not speak at all that caught his eye, the one that was lying against the wall like a discarded toy, almost dead, probably from neglect. That poor boy of maybe four or five, with dreadful scars running down his face, scars that twisted the features and that made the onlooker afraid, and certainly kept the other kids, and maybe even the caretakers, away. There was a hint of Dur about him, hidden in the deep circles under the eyes. Perhaps he was chosen by Death to be its next great deliverer.

Maybe. The simple truth was that Asvard picked up the pitiful creature and made for the door because he wanted to save the boy and to save himself. To replace the three he'd lost. "He's the one I was looking for," he told the young woman. "The one Dur led me to."

And she let him go. Asvard supposed she didn't care enough to stop him. Or perhaps there was hardly enough to feed them all. Thirty-odd faces watched the priest and boy disappear into the mist of snow. And as for Asvard, he didn't have to carry the boy the whole way back. As soon as they had put enough distance, he suddenly recovered his strength. On they went, the man gave the boy a name, took him far to the west, to the strange place he called home, a place that was also atop a mountain. There, with the other priests of Dur, he taught the boy how to read and write, how to count and add, the names of the stars, the tales of the gods, the unfairness of life, the sanctity of death, but, most of all, the meaninglessness of time.

***

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