A tear fell from Arkh’s chin and landed on the page he was reading, immediately blotting the years-old ink. Arkh quickly started dabbing at it with his sleeve, and managed to contain the stain before it spread—though the damage had been done. He tossed the journal back onto the desk and wiped at his face, furious at himself for ruining Banagher’s personal effects like that.
Though he’d told himself that he’d long since accepted Banagher’s fate, Arkh had never given himself the chance to grieve properly; it had now arrived with a vengeance, and the guilt of having put it off for so long was compounding his grief tenfold. Banagher had been his teacher and his mentor. He’d been there to help Arkh grow into the man he’d become—as much of a man as he was—and he’d never asked anything more of him than his best. He’d been many things to many people, but to Arkh, he’d been a friend. To the troubled young boy who missed his family, and had never once felt like he was where he belonged, a friend as good as Banagher was worth the world. And now, that world was gone.
Before he left New Turath, Arkh had promised Banagher that he would return with a cure. It was now, standing in a dead Cartographer’s abandoned study, that he realized he would probably die before he could fulfill that promise. He hadn’t started showing symptoms yet, but, if Banagher was any metric to follow, he wouldn’t have much time left once he did. The thought weighed heavy on him as he began to understand that he was not mourning one death, but two; his friend’s, and his own.
Arkh set himself down in the desk chair, and gazed across the room, trying to calm himself down. After a moment, he realized that he was looking at a piece of art Banagher had hung: some kind of painting, though obviously devoid of any actual paint. He remembered Banagher teaching him the Fey word “erita,” for which there was no Estanic equivalent. Roughly translated, it meant “the feeling of watching your reflection disappear, as ripples mar the water’s surface.” He’d heard a few Fey use it when discussing their own culture’s art (and indeed, if he remembered correctly, there was an entire artistic movement around the term), though he’d never understood its usage. As he studied the piece, an abstract mess of emotional colors and evocative shapes, he wondered if he was experiencing erita right now.
The last three weeks had been the most trying of Arkh’s life, each one marked by more challenges and hardship than the rest of his life combined. He’d made friends, been to amazing places, and experienced wonders he could never imagine otherwise, but he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d lost some of himself along the way.
Arkh wiped his eyes as the sadness hit him like a crushing wave. One of his first nights on the road, he’d attacked a small child, furious at being separated from his maps. Barely a week later, insistent on being listened to, he’d started a fight—a fight that had ended in many deaths, including a Fey general that was just trying to protect them. Then, not even a few days ago, he’d deliberately pushed Cerlissa—Cerlissa!—to attack and harm one of his closest friends, in order to prove a point.
“The mercenaries,” as Arkh was fond of calling the others (a term that he idly wondered might be designed to convey his contempt for their profession), all fought and killed for a living. When it was necessary for someone to be killed, they did the deed without hesitation, and were efficient and professional about it every time. Arkh had long snubbed his nose at the ease with which violence came to them, but he was now beginning to understand that he had remained in the shadows the entire time, constantly pushing them to greater and greater violence when it suited him. Because it suited him.
Arkh was suddenly aware that his right hand was covered in blood—from the wound he’d neglected to bandage—and found the metaphor unsettling. His right hand, the hand with which he wrote, drew, and performed surgery; the hand he’d broken when he’d attacked Gwind; the hand he’d used every time he swung his forging hammer; the hand upon which he could still feel Cyleena’s gentle touch; the hand that now betrayed him as it painted, in clear detail, the betrayal he’d committed upon himself. He clenched the hand into a fist, and blood dripped from his wounds onto the floor. He watched, silently, as the droplets stained the stone-and-dirt floor, like his tear had done to the journal.
And just like that, his anger was gone. All of Arkh’s pain and rage left him, and had left him lighter and more free for the loss. Though he carried with him the disease that was killing him, it was not him who had made it. It was not him who placed the plague on Banagher and so many others, and it was not him now that stole countless more final breaths. It was not him that had attacked the dignitaries in front of that derelict train, and it was not him that swung that accursed sword at Nameless—though his hands had been used to do so. It was not him that was responsible for so many of the atrocities he had seen and experienced since his departure… but that would no longer be the case.
Arkh was reminded of a line from an old poem, the rest of which he’d long since forgotten. “We are all going to die. I intend to deserve it.”