He coughed and shifted on his side, dizziness overpowering his vision. Despite all that, Thanatos didn't want to die. It there was one person who would and could save him, who would it be? Thanatos closed his eyes and wracked his brain. Cringing, a tear slipped down his cheek, well and truly alone. He scrunched closer in on himself and drifted off to sleep.
Someone was in the room. Thanatos froze, realizing he'd slept through an intruder. He suspected one of the Aina, so moving to clutch the knife tucked under his pillow. The figure stopped, hesitating, Thanatos heard. A few seconds later, it continued to move, steps creaking and scuffling closer, until they stopped just above him., but just as they came, they disappeared. Believing it to be a dream, Thanatos fell back asleep. He dreamed of nothing, the total blackness filled his mind and Thanatos enjoyed the rest. No distractions. No people. No Aina. No killing. Just nothing but peace, yet it lasted all too short. He woke to a cool wet rag on his forehead and a blazing fire next to him. He was warm and comfortable, reminding Thanatos of all those morning back at the academy on summer's nights or winter mornings, so un-desirous of getting out of the perfect position. His bleary eyes gazed around and Thanatos spotted none other than Maor Haya sitting next to him reading a book. A thousand questions ran through his mind. Didn't Maor Haya believe him to be dead? What was he doing here? Why was he here? How did he know? Mr. Death and Mr. Haya did spend a lot time together, didn't they?
Maor Haya looked up and smiled, dropping the book to his lap. "You're awake."
"...how...?" he croaked.
"Water first," Mr. Haya poured a small cup and handed it to Thanatos. He drank greedily and lay back down.
Maor smiled, but it faded into pursed lips. "I'm a little more than worried about you, Thanatos."
Thanatos closed his eyes. He wanted to shift the blanket to cover his face, but didn't want to lose his comfortable position.
"Have you seen yourself?" The question wasn't indignant. It was serious, curious, and straight-forward. Thanatos didn't hear a hint of concern either.
"I'm fine," Thanatos mumbled, eyes still closed. He knew he clearly wasn't, but Thanatos thought this was about the time Maor Haya needed to go away.
"No, Thanatos. I mean literally. Your appearance."
"I know... I've gotten skinnier," Thanatos turned his face towards the fire. The strange mark ached and burned, spread across his torso in a mass of dark colors. "And I've got a nasty award from some ghostie Aina from the sea."
"Thanatos, your skin used to be what color?"
"Tan, like all people from Caliga."
"You're almost as pale as the snow."
"You're killing yourself."
Thanatos snorted. and turned on his side. "Go away."
He heard Maor sigh behind him. "You've been out here for almost a year -"
"In a month, actually." Thanatos interrupted. He thought back to the first time he entered the swamp. In a week or two, the great host would come back. Already they appeared here and there throughout the wood. and if he guessed correctly, with each approaching day, they gained a more corporeal form. They hadn't bothered him yet, but before being struck down, he'd kept to the trees and would keep doing so. Or maybe the salamanders would keep him safe, assuming that's what they were trying to do last time.
Maor didn't say anything for a few seconds and then continued. "I know why you're doing this and I want you to know that you don't have to live this way."
"Don't mock me," Thanatos snapped. "There's nothing out there in the world for me."
"Do you really believe that?" Again, the same lack of emotion. Thanatos couldn't figure out what Maor thought, what he wanted. Why was he so kind? No one was supposed to be kind. He hesitated at the question, Odette's face flashing across his mind.
"Yes," he lied. The word came out in a croak.
Maor poured another cup of water and handed it to Thanatos. He sipped it, savoring the cold liquid.
"We both know that's a lie."
Thanatos sat up, bracing himself, weakness still plaguing his motions. "Who then? Whatever family I had abandoned me six years ago. There's no job I could apply for as...I..I just don't know. I'm horribly socially awkward and the only friend I ever made was -"
They sat in silence until Maor whispered, "I know. But I cannot stand by and watch you suffer and dwindle away here. There are better things for you than this insidious lifestyle."
"I can't leave, not with the contract and the swamp's barrier and Odette...I can't...just can't." Angered seeped into his voice, the cup hard and unforgiving under his squeezing hands.
"I can keep you safe from those things, Thanatos. With me, there is nothing to fear and you can start anew. It won't be easy, but you can."
How Thanatos longed for it to be true. It all seemed too lackadaisical and perfect. If he could leave the swamp and go to La Norrium and see Odette, apologize, and Maor Haya would somehow absolve his contract, he'd no longer be technically dead, but that was too good to be true. The metal hull zoomed into focus, reality crashing down, telling Thanatos that the path Maor offered was something he could only dream. There was no truth to his words.
He squeezed the cup tighter despite his longing to say yes, I'll go with you. "My innocence is already gone. Don't act like there's any redemption for me. Just...let me do this, Mr. Haya. I need to do this."
"Very well," Maor nodded. "Then let me leave you this."
He produced from a bag next to him, a long straight horn hewn from some large animal. "Should you ever need me for anything, just a talk or sick as you are right now, blow this, and I'll come."
Thanatos took it, gazing at the intricate carving of the handle, the leather strap, seeing how it would hang over one should and on the back. He tore his gaze from the beautiful instrument. "How?"
"As Mr. Death has his magics, I have my own, light if you will, since his darkness is the absence of light. It is how I know where to find you."
Thanatos didn't try to understand that.
"Hopefully one day, you won't need the horn to call on me, but for now, it'll suffice," Maor said. He stuffed his book in his bag.
"Yeah." Thanatos set the horn down next to his pillow, a yawn escaping him. He settled down into the folds of the blankets Maor pulled them up to his shoulders. He frowned. He was not a child.
"Give yourself another three days of rest and your wound will be fully healed. The medicine I gave you has saved your life, please don't forget that," Maor said from somewhere behind. Thanatos turned around, but the mysterious being had already gone, a soft shower of light drifting away where he once stood. Thanatos shook his head and turned back to the fire, falling asleep.
* * * * *
Thanatos shot up, grasping the knife from beneath his pillow and held it up, clashing against steel another held. The blade spun away out of the intruder's hand. Thanatos stared up at his visitor. It was no Aina. It was a pale-faced boy - paler than even himself - with blond hair and blue eyes. From Burcu, Thanatos mused, but, "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"Name's Attilio." The boy crouched in front of Thanatos and pointed towards Thanatos' bare chest. "That's a mark, that is. How'd you get it?"
"This is my home," Thanatos growled, staring down the boy and never dropping the knife. "I asked what you were doing here."
Attilio raised his hands in surrender. "Haha! All right, keep your top on, didn't mean to intrude. I'm here for trainin' of some sort. Special sort. Can't tell or I'd have to kill ya."
Thanatos watched as Attilio put a finger to his lips and continued. "Saw this ship in the lake and thought I'd take a look inside. Those mountain Aina were wondering' if anyone died in here."
"Well, I'm not dead," Thanatos stood on shaky legs. "Now get out."
"You all right, mate?" He stood too, holding out a hand if Thanatos might fall. It had only been a day since Maor had come.
"Yes. Go." Just standing took Thanatos' breath away.
"Can I at least get my knife back?"
Thanatos pointed to the door. "No. I'll bring it to you later. Now, leave."
Attilio made no move. "I really didn't want a direct confrontation, but you see, I can't have that."
"What?" Thanatos whispered.
Attilio spun on his heel, peering at the makeshift cabin, the broken windows, and dying fire. "Mr. Death said you were a stubborn one."
Mr. Death, Thanatos thought. His eyes narrowed, but he dare not speak. He'd rather let the intruder ramble. By the gods, he wanted to go back to sleep. After a full turn, Attilio looked pointedly at Thanatos' wound. "Very stubborn considering you're still standing with that nasty thing. My guess is it's from an incorporeal ghost, but can take corporeal form for a few seconds if provoked. Please, Thanatos, sit before you pass out."
"You sure know a lot," Thanatos said straightening. With a quick glance, he located Attilio's knife.
Attilio flexed his fingers and cracked his knuckles. "I studied under Mr. Death for the last year, taught me his trade, the magic, the potions, herbs, the theory behind the art of killing and bringing those whose time as come to the grave, you know, the usual."
He paused, seeing Thanatos' glare. This had to be a shadow man, Thanatos thought, but was cut short from speaking when Attilio smiled and clapped his hands, "But oh! That's right. He didn't give you any training beforehand...didn't take any time or energy at all you train you up proper. Just put you out here with nothing but a dull knife. I'm surprised the Aina haven't killed you yet!"
Attilio cackled then lunged at Thanatos. Thanatos wasn't ready for it and the tumbled, Thanatos hitting the floor, almost knocking on the metal of the fireplace, as Attilio fumbled for Thanatos' hand, attempting to pry the knife from it. Thanatos kicked out with his knee. Attilio fell to the side and Thanatos clambered on top, bringing the knife down, but Attilio held him fast.
"You need to die," Attilio grunted.
Thanatos didn't respond as the knife missed, stabbing the floor. Attilio's knee knocked Thanatos' wound. He gasped and collapsed. Attilio wiggled out from under Thanatos and vaguely he knew that the Burcuian boy was going for his own knife. It hurt too much to move. Had to stall him somehow. "Why do I need to die?"
Attilio stood over Thanatos, knife retrieved and flipping it in his hand. He crouched once more next to Thanatos. "Didn't you know? Of course not... This is a competition. Mr. Death will only take one of us into his service, probably testing which training is better. The field first or education of the dark arts first. From our positions, I believe I already know the winner."
Deep down, terror filled his heart, but he could not help the happy sound spilling from his mouth. "Haha! Hahahaha! Really? Hahaha!"
He reached out, Attilio's bemused face reflecting only curiosity and the slight traces of shock. Thanatos kept laughing, waves of pain burning his chest, yet he couldn't stop. Thanatos shuffled to his knees. He didn't understand it but a tingling like the warmth after being in the cold too long surged through his fingers. Thanatos touched Attilio's arm, the other jerking away as if struck by static electricity, but Thanatos gripped harder. Attilio stumbled upright, attempting to wrench his arm away, but pulled Thanatos to his feet instead.
"Let me go, you maniac!"
Thanatos grinned. Power surged though him and upon Attilio's arm, a dark sparkling bruise spiraled and spread like watercolor splotches across his skin. Thanatos raised his other hand to Attilio's face, but he caught it, only for his hand to bloom with the same multicolor darkness. Thanatos giggled.
"You're insane!" Attilio snatched his hand away and again jerked his other arm to know avail.
"Sure." Thanatos' smile fell away. He cupped Attilio's cheek with one hand. "But there is one thing you must learn. Fear the darkness of this place. Respect it."
He let Attilio go, pushing him away. He gripped his shaking hands and discolored face, rubbing, and stepped backward in breathy gasps. Thanatos fell to the floor, clutching his side as Attilio stumbled to the back of the cabin and in his state of shock, tumbled out a broken window.
Thanatos stared at the floor. He glanced towards the horn that lay where he left it, untouched from the scuffle. No, he'd do this by himself, figure out what Mr. Death was up to, and keep to the plan. Kill Mr. Death. Become him.