The Healer knew he was aging.
His body was too frail to continue traveling through time and space. Soon, he would complete his calling, and his vocation would pass on to someone else. He’d accepted these truths, but that didn’t make being awakened by the pain in his joints any easier.
After completing a routine of bending and stretching, he rose from his bed.
He gathered the spirals of gray that hung to his waist and tied them behind his head. His cloak hung on a chair next to where he’d been sleeping. He rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder to loosen his back muscles before wrapping the cloak around him and fastening its clasp at his neck.
The Healer buried his hand in a jar filled with chewing sticks cut from a Peelu tree, and pulled out a twig. He peeled bark from the twig’s edge. Placing the peeled end between his teeth, he chewed until its fibers frayed and formed a brush.
He wandered out the door to his home, chewing and brushing as he began his morning walk.
Trees rustled with the song of the morning breeze, and the air held an aftertaste of winter pine.
The Healer breathed deeply. He squinted, his eyes having been uncovered and unprotected from the megastars that brought the morning light. He paused to close and to rub the remaining sleepiness from his eyes. When he opened them, there was a twinkling in the thick of woods that had not been there before.
He blinked and chewed, and rubbed his eyes again.
His knees creaked as he stepped toward the twinkling.
When he passed a hand through the outer edges of the space, his fingers disappeared as if they’d moved through an invisible door. The chewing stick fell from his lips and landed in the dirt.
After testing his opposite hand and a foot, the Healer bent forward and pressed his head inside.
His ears filled with the rush of wind and a faint tinkle of chimes.
Blue-green eyes, the color of shallow waters, struggled to absorb and understand what they were seeing.
Transfixed, the Healer continued forward.
Dark clouds hovered in the sky. Light from stars shone and faded through gaps between the clouds. Wherever he was now, it was no longer morning.
There were more trees on this side of the twinkling, but also a river the Healer had never seen. It was not part of the grounds near his home. It was not part of his world.
He tapped a finger to his lips. “How is this possible? A portal, perhaps—but why now? And in the middle of nowhere, outside my home?”
Still, the Healer grinned as he observed the twinkling from this side, from a viewpoint within a realm unknown to him. It was no more than an outline, wider than his shoulders and higher than the stature of an average man. Lines along the edges of the twinkling shimmered, but so softly that most of the area blended in with its surroundings, a faint light peering through a tear in space.
He stood, with his fists resting at his hips and his eyes glistening, completely absorbed in studying the new world, when two men approached.
Both wore cloaks clasped at the neck, like the Healer, except that one of them had an attached hood that drooped over his forehead and eyes.
“Good eventide,” said the hooded man. His voice was croaky, with the persistent change of pitch of one whose vocal chords had been twisted and scrambled.
“Yes, the evening here is quite good.”
The Healer hadn’t intended his reply to be thoughtless or unfriendly. At any other time, he would have cringed at a voice like the hooded man’s. He would have wanted to help soothe the man’s pain. But he was so rapt by his discovery of the portal he hadn’t thought to press his hand to the man’s throat to heal him.
The hooded man grabbed the Healer by the throat instead.
Choking, the Healer clawed at the hooded man’s hand to loosen the vice on his airways. But by the time the bloodied hand let go, the hooded man’s companion had pulled the Healer’s cloak over his head and around his arms, leaving him blind and defenseless.
The hooded man landed three blows to the Healer’s head before kicking him toward his companion. Both men hissed and jeered at the Healer’s attempts to dodge their attacks as he teetered back and forth between them.
With a ringing snap, the clasp at the Healer’s neck opened, freeing him from the prison of fabric that allowed him to be beaten in the dark.
But it was too late.
With one eye open and the other swollen shut, he reached for the twinkling, knowing he would not pass through before his battered body fell. He reached anyway, until his fingernails clipped soil and his teeth cracked against the ground.
Air spilled from his lungs, constricted from the impact. He no longer moved.
Only then did the cloaked men stop to wipe the blood from their fists.
A third man emerged from the shadows. He was masked, and wore no cloak, but his tunic flowed to the ground. A shallow split in the fabric limited his mobility by slowing his stride. When he reached the heap on the ground that was the Healer, he slipped the mask he wore from his eyes. What began as a nervous chuckle grew into a full belly roar.
“Such a great man, but so distracted,” he wheezed, his body shaking with laughter. “Fine work setting the portal trap.”
The cloaked men grunted.
“Get a good look at his face. Be sure it is the right man.”
The unhooded man bent forward and knelt to the ground, something the man in the unwieldy tunic could not do. “I am certain it is he.”
“Basileios Plaka, we have you at last.” The man in the tunic threw his head back. His laughter echoed through the trees.
The cloaked men listened. Neither cracked a smile.
“Why do you stay silent instead of laughing with me?”
Ignoring his question, the hooded man spoke. “Are you finished with us?”
“Almost. Where is the instrument—the baglamas?”
The unhooded man trembled as he raised hands marked with scars, cupping them outward to show they were empty. “I have checked his person. The instrument was not tied to his belt. It is nowhere to be found.”
The face of the man in the tunic went rigid and paled. He attempted to kick at the body, but was caught short by his tunic.
He set his foot back down and paused to regain his composure. “No matter. He won’t need the baglamas where he’s going.”
“No weapons, either.” The unhooded man’s voice was sharper, more controlled, than before. “He couldn’t have defended himself. They will think us animals.”
“I care not what anyone thinks of you. Make sure he is dead, and then remove his body from this place. Have it sent back to Chascadia.”
The cloaked men looked at one another.
“We will do as you say,” the hooded man croaked.
“Good. Once that is finished, you will find the instrument and bring it to me. Then, I will be finished with you.”
The men’s voices traveled through the Healer’s ears. He heard their conversation the way he would have imagined an outsider listening to someone else’s dream. His lack of strength left him unable to speak or move. He hadn’t the breath to groan. He knew he would die, alone and unable to tell his loved ones what had happened or to reveal the identity of his attackers.
Awareness ebbed as his heartbeat slowed.
The worlds as he knew them melted together, enveloping him in waves of peace and embracing him in a curtain of white light.
Learn more about the serialization of Darker Stars here.