Author Nick Cold
The fog was dense, but it was lifting. A blurry light in the distance grew brighter and clearer. Soon, a shadowy figure emerged from the mist, jumping from his raft to the wooden docks. He gave a short sigh of relief. Without being secured to the docks, the raft started to drift away, carried on by the currents, until it was out of sight. The man didn’t notice.
His heavy footsteps dragged along the docks. He stopped, took a deep breath, and smiled. His eyes rested on the bell tower nearby. “Never thought I’d be so glad to see that ugly thing again,” he mused.
Bending down, he grabbed a handful of soil and held it close to his nose. It was vibrant, and it smelled of life. Scattering the soil near his boots, he looked towards the shrine to his right. As he moved closer, he realized there were now two. The devotional to Honor he knew. It had been there before he’d left. The other devotional was obscured by the night. It was barely visible by the flame of a dying candle. As he neared, he saw the flame tickling the images etched on the walls of the devotional.
A single tear flowed from his eye. It was the Shrine of Sacrifice. It seemed to grab his heart from within and gently give it a squeeze. Memories of his fallen friends flooded his head. One by one, their deaths replayed over and over again. Falling to his knees, he wept.
“Damn the power of the shrines,” he sighed, as he tried to get hold of himself and shake off the memories. “You were right, Cianna. Sacrifice is necessary in this world.” With both hands, he gathered enough water from the shrine to wet his face. He felt invigorated then, with strength pouring into his body with each and every breath.
He stood, bowed, and mustered a simple prayer to those he remembered, his heart still grieving. Picking up his belongings, he walked as if compelled, moving behind the row houses to where a long winding path led to a special place, a place he and Cianna had built together in the early days. “Too often we do not remember our loved ones,” she would say as they worked side by side creating a memorial garden where close friends and relatives were honored.
He placed his hand on a pile of unused headstones. “So many more to honor now,” he thought.
Looking towards his crypt, he suddenly remembered his purpose for coming here. Fumbling within his belongings, he took a piece of fabric from his pack. Looking at it, he spat onto the ground and mumbled a few unintelligible words at the memories it invoked. But slowly, as he walked towards the stone crypt, he felt the weight on his shoulders lifting, one memory at a time. He felt as though the people he loved were cheering him on, holding him up. He thought he could hear their voices. He rubbed his eyes, and when he opened them, the night was silent around him. He entered the crypt, took a knee, and placed the remnant of the grey shroud onto the altar that Cianna had made, slightly to the right of the ageless ankh nearby.
“I’ve done it,” he said, closing his eyes. He’d sought the Shroud of the Avatar, fought the terrible battles against good and evil, and emerged victorious. But what a terrible price he’d had to pay.
As he quietly recited a druid’s prayer that Cianna once taught him a long ago, memories of her floated in his mind.
“How is she?” he wondered, as he left the memorial behind him, now walking past the familiar Crafting Hall where he and other good friends used to spend their days. Many of his crafted gear came out of those halls.
Reminded of the crafted bracers he wore, he couldn’t help but smile. The first pair of bracers that Cianna had ever made, the pieces were crude and uncomfortable. He remembered how she threw them on the floor in disgust after making them, angry with herself that they were not perfect. She’d left the Hall without a word, a hint of tears in her eyes. She was so hard on herself.
He’d picked the bracers up to examine them. NlcL Cqld was embroidered on it, and it took him a while before it sank into him what it meant. He’d kept the bracers, reinforcing them with meteoric iron, and padding them with supple leather for greater nimbleness and comfort. He’d worn them ever since.
There was laughter in the halls now, new, unfamiliar voices sharing stories of adventures. He contemplated going in, but decided not to. His mind was straying to an elven home a short distance away. Perhaps she’s there, he thought. Increasing his pace, he walked towards Cianna’s home. But he hadn’t walked far before he could tell she wasn’t home. The lights were out. The house looked cold from where he stood, and seemed to be telling him to go away.
With a heavy heart, he turned around, heading towards the small cabin he’d built a long time ago. “I miss her,” he thought.
Their last argument had led him to the quest for the shroud, a challenge he felt compelled to take. Now that he was back, though, it seemed that she, too, was gone. Feeling a sense of loss, his legs began to tire and felt like lead. The short walk to his cabin felt like one of the longest journeys of his life. Why had he come back? What was he looking for? Was this truly home?
Before he knew it, he was at the foot of the hill where his cabin home stood. A familiar tune floated in the air, an elven folk song that he knew by heart, and the faint smell of cooking food tickled his nose. Hope rose from the depths of despair. “Cianna,” he thought.
Dropping everything he had to the ground, he ran to the door, only one thought in his mind.
I am home.