Immortal Death

Posted on August 10, 2010

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This story is Part 13 of the Fire and Water series. It follows Directions. To read from the beginning, please visit the Index Page.

* * *

The plains were immense, stretching as far as the eye could see. It was warmer here, but there was still a thin crust of snow on the ground. They kept a brisk pace and made good time over the gently rolling terrain.

Stands of deciduous trees dotted the landscape, and they fell into the habit of making camp within the groves. One afternoon they came upon a small copse beside a river. Coanh went inside to find a clear spot for a fire while the others drank and splashed their faces in the river. They heard him shout, and looked up to see him running toward them.

“What’s wrong?” Zaghran demanded.

“There’s a dead man in there,” Coanh said, breathing hard.

They followed him to where the body lay. Aurmid circled above the trees.

Careful now. Griel’s voice whispered from the scale into Findol’s ear. This is not what it seems. Zaghran looked sharply at Findol: he had heard.

They gathered around the body, which lay face down at the thick base of a tree. The morning’s light snowfall dusted his clothes.

“I wonder who he is,” Varala said. “Poor creature, to have died so ignobly from the cold.” She bent and turned him over. He was bald as Jal had been, and appeared to be more than fifty years of age; not young, but not elderly.

“He seems to be one of the Varzil from his dress,” Zaghran said. “But it isn’t the Varzil’s way to leave their dead like this.”

Not what it seems, echoed Griel’s voice. Findol felt lightheaded.

“We should take care,” he said. “Perhaps he isn’t really dead, but only unconscious. Varala, can’t the cold make people fall into such a deep sleep?”

“It can,” she said. “But such a sleep always leads to death if you’re not found immediately. We’ve found him too late. He can only be dead.”

Zaghran knelt and placed his hand over the man’s heart. After a moment he stood and shook his head.

“I feel no life in him,” he said.

“Right,” Coanh said. “We can’t just leave him here. We should bury him before the sun sets. Findol, help me carry him out of the trees.”

They lifted him and carried him to open ground. The scale thumped against Findol’s chest as they did, and grew hot.

His father was a Nurain, Griel said through the scale. His mother was one of us. I can still smell her blood in him. His death reeks of his father’s kind.

Findol dropped him, leaving Coanh to ease the body to the ground. He stumbled, dizzy from Griel’s voice in his head. Aurmid landed with a thump beside him, and Zaghran steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

“We shall not bury this creature,” Aurmid said. “It is the Nurain’s custom to put the dead in the earth. Before them, it was our custom to burn the dead, so that the life could move on to other forms. We shall burn him and destroy what belongs to the Nurain. My father has spoken.”

“Well, that will be quicker work than burying him,” Coanh said. “I’ll help you.”

They all helped find dead wood, and built a small pyre on a clear patch of ground beside the river. They lay the dead man on it and Aurmid breathed a stream of fire down upon him. The wood groaned and caught the fire with a loud snap.

They watched solemnly as the fire consumed the stranger. As twilight stretched over the plains, the fire sank into embers, and all that was left of the man was shards of bone.

Wait, said Griel’s voice. It is not finished. Zaghran and Aurmid glanced at Findol, and then turned back to the smoldering heap.

The ashes stirred. Wisps of smoke curled into the sky, and they heard something scrabbling in the remnants of the pyre. They watched bits of bone scrape toward each other and join together again.

“What’s happening?” Coanh whispered. Varala shifted into cat form beside Zaghran, growling a threat low in her throat.

The bones reassembled themselves. Flesh grew and covered them. Even his clothes resumed their shape, whole and clean again. The man got to his feet, groaning, and stumbled out of the dead fire toward them. Varala blocked his path, snarling a warning, and Aurmid growled.

He stared at them wildly. He was younger now than his corpse had been. His flesh was smooth and unblemished, his face fair and full of grief.

“Who are you?” Findol demanded. “What are you?”

“Cursed is what I am,” he said. “Six thousand years of dying and returning, and it will go on until the world ends. The Old Ones told me it was a gift, but experience tells me otherwise.” He eyed Varala as she circled him. “This beast can kill me again, but it won’t harm me. I’ll just get up again in a few days.” He laughed; there was a tone of madness in his voice. Varala hissed and became a woman again. She stood her ground, shadowing him.

“Do you have any food you can share?” he asked. “Dying makes me ravenous.”

“You can camp with us tonight,” Zaghran said. Findol and Varala looked at him, surprised. “Tell us your name, stranger.”

He followed them back into the trees, and Coanh and Findol set about making the campfire. Aurmid paced just beyond the trees, watching him.

“Peldanir is my name,” he said. “I usually ride with the Varzil tribes. I leave them when I feel my death coming, and when I rise, I find a different tribe to avoid questions.”

They settled uneasily around the fire and ate their meal in silence. Finally Coanh spoke, overcome with curiosity.

“How did you come by your… your…” He faltered and gazed into the fire.

“My curse?” Peldanir smiled grimly. “They say my mother was Oma, an immortal. But she lost her immortality in her union with my father, Iru, who was an Old One. When she died giving birth to me, the people of Vael behaved as if such a thing had never happened before. So the Old Ones sent Iru back to their world, hoping the people would forget about him and what happened to Oma. And the people did forget. The rest of the Old Ones remained another three thousand years.”

“Oma was Jal’s sister,” Zaghran said. “I remember it. That was when I began to doubt the Nurain.”

“And now I die because death comes so naturally to my father’s kind,” Peldanir said, “yet I’m also immortal because my mother was. I have both worlds inside me. I told you it was a curse.”

Zaghran sighed, his face troubled and dark.

Peldanir fell silent again, and presently they heard him snoring quietly.

“That’s fine,” Coanh whispered to Varala. “I won’t shut my eyes at all after that tale.”

Neither did anyone else.

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