Why are you keeping me at a distance?
All that I’m asking for is forgiveness
Are you even listening? Am I talking to myself again?
The sound of cicadas snapped through the midday air as the sun blistered down. Even the ancient wood of the ramshackle buildings seemed to creak and sway in protest, demanding sustenance that would never come. The mountains in the distance crackled and hissed as the great purple clouds surrounding them fizzed with lightning and drenched them in rain. It was as if the town itself was jealous of their drink.
The cleric looked up at the cracked sign that swayed gently in a completely non-existent breeze.
Neither Here Nor There
He turned his hand over and closed his eyes, allowing himself a weak smile as he ran his fingers over the metal object in his palm. Then, he loosened his grip, letting the metal cog dangle from the chain-link necklace still tightly coiled around his gauntleted fingers. He cracked his eyes open to stare at it.
“There is no way you are comfortable.”
He turned to look at the speaker, and saw a man in thick blue robes, his hands clutching a quarterstaff, and his hair matted into long black strands. His accoutrements identified him immediately as a monk of the church of Ilmater, the god of endurance, and the cleric instinctively brushed his hair back over his pointed ears.
“Oh, it’s you…I…I’m fine, thank you for asking.”
“You know,” replied the monk, leaning on his staff and staring into the distance, “in all my years I’ve never heard anyone say they were fine and have them mean it.”
A slight pause.
“I, uh, I suppose I am fine.”
“Of course.” The staff clattered to the ground, and then there were two men sat on the steps of the Fallen Star tavern. A patron staggered from the doors, momentarily sending the smell of booze and sounds of reverie their way as they trudged across the street to the hostel, tripping over the staff and thumping to the ground before stomping to their feet and going on their way.
The monk pulled the staff closer to him with a sandalled foot, and sniffed the air before turning back. “But at the very least you’ve got to be roasting.”
“I’m…” The cleric sucked in his lips and turned to look at the new arrival with mournful green eyes. “I’m used to it being hot. Look, I’m sorry about-“
“Ah, we agree on something!” Two gourds had been produced at a moment’s notice, one already being sipped from and the other sloshing as his hand waggled it from side to side. “Two artists. Some water, friend?”
“Oh?…Thank you.” The cleric took the container and drank well from its contents. The water within was cold and refreshing, and he wiped the droplets off his beard before offering his hand. “We met earlier at the temple, but I never got your name.”
“Likewise.” He took the hand and shook it, an incredibly firm grip which made the metal plates on the gauntlet rattle. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Lo Wue, at your service.”
“Janik.” He looked down to the ground and back up again. “Your hospitality is appreciated. If…if there is any way I can repay you-“
“Actually there is!” The monk was already standing up; Janik tilted his head to one side. “I need to go and fetch more water. It is vital for my work, and I would appreciate some company on my journey.”
“I…I could accompany you, but I can’t really leave -” Janik turned to see another drunken denizen of the taphouse stumble out. Through the burst of colour and smells within, he made out the visage of a man in an unbuttoned red shirt, sipping from wine while intently listening to a half-elf telling stories between puffs of his cigar to an attentive blue gnome.
“It will only take a moment, I assure you,” said Lo. “Your friends will still be here when you’re back. And besides. You just drank the last of my supply.”
Janik looked down at the empty gourd in his other hand and grimaced.
I keep on staring up at the ceiling
Waiting for you to give me some kind of reason
Are you even listening? Am I talking to myself again?
“So how long have you lived here?” Janik adjusted his breastplate in the arid heat.
“Long enough,” replied Lo, smiling. “I go where I am needed, and it seems I have been needed here for some time. I can’t quite recall how long. How about you? Just passing through?”
Janik considered for a moment. “Always. I set off a few years or so ago from a my hometown, and-”
“Where are you from?”
“What does it matter?”
“Everyone is from somewhere.”
Janik paused. “…Acklam.”
A gasp. The monk wheeled around.
“Ah! Acklam! I know it well!”
Janik stopped dead in place, stunned.
“R-really? You do?”
Lo grinned. “No, not in the least. But I imagine nobody’s ever said that to you before, so I thought I’d surprise you.”
“Well, uh…” Janik cleared his throat. “So where are we going? This isn’t the right way to the lake I saw earlier…”
“Pah!” Lo’s laugh was the same sort of noise a bottle made hitting a brick wall. “I wouldn’t use that water to wash a dog.”
Janik, who had not only swam but actively dove in that water earlier, said nothing.
“No,” said the monk, “I’m here for something special.” Lo turned around and spoke in a low, lilting whisper. “It is just down this cliff and through the caves,” he said. “You and I will make our way through them, and there will be our prize.”
“Fair enough,” said Janik. “Were you expecting trouble?”
“It is wise to always expect trouble, Ser Janik.”
“Just…Janik, please.” He rubbed the back of his head. “…I’m sorry about earlier.”
Lo raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”
“It was dire news to impart. One of your own was killed, and -“
Lo held up a single finger to hush him.
“It was saddening indeed, as it always is to hear of such things. But your friend brought me reassurance. The perpetrators were punished, no?”
“They were, but…” Janik faltered and tried again. “I’m sorry that it happened at all.”
Lo nodded to himself. “I think we could both use a drink, no?”
He started down the hill, and Janik followed.
Why, when I call, you never answer?
I try to talk, you keep on dancing
I can feel you on my skin, but am I only dancing with the wind?
Great shafts of light punched through the porous walls of the cave, bathing the catacombs in great ripples which threw themselves against the rock face. Even the sounds of the two men were warped and enriched by this place into music; the woodwind of Lo’s staff, shoes and scratching fabric, and the percussion of Janik’s plate and weapons.
“This is…it’s beautiful.” Janik’s low voice only added to the gentle cacophony.
“Thank you.” Lo walked over to the glowing pool in the corner of the cave and took from over his shoulder a great interwoven rope sash, covered in bottles. He began uncorking each, feeding the assembly into the pool, and they hissed and bubbled as they drank. “It was her favourite place.”
“I…oh.” Janik closed his eyes for a moment. “What was her name?”
“She will always be Alyssa.”
Janik rested a hand against the wall. “Damien told me she went looking for her mother. I don’t think we found her in the end.”
Lo picked up some stones and pocketed them, his eyes tightly shut himself. “Two artists. Two artists.”
“Why do you keep saying that? What does it mean?”
“Shh!” Lo covered Janik’s mouth as voices began echoing through the cave.
“Yeah, this looks like the place!”
“Sweetest drink goin’!”
Into the cave came three goblins, all excitedly yammering and clutching bottles of their own – before stopping dead in their tracks as they saw the two men.
“Ey! You two, clear off! This is our oasis!”
Lo’s voice undulated like the dunes they’d just been walking over. “Now now, please, little ones. I am sure we can share this water, for the good of us all!”
“No chance, mate!” The biggest of the group had produced a knife, its blade slicked with oily poison, and was now brandishing it at the monk. “You’re gonna back off, or I’m gonna gut you and feed you to my wolves!”
“Well,” said Lo, hands up. “I wouldn’t recommend that. I am quite inappropriate for consumption. But yes, my friend and I were just-“
“You what?” The goblin sneered, the other two nervously looking around.
“It’s fine, Janik,” said Lo. “We’ll come back later.”
Janik didn’t respond, and had steeled himself in place in front of Lo.
The leader lunged forwards. “Back off or I’ll gut the old man like a-“
Klunk. Janik’s gauntlet was clamped around the goblin’s throat, and he lifted him clean off the floor, the goblin struggling to breathe. The knife clattered to the cave floor, and the creature feebly struggled against the unmoving metal.
“Dak!” One of them called out, before shrieking in pain as flame descended from above, blasting down her arm. Janik’s other hand uncurled, his energy dissipating, and, producing his forgemaster’s hammer from his side, he raised it into the air as the goblin’s eyes widened-
All went black.
And I know you don’t owe me your love
And I know you don’t owe me, nothing at all
There’s no way I’m giving up on you
Janik rubbed his eyes, shaking his head from side to side. “Wha…what…?”
Lo was stood over the two shivering goblins, tending to the arm burn.
He looked at Janik. “You are going to apologise to this group. And then we are going to talk.”
“I…” Janik faltered as he got to his feet. “I’m…I’m so…” He raced over to the largest goblin’s body, and planted his gauntlet on his back. He closed his eyes, and golden light flooded the chamber. The ragged breath and neck bruises healed as though they had never happened.
The goblin scrambled to his feet. “You…you…”
He stared into Janik’s streaming, shaking eyes.
“I’m…” Janik began.
“Get away from me!” he shrieked. “Stay away from all of us!” He scrambled back, and – racing past Lo – grabbed his compatriots’ hands and sprinted from the cave, their footsteps dissipating.
Janik was breathing rapidly, tears falling onto the stone floor. He only just now, however, noticed that the goblin’s knife had landed at the water’s edge…and was slowly dripping its acrid passenger into the pool. Lo’s bottles lay useless in the murky metallic oasis.
He stayed on his knees.
Janik didn’t move.
“Get up now.”
Hands curled into fists. One boot forward. Janik rose to stand with his back straight, and turned to see Lo, stood with staff in his hands.
“Lo, I’m…” Janik looked up at the monk. “I’m so sorry.”
“You could not say it to them, could you?”
“…I wanted to.”
Lo turned away from him, muttering to himself.
“How do you do it?” Janik stood defiant.
Lo looked over his shoulder back towards him. “Excuse me?”
“Your own was murdered in cold blood. And now I’ve desecrated her favourite spot. I have failed you. I have…failed myself.”
“What…what does that mean?” Janik stared at his hammer. “We told you the bad news, you’ve brought me here, you’ve watched me ruin everything. I spent years wondering if Gond was truly listening to me, giving me direction…” He closed his eyes, shaking.. “Is this what I become just moments from-“
Lo had tapped Janik on the top of the head with his quarterstaff.
“Thoughts are a bad place to be alone.” Lo crouched down beside him, and put his hand on Janik’s shoulder. “Faith is not a science, cleric of Gond. It is an art, painted by those who worship on the canvas that is this world. We are all artists, you see.”
“I was quoting an old proverb from my monastery days. If there are two artists, and one of them loses their brush, does the other lose their ability to paint?”
Janik didn’t reply.
“Does the one whose brush was lost forget how to paint?”
Janik opened his mouth. “N-no…”
“Are they both still artists?”
Janik looked up at him, his eyes wide. “I…”
Lo offered him a hand. “Faith endures.”
Janik looked at the ground, around the room and then back to Lo before replacing his hammer and taking it. “Faith endures. I..I can help.” He raced to the water and plunged his hands in, the light radiating and the oasis purifying. As he did this, however, Lo fished the bottles out and let them drain before slinging the empty containers over his shoulder.
Janik stood again, and mournfully nodded. Lo pursed his lips.
“I will come back another time. I think we should let this place rest, no?”
The two arrived back in Abraxas Junction, having said not a word on the whole walk back.
“Can I…buy you a drink, Lo?” Janik asked, weakly smiling.
“I won’t tell your friends, if that’s what you’re worried about,” said Lo.
“I…” Janik’s face fell. “Thank you.”
“But I would like to know the answer to a question, for my own benefit, if you’ll indulge me.”
“Of course. Anything.”
“Right.” Lo folded his arms. “Remember how an artist is still an artist without a brush?”
Janik nodded. “Faith endures. I remember.”
“Mmhmm.” Lo threw an object at Janik, which the cleric caught.
And Janik stared, eyes wide, at what it was.
It was his holy symbol of Gond.
“When did you-” He remembered the handshake on the steps of the tavern.
“I do wonder.”
Lo was already walking away. He glanced back before he disappeared into his temple.
“What is an artist without any paint?”
You know I can’t live without you, I’m on my knees
Where are you now? Shed a light on me
If you love me, say so. If you love me, say so