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Follow the Flames
“Come closer,” the wizened old man in ragged patched robes crooned and wagged his bony finger. He was perched on a tall three legged wooden stool which rocked on its uneven legs on the cracked stone floor. He gave us a grin decorated with crooked teeth and wide gaps and patted the colossal dusty book with a forest green cover embossed with golden foreign letters that sat on a high flimsy table in front of him. The flickering candlelight cast shadows on his sagging face, carved with wrinkles and lines, his gray and white mustache and long beard, and his round spectacles that hid his eyes. “Come closer and tell me your name.”
The girl beside me spoke in her bubbly enthusiastic voice, “Keira Toriyam! Reporting for duty!”
The man scribbled this down on a yellowed page half-filled with names with a damaged quill in watery ink. “And the boy?” he inquired, raising one silver eyebrow.
The eyebrow rose further. “Nothing else?”
The man mulled this over for a while before writing my name down in great flourishes. He then slammed the book shut, releasing clouds of dust, which floated up to the ceiling rafters to join the cobwebs. “Keira Toriyam and Just Sen, go through the door and follow the fire. Aye, you’ll find what you’re looking for at the end.” He ended this last statement with his dry thin lips widening into a leer.
Keira and I left that dusty dank room with the old man and pushed through the heavy stone door that groaned in protest. It gave way and we walked into a pitch black hall. The door swung shut behind us.
“Hey, where are the lights?” Keira asked indignantly.
At her words, torches hung along the wooden walls of the tunnel lit themselves up, one by one. The flames revealed the long hall with planked sides and rocky dirt floor. They showed the tall slender girl beside me with a pale oval face and deep blue eyes framed by raven locks that cascaded down her light green tunic to her back. Gray leggings covered her legs down to mid-calf and soft brown slippers encased her feet.
Keira waved her arm about excitedly and exclaimed, “Captain, let the journey commence!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I brushed the limp brown bangs out of my hazel eyes. “Why did we come here again?” I asked in a tired voice.
“Because we’re here to find the secret to the universe. Everyone said here was the place was to find it. We find it, we learn it, and we go show it to the Queen.”
“They also said this was the place most people didn’t come back from. And if they did, they never spoke of it again,” I muttered.
“Well, we’ll come back,” she said confidently.
“Bleh.” Keira stuck out her tongue at me, and then ran up ahead. “Hey look! I think I see the end!”
She ignored me and galloped up to a large wooden door with a black iron ring for its handle. Keira slammed her shoulder into the door and pushed. “How the heck do you get this open?” she demanded while digging furrows in the dirt with her feet as she shoved.
I walked past her and tossed her aside. I tugged on the black ring. “You pull the door, you see?” I explained.
Keira stomped past me and huffed, “Well, someone should tell me these things beforehand.”
We entered a large circular room built up with rock and clay. A large fire sat in the center on a stone platform. Keira and I stepped closer.
Next to the golden crimson flames stood a little boy with wide white eyes and short scruffy colorless hair. He was dressed in pitch-black robes. He suddenly looked up and asked in a child’s angelic voice, “Who’s there?”
“Keira Toryam,” Keira said, unsure.
The boy cocked his head, as if he was listening for something. “Close the door.”
I reached back and closed it.
He then studied us for a few minutes with his blank eyes. I realized he was blind. “What do you seek?” he asked.
“The secret to the universe,” Keira stated boldly. “We were sent on a quest by the Queen.”
The boy didn’t react. He stood in silence, and then continued in his high-pitched voice, “The secret is not given up easily. There’s a price. Something must be given up.”
I nodded. “What’s the price?”
The boy turned and gave me a pale unseeing stare. I shuddered slightly.
“The price,” he said, “the price is your heart, your life, your soul.”
We were silent, but then Keira spoke up, “Huh?”
“Your heart, your life, your soul,” the boy repeated.
Keira tilted her head. “By that, you mean…?”
An exasperated look twitched through the boy’s expressionless demeanor.
“He wants a person, Keira,” I explained. “He wants a life.”
“Maybe we should just go,” I whispered and nudged Keira. “Come on, the price is too much to pay.”
“But think of what the Queen will do if we don’t come back with the secret,” Keira muttered, eyes cast on the ground. “Think of what’ll happen to you. We have to get the secret.” She sounded uncharacteristically serious.
I shook my head fiercely. “No, no. it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll go hide away. Let’s take our quest somewhere else.”
Keira sighed. “No, she’ll just send soldiers after you. And you don’t understand, Sen. Here or anywhere, something has to be sacrificed to get another.” She took a step closer.
“No, come on, Keira. This isn’t the way. Let’s leave. Please, let’s just leave,” I began to plead.
She took another step closer.
I said angrily, “You do know what he means, right? He’s not talking about just any heart, any life, any soul. He means you have to sacrifice yourself. Yourself, Keira. It means someone has to die.”
“I know. That’s why I’m going. The price paid is me.”
“No. I won’t let you.”
She turned her head back to look at me. Her sapphire eyes glistened. The dancing flames behind her created flickering shadows that swept across her face. “Listen Sen. I’ll go and you get the secret. Take it to the Queen. She’ll then clear your record. You’ll be free. No execution.“
I reached out and grabbed her arm. “No, I won’t let you.”
“Sen, let go.”
“You can’t do this, Keira.”
“Stop being an idiot and let me go. I was nobody. Abandoned. Nobody wanted me. Then you came. Remember when we met? I stole a fish from you and you chased me down. Then I joined you. I was so happy. This quest was the best time of my life. Having a friend for the first time. Thank you.” A tear grew at the corner of her eye. It fell and trickled down her cheek. Her lips whispered, “Let me go, Sen.” She wrenched her arm out of my grip.
I let mine fall to my side and felt a numbness wash over me.
Keira took slow deliberate steps until she was right in front of the fire. “You have your price. Give us the secret.”
The boy turned his face up at her. The fire suddenly burned and swelled up, glowing brighter and brighter until its blazing light filled the room and blinded me. When it cleared, the boy clutched a small tightly wound scroll in his hand. He gave it to Keira.
She whirled around, her ebony hair flying out around her. She held it out to me.
I stared at it for some time before raising my limp arm and wrapping my fingers slowly around the scroll and pulling it towards me.
“You have to get it to the Queen, you hear me? Okay, Sen?” Tears started streaming down her face. “Okay, Sen? Get it to her. You’re innocent. You know it. You don’t deserve to be killed! “ She was shouting now. She wiped away her tears and composed herself.
“And Sen? I’m really happy that I was useful. I just want to pay you back for being my friend. And pulling me out of that loneliness. This is the least I can do. So don’t be sad. “ Her voice broke on the last word.
Keira turned around again and looked at the boy expectantly. “Now what do I do?” I caught the slight quaver at the end.
He said calmly in his high pure voice, “Step into the flames.” It sounded like a song. A melody that escaped his round pale lips. It echoed in the dark circular room. “The flames…the flames…the flames…”
My throat tightened. I opened my mouth, but, no words came out.
Keira gazed at me. “Really, Sen, I’m happy.” But the tears leaving crystalline trails down her cheeks said otherwise.
Then she smiled. Her eyes twinkled. Keira raised a hand to her forehead and gave me a salute. “Well, Captain. Sure was a pleasure working with you.” She took a step into the fire. Then another. Then another. Until she was standing right in the flames. Her eyes were closed.
“KEIRA!” I suddenly found my voice. And I screamed. “KEIRA!”
The fire swelled. It grew and blossomed into a colossal chrysanthemum of gold and scarlet petals.
Through the flames, I could make out Keira. Her eyes were shut and her eyelashes sparkled. Her lips turned up at the corners. And she grinned. She opened her eyes and turned to me. Her eyes were two gems of blue in the mountain of reds and oranges and yellows.
Then the fire glowed brightly, its light filling the room. I closed my eyes, but, the searing whiteness bled through.
When they opened again, Keira was gone. The fire crackled merrily as though as she had never disappeared into it.
“Where is she?” I growled.
“Gone,” the boy sang.
“Gone? Where did she go?” I demanded. “Tell me where she is right now!”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But she was the price and you have the secret. You must leave now.”
My shoulders slumped. I stared at the ground in disbelief. “Keira,” I muttered, “what am I supposed to do now?”
I looked towards the door and sighed. My feet made sluggish movements and soon, I found myself in the torch-lit hall. The scroll with the secret to the universe was gripped tightly in my hand. I didn’t notice until I heard a crack. I glanced at my hand. The scroll laid in it, bent in two pieces from my fist. Two tears dropped onto it.
I hastily wiped my eyes and walked back into the room with the old man.
“My, my,” he said, “back so soon?” He peered up from his book. “So the girl went. What a shame. She had spirit. I liked her.”
My fists clenched.
“Well now, Just Sen. I’ve heard about you, you know. Most everyone has. Killed a man, did you? And at your young age too. Barely a man. Just a bit older than the girl, am I correct? About to be beheaded. But the Queen gave you a second chance, didn’t she? Greedy woman, wanted the secret to the universe. Don’t know what good it would do her anyway. Always was foolish, the Queen. Now, the girl. Her village died from a sickness and she was the last one left. Wandered through towns. Til she found you. And you took her in. At least you did something right. You two became friends. Because of her, you get to go free now. You were innocent. The murder was an accident. Well, don’t you feel you deserve it?”
I glared at him and my eyes burned. “I deserve to die!” I spat. “And I’m not innocent. I’m guilty. I’m guilty…of being a – a coward!”
The old man went back to his green book. “Shame, shame. What a waste.” He dipped his quill into the ink and slashed through someone’s name. Keira’s name. “The girl died…for a coward.”
Something inside me snapped and I rushed forward, roaring like an animal and grabbed the front of the man’s robes, pinning him to the wall. I breathed hard, my chest rising and falling violently. He just stared at me with a hint of pity in his eyes.
“YOU DON’T KNOW HOW I FEEL RIGHT NOW! YOU JUST SIT THERE WITH THAT SMUG SMILE! WHILE I’M GETTING RIPPED APART!” I yelled in his face. My eyes glistened. “And you’re right.”
I looked down. “You’re absolutely right. I was too much of a coward to stop her. And part of me wanted to be free and innocent. But now I’ll never be. I killed two people. “ My hand relaxed and the old man calmly slid out of my grip. He patted me on the back.
“I didn’t stop her. And I should have. I should have walked in instead. I want her back.” I covered my face with my hand. “And the rain won’t stop falling,” I muttered as tears seeped through my fingers. “It reminds me of her eyes.”
“Aye, Just Sen, follow the fire. You’ll find what you’re looking for at the end,” the old man said and turned back to his book.
I straightened up and looked at him. “Old man, you better cross out my name too,” I declared and ran through the door into the hall with the torches.
As the door swung shut, I heard him chuckle, “He’s gonna scare the h*** out of the kid.”
I ran down the tunnel, my feet thundering on the stone floor.
“Hey, look, it’s just a fish, ok? You didn’t have to come after me with a huge knife to get it back! And I already kind of ate it. Man, I hate fish!”
“I can come with you, really? Are you sure? Thank you! Thank you! So some kind of quest, huh? Awesome! I guess you’re like the leader or something. I’ll call you Captain!”
I’m coming back for you.
“I never had someone looking out for me. Or caring about me. It feels…different…and good. I like it when I’m with you, Sen. It feels like home.”
And this time, I’m staying by your side.
I burst into the circular room. “Kid!” I bellowed.
He started and looked around. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me from before. I’ve come back.”
“What do you seek?”
The question made me pause and I thought for a minute. The words formed readily on my lips. “What I let go.”
“You need to give up something. There’s a price. Your heart, your life, your soul.”
I walked up to him and placed the broken scroll in his hand. The side of my mouth curled up into a smirk. “I can’t. You already took it.”
And I stepped into the flames.