By: Amy Dong
“Oh,” is your first response when he tells you. It is a beautiful day outside, and you are the first one he’s broken the news to so far. He’s got purple hair, characteristic of his destiny, and a little sword that the guards gave him, and he is so, so young. “When do you have to leave?”
“Tomorrow morning,” he shrugs in response. “Chosen One duties and stuff. The Dark Lord isn’t going to slay himself.” You snort at the disdain that laces his expression as you lay out the healing herbs and elderberries that your Master told you to collect today. You know you have no right to complain about these chores today. Being an apprentice is tiring, but being a prophecy is more so. You settle for light banter instead.
“Tomorrow morning? That’s terrible.” You see his expression fold in on itself, like paper collapsing, and he opens his mouth to say something. You plow on instead. “The Dark Lord is gonna take one look at your bedhead and run off screaming. You’ll make all those knights look bad. It’ll be a PR disaster.”
He huffs out a snort, before his composure breaks and the two of you dissolve into giggles. His laughter is louder, more from stress than anything. It’s stupid, insane, really, that the prophecy calls for a child, more or less. He’s not quite old enough to qualify for your apprenticeship even, but tomorrow he leaves to fight the evil of the land.
“It’ll be terrible.” You improvise instead. “You’ll get, I dunno, disowned from Chosen One-domship for being too overpowered. They’ll have to forcefully dye your hair brown or something. Can you imagine?” He’s full belly-laughing now, as he’s packing his bags, and you relish in it for the moment as you ignore what he’s packing supplies for.
You look into scared cerulean eyes and you want to reassure him that everything will be fine. But he’ll be getting plenty of those same pitying looks around town once news spreads, so you offer him the only comforts that he can will himself to take. You pack him homemade pies and small trinkets and extra healing herbs while you exchange childhood stories and laugh.
The two of you banter into midnight, before you finally fall asleep. When you wake up, he is gone.
“Did you hear? The Chosen One stopped by Waterfront village a few days ago.” Your patient is babbling excitedly, which you would not usually mind if it were not for the fact that she was wiggling too much for you to re-bandage her leg. It’s nice that your Master finally trusts you enough to handle more than just brewing potions and gathering supplies, but listening to tireless gossip day after day begins to grate. You would know it’s gossip, because his last letter to you said that he had just arrived at Sherfield. Easily many miles from Waterfront, which from the last time you checked could barely be called a neighborhood, let alone a village.
“I heard they recruited an elf.” The patient your Master should be tending to supplies eagerly. You are pleased to see that your Master is having the same issues as you are with patient cooperation. The medicine hut has never been big, per say, but the leisurely atmosphere gives the impression of a refreshing salon rather than a place where people come for serious injuries, and that atmosphere alone is already too big for the hut to handle. It’s crowded, and it shows on your face.
“Oh my gods. Can you believe?” Your charge squeals back.
“Terrifying. I would’ve tried to look for a nice sorcerer or something. Some basic manners, at least!” You hand your patient their potion prescriptions and try not to look disgusted. Your Master doesn’t even try to contain his annoyance, and you grin as he barks at the villagers to shut up and let him finish his job.
You get a postcard from him a few days after you’ve finished your final apprentice tests. You’ve been working your butt off trying to memorize potions and brewing stands and basic emt material, so much so that you can no longer step outside without trying to analyze villager anatomy. It’s a blessing and a curse, because now at least you’ve passed and your Master can now trust you to run the healing hut while he’s gone. It’s not like the hut is completely yours -- just yours until he gets back from his Bleakburin resupply run, but it’s nice to have some space, for once.
You hang the postcard on the wall by your desk. There’s him, posing lavisciously, purple hair pulled up into a messy ponytail and dirt on his cheek, throwing a peace sign at the camera. There’s the elf, grinning by the fire sort of bemusedly, and the tall, burly warrior that their gang picked up a few weeks ago by Duskpire Mountains standing in the back. He goes by Q, from what you were told, and his frozen face looks disapprovingly on. You’ve heard about all them, from his letters, and you smile at them as you smooth out the crinkles in the paper that air mail seems to love adding to communications.
“Omw to kick some dark army butt!” reads the tagline. Attached are also some crudely drawn portraits of dark army henchmen getting beaten up cartoonishly by his group, their signature dark cloaks lying in tatters on the ground. You keep his drawings in your desk, for later reference. Mostly for laughs.
You are walking back to your hut after another session hunting for adequate medicinal supplies when someone staggers onto the path in front of you. It is a dark-cloaked man hunched against himself, clutching at his gut. You know only one group that wears dark cloaks nowadays. You’re reminded of the crude drawings that are stashed in your desk.
“Um.” You hold your small wicker basket of assorted leaves and stare, already eyeing the way that he staggers against nothing. “Would you like to buy some herbs?”
The man shakes his head as his body sways back and forth. Before you can venture something more intelligent, he collapses against the dusty ground without a word, eyes rolling back into his head. There is red slowly staining the stones below him, covered only by his hand. You blink.
Okay. That’s. Not great. “Um.” You wring your hands and stare.
You throw your basket aside and carry him back to your little cabin. You’re not really sure what to do in this sort of situation, but you find the source of the bleeding and patch up the gaping hole that’s punched through his abdomen with your clean wrappings. You cut away his tattered cloak and the dirt and grime that comes with it.
When he comes to, a few hours later, you hand him a warm cup of tea and a change of clothes that are a little less black and worn out. You give him the herbs and potions he has to apply for the next few days and the ingredients to make them. You offer him your shower, and a place to stay for a little while. He does not say anything and stares at you with a face of stone.
He leaves without a word in the morning, after you change his bandages. He does not take you up on your shower offer, but he does take the change of clothes. They are a brownish-yellow honey color, and there is no cloak to be seen. You hope it suits him better.
Full assistant feels right. Feels good. You get promoted to your new title on a Saturday, which is three whole months early, mainly due to good recommendations from some travelers you helped out. Full assistant is a “formal occupation”, which means that you no longer have to call your master Master but you still have to stay with him to make sure he doesn’t burn the place down or scare off all your patients. You call it an apprenticeship with benefits, and you make sure to tell his purple ponytail-ness about it through the letters.
He stops sending the postcards, eventually. By the holidays, his letters have been censored too. He explains that air carriers are being intercepted by the dark army lately, and that his whereabouts better remain secret for now. It’s okay, because at least his letters still remain entirely him, even with the random stilted lines of black censorship meant to cover all crucial information about him.
“Ran into another group of --------------.” He writes in the latest one. “None of the healers can hold a candle to you, maybe I’ve been taking you for granted. You would’ve healed these ------------- in two hours. Plus the food here? Terrible. I’ve been eating ----------- for --- whole weeks. They better not dye my hair brown for this.”
His handwriting looks weary, like he’s writing by candlelight under the cover of darkness. There are censors on what he’s tried to list as his injuries, but you wonder how many real scars he’s really gotten. How many he’ll never recover from. You remember how he used to be squeamish around scabs.
You beat out the old parchment and paper instead, “Forget brown. They’ll shave everything right off.” You draw a cute little picture to go along with it as an afterthought. The guards might censor art, but not if you hide it well.
It’s sort of unsettling, seeing more and more dark army members arrive at your hut looking worn out and torn about, but gradually you become some sort of destination for them. You’re not quite sure if that’s inherently good or bad, but you seem to have a talent for bringing them home, like stray kittens or pennies on the street. Maybe you’re being targeted, or maybe the dark army is running out of healers, or maybe some of the strays that you’ve helped have started to spread your name, but it doesn’t really matter in the end. Anyways, it’s not like they can just run into a random healer’s hut either in the next town over.
You fix them their potions and repair their broken ribs and do the best that you can as an assistant. They either don’t know that you’re not a real healer or don’t care, and they sit quieter than the regular villager patients that run in wailing about a stubbed toe, so you appreciate it. You fix them drinks and offer them blankets and new clothes and a place to stay. No one’s taken you up on your last offer, but most of them leave behind their torn-up cloaks, and that’s the best you could hope for.
“I’m tired.” One of the members confide in you late at night. Their arm had been torn off and it had taken you all your supplies to stem the bleeding. The new scar beneath their eye is burning red and underneath the bandages you can sense the raw power that writhes beneath their skin. They may be henchmen of the dark lord, but many are still magic users nonetheless. “All this war stuff. I don’t really care for it, you know? And all these missions.”
The angle of the light from the lamp casts shadows that flit across their face. Their eyes are cerulean too, but they are almost catlike in their calculation. You know that these eyes have been the last glimpse of many, many people before their doom.
“I didn’t really want to join, you know? But now the ball is rolling and what are we supposed to do?” They shrug and you watch them, reminiscent of your very last night with your best friend before he became the Chosen One. Reminiscent of how tired their ceruleans matched his.
“Yeah.” You push a cup of cocoa into their hands instead. “I know.”
You are in the Berkenshire Valley when the raid begins. You’ve never even liked Berkenshire anyway, because the people there apparently don’t believe in corralling their livestock and there’s always some kind of draconic pig that ends up eating all the herbs you collect. The only reason you bother to come at all is because your Not-Master insists that the best Sepstrumpta grow here, and that the prices for them are unbeatable since it’s directly from the manufacturer.
You’re about to leave when you hear yelling from across the town square. There are shouts of alarm and squealing from those cursed draconic pig-things, and then there’s a big explosion that’s engulfing the whole marketplace in smoke.
You push your way past the fog of gray, which seems to sizzle at your touch. It’s magic fog, and of course it’s a magic explosion, and after some effort you finally make your way to the magic figure at the center of the commotion. The smoke is clearing a little, and you can barely make out the cloaked figure in the center. Even so, barely is barely, and you think that you inhale a bit of smog when you catch their eye. You know this figure.
“Um.” You blink, watching their eyes widen. You had looked into those same eyes a few weeks ago, patching up a broken leg for a foe that never sleeps. You’ve seen those eyes before too, hauling a fallen comrade on your patient’s table. “What? Are you doing?”
Her figure is shaking beneath her midnight cloak and her hands are full of dangerous light. “I have to,” she says, hands trembling. “We need the supplies. There were- there are orders.”
“So you raided Berkenshire?” You ask incredulously. “To do, what? Grab some demonic bacon? Steal beetroots?”
“There’s a sickness running around camp,” she looks at you, wide-eyed and panicked. “I thought- we thought--”
You don’t really get to hear what she thought because now the rest of the party has arrived and dark cloaks are throwing smoke bombs and yelling to start grabbing stuff. But you’re standing in the middle of it all and no one will move to hurt you, because they know you or know of you or know that you’re known. Smoke clings to the marketplace like saran wrap.
The cloak who started the commotion is crying when she talks about the Razorfly pox that’s been eating them away and how their squadron has been completely cut off from headquarters. You take her by the hand and give her your produce basket, because you’ve got the honeydew and opine water and citrusella that makes the pox disappear, and a box of strawberry tarts as a treat. There are tears streaming down her face and you wipe them away with your sleeve as you show her how to mash fruits into lotion.
When the fog clears and the guard arrives, the raid party is already gone with the pox cure, and you are busy trying to herd dragon-pigs back to their pens.
The guards brandish their spears menacingly, trying to push a reason (a real, real reason, like silver tongues or unbreakable spells) out of you for why this was the first marketplace that the army hasn’t blown up during a raid, but you don’t have one to give them. Eventually, they give up, and you give them some tarts too, for the trouble.
Thank gods for hand sanitizer. You’ve finally been given the green light to be a fully fledged Healer, and you are not about to let some goat dung from transportation mock you in front of the entire guild. Today your Not-Master will become your colleague, and if you say you aren’t excited about being allowed to tell him that he’s wrong, you’re lying.
There are bulletins from the daily news from the High Court posted around town as you make your way to the ceremonies, and you try to ignore the texts. You try not to think about how the Chosen One hasn’t been seen for two months, and you try not to think about how he hasn’t written in double that time.
You ascend some hastily conjured stairs and feel the creak of wood against your feet as your Assistant badge is exchanged for a Healer one. The Chosen One’s face is staring at you from across the hall under a big bold headline speculating, “Dead or Alive?” It mocks you, with his impish grin, and there is a dent in the swell of pride that has risen in your chest.
Some things lead to another. One moment you’re helping a weary traveler nursing a twisted ankle, and the next you’re being ushered to the High Court to treat the king. The maids whisper of his madness and delusional dreams, and the cooks cite the bestowal of a curse so deep that no sorcerer alive can undo it. Apparently they’ve been corralling every Healer in the country, but the war has taken so many of them, and the royal Healers have disappeared along with the Chosen One.
“The prophecy was false,” the king tells you while you are wrapping a cool cloth around his head. He’s had fever dreams, the past couple of days, but his voice is steady and unwavering in a way that is not quite fever-talk. “The Chosen One. The wrath of the heavens. I made it up, I think. I slipped the Royal Oracle some candlewood and a bribe. I guess I thought it would inspire hope.”
You brush the hair out of his face and wipe the sweat from his brow. “I’m sure that it did.”
“I guess it was stupid. I guess it all got to my head.” He’s laughing a little now. Fits of madness, his maids whisper to your ears. You brush them aside. “But I’m so old, and I have no heir to unite them. I guess maybe, I thought that a war could unite us again. But I was wrong.”
You taste those words so cleanly, maybe because you know what they mean firsthand. “A war can only tear us apart.”
The king is so old, but he nods all the same. A bit like relief and sorrow colors his posture. He is slumped against the bedsheets. “Isn’t it odd?” He asks to the air. To you. “That so many more people joined my dark army to fight against me? Isn’t it odd, that I have staged my own royal coup?”
You should be mad, you think. There should be fire and anger pulsing in your veins, because you have seen the front lines of war and blood and haunted faces. You know exactly what you have lost to a beautiful lie. But you can feel the thrum of the king’s heartbeat through his wrist and now you are only quiet.
It is silent for a little, just the drip drip of your washcloth leaking onto his royal pillow. “My country is failing.” He finally says. “Does it make me a tyrant, to want to hold on a little longer?”
You contemplate this a little. You think of your old best friend, and some of the others you’ve met along the way.
“No.” You conclude instead, holding out his daily potion supplement. “That just makes you human.”
The king is asleep, and there’s a forest outside that’s uttering strange noises. You know because you’ve grown up around the forest, and it’s never whimpered so loudly before. So you disregard groundskeeping rules and break out of the castle with a basket of herbs and a piece of fried chicken leg you saved from dinner.
You’ve got the chicken leg halfway to your mouth when you brush aside a particularly heavy bush and come across the largest dragon you have ever seen. It’s coat is almost midnight black and it’s eyes are gorgeously purple-blue and so deep you can see the abyss below them. There’s a chain on it’s leg and it spits smoke and embers at your position behind the greenery.
“Oh.” You breathe out, softly. Your eye darts towards the leaking red that rips across it’s left wing.
When you take a step closer the dragon spits and screams with intent to kill. But you’ve faced more than unruly patients, so you hold out your chicken leg and try not to contemplate how the drumstick looked more like a toothpick than a real meal in comparison with the size of the dragon’s jaws.
“It’s not poisoned.” You offer in response to a narrowly missed burst of sparks. It’s weakened, but not enough to be any less of a dragon. You carefully take a piece of the chicken and put it in your own mouth, under the watchful eye of the midnight creature.
It definitely doesn’t trust you, that’s for sure. But you suppose hunger has to win sometime, so the dragon snatches the leg and almost takes your hand off along with it. That’s fine by you, and you cautiously lay a hand near its wound while it’s busy savoring its snack.
“I’m going to patch you up now.” You declare to its scales. The dragon is watching you -- you can feel its eyes burning the back of your head. But you refuse to be scared when you’ve come so far, so you lower yourself by its side and refuse to look back as you start disinfecting the wound. It looks nasty and the flesh is starting to purple, and you wonder offhandedly how long it has been here. “This might sting a little.”
The dragon snarls and starts to rise, but you’ve mastered the art of finishing-bandages-fast with argumentative toddlers and the occasional paladin that passes by. When it towers over you with hatred in its eyes, you have already finished dressing and wrapping the wound.
You put your items back into your basket and stand, ignoring the glare of the dragon. Your job is done, and you undo the chain that wraps around its captive’s leg and keeps it bound for so long. You’re at the mercy of the dragon now, and you’re okay with it.
Instead of charring you into a human-flavored crisp (which you had expected, despite all the bravado), the dragon lowers itself back to the ground and eyes you carefully. You cannot read the emotion that weaves itself beneath royal, royal purple orbs. Whatever it sees on you, it seems to be enough, because it huffs one more puff of smoke and begins walking forward into the forest.
You’re equal parts confused and also absolutely flabbergasted at not being dead that you sort of, freeze, for a moment. When your brain catches up with your eyes, the dragon’s tail is disappearing through the undergrowth.
“Ah.” You decide to top off your Bad Decisions list with a real cherry on top. You follow the dragon into the forest.
The world is ending, when you step out into the clearing. The forest is burning and there are thousands and thousands of men and women and cloaks that fill the clearing. There are probably just as many dead. There are people fighting people and cloaks against shields.
Your eyes find him immediately. He is there, in the center, facing against the Dark Lord. Part of his ponytail has been burned off, and the color looks so much grayer than the purple you knew.
He is crying, you know. He has no sword and he’s screaming into his hands. And the Dark Lord stands above him, cloak billowing, and laughs. You lock eyes with the dragon that stands by his shoulder and you see yourself, all at once, in those violet pools.
You are nowhere and all at once you are by his side and holding his torso upright while he screams into his palms. He does not see you through his anguish and that’s okay with you. You can feel the energy that thrums within his body, and you know that he has gotten so much more powerful than you ever will. He is more capable than you’ve ever been, and you know, just as well as he does, that it will not be enough. The shrill sound of his cry rips through you too. Around you both, the earth is erupting.
“Take a break.” You whisper against the nape of his neck. It tickles, his ponytail. “You are so tired.” He’s fighting it, you know. But he is, tired that is, and you feel his eyes slipping even as he lashes out and tries to hold on.
He is so young, when you lower him down to the grass. The fighting around you seems to have frozen, or maybe it has just melted into the background. There is a cut on his left cheek that already looks green and he looks like he hasn’t eaten in weeks. You brush away the strands that sit on his face, and you get up slowly, looking up.
The Dark Lord is watching you, your act, with a sort of amusement. You can’t see his eyes, covered by the cloak, and you can’t see much at all really, except for his cold smile. The two of you watch each other from an empty field.
“He was a child.” You offer, your words travelling light years across the plain. The Dark Lord only laughs. There is no more fighting in the background, and you vaguely feel that it’s because everyone left to fight against is gone.
“What are you going to do?” The Dark Lord asks you, mirth dancing in his smile. The two of you are surrounded by dark cloaks. “Defeat me?”
It turns out you do not have to, because all of a sudden your dragon roars and the world erupts in screams. There are people on all sides of you that are surging forwards and forwards. And you recognize these faces when they pass you by. There is the one-armed soldier and there is the cousin with apple eyes and there is the Razorfly battalion. Their hands are so very full of light and their voices call thunder and lightning from the sky. They flow past you like water, and you watch.
Here’s the thing about dictators and those who keep their dragons in chains. They always seem to go the same way.
The Dark Lord topples, when his army runs him to the ground. You see him mouthing words, calling curses so terrible they would strike down the world, but his army drowns him out. They are reaching for him, reaching for the Lord that they had so died for. There is fire and earth that swallows him and the few that continue to fight for a dictator. The world rocks under the power of curses and arrows and grief and the ground is splitting beneath his feet. The grass gives way to fissures and then to chasms and they tear him apart like he did the world.
The Dark Lord falls, screaming, when the earth swallows him whole, and you watch as everything stops.
He’s angry, when he comes to. Of course he is, because you don’t want to -- shouldn’t want to -- lie to him. He doesn’t talk to you for a good deal of a month, which hurts, but it’s okay. You treat his wounds like any other day and slip him little presents as some sort of convoluted apology.
He gets it, eventually though. One day, when you come in to check on his rib, he hugs you and just breaks. You think he might have broken long before this.
You’re offered by the High Court to take on the new leadership. His Majesty is gone, and so is the Lord, and you will not let the Chosen One be forced no matter how much the Court whines about it. You turn the position down gently, because you are so much more tired than you seem.
You don’t like to push through the aftermath. But you’re a Healer, after all, and it’s your job. So you patch up wounds and wash bloodied cloths and pour as much hot chocolate as your kettle can possibly allow at a time.
“Isn’t it weird?” One of your patients asks you one day. He must have been a general, or something. He clutches his dark cloak quietly in the medical bay. “That both of the sides we had fought against were wrong?”
You wrap his arm and notice how nicely it’s healing instead. “I guess there is nothing left to do but fight for the one that is right.”
He inhales, a little. “Am I despicable?”
You look up at him. His eyes are green, like the sea. “Why?”
He shrugs. “Because I fought against you. Because I changed sides.”
You are quiet for a moment, before you speak again. “To fight for what you believe in, and to find your moral compass when you need it most.” You close your eyes. You are so tired.
“What is so despicable about that?”
“Gods it’s freezing.” Your apprentice shivers behind you and you want to laugh and also hit her at the same time.
“Suck it up, we’re almost there,” you shoot back. Winter is rolling in soon, and the air is chilly in a crisp way that feels good. Your hands are numb from picking golden-blue mushrooms and you doubt that she is faring any better than you. Still, it’s fun taking in her slack-jawed expression when you wade through pure ice without flinching, so you keep up the charade.
“We’re going to eat hot chocolate when we get back,” she declares loudly to the trees, “and eat the fireflowers.” You cuff her around the ear, laughing.
“You can run the resupply errands for those, in that case. Have fun in Berkenshire in the dead of winter, when we run out of petals.” She sputters indignantly and you laugh some more as the two of you tread back to the hut across hills of frosty grasses. It’s almost hard to see the path with all this white fuzz on the ground, but you can walk these plains with your eyes closed.
“Sometimes I wonder why I agreed to letting you be the Master.” The tone is bitter but you’re smiling because you know your apprentice doesn’t really mean it. She’s doing better after the war, after taking up a cloak. You get the feeling that she enjoys this line of work, despite all the complaints that she throws up in the air.
You nudge her. “Cheer up, we’re already home.” The hut lays just beyond the hill, past the small wall of stones you built up a solstice ago. There is snow falling softly, and it is so picturesque that you can’t help but grin. When you reach the hut, your hands are full with baskets and baskets of mushroom and flurryberry. Your apprentice hits the door with her shoe, despite your raised eyebrow -- her version of a graceful knock. She offers a cheeky shrug in return.
A man with purple hair opens the door, laughing in turn. His eyes spark mischief and his shoulders sit proud and tall, not the Chosen One, and not burdened with the weight of the world. He holds the door wide and the two of you grin at each other.
“Hey guys.” He beams, gesturing inside. “The fire’s warm.”