“Have you been down to the valley before, Noah?” I asked my newest apprentice as we turned a corner on the jagged path down the side of the sacred mountain.
“No, mother never let us go this far down the mountain. I’ve heard the stories, though,” Noah responded with a certain eagerness to his voice. I had known his mother for a long time, and giving her third and smallest son a chance to be something other than a warrior was the least I could offer her.
“Your mother is a wise woman, Noah. There is little but death this deep in the mountains. A plague that must be kept from ever reaching us.” I kept my voice stern. Noah wasn’t my first apprentice nor would he be my last. Many of the others never understood my craft. The ones that did never respected it. Their thoughts were too shallow to see the good I brought to our people. But the world seldom works in ways we want it too. It’s the ones that understand its true ways and adapt that become the most powerful. That is what I did, and what I shall continue doing.
“Well, there’s people down there, isn’t there?” he asked innocently. I smirked at the thought and halted our hike down the mountain side and turned to face him. The black hood adorning my weathered skull blocked most of my view in front of and around me, but Noah’s young, suddenly frightened face was in a clear line of sight.
“That will be for you to decide, my boy,” I chuckled to myself before returning onto the jagged path. I listened intently as the boy took several moments before hearing his heavy footsteps run after me, kicking rocks and dust down the mountainside around him.
The shadow of the mountain had all but blocked the setting sun in the west and left the valley under a hazy yellow glow. Fog creeped its way from the Earth before dissipating some ten feet above us as we found flat ground for the first time since beginning our journey. I could feel the waters of the swamp begin flooding my boots and I could hear the young boy plopping around trying to stay dry.
“The smell,” Noah gagged, “What on Earth is that smell?” he asked, his voice was muffled as he tried covering his nose with his palm.
“The village,” I answered solemnly as the shadows of the village’s tallest buildings broke the yellow glow of the setting sun and leaving the land behind them dark and desolate.
“Who could live in such a place?” Noah asked horrifyingly as we entered the outer gate of the village’s meager wooden walls.
“Those who have been trapped,” I answered as I continued our steady pace through the village. The swamp had given way but the village streets were filled with mud and excrement; hardly an improvement. Sickly families sat at the edges of the path weakly extending bowls outward with frail arms. They shuddered and turned away, however, when they saw that it was I who was walking past them. They mumbled prayers under their rasping breaths.
“Trapped? Trapped by who?” Noah asked. I turned to him and placed my hand on one of his bony shoulders.
“All will be answered in due time, my boy. For now, you must watch.” The boy nodded quickly before looking nervously at the beggars beside the road. “Don’t worry, my boy. You cannot catch what they have.” Noah looked up questioningly but I turned back to the path before he could ask more questions. He would have to observe and decide for himself if he would remain by my side for the years to come. With war on the horizon, I’d need all the help I could get.
Soon we stood before the largest building in the village. Though it would have been meager in size compared to our own village and those of the north, it stood out in contrast to the pathetically built huts surrounding it. I did build it after all. The doors of the temple creaked open painfully as we made our way up the steps. Two young boys held the doors open as we passed. They glared down at the ground, holding back tears as I passed. A low rumble of distant thunder rolled over the mountains and echoed around the valley. It was time.
The temple consisted of one large main room with two stone tables placed in the center. Fire from candles along the walls lit the room with a faint red hue and several dozen villagers huddled as close to the walls as possible. One stepped up to me, an older man who, like the others, kept his gaze to the floor.
“All is ready, my lord. Forgive me but I must ask, will we receive the food as promised?” he whimpered. I slowly turned to the old man standing beside me and grabbed his weak jawline and stared directly into his hazy blue eyes. He tried to struggle away but was too weak. He muttered the same prayers as those on the streets earlier before I dropped him to the ground.
“The food shall arrive when the storm subsides,” I told the man as I returned my sights to the tables in the middle of the room. The old man scrambled to the side of the room like a wounded animal and rejoined the huddled mass in the corner. Around now is usually when the apprentices I previously had either yelled in protest to these grotesque sights or tried running out the temple doors. Noah, however, now seemed intrigued as I looked over to the young boy. Perhaps he could be the one I have been searching for.
The two tables in the center of the room each had a body laying upon them. To the left was a young man. He was desperately thin and shivering in the cold of the temple. Despite his weight, however, he appeared mostly healthy. His eyes were closed and he muttered a prayer over and over through his chattering, worn down teeth. I gently placed a palm on the man’s chest and leaned in close to the side of his head. He flinched when I touched him but I held him down firmly. “Relax, my friend. All your suffering will soon be over. Your sacrifice will save your people,” I whispered into his ear. He began weeping and I motioned to Noah to tie him to the table before he tried to run off.
On the other table was another young man with a black bag around his head. He had strong shoulders and a bouldering chest. A great warrior from my village who showed great potential to serve his people. He had been mauled by a mountain lion two days before. Large, red gashes ran along the side of arms and back. One arm was broken in several spots after he had fallen upon some rocks in a desperate attempt to escape his attacker. He eventually killed the lion and dragged its lifeless body back to our village before collapsing in exhaustion. The man had clearly earned my favor and today he would receive it. His gashes were festering and he smelled much like this village and its people. I turned to Noah.
“Watch. And decide.” He nodded and stepped back into the shadows of the temple. All of the candles suddenly dimmed as I raised my palms and a calm yet chilling breeze swept around the room. I began muttering the old words and watched as the once lifeless body of the warrior twitched for the first time. The other man was weeping louder now and struggled to break away from the chains restraining him. The skin around his shoulder suddenly began to break apart and he howled in pain and begged for mercy but the process had already begun. Blood poured from the newly forming gashes. The warriors broken arm, crooked and purple, jumped to life and straightened before my eyes. Simultaneously, the other man’s arm split in two. He cried louder and louder but I was too focused on the warrior’s body turning from a pale blue to a bright tan. The bag around his head began to puff gently above his mouth.
Suddenly he jumped up from the table and roared with life. He breathed desperately and his hands patted around his body. He couldn’t find any words to speak over his rampant breathing. I lowered my arms and light refilled the room. I rushed to the warrior’s side and held the man. “It is okay, my friend. You have been healed. You are alive once again.” His breathing suddenly calmed as he recognized my voice and turned his bagged head in my direction. He still could not speak but I knew what he was thinking. In reality, I did little myself to save this man, but he and all the others before him view me the same; a god among men. A giver of life. They never know the price paid, but they also rarely ask. I looked over the mangled body of the young boy who now lay lifeless on the other table. Two villagers rushed over and carried his limp body from the table and out of the temple. Another two helped the warrior to his feet and led him away to clean him and return him to our village.
I looked over to Noah, who stood dumbfounded in the back of the temple. He was staring at the blood that dripped slowly from the edge of the stone table. I walked over to him and stood before him, waiting for his answer. He eventually looked up to me slowly and the innocence of his eyes from earlier today was all but gone. I could feel new emotions coursing through the boy’s body.
“Teach me,” he whispered. I smiled and put both hands on the boy’s shoulders. Finally, I had found the one.