Chapter the Third: We Cannot Run From Our PastThe smell of fresh earth greeted my nose as I approached the lonely old shack in the middle of nowhere. Memories assaulted my senses, nearly stopping me dead in my tracks. Nathaniel... I almost turned around, but I'd already come this far. If I couldn't learn to live with my past then the life that I'd scraped together and narrowly clawed my way into would be gone in a flash.
My heart sank when I saw the gravestones. 'Jamilah, Beloved Wife and Mother', 'Saif, Beloved Son'. Memories... too many memories. Not enough time had passed, I wasn't ready to face this yet. I clenched my fists and squeezed my eyes shut, trying to hold back the tears. I took a deep breath, and then another... I forced my eyes open, feeling them burn beneath the cold night air.
Virgil was staring at me uncomfortably. He seemed like he wanted to say something, but at the same time he didn't dare. It's not my fault you've decided to worship me. I muttered a half-hearted, "sorry" to him and pushed myself towards the door, knocking on it lightly. "Come in." A voice called from inside.
I gently opened the door, but what was on the inside was even worse than what was on the outside. There were dried pools of blood staining the hardwood floor. From the smell I could tell they were still relatively fresh. The blood, the graves outside.... I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying not to notice, trying not to remember.
I scarcely even noticed the elder man sitting next to a small table in the center of the room. Several wrinkles gently hung from his face. His calm, deep voice soothed me, beckoned me closer, "What is it, child?" I still felt a bit flustered, but I had regained enough composure to at least ask him, "Who might you be?" I've got to pull myself together. Even I'm not that stupid. Who the hell else would be at Arbalah's house?
Every time I introduce myself I can always hear the more fortunate children taunting me, teasing me. Sammy, Sammy, son of Merle. Doesn't know that she's a girl. "I am Samantha Colburn." Compared to the other memories I was fighting back being teased mercilessly was a pleasant one.
You see, a murderous spectre asked me to kill you. I declined, but thought I'd show up just for the hell of it anyway. You know, see if maybe you were dead and I could take credit. While I didn't feel right lying to the man, I couldn't exactly be honest either. God knows I felt awful about it. I shouldn't have even stopped by. "I'm simply traveling about... what happened to you?" Good god, what is wrong with me? I've just passed by the fresh graves of his wife and child and I've got the bloody nerve to ask him what happened? I'm horrible.
As much as I hated being honest, I couldn't continue lying to the man either. Fighting against that instinct only made me say awful things. I had to be myself, even if it was less than pleasant. "I met the spirit of one of those killers..."
Arbalah's voice was lighter now, somewhat less pained. It was a bit startling, but I couldn't really blame him for taking pleasure in his assailant's death. In fact, I almost envied him. "Brehgo told me your curse made his friend turn on him..."
The only evil that I put any stock in was exactly what Arbalah was referring to: the evil in the hearts of men. His pain was too close to my own for me to not sympathize. I could only express sympathy. "I am sorry for your loss."
I gritted my teeth. Your wife and child just died and all you can think of is a material possession? I suddenly lost a lot of respect for the well-composed man standing before me. Although I'm sure my negative opinion of religion didn't help, it simply felt wrong that the man seemed more upset about his missing property than the death of his family. "No, he did not." I silently seethed.
If you wanted a shoulder to cry on, somebody to share your pain with, I would happily oblige. Instead, you merely care about your damned idol. "That depends on what it would be worth to you..." Sympathy is all you get for free.
I bit my lip gently, unsure of myself. Even if I didn't understand why the idol was so important to the man, he still had an immense amount of pain. It didn't really matter if I agreed with him or not, lessening his pain in any way I could would still be a nice gesture. It was something I'd never have done in my previous life, and now that I had a chance to start over I was seriously considering it. "Hmmm... I suppose helping you would be the right thing to do..." I sounded like I was weighing the prospect of eternal damnation against the effort required to do this good deed, but that simply wasn't the case. I already knew I was damned.
It still struck me as wrong, but that was beside the point. I had decided to help this man and that's just what I was going to do. "I will return when I have retrieved your property, sir." I didn't like the idea of visiting that damned spectre again, but I didn't have much other choice. I will do this good deed. Perhaps if there were more people willing to do the right thing I wouldn't be where I am now.
Virgil was surprisingly quiet as we headed back to the crash site. I wondered what he was thinking about, and if it really bothered him that I seemed to be avoiding Shrouded Hills. In truth I supposed that I was avoiding it. It made me nervous to say the least. I definitely did not want to meet with Joachim, but that was just an extension of how little I trusted people. I barely even trusted Virgil and he'd been nothing but nice to me.
We arrived back at the cave and approached Brehgo for a second time. "Please... help me..." he rasped. I was expecting him this time so I didn't so much as let out a peep. It made me proud.
Hmm... I hadn't really thought about this part. How exactly do I ask him about this anyway? "I, uh, need to talk to the "friend" that killed you..."
The sound that issued forth from the Brehgo's ghastly mouth was horrifying. I wanted to run, or to scream. My legs began to tremble and I would've run if I could only get the damn things to start moving. "Tell me where Fahrkus is!"
The sound quieted down, and I calmed slightly. The longer I suppressed my instinct to flee the better my chances of recovering the idol. Well, if anybody deserves to be lied to it's this cretin. "I convinced Arbalah to release you if you help me."
Oh how wrong you are, Charles Brehgo. You don't know me in the slightest. "Thank you. By the way, I lied... you still get to rot here forever!" Perhaps it was harsh, but I had no sympathy for the spirit. Besides, better I tell him now than he figure it out sometime later. At least now he knows.
I had no more reason to fight my own instincts, and so I ran. I ran so fast that I nearly tripped over my dress several times. I was clear out of the valley before stopping to catch my breath. Virgil was right behind me, holding onto the map that I had accidentally dropped when I began my escape. How does he manage to keep so calm?
Following the map once again I arrived at a lone, run-down shack. It looked weathered and mostly abandoned, but little signs suggested that somebody was here. The window was propped open, and I caught the faint scent of sweat. I crouched down and slipped off my shoes, resting my bare feet flat on the ground. Quietly and cautiously I crept forward, paying special mind to keep my movements steady and evenly distribute my weight along the ground to make a minimum of noise.
I got to the door of the shack where the sweaty scent was almost overpowering. Without warning the door swung open and the man inside stared at me with as much surprise as I was staring at him. His look of shock turned to one of disdain as he glared down at me.
What kind of a greeting is that? What the hell does he think I'm here for? He doesn't think...? Ugh. "I would appreciate you addressing me with respect, sir."
Well, I guess he doesn't think I'm here for 'entertainment' anymore. If the tears in this dress are giving that kind of an impression I really need to sew it back up. No matter, if he's that afraid of me I can push the advantage. "I am here for Arbalah. You will return what is his, or you will die."
Is there a school for lying? How do other people get so damned good at it? Maybe I'm just out of practice. I could feel my advantage slipping away. I panicked and grabbed him around the collar, just like the time I grabbed little Steven and threw him to the ground for teasing me. "This is your last warning, you spineless worm!"
Virgil gave me a level stare, reassessing just what he thought of me. Well, I never pretended to be perfectly ladylike. I stuffed the idol in my purse, grateful that I wouldn't have to resort to any real violence. "Thank you. You may live, for now. Good day."
Virgil and I headed off in the direction of Arbalah's house. When we were out of sight of Fahrkus' shack Virgil said, "You know, madam, I just wanted to say that I think you're doing the right thing."
I didn't really know how to respond to that. If he'd wanted to insult me I would've been inspecting it, but then again I suppose worshippers don't often insult their gods. Ugh. I wasn't used to strangers treating me kindly. "Your opinion is noted, Virgil." Well if that didn't sound the least bit grateful. Even a curt 'thanks' would've been better than that.
Upon our arrival I knocked gently again before letting myself in.
His voice was as calm and soothing as ever. It reassured me that was Virgil said was true, I had definitely done the right thing. I wasn't sure I could get used the feeling it brought. "I have retrieved your artifact." I pulled the idol out of my purse and set it down on the nearby table.
I felt just an inkling of magic caress my skin as Arbalah took hold of his idol. It was slight, but I could tell he had done something... he certainly wasn't lying. I felt embarrassed because I didn't deserve it. My thoughts kept drifting to our earlier conversation where I asked him for a reward, and wondering if he would've done this had I never asked. I could only stammer out "Thank you." If every good deed made one feel so guilty no wonder the world was such an awful place.
Without another word I nodded to Arbalah and he nodded back to me. I turned and left him in peace. "Thank you for accompanying me on my detour, Virgil. Let's head to Shrouded Hills now."
"Let's do so, Madam." He never once complained.