You could smell and hear the base camp before you could see it. Campfire smoke and food drifted on the wind with the sounds of people and work. They climbed the final hill before the camp, seeing the smoke rise in the horizon. A melody of distant music reached them as they crested the hill.
The base camp stretched out before them, the entire thing spanning nearly a mile across. Ramshackle shacks, cabins, and tents were laid out in neat rows, with fields and halls interspersed between them. People cluttered the gravel paths, the sound of their voices reaching all the way up the hill. Up here, it was easy to recognize why the camp was called “the Graveyard”, with the neat rows of “tombstones” and pretty fields.
Beyond the Graveyard, there was a section of land just about as big as it. A crop field that had its own share of people with a pasture for cows. The Returned farmed a fair share of their food supply each year. It kept them busy. And fresh food never went amiss amongst the Returned.
They made their way down through the center of the camp, the streets clogged with Returned and Ungifted alike. After someone experienced a Return, often they had family or friends that would answer the call with them— working around the camp, living with them. It meant that the camp just as many mortals, if not more, as immortals. They had just arrived in the height of the morning, with breakfast being made and served amongst the houses in full swing. The two of them headed for the Mess Hall, where they would be making fresh meals all morning for any who weren’t making their own.
Dae pulled him through the crowd by the hand. Semt never had been good at transversing the crowded camp, but to Dae, who had been raised in Avoniv, the crowded streets were like home. It was his lack of grace that caused the collision when they rounded a corner. He ran head-on into a shorter blond man, knocking him clean off his feet.
Semt released Dae’s hand immediately, reaching out to offer the man a hand. When he looked up, the man became instantly familiar. It was Reja, the boy from the breach yesterday. The man recognized him at the same moment. “Semt!”
Reja took his hand and Semt hauled him to his feet. “Reja. It’s good to see you.”
The shorter man suddenly threw his arms around Semt in a short but warm hug. “You were a lifesaver yesterday. I didn’t really have any time to learn about any of this before all that.”
“When was your Return?”
“Just a few days ago. I was still resting in my bed here when I felt…” he gave a gesture around his heart.
“Right,” Reja said, glancing over at Dae, who was still standing at Semt’s side. “And who is this beauty?”
“Dae Ashwood,” she said, holding out her hand for a handshake.
“Ah, a lady,” Reja said, smoothly taking her handshake and kissing her hand. “I had heard that you had joined Telas’s, but I hadn’t believed it.”
She looked a little surprised at the proper court etiquette. “What was your name again?”
“Reja Hallewell, my lady. I served as a butler in the Elke estate with my husband.”
Dae nodded. “A fine family.”
“I enjoyed my time there,” Reja said. “You two should join my family for breakfast. My husband was a chef before coming out here. We probably have some of the best food in the Graveyard.”
She looked at Semt with a barely contained excitement. She always had a weakness for good food. Not that it was difficult to beat what the Mess Hall shoveled out.
“Sounds good to me,” he said.
The Hallewell residence was an actual cabin; it was made of wood and stone, with a chimney and glass windows. That alone made it a lot nicer than a lot of the homes around the camp. It was a little unusual for a fresh Returned. Reja’s husband— a bulky man with a full beard and tanned skin— greeted them on the threshold, kissing his husband’s forehead and welcoming in Semt and Dae.
The interior of the cabin was warm and cozy. A little girl ran to Reja and threw her arms around his leg, yelling “Daddy!” as Reja’s husband returned to the stove where the smell of eggs and bacon filled the room. Sitting by the fireplace, there was a woman with the same dark hair as Reja’s husband. She was very much pregnant.
Reja came into the room and spread his arms. “Welcome to our humble abode. My lovely husband is called Macen, and this little one,” he said, patting the little girl’s blonde locks, “is Favia.”
The little girl smiled wide up at Dae, grabbing onto her arm and asking a million questions about magic. Semt looked across the room at the pregnant woman, and Reja sidled in close to him. “Her husband was among those who didn’t come back yesterday. We took her in. It was all we could do. Her name is Sara.”
“Another fresh Returned?”
“I believe so. She was five months pregnant when he had his Return. She’s expected this next month.”
A pregnant woman was hardly a common sight in the Graveyard. When one became a Returned, they lost the ability to bear children. Men as well as women. This wasn’t the place to raise young anyway.
“Does she have family to go to?”
“No, we checked,” Reja said, “she’s just as stuck here as the rest of us. Her husband was all she had.”
The woman just stared into the fire. If she heard them, she gave no sign that she could. Semt sighed. The Graveyard had always been a place for broken people. At least this wasn’t the worst place for the woman to find herself in.
Dae was painfully awkward with the little girl and Semt came closer to help save her.
“Can you show me any magic?” Favia asked with wide, bright eyes.
“I’m running a little low,” Dae said with a pained smile.
“But if you ever want to see magic,” Semt said, leaning down to get close to the girl like he was telling a secret, “ask one of your daddies to take you over to the Sanctuary to see the Warlocks practice.”
The girl’s eyes lit up and she rushed over to tug on Macen’s leg, who was already busy cooking.
“Thanks,” Dae said. She looked legitimately relieved to be free of the kid. “I’m not good with that.”
“I could tell,” he ribbed her, resting a reassuring hand on her lower back.
She leaned her head onto his shoulder, exhaling slowly. “You’re wonderful.”
Reja smiled at the two of them, setting up plates and utensils at the table with a practiced precision. The neatness and grace of Macen and Reja was a strange contrast to the rustic cabin and crowded space. You never lost your previous life, even if most parts of it lost their use. It always came back in a way.
Macen finished the breakfast and began divvying out portions of eggs and bacon and muffins. Dae dug in with little restraint— she probably hadn’t had a fancy breakfast like this in years. He was about to take a seat beside her before Macen said, “mind helping me get some more firewood, Semt?”
Reja began to rise from his seat. “I’ll help. Let our guest eat.”
His husband placed a hand in his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Semt doesn’t mind, does he?”
Semt shrugged. “It’s no problem.” There was an extra layer to Macen’s words. He wanted to talk.
Reja frowned after them as they left the building.
Macen led him around the cabin to a woodpile against the back wall. Instead of bending to start gathering wood, the round man turned to face Semt. “What happened yesterday?”
“Your husband— he… well, he died. Again.”
“And that’s why he’s been acting strange?” Macen, to his credit, seemed to have already come to terms with the strange immortality Reja held.
“How has he been acting?” Semt asked.
“Distant, in a word. Last night he shook until he fell asleep. One moment he’s fine and the next he’s crying. Between him and Sara and Favia, I’ve had my hands full here.”
“It’s Death Sickness,” Semt explained. “That’s what they call it now. It’s… difficult. It’ll pass, but he’ll die again, and you’ll have to be ready. It’s going to get worse every time.”
“Damn.” Macen sat down on the woodpile, resting his head in his hands. “It’s been hard enough already.”
“You’re from high society. I imagine all of this is hard. Why are you here?”
The look Semt got in return was one of ‘are you serious?’. “Because Reja has to be here. Because I love him. Because he loves his daughter and me. He deserves to not go through this alone.”
Semt hadn’t expected such a convicted answer. It felt like that kind of love was hard to see in others these days. “He’s lucky to have you. Trust me, just you being there will help him through this.”
Macen looked a little happier at his words. “Come on,” he said, rising to his feet and kneeling to pick up an armload of split logs. “Let’s keep the fire burning.”
The food was just as good as he expected. A real trained chef was always able to pull the gold out of every meal. Together, all six of them gratefully cleaned up every scrap of food that Macen made. Even in spite of his morning, Semt started to relax amongst the rowdy, crowded family. Even Dae seemed a little more relaxed with people who had grown up in the same places she had, different classes regardless.
Once they had finished up lunch, they said their farewells and headed out for a visit to the Sanctuary. It was an unspoken routine whenever they visited the Graveyard. Neither of them had been worshippers in life, but watching your wounds close and arms reattach could make a believer out of almost anyone. The Sanctuary was on another hill on the other side of the crop fields— tall, stone, and imposing. Its solemn gothic towers rose into the sky. There was a stained glass window elevated on the front of the building that depicted an image of a cloaked woman with her hands outstretched.
It had been one of the first buildings built there— back when there were little more than tents to live in. The stone had been cut and moved through Well-magic, making the surface of the building oddly smooth and fine. It was almost otherworldly in its precision.
There was a trickling of Warlocks, Paladins, and mortals on the path to the Sanctuary, but compared to the crowded center of the Graveyard, it was nearly empty. Telas’s temple was free and open to all, even if the mortals had much less practical reasons for coming. The Sanctuary’s grand oak doors were propped open, the morning sun illuminating the interior through the stained windows. The colored light illuminated the bare stone interior, with wooden pews and blazing braziers of silver fire. Dark cloth banners hung from pillars around the room.
The hum of Well-magic was palpable in the air. Evokers and Conjurers practiced their magic in vibrant displays of color and power. Soot constructs rose from the braziers and spun in complex motions with the outlines of weapons waving in the air. Evokers sent glowing silver bolts into the air and created globes of light and silver. Some even practiced with Elemental bands, creating fire and wind and ice.
It was here where Returned got their tattoos. Warlocks had the ability to channel the most magic through them, but even Paladins could get some tattoos, like the ones on Semt’s palms. That part of the place was out of sight, in chambers beneath the floor that mortals couldn’t access.
In the part of the Sanctuary opposite of the entrance, an obsidian depiction of Telas towered over the the interior, silver dripping from left hand and a massive silver sword held in her right. Candles burned on the altar before her, the light casting a shadow of the statue on the wall behind her. The aromatic floral smell of them suffused through the room.
Dae laid a hand on Semt’s arm. “I’m going downstairs. Take your time.”
He gave her a quick smile and she kissed his cheek. They knew their routine. She waved and headed off to the stairs that lead downstairs where Deacons would be tattooing Warlocks.
Semt approached the likeness of Telas. There were a few people in the pews, heads bowed or staring distantly. This part of the Sanctum could’ve been a different world to the one of brightness and color where the Warlocks practiced their magics. Even the sound of that seemed muffled here in the presence of Telas, like it was mikes away. The somberness was infectious, and he dipped his head slightly beneath it. He felt small under her stony visage.
Softly and quietly, he walked to the foot of the statue where the candles were. A few had been blown out, and he avoided what he was here to do for a few moments by relighting them with a lit candle. But soon the altar was restored, and he looked up at the goddess with a terrible awkwardness. He had never been a believer in his last life, had never had room for it.
When he focused, he could feel the Well in his chest slowly filling, each drop echoing. The power of it vibrated in his bones, in his muscles. With a touch of it, he healed the most minor of wounds he had— the slight damage of smoke to his lungs, the slightest soreness in his feet from his ill-fitting boots, the slight discomforts of being alive and upright. The power of a goddess.
“It’s been a few years,” he spoke softly to the statue, “and I understand this no more than I did then. I protect— we protect— using your gifts and day after day that’s what I live for. I live for what you’ve given me. I live for Dae. In your own way, you gave her to me as well. Day after day, I stay ready for whatever and whenever you could need us. But I feel… stagnant.
“All these gifts, all this power, but nothing ever changes. I face every breach but when does it end? Can it end? What do I do to make it end?”
The statue was silent. If he focused, he could still feel the steady drip, drip, drip in his chest. Her touch, obvious and clear, on him. But never a reply.
Semt turned, sighing, and nearly ran straight into Sara, the pregnant woman that the Hallewell’s had taken in. She gave him a tired and sheepish smile, “Does she talk to you?”
“You’re one of her champions. Does she speak to you? Can you feel her touch?”
She was talking about Telas. “No,” he said regretfully. “I mean— I can feel her. But I can’t talk to her. She’s never spoken to me.”
“Maybe she listens,” Sara said, tilting her head back to look into the statue’s face.
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”
She looked distant. “My husband— always the idiot— talked to her every day. He was always here after dark, bringing extra candles with what little wages we earned. Said she would protect me for him.” She pressed a hand against her sagging belly. “Protect us.”
“I’m sorry,” he offered, unsure what to say.
“It doesn’t matter. I can be close to him here.” She wordlessly moved to the pews and sat down, joining the distant somberness.
He lingered for a moment, uncertain, before leaving to find Dae.
The staircase into the lower chambers was secluded in the base of one of the towers. The smells of ink and wood drifted up the stairs. He descended the spiraling stairs deeper into the cool air, goosebumps appearing on his skin in the chill. The corridor down here was illuminated by floating silver orbs that bobbed slightly in the air. He could nearly taste the Well-magic in the air. It was like burning fire and biting chill at once.
He drifted down the corridor, the off chambers each being secluded by curtains. It was quiet here. That was the nature of the room as well as the nature of the last breach. Most Warlocks were still replenishing their Wells, not getting more tattoos. But Dae had always had a fascination with them, with their power. She had a book back at their camp that detailed hundreds of marks and what they each did. A scholar before her death, it had been something she excelled in.
Finally, in the room farthest down the hall, he heard a slight hum inside and he parted the curtains to peek inside. Dae was laid back on the table, her uniform jacket deposited behind her head and her sleeve pulled up. A brown-skinned woman sat in the chair beside her, tattoos glowing white as black liquid rose on the air beside her and followed her hands to Dae’s skin, imprinting itself there. The Nightroot ink shifted on her skin, forming and breaking shapes.
The Conjurer Warlock nodded at Semt as he entered. Conjurers were usually trained in this part of magic as well, studying every mark for years until they could masterfully create the marks on other’s skin. She worked in silent focus, the ink swirling and spreading with a ridiculous precision. All of a sudden, the unused ink fell back into the bowl beside her, and the mess of shapes on Dae’s upper arm suddenly solidified and became defined.
It was a band of dividing, sharp black lightning that wrapped around her arm in a band. Dae sat up, feeling the tattoo with her right hand. Semt knew firsthand that it barely hurt at all, but it always tingled slightly, the Well recognizing the conduit for magic to pass through. The Conjurer inspected her work, probing it gently. “It’ll work. Elemental bands aren’t my forte, but it’s as clean as I can get it.”
“Thanks,” Dae said, distracted in the excitement of the new magic band.
“Here,” the Conjurer said. “You’re a regular. I’ll go get you some stuff that they acquisition us. There’s mountains of the stuff.” She headed out the door.
“Lightning?” Semt guessed, drawing close to her.
“It won’t h—“ Her words were cut off as a wracking fit of coughs broke her countenance. Coughing was jarring outside of combat. Their Wells could crush discomfort and illness with barely a drop spent. The first emotion that reached him was confusion. When she moved her hand from her mouth, there was blood staining her lips, pooled in her palm. Then the concern burst through him.
He rushed to her, holding her steady as she swayed slightly, eyes unfocusing. She held onto him, covering her mouth again as she coughed up more blood. “What’s wrong?” he asked, desperate as he helped her back to the bed to sit down.
“My Well— it’s empty,” she gasped, clutching at her chest with her bloody hand.
She hadn’t had enough to heal the crossbow bolt wound. But by now she should’ve gotten enough of her Well back to heal it. He couldn’t wrap his head around it. “What do you mean?”
“She— fuck,” she gasped as more coughs and more blood bubbled up from her. “She hasn’t been refilling my Well. I thought it was nothing, but—“
Dae could barely speak now, between the coughing and the blood. The coughing was only exasperating the bleeding— he had to do something now. Semt unbuttoned her shirt, pressing his bare palm over the place where her Well laid. He dumped the Well-magic from his own Well into his arm, feeling the hot-numb feeling spread down his arm to his hand. Some of the power made it into her, but her Well shut itself to him in a way he’d never felt before. He only managed to give her a handful of the cold power.
Regardless, it helped. Dae stopped coughing, some of the blood vanishing through her skin as she seemed to regain clarity. Mutual confusion was in both of their faces as she got back to her feet.
“Telas stopped refilling your Well?” he said, bemused. She had just nearly drowned in her own blood.
“I guess so.” The fear was clear in the tremor of her voice. Neither of them had even heard of Telas stopping refilling a Well. “Semt… what do I do?”
“I… I don’t know.”