Death will be your master, the abbot once told Hugh the Hand. But he had never said the absence of death would be just as powerful of a master.
His death in the castle had been relieving, and his revival had been terrifying. He had been drowning in warmth, and suddenly pulled back into blistering light. His limbs did not feel right, and his mind was stuck in two different planes of existence. And all through out, his soul called to go back, go back – but the path had been blocked. He could never find it again.
The chaodyn’s spear had pierced through his vest and he was drowning, he was drowning – and pulled back to take in air he had not wanted.
But there was a difference this time.
He had killed one of the creatures in return - a last minute stab through the heart – and it had stayed dead. No sudden shift of his blade, no trip through the bloody grass, nothing but the focus to destroy this monster. And then he had done it again to another. And again. And then again.
Others came, one crushing his shoulder. A black furry shadow was at the edge of his vision, shooting for one of the enemies from behind. He paid little attention to it, continuing his defense.
Even when the last of them had crushed his ribs, feeling the spear puncture through his back, he had still pushed through and watched in satisfaction as the chaodyn became still. Then he followed after.
Or tried to, at the very least.
It was later when he woke up on those same fields, his clothes torn and bloody. In his hand was the knife, still clutched tightly in his fingers, and those still bodies of the chaodyn, their insect figures looking even more grotesque in death.
So, he had killed them. Actually, truly killed.
Yet of course, he was still very much alive, despite sustaining a wound that would have felled any normal man. He looked to his vest, finding the hole the spear made in the fabric. But his flesh was whole, and the spear was to his side, broken in half and drenched in blood.
It had shifted through organs and bones, blood filling his throat as he felt it happen, and yet once again, everything of him was back to where it was.
Disappointing. But at least there came a positive out of all this.
He sheathed his knife before standing up on shaky legs, his pain quite real and sharp. If only immortality could have more benefits than this.
“Well,” he muttered aloud, “one out of two isn’t bad, I suppose.”
“Sir Hugh!” Alfred had rushed up to the man as he ambled by the group in a clearing. On his way, Hugh had overheard the mutterings of how another monstrous army was readying their assault. Just the thought of it was already fatiguing Hugh – the Labyrinth could learn to take a break for a day or two. Of course, the eyes of others not of his kind had fixated on him. He remembered such looks from elves, though more confused than distrusting.
He turned to the ex-chamberlain, still in his shabby coat and frock, a little disturbed at how the man continued to play a charade that no one would be fool enough to believe anymore. “Alfred. You’ve looked better.” A slight lie, for he wasn’t entirely sure if such a thing were true.
Alfred politely brushed past the insult in order to smile with relief at him. “Sir Hugh. What a relief to see you not hurt!”
Hugh narrowed his eyes. He had seen this clumsy oaf use magic beyond his wildest imaginations, transform into a fire-breathing dragon as bright as the sun – and yet he still seemed to surprise him.
“Is that your idea of a joke?” he dead-panned.
Alfred flinched a little, perhaps finally remembering a little argument they had once, such as back in the Vortex, back when Hugh begged him to maybe, perhaps, let the man finally die when it was his time. But of course, Alfred had just blubbered and been useless.
It looked he was going to still do that. So Hugh held up a hand to stop him.
“Hold your apologies. It doesn’t matter.” Alfred looked only half-convinced. Hugh restrained an urge to sigh. “But if you’d like to make up for it, you can help me find my pipe. I’ve lost the blasted thing in the fight.”
“Oh! Yes, yes of course! Perhaps it is over-”
A hand clapped on Alfred’s shoulder – one that was no longer in bandages, freely showcasing the pattern of runes, now dark instead of burning red. Haplo stood by Alfred, looking to Hugh with a silent and curious expression. Again, even after all that he had seen, Hugh could still not read the man’s expression, and stayed wary of his observant eyes.
“You’re still alive,” Haplo said, also sounding surprised.
Hugh was beginning to suspect that he was out of the loop of some critical information. This was not a new feeling and frankly, he was getting a bit sick of it.
“Should I get stabbed again so you can be sure this time?” he shot back.
Haplo raised an eyebrow, but not much else. Still so incredibly hard to read, except for brief winces of pain. The man’s shirt was slightly torn, Hugh catching a glimpse of a welt over his chest.
“It’s just interesting,” Haplo said, more to himself and Alfred, leaning close to the other. Hugh refused to be left out, straining his ears to hear. “That some things still remain the same.”
Alfred thought on Haplo’s words, until his own realization came through.
“Do you both mind telling me what the hell is going on?”
And perhaps that was the first of what Hugh would notice in his time living among gods that had only existed in old legends. How outcasted he was in this place among outcasts, how he stood out like a sore thumb among the crowd – a death sentence for those of his trade. How can you complete anything if you were constantly seen?
He was long past his time, and everyone noticed.
“So your Lord took my form?” Hugh shook his head. “And from what I heard, I thought him to be an intelligent man.”
Despite how Haplo had went against his former Lord, there was a twist there in his lips, an old feeling to defend him against such words. Hugh could understand that on some level, perhaps. It was difficult to go against what you have known, though Hugh had never been a servant to anyone besides Ciang. And, even then…
“Well, he fooled all of us. Do you remember him going to you at all?”
“None whatsoever. Then again, my constant dying must have tampered with my memories.”
“He said something curious at one point…” Haplo was taking him further into the forest, near a large structure. The fields here were black, the plants curled with dirt that looked rusted. From the minerals within the soil? Or from years of spilled blood? A crowd was gathering, a hum of magic heard through the air. “In your form, he asked to be set free. And we thought closing Death’s Gate would do so, among other things.”
Hugh raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t take, clearly.”
Haplo nodded. “That’s why we’re about to enter the Nexus. Even with Death’s Gate closed off, enough of our power can tear it straight down.” The blackened grass crunched under their boots, and in the distance, the bright shapes of green creatures cut through the skies. The good dragons that had accompanied the Patryns and Sartans, to fight against their red-eyed brethren. Hugh tried to count their numbers, but some sifted out of reality, while others only seemed to multiply. “Seeing that you’re still walking, I’m guessing that the rules of what Death’s Gate determines don’t really apply.”
“Thank you for using my still unending life to prove your theory.”
Haplo would not apologize, and Hugh was glad for it. The man knew how to move things along. “It will be better in there for you. At the very least, nothing else will try to stab you.”
“Even for those that detest mortals like me?” Hugh had asked.
Haplo smiled. “They’ll get over it.”
Hugh the Hand left the Labyrinth to walk through paved roads of white, graceful minarets that spiraled into the twilight-laden sky. Some of the faces that passed by him seemed to transform, their years of running and fighting melting away.
For himself, Hugh still felt the same.
He remembered once being surprised at the Labyrinth’s constant need to kill them all, the tiger men rushing at them to tear off their flesh, and for some reason, that had sparked a feeling in him that this peaceful place could not truly replicate.
He had known true peace before, unending, nothing that the world he had known could ever provide. Yet even in this one, he could not grasp it.
In his tattered clothes, he was taken through the roads, like a shadow that should have long blended into the night. But here there was apparently always sunlight, just on the edge of going down, yet never doing so.
Hugh’s life was always on the brink of nightfall. He felt exhausted.
Still, in this new world. Hugh wanted to be useful. Whether Haplo, Alfred and Marit pitied him, or did not know where else to put him in this new world, they had decided to take him in. Them living together was not so much as a shock to Hugh, already sensing the strange connection among the trio. It was a big home, and one where he could find his own space for a little while, even if he wasn’t so interested in much of anything.
But he needed to keep his mind busy, either way.
There had been no place for Hugh back on Arianus – his curse had made him useless to the Brotherhood, useless in life in general. Going with Haplo into the Labyrinth (albeit unintentionally) might as well have been his next step, thanks to the Kenkari. A new world with new people, despite their terrifying magic that made Iridal’s spells seem like parlor tricks, would present some opportunities, surely.
“I can’t make heads or tails of this chickenscratch.”
Alfred turned to the assassin with a start, probably forgetting Hugh was still in the same room. Rather an annoyance, as he kept expecting the man to faint straight away on seeing him. There were times when Hugh did not want to be so noticed, but this was not one of them.
“Oh, Sir Hugh! You don’t need to read them. You could just put the larger tomes to the side over there. I’ve marked the place!”
Hugh looked to the desk Alfred was gesturing to. The entire surface was covered in papers, stacked so high that they were in danger of falling over, perhaps protected by runes that kept such a possibility from occurring. (Hugh was still getting used to these strange terms the demigods liked using). There were some books here and there as well, again so haphazardly put all over the place.
The man used to be a personal servant to the prince, apparently.
Hugh numbly tossed the book to the table with a loud thud, nearly making Alfred shriek. Nothing of the mess was misplaced, so he didn’t understand the need for such a reaction. “I’ve organized the books the Kir hold in their libraries for much of my childhood. Read them, too. Knowing languages will get you far, and the books gave me many lessons when my masters weren’t looking.” He narrowed his eyes at the tome he had been scrounging through, the hexagonal runes so neat and yet so mocking.
“Looking at your people’s languages however, is giving me an immense headache.”
Alfred clasped his hands nervously, already looking to apologize. “Sir Hugh, I had not realized –”
“Are you seriously going to keep addressing me as that?” After everything he knew now?
Alfred grew flustered, blinking as he tried to gain his bearings. “I- I am so terribly sorry. I suppose I am just used to it.”
Hugh frowned, though still gritted his teeth behind closed lips. The man had never found his pipe either.
“Doesn’t matter. My own fault for thinking I could use what I know in this world.” He stood up from his chair, feeling exhausted. “None of the structures of your words make sense to me. Or at least to my mortal knowledge.” Maybe if he was a Mysteriarch, but that only brought back bitter memories.
Alfred seemed to have an idea of Hugh’s predicament, and once again, tried to appeal to him.
“I understand that… you feel you are a stranger in a strange land, as they say. But you are always welcome among us. Haplo has said an assistant for me is probably necessary. My own organization efforts are… much to be desired, I am aware.”
“You believe so?” Hugh said, the tone a bit more biting than he had meant to. Alfred of course had picked up on that straight off.
“But I do not want to force you at all! Especially after…” He sighed. “I have been trying to find a way to reverse the spell. I really have.”
Again, the bitterness.
Hugh took his seat once more, turning to the shelves that housed old records from other worlds he would never know, and a world he would never return to. Such books could be the ravings of a madman, and Hugh would never know the difference.
“I’m putting these in whatever order I can make sense of. In the meantime, Alfred, don’t start fainting from hunger like you nearly did the last time because you can’t leave your research.”
The other was still the chamberlain that he had nearly slit the throat of that day. Many times, Hugh had thought back to it – wondering if such a possibility (again, that term) would have ever occurred? The man had been a Sartan, all-powerful, convincing a dragon to follow Hugh and Bane despite how well the assassin had covered his tracks. Would his blade have bounced off a magical shield at the very last moment? Would Alfred have started whispering a lullaby to induce Hugh to sleep? Would Hugh have died instead?
No use wondering about it.
“Ah, of course, Sir… I mean, Hugh. Yes, yes, of course.”
Hugh needed to feel useful, and for the moment this was all he had.
The sun never set in the Nexus.
Hugh had to leave to a place where time mattered, at least momentarily.
His first venture into the Labyrinth had consisted of nearly breaking his neck over shaking ground, but his blood had filled his limbs with adrenaline then, and the weapons he held had felt natural in his hands. So he went.
The gate was broken down, the wards over it secure – keeping creatures from sneaking inside. But Hugh’s own existence confused such magics, and he walked straight through from the land of twilight to darker fields, lit up by bloodier skies. He puffed out smoke through his pipe, one that Alfred had to conjure when they could not find his own. The replacement was good enough.
The Labyrinth is a land of death, and so many had found their own in here, as he had been told, as he had witnessed. Maybe someday the Labyrinth would be kind enough to grant him such a gift.
A hunting knife was strapped to his belt – a regular one, the same one that had taken down a monster. He had washed the blood from its blade, and thought on it, again. He could kill back then, but could he do so now?
They said the Labyrinth would try to exterminate any threat right away, and he stepped onto its domain, expecting something with sharp teeth and claws to run him down. He was almost correct.
In the fields, he met a dog.
“You again?” he uttered, no longer having anything in him to be truly surprised anymore.
The dog was the same dog, for certain. Its white eyebrows raised curiously as it made its way to Hugh, appearing from the trees. He kept his knife ready, expecting the animal to morph into something else. Perhaps this was just a runt of a wolfen, or one of those boggleboes that Alfred liked to ramble on about in half-fear, half-wonder.
Or perhaps a dragon-snake? Hugh checked the animal’s eyes, but there was no hint of red. Everything of the dog, its fur patterns, its lolling tongue, its cheerful demeanor, also seemed correct.
But the dog was supposed to be gone. A part of Haplo now or some such nonsense.
Hugh considered that he was hallucinating, or that the Labyrinth conjured up a trick for him. The best way to know was to either stare long enough until the dog vanished or wait until it tore out his throat.
Either option seemed as well as the other.
Instead the dog sat before him, then scratched at its ear vigorously. Still, it remained. Still, it didn’t move in to attack.
Hugh reached out to pat its head. The dog accepted such affection gratefully, wagging its tail. Odd how it could do so underneath such furious skies.
“I suppose you would like to go back to your master,” he said. He expected the dog to wander through the gate behind him, probably already knowing where their home was.
The dog did not move. Instead, it remained at Hugh’s feet, and those funny eyebrows seemed to say something.
I’m where I need to be the most.
Hard to say how Hugh could assume such a feeling from a dog – a dog with no name. He patted its head again, scratching behind the ears.
Eventually, the ex-assassin would leave for the Nexus again, but the next time he ventured through the gate – and more than once he would visit – the dog was always there.
The dog was as stuck in this existence as he was. The only difference though, was that it didn’t seem to mind. It could still play fetch with glee, (yes, he admitted to playing fetch with it) and was content to just follow Hugh around as he explored the Labyrinth, trying to learn the terrains of the land, despite knowing how useless that could have been. But there seemed to be no danger whenever the dog was with him.
Hugh made sure to bring some sausages as well in the future.
He saw no need to tell Haplo anything.
Those other times he left for the Labyrinth, he tested his ability to kill.
Sometimes the Patryns would venture back to rescue more of their people. But Hugh had always worked alone, and his time spending among them had made him feel that need once more. It had always been easier to work alone anyway.
With his canine companion, Hugh walked among the Labyrinth’s path, careful to watch out for dragons. His ability to still not die, and having witnessed their expertise in torture, he knew it would make an ugly combination.
By chance, he had come upon a woman – a Runner, as he heard Haplo once use the term. Her arm was torn, and the spear she held in her hand was broken at its haft. The runes on it shone brightly. Her back was to a tree as a pair of wolfen circled her, their teeth gleaming bright.
The sky was dark, but Hugh could see well, better than most.
“Distract,” he told the dog. He knew it would listen, and it did so.
It rushed out, barking furiously to gain the monsters’ attention. Yellow eyes swiveled to the left, and the woman straightened, instinctively holding out her spear at the sound. Perhaps she thought another had joined to kill her.
Hugh waited for only a moment before he saw one head for the dog, its claws as long as his knife. Still, he used his weapon, and still, he plunged the blade into the creature’s side with little difficulty.
Nothing to trip him, nothing to make the blade break. There were only the usual struggles, the usual brief scratch from a flailing limb. He felt the other wolfen rush towards him from behind, but the dog had intercepted it, bringing it to the ground and reaching for its throat.
Hugh helped the process with another quick stab. Whatever magic the monster had, it had little effect on him still.
The woman was staring at him from her position near the tree. She kept her spear pointed, looking to Hugh with confusion and distrust.
She began to speak, noting his bare arms, and how she must have felt nothing from him. He could not understand a word, the language flitting through his head like half-whispers.
Hugh still held the weapon in his grip. He gestured towards the south as he tried to wipe the blood from his beard. You’re near the Final Gate, he meant to imply, and perhaps on some level she understood.
She was too weak to fight him, and while Hugh had some talent for dressing wounds, he knew she would not welcome them. That was fine. He preferred to focus on his renewed dealing in death.
The dog walked beside him, looking so happy, even in this darkness.
Nothing went after him later that day, or other days as well. Hugh had to seek out to keep his blade fresh. But it was now proven without a doubt. He could, at the very least, kill the monsters here, leaving their corpses on the soil to soak through.
But could he kill a man once again?
The Headman looked more concerned than usual, crossing his arms. Visiting Haplo’s abode, he spoke in soft tones, though Marit’s was a bit louder in comparison.
“Ramu continues to be a pain,” she scoffed.
Haplo shrugged. “Nothing new. Dragon-snakes live among his people and he willingly allows it to happen. He refuses talks of peace and compromise with any of us.”
Marit’s tone upheld the bitterness that the men felt. “And his pride makes him refuse his people to live in the Nexus still. I’m sure they’re all really pleased about that.”
“But I have heard…” Vasu stated, his voice still so much softer, softer than Haplo’s even. How a man like this became leader would be hard to imagine if one did not see his expression – hard set and determined. “That some of the Sartan are looking to separate. The Labyrinth doesn’t attack them because of the dragon-snakes. It knows it can trust those things. Still, it is said that many know that disaster for them is only a matter of time.”
Once again, Haplo’s face was expressionless, although his voice betrayed a fatigue. “But they will not leave still. Even then.”
“…They can’t betray the one leading them, no.” Vasu sighed. “But in the chance one or two seek asylum in the Nexus, I thought I should let you know. Granted, if none are dragon-snakes posing as some.”
“Good to know that’s a possible worry,” Haplo said, his face now reflecting his voice.
Also good to know the gods are hard of hearing, Hugh thought.
He left his place from above the stairs, going back to Alfred’s study and continue his organizational work in vain. But he kept what he learned.
Hugh had been venturing to the Labyrinth for over a month, sometimes gone for nights on end. If anyone ever noticed, none said a word. There were times to be separate from the other. And, the thing was, people did not know what to do with Hugh. That was fine, for he had found a way to deal with things on his own. As he always had. As he always will.
His latest information showed him how he could still test his abilities as well.
Men are hardly different – even if they thought the magic they possessed would make them so. Sinistrad had still been a cruel, vain man, his death nearly as satisfying as Hugh’s very own. Back on Arianus, Hugh had done away with many men addicted to power, refusing to let it go. In the end, once one got a knife to the chest, that power rarely mattered in the end.
Hugh did not know Ramu by any means. But he had entered the makeshift Sartan city, a dog trailing behind him, looking more cheerful than any of those he passed.
In fact, many seemed to be surprised by how easily he passed through their gates.
“I’m here to see the one called Ramu,” he told one man, his robes a bit mismatched and ragged. A godly race that could do little to keep up appearances. Maybe this meant that the dragon-snakes did not exactly stop every threat the Labyrinth offered. Hugh made sure to remember this detail. “I have information from the Nexus that he would find interesting.”
“How could a mensch..?” the man started to say, but clamped his lips when Hugh stared at him. The other was taller, yet he wilted underneath the assassin’s eyes. He had also deigned to speak in a language that Hugh could understand. How kind.
They know something is not quite right about me, he thought, not exactly displeased. He could use this, perhaps.
A few took him along and Ramu was as he expected - a vain man with an air of disdain and superiority. So much like other men Hugh had met. It was almost disappointing that a Sartan couldn’t be much different. Of course, Alfred had to be the anomaly, who could barely make the effort to look past his shoes.
“You are a friend of the one who calls himself Alfred,” Ramu stated as a greeting. How convenient. His abode was of clean, tall walls, painted a blinding white. Construction that was not possible by mortal hands in the slightest. In fairness, that did impress Hugh. Even the great city of Abri still had stone abodes and huts within their own walls.
Hugh bit down on his pipe, feeling the dog shift by his side. He reflexively reached out to pat its head.
“Friend is not what I would call him,” he replied, half meaning it.
Ramu twisted his lips in a sneer. “Of course.” He turned his back to Hugh, displaying his confidence so clearly it almost made Hugh sigh aloud. This man was also quite young. “But I don’t see how a mensch could help us. In fact, mensch have been nothing but troublesome for the most part for us.”
“A man inside the walls of the Nexus may prove his worth to you.” Hugh shrugged. “I have little love for them. I was taken from my home and forced to live in foreign lands.”
“You did not go with them freely?” Ramu turned, clearly expressing his distrust. “It was said you fought beside them.”
“I fought to save my own skin,” Hugh countered. “Or, I could just lay down and die. But us mensch simply refuse to do so.”
Ramu was considering his words, believing them intently, Hugh knew. Then he moved closer to the one he called a mensch. “We have others that could simply do what you offer. Their shapeshifting abilities are of little comparison, and their loyalty is unquestionable.”
Hugh did all he could to suppress his laughter. “But their markings are all wrong, and their eyes are a giveaway. I am just their friend, who has nowhere else to go and am chained to their world. Now, you tell me. Have these friends given you anything at all?”
Finally, Ramu kept his mouth shut.
Hugh continued. “The people I reside with make their weekly excursions out into the Labyrinth. I can show you the coordinates. I can take you there very easily. The Alfred you so despise will be around, too. But you will need to trust me.”
And, knowing how quickly Ramu had trusted the dragon-snakes by other accounts, he knew this would work just as effectively.
The dog continued to stand beside him with a smile.
Is this too easy?
Death’s Gate was supposed to be closed off, and the magics that had run wild among each world would have finally gone one way, controlled. But Hugh the Hand was still alive, a remnant of the floating isles of his home that he would never see. Whatever strangeness he held, the Sartan could sense, as could the creatures of the Labyrinth. So, he had to take a few extra measures.
Ramu had transported them to an open glade, the trees spread far apart, and the night upon them. He went by himself, perhaps unheeding of whatever nature Hugh held within him. He had not transported the dog, pointedly deciding not to. Even so, the canine appeared beside Hugh as if he had been there all along.
The Sartan was too busy looking at their surroundings to notice.
“You said here, did you not?” His eyes narrowed. “Where is Alfred? This traitor needs to be punished as quickly as possible.”
“There’s something you should know,” Hugh said. Besides killing, Hugh was skilled in tracking, even through the Labyrinth’s own attempts at changing its landscape. But some things it kept around, such as this place here. The vines were vicious things, as slithering as snakes. If one struggled against them, such vines would only tighten, wrenching the limbs from the place, poisoning the victim with barbs – enough to cause excruciating pain, but not die for a long time. Hugh had seen it himself, finding one man succumbed to it, his runes sparking fire to the plants and never breaking free, his voice gurgling on half-formed notes. Hugh knew it would be foolish to try and rescue him.
But this place was just as a precaution.
“You know of this area, I presume. You lost one of your own people a few days ago.”
Ramu glared at Hugh. He had even walked up close to him, trying to use his height to intimidate. He was only making this easier for him. “How did you know such a thing? Was it you who led him to his death? Is that what you intend to do with me?”
Hugh kept his gaze steady. “I brought Alfred here. His body lies there.” He gestured, and the darkness hid everything. His preparations hid all, even from a godly man.
Ramu swiveled his gaze, though kept his distance near Hugh. “You would murder him in cold blood. How expected.” So greedy and malicious he was. So easy to believe the lies people have told him. Perhaps he had been told them all his life.
With a deft hand, Hugh slid his knife deep into the man’s chest.
It was so simple.
The death vines had been a precaution, but he wanted to know that he could kill with his own hand.
Ramu looked to him then with surprise and anger, sputtering out songs that did nothing to Hugh at all. After all, the man couldn’t die.
The dog waited behind him patiently, as the Sartan finally fell among the grass.
He hadn’t even needed the Cursed Blade to do his job. Nor even one of Patryn-make, with their blazing runes inscribed on the surface. Just one he had carried with him from Arianus, even surviving the waters of Chelestra when he had nearly drowned – yet would not have died.
It was good to know that death could still be controlled for him in some ways.
"I think you know something.”
Haplo had been waiting outside of Hugh’s door, arms crossed and leaning against the wall. Hugh gave a quick glance, assessing his stance and clothing. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for a small tension in his arms. Hugh pulled the traveling cloak around him tighter, the satchel tossed over his shoulder.
“I know very little of anything that happens here.”
He traveled down the stairs to the lower floor. Haplo followed.
“Ramu’s not anywhere to be found. Just vanished one night. Since then, a bunch of Sartan have exiled themselves to here.” Haplo’s eyes didn’t leave Hugh’s back. “Again, just thought you might know something.”
Hugh ignored the implication, gathering extra foodstuff from the kitchen. Hunting was always a pain, and the first few nights are easier to endure with already-made food. “I’m sure Alfred must be ecstatic, hearing his people have finally accepted this place. But depressed at the same time.”
“He’s offered to help look for Ramu, and I guess I got roped into it.” Haplo shook his head. “It’s a lost cause, I assume.”
Hugh grunted, making sure to carry some dried sausages in a thick cloth.
Of course, he felt Haplo’s gaze get more intense. “A camping trip?”
“I need a bit of air now and then,” Hugh stated, already heading for the door. “And maybe a night sky once in a while.”
The understanding between them had never been as intense as Haplo’s with Alfred, or with Marit. But there was a time when their thoughts could tread on the same path, without overly speaking about it.
Except just this once. “Are you planning to die?”
Hugh gestured to his belongings. “Would a dying man bring food to his deathbed?” Although he supposed not unheard of.
Haplo shrugged. “Then let me ask one other thing. Have you ever died after Death’s Gate was closed off?”
He considered. “No, I haven’t.”
“Then how do you know you can’t at all?”
Hugh turned away, keeping his knife well-sheathed. “I will be back sometime within the next month.”
Haplo could have stopped him easily, ask him even more questions about certain things. But the man knew how to give space, and Hugh’s space was very important.
Besides, Haplo should learn to get a dog of his own.
When the chaodyn had attacked him, the dog had been with him.
Haplo had once told the story, back in the time wells in Abri, stroking the dog’s head that laid over his knees. He had owed his life to this creature, finding renewed strength. But now that Death’s Gate was closed off, the dog had gone.
Hugh wandered down the paths to a nearby river. The River of Anger, as they called it. He remembered crossing the bridge over its roiling depths. Now he sat before it, hands deep in its waters to wash the sweat and grime from his beard.
The dog was laying next to him, rolling in the grass while the sun blistered above him.
His hands should have turned to ice, or perhaps something should have pulled him under. But the river was nothing but a river, and the amount of water was precious to him, coming from a world where currency was weighted in water.
Even so, whatever he was now, he knew that someday, he would die. Somehow. Was he still seeking it?
The dog was panting, sniffing at the satchel Hugh carried.
“Alright then,” he said, taking out the coveted sausages for the dog to chew on. No other creature was nearby to prey on them, though he had no runes to warn him. “Still don’t know why you’re sticking by me.” Then he looked at the food. “Or maybe I do.”
The dog continued to munch, then raised a head to the other, tail wagging. I’m where I need to be.
Maybe Hugh could understand such a feeling.
In the Labyrinth, there was much to be afraid of. But a man who could not die (perhaps), but could kill, feared very little.
That and he had a dog to keep him company, at the least.