The Bloodborn Healer
Wind from the west gusted angrily, and dust whirled around Alton. His throat burned at the intrusion, and his eyes watered. Dirt met the sheen of sweat on his skin, building a thin mold of mud on his face and arms. Throwing up a hand to block his eyes from further assault, he coughed roughly, and stood still a moment; waiting for nature to grow quiet before he resumed his journey.
Gray clouds hovered to the west, sowing promises of rain and relief; the journey hadn’t been easy thus far, and any respite from the sun’s torturous rays provided sufficient cause for celebration. Cruel as that slice of wind had been, its icy touch was welcome, and Alton prayed silently for more to follow.
Heat of the day aside, the journey to the Rite of Wisdom had proven easy. True, he’d fallen earlier, but blood no longer oozed from the wound across his palm, and the tingling in his knee was more distraction than burden. He’d received worse injuries tending the fields with his father, or roughhousing with his brothers.
The wind abated, the journey continued, and with a triumphant smile, Alton crested the final rise.
The vast Canyon of the East stretched wide both north and south, the reds and oranges and browns of the walls almost shimmering in the midday sun. At the near edge of the canyon’s cliff stood three figures, each clad in the pure white robes of the High Elders and standing stiffly erect beside a crude stone altar. They all faced away, gazing across the open crevice as if watching the horizon for the sun that had already risen that day.
Breaking into a trot, Alton devoured the distance between himself and those who summoned him here. The tingle in his knee passed from annoyance to pain, but he pushed it aside and pressed on, slowing only as he drew close to the High Elders.
He stopped within arm’s reach of the altar. Falling to his knees, he recited the opening line of the protocol that marked the Rite of Wisdom.
“I have come.”
“For what have you come, youngling?” The words came from the High Elder Rotien, the leader of the Elder Council, and the most powerful man in the region. High Elder Rotien delivered his response firmly, but not harshly, and the question itself was merely part of this verbal dance.
“To prove my wisdom and to gain the mantle of the Elect.”
Fear threatened to bite off his words, but Alton pressed them through without stutter or sigh. To show weakness here was to certainly fail, and failure at this final step bore a steep price.
“You are yet young,” said High Elder Patros. He was leader of a village a few miles to the northwest of Alton’s own, and Alton had met the man only twice before.
“I have reached the age of trial, and I am ready for the test.”
Only two weeks had passed since his family celebrated his eleventh naming day. To be taken so soon after achieving the age of trail was not unheard of, but it was indeed rare. Most boys were closer to their twelfth year, and some halfway past that. But tonight was the full moon, and today the day of calling. And they had summoned him first. If he passed, there would be celebration and the next boy would venture the path to the Rite of Wisdom. If he failed…
High Elder Rotien spoke again, interrupting his thoughts. “The path of the Elect is dangerous. An Elect must be wise, or he will lead the people down roads of sorrow and destruction. That is why you have been summoned, child. To see if you hold the spark of wisdom.”
Perspiration beaded on Alton’s brow, but it was no longer the heat of the day that drew it out. Fear clung to him as closely as his sweat-soaked shirt, stifling him, almost choking him. To be an Elect was to be eligible for Eldership in later years. It was also status, wealth, and admiration. The word of the Elect was countered only by the words of the Elders. But failure here meant losing even the simple life he had attained. To fail the Rite of Wisdom was to suffer lifelong banishment from the lands he called home. There would be no chance for him to return. The village would announce seven days of mourning if he failed here, and the Rites of Wisdom would halt until the next full moon as an homage to his bravery, but he would never see the people of his home again.
“Your wisdom is great, High Elder, and I submit to your judgment.”
That confession of readiness ended what little Alton actually knew of the ceremony. The liturgy of the moment was complete, and now the actual test would begin.
As one, the three High Elders turned to face him. High Elder Rotien, in the middle, said, “Rise, child. Do not be afraid, for fear will cloud your mind.”
At Rotien’s left stood High Elder Mellis, the leader of Alton’s village. He was an old man approaching his eighties, but still hale. Alton had known him all his life, and High Elder Mellis seemed a fair and just man. The High Elder smiled now, a comforting light in the sea of fear, and said softly, “The banishment is hard, child, but not unbearable. The town of those who have failed is not an unhappy place.” He paused a moment, then added, “Besides, let us hope that does not matter.”
High Elder Rotien raised a hand, and the older man fell silent.
“Elders must make difficult decisions that impact many. Key to good leadership, then, is the ability to determine what is right in situations where there seems no right, when all choices seem wrong. Thus, for the Rite of Wisdom, we will relate to you the legend of the Bloodborn Healer. You will give us your judgment, and we will decide whether you have the spark of the Elect.
“Step forward, child, to the edge of the canyon. Look out over the vast world, and hear my tale.”
Alton stepped forth, to stand between High Elders Rotien and Mellis, to gaze across the vast fissure in the earth. Colors exploded through the rift, the reds and oranges and browns of the walls. There was blue in the river rippling through the bottom as it cut past the faded green of the scrub brush. There was bright white in a collection of rocks at the base of the cliff. He could see the animals creeping through the grounds, spreading their own vibrant hues to the mix.
He stood, taking in all of this wonder, and realized that the village of the banished lay on the other side of the canyon. And he wondered suddenly if it looked as pretty from that far side.
High Elder Rotien gave him little chance to ponder. “Long ago, in a distant land there was a great famine. All throughout the countryside crops failed. Death stalked the land, claiming his victims with dark glee among both humans and animals. Families lost fathers, brothers, sons; they lost mothers, sisters, daughters. They plead to the sky for rain, but only dust and despair fell on them. Hope died as surely as the people, and many wore the colors of mourning, for the loss of life was great.
“Into this came a mysterious young man, a traveler only passing through. He intended to stay only one night before moving on. He lodged with a local family, and though food was scarce, they shared what little they had. That night he spoke of his travels, and they spoke of the famine. Sleep never claimed him that night as he lay awake pondering this town’s plight.
“Horrified by the severity of the famine and touched by the measure of the family’s generosity, he chose to stay and help. Identifying himself only as the Bloodborn Healer, he promised relief from the famine and prosperity for all. He raised few eyebrows, and none dared hope for redemption after unceasing pain had plagued them for so long.
“Despite the lack of faith, he set to work. For what the people did not know was that the Healer was indeed trained in arts beyond our world. The rains returned, the crops thrived, and the harsh hold of the famine shattered beneath the Healer’s magical touch. What had been a land steeped only in pain now became a land of paradise.
“For almost one month everything proceeded beautifully. Then came the first disappearance. A girl, the daughter of those the Healer stayed with, vanished from her bed one night. They found her body later that day. She was more than a mile from the village, her body destroyed as though by a wild animal. All, including the Healer expressed outrage and dismay. No one, though, knew how or why she would wander into the darkness of the night.
“Meanwhile, the rains continued, and prosperity bathed the town in its light. The loss of the child was terrible, but in truth the town had never been better.
“One month after the first, the second child vanished, very similarly to the first. And then the third, one month later. Fear gripped the town. They cried out to their chief to discover what was happening. And so he waited, watching the town late on the night that marked the Healer’s fourth month in the village.
“As he waited on the edge of the village, he saw what he had feared he would. The Bloodborn Healer fled the village, a child over his shoulder, escaping into the night.
“Emerging from hiding, the chief confronted him. Discovered, the Healer related his terrible story.
“His powers were vast and amazing. He could work amazing good for all people, as the chief had seen. He could keep the village prosperous, and he could keep the inhabitants alive. However, for the price of this magic, once a month he must consume the heart of a child. If he did not, his powers would fail and the town would plunge into the famine and want that had gripped it before.
“The chief now must make a decision. Should he let the Bloodborn Healer feed upon the children to keep the town alive? Or should he instead kill the man before him for the murders he had committed?
“That is your question. That is the Rite of Wisdom.
“I will tell you how some believe this story ended. Some say that the chief slew the Bloodborn Healer where he stood. The disappearances stopped, and the grisly murders abated, but the famine that the Healer had held at bay returned at full force. Death again stalked the land at will, destroying many among the village.
“Others say that the chief let the Bloodborn Healer continue his works. The famine ended and lives were spared, but the Healer and the chief worked together, selecting those who serve as suitable human sacrifices to the Healer’s dark needs.
“But it is you, child, who must decide now. Were you the chief, what would be the fate of the Bloodborn Healer?”
Alton almost gasped. What kind of question was this? Neither answer seemed right to him. Pulling his gaze from the canyon, he looked at the three High Elders in turn. Each was waiting for his answer, but only High Elder Rotien stood quietly. High Elder Mellis fidgeted nervously, and kept gazing down into the canyon, and High Elder Patros shuffled his hands nervously under his robes.
What did they want? The wrong answer here meant certain banishment, and though he had prepared for that consequence, now that it loomed so close he was terrified.
He pulled his eyes back to the canyon. The brilliant colors still swelled and drew him in, but he knew the answers didn’t lie there. The reds of the wall held no truth, and the blue of the water no wisdom. The white of the rocks at the cliff base…
The white of the rocks…
Alton had to fight not to groan aloud. He knew the correct answer.
Blood pounding in his ears, he fought to keep his face totally calm. Terrified, he spun around to face the High Elders.
“The correct answer is to let the Bloodborn Healer carry on. It is better for one to die than many.”
High Elder Rotien’s face split into a wide grin, and he clapped Alton on the shoulder. “Well done, my boy!”
But it wasn’t High Elder Rotien that caught Alton’s eye. It was High Elder Patros, sheathing his knife under his robe and nodding approvingly.
“Now,” High Elder Rotien continued, “go back to town and let the celebration begin! And send the next of the chosen to us.”
Alton nodded, but hesitated one last second before leaving. He gazed again over the canyon ledge to the bottom, drawing one last shuddering breath of both relief and revulsion.
Then, with knees barely able to hold him, he walked away from the canyon’s edge, away from the Rite of Wisdom. He walked away from the threat of failure. He walked away from the bleach white bones at the bottom of the cliff that formed the city of the banished. But mostly, he knew he was walking away from High Elder Rotien, the Bloodborn Healer.