Chapter 1:

A Tender Goodbye

The World Hereafter

Waves of wind swam along the fine blades of grass across the field, bending them gently. Grey sunlight peeked shyly through the clouds. Despite that, it was warm, and the air was soft: signs of the coming season. Across the horizon, clouds of fog drifted off towards the western skies.

Ren was looking out onto the horizon, resting his hands on a battered shovel. His clothes were packed with dirt, and the underside of his leather boots had started to tear. Yet despite his fatigue, his shoulders fell down, and he felt as though his eyes were easier to keep open. It had been a while since he had seen the air this clear after all. When he first arrived at his home, his lungs breathed smog and dirt.

It had only been a while since he had been back, but somehow it felt as though years had gone by. Perhaps it was time for him to move on. But every time he felt this inclination, his chest would tighten up, and the floor would turn into glue.

“It’s only been a few months, and the air is clean once more,” a sharp, stern voice cut through the air.

Ren didn’t say anything, slightly turned his head to acknowledge the person that the voice belonged to. A taller, older woman walked up beside him. She wore mostly black clothing, with a loose jacket overtop her shirt fitted to store most of her personal items, and small hand weapons. On her left shoulder, she wore a worn steel pauldron, too scratched up to properly reflect anything off of it.

“You should go,” she suddenly said, “you’ve been here too long.”

He frowned. “There are still things I have to do here. I can’t leave my father and my friends like this.”

“You’ve done plenty, Ren. But if you stay here any longer, you’ll never leave again. And that’s something your father would scold me endlessly for.”

Ren’s mouth felt dry. “How can you tell me to leave when you’re going to stay?”

Her eyes softened as she sighed. “I’ll make sure that things are cleaned up here Ren, but you need to get a move on.”

Ren dipped his head and pursed his lips. The wind grew cold. “Where would I even go, Nila?”

Nila hesitated. “South probably. Down to the city of Gatton. With how populated it is, and with how much it’s grown, it’d be a good start to ask around down there.”

“Ask about what?”

“Your mother, of course.”

“My mother?” His voice grew hollow. He furrowed his brows as a blurry image drew itself in his head. He couldn’t remember much, but could barely recall a distant memory of her leaving his home when he was very young. “Why would Gatton know anything about her?”

“It’s not certain you’ll find anything, but we can hope. Your mother is rather well known, you know. Maybe your father didn’t tell you. Made a name for herself in her home country of Astaltin in the west and ventured out into the world as a researcher of magic.” She stepped forwards to rest a hand on his shoulder. “Go pack your things Ren, I’ll meet you at the main gate whenever you’re done, alright?”

Ren still didn’t fully agree with what Nila wanted him to do, but followed her words regardless. He moved back into the town behind him, which laid the ruins of his home and burnt patches of land. Stone, brick, and wooden remains were scattered everywhere, with every house damaged. In the middle of the town lay the remains of the Father tree. The tree that once sheltered their lives, gave them security, and breathed life through his people, was torn down, treated as nothing more than a weed.

It was an abnormally large tree. It had to be, to protect what it needed to protect.

He cursed as he tripped across some rubble that was scattered throughout his home. Grabbing a leather knapsack from his room, he slowly went through the broken cabinets to grab some clothes, water, dried food, and medicine. Packing light and sticking to the necessities was something he had learned from traveling with Nila. Just as he went to tighten his bag, he paused and sat down beside it.

Leaving was the last thing he wanted to do. Not yet at least. Not until…

He bit the inside of his lip and dug his nails into his palm. Maybe Nila was right.

Brushing the dirt off of his clothes, he put on his jacket, armguards, and gloves. Slinging the bag over his side, he took one last look over his arms and shoulders to make sure the grey-striped markings that covered his upper body were all hidden.

Walking out of the large hole in the back of his house, he took a moment. “I’ll be back, Dad. Just make sure you wait for me.”

As Ren started to make his way back towards the wide clearing on the outskirts of the city, a chill wrapped itself onto his chest. Each step seemed to be heavier than the last. Once he had finally made it to the place where he had previously been laboring, his calloused hands started to ache with the familiar feeling of a shovel.

The field was filled with stone markings, unfinished work, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Something squeezed his heart as he trudged his way down to the site and stopped in front of one of the markers.

Words and thoughts flew into his head, but nothing came out of his mouth. It was as if a roadblock had entered his windpipe. He placed his hand on top of the stone marker, noting the small, uneven details of the surface. The silence was deafening. Nothing entered his ears except the soft wind gliding along the plains.

Ren walked out of the field, without a single word spoken. A haze filled his mind until he reached the front gate where Nila was waiting for him.

“You have everything?”

He nodded.

“Say your goodbyes?”

He nodded.

“Come here,” Nila stepped forward and embraced Ren tightly, tucking the back of his head into her shoulder. “Remember, keep your markings hidden, don’t let anyone see them. Keep a low profile, be aware of what’s behind you.”

“I know it’s been really tough for you. You’ve been strong, Ren.”

As she pulled away, Ren could feel some tears welling up. Looking down at him, she smiled.

“I won’t be too far away alright? Now get yourself moving.”