All they’d left were the books, dusty and stained with blood and tears.
Kyth stood among the rubble, tiny pebbles skittering around his boots in a hot wind. The sun glared from the pale, iron sky, unforgiving to any who ventured into this forgotten crevice.
The Lastland, rumor claimed the ancients called it. Until their own lives were stolen by the shadows.
A bead of sweat trickled down his back and plastered his thin, collared shirt a little more tightly to his skin.
He drew a quick breath. Silence muffled the involuntary sound, its hush as heavy as the curse resting in the haversack at his side. He ignored the dragging weight. Ignored the chafing of the leather strap against his narrow shoulder. Ignored the nagging whisper that promised death in exchange for his defiance. Perhaps he ought never have come here.
Table-high pillars spread on all sides—crumbled remnants of another age, abandoned to the winds when the last page turned. Pillars… and the books resting on them. Brown leather covers, battered and torn. Faded gold-gilt edges. All tightly shut. All resting in a memorial to their fate.
Dozens of books. Hundreds.
Thousands waiting silently on the pillars that sprang from the lifeless ground like the bones of an ancient battlefield. The books whispered like the calls of restless souls.
Kyth sucked in the corner of his bottom lip and took a tentative step forward. Wind teased the dust about his feet and pried the dark, matted curls from his forehead. A rumor of laughter echoed in its wake.
A thousand records.
A thousand lives.
A thousand deaths.
And maybe, somewhere, an answer.
He traced his fingertips lightly over the spine of the nearest book. Pitted gashes and rough frays itched against his skin. He clenched his jaw and flipped open the cover. Stark pages stared up at him. Dark lines of ink carved scars across the surface—scars that smeared and blurred beneath puckered traces of weeping.
They all saw my diary. I wish they hadn’t. They know now.
They know I only have a year to live.
The loose scrawl trailed off. He flipped the page.
I started a book last week. Wrote one chapter. I burnt it this morning. There won’t be time to finish…
Something knotted in his chest. Kyth turned the page, almost tearing it in his haste.
I can’t sleep. How can I waste a third of the breaths I have left? Yet… it’s so hard to get up. What is the point when I’ll not see the end?
…the others are drifting away. It’s my fault, I suppose. There’s only one who understands. His diary is almost full…
Snows are harsh this year. I wonder if the cold would take me early if I let it?
His hands quickened, flipping through the brittle pages.
My friend has only one entry left. He slipped from the village at dark…
…he’s not come back. He won’t now. No more pitying looks. Now they’re all directed to me.
They are planting gardens. I almost joined them. I’ll be gone before the flowers bloom.
Only a month left. I didn’t… I never thought it would be this way. There… there was so much I wanted to do. Wanted to say.
His skipped through the last pages.
The final entry lay, dry as bone.
I’m sorry. Goodbye.
Kyth drew a ragged breath. His fingers clenched against cracked stone.
Goodbye. The wind caught the word, moaning through the twisted ruins.
Three hundred and sixty-five entries.
Three hundred and sixty-five pages.
A year of days. A year of life.
A single death.
He pushed to the next table. Blood stiffened the pages of this book, a rusted stain against yellowed parchment.
The final pages of the next were sliced clean through by a thin blade.
Stains from ashes, tears, flames, and blood began to blur as he moved from one book to another. Strong, bold strokes of defiance that grew shakier as the pages wore on. Timid writing in pale, faded ink. Sloppy rants that dissolved into despair.
The knot in his chest constricted with each final page. Fear. Anger. Loneliness.
Slowly the golden light dimmed in a timeless haze. Dull red seeped across the stones and cast the pillars in a crimson hue. Hours. Days. They blurred into nothing here.
Time lagged with a sluggish pulse, waiting for those who came to return to their own lands. It would follow, then. Follow to claim its due, leaving only the diaries behind as a fading memory.
Kyth stood before the final book.
The battered cover was more stained than the others. Leather frayed at one corner and the spine sagged. Loose papers peeked between the pages and others added yellowed layers to the end.
For a long moment he stood, each muscle tensed and strained like a coiled spring. One final chance. One chance was all he needed. His fingers clenched of their own accord, then he reached out and eased the book open.
Charcoal faded across the page in intricate lines. A girl, her head tilted back. A starlit sky high above her. The wind rippling her hair as she stood, her arms outstretched. The sunlight glow painted them all in rosy tints.
He blinked, staring at the picture, letting the seconds trickle past. A cool breeze ruffled the page beneath his fingers.
Drawing a quick breath, he flipped it over.
It’s a gift you know. The second gift, given after the first. I mean, of course. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise. The text ran in a firm, flowing script. Funny, how so many people forget that the ‘greatest curse’ is also a passage into something so much better. A year though… a full year. Not to mention a diary, and just when I’d run out of paper too. The passage rambled on, spilling to the next page, then dissolving into a poem, illustrated with tiny violets.
Kyth’s hand trembled as he flipped through the pages. Splashes of color touched them, mingled with descriptions, antidotes, drawings, and reminders.
The hills rose out of the mist at dawn, like tiny islands. They’re adorable, really. And the mist is so soft; I’d make a dress of it if I could. Which reminds me, I have the cutest hat I’m knitting up for Tersa’s daughter. I should finish that. Blank paper is such a novelty.
I’ve taken up painting again. I’m working for lessons. There is so much beauty to catch. Besides, when people smile, they forget to pity me. They forget I have a diary at all.
I found Lithrin slipping from the village, his diary complete. He died in my arms as the moon rose. He smiled though, when I held him. I’m searching out the others with diaries to keep track and find them if they try to leave and fade away all alone. Most keep to themselves at the end. At least they keep their diaries with religious dedication. Those who don’t care to write at least check off the pages…
I’m almost done with my own book. It’s only been a few months though. I don’t know how much time there is left.
I’m glad I don’t know.
He flipped the last page quickly.
A faded violet lay there, pressed flat. Good day, my lovelies. Time to find new material to write on.
Loose slips of paper lay in an uneven pile. Labels. Cards. Painted bookmarks and scraps of lined paper. They were covered in sketches and poems, songs and stories. The final piece was only a small torn bit of parchment.
It’s almost night. The moon is peeking above the horizon. The first stars are gleaming. The children wanted me to read to them, but I told them I would later. It’s… quiet here. Finally. Alone on the hills, just me and the stars. Cool, with the first hint of fall. Almost like the day I got that diary so long ago. I wonder how far along I’d be now.
Or if it even matters.
I think… I think I’m going to sleep outside tonight. I always wanted to watch the stars come, then fade again into the sunrise. I’ll paint it tomorrow.
Kyth blinked, tracing the inner cover of the diary.
There was no other parchment.
His hands shook and he retreated a step. The red light had faded to dusky blue, and a sliver of moon peeped over the horizon like a gilded path. A chill nipped the wind, cutting through his sweat-stained clothing.
The pillars rose like tombstones, stark in the shadowless night.
A lonely, cursed place.
His hand drifted to the haversack that still rested against his side. The weight dragged at him with the echo of a hundred warnings. They’d told him not to come; told him of the doom of knowledge that haunted those who ventured to this tiny pocket in the rifts.
Would it have made a difference if he’d listened?
Did it matter now?
Swallowing hard, Kyth sank to the ground next to the pillar of the nameless writer. He let his head slump back against it, staring up at the stars.
A thousand records. A thousand questions.
One single answer that gleamed brighter than all the stars combined.
His fingers sought out the buckle to the pouch at his side. He hesitated, then brushed the smooth leather of a crisp, new diary. Drawing a breath, he pulled it into the moonlight. The first page gleamed, clean and white.
He retrieved a pen from the bottom of the haversack. His hand was steady now.
For a moment only, he watched the mist creep along the stone between the pillars. It twisted like a dancing maiden’s skirts, thick with the rumor of laughter and bright eyes. A tiny smile creased his lips.
One answer was enough.
Pulling the diary close, Kyth began to draw.