The wind blew along the flatlands making the tall grasses there dance to its quiet music. Lazarus smiled; his crow’s feet framed eyes taking it all in. Lazarus’ salt and pepper hair danced with the grass adding its own interpretation of those seemingly eternal rhythms. It was good to be back, to feel that part of him that was from this place awakening in the dancing.
The last time Lazarus stood here was the day he had begun his journey into adulthood. He had been a mere boy then, barely coming into puberty. It seemed almost cruel to send a child out of his home into the world beyond, to be on his own. It was especially cruel to do so with nothing but a day’s worth of food and a change of clothes. The reality of it was that it was necessary, especially for ones who have the Gift. Back then Lazarus would have called it the Curse, but now he wasn’t sure what to call it.
Lazarus pulled back his hair and bound it in a pony tail. His shoulder ached with the weight of his possessions in his backpack, but the journey was almost over. He could see the outskirts of the village ahead. With a wistful smile he set off.
A group of youths were the first to see Lazarus coming down the road. They stopped playing their game and let the ball slowly roll to where Lazarus came to a stop. He smiled sadly at the youths and gave the ball a kick back toward the group. One of the youths stopped the ball with a stomp of his foot. The boy’s eyes were a mixture of fear and excitement.
“You might want to head home and tell your parents I am back,” Lazarus said. “And they should get everyone out to the great circle. Tonight I complete the ritual.”
The youths looked at each other until the boy who stood on the ball jerked his head down the road toward the village. The rest of the youths took off at a dead run, but the boy stayed. “Why come back now?” the youth asked. “We’ve been doing fine here without you.”
Lazarus smiled a bit more warmly. “I suppose you have,” he said. Lazarus looked at the youth for a moment and the silence dragged on until the youth felt uncomfortable enough to remove his foot from the ball. “What was started needs to be finished. Then the cycle can begin again,” Lazarus said.
The youth thought about that for a second. He then nodded at Lazarus and turned to follow his friends, but stopped and looked back at Lazarus. “What is it like having the Gift?” asked the youth.
Lazarus sighed and walked over to the ball. He kicked it into the air into the youth’s arms. “It’s like you have a thousand of those balls in your hands, and you know if you let even one of those fall then you have failed,” Lazarus said. “I was always terrified of dropping just one of those balls, yet I have come to embrace it, because it is me.” Lazarus walked up to the youth and put his arm around the youth’s shoulders. The youth became very rigid. “Son, what is your name?” Lazarus asked.
“Malat,” replied the youth.
“Malat, how would you like to help me prepare the bonfire?” ask Lazarus. Malat nodded his head but didn’t move another muscle. Lazarus removed his arm and began walking. “Then follow me Malat. It is time for all of us to find closure.”
The fire roared into the sky, it heat almost burning the hair of those sitting closest to the blaze. Lazarus sat at one end of the fire, eyes closed. The rest of the village sat at the other side, except for Malat who sat in between. Malat didn’t understand why no one else sat closer. After spending the afternoon with the old man, Malat had decided that Lazarus might be crazy, but overall he was a nice guy.
Lazarus had told Malat of the large cities on the coast. He described the ocean with its ever present surf crashing into the shoreline. He spoke of men and woman from other places creating a riot of different tongues, colors, and styles of dress. He told of steam powered machines that didn’t use magic to move, just boiling water. All of this made Malat’s head spin. Malat had been quiet the entire time listening to the old man go on and on about the world outside, but he did ask what was the worst thing that had happened. Lazarus looked at Malat and grew quiet then.
“The worst thing was being a stranger with nothing. Absolutely nothing, except the Gift,” Lazarus said. Lazarus had then changed the subject about the best trees to burn to get the fire hot enough. It was something Lazarus had learned working the boilers for those steam machines he talked about. Malat now knew more about wood than he ever wanted to know. Malat waited like the rest of the village for the old man to do something.
Lazarus finished his silent prayer and stood up. He reached in and touched the Gift. There it was, a cauldron of power waiting to do his bidding. It had been getting stronger since that day so long ago. Now Lazarus could barely control it. He looked at Malat and smiled a truly warm smile. Maybe the Gift was truly a blessing if there were still future leaders like Malat here in this place. Still, he needed to finish this soon. The Gift was screaming.
Lazarus pulled a bit of the power and used it to amplify his voice and make him visible through the fire. “My people, the time of purging has come,” Lazarus began. “I have done my part. Now it is time for your part of the bargain. I call for the single children to come to the fire.”
Sounds of sobbing began as children were ushered to the front. Lazarus couldn’t tell if the tears were more from the children or the parents. Stealing his will he caught a glimpse of Malat approaching the fire. That surprised Lazarus and made him pause. The Gift flared up again and Lazarus knew he didn’t have much time yet. He opened his mind to his own time by the fire all those years back. There he could hear the ritual words being spoken by Baldon. He channeled those words as he manipulated the light from the fire.
A horrible battle sprung up from the flames. People died horribly on both sides. The villagers could almost hear the clashing of metal on metal, the screaming of the hurt and dying, and the chants of the mages. “Our people were under attack,” Lazarus intoned. “Our magic was more powerful, but there were so many of them. We were fighting a battle that was doomed to end in our annihilation. We would keep who we were, but lose our lives.”
The flames shifted to a group of people whose faces were echoed in the villagers standing around the fire. “The elders met and decided on a desperate plan. The only way to win was not to fight at all, but to retreat. But to do that we would lose our connection to the land. We would lose who we were while keeping our lives.
The flames shifted to a singular woman. Her eyes glowed with a power and wisdom. “Lizaria came up with a plan. We would sacrifice almost all our magic to create a bubble, a place where our land would be with us, and us with our land. But giving up all our magic up to create the bubble would not work. The bubble would grow unstable over time and collapse. So the mages of our people gave a single child the Gift. Then that child would go out into the world where our magic could still grow. They would travel the world, growing their Gift until it was large enough to open the bubble and return. Then they would come back and begin the cycle again.”
Lazarus fell silent, looking at the children close to the circle. He almost lost it then as the emotions flooded all his senses. Malat looked at him questioningly. It looked like the boy might come over any second to check on the Lazarus. That made Lazarus happy. Yes, the Gift was a blessing.
The pictures faded from the fire. “So I have come back to finish the cycle. I give my Gift back to my people and to my heir.”
With that Lazarus raised his arms into the air. The fire roared up from the bonfire high into the sky, before arching down on top of Lazarus. The flames ripped the magic from his body, and most of that light screamed into the heavens. The dome above lit up the sky like daytime. Lazarus smiled at the sight. The last of the Gift screamed out of him and he collapsed onto ash, never seeing who was going to be the next with the Gift.
The sky lit up so bright that it pulled Malat’s attention away from Lazarus. So it was true! They did live in a bubble to protect them from the world outside. Malat almost fell to his knees with that thought. He was trapped here. He would never see the world, because there was no way out. Wait, there was one way. He looked back at Lazarus to see a ball of light pour out of the old man just before Lazarus turned to ash.
“No!” Malat screamed as he rushed to where Lazarus’ ashes floated down to the ground. Malat finally let his knees fall to the earth. Tears for a man he had just met streamed from his eyes. There was a crying behind him. Malat blinked away his tears and looked back at the rest of the only children. A young girl, Visha was her name, barely ten, was glowing in the dying embers of what was left of the bonfire. Her mother was crying, being pulled away from Visha by some of the elders. The rest of the villagers began to scatter quietly.
Elder Jenkins gave a backpack to Visha. “My daughter,” he said. “You have been chosen for the Gift. You must leave right now and not look back. You must cross out of the bubble that you have seen before the recharging is complete. Without your sacrifice we will perish as a people. Do you understand?”
Visha looked at Elder Jenkins with dazed and confused eyes. “I do,” she said.
Elder Jerkins laughed a bitter laugh. “I doubt you really do,” he said. “But you will learn, or else we all will perish. Now come along. I need to get you to the edge.”
Malat stood up. “Wait. I’m going with her,” he said.
Elder Jenkins shook his head. “You were not chosen for the Gift,” he said. “You must stay here.”
Malat walked up confidently and took Visha’s hand. He smiled at her and she smiled back. “No one deserves to be alone. Not even if you have the Gift. I will be her companion.”
“And what makes you think you will be a suitable companion? You know nothing of the world outside,” said Elder Jenkins
Malat and Visha began to move towards the road leading to the edge of the bubble. Elder Jenkins had to hurry to follow. “I know many things that will help,” said Malat. “For example, I know a ton about different woods.”