Secret Keepers (Part 1)

This is a short fantasy story I wrote earlier this year. It is partially inspired by the challenges I’ve dealt with over the past few years as a new therapist. I’ll be posting it here in 4 installments 🙂

***

The man’s face was scraped and raw, his bottom lip split open. Frost still clung to his eyebrows despite the hours that had passed since his arrival. He was home now, safe from the danger of the surface, but this had not eased any of the tension in his muscles. He held himself as though braced for attack. 

Cana didn’t recognize him. It was likely that she had seen him before, when he hadn’t been covered by thick wrappings and a hood that obscured his forehead. But for now he was one of the newly returned Source gatherers, known by his role rather than his name. Much like Cana herself.

They were seated across from one another, in a small room lightened only by the orbs embedded in the stone walls. The lights dimmed by degrees before Cana’s eyes, signalling the fall of night. 

She felt nervous. Her elders had told her never to voice such things in front of the Source gatherers, which was superfluous advice considering that secret keepers did not speak during their duties. This was just as well; Cana could not think of one thing to say to the man in front of her. He avoided her eyes, but she could still see that his were glassy with tears. 

Swallowing her unease, she drew the bottle from beneath her shirt where it hung from a cord around her neck. She ran a hand over its familiar shape, which she had crafted herself at the outset of her training. The bottle was empty. At the sight of it, the man began to weep in earnest. 

“Please,” he implored her, his voice cracking. “Please take it away.” 

Cana knew that he was not referring to the bottle.

She held it close to his face, trying to discreetly grip her own arm to stop it from shaking. The man only hesitated for a moment before pulling the bottle to his lips. He needed no further guidance; after a deep, stuttering breath, he placed his mouth against the opening and blew.

Cana watched the bottle rather than the man. Before her eyes, a wisp of sickly yellow something materialized inside. It stayed near the bottom, swirling slowly as the man emptied his lungs of breath. Cana gazed at it, transfixed. She had become accustomed to an empty bottle, and now it would never be so again. She thought about the bottles that her elders wore; their massive size, the myriad of colors that darted around inside. 

In front of her, the man straightened in his seat. She tore her eyes away from the bottle to look at him. His tears still flowed, but something had changed; the knife’s edge in his eyes had softened somewhat.

“Thank you,” he said. He smiled at her; Cana gasped at the blood on his teeth, eyes going wide with horror, before remembering his injured lip. She would have to school her reactions more closely. Sanari would know of this crack in her composure.

She could not remember if secret keepers were allowed to smile, so she offered the man a small grin in return; it felt like a watered-down compromise. He shook her hand as he stood to leave, squeezing tightly. The tiny room didn’t allow either of them to stand at their full heights; they had to crouch until Cana opened the door into the hallway. With a final parting glance the man walked alone down the narrow hall, headed in the direction of the main roadway.  

Cana watched him go, thinking that it had all happened a little too fast. She wanted to assist him to his next destination, wherever that may be. She wanted to know what was going to happen to him after he left her presence. None of her elders had mentioned this urge. She wondered if it was a usual thing to feel.

The bottle seemed no heavier as she tucked it back underneath her shirt, where it belonged.

***

The elders often told stories of a time when their people had lived above the ground. It had always been difficult to scrape out a living from the harsh tundra, they said, but thanks to the Source that lay near the village, it had been possible once. 

Few among them had ever actually seen the Source. Its origins, workings, and purpose were unclear; did it give off magic, as such? Life force? Energy to be changed into new forms? The only certainty was that it was a place of great power, and the villagers learned to harness it for their use. People would go to that place and return with miraculous abilities, to do just about anything they could imagine. They could bring water up from the ground with a wave of their hands. They could multiply any food that was gathered during sometimes meager hunts. Thanks to the Source no one starved or froze, and the village was able to survive for generation after generation.

But things did not remain as they had been. The snows began to last longer and become more vicious, until the people could no longer distinguish day and night. Structures collapsed, and most wildlife fled or died off. People still travelled to the Source (a now-treacherous journey), but when they returned they were deeply changed. Ghosts were in their eyes, as the elders put it. Several did not come back at all. 

Rather than migrating away from their home, the people burrowed down underneath it, creating the tunnels and caverns where they now lived. Here they were safe from the neverending blizzards, but their means for sustaining life still lay outside. Things they had taken for granted, such as natural light and breathable air, were now far from reach. Survival depended on the bravest among them, who were still willing to journey to the Source. 

It became readily apparent that the Source gatherers returned with more than just the power to keep their home liveable. Something else lodged itself inside them. No one understood what it was; least of all, it seemed, the people who were afflicted. All they knew was what they could see and feel. Haunted eyes, just as the elders had attested. The sensation of being watched. Even an ashen quality to the skin sometimes, as if the Source leached away any vibrancy it touched. Source gathering became a heroic act, the highest honor with the highest price.


Thus began the tradition of the secret keepers. While the bravest chose to go, the most steadfast among the villagers were deemed ideal to meet them upon their return. A secret keeper must be silent and impenetrable as stone, unflinching in the face of suffering. Their duty was simple; create a container to fill with the mysterious poison that dug its way inside the Source gatherers. Carry that container close at all times. And above all, never speak of the work to anyone outside the secret keepers’ halls. For protection, the elders said. But whose protection, they never specified.

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