Black Flies
Summary: Lionel talks to the Sage while he dies, alone in the Southern Wilds.
Date: 29 November 2013
Related: None

February 28, 3014 — Southern Wilds, The Vale

Should the Devil have left its mark upon a soul, that man or woman will be visited by the Sage.
It will be up to the wisdom of the Sage to determine if a soul can be salvaged, and only if
worthy of redemption will the Crone cut the soul from the body to journey to the Heavens.

— The Scriptures

They razed it to the ground. There was no pillaging, there was no harvesting. They came in, in a force of fifty or more. The slaughter had been horrific. Now the farming settlement of Applehold burned to the ground, fire licking the perfectly dark skies and dulling out the stars. The fields of tobacco turned black, and the orchards were inhaled by flames. The distilleries exploded with a cataclysmic bang.

Sir Lionel William Keats laid out in the wet grasses as his blood muddled with the waters of a recent rain. He was no more than two-hundred yards from the inferno. He could still see the silhouettes of armored Hostiles moving to and fro on the border of flame. He knew in his heart — that muscle that kept pumping his blood out of his body and onto that grass — he would be the last to fall at Applehold. Everyone else was already dead.

He had come because a drone was malfunctioning, and he was the closest after visiting the noble seat of Holdsell to the east. He wasn't even there in a knightly capacity. His horse, his armor, and his weapons were all back with the Caravan. He had been there visiting an old friend when the call came in. Like his father and brother, he wasn't a bad hand at drone repairs, so he answered it. He borrowed an all-terrain vehicle to make the journey, as Applehold lacked a Ways.

That was twelve hours ago.

Lionel turned his head back at the skies — cloudless and starry — above. He didn't hear the man approach. One moment the Mane was all alone in this grassy, dying field, and the next an old man appeared sitting on a rock beside him.

"No man is an island," said a rough, haggard voice to his left. He smelled the heady scent of pipe tobacco. Rings of pipe smoke floated into his vision. Had he not been in on the journey to death, perhaps the Valen would have been more startled. Instead, he lifted his bushy brows a bit.

"Oh, this I know," he replied, though in song instead of words, his warm tenor strained through chapped, bloodied lips. "But can't you see, oh? Maybe you were the ocean… when I was just a stone." Lionel started to smile, though it turned to a wince. Not that his pain was very much at this point. The numbness was already setting in.

"Hm," the old man mused. "Sinking, are we?" He puffed again on his pipe, the embers growing bright in the bowl before he sends another series of rings into the night. "I suppose death can feel like sinking… though for some it can transition into flying."

Lionel finally glanced over at the visitor. White hair flowed from around his bald spot, mixing with the long beard that was kept neat and long at his jaw and chin. He was dressed in dark sage robes over what looked like worn armor. He smoked a long, curved pipe that was richly carved with sigils. Lionel couldn't decide what color his eyes were — perhaps pale blue verging on silver, though they currently reflected the yellow and orange of the flames.

"Isn't that what you are here to determine, old man?" The Knight asked. "If I sink or if I fly."

The Sage chuckled. "Quite observant, though your father was too."

Lionel was quiet as he turned his eyes back up at the blotted stretch of skies. He pressed his hand against his wounded belly, feeling the blood seep through his fingers. For a moment, the world became skewed at the edges of his vision, and he had to blink several times to clear his vision.

"So, how many marks do I have against me, old man?"

"Oh well," the Sage said, stretching his fingers out across his knees, tilting his head a bit. "Quite a few."

Lionel grimaced. "How many are recent?"

"The marks are all quite old, yes… but they have rotted your soul, my boy." He puffed on his pipe again, his heavily winkled brow furrowing with thought. "You must still carry the burden of the Fletchings boy."

"That wasn't my fault," Lionel grimaced through his teeth. "He shouldn't have been in the paddock. He shouldn't have been poking around."

"But he was, but he did," the Sage commented. "Trampled in a stampede you caused."

Lionel turned his face away from the accusation. "It was an accident."

"You spooking the cows was an accident?" The Sage inquired with a lift of his bushy white brows.

"No… Ron's death was an accident."

"Hm," the old man mused again. "But you let them all believe that Ron was the one who had gone to stir up the herd, never came forward to take responsibility."

"I was young!" Lionel spitted out in anger. "I was stupid!" Colors danced before his eyes, and he stretched his wounded body as he felt the numbness spread to his fingers and up his arms. Tears clouded his eyes as he rolled his head back against the grass. He turned his gaze toward the Sage now, his own pale gaze holding a terrible agony. "I killed Ron Fletchings, but it was an accident."

The Sage puffed apathetically on his pipe, studying the dying boy before him with critical eyes. The Father would judge him, but the Sage was here to determine his worthiness. Here on the grasses of the Southern Wilds, the Sage would determine who would take his soul — would it be the Crone who severed it and allowed it to journey to the Heavens? Or would it be the Devil who dragged it into the Chasms?

"You were young, and you were stupid," the Sage confirmed after a laborious silence. "Most of the marks you bear are from being those two things… the death of the Fletchings boy, the torturing of old Miss Grady, the crash of the Yelloweed Caravan," Then the Sage started to tap out the old tobacco from his pipe onto the ground. "Severing the ponytail of Francis Dudune."

"Hey," Lionel complained in a smug, but painful voice, "I liked Franny. And I was like seven… I didn't know how to tell a girl I liked her."

"Mmhmm," the Sage said, though for a heartbeat, the Knight swore he saw him grin in the shadows of the night. "You were young, you were stupid. And those things can be overshadowed by the things you have done in your later years, can they not?"

"I turned into a good man," the Knight whispered.

"But, a good enough man is what I must decide." The Sage idly slid his finger around the rim of the pipe chamber as he cradled the bowl in his other hand. "Can the sacrifice, the duty, the love truly forgive what a boy did out of spite, anger, and bitterness?"

"I think those words all mean the same thing," Lionel replied, unable to swim against his natural brassiness. It draws a smirk on the Sage's face, but the deity does not reply, but instead began to stand.

"Is that it then?" Lionel blinked. "Will the Crone be coming next?"

"The Crone will not be coming," the Sage said as he stretched out his old back, tucking his pipe in the sash about his waist. He looked down at Lionel, into a face filled with grief and fear and self-loathing. He smiled that sad, grandfatherly smile. "She will not be coming," he repeated as he slowly with creaking knees knelt beside the dying Knight. He cradled Lionel's head in his old, weathered hand. "It is time."

"No, no," Lionel whispered hoarsely. "No…"

"Wake up, Lionel," said the Sage softly at first, but then he boomed, "Wake up!" He slammed his open palm against Lionel's chest, sending a wave of pain through him that caused his vision to explode into darkness.


"I've got a rhythm!" A woman's voice shouted, though it sounded so far away to Lionel's ears.

Lionel's eyes opened, blinded by the white light of the consciousness. Words buzzed around him — some of relief, some of in frenzy. He could feel his body being jostled across the terrain of the Southern Wilds while the emergency crawler headed toward the nearest Ways.

"We need to stop this bleeding, now," that same woman's voice ordered. "I need oxygen."

He felt a heavy hand lift his head, sliding a mask over his nose and mouth. He continued to fight to focus on the faces that kept throwing shadows across his vision. He turned his gaze this way and that before he reached out, snatching a slender wrist that had been reaching for his shoulder. There was just a blur of a feminine face looking down at him, haloed in bright light.

"It is time," he whispered through the mask. "I'm not done yet…"

And then he released her, and fell into that darkness once more. His heart continued to beat, strong and steady. He wasn't done yet.

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