“A fairy tale?” Keleri’s voice rasped as he pushed himself upright, dust settling around him. “Never thought of that.” He flicked some dust out of his hair with one hand. The ground had grown cold after the sun set, the dust icy on his hand. “Never would have.” He muffled a cough, wiping the gritty blood onto the stone. “Don’t think I want to.” His legs trembled as he stood. The ashes rose again, piling around Keleri as the wind pulled them. “I’m not knight in shining armor.”
“Not even close.” It took Keleri a moment to recognize the voice the popped up behind him, the monotone words too calm to be anyone he knew. As he turned. His eyes widened at the sight of a younger version of himself. The figure was obviously a ghost, transparent and shimmering in the moonlight.
“How sick am I?” Keleri laughed under his breath, coughing almost violently. A trickle of blood traced its way down his chin. His smile was shaky, frightened and calm. “Or am I dying a bit early?”
“Not dying.” The ghost shook its head, staring at Keleri with wide and blank eyes. Its hair fell down its back, almost touching the ground. “Though your fever’s quite high and you’ll probably collapse in the forest.” There was no expression on the ghost’s face.
“Then why am I talking to myself?” Keleri reached out, his hand passing through the ghost’s chest. “Or some that looks like me, at least. Am I hallucinating?” His eyes closed for a moment, his free hand wiping the blood off his face. “Or did I already pass out?”
“I’m a memory.” The ghost tilted its head. “Everyone has something like this. A place that won’t forget them.” It motions around, at the bones and the ashes piled high on the ground. “Even the wind remembers you. I’m you, that day.” Ashes rose around the ghost’s feet, stirred as the young figure floated higher. “Do you remember?”
“It’s not something I can forget.” Keleri shook his head. “They were talking. I was serving tea.” His smile faded as he spoke, his voice falling to a whisper. “Green tea. It was barely warm. They’d told me to wait outside the room. I’d pressed my ear to the wall. They called me useless. They said my name. My real name, not what they called me.” His voice failed, tears running down his cheeks and his eyes closing.
“And it was too much.” The ghost seemed calm as it spoke, staring at Keleri. “The fires came and they were gone. You don’t remember that moment, do you? The heat inside, building up. The release.” It was almost a moan. “Everything was gone, in an instant. Their bodies boiled and they screamed. Do you know what they screamed?”
“My name.” Keleri’s voice was a whisper, trembling and uncertain. “I remember my name echoing as they died.” The tears dried on his cheeks, his eyes still closed. “They knew who I was.”
“Then why do you regret? Why do you cry?” The ghost’s voice was harsh and quiet. “I see the tears on your face. It’s my face as well.” One hand lifted, translucent fingers brushing Keleri’s cheek. “Tell me why.”
“I don’t want to hurt people. No one deserves to die.” Keleri let his head fall forward with a cough, more blood leaking out down his chin. “I didn’t want to kill them. I didn’t mean to kill them. I just wanted to be free.”
“It was a release.” The ghost’s words were a purr, floating a few steps away from Keleri. “All your fire and all your rage. Did it really all go away?” It leaned forward, staring into Keleri’s eyes. “It did. You let it escape.”
“I just want to help people.” His smile was shaky as he looked at the ghost. “Help them be independent. Then I move on. No one needs me after a time. I’m not mad. You have my rage. Keep it.”
“I wouldn’t give it up for a life of my own.” The ghost floated back. Its eyes flashed for a moment. “You can help people. That might be for the best. But stop regretting the best thing that ever happened.”
“The best thing that ever happened…” Keleri turned away from the ghost, swaying on his feet. “I’ve taught a generation of children to read. I’ve saved people from masters as cruel as my own. Killing my family was not my greatest achievement.”
“In life? For life? It was.” The ghost just shook its head. “You better start back. The fever’s rising and you don’t want to be lost in the woods.”
“Have fun here.” Keleri smiled gently, waving as the ghost faded into the ashes. “Keep my rage and my memory.” He wiped his mouth, staring at the blood on the back of his hand. “I’ll go on with what I have to do.”
Keleri stumbled down the stairs, clinging to the tree branches each time he fell. The stairs were stained with blood by the time he was standing on solid ground, staring across the forest. He almost stopped there, a wave of dizziness and a coughing fit buckling his knees beneath him. But a peal of thunder and a few raindrops warned him of the approaching storm.
“Not too much farther.” Keleri could barely hear his own voice over the thunder and his panting breath. “Just get to the edge… he’s excepting me.” His smile was shaky as he forced himself back on his feet. Each step was clumsy and stumbling as he made his way through the forest. Most of the rain caught on the leaves, leaving Keleri mostly dry and warmer than he could have been. “Just have to find the edge.”
The forest blurred around Keleri as he made his way through the foliage. Nothing seemed clear as he tried to find the edge. Everything seemed dull around him, even the green leaves and the grass. His feet slid out from under him. His shirt tore on a branch, ripping his skin and exposing ancient scars to the air.
“Damn.” Keleri coughed violently, forcing himself to his knees. “Shouldn’t show these…” He almost collapsed again, spitting blood onto the ground. “Doesn’t matter. Not ready to die.” Grass clung to his knees as he stood. The world spun, but it didn’t matter in that moment. He had to find the edge, had to get out of the woods.