Brine made a frantic look to the woodsman, his need to connect so desperate that he was willing to try with anyone, even the scruffy-looking man who acted nothing like his brother. At this point, if the other person had a heartbeat and a working set of eyes, they were fully qualified in Brine’s book. But as simple a criterion as that might be, Jaysh still wasn’t qualified. With his head tilted down and his arms flailing madly, he wouldn’t have noticed Brine lighting his wauk on fire, let alone turning to face him.
     And what is he doing? Brine wondered, watching as his brother’s hands reached for the furry bundle and then quickly withdrew.
      From where Brine stood, his brother appeared to be playing the Slapping Game with the little beast, a game of speed and dexterity where one party held there hands at chest height with palms up and the other party held their hands above them with palms dawn, the object of the game being for Palms-up to reach over the top of Palms-down and slap the top of their hands before Palms-down could pull them out of the way.
     Needless to say, being the smallest and the slowest, Brine had never cared for the game. For him, it would have been easier simply to have Jaysh beat the tops of his hands and get it over with, which—judging by the look of big brother’s tattered arms and bleeding knuckles—would have been a better option for Jaysh as well.
     Fine, Brine thought, turning back to the bed. I don’t need him. I can do this. I do this all the time.
     But as he leaned over the bed and peered down at the withered old face within the blankets, he realized that he had never done this. He knew this because at no time during his stay at the monastery had his heart raced so fast and at no time as he tended to the sick had his mouth felt so dry.
     Part of this, he knew, was due to his familiarity with the patient on the bed, but another part had to do with the patient’s wasted features and emaciated frame, a degenerative condition that went far beyond the normal limits muscular atrophy. It was no wonder that Brine hadn’t seen the body until now. There wasn’t enough mass here to constitute a body. There was barely enough to make a face…
     If a face is what it is, he thought, sourly.
     Along the dead thing’s pasty forehead, its hair clung to its scalp like matted grass and upon its age-spotted cheeks and chin, its skin sagged like wet paper. The eyes were open, but they were glassy and cold and it didn’t take the disciple long to realize they could not move. But worse even than the eyes and skin was the dead thing’s mouth. With its teeth missing and its chapped lips dropping, its face appeared to be collapsing in on itself like a pasty and whisker-clad hole, so far gone that even its days of sinking had passed.
     Brine put his monocle away.
     Across from him, something moved in the shadows and he lifted his gaze.
     Jaysh stood on the other side of the mattress with a cat-thing in his arms and a bulge of chew in his cheek. The former appeared to be calmer now—their brief game of Slap-Hands finally over—and the latter, if possible, appeared to be larger.
     As a child, Brine had never touched vine—and neither had his brother, for that matter—but from what the disciple had learned from his studies and from the villagers he served, the pulp could have a relaxing effect on some users, especially heavy users. 
     And right now it looks like Jaysh could use a little relaxation, Brine thought, registering the look of despair trapped in his brother’s eyes.
     Under circumstances when Brine didn’t know the deceased and wasn’t a blood relative with the grieving, he would say something comforting at this point, something about Owndiah or Glory or faith in general. But since he did know the deceased and his mind was a swirling vortex of unresolved emotion, he simply opened his mouth and let the words fall out.       
     “I think we’re too late,” he whispered, searching his brother’s ashen face. “What do you think?”
     Jaysh kept his eyes on the staring face in the blankets, his jaw working slowly. Eventually, he shrugged.
     Brine said, “I think he’s passed on. I hate to say it, but I think we—” missed it, was what he’d intended to say, but those words never sounded. They evaporated like smoke as he watched his brother go springing from the mattress. Without knowing why, Brine did the same, unsure of what he was evading, but eager to evade it all the same, skipping from the bed and catching only a glimpse of the movement in the sheets.
     Once at the wall, he grabbed his wauk and crushed it to his chest, unable to breathe. On the bed before him, the wriggling thing peeked from the blankets and went still. Brine shivered involuntarily and heard himself groan.
     At first glance, the thing on the bed resembled an albino serpent slithering through the sheets, but at second glance he saw it was actually a skeletal hand draped with damp white paper. He watched it rise from the mattress and trembled in the air.
     Somewhere on the bed, something said, “…brine…,” and the hand fell back down.
     Brine went sliding along the wall, shoving the monocle in his eye and jerking the lens towards the headboard, the direction of the speaker. As he did, the glassy eyes of the cadaver twisted round to find him.
     “…brine…,” the voice croaked again, and this time Brine could tell it was coming from the face on the bed. The thing’s chapped lips never moved, but its chin seemed to drop in time with his name and, seeing this, Brine felt his head begin to shake and heard his tongue begin to mumble. “Not possible,” he said. “It’s not possible.”
     But possible or not, it was happening. The thing’s eyes staring, the thing’s chin tottering.
     Brine steadied himself with a breath and forced himself to the bed. “I’m here, father,” he said, kneeling down and taking hold of the cold, hard hand.
     “…wayward…child…,” the dead thing said, speaking without inflection, “…he…returns…”
     Brine didn’t move. “I have,” he said, thinking he should say more, but finding his words had failed him, the thing’s hand seeming to suck the thoughts from his head. Quite literally, he knelt there on the floor, his father hovering near the precipice of death, and all he could think of was how his fingers felt like a handful of cold, dry kindling. 
     “…he…has…,” the cadaver said, its milky eyes finding Brine’s scalp, “…the…look…of…disciples…”
     Brine tried to smile, but found he could not. He nodded instead and hoped it was enough. It seemed to be.
     The thing said, “…it…suits…you…”
     Brine nodded again. “I’m glad you think so,” he said, managing a grin. “There are some who have not approved.”
     “…yes…,” the dead thing said, “…much…has… changed…here…”
     To this, Brine gave a regretful nod and thought back to the shepherd boy and the castle guards and the way they had stared at what, to them, was a most peculiar cut of the hair. But worse even than their reactions to his hair, were their reactions to his religion.
     When Brine was a boy, the temples were packed on holy days and anyone not in attendance was either deathly ill or an ignorant heathen from a faraway land. So to describe the temples as cold and empty? And to not know the look of their caretakers or the name of their God? 
     “Yes,” he said at last, offering a rueful sigh, “much has definitely changed.”
     “…but…not…brine…,” the dead thing said, “…your… studies…are…well…”
     Interpreting this as a statement, Brine said, “Oh, yes. Very well, yes. I’ve always been blessed in His eyes when it came to that sort of thing, reading and such.”
     The thing that had been Samrod Denbauk let its eyes drift to the ceiling. “…I…knew…this…,” it said. “…I…knew… this…would…be…”
     “Did you,” Brine said, uncertain of where this was going.
     “…yes…,” the thing intoned, “…as…a…child…your… studies…excelled…,” it paused to wheeze, then said, “…upon…my…visits…home…the…council…would…
tell…me…of…this…,” it paused again, staring blankly at the rafters, “…you…chased…them…with…books…,” it said, “…you…begged…them…to…read…”
     “Um…father,” Brine said, feeling uncomfortably about the excessive praise, especially since the dead thing had yet to even acknowledge his eldest child. “Jaysh is here,” he said, stealing a glance at his brother.
     “…any…magic…” the dead thing asked.
     Brine searched his brother’s face, looking for some sign that he was offended, or that he wished to join the discussion. But in many ways, Jaysh resembled the inert corpse on the mattress, and Brine could read nothing in his eyes.
     Lowering his gaze, Brine said, “Well, there is one spell, father, but…but it isn’t much.”
     The dead thing said, “…show…me…”
     Brine shot another apologetic grimace at Jashandar and sighed theatrically, one of those what-can-you-do sighs. But again, the sigh was wasted on his brother. Jaysh didn’t appear the least bit offended by this lack of attention.
     “All right,” he said, turning to the dead thing, “but don’t expect much. This is a very simple spell. The elders can’t teach us the powerful spells until after we’ve mastered the teaching of Amontus. It’s sort of a…sort of a failsafe, I suppose.”
     He freed his right hand from his father’s fishy grasp and lifted it into the air. The sleeve drooped to his elbow as he held the palm out to the dead thing and hardened his face in concentration, his lips uttering a beautiful, yet meaningless phrase and a white pinprick of light forming in the palm of his hand.
     Immediately thereafter, the pinprick spread out and filled the rest of his hand, flooding his wrinkles and pores with pale ivory light and giving his thumb and fingers the look of an incandescent cave mushroom. He waggled his fingers at his father, then uttered another beautiful nonsense word and the glowing began to recede, draining from his fingers and back into his hand.
     “I warned you,” Brine said, resuming his grip on the dead thing’s hand.
     “…no…matter…,” the dead thing croaked, “…you… will…learn…more…”
     “I sure hope so,” Brine said, smiling cordially as a stunning silence swam out of the darkness and settled on the bed. He shifted uneasily and waited for the shade of his father to say something, but the shade never did. It merely lay there on the bedding and stared into Brine’s steadily widening eyes.
     Say something, he thought with a tinge of alarm. Say anything, hum a lullaby if you have to, but no more silence, please. And just then—just as Brine began to consider prying his hand from the dead thing’s grip and scrambling for the exit—the silence scurried away as the remains of the king twisted in his bed.
     “…it…is…time…,” the thing said, fixing its gaze on the ceiling. “…the…raya…beckons….”
     Brine dropped his eyes to the faint glow at his father’s throat. He held only meager knowledge of the amulet and its power, but he had read the basics. In the texts on Jashian history, for example, he’d learned that Arn had stolen the amulet during the adventurous days of his youth, though it did not say from whom or from where.
     In any case, the records went on to say that the amulet itself emitted a soft violet light and, more or less, did nothing for the wearer until the day of his passing. Only then, as the wearer’s mind and body lost their ability to sustain life, did the amulet compensate the wearer for bearing its weight, only then did the magic of the stone come to life and offer the wearer a day without pain and a day without fear, a day, in effect, to prepare for the end.
     “…is…he…here…,” the dead thing asked.
     Brine couldn’t help but frown at such an odd question. There were only the three of them—father, eldest, and youngest—and surely his father had seen his two sons enter. But when his father failed to repeat the question, Brine lifted his gaze to Jaysh and shrugged, a gesture that said, What now? Ignoring the gesture, Jaysh continued to chew his vine and stare cautiously at the cadaver.
     Leaning close to the dead thing’s ear, Brine said, “Is who here, father?”
     “…the…other…,” the dead thing said, “…your… brother…”
     Brine pulled back, lifting his eyes to the woodsman. “He, um…yes, he’s here.”
     Writhing in its bedding, the dead king twisted its head and laid cold eyes on its eldest. “…you…are… aware…,” it said, “…of…your…kingship…”
     Jaysh stopped chewing, and as he did the silence swam back out of the shadows and pooled around the bed. Brine could actually hear it as it came, the sound of mute pressure falling from an oily space, the sound of swimming to far below the surface and wondering if you could ever make it back, which was exactly what he was wondering as he watched his father and brother staring into each other’s eyes.
     I’m going to break my father’s hand, he thought, morosely. If Jaysh doesn’t speak and I don’t relax, I’m going to snap every bone in his baby-bird hand.
     Speaking over the bulge in his cheek, Jashandar said, “Ye’sir.”
     Brine relaxed a little, but only until he heard the next word that exited the dead thing’s gullet. For even though his father’s body did not move—continuing to drill his eldest with those ghastly gray eyes—it was now speaking to him.
     “…brine…,” it said, coldly.
     Brine swallowed. “Yes, father?”
     “…the…council…ages….,” it said.
     Frowning slightly, Brine said, “Yes, father.”
     “…each…is…old…,” the dead thing said, its fried-egg face burning into Jaysh, “…and…soon…they…die…”
     To this, Brine could only nod.
     “…after…your…studies…,” the dead thing said, the purple light dimming at its chest, “…you…should…settle… here…as…learned…adviser…”
     The dead thing paused, possibly so Brine could consider the offer. At that moment, though, Brine was having trouble breathing, let alone pondering the intricacies of his future. His heart felt like it was going to explode and he was almost certain he’d heard one his father’s metacarpals snapping in his grip.
     And what of Jaysh—poor, poor Jaysh—what must he be feeling right now? Part of Brine wanted to look—to see if he were hurt or incensed—but another part of him, the weaker part, kept his uncomfortable gaze locked upon his father, watching as a softer purple light began to bathe his pustuled face. After what felt like forever, it turned its dead eyes to his.
      Brine exhaled sharply and, from across the bed, Jaysh began to chew. 
     “…what…say…you…,” the dead thing asked.
     Giving his father a pensive expression, Brine said, “I will considered it, father. There is definitely a religious need in Jashandar, and I could definitely see myself pursuing such a need, it’s just that…”
     From the walls, the silence slithered back out.
     Brine clenched his teeth in indecision. “It’s complicated,” he said. 
     Brine wrinkled his face to show almost as many lines as his father, then realized what his father had asked and the lines disappeared, his face going taut with dismay.
     “Actually father, we aren’t allowed to engage in such relationships at Valley Rock, what with the laws of Amontus and the sacred teachings and the pursuit of a pure mind and a wholesome body and, to be completely honest, we’re so busy with studies and worship and the needs of the local villages that—”
     “Miriana,” Brine said, panting and out of breath, “she’s very nice.”
     “…miriana…,” the dead thing said, “…should…come… here…”
     Brine didn’t know what to say. In truth, Miriana would play a large role in where he one day settled, but there was also his dream to consider, and so far that had held more sway over him than his special friend.
     He thought of the feeling in his dream and the feeling he had while reading the letter from Kowin and the feelings he had now as he thought of all the people in Jashandar who did not know Owndiah or Amontus or the joys of worshiping at temple.
     “I have this…this thing, father, this task I must perform.” He tried to gauge the disappointment in the king’s pasty flesh, but quickly gave it up. As before, he found only torpor and disease in that flesh. “Afterwards, though,” he said sympathetically, “I promise to consider it. I do.”
     The dead thing lie there, its dead eyes staring, its dead mouth apart, and Brine felt certain it would speak, felt certain it would tell him how pleased it was with this news and how wonderful it would be for his youngest to come back.
     But as it turned out, the dead thing said nothing. It never had the chance. For as Brine made his promise to consider its offer at a later date, the light of the Raya faded from the stone.