The necromancer pushed open the doors of the tavern, shielding himself from the rain and wind outside.
The night was cold, but the tavern was warm. He could still hear the distant clap of thunder outside, but it was muffled by the chatter of the room. He looked around the shanty commotion. People were at the bar and the rest laughing it up at the tables, and a few of them even had card games going on.
The necromancer's gentle features relaxed as he peered inside -- the bag was soaking wet and the leather was worn, but the inside was still dry. The same couldn’t be said about his robes, though. Usually lavender, they were stained dark purple with water. Lustrous folds of cloth were reduced to a sticky heap. And though the necromancer was dripping from head to toe, he was just grateful to finally have somewhere to rest.
He wandered to the barkeeper, getting funny looks along the way. He must’ve thought the bags hanging from his eyes made him look closer to his real age, but there was no way they’d know that.
“A hard one,” the necromancer said to the barkeeper. His pack gave him an awkward hunch as he leaned on the counter.
The barkeep handed him a bottle and glass. “Your birthday or sumthin’, lad?”
“I'm just celebrating after such a long time on the road…” The necromancer took out some coins from his robes and plopped them on the table. The barkeep took them and counted. “A room, please.”
The barkeeper stared at him with eyes that would gut a lesser man, maybe trying to size him up, see what kind of man he was. The necromancer stared back and smiled. The barkeep cleared his throat, trying to avert his gaze from him, “Aye… Your room’ll be upstairs, last one down the hall.”
Sometimes he forgot what he looked like -- youthful, naive. But eyes are windows to the soul. The bear of a man must’ve seen a lot in his time, but the necromancer wondered what the barkeep saw in his eyes.
The rest of the night was a blur. The necromancer remembered two things: getting drunk, and being obnoxiously loud. He put his pack in his room before anything. The necromancer knew how he'd get when he was drunk, but after that was pure joy. Cards, drinking, and singing a horrible chorus with men and women who couldn't stand up right. It was a great night -- even if he couldn't remember it, he felt it.
The next morning, however, was a little less great. Even in his dreams did his stomach churn. And upon waking up, the necromancer felt like his brain was pounding against his skull. No matter how old he got, he always forget how truly painful hangovers were.
The necromancer rolled off the bed and onto the floor with a loud thud, but he didn't care. He dove his hand under his bed and fumbled around for a minute for a leather strap, and with a yank the pack was out from under the bed. He sat up, trying his best to keep his stomach in check, and took out his accordion. The magical artifact was always by his side, right after alcohol.
He started to feel up the worn ivory keys and the worn leather in his hands, building up the will to play. The room was spinning again, and he fumbled, but he played a spell. The accordion made a sad wheeze at first, but slowly, carefully, he recited the song from memory, making sure to hit each note the best his shaking fingers could. It was a little slower than it was supposed to be played, but the necromancer could feel the spell working. His head was getting clearer and his stomach calmer. The necromancer dropped the accordion to his side, breathing a sigh of relief.
He hadn't realized how stuffy the room was until then, sitting on the floor and taking deep breaths. But he was better now, and that's all that mattered. Though after some rumination, he wondered something. The necromancer brought up his accordion again and see if he remembered any old spells. Something nicer than raising the dead or a cure for some mild headache. At times, he thought he remembered a few, but everything else was cloudy. The accordion kept wheezing, unable to sing what was so clear and audible his mind.
After a few more songs, the necromancer found out he forgot most of the songs he used to know by heart. The necromancer sat for a moment to take out a journal from his pack. The song book assured him that he'd still have his magic, yet holding it made him wince. He could remember when the only time he'd need it was for when he wrote a new spell, not when he needed to find an old one. He looked at it for a while, holding it in his hands. It was old, maybe older than he was. He sighed.
The necromancer shoved it back in his pack without opening it. He needed some fresh air.
Day brought with it the townsfolk and busy streets. The necromancer was glad he was out of that stuffy tavern, even if the town felt a little lonely. It was booming, sure, but he was a stranger there. He was a stranger everywhere, actually.
The sky had cleared up sometime in the night. Blue stretched above him like an abyss, and the sun beat down on him without a cloud in the sky. It was a nice day for a walk, and he figured if the weather would stay this clear he could start traveling again in just a few days.
The necromancer didn’t know whether it was all those years of wandering around that really got him accustomed to it, or maybe that it was all in his head. But as far back as his memory went, walking calmed him. Even back in his prime, he still considered walking the highest form of meditation.
In his glory days he rode with the best of them. Towns like this would have cheered his name and bought him drinks. The necromancer closed his eyes. He could see it now, his friends walking beside him as they always were. He must’ve looked out of place, running with a band armed to the teeth, but the necromancer fought alongside them no less fiercely. He was their apothecary, their morale, and their friend. He belonged there.
He held onto that feeling, savoured it. When he opened his eyes, the necromancer was alone again. Or so he thought.
“Hello?” a voice squeaked out. It almost seemed like he was imagining it. “H-hello?” He must’ve been imagining it… or going senile.
The necromancer looked around, down the deserted alleyway he stood in front of -- there was nothing. And yet, the alley beckoned him. The necromancer walked into the cramped space, barely big enough to fit two people side-by-side and with enough garbage to fill an entire room.
It reeked, like any other alleyway, but there was something more. It looked lived in.
The further he went the stranger it got. There was a makeshift bed on the ground, made of fraile hay and shielded by planks of rotting wood. Leftovers were scattered another end of the alley. And that’s when the necromancer saw them. The peering eyes watching him from the dark, staring at him as if they were floating mid-air. And then they stepped forward into the light, emerging from the junk and clutter.
It was a child. She was filthy from head to toe, her clothes ragged and torn like her skin. Cuts and bruises were all over body, turning her dark skin into a strange patchwork of wounds and clots. She wasn’t starving, at least not yet, and the necromancer still thought she was in good shape despite everything. She was hungry -- smart.
He thought he would eventually go insane one day.
“Are… are you okay, mister?” Her voice was as frail as she looked, but those eyes -- there was something metallic shining in them.
The necromancer struggled for words. “Are… Are you real?”
The necromancer had seen his fair share of orphans, but the child sent a chill down his spine. It had to be a hallucination. She had to be a hallucination. There was an aura of pity that haunted her, from the way she talked to the way she moved. But it seemed like she never wanted anything but this poor little alleyway. Like she accepted -- embraced -- her life as it was.
“I’m real.” She looked at her hands, saying it more like a passing thought.
“...Right.” The necromancer blinked, rubbed his eyes, and nothing. Interesting. She started to move, back to whatever hole she crawled out of, and then the necromancer grabbed her wrist. It wasn’t a tight grip, but it was a fast one, one that startled both of them. And as sudden as it was, the girl didn’t scream. She flinched, closed her eyes, but she did not scream.
The necromancer reached into his robe and fumbled in his pockets, almost unaware of her squirming. “Here.” he held out his other hand, and presented a wrapped cloth. It was folded and clean, like a delicacy. The necromancer felt her wrist in his hand, pulsing with blood and life. He realized now that she wasn’t a hallucination, but that she was flesh and bone. “Oh! I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, releasing his grip. “I… Just take it.”
She snatched it up like nothing ever happened and began to sniff it, to flip it around and inspect it from every angle. The necromancer wasn’t surprised to see that it passed all of her ‘tests.’ Finally, she asked, “What is it?”
“It’s…” The necromancer couldn’t look into her eyes for too long, as he kept averting his gaze to the ground or wall of the alley. “It’s traveler’s jerky. Made to last you a long time, but it doesn’t taste very well.”
Without speaking another word, she unwrapped it. It was a chunk of dried meat that sat in her palms. It was always tough to bite off at first, but she must’ve been hungry. Her feral teeth sunk into the meat like razors, cutting it clean as she swallowed more than chewed. The necromancer looked around and found a crate to sit on, looking at her go. She didn’t look that hungry until she started eating…
For what seemed like an eternity, he just watched her, eating. So many thoughts rushed through his head, so many questions, but he thought it best that she was left alone to eat for now. She was a strange child. The necromancer had seen many like her in his time, during the crusades, during his mercenary days, and back when politics took a liking to him. But none were quite like her.
But these people were always adults, grown and groomed through experiences that perhaps made them so similar. Children were just children, blank slates for which the world to paint upon. But that hungry orphan girl was… grown up. She was probably forced to.
Or maybe the necromancer was finally getting dementia.
He sighed, standing back up to leave. And then he felt a tug on his robes, a tight one. “Wait!” the little voice said. The necromancer turned to see her with crumbs on her mouth, half-eaten jerky in one hand and his robe in another. “What’s your name?” Her mouth was still trying to chew down the food.
“What’s yours?” he reacted more than said.
“Mila.” Her face seemed softer, the child in her face showing after her stomach had something to break down.
The necromancer yanked her hand from his clothes, “Well, it was nice meeting you Mila.” He looked back at the open street, “But I must be going, now, okay?”
She nodded her head, and he started back to the tavern -- until it snapped into his head.
“Where are your parents, Mila?” the necromancer asked.
“Dead,” she mumbled in between bites. Mila parted from her food for a minute, looking at the necromancer’s troubled face, then finished off her scraps of food.
He shook his head, and his soft face, his youthful posture, took on something of his age. “I see… I see…”
“Here.” Mila raised the cloth to the necromancer, “I really don’t mind all that much. I don’t remember what they even looked like.”
“Hmm…” The necromancer shook his head, “You keep it. Maybe you can use it for… well, something. You look like a bright girl.” And another thought dawned on him about the girl. His muscles stirred to life, the blood pumping through his legs.
Mila tilted her head and stared.
The necromancer looked up for a second, up at the vast blue that couldn’t quite make it into the alley. The sky was cloudless, limitless. The sun was high above the earth, while he and the girl trudged along their days in the dirt.
“Wait here,” he said with a smile. “Wait here and I promise you won’t regret it.” He squatted down to meet her at eye level. Her eyebrows furrowed. “Mila,” he said folding his hands. “Did you know the names of your parents?”