The Price Of Love – Part 1

“Stop!” I watched the camp grow smaller the higher we flew. We left everyone with no explanation. He didn’t even ask me first.

“Barh!” Nothing. Not even a twitch to acknowledge I’d spoken. “We can’t leave them. They’ll die!”

“They’ll die even if we stay.” Barh’s flat affect stung like a slap. He spoke to me like we were strangers.

Barh’s magic took us higher than we usually went. In fact, I could only remember one time we’d flown this high. We couldn’t be going there. Not now. Involuntarily I looked down. Stretched below my feet, the combined armies of three kingdoms gathered to meet the Degari, a swarm of evil the world thought vanquished ages ago.

Gathered to die might be more accurate. Without Barh, they had no hope. He knew that. So why was he running away?

“BARH!” I almost reached out to grab him, but stopped when I remembered where we were. “We can’t abandon our friends!”

He flinched and slowly turned. I could see the strain of the last year in every new crease on his still-youthful face. As the last Magi, the war had taken a terrible toll on him.

“Jackson.” He smiled at me in what felt like the first time in days. “If we stay, we won’t survive. No one will. We’ll be swept aside and the world will be lost. Our salvation lies with Chenoth.”

We were going there again. Had Barh’s mind finally snapped under the demands he placed on himself? Chenoth was a myth. Everyone from the Scholars of Hendry to the Magi, including Barh, had desperately searched for Chenoth the moment the Degari reappeared. Years of hunting turned up nothing. Not even a clue.

“Chenoth doesn’t exist, Barh,” I whispered. “He’s a fable told to small children to help them sleep at night.”

His icy façade seemed to melt a bit as he smiled at me again. “Chenoth is real, Jacks. I know people think he’s a myth, but believe me, he’s real.”

Barh had been so distant lately, it was as if he were leaving me, one thought at a time. He risked everything to be with me so why did he suddenly act like he didn’t care?

Of course when we met, I had no right to expect him to care about me. He was Barhingolis the Magi. A living legend that people looked to for salvation. Me? I was no one; the son of a cooper from a small village in the far western province of Wesmer. My village had the dubious honor of being the first place the Degari attacked when they returned.

Barh led the force that saved what was left of my village. I can still see that day in my mind, etched forever as both the saddest and happiest of my life. In shock and alone, I stood over the broken, bloody bodies of my father and younger brother when this kid—Barh was barely twenty at the time—walked over and tried to comfort me. His compassion and gentle touch helped heal my pain.

For weeks we denied our feelings for each other because admitting them created more problems than it solved. Magi were discouraged from falling in love because getting married meant almost certain loss of their powers. In the hundred generations of recorded history, only three of the dozens who took the oath of marriage remained a Magi; just three. Barh made four, adding to his legacy.

Barh was everything he promised and more; husband, lover, friend, companion. Even the constant grind of the war didn’t diminish our bond. At least, it hadn’t until the last war council ten days ago. Since then he’d kept apart, isolated in his thoughts.

Looking down, my knees shook. No matter how many times Barh took me flying, I still felt a moment of panic when I saw nothing beneath my feet. Years of practice taught me it was best to focus on something other than the air under foot, so I trained my gaze on the army rapidly disappearing from view. The army Barh set in the path of the enemy and then abandoned.

Barh had persuaded the three kings of the Klandish Continent to put aside their distrust and hatred for each other to stand as one. Every soldier who could swing a blade or pull a bow was assembled just beyond the Northern Pass. In a different time, Barh would have been praised for what he’d achieved. But death approached from the north and we’d need a miracle for anyone to survive the day to sing at all.

From my vantage point, I saw a dark, swirling mass that stretched to the end of my vision and beyond. This high up, they looked like an enormous swarm of ants, churning across the snow and ice. The Degari were packed so tightly together they hid the snow from my sight.

“Two more—even you and I—won’t stop that.” Barh’s warm breath tickled my ear as he pointed toward the enemy.

“Fleeing feels wrong, cowardly. We’re abandoning them when they’re expecting us to stand with them.” The soldiers expected Barh to be there. “Without you, their morale will fail.”

“Jacks, this is our only hope. I can’t stand against that for long.” He nodded weakly toward the Degari. “What would happen to their spirits when I died before them?”

I stared into his eyes, but he still felt distant. The words I wanted to say wouldn’t come out.

“Besides,” he took my hand and kissed it gently. “Word is being spread throughout the army that I’m going to summon Chenoth. That will strengthen their hearts.”

Barh stepped back and my heart skipped a beat. When did he get so gaunt? Alone in our tent at night I’d never noticed the change. Or maybe I just refused to see what was there. He’d been lean and wiry when we met, but now he looked starved. Seeing his pale blue Magi Robe gathered loosely around his leather belt, I understood fully the price he paid.

Although handsome, Barh’s most amazing feature was his piercing eyes—the eyes of a Magi. Crystal blue, they had captivated my soul. With just a look he would soothe my fears and make everything seem better. Now all I saw was a deep sadness that wrenched at my heart.

Unable to bear the pain in his eyes, I turned to see our destination looming ever closer. Floating above the center of the continent, the Island in the Clouds reminded the world that the Gods left behind special beings to protect us. But if our guardians lived here, no one could find them. Birds and insects were all that populated the lush forest surrounding the lone mountain in the center of the land.

“Barh, we searched here last year.” I tried my best not to sound worried. “Chenoth wasn’t there.”

“Yes, he was.” His words were barely audible and he turned the moment I looked his way. “But I refused him.”

Refused him? What did that mean? We came here last year and left with nothing; not even a clue where to go next. At least that is what Bahr said at the time.

I replayed that trip in my mind, trying to remember any detail that might explain Barh’s answer. But all I could remember was when he told me Chenoth wasn’t there. He woke me from a deep sleep; I’d been dreaming of the day we met ten years prior. When I opened my eyes, Barh appeared frightened, and said we were wasting our time. With no further explanation, he insisted we leave—immediately.

That’s when our life turned frantic as we scoured the world for information. We chased down any lead, persuaded every scholar we could to leave no page unturned and even uncovered several lost troves of information in abandoned cities long forgotten. The effort devastated his body to a degree I only just noticed.

My thoughts were interrupted when we cleared the cloud cover and emerged into a brilliant blue sky. Soaring above the clouds, what I saw deserved all my attention. It took my breath away the first time I’d been here and today it was just as amazing.

Last time we came, Barh went slowly to give me time to soak in all the details. Today he didn’t slow down at all, making straight for the solitary peak I knew to be our destination. Halfway up the eastern slope, a large cave held a lonely vigil over the land. Talon marks riddled the cave, evidence of the dragons that once lived there according to Barh.

A year ago, Barh had such hope and confidence we’d find Chenoth. He left a different man. More determined, and more desperate. Why were we coming back? And why today? Everything about this trip unnerved me, especially how distant Barh acted.

We rounded the mountain, and slowed as the mouth of the cave opened wide in front of us. Gently he lowered us until my feet touched the hard surface. I stomped my boots into the earth and Barh grinned.

“You never did like to fly, did you Jacks?”

“Flying isn’t the problem. I just prefer seeing something solid under foot.” I tapped my foot several times and laughed.

The presence of something—or someone—killed my good mood. I scanned the cave and my heart seized. Everything felt different. This was the same place, but it wasn’t. The position of things hadn’t changed, but I saw so many things I hadn’t a year ago. The walls were lighter and felt warm under my hand. It was no longer a cave, but rather, a home. A balmy, almost stifling heat had replaced the bitter cold of winter, which should have been worse at this height.

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t realize Barh had walked farther inside until I heard him kick a rock against the wall. Shaking my head to clear the daydream, I quickly caught up to him.

Barh abruptly stopped at the entrance to a dimly lit cavern and I nearly barreled into him. I moved to his side and watched his barely open eyes search the empty room. Barh’s voice, shaking and cracked broke the silence.

“Chenoth.” Barh kept his gaze on a white patch of rock in front of him. “As you said I would, I have returned.”

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