Horns of Doom

The Old Man and the Canaries

She falls again into the plane of dreams.

It seemed the same dream as the night before. The dark corridors, the whispering voices, and the blood were all identical, but Talion couldn’t find the door. The dream had always ended at a door, every time she slept in this cursed place. Sometimes she opened it, sometimes it opened itself, but she hadn’t yet seen beyond that terrible portal, and now she couldn’t find it at all.

Instead, the hall opened into a tomb. At one end, rows of the dead in elaborately carved stone graves, at the other, a shrine. A canary flew by. An old man knelt in prayer at the altar. No door.

“Who are you?” she called out. “Why are you here?”

The old man smiled, “What have you learned about names in this place, child?”

She stared at him coldly. A canary landed on his shoulder and chirped. His smile grew. “Young one, there is so much for you to learn. Come, pray with me.”

Talion looked at the altar. It had runes carved into it, and above a painting of a dragon. She stepped back, “I bow to know one.”

To her surprise, he laughed gently. A singing canary in the rafters awakened a chorus of chirps in the sunlight. “Of course you don’t, yet, the burden you insist on carrying alone grows. In time, you will falter beneath it, and then you will bow to everyone. Come, pray with me.”

She stepped back again, and a canary lit on her shoulder. “No, you don’t understand, I made a promise. I bo—.” The yellow bird chirped loudly in her ear, cutting her off.

“I know all about your promise, child. I am the Binder of Oaths, the Keeper of Vows. Do you love me?”

“I—what?” She blinked, trying to refocus on him, trying to recognize him.

“I don’t require your subservience, dear. But if I am to travel with you, and aid your quest, you must love me. I can ease your burden, but not if you refuse my aid.” A canary flew around his head 3 times before flitting into the light. He watched it go.

She briefly wondered how it had come to be daylight in this dark place. She couldn’t see the sun, but the shrine was bathed in its radiance. The songs of the birds made it seem outside on a spring morning. A canary landed on her other shoulder. Her knees felt weak.

“How can you help me? I was sent by…”

He sternly interrupted her. “Names, child! Do you think I do not know who sent you? Do you think She alone dictates the fates of mortals? There is more for you to learn than I realized, and you are a willful girl. Only the strongest hearts may be set free from the chains of destiny. Does freedom weigh heavily on you?”

Talion struggled to keep her legs straight, and stared at him defiantly. The old man smiled again. She heard the flapping of wings to either side of her head, but the birds were holding fast to her cloak.

“Yes, willful. That is well. You will need such strength when the time comes to write upon the pages of fate with your own hand. What tale will you tell? Has my trust in you been misplaced?”

She blinked, “I don’t understand. Pages? Your trust?”

“Yes, child. It was I who insisted you be chosen for your quest. And it is a greater one than you know.” He was holding her hands, and peering intently into her eyes. She didn’t remember him standing. His grip was strong. “Your mistress does not even understand the purpose for which I have chosen you. I will be with you through all your labors, but you must let me. If you lean on me, I will lift you. If you walk with me, I will be beside you.”

Talion shook her head, “I…I can’t.”

The old man frowned, “You can…but it’s up to you. Remember, you need not bow, only love.” He let go of her hands, and she began to sink. As her vision faded to darkness, the last thing she saw was a bright, yellow canary.

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