Published: September 7, 2011
THE LOCK KEEPER
© 2010 Bonnie Watson
Eamon Lorccan felt, rather than saw, the presence of the key approach the Temple doors. Behind him, a small chest perched in the center of an altar. A constant glow of pulsating crimson haze encircling the chest beat with each anticipated moment of Eamon's heart. From around his neck, the silver medallion symbolizing his family's heritage did nothing to console the young man's doubts. Had he made the right decision?
It was the slam of entrance doors flung wide that readied his first spell. Faces mattered little, for his full attention was drawn to the key held in front of the one who entered. Rage boiled through the young man's veins. His own hand lifted, and a string of flames sprang from his outstretched fingers. The Temple's wooden pews disintegrated. Even after the flames extinguished, parts of the floor and stone walls continued to glow red hot.
Eamon stood breathless, hand still outstretched. Dark swirls of smoke lingered in the air. A single gesture could have cleared it. Yet he waited, and watched.
"A little hint of advice," a voice spoke. "It's hardly worth calling yourself Guardian... if everyone knows your secret!"
Eamon had hardly enough time to blink when he found himself tossed back like a rag doll upon the altar. He twisted, trying to determine which way to go. A hand at his throat made that decision for him, forcing the young man back down. Beside him, the chest's crimson haze quickened its pulse.
"Give me the chest, Eamon. Or do you still prefer what mortals call you? Wick?" He flashed the key across the young man's line of vision. "The lock will release its hold if you grant me permission to take it. Think carefully on this. I use the key, you die. You give in, you live. "
Wick shuddered at the touch of key over the metal lock protecting his heart but for a tiny slit, a slit meant for a special blade. A living lock, a legend and tradition descending all through his family's bloodline, was about to be broken. He thought back to how it happened. Could it all have been prevented?
~ One Week Ago ~
It was a sense of duty that drew the young man to the Temple that windy morning. With a hand holding a cowl over his head and cape billowing behind, he approached the doors with difficulty and flung them open to be rid of the chill. Warm air greeted him with the promise of sweet-smelling incense and lanterns soon to be lit. As he removed the cloak to hang on the wall peg, amber eyes glowed with a fire within while he searched out each stand in the dim morning light.
He knew the place by heart now, knew each lamp's location. A light touch to the nearest wick produced a crackling flame no normal person could hope to create. Wick, as the villagers nicknamed him for this talent, quickly set about to complete his daily tasks. He lit the remaining lanterns before burning a few sticks of incense at the Temple's altar. The decor was not much these days. Stories of past wars could be heard from every corner of the village. It was even present on the Temple's outside walls. Scars, rubble, even holes where explosions had taken place could not be missed. The Temple served as a symbol of Hope, for it had been the only building left in tact after years of battle, and now served as a place of communication between Wick and his family.
A descendent from a clan of Ember Mages, Wick was the only elemental-user known to the Englaed Isles. Upon the first day of his arrival, he knew the people must have thought it odd, for what interest in a series of islands surrounded by nothing but water could hold a fire-user's attention? Though Wick himself was not entirely certain, he hoped the stories behind the islands' development held the key to his travels.
There was still some time before the chaplain was due to arrive, so Wick set about building two more incense trays and placed them on the altar. After positioning them to his liking, he lifted his hands to ignite the wood. Eyes blazed with an intensity of the flames itself as it roared to life, dancing and popping with deadly radiance that could have scorched any other living creature within reach.
Calmly did Wick stand, never taking his gaze from the fire. An Ember Mage had no fear of heat, having been raised in the fiery pits of the Wastelands. It was a place said to be so unbearably hot that the only other creature to endure it was the elusive Fire Bird. Rare though they were, Wick was not interested whether one had been spotted as the flames gathered in a ring to create a window. In this opening did a picture begin to materialize, and soon his parents were in plain sight as though they were standing in the room with him.
"Kali-mora," he greeted in their tongue.
"Greetings, Eamon," his father replied, using his true name. "Always a blessing to hear from you. What news from the Englaed Isles?"
"The stories are so many, and so vast. There are so many viewpoints, and yet no secret worth becoming Guardian have I found. I often fear my journey may have been in vain. I do not know why the pull, and yet I still feel as though I'll find something...somewhere."
His father smiled with the patience of an understanding parent. Presently, two other siblings joined the view alongside his mother, and they waved in recognition.
"No secret for me yet?" his older brother asked. "You'll find something. Just don't take it for yourself when you do." He laughed, then moved from the window's view.
"I could." Wick held his chin up with pride. "Ethan knows I could do it."
"But you must remember, son," his mother said, "Ethan is of proper age and has gained the council's approval. All he needs is a secret. Be patient. Our family line has always been the most successful Guardians. You will find what you seek, and in return will gain honor toward your appointed time when you become next Guardian."
"I will make you both proud." Wick bowed his head.
"We know you will," his father answered. "Be well, my son, and take care."
The image died with the flames releasing the circular form. When at last it was extinguished, Wick quickly cleared the ashes from the altar and went to open some of the doors to let out the heat. A fresh breeze swept through the place before the shutting of entrance doors announced the chaplain's arrival.
"Phew!" Wick heard, and he turned at the approach of a middle-aged man. "You aiming to roast the congregation this morning? I hope the pews are still in tact."
Wick laughed. "Sorry. Morning mass with the family."
The chaplain waved the comment aside.
"Any other day, please!" The man grinned, dimples deepening on either side of his pudgy face. "Don't forget. This week's service is remembering the past. A lot of people are planning on coming, maybe even the King himself."
"The King?" Wick asked in surprise. "He's practically bathed in stories. Will he be speaking as well?"
"Maybe." The chaplain set a pile of books upon the altar. "Do you mind placing these on the pews for me? I've got some more to bring in."
Wick nodded and did as instructed, then went to help the chaplain bring in extras. While they worked, Wick was delighted to hear a story the chaplain had been preparing for his opening sermon concerning the formation of the islands.
"There are many theories based around the appearance of another Ember Mage," the chaplain said, "but by the end of the last war all the islands had formed, save but one. That one supposedly sank with the king's brother. With his death ended a bitter feud, and a fresh start for the rest of us."
"Sounds like a good opening to me," Wick said. A quick glance out the window revealed the first few morning islanders approaching. "We ready? I'll go open the doors."
It did not take long for people to quickly fill the pews. Wick made sure to greet everyone that entered. Many returned the greeting with smiles and nods of thanks. There were still a few pews to fill when Wick decided it was time to shut the doors. He was slightly disappointed the king had not shown, but reasoned it was to be expected. Still, he scanned along the beaches to see if anyone else was coming when he noticed movement off shore.
With a few minutes before service started, Wick decided to investigate and headed down to the water. The tide was out, allowing the young man to roam around large rock formations, peer into tidal pools of starfish and minnows, and view large, colorful shells. Circling one of the rocks, he started to head back to the Temple when he came upon a curious sight.
What's this? He studied the clothing lying flat on the top of a rock. A splash drew his attention, and he peered around to see the tip of a foot disappear underwater. By now, the wind had died down with the sun peeking through the clouds enough to warm the coastal waves. It also marked the beginning of a great story Wick was missing if he did not return to the Temple. Still, he decided to wait.
It was a good four and half minutes before she resurfaced. As soon as the the sun touched the top of her golden hair, Wick knew he would not be returning any time soon.
"Morning, Kira," he said while leaning against one of the shoreline rocks.
"So the little church mouse came down for a swim?" She grinned and kicked some of the salty water his way.
Wick dodged the splash.
"I'm missing possibly the best story yet, for this?" He laughed. "You better have a good one yourself for making me think I needed to come down here."
Kira rolled her eyes as she climbed from the water and grabbed her clothes. Ducking behind the large rock, she started dressing.
"And were you expecting someone else perhaps? Small islands make easy rumors. I too heard the king was coming." She stepped around the boulder's side with a smirk. "But he didn't, did he?"
Wick shook his head.
"Then here's a better story for you. Should've come down sooner when I found the latest treasure. Could've used the extra help."
"Treasure?" Wick asked. He walked slowly alongside Kira, who ran a hand through her damp hair. A couple of seaweed strands fell out as she untangled them.
"Well, to me it was." She bent to pick up a large shell. "You know me. I like collecting things from the water. You never know what the tide will bring from distant places." Kira's eyes shone with pride as she spoke of drift wood and shells, glass pieces and even rocks. "But the biggest of all is the one I found this morning. It's quite heavy. It's like a piece of lava rock hardened over the color of honey. Sometimes if the light hits it, it glows like your eyes." She grinned. "And maybe your hair."
Wick passed a hand through his tousle of fiery red and white curls.
"Lava rock's hard to come by around these parts. Would take a mighty storm to bring one even from the Wastelands."
"No, but one with the colors you described seems strange. Do you mind if I have a look?"
"Sure. Race ya there!"
Kira's place was just a little ways from the beach, back in the shade of overhanging trees. Out of breath from running, Wick waited on the front porch while Kira went inside. He could not help but admire all the items she had spoken of earlier. Conk shells lined a path to the steps with drift wood as railings around the porch. In every corner there was a series of rocks in every shape and size. The colors were remarkable, but nothing compared to what Kira had in her arms when she appeared in the doorway.
Wick quickly rushed to help, and together they placed the large, black rock on a table constructed from an old crate. Sunlight was not needed to catch the glow of amber beneath the spindly surface, and the Ember Mage's face quickly paled.
"That's no lava rock," he whispered, running a few fingers down the glowing cracks. "It's a Fire Bird egg. How it got here, I have no idea."
Kira pulled away slightly. "You mean to tell me they're real? I always thought they were just fairy tales." She glanced up at Wick. "Then again, until you came I thought the same about you as well. So what happens now?"
"Now?" He stared at the girl. "You say goodbye to everything green. That's what'll happen if it hatches." He slowly let out a breath, trying to think. "It probably hasn't hatched only because it's been in the cool water. But since you've pulled it out-"
"There's more color in it now," Kira interrupted. "It wasn't like this when I first found it."
"It's nearing time."
"What about putting it back?" Kira asked. "Would it still hatch? Maybe the water would douse the flames?"
"Doesn't matter. Even underwater, a hatching Fire Bird can cause massive tidal waves. I've seen them. They'd engulf all the islands in a matter of seconds!"
Kira shook her head in disbelief.
"Why did I have to find this?"
"What if you hadn't?" Wick replied. "You'd still be in danger."
"What about you?" Kira asked. "Water and fire don't exactly mix."
"True. I'd more than likely end up in the same situation as the rest of you." He tried to think of a solution. Going back to the Wastelands was out of the question. From the amount of color showing, the egg was already in its final stages of development, and would soon crack. No matter where it was, several miles surrounding it would be instantly scorched. "I need to use the Temple, and fast!"
The slam of double doors shoved open against the wall put an end to morning prayer. Everyone turned in their seat to take in the red-headed young man hurrying down the center isle. The chaplain looked up, concern adding more lines to his already wrinkled forehead.
"Forgive me, but I need everyone out!" Wick commanded. "This is a matter of utmost importance that cannot go ignored."
"Of course." The chaplain gave the signal for people to begin evacuating the Temple. As he watched them quickly depart, he whispered to the young man, "Has something happened I need to be aware of?"
"There's not much you can do," Wick replied, and escorted the chaplain to the doors to close them once everyone was out. "A Fire Bird egg was just discovered off shore. I need to figure out what to do with it before it hatches."
The chaplain seemed stunned.
"I'll explain later." Wick hurried the man outside. "I must speak with my family!" He quickly shut the doors.
Certain that the Temple was empty, Wick returned to the main hall and placed multiple trays of incense on the altar. The smell itself was almost overpowering when he ignited the wood and waited for the window to open within the circle of flames.
"So soon, my son?" Wick's father answered the summon. "Have you a secret for us?"
"I'll say," Wick's expression turned doubtful, "a secret that's been lying beneath the water's surface, but may be too late to help."
"One of the islanders discovered a Fire Bird egg just off shore. The color is changing fast. Soon it will hatch, and you know what that means."
"A Fire Bird?" His father's eyes widened in shock. "Eamon, there's no possible way one of their eggs could have traveled by sea. Someone must have placed it there."
"But who has come from the Wastelands carrying such?" Wick questioned. "No one leaves without being checked. The same if someone comes. I had thought about returning and bringing it with me, but it took nearly eight weeks to get this far, and that was using the fast-travel spell."
"Then I will send someone to you," his father replied. "The Elders are far more powerful and can reach you in less than two weeks."
"But we may not have two weeks!" Wick exclaimed. "This thing's ready to pop now!"
"I'm sorry, son. I have no other answers. Perhaps if I took this to the council, they might have a better solution."
For a moment, Wick was silent, mulling over his father's words. Suddenly, his face lit up. "I could guard it!"
"What! Eamon, no! You're not old enough. The council would forbid it. You can search out secrets for others, but not for yourself. You're not ready yet."
"But it's the only way to keep the Englaed Isles safe!" Wick argued. "You know it would. That's what being Guardian does. It stops a chain of events from happening."
"Or puts it on hold," his father said. "Let's say someone did bring the egg. They would be looking for it. Do you honestly think you'd be strong enough to stop them?"
"Yes, but they still couldn't get through me without a key. We are the Lock Keepers. A secret would certainly be safe for the time being. And you know a human wouldn't get too far with fire as our element."
His father gazed elsewhere as though trying to come up with a better solution. With a sigh, he refocused on his son. "Eamon, let me speak with the council first. They will know how to take care of this. Wait for my summon. I will return soon."
Kira was glad to see Wick return. Since his departure, more cracks of amber were showing, causing the whole thing to glow.
"Did you reach your family?" she asked impatiently.
"Yes." Wick held out his hand. In it was a thin blade with the hilt resembling that of a key.
"What is it?" Kira stared curiously at the object.
"I have asked to become Guardian - or at least the council granted guardianship for a short period of time. They are sending their fasted travelers to get the egg. Apparently, they have stories of an Ember Mage leaving centuries ago with several eggs. They were meant to be used in creating new land masses. In one such story, Englaed Isles was that result, but back then it was all one island. How it got divided, I'm not sure."
"Do you think this one was lost?" Kira asked. She flicked her gaze to the egg.
"Don't know. We'll need to wait 'til the Elders arrive."
"So what is the purpose of that?" She pointed to the dagger.
"This is the key to everything I'm about to do, but you need to stand back. This is the first time I've done this and I wouldn't want you hurt in the process." With the key held firmly in one hand, he had barely placed his other hand over the egg when it began to tremble.
Wick was not sure what happened next. One moment he thought the egg had burst. The next he was lying on the sand with Kira bending over him shouting his name. His eyes flickered open.
"Did it work?" he said.
"Did what work?" Kira was near tears with worry. "All I know was when you touched the egg, fire suddenly sprang around you. I couldn't see you at all! Then something flew into the air and went speeding that way." She pointed back to the Temple. "Then you came out. But there's something in the sand where you were standing. I didn't go over to it because it looked like it was moving."
"Really?" Wick tried to sit up, but winced in pain and held a hand over his heart. "Yeah. It worked." He groaned slightly. "The lock has been set. What you saw was the key. To unlock the secret you have to find the key. And then whoever has it has to go through me to open the chest."
"I don't understand," Kira said. "Are you saying you're the lock?"
In answer, Wick took her hand and placed it just under his shirt. Pressed against his skin, he could feel the beat of his heart. Yet there was something else, and when Kira touched cold, metal surface she quickly withdrew.
"What was that?" she demanded. "What have you done to yourself?"
"You were right to say it was moving." Wick painfully turned over on his side and tried sitting up once again. "Because it is." He stole a glance to what seemed to be a miniature treasure chest embedded in the sand. A thin, red haze pulsed around the outside, quickening whenever he moved. "It's my heart that keeps the chest closed. What you felt was the lock itself. It now guards my heart."
"And the key?"
Wick blinked up at her.
"The chest will only open if my heart stops beating."
Kira pulled away.
"That was no key! Where is it? We have to find it to keep you safe!"
Wick choked out a laugh.
"Kira, relax! That was the whole point of sending it away. Someone's got to find it first. The islands are safe now, and the Elders are on their way. There's nothing to worry about." He sighed. "Course, it does bring a whole new meaning to guarding with your life. But whoever put the egg here probably doesn't know it's being guarded. Everything will be fine. You'll see."
~ One Week Later ~
"All this time," Wick choked, still held down by the hand at this throat, "you ran the Temple under the guise of an old man, pretended to be one of the people. You never needed to leave the Temple when I spoke with my family. You're one of us!" And then it dawned on him. "No...It can't be! Stories claimed you were dead!"
"Claimed, yes, but were not truthful," was the reply. "I needed a disguise to look for the last of the eggs brought here by my father. When the land was created, it was the work of multiple hatchings, and all of it was supposed to be mine! When my brother was proclaimed king, I used the remaining eggs in attempt to destroy the land. Instead, it broke everything into the islands you see today. I was like you back then, naive and powerless. I needed time to let my abilities grow, so I sank one of the islands that rumored my death."
"So you want to sink another island?" Eamon asked.
His response was laughter.
"What I want is to take that egg and personally hand it to my brother while it hatches."
"You'd never make it!" Eamon argued. "It nearly cracked right as the lock was set."
"Did it now?"
Eamon felt the hand release his throat, but then hoisted him up by the shirt collar to meet the Ember Mage eye to eye.
"Then I guess I'll have to guard it myself until the proper time. No sense sending you. I want to see his expression when he opens his gift."
Eamon grabbed the hand holding the key, but was not strong enough to keep it from puncturing his clothing and slipping part way into the lock. Pain surged through his chest, causing a gasp. The hand no longer gripped his shirt, but held him from the backside. There was no where to move. A single nudge and it be over. The chest would open. The egg would hatch.
Eamon closed his eyes and waited for the end.
Scorching heat built up in the room. There came a gasp, and suddenly Eamon fell back, the hand no longer supporting him. Though his chest still burned, the young man summoned the strength to twist from the altar to the floor. He crouched with hand over the lock. Voices, voices he recognized, resonated throughout the room. There came a cry of pain, and then all was silent.
Overjoyed, Eamon pulled himself from behind the altar. His gaze darted from the three Ember Mages to the body on the floor. He had been leaning against the side of the altar, but upon shifting his weight, his knees immediately buckled, and he clutched his chest in pain.
A strong pair of arms caught him. He could hear voices, but they were growing fainter by the moment. His foot stumbled over something, sent it clattering across the floor. The last thing he remembered was the key halt at the traitor's hand, the blade's tip stained with blood...his blood.
Ethan stared after the small boat drifting further out to see. On it they had placed the egg his younger brother had found. It was safer to watch it hatch in the Wastelands. Beside him stood his father, with his mother and other sibling further back with the Elders.
"He only meant to protect it."
His father placed a reassuring hand on his son's shoulder.
"And he did."
The first crack from the egg sent fire and water spiraling toward the sky. A vortex of air current spun the boat into oblivion as a large wave crashed into the cliffs below. As water closed over the gaping maelstrom, a fireball shot up before water completely consumed. Fiery wings spread in its first flight. It gave a cry of freedom as it soured gracefully over the group huddled together at the edge of the Wastelands.
For the price of death, a gift of life.