The quake had hit hard and fast. Survivors from the small, rural village had funneled in from early morning to dusk, and throughout the day Sahak spent his hours treating wounds and injuries using most every method he knew. Being a skilled healer of advanced age, Sahak knew many techniques.
Not least of which was the legendary healing touch.
He saved many lives that day. The ancient magics at his employ were subtle, but plain for all to see. Broken bones were knit back in place and open wounds were sealed shut with what appeared to be a mere caress of his hand. Yet most folk who were not learned in the healing arts perceived it to be easy. In truth, Sahak expended a great deal of energy and concentration in order to heal those who came to him.
The day after the quake, Sahak went to inspect the ruins, to better document the events in his journal. Though Sahak was not the only healer to have heard the call, he was regarded as one of the few living masters of the ancient arts. It was said that the old man had come in contact with a spirit that granted him such power.
He stopped walking mid stride. The town was quiet but for the bustle of men working in the makeshift infirmary just beyond the village. No birds flew over this place, no people hawked their wares like only days ago. All was silent.
But still, Sahak swore he heard something.
Against his better judgment, the old healer went in the direction of the imagined sound. It might have come from inside a collapsed building or...
There it was again. A whimper. The mewling of something small...
Sahak hurried inside, heedless of the unstable structure. He found the babe, extricated its blackened form from the dead mother's arms, and fled the building. Even as Sahak laid a stretch of clean cloth on the ground and set the child upon it, volunteers gathered around him.
"It's a goner," one of them murmured. They were not experienced healers like Sahak, but any layman could tell the child held on by a thread.
"It's amazing the child lived this long,” said another. “He could pass at any moment." Silence met with the statement, for all could see the terrible burns.
"What life could it lead even if it were saved?” a third said. “The best we can do is ease its passing." At this, there was agreement, followed by grunts of encouragement. "You've done all you could, Sahak."
The others left him alone with the babe, convinced their skills were better used tending to the injured at the healing tents.
But Sahak remained with the child. He stared long and hard, carefully going over his options, then set to work.
He resolved to not give up. Using the ancient arts to their fullest extent, Sahak kept the child alive. His healing touch felt ruptured organs and cut blood vessels, but for every minor injury he healed, two more appeared.
The child had since stopped crying, the strength having left its lungs. Beads of sweat gathered on Sahak's brow.
At ten years, Jhast was of the age when most children had begun their life path and started an apprenticeship. He had learned this when interacting with the blacksmith's son and the weaver's daughter, neither of whom had taken any particular liking to him. As the adopted son of the town healer, his path had quite simply been chosen for him, and he supposed their hatred of him was born of jealousy. After all, his apprenticeship had commenced the day he could speak, so he was told.
But today they thought up new names for him, and even spent considerable time chasing him down the cobblestoned street. Even now, Jhast could hear their voices echoing in his ears, yelling 'Crinkly' and 'Paperskin.' He stumbled through the front door with a bloody lip.
"Jhast my lad," his father greeted him. "I was worried about you— by the gods! What happened?" Sahak rushed to meet Jhast as he entered their home, producing a white linen from his pocket.
"Nothing," Jhast grumbled. He tried to push his father away but Sahak would have none of it. Ancient arts or no, linen still had its uses for small bleeding.
"Did you fall? Did the huntsman's hounds get loose again? I swear if Gerald's dogs got after you again..."
"It wasn't dogs," Jhast said. "Leave me, papa, I can do it myself." Sahak stepped away, marveling at the maturity of his child.
"A lad your age would likely be crying your eyes out with a cut like that." He reached to pull his son closer. “Let me,” he added, his fingers starting to glow.
"This is not what needs to be healed!" Jhast shouted. "Papa, why am I like this?"
Sahak stopped and pivoted toward his son, regarding him. Jhast was of normal height and healthy weight, and his eyes shone with discerning intelligence. But from face to feet his skin was scarred and splotched with wrinkles. He was missing an ear, and in places where normal creases might have formed in his face, the skin had scarred over in thick patches.
"We've talked about this," said Sahak, his voice gentle and slow. "You survived a disaster that left hundreds dead."
"Including my real parents," was the growled reply. Sahak fidgeted.
"Yes, including them."
"Why couldn't you save my mother? My father?"
"It was too late for them. They were gone by the time I had found you."
"Then why couldn't you fix..." Jhast made an angry gesture, angled at himself. "This. Why keep me alive like this?"
"Jhast," said Sahak, "come sit down. It's time I explain something to you."
Fuming, Jhast stepped over and sat beside Sahak on the couch of their den. Theirs was a simple home, comfortable by any villager's standards but for a healer of Sahak's caliber, the domicile was considered humble.
"You have seen me working on people with open wounds. Even some of your friends have come to our doorstep bleeding and crying. Injuries like that don't take much effort to mend."
Jhast nodded, but the motion was curt and his face remained twisted in a nearly imperceptible frown. He held a bit of the linen to his lip as he listened.
"But not all wounds are visible. Those are the trickiest to heal, I'll have you know, since they can be the deepest."
Jhast could not understand what his adopted father was talking about, and it showed in his expression, though none but his adopted father would have been able to see through the scars.
"What I'm trying to say is this," Sahak said. "When I found you, I did everything I could. I held your fate in my hands, and I healed it."
"You speak in riddles," Jhast mumbled.
"Keep at your training and your studies. You will understand in time."
By Jhast's twelfth year, he managed to save someone's horse of its lame leg. At his fifteenth, he had mended his first broken bone in a human. There were some who no longer looked at the boy like a peculiar invalid, but as a budding member of the village. Sahak was expected to live on for many more years, and the day he left his position as town healer would be a sad day. Thus, the townsfolk found relief in knowing a capable adept was being trained under Sahak.
But Jhast did not lead an easy life. In spite of the respect he had earned from select individuals, the majority of passersby regarded him as they would a leper. Women would avert their eyes the moment he met theirs, and the youngest of children would scream and point on the street. Years of this left Jhast bitter, but their door and his skills were available to anyone.
One evening, Sahak returned home from an errand a little later than expected. He found Jhast busying himself with arranging bottles of smelling salts.
"I met a mother today," said Sahak, his voice on the verge of thunder, "whose child was near death from a dog bite. A dog bite!"
"Is that so?" Jhast said without looking over his shoulder. "Explains why you're late."
"Word around the village is that she visited here earlier in the day, Jhast. Left with the child in the same state as she came." A moment passed and when Jhast continued to roll strips of fabric, Sahak stomped up behind him. "I left you to fill my seat for a day. A day! What were you thinking, turning her away like that?"
"I did not turn her away," said Jhast, keeping his eyes to the jars.
"You will explain."
"There's nothing to explain."
"There most certainly is. That child was inches from death!
"I didn't know," said Jhast.
"Didn't know?" said Sahak. "How could you not know?"
Jhast continued to move the bottles around, though he hardly paid attention to the labels anymore. Sahak let out a harsh sigh.
"You've worked with wounds far worse than that. How could you be so careless?" Staring at Jhast's motionless back only enraged Sahak further.
"Explain yourself, why did you not see the child?"
Jhast slammed a bottle on the table and whirled around.
"Because," he shouted, "she wouldn't show me the baby!"
There was a moment of stunned silence, and Sahak stared, speechless.
"You mean she—"
"I could not possibly know because she wouldn't show me the baby," Jhast reiterated. "She came to the house, her babe wrapped in a bloody swaddle. Oh I saw the blood, alright, but in that moment the lady did not see a healer reaching for her child." He glared at his adopted father. "She saw a monster."
"Even so," said Sahak, "you know you shouldn't have let her go."
"And what could I have done to stop her? Hold her, tear the baby from her arms? It was you she wanted. Not some paperskin apprentice."
"I don't know what came over her," he said. "Miss Tilly was always such a sweet girl."
"And it's your fault. It's all thanks to you."
"Why doesn't our healing touch work on me?" Jhast demanded. His voice trembled, and having dropped the linen he presented his scarred, gnarled hands. "Why must I live my life disfigured and hated?"
"You aren't hated," said Sahak, his voice patient. "Just misunderstood. We've talked about this, my son; your wounds were already closed. I can only heal fresh wounds. No matter our training, a healer cannot..."
"...Erase the scars of the past," Jhast finished. "I have the touch of a healer, as you trained me, but the hands of a demon. I am cursed. Why couldn't you heal me?"
"But I did heal you, Jhast. I healed your fate."
Jhast's face darkened. All the memories of being teased and chased as a child, thrown askance glances and ignored or outright rejected as an adult, all coming to him at once. He extended a hand and brought his fingers down his face, tracing the scars that so defined him. He scowled and glared at his father.
"Does my fate look healed to you?"
And before sundown that very day, Jhast had packed what belongings mattered most to him and stormed out into the coming night.
When Jhast reached his twentieth year, he had undergone an odyssey the likes of which none could have expected of a man hailing from such a small town. Having spent years healing injured and sick folk on the road between villages and city states, he had become adept at treating wounds in both roadside tents and in bedrooms.
The world was a dangerous place. Jhast had heard tales of tyrannical overlords from far off lands. There were rebellions and border skirmishes between countries, and even in some places there roamed monstrous beasts of legend. Often there swarmed would-be heroes and bounty hunters who would hunt and slay these monsters - some of whom were returning customers. Once Jhast had gotten word of a noble's son who'd injured himself falling from a horse. All these had one thing in common.
No matter the cause or justification, no one turned down the talents of a skilled healer.
But still Jhast was bitter. True it was that he derived pride and joy from his ability; after all, people rarely forgot the face of the man who'd saved their life. Even if that face was hidden behind a veil, as he had taken to wearing a shawl to cover his face and body, earning him the name of the Masked Healer.
It was during these travels when Jhast came in contact with other healers, and from each of them Jhast learned something, whether a new type of knot for a tourniquet or the old recipe for an herbal poultice. Yet in spite of his increasingly worldly knowledge of things, no technique compared to Sahak's ancient arts, which had more to do with touching, calming, and miraculously healing than herbs or splints.
By his thirtieth summer, instead of following armies in search of work, a small army of followers had amassed to follow Jhast. Children he had saved came to him years later as grown men, offering their lives and skills in gratitude. Nobles and merchant princes who had one time or another been themselves healed of an affliction or had a loved one snatched from the jaws of death by Jhast's magical healing touch, sought him out and wished to repay their debt to him.
But he eluded them easily, for no one had ever seen his face. Still, Jhast's name became nearly that of a living legend, for hundreds of lives had been saved by his healing touch. It was at this time he had caught the attention of Yhaji the Crone, an ancient woman famed for her wisdom as well as her skill in healing. One day, a runner arrived bearing an invitation.
Half a week later, he sat within the confines of a tent, cross-legged before a low set table covered in food. Yhaji was humble in her tastes, but incredibly generous.
"You have come a long way, I hear," she told him. Jhast had observed the customary rituals of politeness, waiting for her to eat before him. Though he was in a strange land, he was careful to not insult his host.
"I have," Jhast said from behind his veil. Since the moment they met, Yhaji had treated him without the slightest hint of suppressed disdain, which was a surprise to him.
"If I'm not mistaken," she said, "is not Sahak the Mender from your country?" Jhast hadn't heard mention of Sahak for many years. "Did you know him?"
"I knew him," Jhast replied.
"Is he well?"
"We haven't spoken..." Jhast was about to say for decades, but caught himself. "...for some time."
"I see, I see. Tell me, Master Jhast, have you been granted the boon?" Jhast studied the ancient crone before him, his expression that of confusion, though he doubted whether she could see through his scars. Few ever could.
"I don't understand."
"The archon's boon, child." Jhast did not know what to say. The crone opened her eyes. "Master Sahak surely must have told you of the boon."
"I'm afraid he neglected to mention this."
"Oh dear," Yhaji tsked. "When last did you see Sahak?"
"Pity. The boon is the crowning achievement of any follower of the ancient arts, but so very rare."
"The boon is an object?" said Jhast, puzzled. The crone looked at him from behind wrinkly eyelids that may as well have been shut for all Jhast could tell.
"Not an object, lad, a power, allowing one to heal fate." Jhast had heard whispers of this, heard tales of the feats performed by healers of history, but he'd only heard these words from one other person in all these years.
"What did you say?"
"The archon, from whom our healing touch flows, will allow you to mend that which men cannot see: the broken fate of one person."
Jhast could not believe what he was hearing.
"Every follower of the ancient arts aspires for the boon of the archon," said the wrinkly woman. "The archon itself is as a gentle traveler from a foreign land. It is, after all, merely a transient, and we are truly blessed to even know of its passing."
"A transient?" Jhast asked.
"The archon is not of our world, Jhast, and lesser minds might confuse it for a god. But generations of healers have learned the truth of its identity, for we have always spoken to it, yet rarely does it reply. But," Yhaji added, snatching a sweet grape from the table, "we have only each spoken to it once. Once you have communed, you cannot meet it again." She sighed, but maintained that immovable smile. "It is a sad thing, to be sure. A limitation of our minds, as it happens."
"What does it mean, to heal a broken fate?"
"You will know," she chuckled, popping the grape into her mouth, "if ever you get there."
Jhast left the old woman's tent giving thanks for the delightful dinner and sage wisdom. He walked by many of her followers on his way, most of whom knew his characteristic garb and bowed as he passed. But when he reached beyond their sight, his polite demeanor dropped like a pall.
Though none who passed could tell, Jhast wore a bitter frown of disdain. The idea of healing fate, whatever that meant, seemed like a waste of time.
So it was Jhast continued his work in lands foreign and familiar. His healing touch was more famous than ever. At times, he had turned it upon himself, but the scars always remained.
Once on a hot midsummer day, and while resting beneath the boughs of a solitary tree, Jhast was assailed by powerful wave of disorientation.
It was a hugely dizzying feeling, like falling through a corridor of silken wind. He had shut his eyes, but could see flashing lights through the lids. When he opened them, a maelstrom of stars swirled and rushed past him. There was the sound of rushing wind on a high mountain, and the smell of tall grass was gone. Then there was silence.
A gentle caress on his leathery cheek, and Jhast became abruptly aware that the rushing feeling had stopped. He was surrounded by ghostly wisps of gossamer. Bright light shined from a sun he could not see, and the robes he wore appeared weightless around him. It was as though he were underwater, but the air was pure and warm.
A gentle feeling, akin to the caress of a tender mother. Jhast looked around the clouds and saw nothing but swirling wisps.
Then the clouds parted, and Jhast beheld a luminescent being of light and gold. The healer could barely take in the sight, and he had to shield his eyes from the shining radiance.
"You have lead a life of selfless servitude," Jhast heard. It was a warm, silvery voice, and though he knew it could be nothing but the fabled archon, he could not see it speak. Rather, the voice came into his mind like a welcome guest.
"For this," continued the being, "you have earned my boon. You may choose to heal the fate of one individual."
At first, Jhast was at a total loss for words. He had barely understood the realm around him, much less how he got there. But he quickly gathered his wits.
"Please archon," he said, not knowing what else to call it. "I would ask to have my own fate healed. I have suffered my entire life. I am a crinkly, ugly paperskin. Mine is a broken fate."
Jhast looked upon the being as a child would a parent. Memories of being shunned, being secretly despised for his ugliness when people thought he wasn't looking.
"No," was the silvery reply. Jhast blinked.
"Your fate has already been healed."
"When? I have hated my life since birth."
"You're fate was healed," said the archon, "Your scars are proof of this."
Some clouds to Jhast's side melted away as well, only to reveal what appeared to be a peculiar window made of water. It shimmered with a light of its own and the archon indicated it with a gesture.
Jhast beheld the scintillating water. Lights and colors stirred within it. Things coalesced into shapes, and before his eyes Jhast saw what appeared to be a living painting. He saw a great fissure in the earth, and fire. Destroyed buildings.
The aftermath of an earthquake.
He saw Sahak, much younger but still with those weathered laugh-lines of his. Sahak darted into a building, emerging with a pale bundle in his arms. Men stood in a close circle around Sahak on the street. In the center was what could only be a blackened, burned child.
"The best we can do is ease its passing," said a berobed person nearby. Their voices sounded distant, but rang clear. "You've done all you could, Sahak."
The men left, and Jhast could see Sahak changing bandages, holding his hands on the baby's chest. There was a warm glow under his fingers; the healing touch. But the baby did not cry, or stir.
Sahak was seen suppressing a sob, but collected himself. He laid his hand once more on the child, clearly in prayer. Jhast could not hear his precise words, but he saw Sahak's lips move. For a time he did this, holding still and concentrating.
For what felt like hours Jhast watched, and he himself did not breathe.
Then the baby began to wail.
Jhast exhaled, his eyes on the verge of flood.
"This life," he said, his voice wavering, "this crippled life, is already healed? This is not a broken fate?"
Though he still could not see the being through the pulsing light, he could feel something. An emotion.
The archon seemed to be smiling.
"Was your life really a broken life?"
The call for aid had reached long and far. It was only a matter of days before the stranger arrived, and when he was allowed into the home, the lord and lady of the house looked upon the wanderer.
“We called for the Masked Healer,” said the lord, his voice hoarse with desperation. “Who are you?”
“I am Jhast,” said the robed man. He took a step toward the bed, where a motionless child lay. A bandage stretched across the girl’s face, one large red blot over her eye.
“You are the healer?” the lord boomed. “But you are not—”
“I no longer wear a veil,” said Jhast.
They stared at him aghast, but no further words came to them. He was allowed near the child, and paused to observe the injury. He drew forth a hand, the fingertips aglow, and removed the bandages.
There was warmth in the room, though the candles seemed to dim. The others looked around in concern, but all their attention was soon focused on the bedside. There was a shimmering luminescence not unlike the light of a full moon in Jhast’s cupped hands.
Then, without warning, the light faded and the candles brightened to normal. The room remained silent.
The girl’s eyes opened. There were many familiar figures surrounding the bedside, but she did not know one man who stood nearby. A man in a simple robe with a peculiar face.
“You will be able see with both eyes from now on,” Jhast said. There was a twitch of motion beneath the scars in his cheek. His eyelids were pulled over at odd angles with long scars reaching across his face.
The girl smiled back.