Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.
This week’s episode is hosted by assistant editor Katherine Inskip.
Lost in Translation
by Afalstein Kloosterman
“It turns out,” said the High Ecclesiarch of the Writ, “that when the prophecy says ‘the hero’s body shall stand resilient against the flame,’ a more accurate translation would be ‘resistant against the flame.’” He gave a pained grimace. “Ancient Nearnoxian can be… ambiguous, at times.”
Phillip Stalford, Hero of Nearnox, Chosen One of the Golden Age, Bastion of Chastity and Valor, Banisher of the Dark Torch, V’lthaern d’Sng’ssn, and Paladin of the Holy Writ blinked back from within the mass of bandages that healer Ziva was carefully tending to. “Oh.” He said. “Well, I suppose that’s better than finding out I hadn’t been ‘pure of heart’ enough. Or that the Great Scriptor had taken a dislike to me.”
“The Great Scriptor does not ‘take a dislike.’” Ziva murmured, mixing up a salve. “His Word is Writ. It is eternal. He favors who he favors and disfavors who he disfavors. There is no changing with him.”
Aethlinn, standing just to the left of the Ecclesiarch, snorted and rolled his milky-white eyes. The others pointedly ignored the elf mage.
“Okay.” Phillip looked chastised. “But it… doesn’t quite make sense. I thought the Flames of Az-ranath were meant to keep all but the Chosen One out of the Shrine of Light. How’re they supposed to do that if the Chosen One’s not fireproof?”
“Well…. That’s the other thing.” The High Ecclesiarch exchanged a look with Ziva, but the young healer just shook her head and began painting the salve over an exposed patch of burned skin. The fingers of her left hand were playing about the rim of the salve jar, Phillip noticed. She only did that when she was nervous. Maybe she’d had another vision. “As I said, Ancient Nearnoxian can be ambiguous at times… it is a beautiful, multi-faceted tongue, filled with subtlety and nuance…”
“In this case,” cut in Aethlinn, throwing the Ecclesiarch a dry look, “‘li-thngrunin’, which the popular translation renders as ‘scar,’ is more literally translated ‘life-blemish.’ Which often does mean ‘scar’, but also, especially in religious contexts like the prophecy, more properly is taken to mean ‘birthmark.’”
There was a silence. “A birthmark.” Phillip repeated.
“As I said, nuance.” The High Ecclesiarch gave a strained smile.
“So…” Phillip’s hand crept to his side. “The star-shaped scar on my right thigh…”
“It was a terrible mistake on Novice Ridley’s part.” The High Ecclesiarch spread his hands. “On all our parts, really. The translation we were using was written by Scriptor Veragome in 549 for its poetic nature, not its accuracy.”
There was a longer silence. Ziva finished painting the salve and began to wind the bandage, tightly and firmly, around Phillip’s unresisting arm.
“You’re… sure about this?” Phillip swallowed. “I mean, Aethlinn, you say it does sometimes…”
Aethlinn smug look had faded away. “When… you tried to pass through the flames and…” He grimaced. “…caught fire…. you collapsed on the other side of them.”
“You were burning to death.” Ziva said, softly. It was the first word she’d said in the conversation.
“We would have lost you,” said the Ecclesiarch, gravely, “had not… the Chosen One rushed through the flame and carried you back out.”
Philip blinked. “What… where did he come from?”
“She, actually.” Aethlinn answered. “Ziva.”
Phillip turned to stare at the healer, who practically shrank away from his gaze.
“Makes sense, when you think back.” Aethlinn coughed. “She was right beside you when the Tongue of Flame was turned aside. The Gates of Aethrnia probably opened because she had just stepped onto the threshold, if you remember.”
“She was also the true vanquisher of the Black Flame.” The Ecclesiarch swallowed. “She quenched the Unholy Altar while you fought off the Burning Man, who, in truth, was but the avatar of the Flame.
The healer herself said nothing, but reached out a trembling hand toward Phillip’s arm. He withdrew the arm with a wince-like motion.
“She is a healer, and thus has, like you, ‘followed a life of chastity.’” The Ecclesiarch finished.
“And her visions…” Aethlinn shrugged. “The prophecy does say ‘the future shall be open to him.’”
Phillip finally glanced over. “But… ‘him?’”
“Ah.” Again the High Ecclesiarch looked uncomfortable. “You see, ancient Nearnoxian pronouns…”
Phillip closed his eyes.
The war had to go on, of course. The Staff of Lucime had been recovered, for the first time in generations there was a chance to not only defuse but destroy Argruk’null. It didn’t make sense for everyone to just give up because the wrong farmboy’d gotten delusions of glory. It was even something of a relief to Phillip to hear that the army had gotten over its initial reluctance to view his former Oracle as the new Chosen Hero. It was for the best.
They moved him to a Scriptor hospital in one of the liberated cities. The burns he’d received were no ordinary ones, apparently. His legs would never be the same again, and the fingers of his dominant hand were stiff with scars. Compared to those, what had happened to his face was really pretty unimportant.
A few days after he’d gotten settled, Novice Ridley came to sit at the foot of the bed and clear his throat every five minutes. Phillip spent his time carefully looking at anything but the scriptor.
Finally Ridley spoke. “I knew the translation was wrong.”
Phillip blinked at him. “What?”
“Any scriptor knows how to translate the original.” Ridley said, staring at the floor. “Peasantry and bards only know the poetic version because you can sing the words, but they start to teach you the Writ in its original Ancient Nearnoxian on your first day at the temple. The High Ecclesiarch was perfectly aware that ‘li-thngrunin’ was more properly ‘birth-blemish’ when he told you to go forth with Aza’s help.
Phillip didn’t know what to say.
“It’s ambiguous, you see. And…” Ridley looked miserable. “…the thing is, what does a star actually look like? Does it have five points, or four, or eight? When you really look at a star, up in the sky… it’s just a dot. So… some of us thought… maybe it didn’t really matter.”
Phillip stared at him, and Ridley flushed. “No one’s stood against the Burning Man and the Flaming Mountain for a hundred years, Phillip. No one even tried, because they weren’t the Chosen One. But you… you destroyed half his army, simply because you believed you were. Some of the clerics… we thought…” He sighed. “…we thought that was all the prophecy was supposed to do. Get someone like you to… believe they could do all those things.”
Phillip lay back, and then, slowly, turned over.
Ridley kept talking. “We… we did try to test it. Scriptors have tried to cross the Flames of Az-Ranath before, but… well, we assumed the results were because none of them believed they truly WERE the Chosen One. So I couldn’t possibly tell you, because then…”
Ridley’s words flattened into a droning tone. It flowed over him, wavering and ebbing in a meaningless river. Phillip stared at the wall, letting the words wash past him. Even when the words turned to screaming, and then to sobbing, and finally to a slammed door, Phillip remained, staring at the wall.
“The fight must have been spectacular,” Aethlinn said, as he and Phillip sat in the light streaming through the windows. “I was with the main army, but we saw lightning and flame leaping back and forth from the Mountain—great bursts of light, too, that pierced to the very skull. Then suddenly there was this…” Aethlinn gestured, “…blinding explosion, and the next moment, the clouds were just… dissolving away. Like satin being shredded by a razor. The Chakgru soldiers collapsed and broke apart into charcoal…”
“She really did it.” Phillip closed his eyes. His burns had long since healed, but there were still scars all over his face, and the warm sun felt good.
“…yes.” Aethlinn coughed. “All throughout the land, we’ve received reports of Great Pyres suddenly going out—of fire pits opening up and prisoners walking free.” He shook his head in near disbelief. “Argruk’null is no more. Already the bards are speaking of the end of ‘the Black Age’ and heralding the beginning of the Luminary’s Rennaissance.”
“Luminary?” Phillip glanced over at Aethlinn. “Is that…?”
Aethlinn looked uncomfortable, realizing he had said too much. “It’s just talk, so far… none of the Ecclesiarchs have actually suggested making her one. But bards have never let reality get in the way of a good story. It’d be unprecedented, but… there’s a lot of weight behind it. She’s supposed to head back to Bilabretic for the celebration—who knows what might happen there.” He hesitated a moment. “Some… some of the commons are even calling for a Queen.”
“Queen.” Phillip fell back onto the bed. He shook his head. “That’s… incredible.”
There was a short, awkward silence.
“How’s Ziva?” Phillip asked, finally.
“Perfectly miserable, of course.” Aethlinn chuckled, momentarily forgetting to be uncomfortable. “Keeps talking about how she’s only ‘a humble servant of Az.’ She can’t stand all the attention. And she’s had to play catch-up, going through all the things the Chosen One supposedly has to learn.—sword-fighting, magic, general history and legends…”
“I remember.” Phillip said.
“…right.” Aethlinn coughed again.
“Seems kind of redundant, really.” Phillip frowned. “She’s destroyed Argruk’null. The rest of the stuff in the prophecy is pretty tame, after that. Doubt she really has anything more to worry about. I mean, apart from this ceremony.”
“A… bout that.” Aethlinn coughed. “She…gave me a message for you, actually.” Phillip didn’t look around, but the mage continued anyway. “She… was wondering… if… you might want to come back with me. To Bilabretic. To meet her. As part of the festivities.”
There was a long silence. Aethlinn studied his friend out of the corner of his eye, but Phillip just gazed out on the landscape with lidded eyes. Then: “Is that the Mandate of the Chosen One?”
“…No.” Aethlinn answered softly. “It’s the request of a friend. She thought, since you had such a large part in defeating…”
Aethlinn looked at him. “Are you sure? We all miss you, Phillip. Even the army… you must have heard about the Burnt Legion. In Bilabretic…”
“There’s nothing I can do there.” Phillip said flatly. “The last thing Ziva needs right now is someone showing up who people can use to supplant her as ‘the True Chosen One.’ At best, I’d be a distraction.” He gave a short laugh. “Tell them… Oh, tell them anything. Tell them I’m dead. Martyrdom sounds like a great end to my ballad.”
Aethlinn studied the man closely. “You think they’ll pity you.” He stated.
“When they last saw me, I was a heroic warrior, burning in holy flames.” Another short laugh. “I’d rather be remembered as that than as feckless and broken, unable to fight, unable to walk, unable to even face Ziva…” His voice choked and he looked down.
Phillip fell silent for a moment. “Ziva….” He said, at length. “When I first saw her–do you remember that? Rescuing the healers at the Font at Sarazan? Fogroth was with us then—but when I saw her… when I…” his mouth quirked just a little. “She had this… smear of ashes… down the left side of her face. She smelled like…” He closed his eyes, smile on his lips. “…sweat. And… burnt hair.”
Aethlinn pursed his lips, but said nothing.
“I didn’t really mind the chastity thing, you know.” Phillip opened his eyes suddenly. “Not at first. I never really had times for girls at the farm, and after we started fighting…” A curl twisted his lips. “It was really easy to resist the sort of vapid beauties who go throwing themselves at celebrities.” He shrugged. “Honestly, I hadn’t even really thought about the ‘following the path of chastity’ line in the prophecy before….”
He sighed. “I told myself it was safe to talk to her, to be… friends with her. I mean, I was the Chosen One. Chastity wasn’t even a choice, it was a matter of destiny. It was never going to go anywhere. She was even a healer.”
“Technically, healers don’t take a vow of…”
“I know that now.” Phillip glared at the elf mage. “I’ve been in a hospital for a month, Aethlinn. I’ve talked to a lot of healers. Which just means…” He shook his head violently. “You know, I almost wouldn’t mind… all this…” He gestured, “if…” He bit off what he had been going to say and looked away.
Aethlinn did not look surprised, but there was an elegant sorrow in his face.
“I mean, why her?” Phillip burst out. “Why… couldn’t it have been some random soldier, or you or… Why…?” He raised a hand as if to protest, caught sight of the web-like scars on the back, grimaced, and laid it back down. A sigh. “It…. Just seems like the universe could have given me time to really talk to her. A space, just to say…”
A long silence.
“Well.” Phillip swallowed. “I guess it’s not really worse. Just the same. It’s still not going to go anywhere.” He studied the scars on his hand. “Probably not with anyone.”
Aethlinn spoke. “Phil, you know she wouldn’t…”
“Please.” Phillip whispered. “I’d rather be forgotten.”
Hundreds of the hospital’s patients left to see the Chosen One at Bilabretic, in hopes of receiving her “healing touch.” A contingent of scriptors went along with them, to care for them and also to help the rest of the brethren at Bilabretic.
Phillip did not. He was well enough, now, to get about with a pair of sticks, though he could not grip the sticks very well, and had to strap his hands to the wood. He hobbled down the long halls, mapped out the empty rooms, and sat by the window to watch the golden sun trek across the sky and sink into red and purple at the far end.
The day of the festival went. All of the scriptors came back, full of excitement and praises. Phillip heard little of the festival from them, though. He had begun to notice that often the scriptors—and the other patients—would fall silent when he entered the room, or begin speaking suddenly of some trivial and unrelated matter. Some few made an effort to include him in the conversation, but Phillip did his best to discourage such helpful people.
It was just so much easier to not have to talk at all.
The interior of the ward was silver with moonlight when he woke, and it gleamed off the robed figure turning down the bed next to his, unmistakably outlining the form of a woman.
“Ziva?” he said, eyes and brain still cloudy with sleep.
“Oh dear. Please, go back to sleep. I didn’t mean to wake you. I just… Roland had an accident, and I was cleaning it, and…”
Phillip sat up, sleep banished from his brain entirely. “Ziva.”
Slowly, the woman turned to face him. Her hands plucked at the corners of her hood and pulled it free. Ziva Pappas, Chosen One of the Golden Age, Exalted Luminary, Oracle of Az, Paladin of the Holy Writ, and First Queen of Nearnoxia stared back at him for one long moment.
“Phillip.” She swallowed.
As if breaking from a trance, Phillip collapsed back onto the bed and turned away from her.
“Phillip, please.” A hand, cool as river water, touched his shoulder.
Phillip didn’t say anything.
“Phillip, please, I’m sorry, Aethlinn gave me your message, but I didn’t… I mean, I had to…” There was a gulping pause, and he could almost hear her groping for words. “I didn’t…” She whimpered. “Oh, this isn’t how this was supposed to go at all.”
He should be silent. The sooner she was gone, the better. But the words came out anyway. “What are you doing here, Ziva?” There were still tasks left in the prophecy, he knew, she still had duties before her.
“I came to see you.” Ziva answered. “I arrived at the hospital late yesterday… I thought I’d come down here in the very early morning… be beside your bed when you woke up, you know, with the sunlight coming in the windows… but then I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I might as well mop the floors, and I just came in here for that, and then Roland had his accident, so I cleaned that up, and then…”
“Where is Roland?” Phillip turned over to look at the empty bed, where the dysenteric old man who had carried on one-sided conversations with him for the last month usually lay. Then he realized. “Oh… he’s… feeling better, then?”
Ziva (he could see her clearly now in the moonlight) bit her lip. “I didn’t mean to… I just… I had to move him to clean up, and when I touched him… I didn’t mean…”
Phillip wanted to roll back over, bite his tongue, stop talking to this beautiful girl. But he couldn’t tear himself away. “Why are you apologizing for healing someone?”
Ziva looked away. “Because… I can’t… your burns aren’t…”
“They don’t matter.” He cut her off. “Just scars. Nothing important.” Except for the ones on his hands, feet, and legs. “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not.” Her eyes seemed to waver in the light, and her voice was thick. “Aethlinn said you looked terrible and the High Ecclesiarch says you never leave the ward, and you don’t respond to any of my letters and…” She looked away. “Do you hate me?” she said, in a small voice.
“…no!” Phillip had hesitated just a second too long. “Of course… I mean, why would you…”
There was a long silence.
“Not… anymore.” Phillip finally said. “At… at first… yes. A little. ” He hesitated. “Sometimes… still. On bad days. But even then, I don’t… it’s not really you I…” He swallowed and coughed. “I don’t hate you. Not really. I don’t think I could.”
“You don’t think you….” She choked back whatever she was going to say. Phillip wondered what she had been going to say, then decided that it didn’t matter. Nothing in this conversation mattered. It couldn’t go anywhere important. He rolled over his bed… but not completely over. Just enough so he could still see her, out of the corner of his eye. He wanted to remember her. Remember this final moment he had with her.
“Phillip… I wanted to say…” Ziva seemed to fumble a bit. “You saved the world, Phillip. You do know that?”
He had never before wanted to scream at her. “You did that.” He answered, drily, still staring up at the ceiling. “I was just along for the ride.”
“I wouldn’t have been along for the ride either, if not for you.” Ziva answered. “You brought the world back from the brink, Phillip. I just finished what you started.”
Phillip closed his eyes. Pain for him had never been so deep, so pervasive. Not even what he could remember from the fire. “Why are you here, Ziva?” He bit out. “Did you really come just to give me a pep talk?”
“Aethlinn told me you were hurting, and I…” Ziva’s form looked down at her hands, and she seemed to fumble a little. “…no,” she admitted, the moonlight glowing on her throat. “I wanted… I needed to see you, be sure you were all right, but… I wanted to talk to you… I…” She looked up, “…I… missed you.”
Phillip nearly groaned. There was something uniquely awful and twisted about this whole situation. Why? Why tell him this now, when she was the Chosen One, when things were more impossible than ever? He ground his teeth, and his hands balled into fists on the sheet.
“I couldn’t help myself.” Ziva spoke quickly, clearly nervous. “I never can. I mean, usually I can… I’m usually pretty… in control. Just… with you, it’s just… I mean, I didn’t even realize what I was doing, when you caught on fire. And just now, I…I mean, I was just walking around in the garden, after Aethlinn left me with your message, and I saw the horse in the stables, and I thought… And I thought… I mean, I wanted to… I didn’t think…”
Phillip couldn’t take it any more. “Ziva, please…” he said, turning to face her.
Something seemed to loosen in her face at the sight of him. “Oh, screw it.” She moaned, and suddenly dipped forward toward him, quickly and desperately cupping his head in her hands.
And she kissed him.
It was a gentle kiss, light and nervous, grazing the uneven surface of his scarred lips and leaving it tender. Slowly Ziva broke it, and slowly she pulled back, her eyes flitting over his face, searching anxiously for a sign.
Phillip couldn’t answer. Phillip couldn’t speak. He didn’t even think he could blink. But Ziva must have seen a sign, regardless, because her cheeks began to dimple in a shy smile.
“But…” Philip’s mind could only grasp, stupidly, on one point, “the prophecy…?”
“Oh, that.” Ziva said, the shy smile broadening. “Turns out, the word ought to be translated as ‘charity.’”
About the Author
Afalstein JD Kloosterman is a sometime teacher, sometime writer, from the great state of Texas. He mainly writes fantasy, but also dabbles in sci-fi and fanfiction, and is currently working on a steampunk novel due sometime this coming fall. He especially loves stories that focus on the side characters, the people who don’t get to be the heroes, as he thinks they have stories just as interesting. Follow him online or on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist in multiple categories including Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid.
His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
He co-owns Escape Artists and hosts their horror podcast, PseudoPod, along with the Hugo Award nominated science fiction podcast, Escape Pod. He is a frequent guest and presenter on podcasts, with voice acting credits including winning the 2020 Audioverse Award for his work on the The Magnus Archives.
His second collection of expanded essays from PseudoPod, The PseudoPod Tapes Volume 2: Approach with Caution, is available from Fox Spirit Books.