“Prepare! Prepare!” The squeal came from behind Philip, and then above him. “He comes today. He comes to return that which is due.”
Philip’s hands shot over his head. A snap of air rushed up the back of his neck. A few strands of hair were plucked form his scalp. The tiny thing had flown in through the window. It had come in right behind him, filling the room with the sound of frantic wings and a smell like that of boiled ham left on the stove for too long.
“The Korgun comes today.” The thing was moving up in the rafters now. Its voice came from right above him, and then from near the door. “Surely you have been waiting for this day when you can take back that which is yours, when the Korgun shall return that which he took so long ago.”
Blood rushed to Philip’s head. He held his breath for a moment before forcing it back out through his nose, and then set his chisel back on the table, taking care to put it in the exact spot where it belonged so that he could retrieve it again when needed.
“The Korgun? You are mistaken.”
The thing flew down to the table, landing with a great clattering. “Yes, the Korgun. He comes today to give a blind man back his sight.”
Philip closed his hand over the misshapen lump of wood that had just started to take shape, massaging shallow grooves that needed more time with the chisel. “But I sent word to the Korgun. I sent notice that our arrangement should be final.”
The thing seemed to almost tiptoe up to him, making a tack-tack-tack noise on the table. Tools rolled across the tabletop. One fell over the side, toppling to the floor. “You have no choice, human. Such things were decided long ago.”
Philip bent to retrieve the tool, wondering how long it would take to get them all back in their proper place. The smell of the creature almost overpowered him, wiping out the warm sweet scent of wood shavings that he never got completely off the floor no matter how often he swept. “Well, he has wasted his time then. He need not have made the journey here.”
As if on cue, there came a loud rap at the door, a firm knock that echoed into the room and was quickly followed by two short taps.
“You had best answer.” The thing seemed to be grooming itself now, each word was punctuated with a wet sucking sound. “The Korgun does not wait.”
Philip wanted nothing of the sort, yet still he rose from his chair. He moved across the room if for no other reason than to put some distance between himself and this flying thing. His feet felt each familiar dip in the floor, shuffling over uneven floorboards with practiced precision. Was it really so simple for the Korgun to return his sight? The thought filled him with excitement, but he pushed it away. No. He would live out the few years he had left as he had so many of those that came before.
Another sharp knock came at the door. Philip reached out for the brass doorknob, and stopped. He could feel the Korgun on the other side of the door, his presence as certain as the cold brass in Philip’s hand. The thing making such a racket over by his tools had not been lying. A vision of the Korgun from their first encounter exploded in his head, those long spindly legs, those enormous ears that each swiveled independently of the other, the line of bone that popped out through brittle skin down the length of his back. And the gaping sockets, the flaps of skin that showed the only thing the Korgun would accept in a wager.
Philip swung the door open.
“Otis,” the Korgun said, stepping around Philip into the house. His cane thunked out on the floor in front of him. “I told you to wait outside.”
The flying thing clacked across the table. “But the Korgun must be announced. The way for the Korgun must be prepared.”
“No, you are not to interfere this time.” The Korgun’s voice was like two rough stones being scraped together. “I apologize. Otis came to me in a wager a few years gone now, a lost wager, and he has been a tad overeager about the business ever since.”
“It was a fine wager,” the flying thing called out. “A fine wager indeed that brought me into the service of the Korgun.”
Philip said nothing. He just stood there, stock still, thinking that he should have invested in a screen for his window as he had so often planned. A ridiculous thought, as if a screen could have kept the Korgun out of this house.
“How quickly time passes, yes?” The Korgun moved deeper into the house. “But all good things must end, all things expire.”
Philip took a step back. In some ways it felt like an eternity, but in others only yesterday. The memories were spotty. They didn’t fit together quite right. He had been a fool, that much Philip remembered. He had sought out the Korgun for a wager. And lost. Fame and fortune. His desires had been so simple then. And all the Korgun had asked that Philip wager in return were his eyes. Not forever. No. Only for 50 years. A simple loan. And now this. The mere idea of the world opening up before him again, the mere thought of such independence. He could dismiss the boy who ran small errands for him, the one who spoke with such condescension, but again Philip rejected the thought.
“No,” Philip said. “I don’t want them.”
“Come, come,” the Korgun said. “Don’t be ridiculous. Things cannot be changed now. All must be fulfilled as it was originally ordained.”
Philip swallowed, resisting the urge to laugh. He had been left blind and penniless. It had taken him three days just to find his way out of the forest. And it was during those three days that he came to understand what he had truly wanted. It had never been about the wealth itself. It had always been about Emily. She was all he had thought of during those three long days. Philip had been certain that without the right amount of gold in his pocket, Emily would never become his wife. The daughter of a wealthy merchant could never marry a pauper. How horribly he had underestimated her. It was the thought of Emily that had kept him going until he emerged on a dirt road near the outskirts of the village–bruised and scratched, but alive.
“I should never have visited you that first time,” Philip said.
“Few should wager with the Korgun.”
“No, you don’t understand. In the end, it all worked out. Once I understood what I wanted. It all came to me, even after our lost wager.”
“The stone has a way of doing such things.”
Philip forced back a smile. Emily had come trundling into the house once she heard of his condition. She dropped bandages in his lap, then went out back to chop wood to get the house heated once again. She allowed no time for self pity, and just one year later married him. Philip never told a soul about the Korgun. He claimed that an eagle attacked him in the forest, tore out his eyes and left him nearly dead. Deep down he knew that Emily never believed him.
“I wanted to tell her. I wanted to come clean even before the wedding, but I always pushed it off until the next day, and then the next.” Philip’s voice trailed. Years passed, and then decades, until it was too late. “I don’t deserve my sight back. Why should things get easier for me now? Not after I made things so difficult for her, not after I made our life so much harder than it needed to be.”
“You have no choice in the matter.”
Otis flew back up over Philip’s head. His tinny voice came down from above them. “The stone is set. You must do as it commands.”
And with that the Korgun was upon him. Long fingers bent over his shoulder, cementing him to that spot on the floor as the Korgun pressed up against him. Wet skin–like sandpaper–pushed under his chin. The Korgun snarled, a guttural noise that seemed to build up in some other world before coming through him. Philip’s knees went limp. The Korgun held him up as he brought something against Philip’s face. The pressure on his skull was almost unbearable, until there was a sucking sound and the pain began to evaporate. The Korgun hopped back, landing on the floor a few feet in front of Philip.
“It is done.” Otis still fluttered above. “The eyes have been returned to their rightful owner.”
It was dim at first. Philip blinked, a ponderous motion. He opened his eyes, looking out through a haze before closing them again. The pressure in his head faded. He blinked once more, opening his eyes slowly, taking in the room. It had been such a long time, such a terribly long time.
The house was not how he expected it would look. The paint was gray, though it had been turquoise at one time. Emily had always loved that color. It must have faded to this dull gray since. Sunlight cut in through the open window, billowing light far too ornate for this space. It cast a dull glow over the Korgun, who now stood with his back to Philip. “I never wanted any of this. I hope you understand. I would have much preferred to have granted your wish, and been done with it.”
The Korgun had aged since their last encounter. His skin didn’t shine as brightly. The tuft of hair that sprouted between his ears was dull and brittle. Only his leather pouch looked the same, worn calfskin with that long strap that snaked over the Korgun’s neck.
“But you still took my eyes,” Philip said. “Once I lost, you still took them.”
“You chose your wager. It was your decision, Philip, not mine.”
“After all that has happened, it would be so much better if you had just kept the eyes,” Philip said. “I have not missed them nearly as much as I feared.”
The flying thing came down from the ceiling. Its wings fluttered as it struggled to gain a foothold on the edge of the table. “A wager! A wager! We can have ourselves a new wager.”
The Korgun turned to face Otis. His huge ears swiveled first and then the rest of his head followed.
“No, our business here is finished.”
“But you could take his eyes. You could have your eyes back.”
“What would I want with such things. They are old, and will soon be useless.”
“You could borrow them until we find new eyes. You could use them until we find fresh eyes for the Korgun.”
“It would never work. Philip must wager something that he values, something he holds dear, and it is apparent that this is no longer the case for his eyes.”
“There is this house,” the little thing squeaked. “He must value this house.”
The Korgun stopped. He stood rigid by the door.
“We could wait here, Korgun. The eyes would come to us,” Otis continued. “The eyes would get here once the stone knew they were ready, and then you would not need to stumble about blind in search of new eyes.”
“That is preposterous,” the Korgun said, his voice like gravel. “I have been blind for centuries. I have made use of countless eyes.” But there was something else that inhabited the Korgun now, like he was too exhausted to even make it out of the house with his cane pounding the way in front of him.
Otis flew up to the window and perched next to the crooked stick that held it open. He pushed his chest out, a mass of bristling orange fur. “He is a terrible Korgun, I tell you. He never wants to wager. He never wants to do any of the business that he is meant to do.”
Philip looked from one of them to the other, not quite sure who was in charge, and then past them to the dusty corners of the house. It was all so distant from the home it had been just a few hours earlier. They had collected a life together here–the two of them. Her scent was in the wood shavings that gathered under his chair. She was in the nails that held the walls together. She spoke through the floorboards that groaned whenever he moved over them. Or so he had always told himself. But now that he could see it all again, it only reminded him of how much time had passed. It only spoke volumes of how she was not here.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “If I need to wager this house, then so be it.”
“Come now, this is ridiculous. We have no idea what you even desire. You’ve said nothing of what you would want from this wager.” As the Korgun spoke, his hand moved almost instinctively to the leather pouch.
“The same thing as last time,” Philip said. “I want Emily Stewart.”
The Korgun curled his fingers over the top of the pouch, pulling down so that its strap went taught around his neck. “This makes no sense. Who is this woman?”
“She was my wife. She passed a few years gone now.”
“That is preposterous.” The Korgun made a clicking sound in the back of his throat. “The stone holds much power, but there are limits to what it may do. Even the stone cannot bring anything back from the realm of the dead.”
“How do you know, Korgun?” Otis trotted a couple of steps closer to him, still perched on the windowsill.
“Otis, enough.” The Korgun’s empty eye sockets seemed to focus on some distant corner of the room. “The first time I could have granted your wish, Philip. Wealth is the easiest of all things to obtain in this world. Love far more precious. Yet so many ask for the former, and so few the latter.”
“Be reasonable, human.” Otis called out. “Surely there is something else, some other thing in this world that you desire above all else.”
“If this Emily is gone,” the Korgun said. “If she has passed through to the other side, she is well and truly no longer part of this world.”
Philip sank into the chair. Their time together had been far too limited. He had always assumed that he would be the first to go, but even that proved him wrong. He could see everything in this house now, all of it right here, except her. “You don’t understand. It’s not her that I want. I know her so well, her smell, the feel of her hair, the sound of her laugh, but I only know her face from the beginning. I only know what her eyes looked like from when we first met, from before it all. I want to know all of Emily as she grew old beside me.”
“Oh, that is a simple thing,” Otis screeched. “That is a teensy thing for the Korgun.”
All of the air went out of the Korgun at once. “Very well then, if you insist on pursuing this, then fine. But you understand, Philip. If you lose this time you will be cast out of this house. There is no undoing it once the stone has spoken.”
“I of all people understand what it means to lose to the Korgun.” But as the memory of their first wager flooded through Philip, an idea started to form in his head. This time would be different. He could feel it. There was something about the way the Korgun looked so beaten down by time and his travels, something about how Otis may as well have had him on a leash, that told him this time things would never turn out as poorly as they had the first time.
“It will be good for the Korgun to have a house,” Otis said. “It will be good to have a base of operations, a nice little house, like this one.”
“Let’s get this over with,” Philip said.
Otis flapped his wings, hanging on the edge of the windowsill. “A wager! A wager! We shall have ourselves a teensy wager.”
The Korgun too seemed anxious to be done with it. He stood in the middle of the room. Thick eyelids closed over hollow eye sockets. Thin eyebrows arched down his forehead as his hand emerged from the leather pouch. In it, he gripped a red stone. It shone from within, shimmering ruby that cast the shadow of his fingers over the wall.
“You must pick a number.” The Korgun held the stone out, pinching it between his thumb and index finger. A low hum vibrated through it as the Korgun twirled the stone. One side of it flashed over the top after another, flat edges with an elegant script carved into them. They radiated scarlet, numbers etched in an archaic form.
Philip knew instantly what he must do. The image of the Korgun spoke volumes, standing there with his eyes pinched shut and his hand holding the stone out as if it might jump up and smack him. It was simple. The plan hatched fully formed in Philip’s brain, as if the stone itself had thrust it at him. The number didn’t matter. There was no chance here. This could not go wrong. If Philip understood, that is. Philip could control it, if he did what he should have done from the beginning.
“One,” Philip said. “I choose one.”
“One? Out of all the numbers he picks one?” Otis’s voice rose until it sounded like a wooden peg being screwed into a hole too small for it.
“It has as much of a chance as any other number,” Philip said.
The Korgun brought the stone back down to his chest. A rusty glare trickled up through his chin and sunken cheeks. “But it has only come up once before, many years ago. In all my time as Korgun, that number has come up only once.”
“Then it must be due.”
The Korgun sniffed, pausing as if he sensed something wasn’t quite right. “This did not go well for you before, Philip. You lost so much.”
“Then it can only go better this time.”
The Korgun clacked his mouth shut. His fingers folded over the stone, encasing it in his fist so that a blood red glow pulsed through sinew and bone.
“It begins, and so our wager begins,” Otis said in a low voice.
The Korgun started to hum, a low sound that vibrated through him. He rattled the stone, shaking his arms as his eyes closed yet tighter. His nose twitched. His hands rose over his head, then fell to his side only to swing up and over his head again. The Korgun moved his fist in a steady circle, a twirling motion that grew brighter as it grew wider. The stone knocked against bone. A red circle trailed after his hands, blurring to a haze that reached out above him. Until all at once the Korgun’s hands stopped, halted in the midst of the fading circle. The stone was at the very center of it all, buried between the Korgun’s hands as it grew ever brighter.
The Korgun held his hands still for only a moment, before they burst apart. They flew away from each other as if propelled by a small explosion. The stone hung there, suspended in the air. It swirled one way, and then another. Glimmering numbers climbed over its surface, filling the room with brilliant light.
“Ooooh, it is so pretty,” Otis said. “Always so pretty before it falls.”
Which was all the cue that Philip needed.
He thrust one elbow out toward Otis, connecting with a rush of orange fur so that Otis went skittering off the window ledge. Philip yanked the stick out that held the window open. It flapped shut. Otis flew up against the outside of the closed window, ramming it with such force that it was a wonder the glass didn’t shatter.
But Philip was no longer concerned with Otis. With his other hand, he plucked the stone out of the air. His fingers tingled. The bumps that marked the numbers on each side were warm in his hand.
The Korgun twisted his face up. His ears swirled down to the floor. “What have you done? Why hasn’t it fallen?”
“I have it here,” Philip said.
“You took the stone.” It was a statement, not a question. The Korgun fastened long arms around his middle. His mouth bent up. “You have no idea what you have done then, no idea what follows.”
Philip flipped the stone over one last time, stopping when he found the side with a single dot burned into it. He crouched, easing his weight down to the floor with the stone held firm. He positioned it on one of the floorboards, half expecting the thing to flip over as soon as he released it. The Korgun was breathing above him, long and deep, as if he too was excited at the prospect of forcing the stone to cooperate.
The stone sat still for a moment before the red light within it began to fade. It trickled inside the stone like water flowing over rock. The stone sat on the floor–pristine and dark–until a single flare shot up from it. A strand of ivory light rose from the stone and twisted into the room.
“It cannot be undone,” the Korgun said. “It is all you now, Philip. It is only you.”
“I will remember though?”
“Yes, but so much more.”
It started slowly, a single memory swept over Philip. He could see himself as a child, standing outside his parent’s house, afraid to go back inside and face the consequences for having broken his mother’s favorite garden ornament. That solitary memory soon grew to a trickle. He was a young man, pushing long hair off his forehead–he had so much hair back then–before setting out to pick up Emily for their first date. Later, much later, lying in bed when the world was first black all around him. Except for her. She was in the armchair, singing to him while he pretended to be asleep so that she wouldn’t stop.
Soon enough the trickle gave way to a deluge, an avalanche of every last thing that had happened to Philip during his long years. He was at their wedding, the vision blending with his memory of the silky feel of her dress as they danced at the small reception. Later, in the kitchen, the two of them laughing–her face so full of joy–as he thrust her out of the way. She never could cook, that woman, would burn water if left alone amongst the pots for too long. Then later still, decades later, when she had first taken sick, when she had slept all day and protested drinking so much as a cup of broth. Her face was tranquil that day. She dozed so quietly that he thought she had passed on, until he felt her soft breath on his arm.
The memories poured through him. They grew darker, closing around him like burlap thrown over an oil lamp. He could see his shriveled state through the days that followed, the nights when he slept alone for the first time in decades and wondered how his life could have so easily unraveled. Every last detail paraded before him so that it was impossible to pick just one, whittle them down to a single memory. Philip cupped his hands over his ears, holding his head as if he could somehow slow it all down.
“You have it now,” the Korgun said. “You have all that you wagered for, and so much more.”
Otis bolted back into the room through the open doorway. He had flown clear around the house, batting his wings furiously to stay aloft. “It is one. That is not possible. It never comes up as one.”
“He took the stone,” the Korgun said.
“What?” Otis fluttered around the stone in a tight circle. “He cheated!”
“Yes, I’m afraid our time is done.”
“Him? No, not him.”
“Yes, it is him now. You belong with him.”
“But it is I who found you.”
“Otis, we do not choose our destinies. You of all creatures know this.”
Philip managed to quiet his mind just long enough to look up at the two of them. Otis flitted back and forth as if preparing to attack. The Korgun stood with an unmistakable air of lightness about him, no longer stooped as he had been just moments before, no longer groping across the floor for his next step.
He lifted the pouch, pulling the frayed cord over his neck. “I have waited a long time for this day, Philip, far longer than I ever would have thought when I first became the Korgun. You have lifted a terrible burden from me. A horrible burden, though you need not worry now. It feels quite the opposite in the beginning.”
Otis flew back over Philip’s head, gliding across the room before turning a sharp corner to come back at him again. “He cannot be the Korgun. I forbid it.”
“Yes, it is him now.” The creature dropped the pouch in front of Philip, draping it over one knee while Philip sat on the floor. “It is not often when one attempts what you did, far less common than you would think. This too is determined by the stone.”
“What are you talking about?” The words stuck in the back of Philip’s throat.
“You are the Korgun now,” Otis said. “You stupid man. No one ever catches the stone. It is not possible.”
“Oh, but it is Otis. There are very few who try, few indeed, and of those who try even fewer succeed. But it is possible. I myself was the last, so long ago that I no longer remember that for which I wagered, so long ago that whatever brought me to the Korgun has long since ceased to matter.”
And with that the creature leaned over and snatched the stone up from the floor. He gripped it in long, slender fingers, caressing it one last time before he placed it in Philip’s hand. Crimson light shot across Philip’s palm, highlighting blue veins. “It will feel strange at first, perhaps for many years, but you shall grow accustomed to it.”
Philip curled his fingers over the stone, locking it inside as his other hand felt for the pouch–soft leather that was still warm. The creature had turned to the door. The stick thrust out in front of him. It looked as if he was more likely to skip his next step than continue with that steady, methodical pace.
“But I keep the memories,” Philip said. “I can still see her, clear as day.”
The creature didn’t even turn back to face him. “Oh yes, all of them. Every last one.”
Otis flew over Philip’s head, taking up his post on the windowsill. He slathered loudly, preening the orange fur that ran down his front before finally shaking his head and hopping one step to the side.
“Let us go out today, Korgun, let us go out and find someone who needs your services. Surely there must be someone nearby who desires a wager.”
“Not today, Otis.”
Philip sat at his desk with the pouch draped over his knee. It was never far from him now, always in his lap or hanging from his shoulder. He picked up the familiar lump of wood and the smallest of his chisels, closing his eyes. His fingers ran over wood, flowing past each groove as the shape of the thing became clear in his mind, as the actual appearance of the block of wood faded and was replaced with the feel of it.
“Just a teensy wager. It has been so long, far too long for the Korgun.”
“They shall come to us in due time.”
“But that is what you said yesterday, Korgun, and the day before. That is what you have said for months now.”
“Because it is true.”
The image of her filtered back into Philips’s mind–the gentle curve of her nose, the arched cheekbones, the fine lines that had started to grow around her eyes that were set ever so slightly too far apart. He could almost touch her as his chisel set to work, shaving the area at the top of her nose until it was nearly perfect.
“But it has been so long Korgun, so long that the pretty stone has been locked away in that terrible bag. It may no longer know what to do.”
“It will know.”
“How will they know? How will they know that you are the new Korgun? And that the Korgun is here? In this tiny house?”
“They will know. Those who truly need the Korgun always know where to find him.”
And just as Philip said that he heard a knock at the door, a loud rapping with a certain insistence about it. Philip could feel the stone. He knew exactly where it was even with his eyes closed. He could sense it nestled down in the lower left corner of the pouch. It was calling to him, summoning him to employ its services once again.