November 18th, 2013 • Avigdell
“I’m goin’,” Falient told Lask at breakfast. “Today.”
“I knew it would not be long,” Lask replied. A mere week ago, they had discovered Falient’s Light-given weapon was not, in fact, lost to him. Since the Library revealed its location, Falient was determined to go after it. Lask would not stop him. Instead, he asked, “Shall I go with you?”
“Aye,” said Falient. “At least as far as you can. I must go down into the fog alone.”
“Very well. Do you know where the place is? Can you find it in your mind?”
“Then I can draw us a door there. We will go at noon. I suggest you take the morning to prepare yourself, get your mind in the right place.”
Falient nodded and went to be alone. While he was gone, Lask told Wyatt of his plan, and asked the gunslinger stay behind.
“I have a feeling we may need someone to receive us when we get back,” he told Wyatt. “We walk into much danger, and I do not think Falient will get his saber back without bloodshed.”
Wyatt nodded, understanding.
When noon came, Lask met Falient out in the field. He had considered using the door in the saferoom below the castle, but decided if they were somehow pursued, it would be better for the door to open directly into the bright sun of Avigdell, which would kill any Darkness immediately. And, in the back of Lask’s mind, he had a feeling one or both of them would return wounded, and it would be a long climb back up the tower steps if that were so. When Falient came to him, Lask asked,
“Is there anything you need before we set out?”
Falient drew a breath, pausing. His pistol hung on his hip, his coat was around him. There was nothing else he’d needed for most of his life, but he said, “Your blessing.”
Lask smiled. “You have it.” He reached out to the man across from him and slowly made the sign of the cross over him, brushing his fingers over Falient’s forehead, his heart, and each shoulder. As he did so, golden sparks drifted from his fingers, placing what wards he could as he spoke, “Go in the name of the Light, Falient. Go in grace, and go with courage. And in the name of the Great Light, may you come home to us.”
Falient bowed his head and nodded. Lask pulled free his key.
“Find Halgoddah in your mind,” he said, “Hold it fast.”
Falient closed his eyes, remembering the vast pit of Darkness he had stood above as a boy. Lask reached out and cupped his neck, pressing his fingers against the soft spot at the base of Falient’s skull and bowing his head to rest against his. Lask found the thought of Halgoddah and grabbed onto it with his mind, then knelt down, pressed his key into the ground and drew it upward, tracing a tall shape in the air, light lingering in the path of the key. When it reached the ground again, there was a flash of fire and Lask’s red door stood waiting. He slipped his key into the lock. Before opening the door, he looked to Falient, who nodded, drawing his pistol. Lask drew his sword, took a breath, and opened the door.
The two charged through it and Lask slammed it shut behind them. They stood ready on the other side, but there was no one beyond. After their eyes had swept the area, they relaxed a bit. The door still stood behind them, locked, but Lask did not wave it away. He knew they would need it to return.
They had emerged into a desolate, rocky landscape, devoid of color. Varying shades of grey were all around them, and the crimson flare of Lask’s cape seemed blinding against the colorless land. Falient blended in more, with his black coat and dark purple vest, but there was no one around to see them. The place was barren, craggy rocks and cliffs without even the twisted remains of plant life. The sky was dark, eternally clouded. Gaping before them was a vast gash in the land, a black canyon, a gorge that had been torn in the fabric of the universe when the Dark One fell. It lay before them like a waiting maw, rancid black fog obscuring its depths.
Falient moved first, stepping toward the pit with determined steps. Lask came behind him, eyes ever-roving over the land around them, hearing the ragged moaning of the wind over the rocks. This was a haunted place. Death and Darkness clung to every jagged line of the land and every grain of grit. It was Dark enough that Lask’s footsteps upon it were enough to send up hissing puffs of smoke and sparks, as if the land itself would not stand for the touch of his boots. There was no such smoke from Falient’s passing, though, as he approached the pit. He walked along the edge of it until he stopped.
“Here,” he said, eyes never leaving the dark fog that swirled just below his feet. “Here’s where m’father stood when he cast my saber in. It’ll be down there.” He gazed into the fog, jaw clenched. Lask laid a hand on his shoulder.
“You do not have to do this yet.”
“Yes I do,” said Falient. He turned his dark eyes up to Lask’s face. “Wait for me,” he told him, “For as long as you can, but don’ hesitate t’leave me if you have to. At the first sign of trouble, go.”
“I will not leave you,” replied Lask, reaching for him. “We will go home together.”
Lask squeezed his shoulder. Falient steeled himself and stepped to the very brink of the pit, holstered his pistol, and knelt.
“Go with the Light, Falient,” said Lask.
Falient gazed up at him, but said nothing more. He got a handhold on one of the jutting rocks, swung his leg over the edge, then began his descent. Lask stood like a bright sentinel on the edge of the darkness, and watched as Falient sank into it. In the span of a heartbeat, he disappeared into the fog. Lask knew he could not be more than five feet below, but already he was gone from view, swallowed in the blackness.
Things were clearer to Falient. He worked at a steady pace, finding footholds and handholds in the jagged side of the pit. He looked up to where Lask stood, but could tell the Luminor had already lost sight of him from the way his eyes moved and the concern on his face. The fog was thick, but Falient could still see through it. He did not know if it were his perspective in the pit, or the Dark blood in his veins.
The fog rolled around him, seeming to tug at his sleeves and the tail of his coat. As he climbed, he had the growing sensation of being watched. It was as if hundreds of tiny eyes, pinpricks of darkness, were fixed upon him, staring out of the fog and the stones. The air moved through the gorge, and the lower he climbed, the more it sounded like breathing, and the further he went, the more that breath seemed to be hissing words just beyond his hearing. He tried not to think of it, setting his mind toward home, toward the people he loved and who loved him.
“Remember love,” he whispered to himself, thinking of the Reader who had said it.
Falient glanced up, and could still make out Lask’s red shape on the edge above him. He turned his head, clinging to the rocks, and looked down. Horrible, featureless, darkness extended beneath him, plunging downward into the bowels of Hell itself. But then, he saw it. A frail glimmer of light not far below. He resumed his descent, heading for the pale glint with as much haste as he could muster on jagged cliff face.
Nearing it, he could see there was a tiny outcropping of stone. He shifted on the rock wall, sending a spray of gravel down into the blackness below. It seemed to fall forever and gave no sound. He stretched out a leg until he found a foothold on the outcropping, then eased down onto it, and turned on tiptoe. There was barely enough room for him on the jutting crag, but he didn’t mind a bit.
It was his saber. It had caught, pommel first in a crack of stone, so that its blade stuck out of the rock as if just waiting for Dark things to fall upon it. He shifted his feet, trying to determine how to reach the hilt on the narrow outcropping. All around him the fog swirled and he could feel its tendrils tugging at him.
You don’t need it…
For a moment, Falient thought he’d imagined the whisper, but then it came again, carried on the eerie breath of the pit.
You don’t need it. You have your pistol. What need do you have for a saber? You never needed it before.
Falient tried to ignore the voice. He steadying himself, then extended a hand toward the crack, releasing a bit of his magic. The purple smoke wound its way into the crack. He could feel the pommel of the saber there and tried to pull at it, but his magic could not hold it. A flicker caught Falient’s eye, and he looked up to see a shape in the fog. He started, almost losing his balance on the narrow ledge and having to scramble for a handhold to keep himself steady. His other hand had drawn his pistol in the blink of an eye, but he realized it was not some terrible denizen of the pit, but rather an image in the fog.
It was him. Falient saw the fog form into an image of himself. He was tattered and dirty, but it was not an unfamiliar state. He saw himself trailing a woman, saw himself level his pistol and heard the echo of its thunder as he shot her between the shoulders, heard her scream echo out of the pit up to him. He clenched his teeth. It’s not real, he told himself.
Yes it is… hissed the breathing air that swirled around him. It’s already happened. Surely you’ve not forgotten?
Another image formed in the fog, one Falient recognized instantly.
“No,” he said. He wanted to raise a hand over his eyes, but did not have one to spare. The fog shifted into the shape of two children, a boy and a girl. They were young Maculiens, bound to a twin brother and sister pair, ones he had trailed years ago to get to the Luminara who was bound to their vessels’ mother. He saw himself loom behind them. Falient turned his head away, but the fog just swirled the image around to be in front of his face. He had no choice but to watch himself grab the two young spirits and drag them into the Dark lands. There– Falient’s heart caught in his throat– he had impaled them on two iron hooks, threaded them through the heart like a worm for fish bait, and suspended them from a blackwood tree for their Luminara. The sound of her horrified, heart-wrenching cry rang out of the pit, assaulting his senses. She had come after them, of course, braving the Dark lands for them, only to find them hanging breaths from death and swaying in the stale wind. She had been easy to capture then. Falient reeled her in as easily as a trout in a shallow stream and handed her over to the Demons who’d hired him, where she’d been raped and beaten to death.
You did this, said the breath of the pit. You did this and countless things like it. Some fancy new clothes and pretty words are not going to change it. You did this.
More images swirled in the fog, men and women and children he had killed or captured. Some had been skinned alive, others boiled, cut apart slowly, drowned in black poison, raped and plundered to grow Darker and eviler things than before. How many he had ensnared and sent to fates worse than death!
You did this, breathed the fog. Does your new lord know this? Do the people who love you know? You haven’t told them. No one would love you if you had. You are a liar. A deceiver.
Falient looked up through the fog, seeing the distant crimson gleam of Lask above him.
You think you can be like him? You lie to yourself. You were born Dark and you will die Dark. You know what you are supposed to do to the likes of him.
Falient realized he had moved his arm, as if the fog had guided it, slowly aiming his pistol upward.
You could do it. Pull the trigger. He’d fall and never be seen again. You could open that door of his. You’re special. You can walk in the Light spaces. You could go through that door, and take it for yourself. Who could stop you? That Viatrian? You would crush him. You are strong. You would answer to no one. You’ve taken orders long enough. Shoot him, take what is his, and know what it’s like to rule, to be your own master. Demons would bow before you. There would be nothing that could not be yours.
Falient found himself sighting along the length of the pistol, squaring his aim on the red figure above. His hand shook as he tried to stop himself.
“Remember love,” he whispered.
Shoot, hissed the pit. Why should he have so much more than you? He’s spoiled, like all the Light. Never had to work for anything. You know what it’s like to survive. You’ve done your time. It’s time to reap the rewards. You’re ready, you’re powerful, and you could rule. You could be greater than Malstefin, than Mortherik, greater than Daleroth and Falgorath. You could be the one everyone serves, the one who defines what it means to be feared. Now is your chance, take it!
Falient could feel his finger tightening, could feel the fog pressing on his hand, but before the pistol could fire he wrenched his arm down and fired the shot down into the pit.
“SHUT UP!” he roared. “I’m not like you! I won’t be like you!”
You can’t escape the Dark in your blood.
Falient knew he had to get out of the pit, but he wouldn’t leave without the saber. It waited there, jammed in the stone, glinting in the last slivers of light from the surface.
“Remember love,” he growled to himself.
He got a lower grip on the wall and stretched, ducking around the blade. He could just reach the hilt. He strained, tugging at it with his fingers, but he could not get enough leverage from so far away. He needed to be closer, but there was no room to move on the narrow ledge, not with the blade pointing upward like a deadly beacon.
You want that thing? hissed the fog. How badly do you want it? Go ahead, stretch a little further. Slit your throat on it.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” snarled Falient.
More images swirled around him, nightmarish visions of blood and torture, and the voices of frightened children rang out of the pit toward him.
He shifted his feet as far as he could, leaning, straining to get a better grip on the hilt to pull it loose, but it was lodged in the crack and he just couldn’t get enough strength behind it to pull it free.
Poor boy, breathed the pit. This time the voice was familiar. It was the voice of Tiermond, the rough voice of his father. Unable to do what needs done, and can’t even get whatcha came for. What will your Light friends think? They don’t know you. They don’t know you’re a coward, but they will. You are a coward, and always have been, too concerned with savin’ your own skin. That’s why you’re a failure, why you’ll always be under someone else’s boot like I was.
“Shut up!” Falient snapped, but in his heart he feared the voice was right. He stared helplessly at the blade, his saber. He knew what he’d have to do if he wanted to be able to reach it like he needed to in order to free it.
You know you can’t do it, sneered Tiermond’s voice, It goes against everything that’s kept you alive. You’ve always been afraid of pain, afraid of makin’ yourself vulnerable. Don’t waste your time. You know you aren’t going to do it. Go ahead, crawl back to that Luminor up there. See how long you can stand livin’ in his service, knowin’ you could have had everything, but were too much of a coward to take it. The Dark is part of you, boy, and for that, the Dark will always win.
“You’re wrong,” Falient said through clenched teeth, shutting his eyes to block out the images in the fog, but it did not stop the endless voices of the ones he had killed or brought to their deaths.
There’s too much Dark in you. You’ve done too much. No matter what you do, you can’t erase those things. You’re fooling yourself if you think anything like you deserves to be loved.
“But I am loved. And there is Light in me too,” said Falient. “You’ll see.”
He studied the blade, lining it up, then grit his teeth, and leaned forward. The blade pierced into his right shoulder. Blood ran down the blade– black blood.
You see? whispered the pit. Dark. You’ll always be Dark.
Falient sucked in a breath and shifted his feet, getting a steadier footing, then leaned further. He cried out as the saber pierced through him, black blood streaming out of him. He slid down the length of it until he could wrap both hands around its hilt. His breath shook as he tightened his grip on it. He threw his weight back, wrenching it out of the rock to the sound of his own ragged scream.
For a moment he could only slump there on the outcropping, impaled on his own blade. He’d managed to move so that it wouldn’t pierce his heart, but it had pierced clean through his shoulder; he could hear the point of it scraping against the cliff face behind him. His hands and the front of him were slick with dark blood.
Now what? hissed the fog. You’ll never get out of here. And you shouldn’t. Look at that blood. Dark, like you. The Light was wrong about you.
“No, it wasn’t.”
Falient grimaced and hauled himself to his feet. He got a grip on the wall, and a foothold, then hauled himself up from the outcropping. A breathless groan rushed out of him, but he stretched up, getting another handhold. He began the ascent, every movement agony. He paused often, gasping against the wall. He could feel himself shaking, could feel the blood slicking his hands as he fumbled for grip as he climbed. He looked down, seeing the hilt sticking out of his shoulder, and below it was swirling, endless blackness.
Just let go. The pain will stop.
Falient grit his teeth and ignored the voice, pulling himself up further, little by little. He tried to shut out the cacophony of voices, the images running amok around him. It was as if every deed he’d ever done in the Dark’s service danced around him. He could feel himself getting dizzy, felt himself swaying against the wall.
Falient forced himself on, upward. He could see the red of Lask’s cloak above him, growing nearer with each tortured motion Falient managed, despite the visions clawing at his heels.
Falient had to stop, clinging to the stone with blood-slicked fingers, steadying himself, gasping, leaning against the wall. He looked down and saw the hilt was spattered with red. He managed to reach one hand up to the wound and his fingers came away crimson. Red blood, he thought, The Dark doesn’t bleed red.
“You’re wrong,” he whispered. “You’ve only ever tricked me.”
Fall! roared the pit.
Falient hauled himself higher, crying out as the white-hot agony shot through him. Onward he climbed, inch by torturous inch, until he heard, as if from a dream, Lask’s voice. He could not discern his words, but he realized there was a pristine white hand stretching down toward him. He wanted to grab for it, but he could not seem to let go of the wall.
Lask had climbed over the edge of the pit at the sound of Falient’s scream. He did not know how far down he had gone, but Falient came into view, clambering up the side of the pit, with his own saber stuck through his shoulder. Lask reached for him, but Falient did not reach back.
“No,” Falient snarled, “No! You’re wrong!”
The Dark was talking to him, tormenting him, Lask realized. He could hear no voice, but it was clear something was roaring in Falient’s head. Lask blazed then, fires flaring to life all around him, and he shot a great burst of light and fire into the pit, searing through the fog and the blackness. Falient scrambled, startled in his daze. He swayed back from the wall, but Lask’s hand shot out and knotted in the front of his shirt, hauling him up.
“Come on!” the Alcanoren roared. “You’re nearly there.”
One of Falient’s hands twisted in the cloak at Lask’s shoulder, and he pulled himself up alongside him. Lask put an arm around him and half-dragged him upward. The two climbed together, Falient gasping, panting, slicked in blood and cold sweat. Lask’s fire wrapped around them both, keeping the fog back. The blackness sizzled and smoked around them, but they climbed on, until Lask could throw a leg up over the edge. He hauled Falient up, practically throwing him out of the pit onto the flat, ashy ground beyond. Falient cried out as he fell, and Lask pulled himself up beside him. For a moment they were still, panting, until a shrill scream cut through the stillness.
Falient groaned at the same moment Lask growled, “Runners.” He knew their presence would not go undetected, especially with the bright flare he had made in the pit, but he knew they could not afford a fight.
Lask was on his feet in a moment, snarling,
“Come on. Get up.”
He reached down and hauled Falient to his feet. The two staggered toward the waiting door, Lask reaching for his key instead of his sword. Falient managed to draw his pistol, and as Lask slipped his key into the lock, Falient leveled and shot the first Runner that appeared over the crags nearby.
Lask flung the door open. He shoved Falient through it and followed in an instant. They burst into the blinding sun and color of Avigdell. Lask slammed the door shut and it vanished in a swirl of smoke and ash. He turned to see Falient collapsed in the grass, shivering and gasping.
“Wyatt!” roared Lask, voice echoing over the island. He knelt beside Falient and gathered him as best he could.
The gunslinger came running, kneeling beside them. “Good god,” he exclaimed, “What–?”
“We’ll ask later,” said Lask. “Help me carry him.”
They hefted the near-delirious Falient between them and carried him toward Del Sayronet. Wyatt heaved the door open with a shoulder and they stumbled down the hall to the nearest doorway. Lask shifted his grip on Falient enough he could put his key in the door and shove it open. They carried Falient into the infirmary and laid him on the nearest bed, on his side.
“Water,” Lask said to Wyatt.
The gunslinger went to the counter and grabbed a bowl, thrust his hand into it and rained shining blue droplets from his fingers, filling it with water. Lask brushed Falient’s hair back from his face and said,
“May I?” he motioned at the saber stuck through his shoulder. Even in such dire circumstances, Lask would not do him the insult of touching his Light-given weapon without permission.
“Do it,” Falient growled, “Take it out.”
Lask nodded, got a grip on the hilt of the saber, and in one swift, smooth stroke, wrenched it out of Falient.
Falient screamed, a deafening, harsh cry. Lask shoved him over onto his back, and handed him the saber. Falient cradled it against his unhurt side like a child. Lask ripped his vest and shirt open, revealing the wound in his shoulder, welling with bright crimson blood. He reached out to Wyatt, who handed him the bowl of water. Lask poured it into the wound. The water hissed through Falient’s flesh, blue sparks leaping across his skin. As it seeped through, Lask raised his hand and set it alight, fire blazing around his fingers and palm. Wyatt took a step back, for he knew it was more than the usual fire Lask summoned around them. Falient knew it too, and his eyes widened as he saw the cuff of Lask’s coat being eaten away in the flames, the fine embroidery curling away as white ash.
“No,” he gasped, “No, don’t—!”
Lask did not heed him. He shoved his hand down onto Falient’s shoulder, his burning fingers piercing into the wound. Falient screamed anew as the fire sizzled in his blood, cauterizing the wound. There was a blinding flash of light and Falient’s scream rose higher, the light flared, then vanished like a flash of lightning.
Falient had passed out and lay slumped in the bed. Lask let out the breath he’d been holding in a tired sigh, and removed his hand, the fire gone. Falient’s shoulder was bright red, blistered in places, but the wound was gone. In its place, gleaming through the burns, was a bright white scar, the same one that Lask bore over his heart, and Wyatt on his hand. The new mark overlaid the old jagged scar that twisted around Falient’s arm and shoulder.
Lask stepped back from the bed, and Wyatt placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Suppose he’ll be alright?” the gunslinger inquired.
“Yes. He will need time to heal, but he will live, and live well.” Lask smiled.
“Whatever test he faced today,” Wyatt remarked, “Looks like he passed.”