Ok, before you go any further, go and read this first. It’s the first part of this story. You will want the context, trust me.
I know you shouldn’t say that to people, all the smartest marketing people will shout at me that I have now lost your attention, but somehow I don’t think so, because you are here with me for the story. And this… is the story of what follows directly after the instalment in that link up top.
The Aurus Mountains, Five Days before Turning
It is done. I wish I could end this account here, that those three words would suffice, but you will want to know how it was done and what was said. So, as you demand and need, here it is for you to read.
Walk with me.
The wind sings as it passes through the conical fingers of stone. I think of the stories about people who have heard proficiencies in the winds that blow across this high plateau.The sky is darkening. I find one of the entrances at the base of one of the stones. There may be other openings, other doors down. I only need this one. I take only a few of my possessions and tuck the rest away from any rain that might fall. I light my candle. Its tallow is grey and only I can see the light it casts. Not much light, a pale flickering sphere that shows just the next step I need to take. I go down.
The passage is wide enough for me to walk yet narrow enough to touch my shoulders. The bottom of the tunnel is smooth. Water has polished away the edges of the stone. There are no marks to guide me, no dirt to carry a footprint, but I know where to go. He will be in the deepest place he could reach, where the dark presses tight. I go down.
There is no riddle to the tunnels. Once they were natural, but people gave them their current structure. Who were those people? I do not know. I know little more than Obel and the people in the valleys. One of the things that I do know is what the people made the tunnels for: silence. Here, under the stone skin of the land there is true silence. There is darkness too, but the silence has substance. My foot catches on a ripple in the tunnel floor. A low clink sounds… and then is gone. The silence swallows it.
My candle burns lower. Ask me and I would say that hours have passed already, but the candle says it has been barely thirty minutes. I go on. With every step, the darkness and silence is more real than the stone that encloses it. I begin to wonder about how far these passages go. Is this place of brief echoes the real world, and is life as we know it the skin that gives it shape? For a while, I think that might be true.
I find the thing when the tunnels run out into a cavern. The space pulls at my sight. It’s not pleasant or friendly. The thing is burning his own candle. Its tallow is white, and I can see the flame’s light, but he cannot see mine, cannot see me step from the tunnel mouth, cannot see me draw the knife. He does not hear me.
He is old. His hair, once set in royal braids, is a mess of grey and white. There are folds and lines in his skin. He has a dark blue blanket around his shoulders. There is a rough fabric bag on the cave floor beside him, a flint, a striker. No food, though, nor water. Those absences remove any doubt from me.
I put my candle down on the floor and step from my light into his.
He does not run or seem surprised. He just looks up at me. His eyes are very dark. He nods once as though I am the confirmation of a theory he has been contemplating. He sees the blade in my hand.
‘You are one of Alucar’s,’ he says.
You would prefer that I did not answer. You would prefer that I had not stepped into the candle light. You would prefer a blow from the dark. But the way these next moments occur is not for you to decide.
‘Yes,’ I reply.
He nods. Tired. Resigned.
‘I was not involved, you know,’ he says.
‘Involvement is irrelevant.’
He nods again. He agrees, I think. Twice-Removed From Throne, Prince of Neelaan, His Highness Shial Mae-Ranul was not a simple monster. Like so many of them, his contribution to atrocity was by weakness, by omission, by complacency.
‘I am sorry,’ he says. ‘For what we brought about. I came here because… because I thought I could keep it away from…’ He bites his lip. ‘From people.’
‘No,’ I say, and shake my head. ‘It wasn’t you. It brought you here. This is an old place, a hollow place. What you are…it doesn’t want to keep people safe. It wants to be stronger. It came here to feed.’
He shakes his head then stops, blinks.
‘I want to say you are wrong, but I can’t,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where my thoughts end, and it’s begin…’
I should not reply. I have seen this enough to know that I am not talking to a living thing, that the words coming out of the mouth are just sounds that the hollowness within is piping through a mouth. I know that. I reply anyway.
‘There is nothing of you left, your highness. It is wearing your thoughts just like it is wearing your skin.’
‘I know,’ he says. Then his shape opens like a torn cloth.
He is hollow. Inside there is nothing. And that nothing billows out, swelling through the darkness. The candle flames shudder. The silence booms in my ears. I think then of my father, of the last time he saw me, and the end waiting for him that neither of us saw coming. I think of the dead fish washed up on the coast of a far shore, and the people picking through ghost tombs in search of a place to sleep in murdered city. All prices paid by others for the sins of a few. I think of the dagger in my hand. It’s a punch blade, leaf shaped. A gift.
The hollowness is all around me. It will end me, and once it is done it will take my skin and the shell of my life and wear it as a cloak. Then there will be two husks, down here in the dark. Healing. Growing. Then out they will go, into the lands of the living to peel skin from life and make it hollow. Of all the consequences that the high and mighty might have considered would come from their actions, I am certain they never dreamed of this. I feel sorry for them. I know I shouldn’t. I know that it will disappoint you, but still… I am sorry.
I speak a word. That will cost me. You can never be sure what the Script will take, but I think I won’t be able to remember tomorrow, once it has happened. A small price. Enough to prise the hollowness from my skin, enough that I can see the figure of the man with his arms out and his head split like a peeled fruit. I see the void howl from inside the space of his face. I stab. Not the strike of a dance, but the blow to end one.
Why does killing the body destroy the hollowness within? I do not know. Perhaps it needs the skin to hold it in the world, and the skin needs to think it’s alive to do that. Perhaps, at a certain point, reasons don’t matter. The dagger hits the figure in the chest, punches in and keeps going. My hand… for a second I cannot feel my hand. I am reaching into a bottomless dark. It feels like I will fall into the hole I have cut.
Then I can see again. I can feel. Candlelight feathers the dark around me. There is… a thing on the floor. It looks like a tangle of soft cloth. I do not check that anything remains inside it. Experience has taught me not to.
I leave. I climb up and out of that old and hollow place under the land. The night sky is clear when I emerge. I stop, and by the light of my candle, write you this. I will go north like Obel said to. I will find another traveller to carry this letter to you. I will go on. I will hope that you will not ask me to do this again. I know that hope is in vain.
Edited by Greg Smith