The key clicks as it twists in the lock, stone on metal and then, as the door swings open, metal through air, softer than silence. No thief is the girl who slips inside of the room beyond, no common rogue or crook, yet she walks like one. She looks like one as well, her face wan and thin, her skinny– more skinny than slender– bones framing a figure that no one would ever look at twice, or possibly even once.
The dark is completely gone in this room, the dank atmosphere of the surrounding dungeon obliterated by blindingly hot white lights. In the center of the room it lies, waiting for her. In fact, it sits there, cold and shivering in the dazzlement, blinking, too, putting its hands to its face. The girl, who is most certainly not a thief, looks around for the source of the light, ignoring the form, ignoring the way its ears perk up when it sees her. She finds the source at the top of the domed ceiling, and it looks back down at her, its blinding iris flaring white and red, making spots dance before her eyes. She would curse, but to curse brings bad luck.
She unhitches her bow from the hooks on the back. It’s a sleek, well-made yew bow, obviously material meant for a longbow than the short, tight composite it had been made into. Yew and horn, then, with a string of silk. She removes the string entirely, disdainfully, and stuffs it unceremoniously into a pouch at her side. The bow remains taut, even as she unstrings it, as though something invisible holds it in place, in position.
Whatever fey creature is providing light to this place, it would of course need to be slain in order for the lights to go out. To any watcher, the girl would seem strange as she puts two fingers together just under where the string would lie normally. An electric charge builds between them, creates an arc which forms a disc-shape of crackling blue. She grips the charge with those two fingers and, seems to use it like a pick for a guitar, strumming across the air as if it were an eight-stringed instrument instead of a one-stringed weapon.
She breathes in, breathes out. The noise the disc makes as it strikes thin air is something odd, like a twang perhaps, only backwards. Yes, the sound it makes is much more like ‘gnawt’.
Or perhaps gernawt. One can never be sure, with sounds.
The skinny girl stares up at the eye-thing in the ceiling. The crackling disk unravels in her hand and forms something much more like a bowstring, tying itself to either end of the bow in her grip. This she pulls back to her ear. She is taking careful aim, visibly sweating in the harsh white light, eyes scrunched up to avoid going blind. Her teeth sink into her lip.
When the strain looks as though it is fit to tear her muscles to shreds, she releases the crackling string. It snaps forward and out of existence in an instant, leaving her fingers clutching nothing. The whole bow shudders.
A moment later, the eye blinks. In the next, it explodes without mess, vaporizing entirely.
The light goes out, flooding the room with darkness.
The pathetic whimpering shape in the center of the room changes.
It gasps and sighs, standing, stretching in the dark, running thin hands over its skin in the shadow, hugging itself and smiling with white, white teeth as sharp as the horizon.
It regards the girl, then, as if noticing her for the first time. Its shape is ambiguous darkness, but its voice echoes with the essence of masculinity, thick and rich.
“You are late,” he observes. “A moment more and I would have been.”
The girl shrugs her shoulders and responds with a complicated series of hand movements.
The shadowy figure rolls his eyes. “Whatever. What do you desire?”
More gestures follow, a sweeping movement, a pointed finger upward.
“I can’t. You know I can’t, we’re standing inside of a compound built to house djinn. If I could wish us out of here, I would.”
The girl grimaces, sighs soundlessly, and rubs her stomach instead, tilting her head.
“Well, what do you want?” the figure asks petulantly. “Don’t be so vague, Rose.”
If Rose is the girl’s name, she gives no indication of it. Instead she brings her hand up and forms a complicated set of symbols with it, holding the bow with her other hand.
“A hamburger,” the shadow replies flatly. “You want a hamburger.”
If a hand could nod, the girl’s hand does, clenched into a fist, rocking down and up once, sharply.
Presently, two slices of bread and a thin slab of raw meat appear from thin air, slapped together haphazardly.
The girl sighs again and rolls her eyes. In the dark it must be hard to make out.
She reaches out, though, in an unmistakably demanding gesture. The shadow hands her the makeshift sandwich.
“Best I can do,” he says hollowly, as she stares at him. “The field is interfering with all of my abilities, not just those that would facilitate our escape.”
Rose, if that is truly her name, seems to ponder this for a few moments. Then she nods reluctantly, lifting a hand. Now she speaks, and only now, her voice echoing with an overlay unfathomable. The single word that springs forth from her lips is the essence of what it describes: “Heat.” The temperature of the air suddenly chars the sandwich and meat both, flashing the water and blood contained in the meat to steam all at once. The effect is only somewhat explosive, and at least the meat winds up cooked.
The girl stifles a yelp, forcing it down as droplets of burning grease splash her bare hands and arms. Then, heedless of the hot fat and the threat of a burned tongue, she devours the whole thing ravenously, greedily. Only when she licks her fingers clean does the ache in her belly end.
“Finished?” the shadowy figure asks in his rich, velvet voice.
She nods, and he offers a hand.
The girl named Rose takes it, fingers wrapped around his. They are freezing cold, but she doesn’t care.
“What would you do without me?” he asks, as she turns away. Then he smiles, a smile all for himself. “No, don’t answer that. I already know.”
She straps the strange bow to her back rather than keep it in her grip. She doesn’t feel that it’ll be much use even as the two of them step out of that darkened room and into the greater depths of the dungeon beyond.
A terrible rumble sounds out.
The noise comes from above them, the moment they step beyond the doorway. It booms and echoes around them. Rose doesn’t seem perturbed, but the figure stops dead in his tracks and looks up. He scans the stone ceiling for a few precious moments, while Rose looks at his face and then up at the ceiling as well.
There is nothing there but shadows and dust. Whatever it is that her companion is searching for, he doesn’t seem to find it. He shakes his head.
“It was nothing. Just a noise.”
Rose shrugs, and the pair move forward again.
They follow a path that winds its way deeper into the darkness, a path paved with bones of all manner of shapes and sizes. Spines, skulls, leg bones and hips. Toes and fingers reach up from the ground in ghastly ivory or sepia.
All of them are still, but it seems to unsettle Rose. She checks her strides so as not to get too far ahead of the figure.
A time passes. The bones make horrible crunching noises when stepped on, brittle with age and dust. Clouds of acrid powder arise with every footfall, wavering in the dark and disappearing. There is very little light– what tiny bit there is seems to sway in Rose’s sight as she leads the shadow of a man onward.
Every skeleton, whole or broken, has one crucial thing in common. Every skeleton is clean of skin or hair or nail. Just bone, just dirty ivory.
Just bone, and the smell of it, the scent of it, like old death. It makes the wispy tendrils of hair on the figure’s arms and legs, on his neck and back stand on end. He feels each crunch as a thunderclap, rolling up through his body.
“Rose,” he hisses. Then, cursing, he taps her on the shoulder to get her attention. When she turns, he says it again. “Rose!”
She signs something dismissive and is about to turn away when he starts talking again.
“We’re making too much noise. The whole dungeon will be up around us!” His voice is low and urgent.
Rose, who can’t hear him, stares at his lips for a few moments, then nods. She signs her assessment of the situation: Enemies. Many. She rubs her hands, first her left, then her right, kisses her palm and brings it up close to her ear, tilting her head questioningly.
“I do not know. Enough to know where we are,” he says with a quiet sigh. “Look, can we stop and think for a second? The Master could be along any moment. Or Keith. Do you really want to deal with them?”
Rose makes an expression like a silent derisive snort, face scrunched up. She shakes her head. No.
Shadow, for that is who he is, sticks his hands in his pockets. The pair of them stand in the eerie not-light where it emanates from the wall-fungus and the ceiling-fungus in the dungeon. The magical illumination is frightening and grimy, flooding everything in shades of grey and casting shadows where they shouldn’t fall.
“I never got to see Amy again,” Shadow says quietly. “Before they put me down here.”
Rose doesn’t answer or sign that she understands, staring at her hands.
“I know he’s sorry,” Shadow murmurs, though he knows Rose can’t hear him. “For what he did to you. Hell, after that, any man’d be sorry.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” a voice echoes down around the pair. Shadow looks up and around, searching the ceiling again, then around in all directions.
“Who said that?” he asks cautiously, stepping closer to Rose. “Hello?”
The reply seems to come from directly behind him.
“I did,” it says quietly. He turns to see Lyonel standing there, clad in full silver plate, a golden, glowing sword trapped in one fist. “It wasn’t Amy’s fault the hellspawned witch didn’t know her true nature until after she bed him. Why should he be sorry at all? Oh, and I’ve been sent down here to kill you or die trying.”
Shadow leaps forward, teeth bared in a feral grin. “If that’s the conditio–“
Lyonel lifts that sword and directs a thick golden burst- like liquid light. Where it passes, there is nothing left of Shadow at all. Tendrils of blackness coil away from where he once stood, twisting this way and that.
The sword speaks, resonating in a voice like scratched metal. It carries hints of mechanical reproach. “You didn’t need to do that, you know.”
Lyonel affects a noncommittal shrug.
He lifts the sword and points its tip at Rose, who can only stand there, dumbstruck.
“You. Witch,” he says, exaggerating each sound. “Come. With. Me.”
Rose speaks a word, slick, sleek and black as tar, in a voice that drips with scorn: “Darkness.”
Rose disappears. For Lyonel, so does the world around him.
“Oh,” he says calmly, into the sudden enveloping velvet. “Well then.”
“Probably should have seen that coming,” his sword hums.
“Probably,” he says, and sighs.
The crunching of little feet pattering away sounds out as the darkness echoes around him, mocking and empty of his quarry.
Tears draw burning tracks down Rose’s cheeks. Her breath comes out silently still, but heaving. She doesn’t know how far she’s run. Or how much further she has to run now, in order to escape Lyonel.
Her mind revisits Shadow’s destruction, the way the djinn had disintegrated before her eyes. It had happened in an instant.
The silence of the world around her– not so much as a vibration in the air– would make anyone claustrophobic, but Rose doesn’t even understand it. Instead she feels as though she must run, and keep running.
A dagger tweaks her side with every breath in. Her feet still pound the myriad bones of the path, her eyes squeezed shut sometimes, open wide to check for pursuit others, panting without sound, trying to ignore the pain in her feet and the ache in her chest.
In her own silent world, she knows and hears nothing of Lyonel, who walks blindly in the dark after her. In her own silent world, she is completely isolated. The soft not-glow of the fungi on the path before her worries her– she could be attacked by a spore stalker at any moment, or worse things hiding in the darkness. Shadow is not here to help her, and her bow is next to no use in the dark.
Eventually the ivory pathway turns, and there is a tiny alcove– cavern and fungi together forming a crevice away from the bones. It isn’t immediately obvious even to her, but she dismisses it anyway and pushes on.
The pathway ends before her, taking a sudden drop, a hillside that at first seems to disappear into unnatural darkness. There is stone beyond it, though. It’s not even three feet down to the grey rock, and the floor, curiously flat, extends on into the black.
Rose pauses at the edge, staring down at the too-smooth dungeon floor, at its wide, expansive edges, girded by more bones and walls. A prickling feeling makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
Carefully, she reaches down and selects a skull from the path of bone under her feet. Moving slowly, she rolls it down the deep slope, watching it bounce until it reaches the stone.
Stone parts, accepts, and swallows the skull with a terrible crunch. Rose can’t hear it, of course, but she understands all too well what living stone does to those unfortunate enough to tread upon it.
Shivering, she straightens and looks back up the path. In the dark she can swear she still sees a flash of gold. Lyonel must be chasing her. This is the end of the pathway….
Even if she hides in the little alcove, in that tiny little crevice, there is no way he will just pass her by…
She stops, barely daring to hope.
She reaches into the inside pocket of her dark cloak and takes out a small, plain brown notebook with Rose emblazoned on the cover in pink ink.
Horribly aware that if Lyonel has the presence of mind to sneak up on her there will be no way for her to know, she flips through the pages of the book. Her finger touches on each word, eyes half-shut, mouth moving, sounding out each syllable in her head. She doesn’t think that she’ll have time to memorize more than one. The words in her book are slippery and only seem to stay in her mind when she forces them.
A flicker of gold limns the edges of the book. Dread fills her heart as she raises her head. Lyonel is not forty meters away– still stumbling around blindly, but now feeling his way with a long bone, using it like a cane. She can see his lips move, almost, as if talking to someone, but there is no one there that Rose can see.
Finally, though, the page turns and she finds the word, the word she’d had only half an inkling of before she’d found the book. She concentrates, drawing it into herself and her mind, wasting precious seconds trying to keep hold of it before she lets it slip out in a little rush. It is the only sound she can ever hear– her own voice. It echoes in her thoughts, rebounding in the landscape of her head.
His name comes out in a whisper, soft as feathers, fragile as gossamer: “S h a d o w.”
Magic coalesces, curls and shimmers briefly in the dark near her hand, turning black as night.
A tiny presence, felt more than seen, brushes her fingertips, falls from her lips and twines around her hand. Orders, Mistress? it asks her silently, communicating through skin contact rather than sound.
Unlike the person who leapt towards Lyonel earlier, this Shadow is a soft, delicate thing, and tears spring to her eyes unbidden. Her closest friend reduced to this– ghost of a manifestation. She’d risked so much to bring him– the other Shadow– with her safely, and without a thought he’d jumped in to save her. Now he is gone, and even for a witch of Rose’s caliber, there will never be a spell to bring him back to the way he was.
She clenches her fists, taking in a deep breath.
Mistress? Concern creeps into her mind, emanating from the shadow servant that clings to her palm. Are you functioning at peak efficiency?
Rose shakes her head, as if to clear it, draws in a heavy breath. She can almost feel Lyonel’s approach. He’s still stumbling. She’s sure of that.
A flicker of movement draws her eyes up from the manifestation in her hand.
Lyonel is close. Too close now to risk running. But no, something isn’t right– instead of stumbling, he moves purposefully, and purposefully towards her. From her vantage point there is no way to tell whether or not his eyes are closed or whether or not he is still blind, but she is certain that something guides him, now. Her heart pounds in her chest. She bites her lip, keeps her bare feet still, keeps her body still, trying not to breathe.
Something in the way the golden light of the sword pulses bothers her. She’s almost entirely certain that it’s magic from the sword itself and not magic from within him.
But she was almost entirely certain he hadn’t found his way.
Too long. Too late.
He stands not ten feet from her, his sword, reaching out with his sword. His lips move then, and she knows what he’s saying.
“Found you, Rose. Come with me, or I will cut you down.”
She shakes her head, though with his eyes closed she’s sure he can’t see it, and she steps back once, on the edge of the hill leading down to the living stone. Bones crumble away as she steps. The ledge is very unstable.
“They want you dead, but I care about you, Rose.”
Her breath leaves her. Her heels are up against the edge of the hill. Lyonel takes a step forward. He seems very sure of himself for someone with eyes shut, blinded still by her word from before. He seems very sure of himself, and also– there is something about the way he steps that catches her eye.
It’s as if he doesn’t know there is a ledge behind her. Whatever is feeding him information about her position– for all she knows it could be the sword itself telling him things– is not telling him what is around him as well….
A thought leaps into her mind. It is an errant thought, not a plan but a fleeting, fragile hope. Let him take another step. Let him take another step…
He doesn’t, though. He doesn’t know of her plan- there’s just no reason for him to step forward.
She doesn’t remember any words. Nothing stays in her mind. Nothing…
It isn’t until Lyonel raises the sword that she realizes what she needs to do, that her hand fingers the edge of the bow where it rests on her back, the hard, metal edge of the bow, set in a diagonal across her spine. So he won’t take a step forward…?
“Last chance, Rose,” he says, so softly she can barely make it out on his lips. His eyes are set shut and his face is hard, like bone. She watches his muscles ripple and knows that this is it.
The moment drags on. That sword hovers. He opens his mouth again, and she rolls as the sword, moving in a blur, scythes through the air.
No, roll is the wrong word. She curves her body, curls her body as he steps forward, and the blow from the sword glances away from the bow on her back, glances away from her as she stretches and leaps forward and down, head over heels between his legs over the hard bony ground. A strap on the bow is severed– it falls from her back. Lyonel stands there, partially off-balance.
Her hands come up. She whirls as she stands, she plants her hands on his side and his back. She shoves. For a fleeting second she knows it won’t work. She feels the resistance, feels his heavy plated body resisting her, watches him start to turn. In that moment, when his foot lifts and he twists, the ghost of Shadow leaps from her hand and, darting down to his feet, spreads itself paper thin across the ivory ground, just as Lyonel puts his foot down again. The silver metal boot hisses where it touches Rose’s recently reborn friend, and her mouth opens in shock, but instinct forces her to push– again, with all her strength.
Her antagonist falters.
He slips, tripping, and the very tip of that razor’d, golden blade draws a neat red line through the air, sinking in and dragging along her outstretched arm and palm.
In the next moment, the man tumbles.
He rolls, smashing through fragile bones, neck thrown crazily from side to side. Rose feels the vibrations of his passage shaking the ivory under her as he finally slams into the edge of the living stone, sprawled across it.
Lyonel picks himself back up, pushing himself to his feet on the rock. He looks up at the deaf girl where she stands on the edge of the cliff, opens his mouth to shout, raising his gold-edged sword (now spattered with her blood), as if preparing to throw it, or hurl golden light.
For a horrible heartbeat he stands like that. For a horrible heartbeat, Rose watches him.
Then the stone curls up and around him in a wave and, as his silent shout turns to a silent scream, pulls him into itself. His head is the last to disappear, but his whole body vanishes from sight faster than a blink. She only catches his last expression– one of such terror and pain that it shakes her to the roots of her heart.
Then he is gone.
Shadow is gone, look as she might for him, her search futile in the awful darkness. Perhaps Lyonel dragged him under the stone beneath this terrible dungeon.
Trembling, Rose collapses onto her knees, hugging her stricken arm to her. Crimson soaks the fabric of her cloak. Two off-pale things sit in the ivory pile of bone in front of her, and it is only after a moment of disbelief that she realizes they are her index finger and thumb, severed near to their bases where the blade passed through them. Blood is flowing freely from her hand.
There is also a line as deep as her bone along her arm.
She is alone here. The gold-light of Lyonel snuffed out, there is only the not-light of the surrounding dungeon fungus, and it makes her shiver uncontrollably.
Or is that the blood loss?
Her vision blurs. Tears, hot and sudden, track down her face, her breath comes in heaving, silent sobs. She squeezes her fingers, clutches her arm to her chest in an attempt to stop her bleeding. Her head is pounding, her heart is pounding her life away, and she slew Lyonel for nothing, nothing. There will be no revival. There will be no hero to… to–
–a pair of hands, freezing cold and black as night, take her wounded arm between them, squeezing the cut closed, squeezing her hand as well, pinching it all whole again.
“You idiot,” Shadow murmurs, voice thick and hoarse, knowing she can’t hear him. “What would you do without me?”
She looks up at him, though not in time to read his lips. She sees his expression of concern, fear and pain. Her confusion turns to a slow grin. It shines, giddiness rising up in her all at once, tears still soaking her face, silent sobs still wracking her body.
“No,” he says, a wry smile forming on his face despite everything. “Don’t answer that.”
Rose pulls him down into a bitterly cold kiss, ignoring his apparent non-sequitor. After a moment, his surprise relents and he kisses her back. Frost stings Rose’s nose and lips, but her belly and her heart are flooded with warmth, relief making her whole body weak as can be.
Neither of them are sure how it’s possible– it could have been Lyonel’s presence suppressing him, it could have been the not-light of the fungi healing him again, it could have been divine intervention. None of it feels particularly important. It doesn’t even matter that they’re still in the dungeon. In a moment it might, but not for now.
I already know, Shadow thinks to himself, holding Rose in the dark. I already know.
©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris, Darathem, Whisper)
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