Chapter 11: Clarity, at Long Last
The preparations took much longer than Ephraim expected, giving him far more time to ponder his fate than he would’ve liked. Ephraim sat stewing alone in his room, hunched over the slab of stone which passed for his bed. Over and over again, his mind combed over the supposedly terrible dangers facing him—even if they succeeded! If they failed…well, that didn’t bear thinking about. They would not, could not fail. Not when he was so close to finally carving out his own path.
Ephraim caught himself shaking; fear coursed through his entire body, causing cold sweat to run down his forehead and spill down his back. He clenched his fist so tightly that his knuckles went white, and he doubled over as a sharp pain shot through his stomach. Ephraim punched the well-worn wall to his side, adding to the dents and cracks another jarring fissure.
“Damn it!” he cursed. Yet again, he’d proven himself a boy rather than a man.
Ephraim heard a quiet knocking on the rock right outside his room. His head shot up in time to lock eyes with Millicent, whose usually playful demeanor was nowhere to be found. Her face was creased with concern, her mouth curved in a solemn frown.
“Can I come in?” she said, almost whispering. Millicent’s voice, along with her entire body shook feverishly. Ephraim closed his eyes and nodded his head. Millicent sat on her knees a short distance in front of him.
“Koz told you, didn’t he?”
“…I made him tell me.”
“You’re a bad liar, Millicent.” Ephraim’s voice was choked with frustration, which must have sounded angry, for Millicent shrank with every syllable. His heart ached at the thought of hurting her. Nevertheless, Ephraim resolved to shut himself off from the desires lurking deeply within his heart of hearts—at least until the procedure was through.
“Why are you here?”
“I wanted to speak with you, Ephraim… About this whole business regarding your arm.”
“I’ve already made up my mind.”
“I’m going through with it; I need only wait for the Elder’s summons.”
Millicent looked as though Ephraim had run her through with a blade; her face took on such an expression of pain, shock, and even betrayal that Ephraim had no choice but to look away. He could not stop his eyes welling up with burning tears.
“…I…understand,” Millicent said, finally. “Like I said, your life is your own to live…I have no right to…to…” Millicent’s composure faltered in its entirety. She collapsed on the ground with a bitter wail, then covered her mouth like she’d said something shameful. Ephraim’s stony resolve crumbled to dust; unable to contain the tempest of emotions which swirled through his entire being, he took Millicent up into a tight embrace and wept.
Though her eyes held no tears, Millicent blubbered and sobbed incoherently.
“I’m so afraid,” she managed to utter. “Every time I think of something happening to you, or of you leaving Kalonnde, I…I…” She looked into Ephraim’s crimson eyes, and he Millicent’s ruby orbs. A flood of thoughts surged between them, full of confusion, fear, and impending regret. But everything changed with the kiss.
It was like the two had been holding themselves back, suppressing their desire for one another like it was a terrible, selfish thing. What they both thought selfless forbearance had only dammed up their passions until they scarcely knew how to interact anymore. But now, the levies had broken; all of their feelings crashed together, smashing everything until all that was left was pure affection, spurred forward by that very same desire.
Ephraim did not know how long it took, for he’d completely lost count of the seconds, but he and Millicent remained together until the Elder’s summons came in the form of a lone Ghoul messenger rapping on the wall of his room.
“Pardon the intrusion,” the messenger said. “All preparations have been made; the Elder awaits your arrival.” The messenger was off before Ephraim could utter a single word of thanks.
“I have to go,” Ephraim whispered. When he arose, Millicent seized hold of his shoulder with a strength Ephraim hadn’t expected.
“I’m coming with you,” Millicent declared. She wore a determined expression on her face, which turned puzzled when Ephraim merely smiled in response. He then offered his hand to her in that regal manner that was so engrained in his movements, much to Millicent’s surprise and unending joy.
“You’re sure about this?” uttered Koz’s monotone voice.
“For the last time, yes!” Ephraim exclaimed.
“Right…” Koz gazed at Ephraim’s form as he lay on the stone table they’d prepared for him. Though Millicent knelt at his side, gripping his hand tightly, he still shivered whilst drenched from head to toe in sweat.
“D-D-Don’t say it like that! You’re making me even more nervous than I already am!”
“Don’t you pin this on me; this was your idea to begin with.”
“Can you, for once, be serious?”
“I’m always serious.” Koz glared straight into Ephraim’s panicked eyes, then his gaze softened. “You’ve put your life in our hands; trust us to give it back.” Koz’s calm confidence washed over both Ephraim and Millicent’s anxiety, giving the couple precious time to converse softly before the procedure.
After what felt like hours of waiting, the Elder blinked into the room, followed by a train of Ghouls dressed in similar robes. Koz joined them in a huddle around the Elder’s hunched form after giving Ephraim another reassuring glance. After a moment spent in conference, Koz emerged from the huddle with a neutral expression on his face.
“That settles it, then; the procedure will commence immediately,” Koz said. “Oh, and Ephraim?”
“In case this is the last time we speak this side of Eternity…you are the most persistently irritating man I’ve ever met, and my greatest friend in all of Kalonnde.” Koz smirked so widely that Ephraim could only laugh in response, while Millicent tried, and failed to maintain a stern glare. She couldn’t help but join them as they laughed together warmly, for what they thought might be the last time.
Kalonnde’s mages arranged themselves in a circle around Ephraim’s table, all muttering what sounded like prayers, or otherwise the incantations of some spell. The Elder stood directly behind Ephraim’s head, waving his staff while the incense from his medallion coated the air. Meanwhile, Millicent clutched her hands together in a prayer of her own. She hated being forced to look on from afar, but this was the only way; the ceremony was far too dangerous as it was.
The muttering grew to audible tones, then to loud chants that shook Ephraim to the core. The Elder reached into his robes, retrieving a long, crimson crystal which he passed around the mages’ circle. Each blessed the crystal in turn, until it returned to the Elder’s hands. It was then handed to Koz, who knelt by Ephraim’s left shoulder. The rest happened before Ephraim had any chance to react: Koz lowered his lips to the crystal, blessing it as well, before angling it like a dagger and shoving it into the nub beneath Ephraim’s shoulder until it lodged deeply into the bone. Ephraim screamed so loudly that Millicent had to cover her ears; otherwise, she would have bowled Koz over in a mad frenzy. The Elder, along with the other mages, raised their voices so that Ephraim’s cries could scarcely be heard, followed by a sharp motion of their hands in unison.
If what he’d felt before was pain, Ephraim had no idea how to describe what horrible sensation currently coursed through his entire body. It increased exponentially with every rhythmic chant, every motion of the mages’ hands. Everything swam in a throttling haze, until Ephraim could no longer hear the sound of his own screams, let alone feel their vibrations. The only thing he heard was the deep chimes of several small bells, which gave way to one, decisively powerful gong.
Just like that, the pain was gone, along with any other sensation Ephraim should have felt. All around him, colors swirled and churned together in all-too-familiar waves, lulling him into a numbingly soothing calm. He was again adrift in the sea of starlight, the very same which had constituted his dreams for as long as he could remember. But this time he was falling; not being pulled, but falling, like a boulder through the body of a lake. The bells echoed all around him as he sunk beneath the waves, accompanied by those screams—those horrid screams of the child from Adelinda’s grove, which pricked at his very heart with each ear-piercing wail.
Ephraim realized with a jolt that he lay flat on his back, upon what he knew to be solid ground. All around him was nothing but an empty expanse, devoid of all color, warmth, or any sort of light. The Darkness had finally taken him. He lay there entranced for a moment, only to shoot to his feet when the cries recommenced. They struck Ephraim like a powerful shockwave, assaulting his ears and buffeting his flesh. But he grit his teeth, and stood to his feet defiantly.
“Not this time,” he said, through clenched teeth. Ephraim pressed through the screams, bracing his feet and covering his face with his hand as if combating a howling gale. With every step the cries grew louder, piercing his eardrums painfully. He kept pressing nonetheless, shoving forwards until he pushed through what felt like a wall of wind. Ephraim floundered suddenly, like he’d torn through a veil and fallen forwards in the aftermath. A viscous, foul-smelling liquid coated his hand and knees. Ephraim knew this smell: blood. He was sloshing around in an endlessly large pool of blood.
The cries now fell on Ephraim’s ears softly, and he was able to discern from whence they came: a lone baby lay before him, its head barely floating above the surface. He quickly reached out to lift the baby’s head—a surge of pain split his head, followed by the short flash of a vision. He returned within the span of a second, unsure of what he saw but undoubtedly filled with a mixture of terror and agony. Words failed him as he stared at the wailing baby bobbing up and down in the bloody pool.
At long last, he managed just three solemn words:
“Hush, little one.” The baby actually calmed somewhat, much to Ephraim’s surprise.
Ephraim sat in a cross-legged position, scratching his blood-covered head. Once more, he had come across something unmistakably familiar and deeply personal, but that he’d refused to acknowledge before. With a grimace, he reached out and touched the child’s forehead, and was instantly transported into a world of pure despair.
Darkness. Nothing but darkness, and warmth. It was consistent, stable, safe. His body nestled into a personal, cozy little world; not a single care to be had. Suddenly, everything shook violently, squeezing on his head. It hurt; the world was strangling him! Then came light, so bright he didn’t open his eyes. And he never would. His little neck snapped with one, decisive push. Darkness fell once more. It enveloped him completely, swallowed him whole. It was cold. He whimpered, he cried. But he was alone in the Darkness. No one heard him.
The chiming of bells; a sudden, violent tug yanked him from the Darkness’ cold embrace. Light was everywhere, but he couldn’t keep his eyes closed this time. He came into another new world with a horrible howl, followed by pain—pain he hadn’t felt while in the Darkness, nor in his little world. He flailed and kicked in disarray, everything hurting fiercely. Then there was nothing; the pain stopped, the light retreated. He was alone in the Darkness once more.
When next he saw the light, it was heralded with his own fearful moans. The light still invaded his eyes, but it did not hurt as much. He faced the new world again, staring into the distance with a painful wail. And he saw a wrinkled, scowling face staring back at him. The wrinkled man frowned in disgust; a jarring pull later, and he was alone again, trapped back in the Darkness.
He came into the light again, with even less time between waking. He saw everything clearly when he stared at the unfamiliar world. The same wrinkled face stared back at him, then frowned again. But this time the pain didn’t stop; it increased. He grimaced with sharpened fangs, and without thinking lunged at the wrinkled man savagely. His fangs dug into flesh, his claws tore at thick cloth. Strong hands pried him off of the wrinkled man; they were the hands of one who dared call him “son”, yet slammed him into the ground. Then everything went dark again.
He went in and out of the Darkness so many times that he lost track. It was all so confusing, so painful. All he could do was weep. The back-and-forth motion jostled him until he couldn’t feel anything anymore. He was numb. That’s when the Darkness closed in on him for real.
His heart suffered too much; his mind fractured by too many pushes and pulls. He didn’t even notice when the constant torment finally stopped, when he finally settled in what would be his body from now on; he hardly saw the wrinkled man and his accomplice’s disgusted glares when they stared at his arm, scaled and deformed; and he didn’t feel it when they held him down and took it from him with a heavy cleaver. He had retreated so deeply into the Darkness that it enveloped his very being, even when this new body moved and lived on without him. He wept, and wept, and wept, but no one heard him. No one comforted him…
When Ephraim came back to his senses, he heard the child’s screams even louder than ever before. Only, there was no child; just him, alone in a pool of blood. The cries poured forth from his own mouth. He clawed at his face, fell to his knees with agony. Then, a terrible rage rose from the depths of his heart, clutching his very being in a clenched fist of fury. He instantly recognized the wrinkled man and his miserable companion with hideous fury.
“Arthgal! Letharian!” he roared. “They will pay!” Over and over they’d called Ephraim’s soul from the Darkness and forced it into a new, twisted body; over and over it was ripped from whatever abomination they’d contrived, only to be summoned again, and again, and again! It was their fault; they were to blame for everything! And he would never, ever forgive them!
“THEY WILL PAY!”
He finally knew the truth. He wasn’t the real Ephraim; he wasn’t even a real person. No, he was just a Ghoul with horns, a counterfeit flesh-puppet masquerading as a child that never had the privilege of growing up. Whatever thoughts he’d fostered of returning home, of taking up his former life as the prince of Elinwynn, faded into the vapors of nothing that they were.
That was when he heard the bells chime again, followed by the fluttering of large wings. He looked up to see the winged, violet-clad woman descend upon him, her arms outstretched. The Horned Ghoul was unmoved. He simply knelt in the pool of blood, having wailed and roared until there was nothing left. The Darkness could have him.
“Ephraim!” echoed a voice from a faraway place. The Horned Ghoul stirred from his pit of despair.
“Ephraim?” he pondered aloud. “He died long ago…”
He recognized this voice; it was warm and welcoming, soothingly smooth, and full of such compassion that it made him want to weep anew.
“No, I’m not…”
Suddenly, the Horned Ghoul’s eyes widened until they looked bloodshot.
“Yes I am!” His despair was overcome by the surety woven into the familiar voice; his agony pummeled into submission by an influx of determination awoken by its desperation and pain. It needed him. She needed him.
“Yes. I. AM!”
Ephraim looked up to the see the winged woman holding out her arms, beckoning for him to fall into her bosom like an un-weaned child. The bells increased the volume and frequency of their chimes, pushing him over the edge. He dove into the woman’s warm embrace, and was instantly enveloped in an explosion of blinding light.
“Ephraim!” called the soothing voice. “Ephraim, can you hear me? Please wake up!”
“Don’t you give up now!” another voice called. “Wake up, damn you!”
“Please, don’t leave me! You have to wake up!”
Ephraim finally opened his eyes to a bald, grey-skinned man in violet robes, and a young woman with similar skin but long black hair. Everything flowed back to him at once; he remembered the anger and despair he’d felt in the Darkness; he remembered the hatred that had developed in and taken hold of him for those who so abused his soul; but above all, he remembered the steadfast companions to whom these faces belonged.
“Koz? Millicent?” he managed to say. Their heads immediately shot up.
“You’re…you’re…” Millicent looked as though she’d been in mourning for the entire world, but now her face came alive with the widest smile it had ever known.
“I can’t believe it; we did it! We actually did it!”
“You’ve come back, you stubborn bastard! And look, it worked!”
His eyes still squinted at the light, but Ephraim saw Koz reach forward and grasp something he could not see, then lift it up excitedly. It was a skinny, pale, atrophied-looking appendage—and it was connected to his left shoulder!
“What the—it worked? It worked!” Ephraim shot up from where he lay on the stone table, ignoring the dizziness that swam through his head. Tears filled his eyes as he grasped his new arm, followed by a shout filled with a mixture of joy and victory. Millicent almost leapt on top of him in her own elation, while Koz placed his head in his hands and began to shake with laughter. It didn’t matter that Ephraim couldn’t feel his new arm, or move it very much yet. He didn’t care. At long last, his body was whole.