Five moons and two tens since the Mark of the Other One blossomed.
Heart pounding, Aerin walked past the man. She turned the corner and saw that Sonera was not alone anymore.
“I told you he wouldn’t notice!” She exclaimed at Sonera. “Nice of you to finally drop by, Garret.”
“By the Six Makers, what are the two of you up to?” The ragged keeper demanded.
“Have you slept at all?” Sonera asked. “You look terrible, Garret.”
“Never mind me and tell me what is going on? What are you two up to? What is that thing up to?” Garret demanded with bulging eyes.
“It was a bet. He doesn’t pay attention to anything. I could easily grab that coin pouch of his. Shame there’s not much in it.” Aerin sighed. “It is unsettling.”
“What is?” Garret and Sonera asked together.
“He stands there and stares into the air. Sometimes his mouth moves as if he is talking. And I can walk right past his face and he does not notice a thing.”
“He is eating an apple.” Sonera remarked dryly.
“Dresden’s information was reliable. He is about town, interested in the most meaningless things. Yet no one still knows where the bastard sleeps. Or where his friends have gone.”
“He has a lot of gall to stay in Ironcourt.” Sonera growled.
“Or rather.” Garret had paid no mind to Sonera’s comment. “You still haven’t found out where the bastard sleeps. Aerin.”
“That’s the unsettling part. He pays no attention to his surroundings right now. But come evening, he disappears. He has to know.”
“He looks familiar. I’ve never seen a human like him but I can’t shake the feeling I have seen the prick somewhere.” Garret said and Sonera looked meaningfully at Aerin.
Aerin bit her lip and said nothing.
“The more I look at the bastard, the more I keep remembering Will. But that can’t be right. I mean look at him. Even Pelesians don’t look like that. And he is no Alyar either.”
“That’s a stretch, Garret.” Aerin mumbled.
“He has to know we are here.” Sonera kept following her own train of thought. “He has to be a bloodmage! He has to be able to read presences. Why do we have to keep this idiotic surveillance on him?” Sonera demanded from Garret. She even punched the scraggy keeper in the side.
“And you can do what fifty other snatches, keepers and messengers couldn’t. If you can catch the arsehole here and now, by all means.” Garret said incredulously.
“The gatekeeper told us to do more than observe.” Sonera grumbled.
“Bassor tells us a lot of things. Right now, we keep an eye on him. If you ask me, Bassor has lost it. We should be counting our losses and moving on. No one died, but as of this morning twenty-some of our people are unable to work.” Sonera looked at Aerin when Garret said those words.
“Most of them are whining.” Sonera mumbled.
“And some of them will have to walk with a crutch for the rest of their miserable lives! Edd can’t use a sword. Not for a good long while unless he learns how to use his other hand. His sword hand is done for! And those are the lucky cases! Darden keeps losing all sense of feeling in his right side! He can barely stand up at times. If he doesn’t keep going to the surgeons’ place, then he might become completely paralysed. Do you realise what it will cost for him? Do I have to go on, Sonera? One man. That thing did all of that!” Sonera and Garret stared at each other.
Aerin sighed heavily and leaned against the wall. Her ribs and sides were still hurting. She had a slight limp in her left leg.
Eventually Sonera looked away. “I can understand your disappointment, Sonera.” Garret barked. “Trust me, I would love nothing more than to march up to the son of a bitch and stab him right there, under all those eyes. Keep an eye on him. Perhaps we can find something we can use.”
Garret left as suddenly as he had appeared and Sonera stepped in front of Aerin and glared at her. “How did you know?”
“Know what.” She replied sullenly. Aerin tried not to rub her sides. It only caused more pain.
“What was going to happen? How did you know this mess would happen?”
“I didn’t. When will you stop asking me that? Have you really been sitting on this question for two tens now?”
“Then what was that? Why did you suggest we go to the belltower instead?” Sonera demanded.
“Pry all you want, Sonera. It felt right at the time. Thanks to that, we are that much better off than the others. That’s what’s important. Sometimes the feeling is right and you should mind it. That’s how you get ahead in this business.”
“Right. I’ll meet you in the evening then.” Sonera turned away.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Aerin asked, surprised. “I get the evening shift as usual. I have work, you know.”
“Whatever.” Sonera mumbled. “Try not to be late.” Before Aerin turned the corner, Sonera shouted one last thing after her. “You know, he does look like Will. You can spin Garret all you like, but that doesn’t work on me!”
Aerin hurried off to work. As best as she tried, she could not ignore what Garret and Sonera had said. The tall man, with light brown hair and a skinny face. With eyes like the waters of the sea. Sometimes they were cold and blue. Sometimes they were soft and greenish. Aerin was disappointed. Waking up after the ordeal, she was convinced she had imagined it. That the pressure of the day had gotten to her.
She had bumped into the man right in front of her apartment. She had frozen stiff and slipped down a stair, almost falling. The man did not notice that. He had walked on by, looking at everything else. A similar situation had happened with Dresden.
That face haunted her day and night now. When she had gotten a chance to look at that face even closer, the similarities were more apparent. It was Will. It had to be Will. But Will was dead. She saw it. She saw the moment Will died. Although she never got a good look at the corpse. Maybe he survived somehow. And was now back for revenge.
Those last thoughts made her head spin around, and she had to sit down. Will had been barely a year older than her. This man had to be in his thirties. Aerin was only twenty-four. This visage kept haunting her and Aerin constantly kept losing the events of that day in a haze. When one man veiled the city with darkness and single-handedly tore through a hundred souls.
When she could not decide what was real or what she should look for, she had taken to rubbing her sore ribs. The pain reminded her those cold eyes filled with ink. Only then could she remember all the other details that made this man a complete stranger. An outlander. All afternoon she kept thinking about him while doing her day job. An entire ten had passed like this. Aerin could not help herself. This visage kept conquering her thoughts. It was not Will, but it was. It was an outlander, but Will’s face kept staring at her, with eyes full of emptiness.
This conflicting part of her wanted each workday to be over sooner, so she could see the man again. She told herself it was because it was needed for the sake of her people. Once the day was over, Aerin jogged as fast as her injured body would let her to where Sonera would wait for her. It was in a new part of the city each day.
Eventually, with the help of a few couriers, she found Sonera and the man. This time his gaze was fixated on the sparks flying from a forging at the hands of a blacksmith. Aerin took her time, trying to calm her breathing and aching body. She watched the man’s gaze ravenously.
“Did you hear me?” Sonera shouted. Aerin could have sworn something audibly snapped next to her head. She looked around, confused. “The gatekeeper came by earlier. He wants that to know where he sleeps.”
“Bassor wants a lot. All the time.” Aerin mumbled in response.
“He is the gatekeeper, by the Makers! Show some respect.”
“We chose the gatekeeper. He has to keep earning that respect if he wants to stay on top.” Aerin dropped Sonera’s gaze and took in the figure of the outlander again.
“We need to know where this arsehole sleeps. Where his haven is. I don’t have the time. Garret needs me to pull our district and others together. Our situation is getting out of hand. Some of the keepers are avoiding contact all of a sudden. Try to do your job tonight, Aerin!”
Aerin made sure Sonera had left and then turned his gaze back to the tall man. He was still wearing the same clothes as two tens ago. The red sash too. But there was no sign of a sheathe for the blade he had wielded.
He was now earnestly chatting with the blacksmith. His eyes followed every move of the blacksmith and he kept asking questions. The smith responded to everything and even showed his forging from different angles. It looked like the man was genuinely interested in learning and the smith was willing to teach.
A moment ago those two had been complete strangers. The inhabitants of Ironcourt were distrusting of each other and outlanders even more so. But he looked like Will. Aerin shook her head. No! This needed to stop. That is not Will. That is an outlander. She needed to stop looking that was it. Force Will out of your mind. You are seeing what you want to see, Aerin told herself.
Aerin ambled across the street to a better position and sat down in a quiet corner. She forced her gaze into another corner of the street. The outlander was at the edge of her vision, but this way she did not have to look at him. It was not too different from what she had been forced to do once upon a time, long ago. Keep breathing and look away. Breathe and let your mind go. Make it go where you are looking. Far away. But that was Will right there. It had to be! Never mind that his eyes looked nothing like Will.
Aerin’s backside hurt by the time the outlander had finished his chat with the smith. The sun was setting now. She had really pushed herself into that corner. She had not moved a single muscle this entire time. Aerin regretted that decision as it had not helped. Her mind would not stop seeing Will in that outlander. This is why she had told no one where the outlander slept. She knew it was the wrong thing to do after what that outsider had done to them.
She quietly followed the outlander to the edge of the old town. On the south bank of the Irbis lie an abandoned house in viewing distance of the walls of Narris’ citadel. With this shortage of personnel, Aerin could be certain that no one followed them. While the man headed upstairs, Aerin snuck up another, taller house. From the rooftop there, she could easily see the small balcony where the outlander spent his nights. He had occupied a tiny balcony where the man had set up a mattress and a blanket. She saw a few buckets, and a trough filled with water in the room.
Aerin peered out from behind a chimney. Anyone on the higher rooftops could see the man. Yet he slept there without fear. When Aerin first had discovered this tiny sanctuary, she was perplexed. But she knew now why the outlander spent his nights here. Every night he looked skywards. Aerin watched him so intently she imagined she could see the tiny specks of light reflected in his eyes.
The man had reached his small abode. He was washing his face and immediately after he headed to the balcony. He sat down on the mattress, with his back against the wall and turned his head skyward again. Aerin could directly see the corner he was sitting in. While daylight faded the man kept looking at the skies. Sometimes he drew a figure in the sky with his finger. Occasionally his mouth moved with silent words.
In her hiding place, Aerin was biting her nails. She could not decide what to do. That man was an outlander. She had never seen his kind. Yet the visage of Will kept haunting her. The man had hurt everyone she knew. No one died, but many had to settle for a lesser fate.
Heart pounding, she scrambled on her feet. The roof tiles clattered under her feet, but she did not care. She needed to do something. She came out from her hiding place and found the outlander staring at her. There was no fear in those eyes. An expectant look danced on his face.
Slowly, the man stood up and out of nowhere, a blood-red blade appeared in his hand. He threw it towards the chimney Aerin had hidden behind. The blade had barely hit the chimney when darkness oozed outwards from nowhere and produced the outlander onto this rooftop. He struggled to find even footing on the roof while Aerin had to look back down at the balcony to make sure this had truly happened.
“You and your lot keep dancing around me. Well?” Standing in front of him like this Aerin realised the man was towering above her. He might have been taller than Will had been. But his voice was nothing like Will’s. Something smoky hid behind that clear ringing. And he sported a thin beard.
“You’re not afraid?” Aerin demanded.
The man looked surprised hearing that. Aerin noticed he still held the blood-red blade in his hand. “Afraid of what? Of you? Or your friends? Your organisation has been buzzing around me for the past ten days or so. I know you are alone here.”
“You didn’t answer. Not really.” Aerin said awkwardly. It was difficult keeping her mind focused. She was not even sure what she was doing.
“Am I afraid? A little. But I am not sure what am I supposed to be afraid of anymore.” There was a hint of a confusion in his face.
“And where are your friends?”
“No idea.” The man said without hesitation. He looked like a good liar.
“Where are you from? And who are you?” Aerin began, but the questions did not end there. Once the first had left her mouth, Aerin found herself spewing every question plaguing her. “What are you? Why did your friends breach the warrens? What are you doing, wandering all over the city? And the Repository of the Pure? What are you doing there? You and your friends caused this mess and now you are lounging about, gazing at the stars every night and chatting with complete strangers all day? You had a bit of fun and now you’re just taking a vacation? Seeing the sights of the Eternal Empire? But first you had to put Edd and the others into the hospital. Or a wheelchair. Break some of them for the rest of their lives. Did you come to haunt me? Or the others? Are you some sort of ghost? Undead? Are you after revenge? Are you Will?”
Every possible question poured out from Aerin’s mouth and she did not know why. After she had reached that last question, she could say nothing else. She was breathing heavily while the outlander stood there. There was a sombre look on his face.
“I could have killed them.” He said after a few moments of silence. “If you kill someone, then the people left behind will be in pain. But if you try to remove an insect from your path, you will inevitably hurt it. I did what I needed to do, to reach the others. If I killed your friends, I thought your organisation would be more inclined to get revenge. I chose what I thought to be the road with the least consequences. People get hurt all the time. If I understand you and your organisation correctly, then someone else could have come along and done worse than what I did. Eventually someone will come along, I imagine. And this situation leaves a possibility for negotiation.”
“Negotiation.” Aerin mumbled. “You tear through our territory, leaving people injured and you think you are in a position to negotiate something? Some of these insects have a family who are worried about them. You think those families aren’t in pain?” Her voice grew louder and more passionate with each word.
“I am not proud of what I did, and I have practised every speech possible when someone would finally confront me. I don’t like this situation. But the one determining force is this now.” Aerin could not react in time, when the outlander grabbed her by the neck. The next moment she flew through a pair of doors and landed heavily on a wooden floor.
She had stood on the roof a moment ago! Coughing, she recognised the balcony where the outlander spent his nights just behind the broken doors. A thud and a ripping noise sent a shiver of fear through Aerin. “I can afford to be arrogant these days. It is new to me. But I don’t mind it all that much. I think. I do not have to be afraid any longer! Fear has become this distant past I keep on mistaking for the serenity of this world!”
“Stop!” Aerin shouted. She had heard the man’s footsteps coming closer. “Don’t! I wanted to talk. Please!” She was afraid all of a sudden. A familiar chill was in the air. It had taken Aerin into its ruthless embrace. She felt as if she had returned from somewhere far away. She looked up and saw eyes filled with black ink looking at her. Something else moved behind that deep darkness. It filled her with dread and she scurried away from the outlander on her behind.
“I think you should leave.” The outlander walked away from her and opened a door. “I don’t know what you are looking from me and I don’t care. Leave and tell your friends to leave me alone. This is beyond you.”
“Are you Will?” Aerin shouted in desperation.
“Willing to do what?” The man shook his head, and he looked confused. The black ink rippled and was slowly disappearing from his eyes.
“Will! Are you Will. The Will I knew. The Will who died five moons ago last year. We went to scout out that heist. We passed through that dark cathedral below the city. Are you Will? Did you come from that place? Is that why you have taken his appearance? You don’t look like a human from this world. That darkness around you is familiar. It is the same kind from that deep dark below. What are you? Why are you constantly haunting me? What are you?” Aerin half-shouted. Her voice grew more hysteric. She wanted to stop but could not.
The man’s expression had changed drastically. There was shock and horror. He looked worried suddenly. He tried his hardest to keep his voice under control. “Will. That is a name?”
“He was my friend.” Aerin said with newly found determination and courage. “He died. The night when the Mark of the Other One blossomed.”
“The mark.” Were the outlander’s only words. His gaze focused on something far away and for a moment it felt as if the man had gone somewhere else. “Everyone has been talking about it. Is it really something relevant?” Before Aerin could think of an answer, the man shouted in anger.
“You constantly keep things from me! It does not matter that I have your memories, you do not explain a thing!” The man paced around the attic room and Aerin scurried to a corner far away from him. “Things left unsaid are still lies! It does not matter that I have thought the exact opposite in the past. Those are my thoughts! You have no right to them!”
“What am I?” He growled at Aerin. “You! You came here, asking those inane questions. What do you see?”
“You look like Will. My dead friend.” Aerin squeaked.
“I look nothing like you. I have never seen humans like you. All of you look completely different from me and the others that came here.” He said without hesitation.
“It’s the eyes! There is something about the eyes. But the colour and the way you smile and the way you can twitch your nose, the colour and texture of your hair all remind me of Will. It’s the small things. All the little nuances in your face that make you Will. The eyes are different.”
“Explain everything. From the beginning. What is this mark?” He growled, looming above Aerin.
“I know what the mark is, I want to hear it from her!” The outlander shouted without warning, causing her to wince and twitch nervously.
“Talk. Don’t mind me.” He growled at Aerin again.
“The mark. The Mark of the Other One blossoms. It is a vast flow. It takes on the shape of a gigantic flower. And it blossoms when a new Age is about to begin.”
“A giant flower? That’s it? Nothing else? You wouldn’t know anything about the thing holding something in place?”
Aerin shook her head.
“Your dead friend, what happened to him?” The outlander demanded.
“We went to scout a heist. We discovered this way into the waterways in an old park in the upper city. But there was this place filled with a darkness you could almost touch. With the kind of darkness you create. We made it to the house, but because Will had stolen an Alyar’s coin pouch, they discovered us. She tracked us down, and she killed Will.”
“How do I fit into this gibberish? What is wrong with this place? What is wrong with this world?”
“Who are you?” Aerin asked quietly. But the man shouted over her voice.
“I know what you keep telling me, but what drives this flow, you damned hag, explain that, please, oh grand guardian of the north!”
“You were saying.” The outlander growled at Aerin again.
“Who are you?” Aerin squeaked, terrified. She knew killers. Murderers. She frequently interacted with them. This hidden side of the man terrified her. Looking at him now, she remembered all the scary stories the other children had told her. Not about the demons, but the other things who hid in the dark.
The ones who made the small noises in the middle of the night. Those who kept staring at you from behind everything. No matter how hard you tried or how hard you shouted you never saw them. You could not hear their laughter, in fact, they could not do it, but you knew they were standing somewhere close by, observing, witnessing all you were. They never showed themselves! That was the scariest part. You could cry all you want, those others were the kind of things that even the shadow-spawn were afraid of. This coldness coming from this outlander carried that same feeling. Something behind those inky eyes was taking in her and her apparent weakness. This time she had seen a glimpse of that thing.
“Who am I? Who am I? I could tell you my name, perhaps? It’s not Will. I used to be called something else. But that name does not exist in this world. Now I am Andaris. I am not of this world. I was not born here. Supposedly, I should be an ancient predecessor to all of humanity on this world. Not long ago someone told me that I am dust given life. That I did not come here the way my so-called friends were brought, but that I was already here, hidden inside a stone pillar, hidden in a village, hidden in a valley, hidden in the embrace of mountains, far to the north. And then, after and before I am told I am dust, I was told I am something far more primal than I could ever imagine. A god hidden in a human skin. You decide what I am.”
“I am sorry. You look like him. I know you look nothing like us, but you keep reminding me of him. It’s the small things!”
“Shut up! I am me! I am not a dead person, I am not dust, I am not a god I am myself! Why did you have to turn up?” The man had been pacing around and now he stepped towards Aerin. There was rage in his eyes.
“I am sorry! Please! I didn’t mean to cause any harm! It’s all connected. That’s how it feels.” She pleaded. “I can’t escape it. I can’t escape this feeling I am supposed to do something. As if I am chained to these two things. Will and that darkness you can touch. Both lead to you. I had to know what this means. I am sorry. I didn’t want to cause harm.”
The man’s face swam in front of her eyes. It had to be Will, she had never seen him this angry. But it was the outlander. And something else behind everything. The man had hurt his friends. She had been determined to confront the arsehole only a little while ago. Now she was huddled in a corner, afraid of the dark like a mere child. She wanted more of this man, she wanted to yell at the sick bastard, and she wanted to flee. She could not decide. The man was looking into her eyes and right inside her. It was not right that he could see through her. Then his gaze shifted somewhere far away.
“I am being told I should be interested in this deep dark.” The man’s breaths turned deep and slow as he tried to calm himself.
“You’re being told?” Aerin stammered. What kept her talking?
“Merely one of the Six Guardian Deities of the North. She does make for a good loud thinking voice. So, show me. Show me this deep dark cathedral. Because she tells me, it might be relevant. If neither of us have the capacity to act like rational people, then we can let the undead warrior do the thinking. We can let ourselves be pushed around by this invisible hand and its obedient bitch!” Those last few words were shouted somewhere far away.
“Or we could not play this game, we could do whatever keeps us sane. The little mundane things that still keep this illusion in place. What do you think of all this? How does it feel to be in the presence of a god?”
Aerin shook her head. She could do nothing. She was chained.
“So, show me this deep dark!” The man held a hand out and some of the coldness vanished. But something ominous kept its watch. Hesitant, Aerin accepted the hand and let herself be pulled up. “What should I call you?” The outlander demanded with a fierce voice.
“Aerin. And you? What is your real name then?” She stammered defiantly.
“Whatever you want it to be.” He did not sound happy.
Aerin led the man around Narris’ Citadel, through Greater Ironcourt. She could not shake the feeling that perhaps she was being led around tonight. A cold hand held a chain that something had wrapped around her neck. The outlander had not said a word since they had left his sanctuary and Aerin was left pondering what the man had said. Many questions were right on the edge of her tongue, but she could not find the courage to ask them now. Behind her the man kept constantly whispering and making clicking noises with his mouth.
“Didyoumeanit?” She breathed in one go.
“What?” He did not sound happy.
“I said, did you mean...”
“I understood that part. What did I mean?” He interrupted Aerin.
“Are you a god? Are you really one?”
She could hear the outlander audibly chewing air. He did not like that question. She asked the wrong question again. “I think it’s best to say I am beyond many humans that are alive now. A god should be something more. It is not just power.”
“What you can do, looks god-like to me. Appearing from one place to another in an instant. What you did to all my friends... I’ve never seen anyone catch a blade bare handed.”
“What about your battlemages? Can’t they do that?”
“They burn down houses.” Aerin said with a bitter voice.
“But they used to be able to do things like me? Once upon a time?”
“It’s what everyone believes.”
“It’s hard not to, after seeing you. But it can’t be all true, can it?”
“I thought you would know better.” The outlander said after a while.
“But.” Aerin would not let up now. “You said you were not from this world.”
“Is it true then? The story that crazy people tell? That humans come from another world?”
“What’s it to you? Sure. I can tell you stories about things you have never seen. I could show them to you. What would you gain from that?”
“I just want to know what you are. Why are you here, in this form?” Aerin stopped and turned around to face the outlander. She was growing angry.
“When I think I finally have an answer someone or something else comes along and shatters my understanding of where I stand. The idea of crossing worlds is not that exciting. Not to me.” For a moment, Will’s face flashed over the outlander’s. It faded quickly. Maybe she was hallucinating.
“You said something about the Guardian Deities of the North.” Aerin ventured.
“Are you looking for a friend? Why do you keep asking me all these questions? I am not this Will you keep talking about.”
Aerin felt hurt. She turned around again and the outlander followed in silence. “You were the one who told me all of that nonsense. Of course I am curious.” She hissed in anger.
“I am not the only one guilty of spouting nonsense.” A curt reply came.
For a while, they walked in silence. Aerin glanced behind her from time to time to make sure the man was still there. He followed, but his head was constantly looking somewhere else. Aerin could not figure out what was so interesting. It was the middle of night. If he really was from another world, then maybe he saw things differently than she did. Did they even see the world the same way? Aerin tried to imagine what another world would look like. Floating castles? Flying ships? Strange mushroom-like mountains? This silence didn’t sit right with her.
“You could ask about Ironcourt. If it’s so interesting to you.” She tried to get the conversation going again.
“It’s more interesting to find out about it myself. Exploring the unknown.”
“What, like an adventure? In this cesspit?”
“Tell me about this Will then.”
“What? Why?” Aerin stammered.
“You want to talk. Then talk. I can do the listening. That’s why you keep asking questions, right? To end up on the topic of your dead friend. Go on.” She felt hurt again. He was provoking her.
“I told you most of it.” She muttered. “We were doing odd-jobs.”
“I thought you were thieves. You and your organisation?”
“Sort of. Yeah. Thieves most of the time. We’re not really an organisation. The Covenant is more organised. What makes you think we are that organised, anyway?”
“My so-called friends watched your people.” Aerin turned her head slightly. That made sense. Did that not cross anyone’s mind, she thought. “But what do you call yourselves? A guild? After some long-lost deity? Do you worship a corpse who whispers to one chosen among you?” The man’s voice was serious.
Aerin laughed nervously before answering. “A guild? We’re not merchants. And we’re not a cult either. We gather to help each other. Strength is in numbers. We don’t call ourselves anything. We’re not too different from the lot down in Whitefall. It makes more sense to work as one since you would have to cross paths with others, anyway. If you want gangs and the like, visit Ordruch. Or Dorwald. I hear the Pelesi have their family businesses.” Aerin kept tittering a nervous laugh for a little while.
“Are we there yet?” The outlander asked impatiently.
“The park is ahead.” Aerin pointed up the hill.
A nervous tinge had returned once again. She kept thinking what they would find in the cathedral. Would Will’s body be there? Why would it? They walked around the park for a little while. Aerin had trouble finding the grate from a year ago. Everything was overgrown and wild. Didn’t anyone take care of this place? It did not help that it was now nighttime.
“What are we looking for?” The outlander asked eventually.
“There was an opening into that cliff face. We might have to climb a tree. I don’t think those vines can hold us.” Aerin realised the man’s footsteps on the gravel had stopped. She looked behind her and saw the man approach the overgrown cliff. “I said those vines are too brittle.”
“What about rope? Could this hold us?” The man was tugging on a piece of rope he had found from the vines. “It won’t come loose.”
“Wait! Don’t pull it loose!” Aerin shouted. “That’s the place!” A cold shiver passed through her entire body. They had never removed the rope. Of course, Will would have hidden it against the hillside. Any thief would have. Cold needles kept poking her. For a moment she didn’t know what to think. Then she approached the waiting outlander and pulled hard on the rope. She let it take her weight for a moment.
“I thought you told not to pull it loose.”
“I am testing if it’s all right. I know what I am doing.” She looked meaningfully at the outlander.
“There’s a broken grate at the top. It might be a good squeeze for you. That cloak will not help you. Or those scrolls. Why are you constantly wearing that cloak, anyway? It’s summer.”
“I like the cloak.”
“You look like you came from a few-hundred years ago.”
“Those were the only clothes available. I haven’t found anything I’d want to put on me. These don’t look too different from what you are wearing!” The man exclaimed. Had she hit a nerve?
Aerin raised her eyebrow and caught the outlander’s gaze. “Was that what you wore in the last world.”
“No. I found those. I had nothing on me when I came through.”
“Nothing? You mean you were naked? Why?”
“If only I knew.” The man spread his hands to his sides. “Are we going somewhere?”
“Right.” Aerin yanked hard on the rope. Satisfied, she started climbing.
“Wait. Don’t you have any pointers for me?” Aerin looked at the man, confused. “I have never climbed rope before.” She blinked. “Actually. Never mind. Try to clear out some vines so I can see where to throw.”
She had to take a moment to realise what the man was talking about. It was a hassle getting through the vines. The rope was sometimes caught under them. Thankfully, there were places to rest on. Some of the vines had grown into the grate, but she could get in all the same. The knot was tied with great care and still sturdy. Come to think of it, they had a way into the waterways from here. It would be prudent to replace the rope on occasion. Looking down the passage, however, it was obvious that this might not last. In the dusk, she could see stone slabs pushed away from the wall and new ones that had fallen from the ceiling.
With difficulty, she turned around and tore a few vines away from the hole. Before she could back away, she heard the sword flying through air and its impact into the cliff face. A clattering and scraping darkness appeared and a shiver of fear ran through her.
“Move further. I can’t get in!” The darkness growled.
“Wait a little, will you? I can’t turn around like this.”
“I don’t want to fall down.” The man growled.
“Did you bring those scrolls with you?” Aerin said as she turned around. The man had made too much noise.
“I took the cloak off. I have everything under control.” He sighed. “Doesn’t look too good.” The outlander added.
Aerin almost hit her head, trying to look behind her. She thought she had heard Will’s voice. “I can barely fit in here. I’ll have to crawl.” She heard from behind her. “Let’s go. Let’s get this over with.”
Slowly they made their way deeper into the passage. It was much longer than she had remembered. Aerin was worried they might miss the way up. She kept stopping every once in a while, to look at the ceiling. Behind her, she could hear heavy breathing and scraping noises. And swearing. It was much darker in here than the last time. She imagined the sound of breaking pots and plates.
“Hey! Where are we supposed to go from here exactly?” The outlander called from behind her.
“Up. There should be a way up.”
“You went past it.” She could hear frantic scraping and breathing. And lots more swearing. She felt the space behind her empty and Aerin cautiously backed up. She just saw the legs of the outlander disappear from sight. She hesitated before she climbed into the shaft as she saw only darkness and had to feel her way upward. Her fingers caught the edge of something heavy. Was that the plate Will had pushed off? Nearby, the outlander was breathing heavily and swearing.
“Are you all right?” She asked.
“I don’t mind tight places, but that was too much.” She stumbled around in the darkness and bumped into the man. Something wet rubbed on her hand and she yelped. “What?” The man demanded.
“You frightened me. What is that on my hand? Are you bleeding?” There was something thick and warm on the back of her hand. From the sounds of it, the man was taking his clothes off.
“Only a few broken scabs. I think.” The man said after a while.
“My entire hand is covered with blood. That’s not just a scab.”
“I said a few. I have a few of them.”
Aerin tried to feel her way around the cathedral. She thought she heard the faint voice of water. But right now everything was drowned by the sound of rustling cloth. She bumped into the outlander again. He had sat down.
“Will you look where you are going?”
“I can’t see a thing!” She shouted. She wondered if this was what blind people saw. There was a wall of darkness surrounding her from all sides. She had lost all sense of direction.
“I can see everything as clear as day.” She heard the man stand up.
“Oh, no. Trust me. I can see everything. I know what those are. Why are you so afraid all of a sudden?” The man’s voice had changed. He was angry. He was getting louder and louder. A foreboding chill was returning into the air.
Aerin was too afraid to say anything once again. She slowly sat down and put her hands around her knees. She did not know where she was. There was only the shouting angry voice of the outlander. She had made a mistake. She had made a grave error. Please, someone save me. Will, where are you? She was shouting for help. Why didn’t anyone answer?
“Why are you so afraid? Those are the blades of your beloved Emperor!” An especially angry shout rippled through her body. She gripped her knees tighter. “You know what those do. You know what I can do with those! You can’t fight me anymore! I can make you tell the truth now!” The shouting lasted. Although she was certain the distance between her and the man was increasing, the outlander’s shouting drowned everything.
She was right in the middle of those others. They were around her. It was cold here. Even more terrifying was the sound that those things made. Dried bones quietly clattering on ice. Click. Click. Click-click-click-click-click. There was a final triumphant shout from the outlander and the bones shattered like wine bottles.
A white flash burned Aerin’s eyes and she could not understand a thing. Her ears were ringing, and the world was shimmering with darkness. The shimmering darkness rippled, broke into ribbons. It was breaking apart and gathering around her. She could actually touch it. The humming from her ears was dissipating and black flakes were falling around her. The rustling reminded her of autumn leaves.
Her mouth was wide open and the hand covered in the outlander’s blood was held out. She had been trying to grasp that rippling darkness. Those falling flakes. Those that landed on her hand, dissipated in tiny wakes of darkness. All around her light was returning into the vast cathedral. Countless soul gems were suspended in the air all around the halls. Ornate statues and carvings decorated every surface. All covered in every possible shade of silver, red, and black. In one end of the cathedral were giant grand doors. In the other, stood the outlander. There was some sort of construct behind him.
Aerin realised she was sitting in the middle of a thick layer of those black flakes now. The last ones were falling when she finally stood up. When she put her hand on the ground to stand up a large wake or darkness cleared out some of the black flakes on the ground. She had had nightmares when she was little. Now she felt as if she had just woken up from one. She felt silly. What had she been afraid of? There were no nightmares, only bad thoughts. Her own thoughts. There was nothing to be afraid of. It was all in her own head.
She waded through the black snow towards the outlander. He was holding two single-edged blades. They curved a little at the spine and the end of the hilt had been curved towards the cutting edge. They looked broken and worn. The blades had long lost their edge. It was more appropriate to describe them as two lumps of rough metal and rust. Behind the outlander were the remains of an arcane construct.
“What are those?” Aerin asked. She was taken aback at the sudden confidence in her own voice. She had to look around to make sure all this had happened. But she couldn’t be certain anymore.
“They don’t work.” The outlander swung the two rough blades at each other. They turned into dust and all that remained were two dull hilts. It looked like he was about to throw those away, but the outlander pocketed them.
“What are... were those?”
“The tools of your Emperor, I was told. How do we get out?”
“We could try the doors.”
“They’re closed. Trust me when I say this. Those will not open from the inside.”
Aerin looked around in the cathedral. After that thick darkness it felt as if it was bright as day in here. But the more she looked, the more she had to strain her eyes to see into the shadows. “There should be a way into the waterways somewhere.”
“But is this all that was in here? Don’t you want to look around?” Aerin insisted after a moment’s hesitation.
“There’s nothing in here. It was a mistake to come. It only muddied the pool further.”
“Were those really the blades of...”
“Stop talking. And show me the way out of this place. After that you and I will go our separate ways.” The man sounded angry. Despite Aerin’s more confident outlook, the clattering bones still lurked around the corner. She hurried to look for the exit.