Chapter 11 -- The Ghost of Valgardia
For what seemed like hours I knew nothing but pain, a searing fire pumping into my body from my neck and lower back out along every nerve ending to the tips of my fingers and the base of my feet. My blood was boiling, baking my bones under their heat and sizzling away my skin to a crisp until it flaked off and fell away like ashes on the wind, and somehow I survived. My muscles snapped and shrivelled up like twine held to a candle, my organs fried and burnt under the waves of fire pumping into me, and then finally my heart and brain melted into sludge, leaving nothing behind but a steaming puddle on the ground.
All this I felt, all this I lived, and somehow, even with burnt-out eyes thrust straight into the ground, all of this I saw. But when it had all finally ended I was still awake, still alive, and felt a blissful calm come over me, leaving me in darkness. The pain was gone, and I had finally found some peace.
“Is this death?” I wondered. I couldn’t speak because I didn’t possess the necessary organs, but the thought came out regardless.
No, damn near close to it though.
“You’re still here?” I asked.
Yah. What, you think I’d go away?
I cast my perception around, the closest thing I had to looking for him without eyes or a turning head, but the voice still seemed to be coming from inside, even though there was no “inside” for him to come from.
I’m not someone else’s voice amigo, I’m you.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
Welcome to the club.
Part of me was afraid. I was still conscious, but around me there was nothing. Was this it? An eternity faced with nothingness, and yet somehow still utterly conscious of it all?
In the dark world, panic washed over me like a new reality, in red flashes of fear. Left alone to my own thoughts, emotion became all that I knew, filling horizon to horizon with a red torrent until suddenly, a wispy chime rang out, seeming to come from everywhere at once and then slowly fading again.
Once the world had gone dark and the sound silenced, a candle blinked into existence. It was simply made, base roughly carved from dull brown stone, and rested on a simple wooden podium.
Cautiously, I ‘looked’ around again. The light was dim, but in it I could see a shadowy floor stretching as far as the light would go. I returned my focus to the candle, feeling an irresistible temptation towards it, like it had a sort of mental gravity. Instinctively, I tried to reach out and touch it despite my lack of body, and sensed what should have been my fingers close around its base.
There was another chime, and the dark room was gone, replaced with a typhoon of rushing colors and a cycling melody of whipping notes. I heard voices, distant and impossible to track, and above it all a deep chuckling laughter in country drawl.
What was I watching?
What was I living?
I saw parents and siblings, in a small town with barely enough food to make it through the day, and yet there was happiness. I saw a beautiful woman, I saw the hours and hours of work, through day and night that it had taken to earn what it took to support her, and then I saw a wedding. I saw kids, one, then two, then three, all lighting the world up even more than the wife had, because they each knew that a part of them was in their children. And I saw old friends, true men’s men that I saw grow up and grow old, but never lose the mischief in their hearts.
And finally, for the briefest moment, I saw me, a golden haired, golden-eyed boy on the beach, and in the city, and on the plains, and then I saw nothing but black. In another instant, it was all gone, returning me to that empty room. The candle was extinguished.
Bram. It had been him, all of his life cast up across the universe. It had been too long of a life, too detailed to live each moment, but it brought with it a lifetime of familiarity and friendship. In a way, I knew him as well as any friend or spouse, any parent or child. I saw what he had wished for, what he had loved, what he had hated and what he had fallen prey to. I saw the greatest victories he’d ever had and, worst of all, as he had gotten older I saw what he had feared. Mixed among the pride at a family raised and a long life well lived I saw the fear of the unknown, the disappointment of roads untraveled, the unfulfilled dreams that could have, should have been.
And then in a single moment of utter fear and consciousness of it all, I’d seen the arrow that had ended his life.
I was left staring at a candle that would never burn again. I squeezed tighter around it, focusing my will on it, trying to watch again, to see Bram one more time. It felt like if I could just bring that back, if I could just see it would be like he had never died.
Tears welled up in nonexistent eyes, and I fell to ghostly knees.
There was nothing. His death had been absolute.
Holding the candle as tight as I could I lifted my mind to the sky, praying to no god, but rather to Bram, wherever he was.
It was a whispered prayer for the dead, the only one that I’d ever known, and yet I remembered it even with so much of my memory lost to the past.
The fire will burn for the fallen
like the stars that dot the sky.
For though their lives have ended
They will never truly die.
I felt a warmth come over me then, just the briefest moment in which I believed Bram was still alive, right behind me, a gentle hand on my shoulder telling me it was okay, that he didn’t blame me for his death.
A fleeting feeling, but a comfortable one nonetheless.
As I stood once more, I left Bram’s candle on the ground, and it vanished into the darkness along with the podium.
It felt like there was something left for me to do.
High, High. Low, Low.
A light flickered into existence behind me, brighter than Bram’s flame, but still not enough to illuminate the vast emptiness of the void I’d entered.
“You were the one watching me, weren’t you?” I asked.
I turned around in time to see him nod.
“Who are you?” I asked.
I could sense him smile under his cloak.
“I am many things. A monster, a demon, a killer for sport. A thief, a glutton, a liar, a betrayer. An evil man, in your eyes... and I am the fire of the world’s ending,” he said.
“Why did you save me?” I asked. “Twice, you saved my life.”
“Oh sweet sweet little Cyrus… it would such a shame to let you die so… unceremoniously,” he said.
I was overcome with a feeling like I was a fly trapped in a spider’s web.
“No, your death will come, but it is not here, among weak-minded men,” he said.
“Weak minded men?” I asked, casting my perception around.
Suddenly, he waved his hand, and around us in an arc the thirteen men that had followed us flashed into being, all engulfed in flames but burning slowly. My eyes fell upon Rand, face twisted in perpetual terror.
“Each one of them is conscious like you are,” he said. “And yet unlike you, they are bound to those bodies. Destined to live in pain until I deem it necessary. Can you feel it? Their desperate cries for mercy?”
Just as he said it, it was like suddenly I could hear them all screaming, begging, pleading and cursing all at the same time, totally drowning in fear and pain. And I could feel everyone of them. Unlike Bram they had time, precious, hellish time to ask over and over and over again to simply be let go, to be allowed to die!
“St-stop it!” I cried out suddenly, startling both him and me.
“Please, I can’t… I can feel them...” I said. “It’s too much!”
He turned his head to the side, but reluctantly waved a hand. Suddenly, the voices stopped, the pain was gone, and the men were once again consumed by the flames, turning into golden dust and winking out of existence.
I felt a feeling similar to being short of breath as we were returned to the void, and I was left alone with a monster capable of… that. I had felt every drop of their pain.
“What?” he asked derisively.
“You could have just killed them,” I whispered.
“But that would have been too easy. They wouldn’t have felt the fear, the pain,” he said, practically licking his lips.
“That… that makes you no better than them,” I whispered.
“And what makes you think I was trying to be?” he asked.
“You’re disgusting,” I whispered.
“I’m the reason you’re alive. I heard your cries, your silent plea for help. You wanted them dead with all of your might, with every fiber of your being. Who am I but the instrument of that desire?” he asked.
My nonexistent blood went cold.
“Your idyllic world is gone, Cyrus,” he continued, “lost far away in the mists of Valgardia. The one you find yourself in now shows no mercy to anyone.”
He closed his hands, fingers glowing with the golden flame shining within.
“Even as we speak, men are closing in to kill you. They know where you are and they will know what you’ve done,” he said.
He took a step closer to me.
“Wait… no I didn’t kill those men!” I said. “You did!”
“Did I?” he asked, continuing to walk forward.“What proof do you have? I’ll be long gone by the time they get there, and all that will be left is your word against the dead and those who saw you running away with all of your strength.”
“No…” I whispered, shaking my head, “no that’s not fair!”
“I’m glad we finally,” he whispered, and then opened his hands.
The fire exploded out of his hands, wrapping back around me and dragging me down to the floor, flat on my back. I could feel his power coursing back through my veins like it had done the first time, but this time it worked in reverse. I felt my nerves reactivate first, the sense of feeling all around me, and then my heart began to beat again and my lungs filled with dry air. Next came the bones, clacking into place in an instant, and weaving a web around them them the veins that filled my body. They were then engulfed by the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and then finally a new layer of skin and even hair that came wrapping back around across my body.
Just like he had broken me down, he had built me back up again.
I opened my eyes, and at first I thought nothing had changed. It was dark, like it had been before, just enough to send panic running back through me before a cool breeze swept over my face.
My eyes focused and high above me were shining stars, and the moon, now back in the sky.
I took a deep breath of fresh air, filling my lungs with a dusty scent of the plains, and closed my eyes again, feeling the grass underneath my arms and the soft dirt cradling me.
There was something different to all of it though. Every feeling, every sensaton, all of it was more vibrant now, like somehow he’d made me more alive than I had been before he burned me.
It took me a few moments to sit up, but I remembered what the Ghost had said. Men were coming for me, and he was nowhere to be found.
There was nothing left of the attack but some charred patches on the ground, a few blades scattered here and there where the men had been and the husk of a wagon.
And you’re naked.
I looked down.
“He couldn’t leave me with pants?!” I swore, suddenly searching even harder for the reinforcements that I knew would be coming.
Quickly, I ran over to the wagon but there was nothing there. Stopping to swear, I tried to remember where Bram had put everything.
Telly was still on the ground in the dirt behind the wagon, dead from her wounds and slumped over on one of the saddlebags.
“Please have some pants there,” I whispered, walking over to the horse, still checking the horizon for any more soldiers.
There was no one, not yet, but as I got closer to Telly I ran into a different problem. The vibrance of the world -- the powerful essences and richness of every sense -- that worked the other way too. As I soon as I stepped within a dozen feet of the horse I was physically pushed back by the smell of death. I could sense the scavenging insects that had already found their way into her wounds and started to rot her out. Within a yard I vomited violently, unable to handle the death in front of me.
Take a deep breath and get in there. I can sense it too but we’re not running away with no clothes on.
Steeling myself, I ran up to the horse, crouching down and tugging on the bag. It didn’t move.
“Come on,” I breathed, pulling it with a little more force. It started to move.
With a final, mighty tug I ripped it free, falling back to the ground. With breath still held, I scampered away. In the first compartment there was nothing, but in the second I found a newly folded pair of traveling clothes, all in brown, with a note.
I hope you don’t mind, but I snuck out and grabbed you a few while you was gone. Guessed on the sizes but hopefully they’ll do enough good for ya somewhere down the line. Glad I met ya kid.
My mind went back to the candle, to Bram’s life, his memories, but I shook my head. I couldn’t think about that right now.
I put the clothes on quickly: a pair of shorts, slacks, a shirt, a jacket, even a new pair of travelling boots. All of them fit perfectly, so perfectly that, again, I had to fight to keep tears away.
Finally dressed, I walked back over to the killing ground, picking up one of the nicer shortswords. There was no sheath for it, but I could bring it in the bag, and I needed protection.
Another sweep of the scene yielded nothing else. There wasn’t anything that I could carry that would help me.
The wind picked up, and on it I could hear the distant sound of shouting, and thunderous hoofbeats, before the wind shifted direction again and they were gone.
We have to go.
It felt like there was something I was missing. A scent on the air that I remembered. Suddenly I heard two bags jingle.
“Kaya?” I asked, squinting in the darkness.
The horse was few dozen yards away, nervously pawing the ground and staying far from the killing scene. She must have wandered back looking for Bram.
And now she was my ticket out of here.
With the scent of the arriving soldiers fresh in the air now I made my way across the plains at a sprint, barely stopping to calm her down before I vaulted onto her back, bringing my bag with me. She still had her saddle and bags on, a miracle after she’d been dragged to the ground with Telly, and with a quick crack of the reins I was off, heading straight towards the woods.
Bram had said that it was the only place that they wouldn’t go, and I could understand that now more than ever. There was a power to those woods, a danger that dripped from that green line of trees all of the way out into the sky.
But now, it was my only option. Kaya wasn’t slow, but even as I kicked her up to her full speed she was nowhere near fast enough to outrun the soldiers’ warhorses.
Behind us, I could hear the men slowing down as they circled the killing ground, already searching for where I’d gone, but we were so close to the forest that it didn’t matter.
Ahead, the trees grew densely packed, forming a dark green wall that emanated a powerful earthy presence, a sort of raw natural force that flowed out into the air on the breeze. Somewhere inside me my animal instincts told me that this was a wild place, untouched by the civilization I was leaving behind. Stepping in there would be like stepping a thousand years into the past, when beasts had been king.
Kaya must have felt it too, because she slowed down to a stop at the edge of the forest, refusing to continue even past the first row of trees.
“Come on girl, let’s go,” I said, pulling the reins again, but she refused, absolutely rooted to the spot.
I gave a quick look back at the men and pulled the reins again.
“Come on Kaya, get in there,” I whispered.
Nothing. She wouldn’t go in there, even taking a few prancing steps back.
Kid, I think this is our stop.
He was right. I could feel the fear in Kaya, trembling, barely even holding herself in position. There was no way that I could continue in there with her, even as hard as I pulled or as angry as I got at her.
With a final curse I dismounted, scavenging the saddlebags for anything I could use.
The first had all of Bram’s food, packed up and sealed, ready to be eaten on the way home, a great find. I dumped the supplies in my pack, about a week or so’s rations if I was careful, and moved onto the other saddlebag.
Upon opening it I almost had to sit down.
It was filled with coin, nearly to overflowing. The banknote had been for half of the money. This must have been the other half.
“Just call her home,” I whispered. When Bram had been about to die, that was what he’d asked me for, to return the money to his family. And now I saw ghostly images of them, woven into the visions, the memories I’d seen.
I buried my face in Kaya’s side. There would be no explanation. Nothing but an empty horse with a little more money than usual.
Just a lonely horse... to a broken home... without a father... and nothing left to do but-
Stop. You know it doesn’t help.
I took a deep breath, pulling my face out of Kaya’s side.
“You know what doesn’t help?” I asked, as I wearily stood back up. “Having to say goodbye a hundred times.”
Goodbyes are never permanent, you should know that.
“Not even for the dead?” I asked, looking back towards the circling men, who were finally starting to track me towards the woods.
Not even for the dead. As long as you remember him, as long as the people he touched remember him, we’ll never truly say goodbye.
It was almost a minute before I could bring myself to do it, a minute in which the men found my trail, and started to ride towards us, dogs howling as they tracked our scent.
With that, I grabbed a small handful of coins from Kaya’s pack, just enough to keep myself safe, and then walked around to face her.
“Go home Kaya,” I whispered, barely able to contain my tears.
The horse whinnied gently.
“Go home Kaya, find Salwae and the kids,” I said, and then a little louder. “Go home Kaya.”
Recognition clicked in her head and she tossed her mane once, bumping my face with her nose in a sort of goodbye and then taking off at a riderless gallop towards the direction we’d come, arcing around the other horses down the moonlit hills. I watched her go for as long as I could, praying that she’d make it past them, but they didn’t stop to chase her. They were locked in on me, coming closer and closer.
Without another word I turned and walked into the forest. Into the maw of that primal beast.
This world was one that I’d have to face alone.