Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Tale of The Exile -- The First Night: Into The Darkness (Part 6)

Part 6: Jessamine

I slip away from the battlefield, and try to figure out which way I came. I turn? Two, maybe? Was this the right way?

Then I spot three dead goblins at the head of an alley. Well, that answers that. I bend down and examine them. Those don't look like knife wounds...more like a mauling. Bears? Wolves? What did this? I shiver, and hold the dagger ready, not even bothering to try hiding it this time. If I'm going to meet whatever killed them I'll feel safer armed.

There is a girl standing in the alley, her back to me. Her stringy black hair falls down past her shoulders as she tilts her head to the sky. Her white dress is stained with blood, and her hands are coated in gore. I have a very bad feeling about this.

I back away...too late. She turns. The front of her dress is bloody. Her hollow, sunken eyes look past me into nowhere.

“Um...” I start, then stop and try again. “Hey. Are you...”

That stare is beginning to damage my calm. She hasn't blinked once. She takes a lurching step towards me...eep! Is any of the blood on that dress hers? Her head tilts to the other side.

“You are out late.” she says, in a voice as hollow as her gaze. “And you are big for a powrie.”

“If you mean the cap, I took it as a trophy from the others.” I say. She keeps advancing towards me. I take a step back, trying to look casual while doing it. “ You, er, don't need to thank me for drawing the Redcaps away...”

“Don't worry.” she says, then, almost as an afterthought, she giggles. “We won't. You ran away. They happened to follow.” She giggles again. It sounds forced. She keeps walking towards me, languidly raising one of her bloody hands.


“Fair enough. You, er, you seem to have handled what was left fairly well on your own...” Get back, get away, stop it, step away...

“Are you frightened by us?” she asks, noticing my movement. “Do we alarm you? Do you find us repulsive?”

“A little bit.” If her stare weren't so dead and her voice so hollow, she might be a really attractive girl. Something about the way her dress slips slightly off her shoulder, or the blood-drenched cloth clings to her chest... I shiver again, this time in disgust with myself. “Look, I'm just being cautious...” Boil it, could she stop reaching for me like that? “It's been a rough night, what with The Shadows and all.”

She stops. Finally. She scowls. "Yes. The Shadows. It seems they don't want to let us go. We've wandered far."

"Tell me about it." I say. "Buildings dance when you aren't looking, walls swallow doors, redcaps stalk, and creepy wizards offer things..."

Uh-oh. Her eyes aren't hollow anymore. Now they seem to be filled with hate and rage. "Wizards?" she growls. "Tell us about the wizards."

"Who is this 'us' you keep talking about? I ask merely out of curiosity." I shoot back. "Share with me your night, and I'll share mine."

"We got off on the wrong foot." She says. Nice, adroit topic shift. "I'm Jessamine." She extends her hand.

"Good to know. The goblins back there look like they were ripped apart by a bear, and there's only you here. I'm not touching you."

And yet, I'm still talking to her instead of running for my life. The girl scares me more than anything I've faced up to now, but here I am.

She sighs. "It has been...difficult." she sits on a nearby crate. I keep a distance between us. "I'm not sure what's happened to us--to me. My father works for the Watch. He ran up a gambling debt, and couldn't pay. The House wanted to take me in payment."

"Why?" I ask. She looks shamed. "House Dythanus always needs more prostitutes. Despite my dad's flaws, he didn't want that for me. So instead, he drugged me, and put me up in the Offering Room. I think he figured that letting the Shadows take me would be less horrible."

"What's an Offering Room?"

She looks at me. "You aren't from Miir, are you? That would explain why you're dumb enough to go out at night."

"Not like I had much choice. I'm beginning to see why Exile is considered a punishment here." I say.

She gasps. "You mean you chose this?"

"It was the best of lots of bad options. But we were educating poor, ignorant Gaven on Offering Rooms."

"It's a room left open to The Shadows. You place a treasure in the room, leave a window with a lit candle open, and hope they like it. If the Shadows accept the offering, you're supposed to gain good luck. If not..." She shakes her head. "So that's where I found myself."

"Such a lovely people. I can't wait for the dawn, so I can leave this place forever. I notice you still haven't explained the 'we' thing."

"Well, by the time I woke, It was already past curfew, and the door had vanished." Vanished? "And...I panicked. And the only way out was--"

"Wait, the door did what?"

"It means the Shadows are on their way, to inspect the offering. The only way out is the open window."

Well, that explains the empty room, sort of. And Naros blaming me for taking something of his. He must have been coming to collect her.

"So I ran into the night. And then I began feeling a...presence, in my head. Whispering to me. Telling me how to do things. Guiding me."

"The presence is the 'us', then. Good to know.” I start moving towards the edge of the ally. “We need to get out of here. The Redcaps have had enough time to get buddies."

"Wait!" She says. "You said you'd tell us about the wizard!"

"I did say that, didn't I?" I don't stop. "If you want to know, follow me. I'm getting out of this place before the guards haul me back to jail. Sounds to me like you aren't wanted here, either. Together, then?"

She nods. "Together. For now. But we're watching you."

I bark a laugh. "Lady, this Dragon-taken city hasn't stopped watching me. Save your threats."

I look up to the sky. It's still dark, but it's growing noticeably lighter. Boil and damn. It's closer to dawn than I thought. We keep moving. I could give her to Naros. But No matter how strange she is, I don't think I want to. If he wants her, he can come fetch her himself. I'm not his hound.

"What did you do to earn Exile?" She asks as we head through an alley.

"Blew out a guy's candle while stealing from the Houses." I reply. I hear a sharp intake of breath. I don't even need to see her face. "Look, I didn't know that was a culture thing here. Now I understand what that meant."

"You really don't." she says. "They only offer Exile to those who have offended The Shadows. There are worse things in them than a few Redcaps. Much, much worse. They're alive, Gaven."

"OK.” I stop. “I'm waiting for an explanation. Why does everyone I meet talk about these Shadows like that? What are the Shadows, really?"

Jessamine sighs, and leans against a wall. "When I was young, I heard a story. It's kind of a long story, though." She's saying 'I'. Not 'We'. Good sign. "Long ago, Naros of Miir wanted to band the local tribes against the armies of the Empire. But they hated each other, and wouldn't listen. Then he was visited in his dreams by dark spirits, formed from the evil thoughts of God, fallen to the mortal world for their impurity. The spirits promised to help him unite the tribes, but he would owe them a service after. Naros agreed." Naros, huh? Coincidence? I don't think so. "Upon awaking, he had the power to twist people's emotions. Soon, the tribes were united, the Empire was defeated, and the spirits..."

"They came to collect their due." I see where this is going. "And they've been here ever since."

She nods. "The Tower is their tabernacle. And you have offended them. You've set yourself up in opposition to them, and they will try their best to break you before your term is up, as a lesson to others who would think to set themselves above their will.”

No wonder the Tower creeps me out. We'll need to keep out of sight of it from now on...I don't want it watching our every move. I check the sky again. It's noticeably lighter. We have perhaps an hour and a half before the sun rises. We need to get over the wall. I can't trust the guards at their word to let me go. I can't trust Naros' dragondung about "becoming a legend". I can't trust the girl. But the girl and I have a common goal right now, more than I can say about the others. So I can work with her at least until we get out of the city. After that? Who can say?

That "presence" she spoke about worries me, though. I've heard horror stories about possessions like this. I heard a story once. A man died, and something crawled into his corpse and made it get up again. The thing then lived his life before deciding to take up killing other people as a hobby. When the guards caught up with it, they filled it full of arrows. The spirit simply jumped from the corpse to one of the guards and escaped.

We travel in silence for a while. It's not comfortable, but she doesn't seem willing to speak and I've nothing to say either.

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