Part 8: You Make Your Own Hell
"We're going the wrong way." Eric remarks.
"I think I've figured that out, thank you." I snap back. “What went wrong?”
"Maybe its lost."
"This way!" our guide chirps. "Nearly there!" It seems far too eager about this.
"This is a trap." I mutter. Eric pulls his sword, winces. That gash in his side must hurt. I'm surprised I'm not in much pain. I was nearly killed several times last night, you'd think I'd feel it.
I hear a rushing noise. It reminds me of the fall I went over.
That's odd...the ceiling is filled with clouds curling around stalactites. We wander along the ledge overlooking The Boiling Belly for a while. It's breathtaking. In the distance, I see a stream flow into the lava. Steam billows.
In the back of my mind, I marvel at the system. Dirty water from the sewer flows into the lava, turns to steam, all contaminants gone. The steam must then flow back into the tunnels, cool, and become clean water again.
This is what I picture The Dragon's Belly looking like. Fire, dark stone, fog...all it needs is some demons poking at sinners in the lava pool below.
But that's only in the back of my brain. The fore of my mind is wondering if I will ever see the sun again. The Redcap is leading us deeper. It giggles and jabbers, claiming soon we will reach the surface, but each route we take heads closer to the lava. Closer to danger. To The Belly. There's a gleam in this goblin's eye that hints at mischief. I'm almost certain it didn't buy my Shadow Lord act.
It turns from the ledge we've been walking down, into another tunnel, one filled with the steam fog that have been making those odd clouds. I like nothing about this. Oh Dragondung. This tunnel is DARK. The light behind us is rapidly fading, and our daggers barely gleam. This can only mean The Shadows are near.
"Eric, we need to get out of here...it's a trap! That git of a three-legged goat sold us out!"
Eric is unnervingly quiet. I reach for his arm, seeking out his figure in the gloom. I grab a cloak. The figure turns. It's not Eric.
"I am touched by your concern, Gaven." The figure speaks. "But there's no need to get so attached to me. People would think it unseemly."
"Naros." He turns, smiles. I hear the sliver chain clinking, back away, hold the dagger ready. "Naros, you spawn of a whore. I should gut you."
"Ah, but then you would be without your benefactor, in a situation where you really should have someone watching out for you." he purrs.
"What. Do. You. Want?" I hiss. So not in the mood for his games.
"To remind you of our bargain, of course. The time nears. The Shadows come."
"I don't think I made myself clear last time. Boil in The Belly, Naros. And hey, what luck! There's a Belly for you to boil in, back that way.”
He laughs as if I'd told him a joke. "Ah! A fine observation. But you're wrong, Gaven. Hell isn't a pit of fire in the bowels of the world. You make your own Hell, constructed of all your thoughts and misdeeds, with your conscience as the demon that torments you." Poetic. "Your chance to avoid the attentions of your own, personal, tailored Hell rests in what you do in the next few minutes. You have a choice. And it is such an easy choice, Gaven! Elementary. So fitting for the person you have been to this point. When the time comes, do...nothing.”
I spit in his face. At least, I spit in his general direction...he's somehow moved farther away from me while not seeming to move at all.
"Ah. Still the petulant child, moved to spite and rebellion against a supposed oppressor. You may feel differently, once you know all."
Eric. I have to help Eric. Oh, by God and the Dragon, I hope I'm not too late.
I hustle. Curse this darkness! Curse this steam! Curse Naros and all the Shadows! Curse this chair I just tripped over! Wait...Chair? Here? I pick myself up and try to catch my bearings. Yes. This is certainly a wooden chair I tripped over. On a tile floor, not uneven stone. Wha?
I Look around...oh, no. I'm surrounded by walls of brick, covered by tapestries. There's a window to the side, a desk, a bed.
And no door.
The Shadows have brought me back to the Offering Room I robbed last night. Where all my troubles began.
I'm not alone this time. Eric's here too. He's hunched over the bed, sobbing. On the bed is a still female form dressed in white. Jessamine.
"So. This explains it all, then." I say, as calmly as I can. I don't know what to feel right now. Relief? Anger? Joy? Hollow sorrow? "You're her father. You tried to buy your way out of your debt to Dythanus. You offered her to the Shadows." Oh. It's anger I'm feeling now.
He doesn't say anything. He just sobs harder. I'm shaking. I'm furious. Jessamine is moving...Oh scat, she's moving! I watch as Jessamine comes awake, then slowly looks around, confused. I watch horror bloom on her face.
Eric reaches for her. His hand passes through. She's not really here, after all. This is just an illusion. An image of the last moments of her life. Now she's beginning to panic. She's tearing through the room, pulling tapestries from the wall, looking for a door she won't find. She looks at the desk, reads the note. She collapses in the chair and cries. Then she begins looking through the desk. She opens a drawer. The Fireglass dagger gleams as she removes it. It sparkles in the candle light. She points it at her breast, hesitates. Points again. Stabs.
There is silence as she collapses, grasping around in pain. I wonder why I didn't notice all the blood on the floor when I was here before.
Eric has his head buried in his hands. "No, you bastard." I hiss. "Watch. Watch what you put her through. This horror show isn't over yet."
Slowly, Jessamine's limbs begin to jerk and twitch. This would be the Other, I think. Her body moves like a puppet with tangled strings. She stands. Her hollow, empty eyes coldly survey the room. She looks at the dagger, curses, and shoves it back into the desk, locking it. She pulls one of the tapestries down from the wall and covers the blood on the floor, trying to make it look as if she was never there. Then she hops out of the window. The room is empty, except for Eric and I.
"Did you see what you did, Eric?" I snarl. I pull out the pistol. "You set her in this room. You scared her into killing herself, leaving a host open for that THING to crawl inside her." I raise the gun. "I met it. It's a monster, Eric, and it has your daughter's face. Sometimes it thinks it IS her. But not for long."
And I let it escape Miir. Boil me. I'm just as much to blame here as Eric. I knew what it was, and yet I helped it get away. The gun dips down.
"Do it." he says. "Oh, by the Shadows and Saints, Gaven, DO IT. Pull the trigger!" he looks at me, tears streaming down his face. "Please..." I look at him. Beaten. Defeated. He's been running from this all night. It's weighed him down.
"What did you think was going to happen, anyway?" I say. "Shadows come, shadows go, and suddenly all your debts are paid? Is that it?"
"You don't understand..." he mutters.
"Well, then make me." The gun shakes as I try to keep from raising it and blowing his face off.
"It's...it's just a ritual. You put something precious in the Offering Room, giving it to the Shadows. Symbolically. Not literally. It's a test, you see. To prove you're willing to sacrifice what you have to to change your luck. Nothing is supposed to happen! Sure, you hear tales of things vanishing forever from Offering Rooms, but--but those are just stories! Tales to frighten the little ones!"
"That didn't look like nothing to me, Eric." I say. "I met the guy coming to check out your offer. He wasn't pleased that she was gone. You never believed The Shadows were real before last night, did you? You thought it was all some religious metaphor for sin and penance." He begins to weep again. And I don't have the heart to shoot. I lower the gun. Really, what else can I do? I thought the same thing.
I have no idea what to do now, so I sit in the chair. I watch as he tries to pull himself together. It's hard to watch, so instead I think. It occurs to me that The Shadows got what they wanted. They took his precious thing away. Wasn't he supposed to get something in return? In every tale with this sort of twisted wish, the wisher gets the thing they wished for, even if what they get isn't worth what they lost.
But the Bullyboys are still after Eric. His debt wasn't squared. The twisted wish took but didn't give. Something went wrong. What, though? Naros said I was responsible for his debt to The Shadows...A cold chill runs through me. I thought he meant that because Eric helped me...
But Eric was on the run before he unlocked my cell. And I was the one who helped Jessamine escape last night. Oh fuck! I did this! I didn't give Jessamine to Naros. The Offering was never accepted--the Other was a rogue trying to escape and had a convenient vessel to use.
"Everything is bound by rules here..."
Maybe Eric was right and nothing was supposed to happen. Naros was just to inspect the offer, see Eric is a good Miirian, and reward him. But Jessamine kills herself because she's just a teenage girl and doesn't know it's just superstition. So The Other sees an opportunity. The Other skinrides her, and then I get released and rob the room. Naros finds me and blames me for everything. He tells me to fix it. I help her escape, and now Eric has to pay for it. Dragon take you, Shadows.
I stand up. "Look. It's not the end of the world. It's like you said before, right? We shouldn't turn away from tests, no matter how-" Uh-oh. That was the WRONG thing to say. His face turns this ugly purple color, he screams, and the world goes spinning as the punch lands. The gun clatters out of my hand. It doesn't remain on the floor long. Eric scoops it up and I'm faced with my own loaded weapon. dung.
Perhaps I'll get lucky, and if he tries to shoot me the gun will jam or explode or some other Dragon-taken thing. Not counting on that. "Eric..."
"Shut up!" He yells. Tears still stream down his face. "I-I can't take this, Gaven!" The gun moves away from my head...and towards his own. "I gave up my own child to demons...I don't...I don't deserve..."
This is bad. If I don't do something, he's going to pull that trigger. He said the Shadows came from the dark thoughts of men. His dark thoughts are catching up with him. The Shadows will claim him.
"Eric." I stand, slowly. "This is foolishness! Put it down..."
I don't know if I can talk him down. I'm not entirely sure I want to, either...I happen to agree he's done a horrible thing. It would be so easy just to stand aside, let him go...but I'm partly to blame for the mess he's in. But I'm not the one who locked a scared girl up in a room that all tradition claims is a bad place to be. I didn't push the dagger in. He didn't push the dagger in, either. But he should of known better. But there's no way this is a normal situation.
But! But! But!
He closes his eyes. Oh God, he's going to...I don't think. I simply leap at him, grabbing wildly. We collide...the gun fires...