Part 4: One
Trapped in darkness. Five hundred heartbeats spent screaming. A thousand spent clawing at the wall. Two thousand trying to dig at it with the glass shard. The masonry is solid. The mortar is strong. Nothing except a sledgehammer will get me through that.
So I leave it, turn to the other end. At first I'm hopeful. There's a faint, smelly breeze. A tiny hole, in between the heaps of rock. I won't suffocate. But it's cold comfort.
The stones have been wedged too tight. That hole is barely large enough for me to stick a hand through. I have no leverage. If I had...Not helpful. If wishes were lockpicks, all thieves would be be rich. There's no way I'm going to get out of here by myself. I'll be here until I starve.
Naros. I could call on Naros. I'd owe him. I hate the thought, but not more than the thought of my skeleton mouldering away here, unknown for ages.
"Naros! Naros of Miir! I summon you! Please!" Well, there's the call. Now I wait. I count my heartbeats. Sixty. Three hundred. Six hundred. I'm beginning to think he's not going to come. "Naros! By God and The Dragon, Naros, please! I need your help!"
Eight hundred...Twelve hundred...Finally! There's the clink of his silver chain, on the other side of the cave-in. I catch a whiff of rose perfume over the dank sewer air. I scramble up to the hole, peeking through. I can just barely make him out.
"Naros! Please! I'll do whatever you want, just get me out of here!"
There's a liquid chuckle. "Oh, my! Gaven Morren, actually begging me for help. What's the matter, my friend? What can I do for you?"
"Look, I don't care what it costs me, Naros. You win. I'll do whatever you ask, just get me out of this hole!" I grit my teeth.
It takes a moment to sink in. "What!?"
"You do understand the concept of No, don't you? After all the help I offered, which you rejected? Poor Gaven. You spent so much effort spitting in my face, only to realize now what it was I was protecting you from. Did you really think that a magic maze, a few redcaps, and a band of thugs were the worst the Shadows had to offer? And now you're the victim of forces you cannot understand and cannot fight, bereft of the protection that spared you before. MY protection. My protection, which was freely offered for such a minor favor, the barest hint of compensation for the incredible risk I took on your behalf. How little you valued it! How often you scorned it! And now, right when you need it most, you are without it. Look where it's gotten you."
"Are you done gloating yet?" I say. I try to keep from growling. "You're right, I was wrong. Can we put that behind us and get me out now?"
"I'm sorry, Gaven. Even if I were inclined to do so, I am forbidden from interfering in this. You are in the hands of other Shadows now."
"You FUCK! You spineless git of a three-legged goat! You pox-ridden spawn of a jackal! You bastard sack of dragondung! You can't do this!"
"Goodbye, Gaven. You were an entertaining Exile, but you're finished. And better men than you have 'disappeared' in such a fashion. Perhaps the Saints can help you, but I strongly doubt it. It would be a waste of your time to try. Good luck to you." He walks away.
He's gone. Dragon take it all. I curl into a corner and cry.
Time passes. Can't tell how much. There aren't any more tears. Just clarity. I take stock of what I have with me. One shard of jagged glass. Two fireglass gems shaped like eyes. Torn and dirty clothes. My cap. Rocks. No food. No water. No hope. I look over the jagged shard, and wonder if I really have the strength to end it before I die of starvation.
And what else is there? There's no way out of this. You will need to make this decision sooner or later. Wouldn't it be better this way?
I stiffen. I hadn't noticed the fireglass dimming this time, but that voice in my mind was not my own. "You again. Come to gloat?"
I'm here to claim what's mine. What should have been mine when first we met. But this isn't about me. I have what I want. You will die here. We both know this. I can wait. It doesn't matter to me how slowly or quickly I take you, just that you're mine now. So the question then becomes how long do you think you can hold out, until you do what you know you must? You've seen what slow starvation does. The agony of that sort of death, as your own body begins to eat itself and you slowly fall apart. Will you try to face that end out of some misplaced sense of nobility or craven cowardice? Or will you end your troubles now, while your limbs still have the strength?
I twiddle the glass shard in my fingers as I contemplate the shadow's words. Is there really no other way out of this? No hope at all? I study the face in the reflection. There are parts that are familiar, recognizable. But when I try to put the face together, my mind rebels. Is that really my mouth, twisted and bitter? Were my cheeks so gaunt and hollow before? Can I claim that lost, maddened stare as my own?
And why is there a light behind the face in the glass?
I feel a wall against my back, but in the mirror there's a tunnel behind me. No bricks, just an empty pool coated with a layer of ash. My heart leaps. For a moment, there is hope, but which is real? Which is the illusion? I haven't been able to trust my senses all night. This could be another of this thing's tricks, some sort of ruse to get another cruel laugh out of me.
I've been trying to will myself back through this wall for hours, but perhaps it was never there. Maybe it's like that maze from before. The last time that magic maze trapped me, it drove me right into this shadow. Who tried to trap me by making the cobblestones soft like mud.
If I can trick it into doing that again...
I scoop up the fireglass gems, pocketing one and holding the other up. "You want me, shadow? Fine. But I'm not doing your dirty work for you. If you want me, then you'd best come at me. Take me, if you can. But it won't be without a fight."
I hurl the fireglass gem through the opening in the far wall. It skitters out of sight. Darkness falls.
You would fight me? How? I have no form for you to injure, no life for you to end. I am everywhere. You cannot hinder me.
"Then it will be a quick battle for you, won't it? What's the matter? Don't you think you can take me?" I stab wildly at the dark. Come on...
But I don't have to. You aren't going anywhere. And you will provide me nourishment for many nights without me having to do a single thing.
"Or until the Hangman comes for me. Then you have to share your feast with him, don't you? How much nourishment will you lose then?" I have no clue what I'm talking about. I don't know what the Hangman has to do with anything, aside from being another problem for me, but to gamble you gotta roll the dice.
You FOOL! You would call him here? You would summon him to yourself and your doom?
The dice roll sevens...um, great? It occurs to me I might have just summoned that silent figure, got it slouching roughly towards me...
"Well then, you had better take me while you can before he gets here, or he'll have me all to himself."
Agreed. The floor beneath my feet suddenly softens, turns to soup...I lunge for the wall. I sink through..it's like swimming through clay. Then it begins to harden around me. Oh, fuck. I slide through the stone, pushing myself through...my boot sticks. I wiggle...the foot slips out...
And suddenly I find myself in the bottom of an empty pool, my flailing arms forming wings in the bed of ash beneath me. Free! Free! Free!
I sit up and laugh hysterically for a few minutes. Flecks of ash from the volcano rain down like snow. There's a solid wall behind me. Life is so beautiful right now.