Part 8: One Step Closer
“Number nine...number nine...number nine...number nine....number nine...”
Everything aches. I've had time to rest, let the adrenaline wear off, and as it goes the pain comes. Nothing's broken, hail god, but that just makes my thrashing feel that much more humiliating. I shouldn't have let myself get drawn into that stupid monkey dance with Gotz. I should have just run when I had the chance.
The cell is dark, but I still have those fireglass chips. I pour them out. Multicolored shards color the padded walls with light. There's a cot and a chamber pot, and the room has that stink you only get when you stick a man in one place for years and years. The guy in the next cell just will not shut up. He's been repeating that dragon-taken number since I got here.
This is a crazy place. It's bad for the mind. It's bad for the soul.
“Number nine...number nine...number nine...number nine...”
I ignore the rambler and pick up the shards. I've got five. Each is a different color—your standard orange and yellow, a deep red, green and purple. I have no idea how the elves got the fireglass tinted that way...it doesn't look like a glaze. The red one isn't even fireglass. It's a crystal, not a glass, faceted instead of chipped. It's odd, and probably worth a nice bundle out in the world.
Here, all it does is keep the Shadows at bay. I arrange the shards into a semicircle around me and lean against the padded wall. I want to sleep. My body is bruised and I just don't have much to get up for at the moment, but if I nod off the Shadows might come and get me. Jereth's promises to keep me safe are a load of dragonshit. Being inside in his nice little prison didn't keep that whispering darkness or that grim figure with the rope from stalking me half the night. Running and hiding from the Shadows isn't going to do me any good. I need to find a way to fight them.
“Number nine...number nine...number nine...”
Great. Wonderful. Easier said than done. How am I supposed to fight supernatural forces of evil? Boil it, what do I even know about these things that would be the slightest bit useful?
“Number nine...number nine...”
“And god's tits, would you JUST SHUT UP for a moment so I can think!?” I shout at the wall.
“Sod off, ye tosser!” the fellow on the other side lobs back.
“Cork it up your mother's backside with a plowhorse!”
“Least I know who me mother is! Yer the son of a thousand fathers, all bastards like you!”
“I'd rather be the son of a thousand bastards than a whorespawned git of a three-legged goat like you!”
“Ye come over here and say that, ye son of a bitch-dog!”
“What do you expect me to do? Tunnel through the wall with a spoon?”
There's a pause, and then we both break out laughing. “Well played, sor!” the man behind the wall says. “Well played.”
It's been months since I played the snaps with anyone. Anyone I insult in Miir takes it deadly serious. For a moment, it's not so dark.
“So if you don't mind my askin', what is so important yer thinkin' about that you have to interrupt a perfectly good madness mumble?”
“I'm trying to figure out how to kill the Shadows.”
Silence. Then, “Cor. Ye don't think small, do ye now?”
I lean against the pads. “Can't really afford to. I'm an Exile.”
There's a chuckle. “Well, I suppose that would do it. Maybe I can 'elp. Care to bounce some thoughts off me, see what sticks?”
“And how can I trust you?”
“I ain't the nutter talkin' to a wall, mate.”
“Point taken.” I begin smudging the floor with my finger, jotting thoughts down. “I suppose the big problem is that I just don't know what these Shadows actually are. Everyone I’ve talked to has given me a different sodding story. Demons, the sins of man, delusions, living stories...which am I supposed to believe?”
“Well, what is it ye know about them?”
“Not enough.” I sigh, then start sketching things out on the tiles. “They can make people see things. They can possess the dead. They can turn floors and walls into goo to trap people. They can take scary forms. They can be summoned by name. They can be solid or insubstantial. They can be in one place, then another. They don't like the sun. Lights go dim when they're around. They can make you lost.”
“Can all of them do all those things?”
I stop writing. “Good question. Maybe the Shadows each have different powers.”
“How many different Shadows have ye seen?”
I squiggle a quick tally. “Hmm. Naros, the Other inside Jessamine, that Despair creature, the Hangman, the other Exile...” and possibly Aeila, too. “Five or six in all.”
“Do they all do all them things ye mentioned?”
“Another good question.” I start drawing some connecting lines. “Most of them can just appear. I think most of them dim lights. The Other didn't do either of those, come to think about it, but it was the only one that possessed anyone.” Did Aelia dim lights around her? Every time I saw the lights dim tonight, she was there, but so were other Shadows. That's inconclusive. “Only Naros has attacked me physically.” I touched Aelia, though. She's the only one I've touched. The Other was inside Jessamine, Despair melted surfaces around me, the Hangman hasn't gotten close enough to strike...except that once, when he attacked Aelia instead. He could have gone after me, but didn't. Why did he go after her?
“And making ye see things?”
I can't be sure. I think Naros was behind the maze when I first tried to escape from his fetch quest. I think Despair was behind the other maze, before the Other confronted it. I don't know which Shadows were responsible for Eric and I being lost in the Belly, or for Aelia and I being lost in the mansion's halls.
If Aelia is a Shadow, she could have been misleading me, keeping me away from Jereth. But she seemed genuinely confused and upset by winding up in the wrong place when we came to the courtyard. The Hangman set that trap.
“Do ye suppose the Shadows are a unified force, or bicker among themselves?”
I make some more marks. Naros was chasing the Other to keep it from leaving. The Other chased away Despair. Naros couldn't simply appear and take Jessamine away from me...he demanded I hand her over. He also told me NOT to interfere with Eric's suicide attempt. He claimed he was keeping the other Shadows away from me. The Exile claimed he was tapped to help me because the Saints weren't allowed. Despair moved in for the kill only after I invoked the Hangman. Despair attacked me the first night, despite Naros assuring me he was keeping the other Shadows at bay, but the Hangman only appeared after he stopped helping me. Aelia helped me attack Despair, and the Hangman strangled her. Did he attack her because she helped me?
“There's something here.” I make a few more marks. “There's lot of pieces, but I think they're coming together. Give me a few more questions...I've got to write this all down.”
“Write? With what? What could ye possibly be using for ink, sor?”
A horrible chill raises all the little hairs up my back as I look down at my notes. The tiles are stained with crimson words and lines and diagrams. The bandages on my right hand are dripping red. I must have torn one of the stitches in my hand. The other exile was found surrounded by bloody writing...
I fight down the urge to retch again. Oh God in Heaven. Oh Dragon Below.
“Ain't that a kick in the 'ead? Ye're awful quiet in there, sor. 'Ad a fright, 'ave ye? It 'appens, 'ere in the madhouse. Makes ye want to scream an' scream an' scream 'til there ain't nothing left in your lungs but pain and the certainty that yer a broken wreck. Go ahead and scream about it, if ye like. No one'll come. That's why these walls are padded, ye know. T'ain't for our benefit. Oh no. It's so them pointies don't 'ave to listen to us. So they can forget about us 'til we're needed. That's the point o' them 'aving these cells 'ere in the first place, sor. They ain't takin' care o' Dreamers out o' the kindness o' their 'earts. We're just a bunch o' tools, stashed away 'til we can be useful.”
I stare at the bloody marks all over my floor. One part of my brain is trying to hide comprehension of what I'm staring at from the rest of it to keep me from freaking out entirely. It's not doing that good a job. I'm going to wind up like that empty-eyed Exile, babbling insanity and bleeding to death, my last words a bunch of bloody marking that won't make sense to any person that finds me. Just scribblings of doom to be talked about for centuries. My life forgotten. The real me swept away forever.
“And would that be such a bad thing?” The voice from the wall says. “You're not a good person, you know. Hardly worth being remembered at all. You're a robber and a murderer.”
“What the fuck do you know about it?” I scream at the wall. “What the fuck do you know about anything?”
“I know you're a parasite, Gaven.” The wall says back. It's getting very dark in here. “You take what is not yours because you believe the world owes you for your wretched beginnings. You justify it by telling yourself that you only take from those who have extra to spare. You do not see those people, Gaven. You only see what they can do for you. You take from them because you believe they don't deserve it. But what have you ever done to earn what you take?”
“Stop it!” I shout. The fireglass is barely glowing. Only the red crystal still shines with any strength. “Just shut up!”
“You had the chance to give it all up. To walk away. You knocked up that pretty girl, said you'd take care of her and the baby.” The begins to bulge in towards me. Stretching as something from beyond tries to push through. “You said you loved her. You lied, Gaven. You lied.”
“No!” I scramble towards the furthest corner away from the deformed wall, trying to squeeze myself into the cracks and hide away. “No! You're wrong!”
Wrong? Why did you really keep up your jobs on the side? You could have been a better shopkeeper if you'd put in the effort. But it was easier to keep burgling, wasn't it? Easier to just hurt others, take the things they earned through the sweat of their brow and feed yourself and your family. And if you'd had your way, you'd have just fed yourself, isn't that right?
“No...” I pull myself into a ball and shiver. That thing can't be right. It's not! I'm not this horrible man it's describing...
You're not? Tell that to the elf girl you traumatized, the one who tried to tell you the truth and who in your madness you almost destroyed. You didn't want to believe her, so you turned on her. No better than a dockside thug after all...
“NO!” I won't let this thing win. I won't! I grab the chamberpot. Large, round, iron. It's not going to do a dragon-taken thing to the monster in the wall...but there's the fireglass. All of them dim, except the red crystal. The red crystal shines as bright as it did when I pulled it out of the wall. It's not all light that goes away when the Shadows come after all.
Light. I need more light. Need to keep it away! I grab the nearest fireglass chip and start striking it against the chamberpot. Sparks bloom, fly, vanish. Need something else...the padding! I start flicking the sparks at the batting, and I'm rewarded when it catches. Flame licks its way up the wall. The thing stops pushing its way through, begins to retreat. I've done it! I've...
I've set my fucking room on fire.
I hear a chuckle in my mind. Congratulations, Gaven. Very clever. What are you going to do now?