The deep yet cold voice of Shalis Skullsummon rattled Joe to his core as he shielded his eyes from the blinding light flooding in through the cell’s open door. She was but a silhuette standing in the doorway. Neither Joe nor Lo dared to move from where they lied beside each other.
“Tomorrow morning you will be taken from this cell.” Shalis continued, “You will be marched out of the dungeon, led through the castle, and taken into the courtyard to stand before my disciples.”
As Shalis spoke, she strode into the cell. Shadows of skeletons standing in the doorway painted the walls of the cell. Shalis strode over to the cot. Lo instinctively pushed back, wedging Joe between her and the wall. As Shalis leaned over them, Joe rose to meet her. She clamped one hand on his shoulder. A cool numbness swept over his body, extending from where she touched him. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t think, his eyes rolled about uselessly in their sockets. Pulling him off the cot, over Lo, and onto his knees, Shalis let go of Joe and stepped back towards the doorway.
“You will kneel before me and I will have your wrists bound behind you. I will offer you salvation in the form of the opportunity to confess, to condem the Trinity Nations, the Ipativians, and the GraiLords, and to declare your devotion to me and my cause – the cause of the Queen herself. If you refuse,” a rod of ivory formed in her grip, expanding into a blade, “I will release your entrails upon the snow. Do not fear, I will permit you the privilege of a long, slow death and, as you wait for your blood to drain, you will have ample time to redeem yourself so that – at least in death – you will be seen as one of us, the enlightened.”
She lifted the white sword to her face, sniffing the dull-side of the bone-made blade as she slid it beneath her nose. The weapon evaporated as she did so and the spectral tendrils of smoke it became were sucked up into her flaring nostrils. After a quivering sigh, she smiled at Joe.
“Do you understand?”
Joe could only stare.
Just as quick as she’d come in, she was suddenly gone. The door slammed shut behind her, throwing Joe and Lo back under the cloak of darkness lit only by his chest stone. Neither spoke for while.
“I’m sorry…” Lo whispered eventually.
Joe fell off his knees to land on his butt with his back against the cot. He shrugged and forced himself to speak, “I was supposed to die two weeks ago, suppose I should be glad I made it this far…just wish I could see my family again.”
“I know that feeling,” Lo sighed, “I doubt I’ll ever see my family again.”
“When’s the last time you saw them?”
“A few days after we came to Iceload, they were some of the first gmoats to get arrested…they’re probably dead now but…but part of me still believes they’re alive, that they’ve some how made it back to Delia and are waiting for me there…”
Joe didn’t speak. In their short time together, he’d become accustomed to the way Lo spoke. Once she started going, she would continue on like a Knome if you let her. But her monologues gave him something to listen to and he needed that, anything to keep his mind off tomorrow.
“But I know they’re not, they’re swimming inside the stars now,” she murmured, “I just hope it’s happy up there, hope they’re not ashamed of me…”
“Is that where yall say people go when they die?” Joe asked, “The stars?”
Lo nodded, “We believe, Delians that is, that when you die, your energy is pulled towards your sun until finally you become a part of the star and you live out another life, inside the star, until that star explodes. Then, slowly, your energy will be pulled away to the next star and the next star, until you’ve traveled all over the universe. You see, we, our bodies, aren’t eternal. Just like stars aren’t eternal. But energy cannot be destroyed and so our energy keeps going, forever and ever, just like the Abbim.”
“Earth, Mystakle Planet, the world beneath the star Delia, they are all the Abbim. The soil beneath your feet, that’s what transports life through time and space. Every sun dies, Joe, but planets don’t. They may smash and split, but they tumble on, clinging to star after star as one explodes after the other sending them falling through space until another star reaches out and grabs them. As far as we know, all living things have shared the same Abbim and through Abbim we are connected as kin, as one united species of living things.”
“So this planet is the same as my planet and your planet, just at different times?”
Joe had to look back at her to see her gesture before he reluctantly said, “I don’t know about that.”
“I know, its more of a myth than anything else.” Lo shrugged, “I mean, real Delians believe it-”
“Real Delians?” Joe asked.
Lo nodded, “Like the religious ones. I’m not so much religious, but at the same time…I like to think bits and pieces are true.”
“Like the part about souls and the Abbim?”
“Mhm.” She grinned, though Joe was still propped up against the cot in such a way that he couldn’t see, “Next time you get the chance, scoop up some of the soil or pluck a leaf and look at it real close. Feel it. Rub it between your fingers. Let me know if you think its alien, you’d be surprised what your instincts would suggest.”
“Yea…next time…” Joe mumbled.
“You aren’t dead yet…”
“Might as well be…”
“…you’ve gotta choice…”
Joe pivoted from where he sat to face her, looking her in the eyes as he asked, “Are you suggesting I join Shalis?”
“I could never!”
“You could always lie!”
“Can I?” Joe asked.
“I mean…” Joe rubbed the stubble along his jaw, “could I really just claim to join her then betray her later?”
“No,” Lo admitted with a sigh, “she’d find a way to hold you to it.”
“Maybe…or by holding someone you care about hostage.”
“So I don’t have a choice.”
Lo hung her head, “Not really…”
Silence slipped between them as Joe considered his options. He frowned as he raked his mind, “You think I could fight her?”
Lo laughed, “Even if you can beat her one on one, you’ll be surrounded by her minions and probably shackled from the moment you leave the cell! There’s a reason she didn’t bother to take your fire.”
Joe’s frown deepened. There was a third option. It wasn’t just submit or die. There was the potential to refuse and bring Shalis down with him. He could explode. Turning back to Lo, Joe asked.
“When its your turn…what will you do?”
She thought for a moment, then offered a wry smile. She didn’t have to say anything. They could read it in each other’s eyes – they’d come to similar conclusions. Nonetheless, she put it into words, “Even if there is no way, I’ll fight her, I’ll fight her til my soul slinks off to Solaris.”
Joe nodded, grinning with her despite their predicament.
“Donum.” He muttered.
Lo nodded, “Donum.”
– – –
One corpse still held flame, sizzling in the corner. Three bodies surrounded it, their burnt rosy flesh striped by lacerations like the stripes of a tiger. Bits and pieces of mancers sprinkled the floor, a forearm here, a severed calf there, and atop a table was a nearly-fingerless hand with a handful of knuckles – the middle finger being the only phalange intact, pointing defiantly towards Castle Icelore somewhere high above. A deep purple paste – the goopy remains of more of Shalis’ unfortunate minions – held the pieces of people like chunks of fruit in jello. The entire room was covered in this layer of death. Even the Knome, standing upon an anvil, had been unable to dodge the explosion of flesh. His white beard, black hood, and kilted-romper were coated in the melted meat and boiled blood of his victims.
He paid the carnage no mind as he held his new creation before him like a mother cradling her new born child. Though hiltless, the sword could still be held by the cold metal tang. As for the blade, it was black, not as eerily black as the Suikii but rather ashen, verging on gray. Nor was it a slinder, Fou style weapon, like the Suikii, but instead it was in the Otusacha style – long and heavy, possessing a brutish, rectangular blade with a triangular tip, it cut by the shear force of its weight rather than by the fine sharpness of its edge.
“You’re beautiful,” Grandfather sighed, “I can’t let the Order have you.”
He looked around the room to be sure none of the deceased were listening. Satisfied, he hopped down. The biological pudding splattered his bare thighs. He adjusted his skirt and waded on tip toes to the wall. Raising the sword above his head he swung it at the wall. The blade bounced off and Grandfather spun to slash at the wall a second time. Once more he was knocked back. As he spun to land his third swing, the black blade had begun to glow a vibrant orange. When he hit the wall, the stone façade exploded. Dust clouded around Grandfather and the six-foot wide hole his magic sword had blasted through.
“And you shall be hence forth named the Aruikii,” Grandfather jumped through his hole and observed the hallway before him, “the Destroyer. Now, lead me home!”
“You aren’t going anywhere, Knome.”
Grandfather’s upper lip curled into a snarl as he turned to face his opponent. Hermes stood behind him in the hallway. The banshee’s skeletal head turned to glance in the hole the Knomish blade had carved out of the wall and, though a skull shows little emotion, Grandfather could tell Hermes was startled.
Now’s my chance!
Grandfather charged. As the Knome drew near, Hermes stepped back and drew his own sword to parry the attack. Grandfather swung again and their blades clamored together for a second time.
“I’ve grown stronger each day, little man.” Hermes growled, “You cannot defeat me.”
Rearing back, Grandfather struck the banshee’s blade for a third time –the Aruikii shining with the brilliance of an iron straight out of the furnace – and released a force that launched Hermes down the hall.
“I don’t have to.” Grandfather muttered.
Beaming from his success, the Knome spun on his heels and ran head first into Shalis Skullsummon’s thigh.
Shalis chuckled. Grandfather reared back to swing but Shalis, not flinching, raised her foot and placed her heal between his kneck and shoulder. He dropped the sword as feeling began to leave his body. The paralyzing chill of her enchanted touch slowly crept across his body.
“Did you really think you could escape?” Shalis asked.
Grandfather shrugged, “Can’t fault a Knome for trying.”
“I say we execute him with the Earthboy tomorrow.” Hermes said as he came up from behind them.
“No,” Shalis shook her head as she reached down to pick up the blade Grandfather had just created, “Grandfather is far to valuable. If he can make a fifth Knomish blade, he can make a sixth-”
“At the cost of two dozen mancers?” Hermes nodded in the direction of Grandfather’s hole, “He can’t get away with murdering our people!”
“You aren’t the Sheik,” Shalis snapped, “I best not have to remind you of that again.”
“I agree with the necromancer.” Grandfather interjected.
Hermes’ grip tighted around his blade.
Raising his sword to point at the Knome, Hermes froze. So to did Shalis. The planet shuddering sound of Total Darkness rattled his bones and rumbled through Grandfather’s soul. The Knome looked at Shalis then back to Hermes.
“Did you mean to target me, son?”
Hermes laughed, the sound scraped across Grandfather’s ear drums, “Yes, Knome, but not to fight you. I’ve turned the lights out to take what is mine and leave this forsaken island.”
“And so the great Hermes Retskcirt deserts once more…” Grandfather smirked.
Hermes stepped over the Knome and plucked the new born Aruikii from the frozen witch’s fingers. For a moment he stood beside Shalis with the new sword in hand and Grandfather truly believed the banshee was about to restart time and kill Shalis before she could comprehend what had happened, but no. For some reason, be it mercy or a lack of self-confidence, he did not. The undead bearn turned from his superior and looked back down to the Knome.
“What’s it called?” He asked.
“The Aruikii,” Grandfather answered reluctantly, “the Destroyer.”
“Beautiful…” Hermes rubbed his gloved hands over the blade then disappeared.
“You’re a genius, you know that?” Grandfather huffed out a laugh, muttering on, “Trusting Hermes…”
“I can keep you alive without keeping you comfortable, Knome,” Shalis hissed, boney needles protruding between her fingers as she clinged her fist, “I’m sure your howls will soothe my fury just as well as any other prisoner’s.”
Grandfather cleared his throat, bowed, then said with a charming grin, “You know I do take requests, just say the word and I’ll make the blade of your dreams!”
Shalis spun away from the Knome and marched down the hall. A handful of boneguards materialized to escort Grandfather back to his cell.
– – –
Catty sat with her eyes on the cell door. With her crow eye, she could see the souls lined up on either side of her, pacing about their cells, rocking back and forth in fetal positions, or lying prostrate seeking communion with their favorite higher power. While her room mate was away, she had nothing else to do but attempt to decipher the identity of the bright shadows around her. Many of these figures she found familiar, the dungeon was filled with aquaintences, but one figure captivated her attention. Across the hall, sitting in the same position as she, was an energy she recognized as one she’d only just met. This was not the first time she’d noticed him but after he’d had a visitor that morning, she wondered how much longer they would be neighbors and couldn’t help but to stare vigilantly at the being lest she miss witnessing some last minute, miraculous escape.
Her train of thought was interrupted as the door to her cell opened. Grandfather dragged himself inside, shuffling his feet as the boneguards ground their teeth with impatience. As soon as the Knome cleared the door it was shut behind him. Never before had Catty seen such a perfect example of a frown than what she saw on Grandfather’s face. It looked as if the bent crest of his pursed lips and deep V of his furled brow might meet in the middle, consuming his nose.
“You finished the sword?” Catty asked.
The Knome nodded.
“Now Shalis is even stronger,” Catty groaned, “splendid.”
“Believe it or not,” Grandfather plopped onto his romp across from the shadowmancer, “Hermes took the sword and ran.”
Catty raised an eyebrow. She was genuinely impressed. Though she had little respect for him on the battlefield, the banshee had a knack for coming out on top.
“One day, he might be something to deal with.” Catty stated.
“He better make that day sooner rather than later, seeing as he has now betrayed Flow Morain, the Witch, and the Moon Dragon Man.”
“How’d Shalis take it?”
“Not bad,” Grandfather grunted a sigh, “after all, she still has me.”
Again, Catty was surprised, “Even after your little trickery with the attendants?”
“She didn’t seem to care.” Grandfather raised his hands to the sky and shook his head, “She’s lost her mind. You were right. This Sunasha thing has got her fanatic.”
“She’s insecure,” Catty commented, “the most powerful women in the world and she can’t handle being betrayed by Sunasha.”
“Love’ll do that to ya…” He reached into his kilt, foraging blindly about his undergarments, and retrieved two small, black marbles, saying, “She didn’t even stop me from stealing these.”
He tossed them to Catty. Catty reluctantly caught them, glaring at the balls in her palm for a moment before noting, “I didn’t know your dress had a pocket down there.”
“It’s not a dress.” Grandfather crossed his arms and shrugged, “Now, take it or leave it. And maybe – I don’t know – thank me for once? Seeing as you’d be dead if it were not for me.”
Catty wasn’t the thanking type. Holding the balls in a fist, she sapped the shadows from them. A wave of euphoria wafter over the shadowmancer, calming her. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, she tossed the empty crow eyes in the corner.
Catty shook her head.
“You’re not very giving.” Grandfather retorted.
Catty glared at the Knome for a moment. Knowing her silence tortured his restless spirit, she let the quiet build. She thoroughly enjoyed his agony for as long as she could bare then offered her own form of thanks.
“Across the hall, in the cell opposite ours, sits your pyromancer.”
Grandfather was on his feet instantly, looking at the wall as if he might be able to spy through it.
“You’re welcome.” Catty whispered before rolling over to fall asleep.
– – –
Joe stood in the charred wooden staircase. The body beneath him smoked. The chalky carbon wafted into his face, making him sneeze.
Joe jumped. The body hadn’t moved, but the head had twisted around – like an owl’s – so that it stared up at him. The electric elf’s face was slick, his skin a melty puddy sliding around his skull as he shuddered. Joe’s foot slipped on the stair below him. His arms pinwheeled as he leaned back. Just as he was about to fall down the stairs, something behind him caught him. His savior spun him around and he saw that it was not one man but a cluster. They were a tangled mess of blue body parts, twisted, bent, and broken into a wad. Blood seeped out from their black, shark-like eyes. An agonizing hum seemed to rise up from their quivering gills.
Joe staggered up the stairs, away from the talking corpse and moaning clump of fishfolk.
“What’s wrong, Sun Child?”
The top of the stairs were blocked off as well. There stood Johnny, raising his severed arm to wave mockingly. Beside him stood the rippled, bacon-like flesh of the fishfolk who’s stare had been forever scarred into his memory. Another figure came to stand behind them. At first, Joe thought it was Theseus. The figure wore the old minotaur’s seal, but after a moment Joe knew who it was. It was the Guardian’s son, Acamus. Acamus looked down the stairs at Joe. His dark eyes, once wild with worry but now fiery with rage, glared hard.
“You’ve brought pain into this world.” Acamus snarled.
Joe fell to his knees.
The fishfolk strode forward. He cupped Joe’s chin and forced him to look into his eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” the fishfolk raised his free hand which now held a sword, “its only justice.”
“Joe!” Johnny yelped.
“Joe!” Acamus cried.
“Joooooe!” The mutilated bodies behind him sang.
Joe was laying on his back, his head cradled in Lo’s lap, his entired body convulsing. Lo’s eyes were as wide as the fishfolk’s had been in his dream.
“You’ve got some demons in you Joe,” Lo said bluntly, “maybe we should stay awake tonight.”
Joe sat up and brushed his hair out of his face.
“Dreaming about Shalis?”
Joe shook his head. Though his body seemed to be listening and responding to Lo, his mind was still hooked on the train of thoughts he’d been forced to explore in his dream. I’ve done some terrible things. He admitted. I’m no better than the people I’ve been fighting. His stomach twisted and for an instant he thought he might throw up.
He got up from the cot and began to pace around what little space they had. I’m a murderer. He pressed himself against the corner, letting his head rest in the nook.
I’m a murderer.
“Joe.” Lo said but Joe didn’t hear until she repeated herself louder, “Joe!”
He whirled around, eyes as wild as Acamus’ had been back onboard the Monoceros, looking at Lo as if he’d never seen her before.
She raised her hands and lowered them slowly, in sync with her words, “Breathe, Joe, breathe…”
With his back against the wall, he slid down to sit in the corner. Lo didn’t say anything else, she just watched him quietly. After a minute or so, Joe spoke.
“Maybe its okay that I’m going to die.”
“I’ve hurt a lot of people since I got here.” Joe muttered, then he cleared his voice and added, “I’ve killed people.”
“Who hasn’t?” Lo laughed then coughed, choking on her chuckles when she saw that her comment did not help, “Joe.”
“Do you honestly think you’re worse than the people who run this castle?”
“Does it matter?” Joe asked.
Lo resisted the urge to roll her eyes. They stared at each other for a moment as Lo strategized how to approach her point. Finally, she asked, “Remember when I said some animals have more energy than people?”
“We all kill animals, don’t we?”
“But we don’t leave them to rot.” Joe retorted.
“Right, we do it for a reason.” Lo agreed, “Did you kill these people without a reason?” Joe didn’t respond, he was looking at his feet. Lo continued, “You didn’t hurt anyone without a good reason, Joe.”
“Does it ma-”
“Yes!” Lo was on her hooves now, “Joe. Nothing is that straight forward!” She knelt before him and took his hands into her own, “Have you not saved people?”
Joe could tell she wanted him to look up, but he couldn’t.
“You came here – or at least, you stayed here – to help people, to help this world, didn’t you?” Lo pressed, “That matters, Joe. Intentions matter.”
Joe could feel tears coming into his eyes but he couldn’t wipe them away because Lo held his hands. Suddenly, he felt embarrassed for her to see him cry. Then he felt embarrassed for worrying about such a thing. The tears rolled down his cheeks and fell onto Lo’s hands.
“I’ve done bad things too, Joe.” Lo said, “Who hasn’t? It’s why we do what we do that matters.”
Finally Joe looked up, but only so he could challenge her, “And the result, how it all winds up, how it ends doesn’t matter at all?”
“It does,” Lo nodded, “but it isn’t over yet, now is it? You are in control of how it ends, Joe. You get to decide.”
Joe nodded. Lo released his hands and sat cross legged before him.
“This is war Joe.” Lo said, “No one in this thing is clean. No one.”
They sat for a while in silence. Lo was right about one thing for sure – he did not want to go back to sleep. He didn’t know whether she was right about the rest. His mind was too exhausted to try and come to a conclusion. But he hoped that she was. He hoped that one day he would be able to look back – even if he was looking back from heaven…or hell for that matter – at his twelve days beneath Solaris and be able to justify his decisions. Above all, he hoped he had the courage to finish it right. That was something else he knew Lo was right about. The was one last test for him to take and his response had the potential to redefine everything he’d done during his brief journey.
Joe couldn’t tell how long they had been sitting there before Lo finally spoke up again.
“Want me to finish the story of the Queen of Darkness?” Lo asked.
Joe smiled, “Think it’ll get us to sunrise?”
“It just might.” Lo smiled back.