It was dark, and the snow flashed like glass across her cheeks. Melanie opened her pack, and took out her cloak. The wind tried to rip it from her hand. Wrapped in the mismatched furs, she felt a little better. Stars, I am tired. The hollow had been uphill the entire way, and her calves ached. But there were greater evils in Verpace than steep slopes, and Melanie shrugged her pack onto her back. She set off into the snow.
The wind dropped off as she slid and floundered down the slope, the tract’s wall to her back. Peering from her hood, the expanse of the new area unveiled its grim face. The frozen roofs of buildings, with the odd tower and broken wall, poked up from the hills of white. No trees grew here, no foliage at all. The wintry landscape extended to the farthest point of her vision without respite. Icy fingers gripped her heart, and she shivered. This could end badly.
Cold moonlight shone down, white light shimmering off the ground like water off a blade. The dark tops of buildings rose like tombstones around the woman as she strode forward. The storm did not abate. Even with the cloak wrapped tight around her body, the cold penetrated to her bones. She would die of frostbite in a half an hour if she didn’t seek shelter soon. But each building was solid stone, without clear entrance by window or door. As she floundered through the snow, her hope died within. This was where the journey would end, meaningless and hopeless, a pointless existence with a pointless end. This was the world of Verpace, and such were its tales.
Her fatigued muscles shivered, and she couldn’t stop it. They were shaking off the icy embrace of the stars, the stars which claimed all evil souls at the end. Or so the Valley taught. It wasn’t the only religion she had stumbled across in her life, but it was the one that had the best stories. Her belief or non-belief wouldn’t matter in a few minutes, anyhow. What lay beyond would manifest itself, and she would know the truth.
A glimmer of light caught her eye, a flash of golden warmth. She acted immediately, leaping up on her numb legs and stumbling like a drunkard through the snow toward life. Her eyes were growing heavy, and she knew her willpower would only carry her so far before it discarded her unwilling body like a dirty rag, to be buried in the snowfall and never seen again.
The light spilled out across the snow in golden rivers, renewing her hope. It came from a brazier in the top of a tower, the cast-iron holding red-hot logs and spilling embers across the floor. The tower’s top was level with the snow. Melanie didn’t check for any enemy, but collapsed into the cloud of heat around the brazier and absorbed it greedily, her skin flushing red. She fell unconscious seconds later.
Melanie awoke to a dull scratching sound. It took her a few moments to realise her head was propped on her pack, and her damp fur cloak was wrapped around her. The warmth of the fire thawed her memory, and she remembered where she was. The scratching persisted, refusing to let her sink back into the bliss of oblivion, and she forced her eyes open. Could be a damned beast about to eat me, after all. The thought annoyed her more than anything.
The strangest man she had ever seen was perched on a gigantic bag, scratching with a quill at a parchment propped on his bent knees. His tall pointed hat sagged with dampness, and his beard ran down his chest in braids tied with grey string. Two bright blue eyes sparkled over his gnarled nose, which twitched now and then in motions betraying a desire to sneeze. And all about his person there lurked pages, scrolls, and the corners of small leatherbound volumes. Every pocket was bursting with paper, and his hat-band was stocked with multiple quills and folded letters. His scarf had a scroll or two poking out at mad angles, and Melanie did the only thing that seemed appropriate.
The man jumped at her cold-roughened voice, and she laughed all the harder as he teetered precariously on the gigantic bag beneath him. Tears streamed down her cheeks when he fell off with a shout, and the resulting crash and cloud of pages which flew upwards sent her into hysterics. She rolled over, arms clasped around her midriff. Straight into a puddle of melted snow and hot embers. She sobered up immediately.
As she rose, stiff muscles cursing her name, the man stood up as well, gathering the scattered pages while muttering under his breath. He tucked them away in various locations on his person and bag, Melanie stretched and checked her belongings. Everything was there.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“A question best left unanswered in these times, don’t you think?” he replied. His tone was neutral, cautious. He kept his eye on Melanie’s right arm.
“You’re breathing still, writer.”
“I pulled you in from the cold,” he said, placing the last piece of wood on the cooling fire.
“Yet another reason not to eat you,” Melanie said.
“You jest, but I have met both lichtridden and cannibals in these days, and the two are not mutually exclusive by any means.”
“My name is Melanie Stake, since you place stock in such things. I’d say we have less than an hour before we freeze to death, so I would work with you to find a solution, if you are keen.”
The man looked at her. Melanie could see no mad lust or violence behind his gaze. Merely calculation and attention to detail.
“My name is Tarraniel Ver Teltelvishnar. Please call me Tarr. We need to find an entrance into the city below us.” Tarr spoke quickly, but with certainty.
“I have no business in a city which lies under fifty feet of snow. I seek any hollow but that one,” she said, gesturing behind her.
“There are no other hollows up here. I checked.”
“Stars above, then we are dead. That hollow is corrupted now. The licht found a way into it’s depths and is tearing it apart.” Melanie leaned against the stone of the tower, heart growing as cold as the stone behind her.
“I know. I passed through there two nights past.”
“What have you been doing since?”
“Freezing, and exploring,” Tarr said, packing his bags, checking the belts and pushing escaping scrolls and books back into it. “There are always at least two hollows to a tract. I am a historian, and a cartographer, a mapmaker. In the dozens of tracts I have mapped, there were always two or more hollows. It allows the licht to flow, from tract to tract, according to some primary research and various secondary sources… Why are you looking at me like that?”
“You survived dozens of tracts? You? Surely you aren’t cursed. I see no deformity.”
The man frowned, stuffing damp pages into his bag. “It’s not a curse. The correct term is lichtridden, and no, I am not. I don’t know why, considering how far I’ve come.”
“I thought you’d have made a fine meal for some of the beasts I’ve encountered,” Melanie smirked.
“Caution and planning can avoid most dangers, I find,” Tarr grumbled, hefting his bag onto his back.
Melanie laughed at the barb. She wrapped a rag tightly around the remaining piece of wood, cursing as the flames nipped at her. She used her knees to hold it as she deftly tied the knot, the makeshift torch burning brightly in the icy night.
They set off, cloaks billowing in the wind. Sparks flew from the torch, and the flames whispered, harsh as gravel being ground between the teeth of giants. With each step, the cold scratched its way through their cloaks, sharp teeth tearing away at their warmth.
The first roof they reached had no breaches in the tiles, and they moved on. They couldn’t dawdle. The wind ripped a loose page out of Tarr’s pack, and tore it to pieces before he could react. He swore under his breath, but Melanie only saw his lips move, the wind shredding whatever words were spoken before they could reach her ears. The snow lashed their bare cheeks with a fury Melanie felt was wilful, as if some white-robed wizard was hurling snow at them from afar. She snorted, knowing there were few who could control the licht, and even fewer who could maintain their sanity while doing so. The licht has a will of and unto itself. It is a power that has no master, and cares nought for its servants. The licht doesn’t, indeed cannot, care who stands in the path of its storm, as long as it creates more chaos than there previously was. Melanie smiled at the remembered echoes of some madman she had met many tracts ago. He lay dead, and she lived on. Who was the wiser between them?
The second building they reached had an opening, a thin gap between two pillars which led to a frozen wooden door. The pair rushed in. Melanie kicked the door, grinning as the water-damaged wood gave a muffled crack. A few more kicks and they were inside. A stairway went down into shadows, and Melanie put a hand on Tarr’s shoulder. She gestured with the torch at the footsteps in the ancient dust on the worn flagstones.
“We have no idea how old those are,” he whispered.
“Can you fight?”
He looked at her, and Melanie could see his manly pride giving way to reason as he shook his head.
“Your honesty is commendable. I go first. Carry the torch overhead, not in front of my face. If you blind me, we are both dead.”
They slipped down into the dusty gloom, red light flickering across the bare walls of the stairway. Melanie kept count of the steps in her head, her eyes scanning the darkness before her. The ancient dust smelled of nothing, not death or decay or rot. Just dust, more ancient than memory could tell. Before her, the footprints went, step by step. Her lichtridden arm twitched a little, but she could sense the licht had not penetrated far into the city. Or if it had, it was in the very depths.
Forty-three steps later, they entered a vast chamber. The dripping snow from their cloaks created eerie echoes in the place, and they halted at the entrance. The torchlight showed no roof, and barely reached the farthest wall. Great grey stones made up the walls, each one several metres in breadth and height. Benches and tables of strange designs filled the room. They were heavily carved, and Tarr nudged her forward, clearly intrigued. Melanie let him go, keeping watch on the shadows. She couldn’t spot the tracks they had seen previously. Unsettling.
“Why, these are constructed of wood I have only read of in books! From the forests of Aterr-She, before the First Lichtvallen. Priceless, even in that time. The carvings are the work of masters.”
“Clearly,” Melanie said, her eyes on the next doorway. “Our torch is burning low.”
Tarr continued to study the carvings for a moment, then turned to her in shock.
“Not a word,” she growled, stopping his outburst. “Whatever value these once had is as dead as the trees they come from.” She took hold of the nearest stool, and kicked at the joinery. The furniture was in surprisingly good condition considering its age, but Melanie’s boot prevailed. Soon enough they had four pieces of wood with rags wrapped around the ends. Tarr pulled out a candle and dripped wax into the cloth of each, ensuring greater longevity. They packed two of the torches away, and lit one each.
“There is no licht here,” Tarr said as they moved across the chamber toward the far doorway.
“Faintest traces from our entrance, but you are correct; it is very odd.”
Another stairway greeted them, and they walked down, following the footprints in the dust. Their torches provided some warmth for their bones as they climbed into the depths of the city. Thirty steps down, Melanie could see no end to the stairway. The walls seemed to shrink in on the intruders, and she considered the vast weight of snow lying above them.
“I have read of older magic than the licht, in ancient books,” Tarr said.
“Old books are full of nonsense,” Melanie replied. “I hear they once read tales of fancy, where people that didn’t exist pranced through worlds that were imaginary. Not all books are historical, and even those of history are full of lies.”
“Does your cynicism aid you in your travels?”
“I believe what I see. And I have seen much,” Melanie said.
“As have I, and read more. There is no licht here, and I maintain an open mind as to why there are no inhabitants.”
“Maintain that open mouth and you’ll wake them if they are here, that’s for certain.”
Tarr shut his mouth, eyeing Melanie’s arm. The crippling atrophy spread from her fingers to her elbow, the skin wrinkled and grey. The veins were visible as lighter lines running through the skin. Many years ago, she would have hidden her arm with a deep sense of shame. But she now knew that if people feared you, they were more likely to think twice. And such thought was beneficial for a person’s health, in Melanie’s philanthropic eyes.
“Why are you smirking?” Tarr grumbled.
“Because I have wandered long alone, and have been my own source of amusement for years. You’re a welcome relief, though.”
“I’ll write about you someday, so watch it.”
“Who would read about a lichtridden?”
“Future generations. We must leave a record of our experiences, to allow those who come after to learn from the past.”
“Stars know what they’d learn from me.”
“I wonder the same,” Tarr said, one corner of his mouth lifting.
The sudden jolt of the bottom of the stairs made Melanie jump.
“Damn it, man, you made me lose count.”
“Eighty-four,” Tarr said.
“Hm. Thank you.”
They were in a vaulted corridor, the ceiling rising far above them. Pillars lined the walls, stretching up into the shadows like the trunks of some stone forest. The vaulting was of a style neither had seen before, and Tarr noted the peculiar metallic globes which hung from each meeting of arches. Before he could speak another word, the one above them shook. A sound like a bell flooded through the corridor. The next one did the same as the first’s echoes died away, and the third. Neither traveller moved. The torches flickered yellow and red, the shadows around them jittering in the fitful glare. The final bell ended, and silence reigned again.
Neither spoke, listening and holding their breath.
After a minute, they gasped and looked at each other.
“An ancient greeting system?” Tarr inquired, the hope weak in his voice.
“Or an alarm,” Melanie said. “Yet there is only one path before us, and we must take it.”
They marched onward, and came to the end of the hallway. Another chamber opened before them, this one with dusty carpets and great empty chairs lined along the walls. A tapestry hung on one wall, and the imagery there showed a large court filled with people. There was a tall throne in the centre. But as their torches flickered, Melanie could swear that one or two people of the court had vanished. Tarr gripped her shoulder, pointing up the chamber. The tall throne depicted in the tapestry loomed in the darkness.
A statue was seated there, the royal dressings carved in intricate detail in the white marble. The figure had its forehead resting on its palm, elbow propped on the throne’s armrest. It was a picture of despair and great weariness, as if all the pain of this dead kingdom had been absorbed into this marble king. His desolation was made all the more grim by his complete isolation.
But where are thy guards, oh King
And why hast thou been so left?
Do see the gains of thy sin
Observe thy dead realm bereft
Tarr whispered the poem in the dry air, and his words fell flat in the dark chamber.
“An old poem,” he explained, “Maybe even about the man seated there.”
Melanie grunted, and looked back at the tapestry. Now it showed only the king seated in his throne, an exact replica of that before them, but in vibrant colours.
“Tarr, there is a magic here which I have not encountered before,” she whispered, stepping backwards. Tarr followed, but cringed as the bells tolled again, pealing down the stairway. The pair ran to either side of the doorway, leaving their torches spluttering on the flagstones beside the carpet. Yet no one was coming down the stairs, and as the last bell’s echo died away, they sighed a breath of relief.
“Look, Stake!” Tarr said.
The statue was no longer resting on its arm. It sat now straight, and staring directly towards them. The shadows seemed to deepen around the throne, and fear stretched out tendrils toward the two intruders. One of the torches on the ground had set the carpet smouldering, but neither could tear their gaze from the statue and the shadows. Darkness filled the furthest crevices and corners, flooding over the ceiling. Soon all that could be seen was the marble figure against a backdrop of darkest night, the red light of the torches a diseased illumination. The statue wasn’t moving. The carpet and the ancient dust was burning now, and thick smoke rose in black clouds to the rafters. The statue stared at them.
The bells tolled a third time.
Before their eyes, the statue rose to its feet, stone cloth splitting and becoming soft, as it had once been. Marble muscles rippled under marble skin, and the eyes blinked once, then fixed on the two humans. Ten feet of living marble, wearing a cloak of deepening shadow which spread its folds across all the surroundings, shadows billowing across the floor, walls and ceiling.
Melanie wrenched Tarr toward the farther doorway, grabbing her torch as they circled the burning carpet. The bells were still ringing as they fled the room, and Melanie’s last glance showed the statue still standing at the throne, with flames licking around its feet.
They ran through corridors and chambers, boots loud on the flagstones and dusty carpets. They passed tables piled in silverware and dusty feasts. The food had merely dried in the stale air. Statues sat at some tables, while in other rooms they stood guard or lay resting on ancient beds which climbed high into the shadows. Servants carried trays, various items of bedding, food, or wood, their faces all equally impassive. They passed royals kneeling in prayer at alcoves, grotesque statues of some long forgotten god looming over their veiled heads. Priests bent in earnest conversation, but no words left their still lips. There was no life here, only a sick mockery of it, captured in a perfect montage of white marble.
All the while, Melanie checked behind them, and her thin hope lifted at the lack of pursuit. Maybe the fire had prevented passage.
They stumbled down stairways. Tarr’s tall hat flew off at some point. Melanie lost count of how deep into the city they had come. The statues’ dress became coarser and their appearance uglier the lower they went. A figure of a woman lay on one arm, the other broken into pieces of marble. A guard stood beside her with unsheathed sword. An expression of despair was frozen on her screaming face, and Melanie shivered. Other statues lay contorted in the middle of rooms for no clear reason, and the regal stillness of the floors above was nowhere to be seen. Some figures knelt with hands to their faces, bodies tensed, each muscle caught forever in cold stone.
Heavy footsteps sounded from behind them as they ran through the hallways and rooms. “The king is coming after all, it seems,” Tarr gasped. Melanie noted his breathing was as laboured as her own. The torch she carried was sputtering, and she handed it to him. He took it, his panicked eyes meeting hers for only a moment before returning to the darkness ahead. As she leaned behind her to reach the last two torches, she saw the shadows behind them were darker and closer than they ought to be. The heavy crunch of marble on flagstone came from the darkness in sickening waves. Melanie wrenched the torches free and held both to the unsteady flame Tarr carried. They caught quickly, and Tarr threw the old one behind them in a shower of sparks. The shadows swallowed them instantly, and the torch flickered out a few seconds after.
“Damn it,” Melanie gasped. “Where is the hollow, Tarr?”
Tarr shook his head, and kept running. They chose between doorways and stairways randomly, and eventually began to make their way back up. The despairing statues grew in number here, often climbing over one another to squeeze through one doorway or another. Fear was scrawled across their faces like the last words of a visionary who had seen beyond the stars, beyond death, beyond the physical and into the spiritual. And what he had seen there was frightful beyond measure.
The steps boomed from behind.
At the top of a long stairway, the pair burst into a library. Piles of books lay stacked against shelves which towered into the gloom. Reading tables covered in candles and piles of molten wax lay scattered about. Scrolls written in extinct languages lay spread across the floor. They passed between the shelves, Tarr muttering under his breath the entire time.
At one end of a wide section of shelves they entered into a round, open area. Statues knelt with hands upraised, all facing toward the centre. There, on a dais of a few steps, stood a tall statue, dressed in the robes of a sage or priest. A real book still lay in his marble arm, right hand raised high in impassioned rhetoric. The statue’s mouth was wide open, and his brow was furrowed. The statues by his feet were part of his stone inheritance, their grasping hands wound tight in his robes, supplication bleeding from their tearful eyes.
Tarr had stopped, bent over and breathing hard. Melanie collapsed to her knees, and spat to the side, but carefully held her torch above the scattered pages and books. We have outrun the king, but not for long, she thought. Even now his footsteps could be felt rumbling through the flagstones.
“I believe this man killed the city, or he was trying to save it. Either way, he failed these people,” Tarr said between gasps.
“Would the licht kill this bastard?” Melanie said, looking back at the growing shadows.
“I think this city died long before the First Lichtvallen, Stake. Centuries before.”
Tarr shook his head. “There is no way to know. But if you failed, we’d be dead before we could form another plan.”
Melanie cursed, and thrust her torch into a pile of books and scrolls, which burst into flame. Tarr looked away, and she understood. She was destroying something of great value to him, with complete disregard. She knew that feeling too well, could still remember it from when she was a six year old child. That pain would never go away, but one learned to live with it.
The flames filled the library with light, and the advancing shadows burst angrily against the red glow. They couldn’t swallow so much light at once, it seemed. The light was like a wall. Tarr ground his teeth, staring at the liquid darkness. Melanie tensed. She had seen no exits from this mausoleum.
The footsteps crunched though the wall of shadows, and Melanie glimpsed the white figure stalking through it. The king’s face appeared, and the top of his chest. The shadows flicked across the stern features, but his brow didn’t lower, his mouth didn’t move. The eyes stared directly into Melanie’s own, and she recognised the wordless statement they made. An enemy had been recognised, an intruder, a violator. The hatred burned coldly, colder than the ice and snow so far above them. Yet Melanie saw a special malevolence meant for her alone. Her soul cowered under its gaze.
The shadows began to push forward.
“Up there!” Tarr yelled, pointing high up one wall. Far above the shelves there were openings, tunnels for ventilation or light. Darkness lay there now, but it was their only chance. They ran toward the ladders which leaned against the shelves here. Alicia threw her torch into a collapsed bookcase, the wood and paper lighting in a grim bonfire.
The king’s gaze was fixed on the statue of the priest, and the shadows were lashing furiously at the flames below him. His rage was fomenting around him, the darkness expanding in sharp waves.
“Go, Stake!” Tarr said, pulling at her arm. Melanie couldn’t look away, though, and watched as the shadows burst through the books and flames, enveloping the priest and his audience. Shrieks poured forth from the shadows, climbing in crescendos as the crunch of marble and cracking of bones intensified. Words in a tongue the world hadn’t heard in a thousand years poured out in exhortation and reproach. The shrieks overrode everything, and terror clawed its way into Melanie’s soul, a dark creature that knew exactly where to strike best. Her heart pounded, panic filling her ever-calm mind. Turning, she climbed up the ladder, right arm limp at her side.
She had witnessed something that she understood, and yet didn’t. The darkness wanted her, and she knew it wanted her specifically. Not Tarr, not anyone else, just her, and if she didn’t make it to the hollow, it would take her. And something deep within her knew what lay beyond, had been there, and had faced that faceless, nameless nothingness. Her right arm was twitching sharply, but she ignored it, leaping up the ladder and forgetting all else.
Tarr followed behind, his massive pack of books, paper, and supplies weighing heavily on his back. Melanie’s fear was apparent, and he took it as a bad sign. The shrieking was dying down now, and the shadows swirled darkly in vast clouds. The king emerged, and in his hand he held the stone head of the priest. He lifted it, pointing the dead face toward Melanie. Melanie turned, and saw the gesture. She screamed and climbed harder.
The king threw the chunk of marble at her. It smashed into the ladder, and both Melanie and Tarr leapt aside onto the shelves as it collapsed. The darkness surged towards them, the marble figure approaching steadily. The pair climbed madly. Books fell down into the raging bonfire, and the shelves cracked under the new weight of their bodies. The air was filled with their heavy breathing and the crackling fire, with the deep beat of marble feet rising from the twisting shadows below.
With a final pull of her good arm, Melanie reached the top, and collapsed, breathless. Her lungs burned. This is not how I end. I won’t die like this! She rose to her knees, every muscle groaning, and turned to the tunnel.
Tarr screamed from below.
Melanie took a step forward into the tunnel, jaw set.
Shelves cracked, and Tarr’s heavy breathing and mutterings tore through her mind.
She took another step forward.
She closed her eyes, but a tear broke through anyway, and drew a burning path of shame down her cheek. She strode forward.
“Help me, Stake.”
She stopped, the fear in her heart urging her to run. Emotions led to death. Empathy was a weakness. The king wanted her. The darkness wouldn’t hesitate to rip her to pieces and send her mind into the insane maelstrom it called home. Perhaps this need to help was a suggestion from the shadows, a bait for her.
Melanie turned and slid to the edge, looking over. The darkness was ripping into the bonfire, eating the flames even as they were born. The king looked straight up at her, but she forced her eyes to focus on Tarr. He was only a few shelves down. Hooking her feet into the stonework, she lowered her good arm. The man made a grab for her hand, but missed. His muscles were visibly trembling in the strain.
“Drop your pack, you fool!” she shouted.
Tarr looked up at her. Melanie met his eyes, betraying none of her thoughts. She couldn’t help him decide. He swore. Shadows ripped the books and shelves into pieces just below his feet. He unbuckled the pack. It fell down onto the king, and the papers and books burst into bright flames. The darkness swept back, leaving the statue in the open. Fire swept around it, but didn’t scorch the white marble. Tarr gripped her hand, and she wrenched him up and over the edge. He collapsed, but dragged at her shoulder.
“Come on, Stake.”
Melanie looked for a moment longer at the marble king, who stood looking up at her. The same cold recognition burned in his eyes. She read an acknowledgement of defeat. Neither the king nor his prey had died, though. The cloak of shadows wrapped around his white body. This was an eternal battle, and one which Melanie would have to wage eventually. The king stared, and Melanie challenged him, glaring at him in triumph. I won today, I’ll win tomorrow. And I’ll keep winning, you bastard. Mark my words.
“Lets go,” Tarr said. Melanie rose, and they ran down the tunnel, the feeble light of the burning library their only guide. Soon that faded. they ran on, and didn’t realise they were in the hollows till the feeble glow of licht told them so.