Dawn was barely creeping over the horizon. The mist that lay low, hugging the ground, muffled the sounds of hoofbeats. Slow and steady, they seemed to give voice to Mother Earth's heartbeat. No wind brushed the heavy mist. No sound, other than the hoofbeats, could be heard that morning.
Through the grey mass of clouds hugging the ground, a form could be seen, making its way towards a city. It slowly bled from the greyness, forming into something substantial and real. The closer it got to the walls, the less like a dream it became. Until, at the base of the great city walls, the form, a horse and rider, stood.
For long moments, neither horse nor rider made a move or sound. They simply stood, motionless, in the tall reed-grass that formed a ring around the towering walls. Then...
"Get off my back, already, will ya?"
The rider heaved a huge sigh that raised and lowered the slender chest. Slowly, as if in a dream, the rider dismounted, easing gracefully and soundlessly to the ground. Shaking out the folds of a gossamer white gown, the rider waited patiently for the horse to stop fussing.
"I swear," the horse's form began to shimmer and shift, like the heat rising off distant desert dunes. Mere moments passed until a man, tall, muscular and naked, stood where there was once a horse. The man continued as if he had never shifted, "I swear, for a being of light, you weigh a hell of a lot."
The "being of light" simply ignored the grumblings of her companion, prefering to gaze instead at the city walls.
Her companion shivered in the cold morning air and stepped closer to the woman. Following her gaze, he asked, "Are you sure this is the place?"
"He is here," was all she replied in a voice at once ageless and older than time. She spared a glance at her shivering companion and flicked a slender, frail-looking hand in his direction. Instantly, he was clothed in traveling leathers and a warm cloak.
"Never get used to that," he muttered, wrapping the cloak about him even tighter. Feeling a little warmer, he asked brightly, "So, what do we do first? Storm the city? Find the bad guy and burn his eyes out? Take his life-force-thingy?"
Solid amber eyes, pupilless and catlike, turned to gaze at him. Steadily. For long moments.
"What?" he snorted, feeling the weight of those strange eyes on him. "Isn't that the plan? You know, kill the bad guy and restore the balance?"
Those amber eyes never wavered, never even flicked an eyelash as she continued to stare at him. A chill began to run up his spine, setting the hairs on his body on end.
"Ok, ok," he sighed, thankful when the eyes swung away from him at last. "So just what *do* we do?"
"We wait." Her slender form seemed to fold in upon itself as she sank down to sit at the base of a wall.
"Wait? Out here? In the cold?" He grumbled as he chose a spot next to her, making a great fuss over arranging his cloak just so. "Least you could do was get us into a tavern. Warm rooms, warm food, warmer wenches."
When his mutterings got no response from his companion, he turned to glance at her. She sat, straight backed, eyes open. Yet he knew she slept. After a century by her side, he knew her ways.
And at dawn, she always slept.
Ahdiri sat by the hearth of the Tavern, staring into the dancing flames but not seeing them. Both herself,and Malone had come to the Tavern merely looking for a place to stay. Although it wouldn't have bothered her to remain outside, Malone had insisted on a roof over their heads.
Ahdiri found very little bothered her in this body. Although, after a century of occupying it, she still had trouble with a few of the more natural things humans did, like eating and sleeping....and blinking. In her other form, she never had to concern herself with things like that. But Malone had insisted Mortals found her eyes, and lack of blinking, a bit disconcerting. So, she would force herself to blink every now and then.
Her ears, accustomed to listening to the endless quiet of the Nothingness she was born to, picked up every conversation around her.
"So he thought he could buy..."
"...a little dog, this high with..."
"..horrible spots covering his face like he had..."
"...a little baby girl, cute as a..."
"...cockaroach crawling across the floor?"
The constant ebb and flow of noise around her distracted her, broke her focus, from time to time. It was the sound of Malone's voice, low and deep like the rumble of distant thunder, that helped to keep her grounded in the sea of noise she was still becoming accustomed to.
Ahdiri focused on the flames before her, concentrating on the light that flowed from them. She lived off the light, needed it to survive. Malone was one of the few mortals she had trusted that knowledge to. It was the Darkness that drained her. Like a plant, she drew strength from the light, any light, and the Darkness was a poison to her.
Oh, she could survive the night. When the sun set and the inky blackness of night descended, she could still feel the glow of the Great Mother light inside her. But anything longer than a few nights without some sort of light to feed her, Ahdiri began to feel weak.
She suddenly shook off such thoughts, opening her spirit to the fire's light and absorbing it. It would do her no good to think of an endless night when she had to face, and destroy, a thing of living Darkness. She knew her place in this body. She was a weapon, nothing more. And it was her place to die in her task so that the Balance would be maintained.
She felt a thump on her shoulder and turned amber eyes up to see Malone standing beside her.
"Morose thoughts again, O Great Light," he sighed, sarcastically. He pulled up a stool and sat beside her, a mug of ale in his massive paw, and a slightly tipsy grin on his tanned face.
"I don't have morose thoughts, or any thoughts at all, Malone." Her voice was low and soft. Her eyes stared at her companion, watching him take hefty gulps of his ale.
Malone watched her over the rim of his tankard, the cup half way to his lips. After a moment of watching her he leaned forward and whispered, "Blink."
Malone nodded and went back to his drink.
The sleeper didn't know what had drawn it to the tavern, didn't know why the structure so brimming with life and sound called to one unable to appreciate either. It knew only that the call was made--an inexorable siren's song that tugged at its 'soul' with velvet ropes, forcing the wraith to answer. And so the sleeper had risen from its cold bed of earth and stone, little more than an unseen mist with an unknown purpose, and floated from the modest necropolis it now called home toward whatever lay beyond.
Chill, salt-filled winds now gripped the city of Stormpoint, carrying with them the promise of a harsh winter. Merchants and shippers heeded their warning as they prepared for the delays such a season would bring, and they bustled hurriedly about the docks and warehouses, taking inventories, checking bills of laden, and arguing over cost. But the sleeper couldn't feel the winds as it skimmed over the cobblestone streets and couldn't appreciate the tasks the humans were performing ... perhaps it wouldn't care even if it understood.
It had become increasingly morose since its awakening, since its second birth into an existence it didn't understand and didn't want. So many questions had plagued it, so many things unknown, so much nothingness. Answers had come at first, though only slowly and randomly in tattered bits of grey-cloaked memories and thoughts half-understood. The wraith had tried to piece them together, to form a concrete picture, to create for itself some sense of comprehension and purpose, but they were always lost within the swirling miasma of what formed the spectre's mind. It had frustrated the sleeper, then angered it, then finally driven it into a well of self pity that left it sulking in the shadows of the graveyard--a spirit haunted by itself.
It was from this hollow emptiness that the call had summoned the sleeper. Forcing it rise almost against its will and visit the Dragon's Den. The tavern wasn't far from the cemetery, but to the sleeper its warm, life-filled room glowing with firelight and ringing with speech and song seemed a world away. Why was it here? Why? It didn't belong . . . it didn't want to belong. Oh yes, it might have once. Yes, once it might have enjoyed the simple richly pleasures of food, warmth, and companionship . . . but now it sought only rest, tired of searching for answers that were even less substantial than itself and which faded beneath the desperate stare of unseeing eyes. It wanted to leave . . . yes, leave . . . leave and return to the cold, dark quiet of the graveyard and the promises it had left unfulfilled but which at least were understood. It was about to do so, and was garnering its resolve to ignore the steadying buzzing of the call and venture back out into the night-filled streets when it saw . . . her.
She sat staring, mesmerized by the flame in the hearth, feeling it leap and breath in the way living things did. She was consumed by the dance of the flame, so noticed very little around her. It was why she had a companion. Her companion watched her surroundings for her, guarded her back while she "slept." As it was, now she absorbed the light emenating from the hearth, coaxing the flames to burn just a bit brighter for her so their light could feed her.
Born from the last light of a dying star, she found much of this world she had been flung into to be much to dark for her. Even thier brightest fires could not compare to the glow of her celestial womb. As such, she often had to coax and cajol the flames to burn brighter for her.
As darkness began to fall, she could feel the night begin to breath around her, enveloping her in sights and sounds far beyond any mortal's ken. Her "day" would begin at full night, when the things of nightmare and fever dreams took form. Shadows of things past, things beyond mortal eye or mind could comprehend. That was the world she had come to control, if not conquer... or die trying.
She had no illusions about her fate. She knew her death would come on this world, in this time frame. It didn't bother her in the least that few would know of her, even fewer remember what was to come. It was merely her place to maintain the balance and die. But, Great Mother Light willing, she may do some good before her light vanished into the EverDark.
It was a twinge that made her look, made her turn her pupilless eyes from the breathing light in the hearth to gaze into the shadowed corners of the inn. There... barely... a gasp of death... a breath of life not yet ready to go.
A shadow not of the night.
She was different, this one, and she sat nearly alone by the fire, her presence ..... or perhaps her will ...... seeming to spark fading flames to new life. She never spoke, never moved, never breathed, and her strange, pupilless eyes never blinked. The wraith didn't know what she was, but it knew that she was somehow touched by the same dread hand that held its own form so tightly. In the sleeper's death-riddled conscious, they thus shared a type of kindred, strange and morbid though it be, and if they shared a kindred perhaps they could share more. Perhaps she could hear, as others had heard ...... and perhaps she would listen, as others had not.
It was a small hope, the wraith knew, a tiny hope, but in the sleeper's vast darkness of despair even the smallest flicker of chance blazed bright with possibility. It thus floated across the room with renewed purpose, passing through the flesh and bone of tavern patrons much as stray thoughts through their ale-clouded minds, and if they had any knowledge its passing, it came only in the form of a brief chill that traced an icy finger down their spines.
It reached the woman in scant time, but it was sufficient for the edges of its perception to shift once more. For the wraith, reality had long since ceased to be a constant. It now existed only as a thing of relativism, subject to supposition and conjecture and tossed madly about in a tumultuous sea of doubt. It was through this tempest of uncertainty that the wraith gathered enough of itself to hover briefly in apprehension before descending upon the woman as a chill shroud of thought.
She was aware of all that occurred around her, the sharp calls of "More Ale!", the whistles and shrieks of drunken patrons, the low growl of Malone as one of those drunken patrons wandered a little too close to where they sat. It was Malone's size alone that kept most away. Still others were disturbed by her own stillness. But it was in this stillness that she found solace. The noise and stench of this world careened through her mind. The endless waste of movement and energy in useless endevors that never amounted to anything lasting in this life or the next. It made her doubther reason for being chosen, made her wonder at the validity of her purpose on this world.
A chill ran over her, causing her brow to furrow in consternation. Never had she felt chilled before. No soul meant no feeling, even to the point of hot and cold. Not pulling her gaze from the flames that lept for her amusement, she reached out with her mind, seperating herself from the present. She saw, in the corner of her eye, a shadow. A wraith of something she recognized. Only when she was certainof the wraith and it's meaning, did she turn her head to gaze distantly into the room. "Speak, if you wish," she murmured, just below anyone's hearing. "I will listen if that is what you need to find rest."
"Speak . . ." The word echoed in the spirit's mind. If only it were so simple. If only it could. It wanted to speak, indeed it longed to speak, to converse, or even to scream a single piercing and cathartic shriek. But, contrary to tales of myth and misfortune, the passing shade couldn't even moan. It could only think and remember, and even then only in flashes of events, most of which were long-past and unclear even to the wraith itself. Still, it had to try. It therefore summoned what strength was left to it and tried to share those bits of memory that still clung to its vaporous form.
Each time the memories came in different orders and in different ways, leaving the wraith to wonder as to their connection and significance. This time, it began with a sound, a loud and crashing sound of power and pounding -- a roar almost -- that bespoke an ancient and never-tiring source. It changed at times both in rhythm and intensity, suggesting something, perhaps, of its nature. It was followed, or rather, supplanted, by another sound which rose at first alongside it. This sound was more clear--the sharp clang of metal against metal accompanied by several cries of courage, fear, panic, and then darker things best not considered. A vision accompanied these sounds, though its purpose puzzled the specter for it was but the sight of a winding staircase, spiraling infinitely upward, or perhaps downward, into stretches unseen. There was a presence there . . . a presence that made itself known even in the tattered memories of the shade . . . a presence of cold, of void, and of darkness.
Finally, the stairs and the sounds faded and were replaced by other, sharper images. The first was of a woman with red hair and a kind, gentle face. The wraith felt well-disposed to her and tried to convey this feeling to the one to which it currently "spoke." It also tried to impart a single word--Lochinvar. Next, came a vision of a woman with dark hair and an inscrutable countenance. She had decidedly pointed ears and an air of aloofness. To her, the wraith attributed a wary trust and again, tried to attach a single word--Curiosity.
It wasn't much, the shade knew. It wasn't much at all, and even the shade itself wasn't sure how it all fit together, or even whether it fit together. It therefore seemed strange to the wraith to hope that this new one, this strangely illumined one might be able to sort through the jumble of sight and sound and create a unity therefrom. Hope it did, however, for in the absence of life, hope was all it had left.
Adhiri tilted her head to the side in a curiously human fashion as she tried to interpret what was placed into her... "mind". The darkness she understood. The clash of metal she understood. These were the things she was made for. The Battle was what she was made for, the Darkness her recognized foe. But the other....?
She knew nothing of a staircase, spiralling up or down, except as a symbal of passing from one life to the next. In her travels, as both human and light, she had heard tales of the dead travelling a spiral staircase... but she was not certain that meaning was meant in this situation.
Lochnivar? An ally? Perhaps. Her mind tucked away the image for future use. Curiosity? A foe? An ally? The image was not clear in it's desigantion of this female. Either way, Adhiri locked this image away as well.
Her attention was caught be Malone for a moment. He nodded in the direction of a group of men, soldiers. She cast her eyes briefly over them, "seeing" them, then passing on. She nodded only once to Malone, a signal to him that she understood.
Her attention then drifted back to the wraith. Below her breath, she murmured, "Thank you, sister. We shall keep watch for what you have shown us. May this help you find peace."
Her eyes drifted back to the flames again, her eyes glowing with thier reflection. "If you wish," she whispered once more to the wraith, "your assistance on our journey would be apreciated. In time, perhaps your name could be known, so that those that remember our tale will know who to thank?"
Satisfied that she had understood, the wraith ascended from the woman and thought to leave. Where it would go, it wasn't sure ..... perhaps back to the cemetery, or perhaps to the high cliff's outside the city that stood far above the endless crash of the waves, slowly eroding away with the pounding of each salt-filled crest. It didn't matter, the wraith supposed. One site seemed as good as another, but the sleeper had found that sometimes, just sometimes, it could draw a sliver of comfort from its surroundings, and in its present state, it concluded that even such meager reward might be worth the effort. It was thus engaged in an internal debate with the more cogent parts of itself when the woman's words finally reached its wavering mind.
"Thank you, sister. We shall keep watch for what you have shown us. May this help you find peace. If you wish, your assistance on our journey would be appreciated. In time, perhaps your name could be known, so that those that remember our tale will know who to thank?"
Name? The wraith pondered the word, turning it this way and that in mist-filled meditation. Name? It reached for the peculiar sound with vaporous fingers, hoping to latch upon its meaning, but the word, like so many things, was elusive and hovered just beyond the wraith's grasp as if to taunt the weary specter. The sleeper, however, was persistent, having learned to be so since its strange and unwelcome awakening, and eventually it caught a tattered edge of the word and tried to pull it closer. Bits of the word began to unravel as the wraith steadily tugged at its seams, revealing what lay beneath to the sleeper. Name . . . appoint . . . specify . . . call . . . the wraith pulled harder . . . authority . . . title . . . family . . . again, the wraith pulled, certain that it hadn't yet reached the core of the word that formed the woman's meaning . . . description . . . reputation . . . designation . . . designation . . . Designation. Was that it? Yes, the wraith thought that it was. Designation.
Having determined the woman's meaning, the wraith pondered her statement anew.
"In time, perhaps your name could be known . . . ."
Did this mean that it had a name? The wraith toyed with the possibility. It seemed somehow strange that a nebulous and loosely-formed cloud of thought and memory should have a name, and yet, as the sleeper considered, it supposed that it must have had one. What it was, however, the wraith couldn't say.
The woman had also addressed the specter as "sister." Its mind having been sparked by its prior cogitations, the meaning of this word came much faster. Clearly, the woman didn't mean that the wraith was her sister, for then she should know the name which had once belonged to it. Sister . . . the sleeper considered it further. It implied that the shade was feminine, a distinction the wraith couldn't remember, though it seemed something so basic that a memory of it should remain. Perhaps this woman had discovered more than the sleeper had intended to impart . . . perhaps she knew more.
Fragments of the wraith's mind raced with fog-wrapped possibilities, but it had strained itself severely during its encounter with the woman and its ensuing ruminations, and the images it had managed to pull into focus began to blur once more. Recognizing the chance of loss, the wraith put its questions aside, gave what assurances it could to the woman, and left the light and warmth of the tavern to drift once more in the darkness that lay beyond; but somehow, this time, the darkness didn't seem quite as dim as once it had.
© 2001 Stormpoint Writers Guild
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