I've been told since the day that I came into being that I was supposed to be a creature of the dark, cold and relentless. Not a surprise to me, since I've also been blind for as long as I can remember. Sometimes, luck just says "to heck with you", and throws itself out the metaphorical window.
I'm not sure if I was born. I must have been, at least once, but I don't remember it. I could feel that my face was smashed against the floor of a cramped room. The floor was warm, cradling my face in a strangely pleasing way, and oddly pliable. It was silent, with the exception of the rasping sound of my breathing. I turned over-or, rather, I tried to; my arms refused to hold much weight. There was a faint, percussive sound somewhere behind me, the floor vibrating slightly as the noise rattled through it. The sound grew in volume as time went on, until it thudded to a halt near me. There was a brief pause of near-silence, broken by the sound of a door opening.
It turns out that I'd popped into creation in the closet of some god's temple, which was made entirely out of gold. Seemed a bit expensive to me, but who was I to judge? People have weird tastes. The unusual part of this was that the priest apparently knew that I was in the closet in the first place. Once he was satisfied that I didn't intend to steal any bricks from his temple, the priest helped me out of the closet. From what I was able to figure out, he was an older man, extremely focused on worshipping his God. When I asked him how he'd come across "RandomGodName4502", he told me not to worry, and that "your God will find you soon". I wasn't entirely sure I wanted a god to find me, but I guessed I didn't get a choice in the matter.
Once I was able to get around reasonably well on my own, the priest pressed a staff into my hand. The tip of it, he explained, was filed to a point, and could be used as a weapon or a tool. When I asked him why he was helping me, he explained that his God had ordered him to equip me, then send me west. There were people killing innocent creatures out there, he told me. "False heroes". It was my duty to eliminate them to atone for their sins, and free the creatures from their tyranny. It was only right, he said, that I should be the one to do this act of goodwill, as I was created for this purpose. And so it was that I set out, walking slowly to the west.
The path, rather a lack of one, was rough. Without the priest's staff, I would never have been able to leave Godville. As it was, I was constantly tripping over rocks and undergrowth. Every now and then, I would hear snarls, and calls to fight, but I ignored them. Over time, the creatures' calls stopped, and I was able to get to business.
After a time, I began to hear battle cries in the distance. Some were decent, but most were borderline strange. I lacked a cry at the moment, so I came up with one to describe my current situation. I screeched it as I charged into a clearing, swung my staff into a man, and prevented him assaulting some poor beast. He flew to the ground, crying out in shock. As soon as he was down, I smashed the flat end of my staff into his sword arm. He screamed pitifully, kicking weakly at my legs. In response, I hit his arm again and moved on to end another battle.
At the end of my labors, the ground was uneven, due to the multitude of killers lying dead or unconscious on the grass. The creatures had fled as soon as they were freed from battle, so I was alone. I picked my way across the grass, to the monolith in the center of the clearing. Out of curiousity, I touched it. It was pleasantly cool, and hummed slightly at my touch. The humming slowly grew in volume, until I felt as if my skull were vibrating, but I found myself unwilling to pull away. The sound became unbearable, after a time, until it was suddenly washed away by a child's voice, carrying me into sleep.
The place was dark, but not black, which made me realize that I could see. I was surrounded by trees, their branches heavy with vines and fear. Beside me, a younger girl stood, clutching the hem of my dress.
"Ash, I'm scared", she whimpered, sniffling. I pulled her close in response, remembering. She was an orphaned girl from an unnamed village. I had never learned her real name, but she called herself PogoPogo after a lost toy of hers. She was like a daughter to me.
I raised my swords, trembling as I looked around us. Guttural roars and throaty snarls echoed around us.
"Are we gonna die?" asked PogoPogo.
"No, sweetie. I won't let us." A roar from behind punctuated my reply as a beast leapt towards us. I swung my sword, ending its life, even as another leapt from my side. I pulled out my second sword, shouting at PogoPogo to keep close, and set myself to the task of defending her. They came from all sides, but my swords were no match for their thin skulls. Eventually, though, there were too many to fight.
"Run!" I shrieked to PogoPogo, but she couldn't. I tried to keep them off of her, but I had too many of my own problems to deal with any of hers. A beast leapt onto my back, tearing into my sword arm. I screamed, my swords slipping from my hands as another creature landed on me. I fell, the world fading to blackness, and the sound of PogoPogo's screams.
I jolted up, my hand on the monolith, shaking. I was blind again, but that didn't matter to me. What had I just seen? Had I died?
Whatever had happened, I had to find out. This was important, whatever it was. Since touching the monolith-thing had triggered this, touching another one had to trigger something like it.
Sighing, I lifted my stick to continue the journey west. Hopefully, fufilling my purpose would lead to another milestone. The path was longer the second time around, weariness weighing my limbs down. When I found a cave in the forested canyon, I decided that it was probably time to rest and recover for the day. I'd fought through the night, after all.
I dragged myself into a corner of the cave, and flopped to the floor. The cave was oddly cold, but I didn't care. My eyes slipped shut of their own accord, and it seemed as if I might actually get some sleep. Naturally, fate decided to spit in my already-damp face, and the ground shattered beneath me, tossing me down and into a place that I later named the Void. The world of the Void is nothing like the surface; there's nothing visible to fight. It's just you and whatever your lonely mind decides to torture you with. After a day or two, you feel as if you're about to break in half. A few weeks, and you've lost all hope. More than that, and you want to die. Truly, it's an awful place.
After five years, the Void spit me out into the surrounding canyon. The view must have been spectacular at the top, but I was stuck at the bottom. Oh, and blind. That too. As it was, I had lost my staff in the void, and my muscles were once again too weak to support me. I was getting sick of lying on my face. Honestly, a pile of twigs would have been more comfortable.
I'm not sure how long I was at the bottom of the canyon. One day, maybe two. I'd never actually been out during the day before, and I was learning for the first time what a sunburn was (Note to self: do not repeat experience). Eventually, someone found me- the voices in my head that plague me to this day. They were leftovers from the Void, and they refused to leave me alone. I recollect one of them babbling on about potatoes from dawn to noon. When an actual human being found me, I was so out of it that I thought that I wasn't real, and that she was hallucinating me. The woman carried me to her hut, where she doused me in cold water and made me the worst stew I've ever tasted. It saved my life, but it was just awful. I almost wished I'd died.
Once I'd recovered, I set out to locate another milestone. The woman had been kind enough to give me an old staff of hers, which I found helpful in not falling off the canyon walls on the climb up. She'd also given me a pair of swords, saying that I'd made her think of them for some reason. They did feel familiar to me, though I wasn't sure why. It probably didn't matter.
At the top of the canyon, there was a small, nameless town. The buildings were dusty and dry, and I soon found that the people fit that description as well. One man rambled on about the sun for a full five minutes before I convinced him to shut his trap and go away. The only worrying thing about this town was the way its people treated me after I let it slip to a child that I followed no god. The whispers came first, nervous mutterings behind my back. Then, a few people threw rocks at me, so I killed them a little. They popped back to life anyway, so no harm done. Apparently, the people disagreed, which is why I found myself tied to a tree, about to be sacrificed to some lunatic in the sky. They ought to know by now that I'm no tree-hugger, so I ended up killing them a little more once I'd gotten free. I then stumbled off into the woods, chased by a small horde of idiots and a cat.
After some time, I found the milestone. It was hard to miss, with the sounds of raging battle around it. That, and I tripped over a sign helpfully written in braille, reading "milestone 53". I slipped in to do my duty to animal kind, politely liberating the offending people of their lightly-used heads. The swords felt natural in my hands, almost like extensions of my arm. Once I'd finished breaking up the battles, I sheathed my swords and stumbled to the monolith. I leaned against it, weary, and waited until sleep took me.
A girl, standing in the darkened room. Her face is blotted out by the shadows of a single window.
"Why are you looking for me?" she asks, head cocked. She's young, PogoPogo's age, but gives off a sense of power that's far greater than her physical years.
"I want to know who I am, where I came from. Who you are."
"Ash. You don't need to know all of this. You're better off, godless. I can't... I'm not meant to be a god. I'm scared, Ash. Please, just..." She shivers, holding herself nervously. "Look for something else. Gold or something. Not a god. Not me. Please."_She's pleading to me. And strangely familiar. That voice, those words... It's PogoPogo! How is she a god?
"I'm not leaving you," I tell her firmly. "Or my memories. Stay with me. Be my goddess and guide me!" She shakes her head, biting her lip.
"Please, PogoPogo. I'm begging you. You need me even more than I need you."
She looks at me for a moment, then nods uncertainly. I'm hit by a wave of relief.
"You want the memories of your previous lives back?"_she asks. Lives? I had several? I nod.
"Then touch every milestone in existence, and stop killing heroes. They're just being protective, and you're murdering them in cold blood. You have better things to focus on now, Ash. This is the start of your new life."
She sounds so much older than I remembered. I nod again, and she smiles uneasily. Goddess, this is going to be quite the task.
"Go," she whispers.
I go, and my first quest begins.
If only I'd known that it would never be finished.
I'm beside a milestone, and it's huge. And very bloodstained. It's the third one I've visited that day, and the last three were all either visions of my past deaths or something incredibly stupid. Actually, all of the milestones I've visited in my year of travel have been letdowns. When am I going to get something useful?
//Probably never. Ash, I...// She trails off. She sounds more nervous than usual. I'll have to pray to her at the next town, try to cheer her up.
//I... I can't do this, Ash. I can't-// Silence. No, absence. Where was PogoPogo? I called out to her, with no response. She couldn't what?
Disturbed and frightened, I set out to move further west. I'd gotten better at not tripping, but using two swords as detecting rods was far less effective than having two working orbs of flesh in my skull would have been. I'd lost the staff long ago. I ended up bruised and short 15 hp by the time I reached town to pick up the nessesities. Bandages, drinks, death threats... Normal stuff. Actually, I even got to skip the death threats that trip. It was about time! I was able to rest in a pub without a near-death experience for the first time in my life.
//Move it.// I set down my drink, surprised. She was back, but dang, PogoPogo sounded pissed off. And cold. The people in the pub were talking about me now, thanks to her.
//Stop wasting time!// PogoPogo snarled in my head, and I was suddenly floored by the worst headache I'd ever had. What was happening? She was never this cruel to me. When I tried to ask her what I had done to deserve this, I heard a soft, gutteral snarl in reply, and a too-vivid vision of a familiar cave. Oh goddess, no...
"PogoPogo, don't ask me to do this. Please, anything but this!" I pleaded. No reply.
Guess I'm off to the good ol' Void pit again.
The slog back to the cave was just awful. Tree branches coming out of nowhere, rocks suddenly deciding to rest in front of my feet... As I said before, swords as detector rods don't work at all. My face must have looked as if it had met up with a blizzard of twigs by the time I arrived at milestone 3, where the cave was located. Why would my goddess even want me to return here? She knew how much I'd grown to hate and fear the place, and she had felt sorry for me. She had even been kind enough to allow me to avoid milestone 3 altogether, since I'd already been there, and had no need to play "Connect the Milestones" with it. As goddesses went, she was actually kind to me, most of the time. What had I done to deserve this? Was it even her, speaking to me?
I kept moving forward, though it felt like I wasn't really the one driving anymore. PogoPogo, if it was her, was in control, and she steered me into the cave. Below me lay the pit of the Void, the entrance to the place of my nightmares, and it was most definitely deep. How far was she actually going to make me go with this?
//What do you think?// she whispered teasingly to me. I refused to answer. No, this didn't feel like PogoPogo at all, this thing speaking to me. This wasn't her. The voice was wrong, slick and cold where it should have sounded warm and pleasant. What was in my head? And how long had it been there?
//Get in the pit//, it purred, nudging me forward. I pushed back against it, preventing myself from falling into the pit. I teetered on the edge, fighting to move away from the edge, even as my legs tried to shove me forward. I shuddered with the effort of resisting.
"Stop..." I groaned. "Please..." It only laughed.
//You cannot win this, child. You know. No matter how long you fight, you will go in this pit, and suffer more for your efforts.//
"PogoPogo, help me!" I whimpered. If this thing wasn't her, she might be listening somewhere.
//Your goddess isn't coming. Fool child, stop resisting. You know nothing will change your fate. Give in.//
"What did you do to her?" I screeched. The thing echoed me, laughing, then redoubled its efforts to push me into the pit. We fought for many hours, trembling on the edge of the pit, fighting for control. It took all the energy I had. Eventually, my strength ran out, and my legs crumpled beneath me. For a moment, I balanced on the edge, lightheaded, before my weight shifted and I fell forward, the thing's laughter following me down.
Time passed. I remembered none of it, having been unconscious in the Void, and then semi-conscious later. The voices were constant, the thing's loudest of all. I learned of its desire for corruption, for chaos. It didn't care one bit for my self-interests. I was just a tool. And it used me until I was broken.
It left me after a period of years, most of them lost to my memory. Fine by me. I came back to myself over the course of a week or two, in which PogoPogo was still notably absent. When I had mostly revived, I was lying on a soft surface that was most likely a bed. There were human voices in the distance, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. Otherwise, I didn't really notice anything about my surroundings, so I set about noticing what I could about myself. My body was more scarred than I remembered it, with an especially pronounced ridge running from my jaw to my brow, crossing over my eyelid and sealing the useless organ behind a layer of scar tissue. Something felt wrong with my dominant sword arm, but it took me some time to determine what; it turned out that I was missing my middle and index fingers. There was no way that I would be able to hold a sword in that hand now, not as well as I had. My other hand was missing my ring finger. I couldn't help but wonder when I'd lost the digits. What had happened to me?
Soft footsteps entered my general area, followed by the rustle of coarse fabric. A cold washcloth suddenly caressed my arm, following the path of what felt like a fresh wound. I hissed in pain, startled.
"Easy, there", murmured a woman. "You've been cut up pretty badly, lass. I was worried you'd never wake." Her voice was almost musical, and incredibly soothing to hear. Hers was the first human voice I'd heard in a long time, to be honest.
"Can you speak, lass?" she asked.
"Yeah," I croaked. The sound rattled in my chest, rough and hoarse. I coughed.
"You sound like you've been quiet awhile. What's your name?" she asked.
"Ash. I'm Ash Corde." I flinched slightly as she began to clean another wound, this one on my left shin.
"Sorry, lass, but I've gotta clean this out. My name's Natalie, by the way. How'd you end up out here?" I searched my memory, struggling to remember, and failed miserably to come up with anything worthwhile.
"I don't know," I muttered, frustrated.
"Well, you must've fought recently. You're beat up good, lass. Oh, and my husband Derrick is cleaning those swords of yours 'fore he goes out on his hero-type errands. Those swords're pretty well-used. You sure you don't remember how you got here?"
"I don't even remember losing my fingers," I said, shaking my head.
"Well, lass, whatever happened to you, you're safe here for as long as you like. I'll care for you for awhile. I've always wanted a daughter, and the gods must've willed me one. Now, lass, do you feel the least bit like eating something?"
I nodded. It felt like I hadn't eaten in days, and I probably hadn't.
"Right, then. I'll make you some of my soup. World-famous, it was. You wait right here and rest, right?" She finished cleaning my injuries, then left the room in a rustle of fabric. I had no inclination to go anywhere, so I stayed in bed until she came back. The soup, it turned out, was in fact good enough to be world-famous. It was some of the best food I've had in my life. Natalie chuckled as she watched me eat it.
"One would think you hadn't had soup before, lass!"
"You're an amazing chef," I forced out between bites.
"My mother taught me before she vanished." I nearly spit out my mouthful of stew.
"There one day, gone the next. Still don't know where she went. Wish I did; I loved her dearly. She was a hero, see, like my husband, so she did go missing every now and then. She always came back, though. Last I knew she was headed towards Godville to finish her temple and just smiling... She was such a happy woman. Always quick with a joke, said it kept her from being depressed by her job. Loved her god, too. Converted me, she loved him so much. You have a god, lass?"
"Yeah, I do." I sigh. "Her name's PogoPogo. She went silent a while before I blacked out. The last thing she said to me was that she couldn't. I still don't get what she meant by that." I have a suspicion, but I'm choosing not to believe it.
"She'll come back, don't worry. Gods always come back eventually. Why'd you black out in the first place, anyways?" Of course she asks the hard questions. What do I tell her?
"I fell into a pit."
"Alright, then." After looking at me skeptically, she takes my empty bowl and leaves the room.
I was in bed for around a week before Natalie allowed me to leave the room, and even then it was difficult to get around. I ended up leaning on the walls and limping forward. When I'd made it out of the hallway, I discovered that Natalie ran an inn, and it was crowded. The main room fell silent a few moments after I'd entered it, settling myself onto a chair by a table in the corner.
"Oi, Ol' Nattie, who's this little lady?" a rough, male voice asked after a moment. "Looks like she's been through yer blender." Loud, wild laughter dominates the room.
"Orin, she's got a name. She's Ash, and you'll treat her well or leave. You got that?"
"Yessum, Mama Nattie." More laughter. "Orin be good."
"Was the lassie born a mole?" someone else asks. It takes me a minute to realize that the man is asking if I was born blind, or lost my vision in a fight. Stupid local lingo.
"Born, looks, and'll die one," a woman replies. Not Natalie; this woman's voice is much higher. "Don't get like that in a fight, though she's got a couple'a nice scars. Don't 'chu feel bad for the little lassie?"
"Not a smidge, Cass. Chu don't know me. She don't need yer pity, the lass, she don't. She looks like a fighter-girl."
"She is one, Orin." snaps Natalie. "Shut your trap and leave her alone before that lass goes and takes your head off. Might be blind, but dang, she can move!" Natalie, at least, sticks up for me, and it's because of her that the teasing stops. A minute or two later, a slim hand lands on my shoulders, and I jump. I didn't hear her walk up. Her hand tightens, folding my shirt into a wad of wrinkled fabric on my shoulder.
"Look, lassie. I'm sorry for Orin teasin' you so bad. My fault he don't get how to b'have round girls, bein' my man an' all. What chu say, ye wanna get along?" It's the woman that Orin called Cass, and she sounds kind. Maybe she'll be worth my time. She might even know something about my memory gap.
"If yeh ever need a friend, jes' ask, right?" She pats me on the shoulder, then vanishes. I can't hear her leave. She might actually be the most dangerous person in the room, she's so quiet. Another reason to befriend her.
After she leaves me, the inn settles back into pre-me banter. From what I hear, Orin is a hero who was born in Anville. He apparently has slain over thirty-thousand monsters in his lifetime, which instantly makes me hate him. Cass hails from Los Demenos, and met Orin in an arena fight. It was love at first slap, she tells someone. And then there's the man in the corner. He doesn't speak much, and the only reason that I know he exists is that he grunts in response to the occasional question. He actually creeps me out quite a bit, since I know next-to-nothing about him.
I pass a few hours listening to Orin boast of his many achievements, most of them obviously exaggerated. For instance, he says that he'd killed a Godville Administrator with his bare hands. I highly doubt he's even seen one. I haven't, but I'm blind and will therefore never see anything. Like I said, fate must think I'm a wad of monster guts on its brand-new boots. If fate wears boots, that is. Eventually, it gets late enough that Orin and Cass go to their room, and I'm left alone with Natalie and the Corner Man. I'm surprised when he actually speaks to me, his voice slow and halting. He must not speak much. Immediately, I think "like me", but shake away the thought. I'll have PogoPogo to talk to if she comes back. When, not if. Definitely not if.
"I've seen you before, girl." His voice is low and menacing.
"Last month or so. You were in a village north of here, and you tried to kill me. I was lucky to survive. You were missing the fingers, then, and you still fought like the devil himself. What did I do to you, anyways? Did I insult you?" He shifts slightly in his chair.
"I don't remember."
"Am I really that insignificant to you? How many people have you tried to kill?" He slams his hands into the table, spilling his drink. It quietly drips onto the floor.
"I swear, I don't remember anything from... I don't actally know how much time I'm missing. I just blacked out after falling into a pit, then woke up here..." I stop talking. The man is dead silent, the drip-drip of his drink the only sound.
"You fell into a pit, girl?" he asks. I have to strain to hear him speak.
"I... Yeah. I did."
"Not just any pit, though, was it? You have another voice in your head now, don't you?" Even Natalie is quiet now, the sound of her cleaning the counter having faded away long ago.
"How did you know that?" I asked.
"It happened to me, many years ago
I was still trying to answer my questions in my room later that night. What was so special about the Void, other than the living- with- your- fears thing? Why had my god fallen silent? And what was that thing that had been in my head? I was asking too many questions that I couldn't answer, not without PogoPogo's help. Her voice was still nowhere to be found. It worried me, her silence. The inside of my head was almost too quiet for sleep. At least the other, annoying voices were being louder to compensate. They could, on occasion, be polite like that, which was why I was eventually able to drift off.
I was in the Void again, just me and the dark. And that incredibly disturbing silence. I couldn't even hear my own breathing, and the voices were absent. Even PogoPogo was silent, because I hadn't found her yet. It was my first time here, after all, and I was unused to the silence and the stench. It smelled like copper.
The voices faded in slowly. A man, first, screaming at the top of his lungs. A woman, asking where her child had gone. A young girl, begging for her life. Sounds, followed by images, my constant companions for the next five years. Blood, hate, and fear, amd something else, another voice. A city made from the shadows-
I bolted awake with a quiet yelp, the sheets damp with sweat. Goddess, I hated that nightmare. I had it most nights, which was why I was always so tired. I never got much sleep.
Having nothing better to do, I got out of bed and dressed, being careful to avoid reopening any wounds. I was getting used to the way that they ached when I moved. I then limped out into the center of the lobby, which was empty of any people. I guess that everyone was asleep, like a sensible person would be. I think. I'm not exactly sensible. I sat awhile in a chair, feeling the cool night air brush my cheek. It was a pleasant sensation, if a bit chilly. It reminded me of something that I couldn't remember.
My brief moment of happiness was interrupted by the _shunk_ of a dagger missing my head.
Have you ever been so startled that you literally fell out of your chair? It's no fun, especially when you have no clue where the person who startled you is. Whoever it was, they moved quietly. I couldn't hear them at all, and I'd only met one person who moved like that.
"Die, ye fiend," snarled a female voice, and another dagger grazed my leg along a previous injury. It burned like a branding iron probably would have, had I ever been branded, and I cried out in pain and shock. At least I now knew who had thrown the dagger for certain. Why was Cass attacking me? Did she have some sort of a death wish for me?
Don't answer that. It was a stupid question.
I scrambled to my feet, turning to face the direction I'd heard Cass's voice from. I had the barest of warnings before a dagger sliced where I'd been only a moment ago, tearing the fabric of my shirt. I picked up the nearest glass, throwing it in the direction of the dagger's owner. It hit something and shattered, Cass cursing angerly. I quickly grabbed a plate and dining knife, throwing the plate but keeping the knife. It was a good thing I did, because a strong pair of hands seized my arms a moment later. I yelped, feeling the wound on my arm widen. Fresh blood trickled down my arm.
"Ye filthy, stinkin' rat of a critter, ye ain't human, 'spite yer looks. Yer a fiend, ye are, and yer 'bout to die for yer sins!" Spittle flew into my face as she moved one of my arms into her other hand, drawing a third dagger with her free hand. I wrenched my knife to the side just in time to prevent my head from being impaled, the dagger glancing off of the blade. Unfortunately for me, it bounced into my arm, tearing into the wound that was already there. I shrieked, my knees giving way under the pain. Goddess, that hurt! Cass only laughed, pulling the dagger back out and inspiring a fresh wave of agony. She spat in my face and swung the dagger again, only missing me because I'd swept my head out of the way. I swung my knee into her gut in the second or two that she was distracted, and she released me, surprised. I retrieved my knife, picking it up with my good arm, and unsteadily faced where I now knew she was. I could hear her breathing heavily as she drew another dagger. Did she keep a magician's hat under her jacket?
I swayed on my feet, beginning to feel lightheaded. The cut on my arm was bleeding heavily, and I was starting to wonder if I would survive this. The thought was interrupted by a fork stabbing into the back of my leg, sending me to the ground. I found myself screaming as Cass settled herself so that she was sitting on it, breaking the prongs of the fork off.
"Hope ye like it on the oth'r side, fiend," she snarled as the door to the hallway flew open. Footsteps slammed in, and Cass was wrenched off me by a furious Natalie.
"What're you doing to the lass?" Natalie bellowed. More people entered the room, cries of horror and surprise echoing off the walls.
"Somebody help her, already!" Natalie finally said, and someone lifted me up, rushing me through the hallway and into a side room. I heard the person call for bandages as I passed out, blood loss and shock finally setting in.
I woke in bed, and almost immediately cried out. My entire body hurt in ways that I hadn't known that bodies could hurt in the first place, my arm bearing the worst of the pain. Where was PogoPogo when I needed her? She'd just _had_ to go quiet on me...
The room was mostly empty of people, with the exception of Natalie. She was busy changing a bandage on my leg, sighing unhappily every few minutes. She moved as soon as I cried out, brushing the hair out of my face and shushing me, as if I were a feverish child. She stood there a moment, then returned to bandaging my leg. She spoke once she'd finished, wiping her hands on her dress.
"You're gonna have a few more scars after this one, lass. I'd stay away from Cass, if I were you. Girl keeps calling you a fiend." Natalie chuckles. "She's the fiend, or my name isn't Natalie Drail. Don't think your arm got cut on anything too important. You got lucky." Hah, lucky. Yeah, right. Remember my relationship with fate?
"Natalie, where is Cass?" I asked. It would be best if I knew where my enemies were.
"Shut up in her room, if I have any part in it. Some aim she's got with a blade, I'll admit, but she won't use it again, not in my inn. Any clue why she tried to kill you, lass?" I shook my head. Sadly, I seemed to be stuck with everyone either trying to kill me or nursing me back to health. It was getting annoying, and it told me something. I couldn't stay in Natalie's inn any longer. I couldn't ask her to risk her life defending me from Cass, or another visitor. Simply put, I had to leave. Goddess, but breaking it to Natalie was going to be hard.
"Natalie, I can't stay any longer," I forced out. Might as well be blunt about it.
"Lass, don't even think that. You're staying till you're good and healed, and longer if I can help it."
"You won't change my mind." I forced myself to sit up, stifling a groan as bruised muscles stretched. Pausing to rest my head in my hands a moment, I breath out and start to manuver off the bed. Natalie, though, stops me before I can go anywhere.
"Lass, what's that on your hand?" she asks, tapping the outside of my slightly-more intact hand. I flinch, surprised.
"There's nothing on my hand, unless you're talking about fingers. Or palm lines. I have those too. Or- wait, no. I'm too young for wrinkles." As far as I know, I have nothing on my hands. Whatever it is, it must be recent. Cass might've cut me when I wasn't paying attention.
"No, the black spiral thing. Looks like a tattoo." I reach and touch the back of my hand, curious, to find a raised pattern etched there. It feels like two interlocked crescents, facing outward in opposite directions, with a line going up the middle. Definitely recent. I flinch away, surprised.
"I don't know what this is." I say, and finally force myself to stand. The stab wound in my leg complains, but I've felt worse. I think that I can walk out of here on my own, which would be a first. No stick needed.
It takes some time, but I persuade Natalie to let me go. She packs a pack (Such unique word choice, Ash. Great for the history books) of supplies, and I made to leave. Natalie had given me a walking stick, the third one I had owned, so I expected the going to be easier (they seemed unlucky, though, my borrowed sticks. I wonder why). I was distracted on the way out by a light rapping sound at the corner table. Rykker was trying to get my attention.
"Girl, I couldn't help but notice something." I turned to face him, surprised. He suddenly grabbed my hand, causing me to jump, and put it on top of his own. After getting over the creepiness of this, I realized he was young. No self-repecting former merchant was that young. How old was he? After a moment, I noticed what he wanted me to see, assuming blind people can be made to see things.
The top of his hand was marked by two raised cresent moons and a line.
"What... How?" I stuttered.
"It used to be darker; it's more of a white color now. Yours is grey, which is why I noticed it. Your skin looks like it hasn't seen the sun in a long time." He chuckles. "Still don't know what it means. I was actually hoping that you could figure that out for me. I've been searching for the answer for years, and I'm looking forward to a break."
"How many years?" I ask. Something is definitely off about his age.
"I'm not sure. Fifteen, twenty?"
"How old are you, exactly?" He hesitates.
"I... Look, ever since this mark showed up, I haven't really... aged. I've looked twenty-three for a long time. Best guess, I'm in my nineties. And, no, I don't know if it'll be the same for you. My advice is not to hope for it. It's more a curse than a blessing, immortality. No clue how the gods manage it." He sighs. "But, hey. I wish you luck in figuring out what the heck is going on." He stands, leaving the room, as a tiny little bar appears in my upper right area of vision, which throws me off. I'm not actually sure how I'm seeing it. I actually chase it around for a minute before I realize that it says: "Quest 1: Figure Out What the Heck is Going On: 0%.".
I stopped by the nearest town as soon as I reached it, since Natalie's pack wasn't filled for a long journey. Fortunately for me, the local stores are open 25 hours a day, so I was able to walk in to buy supplies. First stop - the butcher. Hopefully, he or she is selling plenty of monster jerky, since it doesn't spoil easily. I could be walking for some time, and I really don't feel like getting food poisoning.
The butcher is a bright, enthusiastic man who fails miserably to cheat me out of my gold. He settles for the price of a mere 45 gold for three packets of jerky, which will be enough to last me about a month. I'm handing over the gold when the butcher cuts off midsentence, figeting.
"Ma'am, I'm going to have to... to ask you to leave my shop. I don't want any trouble. Keep the jerky." His voice shook slightly. Leave the shop? I was interested in the steaks, too. I hadn't had a good meal in over a week.
"Why?" I asked him, frowning.
"Ma'am, you know why." I can hear him drumming his fingers on the counter. "Please, just get out." I sigh and prepare for a verbal war.
"I actually don't know why, so if you'd be kind enough to tell me...?"
"Stop stalling, fiend, and get out of my shop!" He called me a fiend. The same word that Cass used when she tried to kill me. Coincidence?
"What does fiend mean?" I ask him. His fingers drum faster on the countertop, like the roll of a snare drum. He's also gulping when he swallows, though I doubt he notices.
"I... Please, just get out." It's clear that he isn't answering me by choice, so I resort to force and leap over the counter, settling my fingers so that they wrap somewhat loosely around his throat. He panics, struggling to get free, then goes limp when I tighten my grip so that he can gasp for air instead of panting for it.
"Tell me what the word fiend means, or hope that someone finds you after I stuff your body into the back room. Your choice." I would do it, too, since he probably has a god to resurrect him. I would only be killing him a little, no harm done, but he's vibrating beneath my hands. He swallows.
"I.. It's a term we use around here..." He pauses, and I squeeze slightly, prompting him to continue. His next words come out in a rush. "P-people go missing, and s-show up with that mark on their hand, s-start running around killing people like they're p-possessed. Th-they might actually b-be possessed, y-you never kn-know... Can y-you loosen up a b-bit?" He gags, and I loosen my grip slightly. He gulps in air, squirming.
"Does this happen often?" I ask him.
"N-no, it doesn't really. O-only three t-times in t-the last y-year... They a-always h-have these b-black eyes, and that's how we know that th-they're f-fiends, t-the eyes. P-please l-let me go. I d-don't know any more." I do, and he drops to the floor with a gasp.
"Do my eyes look black to you?" I whisper. Last I was told, they were blue and tended to not move. Handy for creeping people out.
The poor guy probably squints, struggling to see my eyes at all, then stutters out a "no".
"What color are they?"
"Th-they're g-g-grey." Grey? My eyes are blue. At least they aren't black.
"Keep the change," I tell him, set the gold on the counter, and leave the shop, hands in my pockets. Hopefully, the tailor sells gloves.
When I leave the town, I'm well-stocked for long travel, and I'm wearing a pair of black gloves. The tailor had to do some quick stitching to remove the spare fingers from the gloves, but he was paid extra for his troubles. I've also got a textured map, which might be helpful in finding my way back to Milestone 3. This trek might not be such a problem after all.
Naturally, that's when my foot decides to step into something far too soft to be dirt, and far too thick to be water. Quicksand.
I squirmed for a moment before I realized that struggling was only pushing me farther into the sand. By that point, I was down to my stomach, since I'd failed to realize what was happening. It was an uncomfortable sensation, like wearing a skin-tight bodysuit that squelches when you move.
Deciding that fighting wasn't working, I started trying to climb out. This didn't work either, since every time I pulled one foot up, I pushed the other foot down. I sank down to my chest in the process.
Afterwards, I tried a variety of equally stupid methods. Every time, I only sank further down, until I was struggling to keep my face out of it, using my hand to scoop quicksand away from my mouth so that I could shout for help. Nobody would hear me, but at least I could brag that I'd tried if I reincarnated. That word gave me pause. "If." Would PogoPogo know that I had died? What had happened to her? Would she return if I went to Milestone 3? The thought of being dead for good scared me. For once, I was goad I was blind, so that I wouldn't have to see my own death as it happened. It was terrifying enough to feel it approaching.
I waited, gulped in a last breath and held it, held it, held it, my hand flailing, the last part of my body free of the sand, but I couldn't hold it any longer and I breathed out and in and in and in and...
Grey light, black light, silence. Nothing.
Guess I wasn't immortal after all.
Darkness, which means I can see. A small mercy of death. I'm in a city, a city of flowing shadows and barred windows. A humanoid figure waves at me as it passes, silver eyes flashing. Another salutes me. They are as dark as the shadows of the buildings, like midnight's own, dark children, and I recognize them from somewhere. I've been here before. When?
A door opens when I approach it, an eerily grinning figure holding it open for me. It mocks a bow and dissipates into the air, evaporating in seconds. I walk into the building, looking around. A conservative lobby, hard black chairs and a grey table, monochrome. I don't wait. I walk up the stairs, and time_ blinks _away. I find myself at the end of the top floor's hallway, a single door opened wide. The voices echo from there. I step into the hole.
Two black figures at the window, holding aside the curtains, two of Midnight's Children. Between them, a form darker than the others holds the dark in her hand. She turns to face me as I enter, her face splitting into a broad grin.
//Ash. Nice to see you again. How're the hands?// My stomach turns. It's the Thing, the voice that blocked me from my goddess. I would know it anywhere. It chuckles at me, the grin on its face spreading to split it down the middle.
//Won't you let me back in, child?// It opens its arms, as if to hug, and I gather myself to speak. The dead don't use lips. They speak mind-to-mind.
//I will never let you into my head again,// I shout.
//A shame, since I've been there the whole time. I don't leave as easily as you seem to believe I do, Ash Corde.// A shiver runs down my spine as it says my name, and for a moment I see the Void again. Then, this place rushes back, and I find I'm on my knees. She strolls up to me and brushes the hair out of my face, looking at me, and smiles.
//You thought of me as a she,// she whispers, then draws back.
//PogoPogo lives, by the way. She's not dead. She just left you.// Her words resonate as she kneels down in front of me, and shows me what's in her hands. I see the dark undulating there, endless, all-consuming. She smiles childishly, and speaks.
//She's never coming back, you know. She's not your goddess anymore. I am.//
//You will never be my goddess!//
//My name,// she says, //is Irene, but most call me the Darkholder.// She looks me in the eyes, then lunges forward, hands against my chest. They should push me backwards, but they instead fall through me,_ into _me, and the rest of her follows. For a moment, I'm gasping for air, feeling suffocated, but am distracted by a pain on my hand. I look. The double crescent is black.
My eyes flutter open.
The slow, steady Kah-Thump of my heart and the cool grittiness of sand meet me when I wake, followed by the sensation of being pulled upward. Something has hold of my hand. I'm calmer than I would have expected, considering that I'm currently breathing the quicksand as if it was air. It's a sickening feeling, as if someone were shoving rice down your trachea, rattling it around, and pulling it all out in a dripping mass. There's a sense of upward motion; someone is pulling me. My head comes up first, revealing to me that I'm still blind.
Fate officially has a personal grudge against me.
Taking the first breath of air is the most painful. Almost immediately I cough up an absurd amount of sand onto the hand that's wrapped around my wrist, and finish the performance by vomiting up the rest of the stuff. I hear a cry of revulsion, but I'm not released. I'm pulled bit by bit from the sand and onto forest ground, the stranger laying me on my side. I can't help but wonder what they look like.
//Here.// The Darkholder's voice startles me, and it's followed by the image of someone. He's built thinly, with enough muscle to get by and no more. His green eyes wink at me under jagged black hair. As soon as I see him, he's gone. Why would she show this to me? Is this the person who rescued me?
"Hello?" asks a male voice to my left. It sounds as if it takes effort to form the word, as if he hasn't spoken in a long time. "Can you... Hear me?" Obviously, I can, but it's too hard to make an effort to move. I must have been dead or near-dead in the sand for longer than I'd thought. Instead, I force air through my lips and utter a nearly nonsensical "uh". Apparently, it's enough for him, since he lifts me up with a grunt and flings me over his shoulder. He has a remarkably well-defined collarbone that's digging into my ribs. I hear a quiet laugh in my head from the Darkholder, at my expense. She's quieter than she was the first time she was in my head.
The stranger starts walking, carrying me as if I were a sack of flour. Or sand. Every now and then, a tree branch whips across my face, prompting a yelp from me and a grunted apology from him. I'm carried for quite some time, the air warming as night draws to an end. The man seems to become more nervous as time goes on, cursing every now and then after glancing upward. After a few hours, I start hearing the sounds of a small settlement, lacking one thing. I don't hear a single voice. Strange.
A door opens in front of me, and the man's footsteps solidify. He's walking on wood or stone, not dirt, but I would guess that it was wood. I'm gently rolled onto a padded surface, most likely just a bedroll. The man's footsteps recede and crescendo, then stop in front of me again. A cup is placed to my lips.
"Drink," he tells me, tilting the cup. I swallow with difficulty, feeling the sand scrape down my throat. After a moment, the cup is pulled away. I groan. I'm still thirsty. After a pause, the man speaks, in his halting, uneasy way.
"I shouldn't... Give you more." Gods dang it, I _will_ get more water. I struggle for a moment, trying to coerce my lips into cooperating, finally forcing out a coherent word.
"More..." I croak. I hate begging. I also hate feeling needy, fate, and being stabbed by forks, but the universe really doesn't care about what I hate. It just gives me the finger and a truckload of unpleasantries. The man pauses a moment longer, then gives in, resting the cup on my lips again. I drink eagerly, spilling quite a bit and feeling like an idiot, but at that point I'd stopped caring. Water was more important.
"You should be... Mobile in a few hours... Less stiff," says the man. Why does he talk so hesitantly? And how does he know when I'll loosen up? Do people come back from the dead around here _that_ often? Before I can manage to ask him, he's gone. Literally gone. I don't hear footsteps, fabric, nothing but an absence of sound. Maybe he's met Cass, before she went psychotic and tried to kill me? My hand fingers the mark on the back of its twin automatically as I think. How did he even know I was in the quicksand? There's too many coincidences for this to be a normal thing. If, you know, dying and re-animating is normal.
For the next few hours, I drift in and out of sleep. Sometimes, I dream of the Void and wake shivering. Other times, I see nothing but the dark, and hear the cruel laughter of a child. When I come to, I find that I can move again, and discover that someone washed the sand off of me and _changed my clothes_. What kind of person does that without asking first? I stand. I'm a little wobbly, but better off than I was at Natalie's when I woke up there. Her staff is leaned against the wall, and I use it to feel my way to the door. Instead of opening it, I crash into a body and fall to the floor. After an awkward pause, a familiar hand clasps mine and lifts me to my feet. It's the man from earlier. He presses a finger to my lips, a slightly creepy gesture that still gets the point through. I'm not supposed to talk. I nod, and I hear him open the door.
Complete silence. It's unnerving, and it becomes even more so as the man pushes me out of the building, rests his hand on my back, and guides me through a crowd that I hadn't known was there. Arms and legs jostle me, making me stumble. At one point, I take an elbow to the face, and break the silence with a yelp. The man stops guiding me forward, his hand clutching my shirt. Something's wrong.
I'm startled by the soft whisper of a hand brushing across my shoulder, and jerk away from it. It's replaced by two more hands that feel my hair and side, and I quietly cry out. Almost immediately, the man's hand presses against my back, and his other hand rests a finger on my lips again. He starts pushing me forward, through a mass of people that seem enthusiastic about touching me. Did their parents ever tell them to keep their hands to themselves?
//Of course not,// chuckles the Darkholder. //None of us were.// Us?
I'm pushed into another house, the door closing behind me. It's still far too quiet. The man presses me down, into a chair, and moves away. A few moments later, he's pulling someone towards me. He kneels so that he's at my level, and speaks.
"This is..." He pauses. "A friend. She speaks... Better?" He pauses again, seeming to search for the right words. "Than me." I hear him nod, then walk away. Almost instantly, a woman's hand latches onto mine, and I try to pull it away, failing miserably.
"Hush," she whispers. Funny, I didn't say anything. "It will be okay. What are you called, and how do you speak?" How do I speak? What kind of a question is that? Out loud by vibrating stuff and blowing air, obviously.
"My name's Ash, and I have no clue what you mean by the other question."
"Thank you." She says nothing about what she was trying to ask. "Ask what you want. I will answer as well as I can." Despite the fluidity of her speech, it still jerks slightly before words. Is English just not used around here? I ask her.
"English is rare to hear. We speak other ways."
"What do you speak, then?"
"There is no English word for it," she says.
"Then show me."
"I will try. I am not sure you will hear, since you did not hear the others, but I will try." She goes completely silent, and I hear nothing. Slowly, though, I feel a sort of mental pressure. It's uncomfortable, and I fidget slightly.
"Don't resist," says the woman, and I try to relax. The pressure increases. It reminds me of when I first touched the Milestone, of the buzzing sensation. Suddenly, the pressure bursts, and I hear a wave of what I can only describe as mental static. Slowly, it fades, replaced by the woman's voice.
//Can you hear me?// I nod.
//Try to speak back.// I try. It's easier than I'd expected, since I'd done it before. I'd spoken like this when I'd died, and the Midnight's Children had as well. This was also how I'd spoken to the Darkholder, and how PogoPogo had spoken to me. I still wasn't sure where she was, or whether she was coming back. The words flow out of my mind.
//Do you all speak like this?// I ask.
//Yes. It is easier for us. More like home.//
//Where is your home?//
//We call it the Dark City. You've been there, I believe. You just missed the preparations.// Oh, crap. They're from the city I saw after I died. Does that make them like the Darkholder? Or are they something else? The woman takes my hand, and rests it on her own. I feel the raised crescents there, and start to shake. She's like me. Is she still in control, or is something else in her head, wearing her like a suit?
//Are you alright?//
// I... Yes. I'm fine.//
//Good. Now, come. We have a ritual to perform before we ready ourselves to make things as they should be.// I'm now very concerned for my safety, especially since the half of my mind that I'm not using to listen to the woman is occupied by joyous laughter. The Darkholder is excited, and that never bodes well for me. This ritual can't be good.
I'm surrounded by voices as I walk with the village to an unspecified location. Everyone's voice at once, all pressing into my head and incessantly asking questions. It's maddening, and makes it impossible to focus on not tripping. I'm only upright because I'm surrounded. The Darkholder isn't helping. She hasn't shut up since we left town, constantly bragging about how she's better than me, how PogoPogo still hasn't shown up and never will, and how she can't _wait_ until we do this ritual thing, which she hasn't even explained to me. It's infuriating. I mean, you'd think that I could have ended up with someone less annoying stuck in my head. The sad thing is that I'm beginning to wonder if she's right.
The sounds around the group start becoming more familliar as time goes on, until I know where we are. Wide echoes, towering cliffs... It's the canyon that the Void cave was in. Oh, gods, don't tell me that I'm being dragged back to the Void... I don't think I can take it a third time. I'm not even sure that I could make it back out. I feel the crowd surge forward eagerly, pulling me along, until the air chills and moistens. We're in the cave. Why do I always have to be _right_ about ending up at the edge of the Void? Everyone stops, and I hear a voice rise above the others. A male voice.
//We have waited years for this day, friends, biding our time. Centuries ago, the first of us was abandoned by his God, without so much as a warning. He ventured here by chance, and joined his mind to the first of Midnight's Children, seeking salvation from the cruelty of the gods. Over the years, he has pulled others into his ranks, and all for the same purpose. We've been forgotten by our Gods, by our Goddesses, and by their names we will have _retribution_!// A loud cheer answers him. This whole thing is a revenge plot? Against the _gods_? This seems excessive.
//Tonight, as the moon rises into the clouds, and as the dark falls upon our faces, we will surrender ourselves to the Void once more, and return with the will of our Children! We will wreak havoc! We will take back what's ours! And when the gods are pleading at our feet for mercy, we will strike down those who refuse to aid our cause _once and for all_! Let darkness fall upon this world!//
//To the end of the gods!// cries the man. The crowd echoes him, then surges forward. I'm swept with them, and I hear everything as they hurl themselves into the pit. I feel the jagged stone beneath me end suddenly, and for a moment I press against the crowd. Elbows and knees pound me as people pass, until the pressure is too great. My foot slips, and I fall into the Void.
//She's never coming back, Ash. PogoPogo left you.//
No. It isn't true. She's just a child. She'll come back. She needs me.
//Listen to yourself, Ash. You've been a fool to think she's returning. She couldn't. She tried to tell you. She couldn't handle the responsibilities of being a god. She couldn't handle you, Ash. You heard her. She never said she needed you. You did. Tell me it's a lie, that she didn't leave you to die. Tell me.//
It's a lie!
//Ash, stop believing she'll return. She abandoned you, for whatever reason. If you choose to believe she'll return, you're as blind as you seem on the surface. So go ahead, tell me that it's a lie again. If you can tell me truthfully, I'll leave you.//
I say it again, but the words are hollow. PogoPogo's been away for too long. She should have come back by now. She couldn't... She said so herself. She isn't coming back. I realize this, and I crack somewhere inside, the things I'd thought I'd known, that I'd built myself around, shattering into the dark. I scream into the Void again, fury and grief escaping through my voice. In a whirl of shadow and cold, a figure appears at my side, resting her hand on my shoulder. The Darkholder comforts me, gently rubbing my back and whispering words of reassurance into my ears. She's being kind, for once. Why?
//I only want to help you, Ash. She left you. You wouldn't have listened to reason when I first came to you, so I had to take control. It doesn't have to be that way. We can be a team, sharing a mind and body. I can fill the gap that PogoPogo left behind. Let me be your Goddess. Let me lead you through the pain, into a new dawn. Let me aid you in war against those who abandoned and abused you, in this life and in the lives before, because I will never leave you. Let me join you in watching the world fall.// She smiles cruelly, then outstretches her hand. An offer.
I hesitate, then take it. She flows through my hand, twining herself into me once more. Above me looms the exit to the Void pit. I hear the other people of the village, waiting for me to rejoin them as the Darkholder's hand in this world.
I climb out and prepare for my revenge.
For the epilogue, read Ash's chronicles.