Another use for a pin - The pains of hermitage
|Two ~ Another use for a pin
Creaole gave one last wiggle as she squeezed her way out of the crawl spaces. She stretched up, her spine creaking back into place vertebra by vertebra, then she brushed some of the surface dust from her arms. The strange grey hue remained on her skin, but Creaole preferred it that way. Her natural colouring stuck out like a sore thumb in this place.
‘Where is your shadow today?’ A voice rumbled from the walls of the large cavern she had emerged in. Shadows scuttled down the walls around her, thin spindly legs moving them rapidly over uneven surfaces. They piled up on the floor before Creaole, each tiny body adding to a greater one.
‘Doing his job,’ Creaole answered bluntly, as the Shadow guardian built before her, his body rising to over ten feet as more and more of the miniature Shadows scuttled down.
‘Strange fellow, that he can leave and he would choose to stay.’ Creaole shrugged, not inclined to advertise their argument to every guardian she met. ‘If I could leave this room I would follow you too.’ A smile opened on the large face above her, thousands of teeth jostling for space between his lips. ‘If you would let me, of course.’
Creaole forced a smile. It did not reach her eyes, but for this Shadow, who was as far from human as they came, the smile was all he needed.
‘Of course,’ Creaole lied. There was no need to worry that she would ever have to follow through with the agreement. There was not much room for promotion in a hierarchy of immortals. ‘I’ve got to go.’ The Shadow’s head nodded slowly, his fearsome smile never slipping as Creaole gave a brief wave and headed to a door in the back of the cavern.
‘See you soon, Creaole,’ the Shadow called as the small wooden door sealed behind her, engulfing her in complete darkness.
Her thoughts floated bodiless. Even Creaole’s eyes that had grown up in the twilight of the Gateway could do nothing with the darkness of this room. This was the last obstacle between Creaole and the centre of the Gateway, the library of the Knowledge Keeper, KeiKei.
Creaole’s hand wrapped around the small ping-pong-sized ball that hung from a chain around her neck. She had made it when she was nine, harnessing the magic of this place within the confines of loosely defined human science. If she had known then what she now knew she would probably never have tried it, too blinkered by the laws and rules of science. But before she’d had access to the library she had been younger, more innocent, happy to embrace her home. Now as she floated in the darkness she felt old beyond her years. In a few days it would be her sixteenth birthday, but nothing would change, she would still be trapped in this place with magic and endless knowledge but nothing to strive for.
Anger bubbled up in Creaole’s chest. Fury at Darm for saving her and then confining her to this place. Fury at Shin for even daring to side with Darm. Fury with herself, and the brand on her legs that stopped her from leaving this hell of endless darkness. She shook her light ball with too much force. Heat and radiance oozed from between her fingers. She dropped the ball against her chest, screwing her eyes shut in pain as bright light bombarded her eyes.
Without waiting for her eyes to adjust, Creaole began to run. A white cobbled path appeared beneath her feet. A sea of swirling darkness lapped like the shadow of the ocean against the edges of the path, threatening with silence. Her blood pounded through her ears, carrying her body forwards, her eyes unseeing as she sprinted down the familiar route. Her bare feet beat the smooth cobbles in time with her blood, propelling her down the path towards the oasis of the Lady’s library.
The shock, when it came, knocked the breath from her lungs. A shout of surprise burst from her chest as she realised she was falling, not just down but sideways, out away from the path, into the depths of the swirling shadow sea. Space distorted as she fell faster and faster. Another shout was torn from her breast as she landed, the crack that came from the arm she stretched out to catch herself echoing through the silent darkness.
Hush descended. The darkness pressed in at the halo of light surrounding her. She cursed, anger turning to embarrassment as she realised how stupid she had been to run so carelessly down a path she knew was booby-trapped. She sat up, fear beginning to press into her thoughts as she finally he focused on the pain shooting up her arm. Her heartbeat grew into a thunder storm as she strained to hear anything in the silence.
‘Shin?’ Creaole hissed under her breath as she clamped her strangely angled wrist against her chest. The ground she was on was solid, but the air around her was viscous, as if she was covered in dry spectral water.
‘Shin?’ she whispered again, this time a little more softly, not sure whether she wanted him there or not. The alternative was another Shadow. Fear clenched at Creaole’s chest and she forced herself to her feet, struggling against the dense shadows that came up to mid-thigh level as she finally stood.
The air was so heavy, it was like walking through knee-deep treacle as she tried to run. The light ball cast a halo around her; beyond the cocoon of the light she could see nothing.
She looked about nervously, scanning for the white cobbled path that should be easy to find in the darkness. She could see nothing as she forced herself into a stunted run, praying she had not been turned around as she fell. Getting out of the crippling air was her first goal: she could deal with her arm when she knew she could defend herself more easily. Fear pumped adrenaline through her body as she fought to put one foot in front of the other, the muscles in her legs straining to propel her forwards at any speed. She glanced quickly from side to side as she went.
Creaole screamed as her arm was wrenched from where she cradled it against her chest. The pain almost knocked her feet out from underneath her. The smooth black hands that grabbed her arm ended in barbed claws. The mouth that tried to wrap around it was lined with pointed white teeth that shimmered in the light from Creaole’s necklace.
‘NO!’ Creaole tried to yank her arm away as she unwound herself from the guardian, pulling them both through the shadow water as fast as she could. She could see the path at last, a faint line of light in the distance. She needed to get out of this ooze. She could hardly walk, never mind retaliate, and if she fell she knew she might never get up. Teeth scraped against her skin. A whimper forced its way from her chest as she dragged them both along, tugging and flailing her damaged limb to make it harder to bite, ignoring the bolts of pain that shot up her arm each time she did so. The footpath was in reaching distance now. Scrambling, she threw herself the last metre to the path, hauling her body up and onto it. Her arm hung uselessly down as the guardian finally wrapped his mouth around her forearm. Creaole bit back a scream as its teeth pressed into her flesh.
‘I said NO!’ Creaole screeched as she pulled the emerald hat pin from her hair with her free arm. Furious, she grabbed the pin like a knife and jammed it straight into the exposed back of the guardian’s head. She felt it pierce through its shadow form with a pop then slide all the way through its head to graze the surface of her forearm.
The guardian screeched and jumped back. The shriek from its mouth ground through Creaole’s bones, making the ache in her arm throb in a whole new way. Creaole grabbed the now flailing guardian by its scrawny neck with her free arm and hauled it up onto the path with her. It batted at her arm futilely. The pin was firmly planted in its head, rendering it almost paralysed. Creaole was not pleased. If she had hit her mark properly it should have been completely unable to move. Instead, she had to listen to its piercing screams that sent shivers through her soul, making the wounds on her arm ache even more.
Creaole took a deep breath, steeling herself against the pain, and sat her weight on the guardian’s chest. Leaving her pin in its head, she pulled her sleeve up to examine the damage to her arm. The guardian struggled beneath her, screeching and screaming incoherent words, as it strived not just to consume, but to increase the pain that throbbed through Creaole’s arm, but with her pin in its head it could not fight. Creaole reached to her head and pulled out one of the many ribbons that helped to tie her hair back. For now, she laid the ribbon to one side and pulled a small tin from a pocket on the leg of her trousers.
The tin resembled that of traditional shoe polish. Creaole used her teeth to open it, and the lid bounced on the white cobbles and rolled away. Inside, the tin was full of green slime. Creaole gave it a reluctant glance then quickly poured most of it onto her forearm. It felt disgusting, but the relief was instant, her shoulders relaxing as the pain ebbed to bearable levels. Using as little of her other hand as possible, Creaole spread the gel over her arm. Everywhere it touched the pain slowly melted away, replaced by the nauseating sensation of being smeared with half-set jelly.
Creaole gave a relieved sigh as she set to strapping the now blissfully painless limb to her chest with the ribbon.
‘Can you take this out of my head now, please?’
In Creaole’s opinion Shin did not sound suitably guilty at all. She peered down at him from where she was sitting on his chest.
‘My arm still hurts,’ she lied. It did not hurt at all now, although she was having trouble tying her makeshift sling by herself. Shin rolled his round white eyes.
‘No it doesn’t.’ She stared down at him unmoved. ‘What? It’s not my fault you broke your arm. What the hell were you thinking running through here?’
‘Are you saying it is my fault that you tried to eat me?’ Creaole asked, her tone even.
‘You know what I am. It’s not like I can just change the fact that I’m designed to eat pain.’
‘You could have just not followed me,’ Creaole said dryly as she tried to move the fingers of her broken arm. They stayed put. She suppressed a sigh as she realised she was going to have to get Darm to fix it for her. ‘Do this for me.’ Creaole shuffled off Shin.
‘And then another Shadow would have attacked you instead,’ Shin grumbled as he sat up woodenly, the green end of Creaole’s pin still glinting against his dark skin as he fumbled with the ribbon.
‘To be honest, Shin, I’m not that fussed about who it is I have to stop from killing me, and if it’s you I really think you could have just tried harder not to eat me.’
Shin finished tying the sling in silence and Creaole turned to face him. He pointed at his head, where the end of Creaole’s pin glinted green.
‘Whatever,’ she said as she tugged it, not very gently, from his head. A smear of dark blood, barely visible against his skin, trickled down from the wound. ‘Can we carry on now?’ With her arm very definitely broken, and decorated with what could only be teeth marks, Darm was going to be furious when she got back. This day was turning into a complete disaster.
They continued their way along the white footpath, walking this time. Creaole sighed as they reached another of the booby-traps. She really should have known better after so many years of taking this route.
The door, when they finally made it to the end of the path, was massive. It stretched up and up into the darkness above them, the handle just visible in the yawning space above their heads. Creaole and Shin stopped and waited, gazing up at it in silence. Above them, the door boomed as pieces began to crack and splinter off in great swathes. Underneath was a fresh new door, the perfect size for Creaole. Shin followed her through.
The World Library arched up into the darkness above, the ceiling lost in the heights. Light glowed gently from pale arches in the walls, and books were piled up on the floor like thousands of broken pillars.
‘Hello, Lady Keikei,’ Creaole called across the hall as she came through. Surrounded by books piled like hives, a woman looked up as Creaole called her name. Her face was deeply lined with wrinkles, her skin ashen; folds of it hung at her neck, shaking slightly as she peered over her shoulder at Creaole and Shin.
‘Goodness me, was that you out there making all that fuss, Creaole?’ asked Keikei as she pushed herself to her feet with surprising ease. ‘I thought I was about to get a new visitor.’ Creaole gave a cynical smile and embraced the old woman as she reached her.
‘Sorry to disappoint you.’ Keikei returned the hug then pushed Creaole to arm’s length, frowning at her broken limb.
‘Don’t worry, sweetling, I’d rather you than someone new. The new ones always get terribly tetchy when I tell them they have to learn the knowledge, that I don’t just give it to them.’ She chuckled a bit and reached for Creaole’s broken arm. ‘Here, I can sort that for you.’ She wrapped long grey fingers around either side of the break, then warmth rushed through Creaole’s arm. She gave her fingers an experimental wiggle and was relieved when all of them moved at will.
‘Thanks. I definitely did not want to have to take that one back to Darm.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Lady Keikei,’ Shin echoed. Darm hated him enough already without seeing his teeth marks around a break in Creaole’s arm. Keikei fixed Shin with a wrinkled scowl.
‘Hey, just doing what I’m designed for,’ Shin countered as he met the Knowledge Keeper’s disapproval, raising his mottled shadow hands to his shoulders in a shrug, irritated that he had to defend himself.
‘You were not designed to be friends with a human guardian, but you succeed at that.’ Keikei’s gaze was stern and solemn. It was impossible to tell if she approved of his defiance or not.
‘Shin.’ Creaole corrected quietly. ‘His name is Shin.’
‘Of course, sorry sweetling.’ Keikei gave a small shake of her head, the skin at her neck shaking out of time with the rest of her. She turned back to Creaole, a smile on her face.
‘Are you after a new book?’ Creaole shook her head. She was not really sure what she was after, except an excuse to get away from Darm.
‘No, I haven’t got the last one with me, but is it okay if I just go and have a browse, see what I might be interested in next time?’
Keikei settled back down into her reading chair, pulling her latest book closer to her. ‘Of course it’s fine. The books enjoy your company.’ She gave Creaole a last smile and then turned back to her volume, immediately immersed.
Shin followed Creaole as she led the way through the decorated wooden arch to the stacks. This side of the arch was very different to the reading room Keikei inhabited. Gone were the precarious piles of books that waited patiently to be read, and the bright arches of light to ease the darkness. The books lined the shelves in perfect neat little rows, illuminated just enough for her to make out the titles printed on the spines. The stacks themselves stretched up to the darkness above in steps that mocked the laws of physics. A spindly ladder on the end of each row allowing access to the higher levels. Each row overhung the next, defying gravity. Choosing a row and walking along it felt to Creaole as if she was exploring a mine, the walls not lined with precious gems but all the knowledge of the world.
Creaole went up the ladder of the fourth row on the left, Shin following behind her in silence. There were no letters or numbers marking what this row might contain. The only way to find what you wanted was to look, or to ask the Knowledge Keeper. Sometimes Keikei would answer, sometimes she made you search for yourself. The intricate metalwork of the ladder dug into the palms of Creaole’s hands as she made her way up to the third step, just another feature that showed this library was not really designed with readers in mind.
Creaole strode with purpose towards the part of this stack that interested her. Shin followed behind. To the side, a fine metal railing blocked the fall back down to the ground.
A stunted squeal was wrenched from Creaole’s chest as Shin’s hand closed around her recently broken arm. She spun to face him, a reprimand poised on the edge of her tongue, but Shin’s form was already melting before her eyes. His body was stretching up into the shadows, sharp pointed teeth popping out in his mouth. His fingers stretched into the darkness, their edges pressing into her skin. Creaole reached for her pin with her free hand without thinking. It slid from her tangled hair with ease and she held it in front of her, ready to fight back.
‘Someone has entered.’ Shin’s voice was a growl that reverberated through Creaole’s chest, making her bones and teeth ache. Her shoulders sagged in relief as the words registered. The hand that gripped her pin with white knuckles relaxed just a touch and the tight ball of fear in her chest unwound. It was quickly replaced by profound guilt as she realised that her safety was someone else’s doom.
Creaole kept her thoughts to herself and tugged her hand from Shin’s uncomfortable grip. ‘You should go. I’ll be fine here until Darm comes to get me.’
Indecision flashed briefly across Shin’s snarl as he glanced down to Creaole, then his gaze was pulled back to the middle distance. The souls he could see were so bright that it hurt. There were five of them, their feet crunched on the gravel that led to the first door, which was his to guard.
‘Sorry,’ he bit out, the same too-deep growl vibrating through Creaole’s body. Then with a rush of air he was gone.
Three ~ The pains of hermitage
It was dark, but not the perpetual twilight, colourless kind of dark of the Gateway. It was the dark of regular night time, pierced by the glowing halo of the moon, the faintest shade of green promised by the moonlight. Creaole turned on the spot, absorbing it all. The sense of doom that clutched at her heart was just a faint flicker at the moment, easily ignored as her gaze was diverted up above the trees to the ring of snow-topped mountains that cupped her in their chilly palm. A breeze rustled through the silent forest, sending a delightful shiver down her spine as one by one the hairs on her arms stood to attention, catching the moonlight.
Behind her a shot went off, the crisp piercing chaos of it shattering the bubble of wonder enveloping Creaole. She was not alone anymore. A man was dragging her by the scruff of her neck. She could not reach her pin. His fingers pressed tightly into her skin, leaving her lightheaded as he tossed her into the blinding, burning light of a campfire. He had bellowed something Creaole could no longer remember in rough angry tones, excitement creeping in as he gave her a quick kick where she lay on the ground. Creaole’s hand was thrown over her face, protecting her eyes from the burning light of the fire. Tears blurred her vision. Another man spoke.
Creaole’s head darted up as suddenly her memories returned.
‘Run!’ she shouted at the top of her voice, but they could not hear. They remained where they were, arguing like fools over what to do with her. They did not even notice as the seven-foot shadow of an angel landed in their midst. Creaole did. She met Darm’s faceless gaze and was frozen in place to watch the massacre. The one who had found her was last. He grabbed her from the floor, pulling her up in front of himself like a shield, shouting something at Darm across the clearing. Creaole was half-blind now, her eyes swollen almost completely shut against the blaze of a tent that had caught fire, tears leaving streaks down her cheeks.
She slumped back to the ground, the man’s grip on her gone, leaving her crumpled in the rough undergrowth of the forest.
‘Get up.’ Creaole stood. She did not want to, but this was part of the memory she had no control over. She stared at her feet through the distortion of her tears. ‘Look at what you’ve done.’ Creaole swallowed down the lump in her throat. Her chest clenched tightly against the pain but she had no choice and she looked up and saw the devastation. The men lay dead, seven of them. The last one was slumped against a tree, his eyes closed and flickering beneath the seal of his eyelids, blood running down his neck and bleeding into the grubby collar of his shirt, his fingers twitching uncontrollably.
Creaole blinked to wakefulness in her bed, sweat beading down her forehead. She thrashed frantically as she fought to free herself from the claustrophobic confines of her sheets. She sat up, her arm numb where it had been wedged beneath her. Throwing her legs over the side of the bed, she took slow deep breaths. On the backs of her thighs the Shadow brand Darm had etched on her skin itched and burned. Creaole clenched her muscles and kept her hands firmly in her lap. Usually Darm woke her when he noticed her beginning to thrash in her sleep: a sure sign of the onset of that particular dream. She had not had to go through the whole thing for years, but Darm had been gone since the first of the human explorers died last week, leaving her alone with plenty of time to brood and remember things she would rather forget.
Creaole hauled herself out of bed. The Shadow brand on her legs still stung – just another part of the echo of that memory. She had been thirteen. She had gone to find the sun, but instead she had met those explorers. They would have died anyway, Creaole tried to reason. She had never seen anyone make it through to the end. But in the Gateway, it would not have been her fault.
The brand on her legs throbbed, as if it had been done only yesterday, reminding her that she was trapped in the place of darkness and grey forever.
She paused in the entrance to the hut she called home. The mansion was opposite, its grand stone walls rising into the endless night. Shin was in there somewhere. He had the Shadow brand as well, so he was as trapped here as she was, but she had not seen him since the explorers arrived.
Creaole pressed her eyes shut as a swoosh of air marked the return of Darm. Anger and frustration bubbled up, fighting against the wallowing self-pity that clutched her chest.
‘I wish you would just let me do that,’ snapped Creaole without even a hello, her voice too loud after so long by herself. She turned as Darm settled his bedraggled grey wings at his back, shoving past him to get back into the hut.
‘You are annoyed with me?’ He seemed puzzled as he watched Creaole, which annoyed her even more.
‘Well, you left me alone for a week. I’m practically a hermit,’ Creaole seethed as she put the kettle on for more tea and sat down to ignore Darm, tapping her foot unconsciously beneath the table.
‘I had things to do,’ said Darm after a few moments of silence had passed between them.
‘Well I didn’t,’ bristled Creaole and pulled her book in front of her. After a moment of futile concentration she pushed the book away and stood to wait for the kettle to boil.
‘It looks like you have been to see Keikei,’ Darm tried, noticing her new book.
‘By myself,’ Creaole snapped back when the words were hardly out of Darm’s mouth, ‘but it is the only reason I’m still able to talk to you at all and am not some gibbering mindless fool.’
‘You went by yourself? You know how I feel about that.’ Darm’s voice dropped a little. Creaole bristled. She had not wanted to go by herself; she hated crossing the Gateway without Shin.
‘Oh, so now you are all “make sure you stay with Shin”,’ Creaole snapped back. ‘Well, Shin has been ignoring me too, so make up your mind now whether that makes you happy or annoyed, because I am just pissed off.’ She almost threw the kettle across the room as she poured the just-boiled water into her tea and it overflowed, dripping water all over the table. Taking a deep breath, she resisted temptation and put the kettle back on the stove, albeit a little more forcefully than was probably necessary.
‘I am sorry, Creaole. I did not realise Shin would not be with you.’
‘Hah, you’re hardly sorry, are you? If you thought of me at all you would remember Shin did this last time some stupid humans came through the Gateway,’ Creaole ranted, getting more wound up because there was nowhere to go except back to the table or back to bed, and Darm would still be there either way. ‘And if you were really sorry you would just let me have a life outside of this stupid place of demons and magic and darkness, like a normal teenage girl.’
Creaole plonked herself down at the table and the force sent her tea sloshing from her mug, all over the table and down her legs. She stared at her legs. Her knees were grubby and the tea was leaving a tie-dye of dirt and clean skin down her calves. The strips of cleanish skin appeared too pale in the grimy grey of the Gateway, marking her for what she was – an outsider. She pressed her eyes shut, recognising the feeling of pressure behind her eyes and hating it.
She jerked round, hand going instinctively for her pin as she felt something on her shoulder. She froze with her hand ready to strike, feeling even more ridiculous as she remembered where she was and that Darm was back. His amorphous leathery hand was on her shoulder, his blank face turned towards her. Creaole dropped her arm and rested her head against his hand.
‘Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing.’ Darm’s ever even voice wavered for a moment.
‘If you didn’t I would be dead,’ Creaole replied with a sigh, instinctively knowing what was playing on his mind.
Creaole’s mother had come to the Gateway almost sixteen years ago. She had been pregnant with Creaole. She had died quickly, too slow and clumsy, too quick to protect her belly instead of the rest of her body. Creaole knew her story. Darm had never hidden it from her, and when she was old enough to realise how foolish her mother had been any obligatory feelings of love she might have held for the absent woman had melted away. Darm had collected her mother’s soul, as was his job, to return it through to death, back into the proper cycle of life. But the child in her belly had not been dead. He had pulled Creaole from her mother’s belly and been left with the choice of whether to keep her, or leave her at the doors of an orphanage.
‘And maybe you would be somewhere else, training to be a doctor like you so wish.’
‘Or maybe I would be dying of starvation instead of stupidity this time,’ Creaole snapped back. ‘What is the point? You did what you did and here we are.’
Creaole stopped herself before she could get angry all over again. She took a deep breath and stared out through the walls of the hut to where the mansion loomed over them, its shadow ever present.
‘Has anyone ever made it through? The doors as well?’ Creaole asked, her voice softened as her thoughts lingered over the memories of her dream.
‘Yes, a few.’
‘Why would anyone want to be immortal?’ Silence stretched between as Creaole stared at Darm.
‘Your mother was ill, Creaole, as were you.’ Darm spoke gently, but his voice still rumbled through the walls and floor. ‘She sought the door to save you both, as for why others attempt it, I knew once.’
‘But why? When we die we just reincarnate. It’s not like we’d have been gone forever.’
‘You know that because I have told you, but regular humans do not know such things. Even if they did, some still prize their current selves too highly.’ Despite his lack of features Creaole felt Darm’s gaze focus on her more fiercely. ‘Please do not tell me you are considering going through?’
‘Of course not. Why would I?’ Creaole spluttered.
‘Immortality is a terrible burden for a human.’ He spoke slowly, emphasising each word.
‘Why would I want to be immortal, Darm?’ Creaole waved her hands around the hut, taking it all in with a sweep of her arm. ‘If I was I would be stuck here forever.
Chapter 4 now up