by J. Thayne
What if Darkness was a tangible, malevolent entity? Two young men discover the hard truth.
|((Author's note: Based on a vivid dream))
Metal and Light
I gritted my teeth, knuckles white as I gripped the harness that criss-crossed my chest as the shuttle began re-entry. It had begun only as a slight vibration as the attenuated atmosphere kissed the underside of the craft. Now it had grown to a shaking so violent that I couldn't even focus on Kinot sitting across from me. My head felt like it was being jostled loose from my shoulders, and I couldn't help but worry about the structural-integrity of the shuttle. All it would take is for a single panel to come loose. Our aerodynamic profile would be altered enough to change the entry angle, burning us alive as the extra friction turned our craft into a white-hot kiln.
The shaking calmed, quieting into a pleasant vibration as we slowed enough for the on-board guidance computer to extend the atmospheric wings. I let my head fall loosely as I quietly exhaled a relieved breath, mentally reciting a thankful prayer to the Light. I looked up to see Kinot grinning at me.
"Alright there Palun?" he said, grinning even wider. "Thought you were gonna spew there for a second."
"I'm fine," I said shakily.
A strong, female voice sounded from the head of the craft, through the small doorway that separated us from the pilot cabin. "You newbies didn't mess yourselves back there, did you? If you did, I'm making you clean it up, you know."
"No Ma'am!" We both responded.
I took a moment to look around the cramped interior. To my right, at the back of the craft, were the nets that held our equipment tightly together on either side of the exit hatch. I made a mental checklist of what we had. Water and food for three days, lightstones, as well as our blood-plating and short-swords. Sticking slightly through a hole in the netting, I spotted the muzzle of my pistol as well, just able to make out the engravings on the silvered metal.
As we coasted deeper into the atmosphere to our LZ, I reviewed what I knew about this planet. It used to be an agricultural world, one that supplied food and organic goods to the empire. Two-hundred years ago, Darkness had infested it, killing off most of the population, and twisting the rest into insane abominations. Illuminators had been sent to try and purge it on the ground, but declared the planet beyond saving. It's surface was saturated with bloodlight bombs for over three weeks, before the blockade was removed.
Now, as with most worlds that suffered such a fate, it was shunned by most of humanity, aside from the very brave, or very foolish, who might try to salvage relics or bits of technology from the uppermost reaches of the planet's few cities.
It was in one of these ruins that we were going to land, but for what reason I couldn't say. Sometimes crews were sent in to recover sensitive or valuable technology and data, but it seemed to me that it was a little late for such an endeavor. I also couldn't understand why exactly Kinot and I were here, being only second-years. Our mission leader, on the other hand...
We finally made ground-fall, Kinot and I unbuckling our harnesses and popping the hatch, which hinged open until it's edge hit the ground, forming a ramp. We collected our things and stepped outside to equip ourselves. The first thing I noticed was the sense of isolation I felt, despite being surrounded by hundreds of massive buildings. Most still stood, in various states of decay, and nature had been slowly, inexorably taking the city back. What should have been an expanse of grey and black was instead a riot of infinite shades of green, interspersed with ochre and rust. What had been streets were now a jumble of upraised and jutting slabs, pushed apart by roots and plants as much as centuries of expansion and contraction. The only sounds were the crackling and popping of the shuttle's plating as it cooled, and the noises Kinot and I made as we buckled on our blood-plate and checked our weapons.
As we were finishing up, Resanor exited the shuttle. With an icy gaze she met our eyes, then briefly glanced around at the scenery, apparently unimpressed. When her gaze had left me, I took a brief moment to take her in. Her golden blood-plate was almost blinding in the afternoon sunlight, glinting off the curving spiral designs engraved across every inch of it's surface. Whereas our own armor consisted only of a skeletal framework of bars that crossed our chests and wrapped our limbs, hers was solid, covering everything from the neck down. I remembered how much blood they'd taken from me to make my own, and thought of how much more it must have taken to craft hers.
Resanor was a bit of a legend, at least among initiates like us. She had served in several campaigns against the Darkness, fighting on over a dozen worlds. Several times, she had walked away as the only survivor. An aura of awe seemed to surround her wherever she went, demanding the utmost respect and reverence from those around her.
This only meant that I was even more unsure as to why she was bringing two inexperienced greenhorns like us to an abandoned planet. Even when the order showed up on my docket, I had at first thought it was a mistake. When Kinot, my friend since the first day of training, admitted to getting the same order, I was doubly surprised. It's not like we were exceptional in any way. Being, if anything, average among our peers both in the classroom and on the training mats. I wasn't complaining though. I truly felt honored to even be in the presence of someone as decorated as Resanor, much less accompanying her on an assignment.
Something of my thoughts must have shown on my face, because as Resanor glanced back at me, she scowled. "Wipe that look off your face Palunriel. Lose your focus like that again and I'll bounce your head off the ground."
I smartly saluted and replied, "Yes, Ma'am!"
Without so much as a nod to acknowledge it, she turned and began walking away. "Both of you, follow me."
As we hurried to fall in behind her, Kinot chuckled and elbowed my ribs. I shot him a dirty look before planting my gaze solidly on Resanor's back, not wanting her to turn around and see us cutting up.
She wound through the ruined streets, picking her way among the rubble with grace and dexterity, while the two of us scrambled and scrabbled our way atop the rocks, concrete slabs, and jutting, rusted pipes and beams, making enough noise to wake the dead. A couple times she shot us looks of annoyance or exasperation, but said nothing.
Before long we found ourselves in front of a doorway, leading into one of the ruined buildings, indistinguishable to my eye from any of the others we'd seen. Beyond the dim slice of light that angled into the threshold, it was pitch black. She stopped in front of it and turned to face us.
"Take out your lightstones, and ready yourselves. Even though this planet was purged long ago, Darkness still lingers in this place. Do not forget that. Trust in your blood-plate, but do not rely on it. Remember, only Light is our salvation."
"Light is our Salvation," we both responded automatically. A saying that had been pounded into our heads since our first day in training.
We all took our lightstones from our pockets. Small rounded triangles of blood-metal, with a shallow depression in the center. Holding it between thumb and fore-finger, it began to emit a pure, white light, barely noticeable in the sunlight. It would act as a lantern in the dark abyss beyond.
"Palunriel, behind me. Kinot, take the rear."
Resanor lead us past the dark threshold and into the interior of the ruin. Just inside was a large space, what had probably once been some kind of reception area. Our lightstones illuminated a sphere of about fifteen feet. Too weak to show us even the boundaries of the room. We passed by stone columns as Resanor moved forwards with confidence, appearing from thin air as they passed within her light radius, and disappearing behind us just as rapidly.
Upon reaching the far wall, we walked a short distance along it before coming to another doorway. This led into a hall lined with doors at regular intervals. Most were gaping open, their doors collapsed inward on hinges that had long-since rusted away. I tried not to let my mind wander as we passed them. It was all too easy to imagine that each recess was teeming with phantoms, waiting for a slip in my concentration so they could reach out and snatch me away.
As we came to the end, I saw Resanor's light disappear behind a corner. As I turned to follow, I nearly fell, not expecting the staircase. I silently cursed myself and began taking the steps carefully. What followed were repetitions of the same formula. A flight of stairs, then a hallway, then another flight of stairs. After a while I stopped counting. My hand felt it's way to the pommel of my sword and rested on it, as my mind grew increasingly troubled.
Finally, as the hallway widened around us, we were stopped by a set of ornate wooden doors. Each of them were easily three times the height of a man, and looked as if they weighed hundreds of pounds each. Resanor put her shoulder to one and heaved, her armored feet skritching against the concrete floor as they slipped a little. The door groaned and creaked, the sound nearly deafening in the silence. Finally, it began to move. She only opened it wide enough for us to shimmy through sideways, then disappeared through it.
I followed quickly, and nearly bumped into her. She had stopped, and was waiting for us. Once Kinot had struggled through, she spoke, for the first time since entering this place. "Put away your lightstones."
Kinot and I obeyed, albeit hesitantly. She put away her own and the three of us stood in darkness. Not quite darkness though, I was shocked to see. There was an ambient light suffusing the air around us. Just barely enough to see each-other's profiles.
"How?" I managed, looking around for the source.
"Take out your lightstone and look at the walls, Palunriel." Resanor said.
I did so, and as I held my lightstone before me, I saw that instead of concrete, the walls here were made of metal. The surface was smooth but uneven, covered in whorls and eddies that made me think of a river which had been frozen in motion. I slid my hand along it, feeling uneasy as a thought struck me.
I looked at Resanor. "It's blood-metal, isn't it?"
She nodded as I heard Kinot inhale sharply. In a somber voice, she explained. "This was a special place, before the infestation. Thousands of men and women must have given up their blood to make this. It served, and serves still, as a barrier to Darkness." When she was finished, she removed her lightstone again. "Come. It is not infallible, and I've spoken of it. We shouldn't linger."
To speak of it is to invite it, I remembered, as we followed her once again. I felt a chill run down my spine. Still, for so many people to have contributed to this blood-metal, it must have been very important. I hadn't even known that such a thing was possible, much less that it had been tried. It was common knowledge that blood-metal offered it's protection only to the person who gave it. Perhaps this only worked because of the large quantities involved.
We passed through another set of wooden doors, smaller and less ornate. We entered into a cluttered room, strewn with papers and books in disarray. Some sort of library perhaps. A soft golden glow caught my eye, and as we watched, Resanor moved about the room, lighting candles that dotted its periphery. When she was done, it was lit well enough that we could stow our lightstones.
I walked over to a desk that sat against the wall, noting that everything here seemed well preserved, with only a light coat of dust to show that it had not been used recently. I bent to look closer at one of the papers that lay across its surface, but the writing was incomprehensible. I moved to touch it, and was startled when Resanor's gauntleted hand snared my wrist.
"Do not touch anything." she snarled, the look on her face brooking no arguments. "The things in this room are not for you, and can be dangerous." After making sure I understood, she let go of my hand and strode over to a podium, on which sat a large, leather-bound tome. Gently, as if it might fall apart, she folded open the cover, leafing through the pages. She stopped, seeming to read it, when I heard a quiet shuffling sound behind me. I turned to look, and a passageway had opened where before there had just been a blank wall. A second passage had opened on the opposite side, near where Resanor was standing. Kinot and I exchanged uneasy glances.
Resanor turned to face us, the expression on her face unreadable. "Kinot, with me. Palunriel," She pointed behind me. "Take that passage. We will meet you further along."
Seeing my face, she said, "Do not fear. Have faith, Palunriel." As I turned to do as she commanded, I heard her say, "Light be your mantle."
I withdrew my lightstone and entered the passage, it's rough stone walls weeping moisture, making the air damp despite the coldness this deep below the surface. Not knowing what to expect, I walked on. I came up short as the floor disappeared a few feet ahead. If I had not been paying attention, I would have fallen. How far, it was impossible to know. I moved cautiously to my right, but saw that it too ended abruptly. Trying the other side, I was rewarded by finding a narrow path along the wall, just wide enough for me to walk along without having to shimmy. As I carefully made my way, I found that the path curved, describing a downward spiral around the interior of a vast pit. My lightstone was useless in granting me any sort of vision except for the wall and path a few feet ahead. Fear tickled the back of my mind. Sweat broke across my brow as I fought to control it, fought to stop myself from turning back, sprinting madly for the candlelit library.
After several minutes, I thought I could hear the sound of wind, though I felt nothing on my skin. As the path took me deeper and deeper, the wind grew louder, until it became a low howl. I thought I could hear the faintest whispers being carried along it. I still felt nothing, and the fears that had lain dormant now sprang to the forefront of my mind. I picked up my pace, moving as quickly as I dared without compromising my footing.
The whispers grew louder until they were distant screams. Words unintelligible, uttered in a strange and foreign tongue. They were no longer carried on the ethereal wind, but seemingly just beside my ears. Panicking now, I drew my sword and started running, desperate to find the bottom, feeling trapped on the ledge. I only hoped that I wouldn't lose my footing, or find the path broken ahead. Taking some small measure of comfort from the weight of the blood-metal sword in my hands, I pushed down the thoughts of Darkness that were threatening to blot out my mind, though I couldn't ignore the voices in the dark, the screams and pleas, the honeyed invitations. I couldn't comprehend the language, even so, their meaning slithered into my mind.
Suddenly, as if by a blow to the side, I was knocked away from the wall. I fell only for the briefest instant before landing hard on a dirt floor. The wind knocked from me, my left shoulder smarting, I groaned as I sat up. My lightstone! I could see it, several feet away. Even as its light faded, I lunged for it, desperate not to lose it. Before I could grasp it, it sparked violently before being swallowed by the ground itself. I was immediately plunged into impermeable darkness.
Panting, partly from exertion, partly from panic, I slowly stood, tightening my grip on my sword. I took a guarding stance and listened, straining against the howling, impossible hurricane that assaulted my ears and nothing else.
A butterfly touch on my leg. I swung for it, connected with nothing. Another touch on my shoulder. I spun and swung, again cutting only air. It's playing with me, I thought as I swung madly about myself. The light, teasing touches coming ever more frequently. A brush against my cheek made me sprint madly for several paces before whipping around in the vain hope of somehow facing my foe. The problem, of course, was that my foe was everywhere, and nowhere. Darkness, manifesting itself in the voids where light could not reach. Malevolent laughter echoed in the chamber around me, seeming to come from all directions at once.
Blindly, with no sense of direction, I ran until I threw myself against a wall. The impact bounced me hard and sent me sprawling. Standing quickly, ignoring the pain, I held my sword to my side with both hands, as I guided myself by pressing my shoulder against the wall. I moved quickly, hoping against hope that I would find a door, or another passageway. I could not remain here, that much was certain. To stay here was to die.
What before had been soft touches were now tugs. Pulling at the fabric between my blood-plate. The laughter returned as the tugs became blows, smiting the uncovered portions of my body. I moved faster, thinking with dread that surely I had traversed the full circumference of the pit and found nothing.
Even as I thought that, my shoulder fell inwards, bringing me up short against a wooden surface. Without hesitation, I threw myself at it once, twice. It broke free on the third strike, sending me sprawling. The typhoon wind, the voices, the laughter, died away as I lay there, fighting the urge to vomit.
I looked up, the walls in this place were made of blood-metal. I brought myself to my knees and hung my head, panting, thanking the Light that I was alive. My first brush with Darkness, and I had survived, blind, with only an initiate's sword. I stood slowly, shakily. My knees threatened to collapse beneath me as I surveyed my new surroundings. There was only one path, the walls unbroken by door or passage.
Sword hanging limply from my right hand, I supported myself against the wall with my left as I walked slowly down the corridor. Rounding a corner, I reached a blood-metal door. Opening it, I was brought up short by the sight of a lantern-lit room. Resanor stood there expectantly, arms crossed. An expression of relief passed across her face as I entered the room and closed the door behind me.
Furnished much like the library room, but without a book or paper in sight, she motioned for me to take a seat in a flimsy-looking wooden chair. It creaked in protest as my weight settled into it, but held. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, still amazed that I was alive.
Finally I looked up. Resanor was staring at me, and I met her gaze. For the first time, it was completely devoid of the childish awe that I had felt before. "Where is Kinot?"
Her expression neutral once again, "I expect him shortly."
I narrowed my eyes at her. "I thought he was with you?"
She just stared at me, not saying anything.
"What is this? Why did you bring us here?" I asked as calmly as I could, suppressing the anger that was slowly building in my chest.
She continued looking at me for a minute before she responded, "I brought you here...as a test."
"A test for what?"
She smiled. It was the first time I'd seen it. "To determine whether you were fit to become an Illuminator."
That quelled my anger instantly. Illuminators were considered elite forces in the struggle against Darkness. Their conditions for recruitment were unknown, their agents appearing seemingly from nowhere. To join their number was an honor unlike any other. If I were accepted, it would mean I would be counted among those such as Resanor herself. I would no longer be her subordinate, I would instead be one of her peers. My chest filled with pride at the thought.
It took me a moment to register that Kinot was standing at the entrance of the room. When I saw him, I grinned, anxious to tell him the good news. He pointed his revolver at me and pulled the trigger. Blinding pain ripped through my left shoulder as I spun out of the chair, sending it toppling and sliding across the floor.
Grimacing with the pain, I snapped my head around. He was already adjusting his aim to take a second shot. That's when I noticed his face. It was completely slack. His eyes were half shut, his mouth open loosely. I heard another gunshot, and clenched my eyes shut, expecting pain. When none was forthcoming, I opened my eyes again. Resanor stood with arm outstretched, her pistol emitting a thin wisp of smoke.
I looked with horror at Kinot. He was laying in a crumpled heap at the base of the wall, his own gun thrown from his hand, a crimson stain spreading on his chest. I winced as I pushed myself off the floor, and slowly, trembling with each step, made my way towards his body.
"Oh...Light," I muttered. "What hap..." I was cut off in shock as Kinot's eyes shot open. His body surged from the floor like a marionette on strings. His sword was already in his hand. He advanced towards me, swinging madly. I barely managed to draw my own blade, parrying clumsily. I couldn't concentrate on my actions, still disbelieving that I was being attacked by my old friend.
"Kinot! Stop!" I screamed at him, still backing up, fending off his crazed blows. "Light! It's me Kinot! It's Palun!"
Still he kept on. I stumbled on something and fell backwards, landing roughly. I pointed my sword at him, it's tip swaying as my arm shook. Wide-eyed, I watched as he advanced on me, sword raised to bring it crashing down on me, taking my life.
The room erupted in gunfire as Resanor unloaded both her and Kinot's pistols into his body. I watched as he was knocked stuttering off his feat, collapsing once again to the floor. Resanor still didn't stop. She kept firing into his still form until both guns were empty. Horrified, I scrabbled my way across the floor, lest he rise up again. After a minute of silence, it seemed that the broken and pulped mass on the floor was well and truly dead. Sighing sadly, Resanor took my arm and helped me to my feet.
We left what remained of the body, and, without a word spoken between us, made the long, slow journey back to the surface. I followed Resanor like an automaton. Not really watching where I was going, woodenly staring at her back. I knew what had happened, of course. We had been warned about such things as possession, but I had no idea how easily it could take someone like Kinot, who I had always thought of as strong-willed. We had both had the same training, the same training, in fact, as countless millions of initiates throughout the Human empire. There was no reason that I could imagine why it was he that should have failed where I did not.
When we finally made our way out of the building, it was fully night, but the starlight was enough to see clearly, on this lifeless planet. Legs finally giving out between sheer exhaustion and a lack of will to continue, I sat down on a piece of masonry that littered the broken and ruptured streets. Resanor sat beside me, staring into the distance.
I could feel her gaze on me, but I couldn't bring myself to meet it. She said, "I'm sorry about...about your friend."
I shook my head. "There was no reason...no reason for..." I couldn't find the words, my mind a jumble of emotions that I couldn't make sense of. Resanor said nothing. I'm not sure if I really expected her to.
Finally she put a hand on my shoulder, hesitantly, as if physical contact made her uneasy. "This...this is the seventh time I've brought initiates to this place. Each is put to the same test the both of you faced." She paused, her face darkening. "Every time...I walk away alone."
I looked at her then, the surprise evident on my face.
She smiled again, sadly, "Grieve for your friend, Palun...but know that, for what it's worth, I'm very proud of you."
I nodded. I knew that, later, I would feel a great deal of pride in her words, but right now my mind was consumed with thoughts of Kinot. Still, as we stood and made our way back to the shuttle to leave this accursed place, I couldn't help but think that, as an Illuminator, I would perhaps, one day, be able to avenge his senseless death at the hands of Darkness. With anger and grief hardening my resolve, I vowed, in his name, to combat Darkness wherever it was to be found. To devote the rest of my life to it's utter eradication from the galaxy.
Resanor smiled to herself as she saw Palunriel's face. She knew exactly what he was thinking, remembering when she herself had walked those very halls as a novice. It was how she had felt when she had been forced to shoot her own friend, having been possessed by Darkness. She reflected that, if Palunriel survived long enough, he too would bring two young novices to this place, to test them. Knowing full well that only one could ever pass.