Hari stared out into the empty space in front of him, drumming his fingers together. Technically you could really only ever stare into empty space in the void, so it wasn’t like he was looking at anything specific, but this look was particularly perturbed. They’d stopped to break for the ‘evening’ an hour ago, but neither man was having any luck sleeping.
Darkos knew exactly where the sleeplessness was coming from. Hari and Darkos were circling the drain around Noire’s nest. They’d gone a rotation or so around the hollow pit at the center, and Darkos could feel the call of his damned parent, singing to him the way a roaring fire consuming a building might lull its casualties to sleep. Not a very dulcet song, all told. He’d heard hymns sung by the first year’s choir more on tune.
The memory punched him in the gut like a wrecking ball. One moment, he was fourteen years old, watching moodily as a chorus of six year olds warbling out their faith to Alerion, the next moment he was staring down Geela in an inn as she explained to him that all the priests he’d known growing up were dead. Those little priests wouldn’t have made it past eighteen. Now they were here, somewhere, providing energy to Noire as the Void Fiend built its strength, getting closer and closer to reaching the Mortal Realm. Now, he was here to free them.
His resolve burned, blazing through his stomach like a dish of too spicy chicken soup. He stood up, still staring straight at Hari, and the man blinked, as if only remembering Darkos was there.
“Oh, hmm, you’re still awake?” Hari rubbed his eyes, blinking wearily. “We’ve got a long journey tomorrow.”
“You’re lying,” Darkos said. “We haven’t gotten closer to Noire in days.”
Hari placed a hand on his chest. “Please, Darkos. Noirela. You promised.”
“What good has that done either of us?” Darkos asked. “We’re all just floundering. No progress has been made. You won’t bring me to Noire cause you don’t know why I can resist it. I can’t get away from you cause you have my soul on a leash. We’re just waiting for Geela while playing this stupid game of cat and mouse and it’s not getting anywhere.”
“You have no reason to believe she’s even here,” Hari said. “And if she were, as I mentioned, she’ll be dead soon.” His fingers drummed together quicker, though. “I would know if she’d defeated Terha though. Or, rather, she could never have. I can’t see a world where Geela can defeat my formidable sister—”
“She did,” Darkos said. He was probably speaking too loosely but he didn’t care. This endless travel with someone he hated, someone who hated him, was getting to him. The call of the void was getting to him. “I know she did because she’s the reason the jellyfish went hog wild. She was the thing they were chasing, not that stupid adventurer you killed.”
A muscle tensed in Hari’s jaw. “Advenuterer?”
“That stupid VoidCrusher guy!” Darkos scowled though. “The one you evaporated.”
“Oh. Oh right. Him. Obviously not.” Hari waved this away. “Are you trying to imply that it was Geela they’d attacked?”
“Yeah. But wait.” Darkos started pacing, just a little pace, nothing dramatic enough to get Hari to stop him. “Who did you think caused all that?”
Hari shrugged. “I don’t know. Anything. Maybe the medusas were just feeling fiery. It could’ve been anything.”
“But not VoidCrusherXX?” For some reason, that tickled Darkos a bit. Even Hari could tell, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that VoidCrusherXX had been nothing but a useless nuisance. Hopefully Geela would thank Darkos for getting him out of her hair, especially to use him to save her. “Maybe not. Maybe he wasn’t enough to draw the medusas’ gazes. But he was enough to distract you. I found Geela, dead to the world, after the medusa explosion. I resurrected her. I left her a note with everything you’ve told me. And just by being there, she told me the most important thing of all.” Darkos crossed his arms. “She killed Terha. She’s stronger than you think, and she’s right on our heels.”
Hari’s face flushed a deep red. “That’s… no. That’s wrong.” He took a deep breath, but when he spoke again, it sounded more like he was talking to himself than Dakros. “The switch was her idea,” he said. “It was Terha’s idea. She said that it would keep us both safe.” His voice was choked. “I think she meant me. It would keep me safe. Stupid Terha always thought she was immortal and I knew that this whole dumb swap put the person on the boat in more danger and I still accepted it. I accepted her bloody strategy. This is my fault.”
Hari looked away sharply from Darkos, but Darkos didn’t feel much pleasure from this. It was still just words. A weakening of morale, maybe, but just words. Darkos had learned from Hari, yes, but Geela, who’d been on his heels days ago, hadn’t caught up. He was, all told, exactly where he’d started, almost a month ago.
“A few years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that a void spawn could feel guilty about something.” Darkos sighed, and sank back to his feet. “Of course, then I learned I was one and I feel guilty all the time. But I didn’t think you could.”
Hari didn’t respond for a few moments. “As children of Noire,” he said, slowly, “we’re immune to a lot of things mortals must contend with daily. Empathy and guilt are among them. The bond Terha and I share, well, it was what made us stronger than our other siblings, but it also gave us a weakness.” He shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Your turn, I guess. Tell me about the most guilty you’ve ever felt.”
A week ago, Darkos would have fought the command, the order, said ‘hey, now, wait a minute, you didn’t really tell me anything I’d asked,’ but now he just sighed.
“I feel guilty a lot, Hari.” Darkos wasn’t at all unconvinced that he didn’t somehow have all of the combined guilt and empathy that his siblings lacked. “I felt bad for you when you saw Terha hadn’t worn your things, I feel bad when you learned Terha had lied to you, I felt bad when—”
“No, not bad. Guilty.” Hari sat down across from Darkos, his eyes burning black. “I want to know something that you did, something you caused.”
Darkos stared back into the dull glow of his brother’s eyes and wondered how strong he was at this point. The stunt in the metropolis had really done a number to the two of them. At that time, Geela had been even weaker, which is why Darkos had had to protect her, but it was entirely possible that she’d gotten stronger since. Meanwhile, Darkos could feel that he and Hari had only run out of steam.
If she showed up now, could she and Darkos take Hari down? At least escape? Work together to find their way to Noire? He ached to be working with her again instead of facing constant emotional torment at Hari’s hands.
“Guilty.” Darkos’s brain turned right back to Geela. “Yeah. I know a guilty moment. When Geela and I were in the swamp—”
“It’s always Geela, isn’t it?” Hari scoffed. “You don’t at all feel guilty for the hundreds of priests who were sacrificed by Malevo trying to build up enough power to bring you through? Nothing like that?”
Darkos blinked, baffled. “That wasn’t my fault! I didn’t know I was me. It’s not like I hid my identity.”
“You didn’t know. You didn’t know.” Hari leaned forward, eyes boring deeper into Darkos’s soul. “How could you have not known? How could you have resisted the call so strongly that you didn’t even feel it?”
“Hari.” Darkos’s voice grew calmer with every rise in Hari’s anger. “Do you want me to tell you about the guilt thing or do you want me to remind you that I don’t know I was immune to Noire.”
For a moment, Darkos thought Hari would hit him again. His hand certainly bunched into a fist, but after a moment, he relaxed. “I suppose you can tell me your story.” He sighed and leaned back onto his arms. “Watching some pain flicker across your face is always mildly entertaining. It’s getting more and more boring, though.”
“Sorry I can’t keep welling up new levels of pain to endure,” Darkos said. “You’ll just have to enjoy listening to me tell you about the time Geela was eaten by a frog.”
Hari did, frustratingly enough, seem to enjoy the story of the time Geela was eaten by a frog. He kept making Darkos go back and talk about how embarrassing her magical hairbow looked, how silly her screams were, how it was Darkos’s fault for falling asleep on shift.
“Wonderful. I’m surprised she’s even in here looking for you after that.” Hari clung to Darkos’s ugly guilt the way Darkos used to scarf down oat bars after long hikes. It wasn’t tasty, it was barely satisfying, but it was necessary to stay alive. Didn’t make Darkos feel any less bad about the comment though. Especially since Geela hadn’t shown up yet.
“Well, that’s just Geela,” Darkos said. “She’ll do anything for the people she cares about.”
Hari laughed. “Oh yes, I’m sure she does the absolute bare minimum necessary to make you feel cared for.”
“It’s more than that!” Darkos said. “She’s always making me tea—”
“Wonderful. I couldn’t imagine a friendship deeper.” Hari’s laugh strengthened, probably more at the sulk on Darkos’s face than anything else. “Surely nothing more pure.”
“She derailed her whole revenge quest to save me from Noire.” Darkos’s chest rose and fell a bit quicker as he spoke.
“Mmm, I’m sure she didn’t at all just realize that, with a rogue void spawn on her side, she could easily take down her old nemesis.” Hari’s laugh took on an even less controlled note. “Surely you can’t possibly think she’s doing you a favor. Especially since she knows her ex-husband—that whole ‘revenge quest’ you mentioned her abandoning?—is working with us. Did you know that?”
Darkos flushed because he did know that. He’d been the one to relay that information to Geela. “Yeah but she agreed to help before then. And she said she’d save my family!”
“Who were being held hostage by Mal.”
“Which she didn’t know at the time.”
“Oh you’re simply precious.” Hari wiped a tear from his eyes. “Every single thing she’s done to help you, you can trace back to a selfish motive. You just so desperately want to believe, don’t you?”
Darkos could feel a lump in his throat, but he powered on. “When we got out of the swamp, she had a whole feast prepared. Both of our favorite foods. Things she would have had to go out of her way to get.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure she definitely paid attention to your favorites, and didn’t just pluck out her preferred dishes while you swore up and down that you just loved turtle soup too!” Hari’s voice rose to a girlish pitch at the end.
“I don’t like turtle soup,” Darkos said. “But Geela doesn’t like nutpaste sandwiches, and she made me those, so… so there.”
An icy silence fell at this. Hari’s laugh had been snuffed out so fast that it was like he’d never laughed at all.
“She tried to… She tried to poison you?” His face had contorted, as if he were trying desperately to pick up on a joke that hadn’t existed. “Or is this some kind of strange reference you’re making.”
“It’s not a reference,” Darkos said. His stomach growled at the memory. “She knew Mom always made me a fruit preserves and peanut paste sandwich for lunch and she knew that meant a lot to me. So she made me sandwiches.” Darkos fidgeted with his fingers, feeling very small. After another second or two, he looked back at Hari, whose face was utterly blank.
“I don’t understand.”
“Mom used to make me sandwiches—”
“No, I don’t understand.”
Darkos sighed. This must’ve been how Geela felt when they’d first started adventuring together. “Well, when you have a parent who you actually love who actually loves you back—”
“No, Darkos, I don’t understand!” Hari’s face screwed up with rage. “How did that not kill you?!”
The silence was back, but this time it was accompanied by the proverbial sound of hypothetical gears jamming in both mens’ heads.
“Why would a fruit and nut sandwich kill me?” Darkos asked. “I’m not allergic. So many priests at temple were that the High Priests banned them but I’m not allergic. I’ve had nut sandwiches since I could eat.”
Hari opened his mouth to speak but just ended up choking a bit as words failed him, and Darkos was reminded of Sinistrina. How she’d died of a peanut allergy.
His eyes narrowed. “Wait a second.”
“No, you wait a second,” Hari said, words finally working again. “How dare you imply you could—Are you telling me that when you ordered a nut paste sandwich at my own restaurant, you were being serious? You were being dead serious?”
The shocked gasp of the medusa waiter, who’d gotten over-the-top offended at Darkos’s cheeky order, flashed through his head. “Ohhhhhh.”
“Oh no no, don’t ‘ohhhhh’ me.” Hari’s fist balled up. He practically quivered with shock and outrage. “You aren’t allergic to any nuts?”
“Are all of you allergic?” Darkos asked, a grin splitting his face despite his best attempts.
“How dare you?” Hari leapt to his feet. “Noirela is!”
Oh man. Oh man oh man oh man. Darkos would have given anything in that moment to have Geela be watching this. Hari’s mind exploding with sheer befuddlement while Darkos’s clicked together so many things.
“Yeah, I’m not allergic to any.” Darkos thought back to some of the non-peanut nut products he’d enjoyed. Walnut studded baked apples. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Those almond crunch cookies Adora had given them.
You are not a void spawn.
It all made sense now. Adora must feed all her visitors with nuts to make sure they weren’t followers of Noire. And when Darkos hadn’t had any reaction, having built up a tolerance since infancy, well, of course Adora wouldn’t think he was Noire’s kid.
“Oh it isn’t fair,” Hari said. “Terha and I did so much to rid our region of any foul allergens. Do you know how hard it is to be lethally vulnerable to something most people would call a light snack?” His voice rose in pitch dramatically. “We had to burn down all the coconut trees!”
Darkos cocked an eyebrow. “Coconuts aren’t nuts.”
Hari’s world weary expression dropped for a second. “It’s in the name, Darkos.”
“Yeah, but it’s not a nut. It’s just in the name.”
The two stared off for a moment.
“That sounds like what a non-nut-allergy person would say.” The woebegone look crossed Hari’s face again. “And all this time, it was that simple!”
Darkos flashed Hari a consolatory smile. “If it’s any consolation, I’m sitting here realizing how easy it would have been to take out literally all of you. Like, it would have been so easy.”
“So easy. So simple.” Hari leaned against the wall, lips drooping, eyes rolled up at the roof of the tunnel. “All under my nose, all this time.”
Darkos grinned up at him, propping his head on his knee. “Well, at least you know I was just as in the dark.”
Hari groaned. “It was that simple.” Then, his look of frustration slowly slipped away. First his eyebrows went from crunched in anger to puckered in contemplation. His lips slowly pursed. His eyes went from thousand-yard-stare to a sinister gleam.
Finally, he looked down at Darkos.
“It was really so simple. No special weapon. No secret power.” A corner of his lip lifted. “No real immunity to Noirela. Just a built in resistance to something Noirela can’t touch. And do you know what that means, dear brother?”
Darkos’s smile had long ago slipped off his face. “Uh. No?”
“It means.” The other half of Hari’s mouth joined the first in allowing a malevolent smile to cross the void spawn’s face. “That I have no further reason to delay in bringing you to Noirela.”
Huge news everyone!
Okay there are two pieces of huge news.
The first is the big one. Book two is now live on Amazon!!! If you've noticed that it's no longer on Scribblehub, it's because the Celestial City arc has been polished and edited and worked to near-perfection and is now ready to join the libraries of whosoever desires it.
It'll also be live for paperback later this week and is accessible on Kindle Unlimited. If you've enjoyed the book thus far but can't afford it, then please consider leaving a review. They're so important.
The second news is also pretty big. I've finished writing book four. To celebrate book two's launch, I wrote the remaining chapters of book four (and the series). They're currently up on Patreon as a special treat.
That does mean, however, my posting will, in a few weeks, come to a close. If you'd like to continue getting updates on the subsequent releases of the series (and then, when that does come to an end, my next projects) follow me!
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