Darkos had a weird mixed up feeling in his stomach. It was like he was being waterboarded and tickled at the same time. Like yeah, he was experiencing physical and psychological torture as he grew closer and closer to a horrifying death, all while painfully aware that he’d failed every single person who’d been counting on him. But he also couldn’t stop giggling to himself.
That part upset Hari quite a bit. If Darkos had to guess, Hari was experiencing something akin to winning a race but getting the smallest trophy. Hooray, you win! Enjoy your golden toothpick while the other kids bring their shiny cups to their proud parents.
Except in this case, Darkos was the trophy being brought to a proud parent. And Noire would certainly be proud. Nuts may have kept Darkos safe from Noire’s insidious attempts to infiltrate his brain, but the lingering presence would not be enough to fend off the Void Fiend in its own realm. Too bad Darkos hadn’t thought to bring anything nutty to the Void Realm.
Hindsight, as they say, is twenty twenty.
“Stay close, Darkos.” Hari’s command was cold, disdainful, and utterly useless as Darkos really had no option here. His leash had gotten very short as of late. At first, Darkos wasn’t sure why Hari had given the order to start, but as they kept walking down the halls, Darkos noticed a dull thrumming. It grew louder and more dissonant as they continued, but when Darkos tried plugging his fingers in his ears, the sound remained unchanged. The air around them also got thicker, though it felt more like the blurring was on his eyes, stuck to his lashes, impossible to clear with a few blinks. Or a ton of blinks. Or actually, impossible to clear even with closed eyes.
Hari didn’t respond to his ventured question, and why would he? He’d gotten what he needed from Darkos.
So Darkos shut his mouth and began contemplating. Contemplating how bad things were, mostly, which was a bummer of a thing to contemplate. The real issue he was faced with was that he just didn’t know anything about Noire. Maybe this weird scummy thing messing with his vision was Noire. Cause really, meeting Noire was probably not going to be like meeting any other big evil bad guy, where they sit atop a throne and laugh maniacally at you. Noire was a force of nature. It could very well just be a goopy thing over your eyes, a thudding in your ear, and then you just kinda lose consciousness and poof. You’re controlled by a Void Fiend forever.
It was enough to make Darkos want to drag his heels, but he couldn’t because Hari wouldn’t let him get further than two feet away. It was awful how close they were. It was just in general a pretty awful situation.
Just as the film over his eyes had gotten bad enough that he’d started scrubbing them fiercely with the heels of his hands, Hari sliced a hand to the side, and they vanished.
“Quite enough of that,” he said. His voice stayed as cold as it had been the whole time, but the uncomfortable, bordering on painful sensations abated.
Was that a sign they were approaching Noire? Were the feelings, like, some kind of voidic magic, guarding the nest? Darkos’s nose wrinkled at the idea of Noire’s ‘nest.’ It was such a gross word. Why couldn’t it have been, like, Noire’s lair? Pit? Tower? Center of command? Besides, the alliteration was pretty awful and reminded Darkos of when he first destroyed the cult in his hometown, how the High Priest of Noire had called the Void Fiend ‘horrifying and hair-raising.’ That had made Darkos laugh. He wasn’t laughing now.
Or he was, but it was because of the peanut paste, not because of Noire. And the closer they got, the less he laughed.
To Darkos’s surprise, Hari stopped suddenly, a few hours after they’d cleared the obstacles.
“We’re breaking for the night,” he said. His fingers fidgeted with the tassels on his ever-increasingly ornate vest. “We need our rest. Our strength. Big day tomorrow.”
“Will that fuzziness come back?” Darkos asked as he plopped down besides Hari.
“The fuzziness? Oh for goodness sake, Darkos, you really have the perception of a sea cucumber.” Hari waved up an ethereal tent, one whose wall barely separated the two given Darkos’s forced proximity. “Those are Noire’s Curtains. We’ve passed them, which is why we’re stopping now. Look behind you.”
Darkos rolled over to see the area behind them foggy and shimmering. He shuddered.
“Tremble in fear, Darkos,” Hari said. “Even if Geela has survived Terha, as you claim, had survived our special weapon, which I doubt, she will never cross through Noire’s Curtains.”
With this, and a sleepy little evil laugh, Hari rolled over and fell silent.
Darkos let out a big sigh. Terha, weapon, Noire’s Curtains. Well, Geela had defeated the first, but he was going so blind here, he had no idea if she’d fallen to the secret weapon. Had that been why she’d fallen so far behind? Could she be dead?
The idea of her being dead was enough to make Darkos laugh, but he was pretty laughed out and in his attempts to make a laugh, made a weird choke that bordered dangerously on a sob.
Oh Gods, how screwed was he right now?
He fell into a fitful sleep that night, dreaming of mice scurrying over his body, of the skeletally thin bodies of the priests back at home, of the crunching of heavy boots outside the house at night when he was supposed to be alone. Frequently he’d find himself jolting awake, only to see spooky marionettes descend from the tunnel ceiling and laugh at him for thinking he was awake.
“He sssssleepssss with no knowledge of the death that approachessss him.” A new voice slithered in his ear as he tried to get enough hours of rest to maybe face down Noire the next day. “He doessss not know what we have brought.”
“Quiet, Snake, please!” This second voice was almost childish in its fear, and Darkos’s dreams swam to new visions of a young priest of Alerion being stalked through the Jungle Region by a fearsome python.
“He cannot hear,” the first voice said. “Look how he sssstays asssleep.”
“I mean it, Snake. Be quiet.”
“Yeah, Snake,” Darkos mumbled, “be quiet. I’m trying to sleep.”
This voice was neither the piercing, childlike squawk nor the slithering hiss. It was, however, very familiar.
“Oh hush you too. Goodness, no one can stay quiet in here, can they?”
Darkos’s eyes flashed open in a heartbeat. In front of him, like some heaven sent angel, Geela crouched, holding some shimmering material overhead. Her eyes darted about her, both behind and in front, but when she saw his were open, she grinned.
“Good morning,” she said. “I need you to do everything I say.”
As he took in more around her, he could see a small birdcage on the ground near her knee. Inside was a hideous bug-like monstrosity and beside it was a bag that shifted as if it held something liquid inside. What had Geela brought with her?
“Hmm?” His eyes snapped back to her now irate face. “What?”
“Do you understand? I need your full cooperation.” Again she looked forward and this time Darkos followed her eyes with his, where they landed on Hari. Darkos shook his head a few times to clear his happy little victories out. They were far far from free.
“Yeah I got you,” he whispered. “Can he hear us?”
Geela let a little smile creep across her face, and the smug, sinister gesture was enough to let a wave of relief roll off Darkos’s back. “Of course, not,” she said. “This cloth has an auditory dampener on it. It’s half illusions, half void. Won’t last terribly long, which is why we need to move. I want you to roll over as subtly as you can so you and Hari aren't touching anymore.”
It was slow going, the gentle rolling needed to keep Hari fast asleep. Once, as Darkos lifted his arm away from his brother’s side, the man grasped out, as if about to grab Darkos’s hand. However, when Hari’s flailing limb did meet Darkos’s, he simply thrust it away and returned to his slumber.
“Phew,” Darkos said, once he was fully free, miming wiping a bead of sweat away. “That was a lot.”
“I’m glad to see your constitution has held up,” Geela said, slowly rising to her feet and motioning him to do so as well. “Rolling over in bed is now what passes for draining.”
Darkos just grinned at the jibe. “Missed you too. Now what? I’ve still got this leash tethering us.” He gestured at nothing, hoping she’d get his drift.
Geela’s eyes swept over him, darting over several points on the two men. “Crude little bit of magic. And I don’t mean inappropriate crude. I mean rudimentary. He seems to have been far more interested in making that leash strong and short than he has actually tethering it to himself. He’s just got it looped around his wrist.”
Darkos’s mouth fell open. “So I could have removed it any time?”
She laughed, a light, tinkling sound. “No, not at all. That would have fried you, given you’re it’s hostage. But I can. Just sit still. This might take a bit and we’ll be in pretty bad straits if he wakes up..”
Darkos stayed frozen a few feet away from her as she began her work. He couldn’t quite tell what she was doing, but it was taking her a solid amount of time. Several minutes passed. Then several more. A bead of actual sweat was beginning to roll down his face when she straightened up.
“Ta-da,” she said, holding up her wrist. “Oh, I bet you can’t even see it, can you. Shame shame. It’ll wear off the further we get from Hari, though, so you should be good and free soon.”
Darkos thought he might just throw up in relief. But then he remembered Geela’s comment about the sound cloth not lasting forever, so he kept his mind focused. “Okay, so how do we proceed? Do we just press on to Noire? What’s the situation?”
She let out a heavy sigh, putting down her triumphant wrist. “It’s complicated. Ahead is dangerous. But there’s a… problem with going back.” With this, her eyes drifted upward and landed on the fuzzy tunnel where they had come from.
Silhouetted in the passage was a lone figure, arms held aloft. It was hard to make out much of the man, but Darkos could tell that he was well built and rather brawny. For a moment, his heart double skipped as he thought that maybe, just maybe, it was that VoidCrusher idiot. Then he laughed off the thought. VoidCrusherXX was dead. Then he sobered, a sick feeling in his stomach. When did he gloat so much at the death of someone whose greatest sin was being annoying? That wasn’t right at all. Maybe it would be better if this man was VoidCrusherXX, somehow surviving Hari’s flash of black light.
As Darkos considered this, the man turned his head, and Darkos realized he had pointed animal ears. Not VoidcrusherXX after all. Good. Or damn. Whatever was the right word here.
“Who is he?” Darkos asked as he pulled himself to his feet. “What’s he doing?”
Geela’s face reddened, much to Darkos’s surprise, and her lips pulled down in the corners. “He’s… helping. For now. We need to sneak you past him, but I should be able to convince him you’re not you long enough for us to get past the traps.”
Darkos nodded as if this made sense. “Right. Wait. No.”
Geela’s voice, however, was a runaway cart and Darkos’s confusion could not stop her. “We need to get out of here like lickity split because we’re very close to Noire. I think we can get through the walls here because the currents rush away from the nest, but it would be a bit of a risk. I don’t know if I can anchor you well enough—”
“We’re not running away.” This time, Darkos was able to muscle his voice in loud enough to interrupt her. “I thought we were killing Noire.” She’d promised. Yes, the goal had been to rescue Darkos’s soul from Noire, and yes with what he knew now, he knew there’d be no chance of Noire actually getting his soul, but still. For the sakes of the hundreds of priests whose souls Noire used as batteries, she’d promised.
Geela rolled her eyes. “Oh don’t worry about that. Noire’s losing its touch. This whole place is in tatters. You should have seen the realms I’ve been in. They’re crumbling, dying. Noire will blow itself out without its children or followers. It’s done for—what are you shaking your head at me for?”
Darkos gave a heavy sigh. “Didn’t you get my note? Noire is growing in power, not dying or anything. It’s almost at its main goal. Nightmare world or whatever.”
“Yes, I got your note. Let me guess.” She tilted her head, eyes sparkling in that ‘you poor, silly thing’ way. “Hari told you.”
“He did. And no, he wasn’t lying, I know you’re gonna say something about that being what bad guys do. But he wasn’t. He was tethered to me with a verity chain.” Darkos looked down at where Hari slumbered. “We traded stories. I was trying to find a weakness and he was trying to find out why I hadn’t succumbed to Noire. It was a bit of a game and he… he won.”
Geela let out a long breath. “Alright. Alright how about this? We move past Hari because this cloth won’t last forever and we need space to be able to talk. We’ll figure something out, just… stay still for a second.” With this, she dropped the silencing cloth over his head and slipped out from underneath it. She scurried down the hall to where the man stood, but, as Darkos should have expected, he couldn’t hear a thing. The two struck up a conversation, hopefully a quiet one, though Darkos couldn’t tell. He wanted to get closer to try to read their lips but there was a reason Geela had told him to wait, so he waited.
“Why’d we have to stay with you?” The childish voice was back, and Darkos looked on the ground to see Geela had left the cage with the little bug in it. It glared up at him, bug eyes baleful. “We could be sneaking around with the witch right now, preparing juuuust the perfect moment to jump up and down and start to scream!” As it said these words, it started jumping up and down and screaming.
Darkos put his hands over his ears, already annoyed with it. “What the heck are you?”
“I am Bugsquito.” It planted six of its arms on its hips. Or it didn’t, because it didn’t have hips because it was a bug, but maybe it had seen Geela strike the pose enough and thought it looked intimidating. “Monstersquito most dreadful. And this is Snake.” It pointed at the bundle, which shifted around the ground. Bugsquito motioned for Darkos to get closer, so he pressed his ear to the cage. “It’s not really a snake,” the monster whispered. “But it doesn’t know and we don’t either.”
Darkos nodded and straightened up, trying to hide a smile. It was honestly kinda cute in a horrifyingly evil way. He wondered if Geela planned on killing it.
The cloth shifted, then, and Geela slipped back in.
“Okay,” Geela said. “I told him you were an old accomplice, Drake, and that you’d seen Darkos going that way.” She pointed ahead. “He can’t know you’re you, which means I don’t want him getting close to you. I’m going to ditch you with Scout, Bugsquito, and Snake for now and… walk with him. We want to move quick, though. That cloth won’t last forever.”
There was something heavy about how she said the word ‘walk,’ but Darkos wanted to get a bit more space from Hari before asking. She deposited a tiny bag in his hand and slipped back out. Then she motioned frantically at him to go ahead while she moved to the man and took a rope that seemed attached to his neck.
“So, uh, you Scout?” he asked the bag.
“The pathetic mortal presumes to hoodwink our powerful ally by hiding your identity.” The guttural croak gave Darkos a shudder. “Were I not under here, I’d give away your position in a heartbeat.”
Darkos chuckled as he scooped up the bag and cage and started walking down the hall. “You do know this is exactly why she’s left me with you, right?”
A silence followed this, one long enough and powerful enough that Darkos thought maybe the cloth had started impacting them even underneath it.
“That… that makessss a lot of sensssse.”
Poor Geela. Darkos found the little monsters hilarious as they muttered together, one moment conspiring with each other on the best way to kill him, the next bickering and sniping at each other. But Geela didn’t like cute or funny things and honestly, they’d probably been more of a liability for her trying to find him. He was honestly a little surprised she’d kept them alive.
His eyes drifted to the fourth of her companions, the man with animal ears. He could now see a bit more of the guy, who walked a bit away, eyes fixed on the tunnel ahead. As Darkos took in the man’s… general physique, he couldn’t help but connect a few dots.
Well. Technically the man was a better fit than that VoidCrusherXX guy. He was clearly not just another grunt replacing Darkos. No, this fellow fit a new niche. He was older than Darkos, more refined. It was good for Geela to meet new men. And a voidic monster, well, that may very well be a good match for her.
There was the whole fact that Geela was trying to hide Darkos’s identity from him, but they could deal with that later.
With every step further from Hari, every step surrounded by Geela and her posse of void monsters turned unwillingly good—or whatever alignment Geela was at the moment—Darkos felt lighter. Safer. Freer. No secret weapon, no deadly curtains, no Noire breathing down his neck, no evil older sorta half brother hitting him and taunting him mercilessly. Just Darkos and Geela and a few weird monsters. Maybe a new beau.
He could live with this.
“Alright,” Geela said about an hour later, voice soft, whooshing the cloth off him. “We’ve got some breathing space as long as we keep it down.”
Darkos jumped a bit, not having paid much attention to her movements over the past few minutes. “Okay,” he said, matching her volume “What about—” His eyes darted down to the little monsters. Scout and Snake had gone quiet in their little sacks. Bugsquito had fallen asleep.
Her lips quirked up, and she snatched the bag, pouch, and cage from Darkos, before hurrying forward several feet to where the wolfman was and handing them off. Then she draped the cloth over him and hurried back.
“He’s still working with us,” she said, upon return. “And they’re not very smart. As long as not enough changes for them, they won’t even realize their voices aren’t being blocked, and they’ll stay quiet. They get tired easily when they don’t think their babbling is doing anything.”
Darkos grinned, reminded of how he used to fall asleep on the cart ride home from pageant night and how he’d always magically wake up in his own bed.
“He’s a good guy, the wolf,” Darkos said.
Geela choked. “You don’t know the first thing about it. But before we tackle that, we need a plan.” She stepped closer to Darkos, giving sufficient space between them and the hostages. “Lunas is our only way in and out until Noire is gone, so we can either stay in here until we kill it, in which case we need to get rid of the prisoners, or we need to duck out and plan outside. I know you think Noire’s getting stronger, so you’d probably argue for the former. I think this whole place is getting weaker, so I’m leaning towards the latter.”
Darkos wanted to smirk and make a comment like ‘bet that’s not the only reason you want Lunas around’ but he didn’t because it wasn’t the time for that.
“Promise you Geela, Noire’s getting strong.” He took a deep breath. “And I’m not just saying that so you’ll banish Lunas.”
Geela’s lips pinched. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.”
Darkos’s eyes widened. “No, serious, I’m happy for you! I’m not bitter at the idea. I just hated that adventure guy cause he seemed like a real jerk. Like seriously, screw him. Who even calls themselves VoidCrusher?”
“My master did, as a matter of fact!”
Darkos choked and gasped at the same time as he spun fast on his heel to find the rather offended face of VoidCrusherXX glaring back at him.
“What in the void’s deepest unwashed crevices are you doing here?” The voice that cursed out the man did not, in fact, come from Darkos, who was reeling at the idea of him being alive. No, instead the words came from Geela’s, whose face contorted with rage. “How? How did you get past the curtains? How did you get past Hari? How in the nonexistent nineteenth realm are you here?!”
“How are you alive?” Darkos asked, his voice not quite as thunderstruck as Geela’s if only because he was so confused. “I saw Hari kill you!”
VoidCrusherXX brushed some invisible dust off his shoulder. “Hari? The void spawn? Pft, I could take him any day. Found the menace sleeping in his tent. You know I had to at least try to kill him.”
Darkos’s and Geela’s eyes met as they both simultaneously dared to hope.
VoidCrusherXX gave a long sigh. “Unfortunately for me, he woke just as I was bringing my blade down. Shame really. But I am faster than he is, luckily. Think I lost the son of a—”
“Lost him?” Geela looked down the tunnel behind them, her eyes bulging. “You just ran? You do realize this has just been one uninterrupted tunnel, right?” She took a step towards him, fingers twitching by her side, and Darkos was sure her lip was trembling. “You woke him up and led him straight here?”
“Tis nothing to fear as long as you’re up for a bit of a footrace.” VoidCrusherXX’s eyes fell to Darkos. “At least, this fellow ought to give me a run for my money. And so will—my god Miss, is that a wolfkin?”
“Don’t call me Miss,” Geela said, her voice a deadly hiss. She took another step towards him, but Darkos could tell she didn’t have anything really planned. The look on her face was pure rage, nothing scheming or plotting about it.
“Uh, maybe not a good idea,” Darkos said, putting a hand across her chest. “Maybe we can—”
“I apologize, was that directed at me?” This smooth, deep, mellifluous voice came from the wolfman, Lunas, who approached the three with a ponderous look on his face. “Could you be Darkos?”
VoidCrusherXX put a hand to his chest in shock. “Me? Give my true identity in the Void Realm. I would never, good sir.”
“Wait, are we not supposed to do that?” Darkos asked, mind fritzing as he jumped from each conversationalist, trying to sort who was thinking what. It certainly seemed that Geela had not tried to replace Darkos with VoidCrusherXX, which did cheer him slightly, but then there was the whole Hari chasing after them bit that would probably become very relevant very soon.
“You’re going to die today, VoidCrusherXX,” Geela said, mind entirely focused on the adventurer. “By my hand.”
The hero waggled a finger at her. “I assure you, little lady, I have no intentions of fighting you for the affections of either of your studdly suitors.”
Darkos didn’t think he’d ever seen Geela so angry. It wasn’t that powerful, righteous fury he was used to. It was a sputtery, gaspy, horrified rage that just made him want to hold her back until she formulated her thoughts better.
“I consider neither of these men to be suitors. Neither.” Her voice shook. “Why you would ever consider—”
“Not even the wolf guy though?” Darkos asked, interrupting her real quick. “I mean, I could kinda see it. It’s okay if you’re moving on past Barney. It is! And I’m not jealous, really.”
“Darkos,” Geela said, her voice a trembling whisper. “That’s not it. I swear.”
He held up a hand. “It’s okay. It is. I give my blessing, in fact. I just want you to be happy.”
She didn’t respond for a long second. Her head had bowed forward, and her hair blocked her face, so Darkos couldn’t quite tell what she was thinking.
“Is it true?” VoidCrusherXX asked. “Could this wolf be a true love of yours?”
Geela looked up. Her face was pale except for her cheeks, which flushed red. For a moment, Darkos thought maybe he had gotten it right. But then he noticed a burn in her eyes and realized… no. No that was seething, blind hate. Okay, so Geela wasn’t into the wolf guy after all. In hindsight, maybe that had been a silly theory.
Lunas sighed and set down the bag, pouch, and cage containing the prisoners. “This woman is my mistress,” he said, gesturing at the collar on his throat. “I am hers to—”
He cut off as a horrid, snaking coil of shadow burst through the tunnel floor, twining itself around him in a horrible way until the wolfman gave a sharp yip and was crushed to death under it.
Geela’s and Darkos’s jaws both dropped, not quite simultaneously, but close.
“He was…” Geela said. “He was…”
“Your love?” VoidCrusherXX asked, stepping closer to her. “The man that had repaired your heart?”
She glared at him, venom in her eyes. “My way out. What is wrong with you?”
“Oh, thank crow I found you.”
The voice, high and with an unmistakably cocky air to it, was just one more thing to contribute to Darkos’s confused waterfall of emotional responses. But before he really had to land on anything, three tendrils emerged from the walls and wrapped around Geela, Darkos, and VoidCrusherXX.
“You—you can’t.” VoidCrusherXX’s voice had turned from gloating to a sputter in the space of one tentacle snaking around his ankle. “Noirela would—”
“You can shut up,” Hari said. “You’ve done a very poor job of everything you’ve been assigned and rest assured, that will be conveyed to Noirela.”
Darkos opened his mouth to speak, trying to squeeze words through his now cramped lungs, but before he could formulate anything, VoidCrusherXX spoke again.
“No. I need another chance, more time! I’m close, so close.” The heroic puff to his voice faltered more and more as he groveled. “I learned a weakness of hers, something I just exploited, she’s moments from cracking, I swear. Just don’t tell Noirela yet. What it doesn’t know can’t hurt it, and if it hasn’t seen—”
“But I see everything here.”
The voice seemed to come from both within and without. From the walls, from the air, from inside Darkos’s head, his heart, his soul. He could hear them, feel them, taste them, it was as though every sense had come alive to tell him how absolutely beyond dead he was right now.
“I have seen this all, and I am very very pleased.”
With this terrifyingly ominous take, all light vanished, and the ground dropped out beneath them. One minute, Darkos was standing there, unsure if he should laugh or cry or hide.
The next, he was falling.
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