Betrayal. I know that word well. Thoughts come and go in this dreamlike state but I know this suffering will stay with me until the day I die. If I ever get out of here, I must remember never to trust another human being again.
--- King No One
Forever the sleep was intended, and forever it should have been.
There was no sunlight that far down, nor streetlamps to illuminate the dank, subterranean shadow, but the candles still burned. Clustered about each other like tiny beads of iridescence, they defiantly stood their ground against the never-ending legions of blackness. Those who had left them there were long dead, and many of their secrets taken along with them. However, the candles survived, burning tirelessly, not a moment older than the day their wicks had been set ablaze and small rectilinear marks had been scratched into their sides. It was as if some ancient and powerful magic were keeping them alive long after they should have expired.
Beyond the unwavering myriad of minute flames, suspended in one of the chamber’s rocky alcoves by some mysterious, arcane force, the sleeper resided. Rune-like markings were plastered across his body and face like ethereal bandages, glowing with a fierce, blue, unearthly aura. They were in many ways similar to the marks on the candles, though they weren’t etched into the sleeper himself, rather the reality that surrounded him and they housed a far more vivacious luminosity. Behind these potent symbols, little of the sleeper could be seen. He was gaunt, that was for certain, and had a strange pallid air about him that suggested a solitary coldness. From his head sprung long blades of deep, black hair, almost invisible in the damp, poorly lit cavern, but glistening occasionally as if it were liquid night. Like a puppet he hung, his feet not quite touching the floor and his eyes closed tightly like those of a man suffering the most unpleasant of nightmares. It was a confinement destined to be eternal, but like many things, destiny can be broken, and magic doesn’t last forever.
It was a slow process at first, and it was a good few moments before anything became even vaguely visible in the badly lit grotto. Initially, nothing happened at all, but gradually it became clear that the hieroglyphs were resonating with a strange energy that came from somewhere outside the underground prison. The intensity of these vibrations increased quickly, causing the candles to flicker and making it appear that the whole cave was shaking to the point of collapse. Piece by piece, cracks began to form upon the markings as they thrummed violently. Fragments broke apart as they ruptured, splitting under their own power before falling to the floor like icy blue snowflakes. Finally, the reverberance reached a climax and each of the glyphs shattered simultaneously, exploding like shards of glass, then vanishing into nothingness. It was a great and terrible end to a sect that had been alive since the dawn of the City itself.
All at once the candles collapsed, their wax flowing over the floor in hot rivers of hissing tallow. This was accompanied by a horrible, wet thud as the sleeper, now free, fell to the floor. He was awoken by the smell of steaming flesh, and the sound of his own scream.
The skin of his hands was raw and soft, still hot from the blistering wax which had peeled from him in thick layers of pain. He had welcomed it though, for it brought back memories. They weren’t necessarily good memories, but they were memories all the same.
The blame lies on him and him alone
The wax that coated his face however, was an entirely different matter, one that had been smoothed over onto the grinning façade that covered his real features. These were the features that had suffered so much and were now buried deep beneath the pale simulacrum that was the mask.
Every now and then, as he wandered through the dank oblivion, he would touch his right cheek in the manner of a person attempting to flatten a wisp of rebellious hair. More than once, this was followed by a slimy crack and a splash as he lost his balance in the stark nethervoid, landing less than gracefully. After a while he simply gave up his futile attempts to find an exit. He knew that there was no way to leave the labyrinth of murk; with a torch it would have been difficult, without so much as a match
He stands before the inferno
it was scraping the boundaries of impossibility. Instead he scrabbled about until he found a reasonably dry patch of rock; flat, and large enough to sit upon. And so, there he stayed, his knees hunched up against his false pallor, waiting for the end to consume him. At one time he had been quite attached to life, but after seeing the eternity, and against all odds, escaping it, he was a changed man. He didn’t mind that this place was to be his tomb, so long as he didn’t spend another second in that magically induced hell.
Still hearing the screams
A cold tear ran down the inside of the mask. He wished the voice would stop, he wished it more than anything. If he was going to die, at least let it be peacefully, with his eyes closed and only the echoes of the caves to keep him company.
Thankfully, a few seconds later, his muscles relaxed, for it had finally gone. Like a rat fleeing a sinking ship, it had left him to die, going back to whatever sinister essence it was born of. He was glad of it, and for the first time in ages, he unwound the knotted ropes of tension within him, and allowed the blissful silence to wash over his body and mind in long, refreshing waves. However, as he adjusted to the sweet symphony of quiet, he felt something out of place, almost unnoticeable but to the sharpest of instincts. It was a footstep, far away, soft, yet unmistakably human. It was like listening to the first drops of rainwater after a drought, and knowing that more will follow. A sharp breath entered his lungs as thoughts of freedom came rushing back. If someone had entered the cave, civilization couldn’t be too far away. All he had to do was find these people and follow them until they left. It was a simple enough plan and with any luck, the execution would be even simpler.
With amazing agility, he leapt up onto his haunches, making not a single sound and touching not a drop of water. Then, hearing another footstep, louder this time, he began the hunt, carefully placing the balls of his bare feet away from any sharp stones that lay on the cavern floor, and making his way closer and closer to the almost infinitesimal sound that was coming from somewhere nearby.
Rounding a corner, King’s heart leaped. They had light. From a barely visible passageway to his left there came a dull glow, appearing dark green, and pulsating faintly, like a shallow, lambent heartbeat. It was the final thing he needed for hope to return completely. Whoever these people were, he owed them his life.
Closer still, the light became brighter, more real and so did King’s belief that he might actually make it out of this place. With any luck he’d be a free man again within the hour. His thoughts on the matter though, were unknowingly interrupted a timid and tentative whisper, subtle, but still amplified by the sprawling mass of tunnels that encompassed it. King strained to hear what was being said whilst retaining his nimble balance and perfect concentration.
“Well can’t it go any faster?” The voice was of a man, quite young by the sounds of it, and was wrought with concern. It was nothing more than a worried whisper, but by now they were so close, King could practically smell them. He had already determined that the group was of three people, just from the sounds of their breathing. All that was left was to catch a glimpse of the mysterious travellers.
“No,” another whispered, a female voice this time, and much older, “It travels at its own pace, we must be patient.”
“But Keeper Agia said…”
King froze as the man was cut off by what sounded like a slap.
“You will not speak of us outside the compound,” a third voice scolded, another man, “this is an emergency and we will not have you make it a catastrophe. We are dealing with an extremely volatile individual and for all we know he could be awake already.”
King grinned at this though inside a sickly feeling of dread was beginning to invade. He knew what had sparked it, and that was a single word. Keeper. It changed everything, for he had past experience with the Keepers, experience he would rather not remember. They were unimaginably swift and clever beyond comprehension, not to mention the fact that they were manipulators whose true motives could never really be known. They were a threat, and like all threats, they had to be removed.
Wondering why it always came to this, King knelt down and picked a sizeable chunk of rock. Then, with far more caution than before, he recommenced his advance.
The first thing he noticed about the party was that it consisted of not three members, but five. They each wore hooded robes, concealing their identities, making it difficult to judge which one was which. He presumed that the one at the front of the group was the woman, simply by the way she walked. The smaller one near the back had to be the boy who had been foolish enough to let their element of surprise escape them, who even now looked skittish enough to take flight at the tiniest noise. This wasn’t a good thing; King hated it when his opposition was already on edge.
The other two Keepers were harder to tell apart, each of them walking at a steady pace and calmly surveying their surroundings for any signs of movement. The only difference he could notice about them was that one made a much larger effort to hide his presence, keeping his footsteps light and his breathing almost nonexistent. Trying to sneak up on either them unheard would be a challenge, but it was one that would be willingly undertaken.
The fifth and final constituent of the company was a curious being, the likes of which King had heard of, but knew little about. It was a small floating orb of pure luminescence, no bigger than a clenched fist and was following the Keeper at the head of the group. They were known as will-o’-the-wisps, little bundles of light that dwelt in places that the human race had not already commandeered. Usually they were taken for granted, for they had no power in the physical world and could not be interacted with or captured in any way. This one however, seemed to have been domesticated somehow, or at least had a tendency to follow people. Whichever, it couldn’t harm, nor be harmed, and so the living ball of buoyant radiance had to be tolerated.
The last thing that King noticed about the ones he tailed, was that although they had a convenient and sentient source of light, they tended to shun away from it, only staying close so as not to be swallowed by the hungry ocean of pitch that surrounded them. He supposed it was how they were trained; to be almost invisible at all times, to stay in the shadows; avoid the light, not even being seen by each other. Which for King, was a very good thing.
The rock he held was smooth and rounded, worn down by years of unrelenting erosion, the drip-drip-drip of time sculpting it into a tool of accuracy and precision. Still moving, he juggled it from hand to hand, assessing its weight and shape, finding the optimal surface with which to strike. Then, satisfied, he progressed towards his enemy, raising the rudimentary weapon mechanically above his head.
As he went in for the attack, every sound seemed louder, every scent became overpowering and every second seemed to last a lifetime. The Keeper was closer now, close enough to see, close enough to touch, and finally close enough to club over the head. As he brought the small boulder down onto the back of the man’s skull, he felt no remorse, no guilt and absolutely no regret. All of that had been taken from him a long time ago.
Cauterising the emptiness
He winced painfully as he caught the unconscious body, laying it down into the endless blackness without a sound. Neither his footsteps nor his breaths would be missed, for he had given none, out of fear of being seen. That was probably not a problem he’d ever have to worry about again, for when he did wake up, there would be nothing but blackness.
Careful not to get overconfident, King dropped back a couple of paces, putting some distance between him and the Keepers. Already, the body of the first was gone, unrecoverable, never to be seen again. Those ahead still hadn’t noticed, they were much too busy looking out for things that would appear from the shadows, not what already departed into them. He decided at that point that the boy would be next. It seemed that he was the most alert of the group, looking around continuously for anything out of place. If anyone were to be the first to notice the absence of their companion, it would be him. However, there was the difficulty of the Keeper that flanked the lad’s side, who seemed altogether too cool about the situation. If he were to notice the attack, all surprise would be compromised and desperate measures would have to be taken. In the darkness, King smiled; he liked resorting to desperate measures.
Raising the makeshift weapon, King crept forward again, with more agility this time, slinking through the gloom, skirting about the light of the wisp, and finally, reaching his target. As he approached, the adolescent turned his head at the most inopportune time, facing the spectral nightmare that had so many times struck fear into the hearts of its victims. Before he could even utter a scream of terror, his face was crushed under the impact of solid rock, the crunch of bone and marrow resounding throughout the tunnel. He fell down, either dead or overwhelmed by the pain coursing through his mangled features. As he touched the ground, King expertly reached down into his cloak, withdrawing a blade, long, thin and meant to kill. It seemed they had changed, for in King’s time, a Keeper carrying a weapon was unheard of. Then again, to most people, the Keepers themselves were little more than legend.
Almost unexpectedly, the ring of metal on metal hit his ears as his newly acquired sword clashed with that of the woman. She had charged him in absolute silence, admirably giving no cry of anguish, though her green-tinted eyes emitted raw hatred. It was sheer luck that he had managed to parry the blow in time, a moment longer spent retrieving the weapon and he would have been nothing but a bloody mess. As it was though, the steel was knocked aside, and King stood fully, taller than his deceptively stooping posture implied. He half expected to be hit from behind as well and although he kept his gaze securely on the woman’s blade, his peripheral vision saw only the dancing shadows cast by the lustrous, floating sphere. But there was no second attack. The shadows flickered, but in all, remained still. The look of malice on the woman’s face was slowly replaced with impatience, then desperation. Her associate wasn’t returning; he had melded into the shadows while he could, fleeing the disaster, and King didn’t blame him in the slightest. He would have done the same. The last remaining Keeper knew this as well and as the two stared blankly at each other for what seemed an age, he could see the hope draining from her face. It was the expression of a person who would rather face death than failure, yet knows they will be forced to confront both. It was someone who has forgotten what they are dying for, yet knows that it is for a reason, and so continues, heedless to the complete futility of their actions.
Slowly, uncertainly, yet with absolute defiance, she took a step forward, brandishing the sword as if it would somehow repel the abomination before her. King grinned, raising his own sword in mockery. Then, with one swift movement, he separated her head from her body, unhindered by the pathetic attempt to block the cutting edge. There was one ghastly moment in which her eyes went wide, before they fell to the cave floor like glassy green marbles being thrown into a fathomless well. The decapitated body seemed to waver for a second, as if confused as to where the rest of it had gone, before it too fell to the floor.
He could have considered it a triumph, even a vengeance, but standing there, sword still drawn, staring at the space which a few seconds earlier, his adversary had occupied, he deemed it nothing more than a hollow victory. He had once sought joy in killing, but those days were long past. Now blood was spilled only for survival, profit, and to satisfy the ruthless, demanding voice inside his head.
He could have stood there for hours, contemplating what he had done, wondering if he actually cared, but he knew that his thoughts on the subject didn’t matter anyway. Not to mention the fact that there was still the slippery individual who had escaped the attack somewhere in the cavern complex, probably lurking close by, just out of sight. That was a problem that could be overlooked for now; at the present King’s top priority was getting outside.
The will-o’-the-wisp had drifted across to the pieces of the fallen woman, hanging over them mournfully, its brilliance seeming to dim slightly. It was a melancholy sight, as if the entity were waiting for its master to get back up, wondering why she had become so still. King waited for a few seconds out of respect, and then began to walk away, checking from the corner of his eye to see if it was following. For a moment longer it hovered above the corpse lugubriously, before catching up with its new master, not wanting to be left behind. The smile on the killer’s face was hidden only by the grinning countenance of the mask as he basked in the warm knowledge that his plan had worked flawlessly.
Little more than an hour later the taste of urban air filled King’s mouth and lungs. It was a mixture of ale, smoke and human waste, yet somehow it seemed a million times better than the bland, claustrophobic atmosphere of the maze below. Even the sky seemed rejuvenating, for though it was dark and there were few stars, it was nothing compared with the fate he had just escaped.
The tunnels had eventually led to a set of stairs carved into the rock, easy to miss and very steep. They seemed to take forever to climb and he tried not to dwell on the question of how far down he had been. Eventually, they had emerged in some sort of crypt or tomb, the door of which opened into a graveyard; into the outside world.
Looking around, King couldn’t see too much difference between now and his own time. He didn’t know how long he’d slept for but he guessed it had been quite a while, more than he probably would have liked. In the distance, the great hiss of steam pistons resonated throughout the night, just one of the thousands of sounds that made the City.
“So,” he mused, sitting on some sort of memorial with his legs dangling over the side, “What now?” He looked at the wisp as if expecting an answer. Not getting any, he glanced back down at his hands, where the wax been torn from him to reveal the fresh, soft skin underneath.
“You’re right,” he murmured to the wisp again, jumping back down from the marble edifice with a new look of determination in his eyes. “It’s time to re-establish.”
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