Into the Darkness

by Michael Bard

October, 707 CR

Yvarra was miserable.

Nearly a month. A month of murder. A month of killing her soul night by night. She was afraid of everything now. Never going to inns or taverns, scrounging through the garbage for what she could get, sneaking nibbles off rooftop gardens between her endless search.

She'd tried eating food in the houses of those she— she—

No! She would not sugar coat the facts.

The houses of those she'd murdered. She'd subsisted off food there, until the cult began poisoning it. Likely not all of it, but it took more energy to heal herself from the poison than she'd gain trying to find out if any was poisoned.

If they had left anything other than meat uncontaminated.

Her stomachs grumbled and the Sword of Songs hummed against her back, offering what support it could.

So, here she was. Wet, coated in mud from the cold rain that had fallen on and off over the last three days. Cold, hungry, miserable.

But, what could she do?

So much of her just wanted to leave. To walk out through the town gates, leave Metamor and never come back.

Only two things kept her here though. Two. Her word — though that was wearing thin — and the little girl— Ansela. Her trusting face, her utter belief that tomorrow would be warm and sunny and safe. That every day that was to come would be warm and sunny and safe.

The trust and hope in her eyes were all that kept Yvarra going.

It was late afternoon, the sun had found a crack between the buildings and into the alley she was hiding in the back of, sleeping during the day, hidden in garbage and abandoned refuse.

The only place she found safe anymore.

As she began stretching, she went through her daily string of curses. Cursing the cult. Cursing what they made her do. Cursing the nameless evil she was supposedly going to stop, though she wasn't doing very well at that yet. And cursing the so-called Lady Tarathana that had started her on this doomed quest.

It was getting to the point that, if she ever did succeed, she'd join a monastery and devote the rest of her life to quiet contemplation of the innocent, and far far away from the chaos and horror of the world.

Yawning, she unswallowed and chewed on a bit of dry stringy cud — all that she had yesterday. Tonight— tonight she'd finally have to devote herself to stealing lots of good safe food. She couldn't go on without more.

Maybe tonight she wouldn't have to k—

"In the name of the Euper Watch, and the Duke of Metamor, you are ordered to surrender to His most blessed and fair justice!"

Head whipping around, Yvarra stared. The sunlight that had found its way to her was gone, blocked by standing figures crowding the edge of the alley, and piling back into the muddy street. How in the Nine Hells—

But— Duke of Metamor? They weren't the cult— Weren't they?"

Licking her nostrils, she sniffed. She shoved past the mud and rain and garbage, seeking what information her nose could find. Sweat, leather, oil, a veritable menagerie of animals.

"Stand slowly. Make no sudden moves."

How in Klepnos' name had they snuck up on her. Was she that tired. Or—

She resumed cursing under her breath. The damn sword had always warned her. But, not this time. Why not this time? Why—

They were the thrice-damned watch.

But— what could they want with her? She'd left no evidence, her alicorn had cloaked her from magic, she'd been certain no one had seen her—

Take things one step at a time. Keeping her hands in front of her, she slowly stood as a trio of guard approached. One, the leader, was a goat, the other two— one was a woman, though built like a man, and the other was feline of some sort. Yvarra couldn't tell their colouration as the sun was behind them.

Staying still, except for her breathing, she watched, sucking air in through her nostrils, sorting through scents in the hope of finding something, anything. More and more silhouettes moved into the alley from the street outside.

How damn many watch had they set on her?

She just needed a moment. Just— In the bathhouse her alicorn had flashed so bright it had momentarily blinded the cultists. But, she hadn't done it! Yet— Closing her eyes, she ransacked her memories, pulling up that moment. Pulling up exactly what it had felt like—

The goat began speaking. "In the name of the Duke of Metamor, you are under arrest for mass murder. If you move, you will be killed. If—"

She had it!

Focusing only on that memory, on the memory of the sensation, she shoved her magic out and into her alicorn. And then— it happened! Eye-searing light filled the alley, and the watch screamed, grabbing their eyes. Yvarra hoped they'd be all right, she didn't want to kill them, didn't want to kill anybody. The cultists had forced her hand, but the watch was just doing their job. She respected them.

But, she had to get out of here!

Leaping up out of the mud, her hooves scrabbled as her hands scratched, and she got a grip on the worn wood. Like a cat— or a mountain goat— she was up the wall and on the roofs.

"Where the hells did—" "Everybody all right?" "Where is she?" "On the roof!"

Yvarra didn't have time to hear more. Instead she ran, her hooves clopping loudly on the tiles as she ran for her life. Bolts started hissing up from the ground. They weren't aimed, and their force was somewhat expended, but there were a lot of them.

She leapt across an alley, turning towards the river. Or river tributary— she'd never been able to find out for sure.

"She's going to the docks!"

Yes, she was. And— Nine Hells! Somehow she'd gotten trapped, maybe herded, onto a long row of buildings that led straight to the water, a street on either side. Yvarra was trapped.

She concentrated on running, on keeping her balance on the canted roof. On landing safely when she leapt over another alley. Her breath was coming short and sharp, a pain blossomed in her chest. Her diet was catching up to her, and—

She grabbed her hat to keep it from blowing off.

And— Could she surrender? Give herself into the Watch's custody? And then be taken to jail, if not tried and executed immediately. Trapped in a locked cell for the Cult to find her and kill her, or poison her, or knock her out, or— whatever they wanted.

Maybe the cult had set out evidence for the Watch. Set things up to screw her. But— She'd used daggers in the bathhouse, hadn't been able to recover them. It could be any of those. Great— just great—

She tripped over a missing shingle and fell on her chest and chin, having learned from bitter experience to raise her head to keep her alicorn from getting caught. The calls of the watch were falling behind, but it didn't matter. She could see a crowd gathering, probably betting on whether or not she'd escape. Blood thudding in her ears, heart pounding to burst out of her chest, she staggered back onto her hooves. There wasn't much further to go. And then—

What?

The goat's voice called out from behind: "Surrender! You won't— be harmed— if you surrender— peacefully." He was gasping for breath too.

Surrender— an opportunity to rest. It seemed like such a pleasant dream— No! She'd never been caught. It— it was a matter of pride. And— safety. Yea, safety.

She reached the end and fell over backwards stopping herself from going over. If the stench of the harbour hadn't been so bad, hadn't been a wall of foulness, she'd not have had enough warning to stop.

But— what else could she do? Fight? No! She refused to kill innocents. Her soul was already blackened enough.

Life had been so much simpler before Lady Tarathana had drafted her, when she'd only herself to look out for. Now—

Ansela's face drifted in front of her eyes.

No! She would not let the child down!

It was all the honour she had left.

What to do? What to do?

She forced herself back to her hooves. The Watch wasn't firing — though she could see they had their crossbows. They could wait her out. After all, where could she go? Where—?

Before her was the harbour, silted, dirty, the water black and oily. It was so bad she almost couldn't smell the runoff from the tanneries. A handful of barges were tied up, loaders had stopped and were looking at her, pointing. Gulls swooped and drifted along the shore, diving down for scraps of fish. A group of— of otters, human otters, were upstream— fishing?

Something echoed from behind her and she turned her head enough to see — more watch, on the roof behind her. The goat leading. His entire front was covered in mud — he must have fallen. Yvarra did have to admire his dedication.

What to do— what to—?

There was only one choice — the harbour. She didn't know how to swim, had never learned. But— Surrendering was signing her death warrant. Given how the Eli-damned cult had tracked her, harassed her, they had to have infiltrated the guard. Arrange to have the right people guarding her cell, and then enough bolts that even she couldn't heal.

Klepnos but she was hungry!

The goat and the men— well, the animals— all arboreal— a pair of squirrels, a raccoon, the feline. No wonder they'd been able to climb up so well. Must have let down a rope for the captain. If he'd needed it.

"Hold— hold your— fire!" the goat shouted down before turning to face her. "If you come— come now— you will be tried— in the Duke's court. Justice will be done!" the goat called out.

If she lived that long.

She backed up, slowly turning to face her accusers. Her hands itched for the daggers she had left, but she refused. She would not kill an innocent. If the Watch were innocent— The Sword of Songs was silent.

The Watch tensed.

She let herself slump, controlling it more to keep from collapsing completely than to make it look good. How she'd stay afloat she had no clue. But— it was better than death. And— and maybe the last shard of her self respect would stay with her. Never captured, even unto death.

Yvarra took a few steps away from the edge of the roof. Who knew how deep the river was, or what kind of sludge she would dive into—

It would be so easy to just surrender.

Easy to give up.

That's right. Give up. Betray your task. Let Ansela die.

He knees shook, her legs shook, and she fought to breathe.

Which was better? Surrender and rest?

No! That had never been her way.

Right or wrong, she knew then that her decision had been made.

"Why?" the goat asked. "Why kill so— so many?"

She stared at him. He didn't know. She'd have to go soon. Just a moment longer to catch her breath. Just a moment. "Because— because if I— I don't, they'll— they'll kill us all—"

"Who?"

"Ask— library—"

Forcing out the last of her strength, Yvarra spun around and ran, ran with all the breath she had left. Which wasn't much. Ran to the edge of the roof and dove off, hands in front of her, tumbling and falling. Sun, cloud, water, building. Crossbow bolts hissed past her, one shoved itself into her back, scrapping off a rib. Grain— a barge of grain— down— down river—

And then she hit the water.

It was like a stone wall, the last of her breath was shoved out of her, she could feel ribs breaking. Without thinking she sucked in another breath, pulling the foul liquid into her lungs. Coughing, fighting, her alicorn glowing, her body burning, she sank into the blackness.

Her last act was to grab onto her hat—


Yvarra sank, her body hot with fear and terror. But, most of all, over whelming failure. Beaten by the Watch! It was a good thing that she was dead so that she wouldn't have to live it down.

Her hooves sank into the thick slimey ooze at the bottom, and her body sank after it. The mud slid past her, oozing through her fur, her clothes, through the hand still holding her hat. Turning over, she coughed, a last few bubbles of air slowly rising to the surface as the thick liquid settled in her lungs.

Klepnos, forgive me—

Maybe she should have tossed the Sword of Songs on the roof before she'd leapt. Given it to somebody else so that they could fight the damn cult.

She was so very very tired—

At least she'd gone out in an epic fashion!

Though—

Um—

By the Seven Hells, why wasn't she dead?

For a moment she drifted there, gently pushed along, her hooves and legs sliding through the fine silt. She could feel a coolness all around, over her body, deep insider her. She could feel the water pressing against her. And— and—

She could feel the warmth trickle from her alicorn into her body.

She wasn't comfortable, but she wasn't in pain either.

Like— like— when she'd been in the dye! No tightness in her chest—

That brought up the immediate question: how long could she last like this? Not long, given her fatigue level, and lack of food.

Her stomachs grumbled angrily in agreement.

She coughed. A bit of thin slimy cud worked its way up and into her mouth where she chewed it.

Yvarra couldn't have long. So— what now? Swim? How? And where?

As if in answer to her unspoken prayer, the Sword of Songs gently thrummed behind her as the — current? — gently pushed her along. The tone wasn't a song, or a warning. It was more an— an envelopment of sound. A tone all around her. But— was it stronger in one direction? Yes!

Without any skill she paddled, dragged, hopped, staggered, fell and drifted along with the current. She felt the pressure of time, she felt coldness claiming more and more of her body as her final reserves of strength began to fail. The sword's tone rose, higher, stronger; she followed it like a dog blindly following a scent. She shivered, her teeth chattered. The direction changed; the sword focussed above. Above— There were— were— rocks, something. Mindless she climbed, climbed up into the darkness and chill.

Like a drowned rat she used her last strength to drag herself onto the cold slimy rock. Her body shook, exploded as she coughed and gagged out the water and mud and slime. With a rough, desperate gurgle, she sucked in air. Blessed, sweet, air—

Time passed. And endless time of darkness and desperation. Yvarra didn't think, she just shuffled around in the blackness, her nose, or her need, finding bits of fungi, subterranean mosses and mushrooms that she gulped down, desperately filling her empty stomachs. For water, she kept to the iron-rich drops that fell from the ceiling in steady rhythm, that being the only measure of time. She wandered deeper and deeper, aimless, needy. Once she passed a carved wooden door, half open, shelves of books beyond, but she ignored it for none would satisfy her need. Another time she passed an echoing hall, carved, smooth, covered in dust and stained in water, but it was ignored too.

Feeling and sensing her way by the echoes of her hooves, her ears swivelling to try and do what they could, but more often her scratched and dirty hands finding the wall she almost hit, or her hooves the edge she almost walked over. Finding only the bare minimums that she needed, and maybe a little bit more to allow a bit of healing. Away from the streams, away into the blackness.

Days and days and days later, she saw light.

It was a dim light, faint, yellow, yet painful to her long adjusted dark vision, even though there was never anything to see. In her mindless hunger she didn't ask, just crept further and further into the light. Sulphurous fumes from deep beneath the earth crept along the ground at her hooves, smelling of age, of anger, of mystery. There was a woman— human— old beyond old.

And there was food. Somehow there was a sack of grain down here in the forgotten stygian depths. That which controlled her body ran it forward, and shoved her muzzle into the open sack, and gorged. Gorged on the rich energy filled grain that the body so very desperately needed.

And then, full, she slept a deep, restful, healing sleep.


A voice spoke, old beyond imagining, ancient beyond history:

The One who sleeps,
who needed long
Now doth awake.

Yvarra leapt behind a stalagmite, drawing a dagger ready to throw even before she realized who was speaking. The Sword of Songs was silent, and that alone kept Yvarra from throwing towards the sound.

Silence.

Fear not thou who art foretold
The food is for your, our, need

Cud shoved its way up into Yvarra's dry mouth, and she chewed quickly, far faster than she should. But her other stomachs rumbled angrily, greedily. A dagger at the ready, she looked around.

It was a large chamber, unshaped by human hands. A jagged crack opened up into the depths, a dim red glow illuminating the yellow and green fumes that bubbled out of it like a heavy nightmare from a cursed cauldron. From a thin crack in the wall, a greenish-orange flame burned, wavering and hissing, fed by some gas generated somewhere far, far below. A pool of bubbling mud and clay, stained red and orange and yellow from the rocks all around, hissed and gurgled, its stench fading beneath that coming from the volcanic vent, even though it smelled so sweet in comparison.

And, crouched there, looking at her through pale white blind orbs, was a woman. Human. Her skin was wrinkled, ancient leather dusty and cracked with age. Her hair, streaked and stained with mud, both dried and wet, tumbled from her head, over her shoulders, covering her back and front. On her body the mud had dried, cracking into a kaleidoscope of scales, like those of a snake. It could have been the pattern of a master artist glistening and gleaming as jewels, but it was a random pattern of mud that dried and cracked and oozed. The woman's nails were yellow, long and jagged, and she crouched on bare feet, watching her through the blind eyes.

"Who are you? How—?"

Does the Sibyl know?
She knows all that was
She knows all to come
She knows you, the one
The chosen to save
To save all the world
From that which sleeps here

Yvarra stepped out, unswallowing more cud and chewing as the woman watched. She swallowed, her stomachs going to work greedily. "Are you the Sibyl? What is the Sibyl?"

The Sibyl that is
Is that which she was
That which she will be
I am here for you
Here for the others
Who have all been here
Who have yet to be
I know what has been
I know what can be
I know what must be
First The One that is
Must feed her need here

With that she grinned, a toothless ancient grin, and pointed at the bag of grain. If Yvarra hadn't been so desperate she would have asked more. Her body screamed with need, and she had little choice left. Creeping forward, her hooves clicking on the rock as the mud bubbled, she shoved her muzzle into the grain and gorged once more until she was again full. Stuffed, she turned and looked at the woman, at this Sibyl that had not moved. The mud that caked her glistened in the light like jewels, like a snake that watched, stared, hungered.

"Sibyl—" Yvarra licked her lips. "How long have you been here. Who put you here. What— what am I fighting and— and what must I do."

I have always been
I will always be
But your time is short
The pawns are in play
He is now awake
For all he hungers

To the gate you go
Your destiny meet

Alicorn it will
Close the shining gate
The gate that opens
The way that is willed
The horn it must stay
Left eternal lock

The other pawn comes
Destiny arrives
Now go from here, go!

"But how do you know! And, if you know, how do you know I will succeed?"

I do not know that
It is but one dream
One dream of many
Most of which are hell

Take the grain that's here
The grain that's for you
The grain that waited
And go from here, now!

The Sibyl's voice rose to a scream, her jagged hand pointed. Below the vent growled and rumbled, the flame flickered and grew high, high, towards the ceiling dimly seen in the darkness. The eyes gleamed red, snakes coiled along her skin, or seemed to, hissing at her in rage, in anger.

This was power, old, ancient. Power that filled Yvarra with a terror she'd never known. But, somehow, she knew it was a neutral power. Servant of neither side of law or chaos, but something that just was.

Sheathing her dagger, she grabbed the sack, half empty now, and fled. Her hooves clicked on the stone, and her alicorn glowed a soft warmth to light her way into the darkness. She'd ran only a few hundred steps when the ground shook, rock groaned. Still running, she turned her head to see what was behind her.

A naked wall, wet with moisture.

She stopped, turned, stared. A part of her wanted to search the wall, find its secrets.

But, the sane part of her turned her around, and started walking her through the darkness.

As she walked, she spoke, her voice thin, full of dark terrors, and feeble hopes. "Sword, you know where to go. I don't. And you better show me, because I get the feeling neither of us want to be here."

The Sword of Songs was silent.

Yvarra snorted, slowed to a walk, and kept going the way she'd chosen.

After all, any way was as good as any other.


Time passed. Yvarra walked, ate, chewed cud, drank the iron-stained water dripping everywhere. Her only light was the dull glow of her alicorn. When the rest or the grain was gone, she just left the sack behind. Her whip was long gone, her jacket was nearly a complete loss, but it hadn't fallen apart yet. As to her hat, somehow she still had it. After she had cleaned and sharpened her remaining two knives, she began working the mud out, working the softness back into the leather. It kept her hands busy.

She'd followed the dripping, twisting, natural tunnel as it was the only way she could go. There'd been cracks, chasms, holes in the ceilng, but none large enough for her to fit in. After three days, or three sleep periods, she reached a point where what looked like a usable passage branched off. She chewed cud, mentally flipped a coin, and choose the right path. The clicking of her hooves loud in the passage, she started down it.

The Sword of Songs gave off a dull flat tone.

Yvarra stopped, reached over her shoulder, and drew the blade. It was gleaming, polished, like new. She should have cleaned it earlier, but she wasn't a swordswoman — it had simply never entered her mind. As she watched, the last few bits of dried mud flaked off and fell to the damp rock she was standing on.

Sighing, she asked: "Now you talk?"

Silence.

Yvarra took another step down the right passage, and got the same sad tone.

"Fine! Stupid picky sword—"

The Sword of Songs let out a sharp angry note of strings twanging as they snapped.

"Don't you deny it!"

Yvarra went down the left passage, and the sword remained silent.


Time was hard to keep track of in the eternal blackness, lit only by the pale glow of her alicorn, broken only by sleep as she curled up in the driest corners she could find. The sword led her down a passageway to weirdly glowing fungi living on the walls, and pale, almost translucent, mushrooms giving off a near-invisible violet light. Not all of the ones she found smelled right, but enough did that she ate. She didn't know how she knew, just that she'd learned. There were dreams, smoky dim memories of wandering in the darkness, eating what she could find. Where they real? She wasn't sure.

Once she'd eaten her fill, the sword would lead her back to the path she'd been on.

It was on the third wake period after leaving the Sibyl that she came upon The Portal. Portal was the best word for it. In capitals. Though the entrance contained a door, it was of carved black rock, and fortunately hung slightly ajar. Else she'd never have moved it as the thing was higher than she could see, and wider than five of her body lengths. Yvarra peeked in, ignoring the flat toned warning from the sword on her back.

And she blinked. And blinked again. "In Kelpnos' name—" she whispered. Concentrating, she made her alicorn glow brighter and brighter, revealing more and more of the massive chamber.

Yvarra remembered one time, before she'd come to Metamor. Somebody had tried to hire her for a job, and when she'd asked about down payment, she'd been told that there'd be "more wealth than she could imagine" upon completion. She'd responded with, "I can imagine an awful lot." In the end she'd refused the commission. But—

Before her truly lay more wealth than she'd ever imagined. More wealth than she'd imagined could even exist.

Apparently it did.

What was it all doing down here? Was it the cult's? Then, why leave the door open? Why no warning from the sword, other than that this was the wrong way? Some of her shadow memories, after she'd pulled herself out of the water, were of passing other constructed chambers.

But nothing like this.

What could she be offered that could ever match this? Why should she continue fighting when there was this? The murders, the living in mud and filth, the drowning in that mudhole of a harbour. Being attacked by everybody.

It just wasn't worth it! Especially compared to this.

But you gave your word a voice in her head whispered.

"Damn you, Lady Tarathana! I won't do this anymore!"

The voice of the Sibyl echoed through her mind. But your time is short.

And there was the whole saving the world thing.

Well, if it was that important, they could get somebody else!

Maybe.

Almost in a trance she walked further in. The Sword of Songs was silent. Maybe it agreed with her — it couldn't have liked being doused in the harbour either.

How could there be this much wealth in this dinky little border country? How could they have kept it secret?

Did they even know about it?

She stopped. She blinked. And remembered legends—

It was said that the Emperors of the Suelman Empire, at the height of their power, had the dwarves shape for them a wondrous diamond. A diamond larger than any other in the world. The Arkenstone. Yvarra had figured that the size had grown with the ages of the telling — the most recent she'd heard was that it was the size of a man's skull.

Reaching down she grabbed the— the— thing that had grabbed her eyes and lifted it. It took both hands. It was, even though it couldn't be, a diamond. A diamond twice as big as a man's skull. It glowed, no burned with an inner light, a fire in its core that flamed and pulsed to life when she'd picked it up.

With an act of will she threw it back onto one of the piles where it clunked and slid in clinkle and clatter of coins.

Where could you fence something like that?

And there were weapons. Reaching down she pulled out a golden sword, almost buried under the weight of gems of all colours, some bigger than her fist. She felt the edge, and it was dull, soft. But then, what would you expect of a blade made of pure soft gold— She threw it away too.

Another weapon, an axe this time, and it was not gold. She could feel power radiating from it; stepping towards it was like walking into a howling gale. The thing was black, black as a moonless night, and it reflected no light — just absorbed.

Take me it whispered. I will make you strong. Stronger than any upon this world. Stronger than Misha, and that so-called weapon he bears. We will destroy all that stands before us!

She felt power pour out of her alicorn, power so bright and strong that it blinded her. Power that silenced the— the thing laying there, casually discarded, filled with the screaming hate and fear of untold souls consumed. It's power broken, she fell backwards, squashing her tail beneath her with a stab of fiery pain that cleared the last cobwebs from her mind.

The Sword of Songs gave a quick rising tone, accelerating as the notes rose higher and higher, faster and faster.

"Why?"

The sword fell silent.

"Look at this!" As if the sword could look.

And what has wealth gotten you? A voice whispered in her mind. You win fortune after fortune, spend it on girls, wine, gamble it away. Then you're cold, dejected, miserable, until you win another one.

It was a sobering thought. Sure, she'd only won a fortune, or was that two, but money was like a game to her. Reward tokens on a board. It was the challenge of the hunt.

Always for yourself the same voice continued.

"And why not? Who else is going to look out for me!"

Friends. If you had any.

"I don't need anybody!" She ran, trying to flee the voice, the voice she knew was her own self yielding the truths she'd buried. Her hooves dug into a pile of coins and her pace slowed as the wealth of kingdoms tumbled and slid underhoof.

The keep would have helped.

"The keep? What?" Hadn't somebody told her that the keep itself was alive, that it changed, formed passages and chambers as needed. Moved things around.

Was everything down here part of the keep? Ancient toys abandoned as no longer needed?

And, if they were, then that meant she was in the keep. Or part of it. Or, at least, below it.

And, if she was, that meant that she could have taken the chambers, the help implied and offered. Help to come down here in safety and ease, without the murders that drenched her soul in blood.

"I have no friends!" The words screamed through her muzzle, sounding like the were torn, flayed from a soul full of anguish.

You could. The keep offered. And what did you do?

She'd trashed the place. And then eaten the roses.

And, even then, Ansela was left in your care. Your care. No friends?

She stopped, tripped and fell, or just collapsed. Her muzzle pressed against the cold hard coins. Wealth beyond imagination that had never done anything for her.

Their trust is in you. And what do you do?

She abandons them to die, be consumed by some nameless evil as she lay on a useless, hard bed of gold and silver and awaited her own doom.

Was it worth it?

Had it been worth it? All those years? All that gold and gems and wealth stolen, sold, gambled.

And who would remember her?

Ansela, maybe.

One little girl.

She pushed herself back onto her knees, legs digging into the mound of coins. Her vision blurred, and she realized that she was crying—

"Eli be damned! I don't need this. Any of this! I'll take care of the damn cult because I was hired to do so! Not for anybody. Not for this keep. Not for this damn world! You here me? Do you? Do you?"

Her voice echoed all around. She spun her head, flicked her ears, trying to catch any answer in the echoing sadness, the echoing desperation.

And she stopped, looking at one thing on the one pile of wealth amongst thousands. It was a necklace, of fine silver links. Anywhere else it would be worth taking, here it was garbage. But—

But her honour refused to let her leave this place without anything. She grabbed it, put it around her neck, not looking at the sea-blue gem that hung from the chain. A sea-blue the same colour as a little girls eyes.

You're taking it for her—

Ignoring the voice, she staggered down the pile. "Which way?"

The sword hummed, sang its notes, notes that formed and shaped a way.

And Yvarra stalked down, her hooves loud on the stone floor, deftly stepping over the odd loose gold coin, or forgotten raw ruby or emerald.

She wanted this over and done with. So that she could leave the damn place! Leave this keep, leave this curse, and go back to the way she'd been.

Where you'd been so happy—

"Shut up. Shut up!"

By the time she made it back to the portal she was running, even though there was no reason. And then running down the passage in the proper way. Even as the portal shut behind her, and was shuffled into nowhere, or everywhere, by the powers of the keep all around.


Again time passed. An endless unchanging time in the dripping caves. The only illumination was the warm ivory glow of her alicorn, and the occasional phosphorescent mushrooms and fungi. With each choice the Sword of Songs pointed the way.

Yvarra was asleep when something jerked her awake. Her alicorn, the Sword of Songs, all remained dark. Sniffing the air, she could only smell iron-tained water and cold dripping stone. Her ears flicked and swivelled around and around and—

Footsteps. Or, more properly, claws clicking on stone.

Yvarra drew the sword, pressed one ear against its warm metal, and concentrated with all her senses.

The claw clicks grew louder— she could see a glow in the distance. With long practiced silence she shifted position until she was crouching.

And she drew one of her knives

The claw clicks were louder, she could faintly sniff out a hint of feline, and— and— human. Ever so faintly she could make out the slapslap of leather on stone. Licking her nose, the scents sharpened — feline, human, burning oil—

The sword played a quiet warning against her ear. Cultists!

Finally, finally she'd found them.

Shifting the sword in her best feeble approximation of a proper guard position, she relaxed and prepared to move. Her tail whipped back and forth. The light brightened, the cultists rounded the corner and the harsh yellow-orange of a hooded lantern glaring down in front of her. She could see them now, a pair — adult human and some kind of white mottled feline. They were wearing the robes. One may have had a sheathed sword, the other definitely had a crossbow. She couldn't tell if it was readied, but given that it was just slung over the shoulder on a strap, it likely wasn't. Still—

Screaming our her hate, she leapt into the light, knife flying from her fingers into the eye of the crossbow carrying human. The feline, reacting faster than she'd thought possible, threw the lantern towards her, drawing his sword. Yvarra dodged, pulling her last knife and whipping it towards the feline who tried to dodge— not a clean shot, but it sunk into his cheap. His screaming joined the howling of the human. Running forward, she sliced the Sword of Songs across the feline's chest as the lantern went out. In the warm glow of her alicorn, she crudely slit each throat with her sword, and retrieved and cleaned her knives.

They gurgled out their last breaths as she searched them. Ignoring the coins, and their obvious weapons, she found no knives. One had a pouch with some dried grains and sugar cooked into wafers, and she wolfed them down.

Now what?

How much time did she have?

As quickly as she could, she dragged first one body, and then the other, about a hundred yards down the way she'd come. Not a good hiding place, but the best she had. From the human she took the robe. It was a cold thing of silk, wet with water and blood and something else likely best not thought of. She whipped it around herself. Picking up the lantern, relighting it using the flint the feline had, she returned to the main passage and continued in the direction the cultists had been travelling.

She needed to find a crevice, or better yet a raised platform she could lurk on in ambush. Maybe she should have questioned the pair of cultists, tried to get more info, but she didn't trust them. And fanatics were notoriously difficult to break. Maybe if one had been a child, or a woman—

Yvarra clenched the necklace she was wearing, the one from the treasure vault, remembering trusting blue eyes.

What else was she supposed to do? It wasn't like she had any place she could imprison them—

Yvarra could feel the sword whispering a faint high-toned warning against her. Should she have waited? Ambushed more? But how long until those two were missed? Should she have just followed them? But what if they'd seen her?

With a jerk she stopped, her soul cold.

All this time, all the possibilities and plans and options.

Never had she even though of the fact that she'd killed two more people.

Eli! What were the cultists doing to her?

She just wanted this to be over. She just wanted—

Footsteps from in front of her. Human, claws, at least one set of hooves— Turning her head, she confirmed there was no where to hide — just passage. She spun around, hurrying back the way she'd come. There'd been a passage.

Kelpnos! More movement from in front of her. She was trapped.

Which way? Which way? The way she came — she knew where to run if she could make it. For a second she turned her head and glared at the sword. "You brought me out as close to their secret lair as you could, didn't you?"

Silence answered.

Nothing for it. Bluff. Get close. Strike. Thinking so, she briskly walked back the way she'd come, carrying the lantern in front of her, robe billowing. The disguise wouldn't last long with her alicorn, but she'd take any advantage she could.

There was a bend she remembered, and the gentle slope beyond it. A good place for an ambush, but with the echoes she had no way of knowing how far either group was. The one she was approaching had to be closer. Unswallowing, she chewed on cud as she concentrated, ignoring the oil. Three, maybe four in front. At least one human. Something musky— otter? And— that was it.

Well, no time like the present.

Walking at a good pace, hooves clicking on the stone, she went around the bend and down the slope, hoof lobes splayed so she could keep balance. She swallowed, walked a bit faster. She was almost upon them—

"You! Who are you?" a human asked form in front.

Even as she was saying, "And who are you?" in her best voice of arrogance, Yvarra leapt forward. Throwing the lantern onto the group, she followed it with both daggers. She lowered her head and drew the Sword of Songs even as it sang a stirring martial theme.

There were four, and they screamed as the lantern slammed into them. One, the otter, drenched in burning oil, screamed louder than the rest. Yvarra hoped over the dying, and shoved her alicorn through the chest of one human. A second was down from a dagger, one was still unharmed. Slicing with her sword, he parried, almost knocking the Sword of Songs from her grasp.

An honourable fighter would have gone down, but Yvarra had never put armour over saving her own neck. Trusting her alicorn, she shoved her left arm out to block the sword. Its blade sliced into her, rasping along the bone of her arm. Hot pain shot through her as she pulled her arm away and sliced her alicorn against the cultist's neck. Its ridged edges were more than sharp enough to rip open his windpipe, and he fell, gurgling.

"The one!" "Take the one!"

The group that had been in front of her must have heard the fight, not hard as the screams still echoed up and down the passage. For a second Yvarra looked at her daggers as fever warmth poured from her alicorn into her arm. No time, no time! Clasping the Sword of Songs in one hand, and her fedora in the other as the hood of the robe had been blown off her head and now flapped against her back, she fled, her robe whipping and snapping behind her as the cultists pursued.

Maybe the robe hadn't been the best of ideas—

And, she could feel that she should have eaten more, but then she hadn't had much extra. The healing had taken a lot more out of her than it should have, and she was already starting to pant for breath.

Unswallowing, she chewed on the bars she'd taken from the dead cultists and swallowed. It helped a little.

How many Eli damned cultists were there anyway? She'd killed twenty-four in their sleep, another six or so just now. No idea how many in their ambush at the bath house. There couldn't' be that many—!

The ones behind her were getting closer. Seven Hells! Where was the damn turn off. Where— She was breathing heavily now— Stumbling, she almost fell, but pushed herself off the ground and back onto her hooves. She'd kept her hat too.

A bolt hissed passed her, clattering onto the stone. Too damn close.

Turn off— turn off— there! She almost slammed into the far wall, pushing off it and going off into the blackness. Sucking air in and out through her too small nostrils, she fought to slow down. To be quiet. Silence. Silence—

"We lost her!" "Impossible!" "How'd she go so fast—" "Because she didn't take the main passage, idiot!"

Klepnos! She should have expected them to figure it out. Next time she accepted a contract, she'd specify stupid cultists. Still gasping for breath, she pushed off from the wall, wobbled, and staggered on her way.

This passage was rougher than the other — she should have noticed. Likely the other had been worked to make it easier to travel through. Or— or maybe it was just worn down by that many feet.

"I see the One!"

Somehow she pushed herself to her hooves. Her chest burned, her alicorn burned, keeping her from collapsing in the short term, but just making the long term worse. "Ansela— I'm— I'm sorry—"

A turn, sharp. Maybe—

Shoving off one wall, she staggered to a stop, staying on her hooves only by force of will. Lungs heaving, she shoved the heavy air in and out and in and out. One chance— just one. Then— then she could rest. The Sword of Songs felt as heavy as lead, she'd been dragging it. Guess it understood — it hadn't complained. Dragging it up, she raised it her. She didn't have the strength to wield it with force, its own weight would have to do. Lantern light danced into her vision and she heard the hooves, smelled— smelled a deer— and— and— a girl. Small—

I tried Ansela—

A deer's antler swung around the corner, he was panting too, and she let the sword fall, pushing with what strength she had left. Between the antlers, into the skull. Bone cracked, overpowering the sound of her desperate breathing and the deer fell like a load of bricks, the crossbow crushed by his weight. But— but behind— it was— a girl. Blue eyed— like— like— it can't be! It— hair different—

The girl staggered over the corpse of the deer, holding a short sword. Her eyes were full of hate, her teeth gritted with anger. She was cold— cold—

Yvarra tried to left the sword up, struggled, fell to her knees; she lowered her head, but the girl dodged. If she wasn't so tired— she'd have— have—

The lantern was thrown away, clattering down behind her. The girl must have. The girl that was on her chest. Stabbing, stabbing, shoving the shortsword into her chest again and again. Her alicorn burned as she fell, blood oozed out, pain filled her.

"I'm sorry— I'm sorry—"

And she spun into the darkness—

"Into the Darkness", copyright Michael Bard