Interlude: The Dark Side
The sun never rose on the dark side of the Onyx City. Onyx structures stood like shadowy sentinels along the streets, the stone appearing dull and matte with no glistening rays of hazy orange light beaming down from a sky that remained the deep, shining red of a newly cut garnet all through the day and night.
The Tall One stood atop his citadel, calmly observing the silent quarter. Around his shoulders hung a charmed cloak of fine onyx dust that shimmered and swirled around his incorporeal body in a glittering ebony curtain. He turned minutely this way and that as the sounds of the dark side floated up to him, guardian and ruler of all manner of indescribable beasts that lived only in the darkness.
Though the flitting creatures of the night that populated the dark side moved with the stealth of a prowling cat, their creeping slithers and airy footfalls were all noted by the Tall One, who heard even the faintest motion of the most insignificant vermin that moved throughout his realm.
What do you want? The Tall One replied with the voice of his mind, without turning from the maze of somber streets below him.
“I saw them again, Sir.”
The Tall One turned and gazed down at the figure who now stood before him. Broken Toe appeared as a man-shaped silhouette where he stood, featureless except for the glowing red stone that hung from a woven cord around his neck. He was the only being on the dark side whose form the Tall One permitted to remain hidden. So they have met as you foresaw?
“Yes, Sir. It was the girl who found him.” Broken Toe swallowed hard, thankful that his unease was masked by the glamor that cloaked him, a most welcome reward granted for a lifetime of loyal service to the master of the dark side.
Who is she?
“She is the daughter of the other.”
From where have they come?
“I don’t know, Sir. Not exactly anyway.” Broken Toe paused, searching for just the right words. “All three are from the same world. But she and the other came through a different doorway. It was not revealed to me, but I saw that they come and go. They have been here for at least thirteen moons in total.”
Why have you only seen them now?
Broken Toe did not respond immediately. The implied accusation underlying the Tall One’s question made him decidedly uneasy, even though he was certain the master knew the visions revealed what they would, and that Broken Toe’s magic could unveil the hidden plane but not control it.
The Tall One seemed to shift closer to Broken Toe with no discernible movement, a hint of amusement somehow apparent even in the incorporeal essence that was his form. Never mind. Have they yet approached the tower?
A flash of anger surged through Broken Toe. “No, Sir, not yet. The one had lost his way but the girl and the other found him. She is leading the way,” he answered, managing to keep his voice steady.
Do you see them arriving in time?
“I can’t tell, Sir. There are two paths. Each exists equally for now. Evidently the choice has not yet been made.”
And the one? Does he know?
Broken Toe shook his head slowly and the upper portion of the silhouette swayed gently to and fro. “No. The vision was quite clear, and I saw into his mind. He has no idea but there is something that remains unseen. It could be a mark.”
The Tall One was silent for several moments. He turned away from Broken Toe and gazed out over his dark realm once again. His words played over and over in the master’s mind and any amusement at his oracle’s discomfort drained away in a mere instant.
“Nothing you don’t already know, Sir.”
Very well. Is the horde prepared?
“Yes, Sir. Completely.”
Then leave me.
With a brisk nod, Broken Toe retreated into the shadows.
So the one approaches still, the Tall One remarked inwardly. And there may be a mark to deal with as well. He closed his shimmering black mantle, and the delicate cloak of minutely flecked stone formed a cold, comforting shell around him. He turned his mind back to the streets of night-dulled onyx. Soon all will be revealed, one way or the other, he told himself. The Tall One shifted restlessly where he stood, stepping to the edge of the citadel rooftop. He had complete confidence in Broken Toe’s second sight, and yet a troublesome uncertainty nagged at the back of his mind with the persistence of the irritating bite of a desert fly.
The Tall One reached out with his mind and sent his awareness soaring to the street below, turning swiftly down a narrow alley. He saw without seeing as he passed a family of dreads huddling over the bloated and lifeless body of a nightwisp, a shivering, bleating hoar rat digging in the soggy, rotting remains of a whirler, and a glower that softly stridulated as it rolled into a pitch black doorway.
At the end of the alley, quivering almost imperceptibly where it sat in a glistening puddle of oily black liquid, was a monstrous feldspinner. In the corner, eyeing the spinner’s mess of mouths and legs, lay a greater cstreml, cowering and whimpering despite its vastly superior bulk of swollen, undulating muscles. Ignoring the cstreml, The Tall One approached the feldspinner from the deepest, darkest corner of his mind and squeezed, as a fist closing around a ripe, swollen fruit, pressing harder and harder until only a wet, mangled twist of flesh remained.
In the blink of an eye, the Tall One drew his awareness back to the citadel. Any psychical pleasure he might have felt upon taking out his frustration on the grotesqueries that haunted the dark side suddenly felt somehow hollow in the shadow of the annoyingly steady progress of the one.
The Tall One turned and strode to the hidden recess that housed his spiral staircase. He muttered a curse under his breath and the black clouds that converged over the citadel matched his darkening mood.
Below the citadel, in an underground chamber accessible only through an intermittently existent doorway, knelt Broken Toe in the middle of a circle inscribed with an intricate pattern of ancient and esoteric glyphs. His eyes remained fixed on a bright green flame that flickered and danced in the middle of a circle of onyx chunks, each one anointed with the ichor of a blood agate beetle.
It was only within the underground sanctum that Broken Toe removed the red stone from his neck, thus revealing his true form. Beads of sweat shone off his milky white skin, running down his face in streaks through the ceremonial paint that encircled his eyes and drawing a crooked pattern of tracks in the designs on his cheeks, the runes of the prophet that would make clear to him the portentous significance of the visions received from the flame.
Broken Toe’s powerful hands jerked and strained against the magicked filaments with which he had bound his forearms tightly together before beginning the ceremony. It was a necessary inconvenience that prevented him from tearing at the shining onyx rings in his ears or gouging chunks out of the tattooed flesh of his broad chest in the throes of the trance of the flame. A low roar escaped him as he allowed the flame’s arcane light to drag his awareness into the hidden plane, the black feathers woven through the snow white hair that hung down his back quivering almost expectantly as his muscles rippled and trembled with exertion.
All at once, an unseen force pressed his throat and he was there in the other plane, the vision coalescing around him even as he jerked his head back, hands reaching ineffectually upward toward his chest. The straining of his hands went unnoticed as in his mind’s eye, Broken Toe saw a delicate white bird flutter before him, and the pressure on his neck gradually abated as the vision took hold. The movement of the bird’s wings seemed to slow even as an inexplicable gust of wind buffeted him where he sat. A shudder tore its way through his body and he suppressed the urge to retch as his awareness was carried deeper into the hidden plane.
The bird stopped moving all at once, hovering motionless in the ether before him, and in an instant Broken Toe realized he was no longer looking at a bird at all, but an opaque crystal. A bright yellow light glinted off its multifaceted surface and the stone began to spin, slowly at first, then faster, and faster again until nothing remained except a brilliant whirling dervish.
A sharp stinging sensation broke out on Broken Toe’s face and chest as he saw the dervish fling a barrage of tiny, needle-sharp stones across his body. His hands twitched upward in an automatic attempt to block the shower of stones, fighting against the filaments for several moments before relaxing. The vision was new but the sensation of pain that traveled through from the other plane was familiar and it had been many centuries since the involuntary straining of his body against the magicked bonds could distract him from his vision.
The bite of the stones on his flesh faded gradually into nothingness but the dervish continued to spin wildly. Broken Toe released his mind further, and the flame flared higher in the onyx circle, until suddenly a hidden layer of the vision came to the fore.
Broken Toe gasped, his arms pulling back, twisting upward in a vain attempt to cover his face, as the dervish abruptly sank into the earth. Looking down, he saw that the circle had disappeared and he found himself sitting cross-legged in the shiny maroon sand of the mountains surrounding the Onyx City. With a start he realized his arms were free and he frantically dug in the sand, pushing great handfuls of earth this way and that, his mind reaching out in every direction as he searched desperately for the circle that not only oriented him within the visions but that was his only gateway between the planes.
A sharp stab of pain burst into his awareness and Broken Toe cried out, his back arching against a searing pressure. He threw himself forward and his arms sank into the earth, his fingers still twitching and clutching at nothing but handfuls of hot, dry sand. His eyes rolled wildly as he jerked his head this way and that but his mind could not find the circle, and the sand seemed to grow deeper and deeper around him, until all over was nothing but a wall of sand that flowed and pulsed absurdly in a swirling series of eddies and currents that surrounded him, burning his eyes and filling his lungs as he hurled his mind out into space in one last futile grasp before a coldness enveloped him as a black shroud that gripped his body, clinging tighter and tighter until he at last slipped into a merciful unconsciousness.
Broken Toe gasped and sucked in a breath that rasped deep in his chest. Though the green flame no longer shone from the onyx circle, he could make out the familiar form of his hidden chamber beneath the citadel and he sighed in relief that he had somehow made it back to his world. He could not deny, even to himself, how much the vision had shaken his nerves. Never before had he been drawn so far into the hidden plane as to lose his mind's hold on the circle.
Standing gingerly, Broken Toe uttered the incantation that lit the tapers in the corners of the rooms as he made his way to the black mirror on the far wall. What he saw sent a shudder tearing through him. Both arms were marked with deep scratches running from elbow to wrist and the tattoos on his chest were almost indiscernible beneath a thick layer of rapidly drying blood that had run from a gash just under his collarbone. Reaching up with one trembling hand, Broken Toe pulled the end of a sharp chunk of onyx from the wound, absently casting it aside as a fresh stream of blood began to pulse thickly over his chest.
The blood that soaked his body was soon forgotten as Broken Toe’s gaze settled on his face.
Red sand still clung to his cheeks, embedded in the smeared remains of the runes that were his guide to interpreting the visions. A circular pattern had been drawn in the paint under his left eye, instantly recognizable as sjá, the sight, and under his right, the three vertical lines indicating heimr, the world. His brow furrowed as his gaze traveled upward to the hair that now fell in straggly clumps around his neck and shoulders, and it took several moments for him to realize the full import of what he was was seeing.
Slowly, Broken Toe reached up with one trembling hand and pulled one of the feathers from his hair, a feather that had been black as the citadel’s onyx walls but that was now the bleached white of bare bones. The very tip of the delicate shaft was stained the bright crimson of fresh blood. Every feather that Broken Toe removed had been similarly changed, and he drew in a deep shuddering breath at the portent that had been revealed to him.
Come to me.
The call of The Tall One’s mind pulled Broken Toe from his thoughts and he jerked his head toward the hidden doorway. It would not do to keep the master waiting but, as he quickly wiped the blood smears from his arms and chest and slipped the red jewel onto his neck, Broken Toe resolved that this would be one vision he would not share, at least for the time being.