Korix and Leveri are far from home, farther than either of them could have imagined. As they search for a way back they discover it’s not only children who should be afraid of the dark.
C.L. Holland is a British fantasy writer and winner of Writers of the Future. She lives in Wales with her long-suffering almost-spouse and two cats. She blogs about writing, cats, and shiny things at http://xanthalanari.livejournal.com/.
The Empty Dark
By C. L. Holland
The city bell tolled mournfully in the night. It penetrated the closed shutters and Leveri told himself it was the reason he couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t though, and he knew it.
Leveri glared at the candle by the door. He’d left it burning because his travelling companion wouldn’t sleep in the dark, as if he were a small child rather than a grown man. Tonight, however, the bed on the other side of the room was empty. With crisp, clean sheets turned down it looked as if it hadn’t been slept in. A pack stowed tidily beneath the bed was the only signs that Leveri shared the room with someone else.
Someone who should have been back hours ago.
The bell ceased and Leveri sighed. If Korix wasn’t back now he wasn’t going to be. He’d probably gone off with one of the local girls, so there was no point in keeping the candle lit. Leveri squinted across at it and made a snuffing motion with the fingers of his right hand. The candle went out with a wisp of smoke and plunged the room into darkness.
He woke to the dawn bell, and a thin sliver of light at the edges of the shutters. He pushed them open and blinked out at the morning. Over the rooftops the sky was streaked pink, but the air already smelled of the smoky fog that would shroud the city by evening. There was a bowl and pitcher of water beside the candle, so he used it to wash, then emptied the bowl into the deserted street below and went downstairs.
Thela, the innkeeper’s oldest daughter, gave him a smile as he entered the taproom.
‘Morning. Breakfast, is it?’
‘Please.’ He sat at one of the mismatched tables.
‘Mister Korix too?’ Thela glanced towards the staircase.
‘No. He stayed out all night, isn’t back yet.’
Thela’s eyes widened. ‘You know where he went?’
‘No. Why, what’s the matter?’
‘I know you’re not from these parts, but I thought you knew. Round here you don’t ever stay out overnight without letting someone know where you are.’
Leveri stared at her. ‘Why?’
She looked down at her shoes. ‘Because sometimes people don’t come back.’
Suddenly the gnawing in his stomach had very little to do with hunger. ‘What happens to them?’
Thela shook her head. ‘No one knows. They just vanish.’ She stepped away. ‘I’ll get your breakfast.’
‘Don’t bother.’ Leveri’s chair scraped on the floor as he pushed it back and went upstairs.
He pushed the door closed behind him and leaned against it, running Thela’s words through his mind. ‘Not from these parts’ was an understatement: they weren’t even from this world. Leveri tugged the leather thong out from beneath his shirt to reveal a palm-sized stone. It was a deep blue-black that sparked with blue and purple highlights, and to his senses it thrummed with power. When fully charged, as it was now, the barest nudge of magic would make it open a portal to another world. It was how he and Korix had reached this one, how they’d travelled through numerous others in the search for their homes.
It would be so easy to open a portal now and take his leave of Korix.
Leveri’s palm tingled around the stone as he considered it. The only reason they’d travelled together at all was because it took a wizard to use the stone, and Korix wasn’t one.
‘He should have been more careful,’ Leveri muttered. ‘He should be able to take care of himself.’ His gaze fell on Korix’s pack. There was a way to search for him, although it wasn’t a way Leveri was comfortable with. He sighed, locked the door, and upended the pack on the bed.
Korix had definitely not gone out unarmed, as there was no sign of his knife or the short sword he often wore concealed. He’d left his lock-pick though, a collection of wires of various shapes and sizes looped onto a ring. He used it only rarely, and only then when there wasn’t another choice. The only other items in the pack were essentials like clothes, and the kit which Korix used to clean and maintain his weapons, nothing personal enough to create a strong link for scrying.
‘The lock-pick it is then.’ He weighed it in his hand for a moment then placed it in the bowl. He put the bowl on the floor and filled it with water, then sat beside it and took a bottle of ink from his own pack.
Leveri closed his eyes and summoned into his mind an image of Korix, his skin darker than Leveri’s, as if he’d spent a lot of time outdoors, and black hair pulled neatly back in a tail. Then he added the lock-pick and everything he could think of that linked Korix to it: his frown of reluctance the few times he’d drawn it out; the way he weighed it in his hand as he decided which of the picks to use; the look of concentration as he used it to open a lock. After a moment Leveri opened his eyes to unstopper the ink. He let a single drop fall into the water.
‘Show me where Korix is.’
The ink swirled and spread in feathery clouds, until the water was black. Leveri pushed his blond curls back from his face as he leant over the bowl. The air grew cooler, touched with the scent of damp earth and stone. The darkness in the bowl felt less empty and Leveri had the odd feeling there was a wall, one that Korix couldn’t see but knew was there all the same.
There was a sound, a key in a door. Wood scraped on stone as it opened.
A voice choked out, ‘No!’
‘Korix?’ Leveri leant closer.
Footsteps crossed a stone floor and there was the sound of a scuffle. Korix shouted, a despairing wordless cry, and Leveri reached toward him.
The darkness vanished the instant his fingers brushed the water. Leveri jerked back into himself with a gasp. For a moment he stared at the bowl, but the contents were clear and innocent once more. His hands shook as he put the lock-pick on the bed to dry.
Korix was being held against his will, and he was afraid.
Leveri stared at the bowl, chewed on a thumbnail, and tried to ignore the smoothness of the portal stone against his skin.
Scrying for Korix again was useless, it would only show more of the same. He had to try another way, a way to show him what Korix was afraid of and how to find it.
He had to scry for the source of the fear.
The idea of it left him cold. His ability to scry was limited to familiar people or objects, or ones he could create a link to as he had done Korix. Scrying for the unknown was difficult, and dangerous.
That thought made him laugh. It wasn’t doubt he was feeling, but trepidation. He gathered it up and began to think of the fears of others. He thought of Thela’s reaction when she heard that Korix hadn’t returned, and of Korix’s fight alone in the dark, and of his own fear of what might happen if it went wrong. Or if it went right.
When his mind was full of fears he dipped his fingers into the bowl and let them flow from him. Black ink dropped into the water again.
‘Show me the source of the fear,’ he whispered.
The ink dissipated and grew faint. There was a tightening band of pressure in his skull as he concentrated harder on drawing out an image, as if a giant hand gripped his skull. He ignored the warning. Finding Korix was more important.
‘Show me!’ he grated.
The ink shot through the water and turned it dark. There was a surge of images. Too many to follow, he’d been too vague. Leveri felt a tickle in his left nostril. A drop of blood fell from him into the water. He jerked as it bound him into the scrying and opened him to all the fear in the city.
The stink of blood and smoke choked him. Knives flashed and pierced his flesh, a weight pinned him as hands groped at his body, fists struck him, someone held him down as his lungs filled with water. Screams filled his ears and they were all his. He tried to look away but it was unrelenting.
The view lurched sideways. The crooked shape of a ruin loomed out of the fog. There was a streak of red and gold, the chill of stone, and darkness.
When Leveri opened his eyes he was on his bed. Thela gave a squeak from the ruined doorway and ran out. A moment later she came back with her father Clovis, who stood over him with his arms folded. Leveri scrubbed at the dried blood beneath his nose with the back of his hand as he sat up.
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