Standing in Shadows
Darkness lay thick and unyielding like a heavy mantle smothering from every direction at once. Pungent and prodding, the intense murk was sooty with the condensing smoke of a thousand fires, which was the only source of light permitted in the, otherwise, bleak city. As it curled in the streets and avenues, turning frequented ways into misleading paths that made even those most familiar with them turn about more than once to reorient themselves, layers of damp mist leached downward from the leaden sky. Out of the dimness that poured from the ashen buildings and sank from above, voices of discontent and misery echoed insidiously. Unmistakable cries of torment serrated the dense atmosphere; yet, from those same environs, delirious laughter also scathed into the brooding night, confusing the ear and twisting the heart with uncertainty and dread.
The city was rank with a petulant odor; sour and reeking from sulfur, which burned in the widespread grates as the city's chief source of light and heat. Drawing close in order to soothe the soul and extract some meager warmth or find any sense of direction meant breathing in the malodorous stench that twisted the stomach until it could be born no longer, chasing the one seeking momentary solace back into the shadows. There was little warmth in the darkness; an unshakable, seeking chill melted through clothes regardless of the protection of layers. In the burgeoning gloom, buildings pressed together in misaligned, shoddy workmanship, some leaning precariously or half fallen in tatters and on every street raucous taverns and brothels tainted the air with lascivious noise and drunken abandon.
Through the curling shadows and dusky fog, a willowy, silent figure moved; draped in darkness that reflected the dimness around it and intensified the obscuring confusion of shade it seemed to carry along with it as it stole silently down the street. Muffled by the thick smog that twisted in the air, the form made no sound whatsoever, but drifted past the beetling shoppes and foul brothels like a ghost brazenly wandering through the haze. None who passed this cloaked figure took notice of it; no heads turned as it paused at the corner beneath a spluttering lamp of burning, sulfurous, gas; not a single bystander gazed in its direction as it moved silently down the narrow street towards the edge of town and when it turned the corner, disappearing into the blackness like a shadow melting into graying twilight, no trace of its passage was left behind.
Turning the darkened corner, the ebon shadow paused, the silhouette of its garments contracting as if the figure were doubling over and a muffled sound, like that of despair, slipped outward into the murk. Silence greeted this hushed cry; yet, as if in echo, a child's wail pierced the heavy gloom. The keening sound was not close by, yet it pealed through the dismal atmosphere like the sharp clangor of a tolling bell and all who heard it shrank, stifling the evidence of such misery in whatever escape lay close at hand: the amber spirits contained within a bottle, the glittering secret injected directly into veins, or the fleeting, wanton embrace that left a deeper yearning than what it satisfied.
As the half seen figure stood motionless, the piteous sounds of the city gathered around it like moths drawn to an open flame, demanding to be noticed in spite of the listener's desire for deafness. Reality in the Uunglarda was caustic as acid and burned just as deeply, compelling the figure to move hastily onward in spite of its slowed pace.
* * *
Ayla stood silently, her thoughts tumbling in a thousand directions, as she gazed down upon Mardan, still sleeping in the Nursing Ward. Beside her, his own thoughts predictably restive, Gairynzvl did not speak, but waited as patiently as his agitation would allow while she attempted to reach out to their unconscious friend. Tears threatened to prevail over her chaotic emotions as she stretched forth her senses into the peaceful void, yet even as she anticipated touching nothingness, darkness, and quietness, her acute senses were met with the gentlest of thoughts. Gasping aloud, she opened her eyes to stare down at him with exhilaration thrilling through her, waiting expectantly for him to pierce her with his brilliant cerulean gaze, but he remained asleep.
Gairynzvl turned to watch more attentively, his unspoken questioning answered by a flurry of excited emotion and perplexed confusion. Refocusing her attention, Ayla tried again as one of the Healers drew closer, watching curiously as she closed her eyes and reached out to touch Mardan upon his chest, feeling the strong and rhythmic beat of his heart while sensing the pulse of his essence. Where she could sense only frightful stillness and calm only the day before, she was now aware of him; she could hear the soft notions of his dreams; she could feel the strengthening rush of life-force returning within him and she could not contain her elation at the discovery. Drawing back from the light touch she had extended, she muffled a prodigious sob and burst into tears.
“What do you sense, Ayla?” Gairynzvl asked softly, moving to draw her into an embrace even as the Healer stepped forward to check Mardan's condition for himself. She shook her head, delighted, although observably confounded.
“He remains adrift, but I feel strength returning to him. I can hear his thoughts again, though they are quiet.” Gazing down upon him, she smiled amidst her tears. “He is dreaming.” Gairynzvl turned to look down at Mardan with an unexpected rush of relief, although it had been only days since the motionless celebrant had tried to kill him with the spell of Inflicted Pain, but his attention was diverted by the noise of Ayla's piercing confusion and he turned back to look down at her with an unreadable expression.
“Why, then, are you perplexed?” He asked bluntly, a familiar rush of agitation with her perpetually swirling emotions replacing the brief moment of thankfulness he experienced through her unexpected discovery. Twisting away from him, she rebuked him sharply.
“Stop reading me without my permission!” Her caustic tone made him flinch and step back, and caused the Healer to pause, looking up at them uncertainly, although he did not withdraw. Gairynzvl shook his head.
“I am not reading you Ayla. Anyone can see that you are confused, but you cannot blame me for hearing your thoughts.” Before he could complete his sentence, she reproached him again.
“You are always reading them!” She accused vehemently, but her anger only served to annoy him further. Arching his wings aggressively, he stepped forward confrontationally, staring down into her upturned face with a potent combination of indignation and unanticipated desire. Speaking slowly in a low and measured tone, he explained what she already knew perfectly well.
“I have not had the training you have, Ayla. I cannot help hearing the thoughts of others or sensing what they feel through their thoughts. Most of this constant noise I have learned to shut out, but how can I keep myself from hearing you when you are constantly shouting your thoughts at me.” She stared back at him crossly; yet, the tears in her amber eyes betrayed her frustration and, after a tense moment of awkward silence, she looked away from him, back at Mardan who lay quietly, unmoving.
“I thought…” her voice trailed off as her musings tumbled chaotically. Images played through her mind of piercing cerulean eyes watching her from the shadows and of intense emotions; of jealousy and loathing. Unable to block the sudden onslaught of these emotions, Gairynzvl turned his head to the side, his tone more quiet; yet, no less imposing, as he queried further in a deliberate fashion.
“What did you think?” She sighed sharply and closed her eyes, attempting for the first time in a very long time, to reign in her wildly conflicting sentiments; nevertheless, she knew he could read her as easily as he could the open sky and this realization only flustered her further.
“Please, Gairynzvl, do not.” At this, the Healer lifted his head to watch more intently, ready to defend her, if necessary, from the only recently Prevailed Dark One; fully aware that his manner of being, his nature, had not been as utterly transformed as his physical body had been by The Prevailation. Aware of this protective stare, Gairynzvl turned his gaze to the Healer and shook his head.
“I am not reading you Ayla. You asked me not to and I shall not, but you must then tell me what it is you are thinking. Why are you so confused? Did we not leave Mardan in this state this morning? Why should his remaining thus so confound you?” The intensity of his purposeful patience stretched the cord taut between them and she turned away from him once again.
“But I saw him.” She muttered, half to him, half to herself; her thoughts swirling as she tried desperately to return to that moment when they stood in the Chamber of Radiance, when he had drawn her so close to him and she had felt the potency of his emotions as well as the poignant sting of envy radiating from the chamber doorway. She recalled opening her eyes and catching sight of Mardan's cerulean gaze, watching them covetously; still, if it had been him, why did he now sleep, adrift as he had been when the day started? She closed her eyes tightly, trying to pull some clue from the brief seconds when she had seen him, which might unravel the mystery; yet, since Mardan was not standing in front of them accusingly, but, rather, lying unconscious under the care of the Healers, the mystery remained.
“You saw him? Where?” She sighed once again, as if in defeat, and turned back to Gairynzvl. Stepping closer without speaking, she reached out to take his hands, gazing down at them with resignation, then lifting her gaze to smile wanly up at him.
“You are right; it is much easier this way.” He returned her gaze, muddled by her circular emotions and logic; still, in spite of everything she had just said, her gaze grew warmer and she whispered reassuringly through her thoughts.
“Go ahead, it is all right. I cannot explain adequately.”
Turning his head slowly to the side once more, his expression grew fleetingly suspicious. The years of needing to be ever vigilant against deception were difficult to disregard, but when her gaze did not falter and the steadiness of her hands in his did not quaver, he relaxed and opened his mind to hers.
The soft noise of the room around them and the serenading birdsong greeting the new day from beyond the Temple windows faded and grew muffled. He closed his eyes with contentment as the familiar beat of her heart filled his thoughts; as the steady hum of her delicate aura began to vibrate synchronously with his, and the soft sound of her voice returned into his consciousness. The intimate contact was as intoxicating as the finest wine and both swayed subtly as they closed their eyes together and communicated without the need for words or rationale. Beside them, the Healer watched, mutely fascinated.
The Chamber of Radiance filled his mind's eye. The sting of pain from the purging Light returned through her remembrance and he groaned even as the sound of his own voice echoed through his mind.
“Will you help me, Ayla? Will you help them?” He felt her apprehension; he saw her mouth fall agape as her mind spiraled in a myriad directions; uncertainty, as well as motivation, thrilling through her and as a result, through him. Even as she considered her answer, her gaze shifted to a silhouette outlined in the doorway leading into the Chamber of Radiance and Gairynzvl could not help turning his head, as if to see better and more clearly who it was that she saw. Together, they could see the clear, crystalline, cerulean gaze she had seen in the shadows; together they felt the bitter sting of resentment emanating from that gaze and, although they gazed long upon the memory, neither could ascertain the watcher's true identity.
“Is this Mardan?” He asked out loud, breaking the bewitching spell of their telepathy unexpectedly. Ayla opened her eyes to gaze up at him breathlessly and shook her head. How could it be?
Brilliant sunshine streamed in through the Nursing Ward windows, washing over Gairynzvl in its fullest measure, as all the shutters nearest to his bed had been so angled to direct the warming ribbons of light over him. Encouraged to rest throughout the remainder of the morning, not only to regain his strength from the demands The Prevailation had put upon him, but also to prepare both physically and mentally for the celebration the temple inhabitants had arranged for that evening and being weary beyond measure, he had willingly returned to his bed. Although he resisted the notion of being put on any sort of display, entirely in opposition to meeting and greeting all the villagers of Hwyndarin who had begun to hear the tale of the young Fey who had fought and defeated a Legion of The Reviled and the Dark One who had set it all into motion, Veryth assured him that it was all part of the process of Reclamation. Thus, both weary and resigned, he had closed his eyes in the hope of capturing a few moments of peace, which seemed to permeate the Healing Ward like the shimmering luminance of light streaming inward through its windows.
Lying beneath a warming radiance of sunlight for the first time in his adult life, Gairynzvl sighed profoundly more than once. The sensation of warmth washing over him was sweetly intoxicating, like the euphoria that spreads through the body after drinking a strong brandy or robust wine, yet he did not feel the spreading warmth within, but rather upon his skin, which he could not keep himself from checking again and again in order to assure himself that the light was not, in any way, burning him. So accustomed had he become to shielding himself from any light, that forcing himself, now, to lie within its full and ruddy glow was almost terrifying. Fearful of falling asleep amidst the lustrous gleam lest he not awaken, he tossed and turned for the better part of an hour; nevertheless, he could not resist the blissful tranquility of the sunlight any more than he could deny his exhaustion and before the chiming bells that heralded the hours rang out from one of the many Temple towers, sleep stole forward in the hazy blush of light caressing him and subdued his anxiety.