im/mortal: Grace

The offering house was old, and disrepair would have been a kind word to describe its current state.

Like everyone in town, Aiolos had always avoided the place. It was the offering house of a dark god, though its name was long since forgotten. It was whispered that it was the same god still worshipped by the yela, but the blood-drinking race hadn’t been present on this world for a long time. Something had changed, something had brought about the downfall of their old tyrannical rule, although they were unfortunately not gone altogether from the universe. Whispers claimed that they had restyled themselves under a new name and were no longer a threat to daylight people.

Rumor aside, there was no direct proof that the yela were any better now than in the past, but they were gone. That was good enough for most people, but few were inclined to worship any gods associated with the yela, even now.

Aiolos knew only a little of that history, and didn’t care in the slightest. The only thing he cared about, looking at the rotting wood set on a crumbling stone foundation, was getting in to accomplish his purpose.

Supposedly, he was going to retrieve the riches still concealed in the depths of the offering house.

Realistically, both he and the members of the gang knew that any such treasures had been looted long ago, but rumors of gold had recently resurfaced. The gang leader decided that retrieving the treasure (or attempting to) was a suitable initiation for Aiolos.

Since the young man had been asking for an initiation rite for nearly three months now, he accepted the order at once…and if there was a tiny voice in the back of his mind uneasy about the location, it was simple to ignore. What difference did it make, anyway, when the offering house was so long abandoned and left to fall into ruin?

Something hurt and raw in Aiolos’ soul bled a little more at the thought, and he bent his mind to plans for this night with even more vicious satisfaction. If another, slightly louder voice pointed out what his family would think when they discovered where he had disappeared to six months before, he pushed that thought aside as well. His family loved him…but they didn’t love him enough. His curse had always stood between himself and the normal members of his family, who all had perfectly normal affinities.

There would be no normal life, not for Aiolos, who could not stand the brightness of daylight on his worst days, and suffered through it on his best. Not for Aiolos, cursed with a twisted, abnormal affinity for darkness.

His curse led him here, preparing to step onto sacred ground with the intent to defile it.  This would prove his strength, bravery and luck to the gang offering him protection and night-work, as long as he made himself useful to them in turn. His work for them so far provided proof of his skills, but the gang still required an initiation.

This is the path the gods gave me when they cursed me with this affinity, the young man told himself, staring at the old offering house with narrowed eyes. Even the priests think so, though they never dared to say it out loud to me or my family. The looks he had received from neighbors, from teachers, from the priests, from supposed friends…wariness, suspicion, and (later) fear. I am little better than the yela themselves, for no daylight people carry an affinity for darkness.

Aiolos would have sneered at the memories, but at that moment he sensed the sun fall below the horizon, and with the coming of true darkness the dormant chaos in his blood flared up.

The young thief caught his breath at the pleasure of it, allowing himself one moment of weakness to embrace it before forcing himself to tame it with a silent snarl.

I may have accepted that this is the road I must walk, he told himself grimly, but that doesn’t mean I must yield all control to the curse.

Besides, even if the power felt good…it had never felt quite right, never felt settled the way other people talked about their magic. Aiolos felt the darkness writhing through his mind and blood, twisting and rolling as if seeking a way to settle but never finding one. This was another reason to use his powers only as needed for his work with the gang, only in limited amounts, to not allow it any hold he did not control directly. His curse would only be useful as long as he could keep it bound to his will, and he had no intention of letting anything stop him now.

Rising from his crouch, brown eyes scanning around again for any hidden dangers, Aiolos took a deep breath, and then went forward three paces, stepping out of the trees and onto sacred ground.

It felt, almost disappointingly, like all the other ground he had ever trod.

Mindful that members of the gang were observing him, the thief circled the perimeter of the grounds once before approaching the offering house itself.

The door had long since rotted away and fallen in, leaving a gaping black hole as the only entrance. Aiolos grinned as he approached it and felt the thrill where most would feel fear. This was another reason he had taken to burglary so quickly after joining the gang, beyond the fact that it was mostly night-work. He liked the excitement that came with going into places he shouldn’t have been able to enter, his curse keeping him safe and unseen.

If they thought this would be a difficult initiation, they were sorely mistaken.

Here, stepping into the darkness of the ruined building itself, Aiolos felt just the slightest tingle along his skin. It was the first sign that any sacredness remained to this place at all, and he felt a moment of sharp, cold satisfaction.

It was truly dark in here, without even the glimmer of starlight to lighten the blackness. He felt the change in his eyes as his pupils dilated, and knew that if he looked in a mirror right now the blackness of them would have drowned out the color of his irises, leaving only white to surround them. The tingle along his skin increased as he stepped further into that deep darkness, and his magic seethed through his blood, each dark strand of his messily cropped hair feeling as though it were standing on end. Aiolos drew in a sharp breath, trying to keep his head from spinning so dizzily.

Then abruptly the power in his blood slowed in its roiling, not subsiding, but starting to feel as if it moved with the beat of his heart and the tides of his blood, rather than against them.

Started to feel settled.

Anger and bile rose in his throat at that realization.

It’s not fair! He thought spitefully. It’s not fair that I should feel comfort here, in a place like this!

He kicked not-quite-blindly at the debris blocking his path deeper into the offering house. That he was not truly blind in here, his cursed eyes never fully veiled even by supernaturally deepened blackness such as this, only fueled his anger further. What sort of cruel gods would create something like him, cursed to be blinded by light, rather than by darkness?

I will tear this place down, the young man decided, reveling in his rage, and see it burnt!

Rage was safer than despair.

Any burning would come later, though, for his secondary affinity (such as it was) was only a slight control over water, and he could not call even a spark of flame. He had other plans for the offering house tonight.

Dimly able to make out the shapes of things around him as he moved deeper into the small building, Aiolos kicked, smashed and broke everything he came across. Half-rotted chests were stamped down into kindling, metal dented or scratched, pottery shattered, paper scraps shredded.

When he realized the thick curtains he was yanking from the ceiling were part of the double-barrier that protected the inner sanctum from ever being touched by so much as a glimmer of light, Aiolos paused, calming his fury with an effort.

Easy, he reminded himself, there are yet more serious ways of giving this place and its cruel, faithless god what they deserve.

The roof of the inner sanctum was still intact, despite the roof of the larger offering house itself having caved in. It wasn’t uncommon for an inner sanctum to function as a building-within-a-building, and to have its own roof and walls separate from those of the surrounding house.  The inside of this one, constructed at night as it probably had been, might never have seen any light beyond a slight glimmer of starlight in all the time it had existed.

Cold, dark satisfaction rising in him again, Aiolos strode forward through the curtains.

It felt strange to stand inside a place that had been free of light for so long.

Shivers tingled up and down Aiolos’ dusky skin, and the magic in his blood rolled through him, joyous, and seemed to settle further when it calmed.

He paused, the sense of his magic at peace so new that he couldn’t help but close his eyes and feel for a long moment. A sliver of wonder crept into his heart, a doubt and a thought of what if…because suddenly there was a place that allowed him to be at home with himself, when he had not thought that any such place existed or could exist. What if…

Aiolos opened his eyes.

Despair and renewed rage filled him that it was only in this dark, abandoned, ruined place that he could even have a hope of feeling peace.

Better to feel this nowhere, Aiolos thought, despair overtaking the wonder and gripping his heart, than to feel it here!

Not allowing either the small remaining doubts in the back of his mind or the newfound peacefulness of his magic to stop him, he reached deep into his inner jacket pocket for the light stone that glowed day-bright.

He had a brief heartbeat of vicious triumph to see the inner sanctum of this dark offering house violated in the most brutal way possible…and then the pain of the bright light overwhelmed his own eyes, and Aiolos reeled back with a sharp cry.

His eyelids closed involuntarily against the pain, but Aiolos snarled aloud at the comforting darkness and forced them open again. His eyes had never adjusted to increases in light as well or as quickly as those of any normal person, but right now he wanted the pain and the discomfort. Squinting, reflexive tears streaming from his eyes, Aiolos tried to admire his handiwork, to observe in the light the remains of an altar that had only ever known darkness.

But the whiteness of the light was too much, pressing on his eyes so that they registered only the too bright, and not the surroundings the light should have revealed. He was blinder now than he had ever been in darkness, and Aiolos hated.

He could feel the sacredness of the space crumble, felt it as the tingling along his skin died away, as his magic began once again to stir and tremble and writhe through his blood, unsettled and restless.

“If the gods saw fit to abandon me to a life cursed with darkness and unrest, then I’ll not stand for any peaceful darkness to remain unbroken!” This declaration was soft, a savage, broken whisper, but more than loud enough in the small space where he stood and still could not see for the light.

The last tingle along his skin, the last remnants of the old consecration, died.

The light stone vanished from his hand, plucked into nothingness by some force beyond Aiolos’ knowledge, and the inner sanctum plunged into a darkness even blacker than before his desecration.

A presence, vast and powerful, pressed against the young man, and he stood frozen in the deepest fear he had ever known, experiencing for the first time in his life darkness in which he could not see. His heart, pounding loudly in his chest, was the only thing that seemed to move, for every other muscle was paralyzed, and his lungs almost refused to draw breath.

Cold sweat trickled down his temples. If he could have stopped it with thought alone, he would have, terrified that even that slight movement would further draw the attention of whatever now occupied the offering house with him.

In the only tiny corner of his mind that was not wailing in wordless terror, he realized that this offering house must not have been abandoned by its god after all, and knew that he would pay the price for his sacrilege.

Who are you? Asked a low, echoing voice into his mind. Impressions of deep shadows, of dark empty rooms, of the blackness between the stars, interposed themselves on him. Who are you that violates this house?

Aiolos, he answered, because there was no possibility of not answering.

The pressure that he felt was not physical, but it weighed on him, and he knew it to be real.

Why do you violate this house, Aiolos?

Because, he thought, still helpless to hold back a reply, I am cursed.

How are you cursed, Aiolos?

I am bound to darkness, the young man replied, despair welling up again in his heart, I am bound to darkness, and only the evil have an affinity for darkness.

Do you believe that darkness is evil, Aiolos?

Aiolos blinked, more in surprise than anything else. He dared to turn his head slightly, but still the blackness around him was impenetrable. All- All know that-

Night is as natural as day, darkness as natural as light. Do you believe that darkness is necessarily evil?

That raw, bleeding place in Aiolos’ soul cracked open a little bit wider, and he felt tears well in his blind eyes. I- I do not, he admitted, the truth ripping harshly from his heart.

Then why do you deny it in yourself, Aiolos? Why do you desecrate the peace within your soul?

Because it is expected of me! The thought was a shout within his mind, borne on a renewed upwelling of anger. The voice had identified his real intent here tonight, something he had struggled not to acknowledge to himself. Because those around me always believed I would come to ill ends. Because I do not know how to prove them wrong, when the light is so painful that I can barely exist in their world. Because my soul has never known peace.

The words flowed from his mind, as poison and pus leaking from an infected wound.

Because I am angry, and afraid, and alone. Because there is no greater despair, than to realize that the only peace I have ever known was here, in this broken, ruined, empty place.

He choked off a sob, still not daring to voice true sound. Why should I accept that?

Do you accept that?

There was something different in the voice this time, a sharper intent, and Aiolos swallowed, feeling the pressure of that presence all too keenly.

Do you choose to walk this path and no other?

He started to ask what other path was open to him, but held the words back at the last moment. Because, deep down, he knew that there was another path. There was always another path, a different choice, even if he didn’t know what it might be.

The peace that he had felt in this place, however briefly, had been proof enough of that.

The welling tears spilled out of his blind eyes and down his cheeks. Aiolos swallowed again, mind racing, unable to care about the tears, unable to lift a hand to dash them away even if he cared. If he could choose…if there was another path…would he still choose to walk this one that he had started down six months before when he had joined the gang?

What is your choice, Aiolos?

There was no inflection from the voice in his mind, but the young man heard an echo of the question, asked differently: What is your choice, Aiolos?

His choice, not that of his family, or the priests, or the gang leader. His.

But was it? Could it be truly his choice, with this unknown being exerting so much pressure on him? Was he not just bowing to a different set of expectations? Anger welled up in Aiolos’ heart once more, not so easily banished.

If I say that this is the path I choose to walk, he replied defiantly to the dark god, what will you do to me?

Leave, replied the voice at once, calmly, and never return.

Aiolos frowned, just slightly, confusion and a thread of unease joining the anger. You would not punish me for my acts of desecration?

I can think of no better punishment, Aiolos, the voice said, each word strangely still and dark, than to leave you to the life path that you now tread.

His eyes, still dark-blind for the first time in his whole life, widened.

There was conviction in that voice, deep and somehow undeniable. Aiolos swallowed. He had known that joining the gang would not make him happy, but finding happiness had not been his goal. There was no happiness for him to find in his life, cursed as he was, but if it somehow wasn’t- wasn’t truly a curse…

If I had stepped into this place with a clear mind and clean heart, he wondered, would I have rejected the peace I felt? Would I have rejected the magic settling in my blood?

He knew the answer.

Taking a deep breath, he opened his mouth and spoke aloud for the first time since the dark god had made its presence known.

“Will you tell me of this other path that you offer? Or must I accept it with my mind and heart as blind as my eyes?”

I do not wish for your blindness, Aiolos, the god said, its voice echoing softly now in his mind.

Something shifted in the blackness around him, something almost physical, and Aiolos strained his eyes against this unnatural darkness in which he could not see

And then, abruptly, he could.

The blindness washed away into a richer form of dark vision than he had ever possessed before, painting the inner sanctum in rich shades of black, as varied and clear to him as daylight had ever been to anyone not cursed with an affinity for darkness.

Before him stood a figure.

It took him a long moment to realize that this was the god (goddess) with whom he had been speaking.

She seemed formed of blackness, with skin like midnight, robes of spun ebony, and empty eyes. They should have been frightening, should have been like the eyes of a skull but somehow…somehow, they were not. The darkness in them made him think of that black between the stars, full of something vast and deep, rather than the emptiness of death.

Her head (bare of any hair, from what he could see) was covered with a veil thrown back from her face.

Power radiated from her, pressing against him still, but it felt different now…less heavy.

She gazed at him calmly with those empty eyes, hands loose at her sides.

I do not wish for your blindness, she repeated, I wish for a Companion.

There was a weight to that word – Companion – that Aiolos could feel as well as hear in the goddess’ voice.

“A…Companion?” he whispered hesitantly, feeling strange.

A mortal who shares my affinity, one who would learn and share in that affinity with me, and who would act as a go-between for myself and the mortals who call on me for aid. Who would travel with me, and give me companionship.

“It sounds-” good, he held himself back from saying at the last second, having strange new visions of- of learning about his magic, of traveling away from this world to see others, of seeing those unfathomable black places between the stars….

Something in Aiolos’ heart began to sing.

“It sounds like you’ve…thought about this?” he asked, still hesitant. If it sounded too good to be true, then was it?

It is an arrangement I have had with other mortals in the past, said the goddess, but with time they all pass. It has been awhile since I last found one who might be a good Companion.

“And you would…would have me, even after what I have done here?” Caution held him back, despite the eager restlessness once again stirring his magic and blood.

The sacrilege you committed here was a cry of pain, and there was no joy in your heart derived from it. If it had been otherwise, I would never have come to you. You wish to accept my offer, do you not?

“I…have learned not to trust that which sounds too good to be true, and any peace to do with my affinity has always been thus,” Aiolos said truthfully, swallowing and hoping that she would not hold it against him. It seemed that she wished for his honesty, but gods could be fickle.

I understand. The goddess paused, seeming thoughtful. Aiolos’ magic rolled through his blood again, eager, yearning, pulling towards her as iron to a lodestone. He kept himself firmly in place, hands fisted to help keep his control.

Perhaps a trial period would aid you? I have watched you for some time and believe we would be suited to one another, but you have had no such time to consider the matter. I will promise you all of my knowledge and support for one year as you learn your magic, and come to know both me and yourself. In return you will promise me that, even if you choose not to remain with me after that time, you will never again reject your magic or try to continue the path that I interrupted tonight.

Aiolos swallowed down the yearning. It was possible that she was lying, of course, that this was merely a trick to ensnare him, and that she would not let him free even if he desired it at the end of the year.

(Part of him wondered if that would even be such a bad thing, if it were so.)

Yet her words rang true, somehow, and he found himself nodding.

The corners of her eyes crinkled slightly in amusement. Gently, she asked, What is your choice, Aiolos?

“I choose…” he took a deep breath. “I choose to accept your offer. I choose to serve as your Companion for one year, and then…” The possibility of what might come then was so overwhelming, words failed him.

Then we will discuss what you wish to do after that point. She smiled at him then, revealing teeth like polished onyx. I am glad that you have accepted my offer, Aiolos. Will you begin by letting me put your heart at ease?

Aiolos swallowed again, trembling as she held out her hands to him. It took him a moment to find the strength and the courage to lift his own hands, and another long moment of struggle against all the old poisonous whispers still lingering in his mind to step forward, and yet another to shove away the warnings against false hope that rose to hold him back.

Finally, he placed his hands in hers.

Darkness, and with it peace, swept over him and through him, and Aiolos found that he had come home.

Aiolos felt the moment the sun dipped below the horizon, and welcomed the steady roll of magic strengthening in his blood as true darkness fell.

He paced watchfully across the overgrown yard to the restored offering house. The journey was a fairly safe one, with shadows wrapped up around him to shield him from unfriendly eyes, but it never hurt to be cautious. There were many who knew he was responsible for restoring the dark god’s offering house and were not pleased. There were members of his former gang to be considered too, unhappy as they were with his abandonment of their cause. He defended himself well with magic now, and kept himself apart from the citizens of the town, only going to see his family after dusk.

It was still a relief to pass through the shields set up around the offering house as he went into the building.

It has been a year, Aiolos, the goddess greeted him as he entered the inner sanctum.

“It has, Lady.”

Are you satisfied with the results of our time together? Deep empty eyes watched him patiently as the Dark Lady materialized out of the blackness around him.

Aiolos gave the question real consideration.

It had been a hard year, scraping a living away from the protection of his former gang. He worked at the unfamiliar and self-imposed task of restoring the offering house to the best of his ability, and took nightly lessons with the Lady to learn how to control the darkness that threaded through his blood. Conquering his pride enough, after the first few months, to go and see his family again had been another challenge.

The anxious but loving welcome he received when at last he had worked up the courage to knock on his parents’ door had been a final vindication of the decision he made that night in the offering house. It helped him tackle the remaining challenges of the following months with renewed dedication. In the last couple of moons, he would even say that life was going well.

“I am satisfied,” he replied at last in answer to her question. “It has been a difficult year, but a good one too.”

We discussed my offer of Companionship at some length. Have you considered your answer?

“I have, Lady,” Aiolos said steadily, “and I would accept it.”

I am pleased to hear it, my Companion, she said, midnight lips curving up in a slight smile. May I present you with another challenge?

Aiolos blinked in surprise. “Of course, Lady.”

We spoke of the Rinyala, and my position with them.

“Yes,” Aiolos agreed, swallowing down his still-instinctual revulsion at the thought of the blood-drinking race. Intrigue was a newer emotion regarding the topic, but the Dark Lady’s words about them had roused his curiosity. “What would you ask of me, Lady?”

I would ask you to begin a course of study at the University on the Rinyalan homeworld.

Shock, equal parts terrified and delighted, dropped Aiolos’ jaw and kept him silent for a long moment. When his voice returned, the words tumbled over themselves.

“You- I- university– but how- and with the yela-

Rinyala, the Dark Lady corrected mildly.

“Rinyala,” Aiolos repeated quickly, frowning over the slip. He was learning, but the old habits were hard to break.

He would have to do better, if he were truly going to study on their homeworld.

 I understand the ill-will generated by the earlier rule of the Arinyela here, and I do not blame you for it. But my insistence that the differences between them are complete is not exaggerated or wishful thinking. You will get no better education on how to use your magic anywhere, than at the University.

“I believe you,” he said, and did.

The Dark Lady smiled. I know.

“How much will it cost? To attend the university?” Aiolos asked, that being the only practical issue that occurred to him.

The University will accept whatever you are able to provide, and the rest will be covered. Myself and my Companion perform many services for the Rinyalan people, and they have been happy to offer access to the resources of the University in return.

Elation was slowly creeping into Aiolos’ heart and mind, replacing the lingering fear and doubt. The rich darkness around him, deep and welcoming, made it easier to consider.

What would it be like to live on a world where people like him, night-walkers, were just as common (or even more common) than daylight people? What would it be like to be accepted as normal? What would it be like to no longer feel so alone among mortals?

What do you think, my Companion?

“When do we leave?”

Whenever you are ready.

All the things that he would need to do flitted through his mind: closing up the offering house securely, gathering what money he could, collecting his few possessions, saying goodbye to his parents and siblings. There was much to do, but…

I’m ready, he breathed to the goddess, the words born from the darkness circulating calm and peaceful in his blood. I’m ready.

She stepped toward him, smiling softly again, and gracing him with the press of a hand against his forehead. Her voice, deep like the black between stars, resonated through his mind.

I know.

 

—-

Notes:

Aiolos is pronounced eye-OH-lohs.

Inspiration/mood music: Amazing Grace. I’m personally fond of the version that Celtic Woman sing, but pick your favorite.

This is actually an introduction to two of the characters who play an important role in the last books of my Epic Fantasy Series that I haven’t written yet. References that are merely touched on here, such as the Rinyala and what is going on with them, will be covered at length in that series. And who knows…we might even learn the Lady’s name. 😉 Hopefully this piece stands fairly well on its own, though.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ethelinda Webb

 

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One thought on “im/mortal: Grace

  1. Dear Miss Webb,

    So, it seems that we have another story prominently featuring an internal conflict between the main character’s conscious intentions and what might be called their personal inclinations. As I think about that, that’s actually a very broad category of internal conflicts, perhaps any internal conflict would fit that description.

    In any case, I think that in this case, the differences are more illuminating than the similarities. Aiolos’ conflict appears to run much deeper. The most prominent voice given to the resistant side of the conflict isn’t a family member, as it is in the case of Muirne from “Revelry”. It is his own voice, with the force of his own conscious convictions and purposefully directed life choices.

    Also, there are more dimensions to the conflict. Muirne has a fear of losing herself in the power of the music. Aiolos has a similar fear, in that he is determined to keep what he sees as an evil curse in absolute subordination to his will. However, as his violent outburst reveals, he feels a deep resentment, even outright fury, towards his inborn nature. He is convinced that there is a kind of evil inclination within him, and that it twists his desires towards evil ends, and prevents him from deriving pleasure from things which are good.

    And by that standard he is sure that he will never find happiness, because he is determined to shun any harmony with the curse.

    And yet, even though he has judged that a state of never-ending conflict was the natural consequence of his situation, and indeed the best available course of action, he still feels a yearning for inner peace, and even though he has chosen a path and is walking down it, it is clear to the reader that he has lost his way.

    And when he feels that moment of peace it simultaneously confirms everything he believed about the curse, leading to despair, and contradicts everything, leading to what might have been hope if he had not extinguished it in an outburst of rage. He had always believed that the affinity was evil in nature, and he feels that peace for the first time in an offering house of evil. And that experience is all the more heartbreaking for him because he has tasted the peace he yearned for, and yet that peace is the very thing he has assured himself he could never have. But if he could have it there, it could be achieved, and that ends up being his way out.

    The most illuminating aspect of the story is Aiolos’ self-awareness. I’m sure he still has much to learn about himself, but he has a certain process by which he comes to understand the sources of his own motivations in an admirably consciously-directed manner. He feels the pressure of the goddess’ power and desires to know what will happen if he chooses not to follow her. He realizes the influence others in the village have had upon him through their expectations and he chooses a new path based on new information. And he chooses for himself in a way which would not have been possible prior to his awareness of an alternative.

    One thing I liked about how this story played out is that the reader starts out with some good reasons to be suspicious of the power of darkness and the dark offering house in particular. It’s not like he’s going to steal gold from the happy sunshine unicorn rainbow palace, and a being has to appear before him to show him the error of his ways. Rather, it’s abandoned, by blood-drinking tyrant people no less, and is suffused in shady sketchiness. But, as we learn more about the goddess, including her concern for Aiolos’ wellbeing, her willingness to deal with him fairly, earning his trust in stages, and her arguments against the prevailing views on the subject of darkness and shadow, we come around to a sympathetic perspective.

    In fact, I think it would be great if we could see more of these characters. If they play an important role in an epic fantasy series that sounds really awesome and I look forward to reading the epic fantasy series!

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