Who’s the Dark Messenger?
‘Who’s the Dark Messenger?’ Heero had asked, many years ago when the traveling magician Opi had been in town.
Even then he had been a wizened, bald man dressed in a costume that was the offspring of a minstrel’s garb and a wizard’s robe. He was more a storyteller than a magician really, but there was a trick aplenty to supplement his long stories. At least once a year he would set up in the streets of Dai, and audiences would gather without any prompting. It was not an easy journey to Dai, but he always insisted on coming here out a fondness for the place, he assured the locals often. He, they were often assured, felt like this was the closest thing he had to a home.
The town had a theatre, however, a place where children would perform ballads to the people of the town. Rather than perform there, Opi would take it up as a temporary residence, using it to store his clothes and props, spreading his blanket across the rough wooden stage. They had been in there then, and Opi had perched on the edge of the stage and looked down at them.
‘You don’t know who the Dark Messenger is?’ he asked. There was a lilting surprise in his soft voice that Mia could not figure out. Was he putting it on or just being dramatic?
‘Kind of,’ said Gali, ‘but not really. Nobody really wants to talk about it.’ Not to them anyway, the youngsters that didn’t-quite-fit-in. The group of Strange Ones.
Opi leaned back, lying on the stage, legs dangling. It was a warm day, the sounds of a town enjoying itself was floating in through the windows. Mia sat down on one of the benches, as if waiting for a performance, and the rest of them did too after a moment. Opi sat up again. ‘Well, first thing’s first. You know who Monrath is?’
‘He’s a god,’ said Heero, ‘he rules the world. Most of it at least – when he rules all of it he will devour the world.’
‘Some say he is a god,’ said Opi. ‘The people who follow him certainly think so. Many people more learned – and I often meet these people on my travels – are sceptical. They say that Monrath uses lies and tricks, and that he is no more than a powerful sorcerer. Myself? I don’t know if either are true. All I know is everyone agrees on one thing: he is not easily killed.
‘Only the Dark Messenger can kill him.’
‘We know that much,’ said Gali, ‘that’s why we asked – that’s all anyone will tell us. The Dark Messenger will carry the message that will destroy Monrath across the world, and speak it before him, with the hold world watching. We know the song. It’s just…’
‘Just?’ said Opi. ‘Not many people would say that having the ability to destroy an evil god with a few words is “just” anything.’ He was teasing them, smiling mischievously as he watched them struggling to express themselves, playing with word games. Mia got the impression that he knew exactly what they were trying to say.
‘Is he one man?’ asked Gali, ‘I mean, is he a specific person?’
‘Names are always being mentioned, but people don’t tend think to think so. Down in Laguna they think he is a kinsman to Monrath, someone equally unworldly. There are cults and religious sects around his assumed likeness, even ones that believe him to be human. Most people do believe him to be human, but still get uncomfortable about discussing specific people. If we were to know, if such a thing were to be public knowledge, he would not have lived long enough to even start his training.’
‘He’s trained then?’ asked Mia, ‘by whom?’ She must have mumbled, however, as he did not appeared to have heard her. Someone walked past her, and she felt pangs of cold as the sun was blocked out. Despite being bright, it was a cold day.
Gali repeated the question, and Opi smiled. ‘Who said anything about a teacher? I know more than most, I travel and hear and see much, and as far as I can tell there’s no real consensus on anything beyond the basic idea. More people than not say he is trained, but it’s rare to see anyone mention a teacher. Maybe his teacher is the world, and life itself.’
He shifted. It did not look like he was comfortable, perched as he was. ‘I would have long since up given up hope of such a man existing, were it not for the fact that the belief he exists is so improbably widespread and enduring. Also,’ and he paused now. He reached into his pocket for something but came out empty-handed. ‘I’ve seen him once.’
‘What was happening?’ asked Heero, ‘was he fighting soldiers?’
‘You two,’ said Gali, ‘over here. Quickly!’ His back was pressed against a big rock, wider than a cart and about half as tall as a tree. Mia glanced over, to see if any of the soldiers might be looking their way. She could not see anyone. Taltin broke cover before her, both of them reaching Gali without being spotted.
‘They are round the corner,’ said Gali. The noise of the skirmish was enough that he did not need to talk quietly. ‘I don’t know where Heero is, but he must be nearby.’ Hiding as they were was a bit of a squeeze, two trees snuggled up to the rock. If soldiers appeared either side of the rock, they would be trapped.
‘What’s going on?’ asked Taltin, ‘what do we do?’ He was obviously uncomfortable, squeezed into the small space.
‘Shut up,’ said Gali, ‘I’m thinking.’ He peered around the rock and then ducked back. ‘Can’t really see anything. We might have to move again and find a better spot. When I get my hands on Heero he’ll be a dead man. What are you doing Mia?’
Mia was climbing one of the trees. She wasn’t very good at it. ‘I’m going to get a look.’ She hissed rather than spoke. Not moving made her feel exposed. Clinging to the flaky bark, she was very keen not to draw attention to herself.
She was the only option. Gali, though more capable
a climber, was big enough to make him hard to miss. Taltin would not have been able to climb. She bit down on her back teeth and continued upwards. Thankfully, Gali did not ask her any questions or tell her not to. His pensive silence was welcome, palpable though it was.
High enough up, with one hand grasping a branch at her head level, she made her way along a branch that was thick enough to hold her wait. Bodies were moving beyond the leaves. She inched further along and swept the greenery out of the way. The tree gave a very good view, right onto the path where the Dark Messenger was fighting.
Had been fighting. She could see that he was still alive, but no longer struggling. Three of the soldiers had him at spear point, down on his knees. One of the soldiers, and his uniform was more elaborate than the others, was standing in front of the Dark Messenger saying something. The sounds of the battle, she belatedly realised, had disappeared as soon as she had mounted the branch. The Dark Messenger was captured.
Mia felt as if she was about to fall from the branch. There was too much in that one image for her to be able really make any sense. The Dark Messenger was not just a man, not just a victim, not just someone about to be executed before her. He was the world, and he was hope for a better world, a world without the threat of strange creatures from other planes of existence, without the fear that every time night fell or clouds gathered that Monrath had accomplished his purpose and was descending to kill them all and end everything. He was life itself and he was about to die.
In the space of a heartbeat Heero burst from the undergrowth. He had been far better hidden than she was, appearing as if having sprung up from the forest floor. His first stone hit the lead soldiers, staggering him. The second missed and a third struck a breast plate of one of the spear holding soldiers. The leader was shouting, coordinating, or trying to amongst the mess. Heero disappeared back into the trees chased by some of the soldiers; Mia didn’t see how many.
At the same time quake appeared in the air, cloaked in a golden shimmer. Earth was thrown up; cracks cleaved through earth and rock. Mia had to grasp hold of her support branch with both hands, wobbling as the trees shook. For a moment images ran through her head, of her falling, breaking her neck, breaking her back. Then it stopped and she climbed down as quickly as she could.
Heero was smart, for all his impulsive stupidity. He knew the woods well, and he was quick, especially when it came to running and hiding from the soldiers. As kids they had often chased each other through the woods, and none of them had ever been able to catch him.
‘What did you see?’ Taltin looked like he was going to throw up. Mia looked at him. At the moment, they were probably in much more danger than Heero was. Soldier’s shouts bounced around in the air.
‘Heero saved him,’ she said, ‘he’s being chased. I don’t think we can help him. We should just go back to the lookout, I don’t think we can help him. Heero can outrun them in the forest, right?’ She noticed her hand was shaking, had it been shaking up on the tree? It was hard to tell, her body was a strange concoction of numbness and adrenaline.
‘That little…’ Gali lashed out, catching the rock with his fist. Mia took a step back. She had never seen Gali reacted violently to anything. When he spoke, Mia thought she heard a little inflection of guilt in there: ‘Okay, we can’t just stay here.’ He led the way, not meeting either of their gazes.
On the main road, a soldier was waiting for them. He was staggering a little, his eyes not quite focused, but his sword was no less sharp for it. Gali launched himself at the man, and grabbing his sword arm. Gali, who was taller and wider than the soldier, tried to use his superior weight to smother the man’s movements.
Strong as Gali was, it did not work – the soldier was a soldier, and although he was smaller he was more powerful. He drove Gali to the ground, wormed his way out of the bigger man’s grip and raised his sword, at which point a very injured Dark Messenger blew the man away with his magic.
This was her first real, ragged impression of the Dark Messenger. Up close he looked more like a homeless drifter than romantic figure of legend. He was whiskery, but they were thin, patchy wisps of hair. He looked like one of those men who could not grow a beard properly. His robes looked like they needed a good wash or five. Her eyes met his and it struck her that he had the look of a startled cat. As Mia gathered her breath, he collapsed.
Gali grabbed him and tried to drag him to his feet. The Dark Messenger had thrown up a cloud of earth when he had sent out the quake. It had yet to dissipate, rearing ahead of them with threatening ambiguity. Were there any soldiers left standing, lingering behind the cloud of dust? The Dark Messenger did not seem to be getting up, so Gali began to drag him, scrambling to move as fast as possible. Mia joined him, and together they dragged him back to the lookout post. He was heavier than his skinny frame suggested.
Back at the lookout post, Taltin looked out the window. ‘Do you think Heero made it?’
‘He’ll be fine,’ said Gali, ‘he’s an idiot, but he’ll be fine. We need a doctor for him though.’ The Dark Messenger did not look very good. He had blood running down his face and blood drying into his clothing and it was difficult to see exactly where is wounded amongst the grime and dust that had found a home on his head and clothing. ‘Are there any soldiers left out there?’
‘There’s some dead ones,’ said Taltin.
‘Four? I think. I can’t see Heero or any of the ones chasing him. Or anyone else.’
Gali tore up some of the Dark Messengers clothing and tried to make bandages to cover his wounds. He had probably seen someone else do it, but had no real clue how to do it himself by the look of things. ‘You should just leave him,’ said Mia, ‘you might make him worse.’ Gali did not seem to hear.
‘They’ll be looking for him, they’ll know he will be near. You two should both go, hurry and get a doctor. If any soldiers catch you say you heard fighting and got scared and are heading back. I don’t think they’ll hurt you. I’ll stay here, in case they discover this place.’
‘We should all go,’ said Taltin, ‘if they find you nothing you could do anyway.’
Gali glared at him. ‘Just go.’
Dai was tucked between the rise and a glacial outcrop, the only place that high up flat enough to support a settlement. The wooden barricade was barely even necessary. Between the high ground and terrain, Dai had never been taken by force. The road leading to it was too narrow for more than three men abreast and horses were not much use here. It had been awhile since raiders had terrorised the town, so there was no longer more than one guard at any time. If Monrath’s soldiers turned up now, would the town be able to resist them? Mia didn’t want to think about it.
Through the gates the town was all built on a slope. Gentler at some points, steeper at others. Mia had spent her life at an angle. It was a small place, but she always liked the fragility of her home once you got past the difficult landscape and the foreboding walls. The buildings were short and thin walled, built with finesse and care. She and Taltin split up, promising to meet up at the gates again.
There was no one at her home. Her brothers were higher up the mountain, had left this morning. ‘Hello?’ The squat building just stared back at her refusing to answer. Her parents; her aunt and uncle? It was rare to see the house empty. Of all the times…
She tried next door. ‘Mia?’ asked her neighbour, ‘I’m sorry I don’t know where your parents are.’ Before Mia could say anything the door closed on her face. She was an old woman, more dried vegetable than woman, and she was a vicious excuse for a person. Petty and controlling.
The accountancy, the place where Dai was ruled from, was further up the road, and Dren and Pato were lingering. They were older than her, and she hated them. ‘Oh look,’ said Dren, ‘it’s the ghost girl. You got something to say Mia?’ The accountancy was the biggest building in Dai, and it cast the biggest shadow. How Dren and Pato weren’t shivering, Mia did not know.
‘Do – do you know where-’
‘What’s that? Stu-stu-stop stuttering.’ Pato looked proud of himself. He probably thought he was being witty.
‘Never mind,’ said Mia. They were always mean to her because she did not have any confidence. She should stand up to them, but didn’t want to deal with this now.
‘Ghost girl?’ Pato asked as Mia walked away.
‘Yeah,’ said Dren, ‘heard my dad call her that. She just floats about never leaving an impression. Like a ghost, he said. Most normal of the five of them.’ Mia had heard that name plenty of times before. She kept her head down, not looking at anyone, and carried onwards.
The doctor’s healing place was further up Bry Road, one of the higher buildings in Dai. Mia was aware that people were staring at her funnily as she went inside, probably trying to work out what was wrong with her. The doctor, Helitia, a woman far prettier than she ought to have been at that age, would not even listen to her.
Coro, her assistant from Littel, was at first willing to hear her out. ‘The Dark Messenger? This isn’t a time to play games. I don’t have the time.’
‘I’m telling the truth,’ said Mia quietly. He just laughed at her.
Back outside, Hollo and Taltin were coming to see the doctor. ‘Are they coming with you?’ asked Hollo.
‘No,’ said Mia, ‘neither of them would listen. But if you try-’
‘No one listens,’ said Taltin, ‘why won’t anyone believe us?’ Of course no one was going to believe them. No one trusted any of them, suspicious of the way they didn’t-quite fit in. Mia felt stupid for believing that people would listen.
‘You shouldn’t have just left Gali alone,’ said Hollo, ‘we will just have to bring the Dark Messenger back here. Whether or not there are soldiers around – I was meant to be getting help, why didn’t you guys just bring him back with you?’
‘Sorry,’ said Mia, ‘Gali told us to-’
‘We can’t just stand around talking,’ said Hollo, ‘we need to go.’
He had been an old man for a long time. Perhaps too long a time. There were times when he wondered if he wasn’t something more than human, maybe immune from death itself. Then his body would hurt, his stamina would be lower than he realised, he would get more ill than everyone else; he was just very old, and feeling it more and more often.
He had a head full of memories, like the house of a hoarder, overflowing with trinkets. His props and possessions meant fairly little to him, although he knew well enough how difficult it was not to have money. There was even something liberating about losing or breaking his things – challenged him more, forced him to experiment. His body was reaching it’s end however; no more could he do the things that had drove him forward all of his life quite as ably. It was time to think about the unthinkable: staying in one place.
He had been sleeping on the stage in the theatre, a daytime nap, when he had awoken. It was confusing, slightly delirious – like when you wake up without being ready to, as if by a loud noise. It had not been a loud noise.
Out of the window he saw South Betan. He kept returning here because it was simple and quiet, and it was easy to amuse the people. They knew him, he knew them, and he found it calming. He would have considered settling down here if it was not near the top of a mountain.
Today, it seemed to lack the calm he liked it for. There were storm clouds, although he did not think it was going to rain soon, and the mountain seemed unsettled. Opi frowned. What had woken him up?