Strip back the Years
‘Are you okay?’
Gali sat up painfully. It did not look like he was bleeding, maybe a little from the nose. He did not look at Mia. ‘No.’
Mia was not sure what to reply to that. She looked back down the now empty forest path. It looked like the forest needed a haircut, curling vines and dishevelled leaves protruding across the path. ‘Why did those boys do that to you?’
‘Because they’re cowards.’
It had been a late summer evening, just the threat of gold tinting the leaves. The sun had been red, as had the whole sky. Mia had wished she could take that sky and bottle it and keep it forever. This evening, she couldn’t be scared of the ugly boy, especially not when he was like this.
‘They are scared of you?’
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘that’s why they call me a freak.’
Mia sat down beside him. Everyone knew Gali was a freak, even Mia, but she didn’t think it was particularly fair that everyone else hated him. If he was a freak, surely he already had things difficult enough already? Why did they have to beat him up too?
She could see he was upset, so she took his hand. ‘It’s okay.’
‘No, you’re normal looking like them. I can’t trust you. Leave me alone.’ He pulled away from her.
Mia looked at him. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I won’t.’
‘Mia, come back here. Mia!’
Mia turned face Opi on the dark road. Somewhere, people were shouting. ‘I – I need to do this Opi. Sorry, this has nothing to do with you. You should go home.’
‘How do you know where to find him?’ asked Opi.
‘The tomb,’ she said, ‘he has been hiding out there, probably since The Dark Messenger died.’ She hated those four words, but there was no time to worry about that. A horrible sensation had settled in her stomach, and she could feel everything slipping away. ‘Why didn’t he just talk to me? Or Hollo or Taltin? Someone.’
‘The tomb?’ asked Opi, ‘Mia I really-’
‘Yes,’ said Mia, ‘I know. Go back Opi, this really isn’t anything to do with you.’
Opi followed her of course. His presence felt like an arm tugging her back, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her.
When they reached the mouth of the cave Opi stopped. ‘Look,’ he said, and lowered his lantern. On the ground, a trail of blood were leading into the cave. ‘It looks like we are too late.’ It was difficult to make out whether or not the trail made it all the way into the cave against the dark soil. Mia was surprised that Opi had spotted it at all.
‘No time to lose then,’ she said, ‘he might be hurt.’
Memories of her last visit here still fresh, this time she ventured into the crypt less tentatively. It felt cooler in the darkness, broken only by Opi’s lantern. There did not seem to be anyone here. The graves that lined the pathway looked disturbed. Not disturbed, they looked-
‘Are those empty graves?’ asked Opi.
‘There was nothing empty about them last time I was here.’ Mia swallowed and tried not to think about it. Opi was bending down to examine one of them, but she turned away, not wanting to look. ‘Gali! Are you here?’ No reply.
Opi seemed to be far calmer than she was, despite his general reticence only a moment ago. She wanted to scream at him for taking his time. Now, of all times too. ‘Opi, can you shine the light down there?’
There was nothing down the other end of the cave. Mia approached it, and as she did she felt her heart sink slowly. She had felt sure that he would be here. Had she missed something? There was blood at the entrance of the cave – but that could have been anything. She had not been able to see much. She approached the altar where the dead King was buried. ‘It’s too late.’
‘For the best Mia,’ said Opi, ‘it’s…’ He trailed off as he looked at her. Something must have shown on her face, even in the lantern-tinted gloom. ‘He doesn’t seem to have dug up the King.’
‘What?’ asked Mia.
Opi looked at the big stone carving of the First King, then down at the altar. ‘Mia, do you think you could move that? Come, help me.’ It took her a moment to realise that he was not talking about the altar, which was part of the floor itself, and definitely unmoveable. With him holding the light close, she could see that altar looked like a coffin with a thin stone lid. ‘Opi, what are you doing?’
‘He didn’t leave this grave unturned out of respect. Someone who digs up all those corpses doesn’t have any respect.’ Opi went still. ‘Do you think he tried to bring them all back to life? Do you think he succeeded?’
‘I don’t want to think about it.’ There was a vertical split halfway up the coffin. Mia frowned at it, then tried lifting from the split. The doors to the coffin were surprisingly light and sprang up easily. Opi stuck his lantern inside, revealing a set of stairs heading downwards. She thought she could hear a noise down there. ‘Gali? Is that you?’ She clambered onto the coffin and began downwards before Opi could tell her not to.
Behind her the coffin doors slammed shut. For a moment she thought Opi had locked her in, until she heard him curse. ‘What the?’ She kept on going downwards. The light was even less, but she found that she wasn’t scared of losing her footing. Gali was close now, he had to be.
At one point her hand dragged across the wall, and it felt oddly clammy. Almost as if this underground tunnel was in a cold sweat.
They emerged into a giant cavern that had six rock floors. Each floor circled around the perimeter of the room, and a large hole through which you could see to the bottom. There was railings and they looked like they had also been carved out of rock that had already been there. She leaned on them and peered to the bottom. There was a figure moving about down there, and his mad mutterings bounced off round walls. It was Gali. She could see remarkably well she realised – there were flaming torches everywhere, lining the walls. An especially strong red light was radiating from the bottom, although it did not seem like it came from a fire.
‘By … Mia, look at that!’
Each floors was filled with coffins; less elaborate but similar to the one that had hidden the entrance to this room. They, however, were not hiding secret entrances. Lids were beginning to be slid aside as skeletal fingers came into sight. One nearby was already open, and the shadowy form of a human rose out of it. Mia’s throat was dry. He was bringing the dead back to life.
‘There’s so many of them,’ said Opi, ‘this is an army! Mia we have to leave now. Now!’ He grabbed her arm and tried to forcibly pull her back up the way they had come.
One of the dead warriors had already moved to block the exit. Opi and Mia floundered to a halt. It was bedecked in ancient armour, a strange shiny black metal that showed no sign of aging. It looked as if it was newly polished, and seemed to have been designed to make the warrior look like a rearing lion. Most of the corpse were covered in this, and where they were not piss-yellow bone showed through.
‘Should we rush it?’ asked Opi, ‘do you think…’
‘I think we are surrounded,’ said Mia. Other dead warriors were beginning to cluster around them. None of them seemed to be making any real move towards them. ‘I don’t think we should make any trouble – it, it doesn’t look like they are going to hurt us.’
As they clustered around them, they seemed to be leaving a gap. ‘I think they want us to go down,’ she said, and started walking, not waiting for Opi to agree. Sure enough, as she did, they formed a sort of guard around her, as if escorting a dangerous prisoner. They walked with a mechanical discipline. This was not how Heero had come back. He had been almost alive, but these things were more like mindless devices.
‘Is he likely to hurt us?’ asked Opi, ‘he’s your friend. He won’t hurt me will he?’
She looked at Opi, angry. How could he think Gali would hurt them? Gali would never…
Gali would never bring the dead back to life, or do what he had to Heero, clearly hurting him so much. Gali would never…what had she gotten them into?
Opi was panting by the time they got to the bottom. Gali’s muttering seemed to have subsided. He turned to see them, lit from below by the weird red light that Mia still couldn’t figure out the source of. One look at his face, and Mia knew that she was no longer dealing with the man that she thought she knew so well. He had to still be in there though.
She almost tripped on some of the detritus on the floor. It wasn’t rocks, she realised – it was like someone had dismantled an ancient contraption in here. Broken pieces of metal, sharp. Gali looked like the most broken thing down here – he had been far gone when Mia had last seen him, but now he was blooded and torn. The expressions his features were twisted into – it was the look of a man that Mia did not recognise.
‘You can tell them, can’t you?’ asked Gali. ‘You know me Mia, known me most of my life. You’re not like them, not you or I. It was self-defence. Not like it wasn’t forced upon me.’
‘Gali,’ said Mia, ‘let us go. Please.’ The soldiers had given them a bit of space, but she did not want to move. There was something about their stillness which suggested a readiness to move, and swing one of their heavy-looking blades. They were less swords than sharpened clubs with a cruelly serrated edge.
‘Who are you?’ said Gali to Opi, ‘who is this? Have you brought them back with you Mia? All of them?’
‘I’m the magician,’ said Opi as if talking to a child. ‘You remember? You used to listen to my tales when you were younger.’
‘No. Stop.’ Gali shouted, and it seemed as if a heat haze had surrounded Opi. The old man began to splutter a moment later, and he stiffened as if he was being held in place. He was, Mia realised. The air around him had obeyed Gali’s command. He was going smother Opi with the air.
‘What are you doing Gali? Stop it!’
‘No,’ said Gali, ‘you betrayed me. If you’re all going to think that I’m a murderer, why not be one? Why not show all of you, so quick to judge, what it would be like if you were right about me. Watch Mia, watch what you have all brought on yourselves!’
Opi was writhing. He was, Mia realised, going to die.
She moved towards Gali and grabbed him, but he knocked her to the ground. He was so much bigger than her. It had always been comforting, his big presence; now, it felt anything but. ‘No, Mia. You’re just like all of them. Watch what you have created. Look at him! Look the old man in the eyes.’
‘Gali, stop, please.’
Gali bent over her. In the red light, expression twisted, he had never been uglier. She could feel his breath on her face. ‘It’s funny, because even though I’m doing the killing, it’s you who is the real murderer. You and all of them. Me? I never had a chance. I was born like this! You think I chose to look like this? You think I chose to have these powers thrust upon me? No, of course not. No, I can’t stop doing this – I’ve gone too far. And you, and your parents, and your neighbours – I’ve never had any choice. Can’t you see this?’
But he was wrong. Mia had always known this. Of course he had a choice, of course he didn’t have to just wait whilst life ruined everything. Even now there was something she could do. Something she had to be able to do. Her fist tightened around something. It was metal, and felt quite heavy. There was a sharp edge to it where it had snapped off something.
Things slowed down for a moment, and when it came back into focus she found herself staring at it. There was blood trickling from it. She could remember standing as Gali straightened up, and him turning from her. She could remember hitting him, and the sharp edge catching him on the temple. She could remember him falling over. None of it seemed like it happened, however. None of it seemed particularly real.
‘Mia,’ gasped Opi, ‘Mia…’ He was struggling to his feet, shaking.
Around them the warriors were collapsing. They did so unceremoniously, clattering and banging. It was a wave of sound, the most severe storm she had ever heard, crashing against the echoey cavern walls, lasting no more than a few moments. She looked again at the piece of debris in her hand, and recoiled, dropping it. It was the last thing to hit the floor, a solitary thud.
‘Gali,’ she said, ‘Gali!’ She knelt down to try and wake him up again. He lolled powerlessly against her, looking dead already. She could still hear shallow breathing. ‘No, not after Heero. Hold on Gali.’
Gali was tall and broad shouldered, and he was very heavy. Opi was in no shape to help, so she left him and tried to carry Gali out. It felt to her, struggling against his bulk, like an oddly funny image. Her, little more than a stick figure. Pretty soon she was unable to carry him, and her arms just gave way.
So, instead, she dragged him. The sound of his body sliding across the steps drowned out her mumbled apologies. Three levels up, her body threatened to give in. She put her head in her hands, screamed, and kept going.
Time seemed wrong. It was not passing properly. This day had been a strange lifetime, and Mia wanted to sleep so much. To lie down, just give up. Everything had went wrong. Heero was dead. Gali was dying, and she was barely able to do anything. The Dark Messenger was dead, and the world was doomed.
When she got to the top level she thought she could see the sky through a gap in the roof. Through it she thought she saw the end of the world, clouds boiling and fire raining. She shook off the image and kept going.
By the time she finally dragged Gali out of the cave and into the air, he was dead. She watched the sun crawl slowly above the tree line, his body slumped across her knees, and just let the warmth wash over her. It felt like a sheet, finally drawn over her tired body. She let Gali’s body drop away – it was just a body now, after all – and stood up.
Someone was behind her. She turned, but it was just Opi’s donkey. It had come back. It nuzzled up to her, and she hugged it. She felt like she could just go to sleep, right there.
Opi sat down on the grass, feet dangling over the cliffside. There was further rock outcrops not far down, so there was not much danger even if he fell.
Mia felt like she should feel bad for him, but all she could really feel, now, was tired. She had the sneaking suspicion that the old man had been in stranger situations, although what could be stranger than that, she didn’t know. ‘You need to go home to your parents.’
Mia shook her head. ‘I can’t. I don’t know that I want to. I need to leave.’
‘What?’ Opi looked up at her with surprise, ‘Mia, I know that was tough-’
‘I’m The Dark Messenger now,’ said Mia. ‘It must get passed on when the past one dies. I can…feel it. It’s like the world looks different.’
‘So – so you know the final message?’
‘No,’ said Mia, ‘Gali said The Dark Messenger told him it. Gali didn’t tell me anything. The message is lost.’
‘That’s not a good idea Mia, you can’t just-’
‘I’m not going back,’ said Mia. ‘I won’t.’ She looked at the world. It was all very small and far away. ‘I have to find a way – everyone is depending on me now.’
‘Do you have any money? Any more clothes? Have you even been beyond the foot of the mountain?’
Mia did not answer any of the questions, staring stubbornly at him. He did not match her stare for long. Then he laughed. ‘Okay, fine, I’ll take you down the mountain.’
‘I didn’t ask you to,’ said Mia.
‘No,’ said Opi, ‘but there is being stupid, and then there is being stupid. I’ll take you down to the foot of the mountain at least.’
It was Mia who turned away this time. ‘Thank you.’
‘You intend to defeat Monrath without the message?’
‘I’m The Dark Messenger now,’ said Mia, ‘I have to. I remembered when I was younger, you told me about a teacher.’
‘You want to find The Dark Messenger’s hypothetical teacher?’ Opi turned and looked, again, off of the edge of the cliff and onto the Kingdom stretched out before them. ‘I guess that’s as good a plan as any.’
‘We can rest in Layun,’ said Mia, ‘we should get away from Dai.’ She followed Opi’s gaze, for a moment, out onto the world. It was all very still.