"There's only artificial light here
My flaws hide well here
I used to be afraid of cluttered noises
Now I'm afraid of silence
Fill this space
-In The Dark, Flyleaf
The walk back to the magic room seemed longer, as the witch's words weighed on his mind. He hesitated outside, knowing that Kari would question him on his entrance. What was he supposed to tell her now? He imagined he could feel the poison running through him. How much longer did he have? More importantly, what would he do with the time he had left?
The information Kari had, was important enough that Max had lied to Kari about the cure to this poison. It was the kind of information that could turn the tides in the war, according to the witch. If he told Kari that there was no cure waiting for him, she wouldn't hold that information as more valuable than his life. He was left to choose between himself and the fate of this realm. He sighed, leaning against the door. He couldn't tell her. They would continue on as before. He wondered how much time he had left, and if he would even make it to the demons' hide out.
His last days would be spent with the grim reaper. That at least came as no surprise to him. As much as he had rebelled, he had always thought that one of them would have killed him by now. Eight years ago, he thought that Kari was going to get him killed, but he never would have expected to go out like this. He was almost angry. He had thought he was going to go out fighting, not by his own body quitting on him. He had to calm down, to keep it together. He couldn't let Kari know that he had an expiration date. He wondered how she would react, when she wasn't able to save him. Would she be sad? Angry? Or maybe she would just be relieved, that she didn't have to deal with him anymore. No, she was the type to grieve over any loss of life, no matter who it was.
She had saved his life once, that day in the snow. He remembered being surprised by the tears he had seen on her reddened cheeks. But there was no coming back from this, no amount of blood would heal him. Even if it would, he would never ask that of her again. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open. He hadn't even gotten all the way into the room when the questions started.
"Well, what was that about?" Kari sat up, a book falling into her lap. Her eyes were bright and curious, but he saw something else there, suspicion. She already knew he was going to lie to her. He met her gaze, trying to smile easily, but he couldn't.
"Nothing, she was just asking questions about our journey." He shrugged it off, glancing down at the book in her lap. Kari frowned, not buying it. She started to say something else but he glanced up at her, "So what's the plan from here? What are we going to do about whatever the witch wants to sell us?"
She knew he was purposely changing the subject, but she ignored it for now, "If she was asking about the journey, why did she have to get you alone?"
"Because a demon is more trustworthy than the grim reaper," Xerex said without hesitation. "It's only natural she would want to make sure my side of the story was the same as yours." Kari glared at him, she hardly thought this was plausible, but she had no counter argument.
Scowling she turned her attention to his earlier question. "Maybe we should see what she's asking for it first. Then we can decide. It might be something we really do need."
The demon shrugged, "Or maybe it will just be a waste of time." He flopped back on the bed. What could the witch possible have to offer them? He still didn't like her; witches were always after personal gain one way or another.
Kari whispered an unintelligible word and a map of the land unfurled in the air in front of her. Xerex sat up, staring in shock. If he looked closely he could see through the map. Kari pointed to a small dot, "We are a little north of this town. That means that we still have to go through Fairbrook, Aldston, and Erivale."
Xerex watched as she used the map like a touch screen, to zoom in on Erivale. "Why is it that the northern towns have stranger names?"
Kari gave him an odd look. "The northern half of the settlements didn't change their names as time went on, they keep the names they were given when first settled. Shouldn't you know that, you were alive when they made that decision?"
"I didn't keep up on current events much," he muttered. Watching her look over the map.
"Well anyway, we need to go through Erivale, it sits on the furthest edge of the Forest of Night." She pointed to a place to the right, further down, where the forest didn't reach. "This is about where the mansion is located, it's weird; we'll almost be retracing our steps." She scrolled to the side with a wave of her fingers. "From what I can tell that tunnel we were in came out here," she zoomed in to a small cove in the coastline. "So the jungle village was around here," she pointed further in, near a winding river. She noticed he was watching her more than the map now, "I've been studying those letters a lot, comparing the map on them, to the ones that the Demon Hunters have."
"How long have you been able to do something like this?" Xerex waved at the map. Feeling a little self conscious Kari made a motion to close it and it disappeared.
"Well once one gets accustomed to them, manipulating false images is really easy. I've been practicing that when I couldn't sleep as well. It only occurred to me recently that I could use it as a map though. Before that I was working on manipulating my appearance if I had to. I'm not very good at that yet." She fidgeted, inexplicably a little nervous.
"So how many of these things can you conjure before you try to kill me?" Xerex questioned, leaning forward. She frowned at him.
"These mirages don't use up enough energy to make me lose control." She assured him. "Something like this won't push me over the edge." She looked down, twisting her hands together; she was still bothered that she was a danger to Xerex. "You're nervous around me now," she whispered, not looking at him. She waited for him to tell her she was wrong. He didn't.
Every time she reached for him or turned towards him he checked her eyes, trying to see if she was going to attack him or not. He felt strange, to be nervous around someone. It was not a feeling he had ever had to deal with before. She laughed, "Well I guess I know how you used to feel, when I was scared of you."
He sneered, "I am not afraid of you." She rolled her eyes at him, but didn't argue. He sighed, "I know how much it sucks, to be afraid of what you're capable of doing. Just try not to let it affect how you see yourself." She tried not to laugh at that. It wasn't as if he had followed his own advice.
They stopped talking for awhile after that, and she started reading again. When Xerex lay down and rolled over, facing away from her, she put the book up. Whispering under her breath she practiced making shapes and pictures in the air. Xerex listened to her, his eyes growing heavy. He wasn't sure if it was from the long day, or the poison, that he was tired already, but either way it wasn't long before he fell asleep.
In his dreams, Xerex found himself standing in a dark room, he had no sense of how large it was, but he had the feeling he was in the middle of it. He reached out with his arms, trying to find something else in the dark. A light came on, and he had to close his eyes at the sudden brightness of it. The room was large, and in disrepair. Tattered moth eaten curtains swooped over the windows like old birds', whose once beautiful plumage was now faded and molting.
To his horror, he was surrounded by decrepit corpses, dressed in what must have been finery once, but now it was reduced to rags, holding them together. The whole place seemed forgotten, its beauty hidden behind years of dust and decay. A bony hand grasped his ankle and he jumped back, looking down in surprise. A face that was hardly more than a skeleton leered up at him, the harsh skeletal grin bared to the world. Its jaws clacked together as it rasped, just one word, "Play."
More of the bodies struggled to move, reaching out to him, all repeating the one word. "Play," they said in their death rattled voices. No matter where he went he was always in reach of one of them. They pulled at his clothes, but did not try to attack him.
"Play what?" He finally asked, and the skeletons stilled for a moment, satisfied by their progress. One of them lifted an arm, a crushed velvet glove hung off of their rotted arm. It pointed to something across the room. Xerex turned and looked. The piano sat in the corner, he wasn't sure how he hadn't seen it before. Much like the room it was not in a good state. Some of the wood was buckled and the keys were missing and broken. It looked like it too had been something gorgeous a long time ago. He imagined the polished black wood and cool ivory keys, the now rusted and falling off pedals gleaming. The skeletons made no move to stop him as he walked toward the piano, it seemed to be what they wanted after all. He wasn't sure how he could play it in the state it was in. The keys that did work couldn't possibly be in tune.
When he pulled out the stool it scraped across the floor, and he wondered if it would even hold his weight. Tempting fate, he sat down, when the stool didn't collapse under him, he placed his hands on the keys. Those still remaining were cold under his fingers. He wasn't sure what to play at first, the whole room was filled with anticipation, and the rasping breath of the dead behind him. The first chord was out of tune and sudden, it sprang from the keys, and into the dust soaked air. To Xerex it sounded like a sudden fall, like taking one more step than there are stairs, and the twisting feeling of nothing being there for a moment. It was the sick feeling that something was horribly wrong.
But it ended softer and it could have been his imagination, but it looked like the piano straightened up a little. The next few notes were hardly better, they sounded strange and sad, the out of tune jangling only resembling the song it once could have been. The whole room seemed to sigh in relief as the piano played. Xerex's fingers danced over its surface, skipping over the keys that were no longer there, and occasionally those that didn't work fell soundlessly under his fingers.
At first he thought he was only getting used to the sound, but now he was sure that the piano was somehow tuning itself. Casting a glance over the keys he noticed that there were no more missing keys, and the wood had straightened on the back of the baby grand. It was as if the instrument had shrugged off its age and illness, Xerex's song pulling it back to the days when it could truly make music. He allowed his gaze to drift from the piano to the wall, and the sagging curtains there had undergone a change as well. Now they were not moth eaten at all, and they hung with great care, in mint condition, the thick fabric cascaded to the polished wood floor. Behind him he could hear the familiar sound of shoes on the dance floor and long ruffled dresses twirling with the dancers steps. The soft sound of the fabric was in time with his music, it was the soft heartbeat of the song.
He managed to glance back, and the decrepit corpses were now whole and smiling again, vitality pouring off of their newly pink skin and bright eyes. Laughter swelled behind the notes, and the song rose to fill the room. Xerex wasn't sure at this point if he was playing the piano or if it was the other way around. He had yet to hit a bad note, and he did not know what would happen if he did, or if he even could.
A soft laugh to his right pulled his attention from the keys. "Who would have thought such bloodstained hands could create music like that," the little girl in front of him said. She smiled and Xerex recognized her as the witch. He wondered if she was a product of his dream, or something more. Something seemed wrong about her presence, she was out of place, the wrong note in his song.
"You shouldn't be here," Xerex said, unable to fully voice what he was feeling.
She smiled at that, like she had expected no different. "No but I can skirt the line more than most, my presence here will be tolerated, so long as I don't do anything out of line." Her explanation made no sense, but none of this dream had so far. "I wonder where your little grim reaper friend is, she may not fare so well without you."
Her words made his hands falter for a moment, an awkward pause in the song, a sudden gasp of the piano. He forced himself to resume playing but he watched the enchantress closely. "What is that supposed to mean? I haven't left her."
Her good eye narrowed and she smiled at him, "Haven't you? Do you even know what this place is? Don't let the illusion confuse you." She tilted her head, "Perhaps I should enlighten you, as to what your situation truly is." There was a curtain on the wall in front of the piano, he could have sworn it wasn't there before. The witch reached out with a small hand and drew it back, revealing an old, stained mirror behind it.
The mirror was so old it took Xerex's eyes a moment to see exactly what it reflected. The people behind him were not lively and dancing, they were the same corpses that he stumbled in upon. Now they stood, leaning against each other to stay up, and barely swaying to the music, it was the only motion their bodies could handle without falling apart. The piano was in ruins, and if Xerex listened well enough he could still hear the out of tune notes in place of the song he now played. The young girl stood out of sight of the mirror, but her hand clutching the curtain was visible in the reflection. It was not that of a little girl, but an old woman, with long fingers, covered in age spots and shaking slightly.
"This mirror shows the truth, now why don't you take a look at yourself?" She suggested, and Xerex could hear the old woman's voice beneath the child's. When he saw himself his hands crashed down on the keys, a final chord played a little too violently for the old piano's liking. It echoed in the large room as he stared at himself. He was not rotting like those around him, but he would hardly expect to be, as he had not perished so long ago. But his skin had lost its color and his eyes had the all familiar glaze over them, his dark green eyes were clouded with death's touch. His body felt ice cold, like he could never feel warmth again. "Keep playing boy," she whispered in a solemn voice, she rested her hand on his arm, but he couldn't even feel it. "You hardly want to upset your friends, they will keep you company for the rest of eternity."
He sat up with a gasp, putting his head in his hands. Alive, he was still alive, for now. He was sweating lightly and his pulse was racing. Somehow this dream had been worse than his bloody nightmares; it had seemed so much more real. He felt the bed move under someone else's weight. "Xerex, are you alright? I felt… I thought something might be wrong," She sounded as anxious as he was. The feel of the dream lingered with him, and he grabbed her, pulling her to him and wrapping his arms around her. He was just so relieved he was still alive, that he was still there with her. His pulse still pounded in his ears and his breath rattled in his chest. He needed this closeness right now; he needed to know he could still have this. Four hundred years of living alone and suddenly he felt unimaginably lonely.
Kari was still half standing, one knee on the bed, her arms trapped and her face pressed against Xerex's shoulder. She was very confused and her guard was up. It wasn't as if he had never hugged her before, but the only times he had ever instigated a hug, were when she was crying, and when he thought she was dead. So the fact that he was hugging her now left her unsure what to think. Maybe that poison had scrambled his brain. "Xerex? Are you sure you're okay?" He knew he should let go of her now, but he didn't, not yet.
Finally he pushed her back, a little embarrassed by his outburst. "I… I'm fine, sorry, I just had a bad dream." She sat back on the bed, her legs hanging off. She watched him, a little suspiciously. He looked around, the witch was standing in the doorway, smirking at him, it made him even more uncomfortable to know that she had been watching them. The whole room seemed lighter than it did yesterday. "How long have I been asleep?"
Kari shrugged, "Awhile." Before she could elaborate the witch chimed in.
"She didn't want to wake you, so we have been discussing prices this morning." Xerex narrowed his eyes at the witch and sent a quick glare to Kari. She didn't need to be bartering with a witch without him there. Kari scowled at him, she didn't like that he felt the need to protect her, even now. She thought by now he might have realized that she was smart enough to handle herself. "We even settled on a price, if the girl consents."
Xerex didn't like the sound of that. Witch or not, he would tear her apart before he let her do anything to endanger Kari. "What price might that be?"
She noted the suspicion in his voice with a small grin, "You'd be surprised how valued pain is as an ingredient. Quite a few powerful spells call for it." When the demon growled threateningly she scoffed, "Calm down, I have no plans to harm her. I simply want to take away some of the pain she has experienced. The body can hold pain long after it has truly passed. Really, I'd be doing her a favor." She motioned for them to move, "Now can we get back to the kitchen and get to work?" She seemed a little impatient.
Kari started to get up but Xerex grabbed her wrist. He didn't like the sound of this, and he was afraid it would just cause her more pain. "Kari, be careful," he cautioned. "We don't need anything this woman has to offer, let's just go."
She smiled at him, pulling his hand off of her arm gently, "Relax, I know what I'm doing." Still, he wasn't sure that she did. Regardless, he knew that he couldn't make or refuse this deal for her, the price was hers to pay, so no matter how much he argued, he couldn't make the decision. If he could they would have been gone already.
He got up and pulled his shoes on, following Kari into the kitchen. There was a regular glass jar on the table, with the lid beside it. The witch had a bowl of strange silvery goop on the counter, and she looked at Kari. "It is your choice, do you agree to my terms, or not?" Kari took a deep breath, Xerex mentally pleaded her to say no, but instead she nodded. The witch motioned for Xerex to step away from her, "Give the girl some space." The last thing he wanted to do was move further away from Kari, but he stepped back until he was to the wall. Satisfied, the witch began rubbing the silvery mess on her hands like hand lotion. "This might sting a little at first, but it will be better afterwards."
Kari looked like she might change her mind as the witch moved towards her, but she kept her mouth shut. In Xerex's opinion she was too good at swallowing her fear, if she didn't, she would get in a lot less trouble. The girl had to reach up in order to put her hand on Kari's collar bone, it helped that Kari wasn't very tall. She said a few words and drew her hand back as if pulling something away from her. The green eyed girl gasped and fell to the floor. The witch walked away hastily, but Xerex was no longer paying her any attention. "Kari, are you okay?"
She sat on the floor blinking in confusion. Her memories were no different, she could still remember the night she had been attacked in vivid detail, but the memory of the pain evaded her, she felt nothing, not even when she thought of all her relapses, there was no familiar twinge in her chest. She pulled her shirt collar down, revealing smooth skin, where there had once been four long scars. Xerex sat back, his words failing him.
The witch glanced over at them, "The scar tissue beneath the skin is still there, but it will never pain you again." She held up the jar, it was now full of a foul looking black liquid, that sloshed all the way to the lid. Xerex grimaced at the sight of it, "Pain is rarely ever pretty, especially when it is this bad for so long." She screwed the lid on tight. "Well, your end of the deal is done, why don't I fulfill mine?" She walked off, leaving the two confused demons behind her.
"What do you think we get in return?" Kari asked when she finally found her voice again. Xerex shook his head; he didn't even have a guess at the moment. The little girl came in carrying to covered cages as large as her. She set them on the table with some effort.
She smiled and pulled the covers off the cage. Xerex and Kari stared at what was inside, two large raven's cawed at them, flapping their wings. Xerex scowled, "A couple of birds, how the hell is that supposed to help us?"
She frowned at them, "Honestly, you two are hopeless. This is Hugin and Munin, they are much more than a couple of birds. They are wise and powerful creatures, and I think they might take a liking to you, if so they would be much use on your journey."
Kari was just as skeptical as Xerex this time, "How are we going to know if they like us?"
"Well first, we have to let them choose," she opened the cages and the two birds stilled, watching Xerex and Kari, who were still on the floor. One of the raven's poked it's head out of the cage and slowly hopped out, fluttering to the floor. It took a few hops towards them, tilting its head and blinking eyes that looked much more intelligent than most birds.
Kari started to move but the witch motioned for her to stay still. The raven looked from one to the other and took flight, landing heavily on Kari's shoulder. She tried not to cringe away from the large bird, it was surprisingly heavy, and she had never been around birds much. It clacked its beak in her ear, as if trying to tell her something.
The other bird seemed content to stay in its cage for awhile, but finally it hopped out and pecked at Xerex's shoe, craning it's head to look up at him. The witch crossed her arms and smiled. "There see, I knew they would pick you." Kari noticed something hanging around the birds' necks. The one on her shoulder had a small piece of metal with an intricate H stamped into it.
"So this is Hugin," she cautiously pointed to the bird on her shoulder, moving slow as not to startle him. "Then that one must be Munin."
"Very good, at least you can read," she pulled something off the cages. "If you want any hope of understanding them, you have to wear these." Dangling from her hand were two cords with matching letters to those on the ravens. She tossed one to Xerex, who put it around his neck, and she started to hand the other to Kari but stopped. "Now that won't do. That enchantment on your necklace might interfere."
Kari looked at Xerex, but he looked as confused as she was. She picked up the charm, "This isn't enchanted."
The witch laughed at her, "Little girl I've been in my line of work for two hundred years, I think I can recognize an enchantment when I see it. Hold out your wrist." Kari was still doubtful but she did as she was told. The witch wrapped the cord around her wrist and tied it. "Good enough. Now, off with you," she pulled Kari's bag seemingly out of thin air and shoved it at her. Kari was just getting up, and nearly fell down again. Xerex put a hand on her shoulder, steadying her. "Just follow the birds, if you're lucky, they'll show you a short cut." Without so much as a farewell she slammed the door behind them, causing Munin to startle, flapping his wings, which hit Xerex in the face.
"That was a little abrupt." Kari pulled her cloak out of her bag, it was starting to get cold outside. She slid one sleeve on, and Hugin crossed to her other shoulder so that she could pull the other half on.
"What do you expect? Witches are a rather eccentric bunch. I imagine they'd have to be." Xerex muttered, looking around. "I'm just glad to be out of there. Now what, we just keep heading north?"
"She told us to follow the birds," Kari reminded him.
"Yeah well it doesn't look like they're going anywhere." He muttered, glaring at the raven on his shoulder. Munin cawed at him and took off, Hugin wasn't far behind. "We're really supposed to follow a couple of over grown feather pillows?" Xerex grumbled. The two birds flew between two trees and disappeared. It wasn't that they had flown behind something, they were simply there one moment and gone the next.
"You were saying?" Kari questioned, starting after them. "It must be some kind of portal, or doorway."
"Where are you going? You don't even know where that thing goes," Xerex exclaimed, not moving.
Kari ignored him and kept walking, "Either follow me or don't Xerex, but I'm going," with that she was between the trees, and vanished, just as the ravens had.
Xerex stared at the spot where she had just been, an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He muttered under his breath, walking forward. "Stupid girl, always charging forward and never questioning anything. Oh look a magical portal to who-knows-where, come on Xerex lets go through it. It's not like this could possibly be a trap," When he crossed between the trees he felt a twist in the pit of his stomach, then everything was dark. He couldn't see anything and he could smell musty earth and something dead. His heart rate increased, he felt like he was back in his nightmare. He tried to back up, and stumbled over something, sprawling on the ground, He heard a flapping sound next to him, and felt a hand on his arm. He started to panic, and a harsh growl of a word introduced a bright light, hovering above him. He covered his face.
"Xerex, relax, it's just me," Kari said, helping him to his feet. The large orb of light hovered a foot above their head. She looked around, "Where are we?" Xerex allowed his eyes to adjust to the light and looked around, they were standing on thick, damp soil. Large huge trees stretched past where the light was, and roots twisted and curved out of the ground.
"I think we gained a few days of travel Kari," the demon said, as Munin landed on his arm, the other raven watched him from Kari's shoulder. She met his gaze, curious. "We're in the Forest of Night." He looked at the light that was still floating above them, "How long can you keep that up?"
She grinned, "I guess we're going to have to find out."