Accadri's streets were familiar to Ere, and not just because he'd been there before; many more modern cities had drawn influence from Accadri when they'd been constructed. The tall rows of buildings, monolithic towers, and the arched bridges that had once connected them-but now lay mostly in rubble-were all very similar to those of Hope.
Although it was true that many cities in Tourvn-the kingdom south of Valen-more accurately captured the aesthetics of Accadri, only Hope could ever live up to it's scale, and the sense that so much was packed into as little space as possible.
The streets they walked were barren, as you might expect, the dark cobble roads slick from the light rainfall that had started to patter away just after the two had linked back up. The streets were wide enough that two carriages could easily pass each other, with room for someone to stand between them, but there was little more space than that. Towards the edges the roadway curved downwards, small holes cut into the stone where the road met the walkways on either side. Below these holes would be the sewers. A lovey place that Ere, and Ailia had used to sneak into the city centuries ago. Luckily, no one stood guard at the ruined gates anymore, and they had been able to easily slip by the old wooden gate.
The roads and walkways, along with much of the surrounding architecture had become slick and black as the rain made a thin sludge of the ashen dust that layered the place. It had been like that centuries ago as well. Other than Accadri, the only place that that kind of ash could be found was Tourvn; Tourvn was well known for the perpetually falling ash the further south you headed. Though it's exact origins had never been identified. Some suggested that it was from many of Tourvn's volcanoes erupting, or just spewing the stuff, but there were no volcanoes near Accadri. And, to Ere-and many geomancers-the ash simply didn't feel like volcanic ash. It's composition, the way it fell like snow, and simply it's scent was different. Wrong in a way that he'd never been able to find words for.
The other popular theories revolved around the Void, or the Abyss. Terms that had become interchangeable over the years. Such theories held that the ash was of the Void, that something within it had spilt over onto Accadri when the Screaming Death had rolled by. That, and the world was allegedly weaker to some effect the further south you went.
Tourvn was as far south as many dared to go. Of course, many exploratory parties had been dispatched south of the ash plains, but few had returned. The ones that had survived told stories of beasts twisted by vile powers, and cracks within reality itself. Such parties had only ever returned due to their fear to proceed further. Or claiming that they had fallen into, or accidentally walked through one of the cracks, and had ended up at random points in the world. If that was true, what was to say that many of the missing explorers hadn't faced such fates; winding up in some barren mountain range where they'd never be found-or in a different reality entirely.
Ere had seen plenty of things that seemed to defy reason. Nothing was impossible; a lot of it was simply improbable.
Some particularly disturbing tales told stories of broken corpses that lay dormant in the shallow ash, and when someone stepped too close they would rise and eviscerate the trespasser. Ere knew the undead. None acted with such purpose without something pulling their strings, otherwise they'd simply hang around doing nothing. He knew from experience.
"Did you hear that?" Ailia whispered from his right, her voice hissing off into the darkness.
They both came to a halt in the middle of the roadway, old rows of houses towering to either side of them. Nothing. Ere couldn't hear anything.
"I thought I heard screaming," Ailia added, giving him an almost worried look.
"Oh, like the screaming death?" He asked, folding his arms, but keeping his voice low. It hadn't been the first time that she'd thought to joke about something like that. Pretending that she'd seen the beast of the Cederek Isles would only be the most recent.
He opened his mouth to speak again, but she held up a finger, silencing him.
Off, somewhere distant, he heard a shrill wailing. Vaguely human. It sounded pathetic. A twisted version, something similar to the sound a human baby would make for attention.
Ere had read somewhere that domesticated felines made their 'meowing' sounds only with humans. It was apparently some odd mockery of a baby's cry, meant to gain human attention. Cats were not the only creature to develop such a skill. Ere had seen far worse beings pretend to be human to manipulate someone.
Again, the inhuman wail. Only closer now, reverberating weirdly off of the buildings from just down the street. As if it weren't quiet anchored in reality. The darkness around them seemed to grow thicker, like it had somehow gained form, and was closing in on them. "Ailia, the shadows," he hissed, slowly edging over to her.
"Yes, they're being odd. I've spent enough time around you to be used to that happening." She gave him a sarcastic look that seemed to mock that of a long suffering partner.
"No. We need to get off the streets, now." His voice held urgency, and a cold dread took him. He wasn't one to fear control him, but leaving the immediate open would be the best plan. Gripping her shoulder, he dragged her off to the left. They followed the buildings until Ere found a door. The old inhabitants had left in a hurry, and as a result most of the doors were unlocked.
Easing the door open, he pushed Ailia in, then followed suit, closing it behind them.
They were in a small entrance way. The hall was about ten feet in length, and ended with another wooden door that was shut. Both doors were surprisingly intact. Beneath their feet was a woollen carpet. Or what was left of one. Time, and likely various rodents had worn away at it until the only way Ere could think to describe it was 'thread-bare'. On the walls to either side of him were a row of hooks, likely for hanging coats, and a box-like shoe rack to the left of the inner door. The room would be entirely shrouded to a creature that couldn't see in the dark. Luckily, Ailia and Ere weren't such creatures.
Ailia stood in the middle of the room, giving him an odd look. Ere turned back to the door, and slowly eased up to the eye-level peep hole. The curved glass fish-eyed his view of what was beyond the door. Other than the empty street, he saw nothing. But the darkness continued to thicken.
The wailing. It was much closer. Just a few feet to the left of where his view ended.
Movement finally caught his eye. From the left a vaguely human figure wandered. It looked like a tall, thin woman, dressed in a long, hooded robe. Only the entire being was made of shadows, the edges blurring like dark mist into the darkness around it. It's head scanned the streets until it found something. Him.
The creature fixed it's eyes on him. The two large blots of bright nothingness staring at him. It stood for what felt like hours, then started to slowly shamble over towards the door that he was behind. It's gait was odd, as if one of it's legs were injured, it's body surging forward every other step.
"What is it?" Ailia asked.
"Dark Kin: a shade," he responded. He hadn't truly answered her question, as he still wasn't sure what one truly was.
He could feel the shiver run down Ailia's spine. "Eugh, at least a watcher only wants to stare at you. It can't get through the door, can it?"
Ere didn't answer. The shade had ambled up to the door, and had it's face almost pressed against it, one of it's white eyes fixed on his through the glass hole. It had made no noise as it had approached, other than it's occasional crying.
Without thinking, Ere brought his hand up to the door, resting it against the hard wood just to the side of his head. The Shade's head flickered to look at the part of the door where his hand was. It shifted oddly, and Ere could feel the wood grow cold beneath his hand. He couldn't see it, but it would have it's hand pressed against the door. He'd never seen one of their hands, nothing below their umbral cloaks. That made him incredibly lucky. Anyone touched by a shade simply froze.
How lonely much it be?
He blinked, and the Shade was gone. The darkness of the street returning to normal.
Slowly turning from the door, he found Ailia sitting on the wooden shoe rack. She was surprisingly light, or the rack had somehow retained it's strength.
"I've been meaning to ask you," she started, avoiding his gaze. Why was she suddenly being so sheepish? They'd been bound together long enough for her to understand that she could say, or do anything and it wouldn't lead to anything worse than a verbal scalding.
She paused, as if trying to find the right words. "Why are we here-not here in Accadri-I mean what are we doing?"
Ere frowned at her, folding his arms. "Meaning what, exactly?"
"'Right, I'll be blunt: why did you let Talin and his friends beat you?"
Well, at least she was being forward about things.
He'd expected this question months ago. Though, quite why she was worried about asking him, he didn't know. Did she think that he'd lash out in anger at her? He understood why she could think that, but he'd never hurt her anymore than he already had; it was his fault that she was the way she was. It was more likely that she simply believed the memories still pained him.
Her eyes were fixed intently on his, and the tension in the small room started to press against him.
"I had to draw a line somewhere."
She frowned. "How very deep of you. That answer might have worked on one of your old groupies, but I know you. You're not going to get away with a non-answer like that."
She seemed to be more like herself again. That was good. Probably.
"What I mean is," he began, leaning his back against the old wooden door, "it had to end sometime. Either with me killing myself because of the awful things that I'd have escalated to, or with someone stronger actually succeeding in defeating me. I had to draw a line; how far I could go and still live with myself. At least letting them think that they killed me will do some good." In someway, it was the first act of his repentance. He'd been heralded by many as the 'messiah' of his kind. That he would have thrown the world into darkness, and usurp the unafflicted. That couldn't be allowed to happen. With his 'death', humanity had gained it's saviour. And there was no one more deserving.
It had worked out exactly as he'd wanted. Exactly as he'd hoped.
"How long had you been planning this elaborate deception?" Ailia asked, standing, and walking towards the door to the street.
"For a long time," he replied, turning back to the door.
Whether he'd thought of it decades prior to what had happened, or moments before his defeat, he wasn't sure. He only knew that it had been the best option for everyone. For once, he'd made the correct choice.
Maybe he wasn't such a lost cause.