In which Kai confronts his own demons in his quest for
Kai felt that the hardest thing he had ever done in his life was taking that one first step into the jaws of Hell itself. His whole being revolted against his intent and flooded his mind with a riot of jostling thoughts, each shrieking to be heard above the confusion:
"It's a lost cause."
"He's not worth it."
"You don't have to do this."
"Your people will never know of your sacrifice."
"You'll never return."
"The price is too high."
"Who cares about you?"
"Nobody will thank you for it."
"Kieran's already damned - you can't save him."
"He killed your father and all your brothers, even little Linden . . . "
"No!" Kai muttered savagely to himself, "It wasn't Kieran."
Gritting his teeth, he plunged down the rocky path into the depths. Darkness closed around him and he was gone from the sight of his friends in an instant. Feeling his way along the rough walls, he made his way down the apparently endless slope. Gradually confidence returned and he was walking calmly and easily, until he realized that his fingers could not feel the walls. Perhaps he was crossing some large hall or cavern. This gave him pause. Which was the right way?
Then the horror of it struck him He could no longer feel the rocky path under his feet.
Slowly, he bent down to touch the floor.
There was nothing there. He was suspended in nowhere.
No up. No down. No backwards or forwards or sideways.
Only the blackness.
And the silence.
A cold shockwave of panic hit him and he screamed.
No sound. More nothing.
With an effort, he fought back the mounting hysteria only to have it replaced with a further cacophony of random thoughts.
"I want to go back."
"They say, 'a man may return if . . . ' How do they know?"
"Who's been here before - and returned?"
"Somebody must have."
"It's all a trick - and you fell for it."
"Trapped in a void."
"No way out."
"Here for eternity."
"Where is 'here'?"
"Is this Hell? Where's the pain?"
"How did I get here?"
"Who am I?"
"What am I?"
"Alone - for ever and ever and ever and . . . "
Instant insanity. Fear. Paranoia.
He screamed again and again. But no sound reached his ears.
Kai curled into a ftal ball and wept, his body racked by great mute sobs.
Eventually, the paroxysms subsided and a quiet despair took over that persisted, it seemed, for days, though there was no means of measuring the passage of time.
Then, across that dread silence came a small soft voice - whether from within or without, he could not tell - which reminded him that while he was still alive, all was not yet lost.
He thought maybe he was destined to a slow death by starvation then noticed with a certain sense of irritation that he was not hungry. He must be in some sort of temporal stasis, doomed to spend the rest of time neither dead nor effectively living.
Eternity yawned before him like an endless chasm - nowhere to escape to, yet nothing to escape from save himself, and an overwhelming sense of failure and uselessness. He had been tucked neatly away, out of sight and out of mind - no threat to anyone now, floating down the dusty aeons to the end of time.
The voice, faint but persistent, told him with some asperity to stop feeling sorry for himself, and reminded him that he was still alive.
"Why don't you try using your brain. After all, you've nothing better to do. You might even enjoy the novelty."
"Who are you?" he thought irritably. There was no point in trying to speak aloud.
"I'm you. Who do you think? There's no one else here."
"I'm going mad... "
"No. You've just never needed to dip this deep into yourself before."
"So how do I get out of here?"
"I don't know. I only motivate. I don't give answers."
"Why did you come here?"
"To save Kieran."
"But Kieran is up in the castle."
"No, I saw him in Valarien's crystal. Agh!"
Light, metaphorically, dawned.
"That was his soul! While some evil animates his body... That explains so much. And he has been suffering all this time - and we never knew - never suspected. This is awful. How do I get to him?"
"I told you, I only motivate. You'll have to work it out for yourself."
"Hmm. I guess I have to leave my body somehow, but how... ? No, don't bother - you only motivate, I know."
"Why not sleep on it?"
"Can I sleep here? I haven't slept for Days? Weeks?"
"Just close your eyes."
"What difference will that make?"
"I don't know. Why not try it?"
Kai did so, and found that the inner darkness was different somehow - warmer and friendlier than the darkness outside himself. He felt himself dozing and thought maybe he could sleep. Maybe he would dream. That would provide some variety at least. Or perhaps this was all a bad dream and soon he would wake up...
He lingered on the brink of sleep for some time. Drifting . . . Drifting . . . Then suddenly he was wide awake, his attention fixed on a bright, red pinpoint. There was a foreboding sense of déjà vu as the point swelled and opened into a ring of fire.
"I've done it then?" he thought.
"I think so."
Panic welled up again.
Where was his body?
How would he get back to it?
Would he ever get back to it?
He pushed the thought to the back of his mind and floated towards the Gate of Hell for the second time in his life. This time, he knew where he was going. The fiery gate grew larger as he neared it.
Then on the threshold he stopped suddenly, caught in the grip of fear as he recalled Valarien's words:
"Had you passed through the circle of fire, you would have been lost to this world forever... "
What was he doing? What did he think he could achieve?
He had been blind. They all had. They'd let him walk into this and hadn't lifted a finger to stop him had encouraged him in fact - and encouraged him to go alone at that!
It was all a plot. They were all in it together - a plot to get rid of him. Go back, go back, go back!
He started paddling backwards with some urgency.
"Whoa! Where do you think you're going?"
"I don't know - anywhere away from here."
"You're not thinking straight."
"I know. I don't know what to think - and you won't give me any answers."
"Calm down. Think. If Valarien sent you here to be rid of you, why did he bring you back in the orange grove?"
"I don't know. But I know that if I do go through that gate, I shall never return."
"It's different this time. You're going for the benefit of someone else, not out of lust for your pleasures. How can they keep you if your motives are pure?"
Kai thought about this for a while.
"I've done many wrong things in my life."
"Every one makes mistakes. You've never deliberately done anything you knew to be wrong at the time."
"Sometimes I was pretty sure."
"When you were young, yes - we all do - but not since then. So here comes the crunch. Would it be right or wrong to abandon Kieran now, knowing what you do, and try to save your own skin?"
The time for argument and uncertainty was over. Grimly resolute, Kai's soul strode through the gate into Hell.
It shut behind him with a dull, dead boom that reverberated throughout the land in which he found himself and must have announced his presence to every damned soul within.
Kai was in blackness no longer. Quite what he expected to find on the wrong side of the gate, he wasn't really sure, but "hellish" was an adequate description of the panorama below him.
A deep, blood-red sky like the breaking of the darkest dawn hung above a desolate landscape. He was standing on a rocky eminence overlooking a wide, windswept plain across which a broad, sluggish river meandered, looking like molten steel in the red light. Perhaps it was molten steel. Here and there, black trees with angular branches relieved the monotony a little, and there were wide patches of low-growing thorn bushes spreading randomly across the land on this side of the river.
Across the river, a large assortment of black buildings suggested some sort of habitation. Kai felt certain he didn't want to meet any of their denizens, but realized he was going to need information. He had no idea otherwise of how or where he was to pursue his search for his brother.
Once within the environs of the Hells, Kai had been mildly surprised to find that his soul was pretty much the same as his corporeal form, including his clothing. "Life" seemed to continue much as it did in the known world, but doubtless without any of its beauties or goodness. Well, standing and staring was not going to help Kieran.
Kai drew in a breath of the sulphurous air and made his way down towards the plain. At first, he paid scant heed to the thorn bushes, relying on his clothing to protect him and ignoring the occasional scratch, until he became aware that the scratches were beginning to sting quite painfully.
He glanced at the back of his hands and was dismayed, though not altogether surprised, to find that the apparently superficial nicks were already inflamed and beginning to fester.
He had heard it said that the soul has an infinite capacity for suffering. If he had considered the statement before, it would not have occurred to him to associate it with this particular sort of suffering, and he cursed his thoughtlessness. Of course, there would be no cure, no respite. He was stuck with it - and any other injuries or ailments that accrued. There wasn't even the blessed relief of death to look forward to.
He gritted his teeth and continued on his way towards the river with much greater circumspection, picking his way between the thorny patches. It would take longer, but he had no means of measuring time. The sky maintained its uniform dull red glow. Its light had neither increased nor diminished since his arrival.
The river was more of a problem. Even without the trails of bubbles rising menacingly to the surface and the dark shapes moving through the turbid waters, Kai would have felt reluctant to commit his body to its unknown perils. He couldn't imagine what kind of creatures might live in this broad malodorous watercourse and had no desire to find out at first hand.
He looked around for some alternative means of crossing, but there was none. His heart sank at the thought that maybe he'd have to follow this open sewer to its source, or thereabouts, then into his head unbidden came memories of legends heard in the school room - tales of heroes who had challenged the Immortals and survived. Of course they were just fairy tales, weren't they? Stories passed on down the ages, stories designed to instruct, or to entertain or, more likely, to frighten unruly children into submission. He recalled that there was a ferryman... Maybe this river had a ferryman too?
So far, he had seen no living - or perhaps that should be unliving - creature, neither man nor beast. Probably this was a good thing, although Kai, considering all the evil people he had encountered in his life, had rather expected the Hells to be packed to bursting point.
The lands in which he now found himself must be immeasurably bigger than he would have imagined had he given the matter much thought. The problem of finding Kieran here was clearly even bigger than he had supposed, too. Still, he thought with a grim smile, he had all eternity to do it.
A fleeting image of Kieran's face in Valarien's crystal swam into his mind, banishing the smile. Kai squared his shoulders and set off along the river bank.
The river seemed to follow a wide meander around the black town which was larger than he had at first thought. There was still neither bridge nor ferryman in sight. Maybe - probably - sod's law was working, and he had chosen the wrong direction to follow along the river. Sod's law also ensured that whether he opted to turn back or continue, it would be the wrong choice.
In the midst of these uneasy reflections, Kai suddenly became aware that he was both hungry and intensely thirsty. In the nothingness of limbo, such sensations had disappeared. Now, they were back with a vengeance. He looked almost longingly at the murky water of the river, but decided he didn't fancy finding out what it might do to his insides. After all, he could hardly "die" of thirst, though several hours later it certainly felt that way.
For some time now he had also been pestered by flies attracted by the smell given off by putrefying scratches on his hands. His feet, too, were causing him considerable discomfort. Funny. One thought of the Hells as providing the sharp pain of flames and barbs and blades, not a collection of niggling irritations that sapped the strength and will.
He sat down on the river bank intending to take a short break. When he awoke, Kai thought, in the drowsiness that accompanies first awakening, that night had fallen. Then the awful reality hit him. It was the flies - a myriad buzzing, biting, plague-ridden flies...