The line of darkness cut across the daylit field as if drawn with a knife. On the ridge where Tomas and Elseir stood, the sun was shining; the sky above them was an intense beautiful blue, broken only by the wisps of clouds. The grass waved gently in the breeze, dotted here and there with yellow flowers. The scent of spring filled the air. Yet as Tomas looked down the slanting field, he saw, not five hundred yards from them, a roiling wall of black. It was as if a curtain of twilight had been lowered over the world from horizon to horizon.
The darkness looked like a giant wound in the fabric of reality; it hurt Tomas’s eyes. A terrible sensation of wrongness set his nerves to screeching. Let’s go back, he wanted to say to her. He did not.
If Elseir felt that wrong, she did not show it. She simply stood, resolute, staring over the field down to the darkness below. She was tall, taller than he was—taller than most of the men in his village—with light blonde hair pulled back into a knot. Tendrils had escaped and played around her face in the wind. Her features were cleanly chiseled as if out of marble—an illusion lent greater force by her sickly pallor. There was a grayish tint to her complexion, and her eyes were ringed with shadows.
She looked as tired and ill as Tomas knew she was. She stood with her fur cloak wrapped around herself as if she were cold even in the heat of the day. After a moment, she spoke.
“This is it. There’s no turning back now.”
He nodded. “I know.”
She studied him for a moment, then said slowly, “I have to go on, but you—”
“I’m going where you go, Elseir. To the end. Just as my great-grandfather did with your grandmother.”
She hesitated again, and he bit his lip; he could sense she was evaluating him, and he hoped she would find him worthy. “How much do you know about... what happened?”
“I know enough,” he said stoutly.
“Do you?” She studied him. “It could get... very bad. There are things I may ask of you...”
“I’m not afraid.” He did his best to look strong, courageous, though his heart quailed within him. “Whatever comes, I’ll be ready.” Oh, that’s a lie.
The gloom hanging over Elseir’s face broke. She smiled, as radiant as the sun coming out from behind the clouds. By all rights, a smile like that ought to be able to clear away any darkness.
She reached out and squeezed his shoulder. He could feel the chill in her hand even through his clothing. “Let’s go.”
As she started down the slanting field, Tomas felt his heart quail, then steeled his spine.
Elseir needs me. I can do this. Whatever it is, he told himself, and he desperately hoped it was true.
She had arrived at their small village one day, late in the afternoon: a tall woman wearing a simple traveling tunic and breeches, and a heavy fur cloak. Even then, she had looked obviously ill, pale and sickly. But what set the whispers buzzing was the emblem she wore around her neck: a simple trefoil of serpents’ heads. The elders murmured that they had seen that emblem before; and even if they had not, Tomas would have recognized it from the tales he had heard at his parents’ inn on long evenings when the snow flew outside.
She had given her name as Else, and Tomas had seen how the eyebrows of the few oldsters rose at that; in truth, Tomas had to admit, she looked just as the stories had told, the spitting image of Elseir the Light-bringer, who half a century ago had ridden forth against the Forever Night pouring over the land. There had been not a few men and women from Tomas’s village in Elseir’s vanguard, and there were still a handful of them left, who sat in places of honor on the long tale-filled nights at Tomas’s inn. Lady Elseir had fallen in that final battle; it had been Tomas’s great-grandfather who had been beside her at the last. Or so Tomas heard from others; his great grandfather never spoke of it, keeping the tale of Lady Elseir’s last moments locked behind a tomb-like silence. Yet, when this new Else passed him on her way up the stairs to her room, Tomas’s grandfather watched after her, with a strange intensity that Tomas had never seen from him before.
Before long, rumor and whispers were spreading throughout the village:
Elseir... Elseir... Lady Elseir...
They all had heard news from travelers passing through of late—that the Forever Night was not gone; that once again, a dark cloud was spreading over the land and threatening all that lived, that the sacrifice of the first Lady Elseir had not been enough, that the ancient enemy had arisen. And that her daughter or granddaughter should be here now, at this time...well, what else could it be than that she was here to stand against the night?
Else stayed at their inn a fortnight. During that time, the rumors only grew. Even her obvious illness fed the rumors: for had it not been said that in destroying the Forever Night, Lady Elseir the First had brought down a curse upon all those of her blood, a curse of illness that they would carry to their graves? Gifts began to pile up for her at the inn door: foodstuffs, weapons, flowers, wine, jewelry. And all throughout the fortnight, Tomas waited, trying to gather his courage.
Finally, the last day of her stay he came upon her as she was making ready to leave and asked, his heart in his throat, “Is it true? What they say about you?”
She had stopped and turned to look at him, a deep, intense, searching look. “What is that?”
“That you are... Lady Elseir’s granddaughter. That you’re here because of... of the Night. The Forever Night. It’s returned, so they say.”
Her eyes seemed to bore through him, all the way down to his bones. He felt he was being weighed, measured and tested, and he held his breath, hoping with all his heart that he would pass. And it seemed he did, for after an eternity, she said, “Yes.”
There were more words after that—as he begged her to take him with her; as she cautioned him about her illness, about the curse she carried upon her, that her time was very short—but really, all that had needed to be said was in that one exchange. And when she departed at noon of the next day, Tomas went with her, to the tearful looks of his parents and the pride of the entire village.
His grandfather had pulled him aside before they left. “You’re going with Lady Elseir,” he had said. “We have a reputation with her folk. Make sure you live up to that. Whatever it takes.”
Whatever it takes. Those words rang in Tomas’s memory as they approached the wall of night.
The black curtain loomed before them; he could see through it enough to make out vague shapes in the gloom. A chill was coming off the wall, one that prickled his skin, and for a moment, he felt there was no possible way he could cross that barrier; his legs would not move, his feet would not carry him, not against the deep instinct that told him to flee.
“Are you ready?” Elseir asked.
He pressed his teeth together. “I’m ready.”
“All right,” she said, and stepped through. The night swallowed her almost completely; he could see only a faint outline and the dim gleam of her blonde braid on the other side.
I can’t do it, part of him wailed. Then he steeled his spine. You have to. It’s what your grandfather would expect of you.
What Elseir expects of you.
Summoning his courage, he forced himself into motion.
As he stepped past the boundary to the darkness, that icy cold chilled him down to his bones, as a frigid lake on a burning day, and seemed to leave a thin layer of grime on his skin. That filth seemed to sink into him, as if he would never again be clean—
Then he was through, and he saw Elseir waiting. His eyes were slowly adjusting to the night, and he began to make out other shapes—tree trunks, boulders, a crumbling road weaving off into the forest. Deeper into the dark.
“Is that where we’re going?”
“Yes,” Elseir said. “Come.” And she started down the road with a purpose in her stride. Tomas looked back once, over his shoulder. The outside world appeared filmy, all its color washed out, as if he were seeing it through a dirty window.
He turned his back on the light and followed after Elseir.
The dark under the trees was not complete. Though no light reached them from sun or moon or stars, the air was filled with a strange blue luminescence; glowing vines and fungus wrapped around dark tree trunks, and shining mats of creeper carpeted the ground. The broken road they were following lay like a scar through the glowing beds of vegetation.
Yet even with that dim illumination, the blackness surrounding them was oppressive. The air was damp, rotted; it lay greasily against his skin. With every breath, he felt grime collecting in his lungs. As he followed Elseir, her skin bluish-white in the strange light, he wondered if she felt it as he did. Yet he could read nothing in her thin features but a tremendous powerful intent.
“We’ll stop here and sleep,” she said.
The crumbling road was a bit wider here; the strange trees grew more closely, like guardians, and their branches laced overhead, forming a small chamber. Still, this was not where Tomas would have chosen to spend the night.
He wanted to voice his discomfort—but the set expression on Elseir’s face kept him silent. Her illness seemed more apparent, as if the bones of her face were pushing through her pale, almost grayish skin. He was worried about her—and afraid of what might lie ahead.
Whatever it takes. His grandfather had been alone with Lady Elseir at the end; he had been the only one from their village to stay with her all that way. He’d never spoken of her death, but there had been whispers...
Tomas did not know what had happened there in the dark, but the possibilities chilled him.
He shrugged his pack to the ground as Elseir foraged off to the side of the path. Returning with her arms full of deadwood, she laid a fire in the center of the pavement. As she struck a spark from flint and steel, the flash illuminated charred logs from many previous fires.
“We’re not the only ones who have camped here,” he said without thinking.
“No. There are... others... who live in this forest.”
“What do you mean... ‘others?’”
The yellow and red light of the fire flared across her features, deepening their sickly grayish hue. “You surely didn’t think we were the only ones who walked among these trees, did you?”
Tomas swallowed, suddenly afraid. “Are there other—people?”
An obscure expression crossed her face. “Not as we know them. No... you live long enough under the darkness, and eventually it starts to change you. It changes everything...” She trailed off, looking down at her hands.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said with a somehow-despairing laugh. “Nothing at all.” And she held up her hands. Tomas recoiled. Because in the light from the fire, the tips of her fingers were solidly black. As black as night and shadow.
“Elseir—” he said, breathing in hard. “What’s wrong with you?”
She gave that awful laugh again, and Tomas shivered. It was as if he were hearing his own death. “It’s just the curse, that’s all.” She shrugged, an attempt at nonchalance hiding enough despair to wring his soul. “I saw it in my mother, my sister—I suppose now, it’s my turn.”
So it’s true then. Tomas had known it already, but he hadn’t thought it would be like this. “Oh, Elseir,” was all he could think to say.
“I think the darkness strengthens the curse somehow. It’s started to work its way out to the skin. I knew this was coming, I just—” Her face twisted into a grimace. “I thought I had more time.”
Sitting across from him in the firelight, she looked as small and helpless as an animal in a trap. Tomas suddenly longed for them both to leave this place behind and go somewhere safe, far away from the awful night. “Can you go on?”
“I have to.” Her jaw set, resolute. “It’s my only chance. If I have the strength enough. But you—” She met his eyes steadily. “It’s only going to get worse.”
Tomas was already shaking his head. “I told you before,” he said, and endeavored to sound strong, for her sake. “My grandfather went with your grandmother to the end. I can do no less.”
He dared not tell her about the sick fear in his gut.
She hesitated. “Do you promise?”
“I promise,” he said at once.
She smiled again, and the gloom of the forest fell over her eyes.
They shared a cheerless supper. The leaping, dancing firelight cast wild shadows that made his spine tingle. Elseir retreated into a strange, reserved silence that made him reluctant to speak to her; but as his unease deepened, he couldn’t keep it back.
“Are you sure we should have the fire?”
“What do you mean?”
“It seems like— Something’s watching us. Like the fire is—is drawing things to us, somehow.”
“Something is watching us. The darkness that lurks in the Forever Night is drawn to our life force. In fact,” she said, gesturing toward the fire, “this is keeping them away. Without it, the lurkers would be much more willing to come closer... perhaps to try and take us. And that can’t happen. Not yet...” After a moment she seemed to come back to herself. “They won’t hurt you. Not as long as the fire is here. And—” She smiled. “Not as long as I am here.”
Tomas managed an uneven smile in return. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to take some comfort. The thought came that if Elseir’s grandmother had been defeated years ago, then the whole world would now be like this. He thought of his familiar village—the warm friendly houses, the peaceful tranquil fields—all blanketed under this darkness, and it made him shiver.
And what will happen this time—if Elseir fails? What will happen—he scarcely dared to think it—if I fail?
Suddenly the frailty of Elseir’s body seemed all the more apparent, the bones of her face standing out more sharply, the grayish hue of her skin more pronounced. He could almost see the curse eating her alive, from within, and the peril of it—to Elseir, and to the world if she succumbed—chilled him. No, he told himself. We will succeed. I won’t let her down.
“What can we expect? Of what lies ahead?”
She sat up as if startled. “Why?”
“Just trying to be prepared.”
She looked away. “We’ll walk to the end—should get there in about a day or so. And I... I’ll do what I must.”
Tomas considered that. At the back of his mind hovered the unspoken question: will I prove worthy?
“Elseir.” He was almost afraid to speak, scarce daring to name his fear. “What do you need from me... at the end?”
She looked at him kindly, yet the shadowy sadness in her eyes made him catch his breath. “Your grandfather was a great help to my grandmother, Tomas. At least, so I heard. I trust you’ll help me as well.”
The nameless dread in Tomas’s heart deepened into cold terror. “Elseir, if—”
“Enough, Tomas. Go to sleep. I’ll take watch.” She saw his hesitation but seemed to mistake it for concern. “Don’t worry for me. The dark—” Disgust crossed her face. “It strengthens me. By the Goddess, I wish it didn’t.”
The pain in her voice tightened his chest, and in that moment, his misgivings, his doubts, his dreads seemed petty and shameful. She is taking all this on herself for the sake of the world.
He could have demanded answers, explanations, but in that moment, he was abashed; something about her was unreachable. And would I really want to know the answer anyway? Instead he said only, “If you’re sure you won’t need me,” wishing that he could do something for her.
“I’ll wake you if I do. And Tomas—” she began.
She hesitated, almost as if she were afraid now.
“Tomas, I’m—” Her face reddened, into an illusory flush of health. “I’m grateful to you for joining me.”
Her gratitude warmed him, but not enough to melt the chill in his bones. He wrapped himself in his cloak and laid down. The darkness was filled with noises—scurryings, scuttlings—but he knew Elseir sat up, keeping watch.
His dreams were strange and deeply unsettling; he was searching for Elseir, sure she was in grave peril, but somehow every time he thought he drew near her, she pulled away. His grandfather was standing over him, a terrible grief in his face, telling him, “You must help her. Whatever the cost to yourself, whatever it takes...”
He woke with a start, opening his eyes to pitch blackness.
Then out of the corner of his eye he caught a faint glow of embers. Elseir was sitting near the fire, sharpening her sword.
“Tomas,” she said, unsmiling. The bones of her cheeks seemed more pronounced, as if the decay eating her away had advanced. There were gray shadows along the planes of her face. It made him frantic to see her like that.
“How long have I been asleep?” he asked, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes childishly.
“A while. Perhaps the length of a night.”
His insides knotted. He’d let her down. If you can’t even take a watch for her, how can you possibly be of help to her at the end? “I said you could wake me—”
“There was no need. I am not tired. I’m...” She paused for a moment as if considering. “Ready to go. Are you?”
“I—” He gathered his legs under him. “Can we have something to eat first?”
“If you like. Here.” She passed him a tightly wrapped bundle, bound in leather and waxed paper. “It’s safe to eat; it’s been sealed since we entered the dark.”
He unwound the bundle and ate in silence; the air felt oppressive and thick. Elseir touched nothing but simply gazed out into the darkness, resting her hand on her sword hilt. When he had finished, Elseir nodded to him.
“I’m going to douse the fire,” she told him. “Be ready.”
Ready for what? Tomas might have asked, but before he could speak, Elseir kicked earth over the fire, extinguishing the glowing coals.
All at once, the darkness flooded in, gleefully surrounding them. It was stifling, choking the air from his body; he cried out in surprise and shock.
A hand closed over his own, and he recoiled; the touch was actively unpleasant, cold, damp, somehow loamy. Then as his eyes adjusted to the faint bluish light coming from the vine-wrapped trees, he saw it was only Elseir’s hand, gray and pale and inky dark at the fingertips. The light gave an eerie cast to her features, and for a moment he could not recognize her.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he replied stoutly. “It just—took me by surprise, is all.”
“We’d better get moving.” She turned down the broken, rutted cobblestone road. “Not far now.”
As they slogged on throughout the day—if day it was—Tomas felt as if he were moving through a nightmare made real. The Forever Night, lit only by the glowing blue vines strangling the black pillars of trees, seemed to dazzle his eyes so that he could not be sure of what he was seeing.
Elseir drifted on before him like a ghost, her form seeming to bend and distort strangely in the gloom. The unearthly light turned her hair and eyes black and her skin to blue, so that her features looked utterly inhuman. Sometimes she seemed to be nothing more than a disembodied face and hands floating along in front of him.
His mind circled obsessively as they moved onward. What will happen when we reach the end? What will she ask of me? And will I be able to do it?
The cold knot of fear tightened in his gut. What had happened that final day between his great grandfather and Elseir? That vast silence had hung over his family like a shadow, and he had learned early on not to ask about it.
Whatever it was, it must have been bad.
A terrible dread was taking shape as he began to think about exactly what he would have to do to live up to his grandfather’s legacy. He’d never thought of himself as cowardly before, but...
Do I have the courage for this?
When the first gleaming white object came into view, it jolted him like a slap. “Elseir!” he shouted in warning.
Elseir turned. Her eyes were stretched and black, her skin had the rotting hue of a corpse. “It’s all right, Tomas,” she said. “It’s just a bone, caught in a bush. See?”
She pulled a torch from her pack and struck it alight. In the firelight, things made sense again; the pearlescent white glow was a human jawbone, caught in the brittle, dry branches of a dead bush. He shivered and glanced at Elseir; in the light, her face did not look so terrifyingly alien. “Where did it come from?”
“A soldier. Look,” she said, pointing to a rag of chain mail. “One of those who accompanied my grandmother, decades ago. We’re close.”
Elseir forged on ahead, but Tomas lingered a moment, looking at the jawbone. That poor soldier. I wonder who it was...
It might even, he realized, have been someone from his own village. Maybe one of his ancestors. There was something he didn’t like about the way the bush’s twisted tangled branches grew around it. There was a sentience—a malice to it—that made him shiver.
But then he noticed that the light ahead was retreating. He hurried after Elseir.
As he followed her through the blackness—she extinguished the torch, and once again, they were left in the underworld of blue strangling vines—slowly more and more white objects began to appear. Most were human, but there were some horse and dog skeletons... as well as other, strange-looking remains that he couldn’t identify. Many lay as they had fallen: clad in the rusted, corroded remains of armor or clutching fragments of broken swords.
It was hopeless, he remembered hearing Old Wat say. Those things had us a hundred to one. We weren’t expecting to survive, you see. We were just trying to protect Lady Elseir, knowing our own lives weren’t worth anything as long as she could do what she came for— It was your grandfather who— But his grandfather had glowered, and Old Wat had looked away, abashed.
“We’re close.” Elseir interrupted him. “See this wall.”
The wall she touched was only a wall in the kindest sense: a crumbling waist-high pile of stones, with a gap where a gate had once been.
Passed the wall, we did, his grandfather had said. A wall around the clearing, higher than a man’s head, marking off the center of the Forever Night. Protecting the source, you understand. The stronghold whence it came. ‘Twas there your great-aunt fell. She was wearing a small gold bracelet, set with amber—a troth-gift— She told me go on— “The Lady needs you,” she said...
And Tomas looked down and saw a small gold bracelet, set with amber, on the wrist of a disarticulated skeletal arm; the arm was so twined with vines that it looked vile and alive. He reached out to take it—then with a glance at Elseir drew his hand back.
Elseir needed his help to climb the slight ascent to the gap in the wall where the gate had been. With her leaning on him heavily, they stepped into the crumbling ruin, and the shadow around them seemed to deepen. Elseir’s eyes were dark holes in her dead white face. Tomas had thought her beautiful from the first moment he’d seen her, though he never would have told her, and she was beautiful still—but it was a strange, frightening beauty. The bones of her skull seemed about to protrude through her skin; black, spidery lines traced the veins in her cheeks and neck, her hands, and arms. Her legs were weak, and she leaned almost all of her weight against him, yet still she pressed onward, with an indomitable will. She seemed to weigh as little as a tiny bird; the fire of life in her flickering, and the night around them dark and terrifying. A sickening dread coiled in Tomas’s gut: the thought of the end of their journey, and the unknown task Elseir would ask of him.
I can’t do this.
But he had to. Elseir needs me. The world needs me. So he told himself, and hoped he would find the courage.
Remember your duty, boy.
Duty. Duty. Tomas hated the word in that moment, for what it meant, and for what it portended. He wanted to take Elseir by the hand, run together from that awful forest, to a place far away where the sunlight shone and the dark could never touch them. We should never have come here—
You do what she needs of you, son.
But can I?
“Almost there.” Her breath gurgled in her throat; her voice was edged with rot. “The top of this hill was the site of the last battle.”
The ground sloped upward, his grandfather had said, to the crest of the hill, where a bore had been drilled; they say it went down to the center of the earth...
Indeed, the ground was slanting upward; the trees seemed to bristle from the slope like strands of hair on some giant lumpy head. More bones shone through the dark, obscenely white, wreathed with vines and leaves. There were rusted fragments of weapons and armor; splintered arrows protruding out of trees that had grown around them.
They picked their way up the hill slowly; Elseir had to stop and rest every half-dozen paces, her breath rattling in her chest, and every rasp tearing at Tomas’s heart. As they manuevered around tangled skeletons and shards of armor, Tomas could only imagine what it must have been like the day of the battle. When the woods rang with the shouts of warriors, the screams of the dying, the clash of arms... And he realized the end of their journey was rapidly approaching.
Elseir clung to him as he pushed his way through the dense, tangled undergrowth. Her fine blonde hair was falling away; she left long gleaming strands on every bush. She can’t go on much longer—she can’t...
The darkness of the night pressed down on him against all sides. With every step he grew more afraid. And very soon now, he knew he would be called on to do—whatever it was Elseir needed him to do. What is it? Terrible thoughts and worries preyed on his mind in his weakened state. Will I die? Will Elseir die? How badly will it hurt? What if I’m not brave enough? And then he thought about what would happen if he did turn and run, how Elseir would die and the world would die, and he would let his family down. He swallowed down his fear.
I have to be strong, he told himself, and desperately hoped he would be.
For some time, the ground had no longer been sloping upward, but Tomas had been so lost in his thoughts that until now he had scarcely noticed it. He stumbled and almost fell.
“Here,” Elseir said, and her voice was so thick and decayed it was almost unrecognizable.
They stood on a flat pavement of flagstones, perhaps twenty paces across. In the very center of the pavement was a strange chest-high plinth, capped with a stone sphere. It was made of a dark, oily rock; it was blacker than black, blacker than any color he could have imagined. Looking at it hurt his eyes.
“The birthplace of the Forever Night,” Elseir said. “It is that which my grandmother gave her life to seal.” Threads of night were running down her cheeks, steaming away in the dark beyond dark.
We’re here. Yet he felt not relief but numb dread: a craven, cowardly fear of the unknown task that lay ahead of him.
“Now what?” His heart was pounding in his chest, because the time was now, of that he was sure. He did not know if he was more afraid of the task Elseir had for him or of the possibility that he might fail her.
“I need to find my grandmother’s remains. She had something—something I’ll need to use.”
He looked around. The dark was pressing close to them horribly, and at the edge of his hearing, he sensed strange sounds, scufflings, shiverings. They sounded... eager.
The lurkers—the things that lived in the dark. The sounds added to his fear. He knew that when it had been just his grandfather and Elseir the First, they had been attacked by hordes of creatures.
Those lurkers. Are they the challenge? He felt he could see them just out of the corner of his eye, and the thought terrified him. I’ve never been in combat before, I’ve never lifted a sword in anger—is that what Elseir will need me to do? Keep the lurkers off her while she does whatever it is?
He glanced at Elseir, but her face was drawn, taut, as if focused wholly on her thoughts. He suspected—and it shamed him but also made him feel a secret, sneaking gladness—that she was keeping quiet about the looming ordeal in order to protect him. Does she think if I know what it is, I’ll run?
“What are you looking for?” he asked her, keeping half an eye on the dark.
“Never mind. You wouldn’t know it. I must find this for myself.”
I have to show her I’m not afraid. “Is there anything... anything I can do to help you?”
Bluish light reflected like tears in her dark eyes. “You already have.”
She laid a finger on his lips, as cold and squirmy as an earthworm; she tried to smile, but seemed to realize how horrible it looked. “Stay here. Wait a bit. It’ll be easier for me on my own.”
She pushed herself upright and staggered away across the pavement. He turned his back on her so that he would not have to watch her struggling like that and began to pace restlessly, trying to calm his nerves. The rustling of the lurkers had died down, but he had a sense that things were out there in the dark, watching. Waiting.
When those creatures rushed on us, ‘twas those from our village that stood by Lady Elseir till the end. We gave our blood for her. I did what was needed, and I’d do it again.
Always before Tomas had thrilled to his grandfather’s tales of self-sacrifice, but now he wished he never had. Maybe if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have felt so ashamed of his own fear. Was it like this for you, Grandfather? he wondered. Did you feel as I do? He couldn’t imagine such a thing. Surely his grandfather—the others of his village—had never felt this afraid, this uncertain. Am I a coward? Is that it?
He had to go through with this. For Elseir—my village—the world—
“I’ve found her,” Elseir said, and Tomas started. A sharp thrill spread through him, and he hurried to her side, wanting to get a look at this great heroine who had shaped the world.
“That’s her?” he asked, coming up alongside Elseir. She nodded, and he studied the skeleton before him. Clad in the remains of tarnished silver armor, it was fully articulated, lying on its back as if it had been struck down in a moment. Struck down... A helm rolled, empty, some distance away. Strands of hair that had once, perhaps, been blonde still clung to the skull; now they were weathered to a dull gray. And there it was, on the cuirass: the same symbol that had caused such commotion back in his village. The trefoil of serpent heads.
And right through the trefoil, the fatal wound. A sword stroke.
Lady Elseir the First. Tomas could see her as she had been during the battle: a figure of brilliance, her armor shining like the sun, casting the light of day through the gloom as she slashed furiously with her silver sword at hordes of enemies. He could see her in her glory—and then, in a moment that sent shivers down his spine, could see his grandfather at her side. The sword-stroke in Elseir the First’s chest; his grandfather with sword upraised.
Turning that weapon on her.
Things began to make sense suddenly. His grandfather’s words; Elseir’s reticence; how she had spoken about being grateful he had come with her...
She was standing before him, face hollow, complexion corpselike, simply watching.
The time is now, he realized. The moment that had been waiting for him ever since he had entered the darkness—since before, since he had left the village; possibly since his grandfather had stood at this spot next to Elseir the First.
His breath rattled in his throat. Grandfather, give me strength.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m fine.” She bent to where a skeletal hand clasped the corroded silver sword. As her fingers closed over it, the bony grip gave way, falling to dust. A terrible smile crossed her face, distorting her features beyond recognition. “I’m just fine.”
She raised the gleaming silver sword so that it bisected those haggard, frightening features. “It’s time.”
Something about the way she said that chilled Tomas’s blood. As he looked at that strange face, he realized it didn’t look like Elseir at all; somewhere along their journey, his Elseir—the Elseir he knew, the Elseir he had agreed to follow back at the village, what seemed like a lifetime ago—had slipped away, replaced with this thing in front of him.
He closed his eyes, trying to gain a grip on himself. Be strong. Be strong, be strong, be strong... When he opened them, she was just Elseir again. She’s right. It is time. And he prayed his resolve wouldn’t fail.
“I’ll do whatever you need.”
Elseir was studying the gleaming blade, turning it this way and that. Now she looked at him dead on, her eyes seeming fully black under the strange blue light. Her face lit in that horrible, beautiful smile. “Thank you, Tomas,” she said.
And the air cracked as great tendrils of darkness lashed out from the stone plinth in the middle of the courtyard. Tomas had just time to scream as they closed around his wrists.
The tendrils turned his skin turned black with corruption and rot. They were cold and yet somehow they burned, sinking into him like icy fire. Bright, metallic pain seared his bones. The tendrils tightened, dragging him over the broken courtyard to smash against the pillar, knocking the breath from his body. The pillar felt decayed, stone yet sickeningly soft and yielding; a chill seeped into his body, turning the blood in his veins to rotted ice. I must be brave— I must be brave— I must be brave— the words raced meaninglessly through his mind, yet it was so much worse than he had imagined—
His eyes found Elseir, seeking reassurance amid this insanity. Yet there was none there to be found. She was simply standing and watching him, expressionless. Shadows were crawling all over her. Her eyes were a solid blackness, like the sockets of a skull; her face the bluish white of corpse skin; her hair a rotting, colorless gray. Her lips were black; yet her teeth glimmered between them, bone-white. Wisps darker than smoke were rising off her; she looked as if she were steaming darkness into the night.
Is this a test? Am I supposed to do something? As terrifying as the pain biting into his bones was the fear that he wouldn’t know what to do—that somehow he would let her down due to his ignorance. “What’s happening?” he cried, seeking some reassurance that whatever was going on, it was somehow according to plan. “Elseir, tell me what to do! How do I fight this?”
“Fight it? You can’t. Relax, Tomas. There is no need for courage here,” Elseir said, her voice a terrible, soft soothing. “You are helping me just as you are. Just as the men and women of your village helped my grandmother years ago. They helped her to save the world; now, you’re helping me to save myself.”
Tomas felt a shudder run through the horrible stone plinth at his back. The black tendrils were pressing him into the pillar, trying to fuse his flesh with the stone.
“Elseir, whatever you need help with, I can do it!” he cried. “I know I can. I’m ready to help you! Together we can fight this— I can be brave enough to do whatever—”
And then he stared, for there was something in Elseir’s face that he did not understand: a strange sadness in her eyes.
“I don’t doubt it, Tomas. It’s because I know you’d fight that I have to restrain you.”
Her words didn’t make sense. “I don’t understand— Just tell me, so that we can fight this, defeat the darkness—”
That distant sadness in Elseir’s face deepened. “I never said I was coming to defeat the darkness. I said I was coming to lift the curse on my family. My grandmother gave her life to end the Forever Night, at the cost of cursing her bloodline through eternity. The only way to lift the curse... is to undo what she did. To restore the darkness.”
No—it can’t be true— But as he looked at her dark eyes, he could see it was. Terrible pain ripped into him, shredding his bones—and yet it was no worse than the pain in his heart.
“Elseir—” He fought, through his fear, his disbelief. “You don’t have to do this. I’ll help you, we can find something else— We don’t have to bring back the darkness—”
But Elseir was already shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Tomas, I don’t dare risk it. If you saw your mother and sister turn black with rot, their flesh falling from their bones, and knew that fate would be yours in time—you would understand. I would rather loose the darkness again than live with this decay one moment longer. It’s neither fair nor right that all my grandmother’s descendants have to suffer for a choice she made. I was never asked to make that choice, and I refuse to carry the burden. The world will have to look after itself, and I—I will look after myself.”
Then, Elseir stepped back, raising the gleaming silver sword, and his thoughts froze. The sword’s sharp edge shone, and he could imagine only too well how it would feel cleaving into him.
“Your grandfather slew my grandmother, Tomas, that the world might live. Now, I must slay you, so that I might live.”
Her eyes were as black as the world. They fixed on him with hypnotic effect, draining everything from him—terror, desperation, anger. In the empty silence left within him, Tomas could hear his grandfather’s voice: whatever it takes. And his heart was suddenly filled with a terrible, awful pity.
It welled up inside him and completely overcame him; a profound grief such as he had never known, as he imagined what it must have been like to carry this darkness with her forever, to see her mother fall to it and to know that she would fall to it as well— What must that have done to her? That terrible compassion almost struck him to his knees.
The fate of his village, the world flickered through his mind, and he knew somehow he should try to find a way to stop her. But the impulse was distant, fading. Others would come to save the world; there was no room in his heart for anything other than Elseir.
All along he’d been afraid he wouldn’t be brave enough to bear his part at the end, to undergo whatever ordeal awaited him. Well, this was the end, and perhaps this was the ordeal after all. Was he able to bear this dreadful compassion?
Yes, he realized. I can.
As she drew her sword back, preparing for the blow, Tomas managed, “I forgive you.”
That gleaming blade paused a bit. She smiled, her old heart-rending smile, perhaps the last of the old Elseir. “Thank you, Tomas.”
As her sword swept forward, Tomas did not flinch; that pity gave him strength. Darkness had overcome her, turning her skin completely black and her hair a horrid gray. It spilled from her eyes to encompass the world.