Chapter 9 :: Stairway to the Light
Time is the illusion of the mortal. Hours lost meaning as I sought to elude my pursuers and the voice of madness clawing at the inside of my skull. Tieger and Neesa I could outrun, but the call of Leá Monde came not from the stones, but from within. It curled inside me like a black worm, and its words became my own. The pursuers became the pursued. From the Sunless Way to the empty mines, through catacomb and crypt and the Cleric's Corridor, I paced at their flagging heels. They fought and then fled, their blows bringing no blood, and only wearying them while I pressed them on, untiring.
"Go!" Tieger said at last, not to me, but to Neesa. Leá Monde shuddered beneath our feet, the dark stirred and quivered like a living thing, eager to break its bonds. "Make good your escape! This place will not hold."
"And what then?" Neesa demanded, furious. She was wounded, she had never before lost. "We are finished!"
"We must tell them what has happened here!" Tieger brought up his ax as he saw me, and jerked his head towards the catacombs. "Go, damn it all, Neesa! If he kills you, I stand no chance against the both of you."
I watched her eyes dart to the door, still hesitating, and remembered the warmth of her. Such comfort she had been, in those cold hours. "...Sstay." I stretched out my hand to her, broken joints grinding together. "Nneessa."
Neesa faltered a step back. Her gaze was filled with horror. In the hallway behind me, great chunks of the ceiling fell to the floor, as though ripped out by giant hands.
"Go!" Tieger shouted.
Her gaze flicked away from me, to Tieger. "Come back alive, Tieger!" She turned, and fled. "Alive!"
I did not pursue her. Others would find her, and drag her down, and I would find her then, when she would not run. The ground shook, and the columns swayed like trees in the breeze. "Now the slowest dance begins, partner." Tieger hefted his ax. "Tis a fine tomb we shall share."
It was better this way, I thought. I understood it all now. Neesa loved Tieger; her hard warrior's heart had held only fondness for me. How quickly that had faded, how little she wished to stay by my side now! Tieger at least had stayed; and I would have him, Leá Monde would have him. I would rip his soul from his body and we would roam together though the endless dark of Leá Monde. We would find Neesa together.
"The city is falling," Tieger said. In the distance, stones crashed down, rooms folded in on themselves. "Grissom. I thought of you as kin."
Delicate motions of muscles were difficult, but I pulled my lips back from my teeth, and smiled. "Ffoool."
Tieger’s brow lowered. "Come for me, then."
We had always been well matched, and even weary and wounded, he met my blows. The ground buckled beneath my feet as we grappled. My mace was a dull rusted thing, stolen from some unoccupied cadaver in my pursuit, and it shattered on the fine tempered steel of Tieger’s ax. I flung the useless handle away and Tieger swung his weapon, a last desperate move. The blade sank deep in my chest, and lodged in bone.
I laughed. He was mine now, and my hands closed like cold iron around his throat, crushing the air from his weak human lungs.
Tieger looked at me, and his hands slipped free of the haft of his ax, still buried in my torso. He did not struggle.
"Forgive me..." he gasped, the last breath in him. "Neesa."
Leá Monde heaved around us, giving birth as rock turned to sand and ran like water. The ceiling shivered, cracking and bending and the stones fell like rain. She shuddered from head to foot, and Tieger’s eyes began to close.
I paused, my grip relenting. Beyond the strangely dimming voice of the dead, I heard someone call my name. I looked at Tieger dying under my hands, and wondered vaguely what I was doing. The floor around us buckled, paving stones thrust upward into the air.
I knew the voice then. Samantha. Had she escaped too, and thought to seek aid from one such as I? Tieger fell forgotten from my hands. Though Leá Monde still echoed with collapse, her trembling had subsided. The voices in my mind had ceased. Save one.
"Grissom!" Samantha stood in a puddle of sunlight, where the quake must have torn the roof of the underground away. Her hair glowed like fire, her face was full of a girl's laughter. Had she come then, to make jest of my pitiful fate?
"Do not mock me," I said, and the words fell sharp and clear from my mouth. I stopped, and looked down in amazement at gloves unstained by blood, the breastplate of my armor clean and whole. "What is this?" At my feet lay Tieger, breathing shallowly, unconscious. Beside him, broken and corrupt, was my own corpse.
"No!" For a moment I panicked, thinking I had somehow lost the art of claiming untenanted bodies. I knelt, seeking somehow to regain my sad remains.
"Leave it," Samantha said. She was standing next to me now, and the light had not left her hair. "Let it go, Grissom."
I looked up at her, shining in her own light, one hand on her knee, the other offered to me. "Come with me." I could see a path behind her, some part of Leá Monde I did not know, stairs leading out of the underground. A summer wind came with the morning, and I could smell grass and flowers, running water and the cool green of pine washed clean by rain before dawn. It was not the scent of Leá Monde.
Still I hesitated. Was it all right, to just leave myself here, abandoned like a toy no longer favored?
Samantha bounced a little in her impatience, tilting her head, teasing me. "Didn't you promise to show me your Greylands?"
I turned to her, to a smile I had never seen in her face, the shadows swept away from her eyes. On her breast, the rose tattoo was gone. At her neck gleamed the silver of swan wings. Voices came on the summerwind she carried with her, voices I knew, calling my name.
Slowly I stood. I clasped her hand, and bent to kiss the gold signet ring on her finger, and begged the honor of her company for an hour, a minute. She laughed, and pulled me into the sunlight.