It was the sound that woke him, the slow grinding of rock under the beast’s hooves, as though its feet were grinding the stones to fragments at every step.
It had been a long time since he had heard any noise, longer than he cared to think of, and for a while he was content to lean his head on the beast’s rough neck and simply let the rhythm of the hooves lull him back towards sleep. But he couldn’t fall asleep again. His mind insisted on thinking, and the thoughts would not let him go.
At last, without opening his eyes, he spoke. “Demon?”
There was no answer. He had not expected an answer.
“Beast,” he said then. “Beast, do you know what happened to her?”
The beast plodded on, hooves crunching. Slowly, unwillingly, he opened his eyes.
The darkness still lay around, as it had lain since the night of the storm, when they had been climbing up towards the pass. The lightning had run like rivers of light down from the sky. And then it had faded, the storm had withered away, and after a while he’d realised that he and the beast were alone.
It wasn’t totally dark, so at least, he thought, he hadn’t gone blind. Very far away, stark black shapes rose against a faint greenish glimmer, like cliffs outlined against the horizon. In the flickering, almost invisible glow, vague things could be made out on the plain, the outlines of rocks and dark channels which might be cracks or rivers. The beast plodded on, as though it could see. At least, he thought, it hadn’t broken a leg in a crevice or fallen into a chasm, which meant it was doing better than he might have been.
“Demon?” he called again into the silent dark. “Where are you, demon?”
And then, suddenly, she was there.
At first he didn’t realise it was she, and even when he understood it, he could scarcely believe it. This wasn’t the red-gold horned woman with the barbed tail and the hair like flames. This wasn’t even the other forms in which she sometimes appeared, as though in sport. This was a shadow so attenuated that in the greenish horizon-glow it was scarcely distinguishable at all. And when she spoke, her voice was so faint as to be a whisper on the edge of consciousness, drifting beyond the limits of hearing.
“Man,” she whispered. “...man. Can you hear me?”
“Demon!” he shouted. “You’re back!”
But she wasn’t back, and even as the words left his lips he knew she wasn’t. “Where are you?” he asked.
“...prisoner,” she whispered. “In the Hall of Shadows. Hard...to find energy enough to talk.”
“Hall of Shadows?” he asked blankly. “And you’re a prisoner? You?”
“Many of us,” her shadow said, dissipating almost to nothing. Her voice was even weaker now. “Can’t stay long...I’ve no strength left.”
“You’ve got to get away,” he said, leaning over the beast’s neck. “You’ve got to.”
“Can’t.” The word was flat and definite, even in her whisper. “Sorry. It’s not possible.”
“Then we’re coming to free you,” he said.
“Don’t,” she replied. “You...taken too. Don’t risk. Take back...life, Man, both of you. Be free.”
“The hell with that,” he said. “Where is this Hall of Shadows?”
“Far...” her whisper came, faint as a tumbling grain of sand. “I’m...going now. It was...” she faded almost completely away. “...an honour and privilege to be with you.”
And the shadow was gone.
“Demon?” he asked. “Demon?”
There was nothing but the low crunch of the beast’s hooves on the rock.
It couldn’t have been long after that that he realised they were being followed.
He’d spent the time desperately thinking of any reference he might have ever heard to the Hall of Shadows, and couldn’t think of one. Not even once had he heard of such a place, and he didn’t think the demon had either, or she’d have told him about it during the course of their travels. If it was a place that could imprison her, it was a place she’d know that they had to steer clear of.
He wished he could talk to the beast, to coax from it any knowledge it might have of the place. But it hadn’t even turned its head or paused when the demon had appeared, and now, as though nothing had changed at all, it still plodded into the dark.
He turned from side to side to see if there was anything at all different, anywhere, anything that might indicate where this Hall of Shadows was. And then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something behind them.
It wasn’t much. A movement, as of something quickly slipping behind a rock, and he couldn’t even be certain he’d seen it at all. In the sunless dark, he couldn’t be quite sure of anything. For a while he rode on, straining his ears to listen for any noise. Then, suddenly and without warning, he turned again.
This time he made out the movement clearly, in the instant before the thing – whatever it was – froze in place and became one with the darkness. He still couldn’t make out what it was, except that it was there, and that it was following them.
Riding on, he tried to think of what to do.
Running from it was clearly impossible. The beast could move fast for short periods, but not in the unknown rocky plain with its fissures and boulders, all shrouded in darkness. And clearly the thing behind them, which could move with such silence, was better suited to it than they.
But, as clearly, it dared not attack them, for if it could have, it would have already, instead of just following. Unless – and he eased the sword of nameless metal from its scabbard when the thought came to him, and held it across his thighs – it was merely a scout, and others would gather around soon. He could not risk that, either.
Leaning gently across the beast’s neck, he murmured into its ear, hoping it would understand, and tugged on its mane, pointing it towards a large boulder not far away. As soon as they were between it and where the thing behind them ought to be, he slipped from the beast’s back and lay down on the ground, pushing himself down as far as he could go.
He saw it almost at once, briefly illuminated against the glimmer – something that might perhaps be as large, as a man, a fluttering shape merging into darkness that flowed, silently as oil, from rock to rock. It came quickly closer and then suddenly paused, shifting irresolutely. It must have realised that he was no longer on the beast’s back.
It was then that he moved. Thrusting himself up by his arms, he hurled himself at the thing, his sword outthrust, and was on it before it could react. He heard the weapon rip as though through cloth, and ring on the stone below – and he had the creature pinned to the ground with his blade.
It fought. It fought like few things he’d encountered before, wriggling frantically and snapping at him with tusks which gleamed greenish where the distant light struck them. But the tusks, try as they might, could not break through his armour. And he put his weight on the sword, and, leaning on the haft, kept it pinned down, until all of a sudden the creature stopped struggling.
“All right,” it said suddenly, its voice thick and barely comprehensible. “What you want?”
He blinked in surprise, and it was a few moments before he could make himself answer. “What are you? And why are you following us?”
“Name you want? I Sthina. Of People.”
“People living in Darkland, course.” The creature, Sthina, snapped its jaws. He could now make out a beaked face with huge black eyes, surrounded by the flapping skin which he had skewered on the sword. “What you do here?”
“Never mind what I do here. Why were you following us?” For emphasis he twisted the sword, and was rewarded with a gasp of pain. “Well?”
“Following...to see where go you. No want trouble.”
“Well, you’ve got trouble.” He heard the crunch of hoof on rock as the beast returned, as he had instructed it. “Do you think I want to be followed by something which won’t show itself? I should probably kill you.”
The creature was silent for a moment. “Not kill,” it said eventually. “You let go, I go away.”
“Yes? We’ll see. Where are your...people?”
“Village away. Behind. You keep go, you go away from village. No trouble. No kill.”
“How do I know you won’t gather your people to hunt us down?” The man didn’t wait for an answer. “For that matter, I’m not interested in your people. I didn’t even know they existed. I’m looking for a place.”
“It’s called the Hall of Shadows. Have you heard of it?”
The thing twisted on the sword so violently it almost ripped free. “You from Hall?” it squealed. “No harm me, I do nothing.”
“I’m not from this Hall. I just want to find my way to it. You seem to know it.”
“Yes...it across Darkland. People no go.”
“Too bad, Sthina. If you want to live –” He twisted the sword again.
“As long as you take us there,” the knight said. “As long as you guide me, I’m not going to kill you.”
“Hall of Shadows, bad place,” Sthina said.
“I know that well enough.” The beast walked just behind the flapping creature, and the knight had the tip of the sword held to the back of its beaked head. “But what is it like?”
“I not know inside. Never inside, none of the people. But it bad place, everyone know.” Sthina lifted a bony limb and pointed into the darkness. “When it comed to – ”
“You mean it wasn’t always there?”
“No, but been there for long time now. At first was small evil, then growed. Now big evil, getting bigger.”
“Did it take any of your people?”
“One, in the beginning. Spatham. After that nobody go. Why you want to go there?”
“I’m looking for a friend of mine...of ours. She’s imprisoned inside the Hall of Shadows. We’re going to set her free.”
“If she in Hall...no set free. Once in Hall, never come out again. You too.”
“Yes, we’ll see about that, won’t we?” The knight shifted his grip on the sword. “How far is it to the Hall?”
“Still long way. You...”
Something reared up out of the dark before them. It was like a tree, a column of darkness that split into branches that split again, and at the tip of the branches there were white spots like flowers, and the flowers had teeth. And the branches swooped down at the man and the beast and the flapping creature, the teeth snapping to cut and tear and destroy.
Then the sword of nameless metal, black as the gulfs between the stars, so black that the sunless darkness was nothing to it, rose and fell then, and the mouths with teeth fell away from the ends of the branches. Once, twice and a third time the sword fell, and the column of darkness wavered and coiled on itself, and shrank back into the rock.
There was a long silence, broken only by the beast’s hooves.
“You beat it,” Sthina said. “Never seen I that one of it beaten before.”
“Were you perhaps taking us to it?” the knight asked. “If that was your plan, it’s failed, and badly. Besides, it would have taken you too.”
“I not know it there,” the creature replied. “I not want to be eaten either. But...”
“No need to hold sword my body. I now take you to House of Shadows.”
“Weren’t you taking us to it before?”
“No. I taked you to Darkland, away from People, to leave you lost. But you save me, so I now take you to House of Shadows.”
“Sthina?” he said.
“If you’d tried to get away, I’d have found you, and I’d have killed you. And if you try to get away now, I’ll still find you, and I’ll still kill you.”
“It make no difference anyway,” the creature said after a while. “Once you go into House of Shadows, you no come back.”
The Hall of Shadows.
It reared above the plain, a cliff of black ice-smooth rock carved into turrets and battlements, so high that the top of it merged into the darkness. The walls and the turrets distantly reflected the greenish flickering of the horizon, so that the whole mass seemed outlined in distant lightning.
Sthnia had been walking more and more slowly for a while, and now she stopped. “I stop going now.”
“How do you go inside it?”
“I not know.” The creature turned its beaked face towards the knight. “Kill me if you want, but I still not know. And no further I go.”
“All right.” The knight looked up at the mass of stone. “I assume you aren’t going to wait for me to come out.”
“Would be no good. You not coming out again.” Sthina turned to face him. “I go now.”
“You go then.” The knight watched the creature fade back into the darkness and then touched the beast on the neck.
“Let’s find a way in, shall we?” he said.
Even before he had reached the base of the walls, he knew it was the right place. There were tendrils plucking at his mind, wisps of thoughts a faint as the memories of mists, groping a moment and then slipping away just before he could get hold of them. There was anguish in there, and anger, and sadness, and other, more complex thoughts that he could not understand, thoughts so strange that they could not possibly have come from a remotely human mind. But they were there, swirling around that cliff of stone like gusts of wind on a winter night.
It was not going to be easy finding a way in. Something as large as this would not leave an entrance unprotected – or, if it did, it would only do so if it wanted someone to enter. And if it wanted someone to enter, it would not expect that person to leave again.
The ground was fissured and split by crevices, some so narrow that the beast did not even break stride over them, and some so broad that it had to head out into the plain until it found a spot narrow enough to cross. Though the man kept his eyes on the wall of rock at all times, he saw no sign of anything that might be a gate, no break in the smooth stone at all.
And then – after he’d almost convinced himself that they must have surely gone all the way round the structure by now – they came to a crack that looked as though a titanic axe had smashed down on the rock, cleaving so deep that the bottom was invisible, and which looked as though it went all the way to the base of the nearest wall.
“Wait here,” he said to the beast, and dismounted. “Wait here for me.”
It was not as difficult to climb down into the cleft as he’d thought, and it wasn’t as dark either, since the flickering glow reflected from the Hall’s battlements gave some light. But the bottom was far from silent; there were clicks and crunches all around, faint but unmistakable, as though he was in the midst of a great host of creatures of all kinds, scuttling and digging, and watching him with eyes which were not really eyes.
And then something loomed up behind him and touched him on the shoulder...
The knight’s reactions were fast – fast enough that he managed to stop the sword in mid swing. Even then, though he knew it was useless, he glared at the beast.
“I told you to wait,” he said.
The beast made no reply. It merely waited for him patiently.
“All right,” he said eventually. “Come if you want to. Maybe you think I’m not coming back either?”
The beast stolidly followed him up the cleft to the base of the wall.
And there it was, a hole, large enough for the man to go in if he bent low. He knelt and looked in first before entering, mindful of traps and ambushes. But it seemed clear as far as he could see, so he went in quickly, the sword held out in front.
At his heels, crouching so its belly touched the rock, the beast followed.
The Hall of Shadows was filled with whispers and murmurs that seemed to go on forever and ever.
On the far side of an immense stone expanse, on a throne raised from the floor, sat a figure lit faintly by a glimmer of green like that which lit up the horizon; a figure so huge that at first the knight thought it was a gigantic statue. Then it slowly raised a hand and beckoned to him.
“Come,” he heard a voice, which echoed from all the walls around and reverberated in his head. “Come.”
As he came closer, the figure came slowly into clearer view. And with every step it became more and more familiar, and when he stood before the throne looking up at it he could no longer deny what it was.
Dressed in armour, sword between its knees, the figure was a gigantic version of himself.
“I have been expecting you,” the echoing voice said. “Though I have not called you here, I have watched you come.”
“Then you know why I’ve come.” His own tones were like a breath of a whisper in the huge hall.
“Do I?” The huge armoured figure on the throne raised a gloved hand from the sword and rested it on a mailed thigh. “You tell me why you have come, and I’ll see if I do know.”
“You took the demon. Let her go, and let us leave in peace.”
“The demon?” The vast echo held a tone that almost sounded like laughter. “There are so many demons here. Which do you mean?”
“You know the one I mean.” The knight fought down a tide of frustration. “You stole her in the storm. Free her and let us go.”
“I will, of course, not let her go,” the voice from the throne said. “And what will you do then? Fight me with that puny sword of yours?”
“It’s not a puny sword.”
“I’m sure you can cut the rabble from the villages of the plain to pieces with it,” the titanic armoured figure said. “But it has no power here. Try it and see.”
The knight shook his head and sheathed the sword. “I see it would be of no use. But I’m going to free her, whether you want it or not.”
“So many come here,” the thing on the throne said, and there was a definite chuckle in its voice. “So many, little knight, and none of them make threats. And not one of them ever leave.”
“So what do you do with them?” he asked. “Turn them into your slaves?”
“I have no need of slaves. I use them as I need.”
“I see.” The knight nodded slowly. “And how long have you been doing this?”
“How does it matter how long? Long enough.”
“But long as it’s been, you haven’t been able to steal enough of them to make your hall of Shadows secure, have you? It’s still got cracks and fissures – like the one by which we came in.”
“What do you mean, little knight?”
“Well, isn’t it true that none of this is real? It’s only held together with the power of those you’ve captured, and that’s all. And you haven’t gathered enough to make it secure. Isn’t that so?”
For an instant there was total silence, and then the thing on the throne began to waver, as though it was melting. The armour shifted and flowed like water, and below it things squirmed, like faces forming and melting and forming again, too fast to see. The figure shrank, too, melting down on itself, to something smaller and faster and far more dangerous, something that bore claws and teeth.
“Man!” The red-gold glow was beside him, she was beside him, her hand on his arm. “Man, run!”
It was already too late. The throne was empty, the giant armoured figure was gone, and the thing crouching on the floor was all spikes and beak and snapping teeth.
“Spatham,” the knight said. “I thought the Hall had taken you, but you’re the Hall. All this – and it was only you.”
“Only me?” The creature’s beak clacked. “I am greater than anything you can conceive. I am...”
“Insane,” the knight said. “So insane that you don’t even realise it.”
“You can’t hurt it, Man,” the demon said. “Leave me. Run.”
The knight didn’t look at her. “Go away,” he said. “I’m not falling for mind tricks. Go!”
The air around him seemed to change. The Hall was filled with crackling light, and the light turned into faces, a thousand thousand faces, and scenes. Laughter turned to tears and tears to shrieks and then to nothing at all. Cities burned and crumbled under the iron tread of warrior hosts, who destroyed what they could not carry away. Women screamed as their children were torn from their arms, and screamed again as they were thrown down and raped. Creatures beyond naming roared through the charred ruins of once great empires. Skies rained blood and fire and things that had no relation to anything the man had ever known. And voices from all around cried to him for help, and others cried out in mortal terror of him, and others still begged him to go away.
“I am not...” he began to repeat, but the words fell away from his mouth, uselessly.
And then the he felt her, the real her, around him, under his armour, flowing over his limbs, and she was moving inside him, she was moving him, moving him back towards the beast, and the beast was coming forward. Somehow he was on its back, and the demon was in the beast too, they were melded into one creature, rushing forward into the vision of molten fire raining from skies and screaming women and destruction. And the beast reared up and came down, and something crunched under its hooves.
Suddenly, the visions ended.
The Hall of Shadows came apart. Cracks appeared in the walls, swiftly spreading from the unseen ceiling high above down to the floor. Whole parts of the walls fell away, dissolving to nothing. And then it was all gone, and there was nothing to indicate it had ever been.
Except for a glimpse of a moment, which he was never sure of afterwards. A glimpse of thousands of half-seen forms, like flickering lights on shadow, that streamed out in all directions and disappeared into nothing.
Man, beast and demon were left on the empty sunless plain.
“It must have even deluded itself that it was all real,” the man said.
They were making their way through the plain, but the darkness seemed no longer so complete and enveloping. The demon walked beside the beast, her hand on its neck.
“And when it had to defend its delusion, it couldn’t.” He looked back over his shoulder, but no trace of the Hall was left. “It lived in a world it had made out of shadows.”
The demon nodded. “But as long as it was secure in that delusion, nothing could touch it. How did you know it was all a projection?”
He shrugged. “Why else would it have taken my own image? Its Hall couldn’t keep out merely material creatures like me and the beast, either, though it could imprison those like you who’re made mostly of energy. How else could it have taken you anyway?”
“And you knew that it wasn’t me out in the Hall, asking you to run.”
“Of course it wasn’t you. Once I was there, if you were free, you wouldn’t have told me to run. You’d have helped, as you did when you really were free.” He grinned at her. “See how well I know you?”
“Someday you’ll want me to let you go,” she said. “Someday, you’ll really want to be free. And then you’ll wish you’d taken this chance when you could.” Her hand rested on his thigh. “You know why?”
“Because I’m never letting you go now,” she said. “How does that make you feel?”
“Like seeing the daylight again,” he told her. “Do you think we’ll ever get out of this darkness?”
“If we keep going long enough, Man,” she said. “All we need to do is to keep going.”
“Do you think the beast understands?” he asked her then. “What we’re saying, I mean?”
“Do you?” the demon asked the beast, poking its neck with her finger. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The beast turned its head momentarily towards them, but said nothing.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015