This article is rated T for Frequent Light Violence and Frequent Light Horror Themes.
This short story was written by Lucentstar.
Gavril was by no means a hero. He only happened to be outside, mending part of the fence around his family's ranch, when the great cloud of absolute blackness rose out of the hills and enveloped the village below, menacing, expanding. When Gavril caught sight of it he ran, and he tripped and fell, and when he stood, his knee rang with pain. As he scrambled away, limping, an ancient legend came to mind, and in his fear he decided that he must seek out Color Star, the guardian of the Fissure Stones, those receptacles of utmost power, and beseech his aid, for no mortal man could stand against what horror poured from that place. It was his only hope.
Miles passed in a blur of pain and fear, hope alone moving him forward.
When his wits began to come back to him, Gavril tore strips from his gray cloak to wrap around the end of a fallen branch. It was crooked, but strong enough to hold his weight, and now silent against the ground. He walked carefully, making sure his steps were equally quiet. He was close to his destination; nothing good could come to him from being heard.
Yellow chi-mist tinged with green drifted between the overgrown boughs of moisture-silvered trees and curled around the thorns of untended bushes half-choked by ivy. This corner of the Earth Garden had not seen human care for many years, but Gavril squinted even against the unusually thick mist. His eyes hurt as they continually struggled to readjust after a lifetime in the inky mist of his native Water Village.
Between his narrowed eyelids, Gavril caught a glimpse of a rocky outcrop veiled by the drooping fronds of an Evil Tree, the leaves of which were covered with stinging hairs poisonous enough to leave a strong man writhing in agony for days. His hope rose, and he hastened toward this sign from the sung-spoken stories. His injured leg nearly buckled under the strain of the increased pace, so he was forced to slow. He looked over his right shoulder—Northward, and a little to the West—futilely searching for some sign that The Dark had stopped following him.
Gavril used his improvised crutch to push the lightly swaying limbs of the Evil Tree apart enough to walk between them unharmed, although with each limping step under their threatening arch he was sure the next would be his downfall. Beyond the Evil Tree, the rough bedrock split, a jagged slit leading into the hill. Shadows were more comforting than foreboding to Gavril, and he began to descend, sparing one last glance behind him.
Once fully inside, he noticed small shards of phosphorescent stone glinting from the hewn walls of the tunnel-like cleft. This light, although meager, was more than enough to enable him to make his way deeper underground. Some uncounted number of uneven steps took him into a great chamber, the ceiling too high for him to glimpse, even with his superlative vision.
A resounding crash shattered the musty silence. The glimmers near Gavril brightened, bringing into view the circular cage which had dropped down around him like a bird. The mists beyond the circle stirred, the sign of a great power walking through them, but they cloaked the figure and kept him hidden.
Gavril knew without seeing that he was in the sacred presence of Color Star. Awkwardly, he lowered himself to the ground, gritting his teeth against the pain of bending his knee.
"Who are you?" a great voice asked, at once deep and wide, powerful and calm. There was no question who spoke. Gavril felt the dirt on his skin dampening to mud with his sweat.
"I am Gavril," he said, and his voice didn't shake more than the situation warranted.
"Why are you here, Gavril?" Color Star asked, and Gavril felt sure that even if he had intended to lie, he could not have.
"I am here to petition you, Your Chromaticism, for the use of one of the Fissure Stones."
Color Star was silent, and it was a somber, heavy silence. Gavril inched toward panic, over three decades of fireside tales about the might and justice of Color Star pressing down on him.
"You lent one to Noel the Wanderer after Skybreak," he blurted out, "And when Priscilla Mistheart came to you, you didn't just—"
"Gavril," Color Star said, and Gavril's teeth clicked together. Color Star made him wait a few more agonizing moments before asking, "Why do you think you are among the very few of your kind worthy of my trust?"
"Your Chromaticism," Gavril said, "I am sure you know of what we call The Chute, a Realm-Passage near the Water Village. My people have been aware of it for a long time, but we never tried to explore it. This morning, a great cloud of absolute blackness rose from The Chute and descended upon our homes. I came here as fast as I could with my leg how it is, and as I came the darkness rolled over the sky behind me."
"You have not answered my question," Color Star said. "Gavril, go back outside. Tell no one of the way in. I am not giving you one of the Fissure Stones, which it is my sole job to protect."
The walk out of The Cave felt longer than the walk in, and Gavril's knee protested every step. Not just his family and friends, but his whole realm was in danger, from an unknown foe. It was scarcely lighter when he emerged than it had been inside, and it took him a moment to remember that the mist there was supposed to glow. Looking up, he saw that the evening sky was almost completely mantled by The Dark.
Gavril picked his way toward the populated part of the Earth Garden, clutching his gray cloak more tightly around his body. The strips he'd torn off to pad the bottom of his crutch certainly did not make it any warmer, although it had already been torn in several places from the fall which hurt his knee.
The Earth Garden was supposed to be warm and fair, no match for a heavy cloak from the damp and chill of the Water Village, even a damaged one. A quiet, unshakable dread whispered into Gavril's mind: Could it be that The Dark was blotting out not just the light, but also the very chi-mist itself, dampening not only the luminescence but the power? And if it could do that, could it snuff out the chi inside a person, one's very life-force? Gavril shuddered and shied away from the thought, focusing on the placement of his crutch and feet.
Flickering lights shone from the main buildings of the Earth Garden. Gavril saw people standing on balconies and rooftops with torches, shouting down to the milling throngs below. He slipped into the fringes of the crowd. The Dark wouldn't see him there, but even if it would, Gavril no longer carried hope worth hiding for.
His eyes had learned better than most how to see with scant light. What they saw was chaos, utter and absolute. But through the chaos, he saw a Presence of Darkness. Like Color Star, it was cloaked in shadow, but these shadows were not formed by the mist itself in reverence, but by the darkness of the sky come down to hide that which could reflect no color at all, and was thus relegated to an invisibility which hurt to look at.
The Presence moved unwaveringly through the disarray of the market carts left at haphazard angles around the buildings. People subconsciously moved out of its way, the hue of fear blanking their vision. Gavril, too, shied away as it passed. He did not have a Fissure Stone, or any other inordinate powers. He wasn't a hero.
He wasn't mindless with terror, either.
Gavril turned toward the Presence, even as the chi within him cried out against it, his mind flaring with a dread of the being from which the mist itself recoiled. He followed the Presence, keeping far too close for his health.
Mere hours ago, this had been a place for trade, people gathering even from other realms to make deals and friends. When The Dark came, the tradesmen abandoned their market carts—but many of those wagons were still upright, still holding the goods they had carried there for sale. The Presence made a path toward one cart in particular, a tall, ornate affair of painted wood. Even in the torchlight, Gavril recognized the style of wealthy merchants from Amaranth City. What he didn't know was why the Presence was interested in it.
The reason was revealed soon enough. The Presence reached inside, withdrawing a luxuriously embroidered roll of thick fabric, its sumptuous, multicolored threads throwing back tinted fragments of torchlight. With a flash of dismay, Gavril realized that what The Presence held was a Flying Carpet, one of the most magical, rare, and coveted items which might ever be brought to the marketplace.
The price of a single Flying Carpet would surely have been more than a man like Gavril could hope to earn in his lifetime; a merchant would spend decades to craft a single one, and after selling it could rest in splendor until the end of his days. Watching such a treasure being carelessly handled by a creature which was anathema to his world, Gavril felt a bright anger spark inside of him, burning away the coal-black terror. What was there left to fear? In a blink, a desperate plan came to him—desperate, but nothing was too desperate anymore.
All around him, harnessed to the merchant's carts, proud pixiu stood, hired at the corridor exits to fly the heavy wagons to the center of the realm, where they would be lightened at the market. With the body of a great cat, the wings of a fierce bird, and the head of a wise dragon, each pixiu was worth its massive weight in any commodity. Raising them on his family's ranch, Gavril had learned to ride one long ago, but what drew his attention to them now was a half-remembered lecture from his father on the foolishness of excess: "A flying carpet may be pretty, but nothing can beat a good, solid pixiu when it comes to speed."
Without stopping to second-guess himself, Gavril untied the straps which hitched the closest pixiu to its wagon and heaved himself onto its back. His knee protested mightily, but he ignored it, settling himself into the saddle with the déjà vu of long-unused habit. He dug his heels into the majestic beast's sides and it took off, a small storm of flapping wings. He wheeled it in a small circle around the Presence, then headed away.
When he looked back, it was following him, painfully invisible but for the shimmering Carpet it rode upon. He was glad—a vicious, wild, terrified gladness that knew no reason. He flew straight, Northward and a little to the West, straight toward his home and his people and the place The Dark had entered his world, and it followed him, but it did not gain on him.
The mist was dark as solid night around him, unpierced by the twin lanterns which hung from the pixiu's head. He steered only by memory, and by keeping the wash of fear steadily behind him. He could see no lights from the village, but knew he was drawing near as a pulsing blackness appeared before him, a rippling of utter sightlessness, which he knew to be the Realm-Passage, The Chute.
Gavril angled himself toward that maw of midnight, and the Presence stayed behind him. This was the point where he would win or lose his mad gamble, live or die. He had no time to contemplate the odds. His pixiu dove like a stone, down, down, like an arrow between the hills that surrounded The Chute. He knew the moment they entered it, because lantern-light began to reflect off the magnetite crystals which coated the inside of the Realm-Passage, triangle shards leaping back to him. He pulled on the reins, hard, swinging the pixiu around, pulling to one side of the tunnel, not far inside. Then he waited.
It was only a moment before the Presence shot into the tunnel beside him, a hair's breadth away, nauseating terror. Shot in, and kept going, momentum carrying it forward even as the magic of the Carpet stopped working, as all magic forever failed to work in the Passages. There was no time to breathe a sigh of relief that his plan had worked. Gavril spurred the pixiu forward, out of The Chute.
It was not quite pitch black outside, although it was still darker than night usually was, even in that place of inky mist. But Gavril was used to seeing dimly, and with that scant light freed by the thinning of The Dark as it followed the Presence into The Chute, he glimpsed a figure some small distance off.
His plan had not extended beyond sending the Presence hurtling back where it came. It occurred to him only then that it might reverse its course, return how it originally had come, so he tugged the pixiu back around. Indeed, darkness was already welling from The Chute, and the fear, which had waned as he made his rapid ascent, was waxing again. For the first time since The Dark had come, he reached inside himself and all around for what little chi remained there, readying himself to do something, whatever he could do, anything to stop the Presence from re-emerging into his world.
And then suddenly beside him was the figure he had seen before, a breath of strength and reassurance. "Gavril," the figure said, but even before he heard that voice, Gavril knew it was Color Star who stood beside him, who had traveled faster than the swiftest mount to stand there beside him, although why, he knew not.
"Your Chromaticism," he managed to say, "why are you here? You said you would not help."
"I said I would not give you one of the Fissure Stones," Color Star said, calm and wise and patient, "I too felt The Dark coming, and your tale confirmed the threat it poses. I planned to deal with it alone, but you have proven yourself a worthy assistant. You are not practiced in the channeling of chi, but you have more strength than you know. So stand with me, Gavril, and together, we will drive out The Dark."
It was a moment beyond imagination, painted bright in Gavril's mind forever despite the shadows which obscured almost all sight. Color Star stood with the Fissure Stones in his hands, pouring stone into The Chute. And Gavril stood at his side, the chi-mist lightening as he turned it into rock of his own to add, and slowly, the Presence receded, battered back by the deluge of debris.
When it was over, they stood there, man and legend. The mist was gone, and for the first time, Gavril saw Color Star, and what he saw was aweing as befit a sacred one. For the first time, too, he saw the stars, faint and high above, silver points of light that had never before touched the village. And they touched upon a gentle mound, all that remained of The Chute, the Presence of Darkness well and truly buried inside it, all The Dark gone with it.
Gavril went to prostrate himself, but Color Star stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. His other hand reached down to Gavril's knee, and in a moment the temporarily forgotten pain vanished for good.
"It's been an honor," Gavril said, fumbling for words.
"May we never have to meet again," Color Star said, and disappeared into the clear-bright star-filled sky.
In the village, doors and windows began to open. Gavril might not be a hero, but his people were safe, and he had helped to make them so. It was everything he could have hoped for and more.