“There is another way,” Siyamak said.
On the other side of the single, burning candle, Lomi drew a dagger across a whetstone. Siyamak wanted to look away, but in the flame there were shimmering, incorporeal names. They danced in time with the flame’s flickering rhythm, tantalizing him, and more names swam like tiny fish in the wax as it slid down the candle’s white, fatty side. They rose in the smoke, twirled about, and dissipated a half-beat slower. To look at them was to give them power, to allow them the chance to seize him. Once they began to appear, there would always be more, and Siyamak knew that there would be a flock of names in the darkness all around him, just behind the edges of his sight. The only place left to look where the wispy, demonic names didn’t reside was in the dagger’s dull steel and the whetstone’s solidity.
“There has to be,” he said.
“Not this time.”
“Don’t do this. We’ll find a way. We’ve always found a way.”
“By running.” Lomi looked up and the light curved along her sharp jaw. Half her face was shrouded in shadow, and her hair was equally as dark so she appeared only half a face with wisps of darkness cracking her forehead, a strand slicing her visible eye in two. Those deep auburn rings that always reminded Siyamak of the home they’d left behind had lost their softness, and it was like looking into the eyes of a stranger. “Always by running.” She looked down again and continued the back and forth of dagger across stone. “Each year, there are fewer places we can hide. I’m tired of running. I’m tired of searching.”
“Don’t forget everything we believe,” Siyamak said. In response to his desperation, more names leapt from the candle. They were weak demons, and their voices could only manifest in the scrape of metal against stone. Each drag gave a sharp, sudden, soft chorus of voices that lingered like a faint, mitigated echo. Siyamak wanted to look away, but the darker corners would hold more powerful demons. He wanted to shut his eyes, but he feared that their voices would become stronger. “Bring no harm to the world,” he said.
The dagger gave a sudden, harsh scrape and thumped against the table. Lomi’s knuckles were white and strained. The firelight made her skin ghostly. “Bring no harm,” she said. She didn’t look at him. “Our teacher remembered that wonderfully, didn’t she? All those people out there live by that, don’t they? Those that wish to enslave me; those that wish to burn you. Our teacher would have killed me. Every time we enter a city, there’s the risk someone will want to kill you.”
She started to lift the dagger, but slammed it flat on the table again. The impact brought a fresh torrent of wax from the candle, and the demons trying to come into the world through Siyamak gained a sudden surge in their voices as they fed on Lomi’s anger. They manifested in her voice, whispered behind each syllable. “How long have we been running? And what has changed? Tell me, then. Tell me the way out of all this.”
Siyamak opened his mouth, but his chest was hollow. He had no breath. He could not form words, and his mind was empty. He desired the wisdom, the knowledge of what to say, how to proceed. He longed for the tranquility of the jungle where he had hardened his resolve, where the soft, gentle reassurance of nature would lend him words and a plan. But they were in a city, where nature had been pushed back, and that peacefulness that he had used for so long to remain confident and sure was gone. All he could say was, “Give me some time. I’ll think of something.”
“And what will it be, Si?” Lomi’s voice was quiet and quavering. Its harsh edge had vanished, and for a moment she sounded the same as she had back in the jungle, back in the cabin hidden deep beneath the trees and shrouded in moss. “More running. More hiding. More begging in the streets and hoping a knight doesn’t come along and recognize what you are. More hiding me away so that some slaver doesn’t try and steal me so he can retire. How long can we survive, Si?”
His despair and the strength of his desire to have something to tell Lomi drew stronger demons to him. In the darkness behind her, he saw their names emerge as faint wisps of smoke. Their whispers rippled and reverberated in the small room. Each of them offered its strength, the ability to achieve what he sought: to vanish, to pass amongst the humans as if they were each one themselves. One offered the power to guise his demon blood, to shroud Lomi’s elvish ears. Another offered to bring back the race of elves, and the promise was empty, hollow, the voice of a deceiver – even in his wildest hopes Siyamak knew that it was impossible to bring back a race that had suffered genocide. But even recognizing the lie, a twinge of hope still lingering like a forgotten coal in the dregs of a cold fire pricked at his mind and made him want to believe it could be true. There were demons that offered power, enough that he could burn the city, and those within it would never be able to hunt them down again. Siyamak closed his eyes and found more names burning in the darkness there.
“I’m tired, Si,” Lomi repeated. “Tired of running. Tired of clinging to ideals that this world will bury us for.”
“That doesn’t make them wrong,” Siyamak said.
“No. It doesn’t. But it also doesn’t mean that we get to survive while believing them. And I won’t go the way of everyone else. Father laid down and died. But I won’t.” She picked up the dagger. She stood. Her stool scraped across the wooden floor. Siyamak opened his eyes and looked up at her, pleading. Her eyes had hardened again. “Goodbye, Si,” she said.
He turned as she passed. He reached out for her, but his fingers closed upon shadows. The door opened and shut. The silence that followed her was deeper. Without the cadence of the whetstone, it felt like the world beyond the room had ceased to exist, and he had, somehow, along with the table, the chairs, and the candle, arrived at the very end of time. And all that was left to do was float in nothingness, to drift and exist, though there were no reasons left to do either. Even the voices of the demons had silenced, had lost their conduit without the scrape of steel and stone, without the possibility of bloodshed and violence.
Siyamak almost called out, announced his location so that the fiends could find him again, so that his voice would pass through the fissures running through his blood that were scratches and gouges on the barrier between the world and the realm of demons, and something would hear him and arrive. Some offer, like those that had been laid at his feet before, would be made again, just so that he could hear something and know that he was not alone.
Yet also he feared to call for anything. Better to sit in darkness, in silence, alone and forgotten than to risk what would enter into him, what would burn through the magic in his blood and would become unleashed upon the world.
His despair, his loss, his suffering, was like a beacon for one demon, the first one he had brushed against. He felt her presence, some fractional phantasm that could cross the void, slither into the deepest darkness of the room where he could not see.
So, her mercurial voice whispered, this is what she has become. She, whom you summoned me to save, whom you traded off part of your soul. She, for whom you tore your soul, and from that tear, allowed all the demons of all the hells to find you. You became an open door for her, dear, dear Siyamak. And now this is what she has become. Are you proud? Do you feel joy in your heart when you look upon her?
Hearing her voice again, after the years since hearing it first, made Siyamak’s hands go so cold and sweaty it was like he had just held a handful of melting snow. He knew that she could not be in the world, that she could not cross over without aid, but her voice was too real, too alluring. He wanted to run, but there was nowhere he could go. She would always find him, would always haunt him.
If you could go back, Siyamak, the demon whispered, would you change your choice? Would you allow her to die on that table, rather than barter for her salvation? Knowing now where this road ends, would you still save her? Why not take it back, Siyamak? I can grant you one more wish. I can undo what you’ve done, and she will still die a pure soul, untainted by harsh decisions this world forces her to make. She will end life as the one you love, the same in every way and unchanged.
“No,” Siyamak whispered. The word was raspy, his throat dry, the word so ragged that it felt like his skin would split, that he would have to swallow blood to speak another word.
No? Dear Siyamak. What a curse you have inflicted upon her. To continue to live when the world is so terrible. To force her to survive when she could have rest. You have brought her from the safety of your home to this place, where both of you are outsiders. This place where it is so easy to see how different you are.
“She would have died,” Siyamak said. He tried to swallow, but the motion cinched his throat. “They tried to kill her. We had to leave.”
Perhaps it would have been better, that fate rather than the one you have forged for her; we have forged for her.
Siyamak rose and banged his hip against the table. The candle jumped and fell. The flame sputtered in the sudden pool of wax that crept across the wood, filling the grains. “What should I have done, then?” he shouted to the empty room. “What should I have done?” He grabbed the edge of the table. His fingers dug into the wood so much that his knuckles ached. The table felt like it was trembling so violently it would shatter apart, but Siyamak realized it was his arms shaking uncontrollably. He wanted to lift the table, to shove it, smash it to pieces as if the outburst of rage and fury would somehow bring an answer to everything that had gone wrong. But there was no strength in his arms, and he could only cling to it like it was the only thing buoyant in the room and everything else was sinking.
Even though it was spring, the air did not carry the thick, sweet scent of all the world’s blossoming. Lomi could only smell the dust on the road. The city was a small one, but already nature had been driven out of it.
This must be what death smells like, she thought as she walked along the street. She kept close to the buildings, away from the gilded lanterns hanging from posts that illuminated faint circles along the road. It was late, well past midnight, and only stray cats darting through the darkness and an emaciated dog inhabited the street. The dog cowered at her passing and slinked back into a narrow space between two buildings.
Memories of the richness of the jungle occupied her mind – how orchids and amaranths bloomed and filled the air with their pollen, and how she had walked the forest and found hundreds of flowers whose names had been like friends to her – when a shadow separated itself from a building and walked along beside her. She wanted to step away from it, because it moved so easily and silently. If she were still in the jungle, such a thing would be a spirit or demon snuck through some tear between the worlds. But she could smell the faint whiff of oiled leather, hear its faint creak. When the shadow spoke, the voice muffled behind a mask, she knew it was the man who had contacted her, the one who had offered her the choice to change her fate.
“You are full of indecision,” the shadow said. “Have I misjudged you?”
“No,” Lomi said. She hastened her pace, and the shadow stuck with her. “I will do as you asked.”
“It is not the task that I am judging,” the shadow said. “The flock requires your unwavering dedication. Unquestioning acceptance. To become a Night Raven is to die and be reborn. When the head of the flock tells you to kill, you kill. You do not question. You do not ponder. If you can do that, you can become one of us. You can vanish, disappear, and become something new. Your old life will fall away as insignificant as a single feather in a molt.”
“I will,” Lomi said. The dagger was heavy at her back, covered by her light cloak. “I told you I would, and I will.”
The shadow followed for a time as Lomi passed among the silent, dark houses. It had been three days since the man had first appeared to her, while she and Si were hiding in a barn, trying to sleep behind dwindled stores of hay while below goats paced about and bleated, disturbed by their arrival and Si’s demonic aura.
She had dozed off for only a minute, exhaustion finally conquering her mind. The last village had come for Si with fire after one of the church’s knights had realized Si’s true lineage. They had barely escaped, and had been running for three days across the wilds, avoiding the roads, having had to leave all their supplies behind. Again. The terrain had been flat with only wild grass, so it had been three days without food, hoping for rain for water. And in this city, as in every city, there was a church. They could not tell if it was large enough to have knights, or if it was only the clergy, so they had crept to the outskirts during the night and hid.
Just as she had dozed off, she had woken the way an animal does when sensing encroaching danger. The man had been crouched on the edge of the loft, beside the ladder, watching the two of them. His presence was proof of all they feared: they could be followed, and nowhere was safe to hide.
“I can offer you a way out,” he’d said. When Lomi had not answered, he’d said, “You can continue to run if you want. But there are other ways of surviving.”
He had told her where to find a room that they could stay in. He said in two days he would deliver a task to her. If she accepted, she could be free. If she declined, she was welcome to go on with her life.
The room had been warm and full of food. Two days later the man had arrived with the dagger, the whetstone, and a name. He had told her of the Night Ravens, and explained the cost to join. He had promised that if she did, she would be able to fly free, answering only to those in the flock. She would vanish, and never have to run, to hide, and to flee.
“The demon with you,” the shadow said, drawing Lomi back to the present. “Will his disapproval sway your decision?”
“No,” Lomi said.
“You’re here, then.”
They stood outside of a house larger than most of the rest. The others were made of stone, but the home before Lomi was assembled from stained, dark red oak. It sat back from the road, partially obscured by a chest-high sandstone wall.
“Who is he?” Lomi asked the shadow.
“Does my answer change your resolve?”
Lomi looked up and down the street. The city was motionless. She pulled herself over the wall, and dropped down on the other side in a low crouch, waiting and listening for any sound or indication that anyone had saw, that anyone would have suddenly started coming down the street. She glanced around, but there was only thick darkness. She could hear nothing, not even the footsteps of the shadow. She looked up, but his inky outline no longer lingered.
Lomi crept across the soft grass. Each blade whispered against her ankles, and she felt as loud as the wind through the forest, tugging at each leaf and creaking each branch. It seemed impossible that no one would hear her. She moved around the entire house, searching for anything that would surprise her, anything that would be out of place. All the windows were blank slates. At the back of the house, she found a window on the second floor open, letting in the cool evening air. A thin, young apple tree reached up and its branches and leaves brushed against the side of the house just below the window.
She slipped off her boots and went up the tree, the rough bark familiar against her palms and soles. The branches bowed under her light weight, and for a moment she found again the aroma of life, the sweet buds, but the branch dipped away from the window, and she only had a second to reach up and grab the ledge. She braced her feet against the wall and peered into the dark hallway beyond. She hung long enough to ensure that nothing in the hall moved, and then she pulled herself up.
The house made none of the sounds of the trees from which it had come. The air hung motionless. Beneath Lomi’s feet was burgundy carpet, softer than any moss or bed of leaves. For a moment, crouched in darkness, surrounded by silence and stillness, Lomi thought her mind might break. Her life had been so full of sound – the jungle had never possessed silence, had never had a moment of lifelessness, even in the depths of winter. All of it seemed far away. Stones cut from their mountains and shaved down into uniform bricks. Trees reduced to boards. Nature packed into gardens, plants ordained to rows and encased in fences. All of the rigid order that had unfolded as she and Si had fled finally filled the crevices in her mind like water and flash froze. The ice expanded, and she felt fissures spread throughout her. She felt like she needed to vomit, but there was nothing in her torso except air, and that had suddenly compressed, making her ribs strain to keep her from imploding.
Lomi reached behind her and drew the dagger from its leather sheath. The dead wood of the handle was rough against her palm. She imagined metal, the steel of the blade that would change the course of her life. Her mind filled with the scrape of metal against stone, and she let it drown out the memories and fill the empty spaces as reinforcement against the pressure.
Keeping on the balls of her feet, Lomi crept down the hall, one hand gliding along the wall. When she found doors, she opened them and peered into the darkness beyond. Most rooms smelled heavily of dust, and she eased the doors shut again and continued on. The moonlight entered in partitioned shafts through the windows. She clung to the walls to prevent the light from touching her.
She rounded a corner, and at the far end of the hall there was a faint flicker of orange light along the floor. Lomi held her breath and moved toward it, her cloak gathered in her empty hand to keep it from whispering about her ankles, across carpet. The line of light came from under a door, barely more than a dying firefly’s fading illumination. Lomi lingered outside the door and listened. Faintly she could hear the crisp turning of parchment. She closed her eyes and imagined the scene on the other side of the door. A man sitting by a series of lit candles, reading an ancient book. She could picture the table, the candles, the book, but the man possessed a blank face. Nothing about him she could visualize, and, the harder she tried, the more his face receded into deep shadows, something that bent light around it.
Time slowed. Lomi let her mind fill with a metallic cacophony that prevented her from wondering. Gone were the memories of the forest, of trying to imagine the man on the other side of the door. She receded into pure sensation until she could hear the flicker of candle flames from the room, the faint rustle of the tree outside in a stray, soft wind. There were no other sounds of movement in the house except for the intermittent crackle of moving parchment.
Lomi didn’t know how long she crouched there, but a sudden sound drew her back out of her timeless waiting. A padding of feet across carpet. The light coming from under the door moved about. A slight groan of a wooden bed frame. The light vanished. Lomi continued crouching, her heart slow, her blood as sluggish as tree sap in winter. She waited.
Finally, she reached up and twisted the door handle. She moved it slowly and eased the door open. Keeping low, she entered the room. It was small, with a bed, desk, chair, and fireplace. One window let in silvery light. She crept to the edge of the bed and rose up so she could see the scene before her.
The man was young. His face had none of the creases of old age. He had lived a fraction of the time that she had, that Si had. His face was relaxed and peaceful in his repose. And, on the other side of the bed, a young woman lay on her side, her back to him, her auburn hair splayed across the pillows.
The cracked and fractured bits of Lomi’s mind met. The sound of metal vanished. She saw into the future, the unraveling of moments rippling out from her. A young wife, a murdered husband. She could imagine the mob coming, pleas of innocence falling on deaf ears. Lomi could see the fire, she could see the ropes and the thick cords of wood piled about her feet. She had seen many burned for less in the fervor of pleasing the church and destroying all remnants of the old world that were considered lies and heresy. She knew that her blade would take one life instantly and damn another to a much slower, more torturous death.
She could hear Si as clearly as if he were right beside her. She could hear his voice pleading with her to turn around and leave the house; to scramble back down the tree and return, and they would flee. They would flee from the cities and back into the forests and wilds that still lingered on the fringes of society.
But she knew that it would only be time before the spread of men and their cities reached them again. She still had many years ahead of her and Si could possibly have as many. She would not become complacent in a peaceful life again only to have it ripped from her; to be forced to stand by and watch it burn.
Her fingers pressed against the man’s mouth. His eyes opened, but the dagger was already across his throat. Blood rushed onto the pillow and spattered across the floor and against her trousers.
Let that woman sort her own life, Lomi thought. Let her spend years running and cowering. I will no longer run. Cower.
She wiped the dagger on the collar of the man’s bedclothes. She looked at the woman to see if her husband’s death would draw her from her deep sleep. The woman did not move. To Lomi, she was already dead, but to be safe, Lomi crept low and slow from the room. In the hall, she returned to the window, dropped into the tree, and scurried back down to her boots.
Across the street, she saw that the shadow was watching. She waited, watching it in return, until it turned and vanished. The finality of her decision tried to reach her. But she turned away from it and walked down the street, no longer fearing who saw her.
Michael Kellichner is a poet and writer from Pennsylvania who spends most of his time living and teaching in South Korea. Another short story of his can be found in Black Denim Lit and a poem can be found in Farrago’s Wainscot.