- Andrew M. Trauger
Book Two: Epilogue
“What now?” Mason Rutland surveyed the gloaming mists of Tenebrae. Nothing had changed since the soaring melancholic note ushered shock waves through the umbral landscape, obliterating three Grotesques as it passed. It had also prevented him from leaving the shadow world. He could see no connection or cause, but the timing could not be coincidental.
Katrina Vatterly, merely a shimmering visage in Rutland’s blindfolded sight, paced nearby with an escalating furor. “I can’t stay here, Mason. I can’t be here! I’ll die. You must let me go.”
Rutland frowned at her. “I done told ya I didn’t trap ya in here. I dunno what happened, tell the truth.” One moment he was nearing the castle in Cer Cannaid, preparing to warn Elric and his freeblades of an imminent threat. The next moment the image of this woman appeared, and they could no longer leave the shadowy realm.
Katrina flailed about, her pacing reaching frenetic levels. “You saw what they did to me.”
“Well, they got me, too.”
“Don’t be like that, Mason. In the real world, they rip your skin off. Here, they consume you. You die here, you become one of them. You become a Grotesque.” She growled. “And that is not going to happen to me. I gave my life to the All-Father; this isn’t supposed to happen!”
Crackling bolts of lightning ripped from her fingertips, fizzling into nothing within a few feet of her. “Nine Hells! Everything is useless!” Her muted screams coated the surrounding shadows like morning dew, heavy and cold. At last, she stopped and returned to stare him in the face. “I’m freezing.”
At this proximity, he thought he could make out a few of her facial scars, gruesome reminders of her struggle with the Grotesque that had nearly killed him. “I’m sorry, Kavee.”
“No, I’m literally freezing. Don’t you feel it? Life can’t exist here. Tenebrae consumes the soul.”
“Then I reckon ya shouldn’t scream so much. Kinda invitin’ the wrong attention. An’ ya look—I dunno—yer spreadin’ yerself out too thin, ya look like a butter on a hot biscuit.”
Katrina stared at him. “Can you…?” She paused, regarding him. “Is that a strange backwater idiom, or can you actually see that?”
Rutland shrugged. “Looks purty obvious to me. But I see a lot of weird stuff in this place. I mean…you normally look like a walkin’ pile of black yarn.”
“So do you. That’s because we don’t belong here.”
“Oh…what about the ground? It looks like a stagnant pond.”
“No, that’s different; it should be a dim, grayed version of the real.”
“Well, that’s how it looks to me.”
Katrina’s form shivered. “Can you see any shadows? I should be able to discern shadows in the real world, but they’re gone. Even if it were nightfall, there would be moon shadows, lamplight shadows…something we could walk through.”
Rutland looked around. “Naw, I got nothin’ there. But they was jis right here a minute ago. I even tried takin’ off my blindfold, but that jis blinded me. Ain’t that the dumbest thang?”
Katrina wheeled on him. “What did you say?”
“I said takin’ off this ‘ere blindfold makes me blind. Weird, huh?”
“Yeah. I used t’could put it on and shadow walk, like you can. An’ then takin’ it off would—”
“Where’d you get that?” It was more demand than question.
Rutland caught the anger flaring in her voice. He paused before answering. “Off a dead assassin.”
“Yeah. Nearly white hair.”
Katrina looked away. “Adella.” She turned back to Rutland, her yarn-like face a swirl of hatred. “Did you kill her?”
“Nope. El—” He paused. “—if I know who did it.” Elric was his best friend; he would not expose him.
Katrina resumed pacing. “Adella was a Skaen Sister, and one of the few who commanded an item like that. How did you learn to use it?”
“With a whole lot o’ throwin’ up.”
A flash of icy blue—the only color in a sea of muted grays—sped from Katrina’s outstretched hand in the form of a coruscating ball of energy. “None of this makes any sense.” The energy ball sailed without sound far into the shadowed mists, illumining a narrow path out to the horizon and revealing crude representations of buildings, rocks, and trees in the real world within its radius. As the light faded from view, multiple sets of glimmering white eyes pierced the intermediate darkness like stars in the night sky.
“Um…Kavee?” Rutland scanned the area. They were surrounded. “Izzat more o’ them Grostesques?”
“Cripe. How many of them thangs are there?”
“Thousands of Grotesques roam this world. Maybe millions…soul-stealers every one. We’ve been here too long. They’ll multiply until we are dead, until we become like them.” Katrina stepped to Rutland’s side and launched a volley of icy blue energy bolts into the creatures. Several of the white eyes disappeared in an explosion of shadowy tendrils. The empty gap filled with many more.
“Run,” she yelled. “Run!”
Rutland held his stance.
Katrina grabbed his arm and pulled. “What are you doing?” she shrieked.
“Makes no difference if we die here or over yonder. But I don’t wanna spend my last moments runnin’ like a madman.”
Katrina’s eyes bugged. “You fool! They’ll rip you to shreds!”
“No, I don’t reckon they will.” Rutland held out a hand. “They obeyed me before; I figger they’ll do it again. But they might rip you to shreds. C’mere.”
The circle of white eyes drew closer, compressing the radius around them. Bodily forms became clearer, distinct dark blotches against the charcoal horizon.
She regarded his hand but did not take it. “You commanded a handful before, not an entire horde.”
Rutland raised an eyebrow. “An’ you nearly died when jis one of ‘em attacked ya. Ain’t no way yer gonna fend off the whole bunch, an’ ya shore ain’t gonna outrun ‘em. Now, get on over here. If we die, we die together, standin’ our ground.”
Fear and hatred radiated from Katrina like heat off a furnace. “You do not serve the All-Father; how can you control them at all? Are you a Shadow Lord?”
Rutland shrugged. “I dunno…I guess we’ll see.” He lowered his head and stretched out both hands. “Stop!” Waves of shadow spread from him, rippling away and cascading over the encroaching circle of Grotesques. They halted and waited with patient expectation, and Rutland peered up at Katrina with a sideways grin. “I reckon mebbe I am.”
Again, he extended a hand to Katrina, but she recoiled from it. “I…I cannot accept this. I cannot accept that the All-Father has given the secrets of shadow to a man. This isn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.”
“Who says it’s the end?”
Katrina rushed into the midst of the shadowy forms. Tendrils of gray mist swirled around her, hovering a hair’s breadth from her skin, salivating with each slithering eddy around arms, legs, neck…Katrina closed her eyes. “I do. I have failed.”
Rutland frowned at her, confused by her choice. “Ya…ya don’t wanna rule this place…with me?”
Katrina lowered her head and opened her arms in surrender. Mists of Tenebrae enveloped her, occluding her form.
Rutland surveyed the hungry creatures; he could feel their insatiable cravings for living souls. He swept his hands across the hazy horizon. “Stay!” The looming horde paused and waited. Rutland waved his hand across Katrina’s enshrouded body. “Be gone!”
The mists fled, leaving Katrina standing alone and free of a consuming death. She raised her head as Rutland approached, her eyes burning with the oil of hatred floating atop waters of intrigue. “What are you doing?” Her breath smoked with fury. “I’m giving myself up.”
Rutland held out his hand yet again, his determined gaze staring across his fingertips and straight into her eyes. “Rule with me. If I’m gonna be the shadow lord, then you can be my lady.”
Her eyes narrowed with indignation. “This is the worst possible moment you could have chosen to woo me.”
Rutland pulled his hand back as if touching fire. “What? I wasn’t—”
“I will never marry you, make love to you, or even think about forming a relationship with you. If you so much as try to hold my hand, I will kill you.” Katrina jabbed an angry finger at him. “Is that clear?”
“Cripe,” Rutland muttered. “I ain’t tryin’ to kiss ya or bed ya or nothin’ like that. But yer gonna die here without me, an’ I don’ wanna see that happen.” He folded his arms and raised an eyebrow at her. “I’m tryin’ to save yer rinkin life, so sit down and shut up, woman.”
Katrina’s body shuddered with a ripple of shadow that washed over her like a gray waterfall. She sat at Rutland’s feet and said not another word, her head bowed and her eyes averted.
A pair of Grotesques, larger than the others, glided to either side of him and knelt, their silent forms pledging fealty. Thousands of similar but smaller forms around them also knelt in quiet obsequence.
Rutland surveyed a horizon teeming with shadowy servants. A spiteful but submissive woman sat quietly before him. Two guardians of shadow flanked him. Slowly but with swelling clarity, the truth dawned on him. He was the Shadow Lord.
“Huh…” he said.