Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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Darkhall

by McCamy Taylor


9,282 AD SOS

Hilda kissed her two children, and then she shut off the life supports. Since this was deep space, they felt the cold before they sensed the loss of oxygen. The baby began to cry. Her son clutched her arm.

"Mama?"

Silence.

The Lucille Sanatana was a single cabin space craft designed for interplanetary travel in galaxies with an unusually high concentration of dark matter, where traditional propulsion systems tended to fail. Originally, it was used by a postal delivery service, which employed artificial couriers. After it was sold to a farming cooperative, the new owners had installed a rudimentary life support system, but there was no fail safe, and the ship carried no sensors to monitor the health of its passengers.

There were few amenities in the cabin, no furniture, no food processors, no lights except for the dull glow cast by the control panel. The floor was uncarpeted. Hilda slumped against the wall and slid to the ground. In her hand, she held a holo of a dark haired young man dressed in military uniform. Each time she looked at the image, she sobbed.

Orion climbed onto his mother's lap. He was used to her moods. Everything would be better once his father came home from the wars. Yuu's smile was infectious. No one could stay sad long in the big man's presence.

So cold. "Mama, are we almost there?"

Hilda's lips were blue. "Almost."

"And Daddy will be there?"

"Yes, honey. Your father will be there."

Orion searched his mother's face. The corners of her mouth drooped. Tears trickled down her cheeks. His own eyes began to prickle, and his stomach twisted in knots.

"Mama?" Orion shook Hilda's shoulder.

No response.

Overcome by the freezing cold, the baby had finally stopped crying. It shivered like a wet puppy in its mother's slack arms.

"Mama!" the boy said shrilly. "It's cold!"

Still no answer. His mother was staring out at space. The boy followed her gaze. The stars were gone. Darkness surrounded them.

Orion was a precocious five year old. He knew that there were two kinds of space, one that was full of stars -- stars which made light and warmth and life -- and another that was always dark. If travelers were very, very careful, they could sail in the second kind of space, but only in special ships.

His favorite cartoon was Dark Energy Raiders about a band of adventurers searching for the legendary Heart of Light. The jewel would allow them to escape from the Darkhall, an area of dark space where the evil AI, Moriton had trapped them. The Dark Energy Raiders sailed in a ship called Mother, whose supercomputer appeared in the form of a beautiful woman with long blue hair and luminous white skin. Mother looked a little bit like his own mother, and the white haired captain, Siva Chin, was a big, laughing man like his father.

Was Yuu somewhere in dark space, waiting for them? Was he trapped there, like the Dark Energy Raiders? Orion pressed his nose against the flexiglass window, searching the darkness for any sign of life, but he saw only the reflection of the interior of their ship, shadowy and soft around the edges as his breath condensed on the glass. His sister was no longer shivering. The frown had faded from Hilda's face. She always seemed more happy when she was asleep, and her son hesitated to wake her. But something had to be done. Though he was too young to understand death, he knew that cold was dangerous.

Orion turned his attention to the computer console. One of these buttons would turn the heat back on. He had been taught never, ever to touch the controls of a space ship, but the cold was almost more than he could bear. He studied the symbols on the illuminated controls and recognized one of them. SOS. He laid his finger against the red switch. One nervous glance over his shoulder reassured him that his mother was still asleep and therefore unlikely to notice what he was doing. He pushed the control. Then, overcome by the cold, he fell asleep with his small, dark head lying on the console.

The space craft Lucille Sanatana ejected a beacon. Dark at first, it burst into light as it reached the edge of normal space. Encoded within the capsule was the last known position and trajectory of the ship.

69,980 BC Storms

Six years after the coming of Rudra, Lord of Storms, He Whose Roar Shakes the Earth and Fills the Sky With Darkness, the sun still had not returned. The fields were bare, and the trees were leafless. The earth was covered in several feet of a cold, white powder -- the People had no word for snow. The rain, when it came, was dirty. It made the eyes and throat sting, and it burned the skin like fire. Sometimes, shards of ice fell from the black clouds. The moon and stars seemed like a distant, half forgotten dream.

Though Lord Rudra's curse brought starvation and cold to everyone, it affected the children most of all. Those born since His coming had short, twisted limbs that could hardly hold their weight. Their backs grew crooked, and their broken bones did not heal. None of them was strong enough to hold a spear or fast enough to chase the shaggy deer which fed on moss and lichen, the only greenery that the blighted land still produced.

Six years after the sun fled, the People were on the verge of extinction. Without a new generation of hunters, they would eventually starve to death. A council was called. After hours of fruitless discussion, the village elder raised her hand.

"The Lord of Storms is not always vengeful," she began. "He has been merciful to the Yama."

The Yama were the ghost pale clan which dwelled in the mountain caves that were the source of the local hot springs. Unable to tolerate the sunlight, they lived off meal worms, fish, mushrooms, algae and what prey they could catch after dark. Being weak and timid, they were mostly ignored by their neighbors. However, since the sun had fled, they had become more bold. They now left their caves for days at a time, to search for flint, quartz , wood and other materials to make tools. Their children, though hideously pale, had long, straight limbs. They ran and played as they liked, without fear of broken bones. Sometimes, they even mingled with the People. Though the Yama had a reputation for being sorcerers, the young ones seemed innocent enough.

"If we steal the Yama's children and raise them as our own, we can survive."

"But the Yama are cursed," objected one of the other women.

"Not by R -- not by the Lord of Storms." The name "Rudra" was never uttered aloud, for fear that the God would take this as a summons and send more destruction. "And this is His era."

"How do we take their children? The Yama have weapons now. They're not afraid to leave their caves."

The old woman shrugged. "We will hold a feast and invite the Yama. The food we give them will be poisoned. With their parents dead, the children will have no choice but to live with us."

Three days later, the People carried out the old woman's plan. Those visitors who did not succumb to the poison were quietly strangled. Only the children were spared.

At first, the bone white Yama young were frightened. But, as the years passed, they began to love their adoptive parents, for the People raised them as if they were their own. They taught them to hunt and fight. They showed them that there was a world outside the caves, a vast world without limits, where a child could become anything he wanted to be. They forgot their natural parents' warnings about the killing ball of light called "the sun", which was deadly to their kind. Few of them had ever seen this "sun", and the memory was so distant that it seemed a dream.

The Yama children became the next generation of hunters. The People's own youngsters, those whose backs and limbs were twisted, were set to work in the caves, gathering fish and other edibles, crafting tools and clothes. As time passed and the shaggy deer became harder to find, the People began to rely more and more upon the hot springs for their sustenance.

In this way, the People survived the time of Rudra, Lord of Storms.

9998 AD Survivor

Everyone loved a survivor. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. The silver lining in the storm clouds. Light at the end of the tunnel. Orion knew all the clichés, because they had all been applied to him. He had had his fifteen minutes of fame and more, and he was sick of it. All he wanted was to die. Again.

The archeological team that recovered the Lucille Sanatana seven hundred years after it went missing was expecting to find an android pilot. Instead, they stumbled across a young mother and two children, victims of the cold.

They could not declare the family dead -- and therefore, fit for forensic examination -- until they warmed the bodies up to 34 C. At 32 degrees, the boy's brain waves kicked in. By 35, his heart was beating. At 37, he opened his eyes and began babbling in some made up language all his own. He had to relearn English.

And now, they wanted him to return to dark space. Why? Because some probe recorded a voice speaking gibberish, and they thought it was the same as Orion's gibberish, though how could they know? Even if the computers said that the two languages sound similar, if they didn't know what the words meant, how could they know anything?

Fifteen years after his "rescue", Orion was still struggling to understand the concept of knowledge. He knew that there was a kind of collective wisdom, which said things like Fire burns and Water is wet. He understood that the more times you heard a truism, the truer it was supposed to be. However, there was a chasm, as wide as the universe, between what he understood and what he knew.

Understanding told him that all living things died and disappeared. However, he knew that ghosts walked the corridors of the orbiting colony, Neo Kashi, and the spirits of the dead had truisms of their own. He understood that human thoughts were private things, and yet, from time to time, he knew what other people were thinking. The archeologists who had found him claimed that the past was something finished, complete, a message carved in stone. But how could that be, when the past was all around him, like pi ying xi, shadow plays flickering against the mirror of his consciousness?

The first time they asked him to return to dark space, he said "Drop dead."

The second time they approached him, he considered his answer for a moment before replying "Look, I don't think my head's in a good place right now." Even as he uttered the words, he knew that there would be a third time, and that his next answer would be different, though he did not understand why, until he met the big man who called himself Yuu.

Orion was sitting beside the reflection pool in the hospital recreation room. He found the play of light and shadow on the water soothing. Here was something unambiguous, something that made no claims, a thing that was purely itself without a lot of plastered on "wisdom."

A shadow fell across the water. Orion glanced up. The black haired man who stood before him was unusually tall. Space colonies were populated by short, compact people, who took up less room and used less oxygen. Compared to them, this man was a giant.

"Orion," the big man said. His broad, Asiatic face split in a grin, which almost swallowed up his dark eyes.

Something about the voice, soft but deep stirred the muddy depths of Orion's memory. He recalled a giant of a man, with big hands that were always gentle. He remembered what it felt like to fly through the air, the slightly sickening feeling in his stomach as ascent turned to descent, and then the reassuring strength of the arms that caught him in mid fall. That memory lead to another. A woman's freckled face surrounded by soft auburn hair, smiling down at him. He recalled the smell of his favorite childhood toy, a miniature rocket shop and the softness of his pillow beneath his head and the way that cayenne pepper made his eyes water and his nose tickle --

Dr. Abuu appeared beside the big man. "This is your father, Yuu. Do you remember him?"

Orion blinked. "My father died centuries ago. He was killed during the evacuation of Helcion 7." He had heard this so many times, that he recognized it as part of the collective wisdom. Was the doctor trying to trick him?

"Well, yes, I suppose you're right." The short, balding doctor twiddled with the controls of his med-scan. It was one of his nervous habits. " What I meant to say is this is your father's clone. His twelfth generation clone. He's part of the team that's going to explore dark space. He wants you to come with him. Don't you want to see for yourself what's out there?"

Orion could not have cared less what was "out there", as the doctor phrased it. He was much more intrigued by what was within him, these things which he recognized as memories. The man called Yuu was the trigger. Something about his voice, his presence made the world seem solid and true.

"Yes," Orion replied. For the first time since his rescue, he smiled. "I want to see it for myself."

69,994 BC Shadows, Part I

Sarvaya wore the pelt of a white wolf. With his bone white skin and hair, he was almost invisible against the bleak snow covered plain. His adopted father, Arvam, was darker than the storm clouds overhead. However, they might have been brothers, they were so alike, from the way they walked to the set of their shoulders to the way they held their spears. When a boar leapt out from behind a nearby tree stump, they raised their weapons as one and brought the beast down together. Arvam grabbed the animal's head, and his son plunged a stone dagger into its throat.

A fountain of warm blood sprayed over them. The crimson stains on Sarvaya's pale face were the same color as his eyes. When standing in the snow, he seemed to disappear, and only his eyes remained, red as fire.

For a moment, Arvam remembered that his son was Yama. Yama, the people of night. Shape shifters, sorcerers, boogey men to frighten children. When he was young, his mother told him "Never look a Yama in the eye. They can turn your soul to dust. And if they open their third eye -- " She pointed to her forehead. "Their gaze can set the world on fire."

Arvam was ashamed of his fear. Sarvaya was a good son, a hard worker and a skillful hunter. And he was one of Rudra's chosen --

"Papa, look at that." Sarvaya pointed towards a dark stain on the snow, dull grey like charcoal.

The older hunter peered ahead. It took him several minutes to understand that his son was pointing at their shadows, two long, dark blurs that stretched before them like tree trunks. "You've seen shadows before."

Sarvaya shook his white head. "Only by firelight."

Arvam felt a premonition, a tingling of the skin on the back of his neck. Even before he glanced over his shoulder, he knew what he would see.

There, in the distance, peering through a veil of clouds, was the face of the sun, small, dim, a mere white disc of light but dazzling to eyes that had grown accustomed to darkness.

Sarvaya stared. "What's that?"

Change thought the old hunter. It's change. His eyes fell on his son. Sarvaya's pale face was unusually flushed. Premonition crept over Arvam again, this time twisting his stomach in knots. Light and shadows, life and death. If only the world would stop moving, for just a moment, so that he could get his bearings. But the ways of Rudra, Lord of Storms, were mysterious beyond human comprehension.

9999 AD Shadows, Part 2

Orion opened his eyes. The cryogenic sleep capsule was gone. The ship was gone. Even the stars had vanished. He hung suspended in space so completely dark that he could not see his hand in front of his face. The air was neither cold nor hot. Though his mouth was dry and empty, he tasted the color orange --

Not the fruit. The color. But that was impossible. Orange did not have a taste. It was a color. And there could be no colors without light. What was this place? Was he dead? Dreaming?

Sometime later, he heard the sound of warmth. His conscious mind rebelled. Temperature was sensed by the skin, not the ears. However, some primitive reflex -- or was it a distant memory? -- set him on his feet, walking towards the source of the heat. He moved as if through water. The darkness coalesced into shadows that he could see even though his eyes perceived no contrasting light.

His sense of time was distorted. He tried counting silently, and sometimes the numbers would come one after the other. One, two, three.... Other times, he would find himself walking for what seemed like miles between two digits. Or, he would suddenly skip ahead. Two hundred- sixteen ... one thousand-eleven with no idea what had happened to all the numbers in between.

Around twenty-seven thousand, he saw his first human face, as pale as frost. The mouth opened as if to speak, but instead of sound, he sensed a tingling on the back of his neck which whispered to him

Welcome to the Darkhall.

Not in English, nor in any other recognizable human tongue, but he understood the meaning of the words. He was about to reply, when he remembered his instructions.

"Your job is simple," Sonda had said as they climbed into their cryogenic capsules. "Listen closely, and keep your mouth shut."

A translator. A secret translator who could understand what the ghostly pale inhabitants of the Darkhall said to each other in their private conversations. That was why they needed him. Because the nonsense language he spoke after his rescue -- deprivation autistic neologism the doctors had called it -- was not nonsense after all. Three of twelve psionic probes which had been launched into dark space had recorded proto-Indo-European communications. These were fed into the central language databank and a match was found --

Time seemed to take one of its enormous leaps forward, and with it, the world around him became less amorphous, more concrete. Orion sat at the far end of a gleaming black table, his eyes lowered, his hands folded on his lap. He had learned to avoid looking at the shadows, for they were constantly in motion, often reflecting the fears and desires of whoever was watching them.

"Tell the Prince we can get him all the data he wants," said the chief negotiator, Sawali Sonda. "Historic, scientific -- it's all his, if he will allow us to build an information highway through dark space." A descendent of solar wind miners, her blue-black skin had been genetically engineered to filter out harmful ultraviolet rays. In the darkness, she was little more than a pair of eyes and an occasional flash of teeth.

Beside her sat Yuu, the purported leader of the expedition. Bored, he played with a shadow which took the shape of an angelfish, swimming back and forth between his hands.

Next to Yuu was the physicist, Marlock. For some reason, he was the only one who did not materialize in his human form when the party woke from cryogenic sleep. His voice could he heard clearly enough, when he chose to speak. But where the man should have been, there was only a blur, a kind of muddy grey twilight.

None of them seemed as solid as their host, who called himself Prince Siva. Perhaps, it was the extreme whiteness of his skin and hair that made him stand out in the darkness like a beacon. He sat in a carved ebony throne at the head of the table, his chin in his hand. The interpreter, a vaguely human shaped rock golem covered in tattered bits of glowing moss, was translating Sonda's message. The Prince looked bored. Words were exchanged. Gibberish to the other visitors, their meaning was clear to Orion.

"I'm tired of these games. It's time to get rid of our guests. Is the poison ready?"

"Yes, Lord." The words came from the shadows in the corner. The darkness coalesced into the form of a young woman almost as pale as the Prince. She was dressed in the style of 18th century France, with a low cut bodice and a wide skirt that trailed the ground. Her hair was piled on top of her head, with a single blonde curl on the back of her lily white neck. A red velvet ribbon encircled her throat. Or was that blood? As she neared the table, a tray carrying five small porcelain cups appeared in her hands. She placed one cup before the Prince and then circled the table, serving the guests.

The Prince's eyes glittered. Ruby red, they were one of the few bits of color in the Darkhall. He toyed with his cup. "Tell them to drink up," he said to the golem.

Yuu raised his cup to his lips.

"Don't!" Orion said quickly. "It's poison!"

The silence was broken by laughter. Prince Siva leaned across the table and took the cup from Yuu's hand. Smiling broadly, he raised it to his lips and drank. "Haven't you realized by now that no one ever dies in the Dark Hall?" He spoke in his own language. His eyes were fixed on Orion's face. The smile vanished. Sternly, "Tell the others they're dismissed. You stay."

Time lurched again, backwards this time. Orion and Yuu sat side by side on a bench in one of the Darkhall "gardens", where shadows took the form of willow trees bending over a river. Overhead, giant dragonflies circled. In the distance, dinosaurs grazed beside blue whales. The bottle nosed dolphin, which had been chattering to them in its own tongue, abruptly turned tail and swam away.

Orion traced a pattern in the air with his finger and a butterfly appeared. It fluttered around his head, before alighting on his forearm. Folding its wings together, it began to sing. The sound appeared as blue-grey bubbles which floated up through the air and disappeared in the low lying, storm grey clouds.

"All my life, they told me I was crazy," Orion confided. "I used to dream about a place like this. A world where the shadows were alive. Where fish swam in the air and animals could talk. They called my memories hallucinations."

The big man nodded understandingly. "When I was little, I could tell when people were angry or sad by the color of their auras. When they lied, I would hear a buzzing sound, like bees in a hive, here -- " He touched the back of his own head. "I'm an empath, you see. That's why they keep cloning me, even though I'm so ridiculously tall."

An empath. That explained why Yuu always seemed to know the right thing to say or do to put Orion at ease. "So they sent you -- your previous self, I mean -- to Helcion 7..."

"To negotiate peace." Yuu hung his head. "But the negotiations failed, and the two sides ended up bombing each other, and that's how I died. The first time."

Orion had a dim recollection of a freckled woman with auburn hair a few shades lighter than his own. She was weeping over a holo. The man in the image was dark, with Asiatic features and so lifelike that it seemed that at any moment he would step out of the holo and become real. The memory was painful. Orion forced it from his thoughts, and time lurched again --

The Prince was speaking to him in the language of the Darkhall. "You don't remember me, do you?"

"Should I?"

They were alone in a room where the shadows had an almost solid appearance. A desk stood in the corner. It was littered with scrolls. A low table in the center of the room was surrounded by cushions. Orion could feel the plush fabric and soft stuffing as he sat down. The air smelled of jasmine incense. A fan overhead slowly drifted back and forth, creating a gentle, cooling breeze.

"You were here for a very long time," the Prince said.

"Seven centuries, I know." Marlock believed that psionic ability inherited from his father -- they both had unusually large right brain language centers -- combined with his extended exposure to the Darkhall explained his ability to understand and speak the language of this place.

His answer appeared to amuse his host. "That's how long your body was frozen and lost in dark space. You -- " He leaned forward and touched the tip of one bone white finger to Orion's forehead. " -- were here much, much longer than that."

He felt the Prince's touch as gnawing hunger in his belly, even though he had not needed or wanted food since his arrival in the Darkhall. The sensation startled him, and he jerked backwards. "H--how long?"

"You really don't remember?"

Orion found the Prince's evasions annoying. "Just tell me!"

"Seven hundred centuries."

Had Orion heard him correctly? "But that's impossible. Humans have only been in space for -- "

"You don't need a space ship to reach the Darkhall. All you have to do is cross the threshold between life and death."

Time jumped again. Orion and the Prince stood in the doorway of an enormous mansion. The building had a smooth, black face which seemed to fill the sky. Its windows glittered like stars, some bright, some dim, some white, a few yellow or red.

"After you," the Prince said. Today, he was dressed in red, a color that emphasized the pallor of his skin. A white tiger, long extinct on earth, walked beside him. The beast's eyes were pale blue. As its gaze met Orion's, its tail began to twitch, and it raised one paw as if to swat at him, but the Prince growled, and the beast lowered its head.

Orion was more afraid of the mansion than he was of the tiger. The portal was made of shadows that twisted and turned, forming shape after shape -- human faces distorted in pain and rage, red hot lava falls, tornados, blades that whirled and sliced, battlefield drenched in blood.

"Wh -- what is this place?" he asked, to buy himself time.

"You would call it a mortuary. We refer to it as the library. Each room was built by a soul that passed through the Darkhall on its way to rebirth. Don't you want to remember your childhood? It's here." Prince Siva laid his palm against the smooth, black stone. Colors radiated from his fingertips, blue, green, red and other shades that Orion had no name for, because they did not exist in the real world. "Billions of life stories. You could walk these halls from one end of time to the other and never experience them all."

Library? Suddenly, Orion understood Sonda's promise. When she said "data" she meant human lives, human memories. The people she represented were willing to murder in order to create communications links between sectors of the galaxy that were light years apart. No more autonomous republics. Everything that happened could be monitored -- and controlled -- from a central location.

"No!" Orion protested. "No! I won't -- !" But even as he ran from the mansion, he knew that he would eventually come back here. Indeed, he had already been here, already seen what the place had to show him, for time in the Darkhall did not run forward, like a river flowing down a mountainside. In dark space, time was an ocean on which you could sail back and forth, and somewhere on that endless ocean, he was opening a door --

And Hilda smiled up at her tall, handsome husband. So proud and happy to be standing beside him before the altar where the people of her farming cooperative spoke their marriage vows. Her joy was fixed in amber, bright and burning for all time, her final moments of despair completely erased, except around the edges where it formed a dark border which made her happiness all the more intense --

Orion closed the door and moved to the next room.

A confusing jumble of impressions, warmth, light, a heartbeat as loud as a drum sounding against his ear, intense feeling in his lips, tongues and fingers, as if his mouth and hands had grown to a gigantic size while the rest of his body had grown much, much smaller --

His baby sister. Thank heaven she did not remember her death from cold. The next room should be his own. However, when he stepped inside, he found --

A world where people's hearts were laid bare, where their joy became his own joy and their sorrow his own sadness. So many people. He recognized his mother and his childhood self and his infant sister. A vast room, one he could examine for years without ever getting bored. But what was that in the corner? Why was everything awash in red, as if someone had thrown a bucket of blood? Why did his flesh crawl? What was that awful stench? Death. It was death. But not a single death. Not a gentle closing of the eyes and a whispered farewell. This was death on a colossal scale. Helcion 7, the raging inferno where millions died --

Orion had no pulse in the Darkhall, but if he had, his heart would have been pounding. He escaped from his father's room and moved to the next --

Again, he found a world of human emotion, which ended in a blood bath. This time, a freighter bound for the outer rim of the galaxy. The passengers, colonists who planned to start their own republic, suddenly turned upon each other and themselves --

And so it continued, door after door each revealing the same bitter end. Eleven different lifetimes in which Yuu or one of his clones died in the midst of widespread violence.

Trembling, Orion turned to the Prince. "What does it mean?"

"Can't you guess?"

"Just tell me!"

Gently, "Your father is no mere empath. He's an empathic assassin. That's why they keep bringing him back to life. If he dies, everyone around him dies. Sometimes they kill each other. More often, they simply drop dead. Whenever the military of your world wants to commit genocide without leaving fingerprints, they feed him a slow acting poison and then send him in as a ‘negotiator.'"

If Orion had possessed a body with a stomach, he would have vomited. It was almost too horrible to imagine. His gentle, kind father an assassin -- !"Does he know?"

"What do you think?"

No. No, of course not! If Yuu suspected the truth, he would have gone into deep space alone and killed himself. He was an empath. How awful it must have been for him to feel his own death throes echoed all around him, the fear and pain amplified a million times. "I have to tell him." He turned to leave, but the Prince caught his arm.

"Why? So he can agonize over the misery that he's caused? In a few more years, there will be an accident in the lab where his clones are grown. One of them will become infected with a lethal virus and die in a matter of hours, taking his siblings with him. That will be the end of Yuu's genome."

"What about this Yuu, Yuu number 12? The man in cryogenic sleep. What happens when he gets back to civilization?"

The Prince laughed. "What makes you think that he -- or any of you, for that matter -- is going back? Yuu doesn't survive cryo sleep. He dies -- and so, all of you die. Though for you it isn't so much a death as a homecoming." He propelled Orion forward, through the next door. "I think this is what you've been looking for..."

69,999 BC Savior

Saryava pounded his fists against the rock until they were bruised and bloody, but he could not shift the boulder which blocked the entrance to the cave. Behind him, the others cried. Some screamed, desperate pleas for help. If anyone outside heard, they did not reply. Except for their own voices, echoing off the high walls of the cavern, there was no sound at all, not even the trickle of water. This was one of the few dry caves within the mountain. No food grew here, no mushrooms, no sightless fish. If they did not find a way out, they were all doomed to die of thirst and starvation.

"Help!"

"Please! Let us out!"

"No one's going to help us!" the hunter snarled. At twenty, Saryava was at the peak of his strength, and his present powerlessness both terrified and enraged him. In the flickering light of the last remaining torch, his features were twisted so as to be almost unrecognizable. "Their precious sun has returned, so they don't need us anymore."

How easily they had been lured into the trap. Despite the ravages of the burning disc of fire which was called the "sun", the Yama were still the most skilled and powerful warriors within the clan. In direct combat, they would have prevailed easily. And so, the People has lured them here and fed them poppy laced milk. The Yama had slept like newborn babies as their tomb was sealed.

A single lighted torch had been left behind. Perhaps their murderers meant to be merciful. Waking up in pitch darkness, they would have stumbled around, falling over rocks, breaking their bones and maybe even their necks, for there were deep fissures in the rocky floor of the cavern.

"Why?" demanded one of the Yama women. Her hands were wrapped protectively around her swollen, pregnant belly. "Why would they do this?"

The question was echoed all around the cavern, but no one had an answer. The hours passed. The torch was finally consumed, and then time seemed to slow to a crawl as they waited in the darkness for their adopted families to come to their senses.

Days passed. One by one, they died. A few of the living cannibalized the corpses. The rest were either too exhausted or despondent to feed. When they wept, tears no longer streamed down their cheeks. Dehydration made many of them delirious.

Sarvaya thought that he was hallucinating when the darkness took the form of a boy. The child was pale, though not so white as the Yama. His hair was dark brown with a hint of red, and his slanted eyes were almost black. They darted here and there, taking in the dead and dying without any evidence of fear. Only a god could view such suffering without flinching. A god or a demon, but the boy did not appear demonic. So he must be a god sent to guide them to safety.

Sarvaya held out his hand. The god in the shape of a boy approached. "Captain Chin?" he asked. "Captain Siva Chin?" The red in his hair was becoming brighter, as if the sun was behind his head.

It all made sense now. The sun was not the enemy of the Yama, as the elders had claimed. The sun did not burn their skin and cloud their eyes because it wanted to wipe them from the earth. The sun was a friend, a guide sent to lead them --

Where? Beside this world of rock and wind and fire and water, what else was there? Light? Darkness?

Though the boy's words and especially his intonations were strange, the albino hunter had the oddest feeling that he should be able to understand him. The problem, he realized, was that he was listening with one set of ears, when he should be using another. The skin on the back of his neck began to prickle.

"Come with me, Siva Chin," said the tall boy-god who wore the sun like a crown. "Together, we can find the Heart of Light and defeat Moriton."

Effortlessly, Sarvaya rose to his feet. He felt light, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Hand in hand, the albino hunter and the boy-deity left the world of rock and wind and fire and water. One by one, the spirits of the dead and dying followed them, into darkness that gave birth to light and color, sound and scent, yesterday and tomorrow --

Sometime, Somespace

The white prince moved a piece across the board. "Check," he murmured.

Orion studied the chessboard. Frowning, he said "I must go back soon. They've found my body. They're going to revive me."

"But you'll return?"

As the boy considered the question, he seemed to age. Now, he was a young man, taller than the prince though not so big boned. His hair darkened until just a hint of red remained. His clothing, which was made of shadow, adjusted itself to his new form. "Yes, I've returned."

Prince Siva smiled. "Good, then we can continue our game."

THE END


© 2010 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the novella Order of the Sun (April 2010).

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