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Chapter Four - The Mark

Matren was pulled deeper into the black abyss. What was once below was now all encompassing; it was past, present and future. It existed outside of Matren’s meager understanding of the workings of the world at large. He was pulled, first this way, then that way. With nothing to use as an anchor for his position and its direction he had no idea where he was going, if not for the inertia of the jerky tugs and movements he would have no way to tell if he was moving. Thrashing about Matren fought off the phantom force with as much affect as a man striking the wind, what moved him was ephemeral and all over. There was nothing for Matren to do but relax and save his energy for what may come. And so he did, after a time of continued thrashing.

Matren let his anger subside and he allowed this force to guide him where it may. Though Matren did not wish to go where it was taking him, he wanted much less to be left alone in the dark. As he relaxed and accepted the guidance, the tugs felt more like pulses within a current, like the tide going in and out with brief periods of calm inbetween the ebb and flow. Pinpricks of light winked into existence around him, stars – or a close approximation – flared to life amid this sea of emptiness. Their cold, bluish white light did little to ease his mind about his ultimate destination. There were so many and so identical that despite the dim starlight, he still failed to understand in which direction he was going; regardless of the way the ‘current’ surged against him.

In the distance lingered a darkness greater than that which immediately surrounded Matren. It pulled in the starlight like a vortex, leaving streaks of light at its border. It took Matren a few moments to understand that this was his ultimate destination. The closer he came to it, was to it the faster it claimed him. Matren would have struggled, but knowing how futile that was, having already tried, the best he could do was shut his eyes and wish for a way to save himself. One final surge urged him onwards towards his imminent demise. With his eyes screwed shut he could not make out if he had gone through the darkness ahead.

Time stretched on but he didn’t dare open his eyes until he felt the familiar tug of gravity, and the soft jolt of his feet hitting the firmament. When he did open his eyes what he saw was not what he expected, it wasn’t anything he could have ever expected. He was standing on a floating piece of street, as if it had been ripped up from the roots of wherever it was, floating in a hazy void with a washed out, directionless light. There were no shadows, no darkness yet it was far from bright. The floating islands were pieced together from not only different areas but different time periods as well. He saw huts and clods of grass alongside frozen igloos, tall shining buildings on paved street corners, and machines he couldn’t even guess as to their purpose. The path before him was stitched like a quilt of many multifarious fabrics of different places and times around the world, places nobody had ever seen and those that Matren had only read about.

Balls of light floated encased in colored glass as they moved out of sync with the rhythmic drifting of the land fragments. All around him various islands floated, but those further below or above were indistinct and hazy, like an idea that hadn’t quite fully formed. As he walked forward he tried to breathe in but could smell none of the trees he was amongst, nor the metallic tang of the still wet pavement beneath his boots just a few feet later.

He stopped along the rail-lined pavement. A railcar stood frozen in front of him, he had heard of them in heavily populated areas but had never seen them. They ran on some sort of energy he had forgotten the name of. Whatever it was, he did remember that it coursed through the metallic rails below and through the metallic, grooved wheels that fit snugly inside the rails. This powered the railcar which allowed it to go anywhere in the city that tracks were laid. And as Matren had read, no major city was without tracks. Every broad way and major street was lined with the things to accommodate long lines of railcars of various sizes. This one was small, angular and metallic with red stripes. The stripes meant something, he had read it once but in the moment he couldn’t remember their meaning. Its small black windows reflected people and a scene that was no longer there. He looked around himself quickly to make sure. It was almost as if all the inanimate objects of the surrounding area had been plucked out of time, frozen at the moment it was procured. The reflections showed people who had no idea what was going on, they didn’t appear to be scared or startled, just normal people going about their daily lives.

Matren shook his head. It felt like the haze of this place was invading his mind and his thoughts, slowing them to a sluggish drip. He moved his legs in an effort to get away, for a moment he could hear the people around him. A flash of light crashed across his eyes and when he regained his sight, he saw the various people in their fine gowns and posh garb that he had seen reflected in the glass windows of the railcar. He staggered through them. While curt threats and shrill squeaks trailed him like a banner as he drunkenly forced his way through the throngs of well-dressed men and women. As he pushed onward a hand collared him and gave a mighty yank. As Matren was jerked back and began to fall the people faded from his vision, like a great hand wiped them away from existence. Matren’s head smacked hard into the pavement below sending white hot sparks of pain through his head and down his spine. He stayed there a moment, gritting his teeth in pain. He had known worse but admittedly it had been a long time since he had fallen that hard.

When he opened his eyes a finely manicured hand with bright gold cufflinks was extended to him. Matren gripped it, and it lifted him up effortlessly, even had he not gripped the strength of that hand could have pulled him up and dangled him from a single finger. The stranger released his hand and placed both hands on his shoulders giving him a studious look. Matren had the exposing feeling that all that he was was being unraveled and weighed by this man. He was about to speak in objection when the man spoke first.

“You are quite interesting Matren. This is not the first time you have piqued my interest, and now I learn you are a Conduit as well. My, my but you’re full of surprises,” he said with a smooth, charming yet deeply sincere tone.

The man was slightly taller than Alkir, except he was built thicker, in the blue militant uniform of Grachyr, only it was tattered and stained with ink and blood. The boots were caked with mud and scuffed besides while the usual gold embroidery was corded black thread. He wore it with a wry smile on his lips, his face was handsome yet fairly unremarkable, hair as black as ink, and eyes to match with no white to speak of. On his hip he wore a naked blade, shattered in half and stained in blood. His lips curled into a smirk as Matren took him in. There was something different, something very slight that he couldn’t seem to grasp about the man.

“My dear Matren, how cruel of a life you have led. Abandoned by your sweet mother. Hounded and hated by those who you would call neighbors and forced to live alone. What will you do now I wonder, with the knowledge and power of the Sweepers at your disposal and those that tormented you burned to a cinder in their precious homes? The Sweepers know of me, if only in passing. I allow them to borrow the slightest fraction of a fraction of my power to see how they will use it. The ritual you went through, it opens you up to powers that are beyond men of this age. Most who survive the ritual are stronger for it. I wonder what it is that you will do after tonight. Will you seek to make the world better than you found it, or will you burn out the hearts of all those who would harm an innocent?” the man asked, his voice thick with interest and tinged with wryness yet Matren felt he was sincere.

Matren opened his mouth to reply, but the man raised both hands off Matren’s shoulders, touching two fingers to Matren’s heart and the other to his forehead. Matren felt a surge of electricity pass through his head and heart. The fiercely sudden pain was immeasurable. Despite lasting for what he was sure was only a second, the pain stretched that fraction of time into an eternity that wrapped Matren in agony and a surging sense of power. He staggered back away from the man and nearly fell backwards again if not for the man grasping onto his sleeve and steadying Matren. The lingering, burning sensation on his chest prompted Matren to pull down his shirt enough to see what was done. On his skin was a black mark, one he had never seen before, it flashed a bright golden-yellow and then cooled back to solid black. To the untrained eye it looked like a crescent moon with haphazard slashes and a single dot in the center, but Matren knew there was deep meaning there, though he did not know the slightest of it.

“I have gifted you with my Mark. Throughout the ages I have gone by many names, Aschken, Luciren, Dark One, Blasphemer, Black King, Omertin, but your people have forgotten me. You can call me Exentir, a new name for a new Age, what do you say?” he asked, spreading his hands wide. Before Matren could respond he spoke again, “You were too interesting to pass up. There has not been one like you since the last Age. So much promise I see in your future. I wonder what you will do with my gifts. I’ll be watching, Matren,” he said as he turned on his heels and walked away. It was only then that Matren recognized what it was that was so off about this man. In a world bereft of shadows, he was the only thing to possess one. As he walked away Matren stared in stunned awe as the shadow wrapped around the man’s body and he vanished into thin air.

Matren jolted awake in a cold sweat, disoriented and with a dull ache in his chest he sat up in bed, soaked through. The cold night air sent shivers down his body and he rose from the bed to search for a new set of clothes. The silvery light of the moon peered into the large windows of his new room. A mirror was placed behind and above a dresser on the wall between two large windows. He walked up to it. With just enough light to see himself clearly in he pulled off his shirt and looked at himself. The mark was plain to see, even in the dim moonlight. The man, Exentir, had clearly said something about powers, but Matren did not feel any different than normal. In fact he had often woken in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, so this too wasn’t much different. Except this time his frightening dreams haunted him even into his waking hours, and he clearly recalled receiving the Mark. It hadn’t been part of the ritual initiation, he was sure of that.

He resolved to ask Alkir when he woke up. For now, Matren busied himself with replacing his sheets with fresh linens, something he hadn’t had the fortune to have in any recent memory. Placing the soaked sheets aside he slipped off his sodden clothes, joining them to the heap on the floor at the foot of his bed. He slid into bed and shut his eyes, but sleep did not claim him as he expected. He waited for nearly an hour he guessed, from the lower position of the moon, but sleep never came to reclaim him. He felt like a passenger who had gotten off a train, only to have the train leave the station without him. He was stranded, dead tired but wide awake. With sleep out of the question Matren figured he might as well get something productive done.

He searched his room, neat and austere save for the jumble of soaked clothes and linens on the floor. A large and central rough-woven carpet that took up half the room with its ovular shape was the centerpiece to the entire room. Though the room was larger than his guest room, it only had a single dresser with a mirror attached sitting between two large windows. His bed was crammed into the right most corner furthest away, but close enough to the window that a cross breeze would be felt while in bed if left open. He had a small desk and chair on the wall opposite his bed, to the right of the doorway. In it were several writing supplies and a good sheaf of paper stacked beside them. A small lamp sat in a specialized holder to the right of the desk and the white-stone walls had several bronze sconces to illuminate the room well after dark. Which he figured he might need on a regular basis seeing as the room only had two windows. He found the closet opposite the wall with windows and threw open the folding doors. Inside he found identical clothing to what he had been wearing and then he half walked, half hobbled over to the dresser as he put on his pants.

In the light of the moon his bare chest was a pale shade of bronze, his natural skin tone seeing as he rarely ever went out in the sunlight. He stared at himself a moment. His ribs were just barely visible, slight depressions instead of the gaunt, skeletal outlines they had once been. His belly was no longer sunken and pathetic, it was slightly concave but far closer to flat than it had been before. His shoulders were still ever so slightly boney, but his arms were more than a mere bundle of sticks now and his cheeks were no longer hollow or sunken. He looked like a boy of twelve on the mend from some terrible sickness. Not quite back to normal, but close enough that the features he should have as a healthy child were beginning to show. He ruffled his hair, it was clean and shorter now but still long compared to most boy’s hair. He liked it at this length; though he had previously thought to completely cut all his hair off and keep it short, he preferred what the Order had done with it.

The Mark stood out. It was so black it could disappear in the night if not for the paleness of his skin where it was as prominent as a scorch mark on parchment. He grumbled to himself, and slipped his shirt on overhead, drawing the laces together in the front to avoid the Mark accidentally being shown. Until he knew what it meant and what potentially that entailed he didn’t want to go risking exposure. That thing had said he was interesting, and it was in Matren’s opinion that interesting people often found their way to their deaths. He wasn’t going to be like that. Matren had a stubborn and skeptical notion that he should be exceedingly cautious about a secret mark from some creature that clearly wasn’t human, that granted him ‘powers’ - though he saw no proof of it.

He looked down on top of the dresser where a small rectangular jewelry box stood on four pewter feet shaped like lion’s paws. Pressing his fingers to the lip he felt more than heard the tiny clack inside. Without any prying from him the lid sprang open, revealing the contents inside: his mother’s locket, a battered golden pocket watch with its lid stuck shut as it always had been, and his glass ‘knife’ which looked like it had been cleaned at some point though he certainly knew he did not do that. He gripped the handle, the rags had been replaced by clean linen bound and tied properly to prevent the glass from accidentally slicing through the cloth. The weight and feel of it was familiar and comforting, even though he knew even the lowest acolytes of the Order could probably kill him five different ways in their sleep. Still, he opted to carry it on him, it couldn’t hurt to have a weapon he had used before on him. He squeezed it gingerly in his hand, remembering the blood and gashes on his hand after he squeezed the first ‘knife’ he had made too hard. He was picking fragments of glass out of that hand for nearly a week. It seemed to heal alright though. The scars were slight and hard to see now, just one short year after the fact.

With his trusty ‘knife’ in hand he walked to the door and paused, his image captured in the light of the moon, the glass of the blade glinted a silvery light. He stared at the figure beholden in the mirror. He looked stark raving mad; his brows were furrowed in worry and concentration, his eyes were tired, bloodshot and strained, his back was hunched like a maniac while his gait was like an animal stalking prey. The proverbial cherry on his crazy sundae was the glinting fragment of glass that had been fashioned into a knife that any prisoner at Kaldric Wall would kill to have.

Taking in all that he saw, Matren pocketed the knife carefully. It wasn’t very sharp except when swung in a particular way, and it wasn’t strong enough for stabbing. Matren had tested it on leather and various attackers at the time of its creation. It wasn’t meant to kill. He hadn’t the skill or the inclination to go for fatal strikes like the neck or under the arms. He chose instead to strike at grasping, angry hands and catapulting legs. It was a warning, it hurt and bled but the damage was mostly superficial. The kids that had continued to hound him quickly gave up their favorite pastime and left Matren alone except for rare visits when they tried to catch him unawares. But Matren was always aware, he had a sense for people and things around him, everything had its place and if it moved its machinations were known to him. It wasn’t much of use to Matren most days, with the majority of people steering as far away from him as possible, but it helped steer him away from particularly troublesome encounters.

On more than one occasion Matren can recall his awareness warning him of a particular street or barn that he’d normally cut through as a shortcut, and he’d only ignored it once. That time he was ambushed by seven other kids, most of them a few years older than him, and only one or two near his age. Kids he used to play with only a few years ago. They beat him bloody and he was sure broke a rib or two because it hurt to breath, sit or walk when standing straight, giving rise to his habit to hunch his form. He was left on the floor bleeding, eyes nearly swollen shut, nose filled with blood and definitely broken. He remembered the pain and touched his nose in response. He could almost smell his blood now and its coppery taste when the blood drained down the back of his throat. He found the small bump where the bone had broken. It was a slight thing and added a distinguishing feature to his otherwise beautiful face. After he had blindly stumbled to the abandoned house he vowed never to ignore another gut feeling of his. And ever since then he avoided anywhere that felt slightly off.

As he grew accustomed to the feeling it became less like a random feeling of unease and more an awareness. He would often hide nearby and watch the location in question, hidden amid a thick bush, or after climbing up a drainpipe, perched atop a rooftop. Every single time he learned what had been waiting for him, one or several boys, sometimes men and many times strangely garbed men who looked quite displeased. He always wondered who those people were with their strange fluffy clothing, they looked ridiculous but whenever they came by everybody in town imagined they didn’t exist even harder than they had with him. He still had no idea who they were, but if they were waiting for him it could not have been good. A Sweeper would have checked the surrounding area, especially if his mother was as good as they said. A member of the Order would have had enough respect to assume the child of Selese Kurnal would see them coming and watch them from afar.

But now, here among so many he was confused and overwhelmed. He could feel the pulse of life all around him, and in the quiet moments of the deep night it was almost deafening. How come he hadn’t realized this before? He wondered if perhaps that Exentir had amplified his natural awareness of people around him. He tried to push it out of his head but the pounding of life all around him was giving him a headache. The more aware he became the more he could feel of those around him. New members to the Order like himself, older than he but all relatively new, none older than a year and most of them were fairly young. Those further away were quieter, as if they themselves were internally calm and still compared to the average person, far more than the jittery nerves of those around Matren. He focused on them as they were far more interesting. The further out he went in search of more people the quieter they got until he could barely feel them, he was aware of them but they were shadows in the night. He wondered if that was some training of the Order, something that afforded them an silence so deep it ran to their very core, making them almost invisible even if you were to walk right past them. Matren doubted he’d be able to find them in a brightly lit room, much less in a busy castle such as the Order’s grounds.

This imparted some understanding of the Order to Matren. It meant the veteran members, those who were wiser, stronger and more experienced were housed further away from the recruits and newly inducted members. It was almost like a spherical shell with the oldest and strongest members at the outside and the newest recruits being on the inside. From a defensive standpoint it was the opposite of most defense strategies that put the strongest most capable defenders and soldiers near the center where the prize of the building or encampment was. The Sweepers on the other hand would appear to do the opposite; the strongest members were the first wave of defense, it made little sense to Matren. If they were hurt or killed it’d hamper the Order more than if a newly inducted member were killed. The Order had spent years on the older members, while they could recruit another far easier should an inductee perish.

It suddenly struck Matren that such a thing may not be foolish if it’s looked at from a benevolent standpoint. The older members were protecting what is most precious to them: their future. The new members must have represented the future of the Order to them, and as such they were invaluable. The pairing of a Sosen to a pupil made more sense now, it was not only for guidance but for protection. Matren was weak and just ready to learn about how to fight and be a Sweeper, Alkir had been a Sweeper for many years and was more than powerful enough to deal with whatever mission they were given, all the while protecting and correcting for Matren’s mistakes.

Matren didn’t realize he was moved to tears until he felt the warm, salty mixture run along the edge of his mouth. He had been so used to selfish, horrible people that such a sign of unity was almost beyond imagining. Knowing that Alkir was more than just his mentor and teacher, but also his protector caught Matren off guard. To anybody else perhaps such a thing would seem obvious or even commonplace, but for Matren it meant the world to him. He doubted he could ever form into words what Alkir’s protection and aid meant to him. He made another promise to himself that he would also dedicate his good behavior and his life to being a Sweeper for Alkir’s sake. This was a way that Matren could definitely show him how much he meant to Matren, by making Alkir considered the greatest teacher. And it wouldn’t hurt that Alkir would get his due recognition for Matren being the rising star amongst the Order.

Matren decided he would explore the grounds, specifically the halls around his room. He would find as many people as he could, while remaining hidden. It was a simple, childish game he used to love to play when he was younger and the world was bright and accepting. Whenever he remembered those times, the sun always seemed a bit brighter, and the world had a touch more color to it. But then, he thought, it would, wouldn’t it? A world where my mother could live would be a brighter, better place than what I’m stuck with now.

He slipped out of his room, twisting the handle and shutting the door quietly and slowly behind him, only then slowly turning the knob back to prevent the noise of the handle sharply springing back into place. He looked down at himself in the dim light of the late night, and internally cursed that he had to be wearing white. Even in the dark he practically glowed. Most of the lamps were extinguished and those that weren’t had a low flame. Something intrigued him about the flame and he peered close enough to the little thing to feel its heat on his face. He stared at it, unflinching and unmoving. The flame itself was small and still, only a slight tremor rippled through its perfect form. The wind that blew did nothing to disturb the tiny thing, even a sharp curious puff the flame stood still like a statue, giving off its little bit of light and heat.

What a curious thing, it acts like the flames that took the village. Matren thought to himself and was surprised that he had no sympathy for the lives took in his name and that of his mother’s. But he did not take pleasure in their deaths, Alkir had further gone to explain that several people were asking after his mother’s child and several parties were interested in procuring the child of a great and once Sweeper. There was too much risked in the exposure of the Sweepers, and to make sure they silenced them all. It was of added benefit that they were all horrible people who treated Matren and his mother as they did; it made their decision easy to carry out. Matren wondered if the Sweepers knew they borrowed some fraction of Exentir’s power when they controlled those flames, assuming there wasn’t an alchemical reaction taking place that he wasn’t aware of. They certainly did seem magical to him. Anybody still looking for Matren would get the message the Sweepers left behind, which made Matren wonder if they would have truly let him live if he turned down their offer. After all he had at least some knowledge of who they were and would pose a less of a risk than some of the people in the village had. But it didn’t matter any longer, he was a Sweeper, and he was with the Order. He couldn’t turn back now even if he wanted to. That much Alkir had made abundantly clear.

Stop, he ordered to himself, you’re winding yourself up for no reason. Focus. This is important your mindless ramblings can wait Mat. He had never liked his full name, Matren was only ever used by the villagers who could remember his name, and his mother when he was in trouble. Mat had been her affectionate shortening of his name, and he liked it, but without any friends or family to speak of, he didn’t have anybody to call him Mat. Only now he did, and he nearly began to wonder how he would bring this item up to Alkir before the sound of soft footfalls on plush, deep pile carpet warned him of somebody coming. He quickly slinked in the shadow of a suit of armor, seeping into its shadow, pressed so hard against the cut stone wall that he nearly melded with it.

A young man, perhaps two years Mat’s senior was walking, holding a book in one hand, his thumb holding his place. His other hand was twirling a single silver dagger, its thin handle deftly being passed between the fingertips on his free hand. The dagger spun smoothly from knuckle to knuckle, the blade glancing so close to the skin that it could have shaved it but it never cut him. Matren sucked in as much air as he could to avoid touching the suit of armor in front of him. He watched as the boy paused a moment and looked around. Mat continued to hold his breath, afraid his breathing may be louder than normal but after a few seconds the boy continued his reading and knife twirling, making his way down the hall past Mat’s room. For a moment Mat considered resuming his task, but then he thought better of it. Shadowing this recruit may prove to be more enlightening, at least he may lead him to the library. If he was found he figured he would just come out and ask where it was, if he didn’t notice him then Mat would continue to shadow him, though he knew it was closer to stalking. That differentiation did not bother Mat.

As the recruit turned the corner Mat quickly hurried after him, his boots made quiet and fast movement antithesis to one another, so he chose the quieter, slower movements. The boy wasn’t walking very fast anyhow and he was easy to trail, though given how sparse the halls were for cover, Mat had to get inventive, cramming himself into all various forms and shapes to stay out of sight. Every so often the recruit would turn and look around as if he was sure something or somebody was there. He was growing increasingly paranoid and quickened his pace several times. By the time Mat had followed him down three different halls the boy was moving as fast as he could while still being perceived to be walking. Mat wondered what it was about his presence that set the boy off. He was quiet and always out of sight, what could it be that set off the boy? And then Mat realized that the boy didn’t know he was being followed but somehow he knew something was off. There was a disturbance to the normal, rhythmic peace of people sleeping nearby. Mat’s very existence was a stone cast in still waters. Though the boy didn’t recognize or seem capable of an awareness like Mat’s, somewhere deep inside he must have known something was wrong, giving rise to an increased paranoia.

While Mat thought about this the boy quickly ducked inside a small alcove. There must have been a stairway inside there because suddenly he was below Mat, and his quickened pace could only mean he was running – quite fast at that – down the halls below. Mat sighed to himself, such a simple exercise and even that he couldn’t do right. But perhaps he could salvage this after all. He shut his eyes and focused on the boy, like a tether tied to him he could feel his movements as they calmed and the recruit was sure he was no longer followed. So instead of following him from behind, he did so from above, and marveled at how easy it was; even with all the interferences nearby sleeping in their beds, he could focus on this one and follow him one floor above his head. He wondered if that would be a prime way to track somebody, from above and out of sight. It was easy enough for Mat to do, and if he was in a tree or on a rooftop, even if they looked up they would not see him as he would keep out of any line of sight. While usually key for most shadowing, Mat didn’t need it when he could focus his awareness to a single person. Usually it was a vague, omnipresent thing, but in the quiet of the night and with effort he could focus it in ways he had never known possible.

Had he possessed such command of his awareness before he could have followed those who stalked him, and exacted revenge while they were unaware of his lying in wait. He allowed himself to fantasize about the look on their faces as he ambushed them and beat them to a bloody pulp like they had done to him. But he only allowed it briefly. They were dead now, any vengeance exacted by the Sweepers on his behalf and he was sure that a slow death burning alive was far more terrible than anything he could have visited upon his tormentors. Though one part of him, a recess that kept to the dark corners of his mind knew that wasn’t true. Had he wanted to, he could have done such horrible, unspeakable hurt that they would never have been the same again. That same small part of him ached for the lost chance to exact a personalized revenge, one that would never come now.

Mat stopped in his tracks, his boots falling quietly on the scarlet carpet beneath his feet. The boy had stopped moving, he was near others, and there was no sense of urgency or fear now. Safety had replaced it like the light of a lamp banishing the darkness. It was the sort of comfort people often got from being around each other. The comfort he saw his tormentors and their kin receive when they would come home out of the dark fields working for the night. A comfort that Mat had not been afforded. Anger boiled up inside his chest, threatening to burst out of his mouth as a scream. He balled his fists tight and grit his teeth and turned sharply on his heels. His mind spun downward into dark thoughts of hurting the boy and his friends that he had no doubt met. Why had he been so afraid of Mat following him? He should have offered a hand of friendship to Mat. What was wrong with Mat to the boy, was he not good enough for him? Hadn’t he known Mat wasn’t going to hurt him, why would he think he was in danger in the Order? Such a thought was blasphemous and flagrant besides to the honor and way of the Order. He would give him and his friends something to fear, a reason to stay in the light and out of the dark, his dark. As he turned about he nearly knocked right into a tall figure that stood immediately behind him, so close that the heat of his body could be felt.

Mat started, how was it that he hadn’t been aware of this man? Had he been so wrapped up in his own dark thoughts that he was blind to everything else? He looked up and Alkir’s familiar face smiled down at him. His hair was bedraggled and his clothing was beaded with water. Mat reflexively smiled in turn, and just like that all ill will and macabre thoughts and machinations fled from Mat’s mind like the sun burning away the darkness of the night. Mat opened his mouth to speak but Alkir raised a black gloved hand, its cuffs turned out, covering his wrist.

“I came by to see how you were settling in. It is rare to see an initiate take so strongly to the ritual as you have. I was worried about you. But lo’ and behold, when I came by your room you were gone, there was little trace of you left but enough that I could follow. Then I found you here, standing in the dark by yourself, looking like you might need a light to guide your way,” he said leveling a knowing gaze at Mat, with a wry smile.

“Is…it normal for initiates to have strange dreams following the ceremony?” he asked carefully.

Alkir put his gloved hand to his chin in thought. “Well, sometimes. Every person reacts differently than the last so it’s hard to tell, you see. But you reacted differently, far stronger than any I had seen so far and it was enough that the Elders pulled me away from my…” he looked up and down Mat for a moment his eyes were distant on some lingering thought, “Let’s call it, ruminations. So I came to look for you to see how you were holding up, tracked you here and now we’re standing out in the Beldyr’s Hall, which is far from where you should be.”

“I sort of…lost my way I suppose. Since you’re here could you show me where the interesting things are so I don’t wander at night when I can’t sleep?” asked Mat.

Alkir nodded, turning Matren around and clapping a hand affectionately to his back and guiding him forward. They walked a while in the darkness. Mat hadn’t noticed that the hallway had no lamplight. He wasn’t sure how such a major thing like that could simply go unnoticed. “I’m surprised at you Matren. Skulking about in the dark, unlit halls, following another recruit no less. Would you care to tell me what that was about?” his voice was far from angry, if anything it seemed curious.

Mat thought about it for a moment before speaking. He noticed that in the pitch black Alkir stood out to him as if he were vaguely illuminated. His footsteps were sure but practiced as if he had done this many times before and by that merit no longer needed the light to know his way around. Mat’s own steps were different, they were smooth and natural, like a wolf loping in the forest, there was surety there that even Alkir lacked. Mat could guide himself in the darkest night. It was known to him in a way that even he had not yet come to understand.

“I was bored and I thought it’d be a bit of fun, and a good exercise for being a Sweeper…” he said sheepishly.

Alkir nodded. “I thought as much. By the looks of it you frightened that poor recruit half out of his wits. Did you do that on purpose? It didn’t look like he saw you, but you may not have been as quiet as you thought. And you may not have noticed how dark it had gotten. When you hear bumps in the night and nothing’s there, or only a quick shadow flickers by, wouldn’t you grow concerned?”

Mat shook his head. “This is the Order of the Sweepers. Why would I have anything to fear here?”

Alkir laughed to himself and patted Mat affectionately on the back of his head. “You are so very strange Matren Kurnal. And I do mean that in the sincerest and most complimentary way. Most people are afraid of the dark, don’t you know that?”

Mat shrugged. “I guess after so long of not having any lamps or light in the darkness I got used to it. I can see better in the dark without a light than with usually. I know I can hide in the darkness and that gives me comfort. People may be afraid of the darkness but that’s only because they don’t understand it, nor care to. I fear the light, it’s exposing and makes me feel naked. Anybody can see me from a league away, at least in the darkness if they’re coming to look for me they’ll need a lamp and I can see them coming and plan accordingly. The darkness afforded me comfort from the villagers, without it I’m not sure I would still be alive today. Had I used a lamp to light my room in the house I might have well lit a beacon telling everybody who wished me harm where I was. No, I prefer the dark. If others are fearful of it, then it’s only their own ignorance that feeds their fear and all the better for me. If people fear it, then they won’t venture into it to find me.”

Alkir had stopped walking for a moment, missed a step and then regained his normal, smooth and practiced gait. He was clearly surprised by Mat’s words. “You know, I don’t know what to be more surprised by. What you’ve said, or how much you said. I don’t think you’ve ever stringed so many words together as that in the entire time I’ve known you.”

Mat frowned to himself and crossed his arms defensively over his chest. He hadn’t meant to share that much, but it’s not like he ever had anybody who would listen much less keep his confidence. Alkir hadn’t judged, hadn’t pitied or shown anything but happiness in response to his words. Of all the possible reactions that could have transpired, that was simply one Mat had no way of accounting for.

“You’ve got the right of it Matren,” Alkir said.

“Mat,” he replied.

“What was that?” asked Alkir.

“Mat. Call me Mat. Matren is what my mother called me when she was cross with me.”

Alkir nodded. “Of course then, Mat. As I was saying you’ve got it right. The shadows protect us from retaliation of those who would prefer us dead, or under thumb. It would seem you’ve already learned an important lesson the Sweepers are taught. That fear of the dark stems from the unknown, and to use that ignorance to your advantage. We exploit where others fear to tread, their preconceptions and beliefs are our tools to warp as we need to make our goals realized. It takes a very long time for most Sweepers to get accustomed to the dark. It is a primal fear that takes much work to wipe away. And in most cases it still lingers, like a cobweb in the corner of a room. The fear never truly leaves most of us, but we learn how to manage it so that we remain in control.

“But you, Mat. You’ve done at the tender age of twelve what most grown men and women fail to ever fully accomplish. I can’t say I understand how you’re not bothered by it, I only learned to accept it after years of training and still it is a practiced, disciplined form. It is not the natural preference that you possess. I’m not sure if even the Elders of the Order possess the same attributes in this regard as you do. It is one thing to learn that the darkness is an ally, a tool to be used, but it is an entirely different thing to accept the darkness and prefer it as you have.”

Alkir looked down at Mat. He tried to peel back the darkness that surrounded them to understand how Mat looked, perhaps how he felt so he could better help his young charge. Mat looked back, the expression of Alkir’s face was one he was quite familiar with. Of a person looking in the darkness, mere inches from his face but with no true sight. They looked, and while Mat could see them, they saw nothing out of their wide open eyes. Mat smirked to himself, he was certain Alkir would notice if he moved, being that his hand was on his back, but even had it not he was still certain of it.

“Pleased with yourself, are you?” Alkir asked.

This caught Mat by surprise. He was certain that Alkir hadn’t been able to see him. How did he know he smiled? It wasn’t a common occurrence by any stretch, to assume he would be smiling after being told how strange and different he was, even if it was flowered in a positive light did not make sense. Mat was not the type to smile by any means; it was so rare that Alkir had gotten into the habit of counting the number of smiles he received in Mat’s company. So far all the times Mat has smiled could be counted on a single hand.

“That makes five times now, Mat,” Alkir prompted, nearly gloating.

“How did you know?” Mat asked, the bewilderment soaked into his voice.

“You do a very slight snort when you smile or smirk and think yourself quite clever or interesting. Though it’s rarely when receiving a compliment, which I was giving you by the way. It’s not hard to mistake a sound like that, it’s slight but since I can’t see any better than a blind man on a Mournsday, all my other senses pick up the slack. I could hear you from anywhere in this space. If somebody were to attack us, I could tell where they were by how the silence of the hall moves around them like the river’s water around a rock. It’s something you’ll learn to do just the same. Except you’ve clearly got an unfair advantage with your ability to stay in the darkness so easily. Can you even see? There’s literally no light to speak of,” said Alkir in surprise.

“Yeh, I can see. It’s all shades of bluish gray though, but I can make out all the shapes and patterns around us.”

“Prove it, tell me how many fingers I’m holding up,” taunted Alkir.

Mat looked over. He was holding three fingers up, then two, then five then seven, then nine and back to two, repeating the pattern. Two, five, seven, nine, repeat, two, five, seven, nine.

“You’re changing your numbers, a pattern of two, then five, then seven, followed by nine, and then you repeat it. You’ll have to try harder if you want to hide what you’re doing from me,” bragged Mat.

Alkir grumped loudly to himself and put his hand down. The both of them were quiet for a few moments longer, walking down the hall and into the adjoining ones. They were all pitch black, and Alkir spoke softly, barely above a whisper but it was not the rasping of a whisper, his voice just failed to carry far. Like he was pulling it back and holding it within his encircled arms, any further away than Mat was to him and Mat was sure he wouldn’t have heard a sound. He wondered how he did that, if that was another trick of the Sweepers, something he might hope to learn and eventually master. Mat supposed that’d be of use, quiet talking without any of the normal distortions of the voice or its telltale rasping.

“The more I learn about you Mat, the more impressed I am with you. We’re almost at the library by the way. It’s just up ahead at the end of the hall. Thankfully they always keep some lights on in this hallway, for any night owls like us who want to check out a book or look something up. We’ve the largest collection by far of rare books and manuscripts. As well as all updated tomes on various subjects taught by many of the top universities around the world.” Alkir’s chest swelled with pride as he spoke. He was very clearly a book lover, Mat loved books as a child, they reminded him of when his mother would come read to him. But the last three years were not kind to him, any books he could find were rotted beyond repair, damaged or defaced so badly that there was absolutely no way he could read more than a few words every page. Half the time the books crumbled to dust in his hands. And so a good book became a sacred thing to him, something he always searched for but could never quite find. They banished the loneliness and for a time he could get lost in the minutia of a world that existed far away in some corner of some person’s imagination, brought to life with the written word.

The hall up ahead shone with a soft light, but it felt piercing and bright to Mat’s eyes forcing them shut against the intrusion. Alkir blinked hard but pressed on regardless. The hall was mostly empty save for a few sconces lit with a low flame, giving the hall a gloomy darkness. The walls were paneled in thick slabs of dark cherrywood coupled with the intricately etched stone blocks for the flooring and those overhead, it gave the hall a sense of class and distinguished it against the rest of what Mat was sure by now was a castle. There simply wasn’t anything that big that wasn’t a castle. He had heard of mansions, but this place was built with fortification in mind as well as comfort, and that meant the only option left was a castle.

At the far end a wide wooden plaque carved to look like an unfurled scroll of parchment labeled the room in curling script, ‘The Library.’ The double doors were wide enough for at least three large men abreast, with no handles. That was weird. Mat looked quizzically at the double doors. The seam between them was plainly visible but there was no lock, and definitely no other way of ingress. The doors were separated into dozens of little square panels all carved to give a patterned relief to the doors but they did not address the issue that was at hand, the lack of a way inside the library.

“How do we get in?” Mat asked, the impatience of a child crept into his voice. He rocked on his heels back and forth waiting for something to happen, anything.

Alkir approached the door and as he did the squares shivered and rattled, moving around like a broken jigsaw puzzle, completely destroying the neat and ordered pattern that had once been there. In its place was a face made up of various squares and angles. It looked like a bearded man with wide-set eyes and a thick chin with no hair on top and bushy eyebrows that waggled incessantly.

The door spoke, its voice was not wooden as Mat had expected. Instead it was a deep and powerful baritone with the unmistakable tone of severe annoyance. “What, what is it? It’s late, go back to your room child. There is no need to be up at such an unholy hour.”

For a moment Mat thought the door was talking about him, and it caught him by surprise when Alkir raised a warding hand to the door.“Mesaphis, please. I haven’t been a child for nearly twenty years. I am a Sosen now, I would request a modicum of respect,” he said, somewhat annoyed himself though it was a familiar annoyance. Like that which one feels towards a beloved yet eccentric relative.

“Oh, a Sosen are we now? It only took you ten years to be assigned a pupil. What have you done with that time, hmm? I am older than your father’s, father’s bones child. I will call you as I see fit and I will not be told how to conduct myself otherwise. Not by the Elder-children and not by yourself. Now, clearly you won’t go away so tell me what business is it you have with the Library,” the door replied curtly. The annoyance from his voice was slowly replaced with a professional demeanor.

“I would like admittance to the Library for Matren and myself,” he said with a weary sigh.

“Oh, ho. I bet you would like that! First, I must see the boy. Come, come, don’t be bashful son. Come up to the door and place your hand on the handle so I can get a good long look at you.”

Mat was about to open his mouth and say, “But I don’t see a handle…” when a golden rod of a handle appeared on the right door. Its joints were smoothed and it attached to the door seamlessly, no metal plate or locking mechanism of any note.

Mat, with the urging of Alkir’s steady hand, moved forward and gripped the handle. A small tingle ran up his arm and made his hair start to stand on end, it went down his other arm and back again before running down one leg, back up and then down the other. The feeling evaporated like water droplets on a griddle and Mat wondered if he actually had ever felt anything, the feeling was so quickly gone it might as well have never happened. He looked at the face, which was pursed in a most unusual look. Had the face been a real person, Mat might have thought they were trying to pass a kidney stone for all the pain and anguish writ across its expressive face. Mat would have asked if it was okay, if it was hurting but he wasn’t sure it could even feel pain, being a wooden door. He had never seen or heard of anything so magical even among the stories his mother would read to him. Walking and talking suits of armor and statues, sure, but doors that could speak? That was simply preposterous.

The handle vanished even as Mat was holding onto it; his hand closed around cold, dry air and then balled into a fist before he relaxed it, realizing nothing was there any longer. The door’s face no longer appeared pained, now it seemed pensive and moody. Mat wasn’t sure he could put up with much more of the door’s antics. And he didn’t like how it interrupted him or how it treated Alkir like he was a child. As Mat worked up the words to speak against the door, the mouth spoke out again.

“Quite the little package you have on hand Alkir. I presume you already know he is a Kurnal, which I suppose makes him her son,” the door mused softly.

“Yes, he is Selese’s child, and all that remains of her legacy,” Alkir said somberly.

“I see, so you are heir to the Kurnal legacy are you boy? Matren Kurnal. Do you know what this boy is?” the door asked, waiting patiently for a reply.

“No I-“

“He’s a Conduit! And to boot he’s already been Marked. How long I cannot say, He is rather careful with his magicks. We haven’t seen his touch on the world of men for nearly an Age now. You know what this means Alkir, you must tell the Elders. Great change is coming and the Order will need to be ready as they can be to get ahead of this. The boy will do great things, but whether they are great deed of evil or good is yet to be written,” the door said, rushing completely over Alkir’s reply.

“Marked…I saw no mark, I had seen him just some hours past,” Alkir said incredulously. Despite the surety of his words he turned to Mat. “Have you been Marked? Did somebody visit you and give you The Black Brand?” he asked, eyes half-mad and voice rising more than it ever had before. His arms gripped like talons onto Mat’s shoulders, digging in and shaking him when he didn’t immediately answer.

“Y-yes. I was sleeping and… I couldn’t tell if it was real or not. I just assumed it was a nightmare until-“

“Until you woke up and the mark was still there? Show me, Mat.”

Mat unlaced the front of his shirt and pulled it back enough to reveal his left breast, just over his heart. There the mark stood black as freshly spilled ink upon his skin. It looked rather pleasant to Mat now, like it had always belonged; like his chest was complete with it and before it had been missing something he could never have known. Alkir pressed his hand to the mark gently, and tried wiping it away in disbelief. When that didn’t work he let go of Mat and got a hold of himself. He calmed considerably in those few moments, coming back to his normal self.

“Did he have black eyes? No iris or white?”

Mat nodded. “That’s part of why I thought I had dreamt it.”

Alkir made a noise of consent, vigorously rubbing his chin in thought with one hand. “When did this happen? I saw no mark earlier, was this just as you fell asleep after the ceremony?”

“Yes. I woke up in a strange place, like a jigsaw puzzle of floating chunks of land, except they were all from different places and it even looked like different periods of time. It felt like I was there, like I recognized some of these places even though I’ve never been. I was planning on telling you, Alkir! I swear! But I didn’t want you to think I was mad, or worse for the Mark to be something bad. I just wanted one night at least where I was able to feel like the newly welcomed recruit I was, and not some freak,” Mat said, tears welling up in his eyes as he held Alkir’s gaze, refusing to look away.

Alkir let out a soft sigh. “It’s all right Mat. Nobody’s going to hurt you. It’s just… It’s hard to explain what this means to you. But you are the first person in an Age to have seen this creature. He’s a cross between a god and a demon and he grants power to those he sees fit. Those he sees the capability to enact great change, and then he gives them magic, something we have not seen for several Ages. Once he does this, he leaves and watches the events unfold, now supercharged by black magic and sorcery the likes of which break the laws of reality. If you are chosen, then it means a time of great change is upon us.

“Make no mistake, even without this Mark you would still be an agent of tremendous change and you would leave your mark on all the world. But now, you could reduce everything to a crater of smoldering ash without even trying. And that is troubling news indeed. Have you been able to use any sort of magic? Anything out of the ordinary? Anything at all Mat, think.”

Mat racked his mind for something he could do that he hadn’t been able to do before, but aside from a better focusing of his awareness and his superb nighttime vision, there was nothing that he could now do that he hadn’t been capable of before. Mat shook his head. He didn’t even know where he could possibly begin to try and find out. There didn’t seem to be a primer for this sort of thing. All the time he was there, Exentir did not remotely try to explain to him either. He supposed the learning of what he was capable of was part of the fun Exentir would have watching.

“I suppose you don’t know of a way to test for these powers, or to see what young Matren here can do, do you Mesaphis?”

“I cannot say that I do, but that is most peculiar. What little knowledge survived the last Calamity tells that he should know or have some inkling of what we can do. But it may take time, like suddenly being introduced to new limbs that he never had before. But once he acclimatizes to them he should know some shadow of what he can do and then attempt to do it. The magical equivalent of knowing he can use legs to walk, to run and to jump, except in this case, to use magic in whatever ways he is capable. More importantly, you know what this means Alkir. There will be another chosen to bear the Mark,” the door replied gravely.

Alkir shook his head. “We don’t know that for certain, this thing has never had a single constant among his entire being. He’s selected one before, but also several, it doesn’t presage anything,” he said, words spluttering as he grasped for more, “Matren’s Mark needn’t be accompanied by another, we can’t know what will happen so there is no use in conjecture on the matter,” he said with such finality that the door completely dropped the subject.

Mat was beginning to feel the siren call of sleep and his bed, now so very far away. He wished so badly he could just be there. Shadows flung around Mat, and Alkir’s face expressed a mix of shock and fear as he reached a hand towards Mat’s darkening vision. The shadows peeled away to reveal the austere walls of Matren’s room, and the stun of the sudden movement threw Mat to the floor with a thick knot in his stomach. He wretched but nothing came out and as he regained his breath he began to realize where he was. He went over how far he must have come, obviously not far in terms of length but definitely not a short jaunt either. He had stalked the recruit through several hallways and then been led off towards the Library to an entirely unrecognizable section of what he long suspected to be a castle belonging to the Order. Even if Mat remembered how to get back – which he didn’t – it would have taken him at least fifteen minutes to get back, if not more.

Mat’s arms grew weak and frail. They shook with the effort of keeping him off the oval carpet centerpiece of the room. He strained but his strength had left him, leaving him feeling cold and fragile like an ice sculpture. With a mighty heave he pushed out but his muscles were limp and weak, regardless of the effort put into place they did little more than hold him up. The wave of fatigue that had washed over him just moments ago returned like a predator smelling blood. It pounced on him and with no strength left to resist Mat was dragged into unconsciousness. His arms went limp and he collapsed to the floor, laying face-first on the carpet.

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