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Chapter Three - The First Vows

For almost a month the Order had seen to it that Matren was pampered, fed and had access to the finest medicines and facilities possible. Despite numerous pleadings, he wasn’t allowed to train or learn anything about the Order beyond the bits and pieces that Alkir provided. He was however given access to encyclopedias, dictionaries and any manner of book he wanted. He was even given various lessons on all things from biology to basic math. All the things he had missed out on since his mother had passed and things that even the richest families of King’s Valley wouldn’t have had access to. Alkir revealed that he would be his Sosen, a sort of Mentor and Guardian within the Order. All of Matren’s actions would reflect on Alkir.

“I heard you. I’m not denying you access to the Order’s training grounds because you are not well yet. I don’t know how many times I need to tell you this for you to understand Matren. You were starving, severely malnourished and ill with Scarliss, which I remind you is highly contagious. Without treatment your spleen could rupture from the slightest impact, and you will fall often during training and suffer a lot worse than a slight impact. It wouldn’t do to have our bright little star suffer a rupture and then be out of commission for half a year rather than an entire month now would it? Until you’re up to a level which you can withstand the Sweeper’s training regime you won’t be allowed to train and that’s all there is to it, kiddo. Now, eat your soup and take your medicine, unless you want me to pour it down your throat again,” he warned, but Matren knew his threat rang hollow. Alkir’s eyes bespoke pain and sorrow.

“I don’t understand, how can I be sick if I feel fine! I think you’re just fattening me up for some sort of cannibalistic sacrifice!” spat Matren pedantically. He didn’t believe it, he wasn’t entirely sure he believed it before he knew Alkir or the bits and pieces he knew about the Order. It did make for a good curse though.

Alkir rolled his eyes at him, not unlike how Matren’s own mother used to do when he was being comically unreasonable. “If all goes well after today you should be up to the first order of business,” Alkir said as he went over to make sure Matren drank all of the toxic green liquid in his cup. He stared intently at the cup and then Mat, waiting for him to drink it. The medicine tasted horrible, but it was supposed to cure him of Scarliss before it became symptomatic and debilitating.

Matren looked up pleadingly into Alkir’s dark sapphire eyes. Despite Alkir’s previously sympathetic mood, he didn’t show any sign of weakness now. Matren would have to drink the medicine for what he prayed was the last time. The look Alkir had in his eyes told him that he wasn’t joking. If Matren didn’t drink it on his own, he would make him drink it, and after the last time that happened Matren didn’t want a repeat. So, he steeled his nerves, wrapped a thin, small hand around the cup and slammed it back, downing the dreadful, slimy green liquid in one go. He choked back the gag reflex he had every time he drank the putrid stuff. If he never tasted it again it would be too soon. Matren looked up at his Sosen and opened his mouth wide. “Ahhhhh, see? I drank all of your poison, now can I get my training?” he asked for the seventeenth time that day.

Alkir put his palm to his forehead with a sigh. “I’ll have the Healer look in on you, if she says you’re good then tonight you’ll take your First Vows.”

“First Vows? What’s that?” Matren asked.

“They’re an important initiation to the Order, every one of us has to take them. Think of it like a promise to adhere to the creed of the Order. You make this vow that you will uphold the Order and its principles, and if not you allow for your transgressions to be weighed and punishment to be levied. I need not remind you Matren that this is the last chance you can turn away from us. If you so choose,” said Alkir.

“No, I’m sure. Now more than ever,” replied Matren.

Alkir nodded curtly. “I’ll go fetch the Healer, if her assessment is good we’ll begin tonight. If not, then we’ll have to wait until you’re ready and able.” And with that he was gone.

Matren waited, sitting on the bed, idly kicking his legs back and forth. He really hadn’t felt sick, but this Scarliss disease was apparently quite virulent. He hadn’t ever heard of it, but that wasn’t surprising as there was a lot that Matren didn’t know despite the recent lessons and the smorgasbord of literary works. Scarliss was supposed to stay dormant in an infected individual, who could sometimes remain asymptomatic for months to years and in the interim period was highly contagious to everybody they came into physical contact with. The heart and the lungs were affected first, rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath were the beginning signs. By the time Scarliss becomes symptomatic the afflicted have only two weeks to get treatment before it becomes incurable. The lungs proceed to shut down over the course of a couple months, and the heart overworks itself until it fails. An altogether painful and excruciating death he was assured. What little additional reading he did on the subject corroborated their fears and their rather extreme measures – at least by Matren’s standards – made sense. Scarliss could lie dormant for most of a grown man’s life, and then suddenly trigger. The Order was inoculated against most diseases and contagions, but Scarliss as Matren had been told acts like a gateway to other illnesses and contagions allowing for them to inhabit an otherwise healthy body. Matren came to learn that the reason for his seclusion was for his own health, not that of the Order. Once his infection was wiped out he would no longer be at risk and could explore the whole of the grounds.

During his First Vows he would be inoculated against the most virulent contagions known to man. He would be travelling all over the world to areas which harbored horrible diseases for any foreigners that weren’t properly inoculated. The natives had built natural resistances over the generations and were therefore largely unaffected. If he had wanted to blend in the best way to do so would not to get sick in a dangerous, foreign land. While he was sick and recovering Alkir visited him daily, giving him books and primer lessons on the world and what the Sweepers did.

It turned out the Sweepers did a little bit of everything. Uprisings and rebellions that would destabilize a region and harm more than they would help were quelled and put down. When a highborn became too power hungry and people began to suffer, the Sweepers would come in stop his or her reign. They were a force of balance, neither good nor evil. Sometimes they had to do bad things to good people because of the damage that they would otherwise be brought to bear. They took comfort knowing that the end result was a more stabilized and prosperous world. In some instances even a King or Queen would need to be stopped, and in those cases they often needed to act in concert to take them down.

The Sweepers were everything: manipulators, saviors, villains, killers and heroes. First and foremost he would learn how to kill, as death was their foremost solution to the worst problems that plagued the world. He would kill and kill again, he needn’t like it but he had to come to terms with its inevitability. If he couldn’t stand to kill, and to kill indiscriminately, he would need to leave the Sweepers before joining them and realizing too late that killing was too much to bear. Matren however had little reservation – or so he thought – of ending a life, especially if a greater good would come out of it. But he began to think, what if he had to kill an orphan, or a child that would one day grow to be a great and powerful tyrant and by killing them before they rose to power thousands upon thousands would be spared their brutality? He had no ready answers. He may have thought that he could do something that would change the path that their life would take. Provide them with a better, happier life like the Sweepers had afforded him. But in his heart he began to suspect that he hadn’t the answers and maybe never would. There was no telling for certain that any child would become evil and dangerous without actually having become dangerous already. He found solace in that.

As Matren dwelled on the past few weeks a shapely woman clad in a loose fitting gown of white with several silver lined pockets and straps sauntered into the room, swaying her hips exaggeratedly. She smiled sweetly at Matren, running a hand through her flaxen hair and pulling it together as she tied it with a large red ribbon. She had two long bangs framing her face, falling halfway down her neck. Her eyes were the color of the twilight with a soft brilliance to them, which twinkled when she looked at Matren. Her eyes gave his heart a small flutter and a spots of red flourished on his cheeks.

“Hello, Matren. How are we feeling today?” she asked, bending over revealing a rather surprising amount of cleavage. Matren struggled to look away but failed horribly.

He only managed to squeak out a few words. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“Well, that’s lovely!” she said with a high, tinkling laugh, “My name’s Jilen, you can just call me Jil if you want, I’m the Healer Alkir sent for. I’m going to be examining you sweetie, I promise I’ll be gentle.”

She delicately placed her hands on the sides of his temples and felt around. Mat’s whole body went lax and he felt weak and pleasantly fatigued. Her hands quickly ran down his body from his head. She stopped at several points to press and then tap gently with two fingers. The result was sporadic. Sometimes Mat would go limp and almost numb, sometimes there’d be no reaction and other times he practically became paralyzed for several seconds. She finished quickly enough and brushed his hair with her hands affectionately. She smelled like warm brown sugar and Mat couldn’t help but inhale as deeply as he could. She winked at him and produced a small foil wrapped candy for him, setting it down on his chest. She turned on her heels and walked out with the same exaggerated sway to her hips. Mat watched her leave, completely transfixed.

Only a few moments had passed before Alkir returned, not even long enough for Matren to unwrap what he knew to be a small pyramid shaped golden candy inside. He smiled at Matren and spread his arms wide. “Looks like you’ve got a clean bill of health kiddo! I’ll get started on the ceremony right away, make sure you’re ready for tonight! I’ll be back when it’s time for you to get prepared for your First Vows.” And just like that, Alkir was gone again.

Matren nodded quietly to himself while his hands explored the points on his own body the Healer had pressed, he felt his temples, the sides of his neck under his jaw and the crook of his elbows. But no matter how hard he pressed or how softly, he failed to reproduce even a faint ghost of the effects the Healer had. Abandoning further experimentation he turned to a book he hadn’t finished reading. The name was too strange for him to pronounce, but it was a book about how the Sweepers had been keeping order and balance for centuries. Their exacting influence was explained in such a way that it was alluded to that the Sweepers could sense discord and disharmony. These events were called Dust. In reality every person possesses a certain amount of Dust, which every action they take gains or diminishes their amount of Dust. In some cases an individual or group produce so much that it creates an imbalance. This imbalance causes chaos to reign instead of order and balance. Violence and decadence becomes the way of life rather than the outlier. Pain and suffering are normal and peace is all but a forgotten memory. The Sweepers – so aptly named – are tasked with ‘sweeping’ up the Dust that’s created; either by manipulating events to see the person taken out of power, or that their power is changed in such a way as to provide balance, or killing them out right. However the common man acknowledges Sweepers for two reasons: firstly that to Sweepers all mankind is Dust, and they are capable of killing and deposing just as quickly as one might sweep a broom to clean a mess; and secondly their signature cloaks make a sweeping sound as they billowed behind them. That noise and distinct look provided them with an ominous telltale sign that would come to be recognized all across the world.

As the sun sank into the horizon while Matren was still reading, Alkir came into the room with a set of black hooded robes with designs of swooping white clouds on the sleeves. “Here are your ceremonial robes. Put them on and I’ll lead you onto the Tower of Echoes where you will take your vows and be inducted into the Order.”

Matren took the robes with a silent nod of thanks, and quickly slipped them on over his clothing. Everything seemed cumbersome; his fingertips barely reached to the tip of the cuff, his hood fit fine but the bottom of the cloak trailed about on the ground by about half a span. Alkir was wearing something similar, large and oversized instead of his normal slimming and perfectly sized cloak that he had worn on occasion around Matren.

Matren looked down at himself, shrugged and looked back at his mentor, Alkir. “Are these the right size? They sure feel big on me.” he said, his voice trailing off as he remembered wearing the too-big ‘clothing’ made of rags with a potato sack for pants for the years when nobody who cared if he lived or died. But that wasn’t quite true. It was closer to the truth that nobody had cared if he died. Plenty of the villagers would have felt at ease if he had died with his mother and rid themselves of both the outsiders. But they very much cared that he was alive, his very presence was a darkening on all their doorsteps.

Alkir took Matren by the shoulders, jarring him from his grim reverie. “You’ll be fine Matren, the robes are a little big on purpose, it’s just how they are, and we all wear them, it’s one of those weird traditions that nobody questions. Watch,” he said as he fluttered his own robes about. He pulled the hood back and smiled. “See? Always a little larger, I suppose that’s to make us look more mysterious.” He wiggled his fingers at Matren, and it was anything but mysterious.

Matren paced forward towards his mentor, reaching out to take his offered hand. Silently the two left the room and proceeded down the hall to its end. They took a left and up a flight of stairs, the dim lamplight coupled with the looming twilight made it hard for Matren to make out the intricate designs and statues that accompanied their walk through the upper halls of the Sweeper Grounds.

Before long Matren was led up and out a wooden door with a cold handle and onto the top of a tower where several large braziers burned with a brilliant blaze; the same sort of fire that was remarkably controlled, like that which burned his village. Several other robed members were there, however none of them had the white clouds etched onto the sleeves, and it was then that Matren realized only him and Alkir had them.

Seeing this, Alkir spoke up, “As your Sosen, I am responsible for every action you take. Every wrong you make is a wrong I make. The way our robes match symbolizes our connection. I will take my Vows again through you.”

Matren took a moment for that to sink in before replying, “So if I broke a rule, would you receive the same punishment as I did?”

Alkir shook his head. “It depends, mostly I would be punished first before you because I should be teaching you better than that. If however your transgression is greater than a failing of my teaching then yes, we would be punished together.”

Matren nodded gravely, understanding now more than ever that if he ever got in trouble, it would be Alkir that paid the price more than he. He didn’t think that was very fair but he didn’t push the subject. If that was how things were done in the Order, he would conform and make sure that Alkir’s trust in Matren was well placed. He would make him proud and hopefully that would be enough for Alkir, but that got Matren thinking. “Alkir…if I do something really good, do you get rewarded too?”

Alkir smiled. “Yes, the relationship of the Sosen and Pupil goes both ways. For your progression and reward I am also rewarded. Just the same as when you are punished, I am punished. So it is always in my best interest to make you the best of the Order that I possibly can.”

“Matren, Alkir step toward the altar,” spoke a sagely voice that sounded as if it had dried out over the years.

Alkir quickly complied, pulling Matren along. They arrived at the small altar made of polished cherry wood. Atop it were three bowls of different colors, they were all dark to Matren but they looked like some shade of blue, green and red. Inside each was a small amount of oily dark liquid and behind each was a small white candle with its flame flickering fitfully in the breeze atop the tower.

“Alkir, present your charge,” said the voice once more.

Alkir smiled and placed a protective hand on Matren’s back, “Matren Kurnal, son of Selese Kurnal Sweeper of the Order. By my right do I take charge of this student of the Order until such a time as the Order deems him sufficient enough to be his own keeper. I take this position willingly and with great honor, by Fire and Water and Blood do I swear this.”

Alkir nodded with a smile towards Matren as he motioned for Matren to pick up the first bowl on the left. “The order only has three tenants that must be followed at all times, the first and most important is that of balance. Above all else Balance must be maintained and anything done under Balance is permissible, for without Balance we would have no purpose and the world would plunge into chaos and despair. Will you stand with us and uphold Balance above all else?”

Matren nodded. “By this I swear,” he intoned.

Alkir took the first candle and lit the liquid on fire. “Now drink, and if your heart is true, the fire will not burn you. For this, you swear by Fire.”

Matren gulped reflexively, the heat from the flame was nearly unbearable as close as it was but he did not push it away for fear of the message it would send. He pulled the bowl to his lips and tilted the bowl. He shut his eyes and drank. The flames licked and tickled his face and lips but did not burn him. Though they were so hot it almost felt like he was being burned. As he drained the small amount of liquid that was in the bowl he could feel the flame burning inside him. It was a powerful warmth, almost hot enough to hurt but just barely kept in check. The fire spread slowly from his chest, radiating outwards to every fiber of his body.

Alkir looked at him knowingly and gave an encouraging nod before motioning to the next bowl. The liquid inside was just as oily and black as the last. Matren wondered if he would set this on fire too.

“No innocent shall be harmed unless Balance decrees it. Above all personal gain and desire, the innocents must be protected.”

Matren nodded. “By this I swear,” he intoned.

Alkir took the second candle, and touched it to the bowl which splashed sharply and the oily substance turned to fresh water. “Drink this to temper the fire that burns within you. For this, you swear by Water.”

Matren drank the cool, sweet water and felt the mounting burning within him quenched; a cloud of cool steam rose up from his throat and streamed out of his mouth, and much to his surprise, he felt trickling steam shooting from his nostrils and ears. Alkir took the bowl from him, but was obviously stifling a chuckle, struggling to regain composure and maintain a serious face.

The last bowl was a deep red that Matren took as his hands became free. The same liquid was inside as the other two, though Matren couldn’t understand how they were so drastically changed by a candle’s flame.

Alkir took a knife from the table that Matren had not seen before. “Death is to be a final course of action, it is not to be taken lightly and each death must be carefully done so as to give their life proper respect regardless of how they had treated their own.”

“By this I swear.” Matren intoned, for a third and final time.

Alkir pulled back his sleeve up to his elbow and held out his forearm over the bowl, with a smooth motion he slit his forearm. The blood travelled into the intricately designed channels of the blade and dripped into the bowl. “By this, you swear by blood. My blood, your blood and the blood of every life you take.”

Matren stared in disbelief as faint waves of nausea struck him from all sides. As he forced himself to grab the bowl, Alkir took the third and final candle and touched the flame to the surface of the oily substance mixed with blood, turning the contents a deep crimson. Matren put the bowl to his lips and drank. It had an acrid, coppery flavor with a bitter aftertaste. He resisted the urge to gag or cough, and only when Alkir removed the bowl from his grasp did he realize that every muscle in his body had seized up and was nearly as hard as stone.

The old man stepped forward and placed a kind hand on his shoulder. “Matren Kurnal, you are welcomed as a brother and son of the Order. I can see the fire of your mother inside you, and I can tell you will be a rarity even amongst the others in the Order. Alkir here will see to your new apartments.”

Matren could only look up and smile. He felt sick and numb inside from whatever it was he had drank. He began to suspect that he had just agreed to something more binding than any contract a normal person could ever agree to. Despite everything however he felt a burgeoning sense of pride and belonging. For once in his life he was welcomed and he felt like he belonged to something greater than just himself. Alkir placed a guiding hand on his back and turned him to go back inside the tower, down its many long stairs and into the top floor’s hallway. The lights weren’t brighter and yet Matren could see in the darkness better somehow. He didn’t think too much of it, but he was sure the lights didn’t change and yet he could make out the various framed paintings of great men and women of the Order throughout its history. The large marble busts of faces young and old, man and woman were set upon tall pedestals standing even above Alkir, like they were watching over all who passed through their hall. They had details that he could not have seen when Alkir was guiding him up to take his First Vows. But now he could make out carved wrinkles and subtle curves to their faces and expressions that hadn’t appeared before.

Alkir guided his young charge to a large doorway with a black iron wrought handle, with a quick twist the cool night air greeted them with a mild gust. The scent of cool water filled Matren’s nose; but there was no salt, so clearly they were on the shore of a massive lake, one so large Matren could not see its opposite end from his room. They were walking on a small covered bridge connecting two sections of a very old castle. Matren hadn’t yet seen the outside of where he was staying, but from the bits and pieces he could see in the darkness it appeared a sprawling, majestic castle of such a size as to rival even the greatest Kings. He yearned to go out to the grounds below and behold the beauty and splendor of his new home, but he also felt ill and the sight of the ground so far below gave him a slight case of vertigo. His head spun and his stomach sloshed back and forth sickeningly. If not for Alkir’s steadying hand he surely would have fallen to the floor, and in his condition the last thing he would want would be to get back up.

“The sickness will pass, it’s surprisingly minor in you,” Alkir said, producing a small bag all the same and passing it to Matren, “most people are sick for days on end, it’s an unfortunate side effect of the ritual but you really seem to be holding your own. If, however you do feel like you’re going to be sick, just do it inside that bag. I had figured you’d need it right away and were only holding out so you looked strong in front of the Elders, but I’m quite surprised by your fortitude,” Alkir rubbed Matren’s back gently, Matren could tell he almost clapped him on the back but thought better of it, “Anyways, if you’re feeling up to it tomorrow we’ll start your training proper. It’s intense, especially for somebody so young. I don’t want you to think that you have something to prove. It’ll just be you and me. I already know you’re capable of a great many feats, you can relax with me and be yourself Matren. If you push yourself too hard, you really will get sick and then I’ll have no recourse but to babysit you until you get better,” Alkir turned to look at Matren, “Neither of us really wants that, do we?”

Matren clenched his teeth and willed his stomach to settle as he shook his head. Any attempt to talk would only result in his being violently ill and if he did get sick he was convinced that he would have to wait even longer to begin training. Matren was bound and determined not to mess anything up. He wasn’t about to let a golden opportunity slip through his fingers, not when it had taken so long for him to grab hold of one. He would master this pain and sickness and he would force his body to do his bidding regardless of its boisterous objections. Every step was a mounting agony, his bones hurt, and the very blood that gave him life seared like somebody had replaced his blood with acid. If he breathed very quietly he could almost hear the sizzling of the blood in his veins as it was pumped everywhere. He conserved his movement as much as possible but that prompted Alkir to place his hand more firmly between Matren’s shoulder blades. No doubt Alkir thought Matren was getting tired and moving strangely as a result, and the pressure from Alkir’s hand was like a thousand knives slowly digging their way into his very bones. But he somehow managed to force himself to stay quiet and kept up as best he could.

The bridge, though short felt like a thousand leagues to Matren. The cold blistered his skin while the gentle breeze cut through his clothes and froze his very blood, biting deep into his bones. Every step was like walking on glass limbs, he could feel the balls of his feet breaking with every gingerly step and the shards of their remains shred into what remained. No matter how softly and slowly he walked it made no difference, the pain wrenched its way with blinding agony up his shin to his knees and then made an express pain that shot into his hips. For the little slices of thought he was able to muster, Matren wondered if this is what it was like to be old and decrepit. The pain was just enough that he could take, except that it was constantly threatening his threshold, testing and pushing his boundaries even before he realized it. Alkir meanwhile acted as if Matren were simply sleep deprived or possibly drunk, though he didn’t say so, he all but acted it. Without his guiding hand Matren wouldn’t have made it over the bridge and into the Order’s Apartments. Alkir spoke, yet most of his words slid across Matren as water on glass. The whole of his mind was focused on his pain, on ways to mitigate and stop it. But most of all, to prevent any outward sign that he was in insufferable agony. Based on Alkir’s demeanor, he was completely successful.

While Alkir spoke Matren caught bits and pieces snatched out of the air by the healthy seconds of sanity before bone racking pain sent his conscious mind reeling into a spiral of darkness. Matren had always heard that pain was like bright blooms of light, but this was a slow descent into dark agony. His vision grew darker and colored with the faintest purple hue. His eyelids drooped now and again, causing him to stumble on a rug’s edge or the frame of a doorway. Whenever he would Alkir would catch him and the pain of his hands steadying Matren was almost too much to bear. Matren couldn’t imagine what his face looked like, but if Alkir recognized the pain, he wasn’t letting Matren know. The entire walk was all but a blur of pain and warping darkness that clung to Matren’s sight like leaper fish to the sides of a fishing boat. His head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton, anything but the simplest movements were all but out of reach, a nod here, a grunt of assent there and the constant, dead leg walking he was just barely able to pull off were all he could stand to do.

If Alkir hadn’t stopped when he did and unlocked the door for Matren, he would have needed to carry him the rest of the way to his room. The room was huge, not as big as the abandoned house that Matren had lived in, but it was in good condition with plenty of amenities, at least that is what Alkir assured him. Matren only cared for the bed and hopefully a bucket larger than the small bag he had been given for when he inevitably lost all contents of his stomach to the swirling void of gloom that surrounded him. The edges of his vision had darkened considerably in the last few moments, he did not know how long it was they had been walking, a few minutes or a few hours were both perfectly possible in the state he was in.

Matren choked out a slurred word, “Bed.” And Alkir rushed to show him his room, opening the door and lighting the lanterns for him. They gave a soft golden glow to the room, and most importantly they illuminated the large bed with its wooden backing, carved in intricate knots like a lighthouse guides a sailor to safe harbor. Without anything further he flung himself at the bed, or at least that was his intention. Instead Matren waddled and stumbled over to the edge of the bed like some drunken deckhand’s first night on the sea and flopped incessantly onto the bed like a fish.

Alkir helped him as best he could before providing a small metal bucket for Matren. “Just in case the bag isn’t enough,” he said. Matren knew full well just what he’d need, and the small bucket and bag provided would do for Matren just as well as if it had been a thimble.

Alkir looked back at Matren, sprawled out on the bed and face down as he was. Matren afforded Alkir one last look before letting the bubbling darkness gathering at the edge of his vision drag him under. When he opened his eyes and felt hollow. The sort of feeling that can only be achieved by something being taken. Matren tried to home in on what it was that he could be missing, but he came up empty time and time again. Unable to figure it out he let the feeling slide off like the rain on a slate roof. He had been in this sort of ephemeral darkness before. There were times he could feel it shadowing him like he was standing beneath a towering building that stuck to the gaps in his vision. A void opened up in front of him, filled with a smoky blue fog that lingered about his feet and fell away into the yawning expanse in front of him. There was darkness all around but he could make out distant shapes and objects moving and flitting about the edges of his vision that sank back into the all-encompassing darkness as soon as he tried to turn his gaze on them. Voices rang from the chasm below and the fog swirled around his ankles forming small eddies as it moved.

Matren could feel the mist’s gripping tendrils obtaining a corporeal presence as it tightened around his ankles. He stepped back startled, heart thumping against his chest. He turned to run but the chasm was there too, waiting for him, expectant. No matter the direction he turned the chasm was there and it appeared to grow in size until it surrounded him like a ring of sunken earth. The hazy blue fog roiled and choked out his vision as it grasped ten thousand fingers along his clothing, tugging and pulling at him until he could no longer resist. The fog grasped and pulled him down to the lip of the chasm. Matren struggled and screamed, his hands reaching and grasping at air. He tried to slow himself, to grab onto anything but his hands could find no purchase. He was dragged into the depths of the fog and below the mouth of the chasm, into an endless void.

As he was pulled deeper into the void he could make out words of the voices that were all talking at once. It was his voice or some macabre shadow of it at least. He heard his name over and over. Snippets of other words came to him until he realized it was his mantra. The singular anchor of sanity he had used since his mother died, was now being played back to him in this dark theatre, every time he had to remind himself he was alive and not forgotten was repeated in an unfamiliar, serpentine voice. Though it was not his voice, there was no mistaking that they were his words, each one cut him with the remembering and with the pain associated that drove him to seek succor from the only words he could ever trust not to harm him.

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