Chapter Nineteen

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On the first day I carried my pride of being the Prince of Panthos on my shoulders as a sign for all to see. Liras said it was not a sigil to be thrust in the faces of those that owed me their allegiance. Instead, he had told me to show humility, to earn my throne. I laughed at him, though I was only a young boy. It had not occurred to me that Panthos was truly no more, not at the time. I wanted to rebuild the country in my own image. But, the oscura had different plans. I was gripped by fear almost immediately. It was so dark! I waved my hand in front of my face, but could scarce feel the air that moved behind it, much less see anything. It smelled of damp stone, of decaying roots and dead things. I walked slowly, hands straight out in front of me, trying to feel for any oncoming walls. Panic crept its way up my spine. Every fiber of me screamed to run back to the stairs, but no, I would not be defeated so easily. “I am Kareth,” I told myself over and again. In my chanting, I almost missed the whispers behind me, the scurrying of footsteps. It was a hushed sound, like it came from a different room, but it was so very close.

I froze.

It was all I could do to control my pounding heart, to slow my breathing. Liras had told me about fear, but it was the first time I had really, truly felt it. Relentless it stood, a paralyzing fear that threatened to destroy everything that I knew, everything that I was. There was the voice then, a hiss of words as frightening as anything I had ever heard.

“It blinds you, boy.” It came from behind me, but when I turned it seemed to move around me. “The world fears the darkness, boy, but not the Sieltacor. You must become one with it.” The voice moved as if it flew through the air. I turned again and again, yet could never place where it was coming from.

“Any man may fight in the light, but few can harness the shadows and survive.” And then he was in front of me; a man, cloaked and hooded. A candle had appeared in cupped hands just in front of his chest. Light flickered over his pale face.  His cloak was as old and threadbare as the first man’s, but he was taller and broader around the chest. The candlelight danced over the bone tattoos that slithered across his face. My breath caught at the sight of him. “Guard your bones, boy, for naught here is your friend.” His dark eyes looked me over. “Follow me, s’pose you’ll do.”

He led me through dark hallways and narrow passages, some so tight that the man had to turn sideways to fight through them. We went down some steps, then up some more. We turned right, then left, then right again. I was so turned around by the time we reached the large candlelit chamber that I could not have left even if I had wanted to. There was an eerie drum of music coming from the far end of the room, some odd instrument being plucked by a novice musician. The candles were placed at eye level nearly three paces apart the entire way down the chamber. It took me a moment to realize the oddities that the candles were staked on, but after closer inspection there was no doubting that bones were the foundation, human bones.

I looked down at the floor, it was the same story. Bones were used as mortar, as filler, as trimmings. I took a deep breath and followed the man to the far end of the room. Shadows of men, or perhaps even children, were languorously placed on the floor and near the walls. Though none of their faces could be seen, hoods turned and I could feel their eyes boring into me as I walked. The man was perched on a large chair, dwarfed by the monstrous black table that he sat behind, at least it looked black. It was some kind of dark ash, I knew, but I was no scholar on the various types of woods that grew on the Isles. The wonders of the Isles were known throughout the world and no doubt this wood was as rare as their fabled steel.

On the table sat mountains of books, parchments, and scrolls, and the small man had his nose buried in one particularly large leather bound tome. My guide stopped short of the table and simply stood there staring straight ahead at the wall. Neither made any movements, and I found my courage crawling back. Liras had warned me about the ruthlessness of the shadows, but I thought it an empty assumption. The Uthari survived for almost a century without a member present in the shadows. I could not see why they were feared so. Bones and pain; I had experienced much and more pain, and death was a way of life on the Isles, so bones were never in shortage.

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