Marrus and Alanna halted at the lip of the crater. The sun was breaking against the far horizon and its rays were playing across the long expanse of plain, alighting on little houses and the wisps of smoke that twisted slowly from them. In the finest light that nature could render, the landscape was still sad.
None of that light touched the crater below them. It was utterly dark down there, darkness that obscured dimension, an entire swath of emptiness that poured out before them like a massive lake of ink. Marrus stared at it without saying anything, fatigue hanging heavily on his limbs. He felt a kind of exhaustion-induced equanimity toward the abyss. He wouldn’t mind staying where he was, but he wouldn’t mind diving into it, either.
Alanna spoke without looking at him, her voice quiet and almost frail, her eyes on the vanishing sun. “How long should we rest?”
“Not long,” he said to her. “Ten minutes?”
Marrus sank into a crouch. Squatting made his anguished muscles burn from the hours of travel, and keeping balance on the balls of his feet was harder than it should have been, but he didn’t dare sit. Through all of the fatigue, all the deep-seated exhaustion, there was still the implacable buzzing of apprehension, the perpetual suspicion that the moment he relaxed his guard, the moment he sat down on his bottom and laid his bow aside to take a few deep breaths and clear his mind: thack. And it would all be over.
Sometimes he wanted that to happen. Sometimes, when he shut his eyes, before he drifted away into the blurred shadow-land of his dreams, he considered the futility of waking up. Of talking, hunting, walking, killing. Doing whatever else. Why not sleep forever? Better to cavort alone in the vibrant landscape of his dreams, to abandon forever apprehension, hatred, fear, boredom. But he always woke, and he was always grudgingly grateful that he did.
Alanna hadn’t even sat down. She was standing, but without her usual posture of readiness. She was slouched, staring down the trail that followed the crater’s edge, already planning, already thinking, already anticipating and worrying. Marrus didn’t know how she found the energy.
“You know,” he finally said. “We could just make camp here instead. That wouldn’t be so bad. It wouldn’t be fun at first, but think—over the days we’d collect logs and branches to fortify ourselves, we could hunt, eat well, dry some meat for winter. We could sleep when we wanted to. We could live here for the rest of our lives. Have some kids. Watch the sun go down every night over this haunted hellish crater. Sure, we might get bored, but better bored than….” Marrus couldn’t think of a word for what they were doing.
Alanna ignored all of this. Marrus put his face in his hands.
Down the escarpment there was a rustling, and suddenly Marrus no longer felt tired. A familiar energy surged into his enervated limbs and drove him to his feet. Approaching them along the ridge was a young soldier. His gaze was downcast and his steps irregular and purposeless, as if he were procrastinating some horrible instruction from his commander. Marrus raised his bow and beside him Alanna did the same. “Stop where you are,” he said.
The youth, no more than twenty feet away, looked up and flinched backward, his movement so sudden and his breath so sharp that Marrus almost released the arrow. The soldier’s hands waved around erratically, fluttering first toward his belt and then toward his face. “On your knees,” Marrus said, unnerved and sickened by everything: the soldier’s terror, his age, the adolescent squeak his voice would make when he screamed. “Put your hands up, stop waving them around.”
The soldier did as he was told, but then started muttering a stream of words rapidly under his breath. Marrus nearly shot him then, fearing that the soldier was preparing some complex and unlikely spell, but then he realized that the boy was only repeating the words “Don’t kill me” under his breath as if he really were preparing an incantation.
Alanna was looking sideways at Marrus. He didn’t meet her eyes. “We don’t actually have to kill him, do we?” she said.
Her voice was swollen with the same misery that Marrus had carried with him for days now. As his adrenaline receded and heavy sluggishness closed back over his limbs, Marrus was beset by an enormous, oppressive fatigue, an exhaustion that dragged not only at his limbs but also worked to soften the hard corners of his mind. He was tired of all of this: the endless walking, the endless killing. He thought about dreaming: how the shadows would pursue each other and combine, how he would swim through them.
“Come on, Alanna,” he said hollowly, and the wind carried his voice down to where the soldier cowered. “Don’t do this to me again.” He knew, just as she did, that the soldier had to die.
“I wouldn’t say anything.” The soldier’s voice floated up to them, sounding exactly as Marrus had feared it would: the broken pitch of adolescence, the tender quailing of fear, as if he were working up the courage to tell a girl how he felt. “Please,” he said, and his fingers twitched more rapidly. “I’m not going to betray you. If you spare me, you’ll never have to worry about anything.”
Marrus hesitated and slackened his bow, mostly because of the physical strain. He was thinking about the soldier’s statement. You’ll never have to worry about anything. A bold assertion, but inevitably a false one. Whatever Marrus chose to do, he would end up worrying quite a bit.
He looked at Alanna and saw that she had already lowered her bow and had removed her arrow. This only annoyed him further. Didn’t she know?
“I’m sorry,” Marrus said, unsure of to whom he was speaking. A sudden revulsion with the situation, a desire to end it, had seized him. He felt it: the intoxicating surge that always swelled within him when he knew he had to take a life. The momentary disbelief, then the resignation. All of this had become far too normal. “I don’t have a choice,” he said to the soldier.
The boy’s face crumpled and a sob tore out of him. Because he didn’t want to listen to it, Marrus lifted his bow and released the arrow. He had been aiming for the soldier’s forehead, but somehow the arrow struck the boy through the right side of his chest instead. He slumped onto his side. Cursing, seeing that he wasn’t dead, Marrus bounded forward, unsheathed his dagger, and buried the point of it in the side of the soldier’s head.
The boy shuddered and went entirely limp.
Marrus knelt and cleaned his dagger on the soldier’s jerkin for longer than he needed to, refusing to look up at Alanna. “I had to do it,” he said loudly, as if to a larger audience. “You knew I had to do it. Why did you insist on giving him hope?” Marrus sheathed his dagger and pulled the arrow from the corpse, trudged back up the incline. Alanna had not moved. Her nocked bow hung loosely beside her. Tears were crawling from her bright blue eyes and sliding down her cheeks.
“Our rest is over,” Marrus said, a sudden unreasonable anger at Alanna stirring in his chest. “Let’s go.”
But as he spoke, the corpse of the soldier shifted. Marrus’s first thought was that somehow the boy had survived. His second, introduced by his addled and unrested mind, was that the soldier was back from the dead. But his body remained motionless on the ground. It was another form, translucent and weightless, that rose above the corpse. In the darkness it was shaded and indistinct, but Marrus knew already what form it took.
Then, alit by no source that Marrus could see, the silhouette burst into color. In shape, it was a perfect likeness of the boy Marrus had slain, who still lay lifeless on the ground. But the thing was shimmering, glowing blue and deep red, and the violet eyes were utterly without fear.
“So our rest is definitely over,” Alanna said, raising her bow.
“Don’t,” Marrus warned, lifting his hand. “We can’t harm it.”
They watched as the spirit turned its head slowly, its violet eyes sending shafts of otherworldly brilliance into the darkness and changing little patches of reality—a glowing clump of pine needles; a cerulean fern. It appeared to be taking its bearings. Then its eyes settled directly on Marrus. The gaze was not menacing or revengeful or even accusatory. It was mild, curious.
Floating a few inches above the ground, it drifted toward them. Alanna cursed and loosed her arrow, and the shaft plunged through the spirit’s throat without resistance, whistled bleakly into the night. The spirit did not appear to be angered or amused. It simply shook its head and frowned, and slowly it continued toward them.
Without a word, they drew their swords. Marrus knew that they were helpless, that neither blades nor arrows would save them, but the gesture was one of instinct that he couldn’t help. And somehow he found himself unafraid. An illogical but resolute voice inside him said that the spirit did not mean them harm.
Alanna was possessed of no such assurance. She was breathing quickly and muttering under her breath and she could not seem to hold still, constantly repositioning her sword and kneading its pommel.
The spirit halted five feet away and floated there for perhaps a minute, its expression placid and almost gentle. Then it raised its translucent hand to touch him. A bolt of fear shuddered through Marrus, but he couldn’t seem to find the will to move, and before he could try, the spirit touched Alanna’s check instead.
Alanna uttered a low whimper and her body went rigid. She shook her head once, as if to dispel a troubling thought. “There’s so many of them,” she murmured, while Eldred kneaded his sword and thought about slicing at the spirit, just to show it that he wasn’t afraid. “They’re everywhere.”
Marrus didn’t ask Alanna what she meant.
The spirit turned and drifted away, and Marrus thought it would leave them for good. But instead it floated back to the corpse of the boy and hovered over it, staring, a shivering kaleidoscope of unnatural color.
“Marrus,” Alanna said. “I’m seeing everybody. They’re all waiting. They’d be happy to see us.”
“I don’t know,” Marrus said, and it seemed that his voice was stretching, elongating. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
And the spirit watched them.
“Let me show you,” Alanna said, and she took his hand.
Then, in the following instant, Marrus saw.
The crater before him was suddenly filled with shimmering violet light. Thousands of spirits filled it, their red and blue hues fading eventually into oblivion, staring up him with expressions he couldn’t quite understand—were they sad? Lonely? Bored?
And suddenly directly in front of him were the lighted faces of people he recognized. The soldier was there, smiling. And the faces of other men he’d slain, of their wives who had wasted away with grief, their children who had starved. And the visages of those he had loved, the faces of his mother and father and little sister, and vividly Marrus was seeing once again the ash that had swirled up from their little house while he watched from far away and begged whatever god there was to give him more courage.
“We’re all here, son,” his father said.
“No,” Marrus croaked. He let go of Alanna’s hand and reality splashed back over him. For a moment he entertained the hope that everything had been some kind of dream, or trance. But the spirit was still there, watching them.
“They’re waiting for us,” Marrus said to Alanna, and put his arm around her. He drew them closer to the edge of the crater.
Alanna seemed barely to have heard him. She shook her head faintly but walked with him toward the crater’s edge. “Are we going to them?”
“Why not!” Marrus said, tears lancing from his eyes. “Why not go to them!”
Alanna took hold of his arm. “But we’re still here.”
“Do you think? Do you think so?”
They walked right up to the edge of the crater, and even from that distance there was no piercing the pond of blackness that filled it. Convinced for one ridiculous moment that the darkness actually was tangible, Marrus dipped his foot into it, expecting to find rock or sticky black syrup. Instead his foot dipped into nothing, and he teetered. Marrus’s balance was good, but today something went wrong—his fatigue, or some secret magnetic potency of the inky black below him. He fell.
Then Alanna was on her stomach and her fingers were locked through his, the tendons in her forearms trembling, and Marrus’s feet were standing on only air, and a great consummate terror, a mind-numbing desire not to join them, replaced his every other conscious thought.
And then finally he was lying on his back on the cold earth and his chest was heaving and Alanna was gulping back huge sobs of fear, and still the spirit was watching them.
Marrus turned his head toward it. “Go,” he said. “Please.”
And the spirit turned and floated away. Marrus watched it go. It was visible for some time, lowering with the descending escarpment, moving at the speed a man might run. Then it turned and floated over the crater as if the darkness within really were solid. Further and further it went, like some strange bioluminescent fly, blue and red and dark shimmering violet. Finally it halted and sank down into the black. Its strange light blinked out, and around Marrus and Alanna everything was dark and entirely quiet.
Myles Buchanan grew up in Portland, Oregon and is currently studying English at Kenyon College. A lifelong fan of the fantasy genre, he is especially inspired by the work of J.R.R Tolkien and Christopher Paolini.