Spare the Light
Vagrant Story/Kingdom Hearts 2. Saix backstory. Set pre-games. Related to Magpies.
When they take his heart, they take his courage with it.
They should have taken his uncertainty as well.
It is twelve years before the shadows come.
The forest is cold at night, but the boy has trained himself each year not to feel it. Their cabin walls are thin. The wood is cheap and splintering, reinforced by shallow planks which have been stolen from rotting farmer's sheds. There are not enough blankets to fill in the cracks.
The forest is cold, and the cloud cover is low and thick. All stars have been blotted out by heavy mist.
"I don't like it when I can't see, sister."
"Hush, now." This is not the first time the girl has said those words. Weariness is in her voice, no matter how she attempts to mask it. A wick sputters in her fingers. Slowly, the glow of the lantern kindles to a warm orb, painting liquid gold across her skin in a line that wavers like the tides.
Crouching, the girl clears her throat for the start of the invocation.
"There are two faces to the Moon," she recites slowly. "They are the two sides of her heart. One side shows her love. The other, her hate. Brother," the girl interjects, breaking her own tempo. "Recite."
The boy stirs. He joins in the chant with limp obedience: "If you wish to beg of the Moon, to ask of her things which are best left unsaid, then speak when she will not spare the world her light."
"Good." The girl straightens up from the floor, hooking her fingers into the pole-loop of the lantern. "That's our protection, brother. Best not to forget it. Ours is the charm of murderers, rapists and thieves. Their ilk is our blood."
He looks away, circles flashing on his eyelids every time he blinks, vision singed from staring too long at the wick. "We could try begging the village again."
"No," she says, and the sound is absolute. Worried, too, despite her best efforts to hide her emotions. Her fear is thick. It makes the boy's head pound, makes him shaky and nauseous and warns him to go back to bed before something bad happens. "Not after the last time."
"I'll be fine." It's a lie. They both know it. He protests anyway. "I... it's been a while since the last time, and we need the food."
Her sister shakes her head. "The touch of the Dark won't release its prey so easily. Stay here. I'll make my theft like the quickest of pocket-lighteners, and come back for you." The smile she offers is fleeting, brittle and weak. "Now, while the moon is full of hate. I will go. And before the moon has remembered love, I will come back."
They hunt the winter like this, winding their feet with rags to keep them warm, and unwinding them just as fast to keep them from being frostbitten through with melted slush. Scraps aren't plentiful in the colder seasons, but the temperatures are kind in their own way -- food rots slower, so there's time to pick through the midden and there's always snow around to wash the leftovers they do find. Hunting cabins litter the territory; old courier posts, Iocus waystations for lost travelers, and each is a potential meal-in-waiting.
They hunt the winter and grow lean and ragged and strong, until the boy hears what sounds like an epidemic of wolves in the forest, and his sister does not come home.
Hunger flushes him from the woods eventually. He makes his way out stumbling, heading towards the clustered huts of the village in a desperate hope for sustenance.
None of the farmers mention seeing his sister. But the boy's presence attracts the notice of the local magistrate, who -- in a grand declaration of how the next generation should not be allowed to wander fallow -- orders a room to be set aside at the inn. An education is next on the list. Clothing, proper manners, and human decency all compose an ingredient sheet for a new life.
The magistrate's voice tastes like blind optimism, like honey and clover and thyme brewed at the height of summer, and the boy lets himself accept the offer for a little while.
They know about him still, remember him despite his best hopes: the two strays in the forest, sire and dam abandoning the extra mouths before their spawn were old enough to follow. Or, perhaps -- some whisper -- casualties of the war. There are stories. The boy can hear them, even when he tries not to; he can feel them, humming like stormfire on the air, speculation and rumor and rot, digging away at his struggling concentration, hissing-spitting-oozing snide cruelty.
He pulls away from crowds whenever he can. The attacks come at random, at their own leisure; some days he can go entire afternoons without the rage boiling up in him, filling him with a strength he knows he dares not unleash. Everything that his classmates say makes him want to strike them. He can't imagine being able to tolerate their presence. He cannot stand being near them. They will drive him insane.
He breaks free carefully each time, taking his solace in the rare moments of privacy he can find. In the woods, he can hide with his head down, knees rocking; sheltering under the night sky, under the moon, until self-control returns and he can look at people as harmless once more.
They teach him to read, and he handles it clumsily. Letters are dead; letters feel like nothing on their own, nothing that gives him meaning as clearly as the turn of a man's head. He picks it up fast enough to meet their approval, however -- whenever a word is particularly troublesome, the boy watches to see someone else read it aloud, and borrows their meaning as his own.
The boy grows older. He grows older and more human, blending in neatly with the rest of the village children, performing the act with a desperate fervor. All his best efforts last through the trials of routine living, growing stronger with each successful day -- right up until the day when one of the bigger schoolboys tries to steal his lunch as a joke.
Everything breaks at once.
He ends up shaky and sick, trembling against the wall like an old man taken by palsy. There's blood on his knuckles. A fist impacts against his shoulder; it's not strong enough to hurt, but suddenly he's down, dropped like a sack of grain by his own missing balance. The laughter of the other boys rouses him by force. He lurches to his feet with rabid stubbornness, maddened by their madness, their mockery, their taint which drags him down despite his own intent.
The roar of the magistrate rushes over them all with the cold fury of a winter storm.
It takes three full-grown men to pin the boy down. The shed behind the inn is the only place convenient to lock him; he goes wild in confinement, battering himself against the door, earning himself splinters and scratches on the rough planks. Exhaustion finally claims him hours later like a jaded cousin, pulling him away, plucking his thoughts deftly out of his body like a raven fetching a corpse's eye.
He lets it take him. He lets himself go.
The boy wakes up later, hearing words that seep directly into his brain before they make sense to his ears. His arms ache.
There are two men outside the shed. Their weight makes muddy footprints in the earth; the boy can smell the rain.
"When was his birth?"
The speaker is not one the boy has ever felt before. His voice is strong and gravely. Villagers do not speak with that accent: sharper in the roof of the mouth, words shaped with a leisurely predation. No passing traveler should have the right of such confidence.
Riskbreaker, the boy thinks, and then gulps down a bubble of air.
"Fourteen years, I believe." The magistrate this time. "We have kept him for three of those."
A grunt. "Fourteen years marks the quarry." There is a rasp of a match, and the reek of pipe smoke begins to trickle through the cracks in the shed walls. "Fourteen years it has been, since the fall of Lea Monde."
There is a rustle, a tang of uncertainty on the air. The magistrate smoothes his thick fingers down his beard. The boy cannot see it, but he can guess; he can guess and see it all too well, with his mind's eye and its uncharitable ruthlessness. "You are certain the clerics will know what to do with him? How he can be helped?"
"We've a whole basement of them, all touched by that cursed town. Fear not." Metal jingles. Coin shuffles inside a sack, passed from palm to palm. "Take this, for your troubles and those of your village. You may consider your unfortunate to be in good hands."
The magister bows and scrapes, relieved enough that his gratitude is a bright spot gleaming in the back of the boy's skull. "Bless the Cardinal for his generosity."
"Aye, sir." The boy cannot see the speaker's face, but he can taste the dark amusement. "Bless 'em all."
Soldiers take him away in the night. It happens while the moon is not yet fully dark, not able to give the full of her protection; the boy tries to whisper the invocation under his breath, but his attention spins like a broken compass, and he fails even at repetition of the few words he can manage.
They travel unmarked by the Church, in armor that has been covered over with roughsack, lacking tabard or sigil to identify their company. They do not speak of the Cardinal's wishes or utter prayers to St. Iocus; they give the nearest waystation a wide berth, marching him into a grease-tarp wagon and latching him in shackles to keep him there.
That is the last that he sees of the sky for years.
The prison bears the stamp of a cage which is young in its making. Soured lees stain the wood that has been hewn into stocks; wine kegs have been split to form their impromptu bonds, and the narrow stone tunnels make it seem as if they are infesting an abbey.
Perhaps they are.
At first his jailers keep him in the cell with another man, but the endless pressure of life fills up the cell until the boy is drowning in it. He can't breathe. He can't swallow without the heartbeat of the other crawling across his tongue and lodging in his throat, choking him.
Eventually, the boy does the only thing he can to remain sane, and strangles his cellmate while the wardens are asleep.
They keep him in solitary after that, shoving his meals across the floor with a wooden rod.
There are no tasks to perform, and the wardens do not allow the prisoners to lay their hands on anything risky. Food is taken with fingers, not spoons, and the only knives belong to their jailers. The boy loses track of time quickly, feeling the press of people around him, through the walls. His muscles grow weak. They begin to ache from disuse. Small efforts cause him to tremble.
He hates the sensation so much that he begins to stretch his limbs in his cell, flexing his arms and legs as far as they can go. The irons chap his ankles and wrists. He rips precious lengths off his clothes to wrap around the metal in hopes that cloth will protect him; the fabric becomes filthy with sweat, and he balls it up, hating the grease that's sitting like a layer of oil on his skin.
Gossip gives him location: he has been moved to basements in the Greylands, but where inside the Greylands, he does not know. The dungeon is twisting; the jailers move him up and down cells on the rare occasion that they dare to confront him, and many have taken to beating him into submission first. The boy cannot blame them. Imprisonment is driving him insane, with nothing else around save the anger of other prisoners -- anger and despair and fear, stewing together like feces in a cooking pot.
The one stench nearly blots out the other. Around him bubbles the bitter aura of mildew, the spongy haze of rot -- his own filthy skin as he withers away like a skeleton, hollow save for the power inside. Energy twists and shakes and rises like a dog to its master whenever he hears the clink of a jailer's boots on the steps. His limits are found and broken again, one by one. He begins to crave the company, even as he dreads the pain of release.
They bring a gag with them at times, when he has been screaming for too long. He worries through the foul linen almost methodically, less to free himself than for anything else to do. The cloth soaks through with his spit, rubbing at the corners of his mouth until his lips become raw, and begin to ooze. At times, hunger encourages him to swallow scraps of cloth; he regrets it always, but it eases the ache for a little while.
Through it all, he remembers anger.
It is the one thing that never lets him down. Anger, rage, adrenaline -- the emotions lift him up and make the world sharp and clean. They form the core of his identity when everything else dissolves into crumbling bricks and black iron. The villagers are all but a dream now; his sister is a faint sibyl of his past.
New jailers arrive to replace the old. Soldiers with flint-hard eyes stride through the prison at times, marking down their observations on stacks of crisp parchment. Three shifts leave before the boy can become familiar with the sound of their voices; the fourth trickles in late. Even though their arrival comes while all the other prisoners sleep, the boy is sitting up awake by the time they make their way to his cell. The buzz of their hearts had trickled down to him when they first set foot in the jail, oozing through the stone to shake him gently out of ragged dreams.
He expects them to pause, but does not predict the sudden recoil of one guard's hand, sending the lantern jittering crazily. "Faugh! His eyes catch the light like a beast's!"
The other guard scoffs, grabbing for the lamp's ring. "Let me see."
A thin ray pierces the cell. The boy shrinks back against the wall, torn between the urge to shut his lids, and the need to identify the shape of his jailers by their silhouettes. They do not appear particularly aggressive today, but one of them is strange. Fresh. Ignorant.
After a moment, the light vanishes; the boy is left blinking, freshly blind.
"You're addled." The older warden. "He's only got the red mark. Half the tainted have that."
A growl of disgust. "You speak as if it's natural."
"'Course it's not. You're new to the Cellars, aren't you? Well, you won't last a day if you don't learn about the cursed." Turning his attention back towards the cell, the jailer rattles the bars, as if summoning an animal to heel. "Look awake, boy." The man's voice is clotted as cheap wine. "How does it feel to be in thrall to Lea Monde?"
"Come inside," the boy hisses, "and you'll see."
A raucous laugh is his answer. He fights to control the shiver that it sends through his body, promising fresh anger and the freedom that comes from madness unleashed.
By the time he is calm again, they have already left.
He is moved after that, transported to a lower level. Without windows, there is poor ventilation throughout the prison, and the stench of bowels and misery mixes with cold earth. The officers read his charts on their periodic trips through; the poorer jailers, who cannot read, only satisfy themselves with taunts.
The first interruption comes when the boy has just begun to establish an equilibrium in the prison, a rhythm to keep himself calm. There is not much he can do to keep his body strong. There is limited mobility, and even less in the way of food, though he has been recently given better supplies than he expected. There is meat on occasion, and their gruel has chunks of strange vegetables. Lack of nutrition has caused him to lose two teeth already, both far in the back, but he is aware his luck could be much worse.
He is busy fighting to remain asleep -- time passes kindly so long as he can remain unconscious, a limp collection of bones on the floor of his cell -- when a bevy of guards arrives, surrounding a slender figure who looks entirely out of place in the drab prison. This man is of a higher rank. Not only are his clothes cut in a richer fashion than the boy has ever seen, but he reaches for the grubby charts and reads without hesitation.
"Isa," he recites off the parchment, mangling the sound. "Short for... Isaac?"
"We call him Isabelle," the nearest warden jokes, his clucking laughter cut short when the nobleman delivers him a long stare.
They bring the boy down to a larger room, further along the hall, further away from the moon. It is large enough to cage five horses underground, with room for their tack and fodder. Unlike the rest of the cells, this room is of solid stone, hewn in the shape of a circle. There are no decorations.
There, the boy hears the nobleman's name spoken, like a gilt-rimmed bell of glass.
Sydney's is the first voice he has ever heard that has nothing inside it. There is no emotion, no underlying vibration -- nothing save the sound of the words, the tone, as if Sydney is a walking book that can read itself aloud. A hard sheen covers the nobleman's presence, like a brightly polished pebble or a mollusk shell. He offers nothing up.
The boy puzzles over the conundrum; the riddle keeps him occupied as he is escorted back to his cell, and he does not notice the days that pass, mulling over the existence of the nobleman instead. There is no explanation for what Sydney is -- and yet there is a restraint beyond anything else that the boy has met before, a power that keeps its own resources hidden and denies casual visitation.
He is interrupted a second time with no warning. Guards haul him from his cell, pulling him along quickly enough that he stumbles, and they have to drag him by force.
There is a weaver's loom situated in the circular chamber. Threads in a rainbow of colors have been looped across the wood, seemingly at random. There is no pattern in progress; the shuttle waits in meek preparation on the side, waiting for a hand to send it into motion.
Sydney is already there. Long leather gloves cover his hands and lead up into the sleeves of his robe. He watches impassively as the guards muscle the boy over to the loom, though they stop just short, not allowing him to sway too close.
"What do you see?"
"I see..." Grasping desperately for clues, feeling nothing when he searches blindly for emotions in the blonde nobleman, the boy attempts to focus instead on the garish colors in front of him. "I see string."
Sydney's voice is a rope of satin, sliding around the boy's throat and pulling him down. "Do but gather your will, and look past them."
Trapped between two guards, the boy focuses on the loom -- but the longer he stares, the more the feeling of wrongness grows. It squirms up from somewhere in his chest, nibbling at his sense of balance, and chewing away at the edges of his vision until spots begin to dance. Dizziness draws pinpricks of sensation over his cheeks. If he were standing unaided, he would have fallen by now.
Then the first spasm hits, and the boy forgets all about trying to find an answer. His head snaps back. The guards curse as he thrashes against them. There is a keening noise that's coming out of his throat, fighting past his clenched teeth, until finally he cannot keep it contained any longer.
"E'er a dog," he gasps, vomiting up the words like an illness, or a foreign parasite that has lodged in his meal and grown fat in his stomach, "e'er a man. Gnaw the bones off a foot and be free, lest the trap close shut completely."
"Well." Sydney does not sound particularly displeased. Through the pain, the boy finds an unpleasant suspicion growing that Syndey has found sense in the words. "The fates would have us retreat from Valnain after all. This will suffice for the nonce, though clarity will be needed for the next foray. You may return him now."
There is a bowl in the chamber the next time he is brought out.
The boy stares at it dully, uncertain if the contents are secretly an acid that will scour off his face, should he come too close. But the liquid inside seems innocent enough; the bowl has been hammered from copper, and the tiny imperfections catch the torchlight and cause it to shimmer. He is a little surprised to see his own reflection -- he has grown older somehow, the lines of his chin getting longer, cheekbones higher. Not much of a boy anymore.
Sydney's question is the same, cutting through his distraction: "What do you see?"
Again, the wave of power bucks against his control. The boy fights to keep it suppressed, to keep it tame and meek -- but it surges with the gleeful joy of one of his rages, bubbling up from his gut into his chest and then into his brain. He spasms; one of his hands strikes the edge of the bowl, causing it to upend with a clang.
Water goes everywhere. His mouth offers words that he cannot hear. The blood in his veins is pounding, leaving a tinny hum that echoes and expands like the pulsing of a drum. Sydney's demand pulls at the strings of the boy's will, teasing every inch of his senses until he becomes undone, shuddering in a raw mess of nerves that leaves itself exposed and aching.
Eventually, he becomes aware that he is lying on the cold stone of the floor.
The guards have left him alone, but his muscles are too weary to move -- too weary even when Sydney crouches down beside him, touching leather fingers to his brow.
"In you, there is a stronger seer to be found than in your sister," Sydney informs him quietly. "Yet, your diviner's gift remains hobbled by lack of proper bridle. The horse does little good when it turns upon its rider."
The boy stirs. Spit smears against his lip as he struggles to turn his head. "My sister?"
But any answer goes unknown; another man joins them, solemn-faced and wary. His swordbelt is as wide as the boy's palm, double-pronged at the buckle, with a ring frog on either side. The two sheaths clatter as he kneels. "Is your intent to dispose of this one as well, Sydney?"
Sydney's regard is a bemused line of regret. "Within every man lies a primal instinct waiting to be unleashed," he utters, sweeping a hand into the air. The sleeve of his robe trails like moonlight. "His simply lies closer to the surface. The Dark is capricious with its luck, to grant us such lenses as this."
"A lens which is cracked serves no one's purpose."
"Then it is not the fault of the instrument, Hardin, but rather, the twisted world that it views." Gathering himself to his feet, Sydney rests his thin fingers on his companion's shoulder, waiting until the other man glances up before he finishes his quiet speech. "Hold faith. There are enough seers here to stock our numbers on the surface. This one will find his place under earth. Trust me."
Hardin drops his gaze first.
The boy is returned to the cell as brusquely as he was handled out of it. Sydney departs soon afterwards; the jail is left to wallow in its own uncertainty.
Calm has just begun to creep back into the boy's skull when the door rattles. The torchlight is blotted out by a bulky shoulder; Hardin's face comes slowly into focus, drawn in streaked silhouette. Stubble decorates the line of his jaw. Automatically, the boy's senses reach forward, blindly groping for meaning in the way the man is holding his body, translation of intent through muscle and heart.
As if aware of the intrusion, Hardin gives a shake of his head.
"I bear you no envy, Isa. Perhaps in service here, you may find peace." The confidence is offered without illusion to soften it, rendered up with a sympathy so pure that it causes the boy's eyes to sting. "Scryer, diviner -- we all have our niche. Mark his status, gaoler." Turning away at last, directing his words to the jailer at his side, Hardin does not spare a final look back. "Two lines, for warning. So long as the berserker is upon him, 'tis best if he is not allowed to roam free."
The guard sniggers. There's something in the sound that sets the boy alight again, filling him past the brink of madness and beyond. He tries to struggle to his feet, reeling against his chains; there's a dull clank as he realizes he's striking his flesh against metal, but the urge inside him orders him to fight. And then the bars are attacking him from behind, and then the ground is swaying like an ocean at war with itself, and liquid fire is running down his skin.
Hardin's departure is a single fading note in the storm.
When the boy comes back to himself this time, his face is burning. Lines of pain are etched across his cheeks and forehead, streaked above the bridge of his nose. The skin is raw and puckered. Trying to touch the marks draws a mindless gasp of agony from his throat; he lies on the floor instead, sick with pain and blood loss, feeling the condemnation of a mark that even he can understand.
"A diviner," he finally whispers aloud, when the agony has eased down to a low roar. His jaw aches when it moves. He thinks he might have been screaming. "A seer."
For all the judgment proclaimed upon his body and his name, the boy is not entirely forgotten. Visits come to him upon occasion, though Sydney's presence has become infrequent. Instead, the blonde has been replaced by a string of acolytes, many wearing masks or strangely inked tattoos. They do not look like clerics of the Church; they do not speak of Cardinal Batistum either, but instead utter the name of Mullenkamp.
Hardin does not return.
Others are taken from the prison, removed and clothed in coarse robes. They are not stained with scars; they are not written off as useless. Where they go is uncertain, but the boy knows this: they never return.
One day, there are cries echoing down the halls.
The noises come without fear. The lack of forewarning is unsettling; voices raised in such panic should be married to emotion, but instead a vast nothingness has moved over the prison, pressing down on the cells and extinguishing all terror with it. Without fear radiating from the cells, the shrieks are empty. They are not real enough.
The boy debates listening, and does not bother.
He can hear the sounds of doors being opened, inmates unearthed. There is no jingle of keys, but -- one by one -- rusting metal grates creak, followed by a rustle of confused questions, all of which break off before they have finished making words. There is no rush of footsteps along the corridors. Only one pair of boots progresses down the cells, and if there is freedom behind, then the boy can hear none of the prisoners taking it.
There is no ceremony when his own door opens. It is not a jailer who has come to release him, but a lean figure dressed in black robes, backlit by the torches flickering in their sconces. The man's hair is gold and rouge underneath the touch of flame; his face is in shadow. Most telling of all: the boy's senses find nothing when they extend themselves hungrily, lusting for strong emotions to feed upon.
"Well?" The voice is curious, beating like a warm hum against his eardrums. "Come on."
The boy does not need to be told twice.
He stumbles as he clambers up the stairs, taking in deep draughts of fresh air with the greed of a drunkard with wine. His eyes are weak from long imprisonment. They weep as he struggles outside into the strange half-light, flooding over with tears from the pain. Even the moon would burn him now; even the moon has rescinded her grace, abandoning him to the Dark.
There is enough time to glimpse the sky before exhaustion claims him at last, pulling him like a lodestone towards the ground. A pillar of black fog is spewing itself in the distance, bridging sky and land. He wonders if that is the direction of Lea Monde, that mythical ruin that has haunted him for most of his life, claiming him without ever giving acknowledgement of his curse.
The only thought that crosses his mind after that is if finally everything will be over, if the world is ending, if his trials are complete.
"Are you just going to lie there?" The voice, again. It is not Sydney after all; the boy's senses have been playing tricks on him again. These words are as coarse as a commoner's, but the stranger's tongue is as liquid as fine silk. "Lie down and die?"
The boy can barely focus on the hand that's being shoved in front of his face. What he thought were dark gloves are dark fingers instead, tanned to a richer hue than a farmer working fields in the summer. Whatever fate can be divined from them, he cannot tell; there is only darkness and nothing and a wry smile waiting.
He makes his decision. He reaches out.