Visir awoke to darkness. Rough rock jabbed at his side and his wrists screamed in pain with bright red rings of dry blood burning like fire. His back convulsed and pain lanced up his spine like lightning. The agony was unbearable, and as much as he bit his tongue, he released a moaning cry that echoed. It was torment. Salty blood trickled down his mouth, warm and burning as it passed. He coughed heavily, his throat burning as if molten steel oozed against the skin. Visir surrendered to the darkness.
He woke again to black, a black so dark he felt lost in its vastness. Where am I? He asked himself gloomily. Am I dead? Though still, he could feel the linen cloth shifting against his nose. His hands were still bound as well, the tight, bristly fabric like iron spikes digging deep into his flesh each hour. Although it might have been days. Visir had but the clue. All he knew was that he was captured.
As he lay there rigidly, the jagged rock gnawing at his side like a dog does a bone, there was a sudden light. Through the black veil of cloth, a great red and orange conflagration sprung into the air, alive and dancing. Visir could hear the crack and pop of fire and he could feel the permeating warmth caress his body. It was nice.
He inched closer to the warmth, crawling across the rocks, the fingers of flame almost touching him. The heat became mesmerizing and the fire spat fiercely, dragging him closer and closer until Visir suddenly felt a rapid tightening at his throat and felt his body being flung back, away from the fire. He heard footsteps, the rocks beneath growling as they rubbed scratchily. Hands grasped his head and in a flash of light, the darkness of the cloth was undone.
Towering before him was a ragged man clothed in a tattered black cloak and ripped sable breeches. Cast over his hidden face was a long hood of worn leather. Visir could barely see his mouth move as he squinted from the intense light. “What the bloody hell you thinking?” He rasped harshly. “Could have killed yourself there, wondering into them flames. What happens when you Ashless come into the Outside, the Dark. Should have known...” He stared back into the fire. “Where you from?”
Visir was dazed and confused, his hands still bound, the fire burning his eyes as they adjusted. “Come again?”
The man rolled his head. “Where you from?”
“Jaahon.” Said Visir truthfully. “And you?”
The man sniggered, “Why, this is my home. This is where I’m from.”
Visir said nothing.
“Never heard of a Darkdweller?” Asked the man.
“I have…” Said Visir.
“Just never thought you’d meet one.” Said the man. “Well, there’s always a first, eh.”
Visir nodded and looked around. “How do you live here?” It was rather bleak and dark, compared even with the Outside.
“You wouldn’t understand even if I told you, Ashless.” Said the man.
Visir shuddered as he heard the Darkdweller use the word Ashless on him again. He didn’t like it. “My names not Ashless.”
“Then what is it?” Asked the man. “If you don’t like me calling you your rightful name.”
Visir paused, he couldn’t give his real name. He knew that. “Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.”
“Why?” Asked the man. “I have no need of your true name. I’m fine with just calling you Ashless.”
There it was again, Ashless. “Rhas.” Said Visir, the death still heavy in his mind.
The man’s brow lifted, “A Kharakian in Jaahon? That’s interesting.”
“Business.” Said Visir, “I was sent on business.”
“And now you’re here.” Said the man. “Curious.”
“Who are you?” Asked Visir plainly.
“I’ve already told you. I’m a Darkdweller and you know too.”
“You’re name.” Said Visir, shuffling closer to him.
“Why should I give you mine if you haven’t given me yours?” Said the man.
“But I have.”
“Even a blind man could see the lie.” Said the man. “Rhas is no name of yours. Speak the truth, Ashless, or I might just slit your throat. It’s you in bonds, not me.”
Visir had no other choice. “Visir.” He divulged reluctantly. “That is my name.”
“Convincing.” Said the man. He jabbed at the fire with a gnarled stick, the flames breathing puffs of red glittering smoke. “Arstain. That is my name if you really must know.”
“Why did you take me prisoner, Arstain?” Asked Visir. “Why?”
“Because you entered my fortress.”
“This is a fortress?” Said Visir deeply. “Looks more a ruin.”
“However demolished it may be, it is mine and is my home.” Said Arstain.
“What other place is there in the Dark? You Ashless don’t see the Dark the same way we Darkdwellers do. We see it as death, a lifeless void of darkness and the ash that falls is the world crumbing. Though through all the horrible, it sets us free, unlike you bloody Ashless are. Indeed, you live in your Ashless cities and high walls and great towers, but are you free like us?”
Visir did not respond.
“No.” Said Arstain. “None of you are. You serve every command of the rich. You serve the one that plunged this world into darkness: the Oppressive One. You all are cowards and slaves to his every draconian command. Though you call us the cowards, hiding away in the black and ash. But you are all wrong.”
“We do no love the Oppressive One.” Said Visir.
“But you serve him, nonetheless. Do you not?” Said the man.
“We have rebelled.” Said Visir.
“Tried to rebel.” Corrected Arstain. “When has if ever worked?”
“It will now.” Said Visir. “Our numbers mass in the Mountains of Svaerdon and grow everyday.”
“Do they?” Said Arstain. “Or is that just what you tell yourself to keep you sane? To keep your hopes up?” Before Visir could reply, Arstain continued, “Hope, there it is. The word you Ashless use so much. Hope. But what does it really mean?”
“It gives us strength.”
“Oh.” Said Arstain, surprised. “Does it put weapons in your hands now? Does it give you muscles? No, it does none of these things. But what does it truly do, Visir? What does it mean to you? Or is it just a word with empty meaning, said to lighten the hearts of the foolish and ignorant?”
“It means more than you’ll every know.” Snapped Visir. “You have lost hope. You’ve never felt it. How can you speak on such if you’ve never experienced it yourself?”
“I have seen and I have heard more than you know.” Arstain whispered with a raised brow.
“Then you know nothing.” Said Visir. “Hope is not something you can see as an outsider. You can never see it in somebody. You feel it, and can only feel it in you own body. It is a force all on its own and a force that can never truly be duplicated.”
“What of your petty hope when I slit your throat?” Threatened Arstain. “Will it save you, block the blade?” He did not wait for a response. “No. Hope can never make one strong.”
“You have a very different definition of strength than I do.” Said Visir.
“You Ashless know nothing, nothing.” Said Arstain, gazing back into the coruscating fire intensely.
“At least we know how to live.” Said Visir.
“At least I am free.”
“You call this freedom?” Asked Visir, looking around at the eternal blackness.
“True freedom?” Visir did not allow the man to speak, “How can you say this freedom? You dwell in a ruin of demolished stone where the blackness is darker than the cities and the winds are cooler. Still, much like us Ashless, you Darkdwellers live under the foreboding red mists and stifling darkness. Still ash falls from the sky, even more so than in the cities. You call yourselves free, but what are you truly free of? The Oppressive One? How can you say that when you still live under his mists, his endless night, the ash? How are you free?”
“Do not speak of things you do not know.” Said Arstain.
“I will speak how I do, Darkdweller.” Visir spat the last word. The insult sprayed into Arstain’s face like a thousand spears of disrespect and spite. The man rose form his seat with a growl and slammed his fist into Visir’s stomach and then again, even harder at his arm. The pain shot up and down his arm, pulsating with great beats and his stomach lurched upside down, a heavy sense of vomiting running up his throat. He coughed dryly, nothing spraying out of his mouth until he felt it. The surge was strong and fierce, unrelenting, charging like a hundred rams. Visir held back the vomit, his mouth cringing oddly. He spat out an oozy substance and coughed again.
“I though Darkdwellers could hit a little harder.” Responded Visir through clenched teeth.
“And I thought Ashless were stronger.” Said Arstain.
Visir brushed saliva from his lips, “There’s a lot of stuff you don’t know about us.”
“That much is true.” Said Arstain, narrowing his eyes. “Where did you say you were going again, before of course I captured you?”
“Tricky you are indeed.” Said Arstain.
“Not tricky, just clever.” Said Visir.
“How very clever you are to wonder into a ruin in the Dark.” Jested Arstain. “The most clever Ashless I have met in a while, I must say.”
“Your words or too kind.” Said Visir, bowing jerkily through his bonds. “May I humble thee with some of my own?”
“You really are clever to insult your captor.” Said Arstain. “Or would you like me to hand you over already?”
“I was wondering when you’d exchange me for your ransom.” Said Visir. “Who is it, I must know.”
“And I must know where you were heading?” Asked Arstain. “Are you a rebel? Most of them are who wander out here. Or are you a Damned?”
“I did not come here to die.” Said Visir. “I came for another reason.” Should I tell him, he asked himself. Should I tell him?
“There are many reasons in the world, rebel.”
“Indeed there are.” Said Visir, stalling. “Though mine is not one you’ve heard before.”
“I have heard many reasons in my time.” Said Arstant. “I’m sure I have heard of yours before.”
Visir gazed into the writhing flames, their deep red embers glowing like hearts and the stones beneath charred and blackened. “The Divide.”
Arstain studied Visir, with calculating eyes. “You speak true.” He said.
“Though why do you seek The Divide?”
“It is my purpose and my choice.” Said Visir. “I must go South to the Deserts of Hhad and further to the lands of Erediath.”
“Why does such a man wish to journey to such dangerous places?”
“To build an army that will free the land of Runir from this shadow of the Oppressive One.”
“Then I can help you.” Said Arstain, holding out his hand.
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