II. The Voices in the Dark
Upon reaching the peaks of that low and rolling crest, the heat of the sun, approaching its high solstice, beat down upon us as we peered from our vantage over the seemingly limitless crags and dunes of the dead, bleached expanse before us. Our travels were wretched, and my memories centre mostly about the sweat dripping from my brow, stinging into my eyes as I sat among my companions in the covered wagon desperately attempting to escape the abusing heat. Halfway through our journey through that awful, dead place, we took a brief respite in the small adobe town of Elora surrounding a small oasis. The buildings were made not of any kind of bricks, but hand moulded of a dry and cracking plaster in a contiguous fashion; scant traces of bleached wood imported from the coast peaked out from the buildings into the beating sun, overhanging the dusty streets of bare rock. Merchants sold wares in the bazaar and people swam about in the oasis under the shade of the mesquite trees. I recall joining them in order to temporarily relieve myself of the exhausting heat and soothe some of my sunburns. The town itself was inhabited only by merchants and caravanners, claiming no permanent inhabitants save the warehouses used to shelter the occasional passing people and their goods. It was here that my companions and I learned from some of the tan-skinned and wide-nosed itinerant merchants more about the place we were headed. The Grey, or as it is known to the Tira Vellans, “Ho Agios Faios”, meaning approximately “The Holy Grey”, was apparently a place of terrible wonder, dead, ash-covered landscapes, choking horizons, petrified, tree-sized fungous growths, steel-clawed monstrosities, gargantuan tunnelling horrors, carapaced, horse-sized venomous insects, and the various tribes of primitives living amongst its wastes. Along its far reaches as it met the water was a region called the Glass Sea, a flat expanse of broken enchanted obsidian used to create the magical foci that are so valuable to every magically inclined person.
Staying only one night in Elora, our caravan departed again into the horrible sandy expanse and we suffered another week through the harsh desert before climbing another set of craggy hills and feeling a welcome drop of temperature to still hot but infinitely more tolerable levels. Upon the top we stood at the great basalt gate into the brooding ashen wastes of tribal men and harrowed tombs. Far from derelict, the lands were of a vivaciousness of such alien and inscrutable nature that the tales spun in rumours and tales of intoxicated travellers and wide-nosed merchants can hardly capture the otherworldly majesty of all of it. To this day I sometimes wonder if the things we saw there were real, or merely fevered false remembering brought on by my admittedly addled mental state, feeble from the hot desert. It is with such clarity, however, that I remember the place and its strange petrified mushrooms, overgrown lichens, massive insectoid beings, terrestrial crustaceans, and other paradoxically land-bound life evocative of marine creatures amongst the whorls of ash, stirred up from the craggy ground, and sour smells of moulds roused by the light summer rains, that I can scarcely doubt their authenticity.
The nights in that devil-haunted place were particularly sinister, the dim light of the moon highlighting the pockmarked landscape and the finger-like lichens and mosses hanging down from the petrified trees, reaching down into its pores. One particular night, Cirrus, the dynitian priest of Ladocs, had been tasked to stand vigil and be wary of threats while the rest of our party slept, as he had done several times before. He was greeted in the night by a figure he described having the shape of a man, but whom he could not properly make out, and whom he thought to be a primitive tribesman, standing at the edges of the fire, bathed in the flickering shadows dancing along the volcanic cliffs, clawed at and pitted by the whipping ghosts of time. The figure, in a low and whispering tone, thin and metallic, like an orchestra of phantasmal whistles, spoke to him to put out his fire. Whether by sheer simpleness or by some possession, Cirrus did as was bade to him and doused the fire, now cast only in the faint light of the flickering stars and the horned crescent moon, hanging low with ominous portent. In the same thin tone, the figure, now instructed him to close his beaconing eyes, and again he complied, and when he opened them again, a dead stillness had overtaken his surroundings, and the figure was gone.
In the morning when we awoke Cirrus told us of what happened. Somehow, the figure had managed to displace his very shadow in the dark, and now his shadow, that thing shaded from the light by its very nature, undulated like a nauseaus island being lapped at by a strangling ocean of light. He was forthcoming with what had transpired the night prior, and while perhaps we should have scolded him for his endangerment of the entire expedition, further argument would not have been to our benefit. Our hosts, however, did not share this same attitude, and were entirely ready to cut us lose and cast us aside in this dreadful place to whatever horrific fauna or infernal curses might find us. Through some tense negotiation, we advocated our case and managed to stay their abandonment of us. We were, however, forced to take precaution and bind Cirrus with rope in the case the daemoniacal entity possessing his shadow were to take hold of his body.
He never told me the full details of the exchange, and even to the last I saw of him he would never, or could never, reveal to me fully the things he saw in that tent. Judging by his demeanour upon exiting the tent, though, whatever took place in that exchange clearly shook him. What he did share was of a singularly disturbing nature and the thing I suspect first set him down his path to madness.