Varajas had never been sentimental about Ulek. He’d felt no connection to the castle. It had just been the place he’d come to, the people who had taken him in after he’d left the church. It had never felt like home for him.
And yet, moving through these decaying halls, these dark, shadowed rooms, he felt a surprising ache. The weight of loss. It was harder than he had expected it to be.
Ruan and Bolt were ahead, a bubble of light in the greater darkness. The dog was moving forward with a confidence that Ruan seemed to trust. Varajas was less certain, but he could think of no better way to look for Samir.
He knew he should feel guilty about Samir running off. He had lied to Samir. But he’d lied to a lot of people through his life, and it had stopped being something he spent a lot of time reflecting on. What he didn’t want was for Samir to get hurt because of Varajas’s secrets.
And that…that was the answer, wasn’t it? To the question Lysander had asked, to the question Ádan kept avoiding. What Varajas wanted for the future was to stop hurting people, to stop having to stand back and watch as people got hurt because of promises he’d made. He wanted to feel like he was protecting people—he wanted to actually be protecting people—without having to hurt anyone else to do it.
Was that too much to ask?
Ruan and Bolt were pulling farther ahead. Varajas was so tired. Whatever that spider had pumped into him, and then whatever Samir had done to fix him, it had left Varajas drained of all energy. The makeshift torch was heavy in one hand, and even his sword was dragging.
If he called ahead, asked Ruan to wait for him, would he? It wasn’t as though Varajas expected any kindness from that direction. And all that bitterness from Ruan, he’d certainly earned.
This broken Ulek was cold. Varajas realized he was shivering. Ulek had always been cold, as one would expect from a sprawling stone edifice perched at the top of a mountain, but before, there had been light and life and people, and it had never felt like this.
Not just cold, but dark. A wakeful darkness, that closed its shadowy fist around the hall between Varajas and Ruan, that drew its cloak across the hall behind them.
Shadows that twisted and reached. Shadows that knew…
When Varajas had been a little boy, he’d been terrified of the dark. He’d huddled in his bed, as moonlight through the trees outside had sent armies of monsters marching across his wall. His older brother had been just across the hall—only a shout away—but Varajas had wanted so badly to be brave, so he’d lain, petrified with fear, until either the moon had set or sleep had claimed him.
He’d long ago outgrown that fear but now, somehow, the shadows were moving again. They reached for him with spindly claws, resolved into figures from his nightmares. They were behind him, rustling towards him, but also reaching from the walls between him and Ruan.
It wasn’t real. Varajas knew it wasn’t real.
And yet, he could feel it, a whisper of cold across his cheek as a shadowy finger brushed him. A drag against his leg as something clutched his pants.
Around him, the shadows whispered soft, breathy laughter. Ruan wasn’t going to turn back. Why should he? After what Varajas had done, why wouldn’t Ruan just leave him here in the dark?
Bolt gave a bark that echoed as though it came from very far away and Ruan turned back, holding his cross up high. “Varajas?” he called, sounding suddenly alarmed.
Varajas tried to move towards Ruan, but now the shadows had wrapped around him, holding him back. It was like moving through quicksand, through a mire. “I’m here!”
Ruan tapped his thigh and Bolt heeled as though he were trained to it. Ruan held the cross aloft, his face tensing in determination. He took a step towards Varajas, his movements as slow and exaggerated as if he were fighting through a snowbank.
It was so hard to keep moving. Hard to even keep his eyes open. Varajas tried to push forward, to reach Ruan, but it was hopeless. The shadows were dragging him back. The darkness between them was getting deeper and deeper, pulling them apart.
Cocooned in shadows, Varajas blinked as a tenebrous veil descended and he could see no more.