At the tunnel mouth they discovered shallow, raised alcoves sat at the sides of the gate, where they could sit close together just above the waters on the floor, sheltered from most of the rain blowing through the iron bars wild, sideways spurts. They huddled in silence for a while, knees drawn against their chests to keep their boots within the alcove.
“Why would the gates drop today after being raised for centuries?” Cale finally asked, seeming to be talking aloud more than asking a question she hoped to have answered.
Eldan pointed at the huge spouts of water still shooting off the parapet. “My guess is that the storm brought so much water down so fast that it wasn’t draining properly, that they had to get excess weight off the walls. The gates should act as supports when closed. Maybe that first crack we heard was something failing and lowering them was the only option.”
Cale cocked her head slightly, looking up at the spouts. “I suppose that makes sense.” She sighed, spreading her hands and examining her scraped, bloody knuckles. “It’s just hard to imagine we happened to be under the wall at the moment the gates had to drop. What are the chances of that?”
Eldan shrugged uncomfortably. “Someone had to be there at that moment. Why not us?” As they spoke the storm began to lessen as suddenly as it had started, the rain coming in fitful spurts and the sky starting to lighten. Eldan shivered as the wind stilled unnaturally quickly and the light took on a familiar sickly, greenish cast.
“Is it passing, do you think?” Cale asked, frowning in the sudden silence, broken only by the slacking water spouts splashing to the ground.
Eldan shook his head, his stomach sinking with ominous certainty that the perverse calm was a portent of something worse to come. “No, I don’t think so.” He fidgeted, leaning forward to peer anxiously through the gate, waiting for guards to appear. He was torn between desperately wanting to get out of the tunnel they shared with the body lying in the bend and dreading the possibility of another guard questioning the long, heavy pack at his back. The city remained eerily quiet, the streets stood empty, water pouring from gutters and dripping from rooftops the only sounds.
Quiet settled over him like a smothering blanket, the heaviness making it difficult to breathe. He was so focused on trying to soothe his rising panic as he made shallow, ineffective gulps of air that at first he didn’t notice when the sounds of falling water had been muffled completely. His eyes widened at the realization and he tried to turn toward Cale but found his body locked in place, pressed down by a rising pressure bearing in on him from every direction. His breathing was reduced to desperate sips as the weight became crushing. He felt his rigid body collapse back onto Cale, who folded limply, silently beneath him.
The yellow light outside the tunnel grew to fill his entire field of vision and he lost connection with his body, feeling only a vertiginous sense of weightlessness and a faint recognition that he was suffocating, no longer able to force his lungs to intake even the smallest breaths. He could sense a titanic presence, something so massive his mind struggled to conceptualize its size, moving toward him, hidden within the light.
Even in his bodiless form the pressure of this presence bore down on him, taking shape in some way he could sense other than sight into a gaping, cartilaginous maw beneath flat, lidless eyes. He understood the utter inevitability that he would be devoured, a speck before this ghastly hunger. The mouth surrounded him, so large that he could no longer perceive its boundary.
Eldan’s thoughts began to drift, the tether to his oxygen starved body dissolving in motes of dust. He could no longer be bothered by the pain of suffocation as he let himself disperse into the endless yellow light. Time lost all meaning, as did connection and identity, leaving only release. He gratefully gave himself over to sate the insatiable, gluttonous beast that had swallowed him whole.
Just as the final thread connecting Eldan to the physical world began to sever, he felt the pressure on his psyche increase exponentially as he was suddenly forced to bear the attention of the massive hunger, as though he were a tiny bone that had snagged in its throat, impossible to swallow. He snapped back to awareness, his mind screaming against the burden of the terrible weight of having been noticed. Limbless, drowning, he struggled hopelessly to find some purchase in the infinite field of bilious yellow glare, but that last wisp of connection was too weak.
“A marked one..”
The voice that assaulted Eldan was a dissonant cacophony, sounding like thousands of raspy, gurgling voices forced into one. He couldn’t tell if he was hearing the words or if they had been forced directly into his shattering mind.
“No, we see, he carries a mark that isn’t his to keep. He should not be here..we could not see here.”
Eldan could barely understand the words, each one crashing into him like a hammer onto an anvil, flattening and distorting the thoughts he was already struggling to pull together. “What are you?” The question tumbled out, unspoken but understood.
“When all were consumed, they had no need to name us. Though the marked remain they are too few, we are too many. They might call us the drowned..the found..the bound.”
The voice echoed in disagreement, trailing off before returning in full force to renew the assault.
“We are Without.”
Eldan’s mind shuddered as though electricity lanced through the core of his very identity, finally collapsing it into fragments. He felt huge chunks of himself slipping away even as he desperately grasped at them, as though he were trying to grab fistfuls of water. Memory fled from him, leaving behind an aching, bewildering void. He scrabbled at the walls of his mind, trying to understand what had been lost.
“We are Without..we are devout.”
The voice and its echoes seemed to sigh in satisfaction as the beast flung Eldan aside and the vast body swam on, a monstrous, spectral finned tail sweeping at the edges of his perception.
Eldan found himself back in his body, blinded and unable to move. His mouth was a desert, his eyes crusted and painfully dry. His breath came in stuttering spasms, his chest refusing to expand even in the residual pressure of the beast’s passing. He repeated his own name to himself over and over in his mind, miserably attempting to find some meaning in the two syllables, but they were a barren wasteland. Eldan had never existed.
As he lay there, rigid, lost in the horror of the light, he felt something cool wash over him, soothing his cracked lips and allowing him to draw in a lungful of clean air. His body slowly relaxed as he began to breathe regularly again, feeling returning to his tingling, leaden limbs.
A new awareness brushed against his feverish mind, this one gentle but formed from an impossibly deep well of sadness and regret. He felt it settle over him like a cloak, seeming to enfold him and gently rock. It reminded him of.. something he could not quite grasp. Its voice was the barest whisper, speaking under the weight of unfathomable loss.
“You must keep, youngest. All that was before now has not been..even now the gouges and furrows fill as the waters find their new level. You must carry the burden of what is no more alone.
You did well to protect the other one this far but she should not have remained..we are unable to return more to her than what you have shared. She will be neither sunken nor drowned but never will she fully breach the surface, the hands beneath will ever clutch, refusing to release. Her path lies through deep caverns she must choose to swim without light or guidance.
Would that the youngest not suffer so..but it is required. The mark has been cast.”
The words trailed off with a soft sigh carried on a breath of wind. Eldan felt something forgotten return to him before slipping under the dark waves of unconsciousness.