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Escape Your Own Skin

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Bitterness had always been part of Pallis' life. It was bred into his blood, just as eagerness was bred into Adakias', a trick of their shared heritage. It had always been vaguely comforting, a familiar presence, a guide to follow when a leader's decisions were needed. Darkness and evil sprang from bitterness, after all. Whatever kind of silly fairytale was simplified and told to children, Pallis had no difficulty believing that something unpleasant had split the world asunder. He carried out its echos, brutal and efficient. He was trained to rule his half, enforce the split, nurture the bad and the mean.

But now he was sunk in a new breed of bitterness, and nothing about it was comforting or familiar. It radiated out from his chest, as if one of those mythical lamps from Adakias' most-loved story had been inside him and burst. It had burst the moment Adakias went limp in his arms.

Adakias' dying wish had been about love. It was powerful enough - his broken little brother's wish was strong enough - to join the world back together. Pallis was not immune to it, and neither were Pallis' subjects. But that did not mean Pallis had to love. Love would not be love if it were not given freely. When he looked at Anhura, he saw the cause of his brother's death, and he knew that when she looked at him, she saw the cause of her lover's death.

Yet they were both rulers. It was the logical thing to do. The world was joined back together in its proper shape. The best way to coax the people to live as one was to make them one. They had an uneasy truce. They had an engagement.

The dark still had its place, even in a healed wound. There would always be a need for the disturbing, the dangerous. He knew, and was gratified that Anhura was wise enough to see, that attempting to ruthlessly eradicate the dark would only make it grow more fierce. For the first time in a hundred years, the citizens of the light experienced night, and the citizens of the dark experience true day. It wrought...changes. And sometimes problems.

But Pallis knew that combining their people would not be a problem in the long term. All were dreamt by O the Scientist, and all had the same potential inside. Adakias had called it the Pearl. Even the meanest butcher from the darkest alley in the city of Sod had an echoed glow from the light, muted from centuries of evil, but there, inextinguishable. Everyone did, and Anhura had so much she fairly glowed with it. Pallis found it hard to look at her for long.

He had scoffed at Adakias' talk of destiny, though he now knew better, and he knew that he, Pallis, also had a destiny, and that it went beyond his brother's death. He waited. Bitterness, grief - these did not make Pallis careless of his duties.

The wedding took place where Mount Razia had been. It was as if it had never existed, the land covered instead with creeping vines tangling with wildflower meadows. Pallis wore blinding white. Anhura wore the darkest shifting black, their natures, countenances, and looks contrasting violently in the twilight. Her hand was delicate in his. He fought the urge to hold too tight, to crush, and she, in turn, slanted a look at him, her eyes sober and smart, crystal clear, as if she knew what he was thinking. She didn't flinch from him, his brother's wife, now his wife.

She held his gaze as the ceremony was completed, and he carefully, gently kissed her cheek before he lowered the medallion of his office over her head. The skull looked vulgar on her - huge and out of place. She stood on tip toe to kiss his cheek in return and raise her city's key over his head.

Time went forward. They were exceedingly civil. They worked well together, and in time, each was able to let some of the bitterness slip away so that their dealings became less wary and more productive. Their citizens built for them a mansion of contrasts on that meadow, where formerly the two lands were divided, and Anhura and he lived there every day, every minute for that year. He carried out the unpleasant, harsher tasks to be found in uniting a world, and she the diplomatic ones. They were eminently suitable to their positions, and it was unexpectedly satisfying to work with a equal, a contemporary, something neither of them had really had before. A respect sprang up between them and grew, further beating back the bitterness.

The year passed much more quickly than Pallis had predicted. He did not deviate from his plans, but he did have a flicker of surprise somewhere just below the fragile, ugly grief that lingered in his chest - surprise that he felt regret for what he had to do, for his leaving.

He did not tell Anhura before he left. Instead, he set out on foot, a strange echo to the journey he'd made to track his brother down.

No one came after him. All knew - and if they didn't know, they were soon informed - that Pallis was the best tracker in the entire world. And now after the joining he would be better still because he did not avoid the places of light as he had before.

At first, he wandered. He knew he had to go, but the restless destiny in his blood did not tell him where he was to go.

Days passed, weeks, but less than a month's time, and he found himself at the shore of a great sea. He thought he had tracked Adakias here, in that hazy time before the world was mended, but the land was so different now that it was hard to be sure. While wandering the shoreline, he came upon a boat and its two owners pulling it ashore, slicing through the sand and creating furrows on either side, a scar on the shifting light and dark patterns of sand, while the waves crashed up and slowly erased it.

Pallis moved to help them, for one man was small and perhaps crippled, and he struggled with his end. The other was not lending the help he should be, with his immense size and strength, his limbs helpless, but a beatific smile stretched across his mouth which his beard did nothing to hide. Another person, less observant than Pallis, might think him a fool. But Pallis could see the wide, dreamy intelligence in his eyes, had seen a little of it in his own brother's eyes since his birth. Those who saw far did not always see what was right in front of them.

Pallis got behind and helped propel the boat further ashore, grunting with exertion, until the two men stopped.

"Thank you, stranger," said the small one, his voice wavering and gravelly. "My brother and I appreciate it."

Pallis felt, but immediately denied, the flair of grief he felt at the word 'brother'. The taller one nodded his agreement, the beatific smile never wavering. Pallis nodded his welcome. He had never enjoyed small talk, and it seemed from the silence that stretched between them that these two ragged fishermen did not either. But Pallis knew he was unlikely to find any other source of information on this long lonely stretch of shore.

He didn't know what questions to ask, didn't know what he was looking for, only felt the empty tug in his chest where the opposite of the dark should have been.

After a long moment filled only with the sound of the waves, the tall brother spoke for the first time, his voice curiously high, like every word was part of a song that only he knew.

"Half of you came through, with a head out in our deep.
I dream in between splinters about a wolf turned to a sheep."

"You," stated the shorter brother. "You're the last unjoined in this united world."

Pallis inclined his head politely, his expression blank.

"There's no prophesy for you," he said, after a sober moment. "You are outside of such a thing. O the Scientist works in tapestries made from chaos. It is only his creations that work meaning into those tapestries. You were not meant to be, yet I think perhaps you are inevitable."

"Do you know what I must do?" asked Pallis. He understood duty, but he had never cared to contemplate the mysteries of the universe more than he was forced to by circumstance.

The shorter brother considered him, eyes shrewd in his misshapen head.

"No," he said at last. "There is no guide for you, no framework - you are the hanging thread at the end of a finished tapestry. But we will take you to someone who can give you an idea."

"She, the spark, igniting
Hiding under, sleeping sound."

"Baba," said the short one to his brother. It wasn't a question, but a reminder. Baba leaned down and lifted the boat as easily as Pallis might lift a leaf. He settled it over his shoulders, waiting. The short brother said, "Follow us."

And they started to move at a brisk pace along the shore. Pallis followed.

They led him to a small peninsula, barely worthy of the name. A large rock, four times his height at least, was planted firmly in it, damp at the base where the tide had left.

The short brother circled it, one gnarled hand trailing over it as he did. "Ah," he said from the other side, and Pallis quickly joined him. "Knock," he told Pallis.

Pallis was not prone to hesitation - it wasn't a quality that promoted long life in rule of the old dark - but for a tiny split second, he questioned whether he wanted to go forward. Then he remembered that his hollow chest left him little choice. He knocked, three quick raps of his knuckles against water-weathered stone.

The door swung in at the third rap, but not in any mysterious manner. It swung as any door that had been pounded on and was loose. Pallis almost doubted that there was anyone inside. The stone's girth would barely accomodate one grown person standing. But his first step inside the door was a step down, and the second was another step down. He descended a tight, claustrophobic staircase, his hand trailing along the rough stone of the wall. He lost track of the rounds, stumbling many times but never falling, until finally he could see a glow. Coming around to the last step he found himself in a small, cozy room. It was round and the walls were sturdy planks of wood. Sitting in a chair at the far end, by a crackling fire, was an elderly woman.

She appeared to be dozing. As he approached, he saw that though her hair was grey and her posture was bent, her face was unlined. It felt good in the room after the cold of the sea water and wind, which made Pallis uneasy. He still felt more comfortable in the dark and damp. Warmth and shelter were dangerous to trust - In the old dark, anything comfortable that one had not built oneself was a possible trap. Even the witch doctor's hut had looked inviting in blank, dank wilderness.

He stood in front of her. In a previous life, he might even have been said to loom. She did not stir.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked after long while, her eyes still closed.

"No," he said. He had been a master of deception, but he did not see the point here, or perhaps the point ever again.

She nodded in an absent way and opened her eyes.

"It doesn't matter, really," she said. "Would you like some tea?"

Pallis was taken-aback. He'd had no expectations, but somehow these defied them.

"Only if it is no trouble." His lessons in courtesy came entirely from observing Anhura, but they appeared to be serviceable, as the old woman stood, moved to the hearth, and poured hot water from the kettle over a cup full of leaves.

She handed it to him, saying, "Let it cool. A burnt mouth dulls the taste. Sit down, if you would like."

He saw no reason not to, and took the small wooden chair across from her.

"I have no inkling as to why you are here, so if you seek something, you should state it plainly." Her voice was kindly, softening the demand in her words.

"I...am not sure myself." Pallis took a sip of tea. It was spicy and dark, pleasant in a way he could appreciate as it burned his tongue and warmed him.

"Ah," she said. Her eyes drifted closed again and they were silent for a long moment as Pallas drank his tea and tried to think of what to say next.

They passed a small eternity this way, the crackling of the fire lulling Pallas even as it dried his clothes, with the tea warming him from the inside. He was almost surprised when he reached the bottom of the mug, and uncouthly spit a tea leaf back into the cup.

The woman's eyes snapped open and she rocked forward, extending her hand toward him.

"Give me your cup. We will get to the bottom of this the old fashioned way: through the bottom of a cup of tea."

He licked the last drop of the tea from his lip and considered refusing her. His natural inclination was to protect information, especially the kind that he did not have access to himself. But he'd come here for help. He handed the cup over.

She cradled it in both hands and peered in with eyes suddenly awake and alert, her white hair slipping down to frame her unlined face. She didn't make any noises or observations as she studied the leaves, but she did glance up at him sharply, once, before returning to the cup.

"Well," she said finally, slumping back into her chair. "A very complex and tangled end to this particular tapestry," she pronounced. "It's no wonder you've come for help."

"What can you tell me?" Pallas asked, simply.

"Not enough. You'll need to find a person who disappeared a long time ago, at the start of the rending of the world." She uttered a bitter laugh. "The catalyst for the rending of the world, but not the culprit. At least, not the only culprit."

"The one in the legends," said Pallas. It was not a question. "He's still alive?"

"Oh, yes," she said. "It's part of his punishment, remember. Wandering in the dark. Though I suppose with the mending of the world, he is released." Her eyes looked troubled and she stared into the fire.

"Do you know where I should look for him?"

She sighed. "I know where you should start. It will be difficult. He set his defenses so long ago, I doubt he remembers they are there, if he remembers anything."

"Did you ever...try to seek him?" asked Pallis, not sure if he was overstepping some invisible barrier, and surprised to find he cared for once.

"Yes," she said. It was soft, almost guilty. "I tried once and only once. I was never as powerful as he was. I was never as filled with both good and bad, never able to create what he could create, and I had no real hope of uncreating any barrier he built. My love for him died the day he became a destructive force. And without it, I could never hope to reach him, not for all the grief and guilt in the world." She paused then, her head tilting forward so that her hair hid her face. "He was just a boy. As young as the world was then. And instead of helping him we turned from him. It felt inevitable, and perhaps it was, but it doesn't make what we did right. We caused the split just as much, if not more so, than he did."

"Where?" he asked.

"South of here, at the mouth of the river. You will then have to follow the river upstream. The distance should not be far, even in our changed...repaired world. But it will be a very arduous trip." She seemed to be waiting for him to acknowledge this, so he nodded. "I don't know exactly what you will face. His...defenses are made to respond to each individual soul, to be the exact thing most effective at keeping each person at bay. Do you understand what this will mean for you?"

Pallis had only too vivid of an idea. He'd once been well-versed in torture. He knew what sort of leverage it took to crack someone, to make them turn and run mindlessly in the other direction, to drive them completely insane. He'd once been proud of it. He'd also once trained against it, but that was before he had anything that could be used with such magnificent leverage against him: Adakias. If he'd been planning to torture himself, that's where he'd press.

In some sort of horrifying way, this fascinated him. Maybe this would release him from the burden of his bitter grief. Maybe this is what he'd been meant to seek. Perhaps the person he sought didn't even exist now that the world was healed, but the battle to find him was the point.

"I will get through his defenses," he said. He didn't say it with the arrogance he might have, once. It was the bald truth, because it was the only purpose he had left. He supposed he might die trying, but that did not seem likely, because he did not fear death, so it was unlikely to be used in the defenses against him.

"If you do..." she started and then trailed off.

"Yes?" he prompted after a moment, when she hadn't continued.

"No, never mind," she said. "Sending a message is unworthy of both of us. I'll know if you find him, and then perhaps I will have the strength to deliver my words myself."

She rose to her feet, slowly but without any seeming difficulty, signaling the end to their conversation. He stood, too, and haltingly said, "Thank you. For your help."

"You're welcome. And I wish you very good luck."

He wound his way out of the cozy room, back onto the empty beach, and started walking South along the shore.

The sun sank below the waves, and Pallis realized he'd never seen the sea at night, for this part of the world had been located in the light his entire life. His few journeys near it had consisted mostly of him hurrying away from the sparkling cleanliness of it. The sea at night in a world made whole was a different thing, not like the swamps in the old dark at all, but fresh and dark and odd. It didn't feel sparkling and clean like the day, but neither did it feel tainted. Instead it felt...mysterious. Like it held secrets he could never know, even if he were able to turn into a fish and swim the entire length of it. It spat droplets of salt on him, and the crash of its waves soothed his mind until the passing of time seemed irrelevant, unreal.

He recognized the mouth of the river by the trees clustering around it in the distance, and of course, when he was near, by the water flowing out even as the waves flowed in. Both looked black, and the trees, too. He was not bothered by darkness, though, and walked on, beside the river and into the forest.

The waves and the steady walking had relaxed him, and at first he did not notice the strangeness of his surroundings. That is, he didn't notice until they were not strange at all, but very familiar.

He was wandering in Skalia swamp, near where he and Adakias had played as children, many days of fake skirmishes, and amateur piracy - ransoming the other children's favorite toys back at an enormous increase, telling the best and bloodiest stories over and over again with more embellishment. Adakias was always the best at coming up with new and more horrifying details to add. Pallis had been proud that his own little brother was the most inventively awful (until they grew older and it became apparent that this was in tales only, and not something he could stomach in reality).

As he walked past where their pirate stronghold had been, gnarled trunks lashed together in a semblance of shelter, he saw a figure sitting inside and paused. Something rose in his throat like he'd tried to swallow a stone, and it was so alien a feeling that he almost could not place it. But when he saw the tilt of the figure's head - Adakias' head - he realized the feeling was fear. It was the same feeling he'd felt when he had stabbed his brother. A hot streak of fear up his spine and spreading over his neck like a vice.

He tried to speak but his voice was caught in his throat from disuse. He cleared it and said, hoarsely, "Adakias, brother."

But something was wrong with Adakias. As he came out of the thicker shadow of the shelter, into the relative lightness of the swamp, he saw that it was Adakias as he'd been as a younger boy, when they'd still been compatriots, before Adakias' weaknesses had been obvious.

"Pallis," he said, his voice halfway between a boy's and a man's. "They sent me to find you. A monster has come to the fort, and we are to honor it."

"No," said Pallis, before he could stop himself. This had been a day more awful than others, and he had deliberately forgotten it. They'd tried to sacrifice Adakias to the monster, the second useless son. It had taken all of Pallis' cunning to convince every one they needed both princes to rule, one to be the muscle and the other the brain. There had been hours of argument, and Pallis had had to keep the stark, terrible fear of losing his brother lashed down inside him while he argued logically, instead of screaming at the thought of such a loss.

"Pallis?" said Adakias. "It's a wonderful blue and purple sea monster, with teeth the length of my arm."

"Stay here in the swamp," he said.

"Why? Don't you want to see it?"

"No," said Pallis, raggedly. He stopped, swallowed, stood up straighter. This was not real, not entirely. This was part of the defenses. Would they really make him live this entire unpleasant day over again? Well, he'd done it once, he could do it again.

Abruptly, he turned from the puppet of his brother and quickly walked on, in the same direction he'd been going. Eventually he stopped hearing Adakias' voice calling from behind him, and that is when he noticed it wasn't Skalia swamp any longer.

As the swamp faded, the forest became darker. The first of them came from behind him, and it was only reflexes from a lifetime of hunting that saved him. He had his dagger drawn before he'd consciously registered the sound, the knife sinking into flesh barely seconds afterward. The face on the body that fell away from him wasn't familiar, but he knew in the way you know in dreams that this was someone he'd killed before, in the old dark. Maybe a rival to the throne, or an ordered hit from Sangara.

Then there was another, and another, sprinting out of the gloom under the trees to fight him one by one. Each unfamiliar in body, but familiar in soul: someone he'd already deprived of life. They were grotesque. Not in obvious ways, with missing limbs or bloodied shirts, but uncanny, vacant, hungry. Eventually he realized that he had to press forward as fast as he could or he'd end his life fighting here in this one spot. There was no guarantee of them stopping, of course, but there was a better hope of getting past this line of defense if he moved.

His movements were mechanical even as they were each new. His body knew how to move when his mind didn't. But eventually even his body would give out. He could feel the burn in his lungs, the way his muscles were warm and supple now, but would threaten collapse soon enough. And he'd been living an easy, slothful life in the new palace with Anhura. No assassins lurking in dark, disused corners, or favorites in the underworld trying to off him as he went about the business of ruling.

Slowly, his shirt became dark with blood and mud and possibly other things. He lost a boot that became stuck in a tangle of roots and water. He lost his other when someone attacked from the ground, grabbing it, forcing him to abandon it to pull away. Eventually he even lost his dagger, sticking out of the chest of a man he actually recognized--a thief king from the old dark who had plotted against him since he was thirteen, until Pallis had killed him at his own eighteenth birthday celebration.

Then he fought them with his bare hands, efficiently twisting limbs and breaking necks as fast as he was able in order to carry on. He hadn't realized there'd been so many. He felt like he'd been fighting forever, now, like it was all there was to the world: a relentless, endless battle. And still they came. It was only his finely honed sense of direction that kept him pressing forward in the right direction, but he knew he couldn't go on forever. Air rattled out of his chest in harsh sobbing breaths, and his face was wet with what he knew was both sweat and tears.

Suddenly he wasn't on his feet any more, but plunging into icy water, a spring that he'd stumbled feet first into, hidden by long grass and tangled vines. He breathed in some of the water, going stiff with shock, until he finally managed to thrash his way to the surface, coughing and gasping for breath at the same time. He half expected to feel hands dragging him down, or bodies plunging in from above him, but nothing happened, even when he managed to find something solid and claw his way out, shivering and choking.

He was in a cave. He must have sunk down and swam up through a different opening. There was light, but barely, and it was mostly coming from the water, the dimness of the forest seeming bright here inside the lightless cave. He didn't have anything to light his way, but he couldn't go out the way he'd come in. He knew they'd be waiting for him, and even as he thought that, his limbs quavered from cold, exhaustion, and the unfamiliar shiver of horror. He lay dripping on the rocky floor, regaining his breath, his mind concentrating on living in just this moment.

His shoes were gone, his shirt was torn, one sleeve missing, only stained a light rust after his long plunge in the water. His pants had not fared better, streaks of dirt and blood now settled into permanent stains by the washing they'd received. His hair hung limply in his eyes, plastered to his skull. His insides and his mind felt just as ragged as his trousers and suit jacket - barely recognizable as what they were. When he'd killed them all the first time, it had been one at a time, like being outside in a very light rain. It had been easy not to feel the impact of each death because it had always been an easy choice: his life or theirs. Now he understood that each person he robbed of life had robbed him of some in return. He felt newly empty, more even than before, but cleaner, as if knowing the cause of his emptiness scoured it out, ready to be filled.
After at time, he got wearily to his feet, and his hand trailed over a carving in the wall. He traced his fingers back over it slower and recognized it as a name in the old glyphs that had been used when the world was new. He didn't recognize this particular one, but next to it was the glyph for O the Scientist. He was in a holy place.

He might as well be walking into this cave, this grave, this temple, naked. He didn't know what he'd find. Speculation of the events from before the split had gone on for a century, but no one knew, not the holy men or philosophers, not the powerful, not the oracle, least of all now that the world had shifted to become one again.

And was this a holy place or a desecrated one? Was it nothing but a dripping, empty cavern, neither holy or un?

Pallis did not hesitate. He'd been traveling too long and far to stop now. If he stopped it was all for nothing. If he stopped, his scratched and aching feet might not move again. So he felt his way through the cave and crossed a threshold, into gloom that smelled of moss and dark underearth things. It was comforting, like home had been, but without the threat of violence and viciousness that lived in the old dark.

His feet slid along smooth stone, and found soon that there was a little light again, so he could make out the outlines of the walls. Anyone born into light wouldn't even have been able to see that much. He walked straight, unsure if the shadows in corners were other passages or a trick of the eye. He followed a faint breeze, a faint smell of flowers.

"You've come," said a voice, and suddenly there was light. It wasn't blinding - it was simply a warm stream of sunlight from a hole in the roof of the cave.

"Yes," said Pallis. There didn't seem to be anything else to say. Pallis' eyes adjusted to the light and he saw that sitting in the center of the cave was a man, perched on a raised bit of rock. He was cross-legged, wore even fewer and dingier clothes than Pallis, and was bald. His mouth was a straight, impassive line, but his eyes were sad, even as they focused sharply on Pallis.

"I thought it would be the other one. It's been many years since I was wrong."

"My brother is dead. By my own hand, though not by my design."

"Ah," said the man. "And that is the way it should be. I was looking at it from the wrong angle."

"I don't know why I'm here," said Pallis. He felt like he had to make it clear that he was not privy to these crytic announcements, that he was struggling forward on the feeling in his chest alone, not on any knowledge.

"The 'why' can only be seen from the other side," said the man, "And is infinitely less important than what you will do now that you're here."

Pallis took a handful of measured steps further into the cavern, walked until he was a few feet from the man, and knelt. It wasn't a gesture of subservience, and the man did not seem to take it as such.

"First, we must relax," said the man, and his voice was now gentle and warm - the sort of voice Anhura had, one that hadn't come from the dark. "Untie your mind."

Pallis was not brought up to question. Misbehave, yes, but questions were sharply punished. Pallis had become accustomed to discovering things on his own or not at all. He let his eyes slip closed, let his thoughts whirl behind his eyelids, haphazard and sharp, like sticking your hand into a junk drawer without regard for the broken ornaments and old pens at bad angles.

"Each thought is a thread, stuck to your shirt," the man instructed. "Pluck them off one by one, until you find the thread that is still connected." Pallis did as he was told.

Before his eyes he saw first Anhura, brilliant and beautiful and grieving. He plucked her away, sent her face far from his mind. Next came this journey, flashes of it bright and flashes of it dark, until the whole line of it ended here, and he flung that away, too. The thread he encountered next was a bright spot of pain: his brother's face, and all the accompanying grief and guilt and faint rage that Adakias would do something so stupid and noble and inevitable, would leave Pallis here all alone in a changed world. It was harder to push this away. Every time he tried to nudge it out of his consciousness, it became stuck to him. Finally, with a great mental effort, like heaving a bolder aside, he rolled it all up and threw it as far as he could.

Then all that was left was the darkness. He examined what was left, this last thread that he had hardly realized was a thread. It was a midnight-black one, barely a thought, barely anything at all except for dark. He plucked it away from him, uncertain for the first time, uncertain what would be under this, when he thought this was what he was. It came away like a very old scab, like it wanted to come off, but was also part of him. He tugged and followed.

And at the end he found himself, and it carried with it was the oddest feeling. He thought it might be contentment, but wasn't even sure how he knew to name it, because he'd never felt it before. Like a great settling in the deepest part of him, a ground so solid that he'd never even imagined it could exist. It was not light or dark. It was completely absent of such extremes, of such trivialities.

As he settled into this, he realized he felt oddly light, as if his mind really had become untied. The weight that he hadn't even noticed he carried was suddenly gone, and the relief that came with its disappearance was so strong he felt moisture slip from his eyes and roll down his cheeks. It was only through that that he became aware once more that he had eyes, that he had a body.

"Look up," said the man. And Pallis did, but he was distantly aware that his head had not moved. He was staring into the night sky as it had looked since the merging of the light and the dark.

In the old dark, the sky had been blank, black as pitch. In the new dark, there were weak flickering pinpoints of light. They guttered as if buffeted by a celestial wind, and sometimes they went out for good. They sat in silence and Pallis couldn't feel the passage of time at all. But eventually the man spoke again.

"I once created magnificent lamps," said he. "No one fell at my feet to worship their magnificence, so I felt their creation had been in vain. I wanted their worth, my worth, to be felt down to the bones of the creatures I had made them for. I had forgotten, maybe on purpose, that the only point of creation is creation itself, never vanity. Vanity is only a side effect. It is neither good nor bad, and certainly never the point itself.

"So I smashed my lamps, one by one, every one destroyed was a knife in my chest. And their shards reigned fire down on the creatures below, the very ones I had created them for. The shards burnt almost everything alive, a holocaust, a near apocalypse. I hadn't meant to cause death. I wasn't malicious. But I was the cause and the culprit. And I was punished, though I was already sick in my sorrow over what I had done. I cannot say they were wrong to punish me, but I can say that punishment does not repair that which has been damaged. Punishment is meant to prevent, but all it does is delay the rectification." He paused and Pallis floated on for a small eternity, watching the lights continue to flicker feebly. It was a long time before the man spoke again.

"Oh, they did try to repair my creation," the man said, the sadness in his voice like a tangible thing. "And this, this is the result. I think it's time to recreate them properly. Will you assist me?"

"I don't know now to - create," said Pallis, although he was no longer sure if that was true, now that he was floating, now that the dark had been peeled away, he had no idea what he was able to do, how far he could go. Adakias had been the creative one, spinning stories in his head, and then punished for it. Pallis had been the tracker, the weapon, not the creator. Funny, the thought of Adakias came to him without the usual wave of guilt and longing. He felt far away from such things.

"It is not about knowing how," said the man. "It is simply about doing. A flower doesn't need instructions to break toward the sun." He sighed softly, a sigh of relief. "Place your hand in mine." Pallis did, even though he did not really know where his hand was.

"Now," he said, his voice more gentle than ever. "Look at the sky once more."

Pallis obeyed. This time, he could see the sky as the man saw it, or perhaps as it really was. The flickers of light were...candles. They were tiny unprotected flames sputtering across the vast chaotic nothing. He looked closer and saw that they were made of tiny threads, and then closer to see where the thread itself was made of pieces of the chaos, linked up and made into order. He reached for the nearest flicker and cupped it in his palm. Then he reached for some of the black and nudged it into formation, into thread. He slid his new thread through the weak flickering thing and it grew stronger. But he was dissatisfied. In the vast nothingness surrounding it, it surely couldn't survive for long. He thought about that and then reached for more threads. He formed them into a thicker, brighter, stronger thread, and with this he wove a shield, like a glass pane for the flicker to exist behind, to diffuse the harsh light and spread it further. He set the lamp carefully back where it had been.

He did not see the man, but he knew he was near, if it could be termed in such a way when they were not really in a place. More, he could feel the man's delight in both him and his work and under it, Pallis felt his mind, his entire consciousness, expand. He saw now that he, himself, was woven from these same threads, thicker, thinner, a million different twists. It was so intricate he couldn't comprehend the pattern of his own skin, only small parts of it, and only for as long as he looked, the patterns too difficult to hold in his mind.

Eventually he turned his attention outward from himself again, and compared to the intricacy of himself, the stretch of guttering candles before him were like a child's drawing - simple and stilted. He reached forward and he changed them. A knitting of chaos, and then a sudden shift of threads into patterns that felt familiar and exhilaratingly new all at once. He did not have to make each one as he'd made the first, but rather, they almost seemed to make themselves, and he became merely a chorus master, deciding the force and direction. He could feel himself adding twists, flourishes, impulsive differences in each one. A blue tint here, a circle of brilliant red there. He wove and twisted and threaded until the sky blazed around him, filled with colored lamps of infinite variety and beauty and strength. And he placed the first one he'd made - simple but beautiful in its pure yellow light - close to him. As he placed it, he caught a glimpse of the man - the being - standing next to him.

Pallis was suddenly swamped once again with wonder - more than even looking at himself had filled him with - at the sheer convoluted intricacy of which the man was made. Pallis could see each of the pieces that made him up, but could not fit the whole in his head.

The man smiled, such a burst of love and satisfaction radiating from him that Pallis felt drowned by it, by these things that had never been given to him before.

"I could make many things," said Pallis, "But I see that my limit lies with you and I. It would take me forever to make something close to what you are, and even then, as I can't hold within my mind the purpose and shape of you, whatever I made would be a lifeless reflection."

"Humility and creation should always go hand-in-hand," said the man. "Though pride in your work is not wrong, and you have no real limit, except what you are willing to attempt. Your lamps are, in fact, better than mine ever were, and mine were the finest thing yet created within O the Scientist's creation." He paused and gestured to everything around them. "O created us so that we would create. And we did. The only wrong is useless destruction. And even then, it is difficult to judge what is useless and wanton. If I had not destroyed my lamps and my family, and nearly myself all that time ago, you would not have been created, and you would not have created these.

"You were born of the dark, created from destruction. In you, more strongly than every other creature alive at this instant, lies the ability to create more beautiful and fearsome things than most would even dream of.

"More than that, you have met your foil, the one who is strong enough to push back when you go too far, when you want to destroy that which does not need to be destroyed. Together you will pave the way for the cycle to spiral upward, ever more complex."

The man did not ask him if he understood or not. It was self-evident in Pallis' creation, bathing them in light. And he did not pronounce these future things as the Oracle did - as if they were inevitable. He spoke them to Pallis as an equal, as if he was speaking Pallis' own mind before he knew i,t with things Pallis should and suddenly did know.

Then the man smiled an unspeakably sweet smile, cleared of nearly all the sadness Pallis had first seen in him.

Pallis very gradually became aware that they were back in the cave, and that the glow around him was no longer his lamps, but from the sunlight coming down from the hole in the roof. He took stock of his body as if he had been sick for many weeks and he found that he was whole - the soles of his feet were unbroken, and the soul inside him was colorful with blinding sides and dark corners and he could still see the nothingness of which he was made, could still see that same nothingness in the space around him and still knew how to weave it into whatever shape he might wish.

He looked up at the man and returned his smile, the first he had ever given.

"I would ask you a favor," said the man.

"Anything."

"I have forgotten my old name, and I don't want it back, anyway. Give me a new name."

"Sha," said Pallis, without hesitation. And the man, Sha, smiled.

"Thank you."