Chapter 3: "The Choice"
"Kyli, that's completely insane!" Arah said, wasting little time on mincing words. She'd found her friend the next morning, slumped over the desk, crying softly.
"Don't you see, Arah? Can't you understand?" Kyli pleaded. She'd made what now seemed a huge mistake in telling the Motavian the complete truth when she'd asked Kyli what was wrong. Arah was her friend, though, and she wanted to be honest. More than that, she didn't want Arah to be swept off the face of the world when the darkness came.
"I understand that in less than a day and night, you've become completely mesmerized by these myths and stories!"
Kyli shook her head.
"It's more than that. I couldn't just take it on faith alone, no matter how strongly it called to me. Look here," she said, pointing to a passage in the Menobe Writings. "This tells how this pendant has to be imbued with certain rituals before it can be used in the Devotion. Uncle died before he was able to go through the Devotion, but he did finish this part."
She gripped the amulet tightly.
"The pendant now contains a tiny fraction of Dark Force's power."
Kyli took a deep breath. She'd only done this once the night before and was amazed it had worked even then. Concentrate, she told herself. Focus your mind. She clenched the amulet so tightly the edges of the medallion bit into her palm. Then she felt it, like a tiny spark humming in the back of her brain, urging her to let it out. Kyli raised her hand, pointed at the fireplace, and commanded, "Flaeli!"
Streams of fire shot from her hand and smashed into the logs in the fireplace. The force of the spell cracked and broke several; the remaining chunks were set alight, and burned merrily. Kyli sighed and released the amulet while Arah stared, wide-eyed, at the fireplace, then Kyli, then back and forth between the two.
"Light," she breathed, "it's true. It's really true, isn't it?"
Kyli nodded once, slowly and finally.
"Now do you understand, Arah? Everything in these books is real. We have to accept it."
The expression that filled the Motavian's face was one of utter despair.
In the following days, the town of Kadary saw a resurgence in gossip. Arkingham's niece came into town regularly, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of her Motavian friend. She visited a large number of stores and made strange requests, seeking specific herbs and chemicals, or commissioning items of rare woods and metals. On more than one occasion, a storekeeper was taken aback because he had the precise item she needed, on account of it having been ordered by Douglas Arkingham in the weeks before his death.
The Kadarites hadn't liked Arkingham much. He was standoffish for the most part, and he had odd interests. Even Waycroft, Arkingham's one real friend in town, had felt that Kyli's late uncle was looking too deeply into things that weren't...healthy. "Like uncle, like niece," they murmured to one another with knowing looks.
There was fear in those looks as well. Those Kyli had dealt with had seen her face, and in her eyes was the same haunted gaze they had seen in Arkingham's as well. Waycroft paid two visits to the house out of concern, but each time he was turned away by a sad-faced Arah, who told him that they were busy with an important project and couldn't be disturbed.
Kyli didn't know that there was talk about her, and if she had known, she wouldn't have cared. Nothing mattered now, nothing except somehow escaping the wave of destruction that would soon consume all Algo. The Devotion required many preparations to imbue certain items with the proper magical power and otherwise insure that they were fit to their tasks.
There was a certain irony involved in this, for a true magician could have abandoned the entire ritual paraphernalia and called forth the Devotion by a mere act of will, just as Kyli had used the power of the amulet to cast the Flaeli spell. After the ritual was completed, Kyli would be a sorcerer, a true initiate, but to become one she needed the complex rites and painstaking preparations. Thankfully, unlike Xayn and the nearly as hideous Corruption in Darkness, the Menobe Writings were focused not on the whys and wherefores but the how, enabling her to comprehend what she was to do.
It took nearly three weeks to fully complete her preparations, but at last everything was assembled and ready. Another four days passed before the dark of the moon, the symbolic time when darkness, and hence Dark Force, was at its greatest over Motavia.
Kyli lit the carefully blended incense composed of rare herbs in its censers made of sand newt skulls. As the soft scent began to fill the air, Kyli laid out the two circles, a small one of powdered substances and a larger around it of desertleech ichor mixed with certain other chemicals. With a silver wand, Kyli broke the circles in specific places as indicated in the Menobe Writings. She placed the book on a lectern and opened it to the page where the Devotion began.
She looked sadly at Arah, aware of the Motavian girl's despair. Kyli could feel it, too. Every act she took towards the completion of the Devotion drove it home. There was something alien about it, the mixing of herbs and chemicals, the incantations in a long-dead language, and the weird, symbolic sacrifices. Each act in preparation merely emphasized the wrongness of it, the strange, different world she was entering. Xayn's world, so different from that she had grown up with. A world where evil was triumphant.
Now Kyli would become part of that evil. Not because she wanted to, but because the only other choice was a gruesome, horror-filled death as the ultimate darkness consumed all Algo. She wondered how much of a change it would be, becoming a sorcerer. The Writings referred to apprentices who had enacted the Devotion as Mystcapes, and there were hints that they possessed certain nonhuman attributes other than the ability to use magic.
The girl took a deep breath. There was no more time to waste, no reason for delay. The scent of the incense was sweet with an underlying hint of overripeness—the perfume of decay—as Kyli stepped up to the lectern.
The strange words began to roll from Kyli's tongue as she read them aloud. Each trilled off her lips, some guttural and harsh, some delicate and fragile, like a tiny needle sliding into soft flesh. The flames in the eight tallow candles guttered smokily. Slowly, Kyli could feel the rush of power growing, the itch in her mind as the ritual began to gather magic to her. It entered her, flowing like ethereal streams just beneath her skin. The magic wasn't natural to her body; it wanted release, but she had to hold it in, had to keep it under control.
Between the two circles, symbols began to form, called into being by Kyli's will and the words she chanted. The symbols glowed with a sickly yellow radiance, a nauseating hue that was somehow repulsive, the runes that formed somehow full of wrongness. The candles flickered and dies, but the putrescent gleam of the magic circle kept the room fully illuminated.
The power Kyli was summoning began to hurt, then, like thousands of tiny slivers cutting and tingling beneath her skin. She wasn't a magician; not only did the magic want to be released but her own body rejected it, striving to force it out. She arched her back as the pain increased with every word she chanted, but Kyli knew she had to keep her composure and not give in, or the ritual would fail and the escaping energies quite possibly cause her serious harm.
Arah cringed back against the wall, barely able to think, as wispy filaments began to rise from the circle as if made of coalesced light and flowed towards Kyli, touching the pendant and beginning to be absorbed into it. The medallion glowed redly as waves of pure force flowed into the gold and copper.
In the circle, something was taking shape. It was the image of a face, huge and monstrous, nearly as big as Kyli's entire body. Its eyes were sunken pits, glowing balefully, while its fanged mouth gnashed and snarled. Pure and utter hatred was writ large in every line of that monstrous visage.
It was, beyond all doubt, the face of Dark Force.
The huge face opened its maw and spewed forth a wave of purest jet black, like darkness made real, given a physical form. It washed over Kyli and she screamed, her pendant glowing fiercely as the shadow crawled over her as if seeking a way to enter her body, fill her with the black blood of darkness.
Seeing her friend being engulfed by the shadows gave Arah strength. Anger burned inside her, at this thing, at the books that predicted its coming, above all at Douglas Arkingham, who had deliberately caused his niece to be exposed to this horror. The Motavian girl's sharp, titanium-bladed dagger almost flew into her hand.
But what to do?
It was too late to interrupt the spell; Kyli was no longer chanting. The ritual was done; all that remained was for the effects to be carried out. Attacking Dark Force would be just as useless; even if by some miracle Arah's knife could hurt the monster it would be capable of obliterating her in turn. The insane thought that she could save Kyli by striking her down flickered through the girl's mind, but she saw the fallacy in that at once.
Then the idea came to her. Eyes on the scarlet pinpoint among the black wave, Arah sprang at Kyli and grabbed the pendant. It was ice-cold, freezing her skin right through her fur. Kyli grappled ineffectually with her, fighting to keep Arah from interfering, but there was too much pain for her to do anything.
Afraid that just yanking the amulet off might hurt Kyli, Arah brought up her dagger and pulled the chain across its edge. The soft gold parted, and the Motavian hurled the medallion across the room to get it away from both of them.
A sudden, soundless explosion knocked both girls over, spilling the censers, toppling the lectern. The glowing symbols blazed brilliantly, then were gone. The leering face of Dark Force filled with a horrific, unfathomable rage, and then it, too was gone. All was dark and still in the room, the cool, natural darkness on the Motavian night.
Kyli looked up at her friend with wide, staring eyes.
"You ruined it," she breathed.
"You're darned right I did!" Arah snapped, getting to her feet. Her hand throbbed painfully; it would need a healer's attention.
"But why?" Kyli wailed. "You saw it. You know it's real, not just some crazy story my uncle believed. We don't have a choice; we can join it or die!"
Arah snorted, fixing her gaze squarely on the Parmanian girl.
"Kyli, the only thing that appeared in this room was an image of that demon, but that was enough for me to know that I am never going to pledge myself to it, no matter what might happen. Dark Force is pure, unadulterated evil! I'm going to fight with my last breath to try and keep that thing out of our world, not open doors to let it in!"
"But...I showed you the stanzas in the Testament. You know that Dark Force will win in the end."
Arah shook her head.
"You know, I'm not sure we know anything of the sort. Xayn wrote it, yes, but that doesn't mean it's true. He worshiped Dark Force, after all. Maybe he really believed it would win because of his faith. Or, maybe he wrote that deliberately to make other people think the battle was over before it even began. Despair is a powerful weapon of evil." Her ears twitched. "It worked on you, didn't it? On your uncle, too."
Slowly, Kyli rose to her feet, wonderment dawning on her face.
"You mean that, don't you?"
Arah nodded firmly.
"If we don't have hope, then why are we bothering? Living as a slave to Dark Force is no different than being dead."
"You're right!" Kyli exclaimed. "Light, I've been such an idiot!"
Arah clicked her beak in a Motavian grin.
"Well, that's all right. I'm used to it."
Kyli scowled in mock anger. "So, if you're so smart, what are we going to do with all this occult stuff? I don't want it lying around where it might tempt me again."
"I suppose a bonfire is out of the question?"
"Oh, all right. Why not give it to Motavia Academy in Piata? They're scholars; they know what to do with things like this, at least more than we do."
Kyli took a deep breath, then gave another long sigh.
"Okay, that sounds good. Let's try to get it all out of here as soon as possible." She looked around the room, at the remnants of the occult ritual—the remnants of a young woman's despair—and groaned.
"Arah, do you realize that now we have to get this cleaned up all over again?"