Prologue

Prologue

 

Before Adam was born and locked away in his stone prison to serve the people, the dense mists consumed the world, and left only the island of Vridan Stav. In the years after the mists came its cities grew into marvelous bastions of peace and prosperity. The streets filled with life; people bustled across the smooth stone roads, between rich homes of thick oak, and always with the watchful eyes of their benevolent leaders looking silently down upon them.

They gathered for the yearly festivals to cheer and offer praise. They danced beneath the ever-flickering mist that had devoured the sky along with the land beyond the violent ocean waves. Massive bonfires fueled with a power far brighter than mere fire glowed admist the celebrations. Their masters came down from mighty thrones to aide the people, and it was a common sight to see these wise leaders perched upon a delicately crafted chair, smiling warmly while the bonfire’s light flickered playfully across them. The people lined up to kneel before the sages and ask for a blessing, and not a single person walked away without a touch to their forehead that filled their body with the divine and left them euphoric while stumbling back to rejoin the festivities and drink themselves into pleasant slumber.

Even in this era of prosperity the Ya Rab, their master, was more a mystery than a man, and any time the gates to the mighty Bara Castle pulled open the people crowded close in hopes of a glimpse of the person who had brought them this age of luxury. When the world faded and the mists took them away the Ya Rab, Strom Corrotto, had stood before his nation, so the older folk said, and gave them purpose.

His voice boomed from on high to let them know this wasn’t a curse forced upon them. Here they were free to build their culture and let their civilization thrive without the violence that plagued the land. There would be no warships to encroach upon their shore, no disputes over trade that inevitably led to bloodshed, no common thieves to raid their homes, no soul souls hiding in the shadows to steal either gold or chastity, and certainly no one coveting their vast potential and wishing to take it. Here was their chance to build something like none had ever seen and come together in a way those in the old world could only dream of. Then, when the world returned, as he told them it would, they’d act as a source of inspiration to lead everyone into a new dawn.

And after, as the old men finished their retelling of this glorious moment, not a child among the populace hid his or her smile, or the adults a look of purpose and commitment.

At first the people joked that the tale should be repeated during a time of struggle to renew their commitment, a sentiment that made them laugh, because what troubles did they have that couldn’t be fixed by the Ya Rab? How could anyone use such a word as trouble when the food was plentiful and even the poorest farmer slept upon elegant silk and wore fine leather tunics?

Adam had been told this tale and seen the people laugh at the prospect of trouble even as the farms began to fail and the cracks tore through the island. By the time he entered Bara Castle as an honored guest the island had shattered and sent the outer portions further into the raging waters. The Ya Rab ordered bridges built to connect these outer islands. He told the people they would never be separated from each other. Every citizen able to work was ordered to bring the people back together and ensure a quick construction. Adam didn’t have a chance to journey out to see those bridges before he passed through the gates to the castle.

The servants of Bara Castle, before they vanished, whispered to him tales of what happened throughout Vriden Stav. There were no smiles on their pale faces as they spoke. Adam couldn’t imagine them repeating the Ya Rab’s proud speech or dancing amongst the bonfires of old with their arms outstretched to the sky. Instead he saw red eyes within a face of drooping skin and wrinkles. Their once robust bodies were reduced to skin and bones. Their voices were a rasp as they told him of the cracked streets and crumbling statues. They spoke of haunted faces going about their lives with no direction or purpose. The fields, once a source of pride and filled with ripe fruit for the children to sneak in and steal a taste of, were barren and dead. At first the bad harvests had been scant. Now none could recall the last time the ground had yielded anything but blackened, shriveled mush.

The animals, once roaming in massive herds, their bodies thick, were frail and sickly. The sky that had once seemed like such a wonder loomed lower with each year, or so the people claimed, and more than a few whispered their hopes that the mists would finally consume them as it had the rest of the world.

As depressing as those talks had been, Adam missed them. Now there were no servants in Bara Castle, nor could he say with certainty that anyone but himsSapade lived there. He’d once had a companion, and if he walked to the large stone window and ran his hands across the rough stone he could feel the prick of pain as his finger came across the fingernail stuck there from when her left hand had dug into the stone to keep her from falling while her right hand had reached out to him. She hadn’t begged for him to save her, but for him to join her in her plunge. How gaunt her face had been and how dirty her long blond hair had become. Whatever girlish thrill she’d once had in her in the early days was broken into unending misery.

No matter how much he had wanted to reach out to grab her hand he’d recoiled from the prospect of death. Her face had crumbled at his reluctance, her eyes shimmering with tears, and he knew there was no joy in this escape when her hand finally let go and she left him to his isolation; no, he wasn’t completely alone.

Adam awoke to the boom of a door opening far below him and waited patiently for his guest to arrive. There had been a day when these visits had occurred daily. Back then they would take him and his now dead companion into a different room to do their ritual and give Adam a chance to serve his people. In those days there were twenty of them in all. They’d sit at the long banquit hall and feast on the best food their island could still produce. Servants tended to every need before they could ask. The room filled with the sweet smell of wine and cooked meat.

They’d kept up those small celebrations until half of them had vanished. Adam didn’t know what happened to the others. One by one they left until Adam had watched that crying face begging for him to jump. With her departure, and with the departure of most of the servants, there wasn’t any reason to bother with the ceremony of it anymore.

Adam stood up and felt the nausea wash over him. He had to fall to his knees momentarily until the worst of it passed. His arms and legs were little more than bone covered in thin flesh. On most days he wasn’t given any food, and when scraps showed up in his room, there was rarely much meat left on the bone.

After the dizziness subsided he walked over to the window now covered in thick bars. Even if he wanted to they wouldn’t let him follow in her footsteps. He pressed his finger against the dried out fingernail embedded in the stone before letting his hands run across the bars in order to feel the rust flake off. So high up he could see far out into the rolling ocean and the mists beyond.

There was no blessing in those mists. This wasn’t a chance for them to show the rest of the world what they were able to accomplish. Adam knew, deep down, that there was nothing beyond those mists but the void.

That thought didn’t trouble him. Everyone understood there wasn’t anything waiting. Even in the brightest days when the wine had flowed freely and the people praised the Ya Rab they’d known deep inside this was all for nothing and they’d eventually be swallowed by the same emptiness that had taken everything else. In his youth Adam would’ve found the thought of the void frightening. Now, as the door behind him pulled open and the ancient birth-giver stepped inside, Adam longed for such blissful silence, and had he thought a plunge from the window would grant him freedom, he would’ve accepted that outstretched hand, but so long as he remained on the island, even in death, Adam knew there was no peace.

“Come,” the raspy voice said from within the thick robes covering the old man’s body. Wet eyes glisted from the darkness of the hood. Frail, wrinkled arms reached through the sleeves to beckon for him.

Adam turned and knelt before the birth-giver and reached out his scarred left arm. Even though he couldn’t peer deep enough into the darkness to see the birth-giver’s face, Adam still averted his eyes, afraid if the light caught the man in just the right way he’d spy something.

He closed his eyes while the old man placed his hand on Adam’s arm and pulled loose the offering of skin. The flesh liquefied around the bone and flowed upward like a living snake to curl calmly in the birth-giver’s grasp. Then the flesh healed on Adam’s arm, restoring him to normal, but leaving behind the agony and pain. Normally Adam bit his tongue and hid away the pain, but that day he let his face contort and his breath hitch. He knew the birth-givers enjoyed seeing his misery, and that day he wanted this man to be happy.

When the birth-giver turned to leave Adam reached out and grabbed his robe. “Can I go outside today?” he asked.

“Do as you wish. It doesn’t matter to me,” the birth-giver said and pulled his robes free from Adam’s grip. He left the door open on his way out.

****

The rotting odor of the ocean replaced the thick stench of dust and stale air. Though people had tried to fish in those rocking waves, none had ever succeeded in catching anything but bloated corpses, and the stench of death had always hung around the island. How could anyone claim they were meant to inspire when surrounded by such a smell, Adam wondered. He stood on the edge of the jagged rocks and stared out at the mists.

Behind him one of the guards hung close to the castle, though Adam didn’t think it right to call the creature a guard. None held the exact same form, and this one was a mass of flickering fire and charred stone kept in the shape of something resembling a man. How the people had feared these guardians when they’d first filled the skies and lashed out at any who dared speak ill of their crumbling society. Adam knew that same fear deep inside, but the years had shown him these things were just as bored with their lives as the servants, and Adam was left alone to move freely along the coast to the cave he’d found years before.

At first he’d been nervous while gathering the materials for his suicide, afraid of what punishment those abominations would force upon him, but now, with his raft of aged wood and thick ropes finished, Adam knew there was no one watching. He knelt with a sharpened piece of rock in his hand and carved her name into his craft. If only he knew what had become of her body he would’ve tied it down to take with him. She deserved better than the rocks she’d crashed into.

There was no hope of reaching the mists with such a rickety vessel. Even the sturdiest boats they’d built in the early years had crumbled quickly upon touching those violent waves that took a person rapidly away from the island and into the void. Adam imagined there to be an actual end out there where the water poured into nothingness. The thought of plunging into that darkness sounded pleasant to him as he pushed his raft into the ocean and quickly crawl atop it.

He pressed his fingers deep between the pieces of wood as the waves tore him from the island and flung him into the fierce, dead water. The stale liquid churned and drenched him. He tried to spit out the foul taste but was forced to focus all his effort on staying attached to his craft being bucked around. He felt like an insect atop an angry animal, but Adam refused to give in, afraid his body would only wash back up on the shores.

Then the mists thickened around him. The air was almost solid, its touch like acid on his skin, the winds howling so loud he couldn’t hear the waves anymore, and he swore the twisting air screamed for him to turn back.

In spite of it all Adam smiled. The harder the ocean tried to send him back the wider his smile became. Even when the bucking tore loose a piece of his craft and sent it painfully into his stomach Adam still grinned through the pain and the blood running from his mouth. If he’d had the breath he would’ve screamed into the dense air and told it to swallow him whole.

A fierce jolt slammed his raft and Adam’s head struck the wood hard enough to turn his vision black around the edges. He could feel his fingers beginning to slip along with his mind, and the fear made him dig in so strongly he knew the wood was ripping off his fingernails and cutting into his palms. He closed his eyes and clung to the pain while waiting for the plunge into the void, and for a moment, when the rocking finally ended and the light first shined brightly upon him, Adam was sure the fall must be near.

There was no fall. Instead he felt the calm roll of the ocean and the heat across his back. Adam pulled loose his bruised, mangled hands from the raft. He rolled onto his back, tearing out the piece of wood lodged in his belly and letting the blood run freely down his sides. He stared up at the fiery circle glowing amidst the unending blue of what he thought must’ve been an ocean, until he understood this was the sky he watched, and the ocean was resting peacefully beneath him.

And there, back the way he’d come, Adam pulled up enough to see the thick mists glowing in the sunlight overhead. Out here the stink of death was gone.

“It wasn’t the world that was consumed,” Adam wheezed out, “only us.” Deep down he had already known that. Perhaps all of them had always known that. All of them had been prisoners, even their leaders and the powerful Ya Rab.

He let his eyes close. The gentle rocking of the waves soothed the burning pain inside him, and he swore he could feel an arm draped over him and a warm body curled up besides him. He reached out to pull her closer. He’d taken her with him after all.

They were free.