You offer them all the same deal.
Twirling the sands of time in your hands, the minutes weaving through your fingertips.
“Escape my catacombs with time to spare...” you say, “And you keep that time, fail, and your life’s time is mine.”
They always agree.
Because they fear you? Because they want that time? You have never been truly sure, but their reasons don't matter here.
Not when you are the catacombs around them and the ground beneath them. Their voices echo in your body and when they speak, you listen.
Beyond the pleas and cries there is something about humanity that you find enthralling. How easily they turn on each other; the lengths to which they go to fulfill their own agenda.
Their selfishness is like watching a lost dog look for a home that isn't there anymore.
These ones are no different. They come to your door, seeking riches in the form of minutes.
The Bright one, pale and blonde, hair tucked in a tight braid.
The Spiteful one, deep dark eyes and muscles upon muscles.
The Restless one, face alight with the brilliance of your catacombs, drinking in the time and the feeling.
You sort them into groups, because they all fall into the same patterns eventually.
The Bright ones--Bright with their own arrogance, those who have a point to prove and will not leave until they prove it; the ones you rejoice in watching as they break apart beneath you. They run toward something.
The Spiteful ones--Those with vengeance close to their hearts, the ones who come to you with a purpose that will drive them to their death at your hands. They run for something.
The Restless ones--Those who come to you with curiosity rushing through their veins, those who see your suffering as an adventure to be had. They run from something.
They bow before your temple, all three of them, though the Bright one is stiff, ego getting in the way of respect.
The Spiteful one taps a rhythm on his fingers, dark, intelligent eyes flickering around the entrance to your tomb; his caution gives you a rush of twisted pride.
“Do we just… Walk in?” The Restless one says, her fingers tap too, but there is no rhythm, just unbound energy looking for an escape.
“It can't be that simple.” The Bright one says, scanning the doors in front of her.
You let the entrance ripple in their vision and revel when the Bright one flinches.
Because it is that simple. Just as death should be.
The Restless one makes the first motion, her feet move with caution to your door; when she crosses the threshold, you make sure nothing happens.
She shrugs toward the others, and with bated breath, they follow.
You monitor their progress as they make their way into the dark, their footfalls echoing through your temple.
You let the light fade away, let the shadows encumber them until the Spiteful one reaches toward the wall, feeling around for something to light the way.
But the Bright one stops him.
“No,” She says, “It has to be dark… We have to let our eyes adjust.”
“Why would we do that when we could just light a torch?” The Restless one intercedes impatiently.
“Because that's how the Banished One commands it. It has to be dark; she’s the goddess of time and shadows, she’s not a big fan of light.”
Her words send a ripple of loathing through you.
The Banished One.
You let the shadows deepen, just enough for them to notice.
The Restless one’s fear is laced into every word.
“Shut up about the goddess, will you? I think she knows we’re here.”
The Bright one rolls her eyes. “Don't be so naive; she's known we were here since the second we stepped across the threshold. I’m telling you, leave the torches.”
Only you can see the Restless one glare and slip an unlit torch into her bag.
The Bright one was right about one thing. Her naivety makes you laugh.
And so you bring forth the shadows on the walls; you pull remnants of blackness from one wall and string it toward the next; you fashion the creature in immaculate beauty, playing darkness off darkness and shadow off shadow.
The Spiteful one gasps, eyes wide.
The Restless one schools her face into calm neutrality.
And the Bright one lights up in wonder, eyes drinking in the magic in front of her.
“Lady Nyros.” She murmurs softly, inclining her head in a sort of bow.
The others follow suit.
The cat looks at them with empty shadow eyes, the darkness of its shape stark against the black walls.
“That's her?” The Restless one whispers, “That's the goddess?” As if trying to make sure you don't hear her.
You do, of course.
“Escape my catacombs with time to spare...” You let echo through the temple, “And you keep that time. Fail, and your life’s time is mine.”
The Bright one furrows her brows, turmoil and fear mixed in her dark eyes. “It's a fragment of her, a fragment of her power, sort of. It means she has accepted her end of the bargain. The cat will lead us through the maze, and if we make it out alive… Well, it means this is our last chance to turn back.”
The Spiteful one taps out his rhythm with steel fingers.
The Restless one lets the thrill overtake her and almost smiles.
The Bright one stares at you grimmly, but the curiosity in her eyes won't let her leave.
When the cat moves, all three of them follow.
You make sure the clock ticking down their lives echoes through the temple.
You make sure it is loud, impossible to ignore.
You will break the Restless one first.
The Restless one, with her moving fingers and her thrilled eyes. You will drive the dark into her head, and let it fester until there is nothing left.
You could find her darkest fears. You could dive into her mind and weasel out what scares her most in the world. But instead you will wait; you will let your little shadows whittle her down to a perfect breaking point.
This is where your fun begins.
You watch as one shadow coils through her head; her past rolls out before you. Her mind is a swirling symphony of light, the brightest casting that akin to the sun--a young woman with pale hair and perfect brown eyes looks at you like she would follow you to the ends of the world. You watch her grip your hand like she never wants to let go; you watch the brilliant city lights lay out in front of you, and with her beside you, it feels like every impossibility is suddenly possible.
And then the sun sets, and it is suddenly cold.
You have to watch her sob, her skin soft in the fading light, as the man digs his blade deeper and deeper into her gut.
You watch as she slips away, slowly and painfully. There is nothing you can do.
The other memories come for you fast, every close call with death since it had taken her away from you. Every day you ask yourself why it hasn't taken you yet, with so many opportunities.
You watch another shadow curl around her ankle, making her steps heavy, pulling her shoes into the sands of time littered across the floor.
The Restless one stumbles, cursing as she does, hands thrown out to catch herself on the ground.
In front of her, the Bright one and the Spiteful one pause, turning back.
“You okay?” The Spiteful one asks softly.
The Restless one curses again.
“Fuck this bloody darkness and the bloody goddess and her bloody ticking clock too, for that matter.”
She pulls the torch from her bag.
In the darkness, only you can see her strike a match against the rough stone floor.
They all see the fire blaze to life, throwing shadows against the black walls of your temple.
You smile to yourself; the ticking that rang out through the temple only seconds before has stopped.
“Put that out.” The Bright one says, her voice cold and hard. Only you can hear her panic.
The Restless one sneers, “Why should I?” She turns to the walls, to the shadows snaking away from the light.
“You want to know her name Lady Nyros? You can dig through my mind, Goddess, but you will never understand even a fragment of my pain.”
You laugh, making sure only she can hear your words.
“I know more of pain than you will ever comprehend, Restless one.”
“I don't give a shit about your pain, Goddess.”
The Bright one gasps at her words, but you just laugh again.
“You may not live long enough to regret those words, but regret them you will.”
The cat hisses and vanishes into the shadows racing away from the light.
The growling comes from behind the Restless one, angry, the sound of heavy wings beat into the silence of the air.
You snuff out the meager torch and purge the room into blackness.
Only you can see in the dark. Only you can see the shadow beasts, with their feathery outlines and eyes straight to the void.
They come in many different shapes, the wolves with their pointed shadow teeth and the lions with their shadow claws sharper than even you would dare touch.
The beasts pace the corridor, and you can see the trespassers, the Restless one, her legs still spread in front of her on the floor; the Bright one, panic stricken, but calculating, dark eyes scanning the shadows for a way out.
The Spiteful one stands very still, some foreboding sense of the coming beasts shone in his eyes.
“We have to go.” He says gruffly, gripping the Bright one’s arm and reaching into the dark for the Restless one.
But she is much too far away.
Only you can see the sands of time eat away at her limbs; only you can see the claws of the shadow beasts rip her to shreds.
Only you can see the blood drip down the walls as her scream is cut short.
The Spiteful one takes a shaking step toward her, reaching out as if there was something left to reach out for.
But the Bright one stops him with a hand on his shoulder.
“There is nothing we can do.” Her voice is soft, but detached; empty in a way you know means that none of them were ever really friends.
The Spiteful on sneers into the dark.
“Did your damned myths tell of this too? Did you walk in here knowing one of us would end up splattered on the wall?”
The Bright one matches his sneer with wicked cruelty.
“You know as well as I do that people don't come out of here. What is it you thought happened to them?”
The Spiteful one turns to her with a flaming retort hot on his lips, but you interrupt him with the softest of laughs.
“They all think themselves different, Bright one.”
She tenses under your words, forgetting her plight with the Spiteful one and pressing her shoulders to his, now similarity taunt.
“They all come here seeking their revenge or their glory or their adventure, they come here with their ego and their prejudice and their greed. They come here with the things they can't let go of and still none of them have ever left. But they are no different. You are no different.”
You laugh again. “And so I am no different, either. Surrender now, Spiteful one, if you really think yourself so different than everyone else; the shadow beasts never tire of extra food.”
They run. They always run. You find that humanity has lost the ability to surprise you, but you laugh anyway. You let it echo through the maze. You make sure they hear it.
They run into the empty hallway, using the walls for guidance in the dark, palms scraping against sand covered stone.
It’s the Bright one who finds the first door; her fingertips hovering back and forth over the wall, you can feel each touch as she moves, and as the door comes closer, her hands stumble over the familiar wood of a knocker.
You watch her throw her other arm out to stop the Spiteful one as she drops her palm onto the handle and the rattle of a lock pulls a soft sob from her lips; but when she moves to go forward again, you make sure she finds the harsh stone of a dead end in front of her.
“Key.” She breathes out heavily. “Find the key.”
The Spiteful one drops to his knees next to her, fingers combing through the sand on the floor.
His mind is muddy, dark, a cavern; the flashing lightning of past memory is your only guide.
You are young, running through the streets like you own them, in a way, you kind of do. Gold nicked from the inside pocket of a high end merchant jingles through your fingers. A child, a baby, really, looks at you like you are her way home. Light bounces off the coins and glances over her face.
Lightning strikes again.
The child, you know to be barely two years old, lies in a bed, her face pale and sickly. You push her hair away from her thinning face and drizzle water into her mouth. A sad melody plays in the background, but she smiles at you. She is still home.
You watch as the only family you have left slips away slowly, fever getting the better of her.
You would do anything to get her back.
The other memories come for you fast--the coins change from gold to silver to bronze; the shadows in your company become darker and darker. You feel her absence grow heavier and heavier on your shoulders.
You laugh softly as the Spiteful one grows still.
“Stop this.” He says to himself, a sob building behind his voice. “Leave her be.”
The Bright one pauses at his words.
“Don't let her get in your head.” Her voice is cold with steel. “You mustn't let her drive you mad or we'll never get out alive.”
You feel the Spiteful one steel himself; a wave of numbness crashes down on the lightning.
You don't understand. He hides his pain like it is something to be ashamed of.
You build the shadow key under his combing hands and let him push aside the sand.
The Bright one trembles as you let him turn the key, as you let them scramble through the door.
They slam it shut behind them, panting on the other side. The Bright one falls to her knees.
You do not understand.
Humanity deserves to feel their pain. To find solace in it.
You let the shadows see; you will make them understand. You let them curl around the Spiteful one’s brilliant memories; you let them soak up the light.
And when there is only shadows left, you make sure only he sees her.
You make her smile at him, the bare toothed grin that alway made him smile, too.
His expression crumbles like ash. Her, with those bright black eyes and the soft brown of her skin glowing in shadowy sunlight.
You dip her chin shyly, the way you know she always used to do, and wave her hand at him hesitantly.
The sob breaks through this time.
“Miri.” The Spiteful one says her name with awe, with a well of hope that you don't quite understand.
You feel the little girl giggle, and the Spiteful one chokes on another sob.
You watch him take a step forward, then another.
And then you rip the floor at his feet into shadows.
And somehow his eyes meet yours as his grip tightens on the now precarious ledge; sand covered stone giving way to an empty endless darkness.
From her place on the floor, the Bright one tries not to scream.
You move to the very edge, so that your feet just brush his fingertips.
“Join me brother.” The little girl says, her eyes soft and sad.
His voice gruff and choked, the Spiteful one hums that melody under his breath, an aching melancholy that makes his feet tap out the rhythm against the crumbling stone.
“Don't let her get in your head.” The Bright one screams horsley from the edge of the chasm.
But the Spiteful one just closes his eyes.
“I'll meet you at home, Miri.”
And he lets his fingers go slack.
The darkness eats him up.
You make the banging at the door cease. The shadow beasts retreat when the Bright one smashes into the darkness of the hall.
You can hear her heart pounding; you let it echo through the maze, just so she can hear it, too.
She throws her fists at the wall, beating her anger into the stone, letting her tears flow freely now.
“What ails you, Bright one? Did I not live up to the stories? Have my legends fallen short?”
Her mind is musty and dust covered, like an old library, every so often, sunlight illuminates a memory, some neatly wrapped in leather bindings, some messy, parchment and paper lying haphazardly in abandoned piles.
You run your fingers against the tight bindings and loose papers.
“His mind was the same, you know.” You know with certainty now. You have seen a mind like this before.
You glance around the library and flip through the pages of a loosely bound book with the light of the sun bouncing off it. A man with wispy yellow hair and bright eyes looks at you with wonder in his gaze. The library is the same as the one in your mind, big shelves, stuffed to the brim with books upon books. Windows separate one shelf from the other and sunlight pours in from the East.
On the chair above you, the yellow haired man sifts through pages like a baker through flour.
You watch him with wonder.
“Tell me about Nyros, daddy.” You finally say to him.
His usually bright eyes turn dark.
He scoops you from the floor and onto his lap.
“The Lady of Time. The Lady of Shadows. They say she was banished, cast down from the heavens for being greedy and cruel.”
“Cast to the temple of Nyros?” You ask, watching his face turn guarded.
He pauses for a long time. “Yes,” he says finally, “To live out her immortal life in exile.”
“But she's not alone, Daddy; people visit her all the time.”
“People try to bargain with her, that's not the same as having visitors.”
“Well, we could visit her, couldn't we? No bargains?”
Light returns to the man's eyes.
And you find yourself back in the library, books strewn across the tables and papers crumbled and tossed aside.
The memory leaves you angry, betrayed in a way you didn't think possible.
But you know what to look for now; dark bindings, wrapped so tight that even you have trouble cracking open the cover.
You stand in front of your temple; it's bigger than you remember, like seeing the world from the view of a child.
Standing in front of the door, the man with wispy yellow hair and bright eyes looks at you with awe.
“This is it, baby, you can go no further.”
You look at him with tears in your eyes, but you are strong, Daddy says so, and you can hold the darkness at bay.
“I will always come back for you, darling. The Banished one couldn't stop me if she wanted to.” His voice is so soft you can barely hear the words as he continues. “I will get this time back, if it's the last thing I do.”
But he doesn't return.
“Stop this.” The Bright one says, her voice cold and hard. “He wanted to help you.”
You laugh like you've never heard anything funnier.
“Is that what you thought? You humans are all the same. You believe the best and act the worst.”
You are so angry now. Angry at her, the Bright one, angry at her father; he had been a Bright one too.
“He stood where you stand now, thought he could change me, thought I would repay him in time. He was just like all the rest--here for his own gain, never mine.”
You pull the stone into shadows, leaving only the smallest of ledges where the Bright one hovers close to the back wall, her eyes squeezed shut.
“Shall I show you how he met his end, Bright one? How he screamed for mercy I would not give?”
You fashion the yellow haired man out of shadows; you let him grip her hand in his.
The Bright one opens her eyes slowly, another sob building in her throat as she sees the man standing next to her, gripping her hand like it is his tether to the world. You suppose it kind of is.
You let the first arrow fly, and it imbeds itself deep in the stone right next to the man’s shoulder.
You feel him jump in surprise, and beside him, the Bright one flinches.
Another arrow flies at the wall, burying itself so close to the Bright ones head that sheets out a hollow cry.
Next to her, the shadow man dodges arrows in the dark, his voice not quite loud enough to penetrate her terror.
But you hear him; you hear him begging for your mercy, you hear him sobbing, his voice tinged with guilt.
“Spare me, Lady Nyros, please, my daughter, her mother is gone, she needs me.”
You do no such thing.
The next arrow hits him straight through the heart.
The Bright one screams next to him; her hair is falling out of it's braid now, her eyes wet and puffy.
“How can you be so cruel?” She sobs, but you only laugh, cold and brutal. “I am cruel because humanity made me cruel, girl. Are your gods not just heightened versions of yourselves? Do you not worship us for your own gain? We are derived from your sickest desires, your most intimate thoughts; so do not fault me for humanity’s darkest sins. The worst has always come from you.”
The last arrow goes straight through her heart.
You watch the light drain from her face as tears mix with blood.
You don't know why the need to know hits you then. But it's strong and insistent and you can't seem to let it go.
“Tell me your name, girl.”
She breathes out a last breath, soft but full with a single word.
Somehow, it feels like you've lost.