In The Dark

Jobe opened his eyes and coughed out the congealed blood gathered against the back of his throat. The swollen mess of his tongue throbbed with each violent wretch. Darkness stretched from the vaulted ceilings to strangle the dying flames from lamps scattered about on thick pillars. Hushed whispers from his fellow condemned stirred restless, eager for news of Jobe’s health, if he could sing the light again. With his throat cleared, he curled against himself and wept what little tears his eyes could produce.

Chains scraped against the soiled floor nearby. A hand floundered against his back, climbing until it gripped his shoulder. In another time, the afront would have enraged him.

“Shhhh.” Matthew’s rotten breath tickled Jobe’s neck. “The guards are eager to crush you. Calm down.”

He knew the truth of Matthew’s words. Already, the whispers silenced at a bark from a guard. Jobe clenched his jaws, but his tears continued to fall.

“I know you’re hurt. Don’t give up. You’re strong enough to live through this. And your song.” Matthew sighed with a lover’s regret. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You must live. I — we will make sure of that.”

Matthew’s words touched him, even if they were a lie. How do the broken escape Hell? He pushed himself into a sitting position and rested his back against the stone pillar bracing the distant ceiling of the fabled Dungeons of Aermat. As a student, he had always wanted to venture here, to harvest the pure despair needed to weave tragedy into songs capable of breaking even the hardest of hearts. Authenticity.  Potent and validating. Ever the treasure sought by aspiring artists to fend off the demon Imposter.

Fools and dreamers.

“That’s it. Nice and calm,” Matthew said. “That was something amazing.”

Jobe tried to form his tongue into a word, but it refused to endure the pain. The guards had found out about his profession and thought it humorous to test their blades against his tongue. The resulting crude sounds echoed a braying donkey. Fresh tears leaked down his face.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Uh, don’t speak.” Matthew’s hand reached out and patted Jobe until he found his hand. “You’ll be fine. You’ll heal. God loves beauty.”

The words stole the dread from his chest, not because they comforted him, but from the absurdity of the thought. He tried to pull his hand away, but Matthew held it with the fervent strength of a believer.

“I’m serious. I’ve talked it over with the guys. We won’t let them harm you. Just—,” awe softened Matthew’s words, “bring the light back to us.”

It had been a mistake to share his talents with these condemned, these wretches. He laughed at his idiocy or tried to, but it came out as a grunt. Matthew squeezed his hand and let go.

Whimpers and rattling chains echoed through the void. The guards announced their hunt kick by kick until they found the liveliest of catches and toyed with them. Jobe’s heart thrashed against his chest, trying to escape the impending cruelty.

“Clear away!” A thud and a wheezing cough identified the voice as Boots. Everyone dreaded seeing those polished black sources of pain. “Clear away!” Another whimper.

Light from a candle flickered against the oppressive darkness. Jobe kept his eyes down, hoping to avoid the punishment. At least the first round or two. The footfalls ended around him. From the sound, perhaps five this time.

“So, you’re a bard, huh? We came to see your lights, bard. Do it.”

He made a habit of picking a new piece of music every time he wanted to escape from his body. The reason for it was lost under the avalanche of fists and batons. Within the cocoon of his woven light of lies, he found the courage to deny these savages their demands.  His breath caught as he floundered for the list of previous songs used. An unused piece was important. The reason didn’t matter.

“I want to see the lights!”

The kick caught him in his lower ribs. He gasped and curled against the pain. Our Savior Lives crashed through his mind, flooding it with beautiful light.

The world of pain and despair shrunk until he stamped it out with his heel. No longer did he curl against the ground, bracing for another blow. He now stood before the Choir of Salentino, famed for its tradition and selective admission. He had studied with them for two years, under the tutelage and guidance of Antino the Golden.

He sang at a sharp gesture calling for the baritones to join in. Even a man filled with doubt could not ignore the hope the words inspired. Jobe breathed in the passion and tasted the words.

Sunlight splashed against the eastern windows, illuminating the Holy Words captured in colored glass. He loved standing next to Antino, watching how the colors shifted across the walls and floor. Antino appraised him with dark eyes smoldering and kinetic, at odds with the wrinkled flesh around them. Cruel in his methods, no one could claim a higher appreciation for the craft than Antino. And he approved of Jobe.

The walls vibrated. Jobe coughed into his hand. When he straightened, he frowned at the blood in his palm. At Antino’s grimace, Jobe stiffened and discarded the concern. Now was music. Now was love. Now was existence.

“Don’t hurt him!”

A chill ran along Jobe’s spine. Where did that voice come from? At once urgent and distant, it threatened the sacredness of this place. Could someone be using glamour on him? He peered at every face, careful not to show evidence of his distraction. Every member appeared enthralled by the song. They didn’t show recognition of the interference. If there was a threat, it was out of sight.

Something pressed against his chest. He labored to pull in enough air. With regret, he wove a glamour over Antino, who would see an attentive Jobe. Only a skilled bard would note the subtle cues identifying an illusion.

He turned to face the row of benches behind him.

“Jobe. Show me the light. Please.”

Fear wormed its way through his haven. The voice belonged to Matthew. He remembered. The Choir of Salentino a glamour cast upon himself. Not real. Not joy. All lies.

He unraveled the illusion and groaned against the pain exploding into his mind.

Matthew lay atop him, convulsing under the unrelenting fury of the guards’ attention. Matthew’s lips brushed against Jobe’s ear and breathed, “Please.”

He understood. Hot tears carved divine words through the grime on his face. Jobe cast a glamour over Matthew’s fading mind, creating a show of lights that would dazzle the dead. He whispered apologies mutilated by his ravaged tongue until the illusion unraveled.

A dead mind could not be manipulated.

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