When Gaheris awoke, Chairn was dying.
Outside his window, a red sun’s rays were bleeding onto the piles of year-long snow. The college grounds were still. There were no students and no smells of coffee. Even in the city beyond there was no sound of carriages or distant foghorns. The vague silence that had been amplifying over the past few months was finally complete. Gaheris swallowed and clutched his necklace. So, this is how it will end. He will watch, powerless, as the world goes headlong into a grey ocean, empty of hope. He’d spent so long trying to spread that visible golden thread that bound the city together, yet down he could only see veins of red sunlight. Snow started coming down. Where once it would fall lightly, now it only blew everywhere as a blizzard. Gaheris whimpered. He pulled the window shut and dragged the curtains across it. Sliding down the wall, he shut his eyes tight and tried to elude it all.
Gaheris didn’t know how long he stayed there. He tried to lose himself in his black subconsciousness, but all he could see was the city fading into a red and icy sunset. Eventually, he felt his necklace pulse. Inside, the pendant’s golden liquid warmed his sternum, urgently spreading hotter and hotter as he ignored it. When it started burning him, he hurled it off. The obedient part of him knew that there was no ignoring the golden necklace when it pulsed, but he didn’t want to venture out into what was once the stuff of fears. He’d always hoped that he’d die before Chairn did, to be taken to the castle and burned into ash by those golden tendrils. But, right now, Gaheris was breathing in a dying city. He stayed hunched over. Eventually, the sirens began wailing. Gaheris’ heartbeat quickened. They would explain.
Lady Hel’s voice cackled throughout the city. “People of Chairn: you can end your factions! His Majesty King Llewyn Ambrosius is dead!”
The word echoed and was left hanging, like some cadaver. Gaheris held his head in his hands. A single tear rolled down his cheek. He could almost hear that visible golden thread cracking, being pulled out of the city itself. But, below his window, everything was still intact.
Hel continued. “I won’t deny it - this is because of Babylon and I. We will rule a dying Chairn. We will reduce you all to submissive skeletons and kill off that mindless, slumbering force of a Soul. Soon, our city will no longer be golden!” Her final laughed carved another void in the already hollow Chairn.
So, the court had gained total power. They had killed the Soul’s guardian. Gaheris felt the floor around him burning from his pendant. He nudged it away with his foot. Whatever information it was urging him to collect could be left. Trying to ignore the growing heat, Gaheris slipped back into anxious thoughts. The red light burned under his eyelids.
There was a knock at the door.
“Gaheris?” Phoebe’s voiced sounded stressed. “Gaheris?!”
He hauled himself from the floor and opened the door.
“Gaheris!” She sighed with relief. “Why didn’t you meet me? Is your necklace working?”
“Yeah…” He rubbed his eyes.
She seemed not to notice. “Hel and Babylon are going to attack the castle.”
Gaheris blinked. “But wouldn’t they have done that already…?”
Phoebe bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just came here to warn you.”
“Wait, so, we’re not doing anything about it?”
She shook her head sadly. “There’s no one to defend the castle. I’m trying to help the spies extract information from the court and the Royal Army is aiding people all over the city.”
“But, if the castle falls, then what happens to the Soul? It flows out from the elpis vault!” He began pacing. “Phoebe, we have to go protect it! If all of that’s destroyed…” Gaheris shuddered. “The city needs to stay golden.”
They stared at each other.
“I don’t think the Soul needs the elpis vault, Gaheris. It rules in other cities without one.”
Gaheris swallowed. “Chairn’s dying, Phoebe. I... I want to stop it.”
“Yeah, Phoebe, I do.”
Gaheris picked his cold necklace off the floor and wrapped himself in layers.
“Do you have a plan to save Chairn?”
He shook his head. “I’ll just get to the elpis vault first.”
The castle was empty.
His footsteps filled each room with a treacherous tap. Gaheris clutched his necklace. It was when he received it that he’d last been in the elpis vault by this route. The memory of the vault was hazy, but how to get there wasn’t. Gaheris finally stood before the throne room. The lock on the heavy, ornate doors was broken, so he cautiously pushed them open. And almost threw up.
There were slick red pools gathering all over the marble floor. Bodies lay splayed beside each other, gazing at one another with empty eyes. Except the one on the dais. That body, clothed in purple and gold, was headless. Red. Everything was red. Everything that was golden was tainted by red. Even the blood crusting on Ambrosius’ chest, that Gaheris knew shimmered with gold, was slowly becoming more red.
Gaheris moved to the edge of the room and, taking off his glasses, blurring his vision, he felt his way along the wall towards the throne. Behind was a locked door. Gaheris pressed his necklace’s pendant into the keyhole and pushed the door open. The catacombs were flamed with torchlight. Replacing his glasses, Gaheris ran. The air grew musty, with dirt shifting from the ceiling as a great boom erupted from up above.
He entered the elpis vault. It was throbbing with incandescent power. Intertwined through everything - the air, the floor, the endless shelves lined with thousands and thousands of clay jars - was a web of golden thread. It welled up from a large marble bowl and reconnected whenever he walked through it. Gaheris’ eyes were wide with wonder.
The vault convulsed. The jars rattled on the shelves and Gaheris heard another boom and a crash above him as he was buffeted to the floor. A crack, as sharp as lightning, split the floor all the way down the middle, under the marble bowl. Gaheris rolled out of the way as a viscous, golden liquid oozed from the now two halves. Hel and Babylon had arrived. Holy hell. He was going to die down here.
Gaheris could leave. He could sneak out of the castle. But one of these clay jars was his. He’d chosen to have one. It gave him the necklace filled with liquid gold. It was his life beat as much as those golden veins were Chairn’s. To let that stop: he’d be killing his own soul too.
Then, he smelled smoke. There was a whooshing sound, and Gaheris just managed to twist behind one of the shelves before a blaze of fire surged down the room. And another. And another. He lay crouched against the wall as the Soul burned.
After a while, it stopped. Gaheris emerged on his knees, mouth dry and coughing. He stopped when he saw the elpis vault. The web no longer intertwined amongst the now charred shelves. The liquid, on both the floor and in his necklace, was a dull gold, no longer throbbing with incandesce. Gaheris stayed on his knees and waited for the world to end.
But then, beneath closed eyelids, came a flickering. Gaheris opened his eyes. The vault began to throb with an absorbing power. Stitching itself back together was the golden web, burgeoning deeper and deeper into the recesses. Gaheris laughed and couldn’t stop.
He began feeling his way through the catacombs. Perhaps the city wouldn’t be splintered of gold. But, as the air became fresher, so too did the light. Soon, Gaheris emerged into an open-air throne room. The bodies were joined by debris and snow, the castle was charred and pulverised beyond. He clambered over the remains to the castle steps, furiously scrambling through the ground. His hands looked for any tinge of gold, for anything that threaded itself through the cobblestones. But all he could see was the waning red light. He grabbed his necklace. It had not dimmed. Snow began to fall, lightly. Where were the veins?!
“Gaheris!” He ignored Phoebe, scrambling forward with searching hands. “Gaheris?”
“Wait. I -” Gaheris stopped. There, running through the snow, was a vein of gold. “Phoebe! There’s still gold!” Gaheris looked up at her and grinned. She smiled back with equal wonder. He glanced up at the dying sun, placing his hand on the warm throb of the vein.
And, as the sirens began wailing again with the destruction of the castle, Gaheris looked out towards the college and the city beyond. He heavily thought of the endless days ahead, living through an endless winter and bleeding sun. But, he relaxed, because under his settled fingertips thumped the persistent life beat of Chairn’s soul.
- October 2021