Fantasy magic portal fantasy sword and sorcery secondary world fantasy sword & sorcery korix and leveri

The Empty Dark

By C.L. Holland
Mar 26, 2020 · 4,875 words · 18 minutes

Photo by Vincent Botta via Unsplash.

From the author: Korix didn't come back last night. In a city where it's not safe to be out at night Leveri has to find him - before the darkness consumes them both.


The city bell tolled mournfully in the night. It penetrated the closed shutters and Leveri told himself it was the reason he couldn't sleep. It wasn't though, and he knew it.

Leveri glared at the candle by the door. He'd left it burning because his travelling companion wouldn't sleep in the dark, as if he were a small child rather than a grown man. Tonight, however, the bed on the other side of the room was empty. With crisp, clean sheets turned down it looked as if it hadn't been slept in. A pack stowed tidily beneath the bed was the only signs that Leveri shared the room with someone else.

Someone who should have been back hours ago.

The bell ceased and Leveri sighed. If Korix wasn't back now he wasn't going to be. He'd probably gone off with one of the local girls, so there was no point in keeping the candle lit. Leveri squinted across at it and made a snuffing motion with the fingers of his right hand. The candle went out with a wisp of smoke and plunged the room into darkness.

He woke to the dawn bell, and a thin sliver of light at the edges of the shutters. He pushed them open and blinked out at the morning. Over the rooftops the sky was streaked pink, but the air already smelled of the smoky fog that would shroud the city by evening. There was a bowl and pitcher of water beside the candle, so he used it to wash, then emptied the bowl into the deserted street below and went downstairs.

Thela, the innkeeper's oldest daughter, gave him a smile as he entered the taproom.

"Morning. Breakfast, is it?"

"Please." He sat at one of the mismatched tables.

"Mister Korix too?" Thela glanced towards the staircase.

"No. He stayed out all night, isn't back yet."

Thela's eyes widened. "You know where he went?"

"No. Why, what's the matter?"

"I know you're not from these parts, but I thought you knew. Round here you don't ever stay out overnight without letting someone know where you are."

Leveri stared at her. "Why?"

She looked down at her shoes. "Because sometimes people don't come back."

Suddenly the gnawing in his stomach had very little to do with hunger. "What happens to them?"

Thela shook her head. "No one knows. They just vanish." She stepped away. "I'll get your breakfast."

"Don't bother." Leveri's chair scraped on the floor as he pushed it back and went upstairs.

He pushed the door closed behind him and leaned against it, running Thela's words through his mind. "Not from these parts" was an understatement: they weren't even from this world. Leveri tugged the leather thong out from beneath his shirt to reveal a palm-sized stone. It was a deep blue-black that sparked with blue and purple highlights, and to his senses it thrummed with power. When fully charged, as it was now, the barest nudge of magic would make it open a portal to another world. It was how he and Korix had reached this one, how they'd travelled through numerous others in the search for their homes.

It would be so easy to open a portal now and take his leave of Korix.

Leveri's palm tingled around the stone as he considered it. The only reason they'd travelled together at all was because it took a wizard to use the stone, and Korix wasn't one.

"He should have been more careful," Leveri muttered. "He should be able to take care of himself." His gaze fell on Korix's pack. There was a way to search for him, although it wasn't a way Leveri was comfortable with. He sighed, locked the door, and upended the pack on the bed.

Korix had definitely not gone out unarmed, as there was no sign of his knife or the short sword he often wore concealed. He'd left his lock-pick though, a collection of wires of various shapes and sizes looped onto a ring. He used it only rarely, and only then when there wasn't another choice. The only other items in the pack were essentials like clothes, and the kit which Korix used to clean and maintain his weapons, nothing personal enough to create a strong link for scrying.

"The lock-pick it is then." He weighed it in his hand for a moment then placed it in the bowl. He put the bowl on the floor and filled it with water, then sat beside it and took a bottle of ink from his own pack.

Leveri closed his eyes and summoned into his mind an image of Korix, his skin darker than Leveri's, as if he'd spent a lot of time outdoors, and black hair pulled neatly back in a tail. Then he added the lock-pick and everything he could think of that linked Korix to it: his frown of reluctance the few times he'd drawn it out; the way he weighed it in his hand as he decided which of the picks to use; the look of concentration as he used it to open a lock. After a moment Leveri opened his eyes to unstopper the ink. He let a single drop fall into the water.

"Show me where Korix is."

The ink swirled and spread in feathery clouds, until the water was black. Leveri pushed his blond curls back from his face as he leant over the bowl. The air grew cooler, touched with the scent of damp earth and stone. The darkness in the bowl felt less empty and Leveri had the odd feeling there was a wall, one that Korix couldn't see but knew was there all the same.

There was a sound, a key in a door. Wood scraped on stone as it opened.

A voice choked out, "No!"

"Korix?" Leveri leant closer.

Footsteps crossed a stone floor and there was the sound of a scuffle. Korix shouted, a despairing wordless cry, and Leveri reached toward him.

The darkness vanished the instant his fingers brushed the water. Leveri jerked back into himself with a gasp. For a moment he stared at the bowl, but the contents were clear and innocent once more. His hands shook as he put the lock-pick on the bed to dry.

Korix was being held against his will, and he was afraid.

Leveri stared at the bowl, chewed on a thumbnail, and tried to ignore the smoothness of the portal stone against his skin.

Scrying for Korix again was useless, it would only show more of the same. He had to try another way, a way to show him what Korix was afraid of and how to find it.

He had to scry for the source of the fear.

The idea of it left him cold. His ability to scry was limited to familiar people or objects, or ones he could create a link to as he had done Korix. Scrying for the unknown was difficult, and dangerous.

That thought made him laugh. It wasn't doubt he was feeling, but trepidation. He gathered it up and began to think of the fears of others. He thought of Thela's reaction when she heard that Korix hadn't returned, and of Korix's fight alone in the dark, and of his own fear of what might happen if it went wrong. Or if it went right.

When his mind was full of fears he dipped his fingers into the bowl and let them flow from him. Black ink dropped into the water again.

"Show me the source of the fear," he whispered.

The ink dissipated and grew faint. There was a tightening band of pressure in his skull as he concentrated harder on drawing out an image, as if a giant hand gripped his skull. He ignored the warning. Finding Korix was more important.

"Show me!" he grated.

The ink shot through the water and turned it dark. There was a surge of images. Too many to follow, he'd been too general. Leveri felt a tickle in his left nostril. A drop of blood fell from him into the water. He jerked as it bound him into the scrying and opened him to all the fear in the city.

The stink of blood and smoke choked him. Knives flashed and pierced his flesh, a weight pinned him as hands groped at his body, fists struck him, someone held him down as his lungs filled with water. Screams filled his ears and they were all his. He tried to look away but it was unrelenting.

"Korix!"

The view lurched sideways. The crooked shape of a ruin loomed out of the fog. There was a streak of red and gold, the chill of stone, and darkness.

When Leveri opened his eyes he was on his bed. Thela gave a squeak from the ruined doorway and ran out. A moment later she came back with her father Clovis, who stood over him with his arms folded. Leveri scrubbed at the dried blood beneath his nose with the back of his hand as he sat up.

"We don't hold with witchcraft here," the innkeeper said flatly.

"Witchcraft?" He squinted through his headache at the bowl of water and the bottle of ink beside it. "Oh. It's not witchcraft."

"I don't care what you call it," Clovis replied. "I'll not have it practiced here. Pack up your things and go." He turned to herd Thela into the corridor.

"Wait," Leveri said. "Please. I'll go, just please tell me, are there any ruins in the city?"

Clovis stared at him. "There's the cathedral of Kelethin, out by the north gate," he said finally. "The old Westconis manor, the old fort, and a castle a mile south."

"Thank you."

"I wouldn't waste time looking for them, if I were you." Clovis glanced at the window, where the sky was ghostly grey with mist. "It's getting dark."

Leveri's vision swam as he stood. He could barely hold himself upright as he packed his and Korix's things. Clovis stood over him until he was finished and escorted him onto the street.

Fatigue made the evening air seem cold. Leveri shivered and wondered where he could go. If he didn't find shelter soon, he might end up being found by the very thing he was looking for.

"Mister Leveri!"

Thela's voice made him pause. He stood, swaying, as he waited for her to reach him.

"You forgot this." She thrust something into his hands. Leveri opened his mouth to protest but she leaned close to him.

"Go to the end of the street," she whispered. "Turn left. There's an inn, called The Mermaid's Tail."

"Thank you," he replied, but she was already running back down the street.

Somehow he made it to The Mermaid's Tail. The innkeeper there looked dubious, but was willing to rent him a room. Leveri staggered upstairs and dropped everything he carried. He barely had time to fall onto the bed and tug a blanket over himself before he started to shake.

When he finally slept, it was disturbed with dreams of being chased through the city's dark streets. Time after time he'd jerk awake just as his pursuer reached him, only to drift back into sleep where the dream would start again.

Finally it was the morning. Leveri blinked around at the unfamiliar room and for a moment wondered where he was. Then he saw the packs abandoned on the floor and remembered.

"Korix." He scrambled out of bed. There were still tremors in his arms and legs--it would take more than merely a night's sleep to cure those--but he forced himself to wash and change so he could face the day with a clear head.

There was a cloth bundle on the floor. Belatedly he remembered Thela's gift and opened it. Wrapped in the square of linen were a heel of bread, cheese, dried sausage, and two apples.

"Bless you, Thela," he said, then packed his things and went downstairs.

He made himself pause for breakfast. Experience had taught him that to rush after a spell backfire like the one he'd suffered yesterday would only have him on his knees by lunchtime.

Leveri followed the directions on foot. The cathedral was closest, but he knew as soon as he reached it that it wasn't the building he was looking for. It wasn't so much of a ruin as a new building sprouting from the remains of the old like mushrooms on a tree trunk. He wandered inside the ruined part for a while, but couldn't find any part of it that wasn't open to the sky.

The manor was next, but that was nothing more than a wreck of charred timbers. Most of the stone seemed to have been scavenged, and the skeleton that remained was too insubstantial to be the place he was looking for. The fort was also too ruined to be what he'd seen: the crumbling walls left even the underground cells exposed.

Korix was no longer in the city.

The realisation left him tired. Even the portal stone felt heavy around his neck. Leveri sat on the edge of a wall and ate the food Thela had given him.

It took most of his coin, and Korix's, to buy a horse and provisions--he was still too fatigued to walk even that far. Still, one way or another he doubted they'd need money from this world much longer. Either he would find Korix and they'd use the portal stone to move on, or he'd fail to find him and do the same. Or he'd fall into the same darkness that had claimed his companion.

After a day of carrying around two packs, even sitting atop the horse was tiring. As his surroundings disappeared into twilight, Leveri summoned a small ball of white light to test his reserves. The glow upset the horse, and it was an effort to concentrate in any case, so he extinguished it and rode in semi-darkness.

A silhouette appeared against the setting sun, and Leveri's chest tightened. That lopsided shape was the one he'd seen in the scrying bowl. He came to a gatehouse crowned by stars, and spurred the horse towards where Korix waited.

Leveri was nearly at the ruin when his horse shied sideways. He cursed and gripped at the saddle to keep from falling. A shadow moved on his right. He fumbled for his knife.

A hand reached up and took his horse by the halter. The animal stilled immediately and stood shivering as Leveri looked down at the young man who watched him.

"You won't need that." The newcomer sounded amused. "I heard you approach and came to see what the matter was. I'm Arith Velaster, I own the castle."

"Leri Stass." It was a nickname he hadn't heard in a long time, combined with a family name he'd heard in the town. "I'm afraid I'm lost. I was hoping to find somewhere to shelter and carry on tomorrow."

"You're not though, are you?" Velaster's head tilted to one side. "Afraid, I mean. Most people would be, out here all alone in the dark."

"I'm not most people." In truth he was too tired to be scared, beyond the worry at the back of his mind that he was already too late.

"So I see." The dry amusement was back in the other's voice. "You are, of course, welcome to my hospitality. I don't see many visitors here."

"I'm not surprised. It looks like a ruin." Leveri took his hand from the knife and patted the horse's neck instead. "I'm sorry, that was rude of me."

Velaster laughed. "I take no offence. You're correct, it is a ruin. At least, a partial one. I'm rebuilding it. I hope you don't mind?"

Leveri dismounted. "Not as long as the ruin has beds."

He followed as his host led the now placid horse towards the castle. It was difficult to tell much about it in the half-light.

"Will it take long to rebuild?" Leveri hoped his scrutiny would be taken for casual interest.

"Years, probably," came the cheerful reply. "And a small fortune. Fortunately I have both."

Velaster pushed open one half of a double door to reveal a red-carpeted hallway. "Go on in, there's a fireplace in the dining room, to your right. I'll see to your horse."

"Thank you." Leveri took the packs and went inside.

Once the door had closed, Leveri fought the urge to run to the nearest flight of stairs and look for Korix. Velaster would be back at any moment, and it wouldn't do to be caught snooping. At least nighttime wanderings could be blamed on bad dreams. Instead he forced himself to wait where he'd been told, beside the welcome heat of the fire.

The dining room didn't look like it belonged in a ruin. A long table dominated the centre, so flawlessly varnished that Leveri could have scryed on its surface. The chairs were made of the same wood, with red cushions that matched the carpet. Golden tapestries hung from the walls, and a rack of ornamental swords hung above the mantelpiece.

"They're antiques."

Leveri jumped. He hadn't heard Velaster enter. He turned to see his host carrying a silver tray. The fire glinted chestnut highlights from his glossy curls.

"I took the liberty of seeing to a meal for you."

"That's very kind." Leveri watched as Velaster laid the meal out in front of him: a bowl of soup, bread and butter, and wine. It felt awkward, having the master of the house wait on him, and he wondered where the servants were.

"It's unusual, a lone traveller chancing the roads this late." Velaster took two goblets from the mantel and filled them. "Weren't you afraid of bandits? Wild animals? All the things that make the city folk shudder and lock their doors?"

"Not especially." He'd barely considered it. "I don't look rich enough for bandits to bother with, and any wild animal desperate enough to attack would probably be more interested in the horse than me."

Velaster studied him as he ate. "An interesting outlook."

"What about you? Aren't you worried about being out here all alone?"

"Not especially," Velaster said. "Everyone thinks it's a ruin, after all."

Warming soup and good wine left Leveri nodding at the table. Velaster took him to his room before he could embarrass himself by falling asleep into the soup.

"Feel free to sleep in as long as you like."

"Thank you." Leveri accepted the lantern and closed the door behind him. He didn't move again until he heard Velaster's footsteps fade back down the stairs.

When he was sure he was alone, Leveri put down the lantern and sat on the bed. The chill night air had woken him a little, but he still felt exhausted. He meant to sit for just a few moments, and frowned as a dank stink crept in on a chill breeze. He heard a sob from the other side of the door.

"Korix?" he whispered. He clutched at the portal stone as he crossed the room and pushed at the door.

It opened onto nothing.

Somebody screamed.

Leveri jerked awake, certain for an instant that the scream had been real. The room was unchanged, but he couldn't shake the feeling that if he slept again the door would open onto darkness.

He grabbed the packs and went looking for Korix.

The fort was dark and silent as he headed down the stairs. Remembering the smell of earth and stone he followed the spiral down into the darkness of the levels beneath the ground.

It grew colder instantly. Leveri glanced behind him but the curve of the staircase was lost in gloom. He summoned a ball of light, small enough not to strain him too hard, and followed the stairs to their end. A stone-lined corridor stretched before him. The walls listened, broken here and there by the dark shapes of doorways. The first few were empty even of doors, and Leveri started to wonder if the restoration had come this far. There were bound to be other staircases, other corridors. He pressed on regardless.

The first intact door he came to was unlocked, and opened into a tiny room. Roots had twisted their way through the wall, replacing stone with crumbling earth. He closed the door and followed the corridor as it turned a corner. The next door also opened into an abandoned room. The next was filled with objects in various states of decay. Leveri was about to close the door when he noticed a sword in its scabbard, leaned against some boxes. The pommel and guard were black, decorated with gold patterns that glistened in the light, and the hilt wrapped with silver wire.

Korix's sword.

Leveri's stomach lurched. On the floor was a scatter of his other possessions, including a knife and his boots. Leveri scooped them up and belted the sword at his waist. It made him feel lopsided.

The next door was locked.

Leveri paused and made the light hover beside it. There was a panel at head height that slipped aside to reveal a small barred window. He pushed his face up to it but couldn't hear anything.

"Korix?" he whispered. "Korix, are you there?"

There was a sharp intake of breath and the sound of someone scrabbling against stone.

"Stay away from me," a voice warned, hoarse and breathless.

Leveri divided his ball of light in two and floated one through the bars.

"Leveri?" Korix came to the door as the light circled lazily around him. His eyes glittered feverishly bright. "It's really you? What are you doing here?"

"Rescuing you. Can you reach the lock from inside? I've brought your lock-pick." He passed them through and Korix disappeared from view.

"Stop moving the light, it's distracting."

"How did he catch you?"

There was a pause and a small noise of metal against metal.

"I got lost." Korix's voice was bitter with self-reproach. "I thought I knew the way back, but it was getting dark.   I couldn't find my way and the more I tried to hurry the worse it got."

"Surely you didn't leave the city?"

"Once he found me I didn't have much choice."

"But..."

"Leveri, I'm trying to concentrate."

Leveri turned his attention back to the corridor.

A shadow moved from a doorway and resolved into the shape of Arith Velaster. Leveri cursed.

"What?" Korix's voice was sharp.

"Just keep working." Leveri didn't take his eyes from their host as he moved silently down the corridor. "Don't come any closer."

"You would give me orders in my own house?" Velaster sounded amused. Behind him, Leveri heard the lock-pick clatter to the floor as Korix fumbled it.

"What do you want?" Leveri asked.

"Surely you must be able to taste his fear," Velaster took another step forward, his gaze fixed on Leveri's. "He's not merely afraid of the dark. It terrifies him. Did you know his world has three suns, white, and red, and blue? It's never completely dark there. Has he told you what frightens him so, in the darkness? He told me, although he didn't want to."

Three suns. Suddenly it made sense why Korix would never sleep without a lit candle.

"Is that why you were drawn to him?" Leveri asked. "Because of his fear?"

"Fear of the dark is a childhood fear. To find it in a grown man is all the sweeter. And then to find he lives with fear each day that he will never return home, never see those three suns again. How could I resist?" Velaster moved forward with languid grace.

"I told you to stop."

"Or what? You're more afraid than you pretend."

"I'm not afraid of you."

"No, you're not. But you're afraid of something. I can sense it, behind the weariness and bravado. You're afraid of the same thing he is: that you'll never leave this place, either of you. That you'll never find your way home." Velaster stepped into the circle of light. Despite it, his pupils had dilated until his eyes looked as dark and empty as the blackness Leveri had seen in his dream.

Leveri drew Korix's sword awkwardly with his left hand. "Even you must fear something."

Velaster's laugh sent a shiver up his spine. "What need have I to fear? Fear sustains me."

"Yes." Leveri drew the word out to cover the tumbler in the lock clicking. "But I bet you can die like everyone else."

The door to the cell slammed open. Leveri took half a step sideways as Korix leapt past him with a snarl and snatched the sword from his hand.

Velaster drew out a sword Leveri hadn't seen. The blades clashed and hissed down each other's lengths as they parted. Velaster laughed again.

"You think to best me here? You've seen the darkness in this place. It's consumed you more than once and it will do so again."

Korix parried a blow. "It's not dark now."

Leveri's lights flickered.

"Are you sure of that?" Velaster's laugh was rich with amusement. "Your friend is tired. How long can he hold those pretty lights before his strength fails? Before he plunges you back into blackness and fear?"

Korix shouted and lunged as the lights flickered again.

Leveri slumped back against the wall. Velaster was right. The bungled scrying had taken almost all everything, and he hadn't rested nearly enough to recover from it. He could almost feel the power draining from him, and there wasn't anything left to give. When the lights went out Korix would fight, but he'd lose. Neither of them would see home again. His lights began to dim.

"Leveri, no!"

"Yes," Velaster hissed. "Let the lights go out. Let your fear fuel me."

"Fuel?" Leveri whispered, as Korix called his name again. He remembered gathering up fear, using it to scry. That spell hadn't been entirely dependent on his own power.

Velaster wasn't the only one who could use fear as a weapon.

He let the lights go out.

Korix screamed his name.

Leveri sat up straight and thought of the scrying bowl, of all the horrors he'd seen--felt--in it. He took those fears into himself, imagined them filling him like a bloated tick. In the darkness he heard Velaster laugh as Korix stumbled. He added his friend's harsh breathing, his muffled curses. Then, when he felt the warning pain in his head again, he pushed it all at Velaster.

Miniature suns exploded into being, white, red, and blue. Velaster threw up an arm to shield his eyes and Korix leapt forward with a battle cry. He drew blood as Velaster failed to parry. Leveri swarmed the lights around Velaster's head like insects. One of them struck him as he whirled away. His silk shirt caught fire and a moment later flames lit the corridor.

The scream he gave was nothing human. It pierced Leveri's skull like a blade. He felt the trickle of blood in his nose again.

He wasn't sure if his lights failed first or he did.

Eventually Leveri was aware of someone half dragging and half carrying him. He swatted at them--he'd fight Velaster to his last breath--but it was Korix who spoke.

"Don't."

Leveri let Korix take him out into the cool air. He sprawled against a wall and opened his eyes to see the other man lighting a lantern. Korix turned to look down at him with concern.

Leveri swabbed at his bloody nose with a sleeve and winced. "Two nosebleeds in as many days. Master Teoren would kill me. Don't worry, I'll be fine."

"You look like death."

"Look who's talking." Korix still held himself as if expecting attack at any moment. His hair was a tangled cloud around his face, and stubble stood out against his sallow skin.

For a moment, Korix didn't answer.

"You came to get me," he said. "I didn't think you would. Thank you."

Leveri shrugged. "I couldn't just leave you there."

"How did you find me?"

"Magic." Leveri wiggled his fingers. To his credit, Korix didn't flinch as he usually did at mention of Leveri's skills. "Your world. Does it really have three suns?"

The sky was lightening in the east. Korix looked towards it.

"Yes," he said finally. "Yolen, Aeris, and Regba. Never in living memory have all three set together. It's said that when they do demons will come out of the darkness and consume us all. I wondered more than once down there if that creature was one of them."

They retrieved their packs from the underground cells. Leveri tried not to look at the corpse of Velaster, badly burned and missing its head.

"What next?" Korix asked.

"To be honest, I didn't plan on still being around when he worked out why I was here. The portal stone's charged."

"But you can't use it now."

"No." Not without inviting another nosebleed.

"It can wait. Wherever it opens, it probably won't be home."

"Probably not," Leveri said. "But if it isn't, at least we're not travelling alone."

"At least there's that," Korix agreed.

They went back to the surface, and sat side by side to watch the sun come up.

This story originally appeared in Fantasy Short Stories: Issue 1 .


Front cover
Get the book
Conversations With Dragons

The collected stories of C.L. Holland.

Find a local bookstore

Note: Curious Fictions may receive a commission if you purchase through Amazon.


C.L. Holland

C.L. Holland writes fantasy and science fiction.