He’d brought soup. Soup was tricky, but squatting next to Galvin, Mully was pleased with the result. The green light of their small oil lamp made Galvin’s already gaunt features look even worse. But the heat, and the saltiness, of the broth were doing him good.
“How’d you get this, Mul?” The last bits of vegetables had been slurped up, and Galvin collapsed back with the relief of drink and food. Mully caught the bowl before it dropped, placing it behind him before pulling the tattered blankets up around his brother.
“Got lucky.” Mully grinned down at Galvin before reaching down and picking up the tiny sliver of paper next to his brother. Mully had one of his own, scrawled over with prayers, and he dropped them into the lamp, letting them flame into smoke before extinguishing the light. In the sudden dark, he found the way to his own spot by memory and touch.
“Got some other good news too.”
“Yeah?” Galvin sounded sleepy now, which Mully had expected. They’d never got the coin together to get Galvin a proper answer to why he was sick. Physicians cost too much and said too little that made sense. You had to have priorities.
“Yep. Got a job coming up. Real one. Proper pay for a bit.”
“Yeah?” The exhaustion was still there.
“Up to Capher. Gonna get a chit from the citadel too, so no one can say I can’t be there.” Like he’d said, it was a proper job this time. He heard Galvin shift in the darkness, his breath already heavy with oncoming slumber.
“What they want you up there for, Mul?”
“Nothing weird, promise.”
“Job’s just watching for morlir. But there ain’t any. It’s just them Caphers being scared of their shadows–” Mully was going to say more, tell his brother more, but Galvin had already slipped into sleep, and instead, Mully let the silence and the darkness stay undisturbed, wrapping the rest of the blankets around himself, although he didn’t plan on sleeping.
Proper job, proper food. It’d see them through, for a little while at least.
The walls were high and cold, the only light emanating from long tapered flames. Purple instead of the usual green-blue of the streetlamps. The candles had burned with an intensity that blinded Mully when he’d first stepped foot inside the citadel’s cathedral but his vision had adjusted quickly. These flames hadn’t burned with heat, but instead an intense cold that quickly sunk into Mully’s bones. He was shivering as he took those terrifying steps.
The ceiling was cloudy with burned prayers, the air thick with whispered hopes. A hiss of unintelligible demands to their god. A god who never seemed to listen.
Mully didn’t belong here. In these hallowed, hollow halls of the citadel, but he needed his official letter to get into Capher Hill, and this was the only place he could get it.
Mully could feel the unseen eyes of judgment on him. His clothing was barely adequate for his station as a street-kid in the Grotto, let alone here.
Along one wall, several priests were gathered. They stood in front of the massive mosaics of Nevix, although the air remained hazy with smoke. The depictions of the tall, angular god seemed to reach out of the walls towards Mully, the purple light and twisting smoke making him almost appear to come alive.
The priests were who he needed to ask. Mully skulked along the back wall, trying to be as invisible as possible.
“Another one was reported. Same as the others. Light, and then a tall creature, brighter than the light.”
“Just blood left.”
“Nevix protect us…”
When he got closer, the hushed conversation of the small group of priests died down, although the other whispers continued, hissing in Mully’s ears.
“Young sir. Community worship is over,” one said, a frown appearing on his face.
“No, I know.” Mully’s heart did a weird little hiccup in his chest. It was long past time for community worship, which was usually the only time that people like him were welcome.
“But,” he added hastily, “I had to come. Got told to.” Before they could speak, although one of them had opened his mouth to reply, Mully pressed on, “A job. Need a chit for it. On Capher hill?”
The smirk on one of the other priest’s faces mirrored the elongated one on the mural above them.
Then, a pause. More whispers between the priests, before another spoke up. This priest was older, and the glare he’d given to the others easily slid over to Mully.
“Yes, yes. We should have known. You’re not the first to come by for their writ of passage. Please, take a seat. We’ll bring it out to you.”
Mully managed to nod, ducking his head away from the attention of the other clergy before retreating. He slipped into the back pews. Clasping his hands together between his knees, he tried not to look at the walls, where the curling smoke made the mosaics look like they were laughing.
The whispers, the hissing, only got louder.
There hadn’t been anything to say to Galvin when Mully had returned to what they called their house. It wasn’t a house. It wasn’t a home. It was a hole in the side of a warehouse, hidden from both sides by garbage that had long been forgotten and by old crates, hollowed out and stuffed with the tattered remains of whatever fabric Mully had been able to find.
Still, it was a relief to leave the street behind and crawl through the hidden hole into the easy silence. By the warmth that permeated the dark space, Mully knew that Galvin was there. Sometimes his brother had the energy to leave while Mully was gone, but not today. Not for a while, actually.
They had to be quiet here. Workers were always around.
Mully leaned against his side of the crate. There were two they had pushed together, and his side was less warm. He could hear Galvin’s slow, measured breathing from the other side. There was no light, because the lamps that lit the Grotto’s streets didn’t shine far enough down the alleyway that contained their little refuge. In the almost pure darkness, the two boys could relax. Almost.
As he settled in, Mully felt the anxiety he’d been suppressing all day constrict his throat before it began to drip away, grounded by the darkness, and the warmth, and the safety.
It was a few more minutes, each second ticking by in their minds, before Galvin spoke.
“How’s the Hill?”
It was Mully’s turn for silence, and instead of answering, he busied himself trying to find their hand lamp. He’d been going up to Capher hill for a few days now, each day more of the same.
Galvin eventually leaned forward, the faint rustling of rough cloth and then the painful brilliance of green gas-light, which was turned down to an acceptable dull flicker. It was still far brighter than it had been, and Mully was quick to lower the hand he’d put up when the lamp had first turned on.
Galvin looked sick. He always looked sick. The green cast of the light only highlighted the loss of muscles on his arms, or the thinness to his cheeks.
“You’re staring again, Mul.”
“Yeah, sorry.” It was hard not to. It was hard not to study his brother’s face for signs of growing weakness. It was just… hard.
Instead, Mully pushed himself up into a half-crouch, since much more than that wasn’t possible in the confines of their home. There was a pouch, ragged and darned many times over, that was normally stuffed down the leg of his pants. Mully pulled the strings at the top, opening it and pulling out some real treasures. Buttered bread, and a tiny bit of cheese.
It was a feast, and Mully carefully broke the bread and handed it over along with the cheese.
“I got some before. You take it.”
“The Hill was good then?”
“Yep, I guess,” Mully muttered, putting his own smaller portion of bread into his mouth to forestall the conversation once more. There would be more tomorrow if he found a new place to watch and wait. There was plenty of good food just left to rot in Capher Hill. Not like in the Grotto. Every little thing was used here. Mully liked it better that way, somehow.
Silence descended again, both of them focusing on the bread. It was stale despite the butter, but there wasn’t any mold. Eventually, Galvin spoke up after a while to say that the cheese was good.
Other than that, it was quiet. They would have to turn the light off soon. Oil was expensive and it was better to conserve it, but dinner would be enjoyed together.
Once the light had been extinguished, and the calming darkness was absolute, Galvin spoke up, although his voice was as tremulous as the flickering flame in the oil lamp had been.
“Was it that bad, Mul?”
“Sorta, I guess. It was… weird, Vin.”
“But you’re staying safe?”
“Oh, yep.” It was almost a relief to let out the short burst of laughter, although Mully quickly stifled it. Someone might be hanging around. “You know those Hill-folk. They’re so dumb. They think Mors appear everywhere, but there ain’t any. Easy money.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re safe, Mul.”
Mully nodded, even though Galvin couldn’t see it. Despite his calm exterior there was a small pang of anxiety deep in his stomach that he tried to ignore. He had to go back, and he didn’t know why he didn’t want to. The money was good. Good enough to keep them fed for a while. Good enough to get Galvin something that might help with the shakes or weakness, or the ever-present exhaustion. Good enough to get them lamp oil and new, warm clothes that fit. Good enough for Mully to go back, despite the pit in his stomach.
When he went to reply to Galvin, he realized his brother’s breathing had changed, becoming shallow and less raspy. Galvin had fallen asleep.
Mully pulled the few scraps of fabric he could find that weren’t cocooning his brother around himself, shifting to get comfortable. For a long time, he couldn’t fall asleep, but eventually he drifted off, even if his dreams were filled with a terrifying and inescapable maze of beautiful streets and roaring blinding light fragmented into a rainbow of colors.
The alleyway he’d hidden himself in was shadowed. The murky green-blue flames in the streetlamps cast decent light but Mully wasn’t concerned with their illumination. It was the illumination of the infrequent shafts of white-yellow light that pierced the murk. Those were the dangerous places. The places he needed to watch for. They were the whole reason he was allowed to be here. To make sure that those shafts of light weren’t spawning morlir.
A flicker in the corner of his vision. He wanted to whip his head around, but the motion made his muscles scream with warning. He’d been still for too long. Mully was reduced to turning his whole body to look.
His heart had quickened and he could hear the dull thudding of it in his ears, but no. No, there wasn’t a shimmering shaft of light piercing the ground from the heavens, spewing forth the creatures which made people disappear. He was seeing things.
It was time to move. Mully craned his neck to look out of his hiding spot.
The coast was clear, and Mully sidled his way out of the alley, still stretching his neck as he set a nonchalant saunter down the cobbled street. There weren’t many people out now, but it was getting late and he’d have to scurry back to the Grotto when the bell tolled the next hour.
There were plenty of shops on the street he came to, each sign hanging above their door, illuminated by the same aqueous light that didn’t summon monsters to it. Most were clothing or pharmaceutical shops, a few bookstores, but some were food. Mully eyed the bookstores with envy, but it was the bakery that drew him up short.
He felt the drool pooling in his mouth, and it was the only thing that kept his mouth moist as it hung open. He’d stopped short before one of the windows, the perfectly browned tops of savory pies and leavened loaves a sight to behold, the smell of yeast and pastry sugar, caramelized but not burnt, wafting about. There wasn’t anything like this in the Grotto.
He’d stood mesmerized for quite awhile, blind to the approach of the two people. The hand on his shoulder made him yelp, and he was spun around before he could bolt.
“Young man. How did you get past the gate guards?” He might not have been old, but he was somber, his look pinning Mully in place.
The other person was a young woman, maybe a few years younger than the priest. She didn’t have the full veil of the pious sisters, but the half-veil that covered her eyes from the outside world that was the common fashion among the residents of Capher Hill.
“I… chit. I gotta chit…” Mully said quickly, his words tumbling from his mouth in a panicked mumble.
The priest staring at him was bad enough, but the woman was worse.
“Chit?” The skepticism in the priest’s voice made Mully’s heart sink and he felt his insides try to curl in on themselves. He did have a chit. He knew it was legit. He’d made sure of that before he left the citadel.
“Y-yeah. Chit. Got it here.” He fumbled with his pockets, fingers clumsy with anxiety. It was the stare he couldn’t see from the woman, standing just behind the priest, that unnerved him so much. Finally he was able to pull the folded paper out of his pocket and he thrust it at the priest.
The letter had the citadel’s seal. It was official, but it still felt like an eternity while the pair examined it and Mully tried not to fidget.
Mully couldn’t tell if the tone was skeptical or pitying, and that made it worse.
“At least you’re somewhat clean.”
That came from the woman, and made the priest chuckle, although he never got a chance to reply. Instead, a gurgle escaped him, and a small shriek from the woman. Mully turned to see what had stopped their gloating and froze. A long, unbroken beam of light intersected the street about twenty paces away, and from inside it, movement.
The pounding retreat of his two waylayers was drowned out by his spiked heart rate.
The morlir was standing there, thinner than paper, more insubstantial than the light that had spawned it. The oddly human-like head tilted back and forth. The retreating footsteps of the other two had completely vanished. The morlir stepped from the light, the shaft of pure white illumination slowly vanishing behind it, but the morlir seemed to be made of it, streams of light pouring off of it as it came towards him.
Mully had been frozen with fear before, but now he didn’t even know where he was. There was only the morlir, the dissipating lightbeam behind it, the squiggles of light that made up the thin creature before him. It wasn’t skeletal because it was too thin for a skeleton. It towered over Mully, an ephemeral brilliant nightmare, its head also elongated but still recognizable. The worst part was that it made no sound as it stepped towards him, leaving dribbles of vibrant color behind it.
It was human-shaped, two arms, two legs, a blank face with two circles of shimmering, vibrating, pulsating light. It was thin, nothing more than lines of light bleeding together in his vision. Mully’s foot unglued from the ground, and he took a step back, the thud of foot against solid paving block jarring him and his sense of self thudded back into place like a thunderous crescendo. He didn’t want to turn his back to the creature, but the desire to run overwhelmed him, and he fled.
He didn’t know his way around these streets, especially not like the way he knew the Grotto. The Grotto had always been his home, and somehow these wide, exposed streets felt more threatening to him than the winding alleys he’d spent his youth darting through. The deserted, clean, organized streets were turning themselves into the maze of his nightmares.
Finally he fell into another alley, unaware and uncaring if this was one that he knew or not. But they were there, not just one, but too many to count. Morlir, reaching for him, their stretched limbs ending in needle thin spears of light that felt too solid when they grabbed him. The needles of their fingers drove into his flesh, drawing pinpricks of blood through his clothing. Now, the morlir made the first sound that Mully had heard from them. It was a chattering hiss, a static that filled his mind like unanswered prayers.
Their fingers slipped under his skin, piercing his muscles, separating the layers. Skin from fat from tendons, nerve endings poking through the holes that they tore, sending shockwaves of pain though his limbs. Bones, still wet and soft, exposed to the air.
They tore at him methodically, their voices raised to a painful pitch. As they peeled his layers apart, a gap between them formed. It was filled by the sight of another creature, towering over even the elongated forms of the morlir. Vapor and saliva dribbled from its lolling tongue, and the skull that made up its head was covered with eye sockets. Very few held no eyes, but most held one or two, the eyes squished together. They rolled in their lidless sockets, pupils dilating, contracting, seeing all of the world at once.
The pain had only been in the background, but this new visage sent Mully into spasms of terror, trying to writhe out of the grasp of the pack of morlir that had him pinned. His struggles only made the morlir hiss more, their whispers making it difficult to hear the words the newest creature spoke.
“Ah, Mulligan,” it rasped, bringing up its own hand towards Mully’s face, “We didn’t expect you to come home to us so soon.” Its other hand trailed down to Mully’s right arm, caressing the weeping flesh there before digging its own fingers in.
Mully screamed, but the noise was hazy and distant, as if it had come from far away.
“I understand, Mulligan. You aren’t the first whose fear held them back.”
Mully couldn’t watch the creature’s hand on his arm, where it held muscles, peeling them away from his bones in long ribbons that it fed into its salivating mouth. It was the other hand, the one that was coming closer to his eye, the sharpened nails at the end of the spindly fingers sliding under his eyelids. The nails pinched together, pulling his eye from his head. He could still see, even as the optic nerve twanged, the vibration of movement making the nausea in his stomach spike.
“Calm, calm, Mulligan,” the raspy voice said, “You’ll be with us always. Isn’t that what you believed would happen when you died? We saw the smoke of your ignited prayers, Mulligan. We’re here to fulfill them.” The tingling started the moment the nerve snapped, severing Mully’s eye. It went dark for a moment, then he saw himself.
His arm had been stripped to the bone, morlir crowding underneath it to catch the rain of blood that fell from him. The creature had begun to pull the muscle and flesh of his leg now, swallowing it in rapid gulps, as Mully watched himself watching himself being consumed.
“The pain will end, Mulligan. Isn’t that what our devout say? Nevix will take the pain away, you just have to believe.” It… Nevix leaned in closer, Mully’s vision suddenly focused on his face, his empty socket, his one remaining, staring eye as the hand came closer once more.
“We’ve only ever wanted to give our worthy a painless existence.”
Nevix was right. The pain did end. Eventually.
He had… brief memories that remained to him. In the ever-moving kaleidoscope of rainbow light that spun around him now, cocooning him in neither warmth nor chill. The light was endless, and so was the knowledge that came with it.
Morlir were – had been – people. He had been a person. Had he been? He wasn’t so sure now. All around him was light, but what was “him?”
He was light. There wasn’t pain anymore, and even the memory of pain, when it appeared, only felt distant. This was all that was left when the flesh, the mortal, that which could feel pain, was stripped away.
“Why do you do their work for them, Mulligan?” The fallen god had asked him. The pain of innumerable splinters of light burning Mully to his core, incinerating his bones while flesh had still been wrapped around them. The morlir had summoned Nevix with their whispers, and Mully could now hear the god who’d reclaimed him like the other morlir when they’d been frail, mortal, in pain. The words of disintegrating prayers sounded like a thousand quills scratching on paper.
“They don’t remember what we were. They lie, scavenging in their murky homes, shying from the light. But we are the light.”
Mully had burned away just like a prayer, scribbled hastily along a scrap of parchment during service. So who was this, doing the thinking?
Another memory emerged, of darkness and comfort. Of soft laughter and the smell of buttered bread. More real than the cauterizing light. Of soft laughter and of home. It hadn’t been a home, but it also had, because his brother had been there.
“Vin?” This voice wasn’t a god’s voice, but the scratching, whispered voice of an unheard prayer. It was what remained of his voice.
The Grotto didn’t require something as substantial as memory to navigate. He had been human once, and he’d known this place within his bones. Those bones had ignited into brief, painful flames, but that too, was a memory. He’d come here, moving through the light, leaving ghosts and reflected rainbows in his wake. It was an alleyway with garbage, the yellow-white light fading behind him as he made his way towards what he’d known was the only safe place.
The shallow gasping breaths that came from inside tickled something in him. Another memory, perhaps, of too many nights kept awake by that sound. Too much anxiety, of the anticipation of loss, wrapped up within it.
His fingers, needles made of light, wrapped around the entrance and he moved inside. He made no sound, but there was still an answer.
“M…ul…?” Faint, so faint. Like the memories. But that was who he had been. Mul. Mully. Mulligan. He stared at the figure before him, hollowed even more by the passage of time that he hadn’t remembered.
“That’s… you, right, Mul?” It was fainter than the whispers that had always plagued him, the barest flicker of the green lamp illuminating Galvin’s sunken form. The morlir, the Mully that remained, bent his head down, the light of his forehead connecting with his brother’s.
“I missed you, Mul. Welcome… welcome home.”
Mully reached out and gripped his brother’s shoulder, fingers digging into the small amount of muscle that was left. It was time for them to go home together.
Written by Savannah Worthington