Uluki was surprised that Aorle seemed to take an interest in her story about the spirits. It had been such a small thing, not as interesting or important as what he did on a regular basis. He had fought two demons in one night! What were a few spirits in a cave compared to that? It was kind of him to listen so intently to her tale, as mundane as it was.
She smiled gratefully at his comment about better friends. Things with Mara had been so… complicated. Forgiveness was a virtue, and Uluki had forgiven the betrayal, though she bore the scars. She held nothing against Mara. Still, it was nice when things weren’t complicated. It was nice when a friend was just a friend. It was nice to be able to trust, nice not to have to worry. She was glad that there were so many people here she could trust, good friends like Aorle and Julen and the others. Aorle’s obvious feeling behind the words made her confident he would be loyal.
Uluki was impressed by the gear Aorle had provided for Rollick, though she knew next to nothing about weapons and armour. She could tell her husband was also pleased. For the past ten years, Rollick had pieced together armour as best he could, spending what they could spare, taking items from dead enemies, improvising… but there had been little enough to buy or take. Everyone had been poor, and armour was seen as a rare and valuable commodity. There had been a time when Rollick had owned full plate armour, but that had been lost, along with all his other belongings, at the collapse of the Council. Since then, finding equipment had been a struggle. Uluki would feel better knowing Rollick had the things he needed to stay safe. That was her main concern— his safety. Rollick himself was clearly impressed with the generosity, though he merely said a sincere “Thank you,” in response.
When Aorle encouraged him to speak, Rollick glanced again at Uluki. The things that needed to be discussed would put her in grave danger, were they known by the wrong people. The warriors were trustworthy— last night had demonstrated that once again— but Rollick barely knew some of the civilians. They all seemed kind, but he was unwilling to allow Uluki’s safety to rely on that impression. “Perhaps we could talk privately?” he suggested. Aorle agreed, and they adjourned to the room where Uluki had treated his injuries the day before.
It was hard to know where to begin. Rollick decided it was best to get his own story out of the way first, since he had been the first one mentioned in the letter, and the one who most seemed to obsess the sender. “As I told you, my body was once inhabited by an evil creature— a god, they called it. It was a monstrosity, by any name. It happened ten years ago. An influx of magic unintentionally weakened the creature’s containment. It was in the body of a host at the time—a host who gave himself over to it fully, and allowed it to use his mind. That was when it was most dangerous, when it had a mind it could control. Only then could it reason and plan. At the time, however, we didn’t realize it was able to switch bodies unless the host was killed.”
“I received word that the creature and its host had broken loose, causing mayhem and fatalities. Naturally, I rushed to the scene to attempt to contain it again. The creature, however, saw greater strength in me than in its host.” This was not a boast, merely a statement of fact, and one that didn’t seem to please him.
“It jumped into my body. It was…beyond words. Its thoughts, its feelings, its desires… I couldn’t get control. It used my body to commit… horrors… as I watched, powerless to stop it. So much innocent blood shed. My hands were soaked with it. But there was nothing…” He stared at his right hand as though he’d never seen it before, as though it belonged to a stranger. For awhile it had. Uluki took the hand that so offended him in both of hers and kissed it, then continued to hold it.
“Everyone was dead, everyone but me. It knew there were others, though, it had seen them. Uluki, her friends, they were away dealing with another crisis. It knew they should be there, and it intended to hunt them down. It was forcing me toward her room…”
He meant Uluki’s room. She hadn’t been there, but four other Dusklings had—her family, civilians. They were the only survivors.
“I’d been struggling against it from the moment it took me over, and outside her door, I finally gained some measure of control. I fled. I knew they would return soon, and this evil creature wouldn’t be there to greet them.”
“I stayed in the woods, far from anyone. The time would come to do final battle against the creature, and I couldn’t do so alone, but it needed to be weakened first. I fought against it with all of my might. The moment it felt my ability to resist, it tried to leave my body, but I refused to let it. I knew I must keep it contained, because in a more cooperative host it could do far more damage. It was able to reach out with its mind—if such a creature can be said to have a mind—and taint the minds of people whose despair or fear or mental weakness allowed it entry, but from that moment it did no more harm using my body, I saw to that.”
Uluki leaned against him, proud of him, as he continued his story.
“It was determined to break me. It showed me horrible images, the things it would use my body to do. I saw hundreds of innocents lying slaughtered at my feet. I saw everyone I cared for tormented and killed by my hand. I saw her…”
He took a deep breath before he continued.
“It knew I had a fondness for Uluki, and it enjoyed using her against me. It despised her for her efforts against it, for how thoughts of her eased my pain, and it had particularly awful plans for her… all of which it was happy to show me. My mind was full of its cackling and gibbering and babble.”
“It told me that no one cared about me, that I was forgotten, that they had all turned against me, that they hated me for what it was doing while in my body. It couldn’t figure out why that didn’t yield the desired reaction, why I didn’t give in to despair and loneliness. There was a secret I kept from it, though. As it got weaker, it was easier to hide things. Uluki was sending me messages. There was such care, and compassion, and loyalty in those messages… I knew the creature was lying. I had hope, faint, but still hope, of a future beyond just pain and death. I loved her, and I hoped… that someday I’d be near her again, if nothing more than that. She made me stronger. She kept me sane.”
“The whole time, of course, Uluki was fighting her own battle. The creature fed on chaos and anger and fear. She was helping to provide for the community, making them happy, rallying them to choke off the creature’s energy supply. It worked. It took months, and there were setbacks, but it worked.”
“Eventually, the creature was weakened enough that we could battle it once and for all. I told Uluki where I would be. She and her friends brought others to fight. I knew what they would have to do to me, and I resolved to be strong.”
“He said ‘thank you,’” Uluki said quietly. “He thanked the people who were attacking him.”
“They were freeing me. They were attacking that… thing inside me. It wanted to fight back. It was able to send out energy with its mind, to harm people, but I contained that as best I could. It wanted to use my body, but I refused. I kept my arms folded, allowing them to attack me, because to attack me was to attack it. It seemed to take quite a long time.”
Uluki closed her eyes. Her face was pained. Rollick kissed the top of her head before speaking again.
“Eventually they managed to tie my arms, and that made it easier. I didn’t have to fight so hard, which was good, because my body was getting weaker. There was a sword, a final injury, and then everything was black.”
“The next thing I remember, I woke up surrounded by my friends. The evil creature was gone. It had possessed others briefly after I fell, but it was finally gone forever. Not dead, but weakened too much to remain in this plane, and other gods ripped it apart and took it away. Uluki saw it happen. I was free.” He said the word “free” with something like reverence.
“You assume after that, you’ll never be able to return to who you were, that your whole life will be one of loneliness and pain and nightmarish visions. That no… that no good people will ever want you near them again, knowing the horrors that were contained in your body. You think she wouldn’t…”
Uluki embraced him and nuzzled her face again his chest. It was an intimate gesture, perhaps inappropriately so in front of Aorle, but it seemed to provide Rollick comfort. His voice sounded stronger.
“There were two voices I could hear, two voices competing for my fate. The one that said ‘You are worth nothing now, you don’t deserve to live’ was far less compelling than the one that said ‘I care about you, I miss you, please come home.’ Needless to say, her voice won out.” It had, of course, been Uluki he heard calling him back. “Since then, I have done my best to lead a blameless life. I have protected the innocent from the guilty. So far as I could, I have promoted hope in places where there was despair. I have new life now, even better than the one that was stolen from me by the god. I proposed marriage to the woman I loved, the one who had stood by me. She accepted me, we wed, and now we’re raising a family together. Our life is simple, but we’re happy. I realize, however, that the acceptance of my return was not universal. There were some who thought that my life should have ended on that battlefield. They judged me guilty, and their sentence was death. That’s why Uluki was so frightened of your reaction.”
Uluki confirmed this. “One of those was a paladin. He thought that Rollick had been contaminated forever, that he was unworthy of life after what happened. He said Rollick had lost his honour. He said Rollick had to die. He was wrong.” Uluki’s voice was absolutely certain. “My husband is a good man. There is no wickedness or cruelty in his heart. The children and I love him so much. We couldn’t bear to see him harmed. That’s why I was so scared when we first came here.”
“I give you my word that I am no danger to the innocent,” Rollick told Aorle. “And now you know the whole of the story of what happened to me ten years ago.”