In the deepness of the night, Francescu opens a window in the air to look in on Manfred who is his brother.
Manfred is sitting, thinking, in the middle of the void.
The darkness of the onyx realm wherein Manfred dwells threatens to spill out in every direction and fill Francescu’s house.
“I know that place,” Francescu says. “Don’t I?”
“It is the without-purpose,” says Francescu’s demon. “The sans-significance. It is the darkness that hangs around you always. It is the despair that is given unto men, to drown in the emptiness of things that have no meaning. It is the damnation that you have chosen for yourself, Francescu. It is the wet dark tendrils that crowd about your mind.”
“Oh? Is that so?” Francescu asks mildly.
Francescu’s demon sighs.
Francescu stares into the image. “What is he doing there?”
“Becoming one with it,” Francescu’s demon says.
There is a flare of terror in Francescu’s mind. The color of his fear is black and purple and he remembers the night when Manfred betrayed him and let Violet go to the shadow alone. He remembers the power and the victory in the Devil’s voice as it claimed her. Francescu finds it hard to breathe.
“His blood will turn black,” says Francescu’s demon clinically. “His eyes will darken. His skin will grow paler, and damp. He is strong, so he will return to the world, but he will not be human any longer. He will be an elder thing, corrupted eternally from his nature.”
“No,” Francescu says.
He is dizzy.
“You could save him,” says Francescu’s demon.
The angel looks speculatively across Francescu’s shoulders. Then, after a moment, it nods. “You could.”
Francescu licks his lips.
“I can’t,” he says.
“It’s what he’s always been,” Francescu says. “He was not born to be my knight. He was born to be despair.”
But Francescu is not altogether weak. He carves into the air a spell to clarify his thoughts: *&2->^^
His mind calms. He struggles his way through fear towards reason.
“Francescu,” murmurs his angel, softly.
Francescu sketches an @ under those symbols and stares through it at Manfred.
“You’re right,” he says. “Of course. I should save him. I should try—”
Through his magic Francescu sees that there is nothing around Manfred but the creature of the void. And he sees more: that sluggish and cold black blood is drifting through Manfred’s veins, mixed with the natural blue; that Manfred’s eyes are darker than they were; that Manfred’s mind has ceased its turmoil and found a cold and terrible peace.
“Oh, God,” says Francescu.
He banishes the window. He hides his face against his hands.
“It is too late.”
And slowly his heart calms, and his mind grows easy, and there is the breath of the void on Francescu’s soul.
He closes his eyes.
In the cold wet darkness of his mind he knows the peace of nothing mattering at all.
This is how Manfred breaks his chains, in the place beyond the world, and learns to kill.
This is how, in ignorance and fear, Francescu decides that Manfred must be slain; how, in ignorance and rage, Manfred conceives the desire for Sophie’s death.
These are the stories of “Despair,” the twenty-fourth installment of An Unclean Legacy. They begin here, but here is not their ending. They will end in Castle Gargamel, when Sophie, Francescu, and Manfred meet; in blood and pain, at the base of Montechristien’s tower, beneath the threshing machine and the hundred gold eidolons of Montechristien Gargamel.
Manfred sits in the center of his island of dirt. He does not look at its edges, which are slowly falling away into the void.
He is calm. He is meditative. He is thinking.
“I’m not very good at thinking my way out of things,” Manfred admits.
The void is silent.
“It seems to me,” he says, “that I should take responsibility for my sin, even though I am still unsure why you should call Rachel Saraman my sister. But here is my reasoning.”
A cold wind blows.
“In all my life, Santrieste has shown me nothing but loyalty. He has borne me up when I would have fallen into darkness and he has counseled me—against, perhaps, his own best inclinations—towards the good. And it was my own need and desire that blinded me to his counsel in favor of the Devil’s. It is because I was desperate to take shelter in a mortal thing, a fallible person, a woman who was not a chain to my morality, that I listened to Sophie’s lies and Rachel’s blandishments. I have complained all my life that I am bound to my virtue and so cannot truly be good, but when I had the choice between clinging to those chains and burying myself in the filth of the material world, I chose the latter. So I cannot deny that the fault for this is mine.”
And the void laughs.
“Why do you laugh?”
“That Manfred Gargamel would call a Saraman filth.”
But Manfred, who had scarcely known Yseult and never knew Rachel, only squints and shakes his head.
“So here I am,” he says. “Exiled from mortal company. Tested by my God.”
The void is silent.
“I cannot be as you are,” Manfred says. Slowly, he rises to his feet. “I cannot be as she is. I will not let my sin consume me.”
He looks around him.
The air is not air. It is a screen of blankness over the shifting of endless tendrils of the creature’s flesh. The sand is not sand: it is the grit in the onyx creature’s maw. The seething purple aurora and the points of light above like stars are nothing more than striations in the living void.
It is in him. He is breathing it. He is respiring it through his pores, and suspiring from him is Manfred. He is one with it, the tendrils of its nerves in amongst his nerves, the onyx blood of the void mixing with his blood.
Slowly, he knows, if he remains, he will grow quiet and still and the nature that was Manfred’s will cease.
An Unclean Legacy
“What were you?” Manfred asks. “Before?”
The void speaks its name. And Manfred bows his head, humbled by that word.
“I’m sorry,” Manfred says.
Then along the nerves of the onyx void, entangled with his nerves, runs Manfred’s will. Then through the flesh and blood of the void, mixing with Manfred’s flesh and blood, runs Manfred’s strength.
With the body of the void Manfred seizes the void.
With the great ropey tendrils of the void Manfred grasps the creature that surrounds him. He seizes its eyes, its throats, its heart.
“Since I was young,” says Manfred, as he drags the void down into the void, twists the void about the void, throttles the void with its own substance, “people have feared my strength. But I have never used more than the tenth part of it, because my flesh is too frail and would tear.”
The void seizes him about the chest. It crushes him as he is crushing it. Manfred coughs out red-black blood and for a moment his eyes go lifeless, but then he recovers and shoves the void away.
“I will kill you here, son of Heaven,” Manfred says.
His oath burns on his arms. Manfred slides the slick onyx tendrils of the void under his brassards, his oath, his chains, and he rips them all away. There is an explosion, golden and white, that sears him and the void. All around him it is white and hot for a moment before wet chill returns. The great eye of the void below him is burnt; it is red and black and crisp and screaming.
Manfred crushes the void down to thinness and to hardness.
He can feel himself refracted, present in a hundred places simultaneously, as the world around the world bends down. The tension is too much for anything to bear, and Manfred screams.
Then it is gone.
The void surrenders, with one long echoing exhalation.
There is no void. There is no onyx realm. There is only Manfred.
So he climbs from an ichorous well into the world, naked and coughing out black gunk, with a bent and crooked black stick in his right hand; and the tip of it is iron.
His arms hurt. They ache with fire. They are surrounded by the burning red absence of his oath.
He rubs them with the substance of the onyx realm. It cakes and hardens and turns scarlet, and slowly his arms grow cool.
Overhead, the sun is bright. The leaves of the trees wave gently in the wind. The world is beautiful.
“Come,” he says, and from the well rises his steed.
Manfred looks down at his hands, his arms, his body, at the monster of absence and despair that he holds in his right hand. Almost, he begins to sob.
But he does not, because first he must kill his half-sister Rachel Saraman and take a bath, which things he does.
But what of Sophie, who strove alone against the Devil and his plans?
Tomorrow, a special Unclean Legacy: “Red.”