There are many strange places in Hurst. All of them are different, attracting different kinds of Magicals. My city might not be one of the strangest, but it’s certainly one of the least desirable places to visit. My home is Blackwell.
If you have ever travelled through the underwater tunnels of Underland, you might have passed by Blackwell. You probably didn’t come in – most people don’t – but I’m sure you noticed it. The entrance stands out; Blackwell lives up to its name. Speeding ahead in the rough, vigorous water highway, as you approach the final turn before the tunnel spills into Fraylake, you’ll have passed a massive, gaping hole of black on your left. You might have been going so fast you thought you imagined it, but it was there. That black hole is the opening of a cave where the tunnel lights barely reaches in at all before darkness eats it up. It doesn’t look very inviting, I’ll admit. And if you do venture in, you’ll find yourself swimming for what feels like ages while the water around you becomes darker and colder.
It’s very important that you keep going straight until you reach the gates of the submerged city. There, some local or another will approach and offer to be your guide in the darkness, for a fee. Very few have eyes capable of seeing a thing when they first arrive. It takes forever before bits and pieces begin to stand out against the black, and even longer for those pieces to make sense.
No wonder, really, that so few people enter Blackwell. The ones that come are usually desperate, out of options. Blackwell has on more than one occasion been referred to as “the Vault of Hurst”. It’s fitting, really. Cold, dark, hard to find, harder to get in to and nearly impossible to manoeuvre around, the city is perfect for a very specific purpose. Visitors to Blackwell come to hide something, or to find something.
The truly desperate come through our tunnel and make a deal with a local to hide and protect their property. Better pay well, though. Gotta make it worthwhile for them not to sell you out when the person you’re hiding it from comes looking. Those are the kind of people who visit Blackwell.
Blackwell is my home. It wasn’t always; I was young when I arrived here and claimed it as my own. Everyone in Blackwell is hiding from something and have nowhere else to go. I’m hiding from the world. My first home, my birthplace, was filled with so much good, so much happiness. There was so much light, it was always shining into every corner, every soul. I couldn’t take it. There was too much light and none of it belonged to me. I couldn’t stand the brightness that everyone else seemed to thrive in. I could barely touch it, and I never knew why. All I knew was that I had to get away, and this is where I came. To hide in the dark.
There aren’t many merpeople in Blackwell. There are all other kinds of water creatures, but few of my kind. Merpeople don’t like the dark, they don’t like the solitude. I do. I’m not like them. I knew the moment I entered the mouth of the black cavern that I belonged here, in the dark.
In the beginning, the darkness was overwhelming. I couldn’t see anything at all for a long time, but that didn’t really matter so much. I wasn’t able to see in the dark, but I could feel in the dark. I was never able feel in the light, not the way I could here. It seemed a worthwhile trade. After a while, my eyes adjusted to my emotions and I finally saw the city of Blackwell. That’s when I realized how truly I belonged here. I look at Blackwell, and I see a city that looks like the inside of my mind, and feels just as familiar.
There is no surface in Blackwell; water fills every corner and crack of every cavern, and at the center of this enormous cave rests the subterranean city herself. She really does look like a city, despite her unusual surroundings. She has buildings, streets, homes, businesses like anywhere else. The buildings are all ancient, and they look like it. Crumbled and faded, what might once have been glorious colors and shapes are now pale and cracked. The whole city is frayed around the edges. It looks tired and worn, yet it’s beautiful where it sits in the darkness. It’s a terrible kind of beauty, frightening to those who don’t know it and spellbinding to those who know it all too well. The whole place is a beautiful mystery shrouded in black.
So are the people. I have never been able to figure out anyone who lives here. You never know if the creatures around you are friends or your enemies, if they love you or hate you. They all act their own way. There is no rhythm to the inhabitants of Blackwell, and I find that a relief. I don’t mingle with them much, but here that doesn’t make me an outsider. I avoid most of the locals because it’s who I am; I avoid the visiting outsiders because they terrify me. They live outside. It’s dangerous outside – there is no darkness to hide in.
I don’t know what’s different about the outsider who arrived in Blackwell today. I’m not sure what he is; he’s not of the water, that’s for sure. He must have used magic to get here, his own or purchased. Blackwellers don’t like strangers, but we like drylanders even less. He is either brave, stupid or desperate to have come here on his own.
I don’t know why this particular stranger intrigues me when I have shunned all the rest. Maybe it’s because he is so bright. I can’t really explain it. He is shrouded in as much darkness as the rest of us, there shouldn’t be anything special about him, yet it’s almost as if he glows, as if the sun penetrated his skin with her rays and came with him to this blackest of all places. There is no light in Blackwell, yet in this darkness, the stranger shines.
Maybe that’s why, when he swims up to where I hover at the edge of the city, I don’t dart away as fast as my tail can move me. Curiosity keeps me still because I’ve never seen anything like him. When he swims in close and stops to stares at me, all I do is stare back. I don’t understand why he would come up to me of all the creatures in Blackwell. Surely someone who managed to use magic to make it here underwater also used it to see in the dark; he can see that I’m barely more than a girl, small and frail and paled from my time in the dark, who holds no power over anyone and can be of no help with whatever he needs. No one even asks me for directions, that is how powerless I seem.
Then, as if hearing my unasked question, he speaks.
“You’re the one I’m here for,” he says, and his voice sounds too dry in such a wet place, too clear, but lovely nonetheless. So lovely, in fact, that it takes me a moment to grasp the words. I lean my head to the side and stare. Why does he seem so bright? I wonder if anyone else can see his brightness. His hair is black and curly, and long enough to drift slowly around his head as the water plays with it. His skin is tanned and his eyes dark brown. So dark, yet he seems so bright. I don’t understand it. And I don’t understand what he wants from me.
“Why?” I finally ask him, the first word I’ve said in a long time. Bubbles drift from my mouth and my throat hurts a little from the effort.
“I’ve come to bring you home,” he says, and my blood turns to ice, my hands start to shake. My heart beats so fast and hard, it hurts.
“No,” I whisper, and I start to pull away, to flee, but he wraps his long fingers gently around my wrist and I can’t move. His skin is warm. No one has warm skin in Blackwell, because there is no warmth here. It’s cold and dark. Safe. Not like out there.
“Impossible,” I say, because I can’t pull away from his touch, yet I have to make him understand.
“Nothing is impossible, Knox. I found you, didn’t I?” He speaks with amusement, but I am frozen. He knows my name. Why does this glowing stranger know my name? Nobody here even knows I have one. “They miss you out there, Knox,” he says. “They want you to come back.” His voice is serious now, and kind. I stop thinking for a moment, not wanting to understand his words.
“But…” I force out. “It’s been so long.” My voice trembles. “I can’t. I can’t. I have to stay.” I hear the desperation in my voice, and he can too. I don’t want to leave.
“Why?” he asks me softly. I shake my head.
“It’s safe here. It isn’t safe out there.” Out there is too bright. Everything is light, and joy, and good, all the things radiating from his skin. But that can all be taken away, can’t it? The light out there isn’t real, isn’t permanent. It can’t be. Here there is only darkness, just like in me. I am darkness; that’s where I’m safe, comfortable. Darkness is simple. Light is frightening, because I don’t understand it, and I can’t be part of it. I don’t want to be.
The stranger watches me. His dark eyes are deep and kind, and I notice the thick black lashes that frame them. You have to be in Blackwell for a long time before your eyes can pick up details like that. I’ve been here a very long time. The stranger speaks again, still soft and gentle.
“Just because there are more places to hide down here, doesn’t make it better,” he says. I am quiet for a long time. “There might be things out there that make the risk worthwhile.”
“I don’t know how to leave,” I admit. I’ve been here for so long; I can’t imagine anything else anymore. He smiles then, and when he smiles, he lights up even more. He seems radiant when he smiles, but not frightening. Maybe everything bright isn’t bad.
“That’s easy,” he tells me, and he releases my wrist and holds out his hand, palm up, waiting. “Take my hand, and I’ll show you.”
I stare at his hand like I’ve never seen a hand before. He’s just holding it out to me, patient, offering to show me what I can’t find on my own.
This is the part where I run, right? This is the part where I get scared by anything that could be real and good and light, the part where I swim back into the darkness that lives in my heart and forget this ever happened at all.
But I don’t.
Instead, I look into at this stranger who stares at me with his dark eyes, dark and still shining. I don’t even know who he is. But I see something in those eyes that I haven’t seen anywhere for a long time. I see hope. I see bright, shining hope. And it’s beautiful.
So I force down my fears, quell them as best I can, try to quiet the thundering of my heart. I extend a shaking hand and place it in his.
He grips it tight, and he is so warm, suddenly the water around me feels colder. He is so bright that the darkness around me feels too deep. He begins to swim, and I follow him, away from the city. I look over my shoulder at Blackwell. It becomes harder and harder to see the further away we get. I am scared, but his warm hand feels oddly secure.
I stare at Blackwell, and from here the city looks broken. I know perhaps it is. But broken, cold, dark and lonely as it might be, it has been my home for a long time. Despite everything, it has been a good home. Safe. Comforting. It makes me sad to leave it behind. But I know in my heart that I can’t spend forever just being safe.
I turn around and look past the stranger as we swim forward, and ever so slowly the water around us changes. Colours appear, the temperature rises, and slowly, so slowly, the darkness begins to fade. After moving for a long time, we are right at the edge of it. Still in darkness, but there, not too far ahead, I can see tunnel, the entrance to the giant cavern that is Blackwell. The water outside is bathed in light.
I stop. He stops too, and looks at me. He squeezes my hand tightly, and he places his hand on my cheek. The warmth from his touch is beginning to slowly creep inside towards my icy bones, melting the cold bit by bit.
“I’m afraid,” I admit. I look over his shoulder at the light, and I am afraid that it will swallow me whole. I’m afraid I won’t be me anymore without the darkness, and that nothing out there will be familiar. He smiles at me once again, and the brightness of his smile draws me in, makes me curious, makes me want more of it. But I know not everything out there will be like this. He runs his hand through my hair, my hair that was once the vibrant blue of Wintersea, and has long ago faded to white in the dark waters of Blackwell.
“It might be scary,” he says. “But I promise you it will be worth it.”
I smile at him then, and blink. He is gone. His hand isn’t holding mine, his fingers aren’t in my hair, yet I can still feel the warmth he left behind. I look around the darkness, but he is nowhere to be found. He was just there, wasn’t he? All life and brightness and strength? I look everywhere in the waters surrounding me and he is nowhere to be found. No trace. No bubbles left from his movements. For a moment, my smile fades, but then it returns.
It doesn’t matter that he isn’t here anymore. It doesn’t matter if he was never there at all. The heat, the strange brightness, I have all of that inside of me. I’m strong enough to find my own way out of the darkness, there are still embers of hope inside of me believing that. What a cruel trick to play on myself, I muse, but then my smile grows. I am still hovering at the edge of the darkness, and even though I am alone, it doesn’t matter.
The brightness inside told me it would be worth it.
I believe me, and swim into the light.
There is more to me than darkness, and I intend to prove it.