There are many strange places in Hurst. All of them are different, they attract different Magicals. I think the city I live in might be one of the strangest of them all. At least, I am sure it’s one of the least desirable.
My home is Blackwell. If you have ever travelled through the underwater tunnels that are the fastest way to get anywhere in Underland, you have probably passed Blackwell. You probably didn’t enter – 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 harsh, vigorous stream of the water highway, as you approach the turn before the mouth of the tunnel spills out into Fraylake, you’ll have passed a massive, gaping hole of black on your left. You might have been going so fast it was behind you in seconds, and you might have thought you imagined it, but it was real. The entrance is that black hole, the opening of a cave where the lights from the tunnel don’t even reach a full meter in before the darkness eats it up. It’s true, it doesn’t look very inviting. And if you do venture in, you’ll find yourself swimming inwards for what feels like ages, all the while the water around you goes darker and darker.
It’s very important that you keep going straight, until you reach the gates of the submerged city where some local or another will offer to be your guide in the darkness, for a fee. Very few have eyes good enough to see a thing when they first get here. It takes forever before bits and pieces begin to stand out against the black.
No, very few people enter Blackwell. The ones that do 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. It’s cold, dark, hard to find, harder to get in to, and nearly impossible to manoeuvre around in. That’s why those who do come here always have a very specific purpose. You either come here to hide something, or you come here to find something. Only if you are truly desperate to keep something hidden will you find your way here. You’ll make a deal with a local, to hide and protect your property. Better pay a lot, though. Gotta make it worthwhile for them not to sell you out if the person you’re hiding it from comes looking. Those are the kind of people who visit Blackwell.
Me, I’m a local. Blackwell is my home. It wasn’t always. I was young when I arrived here. Everyone in Blackwell is hiding from something, or they have nowhere else to go. I’m hiding from the world. My first home, the one where I was born and raised, it was filled with so much good, and so much happiness. There was so much light, and it shone on everything. I couldn’t take it, there was too much of it, and none of it belonged to me. I couldn’t stand all that light. I had to get away, and this is where I went. To hide in the dark.
There aren’t many merpeople here in Blackwell. There are all other kinds of water creatures, but few merpeople. 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 black cavern mouth that I belonged here, with them.
In the beginning, the darkness was overwhelming. I couldn’t see anything at all for a long time. I couldn’t see in the dark, but I could feel in the dark. I could never feel in the light. It seemed a worthwhile trade. But after a long time, I could finally see the city. That was when I became truly convinced that I was at home here, that I belong here. I look at Blackwell, and I see a city that looks like me. It looks the way I feel, and nowhere else has ever felt so familiar to me. There is no surface in Blackwell, just water filling every corner and crack of every cave, and at the centre of this enormous cave is the city herself. She really does look like a city, despite her unusual surroundings. She has buildings, homes and businesses, like any other city. The buildings all look ancient, and I suppose they are, and a lot of them are crumbled and faded. The whole city looks frayed around the edges. It looks tired and worn. And it looks beautiful, sitting there in the darkness. It’s a horrible kind of beauty, terrifying to those who don’t know it and spellbinding to those who know it too well. The whole place is a great, dark mystery.
So are the people. I have never been able to figure out anyone who lives here. The creatures that live around me, you never know if they are your friends or your enemies, if they love you or hate you. They all act their own way. There is no rhythm to the people of Blackwell. Not that it makes much of a difference to me what they do and don’t do.
I avoid people in general, even the other locals. I avoid outsiders more vigorously. Truth be told, I’m afraid of them, because 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 of some kind 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. But in this darkness, this stranger shines.
Maybe that’s why, when he swims up to me where I hover at the edge of the city, I don’t dart away as fast as my tail can take me. My curiosity keeps me still, and when he swims in close, stops and just 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 the city. If he has used magic to make it here, and he managed to swim straight up to me so determinedly, then surely he has been smart enough to also use magic to see in the dark. It doesn’t matter how long you can hold your breath under water if when you get here you can’t see an inch ahead of you. If he can see me, he sees a woman, barely more than a girl, who is small and thin and holds no power, no power to help any outsider with whatever they might have come here for. No one would even ask me for directions, that is how powerless I seem.
Then, as if he’s heard my unasked question, he speaks.
“You’re the one I’m here to find,” 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 what he’s actually said. Then I cock my head to the side, staring. It makes no sense that he should seem so bright to me. 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 are dark brown. So dark, yet he looks so bright. I don’t understand. And I don’t understand how he is here to find me.
“Why?” is what I finally ask him, the first word I manage to say.
“I’ve come to bring you back home,” he says, and my blood turns to ice, and my hands begin to shake, and my heart beats so fast and so hard that 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.
“It’s impossible,” I say, because I can’t pull away from his touch, but I have to make him understand.
“Nothing is impossible, Knox. I found you, didn’t I?” He says it with amusement, but I am frozen. He knows my name. Why does this glowing stranger know my name? “They miss you out there, Knox,” he says. “They really want you to come back.” His tone is serious now, and kind. I stop breathing for a moment, not wanting to understand, but still knowing exactly who he means.
“But…” I utter weakly. “It’s been so long.” My voice is trembling. “I can’t, I can’t, I have to stay.” I can hear the desperation in my own voice, and he can too.
“Why?” he asks me softly. I take a breath.
“It’s safe here. It isn’t safe out there.” Out there is too bright. Everything is light, and joy, and good. But that can all be taken away, the light out there isn’t real, isn’t permanent. It can’t be. Here there is only darkness, just like 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.
The stranger watches me, and 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 long time. The stranger speaks again, still softly.
“Just because there are more places to hide down here, doesn’t mean its better.” I am quiet for a long time.
“I don’t know how to leave,” I finally admit. I have 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. Maybe everything bright isn’t frightening.
“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 something 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. But I don’t. Instead I look into the eyes of this stranger who stares with his dark eyes, dark and still shining. I don’t even know his name. But I see something in those eyes that make me braver then I’ve ever been. I see hope. I see bright, shining hope.
So I force my fears down, quell them as best I can, I do my best to quiet the thundering of my heart, and I extend a shaking hand and place it in his.
He grips it tight, and he is so warm, and suddenly the water around me feels colder, and he is so bright that the darkness around me seems too deep. He begins to swim, and I follow him, away from the city. I look over my shoulder at Blackwell, where it becomes harder and harder to see the further away we get. I am scared, but the warm hand feels oddly secure.
I look at Blackwell, and from here it looks like a broken city. I know that perhaps it is. But broken, cold, dark and lonely as it might be, I have been here for a long time. It has been my home, and despite everything it has been a safe and reassuring home. It makes me sad to leave it. But I know I can’t just be safe forever.
I turn my head back, and look past the stranger as we swim forward and ever so slowly the water around us begin to change. Colours become more distinct, the temperature rises, and slowly, so slowly, the darkness begins to fade. Soon we are right at the edge of it. Still in darkness, but there ahead is the tunnel, the entrance to the giant cavern that is Blackwell, and 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 free hand on my cheek. The warmth from his touch is beginning to slowly creep inside of me, to my 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 anymore. 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 changed into the deep blue of the darkest waters of Blackwell.
“It might be scary,” he says. “But I promise you it will be worth it.”
And I believe him. And together we swim into the light.