For hours, Old Ajralan guides Fassn through a re-acquaintance with his senses. By the time his jailer comes to serve the mush, Fassn is splayed on his front, taking in each abrasive inch of the stone floor, pressing its cold against his skin.
Then the mush comes.
“You’re doing great, bro,” Old Ajralan says. “Now, try and taste it.”
Fassn shakily dips a finger into the watery mush, brings it to his mouth. As his tongue reaches the slimy mush, Fassn awakens on the floor of Old Mossy’s hut, tears streaming down his face. “We were speaking,” he says. “We were speaking!”
His friends take a startled step back from Fassn’s suddenly animate form.
“Old Ajralan, may you have your fill!”
“Well, first you’ve gotta get it, bro,” Old Ajralan replies. “Like, they’ve gotta serve you, first.”
Fassn nods in the darkness.
“But we can practice,” says Old Ajralan. “Put your, like, fingertips against the wall.”
Fassn does so. Where once was only the absence of space: a dark wall, a non-place, built only to deny and conceal, is now something altogether different. The ridged skin of Fassn’s fingertips brush against the wall’s rough texture. He feels each little bump, rise, and fall of the stone. He spreads his hand wide so more of his flesh can touch it. The cold stone’s worn surface sends a shock through Fassn. Overwhelmed, he yanks his hand away.
“Pretty sweet, right?” asks Old Ajralan.
“Have you ever tasted the soup?” asks Old Ajralan.
Fassn stirs. His eyes blink open, the lids fighting the dark room’s inertia. He looks about, but of course sees nothing. “Yes,” he shakily replies. For a moment, he thinks the voice must be one of the standard gods, finally addressing him after his long seclusion, but he cannot remember any of their names.
“Have you, though?” asks the voice again.
Fassn considers the mush. He’s eaten it most days for years. But has he tasted it?
After some minutes of quiet contemplation, Fassn says, “Tell me how.”
The standard gods go dim for him after several years. In the cell, where he cannot stand, cannot stretch his full length, cannot feel the sun, cannot smell the wheat — he cannot be.
When the standard gods are gone, there’s nothing. Mush for a meal, served once a day, if at all. The days he’s lucky, it comes rather watery, briefly quenches his thirst. The only constant is its tastelessness.
It is at one such meal time, when the hair on his head is long gone, his beard grown wild, when from the squalid confines of his exile, from the very depths of its darkness, comes the friendly, loose, totally non-threatening disembodied voice of Old Ajralan.
Behind Fassn’s green-glowing eyes, a prison. Flat stone walls, hastily hewn. No window to share the sun’s warm light. Crude gouges in the walls and floor, dug by human hands, signifying nothing. The squeal of iron hinges, a brutal scraping sound as a door opens into a cell.
Fassn is a young man, his hair dark, his beard not yet grown in. His face is twisted in anger as soldiers push his struggling form into the cell. He pushes back until one of them slugs him in the stomach and he falls, clutching his gut. The door slams shut behind him, leaving Fassn in darkness.
Holding his breath, Fassn sits cross-legged at the centre of his cell.
Abia stands when the creature enters her cell. Beyond the gate, Shyan secures the taller creature with a length of rope. Its moaning continues unabated, but its shambling ceases, even though its feet continue seeking purchase on the stone floor.
The other lumbers towards Abia. She raises a hand as though to welcome it, to embrace it, but when it moves within striking distance, she lays her fingertips upon the cold, wet flesh of the man-thing. She channels a change in her molecular structure that slows the vibrations of the creature’s atoms. It manifests as a biting cold, an icy wind sweeping through the fabric of one’s being. Ordinary folk couldn’t stand more than a moment before their lips turned blue.
But this thing — this is no ordinary folk. A look of alarm washes over Abia’s face when she realizes that it isn’t working. The creature wraps its damp arms over her robes before it’s brought down with a harsh exhalation of foul air. Riding its back on the way down is Cang, a tiny knife pressed into its neck.
“You have knife?” Abia asks.
Cang pulls it out. It’s no longer or thicker than a woman’s finger. “For emergencies,” he says.
The gang pulls together in the darkness. A rectangle of hazy yellow light glows above. Shyan leads the way up.