“Fool!” he said, “Damn old fool! That’s what you are!”
Shouting at himself in the pitch blackness. This is what the wicked and mighty Enin had sunk to. A withering husk of a man, an ebony skeleton crying in the shadows.
“So certain of yourself, old man. So full of hubris. You sought to make yourself a god. Now look at you. You’re too dried and ancient to even produce a single tear.”
He held the heart in front of his face. He could not see it the way one sees in the light but still he sensed it before his eyes. It was a warm heart, a bright heart. The girl from which he’d stolen it had been those things. Warm. Bright. It was a great sin to take it from her. Not his greatest sin by far, but a great one nonetheless. Even now, far removed from its host the heart was strong and full of life’s blood.
“Idiot.” came a voice not his own. It startled the old man before he remembered he was not entirely alone in this cave.
“You’re doing it wrong you decrepit turd!”
Enin glanced down at his chest reflexively in spite of the utter darkness. “What would you have done differently, feather-brain?”
The voice came from his heart, or what passed for one. An iron cage implanted into the cavity of his chest, much like the one he had forced upon Tula Petek. Within it was a starling. Had there been even a mote of light it would have reflected iridescently off of the bird’s feathers.
“You read the scroll of Aina. You must have a pure heart to see the door.”
“I DO HAVE ONE.” boomed the old man, waving the heart around blindly.
“You can’t just hold it out like a candle, you dullard. The heart must be a part of you.”
“I may be a birdbrain but I’ve seen a thing or two in the centuries I’ve lived inside your chest, old man. The only way you can find what you want is if you tear your heart out. Again.”
“But to do so would-”
“Kill you?” finished the bird, “No, I’m sure it wouldn’t. Besides, isn’t that the whole point?”
“It may merely disable me.” said Enin, “Make me unable to move. Trapped in this cavern, frozen for eternity.”
“That it just might, but maybe not. What have you to lose at this point? You’re trapped down here either way.”
“But if I release you, what will you do?”
“Fly away.” squawked the bird, “Far away from you!”
“At least you are honest with me.” said Enin, “I suspect you are correct. I have no other option, do I?”
“None that I can see, but even I can’t see in this pit.”
Enin covered the heart in leaves once more. He set it gently down and began reciting a very ancient incantation. Strange syllables unheard for aeons poured from his mouth. The metal in his chest grew warm, then hot, very hot. The bars of the cage began to glow red, creating light in this pit for the first time in human memory.
The pain was immense as the cage went from red to white hot. Within the bird appeared gravely frightened.
“I don’t like this.” it said.
“It will be over soon.” replied Enin. It was a phrase he had spoken many times. As a doctor he’d said it to sooth patients. As a killer to silence his victims. Today he was playing both roles at once.
With a brilliant flash the door of the cage burst open. Instantly the bird popped out, singed but not hurt. It stretched its wings for a moment, glanced at Enin in the fading light of the heated metal and flew off the way they had come. It did not say goodbye to the man that had held it captive for an eternity. Even if it had wanted to Enin was certain that the power of speech left the creature the moment it exited his body.
The next step of the operation would be the difficult part. Enin’s entire body felt as if it were on fire. Without a living heart his corporeal form would soon cease to function. He fumbled for the organ of Tula Petek but between the darkness and pain could not find it. With great effort the old man managed to flip over to his knees and felt around the cavern floor for the precious object he knew could only be a few inches from him.
He tried to curse in frustration but no words escaped his mouth. His very breath was absent. Frantically Enin swept around the cave with his hands. Each movement stiffer than the last. His arms and legs began to feel like rusty hinges. If he had a tear to cry it would have poured out of him, but Enin had nothing. Even the black bird he’d exchanged for a heart had abandoned him.
Falling on his face the old man gasped dryly, unable to take a single breath. This was his end for certain. Paralyzed on the cold stone, trapped within himself until his mind snapped.
Something brushed against his neck. It was a leaf, one he’d used to wrap the heart. With intense effort Enin turned his neck toward it. His right arm was completely dead, but his left was still inching along. Using his fingers like the legs of a spider he managed to crawl his hand along the floor toward his face. Every inch of ground covered by his hand sent stabbing pains along his chest and spine, but Enin continued.
The hand soon felt the warm, life filled heart. It had rolled loose of the leaves, but did not seem damaged. Grasping it in his wicked hand gave Enin an iota of vitality. Just enough to scoop it toward his sunken chest.
As he pushed the heart into the cage it began to beat faster and faster. The pain subsided a fraction and Enin managed to push the cage door shut and roll onto his back. The fire in his muscles ebbed and his lungs began to pump stale cavern air. Nothing in his long life had ever tasted as sweet.
Glancing upward Enin saw a light. It was blue, no yellow, no...not any color he’d ever witnessed. It was ring-shaped and floating just a yard or two above his face. Enin sat up and reached out to the light above him.
It was the light of the end of the world.