The Obsidian Sword: An Unusual Quest - Part Nine
Chapter 9: The Battle
Suddenly, out of the obsidian wall he has just come from, a representation of Stephen forms. He is so small in comparison to the Obsidian Man, but seems to loom so large. I watch as Stephen's obsidian duplicate looks on at my reflection. He looks as if every bad thing I've ever thought about myself, every doubtful word I've ever spoken, he believes. The disgust on his face is so evident, so powerful. It's what I've feared from the start, that he would see me as I have in the past.
I cringe, looking away. I can barely bring myself to look at Stephen, but when I do, he looks up at me from where he stands - ever beside me, ever loyal, even now - with understanding in his eyes. Because of everyone who knows me, he is the one who knows this side of me the best. I don't have to worry about hurting his feelings or frightening him away, and so he has often seen me at my worst. He never helps me excuse my mistakes, or helps me hide from myself. He makes me deal with who I am and gives me no alternative or excuse. But he is never accusing. He isn't even disappointed. He simply waits and watches, knowing better than I how all this works. He has told me in the past that he also has parts of him he used to wish weren't there, but that he's learned that we all have those parts. He has told me before that I am no worse than anyone else. But I can't imagine even the darkest parts of his heart manifesting into something that looked like the Obsidian Man.
The thing about all of this is not that the Obsidian Man looks darker than I am. It has simply taken all of the darkness I know I possess somewhere inside of me and concentrated it. Every thought dark as an ink stain, every boiling emotion I've ever felt is staring me in the eye. It isn't that he is so other. It is that he is so accurate. I can't look it in the eye and say it is a fake. I can't tell my friend that these parts of me don't exist, because he knows otherwise. I have spent so long feeling like the past was the past, that everything I have been is over, but what if that is all just a lie I tell myself? What if the darkness is lying in wait, growing inside of me? What if, one day, it comes to life, just like the Obsidian Man in front of me?
But Stephen shakes his head at me, reminding me that this is not who I am, not really. And that he's still here - just like he has been, just like he always will be.
I nod to him in silent understanding and thanks, my eyes prickling, and look back up to face, not my opposite, but myself. My musings a moment before have made it clear to me. I'm not fighting my dark thoughts. I'm not even fighting my past. I am fighting the fear that my past and what remains of the darkness inside of me will somehow overcome and consume me.
"That's not going to happen," I muttered under my breath, and heft up the sword.
As if it has heard my challenge, more screeching comes from the walls, obsidian on obsidian, creatures clawing their way out.
I turn to the others stepping forward. My sisters. Baby cowers in front of me, eyeing me and the Obsidian Man. Looking more afraid of me than of it. Aryll holds fear of a different sort in her eyes. The kind that keeps you up at night, worrying about the people you care about and knowing you can't do anything to help them or heal them. Hoping they know how to do it themselves, because you've tried all you can, and it doesn't work. It's the kind that pains you because others are hurting and leaves you with nothing but wishes for the best. And then there's Dolly, with fire in her eyes. This fear-riddled copy of my sister has learned the fight from me, and she has turned darker even than I.
As I watch, Dolly grows up before my eyes. She has a scar across her cheek and a broken heart on her sleeve. Inside her, anger, bitterness, and revenge run rampant, along with the steel joy that comes from not caring, and having fun with the darkness inside of you rather than trying to fight it. She laughs, and it is the most defeated, delirious sound I have ever heard. She continues to grow in rapid-speed, deteriorating more and more with each passing millisecond until her life flashes before her eyes and she realizes she's spent it all waltzing with the darkness.
The Obsidian Man looks on in fascination and approval, but I... I stand in horror. How do I defeat this? With Stephen, it was realizing that there was nothing I could do that would frighten him off. I search for the fear inside of me. What am I afraid of? 'Seek it out, seek it out,' I think to myself. 'Don't run from it.' And I find it. I am afraid that she will emulate me. I am as afraid of her becoming me as I am of myself becoming the Obsidian Man. She is so precious to me, and I can't bear the thought of her following the road I was on. My first instinct is to lash out at myself, to beg her to stop while knowing I have no leg to stand on, being just the same myself. But I'm forgetting one thing.
This isn't her.
This is who I'm afraid I could turn her into. In that moment, I remember the real her, the one who is smarter and stronger than my fears give her credit for. I drop the sword, step up to her, and take her hardened face in my hands. "This isn't you," I tell her. "No matter who I am, this will never be you." Her eyes begin to go dim, and somewhere in the corner of my mind, I know that my eyelashes have become wet. "You are stronger, and smarter, and wiser than I give you credit for. You are braver and kinder than you even know. And nothing I can do, nothing I can say, will ever change you into something you're not." My hands are shaking against the obsidian, and then they are shaking against nothing, because my sister's farce has shattered into a thousand shards. I take a deep breath, stabilizing myself, and straighten my shoulders.
I turn to Aryll now. "Aryll," I begin with a lump in my throat, "I promise you, no matter what happens, I will not become him." I fling my hand towards the Obsidian Man. "But even if I did, I want you to know that you are stronger than anything I could make you feel. Nothing I do will ruin you. And I know now that nothing I do will stop you from loving me."
But what is it that I'm afraid of? That she'll give up on me? Did I ever really think she wouldn't always love me and have faith in me? Or is the real fear that I'll be the ruin of her, because she will refuse to stop? With a sinking feeling, I know the answer. It's the latter. I know she won't stop. I know promises to fight myself won't suffice here. It's the same thing I've been doing for years. For my whole life, it seems sometimes. I think back to the last fear - the last task - and know that there is only one answer. Dolly's answer remains true with myself as well. She was stronger than I gave her credit for, and that is what will keep on saving her for as long as she lives from things much darker than I. In Aryll's eyes, I see now that all she's ever wanted was that I believe the same about myself.
I bite my lower lip and steel myself. This won't work if I don't truly believe it. I can't lie my way out of my own fears. They are me. They live inside my head. I can't believe in myself simply because others believe in me. Because that would mean that without them, I am only a monster, and that does not save those around me or do me any good. No, I have to believe that I - on my own - am strong enough. Better than the Obsidian Man. All I can do is try to believe it.
I look her in the eye and hope it works. As I say the words, I commit them to memory and attach them to myself. They belong to me now, these words. "I'll be okay," I say to Aryll's life-size figurine, graceful and caring and intelligent just as she is in reality. "I have faith in myself. I am stronger, braver, smarter, and kinder than I realized." She begins to fade, but the spark of fear that keeps her alive is still there, and so I force out the last words. "I won't live in guilt anymore." It is a promise I will try desperately to keep, with every breath I breathe. It may be the hardest vow I have ever made, but I make it. Without intent to go back on it, without searching for a way out, I make it and I am committed.
And with those words, dark purple ashes scatter before me.
There is one task left now, and I think I know how to solve it. I turn to Baby in her cowering position and kneel to her eye level to meet her furtive gaze. The problem is not that she is afraid of me, or that she ever has been, but that I believe I am the kind of person she should be afraid of. The depth of this belief leads me to think that maybe - just maybe - she thinks the same. I think back to reality, everything I've ever actually known about her to be true. She has never been afraid. She is timid and shy, and perhaps that is where I thought I sensed fear. But in reality, she has never been anything but loving. With a start, I realize she has faith in me. And so what I say is simply this:
"Baby," I tell her, "I am not someone you have to be afraid of, and I never have been." I look at her and make the most solemn vow I have ever made to her. "I would fight for you. But never, ever against you." I say it for my sake, not for my sister's. The truth of it lends me peace, and then the image of Baby deteriorates, trickling down shards from top to bottom like an obsidian waterfall.
I think I am done, but then there is more screeching and grating, and obsidian fingernails are clawing to come out of the wall from which they were formed. A face emerges from the rock - only features at first, and then the head and body. It is my mother, her eyes dark with hopelessness and loss. She takes one look at me, shakes her head, and mouths the words, "I never knew you." There was no voice, no sound to speak of, but the word her disappointed gaze screams is, "Monster."
I take a step back. Usually, my first instinct is to recoil and collapse in on myself - to wallow in the truth of her words. I take a shuddering breath, and feel real fear.
This is fear: not that I would be punished by a great monster, but that I would become the monster. When everything happening to me, I know I deserve. When I throw love away not because it isn't there, but because I don't believe I can ever earn it again, not after what I've done. Not after being who I am.
But if today has taught me anything, it is that I have to do exactly the opposite of what my fearful voices tell me to.
This is what fear is: a lie.
Ignore the instinct to throw it away. Ignore the pain and the fear and the pride mixed with disgust. Give myself another chance. Let others take another chance on me, whether it hurts them or me, or not. Put my faith in myself and others and trust that they'll be there when I fall. Trust that they are strong enough. Forgive myself for the fall.
So I do.
I forgive myself for the falls, so many of them were there. I let them go as I take one step forward, look into the eyes of my mother's perfect reflection, and say, brokenly, the words I've held in and let go, said and begged and begrudged so many times in the past. But this time it is genuine, no holds barred. It isn't an excuse, or a feeble attempt to find a moment's rest. It is from the depths of me, vulnerable as I've ever been. I take another fall, a literal one into my mother's arms, and hold her tightly as I say, one more time, "I'm sorry," and know that whether I am sorry or not, she will never stop believing in me. I know, with my whole heart, that I would give up on myself long before she would give up on me. And, finally, I accept the love she's been trying to give me all along.
Her arms wrap around me, as tightly as if she were actual flesh, and abruptly let me go as she crumbles into dust before me.
Finally, I turn to meet the enemy.
"So you do know how to fight after all. I expected less from you," he hisses.
"Well, that's the thing," I tell the Obsidian Man. "You don't know me."
He laughs, the sound of shards grating against themselves echoing through the cavern. "Oh, little man," he says, shaking his head as a sword copy of my own grows in his hands. "I am you."
"I used to think that," I say, sword at the ready. "But you're not me. Not anymore."
"Prove it," the Obsidian Man growls, and swings his sword around, bringing it down squarely over my head, where the obsidian of his sword is deflected by the steel of mine. "I already have," I reply, speaking through gritted teeth. He pushes against me, and my arms tremble with the amount of energy it takes just to hold him back. It's obvious, even now, at the beginning of the battle, that he has the upper hand where strength is concerned. The only way I can hope to defeat him is by outsmarting him.
I'm supposed to defeat him in the same way I did the others. By doing the opposite of what my instinct is. But then, why give me the sword at all? Is it a trick? Something to throw me off track? I look down at Stephen, who has picked up a shard of obsidian from one of the passed tests and is now using it to jab the Obsidian Man's hard calves. He makes eye contact, and we communicate like we have learned to - with nothing but a look, a gesture of the head. Sometimes, when someone knows who you really are, words aren't necessary. I furrow my eyebrows and jerk my head towards the piles that the past fears were reduced to, then nod towards this first - and last - enemy. Understanding crosses his face, and he stops his attack. His step back makes it possible for me to do what I know what I have to. I know what the opposite of my instincts are now, and they could get us both into a world of trouble. But it's worked before. It will work now. It has to. And so I drop the sword, and
My arms are outstretched to both sides. I am defenseless. I am prone. I have stopped fighting myself, left myself vulnerable to both sides of me. It's something I've never done. I may not be able to do it again.
The Obsidian Man stops, astonished, and blinks twice. "Aren't you going to fight for him, little man?" he asks Stephen. He replies by dropping the obsidian shard. "Well, look at that!" The Obsidian Man scoffs. "All alone. No one to fight for you. No one to fight who you really are. Nobody that even cares to try."
I simply shrug, arms still outstretched, and tilt my head to the side, acknowledging his words. I'm done fighting. The Obsidian Man's teeth are bared and his eyes rove back and forth, trying to figure out what our game is. "There's no trick here. So are you going to finish this, or what?" I challenge.
He shakes off his disbelief and rises to the challenge. The sword is flung back, and then forward, hurtling straight towards me. All I can think is that if this is all I have, it will be enough. Because for the first time in forever, I don't feel as if I'm warring with myself or anyone else. I'm not afraid. I'm not alone. I'm free. And that's all I ever wanted.
My eyes are wide open, facing him, and all I can feel is sorry for him, believing himself to be this way. Being created this way, not having the option to do as I did -- to change his path. I take a deep breath, readying myself. Time is in slow motion. Three inches away. Two inches.
and he shatters into a billion microscopic pieces blown away by a cavern wind.
To be continued...