He knew, even back when the first vestiges of his plan had begun to form in his head, that his students would not approve of his actions this night. Even Evran, whose willingness to push the boundaries of acceptability had led Colomb to end his apprenticeship, would have found his actions questionable. Normal people would lock him up in an asylum.
Colomb had made his preparations by night, and only when he was assured that all of his apprentices had gone to bed. He was not, and had never been, a good liar, and he knew that as soon as one of them stumbled upon him in his workshop, working on something they didn’t recognize, he would be plagued with questions he wouldn’t want to answer truthfully.
Truth be told, Colomb wasn’t accustomed to secrecy at all. He had always been an open man. He would rather share his knowledge with others than keep it to himself. He knew that, someday, he would die. If he didn’t pass his knowledge on to others, it would die with him.
As a youth, the thought of dying had terrified him. He enjoyed life. He loved crafting and creating. The idea that he wouldn’t be able to do so, that his experience would come to a sudden, dark end, after which he would know nothing, had driven him to wake, shaking, in the middle of the night, afraid that he had slipped into death rather than sleep.
In his middle years, and past, Colomb had grown more comfortable with the fact that his existence would, one day, come to an end. He had put no shortage of effort into his life. He had taught a great many students everything he knew. Some of them had gone on to discover even more, and had come back to teach him, so that he could continue to spread the knowledge to later generations.
Colomb had contributed to the world, and, he thought, if he had to die someday, at least he had done something he found worthwhile. His life had not been wasted. He found acceptance.
Now, though, he had grown old. His back ached. His knees gave him sharp pains if he did something as simple as stepping the wrong way. His fingers, once strong, nimble, and adept, were now stiff and bent. One finger on his left hand tended to lock in place if he did anything too taxing for long periods.
Colomb hated every moment of aging. He hated the pain, he hated the way he had lost the clean handsomeness of his youth, and he hated the way it made him feel inferior to what he had once been. He wanted to feel free and strong once again, so he had begun working on a solution.
Tonight was the culmination of his efforts. He’d spent the last two months forging and carving a set of specialized soul knives in secret, working at an achingly slow pace so that his students didn’t discover him. They weren’t really soul knives, not like the ones he taught his students to make. They were perhaps more accurately called soul needles.
There were three things that mattered tonight: The soul needles, the preservation band, and the note he’d left for this students, which described for them what they would do with his body, should he make an error that left him unable to easily communicate with him after he abandoned it.
Colomb put a small folding table next to his favorite chair, a heavily cushioned apparatus made for him by one of his apprentices which leaned backward. It was where he often slept on nights when he couldn’t manage to get comfortable in his bed. Now, whether things went right or wrong, this would be the last place he ever sat down.
On the folding table, he put a tray full of the soul needles. Even in the light of the first Colomb had lit in his hearth, they were dark. Unlike a soul knife, they had no hilt. They were thin spikes of dark grey metal, each with nine faceted sides into which Colomb had carved the runes that made them into what they were.
From his desk, Colomb retrieved the preservation band. It had the look of something like an ordinary belt, formed of a flat strip of leather, to which Colomb had added a metal clasp. It, too, had been inlaid with a multitude of runes, although these had a much different purpose. One side of it held an enchantment that would keep his body fresh and undecayed long after he had left it behind. The other side formed a bastardized soul document, which he had connected to the soul needles themselves. This would, he hoped, keep his soul and spirit whole even after he split them from his body.
His body was, after all, the only part of him suffering all of the ill effects of age. His mind was sharp and vigorous. He had no afflictions of the soul or spirit, as some of the very old tended to get as their bodies decayed and spread their frailty to all parts of the being. If tonight went according to his plan, he would have to suffer his body no longer: his spirit and soul would be free of it.
Colomb would no longer be a complete being, if all he did was abandon his body. That was where the preservation band and the soul needs came into play. Though split, his soul, spirit, and body would need to remain linked. That meant his body had to remain in a good condition. His students would have to follow his instructions exactly. They would need to care for his body.
Colomb clasped the preservation band around his body. It would do nothing so long as his body was technically alive, or he would have made something similar decades ago to prevent himself from aging so terribly. It didn’t go around his waist, but higher up, settling just across his belly button. It was meant to go across his chest, but Colomb needed access there for the needles. His stomach would do just fine.
He took his seat in the chair. Putting on the preservation band was the easy part. All of his months of furtive preparation had been the easy part. Even all the research that had gone into devising a new use and form for the soul knives had been easy compared to what he was about to do.
Colomb tried to make himself comfortable, but he knew it was pointless. There were nine needles. He had to make sure he put all of them in just the right places. If he didn’t, this would not work, and he would instead achieve what he’d set out to defy: death.
With a deep breath, Colomb took up the first of the nine needles. His feet were already bare. He would start there. His research had told him that the order of the needles shouldn’t matter. He hoped that was true. He knew that it was, but he still hoped, because fear makes you doubt even your surest knowledge.
Colomb bent his knee, grimacing at the grinding sound that came from within it — another effect of old age. He could just barely reach his foot. He took his left foom in his left hand, massaging it firmly with his thumb. He hit the pressure point between the bones that led to his big toe and his second toe, and he rested his thumb there. He brought the needle close.
Biting his lip, Colomb shifted his thumb to the side. He kept his eyes focused on where it had been. He had to position the needle precisely. He stared at his foot hard, trying to pretend it was just another part of one of his creations, trying to imagine it as the foot of a golem rather than a very real and very fleshy part of himself. He placed the needle against his skin and pushed.
Colomb’s eyes clenched involuntarily, and he gasped. His skin, his soul, his spirit — all three resisted the needle’s invasion. He pushed harder, grunting, slamming the palm of his hand into the needle. With a pain like nothing he’d ever felt before, the resistance gave way, and the needle slid into Colomb’s being.
Gasping and shaking, Colomb turned his foot. If he had placed the needle properly, despite its length and the depth to which he had plunged it, the end would not be coming out of the bottom of his foot. It was not. The hard, unsharpened end protruded out of his foot, but the point was invisible, buried in the somewhere-else that his soul and spirit inhabited.
His whole body trembled with the pain. Colomb grabbed the next needle, fearing now that his shaking hands would betray him and lead to a misplaced needle and, therefore, to his death. He could not allow that to happen. He had known this would hurt, but he hadn’t realized just how much. It was worse than the time he’d burned his entire forearm while forging a sword. He should have made something to deal with the pain.
Colomb grabbed his other foot. His trembling thumb found the pressure point, and the needle found his flesh. This time, he closed his eyes even before he pushed, hoping that not seeing the needle enter him would cause less pain, and that the pain of the first needle would inoculate him, at least somewhat, against the second.
It did not. The pain seared through him, radiating now from two sources instead of just one, each equally as intense as the other. Colomb fought to make himself breath as he turned his foot, ensuring that the needle had found the right place.
Next came his hands. Colomb had gone over the order again and again, wishing there was a more agreeable solution, but there wasn’t. He needed his eyes as long as possible, and he couldn’t possibly ask his apprentices to aid him. His hands had to come next.
He did his left hand first. The needle went in just below the very center of his palm, positioned so that it would slide between the bones of his second and third fingers. It speared into his being, sliding into his flesh but failing to appear on the other side. Despite the pain, Colomb breath a sigh of relief. Any needle misplaced would be another he had to try to redo. A misplaced needle meant a more significant physical injury. It meant blood and weakness and death.
The needle for his right hand was harder. For one thing, his right hand was dominant; he used it much more skillfully than his left. For another, his left hand was now impeded by the pain and by the end of the needle which still protruded from it by nearly an inch.
He should have had a golem do this. He didn’t know why that had occurred to him only now. He should have brought a golem in and instructed it as to where to place the needles. Though of course, he would have had to build an entirely new one, because all of the golems at his school were incapable of harming humans and, to a golem, this would look very much like harm.
The thoughts of what he should have done distracted him as he slammed the needle into his right hand. He cursed himself for not focusing on his task fully, but then, he didn’t know how else he could have managed it, focusing only on the pain and the task at hand, which would bring him only more pain. The needle did not protrude from the other side of his hand. It was properly placed.
His eyes came next. This would be the worst part, he hoped. He felt his stomach churn as, with hands that had gone past trembling into violent shaking, he brought a needle close to his left eye. He took several breaths, attempting to slow both his breathing and his shaking, but the breaths came hard and fast.
With an act of will he tried to take command of the muscles of his arms, demanding that they hold steady. It didn’t work, not entirely, though they transitioned from a motion akin to leaves in a tornado to something more reminiscent of grass in the wind. Colomb drew in a deep breath and, on the exhale, slid the needle into his left eye.
He had to bite his lip, and hard, to stop himself from screaming. Even so he let out a muffled moan. He pounded his fists against the arms of the chair, which only served to send a fresh wave of pain from his hands.
He couldn’t know of the eye need had been properly placed. He had to assume it was, because the alternative was that it had speared into his brain. If that happened, it would either kill him or impede his function severely enough to have the same result.
Colomb grabbed the next needle, moving quickly and desperately now. The faster he went about this, the sooner he would be away from his body and the weakness that was its pain. He plunged the needle into his right eye.
He could no longer see. He could barely think. He could only feel, and even then the pain was so strong it overrode and erased the soft touch of the chair beneath him, or the ragged sharpness of the breaths that his lungs seemed to have forgotten how to take smoothly.
Three needles remained. All three were destined for Colomb’s chest. The first went in just above his sternum, pointed downward at an angle Colomb had, he hoped, memorized. He could not check it visually. He had to fight back a scream every time habit compelled him to move his eyes to look around. He cold barely bring himself to check the angle by touch.
The next two needs each went in below his fourth ribs on either side, angle inward toward his heart. Either one of them would kill him, if he misplaced it. The first one did not. He knew this only because he was able to reach for the final needle and, finding himself blanketed by an odd sense of calm unlike any he’d ever experienced, drive it into his chest.
There came a dizzying feeling of slipping and sliding, of stepping forward only to find that there was no ground below to meet his foot; of rolling to the side in bed to find he’d reached the edge, and now he was falling not just to the floor but eternally downward toward nothingness.
Then he realized that he was not falling, or, in fact, moving at all. He hung suspended, as though floating in water and matching both its buoyancy and temperature. But in that case, he would feel next to nothing. In reality, all he felt was pain. Burning, searing, piercing, unrelenting pain, in nine different places.
He could not see, though he somehow felt and knew the room around him. He was perceiving it, somehow, with a sense other than sight, a sense he would have to learn to use. He could not smell or taste anything; that sense that had replaced his sight, that knowing of what was around him, had replaced those senses as well.
He sensed that he could move, but that an anchor… behind him, near him, held him back from going far. He still existed. He could see nothing, hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, and feel nothing but the pain of the needles burning into him, as sharp and as fresh as the moment he had inserted them.
Colomb could sense his body behind him, or maybe below. He was free of it and its aches and incapacities. Free of its aches, but bound now to a life of eternal pain.