Anecdote XIII. To Trust a Dark One

March 9th, 1702 • Kotelgrym

Giemm’s hands worked with brisk efficiency as he gathered the maps and papers Malstefin had left on the table. The Demon sat in a chair by the window, surveying the courtyard. The Lakvos were shrieking and scrambling over the blackened cobblestones, giving a wide berth to the rumbling black dragon chained on the east side.

“Look at that,” Malstefin motioned out the window. “Is that not the mightiest thing you have ever seen?”

“Methok is an excellent acquisition, senierro,” Giemm replied. Malstefin had taken the Titan from a powerful rival less than a week ago. He’d not yet stopped gloating over it. His tail swung in a lazy, content rhythm beside the chair, occasionally grazing Giemm’s shanks as he moved around the chair, but not enough to hurt.

“Senierro,” the Runner ventured, as he finished organizing the latest information from the scouts. “May I inquire about something?”

“Si, ude,” Malstefin waved a nonchalant hand.

“Have you consulted a healer about your wound, senierro?” the Runner asked.

“My wound?” Malstefin snarled. His head turned, offering Giemm a full view of the black, oozing mass that was the right side of his face.  The Demon unfurled from the chair and loomed over his feathered servant. “You mean the place that Luminor–” he spat the word “–signed his own death sentence?” He jabbed a cruel claw at his own face, causing a small bubble of black skin to burst and ooze fresh pus.

“It has gotten worse since I have served you, senierro, not better,” Giemm replied, bowing his head, but not cowering.  “It could be–”

Get out!” Malstefin thundered, the wind of his roar ruffling Giemm’s feathers.

“As you wish, senierro.” Giemm replied, and trotted out.

Malstefin glowered after the bird, and went back to the window. He stared out at his dragon with a sullen eye, and brought a hand up to his face. Since he was alone, he indulged in letting himself wince when he touched it. His hand came away streaked with the black pus that had been staining his clothes more and more.

March 24th, 1702 • Kotelgrym

“I have brought Bealtah up as you asked, senierro,” the Warmonger growled in the doorway.

“Show her in,” Malstefin replied.

Throcko went back into the hallway and returned with a hunched Deceiver. She was a wiry woman with curly dark hair, and matching dark skin. She walked stooped over as most Deceivers did, and carried a leather bag. Malstefin waved her into his personal infirmary and told her to close the door as Throcko left.

“I’ve heard you please my ally Mestala,” Malstefin said. “I’m sure you can see why I’ve summoned you.”

The Deceiver nodded and approached, tilting her head as she inspected the bulbous mounds of blackened flesh around his eye.

“Yes, looks bad, bawano,” she replied. At his glower, she correctly addressed him in Izpanza instead, “Senierro.”

Malstefin settled back into the chair as a brooding mass of red.

“How did it happen, and how long ago?” asked Bealtah standing beside the chair, eyeing the wound.

“1610,” Malstefin hissed, “Filthy Luminor Jessair gouged it out as he tortured me.”

“Kotora eler grymor,” she said with a nod. “I have heard rumors.”

“I expect they are true,” growled the Demon.

“What did he use?”

Malstefin’s jaw tightened. “A half rusted corkscrew.”

“And he pulled out your whole eye?” Her tone was as casual as if she asked for the time.

“No.”  Malstefin’s pointed teeth grated as his jaw tightened further. “It was not a clean attack. He gouged it out in pieces. There is a bit left. I had hoped to eventually find a way to regenerate it.”

“May I have a look?” Bealtah extended a knobby hand toward his brow.

Malstefin gave a sharp snarl and swatted her hand away, his claws nicking her fingers. Bealtah let it go.

“Without examining it, I cannot say for sure,” she said, “But it sounds like you probably have a fragment of the Luminor’s corkscrew still stuck in your flesh somewhere. Because it is an untreated Light tool, it will prove fatal if you don’t remove it. Given how long it has been since it happened, I’m surprised you have lived this long. You must have some resistance and good healing abilities.” She sounded envious. “When did it start constantly weeping like that?”

“Perhaps two years ago. Maybe three.” Malstefin gave a stiff shrug.

“When did it start swelling into nodules like that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe thirty years ago.”

“And turning black?”

“Probably five or ten years after it happened.”

“I’d guess then, based on your apparent healing rate, you probably have another decade to live, maybe a little less, if it doesn’t come out.”

Malstefin’s remaining eye glanced at the floor.

“I could probably get it out,” Bealtah offered, “I have several tools that would do it.”

“No,” Malstefin growled. “Go to the chest there.” He nodded to a cedar chest against the far wall. “Open it.”

Bealtah complied.

“There’s a magnification glass on top, silver frame.”

Bealtah picked it up and he nodded.

“That is your payment,” Malstefin told her. “Take it, and get out.”

Bealtah seemed to consider speaking, but thought better of it. She returned to the table, tucked the glass into her bag, then shuffled out. Malstefin remained in the chair for a while after she had gone. He put a hand up to his face, brushing the painful black lumps, feeling a few squish out more black pus at the gentle pressure of his hand. He stared at the cracks in the stone floor for a few minutes, one hand covering his lost eye as if to shield it.

After a time, he rose, and went to the cedar chest himself. He opened it, and dug down through the supplies there, rooting out some rags, a slightly-bent scalpel, a thin black pick, forceps,  and a shined piece of silver that served as a mirror. He carried the items to the table, and poured a bowl of water from the pitcher there. He propped the piece of silver against the bowl to support it, then settled down at the table.

For a moment, he examined himself in the makeshift mirror, and allowed as how he was truly hideous. The upper right portion of his face seemed to have fused into one swollen black mass of infection.  He could hardly tell where his eye had been. Jessair’s fury-masked face flashed in his mind. Scowling at his reflection, Malstefin brought a hand up and started pulling at the knobby black flesh to try to find a clear view of the socket. His finger slipped in the black ooze and he jabbed himself with a claw.

“Oderr Mephespada!” he snarled, wiping away a drop of blood amid the pus.

He glowered at his reflection again,  shook himself a bit, shifting into his human form. He had to re-angle the piece of silver to see his reflection again. The wound was just as repulsive on his human face;  a black lump of swelling across his tan skin and red stripes. He went back to digging through the blackened flesh with clawless human fingers, managing to open the swelling enough to see the hole where an eye should have been. His lips thinned into a line as he studied it. He’d not looked at the damage so closely since he had cleaned himself up all those years ago after escaping Jessair’s dungeon.

“Ilipoyo Farero,” he growled, as if it were Jessair’s face he looked upon and not his own.

He took up the thin pick and started carefully poking around, pulling at the tattered, swollen remnants of his eyelids and socket. There was a small, withered piece of his eye deep in the socket, but when he went to examine it, he flinched at the touch of the pick and swore again. He had made the wound weep in vile rivulets, so he picked up one of the rags and swabbed at it. The rag felt like it was made of boar bristle against the inflamed flesh.

Malstefin grit his teeth and leaned closer to the makeshift mirror. It was difficult to see. The black flesh didn’t reflect well in the dim light. He pulled at the swollen skin again, ignoring the gush of foul-smelling infection that ran down his neck and exposed chest, and took up the pick. It was cumbersome to hold the wound open and dig through the socket at such an angle he could see the reflection. The pick jabbed him again.

“Cagor!” he snapped and flung the pick away. It clattered against the wall and clinked onto the floor.

Malstefin growled and swabbed at the wound again. He got to his feet and flung open the door, sticking his head out to roar at the guards down the hall,

“Bring me the damn bird!”

He didn’t wait to see the guards move. He slammed the door shut again and went back to the table. He dropped himself into the chair and simmered at his reflection until there was a knock on the door.

“Intran,” he groused.

Giemm’s talons clicked on the stone as he came in.

“You, ah… summoned me, senierro?” he ventured.

“This was your idea,” the Demon snarled at him.

“What was my idea, senierro?”

“Don’t play stupid with me. You were bound to notice Bealtah, and surely you know who she is.”

Giemm tucked his crest feathers low and put his head down. “And what did she say, senierro?” he inquired.

“There’s a splinter of Jessair’s corkscrew stuck in my eye somewhere,” Malstefin told him. “If it stays in, I’m dead within ten years. I can’t get it out on my own. Anyone who gets it out for me is likely to leave without their throat. Since this was your idea, you get the first try. The pick’s in the floor.” He pointed to where he had flung it.

Giemm didn’t ask how it had gotten into the floor. He picked it up and returned to the table, looking over the things Malstefin had already gathered there. He rinsed the pick off in the bowl of water, then picked up one of the rags.

“Tilt your head back, senierro,” said the Runner.

Malstefin leaned back in the chair and put his head back, his remaining orange and gold eye searing up at the bird. Giemm looked over him a moment, and noted the fresh scratch on his face. He too shifted into his human shape– an unassuming Spaniard with charcoal grey hair. He wore nothing but a tattered scarf tied around his waist, which he tightened and readjusted as his body shrank. With talonless human fingers, he reached for Malstefin’s head. The Demon growled at him, but Giemm laid a careful hand on his forehead.

“Just going to clean up a little,” he explained, “You’ve made it weep quite a lot.”

Malstefin let him move in with the rag. It didn’t seem as rough when Giemm handled it. The Runner swabbed the Demon’s face, and gently rubbed the swollen black flesh, coaxing more fluid from it. Malstefin’s jaw tightened but he made no sound.  Giemm continued to drain the wound, carefully swabbing off the pus before it could leave more black rivulets down Malstefin’s chest.

“It’s gone down a lot,” Giemm noted with a certain degree of pride.  “Should be easier to see now without all the fluid.”

Malstefin grunted, but said nothing. Giemm put one of the rags over his own shoulder, where it would be easier to grab, and placed both hands on the Demon’s face. He let his hands rest there a moment as he said,

“I’m just going to have a look first. I won’t go in the instruments yet.”

Malstefin glanced to the Runner’s face. It was strange to see him without the beak and the feathers. Malstefin couldn’t remember if he’d ever seen Giemm’s human shape. He was a surprisingly skinny and small figure, and the Demon wondered if he were that skinny under all the feathers. He glanced away, staring at the ceiling.

Giemm’s fingers pulled at the black flesh, opening what was once an eye. He tilted his head and bobbed around to see better angles, motions which seemed odd without the bird features. He peered at the wound with a scrutiny that would have cost him his head on any other day, and said,

“Turn a little that way, senierro.”

Malstefin obliged, turning just a bit to better face the single torch in the room. Giemm squinted, holding the ruined eye open with firm but gentle fingers.

“I think I see something,” he said. “I’m going to use the pick to see if I can uncover it a bit more.”

Malstefin said nothing. In his head, he could hear Jessair’s voice, screaming in uncontrollable rage. He saw Giemm take up the pick, and saw a flash of Jessair wrenching the corkscrew out of the bottle and stabbing it downward at his face. Malstefin took a deeper breath, and hoped Giemm wouldn’t notice. The Runner was so unlike Jessair. He was calm and methodical. He handled the pick with the same precision as he did the stylus Malstefin had taught him to write runes with.

Giemm held the pick above the wound for a moment. Malstefin tried to keep his face still, but in the end, he closed his eye. Giemm held the tattered flesh open with one hand and carefully slid the pick in with the other.  Malstefin’s shoulders tensed as the Runner worked, but he was otherwise still. It seemed like Giemm had to work a long time, and for as careful as he was, each motion of the pick felt like a wire brush on burned flesh. After a time, Giemm carefully switched out the pick for the forceps, but after a moment shook his head. Malstefin felt sweat trickle down his back, but if Giemm noticed his perspiration, he didn’t acknowledge it.

“Senierro,” said Giemm after a time, voice quiet, “I have found the splinter– the only splinter, I believe– but…” he paused. “It is lodged in the remains of your eyeball and I cannot get it out. It was actually stuck in the flesh of the socket as well, likely a product of all the swelling, and I was able to get that end out, but it won’t budge from the eye itself. I could take out the rest of the eye, but then there would be nothing left to regenerate.” He withdrew the forceps and his hands and stepped back for a moment. “Should I take it out, or do you want to devote more resources to finding a means to regenerate it in some of the time you have left? I could take it out in a few more years, though it will probably get even worse in that time. Possibly regenerating it would cure the Light infection. I don’t know.”

Malstefin opened his eye and immediately scrubbed it with a hand to hide the drop of moisture escaping as it opened. He was silent. A decade was not long for a Demon, and Malstefin was no closer to finding a means to regenerate what was left of his eye than he had been at the start of his conquests. He didn’t even know if such magic existed on the Dark side.

“Take it out,” he growled, tilting his head back again.

“I will try to be careful, senierro, but it will not be painless–”

“Just do it,” the Demon snapped. “What is more pain to me now?”

Giemm glanced at the table, studying the instruments there.

“What?” Malstefin rumbled.

“I may need you to hold the skin back, senierro,” the Runner admitted. “I’ll need the tweezers to hold the eye while I finish freeing it with the scalpel.”

Malstefin’s throat moved in the torchlight as he swallowed. He reached up and found the black skin. He was surprised at how much smaller it felt. Giemm must have drained it a great deal.  He took another deep breath and pulled the flesh back, opening the remains of his eye to the Runner. Giemm took both the tweezers and the scalpel into one hand, then laid his free hand on Malstefin’s head. Perhaps it was to acclimate him again to the touch, or perhaps it was a secret gesture of reassurance– for there was no reassurance or comfort among Dark things.

For a moment, Giemm watched him, holding his one-eyed gaze. Malstefin didn’t know what the Runner saw in him, but he was sure he didn’t want it to be seen.

“Do it,” snapped the Demon.

“As you wish, senierro.”

Giemm took up the instruments, and slipped the tweezers into the offered socket. Malstefin tensed as he got a grip on the destroyed eye, moving it to reveal the mangled nerve keeping it tethered. He slid the scalpel in toward it, but the space was so small, he nicked the inside of the socket. Malstefin snarled, but managed to avoid flinching away and causing further damage.

“I did not mean to, senierro. There is not a lot of room to move.” The Dark language had no word for apology.

“Do what you have to do,” Malstefin growled. He could feel his hands shaking as he held the flesh open, and hoped the Runner was too preoccupied to notice. Giemm paused a moment, holding very still, studying the black interior of Malstefin’s scarred face.  He could see where he needed to cut, but he didn’t move. The place where he had nicked his master bled, Dark black blood, but it was streaked with red. Dark things didn’t bleed red. Giemm glanced at his own hands, covered in pus and flecks of blood– with spatters of red. His keen brown eyes glanced to Malstefin’s face, where his eye was closed.

Malstefin didn’t know why the Runner had stopped. He was as still as he could be, but he could feel himself shaking and cursed himself. In the pause, he couldn’t stop the tears from leaking from the corner of his remaining eye. He was sure Giemm could see them. Perhaps the Runner was contemplating what to do with the knowledge that the Red Devil of Spain cried like a coward.

Doing nothing of the sort, Giemm wielded the scalpel as best he could, and severed the rest of the nerve with one well-placed stroke. Malstefin only somewhat managed to stifle his roar. He hoped the guards in hall hadn’t heard.

“There, senierro,” said Giemm, removing the scalpel with careful fingers. He stretched for the table, but couldn’t quite reach, so tossed the scalpel the rest of the way onto the table. The clatter made Malstefin start. Giemm somehow moved his hand with him, so he didn’t lose his grip on the tweezers or let Malstefin hurt himself on them.

“Almost done,” said the Runner. He withdrew the tweezers, the rest of the eye, and the splinter lodged in it. Malstefin let out a shuddering breath as Giemm pulled away. The Demon could hear the Runner shifting things on the table. He felt shaky and feverish, and put his head down over his knees, keeping his eye closed. Giemm moved something else and asked,

“Did you want to see the splinter, senierro?”

Malstefin’s tremors increased for a split second, then all at once, he vomited onto the floor in front of his feet. The room instantly stank of half-digested meat, and the Demon put his hands over his face, not quite stifling a sound that was almost a sob. Giemm said nothing, but Malstefin could hear him moving through the room. Perhaps he was going to the door to call the guards in to see the fearsome Red Devil now.

Giemm had only fetched more rags. Malstefin realized this as he felt something at his feet. He opened his eye to see the Runner– still in that flimsy human shape– knelt on the floor, wiping vomit off the Demon’s toes. Malstefin’s mouth opened, but no words came out. The two looked at each other, and it felt like the bottom dropped out of Malstefin’s stomach. The Demon knew the Runner would see his tear-streaked (and undoubtedly pale) face. Giemm reached toward him with another rag. Malstefin flinched, but Giemm only wiped his face clean, and said,

“You worked up quite a sweat, senierro.”

They both knew it wasn’t all sweat. Malstefin said nothing, for fear his voice would come out no more than a whimper. Giemm went back to mopping up the vomit with the rags, depositing the soiled cloths in another bowl he had brought. He cleaned the floor while Malstefin sat in silence, watching him work. When he was finished, the Runner rose and set the foul-smelling bowl on the table. He positioned himself between the Demon and the table, perhaps to block to the view of the instruments and what they had extracted. Malstefin looked up at him and swallowed again.

“What would you like done with the eye, senierro?” asked Giemm.

Malstefin forced himself to sit up straight, then to stand altogether. He stalked to the window and looked out, seeing the Warmongers below feeding the Titan another batch of prisoners. The Demon glanced back to the Runner, still unable to summon his voice. Giemm turned back to the table and moved some things. Malstefin heard something clink. He had cleaned and put away the instruments, the Demon realized, perhaps so Malstefin wouldn’t see them.

“I will just toss it out with the rest,” said the Runner. “No one would recognize it in this mess, and I suppose there’s no sense in keeping it.” He gathered the bowl and headed for the door, shifting back into his bird shape as he did so. He readjusted the scarf around his waist again, then put a hand on the door handle.

“Giemm,” said Malstefin, finding his voice.

The bird turned around, blinking above the bowl of soiled rags. It was practically unheard of for a Demon to call an underling by name. The Runner waited, still and patient. Malstefin watched him, wanting to beg him not to tell people what he’d seen, wanting to tell him things their language had no words for. In the end, he said only,

“You please me.”

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