Anecdote XXXIX. Into Enemy Hands

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August 26th, 2014 • Avigdell
Lask waited in his study. For a while, his restless feet had carried him pacing back and forth along the length of the room, his eyes sweeping the gardens outside, the edge of the island, and the falls beyond, but he eventually sat down in the chair at his desk. He waited, still as stone, breathing slowly. His fingers drumming on the armrest were the only things that betrayed his nerves.

He had known it was coming, and felt it happening: the storm raging through Larea, the howls of the Runners and the screams of children. His fingers kept a steady rhythm. He could have stopped this, could stop it still, but he dared not. Too much had been changed already. The end must be the same, and it was better to face it on terms he had prepared for than the bleak unknown. Better to risk this than to sacrifice people he loved.

He heard a tapping come at the study window. He rose and opened it, finding a raven perched on the sill. It reproached him, and extended its leg, where a message was tied. He took it.

We have your school children, it read, We have them in three different places. I have the one you call a daughter with me. Turn yourself over to me and I will release her, and no harm will come to the others for one day. Perhaps you can rescue at least one group of them in that time. We hope you try. You have one hour to deliver yourself to me. If you do not appear, unarmed, at the bridge of Zeranon within one hour, I will kill her, and I will tell the Demons to do as they please with the others.  

Lask glanced at the raven waiting on the sill. He turned the paper over and wrote, I will be there. He returned the message to the raven, and it disappeared in a rush of black feathers. Lask looked out the window, seeing Wyatt walking in the garden with the familiar blue butterfly. It would not be long before news reached the rest of the island. He could not delay.

He went out of the study and down to his chamber. Unbuckling the red strap, he removed his sword and hung it on the back of his chair. He stepped away from it, and removed the rings from his hands, leaving them on the desk, along with the small knife he removed from his boot. He paused a moment, checking himself over, and removed Phena’s brooch from his shoulder as well.

Having left everything of value to him, he went out of his room, and took the tower steps down. He spiraled down to the lower levels, until he came to the dungeon. He opened it with his key and passed inside, hearing the heavy cedar door lock behind him as he pushed it closed. He went to the black door on the far wall and stood before it a moment. Taking a breath, he thought he should be able to feel his heart pounding in his chest, but there was nothing, only silent stillness where his heart should have been. He placed a hand on his chest, unnerved at the emptiness in his chest. It was necessary. Two hours ago, he had taken his heart from his chest, and placed it in his vessel for safe keeping. No doubt it was hammering away within her chest. He decided he didn’t have time to feel guilty. Slipping his key in the lock, he turned it, saying,

“Zeranon.”

The latch engaged and he pushed the door open to reveal a grey stretch of land, giving way to a sharp precipice. Lask stepped through and said,

“Send the message, Elanor.”

As he emerged on the other side, he pushed the door closed, and it dissipated behind him.

*******

My dearest family,

When you read this, I will be in enemy hands. Before I go any further, let me say: do not despair. This will be temporary. I have the utmost faith in you. By the time you find me, the enemy will have placed me into a magical sleep.

In my absence, I leave Stefin as acting aldar, I trust you will each show him your support while he is in this role. I have discussed with him at length what responsibilities an aldar carries, and I am confident he will do well in my stead. I have instructed him how to wake the island’s defenses in the event they are needed, and have shown him the locations of everything he might need in my absence.

Elanor shall be the steward of my heart while I am asleep. While it is within her, she will have access to its power. I have conferred with her about using this if need be. My heart’s weakness will remain even outside of me, so I encourage you to show your affections to her and to my sleeping form so that my heart will not bleed away while I am asleep. Come and sit with me a while if you are able. Hold my hand and speak to me. Read to me. Tell me about your day. If you are unable to reach me while I am asleep (Jackie), you may send e-mails to me, and someone will read them to me. I believe I will be mostly conscious of my surroundings while I am asleep, so please visit and speak to me so that I do not despair or go out of my mind from sheer boredom.

What has happened is this: Professor Meredith’s home, Larea, was attacked, and the children have been kidnapped and divided. Coramell, a corrupted Luminor, has developed a tool to neutralize sunlight in Light territories, thus making it possible for attacks to be made during the day. I have left further instructions for how to find and destroy this device in an envelope on my study desk. Do not move to destroy the device until the events of today are taken care of. This attack was planned by Coramell, Velenku of Thearmot, Vriedik (Alannis’s father, currently serving Coramell), and Ariman of Chankel. Three of the children have been taken to Thearmot, the other three to Chankel. Jassi, Cressida and Farriel are still in Larea; you should bring them home before you start into the rest of this plan, if only to avoid loose ends. Alannis was taken to Coramell’s stronghold, Zeranon. Alannis is being held there for ransom. The offer is simple: I turn myself over in exchange for her, and in exchange for the other children not being harmed for one day. When you read this, I will have already left to do so. I have enchanted my key so Alannis can use it to draw a door home. I have made sure she knows how to do so. My guess is she will be arriving shortly. Send her to Belara, so she can be looked after. She will be very distraught.

Cora is with Stefin to keep her out of Coramell’s hands. This is very important. Coramell will be furious that she was not in the group of children captured, and may make attempts to kidnap her at a later date. You should be on guard for this. The other children will be fine. They are each wearing an item that will render them bulletproof (and therefore unable to be harmed by most other forms of attack or torture), and will help speed the healing of any wounds they do sustain. This item is a cap on a tooth in each of their mouths. Kieran and Garth designed the components. The children themselves assembled them and fitted themselves during their field trip to Kieran’s workshop last week. The children think these are simple items designed to produce a mouthful of water whenever they get thirsty. This is true also. They are unaware of the other functions. With any luck, these items will not be discovered.

When I have completed the trade for Alannis, I will be drugged, and held in Coramell’s stronghold. Do not come for me immediately. Your first priority is getting the children back. Those at Thearmot will be in better conditions than those at Chankel, so go after the ones at Chankel first. I recommend taking Falient’s ship there, and sending Falient and Wyatt in after them, since both of them have entered the stronghold before, and Falient has become very efficient at navigating it. You will need to move quickly, as the children will be attempting to free themselves. You must find them before they can do so. If they attempt to escape Chankel on their own, they will all three perish.

Once you have rescued the children at Chankel, you should begin moving to rescue me from Zeranon. I have procured maps and blueprints of the location from Barrett. You will find these in the second drawer of the desk in my study. Your best way in, based on my study of these blueprints, is a hidden tunnel in the bottom of the canyon under the bridge. This tunnel leads into a vast web of caves, which will not be navigable unless you know this word: Lofrurnalaroc. Its letters stand for the following: left, onward, falls, right, under, right, nook, above, left, above, right, onward, climb. These are the movements you must make to get through the caves and stronghold to find me. I have marked the route on the blueprints. Study the maps and remember the word. This will get you inside to where I am.

I believe Falient will be able to navigate Zeranon to free me, although he will have to go alone. Cressida has read him an invisibility cloak, which she is hiding in her room. While Stefin’s Dark blood would help him hide in Zeranon, we cannot risk sending the temporary aldar into that kind of danger. It is not safe for Wyatt to go to Zeranon. Do not question me on this, just trust me. Wyatt, do not go. I tell you this as aldar.

Instead, Wyatt must go north and find the group of children taken to Thearmot. They will no longer there. Blackjack will escape and take the others with him. You will find them on their way back to Avigdell. I have given Blackjack a map for this purpose. You will find a copy of the map, and the route I traced for him, on the table in the study. Blackjack will lead them well, and Ripardi will have taught them valuable survival and travel skills during their field trip to visit him. Nonetheless, I encourage you to find the group with as much speed as you can, as it is never safe for anyone to wander Dark and neutral territories for very long.

Also in the study desk drawer is a bottle. It is a potion that Tabitha made. Falient should boil his key in it for ten minutes. This will enable the key to draw a door back to Avigdell from inside Zeranon. If you do not treat the key ahead of time, Coramell’s wards will prevent you from drawing a door while inside, and Falient will have to find a way to drag my unconscious body all the way out of Coramell’s territory. I do not recommend this.

Once you have brought me home, you will need to begin treating me so I can wake from the curse. In the drawer of the desk in my bedroom, you will find a smooth white stone. Place this stone under my tongue for the duration of my sleep. You will be able to measure your progress with this, as the stone will help absorb the Darkness in me. The blacker the stone becomes, the closer I will be to waking.

In the second drawer of my wardrobe, you will find a box. Inside it is what Earth would likely call a vaporizer. It is equipped with the necessary tubing, and a mask for you to place over my face. Also in the box is a bundle of a plant called ethalios. You will need to light the vaporizer and steam the plant, so that I breath its vapors. I am told this process will be more effective if the vaporizer is lit with spirit fire (from either Stefin or one of the Fire children) and steam produced from spirit water (Wyatt, or one of the Water children). You will need to equip me with this each night, for the duration of the dark hours. When fully stocked, the vaporizer will run for five hours, so I’m afraid someone will have to refill it at some point each night. I’m sure you could stock up on spirit water, so that only one person would have to come pour in more water and add more ethalios. The fire will keep burning until extinguished with the snuffer (also in the box).

I procured the stone and vaporizer from a Luminara named Eoline. She specializes in magical items, with a focus on healing. If you need to contact her yourself, you will find her at the estate of Levigston, over part of Brazil. The Library gave me her name in the course of my research, and I met with her twice in the city; first to explain my situation, and then the pick up the items she had crafted for me. The ethalios is grown by Jeandra, and I have arranged with her to cultivate a crop of it for me. Send word to her whenever you are running low, and she will deliver more.

Every morning, when you remove the vaporizer for the day, you will need to drain a bit of my blood. I have left a bowl on the desk in my bedroom for this purpose, as it will help you know how much to take– fill it once each day, and dump the contents into the river, as it will be unsafe to keep anywhere. The river will naturally neutralize the Darkness in it. Contrary to human medicine, blood-letting for this purpose will be necessary. My blood will be tainted with the sleeping poison, and as we do not regularly produce new blood like humans do, you will need to gradually drain out the poisoned blood. I will produce more (pure) blood in order to replace what is lost. The vaporizer will ensure the poison does not spread to the new blood when the sun sets. The sun will keep it in check during the day. When you first begin, my blood will look very pale and be streaked with black. Over time, the blackness will disappear, and the color will become more vibrant.

I estimate this process will take 3-5 weeks. Do not be discouraged if it takes longer. If you are concerned about my progress, send for Jeandra. I am confident she can give you an accurate assessment of my condition, and may be able to help you adjust my treatment if needed. As it is, this is the best option I have been able to find, and I have done everything I can to shorten this process.

When the stone in my mouth has turned fully black, and my blood is running clean and bright red, Elanor will need to return my heart to me. She knows how to do this. You can then remove the stone and cease with the vaporizer and bloodletting. Once my heart is returned, I estimate I will wake within 2-4 days. If I do not wake after 4 days, you will need to have Jeandra come diagnose what is keeping me under. With any luck, it will not be an issue.

As for other sundry affairs, Tathiana will be acting headmistress of the school while I am under, and Mortimer will be substituting for my Literature class. I have already delivered my lesson plans to him. Tathiana will be substituting for my swordsmanship and archery class. Stefin will stand in for my Library office hours, with the exception of today– as I have already posted notices of today’s cancellation. Depending on circumstances, Stefin may need assistance from Wyatt, Falient, or even Satha to keep my office hours going. I would like it if they could remain active, but I understand if you need to cancel. Tathiana will be hosting her own office hours beginning tomorrow, so it won’t be as though people can’t reach the Library if you can’t tend to mine. I have also enchanted my mailbox to send automated replies, so to speak, to direct people to contact one of you in case they need an answer or assistance before the end of September. I believe I have rescheduled all the meetings I had (or excused myself from the ones I was invited to) in the next month, but if someone should come looking for me because I stood them up, do give them my apologies. I freshened the wards on all of my territories on August 8th. The wards should be fine until I wake, but if it makes you feel better to check on them, by all means. Just do me a favor and stay out of the mountains in Verica. Don’t ask.

Look after each other, and do try to stay out of trouble. Do not lash out at the enemy in vengeance; I guarantee they are all hoping you will. Do not blame yourselves for what has happened– especially you, Falient. None of this is anyone’s fault. I know you will each play your parts beautifully, and I could not ask for a better family. Remind Charlotte I love her as often as possible. You can send her in to see me, if she wants, but be sure to clean me up properly and explain things to her beforehand. I will rejoin you as soon as I can. I love each of you dearly, and am eager to see you again.

Until the autumn,
-Lask

*******

Lask found himself standing before a rope-and-wood bridge, spanning a deep gash in the grey landscape. On the other side towered a bleak fortress, surrounded by impenetrable peaks. At the gate on the other side of the bridge, stood a tall, thin, black-haired man with a hooked nose. Under his arm was Alannis, tears leaving tracks through the dirt, which streaked her face.

“I knew you’d keep your word,” Coramell called across.

“She walks first,” Lask demanded.

Coramell gave a thin-lipped smile and released his hold on Alannis, giving her a shove toward the bridge. Alannis stumbled, but caught herself on the rope and started across. From the ramparts, Dark creatures trained bows and guns on them, no doubt to ensure Lask would not try to snatch her and run. Lask watched her progress for a moment, making sure no one pursued her from the fortress, then stepped out onto the bridge as well.

He crossed the canyon with slow steps, trying to look steady as Alannis fumbled toward him. The pair approached each other in the middle of the bridge. Alannis could barely speak through her tears.

“I’m sorry, Baba. I didn’t mean to. You shouldn’t have–“

“None of this is your fault, my dear. It will be alright.” As they passed each other, Lask slipped his key into her hand. “Draw yourself a door home. Everything will be fine.”

He passed her and kept walking. Behind him, he heard Alannis’s choked voice plead, “Baba!” but he did not look back at her. As he continued across, he felt Alannis start moving again. He tried to walk with slow, measured steps, to give her time to make it to the other side. He felt the bridge stop moving with her steps, and glanced over his shoulder to see her stumble up onto solid ground. With that, he passed to the other side, and into the waiting hands of the Demons.

*******

When the rest of the alkesh received Lask’s message, they all began moving. Falient and Wyatt went to Lask’s study and located the blueprints, potion, and the map.

“Reckon we should make it quick at Larea,” said the gunslinger.

Falient nodded. They returned to the yard in front of the house, where Stefin waited.

“We’re off to Larea. Back soon, I hope,” Falient told him.

“I’ll prepare the ship while you are away. We’ll need to leave for Chankel upon your return.” Stefin motioned at the potion and maps. “Let me hold onto those for you.”

Falient passed him the items, then drew a door for himself and Wyatt. Moments after they had gone, Stefin saw the telltale shimmer appear in the air nearby. He waited as a small, plain wood door formed in the air. It opened and a battered Alannis stumbled through. She was sobbing so hard, she could hardly breathe. Stefin pulled her door closed and waved it away.

“Stefin…!” Alannis cried. “They took the others–” she sputtered, gasping, try to breathe through her tears “–and Baba!”

“We know,” Stefin murmured. “Come here.”

He drew the girl into his arms and scooped her up. She wrapped her arms around his neck and sobbed into his shoulder. The Demon smoothed her hair and started back to Atorcoppen.

“We’ll bring everyone back,” he told her. “Falient and Wyatt will find the children.”

“And Baba?” whimpered Alannis.

“Falient will do what he does best, and go rescue him. Naturally.”

Alannis snuffled against his shoulder, tightening her arms around him. Stefin carried her across the bridge to Atorcoppen, where he passed her into Belara’s waiting arms. Belara exchanged a grim look with the Demon. He had told her that morning what would likely happen this day. She hugged Alannis to her, holding her with ease, despite her deceptively thin frame.

“I must ready the ship,” Stefin told her. “We’ll be leaving for Chankel as soon as Falient and Wyatt return from Larea.”

“Be careful,” Belara told him.

Stefin bent down and kissed her head, then drew back, stroking Alannis’s hair as he withdrew.

“Come on,” Belara said to Alannis. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

*******

When Falient and Wyatt arrived at Larea, storm clouds were dissipating in the sky. The gate was blown open, allowing them to walk right in. Most of the territory was unharmed, just a bit trampled. Something moved in the bushes nearby, and they both drew in an instant, gun barrels trained on the spot, but seeing nothing.

“It’s just me,” came a small voice.

The air seemed to ripple near the ground and Jassi appeared out of the brush. Falient and Wyatt immediately holstered their guns. Jassi ran to Wyatt, and he scooped her up.

“Ya alright?” he asked her.

She nodded, chewing her lower lip.

“Where are the others?”

“Taken,” she answered, “But a few might be there.” She pointed in the direction of the house.

Wyatt carried her. They followed the road up to the house, and could see char marks in the left side of the building. The porch was blown off entirely. They approached the wreckage. Everything was silent; the children were gone.

“What’s that?” Wyatt pointed.

Falient turned to follow his gaze, and saw what looked like a metal cellar door, but it was warped and melted shut. As they stepped closer to it, something hit the other side, and jagged lines of electricity danced along the door, sparks flying.

“Easy in there!” Falient called, recognizing his daughter’s magic.

“Tabo?” It was Cressida’s voice.

“Aye, love. Can you get out of there?”

“Stand back,” she said.

Wyatt and Falient retreated. There was a roar and a zap, and the cellar door was blasted off the ground, landing with a clang about twelve feet away. A striped head poked out, and the rest of the dragon followed. Long spines had arisen along Cressida’s neck and back. She seemed to bristle, each spike sparking with electrical charge.

“That’s new,” Falient remarked, taking in the sight of her.

“They just… came out.” Cressida shook herself a bit, looking sheepish, and the spines sank back into sheaths, disappearing under her hide.

“It’s a good defense,” Falient told her. “Are you hurt?”

Cressida shook her head, and shifted back into her human shape. Farriel clambered out of the cellar behind her.

“I’m getting really tired of people trying to drag me off,” he growled. The boy was scuffed and ruffled, but otherwise unharmed.

“Perfectly understandable,” Falient said, pulling him under his arm.

“They came out of nowhere,” Farriel said. “A horde of Warmongers, Serpents, and Runners came and dragged the others off. Something made the sky go dark so they could get in.”

“Where’s Meredith?” asked Falient.

“In the cellar,” said Cressida. “They hit her in the head with some sort of bolt. We pulled her down there and walled ourselves in. Farriel melted the door shut. Meredith’s alright, I think. She’s breathing, and not bleeding anywhere. Just knocked out.”

Falient nodded to Wyatt. The gunslinger set Jassi down for a moment, then went into the cellar, conjuring his magic. While he did so, Falient embraced Cressida, hugging her tightly.

“I’m glad you’re both alright. We’ll get the others back.”

Wyatt splashed a handful of water on Meredith’s face, and she came to, sputtering.

“Alright there?” asked the gunslinger.

“They took the children,” she cried, “A great hunting party came–“

“We know,” Wyatt told her. “We’ll get them back.”

“Will you be alright here?” Falient asked her.

“Yes, fine,” Meredith answered, picking herself up, dusting off her clothes. “I’ll put things back in order. Don’t worry about me. Go get those kids back!”

*******

Falient left Jassi, Cressida and Farriel with Belara, then immediately boarded his ship. Wyatt and Stefin gathered with him at the helm as he slipped his key in and drew the door. The ship took to the air, cloaked itself, and emerged in the sky not far from Chankel. As Falient and Wyatt climbed down to the ground, Stefin armed the ship’s cannons, just in case. He knew he had a while to wait. Falient led Wyatt along the route he had taken into Chankel some weeks prior.

“Ya sure this is still a good way? What if they found out how ya got in before?” asked the gunslinger.

“They haven’t. What do you take me for?” Falient flashed a sly grin at him, despite the situation. “This is the third time I’ve snuck into this place. Third time’s the charm, they say.”

Wyatt gave a skeptical grunt.

Falient crept along the rocky mountainside until he came to a narrow ventilation shaft. The grate was still loose from the last time Falient had pried it open. He peered inside and extended a hand down, then nodded.

“The footholds I carved last time are still here. Watch your step.”

He lowered himself into the shaft and began the climb down. It was an arduous passage, straight down through black grime. When they reached the tunnel below, Falient drew his pistol and checked both directions. Seeing the way was clear, he stepped aside for Wyatt to drop out of the shaft.

“Come on,” whispered Falient, starting off down the tunnel.

Wyatt decided not to ask how he knew where to go. Falient moved like creeping fog down the passage, keeping close to one wall and pausing to check around corners to ensure they would not be ambushed. Wyatt trailed behind him, trying to mimic his movements, though he knew he would never be able to match Falient’s stealth.

Falient held up a hand to stop. Wyatt halted behind him, glancing over his shoulder to make sure nothing was coming up on their backs. Falient turned something on his pistol and there was a muffled click. He moved like lightning, spinning around the corner and firing. The pistol made no sound, and dropped the Deceiver around the corner with nothing more than the sound of a body hitting the floor.

“How’d ya do that?” whispered Wyatt.

“Had Garth do another modification for me.” Falient glanced back at Wyatt. “So you just let me do the shootin’ unless we get into trouble.”

Wyatt gave a reluctant nod.

Falient crept through the tunnels, shooting another Deceiver, and three Lakvos. Finally, he stopped at a crevasse in the wall. He waved Wyatt to follow. Falient turned himself sideways and slipped into the crack. The gunslinger followed him, not liking the cramped quarters. Mercifully, they didn’t last long. The crack gave way to a wider tunnel, and Falient jumped down, his boots splashing in black water. It was damp and smelled of rot, perhaps some kind of sewer. It was totally dark inside; Wyatt could not see a thing. Falient reached back and found his hand.

“Just follow me,” he whispered.

Falient’s eyes could discern the way, and he led them along the passage as it wound through the bowels of the stronghold. There were no Dark creatures down here, only a thin layer of foul-smelling water. At last, Falient approached a stone wall.

“You’re gonna to have t’climb,” he told Wyatt, and guided his hands to find the first handholds. “I’ll go first.”

Falient holstered his pistol for a moment, and started up the wall, as nimbly as the spider for which he was named. Wyatt followed the sound of his motion, progressing more slowly as he felt out footholds. He joined Falient on a ledge up above. There was another crack in the wall, with the faint light of torches flickering through. Falient drew his pistol, held a finger to his lips, then turned to slip through the wall. As Wyatt followed him, he heard the thumps of bodies hitting the floor.

When they emerged into the hallway, there were four Warmongers and a Serpent littering the floor. Falient paid them no further attention and took off down the hall, moving on swift feet. Wyatt followed him. He recognized this passage from when they had rescued Farriel months before.

Falient dropped another Warmonger as he rounded the corner. So far, no alarm had been raised. They came to the holding cells, and Falient had to smile a little. The children were being held in two adjoining cells. In front of each was the remnant of the poisonous plant guarding the door. One of the children in each cell had reached under and severed the stalk, rendering the plant lifeless– a skill Falient had taught them. In one cell, Ferra was busy grappling with the lock, wedging her hair pin into it. In the cell next to her, Alannis’s brother Cotton was finagling the lock with the metal tip of his pen he had taken to school that day.

“You do me proud,” Falient whispered to them as he approached the cells.

The children all perked up when he appeared, but he put a finger to his lips, and they all stayed quiet. He handed his pistol to Wyatt, so the gunslinger could keep watch in the hallway. Falient drew a thin knife and took over picking the lock from Cotton. With a few adept twists, he forced the lock open, then turned to the other cell. There was a click as he turned, and he saw Ferra had finished picking her lock and was swinging it from one finger, grinning at him.

“That’s m’girl,” he whispered with a proud smile.

He pulled the cell doors open and waved the children out. There were three in all: Cotton, Ferra, and Patches. Falient led them back down the hall to the crevasse. Wyatt dropped a pair of warmonger guards as they rounded the corner, giving Falient’s silent pistol an appreciative nod. Falient went into the crevasse first, leading the children with him. They filed onto the stone ledge in the dark on the other side, and Wyatt came in behind them. Falient waved to the gunslinger.

“Here?” Wyatt whispered, skeptical.

Falient gave him an impatient nod. Wyatt passed the pistol back, then drew his key out of his shirt.

“Is this even going to work?” hissed the gunslinger.

“Mine did when I was here before.”

Wyatt bent down and used his key to draw a rectangle in the air. Through the crevasse behind them, they heard the shrill shriek of an alarm being raised. Falient patted Cotton’s shoulder when the boy looked up at him with wide eyes. Wyatt finished drawing the door, and turned his key in the lock. The door opened onto the deck of the Infamy, and they saw Stefin on the other side– looming, red, and ready to crush anything that might come through after them.

Falient shepherded the children through the door then turned back to shoot the ugly face of a Serpent straining to get through the crevasse. Wyatt was through, so Falient lept after him. Taking a quick head count, he kicked the door shut behind him, then called,

“Take us home, Stefin!”

The Sun Demon turned Falient’s key in the helm, and the Infamy soared away from the mountains of Chankel, and disappeared into a portal among the clouds.

*******

When the children were safely unloaded on the dock at Atorcoppen, Falient said to Wyatt,

“Guess you’d better be getting on the road to Thearmot.”

“I don’t like it. Ya shouldn’t be going in alone.”

“We have our orders. You need to find Blackjack,” Falient told him. “I’ll be fine.”

“I will watch him from the tower,” said Stefin to the gunslinger, “It can see into Zeranon. If he gets into any real trouble, we will know and do what we can.”

Wyatt didn’t seem convinced, but he decided to be placated with this answer.

“Good luck,” he said, then pulled Falient closer to kiss him.

“You too.”

Without another word, Wyatt took the map from Stefin, and went to the stables of Avigdell for his horse. Falient took the potion and blueprints, then went into Manahaen, finding his way to the kitchen. He found a pot and emptied the bottle into it, setting it over the fire to boil. While he waited, he looked over the blueprints, and ran through things.

“Left, onward, falls, right, under, right, nook, above, left, above, right, onward, climb. Lofrurnalaroc.” It seemed like a mouthful, but Lask had done well, and chosen a word in Falient’s native tongue, Muldein. Falient wondered if Lask knew the word meant “bow-legged,” but decided either way it made it easy to recall.

The potion boiled, and he dropped in his key, taking note of the time when he did. As he waited, someone else came into the kitchen.

“Tabo?” It was Cressida.

He held out his arms to her, and she hugged him, burying her face in his leather coat.

“You were very brave today,” he told her.

She attempted a smile for him.

“You’ll be careful, won’t you?” she said.

“I’ll do m’best. You have that invisibility cloak for me?”

She nodded, and answered,

“Lask said not to give it to you before today. You’d get into trouble, he said.”

“I’m sure he did,” growled Falient, “But I’ll need it to rescue him.”

“I’ll fetch it.”

She shuffled out, and Falient looked after her with a fond smile. She was a brave girl, and made him proud. He eyed the time, repeating the directions in his head again. Cressida came back with the cloak over her arm. Falient tucked the blueprints into his coat, then took the cloak from her and wrapped it around himself. Cressida grinned.

“What d’you think?” he asked her.

“Works like a charm,” she said.

“Excellent.”

He took the invisibility cloak off for a moment, checked the time, then took up a pair of tongs to fish his key out of the boiling potion. It glowed faintly as it cooled, then returned to looking ordinary. He gave it a light tap, checking to make sure it was cool before taking it into his hand.

“I have to go,” he told her.

“I know,” said Cressida. She hugged him again. “Come back, Tabo.”

“I’ll do my best.” He kissed her head.

Falient slipped out of the kitchen and went to the turret on the west side of the house. He took the stairs down, spiraling into the lower levels until he came to a black door. He took his key and slipped it into the lock.

“Take me to that river,” he said to the door, “Which runs by Zeranon, just north of the place.”

He closed his eyes, holding the image of the place in his mind, then turned the key. It clicked and he pushed the door open. It opened over the water; the river coursed by about ten feet below.

“Not quite what I had in mind,” Falient said to the door, “But it’ll do.” He stuck his head through and glanced around, seeing nothing but empty canyon walls around, then put his key around his neck and wrapped himself in the invisibility cloak. Taking a breath, he stepped back to jump.

“Lofrurnalaroc,” he whispered, then jumped.

He kicked a leg backwards as he passed through the door, kicking it shut. He looked up to see it disappear just before he splashed into the water. He surfaced, keeping the cloak over his head. The water was too deep stand, but he could feel rocks scraping against his legs as the current pulled him. The water was strong, but not unmanageable. He did not fight the current, but let it pull him downstream. He looked up at the top of the canyon as he was drawn onward.

After a few minutes, he knew he was passing into Coramell’s territory, for Dark things patrolled the top of the canyon; Lakvos and Warmongers, and the occasional Serpent. Several minutes later, he saw the bridge pass over his head, then he began paddling to the riverbank. He tried to pull himself out of the river without disturbing the gravel too much. He glanced up, deciding it was too far down for the guards to notice any wet footprints he might leave. Gathering himself on the bank, he looked to either side until he spotted the crack in the rock wall. He headed for it, glancing one last time up at the guards high above, then stole into the darkness.

It was dim inside, but his Dark eyes could see just fine. The passage was narrow, and the rough walls snagged on the cloak. He checked behind him, and ahead as far as he could see, then slid the cloak off, not wanting to risk tearing it and breaking the magic. He wrung it out, then folded it as small as he could. The fabric was light and thin, so it made for a small bundle. He stuffed it into the back pocket of his coat, knowing he would be stealthier without trying to mind the cloak. He wondered distantly how Lask managed to get around in such fancy get-ups, but decided it was rare Lask ever went creeping through places like this. While he buttoned the pocket back, Falient drew his pistol with his other hand, checking to make sure it was still on silent. Holding it ready, he crept ahead.

The cavern widened a bit, and began to branch off into adjoining caves.

“Left,” he whispered, and turned.

The way was damp and smelled of sulphur. He could hear water, but did not know if it echoed from the river outside, or from further within the caverns. The pathway split again, this time into three different openings.

“Onward,” he told himself.

He progressed through the passage straight ahead, following a winding, narrow path. At times he had to turn sideways just to squeeze through. He found himself hoping Tabitha’s potion was made properly; he couldn’t imagine trying to drag Lask back this way. The passage yawned into a wide cavern, and he found the source of the water noise. A small river rushed through the cave, spilling down from a waterfall on the right. Falient looked the chamber over. The path continued on parallel to the river, but he spotted another opening on the other side.

“Falls,” he said, and looked toward the waterfall. He turned and started toward it. The water was a murky blackish-grey, and was littered with bones, sludge, and other debris. He tried to see through the falls, but could not. He stuck a hand out into the tainted water. He felt rock, and passed his hand further away from the edge, and the rock under his hand vanished.

“Falls,” he murmured, and nodded.

He stepped into the shallows, wading up to the cascade of filth, then drew a breath and walked into it. It slopped over him, and something slimy dropped down the back of his neck, but he passed through into a cave behind the falls. He blinked the water out of his eyes and made a quick sweep of the place. There were no creatures inside. There was a path around a pool of water in the center, so he pulled himself up onto it to carry on.

As he followed the pathway around the edge of the cavern, he noticed the water in the pool stir. There was a ripple, and it began to bubble. He moved faster, keeping a wary eye on the pool, hand tightening on his pistol. He could see the path split up ahead.

“Right,” he told himself.

Something pale and hideous rose out of the water– an enormous worm. There were no eyes, only a gaping mouth lined with rows upon rows of thin, crooked, teeth. It lashed out toward the pathway. Falient fired. His bullet cut into its blubbery side. It thrashed in the water as he ran for the opening ahead. The worm lunged again, and Falient spun. This time he shot right into that terrible mouth. The worm spasmed and fell back into the pool with a splash. It floated like limp kelp in the water, but Falient didn’t waste time to see if it were dead.

He took the passage on the right, and immediately knocked his head on the low ceiling. He cursed under his breath, and ducked, having to walk hunched over. The way turned and twisted, and he crept along in silence, keeping his pistol ready. In time, the path opened and he was able to stand. There was a step up, and he almost took it without thinking, but something caught his eye. It was a not step, but a ledge. The path continued on it, but there was an opening below.

“Under,” he said to himself.

He sank to his hands and knees and looked inside. The way was empty, but very tight. He gave a disapproving grunt, but nonetheless, crawled into the hole. There was not room to stand or even get off his knees. Falient found himself hoping nothing would find him in this passage, for he would not be able to maneuver to shoot. The way was clear, though, and within a few minutes he came to a rocky intersection where he was able to stand again.

“Right.”

He set off to the right, feet quickening to a trot. He moved with silent grace, creeping along the passageway as fast he could manage. There were rocks jutting out from the passage wall, and Falient examined them as he passed.

“Nook,” he reminded himself.

Sure enough, he found a thin crevasse behind one of the jutting rocks up ahead. He turned sideways and slipped into it. It passed through to an adjoining corridor. Falient peered around the edge, then stuck his pistol out and shot the Deceiver scurrying along. Seeing the way was otherwise empty, he pulled himself out into the hallway.

“Above.”

He looked up and spotted a hatch in the ceiling. The ceiling was low, so he was able to reach up and tug on the handle. It was locked, but rusty. A persuasive hit with his pistol butt knocked it open. He pulled the hatch free and looked up. A metal ladder led up some kind of shaft. He jumped, grabbing the lowest rung, and pulled himself up. The ladder was damp and slippery, but it was rusted enough that its texture kept him from slipping. He climbed about twenty feet straight up, then came to a grate. He pushed on it and it lifted. He peered out, seeing another hallway, looking less like a cavern, and more like an unfinished dungeon.

He heard footsteps, and dropped the grate back into place. The heavy feet of two Warmongers passed above him. He waited a few seconds, then raised the grate again. He could see them progressing down the hallway, but nothing else was around. He waited for them to disappear around a bend, then pulled himself out of the shaft, setting the grate back into place.

“Left.”

He took off to the left, keeping his pistol raised and ready. His eyes scanned the ceiling of the passageway. Another warmonger came around a corner in front of him. Falient fired and dropped it before it could howl an alarm. Moments later, he spotted another hatch in the ceiling, but this one was higher.

“Well that’s gonna be a problem,” he muttered.

The hatch was close to the right hand wall, and the wall looked rough enough he could climb it, but not with one hand. He glanced in either direction, then holstered his pistol and started up the wall.

There was another patrol of Warmongers around the corner, but a few stones fell off the wall behind them– stirred by the Writer’s hands– and the guards turned back to investigate. Falient had just enough time to scale the wall and pull himself up into the hatch before they continued on. He closed the hatch behind him as they rounded the corner.

“Thanks,” he whispered, knowing the Writer was easing his way.

There was another ladder, and he began the climb upward. This shaft was longer, probably fifty feet, but Falient navigated it with practiced hands. The ladder was dry, and the treads of his boots gripped the rungs with ease. He found himself thinking it was an easier climb than the rigging of his ship.

He reached the top, but it was some kind of trap door instead of a grate. He chanced raising it an inch to peer out. There were two Serpents he could see, but no others. He listened, but heard no footsteps. He paused a moment, weighing options. If he tried to climb out, they would have time to raise the alarm before he could shoot them both. He reached into his back pocket and drew out the cloak again, draping it over himself, then drew his pistol. He raised the door just slightly.

“Psst!” he hissed.

The Serpents’ heads both swung in his direction.

“Sein,” he whispered at them. “Tavak, sein! Duk holok.”

They both slithered in the direction of his voice.

“Cossss vel ssssein?” hissed one of them.

“Holok,” whispered Falient. He made the trap door click against the floor a little. “Subo holok.”

The Serpents came closer to investigate. One of the opened the door with its tail.

“Lorok vel sssssein?” asked the other, puzzled to find the shaft empty.

The two leaned over to see farther down, and Falient’s pistol fired twice in rapid succession. The two Serpents collapsed over with no sound aside from the thump of their fall, a bullet lodged between their eyes. Falient shoved them out of the way and hauled himself out, closing the door behind him.

“Right,” he said, and took off down the corridor to the right, keeping the cloak wrapped tight around him.

He was inside the fortress now, and passed Dark creatures often. The cloak hid him well, and he was able to tiptoe along the side of the corridor undetected. He came to an intersection with a lofted ceiling. He glanced up at it, seeing the blackened, chipped paint of what had been a beautiful mural. This was once a Luminor’s home, he could see, and its decay made something ache inside him.

Onward, he thought and skirted a passing Serpent to continue down the passage straight ahead. He followed it, noting what looked like a few bullet holes in the wall to his left, and kept close to the wall to avoid passing guards. He came to a set of stairs which spiraled away and above.

Climb.

It was a long way up. The stairs were narrow, but he was able to flatten himself against the curving wall to avoid passing creatures. As he neared the top, a Serpent’s tongue flicked out near his head, scenting him, but he hurried past it as it looked around in confusion. Falient came to a hallway above, and there were several doors he could see. The one directly across from the stairs was blackened as if it had been burned, and hung crooked on its hinges. The frame and wall around it were black also, and crumbling, as if something had exploded. Through the crooked door, he could see only a black void. There was nothing inside– it had once been Coramell’s door to the Library.

Falient saw several creatures standing near a door down the hallway. There were two Deceivers, holding trays of what looked like medical equipment. There was a small Demon in a tattered white coat. Her name was Leska; Falient recognized her. She was a Dark scientist. She was putting something into a bag as she emerged from the room. She nodded to a Runner who was there also and said,

“Tell Coramell it’s done. I’ll take my payment and be on.”

The Runner growled and set off, likely to wherever Coramell was. Leska and the Deceivers headed for the steps, and Falient had to duck out of the way. When they were past, he went to the door where they had been standing and looked in. Even though he knew what it was going to be, seeing it made his heart crawl up into his throat.

Lask lay on a rumpled bed inside, motionless. Even his usual paleness seemed pale, more ashen somehow. He was soaking wet, and for a moment this puzzled Falient. He was covered in bruises, overlaid by harsh lines of blisters and red streaks, blackened and raised into terrible ridges. His clothes were in tatters, blackened and falling off of him. They had burned him, Falient realized, set his cloak, the cuffs of his sleeves and pants on fire and let much of his clothing burn away. They must have doused him before he could burn to death. The realization made his stomach turn, and he imagined he could hear the echoes of Lask’s screams even now in the silence. He clenched his teeth and forced himself to focus. There was a black pick stuck in Lask’s chest, in the center of his scar. There were scratches around it from where Leska’s claws had nicked him as she was putting it in. There were track marks of faint dark lines tracing among the bruises and burns from where they had injected him in multiple places with some kind of poison.

Falient glanced to either side, checking the hallway and seeing it empty for the time being. He went into the room and shut the door.

“I’m here,” he said, hoping Lask could hear him. He approached the bed. “I’m here, love. Let me get that out of you.” He reached out and pulled the pick from Lask’s chest. He did not stir, but black ooze sputtered out of the hole. It made Falient’s stomach tighten.

“I’m gonna get you out of here,” he said to his sleeping aldar. “We’ll be home soon.”

He withdrew his key and made the motions to form a door back to Avigdell. There was a Runner’s shriek out in the hallway. Falient ignored it, finishing the door. He shoved it open, revealing a hallway in Del Sayronet– not quite where he was aiming, but it would do. He turned back and gathered Lask up to his chest, dragging him off the bed. His deceptively lithe shape was heavy and his long legs flopped gracelessly into the floor. Falient hooked one of Lask’s arms around him and dragged him toward the door just as the door into the room burst open.

Falient fired twice, blasting the two Warmongers backwards. More scrambled over them, struggling to get inside. Falient shoved Lask through the door and fired thrice more, then stumbled after him. A final shot went down the shrieking throat of a Runner and he slammed the door closed. Something heavy hit the other side, and there was the sound of claws scraping through wood, but the door disappeared, and the sounds went with it.

Falient stood rigid for a moment, then bent over, trying to catch his breath and calm his hammering heart. Lask lay crumpled in the floor beside him.

“Stefin!” Falient called.

He stood upright and leaned against the wall, waiting for the Sun Demon to come help him. It didn’t take long. The enormous red shape of Stefin appeared nearby, coming up the stairs.

“You are on the wrong floor,” the Demon noted.

“Close enough,” Falient said with a dismissive wave.

Stefin approached, kneeling down, and gathered Lask in his arms, picking him up as if he weighed nothing. Lask’s head lolled back over his arm. Stefin carried him with great care, as if he thought Lask were made of glass, and took him down the stairs to the floor below. Falient trailed behind, still panting to catch his breath.

Stefin pushed the door of Lask’s room open with one shoulder, looking chagrined as his spikes left scratches in the wood. He lay Lask on the bed, then stepped back, shaking himself a little, and settling back into his human form. He went to Lask’s wardrobe.

“What are you doin’?” asked Falient, opening the desk drawer to fish out the stone Lask had told them about.

“We can’t leave him in those rags for weeks,” Stefin said. “Especially not for Charlotte to see.”

Falient hadn’t really thought about it. Stefin opened one of the drawers in the wardrobe and selected a soft shirt and pants, setting them over on the table by the bed. He pulled open another drawer, and withdrew a glass container filled with some sort of clear jelly.

“What’s that?” asked Falient.

“Medicine for burns.”

“How did you know–?”

“He told me.”

Stefin then went to washstand to collect the basin and washcloth. While he did so, Falient carefully positioned the white stone under Lask’s tongue. He studied his aldar’s face, realizing just how much he’d known was coming, how much would be done to him, and wondering how he’d managed to carry it all, let alone walk willingly into it.

“Why did he do this?” Falient asked.

“Don’t know,” grunted the Demon. “All things for a reason. He didn’t share the reason with me, only asked that I do this for him.”

“Do you suppose we should start the vaporizer now?” Falient asked. “Just to get things started?”

“Couldn’t hurt,” Stefin agreed. “We’ll take a bit of his blood too to get started. Hold this.” He pushed the bowl full of warm water into Falient’s hands, then pulled the knife from his belt. He sat down on the bed beside Lask and started clipping the damp blackened tatters of his shirt loose, until he could pull the remnants off. He tugged the ashy remains of the cape out from under him also, then reached to take the bowl from Falient.

“Can you get the rest of his clothes off?”

“Of course.”

Stefin started washing the dirt and grime off Lask’s face while Falient took over cutting away the remnants of what had once been fine clothes. Stefin washed him carefully, not wanting to push too much on the bruises and burns that covered him. When Falient had removed the rest of Lask’s clothes, Stefin passed him the bowl and cloth so Falient could take over cleaning him up. While Falient worked, Stefin opened the glass jar and dipped his fingers into the clear salve, massaging it gently into the burns. They were extensive, and Stefin used nearly the whole jar on the battered Luminor. When he put the lid back on, however, it seemed to shimmer, and was full again.

“We’ll have to put this on him each day until the burns heal,” the Sun Demon said. Falient nodded, sad that he had not been told, but understanding why Lask had been silent. If Falient had known all Coramell intended to do, Falient knew he would never have been able to stand by and let it happen, or even cling to inaction as long as he did.

Stefin returned to the wardrobe and found the vaporizer. He brought it to the bed and unpacked it, looking it over. He found the jar for the water and said,

“I’ll be right back. I’ll see if Cotton can fill this. Take some of his blood while I’m gone.”

He went out of the room in search of the boy, leaving Falient with Lask. Falient collected the bowl and drew his knife. He sat on the bed beside Lask and opened a vein in his pale arm as gently as he could. He positioned the bowl to collect the flow of blood, seeing it trickle– ashy, grey-pink, and streaked with blackness– into the bowl. Falient sat, stroking Lask’s hair, talking to him a little as he did so. The bowl filled, and Falient staunched the flow, careful to not touch any of the blood. Within a few minutes, Stefin returned with water, and began setting up the vaporizer on the table nearby. He carefully fixed the mask on Lask’s face, then lit the vaporizer so the water could start to boil.

Falient and Stefin gingerly pulled the clean clothes onto Lask’s body, then positioned on his back to what they hoped would be comfortable. For a moment, the two looked at him, silenced by the sight, until Falient said,

“Now we wait.”

*******

Wyatt drew a door to Freylock, a neutral landmark he had discovered in his wanderings, then rode north. He pushed his horse for speed, knowing he would need to close the distance, as he did not expect the children would have made it far south yet. He rode into the afternoon and evening, seeing only a few lesser Dark things, who did not risk hindering him. He only stopped long enough for Trigger to catch his breath before pressing on. As darkness fell, he drew one of his guns as he rode, knowing that bigger things would be stalking in the night.

The forest was thick, and slowed his horse to a walk. Neither he nor his horse could see well in the dark, but he did not risk making light. He was deep in the wilderness over Canada, where few things dwelled. Even Dark things were sparse here, for which he was glad. He picked his way through the shadows, until Trigger stopped and gave a wary snort. Wyatt patted the horse’s neck and slid out of the saddle to see what had stopped him.

The forest was still and silent, so it made him start when a Runner’s shriek pierced the night. Wyatt fired in the direction of the sound and was rewarded with a screech and heavy thump as the creature fell. He heard an answering bay farther in the distance, but also the sound of answering gunfire.

Wyatt followed it, drawing his other gun as well. His horse plodded along behind him, head low, until Wyatt turned and told him to stay. Trigger tossed his head, but obeyed. Wyatt heard another shot, closer, and another screech as something died.

“Where’s the fourth one?” it was a girl’s voice in the distance.

There was another gunshot, and another thump as a body fell.

“Right there,” said another voice.

Wyatt followed the voice, peering through the trees to see two shapes up ahead, small. Children. Just then, his reflexes snapped one of his guns to the side, and his keen eyes sighted down it to see someone had stepped out and was pointing a gun at him as well.

“Sorry, Wyatt.” It was Blackjack, and he promptly lowered the gun. “I wondered if anyone would find us in this place.”

“I’ve got the same map you do,” Wyatt told him. He nodded at the gun. “Where’d ya get that?”

“Took it off one of Valenku’s guards,” replied Blackjack with a proud grin.

“Wyatt!” It was Tenzar, also armed. Wyatt started at the sight of him. The boy was covered in dark green scales and spines, while a whippy tail swung behind him. “Oh,” said the boy, ducking his head. “Sorry.” He shifted back into his human shape.

“Yer fine, kid,” Wyatt told him. “Whatever keeps ya alive.”

“Are we rescued?” Landra appeared, armed as well.

“Aye,” the gunslinger answered, “Though it looks like ya lot are doing a fine job of rescuing yerselves.”

Blackjack smiled a little. “It wasn’t hard to get out of the cell. They underestimated us. We snuck up on the guards, took their weapons, shot our way out. There weren’t as many Dark things there as you might expect.”

“Falient probably clean house of guards last time he was there,” Wyatt said. “Shall we get on home?”

“Aye.” Tenzar smiled at him.

Wyatt holstered his guns, whistled for his horse, and drew his key. He moved it through the air, drawing the shape of the door, then opened it onto Atorcoppen. He ushered the kids on, then led his horse through, shutting the door behind them.

******

August 27th, 2014

Being bound to Lask is always a double-edged sword. I can’t always reach him when he gets into trouble, and sometimes he swears me to silence because “some things must come to pass.” I knew Coramell would capture him– Coramell hated us from the minute Falient rescued his spawned experiment, Cora. She was a mild girl; it wasn’t her fault she’d been bred to kill people with her mind. She led a happy life on Atorcoppen, did well in school, and took a particular liking to Stefin. I could not hold it against a child for what happened. Lask could have stopped it. I asked him why he wouldn’t, before he turned himself over to Coramell.

“You will know why,” he said, “Good will come of this.”

At the time, I didn’t see any. The day after Lask fell into sleep, Stefin came to check on me. It always entertained me to see the big red Demon trying to be sensitive. He did an admirable job of it, and it was obvious he cared, even if he had not mastered the tact or social graces of the Light side.

“El, I know you saw more than the rest of us did,” he said to me. “That is a lot to have seen.”

“It’s just well I was the only one,” I told him. “I’m glad Lask wasn’t all alone, but I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

“It’s an awful lot to carry,” the Demon replied. “It’s alright to talk about it, if you want to. Also alright if you’d rather not.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You are a writer.” His horned head cocked in confusion. “How can you not have words to say?”

“Because what’s in my head isn’t words. It’s images. Sounds.”

“Can you put them into words for me?”

I glanced at him, torn.

“It’s alright,” Stefin assured me. “I am old and tough, and have seen worse.”

“Not being done to someone you loved.”

“True, but I must learn to deal with that kind of pain, no? If I have not ever known it for myself, how can I help anyone with it? And then what kind of aldar will I make?

“You’re a sweetheart, Stefin.”

The Demon shrugged. “I care. You carry a lot, and alone. And when Lask wakes, he will carry those things too. I do not expect his mind will recover from this experience as fast as his body will. The more information I have about what’s on his mind, the better I can interact with him considerately.”

“That’s a fair point.”

“Will you help me understand? Share your pain, so you’re not alone in it?

I glanced at the Demon, wanting to confide in him, but feeling guilty about giving him more to bear.

“Talk to me, El,” he pressed. It amused me how sweetly persuasive such a big scary Demon could be. “Tell me what you see when you close your eyes, what you hear when it is quiet.”

“I see Lask surrounded by Darkness,” I told him. “Human-shaped Warmongers drag him through Coramell’s castle. They are rough, and handle him like livestock. They haul him upstairs to a room with nothing in it. There are no windows, no furniture. It’s only stone walls, floor, and ceiling. Another Warmonger brings a barrel of water and sets it in the corner. They throw Lask onto the floor, and the stone scrapes his palms. He looks strangely bright in the midst of the grimy stone and Dark creatures. He’s dressed all in red, and he looks like a rose growing out of coal.”

“He shines in all places,” the Demon said, “For better or worse.”

“For a while he did,” I said. I closed my eyes, recalling the memory that was not wholly mine. “Coramell comes in, and some other Demon that works for him– slinking brown woman with orange eyes. They stand and watch while the Warmongers beat the shit out of Lask. They are hulking things. They kick him while he’s on the floor, and beat him with fists and clubs when he manages to stand. Coramell wants to know why he doesn’t fight back. They don’t realize, I don’t think, that he can’t really. Not very well. Without his heart, he’s not strong at all. They mock him for being nothing without his sword and “lackeys.” They mock him for his finery, for his cleanliness, for pretty much everything. Lask says nothing. He doesn’t make a sound as they beat him.

Two of them grab him by the arms to hold him up while the other two continue to beat him. Coramell stops them at one point and walks close to him, grabs a fistful of his hair to pull his head up. Coramell says he’s still full of defiance. He tells the Warmongers they need him to be still when Leska works on him, which apparently means beat the shit out of him until he can’t move. So, they resume, but still Lask makes no sound. They beat him until his skin breaks and they start forcing blood out of his bruises.

Coramell seems frustrated that Lask is holding himself together, and that things are taking so long. He makes a gesture to the Warmongers, and they throw their prisoner down in the floor. Lask lies there on his belly, panting and aching. Coramell paces around him, and makes snide remarks about how he thought Lask would be more of a challenge, how the infamous Fire Heart is pathetic. He walks back to the door, nods to the other Demon, and says, “light him.”

The brown woman walks to the center of the room and conjures fire in her hand. She– slowly, and with great glee– sets the edge of Lask’s cape on fire, and drops just enough sparks on his wrists and ankles to light his cuffs. They didn’t spray him with gasoline or any kind of fuel, so the fire spreads slowly. Lask’s breathing is ragged, and he tries to stay quiet, but he can’t. The fire grows and begins to engulf him and screams are wrenched out of him. I’ve never heard him make sounds like that. They are harsh, ragged, desperate, howling, like an animal. He struggles on the stone floor. His hands twist into claw shapes against the floor, he tries to push himself over, to smother the fire, but he can’t. They beat him too much beforehand. He can only lie there, straining in vain, spasming in agony, while the fire sears through his clothes and skin. It seems to take forever. He can smell the smoke of his skin, and later his hair. He screams until his throat is raw, until he can’t scream anymore.

Coramell waves a hand nonchalantly at the Warmongers and says, “put him out before we lose him.” Two of them pick up the barrel and dump a huge splash of brown (I think it was brackish) water over Lask. He coughs and sputters, gasping like he can’t breathe. “Bring him,” says Coramell. Lask doesn’t seem to shine anymore. His body steams.

Two Warmongers grab him by the arms and drag him out of the room. Lask is too exhausted from the pain to make a sound, but I know their grip hurt, and his charred skin dragging against the stone was excruciating. They haul him into a room down the hall and throw him up onto the bed there. Coramell sends them to fetch Leska. She arrives promptly, with a black bag. Two Deceivers with trays full of phials and instruments follow her in. Leska chastises Coramell for damaging “the subject” so extensively, and says he still has to pay her, regardless of whether the “the subject” survives. She says she’s not responsible if he dies because Coramell weakened him too much to withstand the procedure.

Coramell says she’ll have her payment, and leaves her to work. Leska looks Lask over, picking up each of his wrists to consider them, then selects the right one and slits it open. She dangles his arm off the bed and lets him bleed. His blood seems vibrant in the dim room. She tells the Deceivers to make the injections, and they go about shooting him up with poison. Big, ugly needles that go in deep. They hurt a lot. One of the Deceivers eventually starting drawing things out– blood and a shining clear liquid–  while the other was injecting the rest of the poison.

Leska tears through the remnants of Lask’s shirt to better expose his chest. She pulls something out of her bag, like a canister, set with all kinds of gauges and dials. She fixes a long spike onto it and stabs it into Lask’s chest. His breath rushes out in what probably would have been a scream if he hadn’t exhausted his voice already. Leska turns a couple of dials, and the canister starts pumping some sort of black ooze into him. Some of it bubbles out around the edges of the spike. Leska seems mildly annoyed– the irritation of someone with faulty equipment. She pushes the spike in a little further, and the leak stops.

The Deceivers finish with the series of injections, and Leska tells them to hold Lask’s head. The each get a grip on him and force his mouth open. Leska pours something green down his throat. It burns, but whether that’s because it was acidic, or Lask’s throat was so raw, I don’t know. He coughs and sputters, but they force him to swallow it.

Leska checks the gauges on the canister, and finagles some of the dials. She remarks to the Deceivers he’s got strong blood. She checks the flow from his wrist, and sees it has turned pale. She seems satisfied and makes a hand motion over it, and the wound closes. It seemed remarkable to me because Dark things don’t usually have healing magic, and even if they did, it shouldn’t (in theory) be compatible with Light spirits. Maybe it’s because Lask was full of Darkness by then, I don’t know.

Leska checks the gauges again, and turns the canister off. She disconnects the canister, but leaves the spike in. She tells the Deceivers to pack up, to mind the “harvest,” and they leave. Falient arrived moments later. You know the rest.”

Stefin was silent and grim.

“Do you what they took from him?” I asked. “The shining fluid they drew out of him?”

“Ichor,” said the Demon. At my puzzled expression, he elaborate, “Like spirit DNA. Mine would be thick and black like sludge because I am Dark. For Light spirits, it is like shining blood. Difficult to collect and store, but Leska would have the means.”

“Why would she want it?”

“That is part we should worry about.”

 

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