Children of Darkness
The governor was already out of bed by the time his personal guard burst into the bedroom: four men carrying lamps and drawn swords.
“We need to move,” the captain said.
The governor was already walking, eager. There was a horrific din coming from somewhere downstairs, a continuous racket that suggested incredible violence. Wood was splintering, men screaming, glass shattering. The noise had summoned him out of a deep sleep and hadn’t abated since. It was growing progressively nearer. Louder. More intense.
The guard formed a square around him as they marched: two in front, two pressed close behind. He had his hands on the inside shoulders of the guards ahead. “Is the city under attack?” It took effort to keep the tremor out of his voice.
“We don’t know,” the captain said, behind and on the right. “We don’t know anything.”
They rounded two corners, ascended a broad staircase. He glanced left, looked all the way down the hall. Rain was battering the window pane there. Lightning flashed, and for a lingering instant he could discern smoke rising from somewhere below. The manor, on fire?
The quintet hustled into the adjudication chamber. It was the highest and most secure room in the manor, and necessitated a winding route through the manor to reach. A petitioner would need to take an impressive and circuitous path through the house to reach the chamber - plenty of time to have the weight and opulence of Radasanth’s highest office impressed upon a man. The guard split away from the governor as they entered, and the two men that had been leading pushed the heavy double doors closed and worked together to bar them. There was already an additional reserve in the chamber, four men with crossbows, two with spears, and a lieutenant with blade drawn. The lieutenant saluted.
The governor stepped up onto the dais and sat down in the impressive seat he ruled from by day. It comforted him. He hoped it impressed his authority upon the guard there - hardened their resolve. “I need information,” he said.
“Yes sir,” the captain said. There was nothing else to say.
The din below continued, muffled behind the doors and yet growing louder until it stopped near, too near.
Silence for a heartbeat, two, three.
Then a thunderous impact. Plaster and dust rained down around the door frame, crackling as it landed on the stone floor. The governor jumped, swallowed. Ten men surged forward in formation, melee forward, bowmen in the back. The captain remained at the governor’s side, his expression invisible inside his full helmet. It gave the impression of stoicism. The governor clenched the arms of his seat and pressed himself back. Nowhere to run.
Another impact. This time the wood groaned, and the governor closed his eyes. He tried to calm himself with logic. Who could organize such an attack? Overwhelm his military guardsmen? How did they carry a battering ram through the entire house?
The doors crumpled inward on the next impact, more insistent than the previous two, but the bar held. Still, the governor could see between the doors now. When he’d been in the hallway moments before, the lamps had been lit. Now it was pitch black beyond the chamber. Was this a nightmare?
Something surged out of the dark from the other side and split the bar in half with disturbing ease, and then retreated back into the darkness. The doors swung wide so fast that they lodged themselves into the walls on either side of the doorway, crooked off their hinges. A gust of humid wind rushed into the chamber, battering out most of the lamp flames. The scent of rain was on it. Somehow, the governor could hear rain pattering from somewhere in the dark. They’d put a hole in the roof? How?
The guard crouched in the semi-dark of the chamber, arrayed and ready, unflinching in their armor. Silence reigned, pregnant with menace. Something hissed angrily in the dark - not an animal, but like steam from some unholy machine. Sure enough, those standing against the dark blinked their eyes, unsure, as the steam began to glow a phosphorescent red as it formed whorls around a hulking silhouette in the doorway.
This had to be a nightmare, but the governor could not wake up.
The silhouette raised one impossibly huge arm, and pointed over the heads of the formation between itself and the governor. “You,” the red-hued shadow said. Its voice was a grinding stone, acid-raw.
“FIRE,” the captain roared.
The crossbowmen took aim synchronously, and fired as a natural part of the motion. The bolts hissed overhead, missing the spear-wielders entirely. The silhouette staggered back, punctured four times over in the chest and shoulders.
And then it stood straight and growled, and twin jets of glowing red steam surged freshly from its forearms. Now, in the burning light, they could see the apish monster before them: imposingly tall and broad, impossibly muscled, armored at the forearms, and faceless behind an Aleraran gas mask. Though all four bolts stood out straight from the man’s chest, he lumbered forward without pause or hitch, raising his hands.
The governor watched in ever-mounting horror as the brute dispatched his guard one by one with cruel efficiency. Every bone broken sent a quiver of malefic bliss across rippling shoulders. The hulking shadow relished in every last breath, greedy for death, reveling in its own invincibility.
It raised one boot and kicked straight, and the impact sent the last standing guard rocketing fifteen feet across the chamber in the blink of an eye. The airborne man collided with the line of crossbowmen before they could finish cranking their weapons for a second shot. Two of the archers were still stirring. One couldn’t get to his feet; the brute simply stepped on his head as it marched forward. The second was beaten to death with his own weapon, which didn’t take as long as it should. Good for the victim, in a way. Bad for the governor.
The nightmare turned its masked face to the captain, a sheen on its skin. It was wearing the thin remains of a shirt the governor first thought black, but it wasn’t. Saturated entirely, clinging to inhuman musculature, it was dark with blood. It had boulders for shoulders, its biceps like tree trunks. There were eyes through the red-tinted lenses of its mask, but they suggested no humanity.
The captain raised his sword and lunged forward, swinging low. The beast didn’t move or react at all. The blade slid across the monster’s thigh, opening a broad wound through its leather pants. If it felt the wound, it didn’t show it. The captain came back up, slashed across the monster’s prodigious chest to draw another wound and add a fresh layer of blood to the remains of its shirt. Then the captain took a step back, brought pommel to shoulder, and then lunged forward and plunged his blade into the brute’s abdomen.
It looked down at what should have been its death, and then raised its head, reached out casually with both hands, and grabbed the captain’s head. The governor watched, face twisted in horror, as the brute slowly deformed the captain’s helmet with his head still inside it, pectorals standing out obscenely, freshets of blood oozing from the crossbow bolts protruding from them. The captain didn’t make a sound, pushing and struggling as the helmet crumpled down smaller and smaller, until the man slowly fell to his knees, and his arms went slack. The governor could see blood and grime under the massive fingernails of those hands, sinews standing out on inhuman fingers.
The masked face came up again. “You,” the monster said. Its voice was bass, a gravely rasp inside the filtered mask.
It dropped the captain’s corpse and stepped forward, flexing its fingers, insensible to the assortment of mortal wounds displayed on its chest.
“You forgot who I am,” it said. “What you took from me. I take from you. Do you remember who I am?”
“I d-don’t,” the governor whispered, breathless, pressing himself tight back against the symbol of his authority. “I don’t know you. Please, I don’t know you.”
The governor’s face went slack when he realized why he only had seconds left to live.
And then he died screaming.
Resolve found herself whispering “holy shit” a lot as she sprinted through what was left of the governor’s mansion. She wasn’t horrified by what he could do, but by what he would. Anger, she understood. Rage was an old friend, recently stoked to the limits of sanity even in her - but she could not justify this. She didn’t know if she could forgive it, but she had to try. She owed them that much.
She reached the topped of the stairs, and stepped slowly through the shattered doorways, heart sinking. She was too late, again.
Flint sat in the dark at the top of the dais steps, next to an ornate seat. The remains of something that might have been human once were occupying the seat. Flint was leaned forward, grimacing as he pulled a sword from his abdomen. Bloody crossbow bolts littered the steps in front of him, next to a discarded gas mask. He started wearing that when they tried to suffocate him in Serenti. Things had been out of hand then, and were only getting worse.
He let the reddened blade clatter on the ground.
“Resolve,” he croaked, but didn’t raise his eyes. There was a fresh layer of dark fuzz on his head, and stubble on his face. In a few weeks, he might have a beard again.
“Flint,” Resolve said cautiously. “This isn’t what we do. This isn’t what…”
“It’s what I want.”
She paused, taken aback by the force of his voice. She’d always felt antagonistic toward him but she was losing recognition for him, the line blurring between what she saw in front of her and the man he’d been before…well. Before. If he went over the brink, if he hadn't already, what little hope Chronicle had left would dwindle further.
She took a steadying breath. Reminded herself that this was why she was here, now. She had to try, keep trying until he listened, before it was too late to come back.
She rehearsed it in her head first, for once, and then a fresh horror interrupted her train of thought.
He was fiddling with his gauntlets. They were whirring, clicking unpleasantly.
“Flint, what are you doing. Stop it, think about what…”
The first gauntlet fell off his arm with a heavy thud, and then the second. He flexed his fingers experimentally, exhaling slowly.
“You need those to live.”
“No I don’t,” he muttered. “Not anymore. I needed them before I had focus. Now I have focus. I only ever think about one thing.”
“No,” Resolve said, struggling to sound reasonable, struggling to keep the anger and frustration out of her voice. Why wouldn’t he listen? “Flint you have to sleep, remember? You have to eat.”
“They slow me down,” he said, waving dismissively at the gauntlets. “I heal faster without them. Think faster. They’re a crutch.”
“You’re still human…”
He smiled joylessly. “No. Not anymore. I only eat to fuel the warpath. When I dream, it’s of killing them all. This is all I think about. This is all I want. I’ll take everything they took from us.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you!” Resolve said, desperate. She moved closer to him, and when he didn’t react she took another step, and then another. This wasn’t her way at the best of times, but she needed him to understand. She slid down to one knee, careful to keep it out of the blood. She reached for his hand, tentative, and rested hers on his. Looked up at his eyes, remembered a time when he was shorter than her. Tried to keep the hard out of her gaze, the annoyance. “I can hear her, Flint, she’s…”
He cocked his head to one side, blinked, listened to something she couldn't hear but could sense in other ways. “City guard coming,” he said. “You should go.”
“No no no,” Resolve said, shaking her head. “Flint, focus. Listen to me, now. Flint. Rauk. This is not the way we do things, this isn’t how Lu…”
He flinched away from her as if struck, growling. She closed her eyes, took a steadying breath, then stared up at him again.
“This isn’t how Chronicle did things. We didn’t kill governors. We didn’t kill city guards. Otto still knows some of them, they’re not all…”
“Governor,” Flint grunted, peering over his shoulder at the mess in the chair. “Collaborator. Funded the Knights. Supported the Brotherhood. Aided the Hand. If they defend him, they are as guilty.”
“You don’t have to do this. Please, if you’ll just come back to the library with me, hear me out. No one will bother you there. Rest, just for a while, talk to me. We can go back to the way it was.”
“A dream,” Flint said, not unkindly. “I’ll never have it, Rez. It’s not allowed. I was made for this. I’m just going to point it at the people who deserve it until they find a way to…well. I don’t need an exorcist.”
“Suicide, Flint? Really? Mass murder? Chaos? You think that’s what she wants? You're spitting on her grave.”
“No,” he admitted, but he was already standing up. “She was better than me. Made me better than what I am. They brought this on themselves when they took her away from me.”
“Gods damn it Flint,” Resolve said with head bowed, clenching her hands together until her knuckles turned white. She ground her teeth. “That’s what I’m telling you. If you’d just listen. Having a titanic bloody hissy-fit is not the way to honor...!”
She opened her eyes and looked up, and then blinked. She was alone.
The gauntlets sat on the ground next to her, abandoned. That was the last time she spoke to Flint.
Less than a week later the rampage ended, and nobody knew how or why.
Last edited by Warpath; 04-16-17 at 09:19 PM.
As Otto rinsed the last piece of earthenware from dinner, he felt a tiny presence emerge from the hallway door behind him. His visitor waited patiently as he rested the plate with its companions on a wire rack next to the stone sink with a clink, and then he slowly turned around. The girl’s silhouette stood ghost-like and still against the shadows. “Maisie,” he greeted her. “Are the little’uns taken with dragon dreams again?”
“No,” she shook her head, braids waggling behind her ears. “We could hear a ruckus out back. Thought you’d like to know.”
“I’ll see to it. Thank you.” He drew the tea towel from his broad shoulder and folded it, hanging it precisely over the edge of the dish rack. Throwing himself into domesticity seemed as reasonable a coping mechanism as any, he had reasoned earlier that day. If he had to grieve, may as well make it constructive.
Maisie didn’t budge from her post in the doorway. Somehow she saw straight through him, even without her vision. “Are you all right?”
Otto smiled, and when she could hear it in his voice, Maisie mirrored it with a relieved little grin of her own. “Hard days, these. But we’ll keep on as we always do,” he exhaled, his voice deep and tired. “You should go back to bed.”
By the time Otto found Resolve, she had bludgeoned their iron scrap bin into a two-dimensional art sculpture with fist and foot. The curses she muttered under her breath were enough to take even the worldly orc aback, and the worry lines on his gray face deepened. As he stepped into the dusky alley, Resolve paused in her punishment, violet eyes raising to his in indignant regret.
“Sorry,” she eventually offered to the silent bricks, her voice almost lost to the cool night breeze. “I’ll help you make a new one. I just…”
Otto approached with measured caution and compassion. “Talk to me, Rez.”
“Flint’s destroying everything we’ve worked so hard for as if it doesn’t matter anymore. But it does!” Resolve’s words hissed between clenched teeth. “He’s a monster, and I honestly can’t believe we ever trusted him. He’s ruining everything, Otto. Gods, what I would give to grind that smug fucking face into the dirt!” She stomped the bin some more, and it groaned unsatisfyingly under the long-suffering soles of her boots.
As Resolve leaned down to pick up the sheet of crumpled metal, presumably to craft it into some loud, fury-inspired origami, she found herself enveloped from behind. She deflated almost instantaneously in Otto’s massive, gentle arms, sharp angles of anger giving way to languid acceptance. Slowly, she melted into his warmth, timing her breaths with the heaving of his stomach against her back. And then, even more slowly, her wits returned to her.
“He wouldn’t listen to me,” she murmured into the coarse hair of the orc’s forearm.
“Everyone grieves differently.”
“But she’s alive,” Resolve snapped, the abruptness of her response tempered by the sobs that followed. She gasped through her tears, clutching his arms close. “I can feel her. She’s out there somewhere, I just need time to figure out how and where and… gods, why doesn’t anyone believe me?”
“He watched her die –– we all did –– and it can be hard to accept something you can’t see for yourself. Even from an expert planewalker who knows death so well…. even from a friend.” Otto pulled her in tighter, burying his face in her inky black hair. “But, for what little it’s worth, I believe you.”
Amnesia wasn’t nearly as romantic as Rosie’s romance novels would lead one to believe, and Luned was sorely disappointed by this. The recollection of herself had grown into a mundane routine over the past months, and the bits and pieces she’d lost seemed without rhyme or reason. She knew who she was, where she was from, whom and how she loved. She missed the library, comfortable clothing, Flint’s arms, good tea. Every day, she felt more like herself, even if she wasn’t sure what that meant –– it came in threads of memories falling back into place, tingles of magic she’d forgotten she could control. Her concept of self felt more surreal than anything, especially so far from home with nothing to ground her.
With most things, Luned hadn’t realized they were missing until they rematerialized in her mind as if they’d always been there, cozied alongside the rest of the experiences and thoughts that made her who she was. The only loss she was fully aware of, and acutely so, was connected to her current circumstances.
Luned had no idea how or why she ended up at the edge of the Tular Plains, with her last memories placing her in Radasanth. She only knew what the travelers who found her said: she’d been discovered by chance one morning, half-buried in sand and naked as the day she was born. It was a miracle they’d found her alive, they said. She believed them.
The skin-crackling heat of the Tular Plains felt far from a blessing, but the caravan was. Luned managed to hitch a ride, inherit some hand-me-downs, and befriend another hapless fish out of water, a young dark elf of few words. Pyralis shared her food and showed Luned how to soothe her ceaseless sunburns. Eventually, she even began to talk a little.
“Your accent brings back memories of Ettermire,” Luned ventured one afternoon, meaning it as more of a compliment than it probably sounded. One one hand, she wasn’t sure she’d ever heal from the trauma of her time in that troubled city. But it was also how she met Flint, and perhaps now she had enough distance to look back on the experience for what it was: the strangest of meet-cutes. “What brought you to the Plains?”
Pyralis shared the open tailgate of one wagon with Luned –– far from comfortable, but also far better than walking the hundreds of miles back to the city –– and it was her turn in the narrow shady spot. The elf leaned back into it, eyes closed, sandy hair falling away from her brown face. Pyralis considered the question so long that Luned gave up hope on receiving an answer, and the human’s crystalline eyes returned to the dusty road before them. Luned wondered if her skin had ever seen so much sun before, if she’d ever grow tan or if she’d finish this journey as one giant, lady-shaped freckle. She pulled her new-old scarf further over her head, creamy fabric hiding the auburn highlights in her dark hair, but the gauzy weave didn’t do much to save her fair skin. She wondered what bigger things she’d have to mull over if she could only recall how she got there.
“Help,” Pyralis’ small voice finally piped up over the rattle of wooden wheels. “We need help.”
Through much effort, Luned coaxed out some details. “My family is… unique,” Pyralis finally volunteered. “We all were born with something different. Sometimes it’s a blessing, but sometimes…” The elf’s gaze cast down into her lap where she fidgeted with the over-long sleeves of her tunic. With a deep breath, the thin fingers of her left hand emerged to pull up her right sleeve, revealing something she’d successfully hidden from Luned for weeks now: her right hand was deformed, almost claw-like, with stiff joints and rigid, mottled skin. “It started small, but soon it’ll take my shoulder. I don’t want to find out what’ll happen when it reaches my heart. I need to find a cure.”
Luned realized she was staring when Pyralis suddenly yanked her sleeve back down over her hand, face lowered in shame. “I’m sorry,” Luned offered hopelessly. “I didn’t mean to stare. It just reminded me of someone I met some years ago, also from Ettermire.” As she spoke, the clues began to line up in the tangle of her mind. “I… I wonder, perhaps she is one of your relatives? Do you know a girl about your age, named Helethra?”
Pyralis became very still, and after a long moment, the shudder of her chest revealed she had been holding her breath. Her eyes found their way back up to Luned’s face with such utter meekness, such caution, that the woman feared the girl might break just by making eye contact. “H-how?”
“I knew her mother,” Luned treaded carefully. “She seemed like a good kid. Is she well?”
The elf girl stared at her in disbelief, eyes wide. “You could say that, yes.”
Luned’s polite smile wavered at all the implications. Helethra survived! That tiny, troubled person actually lived, and could be described as doing well despite the tragedy of her childhood. Her heart swelled, and then it pained. If Pyralis was a mutant like Helethra, what traumas had she experienced? Her life had certainly not been easy, if she’d gone to a dangerous place like Tular searching for help.
“My own personal circumstances are… not exactly simple,” Luned spoke again, “but I’d like to help if I can, Pyralis. When we get to Ettermire, perhaps you could introduce me to your family and help me learn about your situation. I don’t know if I’d be able to help, myself, but I know people who possibly could –– doctors, wizards, friends.”
Pyralis’ brow furrowed, posture weakened by fear. “And what would you ask in return?”
This time, Luned’s smile was genuine. “You’ve kept me alive on this journey. It’s the least I could do.”
Nightfall on the Aleran scrublands was Luned’s favorite thing, these days. When the sun sat molten over the horizon, casting the landscape in gold, the caravan would stop to make camp. By the time they’d settled, the world had softened into gray-blues, a deep indigo creeping over the sky speckled by the brightest stars the scribe had ever seen. As the heat from the day slowly dissipated and the moon carried in its merciful breeze, her travel-bruised body recovered. She wished she’d forgotten what baths were like along with the other things she’d lost, just so she couldn’t miss them as much as she did.
To Luned’s delight, Pyralis seemed to have found her voice since their conversation that afternoon. As the pair settled down next to the campfire to sleep, the rest of the caravan already snoring on hammocks in their wagons, the elf finally spoke up again. She kept her words soft and close, as if afraid of what the stars might do if they overheard.
“You haven’t told me what you’re doing out here.”
Luned shifted on the scratchy woolen blanket that they shared. It smelled of horses, but she didn’t mind when it also was the only thing softening the hard, rocky ground they lied upon. “I suppose I do owe you openness after what you shared with me.” She hesitated, finding it a challenge to articulate what she, herself, didn’t understand. “This probably sounds ridiculous, but… I don’t know. Last I remember, I was living in Radasanth with no plans to travel. Then I was here.”
Pyralis nodded to the sky. “Peculiar, yes.”
“It’s not unheard of for me to, erm, vanish from one place and appear in another. But the thing is, it’s always been intentional. I’ve never been out here, I have no reason to be here. That I can recall, anyhow.”
“You do magic?” Pyralis’ curious eyes found Luned’s through the sharp shadows cast by the smoldering campfire.
“Yes. It’s gradually coming back to me, in bits and pieces. It was almost like I’d lost myself in that desert, and now slowly but surely, I’m gathering myself again.”
Pyralis sat up, staring down at her new friend. “Then maybe… I mean, possibly, you could…”
Luned pushed herself up on an elbow, concerned. “I could what?”
The elf inhaled deeply, shuddered, and leaned in, as if about to tell her most delicious secret. Luned felt her breath on her ear as Pyralis whispered. “Do you know how to use Swaysong?”
Funny, the power that some words have. Swaysong’s invisible hand grabbed Luned by the throat, catching her breath in her lungs and sending an electric shock through her chest. It made her dizzy. She hadn’t forgotten the events of her last visit to Ettermire, but they returned to her in such vivid technicolor that she could even taste the stench of the sewers, of the tannery, of…
“What’s wrong?” Pyralis ventured. Fear seemed to be the small elf’s principle emotion, and it showed in her delicate face.
By now, Luned sat up fully, head between her knees as she took a few long, deep breaths. She shivered, and then she whispered. “How in the world did you get your hands on some of that?”
Pyralis paused. “I don’t. Not yet. But someone offered me some in exchange for… some work. You do know how to use it, don’t you? Will you help us?”
In that moment, a forgotten piece of herself returned to Luned. It laid itself heavily over her shoulders, tightening around her heart. Along with it came a weariness so all-consuming she could feel it in her bones, and because there was nothing she could do about it, she laid down once more.
“I don’t know,” she muttered, and then she closed her eyes.
“I’ve found you!”
Luned could see she stood upon a surface not unlike the mirrored salt plains she’d visited some years back, but her feet bore no weight. It felt like she was floating in this misty gradient of blues and whites, and though her chest still ached, she could breathe with ease. She took in the crisp air and glanced around for the source of the echo that rang through her ears.
A familiar figure dashed toward her, wavering and transparent, then it suddenly burst from the clouds to sweep her up in an embrace. “Luned!”
“I knew you couldn’t be gone, I knew it! Oh, Luned, we’ve missed you so much.” Resolve brushed her hand over her long lost friend’s hair as she squeezed her close. “Where have you been?”
Luned buried her face into her friend’s shoulder. “I don’t know. I… is it really you?”
The younger woman finally released Luned from her tight embrace just enough that she could study her face. “I suppose this is the first time I’ve dreamwalked with you, isn’t it? I’ve searched for you every night since we lost you, and here you are. How did you end up out here, of all places?”
“...Lost me?” Luned’s freckled brow creased. “What happened?”
Resolve’s exuberance faded with the pain of a memory she’d waited so long to dismiss. She took her friend’s face into her hands. “You died, Lune.”
Such news should have hit hard but it resisted Luned’s grasp, escaping between her fingers like a handful of sand. She heard it, she understood it, but it felt like something that was happening to someone else, and she was simply an onlooker. “How?”
“Poison. It––” Resolve faltered, searching for the words through her grief. “It was awful, Luned. But you were so delirious, I’m not surprised you don’t remember any of it.”
“Gods,” Luned sighed. “Did anyone else…? Are you all right? How’s Flint?”
Concern drew lines down Resolve’s youthful face. “No one else was poisoned, don’t worry,” she lied through omission. “I can’t stay much longer. Are you safe? Do you need help?”
“Thank you, but I’ll manage. My magic isn’t what it was, but it’s slowly coming back to me. I’ll come home soon… when I’m able.”
Resolve smiled. “Thank the gods,” she muttered. “I can’t express how glad I am to see you well. I’ll check in with you soon if I don’t hear from you otherwise, all right?”
Luned nodded. “Thank you. Please send my love and apologies for making everyone worry. To you and Otto, to Flint…”
The exorcist’s gaze drifted away from Luned’s, falling onto their reflection on the ground beneath. It stared back as her nose wrinkled, soured by her thoughts. “There’s something I should tell you. Flint… didn’t handle things well. He left soon after you did. As far as I can tell, he’s in Ettermire, though I haven’t looked into what he’s doing there.” Resolve’s bright blue eyes lifted once again to meet her friend’s, and Luned couldn’t tell if she should be reading worry or anger in them. “He may not been the man you knew anymore, Luned. You’re better off coming straight home when you can. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” the scribe nodded, and as she did so, she felt Resolve’s form grow insubstantial under her hands. The exorcist pressed a kiss to Luned's cheek and, as she did so, faded away into nothingness.
When Luned woke that morning, she knew what she had to do.
Somewhere in the south seas, months ago
Katsunada stepped off the dinghy and onto solid ground again, squinting against the equatorial sun with one hand on the hilt of his weapon. He preferred his clothing loose and light as a general thing, but here the humidity made it a necessity. He resisted the urge to look back across the expanse of ocean between the shore and his ship, anchored well out beyond the reefs. Swanra’ann did not pay him to doubt.
This island was relatively substantial, forested and teeming with life, but it appeared on no map. No one lived here, supposedly, and the tidal streams that guided trade discouraged ships from ever venturing close enough to see it. He saw no walls, so Katsunada supposed sheer isolation was the next best thing. Still, he wondered, who discovers a hidden paradise and thinks to build a prison?
Swanra’ann didn’t pay him to ask questions, even of himself. Especially of himself. He trudged through the sand, impressed by the heat he felt through his sandals, and scanned the tree line. He was utterly alone, but that was the way he worked. The sparse crew he’d hired for the venture remained on the ship, deeply loyal to good coin and deathly afraid of the Queen of the Pit. They would not abandon him, or even think to raise anchor for weeks to come. Katsunada planned on being back before dark.
It was cooler in the jungle, and it was not so difficult to follow a strong, broad stream of freshwater that wove industriously through the coconut palms. He could still hear the lapping of waves on the sand when he arrived at a pond nestled in the undergrowth. Next to the pond was a beautiful, open-air bungalow with palm leaves on the roof. Curious, brightly-feathered birds sat silently in a line on the balcony, tilting their heads this way and that to regard him as he approached.
He scanned the house from one side to the other, his gaze precise and practiced. “I seek the Jailer,” he said firmly, first in Trade and then in a few other languages of the south, working his way linguistically toward the equator.
He’d said it five times before a stooped figure stepped blinking from around the side of the house, apparently fresh from a nap. His skin was almost black and his hair white in a shock of contrast, and though he was old and thin he moved well. He was naked from the waist up, and wore loose silk from the belt down. He wore gold around his neck, sparkling throughout with tiny inlaid diamonds.
“You have found Noambu,” the Jailer in paradise said, rubbing the white stubble at his jaw. “Who are you?”
“I am Katsunada,” Swanra’ann’s man said. “I have come for one of your prisoners. I will pay you for him.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Jailer said. He spoke Trade with a heavy accent, but confidently.
“I think that you do,” Katsunada said. “Give me Flint Skovik. Swanra’ann wants him.”
Noambu frowned deeply and nodded at this, as if thinking. “Those are big names,” he said at last. “Swanra’ann is very rich, but I am richer, and this man Flint…he is very dangerous. If he were here - I am not saying he is - many people would pay very good money for me to keep him here. More money than even Swanra’ann has, I think.”
“You misunderstand,” Katsunada said, “the money is offered in consolation. You will give me Flint Skovik because you must.”
Noambu narrowed his eyes.
Katsunada continued: “Her name is Keyritiri. She lives in a town on a hill in Saadaquar. They’ve imported harpsichords and people to teach her. I understand she plays beautifully, and can speak six languages. She has a good life. Seems happy. My associates also tell me that she is very beautiful. I do not like them, my associates. They are men of evil appetite, and they are impatient.”
Noambu said nothing for a long time, and Katsunada watched him impassively.
“I, however, am very patient,” the mercenary said at last, almost by way of apology.
The Jailer sighed. “Come, then. Let us go collect your man.”
A short time later, Katsunada sat at the end of a canoe gliding across the pond and away from the bungalow. Noambu sat across from him, six or seven feet away, and behind him was a young man working the oars at the back end of the canoe.
“How many people live here, besides yourself?” Katsunada asked politely, nodding at the oarsman. He didn’t actually care, because Swanra’ann didn’t pay him to ask questions.
Thankfully, Noambu did not answer. He just stared for a long time, mulling over the situation. He didn’t seem angry, but Katsunada figured he was.
“I wonder how your Swanra’ann found my niece,” the jailer said at last. “I wonder how she even knows she exists.”
“You are, as you said, a rich man,” Katsunada said. “Your money offers a lot of control, I think. More than most people in the world can understand. But Swanra’ann does things, sir, and people know it. Greed is strong. Fear is stronger.”
They stared at one another in silence for a long time, with only the sounds of the jungle and the steady slosh of oar meeting water to fill their ears. A calm, steady stream fed from the pond and through the jungle for a long way, and eventually let out into an incredible lagoon surrounded by sheer green hills on every side. There were waterfalls everywhere, and birds of paradise suspended lazily in the mist like tropical ornaments. Those sights were not what caught Katsunada’s breath in his throat.
There were hundreds of metal columns rising out of the lagoon like gleaming tree trunks, each less than a foot in diameter, and each topped with a flat eight-foot platform. The oarsman guided them steadily into this mechanical forest, weaving expertly between the structures, and Katsunada looked over the edge of the boat into the clear waters. Below him he saw more of these platforms, beneath the surface, and could discern that they were topped with glass domes and housed bodies.
So this was the secret of the hidden prison.
“Sometimes a man becomes too dangerous to try and kill,” Noambu said thoughtfully. “When you bring your swords and guns, he refuses to die, exactly because you try to kill him. The same if you put a man in a hole or a room with bars, if you take something from him. I found a different way, you see. I do not take anything, I only give peace, and bring them far away from places where they can do harm or harm can be done to them. They sleep, and find the things they need in their dreams, until they grow old and die. I am not a jailer, as you say. I am a keeper. A gardener.”
Katsunada had thousands of questions. How were they fed? Didn’t their bodies waste away? Who tended the machines, did Noambu build them himself? How?
But Swanra’ann didn’t pay him to ask questions, so he said nothing.
The canoe sidled up beside a column and the oarsman reached out to steady the boat against the unyielding post. How they knew this was the right one was another mystery, compounded upon when Noambu reached out and touched the shadowed metal. There was no discernible change in the structure, no button or switch, and yet the column began to slide downward into the water as the jailer - gardener - withdrew his hand. In scant moments the platform came to a stop just above the water’s surface, and the glass dome split open like the petals of an industrial flower to reveal a sleeping figure within.
Flint Skovik had worked for Swanra’ann, years ago, and Katsunada knew him. At first, he was sure Noambu had chosen the wrong man, and he was wondering if it was an honest mistake or a trick. Though Flint had been muscular, he hadn’t been tall. This was a towering hulk, dominating the surface area of the platform he slept on. The mercenary looked closer, though, and after a moment he saw the resemblance behind the wild beard and mop of long black hair. What had happened to the man? Was all this a result of his time in the garden - certainly the length of his hair was, the fresh bronze of his skin…but shouldn’t he be reduced from months of slumber?
“The Flint Skovik, or so you call him,” Noambu said. “One of my strangest dreamers. Take him, if you must.”
“He won’t wake,” Katsunada said. It wasn’t a question - for obvious reasons - but a demand.
“He cannot,” Noambu said. “Not here. Not anywhere, perhaps. The magic is strong.”
Katsunada leaned out over the edge of the boat and steadied himself on the platform, reached out, and with great effort pulled the naked brute off the platform and into the boat. Though he was handled roughly, Flint never stirred, though he was breathing.
“If you take him, I promise nothing,” Noambu said as the boat steadied again. “I cannot preserve the man or the spell if he goes beyond these shores, and I do not know what dreams occupy him. Peace means different things for men, you see? For some, it is restful days and happy nights, laughter and health. But for others?” He nodded down at the sleeping brute. “For others, perhaps peace is endless carnage, hmm? Perhaps it is finally getting his hands on those who have wronged him. Perhaps peace for him looks as hell does to us, and he is the devil presiding over it.”
Noambu reached back and patted the oarsman’s arm affectionately, and as the boy readied to guide them back out of the garden, Noambu made a thoughtful sound. “I think I would not want to be near him if he ever was woke, by some means” the gardener said. “Not if I were Swanra’ann, anyway.”
Current day, once again
Somehow, they’d made it to Ettermire, and here they were. Luned stood still in the mouth of the narrow cement tunnel, hesitant, and the darkness stared back. She felt it recognize her, that it couldn’t wait to eat her alive. To finish the job, so to speak, that she’d somehow escaped the last time they met.
“Come,” Pyralis beckoned impatiently from within, her slight form a glimmer in the abyss. “It’s not as scary as it seems. You’ll see.”
The scribe took a deep, steadying breath, and followed.
The children greeted Pyralis in a mess of tears. “I missed you too, so much,” the elf wept happily, somehow sweeping all of them into her small arms at once. There were six, varying in age from toddler to tween, though some appeared more as beasts than people. Virny, the eldest after Pyralis, sported a coat of wiry fur and pointed little teeth that glinted Cheshire-like in the shadows. “Has Helethra looked after you?” their biggest sister asked.
“Yes,” the one called Lufe sniffled. He appeared maybe half Pyralis’ age, though he had twice as many fingers and toes to make up for it. “She brings us food and clothes and keeps the bugs away. She rides them sometimes,” he rambled, “but she won’t teach me how. Says I’m too small, but I don’t think so. Tell her I’m not too small, Pyr. Please?”
Luned shuddered at the thought of Helethra atop one of those creatures, the clickety-clack of the giant roach’s massive, armored legs against the tunnels still fresh in her mind. If she was capable of giving Helethra any credit, she would have –– the chamber where the children lived was fairly dry, illuminated by fungal growth on the ceiling, and made relatively liveable with some found furniture and nests of blankets. But it was still a sewer, and her stomach turned from more than just the stench.
A sudden distant skittering that echoed into the chamber set Luned’s heart pounding. Her breath seized in her chest, painful and shallow.
“Yer friend doesn’t look so good,” Virny glanced to the staggering scribe. She watched as Luned braced herself against one of the walls, then recoiled from the grime.
Pyralis smoothed her sibling’s hair, and then stood to attend to her newfound ally. “Are you all right?”
“I can’t do this,” Luned gasped. “I’m sorry. I mean… I can help, I just can’t be here right now, in this place. I’m truly sorry. Tomorrow,” she said, almost pleading. “We can figure it all out tomorrow.”
The elf frowned. “But where will you go?”
“I’ll be fine,” the scribe reassured her as she stumbled toward her approximate memory of the exit. “Meet me outside the tunnel in the morning and we’ll talk. I just need some time to… to catch my breath.”
On her way out, Luned couldn’t shake the eerie sensation that something was watching her.
The closest inn was also a familiar one. Luned and Flint had stayed here when they first met, a brief respite before they dove headlong back into the trouble that would change them forever. She chose it now because she recalled that they were good not to ask questions, for a fee; she just hoped they wouldn’t remember her from her first visit. Their rooms weren’t made to contain her younger self’s shoddy attempts at alchemy, those years ago, and she still felt guilty about the state she’d left things.
If the innkeeper remembered her, she didn’t let on, especially after Luned’s convincing deposit of umteen gold pieces. The scribe felt guilty about this, too –– her magical creations would disappear from Ms. Sethrin’s purse after a few days as if they’d never been there at all –– but she hoped she’d have access to her real funds at that point, when she’d be able to repay the inn twice over for the trouble.
A hot bath was already on its way by the time the innkeeper delivered Luned to her room, parting with promises to send up a tailor in an hour. By the time the scribe closed the door and found herself alone with a tub of steaming water, she nearly wept from relief.
Her bath took the better part of that hour. Luned scrubbed the layers of her long journey away –– sewage, sand, dead skin from her deep sunburns –– until she was pink and raw and felt nearly new. She delighted in using too much perfume, determined to douse any remnant of the sewers in bergamot and vanilla, and had fallen fast asleep in an impractically fluffy robe before the tailor even had a chance to offer his assistance.
When Luned finally awoke again, night had fallen. Someone had lit a fire in the hearth at her feet, her flushed toes resting on the warm, white-washed bricks. She shifted upright in the plush armchair and glanced around blearily. The afternoon was a blur, and the confusion of having lost half her day unsettled her. It reminded her of…
She stared into the fire, unblinking. It reminded her of dying.
Resolve was right. With the help of hindsight, Luned recognized delirium-riddled memories as indistinct recollections of incomprehensible faces and voices and pain. It must have been in her tea that morning. Flint had found her on the kitchen floor, and she had been so glad to see him that she brushed off the severity of her illness until it was too late. After all, no one would have supposed something as mundane as poison would have been the thing to take this illustrious adventurer down.
Luned had been glad to see Flint because they’d had a fight. Conflict between them was so rare those days, even just one night of tension and separate beds was enough to eat away at her.
Flint had told her he wanted to settle down, to have children. She’d laughed, but it wasn’t a joke.
“I have to find him,” Luned muttered to herself, as if it’d help her find the strength. “I have to…”
“Awake at last,” Ms. Sethrin announced herself as she let herself in. She carried a sterling tray heavy with hot supper, and she placed it on the table next to Luned. “Mithread wasn’t pleased you slept through your appointment, but fortunately for you, he is a reasonable dwarf. He has left a variety of ready-made garments for you to peruse at your leisure, and when you are ready, he will come fit the ones you choose.” She gestured to a large chest that had been deposited at the foot of the bed.
Luned blinked up at the elf, needing a moment to parse her words. “That was thoughtful of him,” she finally managed. “Thank you for looking after me so well.”
“You get what you pay for,” Ms. Sethrin winked wryly, then turned back toward the door. “If you are settled for the night, we shan’t disturb you again until breakfast. I suggest you lock the door behind me.”
“Yes, quite settled. Thank you again.”
Occupying that surreal twilight between sleep and wakefulness, Luned inhaled her soup and bread, then somehow found her way to the even plusher bed. The deep blue brocade of the canopy enveloped her in its warmth, and soon, she returned to a dreamless doze.
Last edited by Luned; Today at 10:27 AM.