The roar that preceded the collapse of the roof found me blind and deaf. I might have not noticed that anything was amiss at all, for the bouncing and rocking of the cage in which I knelt transmitted shocks at random intervals and also, I had long ceased trust in information passed on through my body.
Trant and his torturers had no elegance.
Theirs was a near sexual motivation of lust, of lust to hurt and punish and kill; there was no strand of rationality or even retribution I could perceive unless they had mistaken me for another who had hurt them in the past.
Their handiwork was untidy, their tools dirty and uncared for. They knew little of the workings of a body, and if they did, they did not seem to care to take the measures one should take to conserve the flow of life force, blood and spinal fluid to make sure the victim would reach the destinated time intact enough to be alive and finely tuned aware.
It had been a very long time since such things I had experienced.
A very long time indeed.
Sitting right back, deep inside my mind, I contemplated the thought and found it to be faulty. One could simply not compare the lessons of Sepheal with this beastlike sawing, tearing, chewing at my outer shell; one could draw no comparison between the fine strands of interaction that exist in detached understanding of the processes of life and death and their animal clubbings, jeerings, defecations.
I sought for anger and could find none.
I sought for despair and there was none.
I sought for any form of emotion and could not find even a shame, a dishonour or a helplessness.
I was very tired, though.
In the other times, I had often prayed for death or unconsciousness to come to me, before I found my way to the state of ice that ended the relationship between the torturer and the tortured and made any further ministrations of no avail.
Here, it was very different.
I had to survive, that was the prime and only motivation.
It kept me clearly targeted at all times and bade me stay clear of the ice.
I silently fought for every smallest part of flesh, every single drop of blood, every tiniest spark of energy and conserved what I could as best I could.
I meshed to every part of me and urged for restoration, renewal, resistance, shoring up what life there was like the grimmest miser will scrape a stray grain from the cracks in the floor.
Trant displayed me to his court with such delight and even after too many days to know how many days had passed, he did not lose interest in me. I wondered about that. When I could still see him, I was fascinated by the glow on his pale cheeks, the brightness in his eyes unnatural and the hands, many ringed, around whatever he was using at the time, tight white and trembling.
I often sought to look at his hands. I often sought to look at the ring my lady had given me. Cutting my finger off to release it to him and chuckling at the tiny lightning strands that played so delightfully on its surface had been one of his very first endeavours. It was very large to him so he wore it on his index finger and would play with it, twisting it round and round when he was watching me.
After the first tenday, there was only one left you could call a professional who was tending me with tar and salt and just enough water to keep me alive.
Sometimes they would throw scraps of food at the cage. I would eat them with care if I could reach them with my mouth.
Trant challenged his courtiers to come up with treatments of me to please him and excite him and in truth, I could see that the struggles of the better ones amongst them and the weakest ones amongst them made him lick his lips just as brightly as my feeble cryings did.
What can you do a human body, after all?
Trant was a fool. A madman. A foolish madman, then, the worst kind of all, for if he had the slightest sense, he would have produced my lady and he could have broken me with ease. I spend nights marvelling at that omission. How could a man who had served destruction to an entire world of kingdoms, a man of enough intelligence to hold together such intrigue and many hundred thousand men, fail to see the obvious in my case? Or was he doing something here with me that I could simply not quite comprehend?
Perhaps she was dead.
As time went by, that thought grew blacker and stronger, day by day, night by night. She might have died under his tortures, or she might have taken an opportunity to end herself. The thought was entirely unbearable as were the images that I could not control and which arose whenever I relaxed my mind’s guard for the briefest instance. Yet I did not know for sure. He might just have kept his word and she would be somewhere, waiting for me to set her free.
I could not disappoint her again.
I would do my best to survive.
His utterly deranged bearing in the matter of me was beginning to have a damaging effect on the morale of his courtiers. They watched silently enough, even partook willingly enough of the games he designed for me and them to play, but as time passed, I have a notion that some of them began to have a measure of respect for me.
I have this notion for as I crouched in the narrow cage, day after day, suspended from the ceiling by a strong chain, I would seek to meet their eyes as they came forward, one by one, with their sticks and shards and candles and torches and swords. There was one, a man of perhaps five and forty, with a soldier’s bearing, who in the end did not avert his gaze from mine and threw down his poker and refused to partake in the entertainment.
Trant went into an insanity of rage and had him held by the guards and beat him, shrieking, until the man had finally become a shapeless thing of red that moved no more. After that, he had my eyes removed as to avoid a re-occurrence.
In a way, it was a relief not to have to look upon him any more.
With the lack of vision and then later, being unable to hear, it became difficult to track the passing of time, yet deep inside my mind, I remained alert and always tightly aware of my office and my designation.
I had to survive to find my lady and right the wrong I had visited upon her by my careless decision to ride straight into Pertineri Castle.
She had warned me of this, and I should have listened to her. She knew many things with that nature knowing, like the horses will foretell a vicious storm and birds know which tree the lightning must strike; a knowing that I did not possess and had replaced by careful planning, careful consideration.
It did bother me deeply why I had made the decision to come here, unarmed, uninformed, without back up, without gathering intelligence. It was not like me. Perhaps I was past my time, my mind too unhinged for strategic decisions; and in the long black nights that never turned to day now, as I pondered to the why’s and wherefores, I also thought that being able to call lightning from the sky made me too full of my own importance in the scheme of things, and brought about my own destruction through sheer carelessness. I could not allow myself to think that I had brought about her destruction, too.
As piece by piece my body fell apart and ceased to function, I shored up life tighter and tighter within myself; like a beleaguered kingdom, I abandoned the outposts one by one and tried to make my stand in the heart of my domain, pulling back my remaining forces to hold out at my very centre.
This is where I was when the sky began to fall, and with it, the roof of Pertineri Castle; I had no feeling of the reality of it until into my head, the pattern world exploded and it was on fire, all on fire, a raging fire storm the like of which I had not seen since I had watched Thalastra burn.
To be sure, I did not respond as rapidly or as distinctively as I could have done, enmeshed as I was inside myself and walled all around. To break your own defences from the inside out can become quite as tedious as trying to break in, and it was true, my energies were low.
Still, I tried to brave the fire storm but found that I could not, and so I waited until the incredible explosions began to lose their power, and turned into an empty heaving, and then subsided altogether, leaving the mind space raw and torn, with discharges flying randomly across the broken chasms that could rip you apart if you did not exert the greatest caution.
I emerged and cast around in freedom for the first time since we stepped into the circle trap and even with the resonance of destruction and distortion, I found her sure enough, damaged, burning low at the edges of extinction but alive she was, and there was no doubt that she had found a way to cause the storm and break the barrier somehow.
Oh my lady! I prayed silently to her, honouring her wisdom and power. I should not have doubted you as I did. I will give you the respect you are due, my comrade in arms, my more beautiful self, my sun. I will come to you.
With utmost volition, I sought a way to re-establish contact with my body enough to begin a physical emergence. It was unpleasant and I repaired what I could, my eyes as highest priority, my ears, my heart, my spine.
The effort took a lot of energy from me that was already in short supply, and I allowed myself a brief respite as I opened my eyes to take in the physical surroundings.
Trant’s court room was a tangle of collapsed columns and half the roof was gone. I had been protected by the cage but my caretaker and a great many of the palace guards had not been so fortunate; there were tangled limbs amidst the stones and shards and a great many voices crying in desolation and agony. I dissolved three of the bars of my cage directly in front of me and endeavoured to crawl from it.
My limbs would not respond in kind. I had to cease and devote yet more precious resources to straightening ligaments and muscles that had been held in a singular position for what might have been weeks, restoring blood flow to my putrefying extremities and the pathways of command that lay in decomposition.
Utterly bereft of energy now, I cast around for any possible external source of renewal and came across the wounded and dying, their patterns still strong and juicily bleeding out into the arrays around them. I tapped into one and found that I could divert the flow to me, take it within myself and restore myself from it.
It was perfect, and so I fed upon them until I myself was entirely composed of strength, filled to the brim, flexing and strong, heady and unbalanced after the famine of the cage and momentarily disoriented by the strong flavours of the lives I had made my own.
What a wonderful gift she had bestowed on me when she showed me to this world of hers!
Easily, I rose from the dust. Easily, I shook off all that was no longer of me and stepped forward, entirely clean and entirely cleansed and alive. Another step took me out and through the nothing and I was by her side, in the bright day of light, on the other side of the Palace Wall, now lying in collapsed ruins, a giant’s play thing scattered here and there, with trees uprooted and fallen upside down or wherever they would land.
Focussed on her familiar form, unfamiliar beneath its crusted woundings, I noted the presence of some about me; their minds were in turmoil and they posed no thread.
I knelt by her side and raised her easily, her cuts and grazes and deep welted scars falling away as the healing encompassed her with power, through me to her, given with an intensity that I could not recognise yet fulfilling me to the point of near unconsciousness. I held her frail, light body carefully in my arms as I restored her silently and with worship, giving back unto her what she had given me so many times, so many times. I could understand how she liked doing her healing. It made one feel – quite holy, I suppose.
Behind me, a man breathing hard was raising a sword to strike at me; I was about to explode him where he stood when I caught his intent to protect my lady from myself.
Wherever she went, it seemed she found allies willing to protect her.
My little witch queen. She would think ill of me to have harmed her latest knight.
I froze the man behind me into a statue of rigidity and gently, I awoke her.
Her perfect lids fluttered in her perfect face, framed by her perfect hair and she opened her eyes and the instant she did we dropped into a deep, profound link that merged us into one in an instant and replaced all need for speeches, gestures as I knew what she had done, and she knew what I had done, and we united in a promise to be more aware in future and to take more care.
It had been a close call.
We returned to each other, and I noted what she was wearing and could not help but wrinkle my nose in distaste. Silently, I checked her memories then and found no trace of her having been abused in any way other than a beating at the hand of Thoran of Thelein and I had to fight to suppress a deep sigh of relief and gathered her in a physical embrace instead, holding her body tightly to mine and her head spanned in one hand as though I was trying to place her right inside of me.
There were shouts and calls now coming from the fallen wall, and men were emerging, soldiers and others who looked like beggars and I remembered and I recognised them as the remainder of the dungeon army commanded by the late Conna of Solland.
My lady moved in my arms and looked up to see the man with the sword still at downward strike point, high raised above his head and his eyes wild, standing to the side of us.
“Please release my good knight, Lucian, and I will make the introduction,” she said. I heard her voice, her voice, so clearly, her dry sense of humour carried across to me, an unmistakable scent on a light breeze and I drifted with it momentarily, until she gave my arm a little squeeze to bring me back.
I released the man whose arms just fell with the sword and turned to look at him.
“Eddario of Niccosia, I presume.” I said, and his eyes widened again at my knowledge of his name.
I released my lady with a regret and lingering motion and got to my feet, noting with some amusement that the young man did not quite know where to place his eyes and eventually settled on looking directly into mine for safety. I held out my arm to him and said, “Lucian Tremain. I understand you have been guarding my lady Isca. I owe you a sincere debt of gratitude.”
After a brief hesitation, the young man who stank to high heaven took my arm and we clasped each other strongly. My lady rose from the ground in a most elegant motion and both of us turned to look at her and released the greeting.
She looked most kindly upon Niccosia and said, “It is to you entirely that we owe to be standing here. I – we – owe you our lives. Name your reward, Eddario. Name it and it is yours.”
A dark look came into the young man’s face and his shoulders dropped.
“My lady, my lord, I would have my father returned, and my blood brother. Beyond this, I have my freedom and that is my gift enough.”
Beside me, she straightened and I knew exactly what she was thinking. She glanced at me and I made it known that I would consent her every choice.
She hesitated, then replied, “Your father was a great man. And without your blood brother’s sacrifice, we might well have lost the fight and none of us would be here. We carry them both the most sincerest debt of gratitude. Allow me at least to return you to your home, so you might begin to take up the fight for your country and remove it from Trant’s grasp.”
Niccosia looked at her quizzically, so she elaborated for his understanding, “We will hunt and destroy Trant, and every single one who will stand with him. This is why we came, and we would have failed in our endeavour if it had not been for your father and his sacrifice. He told me that his other children are all dead. You are his one and rightful heir. You are the Duke of Solland now and you must lead the revival of your people and your estates.”
The young man’s eyes widened yet he straightened as though he had just received a physical burden. He was dour and intense but would make a just leader to his people. Eventually, he bowed his head to both of us and said, “My lady.”
“Then call your men,” Isca said, “and bring them here to us.”
He bowed again and hastily went to the broken wall, where his remaining people had gathered closely together.
I looked around and found a number of soldiers, on the other side of the wall, standing in discussion. I placed an order to them and they approached rapidly.
There were seven of them, and one was near my size. I commandeered his clothing and his boots, but left him the red and gold monkey jacket of the palace guards. The white trousers and shirt were tight but would have to do for now. The smallest of the bunch gave up his clothing for my lady, and they stood frozen and stared at her as she shrugged off the filthy rag and slipped into the garments. She moved exquisitely and for a moment, I was quite convinced that I was dreaming this scene of her, buttoning the soldier’s white shirt over her breasts, her hair falling over her shoulders, over her face, intact, alive, here with me; here, with me.
Behind the palace guards, the former prisoners had darkly gathered; the two groups were uncomfortable in each other’s presence and exchanged worried glances.
I addressed them as one.
“By authority invested by King Malme the Great as the Commander General of the forces of the joint kingdoms, I order your submission and obedience.”
The dishevelled ones sank to their knees as one, with hairy, greasy heads bent low and hands to their hearts. The palace guards, on the other hand, looked around at each other helplessly. There was no officer to guide them, and no orders forthcoming from the crumbled palace beyond, although there were fires and screams.
Finally, the tall one whose trousers and shirt I was wearing, stepped forward and said, “My lord, what would you have us do? There are but a handful of us against all the forces of the kingdoms.”
I fixed the man and took his measure. He was not young, an army veteran of low rank. Too low, in fact, for there not to have been a considerable flaw in his character for in any army, time advances those who do absolutely nothing of their own accord just as surely as a log will float down the river towards the sea.
Softly, I said, “I would have you choose who you will serve. A rightful descendant of Malme, or Trant the traitor. You men –“ I strafed them briefly all so they would know and feel in their very bones that I was never talking to just the one who had asked the question, “- you men are the very first this day to make that choice. And know that this choice is one between life or death, for I will strike down every man that stands with Trant, I swear on the crown of Malme himself.”
I had noted that my voice had risen in volume and pitch towards the end of the statement and took a moment to restrain myself. There was no question that any of these guards wished to die here this day, at least not at this exact time, and so they sank to their knees as well and offered me their obedience. Beside me, my lady took up station at my shoulder and linked lightly into a mutual awareness that eased me with her soft touch and distracted me just for a second.
“Niccosia,” I said, and the man rose and came forward, intent and ready. “Organise this rabble and follow.”
I stepped out and they scattered to the sides in my path, and with my lady taking double strides by my side to keep up, I made my way back towards the castle, a desire building warm and then hotter, to find Trant and to put an end to this performance.
I scanned and Isca did too, soaring above me like a sentry bird, our information of what we found becoming one and forming a clear map in our shared understanding of all there was in and around the palace and its grounds.
We did not find a single trace of the Serein and this was a worrying thought.
Beside me, my lady send a soothing.
Don’t be concerned, Lucian. I will find a way to detect their patterns and if it takes me from now until the very stars fall from the skies. I will find them. We will find them and turn them to dust!
I noted the deep bitterness in her with a small astonishment and masked my concern for her as best I could. I had not noted her be angry like this before. But then, she had never had much reason to be personally angry at this level. Adversity is a fine teacher as to the truth of many matters.
I searched for Trant and could not find him at first; what I did find was the Tadara and I also found the patterns of the blacks, dying in the royal stables, far from home and unable to digest the food of this world.
Isca in the track link send the horses a message of hope and a charge of renewal. I nearly smiled at her loyalty to those dumb beasts and by now, we had crossed the rubble strewn grass borderland and were walking into the devastation my witch queen had inadvertently visited upon the ancient structure of the palace and all its buildings.
The white palace was a burning, smouldering heap of rubble, hardly a single part or complex or wing or tower left untouched. Red palace guards like ants were scurrying in confusion, seeking to free the crying and the dead where they could be found, fearful of further falling masonry and burning timbers.
The main courtyard with the fountains cracked and spilling, the mosaic sprung like the scales of a scrubbed fish and the statues upturned and head and armless rolling amidst the corpses and screaming survivors, laid out here and there in piles and rows, slowed our progress somewhat.
Some began to see us, and note us, and a whisper arose as to who we were; I called to the Tadara that had been made to trophies on Trant’s walls and the two shining swords appeared in mid-air. I caught them as I walked and threw one to my lady; she flashed me a smiling gratitude for my recognition of her valour and value and caught it deftly.
We stopped by the main entrance and raised our eyes along the height of the main palace building. Stone dust and rubble was gently falling still and great lightning cracks splitting the ancient white blocks from which the main buildings were constructed. As we stood and looked, a large stone rosette came down tumbling down in slowest motion, striking against the ornate ledge above a window and cracking off shards of white stone; our guard behind us scrambled for safety but my lady extended a shielding that kept us entirely safe within and deflected all.
She dropped it and it was then that we found Trant and his courtiers, trapped in the basement of the building, having tried to escape when the storm began and finding themselves with both entry points and exit tunnels collapsed, sealed inside the palace bowels as securely as if it had been a specially constructed tomb.
I felt an energy swish throughout me as though I had been touched by lightning myself the moment I touched Trant’s pattern and had the recognition – I had not been familiar with it before, never having met the man outside a silence that silenced my magic.
Beside me, my lady turned and clicked her sword with a light musical note to mine, the vibration this set up into my arm counteracted my deep fascination with Trant and his patterns on this new level and brought me back into the now.
We linked automatically and stepped into the beyond, and out into a place of darkness. She set a light for us.
Behind us lay a rounded passage way of segmented stone that reached out and around into the darkness beyond the small magical fire on the wall. Before us lay a collapsed section of rubble arcing up to a ceiling so low that I could feel the hair on my head brush it lightly. Beyond the cork of rubble frantic minds were at work, trying to clear stones they could not see in their darkness, and muffled voices which send a strange sensation throughout me as I recognised Trant’s amongst them inside the very fabric of my body.
I felt my lady watch me cautiously and with clean volition, I contained the links that Trant had forged into my mind and body in these last unknowable time spans. I also set an intention for her not to touch there, not now, perhaps not ever. She showed respect and turned her focus to the stone wall.
I gave my permission.
The rubble began to shimmer and shift, gathering a bluish luminescence as my lady melted their patterns and turned them to glass – thick glass, like still ice on a deeply frozen pond that had thawed and re-set a dozen times, and she set a light beyond the ice barrier and we could see the shapes of the men trapped there, and they could see us both in turn.
Yet the glass distorted the vision and I could not make out Trant’s eyes.
“Clear it!” I hissed at the girl without taking my eyes of the shapes and colours of the men behind the glass and with a sharp twist, she dropped the link between us.
I turned to her, impatiently. “Clear it, I said!” I snapped at her and the rounded brick passage way behind her dissolved rapidly, turned to a rippling of colours and I found myself standing on a peculiar moss like surface, in a purple hazy glow that seemed to come from all around and she stood before me, her hair shorn short and sticking out in all directions, so frail and thin and white and deathly pale, in that sack cloth I had made her wear when she came to be my apprentice, and beyond her, a flat landscape stretched forever until it faded into triangular mountains, hundreds of them, thousands of them marching off into a distance that was never bent by a slow circle of horizon.
I tried to turn my head and hard restrain – oh! so familiar! – gave awareness that I was wearing the black iron helmet and the armour of the Black Wing Knights. I looked down at my hands – steel backed gloves, black, with the sharp nails protruding from the knuckles and the cutting razor shapes around my wrist; the arm guards with the lethal knife points in the elbows.
She stood, motionless, before me, her pale young face like a boy’s and her eyes big and all-encompassing.
“Where are we?” I asked and my voice was strange in this place, harder, tighter than I remembered it to be.
She sighed and said, “We are in Serein.”
I had to physically turn on the spot because of the restrictions of the armour. The marching mountain range was on one side, and on the other, the purple flat plain continued on forever until it got merged with the purple blue of the sky above. There was no horizon, there was nothing here.
Apart from me and her.
“Why are we here?” I asked her and turned back to face her squarely on. There was not a ripple of movement or of air and my cloak stood still as though it was made of stone.
The elfin creature I remembered well sighed again and said, “I brought us here.”
“What is this place? Why am I dressed like this, and why are you? Take me back to Trant. Take me back now, damn you, I have work to do.”
She looked back at me and didn’t flinch from my intensity. She reached up a thin arm, grey white in the strange light, and sought for a piece of me that was not covered by the black iron armour. The only place she could find was my mouth. She touched a soft, dry finger to my lips.
Automatically, I swished her arm away with my wrist, and the sharp battle studs raked across her bare flesh, cutting it deeply. I took a sharp intake of breath and watched her watch her lower arm ooze slow, black, thick fluid that was nothing at all like any blood I had ever seen.
She raised her eyes to me accusingly and held out her arm to me with the three parallel, deep cuts.
“Look what you’ve done!”
I didn’t know what to say to her or what to do. I felt strangely displaced, nauseous.
“Is this a dream?” I asked, bewildered. The armour began to feel heavy, enclosing me tightly all around, pressing the breath out of my chest.
She shook her head fractionally, her eyes still on me, travelling inside me, churning me up from the inside out.
“This is reality. This is where you come when you need to know what is real and what is just an illusion.”
I felt a swarming, a dissolution. A dis – so – Lucian. I reached down and began to pull on the armour plates around my lower arm, fighting hard to get it off and when I did, it did not reveal my arm as it should have been, clad in a long linen shirt to prevent the armour chafing, but a mass of writhing maggots, grey white, a million of them.
I cried out and dropped the arm guard and swatted at the maggot arm. The glove slipped off and revealed yet more maggots, forming the shape of my fingers and I tried to shake them away but they were me and just made the movements as though they were following me from within.
She stood silently, the black blood slicking from her arm as I fell apart and all of me, all of me was made entirely of maggots who held what used to be my shape below the armour.
She stood silently and watched me try to get away from myself, retching and crying, bringing up more maggots and tearing at myself so helplessly.
She watched me as I dissolved entirely and became a million, a billion separate writhing fat white consciousnesses, squirming on the purple moss, trying to bury away from the light, with nowhere to go and with no remembrance and I watched her back then from a million billion vantage points that turned to multi-faceted swirlings as I became flies and rose in a cloud of black around her, swarming her, swarming to her black blood and we fed on her and became of her and sated, one by one, we extinguished into the air, the ground, and all there was.
When I regained a sense of self, I was lying naked on the velvet soft ground, curled up tight like a fetus before the excommunication. I looked to find her and she was sitting a little way off to my right, looking intently down at something that was bright enough for me to have to turn my eyes away.
She raised the something and it was a tall mirror in the shape of a raven’s wing.
She raised it more and more to the vertical until I could see myself reflected and what I saw was a monstrosity, a barely human shape that seemed to be nothing but scars, scars upon scars upon scars, welted high and crisscrossed amongst themselves, skin mangled and regrown and mangled yet again, twisted and rutted, red, black and purple and I slapped the grotesque claws before my eyes so I would not need to know this anymore and I howled and begged her to not make me see this anymore.
Yet, there was nothing but silence and stillness and my own anguished cries ringing in my ears and when I finally dared to look between my fingers, the mirror had gone and so had she.
My hands looked old but the scars had receded. Before my eyes, my hands grew ever more gnarled and wrinkled, darkening with age, the flesh falling away as though time was being moved through the time that had been stopped the moment Sepheal had bestowed his virtual immortality on me like the worst of sentences, the torture to end all tortures, the night of night of night itself.
I wasted and crumbled into nothing, dissipating entirely with my screams and then awoke again, and this time, I was a gigantic monster of black that towered over the endless landscape, with many heads all seeing double and triple images of her, standing sadly and forlorn and I screamed with a hundred voices to her to make it stop, to please make it stop, have I not suffered enough? But all that came from my heads and sword fanged jaws was a spraying of poison and of filthy fire that drenched her and dissolved her in its wake.
On and on, I died in shapes and forms so monstrous that it would rip away my resolve.
I flooded as vermin across the plains of husbandry, unstoppable in my onslaught, leaving in my wake a nullified desert where nothing could regrow save eternal defilement.
Mountain high, with thighs of soaring granite and boulderous heel, I covered all that was innocent in stone, lumbering grave mounds that extinguished every gasp and every love sigh sought to flee or hide from my face.
I ate moons and drank suns and turned their brightwhite light to bitter bile and regurgitated evil onto every shred of what creation there was left and it would not stop, would never stop and my screams and pleas for mercy and redemption shook the foundations of the universe and there was no-one there who would take pity, no-one there who would take mercy, no-one there who would end my eternal miserias.
Not one man would stand to this.
Not one man would have the courage to step up and say, “This is enough!”
And if they did, they would be pulped into a bloody sodden mess that would no longer breathe nor move and join me here in this damnation.
I awoke once more on the purple plain with my screams still thundering in my ears and waited for hell’s next incarnation.
There was a warmth and a softness below my head and I recognised this to be the thighs of my woman who was cradling me in her lap. I opened my eyes to see her look down at me, her hair framing her face, strangely strange, a stranger from this angle and I wondered where hell was to be found in her brown eyes for me, where hell was in her touch around my shoulder, on my neck, light and powerfully energetic.
Then I saw it in the tears that were forming in the spaces between her lake smooth eye balls and her lower lids, gathering thickly and I held my breath for the first one formed and forced by gravity, began its elongation that would surely lead it like an executioner’s axe to descend upon me, and I waited in agony for it to thin and thin at its connection source and finally, it launched and I closed my weary eyes and awaited the impact, the burning acid that exploded on my unprotected skin and scorched right through it, burrowing like the beak of an enormous carrion bird straight and true into my skull, into my brain, in and towards the very centre of my brain where the toad’s jewel lay, straight and true until it reached the very core and the words exploded on all levels at once –
“Lucian, for the love of the Creator, will you STOP!”
I writhed and cried and sobbed and begged her forgiveness for my weakness.
I tried to tell her that I could not stop the crying anymore, that I had come to the end of my resolve and that it was too much, too much, too far, far too long, far too long and too much and what she was asking of me could not be asked of any man, of any man, be he mortal or immortal.
You are asking the impossible.
I beg of you. Please make it stop. I submit. I submit everything to you, everything. I will not retain a single shred of me and I will become what you will. Unconditional surrender, unconditional capitulation. Just, please, make it stop.
“Lucian, I cannot make it stop. You don’t understand. I don’t want you to stop crying. I want you to stop hurting yourself. YOU ARE DOING THIS! You are the one who must stop it – there’s no-one else who can!”
But I don’t know how!
“You just must want it to be so. Give the order for it to cease! It is your doing, only your doing. There is no-one else but you in your hell, no-one else at all!”
But I cannot stop this! I have cried and begged and pleaded and it will not stop!
“You must WANT it to stop.”
A strange calm befell me then as I considered her notion and as I slowly changed form into a black, slithering demonic shape that acid burned her bare legs with its touch, I finally understood that I did not want it to stop.
This was my home. My hell was my rightful home.
Only here, was I who I truly was, who I was meant to be.
I stretched and grew, dwarfing her and squashing her small powerless shape beneath me, flexing with power and with malice that stank and burned the ground about me to sheets of acrid smoke.
Far, far below me, I saw her scramble away from me, and I lowered my enormous head towards her and I screamed, “This is my true shape. Now, how do you love me?” my poisonous breath like a storm tearing at her tiny, puny form and reeling her backward like a rootless bundle of weeds before a hurricane.
The tiny woman lay still for a moment, and I wove my head backs and forth in triumph at her simple undoing, lashing my curling tail and tearing up the ground with delirium; yet too soon, for she arose again, and seemed to glow from deep within and grew taller, and taller still until her eyes where on a level with mine, and she said in a voice that came from all around me,
“I have always loved you, Lucian, and I always will. There is nothing you can show me that I will not gladly take and now enfold upon my breast. There is nothing you can do to me to make me change my mind. We can be here for all eternity if that is your wish and do our battle until all lays still and white and silent. If that is what you choose, so be it, my love.”
I raised myself up to my fullest height and struck at her with lancing fangs yet did not contact with a living form and rushed straight through her like a ghost; irritated, I withdrew and tried again, and again, yet I could not hurt her at all – it was although she was not even really there.
“But I am here, my love,” she said sadly, golden strands exploding from her mouth and touching me, hurting my scaly black skin, dissolving it like a flame will melt away the ice, a pain that was intense and joyous both and I stretched into the golden strands with sudden hunger for this dissolution and yet there was a fear too that once begun, this process could not ever be repeated backwards and what was done here, could never be undone.
She closed her mouth and the golden strands disappeared. Instead, words were drawn into the stillness all around us, and the words said clearly, fearfully,
“You must choose for yourself, Lucian. Neither I nor even the Creator himself can do this for you. You must want it to be over. You must want it to stop. You. Only you have the decision, and the power, to step from your hell.”
I shook my head, and as I did so, great flakes of black skin and scale detached themselves and flurried out across the purple plains, turning to dust before they struck the ground. I shook myself all over, and more pieces of poisonous flesh fell from me until I began to fight, suddenly stifled to panic, scratching and windmilling with my own arms, trying to fight clear of the monstrous body that was decomposing all around me.
I punched and kicked and finally, broke through the ribs into the purple light of the plains and pushed my head out through the putrid flesh of the shell.
A little way from me, there stood the sorcerer’s apprentice, in person, thin, black circles under her eyes, shivering under the cruel sackcloth and her hair a sorry sight indeed, huge dark eyes tuned towards me as they always were.
I looked down at myself.
I was perfectly naked, perfectly clean.
I turned and there was nothing behind me at all, just the purple plain, virginial and entirely undisturbed.
I looked back to the forlorn girl they had sent to me to destroy in any way I saw fit, and for some reason I felt the need to wrap my arms about my bare shoulders. They felt smooth and cold beneath my touch and I shivered.
She came closer to me and touched me carefully, with extended fingertips, on the elbow.
“No snake,” she said sadly and I could not help it but had to nod my agreement.
“So what is it that you are?” she asked and turned those frightening eyes to mine.
Slowly, I sank to my knees.
“I am nothing but a man,” I said, brokenly.
She lowered herself to remain on a level with me.
“A most extraordinary man,” she said and I could no longer take her jesting and covered my ears with my hands and sat on the mossy purpleness and wished that it could all end and the agony would stop.
Eventually, I looked up and saw her sitting, her knees to one side, leaning forward on her arm, and she was crying again. Slowly, her tears fell to the ground, and where they fell, small blue flowers burst forth in an instance, two, three, and suddenly, there were so many of them, she was surrounded in an island of flowers and they spread, rippling outwards towards me, beyond me, all the way beyond us, covering the entire plain in their radiant hue that seemed to intensify and reflect back the light of the endless sky.
She raised her eyes, still full of tears, and said, “And what of me, Lucian? What am I? What am I to you but a never ending agony and a burden that you never wanted? What of my hell, my home?”
I shook my head in helplessness. “I don’t understand this madness, my lady. But if what you said to me is true indeed, then it must surely be your own decision as to what it is, and if you are to stay or leave and live.”
“You are my hell, Lucian, don’t you know? Don’t you still not know?” she whispered and lay down amidst the starry blue flowers that spread up and over her, until where she had been, only an approximate mount remained, blue as the rest and fading even as I stared and willed her back to me.
I arose and to the silent landscape, I said, “I cannot be your hell, my lady. I am nothing but a man.”
A far away rushing became the answer and the landscape swirled, and I was back in the tunnel, in my own body, clad in the commandeered and unfamiliar whites of the palace guards trousers and shirt, and my beautiful lady standing right next to me, her long brown hair as it should have been and her breasts round and full to greet me.
I took a deep breath and cautiously linked to her.
How long have we been away?
In Serein, time is not – flowing forward. A second, perhaps two?
It is unreal. A dreamworld.
Believe that if you must, my love.
I glanced down at my feet, squarely planted on the thick stones of the floor, a shadow dancing there in time with the magical flame.
We are not resolved, I said to her.
She sent back a silent acknowledgement and with a weary turn of mind, re-arranged the glass barrier in the tunnel so it became perfectly clear and I could look straight into Trant’s insane eyes when I turned around.
He was right there, less than a man’s length from me, his jaw chewing and his face contorted. His purple robe was covered in dust as was his bald head, giving him the appearance of a ghost.
I could for the first time read the man’s churning mind clearly and precisely; truly touch his hatred of me, his boiling hatred that would not abate no matter how much torture he inflicted upon me, and to see me stand here, reflected in his eyes and overlaid in the perfect glass barrier, tall and entirely intact, drove him to absolute insanity.
My attention was riveted upon his hands, close to his chest, twisting my lady's wedding band on his index finger. Lovingly, I called to it, and the metal softened and slid, red hot, through the man’s grasp, reformed into its original shape and passed straight through the glass as though it wasn’t even there. Many pairs of rodent eyes watched it go, glowing with the lightnings in the semi-darkness, and floating into my outstretched palm where it settled with its unexpected weight, and my lady's patterns so strongly embedded that it cancelled out whatever time it might have spent in that madman’s company.
I offered it to my lady and she took it, expanded it and slid it over my ring finger, re-setting it behind my knuckle.
Trant’s lips were moving and we both heard his raging thoughts and memories of how he had fed my finger to one of the dogs that lurked by the beggar’s gate and how unfair it was that I should be so entirely restored; his rage flipped into madness and he threw himself against the glass wall, shrieking so that we could hear it loud and clear, battering himself against it until he bled and smears of red began to streak the perfect barrier, his courtiers backing up as far as they could go, half clambering up the mound of stones that marked the other end of their prison morgue.
I sighed deeply and turned to my lady.
“What would you have me do?” I asked of her.
She observed me curiously.
“These are your torturers far more than they are mine,” she replied with care. “It’s up to you. You are but one life away from sitting on Malme’s throne, do you know.”
I glanced at that life, still insanely battering itself against the glass barrier that was now running in his own blood and sighed again.
“It is a strange thing,” I admitted to her. “I feel nothing one way or the other. The simplest thing would be to leave them here. The single one amongst them who ever was worth a moment’s consideration was killed by that raving lunatic there, a tenday ago or more.”
She nodded, knowing full well I was referring to the one who had refused to hurt me in the end and paid so dearly for his scruples.
I made a decision and reached for her hand, brought it to my lips and kissed it with a passion. She was a little surprised by my action but pleased, too, and smiled lovingly at me with those lips of hers slightly parted. I kissed her hand again and said, “They will have to be publicly executed and their bodies displayed so there can be no doubt, no rumour and all will end with that. For now, they’re safe enough here, but if you kindly fused the other wall just to make sure they cannot escape before we send for them?”
“Of course, my lord,” she said sincerely and beneath the men pressed against the rubble at the far end, the stones began to melt and shift and form a second, unblemished and clear glass wall that would be impenetrable unless my lady herself undid the patterns. Or I, for that matter.
Which brought my mind straight around to the Serein.
She picked up the thought and said, “You’re right. We better station a number of trustworthy guards and warn them to tell us if anything out of the ordinary should happen. I need a quiet space. I mean to track them down, once and for all, for as long as they exist in their hiding place, watching us unnoticed, I can never sleep in safety again, ever.”
I was in absolute agreement and, holding hands, we translocated ourselves back to the place beneath the entrance tower where our motley band of soldiers still stood, helplessly, in the absence of their leaders and without new orders having been given.
They startled badly and many made the warding off gestures that so used to annoy me in the past. This day, beneath a glorious golden afternoon sky and amidst the ruins of Pertineri Palace, on this battlefield that we had claimed for ourselves, on this day of our victory, it did not even touch my mind for an instance.
“Niccosia!” I snapped and the blond man who would soon rule an entire kingdom, came running, bowing low and saluting me in earnest.
“Find me the officers and gather them – ah, in the stable buildings, they’re still standing. And anyone else of rank or use. I will address them in an hour from now. Trant is trapped like the rat he is with all his minions in the secret passageways below the castle. See to it that someone finds an entrance there and set up guards from both sides. Tell them to watch for any hexery, and especially, for Serein.”
“Yes, my lord,” the young man shouted loudly and made to run off on his errands, when my lady stopped him in his tracks.
“Eddario,” she said with a little too much fondness for my liking, regardless of whether Niccosia was or was not Conna’s bastard son, “take your time to have a clean up. You are Lord Tremain’s first officer and at this time, the highest ranking man in all the kingdoms.”
He bowed deeply to her, more deeply than he had bowed to me, and said with vehemence, “Yes, my lady.”
“Dismissed,” I snapped at him and he spun around and half ran across the devastated courtyard, before stopping and considering that he wasn’t sure just where it was that he was running to.
I dropped my head to hide a smile but of course, my lady of razor blade sharpness had already noticed.
It didn’t matter much.
I needed to find her – and me – a quiet place where we might rest and eat real food, and be out of the eyes of everyone for a while. She heard my thought and sighed deeply in consent.
Together, we scanned and found a cavalry officer’s mess that was entirely intact on the far side of the complex. We held hands once more and translocated just outside it.
I was amazed as we stepped out on the clean yard at just how tired I was and how deeply I craved a time for relaxation. I must be getting old. There was a time when events like those of the past few weeks would have gone by quite unnoticed in the physical sense.
“No, love. It’s all the magic. It takes its toll,” she said caressingly into my thoughts, but not quite well enough to avoid me catching her true meaning. The visit to the place she had called Serein had exhausted me beyond belief. I laughed lightly. Screaming for mercy for extended periods of time must be more tiring than I had expected it to be.
“As it does to cry a dimension of blue flowers,” she remarked and we exchanged a small, embarrassed smile before setting off to commandeer the best of the quarters.