Lux Aeterna Part III
Chapter 12 ~ Temple of Fiends
They moved in silence and by the dim blue light of Herrik Gipson's dragon sword alone. The knight took point, with Sylum following him and Seville and Edrick guarding the back flank together. With nothing but Drâco's tranquil aura to fight the blackness on either side, Seville came under the strangest feeling of comfort, as if he'd been placed miles and miles away in the catacombs under the Lux tavern and had not a care. It was suddenly foreign, this yearning for homely welcome, but that made him want it more. Now inside a palace of evil, he wanted to go home, and wondered if the others did as well.
Dangerous this feeling was also. The lulling glow of the long sword made apparent just how tired they each were. The previous day had been long and gone late into the night, and this day was growing even longer. The battle strains of the haunted forest ached in their arms and legs, the tumultuous pain of the wraith's presence had fallen past that comfort zone and it made Seville slightly dizzy, and Edrick also was especially drained, having summoned such a wealth of magical energy from within. Doctor Sylum was weary from many things; the battle certainly, but also these undesirable feelings of anger in him. He didn't trust this brief resolve of the light warriors, if the past days had been any indication of their cohesion. There was a lot on the line in this temple, more than maybe even he knew at the time. Only Gipson was still moving on stamina; not blinking every few seconds and trying to doze in this quiet. His body was not so strong as he would wish it, but his mind was still there, his eyes alert, his ears perked, his sword ready. The others were likely thinking of the goal, of a princess or completed journey. But Herrik Gipson kept his brain where it belonged: on the corner up ahead and what might be around it. They thought of results, he thought of fiends.
“It's unreal...” Seville said as quietly under his breath as he could and still be heard. He referred to the depths.
What seemed a minor palace from its outer façade became a labyrinthine congestion of hallways, pillars, and arches. Doors lead to nowhere or were locked, and halls also lead to nowhere. The knight kept his eyes ahead of them, examining every black corner of every high ceiling, searching behind every fashioned suit of armor standing endless sentry along the wall, checking the frayed and gray tapestries, tapping the gargoyles to prove they were stone, and occasionally just stopping right out to follow a whisper in the dank, cryptic air. The blue Drâco lead the way as much as anything, and the knight moved very slowly and deliberately so as to quiet its eager, sweet song.
“Unnatural to be sure...” Gipson finally answered. He looked for stairs, something to take them up to that candlelight they'd seen from outside.
The evil, the ghastly rancor saturated the ancient walls. Looking down any long path was harsh on the mind, like the ridged arches were swirling, spiraling in the distance, and then expanding and contracting like an artery. A heady, palpable sense of disorientation washed over them as they challenged the deeper dark caverns. Everything was multiplied; every breath was as tiring as ten, every moment as long as an hour, and every step a million more away from home. When even the great Herrik Gipson got tingling chills up the spine, it was definitely best to get it over with as soon as possible, whichever way their caution would allow.
“Do you know anything more about this place, professor?” Edrick asked in a whisper, the amalgamation of tense and tired playing vexatious games with his concentration.
“There would be nothing but second-tier stories, myths within myths, since that's what this place used to be. Just a myth...” Sylum tarried off a moment to study a nuanced gesture of Gipson's marching composure, a slight bending of the head forward, but then continued. “Most stories say that no one ever returned to the temple after Lichern's defeat, afraid it was still filled with the worst of the demon's fiends. Other stories say that those that ventured in never returned.”
“What kind of fiends would those be?” the priest asked.
“Can't say for sure, no specifics are documented, even in tales. Likely there is nothing here except...”
“And likely the forest isn't haunted,” Seville added, to which Sylum was silent a moment. Then he picked up his thought.
“...except what we came for.”
“They would be prepared for us, wouldn't they?” Edrick was getting louder and stumbling over his words. “There's going to be a defense, you think?
“Quiet, Edrick,” Gipson said without turning back. “Everybody, quiet.”
Edrick's last words were left to hang on the atmosphere, new thoughts to tempt the nightmarish cavities of the brain. Sudden death was felt to be around every corner, but at least for once the light warriors were most truly one, a single trembling but also steadfast body descending into surreal landscapes of uncharted evils; fear has that effect, one of togetherness. They stopped when Gipson stopped, and he didn't stop until ducking into the unusually wide portal of the grand foyer.
The great double staircase ascended forever into a canopy of uncandled chandeliers wrapped in silver and rod-iron, and the sweeping balconies curved like stenciled ornaments around the breadth of the obsidian dome. The towering columns supporting the stair were laced through with black silk that hung in dead arches from pillar to pillar. And either side of the expansive room housed a mighty, ash-choked hearth long dormant but eternally terrible. The mind's eye put the dimmest red glow in their gaping maws, hell fire waiting to breathe once more. But most apparent, most violent in their being, were the three lofty doors leading away from the staircase. Their surfaces were each etched with the same mural, a skeleton wreathed in billows of earth and fire, and also flesh and a tattered cloak. One hand it held above the horned skull and the other it pinched in front of the rib cage as if it were casting a spell. Giant they were, twenty feet high at least, and the room so much larger than that; everything finished in the not-so-gentle fashion of Cornerian gothic. The dragon sword, so small now it seemed, fought to bring light to every nook, but all that responded, and in great brilliance were those three doors standing above them. Standing and waiting.
“Found the way up,” Seville dribbled out of his blank stare.
“It's amazing,” Edrick followed, equally stunned. They turned to Gipson, and he thought a moment with his eyes cast out.
“It's a big room,” he said, and he spoke more to qualify the confused looks he received. “Very open. Dangerous.”
Seville readied, Sylum shook his head meaninglessly, and Edrick gulped.
“We'll go slowly and carefully. And silently.”
Gipson sheathed Drâco and a more voluminous darkness crawled over. He tested his vision against the foyer and the distant hearth had vanished, along with most of the stairway, but still almost glowingly real was the shimmer of the three doors, like sailor's beacons calling them through a storm, like constellations in summer sky, a north star.
Gipson took his lightless longsword in hand and said, “It comes to it, gents. Now or never. Let's do it.”
They got to the stairs, each conducting his own investigation of the surroundings and shuddering under his breath, but nothing came of it. They relaxed their weapons a little and climbed the majestic staircase like travelers expecting bandits to waylay them at every turn of the road, but nothing came of that either. They reached the bridge calmly and moved to the left door.
“What if it makes noise?” Edrick propounded. But no one voiced a response and Gipson only shook it off. He took the door by its handle firmly and pulled. The collective sigh was frightfully audible when the massive stone panel swung free ghost-silent. Seville even had to choke down a laugh. They entered the west wing of the temple.
The chasmal depths of the palace were now truly boundless. Somehow the second floor was built larger than the first, more endless passages and doorways set the light warriors' path into quandary. In time, now well into the night, they even lowered their sense of caution, rearmed Gipson with the dragon sword, and just walked as nomads walk, lankily and simply. Stepping into another hall, and then another after that, the inkling of something direly wrong with this situation grew. They were lost, but it felt like they were lost clambering up and down the folds and crevices of a madman's brain. They were tired and tireless at the same time. That intangible tether, that lifeline that had brought them back together through fear and hope would begin to dissolve in the face of failure. Leaving another empty room, Doctor Darrin Sylum was clenching his fists.
“There's nothing here,” said an aggravated Seville, his voice perilously close to its normal level.
“We saw the candlelight,” Gipson tried to defend, voice still low.
“Probably just some kind of trick the temple plays to lure travelers inside.”
“Even if that were true it wouldn't invite us here for nothing, would it?” The knight returned, still egging their feet down another path. “We'll go a little longer.”
“I'm telling you there's nothing here, we've walked enough to cross over every hallway twice by now. How do we know we haven't already been here before? Everything looks the same!”
“I don't recognize it.” Sylum added suddenly and then tacitly added a grunt of anger with his eyes. “We've come all this way; it won't hurt to make sure. I wouldn't want to risk the forest again this night, anyways.”
“Well, then we should try to mark our path, because I swear we've been here before.” Seville looked around for something to alter. “Here, this.”
He went to a suit of armor guarding the hall and spun in on its base to run its shoulders perpendicular to the wall, accompanied by the piercing metallic screech.
“We'll just do that in every...”
“Quiet!” Gipson exasperated under his breath, and then he dodged up against the stone wall and concealed the dragon sword as well as he could between its sheath and his leg. The final echoes of metal and stone didn't drift into nothingness but into a sound of shuffling, the heavy motion of legs and feet, somewhere down the hall before them. The knight wafted his hand twice, and the others joined him in hiding behind one of the steel suits.
“Happy now?” asked Gipson only half-seriously to Seville, and the rogue just rolled his eyes. Still, he pulled both his daggers and hunched low to look along the line of the wall.
The uncautioned footsteps continued and grew louder, seeming to near a ninety-degree turn from the warriors' hallway. The knight leaned forward and stretched his neck up to get the clearest look. The sound of wide pant-legs rubbing together and of bare feet scratching along the stone floor became more and more distinct. Seville caught eyes with Edrick and gave him a slight nod which the priest understood. He recognized that sound, that lethargic but ceaseless march, and he started rubbing his palms together.
But even when the noise was clear enough to put the creatures just before them, nothing had turned the distant corner. The disturbing movement of dead feet started to surround them, the slap of cold flesh popping on their ear drums, but not a single motion in sight.
“What is this?” Edrick stammered quietly, pressing his palms to the sides of his head.
In answer Gipson freed Drâco and swung a wide arc swiftly across the middle of the hall, and then did again just to be sure.
“Not invisible...” he said matter-of-factly and crouched low once again behind the suit of armor.
“Then what?” questioned Edrick once more.
“Fake,” Gipson said confidently. “Just in your head.”
“Sure?” Seville asked with an uneven slant of his eyebrows before he checked down both directions of the hallway.
“What else?” the knight responded. He stood carefully and walked with a readied step towards the turn of the hall. Seville bounced his daggers twice in his hands and stood to follow, discounting Gipson's waving him back. Nearing the corner they even heard the anguished grunting of the undead, the useless breaths and lurching. Yet it came from before and behind, so convincing that Seville even had to turn back once to be sure a zombie was not at that moment sighing on his neck. He also gestured with his hands to keep either Edrick or Sylum checking with a stern eye behind them, and by the time he'd returned his watch to the path he could swear he felt the slime-ridden, clasping hands all around. Painful tingles of suspense percolated through his veins, jittering up and down his spinal column, he tripped over one step into the next. Gipson, far more headstrong, made no reactions.
They flattened against the wall and stilled; the sauntering feet were imminent, steps away, as real as the stone floor. With a flash of eyes and a nod the knight conveyed his plans to Seville, and then looked around the corner, expecting full well to smash his face direct into a zombie's chest. But then he spun back around with a complete mask of confusion and jumped around the corner. Nothing. Another passage barren of life. Gipson sighed heavy.
The echoes of stone-clapping feet did not cease. Instead they grew louder still.
“What is this?” Seville asked Gipson, forced to yell over the racket. Before the knight could answer he twisted and swatted the air with his blade, jerked by a slithering feeling of the atmosphere on his back. Nothing there.
“The temple! It's in our heads!” returned the knight gruffly.
“Then...” he paused and cocked his head. “What the...”
“What is it?” He followed Seville's gaze.
Edrick and Sylum were gone; just a hall of statuesque armor and dark.
“Dr. Sylum?” Gipson called. “Edrick?”
“Eddie?” followed Seville, and then he chased the knight down the hallway, to the very spot they'd been left waiting. There were no signs of struggle, no signs of anything.
“They're....gone...” the rogue mused.
“What foul...” but Gipson was then distracted by Seville tapping on his arm.
“Look! The armors!”
Each of them for the entire run of the hall, as far as their eyes would take them, was turned ninety-degrees to match Seville's. Gipson reared his long sword and slashed the nearest suit across the helm, and it rattled, limped, and fell, but stayed motionless after, along with the rest. Gipson growled and sent two more to the cobbled ground with broad swipes, but to no illuminating effect. The edges of awareness flickered and bulged around them as things were set into a still-life motion.
“Dr. Sylum! Edrick!” Gipson tried once more, and the tunnels about them answered back with freakish perversions of an echo. The intonations shifted to higher registers, the inflections drooped on the back end, like a child's chant, mocking him. He scraped the dragon blade across a stone wall, emitting cheery, effervescent purple sparks in the air, but the smoke didn't smell like steeled flint, but rather like rottenness, decay.
“What the hell is this retched place?” Gipson asked the breezy, whispering currents forming around them.
“It gets better,” answered Seville, pointing.
As if Gipson had scored the flesh of a great beast, the stone wall was dripping with fluid, inky black, but warm as blood to Seville's cautious touch.
“Wipe it off!” Gipson commanded directly and the rogue obeyed. It had not felt particularly peculiar. Seville raised his head to impart that fact when he was caught off by another confused look from the knight.
“Listen!” Gipson said. “The sounds...”
The sound had died almost completely away, down to the solitary footsteps of a single brave undead, somewhere in the vacuous black. But somehow it was the more imperative a noise, and the two men, enthralled with its domineering presence, its arrogant quality, struck out again at the surroundings; searching for it, bent on its destruction. This maddening essence kettle-drummed their ears; every step a cacophony of wrenching demons, wailing and gnashing, but somehow not even there at all. Gipson's throat snapped open and shut; he twisted for balance, and then the stone floor came up and hit him in the face.
Seville stomped dizzily down a corridor, which heaved greatly to and fro like a sailed vessel in a tempest. The ceiling bounced; barreled, then arched and flattened, then plunged. His bearing upended, spiraled until he stood on the walls and lost his footing into hungry tapestries. Knotted textile smothered his skin; harsh abrasions like the fibers were knives. His face met that of a painted one in the velvet cloth, like his own only crying.
No, yelling and disintegrating into flecks of incandescent powder that sifted over the air towards the sky like dazzling stars. The particles sparkled and taunted him and he pressed up and reached, reached miles longer than his arms could surmise, though the exertion kept the liquids in skull churning like breaking waves on a cataract. He was neither lifting nor falling, but not sitting or floating either. He was being.
Being one versus this universe, this small collection of dust in the great nothing. The purple glitters above him, below him, within him, shuttled into lines and figures, spheres and cubes, prisms of every light distorted into singularities of impact. Then he was lost to the opaque blackness, feelings detached, senses stifled; a being, a robot, a drone consciousness somewhere between existences; somewhere between the worlds. Again the amethyst candles moved, moved in hive-minded configurations, moved in serpentine ribbons into figures both intimate and impossibly huge. So big the small cavity of his cranium could not fit around them and understand. Figures terrible and breathing; alive.
Hedonistic ritual fire fell in tears from mighty pagans and landed Armageddons on the burnt soils of this world, that world, all worlds. Each laughing heathen danced about the purple flame and beat the cat-skins to staggering triplet rhythms. He pilfered oceans of knowledge from the liquid smoke, was thrust into the breadth of the pyre and forced like a diviner to gaze within and judge humanity. Among the element, tinder scorching away his body speck at a time, he fumbled the globes, the many planets of being, jostled them like a blind prophet. The tribesman rose in trills of laughter and dipped him deeper into awareness, where the satellites encapsulated him, and he was quartered by their gravity. Each planet matched the rare fire in hues of crimson and emerald sequins that ran in marathons about the wide bellies of the orb. The laughing rose into murderous hilarity as the planets failed, each its own apocalypse to contend with, burned and slashed away to nothing by the final design of all things.
He resisted, struggled against the clamoring hands, tried to yell at them and swallow them away, pull them into the heat and let them see their hubris, but the strength of more divided him from revelation and left him to cold. He lay paralyzed at the image of trembling children and cursing mothers as the final ritual began, where soft blood was delivered up to the will of ancients and amends were put to rest, and soon the hair of every happy man and pouting woman was as purple of evil as all else, and the dirt on his legs, feet, and hands turned gray. The medicine man approached and mourned the dead planet, blessed this divination of flame, and circled the being. He was scared, so amazingly scared; then he sunk to bowels of darkness deeper than ever before thought real as the shaman quaked his throat and sang a dirge of such terror it is hard to describe in the language of man.
“Uhhh...” was Seville's waking moan, battling the invisible iron weights that must have been pulling down his eyelids, or his whole head for that matter. His hair, slinking around his face, was the first he saw as his vision focused. Then his legs and chest came into view. Licking his lips they felt raw and puffy, and his skin burned lightly down to his chin, like acne scars. His head felt empty; he couldn't remember anything; just a series of long hallways, suits of armor, and then a heavy funk.
He fingered around for the memories in his mind, and they came in mosaic amalgamations like his sight. He remembered that Sylum and Edrick had vanished like nothing, that Gipson had trailed off in his grunting anger and collapsed onto the floor. He remembered trying to run to the knight and getting lost on the way, stuporing into the unknown wings of the temple with only an ounce of brain. He fell, he thought, fell into a mountain of clothing, but he wasn't certain. He could dig no deeper, and doing so only turned up gray mist like that in his orb of earth.
Finally, Seville sat up and risked his surroundings, quick to find he could barely move.
“What the...” he said quietly and jerked around with his legs, which he discovered were bound very tightly. His arms also were tied behind, attached to a chair he couldn't escape.
“Welcome back,” came a familiar voice.
“What?! Ow!” The moment he raised his voice the most splitting, jarring pain shot from one side to the other of his skull. For sure it would burst and spill out with enough pain to kill another, he thought for that one intense moment, but it dwindled then to a numbing reminder of what had been. He sucked air in and out.
“Might want to keep your voice down,” that same familiar squeak informed. Why had it not occurred to him to look, Seville wondered, twisting his rust-stiff neck to his right to find his three companions lined up with him, each equally bound.
Edrick, next to him and clearly the one who had spoken, seemed dim but healthy, while Gipson and Sylum wore pained faces, empathetic faces, showing they'd been there before. Their eyes, Gipson's and Sylum's, were held at a squint, and after only moments Seville came to realize why: even the gentle, wavering torchlight hurt inside his head. The pain ebbed and flowed, and at peak it was like ratcheting bones in his brain.
“Everything hurts...” he offered as quietly as he could and still be voicing.
“Tell me about it,” Gipson answered just as unenthusiastically, and then he asked, “Any good with ropes?”
“'Course I am, but don't know if I can concentrate.”
“You can try,” Gipson matter-of-facted.
“I can try,” Seville gave back and fidgeted for a grip on the circulation-robbing rope enjoining his wrists. Then he chose, for once, to look around.
Though he regretted it immediately. The glow of the four torches throbbed brighter as his eyes swayed from side to side, the light seeming to lance into his retinas like the sharp beams of sun as it rose over distant mountains. The room was small and windowless; a dungeon room most likely, but void of any particular clues like shackles or old blood. Before the four, pushed against the opposite wall, was an unburdened wooden table. To his front right a path opened and lead a little distance to a metal door with no apparent lock from the inside; making the dungeon scenario more clear. Discerning what he could from a squinted looking-over, the stonework was crypt-dry; this piece not supporting the hypothesis. And that was all, plain and simple.
“Eh...” Seville said, having little luck with the rope bindings. “What happened back there? What happened to you Eddie? Professor?”
“I already told you; the temple.” Gipson answered first.
“We don't know that for sure,” entered Doctor Sylum, “But it's as good a guess as we've got.” He scrunched his eyes as another vibration of hurt waved by, then he sighed. “Everything I know about myths has been proven fact so far. I'd say it's a reasonable assumption then that we can take it to the next level.”
“Next level?” asked Seville.
“You're better than that, Seville, think about it.”
“Man, I don't wanna think about anything. It hurts.”
“If this is indeed a palace built by the dark fiend Lichern, a demon, a devil, then he would have infused every last brick and mortar with evil.”
“Well, that sounds like our luck.”
“Yes, it does. And if he can infect an, at the time, nonexistent forest posthumously then I wouldn't put it past him to curse this place. These walls ... they're just built of evil; built of madness.”
“So I suppose that's what's with the headache? Ow!” Another crippling whelp, and Seville noticed as he righted himself Edrick watching childishly. “Man, why isn't anything wrong with you?”
“Don't know, but I like it.” Edrick did his best to give a friendly smile, but the chills in his ribs and the tension on his brow was dominant. The way he said it, in fact, completely lost all effect.
Seville had more questions but feared to ask them, not for their content, but for the welfare of his aching mind. Even his thoughts were not free. They didn't hurt but always there was something to them, a tickle, a buzz he couldn't ignore. Trying to shut off his brain only brought the material to it faster and brighter. He was so tired of pain; never light it seemed, never that soft pumping like on a sliced finger, the kind you can almost enjoy for its frailty. No, always agony, always anguish, always so severe. The thoughts that chiseled through his gray matter were like scars: the day of the centennial when he thought he was sure to die, the wraith in the forest, the disgusting zombies, the wild hallucinations of the temple, the headaches. He wondered if it was something you got used to, and considered asked Gipson, but chose instead to get on with it. The fewer words the better.
“So, what's going on again? Are we like ... escaping, or what? How'd we get tied up in the first place? What time is it?”
“Don't know. Doesn't look like it. Don't know. And don't know.” Sylum's answers.
“It is very early morning,” responded Gipson. “Between one and two.”
The three others rotated in watch him qualify with the deductive information, but he had nothing else to say.
“One day you're gonna have to tell me how you do that, big guy,” said Seville.
“It takes a lot of work.”
“Then don't tell me now. Damn!”
“What's that?” asked Edrick in an annoyingly normal voice. Seville visibly thrust his fingers out from the knots on his wrists and then let them limp down and rest.
“Can't get it,” Seville explained, “These ropes aren't working unaided.”
“An enchantment?” asked the priest.
“Are you not sure?” Gipson questioned.
“Dude, I don't know! Ow!”
“Enchantments mean wizards,” the knight said and then finished it in return to the waiting eyes he got. “I hate wizards.”
“It's certainly looking that we can rule out the random creep theory,” said Seville.
“Nothing says a powerful wizard can't also be a random creep. Just look at Chuck Domino,” Edrick suggested.
“Damn!” cursed the rogue.
“Seville, watch it with the mouth!” the priest charged.
“We forgot to kill Domino.”
“I meant to do that today, or technically yesterday, but you know what I mean. We forgot to kill Domino.”
“I don't think that's the right course of action,” said Edrick.
“If somebody hadn't been in such a hurry!” Seville chastised, staring as menacingly as he could with half closed eyes at Sylum. The professor looked at him and shook his head.
“If I hadn't been in such a hurry we might very well still be in Jrist, brooding like ownerless puppies in that tavern. If Princess Moira is somewhere in this temple then you could actually thank Domino for getting you here.”
“I'll thank him with my dagger,” Seville spouted, even through the dismal ache in his head. “If this is the place we've been looking for, then on the way back we've got to remember to kill Chuck Domino.”
“And where is your dagger?” rang in Gipson with an odd question.
“What?” Seville responded mindlessly and looked down, realizing that his weapons were, of course, gone. “Shit!”
“Seville!” exasperated Edrick.
“Can the swearing! What's this you were telling me about change earlier?”
“Change?” broke in Herrik Gipson.
“Drop it, big guy. Eddie, can't this wait until after we save the world?”
“Kind of destroys the point, don't you think?” Edrick said.
“No ... well, yes, but ... listen, I have a headache, we'll worry about changing later, okay?” declared Seville, wishing so much that he could just hold his forehead in his palms. He couldn't decide what hurt more: his brain or the inability to comfort it.
“That's what people who don't change say,” the priest summed up and sulked with a sigh.
“Words after your own heart, Master Gipson. Eddie is always full of surprises.”
Gipson said nothing right away; he didn't join the back and forth of Seville and Edrick. Instead he mused a moment, thought in the silence, and then practiced something it felt like he hadn't done for years, knowing full well it had been but a day. He smiled. His favorite one; that sad salute to hope and loss. Then he said, “Yes. He's right, you know.”
The timing gave pace to Seville's own slow answer.
“Yeah, I know.”
Sylum didn't seem to be having it, he said, “What are these semantics? Change?”
“Don't worry about it, Professor. A lesson for another day, I think.”
“And what day is that?” Edrick persisted.
“Would you drop it? One day. It's gonna happen one day. And I can't say what'll happen when it does 'cept that I can't wait to find out. That's all I know and all I can know.”
“Fine, we'll talk about it later.”
At last it was left at that, and having run out of things to say and becoming too fatigued by the stress of the unfortunate three, a calm, unburdened quiet followed. Herrik Gipson most appreciated the silence so that he could keep his ears on whatever might perk them, especially directed for outside noises, though judging by how even soft voices rebounded off the stone, the room was effectively soundproof. What nightmares he had seen in his last moments before the blackness settled over! Now if only he could remember them or did he even want to? For possibly the first time in his life, for the first time he could recollect over the whole course of rigorous adventures he'd known, Gipson was tired. Not like that of creaking bones or a weakened lung capacity, no, he felt full-on beat; mentally and physically. He fought against it, prohibited it, mind-over-matter, like he usually did, but this time it showed him little rejuvenating caress. His body would have no more.
Darrin Sylum didn't know what to think. That morning he had been furious enough to end the world himself, rash enough to thrust his group into the deathly peril of the haunted forest, and then after that he was just confused. He saw his final hope at life's success break away and melt into the dark tendrils of the woods, he spouted his fears to this knight, this man without a single empathetic concern, and he choked on gulps of hatred. But then, something good happened, a battle won, bonds restored, greatness. But now the confusion crept in again; confusion and suspicions of failure. He could not fail again, would not fail again. If there was something in this world for him, and for each day after the first he had doubted that more and more, it was going to be in this temple.
Edrick Valance chewed on his bottom lip for the duration, wishing desperately to bide away his nervousness with random hand gestures like usual, and painfully unable to do so. He kept his eyes occupied on the maze of fissures lining the bricks from floor to ceiling, not wanting to commit to anymore speech. Like the rest he was lost in his thoughts, but only his thoughts were about someone else; about his good friend and project, Seville. He sought deep inside for what it was he was trying to accomplish, what it was that he thought he could accomplish, and what it was that was out of his hands. This kid, Seville, this young man, this rogue; what could he teach him now that he hadn't already tried and failed to teach him. Edrick successfully put his concern on someone else; he cared little for his fate in this rank palace, but only desired that Seville return to Corneria a changed man seeking a finer path. If nothing else he wanted that.
Seville just wanted something to happen...
“Hey, guys,” Seville breathed, stirring the others from their droning trances. Sylum and Gipson were able to blink a few times and snap back into the moment but Edrick had to shake himself awake. Not much time had passed, but time quickly lost meaning in the meager stone room.
“What's that?” Gipson answered.
“D'you see that?” Seville asked them, carefully nodding his head towards the direction of the table.
“See what?” Edrick wanted to know, discovering how difficult it was to rub his eyes without hands.
“Under the table.”
Gipson pressed his eagle eyes into the flickering shadows of the table but didn't see anything more than that. Judging by the lost expressions of the priest and scholar, they hadn't seen anything either.
“Where?” Gipson asked authoritatively.
“It's gone now, just give it a second.”
“Give what a second, Seville?” Edrick said. “What is it?”
“I couldn't tell...” Seville started and then trailed off as he concentrated his sight. His vision, slacking off into dreamlike states had for just the briefest glimpse caught sight of something before them under the table, some creature, he thought, but now couldn't be sure. Knowing the temple's propensity to illusions, he feared it was more games inside of his head. “Some kind of creature I think it was, but barely more than a shadow. And quick too, I'm lucky I saw it.”
“If you saw it,” Sylum clarified, those analytical urges ever-present.
“I saw it...” defied Seville, faking his certainty. For an instant he perceived an ethereal drift of something like a forearm, only small and smooth, black, but then it returned to invisibility within the shadow. If only his eyes were not so tired, he thought, not realizing that he was trying to scoot the confining chair forward, but it was too tightly jammed in a ridge on the ground.
“Not seein' anything, Seville...” Edrick said playfully.
“Yeah,” said Seville, willing to concede some failure to his closest friend. “Maybe your right.” He sighed.
“No.” Gipson interrupted. “There.”
They looked closer and this time could not mistake the trailing fragmentation of the light as the translucent being hunkered under the table. Amoeba-like, its form was too indistinct to follow, but its movement was apparent, crawling, floating, slithering, whatever it did, from one table leg to the next, almost as if it were afraid to bear the ground beyond its low ceiling. Without a recognizable head it certainly seemed eyeless, but still it felt like the thing was watching. Trickling tension spiked on the warrior's backs, that rare, sixth-sensual kind that can only be described as a feeling, a hunch, an instinct. Gipson, living on his instincts for all his remembered life, tensed and strained against the difficult bonds. He didn't trust it.
“What is it, Master Gipson?” Edrick asked. The transfixed knight took a few seconds to hear and comprehend the question.
“Dunno...” was all he could give back.
The spectral apparition rested from its dance, and motionless only the barest outline of its presence could be detected. And then, not detected.
“Is it gone?”
They'd each seen it differently. Gipson and Sylum would swear the thing had dissolved into the cold floor, but Seville and Edrick would propose it had evaporated into the air.
“Eh,” Seville said, following with a matter-of-fact inflection, “I'm tired of this.”
“You don't think we've just been left to starve to death?” The priest asked.
“Actually, I hadn't thought of it. Thanks a bunch,” the rogue said.
“Did you recognize anything in the creature, Master Gipson?” Sylum questioned of the knight.
“...It is unlike anything I've seen. Certain undead: ghosts, wraiths, those kind, share the incorporeal quality, but are unable to fade to nothingness. This is something new to me,” an idea that seemed to shake Gipson a small bit.
“And what about those pink things from the forest? I forgot to ask.”
“Those are also new to me, but I've met a close cousin I believe. Crawls the townsfolk called them, and they were similarly built, but purple and minus the acidic slash paralytic blood. Only about half as ferocious but the same basic creature. We've got a new breed on our hands; names anyone?”
“Crawls you said they were called?” Seville asked, game for the distraction.
“The weaker breed, yes.”
“Then only one name would apply...”
“...and that is...”
“Creeps, of course.” Seville looked to Gipson, interested to know whether his first attempt at the knight's game was a success. But Gipson barely had the chance to open his mouth.
“There!” shouted Edrick, catapulting injuries through the skulls of his companions. Lifting their heads, they saw the creature had returned, only fleshed out and ready.
The shape was unlike any conception they had made of it in their thoughts: humanoid for certain, very short and hunched, with two jagged antennae breached like horns from his head and scurrying across the ground frantically. The slender, pygmy arms and legs matched with the engorged head and bulgy abdomen split its frame between appearances of a child and a bug. Its dainty hands featured sharp spire-like fingers. Its coin eyes were bright yellow. But few of these things did the light warriors notice before the horrific emptiness of its hue. Save the two exceptions in its head, the thing was the most lusterless, complete, and absolute black. So much so that the torchlight was absorbed by it instead of reflected.
The dark child was silent, impossibly silent. Skittering from table leg to table leg made no sound, nor did the incessant scraping of the antennae across the ground. It altered its ominous gaze from person to person, and occasionally rocked its head up and back like it was sniffing. Then quickly, in short bestial hops and lunges it charged to just as quickly halt at Sylum's feet, eyeing them through its lidless orbs like they were riches. Bound both together and to each chair leg, Sylum couldn't hardly move his feet to avoid it.
The creature jumped to his lap and studied intensely; slathering its two feelers over everything they could reach. Like a cat on unsure footing the thing dug its claws into its stance, and the professor sucked in his breath. The antennae slowed to a stop, but the thing stayed, still eerily quiet. Its heavy eyes were so full and pressing it seemed to be looking through Sylum, looking into his chest.
“Uhhh.....little help....” Sylum quivered and directly the creature leapt from Sylum's lap and pranced into Gipson's. The knight lowered one brow and glowered at the small thing, but it only concerned itself with the antenna rub-down and a long look through Gipson's ribs.
“Pardon me, gents,” Gipson said and then inhaled a great bulk and screamed, “Back!”
The crisp noise threw a shockwave into Seville's and Sylum's head, and self-inflected Gipson's as well, but the black monster did back away, dropped to the ground and capered a bit from leg to leg before continuing its search. It jumped into Edrick's lap in a swoop.
“Ah!” the priest cried and gulped down his tension. The creature commenced its routine but paused almost instantly. Stinging sweat flowed into Edrick's eye, and with only blinking to pat it away, the black creature become a garbled vision. To what extent its feelings could be guessed it seemed confused, perhaps even aggravated. It stared at Edrick's chest, hopping and cocking its head in violent jerks. The priest's chest heaved up and down, the crests so wide it was impressive his ribcage didn't split. The monster butt its head into Edrick and then started grinding its smooth black cranium into the solar plexus. Edrick coughed twice and then began to gasp for air.
“Back!” he squeaked with his massively reduced lungpower. “Back!”
The dark little thing however was not intimidated. It was angry now, pummeling its skull into Edrick's chest and thrashing the air with its clawed fingers. Not once did it truly hurt the young man, never did those claws strike, but appeared content to maintain that action forever.
“Back!” Gipson shouted this time, facing the migraine to help the cleric, but not even his voice could ward the monster.
Nearing hyperventilation and squirming through every centimeter he could muster, Edrick wailed, “What is this?!” He tried to knock it sideways with a curved swipe of his head and made only the thinnest contact. Again it didn't respond. “Back! Back! Back!”
Edrick's final call was punctuated by a metal and stone strum resounding from every corner of the room and originating from the cell door that had suddenly lumbered open. The black creature reacted swiftly with a turn of the head and a moment's thought, and then it pounced to the floor and slumped away into nothingness; gone like it had never been. Screeching just like something in want of centuries of use should, the door very tediously wedged over to the wall and hit it with another deafening clang. Despite vibrating aches potent enough to send feelings to the tip of every strand of hair on his head, Gipson remained with alert eyes and will, ready for whatever might come from the long awaited portal.
The footsteps were common and unlabored, and they carried in an odd-looking young man with peppered hair wearing a sky blue t-shirt and black slacks.
“Domino!” shouted Seville and Gipson simultaneously, and both winced at the flushing pain.
Chuck Domino did not look at them, in fact, he was little interested in looking at anything. In his arms he held a wide, bulky wooden box that he quickly set down on the table and scooted to the center. The flat side facing the warriors bore a single hole a few inches across with a black mesh cloth attached from the inside. The box itself was poorly constructed, with nail heads jutting visibly out and adjacent sides lining up awkwardly. Domino took in hand one of the wooden dowels from his belt and made three quick gestures over the box with it. Then he replaced the dowel.
“Domino!” Edrick pronounced.
“Quiet...” Domino responded, very coolly and lowly. Each of the warriors was again surprised at how low the voice from this weasel of a man bellowed.
“I'm disgusted you have the nerve to show your face around us again!” Seville said as a threat. Domino took a beat from his examination of the shabby wooden box and looked up.
“Ah, what're you gonna do? Attack me?”
“What do you want from us?” pressed Seville.
“Quiet,” Domino answered and returned to inspecting something on the backside of the box. More than once he used others of the dowels on his belt.
“What's going on here?” Gipson asked. Domino did not respond.
“I said what's going on here?” the knight ferociously demanded this time. The black mage stopped what he was doing and squeezed his brows together, then his shoulders sagged.
“Unfortunately, I conjecture that your...less than perspicacious wit will not consummately cognize the imperforate aim of our present employment. Ergo, I will capitulate that annotation for an impending....time.”
“Damn it! Speak common for once!” commanded Gipson.
“That I do, but I elect expatiation via knowledgeable means, in lieu of barbarous ones.”
Gipson grunted with anger and noticeably raged against the magical ropes, but their spell could not be undone. It just had to be a wizard!
“Did you kidnap the princess?” Sylum thought to ask, very calmly but directly.
“I did not,” defended Domino, mimicking Sylum's manner and without the slightest conciliatory pause.
“Do you know who did?” followed Sylum summarily, like a lawyer to a witness.
“Yes, I do.”
“And who is that?” The professor continued.
“He is not an acquaintance of yours.”
“Who is it?!” Gipson barked, his agitation palpable. Again Domino stopped to squint and rub his forehead, combined with a thick exhalation. He looked up.
“If...said antagonist is not...constituent of your luminary lexicon then what consequence, I ask, is it that you be compelled to lucubrate the appellation of said antagonist?”
Gipson belted out a growl, but nothing could come of it. Domino raised his eyebrows and stared as if he were truly awaiting a response. Finally, he returned to the wooden box.
“So, would it be appropriate to assume that the kidnapper is not a Cornerian?” Sylum asked, hoping to return to the intellectual atmosphere where Domino was most charitable. He flashed a condescending and cautionary glance to the knight beside him.
“Not appropriate, no, but I'll resign and consent.”
“And who are you to him?”
“Chuck Domino the grunt? He's lying!” Seville accused, but Sylum retorted contiguously and with not-so-subtle fierceness.
“That is not something that we can control.” It was short and abrasive. Seville went quiet obediently. Sylum continued, “How many in the hive, Chuck?”
“Just three.” Domino's speech got softer in time and was aimed into the body of the box. His interest in the scene was almost humorously nonexistent.
“You, him, and who?”
“The princess...” Edrick mused and whispered. Sylum nodded to him.
“Is the princess here?”
“She is, only not as you envisage.”
“If you hurt her...” started Gipson with a threat but he smartly cut if off. Domino once more caressed the folds over the bridge of his nose, but saved any comments he might have had for the knight. Another angry look passed from scholar to warrior.
“How not, Chuck?” Sylum asked.
The professor sighed.
“Alright, moving on: are the motives political?”
“The motives are everything.”
Sylum sighed again and scorned the cryptic answer.
“Are we part of those motives.”
“Everything is part of those motives.”
From the corner of his own eyes, Sylum saw Seville roll his.
“Fine,” Sylum said. “What is going to happen next?”
“Patience, doctor,” said Domino. “Vigilance.”
“Can you tell me more specifically our part in this?”
“Shhhh…” Domino hissed to quell the interrogation. “Enough.”
The black mage took yet another dowel from his belt and made a final pass around the four corners of the wooden box and then he performed five languid messy gestures in the air and resheathed the stick. He passed over the box with one final investigation from all sides and then walked towards the door.
“That's it!” Gipson exclaimed. Domino, of course, paused and rubbed his now sweat-laden forehead. He looked at the knight and shook his head very slightly, like one of modest disbelief.
“Yep, that's it!” he said and turned back to the door.
“We managed to catch your article,” Seville broke in and informed the mage just as he was reaching for the handlebar.
“Yeah, worked like a charm,” Domino responded, superlatively quiet.
“Uh huh. You know, I promised my friends that I would kill you for it.” But Domino refused to dignify that, and simply left. The hard iron door screamed to a shut and they were alone again.
Chapter 13 ~ The Wooden Box
“So…” said Seville, realizing in the renewed silence how badly his arms and legs ached from remaining in their restricted positions. “Wooden box…”
“Magical wooden box…” Gipson clarified just this side of angrily. “We'll probably be dead very soon.”
“Don't say that!” Edrick insisted.
“No,” offered Sylum. “They want something of us. Else, Domino would have done away with us in seconds. There's something to this.”
“Oh, is that a good or a bad thing?” Edrick stammered.
“Well, Eddie, we ain't dead yet,” Seville on the far left suggested, but knew he had little power to comfort the peevish priest in such extreme times. So for fun, he ran the other way. “Yet being the important word choice.”
“Then you gimme somethin' to do,” he said pathetically. “Man, this sucks!”
“No, seriously, quiet. D'you hear that?”
A distinct sound of crackling emitted from the wooden box, like someone trying to step carefully through dried tree branches, and playing over that a constant airy, buzzing sound. Then the sound rose and fell in stronger pulses, the coming and going of a flying beetle, but soon leveled out and featured only the dynamic popping noises. The volume oscillated again, and by then it was unavoidable.
“Got any ideas, Professor?” The rogue implored.
“Magic is not my area of study, especially not something as obscure as this.”
“…I hate wizards!” Gipson stated once more.
“Noted. Should I even ask, Eddie?”
“Hey! I know magic…” the priest defended before turning abruptly. “Not that I know anything about this.”
“Detect anything particularly offensive?” Sylum entreated to the priest.
“What powers of detection I do have are completely muddled in this place. Can't distinguish evil when everything around you is evil.”
Rising and falling, the crisp snapping became less intervallic and thinner.
“What did Domino mean, Professor Sylum? About the princess not being here how we…envisage was it?” Edrick asked.
“Hard to say. If he were lying I don't think he would have been evasive when he was, and yet if he was telling the truth, as it seems to me, then he's being too cryptic to decode.”
“If you had a guess?” Seville this time.
“Well…” the professor thought on it for a moment, and the others used the same moment to reflect on the ominous noise of the box. “What exactly is it that we we're expecting?”
The question functionally flabbergasted them. Seville answered first.
“You know, I don't think I ever really thought about it.”
“Or I,” added Edrick.
“Heh,” Seville laughed, “Just what kind of light warriors are we supposed to be? What about you, Master Gipson?”
The knight paced his answer carefully.
“Of course, I didn't know where we would find her; we we're operating on a metaphysical hunch, but, I knew what it was going to look like. The room they kept her in would be small. Small and dark, either a closet or old stable, I figured. Either way, you could expect something of general disrepair and likely damp. She would have been bound and gagged originally, but by now they probably let her go without that as long as she remained tied up while someone wasn't able to watch her and as long as she stayed quiet. They would have beat her for crying, of course, and food and water would have been very slim, just enough to survive. Rape was almost certain. If ransom was the motive then perhaps they would have been more giving with food and more sparing with brutality, but that is an unlikely motive given the circumstances of the kidnapping. No, I…I pictured little hope…”
Nobody responded. The crackling noises of the box rattled off one wall to the next but the sounds had drained away from the warriors' concern and drifted off into the atmosphere. Gipson inserted final words.
“So, yes, I've thought about it.”
“That's…” Edrick started to say, but his thoughts trailed off. Seville seemed to pick up on where he was headed.
“For four days now,” he said. “That's been our fault.”
“No,” reprimanded Gipson. “If it were anybody's fault it would be the kidnappers'. We're not to blame.”
“Besides, I don't think that's the case here,” said a very even-voiced Sylum. “It's not the impression I got from Domino.”
“Well, yeah, it's not that…” Seville continued on his own thought, glancing at Edrick to see that he was following the right trail. “The point is: we just haven't been taking this seriously. Making jokes around the campfire, fighting, disbanding…that's all stupid right now. We've gotta keep looking towards the goal. Nothing is on our side here, especially not time.”
“This is definitely the most conclusive truth as to which one of us here is actually a warrior, and the other three who are just the meager.” Edrick stated. “You should've kept us in line, Master Gipson.”
“We've all done what we can, never forget that. Now, what can we still do?” Gipson charged them, and they each let it toss in their too tired minds. “Think about it! The princess is here…here! We're so close now! There is nothing meager about any of you, and I can say already that this is the greatest adventure of my life, these four simple days and nights. We can do it!”
“Nothing. Unless we can get out of these damn chairs, we can do nothing.”
“Then that's what we work on, Seville.”
The rogue looked to his feet and then away, and he sighed.
“Yes, I know, but that is hopeless. These are magical bindings.”
“I am not going to die tied to a chair.”
“I've told you,” Darrin Sylum interrupted, “They are not going to just kill us, I am certain of that. Domino's not a barbarian, or even a warrior for that matter, he's a politician, and I'm sure he works for one. And if this is politics it means they have a use for us; politicians always want something, and from the sounds of it on what we got from Domino, they've got quite a plan. We can expect a proposition.”
The new outlook had to settle on them a moment.
“Well, then, we won't take it. Screw'em!” Seville pronounced.
“That's right!” Edrick said proudly.
“It, eh…it might not be that easy, Edrick.” Offered the professor, remaining calm. “We're strapped to chairs, have no weapons, we're in pitiful condition, and nobody knows where we are. Therefore, we've got absolutely no power. We've got nothing to bargain with.”
“They will threaten the princess?” asked Gipson.
“Maybe, again it's hard to say. Based on your predictions I would say yes, but the mage seemed to suggest a different situation. In truth, I can't make any guess as to what capacity the princess maintains in this temple. Regardless, if not the princess, they can easily threaten us. Like I said, we're very effectively tied up right now, not hard to slit our throats. Domino wouldn't even have to do that.”
The knight nodded with understanding and said as an afterthought, “…I hate wizards…”
“They're not going up on my list,” Sylum finished; the first friendly thing he'd said in days.
“So, what then?” Seville asked amidst the opportunity. “We can't just agree to whatever mad thing they've got planned for us.”
And we're it not for the heady tension already flowing around betwixt the eerie soundtrack and desperate words; all three of the others would have noticed Sylum pause on his answer, giving it a foreign thought, but then he spoke as he had before.
“Well, I suppose not much has really changed. We'll play the diplomacy by ear, avoid their suggestions, try to get out of these constraints, and if at all possible get our weapons. But the overall goal remains the same: safely obtain the princess and kill her captors.” Then, on another surprising up-note, “We'll leave Domino to you if you want him.”
Seville also spoke through original sentiments, “I'll do what seems best to do at the time. Threatening Domino doesn't mean anything when the anger builds for stupid reasons. I wasn't taking things seriously then, but I am now. I'll just try to do what's right.”
“That's excellent to hear,” Gipson affirmed.
“Now that, “ said Edrick, “Sounds like change.”
“Piece by piece, Eddie, piece by piece.”
“We'll be one!” the knight exclaimed.
Had a further minute passed they would have returned to understanding how little they could do tied to chairs and locked inside a small dungeon room, but before that perilous minute could saunter by the wooden box went silent after an odd bird-like chirrup and a thump. Just as quickly the breathy tones returned with a somehow deeper mood behind them; it felt closer, more intimate. Then the box spoke.
The voice had an alien, fluidic quality, so potent that it seemed to rub over them and massage their skin. It wasn't loud or even forceful, but remarkably full and deep. That it came from the box was certain.
“Welcome…” it said again. The four lightwarriors felt pressed back by nothing, and they tensed and locked onto their criminal thrones. Edrick especially began to take in and release air violently.
“…To the temple of fiends,” the box finished.
They looked to Sylum or Gipson for answers, but neither could give any suggestion at all. The air behind the voice crackled a few times and then it continued.
“This temple is the legacy of dark over light. Likely your scholar, Doctor Darrin Sylum…” strangely, the box pronounced Sylum's last name wrong, “…has informed you that this palace was once throne to the demon king Lichern, though he almost certainly told you it was a myth. Know now that not a part of the story is untrue.”
Seville shook his head disbelievingly, but Sylum was peering in as best he could with intent interest.
“What your intellectual hasn't told you is just who Lichern was. Not so much a corrupt king, though that title might hold at times, but better he was, no, is a devil, an elemental spirit of the earth. On his darker throne, his kingdom of soil, deep within the planet, he is simply called Lich, and he waits patiently for a time to rise again. Those peasants that rebelled against his territorial throne have only delayed and angered the buried king. But the world is chaos, always chaos, and humans have little time left to make what they can of it.”
It went silent a few moments, following two more of the trembling chirps and thumps. Edrick had calmed almost by requirement. The beautiful, liquid voice was like a blanket to the cold or like a dressed wound. It was…comfortable, despite its alarming words, which would be hard to listen to on their surface level because of the lulling motion of the sound, but somehow the comprehension penetrated straight into the brain, and without the slightest affliction. Seville tried to catch Sylum's eyes to gauge his impression of the speech, but the doctor remained focused on the wooden box that created the supernatural voice. The powers of fascination were least effective on Herrik Gipson, who had not yet relaxed his taught and untrusting brow. He eyed the still box and waited for something to strike. With another introductory pop and hiss, the voice returned.
“But that is of little importance to us. What is important, as I first stated, is what Lich left behind: the temple. Not content to reside in a house of such…superficial splendor as it was when he took it, Lich had the temple rebuilt using stone and earth from the planets core: rock and magma dried, smithed, and fashioned into this palace as it stands isolated today. The very earth that forms his own castle far below.”
The aural inflections came and went, mixed with the cracking and snapping noises. For a second and supremely quiet, Seville thought he discerned the sounds of feet somewhere in the garble of noises, or at least the distinct sound of people. But as he sat elatedly in the glowing vibe of the smooth voice, he hardly pieced that thought into anything more.
“Filled with Lich's own madness, his creation was unlike any corporeal thing in this world. He created not a building but a being; something with a vivid and powerful consciousness, with especially attuned mental dynamics. Brave travelers coming to the temple of fiends looking for truth or riches never fell to the earth king's bestial army, those creatures are long dead. Instead they found the end in themselves. The persuasive dementia these stone walls can so effectively permeate into weak minds leads to murder and self-slaughter, and their bodies go to the king himself. But those are weak minds, and ours are strong.”
The box clicked off again, and for over a minute it sat dormant on the table, giving the warriors time enough to confer. They were each afraid to speak of course, unsure of whether or not the box could hear them, and if it could or not what that would mean. But finally Seville could not contain his query.
“Professor,” he practically mouthed, “What's going on?”
Sylum, having more than three words to answer with, had to punctuate a full whisper, “Do you think, maybe, that it could be the voice of Domino's superior? The way it speaks, both personal and distant, like it's trying to hide a common grammar behind a fake one. It sounds like a person trying to falsify his voice.”
Playing for the first time in quite awhile on his intuition, Seville could nod to that, but still he felt out of his league.
“Yeah....but what does it mean?” he asked, and the professor opened to respond but was cut short by the box buzzing back to life.
“Do you understand, then...” the box began saying, “...what potential we of strong mind possess through this temple? Do you understand what the true power of this building is?”
And the box paused as if for an answer, but the four were wary to speak. Of course, they looked to Sylum to make the call, trusting him best to choose the right path, but in truth the doctor was mentally writhing, weighing option after option on fatigued scales. There was more to his life than anybody knew, more than even he could remember, but not too long past midnight on the fifth morning of the journey, he was experiencing the strangest time in his life. And he didn't particularly like how it was going.
“Do you wait for an answer?” Sylum finally broke down and asked the brown box. And with its answer their suspicion was finally put to rest.
“A demonstration perhaps,” said the box, seemingly disregarding Sylum's question. The voice continued with its tonal, haunting quality. “A demonstration of the power we have only to harness.”
“Demonstration?” Seville said blankly.
“Try hard, now, to focus on your thoughts. Let them be what they will...” The box resumed its normal silence a few moments, and then the windy back-noise amplified into a torrent, not loud, but surging. Despite all efforts to the contrary, Seville could not help tensing up.
“Relax,” the box then said, almost like a direct response, “I'm not going to hurt you. If you are afraid then I will leave you for now...”
Somewhere within the shoddy wooden rectangle the violent sounds whirred anew and settled back into its regular groove.
“This is pretty weird right here!” Seville said aloud, just under the level that might reissue the pains through his mind.
“It begins...” it said, but nothing seemed to follow.
“What is this?” Seville accused the unbroken scene, stammering with his eyes about the room, searching for altercation. All things were unchanged, and though the box scaled down into lower octaves and the strange human backing behind the voice, the distinct breathiness, dissipated, nothing new occurred in the dungeon room. Although still formidably bound, Gipson was grasping his fists as though around a sword hilt, ready to strike whatever the magic crate might produce. There was such an uneasy, beady tension on the air he thought he might choke on it.
“What do you think?” chimed in the box very eagerly. “Is it not marvelous?”
“What the hell is he...” but Seville let it trail away.
Sylum felt normal as well, normal and confused. But the cynical, inductive reasoning in his brain also ran across a humorous thought he did not voice: this demonstration, this spell, was it failing? He thought for a moment that perhaps the consciousness behind the box, if it were there at all, had truly no idea of what was taking place in the prisoner's cell. No matter how absurd that idea, he couldn't repress it in face of the clues. He careened on the thin edge of a smile until he looked to his left and all cheery color drained from his face.
“Edrick!” the professor yelled over the whelp in his skull.
“What?!” Seville answered and turned and focused, “Eddie! Eddie!”
But the priest was completely gone, and whether they were real or not, before him he only saw the most luscious, florid cacophony of dazzling colors that could not even be thought possible. The multitudinous brightness beamed to him in euphoric chants; visual chants that could only reside somewhere in the stolen places of the mind and yet somehow undeniably manifest upon his skin and through his eyes and nostrils. The prismatic display enveloped him and at times he was unsure whether he was actually blessed with color or just shear whiteness and heat. A churning then sent the ribbons of light into spirals and then into floral patterns; marigolds, tulips, and pumpkin-sized violets blossomed within his retinas. And they danced to the symphony of their own beauty, some upwards, some downwards, and some jaunting into completely unrealized dimensions. They formed a path, a wholesome, welcoming path that with the position of the billowing petals suggested scores and scores of hands wafting him forward to the singularity of joy. As Edrick approached them he smiled and melted into their design...
“Eddie! Eddie!” the rogue yelped with need, frustratingly unable to attract the priest from his trance.
To them Edrick had not gone to a dimension of kaleidoscopic zeal, but some dark and infinite chasm. His lips trembled with ponderous fear, his normally pale face had gone immeasurably lucent, and he shook spastically as if overcome with a deathly shiver. Most terrifying were his wide, staring eyes that had falsely glazed over until they were flatly opaque. He aimed his frightened gaze into the parallel wall so fiercely it was strange the stone did not melt or decay. And for all accounts past that the priest was lifeless; his chest resting temperately under his cloak, static and calm.
“Edrick!” Gipson yelled ferociously.
“Eddie! Eddie snap out of it!” commanded Seville as he struggled again his wrists against the restrictive ropes. Craning his neck, stretching it to the point of muscle exhaustion, Seville tried to slap the priest with the side of his head and somehow break him from the hypnotic spell, but he was just out of reach. For the first time he tried to scoot the chair with what thrusts of the hip he could manage, but discovered then that it was immovable, planted solidly into the stone floor. “Argh!!!”
“Edrick Valance! You will respond!” Sylum attempted, but Edrick was still lost to the flushing organs of iridescence.
The flowering illuminations had given their life to blend and produce a vibrant glowing metropolis of high-standing towers and eloquent veins of flowing channels. Water of aqua, magenta, and even tangerine shuttled from pillar to pillar and traversed the complete estate from gushing fountains. Each abode was itself a gallant castle glamorized with stupendous tufted tapestries and soaring banners of every chromatic variation. All hunching towards the center of the city where dozens, no, hundreds, maybe thousands of picturesque statues of all hues waged endless sports of bombast to the laughing spectators. Somewhere among them stood an alabaster Edrick, wreathed in the most genuine of roses.
“And do you realize the significance of this display?” the box questioned them musingly. “Do you understand the inherent gravity?”
Edrick shuddered against his seat, but he stayed in the clutches of his both great and horrible fixation. It seemed to his friends that he was experiencing the highest of physical agony, some intense internal thrashing, but in actuality he felt nothing that wasn't superimposed by the brilliant images deceptively cast before his eyes. His awareness of the material world was for naught.
“A little more, perhaps...” came the deep voice from the box.
“No. No!” Seville shouted, but he only further proved that the thing could not hear them. “Come on, Eddie, come on.”
Two of the statues, porcelain gods, took Herculean lances into grip and squared off to one another. The other promenading sculptures charged to the side in majestic ballet steps on allowed the combatants their proper room. Edrick could only grab to the arm of a spectator and be pulled back, having lost all control of his legs. The western gladiator pointed his finger through the firmament and catcalled to his opponent, his voices pulsating through the air in sonic bursts of chromatics. He spoke in paints and dyes, his voice was truly silent. The eastern crusader hooked the ethereal beacons, sparkling turquoise and fuchsia, and assailed them with the density of his spear-point to craft a picture in the heavens. The ludicrous taunts and ephemeral jibes put into the past, the combatants set their stances and then charged...
“There,” said the box, soothing and paternally, “That is done.”
Instantaneously, Edrick exhaled gaspingly and dropped his head as it would.
“Edrick!” called Gipson emphatically.
The priest seemed unable to right himself, blinking sporadically and studying the room in a dizzy haze. His eyes, his tired, disoriented eyes conveyed fear, for certain, but also showed a strange sense of lack, like he had been prematurely disjointed from some paradise. For the first thirty seconds he consistently heaved against the ropes binding across his chest, perpetually yearning for something just before him, something that had been stolen away. But then the attacks, like a childish habit, an unconscious act, ceased, and Edrick was left panting and sagging in the chair.
“Eddie?” Seville interceded.
“Huh? What?” the still-dazed apprentice clergyman answered back.
“Snap out of it, man. Are you okay?”
“What?” Edrick said again, wishing he could wave off the interrogation like a swarm of gnats. It felt as though half his body was not with him, in fact, as if it had never been with him. Instead it had been born in another dimension, another reality bound in a world of color. Edrick's pained reaction that moment to the unhealthy darkness of the room mirrored exactly the pain suffered between the others and light. His skull throbbed.
“Listen to me, Edrick,” Sylum commanded with sincere concern in his voice. “How do you feel? Slowly...”
“Feel...I feel...not so good...” He wanted to cup his forehead in his hand. He realized how badly his wrists hurt as they chafed against the rope.
“What happened, Edrick?”
“Oh...oh no...that...” That drained empty feeling of his separation from the gifts of the hallucinations almost puts tears to his cheeks. “That was...amazing...”
“Amazing?” scoffed Seville. “We thought it was hurting you?”
“No, no, the very opposite!” Edrick wanted to spur into excitement and relate the tale of his vision but found his head thumped much too fiercely to allow it. He settled for resigned narration. “It was refreshingly pleasant, in fact.”
“How...what?” the rogue rambled in disbelief.
“It was,” Edrick assured. “I could hardly believe it at first, but then...I also couldn't not believe it. It's like I had no choice...”
The priest looked at them bashfully, realizing what little sense he was making, and Sylum adjusted the flow to be more accurate.
“Again, Edrick, think slowly. What did you see?”
“I saw...” began Edrick quickly before an abrupt stop and a squinted look. He shook it off. “I saw colors...”
“Colors?” Sylum returned to fill the break, and Edrick nodded.
“Right. I saw colors and... and... and I know I saw...” Edrick sighed, looked to his thighs, and grew aggravated.
“What else did you see, Eddie?”
“Flowers, maybe, or...no, buildings, no...”
“Pleasant, Edrick, it was pleasant,” the professor reminded.
“It was,” the priest repeated himself, “Incredibly!”
“You can't remember what you saw?” Seville, aghast, questioned.
“I can't ...” he sighed again, lost for even apologetic words. “It's not...”
“Once more, I think,” said the voice from the wooden box suddenly. The increasingly menacing voice made them jump with its entry.
“No!” Gipson roared from his seat.
“You all likely enjoyed that celestial vision...”
“All?” Seville voiced over the box.
“...but now I will choose one subject to give an even more convincing exhibition of this temple's great mental endowment. Prepare yourself.”
“Does it not know?” asked Seville, breathing frantically.
“Cease this!” Herrik Gipson commanded of the box once more, helplessly.
“Edrick, quickly, could you feel it begin?” Sylum pleaded.
“I was here and then I was there. Nothing. Like I said I had no choice...”
“Right, right, well, everybody just try to stay alert. Try to concentrate on where you are now. If you feel something come over you cry out. Don't let it take you...”
So exorbitantly afraid it felt foolish, the four scrunched themselves into their seats and feared the air, the walls, the anything, the nothing. The stagnant mist of oxygen about them spawned tendrils and snaked over them until they tickled and shivered with fright. Each was certain his mind was near explosion. But nothing was happening; in the small dungeon room of four chairs, a table, and a diabolical wooden box, nothing had changed.
Seville had always prized his ability to remain alert and in-the-moment; he kept a solid lock on his focus. Uneasy with just drifting in a fearful ignorance, he took to counting the stone blocks that formed the adjacent wall to his left. One, two, three, he never lost count or fluttered from his task. He admired as he traced the wall how intricate the construction was; not alternating layers of equal bricks with sides set half-off each other, but an ornate plethora of sharp rectangles jutting both tall and wide and sketching with their boundaries a maze-like labyrinth of grooves. He zoomed out to ascertain some larger design of the whole thing, but found it effectively random. When he zoomed back in he rejoined the brave expedition of the black army ant tirelessly scaling up a long trench, yearning for the next right turn of the path. When it got there it didn't stop to camp, it didn't take a breather, it just forced its legs onward a few centimeters, took the left direction, and scaled to its north once more. The trail it was tracking became more apparent with every insectival step, the light from its small helmet illuminating with every pass of the beam the wide footsteps of the criminal werewolf. Two more turns the army ant took until it galloped proudly into the square. The ant approached the cliff despite the murky fog, skittering incessantly after its quarry. A wrong step and the ant toppled forward over the cliff and shuttled to the tempest below. Achieving terminal velocity the ant pierced the ocean surface and forged a swiftly spiraling vortex in the waves. Seville choked with worry for the little insect, comforting himself by dabbling his feet through the skin of the sea on which the chair legs rested. The salty, buoyant water was lukewarm and delicately thin, and even the tiniest droplet of water fell from Seville's naked toes in torrential cascades of cerulean moisture, only instead of coalescing with its mother ocean the streaming waters beaded on the surface and skittled into amoebic pools, then slowly, very slowly, over the course of eons, merged together and formed a second great sea atop the first, with waves mightier and depths more terrible.
“Come on, Seville! Come on!” Edrick shouted, repeating the mantra he'd not even heard the rogue aim at him. “Snap out of it!”
“There is nothing we could do for you, I doubt there is anything we can do for him,” Sylum proposed logically.
“But we must try!” the priest stormed back in agony.
Seville was rejecting the hypnotism. Unlike Edrick's gargoyle stare, the rogue rebelled against his confines, pummeled the magical ropes about his legs, wrists, and chest, and hammered the back of the chair. Rotating his hands about the wrists as he could, stretching them, risking their tendons, he scratched feverishly at the ropes. His eyes widened and shut and then widened again, and all the while he hummed a mad tune, violently jumping octaves and tossing the rhythms each way. Sweat rained down his quivering, angry face, and he visibly gnashed his teeth.
“If you can hear me, Seville, please, fight it,” the clergyman begged.
“Looks to me that he is fighting it, good priest,” Gipson said softly but firmly in trying to comfort Edrick. “Patience, now. If did not injure you it will probably not injure him.”
Edrick bit his lip and nodded, the emotion watering his eyes.
“Such imagination can be momentous under the will of the earth king's citadel,” said the wooden box cryptically.
Swimming, churning, paddling frenetically with its six tender legs, the singular ant made headway across the globe-spanning body of marine torture. Seville could feel it approach, like every slow inch was another grain of sand in the hourglass. He could feel distance, feel time, feel the above and the below, feel life and death. As the ant swam nearer and nearer, though still ages away, the tropical clouds above, fiery, burnt goldenrod, bifurcated into two quaking fronts that met at their ends to form an ovoid rounded much as a human eye, the pupil, iris, everything radiating a heartbreaking sapphire. The optical mask in the sky started speaking in a high, demon's voice, but the language was foreign. Seville could comprehend the magnificent sight no further, so he looked back to the infinitesimal bug, but saw it nowhere. His telescopic eyes examined through each peaking tsunami but the thing was gone, gone until he heard the minute pecks on his chair leg. Shooting downwards, he saw the ant crawling up and up once more, over the lip of the seat, to the top of Seville's thigh, and then towards his chest. The rogue cringed and rocked on his floating throne, but the ant was irrepressible. Carefully finding its footing along Seville's sternum the now palm-sized insect studied with its million eyes its final destination. Seville wanted to cry, wanted to scream, but from his larynx he spoke only levitating bubbles of water. And despite that fact, he realized he was thirsty. So thirsty...
He was surely dying, surely suffering a burst heart. Had he the ability he would be sobbing and sobbing until his illusionary ocean had become real with tears.
“Come on, Seville! Come on!” Edrick chanted now, mindlessly, hopelessly.
Seville hiccupped and coughed and gulped down air only to upchuck it hysterically. He traded gruesome hums for ever more grim whelps and grunts, all low and fierce enough to tear apart his throat. It was unlike any sound the other three had ever known or would want to know. It was the definition of awfulness. The ragged, painful sight was eventually too hard to watch for Edrick or Sylum. Only Gipson's age-backed mentality could stomach it.
The ant paused on his shoulder, paused and stared. The demon's foreign cackling barely resounded over the new, stout cracks of lighting inserted to punctuate the thundering emptiness between Seville and the beady insect. Seville looked at its sharp pincers and its strangely still antennae, and the ant looked at the rogue's drenched and soft skin. The otherworldly tongue from above finished its sermon with a release of meteoring brimstone, with each collision igniting its own personal hurricane of fire. Seville burned in the impossible searing heat, and the ant scuttled in, reared its weapons, and bit...
“No!” Seville shrieked out of his rapture and belted another furious bout of coughing and hacking. His vision was one complete mosaic so he couldn't find the source of the hurting bruise he felt on his forehead and right cheek. And the sounds he heard behind and above him were too meshed and frantic to translate, as if several people were barking orders at him. He couldn't handle the pressure, couldn't handle the intensity; he wanted to keep his face laid against the frigid stone surface where the temperature soothed his aching body. Nothing seemed better than to curl up like he did on that dungeon floor and wheeze himself into another stupor, this one of restful sleep. Tears trickled from both eyes; it was all too much.
“Seville, do you hear me?”
He thought he heard his name, but all the words were so enjambed with symbols and foreign linguistics. The voice of his friends perhaps, but also there was the inkling of darker beings hailing at him.
“You're free, Seville, you're free!”
Free, he thought, free, but what did it mean?
“Can you hear me at all?” an external voice exasperated.
The traumas dissipated quickly. First the dizziness slinked away and then the demon's recurring voice was no more than a mumble. Too much fatigue was pounding through his body for him to feel pain, but awareness to other senses did surge once more through him. That knowledge revitalized his eyes and limbs, and though he was angry he couldn't remember what had happened, he was also joyous for it. His focusing eyes scanned along a gray bumpy plane that instantly configured itself into the ground. When he wanted to reach and make it real with his hands, he couldn't move them, but as inwardly frustrating as that was, it finally dawned upon him where he was.
“I'm free!” he shouted, allowing the walloping migraines to do their worst. Seville rolled over to his back and looked up, seeing first the low ceiling, but then he nodded forward and saw his three friends staring at him blankly, still imprisoned in their chairs. Flat against the dungeon ground, back to the floor, he admired all that was around him; so real and palpable, but somehow not more real than the forgotten dream. There remained an itch in his head that tinkled just near the lick of his scalp, as if some metal piece in his brain had dislodged and begun scraping at the membrane. Could he trust these new friendly images? Had the box released him or had he actually broken free? Quandary wrapped him like a blanket, but he had to rebel against even that. He strained his abdomen and sat up, wonder-eyed.
“Incredible!” Sylum blathered, awestruck.
“You did it!” encouraged Edrick.
The bindings about both Seville's chest and legs had been torn apart, literally exploded into ropey slivers that even then were wafting in the damp air.
“But...but...how?” asked Seville, like the priest out of his own daze.
“You just pulled yourself free, man!” Gipson confirmed, “Brute force!”
“I ... I don't remember...”
“Neither did I,” Edrick said empathetically. “But it's over now!”
“The box ... the box said ... it was over...?”
They each raised their glance from the spectacle and found the box as it had been the whole time. It had not spoken for over two minutes.
“Well, no, but what does it matter?” Edrick said.
Seville shook off the question tiredly.
“Can you stand?” asked the knight authoritatively.
A wave of ache washed over the rogue, but still he said, “Yeah,” and did so. The rope enchanted tightly around his wrists still remained, and he walked cautiously, never nearing the box lest the proximity incite it to further action. The quiet from the evil wooden thing was dreadfully alarming.
“Do you think it knows?” Seville asked, scrunching behind what was once his chair as if the box would barrel at him.
“Can't say. It hasn't responded,” Sylum answered.
“I've gotta get these last ropes off!” said Seville, searching for any aid in doing so.
“But how, Seville?” the priest asked innocently.
“I'm workin' on it, man, I'm workin' on it,” and then he saw something, something that just might work. Seville squared off with his former chair and kicked across the seat. As he'd hoped, it remained planted; it didn't even shake. “Maybe. If I've got enough strength left in me.”
From either side at the top the chair's back jutted three extra inches of metal, rounded into a jagged bulb on the top with essences of Cornerian gothic. Seville turned his back to the chair and looped the narrow stretch of rope between his wrists into that pike.
“Let us pray I don't tear my own hands off,” he said before struggling forward as fiercely and mightily as he could summon. He felt like he was back in that chair raging weakly against too great an enemy, and could not in all capacities of his mind understand how he had managed to break the other ropes, but he continued to tug away at those around his wrists desperately. Then with a shock so sudden he almost stopped fighting he jolted forward a matter of inches and heard the uplifting scratching of the tether being undone. Moving his step forward to accommodate he pulled harder still, growling in his throat to be done with it, and then in one instantaneous pop the rope snapped apart and Seville launched forward to the stone ground. It hurt more inside his head then it did upon it when he fell, but for once he cared little about that. Zealously, Seville jumped to his feet, stretched his arms and looked at his fellows.
“What are you waiting for, Seville, get us out of these things,” commanded the knight happily, just as a familiar and unwelcome voice rejoined them.
“Quite enough, I imagine. You may rest,” said the oblivious voice from within the box. Seville shot away from it and parried for a strike though one never came. The leap putting him closest to Gipson, he made to untie the intricate knots above the knight's wrists but stopped very shaken when the box spoke again.
It was not common, or even the Elvish or Dwarfish that was sometimes heard about larger towns; it was something older, something more archaic.
“What is that?” Gipson asked concernedly.
“...Leifen,” said Sylum was an impressionable smirk. “The ancient language.”
“What does it say?” Gipson demanded, preparing his options.
“I don't speak Leifen, nobody does. I just recognize the syllables.”
“Now ... behold...” started Seville.
“Huh?” the confused knight implored.
“It says ... it says...” Seville began again, trembling at the lip and fingers. “It says, now behold the true power of the temple of fiends.”
“You speak ancient?!” cried Edrick and Gipson simultaneously.
“No, no he doesn't,” the professor answered first.
“Seville, how do know what it says?”
“Just ... I ... wait a minute, quiet!” assailed the unnerved rogue. He translated the ancient inflections of the mysterious voice further, “It's saying, is it clear to you now the supreme power in our hands. We can transmit knowledge across the planet instantly. From this very palace we could give dreams to the elves, nightmares to the dwarves, and ideas to the kings of men. We can speak to the universe, and through our voices harness it.”
“How are you doing this, Seville?” sputtered Edrick, affright. Seville groaned and palmed his cranium, drooped his head and panted.
“The language is in me,” he tried to explain somehow. “The dream ... the dream taught it to me.”
“That's impossible,” exasperated Sylum, truly emotional for the first time.
“Oh...” Seville moaned, “Oh, I can feel where they put it my head. Like it's trying to chisel its way out.”
“Try to forget it!” suggested the kinetic Gipson. “Don't think about it! Push it out of your mind!”
“It's in there like a stake, Gipson!” the rogue stammered impetuously, now sweltering his agonizing skull with his hands like a bleeding sore.
“Seville, you've got to try to get us out of here,” came the abrupt order from Darrin Sylum. Seville breathed away what pain he could with one more heavy sigh.
“Right,” he said, and went to work on Gipson's bindings. It didn't take him long before the knight's arms were released and Seville moved on to Sylum and then Edrick, all the while the box was orating in Leifen, speaking just for Seville. The rogue catalogued in the back of his mind what it was saying, but didn't concern himself much with it. It was more of the pompous semantics.
And then the four light warriors were standing and extending their tired muscles into restful positions. They noticed when the box stopped speaking, trailing off like the end of a speech, but as so many times before nothing happened afterwards. Just a pause in the flow it seemed. Grouping and readying themselves they approached the door.
“Wait,” Edrick said.
“What? What now?” Gipson asked, resuming leadership now that they were back on their feet.
“Should we, you know, do something to thing?”
“What?! No! They'll probably know if something happens to it.”
“Are you sure? They don't seem to have any way of...”
“Yes, I'm sure this is different. Besides, as long as that thing keeps talking we can go unnoticed. At least, that's what I'm hoping.”
The matter settled, they bundled into the hallway and Gipson at point took the handlebar in his grasp. With a collective intake of air he opened the door, slowly. Millimeter at a time he could avoid most of the metallic screeching, and then it was open fear enough to slip through. As they stepped through the box began to speak again, still in Leifen.
“What is it? What is it?” the nervous priest rambled, and Seville took a few moments to collect enough context.
“It's still just talking, Eddie. It don't think they suspect a thing.”
Leagues and leagues away from his element, yearning sorely for a feel of home, Edrick nodded resignedly and followed them out the door. It was another dark hallway much like those they had seen the entire time before being captured. They didn't recognize it, but did recognize the torch light down the armor-laden hallway.
“We're close, be very quiet now,” recommended Gipson, trying to master the upended hairs on his neckline. “I'll go in front. Softly now, step by step.”
“Guys ... guys...” Seville whispered strongly.
“You're not gonna believe it!”
Following Seville's gaze of wonderment to the floor a little ways down the hall opposite the torches, there was a pile equipment and glittering silver, topped impressively by a blade shimmering very modestly the most stunning aura of blue.
“There's no way!” vocalized Gipson with a suddenly smiling awe.
The four light warriors went to their weapons, and they readied for battle.
Chapter 14 ~ Frailty
“And all things change them to the contrary.”
--Romeo and Juliet
Herrik Gipson, at point, led them cautiously down the final hall; those last steps among the thousands taken en route to supposed destiny. A light warrior's destiny. It felt a burdensome time for those thoughts on predestination to return, bounding them on some false elastic cord between certainty and hopelessness. Seville most of all was overcome with strange conflict. He remembered how he had thought it all so ridiculous in the beginning; an old man and a professional scholar getting tossed up in a fairy tale, and most unbelievable of all, dragging along some no-good rogue and his incompetent priest. No maps of course, no interrogations, just good, never-let-you-down destiny to lead them to the princess. Seville had trouble pinpointing that one detail, that inch of restraint that limped on its duty and allowed him to go on some holy mission. But then, in only days the pieces stuck themselves together, and this infectious rightness blinded his better judgment. Can four random people be light warriors? Can I be a light warrior? No, of course not, he thought, hesitantly shaking his head at these thoughts, but so slightly the others would not notice. He was no savior, and Edrick also didn't fit the bill. Professor Sylum was a bookworm, not a warrior. Sure, he'd grant Gipson, but the rest of the crew was in need of some refinement.
But here they were. Steps away from destiny, just as Sylum predicted it. Seville didn't know beliefs could suffer such ebb and flow. He didn't know if he could put his faith into destiny, as remarkable as the evidence was, or write it off as coincidence. And he didn't know exactly what the evidence was. Finding the temple, the princess, and her captors. But, the princess was not as he envisaged, whatever that meant, and Domino certainly could have been lying, though the professor did not seem to think so. Was it Chuck Domino's article then that brought everything into question? What was this Lux Aeterna that they were supposedly working for? What are the qualifications of light warrior? If the loquacious journalist presented facts, then it had nothing to do with magical orbs and great consequence. It was just four warriors helping people in need. And if it were not for four unimpressive crystal orbs that came together mysteriously on that first day, he would still be in Corneria city this very moment. Still in jail, he thought, with a certain conviction.
And yet, if all the legend truly requires is four warriors helping those in need, then, that they were doing, or at least they were trying. What did questions of faith in destiny matter, or beliefs in two thousand year old legends when it came to helping people? Isn't that something you just do regardless of what you are? Well, no, not for him, Seville thought. How many had he conned? How many jobs had he pulled and what was the total value? And what about how it hurt Dunnings? Can a light warrior have this résumé? But did that even matter? Can he turn a new leaf? As Gipson said, change is everything.
But would Seville change? Once every new burden rose and fell on the rogue's shoulders as every more desperate step proceeded down the ultimate hallway, that's what they came down to. That's what everything added up to: can I change? He looked for those parts in him that had to go, tried to separate and dissect them away, but Seville only found that every other part of him was attached. His mind was one big ball of yarn and he needed just the core. Or better he was a house of cards with no more struts to spare, barely standing in the currents. The wind was the future; the only thing that the great Herrik Gipson feared, and it sure was slow in getting there. Easy, right, going from con artist to semaritan? That's what Edrick had told him all those times. But he didn't know everything; barely knew anything actually. But then again, maybe those few things he knew were the only ones worth knowing.
Spiraling between hope and despair, destiny and chaos, the real thought that held onto Seville was, “Poor Eddie, the only hero we have left...”
Gipson waved them silently to a stop when they came to the turn of the hall. He spun his head around to the others, gestured, and looked back. The torchlight was relatively brilliant just around the corner; they were getting close. The knight thought twice and glanced to his warriors once more and signified they ready their weapons. That Seville or Professor Sylum would drop them at all was a false guess, but he did it just to be sure. With black wizards, it was impossible to be over prepared.
Around the corner was yet another hallway, another disappointing march, but ending this one was not a flat wall with adjacent paths to either side but an opening to a wide room. Over the crackling of the torch fire Gipson was certain he heard the low murmur of a voice. Close, now.
One gentle step at a time, they approached destiny.
At the end of the last march Gipson paused and waited, yearning his head as far forward as he could, but the life in the great hall before him was too far off to the side. He hadn't made much of a plan, not yet trusting his three companions with complex tactical maneuvers. Hostage rescuing was never his primary talent, anyways. Utterly silent, Gipson faced the team, took long, heavy breaths, and felt on his brow a fresh trickle of sweat. Such nerve, he thought, the most unsettling he'd ever felt.
By the look on their faces, the others felt the same way, and had as little advice on where to go from there as he. Finally, Gipson nodded; a healthy nod, despite the worry, a proud nod. This was it. Gipson lifted his dragon sword, smiled at them, and turned the corner, ready for war.
The enemy was not exactly prepared, or even paying the slightest attention. When the first bodies came in to sight, Gipson dodged and slung himself behind a ceiling-reaching pillar, and the others followed fast behind. Having left Gipson's armor behind for sake of stealth, they did this noiselessly. A quick glance around the massive stone column, and Gipson saw everything.
At a wooden desk that was weighted laboriously with high-stacked parchments and a not-so-foreign wooden box, sat a new man, dressed simply in a T-shirt of very dull purple and black denim pants. His face was in places dark and cavernous, and yet in places shallow and pale, like an uneven earthquake had played across his skull, and his black hair was a veritable grease deposit, shining luminously in the torchlight and tucked flat down his wide and round head. And from the narrow gapings of his slivery mouth emitted the most juvenile, nasal voice that one would likely ever hear. This man ducked his head into a small black rectangular prism that lay just before the wooden box, and he spoke to it about power.
On a stool but a few steps from that desk, facing off into some no doubt interesting cranny of the flat castle wall was Chuck Domino. He was passing the time by picking at his teeth with a wand tip, and occasionally sulking his head into his hands and making silent pleas for peace. Or so it seemed by the intense scrunching of his eyelids. If he possessed interest in the moment it did not show.
And the final piece, Queen Bee, was not far from that, her back up against the wall of the throne room, arm perched atop the one raised knee, mouth pouted forward, disinterested, glorious orange hair unkempt and hanging to her waist. The victim of the most terrible kidnapping in the history of Corneria, Princess Moira simply sat and examined her nails. Of course she was beautiful, of course she was stunning, of course it could look like a kidnapping, but Gipson knew immediately that Chuck Domino was telling the truth. Something with her was wrong.
“It's her,” Gipson mouthed, and the others craned to see. They too looked instantly disoriented by the situation. What was this?
“On my move,” he then whispered silently, once more readying his blade and performing those first, fateful steps.
He drew himself a good lead into the room, still completely unnoticed despite the fact that his aggressive advance now bordered on flaunting. Domino and Princess Moira were lost in their own boredom, and the mysterious man at the box was too intent on what had just become a message of fear and lament to notice much of anything. Clearly this man was speaking to four light warriors that were supposed to be off in a dungeon chamber, tied to chairs, immobile. And the truth of that situation was broken to him not a moment later, when Gipson called out with supreme authority.
“Don't. Move. One. Muscle!” and he brandished Drâco proudly.
Immediately disobeying, the man at the desk choked on his tongue, hacked through a flurry of wrenching hurks, attempted to jump up in astonishment, and stupidly bounded back over his chair.
Chuck Domino's toothpick was quickly made a weapon, and unlike the man who could only be his boss, he gave not the slightest flinch. The flat, dull edge of the wooden wand aimed straight into Gipson's chest, and Domino held it there and waited. For a journalist his readiness for battle was uncanny.
“Impossible...” he muttered quietly, perhaps for the first time approaching speechlessness.
Princess Moira didn't move at all, only stayed at her seat against the wall and watched like one might a boring play. When Gipson saw this, greater and more dire red flags billowed in his mind. This situation was out of his control before it began, he thought.
“Out!” he shouted, and the acoustic boom of throne hall ricocheted his deep voice around them. Quickly the three other light warriors joined him, Sylum bearing the potent Werebane and Edrick just trying his best to look threatening. Seville edged himself to the side and scuffed his feet, ready to make a dash for the princess if Domino should try something.
“How did you ... how did you ...” the clumsy man stuttered through violent breaths, darting his eyes to and fro between the light warriors and Chuck Domino, perhaps his bodyguard.
“Now,” continued Gipson in a lowered tone, but not with a lowered weapon, “I want to keep this as simple as possible...”
“How did you...”
“You are outnumbered and by the looks of your help, Domino, you're hugely outgunned. That said...”
“How did you...”
“Would you hush it, Gar? What are you, asthmatic now?” convulsed Chuck Domino in bitter disgust for the situation. Gar stopped speaking and settled for annoying Domino through pitiful wheezing noises. The mage was quiet and calculating, he let Gipson speak on.
“...That said, there doesn't have to be any bloodshed.” From the corner of his eye, Gipson could see Seville inching closer and closer to his dash for the princess. The knight was wary of the move; wanting to make more time while he figured out this odd vibe he was receiving. “You know why we are here. We'll do what we've come for and go, nobody gets hurt, nobody needs to get hurt. Your fate can be left to the King's prerogative.”
Gipson could swear that at that moment he saw the princess stifle a chuckle under her breath. Domino was undaunted.
“How did you escape your confines?” the black mage asked haughtily, while the unimpressive Gar was finally taking control of his breath and wandering, almost aimlessly, into the situation.
“Okay,” the knight continued, as if Domino had never spoke, “Let's do this slowly. Princess Moira? Can you walk?”
“Princess?” inquired Gipson direly, purposely above Domino's interruption, though Gipson could not help keeping his eyes on him. Moira did not move.
“Just hear me out for one...”
“Moira,” Seville began in Gipson's stead, already half the way to her, “It's time to go. We've been sent by your father to rescue you. Just walk over to us and we'll get out of here.”
“That's it, hold up a minute, buck-o!” shouted Domino angrily. “You're not taking the princess out of here just like that, or at all for that matter, so allay the hurry one bit, and let's have a conversation.”
“Enough!” Gipson roared, swiftly unsheathing a dagger and launching it true to the black mage's throat, and as Domino twisted and halted the blade in the air with a deft swoop of his wand, Seville let loose his tarried feet, took his own dagger firm, and charged to the princess. Even when he came upon her and offered his hand she did not take it or stand to leave. In fact, she looked Seville in the face as if he were some dumb beast, and waited for events to run their course.
Entirely expecting his attack to fail, Gipson made a rush with his dragon sword even before the dagger was magically halted, only to stop dead in the air just like it. Domino, with a quick draw of a fresh wand, suspended Herrik Gipson in his attack with a firm thrust of the dowel, but from there his options thinned. Edrick stupidly gazed at the excitement, but Darrin Sylum eventually rallied himself to join the attack.
“Garland, a little help, maybe?” Domino requested emphatically, jousting Sylum off with a lance of ice from the wand in his off hand.
“Princess! Quickly!” Seville commanded at the sidelines. She finally did look at him, and then she opened her mouth and made to speak in length but was cut off. All she got was, “I don't think you'll understand this, but...”
“What do you mean?” the man, now officially named Garland, asked, trying his best to not be Sylum's target.
“I mean, do it! You know what!” replied Domino, furious, again sending Sylum astray with a well-aimed blast of ice magic.
Garland seemed to lament for a millisecond and then he dragged in a deep breath and said, “Right!” in his pipsqueak voice. Running to a more central location in the grand room, Garland clasped his fingers together and sunk himself into his mind; the results came instantaneously.
Black figures, black creatures from some void, sporting antennae and tendril-like claws, melted up from the cold stone floor and scampered about in ballet-worthy sync. The very same creatures as the single apparition from the dungeon room, like shadows only opaque. A dozen of them in all, they briskly and tactically circled Sylum and Edrick, with two each put on Gipson and Seville duty. Gipson, still enwrapped in Domino's magic, did nothing, and Seville, now seeing himself greatly outnumbered, backed from the fight.
The rogue swiped his arm through the air to capture the princess's undivided attention.
“What is this?!” he hissed at her, but she only passed a nonchalant glance back to him before focusing her attention on Chuck Domino and Garland. Seville felt angry breaths tensing in his chest when the princess looked away from him. He didn't realize how close the shadows had become.
“It's always a fight with you people!” the black mage chided, releasing Gipson with a jab of the wand. The knight bounded back and slid across the ground, where four shadows quickly surrounded him on him all sides. “Perhaps you shouldn't delegate diplomatic avocations to the so very … philistine Mr. Gipson.”
Gipson clenched his fists and reared a charge but Domino already had his wand aimed right at him. Reluctantly, Gipson curled his lip and edged back from his stance. When one of the pesky shadow creatures drew too close he kicked it, and it flew a good five meters.
“You see?” continued Domino, then he pointed to some papers that had strewn about the stone floor, indicating that the still uncomfortable Garland was to pick them up. “Barbarous.”
Domino stood still then, waiting for Garland to finish the short task and join him before the wooden table. To pass the time, he scratched his head and squeezed the sweat from his eyelids, and after that he took to twirling the wand between his fingers. However, rather than fixing the problem, Garland only managed to knock another tower of paper over onto the floor. Domino sighed.
“Over here,” he said, looking at Seville and marking the spot with his outstretched wand. Resignedly, cautious to put distance between himself and the princess though he couldn't understand her disapproval of being rescued, Seville walked over, joining the others in front of Chuck Domino. About ten feet separated them.
“Garland! Forget it! Let's just do this already.” Domino seemed incredibly tired.
The man named Garland nodded, dropped the papers in his hands back onto the floor, realized that was a stupid thing to do, went back down to retrieve them, realized he hadn't gotten anywhere in doing that, decided to let them stay, and finally stood next to Domino at the table laden with the wooden box identical to that one from the dungeon room.
Domino shook his head, not so much in real disbelief but in that false disbelief that comes after a person makes petty mistakes again and again.
“Get on with it,” Domino commanded, and the four light warriors seriously began to question who was really in charge.
“Right,” Garland said, an awkward smile forming on his deformed face and quickly disappearing for a stern, professional grimace. He turned to the light warriors. “Welcome…”
The intonation of his greeting matched the voice from the wooden box perfectly, though still in a higher register. He was definitely the one who had been speaking to them.
“…In case you haven't guessed this already, my name is Garland. Yes, as I'm sure you're thinking it, I am the voice in the box. I am also the no-doubt diabolical kidnapper you've been hunting these past four nights. So am I, in effect I suppose, the enemy. Or at least, your enemy.”
Doctor Darrin Sylum sunk his head slightly to one side, and prepared to sift through this man's words. He wasn't interested in semantics, or even in compromises. Sylum waited to hear the proposition. Herrik Gipson just waited to strike.
“To address that end, where supposedly we would have a combat of sorts and to the victor goes the princess,” Garland gave an open-handed acknowledgement of her existence. She smiled and waved back, a twiddling-finger kind of wave, and an extremely sarcastic smile. “Let me inform you, as a gesture of kindness, that in that situation, there is no victory for you.”
“Let's test that right now!” Gipson barked, and for once Garland displayed backbone by warding the knight down with a firm showing of his palm. Again, Sylum tried to take over for the knight.
“Master Gipson, let the man talk. As long as the princess is in our sights he can stall to his heart's content.”
The princess visibly laughed at that, but then she looked away to avoid having to answer for it. Garland sighed; Domino did nothing.
“Lieutenant First Class, right? Of the Knights of the Coast?” Garland asked, but Gipson only flared his nostrils and said nothing back. “And a knife fighter that I understand can put up quite the fight?”
He looked Seville over, who was still burning within to know why the princess had brushed him off. What was the meaning of all of this?
“And a white mage to clean up the mess? Not a bad party, not at all.”
Sylum bit his lip. Garland hadn't mentioned him.
“My point being, Master Knight, and please keep this in mind: we put a stop to your offensive in twenty seconds. How much longer do you think, Master Gipson, would it take us to kill you?”
“About twice as long as it took me to kill you!” Gipson threatened, repressing his roar. His fists clenched anew.
“That's it!” Domino broke in, jousting a wand in Gipson's direction. “You don't talk anymore. I'm tired of listening to you. One meeting was too many, a shame it is I must suffer three.”
“Shut your partner up and I'll put you out of your misery!”
“Gipson!” Seville interrupted.
“You are the greatest warrior I have ever seen, but in this case I'm afraid they are probably right.” Seville turned the dagger uncomfortably in his hand, waiting for things to reveal themselves, hating these delays. The princess was chuckling to herself once again.
“You see what I told you about him?” Domino said to her victoriously.
“And here I thought you were exaggerating,” is what she said back.
“Journalists don't exaggerate, Moira.” She laughed to that.
“Anyways!” Garland forced onto Domino, for once affecting his behavior. Domino actually quieted obediently, a scowl returning to his face. “Given that an aggressive offense on you part would unquestionably result in the death of your entire party…”
Garland looked them over along with offering a cordial tuck of his hand.
“…and I don't want that, you've all worked so hard to get here, so perhaps we can approach an alternative together, something beneficiary to both sides, something … symbiotic, if you wish.”
“What do you mean?” Seville inquired, a new chord of tension wrapping into itself on the back of his neck as Sylum's predictions appeared to be coming true. His clenched his dagger tighter. “Just, get on with it!”
“Of course. I'm going to proposition you now, you may ask questions, accept, or decline. You accept, and this world is ours for the taking. You decline … I'm afraid you will die.”
“Get on with it!” Seville screamed at him. He couldn't fail, not like this, he couldn't let it all slip away after this. In his mind, for the first real time in four days flashed the gaunt, unhappy image of his Godfather, Dunnings. Seville knew just what he was unhappy about.
“Doesn't that hurt your head?” Garland asked out of the blue. “The screaming and everything? I'm sure the headaches must be killer after what you went through.”
Thick beads of anger deposited in the rogue's throat.
”…What does that matter?”
“Well, why do you do it? Purposefully bring yourself pain like that. It was a long trip you took to get here, I'm trying to offer you some comfort. So please, stop yelling.”
Not a one of the four light warriors could believe what they were hearing from this Garland. Just who was this guy?
“The proposition,” Sylum entered and requested. In his peripheral vision he saw the knight grit his teeth.
“You're right, it's time,” said Garland, he paused a very brief moment, then, “Join us.”
A block of the most ridiculous silence.
“What?” Gipson said, half-query, half-growl.
“I'm quite sure you heard me,” Garland retorted pompously; the knight squeezed his knuckles tighter.
“I'm quite sure I didn't, because I know you wouldn't…”
“Why?” Sylum interjected, very levelheaded.
“Protection … to a certain extent, but also credibility.”
“Every show needs a straight man, of course,” Garland winked.
“I don't understand what you mean,” Sylum said to him as his three partners reeled with the anticipation of combat. To be honest, the professor wasn't thinking that was going to happen.
“My apologies…” Garland said with a comely grin, “I've been needlessly vague. Let's get more concrete.”
Garland clapped his hands to set off the job and walked around the wooden table, signifying the wooden box with his outstretched arms.
“Gentlemen, I give you the Requisitive And Didactic Imaging Object, or Radio as we call it for short. Simulating the very enchantments that haunt these castle walls, this device can transmit the spoken word half-way across the globe as long as there's another one over there to receive it. Logically enough, there are transmitters, like the one you see here, and receivers, like the one you saw in the dungeon room that you so bafflingly escaped. They are a tad bulky to move but are virtually impossible to destroy, and as long as they do remain intact the enchantment is permanent.”
Garland paused and waited for response, but the light warriors were dumbfounded in totality. Gipson was so confused he even let his bared sword off of ready and just held it to his side, staring blankly at the wooden box; the Radio. Garland, realizing that his response wasn't going to come, went on.
“Imagine, if you would, this instructive scenario: a civil war breaks out in Elfland, between them and the dwarves, and by an astonishing bout of good fortune the dwarves overtake the great race and install one of their own as king. As his first decree, the new king sends all of the Elvish dissidents across the ocean, where they decide to seek refuge with their nearest acquaintance, Corneria. Now, you could learn about all of this the day that the Elves arrive on your shores, huddling for food and shelter, or you could have known about it five minutes after the coup began, with daily updates.”
Garland paused again, the grin growing wider on his face. By now Chuck Domino had eased himself to the side a few feet to let Garland play his part, but he didn't smile. Domino veered his eyes into the light warriors with utter conviction.
“The effect …” Sylum began, very slowly and carefully, “… the effect on the political structure … the effect on the entire world would be … astronomical…”
Garland nodded his head, jerked Sylum with his fishing hook.
“No more isolated nation states hunting barbarically for more land,” Garland said. “No more worry as to whether the attack is coming, no more messengers throwing their lives away, no more doubt.”
Garland placed his palms to the table and leaned forward with a sincere brogue upon his stumpy face, a smile all-assuring.
“Imagine! A single world community! Our ability to connect with each other will create an ability to … understand one another. Politically. Socially. Personally. We could transmit messages to the entire world weekly, daily even. This is a revolution!”
The information sunk a little deeper; Dr. Darrin Sylum most of all was stricken with the most terrible conflict, one of duty, understanding, and desire. As he stood he began to breathe heavily, his chest rising and falling like the waves of high tide.
“You would … you would need … thousands!”
“Yes, of course,” Garland returned plainly, “That's exactly why we're building thousands. My good friend Chuck is quite skilled at it. It is a … delicate process to be sure. We are not fooling lightly with the powers of Lich, simply using his strength for a more complete purpose.”
Not one of the light warriors had realized the dark children, the sentry shadows, has long melted back into the floor, and with Domino's wand sheathed once again, they were quite unguarded. Instead, they could hardly realize a thing.
“You still haven't explained our purpose?”
“You will bring our invention to the people and proceed from there on a schedule we have laid down. They will receive you as light warriors; as heroes.”
An unsteady looked passed between the four, and then they entwined their own and placed it uncomfortably on Domino, who looked them right back in the eye. Garland took direct notice of this.
“Chuck's article has shaken your faith; your faith in yourself. And you believe the same has happened throughout the small part of Corneria that even knows you exist. In truth, it was merely a tactic employed to ensure that you would act rashly. Emotion is always an efficient catalyst to the achievements of a destined hero. And as for the people, when you return with our great gift, they will only trust you more. The king is wise to the fact that his people are only looking for the next big show, and so we must be wise to that as well, and plan accordingly.”
“We weren't sent for some wooden box, no matter how powerful,” Seville sneered, looking the princess over once more, internally cursing her lackadaisical stare into the events. “Do you have any idea what would happen if we returned without her?”
“Absolutely,” Garland bragged, smiling effeminately now. His ability to turn his lips for the right moment rivaled even Herrik Gipson's. “King Eliv will go into an ferocious tirade, whereupon you will inform him of our whereabouts and that he need only come claim his daughter. Eliv will believe you, as materialistic as he is, every father would give his life for his daughter when it finally comes down to it, but he won't go himself, and he won't send a recovery squad. He'll send an army. But of course, we are only building his hopes. When that army arrives, they will transmit the message back to him, via the radio we've given him, that no one was found. As a result, Eliv will declare war on the world.”
“Some promise of understanding, huh?” Seville chastised. The knight to his left had put his long sword back into the air.
“By this time, of course,” Garland continued, ignoring Seville's comment, “We'll be safely out of the country. In Elfland, in fact, where we will be installing our next series of radios. They will buy into it because, using the already operative installment within Corneria, we can prove to the Elves the substantial power of the thing, the power to know everything about everyone. They will look upon us very kindly, assuming they don't lynch us for being human, but last I heard they don't do that anymore.”
Sylum almost chuckled, by this time euphoric within his own wonderment at the size of thing that they, four warriors from a second-world country, could barely even scratch the surface of. This was so much bigger than everything he could hardly keep himself from fainting, though all he saw to his sides were born weapons. That, he decided right then, could not be.
“King Eliv's world war will be fierce, and will spread quickly. We can only hope it won't spread more quickly than us. The radios will be distributed in mass; we'll get people to do it for us. Every country will listen in, their very first radio transmissions will be the warning that a mad king is coming to slaughter them, and those statements will be correct. They will put up their guard, and together, the world community will put Eliv at bay. Their safety and victory granted by the will of our machine. How could they possibly deny us then?”
“You would start a war!” Seville roared.
“Start a war to end war, Seville.” Garland knew then to turn his smile down, to remove it actually, and replace it with a very thin, certain gaze. “This will also go as a lesson to them. How can there be war in a world community? Because any assault will be announced long before it occurs, communities will band with others to survive, and they with others until eventually there is only one nation.”
“It's too big!” said Seville. “You know something will fail in your perfect little plan.”
“Ah! I was hoping one of you would bring that up,” the smile returned. “Tell me, Seville … no, Eddie, we'll start with you…”
“My name's Edrick,” the priest said. His feelings so far were too confused to pinpoint, but mainly they revolved around distrust. He could not let a war begin because of himself. Would not!
“Forgive me. Edrick, tell us, what do you remember of your dream? The so-called, demonstration I graced you with.”
“Nothing,” Edrick said forcefully, trying his best to disprove any point the scheming little man was trying to make. Besides, he didn't really. He couldn't remember a thing.
“Oh, sure you do. I'm not talking about images. Think more abstractly. What do you really remember from your dream?”
“I told you nothing!” Edrick defied, his conscience aching at his temples as the lie slipped from his mouth. When he began to think about it he knew exactly what Garland was wanting him to say.
“Another approach perhaps? Because I know you know what I want. Fighting is useless, I already told you that. Now, is what you remember 'joy'?”
Edrick ducked his head away; he wouldn't look at Garland.
“You acquiesce, and I'll take that as confirmation. It's okay to feel joy sometimes, Edrick, this world forgets that now and again. Besides, in this instance you were unable to resist it, but there's not a doubt in my mind that you didn't feel it or that you can't remember it. I know.”
Trickles of shame tucked themselves around Edrick's eyelids; still he did not look towards. Garland let it go.
“And what about you, Seville? What do you remember from your dream?”
Seville thought everything over, wondered if it would do any good to deny it like Edrick had, but then understood that it really wouldn't. He looked Garland straight on and spoke very bitterly.
“That's right, you did, didn't you? Fear! It's amazing stuff. Live in a haunted palace as I have for the past three weeks and you'll learn a lot about it. About it's power to … influence. Even control.”
“What's the point?” Sylum asked.
“The dreams you had are another power of the radio, obviously we won't spread this one around. No, we'll keep that power just for ourselves. Tell me, what might happen if we gave a king a dream, gave a dissident army a dream? Dreams of fear or jealously, or even joy? They won't remember what it is they dreamed of, they won't remember the fantasy we gave them. The only thing they will remember is the feeling. What do you think would happen, then?”
No one spoke back; Garland chuckled.
“Allow me to put it another way. Let's return to our past scenario, elves and dwarves. I ask you…” and Sylum knew that very moment that Garland was looking right at him, right into his very soul, “How would you like to be the dwarf king?”
Sylum dropped his long sword, and it landed with a deafening metal crack on the stone floor. He didn't pick it back up, didn't even seem to know he'd dropped it. Garland knew he had him, and moved in once more for the kill, pointing to the radio on the table.
“Because with this thing, we can own this world!”
Gipson ripped an extra sword from its sheath and snapped on the air.
“Undoubtedly,” Garland responded, looking a little flustered by Gipson's firm approach, “But I'm also right.”
“Not if I stop you right here!”
“Back!” Domino shouted with his wand fresh in the air, directed at the knight, the fiery aura of something quite deadly already brewing on the end. Gipson snarled, the clean edge of his dragon sword itching to be used on this refuse. But he desisted as the threat of Domino's magic came into play. Gipson showed his teeth like a wolf.
“I've given you my proposition,” again Garland seemed to be looking right into Doctor Sylum, “So now it's time for you to make your choice. I'll repeat for the last time, Master Knight, you are making the wrong one.”
“Then let it be the wrong one!”
Seville took half a step forward, desperate to figure things out once and for all.
“One condition,” he said, and Gipson turned towards him aghast.
“Seville!” but the rogue somehow stared the towering knight down, then he looked back to Garland who had put on a cautious face and had ducked his ear forward, pretending he couldn't hear.
“And what is that, Seville?”
Seville wasn't sure if he should say it or not, whether it meant something or not. Seville just wasn't sure of anything anymore. Still, he spoke, and said it as proudly and confidently as he could stomach amidst the inner turmoil.
“The princess goes free.”
Garland rolled his eyes.
“Are we still on that?” The response made an infinite number of ice crystals sink deep into Seville's chest. “I was hoping to keep proceedings simple and avoid this little bit until later, but if we must we must, so, gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to our leader, our … mastermind, if you like, the stunning Princess of Corneria, Moira.”
“What?!” Seville stammered and spun his neck to view the woman sitting until this moment lazily up to the wall. The princess looked back and brushed some rogue strands of her wavy red hair from her face. She gave the gawking thief a sinister smile and finally stood to join her partners, clicking her tongue to the top of her mouth a few times as she approached.
“Gee,” she began, her voice was haughty and malcontented, “Admirable sentiments can be such a killjoy sometimes. Especially when they've already taken you so far.”
“How could you … how could you …” Seville tried to find words, but neither him nor his team could produce a single manageable one.
“Very easily. Any Cornerian who has half a mind can tell that my father's a fool; he's just fortunate that none of them do. At least except his own daughter, and that's what will come back to hurt him the most.”
“But … but …”
“Don't try too hard now, the answers aren't always right in front of you,” Princess Moira said, by now sitting back against the wooden table, her hands grasping it around the edge. She talked liked Garland, very affirmative and condescending. “His kingdom is built on publicity. Act like you should be famous and you will be, that kind of thing. What it's not built on is policy, or heck, even intelligence. And that is why Corneria is being driven into the dirt. Many of his own people love him, but that is something that other nations don't see, and he doesn't know how to command their trust. They don't respond to entertainment, they don't watch the magician's dancing girls, they watch the magician. And that's a pressure my father can't handle.”
She stopped to look them over once. Edrick still was at a point where nothing came together, and Gipson also was static with his approach. Seville looked as if he needed a mother to cradle him. Nothing. All of this was for nothing.
Sylum was very intrigued.
“For the sake of Corneria his reign has to be stopped. That's something we can do. With or without you, mind, but we are offering you your life for your ability to protect ours. This is a good deal, Seville.”
How dare she speak his name!
“In your plan Corneria loses its war. This country you're saving would be devastated either way it seems. Why through bloodshed?” Seville asked.
“Corneria will be rebuilt,” the princess answered simply. “The victorious nations will join and aid the reconstruction.”
“Why?” the rogue interrogated, not knowing why he even bothered to continue speaking. He was going to fail and he knew it, and the thought tore through his gray matter like shrapnel.
“Because we'll tell them to. We've already been over this, there is nothing we cannot control.”
“Except,” Garland entered once again, “…for you four, which is why this time, and this is the only time, we are offering a choice. You know what you need to know; now it's time for it. Join us or not, right now!”
Silence. The wafting, sickly kind of silence that made you feel green all through your body blanketed over them and injected its poison. Half a minute passed, and then a full minute, and then more. Not one of the four light warriors felt like one, or even felt like part of a team. Each was alone with his thoughts, completely isolated from companionship. They each knew their answer, but were awfully afraid of the others'. The three opponents, the pestering mage, the treacherous princess, and the mysterious Garland just waited for them to speak. They stood almost shoulder-to-shoulder, a fortified armor designed only to intimidate. Anxieties stood on a wire.
“I will not let you start a war,” Herrik Gipson finally said, low and threatening.
“People go to war for all kinds of reasons, Master Gipson,” Garland retorted bombastically, “Elves slaughtered five-hundred thousand dwarves over control of a fourteen mile-long straight. The Leifens, the ancients, the cultural, not to mention biological backbone of the entire human race was massacred almost to the point of genocide over salt. Some people…” and once again he seemed to gaze deep into Sylum's mind, “Some people even go to war over ideas. I am not ashamed to go to war for the betterment of the world community. Neither should you.”
“I will not let you…”
“You are a knight, Master Gipson, war is your job. All of your friends in the K.O.C. are going to fight in it. So, too, can you, in the most important way. This is the war that the Knights of the Coast were established for. The great war! A war to end all others. This is not something you can stop.”
“I will not let you start a war!!! As a Knight of the Coast, Lieutenant First Class, it is my duty to protect the innocent, regardless of creed or country.” Gipson was alive with fury. He turned and squared off with Domino, who held the wand as ever, up and menacing. “Get one last feel for it, Chuck, because in five minutes you won't have a hand to use it with!”
Domino unsheathed an off-hand wand and set his eyes to kill, assuming with his body a battle stance.
“Proposition failed,” he told Garland and the princess, “Just like I told you it would. Recommend termination.”
Garland bit his lip, and then he shook his head like you did to someone passing up the greatest deal in his life.
“Very well, I'll cede to your judgment.”
Gipson sprung forward with a wide swipe of the dragon sword, and a misfired bolt of lighting snapped on the ceiling, sending the foundation into rumbles and loosing large stone bricks, which fell in a haze of dust.
“Wait!” a defiant voice screamed over the contest. Gipson and Domino, half a second from going into each other again halted with bitter looks and turned to the source. It was Doctor Sylum who had stood out and brought them to a stop. He looked very strong, and yet at the same time infinitely weak. “Just wait.”
“This is the only way, Doctor!” Gipson defended.
“No, no that's not true,” Sylum defended right back, then he paused a good time where he seemed to be trying to pull the words from deep within him, from his gut, but also from the darkest skirts of his mind. “They … they're right.” An even more potent agony flushed over then. “We should join them.”
“Professor!!!” Seville and Edrick shouted in unison.
“Sylum!!!” Gipson added with even more energy. Had they been looking, they would have seen Garland take two small steps back, cross his arms, and smile.
“If there's a way we can win then we should do that!” Sylum argued.
“That is not winning!” yelled the knight.
“Yes,” the professor said straight into Gipson's face, and then he looked back and forth between his friends, “Yes it is! Think of it! Every man, woman, and child in the world will know our names. We'll be famous!”
“At what price?” Seville asked, completely and utterly in shock.
“A price I've already paid,” the doctor answered darkly.
Gipson roared and charged upon Sylum, bringing the long sword quite near his throat, and grimacing with disgust.
Sylum slapped Gipson's sword to the side with the Werebane.
“I don't apologize for the world's weakness!” An astonishing anger trilled in his voice. He raised the Werebane into a battle position and, the edge crossed against the legendary knight. Gipson marked him strategically with a counter-position of his own.
“I have seen you with a sword, doctor. This isn't a path you want to take. This isn't winning, I assure you.”
“I'm defending what I believe!” Sylum said, nearing delirium.
“Professor, Master Gipson, please…” Edrick attempted to plea, but neither was listening. Seville moved closer to intercept them, but he was afraid to get in striking distance.
“I'll give you one move, doctor, but after that we're doing battle, and I will be myself from that point on. It won't last but one move longer.”
Seville hedged closer, warning hands out and frightened.
“This can't happen,” he said as if it were metaphysical certitude. Sylum nodded then, and Seville could only assume it was to him.
“Remember…” the doctor then said to Gipson. “Remember that I saved your life.”
There Sylum sliced his blade at Gipson who easily blocked with his primary hand and then went in with his off-hand short sword. More dexterous than he had ever let on, Sylum wrenched the Werebane backwards over his hand and blocked the attack, stepping backwards quickly from the force of it. Gipson growled and approached, and Sylum found his balance and his grip on the blade.
Twice more the knight went into the fray, and twice more Sylum found himself stumbling out of it alive and uncut. Gipson was furious, making sloppy attempts with the dragon sword that Sylum could just defend, though getting more and more fatigued with every bone-aching repel.
“Stop this! Stop this!” Edrick was screaming over the battle, but the combatants were set in this contest until it was done.
Gipson practically rounded on Sylum, dizzying him in a wind of the blue aura from the dragon sword, but at every strike Sylum managed to have his own sword there to block it. Then Gipson made a swift jab with the short sword, which Sylum fenced away but at the loss of his footing. Careening backwards with flailing arms, Sylum could almost feel the hard stone cracking into his skull but at the final moment his body was jerked sideways from the right arm and a gruesome yelp pierced the echoing walls. The sharp sound still ringing in his ears, Sylum jaunted his head up and was immediately blinded by a rain of blood that trickled around his glasses and pasted his eyes. The split-second image he had had time to receive was of Seville, his mouth agape, his eyes scrunched, and his chest ripped through.
“No! Seville!” Edrick cried, running so quickly to the rogue's aid that he tripped over Sylum's legs.
At first Seville was too surprised to feel the pain. Beginning at the collar bone just under his throat and stretching downwards diagonally towards his side was a blood-soaked canyon of flesh, the crevice so deep he could make out the flecks of white bone from his rib cage. His dull maroon blood flooded out down his shirt and legs, and his chest and left arm uncontrollably twitched. Then the momentous pain seized his muscles, his nerves shot on and off, he was instantly light-headed, and as the world began to rotate fiendishly around him he realized his legs had given way and he was staring hopelessly at the ceiling. Hard breaths came one at a time.
“No, Seville, no!” the priest pleaded, crawling to Seville and wiping the blood from his face.
Herrik Gipson was halted at first, an icy blizzard shooting through his veins, but soon they were replaced by the hottest of fires and his eyes glowered at Sylum, who was still entirely awe-struck and frightened at the ruined sight of Seville. The doctor dropped the carnal weapon like a man whipping away a serpent, as if it would make him strike again. He wiped the guilty blood from his eyes and slapped away his glasses in confusion and frustration, moving slowly the whole time on his elbows and feet. He couldn't see what was around him; he only felt the burning sensation of the salty blood in his eyes and saw black-splotched cuts of activity around him.
From Gipson's perspective this traitor was crawling away from his fate, trying to avoid what he'd done. The knight had never known such anger. He bellowed his fury so powerfully it echoed down the distant halls and returned to them, and then he charged the prone Sylum, who turned in fright from the noise. Gipson impacted his foot solidly into Sylum's shoulder, and the doctor flung onto his back
He had the audacity to raise his arms and defend himself, and that only made Gipson angrier. The knight reared his sword high like some righteous demon slayer and saw at that last moment how Sylum's tears mixed with the blood in his eyes to give him the impression of crying that very blood.
“Please!” Sylum begged helplessly, “I don't want to die!”
But Gipson had made up his mind. With a swift punch the blade pierced through Sylum's belly, and the doctor wrenched up in a spasmodic flinch, unintentionally digging the sword deeper until it exited through his back. Sylum coughed and felt at the weapon through his belly before walloping pulses of agony made it too difficult to even sit up, and he fell to his side, curled in a limp fetal position, looking away from everything.
Gipson was suddenly sick all over, sick with fear, with anger, and with guilt. Every extremity tingled with anxiety, paranoia, so violent a sensation his hands shook and his knees trembled. He forgot what was happening around him, stopped hearing the tear-filled cries of Edrick, and was beyond Seville's choking gasps for life. All that remained was the feeling, flushing into his pores like a poisonous gas, striking him so harshly about his throat he could barely breathe. He dropped to his knees and stared at his hands like foreign things, awful things. His dementia was only broken by a sudden white heat from behind him that lit the whole of the room brightly. Instantaneously the situation rushed back to him.
“Edrick! No!” he called even before he spun to see that it was true, only he was too late.
Edrick's hands were held over Seville's dying body, white wispy air fluttering between his fingers.
“You can't die on me!” the priest assured, finally certain of his spell. He thrust his hands into Seville's chest, and the vibrant positive energy beat through the rogue in hot shockwaves. Seville's eyes shot open, and his mouth sucked in a vacuous breath. The wound rippled and stirred, the patchy walls of flesh flapped, but nothing healed. Instead, bruise-black rivulets slithered like worms down Seville's right arm until the rot had grown to his fingertips. His palm was dull purple. He didn't seem to be breathing.
“No!” Edrick shouted. “Don't fail me now!”
He began to shake his hands feverishly to work another cure spell into them, but just when the brilliant aura had enwrapped his hands once more an arm craned around his chest and pulled him away from Seville.
“No, Edrick!” Gipson warned. “You mustn't!”
“I have to help him! Master Gipson, please!”
“You can't, Edrick, you can't!”
The priest looked the knight over with a visage of the most severe boyish fright, the color so faded from his face even his freckles had evaporated. His cleric's robes were freshly dyed red.
“But I must try!”'
“You can't, Edrick, to try is to kill him faster!”
“How can you say that?” Edrick pushed himself from Gipson's grasp and pulled away as if Gipson was conspiring against him. Gipson dropped his head and searched for the words to explain. Why must it come out now?
“The scars, the blackness on his arm and neck; it is called ghost rot, and it feeds off your white magic. He cannot be healed.”
The utter horror sucked enough color from Edrick's face that it was transparent, and pitiful tears washed through his eyes.
“But … but there must be something…”
“No, there's no cure. There's nothing we can do.”
“It can't be!”
Edrick looked at Seville who was breathing once again, but very spastically and painfully. His eyes were open and delirious, his hands clamoring aimlessly about the blood-wet stone floor, his feet doing the same, his mouth clapping open and closed like he was muttering shouts, only they were noiseless. Teardrops rolled down Edrick's face. How could there be nothing he could do? Why hadn't Seville told him?
Much like a boy entirely out of his league, Edrick fought through those painful, hiccupping sobs and tugged Gipson by the arm.
“Seville can't die!”
Gipson had been looking the wound over but then he turned to the priest and dropped his voice.
“Edrick, I'm afraid … I mean … with that bleeding … there's just no way…”
“I think we can abort the mission,” said a completely forgotten voice then.
“You're right. They're not much good to us now. Okay, go ahead and get out of here, we'll need to start by tomorrow, I'll finish this.”
Gipson curled his fingers into a fist, bared his teeth, and looked at the three at the table who had done no more than stand and watch. Domino and Moira picked up a few pouches and bags that were scattered on the floor and made for the hallway, leaving Garland there. The knight unsheathed a fresh sword slowly and angrily, dramatizing that metal shink as he pulled it, digging his deadly gaze right into Garland's face. For once Garland looked pensive, that perpetual pompousness finally put to rest.
“There is much darkness in your heart, Master Knight. You seem very familiar with what it is to hate,” as he spoke, Garland inconspicuously brought his hands together. “I wonder why that is.”
“Save it!” Gipson commanded.
“I think it is because you … are not real…”
“I've had enough!” The knight hollered and he lunged forward with his sword aimed straight for Garland's heart. But in only two steps the ground beneath him felt like little more than air and he toppled forward into a mass of shadows, the black, insectival monsters with tendril-claws, beacon-yellow eyes, and smooth bulbous heads. Instantly he couldn't breathe, could hardly move. They grappled his throat, twisted at his limbs until the bones ached, and scratched at his skin. How many, he couldn't tell, but it felt like hundreds.
He thought he heard Edrick yelling for him in some distant place, but that voice distorted, jumped octaves, and spoke nonsense. He was really just hearing his own insanity, he thought.
“Kill them,” Garland ordered his dark children, and then he wiped down his purple shirt, and then his jeans, like a gardener finished with a hard day's work, and he sauntered lazily towards the exit.
Edrick could feel his presence as Garland passed behind him, felt it like the passing of a devil, a soulless, heartless being of death. He shivered throughout, but didn't turn to stop him, knowing he couldn't. Knowing he couldn't do anything. Garland was gone from the room and they were alone with their failure. Seville had gripped Edrick by his robe, tried to pull him forward, tried to speak, but all that escaped was blood down the sides of lips, tracing jagged patterns over his pale cheeks.
“I want to help you,” Edrick told Seville, unsure of whether or not his friend could hear him at all, hoping to find something truly important to say. A convulsion waved through Seville's body, making him yelp and cringe inwards over his gut. Edrick laid Seville once more on his back and used the sleeve of his robe to wipe away the stagnant sweat that mottled red on his cheeks and throat.
A tortuous screaming sound rang across the room, so screechy it nabbed Edrick in his spine and he bounced over Seville's body, overtaken with nerve. Scanning for the source he saw the air fluttering with the black shadows, all of them flailing and gripping to each other for safety and eventually slapping hard into the stone floor all about the room. Spark light twinkled to Edrick's right, accompanied with the crisp sound of a sword scraping the stonework. He looked and saw Gipson, brandishing Drâco proudly, eyes obsidian-black with intensity, fresh cuts down his face, through his shirt, and over his arms. So many wounds his skin looked red enough to match his hair.
“You think you can kill me with a couple bugs!!!” he shouted at the man who was no longer there. “I'm Herrik freakin' Gipson!!!”
The raging knight marched to the closest hobbling shadow, underhanded a deft swipe, and bisected its head. It pranced backwards like a beheaded chicken and then tripped to the floor, which it then melded, once again, back into. The other shadows began to hop madly and gaze their beaming eyes at Gipson. In their dancing kind of walk they very slowly approached, all together.
“What are you waiting for? Come kill me!”
Edrick lay as close to Seville as he could, keeping his head low and inconspicuous; the shadows seemed little interested in him. The shadows fanned outwards, creating a wide semicircle around the knight, who continued to stand with the dragon sword ready and a fearsome scowl on his battered face. He took a dagger in his off-hand as the dark creatures closed in.
“Edrick…” said a weak voice, and the priest shot his eyes to Seville hopefully, but he had his face turned to the side and was just doing his best to breathe.
“Edrick…” the pitiful voice said again.
A pressure the weight of a boulder sunk in Edrick's chest as he realized the only other possible person who could be speaking. He glanced carefully over his shoulder and saw that Professor Sylum had turned himself around and was staring deadly at Edrick, his arms slung limply before him and his livid face, tricking with blood from his mouth, pressed against one of the blocks of the floor. Only his mouth moved, very slowly.
“Edrick … I can help him…”
The priest was staunched on his knees and fingertips as if he would suddenly need to break away in some sprinting run, and he looked between Seville and Sylum with a quiver running consistently over his bottom lip. He shook his head uncertainly.
“Edrick, please… I can help him…”
“Done enough, haven't you?” Fresh, urgent tears swelled in Edrick's eyes.
“I can help him…”
“You can't!” the priest defied, his voice cracking into a squeal.
“No, you don't know that…” Sylum crept one of his arms in Seville's direction, grabbed as tightly between a groove in the stone as he could, and pulled himself inch at a time towards the rogue. The sword sticking through him dragged along and made a horrid screeching sound.
“You should stay back!” Edrick said, but Sylum continued to approach.
Two of the shadow creatures were flattened forcefully into the temple wall which they defensively reabsorbed themselves into, and with a pointed dash Gipson circled a squad of five and slapped at them with the broad end of the Dragon Sword. When struck hard enough the shadows popped like melons, their individual bits splaying about the room and sinking into the floor.
When on the attack they were fierce and quick, rapidly pouncing one after another at Gipson's backside while he jabbed feverishly at the hordes before him. For every one he killed, three more seemed to drift up out of the floor and gnash their claws against this combat. Gipson spun unexpectedly and skewered three bodies on the end of his blade and he launched them off with a hard jerk to the front, the catapulted shadows knocking through the offensive lines and scattering the army.
They shook their spherical heads, but before they could reorient themselves the master knight was already upon them with two blades, chopping heads and limbs with single strokes.
A brave shadow leapt to his face and scratched as violently as it could before Gipson could pierce it through with his dagger and punch it to the side. Fresh running wounds clouded his vision long enough for three more of the demons to run beneath him and pummel the backs of his knees so that they jerked forward instinctively and he fell to his face. A wild attempt with the longsword behind his back dethroned the imminent attackers but when he tried to regain the sword for another attack five of the creatures had already grabbed hold of it and torn it from his grasp. Twenty of the shadows piled on top of Gipson and those that could sank in their claws.
“Don't come any closer!” Edrick shouted at the very slowly approaching Doctor Sylum, who left a wine dark streak of the blood in his path. Black blood.
“I have to … I have to try …” Sylum muttered, hardly able to put together two words. Though his mouth opened and closed as he gulped the flowing blood away, and though his arms were frantic and nearly unmanageable, Sylum's sickly white, alien-looking eyes were unflinching, their gaze deadlocked on Seville, whose own eyes were closed as if he was sleeping. Harsh breaths came and went from the rogue, each one as if it was the last.
“If he could be helped, I would do it!” Edrick defended. “I would do anything!”
“I can help him…” Sylum persisted as he crawled, now quite close.
Edrick made to warn the doctor again but his tongue was choked in his throat by a bright yellow flash and accompanying explosion. A new wave of shadows shuttled past, most of them in several pieces. When the echoing flurry of noise settled low enough they made out the sound of Gipson howling. Edrick slapped a chunk of shadow off of Seville's legs and twisted to see Gipson just as the orange fire was dissipating away. His shirt was bitten over with burn holes and two of the great red steeples of hair were noticeably singed away. Gipson threw the remains of the glass decanter from his fire potion to the side and began to look about vacantly. The two shadows that had not been consumed by the powerful blast looked at each other, and then sank away into the ground. The dark army had been defeated.
When his bearings rushed back to him the first thing Gipson said was “Stop!”, with his dagger jousted towards Sylum. Gipson stood and bounded to Seville in three great strides, never dropping his readied weapon, but still falling weakly by the rogue's side as his many wounds began to get the better of him.
“You stay back!” he shouted, looking as if it had taken him twice the normal air to say it in. Though his lips were tightly shut he seemed to be biting and his breaths became more and more difficult. His skin was terribly perforated with gashes, some dangerously deep.
“Master Gipson, be still, I'll cure you.”
“I'm fine! Don't come any closer, doctor, or I'll finish what I started right now!” Gipson pointed twice with the dagger tip and glowered.
“If you want to save Seville's life then you must trust me.”
“Trust you!” Gipson stammered. “You've given up your trust!”
Sylum stopped crawling not two feet from Seville's side and he pressed himself up as high as he could and jostled himself around to his side, slowly making his way to his knees. The hilt of the short sword stuck through him was shaded in dark blood, the same that ran to the base of his legs.
“You hit my liver, I will be dead in minutes,” he pleaded. “But I may be able to help Seville. You must let me!”
“He cannot be cured!” Gipson hollered. “It feeds off white energy!”
“Not all magic is white or black…” Sylum slumped himself onto his behind and examined Seville's malicious wound as best he could at that distance. When he ducked his head closer, Gipson met it with his dagger and warded the professor back. “No, please! Whatever you believe about my faith, whatever you believe about my loyalty, you must put that to the side. I know you have never questioned my knowledge.”
“What would you do?!” Gipson snapped.
“Please…” never had a more sincere word passed Gipson's ears. The knight looked at Seville, barely breathing, and he looked at Sylum who had minutes at best. With almost painful restraint, he dropped the dagger and looked the traitor over coldly.
“Whatever it is, do it, and hurry. You don't have any time left!”
Sylum nodded and lifted his arm out.
“Help me,” he requested. “Pull me closer, I can't move my legs.”
Gipson did so immediately. Sylum slumped to his side, knees bent with his legs flat on the floor and tucked under him, propping himself on one tired arm. The wound was as deep as he remembered, not really deadly but for the blood loss, which by the looks of the murky red pool to Seville's left was already substantial.
“He's fatigued,” Sylum said, watching Seville's face for signs of consciousness. “He's too tired from shock to open his eyes, but he has some time.”
“But we can't cure him!” Edrick stated blankly, and Sylum nodded it away.
“The bleeding will have to be stopped.”
“It's impossible!” Gipson raged.
“No,” was all that Sylum answered, slowly fishing his trembling hand into one of his trench coat's many pockets. He removed a small wooden jewelry box with a latch that clicked in his shaking hand. Sylum gulped hard twice and the trembles subsided a little; he opened the box delicately. Inside was a something that looked like a long sewing needle and also something that looked a little bit like thread, only thicker. Then Sylum pulled a vial from another pocket, immediately recognized as some of his morphine.
“Make him drink this!” he ordered, a task that Gipson went directly to.
After several attempts Sylum threaded the needle with the thick wire and tied it into a small knot on that end. He studied the long, deep cut once more and took a few more calming gulps. He had become very lightheaded.
“Seville … my friend …” Sylum wiped away a layer of Seville's sweat from the rogue's face with his hand. “…I'm so sorry. And … if you can hear me … this is going to hurt a lot.”
Then with the final precise motion he might ever be capable of, Sylum grabbed the jutting skin at the base of the cut and stabbed the needle through.
“What are you doing?!” Edrick shrieked in terror, rounding Gipson into rearming the dagger.
“I'm sewing him shut,” Sylum answered plainly as the needle stretched across the chasm of the wound and exited out the skin on the other side. “It's called surgery. The Leifens did it, since they didn't have white magic they developed many other forms of healing.”
“But you're hurting him!”
“It might save his life. Be quiet!”
Sylum continued one stitch at a time, the black thread pulling Seville's parted skin together tightly. At times Sylum's hands began to shake so tremendously again that he stopped and put the needle, closed his eyes, and just breathed, a sour yellow complexion painting in shades onto his face.
Gipson and Edrick were silent and still, the tension wrapping them in a stifling heat, and they never offered help or made further threats. They let Sylum do it, whatever it was, and he never looked at them for approval, his eyes, when they managed to be open were direct and severe, watching his procedure with what care his delirious mind would allow. The surgery was half done then, and Seville was still sleeping.
“When I finish you get him out of here!” Sylum commanded. “The temple will try to poison his wound, and he is not strong enough to fight it. Get him as far away as you can, and give him more of the morphine if it looks like he needs it.”
An incredible numbing sensation flushed through Sylum's body and he fell to the side and smacked the floor. He tried to shake it off but realized he couldn't even feel it, or anything for that matter. The final moment had come, his nerves were giving out. Even in his fingertips he felt nothing. The pain from the sword had vanished into a dreamy state of perpetual floating. He thought he could move, but the world around him drifted in mosaics when his eyes shifted.
He coughed a clot of blood out and it hung fresh from his chin. Hands moist with the black signs of his impending death, he grabbed for the needle and tried to finish his task, lost for feeling.
“Professor,” Edrick said meekly, no longer understanding right from wrong from anything else, “I … can fix you, ya know? I will still cure you if you ask me to.”
The priest expected to have the knight glaring down on him, but Gipson was resigned and his face was emotionless.
“No … I wouldn't … be … able to … bear it…” Sylum responded monotonically, finishing another stitch with his left hand and palming dumbly into one of his pockets with is right hand. With great effort he extracted a thin, leather bound book, already damp with his own blood. He tossed it at Gipson.
“You … give this … to him … when … he wakes up …”
Gipson opened the cover of the short tome.
“No …” Sylum reprimanded. “For … him!”
The book was snapped shut.
The final sutures were the slowest, with Sylum dropping his head and closing his eyes every half-minute, each pause longer than the one before. Once they thought Sylum had actually died, but he returned each time as if he'd been dozily slumbering for years at a stretch. In fact, Sylum didn't even realizing he was doing it, as from each wake he began exactly where he was before, never skipping a beat to reacquaint himself. With one final gush of energy the professor closed the wound, tied the wire into a scraggily knot, and pulled the needle away.
“Go …” by now Sylum's voice was barely audible. “Keep … pressure…”
He jaunted forward onto the palms of his hands and watched the blood from his mouth drip onto the floor, suddenly overtaken with his final feeling: cold.
Gipson nodded to Edrick, who was wiping messy tears from his face and sniffing repeatedly. They stood and looked down at Sylum, eyes unbearably drawn to the black bloody sword protruding from his back. The professor was still like a statue, a perched gargoyle. He was content to kneel there and bleed. Neither could find words to say.
Gipson lifted Seville carefully off the ground, and motioned Edrick to the hallway, That walk was the longest either had ever had in his life, dragging one of their compatriots to his likely death, and leaving another behind to his certain one. Gipson had had enough, so he didn't plan to drag it out any longer, and when he came to the threshold he just kept walking, but Edrick turned. Sylum had not moved, but Edrick could make out that his eyes were open, often blinking. The priest waved his hands to signal the rights of passage and sniffed again.
“I'm sorry,” was all he thought to say then, and he turned and followed Gipson down the hall.
Sylum noticed first how quiet it was, when finally the footsteps had passed even their faintest echo. Even the temperate, nostalgic crackle of torch fire seemed muted and distant, and eventually not there at all. Sylum wondered if they had gone out because it had become much darker in the room in the past minutes. But when he looked they were burning as they always would, long after he had rotted to a skeleton.
Cataclysmic images wanted to take over his mind, terrible forewarnings of guilt and damnation, but they couldn't. In his brain, what was left of it, things were tranquil and motionless. There was no color but white, but a calm, dormant kind of white that caressed you in its feathery embraces. For the first time in a long time it was pleasant.
Then his arms gave out and he was lying on that temple floor staring along the plane of existence and becoming more and more awestruck by the second at how astonishingly white everything was. Then he couldn't even hold his eyes open to see it, and that was too discouraging to accept.
Doctor Darrin Sylum took his final breath, and died.
Every long hallway was nothing to their funeral march; they passed as if they were but inches long. Every path they could choose only led one direction: out of the Temple of Fiends. The dying man in Gipson's arms never stirred, even when their journey had brought them out this dungeon and into a bleak early morning. Gipson and Edrick kept going, farther and farther, mourning all the living and the dead.
Chapter 15 ~ Final Mending
“Put him down. Here!”
“What is it?”
“He's not breathing…”
Gipson placed Seville on his back in the dew-moist grass, and felt under his nose for signs of life, but the rogue had turned cold. Edrick circled around nervously, drumming his fingers on his robe and saying short prayers under his breath. The rollicking, airy sounds of the ocean crashed in the background, and the early morning sun was blocked by a wooly veil of gray clouds stretching as far as could be seen. Complexions of subtle pink and dark turquoise painted over the scene.
“Can't we do something?” Edrick asked hopelessly.
“I don't know about this stuff, this is what we have cure spells for,” Gipson said, scratching the place where some of his hair had burned away and creasing his lips furtively into a frown.
“Is he still bleeding?”
Gipson undraped the tattered cloth they had dressed the wound in and wiped away what blood there was that hadn't dried to the skin. The cut was ghastly to look at; human flesh scored and stitched together like fabric. However, the bleeding had stopped.
“No, that's stopped, but he already lost so much, I just don't think…”
“Don't think it!” Edrick snapped and the knight nodded in return. Seconds passed like hours. Edrick eventually fell to his knees and took the dying man with his hands on either side of his face and looked, for once not at the wound, but at the face, and pleaded for survival.
“Come on, Seville, come on! Don't die on me! You can't!” He didn't cry like he expected, perhaps he was too overcome with emotion to do even that. “I couldn't even save you. I'm the cleric and I couldn't even save you!”
Edrick growled in anger and thrust himself away and began to pace once again.
“His heart still beats, Edrick, he is not dead yet…” the knight comforted as he felt for the pulse at Seville's throat. Edrick had nothing to say to it.
Gipson sat on his knees and overlooked the rogue who was utterly still and silent, so much so it was surreal. He seemed even quieter than the dead somehow. Gipson placed a hand just below Seville's heart and entwined his other hand atop that, and then he pushed with a firm stroke into Seville's chest.
“What is that?”
“Saw it once before, man had stopped breathing, thought it might be worth … a try,” said Gipson, adding another stroke. Seville's limp body shook but nothing resembling life returned.
“You could hurt him!” Edrick shrieked.
“Anything's worth the risk right now!” Gipson pumped again; nothing.
“He's turning gray!” trilled the priest.
“You will not die on me!” The knight barked hotly and he powerfully jousted his hand into Seville's chest once more. The rogue immediately started coughing frantically, hacking fresh clots of blood from his mouth that splayed into the air and mostly landed on his cheeks and forehead. He coughed for the whole of thirty seconds, and Gipson or Edrick thought to do nothing but stand back and see what happened. Finally the fit passed and Seville's lungs filled with lively oxygen, his breaths were deep and caressing. But his eyes stayed closed and his body basically motionless.
“Seville…” Edrick whispered hopefully.
The rogue slowly opened his eyes and blinked several times. The frigid lavender hues of the eastern sunrise, still captured in clouds, playing across his moist eyes so that they glittered like marbles. Besides the thin, dark iris, they were solid white. A minute passed, with only more silence from any of them as the rogue watched the crown of storm clouds like an awestruck newborn. Finally, Edrick spoke again, still at a meek, frightful whisper.
The rogue turned his head and the white, red, and dusty brown colors of Edrick's robes slowly set into focus, followed just after by Edrick's trembling and more innocently boyish than ever face. The priest's hands were brought together into a prayer.
“Eddie…” Seville said weakly, and his eyes closed again.
“No, stay with us!!!” Edrick shouted, but Seville was already asleep. “Seville!”
“Let him be!” Gipson ordered as Edrick dropped to Seville's side and shook him, “Edrick! Let him be.”
“What if he doesn't…”
“He's breathing and he's alive, that's enough to ask for now.”
Edrick peered at Gipson like a lost puppy, but finally nodded and stood back up, unable to pull his eyes then from Seville, waiting for him to wake once again. He flicked his bowled hair downwards on each side.
“How could he do it, Master Gipson?”
The knight inhaled and exhaled deeply, as if a child had just asked him the big question.
“I don't … I'm not sure I understand the doctor's actions. Besides, this…” indicating Seville with a wave of his hand, “…was an accident. Sylum would never hurt Seville intentionally, I'm sure of that at least. This is just a situation that got way out of hand.
“He tried to warn me, I think,” Gipson spoke very slowly and bitterly. “Yesterday, in the forest, he tried to warn me that this might happen, but I didn't see it. I didn't realize exactly what he was saying.”
“What did he say?” Edrick was looking for things to take his mind away from Seville, who was still breathing softly and quietly.
“I didn't catch it then, I tried too hard to be myself, you know, optimistic and firm, but unlike most people that didn't have any effect on the doctor. In a roundabout way, what he told me was that failure wasn't an option. But that's just what we've done…”
“Failed,” Gipson answered shortly, and then his lips curled more tightly. “I've never failed, not like this.”
“First time for everything?” Edrick said, trying to cast a gentler light on what Gipson was obviously brooding very deeply inside.
“Yes sir, Edrick, yes sir. Things change, and once again I wasn't ready for it. I acted rashly, stupidly. I … I murdered our companion.”
“At that moment he would have done the same, Master Gipson!”
“Yeah, but at least he seemed to have a reason. Me, I'm just stuck, stuck in how I am. I'm too old, Edrick.”
“Stop turning this into self-abuse,” Edrick said with a rather sharp twist of his voice. “What happened, happened, and though it shouldn't have, it did. That's something we're just gonna have to get over. Far as I'm concerned it's everyone's fault, because we've spent all this time trying to be something we're not. The professor's death proves it, we're not light warriors. We're nothing! We're meager!”
“We're just us, Edrick, just us, and we tried to do something good. It came back and got us this time, but you know what, at least we tried, and we tried hard.”
Edrick opened his mouth to speak, but realized he actually had nothing to say. He checked Seville over again; he was the same, then Edrick swallowed thickly and just nodded, letting the empty sounds of this shady morning fill the silence. Five uneasy minutes rolled sluggishly by.
“You see that?” Gipson asked, pointing towards the ocean.
“What?” Edrick asked back as he scanned the tides.
“The waves…” said Gipson importantly, “…so violent.”
A small stretch of grass lay before them and then it slowly was overtaken by a wide beach that itself was washed away by a swelling ocean of gray. Murky crests collided into each other and hissed jets of water tumultuously onto the beachhead, the waves heaving to incredible heights in the distance and shuttling in at perilous speeds, like some great play to appease the dormant depths. The stormy waters raged to the very end of their sight.
“The sailors have said the sea is too dangerous these days,” Edrick responded timidly, looking for Gipson's point.
“But feel the air,” Gipson suggested, lifting his arm out.
Edrick realized how static the atmosphere was, not a single current of wind beating upon him. It was completely still.
“There's none,” the priest responded.
“And yet the seas rage…” Gipson mused, and Edrick had no thought to add.
“Come on. Let's go.”
Gipson checked for signs of life once more, and then took Seville back into his arms.
“The road is long.”
Gipson and Edrick walked for the rest of the day.
Though the portentous clouds had passed by the second day, the air remained still and temperate, the ground beaten without sincerity by the rays of a cold sun. Things had begun to noticeably change, most immediately the incredible staleness of the dead wind. And as if the jostling motion of those winds had given the trees reason enough to survive, they too were dying. Entire patches of forest had their floors strewn with a carpet of orange and brown leaves, wholly unbefitting the summer. And the bark was already graying, not like the hibernating trees of winter but the stony, petrified trees of the haunted forest. It was not so far gone that death was impending, but it was unmistakably apparent, and perhaps that was enough.
By the peak of the afternoon the air was chill; cold in some supernatural way that traced unceasing trickles down Edrick's spine. Even though the clouds had passed, it was not bright as a summer day was. The vividness of the entire world had been muted. They both saw it, Edrick and Gipson, but couldn't think of what to say on it. The priest found himself wishing that Professor Sylum was there; he might have known something. Despite the immense respect that Edrick had for Herrik Gipson, he couldn't help this nagging feeling that they were lost, if not physically, then some other way. How could something so simple go so wrong, he wondered with a sour taste in his mouth. Most of all he was tired, tired of pain.
“No wildlife,” Gipson said randomly, assuming that Edrick might not have considered that one, which to be honest, he hadn't. The priest nodded anyways.
The only sounds that played in the air were their own footsteps and the sagging noise of the ocean, which fought its civil war as tempestuously as ever.
“Makes our trip a little safer, I suppose,” Gipson said for no real reason, conversation maybe.
“We never came across much trouble we didn't get ourselves into.”
“That's true,” Gipson returned matter-of-factly. “But I'm not much in the mood for imps and wolves. They don't seem to be around.”
Edrick heard that and looked at Gipson's injuries, which the knight had never let him heal, but in a day and a half they already looked much less severe. The way Gipson healed was unrealistically fast, though given that he'd taken a fire potion at immediate range, Gipson was still not looking his best. Along with the two steeples of hair that were strikingly absent, his eyebrows were gone, along with most of his arm hair. He'd washed the blood away in an especially shallow stream, and came out looking like some beaten, sad version of himself. This was a Herrik Gipson that no one had ever seen; this was the first time that Herrik Gipson looked old.
“I'm tired,” said Edrick.
“At least a little further, I want to get past the forest. We're less likely to be attacked on the other side,” in all truth, Gipson just didn't want to stop moving. The thought of resting at a time like this was despicable to him. “Besides, the further we get from the Temple of Fiends, the better, right?”
They had already made many miles from the temple, but Edrick found he could agree that farther was always better when talking about the dark palace. He was realizing as they walked solemnly along the Western shores that he had made it out just fine. He'd only been injured once and never almost died. Realizing that made him angry, and when he thought of how helpless he was to aid Seville, he felt useless. Not good for battle, not good for magic, not good for handling people, not good for anything. Edrick didn't want to talk much after that.
Things were uncomfortable. They both felt like they were some place out of time, not really walking through the Cornerian countryside but in some dimensional equal without consequence. They felt unreal, unable to grapple themselves once more to the constraints of being. It was disorienting.
“Uh…” said a voice.
The rouge's eyes were just opened, thought his limbs still hung where they would. He didn't seem at first to understand where he was, and was content to absorb the blue-gray sky above him that sluggishly melded into a single solid picture.
“Seville?” Edrick asked again with all eagerness.
Seville brought his right arm to his scalp and scratched aim it aimlessly, and then he put it back down as if it had tuckered him out. Piece by piece he realized what was going on.
“Seville?” Edrick tried once more.
“Set me down,” Seville managed to say to Gipson, who had already stopped walking. The knight placed him gently on the grass and took a step back to give him room. Seville seemed short of breath, as he absorbed deep inhalations as he lay on the ground with his left arm straight out to his side and his right arm tucked over onto the healthy side of his chest, still looking not at his friends but at the dull of hues of the sky, still not entirely aware of his surroundings. Certainly he did not know where or when.
“You gonna stay with us this time?” Gipson asked, for the first time in awhile putting on one of his friendly smiles.
“What day is it?”
“You slept for a whole day, Seville. The temple is two mornings past.”
“Where are we?” Seville questioned further, collecting his bearings.
“We're on the western coast, we've been trailing it since yesterday. We've another thirty miles to the city.”
“City? Corneria?” Seville asked, presently slow on the uptake, with even a little edginess in his question.
“Of course. It's time to get you and Edrick home.” Gipson was cordial with his words and delivered them with a grin. Edrick remained antsy on the sidelines.
“Home…” Seville mused, and he looked like he wanted to sit up, but when he moved his left arm to press himself up he yelped and felt a sour tug on his chest.
“Probably don't want to move that arm just yet. Don't strain yourself. Just relax and concentrate on being awake. I think you're gonna be okay,” Gipson said that last part with a noticeable wink to Edrick, who exhaled and said a thank you to some higher power.
Seville saw Edrick for the first time and smiled at him, and then he looked back at Gipson, and then back again.
“Man, you guys look terrible!”
Gipson beamed at him.
“You're no prize yourself, Seville,” Edrick joked, sitting down with his legs crossed so it would be easier on Seville's neck. Gipson did the same. Despite the bout of benevolence, when they looked to Seville once more his face had considerably fallen, and his eyes were indistinct in their aim, as if he was thinking. They both knew immediately what about, but to Seville to ask the question seemed frightful. He did so slowly and with a dire shift in his voice.
“What happened?” is what he asked. “To the professor?”
A thick, quiet moment sauntered by; Edrick looked to Gipson to answer.
“You were hit very badly by his sword, and though I'm sure he didn't intend it, I responded anyway and ran him through. We couldn't cure you, of course, because of the ghost rot, but Sylum was able to close your wound by…” Gipson spoke next as if he still didn't believe it, “…sewing it up.”
Seville nodded very slowly and flicked away the moist cloth covering his wound. When he saw the horrid sight he shot his head away and covered it back up.
“It'll take a lot of time to heal, you're lucky to be alive.”
“I know that,” Seville said shortly, and Edrick thought he knew what was really on Seville's mind at that point.
“I offered to cure him, Seville, I wanted to. But he wouldn't have it. I wanted to, I really did. I did.”
“Without Edrick's cure there is no chance he would have survived his injury. I pierced his liver,” Gipson said. He sounded incredibly forlorn to be recounting the bitter details but would not lie to Seville about the situation. They had hidden the fact of Seville's ghost rot so long and it had nearly claimed a life. From now on he would be upfront with the truth.
Seville nodded again.
“Why'd he do it, Seville?” the priest asked him, knowing that Sylum's only real friend in Corneria had been the rogue. Seville thought on it, but his memories of the events were terribly distorted. He still wasn't exactly sure what had happened. But one thing did stick in his mind like a needle: his most respected equal, Darrin Sylum, had betrayed him, had chosen fame over the lives of thousands. In his right hand, Seville gripped an angry fist.
“I don't know, Eddie…” was all his heart could bring him to say. “I don't know.”
“Did he regret it, do you think?” Edrick asked.
“The professor is a man that would regret dying, even for something he believed in,” Seville answered.
“He said he was sorry,” said Gipson, “And I believed him.”
“I would have too,” said Seville.
They sat and listened to the churning ocean as Seville became more and more acquainted with his motor functions and he learned to avoid the gripping pain that surprised him from sudden jerks of his torso. Now it seemed only a matter of time and patience. Things would mend, as they always find a way to do. Seville, too, was noticing the empty voice of the air, free from birds and wind. A dark dream continued to play in his head.
“I'm afraid to go home,” said Seville.
“Dunnings…” Edrick whispered. The knight gauged his words for a moment and placed them cautiously.
“You left your godfather on uneasy terms, I know, but he will welcome you. Perhaps there is one silver lining to your injured state. Certainly he can't come down to hard on you in your current condition.”
“No, maybe not, but that will pass. What will always remain is that I've let him down once again.”
“How?” Edrick argued. “What have you done?”
“Think about it, Eddie. Exactly how warmly do you expect our return to be received? I don't know what Domino was really intending with his article, but I could guess a couple of the effects it's going to have, or excuse me, already has had. We're a laughing stock, we just haven't returned to the public eye yet to really feel it.”
“But Dunnings knows you?”
“And people know that,” Seville said with conviction. “I've reflected badly on him. Again.”
“I don't believe it is as bad as that,” Herrik Gipson comforted. “Either way, what we have tried to do is admirable and I don't think people are going to look past that fact, despite how poorly we may have carried ourselves on occasion.”
“It will be hard to explain,” Seville suggested as he finally managed to sit up, with an acceptable tinge of pain down his side. “About the princess, I mean. What will we do?”
“Yeah,” Edrick agreed, “What about Garland and Domino, and the King's war? It's still a reality isn't it?”
“We will wait and see, and if there is help we can render then we should do so, but I'm afraid our part in this tale is done. I recommend you both keep your heads low, try to avoid the spotlight.”
Edrick stood up and stretched, all the while throwing his hands accusingly at Seville and scuffing his feet through the grass.
“Easy for him, maybe, but I'll have to report to the minister. Perhaps you didn't know this but a priest leaving his order without the direct sanction of the minister is a bit of a misstep in the career of religious authority.”
Edrick seemed to be getting nervous once again.
“Even to save the world?” Seville joked.
“Oh please! Edrick Valance? Save the world? I don't think that one's gonna work, Seville!”
The rogue cuffed his chin a few times, pretending to be thinking on some difficult thesis, and then he nodded his head in approval.
“Yeah, you're probably right!”
Edrick returned an insincere smirk and chuckled.
“Don't worry, I'll put in a good word for ya with the minister. Tell him you performed masterfully. Cast spells and everything!”
“Shut up!” The two of them laughed and Gipson delighted in the chance to smile with them. He brushed his fire red hair upwards and stood to stretch as well. They laughed almost like they were actually having fun after all of this. Things mended further, just like they always do.
“So what about you, Master Gipson…” Seville questioned, craning his neck and squinting his eyes to see the mighty warrior against the brightening background of afternoon sun. Gipson gave him a cock-eyed look. “What are you going to do when you get back? Edrick and I have decided that we're screwed, hopefully you've got somethin' better lined up!”
“Oh, just another tale in the life of Herrik Gipson, I suppose. I still have a book tour to do. I wonder how this'll affect my sales,” he glinted a clever smile at them with that, but then he stopped moving around in the grass and thought for a moment. His grin dimmed a bit. “First, I'll have to report to the Knights, give'em the heads up on what Garland and Domino are planning.”
“And the princess!” Edrick added.
“Right, and the princess. If their little invention pops up anywhere I'll sound the alert, that'd be my duty. No, for the time being, Gents, I don't think I'm going anywhere.”
The almost festive reaches of the conversation tapered away and a gloomy atmosphere crept over them; Gipson with his suddenly fierce eyes perched on the horizon line, Edrick pacing about with his fingers wrapped, and Seville looking down at his legs and chewing the air like rubber sap.
“What if Eliv starts a war?” Seville asked the silence, and Gipson picked up the tail end after a quiet moment.
“We can only hope he won't, and if so, that he can be stopped before it escalates to the scale that Garland predicts.”
“But how can you cause something that … huge?” The priest asked with a hint of disgust in his voice. It was more a moral question than one of capability. Seville opened his mouth but Gipson beat him there.
“It doesn't seem possible, and though I'll admit that I don't have the brain for magical devices that I'm sure either of you have, Sylum seemed to believe that it would work. And so, I guess that adds enough credibility for me.”
“You didn't feel the dream, Master Gipson, like I did. Or even you, Eddie. Going through what I went through, I believe … no, I know, that they can do it. They can do anything.”
“But do you believe why they are doing it?” Edrick asked.
“You mean, war to end war? No, not for a second.”
“Nor I,” Gipson interrupted.
“The professor understood them best. They're politicians, they're in it for power.”
“And as a general rule, I never trust a man that can summon demons,” Gipson said randomly. The joke wasn't appreciated.
“No…” said Seville to fill the uncomfortable silence. Whenever that quiet crept over them they each realized how on edge they were. What Edrick felt made him understand that lost feeling a little more, than surreal, otherworldly state being he still thought he was inhabiting. What it really was was paranoia. The heavy air and dozing silences caged them in claustrophobia. This was something that Seville then proved he also detected, as he looked at the nearest lining of livid trees.
“They're out there,” he said warningly.
“Yes,” agreed Gipson solemnly.
“Just out there planning our doom.”
“Nothing we can do about them today,” the knight offered, wanting to toss Seville away from such a worrisome subject. What he wanted now was only for the rogue to heal, not rack his brains over what he may or may not have been able to control. With a hint of bitterness, Seville seemed to agree.
“There are still a lot of balls in the air, aren't there?” he half-queried.
“We'll catch them one at a time,” Gipson said. “Whatever they may bring.”
“Right!” the priest joined.
“It'll be complicated,” the rogue warned.
“Well…” Gipson started, with a nostalgic smile. “Things change, don't they? Situations change. People change. All we can ever do is be ready for it. For once.”
“Excellent!” Seville almost cheered. “I've got it! A little game to set us on our changing ways. No more static.”
To his own and the others' surprise, Seville pushed off with his good arm and stood up, gleefully bright. If it had hurt it all he wasn't showing it now.
“Right now, think of one piece of advice and offer it out. What can we do to better ourselves for the time to come? Master Gipson, you first.”
“What?” and the knight laughed heartily, looking even a tad bashful before hunkering down and looking as supremely serious as he could manage despite the other two cackling at his efforts. “Advice, huh? Well…”
Gipson scratched the fresh bald spot on his head, squinted his eyes, and even pretended to dance with anticipation of his own sage wisdom. Seville and Edrick got a definite kick out of it, but finally the knight waved them down and closed in.
“Okay, a piece of advice from me to you, in case we get to Corneria, I go off on tour, and never see you again, take this with you always.” He paused for effect; each of them was smiling. “Do something different with every endeavor of your life, because you will not know it when the last one is upon you.”
“Thoughtful sentiment,” Seville mused with an overly fake stern impression on his face, which Gipson shook off like he would a heckler.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “Good thing, you're next!”
“Nope! My game, my choice, and I choose to go last. Eddie, you're up.”
“Ummm…” thought the priest, buying time. “I don't know, Seville.”
“Please tell me that being skittish and indecisive isn't your sage wisdom.”
“Quiet!” commanded Edrick, “I'm thinking!”
“I was wondering what the grinding sound was!” Seville and Gipson laughed.
Edrick thought it over, thought everything over. A sullen image played over and again in his mind, so potent it was there on the backs of his eyelids when he closed them. It was of his final sight of Sylum, stabbed and seconds from death, kneeling hopelessly in the middle of the temple room, denying his chance for life. Edrick had said he was sorry, and realized that the fact that he had let the man die would always follow his dreams. Sylum had asked Edrick to not cure him, but the priest felt strongly inside that at the time, it wasn't the professor's decision to make. Edrick knew his advice.
“Finally!” Seville joked further, but when he saw how Edrick's face had turned, so did his own. Edrick spoke eulogistically.
“Never … never forget who your friends are, even when they seem to.”
Both Gipson and Seville even nodded like one does to a preacher in a eulogy, and perhaps in its own way, that's what Edrick's statement was: Darrin Sylum's eulogy.
A moment passed in which even the ocean seemed to stand still, and Edrick, nervous evermore of attracting attention, broke the ice.
“Your turn, Seville, don't try to get out of it.”
“I already had mine prepared, thank you very much. Ready?”
“And waiting!” Gipson smirked.
“Well, you know what a life of crime has taught me, fellas?”
“The world is just full of suckers!”
“That's your advice?” Edrick scoffed.
“No, no.” Seville shot a haughty glance at Edrick who let it fly right past him with a delicious grin. “The world is full of suckers, and well, sometimes even they can be happy.”
Both Edrick and Gipson stared at him as if they expected him to say more, and Edrick tossed his hands out when it became obvious that he wasn't.
“I'm not sure I understand it, Seville.”
“Yeah? Well, I tried my best. Sometimes that's all we can do.”
“Hey! Two for the price of one!” Gipson coined.
“Right,” Seville responded with a chuckle, and then he waved his good arm past both of them and said, “Enough! That deed is done, I'm tired of talking. Let's go home.”
“Can you walk?”
“Of course, I can. If I've proven nothing else to you so far, I would think it would be that I have a high threshold for pain.”
“To it, then!” Edrick rallied on.
Just as they turned, Gipson paused and stopped Seville with his hand.
“I forgot,” he said, pulling a thin, leather-bound volume out of his pocket and handing it to Seville. “He asked me to give you this.”
“What is it?”
“He wouldn't let me read it and find out. But it was his utmost concern in the moment. Obviously very important to him.”
Still unable to use his left arm with any manner of precision, Seville tossed the book over in his right hand and looked the blank cover up and down, and then he carefully opened the front away to a delicately printed title page.
“The Rogue, by Darrin Sylum,” is what Seville read aloud, an impressed but somehow stricken look drawing tightly on his face. He wiped it away just as quickly. “Huh! I didn't know he wrote fiction.”
“I imagine there will be some significance for you here,” Gipson said.
“No doubt, but, another day, I think.” Seville looked at Edrick and the knight very sincerely and certainly. “I'm not ready to open that up just yet.”
“Yeah, well, one of the good things about the future is that it's always ahead of you. You've got all the time in the world.”
“For some things, you need it. Now where were we? Right! Let's get out of here!”
And there, the three friends set off for Corneria, not knowing what they would find when they got there, or which paths they would choose given those options. Seville wanted to think about everything, but somehow found it hard, with any coherency, to think about anything. Certainly Sylum was one of those powerful things that fought for play in his mind, but it was such a hectic subject he did his best to will it away. He thought of Edrick and Gipson too, those two who walked at either side of him and saw him through to his ends. Admiration swelled, almost painfully in his heart. He thought of Dunnings, thought of what he would say when he returned to the Lux Aeterna and met the man who had looked away from him when he'd left. And on some scale he thought of the war that may or may not happen, whether or not he did a thing about it, thought about it like poets think of their grim truth, always there and never there.
But, most of all, he thought of how hard life would be in the future, and what he would do when it finally got there.