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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 17

 

Theo found himself at the end of the slave line, for that was surely what the chain with the iron manacles that connected them all was. Lhoki was next to him and Wing beyond the him. His wrists hurt, scraped and bruised already from the rough insides of the manacles. Every time he shifted he felt skin torn. How did slaves ever get to market in sellable condition with treatment like this?

"Tell me how you know this man?" Wing had whispered harshly after they'd first been shackled. Collin was too far down the line to quietly join in the conversation without their captors hearing. Which was just as well, since his version of the encounters might cast Theo's actions in a rash light. Theo told him of the two occasions they had crossed paths with the slaver lord Sinnah. Wing's expression grew darker throughout, and he had sat back afterwards without comment. Lhoki between them and overhearing it all, grew paler and paler and finally curled to a knot and shook with pent up emotion.

They could see the activity of the slavers up wind from the still smoldering village, setting up tents and tending to their horses and gear. There were perhaps twenty-five of them, all hardened men who'd as soon slit their throats as market their bodies in the slave trade. Those unlucky ones in their numbers had been elected to drag the bodies of the slain to the fire pit, which still burned regularly and they labored at this task well into the afternoon. The smell of cooking flesh was overwhelming and nauseating, considering what flesh it was that burned in the pit. Theo tried not to look, tried not to think about the small corpses devoured by flame. He stared at the smoldering village instead, wondering in which hut he had stored his pack and whether the rune stone within it was still sound. He should have taken it with him when the boys invited him to see the Second Stone and used it then. Now he might not get the chance.

It was late afternoon when Sinnah in the company of two of his men strolled to examine the picket line. He walked down the line, followed by the sullen eyes of captive sailors, stopping once before Collin and inquiring.

"It's not Sibeth, is it?"

Collin just stared up at him, hollow eyed and sick from the smell of so much burning human flesh. Sinnah smiled and continued to the end of the line where he once more stopped to stand before Theo.

"You're rather out of your element, don't you think, captain Theodonis?"

"How do you know my name?" Theo asked softly, chin lowered, staring up at the man through his lashes.

Sinnah crouched, eye level with him and reached out a hand to grasp his jaw, forcing his head up. "A mutual acquaintance who has a grievance with you."

Theo ground his teeth and stared silent question at the slaver lord. Sinnah found this reaction amusing. His lips turned up in a white toothed smile.

"Don't worry she'll be along soon enough."

She. Of course she. Theo's stomach recoiled in sudden shock. Who else would have the twin interests in finding the location of the second stone and hunting him down as well? Tiana. He jerked his chin out of Sinnah's grasp, glaring.

"So you're Tiana's dog, then?"

Sinnah's smile faltered. "I am no one's servant."

Theo laughed disbelievingly. "Then my eyes and all my senses deceive me, for you certainly seem to be running at her bidding if you tracked me all the way here."

He got hit for that. A backhanded slap that sent him against Lhoki, who whimpered and folded against his weight. Sinnah lifted his fist to strike again and Wing came up at him, dragging the whole of the line after him and straining the chain that tethered them to its limits. Almost Wing slammed into him with his shoulder but Sinnah was fast and scrambled backwards at the same instant his men rushed forward, swords drawn. The whole line was roused, men half dragged to their feet, angry and frightened, yelling in their panic and straining against their bonds.

Wing subsided, though grudgingly, with sword points at his throat and glared warning at Sinnah. "Let him be." he said simply and refused to waver when the blades pressed into his skin.

Sinnah regarded him curiously, then gestured and his men pulled back. "Such loyalty. But your energies are better spent preparing yourself for a life of slavery. And I prey-" he turned his attention back to Theo. "-that she leaves something of you when she finishes, for I would dearly love to teach you the meaning of respect."

At which point he whirled and stalked off.

"Damnit, Theo, why can't you ever keep your mouth shut?" Wing sounded more tired than angry. He sat down with a groan and brought his manacled hands to his neck where several pin prick trickles of blood ran freely.

"I didn't ask you to come to my defense." Theo said glumly, hating the fact that Wing had gotten hurt because of him. Hating the fact that they all were in this because of him.

"You don't want to offend him." Lhoki said in a small voice, curled up between them.

Theo snorted. "I don't see what I've got to loose."

"He'll hurt you in ways you really don't want to be hurt. He's an awful, awful man."

It was so profound a utterance that Theo couldn't think of a reply. And with silence he had the time to dwell on what Sinnah had said to him. She was coming here. Tiana was coming here and here he was trussed up like a pack mule on a picket line, awaiting her wraith. Spirits. However had his luck gotten so bad?

He tried to clamp down on the fear, on the rabid trail his imagination wanted to run. He couldn't think if he was panicking. He couldn't plan if he dwelled too much on what might come to pass. He leaned close to Lhoki and said in a low voice to Wing.

"The old man's rune is probably still in the hut where I left my gear."

"The hut's ash and cinder now." Wing said dourly.

"Stone doesn't burn."

Wing glanced up at him dubiously. "A great lot of help that will do us, chained like dogs."

"We will just have to work on that." Theo said with confidence that did not make it past his voice to his heart.

Wing grunted, fixedly turning his attention to the earth at his knees as if some great drama played itself out there for him.

All right. So Wing was not being a great deal of help. Wing had an aversion to confinement. Wing was foreseeing a great deal of it in the future. Theo studied the manacles about his wrists. They were of a better quality than those they had appropriated from the pirates in the hidden cove. There did not seem much of a chance of slipping his hands through the circlets or breaking the chains.

With nothing better to do he studied the remains of the village. Most of the huts had been razed by fire, only one remained mostly standing, only slight smoking emanating from its thatch hut. Another two had one or two walls standing but nothing else. He thought the one he had slept in and where his gear had been stowed was one of the latter two. The slavers poked about the ruins a bit, but without much interest for unearthing valuables. This had been a village of backwards children. There was certainly nothing of great wealth hidden within the smoking embers.

Dusk slowly enveloped evening, the setting sun throwing a rosy hue to the clouds that lingered out over the ocean. A storm free night, thank the spirits. The slavers broke out rations and distributed them amongst themselves. Nothing was offered to the captives, not even water.

In the darkness past the camp nothing stirred save the occasional shifting of men not used to chains. Chains rustled quietly next to Theo, a slight tugging on the line as Lhoki gathered slack.

"What are you doing?" Theo asked. A hiss for silence was the only reply he got. Then nimble fingers sought out his arm, moved down to his wrist where the iron cuff chaffed flesh. Lhoki's own wrists were unencumbered.

"You picked the lock." Theo whispered in excitement.

"Done it before." Lhoki muttered. The lock clicked softly and the fetter came loose of Theo's wrist. He held out the other hand and let Lhoki do his work.

Free. He had not expected it so soon. He had not fully planned what action he might take. Freedom for his men, yes, but also a burning desire to see that dark rune in the caves under them never granted his enemies power.

To do that he had to get the old man's stone. Lhoki had turned his attention to Wing. Theo couldn't wait for his friend's freedom. Wing would only insist on accompanying him and he could not afford that. Wing was not made for stealth.

"Get them out of here." he hissed. "Lead them to freedom."

He rose to a crouch, heard the rustle of chain as Wing moved towards him, his hands not yet freed of manacles. Lhoki complained of his hampered work.

"No." Wing whispered. "Wait, Theo."

"Just for once, follow my orders." Theo hissed back. "Get the men out of here. Get yourself out of here. This is my fault and mine to make right."

Wing protested with a whispered curse, but Theo didn't listen. He ran at a crouch across the short distance to the abandoned, smoldering firepit. Sinnah's men were clustered lazily about a blaze of their own making, certain of their upper hand. The horses were to the south of them, Sinnah's and their own. He did not know if Wing could appropriate any of them without raising alarm.

Twenty feet to the half crumbling wall of the nearest hut. He made it easily and crouched with his shoulder to the blackened thatch wall, gathering his bearings. He thought the hut he wanted was across from this one, burned mostly to the ground. It would not be easy to search the remnants without being observed. He crawled the distance, slithered to his belly when there was no cover and made his way through ash and charred wood. Thatch left little debris when burned, or he would have impaled himself a dozen times on splintered wood. He only scratched his stomach and his hands and that not seriously in his search. Mostly he covered himself in soot, not bad thing when one wished to blend with the night. Carefully, as quietly as he could, he dug though the wreckage. It seemed to take an eternity. In frustration he cursed silently when a splinter jammed under a nail. He sucked at the injured thumb and spat soot and blood. Please let Lhoki have freed them all. Please let them be working their way through the darkness to safety.

His fingers passed over solid stone still warm from the fire, felt the edges and thought it might be the shape and size of the stone he wanted. He pulled it towards him and blindly ran fingertips over the surface, feeling the pitted grooves of carved runes. He sucked in a breath of smoke scented air in gratitude to the spirits. For once fey luck had smiled on him.

Something snapped behind him. The breath stopped cold in his chest and he cursed himself for presuming to guess fate's whim. He lay waiting to be discovered, but no slaver appeared out of the darkness. Charred wood shifted. It was nothing more than the settling of charcoal and embers. He held the stone between his hands for a moment, shutting his eyes and asking the spirits for just a little more good luck. He was due.

Then he crawled out of the remnants of the hut, gained his feet and crouched, looking for signs of anyone that might spy him. Nothing but darkness between him and the coastline. He ran, as silently and as low to the ground as he could towards the cliffs. He would be taking his life most precariously in his hands trying to descend the narrow path down to the cave, but there was no choice. It took a good bit of searching to find the place the boys had led him down. Even then he had to bolster his courage to make that step over the side into darkness.

The wind tore at him, coming in relentlessly from the invisible ocean. He clung there, hardly able to see his hand before his face and was struck dumb by the realization that the caves would be even worse. That without a light to see by he could never find the damned Stone. He shut his eyes in frustration, calling himself every kind of fool under his breath. Shimel had retrieved a rag bound torch in the outer cave, but were there more? He didn't have flint to strike a spark even if there were.

Think, Theo. Think. He forced calm on himself. Of course there were more torches down there. They would be prepared for their systematic sacrificial visits. He could strike a spark with a rock and oil soaked cloth with light. He had to have earned at least that much luck. He continued down the narrow path. Found the mouth of the cave and cautiously edged inside. Without the light of day to illuminate the outer chamber, he had to crawl about on hands and knees, feeling blindly about the floor before his fingers happened upon a neat stack of piled wood. Cloth was bundled about the ends. It smelled strongly of oils. The torches. Thank the spirits. He sat sprawled against the wall and just breathed for a moment.

He found a loose stone on the floor and set about striking it forcefully against a rocky projection. It seemed to take forever. Chips of stone flew without the benefit of spark. Then finally one did catch and the oily cloth sucked it up greedily, creating a bright ember, smoking a little, but not quite igniting. The next spark was more successful and a the oilcloth flared and flame crept around it. The outer cave was cast in a wavering, low light.

Triumphant, Theo stood. Abruptly something large came at him from the mouth of the cave. He yelped and reached for a weapon that was not there. Then tried to backpedaled out of reach, but strong hands caught his shoulders and an irate face peered down at him.

"You little fool!" Wing loomed over him, larger than life and as angry as he'd ever seen him, or perhaps it was the eerie light the of the torch on the planes of his face. He shook Theo hard enough that he almost dropped the torch and did loose his breath and his wits.

"Stop. Stop." He had to gasp to get it out. When Wing chose to exert his strength there was no fighting it. Wing drew breath, calming himself, though exasperation still burned in his eyes. He pulled Theo close, a rough, one armed embrace and hissed.

"Are you a fool? I told you to wait for me. Do you think to do this alone?"

"Yes. I've had enough deaths on my conscience. I don't want yours. I couldn't ---" he trailed of, not able to finish that thought. If something happened to Wing he didn't know what he would do. He couldn't ever remember a time that Wing had not been with him. His quiet, usually rational protector.

"Don't be a fool, Theo. We've all a stake in this. Where is the damned thing?"

There was no use arguing now and he would feel better with Wing along in the maze of caves leading to the stone. "That way. I'll try to remember the way in, but I wasn't paying much heed on the way out."

Wing made a face, but no comment. He waited for Theo to lead the way.

"Did everyone get away? Spirits help me if they're all lying in wait for us to get back."

"No." Simply said.

Theo glanced over his shoulder at him, one hand on the clammy wall to keep his way. "Well and gone?"

"Collin promised not to dally."

For a while they walked in silence, until Theo was certain he'd taken a wrong passage and had to back track and try another way. "I hate this." He finally whispered, disconsolate. "Things have gotten to tangled. Why do the fates hate me so, to get me into these things?"

"Its not all your fault, Theo. You made a bad choice with the witch, but her plans were in motion before she ever crossed our path."

"Bad choice? Terrible choices. I broke the rules and then I lost my temper. I'm so stupid."

"Not." Wing defended him against himself. "You're just-- you, Theo. If you've got a fault its your damned pretty face which gets you places you oughtn't be. Like noble wives bedrooms and witch's bad graces."

Theo sniffed, blushing a little. Glad of the darkness of the caves so it wasn't so apparent. "Maybe I should give myself a few scars." He grumbled.

Wing chuckled behind him. One large hand reached out and squeezed his shoulder. And then they were walking down an inclining tunnel that Theo recognized.

Close. So very close. Past the mouth of a cave and the torch light ate at the shadows of the round room. The erect, etched stone seemed to eat the light, drenching itself in eternal shadow. Theo stopped a few steps into the room, shivering. Wing stepped past him, cautiously circling the stone, like he might some snarling, mad dog he wanted to tame, yet dared not touch.

Theo hefted Pyphin's runestone, the stone was warm from his body heat. He found himself at a sudden loss at what to do with the thing. What had the old wizard said?

"Don't touch it." Theo hissed, when Wing reached out fingers towards the great stone. Wing jerked his hand back, startled at Theo's outburst. He gave Theo a reproachful look. Theo couldn't help it, the thing made him edgy.

"Please, just don't touch it." He pleaded. He did not want to even get near it himself, but he had to place the runestone. Set it surface to surface, the old man had said. No incantations to chant, no ritual to observe - Pyphin had plainly doubted Theo capable of it - so he'd put all the magic and ritual he could into the stone himself; he and Dharva, sweating together over the thing in the little thatch hut in the pirate's cove.

Theo handed Wing the torch, then took a breath and knelt before the stone. He cast one glance up its length, at all the etched inscription, all the runes that kept a dark god dormant.

The torch guttered. Wing cursed softly as the world was plunged into blackness. Theo sucked in shocked, frightened breath, fingers biting into the runestone. Then the light came back. Only it came like a charge of heavy calvary instead of the weak flicker of torch light. It blared, bursting forth in blinding whiteness, swirling about the chamber like a swarm of godlike fireflies. And like fireflies it moved of its own will, swirling around the room, around the monolithic form of the second stone. Theo flung up one arm, crying out in surprise, tumbling backwards, having eyes only for the now well illuminated stone. Wing was by far more observant than he and cried out an enraged warning, as men filled the mouth of the cave.

Theo turned, still on his knees, even as Wing barreled into a clustered group that had not yet begin to filter into the stone chamber. Wing in a fighting frenzy, was not something to be taken lightly. Weapons were drawn, even if the men at the forefront tried to scramble back to avoid Wing's charge.

"No." Theo cried, imagining Wing impaled on swords. Then a wind with the force of a fist came out of nowhere and struck him in the chest. He flew backwards, the runestone lost to him. Hit the stone floor and lay there gasping as a heavy pressure pummeled his chest, constricted his breathing. He saw bright motes of dancing light -- energy -- something, dancing above him. Spirits. Imps. Demons. The things Tiana had summoned on the ship to taunt him. He struggled backwards, wriggling away from the pressure, saw the tumult at the mouth of the cave, saw the gleam of weapons. Saw Wing down a man with a fist against the side of his head. Saw another swing at Wing with a short sword. Desperation took over. He had to help Wing.

Only there were too many of them. Armed figures spilling into the witchlit cave. Wing went down, under countless blows. He saw the huge figure recognizable as one of Tiana's bodyguards -- Darak he thought, crouching among the tumult around Wing. Then he saw her pressed against the inside wall of the stone chamber, her eyes unfocused, her hands working spasmodically.

Whatever had hit him was no longer an obstacle, so she wasn't, and all he could think about was helping Wing. He waded into the melee, unthinking, slammed an elbow into a man's throat, avoided the slash of a knife. Someone kicked at the back of his leg and he almost went down. A tattooed face reared up before him, black eyes glittering with almost glee. Theo dodged, but Sinnah was damned fast, caught him by the collar and jerked him back, brought up a fist weighted with the heavy pommel of a dagger and smashed it across Theo's temple.

The blow went hand and hand with darkness and pain. He was aware of himself falling, being caught before he could and hit again -- as if it mattered with his senses drifting away as they were. Somebody's arm went around his back and he pressed against an armor plated chest.

"Don't kill him. I want him alive." A female voice amidst the clatter of swords and the creaking of armor.

"Of course, lady." Loud voice above his head, then a whisper against his ear. "As do I. I've a promise to keep."

His last coherent thought was how very much he despised the slaver lord Sinnah.

 

*

 

He came up like a drowning man grasping for the ocean surface. He gasped, drawing a lung full of air. Pain throbbed behind his eyes, something wet trickled down his temple. He was sprawled against the wall of the cave, his arms twisted uncomfortably behind him, hands in the process of numbing from ropes too tight about his wrists. Not out long then. Just long enough for them to bind him and cement his helplessness. There were a cluster of figures by the central stone. Light came from there, the hovering, living witchlights of Tiana's making he thought. He searched for Wing. Began to panic when he didn't see him at first, then found him across the cave, slumped against the wall, apparently unconscious, but still watched over by two armed men. Another one stood not to far from Theo, but his attention was fixed on the goings on in the center of the room. A worried man and rightfully so.

Tiana was chanting. Her hands were lifted, palms outwards towards the stone, not quite touching. The incorporeal spirit beings swarming around her, around the stone, growing more and more populous as she spoke. Light, dark, as tiny as a moth, as large as a man's head, they gathered. There was almost a humm to them, they pulsed with such frantic, eager energy, as if they sensed the sleeping power within the stone and were drawn to it. The occasional one broke from the group centering about sorceress and stone and zipped like frenetic flies about the chamber. The guards hardly seemed to see them. Theo saw every one and shivered when they buzzed about him, curious, then flew away to aimlessly bound off walls and ceiling, then eventually rejoin the symphony of spirits about the great stone.

The air became dry by degrees, all the clammy moisture of a sea side cave sucked up into air that had become alive. Heat began to radiate. Tiana began to moan and sway, her hands roving around the surface of the stone, a hairsbreadth from touching -- but not. Some deep set tremor laced through the floor, almost as if some great tidal wave had crashed into the cliff face outside. There was the sound of fracturing stone. If it was the Second Stone, Theo couldn't see where cracks had appeared, but there were so many carved runes that it might have begun to split in the grooves of any of those.

Tiana cried out triumphant, though and sagged backwards. Sol caught her, supporting her in his thick arms. Sinnah who stood a few yards behind her, stared at the stone in consternation.

"Is that it?" He sounded wary, doubtful.

"No." She gasped, wiping strands of sweat dampened hair from her face. "Not all. Just the beginning." She waved her henchman away, straightened her ornate travel robes. Jewels glittered at her ears, in the fine netting that lay upon her hair.

"Bring him here." Darak moved to do her bidding, padding over to Theo. Theo shrank away, sudden dread welling up inside him, but Darak's fingers latched hold of his arm and yanked him effortlessly up. He was thrust before Tiana and it was impossible to keep all the fear from his face. Hers had the sloe eyed, satisfied expression she wore after sex. She smiled at him, leaned forward and pressed her hand against the side of his face.

"Will you do a favor for me, Theo?" she purred. He jerked his head back, out from under her hand and glared. Darak twisted his bound arms up behind him painfully. He gasped, tried to slam the heel of his boot down into Darak's instep. Luck was not paying him any heed today. He missed and the big man jerked his arms cruelly, threatening to wrench shoulders from sockets. There was nothing to do but stop struggling and hope the man released the pressure.

Tiana's smile widened, her fingers brushed back hair that had fallen across his face. "Kerisai can't come back on his own." She whispered. "He needs a place to live. I would not be doing my lord a service if I did not find him an exceptional dwelling." Her lips brushed against the side of his mouth, her breath as she spoke tickled his lips. He drew back against Darak, as far away from her as he could get. It wasn't far enough. She pressed up against him, eyes boring into him, hands lightly tracing the bones of his face as if she were trying to memorize him, or sculpt him.

"The honor is beyond measure." She promised him. He shut his eyes, trapped between her and her bodyguard, with the stone looming just behind her like a symbol of destruction.

"Touch the stone, Theo. Let him recognize you now that he's aware."

She moved away. Darak forced him towards the stone. Spirits still careened around it, but not as many. Most had pulled back to swarm about in the shadows of the ceiling. Some lit the recesses of the chambers off to the side that held their treasure of decaying bones.

"No." Theo cried, planting his feet in desperation. So afraid of a sudden that his vision tunneled and his heart slammed against the bones that protected it. The thing reared up before him, dark and cruelly etched, and pulsing with --- something indefinable. Something malevolent and hungry and powerful beyond measure.

Darak wrapped one hand about the back of his neck, pressing him towards the thing, as if they wanted him to kiss it. Wing roared in mindless rage. His guards turned to him too late, even bound his weight smashed past them and he barreled into Darak and Theo. Darak lost his grip on him and Theo sprawled. Darak growled and shoved Wing backwards. Wing staggered, off balance with his hands bound behind him, and fell into the Stone. His head cracked against it, hard enough to make a sick hollow thud, and blood smeared down the surface as he sagged.

Tiana screamed. The collected group of small spirits in the room did. Something foul and dark, and grasping flowed out of the now clearly ragged cracks along the face of the stone, ate up Wing's blood and seeped over his body. He cried out, rolling away, twisting as if snakes had gotten under his clothing.

"Wing." Theo tried to scramble towards him, but somebody -- Sinnah maybe -- kicked him in the side, and he collapsed, curled in pain.

"No. No." Tiana was ranting. "I didn't want him."

"So? Kill him and do it again." Sinnah's cool suggestion.

"The god's marked him. Would you deny Kerisai?"

Sinnah's silence was answer enough.

 

 

 

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