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The Third Stone

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 18

 

Somewhere amidst a haze of pain and darkness, Theo heard Wing's screams. His own had stopped some time ago, beaten out of him by Sinnah, who took great pleasure in doing it, until he lay silent and dazed on the cave floor. Mostly his cries had been for them to leave Wing alone. They hadn't had much interest in him after the stone had marked Wing as its chosen. The only thing they needed now was for Wing to die. Only it wasn't so easy -- not according to what Pyphin had said and from what he'd overheard from Tiana. They needed a suicide. A suicide born of pain and fear.

Wing was not cooperating. Wing was bloody and broken. Had it been hours? A day? Days? Theo didn't know. He drifted in and out of consciousness himself, awareness limited to the pain and the sounds of torture that worked to bring about the demise of his truest friend. Once he heard Tiana speaking softly to Wing, who they'd bound, with his back to the stone, which was now drenched with his blood.

"You can end it quickly. Your choice to stop the suffering." Wing had stared at her through swollen, bloody eyes. He could not quite speak. His jaw hung at an awkward angle, broken from when one of Tiana's hulking henchmen had slammed a sword pommel into his face. He'd lost teeth to the impact as well and blood flowed freely down his chin, mingling with the other red on his chest. She had extended a jeweled dagger, her own and held it in her open palm for him to see. He spit blood and saliva into her face. She'd screamed then and slashed him across the face with the blade. A deep gouge that took one eye and split his cheek to the bone. Wing had wailed then, thrashing like a mad animal. Theo screamed, calling her every foul epitaph he knew until Sinnah stalked over and kicked him between the legs, then it was all he could do to curl up and try to breath, knees drawn up to his chest, tears streaming from between his lashes.

In Wing's delirium, Theo heard him sob his name. He pressed his face against the rocky floor and wished he were unconscious so he couldn't hear it. So he couldn't hear what they were doing to Wing.

He came out of a daze once, at a ragged, howling scream and saw through the gap of people around the stone, Sol step back with a bloody knife in his hands and growing stain of red around Wing's crotch.

Theo silently cried. If it had been him, he'd have taken Tiana's way out long ago. They'd kill Wing, bit by bit, before he did. Then what would happen? Would the stone rebel, them having murdered its chosen host, or would it simply wait and mark another and then would he have to go through the same thing? He'd take the knife as soon as she offered it to him if that happened. Coward. Coward. But he couldn't do what Wing did, not even to honor Wing's efforts.

"He'll die soon. Bleed out if nothing else. Will the god consider that suicide of a sort?" Voices not too far from Theo. He didn't open his eyes to look. It was Sinnah's hateful tone and Tiana's impatient one.

"No. It has to be by his hand, by his choice. Spirit's damn the man. I wanted the other one. I could have broken him."

"A prettier host by far." Sinnah agreed. "But perhaps the other is more suited for a war, if that's what you had in mind. The rest of the world may not take kindly to the resurrection of the dark god Kerisai. If you only wanted a bedmate, then I assure you I can teach your sea captain proper manners."

"Shut up." Tiana hissed. "He'll break. He has to break."

"Maybe not." Sinnah said to her retreating back. "I've seen men like him suffer as much out of pride or stubbornness. The pain will become like a weapon he'll use against us. Something to flaunt before us. He doesn't care about his agony ---- " Sinnah paused, thoughtfully. He moved and crouched next to Theo.

"But I wonder if he'll care about yours?"

Fingers reached down, curled around his collar and hauled him up. In an upright position, his head rebelled, swimming dizzily, it was all he could do to meet Sinnah's black gaze. Sinnah smiled at him, elegant white smile beneath the trim black beard. The tattoo crinkled at the corner of his eye. "What do you think, Theo?" he whispered.

Theo suggested something foul and sexual involving a sow. Sinnah's smile actually grew wider in amusement. "Perhaps later I'll make you do that." The slaver said. "But for now, lets go see your friend, shall we?"

He drew Theo up and when Theo balked, cursing, wrapped his arms about his waist and hefted him off his feet, carrying him the distance that separated them from the stone and the grisly, bloody body that hung from it. Theo cried out when he got a closer look at Wing. His friend was no longer recognizable. He hardly seemed human. One eye was mangled, lid and ball split from Tiana's blade, his face was slashed and swollen, his skin blistered from cuts and burns and other ingenious tortures. There was visible bone here and there under the gouges.

Theo felt bile rising. Sinnah let his feet touch floor and his knees buckled.

"No, no, no." Sinnah said in his ear, keeping him up with one arm around him.

"What are you doing?" Tiana spat at the slaver lord. "Get him away from here."

"Ah, lady, I think you're going about this the wrong way. You could go on like this for days and if he didn't bleed to death, still not succeed."

She glared, understanding glittering in her eyes. She didn't like it, but she chewed it over thoughtfully anyway.

"Wing. Wing. Theo's come to see you." Sinnah said gently. Wing's one good eye slitted open. Pain had ravaged the calm, gentle expression he used to hold. But he recognized Theo. The brows drew down. Something oozed from the ruined eye at the movement. Sinnah took out a thin stiletto, laid it alongside Theo's cheek, rested his chin on Theo's shoulder as he studied Wing.

"You're dead anyway, you know. Blinded, gelded, all but eviscerated. There's no coming back from what we've done to you. But you'll linger for a while. Long enough for us to do the same to him."

The tip of the blade cut into Theo's cheek, just above his ear. A thin short slice and the blade stopped, resting under the upper layer of his flesh, blood trickling down its cold length, down Theo's jaw. He lowered his lashes, standing very still against Sinnah, trying not to tremble but feeling the quivers shake his body nonetheless.

"It would be a shame to scar him, don't you think? He's got value, with that face. I'd have to be especially creative in destroying him to make it worthwhile." He shifted the blade down to rest it against the pulse in Theo's throat, then licked the blood from the side of his face.

Wing croaked something. It might have been 'bastard'. It was hard to tell. Sinnah looked up at him, waiting. Tiana had caught her breath in anticipation.

"What was that?" Sinnah asked finally, running the edge of the stiletto along the curve of Theo's neck and shoulder.

"Let --- him --- go." Wing got it out past shattered jaw and missing teeth. Blood dribbled out of his slack lips.

"No, Wing. Please." Theo whispered.

"Alive and free." Sinnah promised. "And all it takes is an end to your suffering. A better bargain can't be imagined."

Theo started to protest and the blade pressed hard against his throat. A thin peal of blood began to trickle down warmly. Wing stared. Met his eyes with his one whole one. There was pain there, and regret and fear.

"Out. Now." Wing gasped.

Sinnah looked to Tiana, who nodded. "My word." She said.

Sinnah cut the ropes binding Theo's wrists and they fell numbly to his sides. The moment Sinnah's hands were off him, he stumbled forward clutching at Wing. Wing grunted in pain at the contact.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Theo cried into his shoulder. Blood was slowly soaking the front of his shirt, it was warm and sticky against his skin. All the life was seeping out of Wing and soon it would be gone. And for what? Tiana's hope that she might resurrect a long dormant god.

"Take him out. Let him go." Tiana said, her eyes on Wing. Hands grasped his arms and pulled him away, he twisted in the grip but was too weak to break it.

"You bitch. You evil, twisted whore." He screamed at her. She said nothing. Did not even look at him. Sinnah moved between them, forced Theo towards the opening leading out. A soldier with a torch proceeded them, another following behind. The stone chamber was behind them. Wing was. Wing would end his life alone, in the midst of enemies and that struck Theo as so tragically wrong.

Sinnah kept him moving, hands on his shoulders, as if sensing the pressing need to go back. The smell of sea air began to permeate the tunnels. Close the outside then. He wondered if Wing was gone. He began to think he was. He tried to control his breathing, his misery that ate at him like a leprosy. He would not give them the satisfaction. He'd lost two other people in his life that he'd loved. Mother when he'd been too young to remember clearly the details. The hurt had not been so bad, because he hadn't really understood. Father, not so long ago, swept overboard by the raging torrent of a storm. A death his father would have preferred over a slow rot in bed. Everyone told him that, afterwards, when the survivors had gathered on deck and he'd stood in numb shock. Wing made it better, because he wouldn't let them pester him, or shame him with pity. Wing lent a shoulder when away from the eyes of the crew Theo had needed to vent grief. Wing had always been there. Longer than mother and father both. More vital. More missed.

He didn't think he could make the climb to the cliff above. His stomach was cramping with anguish induced pain. He wanted to crawl into a corner somewhere and scream. Sinnah pushed him onward. He slapped the man's hand away from him with a snarl. "Don't touch me."

Sinnah didn't respond. Just urged him out. He forced himself up the narrow tract. Surprised himself with the energy he had in climbing it, outdistancing the men behind him, reaching the cliff edge and heading towards where the picket line that had held his men had been, to make certain they were all gone. There was nothing there was discarded chain. The fires of the rest of Sinnah's men were guttering low. The sky over the sea was beginning to lighten. He didn't know what to do. A few soldiers prowling the burnt out remnants of the village looked at him, hands on weapons, faces unreadable in the shadow. He needed a horse. He could not flee this place fast enough without one. He needed badly to be gone before Tiana came back up from her butchery.

The crack of a burnt embers crushed beneath a boot behind him. Slowly, Theo turned his head. Sinnah and a half dozen men stood behind him. Sinnah's white smile was visible even in the predawn darkness.

"All your men have fled. Your friend is dead. You're all alone. Are you afraid, Theo?"

Theo spat in his face. Slowly, Sinnah lifted a hand and wiped it off.

"You gave your word." Theo reminded him.

"No. She gave hers. Did you believe her? I didn't."

He didn't try to run. There was no place to go and too many men to track him down. He stood there and stared into the darkness of Sinnah's eyes. He was tired. He hurt inside and out. Guilt and grief warred. He just wanted to cry, but he wouldn't.

"Why? You got what you wanted. I don't matter. Take her at her word. Just let me go. You won't see me again."

"Ah, but you miss the point. This isn't about what you want. And I don't believe you anyway. You'd seek revenge. I can see it in your eyes."

He said nothing to that statement. Refused to acknowledge them at all when they laid hands on him and led him towards the campfires and the circle of tents. They did not abuse him further, just put a manacle on his wrist and chained it to a stake in the ground. In the midst of their camp, that was more than enough. A numbness was beginning to spread, eating away at his emotions. He sat with his arms about his knees and blanked them all out. Sinnah stood over him once and said something, but he did not absorb the words. Eventually the slaver lord went away. Slowly the world did, turning dark around the edges until there was no perception of anything but numbness and lethargy.

 

*

 

On a boat again, this time one of the broad bottomed vessels that plied the rivers of Khell. Dharva stood at the prow watching the distant forest lined shore pass to either side, expecting any time now to see the outlying villages, the cultivated lands, the riverside estates of the wealthy -- all the things that would mark an approach to the lavish and legendary capital of Perth. She had read books about it, heard tales of it from Pyphin and Anson, had dreamed about its jewel toned buildings and fabulous wealth since she was old enough to fantasize about such things, but she had never imagined herself arriving there. Much less arriving in the company of so prestigious a crowd and on the way to an interview with the emperor himself.

Four days on the river and she had hardly seen her master. He had closeted himself away with the other old masters, the lot of them putting their heads together to come up with a plan they all agreed on that would solve the problem. No plan was easily reached. It was no simple thing for them to repair a spell of guardianship that had been cast so very long ago. None of them, even Pyphin who had made the study of the stones his life's work could know all the nuances of those magic wielder's of lore's spellwork. That was even if the Third Stone, the guardian stone was in any condition to be repaired. If they could find it in the vast caverns of Ishvan and if it were not already too late. She cringed at the last thought. They all did. Their enemies were stealthy and obviously much better prepared than they were, as if the Kerisai had been waiting for years for just such a monumental natural event to shake the foundations of the spell guarding their dark spirit.

They had not been attacked since the acid rain. Their journey had been swift and unimpaired, and now they were so very close to Perth and hopefully the aide of the emperor in hastening them to the caverns of Ishvan with the power of his royal mages to back them up in their efforts. Please, please let it be enough.

"Dharva?" Anson came up beside her at the rail. He looked impeccable as ever, even with the holes in his fine cloak, even though she knew he had but recently woken from sleep. She'd looked in on him before coming here, seeking his company and found him dozing on the narrow cot in his cabin. He was the only company she had, since Pyphin had no time for her and the other students were -- well, were just plain discourteous. Their snobbish ways and barbed comments had began to draw blood. She would have thought she might become immune to it after days of forced travel, but it only bruised the more despite Anson's calm insistence that she ignore them. He did. But they were just a little intimidated by him. If they spoke badly of him, it most certainly was not to his face.

"How far?" she asked.

"Not very. Look, another boat." He pointed up the river to the distant form of a ferry. The water traffic was becoming more frequent, the closer they got to the capital. The river was deep enough that they had even seen sea faring ships navigating the channels. The trade was always rich in Perth. She thought about the Luck and wondered if that selfsame ship's crew had accomplished their task. It would make Pyphin's work so much easier if they had.

"What is he like? The prince?" She was ever amazed at the places Anson had been and the people he knew. That he was acquainted with the prince of Perth was hardly a surprise.

He grinned at her, blue eyes twinkling. "Oh, you'll like him. Women always do. Partly because he's heir to all of this--" he waved an arm about at the land in general. "Partly because of his -- ah -- manly attributes. Mostly because he's just so damned charming."

"More so than you?" she lifted a dubious brow.

"I did not say that, little sister. The title of Prince added to one's name however does increase the level of charm. Any of his wives will attest to that."

"Wives?"

"It is a custom of the nobility, to spread to seed, so to speak. Almost every ruling house in Khell has blood links to the Imperial line. It keeps the power in the family."

"Oh." She blushed a little.

"The emperor's not much for magic, but the Prince is fascinated by it. If there weren't so many sacrifices involved, he'd be a student of it. But there is only so much the heir to the empire can give up."

"How did you meet him?"

"Ah -- that's a rather embarrassing story. Perhaps we'll save it for a day when I've enough wine in me to loosen inhibitions."

She slanted a look at him. "Oh, that's a cruel thing to do. Now I'm curious."

"Stay that way. You won't tell me what has you blushing every time Pyphin mentions this sea caption that he sent off to ward the second stone."

Her mouth fell open. Had she? Was it that obvious, or was Anson merely that perceptive? "I-- I do not." She stammered.

"Really? Pyphin says you were a bit infatuated with the -- what were his words? -- annoying boy?"

"That's not true." She exclaimed, fuming, quite, quite put out with master Pyphin for saying any such thing. She had not been infatuated with Theo. Well, at least not for long. She was too sensible to hold onto such wild fancies. She would probably never even see him again. He would probably be overjoyed to never have her presence darken his path. Anson was looking at her critically, his blue eyes holding just a little something other than curiosity. Not quite as amused as his light words implied.

"I would hate to see you hurt." He said. She blushed again, this time embarrassed by the concern in his tone.

"I wouldn't." She said lightly. "I have you to protect me, right big brother?"

"Always." He sighed and turned away to stare at the river.

They stood side by side for a while, watching the growing form of the boat coming down the river towards them. A few gulls flew overhead, having followed ships far from the sea.

"He never really noticed me." She finally said. "So I guess even if I was -- infatuated -- it wouldn't have mattered. I'm so stupid sometimes."

"You're seldom stupid. You're young and naive and can be forgiven misinterpretations. And anyone who does not notice you, or give you your due is a fool. And there are quite a few of them below decks now. Did they drive you up here?"

"Not really. They're more excited about reaching Perth than they are in baiting me. I just wanted to get a first look at the city. And to think."

"To worry, you mean?"

"Aren't you?"

He scratched at his neat beard thoughtfully. "I don't think its occurred to me to worry. I've great faith in our esteemed masters."

She wasn't so sure she did. Master Pyphin who was the most revered figure in her life had been taken so easily by their enemies. What if he were not up to this task?

Then her attention was drawn away by the end of the forest and the first piers of the outlying villages surrounding Perth. The number of boats in the river increased dramatically. Everything to the large barges like the one they traveled upon, to small fishing boats rowed by boys who drew in nets or crabpots marked by floating buoys. The villages grew larger the closer they got to Perth. There was a road that ran along the right hand side of the river that a great many travelers used. Wagons, men on foot, parties ahorse, all could be seen from the boat. Soon the outskirts of the city itself could be seen. The piers were more numerous and made to accommodate larger vessels. Tall masted sailing ships sat side by side with the squat river ferries. Warehouses lined the docks and beyond those the gently sloping mass of the capital of Khell.

Kava Port was nothing in comparison. Perth spread across the horizon, a glittering, many hued monster that occupied a mile or more of shore line. Dharva stared, enraptured as the currents drew them past countless busy docks, past a distant blur of activity, of crowded riverside streets, of more obscured, jewel toned bulbous domes of far away rooftops.

The other passengers came on deck to see the passing city. They stood along the rails and pointed, those of them who had never seen Perth as fascinated as Dharva.

When the river boat docked, the old masters were, predictably, the last to disembark. The Kavian soldiers impatiently mulled about the docks, standing guard over the piles of baggage while the old men procrastinated and finally toddled down the gangplank. Anson paced the dock himself, watching the passing crowds with wary eyes.

"They won't want us here, our enemies." He surmised. "I wish the lot of them would hurry up so we can be on our way and into the safety of royal protection."

Dharva gnawed at her lip and hastened to move her old master along, even going so far as to take his arm in hers and steer him away from a conversation with Master Malafor and into the waiting seat of a coach. She got in with him, despite the mulling group of masters and their apprentices. Anson had her worried, with his talk of enemies and ambushes. The streets here were crammed with people and noises. An assassin could be anywhere. Could strike and melt into the midst of so many people. Between Anson and the Kavian guard the rest of their party was loaded into coach's for hire and destination given the drivers.

Down wide, well-paved streets they went. Dharva took it all in, the beautiful facades of buildings, the colorful throng of people, the smells, the sounds, the sights of the wealthiest city in Khell. She wished Anson were riding with her, so that he might point out the distinctive sights. There was a great, sprawling building with gold tinted tiles on its walls and cerulean blue turrets atop its graceful towers. Was it the fabled Mosque of Perth? The place where the emperor himself sought guidance from the spirits. The buildings were so beautiful she leaned over the side of the carriage and gaped. And then they were turning down a wide, tree lined boulevard at the end of which stood a tall white wall and ornate metal gates. Beyond that could be seen a grandiose palace that stood above the rest of the city. The road split at the gates, following the wall. Liveried guards stood at attention behind the barrier of artfully curved iron.

The captain of the Kavian guard went and spoke with the gate guard. The gate guard spoke with his senior officer and eventually the gates swung open and with an escort of imperial guard their coaches moved through the gates and down the winding road that led to the imperial palace itself.

Somehow, Dharva found herself within the grandest palace in all of Khell. She gawked like the veriest country bumpkin, even left to wait along with the other apprentices in a grand waiting room off to the side of the awe inspiring grand hall. The parlor was filled with priceless things. Delicately carved furniture, upholstered in brocade with actual gold and silver threads running through the fabric. Tables with rare marble tops, on which sat exquisite porcelain vases and guilded figurines. There was a huge hearth, more decorative than useful, over which hung a mantel of some exotic, gold veined stone. The rug that covered the floor was probably worth the cost of Theo's ship. Great window lined the outside wall, running from floor to ceiling and casting the whole of the room in bright sunlight.

The young apprentices took their leisure upon the priceless furniture, making a show of relaxing as if they were in no wise impressed by such wealth, but Dharva saw the occasional wide eyed look, the furtive twitching of a hand as one or another of them stroked finely polished wood, or smooth marble. They pretended at nonchalance, talking amongst themselves, pointedly excluding her from their confidences. As if they had anything to say that would interest her. She had learned some time past that their interests and hers were vastly different. The only thing that bound them together was the thirst for magic, and she was not even certain if what they sought from the arcane was the same as that which attracted her.

Anson had disappeared at some point between their being ushered into the main gallery of the palace and the royal attendants depositing the apprentices here, while the masters went to meet with the royal chamberlain and perhaps even the king himself. She missed him dreadfully. He would have placed all this splendor in perspective. As it was, she felt lost. She stood before the row of window, looking out upon an immaculately maintained garden maze. Waist high shrubbery formed an artful maze of pathways, leading to grottos and fountains and other natural treasures. A richly dressed couple or two roamed its byways. Members of the royal court, she thought.

The door to the parlor opened. They all glanced up expectantly, but it was only Anson, who stepped into the room with a sly smile on his face. A man about his own age followed him in. A broad shouldered, well-tailored man, sporting a trim mustache and short golden brown hair. Vivid green eyes sparkled above a hawk-like nose and high, broad cheeks. A masculinity handsome man, who exuded vitality and charisma.

"Dharva," Anson beckoned to her, ignoring the other apprentices. "Come meet my good friend."

She blushed a little at the man's eyes on her as she walked across the room. He had the most unnervingly gauging stare, but his smile was genuine and warm and he actually bowed to her from the waist. A full court bow that had her stuttering and nervous. No one had ever bowed to her and taken her hand to politely kiss.

"Ah, the young sister you have spoken so much about. She is more lovely than you expressed, Anson."

"No, I did her adequate justice, you're merely flirting. As usual. Dharva, might I present, his most inflated royal highness, Ilrath, Prince Heir of Perth."

She gaped. Her mouth literally fell open in awe and her hand where the prince had pressed his lips went a little tingly. She hardly noted the other apprentices gawking behind her. They got up as a group, bowing and murmuring polite honorariums. The prince ignored them. He was grinning at Anson.

"Do you know men have been put to death for such ignominious slander towards a royal personage?"

"The truth is a hard pill to swallow, is it not, Ilrath? Besides, who would you send after me that could withstand my terrible magics?"

"Fine point." The prince clapped a hand on Anson's shoulder, the put a gentler one under Dharva's elbow. "My dear lady, Anson tells me you've never seen Perth. Allow me to show you the wonders of our fair city, while your mentor is closeted away with father and his council."

As the other apprentices stood gaping, the prince heir ushered Dharva and Anson out, hooking the door shut with his foot as he did. For the first time in a very long time, she found herself thinking of something other than the dread awakening of the dark god. It felt rather good.

 

 

 

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