Chapter 8 :: Where Body & Soul Part

by Tenshi

As a boy, I had no small skill in woodcraft. I used to track rabbits on foot across the wild moors and the dense dripping fir forests of the Greylands. But here, in the twisted paths and leering trees of the Snowfly Forest, I was beaten. Rosencrantz I had found, of course, as reliable as maggots in rotten meat and just as unappetizing. I trusted him no deeper than the dent my mace could make in his skull, and as the leaves closed above my head and I lost any sense of direction, I cursed him for a scoundrel and a rogue. He had told me less than nothing.

Faemdos and Lamkin were lost to me, no doubt wandering somewhere else in the accursed wood. I called for them, hoping they had not run afoul of the evil that oozed like sap from the tightly knotted trees. My voice fell flat in the oppressive air, and soon I did not speak their names again, for I felt as though the forest itself was malignant, and I was only adding to its displeasure.

It was in this way, through no path I could have retraced and either the malicious glee of the woods or the hand of Iocus, that I stumbled upon unexpected quarry.

Alone, and standing in the middle of a clearing was a slim young man of perhaps twenty, his shoulders back with the weight of his curious armor, as careless as if he had simply stopped for a rest during an idle stroll. The leader of Müllenkamp, prophet and mouthpiece for the heathen rabble that had destroyed my future. The center of our course, and more reward for me than gold if I could bring him alive to Guildenstern. Sydney Losstarot.

"Your luck has led you afoul, Grissom." Sydney did not move, did not make the slightest effort to draw his sword. "There is an appointment here with fate, but it need not be yours."

"Charlatan," I said, and shifted my grip on my staff. I knew better than to ask how he came by my name; I was more certain of spies than sorcery. "I came for the Riskbreaker, but I think Guildenstern would be more pleased with you, as would I!"

"Such vindictiveness." Sydney gave me a mock bow. "I'm pleased to meet the man who has so excellently dashed out the brains of many of my flock." He made a delicate gesture with his sharp fingers, brushing at the snowflies hovering ecstatically in his shadow. "And what have I done to merit your legendary brutality?"

"More than you know, catamite of Müllenkamp. You and your kind have brought more ruin on me than all your blood can pay." I rushed him, dirt flying from my boots. "But nonetheless, I will subtract it from your debt!"

He shrugged, and vanished as my staff arched down into the empty space where he had stood.

"I do not have time for this," Sydney said behind me, as though I had delayed him on some common errand. "Go and join your pious pilgrims, and search for your imagined key with the handful of hours you have left in the glass of your life."

"For a supposed prophet you have little enough humility." I circled him carefully, wary of his diablerie. "Fight me, if you have any honor to call your own."

Sydney laughed. "I am honest. It is a better thing than heartless honor or false faith."

"My faith," I growled, "is no falsehood." I lunged for him again and this time my staff met steel: the shivering damascus blade of his sword.

"Fool," Sydney hissed at me over our crossed weapons, his eyes colorless. "Even if you could slay me, killing me will not bring them back." Silver and steel shrieked as they grated together. "Your mother. Your father. Your brother. Your lover. Your Greylands."

"Hold your forked tongue!" I flung him back, panting. "What do you know of it? What do you know of anything?"

Sydney was not shaken. "I can read hearts, Grissom. And yours is small and shivering." He pointed one bladed finger at me, as if he could lay aside flesh and armor and expose my heart in my breast. "Betrayed. Robbed. Nothing that you could ever call your own. This is what you are thinking. But be wary, Grissom. Your life is yet yours. Seek to grasp things lost, and you will lose all."

"My fate," I said, "lies not in your hands, but in those of God." Lightning arched from my outstretched hand, flinging Sydney backwards like a tinker's marionette. Lightning crackled over his armor. "You can read hearts, can you? Then you know who betrayed my father."

"Bardorba's name is the one on the deed to the Greylands." Sydney smiled mirthlessly, a smear of bright red at the corner of his mouth, like a courtesan's rouge. First blood was mine. "So why blame me?" Sydney pushed himself up. "I was born in the Greylands the year you lost them, but I know little enough of them. Your wrath would sit better on our side, against the Duke."

I spat at his feet. "Silver tongued snake. How quickly you turn on your benefactors! I pity the Duke, if your backstabbing is all the reward he earned from you. Like my father, sold to the block for a cultist's filthy life!" Magic burst again from my fingers, but Sydney was ready this time, vanishing and reappearing directly in front of me, his blade slashing down. Blood blossomed red over the white linen of my brigandine; I would not leave this fight unscathed.

Sydney scowled. He had no doubt hoped to finish me then. "I have no time to meddle with you, priest. You are a tool of mine as much as your zealous legions, but a tool that will not obey its wielder should be cast aside and smelted anew."

"It is I will do the smelting, soothsayer!" I spun my staff in my hand, and lightning crackled in my fist. "This is my hammer and anvil!"

"You dare fight me with the Dark?" Sydney's laughter rang in the glen, and snowflies fluttered in his hair. "Then I will meet you, Grissom!"

The earth and air exploded with power. I was more than his match with a weapon, but no blow I struck ailed him, and his command of magic by far exceeded mine. It was a coward's art, but because of that, he had the upper hand. At last, wounded, weary, kneeling, I had only one chance left.

"If you will not fight me as a mortal," I said, my hand to my wounded shoulder and the heat of my blood under my glove, "then I will bring forth immortality to fight you." The words were eager on my tongue, long practiced in secret, at last exceeding my brother. "Erulkes-solmah-lon-smohta..."

"Are you mad?" Sydney demanded, some trace of color rising in his face. "The Dark will rip you to dripping shreds."

"I too can summon, Sydney." I closed my fist on a tussock of grass, as though to hold myself to the earth. "It is not your sacred right!"

"And I say you will die." Sydney looked down at me coldly.

"Erulkes-solmah-lon-smohta... Derdes-fful-gend-glymota..." I felt it at last, the stirrings of power, the fabric of worlds melting by my command. My head was spinning, but I clung to the words like a drowning man to the rocky strand. "Knight of shadow, from ancient slumber. The bloody glyph, carved in flesh..." the power buckled, folding on itself, slipping out of my grasp. I struggled for air, tasting blood. "Imposs--" Abruptly, darkness descended.

"...weak cannot rule in the dark. There are limits to all things." Sydney's voice came to me as though from a great distance. "You have reached yours."

Footsteps rustled in the grass. I felt as though I was floating away, and struggled to tighten my grip on the grass.

"The Dark is hungry," Sydney said, as though greeting another. "It has fed."

Consciousness returned in a rush. I willed my fingers to move, to obey me, and pushed myself to my knees. I felt oddly numb, muffled in my own body, yet the sunlight was too bright, almost dazzling. I must have lost a great deal of blood. "Speaking ill of the dead, are we, Sydney?" The spell lingered in my mouth like ashes, unfinished. In Sydney's slim shadow I saw him, Ashley Riot, my brother's murderer. My true quarry. "Knight of shadow... from ancient slumber. The bloody glyph... carved in flesh. Take my body, lead me as your own... Xylda-nazam-ssom-nedayda!"

Power rushed through me, my summoned crusader emerging from the between, empty armor and tortured soul. The Riskbreaker drew his sword and I lifted my weapon as though it were made of blown glass. There was no pain, and vengeance was within my grasp. "And now, in my brother's name, you die."

Of the battle I recall little. It seemed I was watching it all, an odd detachment the opposite of my usual battle fury. It was an even match, or would have been, if I had been fresh. The Riskbreaker dogged my steps, fighting close and preventing my from loosing my lightning. He did not speak, not even to Sydney, the two strangely alike in their flat eyes and relentless combat. It was not unlike battling the cold dead beneath the city. At last my summon failed, his immortal armor deteriorating from within, crumbling under Sydney's magic. The power that sustained me ebbed, and Ashley Riot's blade slashed deep through armor and bone.

I did not feel it. I was not thinking of death or of God, but remembering the long brown road that led from the castle gate to the highway, in the Greylands on a summer morning, with the sound of my mother singing as she spun wool in the solar. And I thought that if I looked just one moment more, that I would see my father rounding the bend, spurring his mount for home.

I woke in the cold blue light of the undercity, lightheaded, my limbs stiff. I had vague memories of Leá Monde, jumbled paths that made no sense and spinning, blinding light. Thinking the battle haze had fallen on me late and I had wandered, wounded and disoriented, into some forgotten hole, I struggled to rise, and failed.

I heard Tieger say my name, and relief flooded through me. Perhaps all was not lost, after all.

"Rather... bad uuone, Tieger," I said, with some difficulty. My tongue felt thick and swollen, my limbs wooden. I turned my head to focus and saw Tieger looking away, his knuckles pale on his battle ax. Neesa stood beside him, her dark face ashen.

"Grissom," she said, her eyes full of disbelief.

"What?" I gained my feet, but could not straighten completely. "It's nothing, Neesa." The blood on my armor had dried black, at least my wounds must have closed. "A mu-- mere sscratch."

Neesa made a small choking noise, like a sob, and I would have teased her for worrying, but I could force my mouth to shape few words, loosening my jaw like a rusted gate. "Please, a moment. My body... is not cooperating."

The door at the bottom of the steps slammed shut, and who should stand there but the VKP's Riskbreaker, a flicker of astonishment on his impassive features. I must have proved a more resilient foe than he expected. "Yeuuu... You!" Tieger and Neesa were wounded, but not near so badly as I was, even though my injuries did not pain me and I thought perhaps I had only been addled by the summon. The three of us would have been more than a match for Riot.

"I am sorry, Brother," Tieger said, as if he knew my thoughts, shaking his shaggy head in sorrow. "We cannot help you."

"We arre enough to beat him." Wanting to prove how little I was injured, I put my hand to the wound in my chest and felt no pain as my fingers slipped into a gash deep enough to kill, torn muscle and bone. My wounds had not closed, they hung open like raw gaping mouths, the blood cold and thick, black on my gloves. I tried to take a breath and realized I had not been breathing at all, only pulling air in to force back out when I needed words. The heart beneath my shattered breastplate was still. "What...what is happening?"

"Grissom." Neesa said, her voice harsh and strained. "You have left this coil. The Dark has filled you, you have joined the cold ones."

I looked down at myself, torn flesh and stiffening body, and knew it for what it was. A shell, a decaying husk, to putrefy and crumble and be cast aside for another. I laughed, and there was enough mortal of my soul to cower at the sound, echoing hollowly on the ancient stones and turning cold the hot blood of the living who stood and watched me. "An ironic fate." I wondered if Duane too had found himself this way, staring out from a dead stranger's eyes, running from the sunlight. "I suppose it is better than the endless wandering. But to happen upon your own corpse!" The words, once spoken, could not be unsaid. Horror that could not harm my unfeeling body made my soul shrink within me, cowering and afraid. I had not asked for heaven, but not even merciful oblivion! The cry that left me was one of despair, forced through a dead throat.

Kill them.

It was like a siren's whisper, the first sympathetic words I had yet heard. I heard my mother's voice in it, And Duane's, even Samantha, who I thought surely still lived.

"Who speaks?" The sound seemed to come from the very walls, the shivering stones of Leá Monde herself. Tieger and Neesa looked at me blankly, deaf to it.

It is bitter and lonely. Drag them down with us. Why should they be warm and breathing? Look at them, at the fear and pity in their eyes. Your friends! They dream of killing you, hacking you free of your fragile house, to steal your bones and burn them. Kill them, Grissom. Kill them all.

I realized then that my staff was not slung at my side; missing as well was any equipment I had worn that had been worth salvage. My hand went to my throat and felt only a broken silver chain. The swan song was gone, pilfered from my corpse by that grave-robbing Riskbreaker. Even dead, I could still be robbed. All that was left to me was my own decaying flesh, and that riskbreaker, and those traitors I had once called friends --ha! as though they had once come to my aid in this hell, even while I lived!-- sought to deprive me of the last thing I had.

Kill them.

"This flesh is mine!" I cried, my naked wounds shuddering. "Mine, and mine alone!" I fled, not by movement of body and bone, but by the pure will of the Dark, into the endless devouring maze of the undercity.


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