“Don’t trust him.”
What choice do you have?
Mesteno didn’t ask it though. He was resigned to their hostility, and it was too easy to twist his words into provocation. He met the sullen gazes of those bold enough to meet his own, the campfire reflected like miniature candleflames in their eyes, and the rising heat distorting their faces – a warped world cast in purgatorial light, dancing shadows and bare branches glittering with hoarfrost.
“He’s had us waiting here for a month, tells us the absolute minimum, while he skulks around in the city doing everything he’s not supposed to. Don’t pretend you haven’t seen his neck. Look.” His accuser thrust a finger mere inches from his throat. “Look at it!”
An ugly ring of scabbing, a dark, crusted band of it, was more than enough evidence to condemn him; he’d been practicing necromancy. The hair-thin noose of metal he’d invited them to collar him with tightened every time he wielded those unnatural abilities, and in recent weeks, he’d done so without consideration for the risk he exposed these people to. If he died, his curse would become theirs. The next generation of their children destined for slaughter.
“It was necessary,” Mesteno told them quietly, the same three words he intended to offer in perpetuum whenever it was brought up. If he told them the truth of his efforts, that he’d been twisting the laws of nature out of some selfish need not to lose someone, it would earn him no sympathy.
Mesteno was short on friends. Close ones. Some he hadn’t seen in years, and those he did have any frequent contact with, he could count on one hand. He’d put the lives of everyone currently surrounding him at risk, all to save himself the grief.
In a way, it helped that these people all hated him. The guilt didn’t gnaw as hungrily as it might have if they regarded one another with any affection.
“This is your idea of taking responsibility?”
“I’m not asking you to wait forever. It’s just a few more weeks.”
There were mutters then, bubbles of rising discontent, though for the most part, the refugees seemed content to let Marcus play their spokesperson. He’d long been the greatest opposition to Mesteno’s interference, still smarting from the humiliation of his capture years before, from Lexius’ unrepentant dip into his memories. To this day, his first question whenever Mesteno visited would inevitably be, ‘Is the elf with you?’
He hadn’t bothered to tell Marcus that he and Lexius had parted ways more than a year ago, nor that it was only recently they’d had any kind of regular contact. There was no risk of elven interference, but what business was it of theirs?
“Plenty of time to have us all neatly rounded up like cattle, you mean.” Marcus’ eyes glittered with contempt, his craggy face rendered bronze as he paced alongside the fire. “Why should forty wait on the whims of one?”
Because it’s not my fault, he almost blurted. But just then he was no better than an empty lighter, nothing more than fumes to spark – briefly incandescent – and then lapse back into nothing. The apathy coiled snug about him again, numbing. His narrowed eyes, nycterent gleam dim, hooded lethargically. “I’m not offering you a choice. I’m telling you this is how it’s going to be.”
Those who had been sitting relatively quietly were finally offended enough by his perceived arrogance to protest. Weather-beaten faces pinched with rancour, a bitterness mirrored in the voices that battered impotently at the seawall of his resolve. The Senator was quiet, the only one amongst them who held some remnant authority from their fallen city and might have brought them to order. He couldn’t be expected to speak up and beg calm from them though, not with the old ‘the senate is the people’ mentality that had persisted in their culture.
Mesteno wondered if assimilating with them would ever be possible. To this day he had yet to find a people who could do more than tolerate him; not the Vhamerians, the Alfar, even Lexius’ Samahar. None of them had overtly protested his presence, but he couldn’t truly say he’d become one of them. Now it seemed that even those with whom he shared bloodlines wanted rid of him.
“At least tell us why!” One woman demanded, hunkered near the mouth of a tent occupied by a trio of wide-eyed children. The youngsters stared at him as if he were some visiting monster who might pick one of them to devour. Usually, the adults kept them well out of sight, as if they half-suspected the same.
“I made a promise.”
It wasn’t a lie. After he’d met with Koyan in the park, he’d agreed to try and seek help from the very pantheon he’d been resolutely avoiding for years. He’d stolen from them. Been as irreverent as he could be, trespassed in their sacred places, lied and conspired to bring them low. It wasn’t as if Koyan could have known the extent of these extremes however.
"I'm going to do a real shitty thing right now.” The Turk had told him. “And I'm not going to apologize for it." A breath. "Do it for me. Reconsider the Greeks. Ask Lexius or someone with all that power to help figure it out. I know there's some way to make it right."
Refusing Koyan anything was difficult, particularly when he’d bluntly, unrepentantly informed the man only minutes before that he was a priority to him – a fact Koyan had already been very much aware of.
And so, Mesteno had turned to Aiden one night at The Red Dragon.
"According to your good ol' Greek Pantheon," he’d asked, too quietly to carry beyond them as the jukebox spilled Chris Isaak’s rendition of ‘Wicked Games’ into the commons, "at what point does a body get given a soul? At conception? Part way through pregnancy? At birth?"
"You get someone pregnant?"
Aiden’s response had been less than confidential, and had certainly given the clientele something to chortle over; whilst Yeardley gaped and Koyan coughed into his drink, Mesteno had been ready to abandon the subject entirely. Asking had been difficult enough to begin with, and his visits to the inn of late had been characterized by persistent storm-cloud glowers and long stretches spent mirthless and uncommunicative. He’d done what he could do in order to try and leave his friends safer, happier, but he was well aware he’d become a dark spot in their gently brightening lives. It was near time he remedied that.
"Never mind," he’d scowled, and turned to head back to the bar and finish his drink.
Aiden of course, had laughed, unaware of the cause for his embarrassment. "Wait, wait, wait." He’d snagged Mesteno's shoulder and drawn him back, blue eyes sparkling.
"It's fine, I'll read up."
Aiden was in fine spirits, and Mesteno’s surly rejoinder only amused him further as he pulled up next to him at the bar. "Now you sound like someone got you pregnant."
In the end, it was better to ask and be done with it, suffer the teasing, even if Mesteno couldn’t mask that he was seething. "Which one of--," he’d paused, rethinking his wording.
Aiden had winked at the others, at their continued amusement and bafflement. He clasped Mesteno's shoulder. "First breath."
At last, a genuine answer. Something he could work with. If he’d ever been meant to have a soul, wouldn’t it have been then?
"Which of them is responsible?" Which of your family? Who amongst them would have seen the anomaly – a birth with a soul usurped by a deity-nibbling parasite?
He didn’t ask it, but Aiden had answered anyway. Luckily, he did so seriously, though his grin never faltered. "In truth or in belief?"
"Facts. Don't give a shit about religious beliefs."
Aiden had nodded, squeezing the shoulder he’d clasped. "The Moirai."
Mesteno had meant to ask more, to question while the teasing had temporarily stalled, but Aiden had been distracted with happier matters that evening, with dancing and rekindling old flames, and Mesteno hadn’t the heart to trouble other people with his problems while they recovered. He’d enough guilt where Aiden was concerned anyway. What kind of man persuaded his friend to give up his ‘son’ as a sacrifice?
And of course, it wasn’t as if he didn’t know how to contact the Moirai himself, not when all he needed to do was show up in their temple in the Greek quarter and likely have half the pantheon appear to try and kill him for one slight or another. He intended to take the risk. Whatever deal he needed to strike with the Moirai, be it to buy himself a soul, or discover what had happened to the one he should have been given to begin with, he would do it before he left and keep his damned promise.
“You made a promise to us, too,” Marcus reminded him coldly. “What does that count for?”
“I mean to keep it,” Mesteno told him, though his voice was lost beneath the ever-increasing volume of the refugees’ protests. “I will, but I just need a little time.”
Mesteno knew the taste of rising violence. He’d fed on it for decades, relished it, and maybe if it had just been him and Marcus there, arguing out in the woods north of the city, he’d have succumbed to instinct, to the drive to do harm and make it hurt in ways he found hedonistic, satisfying… He hadn’t earned his reputation as a sadist for nothing.
Instead, he walked away before he could burn more bridges and start a riot. He’d already robbed these people of a city, of their loved ones – why add another sin to the mountain? He’d already lost sight of the peak.
He’d left Zafirah a half mile out from the camp, cropping at the winter-yellowed grass stubbornly climbing for light through the leaf litter at the edge of the woods. The route was too choked with undergrowth for the enormous horse to accompany him without collecting an assortment of scrapes, and without his own nocturnally skewed sight, it was difficult to pass. The brambles snagged at his age-thinned jeans, and his boots crunched over the rime whitened mud, made treacherously slick where the ice had gathered. No point in attempting stealth, here.
Marcus, bellowing behind him in pursuit.
Doggedly, Mesteno strode on down the brush-clotted trail, and ignored his calls. He ignored him still, when he heard his footfalls come closer, confident there was nothing a simple guardsman like him could do to cause him harm.
“Stop. I said stop, you bastard!”
But of course, he didn’t. Too stubborn. Too self-confident to ever consider a run-of-the-mill human a threat.
The pain wasn’t something he was unfamiliar with (he’d lost count of the number of times he’d taken a bullet over the years) but the crack of the shot at such close quarters was entirely unexpected – where the hell had they got hold of a firearm? – and the utter refusal of his ankle to bear weight as the bones shattered left him momentarily stunned. He pitched sideways, felt the joint bending in a way it shouldn’t, and the abnormally lukewarm heat of his own blood oozing thick and dark and far too slow as he lay there in the brambles.
“Are you really this fucking stupid?” he’d asked as he rolled over, palms full of thorns, the words a basso profundo growl nothing like his usual soft-spoken voice.
“It’s you that doesn’t get to choose,” Marcus informed him, a heartbeat before he fired the next round, this time point blank into his chest.
[Some of this content is taken from various live play sessions back in February 2020. Thanks as always to those writing with me!]
He’d been on the sidewalk in front of The Red Dragon, standing just to prove that he could, a rattle in his throat, teeth tacky with the fluids he’d been coughing up intermittently.
"Take me somewhere bad," was all he’d told her, impatient.
The inconvenience of a punctured lung then had been something easily remedied. Amaranthe had driven him to the docks, the not inconsiderable hole that Cupid’s arrow had punched through his chest sluggishly seeping whatever it was that passed for blood from his progressively more inhuman body.
He’d left her to sit in the car and gone trudging along the waterfront road with an obvious, and very contrived struggle. He played the drunkard in plain sight where the scavengers would have no trouble deducing him an easy target, and after spilling a few coins, all come-grab-me-glitter in the gutter filth, he'd let them close around him like a pincer, four men working as an organised pack, intent on robbing him blind, or worse.
It was never difficult to lure them in; they rotten at the core, nothing to feel guilty about, and though their petty souls were young things, weak things, they'd been enough for him to build some scaffolding on the pieces of him coming apart. A crawling web of malice had gone feeling and feeding its way around, an infinite number of hungry, groping fingers, a brush like cold cobwebs... and then gone.
By the time he’d returned to Amaranthe’s car he’d already been recovering, intent on finding some way to retrieve their stolen friend, the band around his neck a little tighter, but a fair trade off for the convenience.
After Marcus had shot him, the ability he’d once taken for granted was sorely missed. There were no convenient destinations where he could dine on the detritus of society. He’d already pushed as far as he dared with his necromancy, wholly aware that its next use might be his last, and so he resigned himself to the miserably slow progress of a natural recovery.
Whilst it was true that a mortal might have died within minutes from the chest wound, it was also true that their broken bones would have healed more quickly. Had there been a talented surgeon to save them, the shattered rib might have begun to knit, the surgical scar might have puckered into a neat, pointelle star or (so conveniently Rhy’Din) a miracle worker of a healer might have extended their abilities to repair the damage. Mesteno’s body worked differently however. He no longer ate, the breaths he drew were infrequent, his heart was a drowsy thing, rarely stirred to pumping and his body healed at a snail’s pace.
Six weeks along from the gunshot, and Mesteno coughed, ribs bellows-heaving, until a jellied mass of coagulated slime and tissue filled his mouth to be spat weakly into a muddy puddle along the side of the track they'd been traveling. He smeared his lips dry with the back of his knuckles, and sagged back despondently against the lichen-spackled rock he’d chosen as a wind buffer. His ankle was still strapped up, showing no signs of being able to bear his weight, foot bare and filthy. An experimental wiggle of his toes reassured him that the nerves and tendons still functioned, but even that minor movement hooked his upper lip into a regretful snarl.
Zafirah’s warm, dark eye regarded him from a short distance away, the pearl-grey of her coat flecked with mud, mane and tail wind-snarled. At three years old, she’d yet to gain her full bulk, still had the lean contours of a filly, rather than a mature mare, but despite that, she dwarfed normal horses with her height, and she’d caused considerable chaos in the refugees’ camp, trampling tents and scattering the remnants of the campfire under her neat, dark hooves. Chasing her off had been out of the question. Shooting her likewise. If one thing could be said for Mesteno’s people, it was that they were respectful of all things equestrian, and so she’d been permitted to reach the necromancer unharmed, perceptive of the threat, but intelligent enough to calm when, resigned, he’d found enough of his voice to call her off.
“I’m sorry. It’s not quite the adventure you were supposed to get, huh?” he asked her, watching the prick and swivel of her delicate ears at the sound of his voice.
For the refugees, his frequent, one-sided conversations with the horse were just another indication that his mind was abnormal, that he wasn’t entirely compos mentis, but explaining the filly’s provenance took more effort than he was willing to expend, and it wasn’t as if any of them sought him out for conversation.
Zafirah’s silvery nostrils flared at his remark, and she drifted closer, nose low to the ground, to snuffle at his muddy toes. She had sympathy for his lameness. For someone as physical as Mesteno had always been, playing invalid was every bit as much a mental challenge.
“You don’t have to stay with me, you know,” he told her quietly, “I won’t blame you if you want to go back.”
But the horse was as stubborn as the man who’d ‘given’ her to Mesteno, and he could’ve sworn that the next snort was the equivalent of an equine eye-roll. Mesteno offered her a gory, humorless grin, looking every bit the monster the kids seemed to think him, though it vanished like a switch had been flicked when he spotted someone approaching. Not Marcus, by some miracle, but the Senator. Horse and necromancer turned their heads in eerie unison to regard him, the filly’s dislike manifesting in flattened ears.
The Senator faltered, pausing in the no-man’s-land between the spot the others were resting in, and their prisoner’s self-imposed segregation. Mesteno said nothing to encourage the older man, curious to see whether he’d finish the short walk, or let himself be cowed into leaving them be. Reluctantly, he gave him some credit when he came the rest of the way, blustered by the wind, lips pinched into a thin line of determination. The man sat down on a tumbled stone way marker, worn smooth by countless weary travelers using it to rest their legs.
“Marcus shouldn’t have attacked you.”
A statement without unnecessary preamble. Mesteno could appreciate that, but he was still disinclined to encourage him to stay. He observed the state of readiness in which he sat, the tension in his limbs. In his peripheral vision, he glimpsed the heads of the other refugees turned their way, as if they were on stand-by should they need to intervene.
“But it isn’t as if I can change the past, and I’m not even sure I would, if I had that power. Those weeks you wanted…” Pale brown eyes, like pebbles under water, glanced obtrusively towards his neck. “It seemed to all of us that you were making poor decisions. Too many gambles.”
It couldn’t even be considered an apology. Mesteno’s wintry appraisal remained unchanged.
“The fact is, in another two months and we will be settled where you chose to settle us. The plans you made will be accomplished, and this continued schism will only be detrimental if any kind of harmony is to be established.”
Mesteno wondered how many times he’d rehearsed those lines. How very like a politician to try and play peace-maker.
“Are you asking me to try and make some friends?”
The utter lack of inflection left the Senator uncertain. “For the sake of community, I think-”
“I had friends back in the city. They probably think I’m a real asshole right now, leaving without saying goodbye.”
Eden in particular sprang to mind. She’d warned him off vanishing without a proper farewell. He wondered how many curse words had been paired with his name over the past month and a half. How many assumptions had been made about his inconsiderate choice to leave without so much as a text message. It was difficult not to recall how his maudlin moods had sometimes antagonized the few that put up with him, how his own discontent had begun to drive an inevitable wedge here and there. It was entirely too easy to believe that they would think him capable of disappearing wordlessly when it suited him, when the potential for him to have been snatched against his will seemed far-fetched.
Mesteno didn’t do kidnap victim.
“I hope you will excuse my honesty when I tell you that they are likely better off without you,” the Senator told him, quietly.
Again, the anger he expected to feel lay dormant. He wondered if this was how those left-brain dominant savants felt, untroubled by their more emotional, right hemispheres.
It wasn’t as if the Senator was wrong. Mesteno had successfully made enemies with just about every dangerous faction in the city at some point – from mafia toughs and dockside whores to clans of kindred, cults, competing necromancers, Rhy’Din’s police force and any demi-god or deity with a lick of sense. Payback often came through the form of attacks on loved ones, and would they not be free of the targets placed upon their heads if he were gone?
“So, since you’re all stuck with me anyway, I do my best not to offend anyone, pretend I don’t see people eyeballing me like a piece of offal left to rot in a corner, and no one else will shoot me?” Mesteno asked flatly.
A troubled frown was better than affront. The Senator seemed to relax, as if his initial fear of violence had been erased with the flow of words. “What do you expect of them? Do you think that rescuing a few of us from the umbral plane can erase your misdeeds?”
“Interesting choice of words,” Mesteno remarked, without bothering to mount a defense.
“You would prefer I handle you softly? Mistakes, then. Poor choices. Does that make you feel better?”
“Don’t do me any favours.”
“Blunt it is then,” the Senator inclined his head congenially. “Your ignorance will never erase their loss. They will look at you and resent you for all their misfortunes, and resent you all the more because they have no choice but to rely on your apparent benevolence. These small gestures you make will never balance the scales, so what right do you have to expect anything but the most basic civility?”
“Way you word it, I should just quit trying right now,” Mesteno countered, repressing a shudder as another biting wind effortlessly cut through the thin clothes they’d dressed him in. His own had been stripped off him and burned, along with all his belongings, the lithium battery in his phone a brief eruption in the centre of their campfire.
“You could,” the Senator shrugged, resting his darkly bearded chin on the back of his knuckles, elbows propped upon his knees, “but why deny yourself the small comfort of doing what you can? Does it not make you feel better, to try and atone?”
It doesn’t make me feel anything, Mesteno thought, but did not say.
“If there were none of you left, I wonder if it would matter,” was what he did remark, moments later. The Senator stilled beside him. “Seems to me it would have been more convenient if you’d just all died. After all, if I’m only atoning to make myself feel better, and that’s dishonest and self-serving, I should just quit, resign myself to the fact that I committed genocide and spend what time I do have left enjoying myself without people actively hating me.”
There was a minute tremble to the Senator’s mouth as he sought some hint of dark humour in Mesteno’s expression. Something he could chide as if he were schooling a disruptive child. Bereft of anything he might read though, perfectly impassive, the necromancer was using the weathered stone at his back to lever himself up off the ground, skeins of tangled hair hanging lank about his shoulders.
Alarmed, the Senator rose sharply from the stone where he’d been resting his rump, and backed a step, as if he thought he might truly have planted a murderous seed in their prisoner’s head.
“If I’m going to go make nice, pass me your water.” Mesteno offered what might, in some nightmarish realm have passed for a smile, all blood and carnivore’s razoring edges. “I got a little something on my teeth.”
[In parts adapted from old live play, and as always a big thanks to folks who write with me.]
Mesteno hadn’t always been one of Rhy’Din’s surly, maladjusted monsters.
He’d been ‘The Boy Who Ran’. A precocious, adolescent criminal. The whore who pasted on a smile and pretended not to be ashamed. The incorrigible, violent drunkard who’d viciously scribbled all over his past renditions as if he refused to recognize old weaknesses, shunning every little glimmer of ‘victim’ as if it were something to sneer at. He’d bedded men, women, kindred, beings holy (or so they claimed) and otherwise. He’d lived hard and fast and abused his body with the expectancy that he wouldn’t need it for long, not where he was undoubtedly headed.
At what point he’d slipped that skin and become something more befitting a grim-dark novel, he couldn’t have said. Perhaps it was when Samiel vanished, right at the moment when he’d been at his most content. Maybe it had been when his saviour complex snuffed out more lives than it preserved. More likely, it was a landslide of monumental errors he’d made over decades, compounded by failed relationships chipping away at what had already been whittled into something stark and unlovely.
His friends knew the bare bones of him. A few were allowed to glimpse deeper, to see the fault-lines growing wider by the year. He could count on one hand the number who knew why he’d given up and decided to leave Rhy’Din city behind, and he missed them.
He’d never been the codependent type. Never really relied on anyone, lover or otherwise, but that didn’t mean it was easy to be somewhere that everyone hated him.
He missed Yeardley’s fearlessness, the way she never flinched away from the aspects of him that might have disgusted others. He missed Koyan’s mockery and unrepentant arrogance, the fact that he’d cared enough to ask him to try. He missed hearing Gem call him ‘Chev’, and the way she was too short to reach his cheek to kiss it, stretching up on her tip-toes. Even Vadriel, forever dissatisfied with his choices, too inherently ‘good’…He thought of them frequently. Of Eden’s pranks and Salvador’s understanding, predator to predator. Of Lexius’ unflappable stoicism and Cooper’s good-natured insults.
The connection Mallory had made for Yeardley, a way for her to know he was still out there amongst the living, had not been lost to him, thankfully. He wore it to bind his progressively more tangled hair, and the refugees were none the wiser. The metaphysical links he had to those in Rhy’Din however – to Faye, Lexius, Salvador – all were cancelled out thanks to the Senator’s archaic magic, a thing imparted by more scars in the wreck of his tawny hide. He didn’t waste his breath asking for him to un-do it (if such a way even existed).
A month after arriving on the mountain – his mountain – Mesteno decided that if he could simply be content, that would be enough. Happiness was too grand an ambition, something he thought he’d had so many once-upon-a-times before, something for the naïve. Content though… that sounded good. Uncomplicated.
They worked through the cool, morning mists and the heat of the midday sun, where the light seemed to simmer off the pale rocks and the sunsets arrived as a spectacle of gold and cherry red. Mesteno found a simple pleasure in the steady manual labour, seeing something like a proper settlement springing up from the burned village that remained in a sheltered nook of the mountainside. It had been abandoned after some great disaster, something that’d left the survivors too traumatized to want to remain, and so the south facing slopes had been sold off cheaply, acres upon acres of arable land once worked and left fallow, collapsed farmland terraces and skinny little paths made treacherous by rockslides and mud. Waterfalls snaked down the mossy rockfaces from hundreds of feet above like threads of silver, and amongst the twisted cypress and ginko trees nestled choked little orchards of fruit trees they couldn’t name.
He and the refugees cleared rubble and charred timber. They dug out the detritus clogging the swales and located the breaks in the old, pottery piping bringing water to gradually emerging homes. What could be repurposed, they saved. Mesteno gathered small, surviving personal items from beneath layers of ash and deadfall (a bowl made out of an abalone shell, a delicately carved wooden comb, an incense burner and a tiny jade figurine carved into the shape of a spindly legged crane) and wordlessly handed them off to the eldest of the women to distribute – because in his old-fashioned head, wouldn’t the women be more appreciative of ‘pretty’? And perhaps, just perhaps, a part of him missed female company. Hoped there might be a softening in their attitude towards him
The refugees had wanted to name their village, had debated options in their dead language until Mesteno had practically pointed out that anything in Latin might advertise their presence, and that, disconnected though they might feel from its original name, it was better to stick with what was on the maps (when it even appeared – so small it frequently went unplotted). Disgruntled though they were at his interjection, they didn’t argue it, and so the village remained ‘Qelsin’.
By summer’s end, Mesteno’s ankle no longer felt as if it were full of angry hornets whenever he put weight on it, and though his right lung still felt tight and sore, he no longer woke with the desperate need to clear his chest. He functioned, at least as much as was required of him, and to begin with, that was a great deal. The refugees were not farmers. Their lost city had been at the edge of a salt flat, under heat that baked its people dark, the water laden with minerals and the fruits they managed to grow wizened. Their food had come from trade, and they’d never been surrounded by such an abundance as what they could forage in the forests.
At the very foot of the mountain, some twenty miles below, there was a city where the people spoke the common tongue. Loath though they were to mingle with any but their own, the refugees agreed that it couldn’t be avoided (at least until they became self-sufficient) and so to begin with, their trips to this bustling crossroads hub were not infrequent. Mesteno, being the only one who could speak the language, would ride down on Zafirah, who’d taken to being backed as well as Koyan had promised she would (no bit to harden her tongue, no girth to rub the slim barrel of her belly) though he was not permitted to go alone. Marcus would be his shadow, gun at his thigh, fellow guardsmen in tow, and any notion he had of trying to send a missive to someone back in Rhy’Din city was soon snuffed. Technology of the type he knew to be commonplace back ‘home’ hadn’t made it this far East, and that had in part been the draw, when he’d promised his people a refuge to their liking. Somewhere far removed from dangerous magics and modern conveniences alike.
Marcus and his compatriots were angry with him whenever he took too long speaking with the locals, convinced the discourse was some plot to escape, and so he wasn’t surprised when teaching them the common tongue was next on the list of their demands.
It was a way to spend the evenings, another small method to prove that he was amenable, and what initially began as huddled classes of only five or six sullen, passive-aggressive male students soon evolved. The youngsters who’d once hidden from him in their tent, fiercely guarded by the women, came to listen in, and did not seem inclined to stop their peeping even after being chased away on several occasions. The Senator choosing to join them seemed to lend some legitimacy to the whole business, and so came the teenagers (all three of them) and then the older woman whom he’d given the buried treasures to, until finally he’d more than half the refugees showing up to learn, struggling past the basics with his inexpert tutelage.
Mesteno was careful not to linger too long after dark, when the abnormal gleam of his eyes reminded them that he was a ticking timebomb living amongst them. He bade them all sleep well, and retreated to the building he’d chosen for himself long ago on his first visit to the mountain. First pick was his, he’d told them (since he technically owned every bit of dirt they stepped upon) and so they hadn’t argued letting him have the little cluster of half-collapsed, single-room buildings, organised in a ‘u’, tucked away behind a tumbled, white-washed wall. He needed the privacy. Somewhere to quietly collapse. It was at this point of the day that the hunger threatened to get the best of him.
With nothing to distract him, he felt it gnawing all the more keenly. Near six months had gone since he’d last fed, and where before he might have at least found a willing throat to maul and take the edge off (blood was not a soul, but seemed an acceptable alternative where there were no others in the short-term) he was now entirely lacking in options. He couldn’t afford any mishaps, not when he’d at last begun to prove his usefulness.
The Senator regarded him coolly when Mesteno drew him aside to admit his struggle, and took to eyeing the band about his throat. They were taking a quiet walk along one of the crooked little paths, not so far from the village that there would be cause for concern, but with as thickly as the mist lay over it that morning, Mesteno could tell he was still jumpy. An accidental stumble over a bulging root interrupting the path had Mesteno reaching to steady him, but the Senator drew back sharply, untrusting.
It passed without comment.
“Are you asking me to take it off you?”
“No. You take the collar off, and it gets to see and hear again through my eyes and ears. As close as it was getting to making me take a back seat when you first put it on me, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to give you a second chance.”
“You had some idea in mind of how you were going to feed yourself before we left Rhy’Din,” the Senator pointed out.
“Yeah. I had soul traps set for miles around. Think of it like a… passive draining on any souls that got near them. Like a sip here and there from thousands. I could feed from those when I collected them. Had them stockpiled, and it didn’t need me to actively use any necromancy.” The dry look he angled at the older man made it plain he thought it their fault he was now deprived. “The idea was that I go back to Rhy’Din every few months to leave more, switch them out and come back with full ones.”
“Then make more traps!” The Senator demanded, as if he thought him foolish for not seeing the obvious.
“With what?” Mesteno angled the chevron of a dark, auburn brow, tone weary. “Even if I had the right tools and materials here – which I don’t – the rune-work is too complex for me to remember without my notes. And where am I supposed to plant the damn things once I craft them?”
Placing them around the village was plainly impossible, unless the Senator meant him to feed from his own people. Even concealing a few in the city in the foothills was going to be tricky. The place was considerably smaller than Rhy’Din, and it was highly likely that those with prolonged exposure would begin to fall sick. He could well imagine the witch-hunt it might spark if anyone discovered the traps and traced them back to him.
“You have a solution you wish to suggest, I take it.”
“Let me go back to Rhy’Din. I can make the journey fast on Zafirah – won’t be anything like coming out here with lots of people and supplies. We’d make it in less than a month.”
He did not mention the benefits he would reap himself. Being able to let the people that mattered know he wasn’t dead (yet), collecting the myriad things he’d intended to bring with him, and had been forced to leave behind due to the hasty departure. He’d decided already that he would make no mention of the shooting – easier just to let people continue to think him an inconsiderate ass for not saying goodbye than admit he was living with people who would cripple him to ensure his obedience.
“That would be the last we saw of you,” the Senator scoffed, as if he’d just been told a nonsensical joke.
“If I was going to bolt, don’t you think I’d have done that by now?” Mesteno asked, the damp slowly seeping into his hand-me-down clothing. The continued lack of trust was to be expected, but he’d thought at the very least, the risks of him becoming unstable via starvation would have prompted a less impulsive response.
“And if you were intending to stay, wouldn’t you have made some effort to make your home livable?”
The question took him by surprise. So far as Mesteno was aware, no one had come snooping around his secluded little spot. Foolish though it might have been to make that assumption, he could see why they might reach the wrong conclusion; he truly hadn’t made any efforts. He’d always been comfortable ‘roughing it’, and really his homes had never been much more than a roof and four walls, very nearly empty (with the one exception being the morgue below Sanctuary).
“That’s just…” My tastes? It sounded like a weak argument even to him. “It doesn’t mean a damn thing. I just wanted a place that other people wouldn’t have to see me after dark. What? Am I supposed to hang curtains? Pretty it up in case any of you decides to come visit me?”
“Even if you meant to do this with good intentions, by going back you risk drawing attention to yourself. No one becomes as scarred as you are by being well liked.”
Mesteno couldn’t deny that a visit wouldn’t come sans risks. He trusted in his own abilities to survive a brief visit though; after all he’d lived in the city since he was fourteen, and maybe, just maybe, his absence meant the powers so eager to kill him would have turned their attention to more deserving targets.
He stopped, and eye-balled the Senator shrewdly. “Before we left, back when we were still planning this, I told you all I’d be going back every now and then. That wasn’t negotiable. If I have to live like some pariah, you have to give me a chance to do this without putting you all at risk.”
“Is that a threat?”
Mesteno felt his jaw beginning to slacken at the sheer idiocy of the question. At the deliberate efforts to ignore the necessity of him leaving. A flex of muscle at the hinge of his jaw drew his teeth back together with a soft click, and he took a moment to divert the immediate flood of insults that clamoured. Anything he said would be deliberately twisted. He knew that.
He said nothing, and after a few moments of icy stalemate, the Senator turned back to stride along the path the way they’d come.
“You’ll be under watch again for the foreseeable future,” he called back imperiously, without bothering to turn his head. “Find another way.”
Come the winter solstice, the mountain became a blinding, silver snowscape. The ethereal mists never lifted, and familiar landmarks were buried so deeply that the land seemed pristine and unfamiliar. It took climbing higher, above the clouds where the air was rarified and left the throat raw, to see the way the sun glanced off the ice, and here the world was hard and bright and glittering, the snow crunching glass-like under foot.
The terrain was too treacherous to risk Zafirah’s slender legs, and (hot-blooded creature that she was) she seemed disinclined to leave the shelter of the village where the children would sneak her wizened apples so long as Mesteno wasn’t around to spook them. Thus, Mesteno ranged and climbed alone more often than not, having finally been excused from Marcus’ scrutiny for acceptable behaviour. It made sense to let him be the one to forage if needs be, since he was not at risk of frostbite as they were, and his blood ran so cold anyway.
The passes leading to the city below were blocked for the time-being. They would remain so until the thaw came and the rivers began to run again with snowmelt, so he could only go up, his breath so cool it didn’t so much as leave a scrim upon the air for his infrequent exhalations. For all that the wintry landscape was beautiful, it was a grim time, too; Birds frozen to the branch, a pale-pelted fox half-submerged in the ice of a stream where it had fallen through and lacked the strength to wade out, and an antelope-like creature, half-devoured where it stood frozen, as if a taxidermist had poised it just so.
Mesteno could sense death from miles away, even if it were buried under the drifts, but he didn’t realise that he’d been wandering to these sorry sights because of some sub-conscious pull, rather than by chance. Not, at least, until he came across a cave, and found there not an animal, but a group of people, their remains scattered about the interior and their bones scored with tooth marks where the scavengers had come gnawing. They were too long dead for any smell to linger, but from the few items he poked through out of morbid curiosity, it appeared they had been hunters using the cave as a resting spot.
Irreverent (how many people had he dismembered after all, littering RhyDin with their grisly remains?) he kicked the cracked bones to one side of the shelter and slumped near the cave mouth to rest.
Up here, the wind knifed more keenly. Mesteno, somewhat lacking in excess flesh, had always been miserable in winter, but the refugees had an actual need for layers, and so he hadn’t asked for any of the winter gear they’d accumulated. Those winds made him wish he had. Even just a decent pair of boots that didn’t leak, or a scarf – he’d had a nice one back in RhyDin, petrol blue, though he’d given it away in an uncharacteristic show of sympathy. It would probably have ended up burned with the rest of his belongings if he’d kept it for himself though. Better off with its new owner, he thought, if he hadn’t thrown it out in disgust after his vanishing.
Reminiscing, he was slower than usual to pick up on the approach of something living. Somethings, he corrected himself dully, as he heard voices in conversation. Leery of being discovered, he stayed quiet, and drew back further into the cave’s gloom.
“He definitely came this way. I don’t see how he just stopped leaving prints though.”
“Maybe he used the shadows. That’s how he got to us.”
“Don’t be stupid. Senator Varus says if he does anything now his head is going to pop off.”
There followed a poorly acted retching sound.
If Mesteno wasn’t mistaken, his stalkers were two of the teenagers, youths about seventeen or eighteen whose names he’d never taken the time to learn. They’d been too young to remember what had happened the night their city had been reduced to rubble. The younger of the two might even have still been in the womb. The fact of the matter was, no one they remembered had been lost. Their way of life as captives had been all they’d ever known, until he’d snatched them away and delivered them back to the other refugees, so he suspected they didn’t harbour quite the same degree of resentment. All they’d ever known of him was his sporadic visits to drop off more traumatized refugees.
Admittedly, those rescues had been… messy.
They hadn’t been able to see what was happening in the Umbral Plane when he snatched them, and it couldn’t have been particularly reassuring to be surrounded by agonized howls, the hungry, bestial sounds of the denizens approaching on thunderous, malformed feet, nor to feel the hot spatter of viscous body fluids splashing them as things came apart (quite spectacularly) around them. Mesteno had not been the most empathetic saviour, either. He’d dragged his terrified quarry out of yawning, frigidly cold shadow portals and deposited them without consideration for dignity at the feet of Marcus and his cohorts. Then he’d left them all to figure out who one another were, usually with no more than a terse exchange and occasionally some sarcastic remark about his heroism (to which he’d politely replied with the universally recognized finger).
Teenagers were precocious, he knew. Even back in RhyDin, those he’d been reluctantly acquainted with were eager to prove themselves, all attitude and bravado, or occasionally (horrifyingly) moon-eyed little monsters who’d overstepped with their fleeting infatuations. Mesteno had kept well clear of the few amongst the refugees, and would never have expected some of them to come following him now.
“Can’t we just go back down the mountain and tell Marcus we lost track of him?”
“If you want to miss out on extra rations, be my guest.”
“Marcus is going against Varus’ orders anyway. He wouldn’t approve if he knew we were having to come this high, and if one of us breaks an ankle or something, how are we going to explain it? This is all stupid. All that freak does is work all day and sit staring into nothing like a corpse after nightfall anyway. What’s there to be scared of?”
“It’s only been a couple of years, and you already forgot what his ‘siblings’ used to do to us?”
Mesteno, still listening as their nearing footfalls compacted the snow, and their laboured breathing became more distinct, had a few guesses about what his ‘siblings’ (certainly not Faye’s children) might have done. Still, he didn’t dwell on it. He was more irritated by the idea that one of them had come spying on him at night while he’d been too introspective to notice. Was that on Marcus’ orders? Or were they just skulking around trying to be brave?
“This one’s broken or something. I think he’s frightened of blood, too. When Laelia cut her finger the other day, he just left what he was doing and rushed off.”
“I saw! He got jittery as a rat in a roasting pot.”
These brats thought he was scared of blood? If only they knew!
Unfortunately, they were also coming closer to the cave, and so he slipped further into the gloom at its rear, sincerely missing how easy it had once been to draw the shadows around himself entire. Such a small thing, taken for granted.
“Hey, what do you think is in there?” came the inevitable question, their footfalls halting.
Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off… Assume it’s some beast’s den and go back to Qelsin.
“Looks like something a mountain leopard might hole up in,” one of the youths remarked, sparking brief, unwarranted hope. “Let’s see if we can get a nice pelt to take back. Then at least it won’t have been a wasted trip!”
What pelt? You little shits.
They’d resumed moving, though their steps were slower, cautious, and appeared in the cave mouth one after the other. One was a tall, lanky young man who was a good two inches taller than Mesteno’s (not unrespectable, he thought) six feet, and already capable of growing an enviable beard – though it currently appeared rigid with ice. The other, slightly younger teenager, was pitiably pimple afflicted, and constantly wore an expression that suggested the whole world owed him a debt. Both looked a hundred pounds heavier than they truly were, bundled up in quilted, hand-stitched coats and fleece lined boots. They were so bulked up that they waddled like toddlers in ski-suits.
“Look. Something definitely comes in here. There’s a bone pile on that side,” the older of the two gestured towards the remains with the spear he carried. “Looks like human parts… what’s big enough up here to eat a man?”
The pair stood there debating whether they ought to pick through the remnants in case anything could be repurposed, or whether they should continue trying to relocate the tracks they’d been following, oblivious to their audience. The older lad seemed keen, pushy, but the conversation inevitably strayed to unrelated topics; power plays amongst the adults, who Laelia was interested in, whether they might get to join the next trip to the city in the foothills when the thaw began. Mesteno began to zone out, thoroughly disinterested, until the conversation swung unexpectedly.
“I really want to ride that horse. You think she’d let me when the freak’s not around?”
There were no other horses in Qelsin, only a couple of mules, whom Zafirah imperiously did not keep company with (she was far more interested in people). Whilst the stubborn pack animals were large enough to be ridden, they looked like Shetland ponies beside the over-grown Arabian. It truly wasn’t difficult to see the appeal.
“More likely kick you in the knee and leave you a cripple.” This was the younger of the two lads, and Mesteno silently agreed with his presumption.
“Maybe if she saw me being nice to him or something. I could share my food?”
“Since when has he eaten anything?”
“He doesn’t? I just thought he ate away from the rest of us.”
“Don’t necromancers eat people?”
That’s cannibals, you idiot, Mesteno thought wearily, though he supposed in some respects, consuming their souls was worse, and so perhaps he was? Hearing their less than complimentary suppositions was doing nothing but waste his time however, and with the daylight growing short, he straightened from his gloom shrouded crouch with a sigh. It certainly had the desired effect.
“Fuck! The leopard!”
All they could see at this point was the gleam of his eyes, not entirely dissimilar to the reflective flash of a feline’s. It wasn’t until he’d taken a step or two in their direction, and the wintry light gave some hint at his shape, that the truth of their situation became apparent. The spears levelled at him did not relax however, and the bearded youngster’s eyes looked fit to bulge from their sockets.
“Why are you following me?” Mesteno asked blandly, the echo of his voice rolling around the cave, “And I don’t want your food, it’s disgusting.”
The message, he thought, was quite clear; ‘Don’t ask to ride my horse.’
It was a great talent of these refugees to always infer the worst possible conclusion from his words however. Or, perhaps, Mesteno had forgotten how to hold normal conversations, and think as they might. Instead of hearing a simple rejection, the young man he’d addressed snapped a look across the cave at the skeletal remains, and back at him. What he didn’t vocalise, his companion did not hesitate to.
“The people then. Those people… you killed them all?”
Mesteno blinked at the pair lethargically, then couldn’t help but ask in the drollest of tones, “Are you stupid?”
How could they not see how old the bones were? Did they really think he’d picked them clean? Yet, Mesteno had learned something after months of interaction, and so determined not to simply leave them with fodder for their wild imaginations.
“I didn’t kill them. I sure as hell didn’t eat them, either. You kids really think I’ve been hording corpses up here?” He resisted the temptation to make some sarcastic remark about it being his winter pantry, and strode towards where they loitered in the cave mouth with the intent of leaving.
The bearded lad’s spear tip was abruptly nuzzling up against the underside of his jaw, dragging a thin scratch into tawny skin. Judging by the boy’s alarmed gasp, it had been fearful reflex, rather than a move made with intent, but now that he’d drawn blood, there was a tense stillness. Mesteno understood he expected retaliation, and didn’t doubt that his thought processes were runaway-training at high speeds down tracks towards ‘let’s make dumb decisions’ land.
“Cato, go back and get Marcus,” the older boy breathed out, licking nervously at chapped lips.
“I… I don’t know if I can find the way back on my own!”
They’d ascended several miles up the mountain side, and with the mists to make it worse, and all their usual trails smothered beneath the snow drifts, Mesteno wasn’t surprised. He stepped back, just enough to stop the steel from dimpling his skin without provoking them.
“Hey, relax. I really didn’t kill them,” he attempted to de-escalate. “If you don’t believe me, come on in and look for yourselves. They’ve been dead at least a year. Probably got snowed in last winter and starved or something.”
“Wasn’t that right around the time you bought the land here?” Cato asked, breath leaving him in quick, cloudy little puffs.
“So, because I might have been here, that means I had to have killed someone?”
“Marcus says you killed more people than he can count-,”
“Well Marcus isn’t exactly a fuckin’ paragon of intellect, is he?” Mesteno countered impatiently, before they could start asking him for a running total (because it was pretty bad, he’d have had to admit). “Now let’s be reasonable before you start doing anything you can’t take back, shall we?”
The boys darted glances at one another, but neither interrupted.
“Beardy and I can stay here while Cato runs down the mountain to fetch Marcus, but that’s going to take him a couple of hours even if he doesn’t get lost. By the time he gets back up here with help, it’ll be dark.” A pause here for effect. The temperature would be far below freezing, and the chances of making it back without injury or frostbite from exposure would be low. Plus, who wanted to be alone with a necromancer at night? “Or, the pair of you could march me back down at spearpoint and send people up here to investigate tomorrow. Or…” The best option yet, so far as he was concerned! “We could go back to what we were doing earlier. You follow me down at a distance and I’ll pretend you’re not there. You both get your extra rations, and there’s no dramatics.”
Mesteno gave them time to ruminate on these ideas without making any efforts to rush them. In the end, it was the elder boy who spoke up, schooling his expression into something half-convincing, almost sly.
“You could leave us behind if we let you out of here. Just take off and then find some way to kill us before we get back home.”
Mesteno’s estimation of their mental capabilities sank even lower, but there was a needling suspicion, too. “So, I show up back there without you, and you don’t think everyone else would come at me for you going missing after Marcus admits he made you follow me?”
Cato frowned, as if he could see the logic in that statement even if he’d rather not. Mesteno raised the wing of a dark brow at him.
“Save your breath. Cato, get moving. Go fast.”
“Hurry up! Just follow our tracks back down before it starts snowing again!”
Cato didn’t appear to have enough pride to speak up against the older boy, save for offering a reluctant mutter about how he was sure to get lost. Mesteno, short on sympathy, watched his departing back dull-eyed and mute before losing interest.
Leander however, hadn’t so much as given his companion a backward glance. His attention was fixed, and cold and nerves had begun to induce shivers, he remained unmoving for several minutes, spear raised. It was only when the wind began to howl more eagerly that he inched closer, further into the cave. Mesteno observed him shrewdly.
Yes, definitely sly.
The spear’s point dug into Mesteno’s sternum, the threat implicit. This time, he didn’t budge.
“Be a good opportunity to rough me up a little for Marcus without your friend here, wouldn’t it?” he asked, silkily.
Leander’s lips pressed thin within the frosted darkness of his beard. “I don’t know what you mean. Don’t bother talking.”
“Sure you do. Don’t play the innocent. Your friend, Cato. He’s the type that gives everything away with a glance. You sent him off because he can’t tell a lie and meet your eye. Everyone would know you were bullshitting if you claimed I tried to escape and he knew otherwise.”
“You’re trying to bait me. It won’t work.”
Mesteno considered that for a moment, then hitched his shoulders, a dispirited shrug. “I heard you talking earlier about how Marcus is going against orders. What did he tell you boys? I was out here getting up to no good, and you were supposed to play hero and catch me in the act? Did he take you to one side while Cato wasn’t around and promise you a little extra if you could engineer some reason to make a mess of me?”
Leander wasn’t Cato. He wasn’t unsettled by words, and his only response was to press more firmly with the spear, until the skin broke and a dark spot began to stain the coarse fabric pinned beneath it.
“Go ahead,” Mesteno suggested, nonchalant. “It’s not like I can hit you back.” Though I will snatch that spear off you the first chance I get.
There was a subtle twitch to the corner of Leander’s mouth, disgust, and his weapon lowered, finally. “Tar Marcus’ name all you want. It didn’t occur to you that I just want to hit you because you deserve it? You don’t think all of us would, if we didn’t still need you for the time being?”
Mesteno suspected it was equal parts honesty and diversion. He wouldn’t have been in the least surprised if, once they no longer had a need for him, they’d find a reason to lock him away for good. The boy’s words hinted at it perfectly.
“Then… how long do you think I have?”
He hadn’t really expected an answer, and true to form, Leander gave him none. Still, Mesteno was putting things together without his assistance. Felt the apathy sink a fraction deeper.
“It’ll be Varus too, then. I expect that’s why he doesn’t care if I have to go hungry a little longer if lock-up’s just around the corner. As for Marcus… He’s probably just unhappy with the timescale. Thought if he could get me to do something bad to you kids, he’d have justification to seal me away earlier. That must feel pretty shitty. You’d be a sacrificial lamb.”
He should have felt bad for the kid. More, He should have felt self-pity for the impossibility of this notion he’d had of assimilating. Instead he felt more like a spectator behind glass, watching it all happen to someone he was fairly sure deserved it.
“Didn’t I tell you not to bother talking?” Leander asked, irritated. Plainly he didn’t understand much of what Mesteno was talking about, and thought it an attempt at manipulation.
This time, Mesteno let him settle into sullen silence, and parked himself cross-legged on cold stone and bone dust, content to watch the light fade through the cave mouth. He wanted to return to reminiscing, to find a little warmth in old memories, but his head was disinclined to cooperate. It was several minutes before his sluggishly moving senses extrapolated why that was, and the hunger pangs he’d been dutifully ignoring sharpened.
Blood. Not close by. Definitely human.
His lips parted, and he drew the air in across his palate, pupils contracting pin-head narrow as he tasted, recognized—
A moment later and he heard the reed-thin sound of Cato’s yelling, irritating as a mosquito’s whine. Leander seemed entirely oblivious, but that wasn’t particularly surprising, mundane human that he was. It took sharper ears to discern it past the shriek of the wind. He said nothing immediately, sadistic nature entirely too enamoured with the notion of his suffering, but mainly simply lacking the compulsion to want to help. It was several minutes more before he convinced himself not to indulge in small cruelties.
“Your friend out there is yelling loud enough he’ll cause an avalanche soon,” he informed a bewildered Leander.
After having to explain what an avalanche was to an unworldly youth, and having his remark dismissed as a lie, he’d more or less written the kid in the snow off – rest in peace, Cato! – until the wind slackened just enough for Leander to hear the weakening cries himself. Mesteno observed his expression shift through denial, to conflicted concern, frustration and humiliation, and felt nothing. Not even a twitch of amusement. Still, it served him to speak up, and so he did.
“You know he’s going to die if we don’t go and help him. He’s already bleeding.”
Leander did not want his help. Did not want to be indebted to him, or to recognize that he couldn’t help his friend alone. Nor did he wish to leave him behind, when he truthfully expected him to try and escape the moment they left the cave.
“If you’re having to think about this, you’re an even worse person than I am,” Mesteno informed him, dryly. “At least I never left a friend behind.”
And who wanted to be a worse person than he?
It was two hours later that the trio arrived back at Qelsin, Leander running ahead to call for help and stirring them up like an angry ant nest.
Cato’s ankle was a mess. A compound fracture, bone erupting through flesh, that they’d been forced to splint using his own snapped spear and bindings made from Mesteno’s shirt – it wouldn’t do to have one of the boys forego their garments after all, not when there was one of them who didn’t technically have a need to stay warm. Normally, he’d have been so appalled at having to be seen in any state of undress that he’d have outright refused, but even his prudish nature had wound up sidelined as the apathy became more deeply rooted. What did it matter who saw?
Piggybacking the teenager along the path was no great strain, though his pained whimpers had become tiresome fast. Perhaps the cold had helped to numb the ruined leg though, or the youth was too exhausted to even vocalise – whatever the case, he’d been quiet for some time. Mesteno just wanted to hand him off to someone else as soon as chance permitted; the scent of his blood had rapidly become unbearable.
“Thanks,” a quiet voice spoke beside his ear unexpectedly, breath an uncomfortable tickle.
The single word didn’t register at first, and when it did, Mesteno didn’t bother to respond.
His passenger’s repeated gratitude meant nothing. Mesteno barely kept from telling him that the injury served him right. “You owe me a shirt,” told him instead, and chose to add, muttered, “and quit lurking around my place at night. I’m not a circus act.”
“Yeah,” the teenager replied, uncharacteristically meek. There was another spell of quiet, interrupted only by the trudge of Mesteno’s feet through the snow, before he spoke again. “So, you really didn’t eat those people?”
“I don’t think you did,” the lad continued, “and if Leander tries to say you did, I’ll say he’s wrong.”
Someone being willing to speak on his behalf was something of a novelty. Sure, it was a pimply teenager who couldn’t even stand up to his peers without being talked over, but the idea of someone not wishing him ill out here was a first.
“You’d be better off keeping quiet,” he advised, as distantly, figures appeared struggling through the snow towards them. “They’ll think I brain-washed you or something.”
“Can you do that?” The question was half alarm, half admiration.
Mesteno almost dumped him in the snow right there, squinting as the other refugees neared, the lantern light stinging. “I think someone dropped you on your head when you were a baby,” he declared, before they found themselves surrounded, and the teenager was pulled from his back, whimpering at the jarring to his leg.
Unsurprisingly, Marcus was giving orders, and a sullen faced Leander was right beside him, glaring at Mesteno with undisguised contempt. Cato, pale faced and red-eyed was dragged away on a travois, though the reek of his blood still lingered as if someone had smeared it inside the necromancer’s nostrils. With so much activity around him, he didn’t notice the girl stood beside him until she touched his arm briefly, light as a dragonfly kissing the waters.
“I’ll bring you something to wear.” Dark eyed and pretty, in a used-up, seen-too-much sort of way. Mesteno recognized her as Laelia, the girl the boys had been talking about earlier. She smelled like the plum-blossom soap the women had been making, the faintest fragrance under the odour of Cato’s blood. “Should I bring it to your house?”
“I’ll take it to him,” Leander cut in abruptly.
Ignoring Leander entirely, Mesteno offered the girl the barest twitch of a smile, too quicksilver to startle her with any echo of its old savagery. “That’s generous. Thank you.”
And maybe, just maybe, it felt good to witness Leander’s simmering jealousy before he turned and walked away.
Others had long since given up looking, either convinced he was dead, or that he’d pulled up stakes and left, Yeardley never stopped looking. Every day was a chance to find a clue, a chance to get an answer she didn’t know she needed, a chance to trip over some Godly something that wanted his scrawny ass so they could kill him, or worse, those types could offer a wealth of information. Every day was a chance she didn’t let go by.
Vadriel was a silent shadow, ever polite and welcoming, when she landed at Wentworth. He didn’t know where the sadist was any more than she did, but he never turned her away or asked questions. Indeed, he answered hers, within reason, letting her pick his brain for possible clues where the sadist could be. More importantly he let her refuel her soul. There on the floor, with a blanket that smelled of him, draped in some shirt he’d left there, and a motorboat kitten curled against some part of her, the tears fell soundlessly against a pillow until she finally slept. It was the only place, other than the back of the van, where sleep found her.
She stood behind curtains of silky red, armies marching towards her without a sound. Why would armies march silently hunting you? It was wrong. There should be sounds, orders called out, threats of death, footsteps, something. When she tried to peal the curtains open they became tangled, wrapping around her, holding her back with a silent demand. She should have tried to fight, she even questioned why she wasn’t fighting. She wasn’t fighting. The army was hunting her and not making noise, but couldn’t find her behind the tangled curtain. No, it wasn’t hunting her, it was coming for her. The undead circling as protectively as the curtain of red, carrying her forward, showing her images with all the answers she searched for. Right there for the taking.
She woke with a gasp, mind grasping to hold onto the answers that danced along the edge of her memories. The harder she reached for them the further they drifted away. It was the same game every time, never leaving her with a clear direction, or image, only enough for her to know she was right to keep searching.
Between the tears and the dreams, she felt renewed, validated, as she had all the previous times, she also looked like a wild child with tear crusted eyelashes and tangled hair. As ever, Vadriel made no comment on it when she padded socked footed into the kitchen, dressed in nothing but the shirt she slept in and the necklace she never took off. Coffee was poured, and set on the table, before she finished curling herself into one of the chairs.
“Anything this time?”, came the soothing voice.
She inhaled steam and a glorious sip of the strong black brew before answering. “There was a pit that wasn’t a pit, near a knotted tree.” One hand ran back through the tangles of brown, “It’s got to be near the portal he was going to use, I just need to find it.” Find a single tree, that might not even be in this realm. Any sane person would feel defeated, but the conduit felt as if she was holding the greatest gift within her mind.
Her morning company said nothing of how difficult the task sounded, just as he’d never commented on the period of time she’d been held hostage by a house and kept finding herself in ghost bodies. It had taken him off guard when she’d appeared in the house as a hunched over gnome with a cane, beard nearly to the floor. Took her a bit to convince him that it was a Yeardley, after that he’d accepted it easily when she appeared in her reverse necromancer moments, the irony lost on neither of them. Vadriel was the reason she escaped the house, doing research on the outside while she searched for the right door in the upside-down world. When she had made her way out, she never went back to Rhydin. One ghost form or another had visited those she felt were important, enough so they knew she was alive and working on finding her way back. It wasn’t a lie, she was working on finding her way back, she simply hadn’t clarified that ‘back’ entailed back after she found a sadist, not necessarily after she found her way out of the house.
Landscaping and bartending weren’t enough to stop her mind from wondering. Once she made it out of the upside-down it made sense to stay off the radar and start her search in earnest. Between the two of them they’d researched and pieced together bits of maybe’s until they made a technicolored map of nothing and everything. Just like a loose thread on a sweater the tree tugged at her. It was her thread. Her place to start.
With no house, no obligations, no belongings, it was time. She knew nothing modern could be allowed, eventually, so The Van was staying at Wentworth (She made Vadriel promise to keep it hidden), in case the sadist arrived back, or to keep it safe for when she came back. Her travel would be an old beat-up truck she purchased with her insurance money (her old one was swallowed up with her house), eventually moving to horse back. A backpack full of comfortable clothes, holding a sleeping back and a tent, was her ‘suitcase’.
With breakfast over, shower taken, fresh clothes donned, she looked much more Yeardley when she came back down. Kitten was moterboating on her shoulder, until she set it down to go chase dust bunnies somewhere. Typically, she came and went with no fanfare, but this time they both knew it was different. This time they both knew she wouldn’t be back until she’d found him. So, where she’d normally have left with a wave, this time she stopped to hug the only man, only person, that understood why she had to do this. The hug he folded her in held comfort, support, and encouragement, all wrapped up in two arms. They’d already worked out how she could keep in touch to give him updates, and Vadriel never felt the need to state something as silly as ‘keep in touch’, because it was a given she would as she could.
“I’ll be glad to see you both again.” It wasn’t a hopeful tone, Vadriel wasn’t about hope. It was a tone that knew it would be. The only fatherly gesture was a hand petting down the back of her hair, mostly an echo of a touch, before he stepped back.
“I’ll remind you of that when he’s bitching at you for helping me instead of stopping me.” Both dimples popped out as she spoke, because they both knew that’s exactly what the sadist would do.
He didn’t walk her to the door, only to the hall where he had a bag packed for her. Food, lots of it (he knew her that well), and a pair of the sadist’s shirts.
Without a backwards glance she slid herself into the truck, shifted it into gear, and was off. It was time to start tugging threads.
There was a child.
It (and at this point it was an it, because age rendered it devoid of gender that he could discern – just a smudge faced, oblivious little invader that wobbled around his tumble-down house entirely unwelcome) hadn’t noticed him. Mesteno did not know how long it had been there, or why it had wound up in his dilapidated little corner of the village. He’d simply woken, seen it meandering with all the equilibrium of a drunken fly, and wished desperately that he’d remained asleep.
With grasping, sticky (they had to be sticky, right? It was a kid) hands, it carelessly investigated the few possessions he’d accumulated since his arrival, shaking this and taste testing that, until it finally toddled into the shady end beneath the short spit of surviving roof where he lay stretched out on his back.
The child was briefly distracted as some long-tailed, ornamental mountain bird took flight from the shattered tiles and stirred up the dust motes, close-range focused and gurgle-laughing as it waved stubby hands into the airborne gilt. Then it spotted him.
Mesteno lay supine and unblinking, one arm resting slack over his ribs.
The child stared. He stared back.
Something happened to its mouth, an ugly, trembling contraction. Its face was flushing a lurid pink, squat little torso shudder-huffing, a building momentum—
The child was snatched up off the floor amidst a swirl of dusty skirt hems right as the noises started. Wet sounding noises. Thankfully, the interruption had snapped Mesteno out of the horror-induced paralysis, and he’d sat bolt upright, shaking off the lingering chains of sleep to steel himself before the wailing hit.
“I told you not to go wandering off, little madam,” Laelia chided, though it was heatless, and she bounced the girl on her hip as if that might pacify.
“Why...?” Mesteno scrubbed his palms over his face as if to stimulate some feeling into cold flesh.
“Min was supposed to be watching the children,” Laelia huffed a sigh, but didn’t sound even remotely apologetic.
“But why is it here?” The words groaned out between fingers.
Laelia had a knack for looking innocent. Not quite young enough to pull off the ingenue, perhaps, but those large, dark doe eyes were endearingly placid. “She’s at the age where they like to explore,” she explained, pardoning the child her sins as the wails dwindled into nasal whines and hiccups.
“It’s you!” Mesteno accused, a finger thrust her way as he heaved himself to his feet. “Nobody came here until you!”
Indeed, his home had been an acceptably lonely little refuge, intruded upon only by the occasional, skulking teenagers come prying on a dare. Ever since Laelia had taken it upon herself to start busy-bodying, there had been considerably more human traffic. Her initial visit to bring him a shirt had exposed her to the utter lack of domesticity he’d contented himself with; the weeds jutting knee high through the cracked paving of the little courtyard, the rubble he’d left heaped, the charred remnants of the furniture pushed carelessly aside just so he’d have enough room to sprawl and sleep.
Whilst the refugees had mended shutters, woven rugs, salvaged chairs and tables and even begun to tend small herb gardens, Mesteno had made no efforts whatsoever to change Senator Varus’ opinion of him by making it seem as if he were settling in to stay. It wasn’t as if he’d been entirely dissimilar back in Rhy’Din, either. Little to no furniture, as much time spent sleeping outdoors as in when weather permitted, or simply passed out in the back of his van to keep the rain off.
Laelia had wrinkled her nose at it when she’d visited that night in the snow, and so far as Mesteno could tell, accepting that small kindness had doomed him. Now his courtyard weeds were gone. A chipped, fluted vase housing a slender branch of blushing plum blossoms sat on a squat, rectangular table. Now and then some hand-stitched piece of clothing would appear that had enough room for his long limbs instead of falling short of wrists and ankles. In the window sill, the little crane figurine he’d gifted to the women had reappeared (whether they felt sorry for his destitute status or they were rejecting it, he didn’t know or care).
It seemed pointless to ask why Laelia was doing it. Either she’d been tasked to spy more closely, and the others had assumed an attractive young woman would be less offensive to him, or she simply pitied him. Neither theory was particularly welcome.
“Nobody came here until you carried Cato back, you mean,” she pointed out reasonably, smoothing back Rhea’s hair with the practiced ease of a woman accustomed to coddling youngsters. “Is it really so bad?”
“That,” he pointed at the little girl, “must have followed you out here. So yes, it’s bad. Send it back.”
“You know, she’s going to be part of the generation that grows up remembering nothing of what happened to Amhinata,” Laelia told him, brow arched. “The generation that will grow up judging you by your current actions, rather than just hearing other folk tell tales. Instead of hiding away and giving her and the other little ones reason to be afraid, why not prove you’re-”
Mesteno knew what she was trying to convey, but he still interrupted her with a lazy gesture, dismissive.
“Wasting your breath,” he told her succinctly, bare-foot padding across to pitcher and basin so that he could wash his face. He had his back to her, but he could feel her watching still, a prickling across the shifting span of his shoulder blades as he stooped.
“Why did you stop teaching everyone the common tongue?” she asked abruptly once he’d knotted back his hair, fingers cupping the icy water. “It seemed as if… perhaps you enjoyed it a little.”
Because if they still need me, they might not lock me away quite so soon, he thought, soaking his face, palming more of the water over the nape of his neck. What he told Laelia was quite different. “It got dull.” As if the refugees were nothing more than transient curiosities he’d grown tired of already.
“Just like that.” She sounded dubious.
“Just like that,” he echoed, knuckling the water from his eyes and suppressing a shiver. It might already be March, a full year since he’d left Rhy’Din, but up in the mountains it was still chilly. “Is that why you’re here? To ask if I’ll start teaching again?”
They were interrupted briefly by the arrival of Min, who had the other children clustered close as they peered cautiously into the tidied courtyard. Laelia welcomed her as if she were the lady of the household, serenely handing off Rhea, with no apparent intention to join the nursery group and leave Mesteno in peace. He observed from the gloom of his doorway, disapproval writ plain on his tawny face, and did not relax until the babble of voices had grown distant.
“Why are you here?” he asked, when the woman approached him again, undeterred from her questioning. “The sun’s barely up and already you’re here like you have a right to be.”
“It’s peaceful here,” she answered with a smile and a shrug. “I don’t have to spend all day avoiding the awkward advances of amorous teenagers.”
“They’re kids. Tell them to fuck off. How hard can it be?”
Mesteno didn’t think he’d heard Laelia laugh before. Truth be told it was humorless, not the practiced trill of a coquette attempting to charm him. “We can’t all be coarse as salt blocks,” she told him, a reference to their working of the flats around the old city. “I’d rather keep things civil for now.”
‘For now’ seemed an odd choice of words, but if he asked, showed any hint of interest, it would encourage her to remain. The sooner she tired of her task, the sooner he could get back to sleep. Of late, he was so miserably starved that his only respite came in the hours he lay unconscious – a year was a long time to go hungry.
“People will talk if you keep coming here.” He chose to try a different tack. “You’ll get a bad reputation. Marcus and Varus-,”
“Have already voiced their displeasure,” Laelia interrupted him, smile wry. “But they can only throw their weight around so much, Mesteno. Here, our good senator is just an old man, and all the secrets he guarded are out in the open now. Marcus was just a city guard. He has a weapon, but he won’t use it on his own, and now that the danger has passed, there’s more need for people with knowledge and skill than brute force.”
The young woman seated herself on the toppled edge of the courtyard wall, shawl pinched in one hand to keep it wrapped about her shoulders. Mesteno suspected he would not be persuading her to move unless he hoisted her over a shoulder, and frankly, he was leery of contact. Scared that his hunger would spike and the next person come looking for her would find a fresh cadaver instead of a limpid-eyed girl.
“You’re very stubborn,” he told her finally, and did not intend it as an insult.
Judging by her smile, she didn’t take it for one, either.
Come April, the ice no longer skinned the streams first thing in the morning, and the forests were greening anew. Rare spells of enamel blue skies and gentle warmth accompanied the first signs of successful growth in the newly cultivated terraces, and the refugees, once stoic and unsettled, began to thrive. It wasn’t uncommon to hear laughter, nor to hear them talking about plans for later in the year – daring to have hopes for the future was a luxury, where once they’d merely lived for the moment, uncertain when they might meet their ends.
It was what Mesteno had wanted.
He’d thought he might feel it had been worth it, if he could see them living like people should, instead of cringing about like kicked curs. He hadn’t expected to feel all the more remote.
He slept the days away when they’d let him, selfishly letting dreams pluck him away to happier times. To friends and foolishness, to lazy days wiled away upon a tavern porch, back when the alcohol actually did something. If he was visited with nightmares instead, he welcomed those too, for he’d talent enough with lucid dreaming that he could keep from making the same mistakes, reshaping his failures however he fancied.
He dared to dream of how things might be if he’d never kidnapped Aoife, and bribed Gideon to kill her for him. A despicable loophole to avoid Salvador’s ire. There would have been no poison then, nor the humiliation of being barbed-wire-bound to the anchor for days on end. No vampire clutching his clawed-out eyes, no tit for tat cruelties. Perhaps instead of knowing the taste of Aoife’s blood, he’d have made a friend there.
Would he hate himself a little less, if he’d never capitulated when Dominic had poured him that liquor? In his dreams, he refuses it. He does not have to weather the man’s practiced seduction, or whore himself out for the sake of a map he might have stolen (if only he had a little patience). He never feels the bite of the knife when his ungentle hands inspire fear. His actions never cross the line into territory unforgiveable.
Violence and death were common themes in those unconscious fantasies, ripe and vivid and seeming so very real. Awake, in a tamer world, he became all the more tranquil, as if the gears were seizing, and one day he might simply stop, gathering dust in a forgotten corner. He thought, absently, that this was a good thing. It rendered him less dangerous. He never once considered that this might herald something more sinister, a system shutdown that left his tempered flesh in the custody of what he’d been diligently suppressing.
When Laelia persisted in visiting on a daily basis, he made no further complaints. He’d listen to her talk, watch her eat without the old feelings of revulsion, and even tolerate it when one villager or another came looking for her and lingered, untroubled by his presence. The day that Senator Varus appeared in the circular entryway to his courtyard, Mesteno was sat cross-legged on the sun-warmed flagstones, while the young woman knelt behind him, working a comb through the tangled skeins of his hair, and an ever-bolder Cato kept company with them, trimming feathers for fletching.
Varus had not come alone. Marcus and Leander were flanking him like a pair of mutts at heel, and neither one looked happy to be there. Leander’s displeasure flashed hotly in narrowed eyes, more for Laelia’s apparent familiarity with him, than for Cato’s seeming betrayal. Laelia herself never once paused in her task (no easy grooming, this) but did raise a bold brow at the new arrivals, unrepentantly curious.
“We need to discuss things with you. In private.” It was Senator Varus who spoke, striving for formality.
Cato was young enough and fearful enough of their influence that he gathered his tools, arrow shafts rattling as he bundled them, and took his leave. Laelia on the other hand, paused. Leaned close to Mesteno’s ear.
“Do you want me to go?” There was the pretense of a whisper there, though there was no chance the others hadn’t heard it.
Mesteno wasn’t sure what the point was. Why would she wish to seem she was deferring to him? Or was she simply making the most of an opportunity to make a point? He didn’t have the energy to waste pondering it.
“It’s fine, you go.” He wouldn’t admit that some small part of him had enjoyed her fingers in his hair. Wary though he was of anything physical, he’d always found himself growing somnolent, shedding his barbs – like a feline stroked the right way – on the rare occasions he permitted it.
Laelia took her sweet time leaving. Mesteno had come to the conclusion that the women amongst the refugees were so few in number that the men were cautious in their interactions, taking pains to be respectful. Being associated with her might actually earn him a little leniency…
He did not get up once he’d been left alone with the trio, eyes half-lidded and lap scattered with petals from the blossoming crab apple tree overhanging the wall.
“The roads are open again. We need to make a supply run to the foothills,” Marcus informed him. He looked awkward, as if he wasn’t sure how to make the most of literally looking down at him.
Why should he? He estimated he had a month left. Perhaps two. Then they would lock him up. They’d been busy with something, higher up in the peaks, something secret, and he did not think it just his paranoia telling him he’d be headed there before long, under guard.
“We wouldn’t need you to, if you’d kept teaching us. We’d be able to stumble through trade talk at the very least.”
Mesteno had played this conversation out in his head a dozen times over the winter. He’d considered the leverage, considered his price, thought it might even be a little interesting. But now he found he had no appetite for the game at all. The idea of being allowed to send a missive to RhyDin letting his friends know he was at least well, perhaps even being allowed to make a visit back had been a small bright spot in the ubiquitous mental gloom.
In truth he knew already that promises would be broken if they made them. Their long-term plans for him were set.
“You try starving for a year, and see how obliging you’d be,” he finally responded. “I’m running on fumes.”
They didn’t understand the latter phrase, having no experience with how cars functioned, but starving they knew well enough.
“Blood will suffice,” Varus interjected coolly.
“Be like eating tissue paper.” It might take the edge off the hunger, but there was nothing in there that would keep him functioning long-term. The trio exchanged looks, as if he were talking nonsense – the combination of common tongue and the dead language was not helping. “Where do you expect to find a willing volunteer, anyway?”
Another pause, though Marcus, stiff-spined and grudging found the words. “Someone from the city. The others don’t need to know.”
Mesteno found himself disappointed.
It was not that he’d thought these people he was rescuing were pure-hearted, worthy of all the benevolence in the world, but he hadn’t thought them capable of proposing the cold-blooded murder of a stranger who’d done them no harm. The fault was their own, refusing to stick to his plan so that he wouldn’t starve, but since it would be him who would need to commit the crime, they could conveniently lay the blame for that at his feet.
“You think I won’t just tell everyone here that’s what you demanded?” Mesteno asked, an embryonic smile sending delicate ripples across the still waters of his face. “You think they’ll agree that it’s pardonable to set your monster on people they’re trying to befriend?”
Marcus hid any shame he might be feeling well. Leander, despite being the youngest seemed entirely unmoved, confident in the machinations of his seniors. Varus alone exhibited some hint of unease, pacing away with a flick of his long sleeves.
“Hypocrite. When has your conscience ever troubled you before? Just how many people have you killed, even discounting those that died in Amhinata?”
How many? Should he count the civilians who’d died in Vhamere because of his mistakes? The bystanders he’d felled by accident when he hunted for kindred in the aftermath of Koyan’s faked death? And what about those who’d been targeted because of his actions? Those who’d taken their own lives because of his choices? He thought of Sutton’s brains spattered like a constellation across a wall. Pictured Michael trying to walk into the sea, despairing. Somehow, he’d become the villain in so many stories, but it would be a lie to say his conscience wasn’t a floundering mess.
“You don’t have anything I want,” he told them, rather than offering an answer. “I’m not going.”
Leander made as if to step forwards. It seemed he’d come along expecting a physical altercation, and meant to make the most of the opportunity. For the embarrassment with Cato? Because he was envious of his seeming familiarity with Laelia? Surprisingly, Varus raised an arm and blocked him from approaching, stony faced.
“When you and your elf ‘friend’ went rummaging through the rubble of the senate building in Amhinata, you found things, did you not?”
Mesteno lifted his eyes to squint up at him; hooked. Just like that.
“Don’t you wish to know about the death masks? About the curse’s beginnings? Why it’s you?”
“It’s chance,” Mesteno countered, refusing to let him see he’d been so easily baited. “If I died, it would just sit dormant until it found a new host it liked the taste of. You’d never know who it’d be born in next.”
“What you know is the bare bones,” the Senator informed him, undeterred. “There is much and more I could tell you… If you comply.”
Truthfully, it didn’t matter. It would not change his fate – Mesteno had decided entirely against trying to fight what they intended. What Varus offered however, would at least put those questions that lingered to rest. That he was finally playing the ace up his sleeve only further convinced the necromancer that it would be sooner, rather than later, that they’d determined the liability he presented outweighed his usefulness.
“Half of it before we leave. Half when I get back. Laelia comes with us when we go and Leander stays up here with the other kids.”
This unexpected demand resulted in amusing, mixed bag of responses. Suspicion from Marcus, outrage from Leander, deliberation from Varus.
“Why do I have to stay here!?” Leander shouted, heedless of Marcus’ irritation. “And why do you want to take her?”
“Insurance,” Mesteno explained, brushing the petals from his lap and standing, the dull echo of an ache in his healed ankle. “It’s pretty simple. If anything happens while I’m in the city, and Marcus here decides I’ve misbehaved in some way and don’t get to eat… she becomes dinner instead.”
“You… You would kill Laelia?” Leander looked aghast. The older men merely exchanged glances. “Isn’t she your friend? You want to eat the one person that likes you?” The boy persisted.
“She’s not my friend,” Mesteno denied it without hesitation, and held out his arm towards Varus, an offer of the antiquated wrist-clasp that would signal their deal done. “She’s a fool that doesn’t respect boundaries, and as you’ve already pointed out, my conscience is difficult to stir. Well, Senator?”
They set the date for their supply trip for three days hence, Leander’s protests unheeded and Varus promising to return that night to make his down-payment.
Laelia, who’d been listening behind the wall, returned without bothering to disguise the fact that she’d lingered, and nonchalantly resumed detangling his hair as if he hadn’t just insulted her, or implied he would kill her unconcerned. Her hands were gentle still, and a soft smile hooked one corner of her mouth when Mesteno glanced her way.
“Should you be happy?” he asked her, unapologetic.
Her smile grew, pretty. “Why not? You pretended for all this time not to be listening when I told you I wanted to join everyone on the next supply run. Now I know you weren’t ignoring me at all, you big fraud.”
Mesteno let slip a sound that might have been amusement, but might as easily have been a sigh. “Don’t be so sure I won’t kill you on a whim,” he drawled.
Laelia only hummed, and made sure the next knot she tugged at prickled his scalp.
There was only one seat in the room, and Varus occupied this, aged face drooping and softened with contemplation. He was wattle-necked, skin like a plucked-chicken hanging slack under his jowling jaw as if once upon a time he’d been heavy, substantial. Here, away from potential audiences, he seemed to have abandoned any pretense of strength, and huddled beneath an inexpertly woven blanket to keep off the April chill.
“There was a culling,” the old man began, voice distant with memory. “Those of us elected to the senate were required to read the annals where it had been recorded. Call it a test of will, perhaps; we knew we would be required to take lives, but the culling was an example of extremes. You see, our intention has always been to eradicate you entirely, and if we were lucky enough to spot a manifestation early, the host would often be oblivious as to why he was being put to death. But imagine how the senate voting on the culling must have felt, when it required the death of children…”
“Truly, aspirational figures,” Mesteno remarked, unmoved. He did not waste his breath reminding Varus that he, and the being lodging for free in his body, were two separate entities. He was accustomed to the conflation. “How’d that work out for them? They get immortalized in stone? Do the kids get taught their names when they have history lessons?”
“They thought to save future generations the outcome we now find ourselves living,” Varus intoned, didactic. “The willingness to make such choices… We might consider it a selflessness. Such a decision is made at great cost to one’s conscience.”
In no mood to sit patiently through Varus’ self-indulgent philosophizing, Mesteno said nothing to encourage, and merely waited, sat on the floor, back to the freshly mural-painted wall, arms draped loosely over up-thrust knees. Much to his surprise, the senator had insisted that no one else be present when they spoke, shunning any protection from Marcus and his ilk, and so they had the relatively complete building to themselves, an uncommon privacy. In retrospect, this insistence might have been due to revelations such as this culling. Things to be ashamed of.
“I believe it was after they’d located and killed the seventh host,” the old man went on, as if he hadn’t spoken at all. “They knew very little of how it selected whom it would migrate to. The only parity was the gender, always male, and that the body was free of defects. Beyond this, there was nothing discernible which connected them. Since it would never make a leap to a child already born, and could therefore reliably be seeding itself into any male child, either newly conceived, or on the verge of birth, one senator proposed that all males delivered within a nine-month span be slain. He hoped that by denying it the opportunity to manifest in the adult, they would put an end to the cycle.”
Only in Amhinata would this have been possible, where no mother kept her child to raise herself. Where the concept of family had long been declared outdated, and the mass creches where the children were brought up were zealously guarded to deter any natural bonding.
“It was done via drowning, I believe. The children were sealed in weighted sacks and submerged to mute their cries. None could bring themselves to put a knife to them.”
Like unwanted kittens, Mesteno thought grimly, unwelcome images vivid in his mind’s eye. He judiciously held his tongue.
“Regrettably, the theory proved incorrect. In successive centuries, the senate committed itself to studying alternative methods to eradicate the curse. They experimented with bindings, seals, methods by which they might achieve a temporary pacification… Their successes were few, but those they did refine were not without merit. They have been able to keep you in check since you were collared.”
Varus’ pale-pebble gaze fixed on the narrow band about Mesteno’s throat as if he thought the hair-fine filament of metal might at any moment snap. It was difficult to discern, only revealed when the light caught it just so, and in the poorly illuminated confines of the senator’s home, the scarring beneath it was so deep and dark that it might not have been there at all.
Mesteno tipped his head back a fraction, and dragged back the sloppy braid Laelia had bound his hair into behind his shoulder, obligingly displaying Varus’ work to his weak old eyes. The collar bit, unkind, at the arch of his Adam’s apple. At the strained tendons. He didn’t mind the small pain.
“They experimented,” he stated, drawing him back to the tale he’d been telling. “By that you mean, once they found the next host, they kept him captive instead of just killing him outright?”
“If the danger seemed minimal,” Varus confirmed. “They would determine the strength of the seals, and if it seemed one might break imminently, they took no risks.”
Mesteno could imagine easily enough what their ‘experiments’ had involved. Though he’d never been victim to their tender ministrations, he’d experienced something similarly unpleasant in RhyDin when a ‘spotter’ had approached him with promises of cultivating ‘innate talents’.
Cultivating had been a pretty word for ugly business, and there had been a price to pay for it.
“From what little you have told me, it would seem the seals inside you began to weaken earlier than the records considered standard. The few outliers previously studied were noted to have had turbulent pasts, violent conflicts-”
“They were killers then?” Mesteno queried, his voice low, unsurprised.
“Of a sort. Soldiers, or guards, exposed to such circumstances by occupation. There was nothing to indicate they had been convicted of any crimes.”
Not like you. Varus’ eyes spoke what his mouth did not, but Mesteno didn’t flinch away from his gaze. He’d been exposed to violence and death for years before ever taking a life, though he offered no excuses to the senator. His misconceptions did not trouble him.
“You could liken it to species known to remain dormant until a ready food source nears,” Varus went on, “certain insects erupting from their cocoons respond in a similar fashion.”
“Too bad it can’t hear you right now,” Mesteno drawled, recognizing the insult for what it was. “You liken it to a bug, and it can’t do shit because it didn’t see the threat in what looked like a bit of fucking cheese wire.”
Without a doubt, had it been aware of what Mesteno and the senator had planned to weaken it, it would have performed a culling of its own, and now there would be no refugees to concern himself with. More than likely, the second seal, which had been on the precipice of fracture for years, would have given way and subverted Mesteno to let his unwanted inner companion become the primary power over their shared flesh. The notion seemed a tempting one, now. Sit back and disappear while it committed whatever atrocities it wished. It had taken time to reconcile himself to the fact that he was simply the slurry shaken free of the creature’s ore, once it had been refined well enough, a temporary pilot unworthy even of a soul of his own. Just cause for a sore ego.
“Most were dead when we cast the masks,” the senator confided, “either as a result of the testing they were put through, or because ‘it’ abandoned the body and went in search of a new host, recognizing that the present one was too damaged to serve.”
“That comes as no surprise,” Mesteno admitted. Those very masks of which he spoke, casts of the dead host’s faces had been pinned up on a wall in his morgue. His unlucky predecessors. “It tried to leave me, too. It would’ve jumped ship if not for Lexius.”
“My friend,” Mesteno corrected, even if that was a vast simplification, an inaccuracy even, for what they had been when they’d visited the ruins together and first come across Marcus. “It called his bluff, tried to pull free, and for a while there I was just… gone. Just a moment, but it’s nice to think that when it does get past me, I don’t have to worry about some stupid afterlife courier coming to snatch me away to judgement.”
“A grand joke of fate. You kill indiscriminately because you expect no punishment.”
“Wrong,” Mesteno countered lethargically. “I kill because some people deserve it. And sometimes I save people, and they really don’t deserve it.” His knees folded outward smoothly, spine straightening so that he could sit comfortably cross-legged. “I saved you. I saved all of you. I don’t expect you to be grateful, but you could try and recognize that we’re on the same side right now. That I kept my promises and haven’t retaliated for any of the slights. You take my goodwill for granted.”
Varus leaned, with difficulty, to put more wood on the fire, a flurry of embers abruptly airborne. “Saved us from what you wrought to begin with. And in those years, we suffered more than just a few slights. Your friend, Laelia. They had her with child thrice. Do you think the men who sired them were gentle with her? All the women. Like brood mares…” The senator’s upper lip curled in distaste as he carefully built the pile, letting the flames breathe. “Not one of the men here you rescued does not bear the scars of hard labour. They watched their friends succumb to exhaustion only to rise again dead at the call of your kin, to work alongside them until the rot sloughed enough flesh away to render them useless.”
Mesteno had not learned a great deal about what happened beneath Avernus, the name given to the mountain where the captives had been imprisoned. Plainly it had been intended to echo the mountain of the same name on Earth (Mesteno was studied enough by now to be more than a dilettante on the subject) but the fate of the slaves was a mystery he hadn’t picked at, wholly aware no one would want to share such sensitive matters with him.
He couldn’t deny that he was little better than these shadowy figures Varus called his kin. Once, long ago in a battle at Alvaka, he’d asked the Turk whether he might raise any men slain to continue fighting for them, and never for a moment considered how it might traumatize their friends and brothers. To him, it had simply seemed like a practical solution to sustain their strength against poor odds. Older now, he had the brains to realise how insensitive it must have seemed.
Rather than linger on the misfortunes of the refugees, and memories of things he could not change, he turned the conversation on its heel, right back to the matter of his forebears.
“We dug a few things out of the ruins, alongside those masks. The Sibylla’s books. The ones stolen from the temple up on the Capitoline Hill. She refers to this thing inside me as Jove’s bane.”
Varus’ attention sharpened, the half-mast sag of his eyelids retreating. “You read them? How could you read them? They were in another tongue entirely.”
“I can read a little of it,” Mesteno admitted. “One of the Hellenes taught me. He’s the one that did the translation work for the prophecies though, I won’t take the credit for that.” Aiden’s assistance had been invaluable, even if it had seen Sanctuary visited by the author’s mother, none other than Lachesis herself.
“Those were sacred texts,” Varus very nearly snarled it. Apparently, the thought of them in Mesteno’s hands troubled him greatly.
“Then maybe just be glad they haven’t been destroyed.”
“Better they had been, than have their secrets laid bare to the light of its eyes,” Varus countered. “It would have seen everything you did. The culmination of everything the Sibyl foresaw!”
“You mean the part about it being reborn in the flames of Phlegethon beneath Avernus?” Mesteno watched the senator’s rising panic with a dull sense of satisfaction. “Yeah, it definitely saw all that. And that part about the crowning with an ebony wreath? All true. You know, I nearly put that shit on, until I had to trade it out to buy my friend back.”
Another expensive purchase; a crown cut from the bones of a Chthonic deity was a valuable item indeed, and he’d handed it off to Ares to buy Aiden back. He’d paid in blood to steal the damned thing out of Tartarus.
“Tell you the truth, I’m not all that keen on dying in a river of fire, but sometimes it sounds preferrable to staying up here with you people knowing I’ll be ostracized ‘til the end of my days.” He hesitated a moment, while Varus observed him like some loathsome, venomous snake poised to strike. “I’m tired. I’m used to being hated, but there’s nowhere to get away from it here.”
Varus, though still shaken by the knowledge that the texts had survived, appeared pitiless at this confession, utterly unmoved.
“There are days I wish you had not saved me,” the old man offered his own confession, instead. “It shames me to feel indebted. It shames me to know that I failed in my duties to the senate and our people. The dead must curse me for failing to exact any vengeance for Amhinata’s fall.”
The souls of your dead were likely devoured, Mesteno thought, dispassionately. His kin would have swallowed them. Gluttonous. Merciless. A feast like none he could imagine. His hunger clenched like a knot at the thought. Was it worse to know their eternal souls were gone? At least they weren’t left behind, restless dead tied to the place they’d had their threads snipped.
“You’ll suffer well and put on a brave face for the others,” Mesteno told him, dully. “You’re continuity to them, for better or worse. When you were sworn in, you accepted that shit as a life-long duty, and I’d say you got a decade in you yet before it’s your time. So, do what you can for the living and forget about the dead until you’re one of ‘em.”
Sullen, Varus seemed to subside, becoming smaller as he leaned away from the flames and hunkered down beneath the blanket again.
“When I come back, I want you to tell me about what things were like in Avernus. What the others like me were up to, what you learned.” Mesteno rose to leave, shadow stretched long behind him.
He was facing the opposite way, and didn’t see the faint, unnatural shift of that elongated darkness. He did feel the single drop of tepid blood oozing out from beneath the band about his throat though, and dabbed the pad of a finger against it with half-hearted curiosity.
“Leave,” Varus whispered, aware of the things which had escaped Mesteno’s attention. Alarmed, but unwilling to show it.
Smearing the viscous fluid between thumb and forefinger, Mesteno’s expression shifted to transient annoyance at the curt demand. “Don’t try and weasel out of it. I take this trip for you, you do as you promised. We have a deal, and so far, all you’ve done is excuse the senate their mistakes and offend me at every damn opportunity.” He strode towards the door, the tail end of his braid snaking against the lower curve of his spine. “I’ll come looking for you.”
It sounded half a threat, and had been intended as one.
Once he’d gone, Varus spilled a sigh of relief. It was no comfort to see his breath fog air that should have been warmed by the flames close by, and he tightened his jaw against the chattering of his teeth. It was cooler within the house than without, and his unwanted guest had seemed wholly oblivious.
Truly, they were short of time. While the supply party was gone, he would have to hasten the work further up the mountain.
A delay. He needed a delay.
It must be Marcus, reluctant though he was to involve the man – none of the others had the stomach for it, and though he would be burdened by the guilt of Laelia’s death, he had no other choice.
One life, he reasoned miserably, could not compete with the many.
She was a conduit, and in tune with the earth, so it made sense she’d start there. Her right hand clasped the necklace tight, aching for a feeling, a heartbeat, any sort of sign, while the dark fingers of her left clawed into the packed earth, two, three, five beats. Maybe this wouldn’t work. She reached deeper, focusing the magic to travel rather than explode, sending the electrical currents seeking through the roots, jumping through the tangled knots to find a path forward. As the currents traveled they picked up speed, putting the Turks McLaren to shame (not that she wouldn’t enjoy driving that pretty piece again). She almost missed it, the faintest of a blip, indeed, if she hadn’t been focusing so hard she would have missed it. As it was the currents went flying by at speeds she couldn’t reel back in time, and when she did get it under control she couldn’t locate where it had come from. She stayed there, crouched, swearing under her breath as she searched for what was missed, all to no avail.
At least it was something, a general direction to head off in, but first she had to refuel her magic energy before she set off. That’s what she told herself as she lingered in the shadows outside the Tavern. Inside was the typical drinking ruckus, loud enough to let her know someone was causing trouble – likely the boys (it was always the boys) harassing each other. She made sure not to pull any large amounts of the magic, instead she tugged lightly at strands, gathering them into the dark. Nothing noticeable by anyone inside – it was Rhydin, magic was everywhere after all, no one noticed if a little went missing here and there. If asked she’d claim it was purely random, a lie that would be seen in the smile on her face. Koyan, Aidan, Cane, Conner, she left Sal’s alone but for a light tug (he was a scary shit, but his magic was strong), hell even Dillon, because his magic was chaotic as all get out, but more from Mal than anyone else.
As much as she loved the guys, Mal was, well, her Mal. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for the blood witch, and it hurt to leave without a goodbye, so there may have been a harder tug to her magic, something to let her know the landscaper was somewhere nearby. Alive, if not in sight, she could at least give her that.
Going in would have had sappy goodbyes, some trying to talk her out of it, some annoyed, some explaining why they felt he wasn’t worth it, that this was all a waste of time. Any of those paths would have lead to sadness she didn’t want to take with her. Better to gather pieces of them that could help her on her journey and keep her smiling at the thought of them.
With a last look through the window, she folded herself back deeper into the shadows, edging back to where she’d parked the truck. She forced herself to not look back again, much as the thought tugged at her. Before she could give in, run back, hug them all, she plugged some of the sadists favorite music and shoved the (new) dented truck into gear.
With nothing but a blip, somewhere out there on the map, she drove through the night in a general direction, the lights of any city leaving her rearview mirror. Alone with the darkest of darks, melancholy (his music was anything but uplifting) and her thoughts, memories jumped and skittered much like the ruts in the road. Bees in a van, some God of love shooting arrows, masked balls, bloody bride Halloween costumes, so many hugs, and so much more laughter, all the free dinners the Turk had given her (even if he claimed she stole them), all the nights of Karaoke, and scotch. Always the scotch.
The dark-skinned landscaper had been in Rhydin all her life, yet the friends she’d made in the last two years were the most important to her. It surprised her *how much* she would miss them, but one of them was missing, and Rhydin wasn’t the same without him. And he was missing. She’d bet her house on it (except the ground had swallowed one up and the other one ate her). Mesteno was a lot of things, a lot of bad things, but he was also loyal and protective to a fault. No one would ever convince her he had simply up and left. Not only had he promised her a night together, neither of her ways of contacting him worked. No, he hadn’t left, she’d bank her hands (her life’s blood) on it.
Hopefully she wasn’t betting her friendships on it. Hopefully when she returned, with the grump (she damn well would!) her friends would still be there. And not scowl too much. If they did, well, she’d blame it on the sadistic one, and who wouldn’t believe that?
Perched astride Zafirah, Laelia’s fingers wound white-knuckled into the coarse mane just north of the mare’s withers. Her legs, tense against the rounded ribs fell far short of where Mesteno’s limbs usually hung, long and relaxed, and if it had been another animal, less astute, her tension might have resulted in flattened ears and nervous shuffling. It was an indication of Zafirah’s intelligence that she stood still, comfortably hip-shot, and ignored the scant weight she carried.
“Most don’t get to be this tall,” Mesteno admitted, craning a look up at the woman. “But it gives you a good view, right?”
Laelia made an affirmative sound, and slipped a look beyond the lip of the overlook where they, and their companions, had stopped to rest on their winding route down the mountainside.
It was a landscape unlike anything Mesteno had come across near Rhy’Din. Great, slender spires of needling rock, crowned green with tenacious pines and rooted in mist interrupted the skyline. Plateaus of unforested meadow stretched lush, stippled with a riot of wildflowers he wasn’t even sure Yeardley would have been able to name. Distantly, the silver mirror of a broad lake was visible, its shores a promenade for the elegant, scarlet-crested cranes that only occasionally appeared in the water bodies around Qelsin, and its basin filled by the myriad waterfalls that streaked the vertical cliffs.
It was a far cry from the salt flats of Amhinata, now torn by dust and shadow, cutting winds weathering pale rock, and turbulent skies which never shed a drop of moisture. Those lands had been left completely uninhabitable; two thousand years of civilization left in ruin by a single night’s devastation. It might be two thousand more before the wild magics died down and anyone tried again.
“You don’t seem the type to have a mare,” Laelia remarked, glancing down at him. “Or have animals at all for that matter.”
“All my other horses were stallions or geldings,” Mesteno admitted. “I don’t really know what to do with females of any species.”
“Two ex-wives,” he drawled to confirm, a bit of nonsense that brought about a pang of nostalgia. The deadpan tone was enough for those within earshot to take it seriously though, and eyeball him speculatively.
“Marriage is still a custom in that big city?” Laelia asked, nose wrinkled in distaste and brow crimped by a shallow frown as if she thought he’d participated in something barbaric. “And why are you no longer wed?”
“Are they still alive?” Cato asked as he stumbled across the rocks to join them, mouth full of the chestnut flour bread the women had been experimenting with. He suffered occasional bouts of lameness with the cold, but was otherwise well mended.
Mesteno snorted at his question. By now, he was fairly sure that from Cato, such comments were intended to be humorous, but given the general lull in the conversations going on about them, he suspected the rest of their little convoy truly thought these anonymous wives he’d mentioned might be napping in the dirt.
“The first one assaulted me in my sleep,” he stated solemnly, “and the second kept parts of me as trophies. I’m sure they’re both doing just fine.” More nonsense. Eden had painted his nails as he slept like a corpse (probably inebriated). Yeardley had kept a ring from the set once-upon-a-time laddering his spine, melted by an acid splash. “In my benevolence I forgave them both,” he went on, faux-humble and content with the aghast looks he received, “I’ve sworn off women ever since.”
Zafirah chose that moment to snort noisily, a lazy swing of her tail stinging his ill-protected back as if in reprimand.
“You see? Even the horse abuses me,” he scoffed, side-eyeing the Arabian. The others weren’t aware precisely how well she understood the nature of their discussion, but they still found amusement in her (seemingly) coincidental comedic timing.
“I don’t understand why you were ever with anyone,” Laelia remarked, absently smoothing the mane her fingers had crimped when she’d first clambered aboard. “You don’t seem to like people at all. Did they do those things because you neglected them?”
Mesteno supposed he should be grateful she didn’t assume it was a case of domestic violence or perversity. That she suspected neglect instead felt a less severe crime to be guilty of, and he supposed she had genuine reason to think him capable of such. Glancing from Laelia to Cato, he couldn’t help wondering whether the whole idea of relationships was alien to them. When would either have had the time or the inclination whilst enslaved?
He no longer thought of Yeardley and Eden, but of the failed relationships he’d entertained.
“People don’t see you for what you are when they’re first attracted. At least not usually,” he told them. “It’s the idea of you, the surface shine. And when they dig a little deeper and find the ugly spots, they still think they have a chance to fix it; the novelty fucks with their expectations.”
“Sounds like you were stubborn and set in your ways,” Laelia commented, after a moment to consider.
“Or just too many ugly spots,” Cato chimed in, offering up some of the chestnut bread to Laelia, who took it with a conspiratorial glance.
It felt odd to have people relaxed enough around him to tease, and so he made no efforts to defend himself from their accusations (they were right, anyway), even relenting to offer a few pointers on the common tongue as they descended the mountain. With a little luck, the vocabulary would be fresh in their minds when they reached the city. A few of their companions joined in cautiously, the carts the mules towed rumbling noisily over the rocky path.
Marcus was conspicuous that day via his absence. Mesteno had felt sure that the guardsman would be present to supervise this trip, but instead two of his deputies had been sent, and neither one had troubled him as the miles passed.
The precious sidearm had been entrusted to the grizzled Felix bringing up the rear. With no ammunition to practice with, Mesteno doubted he’d have much of a chance crippling him again if he chose to hop up behind Laelia and gallop off on Zafirah. Though the idea tempted, he had no real intention of escape. Fleeing to Rhy’Din would have exposed to him a small legion of murderous opposition he could not defend against without beheading himself. Besides, he’d promised himself to those whose cursed bloodlines he shared, and even if they chose to imprison him, he would accept their choice. Lapsing into a torpor in which he no longer felt hunger’s bite actually seemed like a pleasant prospect.
“You’re a good teacher, you know?” Laelia praised sunnily. Dusk was approaching and the others had begun to speculate on where to set up camp for the evening. Under the hubbub of conversation, they’d a chance to speak more quietly.
“Well, I wouldn’t want you to be incapable of communicating when you make your great escape,” Mesteno replied, casually.
Laelia’s eyes grew wide, the whites very bright as the momentary fear that he might betray her intentions to the others gripped. And then it passed, and she seemed suddenly ten years older, tired, as if her months spent playing a part had been abandoned.
“You’ve been toying with me all this time,” she stated, dully.
“Not toying,” Mesteno corrected her mildly, “just hoping that you’d tell me of your own accord.”
“Why would I? You haven’t exactly given me much reason to think you’d be an ally,” she pointed out with a hint of resentment, peering down at him as he strode along beside the Arabian’s head. “Or that you’d care what I want for that matter. Do you know how many times you told me to go away?”
“I wanted to see how persistent you were. There’s no point in taking risks for someone half-hearted about something so serious. Besides,” he added, “I needed to figure out whether you were watching me for Varus and the others.”
Still reeling over having been seen through, Laelia lapsed into silence for a time, lower lip bitten gently in thought. In no hurry, and curious to see what she had to say for herself without feeling pressed, Mesteno was content to indulge her in her introspection.
“What do you want for your silence?”
Mesteno was surprised to find he still had the capacity to be disappointed, and looked her way with a wry, barely-there smile. “Don’t misunderstand. Being suspicious is a good thing for what you intend, but there’s nothing I want from you. Just get it right first time when you go. They won’t give you another opportunity.”
“I should be free to make the choice myself, if I want to leave,” the woman muttered, though her discontent was not aimed at him.
“You won’t hear me argue otherwise. But they hid behind walls all their lives, scared of being found. If you were taken prisoner again and revealed their location under duress…”
“You lived alone for years, and they never found you. And that’s despite the fact that you’re the host. What chance would they have of learning where I’d gone?”
“Woman, I’m just telling you what they’d say. I’m not agreeing with it.”
Perhaps she’d expected him to try and rationalize on behalf of the people he’d attempted so determinedly to ‘save’. Mesteno watched her deflate again, breathing out the bitterness. It was a pleasant change not to have someone treat him like a punching bag to vent their frustrations.
“Make the most of tomorrow,” he suggested. “Don’t be obvious about it, but explore as best you can without Marcus’ boys getting suspicious. Practice your common. If you hide at the back while I do all the talking like the others do, it’ll be a waste. A couple of trips down here so they’re less vigilant, and you might be able to make a decent break for it before they realise you’re gone.”
“I was going to do that anyway.”
Mesteno grunted approval, and decided against trying to dictate what she should, and should not do. She was no more the kind of woman who would appreciate being micro-managed than his ‘ex-wives’ were. Silently, he lamented that he had no maps off the region to share with her – all left behind back in Rhy’Din, packed with the things he’d intended to take on the trip. Yet another loss thanks to Marcus’ impulsive decision to shoot him. Star charts, portal maps, underground waterways – he’d had them all – but he’d be damned if he could remember anything useful.
It was precisely whilst trying to remember, that Laelia interrupted his pondering.
“I could try and help you get a letter back to your friends,” she suggested, leaning sideways just a little from Zafirah’s back.
“Huh?” he asked, stupidly.
“Your friends,” she repeated, a breath of impatience to her words. Up ahead, the group were beginning to settle in one of the camping spots they’d used on previous excursions, and the column as a whole was beginning to compact. They wouldn’t be able to speak untroubled for long. “You said you had someone back in the city that you promised something to. Why don’t you let them know you’re alive?”
And so he had. The very reason he’d asked the refugees to wait a little longer for him.
Initially, her suggestion caused a flutter of excitement, a crack in the tundra of his apathy. The first line had already begun to scribble itself upon paper in his mind’s eye;
Sorry I vanished without saying anything, I didn’t mean to-
Sorry if I worried anyone-
Sorry for being a shit friend-
And then reality kicked in. Who wanted to receive a letter full of excuses? What point was there in letting them know he was alive when he was plainly never going to see them again? In a few months, once his usefulness had passed, he’d be as good as dead anyway, it wouldn’t bring him word of how things were in RhyDin, and (his pessimistic mind effortlessly convinced him) he’d probably prompted enough annoyance that any correspondence from him ended up put to a candleflame, or, less ceremoniously, balled up and aimed for a trash can.
I hope you’re not sat in some dark corner gathering dust, old man. This will be brief, but I wanted you to know I’m alive.
It’s green and quiet out here, and with the senator’s help, I haven’t had to eat in over a year. No necromancy. I haven’t taken a life since I left the city. I don’t trouble anyone. We farm and we build and the people are as safe as I can make them. No Powers have managed to peer past the magics that hide me. It’s really better that I stay that way. Hiding. If anyone asks if you’ve heard from me, tell them that I wrote to you and asked that no one come looking. Tell them that I’m happy out here and I never intended to come back but just didn’t want to say in case anyone complained.
Sorry I didn’t write sooner. Been busy and I straight up forgot.
Don’t spend too long talking to dead men. Go get laid.
Something like that would serve. A touch of flippancy to convince the good doctor that he was himself. He would recognize the old irreverence.
The truths were many, the half-truths as plentiful, the lies scant but necessary. Thus he decided he’d put pen to paper once they reached the inn the next day, and so consented to Laelia’s suggestion with what might pass for vague interest. If it let the woman feel she’d done something to balance the scales and alleviate her self-imposed debt to him, all the better.
Mesteno knew he was in trouble.
Even before they’d arrived at the city’s edge, he could feel the onset manifesting in sparks of acute, almost debilitating appetite.
As if he’d been surreptitiously slipped the reversal agent for whatever he’d been doped up on for the past year, his senses assaulted him with a sudden clarity of scent and sound, a gut-punch of the metaphysical other as things died – slaughtered for the dinner table, or wheezed their last on a hospice bed. The sudden stimulus flooded his mouth with saliva, and his pulse quickened alarmingly, filled him with unfamiliar heat. The sedentary norms sloughed away like winter pelt revealing a hunter’s sleek, season-starved lines.
Here there be food, his body told him.
It hadn’t been this way when last they’d visited the city. Of course, that had been four months ago at winter’s onset, and since then he’d spent his days in a strange, hibernal sort of existence, managing (just barely) to compartmentalize the people he lived amongst from those he owed nothing to. Those he might safely consider…edible. Had the verbal promise of a meal been enough to subconsciously get him slavering like a carnivore presented with meat freshly butchered? Or was it only that he’d reached the end of his tolerance?
The collar squeezed. Throttled.
The others didn’t notice.
They were striding forward eagerly, hastening the mules along the wooded road to join the queue of visitors waiting to be admitted at the city gates. Even Laelia had gone loping ahead to see, oblivious to his trepidation and with Cato at her heel like an obedient pup. Only Felix, frowning at his laggardly behaviour, loitered as he feigned fussing over Zafirah, and sent her back into the woods to enjoy a few days of solo exploration; taking her into the city would only draw jealous eyes. The last time he’d taken her, he’d been fending away merchants keen to buy her all day, and the inquisitive Arabian had begun to flatten her ears in irritation at the repetitive stalling - highly unusual behaviour given her preference for human contact.
Once within the city walls, surrounded by the hubbub of the trade district, functioning with any measure of normalcy became a tribulation. As if the scent of the populace had contaminated his people, Laelia, Cato, Felix and all the others began to register less as individuals he’d come to know, and more and more like the offerings of a menu. Whatever protection their prior association had offered was being stripped away like old varnish, and he shivered violently enough at the temptation that the merchant he’d been haggling with under the watchful eyes of the refugees began to question whether he was ailing with something.
He shook his head, no, but now they were watching him. Wondering.
He was sweating. His surroundings seemed to have taken on a ruddy gleam, a perversion of a lover’s rosy-hued world, and everywhere, the oblivious populace spread its blood-stink, a palatable poison he wanted desperately and not at all.
Their trade was brisk that day. He’d meant for Laelia to have plenty of opportunity to practice, for them to roam a little so that she might become familiar with the city’s layout. He’d wanted to see Cato act like the boy he was at sixteen, rather than seeming cowed and cautious of everything, and had felt oddly eager for smiles, even if from people unfamiliar. Somewhere along the way, he’d learned to love the common tongue, and hate the Dead one, disconnecting from something he’d always thought intrinsic. Now he rushed his words, and the ill-concealed mania that glittered behind his eyes made the store keeps eager to be done with their business.
“Can I have a room to myself?” he’d asked Felix when they reached the inn, knowing the answer would be no.
Laelia had offered to share one with him, but the two guardsmen had squashed that idea in no uncertain terms. Mesteno was to room with them, so that they could take turns watching him as they’d been directed. Of course, it was also in order to slip him out of the inn come nightfall, so that he could find a suitable candidate to take the edge off his hunger (or so they explained once he was alone with them).
“Where are you going to find one? How?” Felix pressed. He was a bulky man, far heavier than Marcus, with a barrel belly that never seemed to diminish even when the village was on short rations. Still, there was muscle under the softer fleshiness, and his fists were thick and scar-knuckled, large enough to make the gun look like a toy when he held it. He and his compatriot had taken the two beds closest to the door, trapping Mesteno at the far end where the mullioned window, and the torment of the noise beyond it, nibbled away at his already tattered resolve.
Mesteno did not answer immediately. He was staring at the two beds left for him to choose from, and regretting that they’d accrued enough funds that they didn’t have to cram themselves into sharing with more of their party. Last time they’d come, they’d been short a bed, and he’d been able to sleep on the floor without needing to justify his preferences. This time, he was spoilt for choice.
“There’s always a rough end in any town,” Mesteno muttered his response, averting his eyes. Enclosed space. Trapped with food. This was bad. “Just set me loose in there, and wait to see who comes to take a bite out of me.”
They would. Put a lost looking stranger in the territory of a suitable galère, particularly a stranger whose physique seemed somewhat shy of formidable, and consider it a trap well baited.
“He’s going to make a mess,” Felix’s fellow guard declared. Mesteno couldn’t remember his name, truthfully. Octavius? Lucas? Food.
“Varus said one,” Felix warned, ignoring the other man entirely. “You keep a tight rein on it and hide the mess afterwards, or we won’t get out without suspicion tomorrow. You hear me?”
Mesteno did, but he said nothing as he sank, heady from the stimulus, into a heels to haunches squat… and then rocked backwards unceremoniously onto his spine, the breath leaving his lungs with an undignified huff. There was a short-lived silence while he sprawled, as if they weren’t quite sure whether they needed to try and coerce him into behaving like a well-adjusted human (even if only for show) before they seemed to reach a mutual, unspoken decision to ignore the choice as a quirk. The pair resumed a low conversation, their plans for the night surely discussed, but Mesteno paid them no heed.
As best he could, he tried to recall Lexius’ teachings, but the meditation he’d once been able to lapse into – perhaps not immediately the way the Elf reliably could, but usually within the space of several minutes - was so out of reach it was laughable. Instinct ruled, primal, and he could no sooner set aside his distracting urges than he could carve out the shriveled, beating thing in his chest, the drum of it in his ears infuriating. There was no sleeping, either, despite the safety of the floor, and when he at last resorted to the old failsafe of nostalgic recollections instead, he found no reprieve.
It wasn’t safe to think of them when he was ravening towards madness. He could recall the scent of their blood, unique to each, as surely as he could their names. Friends. Friends whose blood was more interesting than that of mundane humans by far. Those he’d willingly risked life and limb for in the past, were remembered now with an indecent shudder. His imaginings crossed lines he would never speak of, a hedonic hunger that littered his mind’s eye with images gorily perverse. It wasn’t even as if he could set such intrusive thoughts aside as impossible fictions, not when he’d truly gone so far as to cave to such impulses in years gone by.
He'd a bad track record of crossed wires, sadism and appetite inextricably linked.
How he survived the five hours until Felix finally nudged him with a foot and bade him stand, he didn’t know, but he rose with such inhuman fluidity that the guards backed away with a curse, and snarled at him to conceal his eyes before they left the room. Gone the smouldering ember of their usual gleam, and in its place Helios’ light blazed, bleeding between his lashes when he closed them. A strip of doubled-up fabric sufficed as a blindfold, hair tangled in the knot, before they marched him out into the streets like a pair of old friends seeing a drunken acquaintance safely home. The looks they drew were brief and ale-addled, and in night’s concealment they had only to guide him, never setting a foot wrong despite his blindness, to where the respectable buildings gave way to shanty dwellings and the air grew rank.
Deeper yet were the tanneries and the dye factories, the abattoirs and metalworks, places no respectable person would wish to linger, and particularly not come nightfall. Mesteno could smell other things beneath the rancid miasma. Death old and new, siren-song luring so that he pulled against the hands of Felix and Food, towards a broad alley where they finally cursed and loosed him to feel his way into trouble.
“Don’t make me come fetch you,” Felix warned. “I’ll put a bullet in both of your ankles this time, if you fuck this up.”
Some part of him heard it. Very little cared.
And… he starved too fiercely to wonder why they let him go so readily, so unconcerned that he might be harmed or vanish entirely.
Beneath the high neck of his shirt, the band bit and bled him. His palm skimmed the slick timbers of the wall to his left, and his feet fell silent, pantherine, skirting every puddle and pothole. He might have continued like that forever and never stumbled, were it not for the approach of several someones come to see what poor blind fool was wandering the foetid lanes so late at night.
“Did you lose your cane?”
Mesteno stilled, and waited, breath shallow and quick. It might be easy to assume him afraid and inebriated, arms slack at his sides, no weapon to grope for, but the speaker did not approach him immediately.
“Come a little closer,” Mesteno murmured, though the words he spoke were not in the common tongue, and a certain sooty undertone to his voice seemed more suggestive than afraid.
“What’s that garbage he’s speaking?”
The first voice had been young, mocking. This one sounded merely annoyed.
“There’s nothing to take, and he’s too old to sell. You think he got sent here to spy?”
Three of them. It was risky to fight when he couldn’t afford an injury. If they put holes in him, it would take far longer to heal than the wounds Marcus had given him.
“We take him in and let the others question him. If he can speak, they’ll make him. If he can’t, they’ll just cut him up small and put him out with the pig slurry.”
“You’ll do,” Mesteno told them, as if he were sighing out his relief. Still he held to the Latin.
“D’you see that?” The curious first voice again, gender ambiguous. “Look at that. Look’t his mouth.”
Grit and gravel crunched under booted feet, and Mesteno felt the splay of a broad palm over his chest, pushing him into the aged timbers of the building at his back. He made himself malleable, unthreatening, and inwardly thrilled at the simmering conflict. They weren’t yet hurting him, only bullying a little, but it was still a surprise when a great, rough hand grasped his lower jaw and wrenched his mouth open, another hand wedging itself between his teeth like it were deliberately tempting him to bite, thumb lifting his upper lip as if to check the teeth of a mutt.
“You think we got us a shifter?”
“Well don’t let him bite you, dumbfuck.”
They were good teeth for biting. Adaptive physiology, Vadriel had called it, when Mesteno remarked on the slow change over the years. One of several not-quite-rights that came of his passenger’s slow tempering of the flesh. It might take a creature thousands of years to evolve in nature’s hands, but for Mesteno it had been two short and violent decades to see him become less man, more thing. Not the elegant fangs of a vampire for him, but edges better suited for tearing, a risk for unprepared tongues and fingers alike.
Still, he didn’t bite. He lifted his hands in mock surrender, a universal gesture they chose to take no notice of – his jaw was released, but there was a sharp, stinging slap at his cheek.
“Drop the bullshit. Talk. Why’re you out here?”
There was breath hot on his face, the scent of cheap liquor and unwashed skin.
Another slap, when he didn’t immediately respond. This time he felt knuckles. A backhand. The heat in his cheeks throbbed pleasantly, and he hoped the next one might be a little harder. Instead, he felt hands around his throat, compressing the metal already burrowing into his skin.
“What the fuck is this?” his attacker asked, withdrawing at the feel of the wetness already there.
“Someone try to cut his throat?” the genderless speaker again, intrigued rather than revolted.
“Maybe they took his eyes too, and that’s why he’s got the blindfold!”
They spoke as if it were a guessing game, an evening’s entertainment. Low on the food chain, and with nothing better to do than patrol, he couldn’t blame them for contriving games of their own, and indulged them for a little while longer, using the time to reassure himself of their suitability, to steel himself for blood only, and to let the souls loose their moorings unmolested – that would be his greatest challenge.
They stopped talking when the shadows grew strange, and the April chill became something better suited to the mountains in midwinter.
“I’m hungry,” he told them, in the language they knew.
He woke up far from where he’d gone to dine that night.
Somehow, he was beyond the walls, and far out into the woods again, the sound of running water nearby. The sun was warm on his face, and a songbird was trilling in the canopy of pale blossoms overhead. The moss was spongy-soft under his fingertips, cool and damp, and for those initial, innocent moments, he only knew that for the first time in a long time, he didn’t feel as if something were wringing his insides, twisting the core of him with hunger.
He didn’t go sifting through the murk of his memories for details – no point in sullying the transient bliss – and he couldn’t bring himself to care just yet if he’d driven Felix mad with worry over his disappearance. Indeed, it would be satisfying to stroll in without compunction and see him grow lobster-necked with rage as he was forced to bottle his anger (at least until they were on the road and away from the city, free to bellow as they wished).
His peace was spoiled (wasn’t it always?) when the scent of death reached him. When he felt it.
Two bodies stiffened, the reek of evisceration, and the low buzz of the first few carrion flies.
Had he been fool enough to drag prey out here with him? Had they given chase before he’d turned on them?
Sleep-groggy, he propped himself on his elbows to look, finally cognizant of the tacky feel of blood masking the lower half of his face like barbaric war-paint. Of the way his clothes had grown rigid as board with it.
The bodies lay to either side of him, not touching, but near enough he could reach out a hand to either without effort. If it were not for the abnormal twist to their limbs, for the ragdoll slump to the way they lay, it might have seemed the three of them had all settled down together peacefully to rest. Laelia was open throated, the pale gleam of bone stark beyond the near-black of clotted blood. And Cato, the features of his face flattened to pulpy ruin, gaped at the belly, an offal spill glistening red-wet and already peppered with the bright white eggs of the flies come feasting.
The others found him retching into the stream nearby, hollow bellied and hollower eyed, everything he brought up red.
It was only Zafirah’s presence, her uncharacteristic violence when they approached as if to inflict him with the same harm he’d done to Laelia and Cato, that kept him from being crippled outright.
Mesteno wouldn’t have cared if they had.
A Chapter Closed
Heroism likes to go berserk.
How do you know
he’s a hero?
By the penultimate
Labour he’s raving
Too bad if it leaves him
outsize and outside
the civilization he’s saving.
Anne Carson, H of H Playbook
"I suppose I could always drag you away with me into no-man's land," Mesteno had once mused aloud, "hide you from Aiden's family. Find some ground consecrated by another deity so your backers can't come snatch you. A nice little cave with some ducks and a miniature pony to keep you company..."
He’d said that to the Turk once upon a time, while the pair perched on hay bales in an empty stable. A duckling, all yellow fluff and demanding peeps was busying herself comically between a paddling pool and their boots.
"And my three hundred or so desert people who depend on me? My boys? My eight hundred or so other employees? Businesses? What if Eli dies suddenly and we don't know it, and then I die because I'm not here to try and correct the situation?" Koyan had happily laid on all the shitty drawbacks, even though he’d thought Mesteno wasn't serious. "Miniature ponies suck."
Mesteno’s idle seeming suggestion hadn’t been made entirely in jest back then. It wouldn’t have been the first time he’d kidnapped someone to keep them out of trouble, and there was cause enough to want to remove Koyan from the brewing war that had, at least temporarily, killed him. Stood craning his neck in the cave that was to be his sepulchre, Mesteno dwelled on that moment, and felt an entirely inappropriate amusement for the neat turn-around; here he was in no-man’s land perfectly as planned, far and away from the pantheon which despised him, and the man he’d thought of stealing away could not have been closer to them by choice (or so things had seemed in the days before he’d been dragged off.)
He was oblivious to his own skewed smile, though the others in the cave with him saw it clearly enough. Impossible to say it looked harmless with those teeth, and the dried blood still dark on his skin, but there was a peculiar candid quality to it, lacking the usual awkwardness or semi-snarl. The juxtaposition licked their spines with shivers. The sooner they could leave the better.
So far as caves went, this one was neither the cramped little hideout he’d found up in the peaks, nor some vast, underground auditorium. It was roomy enough for voices to echo, and so deep in the rock explorers would be deterred. The opening was little more than a narrow fissure which might be sealed without monumental effort. He thought it well picked. Varus had planned intelligently, and it would seem, for some time. The work here would have taken months.
“So, when do we do this?” Mesteno asked, squinting against the light of a half dozen lanterns. His impatience was not contrived. “Which of them is it?”
Marcus, Felix, Food and Leander were there amongst the few accompanying himself and Varus. They were silent, but their animosity was palpable. He suspected that none of them would go about the task gently, and he didn’t blame them. It would be a justifiable violence.
“I will do it myself,” Varus answered, and gestured for Mesteno to join him where a thick steel bolt was embedded in the rock, gleaming obtrusively.
“You don’t look like you’ve had much first-hand experience with a knife,” Mesteno remarked, though he padded over barefoot and obliging. “I doubt the others are gonna mind-”
“The others will leave,” Varus interrupted before any of the guardsmen could eagerly offer themselves up, “and make no complaint. He won’t hurt me.” That last added when it seemed Marcus might protest with his safety in mind.
Mesteno was just as surprised as they were, but didn’t refute his claim; he had no intention of doing Varus any harm. In fact, at this very moment, if the senator had lost his nerve, the necromancer would have done everything in his power to persuade him to continue with his chosen course of action.
With undisguised reluctance, the other men left, and the only lantern remaining was the one Varus set down beside the steel bolt. With an incongruously congenial gesture to the frigid ground, as if in polite company and inviting conversation, he bade Mesteno sit. And sit he did, folding himself cross-legged, expression eagerly expectant.
The notion of being relieved of any responsibility was a bliss undeserved, but he needed it now.
Though he did not grieve Laelia and Cato with any measure of heartbreak or violence as he had been compelled to for others in years gone by, their deaths had nonetheless been the final nudge he’d needed to topple off the blade’s edge and into a different sort of madness. A pure irreverence for living. It had elevated Varus to a figure of salvation, perversely.
“Just to be safe, remember the order,” he instructed, reaching to hook a finger through the ring attached to the bolt, an experimental tug assuring him it was well moored. “You do the tendons first before you take the collar off. Tongue, then eyes.”
Varus inclined his head, indicating he understood well enough, and settled down across from him, the lantern between their knees.
They had discussed things at length, and the safest course of action had been to cripple him initially, rendering the flesh too weak to fight the restraint. The injuries needed to be minimal, nothing which might accidentally spark a fail-safe response in his necromancy. That would be dangerous. Once upon a time, in the morgue beneath Sanctuary, he’d been injured by a rogue fae, and only Salvador and Riley had been present. Both had passed out when that very failsafe had gone grasping for any energy it could find to heal, and he’d found the pair slumped on the stairs the following day. He’d left them side by side on the battered old mattress he’d kept for the rare occasions he took someone home for a tumble, and still thought it a pity he’d not been there to see them wake.
Now of course, the failsafe would kill him, the spell-wrought metal around his throat finally severing the carotids, and so it would need to be removed imminently as soon as they were finished with the ‘modifications’.
At this point, Mesteno would be gone, good as dead, and instead the monster would occupy his flesh as it had always wished. It would see and speak again for the first time in years… or would have been able to. The tongue they would remove to keep it from any incantations, manipulations, lies. The eyes, so it could not harm what it could not take aim at. And finally, it would be denied the opportunity to abandon his body for new, undamaged housing by the work Varus had put into the prison. The walls were littered with sigil-script, reinforcing the remaining seals in his body. How long it would hold they could not be sure, but it was a better option than having it out amongst them, mobile and starving, with only a weak-minded, human personality with wavering resolve keeping it prisoner.
Mesteno was not sure he could be considered suicidal. The flesh would remain, and he was lacking a soul anyway. It was more like…a system reset, he supposed. Ridding his body of the unwanted program that was his mind and enabling factory settings. But still, he thought he understood how Koyan must have felt, when years ago he’d drunkenly sent that garbled text. Something so unintelligible Mesteno could make head nor tail of it. It had been a long time before Koyan had told him he’d wanted then, what Mesteno wanted now. An out.
“I promised I would tell you the rest when you returned,” the elder reminded as they sat across from one another. “Considering your actions, most would not blame me if I chose to conveniently forget, but I feel compelled to for some reason.”
The knife in his hand was sound, freshly sharpened steel, a purchase from the city in the foothills. A pity, since once contaminated Mesteno suspected it would be abandoned here with him. The senator lifted his empty hand, and waited – though not for long. Mesteno rolled back his sleeve to expose a sinewy forearm, the tawny skin ridged with the raised lines and abstract furrows of scars, the old, metallic pigment running through it which had once helped to channel his abilities so ruined and warped that the original structured designs were lost. Like the rest of him, they were now merely an unsightly mess.
He extended his wrist to the senator, who examined the visible play of pronounced tendons, the prominent blood vessels he would need to avoid. When Varus took hold of the limb, he was not unnecessarily cruel.
“I don’t know how deep you and the Elf delved when you went crawling through the rubble of Amhinata,” he began, “but it seems to me you missed items which perhaps might have changed the course of events here. That is to say, you would likely be dead and the rest of us with you.”
“So, I bought you a few years?”
“I can’t say with certainty. We might still be under Avernus being bred like cattle and awaiting your rebirth.”
Its rebirth, Mesteno thought, but today he was not irritated by the inaccuracy, and instead examined his freshly mutilated wrist dispassionately. The pain had been nothing worth remarking over to a man who’d repeatedly been subjected to torture, and his own blood held no fascination for him. But still, the inability to move his fingers was a new experience. That would have horrified him once, when he’d spent so much time indulging in the uncomplicated distraction of his violin.
“There was a tablet which recorded the dark days in which our ancestors were expelled from Rome,” Varus went on, hand extended and palm open for the next wrist. Mesteno couldn’t roll his own sleeve up for this one, and so the senator did it for him, nonchalant. “The plot had been recognised, the devouring of Sumanus exposed, and the Chthonic Powers were discovered in their efforts to overthrow Jove. You know what happened next… the false god was torn into three.”
“And on sky-coloured horses sent out enfeebled and unborn,” Mesteno recited wryly. “What kind of bullshit was that anyway? What horses are blue?”
Varus made the cut, severing the tendons in a single, neat movement. “Why must they be blue? Can the sky not be grey, or black? Think of the Nightmares of legend, of the Pegasi.”
Mesteno thought of his own grey horse, of Zafirah’s distress when he’d ordered her back after his discovery at the river. She hadn’t understood, for all her intelligence, his utter defeat. He was not so humble as to desire punishment. He’d already attempted atonement for his many sins by bringing the refugees to the mountain, and yet he’d still made a ruin of it. Now he just wished to be gone. A horse could not be expected to understand the peculiarities of a human mind. He felt guilty for it, but he’d also ordered her to return to Alvaka, where he knew she would be safe and welcome. Obedience was not necessarily her strong point though, and he’d glimpsed her following them as they trekked back up the mountain, one of the carts now bearing the fabric-wrapped corpses of Laelia and Cato.
“I guess that doesn’t really matter,” Mesteno admitted. “So, the three parts were consigned to being reborn in the bloodlines of the creature’s worshippers, right? To stop it from ever being whole again and eating anymore ailing Powers. Should I lie down now?”
“On your front,” Varus instructed, letting him find his way onto his belly with the support of his elbows, hands incapable of bearing any weight.
It was not comfortable to lie like that. Hips, ribs, his cheekbone – the pressure would trouble anyone lying prostrate in such a manner for any length of time. Mesteno didn’t need to worry about that, however, and lay still while the senator clamped a far weightier collar than the one he wore to contain his passenger into place around his neck, fastening it to the bolt.
“That’s good,” he told Varus, having strained his neck to test its sureness.
“As you know, the worshippers were slave owners, as was common in those times. The slavers took their property with them when they fled Rome.” Settling by Mesteno’s bare feet, Varus began to roll up the hems, but cleared his throat to intone: “The stolen sons and daughters of Rome, beyond the reach of Jove, will found a new city at the edge of a great salt sea. Hidden from the gaze of those who took them, they shall prosper for as long as they hold to the laws proscribed upon the twelve tablets.”
“None of this is new,” Mesteno told him, lip curling when the tougher Achilles needed some sawing through to sever. He clenched his teeth against the instinct to bellow a curse, a protest. There was only a minor tremor to his voice when he asked, “Why bring it up now?”
“Because the prophecies were incomplete. The fool king, Tarquin the Proud, let the Sibyl burn several before he bought the remaining few, and therefore the entire tale was recorded in the aftermath, when the slaves had escaped their former owners and fled to the salt flats. Can you move your toes?”
“Try not to twitch this time, it makes it more difficult.”
Despite the pain, it was comforting to be becoming progressively more immobilised. If he was rendered harmless, he was safe. Mesteno murmured an apology politely (he had manners when it suited him) and steeled himself for the next cut, bracing against the reflex urge to struggle away from the sensation of skin splitting, of nerves on fire and muscles in spasm.
“There was one among the Greek pantheon who felt pity for the slaves who had been unwillingly embroiled in all this. After all, the slavers often begat offspring on their property, and so their sons might as easily host part of the being as a legitimate heir. It was she conspired to help the slaves escape their owners once they reached Rhy’Din, and she who made a deal with one of their number.”
This truly was news to Mesteno, who bled quietly on the cave floor, the viscous, dark mess evacuating his veins too sluggishly to make breathing difficult, or truly pose a threat. He followed Varus with the one eye that was not half-blinded by the ground. Watched the knife as the senator sat again, this time beside his head. This news left him with a cool sliver of unease for reasons he couldn’t explain.
“This slave was the natural born child of one of the Roman nobles who had been banished. It would seem he felt he bore some responsibility for the sins of his father. That, or he’d been brow beaten into it. And so, he made an offering of himself. You see, the creature would naturally oust the soul of whoever’s body it was to be born into, denying it opportunity to be reincarnated. Over time, the damage to the soul would tear it entirely asunder. And so, the man asked this Greek deity to bind a fragment of the creature to his own soul, so that it would only ever be born into bodies he was destined to inhabit. The God warned against such choices. A human soul is but a mortal’s soul; fragile. What he proposed would ensure that every life he lived would meet with a violent end at the hands of his own people.”
It took some time for Mesteno to process what he was being told.
Varus, patient, was waiting for him to question, expression impassive, but when minutes passed and the prone man said nothing, he continued.
“The Goddess eventually acceded to his wishes, and added a whisper of her own strength to his soul, that he might weather the damage caused by each successive culling.”
The tickle of madness, a surreptitiously creeping thing once upon a time, began to squirm, more insidiously obvious into the necromancer’s brain. If he’d understood correctly, then all this time, he’d been wrong. Decades spent misunderstanding himself, the curse, and foolishly thinking he had any chance of escape from it.
His mouth twitched into a smile. Mirthless. Unhinged.
“So, I’m not a by-product then. I’m not—I have a soul somewhere? Why can’t I-”
“The Goddess took your soul, and hid it away where it would not be at the mercy of the Moirai or their death gods. It will never roam the afterlife, it’s worth will never be measured by the scales and deemed unworthy, as it ought. If she were able to see us now, I’ve no doubt she would cast it straight into the fires of Phlegethon.”
Mesteno tried to lift his head and find some sign of a lie in the senator’s expression, but the collar hindered him effortlessly.
“You’re saying I’m stuck in some bullshit loop? That it’s my soul, over and over again, that gets kicked out for this thing, so that the rest of you can kill it? Rinse and fucking repeat?”
Laughable. He couldn’t even begin to imagine the mechanics. When he’d laid upon Lexius’ table in the mountains, and permitted the Elf to examine him, they’d seen no trace of a human soul there. Only the thing, riding the channels that ought normally conduct the flow of natural energy. A dark core where it coiled like a misshapen serpent, sullen and somnolent and hating the flesh it inhabited, and had failed to successfully manifest within.
“We have been killing you for nearly two thousand years,” Varus confirmed, voice devoid of any inflection. “It is only in this incarnation that you have failed to abide by your old sense of duty. The deal you struck was to keep the people of Amhinata safe, and instead you have run wild, committed atrocities, slaughtered in the thousands, and brought about our downfall. You have permitted it corrupt you.”
Mesteno wasn’t listening. He didn’t care that Varus felt him responsible for abandoning tenets a past version of himself had chosen to live by. Who wouldn’t go a little mad, after being bound to a monster for thousands of years? Still, the conflation of himself and the creature which the senator has doggedly persisted with made sense at last.
“Which of them was it?” he interrupted, and could not help but laugh. It just slipped out unbidden, one of those ill-timed, inappropriate bursts at the worst of times. “Which of the Greeks? I’ve met so many of them, and none of them ever hinted they knew me.”
Varus was turning the knife in his hands, having wiped the filth off on the sleeve of Mesteno’s shirt, unhurried, weary. “The daughter of Strife,” he murmured thoughtfully. “She came to us as Lethe, the Goddess whose water rids our souls of memories before we are given new life. I do not doubt she could restore those to you, if she wished.”
What kind of masochist would wish that upon themselves? A hundred short-lived lifetimes recalled, and each of them aborted early at the hands of those he’d known in life and done no harm to. The thought made him laugh again – how ludicrous.
“I volunteered. I fucking volunteered.”
He couldn’t see Varus frown. He was blinded as much by tears as by his own line of sight. In part it was abject misery, but it was equally lunatic hilarity, this notion of him having had noble aspirations and it all ending in disaster.
Of course, of course.
How could it ever be otherwise?
His laughter echoed around the cave, and bounced maddeningly until Varus took his tongue – fingers in his mouth again, a tug and a keen slice – then there was choking, blood aspirated, violent coughs.
It troubled Varus that once they finally subsided, the necromancer was still smiling.
“You took your time,” Marcus groused when Varus emerged, examining a small bloodstain on the cuff of his sleeve.
“It’s not common-place to see the manifestation of a being like that,” the senator responded, dully. “The moment I took away the band it was there. I could sense it watch me even without eyes to see by.”
Marcus glanced at the older man’s hands, as if expecting him to see grisly remains to be burned, but his swollen fingers were empty of everything, knife included.
“Marcus, come with me. The rest of you, seal it up. Don’t be tempted to go inside and look.”
Felix, reliable and large enough to dissuade the others from ignoring that last command, took charge, and Varus set off down the path towards Qelsin with a notably relieved seeming Marcus at his side. Neither spoke for a time, content in their own introspection, but before they risked being overheard again within the village boundaries, the senator darted a look askance, and sighed.
“Cato was not supposed to die. How did it come to this?”
Marcus had the good grace to appear ashamed of this mistake, at the very least. “It was all going to plan. Felix set the bastard loose, then went back to fetch Laelia, told her the fucker had gone feral and that if anyone had a chance of talking him out of it, she might. Give her credit where it’s due, she didn’t hesitate… but Cato followed them.”
Varus exhaled his exasperation. They would have to watch Leander now, in case he trespassed upon the cave for a little personal vengeance.
“He really had gone feral, if Felix speaks the truth. They found three men dead with him all in pieces, and the girl panicked on seeing it. Stupid bitch. You don’t turn your back from something that means to eat you. They’re saying he had hold of her, took off when the others came near, and Cato came out of nowhere in pursuit.”
“That boy had a broken ankle less than four months ago,” Varus reminded him, darkly. “And yet he outran the others?”
“He liked the woman,” Marcus snorted, as if he would dismiss the senator’s suspicions. Even he must have heard how flimsy such an excuse was however. It was clear to both men that Felix had balked about trying to intervene. “It hardly matters now. So long as the wards in that cave stay strong, it’s trapped in there. I was here, so was Leander – no one else was openly hostile enough to him to be considered suspicious, and we both stayed up here in plain sight. Consider it a chapter closed.”
Varus could not argue that.
Though, he thought he might have enjoyed this ending more, if it were not for the distant sight of the grey horse he spied lingering dejectedly by the tumbledown home that had been Mesteno’s.
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