tagSci-Fi & FantasyEthine Ch. 03

Ethine Ch. 03

byTheWitcher©

Cold, freezing water, shocking him awake to a world of pain. His whole body throbbed with agony, every breath its own individual torment. He coughed, fire lancing through his side, awareness creeping back from the faded edges of his recall.

Ethine!

Adrenaline spiked through him, he remembered the sound of her screaming. It jerked him fully awake, the pain receding as his body struggled to ready itself to fight. Where was Ethine? His eyes opened, tried to sit up, failed.

The room about him was dimly lit, overly warm. A low brick roof hidden above in shadows, he could sense heat coming from a large brazier not far from his head. He was tied to some kind of bed, or cot, his wrists above his head, his ankles stretched below him. He was naked.

A leering face loomed above him - a goblin with sallow skin, one side of his head covered with puckered scar tissue, one eye obviously useless. "Ahh, you're awake, good," Tinklethwaite said. "I know Sorrow asked for some special treatment for you."

Near a door below his feet Calan could see a couple of suited knights loitering in the shadows, not paying much attention to either him or the goblin. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, tasted blood, the sour flavour of vomit, bile.

The goblin leaned over him, pressing the side of his head to his naked chest, obviously listening.

"Hmm. Remarkable. Your heart beat is strong, even after the beating you've had - I imagine you're quite something in a fight, eh?"

Calan smiled, spitting a mouthful of blood and vomit into his face. "Let me out and I'll show you - cut your other little eye out you capering little fuck," he said, coughing.

Tinklethwaite wiped his face clean with a rag. "I don't think so," he said. "Let's see how you feel when I dislocate your shoulders, shall we?"

With that he moved to a large wheel set into the side of the cot, turning it slowly with a ratcheting sound, its progress a series of clicks. Calan felt the ropes on his wrists and ankles pull taut, taking the slack, pulling him rigid.

"You'll like this," Tinklethwaite said, speaking as if to a favoured student, "as I turn this wheel the ropes get tighter, you get longer. Eventually you'll hear some loud popping sounds, that will be your cartilage breaking as your joints separate."

The wheel ratcheted onward. Calan felt himself pulled from both ends - pain creeping into his wrists, his ankles, his shoulders and knees.

"Eventually your joints will separate completely so that they are absolutely useless to you. But, long before we get there, your muscles will all be torn," he continued.

The wheel turned again.

His body was on fire, the pain from the beating receding as a new pain was heaped onto it - burning pain across his joints, his muscles stretching beyond their normal extreme. He felt himself groan - a long sigh of pain.

"Not many people realise it, but once your muscles get stretched beyond a certain point - they can't recover, they stay stretched, useless. So even if you survive my little toy, you'll probably never walk, or hold a sword again."

Tinklethwaite chuckled softly, his little clawed hands gripping the wheel in a fond caress. He turned it again.

Calan screamed.

******

"He's late," Monster whispered, drawing away from the gathered exiles.

"I know, I know," Terror whispered. "We have to wait, he'll call...he will."

"We're running out of time, Terror."

"Okay, I know. He'll call." Don't let me down, Calan, he thought, don't let me down.

Behind him he could sense the unease in the gathered exiles - the constant tension was getting to them all. Waiting, knowing you were going to fight but not knowing when. Before long nervous exhaustion would set in, their fighting edge would start to dissipate. Not long after that they'd start to drift away.

Come on, Calan! It has to be soon, or not at all, he thought.

******

Gilraen drank his second bloodwine. He'd done the right thing, he had. He was one of Sorrow's knights, he'd told Thorn like he was supposed to. He'd done the right thing.

So why did he feel like a heel?

He swallowed the bitter-sweet liquid slowly. As usual he was alone, none of Sorrow's knights wanted to drink with him, he wasn't 'cool' enough for their company. Which is what made him feel so bad, perhaps. Calan was the first; no, the only knight to call him friend in as long as he could remember. And what had he done? Betrayed him. For what? So he could end up drinking bloodwine on his own again. If he fell down tonight, would any of those bastards pick him up and carry him home?

Well he knew the answer to that. It wouldn't be the first time he'd woken up on the bar floor.

He wasn't going to give them the chance, he was going home to bed while he still could. With a baleful glare in the direction of the knights gathered restlessly about the dais he stood up, picking up his own sabre from the bar. Calan's sabre was there next to it.

For a time he looked at it, guilt suddenly choking him. Finally he picked it up, cradling it next to his own. He set off for his room, each footstep like a lead weight - his heart screaming at him to do something, anything to put things right. Maybe with more bloodwine he could drown it out.

******

The mist cleared slowly, first drifting back so that their small group stood at the centre of a circular clearing in the mist, then lifting back towards the gully - opening a path towards the far end. As it peeled back it revealed figures gathered about them - hunched and crooked shapes shrouded in black, each one staring toward them with hidden eyes. At first sight they appeared to be scattered almost randomly throughout the cleared area but, despite their apparently haphazard arrangement, Ethine didn't fail to notice that they still managed to be positioned so that their group was entirely surrounded.

Above the strange scene a mad skirling of pipes drifted - the clash of cymbals and the sound of voices raised in song clearer now that the mist had drawn back - still distant at first but obviously coming closer, approaching from the edge of the gully. Gradually, as the mist drew back and the music approached, sound and perspective came together - the source of the music and the furthest point visible in the gully coalescing into a single point. Impossibly, appearing from the darkness and mist at this point was a building - a low, single-storey house apparently made of bleached wood, surrounded by a crooked fence - moving steadily along the gully towards them.

Ethine stood transfixed, Sorrow and his crew equally immobile. Preceded by a mass of dancing figures, throbbing and swaying like the tendrils of an anemone, the house worked its way towards the mouth of the gully, moving along the narrow valley as if the gully itself was giving birth to it, as if peristalsis was responsible for its impossible movement. With its approach the sound grew louder: a mad, chaotic coming together of sounds that both excited and chilled the listener, making hairs stand on end even as it made feet tap.

Closer now, the dancing figures were revealed to be satyrs and nymphs, dryads and nereids - swaying and skipping, eyes unseeing as if they moved in a trance. From this close it was also possible to see what moved the building: legs. Grafted to the bottom of the building were hundreds of legs, moving like cilia, as if a hundred people were wearing the palace about their waists. Looking at it, Ethine knew instinctively that this wasn't the case - the legs were part of the building, the flesh of some poor unfortunates somehow crafted into the fabric of the house itself. It was horrible.

The dancers were around Sorrow's crew now, the knights forming a tight knot with the glass at its centre as the faeries capered and spun just beyond the perimeter. Ethine looked again at the dancers, from this range she could see that their eyes weren't lost in the music - they were tormented, their faces tortured, desperate, damned. With sudden clarity she realised that they couldn't stop dancing - like automatons - the thought adding to her unease.

Ethine watched as the house came to a stop, settling like some massive insect on the hundreds of legs that extended below it so that it rested some four feet above the ground. Gathered around it were more of the sinister, crooked, cloaked figures - forming a barrier between Sorrow's group and the building. Ethine stared at it in horrible fascination - dotted over its bone-white surface she noticed mouths, their lips opening and closing mindlessly, eyes, limbs - the flesh of living beings fused into the structure as if it was itself a massive living being. She felt sick.

As soon as it was still the music stopped, silence falling as completely and as suddenly as death itself. Around them the capering faeries dropped to the ground with a collective groan of exhaustion and despair.

Slowly the door of the house swung open. For a moment there was nothing more than a dark hole in the surface of the repulsive house, then, slowly, Hafgan the Hag emerged. She rode on a chair made of dark, hairless flesh - four limbs propelling the hideous seat out onto the platform before the house, a massively muscled torso rising behind her so that she was overtopped by a huge ogre's head, its plate-like eyes staring about horribly. The chair's arms were exactly that - clawed and massive, the hands opening and closing spastically - its four legs the lower parts of some faerie. From this throne of the damned - wrapped head to foot in a thick, black robe, the hood puddling at her neck - Hafgan looked down at them and her gaze was utterly inhuman.

To Ethine's surprise she appeared to be a mortal - or partly mortal at least, Ethine thought. Her head was the aged head of an old woman, wrinkled and marked by age, twisted and malign - but the rest of her appeared to be a chimera of different body parts: one exposed forearm pale, elegant, the other thicker with a ruddy complexion; her neck was thicker than her shoulders; her breasts appeared to be different sizes. It was as if she had replaced her mortal body with different body parts harvested from fay, perhaps in some repugnant effort to prolong her life beyond its allotted span.

With a feeling of overwhelming revulsion Ethine realised what Sorrow had been trading - they were spare parts!

******

He screamed until his voice was hoarse, all the while that blasted goblin's voice wittering away as if he was making some kind of presentation.

Calan's body felt as if it was on fire, the pain sweeping over him in waves, each worse than the last. The damned goblin leaving just enough time between turns to allow him to accommodate the new level of agony before turning it again. He couldn't stand much more before he suffered permanent damage and he knew it - already his arms felt as if his shoulders were about to tear free, his hips and knees strained to the point where he doubted he could move them even if he was freed.

"Now, let's explore the next tier shall we?" Tinklethwaite said, patiently. "Where you start to suffer permanent damage, each turn disabling you. Psychologically I'm told that has a great effect. Did you know that?"

"When I get out I'm going to burn you in your own fucking brazier - know that, goblin," he spat, his voice thick with blood and phlegm, croaky through screaming and weak with strain.

Tinklethwaite chuckled, taking hold of the wheel once again. Calan braced himself, his thoughts on Ethine. He cursed himself for failing her, said a silent goodbye, steeling himself for the end.

There was a knock at the door.

Tinklethwaite paused, looking up.

One of the knights opened the door and staggered back with his head split in two, blood spurting across the floor as he collapsed in a heap.

Gilraen stepped into the room, his sabre in his hand, blood dribbling along the blade. He looked almost as surprised as the knight had before he died. The other knight ripped his sabre from its sheath, slashing at Gilraen, who blocked a little clumsily, falling back.

"Gilraen, you traitorous little shit, I'm going to gut you..." said the knight, slashing down, dancing forward, forcing Gil to sidestep.

For a while the two circled warily, looking for an opening.

Gil saw an opening, lunged, his blade slashing down and opening a shallow cut on the knight's side, marking his nice suit with a stain of blood. The wound was small, shallow, but the effect on Gilraen's confidence was immense. He seemed to go from a boy with a sword, wracked with self doubt, to a knight - someone who believed he could win. Suddenly he moved with a new confidence, his whole body stepping more assuredly. The other knight saw it, too, diminishing by the same degree, a new desperation entering his movements.

The two clashed together, a deadly dance of flashing metal in the narrow confines of the chamber, apparatus scattering with each blow, each twisting avoidance. There was no talking now, the sound of panting breath and ringing blades echoing from the close walls.

At last Gilraen knocked his opponent's blade free, sending the knight's sword tumbling through the air to crash metallically onto the floor. The knight fell to his knees, breathless.

"Mercy, Gilraen, I ask mercy," he said.

Gilraen paused, panting, seemingly unable to believe what he'd done. Then he ran his blade through the knight's chest, staring deep into the knight's astonished eyes.

"What mercy did you offer Cal, you evil bastard?" he said, chewing the words, his voice a little slurred.

Behind him Tinklethwaite saw his chance, grabbing the fallen knight's sabre and diving forward towards Gilraen's exposed back.

"Look out!" Calan shouted, pulling helplessly against his bonds.

The sword slipped into his back just as Gilraen was turning in response to Calan's shout. He hissed with the pain, clutching his back, spinning around - smashing the sword from the goblin's grip and cutting him across his chest, sending him scuttling back into the shadows. The wound was shallow, Tinklethwaite's lack of experience making it more of a slash than a puncture, but still debilitating.

He staggered over to Calan, hand pressed to his wounded back, using the sabre to cut through the ropes. Agony flooded back into Calan's body as the tension was released, fire pouring along his veins so that he heard himself whimpering with the pain - but, if such a thing was possible, it was a good pain, the pain of normality returning, not that of damage being caused. For a second he lay still, unable to focus enough to do anything more - then thoughts of Ethine crowded in, driving out all concern for himself. He forced himself to sit up, gritting his teeth against the pain, his left arm hanging uselessly by his side - dislocated probably, he thought.

He saw Tinklethwaite cowering in the corner, his discarded clothes in a pile near the base of the rack.

"Gil, clothes - there's a cellphone in the pocket, get it..."

Gilraen grunted, wincing as he bent down, hunting through the dirty pile before his fingers found what they sought, the cellphone burning his hand even as he lifted it. Calan flipped it open, the screen blank for a second before it lit with the familiar green glow. He pressed redial, saw the phone connect and let it drop.

It was done.

******

"He must be in trouble, Terror," Monster said, "this is way more than late. What do we do?"

Terror looked pensive, tapping the blades of his bronze sickles together nervously.

Behind them the leaders of the various courts had gathered in a semi-circle: a council of war. Terror turned to face them, their eyes glittering in the dark - leaders of soldiers, these were not people easily impressed or easily fooled.

"Terror, we need to know, man," Cold Iron said, a goblin from Brooklyn, his voice heavily accented. "Are we going in or not?"

He heard muttered agreement from the others.

"Look, we agreed to wait for Calan's signal," Terror said.

"That signal is over two hours late," Winter whispered, a skinny troll with a dark beard and a massive scar across his bald head. "We need to know now, or we need to go."

Behind them he could see the gathered exiles moving restively, the sound of muttering loud in the dark.

"I thought you wanted to take Sorrow," Terror said, angry now. "Wanted to punish him for his presumption - have you forgotten that or have you lost your fire?"

"Hey man, we haven't lost no fire," Cold Iron said, voice hard. "When we get our chance we'll show Sorrow how exiles fight, but all this waiting man, it's killing us!"

The phone rang. Its blaring tone cutting through the muttering crowd like an axe blade.

There was a moment's pause as the gathered throng realised what the sound meant, then: "Well, you wanted a chance - now's your fucking chance!" Terror yelled, sweeping to his feet, his voice rising in a crescendo across the parkland, booming and echoing back from the surrounding buildings.

Before him the exiles surged to their feet with a bestial roar - weapons brandished aloft.

He grabbed the stump, tearing it open with brute force and plunged into the opening - his sickles held up ahead of him. Behind him the passage was suddenly choked with exiles - cries thick with bloodlust, with desire for vengeance following him down into the dark.

******

Calan pushed himself to his feet, staggering weakly and leaning on Gilraen heavily for support. Gilraen led the way to the door, stepping carefully over the splattered gore coating the floor. Behind them Tinklethwaite's screams tailed off into pitiful whimpering as the flames of the brazier licked over his weakly struggling body where Gilraen had dumped him face first at Calan's request.

"Come on Cal, the healer is just down here." Gilraen staggered along the corridor.

"Need to get to Ethine, got to save her, Gil," he said, his voice as broken as the rest of him.

"Save yourself first or you'll be helping nobody."

It was a dozen steps to the healer's room, each one a living, burning agony, his body struggling to obey him, weak beyond anything he'd ever known. Eventually Gilraen fell against the door, pushing into a brightly lit chamber.

An old fat woman was sitting on a small chair by a desk, the surface strewn with vials and bottles. Nearby a girl in a grey dress was mixing some liquid in a glass bottle, holding it up to the lamp on the wall, her eyes widening as she noticed his battered nakedness. The room was lined with shelves each one covered with jars, vials, bottles and alembics. Some of the things they contained were clear - Calan saw one with a collection of frogs floating in it, another with the bodies of sprites twisted together - others uninteresting, brightly coloured powders or liquids, but others seemed to contain items both bizarre and unknown - in one he thought he saw a tongue licking the glass but could see no apparent body, in another something with the head of a lizard and the body of a mouse was floating in a green liquid.

"What have we here - trouble, so it is," said Old Mary.

Gilraen lowered him to sit on a small cot with a wince, Calan grimacing as his body adjusted to the pressure against it again.The old woman approached them. She looked at Gilraen first, a cursory glance at his wound. She clucked her tongue.

"Hm, nasty wound but clean, so it is," she said. "You," speaking to the girl in grey in the corner, "a simple poultice for this one, I think."

She leant over Calan, her fingers digging painfully into his skin, making him gasp in pain, kneading his flesh.

"Hey, watch it, that fucking hurts," he said. Then, laughing bitterly: "It all fucking hurts."

"Yes, hurt all over, so it does," she said. "Soon get you fixed up, so I will."

She waddled over to the desk, opening up bottles, sniffing them, putting them back.

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