SIRENS

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Chapter 8

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'NO!' Diana screamed as Kosar dragged her away, slamming the door behind them. 'No! No!'

She tried to fight her way out of Kosar's grip, but he held her fast with a surprising ease.

'How could you, Diana,' he muttered half to himself, 'I give you the stars and you pine for the dirt... I thought you were more precious than that...'

'What have you done, Kosar? What have you done?'

Kosar regarded her, calm returning to his expression. 'It wasn't me, Diana. It was you.'

'What do you mean?' She hit and kicked out him, desperately trying to free herself. 'It was you, Kosar! You... you stabbed that thing right into him...'

'The Spear of Rameh,' Kosar replied. 'You swore falsely on it, Diana. You channeled its power with your lie. If you'd have been truthful it would have bounced straight off him. Calm down, Diana.'

Diana wouldn't calm down. 'How could you? Kosar, let me go! Maybe if I can get him to Presto in time I...'

'Don't worry yourself with that, my love.' Kosar pulled Diana further away from the door. 'The Spear is fatal when it's been lied upon.'

Diana faltered, and became still in his arms. 'You killed him.'

'You loved him. I did warn you that I would not share your heart.' Kosar pulled Diana into a deep, sorrowful embrace, as a parent would a child who had lost her favourite pet. 'I had to know that all your words and deeds weren't just hollow, that I really was the only one that you could love. And now I am.'

'Kosar...' she sobbed into his arms. 'I've been so stupid.'

Kosar smoothed her hair. 'No, love. Never.'

'Yes, Kosar. Really stupid.' She gently pulled herself away from him, wiping her eyes. 'I've wasted the best part of my life over a thin fantasy.'

Kosar smiled, confused. 'Fantasy?'

Diana nodded. 'I made you up. You're not real.'

With that she turned and ran to the door. Kosar wasn't able to grab her hands until she'd already opened the door to the arsenal.

'I am real, Diana.'

'My God,' breathed Diana, ignoring Kosar. 'He's gone.'

Kosar frowned at the wall where he had left Eric skewered. The spear was still there, embedded into the wall, as was the sea of blood, still lukewarm on the floor. But no Cavalier. He breathed in deep.

'That smells like the Dungeon Master's magic.'

Diana allowed herself a small sigh of relief. 'Figures the new DM wouldn't want to lose one of their precious warriors over something as stupid as this.'

'Maybe the Dungeon Master will be able to save him.' Kosar shrugged, disinterestedly. 'I hope for his sake that Eric never returns here.'

'Don't worry. I'll give him no need to.'

Kosar smiled again, loosening his clutch on her wrists. 'There's my Goddess. But I thought you said I didn't exist.'

Diana shook her head, returning his smile. 'I meant, the Kosar I thought I knew isn't real. Years ago I met a boy for just a few hours and barely scratched the surface of what you were, so I filled in all the gaps myself. Turned you into something you could never be.' She took his hands in hers, gently. 'But when I saw you again, I felt like I always wanted to be with you, no matter how you'd turn out to be. I was Naive, Kosar. I chose to ignore how power affects people. I never contemplated that you could have become... like this. And you're right - I tried to pretend to myself that it wasn't the case, but I guess for a while now my heart's kinda been torn between you and Eric. But you've helped me to make my choice tonight. I'm gonna stay where I belong.'

Kosar leaned in to meet her lips with a joyful kiss, but she jumped away, right out of his arms.

'What?' Her lip curled viciously. 'You thought I meant with you? You really are an arrogant prick!'

She leaped again, her arms becoming huge, sleek wings as she did so. She wheeled upwards, away from his desperately grabbing hands and, without a glance back, she flew.

-x-

Sheila swam, but still not fast enough - Sylka caught her kicking legs and quickly dragged herself up the Thief's body.

'What have you done?' screamed the Sea Nymph, lashing out a clawed hand at Sheila. 'You killed her! You killed my sister!'

Sheila felt more hands on her - those of Bobby and Hank, trying to pull her upwards and push Sylka away, but still the Sea Nymph clung to her, scratching and clawing and screaming and screaming. Sheila could feel the dark redness descending on her brain. Her fingers itched towards the razor. The razor... the razor was gone! She caught the glint of it as it moved in Sylka's hands. Sheila ducked back, but the blade caught its destination - her breathing tube. Desperately, she and the boys tried to kick upwards as her severed breathing tube began a graceful float towards the sea bed, but the oxygen escaping from the hole at the top of her tank worked against her, pushing her back down. Sylka brought her hand back again, still clutching the razor, ready to strike again, a look of utter black rage in her eyes...

-x-

Something caught them... some strange current in the water caught only her, and Hank, and Bobby, and began to pull them... to suck them upwards. It was so strong that the pressure of the water on the top of her head made her want to pass out, and Sylka slipped from her, and was left far below with the other Sea Nymphs. It was so fast that after less than three seconds their heads hit the surface and found air. Dazed, they looked about themselves. The castle loomed above them, the opened lower gate only a few yards away. It seemed abandoned - there were no guards at the gate, and no Janapurna.

'Hello?' Sheila coughed as she swam towards the gate. 'Janapurna? Anybody?'

'I don't like this.' Hank pulled himself up first, and held a hand down to Sheila, which she ignored.

Sheila clambered aboard the palace independently and waited for her brother.

'Whaddaya suppose is going on?'

They padded damply up staircases and winding corridors until they heard noises – the sound of panicking women was coming from the main courtyard. Just as they were about to run towards it, two young guards turned the corner and scurried into them.

'Miss Sheila!' gasped one girl. She momentarily noted Hank and Bobby. 'You found your men, I see.'

Sheila nodded curtly. 'Any news from Aurore and the others?'

Both guards shook their heads with equally worried expressions.

'Those Sea Nymphs haven't come back, have they?' added Bobby.

'No,' muttered the other guard. 'I'm… I'm so sorry. We all are.'

'Sorry?' Hank blinked as he felt Sheila and Bobby's breaths harshen. 'What about?'

The guards blinked, and the first girl pulled the second past them.

'We have to watch the gate for the others…' called the first guard as an apologetic explanation as they both ran off.

Hank blinked, then took both Sheila and Bobby's hand and began to stride towards the sound of the commotion.

'What…' attempted Sheila, 'what do you think…'

'I don't know,' Hank muttered in reply. 'I just hope everybody's…'

He trailed off as they entered the courtyard and saw the scene in front of them. A throng of worrying women scuttled around two small tables as they arranged and scrubbed them into a makeshift sterile surface. Others were boiling bandages and pounding herbs. At the centre of the commotion were Presto and Janapurna, their robes, hands and faces stained with blood. They carried a very still form between them.

Oh you stupid bastard. What have you done to yourself? What have you done?

His armour was practically black with blood and sported a hole several inches across, and his head had slumped downwards, but Hank knew who it was. They all knew who it was. Sheila had already started sprinting towards him.

'Eric!'

'Don't crowd, Sheila.' Presto's voice was calm, way too calm, but the eyes behind the glasses were puffy and shot with pink. 'If you want to help, try getting his armour off him. Gently. He's lost so much blood already.'

Bobby too tried to go up to Eric, but Hank held him back. 'You heard Presto. Don't crowd.'

'What happened…?' Muttered Bobby. A familiar white snout nudged him, and he put an arm around Uni's neck automatically.

Hank shook his head, avoiding the unicorn's recriminating gaze. 'I don't know, Bob.

'Think… Think Presto can fix him?'

Sheila tried her best to be fast and fluid with the clasps of Eric's breastplate, but the slick blood made her fumble, and her Thief's Fingers were already trembling.

'Where's Diana? She should be here…'

Presto avoided her gaze. 'That's Diana's choice.'

'Can you fix him, Presto?' She whispered, 'Can you? Will he be OK? You can fix him, right?'

She unclasped the breastplate and was showered in a fresh onslaught of blood from the huge hole through Eric's belly.

'Honestly, Sheila?' There was so much tension in Presto's voice, as though he had a long, hard scream permanently trapped in the back of his throat. 'I really don't know.'

-x-

Diana landed, and shook herself free of feathers. The courtyard was deserted, but something at one side caught her eye. A table, pushed against a wall, a large stain of blood beneath it. There was a male form lying on the table, wrapped in bandages, utterly still.

'Eric.'

She ran to him, but he didn't stir.

'Eric?'

She brushed his still-warm face with her hand. He didn't twitch. A breeze blew past them both, heightening the silence. There was only the thud of her heartbeat and the lapping of the calm water. There should have been some others about at least, but there weren't. They were utterly alone. She looked about the empty courtyard, bewildered.

'Presto? Sheila? Janapurna?' She ran a shaking hand through Eric's hair. 'Why aren't they here? They should be here. You're hurt…'

'I'm finished…'

She jumped at the faint croak issuing from the table. Eric opened his eyes a little way and smiled weakly.

'Eric…'

'There was nothin' they could do,' he murmured. 'So I told them to go. I wanted to be alone. Too much cryin'…' he trailed off, coughing painfully.

Diana sniffed back bitter tears. 'Eric, no…'

Her outburst was met with a slow, lopsided grin. 'Don't you start too.' He smacked his dry lips. 'Whatcha doin' back here, anyhoo? I thought you were stayin' with… I thought you said you didn't…'

'I lied.' She took his hand and looked him in the eyes, fighting off the sobs. 'All this time I've been lying to myself. The spear knew. When I said I didn't love you, it was a lie big enough to give that thing all the power it needed to slice straight through your armour and…'

'Diana?' There was confusion in Eric's dimming eyes.

'It's you, Eric.' Diana pulled herself closer in to him as his eyes started to roll back. 'I don't know when it happened, but it happened somewhere, somehow, without me even recognizing it. I've fallen in love with you.'

'Now she tells me…' sighed Eric, closing his eyes.

'Are you listening to me, Eric?' She tried shaking him, but he didn't respond. He had become limp in her arms. 'I love you! Isn't that enough for you to wake up? Eric… Eric, look at me.' She shook him again, harder. 'Look at me!'

'Diana.'

She turned her head behind her, following Presto's flat voice. The Wizard was slowly walking towards her, carrying clean bandages and a jug of water.

'You're back,' added Presto. 'What happened?'

'What happened?' Diana lost her control and began to wail. 'Presto, he's dead! Eric's dead and I killed him!'

'Diana…' attempted Presto.

'What am I gonna do, Presto? I love him! I love him so much and it took for him to be taken away from me to be able to work it out… Why am I so stupid, Presto? Why am I so fucking stupid?'

'Diana, he…'

'He had such a good soul, Presto. Such a good heart and he gave it to me and I treated it like dirt and now he's gone… he's gone and I'll never get him back. I don't get the chance to love him back like he deserves…'

'Diana.'

There was no stopping Diana now. She held Eric's body tightly to herself and trembled with tears.

'Why did he have to die? Why did he have to die?'

'He didn't.'

Diana looked up at Presto, still sobbing? 'What? What do you…?'

'He's not dead, Diana. The spear's only fatal to the person who told the lie. I patched him up about half an hour ago. Aurore and the others have come back from underwater - we left him here to get some rest while we helped them in.'

'But…' began Diana.

Presto pointed at the body in Diana's arms. 'Look at him, he's fine.'

Diana looked down at "the corpse" she'd been cradling. A very much alive Eric grinned back at her.

'Oh… my God…' she muttered, gathering her thoughts. 'You… you… fucking BASTARD!'

She dropped Eric back onto the table, but he sat up, brightly, still beaming.

'You put me through all that… made me think you were dead… you vindictive, callous, heartless Goddam liar!'

Eric shrugged. 'Guess that makes two of us.'

'I mean, how could you be so cruel? How could you be so hurtful?'

'Hey!' Eric snapped, 'I'm the one who took a spear right through the middle because you told the guy that you had run off with that you didn't love me. I mean, have you any idea how much that smarts? Besides, if that thing had gone through my heart or my lungs, or I hadn't been brought back here before I lost any more blood I'd be dead anyway. And what kind of woman makes a guy wait until he's on his deathbed to tell him that she loves him? Huh? Diana Jones, that's who.'

'So, what?' seethed Diana, 'you pretended to be dying just so you could get me to admit that I love you?'

Eric replied with a wide, know-it-all grin. 'Ha ha, you love me.'

Diana growled furiously, pushing her fingers through her hair. 'I can't believe you! Son of a bitch…'

'You love me,' he smirked back.

'Shut up,' snarled Diana in reply, stalking off. 'This isn't over yet, Montgomery. This means War, I hope you know that…'

'You love me!' he yelled cheerfully at her retreat.

He laughed as she turned angrily to flip him off, and waited until she had gone until he allowed himself to wince and gingerly lie back down on the table.

'Was it worth it?' Presto's voice was flat and emotionless as he began to change Eric's blooded bandages.

'Are you kidding?' Eric sucked in air through his teeth as the bandages stuck to his wound. 'Did you see the look on her face?'

'Do you have any idea how close you came to dying back there? Do you have any idea how much you scared us all?'

'It was still worth it.'

Eric caught the serious look in Presto's eyes.

'But', he added, 'it'll never happen again. Cross my heart and hope to get impaled with a magic spear.'

'It had better not,' chided Presto.

There was a moment of silence as Presto checked and cleaned the wound.

'So,' muttered Eric, conversationally, 'did those other women find that Doohickey that got stolen?'

Presto shook his head. 'It was already gone. Janapurna thinks the Sea Nymphs must have been working for someone else.'

'Furnus?' Eric suggested.

'I hope not.'

Eric sighed. 'Talk about "One step forward, two steps back".'

Presto joined him in his sigh. 'I know. It's not looking too peachey right now, is it? I reckon our next move is to make getting to The Truth before Furnus does our priority. Venger's out getting feelers as to where it might roughly be already. We might be able to intercept it before it's too late.'

Eric pulled a face. 'Are you really sure it's worth all that trouble? It's just a Thing.'

'Take a moment to think about all the little secrets you keep, Eric.' Presto frowned lightly at his friend as he secured the fresh bandages. 'All the secrets about yourself, about the gang… about me… and I'm sure that the ones I know about are only the tip of the iceberg, 'cause you certainly don't know all of my innermost thoughts, best friend or no best friend. But The Truth knows. All yours, all mine, all everybody's. And it'll tell. If it can cause enough damage, it will tell. You really want our enemies to get their hands on something like that?'

Eric blinked. 'I'm not sure I'd even want any of our friends to get their hands on something like that.'

'Exactly.' Presto stepped back a little. 'Get to bed, Eric. You'll need some rest. We've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.' He sighed, miserably. 'And tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…'

Eric sat up again, trying to watch the eyes behind the glasses. 'Are you OK, Presto?'

Presto shrugged. 'DM stuff…'

'Sucks, doesn't it?' Eric gave Presto a small, worried smile. 'Listen, if there's anything you wanna…'

Presto took another step back. 'Do you know why I like you so much, Eric? Why I tell you so much?'

'It honestly beats the Hell out of me.'

'Because,' answered Presto, flatly, 'you're not the kind of person who gives a guy all that "Do You Want To Talk About It" New Age Bullshit. You just let me get on with it.'

Presto turned to leave, but Eric painfully slid himself off the table to follow him.

'Hey, all I was saying was…'

Presto didn't even turn. 'Shouldn't you be apologizing to your girlfriend, Eric?'

Eric stopped. 'Dammit.'

He watched Presto for a moment, then turned off in the direction Diana had left, leaving Presto to walk from the courtyard in peace.

-x-

The courtyard lay empty for several minutes, dark and quiet. Then came the rhythmic, soft sound of leather boots walking on cobblestone. A young man and woman turned a corner and awkwardly crossed the courtyard together.

Sheila noticed the empty table. 'Eric's gone already. After losing all that blood… I'd have thought he'd be too weak to move.'

'Presto's an incredible magician,' replied Hank, softly. 'Eric's probably right as rain by now.'

'Think that Lookout was right, Hank?' Sheila asked, suddenly. 'You think she really did see Diana back here?'

'Can't see why she'd lie,' replied Hank, 'and it might explain where Eric's run off to…' he trailed off a little. 'He really is crazy about that girl…' He looked down at Sheila in concern.

'I hope she's back,' breathed Sheila. 'After all the people I could'a lost tonight, I just want to know everybody's OK…' She tried to sneak a glance up at Hank, but their eyes locked and they both looked away, embarrassed.

'Sheila…' attempted Hank.

'Hank, don't…'

'Bob was losing it down there,' continued Hank, 'and I was all out of ideas. If you hadn't risked everything to rescue us tonight, I don't know what we'd have done. I want you to know…'

'Please, Hank.'

'I want you to understand how incredible you are.' Hank stopped, and turned Sheila around to face him. 'And I want you understand how sorry I am. Not just about Nym, that was just another stupid mistake on top of a million stupid mistakes. I'm so sorry for everything. For becoming somebody you don't respect any more, that you can't love any more, and don't say that's not how you feel, because I feel it too. I don't respect myself any more. I don't love myself. I hate what I've let myself turn into.'

'You mustn't hate yourself, Hank. You're still good, you're still brave… you… you threw yourself in the water because you thought I was gonna drown.' Sheila blinked up at his amazed face. 'Like I said before, you keep forgetting the things I see when I can't be seen myself.'

Hank set his face and sighed. 'I didn't do that because I'm wonderful and brave, Sheila. I did that because I still love you. I still need you.'

'I know you do.' Sheila allowed herself a small smile. 'And for the record, I…' she stalled, watching his eyes. 'It's not that I don't still love you too.'

'Oh, Sheila.' His sigh wasn't just one of relief. It was one of immense joy, and yet at the same time extreme melancholy. 'Sheila, do you think… do you think that maybe… perhaps… you and me might be able to…'

She cut him off with a kiss - a small, fast peck on the lips, but a kiss nonetheless.

'Goodnight, Hank.'

'Oh.' He didn't return her wish goodnight until she had already slipped through a door into the chambers beyond. He stood alone for some time, his fingertips at his lips. It was only when he noticed the sky begin to turn a dark, inky blue with pre-dawn light that he turned back to his dormitory.

-x-

Eric found Diana on the battlements, staring out to sea.

'Truce?'

She kept on facing the water. 'Truce.'

'Sorry about the death faking thing.'

'No you're not.' She turned to him, biting down a smile. 'It did make a pretty romantic scene, didn't it? Even if you weren't really dying.'

'You thought my "death" was romantic?' Eric shook his head, fondly. 'You are one twisted sister. So if you're not really mad, what are you doin' skulking out here?'

'Not skulking,' tutted Diana, 'I've been thinking. Deciding.'

'Deciding what?'

Diana pulled the necklace up over her head. 'Deciding I don't want any of His presents any more.'

'Diana…?' Eric chewed his lip. 'Deeds, are you sure? As much as I hate that jackass' guts, those beads are pretty powerful, and…'

Ignoring him, Diana threw the necklace from herself, sending them arcing into the black sea. She turned to him, primly.

'I'm sorry, what were you saying?'

'Fine,' snapped Eric, 'just throw half your powers away, why don'tcha?'

'They were from Him. I don't want them.'

'Well…' Eric paused, a thought hitting him. He untied the thin strip of fabric from around his neck and handed it to her. 'Well, this is from me. Will you wear it if it's from me?'

She smiled warmly and tied the new, single beaded necklace around her throat. 'I'd love to.' She ran her hands down the neck of her silk gown. 'I'd better get out of this stupid, flouncy dress as well.'

Eric grinned. 'Yay!'

She arched an eyebrow at him. 'I meant that I want to change back into my regular clothes. I assume they're still up in my room.'

'Yeah,' sighed Eric, disappointed.

She took his hand. 'Come on, then.'

He let her lead him towards her room. 'So are we a couple again or not? I'm starting to lose track here…'

'Shut up, Sylvester.'

-x-

Presto found a small, dark, empty room, little more than a storage cupboard, for himself to lock himself into. He curled himself up and projected his mind outwards. He wasn't looking for The Truth. Not this time. There'd be plenty of time for that later. He pushed himself through the Palace as the others fell asleep and out, beyond the sea, over the desert, past the green hills and the ruins of Alice's world, past the wasteland and remains of the collapsed tower and the destroyed cave and the rotting body of the Beast, to a tiny little kingdom, built around a swamp. He searched the minds there, stretched as he was. He felt the misery, the misery that infected the citizens there infected him too. He placed himself within a throng of men as they helped with a small, broken body wrapped in a sheet, helped to put in gently into a moderately ornate coffin. The men were all crying, and he was crying too, helplessly, feeling nothing but black despair as the news spread across the little kingdom.

The Queen had killed herself.

Varla was dead.

-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x

END OF 'SIRENS' - To be continued in 'THE AWFUL TRUTH'.