I left the lair of Fiona with the relaxation that comes from knowing exactly what I had to do. I was going to kill Orpheus. Regardless of what abilities, aptitudes, or powers he had, I was going to kill him because he could not kill me. Well, he could, but that did not matter. I went out the door, flicking the lights off. That switch method was ingenious.
"What are you doing?" someone yelled at me. I turned to find a servant staring at me aghast. If you looked aghast up in the dictionary his picture would be there next to words like scandalized and confused.
I looked down. He had a point. I looked up at him. He also had a full set of servant's clothes, about my size, that would let me avoid any number of violent, and delaying, altercations.
"You want to hear something absurd?"
"Does it involve you putting on pants?"
"Yes." I pretended I cared about how I looked and moved over to him. "Ever hear of mind control?"
"Yes," he replied cautiously, continuing to watch me. He obviously did not recognize me, which made everything that much easier.
"I can't do it." I dropped him the hard way and left him in the antechamber to the painting room. By the time he woke up, it would not matter if he talked.
A doorway from the same corridor lead to a stairway. That put me on the ground floor. The torches had burned down, and a few sleepy people were moving about, extinguishing them, so it must have been almost dawn. I found a doorway to the courtyard and glanced out. There were two alert, frightened guards watching the well, and they had several well tended fires nearby. There was a hint of light in the sky. I shut the door quietly.
I walked along until I found a tired maid cleaning chamber pots.
"Hey, sorry to interrupt. Where's lord Orpheus?"
"Don't worry about it." She smiled and stared disgusted at her job. "He's probably in his rooms. Why?"
"With all the excitement last night, the cooks are wondering when he'll want breakfast. I want to see if he's awake."
She shrugged and waved her hand towards the door to the courtyard. "Don't know. Just head on up."
I nodded and went out.
There was a wind whipping around outside,
blowing the snow into drifts. It felt fake, unimportant to me, but I
hunched my shoulders and hurried across for appearances sake. I kept
a wide berth of the
well, but neither of the guards looked like they cared.
Inside, I found someone else and asked again. "Do you know if the lord is awake?"
"I don't think so," he answered. "I was just up there to fill his wood pile, and he was still asleep." He glanced almost straight up as he said this. There was something odd in the way he said it. I didn't really care.
The stairs were just as I remembered them. The guard at the top was missing, so I went again to the door to the master's office and bent my ear against it. There was nothing on the other side.
On one, two, three, I thought and kicked the door down.
Orpheus was sitting on his desk, a longsword in his lap, looking at me. I was so nonplussed I forgot to charge in.
"Well don't just stand there. In or out. You're letting the heat escape."
I trotted in and glanced at the door. It was never going to shut again.
"Don't worry about it," Orpheus told me. "I'll have someone fix that."
"Have at thee, and all that," I said. I realized I was unarmed, but that hadn't bothered me on the way here.
"Need a weapon?"
"Here." He took another longsword from his desk and tossed it to me. It fit my hand easily, and whistled when I slashed the air. Orpheus rose and stretched a few times. Then he turned his back to me and pushed the table aside to give us room. By the time I was familiar with the sword he had cleared the furniture, and we faced off.
"Very polite of you," I said.
"I want this to be settled here and now. There should be no doubt in your mind about the outcome. That way we won't need a repeat, and you won't have to come back and try this again."
I feinted right, left, and slashed at his legs. He ignored both feints, sidestepped the slash, and returned to his ready position. We circled once and I came in, thrusting as I charged. Again he dodged, and this time made contact with my blade driving the point down and away. I swept it around and he caught it with his, helping it along until I swung wide. I followed his weapon with my eyes, observing too late he wielded it one handed.
The mace connected with my head at the end of a stunning arc. Moving somewhere around Mach Oh My God it bashed my head in, and that was the end of that.
I woke up. I could feel soft leather around me, and it took a while to realize I was sitting in the large, overstuffed chair that had been in the corner earlier. My head was wrapped in gauze. Orpheus still sat on the desk, staring out window at the night sky smoking cigarettes.
"Don't move too quickly. Your skull shattered. I stuffed your brains back in and wrapped them up, but if you start twitching you might shake something loose."
As he said that I noticed a peculiar sensation in my head. A moment's concentration brought it into focus, and I suddenly realized how badly the human head can hurt. My vision went fuzzy, and it took several long gasping breaths for me to get myself back under control.
"Now, any question left in your mind about that? Do we need to go over this again?"
"No," I replied. "I'm good."
"Are you sure?"
"Want me to do it without the mace this time? I can use the floor or a ceiling beam," he offered helpfully.
"Nope," I hissed. Speaking was very difficult. I think my jaw was in more pieces than usual.
"Good." Orpheus sounded both irritated and relieved. He finished his smoke, took another from a simple wooden box, and offered me one.
"No, thanks." I tried to wave him off but learned very quickly movement was a bad idea.
"Worried about lung cancer?" he asked sarcastically.
"I don't like fire."
"Fair enough. You've been out for a little over fourteen hours. I've been cooped up here that whole time," he indicated a couple trays of dirty dishes as evidence. "But no one else here knows of your presence. I'd prefer to keep it that way."
"That's fine with me."
"Good. Good. Whiskey?"
He handed me a glass, and I made it go away. He refilled it.
"Now, I don't know exactly what you're capable of," he admitted. He put the cigarette between his lips. There was a candle behind him he lit it with, but he did so blocking the fire with his body so I didn't have to see it. "But you'll notice I didn't do anything horrific to you while you were in my power. Consider that my way of thanking you for your politeness before."
"You're welcome," I grunted. Talking was hard because my headache was killing me. I let him continue to carry the conversation.
"What I want to understand is why you're here. You're an assassin, that's clear, but I'm not sure you're here to assassinate me. You aren't very prepared for that. You have no equipment, no intelligence, and I mean that in the military sense, and as far as I can tell no plan. That means you're either overconfident or incompetent, neither one of which I believe considering you were sent by my dear sister Fiona.
"What you do have is an amazing ability to take a beating. Why would she send an indestructible assassin without doing any of the preliminary work? Why would she send you here without any plan or information on me?"
"She doesn't like you?"
"She doesn't, but there's more to it than that. I spent the last day thinking over this very thing while I was waiting for you to wake up. I was sure you would. I hit you carefully, hard enough to kill but not enough to cause too much permanent damage."
"Thanks." It hurt to say, but I felt I had to.
"No, I think the reason she sent you is because she has no intelligence on me. I think she's watching you, and me, and wants to see what happens. She wants to know what I'm capable of, how I react, and what powers are at my command. That's why I beat you at simple sword fighting." He paused a moment, considering his words. "You're good. You're very good. You're probably better than any of my men, certainly better than anyone else here. You've had decades of training at the hands of masters, and it shows."
I waited. Compliments like that come with hooks.
"But I'm better. I've been doing this for a very long time. A very long time. Probably longer than anyone else alive. She has to know that already so she hasn't learned anything new. As such, I'm going to turn this to my advantage. Pay attention, this involves you.
"First, what's your name?"
"Havok," I replied. That was what she had called me when we'd spoken earlier.
"Havok, you aren't a person. You're a thing. The technical term is construct. You were made, probably by Fiona, from something I don't entirely understand. It's vastly powerful, so powerful I know of only one other thing that can match it. But it's far away and there's a large conduit that carries the power to you. It's what keeps you going, and I have no idea how to break that conduit."
He was probably lying about that. At the very least I expected him to have some theories. Still, my mind was a bit fuzzy, and I waited for him to keep going. The whiskey was starting to ebb the hurt.
"Why would she do this at all?" he asked rhetorically. "Perhaps just our own brand of sibling rivalry but perhaps more. That more is what I need to find out. My second question is why did you pause the first time you had the drop on me? Why question me at all instead of immediately acting?"
"Because I don't what the hell you're talking about now, and didn't then either." I wanted to be subtle and cagey but still couldn't think clearly. "She does something to me, something that makes me do what she says, but it doesn't seem to take as throughly as she expects. She did it when I came here and again when I spoke to her in the painting."
I summarized the events of the room below quickly. He lit another smoke from the butt of his last and puffed away.
"Trump contact, that's what that was by the way, is mostly mental to begin with. Why would she be skeptical of anything you have to say?"
"Because it doesn't work all the way. She can't read my mind very well, and I keep getting free of her control."
"Because someone, you, keeps knocking my head open," I suggested.
"That might do it."
"Let's avoid it from now on, shall we?"
"I wasn't aware that severe cranial trauma could break mind control like that, but I've never known anyone or anything to survive what you did. It doesn't seem like a good area of experimentation."
"Gee, you think?"
He rose to his feet and flicked the butt into the cold fireplace. "Havok, I'm going to bed. If you're still here in the morning, we'll continue this conversation then. The servants have orders to leave food at the landing. Please don't let them see you. If you do leave, good luck."
He nodded to me and walked out the open doorway. Just before he disappeared, he stopped and looked back.
"And, Havok, don't do anything stupid. I'm very grumpy when I get woken up."
I've been told you can sleep all you want when you're dead. This proved to be another let down. I sat in the office all night, kept company by the bottle and my disordered thoughts. My brain did not seem to work right. My trains of thought got muddled and confused, and frequently I was unable to review what I'd just decided. By midnight the whiskey was gone, but I considered the condition of my mind a fair exchange for the hurting.
What little I could piece together was this. Orpheus, for reasons he attributed to his altruism and desire to help his fellow man, had kindly broken Fiona's command over me. That was a heap of bovine feces that stank just thinking about it. Fiona wanted Orpheus dead, and I found myself taking offense at her means. No party involved other than me was someone I wanted to ally myself with.
I stared that decision in the face for a while before realizing what it implied. Orpheus had opened the door for me, allowing me to leave if I felt so inclined. That inclination was growing rapidly.
What was growing faster was my desire to relieve myself of the used whiskey. I found the longsword I'd been so unsuccessful with earlier and used it to pull myself to my feet. When sheathed it was the perfect length for a cane, so I took a moment to compose myself as best I could before stepping out the door.
The landing was brilliantly lit with torches and candles. Before me, taller than I was, stood a magnificent oil on canvas work of incredible detail. In the same vein as the portrait of Fiona below, it portrayed her in fire and majesty. She was tall and confident, ringed with the same blue halo. The image was calculated to impress the minds of any who looked upon it.
But I was pretty drunk and had whatever came three steps beyond a concussion. I was in no mood to be impressed. I couldn't remember if this had been here when I came this way previously. I stopped and before understanding could percolate through my twisted brain, I started talking to it. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. This would not prove to be one of my better ideas.
"Hey! Fiera, Fiona, whoever you are. How you doing? Don't bother answering that, because I don't care. I'm doing well, thanks for asking. Pay no attention to these trivial injuries to my head parts, I'll be fine. You see, darling, that guy Orpheus explained it to me. I'm a machine. I can't die. Well, I can, but I just keep getting better. So, baby, I think at this point you and I need to come to an understanding where I go forth and live my life without you, and you don't do a damn thing about it. Does that work for you?"
"I think not," the painting replied.
"Doesn't matter. What are you going to do, kill me?" I swaggered a little.
"Listen to me, Havok. You will obey me." Her eyes seemed very wide, and my gaze was drawn inexorably to them. Unfortunately, my gaze kept right on drifting, and when the full force of her mind tried to slam into my own, I was staring with interest at a small door in the corner of the painting. I think it lead to a water closet.
"No, I think not," I replied. It felt good to throw her words back at her.
"Havok!" she commanded.
I walked forward, stepped past her, and passed through the door I'd been looking at so keenly. I had been right, and I became a happier man.
Through the door, I suddenly heard words, muted by the wood. I scarcely paid any attention to them until the sound of steel ringing on steel echoed outside. It took me a few moments to turn, confused, because I could swear that I recognized the voices. When I was ready, I pulled the door open and looked out.
Orpheus struck Fiona in the face. He had his sword drawn, but it was caught in the wooden bedpost. He hit her with his clenched fist, and when she came to rest against the far wall she was not moving.
"Eh?" I asked.
"Oh, Havok. Thank you, by the way. You've done me an incredible service."
"Eh?" I reiterated.
"Bait. You were her bait for me. Instead, you became my bait against her. She'd be able to evade me alone, but you were perfect. You've done a wonderful job." While he was talking he crossed the room, swung his unconscious sibling over one shoulder, and yanked the sword free. "Oh, and one other thing."
It might seem unchivalric of me, but this turn of events really didn't bother me. She could take care of herself and certainly wasn't innocent in this affair. Orpheus had used me, but I had come out of that more or less unscathed, save a few inconsequential mortal injuries. My feelings towards him were tolerance and some affection. "What's that?" I asked.
"Don't follow me."
He smacked a tall candelabra over, and it crashed against the bed. I stared at it in fear and before I could react the bedsheets were blazing. Terror paralyzed me. The fire before me roared up supernaturally fast, leaping to the ceiling. It was a horror of orange and red. Flames made faces that were my own, twisting and moving in chaotic speed. Perhaps if I had been sober I could have reacted, but instead the fear that had gripped me before seized me. I fell to my knees and tried to block the light out with my hands. The interior of the building was composed of wood and plaster. It caught fire like tinder. Finally I found out that I could scream, but by then it was too late. This was worse than when Orpheus had stabbed me before. There was no well to fall in. Nothing stopped the blaze. I felt flesh sear away, felt the smoke try to choke me, and lived on through it until there was nothing left of me to keep going.
When I awoke referring to my emotions with the word mad would be an absurdity. Only if an eternity of torment was inflicted upon a gorgon of wrath whose sole vent for rage was the creation of new words would a way of expressing myself be possible. Unlike normal, when the process of awakening is slow and not absolutely fixed in time, I opened my eyes suddenly, instantly completely cognizant. Rubble was atop me. I discarded it. Great broken stones that had cracked in the blaze pinned me. I moved them relentlessly until I was free to climb into the sunlight. I stood atop a pile of shattered debris and knew what must be done.
I went out into the city that surrounded the blasted rubble of Fiona's mansion. There were people everywhere, and a great number of them seemed to be picking through the wreckage. I bypassed them and walked in expanding circles about the rubble until I found a street vendor, a middle aged man mostly without teeth who was hawking assorted wood carvings and charcoal portraits.
"Good morning," he replied. He looked me up and down, noticed my charred clothing and disreputable appearance.
"I need a portrait of Lady Fiera, or Fiona, or whatever the lady who lived in the burnt house called herself."
"Lady Fiona, sir? Why I have just the thing for you."
I looked it over. The black and white rendition was of her standing on a balcony, looking down at the artist. It was faithful but mundane, and lacked a few of the details I considered necessary. I found out he had some blue chalk that would serve my purposes well. We came to the discussion of the price, and I told him to remain where he was.
I stalked off and found a dark alley. The first person I met seemed intent on pursuing my own course of action, so we had words and I left him in a pile. I took his wallet, wondering if there was irony inherent to that. The artist was where I left him, money exchanged hands, and we parted ways. He glanced once at my injuries but never asked any questions.
When I returned to the empty lot, I searched through the wreckage until I found the place I had revived. Some burnt stones marked the outlines of the room, and I sat down to began to fill in the missing details I required. I remembered the bizarre blue designs of the first painting I had seen very distinctly. In the empty spaces behind her, in the walls, and across the sky I drew them in, until the entire background was covered in intricate twirls. Then I positioned myself until the sun was over my shoulder, and I stared at her image. I thought about her. I remembered the way she summoned me to her the first time, exchanging our places. I recalled her face, the way she spoke, and every mannerism I could recall. Most of all, I focused on her consistent orders for me to dispatch Orpheus, and my current intense willingness to oblige.
Hours passed. It grew dark, but by then the image was fully memorized. Brooding and obsessing is best done in the dark wee hours of the morning, and they came and went while I stared, feeding of my own fury. By moon rise I had ascended to a towering rage, something so monolithic in its intensity that my eyes were clouded over and the cold veins of my temples throbbed. At some point local boys crept in, no doubt searching for something to steal, but they thought better of it and left. Moonlight peaked in between cracks in shattered walls above me and lit Fiona's face.
Finally something happened.
Her lips moved, whispering something. By now anger induced hallucinations were beginning to plague me, but this one excited me viscerally.
"Pull me through," I commanded.
"Havok?" she mouthed.
"Pull me through."
"Pull me through."
Originally she had looked dominant and beautiful, terrible underneath the strange patterned sky. Now hints of weakness, incredible deprivation and trial beyond what seemed possible in the two days I estimated her to have been Orpheus' prisoner showed on her face. Her magnificent clothing, implied by a few well placed charcoal strokes, seemed to turn to tatters. The coal lines were faded and weak. She was not leaning commandingly upon the balustrade but resting upon it, barely able to stand without its help.
"Pull me through."
"He's blocked everything, somehow. Havok, I told you then, you must kill him."
I glared down at the sketch of her, focusing until my teeth ached, the image of her floated before my eyes, and the world outside the sketch grew fuzzy and indistinct. Splinters of pain began to dig inwards from the base of my skull.
"The Pattern itself is blocking you," she said, but now her words were louder and more distinct. Superimposed upon the balcony scene was a small cell with stone walls and ceilings. "You were created of the Logrus, and the two are opposed."
"I'm coming anyway," I replied, already beginning to smell the damp air. Neither world seemed totally real to me now. My clothing, my skin, and the air itself seemed to be pulling me back, away from her. Only my head and my eyes, which seemed to bulge forward from their sockets, drove me on as I focused every bit of power I had on forward progress, trying to drive myself on by will alone. The moonbeams began to fade around me, and I could hear drops of water falling from the ceiling. The cell was small, and one deep set door banded in iron closed me in. The woodgrain ran vertically, and the four hinges were bolted to the walls with three nuts at each point. I grasped at details, making this world mine. I almost had it.
The door slammed open, and Orpheus appeared, hair wild and standing straight up. He was inside with Fiona, summoning his own powers before he noticed my presence, and it caught him off guard.
"You!" he exclaimed.
I punched him in the face so hard I broke my hand.
The momentary lack of concentration was enough for the powers I was working against to snap me backwards, sling shotting me away. I crashed upwards from the charcoal drawing as it exploded into flames, breaking the rocks above with my body before I sailed across the night sky. The energy imparted upon me must have been tremendous, for I distinctly recall rising above the clouds, and a moment when I floated alone with the sky below and moon blue and white above. Stars waltzed around me, and I felt included in their dance, utterly at peace. Landing was not nearly so fun.
My crater was slightly larger than my body, and it took me a few minutes to summon the strength to climb out of it when I was conscious again. My weakness surprised me, for I had expected to stand up fully healed. Instead I hurt everywhere, though most intensely in my broken hand. When I did stumble upright and took a few tottering steps, it was difficult to move. Still, I smiled evilly when I considered my injured fist. If Orpheus' face had managed to do that much damage to me, I looked forward to finding out what I had done to him.
This was all probably a side effect of trying to force myself through a portal I had no mastery of, I surmised. In addition, while I could beat Orpheus if he wasn't expecting me, as I had demonstrated twice now, in a fair fight I did not have much chance and he would expect a repeat of before. If he had been able to make those guesses about me, and what Fiona had said lent credence to them, he would probably be working on a way to stop my regenerative powers. I doubted he could do it when I was here, wherever here was. If he could it wouldn't really matter because suddenly I'd be dead, and there was nothing I could do about it. But in his castle, surrounded by his people, he would be the master, and I needed a plan. I was certainly going. Nothing would stop that now.
Still- "This is going to be hard. And it's going to hurt. A lot." I observed to myself. I stumbled a little further, and sank down to rest against a tree. "Oh man, is this going to-" I trailed off.
Very peculiarly, an image had suddenly appeared before me in the dark. It was night when I awoke and dark as pitch, but before me, outlined with glowing light was the fireman, he whom I had met so long ago, when his duty was to incinerate me to prevent all this from happening. I stared at him in the dark, and suddenly realization dawned.
"Oman. Oh man, Oman, you spoke about me and now, as promised, I'm going to find you." Unsteadily I pulled myself afoot again, and staggered forward, moving after the image.
The sun rose on me as I walked far from the city along roads that lead between infrequent farms and dark valleys. Trees of immense girth and age stood among the forests keeping a sentinel's watch on the small birches. A few people met me on the road, some of a most unsavory appearance. I firmly dissuaded them from their attentions and kept moving.
Shortly after moon rise the image of Oman no longer matched up with the road before me. I turned aside onto a near invisible track unused for years that twisted into the bracken along the road. Roots broke up the path, making stairs and pits. Several thorn bushes completely blocked it with long stems covered in sharp points. There was always a hole that could be climbed through or a branch that offered support over every obstacle. Oman led me to it.
In the end a wide meadow, empty and forgotten, held only the end of the trail and a dilapidated hut. I stumbled around to an open wall and went in.
There was not much to be found. Fresh beer bottles littered the floor, perhaps a week old. The dirt had been scraped and moved then, several sets of footprints were stamped around a table, and some refuse lay in the corners. There was a deck of cards on the table and three hands discarded negligently. A fourth, all aces, lay scattered about the floor. Three chairs were pushed back, and one had tipped over.
Out of impulse I checked the other hands. I had been winning. C'est la vie.
I righted the fallen chair and sank into it. Now all that was left was the simple matter of retracing my steps. That there was a way I was sure. There would be no point in the magic bringing me here otherwise. I stared around for a little while, then retrieved my cards and turned back around to face the table. I had been sitting like so and gazing at my hand. For some reason I couldn't see a thing now.
I glanced over my shoulder at the sky. A cloud was blocking the moon, and again the world was plunged into total darkness. Except for Oman, who stood deep within the ground behind me. Without thinking I put my foot on the table and kicked hard. I fell backwards, dropping aces, out of my chair and rolled once before the floor seemed to turn mushy under me and I was falling. Again I was in a hole through moving lights, only now Oman raced away before me. The journey was not long. The landing was hard and painful, but when I sat up, carefully staying below the grass line, everything was familiar again.
Breaking into a castle is very difficult. That's the point of having a castle. Sneaking in alone is easy. The initial stage, climbing the outer wall in the dark, had a certain element of danger to it, but under the circumstances that did not bother me. The guards who patrolled the walls were bored and cold. The polite thing to do was not bother them. I descended a stairway and crept down to the great furnace, now banked, where I intended to pay a visit to my friend.
Oman was at work tending the roaring fire and whittling. I crept up behind him, grabbed him by the throat, and screamed bloody murder. He twisted in my grasp so he could see me and fainted dead away. Amused, I sat him down and slapped him until he woke up.
"You spoke about me, Oman. You remember the price of that. Are you ready to die?"
He looked up at me, no longer scared. He didn't cry or beg, but in a sad tragic voice replied, "No. I have so much left to do."
I was bound by the magic to kill him. That was clear to me. It was an impulse in my bones that buzzed like a swarm of bees. My teeth ached with it.
"Oman, there is only one person with the power to cancel the magic that binds us. Fiera. Take me to her, or you will die as surely as you betray me."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then I will cast you into the fire as once you intended to cast me."
That is what some refer to as an offer you cannot refuse. Within moments we were walking purposefully along the shadowy underground corridors that make up so much of the castle's living space. In the dark no one glanced at us twice. I walked beside Oman and made light conversation, part to support the disguise, part because I wanted to be able to make sure he was not signaling anyone.
"How long has she been here?"
"Almost three weeks. A week ago Lord Orpheus ordered her cell door walled up, and only a small hole allowed so that she could be watched. She's not been fed or allowed water in that time, though she drinks from the pools where the damp sweat of the walls collects."
"You seem well informed."
"I was the one who bricked up her cell."
I think when he said that he expected me to kill him. Instead I started laughing. "Oh, that's rich. I bet she'll be delighted to see you."
He looked at me askance out of the corner of his eye.
"Lady Fiera no doubt deserves whatever she gets. Feel no guilt about that. Besides, I don't like her that much. Hopefully some time in the dark has taught her humility."
We arrived at an oaken door. "Within this room are the two guards who watch her day and night. There are always two, one to keep watch and another to run for help," he told me.
"Good. Wait right here."
"What are you going to do?"
"Black magic," I replied. This time he didn't argue.
I swung the door in and walked through calmly. Two men glanced over at me with uninterested stares.
"Evening, gentlemen. How is she?"
"Hungry," one replied. He sat on a stool by the wall where an arch of fresh brick work still had fresh mortar. One brick was absent, and this was at eye level with him. The other was seated at a table, but he was already dozing off again.
"I can imagine."
He looked at me curiously, trying to remember my name. I projected an air of mild curiosity and distant friendship, which was enough for him to spend a few heartbeats trying to decide if he knew me before he called for help. Too late he asked, "Who are you again?" for I was then within arm's reach.
"Havok," I replied cheerfully as I grabbed the front of his leather jerkin. I twisted and heaved him across the floor, over the table, and face first into his companion. They crashed to the floor with the crack of bone on bone and then on stone. "Oman, come in and shut the door."
I strolled over to the other two. They were making noises by then, and I stopped standing above them with my hands on my hips. "Gentlemen. You can stay down and be quiet, or I can beat you down and silence you. Which is it?"
They froze. "
"Splendid. Take off your armor and weapons, lock yourselves in a cell, and remember that as long as you don't make noise, I have no reason to kill you."
There's a fantastic advantage to intimidating people in being a demon. It took them each a moment to get up and move, but they did everything I asked without a word of complaint. "Good morning, Lady Fiona." I glanced in the window at her. She was awake and standing. Her manacles were short and did not look like they allowed her to lie down or even sit. She looked weary, physically beaten, but in here eyes was a terrible fury that pleasantly matched my own. I smiled at her. "You've never looked better, dear. Now, this is Oman. He's going to free you. In exchange, you're going to to sever the spell I have on him and leave him free to go. Fair?"
"Yes." Rocks shatter under such a tone.
"Get to work," I told him. I returned my attention to her. "Now, I'm going to go pay Orpheus a visit. Tell me everything you know about him. Before you decide what to tell and what to hold back, know that Orpheus is better than me with a sword, he knows I'm coming, and unless you give me a serious advantage, the rest of your short life is going to be spent right here."
She had clearly already considered this option. She began speaking immediately. "Orpheus' real name is Osric. He's my oldest brother. We are both children of Oberon, King of Amber. Osric is either making or preparing to make a play for the throne of Amber, and I'm here to stop him. Everyone else in Amber thinks he's been dead for years, and now I have no means of getting help."
I nodded. While she talked I picked up the one of the guards's weapons belt. There was both a sword and a gun, and I belted it on while listening.
"Osric has done something to this place that I've never seen before. He's filled every bit of dirt, every blade of grass, and every person here with the image of the Pattern that's inscribed within him. I cannot imagine how he did so, but if time here flows like I expect he's had thousands of years to do it. This entire shadow is his plaything, and no doubt he can manipulate it like a doll house."
"He can move walls and doors?"
"He can throw the sun at you."
"Splendid. What are his weaknesses?"
"While his mastery of the Pattern is unmatched here, you were made from the Logrus. It's the opposing force. You will be immune to direct influence of his powers in ways I'm not. In addition, I built you as an experiment in immortality. As you've noticed, you're virtually unkillable. You should be able to survive anything he does to you."
"But he can entrap me and tie me up, and throw me into the sea."
"That's your one weakness."
"What about fire?"
"Fire isn't your weakness. It's your greatest strength. When the power of the Pattern confronts you in the presence of flame, the Logrus automatically flares up as well to fight it. That increases all of your abilities."
"Then why does it terrify me?"
"Because I made you that way. It's a measure of control I instilled at your creation."
"Wonderful," I deadpanned. "And I think you're lying. A day ago I burned to death."
"That was in a normal shadow. That was normal fire. Here in the presence of the Pattern of Amber fire is merely a gateway to you."
I still thought she was feeding me a heaping pile, but I neglected that for the moment. "By the way, what happened the last time I shot someone? The bullet came out moving like molasses, but they zinged around right quick when aimed at my head."
"I have no idea."
"Hey, Oman. Do you know?"
He refused to meet my eyes. I paused and faced him. "Oman, don't make me do something horrific to you."
"It's the sunlight. During the day bullets move like lightening, but at night they creep through the air."
"Ain't that some shit," I observed. I locked and loaded the weapon on my hip just to be thorough, though it was still hours to daylight.
"He knows you're here," Fiona interjected suddenly. "I can feel him summoning his powers."
"Then it's time for me to get down to business. Now, excuse me lady and gentleman, but I've got work to do."
"Go, Havok!" cried Fiona and loosed the dog of war.
There's a peculiar feeling inherent to being an immortal going to kill a god. Most of the time we aren't aware of these sensations, except in comparison, but as I trotted out the door and moved into a run, I was intensely aware of it. It was terrible exhilaration mixed with confidence and utter hopelessness. It was profoundly exciting.
I moved down a tunnel, juked around pair of bewildered servants, and climbed a set of stairs mostly by bouncing off the walls. The sooner I got to him the sooner his more absurdly overt forms of attack would be unaccessible. At the landing on the ground floor was a thick door that lead me to a little used back hallway. At the end of that was a heavy door that opened into a empty granary. I listened carefully before I shut it. The servants I had passed on the stairs were shouting. They were echoed by others, and in the courtyard outside a veritable horde of them were hollering about. They would find me soon.
I went through the
wattle and daub wall at a dead sprint. The guards whirled as I ran
past and drew their guns, firing at me. Each time the pistols cracked
I expected to feel something but didn't. Unhurt I
reached the edge of the courtyard and crashed shoulder first into a door.
splintered but the lock held. I looked behind me. There was a
veritable cornucopia of slow moving bullets, meandering towards me.
The guards kept on firing, and muzzle flashes from various
windows augmented them. I kicked the door twice more, hard, and it finally broke in.
The very first ray of sunlight came over distant mountains, past the high keep walls, and bent most unusually down to bathe the dozens of airborne projectiles in their stately movement. Kicking the door had turned my face towards the oncoming bullets, and I could see each one glow brilliantly in the new dawn.
"Oh, no." I dove through the door.
Over fifty pounds of lead came after me. I hit and rolled, as the barrage destroyed the servant's quarters, shattering every bit of furniture, the walls, and most of the floor. Those rounds that didn't become stuck bounced airborne and paused, slowly rotating until every single one of them was facing me again.
smashed through the floor as the barrage came hunting me. I ran
through the nameless room I landed in, dove over a table, and
received a split second glance as the table simply exploded from
gunfire. Before I made it out the next door, the wall I was intending to hide behind ceased to exist in any kind of meaningful way, and debris came crashing down. Some rocks hit my head and chest, and I fell under them. Above me the ceiling creaked disturbingly.
The building collapsed.
A ceiling beam splintered and one broken end hit the floor next to me. It gave way, and I dropped to a lower level of the castle, more rocks, a few plates, and a beautiful still life coming down with me as the floors above began to disintegrate. A bullet found me and shot through my butt. I was running down an underground passage, being chased by the continuing avalanche of debris, when the tunnel branched, and I made a hard left. The collapse followed.
"No!" I refused. A wooden beam a foot across flew out of the rubble and hit me dead in the chest. I crashed through another wall and rolled, listening to the snap and crackle of my ribs.
The ceiling groaned and shook, bulging cancerously above me, but held. Out the hole the sounds of falling rubble were suddenly silent. A very eerie silence had descended.
My hands felt kind of sticky. I looked down and realized the wooden beam had completely staved in my chest, and I was able to witness a number of my vital organs that normally did their business in privacy. Sticks and stones had broken my bones and my heart.
Words cannot describe how much that hurt.
unimpaled myself and stood up. The ceiling would not hold much
longer, so I found a side door and stumbled through it. Behind me,
the pile of rubble extended up into the sunlight. Luckily, all of
gunfire seemed to be trapped in the pile.
A stairway led to
the courtyard. The occupants of castle Orpheus were gathered at the
center in a panicky crowd. Everyone stayed as far from the walls and
houses as they could. Only one of the buildings, a guard hall and
storage facility, had collapsed. A bit of the debris pile
poked above the surface. The earth might as well have swallowed the building and belched.
Back inside, I leaned against a wall and thought. That earthquake had been as natural as my ability to keep walking and a good deal more dangerous. Osric had been nowhere to be seen before and was still missing, which meant he had something to do with it. This sort of thing could not happen too often.
My balance was returning with each step, so I kept walking. If Osric knew I was alive, he would be waiting. I wasn't sure if anything could permanently kill me, and I doubted he did either. If so, he would have done it. All I needed was a steady, relentless attack, and sooner or later he would die. Unless he had the same kind of durability I did.
I considered that. It would certainly be the first I did if I had been in his position.
I came around a corner and met a party of guards, walking slowly and checking for the injured. They froze when they saw me, staring at my blood trail.
Two of the four screamed and bolted. The others drew their weapons and yelled at me to stop.
"Put those away," I ordered. "They won't do you any good, and I have no desire to kill you."
"How do you live?" one whispered. The other was backing up, staring about with wild eyes.
"I don't. Now take me to Orpheus."
The guard looked at me carefully then slowly drew his weapon. His face shifted from fear to certainty, and he stepped deliberately to the center of the hallway. "No, demon. I won't let you kill anyone else."
"Don't be an ass," I spat. "I haven't killed anyone at all."
"A few weeks ago you slew Orpheus' personal guard."
"No, I didn't. I hit him in the kidney. He'll be pissing blood for a few days and that's it."
"You brought down the building-"
"I was in the building! Why would I bring it down atop me? I didn't kill you, I didn't kill any of your friends, and even when I was in a pitched fight with your boss, all I did was break a few legs and fingers. Now take me to him."
demon!" Someone yelled behind me. I swayed, let the sword go by,
and snatched my own sword out. The hilt hit his skull. Both of the
guards who had fled earlier were there, one crumpling to the
ground and the other lunging. With my free hand I caught his sword and stomped on his knee. The guard I had been talking to stabbed me in the back.
I went down, but I took his sword with me. I pulled it out of my guts and swung from the ground, making the guard back off. His panicky friend had walked back, and the two of them stood about ten feet away. His friend had drawn his own sword, but I had both weapons at the ready.
"Even now I haven't killed them. Don't do it, because I will not stop and when I do come back I will return a murderer as surely as I've let everyone else live."
They looked at me and looked at their two fallen allies. One was lying in a heap, bleeding from the temple, and snoring. The other had dragged himself away, his leg twisted so his toes pointed backwards. I was alone in the center of the hallway.
"Men, back away."
They turned. Osric, retinue in tow, was coming down the corridor. They sighed in relief and backed up, letting their lord pass. He stopped in front of me, within sword range if I overextended myself.
"Well, demon, you still breathe."
"Not really," I replied. I pulled aside the shirt and let him see the ruins of my chest. Osric watched me stone-faced, but his men turned white and one fled.
"You look terrible," he observed.
Osric tried to scowl. It further distorted his crooked nose, which bent sideways across his face like a dirty paint smear.
"I was wondering why I couldn't find your heartbeat." He turned and waved off his men. "All of you, return to the courtyard and watch my people. You are no help here, and I will not have your lives thrown away."
They obeyed without question or argument. From the suicidal way they'd interfered with me before, I assumed it was more training than cowardice. I limbed to my feet.
"That's how you found me? My heartbeat?"
"The sound and the fury," Osric stepped back out of range. I hadn't taken the bait. He seemed to have all the advantages, except I still wasn't dead and he treated me like the unknown menace I was.
"Your men don't know you're a magus, do they? You've carefully kept it hidden and now you anticipate that magic is the only thing that will bring me down."
"No," he replied seriously. "Magic is only one way to bring you down."
We circled once, eying each other for openings. A man with two swords and no fear of injury is a powerful defensive opponent, and Osric knew it. It showed in the way he walked and his steady, low sword point. On the other hand, Osric was that good. He backed me into the great hall, a towering room with vaulted ceilings and wide open spaces. It was perfect for a duel. We traded a few exploratory strokes, and then I realized he'd backed me to the vast hearth that still flamed and provided us with warmth. I had nowhere to run.
"So what are you going to do? Waste more time?"
"Havok, I've given the matter of you a great deal of thought. You're simply too useful to be destroyed. You will work for me now."
"A few days ago I would have asked about your offer. But it's too little too late."
"Oh no, you naive fool. It wasn't an offer."
"What are you going to do? Talk me to death?" I was actually curious.
"No. Remember, nothing's struck your head yet."
By the time I realized what he meant he had caught my gaze. The will of a Prince of Amber is a powerful weapon, and he flooded my mind like a tide. It made sense, of course. Fiona would have left safeguards in me to insure her ability to control me. She had tried before. Osric simply began accessing them, and using the incredible power of his mind to shear through my mental defenses like a scythe. There was one thing he neglected to consider.
"Death first," I snapped, dropped a sword and snatched the pistol from my belt. The sunlight poured through the grand windows, for he had bid the sun rise. Before he could disengage from my mind I put the barrel to my temple and pulled the trigger.
As I blasted my brains out the recoil knocked me back, and I fell into the great fire. That awoke me in a hurry. I howled once and rolled from the hearth. My skin burned. The innumerable open gashes that covered my body spouted flames like spigots. My head was an inferno, and the acetylene jet that burst from my skull hissed as it burned white hot. Osric staggered back, for his connection to me had shared all of my pain.
I leapt at him. He parried once, wildly, and I swept my sword up and under his, flicking the hot metal at his face while a cloak of blood and fire swept back from my shoulders. Steel clashed in the hall.
"Havok! Face!" he finally yelled, and I can only guess what horrors he saw. He made a mistake, and I cut his arm. He made another, and I struck him in the knees. I had the initiative. Osric's incredible skill fled him, as he completely lost his ability to function confronted with someone like me. He was just not prepared to fight anyone willing to sacrifice himself as I was. Our match turned short, nasty, and brutal, and I beat him down with fists and blades.
"And Random on drums!" the announcer roared, the crowd went wild, and King Random of Amber proceeded to rock out in royal fashion. I was beside him, wailing on an acoustic guitar, and the two of us stopped paying attention the audience. Not hard, because the audience was imaginary anyway. So was the announcer. Our stage was a raised platform towards the back of the Royal Library and occasionally a servant or noble would wander in, but the performance held little interest for them. We enjoyed it immensely.
Ultimately the beat slowed until he was picking out paradiddles on the toms while I poked around in a minor key. I asked, "So what did you do with him?"
"For now he's locked up in the basement. Fiona's in charge of his keeping, and she's very attentive. I haven't figured out a permanent solution yet."
"One springs to mind."
"One I'm surprised you didn't take when you had the chance."
He looked up at me, with a penetrating stare that was part royalty and part Random. I shrugged and wrung a questioning note from the guitar. "I don't like killing people. It always seems so unfair."
Random snorted. "I have a brother who would make some very disparaging comments about anyone who tries to make combat fair."
I shrugged again, and we played for a while. "It's because he couldn't do anything back. He couldn't kill me, and he couldn't attack my mind, and he certainly couldn't hurt me any more. Finally when I saw the chance to knock him out I did. I was just sick of him, sick of the scheming and the plotting. I wanted everything to be done."
"Trust me, I know exactly how you feel."
He shot me a conspiratorial grin I returned. We picked up the beat and started a faster, merrier tune.
"Did Fiona ever explain what she meant when she said he had taken over the world and written his version of the Pattern on it?"
"She did. And then she tried to explain the explanation, and I decided to let it drop. As far as I can tell, Osric stamped the version of the Pattern he bears within himself on the people of the shadow. They in turn pass it along in the air they breathe, the fields they plant, and the children they father. Anything they touch is an extension of his will. They would have made a terrible enemy."
"Could he have really dropped the sun on me?"
"I don't know. I lost Fiona when she got into interstellar relativity."
"She showed me the Pattern in the basement. A glowing thing of twists and curls. Frightening."
"I know. What do you intend to do now?"
"I think I'm going to go take a look at the Logrus. It's sort of my origin, and I suppose examining it might be useful."
"Seems wise. We have a trump of it in the case over there. Feel free to borrow that."
I nursed a riff from the strings, and Random replied with a slant beat that begged to be followed. For a while longer we played without any noise but our echoes.
"Osric made the world over in his image, and that's what showed me how to beat him. He was unstoppable as long as he was in command, but any bump in the road could throw him. In the end I never beat him. He buckled under the pressure beat himself."
"You had something to do with that."
"Yeah," I laughed. "You should have seen the look in his eyes when I blew my brains out."
Random looked at me with a weird expression and then began laughing himself. "It's a terrible thing that you can do that to yourself so easily."
"I was really upset. I may have mentioned that."
He snorted at me. "That's one of the reasons I'm helping you leave, you know. I don't want any of my nobles getting ideas about immortality as well."
"I was wondering about that."
When we finished we replaced the instruments. Random offered me the guitar, but I declined. "Keep it, sir. We'll play again when I return."
"I'm looking forward to it."
We shook hands. I was immensely impressed by Random. He balanced power and humanity so well. I wondered if I would be able to do that soon. We made small talk by the trump case for a little longer, then he patted me on the shoulder and walked away. Just before he left he looked over his shoulder and pantomimed placing a gun to his head. He laughed again, a light easy sound.
"Hey," I replied. "I was really, really upset."
The King of Amber smiled and walked out. Moments later the library was empty.