(Author's Note: -sigh- ... Okay, I've taken so long to update this time that I'm not even going to attempt to justify it ... I only hope that I still have at least some readers left ... ^-^;;)


Tobias was broken.

As he emerged from the mercurial pool of obsidian sleep, he dimly realized that he hadn't even had enough energy and will left within in him to dream. In a way this was a blessed relief, for he could scarcely imagine the kind of nightmares that would have been created from the previous day's events. But his mind was almost blessedly clear; no haunting thoughts or memories immediately emerged into his frightening consciousness, nor did any remnants of that sharp, biting psychological pain. One could perhaps say that this blissful ignorance was nothing more than the brief bit of vacancy one experiences just upon waking, but the more Tobias lay there, gradually becoming less obscured by sleep, the less he felt.

He seemed to be in a hospital bed, although his muddled consciousness could barely discern anything else about his current surroundings. His skin did sense a warm, light glow; the sun was streaming rather pleasantly through half-open windows at either end of the cream-colored room. His olfactory senses soon discovered that the room was rather sterile, and the sheets felt soft and comforting to his world-weary body.

Giving in momentarily to the part of him that craved the return to sleep, he turned on his side and absently stretched out a hand to his dæmon. Disturbed confusion built briefly within him as his hand descended on nothing more than clean yellow bed sheets; his head ascended from his pillow, his brow furrowed at the absurdity of the situation, his breath quickening at the mounting panic and the pain of impending psychological illness. And yet a part of him had known it all along: his dæmon was, of course, not there.

Immediately the memories and emotions came flooding back with the force of a trillion gallons behind a broken dam. He desperately strove to fend off the shock that rose within him, giving way to a dull, throbbing, empty ache. He could sense the fact that his dæmon was still slightly connected to him; moreover, to his emotional and physical sense, the fact that his dæmon was connected to someone was comforting and somewhat staunched the otherwise all-consuming feeling of emptiness and loss. However, to his mental sense, the fact that Aerotsierma was connected to that thing caused him more pain and anger and hatred than anything else could.

For what seemed like several hours, the terrified young boy lie in his infirmary bed, curled into as tiny of a ball as he could contort himself, shaking uncontrollably. The terror and pain seemed to drown out, for the most part, any sense of hatred that bubbled furiously just beneath the surface of his terribly shattered and broken psyche.

His brain new that his situation was pretty much hopeless, but his heart, almost always won over by his far more powerful mind, begged him not to give up. After all, his dæmon wasn't dead, only separated, and not even completely, at that. In addition, he knew that if it was possible to separate a human from his dæmon and give it to another human, then hypothetically it was possible for that dæmon to be given back to its original owner.

Tobias had always had a very powerful brain, so he used it now to completely block off the horrible emotions bubbling within him, concentrating instead on his predicament. But he found that after a hour or so of thinking that the pain and loss was too much to bear, and he fell once again into an uneasy, dreamless sleep.


At that moment, the skillfully stolen hover-mag car was just over a few leagues away and approaching fast. As the great fortress of Dunestone appeared distantly on the horizon, Will jolted awake from his doze as if some sort of mind-jarring shadow had fallen across his mind and soul. He felt Iris tense up considerably, still skillfully flying the hover-mag, and even Lyra stirred at his side, her sleeping head resting against his shoulder.

Mary was the first to break the thick silence. When she turned to Will and Lyra, the former noticed a strange mix of fear and excitement upon her features. "So that's Dunestone, huh ...?" she asked distantly, her eyes riveted on the distant stone fortress which seemed somehow darker than it should have in the rather bright midday sun. Iris nodded, her eyes cold and filled with an inconceivable hatred that almost masked her pain and fear. "Yes," she said simply, her voice flat and hard. "That's the place where my soul died, along with my family and the rest of my people."

An uncomfortable silence followed, but Iris seemed not to notice. She unconsciously sped up the hover-mag, her anger driving her, eager to arrive and vent it accordingly. Mary broke the silence again by prompting, "We need a plan. We can't just expect to march in there and rescue Tobias. We ... we don't even know that he's still alive."

Iris never took her eyes from the distant medieval-looking fortress whose turrets and battlements rose up high into an uncaring, oblivious sun. "He's still alive," she said, her voice almost as cold and hard as her eyes. "I'm sure of it. I can sense it." Mary was distantly aware of the way that Iris's entire demeanor had changed since they had begun getting close to that horrid place, that horrible nightmare that had stolen Iris's childhood and warped her mind forever. An extremely out-of-place tone had settled into her eyes, giving her friends the sense of pent-up, potential violence emanating from her very soul. So much damage she wanted to do to those who had destroyed her life. So much pain that needed to be inflicted. At her side, her caracal dæmon lay curled very still, his brilliant green eyes narrowed, a deep, cold purr vibrating quietly from his throat.

Will sat up, gently shaking Lyra awake. "Mary's right, Iris. You're the only one who knows anything about this place -- you've got to have at least some small suggestion of the way we can go about doing this. And remember ..." he trailed off for a moment, a bit of hesitation sliding into his voice. "Remember, we're here to rescue Tobias ... not to kill as many of the horrible people who run this place as possible. As much as I know you hate them, we don't have the resources for that right now; after Tobias is safe we're going to regroup and make adequate plans. We can't go rushing into thi--"

"I know that!" Iris snapped, anger blazing in her usually calm and gentle eyes. "Don't you think I know that? I ... I know that." The air was so thick with tension, fear, and undeniable hatred that it caused the dæmons to be somewhat fidgety, since dæmons tend to be far more adept at sensing the emotions of humans than other humans are. However, Iris's blazing hatred was so powerful that Lyra, Will and Mary had no problem feeling it at all.

Silence followed as Dunestone began to get larger and larger in their field of view. Finally Iris spoke again, this time her voice slightly softer. "I know where a weapon locker is in the fortress. It's rather small and ill-stocked, but because of this it probably won't be very well-guarded. The four of us together, if we plan correctly, might have a chance of swiping a few rifles or knives before we're discovered." She paused a moment, thinking, then said, "We'll have to find out where he's being held. Dunestone is a pretty big place, you know."

They were almost there. Dunestone rose up, huge and menacing, into their field of vision. There were no guards posted upon the walls; Dune knew that he had nothing to fear. As Iris looked for a decent place to land, she turned to the others and said, "Alright, so this is what we're going to do ..."


Tobias awoke again sometime after noon when an infirmary attendant arrived and stuck a needle into his wrist, administering an IV treatment. Tobias groaned briefly and then slipped back into unconsciousness. He awoke again during mid-afternoon when a huge boom and what sounded like a subsequent gunshot cut through the silence.


The entire journey toward Dunestone, one particular thing had been on Iris's mind. Westing, the second-in-command sniper to Commander Breyman, who had been the one in charge of killing her entire family. She remembers him perfectly, from his lithe, evil, skulking disposition to his scrawny, emaciated leopard dæmon. She could hear his voice in her head, thin and reedy, and the hatred that his memory arose in her was enough to make her lose her focus and for a red haze to obscure her vision.

She couldn't help but fantasize what it'd be like to destroy him.


Iris led the way into Dunestone through the back exit, Will, Lyra and Mary padding silently behind her. She was amazed by the fact that all of Dunestone was unlocked and unguarded, but could understand from the fact that Dune was rather confident that he had very little to fear. Thus Iris and her friends were easily able to slip through the back gate and into the north corridor. The young girl stood quietly in the hallway, a flood of memories pouring through her mind. She remembered this corridor. She remembered that bleak sanitary smell that just barely masked the fierce, stale reek of terror and death. The cell where she had been located with her family was just in the next few corridors over. She walked silently down the hallway, oblivious to all, her brow furrowed with all the concentration it took to keep herself from shaking with anger, anticipation and sadness.

Mary, Will and Lyra were all quite afraid of the fact that Iris was being extremely foolhardy, strolling down the hall like that, but it was quite evident that there was nothing going on in this region of the fortress, for defense was very low. Tentatively they began to follow her as she rounded the corner into another corridor, then another, until she finally came to a halt at a large oaken door. "I'm pretty sure the weapons are here," she said, "But they may have changed things since I was last here. It's ... it's been a while, you know."

Will stepped forward and placed his hand on the door handle. "Is it locked?" he asked. "I'm sure it must be, it --" He jumped in surprise as the door swung open easily in his hand. "Wow," he said, "Dune must be pretty damn fearless, not even locking a weapon storage unit ..." Iris nodded and strode through the door. "He is fearless," she said. "That is perhaps his one weakness."

Mary and Lyra followed. Pantalaimon was curled around Lyra's neck, balancing on her shoulders, his large amber eyes flickering in the dim light of the dank, stony room. Mary's bird dæmon was perched upon her shoulder, his small head darting back and forth at small noises. Once inside the small closet-like room, Mary quietly shut the heavy door until only a sliver of light could be seen streaming in from the hallway. Iris felt blindly around the wall until she found a switch; after flicking it, a dim, dusty light filled the room.

There were several shelves stocked with weapons, most of them looking old and unkempt. The only guns present were old, dusty rifles, all devoid of ammunition. Upon a quick search, none could be found. There were, however, plenty of blades. Wordlessly, Iris chose one to her liking: a long, thin, wickedly sharp knife. She ran her finger along its edge and smiled in grim satisfaction as a small drop of blood dropped to the ground.

Mary chose a dagger, small and slightly serrated with perfect balance. Lyra chose what appeared to be a small rapier, which fit her size and stature quite well.

Will was just looking through the array of bladed weapons when the oaken door slammed open and a vicious feline snarling filled the dim, stony room. Iris's heart jumped in her throat along with an analogous sensation of despair as she whirled around. Her eyes immediately met those of the smugly smiling, painfully thin man who stood framed in the doorway, his spotted dæmon's ribs showing unnaturally through its dull, dusty coat. The tall man's thin lips curled into a vicious grin, his eyes narrowing and shining with dark triumph.

"I always hoped we would meet again, my dear."

Iris stood rooted to the spot, unbelieving; her dæmon's hackles rose along his back and his ears flattened against his skull, a quiet, insidious hiss emanating from between his curled lips. His human continued to stare at the man, who now began to slouch slovenly against the door frame, smiling. She felt her hands clench into fists so tight that the knuckles turned deathly white; the cold prickly feeling of barely controlled anger balled furiously inside her skull like unstably contained energy. Through clenched teeth she hissed a single, hate-filled word.

"... Westing."

Continuing to smile, he unshouldered his sniper rifle rather nonchalantly and replied, "That would be Commander Westing now, darlin'. Breyman's dead. That makes me the second-most powerful being in this entire fortress; now what do you say to that?" He looked over Iris's shoulder and smirked. "Got some friends back there, do you? Come on out; I ain't gonna hurt you. I promise." He laughed out loud at his own ironic joke.

Will stepped forward, determination and a will of stone reflecting in his metallic blue eyes. "If you're planning to kill us, I can assure you that we won't go down without a fight, scumbag." Westing laughed reedily and said, "Oh, little boy, I'm not planning on killing anyone. I'm sure to get a delightful reward for bringing you alive and unharmed to Sidney Dune. If you'll just come quietly it would be a great help, I assure you."

Iris silently cursed herself with much violence. How stupid she was to assume that it was natural that Dunestone was unguarded. Of course it was guarded ... Breyman and Westing had both had previous tangles with Will, so of course Dune knew that there was an outside threat to the fortress! Hidden guards are always the most efficient kind.

Westing then bent down so that his face was even with Iris's. In a quiet, malicious, calculatedly ironic voice, he said, "I hope that Sidney Dune has as much fun murdering you as I had murdering your family." Without having time to think, Iris's clenched fist shot out in a wickedly fast arc, slamming meatily against Westing's lowered head. Obviously not expecting such an assault, the commander stumbled back in surprise. He cursed violently and rubbed at his temple, then smiled a moment later. "You've got quite a right hook on you, darling. I'd advise not to do that again, or I might just have to break my promise of not hurting you and your friends."

Hatred spurring her confidence, Iris leapt forward again, slamming a fist into Westing's face with all her might. He jerked back but not quickly enough; the punch connected solidly with his jaw. He staggered back against the unsuspected ferocity of the hit, then spit out a bloody tooth. This time when he turned back to Iris there was no amusement or irony in his expression; animal hatred had taken over.

"You little bitch ..."

He leapt forward, swinging his gun. But Iris was fast and had reflexes like a cheetah; she easily ducked the blow, guided by rage, and thrust her fists solidly against the man's shrunken stomach. Dropping the gun, he gasped for air, hate obscuring his expression. Immediately Will jumped forward to grab the rifle; Westing kicked out at him but Lyra whacked her rapier into his foot, shouting. Unfortunately the blow had been severely misjudged and only stung Westing, but it was enough. Mary leapt into the fray, but Iris immediately said, "You three stay back, and I mean it. This is my fight. I've been waiting for this opportunity for all of my life. Stay back."

As fierce and determined as her voice was, Will refused. "There's no way you can take him on your own, Iris ..."

Iris turned on him, snarling. "You heard me. Leave him to me."

Will began to protest, but Lyra held him back. "Do what she says, Will. If the situation begins to look dire, we'll help. In such close quarters, we'd just be in the way anyhow." Reluctantly, Will nodded and pulled away.

Westing regained his breath and got off the floor, his hate fueled by the fact that he had just been laid out by a mere girl. He drew his own knife, longer and thicker than Iris's, and grinned a slightly bloody, maniacal grin. "Yes, my dear -- I'm going to have to retract what I said about not hurting you." Iris barely had time to snatch her own knife from off the floor before the deranged commander lunged at her. Her reflexes snapping into action, she immediately spun to one side and sliced her knife viciously through the air. But Westing was quick, too -- he flinched back just in time, and her knife did nothing more than rake a thin trail of blood across his arm.

Westing's leopard dæmon had leapt at Byralon, but the caracal was fast as a whip. He met the leopard in midair, his lithe, muscular body propelling him upward. A hefty, needle-filled paw smacked across the leopard's face, making her snarl in anger and pain. Blood dripped from the shallow wounds on her cheek.

The commander snarled in rage and thrust his knife around in a wicked arc. It sliced Iris across the shoulder, but she barely seemed to notice. The pain and rage of a thousand horrible memories clogged her brain and protected her from feeling any other emotion or sensation, pain included; she swung around at the commander, her fierce anger giving her almost impossible strength and speed. She sunk her knife deep into Westing's shoulder as he dodged away but not quickly enough; blood sprayed from the deep wound, soaking Iris and Westing alike.

While Westing was momentarily transfixed by the long knife protruding from his shoulder blade, snarling in pain, Iris took this opportunity to deliver a mighty kick to the commander's testicular region. An abnormally high, quivering shriek escaped him and he doubled over, moaning. The girl leapt forward, blood dripping from her own wound, and tugged her knife free from her adversary's shoulder. Rage fueling her immensely, she punched him hard in the throat and he fell backward, blood dripping from his mouth.

A moment later Iris was straddling his stomach, pressing her newly-acquired blood-caked blade against Westing's quivering throat. "Now," she panted, desperately striving to control the urge to kill that was beating against the inside of her skull, "Tell me where Tobias is being kept."

The two feline dæmons had been engaged in mortal combat, but in one swift, fluid motion, Byralon leapt gracefully onto the leopard's back, pinned her down by the shoulders, and positioned his deadly incisors delicately onto the base of her skull. One quick bite would kill her.

Westing's chest heaved and he was struggling to breathe through the blood that was quite obviously beginning to clog his respiratory system. Nevertheless, he narrowed his eyes in impotent hatred and spat viciously into Iris's face, snarling, "No." Iris, quivering with rage, disdainfully flicked the saliva from her cheek as she pressed the knife down harder, causing Westing to gurgle and his muscles clench; a thin stream of blood trickled delicately from his throat.

"Let us try this again. Tell me where Tobias is being kept." She continued to press down with the knife until tears began to squeeze from the commander's eyes and at last he gasped, "Ack, okay! Just ... uugh ... stop! Guurgh." She lifted the blade, not completely from the skin of his neck, but enough so that he could breathe and the flow of blood slowed considerably. He turned his head to the side, squeezing out tears and coughing spasmodically. Finally he turned back to his adversary, his eyes blurred with pain and distant anger. "He's being held in the east wing of the fortress, in the experimentation region." He paused for a moment and then coughed as blood began to drizzle anew from the corner of his mouth. His eyes then locked back with Iris's, and a cold, triumphant look shifted into them. "By now I'm sure that they've already preformed the experiment upon him." He smirked. "So you'll most likely find in him in the infirmary."

Iris pressed the blade harder, more from the knee-jerk reaction of this new bit of information than any amount of calculated action. "What sort of experiment did they preform?" Westing's mouth, strained thin from pain, now curled up at the corners into a cruel, malicious smirk. "Oh, you'll see that soon enough. I realize that you're probably going to kill me regardless of what I tell you, so everything I now say is basically moot. Nevertheless, if you go into that room hoping to rescue him, you'll either be walking straight into a trap or be sorely disappointed at what you find."

Palpitations of fear rose into Iris's heart, terrified at what might have happened to Tobias. Her own years of bondage at Dunestone had granted her the undoubtable knowledge that contrary to many humans' opinions, there were indeed things worse than death.

This single thought both gave her a sliver a hope and terrified her immensely.

Westing heaved another breath and then spoke again, as if having read her thoughts. "They should have just killed him," he said with what was obviously mock pity and sympathy. "Quick and ruthless like your family was killed. Because, you know, they were scum like you, not worth the efforts of Dune and his regiment to facilitate oh, shall we say, creative methods of execution."

A snarl rose in Iris's throat and she hit his face hard with the flat edge of the knife blade. In that one moment of the blade being risen from his jugular, Westing used his last remaining strength to raise his own knife from the floor and plunge it into Iris's stomach.

She groaned in pain and rage, clutching her bleeding abdomen, but as she allowed her rage to encompass her, the pain floated away like the particles of a dying dæmon.

Before the pain could ravage her again, she lifted her blade high, and plunged it viciously straight into Westing's collarbone. He gasped in hideous pain as the sharp snapping of the bone rent through the air. But Iris wasn't done, she began thrusting the long, bloody knife again and again into Westing's chest; the first few times he shrieked in pain, but after the fourth stab, his head lolled to one side, flecked with blood from his own splattered, ravaged chest.

All the while, Iris was screaming into his face.

"You dirty bastard! You killed my family, destroyed my life, death is too good for you, you foul, slimy son of a bitch ..."

Iris's dæmon Byralon had been fighting savagely with the skinny leopard (who had managed to tear away from the caracal's death-grasp), and right when he thought he nearly had her beaten, he pumped his paw back to deliver a powerful needle-filled blow, but when he struck his paw found naught but air. The caracal blinked in surprise before realizing what had happened; particles of the spotted dæmon were floating past him in the dank, cold air.

Iris continued to stab the dead commander viciously, blinded by tears of hatred, splattered with blood, not all of it her adversary's. Finally she was hauled away, still thrashing about and screaming in rage. "Let me go! I'm not finished with him yet, let me go --" Will let go of her and grabbed her shoulders, his steely, determined eyes staring cooly into Iris's desperate, maniacal ones. "He's dead, Iris. You killed him."

Iris was sobbing, but her struggling and thrashing had given way to a weak shaking. Will gently turned her head to look at Westing's body, which was lying twistedly prone, eyes open but unseeing, a dark pool of blood spreading slowly from beneath him. Iris, completely uncomprehending in her temporary insanity, said shakily, "His dæmon ... wuh-where is she?"

Lyra wasn't sure what to do, but she said, "He disappeared, Iris. Dæmons tend to do that when their human dies."

Iris clutched her head, willing her sanity to return, her caracal nuzzling her hand gently. At last the dim, wild fires of rage and bloodlust in her eyes subsided, replaced by cool, gentle green. She stood, wiping a fleck of blood almost disdainfully from her face. "He's dead. I ... I killed him."

Mary, Will, and Lyra remained silent, uncomfortable and unsure of what to say.

"I killed him."

Finally Lyra stepped forward and placed her arms around the shaking Iris, hugging her tightly. The blood-splattered young girl, finally overcome by tears of grief and something not far from remorse, and clutched her comforting new friend tightly, burying her head in Lyra's shoulder and sobbing brokenly. "I ... I duh-didn't think I ruh-really intended to kill him, Luh-Lyra; I thought it-it'd make me fuh-feel buh-better an-and, you know, juh-justified, but it's so awful, so awful ..."

Finally she broke away, wiping the tears almost embarrassedly from her face, and, taking a deep breath, said, "We've got to find Tobias now."


It took them all of five minutes to find their way through the winding corridors to the infirmaries of the east wing of Dunestone. There were no sounds anywhere, as the wing seemed to be completely devoid of life. Iris tried to look into the experimentation room, but it was tightly locked and, of course, windowless.

The infirmary door was not only unlocked but cracked a bit. This caused distant fear to rise in Iris's stomach; she didn't know why until she realized that for the door to be unguarded, unlocked and open, Tobias had to be so badly immobilized that he would not even consider escape.

She pushed her way through, blinking in the glaringly white light of the room she emerged into. There was a row of beds down either side of the room, perhaps ten to each row ... only one, the closest on the right side, was occupied.

He looked absolutely pathetic. Seeming even skinnier than before, he shivered in his sleep as his bony hands clutched the sheets, naught but a thin, quivering bundle beneath the covers. Iris went to him and kneeled by the bed, muttering, "Tobias, oh god, what did they do to you ..." and feeling his forehead and searching for any signs of incision or injury.

All the while she was noticing something unsettling and disturbing about him as he slept. She didn't even know what it was until she stood up again, uncertain, and noticed that her own dæmon was meowing softly, brokenly, and then began to lick his face. The shock of having her dæmon touching another human was only surpassed by the utterly sick, horrid feeling that rose within her as she realized why her Byralon was so distressed.

"His dæmon ... oh god, oh god, where is his dæmon ..."

Will and Lyra felt the pain and terror almost as much as Iris did, for they knew the feeling of being torn from the ones they love more than anything. They knew the dreadful, nauseous feeling of having their very soul torn from their body.

Iris felt the tears rise again, cursing herself distantly for her own emotional weakness, and laid her head on the bed by Tobias's, clutching his shaking, seemingly bloodless hand. "Oh god ... oh, my god, no ..."

No one said a word as Mary and Will carefully pulled him out of bed and carried him gently from the infirmary; he had become so light and utterly weightless that both were certain they could have easily carried him alone. Kirjava walked slowly and solemnly by Will's side, her head bowed. Mary's dæmon made a single, tiny chirp of absolute sadness and then buried his head under his wing, refusing to look at the pathetic, soulless human.

The five of them were not approached by any guards or threats at all as they carried the unconscious Tobias from the fortress and finally laid him gently in the back seat of the hover-mag car. Nary a word was passed between anyone as Iris destabilized the vehicle and lifted it almost silently into the air, then began to fly it off into an undetermined, undiscussed location. Tobias had been rescued almost flawlessly, one of the most powerful authorities in Dunestone had been killed, and yet their progresses made the four of them feel more hopeless and dejected than they had since the very beginning of the adventure.