"Nnrrgh," The groan was the only sound Fortunato could make. Unconsciously, his tongue flicked against the roof of his mouth as if to check and feel that all his teeth were still in place. "Owww." The Vodacce's eyes finally snapped open and he frantically looked around the area. His gaze immediately fell upon Grace. The only thing that moved on the Highlander was her chest as she breathed. Still unconscious, her abdomen was now wrapped snugly in a blood-stained bandage.
The Vesten grunted and coughed as he pulled himself up to his knees. "Here, Vodacce."
Relief began to wash over Fortunato's face. But then he realized who else was still missing - and how it happened. He spun around to look behind them only to be met by a wall of fallen rock where the cavern's opening once was. "Theus, Foreman!" The young Swordsman jumped to his feet. The pain rippled through his body in protest, but he did his best to ignore it as he attempted to move some of the boulders. They didn't budge. "Dammit! Ulf, give me a hand here!"
"Vodacce..." Ulf laid a hand on Fortunato's shoulder, shaking his head grimly. "We cannot do anything for the doctor right now. We need to get out of here!"
"You can't be serious, Ulf!" Fortunato looked at the Vesten incredulously. "Foreman isn't going to stand a chance against that creature. We-!"
"Vodacce," Ulf's grip tightened on Fortunato's shoulder, causing him to gasp a little. "Think. Think about Grace's condition." He grimaced, then sighed. The exhaustion was clear on his face. "You and I are both injured, but Grace is worse off! We need to get her back to the keep as soon as possible and tell the others about the demon and Mannheim. Then we must get word to Posen's soldiers back in Insel when the ferry finally comes! They are better equipped to deal with this. You know this is true."
"Dammit..." Fortunato ran a hand across his brow and winced. Ulf's words made sense and the fact that the Vesten didn't make any sort of snide comment about Father Sigurd back at the keep hammered how grave the situation was. "I don't like it, Ulf. I don't like leaving a man behind! Not after what Foreman did for us back there."
"Neither do I, Vodacce. But we cannot let the doctor's sacrifice be in vain. He wanted us to get Grace to safety," Ulf went over to the Highlander and carefully picked her up. Grace mewled softly in his arms, but didn't wake up. "But if any man is clever enough to hold out until we can get help, it's Doctor Foreman."
Reluctantly, Fortunato nodded in agreement. He let out a long, ragged sigh as he sadly glanced over to Grace. "She's going to kill us when she finds out we left him behind, Ulf."
"I know, Vodacce," The Vesten said quietly. He began to cautiously pick his way back up to the surface. "But at least we'll all be alive for it."
Lying prone, David blinked a few times, but the darkness stayed in place. The Arctius must have dropped him. The back of his head throbbed in pain. It felt worse when he placed a hand on the back of his scalp. With a hiss, he immediately jerked it back, the tell-tale sticky warmth of his own blood now on his fingertips. The Avalon carefully brushed away bits of gravel from out of his hair, then gingerly, he reached behind to touch it again. David felt a jagged cut on the back of his head. Not too deep, nor too long, but just painful enough. He sat up and reached for his satchel.
And froze. The familiar weight of his satchel across his shoulder was now gone. David felt his breath catch in his throat as he tried to fight the rising panic. His eyes started to grow accustomed to the darkness, but he could still make out little detail. Somewhere behind him he could faintly hear running water. Grimacing, David rose to one knee.
Something swiftly brushed against his side. "Ah!" David gasped, scrambling to get away.
"Fleshling..." A harsh braying cut through the doctor's mind. The Arctius seemed amused by its lone toy. "They've left you behind, fleshling..."
"Good," groaned David. He pulled himself into a crouch. "That was the entire point."
"So, so brave! But you need not pretend anymore to us, fleshling...give us your fear!"
"Fear...you're one to talk, Arctius," The doctor said between gritted teeth. He stretched a hand out in front of him, trying desperately to feel around for his satchel. Pebbles knocked against his fingertips as he patted the floor of the cavern surrounding him. "I daresay you panicked there. Or do you normally cause cave-ins when things are going well?"
A thorny vine suddenly wrapped around David's arm, hoisting him upward. David gasped in pain, futilely clawing at the vine, but it only squeezed him tighter. "We fear NOTHING!"
"AAH!" The cry escaped the doctor before he could stop himself, the weight of his own dangling body putting tremendous strain on his arm and shoulder. "Rah-roots...roots! That's how you 'see', isn't it? You can sense my movement by your roots underground!"
The vine lowered, letting the balls of David's feet just brush against the floor. He gasped again as he struggled for balance, trying to relieve some of the pressure off his limb. But in the back of his skull, he heard - felt - slithering. As if the Arctius was trying to burrow through his very thoughts. Its looming presence seemed much more aggressive and enveloping now that it physically touched the doctor. David shuddered, unable to stop himself and the insidious creature only chuckled at his attempts to recoil from it. Was this what Grace experienced when the spawn of the Arctius tried to infest her? "Clever fleshling..." The Arctius whispered in sibilant tones. It almost sounded impressed by the Avalon. "...you remind us of the other one. So many little secrets we can sense..."
"'Other...'?" David gasped, recalling the final fate of Mannheim. He tried to steel himself, feeling that mental slithering attempt to wash over him again, thick and slick and undulating. This time, the Arctius hissed sharply. The vine that held the doctor's arm suddenly snapped forward and let go, sending the man falling back against the rocks. David groaned as a hundred gravelly pinpricks struck his back. But at least he was free - for now.
And his head felt clearer once the Arctius no longer held him, though he still could hear the giant plant aberration snarl in his thoughts. Whatever block he had managed to place in his mind had worked that time. David rolled over on his side, trying to quickly massage some feeling back into his arm. "There is nothing left for you, fleshling. Why try to resist us now?"
"Because," David winced, squinting into the inky darkness. Finally, he was able to make out the faint outline of the Arctius towering ahead of him. "There's nothing left for you either, Arctius. Grace and her allies are out of your reach by now. And, thanks to your cave-in, I doubt you'll ever even get another boar too!" The Avalon scuttled a little to the left, letting his hand sweep along the ground.
And felt the familiar touch of oiled, waterproofed leather just at the edge of his fingertips.
David held his breath. Heart thumping in his chest, he deliberately tapped the cavern floor with the heel of his boot as if he was nervous. Which wasn't far from the actual truth. David stretched out his arm and quickly grabbed his satchel. He clutched it to his chest for a moment in relief. Then he immediately checked it over. Its latch had remained closed, luckily. Nothing had fallen out or appeared to have been broken. "Yes, I wager you need me a lot more than I need you, even if it's just for one more meal."
He cradled the satchel in his lap, strap now slung back across his shoulder. The scratchy chuffing that the Arctius used for laughter filled the doctor's head again, rough and mocking. David tried to ignore it as he rummaged through his satchel. "Your delusions are refreshing, fleshling! We will enjoy savoring each one when you finally beg us for mercy at the end!" To that, David said nothing, refusing to take the bait. With trembling hands, he took out the last vial and uncorked it. He poured the balm into the palm of his hand, then he massaged the back of his head. The cold burn began to permeate his scalp, and the various aches and pains throughout his body started to subside. Under David's very fingertips, the laceration on the back of his head knitted itself. The Avalon then carefully rubbed his neck, feeling the throbbing from Mannheim's attempt to throttle him finally die down. David silently let out a quick sigh of relief, but the trembling in his hands hadn't stopped. He shut his eyes, straining to listen.
Water. Somewhere far left behind him, the sound of running water. The crevasse. The doctor nodded to himself, grimacing. He pulled himself up to his feet. That was where he had to go.
"Fleshling, you've grown quiet!" The voice of the plant monster dripped with false concern. "Have you realized how long it will take for you to finally die? To feel the hunger gnawing away at your miserable gut piece by piece?"
"Even the oldest tree in the forest dies eventually, Arctius," David said coldly. "The Syrne are long gone. This isn't your world anymore! Go back into dormancy...go back to sleep. And one day the humans will be gone too..."
In response, all David got was an inarticulate roar filled with hatred and heated bile blasting through his mind. "SHHRAAA! NEVER! We survived the Tesserans, the Setines, even the Drachen! The time of the flesh is OVER! This is now the time of the Arctius!"
The doctor began to carefully scramble towards the back of the cavern again. His heart thumped loudly and he prayed that the plant creature wouldn't try to make another grab for him, that he was beneath its notice. Now that David had his satchel safely with him again, the workings of his plan were finally starting to form. But if the Arctius caught him and was able to probe into his thoughts again...
David flinched, the darkness hiding the palpable disgust on his face as he acutely recalled the crawling sensation he felt in his mind when the Arctius had hold of him. Like being smothered in rank oil. However, whatever the creature's abilities were, they at least seemed to have some limits. It hadn't ferreted out everything. Or at least that's what David was hoping as he continued his slow scuttling to the back. One hand dropped to his satchel's flap and opened it back up again, then hesitated. David drew in a ragged breath as an uncomfortable shudder rippled down his spine.
"Fleshling, are you trying to hide from us?" The Arctius was back to sounding amused again. "Maybe you're not as clever as we thought."
"Can you blame me?" said the doctor simply. He tentatively felt around, picking his path. Every step had his heart thundering in his ears as he continued to pray that the Arctius kept disregarding him. "End or not, I'm not looking to die any time soon."
"HA! Even the female had more spine than you! Oh, fleshling, the disgusting thoughts she had about you...HA! Yet here you are cowering! You fleshlings are so pathetic and weak... We will enjoy feeding on your desperate, starving corpse!"
David tried to ignore the taunts of the aberration, feeling his gut grow cold. But the sound of water lapping against the rocks had grown louder. The Avalon reached out with his foot and found only emptiness. Even under the stench of the plant creature, David could actually now make out the saline tang of the sea. He drew his foot back away from the crevasse and turned back towards the Arctius, quickly placing his hand into his opened satchel as he did so.
"Cowering, yes. But what makes you any different from me then, hmm?" A small chuckle escaped the doctor, surprising even himself. His hand grasped the wooden butt of the pistol, but he held off drawing it out. "You talk of 'surviving' all these great Syrneth races, when all you really did was just hide in a cave and slept for centuries! You barely survived one Vesten and one Vodacce...what makes you think you can survive an entire army if they choose to come after you?"
"SHHHRAAA! We are already healing! We know how they fight now. We WILL survive! 'Choose to come'?!" The Avalon heard the harsh crack. Immediately, David ducked as a huge chunk of rock he could barely see shattered against the cavern wall above him. "Of COURSE the army of flesh will come! Come to their DEATHS! They cannot resist...pride for war will be their undoing! Among other things..."
"And common sense will be yours, Arctius." David grimaced in disgust, finally drawing the pistol. He fumbled a bit with the satchel, making sure it was once more latched shut tightly. He glanced over towards the crevasse, weighing the situation and recalling what he had been told about his ammunition. He only had the one ball of amber shot. "Monsters like you need to stay buried. Posen would know better - no one's coming for you!"
"For us? Perhaps not..." The creature's laughter echoed darkly in the doctor's head. "But for you, fleshling, the female would tear down the very gates of your so-called 'Abyss' themselves!"
"Grace..." The Highlander's name escaped his lips before he knew it. David flinched and shook his head frantically, as if to convince himself more than the Arctius. The pistol felt so heavy in his hand. Any number of things could go wrong. The air could be too damp. Or he'd miss regardless of the beast's size. Or a misfire. Or it'd have no effect. Or... "No, no. She's too smart. She'd never put the Explorers at risk like that. Not for me."
"Poor, deluded gnat!" The Arctius laughed again, harsh and mocking. "The guilt and shame she has for doubting your innocence - not to mention, the want. Flesh seeks flesh..."
David's breath caught in his throat again and he shuddered. Grace. Smart Grace, stubborn Grace. Coming back for a stranger that should have stayed forgotten. She would do it too, dragging her friends with her. The only sound the Avalon could make now was a short rasp. His shoulders slumped as he looked down at the pistol, hidden in the shadows.
"...and they will come. SHE will come. And we will feed and grow and spread ourselves far from this miserable pit. We will finally RULE!"
The doctor straightened himself up and stared straight into the inky depths ahead of him. He pushed aside the doubts and fears threatening to freeze him and focused only on what needed to be done. He had tried to neutralize this threat with reason - to let it stay entombed in spite of the atrocities it committed - but the danger the Arctius now presented was far too great. Theah was not ready for this. And David couldn't risk the Arctius' horrific desires coming to pass.
"Lady, stand now with your servant and your Son in this place of darkness and guide his hand against evil," whispered David.
"More foolish denials, fleshling?" The unholy aberration flexed its massive vines, scraping against the roof of the cavern. The Arctius screeched and cackled in triumph. Rocks fell around him, but the Avalon remained in place. "Your kind's end will soon be FINISHED!"
"No, monster," David's voice was resigned but controlled as he finally raised the pistol. "The only end coming is yours and mine."
"What nonsense is THIS?! We-"
As he pulled the trigger and fell back into the crevasse, David could only hope that Grace and her allies had gotten far enough away in time.
"-again, hitting Sigurd (again) should only be a last resort, Ulf. Even a man as thick as him has to rea-!"
The roar as sharp as thunder interrupted Fortunato. Both men immediately looked up to see if the darkening Eisen skies were bringing on another storm. The ground underneath them suddenly rumbled and shook mightily, knocking Fortunato flat. Ulf only fared slightly better, driven down to a knee as he carefully cradled the still-unconscious Grace. As the two men struggled to regain their bearings, a huge gout of orange flame erupted clear over the treeline behind them, sending rock and molten debris flying.
"...Theus..." was all that Fortunato could whisper.
At the edge of the woods, they came across two of the keep's servants and Father Sigurd. "Wyrm's teeth!" The Vendel priest's mouth gaped in shock at the billowing dark smoke. "What did you-?!"
The scowl on Ulf's face immediately silenced Sigurd, though his eyes still bulged in surprise. Seeing the unconscious Explorer in the Vesten's arms caused the Vendel to hastily take a healthy step back.
"Mannheim. It was Mannheim all along. He was in league with some sort of monster," Fortunato shook his head grimly. "Doctor Foreman, he...he didn't make it. He bought us time to get away." He shook his head again, gaze falling upon Grace, then back towards the smoke. "I don't know what he did back there, but he gave his life for us."
Much to the survivors' surprise, a boat bearing the markings of Posen arrived in a couple of hours and with it, a small cadre of soldiers. The captain of the guard told them that the explosion had been seen and heard all the way from Insel and they were there to investigate. What wasn't said but was heavily implied was that refusal was NOT an option.
In a search of Mannheim's quarters, a small vial of brown liquid was found hidden in a dresser. It reeked of the same burnt almond scent that had tainted the Baron's brandy.
A half-hour after midnight, Grace finally regained consciousness and asked for David. Fortunato and Ulf looked at each other uncomfortably, then the Vodacce delivered the news. The Highlander said nothing, just turned away back into bed and allowed herself to quietly cry.
"Who was he, Ulf?" In Insel, the Explorers had taken rooms at Der Rote Hengst. Fortunato took it upon himself to attend the inquest, leaving Ulf and Grace to rest and recover. The chest containing the first empty seed pod of the Arctius had been set in the corner. It had taken them the majority of the boat trip back to Insel to convince Posen's guards to let the Explorers take custody of it, but now it sat ignored. Grace swirled her tumbler of whisky, still untouched. "I mean, if I write to Burke, they're gonna tell me Doctor David Foreman doesn't exist, right?" She set the glass down, hands flung in the air in frustration. "Theus, I just met the bloody man! He was a liar, probably a thief too. I just...I just-!"
The Vesten placed a hand gently on Grace's shoulder. "Grace, whoever he was, whatever crimes he had done, it does not matter anymore. What matters is, in the end, David Foreman did a heroic thing. His ancestors should be proud of that." Ulf offered Grace a sad smile. "It is all right to have cared about him, Grace."
Grace sighed. "I hate feelin' like this, Ulf. Hate givin' him that sort o' power over me. Just not right! But..." She sniffed, rubbing her sleeve against her nose. "...I would have liked to have known him better anyway." Grace chewed her bottom lip, hesitating. Then... "David did-"
"Merda!" A red-faced Fortunato suddenly stormed into the room. "How could we have been so STUPID?!"
"Vodacce, as always, your timing is so good," Ulf said dryly.
"Not a word, Ulf. This is serious. There was another murderer on the isle and we all let him slip away! And Grace, before you get angry at me again, no, it wasn't Foreman," Gritting his teeth, Fortunato paced. "We should have realized it from the start!"
"Brother Tedmund's murder, Ulf! I was WITH Mannheim, remember? And you two were with Sigurd..."
"...but if David didn't do it, who did?" Grace rose from her chair in shock.
"One of the Baron's servants. No one suspected him, but he snuck away when the boat arrived in Insel. He never came to the inquest with the others! The bald one. Gabriel, I think his name was. According to the other servants, he's not even Eisen!" The Vodacce shook his head in disbelief. "Three months ago, Mannheim brought him back to the Isle as a new hire. And, get this, HE was out with Hans on that supposed boar hunt. Mannheim must have had him do his dirty work to try and frame Foreman. But now he's gone..."
"Gods!" Ulf grimaced. "What if he was infected by that aberration as well? He could be anywhere!"
"Posen's guards are on the look-out at the city gates and the harbor, he can't have gotten that far." Fortunato looked worried, however. "Theus, I don't want to think about more Arctiuses out there, hiding and waiting."
"We should do a perimeter around this inn just in case he is thinking about making a move against us. He might be attempting some sort of ambush," Ulf slapped Fortunato's back. "Let us go, Vodacce!"
"But I just GOT back!" protested the young Swordsman. "Besides, he'd have to be insane to stay in the city."
But the Vesten was already pushing Fortunato out of the room. Hearing the two men bicker and call each other names brought a tiny smile to Grace's eyes in spite of herself. She sighed, shaking her head as Ulf and Fortunato's voices grew fainter. She sat back down and pulled up her tunic. Then she carefully unwrapped the bandage around her torso. The linen was stiff where her blood had dried, but soon the deed was done.
No scar. No stitchwork. Where the seedling had pierced Grace, her skin was now pink and new. She tentatively stroked where the wound had been with a finger. It still felt tender, but of that nightmarish attack there was no longer any sign.
"Just who were you, David Foreman?" whispered Grace.
He supposed he should have felt sadness for the loss of the Arctius. It had the same needs as him, after all - to be free and to feed certain appetites. And, if the monster plant had succeeded, he would have been fine with it ruling Theah. He had tried such power grabs before in his worse moments and knew he had no patience for it, even addictive as it was. Far too dangerous in the long run.
And perhaps he should grieve Mannheim's death as well. Mannheim, so easy to fall under his control. There was kinship there, faint though it was, and he was loathe to lose it after all this time. But, in the end, the Eisen wouldn't have been strong enough. Letting the Arctius have him was a suitable price to pay.
Even if it was all for naught. No...no, it wasn't for naught. He was off the Isle, wasn't he? Free to move back among people and gratify his urges again. Surely, enough time had passed and he had taken enough to make it past Insel. Granted, the death of the Eisen Inquisitor had been lacking with his signature incomplete. It would have served him right if Tedmund had been one of his after all. But the risk had paid off and ample blood was spilt. It hopefully would hold him until he was far past Insel, maybe even to Freiburg itself.
He'd have much to think on that journey too. Fragments slowly weaving together, forming a complex tapestry from the murky swells of his past. But one particular thread kept twisting in and out of his story, a snarl too tight to just keep ignoring.
The fires from the explosion made it too dangerous to approach the cavern's once-hidden entrance. But he was on the coastline of the Isle, on his way back towards the grotto - and where a sea-fed crack led another path to the lair of the Arctius. This had been the way he had entered with Hans originally. Just as he approached, he heard the very sky scream in pain as a blood-red rift tore open. He ducked behind the craggy rocks as a woman stepped out...and then pulled up the coughing, half-drowned Avalon doctor from the waters. She murmured something in Montaigne about keeping his eyes closed, then ushered him through the portal. In a few moments, it closed up as if it was never there to begin with.
David Foreman was alive. Just as Gabriel knew he would be. Pulling up the hood of his cloak, he smiled faintly as he passed through the last gate out of Insel. Their paths would cross again.