It felt like hours passed while they sat on the hard stone floor of their cell-like room and talked. Or rather, Harl talked and Cole listened. He told him of the music and the stories he’d brought to Fysiwon, of how the shape in the darkness had only finally spoken to him after what they’d… he’d done… to Eris. Of how the voice in the darkness become his only friend in the castle. Of the strange fog and the spiders. The poisonings that the voice had been behind. Of how Fysiwon had come and fetched him away out of the castle and given him an impossible quest. Of the small pain that had given Harl something else, something that he was only just beginning to feel moving about in his blood and flesh.
Cole spoke little, but Harl recognised the small gestures of upset the man made when Harl mentioned how close he’d come to be with the monster boy in his room. That was a closeness Cole had never known, he’d had only sharp teeth and pain. Finally, Harl got to where they were now, the tricks he’d pulled with the wounds, the whore, the wall, and the brute in this very building. And yes, the trick he’d worked with Cole himself; forbidding him from talking about what was happening to Harl. Making him forget.
“No. That’s not what you did.” Said Cole and it was the most he had spoken during the whole of Harl’s storytelling.
“You never forbid me from remembering, lad.” Cole shifted on the hard ground. Hours earlier a chalk faced woman had come round with a large woven basket tied to her back. It had been full of coarse milled bread and water skins. The charity of the dead to the living. The remnants of Cole’s bread now lay on his crossed legs, long ago forgotten. “I knew. I just couldn’t tell anyone else about it.” The woods-voln man’s face was in shadow as he spoke, the hour was late… or early.
“Would you have done, if I hadn’t…?” he paused unable to put in words what he’d done to Cole.
“Charmed me? Ensorcelled me? Gods, you don’t even know!”
Harl shugged. “I don’t know anything. Stupid city-born woods-voln aint I?”
Cole chuckled. “You’re not to be blamed. Even what I know is scraped together from a hundred conversations with Orinius, that slippery fucking bugger! If I could have at least got him drunk I could have got more words out of him, but he always refused the drink. No, what I know is rumour and some clues Orinius let drop to tempt and to taunt me.”
Cole shifted in the dark, uncomfortable on the stone.
“What I know is this… Lios has always wanted the power of the tainted. He needs it, I think. He’s pushed coin after golden coin into the long work of those that are working at the castle of the dead gods. Boys like you… like us, have always been thrown into that pit. Some die of course. The ones in the rooms kill them.”
Something Cole had said was niggling at his thoughts, but he couldn’t bring it to his tongue. He followed Cole’s words about the creatures in the rooms instead. “Lots of them are not right in the head.”
“They’re insane, aye. Some boys survive, but scarred.” He gestured to himself, his torso under coat and clothes with a flourish. “The masters. Servants of that great machine of sacrifice. They might well be insane too. Gods know Orinius is.”
“He was untouched.”
“It happens. And you know what he wanted you to be when he thought you were untouched too.”
“In a long line of replacements for the master of the castle. Reporting their ‘science’ directly to Lios at the centre of the world.” Cole laughed darkly. “Then there’s the ones like you.”
Harl avoided the man’s eyes, even though he could only faintly make them out in the dark. “Tainted.”
“Putting the boys in with those monsters was always about trying to spread the… call it a curse if you like. But, trust me and mark this well, Lios wants it so it’s not so much a curse and more of a power. Every so often, sometimes not for years, a boy is infected, like with the poxes in the cities. Orinius, and all his bloody ancestors, have been trying to find out why a particular boy is chosen over another. So they can make it happen to their will. To Lios’ will.”
“Gods, they might not mean a fucking thing!” Cole laughed and there was a wild note in the sound that Harl did not like. He moved in the dark and seemed to be wiping his face with his hand. Outside shouts told them that the denizens of the Ossuary were still awake as well. Laughter and screams mingled.
“He wants to predict who is chosen.” Harl said, thinking on Cole’s words.
“I’ll give you a hundred golden lions if there’s any bloody pattern to it at all.” He groaned in the dark.
“Bloody Orinius. Too smart for his own bloody good. I knew him when he was a boy. Saved his damned life, more fool me!”
“You told me.”
He laughed. “Was I drunk? I feel drunk now in a way. Gods damn you, boy. You didn’t even think it through.” Cole staggered to his feet. “I have to go out now.”
“Now?!” Harl stood too to stop him, and even as he barred his way he felt the heat emanating off of him. “You’re sick?!”
“I aint sick, lad. I’m charmed.” Cole staggered and try to push past him. “I haven’t been a-looking for your mother all this day. Too busy hunting your wayward arse!” He sounded delirious. “I have to go. I have to look for her!!”
Harl stopped, barely able to breath, thinking about how he’d grabbed at the tall man and commanded him. “I never said it like that!”
“You think this bloody curse cares? Tell me, bloody ‘Five Six One’, when he gave you this quest, did he do it like this? Did he put it in your blood with all the rest of it?”
Harl paused, remembering. Fysiwon talking about ramming it all down Lios’ throat. Thanking him for questing for him. The small pain he’d felt before Fysiwon had fallen over the edge of the cliff. “I… I don’t know.”
“Maybe not, if you’re not getting sick over not doing what he told you to do.” Cole pushed at Harl. “Now let me past. I can scout for your mother and be back within the hour. Sometimes that’s enough. Or maybe you can take this away? How about that, lad, want to help me out? I’ll still look for her, I just won’t have to.”
Harl paused and it was long enough for Cole to understand his mind.
“You little shit.”
“Maybe I can’t even take it away!”
“You could try. But you won’t.”
“I’ll come with you! You can’t go alone through the Ossuary anyway-”
“You’re more of a liability than a help! Or are you going to distract all the cutters and rapers with your pretty young skin again?!”
“Fuck you Cole!”
Cole laughed, coughed, and spat. “Fine. Come with me. They can slide their blades into two of us just as well as one.”
Harl nodded and moved away to let him go from the darkness of their cell to the corridor. Cole locked their door behind them, less to protect their meagre belongings than to make certain that they’d still have a room when they returned. Then their passage through the workhouse was slow and cautious, the long corridors were full of drunk and passed out bodies that would suddenly writhe and reach out as they passed. The few white faced ghosts they saw were either guiding the worst of them to some other place, or passing through as well, but with even less concern for the mortals about them.
A few stumbling men threatened them, but turned away quickly enough when Cole drew back his cloak to show his dagger and crossbow. Harl was pleased they fled. But still… he found that there was a disconcerting itch in his hand as he thought about using the same power on them and making them turn from their rage, as he had done with the brute in the halls before.
Finally, they made it to a door that let out to the night’s air, rather than yet another floor of the workhouse, or one of the other outstretched arms of the building. The grounds of the Ossuary were just the same as it’d been the night before when they’d arrived, and Harl again saw indistinct figures wandering in the distance over the grey and near lifeless ground. He hoped that if he and Cole left them well enough alone, they might return the favour.
He looked up at the man walking silently by his side. “How do you feel now?”
Cole glared down at him. “You could take this away and I’d feel better enough.”
“How far do you need to walk do you think? Do you need to check new areas, or talk to people who might have seen her-” They were walking over the low squat bridge, and Harl saw that the small hairy arm was now gone from where it had lain the night before.
“Shut up Harl. Gods, I hope your pet beast did really charm you into a fatal quest like trying to get revenge on Lios in his own bloody palace!”
Harl was silenced. The man was perhaps right to be angry, but even so he could not try and take away this command on him. He needed to find his mother.
They walked dark streets for a while, following some elaborate path of Cole’s design. Harl thought he must be still trying to avoid the streets Jerekyn and his men might be haunting, but even if that was the plan, it was not to be successful.
Five dark shapes detached themselves from the shadows as they walked by the remains of the days’ business in the furrows of a street overlooked by butcher’s shops and tanners.
“Hello there!” Said an overly friendly voice. “Tell me, is your hair always so dark, or is perhaps the night’s sky trying to cover up your sharp bones?”
Cole pushed back his coat and pulled his crossbow and dagger to hand. Harl went for his dagger also, only for a moment grabbing at the fox skull by mistake before getting a shaking hand to the steel.
“Leave us be, or go home bleeding.” Said Cole.
“Home?” The speaker was female but no gilded beauty like Estille. She was a street fighter; vivid scars, and with muscles as big as those of the men she was leading. “I had plans to take your head to the Light of Lios this night, Cole Child Buyer.”
Cole fired his crossbow at her, giving up on diplomacy almost immediately.
It thudded into her side and she fell. But four more surrounded them as she held a hand to the piercing wound in her side and cursed them by all the names of the bastard gods she could summon.
“Fucking mistake.” Growled one of the men.
“Why? You heard her, she wants my head. I’d nothing to gain by coming quietly, now had I?” He was weaving his dagger in front of him, ready for any circling attack. But still they were only two and the thugs were four, and angered at their boss’s wounding.
Harl’s mind raced. If he could make contact with one of them maybe he’d have a moment to turn them on the rest, if this power to charm worked in the heat of that moment? Or could he summon the claws from his flesh to be able to climb up and out of this long street the men were blocking? But that would leave Cole to their daggers…
A shot suddenly rung out, deafening him. And then Harl realised it wasn’t just daggers that they should be wary of. The woman in black rogue leathers on the ground renewed her cursing, but this time aiming it at the youngest of the men she’d had with her, the one holding a smoking roarer.
“What?! He shot you!”
“You fucking moron, Brint!” She spat on the ground again. “Bara’s riddled with button men, and if not them then the fucking city guard! Get me up!” Brint ran over to her and pulled her to her feet. She began laughing. “Well at least you killed the fucking woods-voln!”
For a moment Harl thought she meant him, and starting patting and checking himself over for a gaping bullet wound the shock had dulled the pain from. But he was fine.
Cole was on the ground, his dagger skitted away into the street’s gutter.
“It’s okay boy. Jerekyn still thinks you have some worth. He’ll get you another loving father-”
He threw the dagger ineptly and only its handle impacted in the woman’s gut. But with the crossbow bolt sticking out of her just nearby it was enough to wring an angry wail of pain from her.
“Just bloody well get him!” She shrieked and the three other men started towards Harl as he stood protectively over Cole. Then they all heard the sound of running feet and a high pitched sound as someone blew on a clay whistle.
“The guard?!” One of the men shouted.
But he was wrong. It wasn’t the lazy, corrupt, and incompetent guard that came running down the long street in their fine blue coats with shining buttons, golden roarers in hand. It was five button men led by one Harl knew all too well, his smug smile and dead eyes imprinted on his mind and nightmares.
Captain Dren Rickarn.