Cole knew the way back into the castle well, and so led them on in silence. Harl remembered the fear that’d frozen his veins as he and the other lads had followed him the first time, and it was hard still to reconcile that fear with the figure of the man in front of him. The man who’d lain naked, vulnerable and battered half to death in the sweep of the sea water as Harl had tried to save him. Cole had become something other than the dark figure in the sweeping coat, his face always hidden by the shadows made by his wide-brimmed hat.
“You can stop bloody well staring at me now.” Cole hissed back at him. “What happened back there… well, it aint worth dwelling on.”
“You were trying to pay for all you done. That’s worth something.” Harl whispered back.
The man grunted, “It aint much.”
Harl tried to form the words that would make the man see what he’d become now instead, but the black spaces leading off of their path were as empty as his head as he fought for something wise to say.
“There are creatures behind all these doors?” He finally asked, already knowing the answer, but needing to fill the silence.
Cole nodded as his path swept him onwards. “All put there when they were no older than you, or there-abouts.”
“And this is the way to Orinius?”
“Aye lad. This is the way. You thought on what you going to do once you face him again? Is it a quick dagger in the guts you’ll be giving him?”
Harl stumbled a little in the dark and Cole turned back, his face in darkness, the only lights the occasional torches from more well-kept corridors.
“Think on it soon boy. There’s been those who’ve tried to stick him in the guts before. He aint easy to kill.”
Harl thought on the man’s words. “Only because you stopped them that one time.”
“Aye, and there might be others that stand between you and him. Some that might still take a blade for him.”
Harl thought for a moment before he asked what he wanted to know. “Why did you? Why did you help him?!”
Cole was quiet for so long Harl thought that he was never going to answer him. And then he finally spoke. “You’ve been one of the boys, one of the stolen ones. You know what’s like to leave everything you know. And you’re woods-voln. Back when I was taken by Skylin’s masters and brought to the castle on my own bloody cart I was the only woods-born lad. And Orinius was the only Denosian. My sharp bones and his golden skin couldn’t have stood out more. And he’s got this way about him… it’s hard to bloody explain.”
“You liked him.”
“Gods, lad.” He grumbled, but didn’t deny it. They walked on in silence for a bit longer, each step bringing them closer and closer to Orinius.
“Then he was put in charge.” Harl carried on as though that long silence between them hadn’t existed.
“Yeah. Well, I didn’t care if he thought he was the master of me. Just saw how he was changing. Or maybe that were the way he always was. Thought he was a poor little lost slave boy, taken from his folk like me. But maybe he was always what he is now. A monster.”
He didn’t speak again until their path had taken them past familiar sights. The old smeared windows looking down on the courtyards reminded Harl of his escape with Fysiwon; how the boy creature had tumbled them both over the walls and out to freedom. With Cole racing after them on his mare.
Some time later he almost walked into the man’s back when he stopped suddenly. Harl could just make out the outline of the corridor, the faint torchlight flickering with just enough nearby light to show up the long walk down to the wooden door at the far end. A smell drifted back to them, the rank stink of urine, and Harl could make out a shine on the floor; a recent wetness. This was where the boys he’d arrived with had stood while waiting for their unknown fate beyond the wooden door. The measuring that’d followed had not lived up to the piss inducing fear that they’d suffered in waiting. But it seemed as though the cart they’d seen ahead of them on the road had deposited it’s cargo here already, and boys had been afraid here again. Anger flared in Harl, and he was surprised when the numerous black claws he’d made to climb re-emerged from his palms. He flexed his hands, willing them back in. They stayed.
“The hour is late, and Orinius might be in his chamber. He locks it from the inside.” Cole said in the near dark.
Harl nodded and stepped ahead of the man to push the door open, the spiky claws catching slightly on the wood and tugging at his skin. The familiar orange glow of the study washed over Harl’s face as he moved in; determined, but slow and stealthy.
As Cole had thought, the room was empty. But different. Orinius had often been too distracted by his ‘great’ thoughts to tidy up his books and papers; Harl taking on some of that task when he’d been acting as his reluctant apprentice. But now the shelves were near bare; numerous books had been rooted through and cast aside without any care for how they’d landed or how their spines had been cracked. Sheaves of paper were covered in increasingly frantic scribblings, then scrunched up and thrown about. Candles were dripping dangerously low, their small flames dancing just next to the paper maelstrom that Orinius had created. At least, Harl assumed that it’d been Orinius. He’d never been so careless before… and all Harl could think was that his escape had changed something.
Cole was circling the room carefully too, his crossbow drawn and held ready. “He’s on the edge something. His own madness, perhaps. He’s never been so chaotic. Your change must have surprised him greatly. His blessed bloody ‘science’ didn’t prepare him for what happened. You must have deeply unsettled him.” Cole whispered, not entirely managing to keep the dark glee out of his hushed voice.
Harl picked up a nearby book. Scribbled over the measurements and the descriptions of methods was another hand. Orinius’s. The comments he’d written were harsh judgements on previous masters and their approaches to solving some “mystery”. Orinius’s superiority, and somehow his insecurity, bled into every single sneering word he’d scrawled right across the words at crazy angles. Another book had even more jagged writing over the older ink. Orinius was raging about needing to solve the mystery as “time is running out.” His words went on before becoming illegible, “The end of this life is near and he rages, and rages, and rages. His inspiration has not slowed me down, but I have no successes to report back to him! I have nothing to trade for my life or for the future of this…” Nonsense followed, the odd word making a shapes Harl almost knew, but nothing he was certain of.
“Orinius is very worried about something. Someone is very angry with him.”
“Lios most like. This has been his pet project for centuries.”
“But why?!” Harl realised his voice had risen and he brought it back under control again. “Why does he want the power of these poor caged creatures when he’s a god?”
“Because… maybe he aint?” Cole did not back away from the blasphemy. “What’s he done to prove it in the past, what, couple’a hundred years?! Or maybe more than that?!”
Harl nodded thoughtfully while he walked the rest of the room, finding the odds and ends that Orinius had not trashed in his efforts at his great ‘science’. The chest where Cole’s roarer had been. Smaller chests bound with elegant silver bandings, suggesting wealth inside. A few coin purses. Wine glasses, some partly filled with soured and vile smelling red wine. Plates of abandoned food left to rot.
“This room is as disturbing as the inside of Orinius’s mind” Cole grumbled.
Harl was about to reply when something caught his eye. It was near buried under the masses of books on his desk, and it had looked at first like a black stain, rather than the red of blood that it was. He touched cautious finger tips to it. It was dry, and quite old.
“Cole…” Harl began, but was interrupted by the opening of a door set discretely into the wall in an alcove. A dishevelled figure emerged from the lit up room beyond it. Wearing a thick but food stained robe, Orinius was thinner even than Harl remembered, his face a near skull mask; his golden skin had thinned and paled. Without his glasses on, he blinked and muttered to himself, blindly looking about the study and squinting. Orinius finally locked eyes with Harl and then Cole, making out there shapes with his limited eyesight.
“Good! Good! You brought him back, Cole. I’d thought you were lost to the bottle again, but you have found and returned our lost subject. Good!”
As the man moved closer Harl’s eyes finally found what was wrong about the man. And it was not the messiness of his appearance, his thinning shape, or the fierce light of sick triumph that gleamed in his eyes. It was the stump of his arm at the elbow, bandaged round with brown blood stained material that poked out from his sleeve.