Orinius saw him looking. “Ah, this? Yes, a sweet little incentive from our dearest friend the Captain. You remember Dren Rickarn don’t you, boy? Doesn’t like the name Dren. Dren. Dren, Dren, Dren.” Orinius’ voice sounded high and tight. “Took my left arm which doesn’t matter at all. Got my right hand for writing still. Got my right hand for taking down the numbers. Stupid right hand can’t find the pattern though.” He was staring with wide eyes at his right hand, watching as it flexed and wriggled in front of his face. “Stupid right hand can pull down the books, and let the eyes to see what’s put inside them, but stupid right hand can’t work out why you were chosen. Stupid right hand!” His head suddenly lunged forward and his teeth clamped about his own hand, bearing down into the flesh mercilessly.
Harl gasped and took a step backwards. Cole instantly brought up his dagger, confusion clear on his face as Orinius spoke again, his words muffled by his hand, until he finally took it out, blood pooling from teeth marks deep in it, and spoke again.
“I said, you’ve done well in bringing him back woods-voln. Good boy. A treat for you later.”
Cole growled, “I didn’t bloody well bring him back for you!”
Orinius paused and looked at them both, his eyes boggling from one to the other. “Ah. Ahhhh! Still standing in the way of the blade, is that it Cole? No matter. Chains and a deep dark room await him anyway. And a quick death for you. Bad dog!”
“Touch him and you’ll lose that other arm.”
Orinius tsked and moved forward, swaying and near bumping into stacks of books as he did. “You won’t kill me, Cole. We’re friends from days and days back. You stopped them when they hated me before. And this time they truly hate me. It was hard enough to be in charge when I was whole… but now… I don’t look so different from them. Some have gone already you know. Some took the sea way. Some got washed away when they tried it. Some just walked out the main gates. But when they come for me again, with shanks in their hands, you’ll be there again, won’t you Cole?! Won’t you?” he shouted and pleaded.
Orinius did stop then and looked directly at Cole. “Perhaps. Perhaps. But Lios wants to know how the trick is done. He wants this to work this time a-round. So I’ve got a task and I’ve got a vaster incentive. Dren, Dren, Dren.” He half sang as he waved his bandage stump towards Cole.
“We’re here to end this!” Harl shouted suddenly.
“Oh, is that so? What will you do little monster?” Orinius smirked. “Kill me and another will be put in charge. Lios wants the trick, he wants it so bad he can near enough taste it.” He was getting closer, swaying with every step as he focussed his blood shot and staring wide eyes on Harl. “What will you do?”
“Stop there!” Harl acted without thinking, holding up his hand as he shouted at the man. Orinius squinted at the palm of his hand, at the numerous sharp black claws emerging from there.
“Ah… such pretty little changes at first. Something helpful, yes? Then they happen when you don’t mean them too. Until there’s nothing left. Nothing.”
Cole was staring too. “Harl…?”
“It’s nothing. I can control it.” A thought occurred. “I can control you!”
Orinius laughed, even as Harl lunged forward and grabbed his remaining right hand, puncturing him a little with the sharp ends of the claws. “I’ve seen that kind of trick done before. Your friend even managed it with spiders, of all damned things. A neat trick, but you can’t make me do anything that’d help you.”
Harl paused. “I could make you obey me.”
“I could… I could make you tell Lios the project has failed.”
“And he’d believe one man over hundreds of years of research? Hundreds of years that birthed new monsters in the dark. Think boy! Think!”
“I could make you tell the masters to open all the doors! Let them all free!”
Orinius stopped and smirked. “You think it’s the doors that keep them in? Truly?”
Harl remembered Fysiwon begging him not to try to leave, the fear in the boy-creature’s voice reverberating in the dark. He remembered Cole telling him that all the creatures in the rooms were still scared little boys, too afraid to even face the masters when they opened the doors to let the new boys in or out. He’d claimed that he wasn’t scared, that Orinius would never be able to catch him up in the prison of his own mind like that. If they could only feel that way too… all of them…
He released Orinius’ hand. “You’re right. I cannot make you do anything.”
The older man smirked, looking triumphantly at Cole. “Thank you then, you’ve brought him back, and he’s already learning that its better, safer, just to give up. Just like his friend in five, six, one.”
“No.” Said Harl loudly. “Fysiwon didn’t give up. Not when he thought I was in danger. He found a way to help me. With the spiders. And with the fog.”
Pieces of the puzzle were coming together in Harl’s mind. Orinius had admitted it; Fysiwon had charmed the spiders. First to look out for him; to bite anyone who hurt him. And then, after he’d been taken to work for Orinius in his rooms, to find him. And the fog… the fog was how he’d given them those quests. How he’d charmed them. Suddenly with a burning clarity he saw what he needed to do.
“A last request?”
“I’m not afraid of you. And you shouldn’t be either.”
Orinius looked around, unsure of who he was addressing. But the ones he was talking to weren’t in this room. They were in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual cells. In the dark. Alone. Afraid.
“Don’t be scared any more” He said and breathed in deeply, calling upon the wyrd power within him. When he let the air go out from his lungs it was changed. A grey fog like gas escaped from him, weaved through with bands of red. Don’t be afraid any more. I’m not scared of them, and you shouldn’t be either. Be brave. Be courageous. It’s time to go.
“NO!” Yelled Orinius and darted forward. Cole was a moment too slow to respond, perhaps distracted by the heavy smoke-like clouds that were falling from Harl’s mouth and flowing from under his clothes; emerging from every pore. That second cost them both. Orinius grabbed at a quill and thumped it into Harl’s chest, making him stagger back, the cloud of fog disturbed and set to swirling even more by his sudden movements, but still it came from him. It went on its determined path to the doors of the room, undulating across the worn rugs and cold stone flagstones, before thinning enough to pass between the doors and their lintels. Beyond them it must have been flowing through the corridors. Harl gasped in pain, held his hand to his wound, and, grimacing, pushed out another thick bank of the cloud from his lungs with the next outwards breath.
Cole got to Orinius then, held him from behind and with a sudden upwards motion tore open his gut lengthways with his dagger. Red blood bloomed on the man’s elaborately embroidered robes, red making all the gold thread dull and dark. He fell, clutching at his stomach in panic. But he was ignored by Cole who was looking at Harl with an oddly blank expression on his face.
“You are hurt.” Cole said in a plain voice.
Harl was concentrating on the sending he was making and on ignoring the pain in his chest so he barely heard the man’s dulled voice. But he saw him as he started to walk away, heading towards the door leading back out into the castle and eventually to the sea entrance.
Sagging, Harl ended the fog, and took a normal, deep breath. The pain in his chest flared and he tightened his hold on it. “Cole?!”
The man did not stop. He walked calmly towards the door and went to reach for its handle.
All of a sudden Harl remembered his second charming of Cole. That if something bad should happen to him then the man should find his own way out to a life with some semblance of happiness. Harl fell to his knees and nodded. This was what he’d wanted for him. He nodded again, dizzy with loss of blood, and accepted what he’d done and how he’d die here, alone.
Footsteps. Cole was returning, pulling him to his feet and getting him to Orinius’s desk where he could look closer at his wound.
“I thought you were going?”
Cole frowned at him as he pulled his shirt to one side, separating it from the sticky blood that’d seeped through it. “Why would I…? Hush, there’s no time for chatting over things. You’re stabbed. Its deep but high. We wrap something about it and we go to-”
A scream, a man’s scream, interrupted him. The sound was familiar. Harl had heard it the night that Fysiwon had come looking for him, dragging the bodies of dead masters with him. But this time more screams came, a chorus of fear as more than just Fysiwon stalked the corridors and got his revenge upon the masters.
“We have to go!” Harl shouted, and jumped down from the desk, his legs nearly giving way beneath him. Cole took up his place at his side and supported him as they left Orinius’s body behind and retraced their path through the darkness of the castle; the fog swirling about their feet still feeding Harl’s bravery to the captives in the rooms. Other figures ran there, masters in their grey robes and terrified, but freed, boys, both seemingly unsure of where to be going. Some trailed after them for a bit, and then chose other corridors. Some that ended with their nightmarish screams again. Dark shadows swirled in the junctions of their path, moving on and staying just out of sight.
“They’re avoiding us.” Cole said, stopping to gather his breath at the thick glass of a long window. Below them Harl saw the great quadrangles of the castle, and below in them tiny figures scurrying in the dark as huge shadow shapes flowed across the grass towards them. Some of the shapes were contracting and growing again, for seconds appearing almost humanoid, before flowing into things with leathery wings and stretched out arms ending in tearing claws. Masters were being killed as he watched.
“Let’s hope they bloody well continue to!” Harl said firmly.
They moved on again, retracing their steps until they emerged from the stone arch onto the sea swept path. Dawn was coming, lighting their way again, and showing where others were ahead of them. There were masters, their grey robes drenched by sea spray. Harl watched as one lost his footing in the winding line and dragged another with him over the edge and into the sea.
Even those that were still managing to keep their feet to the path had their success snatched from them by a tumbling black shape that came swirling out of the maelstrom of the waves and dragged several down with long near translucent tentacles, their screams ending as salt water filled their mouths.
“We’ll never make it past that?!” Shouted Cole over the roar of the sea and the creature within it.
Harl felt his old fear of the water growing inside him. And then he heard Fysiwon’s voice in his head, repeating back to him his own words.
Be brave. Be courageous. It’s time to go.
He started forward, Cole brought along with him, still supporting him. “You’re mad, we’ll never get through!”
But when they were level with the beast that was part sea and part lost boy it was stilled, watching Harl pass. But it began moving again when it saw Cole, drawing closer and tracing its flowing parts near him, but not touching.
“He is with me!” Harl shouted, and began walking onwards defiantly. The beast ducked back into the water, re-emerging further up on the path to wash over more of the line of masters and push them down into the broken rooms, crushing their bodies against the wall where the iron rings and the hemp ropes were set. Their broken bodies flowed outwards into the sea and were lost.
Finally, Harl and Cole made it up the slippery steps to firm ground, running with the few remaining masters around the arc of the castle’s walls. More people were ahead of them. Boys who had made it out had forced their way after the masters who’d fled through the main gates. They were running, streaming away from the castle as best that they could. Harl and Cole, still struggling to run while the man near carried them both, caught up with those just coming through, and kept pace with them as they headed across the flat ground in front of the castle and towards the woods.
Great crashing noises behind them spurred them on, but Harl took a second to look backwards.
The bricks of the castle, black and porous, were bursting out from towers and walls, and the creatures that had been held within were crawling out, clambering over the outside of the castle. Some spread themselves out, great confusions of limbs and smoke like chaos, and took to the air, flapping many parts of themselves in defiance of the castle and the ground far below. Others skittered over the outside and charged onwards to the fleeing humans. Some of the people running were caught and either chewed up by the rampage, and battered into the ground, or they were broken by great maws of teeth and rage. Cole and Harl made great speed towards the treeline and hid there, watching the streams of dark shadow creatures flowing towards them. Watching as they turned at the last minute before they impacted with the trees, heading instead north or south of their hiding place, hunting for new places.
Finally, a stillness settled and the two of them emerged from the deep shadows of the trees. The castle ahead of them was a broken shape, slumped down on one side, and parts of it still falling into the sea or onto the earth.
“It’s over.” Cole said finally. “It’s dead.”
“What did I do?” Harl asked finally, unable to entirely grasp their flight from the castle still.
“You did what you could.” Cole said, looking down at him with serious eyes. “You did what was left to you.”
“Was it the right thing?” Harl asked, looking up and hoping he’d say it was.
“I don’t know, lad.” He looked about them, seeing the few figures still hiding about the trees or running for their lives. “Time will tell, Harl, time will tell.”