'What were you thinking?!'
Dylis' hand movements were fast. It was only years' experience of being woken up by his sister at the crack of dawn that allowed Glaw to interpret them as signs. 'Sorry,' he managed to answer. His limbs felt heavy and warm as if he'd been lying in the sun all day. 'Water?'
There was an arm helping him to sit up. Glaw pressed his face into Dylis' jacket and took a deep breath, rejoicing in the familiar smell of it. His sister's solid presence had been returned to him and as he gulped down delicious water he carefully pushed aside all that had happened before their reunion. His brain would catch up with him soon enough. He just wanted to cling to Dylis for a little bit, soak in the feeling of utter safety.
Glaw gave a laugh, making sure to turn his head and chest so Dylis would feel the vibrations the sound caused. 'The chocolate helped.' It was a nice memory to fixate on, a nice moment to think of instead of what he might catch a glimpse of if he took his eyes off the stains on Dylis' shirt. 'We got food, and a horse, outside Growth. Made it all the way to the demon forest. That's where we met the others.'
"And then you were stupid enough to go all the way back to Palace and get yourself recaptured."
Hearing Dylis speak such a long sentence started Glaw enough for him to tilt his head up and have a look at her face. It was her; the same scars, the same square jaw, the same piercing eyes. But she sounded all wrong.
'Spell,' Dylis signed. 'Got hearing now, of a sort. Don't know how long it'll last. No shouting or I'll stab you.'
'Right.' Glaw would have asked more, but his surroundings tore his attention away from Dylis. Three of the walls looked ordinary enough, though one of them was oddly rounded. The fourth, the one furthest away from where he lay, was a crisscross of wooden bars and a door that was more holes than anything else. Other than him and Dylis, Thais was there, bent over the lifeless bodies of Lykos and Vita.
Everything was rocking slightly. It made his stomach roll.
The smell of saltwater that surrounded them was strong, stronger than it ever had been back in the harbor of Trade. The sway of the ship had Glaw seasick within the hour and he spent the better part of the first day throwing up his meager breakfast and lunch into the only bucket in their small cell, which he'd heard the crew affectionately call the 'piss bucket'.
The stench of urine did nothing to ease his upset stomach. Thais, however, did. Her hands were soothing as balm on a burn, massaging his back until her hands had to ache. She had Dylis rub at his forehead with a wet rag (he doubted that he'd want to know where they'd gotten a hold of the piece of cloth; the color didn't match any of their clothes,) while she tended to Vita and Lykos.
Despite all this, some small, childlike part of his brain couldn't help but be so happy it wanted to shout and sing. Dylis was there. Dylis would make everything better.
'The guards?' Thais signed, getting up from where she'd knelt next to Vita.
'Still watching. Just being more clever about it.' Dylis stood facing the bars. There had been a guard stationed outside the door to the brig the day before, but that had only lasted about four minutes after Dylis had gotten her bearings. Glaw suspected the choke hold she'd put the man in had been more a test than an actual escape attempt.
As it was the guards stayed well away from the brig and the corridor outside it. The very visible corridor, thanks to the quite hole-filled wall that faced it. Bars weren't the best thing to hide things behind, though of course that went both ways. What they did, the guards saw, from whatever hiding place they were lurking in.
Thais shuffled over to Lykos and reached out to sign against the back of Dylis' right knee. Glaw felt pretty proud of showing her that trick. 'Do they have red shells?'
'Yes. Seems they are the armed ones. The few living crew members are workers, as far as I can tell.'
A groan called Glaw's attention to Lykos. They idiot had made an attempt to sit up.
<Lie still,> Thais said. <I've just puzzled you back together and I would appreciate it if you didn't let my hard work go to waste.>
Glaw gave her a look. She was covering her exhaustion well, but there was no paint or powder to hide the dark circles under her eyes. She'd spent every moment since they'd been locked up healing the rest of them. He suddenly felt very guilty for being seasick.
<What happened?> Lykos' voice was gravelly and faint. Glaw did his best to help him sit up enough to drink some water out of a weirdly shaped drinking cup they'd been left. The guard had called it a guksi.
<The enemy threw us to the...floor of the ship.> Glaw's head ached too much for him bother trying to translate 'deck'. <Thank you for taking most of the wounds.>
<Well, I'm the one who can soften my own landing.> Lykos blinked up at the ceiling, his eyes narrowing and widening as if the sight of it confused him. <I did expect them to take the bracelet, but my glasses? What would they gain by taking my glasses?>
<Fell off you and were crushed by Myrrine's fall, I'm afraid. There was no saving them.> Thais said. <I didn't dare waste energy on a repair spell. I'll make you a new pair as soon as we're free.>
Lykos gave her a smile that lacked any trace of humor. He was probably trying to look encouraging, but the impression he gave was that of a man at the end of his rope. <I should like a blue pair this time.>
<Blue it is.> Thais turned and put a hand on Vita's chest. She still hadn't woken up, but she was breathing and there was no blood. <You'll have to mend the rest of the way yourself, brother. What energy I have left needs to go to giving Vita new blood.>
The look she gave Lykos was so apologetic Glaw wanted to grab her by the shoulders and yell that it wasn't her fault. It was, in fact, the Field Marshal's fault. And the Emperor's. And why not throw Adviser Kinsey into that mix as well. They all deserved to suffer in the worst of the afterlives. Glaw just needed to compare those he knew of and decide which was the worst. He considered settling for a single religion when they got back home, just so he could pray for gods who ran a particularly nasty place of punishment to take the three rulers of the Empire and never return them.
Lykos made another attempt to sit up straight. Glaw did his best to hold him down without putting too much pressure on his ribs. Thais had bandaged them with strips of Lykos' skirt - now a scandalously short piece of clothing - and Glaw suspected they were cracked, if not still broken. Thais hadn't had much time over for talking between all the healing.
<I was wondering something, about the story you told me,> Glaw said.
Lykos had closed his eyes and lay perfectly still, with Glaw's hand gently resting on his chest. <The one about Euripides?>
<That one, yes.> Glaw eased his hand away in what he hoped wasn't an awkward fashion. <How come Euripides fell for Nikon's trap? If your kind lets out that cry...> He shuddered at the memory. He'd heard two children screaming while trapped in a burning house, once. The noise Aelius had made had been worse.
To his surprise, it wasn't Lykos who answered him, but Vita. <He held it in.> Unlike Lykos she was making no move to get up, merely staring at the ceiling. Her face was twisted into a snarl. <Always been a sneaky one, that cursed cloud-lover. If there's one thing I can say about him, it's that he's got excellent self-control. A dangerous combination with a twisted mind like his.>
<Held it in?> Glaw asked as she fell silent.
Vita blinked, slowly, as if the words he'd spoken took longer than usual to travel from her ears to her brain. <If I clapped my hands in front of your face without warning, would you blink?>
Another slow nod. <Say you knew I was going to clap my hands in front of your face, would you be able to keep from blinking?>
Glaw shrugged. <I guess.>
<It's a little like that.> Dylis was listening in now, too. Glaw could tell by the way her posture had stiffened. She did the same thing when she was lipreading without wanting to be noticed. He wondered how much of the demons' language she actually understood, but that was a fleeting thought, lost in the new knowledge that was being shared.
<If you're prepared for a draining and it happens slow enough, it's possible to keep silent, at least for a little while. If you're willing to gamble your life that's a good way to get a jump on someone greedy. Like Euripides.>
<You didn't like Euripides very much, did you?> Glaw clamped his lips shut. His stupid, stupid mouth, insisting on talking without his permission, over and over again.
The laugh that tore from Vita's throat sounded ragged and surprised. <The man wanted to leave my little brother in the hands of that! Then he made me swear to guard the city instead of rescuing him and an outcast took the place that should have been rightfully mine.>
<That?> Vita's eyes were glassy, so Glaw wasn't sure he could hope for a more coherent story, but letting a comment like that slide past would most likely make the rant even harder to follow.
<What do you call him?> Vita muttered under her breath. Thais was still keeping busy, a green light shining around her hands, and for each second Glaw imagined more color returned to Vita's cheeks. <Your leader's second in command. Just my brother's luck, getting cut by one of your kind that insists on living forever.>
Realization dawned on Glaw, and things he hoped were untrue began to make a lot of sense. Vita voiced his suspicions before he had the chance.
<Ironic that the exact human Nikon saved Aelius from is the one he chose to betray him to. Who knows, maybe Nikon and that creature have been working together since the start, planning the end of our people. Would explain why he ran and hid that time when your people came to make the border; that’s the reason he was cast out in the first place, just so you know. Always been a coward. Probably has some mad agreement, like being allowed to rule over the survivors.> She took a deep, rattling breath. <When we get my brother out of this mess, I will punch him hard enough to knock some sense into him. And then I will kill Nikon.>
Uneven footsteps from the corridor pulled them all out of the ensuing, horrified silence. A boy had come stumbling down the stairs and was making his way past them. Not unusual, since it seemed the crew's sleeping quarters were somewhere at the other end of the corridor, but the way Thais sat bolt upright as he came closer made Glaw pay extra attention to him.
The boy was cradling his right arm to his chest and his pale face was covered in sweat. He'd bitten clean through his lip and there was a thin trail of blood down his chin. It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened.
<He's not dead.> Glaw started as Thais spoke. The boy did too, which sent him elbow first into the corridor wall. He shrieked and collapsed onto his knees. Glaw tried not to flinch at how Dylis' knees shook. She'd never been squeamish when it came to injuries, so he very much doubted it was the sight that disturbed her.
Thais had left Vita's side and taken up space alongside Dylis. There was something frantic in her voice. <He'll soon be though if no real healer mends him.>
A tug on Glaw's arm pulled his attention away from the boy. <Healers get like that, sometimes,> Lykos said in a confidential tone. <Please keep her from doing anything stupid.>
Glaw nodded and got to his feet. He'd not gotten used to the gentle rocking of the ship, but there were plenty of bars to grab hold of, steadying his walk. But he didn't make it in time. Thais was on her knees, one arm out through the bars, trying to grab the boy's leg.
Dylis wasn't watching. She had her eyes squeezed shut and her hands over her ears, shaking her head slowly as if trying cope with a bad hangover. Glaw cursed.
Thais reached out through the bars, her eyes glowing. The boy threw himself back with a panicked cry, followed by a groan of pain as he hit his injured arm against the deck.
<He doesn't seem to want your help,> Glaw said, with more worry than sarcasm. <You better leave him alone before the guards come.>
<Their healer probably doesn’t know magic,> Thais muttered in answer out of the corner of her mouth, still with her arms held out, palms up, towards the boy. <I have enough energy left to fix that arm. Vita will pull through with what I've given her already and we need all the kind thoughts from these people we can get, so stop arguing and help me explain.>
"Eh, the eyes aren't helping." The words felt foreign in his mouth like he'd forgotten how to shape them correctly. He was horrified to note he had a bit of an accent as he spoke. Thankfully it was gone by the next sentence. "She just wants to help."
Thais let the glow fade from her eyes and nodded in agreement.
"Right." The boy's voice was shaky and he looked ready to faint any second, but he managed a defiant glare. "As if I would trust-"
That sentence ended with another cry. Dylis had crouched down and grabbed a firm hold of one of the boy's legs, pulling him within Thais' reach. "Thank me later."
It was still really odd to her Dylis speak. Glaw tried to focus on that thought, of the strange way his sister no longer mispronounced words as much or spoke at too high a volume for regular conversation. It was better than listening too closely to the terrified screams of the boy, as Thais wrapped a hand around the ankle Dylis wasn't holding. Glaw knew from personal experience that healing wasn't painful in the least, but the expression of pure horror on the boy's face was enough to make him believe his body might have lied to him.
<There.> Thais withdrew her hand. <That's all I can do. It's no more than a crack now. Explain that he shouldn't fear the others suspecting him if he continues on his path as if nothing happened.>
Dylis let go of the boy too and looked over her shoulder, directly at Glaw, who sighed and stumbled the last few steps to stand next to her. "Just go to the healer, or wherever you were headed. You won't die now, but that could get worse if you're not careful. Understand?"
The boy was on his feet and away from them without as much as a curse or a thank you. Glaw sighed and leaned his forehead against the bars. The quiet was welcome. Though it was a little too quiet. Where were the guards? You'd think screaming like that would send the guards running. Then again, maybe the boy was a very unpopular crew member.
A sudden halt in the rocking motion of the ship answered that. Glaw did his best to ignore his raising pulse or the way it was getting harder and harder to breathe. They'd be fine, they'd think of a plan, they'd be fine.
'Looks like we're here,' Dylis signed. 'Wherever that is. Is everyone ready?'
Glaw wanted to ask 'for what?'. He wanted to yell and scream. He wanted to push everyone into a corner and shield them from whatever was coming next. But he wasn't stupid enough to do any of those things. Instead, he gave his sister his widest of smiles and saluted her. 'Ready for your orders, Corporal!'
Dylis gave him a nod that had a very grateful tilt to it. It started a painful churning in the pit of Glaw's stomach. 'Keep alert and stay close, but don't struggle against the guards. Thais, you sure you can't shape a hole in the wall?'
'The protection spell is still too strong, especially now. Healing Lykos and Vita took too much energy.'
Dylis got that look on her face, the one Glaw had seen her give new recruits who'd made a rookie mistake; frustrated, but holding back any sharp comments she could be making. 'Maybe less healing of the enemy's soldiers would have done us more good then?'
Thais responded with a smile. 'Unlikely. Healing flesh takes less effort than shaping dead wood. Flesh wants to heal, wood wants to stay the same.'
Dylis gave Thais a long look and then shrugged. 'I'll take your word for it. The plan will have to wait for the moment they bring us up top. I'm sure the Field Marshal is a man who loves to gloat, so it should only be a matter of time. If we're lucky we’ll be anchored in a harbor. If we’re at an island, pray that it’s big enough for us to lose ourselves on. The moment you have a chance, jump overboard.'
Glaw tried not to flinch at the thought, tried not to picture Lykos sinking to the bottom of the sea with a bullet in his back. The thought of Vita and Thais slowly drowning stung too, but he had to admit to himself that the thought of losing Lykos was more painful. He felt bad for thinking that, which made the situation no better.
'I didn't see any cannons on this ship,' Dylis continued, 'and a pistol shot is unlikely to hit if you swim deep enough. Thais takes priority since she's the only one here able to make those bracelets we need. Make sure she gets to the island. We play hide-and-go-seek over there for as long as we must until she is done. After that, we take over the boat. The Field Marshal is a powerful spell-weaver, but he's tied down by Aelius and he has no other demons on his side. The crew we deal with if they attack.'
'We won't need the ship if we succeed.' Thais was putting on such a brave face it physically pained Glaw. He just wanted to hug her. 'My kind can run on water or air. If we rest on the island, find food and shelter, we can look at the stars and see how far we are from home. We'll likely be able to run back.'
Dylis nodded in approval.
It was a stupid, stupid plan. Glaw knew that, they all knew that. But it was better than nothing and he could feel the panic that had been rising inside his chest bleed over into adrenaline-fueled alertness. He had a purpose, a goal, and he'd be damned before he failed to accomplish it.
Slowly the hatch above the stairs opened.
The sight of the island crushed what little hope Dylis had of escape. It cast a great shadow over the ship, its steep cliffs towering over them like nature's version of a city wall. The sound of the waves hitting the rocks that stuck out of the water to crash against the cliffs was driving her mad. It stung like nettle burns and reminded her of how hopeless their situation truly was. The currents had to be harsh to make the water move so violently.
An expedition of flower pickers had been sent out in one of the lifeboats, a good two hours ago. It had looked like a miracle when they'd made it past the rocks without breaking as much as an oar. She had no idea how they'd managed to melt into the very cliffs themselves. It had happened so far away from the ship that she had no idea if magic was at work or if it merely had been a trick of the light.
We'll drown if we try to swim through that. The thought was unwelcome and she snuffed it out as quickly as she could. There could be no doubts before a mission. None.
"Impressive, isn't it?" the Field Marshal asked, putting a companionable hand on her shoulder. Dylis did her best to shake it off. Bound hand and foot as she was, she barely had the leverage to shrug.
The Field Marshal paced around to stand in front of her and the others, lined up as if they were soldiers ready for inspection. "You can't imagine how long it took to reshape those cliffs, not to mention the work we had cut out for us with spell-weaving a secure entrance." He gave all of them a grin. "I would advise against going for a swim without my permission. People who've done that around here rarely live to tell the tale."
There wasn't just hot air leaving that mouth. Dylis had seen people brag about their abilities and back-up before; had done it herself more than a few times. The Field Marshal's eyes were too sure, his stance too relaxed and his smile too genuine. He believed every word he said.
Then again, just because he believed them didn't mean they had to be true.
"Field Marshal, a word please." The woman who'd spoken was a tough old thing, all wiry muscles and wrinkled skin. She held herself with the quiet authority Dylis had seen assumed by more than one chief of staff while a higher ranking officer was visiting their domain. Captain, must be.
The Field Marshal graced the woman with a smaller, kinder smile than he'd given his prisoners. "What can I do for you, Haf?"
The old woman - Haf, apparently - put her hands on her hips and turned to survey Dylis and the other prisoners. "It's been awhile since we went ashore here. The crew would much appreciate it if..." Haf's eyes stopped on Thais. There was something cold and calculating in her gaze that had Dylis gritting her teeth. "If you could ease the way, as it were."
"I think that can be arranged. Good choice."
The guards began to drag Thais away from the foot of the main mast where they'd all been lined up, and toward the railing. Out of the corner of her eye, Dylis saw Glaw, Vita and Lykos straighten up and fighting against their guards. Dylis kept still. Most of her attention was fixed on Thais, the rest on the guards holding her and her fellow prisoners.
The Field Marshal grabbed ahold of Thais' chin and turned her head this way and that. His expression was calm and businesslike as if he were a healer preparing for a surgery. "Go get the ropes," he said to Haf, who waved at two of the nearby crew members. "Hold the demon while I get my supplies."
"Thais hasn't done anything!" Glaw and his stupid mouth. Dylis could no longer count all the times it had gotten him in trouble. "She's not even a soldier!"
Haf scowled in his general direction as if addressing any of the prisoners directly was beneath her. "Demons are demons, boy. If you weren't tainted by them, you'd know that."
"I'm not tainted, you stupid old-" He was cut short by a forceful elbow to the ribs. Dylis fought the urge to look, to mouth something encouraging to him, or to simply fight herself free and use her teeth to tear out the throat of the cursed soul who'd done that to her little brother.
All that had to wait. She needed a new plan.
<I will tear out all your innards and feed them to the crows!> Vita's voice was little more than a croak, though it held enough loathing to send a shiver down the spine of the most seasoned of fighters. <With every single one of you alive to feel their beaks and claws.>
<Thais!> Wolf's eyes were unfocused as he looked at his sister. Unlike Vita, he'd stopped struggling to get free. He stood stiff as a board, which seemed to unnerve his guards as they were gripping him so tightly that their knuckles were whitening. <Run. Don't think about us, we'll handle ourselves. Just run.>
Thais shook her head, her eyes wide. <Can't. It'll be one of you if I do.>
Wolf clenched his jaw. <Thais...>
<Run, you stupid child!> Vita had taken an elbow to the ribs as well, but she seemed not to have noticed. She continued to struggle against her captors, twisting and kicking. <Better drowned than in the hands of that creature!>
Dylis took the time to really look at Thais. She'd been too busy planning their escape that she'd barely had time to factor in Thais' trembling hands and unsteady gait as anything more than temporary exhaustion. How much of the demons' powers did the border drain? How fast?
Idiot! Should have spent a little less time daydreaming about going for a swim and more on gathering information.
The Field Marshal returned, a bag in hand. It was a small thing, made of leather by the look of it, and well worn. When opened it proved to contain a number of seashells on strings. "I think this one will fit you."
Thais was shaking like a leaf but kept still as the necklace was put over her head. The moment it was in place her entire body sagged, the guards' grip on her the only thing keeping her upright.
"Don't!" Wolf had taken a step forward, which got him pulled back and slammed into the main mast. He flinched, not taking his eyes off Thais. "Don't, please!"
Vita sneered at him. <Don't lower yourself to begging! That creature has no heart. It'll only please him.>
The Field Marshal laughed and leaned back to rest his elbows on the railing, looking the very picture of relaxation. "It is so very amusing when they try to act human. I can almost understand how you lot were fooled."
"The only one trying to fool anyone they're human here is you," Glaw said, his breathing back to normal.
The soldiers moved to follow the Field Marshal's order. By the look on Glaw's face, the rag they'd used had probably been used to scrub the deck first. Dylis' jaw had begun to ache.
The Field Marshal pushed off the railing and sauntered over to Wolf. "There's no reason to fret, cur. It's just going for a little walk."
<What does he mean?> Wolf was looking straight at her and Dylis had to bite her tongue not to answer him. <What does he mean?>
He got no answer from the Field Marshal either, who just grinned wider and whirled around. "Make ready the rope!"
Members of the crew scampered away to do his bidding, while some of them took it upon themselves to tie Vita and Wolf to the main mast. Dylis and Glaw were left with their guards and Dylis did her best not to show the relief she felt at that.
A rope was thrown over the prow, each of its ends in the hands of ten members of the crew. They walked back to the middle of the deck at a sedated pace, keeping the rope slack enough not to catch against the side of the ship. The noise of their approaching footsteps sounded like the ceremonial drumbeat before a banishment.
When they started tying the rope ends around Thais' wrists, Dylis could no longer deny the reality of what was to come. Thais was swaying on her feet, leaning on the guards that held her. Keelhauling was not an execution method, at least not that Dylis had heard, but it probably could be if the victim was unconscious.
The Field Marshal came to a halt by Thais and the bag with the necklaces. He stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a small knife. It was a delicate thing, bone white and no bigger than his hand, with carvings Dylis couldn't make out from where she stood.
She heard Wolf gasp, Vita curse and Glaw give a muffled yelp, as the Field Marshal grabbed Thais hair and tilted her head, baring her neck. Slowly, he let the knife slide into her skin, cutting a long gash from her ear to her shoulder, right across her demon marks.
With blood trickling out of the shallow wound, he pressed the blade against the shell that hung around her neck, smearing it red. "When I give the signal you throw it overboard, understood?"
Dylis couldn't make out what Glaw was shouting, but she was pretty sure it was something along the lines of: "No, please! Don't!" Vita just growled and Wolf stared helplessly as Thais was lifted and sat on the ship's railing, her back to the water.
"My dear fellows," the Field Marshal said, addressing the people holding onto the rope that was dripping saltwater onto the deck, its end looped around Thais' left wrist. "Pull!"
They did. The men holding Thais let go and she fell backward, pulled by the rope on her right wrist. There was a faint splash.
"No!" Everyone's eyes were drawn to Wolf, who'd begun straining against his bonds in earnest. There was a panicked, yet haunted look on his face. Dylis recognized that expression. She'd seen it in the mirror several times after Glaw had been shipped to Outer Camps.
"No!" Wolf shouted, throwing himself forward and back, like a rabid dog on a chain. "Let go! Not my sister! Let go!"
A plan that wasn't a plan fixed itself in the center of Dylis' mind and refused to budge. All eyes were on Wolf and Vita. She had one shot at this.
The second her guards' grip loosened she elbowed both of them in the stomach. She stumbled across the deck, dodged three attempts the crew made at grabbing her and came to halt only when her back crash against the railing.
She had time to mouth 'I'm sorry' at Glaw - who was staring at her with such shock and fear that she hesitated for a heartbeat - before she tipped herself overboard.
Glaw didn't know what to feel. Seeing Thais be keelhauled was horror enough, but Dylis jumping ship of her own free will had been like a punch in the gut. Her hands and feet had been bound!
"Don't bother with her," the Field Marshal said when some of the crew rushed to where Dylis had gone over the railing. "She'll drown before the ceremony is done. There's no need to waste gunpowder on her."
Glaw choked back a sob. Dylis' a great swimmer. The best swimmer. She'll be fine. She must have had a plan. His breathing evened out with each reassuring lie he could think up. Just rescuing Thais, that's what she's doing. Everything will be fine.
The crew members who were holding Thais' rope had begun to pull. Glaw tried to push all thoughts of barnacles and their sharp shells from his mind, which took some effort.
The door to the captain's cabin opened. Aelius came stumbling out, steadying himself first against the door and then the railing, dragging himself to the Field Marshal's side. His expression was completely disconnected from his arduous walk, as blank as an empty mirror.
The Field Marshal said nothing as Aelius knelt at his feet. He turned to Haf, who'd stayed by his side to watch the proceedings, and tapped her on the shoulder. "May I borrow your telescope?"
"Of course, sir."
Glaw let himself sag in the grip of his guards. He faked a few sobs and pinched himself hard to bring some tears to his eyes. He'd never gotten the hang of crying on command. As he'd expected he felt the guards' grip slacken. They didn't let him go, but their hold was no longer bruising. If he was lucky, he'd fallen off their list of possible threats. That would give him a chance to dislocate a thumb and slip free. He'd even be able to hide his scream of pain as part of his crying fit. Keeping quiet while dislocating something was another thing he'd never gotten a hang of.
Curling in further on himself, he managed to catch a glimpse of Lykos and Vita. Vita was keeping up her attacks, tied to the mast and all, kicking and snapping at anyone who dared to come within range. Lykos, on the other hand, stood stock still, tears streaming down his cheeks and mouth hanging open in shock.
That pulled at something in Glaw's gut that he desperately wanted to keep under control. He looked away. Reaching out with one's mind wasn't something he'd gotten used to yet, but he doubted he'd get a better opportunity to test his skills.
With no guidelines to follow he decided to improvise. He summoned up his best memories; his parents' fishing boat returning at sunset with a net full of the day's catch, his sister's promotion and the first time he'd seen an airplane. He pictured them as warm water and tried to sent that small river of happiness Lykos' way.
His efforts were cut short by a searing pain that shot from the back of his head, down to his feet. It felt like being hit by lightning.
"Clever boy." The Field Marshal was right in front of him. Glaw could feel something under his chin, tilting his head up, though it took a few extra seconds to realize it was the Field Marshal's hand. "Getting greedy, are we?"
Glaw made a questioning sound from behind the gag. He made no attempt to pull out of the Field Marshal's grip. His head ached like a horse had trampled it and he could barely keep his eyes open.
"You're quite a natural at controlling demons," the Field Marshal said, with that sort of smirk that told Glaw this was praise that would get him in trouble. "I'm starting to see the whole picture. I was wondering what your little revolution was all about."
Revolution? Glaw blinked. The sun was low and the Field Marshal kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, occasionally blocking the sunlight, in the next second letting it blind Glaw. It made it impossible to see the Field Marshal's expression as more than a golden blur.
"Clever plan, pretending to be on their side." This time Glaw did try to shake his head, but the Field Marshal's grip was too firm. "I wouldn't have the patience, but then again I know what these monsters are really like. I'm sure they were on their best behavior for you." A laugh. "Quite amusing, actually. Foxes dancing around one another, trying to trick each other into losing everything. Too bad for you that foxes never stand a chance against noble wolves."
"Wohfs?" Glaw managed to say through the gag. His ears were ringing and staring into the sun was doing nothing to improve his headache.
The Field Marshal let go of his chin. "An old metaphor. You wouldn't understand unless I told you a long story and we don't have time for that. Don't try any more tricks. I have more important matters to attend to than smacking down insubordinate pups."
Glaw tried to keep his head up, but his neck wouldn't let him. His chin hit his chest, sending an echo of pain through his jaw to the base of his spine. He hung there, limp as a bird with a broken neck, for he didn't know how long.
When his muscles agreed to cooperate again he was greeted by the sight of a boat being lowered onto the deck before him. Its passengers had already jumped down onto the deck, crowding around the Field Marshal like pigeons around an old man throwing bread crumbs. Or like a group of admirers around an actor, as they all were offering him flowers.
"Another lap for the demon, I should think," the Field Marshal said, waving for the flower pickers to disperse. The crew members that held Thais' rope gave a nod and changed the direction of their pulling. Glaw had lost count of the laps, but he estimated that there had been five of them. Based on the comments he'd heard, Thais hadn't been let up for air once.
The thought tore at his insides. He pushed it aside, focusing instead on the catatonic figure that was Aelius. The Field Marshal was holding out a hand, which Aelius placed his left wrist in without hesitation or facial expression.
"Never liked this amulet making," the Field Marshal commented out loud to any who would listen, his eyes on the leather bracelet he was wrapping around Aelius' wrist. "Too much fiddling, too few explosions, if you know what I mean. But anything that makes sure your new pet doesn't wilt and die, I suppose"
The men and women around him laughed. It wasn't the forced sound subordinates made in response to the jokes of higher-ups, but the easy laughter of comrades, sharing in a victory of one of their own.
They like him. The possibility hadn't occurred to Glaw before. With half the crew being walking corpses - fresh looking ones, but he trusted Thais' judgment more than his own eyes - and the other half hired on under conditions he couldn't even guess at (he very much doubted they were allowed shore leave anywhere,) he'd thought the mood would be more that of a prison ship. This made no sense.
The Field Marshal crushed one of the flowers in the palm of his hand and rubbed the resulting mush over the bracelet. "There, isn't that better?"
Aelius got to his feet. The air around him was shaking. Whatever the bracelet was doing, it felt like it was sucking the life out of everything around it, pulling the air out of the sails and the salt from the water. Everything smelled wrong.
"No need for panic, the spell is harmless to anything that draws breath. Yes, even you," the Field Marshal said, as the crew started to back away and mutter among themselves. "It'll be over in a minute or two."
"Perfect! I should be done by then."
Nikon was there. On the deck. Facing the Field Marshal.
One second he hadn't been and the next he was. Glaw had to blink a few times to convince himself he wasn't hallucinating.
"My, my," the Field Marshal said, taking a step away from the railing. "Seems we have a stowaway."
The crew drew their swords and pistols, forming a circle around Nikon. There were people up in the masts, arming themselves. Glaw thought he saw a glimmer of metal through a crack in the hatch to the lower deck. Not great odds.
"You have something of mine," Nikon said, voice cool and even. His posture was less than impressive though, shoulders slumped and hair damp with sweat. His gait was more a shamble than a walk where he paced back and forth in the circle the crew had made around him. The tip of the sword he was holding dragged against the deck. His eyes were locked on the Field Marshal and they were glowing brighter than Glaw had ever seen them. "Give him back!"
"Now what could this barking be about?" The Field Marshal's smirk made the question lose what little innocent there had been in his voice. One of his hands rose up to toy with his Emperor's Signs - there were two of them on the golden chain around his neck, one beige and one blue - while the other buried itself in Aelius' hair.
"Mine!" Nikon screamed and stamped one foot. Part of the deck rose up to claw at the Field Marshal's necklaces, crushing one of the seashells.
Shots rang out. The crew rushed to the Field Marshal's aid, stumbling over each other in the process. The deck returned to normal as Nikon avoided the bullets by jumping up on the yardarm of the main mast's sail.
"Shoot him down!" the Field Marshal bellowed, his grin turning manic. "You bring me his head, I guarantee you a place among the nobles at the palace!"
A battle cry resounded through the crowd. Glaw found himself thrown to the deck as the guards holding him let go and drew their pistols. In the ensuing roar of gunshots and screaming he did his best to crawl and roll his way to Lykos and Vita, without being seen or stepped on. Easier said than done.
His shirt was soaked through with blood before he was halfway to the main mast. The crowd was running left and right, trying to keep track of the squirrel-quick Nikon, who dodged from sail to sail throwing sailors to the deck as he did. Glaw flinched as someone stepped on his leg and again when something stung him through his jacket and pants. The deck was getting covered in broken seashells.
The din easily covered Glaw's cry when he dislocated his thumb. Popping it back in once his hands were free hurt less, but that was mostly because his whole hand had gone numb. He couldn't see Lykos or Vita. There were too many members of the crew in the way, crowding the deck like a swarm of ants coming out of a crushed nest. Too many for all of them to be able to rush after Nikon as he switched masts.
Untying his legs with only one hand was tricky, especially with people rushing about around him, nearly trampling him. At least he'd been smart enough to mess around with his right thumb, leaving his more dexterous hand unharmed.
A shriek from somewhere close on his right-hand side had him throwing himself flat on his back. A terrified face rushed past a few centimeters from his own; a woman dangled upside-down by a long rope securing her ankles to the top of the mast. She swung across the deck and the rope was cut just as she passed over the railing.
Scrambling to free his legs Glaw got to his hands and knees and made his way the last few meters to the main mast. Nobody paid any attention to him, so he had little trouble sneaking around behind it. He grabbed ahold of the knots tying Lykos and Vita to the mast and pulled.
The ship shook. Glancing up from his work with the ropes Glaw caught sight of the smallest of the masts. It was bent in the middle like it was bowing and Nikon was crouched at the top of it. Its sails had all come loose and were doing their best to envelop the crew below, like gigantic fishnets.
Glaw pulled harder at the ropes, managing to get Vita's knots undone. She slumped to the deck like a sack of potatoes.
The crew came rushing by - well, the ones not caught up in the sails - and Glaw ducked low, ending up face-to-face with Vita. <Get Thais' rope, rocks for brains!> she gasped.
Pushing himself off the deck Glaw set off at a dead run. The Field Marshal was standing in the same place as before, Aelius right next to him. He gave Glaw a friendly nod, a look of faint amusement on his face. Glaw choked back bile.
The people holding onto the keelhauling rope had joined the fight long ago, but someone had been thoughtful, or cruel, enough to tie one end to the railing. It was hard to get enough leverage, but Glaw grabbed it and leaned back.
It wouldn't budge.
A shift in the air next to him heralded Nikon's arrival. The screaming and shouting grew in volume as the smallest of the masts straightened back up, its sails coming untangled. The sound of bodies hitting the deck was loud, but not as loud as it could have been. The sails had let them go no more than two meters above the deck.
His attention on the mast, Glaw started as a hand tore his from the keelhauling rope. Nikon gathered up Glaw's wrists in one hand and held onto the rope with the other, his legs hooked through the bars of the railing for balance. <Don't bother with that.>
He cut the rope. Glaw pulled free and threw himself against the railing, grasping after it. It slipped through his fingers and sank. His mouth fell open in horror and shock. He felt numb. <Why would you do that?!>
But Nikon was already gone. A loud crash could be heard as he jumped and slammed a fist into the rear mast, sending splinters raining down on anyone who didn't have the time or presence of mind to rush to the prow.
Glaw held onto the railing, to prevent himself from falling to the deck. His legs felt like water and he couldn't stop sobbing. Tears were turning the fight before him into a blur. You can't quit now! Get to Lykos and Vita! Get moving! His legs wouldn't obey him.
"Don't fret so," the Field Marshal said and had the audacity to pat Glaw on the head. "I'll take care of this pest in a minute and then you can go join your sister."
As if that was some sort of cue Nikon jumped down from the main mast, landing right in front of the Field Marshal. The impact sent a wave of floorboards back and up, creating a circular wall around him, the Field Marshal, Aelius and Glaw.
Glaw blinked, trying to get the tears to stop, and clung to the railing tightly enough to make his arms ache. He stared at Nikon, who was leaning his weight on his sword. Said sword slowly returned to the shape of a wooden staff.
"Give him back!" Nikon's voice was little more than a hiss, wheezing out of his lungs like steam out of an overheated cooling system.
The Field Marshal laughed so hard his shoulders shook. "You're clearly too weak to fight me for him. I'd advise you to surrender."
The smirk on Nikon's face set Glaw's heart pounding with adrenaline and fear. "Too weak for that, maybe. But not for this." He darted forward, the wall of boards falling the second his feet left the deck, and grabbed Aelius. The Field Marshal made a grab for him too, but Nikon was quicker. He'd thrown Aelius halfway across the deck before the Field Marshal could push off the railing. He then collapsed onto his knees.
"Fool!" The Field Marshal said, his hand closing around Nikon's neck. "What plan could you possibly have hoped to-"
Nikon grabbed at the hands around his neck and managed to wrench himself free. He began to back away from the Field Marshal, his expression a snarl of pure rage and disgust.
A cry of pure horror drew Glaw's eyes to the far side of the ship. Aelius was scrambling to get away from the lifeless body of a sailor Nikon had decapitated, staring at the headless neck.
The Field Marshal stumbled, but laughed in the way of someone who'd just been told a priceless joke. "You took its place! How romantic."
Nikon froze in mid-motion, every muscle suddenly stiff and unmoving. His eyes flickered, losing their glow for a second before it returned with full force.
Glaw held his breath. He could see Vita heaving herself upright with the help of the main mast, her eyes on Aelius, who in his turn had backed up against the other railing, eyes wide and mouth gaping open. Back at the mast, Lykos wasn't moving and his eyes were closed. Glaw prayed he was just unconscious.
No time for that. Glaw returned his attention to the Field Marshal and Nikon. The latter of the two looked disturbingly at peace with everything that was happening. The Field Marshal's laughter had gone quiet.
"For someone so talented at faking blind rage, I would have thought you'd be better at detecting the same deception from others," Nikon said, brushing a speck of dirt off his shoulder. "Oh well, this way is easier."
The Field Marshal took a step back, his eyes narrowing. "What-"
"I was a little worried you wouldn't take the bait." Nikon leaned his staff against a couple of barrels and gave a sailor who was brave, or foolish, enough to approach him a curious look. The sailor immediately backed away. "Luckily for me, you're as greedy as I remember you."
There was a circle forming around the two of them. The members of the crew who were in shape to stand up had drawn their weapons and were approaching, but they kept a respectful distance. Their eyes were glued to Nikon and they twitched every time he took a step or made a gesture with his hands.
The Field Marshal's whole body had begun to shake as if he'd been caught outside in a blizzard for too long. His fingers were curled around his remaining Emperor's Sign and the scowl on his face had turned into a wide-eyed look of shock. "No, you can't-!"
"A foolish action, accepting me in his place," Nikon said, his smile almost pleasant. "But as you can see, not unexpected." For each word he seemed to grow stronger, straightening his posture and rolling his shoulders like he was waking up from a pleasant nap. There was a glow about him that didn’t come from his eyes. A glow growing in brightness, mirrored by the fading light around the Field Marshal.
A humming noise started up, making everyone but Nikon jump. Glaw did his best to ignore it, his eyes darting around for something, anything to do. They landed on the island flowers, lying in a neat heap by the railing.
"...filthy scum!" The Field Marshal's lips had begun to crack, leaking drops of blood onto his chin. His voice was hoarse and faint, his breathing labored as if there was something stuck in his throat.
"Such language," Nikon chided, reaching out to grab a ring from the Field Marshal's fingers. He crushed it. "At least face your death with some dignity."
The Field Marshal screamed. The blood leaking from his broken lips was joined by more, leaking from his eyes, nose, ears and scalp. He staggered and folded in on himself, falling headlong to the deck with a dull thud. As the glow around him died away the scream became a gurgling groan.
The cries of horror and dismay were warning enough. Glaw ducked behind the barrels Nikon had leaned his staff against, his hands full of flowers. The crew was closing in on Nikon, their expressions a painting of rage and grief. Some were crying.
Nikon didn't move. "If I were you, I'd go hide below deck until this is over."
"We're not like you, demon!" Captain Haf stood at the front of the crowd, her pistol cocked and aimed right at Nikon's forehead. "I doubt your kind knows what loyalty is, but we'll do our best to show you."
The ship shuddered. Something very large and very strong had hit its larboard side. Haf stumbled, as did the rest of the crew. Only Nikon kept his balance as if he'd been expecting the swaying.
"There are fifty-three men and women standing behind you," Nikon said to Captain Haf, his kind, friendly smile having shifted into the dagger-like one. "Some are no more than children. The ones I killed were already long dead. Be a good leader and make sure the living stay that way."
Captain Haf's pistol hand trembled. "You could kill us just as easily below deck as above. I prefer dying in the sunlight."
Nikon chuckled, his eyes losing their blue glow. "I have no desire to kill you. Thais wasted the last of her strength healing one of you. She'd have my head if I ruined her hard work."
The mention of Thais had Glaw choking back a scream. How dare he?! But he couldn't draw attention to himself, not now. He had the flowers and if he was really lucky Aelius would have the presence of mind to make some bracelets. Thais said he'd...
He couldn't finish the thought. Gritting his teeth to stifle more sobs, he forced his thoughts in another direction. Aelius is a healer too. If we can find them, he'll fix Dylis and Thais right up! Good as new.
"I don't trust you." Captain Haf's voice broke through Glaw's downward spiral and called his attention back to the deck. The crew was blocking his view of the main mast's base, as well as the railing on the other side of the ship, but he could see Nikon and the captain perfectly. "But I'll do as you say. Fair warning; I know this ship better than anyone else in this world. If you start tampering with it, I'll know. And I know all the ways to use her to my advantage. Remember that."
Nikon gave a bow as Captain Haf lowered her pistol. "Below deck!" she shouted, her eyes fixed on Nikon. "The first one to see anything suspicious, holler and I'll take this creature's head off!"
"Would you like to hold a sword at my throat?" Nikon offered, his smile all teeth. "I promise not to take offense if you do."
Captain Haf simply glared at him. Behind her the rest of the crew had begun to make their way down, stealing wary glances at Nikon every other step. As they cleared out, Glaw caught sight of Aelius, who sat curled up by the far railing, hands covering his face and shoulders shaking. Vita hadn't made it to his side yet. She was crawling, digging her nails into the deck, her arms doing most of the work.
When the last crew member had left the deck, Captain Haf raised her pistol again and began backing away, towards the hatch. Nikon watched her go, his wide grin having turned to a serene little smile. Glaw held his breath until the hatch was closed and nearly choked as Nikon began walking towards him.
Glaw shuddered and drew himself back towards the railing, flowers raised as if the bouquet was a dagger. Nikon merely gave him a nod and picked up his staff. He turned and began walking across the deck, shifting his staff into a sword and cutting Lykos' ropes in passing.
<What about Thais?!> Glaw found himself calling at Nikon's back. <And my sister! You must go rescue them!>
Nikon didn't react. Instead, he stopped by the other railing, right in front of Aelius, who'd just managed to stand up. Nikon fell to his knees, landing with each of his hands placed palm-up on his thighs, his eyes focused on a spot somewhere near Aelius' feet. A roll of parchment slipped out of his sleeve and fell to the deck.
<I await your judgment.>