CHAPTER THREE .
The prison was unpleasant, Ivan decided, even by prison standards. The smell was worse than most, but then, most didn’t have the rotting corpses of the dead still locked in cuffs. He had no idea what had happened to the others. When the ship had pulled into harbor, the guards had come in with clubs and needles of drugs. He had blurry images of being dragged along, through hallways and down a flight of stairs. He had images of Kelly being stripped and beaten to her knees, her proud powerful body taken down to the floor with whips and clubs. He had Riven’s voice in his head roaring in helpless frustration, trying to get someone to hold on, to not surrender.
Ivan’s head itched, but he didn’t even twitch to scratch. He had been in one of Gerome’s hell holes before. Here he was again… bound in chains bolted to the floor. He had taken his own beating, but he had felt far worse in his lifetime. The weight of the chains was rubbing his shoulders raw, but he barely noticed. He could seek to escape; he could fight his way out as once he had. But he couldn’t leave, not without the others; alas, there was no way he could save them. How delighted Gerome would be to have Ivan on his knees… again.
His hands were so beaten that he couldn’t even see his knuckles through the swollen, purple mess. The cuffs squeezed painfully; far too small for his hands in the first place, but with the swelling added, they cut his skin and made him bleed.
Somewhere, not too far off, someone was being beaten. He could hear the cries, the sound of the clubs on a body. That one would die. That man had started out too vocal, wailing after just a few hits. Now the hits came too fast and the wailing began to cease.
It seemed a world away that he had sat and laughed at a campfire with friends, actually thinking that he might tell them who he was. In that moment he seemed to have been alive again, but here he was… maybe all of it was a joke. Maybe he had never left the pits at all and everything he had done was nothing but demonic illusions. Soon they would come and drown him in the very water of his sacred pools.
For a day, he had thought that the gods had acted and brought together such powers as could unite against the evil, putting an end to the dark spiral of demonic domination. If Gerome had Dave, it was over. Ivan had seen the Guardian bow to him and then salute Shannon. He was not stupid; he knew what that meant. It was over. The heirs of the Empire were lost.
He didn’t look up at the sound of footsteps, light and fast. He didn’t move as someone ran into the cell he was locked in. He was more aware of a bead of sweat that was running down his temple into the corner of his eye. He was thinking of the battle with the goblins and how they had all fought together. His mind spun away to that last battle – his men, his sons and brothers dead about him, betrayed. He remembered falling to his knees, pulling his hair out in grief and pain. Blood loss had stolen his freedom and nearly his life, but somehow he survived and was found. He awoke imprisoned in chains.
Ivan didn’t stir as a small form ducked behind him, panting for breath and cowering. He might have paid no heed to the small person but for the fact of the smell; sweet, like Salma almost, but hotter, muskier.
Heavy footsteps rushed past, a few slowed. The hiding one caught her breath, freezing like a rabbit about to be pounced on. Ivan didn’t move. The men moved on, allowing the person to catch a breath and sink to the floor with relief.
Ivan blinked away the grit and the lack of focus from his eyes. He hurt, Oh Gods, he hurt. He groaned a little, thinking of the many injuries he had taken on this trip. With all things considered, he had gone a long time with little pain for it all. Someone in the group must have had some sort of magic to block pain for him and the others.
Ivan wondered if it had been Theo. He had seen the man’s arm nearly ripped off, and he had dealt with the pain with shocking dignity. It had to have hurt like hell. Or was it Oirion? His mind went back to the figure that was behind him. The figure moved from behind him to the doorway. Ivan looked up, blinking a few times to be certain that he was seeing right.
The figure was a woman. She was fantastically curvy; not in an over-ripe way, but in a racial way. Her entire body was ripped with muscle and yet, unlike most races that had females so muscled, she held onto her femininity like a goddess might. That was not, however, the most shocking thing about her.
It was her hair, he thought. Red! Not just red hair like he had seen so often in his own race, but red like blood, red like a rooster’s head or a dragon’s scale. To further her shocking look, she had fine scales down her arms and legs, almost in a serpentine manner. He had to think they were fantastic tattoos. As she moved, he saw that under her long hair, the scales went down her spine as well.
He had to pause a moment, wondering how a woman was running around naked in these halls without some sign of abuse. She saw him looking at her and darted to him. She dropped to her knees, catching his face in her hands.
She tried to speak to him, but he didn’t know the language. Even if he had, he might not have heard her; he just looked at her cat-like green eyes. They were slit pupils. She looked back over her shoulder, then began to pull at his chains, trying to get them off.
“They are spelled,” he said, shaking his head. “Just run and hide, little thing; you cannot help me.”
“Help me,” she pleaded, copying him. It was almost as if she understood what he was saying, but had to hear it first. He looked to her little fine hands, pulling at the cuffs at his wrists. To his shock and with a great deal of pain, she got one to snap open. Blood rushed, making him gasp. “Help me,” she pleaded, starting to cry as footsteps were coming back.
She got the second cuff open just as the guards ran in. These were not the guards from below, but well-dressed, powerful men. They grabbed at her; she gripped Ivan’s chains, fighting to get him free.
She twisted and swiped at the nearest man; it was the same instantaneous motion that Ivan had seen Salma do before. Her claws slashed his face causing him to shout in pain. She kicked at them, her grip on the chains white-knuckled as they tried to drag her away.
“Help me!” she sobbed to Ivan. Her eyes locked on his face, desperate for help. She was hit with a rod; it sent enough power through her to make her whole body convulse. She was ripped off the chains and pulled aside.
Struggling not to be taken, she tried to fight, despite the shock that her body was still in. They had other plans, and she didn’t even have the advantage of having clothes to help fight them off. Ivan looked down to his released hands, to the chain that still bolted his middle to the floor. There was a ring that his leg chains ran through, but now it was just that one bolt that held him.
She snarled and roared at them, like a lion might. She kicked one in the chest, sending him staggering back. Ivan struggled to get his feet under him, to rise up. Squatting low, with his feet flat on the stone floor, he gathered his strength to stand up. The chain would not allow it, but, if he could reach the point where he was upright, he would be free.
He focused on the chain as it became taut. It held him bent, unable to make his legs straight. Forcing his hands to work, he gripped the chain; several of his shattered hand-bones slipped as he gripped it.
The pain made him gasp and shout, but he pulled. With the cuffs off and the magic laid in them not binding him, he reached inside himself for the strength that he knew he had, a strength that was hidden away – the true power of his bloodline….. something not even Gerome could take away. He had hid it so well that even when Gerome had stood over him all those years ago, Ivan had been thought of as nothing but just another Ezeeren. It all seemed a lifetime ago when he had been another man. Gerome had not known who Ivan was then, and Ivan would not let Gerome conquer him now. With the strength gained from the months with the friends, he reached for it.
His muscles strained and his skin shivered. He roared, this time not as a man. Power rushed as his roar ripped out of him. He watched as his arms rippled with power and his hands became as paws. His strength and size alone ripped the chain bolt right out of the floor, bits of stone still attached. Ivan had taken the form of the great golden grizzly, the representation of the King of Ezeer. Now in full bear form, he moved with unearthly swiftness.
One great swipe crushed the man standing with his pants down around his knees. He roared at them, rage and pain making the very air shiver. He attacked another, ripping his claws through the man’s chest. Half of the man’s torso was slashed away and splattered against the wall. The smell of blood and fresh meat filled the room. He leapt forward and sank his teeth into another and then flung him aside, entrails still hanging from Ivan’s now massive maw.
The woman slashed her way free from the stunned grip of the man who had hold of her as Ivan tore into the other men who had attacked her. She grabbed at Ivan’s golden fur, his clothes shredded away to nothing. Desperate, she crawled to his back and clung on.
He knew Gerome would feel this and know that he was here, in the city, right in his own cellars. It was time to go, and fast. He charged out the door, crushing anyone in his way. He had no idea how to get out, or what way to go, but he kept going. Leaving the guards and voices behind and out of sight, he changed tactics. He began to carefully slip through doors, leaving as little trail as he could.
His great paws passed silently over the stone floor. He wound through the labyrinth, into deeper halls. He had no idea how far he’d gone or how he had gotten there, but he could smell salt water. The ocean was not far.
He followed the smell until pain and size allowed him to go no farther. Lacking the ability to hold on any longer, he simply sank to the floor, the form of the bear fading away, leaving him naked, beaten, and just a man on the cold stone floor.
The little woman grabbed him, pulling him up, pleading with him to keep moving. Ivan crawled as much as walked beside her. She took him into the darkness as if she could see, making him drag his body through holes where she could pass without effort, but small enough that he had to force his body to gain even an inch. His skin was ripped and torn by such doorways until she let him collapse for a moment of rest. She had found some sort of floor drain that had a small updraft, but bars that had been broken off cut at his sides as he forced his way down into it. Encouraged by the little woman and the fresh air, he summoned up enough strength to make himself carry on despite the depth of the gashes he was inflicting on himself. Then he dropped, fell a few yards and hit cool water.
He found his feet and stood. He was afraid that he was going to fall over and drown in the knee-deep water. She was there, taking his hand and leading him along. She let him lie down just as soon as she got him out of the water and onto cool stone. It was so wonderful to just lie down. There was only a moment before he was unconscious.
There was something about being in such a place that made Dave wonder… was fate somehow stacked against him? He had thought that they would be taken to Gerome, or one of his men, or killed. He didn’t think that he would be tossed into a rat hole, being dragged out only to be beaten. Something deep inside him was terrified that they might learn who he was. Hiding his magics, the magics that would tell Gerome at once who he was, was worth more than his life. He would die to hide the fact he was a blood-relation of Shannon.
He didn’t bother to try to move at all; it would just hurt too much and would gain him nothing. So he just lay on the floor, not moving. They had crossed mountains so high that there was no air to breathe, they had fought against zombies and goblins, they had crossed the grassland, the bog, and traveled the halls of Ulam Ar, and here he was lying in a cell with common thieves and murderers. He, son of Elliott Sailor, was beaten and lying on the floor of a cell. He’d rather have been washed overboard into the ocean, to drift into the dark depths when his strength ran out.
He wanted to reach out and slip away. He didn’t understand why they were beating him like they were; they asked nothing, they demanded nothing, just pounded on him. His thoughts slipped from the place where he now was; dreams brought relief for a moment as he stood in the twilight snow with Theo. In his dreams, however, Theo was not the thin little man that he appeared to be. He was the man that he was in the tent in Awens. They walked together, kindred, brothers. For a moment, he wasn’t alone. His dream ended abruptly as he was grabbed and jerked up.
He tried to get his feet under him, to take the strain off his shoulders and arms. He couldn’t tell how many of his tattoos they had burned off, but that was the way of burns. The pain spread out from the point of contact and lingered. It wasn’t too far to the place they used to torture people; he knew the way well enough. It wasn’t a question of being tortured or not…. it was “by what means it would be today.”
Dave was hauled up to a hardwood table, smooth and stained black from long use. Cuffs of painful metal snapped onto his wrists and pulled his body tight. He felt the choker that he wore slip and the thongs fall against his neck, cool and present. He wanted to grab hold. Where was Shannon? Why wasn’t he there yet?
Dave blinked and there, appearing out of the darkness, was the one he had been waiting to see. He knew that he would be here sooner or later.
It wasn’t Shannon; it was Gerome. The man was skinny, stripped of all youth, like a living skeleton. His eyes all but black pits, his hair long and white, perfectly kept, his holy robes hidden under a long black cloak. Around him darkness seethed, demons eager for blood and souls.
“Are you certain he was on the ship?”
“Yes,” another said, “he is David Sailor, the captain’s son. His tattoos confirmed it.”
“Was he traveling alone?” Gerome asked, walking closer.
“No, he had several with him. None of them as you described.”
“I see. Amazing that he made it this far.”
“He is very strong, your grace.”
Dave was terrified. If the demons about Gerome touched him, he would be known as being related to Shannon. Of all the things in the world, that would be the worst.
“You certainly didn’t leave much to him, did you? You know how I feel about a person’s face being beaten.”
“He fought with my men. He left them little choice.”
Dave watched the man who was supposed to be the holiest man alive walk up to the side of his table.
“I can make this end, David,” he said softly, with a tone that might be taken as compassion. “All you have to do is tell me where the others are.”
Now it had begun. Now, the truth was out. Dave rolled his head away, knowing that he had one hope. That last hope was to be killed before he was broken.
“I’ll make him talk,” a voice said, the grit and growl to it as cold as ice, identifying it all too well as a demon. Dave didn’t think he could cry at this point, but he felt the tears on his temple. He could possibly stand up to what men could do to his body, but what a demon could do to his mind and soul was another thing entirely.
“Your Grace,” a man said from another corner of the room, slightly out of breath. “She has escaped.”
“She has escaped?” Gerome asked.
“Catch her,” he ordered simply.
“She has left the fortress.”
“How?” he demanded.
“From what we can tell, she summoned a bear.”
“Ezeeren,” the demon snarled after a moment. “He is here.”
“A giant? Is there a giant?”
“Yes, Grace, he was brought in with this one. They chained him up in the orc cell.”
“Find him. He is worth far more than any sailor brat or my daughter.”
Dave lay still, not able to truly believe what had just happened. From another cell, another place, Ivan had just saved his soul. He couldn’t dare to think it. Surely, he would at least be drowned today; the guards had to get amusement somehow. He was pulled off and taken down the hall. He was taken past the cell that he had been kept in, to a larger common cell, and flung in. He staggered two steps before he hit the floor.
If he’d had the strength, he might have sobbed for relief. However, if they got hold of Ivan and broke him, as Shannon said, “all men can be broken,” Dave’s magics would be revealed and the guards would be back swiftly.
He flinched, despite himself, as someone scrambled over to him. His first day here, the beating he had gotten from cellmates had been worse than the beating from the guards. He had lost what clothes he had left and all of his dignity, along with most of his hair. At this point, that day was just a blur, with no real effects but to flinch away from those who came too close.
He peeled his eyes open to try to see through the dark as he was rolled over to his side. He saw a familiar silhouette. Nearly a year of traveling with the group and the many midnight wake-ups, he knew exactly who it was. He used all his strength to reach up and touch Oirion’s chest.
“I lost my dagger,” Dave said, thinking that if he had it, Oirion could kill him. It would be so neat and clean. No pain, no broken soul, no demons to take him.
“Back off,” Oirion snarled at another who had moved in closer. He pulled Dave from the open center of the cell, back to the darkest corner where bits of straw had gathered up. “It’s alright, Dave,” he said, pulling Dave back against his chest. Oirion had him. He wasn’t alone now. The priest’s arms were like armor about Dave at that point. For once, he was able to drop off to sleep.
How long he slept, he didn’t know, but he felt far better for it.” Better” was far from alright, but at least he could think a bit more clearly. He dared to open his eyes and look down at the hands interlocked around him, holding him safe. In the dark, he could not be certain of hands, but he knew the ring. There was likely to be only one man wearing a ring down here.
“Oirion?” He dared to whisper the name.
Oirion stirred and let go. “Try not to move yet,” Oirion breathed in his ear. “It will disrupt the magic and leave evidence of it.”
Dave lay still, his friend a wall of warm support. When Oirion finally pushed him up, he tried to sit, but without a hand to his shoulder, he wouldn’t have been able to. He hurt inside and out. His mouth was so dry, he was surprised that his tongue was able to even work.
“He’s here,” Dave whispered. “Don’t say the name; don’t say the name,” he whispered, remembering once being a child and having Shannon hold him tight in his arms, whispering that in his ear. It was a memory that he didn’t understand and didn’t really want to.
“Dear God!” Oirion touched Dave’s face. “What did you say to piss them off that bad?”
“Nothing,” Dave half chuckled at that. He looked over at Oirion through the eye that he could see out of. Oirion wasn’t a lot better off than he was, but he at least had a face.
“You see the others?” Dave asked.
“Ivan is still here… or, was. He escaped his cell; his distraction drew them off me.” Dave started to cry, thinking of Ivan laughing at the fire, his eyes dancing with humor. The big man would be caught and he would be broken.
Dave sank to the side the best his broken body would allow, folding over to the shelter of Oirion’s lap. Oirion put a hand on his shoulder.
“I know, Dave. I know.” Oirion put his head back against the wall. It was just a matter of time now.
Ivan jerked awake. The sound of surf was loud and close, and there was nothing else to be heard. It took his eyes a moment to adjust before he saw in the faint, reflecting light, a large stone channel about him. Rolling up, despite the pain, he could see the opening to a gray world beyond. The ocean tides rolled up the channel, making the water wash back and forth, nearly rushing up over the walkway ledges that ran along both sides.
He was naked, alone, and in pain. Just as the last time he had run from Gerome, he had to always keep moving and salt water was his friend. He stumbled along the wall, one hand on it, keeping himself up. With the other hand, he held his sides that were cut, bleeding, leaving a trail that even a child could follow.
If he could just get outside, he could escape. As he stumbled, he made his mind work; he made himself say the words; he forced himself to summon up the bits of shattered soul and power that his God still had left. With the open end of the channel in sight, he felt the demonic scan hit him like a shove in the back. With a desperate shout, he ran forward, but stumbled and fell, tripping on his own feet. He hit the ground hard and lay there for a moment. The surf washed up the outside wall, splashing him with relief and hope. The demon was moving in and a gate was being built not far behind him, exactly where he had been standing a moment before. He reached the lip of the doorway and could see the ocean, the harbor full of ships, beyond.
The drop from the walkway to natural stone and freedom wasn’t far, but it was enough that it stole the breath out of him as he hit the raw rough boulder. The tide roared in, slammed against him and flooded back up the channel, disturbing the demon’s power for a brief moment. Squinting up at the sky, he let go of the rock he gripped. The ocean had given him just enough time and he used it. He leapt upward, breaking free of the water just as the gate ripped open behind him.
Beating his wings, he left the ground, aiming for the nearest flock of birds to hide in. He caught the air and veered for the docks. Circling into a flock of birds that dove and dipped for fisherman scraps, he looked back. He could see the mouth of the channel that poured out to the receding tide and the newly opened gate. Coming through the gate, was not only the demon in the form of a black shadow, but Gerome himself.
Ivan beat his wings harder. He doubted that he would blend in long, but for now, he had been saved again and had escaped by a hair’s-breath from the man who had hunted him for centuries. He knew that he would not be able to fly all day, and every time he touched the ground, the demon would be able to feel him. He’d have to hide on ships and hope that he was not eaten by the crew.
Right now he needed to just rest and try to breathe. There was a danger to what he was doing. The longer he stayed this way, the more like a bird he would think and move; eventually his mind would be lost. He had already tested that before and nearly didn’t get it back.
Fate was funny. Kelly had proved to not be as fun as they had hoped, so here she was, locked in a hole in the ground with no light, no food but for the rats she caught, and no way out. She chuckled to herself a little as she scraped the rat hide with a bit of bone to begin the tanning of it.
They had raped her. They had had her raped by a half-mad orc – something rather like Kaava’s people, but different. Kaava had said that his people were the descendants of a war where the Elven souls had mastered the warped flesh, but what if there was another side and a race where the orc soul had won out? Likely. The guards had tried to use her as a test subject. Magics had been spun and put on her, forced through her to make that vile thing stick and stay. They gloated to find her womb had taken, but foolish little men, they forgot to check before they started. Safe and secure was a secret that she would hide to the end; a secret that would keep her sane and whole.
They could take away all trace of time from sky or sound, but within her, she knew the time. She could track it just fine. Her goddess had exiled her and driven her away, but in the end, when it was all said and done, her secret would be taken away to safety. She could kill those men, rip their souls out, and feed them to whatever demon came first.
She couldn’t even tell if her eyes were open or closed anymore, but she tried to hold them shut and thought of Dave, praying to his god that he was safe. She knew better; eventually she relented and simply held onto the hope that he would be killed before he was revealed and broken. She put her hand on her stomach. So long as the line of Von Armond lived, the gates of hell would hold. The houses of Kings would hold back darkness by breath alone.
She would sit in her dark hole and, when the time came, she would summon Shannon, pull him from whatever hell he might have been taken to, and hand him the secret. Then she would send him back to Norwood. She wished Shannon had never been so foolish as to have ever left the safety of his kingdom. The darkness, the isolation, the abuse here would not break her; she had been through far worse at the hands of her own goddess to be so easily felled.
“Do not ruin this child’s soul with thoughts of anger or revenge,” she told herself. “Save it for later. Be at peace, woman; give him foundations of holier things than this place.”