Chapter 29: Blood

Chapter 29: Blood

Arden’s arms were still fully extended, and Elias’ head was just sliding away, when the orbs spun back into action in search of living flesh. As his kneeling body slumped forward onto the ground, they whirred throughout their host, liquefying as they swam, until there was nothing left of Elias but a large puddle expanding around a severed head, with two black orbs glistening idly in the midst.

With Elias’ death so, too, ended the animation of Mordimer’s corpse. The miserable lacerated and dismembered hulk fell heavily to the floor. Zarina, sobbing hysterically, rushed across the room to his side. Her daughters hovered nervously behind.

It was a catastrophic scene. Boudreaux stood up in the thrashed remains of the scorpion man. Arden, turning away from the gore before him, wiped and stowed his blades. Gnome, not bothering to stand, inched backward to Ohlen, who weakly moaned something unintelligible at the ceiling.

X’andria lifted Ohlen’s ivory case with her will. It sailed across the room and plopped into the muck that had been Elias. One by one she carefully levitated each of the orbs into the case, and clicked it tightly shut to seal them in.

“Oh,” moaned Ohlen more audibly, “that is so much better.”

“We need to get you to the surface,” Gnome said, “and Waif and the ladies, too.”

Boudreaux stepped across the still scorpion tail, now broken at an odd angle, and approached X’andria.

“Did you do that, X’andria, with the fire and the flying dead guy?” he asked in amazement. “That was unbelievable.”

X’andria nodded and flashed the faintest of smiles through the dried mud still crusting her face.

“We are not finished here,” Ohlen mumbled.

“Oh, we’re about as finished as we could possibly be,” Gnome replied. “You should see what Arden did to the creep over there.”

X’andria walked toward what remained of Elias.

“It was Elias, Boudreaux,” she admitted coolly.

“What?” Boudreaux asked quizzically. “What was who?”

“This guy,” she indicated the head and puddle, “was that guy I met at the Emporium that you thought was a creep.” She laughed bitterly.

Ohlen propped himself up onto his left elbow. “We are not finished here,” he said again, more loudly this time.

“What’s up, Ohlen?” Arden asked, coming closer.

“There’s something down there,” Ohlen indicated the hallway with a twist of his head.

“Can you even walk?” Gnome asked sincerely.

“I’ll manage,” Ohlen grunted, moving shakily to a sitting position.

“What about the crying lady and these girls?” Boudreaux blurted out, as though they were not standing right next to him. “And Waif?” he added.

“I can hide them until we return,” Gnome conceded, as he stood up, still eyeing Ohlen skeptically.

Boudreaux picked up Waif’s inert body and deposited it near Zarina, still holding her vigil over her dead husband’s body. “Now you girls need to stay close to your mom until we get back,” Gnome said in a voice so gentle that none of them, especially Gnome, would have expected it to pass his lips.

Gnome paced around them in a wide circle. He took in the dreary surroundings on all sides. With the others looking on curiously, he reached into his tunic and produced a brown bundle of dried leaves.

“Hey, X’an,” he called. She stood abruptly across the room where she had been stuffing something into her robe. “Could I get some help lighting this?”

“Sure,” she called brightly and walked carefully around the perimeter of the Elias pool. With her silk bag in her left hand, she pinched the top of Gnome’s leaf bundle, and it began to glow brightly with flame—which he immediately blew out.

Gnome grew silent and began waving the now-smoking incense in complex patterns in the air. Boudreaux and Arden watched in confounded silence as the figures on the ground in front of them began to disappear in a haze of hypnotic wavy patterns seemingly generated by the environment around them.

With Gnome’s camouflaging illusion completed, they began walking toward the hallway.

“What should we do with this, Ohlen?” X’andria called. She was pointing at the ivory case.

“Would you take it, Arden?” Ohlen asked, indicating Arden’s intact leather bag.

 “That’s where they were holding Zarina and me,” X’andria pointed down a passageway to the left as if leading a tour. “But I don’t think there was much else down there.”

In about fifty feet they reached a short flight of descending stairs, then another, and then another. Ohlen leaned heavily on Boudreaux as they walked, and he bypassed several doors and corridors, intent on something further ahead.

“This is it,” he finally whispered, before a closed wooden door.

X’andria loaded three darts into her left hand. Gnome slunk to the side, dagger clamped tightly in his teeth. With a wordless glance, Boudreaux and Arden agreed that Arden would lead and Boudreaux would support and protect Ohlen at the rear.

Arden blasted the door open with a sharp kick of his boot and rushed into the tiny room beyond, blades aloft.

The chamber glowed dimly. Two guttering candles, one on a desk in the corner, another on a short table in the middle, flickered weakly in the breeze generated by the door opening.

Warm and sickly. It took Boudreaux a moment to name it, but the closest memory he had to this odor was hog-slaughtering day when he was a boy. His master would give him a knife and a number. His job was to go into the pen and kill that many hogs. He chased the huge beasts around the pen, and killed them as quickly as he could, which was never very quick. On hot summer days, the heat and hog’s blood, and sweat and muck all mixed together, smelled a bit like this abysmal place.

“What the hell is this?” It was Gnome. No one had even noticed him enter, yet he stepped out of a dark shadow into the very center of the room. He had a sickened look on his face.

Boudreaux led Ohlen inside and they all crowded around.

A shriveled pile of oily black skin, it looked like a soft prune the size of a large dog. It moved, pulsing slightly.

And it was looking at them with ruby eyes of pure fire, set above a pursed hole that might have been a toothless mouth.

“Ugh,” X’andria groaned, holding her nose.

“Evil,” Ohlen replied simply. “We need the book over there, and the scrolls, anything with writing on it. Then we must incinerate this blight upon the earth.”

“With pleasure,” came X’andria’s nasal response, still holding her nose.

Arden and Boudreaux cleared the table of the book and two parchments, leaving behind various jars and one nasty-looking black serpentine blade.

With all of them safely out of the room, X’andria called upon the element of fire for a third and final time that day. She saw Elias, that smart handsome young man. She saw his ambition pulling him into darkness. She knew that it was this darkness, this foul evil before her, that had ultimately destroyed him and countless others in the process.

And the fire bled from her feet onto the floor and raced along the stone to the base of the blubbery mass. As soon as the flames reached it, the sac lurched to the side. An otherworldly noise burbled out of it almost like a prolonged flatulent roar.

It did not burn, but the sac did begin to expand. With flame all around it, the heaving expanding mass became translucent and the liquid inside glowed red as it started to boil. The burbling reached a fever pitch, as the furious roaring mixed now with gurgled belching. Liquid and steam began spewing from the shapeless maw.

The sac grew still larger, more taut. X’andria’s fury pumped mercilessly into the flames at its base, and the others crowded around to peer through the door, revolted and mesmerized at the same time.

And then it blew apart. The boiling blood of Mordimer, of the elderly shopkeeper, of all the Atolians, and of Elias himself, blasted apart the hellish sack that had robbed them of their dignity and of their lives.

Bits of membrane spattered everywhere along with the blood and the two rubies. X’andria was covered in gunk. They all were. It was revolting, but not so bad as to keep her from reaching surreptitiously into the slurry on the ground, and plucking a ruby that lay winking up at her. She slipped it into one of her many pockets.

Far away, Ruprecht stumbled his way through the dark forest. He did not know where he was going. It did not matter so long as he would never have to see Boudreaux again. Or any of them. He was so ashamed, so confused.

He thought of killing himself. But he lacked the courage to do it. And there was that horrid voice. That tiny persistent nag reminding him, If you die, Ruprecht, you will never taste that glorious power again.

So he ran. He would hide. Perhaps he could starve in some black hole somewhere. He more than deserved it for all the trouble he had caused.And in this desperate state Ruprecht had a vision: a blinding light appeared suddenly before him and then receded to a mere outline shimmering in the night.

THE END

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