Chapter 5: Last Breaths
Captain Hunt hardly heard a word spoken during the business meeting in the conference room of the Lords’ Castle. Vincent Schumann sat two chairs down on the other side of the table, and the man preoccupied Hunt’s mind. How long had Schumann been an alderman in Westmeade? Nearly ten years? How much of that time had he been in the employ of the Nephreqin? The more vexing question was what connection he had to the assassin who had visited him two nights ago, the “Master Bray” who made no pretenses. There was no coincidence; that much was certain. What do you know, Schumann? Who’s giving the orders, you or Bray?
The meeting adjourned and the councilmen slowly filed from the room to engage in other important business. Only Schumann and Hunt remained, sitting through a moment of awkward silence. The captain stared at his hands.
“Ye clearly have somethin’ troublin’ yore mind, Hunt,” the aged Schumann drawled, “I ain’t seen ye this muted since yore son died.”
Hunt looked up at the elderly man with vitriol clouding his vision. You bastard. You had to bring that up, didn’t you? Gathering his emotions, he responded, “Do you know someone named Master Bray?” He pulled the assassin’s card from a pocket and slid it across the table.
The elderly man’s glance at the card lasted only a second, then he fixed his gaze on the captain. “Per’aps. Did he leave ye this cahd as a threat on yore life?”
“No, he offered to kill someone for me.”
“Well…ye didn’t take his offah, did ye?”
“Of course not.”
Schumann smiled. “Of course not. That wouldn’t be the way o’ justice, would it?”
Hunt remained silent, smoldering inside. You really can get under a man’s skin.
Schumann slid the card back to the captain. “But ye might see how it’s a paht o’ the Decree.”
Hunt nodded, and he immediately began to hate himself as well. He didn’t want to agree with Schumann’s ideas of the Kedethian Decree, for they aligned with the fanatical notions of the Nephreqin. But there wasn’t a soul in all Westmeade who would believe him if he levied a charge against Vincent Schumann. Even if he could somehow get people to see past the veneer of his pleasant mannerisms, Hunt would still have no legal basis for accusation. What wrong had he done? Preach about the more extreme aspects of an ancient Decree from a long-extinct culture? If he even hinted that Schumann was connected to the Nephreqin, he’d be stripped of his title and strung up for slander. Hunt needed more options, but every option he considered only led to entrapment.
Hunt stared at his fellow alderman, his mind whirling. “I recall your lecture and warning on the Decree, Schumann. Clearly, I have a lot to learn, but I’m not interested in having another lesson right now.” The captain flipped the card between his fingers. “I do have this question, though: do you think the Kedethian Decree has room for the murder of Kedethian blood?”
After a moment of pondering the question, Schumann answered. “Cap’n Hunt, it appeahs t’me that ye think of the Decree as some sort of ‘stablished law or a tome that ye can pull down from a bookshelf an’ take up readin’. It ain’t black an’ white, Hunt. Hells, most of it ain’t even written down. It’s a code, an ancient philosophy that summahrizes an entiah belief system.”
“I get that. But what’s it say about taking innocent life?”
Schumann recoiled with a raised eyebrow. “Innocent? Bah…there ain’t no such thang as innocence, an’ ye should be the fuhst to reco’nize that, Hunt.”
Captain Hunt frowned at the table. He truly did believe in innocence, and he believed he had judged men’s capacity for it rather well over the years. Some questioned his ability to judge after he burned the contents of Wilder Tower. But they did not—and could not—know his reasons. Westmeade had been saved by that bit of shrewdness. Yes, he believed in innocence, starting with himself.
“Tell me, Hunt,” Schumman said with a hint of condescension, “why would ye be in th’ puhsition of needin’ someone killed? That ain’t like ye. Ye wouldn’t be still agonizin’ ovah that purty redheaded Cahra O’Banion now, would ye?”
The implication stabbed the captain’s senses.
“Now, now, Cap’n Hunt. Ye know ye got t’be a propah Prosecutah an’ all that. Cain’t be castin’ eyes on the lassies…”
“I’m a happily married man.”
Shumann’s eyes narrowed as a devious smile played at the corner of his lip. “This I know. An’ so ye should be careful how ye play yore cahds. It makes no difference to the Decree whethah yore happy. Or married.”
The captain swallowed hard as the clear implications of that statement settled in. But the longer he thought about it, the more his blood boiled, until he shot out of his chair and slammed his hands on the table. “Lilane is off limits!”
Vincent Schumann smiled gently and motioned for Hunt to retake his seat. “I don’t know what’s got ye all riled up, Hunt, but ye need to calm yoreself down. I reckon yore wife’s puhfectly safe from this Mastah Bray fellah. He ain’t gwinna kill nobody he ain’t been told to. But heah’s the thing: ye said or did somethin’ that got ye this callin’ cahd from him. That’s a serious mattah, Hunt.”
“Yore mahked. An’ when ye git mahked, theah’s gotta be blood.”
The captain blanched. Words escaped him.
“My recommendation to ye is that evahwaht ye said or did to earn this mahk—evahwho it is ‘at needs killin’—ye jis go on ‘bout yore business an’ let this Mastah Bray take care o’ things.”
Captain Hunt met Schumann’s eyes. The horns of dilemma were goring him on both sides. Adding his wife into the equation completely threw everything out of kilter. “All right,” he said, pocketing the card, “if you know this Master Bray, tell him I do not want anybody killed. If you don’t know him, then I’ll just wait. I get the feeling I haven’t seen the last of him.”
Schumann smiled and slowly rose from his chair. As he tottered across the room to the door, Sir Reginald Hunt recalled the great agility the old man demonstrated at his house as he caught the porcelain tea set. There’s a lot you’re not telling me, Schumann. But how do I discover this without making a widow of Lilane?
* * * * * * * * * *
“August Blanchard!” Cora shouted as she saw the wan face of the old man. “What happened to you?”
The old man slowly turned his head to face her with sunken eyes ringed by dark circles. His dried and cracked lips barely moved as he tried to form the words. “You did,” he croaked.
Cora covered her mouth with trembling hands as her heart sank to her stomach. She recalled that infamous encounter at the top of Wilder Tower. Whether or not the old man possessed the right to live there, they had attacked him in his home. And with that, they had driven him to this wretched fate. She slipped an arm around him, wincing at the sharpness of bone through his emaciated body. His skin, flaking from dryness, was pocked by various sores, some of which oozed pus and smelled of rot. His clothing, torn and blood-stained, held traces of dried vomit. Still, Cora cradled the miserable wretch close to her, rocking gently. “I’m sorry, Mr. Blanchard. I’m so terribly sorry.” Tears filled her eyes and dripped down her cheeks.
“Not…Blanchard,” he replied with great effort.
Cora stopped rocking and looked up at her allies with alarm. “Then who are you?” she asked softly.
In the tower, this man had easily stopped their attack, but he had left them alive with only a warning that they be gone when he returned. Cora had asked him if he was Blanchard right before he opened a magical doorway and vanished. His answer of “maybe” strongly implied that he was. Nearly two dozen different people had claimed to have seen Blanchard walking around town. On his right pinky finger was the diamond ring Calloway had said belonged to Blanchard. Who was he if not the alderman of Wilder District?
The old man shifted slightly in Cora’s arms. His voice quavered as he struggled to form an answer.
“What was that?” Cora asked, leaning in closer. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch what you said.”
He responded with a gargled sound that cut his raspy breath short, then he exhaled his last breath.
* * * * * * * * * *
As darkness fell upon the town of Westmeade, Mason Rutland approached the secured gates of the Compound, the military post and base of the town guard. He knew the routine: Captain Hunt was at a council meeting and with no serious matters to attend, Reimart would be at home. Regular sentries would make their prescribed rounds, and if he remembered correctly, Lawton and Dermott would be manning the front gate.
“Evenin’ fellas,” he said, drawing near. Lawton and Dermott stepped from their booths and motioned for him to lower his cowl. As he complied, he hoped they would recognize him.
Lawton squinted and angled his head.
“Can we help you?” Dermott asked. He was a large man, well over six feet tall and built like an ox. Rutland recalled the table he broke, along with Sanders’ arm, in the tavern last year.
“I knew I reconnized ya!” Lawton exclaimed. “But…but…yer face.”
Rutland nodded. “I know how I look. I’m countin’ my blessin’s, to be honest. Not ever’one that tangles with a shadow creature lives to tell about it.”
Lawton’s eyes bugged.
“So, whatcha need?” Dermott grunted. “I heard you quit.”
Rutland raised a half-missing eyebrow. “Well, I did…on account o’ Reichtoven, an’ I ain’t ashamed to say it.”
“Is it true?” Lawton asked. “Did he really kill a dragon?”
Rutland nodded. “I seen it with my own eyes. A mighty red dragon, too. Word has it his pa is workin’ up a set o’ scale mail from the hide. But listen, I ain’t here to chat it up, much as I might like to. Feels like old times.”
“You shouldn’ta quit,” Dermott said. “Been a lot o’ that lately.”
Rutland bit his tongue. He knew the truth, but he had no need to reveal it to these men. “So…I was stationed with Burleson that night, an’ in the chaos, he ended up with my baldric. I jis need to collect that an’ a couple other things.”
Dermott glared at him.
Rutland knew the man was also as smart as an ox. “Look, Burleson was my partner, like a brother t’me. I never got to say goodbye to ‘im. How’d you feel if Lawton here suddenly took off an’ left ya sittin’ there wonderin’?”
The ox turned to Lawton as if to warn him against any such ideas. He stepped aside and pulled the cord to raise the gate. “I see your point. You got thirty minutes.”
“Be back in twenty,” Rutland said as he pulled his cowl up.
The familiar halls of the Compound were lit with a minimal number of lanterns, and Rutland imagined Grotesques writhing out of each shadowy area. It could be years before his mind fully recovered from that attack. Every motion and every sound from a darkened corner sent fresh chills up his spine. He needed to clear his head; this delicate balance wasn’t going to last much longer.
The barracks were to the right. Rutland stopped and checked the halls in all directions. They were empty of patrols. He went left.
Moments later, after glancing over his shoulder, he took a deep breath and crashed his elbow through the lower pane of glass on the captain’s office door. This was the moment where everything worked, or he was sent to the Tower of Truth. And likely hung. He checked the halls for approaching steps, then reached through the broken pane and unlocked the door.
He had to work fast. Patrols in the barracks were scheduled hourly, but when they passed the captain’s door, he had to be long gone. Preferably back through the front gate so Lawton and Dermott could witness him leaving on time.
The captain’s desk was unadorned and orderly. Rutland pulled a blank sheet of parchment from the top drawer and opened the inkwell. He grabbed a quill and hastily scrawled a note:
Captin Hunt, I know what you done. You burnt evidens from Wilder Tower that wood set the Dragon Slayers free. With holding evidense is a crime and if you dont make it rite, I’m gunna let everone know it and you sent good men away and thats a crime too. Time to let the fact’s speak. Time to do the right thang. Find me at Marleys.
He knew he had misspelled a word or two, but there wasn’t time to think through his grammar lessons. After blowing the ink dry, he set the parchment in plain sight in the center of the desk. He scanned the room. I still need a baldric.
Rutland paused to listen again for footsteps. Hearing none, he opened the closet and rifled through the captain’s assortment of hanging uniforms. In a narrow bureau, laid out in matching pairs, the captain’s cufflinks, both pearled and gemmed, provided a tempting distraction. You ain’t a thief, Rutland. Just take what ya need. Two pairs of glossy black shoes sat on the floor. A peg hook on the side wall held an ornamental baldric and sheath.
Rutland left the office with cautious steps, avoiding patrols through the halls and out to the front gates. Holding up the captain’s baldric, he smiled at Lawton in his booth as he exited the Compound. “All done. Y’all have a good night.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Several minutes passed before Cora could move or speak. The old man—the occupant of Wilder Tower and resolution of their quest—lay broken, ruined, and dead in her arms. Through a fog of emotions, she heard as in a distant dream voices and movement around her. But nothing could tear her away from the wretched form she cradled. What have we done? It was a refrain pounding at her conscience, driving home the oppressive weight of culpability.
She blinked hard and looked up. Cuauhtérroc stood over her, extending an arm. “We go now.”
She laid the old man’s body aside, adjusted his collar and smoothed a few wrinkles from his stained shirt. A man should die with at least some dignity. She took Cuauhtérroc’s hand and followed him from the storeroom, reactivating the magical lock and sealing the old man’s tomb. In her arms was a small wooden box of documents and a worn-out tome held together by brittle leather cords. Several pages threatened to fall out, and she packed it away with delicate care.
“I feel awful,” she confessed. “I feel…he wasn’t supposed to die.”
Ordin hoisted a stuffed pack onto his shoulders. “Stupid, ain’t it?” He shook his head. “There he was, the man who was gonna answer all our questions, and he said basically nothin’. We’re no closer to the end of this thing than when we started.”
Cora exhaled a heavy sigh. “Yes, Ordin, it’s stupid. But…I can’t shake the sense that we’re complicit in his untimely death.”
“Untimely?” The mystic screwed up his nose. “He was old.”
“You know that’s not what I mean. It wasn’t his time to die.”
“Looks like it was to me.”
With an irritated growl, Cora turned away and bumped into Cuauhtérroc. She stepped back and frowned at him. “Well? What do you think?”
The savage studied her, then glanced over at the mystic. “I theenk when dees man dies, den it was time for heem to die.”
Cora huffed and stormed around him. “I guess I’m the only one with a conscience.”
“No,” Ordin replied, “you’re the only one who can’t accept the law of Nature. Death is a part of life. He was badly wounded, and my guess is he was poisoned, too. So, to recuperate he holed up in the storeroom, where there was food and drink. But somethin’ kept him down, so he just washed all his troubles away with wine and ale…until that was gone. Then he dehydrated, starved, and rotted away. Pretty damnable way to go, in my opinion. But that’s how Nature works sometimes.”
Cora turned and glared at the mystic. “Nature is impersonal, but Nature’s Maker is not. Keep that straight. But how’d you get all that from a man who barely spoke three words?”
Ordin ambled past Cora and clapped her on the shoulder. “I didn’t get it from him. While you were daydreamin’ about what you coulda done differently, I was talkin’ to the rocks.”
“Oh…well…here.” Cora held out the box of documents to the mystic. “What do you make of this stuff?”
As Ordin shuffled through them, he nodded and muttered to himself. “Well, they’re legal forms, letters of state, security clearances, and other official instruments. Looks like a solid connection to the murdered alderman. Every document is dated within the past three years, though. Blanchard has been dead for four, so on the surface it would appear that each of these is a forgery. Or it could mean that the old man who just died…” He glanced at the sealed door, his lips pursed in thought.
“Is actually August Blanchard,” Cora finished.
Ordin shook his head. “Nah. That ain’t even physically possible.”
“Well, I’m going to study them,” Cora said as she carefully put the hefty book and the box into her pack. “And I’m going to figure it out.”
In the quietude of solemnity, Cora shuffled back to the large cavern with the other freeblades, her bulging pack matched in weight only by her moral burden. Flaming hodekin bodies simmered with a reddish-orange glow and filled the area with the wretched odor of cooked rancid meat. Small flickers of flame remained on a few scattered rocks, feeding on the final vestiges of fuel.
Cora pulled from her trouser pocket a solid gold ring inlaid with an exquisite diamond, lifted from the old man’s finger after he died. He was August Blanchard; he had to be. Calloway said this is his ring. Somehow, he was returned to life…but how? Why? She flipped the ring over in her fingers several times before returning it to her pocket. Callously scavenging the deceased had never appealed to the songsage. She wanted to remember him.
Elric stood and stretched. “So, are we done, then? Can we leave?”
“I suppose,” Cora said, scanning the smoldering Subterrain. “We have all we’re going to get. Back to the well?”
“That scaffoldin’ ain’t gonna hold us,” Ordin said, shaking his head. “The bottom half is gone and the rest is pretty flimsy. I reckon we oughta follow this stream and see where it comes out. But, it may be a long trek. And if y’all can hear it over the water, there’s more goin’ on down there.”
Elric hitched a thumb toward the far side of the cavern. “Well, there is ‘at blue doorway thang y’all won’t let me near.”
Cora shook her head. “For the last time, Elric, no. I think Ordin’s got the right idea. Hopefully, the surface isn’t far. And hopefully we don’t run into much resistance.”
Despite his slumped shoulders, Elric nodded assent.
“We go now,” Cuauhtérroc prompted. “I hear dees voices.”
With weapons drawn and freshly created light-rocks—Cora’s bright white now in full use—they followed the stream down a steeper slope of slippery rock and jagged edges.
After a harrowing descent past multitude hodekin bodies eviscerated and eaten, the passage leveled out again as it intersected a perpendicular tunnel. To the left a new passage rose sharply up a ridge and then disappeared out of view beyond the crest. To the right, the tunnel sloped further down to an immense cavern filled with water, a wide and placid lake beneath a high rock dome fed continuously by the rushing stream beside them.
Chaos echoed over the rise: screeches, growls, and the clattering of many feet. “More hodekin,” Ordin spat. “Let’s get ‘em.”
Elric stared up the rise and readied his shield. “Let’s wax some hodekin.”
Cora glanced down the opposite slope to the rocky shore of the lake. There was no other way out. “Hang on a second, guys.”
Ordin turned back and stared at her, his brow furrowed. “I’m sorry. Do you not want to kill a bunch of hodekin?”
“It’s just…” Cora paused, pinching the bridge of her nose. “We don’t have to go there. We don’t need to, right? Waltz into battle just because it’s there?”
“Is that wisdom or fear talkin’?” Ordin asked.
Cora stared at the ground. “I don’t know. What if there’s another dragon in there?”
“Fear.” The mystic turned back and whipped his head to one side, cracking several vertebrae. “We killed one already; we’ll kill this one, too. And it definitely needs to be killed.” He began climbing the rise with Shinnick and Elric following closely behind.
Cuauhtérroc put a hand on Cora’s shoulder. “When dees leaders are afraid, dey do not say dees things. If you are dees leader, show no fear.”
The savage’s dark eyes flashed a battle-hardened readiness in the light. Cora drew in a sharp breath. Fear was all she had, the only thing that made any sense. They were in the Subterrain with no apparent way out, surrounded by dragon-bloods, weighed down by heavy packs, and climbing toward a conflict with what could easily be hundreds of creatures. Fear kept people alive in times like this. A jungle warrior might conquer his fear, but a sheltered songsage drowned in it.
She nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
Cuauhtérroc shook his head. “No. No fear.” He lifted her chin and met her eyes. He tapped her sternum. “Where is dees fire?”
A lump formed in Cora’s throat as she remembered braving the Amurraks. The red wavy lines—war paint the savage had given her—were false when applied to her chest, but she had found courage when it was needed. And with it she had saved Cuauhtérroc’s life.
“You’re right, Cuauhtérroc. No fear.” She pulled her lute around and checked the tuning. Still intact. “Let’s go,” she said with a sharp exhale. Fear still quaked her bones, perhaps more than before, but she resolved not to show it. Be their leader.
Ordin stood at the top of the rise and uttered a harsh epithet. “Y’all quit rinkin around and get up here!”
Shinnick’s fur bristled and he crouched low, a rumble rolling from his throat. Echoes of clashing screams spilled over the rise.
“Say what?” Ordin snapped at someone in the cavern. “Yeah, that was about you…and your mother!” He spat on the floor. “And there’s more comin’.” He glanced down the rise. “If y’all would hurry up!”
Shinnick launched into the room, growling with the heightened ferocity of an expected kill.
“Oh, you want some of this?” Ordin said to the jumble of snarls. “Time to meet your mother, you overgrown sack of…” His words devolved into a string of curses as he charged into the cavern.
When Elric reached the top of the rise, he froze. “Sonuvacrap.” He paused and looked down the slope. “A little help?”
Cuauhtérroc reached the apex and grabbed Cora’s extended hand, pulling her to the top.
“By the Maker of Beauty,” she whispered. Courage fled and took the color from her face with it.
In the pale glow of his green-tinted light and a field of bioluminescent mushrooms, Ordin slashed with erratic strokes at the coils of a worm-like creature. Easily forty feet long with the girth and height of a horse, its pincers were large enough to shear a man’s head off. Hundreds of feet swarmed down either side, moving like waves of the sea. Ordin had already cut the creature in several places, causing putrid lacerations that oozed a yellow fluid. He yelled a constant barrage of obscenities as he sliced his scimitar to and fro, but his voice drowned in the centipede’s screeches, shrill and piercing like an eagle’s cry.
Cora tossed her light rock into the midst of the room, adding more and brighter illumination. She rushed through the creation of another and threw it deeper into the cavern. As the scene came into fuller view, her heart truly sank.
Beyond Ordin’s entanglement, Shinnick waded and jumped through a carpet of eviscerated hodekin bodies, and others so fully mangled there was no discernable anatomy remaining. All were eaten to some degree and in various stages of maceration, their skins bearing a moist and translucent sheen. A few miserable hodekin cowered near the back wall, and Shinnick lunged at their throats for the easy kills.
“Maltok!” Cuauhtérroc cursed and charged into the room.
A second wriggling creature scuttled out from behind a rocky outcropping and intercepted the savage’s path. He skidded and dropped to a knee, ducking beneath the clutching pincers. An uppercut with his macana clubbed the centipede’s head, but the weapon caromed off and threw Cuauhtémoc’s balance.
Elric shook his head as if to clear his whelming thoughts and rushed in, charging straight for the second creature as it bore down on the savage with snapping pincers. His shortsword pierced the creature’s carapace and spongy flesh, diverting its attention from the savage. He pulled his sword through the centipede’s side, leaving a long, gaping wound across its body.
Cora picked up the pieces of her shattered courage. No fear. No fear. No fear. She walked into the cavern, voicing the words aloud and hoping the repetition would create truth. Her voice drowned in the volume of screeches and battle chaos reverberating through the cave. She fought the urge to cover her ears. That would reveal the actual truth. No fear. No fear…
Viscous goo leaked from the sides of both creatures, spilling onto the cavern floor and creating a slippery hazard. Twice Ordin lost his footing and was in danger of being trampled by dozens of sharply clawed feet.
Cora could hardly think. Besides drumming her mind, the barrage of sound clashed with any spellsong she could offer up. Save one. It was more noise than music, but it could pierce the resounding cacophony. She checked behind herself to find a good brace.
The tides of battle shifted as the centipedes squirmed about, forcing Cuauhtérroc and Elric toward the rear. Cora lost sight of them as the first creature, writhing and lashing out at Ordin, moved toward the front of the cave and blocked her view.
“Die already!” Elric’s voice powered through the noise. But as water fills the void opened by a plunging stone, the clashing racket returned to swallow his speech. Waves of dissonance rippled across the cavern.
Cora sighted in the nearest centipede’s head. A songsage’s shout could break doors, crumble stone, and knock people off their feet. She had done it once before in the thieves’ lair, but that had been a spontaneous reaction, untested and limited. There was far more energy here, more resonance and room for a full-throated concussive blast. Here she could afford to unleash everything she had. She braced herself, threw her open hands down by her sides, and filled her lungs to capacity.
Ordin stabbed his scimitar into the centipede’s side, not far from its head. He used the hilt as a brace to hoist himself onto its back. Landing astride the centipede behind its head, he reached down and pulled his scimitar out of its side. With a mighty two-handed thrust, he rammed the curved blade through the back of the worm’s head all the way to the hilt. A jet of yellow-green fluid sprayed up from the wound, and Ordin reflexively pulled up the sword to shield himself from the geyser.
The songsage shouted. For an isolated moment, all other sound vanished.
A conical shimmer of air swept across the cavern, flinging small rocks across the floor. The entire wave slammed into the centipede’s head. It reeled, thrashing about violently as its body curled upon itself and flexed outward rapidly. A violent twitch threw Ordin from its back—tossed like a discarded plaything—past Cora, out of the cave entrance, and down the sloping passageway toward the lake.
“Ordin!” the songsage screamed. She covered her mouth with both hands. “What have I done?”
The centipede curled a final time with a vicious jerk, flipped itself over and died. A growing pool of putrid yellow spread out beneath a head crushed and torn by sound.
Other sounds returned, more isolated and distinct. Elric shouted incoherent phrases; Shinnick growled with feral intensity; Cuauhtérroc yelled curses in his native Audrian tongue. These sounds brought Cora some comfort, but her only thoughts were for the mystic. His angry cursing should be echoing up to her. Howls of irritation, or pain, or something. At the very least, he should be yelling how stupid she was.
She hastened to the edge of the rise. All was dark below.
She grabbed a loose rock, lit it, and cast it down the slope. It bounced and clattered away, briefly illuminating the path as it went. A flash of steel on the floor. An alabaster body splattered with yellow goo. And crimson.
Cora screamed, but there were no coherent words. She scrambled down the rise. Her voice caught in her throat as she started to sing her illuminating song. She dreaded what she would see. No fear. No fear.
It wasn’t working. Fear had choked her.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cuauhtérroc continued to beat on the centipede despite his macana having little effect on the creature’s spongy body. He would not take honor if he stopped, not matter the futility of his actions. Anger welled inside him as the creature continued to lash out with deadly pincers, a rising fury that had no outlet. If he could catch a moment of respite, he would shout a war cry and coalesce his strength for a mighty kill. But he could only pound out his frustrations on a carapace that cared little for his paltry attacks.
His feet slipped on the floor made slick with leaking fluids. Bodies littered the floor, emptied into scaly husks and softened by slimy secretions. In a nearby alcove, more bodies were pushed into a pile, and atop this rested several sticky white globes the size of large melons. Eggs. This is their home, and the hodekin are their food.
The centipede screeched and convulsed, lashing out with uncontrolled spasms. It pinned Cuauhtérroc against the cavern wall. Something cracked.
“Did ya see that?” Elric exclaimed with glee. “I jis jabbed its heart! There it was all throbbin’ an’ beatin’, an’ I jis—hey, Cuauhtie, you all right?”
Cuauhtérroc pushed and strained against the quivering centipede until he could slip away. He felt his ribs and winced. Broken again.
“Where is Cora O’Banion?” he said through a groan. “I hear dees scream.”
Elric wiped a smear of yellowish fluids from his face, exposing a satisfied grin. Then he shuddered violently and stuck out his tongue. “Cripe, that’s awful! Ack! Tastes like…there ain’t nuttin’ ‘at tastes that bad.”
“Where is Cora O’Banion?”
“I dunno.” He looked around, spitting frequently. “Where’s Ordin? Shinnick got the last of the hodekin, so I reckon he oughta get a extra treat fer—”
The cave trembled with the sound of heartbreak.
Elric’s eyes widened. “Mother of pearl.”
Cuauhtérroc had never before heard a woman’s shriek of anguish—a long, wavering wail made especially heart-wrenching in the labyrinth of caverns. Wave after resonant wave, Cora’s cry echoed through the underground, a doleful tremolo from a soul tortured with grief. Chills swept through the savage’s bones.
Elric’s voice quieted from grim recognition. “By the Maker, whaddya think happened?”
Cuauhtérroc knew what he would find, but he had no desire to say it. He gave the giant centipede one final shove and, forgetting his pain, ran to the cavern’s edge and scurried down the steep slope.
Cora’s face was buried in Ordin’s shirt, but it hardly muffled her relentless sobs. Protruding up past her scarlet hair, the mystic’s scimitar extended through his back and dripped with crimson. His body lay face down on the cold stone, small rivulets of blood running down the slope.
The savage slowed his approach and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Cora…”
She raised up and threw herself into his arms, her body shaking uncontrollably as endless tears soaked his panther pelt. Cuauhtérroc stared unblinking over her shoulder at the gruesome sight. Death was not new to him. Many of his kin had died in the frequent skirmishes of his jungle homeland. He had wondered when he would see one of his mainlander allies die and how they would respond. Now he knew.
Elric stumbled down the rise, but he shuffled to a stop and removed his helmet to reveal a slackened jaw and eyes wide in disbelief. He dropped to a knee and bowed his head.
Limping behind him, Shinnick wandered up and nudged his master’s body several times with his nose. After a brief whimper, he sat down on his haunches and howled a mournful lament.
Grief, it seemed, was universal.