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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Chapter 3: Deeper

Updated: Oct 7, 2021

The Company of Dragon Slayers descended further into deepest darkness, their footsteps slow across the slimy limestone steps. Ahead, their collection of lighted rocks showed only more depths; behind them, the entrance was lost in the fading radius of light.

“How far does this go?” Cora whispered. Her voice split the quiet as lightning turned night into day. Her mind wandered to her studies on the Expanded Creation at the O’Banion School. Several known locations across the world served as natural portals to other dimensions, both nefarious and benign. But a few…. What if we just stepped into the Void? Where would we come out? Not all who enter find an exit…

“We’re here,” Ordin said as he stopped beside Cuauhtérroc on level floor beneath a stone columned archway.

Cora exhaled sharply as she and Elric reached the bottom. A natural cavern spread out before them, the ceiling low and oppressive and walls closing in with damp shelves and rickety cabinets. Stacks of crated goods and bags of foodstuffs stood in one corner, wasting away in various stages of decomposition. The clammy cave aroma carried the odor of mold and rot.

Ordin pointed out a pair of crude tables in the middle of the cavern, one of which tilted on a stubby leg made short with rot. “Are we sure the shadow walker came down here? I seriously doubt anybody’s b—”

The mystic stiffened, his head tilted upward as he sniffed the air, and Cora’s breath caught in the sudden silence.

The lowest of growls escaped Shinnick’s throat.

“You smell somethin’?” Ordin asked, kneeling beside his wolf. He leaned in and whispered in the animal’s ear words only Shinnick knew. Standing with wary eyes, he placed all but one lighted rock into a pouch. “Put away your lights,” he said. “Now.”

Though Cora desperately wanted to see, the urgency in Ordin’s voice overrode any resistance. She shoved all her stones in a pocket. And the cavern grew suddenly dark. Only a faint glow of bioluminescent mushrooms lighted the crevasses of the cavern floor.

“Foxfire,” Cora whispered. “It’s been years since I’ve seen—”

Shinnick’s growl turned feral, rising past threatening and straight to attack mode as he scampered away into the darkened corridor beyond the room. The surprised yelp of a man echoed in the cavern, and Ordin dashed off in response, loading his crossbow as he went. “Get ‘im, Shin!” he yelled, rushing past the tables.

Fearful human screams rang out in the dim green glow ahead, followed by lupine snarls and growls. Then a single high-pitched yelp. And silence.

“Well, that ain’t no good,” Elric muttered. “An’ I’ll be a fried tater ‘fore I do any fightin’ inna dark.” He retrieved his lighted rocks and tossed them across the cavern, sending shadows scattering all about. He pulled his sword, raised his shield, and charged across the area.

Cuauhtérroc ran ahead of him and disappeared around a corner, a light in one hand and his macana poised to strike.

“Cripe,” Cora huffed. “Why do they always leap into things without a plan?” She swung her lute around and ran after them. “Why am I always left behind?”

Around the corner, Ordin held a disheveled man at crossbow point against the floor in a narrow passageway. His arm showed the telltale signs of Shinnick’s fangs. But the wolf limped away and collapsed onto the floor to lick a wound in his foreleg.

“Start talkin’,” Ordin demanded.

“No seein’ for bright lightness,” the man said, his eyes clenched shut.

Ordin’s shoulders drooped, and he rolled his eyes. “Nine Hells…he’s Ogrian. This’ll be a fun conversation. Cora?”

The songsage approached and cringed at the sight of him. Stubble covered the man’s unwashed and pimpled face, but it was difficult to tell where the rough beard ended and the dirty smudges began. Yellowed teeth, crooked and gapped, flashed briefly in the light as he winced and squinted beneath the glare. Greasy hair gathered in bunches and matted against his forehead and neck, and his tattered clothing—ripped even more after Shinnick’s assault—hung loosely about his grimy body. He stank of urine. He surely has been lost down here for months.

She put a hand on the mystic’s arm. “Ordin, let him sit up. Show some mercy.”

“He stabbed Shinnick.”

“Tend to your wolf then,” she said with a nod, then turned to the Ogrian. “We’re not going to hurt you. We’re here to help. What’s your name?”

“Marley name is.”

Cora frowned in thought. The name sounded familiar.

“What’d he say?” Elric asked.

“Ogrian syntax is backwards,” Cora explained. “Like everything else from Ogria, it takes some getting used to. He said his name is Marley.”

“‘At’s what I thought. Ya reckon he’s kin to ol’ Marley what runs the tavern in town? He’s a Ogrian, too.”

Cora blinked. Of course…Marley’s Tankard. I suppose it depends on whether it’s a given name or a family name. She turned back to Marley. “Are you related to another Marley that owns a tavern in Westmeade?”

The man provided a partially toothy grin. “Shore kinness be Marley.” His breath reeked of long-decayed food. “See for kinness Marley here be for townness.”

“Dees man use dees same words I know,” Cuauhtérroc said, “but I do not know what he say.”

Cora tapped her fingers on her lute. “Me neither. I could try a song of translation, but it would take a minute or two to complete.”

Ordin looked up from applying a fresh bandage around Shinnick’s injured leg. “Or, you could just turn around backwards and it would all make sense.”

Elric spun around. “Naw, I still don’t get it.”

“Look,” Ordin muttered, “don’t be stupid. We’re chasin’ that shadow walker, and she’s gonna be long gone if we don’t keep movin’. Give him a rock and point him to the door. And let’s go.”

Cora pulled a rock from her pocket and gave it to the man. “Here. Use this to light your way. The stairs are long, steep, and dark. But it leads out. There should be a man waiting up there with—”

“Good enough,” Ordin said, tugging on her sleeve. “Gotta go!”

“His name is Rutland. Tell him Cora sent you.” She nodded to the mystic. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Ordin ran down the passage, the stock of his crossbow pressed to his shoulder, Shinnick on his heels, and the others close behind. His green-tinted light-rock illumined a pair of Ogrian men in an antechamber gathered around a small object. They looked up as light invaded their space, green flashing in their greatly dilated eyes.

Without warning, the men sprang up from their haunches. “Brace the Kavee!” they shouted and leaped at Ordin with crude weapons, fear and anger contorting their grimy faces.

The mystic skidded to a halt and squeezed the trigger on his crossbow.

One Ogrian howled in pain and clutched where the fletching protruded from his chest. He plunged to the floor, writhing about in fits. With a grunt, he yanked the bolt out and flung it aside, burying his hand in the leaking wound. He tried to stand, but color was rapidly fading from his face, and he collapsed.

Despite a wounded leg, Shinnick leaped at the second Ogrian to protect his master, clamping the man’s weapon arm in a vise-like bite and thrashing it until he dropped the rusty bar. As the man dropped to his knees, clutching his wounded arm, Shinnick stood over him with teeth bared in a frozen snarl.

Cuauhtérroc pointed further ahead to yet another passage cut into the stony ground. “We go now,” he said. “I hear more of dees men.” The savage held aloft his illuminated rock and strode with Elric further down the passage beyond the antechamber. Angry voices, clashing steel, and screeches of pain soon echoed down the corridor.

But Cora stopped at the object that the Ogrians had been attending. It was the crate the shadow walker had been carrying, and through the slats she saw a small boy stuffed into the tight confines, cold and cramped.

“By the Maker,” she breathed through a hand cupped to her mouth. She spun around to the mystic. “It’s a child!”

Ordin’s eyes narrowed, and his thin lips twitched with a curse straining for release. “I’ll kill her.”

“I think it’s locked,” Cora said, after fiddling with the latch. “I’m going to try to pick it open.”

“Good,” Ordin said, jumping to his feet, exchanging his crossbow for a scimitar. “You do that and stay with Shinnick. I’m gonna go see what else needs killin’.” He turned to his wolf. “Shinnick, guard these men.”

Cora returned to the crate as she mulled over what sort of evil person would cage a child. Haunting memories of the transformation room above shattered any illusions of innocence or charity. The evidence was plain; the shadow-walking woman was in league with the dragon, helping to create an army of dragon-bloods. And these Ogrian men were involved in some way. As she retrieved her lock picks, Cora’s eyes brimmed with tears of compassion for the mistreated child and hatred for those who would abuse him. There simply should not be such evil in the world.

“It’s going to be all right,” she whispered over the lad. “You’ll be free soon.”

The boy gave no response, and Cora feared the worst. In his cramped condition, it was impossible to tell whether he was breathing. As she worked at the lock, she hoped they were not too late.

Echoing down the passage ahead, screams of pain followed clashes of steel. The fight Cuauhtérroc and Elric had begun was escalating. Cora bit her lip as she worked the lock. I do hope they are well without me…just this once.

“Hey,” said a gruff voice behind her.

Shinnick growled, deep and long.

Cora drew blood from her lip as she jumped and spun around, and her lock pick snapped off in her hand. Standing in the shadows was the Ogrian they had first encountered. He had returned instead of securing his freedom, and he wielded a rusty hatchet.

“Yours crateness not for bein’,” he said, pointing to the crate with the tip of his hatchet.

Shinnick bared his teeth in a snarl and crouched low. The Ogrian vacillated between Cora and the wolf.

Cora worked through his contorted speech pattern. “And the boy doesn’t belong to you,” she countered with a strum of her lute. Her fingers plucked a charming melody, into which she weaved words of friendship.

With a gruff word, the Ogrian threw his weapon at her.

Shinnick leaped at him, but in one swift motion, the man deflected the wolf into the stone wall.

Cora gawked at her instrument, half in relief that it had saved her life and half in horror, for the hatchet had split the wood box. A severed string coiled back against her left hand, bouncing with released tension. With eyes full of fury, she glared at the man. “Nobody…nobody touches my lute.”

The Ogrian hacked up a wad of phlegm and spat on the floor.

Cora began to sing. The haunting melody filled the cavern, resonating upon itself and drumming the man’s ears. Sonorous echoes rebounded from all sides, amplified by the cave and building until the Ogrian clutched his ears and fell against the wall. Shinnick leaped upon him, tearing at his throat.

“Shinnick!” she yelled. “Supren.”

The wolf pulled away to reveal a neck trickling blood from several punctures. The Ogrian writhed and choked. Beside him, the other wounded man shifted, still grasping his mangled arm, as he gaped at Cora in fear.

“You see, Marley,” Cora said, standing with drawn rapier over the man with the bloodied neck, “I only have to say the word, and you’re dead. I gave you your freedom once, but you squandered it. Tell me, where is the shadow woman?”

Marley gurgled a pained response.

“Fly the by,” said the other man with an emphatic nod. “Way long she Kavee fly the by.”

“For the love of Beauty,” Cora muttered, “why do you people speak like this? The Dareni are more isolated than you, but they—never mind. You say she’s gone. That figures. So, tell me this, and give it to me plainly, or I will let Shinnick have a free lunch. On both of you. Why is she giving children to the dragon?”

Marley slumped over, still clutching his bleeding neck as a weak groan escaped his lips.

“You,” Cora said, whirling on the other man with her rapier, “answer the question.”

The man stared at Cora in confusion. “Dragon?” he said, shaking his head. “Childs she Kavee no givin’ for dragonness.”

“I don’t believe you. What’s your name?”

The man stared intently at the tip of the sword. “Marley name is.”

Cora stuck the tip of her rapier to his chest. “Don’t give me that. What’s your whole name…given name and family name?”

“Marley name is!” the man insisted. “Shore kinness be Marley.”

“And that’s why I don’t believe you. I’ve met exactly three Ogrians in my life, and they’re all named Marley. That’s not coincidence; that’s conspiracy. Your friend here, Marley Number Two, is about to bleed out, and I’m about to run you through. Answer me, and none of that happens. What is she doing with the boy?”

“Childs bein’ for fatherness,” said the man.

As Cora worked through the answer, her eyes widened with horror. “She wants him to father her children? That’s horrible! How perverse can she be!”

The man shook his head again. “Way no! No fatherness she Kavee bein’ for childs.” He turned aside and spat, as if the very thought disgusted him.

Cora squinted at him. “… what?”

“Shore fatherness obeyin’ for she Kavee takin’ childs.”

“I wish I could translate that,” Cora said with an irritated glare, “but he broke my lute.” She flushed her indignation with a slow and steady breath. “Let’s try something else. Are you calling the shadow woman ‘Kavee’?”

The Ogrian nodded. “Kavee name is.”

“Okay. So…Kavee is taking the childs—er, the children—to their fathers?”

“No. Fatherness obeyin’ for she.”

“What? She’s obeying their fathers? That makes no sense. Look, you have got to try to talk like I do. Say it again but use my words.”

The Ogrian’s eyes never left the tip of her rapier. He drew in a careful breath and replied, “She Kavee obeyin’ the Father.”

The rapier dipped and dangled from a single finger as a sudden realization washed over Cora. “Oh, cripe.” She stared aghast over her shoulder at the small crate. “She’s obeying the Father—the All-Father. Kavee is in league with the Nephreqin.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Mason Rutland pushed himself off the floor with the sort of effort normally expended toward lifting a cow. And he had done that once. His body ached clean through to the bones. A Grotesque, the woman called that thing writhing about his face, and it wasn’t truly dead. A shudder rattled Rutland’s frame, and he grasped an empty wall sconce to avoid falling. His torch lay where he had dropped it, flickering its diminishing light across the frescoed walls. In the looming darkness, each flicker of his torch flashed images of another Grotesque, each shadow haunting him with treacherous possibility. They won’t bother me if I’m smart, she said. Then I’d best hightail it.

Rutland stooped to retrieve his sword and torch. He staggered and fell against the wall. I ain’t fit for walkin’. How’s I s’posed to get outta here? He wiped his brow and pushed away from the stone, leaving behind a bloody handprint. He remembered the woman’s mangled face, how it had been ripped and torn. He paused before touching his own, before placing his trembling fingers into the warm, sticky flow of blood. By the Maker…

The sound of Elric’s freeblades had long faded into silence. Rutland would likely die before they returned, but he could hardly delve deeper to find them. He would only live if he went to the surface.

If he didn’t pass out first.

* * * * * * * * * *

Cora cursed at the broken pick jammed in the lock. There’s got to be a key around here somewhere…probably on one of these men. Or on the shadow woman. But the clash of escalating combat echoed down the hall, and Cora feared for her friends. She knelt quickly beside Ordin’s wolf. “Shinnick, guard these men. Do not let them move.” I’ll have to come back for the child.

Shinnick sat on his haunches and glared at the Ogrians, and Cora dashed off to help—or save—the others. She rounded the final bend in the passage and slipped on the floor made slick with dripping limewater and blood. She skidded and fell, biting off a yelp. All around her lay the crumpled bodies of several Ogrian men. A heady metallic odor mixed with the stench of urine and grime filled her nostrils. Further ahead, the battle continued, and Cora scrambled to her feet. She dashed off through the tunnel-like room to the conflict, past several heavy doors with small barred windows.

Scrawny arms extended through iron bars from the inside. A pleading voice echoed faintly in the corridor as she rushed past.

Cuauhtérroc squared off with a large Ogrian holding a rusty greatsword and backed into a corner. Each showed signs of injury but neither showed signs of ceding ground. Ordin rested against a wall, his scimitar laying across his knees and his body splattered with blood. In a small alcove, Elric pilfered through a tattered leather pouch as he stood over a dead Ogrian. It struck her that no one was helping the savage. And I can’t play him that song of courage he likes.

Stacked and strewn about the cavern were a dozen slatted crates much like the one that Kavee carried. These were empty but showed signs of dried blood, pieces of ripped clothing, clumps of hair, and other signs of struggle.

The Ogrian shifted around and swept his sword through a stack of crates, sending them crashing all about. Cuauhtérroc dodged one and fending off another with his macana. Taut muscles rippled across his back and thighs as he crouched low with arms wide. Cora had seen that stance before; a vicious attack was imminent.

With a roar that caused the Ogrian to tense, Cuauhtérroc charged across the space between them. As the greatsword swept across his path, the savage dropped into a slide. The heavy blade clipped the edges of his hair as it rushed past. His slide continued across the slick floor until his feet struck the opposing wall just as the greatsword clanged against the rock above him. He collapsed his legs and pushed off, his momentum lifting him up the wall and catapulting him beside the Ogrian, where he drove his obsidian-studded club hard against the man’s knee, cracking bone and tearing tendons. The greatsword clattered against the floor as the Ogrian crumpled in pain. And with a second roar, Cuauhtérroc crushed the man’s head.

Cora turned away with an understanding nod.

A voice, weak and wavering, echoed from the corridor of heavy doors. “Hello?”

Cora raced back the way she had come. The prisoners!

“Help us, please!” the voice rasped.

In the tunneled passage, two emaciated and filthy arms extended through the iron bars of a window in the nearest door, grasping at the air. “Save us!” said the voice. Though hardly louder than conversational speech, it was strained and forced with great effort.

As Cora reached the thin arms, a hand clutched hers, squeezing with what little strength remained.

“Save us or kill us,” said a voice from within the cell.

She took the frail hand and pressed her face to the iron bars. Darkness pervaded the area beyond, but she knew what was imprisoned.

Cuauhtérroc grabbed the door handle and pulled with all his might, but the thick oaken door held fast.

“Somebody find a key!” Cora implored. “There’s another child in here.”

Elric snapped his fingers. “I seen a key on one o’ them fart smellers back ‘ere. Lemme get it an’ see.”

Cora nodded. “And from now on, don’t leave any keys behind. Take them all.”

“I’m gonna check on Shinnick,” Ordin said.

“He’s guarding the last two Ogrians,” Cora replied. “And Ordin…don’t kill them.”

The mystic held out his arms. “Don’t you trust me?”

Cora bit off an honest response. “Also, I broke my lock picks on the crate in there.”

As Ordin rolled his eyes and shuffled off, Cora pulled one of her lighted rocks from a pocket and lobbed it through the barred opening. Her breath caught at the sight of three young boys dressed in filthy rags and riddled with bruises, scrapes and cuts, some of which were showing signs of infection. They shielded sunken eyes from her light, vainly backing away to the far corner. By the Maker of Beauty, they look awful. What’s going on down here?

A sandy blonde-haired boy, taller than the other two, bore the marks of many beatings. “Please…I wanna go home,” he said. “We all do.” Though sorely abused, he stood proud.

“It’s going to be all right,” Cora said. “I promise.” She looked at dusty blue eyes full of hope. “What’s your name?”

“Adar, ma’am. Adar Messel of the village of Keller. This here’s Patch and that one’s Wyntyn.”

“Well, you keep your chin up, Adar Messel of Keller. We’ll have you out soon.” Cora looked up at the panther warrior. “What’s happening here, Cuauhtérroc?”

The savage pulled against a different door, which rattled against its lock. “Dees Ogree men make dees cheeldren into slaves.”

“That’s horrible,” Cora said with a deflated sigh.

“Dat is what dees Nephreqin also do to my people.”

Elric ran up to them, huffing for breath. “I got it!” He gave the key to Cora, who hastened to unlock the boys’ prison.

Adar fell into Cora’s arms, and with a little coaxing, the other two boys left their dungeon home. They followed the freeblades to the front room where Ordin sat with Shinnick, still faithfully guarding the two stabilized Ogrians. “I broke the lock and freed the boy,” Ordin said, pointing across the room.

At the other side, lying in a heap, was the child from the slatted crate. He was alive but unresponsive. Cora rushed to his side, scooping him up and cradling him against her breast. His eyes focused on her but they were windows to an empty soul. With an aching heart, she held him close and sang a soothing lullaby over him.

The other boys recoiled at the sight of the white mystic and a “real live” wolf. But Adar presented the greater bravery. “Can I touch him?”

“He’s still wild,” Ordin answered, rubbing Shinnick’s ears. “Let him warm up to you first.”

“What happened to your skin?” Wyntyn asked with a frail voice.

“I was struck by lightning,” Ordin answered, and as soon as the words were out, he cringed. The boys stared at him, as if wedged between fear and doubt.

Even Adar backed away. “Lightning? Really?”

Ordin looked up at Cora, his eyes pleading for help.

Cora shook her head. “They’re all yours,” she said. They’re good for you.

“Um, yeah,” Ordin answered. “Happened with I was ‘bout your age.”

“Did it hurt?” Adar asked, taking a short step toward him.

Ordin drew in a measured breath and knelt beside his wolf. “Shinnick, supreni,” he whispered, and the wolf lied at his feet as Ordin began his tale. “I had a hard life…”

Cora smiled at him, recalling the many times he had told this story.

Before he was quite done, Patch had found courage to rub Shinnick’s forehead, and Wyntyn was sitting on the floor before him, absorbed in his story.

“Was it loud?” Patch asked. “Did you die?”

“You smell like rain,” Wyntyn said.

While the two younger boys lavished attention upon Ordin, Adar sat down beside Cora and placed a thin, grubby arm around the lad in her arms. “It’s gonna be all right,” he said.

A knot formed in Cora’s throat. “What happened, Adar? Can you speak of it?”

Adar shrugged, his eyes distant. “We all got snatched. Me and Patch ran away from home, but Wyntyn jis wandered too far off in the woods. But we all got snatched in the end. I hear there was over a dozen of us at one point. Them men what snatched us stuffed us in them cages and we was made to drink somethin’ awful so we passed out. An’ then we woke up here until we was snatched up again…and…just gone.”

Cora fought back tears. Who would do this to children? “Do you know where they went?”

“No ma’am. I heard some talk about sellin’ us.”

Slavery was common among the pirate lords of the southern seas, and the Audric Jungle was a prime target for taking captives. Along with every other kindhearted person who believed in liberty for all the Maker’s Creation, Cora loathed the practice. Not everyone shared the belief, but she had never heard of enslaving the children of the mainland.

The boy in Cora’s arms moaned.

“This is Stensel,” Adar said with a deepening sadness. “They beat him so bad they broke him. He got snatched, too…but I guess nobody wanted him. She brung him back.”

Cora turned to the others. “Guys, right now I don’t rinkin care about Wilder Tower. We have to take these boys home.”

Elric held up a hand. “But…we cain’t leave the city.”

She stood up with Stensel. “Then we’ll take them to safety! Each of you carry one of these boys out of here.”

“And the Ogrian kerns?” Ordin asked.

Cora hardly minded the derogatory term—not this time. “They can rot down here for all I care. But we can’t do that, so…Cuauhtie, would you mind frog-marching them to the surface?”

The panther warrior stared at her with a slight tilt to his head.

Elric chuckled. “She means grab their arms an’ force ‘em to walk. Ya cain’t be usin’ big o’ words on ‘im like ‘at, Cora.”

Cora brushed past him and marched back through the caverns with Stensel in her arms. As she trudged up slippery steps, rebalancing with each footstep, she pondered what Ordin must have endured during his two-year captivity with the Roark. If the Ogrians, working with the Nephreqin, were capable of this cruelty, there was no imagining what depraved horrors the Roark visited upon their captives. He had been profoundly scarred inside, just as these boys might be for the next several years. What might terrify them uncontrollably in the coming days? What sights or sounds might set off a freakish rage or an outburst of disconnected speech? Which of these might end up being just like Ordin?

Cora looked over at the mystic as they rested in the main room with the frescoed walls. Ordin carried little Wyntyn on his back, and a grin played at his mouth as the lad laughed at something he had said. That’s good, Ordin. Make them forget their pain. Be a hero to them. He was comfortable, not only with the boy but also with his subterranean location. He had just witnessed enslavement, prison cells, and heartless cruelty. And he had never flinched. Not even once. Perhaps there was reason to hope for these boys.

As they emerged through the front doors of Wilder Tower, spattered with blood and reeking of filth, the sunlight made painfully clear the trauma of bruises and festering wounds that covered the boys’ bodies. The guards took the Ogrians from Cuauhtérroc and continued their march to the Tower of Truth. Soon, there was a small procession of townsfolk accompanying the Dragonslayers and escorting the lads to the Solarium for cleansing and healing.

Of the four boys, only Stensel had not spoken a word since their liberation, and Cora implored the cassocks at the Solarium to take special care with him.

After delivering the boys to the cassocks, she sat on the outer steps of the Solarium, staring vacantly into the street below. Cuauhtérroc sat beside her and drank deeply of his water. He offered her a drink, but she pushed it away.

“Dees boys weel be okay,” he said.

Cora sighed and buried her face in her hands. “How can you know that?”

“Dees green tree do not break. When dees storm lay it down, it grow into dees new shape. It do not grow straight, but it do grow.”

Softly and quietly, Cora began to cry. “Thank you.”

Cuauhtérroc put an arm around her shoulders and finished his water.

* * * * * * * * * *

Down the hall from the four boys, Mason Rutland lay on a bed, his eyes locked onto the ceiling. He sighed and brought a handheld looking-glass up from his side. It didn’t matter how many times he looked; the result was the same. He was hideous. Countless tiny gouges wove a chaotic tapestry of scars across his face and neck. The damage was healed, thanks to his life’s savings, but the cassocks were unable to prevent the permanent reminders. Tenebral wounds, they said, were difficult, and he was blessed to still be alive.

He looked again at the mirror. It was not his idea of a blessing. Everyone would gawk at him now; kids would point, and their mothers would shield their eyes. He’d never get a job. He’d never again be able to catch a night with a lass. No, not a blessing; it was his ruination.

He recalled the shadow woman’s face. She, too, would be horribly disfigured after today. What was it she said? She walked too far? It meant nothing to him, just like his dreams of a good life. Maybe Elric would still call him friend. Maybe he could still help Elric’s freeblades, the Dragonslayers.

Rutland set the mirror aside and folded his hands across his body, his eyes refocused on the ceiling. There was still the matter of Captain Hunt. That’s what I’ll do. Imma take you down, Cap’n Hunt. Ya don’t get to send yer men away an’ burn ever’thang—ya don’t get to fight the Dragonslayers. They’re in the right, an’ I’m gonna prove it.

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