Out of the shadows of the alley, a figure materialized and approached him. Silent, composed, and radiating a practical grace, she knelt at his side. Her skin dark as night, her eyes empty but gentle, she reminded him of someone – Lea. The same smooth bald head and foreign manner of dress named her another of Mastodon’s servants akin to the woman who had healed him after the wolf attack.
At first, because her skin was so dark, he did not see the many black lumps that adorned her. But then, with a resistant sucking noise, she removed one from her neck and placed it where it could nestle into the hollow of Godren’s throat. Squirming, it latched on, and Godren realized what it was – a leech. Any other time he would have been repulsed by the little creature feeding off him, but since he didn’t feel anything anymore, inside or out, it mattered little to him.
He did not feel the darts being retracted from him, but they appeared in the woman’s slender hands, and she put them aside. Then she continued transferring leeches onto him, one after another. When the parasite at his throat overdosed on the poison it was sucking out, it fell away, and she gave him a replacement.
Deftly, she worked. Godren could not feel what she did, and only saw snatches of it, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
Then suddenly, her silent mouth spawned words. They were senseless, some sort of flowing gibberish that she chanted over him as she worked – her native language, no doubt – but he was fascinated by it, having had it impressed upon him until now that these dark servants of Mastodon were mute. She had a beautiful voice – hypnotic, and he found himself sinking to a less aware rank of the dreaming world. The woman and her leeches were still there, but the alley faded away, and he felt drowsy – the first time he had felt anything since the poison had swamped his system.
When her eyes left her work and met his, her words abruptly started making sense and registering, no longer foreign, as if speaking straight to him formed a link of understanding between them.
“Hold onto your soul, Venom Treader, for your blood is about to grow very weak. Find the center point of your existence, and retreat there; it will serve you well as you undergo this ordeal.”
Center point of his existence? How in the gods’ names did he do that? He couldn’t even think.
“If your essence evades you, resort to your greatest desire,” the woman continued. “Envision it, reach for it, focus on it with everything you have inside you, and refuse to let go until it is yours in this world. But beware the danger of this last resort; many fall willfully short, their strength failing their mortal bodies but keeping their spirits attached to this world. That is how ghosts are born.”
Weakness started to pervade his body as the leeches withdrew the deadening poison but took his blood with it. He regained the barest ability to think, but lost the will to put forth the effort it would take to do so.
“Fight, Poison Lord,” the woman commanded. “Want. Your greatest desire; think of it. Let it possess you.”
A strand of will to obey swam through the darkness he wanted to drown in. What he wanted…well, that was easy, wasn’t it? It was the same now as what he’d always wanted, coinciding with his doom…
But the woman at his side spoiled it with an insightful warning; “But don’t, whatever you do, think of freedom. You will get it – you will die.”
Already halfway there, thinking of it, Godren tried to throw up walls to block the death he had called so swiftly. It had been hovering just beyond its breaking point, and rushed him at the first sign of an invitation. He choked, inside himself, and instinctively fought the assault as the woman’s chanting voice rose in volume and fed motivating nonsense into his head. She had a way of capturing the essence of something in her voice, so that he didn’t have to know the language to understand the impression of what the words meant. Visions poured into his mind, spawn of the vivid descriptiveness she possessed in her voice and the artistry that formed her words. A garden bloomed in his mind, and water streamed through his veins. Wind buffeted him and unfurled a pair of wings on his back, and the urge to fly overwhelmed him. Drums beat to the pumping rhythm of his heart. As the wind filled his lungs and forced him to breathe, he felt the desire to run – run forever, because he would never run out of breath.
Successfully filling him with the elation of life, of living and breathing and feeling, the woman moved on to describe beauty, adding attraction to the spell. The reflection of a lake at sunrise glinted and rippled in his eyes, then the glittering depths of brilliant constellations. He saw every detail of the blooming process of a rose, and marveled over the iridescent, fluid pooling waves of a green water until he realized it was actually a satin curtain flowing like liquid in the wind. He saw patterns – on leaves and feathers and stone, in the sky and on the water – even in the wind. Colors suddenly held such blinding, beautiful meaning, and a cascade of tempering snowflakes blanketed the world in lace.
Then she described pain. The art of her words created it for him, penetrating his numbness and stabbing him so fiercely that his livelihood flared. It was only an illusion, but it was stronger than anything he had ever felt. He would do anything to escape that pain, but he couldn’t – so he lived. It kept him awake, kept him agonizingly anchored to the world. Needles dug at his skin and soul-wrenching cramps twisted his innards. Through the darkness, through the otherwise numb curse on his body and paralyzed ability to do anything, he found his voice in the depths of his being and screamed. Mercilessly, the voice causing the pain intensified to be heard over his cry, keeping the agony steady. He wanted to writhe, wanted to cower, but could not move a muscle, couldn’t ease one relieving inch away from the anguish. It hounded him – beating him and stabbing him, eating him from the inside out, wrenching him apart.
He hardly realized when it started abating; his body still rang with it. But it finally registered that the cruel voice had relented to a murmur, and as it trailed off into a whisper he dared to hope he might soon feel the effects of relief. When the intensity did slack off, he still felt like steam should be rising from his body, like he should be trembling regardless of paralysis. Like his voice should be bleeding from the raucous volume of his tormented cry.
“Now,” his uncanny healer said indifferently; though, the gentleness had never left her eyes – even as the intensity of her spell shared them. “Think of something you want. In the same way you just learned to avoid longing for freedom, avoid longing for relief now. Be strong. Envision something of a different nature – something beautiful, perhaps. That makes it easy, both to envision and to desire.”
Without having to execute any effort, a vision of the princess established itself in his mind. It was at once vivid and striking, capturing his focus. She was radiant – the sun in her skin and the depths of the sky in her eyes. She smiled at him, and her eyes creased, giving her features a slightly exotic angle. There was mischief in those eyes, but also sincerity. A true rebel at heart, but fiercely loyal to the people who demanded practicality of her.
Someone who, while demonstrating that truly noble love for her people, fell in love with a criminal.
The thought of Ossen deceiving her, of him taking advantage of her ignorance and rebelliousness and being an immoral influence, corrupting her…that planted a seed of resistance, of opposition, in Godren’s deadened mind. It was just a shred of purpose that called for action – which called for staying alive – but it was the last straw in this business with Ossen, which, as it sent him over one edge, was ironically what held him balancing precariously on another – that of survival. There were two personal sides to it: the opposition that had always festered between them, and the coincidental element of the princess, which they were both coming at from different angles than that of the usual rivalry. Then there was the bigger picture, which instilled more of a moral responsibility in him for knowing the aspects than it did personal drive for being emotionally stricken by them; the fact that the princess of Raven City was unknowingly falling into the arms of those who would use her. Treacherously and ruthlessly, they would use her. Regardless of if Ossen would actually ever contrive to harm her or not had he not been a victim of blackmail – Godren would never trust him for a minute, even then – he knew Mastodon would dig her claws in as soon as it fit her interests, and she would never let go. The princess would be at her mercy, a wretched puppet on a string, and Mastodon could wrench the nation apart and turn it upside down through her.
So he clung to the image of Princess Catris, letting it possess him, letting her hold onto him. And as the leeches drained him, weakening him and sending him under again, he dreamed deeper, more pleasant dreams of her.