14. Everwood VIII
Suffer. As I have suffered.
I screamed. I screamed into unconsciousness. I screamed as the deep dark drug me backward and the voices whispered.
I screamed at the voice.
I didn’t want to go back.
I was just meat.
Meat to be consumed by whatever happened to kill me next life. And the next. And the next. The demon’s face chased me through the darkness and into the light.
Gentle hands shook me awake.
“Boy-” Maya trailed off, flinching as I held her to me, my entire body shaking. I could still feel the teeth, tearing me apart. I could see the eye that watched, reveling in my pain.
“Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I wasn’t strong enough. I would never be strong enough. The gods chose poorly. This was it. This was all I would ever be. Teeth. I could feel the teeth. I felt the teeth the sword and the dagger the fire and they burned me and pierced me and tore me bled me dry until all that was left was a wretched husk of a thing I once was that screamed into the void begging for it to end-
Arms wrapped around me. They cut through the tempest of my mind. Maya held me. She didn’t know me, but she held me all the same. A soft hand stroked the back of my head, nails brushing my scalp. Nails.
I saw Barion’s arm, bearing the dozens of scratches. My chest tensed again, wrought with guilt.
“I shouldn’t have left you.”
Maya knelt in front of me and touched my face. Her eyes were warm. “We have all left others behind. We can only move forward.” There was such compassion in her face. It was almost enough to hold back the storm.
The images began to return. I shook, my skin crawling. Maya released me and looked deep in my eyes, searching for something. Then her hand glowed green. “Peace now. Sleep, Ni’lend.” Though it happened before in a very different context, I did not fear her. Her fingers brushed my forehead and I fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.
“I don’t know what’s wrong. He was fine. Ate like a dragon and drank like a horse.” Barion snapped. I could hear him talking outside my door.
“Well he is not fine now,” Maya’s muffled voice countered, “Whatever happened, he is fragile. I will tend him but you must give me space to do so.”
“Fine, fine. This whole thing has been a waste of time anyway, what’s a little more? Fix him.” Footsteps stomped away. Maya entered with a steaming tray. Her scowl immediately brightened when she saw me.
“I am,” I said, easing myself up on my elbows. It was strange how much better I felt. “What did you do to me?”
Maya nearly fumbled the tray. She placed it on the side table and stood back, the savory scent of tomato soup made my stomach rumble. Maya held her hands behind her back, her cheeks pink. Her tail moved back and forth in a lazy half circle.
“I am a life mage. Healing is my primary talent.” She said. I took a spoonful of the tomato soup and found the warm broth delectably salty as it warmed my mouth and throat.
“That’s amazing. I’ve never met a healer before. You must be rolling in gold.” I smirked at her.
Maya sniffed, “Oh yes, all the room and board I could want.” Still, she seemed pleased by my comment.
“I-“ I froze, remembering the depth of my pain the previous night. “Why am I like this? The last time we spoke-“
“Your… mind was fractured. I have seen it before…” Maya wrung her hands. “Life mages are not limited to physical healing. We can also tend the mind.”
Oh no. What had she done?
Maya must have seen the alarm on my face. She cut in quickly, “I didn’t change anything. You are still you. It is called psyo-genesis. When a person goes through a traumatic event, sometimes the mind gets stuck: they relive the moment, over and over. I would normally ask permission but you were so…”
She didn’t have to say it. I knew. I looked inward. It was still there, a dark mass roiling mass in my heart, but it no longer threatened to consume me. I could stand against it. I would stand against it. I would fight.
“Thank you.” I said. It felt like a vast understatement.
“You are… not angry with me?” She looked surprised.
I chuckled and fell back against the bed, my hand on my forehead. “Angry?” As if I could be angry. It was hard to fathom. “You saved me, Maya. I will not forget it. I swear it to the Elder gods.”
A heavy silence hung between us. That particular oath was not made idly.
“I will not ask what happened to you…” Maya said in a voice that betrayed curiosity, “but I do wonder, when I first met you, you mistook me for someone else.”
“Yes. Another infernal.”
“You have known others of my kind?”
“She was much like you,” I said, wanting to be as honest as I could. Maya perked up at that, clearly holding herself back from barraging me with questions. Instead, she just asked one.
“How did you know her?”
I smiled. “She was my friend.”
I strengthened my resolve. It was time for a change. I’d been going at this all wrong. For too long I had been on the back foot, relegated to reacting as things happened around me. That had gone on for far enough. Throughout my entire life before the invasion, I was a performer. Only Lillian saw the real me, warts and all. I took on different roles and thrived in them: A noble in the royal court. A commoner in the bars and taverns. A pretentious bastard usurped by his sister. Now, there was a new role to play.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t feel like one. Acting a part was simple. You played at it, tweaked it. Eventually, it fit you like a second skin. If I was going to play the role of a hero, I wasn’t going to be one of those assholes that ran in blinded by his own shining armor. That was folly. It helped that I already possessed one heroic quality: I could plan like a bastard. And now I had all the pieces: Barion, the demon in the forest, the cellar, and Maya.
I knocked on Barion’s study door and made my apologies, explaining that I had such episodes since I was a child, but they were few and infrequent. He waved me off and told me not to worry about it. We talked about the poultices and salves he would need. Since we’d had the conversation before, I was able to suggest a few I knew he would want before he spoke them aloud, and by the end of the conversation he seemed comfortable and pleased, harboring none of the suspicion he held last time. There was just one more thing I needed.
“I have a favor to ask,” I said, “It would help me greatly in my efforts, but I hesitate to impose on you further.
“An imposition to help you help me is hardly an imposition, wouldn’t you say child?” Barion set his pen back down.
“Very well,” I said, careful to hide my nerves. “It would aid me significantly if I could have an extra pair of hands for the next week or so.” My reason for asking was two-fold.
First, my preparations had to be done within the next week. Though I might have assuaged Barion’s suspicions for the moment, I had already lost three days. I had no idea when his cage for me downstairs would be ready, but it would be best to stick to the original timeline.
Secondly, I hated the idea of biding my time while Barion did unspeakable things to the children in the basement. My reasons were not entirely magnanimous—it would be a constant mental distraction and I needed every focused moment I could scrounge together—but I did not wish to resign them to any more torment than necessary if it could be avoided.
Barion stretched, mulling the question over. “It’s a tall order, but I suppose the more… intensive elements of my research can wait. You’ll need her at night as well?”
“I’m afraid so. Certain plants I’ll be looking for can only be gathered during specific windows in the evening. Given the volume you want, I could do it all myself, but it would take quite a while,” I lied.
“End of Winterscrest, if I’m lucky.”
Barion paled at that. “Good gods. You’ll eat me out of house and home by then. Fine. Fine. Take her.” He waved me away and I left, reveling in grim satisfaction.
Maya seemed confused by the request, but not put out. If anything, she seemed happy to have a break from her usual duties, and who could blame her. I stalled for the first few days, falling back into the comfortable routine of gathering and preparing.
It was amusing how much better I was at compounding mixtures versus when I had started. In the beginning, I was flying almost entirely by the seat of my pants, putting skills to use that I had not bothered with in years. Now I was mixing with confidence, minding the temperature of the mixture and sunlight exposure. I added a few new concoctions to the list: a mild paralytic and poison. When Maya asked what they were used for, I just coyly answered “intestinal distress.”
Our conversations went much like the last reset—though Maya was more open to me now. It seemed the tone of our initial interaction changed much. I was at something of a loss in how to broach the topic that needed to be talked about to move things forward. After all, I’d spent significantly more time with her than she had spent with me. I had to be hyper-vigilant not to refer to things that did not occur in this cycle. For this to work she had to trust me completely. While I considered the best options, I went out of my way to treat her well. With what I knew about her now, it came naturally.
As it turned out, I had been worrying for nothing. We had just finished the evening meal with Barion. I had him howling with laughter, having told a thinly disguised story of the time Uncle Luther had gotten stuck bare-arsed on the roof of the training barracks escaping a cuckolded sword-master in the middle of a blizzard, when there was a sharp crack and shatter across the table. Barion and I both jumped. The shards of a ceramic cup fell from Maya’s hand, her mouth opened in a silent “O.” Black blood trickled down her palm. Immediately, I understood what happened.
Barion was halfway up, but I beat him to it.
“Looks like a job for the resident apothecary.” I gave him a false smile, then hurried over to Maya. She was fixated on the broken fragments. I took her hand and gently led her away. It took a few minutes to remove the glass and clean the wound. I was as gentle as possible, but it still looked like she was in a great deal of pain. If I was right, it had nothing to do with the glass.
Maya looked at me silently.
“The great irony of a life mage, right? You can heal everyone else in the world except for yourself.”
There was a quiet, muted noise as she shook. A sob.
“Are you okay?” I murmured.
“I… am not,” she whispered back.
If Barion saw her like this it was going to raise all the wrong questions. After a moment of thought, I palmed a small vial that I would have used to numb the wound.
I raised my voice just loud enough to be heard. “Nothing to worry about, but it’s a bit deep. Head to my room, I’ll meet you there and mix some fresh anesthetic.” Maya hesitated for a second, then nodded and left.
I returned to the table to clear it as was customary after our meals. Barion ogled his dark-red wine, staring deep into it and swirling it idly. His mood had dropped, as it often did before he went into the cellar for the evening. I had just about finished when he spoke.
“Don’t grow too attached to her, my young friend.”
I stopped mid-way through cleaning a plate. Barion never referred to me that way. It was always “Child” or something equally diminutive.
“Might I ask why?” I said, taking pains to sound vaguely disinterested.
“I fear Maya has grown tired of the work. She’ll return to her tribe soon,” Barion said casually. I closed my eyes, pushing the anger away.
“Will you be alright, sir?”
“Why on earth would I not be?”
“By yourself, I mean. With Maya gone back to her tribe and me in Whitefall.” I clarified. I was treading dangerous water but could not resist the subtle jab.
Barion drained his glass in a single gulp and pushed it aside. “I am always alone, Cairn. That is the path I’ve chosen. Even now, with the two of you here. I am alone.” His voice was low. I went to take his glass, but he put his hand on it to stop me. “Leave it. Bring the bottle.” I did as he asked, hoping all the while that he would drown in it.
I found Maya pacing in my room. She turned to me, her eyes red. “You need to-“
She stopped mid-sentence as I held a finger to my lips, indicating the door. She shook, and shivered, and looked like she was about to explode. I grabbed a blanket, opened my window and stepped out onto the roof. Maya followed after me, taking my hand as she stepped onto the bed and through the window. She folded her legs beneath her and sat, a silent tear running down her cheek. I covered her shoulders in the blanket to shield her from the cold. She cringed at the touch, then relaxed. Her breathing steadied.
I sat beside her. We looked out into the clearing and the sky above. For once, there were no clouds, and a thousand stars shined brightly. I thought of Annette and Sera, of my mother, and wondered if they were looking up at the same bright sky.
“Why are you so kind to me?” Maya asked quietly. There were many reasons. But none I could articulate.
“You sure you want to know?” I asked. “It’s heavy.”
“I want to know.”
“Well, you see…” I paused dramatically, trying not to smile as I saw her in my peripheral, shifting uncomfortably. I turned and looked straight at her. “This is all part of my master plan to seduce you.”
The resulting silence was perfect.
“What?!” Maya squawked and leaned away from me.
“It’s true.” I said seriously. “Now, I’m only twelve, and I haven’t gone through puberty yet, but I figure if I keep this up-” I nearly bit my tongue as her small hands pushed me viciously, nearly toppling me off the roof.
“Okay! okay, I give!” I held my hands up in surrender.
Maya started to giggle, quiet at first, then louder until her laughter echoed across the field.
“Gross. So weird.” She said, wiping tears from her eyes.
“How you wound me, my lady.” I held a hand to my heart. She fixed me with a long-suffering glare.
Then the levity was gone from her face, instead twisting into something painful.
“Cairn, you have to go.”
“I didn’t think you’d take it this badly.”
“I’m being serious,” she said. “Barion isn’t what you think.”
“I know,” I said.
“He-” she stopped. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I know.”
“I know about the cellar. The children. I know he’s torturing them, trying to make them awaken.”
I thought about telling her the truth. But it was too much. It was hard for me to believe most days. “Lets just chalk it up to me being a nosy bastard.”
“Then why are you still here?” She asked, bewildered, “Why did you not run at the first opportunity?”
“I’m going to talk. Just lay some things out. Let me know if I get anything wrong.” I leaned back on the palms of my hands, gazing into the night sky. “You take care of them. The children. You heal them and try to make sure Barion doesn’t go too far. You want to leave—this isn’t what you signed up for and Barion scares you, but you can’t because who will take care of them if you go? And somewhere, some part of you is terrified because you’re sure, one of these days, that you’ll be the one in the cage.”
“How…” Maya sniffled beside me, arms wrapped over her legs, face tilted down. “Yes. That’s… all true. I should have fought him. Stopped him somehow. I’m a terrible person.”
I reached out and pulled her into a sideways hug. “It’s not your fault. There’s no world where anyone but Barion is to blame for what’s happening here. You’re a kid,” I said fiercely, surprised at my own conviction.
“You’re a kid.” She rubbed her eyes with both fists irritably, “Why are you talking like you’re older than me?”
“My father always said I was terrible at acting my age.”
“And you never answered my question. Why are you still here?” She searched my face, scared to hope.
“Because I’m not leaving you here, Maya. We get out together, or not at all.”
“But I can’t,” Maya said desperately, “I’m all they have, Cairn. As long as Barion is here I have to stay.”
“Then the there’s only one option.”
I smiled at her.
“We end Barion.”