Emmerich was awoken by the sound of the grate door being wrenched open, rebounding off the stone wall with a resounding crash that jerked him from slumber. His wrists canted and bit into their rope bindings, and he gave a muted cry, raising his gaze to the two masked figures who stepped into his cell. He had seen their faces already, knew the woman’s name, but it was the man who gestured for him to rise.
The Erdeborn was nudged out of the cell with a firm hand between his shoulder blades, before being pulled to a halt with the man’s enormous hand on his shoulder. There were two others in the corridor, and their gazes assessed Emmerich from the holes of their white plaster masks. These men felt different, Emmerich noted, less…alive than Cisza or her companion.
The woman – Cisza – opened the grated door to Lache’s cell beside his, rousing the boy from what Emmerich knew had been a fitful sleep.
Lache blinked startled blue eyes up at her, before she extended an open palm to take his hand, unshackling his manacle from the bruised wrist.
“Up you get, darling,” she coaxed, helping him to his feet. He crumbled, his knees collapsing under the sudden uplift, and she caught him, settling him down as she crouched to his height. Cisza’s hand went to his neck, pressing into his jaw. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I feel dizzy,” Lache mumbled, shrinking out of her grip slightly.
“Do you think you’re able to walk?” she asked, her voice calm and soothing, albeit muffled by her mask.
“He’s ready,” one of the hauntingly masked figures stated bluntly, and Cisza glanced over at him. Emmerich guessed her expression to be disapproving beneath its painted grin. She turned back to Lache, taking his hands and folding them into hers.
“I need you to drink something for me,” Cisza told him, and Lache balked immediately.
“No, no, I don’t want to,” he babbled, his arms jerking as her grip constricted, pinning his hands in her grasp. Lache glanced over at the masked figures as they began to move into the cell, their long sleeves brushing the floor. His blue eyes blew wide. “Please, please I don’t want to drink it. Don’t make me–”
“Take this,” the nearest figure instructed Cisza, handing her a vial brimming with black liquid. “He must drink it all,” he warned, and she nodded reluctantly, releasing Lache’s paled hands as the other figure stepped forwards to grab his upper arm.
Lache’s fingers bit into the man’s cloak, the digits turned to claws in their fear and trepidation. He screamed as the other figure laid hands on him, wrenching himself against the pull of the figures until they hooked his hands behind his back in a deft move and pinned him in the hold. The second figure’s gloved hands went to his jaw, digging in where the bones met and forcing his mouth open as Lache sobbed and screamed.
Emmerich was sick to his stomach, and he wrenched forward in an effort to aid the boy, to stop these persistent monsters whom he was so obviously terrified of. The fist that ploughed into his diaphragm made stars dance before his eyes and had him caving to his knees with his breath lodged in his constricted throat. He gasped against the pain, raising his head enough to see Cisza rise to her feet and press the rim of the vial to Lache’s lips.
The boy juddered, jerking in his captors’ unwavering grips. He barely moved; the rim bounced once off the edge of his teeth before the figure holding his jaw steadied his grip and tilted Lache’s head back. Cisza emptied the vial into his mouth, and Emmerich watched the eighteen-year-old choke the liquid down with watering eyes.
The figure held his mouth until he was certain Lache wouldn’t regurgitate the black liquid, and then the pair released him, rising as he collapsed forwards to his hands and knees. He pressed his forehead into the ground and bawled as Cisza watched helplessly, her gaze fixed on his jumping shoulders.
The black-clad and masked figures merely stepped over his body and exited the cell, pausing to glance down at Emmerich, and then back at Cisza. “Bring him,” the nearest one ordered, and Emmerich was lifted to his feet as Cisza stooped to wrap an arm around Lache’s shoulders, a guiding hand on his chest pulling him reluctantly to his feet.
“It’ll only be for a few minutes, darling,” Emmerich heard her murmuring as he followed the pair down the corridor. It was difficult to hear over Lache’s subdued mewling. At one stage, Lache’s ankle rolled, and Cisza hurriedly hooked an arm under him to support his thin frame. She cast a glance back at her companion, before her gaze fixed on the black-clad figures they were following.
The maze opened again on the cavern, and Emmerich recognised it as the same one in which they had conducted the broadcast, with him on his knees, and the man threatening to execute him as he doled out his demands. Trepidation settled behind Emmerich’s navel, churning his stomach relentlessly.
Emmerich was led to the outskirts of the room, to stand silent sentry as Lache was all but hauled to the centre of the cavern. Cisza collapsed with him to the ground there, and even from his post on the outside of the room, Emmerich could see his body trembling, desperately trying to shed the effects of whatever was raging inside him, like a poisoned second skin.
He looked awful, and Emmerich felt his fear like a mist that hung about the room, palpable and insidious.
“Is he ready?” that all-too familiar voice asked, and Emmerich’s gaze wandered to the man who entered the cavern, shrugging off his outer layer of coat, discarding it behind him as he approached the trembling boy at Cisza’s feet.
“Yes, sir,” she responded, and Emmerich jumped when Lache’s hand leapt out to seize her ankle. Cisza took a few seconds to recover from the contact, before she extended a hand to him, dropping to her haunches so that she met his height. “What is it?” Emmerich managed to just make out her murmuring.
Even from six metres away, Lache’s whisper carried across like he was breathing into Emmerich’s ear. The Erdeborn shuddered his discomfort, swallowing his disquiet and twisting his wrists in their bonds. His diaphragm still ached.
Lache was clearly becoming more distressed, even as Cisza attempted to calm him. “Don’t leave me with him. I don’t want to… I don’t–”
His words were swallowed into incomprehensible sobs as Cisza pried his fingers from her ankle, rising to her full height and stepping away from him as the two black figures who had accompanied their silent march into the cavern stepped forward.
The man directed his question at the pair. “He’s had the Gift?”
They merely nodded in reply, and he finally glanced down at the boy curled at his feet. Emmerich’s heart leapt to his throat when the man crouched down to meet his gaze, a hand coming to rest on his shoulder.
The Erdeborn expected violence – what more was there to expect here? But the man’s touch was cautious, soothing; it carried the weight of concern where it rested against Lache’s upper arm.
“My name’s Verraten,” the man introduced gently, in a voice Emmerich would have equated with a benevolent father. “Can you tell me your name?”
Lache’s voice filtered through between gulps. “Lache Flusswelle.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Lache. Do you know why you’re here?” When the boy shook his head with growing distress, Verraten spoke in his steady, nurturing voice. “You’re here for something very important, Lache. You’re going to help us change history.”
“I don’t – I don’t want to,” Lache pleaded around tears.
Verraten’s brow creased in genuine concern. “Lache, we can’t do this without you.”
“What am I doing?” Lache demanded, his voice rising in its fear, a sharp shout against the silence of the room. Its echo hung in Emmerich’s ears, ever-present. “What do you need me for?”
“I need you to amplify my magery,” Verraten responded, and Lache’s blue eyes rose to him, swimming not only with tears. He seemed to be losing grasp of what was around him, swaying badly.
“What’s you magery?” Lache whispered, his tone beginning to come under control.
Verraten smiled softly. “It’s easier if I show you.”
Emmerich’s attention was distracted from the conversing pair to the team of four carrying a stretcher between them. A blanket was draped over the mass, and the team was followed by a pair who could only be siblings. Their skin was sun-kissed olive, and the young woman’s hair was adorned in tiny chains of gold. She was draped in swathes of red and yellow, and her gaze passed over Emmerich as the stretcher was laid upon the ground.
The team didn’t pause, and after relinquishing the stretcher to the solid ground, they immediately began setting candles down around the mass. It looked like a sort of odd vigil, with perhaps thirty flickering lights dancing around the stretcher. Lache watched it all with dazed, wildly swinging eyes.
Cisza bent down and seized a handful of the blanket, lifting it off the mass in a swift motion, exposing a corpse beneath. Lache gagged and turned away, his breath coming sharp and hard to Emmerich’s ears.
There was no denying the body was a corpse. Its pale skin was past grey, the dark hair draped lifelessly to either side of the steel-eyed face. His eyes were still bright silver in death, though there was no light behind them.
Emmerich swallowed back nausea, fixing his gaze on Verraten to avoid glancing at the body. The man was no longer watching Lache, his gaze instead roaming over the dead young man’s face.
“This was my nephew,” Verraten explained. “But he was murdered on Klauen Stahldritten’s orders.”
Even though the body had obviously been washed and cleaned with great care, Emmerich could see the jagged cut that lined his neck, could imagine the path the blood would have made down his chest, trickling and seeping…
“I don’t want to be here,” Lache gulped, and made to shove away, struggling to his knees. Cisza wrapped her hand around his shoulder and shoved him back into a sit. Lache’s great blue eyes fixed on the corpse, his lips trembling. “I don’t want to be here,” he repeated, almost inaudibly.
Verraten didn’t register his words. “Fein here,” he explicated, gesturing to the red-clothed woman. She looked less than eager to be here, but she hid her distaste behind the face of a dutiful professional. “She has agreed to help us on her brother Herrin’s behalf.” Verraten gave a small nod to the young man that accompanied her, and he returned it in kind, stepping back as his sister lowered herself to her knees beside the body.
As they all watched, Fein placed rich warm hands against the jagged, paled flesh. She pressed the seams together between her pinched fingers and inhaled deeply, her gaze running over the body. Emmerich realised what the candles were for; she was a Feuer healer, and she needed those candles to source from.
She must have been well-practiced in healing, because when she pulled back after a few minutes, the neck was unblemished and whole, the skin cleared of its purple lustre. Even his eyes seemed to have softened with the façade of life.
She pushed to her feet, her lips pressed together in displeasure. “He’s as whole as he can be. I can’t do anymore,” she informed Verraten, and left without a backwards glance, escorted by her brother.
Verraten ran hesitant fingers through the young man’s dark hair, almost as if he were afraid of disturbing the body. “He was an unnecessary casualty in Heike Stahldritten’s war,” Verraten assured Lache absently. “And now he’ll serve as a test of both of our capabilities. Take my hand.”
Lache shook his head, eyes brimming as he stared at the extended hand the Stahlborn offered him.
“Lache, please, I need you to help me. And then you can go back to your cell. You can sleep.”
Lache froze at those words, before reluctantly offering his hand. Verraten took it gently, placing his hands over the body’s chest, enveloping Lache’s hand with his own. The teenager looked horrified at the sight before him, but Emmerich didn’t think he had much focus left to be shocked by the sight.
Verraten’s eyes fluttered closed, his breathing steadying as Lache’s began to accelerate. His hands moved beneath Verraten’s, and the other’s became vice-like, trapping them there as Lache began to visibly panic. His terrified pants rose to screams, and then to a painful wail that didn’t lapse, didn’t end, just rang around the cavern like the entire cave was screaming with him.
Verraten’s grip slackened, Lache’s scream cutting off abruptly, and then he slumped to the floor like a string had been cut above him. He sprawled at Cisza’s feet, convulsing feebly before he stilled. Verraten was swaying, and one of the attending team members who had carried the stretcher reached out to steady him where he knelt. He brushed them off, and then Emmerich saw the body stir.
It was minimal at first – a blink, a twitch – but it was astounding. The entire crowd that flanked Emmerich leaned forwards in anticipation, Lache’s prone form forgotten as they stared with bated breath.
The body convulsed with far more fervour than Lache’s had, the man’s chest expanding like he had been shocked, his mouth gaping wide as he sucked in an audible and pain-filled breath. He immediately coughed it back up, his arms flailing as he tried to come to grips with where he was. A bystander seized his wrist, and he latched onto them with vehemence, as if they were the last solid thing and he was floating in an ocean.
He was gasping in breaths now, but they were steadying. His eyes were less so, swinging wildly as they drank in every detail – or none – of the expansive cavern, and all its occupants.
The bystander was crouched at his side now, whilst another helped Verraten to his feet, leading him away. Cisza scooped Lache’s head into her lap, stroking the unconscious boy’s head as she watched the bystander address the now very alive young man.
“Look at me,” she was saying clearly and steadily. The man’s gaze fixed on her, her words finally registering in his ears. “Listen to my voice. Can you hear me?”
The man nodded haughtily, his motions stiff and jarred.
“Can you understand me?”
Another nod, this time more fervent.
“You’re safe, okay? We’re here to make sure you’re alright. Are you breathing clearly? Does anything hurt?”
The young man was clearly coming to terms with where he was and what the woman was saying to him, although his eyes swam with as many questions as Emmerich felt bubbling on his own tongue.
“That’s good,” the woman said, watching as he curled his hand into a fist and released it again. “Your motor skills seem to be improving, but take it easy. Can you say your name? Can you tell me your name?”
The man croaked something incoherent, and again another two times, before his vocal chords finally scraped together what passed as a response. When he spoke, Emmerich’s breath left him. “My name is Blair Eisen.”