Everything was pain and screaming and cruel laughter. The kobalos worked meticulously, lashing Cab’s flesh with thin branches and pounding his bones to powder one by one. They burnt him with hot lengths of metal, and knew just when to stop, just before the pain sensors were burned out. Kobalos lived to inflict pain, made Cab’s life a ball of pain that could not compare to anything he had suffered at the hands of men. They broke him, little by little, until he was a thousand pieces of his former self, all screaming in agony.
Mag haunted his dreams, when he was allowed to have them, a gruesome blend of human and monster. He seemed to be suspended in a half conscious state, always in agony of one sort or another. She would appear as a young girl, naked and scarred, with the long-snouted face of Maakraig and she would claw and bite at him until he wailed for the gods to help him. He would wake to find kobalos thrashing him with a nine tailed whip, each tip tied with the sharpest thorns. He would pass out from the pain and she would return to him, cooing to him, calming him, as a beautiful young woman. He would look up and her eyes would be yellow, her eyelids translucent. Or her skin would turn blue and scaled.
Someone slapped Cab’s face so hard his neck seemed to snap and all the pain disappeared for one glorious moment. Voices grumbled around him, though he did not care what they said. Death had to be near now and he would embrace Bella with whatever he had left within him. She would be his saviour and he would welcome the chance to worship at her feet. More voices now, a language he could understand, though the words seemed unable to fit together properly in his head.
“You were right, sister,” a voice he had heard....somewhere. Perhaps in a dream. “He is strong.”
“Not strong enough,” replied another, her voice the soft hiss of waves upon the shore.
Cabriabanus wondered whether he was really hearing the words or if the conversation was taking place in his head. Perhaps he was sinking into the black realms. He didn’t suppose they were too far from this wretched hive of kobalos.
“She is a fool,” the second voice said scornfully. “She drains herself. Soon she will be an empty cup.”
The monsters will have her then. She will be their unwilling queen.
“He can stop her foolishness,” the first voice said. “A man will see what a woman cannot. He is a man of action.”
“She may do the same for him,” the second voice said. “He is the sun.”
It is a shame then, that he is so near to your door, sister.
A silence followed, a deep silence, and Cabriabanus wondered if the voices were gone. If they had ever been.
“His time is not yet come,” a snarled reply. “He will live.”
A soft touch on the side of his face. A whisper of a name forgotten long ago. A set of lips pressed against his ear, a warm breath of voice.
“They are not dead.” It sounded so much like mother that he could hardly think of the words themselves. Mother, who he’d long ago lost. She’s not dead? No, they are not dead. The words started to sink into his skull, penetrating his brain with the slow surety of a boot sinking in the mud. Who were they? And why should he care whether or not they were dead?
Something poked at his mind, perhaps it was the words finally sinking into their destination, and a blaze of red hot fire ignited inside him. It exploded in his neck, his arms and chest and legs and he cried out at the sudden agony. It was the pain of a body teetering on the edge of that dark realm, the pure pleasure of being pushed back, away from the brink of death, of being reborn.
He lay panting and burning up on a cold stone floor. Rough hay poked into the new skin on his back, itched but did not hurt. He had known the depths of pain and come back from it once more. He was as the sun, battling his way through the reaches of Mortholm, to rise once again and bring the new day. Was he tempered now? Was he stronger? He did not want to care about strength anymore, he only wanted to live.
The smell of the cell was dried blood and waste, pain and death. He opened his eyes.
And started at the hooded figure that loomed over him. The hood so deep and dark he could see barely a glint of the eyes within. He scrambled away to the edge of the cell, panting in fear, only to realize that he was alone. His limbs coursed with a welcome fire at his sudden movement. They had been still too long. There was naught else in the cell that was living and he took a deep breath to calm himself. The gears of his mind began to turn, slow at first, then faster.
He was in a cell. Alone. He was alive and seemed to have only a vague memory of pain. It was a pain that seemed to blind him, his own body preventing him from remembering it too clearly. It had been the pain of death, this he knew in the deeper parts of his being, but he did not examine it too closely. He did not ask why. He was only grateful to be alive, to be moving once more.
His body had changed. Had grown older. His flesh was awash with white lines of varying thicknesses, with splotches of reds and browns, with hardly a hands breadth of unmarred skin upon him. Almost, he resembled a map of some strange territory, lakes and mountains and roads all crowding together upon his skin. But there was no pain, and any who saw him would never assume that these wounds were fresh. He was well healed and felt surprisingly good for the darkness through which he’d travelled. His hair had grown, was lank and greasy, tangled with dirt and dried blood. His face was thick with hair and he scratched at it, releasing a small shower of detritus.
The words that had woken him came suddenly back, seemed to fall into their appropriate place in his head. They are not dead. Of course, they were not dead. If they were dead the world would have changed, would have been swallowed up in emptiness. At least that was what he had assumed would happen. Perhaps he was wrong. But somewhere within him he knew, he could feel, that the prince’s were still alive. He didn’t know what it was. Perhaps, the vow he had made had strung a line between him and his wards. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were still alive, as he was. He needed to find them and get them out of here. How long had he been in this cell? He couldn’t be certain. Long enough. They must be waiting for him. But where? He could search this dark realm of the kobalos for years and not find them. But Mag would know. She had magicked them off the edge and possibly to some place of safety. She would know where they were, she could help him. He had to help her, he had promised, or close enough to. He was long sick of breaking promises.
He stood and paced the cell, examining every corner in the darkness. There was nothing that could aid him, no loose stones, no rusty hinges, no stray nails or tools of torture. He took the bars of the cell door in his hands and shook them, but they were well made and strong and hardly moved at all. He ground his teeth, but would not be so easily discouraged. He scoured the cell again and again, finding the same every time, stone floors, dirty straw, iron door and nothing with which to pick the lock.
How long did he wait before there came the sound of footsteps in the hall? He hoped and prayed that they were coming to his door, for there would be nothing he could do if they passed him by. He stood silent behind the door, pressed up against the wall, listening. It sounded like two sets of light feet. Likely the Nidrig or perhaps some young human slave. His heart started to pound in his chest as if it wanted to pound its way out into the air. He chanced a glance out between the bars of the door and then pressed himself against the wall once more, trying to be invisible. There were two, a green-skinned kobal and a young human boy. The kobal had a set of keys that clinked loudly in the silence. The boy was carrying a basket. They came to Cab’s door, key in the lock and the door swung open. Cabriabanus kicked the door, hard and it thudded against the body there and swung back at him. He kicked it again, for good measure and leaped out. The Nidrig lay prone upon the floor, keys in hand and basket nearby, but the boy was no where to be seen. Cabriabanus crouched to make sure the kobal was out and dragged him into the cell, locking him there. He searched the basket, hoping for food, but found only bandages and medical supplies. With the keys in one hand he slipped quickly and silently down the long corridor. There was no light, no torches, but he could still see. The mask magic Mag had placed over his eyes must still be working and he was glad for it. He could see as if there were a faint light coming from all points, illuminating everything just enough. It was not the bright illumination it had been at first, but it would do.
He hurried down a long corridor lined with cells not unlike his own, though none seemed to contain any living creatures. At the end of the long corridor a door stood ajar and a faint noise filtered through. He sidled up and peeked through. Another hall, similar to the one he was in, but composed of a glossy black stone rather than dull grey. The sound he heard was a faint slapping of feet upon the floor, receding. The corridor seemed empty and the dashing feet had to be that of the human boy, running to raise the alarm. Cabriabanus ran after, chasing the sound of footsteps, making sure his were not heard. Every corner, he slowed and poked cautiously around, but he encountered nothing other than once or twice a brief glimpse of the young boy he was chasing. The boy was not quick, though he seemed always just out of Cab’s reach. So Cabriabanus quickened his pace, bent upon catching the child, and in doing so neglected to check the next corner he rounded. He ran into a pair of kobalos, tripping over them, knocking them down, landing atop them. His struggle to get up became a scuffle. One clamped his enormous jaws down upon Cab’s leg and he bit his lip to keep from crying out. Trying to ignore the pain of sharp teeth in his leg, he bashed the others head against the wall until the creature went limp in his hands. He grabbed the other around the throat and squeezed until the creature was forced to let go. He stood, his leg was only slightly ravaged, blood oozed and trickled down it. The kobal lay at his feet struggling to breathe and Cabriabanus realized he had lost the chase. He bent, the pain in his leg was sharp but not too bad, and closed his hand around the kobalos neck once more. It’s eyes widened, though already they took up the rest of the space on his head. It wrapped its hands around his and tried to pry him off. He lifted it into the air, its legs kicked, but did not connect with anything.
“I need to find Mag,” he snarled. He didn’t care if the creature understood the common language or not. Mag at least he could understand.
“Kak don’t know,” the creature whimpered, struggling for air. “Kak only little. Kak know nothing.”
“Kak knows Ghamiscar,” Cabriabanus insisted, squeezing a little tighter. “Bring me to Arr-Ghamiscar.”
“No! No! It is forbidden!” he cried, his words a harsh strangled sound. “Kak no go there. Kak forbidden! All Nidrig forbidden!”
“Tell me!” If he squeezed any tighter the creature would loose consciousness and then he would be alone in the dark once more. Kak struggled weakly for a moment before hanging limp. Something unintelligible escaped his lips. Cabriabanus loosened his grip just a little. Kak gasped for air, filled his chest to bursting. “I tell!” he wailed. “I tell, tell, tell, tell. Just let Kak go!”
He set Kak’s feet back on the ground and loosened his grip upon his throat but did not let go. Kak sighed, his head drooped and he gave a little sob. Cabriabanus was surprised to see tears, and his heart softened a little. If he hadn’t just been tortured to the brink of death by Kak’s brethren he might have found some pity. Words flowed out of Kak’s mouth, this turn and that, up flights of stairs and down long corridors.
“Then you there,” he finished. “Big door with big swords for Arr-Ghamiscar. Spilzock there. Never leave side of Arr-Ghamiscar. Never.”
Never, Cabriabanus thought, heart sinking.
“You kill me?” he whined. Cabriabanus thought for a moment. If he didn’t kill the creature, he would certainly alert the others.
“No, no, please, please,” Kak whimpered. “Kak know secret. Kak know way you, Shoktri, free Spilzock. Kak know secret of Arr- Ghamiscar heart.”
Cabriabanus was skeptical. If Nidrig were not allowed near to the Arr- Ghamiscar then how would he know any such secret? He said as much and Kak’s eyes gleamed with mischief.
“Kak know. Kak listen. Kak hear when Orscan talk, don’t think Kak smart enough to listen. But Kak smart. Kak know.”
“Tell me then.”
“Kak tell you,” he said slowly. “But Kak must live. Yes? Kak want to live. Want very much.”
Reluctantly, Cabriabanus nodded. There would be ample opportunity to change his mind later.
“You tell,” he said. “You live.”
The secret of Arr- Ghamiscar was the secret of all Ghamiscar and a very few select Orscan, such as Rottdokk. It was....typical of kobalos. Cruel, clever and despicable. It turned his stomach just to hear about it and brought a rage into his heart so that he dragged Kak along the halls with him. He couldn’t afford to leave the creature alive, but had to keep his word. He was coming to realize the importance of words, that they held more power than he had thought possible. Perhaps he should have taken Kak back to the cells and locked him in, but there was no time and his mood had turned foul. He stopped and turned to the creature.
“Sword,” he said to Kak. “I need a sword.” Kak stared blank eyed and fearful.
The door was small, made of moulding wood and locked with a rusty bolt. Cabriabanus kicked it in and the noise echoed through the quiet halls, but there was nothing that could be done about it. Kak had said that few kobalos came to the dungeon level, for though they enjoyed the torture of captives there were few these days and any stray Nidrig might become a victim himself were he to wander this area too long.
Inside the room was quite large, full of crates and chests and boxes of all types. There were sword racks and standing suits and bits and pieces scattered all over the place. It was a treasure trove of armour, but hardly any of it was free of rust and wear. He looked for the King’s brigandine and his father’s sword, they were unique enough that he should have been able to find them easily, but he could not. They were in good enough condition, compared to the junk here, that they were likely being used by someone. He found some wool britches that had seen better days than the ones he was wearing. He used the old ones to bind up the bite wound on his leg. And a wool shirt that was not too mouldy and moth eaten and a pair of boots, whose leather was hard and cracked but at least they fit. He took a scale leather breast piece, scales bent and a good many missing, hard leather vambraces, in good condition, but worn, and greaves, with rusted hinges. But most of the swords were dull and pitted, or the tangs were loose in the hilt. He managed to find a long dagger, which was fairly sharp. It was the best weapon there.
He left Kak shut in a chest and continued on alone.