Part 3: Smoke On The Water
Aelia kneels next to me, cradles me like a child. "All is well, Gaven." She coos softly. "The demon is gone. You are safe. Be still, be calm.” I don't enjoy being mothered like this, but I can't get up the energy to protest. I just curl up with the candlestick and let the tears flow. Eventually, I find my feet. I look at the candlestick. Something nags at my brain.
"Why do I have this?"
Aelia blinks. "You needed something. To fight the demon in the wall. Do you not remember?"
"No, I know that. But why a candlestick? I mean, all the light's I've seen come from the fireglass in the walls. No torches, no braziers...not even a chimney. Why is this here?"
Aelia looks down at the ground. "You needed something to fight the demon you saw. It was the first thing that came to mind to give you."
There's an unpleasant series of goosebumps crawling up my back. "What are you saying?"
"It isn't real. There is no candlestick. See?"
I look at my hand. I'm making a fist, but there's nothing inside it. What in the Boiling Belly? "It was here. I know it was here. I felt it."
"You were seeing something that was not there. You wanted a weapon, so I suggested one, and your mind provided it."
I look around frantically. no no no no. This isn't possible. "The crack! In the wall!" I jab a finger at it. "That's there! That's real!"
Aelia nods. "It was put there by the earthquake. Do you remember the earthquake? When you believed your cell was falling in on you?"
This is insane. This is nuts. That...that can't be right, can it? I didn't dream up that despair monster, did I? Aelia clasps my fist.
"Dreamers are dangerous. They see things that make them act. It is better to give unreal weapons to them to fight their unreal monsters than risk real damage to real people.”
I stare at her. "Do you do this a lot?"
"I...have had the occasion."
"I don't think I like you in my head."
“Believe me, sir, I would prefer not to dwell there forever either. It is a frightening and depressing place. Perhaps you should let me leave.”
I almost say yes. I reconsider. "No. No, I think I should keep you around a bit longer. To keep me from causing real harm to real people."
"As you wish."
I head over to the broken mirror and examine the shards. The person in them is vaguely familiar. He looks a lot like someone I used to know. I pick up a few of the larger, more jagged ones, careful not to cut my hand.
"What are you doing?" Aelia asks.
"Arming myself." I walk to the cracked face in the wall. It IS a face. I wasn't imagining that. A fireglass mosaic, cracked and leering. I take a shard, dig out a few gems. I start with the eyes.
"I am not comfortable with you armed." Aelia says. "You may injure someone."
"Ha! Rather the point. Yes, I think I WILL injure someone."
"Where are we going?" she asks.
"I don't bloody KNOW, alright? Might look for Jereth." I hold up the shard, make a cutting motion.
"If I may suggest? That is a very poor idea, Gaven. A very poor one. You would be killed."
"Got a better one?"
She chews her lip, then nods. "Jereth heads the Physician's guild, but he does not rule the House. Tell your complaint to the Lady of the House. Speak with his mother."
I look at her. "Guh? Geh ha. ha ha ha! You want me to tattle on him to his mom? AHAHAHAHAHAHA! That's brilliant! Get him sent to his room!"
"Jereth will listen to Lady Sylvia, as all men should listen to women. That you do not is a fault of your race. Trust me. He will listen."
I'm still laughing. It may be the drugs, but it actually sounds like a plan. And funny. Oh, so funny. "Let's do it! Take me to his mommy!"
"So tell me about this Lady Sylvia." I say as we walk.
Aelia's the one leading right now. "What is there to say? She is our Godmother."
"An elvish Godmother, eh?" I start, but Aelia gives me a glare that tells me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn't finish that quip. EVER.
"Heh, I thought you meant his real mother - funny, 'cos I'd swear he said she was his sister..."
Aelia makes a slight gesture with her slim hand, like a shrug. "She is. But she also gave Jereth life."
My stunned silence has her glancing at me. She chooses her words carefully. "There are few elves in Miir, and we are all one family." Ick. I'm trying very hard not to think about the implications of that. Aelia opens a door, frowns, and mutters, "This door does not lead here."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. This door leads to the inner chambers, not the garden."
I look out the door. "It probably shouldn't be snowing, either."
The gardens stretch before us, oblivious to the impossible flakes of snow drifting down on them. It's not even cold. I stick my injured hand out. One of the flakes lands. I rub it around, and it leaves a dark stain. Not snow. Ash.
"Well that's alarming." I say with an odd calm. "Are you seeing this?"
"I'm afraid I must say yes. It is very strange."
"You got that right.”
I step outside. Aelia grabs my arm. "This is unwise!" she insists, but I shake her off and look around. Can't see anything...wait. There. To the west, one of the mountains glows. It's quite a distance away, but I can see trails of flame oozing down the side of the peak. A volcanic eruption. No wonder the ground shook.
Aelia stands next to me, staring at the glow of the volcano. "It is strangely beautiful. Like dawn in the wrong place."
"Are we in danger?"
Again, she makes that hand-shrug. "I cannot say. The eruption is not large. I think it is too far away to do more than rain ash and make the earth shake."
"How often does it blow?"
"About once every twenty or thirty years. The humans call it Mount Morrine and say a dragon lives at its heart."
I'm reminded of the fire in Miir's Belly, so like the descriptions of The Dragon's Belly the priests told us all bad people went after death. Now the Dragon roars...No. Stop it. Miir is bad, but it's not The Dragon's Belly, and I haven't been swallowed yet.
"Where now?" I ask.
She hand-shrugs again. "Across the courtyard. That door there should take us near The Lady's chambers. Assuming, of course, that the door leads where it is supposed to. That fact, I think, is in doubt at this moment."
We wind through the gardens. I see an empty, shallow pool, the bottom dusted with ash. I wonder why it's dry. All the plants are green. Perhaps the House's fortunes aren't so good that they can afford both pool and healthy greenery in Miir's climate. I point it out to Aelia.
"Oh.” she mutters. “It used to lead to the Belly. Then the Gorgeous Gang used it, and fled with many treasures. It was closed to keep other thieves out. "
I marvel at the fire-breathing mountain for a while. If it causes enough chaos, I might be able to use it to escape. Or it could wipe us all out in an instant, burying the city in a thousand tons of flaming ash and rock, entombing us for all time in seconds.
Aelia gently tugs at my sleeve. "We should not linger here. I do not think it is--hrkk!"
I wheel about at her outburst. Oh, fuck!
Aelia's halfway up the wall, jerking and clawing at the braided and waxed rope around her neck. She gurgles as she struggles to draw breath. My eyes follow the rope up. He's there. Black against the sky, muscles rippling as he hauls Aelia inch by inch up the wall to his perch in silence. His mask has no eyes, but I know his grim gaze is on me.
I freeze, not breathing. The rope creaks. He's only feet away. I am the mouse, staring at the owl.
Aelia's gasp breaks the spell, her foot finding a moment's purchase against the wall, lungs grating in half a breath of precious air. A moment: our eyes meet - pleading, pain. The hangman yanks her higher, reaching down.
Run. It's not a conscious thought. Just an order from my brain to my legs. I turn from Aelia as the hangman's great hand closes around her delicate throat.
There is the pool. I see the shimmer of water. I don't question it. I just dive. Dive and swim to the tunnel she said leads to the Belly. The tunnel carries me swiftly into darkness, and it suddenly occurs to me that the pool was dry...suddenly, I'm trying to swim in air.
Ow. The landing is swift and painful, and it's darker than pitch. The air is stale. I catch my breath, and remember the fireglass gems. I pull one out. The light is weak, but I can make out my surroundings.
I'm in a stone tube lined in granite, just tall enough to stand in. Behind me is bricked up masonry. I touch it. It's real, solid. Ahead of me the tunnel is choked with rubble from a collapse. I'm trapped. Worse.
I'm buried alive.
That thought begins to sink in. Buried alive. Somehow I delusioned myself through a solid brick wall, and now I'm stuck forever.
That's when the panic kicks in, and I scream.