So, Chapter 10 is done. And I’ve decided to post it here. Conventional wisdom be damned; it’s my story and I’ll post it if I want to. Besides, it’s draft zero, and whenever I start putting forward the final result it’ll be different enough from this go-around to not matter too much.
So here ’tis. Shit, as the kids say, is getting real. People dying. Not saying who, but things are definitely starting to move.
Joseph and his Guard topped the final rise before entering the Valley of Innias, the city of the same name laying in the center of a broad plain. Before them, the Highway, recently completed, winding just to the west of the city walls and continuing off into the distance, eventually coming to its end at [the capital] far in the north. Bisecting that dark line was the other major road this far south, unpaved but still dark, a wide breadth of dirt impacted into a permanent scar by the thousands and millions of travelers’ feet, animals’ hooves and wagon wheels that had followed its course. And in the center, where they met: Innias, its unnaturally black granite walls highlighted with a golden shawl in the setting sun.
The Highway before them was nearly empty, only a few people walking along the shoulder, thankfully staying well out of their path. They were pushing their bikes hard, wanting to make the city before full dark, the urgency of their tidings more important than conserving fuel. And there were other reasons: Thomas’s leg injury was proving worse than they’d initially thought, and he was nearly too weak to hold onto Matthias, riding behind him. And Joseph had his own reasons, one only Matthias and Canaan were aware of–his heart was racing, sweat pouring down his face, the real world fading in and out of his vision, doubling with the world his Sight wanted to give him, life and intent and emotions dancing about him, constantly threatening to remain and consume him. It was taking all of his will to fight it back, hold it off, just a little bit longer. He tried to focus on the pain in his wounded arm, the dull fire that constantly burned and the blinding spikes of pain that came whenever he flexed his hand to shift gears or apply the brakes. And then there was his passenger, their prisoner, riding behind him, arms locked in a death-grip around his chest, a steady stream of mumbled words–prayers, presumably, given their cadence and repetition, though Joseph had no idea what he was saying. Just that one word that Canaan had been able to identify, repeated again and again as the litany circled back and around again. Aman. A warlord, Canaan had said, the historical precedents terrifying to him. Hopefully there’d be a scholar in Innias who could better translate what their prisoner might have to say, or a merchant who’d picked up some of their language in his travels who’d be willing to translate for them, or failing that at least some books Canaan could reference to refresh his memory enough to piece together a few more words and draw some sense out of it all. Hopefully, Kellen, his father’s cousin, Duke of Innias and the entire south-eastern province, would understand the urgency of the news they were bringing and act upon it immediately, without first trying to find an angle that would benefit him and his power base (or purse) first (which was admittedly unlikely). Hopefully Joseph could set all of this in motion before his Fit overcame him and he abandoned his friends to face the next few days without him.
It was a lot to hope for.
The formation roared through the encampments outlying the city, Joseph and his passenger safely in the center of his Guard. Matthias had been thinking some of the same thoughts Joseph had earlier in the day, prior to the ambush, and had exerted the small amount of authority he had over his Prince: instead of a long train with Joseph at its head, the formation was now riding in a diamond, five wide at the center, Matthias in the lead, his second-in-command Letam in the rear, and their charge right in the middle, protected on all sides.
Although the encampments were quieter than normal–Joseph could see only a few larger fires, and the leaking awareness of his Sight produced only a dull roar of emotion, like a distant sea, instead of the furious entanglements of negotiation, celebration, and the violence that could come when either went wrong–they drew more than a little attention as they made their way to the stables near the city’s gates. Innias was only a few miles from the coast and the small harbor town of [tradetown]; more importantly, [tradetown] lay at the base of one of only two navigable passages up the sheer cliff walls that surrounded the entirety of [heroland’s] peninsula. The other was on the west coast and was tightly controlled by the crown, as it was the closest access to the volcanic island of [volcanoisland], the sole source of the sulfur used to make gunpowder. Which left [tradetown] as the only sea access into or out of [heroland], and thus the one place where foreign merchants could enter the kingdom. [tradetown] was too small to serve as anything more than a way station, little more than a series of docks and warfs, a few small warehouses, the tariff offices and their supporting garrison, and a handful of inns, bars and brothels (usually in the same building)–there wasn’t enough open land for anything else. That left Innias as the nearest place where those coming and going could do business. And those who were too poor to afford offices and lodging within the city set up their temporary homes outside the city walls, forming a small suburbed city of their own.
A temporary city that was normally quite boisterous, a source of anything and everything a man could imagine and more than a few things he couldn’t. But tonight, there was a haunted feel to the place and the inhabitants, a quiet that felt forced and repressed.
The formation pulled off the Highway and approached the stables, hoping to find an open corral where they could leave their bikes. The stablemaster did, indeed, have enough room for them, and after recognizing who they were, initially refused payment for keeping their bikes safe. Matthias finally tossed a small purse to the ground before him, telling him that he could either take their money or deal with the riot that would form after they left as every man nearby raced to claim at least a small part of it for himself, at which point he knelt and gathered the purse to his chest and bowed, over and over again, mumbling thanks. They left two of the younger members of the Guard, Dorian and Jaimie, with the bikes to watch over them, promising a relief before the night progressed too far along, and then headed for the city’s gates. Thomas was laboring now, depending on the shoulder of one of the other men just to keep limping along, and Matthias fell in beside Joseph as they walked.
“How are you?”
“Well enough. I’ll leave the talking to you, though.”
“Finally. It’s for the best, you know. I’ve been begging you to keep your mouth shut for years.” And then, after laughing at his own joke, “Are you okay?”
“I’ll last. Best to save my strength, though.”
“And what of him?” Matthias asked, pointing to their prisoner, walking docile alongside them, head down.
“He appears content. I’m in no hurry to turn him over to the Duke, whatever happens.”
There was a small crowd following them, merging with those already camped closest to the walls, as they approached the gates…which should have been open. But weren’t. Matthias called out to the guards lining the top of the wall on either side of the gates, demanding entrance, and there was a bit of confused murmuring before a new face appeared, leering down on them, dressed more formally than the rest, an officer of rank in the colors of the City Watch.
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” he called down to them, “No one is to enter the city without a pass. Orders from the Mayor. You can camp outside tonight and we can sort this out tomorrow.”
Matthias looked back at Joseph, and he waved at him to take care of it; Joseph was working to conserve what little energy and sanity he had left for dealing with Duke Kellen…a task that could be trying even in the best of times.
Matthias nodded and turned back to the officer on the wall.
“Are you daft? Do you know whom you address?” he yelled, projecting loud enough for everyone to hear. “Open these gates in the name of the Crown!”
There was an odd smile on the officer’s face; he appeared to be taking a bit of pleasure at this.
“I’m sorry my Lord. In the absence of His Grace, the Lord Mayor has given us explicit orders. My hands are tied.” And he held them out, palms up, clearly not tied.
Joseph could see the rage building in his Captain–was feeling it a bit himself, though he was too distracted with his other struggles to allow it to get a solid grip on him–and wished for the hundredth time that day that the attack had happened anywhere else in the kingdom, anywhere but near Innias. They’d been planning on skipping the city on their return before the day’s events had made it necessary. This sort of bureaucracy was all too typical of the province his father’s cousin ruled over, the unfortunate outgrowth of the machinery of trade than occurred here, combined with Duke Kellen’s love of rules and regulations (and the additional power and profit they could bring him). Though this was taking things to a new and absurd level.
And then his mind returned to what he’d said about the Duke’s absence…that was not expected, and could prove to make things even more difficult. For all that Kellen understood that he ruled here at his cousin the King’s pleasure, and at least gave outward appearances of respecting the responsibility and loyalty due his family, the Mayor of Innias was Kellen’s man entire, bought and paid for, with no allegiance to anything beyond his own power and the man who allowed him to wield it.
“Then you’d better get the fat bastard down here now!” Matthias yelled back, his hand dropping to rest on the holster at his side, more for comfort than as any kind of threat…though Joseph knew the temptation to to more than feel its comforting weight must be growing in his Captain.
The officer looked about to reply, then paused and quickly glanced behind him, as if hearing something. After a moment, he turned back to Matthias, a smile still on his face but slightly less confident.
“My Lord…Your Royal Highness…I apologize for–” He was interrupted by a series of loud bangs and clanking, and then the sally port to the left of the gates opened, two men passing through it.
The first man was short and grotesquely overweight, a clear film of sweat coating his face, matting the sparse hair on his head and soaking a dark ring at the collar of his robes of office. He was breathing heavily–clearly just the act of walking was a serious exertion for him–but appeared pleased with himself and what he was doing all the same. This was Octavan, the Mayor of Innias, and Joseph sighed; if Octavan was really in charge in the Duke’s absence, everything he’d been hoping for would prove far more difficult, if not impossible.
The second man was taller, very obviously not overweight, the wiry muscles at his neck and along his arms standing out clearly against his thin frame. He was wearing an odd amalgam of formal dress and the colors of the City Watch, a short-sleeved tunic under a worn, studded leather vest, a similarly studded helmet, and carried both a long-bladed spear in his hands and a sword bound about his waist. Joseph didn’t recognize him, couldn’t remember ever having seen him before (though he’d made a point of avoiding visits to Innias as much as he could in recent years), but the man just came to parade rest, standing silently behind Octavan as the mayor continued on, reaching out his fleshy hand towards Matthias.
“My Lord Captain: may you be Matthias to me?–this is unexpected and welcome.” Matthias took the fat man’s hand in his own, and Joseph knew he was suppressing a grimace of disgust; he’d had occasion to shake Octavan’s hand in the past and knew the creeping feeling his soft, painfully-effeminate grip could have on someone. “And Your Royal Highness! You do us incredible honor with your presence. How may I serve you?”
Joseph nodded in the fat man’s direction, and then glanced in his Captain’s direction; he still didn’t trust himself to speak, and was conserving himself for when it was absolutely necessary.
“The fuck is wrong with your people, Octavan?” Matthias asked, unwilling to imply any deference by stepping back fromt he man before him but unable to keep himself from wiping the hand the Mayor had touched against his leg. “Demanding a pass from the Crown Prince?”
Octavan’s face curdled for a brief moment, clearly upset at Matthias’s words (and Joseph knew it was discomfort at his Captain’s vulgarity that bothered him, and not embarrassment at the behavior he’d called out), but recovered quickly, a sickly smile returning to the folds of his face.
“My most sincere apologies, Captain. There are some unusual causes for concern, especially with His Grace away. They were only following their orders. Vigorously, as is to be hoped for.”
“Where is His Grace?”
“Why in the north, Captain, bringing tidings to the King of…well, we can discuss that later. But of course you knew that.”
“We’ve been away from [thecapital], almost two months now.”
“Oh. That is…interesting. May I make you welcome, then, in his name?”
“You can if we can skip the small talk. I have a wounded man here and news of my own my Prince and I need to discuss with you.”
“Oh dear, of course.” Octavan turned to the man behind him, clapping his hands together. “Danal, please see that their injured are taken care of?” The tall man behind him called back into the sally port and three men of the City Watch immediately appeared.
“Danal is my most trusted servant, and will see to your men’s needs posthaste. Now…Captain, Your Royal Highness, please, come with me.”
The three men of the Watch moved to assist with Thomas and were immediately waved off, Letam and the other men of the Guard unwilling to let an outsider help with one of their own, and the Watchmen instead turned and led them through the sally port, leaving only Octavan, Danal, Matthias, Canaan, Joseph and his prisoner behind to follow them into the city.
As they passed through the narrow doorway, Canaan moved alongside Joseph, speaking quietly.
“How are you?”
“Close. Holding on.”
“It’s…unfortunate, Kellen’s absence, isn’t it?”
“You know my feelings on Octavan.”
“I do, yes.”
“Can you and Matthias handle him? I don’t have much time left, and we can’t afford to wait until I’m better to act on what happened today.”
“I’m sure Mat will be fine, once he remembers that he can’t just shoot the man, however much he wants to.”
“He’ll have to handle things himself. You’re wounded, and stressed well beyond where you should have been this close to a Fit. My place is at your side.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s not my first time.”
“It is under these conditions. I’ll at least want to see you safely through the rites.”
“You worry too much. I’m not what we should be concerned about right now.”
“On the contrary. After today, your safety is more important than ever.”
Joseph paused, mentally, trying to gather himself. It was getting more and more difficult to focus with each passing moment, and there were too many nebulous implications to what Canaan was saying to drift too far afield just yet.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Look around you, as best you can…”
Joseph did. They had already passed through the outskirts of the market district, everything but the bars, inns and brothels already shuttered for the coming night, and were approaching the walls of the interior castle and adjoining Care-Keep. The streets, unusually, were mostly empty, with none of the expected activity he remembered from his previous visits to the city. With all the foreign visitors and [heroland] travelers that passed through here, Innias had been, in the past, as alive after the sun went down as it was during the day, and in some ways much more so. Late night negotiations, celebrations of deals struck earlier in the day…any excuse, really, to spend the money that so readily changed hands here, indulging in all of the things that money could buy. But now that had all been replaced with darkened windows and locked doors. And soldiers, he noticed. Lots of them, more than he could remember ever being within a city at one time. Men of the City Watch were stationed at seemingly ever corner, patrols of the local militia were marching about, far more orderly than any militia had a right to. And most surprisingly, there were several platoons of the Southern Army about, some on the move from one place to another, others stationary, disciplined and observant, all of them in full battle gear. There was nothing ceremonial or casual about any of it.
And though he was doing his damnedest to ignore it, to hold the Sight at bay just a little longer, it was impossible to completely block it out, and what he was sensing from all of them–the Watch, the militias, and the Army–was tension. Malice. Aggression. Uncertain fear and apprehension about something undefined that was yet to come.
Canaan could see the look on Joseph’s face as all of this washed over him, and as they approached the great doors to the central castle–manned by over two dozen men of the City Watch, Joseph noted, all fully armed and on alert–the priest leaned in close to say one last thing.
“I’m not sure what all of this means. Perhaps the good Mayor is just being overly cautious in His Grace’s absence. But in light of what happened earlier today, perhaps not.”
Octavan stopped before the doors and turned to face them, the very model of formal supplication.
“My Lord Captain, Your Royal Highness, my Lord High Priest…and your…guest… Please be welcomed to m– His Grace the Duke of Innias’s home. Let us within to discuss these matters so urgent.”
Without waiting for a response, he turned back to the Watchmen and motioned for them to open the doors. They did, and the group passed through them, the heavy doors closing behind them with a deep, loud thud and shudder that Joseph felt resound within him on a deeper level than his bones.
The conversation went about as well as Joseph had expected it, which is to say frustrating enough to make you want to gnaw your own arm off.
Octavan had led them to the receiving hall where the Duke normally took his audiences. The Mayor wasn’t crazy enough to have claimed the Duke’s own seat high on the dais for his own, but he had placed a long chaise lounge directly in front of it and reclined his considerable girth all along it, clapping imperially for servants to bring them wine and a “small bite”, which turned into a parade of fruits, cheeses and enough sweet, dripping roasted meats to feed a small town for days. Men of the City Watch lined the walls, holding the same ceremonial positions that the royal guard would normally hold.
It was clear, in His Grace’s absence, Octavan was not just at home in these surroundings–he was absolutely wallowing in the temporary power he was wielding.
That wasn’t the source of the frustration, though; flush with his new powers, Octavan had magnified his usual skills of non-committing dissembling to an art form. Arguing with him was like punching a week-old corpse: initial resistance, followed by a complete giving way, bathed in the aroma of rot and corruption, with no real sense that anything meaningful had been accomplished.
Matthias quickly recapped the details of the attack for him, and before he could get to any of the important parts–that their attackers were from [badmanland], or what little sense they’d been able to make of their prisoner’s mumblings–Octavan jumped in with exclamations of shock and surprise, overly poetic and with so many twistings and turnings that they weren’t sure where one sentence ended and another began.
He promised that Thomas would be cared for by the finest doctor’s in the land–Joseph didn’t remember Duke Kellen maintaining more than half a dozen here, all of them better equipped at purchasing new and fancier clothes for themselves and finding sweet, dim-witted companions for the evening than they were at healing even a bruised thumb–and swore that his men would get to the bottom of this attack, even if they had to burn out and torture every soul in the province.
Matthias pointed out that this wouldn’t be necessary, that their attackers had been from [badmanland], and what they’d learned so far suggested that this was just the beginning of something much, much worse. Octavan again made with the shock and surprise, going so far as to bring a doughy hand up to his mouth as he inhaled sharply, and then swore again that his men would find the truth of this, whatever it took. When Matthias asked that riders immediately be sent north to [thecapital] and west to [thirdmajorcity] with the news, he promised that they would leave at tomorrow’s first light with tidings written personally in his own hand. When Matthias asked him what preparations he would make here in Innias, patrols to search for other [badmanland] forces that might be nearby, and increases in the city’s own defenses, Octavan urged him not to worry himself with such details, that he had everything well in hand and that Joseph and his Guard should consider themselves his guests, perfectly safe under his watchful eyes.
And when it was apparent that the next thing Matthias would be asking was where the fat man wanted him to place his sword, in his gut or through his neck, Canaan reached out and stilled him with a hand on his shoulder.
“That will be sufficient, I think, for tonight. You’ve been most kind,” the priest said to the Mayor. And then to Matthias, “Captain, we are clearly in good hands. Would you be so good as to escort us to the Care-Keep before checking in with your men?”
Matthias stared at him, the rage very slowly falling from him, and then nodded.
Through clenched teeth he turned back to the Mayor and said, “My Lord Octavan, thank you for your kindness. I would see my Prince and his Priest to their rest, if we have your leave?”
“You may. And if you or your men require anything throughout the night, do not hesitate to ask.” Raising his arms in feigned supplication, he added, “I am here only to serve.”
Matthias, Canaan, Joseph and their prisoner walked from the receiving hall, leaving the Mayor to continue engorging himself upon the “small bite” still laid before him. As they passed through a doorway into the relative privacy of a connecting hallway, the Captain began sputtering, curses and the occasional “blubbering” and “sickening”, accompanied by angry growls of frustration.
“Well,” Joseph said, trying to pull together a few last moments of clarity, focus and levity, “that went well.”
Matthias stopped walking, stopped his inarticulate ranting, and stared at him. And when he saw the expression on his Prince’s face, he gave a wry smile himself and shook his head.
“Better than expected, to be sure.”
“I need to get to the Care-Keep, sooner than later. Will you be okay while I’m out?”
Matthias thought for a moment, then nodded.
“I can go directly to Lucien, the Captain of the Watch. I knew his sister some years ago…hopefully he’s forgotten about that, actually. And we’re lucky the Militia and Army are here now too. I have some favors I can call in, get things moving regardless of that fat fuck.” He cocked his head to one side, then added, “I’m oddly not bothered by the idea of going behind his back.”
“Is it luck, though?” Canaan asked. The priest wasn’t smiling. Matthias thought on it for a moment, shrugging.
“I’m not sure what it is. It’s unusual, their all being here. What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know. Just that there’s more here to think about than there should be. Did you notice, he barely mentioned our prisoner here?”
They all took a moment to look at the [badmanlandian]. His hands were still tied, but it almost didn’t seem necessary. He’d been following along with them as docile as an old gelding, occasionally murmuring his litany under his breath, but otherwise keeping his head down and shuffling along wherever they led.
“He didn’t mention much of anything, beyond his own graciousness, as far as I could tell,” Joseph said, “no matter how many words he used. Where are you planning to keep him?”
“I’ll keep him with me,” Matthias said, “turn him over to Letam when I check in with the men. Canaan, do you still think you can find someone to help translate?”
“I do, but that has to wait.”
“It’s that close?” he asked Joseph, who nodded.
“I can hardly… Maybe an hour, no more than that.”
“Okay.” Matthias turned to Canaan, placing a hand on the prisoner’s arm. “Get him settled. I’ll go to our rooms, and then call the other Captains to get things in motion. We’ll meet there when you’re done?”
Canaan nodded, and Matthias looked directly at his Prince.
“Hurry back to us.”
Joseph knelt before the altar, taking a small pinch of the dried hiaku leaves in his good hand and crushing them over the candle he’d just lit. Their scent–dark, green, bitter–caught the flame and swirled up and around him, a calming incense. He breathed deep of it, closing his eyes, trying to find the quiet, still place at the center of him, where the Sight lived. He could feel it immediately, a caged beast pushing at the borders of his will. As he always did, this close to a Fit, he found it hard to resist; there was a strength there, a waxing power that was as seductive as it was terrifying. All he wanted to do was give in, abandoning himself to its surging promises. It scared him, always, the notion of disappearing, like stepping directly from waking to the heart of a violent nightmare he wasn’t sure he would ever wake from, but that was part of the allure, the adrenaline doubling his beating heart, sending fire burning down his arms and legs, overlaying and then turning to ash his awareness of his own self.
But he couldn’t give himself over to it, not yet. The hiaku helped, somehow dampening the violence of the effect the Sight had over him when it reached the apex of its power just prior to a Fit. But it was the meditation, the quiet and controlled manner in which he gave himself over to it that would allow him to return. It was a controlled burn, the moments leading up to the final instant of release that could help turn a week or more of uncontrollable suffering into two or three days of a a difficult but manageable fever-sleep. It was hard–so much harder than anything asked of him in his normal life–to resist, especially now, on the very brink, but it was necessary, and this is why he practiced through all the times in between, the measured, deliberate breathing, the steady cadence of his repeated prayers, the ability to find that quiet stillness at the center of the angry, raging beast within… It was, more so than his family, his title, his future, his friends–it was what defined him, and he would not allow this most basic, primal part of himself free reign, not when it was possible to bring some small bit of the mastery to it that he had built the rest of his life upon.
He took another few, deep breaths, and began to rise to his feet, taking care not to trip over the long, soft white robes in his distraction, ready to turn to Canaan and the two local priests waiting behind him. They’d lead him from the chapel to the small room reserved for him for the duration of a Fit. It would be intentionally sparse, little more than a bed for him to lie in, a chair for the observing priest to sit in (they would take shifts, watching him day and night until he passed through), a basin with cool water in it…the unfortunate straps that might need to be used to hold him in place if the Fit took a turn for the worse. And that would be it; to bring anything more into his vicinity would only give the Fit more things to fixate upon: the less there was to latch on to, the better.
Despite the day’s events, it’s confusing beginning, it’s violent middle, it’s maddening end…he felt at peace. He trusted his men–his friends. Mat had been by his side since he was old enough to work a door handle by himself, thus proving himself in need of an eventual protector, and Canaan had been with him since he had his first Fit at eleven years-old. They were closer to him than his father, who had from the beginning abandoned Joseph to his tutors and trainers, treating him as a resource to be cultivated rather than a son. He didn’t have any bitterness about that, not anymore, though it had nearly eaten him whole when he was younger: his father’s primary responsibility was to the kingdom, and he had gone about preparing Joseph to succeed him as best as he could. He’d done a pretty lousy job of it, as he did of most things, but that didn’t change why he had done what he’d done.
And with no siblings, and with his mother dead nearly twenty years, Mat and Canaan–and at a slightly more distant extension, though still very close–were the only real family he had. He trusted them completely to handle these events while he was out. It was the only thing allowing him to find the quiet peace that would get him through this.
As he gained his feet, there was a loud bang from the rear of the chapel as the main doors were thrown open, crashing into the walls beside them. Matthias came running through, the rest of Joseph’s Guard close behind him. He immediately began giving orders, sending pairs of men to the three other entrances, and then approached the altar.
The quiet stillness Joseph had been cultivating within him shattered and dissolved, and he felt his Sight, the beast unleashed, surging through him, an unchecked fire in his blood, spinning wildly out of control. He was only peripherally aware of his Guard’s appearance–full battle readiness, swords and guns drawn–and the words Matthias was saying. Everything was overlaid with emotion and intent, the men bright spots of near panic, zeroing in on their assigned positions while orbiting about him, tendrils of awareness snaking back to him at the center. And–he could feel it–in just moments this would no longer be a phantom overlay, it would be all he knew, and their lives in a physical world would, for a time, be a near-forgotten ghost.
He felt the enraged spirits of the local priests moving towards Matthias, trying to stop him, their words inarticulate ripples of thought. His Captain cast them aside and continued towards the altar where Canaan waited, standing between him and Joseph, concerned but minus the outrage of the other priests. There was a discussion about something, he could feel half-formed fears collapsing into explosions of reality, and he latched onto one of them, following it to its source, stretching out his awareness beyond the chapel, beyond the Care-Keep, expanding it further than he had ever imagined, enveloping the entire city.
There was violence. Fear, and hate, and pain, a wave cresting to fall upon everything and everyone. There were great fires where the fighting was the most intense, charred embers where it had already passed, and simmering sparks where it would land next. Most of all, there was confusion, a senseless maelstrom of uncertainty; the violence was indiscriminate, with no sense or purpose, just death, waiting and coming for all.
Joseph rose up above the city, his Sight embracing it all, the tiny pockets of furious intent briefly and brightly dying stars in the swirling cauldron of aimless conflict. It was here, his Fit was here, and though there was a dim echo in what was left of his physical self crying out, knowing that things were happening in that shadowed real world that needed his, Joseph’s, attention, there was no stopping it, not anymore, not now, at the peak of its strength.
Until, at the previously-lost center of it all where the mortal shell he once inhabited remained, there was a blinding shock, a slashing pain that rent the veil, and suddenly, at least for the moment, he was Joseph again, within his own body, laying upon cool stones before the altar. And his cheek hurt.
“You hit him too hard.”
“I didn’t know if it would work. If he’d been all the way gone…”
“Your Highness, can you walk?” Matthias asked. The Captain was kneeling over him, with another face besides his, Canaan. After Joseph failed to respond immediately, his Captain spoke again to the priest.
“You’ll have to carry him.”
“Give him a minute.”
“I’m not sure we have one.”
Joseph could see, with real eyes, actual physical bodies, could feel his own…but he knew immediately that it wouldn’t last, that this was a momentary reprieve. His Sight shimmered at the edges of his awareness, present and, for the moment, deferring to the sudden physical shock that had brought him back, but it was even now already leaking its seductive tendrils across his vision.
The words these people were speaking, he couldn’t piece them into a meaningful whole, but their intent shone through, and he pressed all of his will to follow that intent into action and meaningless words of his own.
He pushed himself into a sitting position and then struggled to his feet, leaning heavily upon Canaan for support, his own questions managing to disjointedly manifest themselves.
“They’re coming for you, Your Highness. More [badlandians], and I can’t tell if our own people are fighting against them, for them, or just killing whatever’s in front of them. We have to get you out of the city. Can you walk?”
He felt his assent nod in reply. Matthias immediately turned and began barking out orders.
“Carey, Sam: on point. We’re going out through the front doors. Letam, Doyle, Alex: rearguard. The rest of you on me. Move!”
Joseph felt his body begin to move, and worse, the Sight begin to return, overwriting the small packets of will he was still trying to marshal and use. He became a stumbling, flickering hub at the center of his Guard, points of deadly, focused intent surrounding him.
He wasn’t able anymore to follow their progress through the city. Physical landmarks were meaningless, empty, lifeless shapes dissolving into the noisy background of chaos surrounding them. His Sight brought him through pockets of violence, until, as they were nearing the edge of the storm, a blazing ridge rose up before them, immense, and then swept down upon them. Within the shifting whirls of intent he could hear gunshots, and screaming.
And watched with his Sight as, one by one, the fires of his Guard were extinguished.
Then there was only himself left, the Fit working to break through the shreds of mortality still clinging to him, and at the very moment that he gave in, releasing the last restraints upon his Sight, freeing the beast to consume him completely, a shard of intent–a sword, a spear, a cry, a violent act given shape and form–pierced his side, and he knew no more.