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EIGHT: The Prisoner

The pain never ended.

The whispers, the gentle evils in his ears, went on and on and on.

He was stubborn. So damned stubborn that yielding in order to gain surcease never occurred to him.

He didn't know where he was. He didn't know who had captured him. He didn't know why. Pain was the extent of his knowledge. The man in black, the man in the mask, was his only clue. They wouldn't tell him a thing. They just asked. If they spoke at all.

At first they had questioned him about Bragi and Haroun. He had told them nothing. He couldn't have. He didn't know anything. They had been separated too long.

He wakened. Sounds....

The Man in the Mask had returned.

"Woe!" Mocker muttered, slumping lower against floor and wall. It would be rough this time. They hadn't visited for weeks.

But there were just four of them this round. He was thankful for little favors.

Each bore a torch. Mocker watched with hooded eyes as the assistants placed theirs in sconces beyond his reach, one on each wall. The Man in the Mask fixed his above the door.

Mask closed the door. Of course. Not because Mocker might escape. He didn't order it locked from without. He simply closed it so his prisoner wouldn't get the idea there was a world beyond that slab of iron.

Mocker's world was twelve by twelve by twelve, black stone, without windows. Furniture? Chains.

There were no sanitary facilities.

Having to endure his own wastes was good-for his captors' designs.

The most distressing thing was the Mask's silence. Invariably he just stood before the door, statuelike, while his assistants demonstrated their pain-mastery.

This time they had given him too long to recover, and hadn't brought enough muscle.

He exploded.

He tripped the nearest, drove stiffened fingers into the man's throat. He screamed, "Hai!" in bloodthirsty exultation. Cartilage gave way. He made a claw, yanked with all his remaining strength.

One was dead. But three were left.

He hoped they would get mad enough to kill him.

Death was all he had to live for.

He scrambled away, bounced up, threw a foot at the crotch of the Man in the Mask.

The others stopped him. They were no off-the-street amateurs. They put him down and took him apart.

There had been so much pain, so often, that he didn't care. It had gone on so long that he no longer feared it. Only two things mattered anymore. Hurting back, and getting them to kill him.

They didn't get mad. They never did, though this was the worst he had done them. They remained pure business.

Once they had beaten him, they rolled him onto his belly and bound his wrists behind him. Then they pulled his elbows together. He groaned, writhed, sank his teeth into a bare ankle.

The blood taste was pure pleasure.

He tasted his own when a boot smashed into his mouth. He wouldn't learn. Resistance just meant more pain.

They attached a rope at his elbows and hoisted him.

It was an old torture, primitive and passive. When first Mocker had arrived he had been fifty pounds overweight. His weight had yanked his shoulder bones from their sockets.

After he had screamed awhile, and had lost consciousness, someone would doctor him so they could hoist him up again.

Back then there had been no night whispers, just the pain, and the unending effort to break him.

Why?

For whose benefit?

What would the program be this time? Five or ten days on the hook? Or straight to the point for once?

One thing was certain. There would be nothing to eat for a while. Food was strictly for convalescents.

When he was fed at all he got pumpkin soup. Two bowls a day.

One week they had given him cabbage soup. But that petty change had been enough to revive his morale. So it was pumpkin soup or nothing.

The remnants of his most recent meal splashed the floor. Bile befilthed his mouth. He spat.

"Day will come," he promised in a whisper. "Is in balance of eternity, on great mandala. Reverse of fortunes will come."

His torturers spun him. Around and around and around, till he was drunk with dizziness and pain. Then they hoisted him to the ceiling, brought him down in a series of jerks. He heaved again, but there was nothing left in his stomach.

One of them washed his mouth.

This time was different, he realized. Radically different. This was new.

He paid attention.

The Man in the Mask moved.

He peered into Mocker's eyes, pulling each lid back as would a physician. Mocker saw eyes as dark as his own behind slits from which the jewels had been removed. No. Wait. This mask wasn't the one he usually saw. Instead of traceries of black on gold, this bore traceries of gold on black. A different man? He didn't think so. The feeling was the same.

There was no emotion, no mercy in those eyes. They were the eyes of a technician, the bored eyes of a peasant halfway through a day's hoeing midway through planting season.

That mask, though.... The changes were slight, yet, somehow, the alienness was gone. He began searching the burning attic of his mind.

The mask, the black robes, and the hands forever encased in the most finely wrought gauntlets he had ever seen, those were things he knew....

Tervola. Shinsan. He remembered them so well he was sure this wasn't a genuine Tervola.

Trickery was the way he would have programmed this had their roles been reversed.

That mask.... He remembered it now. He had seen it at Baxendala. It had lain abandoned on the battlefield after O Shing had begun his retreat. Gold lines on black, ruby fangs, thecat-gargoyle. That one, Mist had said, belonged to a man called Chin, one of the chieftains of the Tervola.

They had assumed, then, that Chin had perished.

Maybe he hadn't, though the eye-crystals had been removed from the mask....

"Chin. Old friend to rescue," Mocker gasped, straining for a sarcastic smile.

The man's only response was a slight hesitation before he said, "There will be more pain, fat one. Forever, if need be. I can wait. Or you can listen. And learn."

"Self, am all ears. Head to toe, two big ears."

"Yes. You will be. The time of crudeness has ended. Now you begin listening and answering." He straightened, faced the door.

Two men pushed a wheeled cart through. Mocker ground his teeth though he didn't understand what he saw on the cart.

The Man in the Mask made him understand those sorcerer's tools.

The pain was worse than any he had known before. This agony was scientifically applied, to one purpose. To drive him mad.

Mocker never had been very stable. It took just two days to crack him completely.

They let him rave in darkness for a week.

Something happened then. More pain. Smoke smells, of flesh burning. Screams that weren't his own. Men struggling. A scream that was his own when he hit the floor of the cell.... Darkness. Peaceful, restful darkness.

The night whispers returned. They changed, becoming gentle, delicate whispers, happy, cheerful whispers, like those of a nymph beneath a waterfall. They calmed him. They shaped him.

Then there were gentle, feminine hands, and the distant murmur of grave-voiced men. But for a long time he was bound, his eyes blindfolded. His memories remained vague, confused. A man in a mask. El Murid's men... he thought. And Mercenary officers.

They kept him drugged and he knew that, but occasionally he came round long enough to catch snatches of conversation.

Once, evidently, a new nurse: "Oh, dear! What happened?" Horror filled her voice.

"He was tortured," a man replied. "Burned. I don't entirely understand it. From what he says, he was set up by men hethought were his friends. Nobody knows why yet. Lord Chin rescued him."

What? Mocker thought. His brains must be scrambled. Wasn't Chin the torturer?

"It was a complicated plot. One of his friends apparently tipped El Murid's agents, who kidnapped him. Then he sent mercenaries who staged a rescue-then turned him over to this Haroun, who wore the mask the Lord lost when the Dragon tried invading the west."

"You said...."

"There's a link between man and mask. The Lord lost his, but he still knows everything that happens if someone wears it.... Hold it. I think he's coming around. Better give him another sniff. He needs a lot more healing before we let him wake up."

It may have been a day or week later. It was another man and another woman. This time the man seemed to be the newcomer.

"... says Lord Chin transferred right into the dungeon. For some reason bin Yousif wore the captured mask that day instead of the one he'd had made to look like it. Lord Chin knew the minute he put it on. He'd broken the eye crystals, apparently thinking that was enough to end the connection."

"Bet the Lord caused an uproar."

The woman laughed musically. "They're still petrified, thinking Shinsan's coming again. They're chasing their tails. They don't know there's a new order here, that Ehelebe has come."

"What happened?"

"The one called Haroun got away. Lord Chin punished the others."

"Bin Yousif would. He's slippery."

"He can't run forever. Ehelebe has come. None shall escape the justice of the Pracchia."

Even in his dazed state Mocker thought that a little preachy. Perhaps the woman was a fanatic or recent convert.

"What were they trying to do?"

"Lord Chin thinks they were preparing him as a weapon against Shinsan. The man called Ragnarson is paranoid about it.... Get that cotton and the bottle. He's waking up."

People stirred. Mocker smelted something sweet.

"How much longer?"

"A month, maybe. The Lord...."

There were more, shorter episodes, quickly ended by sharp-eyed physicians and nurses.

Then came the day when they didn't put him back under.

"Can you hear me?"

"Yes," he whispered. His throat was dry and raw, as if his screams had never stopped.

"Keep your eyes closed. We're going to remove the bandages. Ming, get the curtain. He hasn't used his eyes for months."

Hands ran over his face. The cold back edge of a scalpel dented his cheek. "Don't move. I have to cut this."

The cloth slipped away. "Now. Open your eyes slowly."

For a while he saw nothing but bright and dim. Then shapes formed and, finally, vaguely discernible faces developed. Three men and five women surrounded him. They seemed anxious. One man's mouth became a hole. Mocker heard, "Can you see anything?"

"Yes."

A hand appeared. "How many fingers?"

"Three."

The women tittered.

"Good. Inform Lord Chin. We've succeeded."

They ran more simple tests, and freed him from the restraints. The speaker told him, "You've been laid up a long time. Don't try getting up without help. We'll start exercising you later."

The group fell silent when the Tervola entered. A man in black, wearing a mask. Black on gold, rubies, the cat-gargoyle.

Mocker shrank away.

A soft laugh escaped the mask. The Tervola sat on his bed, folding the sheet back. "Good. The burns healed perfectly. There won't be much scarring."

Mocker stared at the mask. This one had jewels where the other had been open.

"How...?"

"My fault. I apologize. I miscalculated. Your enemy controlled more power than I expected. He proved difficult. You were burned in the process. For that I offer my deepest apologies. You had suffered enough. A year of torture. Amazing. You're a strong man. Few of my colleagues could have endured."

"Self, being short of memories of interval incarcelated, am I wondering, question being, where is same? Self."

"Ehelebe." The man examined Mocker's eyes. Mocker noted that he used his left hand. The Man in the Mask had been right-handed. Haroun was right-handed.

"Same being? Have never heard of same. Is where?" "Ehelebe isn't a 'where'. It's a state of mind. I'm not being intentionally obscure. It's a nation without a homeland, its citizens scattered everywhere. We call ourselves The Hidden Kingdom. Wherever there are enough of us, we maintain a secret place to gather, to take refuge, to be at peace. This's such a place."

"Being same system known for cult of Methregul." Methregul was a demon-god of the jungle kingdom of Gundgatchcatil. He had a small, secret, vicious following. The cult was outlawed throughout the western kingdoms. Its bloody altars were well-hidden. Today it was a dying creed. It had been more widespread in Mocker's youth.

"The structures are similar. But the ends are as different as day and night. Our goal is to expunge such darknesses from the world."

Mocker was regaining his wits quickly. "Self, self says to self, what is? Tervola saying same has mission to combat evil?" He laughed. "High madness."

"Perhaps. But who better to alter the direction of Shinsan? You'd be surprised who some of us are. I often am myself, when my work brings me into contact with brothers previously unknown to me."

Mocker wanted to ask why he had never heard of the organization. Old habit stifled the question. He would wait and watch. He needed data, and data not volunteered, on which to base conclusions.

"You've recovered remarkably. With a little wizardry and a lot of care from these good people." He indicated those watching. "You'll see when you get to the mirror. They repaired most of the damage. The bones and the flesh are fine now. You'll have a few scars, but they'll be hidden by your clothing. The only worry left is how you are up here." He tapped Mocker's head. "Why?" "Excuse me?"

"Have been told self was saved from wickedry. Am not ungrateful. But many persons labor many hours to repair ravishes-ravages?-of mad cruelty of captor who never says why self was imprisoned. Am wondering."

"Ah. Yes. My motives. No, they aren't entirely altruistic. I hope I can convince you to commit your talents to our cause." Mocker sniffed. "Talent? Self? Lurker in dusty streets unable to support wife and child? Or morals only wafer thickness better than Tervola class? Of gambler habit capable of possessing self to point of self-destruction?"

"Exactly. You're a man. Men are weak. Ehelebe takes our weaknesses and makes them strengths serving Mankind."

Mocker wished he could see the man's face. His voice and apparent honesty were too disarming. He began reviewing everything that had happened from the moment he had received Bragi's invitation to the Victory Day celebration.

His mind froze on Nepanthe. What was she doing? Had she given up on him? What would become of her if Bragi and Haroun really were in cahoots against him?

"No. Self, have had gutsful of politics in time past. Year in dungeon with torturer for lover is final convincer."

"Sleep on it. We'll start your therapy when you wake up." Chin led everyone out.

Mocker tried to sleep, and did doze off and on. A few hours later, a slight sound brought him to the alert. He cracked one eyelid. His visitor was a bent old man.

Is old meddler himself, Mocker thought. Is infamous Star Rider.

The Star Rider's legends were as old as the world, older, even, than those of The Old Man of the Mountain, whom Mocker suspected was but the Star Rider's cat's-paw. Nobody seemed to know who this man was, or what motivated him. He moved in his own ways, keeping his own counsel. He was more powerful than the masters of Shinsan, or Varthlokkur. Bragi claimed he had made it impossible for sorcery to influence the course of battle at Baxendala. He meddled in human affairs, from behind the scenes, for no discernible reason. He was the subject of an entire speculative library at Hellin Daimiel's great Rebsamen university. He had become a mystery second only to the mystery of life itself.

So what the hell was he doing here?

Once is accident, twice coincidence. Three times means something is going on. This was Mocker's third encounter with the man.

He continued pretending sleep.

The bent old man stayed only seconds, considering him, then departed.

Was the Star Rider a sneak visitor? Or was he involved in this Ehelebe business? In times past, insofar as Mocker knew, the man had always meddled on behalf of the people Mocker considered the "good guys...."

Twice before the Star Rider had entered his life. Twice he had benefited. It was an argument favoring Lord Chin-assuming the old man wasn't here screwing up the clockwork.

A few weeks later, once he was able to get around and do some spying, Mocker overheard someone informing Chin that Bragi had just dumped Nepanthe and Ethrian into the old dungeons beneath Castle Krief.

He returned to his quarters and thought. The Star Rider had saved his life years ago. Varthlokkur had told him the man wouldn't have bothered if he hadn't had use for him in some later scheme. Was this the payoff?

Of one thing there was no doubt. Bragi and Haroun weren't going to get away with a thing.


SEVEN: The Old Dread Returns | All Darkness Met | NINE: A Short Journey



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