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~ Previous Chapter ~
This one is pretty dark, and yet curiously satisfying.
AQUILA TREMBLED. DUST showered down and the walls cracked as something vast and heavy crashed above. Deep in the lower levels, Willym stumbled against the side of the hallway and crouched, waiting for the shaking to stop. Monster whimpered inside him, licking its lips, nervous and fearful.
Willym snarled at his inner weakness. Monster was pathetic, but he was not. A little earthquake was nothing. Aquila had stood for hundreds of years, through fire and drought and plague and even invasion. It would withstand this. The mountain was strong – and he was stronger.
The ground settled and the dust sighed as it floated through the air, dancing around the circle of light thrown out by his lantern. There. Nothing to worry about. He goaded Monster back into movement and slunk onwards through the darkness.
The citadel might still be standing, but he had little doubt that Yullik was losing. It made him smile, but it was a bitter one, because Willym’s own time was running out. He’d picked the winning side last time and done what he had to in order to survive. Now he was on the wrong one and didn’t think he could switch again. Lord Yullik might find treachery amusing, but the Riders tended to look down on that sort of thing. They were honourable.
He spat in disgust. Pathetic. As if honour counted for anything when it came to survival.
No. Willym knew all about surviving; he was good at it. Honour only got in the way. Look at Rees and Fredkhen and that whiny bastard Marshall. Dead, all dead, and mostly eaten by the kaz-naghkt too. Willym wasn’t going to be anyone’s meal. Which was why he was getting out of here. The captain twins had offered him a place on their ship, if only he could reach it.
He wasn’t sure how he would manage it, but there had to be something he could fly around here, even if it was just a dumb bullwing. He’d get out, he’d find something to ride and he’d make it to that skyship. He wasn’t sticking around until the Riders finished mopping up the last of Yullik’s kaz-naghkt and turned their attention to him. He wasn’t going to be put on trial. He wouldn’t be shamed or judged by any of them. What did they know? Nothing. In his place they’d have done exactly the same.
Well, all right, perhaps they wouldn’t. Most of them would have died. But if they’d wanted to survive, they’d have done the same. Although, he smiled faintly as he recognised the hallway he was in, perhaps not exactly. He stroked the nearest doorway with fond memories of the fun he’d had in there.
Monster stirred inside his thoughts and his heart rate picked up.
Willym spun on his heel.
There was nothing behind him, only darkness.
Growling at Monster to stop jumping at shadows, Willym pushed open the door and stepped down into the storeroom that had once been his private playroom. Until Yullik spoiled it. The chains still hung from the ceiling, the brazier still stood in the middle of the floor. Ah, memories…
He shut his eyes and breathed in deep, able to smell the faintest hint of blood. He licked his lips, remembering the screams, the pleas, the begging. It had been so sweet, so good, so much fun.
Monster stirred, but Willym forced it down. He would enjoy this moment, blast it, this last chance to remember what he had been, savouring the time when he’d held all the power.
Such power. Such wonderful power.
Monster whined and Willym snarled, eyes snapping open.
A figure stood in the doorway.
Startled, he stepped back, heart pounding. Monster scrabbled at the walls inside his mind.
Willym blinked. Then he smiled. “Well, well, if it isn’t the little Mouse. Come back to play, have you?”
Mouse, the skinny runt of a boy who’d made such a dismal Rider and such a delightful victim, stepped into the room where he’d once screamed and begged and pleaded, not for his life but for that of his dear old mentor, who had died right in this very spot.
Much to Willym’s surprise, there was no expression on on the boy’s face, no shiver or sign of fear. Nor was he angry or defiant – or anything. He walked into the room with a blank face and a pale gleam in his green eyes.
Strange, Willym had never noticed the colour before.
The boy stared straight at him. “No, Lord Willym Yurrayn, third and unwanted son, disgrace and outcast, failed lieutenant, traitor and murderer, I have not come to play. I have come for payment.”
“Payment?” Willym laughed nervously, trying to summon up his old arrogance, searching for the sneer that had always come so easily when facing this pathetic excuse for a boy. But Monster was flailing at the walls of his mind, gibbering with panic, and the calmness on Mouse’s face was unnerving him. Something was wrong.
Why wasn’t Mouse afraid? Why wasn’t he crying and snivelling and limping? Why was he so calm?
“What payment? I owe you nothing.”
Mouse blinked those bright green eyes and stepped closer. It took every scrap of will Willym had to hold Monster still and not go skittering back into the wall like a… well, like a Mouse.
“Me?” Mouse said quietly. “Oh no, this payment is not for me, though I do have a claim. No, I am here for Nehtl and Fredkhen and Sergeant Fherras. And all the others you have killed over the years, going all the way back to little Fasse Jinan, son of your father’s steward. He was five and you were seven. You were supposed to play together, but you were bored and he was whining. So you drowned him in the river. At first it was an accident, but instead of saving him, you decided to teach him a lesson and held him under. It gave you a taste for it, didn’t it? The power. The choice. The darkness inside. You liked the pain and the suffering. You liked the struggle. But you didn’t realise you were incurring debts. Debts that would eventually need to be repaid.”
With every word the boy said, every name he spoke, the chill crept further through Willym’s blood. Because no one knew. No one had ever known about Fasse Jinan. He’d scrambled home that night, sobbing and saying that they’d become separated. A search had been launched, but because Willym lied and said they’d played somewhere else, the searchers hadn’t found Fasse for three days. By the time they did, no one could tell he’d been held under the water, half-strangled as well as drowned. No one could tell the truth. And Willym had never shared. It had been his deepest sweetest secret.
No one knew.
Except Willym stared into those glowing green eyes and realised that someone did. Someone knew all his secrets. And they’d been keeping count, tallying up the debts, waiting to reclaim them.
“No,” he whispered, because he’d tried so hard, blast and burn it all. He’d fought so long. He was a survivor. He deserved to live. He’d earned this.
“No,” Mouse said, stepping closer, the shadow behind him growing big and tall. “You don’t deserve to live. But you have definitely earned this.”
Water flowed into the room, creeping across the flagstones and washing around Willym’s knees as he collapsed to the floor.
“Don’t,” he begged, he who had never begged in his life, had never pleaded, had never even asked nicely. He’d always been the one in control, the one in command, the one in charge. He had all the power.
Until now. When he realised he’d never had any power at all.
The water rose up his thighs and Mouse watched him. His eyes held no pity, no sorrow, no sadness. Neither was he triumphant. He took no joy in this moment. He relished no revenge. He merely watched as the water crept higher and higher up Willym’s body. The rest of the room was dry, but Willym was drowning.
“Please,” he begged, beginning to thrash, as Fasse once had thrashed. He’d been a small boy, much smaller than Willym, and so annoying. He’d moaned and whined the whole day, not wanting to play any real games because he was tired or Willym was too rough or it was too scary. He’d been hungry and thirsty and tired and he’d wanted to go home. Willym had pushed him in the river, shouting at him to leave him alone, the big baby. The boy had slipped, crying as he cut his hand on a rock. When he tried to stand he’d slipped again, this time falling all the way into the river. Willym had panicked at first, rushing to save him. He pulled Fasse’s head out, but the boy had been crying and whining and screaming, and he’d just wanted him to shut up.
Shut up, shut up, shut up.
The water reached Willym’s chin.
“Please,” he begged again.
Mouse shook his head.
The water touched his bottom lip and Willym jerked his head up, gulping and terrified. “I’m sorry,” he babbled. “I didn’t mean it, Mouse. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Please. Please, I don’t want to die.”
“Neither did they,” Mouse said, placing a gentle hand on Willym’s head. Willym stared into those bright green eyes and sobbed with relief as the waters receded, sinking back beneath his chin. Of course Mouse would relent, of course he wouldn’t kill him. He was soft and weak and merciful. Thank the gods.
“But you killed them anyway.” Mouse shoved Willym onto the floor. The waters closed over his head and he screamed into the dark.
IT DIDN’T TAKE long. For someone who had fought as long to survive as Willym had, Mouse had expected him to struggle a lot longer than he did. Perhaps it was the shock, perhaps it was the water. Whatever it was, after a kick or two and a flurry of thrashing, Lord Willym, third son of Jarl Yurrayn, former lieutenant of Aquila, traitor, outcast and murderer, finally fell still.
The water that covered him drained to the floor and flowed back into the hallway beyond the tiny little room that had once been the end of Mouse’s world. Nehtl had died here. Most of Mouse had died here too.
He looked around the room, staring at the chains that hung from the ceiling and the brazier that had been knocked over by Willym’s final death throes.
“Are you well, my Mouse?” Nightriver’s concerned voice asked from the hallway.
“I am well,” he replied, turning his back on the body and the memories.
He stepped up beside his dragon and shut the door firmly. It was time to leave it all behind him. That life was over now.
“But my name is Morri.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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