Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 27

Into the Mouth of Madness

I’d tossed down a torch before I climbed into the basement of the foundry and, by the time I’d negotiated the ladder, Bela had used it to light others that hung ready around the walls. Clearly this was no bolthole but a regularly-used passage.

The door on the far end opened onto a larger space around which half of the brands had already been lit. A quick scan of the floor revealed nothing more than a few widely-spaced droplets. I had no time to look for more, however, as shades appeared all around us. Whether they’d been summoned because the killer knew we approached or they had been set to attack anyone hardly mattered.

At first I assumed the stench the filled the space came from the summoned creatures themselves. Anders, however, reminded me that none of our previous fights with shades or other denizens of the Fade had smelled this awful. It was the stink of rot and decay, the funk of death, and it did not come from the otherworldly fiends.

Surely it’s too soon for Mother…I cut off the thought immediately. It wouldn’t help. This killer had been taking women for years. The putrid smell couldn’t be coming from the mangled body of my own mother, I reminded myself. Maker, that only made it worse.

In an alcove I spied a woman lying on a bench. Her silver-grey hair draped over the edge while her fashionable dress bunched about her knees. “Mother!” I shouted as I hurried across the room. But when I turned the lifeless body to me I saw that it was Alessa, whom I’d last seen fleeing from Gascard. She’d clearly lain there some time, her slack face darkened where it had lain against the wood and waxy pale on the near side. Here was another death I’d caused, leaping to the conclusion that Du Puis was the killer, and at least a part of the source of that smell.

I rolled her back to where she’d been. There wasn’t anything I could do for her except get revenge. A little growl of frustration escaped me. “Where is this bastard?”

Anders put a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll find him and he’ll pay,” he said, a hint of blue swirling in his eyes. He and Justice were of a mind on this one. I patted his hand as I stood. We would, indeed, find him if I had to scour the entire undercity, but I still appreciated the thought. When I moved away from him Bela slipped an arm through mine chummily and pulled me forward toward yet another door. Fenris stood back, watching our easy interaction with an unreadable expression on his face. Then another wave of shades sprung up and we all concentrated on doing what we did best.

We fought our way forward, across the room and through the door into the next. Demons and powerful revenants appeared among the lesser creatures in the next chamber. I hoped that meant we were getting close to the man who controlled them. When we rounded the corner to find living quarters set up in a larger chamber it seemed we must be on the right track.

Besides a canopied bed there were chairs, overflowing bookshelves, and a sort of shrine under a portrait. We drew near to examine the painting and I was startled to note how like Mother the woman looked. Half-burned candles and dried lilies littered a shelf beneath it. Was this why my mother had been targeted? I should have paid more attention, I thought.

Anders looked up from the papers scattered about the tables and floor. “There’s a letter here signed ‘O’ that talks about sending books for some research. Clearly this man was not working alone.” I wondered if the letter had anything to do with the one we’d found in Gascard DuPuis’s house asking after Starkhaven’s missing mages.

Bela turned from the shelves where she’d been idly running a finger over the titles. “Necromancy and blood magic,” she said. “Someone’s been naughty.” Anders mouth turned down in a moue of disgust and Fenris looked almost ill. Blood magic and mind control were bad enough but manipulating the dead? My blood ran cold at the idea of what he might be doing to my mother.

I dropped the papers I’d been reading and ran for the next in the chain of rooms, my friends hot at my heels. We tumbled through the doorway and found the mage we sought, standing in his tattered robes before a woman in a chair. Her back was to us and a wedding veil covered her hair. It could have been my mother but it could have been almost anyone. Before I could dash across the room and liberate his head from his body, the man spoke.

“I was wondering when you'd show up,” he simpered. His voice set my teeth on edge. The gauntness of his cheeks was emphasized by the pallor of living underground here and his eyes squinted in the bright light of the torches that Bela lit behind us. If there was to be a fight was all wanted to see what we were doing. “Leandra was so sure you'd come for her.”

Damnit! He stood directly before the woman I could only assume was my mother, staring down into her face rather than confronting us. “You will never understand,” he continued, “but because you gave me your mother to be a part of something...greater I will try to explain.”

“What did you do to her, you bastard?” Anders grabbed my arm when I lunged for him. After a moment I nodded, understanding that I couldn't attack while the monster stood so near her. “Who are you,” I asked him, “and what do you want with Mother?”

“See for yourself,” he answered, a smile both smug and self-satisfied distorting his face. He stepped around the woman as she stirred. “My name is Quentin and I have done what once only the Maker could do: I have created life. I pieced her together from memory.” He paced, now nearer, now farther, but never quite far enough away from her that I could risk killing him before he could fire a spell at her. I growled in frustration, only half listening to him rant.

“I found her eyes, her skin, her delicate fingers... and at last, her face. Oh, this beautiful face.” He'd stepped back around in front of the woman who had hardly moved. The expression on his face made me queasy, somewhere between bursting into tears and a burning, insane desire. He slid a finger under her chin and tipped her face up to his. I don't care what else happened, if he kissed her I'd flay him alive.

As though his finger provided the strength, the woman stood. She wobbled on her feet and I wondered whether he'd drugged her or cast some spell to make her too weak to escape. She began to turn. I watched as my mother's familiar profile came into view. Her skin, dreadfully pale, looked almost lax and she moved as though she had little control over her limbs.

“I finally found you, my beloved,” Quentin cried, I presumed to whoever's face was shown in the portrait we'd found. “I've searched far and wide to find you and no force on earth will part us again!”

By then I was paying no attention to him. I could see the full horror of what he'd done to my mother. A seam clearly showed at her neck where he'd removed her head and crudely stitched it to someone else's body. His words came back to me, and the notes I'd found. The man had gathered women who had reminded him in some way of another, chopped off those parts, and made this monstrosity. He's brought it to life with the necromancy he'd learned from those books. My belly heaved as my mother's pleading eyes sought mine.

While we were distracted by his evil handiwork Quentin called to him the skeletons of whatever people had died in that room. It looked like some of them were a thousand years old, warriors who had fought in the slave rebellion or perhaps worked for the Tevinters even before that. Between them came demons and shades, waves of creatures summoned and controlled by the madman that had made a ragdoll of my mother, one that still stood, shuffling unevenly toward the fight with her eyes fixed on me.

With a scream of rage I threw myself into the battle. Anders flung spells while Fenris and Isabela slashed and hacked to either side of me. Mostly I used my shield to batter away any fiends that stood between the necromancer and my sword. I trusted my friends to keep everything off my back while I killed that son of a bitch. Let him discover how it felt to be sliced to bits. If Anders could paralyze him I'd start at his feet and work my way up to his own neck. I presumed the zombie would collapse when its creator did.

Anders was rather too busy to do so, however. As Quentin summoned creature after creature my only option was to stop him as quickly as possible. I'd rather have made him suffer, crippling him before turning him over to Aveline to be hung in such a way that he strangled as slowly as a talented hangman could arrange. But I was forced, instead, to catch him as he gathered his strength for another round and slice his throat. The curse that escaped me as I did so made the creature just behind him give me a look that was so purely my mother that I was almost skewered me as I stared.

The others had mostly mopped up the summoned beings and only a few skeletons remained. I rushed to help them, away from that stumbling wreck with my mother's face, anything to keep from having to look at her. The last of them had worked its way around behind me. I threw my knife at it, striking it square between the eyes.

I saw over its bony shoulder the creature with my mother’s head staggering toward us. Stitches stood stark against the bloodless flesh of her throat. The hands that reached toward me were not those that had taught me to walk, had soothed my fevered brow as a child, had patted my head when I’d done well or shaken a finger at me while I’d been scolded. From what we’d found I knew they hadn’t belonged to Maren, the mage that Emeric had been seeking, though Maker alone knew to whom any of the rest of the pieces had belonged.

My eyes flooded and my stomach turned. I knelt swiftly to retrieve my knife in the hope that I could regain control over either. The damned thing was stuck to the hilt in the skull and I had to wrench at it to get it out, something I did rather harder than was necessary. I could barely see what I was doing and the handle was slick with my tears. By the time I rose to tuck it into its sheath the thing had reached me.

No sooner had I stood than the creature fell into my arms. I sank to my knees again, the body across my legs and my mother’s head cradled against me. She looked at me, then, not as a mindless ghoul but with recognition. Anguish stabbed through me at the pain in her face. Without Quentin’s magic to sustain this body she was dying.

“I knew you’d come,” she said weakly.

0 Response to "Sideline Wednesday: The Champion's Side, Chapter 27"

Post a Comment