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Book of Krokano

 

Part 1

Part 2

Like a vengeful hammer, we smashed into Dahkra'kai, a valley turned to black ash, then frozen into lakes of rotting ice. The Soulless known as Crazen the Greedy had taken to ground there. Crazen was a hideous mass of gelatinous ooze that constantly formed and reformed into gross caricatures of all that he had devoured. Now, this misshapen monstrosity was spread throughout the underground caverns of Dahkra'kai and the Golden Circle was here to flush him out.

"Krokano!" Morgfyre barked at me as soon as we arrived, "you and Terentia block the exit to the south. Hajamin and Orlachmar, you're with me!"

With a thunderous warcry, we saluted each other with our shields and then split apart. We were the Golden Ones, the elite cadre of the Second Circle, and we feared nothing! Channeling domothean energies, Terentia and I pounded the blackened ground beneath as we flew towards the southern end of the valley. The ground roiled and churned, spitting forth plumes of debris and smoke.

Tis a shameful thing to admit, but I gloried in this war. I was Krokano, of the Golden Circle, and war agreed with me! This was the battle the Second Circle was meant to fight. Not punishing mad half-formed or vanquishing rudderless consciousnesses that manifested in the Void, but true combat, where the stakes were high and the outcome far from certain. I wondered if the others felt as I did. Though we never spoke of it plainly, I saw the lust for battle growing in Morgfyre's eyes day by day. And, of course, there was Orlachmar. Ah, Orlachmar! What a cipher he was. The only one who ever benefited from Fain's Elixer. Sometimes I wished it were me who received its miraculous properties. Orlachmar was so much more stronger and faster than before, deadlier in every way. But, then again, sometimes I'd look into his eyes and see something that made me grateful it wasn't me.

Setting up nodes of energy interlaced deep within the earth, we let our powers surge through the caverns below. Eventually, we struck Crazen and throughout the valley columns of his mottled flesh erupted from the ground, spewing forth gouts of black smoke.

Dark clouds roiled across Dahkra'kai, as the air vibrated with concussive blasts. I lost track of Terentia as the battle raged on. Crazen was eventually driven further and further to the surface. At some point, I found myself on the ground raising a shield against a rain of black soil that burned with ebon flames.

"Krokano!" screamed a feminine voice. "Watch out behind you, Krokano!"

Just in time, I ducked as a mottled globule of flesh hurtled past me. I turned towards the voice that warned me and saw Thalrinda of the Fourth Circle sprawled on the ground. Was Thalrinda here to offer help in some manner? I knew we were working with other circles to develop weapons against the Soulless. And I had heard her name recently.

"What are you doing here?" I shouted, running over to her.

"Help me, please!" she begged.

It looked as though a fallen rock had her pinned down, trapping her foot beneath its weight. I knelt down and wrapped my arms around her waist, as she reached up to encircle her arms around my neck. Her flesh felt clammy and cold, and she screamed in pain when I tried to pull her up.

"Krokano," Thalrinda said softly, her skin glistened with sweat. "Listen to me!"

What did she want? I leaned in to hear, and Thalrinda pressed her forehead against mine. That's when I noticed her trapped foot had become strangely elongated from my efforts to pull her out of the rubble. That's when I remembered where I had heard her name recently - in a list of casualties, one of those consumed by Crazen.

I roared and tried to fling Thalrinda from me, but her arms locked around my neck, becoming a loop of flesh that tightened around me like a noose. Her mouth pressed up against my face as she leaned forward, her lips scraping against my eyelids. Her tongue split in two and plunged into my eye sockets.

The form of Thalrinda was all but gone, melted away like wax, revealing itself to be a the tip of one of Crazen's huge tendrils. I screamed in pain and rage, as the tendril sprouted hundreds of flailing filaments which wrapped around me, sawing into my flesh. The mouth had distended into a circular maw, which grew rows and rows of razor teeth that gnawed into my cheeks and forehead. But it was the forked tongue, now hardened into two jagged protuberances, drilling into my eye sockets, that was more than I could bear. By Dynara! I felt my lifeforce being sucked from me.

The pain and horror of what was happening lent me strength. With a roar, I ripped my left arm free from the entangling filaments and was able to reach a dagger strapped to my thigh. I drew it forth and hacked into the tendril, letting loose a stream of domothean energies. Hundreds of mouths hidden beneath the earth screeched with Crazen's pain, as the tendril holding me flailed into the air, with me attached to its tip.

As Crazen shook me to and fro above the smoking battle, Terentia spotted me and came to my rescue. Her strong arms gripped me as she tried to rip me free. It seemed to last forever. Terentia pulled me higher into the sky, stretching Crazen's ghastly limb beneath us. Eventually, I heard the shouts of Morgfyre, Hajamin and Orlachmar booming in the distance, and when they arrived Crazen finally, reluctantly, released me into Terentia's arms.

"Krokano!" Terentia shouted, a strange panic in her voice. "Can you hear me?"

"I can hear you, but get this thing off my face!" I yelled, reaching up to grab the vile remains that covered my head.

"Please, Krokano!" Terentia said, pulling my hands away from my face. She suddenly held me tight and whispered, "there's nothing on your face."

"Then why can't I see!"

When Terentia didn't answer, I knew what that meant. Blind. I was blind.

"Let me get you to the hamadhi and healing grounds," she finally said, not quite able to check the pity in her voice.

I said nothing more. I felt the wind rush against me, as Terentia hurtled me towards an ethereal portal. When we entered the ethereal realm, I heard gasps from others who saw us. What must I look like? Several asked how I was, and Terentia only ever replied, "He lives."

The gentle voices of the hamadhi surrounded me, as they laid me down on a healing mound. Cool fragrances enveloped me, and the singing of healing crystals rose up around me. Pain receded as I sank down into the mossy bed. I felt a hand gently touch my cheek.

"Krokano?" said a dulcet voice, "I am Lantra, a hamadhi. Do you understand?"

"I understand," I said, then added somewhat lamely, "I cannot see."

"I know," Lantra said gently. "Our physical forms are made manifest from our spiritual selves. Our bodies are reflections of the truth within."

"As above, so below," I said, rotely repeating one of the oft said precepts of the Third Circle.

"Yes," she said, then paused as her hand gently stroked my hand. "Krokano, your spirit has been cruelly hacked away and consumed by one of the Soulless. Thank Dynara that it wasn't much, but..."

"My eyes cannot be reformed," I numbly finished for her. "My blindness is permanent."

"I would not say permanent. No, I would never give up hope. Let me get Eventru. We are constantly finding new ways to heal some of these dreadful wounds inflicted by the Soulless. Know hope, Krokano."

Hope? I was blind. I could not even see darkness as one might imagine. I was surrounded by nothingness. Crazen even ate the memories of sight, as I could not even dredge forth the memories of what a sunset looked like. Colours? Patterns? Shapes? All gone.

Not able to help myself, I reached up to feel my face, half of which had been chewed off. There was nothing left but a churned up mass of flesh. Lantra was gone for less than an hour, but it was enough time to slip deeper into the hollowness of despair. When she came back, there were two others with her. I could hear that at least.

"I am Eventru," said a soft masculine voice. "Do you know who I am?"

"Yes, Eventru of the First Circle."

"Good. Good," he said. "I oversee the hamadhi and brought with me Malmydia. She has been refining new techniques to help those who have wounds such as yours. She believes she can help you."

"You can give me back my sight?" I asked, hope daring to flicker within me.

"I believe I could restore something," said a brisk female voice. "I believe the spiritual matter that makes us up, our own subtle immanidivinus forms, the etherea of our spirits, can be softened, reformed and reshaped."

"You can make me new eyes?" I tried to sit up but strong hands held me down.

"This is a new procedure," said Eventru. "Malmydia has not...there have been no real successes. And there are risks, grave risks. You could end up worse than you are now."

"I will take any risk!" I shouted.

"And I am sure I could make this work!" Malmydia said tartly. "He is the perfect subject, his essence was just partially devoured and the wound is very localised."

"I understand," said Eventru quietly, "but I do not want a repeat of the Fininkora debacle. If your techniques cannot help in this case, where conditions are perfect, they will never work. Fail here and I will have no choice but to shut down these experiments."

"My techniques must work!" she said. "My theories are sound!"

"Am I understood?" said Eventru, steel creeping into his voice.

"Understood, First," said Malmydia. "But I will not fail."

Apparently, Malmydia had her healing mounds in a separate, isolated vale. I was moved there immediately. Once I was situated, Eventru departed to leave me in the care of Malmydia and Lantra. The place seemed eerily silent.

"How many other patients do you have?" I asked.

"At present, you are the only one," said Malmydia.

"If you are having second thoughts, it is not to late to turn back," Lantra whispered into my ear. Was that a quiver in her voice?

"I am ready!" I said. "I want my sight back, whatever it takes."

As Lantra stepped back, I felt thick, ropy vines sprout up from around the healing mound and wrap around me. I began to struggle, memories of Crazen's grip welling up in my mind.

"Stop that!" snapped Malmydia. "Do you want your sight restored or not?"

"Are restraints necessary?" asked Lantra.

"They are."

Malmydia's strong, long fingers roughly pulled my head back, then began prodding the sides of my face. Her sharp jabs worked their way across the bridge of my nose and then circled around to my forehead. She paused briefly, then plunged her fingers into the pulpy mass of where my eyes used to be. I screamed and tried to jerk away but her fingers were unrelenting.

"Malmydia!" said Lantra. "You're hurting him! We must block the pain!"

"I think not," said Malmydia. "It is better that he feel what is happening so I can get a measure of his etheric bodies."

"It is not right to cause him to suffer so much! At least let me blunt the pain."

"It is up to the patient," said Malmydia. "Well, Krokano? My techniques would work best if you could feel everything that is done to you. However, if you are not strong enough to handle a little pain, we can block it. Certainly, I always imagined the Second Circle to have the courage to withstand this sort of thing, but the decision is yours. Tell us what you want."

Was that a challenge in her voice? I swear there was. You don't question a warrior's strength or courage! Was she baiting me? But, no, no, she was a healer, a devoted hamadhi, dedicated to our care.

"I'll feel the pain," I said through clenched teeth.

"Very well," said Malmydia. Was her voice mocking?

Malmydia again jabbed into the ruined flesh of my face, and pain again stabbed into me like a burning scythe. This time, however, I bore it and made no sound. I swallowed my cries and held myself rigidly.

"There," said Malmydia, patting my cheek. "You see, Lantra? He will be fine."

I was anything but fine. I wanted to tell Lantra to take away the pain, but I stubbornly refused to give in. Loud chimes sounded in the distance, and I recognised their mournful tones as alerts that wounded were being brought in.

"I can take it from here, Lantra," said Malmydia. "Go see to the newly wounded."

"You don't need me?" said Lantra. "I thought I'd assist you, learn your techniques."

"I'll record it on a learning crystal. We are short handed as it is, please, go to them. Besides, I work best alone. You know that."

"Are you sure?"

"Certainly."

I didn't want Lantra to leave but I held my tongue. I didn't want to be alone with Malmydia. But I said nothing and Lantra left to see to the newly arrived wounded. After several moments, I felt energies surge around us.

"What was that?" I asked.

"Oh, a dampening field."

Dampening field? Those were used for private meetings to block out sight and sound. Why was one needed now? I began to get very nervous. I heard her gather metal implements, and the telltale scrape of blades being sharpening filled the air. The vines that strapped me to the healing mound grew long thorns, which injected me with viscous agents that made my thoughts sluggish and leached away my strength.

Humming to herself, Malmydia traced a long finger over my wounds. She painfully pulled off torn strips of flesh. Then, she began using her instruments. They poked and prodded into my wounds, then probed deeper and deeper into my flesh. The pain became abominable, and I began to squirm under her hands. The power in the instruments flared with energies that turned from frigid cold to blazing hot. I swear at one point she shoved her entire fist into my skull, grabbing a hold of my spirit and stretching it out. I finally could take no more and screamed. I begged her to stop, over and over and over, I pleaded. Each time, she'd pat my hand and say, "There, there. We're almost done."

But Malmydia was far from done. It went on and on. I struggled. I wept. I raged and entreated. I tried to summon the reserves to free myself, but my strength was sapped away by the fluids being pumped into me. Several times I began to lose consciousness, which would have been a mercy, but she would pause and summon energies that brought me back to vivid awareness.

I don't know when it ended. I was still screaming long after Malmydia stopped touching me with her instruments and cruel hands. It was over, and I lay nearly senseless, my head throbbing and raw. She wrapped strips of oily bandages tightly around my head and then encased that in a thick plaster cast that weighted me down so I was barely able to move. I felt defeated and violated, all dignity stripped away from me.

And I was still blind. Too exhausted to weep, I finally, thankfully, sank into unconsciousness, though my sleep was haunted by Malmydia's voice murmuring, "There, there. We're almost done."

I'm not sure how long I lay there. When I finally came to, Malmydia perfunctorily said I'd be laid up for at least a week. Now that the operation was finished, she seemed to lose interest in me. She would check up on me, and a few times I heard others talk over me. I remained sedated, drifting in a fog with nothing but memories of pain to keep me company. I couldn't help but hate Malmydia, and, aye, fear her too. Whether my sight would ever return or not, what she did to me, the pain she made me suffer, was beyond forgiveness. But, for now, I could do nothing but try to recover.

One evening, the warning chimes sounded and woke me from another uneasy slumber. Voices were angrily shouting at each other. I turned my head towards the commotion and saw Clangorum and Gruenella, both of the Second Circle and members of the cadre known as the Grey Furies, carrying a form in their arms which they laid down on the healing mound opposite me. Eventru, Malmydia and Fain followed behind them.

Wait a moment! I could see! My sight had returned! I almost cried out, but then I saw what was in the arms of Clangorum and Gruenella, the husk of one of their cadre members. I could tell by the crimson glyphs on the breast plate that it could only be Thax, a warrior I had always respected for his ferocity and loyalty. That was about all that was recognisable. His arms and legs were ripped off, and his head was but a smoking stump. I had seen such horrific wounds before and knew it to be the work of Zenos.

As she spun healing crystals over Thax's remains, I finally saw what Malmydia looked like. She was unremarkable, slight and thin, plain with her red hair pulled back in a sharp bun. She wore an emerald shift and a white smock. I expected cruelty to flood out of her eyes, but they were a simple, pale green, large and watery. Were these the eyes of a torturer? I began to doubt my memories.

"Fain, can anything be done?" asked Gruenella, a strapping female of the Second Circle, her hair in two long braids which were clamped at the end with long spikes. I had seen her in battle before, and she could be quite savage with her molten broadsword.

"Everything that can be done will be done, Gruen," said Fain, gently using her nickname. He looked more haggard than I had ever seen him, with dark circles under his eyes that contrasted sharply with his pale skin.

"We must brace ourselves for the worst," said Eventru. "I've never seen one with such wounds survive."

"But Malmydia could save him!" said Fain. "I've heard the reports on her techniques."

Eventru and Fain leaned together and whispered, while Malmydia ushered the distraught Gruenella and Clangorum away. When she returned, Eventru sighed and nodded to Fain.

"There's nothing to lose by trying," said Eventru. "Malmydia, see what you can do for Thax. Do not get your hopes up, Fain. Malmydia's techniques are still mostly untested."

When Eventru departed, Fain stayed back with Malmydia. Fain glanced at me, then immediately dismissed me. I must have looked pathetic trussed up and encased in plaster. After being satisfied that they were alone, Fain leaned towards Malmydia.

"Thax must be saved," he said with a low intensity.

"Is he one of..." she started to ask, but then stopped as Fain's hand shot out and gripped her arm so tightly that his knuckles went white.

"It is enough for you to know that I want Thax to live."

"I may need...you know what I need."

"I'll get what you need. Do what you have to do, but do not fail me."

Still gripping Malmydia's arm, Fain stared into her eyes until she lowered her gaze and nodded. With a last look at Thax, Fain nodded and strode away. For several moments, Malmydia stood still, then suddenly shuddered and shook herself. Her lips thinned as she let her gaze wander over the remains of Thax.

Over the rest of the day, Malmydia labored and worked over the malleable form of Thax, until he was a stretched and misshapen thing. Fain checked on her progress and handed her a small package when he thought no one was looking. She then continued to work on Thax late into the dark of night, injecting something into his twisted flesh that infused it with an eerie green glow that slowly faded away. The more Malmydia labored, the more agitated she would become.

The process was repeated three nights in a row. I could tell that Malmydia was trying to reform Thax's body but no matter what she would do, it would collapse back into a puddle. She finally lost control, cursing and clawing at her hair until it was ripped free of its tight bun and hung in wavering tendrils. Her eyes were wild and shone with malevolence, her teeth bared in a snarl. So what hid beneath her facade? Now, I could believe her cruelty to me was real. But who would believe me?

After composing herself and reigning in her emotions, Malmydia smoothed her hair back into a bun. She then pursed her lips and strummed a finger against her cheek. She walked several times around Thax, nodding to herself. She left and soon came back with Clangorum in tow. When Clangorum saw what was left of Thax, he became very still.

"Merciful Dynara," he said. "There's nothing left of him. Poor Thax."

"I've stabilized his immanidivinus etherea. He lives," said Malmydia.

"You call this living?"

"I need something to hold his essence," she said. "His form won't hold shape, it refuses to solidify a skeleton. I need a shell of some sort to act as an exoskeleton. That's why I need you."

"Me? I'm no healer! I make weapons and armour," Clangorum paused and his eyes widened. "You want armour, don't you? You're going to pour him into a suit of armour!"

"Yes, it'd serve as the exoskeleton. But the material must be strong, must be extraordinary. I was thinking of zingavium steel."

"Zingavium steel! You don't ask for much, do you! That's the rarest of all metals, rarely found in the depths of the Void."

"I know what it is! Do you have enough?"

"She asks me if I have enough?" hissed Clangorum and paced back and forth. "I have a helmet, several swords and hammers, a few shields."

"Is it enough to create the armour?"

"Only if I use almost all we have!"

"Is it worth the life of Thax?"

"Aye," said Clangorum softly. "It's worth his life. Of course, it is. He's of my cadre, one of the Grey Furies. He's saved my life more times than you know."

After Clangorum left, Fain met with Malmydia that evening, demanding to know Thax's condition. She told him her plans and he left, looking pleased.

The next morning, Clangorum arrived looking exhausted but triumphant. He carried with him a magnificent suit of armour. It was smooth and sleek, gleaming black and drinking in the light. Made of pure zingavium steel, what warrior wouldn't desire such a thing. It absorbed energy blasts, converting it into power that could be redirected. A zingavium sword was the finest of weapons, a shield the ultimate defense. An entire suit of armour? Unthinkable.

Word must have spread of Malmydia's unorthodox treatment, for Eventru and several of the Third Circle hamadhi arrived to help. They poured the glistening form of Thax into the armour, padded it with a living foam, apparently made by some Seventh Circle creator, and channelled domothean energies into it. All the while, Clangorum darted around, adjusting the armour as directed and needed.

Afterwards, Malmydia spent hours manipulating the essence that was Thax. Checking and rechecking his condition, and then pulling and shaping him throughout the armour's encasement. Did Thax feel her cruel touch the same as I felt what she did to my eyes? Was he conscious at all? She only worked on my eyes, but on Thax she worked on his entire being.

When Malmydia was finished, she stood back and stared at the immobile armour. Everyone around her held their breath. Minutes turned to hours, and still nothing happened.

"Move, Thax!" Malmydia finally shouted, hammering on his breastplate with her fists.

The suit of armour shuddered, then fell still. Nothing more. I thought Malmydia would lose control again but she held it in. Her fists were clenched on top of Thax and her gaze burned hot as though trying to will him to move.

"Sometimes we must let go," said Eventru softly, laying a hand on her shoulder.

With a growl, Malmydia violently pushed Eventru away. Those who looked into her eyes saw something that made them step back.

"He should be moving! Everything that was done should have worked!" she shouted. She clenched her eyes shut, then snapped them open, turning on Clangorum. "It's your fault! You did something wrong to the zingavium!"

"I used almost every bloody bit of zingavium I could find," shouted Clangorum. "Everything was done to your specifications!"

"Malmydia!" said Eventru, grabbing her again and shaking her by the shoulders. "Please! You've done your best! You MUST let go."

"I've failed," she said. "I can't fail."

Eventru let her go, and Malmydia seemed to deflate, stumbling against the healing mound and kneeling before it, her head resting against its mossy edge. She began to talk to herself, forgetting everyone around her.

"His essence fills the armour," Malmydia muttered. "It holds his shape. The immanidivinus etherea lives, it's been strengthened. I feel his lifeforce but it just churns and churns within. He needs something more, something to help him to control his new form."

"If Thax needs somesuch to help him move," said Clangorum, "my brother, Agnomenon the Tinkerer, may be able to help. He is the master of mechanisms and may be able to create some sort of inner works."

Malmydia stopped, at first furious to be interrupted, but then she softened, looking thoughtful. She picked up one of the armour's arms, bending the joints. She placed the arm back down and pulled herself to her feet.

"Yes, yes," she said finally. "That could work. It could work!"

As the others left, Agnomenon was sent for. Arriving not soon after, Agnomenon waddled in with Clangorum at his side. I had always thought Clangorum was small, certainly he had the smallest stature of any of the Second Circle, but next to his brother Clangorum looked positively tall. Agnomenon wore several belts and shoulder straps, each festooned with holsters that held strange looking tools and instruments. Where Clangorum had a full bristling beard, Agnomenon's face with smooth and round, cheeks glowing a ruddy red. His look of amazement grew and grew as he examined Thax.

"I can make him moveable, alright," Agnomenon said, his voice high pitched and nervous. "I could make this armour walk around or dance a jig, but something needs to control the movements. Are you sure he is...can he think? Does he have a mind?"

"Yes, of course he can," said Malmydia. "I've felt his...I've felt his emotions. I know there's a consciousness there."

What was she going to say? I knew in my bones that she was going to say that she felt his pain. Damn her! Thax was feeling everything she did and she knew it! But I lay silent and said not a word. I think I was all but forgotten.

All day and all night, Agnomenon, Clangorum and Malmydia worked on Thax's armour. She would shift his essence out of the way where Agnomenon would add gears and pistons and counterweights. They had to work quickly. As Clangorum was the only one able to manipulate zingavium, he had to create openings and patch them up hurriedly. The once sleek and smooth armour was soon deformed by ugly misshaped joints and valves that poked out in unlikely spots. Agnomenon even created a mechanical box which he said could be used to make sounds for Thax's voice. It was placed inside the armour's throat guard, which had to be beaten out and distended.

When they were finally finished, they each looked exhausted and drawn. Tools were scattered around the healing mound, along with bits and scraps of metal. Indeed, a metallic tang hung in the air which smelled more like a forge than a healing vale. Malmydia was at Thax's side, willing him to move.

Briefly, Thax's head shifted back and forth, and the voicebox emitted a hoarse wheeze. They were momentarily excited but that moment faded as Thax exhibited no other movement. They waited and waited, but he did nothing more.

"That's it," said Malmydia finally, slumping down. "Nothing more can be done. I've failed."

After awhile Clangorum and Agnomenon left, leaving Malmydia to continue to stand there, staring at the motionless form of Thax. As evening fell, four figures emerged from the darkness. Fain, Morgfyre, Gheasia and Raezon. They surrounded Malmydia and Fain raised a dampening field around them, cutting off sight and sound. At least, I thought that's what he was raising. I saw the air flicker and distort around them. But I could see through it. I saw through Fain's powerful magics! What had Malmydia done to me? Did she even know?

"Failure is not an option," said Fain. "If Thax could die, that means any of us could die. It is up to you to make sure our forms are invincible."

I wasn't hearing Fain's voice. I was seeing it. Whatever Malmydia had done to me, it must have been more than even she had bargained for. I cold not only see through the dampening field but I could see words eddying in the air as they left Fain's lips, their meaning vibrating.

"There's nothing more that can be done," said Malmydia.

"We could give him more serum," suggested Raezon.

"I've given him more serum than of us!" she replied. "His immanidivinus etherea is already overwhelmed with excoroperditio essence from the serum."

"Nonsense," said Morgfyre. "We can handle as much as we can get. I've had more than all of you combined, and I only get stronger and stronger!"

"We haven't authorised any more serum to you than anyone else," said Gheasia.

"Bah, I just take it directly in pure form."

"What?" asked Raezon, peering at Morgfyre intently. "You've been drinking essence of the Soulless directly?"

"What was it like?" asked Gheasia, her voice wistful. "Did it quench the hunger? Were there side effects?"

"You never told me, you fool!" hissed Fain.

"What does it matter," said Morgfyre. "I'm still here, aren't I? Nothing went wrong. And it's not like any of us are innocent of giving in to the hunger. It's not like we don't know that Gheasia and Raezon don't take more serum on the side. Don't think I haven't seen how the supplies of serum mysteriously dwindle."

"How would you know!" said Raezon. "Only Fain knows who all of us there are! How do you know they weren't given to others at Fain's commands!"

"Would you like us to take an accounting?" said Morgfyre, then laughed when Raezon and Gheasia glanced nervously at each other. "Ha! I thought not. And what about you, Malmydia? We all know what you did to Fininkora!"

"I had to excise her damaged essence!" said Malmydia hotly. "Why should I let it go to waste."

"Ah, so eating one of our own isn't worse than what I did! And what about Krokano over there? How much have you eaten of him!"

"Hardly anything! Barely a few scraps of his essence. Anyway, that's different than consuming essence of the Soulless directly!"

Did I hear right? Malmydia ate parts of me? I recalled her peeling away strips of flesh from my face and who knows what else as she dug into me. What did she do with those parts of me? I began to feel sick all over.

"Silence!" shouted Fain. "I know what the hunger can do to us! Don't think I don't know. Perhaps we've all slipped on occasion. But we must have order! From now on, I will be taking a closer look at what each of you do. And I will audit the supplies of the elixir. And I will broke no disobedience! Am I understood?"

"Yes, Fain," said Morgfyre, saluting him with a fist to his breast. The others followed suit.

"Now, what about Thax," said Fain. "If more serum won't revive him, what will?"

"His essence is too compromised," said Malmydia. "Too much of him was lost."

"Then the answer is simple," said Gheasia. "He needs to be infused with more essence of an immanidivinus etherea nature."

"But that would mean," Malmydia paused, realisation dawning. "Of course, yes, that may work. But where would we get it?"

"What about him?" said Fain, gesturing at me. Though I wanted to jump up and run away, I stilled my muscles, not daring to move.

"No," said Malmydia. "He's my last chance to prove to Eventru that my treatments work. If Krokano emerges damaged, Eventru will shut down my vale. Unless you can overrule him?"

"Not yet," said Fain. "This is Eventru's territory. So that means it has to come from one of us. Morgfyre, you've admitted to glutting yourself on essence. Surely you have some to spare."

"What?" Morgfyre stepped back but Fain followed him with cold eyes. "Fine! I'll give of myself. This once. For the cause."

Leading Morgfyre to an empty healing mound, Malmydia had him lie down. Gheasia and Raezon hovering eagerly behind her. Fain stood at Morgfyre's head, his hands on his shoulders. Exposing Morgfyre's right arm, Malmydia slowly opened his flesh with a glowing scalpel. Morgfyre hissed in pain. Then I saw Malmydia's eyes sparkle with malevolence as she purposefully slowed down to draw out his essence. Morgfyre was no fool. His other hand shot forth and gripped Malmydia's throat.

"Get on with it, damn you," he hissed.

With a glance at Fain, Malmydia nodded. As soon as Morgfyre let go of her, she viciously ripped out his essence. He screamed in agony, and would have struck her if Fain didn't hold him back. She had drawn forth probably more of Morgfyre's essence than she meant to. It twisted in the air, a glittering ribbon of golden light that was striated with green streaks. As Morgfyre lay gasping on the mound, the others stared at his essence hungrily. Eventually, Malmydia rolled it into a globe and strode back towards where Thax lay.

"Is it enough?" asked Gheasia, following behind her with Raezon.

"It better be," growled Morgfyre, as Fain helped him stand up. "She won't get any more from me."

Malmydia sniffed and said nothing. She carefully began feeding the essence into Thax, gently at first, but then his whole body arced upward, and the essence was sucked into him in an instant. Malmydia and the others jumped back.

Thax began thrashing violently on the healing mound, arms and legs pounding it into rubble. From his neck, Thax's voicebox began groaning, a high pitched whine that began rising in intensity. The eye slit on the zingavium visor glowed a bloody red. The armour seemed to stretch and blur, long spikes growing on the shoulders and around the wrists and angles. The valves on the armour hissed as it released violent jets of steam.

After what seemed an eternity, Thax finally calmed down. He slowly stood up, a monstrous creation. Every slight movement he made seemed to screech with pain as the metal gears within him ground together. When he was finally upright, he lifted his open hand before his faceplate and slowly closed it into a fist.

"I am Thax!" he roared, his artificial voice weirdly echoing in all directions as gouts of steam were released from his neck valves. "I live! I LIVE!"

Fain shouted in triumph, pounding Malmydia on the back. Though she tried to lure Thax into another healing mound, he was having none of it. He clanked off away from Malmydia's vale, the others trailing behind him.

So what had I witnessed? It took me some time to absorb it all. Fain had gone against the will of the Gathering. Gheasia and Raezon continued to make their elixir and they were giving it to...who? Those chosen by Fain. I had to tell someone, but who could I trust. Morgfyre was one of them, and he was a member of my own cadre, one of the Golden Circle. If I couldn't trust my own cadre, who could I trust?

Early the next morning, Eventru arrived with Malmydia and Lantra. Though they didn't mention Thax, their sombre mood told all. Malmydia looked triumphant. Lantra and Eventru looked slightly ill at ease. They approached my healing mound.

"There's no doubt what you did to Thax was remarkable," said Eventru. "But, blessed Dynara, I'm not sure what he is any more. Your techniques are genius, obviously, but I am troubled."

"I admit, Thax's case was extreme," said Malmydia. "But look at how much essence he had lost! If I could save a case as extreme as that, think what I could do for others."

"Indeed, we'll see now," said Eventru. "Krokano, if you can hear me, we're going to remove your bandages."

As they surrounded me, I held my tongue and didn't tell them that I could see better than anyone could dream possible, my vision piercing not only physical impediments but even powerful magics. Malmydia and Lantra stood on either side of me, and slowly broke apart the plaster cast and pulled away the bandages. As the last of it fell away, Lantra gasped. What horrors were reflected on my face?

Eventru summoned a mirror and I looked at my reflection. I no longer had two eyes but one, a giant eye that stood in the centre of my forehead. And it was beautiful, surrounded by thick lashes, the iris was flecked gold surrounding a velvety violet pupil. Around my new eye, my skin was unblemished, not a scar, not any evidence of Crazen's ravishment of my face nor Malmydia's cruelty. It was perfect.

"How do you feel, Krokano?" asked Malmydia, her eyes daring me to say anything.

"I can see," I said, meeting her gaze. "I can see quite clearly now."

Oh, I wanted to scream at her, to accuse her, to bash her smug face in. But who to trust? Was Lantra or Eventru a part of this and putting on an act? Would confronting her simply put Fain on guard? It would be simple enough to deny everything and hide the evidence.

After I was examined, and Eventru and Lantra were heaping praise and congratulations on Malmydia, I got up and left. There was one whom I felt sure was uncompromised. Meridian had steadfastly opposed Fain's plan. He must be told.

We were betrayed.