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Chapter Four, The Nightmare Begins
Orpheo blinked through the bright light shining in the window. He was sitting on a bed, in a room he vaguely recognized, wearing clothes that felt familiar. He looked around, and everything fell into place; he was in his old room, from back before his mother died. There were the wooden toys in the box in his closet, the giant bell hanging from the ceiling that his father had made from gold. Everything was exactly as it was before it had been ransacked in search of him, to take him to the orphanage. Orpheo stood up, and walked to the door, but he felt like he was walking through water. Why was he here?
The door opened, and in came his mother. She was holding something in her arms, something wrapped in a blanket. Now he knew he was dreaming. What’s that, mom? he tried to say, but he couldn’t speak. His mother kneeled next to him and unwrapped the blanket, revealing a baby. Or at least, he was pretty sure it was a baby; it looked more like a doll, mechanically blinking its brown eyes.
“This is your new brother, Orpheo,” said his mother. Why was she speaking out loud? “See how little he is? You’re his big brother. Tausemin is going to need you to look after him. Do you promise to look after him, always?”
Orpheo tried to answer, but the light swallowed them, and then his mother and his brother were both gone. The light grew, and grew, until he too was consumed, and then he woke up.
He wasn’t in his soft bed at home. He wasn’t even sleeping on his shelf in Anest’s warehouse. He would have rather been there than on the stone floor of the cavernous cave. Slowly he came to his senses, stretching out his sore limbs carefully. His neck was throbbing, and his head felt like it had been squeezed through a noodle maker. The night before, after being thrown into the deep pit with all of the children, he had crawled into a corner to get away from the dark scary men, who were everywhere. His tears had apparently lulled him into his usual, nightmare-ridden sleep. Suddenly, the dream came back to him. Tausemin. He had to get to Tausemin. Among the children he couldn’t feel his brother anywhere. No one paid him any attention, no matter how many questions he tried to ask. The children just stared right through him as though he wasn’t there. They had the strangest-looking faces, as though their skin had been melted before being poured into place. The sight of them made him shiver and want to cry. After a while, he had given up on trying to get them to talk. No light reached them from the outside, so it still seemed like nighttime, and the glow of the candles and the lava pit were the same as they had been before. His eyes fell on a dark scary man with the crescent moon cloak. With a shout, Orpheo launched himself at the man, who didn’t see him coming, so they almost fell down.
“Take me to Tausemin!” he shrieked, pounding the man with his small fists. “Take me to him right now! You promised! You said that if I went with you, you would take me to my brother!”
The man stared at him, as if not sure what to make of him. His quizzical expression made Orpheo take pause. The man laughed, an evil sound that made him shudder. “You little brat,” he hissed. With a big hand, he pealed him off and threw him to the side, starting to walk away. His sore ribs and shoulder from the day before started hurting again. Many of the other children turned to stare. Orpheo was good at picking himself up, though, and he did so and attacked the man again.
Now, you listen here, kid! The man whirled and caught Orpheo’s chin in his hand. He was wearing a fingerless glove. As Orpheo stared into his fathomless black eyes, something seemed to dawn on the man, and he smiled cruelly. You’re a newbie, are you, he said thoughtfully. Well, well, well. Branding time!
What does that mean? Orpheo cried. Let go of me! He twisted as hard as he could, kicking and throwing his fists. The man dropped him for a minute and then grabbed hold of Orpheo’s ear, dragging him forward. He feared that it would be ripped off! He walked willingly enough, though he trembled and his knees shook. They were headed in the direction of the lava pit, with the heat shield that had spider-cracks all over it. Orpheo stumbled, and for a moment he hung by his own ear. He screamed
Hey, you big dumb scary-looking man! came a voice. They both looked in the direction of an indignant essence that came from a small girl with long dark hair. Yeah, I’m talking to you! What you think you’re doing, dragging my friend away?
The man curled up his lip, but his grip on Orpheo’s ear lessened a little. Tears streamed down Orpheo’s cheeks. He wanted to go back home, even if home was only Anest’s warehouse. Surely someone would come looking for them. And Tausemin. He had to get to Tausemin, but how?
What did you say to me, runtling? The man’s eyes blazed. Orpheo tried to move but he was rooted in place, not taking his eyes from the scowling girl.
You leave him alone, you big bully! she ordered, standing firm. For the first time, Orpheo noticed that a boy was standing beside her, who reached out to take her hand. The other children kept moving around, gazing at the tops of the ridge with lost expressions. The boy and the girl had ugly scars on their faces, too.
After I’m done with him your turns’ are next! the man shot back at them, and snatched Orpheo’s arm and kept on. Orpheo shot a look over his shoulder, but the boy and the girl had disappeared from sight as though they hadn’t been there. A moment later, he saw them again, each held by a dark scary man, kicking and screaming at the top of their lungs. One man pinched the girl’s lips shut, since she was screaming the loudest. And still, none of the children even blinked, just gave them a wide, wide berth. Suddenly, Orpheo was aware that it had become unbearably hot in a matter of seconds. They were standing right at the edge of the lava pit; his face was inches away from the heat shield. Automatically, he jerked back, but the man’s hand slammed his cheek against the searing glass. He shrieked.
Stop! You’re hurting me! he cried, wildly trying to move away. All the man did was press harder.
You need to be marked, the man thought to him, though he was so crazed with pain he barely registered. And it seems you need to learn some respect!
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Orpheo wailed. The smell of burning flesh assaulted his nostrils. His skin was melting, his skin was melting! Just like all the other burned-faced children, the dark scary man was going to make him ugly and scarred. Screaming over and over, he tried to pull his face away even an inch.
Have you learned your lesson, boy? the man snarled, yanking Orpheo back by his hair. He still felt like his face was burning; he continued to scream. I said, repeated the man threateningly, have you learned your lesson,
Cowed by the malice in the man’s inner voice, Orpheo conceded. With a look of scorn, the man tossed him down, and he landed on the shoulder that was still sore from yesterday. The dark haired girl and her friend were thrown carelessly down beside him. Whimpering, Orpheo scurried away as fast as he could, shaking with sobs, bumping into the other whimpering children. Pulling the dark-haired girl with him, her friend followed Orpheo. Crumpling against the stone wall farthest from the lava pit, they sniffled and tried not to move their sore faces. Orpheo didn’t dare look too closely at the faces of the two children huddled beside him. Anest had never punished them that torturously. Either he “got rid” of them, whipped them, or made them go without food and water for a week. Never anything that would take too much effort. What was wrong with these people? Why had he and Tausemin been kidnapped?
What is this place? he quietly asked his two companions.
I don’t really know, whimpered the girl, shuffling a little closer to him. Her tears had stopped, but her face was a raw, red mess. Like the boy’s. Like his probably was. We’ve been here for so long, and I still don’t know what they want with us.
Orpheo started to cry again. I want to go home! Compared to this place, the orphanage really was home. He missed Zortha, and Bendy, and even Avali and Anest. At least his shelf wasn’t so hard and cold, and the air didn’t sting, and no one burned your face for trying to find your little brother.
Oh, Tausemin. Please don’t make them mad. He wished he could contact Tausemin, but just like in the orphanage, the essences of resinite painted on the walls pressed down on his mind, making even telepathy hard.
His mouth felt like sandpaper, and his stomach gurgled emptily. He was used to being hungry, but not this thirsty. Do you know where I can get some water? Orpheo asked meekly, glancing shyly at the girl. She had been watching him, and he bit back another sob, as he thought of what he must look like now. The boy and the girl stood up and led him to the far corner of the room, where a spring bubbled out of the rock. Grateful, he dropped to his knees and scooped water into his mouth by the handfuls. It was warm, but he was too parched to care. All of that screaming had dried out his throat. The water trickled over his burns and made them ache a little less.
My name is Brysbeine, said the girl as he drank. This is Sid. Short for Obsidian, like the rock. I think we’ve been here at least a year. Right, Sid?
Probably, the boy replied.
Why won’t anybody talk to me? Orpheo asked, wiping his mouth. He knew you weren’t supposed to drink too much after going too long without water. He winced when his hand scraped his throbbing cheek, and his eyes began to water again.
They’re all really sad, said Sid. They were all taken from their mommas and daddies, and brought here, to hell.
Why are we in hell? Isn’t that for bad people? I don’t remember doing anything really bad. Even though this wasn’t really hell, he couldn’t see how you could drop somebody here without some sort of reason.
We don’t know, Sid said, and Orpheo remembered that Brysbeine had already answered that question. Those mean old men won’t tell us anything. Brysbeine and I seem like the only ones who care.
I care, Orpheo alleged. I want to go home. I need to find my brother so we can get out of here!
Your brother? Brysbeine stared. Didn’t see anyone but you get thrown over the ridge.
Orpheo flinched at the memory. When they kidnapped us they took us to this other cave and made us stay there for ever and ever, and I fell asleep, and when I woke up they were taking Tausemin away. They said they were going to take me to him, so he must be here somewhere.
We’ll help you look. There must be a hundred of us down here. Sid nodded solemnly in agreement. Orpheo concentrated really hard to send them an image of Tausemin so they would know what he looked like. As they walked around, peering carefully at all the faces and calling for Tausemin out loud, the burn on Orpheo’s face began to hurt less. He insisted that they be quiet whenever they drew near a dark scary man. He pretended that he was playing hide-and-go-seek with Tausemin at the orphanage, and Tausemin had found a really good place to hide for once. I’m going to find you, Tausemin! he called. Come out, come out, wherever you are!
Soon the game grew stale. The constant chaffing of the worn stone floor tired out his feet, and he was getting thirsty again. They had walked the entire area of the humongous cavern and were halfway through their second round. Are you sure he’s here? Brysbeine asked, as she shuffled beside him. Her green dress dragged tiredly on the floor. Maybe he escaped.
He would have answered me if he could hear me, Orpheo replied worriedly. If he went to find help, I hope he gets home okay. He’s not the best at finding his way. not like I am. He could remember the time when Anest had sent them to Decapora with a message for a governor general there, and Orpheo and Tausemin had been separated in a crowd of late night people dancing in the square where they were supposed to meet him. Tausemin had gotten so turned around that he ended up on the other side of the square, and then been so panicked he ran clear across to the other end of the city. By the time Orpheo had given the governor general his message, found Tausemin, and gotten them both back to the warehouse, it was after noon, well past sunup. They had been given sixty-five lashes each for that.
Well, we can try again another time, said Sid, helping Brysbeine sit down. Orpheo was slightly jealous at how nice they were to each other. He hoped they would be friends someday.
But wait, what was he saying? He didn’t plan on sticking around that long. There had to be some way they could escape. He fell beside Sid, suddenly drained again. He probably hadn’t been asleep that long before being woken up by his dream.
They were sitting right under the ridge. Piercing screams suddenly split the air, making the three of them jump to their feet and peer up to the top of the ridge. A dark scary man was fighting a boy a little older than Orpheo, dodging the kicks and elbow jabs that the boy inflicted, while trying to throw him over the edge. Another man waited just a few feet from where Orpheo, Brysbeine, and Sid were, looking annoyed and ready to go up there himself. The boy was big, almost tall enough to reach the man’s shoulders, and the man could barely hang on! Orpheo watched in awe as the boy got away once, and then was caught again by another dark scary man who strode out of the shadows. Even with two of them grasping a limb in each of their hands they were nearly thrown off-balance with the staggering weight and power of the boy. Some of the other children that were down below looked up to see who was making such a racket, but their eyes quickly glazed over with disinterest. Orpheo was silently cheering on the rebellion that he was too small and weak to make so effectively, when he realized that the boy would most likely be severely punished when they were done with him.
Stop resisting! Orpheo said, anxiously rising up on his tiptoes to make the message carry easier. They’ll drop you!
Thankfully, the boy stilled, peering over the edge of the ridge with curious confusion. The dark scary men took the opportunity to chuck him over, and he started screaming again.
“Put me down, put me down!” he ordered the man who caught him. His voice bounced off the stone walls and echoed hollowly, making it seem like dozens of boys were shouting the same thing. The boy began flailing again, and the dark scary man had no choice but to put him down. The boy hissed wildly at the man, before turning his blue eyes on Orpheo, Sid, and Brysbeine. With a parting snarl at the man, he strode over to them, gasping slightly as he took in their faces and despondent looks. Even the thrill of watching him fight the dark scary men was sucked away by the ominous stone walls. The boy towered over Orpheo, though he wasn’t that much taller than Sid. His fair hair was long, stringy, and dirty looking, matching his dingy, ragged clothes. He wore no shoes, like everyone else, and his feet were tough and calloused, stained with dirt. One of the toes was very crooked. Despite his ragged appearance, his eyes were clear, confident, and at the moment, very angry.
Do you guys know what’s going on? he asked, seeming a little calmer, now, though his breathing was ragged.
No, said Orpheo, rocking back on his heels to look the boy square in the face, but you’ve got to be careful otherwise they will burn your face like they did to everyone else.
What is this place? And what are all these kids doing here? I saw at least six other caverns like this, but none of them were as full as this one. I heard rumours in Rahd about kids being kidnapped….is this where they all are?
There were other caverns. Maybe Tausemin was in one of the others.
We don’t really know anything. Nobody will even look at us, said Brysbeine.
The boy knitted his brow. Well, then. He sighed, and held out his hand. My name is Lialan. And I plan to get out of here as soon as I can. You guys can come too, if you want.
He really meant it. Orpheo didn’t have a doubt in his mind that this boy would somehow find a way to escape. They wouldn’t have to stay here forever, after all. Brysbeine, Orpheo. I’m Sid. Short for Obsidian, like the rock, introduced Sid, pointing at everyone in turn. Lialan nodded at them. Orpheo thought that he looked a little bit like a knight, strong and fierce. And also like he didn’t need any friends, but he was glad to have his attention for now.
It was then that the dark scary men on the ridge let out whistles in unison, halting the quiet shuffle of the children milling around. Okay, everybody, listen up, said one. Your king is coming, and he has something to say.
King? The king was coming? Surely he wouldn’t stand for this! Maybe he was here to get them out.
At the top of the ridge appeared a tall man with dark hair. He was wearing a long black cloak like the other men, but he had his hood down so they could see his face. He was younger-looking than the other men, and more handsome, too. “Children, children,” he crooned, gazing down at them with a hard smile. “Welcome to my castle. I hope you’ve been enjoying your stay.”
Orpheo shivered, glancing confusedly at Brysbeine.
“I am King Chimley Munotina of Ologo Mountain, and you, little children, are the key to my long-awaited throne.” He chuckled, a dreamy (or crazy) look in his eye. Watching him, Orpheo was reminded of Anest, who always spoke out loud and thought everything was funny, even when no one else could see what amused him. Arrogant. That was the word that Avali had always used to describe him, and all men who thought that they were all that. King Chimley? He hadn’t even heard of such a person. Maybe he was from a different country. The Ologan Mountains bordered more than Xarthus and Nobellus, though he couldn’t remember what.
“You are all familiar with the game fireball, aren’t you?” purred King Chimley. Well, duh. It was all anyone dreamed about at the orphanage, and Anest went on and on about it all the time. In the cities, it was all anyone seemed to care about besides raspberries and pumpkins, and Orpheo and Tausemin had snuck in to see a game once. It was dreadfully boring to watch, but it took a special kind of intelligence to make it to the top. Playing and being good meant you had one of the best minds. The children muttered their affirmations. “Well, I intend to make you all the best little gotyness qseuytd in Despartus. So I hope you’re ready to get over your whiny little cry-baby acts and get to work!” His voice took on a harsh bite, and everyone jumped.
“Training starts now!” he barked. “And whoever survives will make former champions look like rookies!.”
He smiled once, and left.
Suddenly Orpheo wasn’t that sure he wanted to be a fireball player anymore.
Chapter Five, the Fox and the Blue-Eyed Rabbit
Sarephina got up earlier than usual, determination in her eyes. She dressed, strode outside with a halter for Hopfin, and mounted without brushing him or playing silly games. This morning, she meant business. The sea air refreshed her lungs and shook the sleepy cobwebs from her mind, and she felt sharp. Today, she needed her mind to be as alert as possible. The boy probably thought he had gotten the best of her, but he was wrong. She didn’t even know why she was so determined to track him down. Curiosity, maybe. A little anger and the desire to find out why he was so afraid of her. Surely he wasn’t that much of a phobic.
Hopfin’s steady bouncing calmed her a little, made her focus. What if he wasn’t there? Would she be able to pick up his Trace? She should have done that yesterday. As it went, she didn’t even need to find the exact place she last remembered seeing him; a quick mental sweep of the forest behind the lake told her exactly where he was. About half a mile west. Grinning wickedly, she jumped from Hopfin’s back. Her boots thumped softly on the frosty morning ground. The sun’s lazy golden light peeked around the trees. Just like last night. She was caught up in remembering how he had looked yesterday, and forgot to keep tabs on him in the present. She started when she realized she was no longer grasping his firm outline, and cursed as she started west at running speed. Her mind was doing a sweep even as she ran. He was a little harder to find this time, though she was certain that he had gotten closer. It was like he was shielding his essence, but from what? He was completely alone, and absolutely no one else was in the woods besides them and Hopfin, who had decided to lag behind and munch on dew-covered grass. She concentrated all her energy on keeping him within her sights until she reached a spot where she could peer at him through the trees. He was kneeling in a very small cleared out area barely big enough for two people, digging in the dirt. Open beside him was a brown leather satchel, tools and wires and tubes full of iridescent liquid laid out neatly. Sarephina blinked in confusion. Nobody had stuff like that besides the doctors in town, and even they didn’t have that much. He looked much too young to be a doctor.
He pulled up a root, smiled a radiant smile that froze Sarephina’s breath, and shoved it in the pocket of his brown trousers. Covering the hole he had made with dirt, he duck-walked to a new spot and began to dig again. Suddenly, his head whipped to stare at the exact spot where she was hiding, and he froze. Then, with a quick mind sweep, he had his satchel neatly closed and organized, and he shouldered it. His large blue eyes uneasily probed the trees around her, and then she felt the tickle of his mind as he finally found her. Whipping around, he bolted away.
Wait! she begged desperately, crashing through the trees after him. please, stop, I don’t want to hurt you! Come back!
She was fast on flat ground, but the trees were her folly while he used them to evade her. His pace never slowed. They broke free of the trees, and the mountains loomed ahead. He was heading straight for them. If he made it into the vast and maze-like caves, there was no way she would be able to get to him. With a new burst of speed, she surged ahead of him, cutting him off. He skidded to a stop before ploughing into her, but before she could get her hands on him, he dodged, taking quick steps backward. He fumbled in his pockets, and took out a small white stone which he popped into his mouth. Then he just stood there. She stopped grabbing for him and stared as he chewed whatever it was he was eating, and swallowed. His eyes were innocent, twin blue pools of great depths as he returned her stare.
Before her eyes, he began to fade away, until there was nothing left of him. She shrieked in surprise as he disappeared.
It had finally happened. The stress of being harassed constantly by the Lebans had gotten to her. She had snapped.
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