Fresh Air and Red Skies (1)
by T. MORGAN
Ethos awoke without his senses, yet again. He was lying in a black, blank space; he could feel, see, hear, nothing. He concentrated and remembered how to open his eyes.
With a flick, a snap, a dilating, narrowing, finally a focusing of the pupils his vision started up a sluggish relay between his mind and his eyes. Piece by piece the room started to exist for him, and it took on form.
A lantern was set on the desk and emitted a sickly yellow glow. It was the only source of light, paltry and wan though it was; there were no windows. What could windows look onto here, but rock and earth? The light almost seemed to ooze across the wooden table, and flowed lazily onto a chair, then the floor, and at last drew shy of the unconquerable shadows reigning behind the furniture. They loomed across the polished stone walls and magnified tenfold. This cave was not his room… Something told him it was wrong, that he was out of place.
Next he remembered how to move, which was difficult with every nerve in his body numb. After some blind scrabbling he found purchase on the smooth floor and hauled himself upright to prop his shoulders against the wall.
Other than the lantern, very little else was of interest in here: Shut doors, one on the wall, two cupboards, a wardrobe closed. Were any doors in this place open? No windows, no doors, no sunlight and no air. The place was entirely natural, hewn from centuries of water’s stubborn wearing but somehow it felt oppressively artificial and… So dead.
Lifting his weightless hand he smacked himself in the face then, more carefully, spread his fingers to rub his eyes. Steady, Ethos. He was about to deem the place safe – perhaps even go back to sleep when he noticed the corner. He now realised he’s been avoiding it by force of… Force of what?
First he noticed the blood, and then the man it was issuing from. Then he noticed the pillow it stained, and finally the bed. There were deep marks gouged on the walls from inhuman talons, as well, etched into the soft rock. A violin was propped up in its case at the foot of its bed, unused. When its master played it, it seemed to have a malevolence of its own and even now it seemed almost quiescent. In his daze, Ethos could almost feel it watching him, impossible though that was.
Thought escaped him for a grace period of perhaps five heartbeats before his nerves jump-started. The pain was indescribable: it seemed to emanate from his back though he could hardly tell; everywhere hurt. Ethos clenched his jaw to avoid crying out and managed to dull it to a whimper.
Immediately he looked over to the corner. The man was still asleep. Or dead, that was possible, that much blood might mean he’d somehow dashed his brains out… Or had them dashed out Ethos’ shudder sent several more knives of agony through his spine and he struggled to breathe. Now it had settled, he could feel that the pain was, most definitely coming from his back. His wrists chafed too, and his head ached but they paled in comparison. Panic started rising in his gut like bile and threatened to spread, but he grappled himself into a state of semi-calm.
His back has quite literally been torn open on the right hand side, five deep gouges… he looked back at the wall. Five deep, identical, burning slashes. Unlike the ones in the stone they were arrow straight, and for that, deliberate. That didn’t surprise Ethos, however. What did was the memory it forced on him.
There was the smell of fresh blood, probably his own, and there were flashes of movement, springing, his nerves on fire from adrenaline, confusion, panic, a seething madness. Going berserk, and fear, fear snapping and cutting all the sensations into nauseating fragments and the whole insane mess ending with a sudden and terrifying clarity. Ethos curled over and held his head, which had only started to ache more, almost uncontrollably. His name was Bizde, Lowell Bizde, the second highest ranking demon in this whole forsaken place and he had bitten out his tongue. Ethos gingerly ran his own across the sharp ridges of his teeth, careful not to slice it open on the edges. Even now he could taste blood.
That explained the blood, and it was unlikely he had bled to death. Which meant that he was alive, very much so, and very much infuriated at missing his silver tongue. He could only be glad he couldn’t remember what had driven him to do such a thing, though being routinely detained and tortured was certainly a matter for consideration. With a sincere and frantic hope that Bizde was unconscious, he pulled himself upright.
His scream echoed round the cavern. He felt like his back was being torn open again but there was nothing to be done, he had to go. A panicked glance told him that Bizde was still out cold. Another mercy. Steeling himself against the inevitable torture, he fumbled at the door, inhaled, exhaled, and then he was off like an arrow from a bow.
Time started flowing for him again when he reached a second door and, for lack of conscious thought, collided with it. Two voices called out in unison and Ethos buckled when the door was heaved inwards and, by default, him with it.
“Ethos!” one caught him under his arms before he hit the floor.
“R-R-Roman…” Ethos snapped out of his daze. “M-Milo! … Help…” he gasped for breath. The one who had caught him – Roman – looked at him concernedly.
“You’re stuttering even crazier than normal, what’s going on?” he spoke with something of a French accent, and in hushed tones. “Milo… Get something… He’s bleeding everywhere.”
“N-nooo… Tiime.” Ethos’ every word came out distorted, either stretched or stuttered. “I… I n-n-need to g…go. Now.” he shook his head furiously and forced himself to support his own weight. Roman looked at him for a long time before responding.
“You heard him. Sit down Ethos.” he helped him over to a chair, despite protests, and strode over to the back of the room, where they kept their own belongings.
Ethos was alert enough to hear what his friends were whispering.
“Nine years Milo, nine years that creep‘s been hurting him and we‘ve let Ethos lie to us. I don’t know why he’s suddenly decided but he’s almost a man, isn’t he, nearly sixteen. Whatever he’s doing I’ll help him. If he has to go he has to go.” Roman hissed and shoved a black cloak into Milo’s arms before he could answer. Ethos pretended not to overhear. So they had known… Contrary to logic, he was grateful that they humored him when he made out that whatever injuries he got were from training. He started when Milo dropped the cloak on his lap. At least he guessed it was Milo, all he saw was a streak of almost-crimson hair go past him. Last time he checked, Roman was blonde, not an outrageously bright redhead.
“Th-th-thanksssss…” Ethos mewed and pulled himself upright.
“Don’t. Just go. That cloak’s to help avoid anybody recognizing you, OK? Do whatever you can to save yourself, don’t worry about us back here.” Roman cut him off. Pulling on the cloak, the other just nodded. It reached to his ankles. Ethos was tall for his age, but Roman was over a year older than him and it was only meant to be calf length. “And Ethos?”
“Mm?” he looked up at him through his black fringe and squeaked in alarm as Roman pulled him into a rough hug.
“Don’t get yourself hurt.”
Concealed by dark wool and prudently chosen pathways, Ethos encountered no interruptions or disturbances as he headed for the only reasonable escape he could think of: the swallow hole.
His feet were aching when he arrived, feeling like the soles of his boots were made of red hot iron. He allowed himself to sit down and wrangle the remaining dregs of energy he had left for the ascent. Above him, the great stone walls reared. Austere gray rock, pitted and strewn with half dead roots that jutted and curled like paralyzed, wooden snakes burrowing through the bowels of the earth.
At least, he thought to himself, he had handholds, and one enormous runner the side of a branch even looked good enough for a serviceable rest point. Once he’d taken his time to recover and evaluate, he skirted the wall to check for the best way out. The fledgling courage that had ushered him this far soon failed, but his natural tendency towards fear goaded him enough to force him into climbing the looming precipice.
Roman was hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees, when he heard a piercing note cut the air.
“Hey… Milo?” he whispered, feeling an inexplicable need to lower his voice. “Milo?”
“What? I’m trying to listen… Do you know what that is?” Milo flapped a hand in his direction. The note got louder and more distinct and, after some time, the two of them heard that it was a melody played in time with somebody’s slow footsteps. It came from a violin, and the newcomer walked to a tune all too akin to a funeral march. A second beat of heavier footsteps came behind, out of time but the first was evidently not put off.
Since the source of the music became apparent, neither boy had spoken; they could only stare at the door. There was a plethora of outcomes for what was to proceed, but not one among the many would be pleasant. They were both suddenly, agonizingly aware of that. Not long after, the music stopped and the footsteps ceased.
The door handle rattled once, twice, then its catch gave and two men came in. First, a tall man in the uniform of a high ranking officer; the highest, in fact, as said the bat-wing badge on his left shoulder. He was tall, lithe as a tiger and, despite looking ragged and pale, he still maintained his permanent, imposing air. His venomous aura permeated the injured atmosphere of the room. Lowell Bizde, refusing to rest, despite -perhaps to spite – the wound dealt to him.
Behind him, bearing the bat wing on his right shoulder, less tall and altogether less striking, was a man less imposing but perhaps more dangerous than his superior.
“Roman Chevalier, Milo Haelyn. Do you know why we are here?” the second stepped out to stand beside Bizde. The other remained silent; for what choice did he have now? Numbly, the two younger demons shook their heads. “We have heard that your room mate, Ethos Amaurus, has escaped. As you may well know, you are all here for a reason.” he spoke emotionlessly and without changing his expression. “We are inclined to think that you may have some part of this… And you may well know of his whereabouts.”
“He hasn’t been in our room since yesterday afternoon, Masochiel. Uh, sir…” Roman straightened his back and addressed Bizde, eye to eye as much as he dared. Any demon knew that though second in rank only to Lowell and his subsequent superior, he was not the man responsible for any autonomous orders, even to the cadets themselves.
The corner of Bizde’s lip curved upwards subtly, and Roman’s blood abruptly went cold.
“We have reason to doubt that.” Masochiel replied flatly. “Come with us. Both of you.”