“WHO IS BOHRIAM?”
Vaxal’s fingers clasped around my neck, squeezing with such force that my metal collar deformed under his pressure. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even look away. Vaxal stared into me with eyes so full of malice that they practically glowed.
Virulesse had maintained her full composure, as if none of this situation was out of the ordinary for her. “Bohriam? Wasn’t that the name of the Stone boy from Gostrey?”
“He’s here,” Vaxal growled, not yet breaking eye contact with me. His eyes were glowing—a vicious white light that threatened to tear open my very soul and feast upon its dying embers. “He followed us to Stormwatcher’s Peak. He means to escape with the girl.”
Virulesse let out an involuntary laugh. “The Stone? Honestly, if he comes close to succeeding in a maneuver that bold, he deserves to get away with it.”
“He’s in the castle,” Vaxal said. “Posing as one of the relief vanguard.”
I could feel Vaxal ripping his way through my mind. Unbidden thoughts leapt to the surface of my conscious in a web of memories and emotions. I had never felt so utterly violated before in my life.
Virulesse’s expression hardened in an instant. “I see.”
Vaxal tossed me aside like I was nothing more than a rag doll. I hit the ground hard, an explosion of pain crashing through my Null-rank body—made all the worse by the fact that I instinctively put my hands out to block the fall. Both hands. Christ, my body wasn’t made for this kind of abuse.
I only had a couple seconds to catch my breath before Vaxal stomped over and locked me into place under his foot. I wheezed as his armored boot came down on me, cleats digging into my back. Pain warped my vision like a black hole warping all light in its path.
I heard Virulesse in front of me long before I realized she was crouching inches away from my face. “I’m disappointed in you, Ashleigh. I thought we had an agreement… I thought we were going to be partners.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but the only sound that came out was a pitiful tiny croak. It was probably for the best—in my current state, I had zero capacity to come up with a good sarcastic reply to Virulesse’s comments. And if you don’t have anything sarcastic to say, why say anything at all?
Oh, that’s a good one. I should save that for later.
(Haha, look at me, imagining I’d have a “later.”)
Virulesse grabbed me by the jaw and wrenched me to look up at her. “Tell me… Did you want to escape?”
I struggled to get out a single syllable. “N… No…” A lie. The only power I still had over her. The only chance I still had for mercy.
“Vaxal?” the Exarch demanded.
More pressure came down from Vaxal’s foot and again my lungs were empty. “She speaks the truth,” he said in a tone that implied he didn’t care.
Virulesse stared harshly into my eyes. She didn’t have Vaxal’s glowing telepathy vision, but she examined me with the same kind of penetrating intensity. I met her cold gaze with my own, fighting with every ounce of my willpower to keep my fear in check long enough for her to believe me.
Finally, she spoke. “Tell me your name.”
I answered in strained bursts of syllables. “My name… is Ash… leigh Kyriakides…”
“True,” Vaxal growled.
The Exarch continued to bore into me with all her focused ruthlessness. “… Tell me your name is not Ashleigh Kyriakides.”
Vaxal pushed down harder on my back, pain exponentiating into agony until I had no choice but to comply. I screamed. Vaxal released some pressure—just enough for me to be able to speak the damning words. “My name… is not Ashleigh Kyriakides…”
Vaxal released some more pressure from my spine, perhaps unintentionally. “It-it’s true!” he exclaimed.
I was still staring defiantly into Virulesse’s mirthless eyes. Her expression grew into a scowl and she motioned for Vaxal to step away from me. He did, and the full release of his pressure hurt me almost as much as the pressure itself had. I gasped, drowning in the oxygen that flooded my lungs to full capacity.
Virulesse stood up. “It seems I have made some miscalculations in our ability to trust you at face value.”
I was breathing heavily, one strained gasp after another, making up for the minute or more of lost air flow. I still couldn’t even think about trying to get up—my entire body was feeling the afterburn of Vaxal’s fury.
“You’re lucky you’re still useful to me,” Virulesse said, “otherwise I’d eviscerate you on the spot. Fortunately, I don’t have to trust what you say to get what I want out of you—the old-fashioned interrogation methods will have to suffice. Vaxal, leash her. To the dungeons.”
I struggled to push myself up with my right arm. Well, there was the silver lining finally—I was important enough to be left alive. Except, now I was going to be tortured into telling Virulesse everything she wanted to know. My body trembled, barely able to support its own weight.
Vaxal pointed his hand toward my throat. In my peripheral vision, red sparks flew from the cracked and dented metal collar—but no energy leash formed. Vaxal snarled. “Useless Iron-grade Artifact,” he grumbled as he marched over to me. He grabbed onto opposite sides of the malfunctioning collar and ripped it in half with the barest indication of power.
The two pieces of former collar hit the floor with an echoing clang. Before I even had a chance to enjoy my newfound freedom, Vaxal grabbed both of my wrists and manifested a pair of manacles around them. He snickered. “Heh. I’ve been saving these for a special occasion.”
I had just enough strength in me for a single labored reply. “I don’t want to hear about your kinks, dude—” And then black raging energy and pain surged into my body through the cuffs, magnitudes stronger than from the collar.
Vaxal carried me to the dungeons with my limp body draped over his shoulder. I was paralyzed, helpless to do anything but lie back and watch as he manhandled me under Virulesse’s direction. The Exarch walked behind us, glaring at me the entire time, barely even blinking.
I had long become numb to the pain when Vaxal finally tossed me to the cold stone floor. I didn’t know if it was an effect of the manacles, or if I was just so far at the end of my rope that nothing could hurt me anymore—no, that wasn’t it. Everything hurt. But it was all sevens on the pain scale when I had already been given a ten.
“You’re going to give me everything I need to know,” Virulesse seethed from somewhere above me. “Even if I have to pull it out of your worthless skull myself.”
I was still conscious—mostly. But I had nothing in me to respond to Virulesse’s threats. There was nothing I could do or say anymore to save myself from this situation. It really had all come tumbling down around me. And yet…
I couldn’t just give in. I couldn’t just give up. Do or die. There was nothing left I could do, but that didn’t mean I had to die without a fight. Not yet. Not ever.
“I need to know,” Virulesse said desperately, “is anything you told me in the Atlas Spire true? Earth? The Reincarnation Goddess? Anything?”
Memories of my life on Earth flashed before my eyes. It felt like it was all so long ago, like a dream I’d soon forget. Even Seriphen’s realm seemed more real than Earth now. All the things she had told me, those brief glimpses of worlds beyond my—
“It’s true,” Vaxal said. He had his hand wrapped across the top of my skull. “She has elaborate memories of Earth and the Goddess. She truly had to die to travel here.”
No… Get out. This head is my head.
A burst of manic laughter above me. “How can I reach the Goddess’s realm myself?” Virulesse demanded. “Tell me! How did you die?”
“N… No…” I murmured. It took all my energy and then some, but I refused to back down now. Not when I was so close to dying. Not when I was finally living.
“She seems to be resisting my search,” Vaxal growled. “GAH! Stop thinking about pink elephants!”
Ha. Hahaha ha ha haha.
Virulesse raged, manifesting the same long energy whip that she was originally going to use against Elder Hammond all those days ago. She pointed it at me in a direct threat. “Answer me! How did you die?!”
Laughter rose from my throat. Pain still rendered me immobile, but the physical paralysis from the manacles dwindled to nothing in the face of my defiance. It was as easy as shrugging off a coat. Virulesse had no power over me—she had given that up the second she left me with no way out. I had no reason to fight back except for the sheer sarcastic hell of it.
Trapped in a dungeon on Era? No—I was right at home.
I smiled as my energy reserves continued to grow. “Make me.”
Virulesse responded by sending another round of blindingly agonizing energy through my manacles. I screamed as the black lightning tore through me again, just as strong as it was the first time.
“Answer the question, Null-rank!” Virulesse screamed as she flooded energy into her lightning whip. Sparks of raw metaphysical power crackled from its coils.
I struggled to speak through heaving breaths. “Not until you say the magic word.”
The Exarch revealed her fury with a single primal scream. She raised the whip above her head and unleashed the barest trickle of its power onto me.
The tip of the weapon slashed through my jeans halfway down my shin, leaving a skin-tearing trail of red in its wake. It hurt like hell, but I had been through worse. Within the last few seconds, even.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
Virulesse raised her whip against me again, and then a third time, and a fourth. Each strike brought with it another infinity of pain for me to somehow handle on top of all the rest. Arm, stomach, side—and then the manacles surged one final time, and I could no longer resist the mountain of agony that had piled up on top of me.
The last thing I heard was the Exarch’s unbridled screams as I drifted away into unconsciousness.