|"When she spoke, every word hung laboriously, as if |
she could not coax her voice from her mouth...."
Previously: Chapter 1 <Part 1> <Part 2>
Everyone watched Laurel carefully as she ate a light tea slowly and in silence. Renata had never seen her friend in such a frail state, not even after nearly dying at the claws of Jalot, the fearsome Hiromorni commander under Gwynna's influence. Seeing her friend's face contort with anguish at even the slightest movement sent pangs of agony through the young redhead's own heart.
Carsius, for his part, watched Laurel's movements with the practiced eye of a soldier who has seen extreme fatigue in brothers at arms in a forced march over several days on stringent rations. He watched the conscious straining effort in every movement. What should have been involuntary suddenly required concentration, and the voluntary movements even more so. Carsius had never seen such weakness in a single day. It was as if every thought was pain, she was as crippled in her mind as an over-exhausted soldier would be in body after a strenuous day. How could something destroy a person that much? Was the end really worth this cost?
Carsius glanced to Augustus, and saw that the lieutenant felt the same way. At last, Laurel's plate was empty and she leaned back for some relief after the effort.
Augustus took the opportunity to lean forward and speak, "Maybe we should find another—"
"No," Laurel's voice was weak but the old fire still flamed in her eyes and warmed her voice. Her eyes turned slowly toward Augustus. "It's too late to come up with another plan. There is yet one option we have not tried."
"Laurel," Carsius burst out, "Can you not see that this is killing you? We dare not expose you again, or you may not survive!"
"Hear me, Carsius," Laurel insisted, rising in her seat, "I cannot properly focus the influence from here, but the issue is not with whether or not I can. I know I can; I just need to be in the right place."
"What place would that be?" Augustus asked.
Laurel fell silent for a long while, working up the strength to answer. When she spoke, every word hung laboriously, as if she could not coax her voice from her mouth.
"I think I must be... in the tur—turret of...the univ—uni—"
Her eyes rolled back and she ceased speaking even as Gorrmunsa pounced to his feet and yowled, "Get it off! Get them off her! She's giving in! She can't resist! GET THEM OFF!" The Kytarr lunged, claws extended, for Laurel's limp body. Quickly, he snatched three opportunistic wyrts off the back of Laurel's neck.
"Deej," Gorrmunsa instructed, standing vigil over Laurel, who wavered in semi-consciousness, "get me some huroush mushrooms!"
The Ewok scurried toward the kitchen, and returned soon with the dirty green lumps. Gorrmunsa took them and crushed them in his claws, smearing the goop around Laurel's neck.
"Why not give her more analthraxine?" Renata asked.
"Because the repeated introduction of althraxine has made it resilient against the analthraxine. Our only hope is to be able to keep the wyrts away from her. She is no longer invisible like the rest of us."
At this moment, Laurel lifted her head. She saw Gorrmunsa standing over her.
"What happened?" she asked.
"You cannot leave this house, Laurel," Deej warned her. "You are too much susceptible to the wyrts."
"Besides," Augustus added, "now that the wyrts can see you, so can their hosts."
"I must get to the university down the street, it's the only way to be able to topple the Scholarship pillar," Laurel insisted. "It would be a simple thing to disguise myself as Sister Miligred." She accepted support from Gorrmunsa and stood. "I will do so right away."
There was no time for discussion as she left the room and went up the stairs toward the Sister's bedchamber.
Augustus whirled on Carsius. "She'll need escorts."
Carsius nodded, "You and I can do that."
Augustus shook his head. "All aristocrats have at least four, two before, two behind."
Carsius glanced at the three other compatriots: Gorrmunsa was too tall, and it would take far too much trouble to conceal his fur and his tail. Renata and Deej were both far too short. Who else—
Gorrmunsa lifted his head, sniffing cautiously. "Someone is here," he remarked. The Kytarr glanced at Carsius, and the Black Hand operative had the same thought: was it the mysterious Ra'dith, returned because Laurel was in danger? Or perhaps a wyrt-host had taken an interest in the formerly-abandoned house because one of them was exposed? The sound of boots echoed clearly down the tunnel outside the wooden door that led to the metal one. One thing was certain; they could take no chances.
"Augustus," Carsius ordered, "Warn Laurel that someone is at the door and trying to enter the house."
"There is more than one," Gorrmunsa announced with his ear to the door, "and—they have overridden the controls for the metal door. Soon they will enter the tunnel." the Kytarr glanced at Carsius, and his catlike eyes gleamed hungrily.
"By all means, my friend," Carsius granted permission. "Meet them when they do."
"With pleasure," Gorrmunsa purred, slipping out into the shadowy tunnel on noiseless paws.
Two men, one swarthy and stocky, the other tall and lithe, wrestled with the smooth metal door. The taller one had managed to short out the mechanism keeping it closed, but then it was up to the darker one to wrest it open in spite of the pressurized pistons.
The taller man leaned over and clenched his fists anxiously as he observed his companion at work.
"Are you nearly finished yet?" he whispered. "The people out here are starting to creep me out!"
The other man grunted. "Well if you had used that gadget of yours to open this stupid door instead of just killing it while it was closed, we wouldn't be in this mess!"
"Hey," the first man's voice rose defensively, "remember that you wouldn't be here if it weren't for my gadgets. You're lucky I was able to fix your receiver in time to pick up the distress call."
The swarthy man made no direct reply, only muttered something about doing fine on his own...chattering jackdaw...
The younger man ignored him. Just then, the stocky dark man smiled.
"I think that about does it," he exclaimed, "here we go!"
With a mighty heave, he shoved the door wide open—just in time to be yanked into the open tunnel by a ferocious, clawed animal.
The young man's green eyes flashed in alarm, and he dashed inside, ready to mince the thing that attacked his friend. As he stepped into the tunnel, the door fell abruptly shut with a loud groan, plunging the whole area in darkness.
The animal's snarls died down, and the young man could not discern his friend's presence.
"Barmier?" he called.
A body bumped against him, and instantly two muscular hands were at his throat.
"Now I've got you, bloodthirsty devil!" a familiar voice snarled out of the darkness.
"Bar!" the young man rasped, vainly attempting to loosen the grip on his windpipe. "Bar, it's me you have! Leggo my neck! Bar, you're choking—"
The hands loosened, and Barmier gripped his companion's shoulder rather than his neck. "Atis? Is that you? Where'd the creature go?"
Atis massaged his neck and stood, grateful to fill his lungs with fresh air again.
"I don't know, I can't see a blasted thing in this darkness."
"I wonder where it could—hey! Young'un, I think I feel a wooden panel, or a door of some sort!"
"Steady on the 'young'un', would ya? I'm not a boy, you know. Where are you feeling at?"
Atis extended his free hand toward where Barmier still gripped his shoulder, and the older soldier found his wrist and directed the open palm toward the paneling.
"Hmm..." Atis mused, guiding sensitive fingers around the intricate scrollwork. "Maybe this is how the creature made his escape. If I could find the—aha! A knob!"
"Wonderful!" Barmier responded in a joyless tone. "Is it locked?"
Atis slowly tried twisting the knob, expecting at any moment to meet stiff resistance. The handle turned a full rotation with no obstruction. Carefully, Atis pushed open the door as Barmier hunched close beside him, awful, glass-like knives at the ready....