Ivan Basarab is dead. It becomes clear to me as the wounds in Kieran’s picture begin regenerating like slowly closing zippers. His reptilian powers of self-healing work freely, which means no one is attacking him anymore.
The canvas of Basarab’s picture, on the other hand, is drenched in red, dripping thickly on the floor and on Lauren’s shoes. It’s dead quiet outside, as if the wind itself were holding its breath, and all I can hear is the beating of my own pulse in my ears. As the breeze makes it through the window again I release the air from my lungs and fall to my knees.
“It’s finished,” I whisper, covering my face with palms full of colour.
“What just happened?” Lauren mumbles. I look up at her through the blurry veil of my tears, but I can see she’s completely bewildered. Intoxicated with hatred and seeing me hopelessly fighting to save Kieran, she did the only thing that was in her power– she stabbed and slit Basarab’s picture. The outcome is something neither of us expected, but synapses fast-wire in my brain, helping me put two and two together.
“Normally it’s the pictures that work as doubles for the people,” I explain quietly, “taking all the blows and the harm. But it seems the energy you put into your attack combined with the energy I put into making the painting reversed effects.”
“What the hell does that mean?” The turbid green of her eyes isn’t enough to camouflage her bewilderment this time.
“It basically means that by killing the picture, you killed the man.” I can hardly believe it myself as I voice it. “Incredible . . .” Incredible what human emotion, intention and energy can do. “It was . . . teamwork.”
A fat drop of red splashes on the tile under the tripod holding Basarab’s picture, and releases a chain reaction – the rusty smell of blood fills my nose, making me sick. The adrenaline has kept me unaware of the smell until now, but the relief that it’s all over brings back sensitivity to all my senses.
Billy Dean – Ivan Basarab – has open wounds that reach his bones, fat and muscle visible as if the canvas were made of flesh. My stomach can’t take the image, and I break down, crawling on all fours and struggling against the sickness.
Fortunately Lauren proves great presence of mind. She hurries to me, helps me up and out of the room from the Dark Tower, leading me down the gloomy spiral stairs and away from the horror behind. Even the spiders and insects seem to clear from the place as we descend.
I feel so sick that I rely on Lauren completely. From the night she almost beat me to death at the asylum I know how strong she is despite the very few pounds of flesh that cover her bones, but the fact that she’s so fast and stable on her feet despite the stilettos and the tight leather outfit is rather admirable.
As we emerge in the granite main corridor on the ground floor I manage to voice my thoughts, and Lauren admits she’s been training with Jeremy – probably while the Inspector was under Basarab’s possession – for months for this mission. In my head, I thank God her allegiances switched from Basarab to us, otherwise she would’ve easily killed me. In my stained canvas gown, barefoot and exhausted, I wouldn’t have posed much of a challenge.
The manor is huge, hollow, quiet and dark, only our steps filling it like ghosts. Lauren leans me on a pillar by the main entrance in order to try and open the double doors, but even with all Jeremy’s training she’s not strong enough to pull aside the enormous bronze lock that traverses them. I should’ve thought about it, the thing is designed to withstand a whole crowd pushing to open the doors.
We have to go down to the catacombs and use the opening that I discovered the night I first witnessed Kieran turn into a serpent. His men had replaced the glass I’d broken with a bulky bronze door, but I know the way to open it.
Lauren and I emerge out onto the rocky fields. The sea is far, but the salty breeze seems to carry drops from its raging crests. I close my eyes but open my arms and breathe in deeply, allowing the freshness of the night to fill my lungs.
“It’s over. It’s really over.” Relief courses from head to feet, turning me soft.
The horrors of these past months run before my mind’s eye and through my heart like they say things do a moment before you die. Before I first met Kieran at the Royale a felt eternity ago I was a pampered upper class girl secluded among her paintings, with little knowledge of the world out there. So much has changed since then. Right now I feel like I’ve just escaped execution after a long line of torments and tortures. My flesh hurts and my soul aches, but I’m alive.
A hand clasps my upper arm and hides me behind a back dressed in dark fighting clothes. I recognize the leather expansible outfit the serpents wore when they left for battle, as well as Joyous’ locks. He hisses at Lauren, who retreats in a hunched, rather awkward-looking fighting position on her mosquito legs, eyes wide and knives ready to protect herself.
“No, Joyous, wait,” I intervene, holding tightly to his arm and straining to make him listen. “She’s helped me back in the tower. She’s on our side now, and it was her who killed Basarab.”
Joyous doesn’t react immediately, but keeps circling Lauren while I keep dragging after him and holding tightly to his arm to prevent him from hurting her. He measures her from head to toes viciously, and finally addresses me, yet not taking his eyes off Lauren.
“Maybe it was only an act she put on as she realized her people were losing.”
“Her people were losing, but Kieran was dying. She saved him, Joyous!”
He still doesn’t look convinced. After glancing from Joyous to me a few times Lauren gives a crooked, daring smile and drops her knives, lifting her hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. The expression on her face still retains a kind of mocking pride, though – her way of keeping dignity as people emerge from the shadow, throw her down and tie her hands behind her back. Frankly I don’t blame her for it. She had to put up with enough humiliation.
“Treat her well until this is cleared,” Joyous orders. “Put her in a dungeon, but make sure she has minimal comfort.”
I want to intervene and plead that they don’t put her in a cell at all, but Joyous clasps my shoulders and makes me look at him. There’s something pained in the Healer’s eerie honey-coloured eyes surrounded by dark circles.
“I know you trust her, Saphira, but I can’t do the same, since . . .”
He pauses, and my heart jumps. “Since what?” I clasp his wrists in anguish. “Don’t hover, Joyous, I beg of you!”
He drops his voice as if to help keep us both calm. “There have been losses, Saphira.”
“Losses, what losses? Oh, God, Jeanie?!”
My pulse seems to settle, but then the name hits me like an arrow in the breastbone.
To be continued on Friday.
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