The snow gathered in a glistening burial mound. Beneath its fine layers, Samuel lay, listless and still. As his tomb grew, the Ithen with the silver eyes left him behind.
It had taken his coat. The grey garment had transformed from suave regalia to somber rags on its ink-stained body. It crept away like a disgraced scarecrow, rubbing its head and moaning quietly to itself. What it had done had not helped. The violence had not been sufficient. It hadn’t been able to kill and it felt no better and was no nearer to its former state of mind than before. The ink and prolonged excursions through and between shifts had taken their toll. It wandered, unknowing of the path it would take, or indeed of anything except that which was immediate. It was cold. Yet it was not. It hurt. Yet it did not. It was trapped, caught in a maddening gap between life and death.
Caught up in being caught, it didn’t notice the man who knelt by Samuel’s mound. It was out of sight by the time he began to dig. Bare hands scooped away handfuls upon handfuls of snow, until at last the icicle-filled dreadlocks and frost-bitten face were revealed. The man sat back on his haunches, a slight frown forming on his face.
“I know you,” said Despernot.
He pulled Samuel from the snow and helped him to sit. He was not dead; it would take more than an addled Ithen to kill him. But he was wounded, and his mind had gone somewhere else to cope with it. Bit by slow bit, Despernot coaxed him back, until at last they saw each other.
“Not since Egypt,” Despernot smiled. “That’s when I saw you last.”
“Foxe,” Samuel whispered.
Despernot leaned his head to one side, the smile turning dangerous. “Do you know where she is? Has she gone to The Masque?”
Samuel was coming to his senses and he had enough of them left to say nothing. He faced the ice blue eyes and kept his mouth firmly shut.
“Best to tell me,” said Despernot. “I know what you want. You didn’t try to stop my ship for nothing all those years ago. I haven’t had to force you off my scent for all the years since for no reason. You want me back. Boxed away.” He laughed, a high-pitched, nervous sound. The edges of his eyes were going dark. Bit by bit the blue was fading. He let Samuel go, his knees sinking into the snow as he lifted his face to the sky. “Where are the others? Where are my brothers, my sister? Where are the stars…?”
Samuel took the opportunity. He lunged forward, catching Despernot in the chest. They tumbled to the ground and rolled through the snow in a tangle of limbs. When at last their momentum was arrested, Samuel had come out on top. He pinned the ragged lunatic in the snow and let ice creep down his fingertips until his hand was a lethal claw. Despernot stared up at him in shock.
“Will you kill me? Do you suppose you can?”
“I hope so.” Samuel brought his hand down, but at the moment the ice met Despernot’s heart his eyes became so dark that they might have been dipped in night. His mouth opened in a scream, and blackness poured forth, washing over Samuel in a wild flood. He thrashed backwards, fighting against it. Despernot’s corpse gave a shuddering gasp and lay still.
The blackness was gone. Samuel stood petrified from his struggle and watched as Despernot began to fade. He would be on his way back to the road, perhaps to return, perhaps not. After he was gone, Samuel took stock of his situation and decided after a moment of trembling uncertainty that he was all right. He adjusted his belt of bones and turned away, heading for the stream he had told Foxe to cross. He felt a small measure of guilt for dragging her along, but now that Despernot was dead he hoped to focus on helping her. She was the first living being to interest him in a long, long time, which made her worth the effort. Perhaps, he admitted to himself, it was more than interest.
He came to the place and cast one last glance back into the white wilderness. Something didn’t feel quite right. It felt unfinished, somehow. He racked his brain, fighting against a sudden sluggishness of memory, until he remembered the black smoke that had overwhelmed him. Where had it gone? He had forgotten about it, somehow.
The sky was darkening. That didn’t seem right, either. It was like his mind was stuck in a bog, watching a pin point of light far above as it was sucked down to unknown depths.
“Thank you,” said Despernot’s soft voice. “Now I know the way.”
Impossibly, he was there. His eyes were still dark, but in the fog that was creeping in, the lunatic’s face seemed distorted and sunken. His hair was wild, his clothes a mess of holes and rot. He smiled, and his mouth was full of sea water and lies.
“I killed you,” Samuel said. A scream was building up inside of him. He could feel his heart thunder back to life, beating madly against his ribs.
“Do you trust your eyes?” Despernot replied. As he spoke, he seemed to split in two. A bloody gash opened at the top of his head and kept going against all sense, until both halves of him stood there, lifting their arms towards Samuel in tandem. “Perhaps you shouldn’t,” they both echoed.
Samuel put a hand to his nose and felt blood. It came from his eyes, too, and the corners of his mouth. He tried to stem it, but his hands were numb. His ears filled with the rush of blood and pain. The world spun, and Despernot caught him as he fell. “I’m sorry,” the madman said, spitting salt water onto his skin. “You mean well. But I wish to live. I won’t go back. I’m so sorry. Let me fix those eyes for you….”
He saw the knife as it entered, and then there was nothing but pain and a white-hot light that sparked through his head. The scream found its way out, but he couldn’t move. He seemed to have forgotten how, and all he could do was lie limply in Despernot’s arms and watch the knife enter his other eye. The skies caught his dying cry and lost it somewhere in the wind.
(TCOS Continues on Thursday evening! )