Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
It didn’t help that his muscle atrophy appeared to be accelerating. He would have welcomed it but for the fact that it made Ystormun cross and liable to experiment in other painful ways to halt the decay.
Today, he couldn’t put the arthritis in his hands and wrists on the shortlist because his stomach was so blindingly painful. He hadn’t eaten solid food in almost twenty years, since his digestive system developed problems with anything larger than a pea. But this morning he’d woken in a puddle of diarrhoea and with cramps twisting his guts. A spell had calmed the cramps but had left the sort of pain he associated with a sword thrust through the stomach when the blade was being turned in the wound.
He reached the top of the stairs and rested against the wall while he assessed the walk he still had to make. His guards, Ystormun called them helpers though they offered little help and were clearly there to stop him attempting suicide again, waited behind and to the side of him.
‘No contest, really,’ he said to none of them, his voice hoarse over his dry throat and drier lips. ‘Today it’s the guts.’
‘We’re already late,’ said one of his helpers. He couldn’t remember the man’s name. He didn’t remember all that much these days. ‘The master does not like to be kept waiting.’
‘Well you know where he can stick it.
. Pathetic sycophants, the lot of you.’
He moved on up the corridor, ensuring his movements were as laboured and slow as he could possibly manage. The sighs and muttered curses of his helpers gave him some tiny mote of satisfaction. There was little enough he controlled these days. Briefly, he considered soiling his clothes. He had regained control of his bowels since this morning but they didn’t know that. He decided against it. The look on their faces would almost be worth it, but the cleaning up wasn’t. It was a weapon to be used sparingly.
He liked to imagine the sun moving across the sky, albeit buried behind banks of rain-bearing cloud much of the time, while he made his agonising progress to his meetings with Ystormun. In the early years these meetings had happened every day. Not any more. And he was thankful to whichever elven god might be listening for that.
It wasn’t that Ystormun had tired of the experiment itself – and how he prayed for the day that he did. No, it was more that Calaius’ ruler had become more of an overseer, having delegated the day-to-day drudgery of keeping his subject alive to junior mages. It was unfortunate that the juniors were so diligent in their work. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Ystormun didn’t handle disappointment terribly well.
One of his minders opened the door to the panorama room and its glorious views across eastern Ysundeneth and into the ruined rainforest beyond the River Ix. The sun was bright for the moment, bathing the long airy room with glorious light. It was a fresh and bright scene quite at odds with the room’s single occupant.
Ystormun was sitting in a high-backed black leather chair behind a huge polished wooden desk. Paperweights held piles of documents in place and the remains of a meal were scattered across three plates in front of Calaius’ lord and master. Ystormun didn’t have a great deal of flesh and his skin was stretched so tightly over his frame that every bone of his face and hands was visible. He was a walking skeleton wearing the loose light-weave robes favoured by those seeking relief from the relentless humidity. It was a matter of debate which one of them looked worse.
‘Your stench precedes you, Garan,’ said Ystormun. ‘Sit.’
Ystormun wafted a hand at a deep and comfortable chair to his left. Garan ignored it and sat in a straight-backed wooden chair to the right, one he had half a chance of getting back out of following this meeting.
‘And yours surrounds you like a mobile cesspit,’ said Garan. ‘My stench is your fault. What’s your excuse?’
Ystormun’s dark eyes flashed but he managed a thin smile.
‘How old are you now?’ Ystormun rasped, his voice echoing in the largely empty space of the room.
‘A hundred and seventy-six,’ said Garan, and the numbers sounded unreal as they always did.
‘And in all that time you have failed to bait me as you desire.’
‘There is always hope. More than that, there is satisfaction in trying. Who else could sit here and tell you that you look worse than a forty-day-old corpse strung up on the Ultan bridge and that you smell worse than panther shit, and expect to live?’
‘Even you have a limit to your leash, Garan.’
‘And I am
enjoying finding out where that limit lies. The thought of exceeding it is what sweeps me to the bliss of dreams every night.’
Ystormun snorted and shuffled briefly through a sheaf of papers, plucking one from a fat leather file.
‘To business. Your eyesight. Improved? Keener?’
‘I can almost see right through your skin to that shrivelled black organ you probably still call your heart. Does that help?’
Ystormun growled, and the guttural sound was more suited to the rainforest than the room. Garan felt a frisson of fear and felt suitably alive as a result.
‘Your kidneys returned to full function ten days ago. Have you had any negative reaction to the treatment?’
‘Yes,’ said Garan. ‘I am still alive.’
Ystormun tensed and the sinews in his jaws and neck stood taut under his yellow, brown-spotted skin.
‘Your stomach,’ he said, speaking slowly and with a deliberate measure designed to convey menace but raising nothing but hope in Garan. ‘Three days of a new treatment. Has the swelling reduced and your capacity to retain nourishment increased?’
Garan met Ystormun’s stare without flinching, without the terror so obvious in the mage lord’s lieutenants.
‘My stomach remains agonising and as such is my brightest hope for death despite your inhuman meddling with my body. Your experiment is, and has always been, an abject failure.’
Ystormun was quick, and his height, when he chose to use it, was intimidating. His hands slapped onto the desk top and he loomed high over Garan, whose shrivelled form hunched reflexively, though his eyes never deviated from the mage lord’s. In his peripheral vision he could see the desk crackling and smouldering beneath Ystormun’s hands.
‘Nothing I touch is ever a failure.’ Ystormun’s voice ground out like rock grating on rock. ‘And it is time you understood that even if you expired right now you still represent a triumph.’
Garan’s jaw dropped and he was aware of a line of drool dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
‘Look at me,’ he whispered then raised his voice as loud as he could muster. ‘
Look at me!
My skin splits if I sneeze too hard. Every joint is so swollen with arthritis that I can’t get out of bed unaided and I can’t walk more than a dozen paces without rest. Every time I breathe, the pain takes that breath away. If I fall, I break twenty bones. My whole body, my whole life, is a sheet of agony. I have not recognised myself in a mirror for fifty years. I am dead but you keep my heart beating. How is that a triumph, you bastard?’
A glimmer of long-forgotten humanity crossed Ystormun’s features. The crackling ceased and the mage lord moved his hands, revealing the blackened imprints on the desk.
‘Because I have given you life beyond your wildest dreams. I have given you the chance to see and hear and touch and taste when you should have been nothing but bleached bones scattered across the land. I have made your name one that will resonate through the history of man.’
‘And my family will always carry the shame that I was Ystormun’s plaything. I do not want to be named in history. All I ever wanted was to do my tour, return to those I love and die in my wife’s arms when my time came. You denied me my rights and you still do. I spit on the ground your feet touch.’
Ystormun’s touch of humanity faded and his ancient cold eyes bored into Garan’s face.
‘You think yourself unfortunate because I have never tired of you. I am tempted to remove your tongue. Believe me, I can make your life far more unpleasant than you already believe it to be. Dwell on this if you must: you are an unfinished experiment and I cannot let you die before you are complete.
‘You have the organs of a man approaching his latter years. Your heart would beat well in the body of a man of thirty. And every day my mages get closer to solving the problem of your musculature, skin and bones. You, Garan, could be the first human immortal and yet you choose to whine about your longevity.’
‘Were you ever a human?’ asked Garan. ‘Or did the deal you made to keep your heart slithering along also remove such notions as honour, shame and free will?’
Ystormun sniffed, managing to make the sound both dismissive and disgusting.
‘You don’t want to know any more about the deal I made than you already do,’ said the mage lord, and Garan was damned if the skeletal figure didn’t shudder beneath his robes.
‘At least yours was a matter of choice,’ said Garan.
Ystormun walked around the desk to stand above Garan.
‘Yes, it was. And I have no time for honour or free will. There is only conquest and domination.’ Ystormun leaned right down until Garan’s eyes were full of the mage lord’s leathery face and his nose full of the trademark musty odour. ‘And you are part of my inevitable rise to power in Balaia.’
‘Got me a new sword, have you? I can’t wait to see the fear on your enemies’ faces when they see me limping towards them.’
Ystormun growled again. ‘Something in this festering land gives the elves their long life and I will seed that in you if it takes me another hundred and fifty years. So you will live, Garan, and you will see the new breed of humans born. Those I can imbue with long life, great speed and huge strength. Unstoppable. Loyal. Willing.’
At last Garan had the truth behind the torture of the last hundred and thirty years. He tried to hold back a laugh.
‘You’re trying to create an elf from my body so you can build an army of
and take on the power of Triverne? You really are a fucking idiot, aren’t you?’
Ystormun’s eyes darkened and his hands crackled with power.
‘You could have stood with me at the head of my dominion,’ said Ystormun. ‘But your every insulting word is logged and noted and you will be cast aside when I am done with you.’
‘My death cannot come too soon.’
‘Death? I don’t think so, Garan. That would be reward, not a punishment.’ Ystormun stalked across to the windows and stared out towards the rainforest. ‘This meeting is over. Your next treatment will be somewhat uncomfortable but might give you more strength in your legs. It will be that or paralysis.’
Garan felt cold. Ystormun was nothing if not a man of his word. Still, there was always a chance he could be provoked enough to lash out.
‘I look forward to pulling myself along by my arms to see you,’ said Garan.
‘Sometimes I think my work to maintain your brain function was wasted,’ said Ystormun. ‘You see so much less than you should.’
‘So sure?’ Garan raised a shaking hand and pointed a crooked arthritic finger at Ystormun. ‘I can see you’re fidgeting. You’re nervous, but not of me. I can hear your finger bones clacking together.’
Ystormun stared at him and Garan saw the exhaustion in his eyes; quite something in orbs always so sunken and black-rimmed.
‘That’ll be down to too much interference from your brethren; too much long-distance debate, right?’ said Garan.
He needed to lie down. Ystormun’s sheer presence was draining enough. But this was one of those rare occasions when the mage lord was clearly uncomfortable about something. Garan was not going to let a mere hundred and seventy years of age get in the way of an attempt to make the skeleton squirm a little.
Ystormun’s stare intensified. Garan felt the temperature on his face rise.
‘Oh dear,’ said Garan. ‘And it didn’t go so well for you, did it? What was it this time?’
‘I am not in the habit of talking to you about such matters.’
‘Well, I might as well go, then.’
Garan began to think about pushing himself out of the chair. It was not a prospect he relished. He feared his legs had seized up and his head felt light. Too much thinking did that to him these days.
‘Did it ever occur to you that, as the only other man who was here from the start, I might have something useful to add?’ asked Garan, hoping to delay the moment a little further.
There was a flicker across Ystormun’s features, gone the next blink.
‘I admit no weakness,’ he said. ‘Only the ignorance of others.’
‘Ah,’ said Garan, satisfied at last. ‘It’s the old “delicate balance” thing again, is it?’
Ystormun appeared to relax, just by a hair. ‘There are those in Triverne who do not accept the threat still posed by the TaiGethen.’
‘Ah. And those sails on the horizon. That’s more muscle, I suppose, to hasten their demise.’
Ystormun shook his head. ‘Workers.’
‘Bullshit.’ Garan found himself experiencing a wholly uncomfortable emotion. Sympathy. ‘This place already works. It is efficient. What’s going on?’
‘Politics,’ said Ystormun.
‘More bullshit,’ said Garan, sensing an opening like never before. ‘I’m proud of what we achieved here. I hate you for keeping me alive, but at least I can see the fruits of my labour. If you must keep my heart beating, use me, confide in me. After all, what can I do?’