“How long have you been in this land?” Brutus asks casually, as if he’s making conversation. He’s studying Inglorion’s face intently.
“Not long. A few weeks.”
“How did you come here?”
Inglorion’s gaze flickers over to the older man’s face. It’s impassive. Now that the dark is falling, Inglorion’s eyes are shifting to dark vision, and he’s starting to see Brutus’s features as white hot — he’s no longer confined to what humans would call the visible spectrum.
He finally replies, “I’m not entirely certain. I don’t remember anything that happened.”
“What do you remember?” Brutus’s voice is soft, low, insistent.
“I found myself underground. I had been unconscious for a very long time. I regained consciousness slowly, then the use of my limbs. I found my way to the surface, and came here.”
“How did you know where to go?”
“I’m Drow. I can find my way to a cave opening. I was on a hillside. I stated walking towards the city. My son came for me. It was like a vision or a hallucination.”
They’re silent for awhile. Brutus allows Inglorion’s words to settle. Inglorion sees the tip of Brutus’s cigarette as a dazzling white-hot point.
“Hang on,” says Brutus. “I’m going to move the hose.” He repositions it a few feet, checks to make sure the water’s still seeping out.
Brutus sits down, takes a sip of coffee, taps the ash off his cigarette. “Do you remember what happened before you got here?”
Inglorion frowns. His eyes drift closed. He can feel Brutus’s hard, dark gaze.
“Up to a point,” says Inglorion. “It ends suddenly.”
“Tell me what you remember.”
Inglorion looks up with an almost pleading air. He wants to protest, but doesn’t. Brutus’s face is cold and grave. “I’d negotiated a treaty, the first step of my true life’s work: Amnesty for rebel slaves, and a framework for them to be freed aboveground or integrated into a Drow tribe. I’d ridden over to an allied camp. I had a huge entourage: Aides de camp, a handful of nobility, a score of Theates troops. Everything was calculated to emphasize my importance, and the solemnity of the occasion. Lucius was a few hundred yards behind, traveling in a closed carriage with outriders and bodyguards.
“We dismounted, handed off our horses. I saw a delegation coming to meet us. I started to walk towards them —” He stops. “I was in pain and confused, struggling to keep my feet. Blinded. After that, I don’t remember. I was gone for a long time. Then I was here. That’s all I know.” He clears his throat, stares fixedly at the ground, and then up at the mountains. The peaks are still solar-loaded, and pale against the cold sky.
Brutus waits for him to regain his composure, then says, “Your son brought you here?”
“Did he say how he did it?”
Inglorion shakes his head, looks ashamed. “He says that he made a bargain, and that his soul is his own. I fear —”
He breaks off, and in the silence Brutus says quietly, “What you fear is true. He raised you from the dead.”
Inglorion feels a rush of nausea. He makes a choked noise of loathing. After a moment he looks up at Brutus. “What about you?”
“The same. I think we all are, except for a handful of necromancers, like your son.”
“It’s strange to hear you call Lucius a necromancer. He was terribly grieved, I think. I can tell he hasn’t told me everything he knows.” By this time, his cigarette has burned down entirely. He stubs it out, finishes his coffee.
“You want another?”
“Absolutely. I’m already dead.” He gives a choke of laughter.
“Nothing. A memory. The first vision I had as a very young man. I heard a voice saying, ‘They’re afraid because you’re crazy. You’re already dead.’”
“It helped at the time. I don’t think I was so crazy that I took it literally. What about you? Are you dead?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Brutus. “I knew right away. That’s what got me wondering about everyone else.”
“I think my case was unusual. I was captured by enemy troops and tortured to death. They administer a drug that keeps you conscious and more or less lucid, as long as you don’t go into shock.” He looks over, smiles, and says, “I remember it. I remember dying. I don’t know how I got here, but I knew from the start that I was dead.”
“So you woke up….”
“In the basement of an abandoned church, actually.”
“You were alone, and you knew you were dead.”
Inglorion cracks up. “That’s really dark.”
Brutus considers. “I guess, yeah.” He shrugs. “So I found an abandoned house with land attached, and started figuring out how to farm in this climate. After awhile, when I’d solved the most pressing practical problems, and I wasn’t worried about running out of water or some shit, I started trying to figure out what the fuck we’re doing here.”
“What are we doing here?”
“Damned if I know.” He pours out more coffee for both of them. “I wasn’t devout in life — far from it. But I can’t believe this shit is random. It can’t be. Different people like your son beg the gods for a favor. They sell their souls. But the gods don’t make a bunch of side-bargains for no good reason, like, who gives a shit, give the little mortals what they want. There’s some larger intent.”
“Yeah. There must be.” Inglorion blows on his coffee to cool it.
Brutus asks, “Do you want that volume of the Thousand Nights? You can even take two.”
“Thank you. I will.”
Brutus reappears with two volumes in hand, says, “One more cigarette?”
“Sure. Why stop now?”
Brutus repeats the ritual of rolling two and lighting them from a single match. Inglorion watches him. Now that it’s dark, Inglorion sees with a shock that Brutus is strikingly handsome. His features are strong, expressive and perfectly chiseled, from the Cupid’s bow of his upper lip to high cheekbones, and an aquiline nose. The tattoos obscure all this. In dark vision, his face resolves into angelic beauty.
Inglorion hears himself ask, “Why did you get your face tattooed?”
“I was badly mutilated in death,” Brutus says. “I was surprised to wake up uninjured. I could feel what happened, and I couldn’t become accustomed to being whole. I wanted to mark the occasion.”
Though he does not say it, Inglorion senses that he’s grieving, and he needed to make his injury visible.
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.