“Every journey ends,” said the enemy Croakamancer. “You know this is true, do you not?”
She waited for Jillian to say something, but Jillian kept her lips clamped and her head turned away. The glove reached out, touched the box, and she spasmed with the total-body wrack of pain.
The gloved hand was withdrawn.
“Yes, you know this is true,” said Jillian‘s captor. “It is self evident. So we may look at each journey as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even the journey that you are on now.”
The Croakamancer‘s voice was the same strained, raspy one she‘d heard from the mouthless face of the mannequin. Disband her for not throwing that thing off the tower as the first order of business!
“If a journey took place in the past, we can see its beginning, middle and end. From our privileged perspective here in the future, we see all. We see as the Titans do. But this is not our privilege when we are on a journey.”
The gaunt, papery Croakamancer straightened, and walked around to the side of the box that Jillian was facing. Jillian immediately turned her head the other way on the satin pillow.
“This is not to say that we are without choice, without control. Imagine that we have three paths to the end of our journey. There is the path that we would choose, given our own blind desires. I call this path ‘the hard way.‘ It is unnecessarily fraught with circumstance, difficulty. Random and selfish acts always cause needless loss and pain.”
The animated body of Bart Lightrail walked over to the side of the box where Jillian was looking and stared down at her. Aside from the Haffaton livery, he looked almost normal. A little waxy and ashen, but not like most uncroaked units. His glassy eyes were whole, and they gazed down at her. They even blinked. She closed her own.
Still handsome. How unbearably awful was that?
“Here is an example,” said the caster. “Selfishly, randomly, you take a lover on the field of battle, and he suffers. You lose him. And you suffer. Such is the hard way, but some revere it. Some call it ‘free will.‘ Their journeys are hard ones.
“But there is another path, called ‘the easy way.‘ This is when we know what the end of our journey must be, and we seek the simplest path for us to travel there. Our journey is pleasant, free of unnecessary pain, and we reach it quickly. The easy way is, by definition, the best way.”
Eyes shut, Jillian tried not to listen. But the voice had an effect on her, something profound and personal. She could and would disobey this woman, but she could not ignore her.
“Also,” continued the Croakamancer, “there is a third way: ‘the very hard way.‘ This is when we know the end of our journey, but we deny the truth of it. Sometimes we intuit where we must go, sometimes we are told, but we may be foolish enough to deny it anyway.
“We may put up obstacles for ourselves. We may fight the forces of Fate. We may run away in the opposite direction. But it is futile. We do not choose our beginnings or our ends, only the middle. And choosing the very hard way will cause you the most suffering, the most grief in the middle. Do you understand?”
Jillian stiffened in anticipation. Questions were a trigger. They led to pain.
After a moment of silence, this one did, too.
“I chose the very hard way to the end of my journey,” said the Croakamancer, leaning down in an almost conspiratorial whisper. “I don‘t recommend it. Your journey will end. I will end it, in fact. I am telling you so that you can accept it, and choose the easy way. It will be best. Say, ‘Yes, Mistress.‘”
She said nothing.
The results were entirely predictable.
The touch-pressure pain of the glass container was not something Jillian could ignore, either. When it was upon her body, she had nowhere to escape, not even within her own mind. The pain in her joints and her head, especially her ears, took up her whole field of awareness. It blotted out the sun. It silenced all noises. Her entire body clenched rigid as marble with it.
Ignoring all other circumstances, it probably wouldn‘t have taken more than a few solid seconds of it until she would have taken the “easy way”–said or done anything, just to make it stop. But the enemy Croakamacer had made a mistake by turning Bart into a monster like this. He looked down on her and she knew her failure. He was one of dozens already lost, because she hadn‘t been the Chief Warlord they had needed.
So she resolved to lie there and take it. For Bart, who could feel no pain. For Chip and Hedda and the others, whatever had become of them, she‘d endure it as a punishment earned. That was fair. That was reason enough.
The greater and more noble reason to hold out, of course, was for father and the hundreds more at home. But she couldn‘t claim that was anything more than a secondary consideration. She‘d make Lady Firebaugh break her, for WRECD.
After a very long, long time with glove upon glass, the pain suddenly relented. The Croakamancer sighed.
Then she turned, and walked away without a word. After ten minutes alone with Bart, Jillian began to wonder about the air in the box.
It was sunset when the Croakamancer returned. Jillian had cried herself briefly to sleep once, and then awakened without apparent need for air, water, food, or latrine. It was a weird kind of relief. She‘d thought Lady Firebaugh had given up and was simply going to use the box to croak her. That‘s what she‘d said, wasn‘t it? She was the only source of what Jillian needed? The thought of being abandoned that way, to slowly croak from unmet needs, seemed particularly horrifying.
But the relief didn‘t last more than a moment, as Jillian saw that the Lady Firebaugh was not alone. Chip and Hedda and a few of the infantry shuffled along behind her, all in Haffaton livery. All gone. She found herself crying again, and sank her head into the pillow.
The Croakamancer said nothing to her, but sat down on a pedestal, placing a small satchel in the grass beside her. One of Faq‘s former archers was porting a bronze brazier shaped like a leafy plant, and set it up in front of the caster, who ignited it with a finger flick. She took out a cheesecloth-wrapped bundle and opened it, placing small pieces of fish on the mesh grill inside the bronze leaves.
Just once, she turned her head to address her captive.
“You chose badly, Jillian.”
Forgetting her personal stand to be silent, Jillian said, “What else is new?”
At that, the Lady Firebaugh actually smiled very slightly. Then she turned back to the flames where her dinner was cooking.
No more was said between them that night, But several times, without apparent prompt, the Croakamancer sang to the night. Her voice was true, even sweet, if weary. Her words rang with loss, acceptance and remembrance. It was surely another, much subtler form of torture.
Our span on Erf proves
A stone Number of turns.
Each living Fate Moves
With the Life that it burns.
Some blaze in a flash,
Some linger as embers.
But when Matter is ash,
A stone still remembers.