Inferno

We've got to tell him, Raum thought as Cerene slowly drew closer.

Actually, we've got to tell both of them. Oralicon… he just can't get over anything, can he?She paused. Well, no, wait. That's being rather callous of me, isn't it? He's been acting kind of funny ever since we left Nevra's… I guess I'm partly- well, mostly, really - to blame… Raum sighed. No, not another quandary! I've had enough to last a lifetime. And Shark… we have to let him know that we know he's betrayed us, before he does anything stupid again… although, judging by his judgment thus far, stupidity is something he has quite a talent for. But what will happen then? Will we have to restrain him? Threaten him? Her stomach was churning, and she didn't think it was the premonitions this time. Thinking of attacking one of her friends made her slightly ill… yet, if Shark was a traitor, who cared about mercy? Fed up with thinking, Raum glanced around just in time to behold the hamlet's front gate drawing into view.

She paused. Raum sighed. Her stomach was churning, and she didn't think it was the premonitions this time. Thinking of attacking one of her friends made her slightly ill… yet, if Shark was a traitor, who cared about mercy? Fed up with thinking, Raum glanced around just in time to behold the hamlet's front gate drawing into view.

Just as they were about to pass through it, Oralicon drew the three others aside instead, abruptly leading them behind a house.

"We don't need to go through this town," he said quietly. Something seemed different about him; his air had changed, but not to the darkness and cold that had remained within him and returned at any mention of his past. This was more focused, more intense, somehow. Raum shuddered, wondering what had happened, what dangerous conclusion he had reached on the way here, for his aura was certainly very dangerous now.

"Why not?" Raum hazarded nevertheless. "It's not like anything happened to us before. You could just say-"

"I have no excuse," Oralicon said, his dark eyes glittering with that same strange intensity. "I was afraid when we came through at night because if anyone saw me, they would know I've been missing for over two weeks now. It's foolish to risk travel now- surely that's obvious to you?"

Raum looked into his steady, incensed gaze, staring him down, very much discomfited. Whatever strange spirit had possessed Oralicon, she did not like it.

"We're not going in," Oralicon repeated stubbornly, as though he wished to pick a fight, switching his severe look to all of them again. Liam stirred next to Raum, but said nothing. At last, Shark stretched.

"Ah, come on, Oralicon," he said good-naturedly, and Raum, remembering how he had refused to fight alongside them, seethed in fury at his innocent tone; "We just pulled an all-nighter, unless one of you guys -" he glanced around dubiously - "got any sleep on that mountain with this kinda wind blowin', 'cuz I sure didn't." He rubbed his eyes. "What are we doing, then? Napping on the ground?"

Raum wondered. Was this impulse genuine? Was Shark really tired? Or was it all just a cover up? Were some of Ultimight's agents operating within the little town of Cerene, seemingly so peaceful, waiting to see if the boy Oralicon would come back, or if any of the other operatives would give them information? She glared fiercely at Oralicon, willing him to see the truth in Shark, willing him to say no, despite her own fatigue.

He fixed her with another cold stare, then debated the point himself, weighing the possibility of discovery against the gratification of angering Liam and Raum.

"Fine, then… I guess you're right," he said, and Raum jumped in anger, her eyes flashing. He hid a grin and ignored her, turning towards the other side of the house. "Welcome, once again, to the most boring town on earth."

Raum watched the spring in his step with barely-concealed rage. "What is it with him?!" she fumed, not troubling to keep her voice down. "He did that deliberately! He was right in the first place, it's completely illogical to stay here… what's he playing at, following the opinion of a traitor over reason?" She crossed her arms, in part to hide the shudders of anger that were coursing through her. "I swear, he only did it to spite me!"

Liam only sighed and went after them a little, turning back towards Raum. "Looks like they went to the tavern. Come on, it does no one any good flipping out over here…" As Raum shook her head in helpless fury, following him nevertheless, he added in an undertone, "Let's try to get Shark to confess first. If he does, Oralicon'll have no choice but to believe us… I hope."

Raum shook her head again. "Knowing him, he'll just say I'm making him hallucinate or something." She thought a little. "Yeah. Yeah, I shouldn't be flipping out behind some dead-end shack. I should be telling him what an asshole he's being right to his face!"

Liam snorted, holding open the door to the tavern and bathing Raum in the fumes of whiskey as they walked in.

"Lovely establishment," she muttered, taking in the deadbeat and mostly unconscious regulars at the table. "Good thing it's still morning." To the barkeep, she added, "Our friends already came in, I think they reserved a room…?"

"Go on upstairs," the barkeep grunted, surveying her as much as he could manage through the thickest pair of eyebrows she had ever seen.

"Right," she said, still staring slightly, and headed for the stairs at the back of the bar, finding in disgust that the smell of alcohol, far from dissipating, actually increased as they got higher up. "Lovely," she muttered again.

The room was quite as derelict as the rest of the tavern. Filmy curtains of what might have been lace at one time swayed in the breeze, contrasting nicely with the burlap rag rugs spread here and there on the more tattered spots of the carpet, an odd shade of brownish-beige. There was only one bed, currently occupied by Shark, a moth-eaten, tousled quilt and an empty bottle of gin or two. Oralicon was nowhere to be found.

"You're late," Shark said amiably as elf and girl made their appearance on the dilapidated staircase.

"Where's Oralicon?" asked Liam.

Shark shrugged. "Son o' the barkeep figured out who he was; I guess his sire couldn't, what with all the hair in the way. Didja get a glimpse of those eyebrows?" he asked, amazed curiosity sparking in his eyes. Raum raised an eyebrow imperiously, and, given that her bad mood was still permeating the room, he quickly added, "...oh, and he got led off somewhere. Dunno where, though."

Raum ascertained he was telling the truth first, then thought this over. "Good," she said, glancing at Liam, then dropping onto one of the burlap rugs by the smoky hearth. "Gives us more time to make our point clear without interruption." She glanced at Liam again; he looked at her, plainly shocked that she would ask him to level the accusation, then glancing warily at Shark. Raum rolled her eyes, pleased that she had gotten to sate her bad mood nonetheless, and said unceremoniously, "How much have you aided Ultimight, Shark? Or do I have to probe your mind to get a straight answer?"

He concealed his shock well, to his surprise; then again, the Earth had warned him of the impending possibility of discovery. Trapped, cornered, and, in some distant part of him, possibly humiliated, he thought for a moment, chin on fist, then said, "Well, I guess I gave him quite a lot of help when I was working for him all those years, if that's what you mean."

Raum cursed his obtuseness. "You know damn well what I mean!" she sniped, leaping from the cheap rug. "The Watchers imprisoned you because they knew what scum you'd stoop to, and you just followed right along anyway, didn't you? Didn't you?" she reiterated triumphantly as he hesitated for a split second.

Although he knew it was too late, Shark still pulled on a bewildered face. "Scum? What the - what are you talking about, by Naut? I thought you trusted me, Raum!"

Raum's face was livid as the fireplace began to smoke and burn. "You'd better swear by Naut, hadn't you- he's the only god who would support your treachery!" She drew a deep breath, then paused a fraction of a second to regain control of herself. Her voice was colder but calmer as she went on, "Yes, I did trust you. I see now what a foolish mistake it is!"

Shark shook his head, still managing to look incredulous and indignant. "Well, tell me what I did, already! Cut to the chase! Maybe, someday, I'll have the pleasure of actually committing… whatever you're accusing me of," he finished, somewhat lamely.

Raum's stare bored into him, no longer fiery, but cold as ice. "You have been imprisoned by the Watchers, named traitor by the Earth herself, and- and-" she repeated, holding up a hand to stem his repeated alibis, "You refused to aid us in battle against Lelan and… one other. I might have been the only one to see you then, but I know." Made proud by the leveling of this threat for some reason, Raum ignored the prickle of Liam's curious stare, instead concentrating, as hard as she could, on Shark, feeling the feverish need to watch him be humbled, to make him pay for what he had schemed to do…

Shark closed his eyes for a long, frozen moment, trying to figure out what he should say to save his own skin, wondering why he had chosen to tan his own hide this way in the first place. "Ridiculous," was all he could think to stutter, but even he could tell it wasn't enough. He opened his eyes; avoiding Raum, his stare collided with Liam, who was surveying the entire scene, growing noticeably colder as each fiery syllable had been pronounced on either side. What was in his eyes now would have passed for pity, had it not been so full of derisive irony.

"Harder than it looks, eh?" he said softly, his eyes narrowing in a smirk that much better became his brother.

Shark shook his head helplessly, immobile. "I… didn't… how can you even think I…?"

Raum rolled her eyes. "Done now? It's really better if you confess quicker, there's still so much question of what we should do with you, and after the pathetic display we've just seen I feel quite certain we'd be justified in much of it."

Shark blinked, shrinking back; what had once been feigned confusion now changed to outright fear, but it didn't seem to improve his language skills. "W-what… are you going to do to me?" he whispered, eyes darting back and forth between the two, as though he couldn't decide between Raum's hot temper and Liam's cold scorn. "You still can't prove…" he began, stopping just in time. Raum's eyes narrowed, and she drew a sharp breath, ready to educate him again; however, Liam beat her to it, raising a hand when she protested, his expression dispassionate as hers grew more and more so.

"How did he win you over, Shark?" he said softly, his bright eyes never leaving Shark's face. "How long did it take?"

Raum's face twitched; although she didn't want to extend her rage to Liam, she felt this presented a forgivable opportunity. "What are you playing at? How could you just… don't you understand how he's hurt us?" she demanded in a low growl. Liam turned, however, meeting her irate gaze. His own eyes burned with a dark fury to match her own.

"Yes, I do," he said simply, his stare cutting. "In fact, I would even venture to say that I know much more about that then you do." He let the look linger on her for a moment before turning back to Shark, still very much composed. Fighting fruitlessly with words, Raum gave up, stalking across the room to stand behind Shark. To further put him off his ease, she hefted one of the empty bottles from the bed, placing it on the floor, and began to flick spells at it absentmindedly, her fuming senses still on the conversation enough to ensure several more burned spots on the greasy carpet.

"How did he do it?" Liam reiterated, his eyes still on Shark.

Shark hesitated a moment, glancing several times over his shoulder at Raum nervously, before directing his gaze to the floor once again. "I… don't know, really. I just… well, I went up to the castle… I told him everything I'd planned to say, that I was still faithful, and that you had turned traitor… I had to tell him that bit, you know, or else it would have been too fishy… little good it did anyone…"

"And then?" his interrogator asked patiently.

"Then… I went where he told me to… again, little choice I had… I couldn't exactly have a friendly dispute over where we were going with that beast Sengliss gave me. Once I got in the forest… well, there was nothing else to do, so… I guess I just went to have a look around," he finished lamely.

"And ran into the Watchers?" Liam guessed.

Shark nodded. "Yeah. And I thought they were Elves, you know, and… I don't know why… I asked them if I could go to the Elves, the way Ultimight had said to. And they said they were gone, and then I…"

His face had paled to the insubstantial gray color of milky porridge, so that the eyes suddenly appeared as large pale blueberries set within, except that they were, at the moment, blank with fear.

Despite her feigned disinterestedness in the conversation, Raum looked up at the prolonged silence, still flicking spells at the gin bottle - despite the fact that it had shattered a few moments ago, leaving her to scorch the lampshade instead. Liam's eyes were grave, but she thought she could see a thread of understanding beneath the stony surface- more understanding, at any rate, than she had for Shark's nonsense. She turned away again, hurriedly putting out the burning lampshade and looking out the window instead.

"You lost it? Lashed out?" Liam guessed, his voice quiet and unemotional.

Shark glanced over his shoulder again and nodded self-consciously, so that it was almost imperceptible.

"But…" Liam shook his head. "That's understandable. It's exactly what Ultimight intended. What I don't understand is, why didn't you at least try to resist? Why not fight? Why not remember all that you had gone back in the first place? Losing one battle doesn't mean the entire war's forfeit."

Shark shook his head. "I'm… well, you've seen me." His gray-blue eyes were a trifle helpless, an odd thing for such a large man. He gave a half-glance over his shoulder, then lowered his voice. "I'm no good at thinking stuff like that out, Liam. I was… made for following all my life, see? How could I go back? And besides… you've seen him… what chance do we fare anyway?"

"A good deal more, if you take care and remember where your loyalties lie," Liam said with an edge of menace in his voice. "You didn't seem to care before what kind of treason you were committing last time we fought together. It's only since you went back… he's gotten his hold back, Shark. And you're only giving him more of a hold on you with every time you choose not to pick sides."

"But what's the point?" Shark said indignantly, beginning to resent this entire conversation. "Last time was completely different; we were far away from that castle, far away from everything that had gone on, from everywhere I've ever been and everyone I've known, includin' him! Is it any wonder he couldn't reach me there? And as soon as I get to the castle, I just know it… I won't be able to help crossing sides again as soon as I see him, and then what will it all have been for? I can't just lie to myself!"

"No, you won't be able to help yourself, because you have not grown accustomed to resisting any kind of pressure put on your shoulders! They may be strong enough in the physical dimensions, Shark, but in what matters most, they buckle like an infant's!"

Even Shark looked cowed at this outburst. Raum abandoned all pretense and turned back around, looking at Liam, who was looking angrier than she had yet seen him. Yet, whatever Liam might have said about Shark, he was still brave enough, or perhaps tactless enough, to insist ineffectually, "I…but… you know it isn't possible to…"

"Sure! I know it isn't possible!" His eyes bore through his friend, staring him down with a kind of possession. "Even though I've resisted his presence when I was passing information to the Elves, even though I've endured the worst he could have put me through, I guess it isn't possible for you to stand up to him for once in your miserable life, because you…" Liam trailed off; he stopped, shaking his head in helpless fury, raising a shaking hand to cover his eyes as he tried to calm down. Raum bit her lip, caught between intrigue, love and suspense as her eyes darted back and forth between her friend and the traitor.

"I… I'd…" Shark swallowed, suddenly feeling ten times worse than he had before. "I'd forgotten… I…"

"You…" Liam cleared his throat and began again, "It's okay." Seeing Raum's fascination from the window, he blushed slightly, to his own amazement, and muttered a chagrined "excuse me." As Raum stepped around the bed again and Liam took her place at the window, she was impressed by the expression in Liam's eyes; not the deadness of despair, but still slightly smoldering, still slightly embarrassed to have been caught in such an uncharacteristic display of antagonism. It helped to lift her mood slightly. As Liam scanned the panorama outside the window, wondering why he had gotten so upset, wondering about the maddening feeling of suspense and tension waiting in the air, Raum sat down on the bed next to Shark, scuffing her shoes on the tiles to dislodge some of the glass still stuck to them.

"See what we mean?" she said softly, determined not to let the point in Liam's statement be lost. "You can't just dismiss the idea of fighting. There's too much to be fighting for - too much you're letting down by refusing even to consider it. It goes so far beyond us, beyond you. Why are you willing to surrender that much… knowing what evils he's capable of, and not knowing yet the depth of your own untried power and strength? Why does all that we fight for seem like so little to give away? If you fight for him, only too many people will have to resist him. They'll have to find a strength that you think you lack…"

Raum knew not whether she was merely musing to herself. She couldn't tell exactly what kind of an impression the words were making on Shark. He only sat, hunched over, as though trying to disappear, and she couldn't see his face. At length, he mumbled, "I just dunno."

Raum shook her head, getting up and stretching. "Then you'd better know, real fast. The big U isn't that far away." She took a few running steps, dancer-like, upon the balls of her feet, then swept downward, drawing her arms across as though wielding her scythe in a strike. Just as the imaginary blow would have connected, Raum heard Liam give a sharp intake of breath from the window, his eyes still glued to the scene outside.

"Whatsa matter?" she asked carelessly, stretching a little more and then coming over to his side, though she could still not see what he was looking at. The bed creaked as Shark turned to crane his neck, as well.

"I know where Oralicon's gone to," Liam muttered distantly, eyes thrilled with horror.

"How? Where? Why?" Raum stood on tiptoe, trying to peer past the elf.

"Because," he said, in that same strangely distant tone, "he has just burned his father's house down."

"What?!" Raum pushed Liam aside, shocked and quite sure that this was a dream; yet, the next moment, Oralicon had come charging out the door of a house covered in flames, his sword drawn, a clash of cold steel and bright, living fire, dripping something that looked horribly like…

"Oh, Attolyah," Raum whispered as a line of villagers approached, drawn by the fear and morbid curiosity of a sudden accident. Yet, Oralicon merely turned, his flames glinting in the wind, the flare of uncontrollable anger in his eyes almost visible from the window, raising his sword in warning. His free hand shook visibly as he swayed, intoxicated by wrath, the destructive flames of the Ignis Domini whipping ever brighter as the villagers shrank back. Another house burst into flame; not from the influence of the burning heat of the first, but from a seeming explosion, a furious wave of flame that swelled and burst within the building, then exploded in a deluge of heat, sending wood splinters flying. The house and any inhabitants therein were destroyed within a matter of milliseconds, and the townspeople were beginning to sense the cause, forming a closed circle around the pyromaniac as he seemed to yell an unheard warning to the mob, the wildness growing to a peak in his eyes as he became trapped.

It was the largest mistake many of them had ever made.

A new eruption of hatred caused the third house to burst into flame as Oralicon's sword dove into a captor's body, flame and blade alike slicing the man apart, setting him aflame as a wrench of the sword carried Oralicon well past his quarry. He dropped to an impressive roll, coming up running, then turning, sword in hand, as the impulse of his anger goaded him back again, towards the bloodshed, towards the madness that emulated his own heart-

"NOOO!"

Raum could scarcely remember screaming, but the next moment, the tavern had caught flame as well, the cataclysmic shock spilling window glass backwards as the walls expanded and burst. Splinters of wood and melting glass were consumed by flame around her, but Raum, Liam and Shark managed to remain unscathed. The floor, nonexistent now, dropped out from beneath the three as Raum's magical shield hurtled through the air, carrying them with it. A maze of fire loomed in front of them as the ground grew frighteningly close, and all dropped into the wreckage, immediately calling for each other, separated, but, thanks to the shield's survival, still unharmed. The fire gushed heat all around them; eventually, Raum managed to crawl past the last few embers of the pile, and, behind her, amidst the snaps and pops of the hungry flame, she saw her friends climb out, as well.

"Oralicon," she whispered, looking about her. The entire town was in flames.

"Terrible," Liam said softly. The bodies of farmers, wives, children, littered the plaza, encircled by flame, itself being devoured quickly. Someone was crying; distantly, a steady chant echoed through the scorched earth, not so much of prayer as of anger, of unified hurt and revenge.

"Where'd he go?" Shark asked, staring around wildly, as though not taking in a brick of the fast-dying town, his face smudged with charcoal, as were theirs.

Speculation on this was cut short. Through the haze of flames, Raum caught sight of a stalking figure, appearing quite at home amidst the heat he had generated, sword swinging fluidly at his side. Behind his ominous figure, a mob in the truest sense followed, somewhat more deterred by the flames, but determined to wreak every revenge pitchforks and hoes had to offer against this disturber of their rural peace. The screams of the villagers, quite as maddened by hatred as Oralicon had been, was a frightening and unholy thing to see; Raum was just reflecting how much they all looked like demons, stalking one another through the curtains of fire that lay underneath the world, when Oralicon forced the band to turn aside by thrusting aside one such curtain and rejoining them all, his sword lapping at his hand, as though eager for more blood. The sheen of sweat on his face caught the flames, giving a bronzed, smith-like glow to his pale face.

His eyes appeared twin voids. He glanced behind him at the villagers, during which the flames around him invariably picked up; then he forced himself to look away, and, turning, ran through his Hell, towards the eastern edge of town. With a glance, the three others decided that they would follow. Through twisting paths amidst the searing heat, they tracked their friend, at last erupting out of the haze of inferno, which was now engulfing the last dry stubble of the shaved cornstalks, sucking the land dry of life in a razing, hellish light.

Oralicon sprinted ahead of them, hundredyards away, towards the dim outline of a forest. Here the mage's party stopped. The look they exchanged was all too clear- did they dare follow? Were they at risk? Was it wise to follow his example anymore, to trust his guidance?

Raum glanced around. "Do we have anywhere else that we could get to safely?"

Silence.

"Any good reason not to follow him after all the situations he's gotten us out of?" Shark speculated.

More silence.

"Do we have anything that would justify our turning back after all this, when he most clearly needs us?" Liam added thoughtfully.

A few more seconds of silence commenced, before Raum shrugged. "Guess we're all decided, then."

And the dark forest loomed in front of them, growing taller every moment. The afterechoes, the ghostly shapes of dancing light, of flames, flickered in their eyes as the sun set. In no particular hurry, they set off toward the patch of prematurely-darkened trees that hid the deadly bringer of that hellish light - hid the flint, which had hid within itself, in turn, a spark of destruction worse than any of them could have imagined.

(A/N: It. Has. Been. A. LOOOOOOOONG. While.

Wow. Talk about delays.

Well, yes… thanks to a strange impulse, or something, the long-awaited chapter has now arrived. Thank you, thank you. Please leave a donation in the little box.

Thanks once again to all the reviewers, and don't forget to check out my new address for more ass-spankin'-ly good stories… har har. )