“Tell me what happened,” Heian said to Falen Whisperrose as she tended, with compresses and small droughts of water dripped onto his lips, the prostrate body of Silenius Varanasi.
“I have told you thrice already this day,” Falen said calmly, without pausing in her work. “And the tale has changed not a bit in the retelling.”
“Nevertheless,” Heian said. “Start from the beginning.”
Falen sighed. “I called the air-servants, he called the earth-creature, and then he opened that hellish gate,” she said. “You passed through and we waited. More time than seemed plausible passed. Something happened to Silenius, and then he began to decline. Blood ran from his eyes and ears. Sweat poured from his body. Yet he did not move nor cry out.
“My own spells ended, and I knew that, by all rights, the gate should have closed and the rest of you ought to have been trapped in the Hells,” Falen continued. “Yet Silenius kept it open. The strain tore at him like a living thing, and blood poured out of him. I thought he might die of apoplexy.”
Falen paused, used a cloth to wipe Silenius’ high cheekbones. “Then you were through, with Ashrem, beyond all hope. As the last passed through the gate, Silenius collapsed. That was five days and five nights ago. He lives, but barely. His pulse is swift and reedy, his muscles rigid.”
“Is he ensorcelled? Cursed? Has some demon assayed a possesion? What?”
“I know not. It is no humour I have ever treated and if I were to guess, I’d say that the strain of keeping that hell-gate open simply… broke him.”
Heian just stared at his friend, as Falen continued her ministrations.
Silenius opened his eyes in the night, but no one noticed and he did not move or speak. He lay there, weak and torpid, passing in and out of consciousness, until he once again lapsed into pure black. But his breathing was easier, his heart slowed, the rictus of his muscles loosened. Where before was coma, now was sleep.
“Silenius. Brother, do you wake?”
His eyes opened a crack, through gummed lids, and Silenius’ alien orbs once again knew sunlight.
Heian Viscum’s face blotted the sun. “Silenius! You are alive, my friend. Can you speak?”
Silenius was not sure. He tried a response and produced nothing but a thin wheeze. He tried again. “aaaaash…”
Heian smiled grimly. “We have him, Silenius. He abides.”
Silenius nodded, then closed his eyes again.
He raised mulled wine to his lips and felt heat drawn from the cooking fire course down his arid gullet and bloom in his gut, speading out in all directions like the tentacles of a kraken. Silenius drew the cloak about him closer, edged a shoulder toward the fire, and lowered his eyes. The desert elves tended him, seeing to his fire and serving him an iron bowl of thick soup leavened with lentils and clots of coarse brown bread. Silenius ate methodically.
‘For all the world like a mantis,” thought Kerrick as he slid into the firelight and drew up a stool. Heian followed and sat as well, while Falen Whisperrose stood leaning against a nearby stack of masonry, watching the sparks from the desert elves cookfire rise up into the night like fireflies escaping to the plane of smoke.
Heian spoke first. “How did you do it, my friend?” he asked. “By rights, we should have missed the portal. We should be dead in the hells, our life-mana boiling in the viscera of some demon prince.”
Silenius had suffered much from his ordeal. He looked freshly bled, and deep lines had cut channels across his face. His feral eyes had a hunted look, if that were possible – a red-rimmed halo that struck a different sort of fear in the beholder. Clad yet in celestial armor of a surpassing brightness, and with Corellon’s blade still strong on his hip, Silenius nevertheless hunched over as if in pain, shivered slightly in the freshening night breeze.
“I made a bargain,” Silenius said. His voice was raw, and the words arched out like crossbow bolts.
“A bargain??” said Chrono Hale mockingly from the shadows. “Is that how it works? You can violate all the laws of dweomercraft, for a few pieces of silver or a goldsmith’s draft?”
Silenius’ head moved slightly, to take Chrono into his field of vision. He sighed. “You know nothing of my bargains, mageling,” Silenius said slowly. “I traffic with creatures of such power and effect that to know them would render you speechless and prone to night-terrors. Creatures of power you only dream of. Creatures of the planes, for whom the multiverse is their home and hearth.”
“It is with creatures such as these that I make my bargains on our mutual behalf,” Silenius went on. “I have done so many times, and my obligations to them are legion. These obligations will take me a lifetime to fullfill – perhaps even longer. When it became clear that the gate would close and you and the rest had not yet returned, one of these creatures appeared to me and offered a bargain – the power to keep the gate open, in exchange for a like amount of power in return. I accepted its offer, rather than shut the Gate.”
“You lie,” hissed Chrono. “It is not possible.”
“Believe what you will – yet you are here, mageling, instead of rotting in the clutches of some filthy ta’naari,” Silenius said simply. The lingering malice that had previously characterized Silenius words with Chrono was gone now. The comment was flat and matter of fact.
“A ‘like amount of power’,” Heian repeated. “what does that mean?”
“The celestiali lent me the power to hold the Gate until you returned,” Silenius said. “Never have I felt such puissance, such vitality, flowing through me. I thought I might burst asunder like a catapult stone against a cliff.”
“You nearly did,” Falen said. “I stitched you a dozen wounds, and nary a blade came near you. Your eyes shed tears of raw blood.”
“And then when all were through, it severed the flow of power to me, and reversed it. That was my end of the bargain. Lifeforce flowed out of me like water up a typhoon, and that was the last thing I recall. The only thing that comes near the sensation ocurred long ago, when Visat yet walked among us, and we struggled mightily against a wamphyri, a vampire. It lay it hands upon me but a single time, but at the time I thought I might gibber and die on the spot, such was the hazard of its touch. Like… black lightning, up from the ground to steal my life. This was similar, save for the source, the direction of the flow, and the reason why.”
chrono snorted his derision, but said nothing. Silenius continued eating, his hand wielding the spoon with all the pace and unifomity of a metronome.
“How badly are you riven?” asked Heian.
“I have not plumbed the depths of what was taken,” Silenius said as he laid his kit aside and took another long sip of wine, now cooled. “The most powerful magics I once cast, they are lost. I cannot reopen the Gate, even if I wished to. Nor could I call back a stolen Token from a thief.” Silenius drew a long breath, as if the effort of saying the words had winded him. “There are other… gaps. And physically, I am weaker. Incrementally so, but weaker. Beyond that, I know not. The knowledge will doubtless come with time.”