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The Will of the Many: Part 3 – Chapter 73


The world feels like it’s on fire; the first thing I do is vomit up water, twisting and coughing and hacking my lungs onto the pebbles around me. My vision clears. It’s night. Moonlight gleams silver off the river, which flows all around me, numbing. I drag myself higher onto the stony beach using my good arm; the other one moves when I command it to, but with significant accompanying pain. There’s blood dribbling off my forearm from small puncture wounds. Blood still leaking from my stomach, red wafting away from my tunic and mingling with the clear water until it dissipates.

My fist is clenched, locked painfully tight. I force my fingers to unfurl.

The Heart of Jovan glitters in my palm. Cold comfort.

There’s movement up the bank. A mass of matted fur, eyes glinting as they watch me.

“Diago?” I croak the name. The massive alupi shifts, continues to stare.

I crawl a little farther, wheezing. Dizzy. Some part of me recognises that the marks on my arm are from Diago’s teeth. He dragged me from the river. Saved my life. I reach out toward him. He growls.

“Same to you,” I mutter wearily, letting my hand fall.

There’s no part of my body that doesn’t ache. No part that doesn’t feel like it’s been broken. That seems only right, though. I should be dead. Perhaps someone imbuing themselves could have survived that fall—a Sextus, maybe even a Septimus. But not me. Especially not in the physical state I was already in.

I lie on my back. The stars are bright tonight. My fingers reluctantly make their way to my stomach. Probe gently, waiting for the accompanying rush of pain, the feel of torn flesh, the gushing of sticky blood.

There’s tenderness—but not as much as I expect. I lever myself up on an elbow, gently pull back my shredded tunic.

The puncture in my stomach is there, washed clean by the flowing water. It’s still seeping blood, but it’s a trickle. No worse than my arm. And the wound looks smaller than it should be. Shallower.

I gain enough courage to press a little harder; immediately a pulse of blood slips out and I stop quickly, grimacing. Not miraculously healed, then. Just not as bad as I thought. It was, admittedly, a very small dagger.

It just felt a lot worse, buried in me and pushing me off the tower.

Emissa tried to kill me.

The nauseating memory worms its way through everything else. I can’t understand it. The thought robs me of energy, of any desire I might have to get up off the ground. She was upset about it, but she did it. All for… what? To win the Iudicium? Surely not. I’d already given her the Heart. And I know her better than that.

Or, I thought I did. A wave of bitterness threatens to overcome me.

My satchel’s still tied to my back; with an effort I unsling it and paw through its sodden contents until I find the tracking plate. Most of the stones are gone. The ones from Emissa’s team remain, though, which allows me to estimate how far east I’ve been washed. Several miles, I think. That’s good. Useful.

I realise the marker for the Heart is missing as well. Another examination of the Heart itself reveals no damage, nothing that might have deformed it enough to cause the imbuing to fail. Strange. I shiver as I remember the way it flew into my hand. I was flailing, reaching for anything that might stop me from falling, and it just… came.

My ability to sense other people without seeing them, and now this. My skin crawls. Something’s wrong with me. A result of whatever that place past the Labyrinth did to me last night, I assume. It’s the only explanation.

Sick though the thought makes me, at least whatever imbuing was on the Heart seems to have been lost, so I can hold on to it without being tracked. I push my other concerns to the side, touching the black half-stone that shows my medallion. It hasn’t moved from where it was when I last checked. Hasn’t fallen off. And judging from the moon, much of the night has passed.

Urgency lends sudden energy to my limbs.

The aches persist but once I’m on my feet, I’m surprised by my body’s ability to resist collapsing again. My left arm goes numb with pain if I do more than let it dangle limply by my side, but everything else seems simply sore. Tender, but not incapacitated. The more I move, tentatively stretching out, the more I’m convinced that everything is badly bruised rather than broken.

I wring out the worst of the water from my clothes, head clearing enough to assess. Callidus is probably a half-day away, maybe more; even a small delay for Aequa would mean she hasn’t been able to get to him yet. But it’s equally possible that she did what I told her to do. Value her life. Run in a different direction, if the need arose.

I fish some sodden meat from my satchel and chew grimly for a few minutes, aware that starting off without gathering at least some strength would be foolish. I toss a small piece to Diago, who’s still lying by the river. He ignores it. I glare at him. He ignores me.

Finally, just as dawn is colouring the sky, I reach the point where I know I have to move. Far from rested, but beginning to stiffen up. Too in danger of falling asleep.

So I start toward Callidus.

The day passes, my movements sluggish, progress far slower than I’d like despite my determination to press forward. Diago disappears into the undergrowth; occasionally I see him flitting through the trees, but otherwise he keeps to himself. I don’t mind. Partly because the creature still makes me uneasy, and partly because I think he might be scouting ahead. Making sure my path is safe.

My half-stone on the tracking plate never moves.

The sun’s burning near its zenith by the time I get close enough to start the awkward climb to Callidus’s elevated position. It’s a smart spot, with a view for miles to the north. My disquiet grows. He should already have spotted my approach. And Callidus would be quick to show himself, to come and help, once he saw my sorry state.

But there’s nothing. Just birdcalls and snapping twigs and the rustle of the breeze through leaves.

My legs ache, my eyes strain, and my left, blackened arm is worryingly unresponsive as I haul myself higher.

Up ahead, there’s a scream.

I break into as much of a sprint as my body can manage, tearing through branches and bursting into a clearing. My heart stops. Two men lie at the far end, and even from this distance I can see red glistening on their tunics.

Both lie motionless. One of them is Callidus.

“Vek!” The word rips from my throat. I dart over, skidding to my knees beside my friend.

Callidus is on his side; the other man is staring sightlessly at the sky, throat torn clean out. I gently roll Callidus over, groaning as I see the wicked cuts across his chest and stomach and arms. He’s lost a lot of blood.

I start as he suddenly gives a rasping, sputtering cough.

“Callidus.” I tear a strip from my tunic, begin binding the wounds as best I can while cushioning his head with a hand. “Callidus. Wake up.”

Callidus stirs. Moans. His eyes flutter open. “Vis?”

“Stay still. You’re injured.”

“Really?” Callidus gives another cough, then a strange, uneasy wheeze. “But I feel so good.”

“Maybe I’ll just leave you here, then.” I smile, though I doubt it’s doing anything to hide my concern. There’s blood everywhere. “Don’t worry. I can get you back.”

Callidus eyes me. “Are you sure you don’t need me to get you back?” He coughs again. There’s a fleck of blood at the corner of his mouth. “Gods’ graves, man. You look terrible.”

I bark a laugh that’s half choked with fear. “I’ll manage. Just need to tie up these gashes a bit better.” I tear another strip. “What happened?” I don’t really need to know, but it’s the only thing I can think of to keep him talking. To keep him with me.

“Not sure. Minding my own business, and then… this.” He turns his head weakly to look across at the dead man. “He was angry. Kept saying he’d been left behind. Was talking about how he was going to take his time with me. Charming fellow. Must have had me for an hour, at least, before that alupi came and ripped out his throat.” He wheezes. “Good times.”

“He was Anguis. They assassinated the safety teams, got their tracking plates. Tried to kill all of us.”

“I… wondered. Aequa?”

“I don’t know.” She must have been forced away from here. I shouldn’t have told her not to risk it. “A lot of the Fourths didn’t make it. And Sianus.”

“Rotting gods.”

“See? Things aren’t so bad for us.”

“I feel so lucky.”

“Exactly. Now hold on. I’m going to pick you up. This… will probably hurt.”

I try to lift him as carefully as I can, but my left arm’s excruciating and all but useless; I’m hardly able to carry him at all, let alone smoothly. Callidus lets out an agonised moan as I awkwardly cradle him.

“Didn’t… hurt… at all,” he gasps.

I start walking.

“You… should take this.”

I seriously consider throwing away the white medallion he’s offering me, but it sounds like the attacker Diago killed was the last one. If it wasn’t so important—if it didn’t, perhaps, mean all the difference for me—I’d do it without a second’s thought, and to rot with the Iudicium. But I need it. I still, after all this blood and pain, need to win. So I take it awkwardly and drop it in my pocket.

“Vis?” Callidus sounds sleepy.

“Stay awake, Callidus.”

“You’ll tell my father?”

“Tell him what?”

“Why I was in Seven.” He gives a little sigh. “You don’t have to mention Belli. Better to say you don’t know who it was. But I… I really want him to know.”

I don’t tell him that Belli’s dead. I’m not even sure how much it would register.

“I’ll tell him.” The lump in my throat hurts. I don’t know what else to say.

We stumble on for a while. I do my best to talk, though I need every breath to keep going. I make jokes. Complain about how heavy he is. Tell him how jealous he’s going to be when we’re both in the Senate, and I’m explaining to everyone how I single-handedly saved him. Callidus is silent for the most part, just speaking enough to indicate he’s still with me.

At one point, I’m babbling about the time of year, and something occurs to me. “What’s the date today?”

“I… don’t know. Seventh… day… of Jovanius?”

I give a single, helpless laugh. That’s what I thought.

“What… is it?”

I plod on. “Nothing. Just funny how quickly time goes.”

I remembered it once or twice, in the lead-up to the Iudicium, but this is the first time it’s struck me since then.

Today is my eighteenth birthday.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT TIME Callidus dies.

He slips first into a rasping unconsciousness, perhaps an hour after we start out. I try to wake him, but it’s to no avail. I know that if I stop, I won’t be able to go on again. So I keep moving. Keep carrying him. Still talk, now and then, even though I know he can’t hear me. Encourage him. Exhort him. Demand he stay alive.

It’s only when I’m excitedly relaying the fact that I can see the Academy up ahead that I realise there’s no rise and fall to his chest. I push on, even as my vision starts blurring. I don’t know what else to do.

The guards at the entrance see me coming up the path from a distance away, rush to help. I snarl at them. Shrug off their hands. Keep walking. They look at each other, then follow without a word.

I don’t see anyone else until I reach the quadrum. The sun is beginning to dip in the west. This is the last hour of the Iudicium, I realise vaguely. A half hour later, and all of this would have been even more pointless than it already is.

Veridius is at the top of the stairs to the Temple of Jovan. He’s addressing the school. Talking about the attack. The tragedy of it. The losses. Emissa’s up there next to him, face drawn, eyes red. So is Indol. Iro. Aequa. A few other Fourths. Not as many as I would have hoped.

Veridius stutters to a halt as he spots me staggering into view.

There’s a hushed murmur, a rippling of movement as faces turn toward me. I stumble forward. The crowd parts. Silent. Their faces are white. Horrified. I don’t know whether they’re looking at me or the body in my arms. I don’t care.

I lay Callidus gently on the stone at Veridius’s feet. Meet his gaze, then Emissa’s stunned, horrified one. Put all my venom into my voice, keeping it low so that only they two can hear. Blood coats every part of my skin. I must look a nightmare made flesh.

“I’m going to make sure you burn for this.”

As the last light of afternoon fades from the quadrum, with the last of my strength, I slam the golden pyramid into place on Jovan’s chest.

And then, my task complete, I collapse to the stone and embrace the escape of oblivion.


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