Chapter Thirty-Three: Nootau
Down Among the Dead Men
"Names? You want to give us names yet?" they asked as they licked up Dario's jaw. How glorious the hellion's pit. Gratitude made the moment fuzzy and unclear.
"Yes!" he wailed. "Please. Stop!"
Damn. And they had just really started enjoying themselves.
"There's a-ah! Eli Johnson!" Dario panted between syllables, his breath choppy and short. Sweat beaded on his brow, dripping down to mix with the blood. Another shudder wracked his body. "And Carl White! I have more names, but they're in an address book at home. In a safe!"
"What a good boy." They kissed his forehead. "Anyone else important you want to mention?"
"The main guy doesn't work in the camp. He's from the Menominee."
"What?" Nootau roared. He stood up, kicking Dario away. No.
His broken cry fell on Nootau's deaf ears. Blood pulsed through his veins while rage curled around his chilled heart. The two sensations warred as Nootau tried to come to terms with how someone from his family would sell the walkers.
Who would ever sell out their own? Not his family.
It's all about power, walker. Who has it?
"Who?" Nootau asked, stalking over to Dario and kneeling next him. The asshole had thought he could crawl away while Nootau had gotten distracted. He yanked up on Dario's hair. Shouldn't let that resistance pass, walker.
Pain etched lines into Dario's face. Blood trailed after him. His breath came out choppy.
"Who from the Menominee?"
Dario's harsh breathing stuttered and his puffed up eyes closed.
"Who!" They shook Dario's head.
The broken laughter was unexpected. They stopped their attack and pushed Dario onto his back. The asshole sneered, raspy breathes going in and out as he breathed.
"You know him."
The conviction behind Dario's statement cut them. Cut Nootau.
"That's why—" Dario gasped. "You're so angry. You're Menominee."
They slashed with the dagger. A howl erupted from Dario, but it did little to soothe the storm inside them. They needed more. The blood wasn't enough. They could never be satisfied, not when the blackness could cover every single bit of the world.
"Waban!" Dario shouted as he cradled his side. "His n-name is Waaaa-ban!"
Nootau froze. Of all the people to betray him. "Liar!"
"I swear to the Gods Above and Mother Earth below, the name is Waban."
But why hadn't Waban warned Dario?
The cranky old medicine man knew Nootau had gone looking for answers. He might have left Waban with a few bruises and cuts, but the old man hadn't been hurt enough to not send out any warnings.
Old bastard probably thought you'd never find anything.
Or ran to cover his own hide, walker. Like any of you know what loyalty means.
Slick with blood and sweat, and out-of-breath, Nootau collapsed to his hands and knees. So much weight held him down. He couldn't get enough air. Blackened slime coated all of his spirit. The sludge repulsive and hard to fight.
"Waban played you for a fool, soul stealer."
It took a moment to realize Dario had said that, not them.
"All of you, walkers, idiots." Dario smiled then coughed up some blood. "Every one of you filthy beasts deserves what you get."
They shuffled over to the asshole, breathing just as hard as Dario. Blood for blood.
"Foolish, walker," Dario sang out in a nasally voice and laughed. "Pathetic, walker. Filthy beast of turd. Waban fucked you, sold you, and played you for the fool."
They swung their leg back and brought it back with a satisfying thwack. A wail erupted from Dario. They kicked again and again. Each time more thrilling, more pleasing, just more. They craved more.
Sitting on top of Dario, pinning him down, felt good. The trapped 'rabbit' shivered underneath him.
"Idiot," Dario spat.
"Possibly," they admitted before wiping off the bloody saliva.
"Waban was right to sell you, walkers. Animals, all of you."
They slid the hands over Dario's chest and up to his face.
"I still regret he couldn't get that one out to us." Dario let out a strained laugh, forcing a smile. "What was his name?"
They stroked over Dario's Adam's apple and watched as it bobbed. Their heart pounded with giddy anticipation. To have Dario's frighten body tremble beneath them, and to know it was because of his fear, his rage, against them. And to know he was powerless against them. They had already won.
Dario just didn't know it yet.
Hope still lingered in his gaze. Hope. Such a fragile emotion. A dangerous one. They understood how easily it could break. And more than anything, they wanted to break Dario's. Luckily they knew how.
"Aah," Dario said. "His name was Ahanu. Did you know him?"
The words were a slap in the face, knocking Nootau back.
"Ohh, you did. You knew that worthless piece of walker trash."
Rage, pure and simple fury, lit inside him. And they gloried as the storm inside Nootau rolled over him, thundering and cracking every bit left of him apart. Leaving nothing but a void filled with a deep-seated need for vengeance.
For blood. For death.
They slid their hands around to Dario's collar bones then up against his neck as the dead man spewed hateful remarks, too belligerent to notice death cozying up to him.
* * * * *
Swords clanged together as the opposing forces clashed. The fighting had managed to make in into the underground labs, but not as far as the hospital. Edwige wished she knew how to tell the different forces apart, but they seemed to know. How, she'd have to ask that question later. It was all she could do to keep up with Bernard while staying out of everyone's way.
Hands grabbed at her, tried to pull her back, but Edwige managed to dance and slid out of their holds.
"How much farther?" she yelled.
"If we can get to the elevator, the upper floors should be in lockdown. Shouldn't be anyone there to stop us."
"Are the elevators even moving?"
"Yes!" Bernard grunted, parried a sword then stepped into his attackers personal space and punched the man in the face. A pop was followed by a gush of blood from the man's nose. Their attacker's attention briefly wavered for that fraction of a second, allowing Bernard to slap him across the face, followed with a quick kick to his stomach, and knock him down.
"Why are they moving?" Edwige asked. "Shouldn't they be stopped?"
"Tactical decision, Frau," Bernard shouted over his shoulder. "Anyone with de appropriate badge can go up or down. Problem is, we don't know who is on what side, that means shutting the elevators down makes it longer to get to our people too."
Which meant more injuries, more pain, possibly more death.
"'Sides, most of us 'ave been trained to breached those elevator passages."
"So not much of a point in stopping them then?"
"Got it in one, Frau."
Edwige nodded and side-stepped to her left, avoiding a grabby hand. Bernard struck at the arm attached to said grabby hand with his dagger, hitting true. The person howled and drew back. They pushed through a knot of knights, bursting in front of the elevators. Bernard laughed and pushed the button.
"Keep them off us!" he yelled back to the knot, getting a roar of affirmatives. He sheathed his sword and dagger.
"Now let's hope the wrong people don' join us."
"Yes." Preferably no one.
The door chimed open. Empty. A rush of relief overwhelmed Edwige but they rushed forward. Bernard jabbed the button for the main floor. She only had a moment to collect herself before the elevator jerked and brought them to the main castle.
The stillness in the halls befuddled Edwige.
"We were fighting for our lives twenty seconds ago."
Bernard nodded. "Ja, Frau."
"This is... " Edwige didn't have the words for it.
"Yes," she replied as they walked through the castle.
A few people glanced in their direction but no one seemed particularly alarmed. They should be alarmed. Didn't they understand what was happening? Edwige observed the different humans and Beings as they walked by, noticing how she caught the corner of their eyes. Awareness of an underlying tension in those looks trickled in.
Alarm wasn't the right word. No. Interest, maybe. But why interest? Confusion must have shown on Edwige's face because Bernard spoke up.
Edwige glanced up. "For what?"
"To see which side wins, Frau."
Gods Above. Her heart clenched. How... cold. Much like the gray stone surrounding them. Did the people who work here forget the warmth thus making them forget their humanity? Edwige was beginning to suspect so.
"Come. We have to find your third." Bernard led them toward the hall leading to the Aerospace labs.
When they arrived in the hall there was a small commotion by a stairwell. A heavy metal door stood open. Medics were carrying out an unconscious naked man with a white sheet draped over him precariously on a stretcher while several knights were stationed at the door. Bernard dropped a hand to his dagger before calling out to them.
"Was ist passiert?"
The knights looked up, their hands dropping to their swords.
A beautiful dryad replied, "Wir wissen es nicht. Jenson hörte etwas Stöhnen und kam zur Untersuchung. Er fand Sigmund so..."
A few curious glances went beyond Bernard to Edwige. She couldn't tell if that meant they were involved or not. Bernard still had his hand on the pommel of his dagger.
"Ist er verletzt?" Bernard said as the medics passed by them.
A red stain on the sheet caught Edwige's attention. But more than that, she felt something she wished she hadn't. "Stop!"
They did so immediately. Whether from shock or because the medics understood her, she didn't know. Edwige reached out with a shaky hand and pulled the sheet up. No one made a move to stop her so she figured that meant the other knights weren't actively working against them.
What she saw nearly broke Edwige's heart. She swallowed back the cry she wanted to let out. Forced herself to really look. A huge section of skin had been cut from the man's hip area. Not done neatly either. The jagged wound bleed while the sides had clots building up.
"Oh no." Edwige slid her pack off her shoulders and yanked it open. A few bottles clanked hard together as she searched for the draft she put together for such an occasion.
"What's wrong, Frau?" Bernard put a hand to her back. "The medics can—"
"Nootau," she forced out. Where was the damn jar? "This was him."
A pause followed before Bernard said, "You sure, Frau?"
"Yes!" she yelled, barely holding in a sob. A tear fell. The jar! Another tear streaked down her cheek. She pulled it out but couldn't get the top off the salve. "This will help the injury."
A large, warm hand wrapped around hers. Bernard spoke softly as he took the jar from her. "Lemme, Frau. I can do it. Don' you worry."
Edwige let the bottle go as another sob threatened to break loose. She pushed it back, helping the medics get the man onto the floor. Bernard twisted off the top with a pop. Minty tones immediately sprung up and infused the air. She dipped her fingers in, took a liberal amount of the salve, and knelt down.
A moan escaped the man, which was quickly followed by a tremor.
"Oooh, Nootau, what did you do?" she whispered. Those tears kept coming. For the man in front of her, for her third.
"You okay, Frau?"
"Yeah, just... yeah." Edwige took a breath then began to pull from the dark spaces, rhythmically chanting a quick spell as she smoothed the salve over the wound. A flare of light filled the spaces, the salve turned from a bloodied-green to a purple. The darkness around the wound lessened.
"Neat trick," one of the medics mumbled.
"After... after another incident I've been trying to find a treatment," Edwige answered, her voice shaky. The tears just wouldn't stop! "This is as close as I've been able to get. The wound should be easier to treat now. You'll need a Healer."
Bernard pulled her close, giving her shoulders a rub. "You think he has Dario already?"
"Then we better get a move on, Frau."
Edwige murmured an acknowledgement as Bernard helped her get her pack together. The medics lifted the wounded man and ran down the hall into the castle.
"I hope the fighting has let up," she said.
Bernard's gaze went over hers and to the doors. "Most of it has. The halls weren't as crowded as when we went down."
"Who's winning?" Because someone always did, even when everybody lost.
Bernard turned to the knights at the door. "You!"
They snapped to attention. "Check the lab for Dario Fassnacht."
One took off down the hall at a dead run. The others waited expectantly. Seemed they had some new allies.
Bernard turned to Edwige. "Can you keep going?"
Edwige shouldered her pack and they began their way down the hall. The other knights fell into step behind them. The fear Edwige had been trying to keep at bay settled in her stomach. They were all after Nootau. With his attack on one of their men, how would they retaliate?
The door at the end of the hall opened, the knight yelled out, "Dario ist nicht hier. Sie sagen, Sigmund hat ihn zu Dr. Bellamy gebracht."
"What was that?" Edwige asked.
Bernard frowned. "Looks like we're taking another trip down below."
"That doesn't sound good."
"I don' know what Dr. Bellamy has in connection with Dario, but if he does, it's no' good, Frau." Bernard glanced over at the other knights. "Die Hälfte von Ihnen kommt zu Bellamys Büro. Der Rest von euch wird mir helfen, ein Zimmer für Zimmer suchen. Nimm den walker lebendig, wenn du kannst. Er könnte wie Sigmund aussehen. Er könnte ein Algonquin sein."
The men and women stiffened and looked at Edwige. Dread pooled with the fear in her stomach. Their eyes had lit with an anger she'd seen a few times. None of them ended well. The knights nodded then followed Edwige and Bernard to the elevator by the lab. Gods. That couldn't be good. All of them crowded in, making the space feel more like a coffin then a mode of transportation. Edwige certainly hoped they weren't about to walk into more fighting.
When the door binged open again, they were met with an empty corridor.
"Thank the Gods," Edwige mumbled, getting a few agreements from the knights.
Two paired off and took the hall at a jog.
"Where—" began Edwige, but Bernard cut her off.
Gods Above and Mother Earth Below, please let Nootau not be there.
The two remaining knights stayed three steps behind them. Edwige tried to not think about them and concentrated on what she felt. The dark spaces pulled her forward. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Excitement. A vast emptiness where Nootau should be. The traces of energy thrummed against her. She followed the void. Edwige's heart hammered expectantly.
Please. Not now. She couldn't lose Nootau after everything they'd been through.
Edwige stopped in front of a plain door. A sign next to it read "Konferenzraum 1."
"What is it?"
"A conference room."
"Okay." Bernard moved him and Edwige to the sides of the door, a knight behind each of them. All of them had their swords out. The two men didn't hold them as comfortably as Bernard did and Edwige wondered what that meant.
A muffled sound like a shout made its way through the door.
Bernard threw open the door and stepped through. The muffled noise became cries, a man's cries. Edwige sped into the room. A horrific scene before her took a minute to process. The blood. The mangled man before her. He'd been Dario once, but no light shone from his eyes any more. The man was dead, dead, dead. Cuts criss-crossed his skin. Ears gone. Half his fingers gone. His lips flapped a little too easily. Bruises adorned his neck and burst veins covered his face.
Vomiting nearly happened. Edwige hunched over, slapped a hand to her mouth, and did her best to not toss her cookies. Gods. Dario certainly hadn't had an easy death.
The two knights rushed into the room, immediately veering to Dario and Edwige. She waved off the help and turned her attention to Nootau and Bernard. The knights hovered over their dead comrade, talking in hushed german. Both of them angled toward The standoff by the conference table.
Bernard had his sword up and dagger out. "Put the weapon down."
Blood covered Nootau. Dario's blood. Maybe some of his own. He didn't look like himself. Well, he looked like the guard from the hall upstairs, but his eyes. Nootau's beautiful soul wasn't in them. Not like the when he'd been the Firedrake. Or even when he'd skin-shared with the other guard. Edwige been able to see, to feel Nootau inside.
Now there was nothing. A void.
Please let there be something. She had to get closer.
"I say again, put the—"
Nootau lunged forward with a yell. Dagger first.
Bernard parried the blow easy, knocking Nootau on the back with the flat of his sword. Nootau stumbled forward but quickly got his feet under him. They circled each other, both men looking deadly.
"Nootau, please," Edwige said, moving closer to the pair.
Bernard waved her back. "Edwige no!"
Nootau stilled. His foreign body rigid and tense. Edwige willed him to look back, to see her, but he didn't turn around. The standstill between him and Bernard continued. A step to the left. A couple to the right. Both men swaying. Each of them armed. Testing. A step forward. One in retreat.
The other knights stood guard at the opposite end of the conference table. Both of them had their weapons out. Ready and waiting. Their scowls said what they'd do to Nootau if he went in their direction.
There had to be a way to stop the fight. Somehow. The man before Edwige might not look like Nootau, or even be acting like him, and she may not be able to feel Nootau, but she wouldn't give up. Couldn't. Maybe if she was a little bit closer. She took another step.
Bernard scowled and gave a barely perceptible shake of the head. He had managed to get Nootau in a bad spot. Stuck between the conference table and the wall. He could run around the table and run into the other knights, or he would have to face Bernard. Nootau had no place to run. The tension his shoulders, the way he held himself in a defensive crouch, indicated he knew it too.
"Nootau, please," Edwige called out. "Please, put the dagger down."
There was a split second where Nootau's arm lowered, like he was actually considering it. But then he did the unexpected. Nootau jumped onto the table and slid across, right into Edwige. He tumbled down on top of her.
The sane thing to do was to push him off. Sane being the key word. What Edwige did know is she loved. And her love was all she had to fight with. So instead of pushing away, Edwige held on.
"Please," she said, pressing her mouth against his ear. "Please."
Nootau stiffened, his body stilling.
Edwige took it on faith he wouldn't hurt her. Seemed she was right. She pressed through the dark spaces. Hoping. Searching. Pleading for some kind of spark that said "This is Nootau!" The void felt endless. Thorny. Angry. On Edwige pushed, ignoring the shouts from the panicking knights. Tuning out the footsteps. The hard industrial carpet pressed against her back. Nootau pressed against her front. Trapped. Edwige was trapped between them.
"Nootau," she said, releasing a shuddering breath.
Love. She had to love. Now wasn't a time to be scared. Edwige pushed all the love she had for Nootau into the dark spaces between them, filling the void.
A gasp escaped him, and he started jerking violently. Curses fell from Nootau's mouth.
Voices rose around them.
Edwige held on tighter. Pushing. Fighting. Searching for the spark she recognized as Nootau.
Shadow fell over them.
"I love you, Nootau."
A shout came from him, louder this time. Nootau convulsed. His movements made it hard to hold onto him but she did. Edwige wouldn't let go. Never. She would never leave Nootau alone. Because it was the thing he feared the most.
"I love you," Edwige said again.
The scream from Nootau was painful. It hurt her heart to feel him so confused, so angry, so wounded. But in the swirling mist of misery and confusion a spark lit. A small one. Tired and faded. Pulsing with languid beats. But it was there, huddled in the dark, lost and confused. Her love.
"Oh, Nootau." The relief of finding him again nearly drowned her. Edwige pushed her love around the spark, gathering it close, feeding it her warmth.
A voice broke through the space. Harsh and filled with fury. "Was macht Sie?"
"Versuche, ihn zu retten," Bernard responded. The shadows got closer.
"Das ist ein Spiel zu verlieren."
"Könnte sein. Vielleicht nicht für Edwige," Bernard replied. Too almost anyone, it sounded like his normal drawl. But to Edwige it was a warning.
Edwige cried out as she yanked the spark against her. She poured everything she ever felt for Nootau into it. Her love. Her frustration. The way he made her smile. How he could make her laugh. Her tears. Her will for him to live.
"Edwige! It's too much!" Bernard shouted.
"Not yet!" she yelled back, holding onto Nootau. He shouted, kicked, and jerked against her, connecting more than once with a blow.
"Edwige! You'll burn up!" Bernard circled into her view, putting himself between her and the other knights.
Not good. "Not yet!"
The spark pulsed with energy then for a fraction of a second burned brighter than the sun and stars.
Edwige cried out—victorious, and in pain. Her distraction cost her. Nootau managed to push away from her. She panted hard, deep breaths. Nootau. She needed to get to Nootau. Edwige pushed up onto her knees, trying to track her wayward lover.
Crushing frustration welled up inside her as she found him facing Bernard, dagger still in hand. But, and there was a but, his stance was no longer so sure, so petulant or so defiant. He rocked back and forth, a twitch in his hands.
"Don't hurt him!" Edwige yelled.
The two men jumped, turning toward her. Edwige used the table to help pull herself up. The void was gone. Yes, blackness swirled around Nootau, but he was not lost. Not to Edwige.
"Nootau, the dagger," she said, taking a step forward.
Confusion swirled beneath the surface of his eyes. He glanced down at the dagger, looked back up at her, then took a step forward.
The knights yelled, charging forward. Edwige's worst nightmare happening before her eyes. Bernard swung around, blocking one knight with his sword and tripping up the other. He still managed to get a good swing in, catching Nootau. Scarlet rose from his skin, followed by a roar as a dagger punch through his abdomen. Nootau rabbit punched the knight, knocking him down then backpedaled toward Edwige. He swung around, his eyes dark and scared. Recognition wasn't there. Nootau didn't see her. He lunged, striking out.
"Aah!" Fire ignited across Edwige's chest. Red hot. Matching the color bleeding through her orange blouse. Her head buzzed. Her fingers were wet. Canvased in blood. "Ah! Ah. Aaah."
"Edwige!" Bernard tossed back the knight, yelling at him,. He grabbed the other trying to get to his feet and tossed him toward the other. "Steh auf!"
The knights didn't try pressing forward again.
Nootau stood in front of her with a slack jaw and open mouth. Tears streamed down his face. His shoulders jerked to and fro. His hands too. Then he took a step back, shaking his head. The dagger still buried inside him. Then another step. He mouth worked but no sound came out. Nootau yanked at the dagger stuck in his gut, a sick "pop" as he managed to get it out.
"It's okay," Edwige said, her voice tranquil and calm despite the circumstances. "It's okay, you didn't mean to."
A high-pitched cry erupted from Nootau. He used his free hand and pulled at the pants he wore.
He's trying to get them off. Which meant he was going to try and remove the skin-share. The jerky movements. The roar of frustration. Those meant bad things too. But not in the same way as before. They were bad for Nootau.
He's going to do it wrong. Again.
His dagger went up the moment he got the fly open and pants pushed down.
"No!" Edwige reached out, but stumbled, falling to her knees.
The unmistakable sound of flesh being ripped by metal filled the room. A cry of pain pierced her heart. Agony, pure and simple. No pain in the world could compare at that moment. Nootau's cries were of a wounded soul in the deepest pit of despair.
"It's okay," she said, hiccuping. Exhausted and scared. The tears still fell, though. She could see parts of her lover coming back to her.
Colors. Shapes. Skin. Eyes. All of them changed as his body fought with itself. Desperate to change, but the skin-share hadn't gotten fully removed.
"You're going to be okay," Edwige repeated.
Nootau dove toward her. Edwige opened her arms, only to cry out when he pulled up and swung around. He charged Bernard, catching him off guard. Dagger clanged against sword as Bernard barely had time to defend himself. Nootau howled, advancing with every furious cut.
On the defensive, Bernard parried and thrust. Some of those moves cutting Nootau. But they did not slow him. In fact, he pressed harder. One swing from Bernard's dagger caught Nootau in the chest.
"No!" Edwige cried out. She reached, pushed herself up, and stumbled forward. "Stop!"
The slurpy thwack of the dagger coming out of Nootau chilled her to the bone. Not because of the blood sprayed, red blood staining Nootau. But because of the joyous laughter that followed. Nootau's laughter.
It made both Bernard and Edwige stop.
Nootau dropped to his knees, one hand still raised with the dagger. He looked up at Bernard and let out a raspy breath. "Kill me."
Bernard didn't respond. Had Nootau said what Edwige thought he said?
"Kill me, please," Nootau said again. Another wheezy breath followed. Half his head had long black hair, the part fighting as blond changed to black back to blond again. His left hand was no longer white but his beautiful deep bronze skin.
"No!" Edwige shouted.
Bernard's focus drifted from Nootau to her. A troubled expression wore deep into his face.
"Don't do it," she begged as Nootau laughed again.
He swiped at Bernard with his dagger. "Kill me! Kill me! Flame burns my soul. Kill me!"
"No!" Edwige screamed.
"I can't." Nootau coughed, blood splattered across Bernard's pants. He clawed at the skin, tearing at it. "I can't. Kill me. Please."
"Cut the skin-share! It's him! He's fought it!" Edwige demanded and took another step closer to her love. She used the table to help push her along. Droplets of red pitter-pattered against the wood. "Cut the skin-share!"
"Kill me! Please!" Nootau's voice broke as he begged. His head fell forward. His body swayed. One hand pulled at the skin share, ripping more of it away from his hip. "Kill me. I'm a dead man anyway."
Bernard's dagger rose above his head. The silver metal glinted in the shine of the office lights. And then it came down.
Edwige leaped toward Nootau. "Stop!"