Chapter Twenty-Two: Nootau
A Dark Place
It took all his energy to stand upright. A slime covered him head to toe. Not literally, no, but spiritually a darkness covered him, sapped Nootau of all his strength. Each step forward took an almost insurmountable effort.
"Nootau?" Edwige peered up at him. "Everything all right?"
Gods above and Mother Earth below he wanted to throw up. Some other man's voice came out of him. It wasn't right. Not at all. He hadn't wanted to do this. Never wanted to experience this kind of darkness, but it had been their only way in the lab. They were so close to figuring out who was killing and trading walkers he couldn't say no when Mal suggested it.
Poor bastard didn't know what he had asked for.
Not that Nootau would ever say what the transformation cost him. Mal didn't need or deserve that kind of guilt. Nootau had made his choice to spirit share unwilling with a human—right after forcing a dragon to do the same. Two wrongs did not make a right.
The Firedrake and him found a balance, and she had given her forgiveness. Humans and Beings didn't work the way beasts did, though.
The human spirit clawed and fought his, railing against the injustice.
Nootau hunched over, slapping a hand over his mouth.
"Are you going to be sick?" Edwige still hovered close by. She really didn't know when to quit.
But Nootau couldn't stand to see her worried. "It's nothing. Just weird to feel and hear someone else coming from me."
She nodded, patted his arm, and moved toward the desk on their left.
"Just give me a few more minutes and I'll be right as the Rain God."
Edwige smiled. He liked that smile. It was good on her and he made her frown too often.
"Why don't you take that row of lab benches while I take this one?"
She hesitated, just a fraction, before nodding. "Okay."
"What was the name again?"
"The others?" They had all moved past him when they entered the lab. Nootau blinked and tried to look around, but blackness closed in on his vision.
"Checking the back—are you sure you're okay?"
"Fine. Let's get this done."
He turned down his row, checking the name plates on the cabinets overhead as he walked. Maybe they would get lucky and just find something laying out. Ha! Most likely they managed to get all the way into the Dragon Aerospace Research Centre Labs for everything to go tits up. Nootau chuckled sadly. Ever since he stopped by Camp Stone his life had taken a turn from bad to worse to life preciously hanging in the balance. Unlike Ahanu he still breathed--Gods above.
A sharp pang wrapped around his heart. When had Nootau last thought of his friend? This whole damn trip had been for Ahanu—to bring his spirit to rest. To save the others for him. Nootau... well, he had simply forgotten. How awful did he have to be to forget the most important person in his life?
The pain drilled into his heart, splitting it wide open. Sharp jabs of pain piercing through him.
Ahanu would've never hurt me.
Nootau shuddered. I know.
Such a gentle soul. Always covering for you. You and your mistakes.
A chill swept through Nootau making him shake. But the sharp twist in his heart set fire inside his hallow husk.
Ahanu... your dear Ahanu. Why was he sent to the camp? For whom?
"Fuck," Nootau rasped out, grabbing at his chest. He blinked down at the white hand and wondered how it had gotten there.
Because of you. To protect you. You bad, bad walker.
Nootau sank to his knees. One hand on the lab bench. The cool, black counter felt warm against his ice-cold fingers. A wind blew through him, but that... that just wasn't possible. The howl picked up, beating against his ears. The world raged at him. His faults. The tar clung to his spirit, pulsing like a sick beat against him, trying to crush Nootau.
"I think I found something!"
A voice. A familiar one.
Something. Nootau concentrated on the excited voices filling the erstwhile quiet lab. The pull down seemed so much easier than the fight to get back up. It called to him, sang to him in sickly sweet tones, promising oblivion if he wanted it.
And I do. Weary to his marrow, Nootau wanted to lie down, close his eyes, and just stop. If only he could--
"It's a Dario! I found him! It's him!"
More exuberant voices followed.
Dario. The man who ordered walker parts. The man responsible for trafficking and killing his people. This lab. This sanctuary of research soaked in the blood of his people. Lead Ahanu to his death.
Pain welled up and left Nootau in a broken sob.
The dead would have to wait for him.
With a nearly insurmountable fight up, Nootau somehow managed to pull himself in an upright position. He wobbled, but with a hand out to steady him, Nootau put one foot in front of the other. The worn tile told a tale of long hours. Of scientists and employees pacing and standing. Had they used his people to get their results?
Did they think they were using the walkers for the greater good? Did they care? Or did the walkers not even register to them as something more than a scary tale to tell children?
Walking hurt. He hurt. The flesh on Nootau crawled. He wanted the skin off. But first, he had to get to the others.
Each step took more concentration than Nootau felt comfortable about. It shouldn't be this hard. He should be able to move easily, freely. But the slime pulled at his feet. Clung to his arms. The darkness did its best to swallow him with each step.
He would see Ahanu's wish through.
Would he be able to make it back to the rest of the party? The sound of drawers being wrenched open, the flit of papers, met his ears.
If he could make ten steps, then twenty, Nootau might be able to pull this off.
The tug against his legs only got harder to fight. Each time his boot slapped against the tile a thud shook him—like a wolf trapped in a tar pit. He would only ever be dragged down the more he fought.
And like the wolf, he would alway fight.
After thirty steps Nootau found himself back out in the main lab area. "Thank the Gods above and Mother Earth below."
"Edwige." He gasped her name. His lovely girl. She ran to him, calling out. Those eyes were so big, so wet. He could drown in them.
But Nootau was already drowning.
"Nootau!" Her cry was sharp, like the howl of the coyote in the woods. A wounded coyote.
The weight became unbearable. Nootau sank to his knees, like the dog he was. Cold tile met his hands. He tried to brace himself, to stay upright. But he sank. A rock would never stay afloat, for it felt nothing, cared for nothing.
Soft arms wrapped around him. Warmth pressed against his face.
"No! No!" Edwige cried.
A tug briefly parted them. It tore through Nootau, like claws digging under his skin and tearing off pieces of his soul.
"Is he sick?"
"Are the wounds bleeding through?"
"Air! Back up!" Edwige ordered the voices. "I don't know! I can't tell. I... Aegeus. I don't know what to do."
Nootau gasped. The air burned, smothered him. Like the tar filled his lungs, drowning him.
"Shhh. Don't. Please, Nootau."
"Did we find anything?"
A hitch in her breath gave the answer away.
"Anything at all."
"Nothing definite," she whispered. "Just notes. Some files. The computer is locked."
"Fuck." Tears trailed down his face. So close. They had gotten so close.
"But! We found he signed for the package—" Kaden's face came into view. "From All the Bits & Pieces. That's something. And! And we found receipts from a place he likes to order. Maybe we can find him that way."
It wasn't much. Could it be enough? "Nothing to tie the walkers to Mal's project? Have we found anything on their connection?"
"Some notebooks we don't understand, but not much else." Edwige settled Nootau against her. "But we don't know if they have anything about the walker connection."
"So we came here for nothing?"
Less than nothing. All this way. Across an ocean. Into a castle. All of it a complete waste of time.
"Noooo," Edwige insisted. Her arms tightened around him. "Now, Nootau, I need you to concentrate. Explain what's wrong. How can I fix you?"
Didn't Edwige sound determined? Nootau chuckled. There was no fixing him. Not now. He'd sullied himself beyond reproach. Nootau felt it. No way would he allow his blackened spirit touch hers. She glowed with goodness. So bright. So hard. Edwige cared so much. Too much for her own good.
"No," he rasped out and pushed away from his girl, falling into darkness.
* * * * *
Edwige fell back, caught off guard by the strength behind Nootau's push. "Ah!"
Nootau had stood, but twirled around at her cry. Strange, hollow blue eyes that did not belong to him stared down at her while he struggled for breath.
A sharp twinge went up through her arm from her elbow, right where it connected with the tile. The pain flared, red and hot—angry, much like her. The dumbass didn't know what was good for him. Nootau would put himself on his deathbed before they were through with this hunt.
The thought sent a chill through Edwige. He really isn't trying to kill himself, is he?
"My love?" Aegeus strong hands wrapped around her shoulders. "Are you hurt?"
No. Edwige wouldn't allow herself to think such depressing thoughts. The bastard was too much of a stubborn ass to just give up.
But... And there was a "but" in her mind.
Aegeus squeezed the shoulder of the good arm, and leaned into her. "Edwige?"
"I'm fine." She snapped before pushing back against Aegeus. "Help me up. Nootau is not."
With a careful hand, Aegeus did as asked and tucked her against him immediately, one arm protectively around her waist. Edwige sighed and leaned into him for a moment. She always felt safe in his arms. No one would ever be able to hurt her as long as Aegeus was by her side. At least not physically. Her heart was another matter.
Edwige gave Aegeus' muscled forearm a squeeze, and he loosened his hold. Another pat got him to let go completely, though she could tell it took some effort on his part. The reluctance of his fingers to part from her spoke volumes, as did his ever watchful gaze on Nootau.
It wasn't hard to know what was going through his head. She knew he cared for Nootau, that hope had been planted, but his heart was not as easily vested as hers. Not because he didn't care, quite the opposite. No matter how many times they'd been down the path to find their third, she couldn't close herself off. It wasn't in Edwige to do such a thing. Her poor Aegeus, unfortunately, guarded his heart, and Edwige, with more ferocity each time.
"He's in pain," She whispered.
Aegeus' turbulent gaze faltered as he watched Nootau. Their lover had dropped back to his knees, back bowed and arms behind him for support. He was gasping for air. Nootau's head had fallen too, his face turned toward the ceiling. His back arched as he spasmed. The position allowed him to stay upright but Edwige didn't doubt he'd soon collapse to the floor.
Ever so carefully, Edwige stepped away from Aegeus. He didn't stop her, but one hand lifted so she knew he wanted to.
Aegeus' took a deep breath in.
"Something is very wrong."
They all knew it. Something had been wrong from the start but they didn't know what.
Edwige turned and knelt beside Nootau with her hands out. She didn't know where to touch him, where to start? What wouldn't hurt him?
"Hand me my bag." One of her tinctures had to help somehow. At least help Nootau breath easier. Take away some of the pain. She put out her hand and the bag was placed right into it. She smiled up at Aegeus. "Thanks."
Not saying word, Aegeus started humming. Maybe it would help.
Nootau's entire body trembled. One of those foreign blue eyes stayed on Edwige.
"Tell me what to do, please." She unzipped the bag and started pulling out supplies. "Anything. Just... don't give up. Please."
Her voice broke on the last "please" so she concentrated on the healing supplies laid out beside her. Bottles were labeled for each draft and tincture. They had used up the sleep draft so she couldn't knock him out. That had the potential to do more harm since it would slow down his heart.
One of Nootau's arms shot out. The tinctures and drafts all spilled over, the clinks and clangs echoing in the room.
"Oh no!" Edwige and Aegeus quickly gathered them up as Mal and Kaden moved over to the other side of Nootau.
Mal frowned. "You want me and Kaden to hold him down?"
"No, you might hurt him more."
"Yes, please, just make sure he doesn't hit anything."
Mal nodded before taking a hand to a desk and pushing it away. Kaden also started moving other office stuff—chairs, trash cans, whatever surrounded Nootau. Hopefully they wouldn't have to make a quick exit.
A garbled cry drew her attention back to Nootau. What she hadn't noticed when Nootau knocked the bottles over was where his hand went after. His guka. The knife he used to harvest hide from those he borrowed their skins.
Fear struck her stone cold. "Nootau?"
Blood soaked his side. The shirt pulled free. And in his side, the guka, slicing through his flesh while he pulled it away with his other.
"Gods!" Edwige jumped forward.
Nootau bellowed. "Stop!"
Except she couldn't. Edwige had seen how carefully Nootau had taken the man's skin. The way he took it from his side now shouldn't be like this. She hadn't seen it done right, but she saw it done wrong with the dragon and the way Nootau cut himself now reminded her of that.
A sickening rip filled the now silent room, and Edwige let out a sob as Nootau fell back. She hadn't made it in time. Edwige bent over him, hovering as his form twisted and writhed.
"No!" They had to leave. Get Nootau somewhere safe.
The foreign white skin faded away, Nootau's right color returning. He flopped and jerked on the floor. Hair growing out. His body becoming taller again. But the transformation came in spurts and convulsions.
They had surrounded him. Their entire group standing there helpless as they watched him grunt in pain.
It was only when he had stopped trembling that quiet returned to the room. And it was then a new voice broke the silence.
"A fucking walker?"
Edwige looked up, jumping over Nootau in a protective stance. In the doorway a goblin, a banshee, and two others not quite in view but standing close behind them, were blocking their exit.
The goblin looked pissed.