A Different Hand
"Scanga Groes?" The Rainwaterman was completely taken aback. The Hand of the Law was one of the last people that he would have expected to find here in the Land Without Time. He had never expected this self-appointed dictator of the Montoo District to find his way to this side of the Divide. How did he do it? Why did he do it? Who helped him?
"Surprised to see me, eh Healer?" Chiapos could feel the man's hands tighten into what would have been a painful grip had he not been immune to pain. "You thought that you had seen the last of me, huh?"
"He's not as feisty as you said that he would be, honey," the other dolphin, the Cherite-impostor remarked. "You could have made this apprehension on your own, Scanga." Her voice had also changed to one that was vaguely familiar. It had a Tanejulian flavour to its intonations and Chiapos quickly recognized features on her face that were powerfully reminiscent of the Lord of the Phantom Farm, Seagrist. This was not Laulo or Bella. This must have been Seagrist's third daughter, Sworrel, the one that had remained back in the Montoo District while the other two sought the company of their father.
Had she struck up some sort of alliance with the Hand? Seagrist had been allowed to run his illegal cartel in Tanejul for years. He must have always had Scanga Groes in the palm of his hands. Sworrel had called him by a term of endearment. Maybe the ties between the master outlaw and the leader of the Hand’s Fist ran deeper than even Sjorud had suspected?
"This man is as dangerous as any man can be," Scanga Groes answered. He no sooner uttered the words when Chiapos proved his statement correct. The Rainwaterman’s mouth had been free and he bit heavily into the meat of the Hand's leg.
The lawman roared in pain but did not let go. "Quick, give me the magics that will subdue him so that we can take him back!"
Chiapos watched Sworrel produce a vial from her breastpocket. In it he could see a milky potion. He had no idea what it was but he fathomed that it was something very deadly for him. Sworrel and Scanga Groes had to be clearly aided by something greater than anything that they could have mustered on their own to have been able to breach the Divide between the two worlds. Their benefactor must have also been able to provide them with a concoction that could work against Cenan's magic. There could only be one such benefactor in Chiapos's mind. It had to be Martok, the Aura in Ascension.
Scanga Groes took the solution from Sworrel. He was going to pour it down Chiapos's dolphin blowhole at the top of his skull. With the speed of thought the one that they called the Healer shapeshifted into a being that he had only heard rumour of. He became a long, fat electric eel. The potion poured over his head and for the first time in months, he experienced a bodily sensation, pain, deep, burning acidic pain. It quickly dissipated in the water as it was washed away. Then he produced some pain of his own as his eel body unleashed an electric charge that stunned both Scanga Groes and Sworrel into unconsciousness.
Both went limp in the water and were now in peril of drowning. They deserved the fate in his eyes but he could not make himself such a cold-blooded killer as should come natural to something with his present morphology. He had to get them to shore. There were many questions he needed answered by them. He did not consider what he was to do with them once they gave him the answers that he wanted.
Shapeshifting into a human form, Chiapos dragged the pair of Tanejulians to the sandy shores beside the prostate and unconscious Samarin. He quickly fashioned ropes from some clinging vines that skirted the beach and binded both Scanga Groes and Sworrel. With the ability to change their form, he did not know how secure the fastening would be. They could transform themselves into something thin where the ropes would just fall off and they could crawl or squirm their way to freedom. That would have to be a problem he would have to deal with when the need arises.
His first task was to revive Samarin. The man was once again surprisingly dead. Chiapos had to bring him back to life again. He was astounded that Scanga Groes could have murdered the man so easily. Perhaps once you were killed, it was easier to be killed again. And as he allowed the magic of his hands to restore life in the highwayman, he knew he had his answer in how to keep Scanga Groes and Sworrel at bay. He simply would have to kill them. The dead have no volition and without volition, shapeshifting is impossible. If he did not kill them and they were to escape they might be able to somehow administer their potion upon him. The experience of pain was still fresh on his mind. He had forgotten what a disagreeable sensation it was. He hoped he would never have to endure it again.
Once there was a thump in Samarin's chest again and air going to and fro from his mouth, Chiapos allowed the man to continue his sleep. It was still dark although the night would be over soon. He had to concentrate on determining if there was more of that horrid pain-inducing magic that he assumed came from the Aura in Ascension upon the bodies of either Sworrel or Scanga Groes.
Seagrist's daughter's breast pocket where the original vial was hidden was now empty. She had some pieces of waybread in it, which Chiapos examined and returned. The rest of her clothing contained nothing suspicious. Scanga Groes's uniform was fraught with pockets and hidden enclosures. Chiapos searched each very carefully and found a plethora of armaments and chemicals all designed to inflict deadly and averse things upon those that the Hand of the Law designated as enemies of the state. The knives, picks and poisons were all impotent upon him, Chiapos realized, and soon he felt safe that his prisoners did not have the ability to overcome him.
It was strange though that they would only have come all this distance with just the one vial of that potion. They did not allow themselves any chance of failure. This was not like Scanga Groes who usually was prepared for all contingencies. Perhaps there was more of the potion hidden elsewhere around here. All that Chiapos would have to do if he were not to kill them outright was to make sure that he did not allow either Tanejulian out of his sight or to control the direction of their travels.
Both Sworrel and Scanga Groes were still unconscious with the morning light. The Rainwaterman had not built up the nerve to kill them yet. He had checked to ascertain if both were breathing. Both were. The ropes made of vine were securely tight around their wrists and ankles.
It was Samarin who stirred first in the morning. His eyes opened to see Chiapos standing nearby building a fire. The Rainwaterman had assumed that it was rather cool and that the people needed some warmth. He couldn't tell on his own.
"I'm going to guess that that is you," Samarin sighed.
Chiapos chuckled for he had no idea what human form he had taken. "Why? Who do I look like today?" He had shapeshifted in the night and gave no concentrated effort on what his appearance was.
"You don't look like anybody. The only features that you have on your head are your eyes and your mouth. You have no ears and nose and you have got no hair. The rest of you looks like a sand statue eroded with time. Someday I have got to make you a drawing to show you what you looked like." The highwayman sat up and stretched. "I had a bad dream last night. I dreamt that my captors, those ancient ones that you call Brucar and his merry wives had come upon us right here on this very beach."
"That was no dream. It happened." Chiapos extended his arm to point at the two Tanejulians lying nearby. As he did this he saw what Samarin had been talking about earlier. His arm and hand looked like nothing more than a crude carving of what a human arm and hand should look like. He didn't even have enough fingers or any fingernails on the ones that he did have.
"It's the Hand and Seagrist's daughter! What are they doing here?" The highwayman got up to his feet and wavered momentarily. "I've got a tremendous headache again this morning."
"No wonder. You were dead last night again," Chiapos responded on a cheerful note. "Those two did you in."
"And I suppose that you revived me again?"
Samarin smirked and wrenched his shoulders up. "I wish that you would learn how to do that without leaving the person with one blasting hangover! But you said that it was Brucar that came here last night. That isn't Brucar and his wife."
"Shapeshifting. It seems like anybody can do that now. They must have taken on the form of the Sovereign and his wife so that I would allow them to approach. If I would have known that it was the Hand of the Law and an accomplice I would never have permitted them to get so close to us." The Rainwaterman rearranged the embers. "Is the fire keeping you warm?"
"I don't know why you have it on. It's muggier than a coal furnace already without the fire. You really can't sense anything, can you?"
Chiapos was ready for a quip demeaning his native Rainwater but it was not issued from Samarin's lips. Instead the highwayman walked over to the captives and studied them. "I wonder how they survived the calamity that killed every other person in this world?" There was a sparkle in his eye. Chiapos was catching his drift. Samarin had overheard some of the conversation between him and the newcomers during the night. When the highwayman added, "Sometimes I think that we must have crossed over some Divide into a world that is just like Mallog’mor’ach except that there are no people."
Chiapos knew that it was time to become forthcoming with who was rapidly becoming his new ally. He asked Samarin to sit and he told him everything that he knew. He did not leave out any detail. He told the highwayman it all from his strange encounter with Martok, the Aura in Ascension; through his meeting with the ancient mythical high priestess Cenan and the Mammoth of the Tester; through to his dealings with the Sutherlanders and what he had learned of the other Malagans; through to all that he had learned about this side of the Divide, the Timeless Land. He told him of his adventure in the bowels of the Corvyx and how the Redeemer had saved him there and he reiterated over and over again about how important this Wood of Faerie was to stave off the final fell victory of the Dark Aura.
After listening to the Rainwaterman's strange story, Samarin shook his head in what appeared disbelief. "You Rainwatermen have very vivid imaginations. I think I would almost prefer to believe my own conjectures of what has transpired rather than even give your story an iota of credence. But I have witnessed the truth in too much of what you have said and I know that it would be folly on my part to think anything else could be so. I have been a true confounding to your plans, haven't I?"
Chiapos could not give the man a response for he was right. "If you hadn't have run off with the Redeemer, I would never have experienced the absolute joy of viewing the world from the Phantom Farm and the Sky Tunnel nor would I have met Brucar and his wives and seen the sheer wonder of Martok's Keep. Of these experiences, I have to be thankful to you." He was trying to be as graceful as he could.
"If I hadn't run off, your Chyna would still be alive and so would have many others. I am very, very sorry Chiapos. And afterall that I have done to you, you still have brought me back to life twice! You are either the most trusting dupe that has ever existed or you are made of some superior moral force that no human could ever grasp."
Chiapos had been busy dispersing the embers and dousing the flames. "Yes, yes," he sighed. "I'm still hoping that Chyna can be saved. I have the power to heal her but I do not have the power to find her or the Redeemer. If only I can find it, everything just might turn out well."
"Do you suppose these two characters know where it is?" Samarin indicated the still unconscious Scanga Groes and Sworrel. "We don't know how long they have been here. And it wouldn’t surprise me if they are the ones who stole the stick when I was asleep."
"I'm hoping that you are right. We'll find out when they get up."
"Why don't you revive them right now? You have the power to do it," Samarin suggested with encouragement.
"I want to make sure that I am ready for all contingencies that they will have at their disposal when they awake. They have been aided by someone, or something, who gave them the ability to hurt me. I don't want to walk into any trap that they may have set for us," Chiapos answered with caution.
"Listen, Rainwaterman, you are a simple and trusting man and I say that in the kind way. These two rascals might have some scheme up their sleeves to overtake you. But they did not count on me being here. I've been eluding Scanga Groes for years and I am wise to anything that he may have cooking in his head. You can feel safe with them as long as I am around," Samarin stated, placing his hand on Chiapos's shoulder to reinforce the sincerity in his statement.
"You have a history of duping me too, Samarin! Many would say that I would be a fool to put my trust into you over this but I can somehow sense that you are not being duplicitous in what you are doing now. Is there anything we should do before we rouse them?"
Samarin rechecked the bindings that held the two Tanejulians. "The ropes seem tight enough but they are shapeshifters. They can easily alter their body form allowing the bindings just to fall off." He put his hand on his chin. "If they turn themselves into snakes no rope can hold them fast. I think that the only solution is for me to stand over them at knifepoint. If they make any false move I will let them have it."
Chiapos had to agree. He added, "I can always bring them back to life. Death can be our best security device. Shall I revive them?" He saw that Samarin had armed himself with a long stiletto blade whose edges glimmered in the brightening sun. Where he got the knife, Chiapos did not know. It was never a concern of his.
"Go ahead. Do the Hand first. I don't think that we really need to have Seagrist's daughter aroused as yet," Samarin said.
"Maybe we will revive her after we have heard our piece from the Hand. We can see if she corroborates whatever he says."
"You are getting smarter, Rainwaterman."
Chiapos stooped over the comatose Scanga Groes and prayed that his magic powers in reviving the dead also extended to healing the injured. Electric shock leaves little exterior evidence on what to work on such as an open wound does. He never knew what he was doing before. He did not know this time either. The magic was in his hands and he tried to make his mind go blank to allow whatever subliminal forces within him to do their work. His fingers instantly took the cue from his mind that they had to start their mysterious performance and they diddled and they daddled over the Hand's head and upon his heart. After several moments of intensive curative action, he pulled away from his patient. Scanga Groes had always been breathing and without any visible signs of his malaise it was difficult for the Healer to tell if he had done his job.
Samarin stepped by his side and gave Scanga Groes a kick in the ribs. At that moment, the Hand burst into a hacking spasm of coughing which at its cacophonous completion, opened the eyes of the prisoner. "Maybe I have become a healer too!" the highwayman laughed.
Scanga Groes's eyes shifted back and forth to Chiapos to Samarin and back. His face showed that he was trying hard to assimilate the information from the situation he found himself in. The last thing that he would have remembered was that Sworrel was attempting to put the potion down the Healer's fluke. What was amassing in his brain at present was at distinct odds from what he had last experienced. Chiapos surmised this and said, "It didn't work, Scanga. Your master will not be pleased with you."
"What master?" Scanga Groes croaked before engaging himself in another coughing fit.
"The one that gave you the poison to administer upon me!" Chiapos growled back. Of all the people that he encountered on his Challenge, this was the one that he despised the most. He was an instinctively sadistic and harsh man that terrorized what should have been a happy people back in Tanejul.
"I serve no master!" the Hand declared with an air of arrogance that would have made the bravest man shudder. He was in control of his coughing now and presumably in control of his mind as well. The Rainwaterman was guessing that he would soon resort to shapeshifting to try to break his binds.
"Who gave you the potion?" Samarin barked fiercely. He drew the knife close to the Hand's face.
"Ah, it is the infamous Samarin, the lucky amateur who should have had his hide hanging from a yardarm the day his mother weaned him from her wanting teats." There was just as much ferocity in Scanga Groes as there was in the highwayman. The two clearly disliked each other. "Some day I will see you dead and that day I will celebrate with wine, women and dance."
"Start celebrating Scanga Groes. For today I have died not once but twice. The Healer has brought me back to life and he will continue to do so until the world is finally rid of your vile kind!" Samarin replied with prideful disdain.
Chiapos did not want this to turn into a match of insults. It was evident that neither man liked each other. That didn't matter to the Rainwaterman, he wanted answers. "You never answered what I asked. Who gave you the potion?"
"I will tell you that the concocter of that magical vial serves Mallog’mor’ach far more than those ancient eastern fakirs that you serve." The reference was obviously to Brucar and the other Sutherlanders.
"Was it Martok? Was it the Aura in Ascension?" Chiapos wanted Scanga Groes to get to the heart of the matter.
The Hand gave him a queer look. "Who? The Aura in Ascension? What is that? You are babbling Healer. Perhaps my potion has had an effect afterall for now you talk like a man gone mad."
At the insult, Samarin instantly drew his knife to the skin on Scanga Groes's neck. "I would love to just slice it!" he hissed.
"Go ahead. Your Healer will only have to bring me back to life because I have information that I think would be very important to him." Scanga Groes tantalizingly responded.
"Some day I will kill you when there is no Healer present and I will leave you to rot with the fallen leaves!" The highwayman pulled back his blade and said to Chiapos, "Sorry for interrupting."
Chiapos continued with the conversation as if the incident had not occurred. "You know very well who the Aura in Ascension is. You have been in league with him from the start. That is how you have acquired your power."
"Any power that I may have I got through my own hard work, Healer. It wasn't given to me through some doddling old hag that should have left the world a long time ago and should have stopped meddling in its affairs." It was clear that Scanga Groes was going to be far from cooperative.
"Why have you come out here after me?"
"You are a fugitive of the law and it is my duty to the citizenry of Tanejul to take you into custody where you can be properly punished for the insurrection and corruption that you have caused our good people."
Frustration was becoming the Rainwaterman's nemesis and constant companion of late. He was growing very weary of the Hand's standoffishness and his asinine bravado. From out of nowhere he found himself suddenly saying, "Go ahead and kill him, Samarin. He is useless to us. We might be luckier with the other one!”
The highwayman was very fast in obeying his new partner's request. He drew out the knife and pulled it deeply across Scanga Groes's neck. Before his eyes closed with the death that was usurping him, he groaned a warning that there would be retribution for this dire act.
"Yeah, the retribution will be that you will die again!" Samarin sneered as the Hand of the Law became lifeless. To Chiapos he said, "I wonder why he didn't try shapeshifting?"
"I'm surprised that he didn't either. That was far too easy." Chiapos concurred then added, "But we got nowhere with him."
"What did you expect? He's a very tough man and I think that you can kill him a thousand times over and still never garner anything from him. Now Seagrist's daughter I would think would be a different story. Are you ready to do her?" Samarin wiped the blood clean from his knife.
The Agony of the Rainwaterman
Chiapos turned his back on Samarin and went to the unconscious Sworrel. He went down on his knees and studied her anatomy to try to understand what work needed to be done to revive her. He thought he heard a thud or something behind him but he did not bother to turn around. He needed his mind clear of all extraneous thoughts for his healing arts to come into existence. It was like rousing a secret sleeping giant within him.
From what his hands had learned from healing the Hand, it did not take near as long to raise the second unconscious patient. This time no helping kick was needed from the highwayman. As Sworrel stirred, Chiapos suddenly felt something wrap around his neck. Startled he grabbed at it and turned and saw the demonic eyes of Scanga Groes glaring into his own. Too stunned, Chiapos did not fight back. All that he could say is "How?"
His line of sight drifted to the ground behind the Hand. There on the beach laid Samarin in a pool of his own blood. Where the body of the Hand had been there lay now only a piece of the limp vine that was used to bind him. Another piece of that same vine was now wrapped around Chiapos’ neck. It could not choke him though. You needed to breathe in order to be suffocated. "How?" he reiterated.
"Sworrel, go get the other vial. This time he is not going to get away from us!" Scanga Groes ordered.
Upon hearing of the existence of another sample of the potion, Chiapos at once started to shapeshift. He was so taken aback by the sudden turn of events, he could not think clearly enough. He did not know what to turn himself into. His body became amorphous, a shapeless bulk that fleetingly took on certain shapes, now an approximation of a bear, now a vague ram. But before completely making any of the transformations, his indecisiveness started to change him into other creatures, each as incomplete as the one prior. He told himself to calm down and get his thoughts straight.
Still the rope held. He knew that he had to get himself into some overpowering shape before Sworrel returned but his mind was too far gone in a state of panic. All of the danger that he had previously encountered on the Challenge had been situations where his gifts from Cenan were able to quickly defuse the peril. This time he knew it was different.
Scanga Groes held onto the other end of the rope with the maniacal intent of a fiend. He laughed insanely, "You won't get away this time, Healer! You are going to experience the kind of pain that can only be kin to the powers that were given to you by the eternal hag. And there will be no Healer to restore you. You are going to suffer, man, like no man has ever suffered before!"
No matter how thin of a shape Chiapos chose the infernal vine collapsed to a very tight fit for that shape. How did Scanga Groes manage to do this? How was it that he was still living? Samarin had killed him yet it was the poor reformed highwayman who was limp and lifeless in his own blood.
This was so far beyond the Rainwaterman. He had to stop thinking about what had happened and concentrate on what he was doing. If only the true Brucar was here!
Out of the corner of his vision that kept changing format with every manifestation he took on, he saw what he feared to see the most. It was Sworrel! She had returned with not just one vial of that supernatural potion but an entire case of it.
"You didn't think that we were stupid enough to think that we would give ourselves only one chance, did you?" Sworrel laughed hideously. She handed the Hand one of the vials. "Remember what Cleomic had said. You have to pour it into his mouth," she instructed her partner.
Upon hearing these words, Chiapos's mind quickly cleared. He knew he had to change himself into something without a mouth. Instantly his body turned to the form of a fifteen-foot long earthworm. As far as he knew they had no mouths. With his fat, segmented body he began to squiggle with the strength of the most terrible of sea serpents.
Scanga Groes struggled with all of his might to keep his prisoner restrained but the Hand was no match to such a behemoth invertebrate. Yet with his free hand, he was still able to pour the contents of the vial on the head portion of the worm.
As soon as the white, mucous-like liquid made contact with Chiapos's epidermis, an acidic burn travelled demonically through his nervous system like a maddened bull destroying every fabric of the Rainwaterman's consciousness. All that remained was his sense of pain and it was exposed to the most hellish, black, most sinister anguish that he had ever encountered. He could not sense anything at all but searing pain, all of his perceptions went up like autumn leaves in a monstrous conflagration.
It seemed to him that his whole existence was pain and that as much eternal time had elapsed as when he had his infinite struggle with breaking through the wall back in the subterranean tunnels of Martok's Keep. The sheer anguish would never abate - his body would never grow accustomed to it. His body would not go into shock and allow the pain to claim a victim. The agony just kept finding new ways to manifest itself in ever-increasing dosages. This was not mortal pain. Its composition could only be conceived by powers greater than those that lived within the plane from which he was born.
There was only one part of him left that gave him cognition and this part was the one that registered the sensation of pain and the lapsing of time. He could not think of anything else. Lost was all of his sense of purpose, lost was all of his memory, he had only the ancient affects of the lowly earthworm.
What could have been the span of a hundred human lifetimes may have gone by when slowly some of his thinking timidly and tentatively made a quiet little stakeout upon his faculties. Without his awareness of it, he gradually and extremely painfully attained a grasp of his senses.
When his eyesight did return, he could only vaguely make out the shadowy forms of two human beings sitting nearby. He also could see that the body where his mind was housed was a blackened elongated tube that smelled badly to rot. His sense of smell had returned. His hearing had come back some time ago without him realizing it but until this time all the sound was unintelligible and only something else uncomfortable to contend with. Now, the more intermittent clicks amidst the cacophony were drawing meaning in his mind. They were the sounds of human words. Eventually he could interpret the words and know who the speakers were.
They were Scanga Groes and Sworrel. They must have been those two human forms he could barely distinguish from the blurry background miasma. He could hear them talk. At first, however, he could only listen and although the words were articulate and understandable he did not truly register them. Not until the female voice said, "I think that he is due for another vial," did recent memory return to Chiapos of Rainwater. The vial could only mean another unimaginable journey into the realms and recesses of supernatural agony, an agony that he believed that he might not be able to endure.
"We want to take it easy on that stuff. We don't know how long the journey is going to last and we want to make sure that we have enough to get us back to Tanejul," Scanga Groes answered. "Besides I wouldn't mind having a little talk with him first."
"I think he is coming around," Sworrel responded. "His tail is no longer writhing which indicates that the potion is wearing off."
"Good!" Scanga Groes said. "Hey Healer, how did you enjoy your little excursion into the nethermost reaches of discomfort?"
Chiapos did not reply. He knew the remark was directed at him but he was still too exhausted to make any effort to return to the world of the living.
"You thought that you were done with pain, eh Healer? You thought that the hag made you forever immune to what a body can feel. Welcome to mortality my friend!" The Hand laughed gloatingly.
"Why don't you shapeshift back into human form Healer? Your present condition is most repugnant!" Sworrel added. "Besides Cleomic had said that the best form to choose in this land where time does not exist is your own because that way your brain is best acclimated to the senses that it receives. An earthworm doesn't see very well. Don't you want to see where you are?"
That was the second time Chiapos recalled Seagrist's daughter using that name Cleomic. As the Rainwaterman could recall within his rapidly returning memory, Cleomic was a Malagan and was a sworn enemy of Brucar and his wives. If Cleomic had similar powers to the Sutherlanders then it must have been him that made it possible for Scanga Groes and Sworrel to cross over to this side of the Divide. What did this mean for Brucar and Cherite on this side? Were they Cleomic's victims as well? And what of Jeyud and Maelin? What was their demise? And Laulo, Sjorud and Dedication? What of them? This did not bode well in Chiapos's mind. It was as painful to him as what he had just gone through.
"I agree. Healer transform yourself back into the ugly, little runtish figure you were back in the world where we all belong," Scanga Groes commanded. "Do it now or I might have to give you another vial. As you probably now know, you don't have to take it orally for it to work. I just thought that I would throw that in before, just to make you feel that you may have had some protection in that hideous earthworm guise you have taken. Sworrel bring me a vial."
It didn't take another threat from the Tanejulians to make Chiapos comply. His mind went into abject horror at the mention of the vial. He did not know if he could survive being exposed to another vial of the sinister supernatural potion. He thought of the human form and changed himself. At once his vision was clarified and the world was not composed of vague shapes any longer.
Sworrel and Scanga Groes were standing over him. He was lying on the ground. A quick gaze around told him that they were no longer near the lake where he had been captured. It was the height of day, which day he wondered? The terrain was rugged and wooded and seemed to be a match of what he remembered the Tester to be like. There was a wooden cart nearby. It was similar to the one that Chyna used to transport her belongings to Tanejul. Harnessed to the cart was a pair of antelope that had been grazing near the earlier lake. But this was not the Tester of the Land of Time. They were still on the timeless side of the Divide from what he gathered from the conversation between his two captors. This had to be the other Tester.
"Samarin?" Sworrel and Scanga Groes said together when they beheld their transformed prisoner.
He had done it again. He had taken on the form of somebody else. "It's me, the one you call the Healer. I can't remember what I looked like," he said meekly and apologetically.
"And we worry ourselves over someone so daft that he doesn't even know what he looks like?" Sworrel laughed out loud.
"You certainly bear a striking resemblance to your fallen compatriot," Scanga Groes agreed. "His body should have been devoured by the scavengers of this land by now!" the man laughed with a malignant evil that chilled Chiapos's heart.
"Why? How long has it been?"
"This is the Land Without Time, Healer, you should know that. No time has passed."
"You know what I mean. This world has a time scale of its own no matter what has passed on the other side. How long have I been under your spell? How long has Samarin been dead?"
"We haven't been counting," Sworrel replied. "Let's just say that we have travelled many miles carting that sorry worm carcass of yours. I wish you would change yourself into someone that doesn't look like that creepy petty criminal, to be honest."
"Why? Feeling guilty about what you did to him?" Chiapos sniped. "Your instructor to this world didn't teach you well, by the way. There are no scavengers on this side of the Divide. Samarin's body will still be in tact and I swear that I will escape you and bring him back to life. What I would like to know is how did you do that? How did he die and not you, you miserable swine?"
"Your instructor to this world didn't teach you well!" Scanga Groes shot back.
"Transformations are not only limited to becoming animals," Sworrel explained. At once, Scanga Groes shot her a very angry glance. She had said too much.
Chiapos thought of what she said for a moment. It became clear to him. "You had turned yourself into the vine, didn’t you? And you just simply transformed your foot or something into something that looked like your whole body! That is what you did! Poor Samarin never had a chance. He was busying himself with a part that did not matter and then you killed him!" It all made sense to him and for the first time he felt a terrible grief at the death of the man who had redeemed himself so much the last days of his life.
Sworrel struck him across the mouth with the back of her hand. Chiapos licked his lips to see if any blood had been drawn. There was none. A blow like that would normally have caused him to bleed but it didn't. Cenan's milk was still at work within him. This gave him some satisfaction. He also gained some satisfaction in assuming that his guess had been right. Why else would she hit him? It would be Sworrel and not Scanga Groes who will be the source of any information that he needed to know.
The Hand seemed to know this as well for he admonished her severely for having too loose of a mouth. He whispered something in her ear and she went away on some errand. Chiapos watched her disappear into the thickness of the forest.
"This place has got to be the equivalent of the Tester in this world," the Rainwaterman commented to Scanga Groes. "That means that we must have gone through what would have been the Tanejul of this world. I would imagine that it was just a plain of long grasses surrounded by some pretty rugged mountains that would have been identical to the Teeth of Tanejul on the other side. There would have been no people there, no people for you to bully. That must have made you feel pretty homesick for your own Tanejul, eh Scanga?" There was a feistiness in Chiapos's heart, a cockiness that he had not felt for some time. To what he could attribute this feeling he was not sure. Maybe it was his reaction to extreme stress.
"We'll be getting back to our own world soon enough, Healer," Scanga Groes said, rubbing his brow out of some nervousness. Chiapos could tell that the man was uneasy and he knew exactly why. Sworrel had given him the secret for how to escape this situation and Scanga Groes was very aware of this. "It won't be recognizable to you though. The alien Tanejul you describe for this world is far nearer to the Tanejul you remember than what our Tanejul has become."
"Why? Has the Dark Aura won?" Chiapos had horrendous visions of a soulless netherworld of zombie slaves serving the powers of darkness under gloomy inhospitable skies and in the shadow of the fierce Teeth.
"There you go saying that again! I know of no Aura. You are far too steeped in the lore of the ancient, Healer. This is not a world of spirits. What you saw of Tanejul was a lawless town filled with degenerates and derelicts. That has all been changed. With your departure, my men brought order to the town and rounded up all those that I deemed to be enemies of the state and I have had them all summarily executed. The snows that fell signaled a new purity in the town. You wouldn't recognize it any longer." Scanga Groes was matter of fact in his description and showed no remorse whatsoever about destroying the lives of so many.
Chiapos hated the man all the more. If there was blood in his veins he was sure that it would have turned to venom with the disgust and loathing that he felt for the Hand of the Law of Tanejul. "If ever there was a proof for the existence of the Aura in Ascension, I would say that your acts are the purest demonstration of this proof. Whether you know it or not you serve the Dark Aura. You are a despicable man and I curse your parents for ever bringing you into this world!"
"My parents died long ago and the only thing that they did for me is to show me how to live in abject poverty. Everything I have I have earned on my own and not through the beneficence of some fictitious semi-deity." There was bitterness in Scanga Groes's words.
"Did your scouring of the town include your partner's father, the old fat Seagrist?" Chiapos asked. He was trying to cool the anger within him so that he would not lash out and ruin any chance of him getting an account of how the Hand of the Law ended up in the Land Without Time. He guessed that this information might be important in recovering his Redeemer. He felt confident that he would escape Scanga Groes and Sworrel.
"The old man was never an enemy of mine or Tanejul's. It was through Seagrist that I was able to keep a check on all those that might want to step beyond the bounds of the law."
"And what did he get in return for this?" Chiapos sensed that Seagrist was able to keep his monopoly on the black market in Tanejul through this corrupt union with the Hand of the Law. When Chiapos had encountered the man back in the Phantom Farm, he thought that the old man was not entirely forthcoming. A cabal with the Hand would explain how he was able to hold onto his power for so long. It also explained Sworrel's involvement with Scanga Groes. What of Laulo? Where were her true allegiances? She was somehow different from her sister and her father. He felt safe that she was an ally.
"I need not tell you anything, Healer. You are my prisoner and I will ask the questions!" Scanga Groes dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "But I will tell you this. It was thanks to Sworrel's father that we were able to track where you went after you fled like a coward from Tanejul. That man has many devices and means for swift travel and he has many friends across Mallog’mor’- ach."
"Cleomic?" Chiapos ventured. "Is Cleomic one of Seagrist's friends?"
"I said that I was not answering any questions," the Hand gruffed.
"Yes, of course, it would be Cleomic!" Chiapos exclaimed. He was thinking out loud, disregarding Scanga Groes's complaints. "It was you that was behind that raid on Sutherland. You are the one that prodded Cleomic and his henchwomen to ambush the Sovereign and his wives. I found it rather peculiar that my companions and I would be witness to an attack amongst the ancient Malagans in the short space of time we were among them. This explains it. It is then my fault that Brucar was injured and one of his wives was slain back there on the beaches, for if I was not with them, you would not have stirred your Malagan to act against mine."
"All of them would have been slain had not the great Cleomic shown his mercy. He was satisfied with the death of only one and he allowed the others to escape. There are so few of those Malagans left that I think that they thrive on their enmity and would be at a loss on how to pass their time if all their foes fall dead. I had to convince Cleomic to kill one promising him that you would return from the Keep and bring her back to life," the Hand proffered an admission that Chiapos was essentially correct.
"It's a promise you are not going to keep, is it?" the Rainwaterman asked and seeing the devious glint in Scanga Groes's eyes, he sneered, “You are a most dishonourable man."
"Cleomic doesn't give a damn about anything that happens outside of the Malagan territory. When he sees that I am not returning, he is going to have to just accept his losses and have one fewer enemy to contend with," Scanga Groes laughed. "You are a sly young man, Healer. You have me answering your questions again. Very clever! I would be willing to bet that the other members of your little company of vagabonds would be wondering why you wouldn't have been so clever back then when you abandoned them and left them easy pickings for the garroting knife!"
"Sjorud and Laulo? You killed them?" He never heard words so hard to take.
"And the cow too!"
"You are lying! Brucar said that they were still where I left them and since virtually no time has passed since I came to this side of the Divide, it would be impossible for you to have killed them!" There was an overpowering torrent of rage flowing through Chiapos that he could barely contain himself.
"How would that Malagan know? He was on the beach!" Scanga Groes sizzled. "He was not inside the Keep. It felt so good to run that blade across old Sjorud's neck. That man had been nothing but a thorn in my side over all the years that I knew him. I only wish that he was awake at the time so that he could have seen who his killer was!" His eyes momentarily drifted to the ground behind the Rainwaterman. Chiapos turned to see what he was looking at and saw nothing.
"You lie!" Chiapos cried, although a very intestinal reaction within him nagged that the Hand of the Law may indeed be telling the truth.
"I was thankful that that buffalo, that Comptode, was asleep. I don't think that I could have slain him had he been awake. He's just too large of a beast and very smart as well. You don't seem to be taking this news very well Healer. I would have thought that you wouldn't have cared seeing the way that you just left them unprotected in those halls. It was an open invitation for any thug that may have come along."
"I don't believe you!" Chiapos gasped. "You are just making all of this up to infuriate me! Besides Sworrel is Laulo's sister. She would never have allowed you to kill her!"
"There's no love lost between those two. Never underestimate the height that a rivalry can attain between two sisters. With the younger sister gone, Sworrel stands to gain all the more inheritance from her father. In fact, she is the sole beneficiary now seeing that I had done in Seagrist's other daughter, Bella, back in Tanejul."
"Seagrist loved his daughters, all of them. He could not have possibly given his blessings to you to act so outrageously!" There was such an uneasiness in Chiapos over everything now. The loss of his friends was too unbelievable, too horrible to accept. He was grabbing at anything in the hope of finding the right answer to refute this ghastly tale.
"The old man prizes ruthlessness more than family, Healer. He could not have attained his massive wealth had he not had this quality. Before he reached his manhood Seagrist had already slain three of his brothers so that he could gain control over his father's meager livery in the Montoo. What Sworrel did was only an emulation of what he did himself. He could not possibly frown upon such actions. Do you know what I enjoyed the most out of all of this? It was eating the buffalo's brain raw." Scanga Groes rubbed his belly and licked his lips. "It was very tasty. There were stories drifting around the town that you and the buffalo had some sort of mental connection, eh? Maybe I have you in my stomach right now, Healer! I think that I will blow you out as the little puff of gas that you truly are!" The Hand's gaze once again returned to the ground behind Chiapos. This time the Rainwaterman did not look.
That was it! Chiapos could no longer contain himself. He did not even think of changing himself into something more formidable. He lunged directly at his wicked tormentor and felt his hands grab hold of the Hand's neck and start to tighten. There was such ferocity in his intent - he just wanted whatever was in his hands to gush like a rotted tomato.
But Scanga Groes was not going to let him do that. Almost instantaneously Chiapos could feel the neck thicken into something heavily muscled and fur-covered. His eyes watched as the Hand had shapeshifted himself into the likeness of Dedication. "I don't think that you are strong enough to overpower me now, Healer, and I don't think that you have the stomach to throttle the neck of a dearly departed loved one!" the Hand's voice laughed through the huge muzzle of the Comptode.
"Keep talking and I will be able to see through the illusion!" Chiapos glowered. "I will see you destroyed Scanga Groes!" His hands clutched firmly while he started a transformation of his own. He became the largest grizzly bear ever seen upon the land. The nails of his hand became foot long claws that dug deeply into the neck of the buffalo. Blood could be seen soaking through the long, shaggy hair that hung there. He could sense the Hand begin to weaken.
And then all of a sudden all of the Rainwaterman’s cognition became nothing but a huge searing pain that inundated every sense that he had.
The Fire That Burns Eternally
Once again all was pain. All thought was a study in the violent agitation that distressed nerve endings could garner. From what dim wit that remained, he knew that he was in for another long bout of horrible anguishing pain.
It endured like the last time for an agonizing eternity that drew him to the edge of madness but would not permit him to leap into death’s abyss. That would have been some form of relief and this luxury was not to be afforded to him. His condition was solely to suffer and nothing else was allowed access to his brain. Cognition was needed to battle the pain but the elements that constituted volitional thinking were not there for him to muster.
Long scintillating sheering ages seemed to drift by languorously and time was at a standstill, frozen in a moment of intense, bodily disrupting pain. He knew not who he was, nor if there was anything like the self within him. He had become the fire that burns eternally never fully devouring what it eats. He was locked away from everything but the suffering. His eyes could not see except the impinging terror, his ears could not hear save the gruesome laughter of hatred, his nose and mouth could only smell and taste the most fetid and nauseating stenches that could ever have been concocted, and every atom that made his body up was at a constant boil where it seemed the skin would leave his body and his entrails coalesce into a hellish soup. The only emotion that ran rampant through him was a diabolical fear of impending disaster.
Yet the eternity slowly found itself penned into a temporal configuration and the horror and the excruciating pain silently began to dissipate as once again his senses began to find definition in an existence outside of the inferno. Familiar voices started to infringe upon his mind.
"Get up, Healer, get up dog!" It was Scanga Groes yelling into his ears.
"Get up dog!" the Hand reiterated. What followed was a severe blow to the Rainwaterman's face. But Chiapos could not feel the slap. He was returning to his previous enhanced condition where he was immune to such external pain stimuli. Even if he had not been impervious to smacks, this would have been so infinitely insignificant when compared to what he had just gone through.
His sight returned to him blurringly and as it gradually made sense of what was before him, he could see the ugly mien of Scanga Groes staring him in the eyes. He could not tolerate the Hand staring at him and as he looked elsewhere he realized that he was still in the form of the grizzly bear. "Don't you mean bear?" he said awkwardly as the muscles in his mouth were not accustomed to moving.
"Do you recognize where you are Healer?" the Hand asked. "Don't try anything funny or else you will be knocked out again." He pointed to Sworrel standing behind him with another vial of the malignant potion.
"Don't make any sudden moves Healer! I will throw the contents of this bottle on you at the first sign of trouble!" Seagrist's daughter said threateningly.
Chiapos looked around at the landscape that formed the background behind his two tormentors. There was a series of uplands marking off the horizon. Meandering lazily out of one of them was a babbling creek with a rich green colour that indicated that it was full of life. There was something very very familiar about this terrain. The springtime air was filled with the songs of thousands of unseen frogs cheeping their proud proclamation of being alive. Before he could truly recognize this place, his eyes welled up with tears as they had a memory all of their own.
"This is the wasteland from where you were spawned, Chiapos of Rainwater," Scanga Groes smirked. "I thought that I would awaken you to let you see from what a dank cesspool of insignificance that you hail. This is your Rainwater!"
As Chiapos looked around and saw the glen that nestled against the hills and the intermittent stands of birch, ash and elm trees, he knew the spot to be where his family had carved out their very home. The elevated mound that bordered against a ravine that fell away into the creek was the very place that his home stood in the other world. And as he looked behind him he saw a huge clearing covered in gentle swaying grasses. This was the appointed site where the entire village gathered every evening to listen to the great tales of the Challengelore. It was the Commons. Had this been the Land of Time the villagers may have been slowly gathering there right at this moment. He could almost see them being led by Mihec and Whendi. Chiapos judged that they were at the cusp of the day where the afternoon gives way to the evening, the gloaming.
"I've never seen a bear cry before!" Sworrel laughed.
"This bear will never truly see his den again!" Scanga Groes snickered. "He will never again walk upon the ground where the village of Rainwater sits in our world. As soon as we cross the Divide and return to Tanejul I will send out a sortie of our warriors to level that forsaken hamlet and leave nothing standing to ever remind others that there was once a town there."
The Hand was once again taunting him. The man had no sympathy or compassion and cared not at all about the graven suffering he had already inflicted upon Chiapos. But the Rainwaterman chose to ignore him. He was too filled with the bittersweet sentiments of seeing his beloved home once again albeit in a more naturalized form than the changes that his people had registered upon the land. These changes were not very much. It was amazing how little Rainwater had been altered from its pristine state in the Land Without Time to the Land With Time. Somehow this pleased Chiapos. The world ought not be tampered with, it is already what it is supposed to be all on its own. He knew that this was not the case with Tanejul and he sensed that his two captors probably were struck with dark feelings when they had encountered their own town in this timeless world.
"Didn't you hear me?" Scanga Groes slurred. "I said that I was going to level your beloved Rainwater. Of course, you will never see it. You will be long dead before that happens!"
"Don't you know by now that you can't kill me you vile defiler! I have the magic of the ancients in me and am no longer stuck to mortal bounds! I will be walking the sacred soils of my beloved Rainwater long after your bones turn to dust!" Chiapos shot back, righteously vilified. He quickly turned his head to see if his outburst caused Sworrel to throw the evil potion at him. She was looking at Scanga Groes waiting for his approval.
"No, no Sworrel. We are still in control of the situation," the Hand said to his accomplice. "I might not be able to kill you but I do have the means to keep you in eternal agony. That kind of existence is not what I would call anything to be envied."
"Then why did you rouse me?" Chiapos growled. It truly was a growl because of his ursine form.
"I wanted you to see the dump from which you hail. We will be leaving this damnable forsaken territory soon enough and I promise you that you will return to that miserable life of yours once again. Just say that I brought you back to your senses so that I could enjoy watching another kind of pain in your eyes outside of the one that you are getting to know quite well. I believe there is something to be said about the pain of loss."
"Believe me I will never grow accustomed to what you have put me through," the Rainwaterman sighed. "I only wish that you could experience it yourself firsthand. Such an agony should only be reserved for those that truly have a wicked heart and you, my good man, have the most wicked I have ever encountered. What makes you that way? Was the milk from your mother's breast mostly piss?"
"You stop that!" Sworrel cried. "The Hand of the Law is the greatest man that has ever lived. He has nothing but the purest of compassion for those that share his vision in making Tanejul a paradise this side of Death."
"I believe you would think that. Afterall a woman who would kill her own flesh and blood would have rather a convoluted view of morality," Chiapos laughed sarcastically. He had to find his escape from these two. This escape had to be done through shapeshifting but Scanga Groes and Sworrel were too cognizant of this fact and would react instantaneously to the slightest sign of his morphology being altered.
Sworrel's eyes sank to the ground. "I did what had to be done. Laulo never showed any indication that she was her father's daughter. She pained him grievously by taking up with you and the moment she left, my father considered her dead."
He paid no attention to her words. The woman was as nearly as contemptible as her ringleader. "So what is your plan now Scanga? Do you know how to get back to our world?" Chiapos asked, while the back of his mind was feverishly working on possible solutions to his dilemma.
"Of course I do!" Scanga Groes replied pompously. "I have everything worked out. My inclination is not to tell you what this plan is but I truly can't see how it would hurt to tell you. In a few short minutes, your mind will be forever gone from that which matters. The exit to this world I have been informed is at the May Shores. We should arrive there soon enough if my instructor Cleomic is correct. There, there is a portal that will take us back to the May Shores of our own world."
The May Shores, that mystical and magical place. It did not surprise Chiapos in the least that that would be the logical exit place from this side of the Divide. But to think that he would have to travel all of the breadth of Mallog’mor’ach to return to Sutherland and help who may have survived there was rather an undaunting prospect. He had promised to return Cherite to life and there was Sjorud and Laulo to revive. If there was truth in that the Hand had eaten Dedication's brain, then the Comptode was beyond revival. He prayed that there was no truth in that statement. Dedication had been the greatest of allies. Of course, there was also the chance that he might discover Samarin's body on the other side and he might be able to bring the highwayman to the world of the living as well. And then there was Chyna.
So many depended on him that he could not simply slip away into the terror promised him. He had to fight Scanga Groes and Sworrel. He had to defeat them and soon. His only chance was to divert their attention long enough to make the transformation.
"I am curious Sworrel. Just before you put me under the last time, you had disappeared. I was wondering where you went?" he asked, hoping that this might lead to his opportunity.
Both Scanga Groes and Sworrel giggled at the question. "We were testing you," the Hand responded. "I wanted to see how much I could trust you. Frankly, it is easier to transport you if you did your own walking rather than us having to cart around the body of a giant worm or a fat old bear. It has slowed us down immensely. I had Sworrel make herself into a burrowing creature to keep an eye on you. As soon as you showed signs that you could not be trusted, she drew nearer to you from below the ground. Perhaps you noticed me looking at the ground now and then just prior to your attempt to accost me. My Sworrel sprang from the ground and administered the dosage to once again make you docile albeit a docile burden."
Chiapos did remember Scanga Groes's attention being drawn elsewhere prior to being subjugated to the abyss of suffering a second time. Had he known that the two Tanejulians were thinking of keeping him conscious, he might have waited out for a better time to make his escape. But that was all in the past now. He had to make sure that a third dosage would not occur.
"If I promise to comply with you and not try to escape, maybe you could consider trusting me now," he offered.
"You have proven that you are entirely untrustworthy Healer. You had your chance back then in the Tester but you flaunted it," Sworrel said, holding the vial threateningly close to the long fur that comprised the Rainwaterman's bear coat.
"I have always said that you should never trust a man who is willing to compromise for that man will compromise again," Scanga Groes agreed. "Well, I think it is time for us to say good bye to you Healer. Dusk is settling and I want to make sure that I have you restrained before darkness descends upon us." His eyes shifted towards Sworrel.
"No wait!" Chiapos cried. "Let me turn into something less cumbersome for you. Let me become a man again!" He did not really expect the Hand to agree to a shapeshifting. It would be far too dangerous for his captors to allow this. It was only desperation that forced him to cry this out.
"Maybe that is a good idea," Sworrel said to Scanga Groes. "Maybe he could turn himself into a cart or something that will help us move faster."
The Hand's dark eyes rolled back in his head. He certainly did not have the brightest of aides. "No, you silly buffoon, can't you ..."
This was all the moment that Chiapos had needed. Every molecule in his body had turned into liquid instantaneously. He had become rainwater. The restraints of the rope that had held him bound for so long had fallen limp onto the wet ground. He had become water and in the grasses he swiftly dissipated and disappeared from the Tanejulians sight.
"Where did he go!" Scanga Groes screamed, rushing at Sworrel and striking her for her stupidity. The vial in her hand was flung in the air and it too vanished in the lush grasses of Rainwater where it could do no harm. It was only dangerous to somebody in Chiapos's strange condition and now he was set free.
His amorphous form drifted with silent purpose to the nearby creek where the elements that comprised him congealed once again, this time into another raw form, a powerful vengeful wind that lashed out directly at his tormentors.
Scanga Groes and Sworrel were hurtled against a collection of rocks that on the other side of the Divide had formed the foundation to the hearth where the Challengelore was recited nightly to the villagers. Both bodies of the wicked Tanejulians became limp at once.
On the other side of the Divide, the elders might be presently telling tales of the great derring do of bygone Rainwaterman. They would assuredly be unaware that one of their own had completed the greatest story of the Challengelore right here on the very sacred ground that they assumed was their safe haven from the evils of the world. One of their own had truly become a Rainwater Man.