But not now. No, not now.
Haplo’s mouth was dry, had a foul taste in it. He swallowed, but it did no good. He reached out his hands to the steering stone and was startled to see his fingers tremble. Time was running out. The Lord of the Nexus would have received his report by now. He would know that Haplo had lied to him.
“I should leave . . . now,” Haplo said softly, willing himself to place his hands on the stone.
But he was like a man who sees dreadful doom coming upon him, who knows he must run for his life, yet who finds himself paralyzed, his limbs refusing to obey his brain’s command.
The dog growled. Its hackles rose, its eyes shifted to a point behind and beyond Haplo.
Haplo did not look around. He had no need. He knew who stood in the doorway. He knew it by countless signs: he’d heard no one approaching, the warning sigla tattooed on his skin had not activated, the dog had not reacted until the man was within arm’s reach.
The animal stood its ground, ears flattened, the low growl rumbling deep in its chest.
Haplo closed his eyes, sighed. He felt, to his surprise, a vast sense of relief.
“Dog, go,” he said.
The animal looked up at him, whimpered, begged him to reconsider.
“Get,” snarled Haplo. “Go on. Beat it.” The dog, whining, came to him, put its paw on his leg. Haplo scratched behind the furry ears, rubbed his hand beneath the jowl.
“Go. Wait outside.”
Head lowered, the dog trotted slowly and reluctantly from the bridge. Haplo heard it flop down just outside the doorway, heard it sigh, knew it was pressed as close against the door as was possible to do and still obey its master’s command.
Haplo did not look at the man who had materialized out of the twilight shadows inside his ship. Haplo kept his head lowered. Tense, nervous, he traced with his finger the runes carved upon the steering stone.
He sensed, more than heard or saw, the man come near him. A hand closed over Haplo’s arm. The hand was old and gnarled, its runes a mass of hills and valleys on the wrinkled skin. Yet the sigla were still dark and easily read, their power strong.
“My son,” said a gentle voice.
If the Lord of the Nexus had come raging aboard the ship, denouncing Haplo as a traitor, hurling threats and accusations, Haplo would have defied him, fought him, undoubtedly to the death.
Two simple words disarmed him completely.
He heard forgiveness, understanding. A sob shook Haplo. He fell to his knees. Tears, as hot and bitter as the poison he’d swallowed on Abarrach, crept from beneath his eyelids.
“Help me, Lord!” he pleaded, the words coming as a gasp from a chest that burned with pain. “Help me!”
“I will, my son,” answered Xar. His gnarled hand stroked Haplo’s hair. “I will.”
The hand’s grip tightened painfully. Xar jerked Haplo’s head back, forced him to look up.
“You have been deeply hurt, terribly wounded, my son. And your injury is not healing cleanly. It festers, doesn’t it, Haplo? It grows gangrenous. Lance it. Purge yourself of its foul infection or its fever will consume you.
“Look at yourself. Look what this infection has done to you already. Where is the Haplo who walked defiantly out of the Labyrinth, though each step might have been his last? Where is the Haplo who braved Death’s Gate so many times?
Where is Haplo now? Sobbing at my feet like a child!
“Tell me the truth, my son. Tell me the truth about Abarrach.” Haplo bowed his head and confessed. The words gushed forth, spewing out of him, purging him, easing the pain of the wound. He spoke with fevered rapidity, his tale broken and disjointed, his speech often incoherent, but Xar had no difficulty following him. The language of both the Patryns and their rivals, the Sartan, has the ability to create images in the mind, images that can be seen and understood if the words cannot.
“And so,” murmured the Lord of the Nexus, “the Sartan have been practicing the forbidden art of necromancy. This is what you feared to tell me. I can understand, Haplo. I share your revulsion, your disgust. Trust the Sartan to mishandle this marvelous power. Rotting corpses, shuffling about on menial errands. Armies of bones battering each other into dust.” The gnarled hands were once again stroking, soothing.
“My son, had you so little faith in me? Do you, after all this time, not know me yet? Do you not know my power? Can you truly believe that I would misuse this gift as the Sartan have misused it?”
“Forgive me, My Lord,” whispered Haplo, weak, weary, yet feeling vastly comforted. “I have been a fool. I did not think.”
“And you had a Sartan in your power. You could have brought him to me. And you let him go, Haplo. You let him escape. But I can understand. He twisted your mind, made you see things that were not, deceived you. I can understand. You were sick, dying. . . .”
Shame burned. “Don’t make excuses for me, My Lord,” Haplo protested harshly, his throat raw from his sobs. “I make none for myself. The poison affected my body, not my mind. I am weak, flawed. I no longer deserve your trust.”
“No, no, my son. You are not weak. The wound to which I was referring was not the poison given to you by the dynast, but the poison fed to you by the Sartan, Alfred. A far more insidious poison, one that affects the mind, not the body. It inflicted the injury of which I spoke earlier. But that wound is drained now, is it not, my son?”
Xar’s fingers twined through Haplo’s hair.
The Patryn looked up at his master. The old man’s face was lined and marked with his toils, his tireless battles against the powerful magic of the Labyrinth. The skin did not sag, however, the jaw was strong and firm, the nose jutted out from the face like the tearing beak of a fierce flesh-eating bird. The eyes were bright and wise and hungry.
“Yes,” said Haplo, “the wound is drained.”
“And now it must be cauterized, to prevent the infection from returning.” A scraping sound came from outside the door. The dog, hearing a tone of dire threat in the lord’s voice, jumped to its feet, prepared to come to its master’s defense.
“Dog, stay,” Haplo ordered. He braced himself, bowed his head. The Lord of the Nexus reached down, took hold of Haplo’s shirt, and, with one tear, rent the fabric in two, laying bare Haplo’s back and shoulders. The runes tattooed on his flesh began to glow slightly, red and blue, his body’s involuntary reaction to danger, to what he knew was coming. He clenched his jaw, remained on his knees. The glow of the sigla on his body slowly faded. He lifted his head, fixed his gaze, calm and steadfast, upon his lord.
“I accept my punishment. May it do me good, My Lord.”
“May it do so indeed, my son. I take no joy in the giving.” The Lord of the Nexus placed his hand on Haplo’s breast, over his heart. He traced a rune with his finger; the nail was long, it drew blood from the flesh. But it did far worse to Haplo’s magic. The heart-sigla were the first links in the circle of his being. At the lord’s touch, they began to separate, the chain started to break.
The Lord of the Nexus drove the wedge of his magic inside the sigla, forced them apart. A second link slipped from the first, cracked. The third slid off the second, then the fourth and fifth. Faster and faster, the runes that were the source of Haplo’s power, his defense against the power of other forces, broke and splintered and shattered.
The pain was excruciating. Slivers of metal pierced his skin, rivers of fire coursed through his blood. Haplo closed his mouth against the screams as long as he could. When they came, he didn’t know them for his.
The Lord of the Nexus was skilled at his work. When it seemed Haplo must faint from the agony, Xar ceased the torment, talked gently of their past lives together, until Haplo had recovered his senses. Then the lord began again. Night, or what the Nexus knows as night, drew its blanket of soft moonlight over the ship. The lord traced a sigil in the air; the torture ceased. Haplo fell back on the deck and lay like one dead. Sweat covered his naked body, he shook with chills, his teeth chattered. A residue of pain, a flash of flame, a stabbing of a blade, surged through his veins, wrenched from him another agonized cry. His body twitched and jerked spasmodically, out of his control.