It’s one thing to know that your best friend is being tortured, to hear the strain of it in his voice and to hear others talk about it happening to him. It’s intellectual, a thing that’s happening somewhere else.
It’s a whole other thing to actually see it.
All around us were bodies in states of– it was hard to tell, but the general vibe seemed to be– being taken apart. Sometimes, back when I was young, my parents had cut into people to heal them. This was nothing like what they’d done.
This was deliberate and cruel.
Kalends lay chained to a stone slab, looking about in the middle of terrible things that had been done to him. My graceful teacher, always so proud of his agile dodges and quick ripostes, had both his legs broken and at odd angles from his legs.
His injuries were not the worst– he still had all of his organs on the inside– but he was not looking good.
Kalends lay his head back down after the light from my hands faded back under my skin. “No,” he said with a grimace, “I do not like this at all.”
The walls here were sandstone, compacted and denser than normal. The chamber had one exit, a heavy wooden door braced by a metal grill, and the room itself was populated with people like Kalends on stone slabs and was quiet except for soft groans of bodies in pain.
The floor, and pretty much everywhere, was stained with blood.
I filed the anger away for later, for another time when I could pay the people who had done this back drop by merciless drop.
Tem and Lankin, our strongest, went to go guard the door, and Harry and Helli went with them, probably to listen for guards or to get an idea of how we’d get out.
“Helli,” Harry said, “I think I’m inside out.”
Helli gave him a weird look, probably not quite following. I knew I wasn’t. “Hmm, I’m concerned.”
Then she slapped him, perhaps to remove him from whatever delusion she thought he was suffering. “Well, Harry glows, so that’s weird.”
Then she got quiet, attentive to something. “There’s something,” she said in a low voice. “Doesn’t seem close.”
I returned my attention to my friend. “Kal, do we know any of these people?”
He winced, both with thought and also still being bound. “Wynhet might be over there still. Last I counted there were eleven.”
The name sounded kind of familiar but I wasn’t sure if I remembered them. There was so much I didn’t know and whatever, it was fine, I’d just pick this lock, get Kalends free, no problem, and–
The pick broke off in the lock.
I looked down at it and mouthed a word I learned from Kalends, not audible for him to hear it though.
Then I tried again.
He’d shown me better than this. I picked locks all the time. This was only like, the most important person I had to break out of prison, and the highest stakes I’d ever operated under, and one of my Goblin Shopping Network picks was stuck in the lock, but I was a professional.
Kalends had taught me this and I’d make him proud.
I gingerly tried to maneuver the broken pick out.
It bent, but did not move.
“Not to worry, this is definitely under control,” I said. “I will have you out of here in no time. Definitely. Do not panic, do not panic.”
Kalends cracked a smile, his breath leaving his chest on a raggedy exhale. “It’s like that time at Petrucchio’s, isn’t it?”
I wiped my sweaty hands off on my pants legs and remembered. “Yeah,” I said, “when I kept trying to steal the honey tarts and kept dropping them. You had to keep covering for me while I picked them up.”
Kalends sighed. “You’ve got to pick this one up, Set. I can’t help you.”
It was almost as bad as if he’d said he was dying for real and to leave him. Ugh.
“Also,” he wheezed pensively, “if you’re going to go telling people that I taught you, you’ve got to be better at picking locks than this.”
I could not believe it. I had picked plenty of locks, in record time, I might add. I was a credit. “I know, I know,” I said, returning to the problem with renewed annoyance and energy.
Which, I realized later, was probably exactly why he’d said it.
Meanwhile, Zeno and Felegum were making an inventory of people. There were two who were already dead, a dark-haired elven girl and a non-binary person, and seven others alive, but not conscious. They had heartbeats, but it seemed different from sleeping.
One was in an iron maiden with little drills stuck into them.
This was getting to be a bit much, so I returned to the lock and tried to, uh, mend the brokwn lockpick so that it would be less terrible to get out of the lock, but even that was not as effective as I’d hoped it would be.
Luckily, Helli came along at this point and, using her tinkering knowledge, was able to help me get the broken pick out of the lock.
And then, you know, I could pick the lock just fine, no problem. It had looked so much harder when I was doing it by myself.
“They’re doing some weird stuff,” Kalends said, looking out at the rest of the people here. “Maybe their little game has gotten worse.”
I wanted to ask several important follow-up questions here– like, what game? How normal is all this? What’s their goal?
What did they do to you?
But I didn’t get the chance because Kalends looked like he was going to throw up.
“Don’t look!” I said, turning his head away.
He didn’t barf, but it was a near miss. I managed to thread the chains holding him off, but not without hitting him and maybe this helped distract him from his gastrointestinal distress.
“Sorry!” I hissed back.
Meanwhile, Felegum was staring intently at a person, one of three who seemed to be in a weird catatonic state. I wondered maybe if this was what a person in their mind palace looked like from the outside.
One collapsed and I swore, dashing from Kalends to the person who’d just convulsed. They had a Calendar tattoo and to be honest they looked pretty dead, but you never knew so I tried to heal them. Nothing. They were gone for good.
Annoyed, I slammed another healing spell into a different person, also with a Calendar tattoo, three rings, who had their literal intestines outside of their body, also well as several other organs, like the heart and liver. It was weird at first, until I realized why it looked so familiar– this was a perversion of some Csipherian burial rituals.
My spell had barely taken hold when the intestines coiled back into the body and their abdominal wall pulled back in. The heart, lungs, and liver were still outside of their body, but it seemed like progress.
Zeno examined this with interest. “I’m afraid to heal with the heart still outside the body,” he said, after some thought.
I had not considered that, though he had a point. Ideally, that heart (and the rest of the outside organs) would go back in the body, but I’d sort of assumed that would happen more automatically, like it had with the intestines. However, on closer examination, the organs left out seemed to be in containers hooked up to a machine, possibly why they hadn’t gone back into the body when I’d healed them the first time.
Helli, sensing perhaps something nearby to tinker with, examined the machine.
“Yeah,” Zeno said encouragingly to her, “do that before Set breaks more things.”
“Hey,” I shot back, “I unbroke one. Those intestines? Back in the body. All me.”
“Good job, Set,” Felegum said.
“Thank you, Felegum.”
After some time spent investigating the machine and learning how it seemed to work, Helli presented her findings. “It seems like it uses the body as a power source. Both are connected, so we can’t destroy it without risking hurting whoever this is.”
Harry sighed. “Hey, Zeno, you do life and death things.”
“Uh-huh,” said the dude who literally had two zombies hanging around him.
“How long,” Harry continued, “do you think a person could live if we just…tore a lot of tubes out of them?”
Helli and I discussed some medical points, including but not limited to figuring out that the heart, lungs, and liver were not about to pop back in of their own accord unless we put them back in there.
I crossed my arms and stared at that Calendar tattoo. This person, whoever they were, was one of my people. Technically, everyone in this room was one of my people, but this one especially was someone important to save. But I didn’t have infinite spells to cast each day. In fact, I had to be pretty choosy about it, and as much as I didn’t want to ask for things I couldn’t immediately pay back, I was going to limit a lot of what I could do if I blew all my magic healing people now.
So, I sucked it up, murdered my pride, and asked for help.
“Zeno,” I said tightly, “can I ask a favor?”
We made a plan: three of us would put organs back into the body and then Zeno would cast a healing spell on them. I was in charge of the heart, Helli had the liver and the stomach, and Harry would manage the lungs. All things being equal, it was a lot of delicate organs, but the three of us were pretty careful people.
Coordinating between each other, on the signal, we pulled out the tubes from each of our respective organs and shoved them back into the body. Then, true to his word and without snark or fanfare, Zeno cast his healing spell.
It was much more powerful than I thought it would be, and for a moment I was surprised and kind of touched. Zeno had no reason to expend that much effort beyond me asking him to and telling him it was important to me.
I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t think fast enough and then the body made this gross slurping noise as blood vessels and skin knitted themselves back together and the person who we’d seen so brutally disassembled took a deep, shuddering breath.