This is the record of my days, which circle themselves like the serpent which bites its tail. Therefore, I burn each page before writing the next: thus.
Skelmis is bolder now, confident in his ring and its mastery over me, He studies the maps of Klydessia’s secret shrine.
“How cunning of your sister to hide herself away like this,” he mutters.
She’s not my sister, I want to reply, she’s so much more, but to contradict him is impossible.
“She is insane,” I reply. “She seeks death, but cannot have it.”
Skelmis laughs at that. “Death, you say? A gift your other sister possesses in abundance. We must re-acquaint them. How is silent Achlys these days?”
Nor is she my sister. I think of Achlys’ long vigil in the Temple of Pain. Death must be for her also a suitor too long delayed in arrival. Perhaps my Curse is not the worst of our burdens.
“You should take the map to her,” I suggest.
Skelmis stops laughing.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To see your sister’s ghastly hands around my throat? No chance of that. The ogres can go there.”
That pains me a little. Rufus and Tusk are evil brutes but they deserve better than undeath at the cold hands of Achlys.
“I shall call them,” I say.
“Not so fast!” Skelmis’ eyes dart to and fro with suspicion. He paces round the table, cracking his knuckles. “You’re up to something. With those big fools away, are you planning an insurrection, my dear Lachesis? To pull away your veil and show me your snaky face? I’ll not join your statue collection.”
It is typical of a man like Skelmis that he cannot imagine the Curse as anything other than a blessing. Were such power his, the world would grow grey with statues. That it pains me to use it is something he will not believe, because he cannot understand.
“How can I deceive you?” I tell him. “You possess the crystal.”
“I do!” he replies, snapping his fingers. “Fetch it, fetch it. We must catch up with your new friends.”
We set the crystal on the table and Skelmis bends his will to its puzzling facets. Images appear within it, at first fragmented, but slowly cohering.
“They have entered the Hobgoblin Redoubt again, or what remains of it.” He looks up at me with an expression of fierce suspicion, “That was badly-played, Lachesis. The Hobgoblins would have made a fine army for us.”
I shrug. A fine army for him perhaps. Skelmis’ ring could have made a puppet out of the Hobgoblin Commander, but he’s dead now. Trustee Sniv was meant to send those adventurers to their deaths in the Redoubt, yet somehow they prevailed.
Skelmis sighs as he recalls the day, three weeks ago, when the Hobgoblins fell. “How reckless, to scout round the entire Redoubt, then assault the main fortification anyway. Bold perhaps. Or just stupid. Which would you say, Lachesis?”
I think of the Swamp Elf who handed over the maps to me.
“A person can be both,” I reply.
Skelmis is absorbed in the crystal again. “The Danaan is with them again. Gods, those trousers! Don’t they have mirrors in the West?” He grins at me, evilly. “Let’s hope for your sake they don’t!” He returns to the crystal. “There’s the assassin who killed our Hobgoblin Commander. What a woman! I think she might be worth recruiting, even at the cost of one of our ogres. The Street Mage, bah! The Beautiful Ghoul, that was a fine prank your mad sister played. The dreary Ranger. That fool of an Elf. And look, your friend the Druidess is back. That will be a merry meeting.”
I ignore his taunts. Yrsa Jormungandr is coming today. I can feel her approach. I remain impassive but my snakes betray me with their agitation.
“Don’t think you can hide anything from me,” says Skelmis with a sneer. “I know you too well. You told that Druidess something, didn’t you?”
I shrug. “Only what I saw in the cards.”
“And what was that?”
“The serpent bites its tail.”
Skelmis studies me for a long time, then blows out his cheeks in a gesture I find irritating beyond all measure.
“How quaint, those cards of yours. You must tell me some time about the dead world you creatures come from. Your culture and –” he waves his hand “- stuff like that. Fighting the Millennium War. Losing. I can see it eats you up inside. But not today, eh?”
I think of Gorgadia as I saw it first: a world of pillared temples, the fountains, the snow-crowned mountains. It was a paradise, ruined by what followed me there. I think of Balor’s Cauldron and the transformations it wrought. Snakes for hair. The Curse. My last act of defiance before the serpents burst from my brow.
“They will be here soon,” says Skelmis, providing a welcome interruption from my brooding thoughts. “I think it’s time to add them to your statue collection outside.”
“Or send them to Achlys.”
Skelmis doesn’t answer. This is a dangerous moment. If he asks me for my reasons, I will have to tell him. But he won’t ask. He has no curiosity. And he wouldn’t believe me anyway.
He blows out his cheeks again.
“Sending them to Achlys is sending them to their deaths,” he says with self-satisfaction, as if he thought of it himself. “Then the fools can haunt the Temple of Pain as wandering Anguishes for a few years more, till the Nixthisis – praise her devouring hunger – gobbles the whole place up.” He sniggers at the thought, making me wonder, not for the first time, if his weird religion hasn’t driven him quite mad. “Achlys can take the map from their corpses,” he continues, “and send her Handmaidens to give your other sister a long-overdue murdering.”
“Then she comes for us,” I remind him, because I must.
“Then she comes for you,” he corrects me. “But don’t worry. The Nixithis will protect you.” He adds, “Perhaps. If I put in a kind word.”
He considers the crystal again. “They’ve discovered the doors to the Plated Mage’s laboratories. No getting in that way. Down the stairs they go. Nasty surprises on the fourth level.”
He pushes the crystal away.
“Good. If they found the stairs, they will find the caverns that lead to the Temple of Pain. They’ll run all the way to our front door, begging for chores, and you can send them straight back, like good little messengers.”
“They’ve been good messengers before.”
Skelmis narrows his eyes.
“No cards this time,” he says. “No coded messages. Just tell them where to go.”
“What if they want a reward?”
Skelmis almost drops the crystal. He bends over at the waist and laughs until he starts to cough. There’s blood on his phlegm.
“Promise them anything,” he says at last when the choking passes. “Promise them eternal life!” That sets him off again.
“What if they don’t want eternal life?” I say. I tell him my thoughts, because I must, “What if they prefer a good death?”
Skelmis dabs at his lips with a cloth and studies the blood flecks with a sort of dazed surprise. He shoves the rag away.
“Then tell them to jump off the bridge,” he says with grim relish.
For the first time in a long time, I smile.
“I shall do that.”