Salt-Laden Whispers in the Wounds of Night
Write a story that begins with the following sentence: "The Pacific Ocean, he mused, was damned big." This story is set in Maygra's "Shadow Riders" universe. WARNINGS: Dark themes, suggestions of sorts of torture
The Pacific Ocean, he mused, was damned big. Big enough to get lost in. Big enough to hide him from his past, from the present he shared with these other six.
"You gonna be all right?"
The voice startled him, even though he'd been aware of Chris walking up beside him. Josiah turned and met the other man's gaze, the green eyes as stormy as the moon-lit waters he'd been staring at. "Yeah," he said, surprised when his voice caught on the word.
Chris frowned and something in him seemed to soften. Or maybe it was flickering light of the torches they'd placed at the cave's entry way, he wasn't sure. "Buck and I need to go into town," Chris said, his tone a little more hesitant now. "I can wait, though, if you want, Buck can go first - "
"I'm fine," he said, forcing a smile. From the look on Chris' face, it didn't come out very pleasant. "We'll handle him until you get back."
Chris' frown grew though, and his eyes flickered out into the night before coming back to catch Josiah's eyes. "We've bled him, Nathan's also given him the mixture, and he's in the cage. If you're still worried, chain him to the rocks. The chains are - "
"I know where they are," he said, looking out to the sea. "We'll be fine."
They would be. If he had to stake Vin down with silver spikes and tear his black heart out.
"He's still weak," Chris said, as if he hadn't heard Josiah's comment. Or as if he knew Josiah's mind. "He won't be able to give you much fight, even if the daevas takes over."
The laughter came from somewhere deep inside, somewhere he'd rarely touched before. A little insanity, he thought, but then, it had only been a matter of time before they all started catching up to Vin's madness.
"Josiah," Chris said, touching his arm.
He gasped, trying to get control of himself, but the irony was too strong.
More movement behind Chris then Nathan moved out of the darkness of the cave and into the light cast by the torches. He looked worried, but that had become his normal expression as of late.
"I could stand a good laugh," he said as he stopped beside Chris. "Something you can share?"
"Wish I knew," Chris said, his eyes on Josiah.
It was the concern from Nathan that finally calmed him from the hysteria - for that, he knew, was what it had been. Not insanity, not yet, just a bout of surreality. "Chris was just explaining that Vin was weak, too weak for the daevas to put up a lot of fight."
Chris' jaw clenched, shifting the angle of the shadows along his pale neck. Nathan snorted and shook his head once, and Josiah knew that he was as angry as Josiah was.
Oddly, that calmed him more than Nathan's compassion would have.
"You losing your mind, Chris?" Nathan asked, his voice as hard as Josiah had ever heard it. "We thought that about the laudanum and morphine mix we gave him before he went on his two-week spree, killing his way across the countryside - right into that monastery. Now we got to wait to see how long the daevas can be contained by that combination, you boys bleeding him, the iron and silver cage, metal shackles - what else have we got to stop him?"
It was a damned good question, and maybe the one that had been preying on Josiah. The daevas that controlled Vin seemed to adapt to everything they came up with. It took a while, and they never knew how long nor had any warning.
This last time had cost them too much, maybe. Especially if it was costing them Nathan's compassion and, Josiah realized, his own forgiveness.
"That's the whole point of this trip, is it not?" a new voice said from the darkness of the cave.
Josiah watched as Ezra came forward, joining them. His left arm was back in its sling, a sign of his pain more so than a concession to Nathan. He had his purple jacket draped around his shoulders, one of the last times he'd wear it, Josiah suspected. It had been ripped in more places than they could repair, and Josiah suspected that Ezra only wore it now because they were living in a cave until they could find a way to better contain Vin. Couldn't very well keep a cage inside a boarding house.
Couldn't very well keep an uncontrollable daevas around innocent people.
"To find another way to control it?" Ezra said, looking at each of them.
"You really think we're going to be able to?" Nathan asked, his voice holding so much disdain that Josiah didn't recognize it. "We've been with him for - what, almost forty years now and he just gets harder and harder to contain."
"So - what, Nathan?" Chris snarled. "You want to stake him? Put a silver spike through his chest or his eyes or - what?"
Nathan stiffened. "Not so long ago it was what you wanted to do," he shot back. "He ain't the man we knew, Chris - you and Buck know that better than any of us."
"No," Ezra said, his voice pleasant in contrast to Nathan's and Chris'. "He's not the man we knew. And we are not the men we knew, either."
"That's the truth," Nathan said, the disdain coupled with disgust. "We're freaks. Probably better we die, too, as soon as we get rid of him."
It was the worst Nathan had ever sounded, the coldest and the most depressed.
Not good, Josiah sighed. All of them at the same time was a recipe for disaster - maybe not for them, but for the world they'd leave behind.
"It is an answer," Ezra said, his voice still calm, and even, in its way, amused. "We could eliminate Vin, and the daevas would move on to someone else - but it wouldnt matter as we would not be here to even try to control it. In fact - no one would be here to control it."
Josiah smiled, impressed once more with Ezra's presentation. Ezra's turn, he thought passingly. Each time they seemed to have reached the bottom, one of them was the voice of reason. Or the voice of optimism, as it were. Reason didnt seem to play a large part in this.
This was, he thought, Ezra's first time. A sure sign of how bad things were that Ezra and Nathan had switched positions completely.
"We didn't ask for this," Nathan said, his voice a rumble. "We didn't ask to be the keepers of this damned daevas or the ones to find Akmana and put him back in a crypt."
"No," Ezra agreed, "we most certainly did not. Yet here we are - and with no one else to take up the challenge. We could abandon it, certainly. After all, there is nothing here anymore, no one, to protect or to worry over."
Perfectly played, the right mix of disinterest and humor.
Nathan glared at him, his large hands curling into fists. "He almost killed Josiah this time," he growled. "He would have - would have killed all of us."
"Who?" Ezra countered mildly. "Akmana? Of course. His daevas? Certainly." He shrugged, the jacket moving around him with a sort of elegance. "But they are not the ones you want to punish. You want to punish Vin."
Nathan lifted a hand, touching Ezra's shoulder, the one over the arm the daevas had almost ripped from its socket. "Josiah ain't the only one who almost died," he said sharply.
Ezra nodded once, but his tone didn't change. "Nor will it be the last time he tries such with me, or with any of us. The daevas has one goal: to escape us and get back to Akmana. That is why the gypsies found it necessary to allow the one daespan to exist."
They all knew this, had known it for - well, not as long as they'd been what they were now, but close.
Josiah sighed. He was the one who had started this, with his own anger and pain. He needed to end it. "I'm all right," he said, trying to stand straight and failing as the hole in his side tried to reopen.
"You should change," Nathan said, moving past Chris to stand on Josiah's other side. He caught Josiah's elbow in one of his hands, helping him stand. "You'll heal faster." He turned to glare at Ezra. "Both of you."
"I will," Josiah agreed, turning to look out on the ocean. "Just wanted to see the water."
They stood for a while in silence, Josiah trying to find his own calm. Ezra was right; they were angry with Vin, because the thing that possessed him wore his face, used his voice and his personality - used him to try to defeat them. No one was angrier at Vin than Vin himself, Josiah knew.
Eventually, Chris shifted. "I'll send Buck into town."
"We'll be all right," Josiah said as Chris turned away. "Go with him."
Chris walked several steps away, as if he hadn't heard.
"Chris," Ezra called after him, his voice just a little sharp.
Chris stopped, looking back over his shoulder.
"We'll protect him - nothing will happen to him. Not from us, not from anyone or anything else." Ezra held Chris' gaze, sincere as he ever got.
Chris looked from him to Josiah.
Josiah sighed. "Of course we will," he said. "Just a bad couple of days."
Beside him, Nathan snorted a sound that might have been a laugh. Or a growl. "Bad couple of decades," he said. But under the frustration and the anger, Josiah heard the concern.
He leaned a little more heavily into Nathan's hold and asked, "You all right with watching over Vin?"
Nathan muttered a couple of words he didn't normally use, and Chris stiffened. But before anyone else could say anything, he went on, "I'm not going to hurt the son of a bitch. I'm not that stupid."
Josiah smiled and Chris nodded once before heading back into the cave.
"Beautiful night," Josiah said, looking back out to the ocean. The waters were still roiling but the starlight reflected brilliantly from them.
"Indeed," Ezra agreed. He took several slow steps forward, stepping onto the small threshold just outside the opening of the cave. It was difficult to get in or out, the cliff facing sheer, the path to the cave more a groove in the rocks than a path or trail. They'd used ropes and pulleys to lower the cage down and would use the same to get it out. Hopefully, Vin wouldn't be inside it when they left.
Josiah drew away from Nathan and eased himself down on a nearby slab of rock. Nathan stared out for a few seconds, then shook his head and followed Chris back into the cave. It was cool, Josiah noted, the end of winter, and they wouldn't be able to stay here long.
"Do you believe you can find these spells?" Ezra asked after a while. He was leaning on the wall just outside the cave, his coat pulled tightly around him. The question sounded casual, but Josiah knew better than to think it was merely a conversation ploy.
"I believe the spells are out there," he said after a second. "I think that it's not so much a matter of finding them as it is a matter of finding the right ones or the right combination. The old gods did it, and that knowledge is still here somewhere, we just have to find it."
"As simple as that," Ezra said, his sarcasm light. "If only we had some gypsies to talk to, but they seem to be a bit difficult to come by at present."
Josiah allowed himself to be amused. "Maybe we'll get to Europe eventually. Probably wouldn't hurt for someone to go, see about contacting any Hanash who might still live."
"I couldn't agree more," Ezra chuckled.
There were steps behind them, then Chris and Buck came into view.
"What a sight!" Buck said, exuberant even now, in the face of all that had happened these last few days. But then, that was Buck. Josiah had seen him as angry as any of them, but he'd always blown it off more quickly. "Lovely night to be out and about!"
"So it is," Ezra agreed. "But a might chilly. I believe I'll retire to the warmth of our fire for a while, see how our companions fare."
"He's still out of it," Chris said, his voice low as Ezra walked away. "Nathan will give him more of his potion if he comes around. Shoot him if you have to - "
"We'll be all right," Josiah said, looking up at their leader. "Ezra and I will go into town tomorrow, work some more with the books in the diocese's library."
Chris nodded, then walked past him without a word and out onto the ledge. He vanished into the darkness as if he'd never been.
Buck waited a few seconds then looked at Josiah. He was still smiling, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Vin wouldn't do that," he said, glancing at Josiah's chest.
"I know," Josiah agreed. "We've just got to find the way to keep Vin with us more than the daevas."
"We'll be back as soon as we can," Buck promised.
Josiah watched him disappear as well, hearing all the undercurrents in his words.
He sat for a while longer, thinking on the things unspoken between them all, on the affections that were as complex and distorted as everything else about them. He still didn't like it, but it was getting harder to determine whether his dislike was based in worry for Vin being used or perhaps abused, worry that Chris and Buck were being seduced by the daevas more so than by Vin, or the memories of a morality that had long sense ceased to be real to him.
When he was finally shivering too much to think, he pushed himself up and put out the torches. Buck and Chris didn't need them and there was no use wasting their resources. He trudged into the warmth of the cave, the light from their fire and lamps leading the way. They had settled far enough back not to be visible from the mouth, just in case of strangers making it past their defenses during the odd moments when they were all distracted.
Ezra was stretched out on a pallet, his hat pulled over his eyes and his face turned away from the low fire that burned in the pit they'd dug to one side. JD, in wolf form, raised his head as Josiah drew near, his dark eyes reflecting the flames. He was on a blanket placed in front of the cage, his back against the barred side.
Nathan was still up, though, sitting on a pallet with a blanket around his shoulders, a book open on his knees, and his back against the wall. He was facing the cage, and every so often, he'd glance up, looking at it.
Looking at Vin.
Josiah looked, too, first to see if he was, as Chris had said, 'out of it'. He was.
But something else held his attention. The 'appearance of death' was what he termed it to himself, a look he knew in truth and in the perverted way that it appeared here, among them - Chris, Buck, Vin. Dead, but not.
He wasn't aware of moving forward, only of the way the vision of Vin grew before his eyes, in his head.
He was . . . Josiah tried not to think it, but it the image was too close to what he'd believed, what he'd studied for too long. He knew that Buck or Chris - or maybe both - had bled him again before they left, a thought that was, at one level, reassuring, and at another, disgusting.
Vin was pale, almost white with the blood loss. The cage was small, too small for his long body, so he was on one side, curled into a fetal position, his arms up against his chest. His hair, long and tangled, lay in loose strands over his face and down his chest. He'd shaved - or been shaved, Josiah wasn't certain when Vin had been conscious or himself lately - and his skin was smooth and youthful.
He looked like a statue. Or a martyr. Innocent and plagued. His wrists were crossed, held in place by the silver cuffs that bound them to each other on a loose chain. Later, as his blood and the blood of the daevas regained its strength, the flesh around the cuffs would blacken and bruise, reacting to the silver, but now, they looked too slender and fragile for the wide strips.
He was on a pallet and a pillow, and there were blankets at his feet, but now he was covered only in the rough, loose clothes he preferred. He wouldnt let them spend money on him, not for clothes or other comforts. Penance, Josiah knew, for the things that had happened.
For the things that would happen.
That, he thought, was the hardest part of it, and perhaps, the part that angered him the most. The part that had reacted tonight.
Ezra was right, they did want to punish Vin, not the daevas. But the punishment they wanted was death - the sure, certain, permanent relief from the horror from what they now called life - what they now knew Vin's 'life' to be.
In this instant, Vin was as dead as he could get in this form. He drew breath so rarely that it was imperceptible, his heart beat so slowly and so uncertainly that there was no sound.
Dead and perfect and innocent.
And maybe this, too, was the problem.
Josiah studied him, unable to tear his mind away from the ideas of saints and martyrs, people who had created a faith in the face of opposition and death. Of angels, bringing the word of God or his vengeance.
Of men who suffered unbearable pain and hardships for their beliefs, for the lives of their fellow man.
A god that was too new to understand ancient demons like the one that owned a part of Vin.
"Hard to believe he'll be a raging devil when he wakes up," Nathan said softly. "Looks so harmless right now."
Josiah couldnt disagree. It was hard to believe - but then, Vin wasn't alone in his body.
He sat down on his own pallet, carefully tugging off his boots. The wounds pulled and hurt, and he debated changing into his wolf state. Nathan was right, it would help with the healing.
But right now, he felt the need to hold his humanity close. Felt the need to suffer a little of his own pain. It was a penance of his own, he knew, for what he thought he understood, what he thought might be a way through this for them, a way to trap the daevas more securely inside Vin.
The idea of it, intellectually, was reassuring in its way. It would give them better control of the daevas, maybe give Vin better control of his body. It used the same principles that they knew the Hanash had used with Akmana himself - prayers and curses from various orthodoxies, etched in silver into the case that held him.
Practically, he was mortified at the very idea of what he was thinking. It was unthinkable - or should have been. Would have been forty years ago.
Now though, the idea chased itself around in his head, as it had been for several days, vague at first, a mere notion and hardly formed. But he had found more than he ever expected to find in the old books and scrolls that had found their way to the new world three centuries before.
Prayers and curses to bind demons, most in the new tongues of the West, but some in tongues older than the God he had once believed in.
He was drowsing, sitting up but leaning back against the wall of the cave, when he sensed movement. Past JD, Vin was shifting in the cage, his eyes blinking as he slowly came to consciousness.
Blue and hazy, Josiah noted. They'd learned that when the daevas had control, the blue of Vin's eyes was hidden under a deep black that looked as if his pupils were dilated.
Nathan and Ezra were both asleep, but JD perked up, his head looking back to watch Vin as well. He didn't seem worried which meant he didn't smell the daevas.
Vin tried to stretch out, but his feet connected with the end of the cage and he jerked back, coming more awake.
Beside Josiah, Nathan shifted at the sound, but he didn't wake. Ezra didn't move either, and JD got up, walked a little circle to stretch his back then curled back up on his blanket. He was, though, facing the cage now and he had moved back some, out of easy reach should the daevas surface quickly.
Vin moved again, maybe trying to sit up, maybe trying to roll onto his back but he was pinned in the close confines of the cage. He tried to move an arm only to find his wrists caught in the cuffs. For a second, Josiah saw the panic in his eyes, a very human terror.
Followed slowly by very human resignation as it all came back to him, the how and the why of it.
Vin moved more carefully then, drawing his legs up and easing slowly onto his back, his knees bent. He used his elbows to lever himself so that his shoulders and head rose, his weight resting against the side of the cage and his legs angled a little less sharply.
It wasn't comfortable, though, Josiah had no doubt about that. Vin's legs were probably cramping as the feeling returned - as life returned.
Josiah pushed himself slowly up, his body stiff from being still too long, from the chill in the air, and from the wounds that were healing. He was quiet, not really wanting to wake the others. Not yet. They'd had precious little rest lately.
Vin watched him, his eyes still unfocused. Drugged, still, from the morphine and the laudanum. Enough to kill a horse must leave behind some sort of hangover, but Vin never complained of it.
JD's ear twitched as Josiah moved past, and his eyes were open, but he didn't move. Josiah stood for a few seconds, looking down at Vin who looked up at him with no expression. No welcome, but no fear nor even wariness. Tiredness, Josiah thought, and resignation.
With a sigh, he eased down into a crouch beside the cage, holding one arm close against his side. "Cramps?" he asked quietly.
Vin was looking at Josiah's arm, a frown hovering around his features. "How bad?" he asked, or tried to. His voice was rough and airy, an effort.
"I'll live," Josiah said, letting himself be amused for a few seconds at the irony. "So will everyone else, even though Ezra's purple jacket is beyond saving."
Vin almost smiled, the corners of his lips twitching with the effort. It reminded Josiah of what he liked in Vin, what he had always liked. What made Vin different from the daevas.
"Can't let you out," he said softly. "But if you let me attach the wrist cuffs to the bars, I can open the door and let you stretch out for a while."
The frown was back, but his eyes seemed a little more direct. "Shouldn't do that," he said. "Just give me more of Nathan's concoction."
"You really want that?" Josiah asked without thinking.
Vin blinked and looked at him. "You want that?" he countered, glancing to Josiah's body, to the wounds hidden under the layers of shirts he wore.
The last of the anger faded at the question, at the look on Vin's face. "Wasn't you," Josiah said.
Vin looked away, closing his eyes. "Doesn't matter. I can't stop it."
The resignation dominated now, and Josiah wondered what it must be like, to live in a body no longer one's own.
It was a thought familiar to him, as he'd had moments himself, usually in his wolf form, when he felt out of control. But even in those moments, he'd been aware of himself as an entity within his own body, had an awareness of what he was doing. From what Vin had said, he didn't even have that.
He studied Vin, wondering if he wanted to know the answer. But now that the thought, the question was in his head, he didn't think he could let it go unasked. "Do you know?" he asked reluctantly. "When the daevas is in control, do you know what it's doing?'
Vin didn't move, but his whole body seemed to tremble. He swallowed, several times, his throat working hard, and Josiah realized his mouth must be dry from the long sleep, the drugs, and the blood loss.
But before he could offer to get water, Vin spoke. "Sometimes. Maybe, maybe most times." He closed his eyes so tightly that his whole face seemed to draw in on itself, crumbling into lines and wrinkles that made him look older than he would have been had his body aged as it should. "It . . . sometimes, it wants me to feel what it feels, to be a part of it, like it can . . . like it can make me want the same thing. Other times, it don't seem to care that I'm there, and I can see and hear what's going on, but it's like I'm behind a curtain or looking through a dirty window. Everything's grey and dull and I know what's happening but I can't do nothing. I can't move, can't breathe, can't make a noise. I'm just there, and I can't shut it off, can't stop it, can't even close my eyes and not see. I . . . I ain't never felt so helpless."
The last was a whisper, a sort of whimper as well, and Josiah closed his own eyes. For a second, he tried to imagine what it would be like to have to stand by and watch, unable to move or look away as someone he cared about was hurt by - by him. In his wolf form, his animal instincts controlled him, and he stalked game and killed it to feed himself and the others. He also responded to the threat of the daevas, keeping it trapped and away from where it could do damage to humans.
But he still retained enough awareness of self to come back to himself when he needed or wanted to. And even as the wolf, he was aware of himself in that body, just him.
The fear that the time would come when he didn't, couldn't, had been close to the top of his list of worries. The understanding that it was Vin's reality was staggering.
"Give me your hands," Josiah said quietly, reaching into his pocket for the iron chain he carried.
Vin shivered again then slowly shook his head, once. "Just gimme the drink," he said, his voice rough. "Let me - let me die again. For a while. I don't . . . I don't remember then."
"Don't remember what?" he asked, watching Vin's face. "What's the worst of it?"
Vin closed his eyes, shaking his head, but he did answer, and Josiah knew that this, too, was a form of penance for him, to list his crimes. "Remembering how I hurt y'all. How I killed Mary Catherine and them others." He shook this time, the metal of the cuffs clanking against each other.
"It's not you," he said, reaching between the bars to catch one of Vin's wrists. "We all know that."
He'd said the words before - so many times that they rolled of his tongue without thought.
Rolled off his tongue so easily that he wasn't really aware of saying them, until Vin looked at him.
"You got something to say to me?" Vin asked softly. "You got an idea, J'siah?"
It was too close, almost prescient. And he gave it away, he knew, the instant he jerked back, letting go of Vin's wrist and clanking the chain he held against the bars of the cage.
Vin smiled, his thin lips twisting familiarly. "That bad?"
Josiah sighed, glancing around as Nathan stirred across the way. The other man rolled onto his side, but he didn't seem to wake, and after a time, Josiah looked down to find Vin watching him.
"What did you find?" he asked. "Tell me."
Josiah studied him. There was no guile here, no subterfuge. This was Vin, not the daevas. He was scared, Josiah saw the fear in him, but more than that, he saw the bravery.
"I found some binding curses," he said quietly, reaching back through the bars to catch one of Vin's wrists. "They're in the old tongues, maybe even in the ancient Persian. I think we can use them."
A grin flickered over Vin's face, but his mind was quick and the grin turned south. "Why ain't that good?" he asked. "Seems we could use that."
He didn't resist as Josiah pulled his arms up, chaining the manacles to the bars of the cage. "We can," Josiah agreed as he clicked the locks in place. He sat back, meeting Vin's gaze again. Searching it. "It's not in the words, though," he went on, "it's in the idea of where to put them."
Vin blinked but his attention didn't waver. "Akmana was in a box, a big silver one. The curses were painted on it." He tilted his head. "Etched in it, weren't they? Carved into the silver?"
Josiah didn't have to wait long - Vin's mind was quick. He came up with the thought almost before the last question was out of his mouth.
The fear blazed for an instant, hot and wild in his eyes, and the chains clanked as he jerked against them.
But not for long; he stilled, possibly at the noise, his body tense and trembling. His breathing was fast and his eyes were wide but his voice was even and soft. "What are you thinking about? Cutting them into me with a silver knife or - hell, that won't - " His voice caught as the idea fleshed out in his head.
"We'd do it while you're dead," Josiah said quickly. "Under the drugs. You wouldn't feel it - "
"I wouldn't heal, either," Vin answered sharply, but his tone was still low, a hiss more than a sound. He took a deep breath, though, forcing himself to relax.
Josiah tugged again at the chains, even though he knew they were tight and locked. He had to stand up to get into his pants pocket for the key to the cage, and the stretching pulled at his wounds.
He thought about them, about this pain. It was minimal, all things considered. It wouldn't compare to the pain of having one's skin cut open and filled with molten silver.
Vin would live through it, he'd live through anything except his head being severed from his neck, as long as the daevas was trapped in his body.
But the daevas didn't make the pain go away - Vin could suffer physically forever with no relief.
Josiah bent down, unlocking the padlock that held the door closed. He was careful to make as little noise as possible, not wanting to wake the others - and wanting to finish this conversation. There was no way to know when he might have a chance to talk to Vin alone again.
Vin was still until Josiah had the door open but the temptation was too great. Josiah heard the hiss and looked down to find Vin's features tense and hard, his eyes closed, as he stretched his legs out. Pain and pleasure, his body tight from being cramped for so long that his muscles resisted the stretch.
Without a thought, Josiah reached down and through the opened door, catching the back of one of Vin's legs and lifting it, helping him to move.
Vin made a noise that was something like a growl and a whimper but it cut off quickly. On the other side of the cage, JD's ear flickered and he twitched, but he didn't wake. Josiah felt the muscle in his hand rippling despite the layer of cloth between, the tremors of flesh kept too long in one position.
He hadn't watched Buck and Chris with Vin - couldn't. There was something repugnant in the sight of it, and it wasn't just the perverse changes in the facial features and teeth of the two who were now 'strigoi', even though that was bad enough. Josiah was too accustomed to seeing his fellow 'murony' - JD, Ezra, and Nathan - go through the agonizing physical contortions that changed them from men to wolves, contortions that were more grotesque than what he saw with Chris and Buck.
No, the repugnance was in what they did to Vin. And in the fact that Vin let them.
He put Vin's leg on the floor as gently as he could, but as he looked back, he couldn't stop himself from calculating the distance between the bars, couldn't stop his imagination from visualizing Vin pressed back against them, his neck stretched long to one side so that Chris could bite it without having to take Vin out of the cage. It could be done, the bars were wide enough and Vin would be pliable, drugged almost to unconsciousness if not already in it.
But the real repugnance was in the image of Vin not drugged, but still pliable. Or, more to the point, willing.
The thought of it made Josiah shiver.
"Ain't what you think," Vin murmured through a clenched jaw. He was slowly stretching his other leg, the movement jerky as those muscles cramped, and he caught his breath, his lips tight.
With no hesitation, Josiah caught Vin's ankle and lifted, pulling the spasming muscles straight.
There was resistance, and he looked back to see Vin's upper body bent, his hands wrapped around the bars, his arms tense as he pulled himself up. His eyes were closed, his lashes fluttering against his flushed cheekbones, and sweat beaded above his lips.
But he made no sound, still not even breathing, and Josiah once more had the vision of a martyr.
After a while, the tension eased and Vin sighed softly. His grip on the bars loosened and he relaxed a little, shrugging his shoulders and bending his elbows. His fingers still clasped the bars, though, holding his hands and wrists so that the metal chains wouldn't clank.
"It ain't what you think," Vin said again, and even though the words were quieter this time, they were more clear. He blinked and looked up, his eyes finding Josiah's.
Josiah edged closer then dropped into a crouch. "Do you know what I'm thinking?" he asked, partly in amusement, partly in wonder of some new power the daevas might be giving Vin.
Vin almost smiled himself. "I don't mean it that way," he said, shaking his head. His hair brushed against his shoulders and the round of arm as it sloped up. He wasn't quite sitting, the cage not tall enough for that, and he wasn't quite reclining. He couldn't hold this position for very long either, and Josiah knew that when the cramped muscles shifted from his legs to his belly, he'd ask for the drugs once more.
"You don't like this . . . " He frowned, searching for words, but his eyes never left Josiah's. "This thing 'tween me and Chris and Buck."
He tried not to react, but something must have shown. Vin's humor ebbed away, leaving tiredness in its wake.
"It's all we got," he said, more a whisper now. "They can't be with nobody human - you know that. And damned sure I can't be." His gaze dropped away then, and Josiah could only imagine the things he was seeing in his mind. "I . . . it ain't as bad as it seems," he went on, "it ain't them using me or me using them - or the daevas using them, either. Not . . . not always, anyway."
"But sometimes?" Josiah asked.
Vin shifted, drawing in a deep breath, but he forced his head back up. "Yeah, sometimes. Maybe more times than - well, when I'm not with them, not in the mood. But they know when it's the part of Akmana in me, and they can stop it. So don't go blaming them - or me, or whoever. It is what it is. And it's . . . " He swallowed, pink staining his cheeks as the flush swept up. But his held his voice steady and still quiet. "It's the only thing that gets me through this - not the sex. But just . . . them being there."
Josiah tried, turning the words around in his head, shaping them in different ways in hopes of making them make sense. But they didn't. He'd never considered himself a condemning man - his father had demonstrated how that could ruin people and relationships.
And he'd known men who preferred other men. It wasn't something he spent a lot of time thinking on, either in the detail or the abstract. It wasn't his way and he did believe just enough in his own variations on faith that it was not right. Not wrong, he wasn't willing to pass that judgment - that was for God, whichever god one believed in. But it wasn't right, not for him.
"We're all here for you," Josiah head himself say. The words were a surprise, more so in the tone - even in his own ears, they sounded petulant.
"That ain't what I mean," Vin sighed, his features wrinkling with frustration. "I know you're all here for me - damned gypsies didn't give y'all a choice - "
"Im sorry," Josiah held out a hand, touching Vin's arm. "I didn't mean it that way, either. I meant . . . " He sighed, too. Vin's flesh was cool under his fingers, and without thinking, he rubbed a little, searching for heat.
But none came, the daevas still sleeping inside Vin's body.
"They help me to remember who I was," Vin said. "Help me remember that Im still in here somewhere. Me, not me and this thing, but - just me."
Josiah shook his head. "Did you . . . before all this," he gestured with the hand not on Vin, "did you prefer men?"
Vin made a noise that sounded like a laugh but was too smothered to be clear. "Prefer? No. But I didn't always say no to a man if I was lonely enough."
These words wound through his head several times before he understood - but this time, he did understand.
It was hard to believe that Vin could be lonely; he was surrounded by the six of them all the time. He was never allowed to be alone - not even in sleep. They had learned that the hard way that the daevas could take control of the sleeping body, even if he was close to death. They'd lost Vin a couple of times over the decades since they'd been changed, but only a couple. And now, they kept him locked up to make sure it didn't happen again.
He lived in a body with another - presence, a thing that knew his mind, his body, could control him at its will, or so it seemed.
But Josiah knew that loneliness wasn't about having people around. He'd been lonely in his life, even among crowds of people.
And he'd never been lonelier than he was now, too aware of the ways in which he was no longer a man like he had been, like the people they protected by leading this new, nightmarish life. He had some solace in knowing that Ezra, Nathan, and JD were as he was, still part man. Chris and Buck were more different, undead as they were, but they, too, had each other with whom to share some understanding.
Vin was the only one of his kind, and bearing the weight of crimes that weren't his own. Before this happened, this change, he'd been accused of a murder he hadn't committed. Now his body if not his mind and his soul had committed murders and it would commit them again at any chance it - under the control of the daevas - got.
That could make a man lonely, Josiah reckoned, could make him crave a few minutes of being nothing but a man again - even if it was in the arms of other men. Or what Buck and Chris were, anyway. As Vin had mentioned, he couldn't be near humans, not for long - the daevas was drawn to the surface quickly and it fought hard to feed. And despite their other-natures, Nathan, Ezra, JD, and Josiah himself still retained enough humanity that they couldn't be close to Vin for very long either without finding themselves dealing with the daevas. Chris and Buck were the only ones who the daevas ignored.
"I'm not judging you," he said slowly, and he knew now that it was true. "I can't say that I understand it, and I don't think that I like it, but it's not my place to think of it one way or another - as long as you're sure that it's what you want, and it's what they want."
Vin looked at him, searching for the truth, and Josiah let him see it. After a while, Vin nodded. "I guess one of the things we've all come to know is that our wants have adapted to what we can have. I can't say that if I had my life back, if any of us had our lives back, it's what we'd choose. But for now, yeah, I do want it. It's 'bout all that keeps me sane - and there are days that I ain't sure about that."
The words were serious, but a grin flashed over his face - not a smile, and not anything that lasted. But Vin was easier now, and Josiah found that he was, too.
"We'll do what we have to," Vin went on. "We already know that there ain't a lot that's going to kill me. So you find them curses and figure out what we need for 'em to say, and we'll worry about the rest as it comes along. Hell, reckon I done enough damage to all of y'all to let you get a little back."
Josiah didn't like to think that that was part of what had been driving his anger, but he knew that it was.
JD's ear twitched, then his head came up, his dark eyes bright and curious. He got to his feet and turned toward the tunnel that led to the cave's mouth just in time for a dark shadow to separate from the gloom.
Buck, Josiah recognized, then Chris. As they moved into the light cast by the fire and the lamps, Josiah noticed the flush to their skin - they'd fed recently, and well from the look of it.
Something else he didn't really want to think on.
Chris moved past Buck and came straight to the cage, dropping into a crouch across from Josiah. "You all right?" he asked Vin, his voice low but tight. His gaze skirted to Josiah, and Josiah saw the worry coupled with irritation.
"We're just talking," Vin answered. "Josiah let me stretch my legs."
Nathan rolled onto his back and snorted, but after a few seconds, he settled back into sleep. JD was standing beside Buck who was leaning down to him, scratching him behind the ears and murmuring something Josiah couldn't make out.
"You hurting?" Chris asked as he reached through the bars to slide an arm around Vin's back.
"I'll live," Vin answered, grinning.
It was in that, Josiah saw, the grin, the amusement, the sense of - peace. Around Chris and Buck, Vin relaxed. It wasn't sexual, but it was intimate. And trusting. Vin knew that his ability to hurt Chris and Buck was less than it was with the rest of them. Just as the daevas' ability to seduce was weaker with Chris and Buck than it was with - anyone else, human or part-human.
"Why don't we get you out of there?" Buck said quietly as he and JD joined them. "Let you walk around a while. It's a beautiful night."
Vin looked at him, then he looked over at Josiah. "That all right?" he asked, his words easy, but Josiah saw the plea in his gaze, the plea his words would never hold.
His hand was still on Vin's, and he jerked it away without thinking. "It is a beautiful night," he agreed as he stood to find the key in his pocket.
As he pulled it free, Buck held out his hand for it. As their eyes met, Josiah saw the concern in Buck as well.
He stepped back, letting Chris and Buck handle the unlocking of the chains and Vin's faltering efforts to get out of the cage. He was still weak, unsteady even on his hands and knees as he crawled out the door and onto the dirt of the cave's floor, but Chris was at his side. Josiah watched as Chris and Buck both moved in close, their hands familiar on Vin's body, and Vin surrendering easily to their touches.
Josiah found himself turning away, and even though he tried to make himself stop and look and not feel uncomfortable, it didn't happen.
He was aware of them as they moved slowly out of the wide room of the cave and into the tunnel leading out, but it was only when he was sure they were out of sight that he turned to look.
"Do you believe him?" The words were low, but not a surprise. He doubted Ezra had ever been asleep. Ezra sat up, sliding his hat back to rest on his head as he, too, looked after the other four.
"About what?" Josiah asked as he moved around the cage and toward the fire. It was low and he was cold now, as much from his thoughts as from the chill of the early morning hour.
Ezra pushed himself up and moved to the fire as well, and they worked for several seconds to rekindle it, adding wood from a collection nearby. "Any of it - not minding the idea of having his body carved up, not minding what happens between them."
Ezra had always been adept at hiding his feelings, but over the long years, Josiah had learned to hear the nuances. He heard it now, the distaste and worry that matched his own.
He let the flames build a little, the crackle of the fire gentle and the heat soothing. "It's his penance," he said after a while. "For hurting people, for hurting us."
Ezra chuckled. "Yes, even I can see that," he said, but the sarcasm was muted, not enough to offend Josiah. "But which one of those things is his penance?"
Josiah glanced over at Ezra. The brim of his hat cast shadows over his face, so that his eyes were vague and blurred. "Reckon it's a little of both," he said, holding out his hands to the heat. "I don't know that I could be so accepting, and I hope I never have to find out."
Ezra looked away, into the fire. After a time, he asked, "Some might argue that it makes things simpler, to have one's choices so limited. And his choices would seem to be reduced to the barest of things - a cage with people who purport to be his friends guarding him from, mostly, himself. I think . . . I think I should go insane." The last was a mere whisper.
"Perhaps he has," Josiah answered. "Perhaps we all have, but unlike him, we haven't accepted our lack of control."
Ezra glanced toward the cave's entrance. "Perhaps," he agreed but the word was long, considered.
Josiah was asleep when they returned, but he awoke when the doors to the cage clanked shut and the key grated in the lock. Vin was on his side on the pallet, Chris kneeling outside the cage beside him. There were no words that Josiah heard, but there didn't need to be. Buck moved to Chris' side, bending down to put an arm on his shoulder. As Chris rose, Josiah saw that Vin's eyes were closed, his face once more the deathly pale of death. Buck straightened as well, stepping away from Chris but closer to the cage. He leaned over once more and reached through the bars, pulling on a blanket behind Vin.
Like the way they had handled Vin's body earlier, it was intimate and gentle, time-consuming, as Buck had to work around the bars of the cage, but he covered Vin's still form, eventually smoothing the end of the cloth over Vin's upraised shoulder and along his back. Affectionate and caring - the human side of things that it was so easy for them all to forget.
Buck stood again and turned around to look toward Josiah. The key, Josiah thought; he'd left it on the cage before he went to sleep, and now, Buck would want it to be in his hands, or in someone's.
No use pretending, he sighed, pushing himself up. The air was cold as his blankets fell away, and he wondered how they stood it - Vin, anyway.
Buck moved to him, holding out the key, but as Josiah reached for it, Buck's fingers closed around his hand and he leaned in close. "Find another way," he said, his tone flat.
Josiah didn't have to ask what Buck was talking about, but the anger was a surprise.
Even though, really, it wasn't. As he met Buck's gaze, blinking through his sleep, he saw it as clearly as if Buck had said it. It wasn't just sex and seduction and the daevas, it wasn't guilt for Vin being the one the daevas took that day instead of Buck. Somewhere in the whole mess of this, Buck cared for Vin, maybe even loved him.
That should have been more upsetting, Josiah realized as he watched Buck turn and walk away. But it wasn't. Nor was it upsetting to see the same feeling in Chris' eyes as they met his over the glow of the fire.
The Pacific Ocean, he mused as he watched the night recede into it, banished by the rays of the sun, was damned big. But not big enough to stop the chaos that would come if they gave up on Vin or on each other. He knew he should have been angry at the idea that Chris and Buck thought he would choose first an option that would make Vin suffer. That they would assume that he hadn't been searching all this time for another way.
But right now, as he watched the swell of the water, the early-morning call of the birds and the playful jumping of the deep-water creatures, all he felt was relief that he wasn't carrying the weight of the idea alone anymore. If the time came, they would all have tried to find a different answer and they would share the burden of it together.
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