A way up the hill, behind the houses on a rocky out-cropping too small to build houses on, he found a clear view.
There was blood on his hands - some of it his from the sharp rocks he’d been climbing to get here, but most of it the man’s that hadn’t been wiped onto the stone - and he wiped it off on his shirt.
The crowd was a way further down the hill now, and he stood over it all. Above him there was only the Chapel of Law, surrounded by unsullied gardens.
The town below him was wrecked - wooden houses were on fire, and soldiers, far more than necessary, were smashing their way into peoples’ homes, dragging them out by their hair, along with items that looked peculiar - five-point stars in circles, candles, figures of dog-headed beings and cloaked human-like idols made from mossy stone.
They dragged them back up the hill.
Otherwise, people were uncaringly being knocked into burning buildings. Some of the Weeds that had been tripped over and trampled were now being carried down the hill, no longer resisting or trying to stand.
Oleander was more concerned for finding Hellebore, though, and tried to climb further, his stomach turning from the scene below.
He tried to block out the blood-curdling screams, and took a hold of the long grass on the incline in front of him, ignoring the tiny slits they cut into his fingers when he slipped.
It was as he gasped in pain, a strand of grass burying itself into one of his many cuts as he came so close to the top, that a thick hand gripped the back of his shirt and tried to lift him up.
Oleander was choking and trying to loosen the shirt’s pull on his neck when the fabric ripped completely, and he dropped.
He glanced at his captor as he fell, but his gaze caught someone behind them - a female voice had yelped.
Hellebore was there, reaching out for him, the blood drained from her face but not moving from her position.
The thick man barrelled down the incline after the boy as he gripped at grass and jutting rocks and tried to slow himself down - if he went over the edge, the rocks below would tear him apart. He’d never reach the bottom alive.
The man chasing him was stocky, and his neatly combed hair had turned grey with age. He wore a long black robe and a white collar. He was strong for his age, and had a steely look in his eyes and a smirk plastered on his face. He radiated self-confidence and something else that seemed to make the air distort around him.
Loa! Oleander gasped, suddenly unsure whether he wanted to stop. His heart felt like it was going to break his ribcage and leap from his chest. He saw weeks and weeks inside his head all at once - knives slicing his back, voices screaming in his ears, trays holding various body-parts of his... and he remembered it all becoming so blurry, all the days melting into one painful, bloody mess.
His back hit rock and he started to skid - there was nothing big enough to hold anymore.
He wasn’t slow enough.
He was going to fall.
He was going to-
His legs stuck out into thin air and he see-sawed over the edge of the rocky out-cropping.
Darnel Loa was laughing - a deep cackle, like he’d just succeeded in keeping the victim of his most ingenious torture alive.
Oleander was holding onto the edge of the jutting rock with bleeding hands, trying desperately to not react and let go as another tiny stone cut further into his exposed muscle.
All along the bottom of his arms and up his stomach and back was grazed and burning, turning red and white with blood and torn skin. The pain was starting to make his vision blurry.
He could just see Loa lumbering towards him, and Hellebore staring in horror at the top of the incline.
She wasn’t running to help. She was just watching.
She’d never gone back to get Pennyroyal and run away.
He gritted his teeth, forcing his rage to take over the pain. Tensing his arms and kicking his legs, he tried to pull himself back up, but he came even closer to slipping than before.
He didn’t have the strength; it may have been more than a month, but his body wouldn’t even have had the strength if he wasn’t still frail from his time in the dungeons.
Darnel stood over him now, sneering down.
“This could have ended quicker.” When Loa spoke, it was with the same smooth tone Oleander knew. It was a voice that should be comforting, but with it’s connection to agony, it seemed almost purposefully designed to make any who feel the wrath of it’s owner fear anyone who spoke with such softness.
“My dear, poor boy.” He frowned like he was concerned, and sighed heavily, “If only this lieutenant hadn’t been so sensitive. If she hadn’t taken you away to fulfil her own need for reassurance, you would already be dead. You wouldn’t have had to suffer such pain. It’s such a shame we have no use for you anymore.”
Oleander grunted, trying to get a better grip.
“We found the thieves’ guild a month ago.” Loa grinned in satisfaction, “Now there is no thieves’ guild.”
Oleander was slipping, fingers threatening to leap open wide and let him fall, partly because of the pain, but partly because of the huge, terrifying presence in front of him.
As Loa eased himself down to his knees and closed his hands and eyes in silent prayer, face towards the heavens, a thought occurred to Oleander, fuelled by desperation:
In the woods, he had seen a forest of yew trees appear out of nowhere; yew trees were an omen of death; he had seen the skeleton of the figure in the woods; it had said something about immortals; it had stolen his breath and almost caused his body to stop moving from fear; Poppy had fled the scene crying that death had not seen her; the girl in the streets with the wise voice had told him that they were connected by death. He recalled the girl’s voice, like she’d been around for years, yet her hands had been un-wrinkled, and young.
He’d seen magic... Surely much more could be possible.
Perhaps death was more than an untouchable, unpreventable event, perhaps it was Death. A thing. A person.
And if so, he knew the presence of death.
And he couldn’t feel it.
With a smile, he told himself he wasn’t dying in the next few minutes, and then, with a sigh as Loa finished his prayer, he let the rock go.
Hellebore was screamed, Loa grunted and dived forward.
Oleander found his wrist caught again.
The bones and muscles in it popped and cracked, failing to hold up his weight.
“You want to die, dear boy?” Loa was barely holding himself together: a hair had curled upwards in his dash to grab Oleander. “Do... you... want... to... die?”
Oleander couldn’t speak, or sign, but he glared up into Loa’s eyes like a dare.
Go on, he thought, do it. I’m not dying right now.
Loa’s face creased into a twisted grin. He started to swing Oleander from side to side, and suddenly he started to doubt his theory.
His wrist felt like it was about to snap; that, or be crushed by Loa’s powerful, meaty fist.
“Don’t kill yourself, boy.” The words rumbled from far back in the big man’s throat. “That would be a sin. You don’t want to make your punishment in the Serpent after you die even worse.”
In a final attempt at retaliation, Oleander tugged hard at his arm.
If I’m going to die, he thought, I’m not going to give this psychopath the satisfaction of thinking he saved me from something.
The bones connecting his wrist to his hand dislocated painfully, leaving Oleander screaming, but he kicked his body back and forth anyway, so he was now spinning in a circle over the town and the bed of rocks below.
Hellebore was crying loudly now, gasping his name between sobs, but he heard no footsteps, no attempts at rescue.
Protect us, he thought bitterly, She can’t protect us. I’m the only one who can protect me... The only one who can save me. She’s a liar.
“Oleander.” Loa sneered, leaning so close to him that he could feel his breath. He glanced back at his lieutenant and chuckled. “Raised by thieves and liars. You know, she told us she was going to be very strict. ‘I won’t even let them outside’, she said, ‘I promise.’”
Oleander breathed deeply, vision fading from the pain now, but he forced himself to keep his eyes on Hellebore, who he had been pulled up high enough to see.
“Any last words before I send you to be judged, my dear boy?” Loa spat the words, eyes overflowing with hatred for the young boy before him.
Oleander glanced at Loa, not letting his contorted face throw off the rage that kept him conscious and capable of being disrespectful until the last moment.
He glared back at Hellebore, who looked back at him in despair, quietly begging him to forgive her. Her lips moved, but she was too afraid to even make the noises.
“Yeah.” He forced out, voice cracking. He looked around at the scenery behind the two figures... The sky was still bright behind them, stretching on forever, cushioned by clouds. He just made out a bed of golden flowers swaying behind Hellebore. Again, he settled his eyes on the woman who’d been bringing him food for a month, who’d promised to protect him and Pennyroyal, even as she was lying, who had screamed and cried for him, but was too afraid of authority to attempt to save someone she claimed to love. That woman put both he and Pennyroyal in danger.
“I hope the Serpent eats you both.” He forced out, unfazed by how dulled the syllables sounded, as long as the words hit that woman like a thousand of the sharpest knives.
Just before Loa swung him outwards and cast him hard against the rocks below the outcropping, Hellebore gripped her heart like she’d been shot.
Oleander collided with cold rock feeling satisfied.
Then everything went black.