(Go back to Part 32)
“There is only one Cure,
And it is I.
The flame burns my heart.
What delicious madness this is!”
–The Lexicon, Verses of Fire and Death, 72:1
Spiders. Spiders everywhere.
Alex could feel them. Tiny legs, feather-light all over her body. They skittered across her eyelids, danced in her belly button, and snaked between her toes. They were under her toenails, climbing into her nose—they were suffocating her!
She had to move, had to shake them off somehow . . . but she couldn’t. She was pinned down, anchored by a flaming brand stuck through her left hand. White hot steel pierced her palm—the pain! The pain was too great. She tried to whimper, but nothing came out.
Something was on her mouth. Something was trying to pry her jaw open. She couldn’t fight it, couldn’t move, anything. She didn’t want the spiders to come in! Not her mouth!
“Alex! I need you to relax!”
Relax? Silly. With this pain in her hand?
“Don’t fight me, Alex! Trust me!”
The voice forced her jaw open. The terror swept up like a dark wave, threatening to engulf her, but instead of spiders a bitter liquid filled her mouth. She swallowed some.
The world receded again. She fell into darkness . . . down . . .
Drifting, confused shapes. A riot of sound in her head.
“Quiet!” yelled Alex. She could barely hear herself think.
The pain struck like a thunderbolt, pinning her to the ground. The dark swam up again to engulf her.
“No!” said Alex. “I will stay here!”
The darkness pulled back. In its place came strange images.
Baron Sinclair stood at the edge of the pool, wrapped in horned tentacles. They tore and tore but could not pull him down. He stared, terrified, at Alex.
Headmaster Barrius was drilling them in Goodhollow’s keep. Alex tried and tried but could not pick up her sword. She had to catch up, had to—
McCann was in front of her. His back was freshly flayed, flesh hanging in long strips behind him and dripping blood. He spoke with Sinclair’s voice. “They’re just leverage. The zombii . . . just leverage. Zombii . . . leverage . . .”
A million huge bugs were flying at her. She raised her sword, but spiders swarmed from the hilt, covering her, biting her. She screamed as they ate the flesh off of her skull until nothing was left but bone. The bugs flew closer—she could feel the beat of their wings, the rasp of pincers as they landed on her bare skull. Twin multifaceted eyes stared into hers—a triple jaw unfolded, stretching toward her mouth . . .
She was eating in the hall with Dalia. Her friend laughed at something; Alex reached out to touch her. The moment her left hand touched Dalia—
The pain blasted through her palm. This time the darkness was too strong, and she fell again . . .
It was daytime when Alex woke. She was on her back, with rough timbers underneath and a crude tarp overhead.
Her hand hurt. A lot.
But she was thirsty, too. “Sergeant,” she tried to say, but the only noise that came out was a dry rasp.
A dark shape appeared over her. “Ah, she lives.”
“Water . . . please,” croaked Alex. She blinked to try and clear her vision.
“One moment.” A leather drinking skin was pushed to her lips. Alex drained it.
“Is there any more?” Her voice was clearer.
“Soon. I’m boiling more.”
Alex nodded. She could see McCann clearly now, crouched over her. “How long was I out?”
“You passed out when I burned your hand, and then you caught a fever . . .”
“My hand—the—” The image of the spiders streaming from her palm burst back into her mind. Alex panicked, trying to reach over and tear her bandage off.
“Hey! Hey! Calm down, it’s all right.” McCann restrained her. “They’re gone, they’re gone! Trust me.”
“You’re . . . you’re sure?” Alex thought of his dream, of the spiders crawling all over her body. If she thought about it hard enough, she could still feel their tiny, soft legs . . .
“I’m sure. But you need to heal. The skin is still . . . pretty bad.”
“You burned it?” she asked.
“Aye. Had to.”
“How bad is it?”
“A healer could’ve done better,” McCann admitted, “but I’ve seen worse. It won’t be pretty, and it will be stiff, but I think you’ll be able to use it.”
Alex digested this bit of information, looking again to her bandaged hand. She had a hard time imagining herself disfigured . . . but now she was. “It hurts a lot.”
“I know. There’s not much for it. When it starts to itch instead, you’ll know the worst is over.”
The thought of itching made her think of spiders again. “Sergeant, what . . . what was that? What happened? Why did they start coming from . . .?” She couldn’t finish the thought.
“That’s the hand you scraped before falling in the pool, right? The hand the water healed?” asked McCann.
“Well, you saw how the rest of the place went up when Sinclair dunked the zombii. Life traded for death. I’d guess everything healed with water from the pool went the same way.”
Alex shivered at the memory. “They were coming out of my hand . . . out through my skin . . .”
“Aye. And if you had it that bad, imagine the poor sap who had half his chest put back together. Bet he was a bit uncomfortable.”
The thought made Alex want to vomit. Instead, she asked another question. “How did you know to use the fire?”
McCann looked up at her. “There’s only one Cure, remember?”
“And if the fire didn’t work . . .”
“If the fire didn’t work, I was going to cut if off and burn it again.”
“I’m glad it didn’t come to that,” said Alex.
“Aye, me too. Though it might’ve hurt less.” McCann turned back to the fire. “Who’s Dalia?”
“Dalia. Who is she? You kept saying her name while under the fever.”
“I—nobody. She’s nobody—she’s an old friend.”
“Yes! She’s just a friend.”
“The friend you’re going to Antioch for?”
Alex didn’t answer; McCann let the subject drop. They sat in silence for a moment.
“How did you know?” asked Alex finally.
“Hmm?” said McCann.
“How did you know it would go wrong?”
“I didn’t know.” He shrugged. “But I guessed.”
“This . . . sort of thing . . . has happened before,” said McCann slowly. “We have records, stories. ancient tools, things that were found and thought to be cures for the Plague.”
“They aren’t, though?”
“It always goes wrong. Very, very wrong,” said McCann.
“Always?” asked Alex.
“Always. Else how could the Ancients have lost?”
“Sinclair said that maybe they discovered the cure too late—”
“What would a million zombii be to the Ancients if they had a cure? Less than nothing. No, the Curate have the right of it—there is only one Cure,” said McCann.
“There is only one Cure.” Alex repeated this bit of information. If it was true, then Dalia was doomed no matter how long Joseph could keep her alive. The terrors of the Weeping Tree supported McCann’s argument . . . but even so, she had to talk to the Grand Master. Maybe there was something else.
“Sergeant . . .”
“That was a Curate book that Sinclair had, yes?” asked Alex.
“. . . Aye.” McCann answered carefully.
“So the Curate knew about the Weeping Tree. They’d been there before—the directions were written in the old language.”
“. . . They were.”
“Then why was the back of the book missing? It would’ve warned Sinclair not to use the water from the Weeping Tree to cure the undead. Surely the Curate tried it, and failed,” reasoned Alex.
“. . . There’s a bend in the river coming, I need to go steer the raft.” McCann disappeared, and Alex was left alone with the most troubling question of all.
(Go on to Part 34)