Interlude Four: One Step at a Time

It was bitterly cold, but Jack didn’t feel it. He was barely aware of his surroundings as he stumbled along, though he did take dim notice of the purple-blue sky, and the twin pale moons that were just visible as the sun was beginning to breach the horizon.

He walked slowly, despite the urgency of the situation, focusing what shreds of concentration he had on keeping his damaged leg from collapsing, and fighting off nausea and dizziness that kept sweeping over him in waves. More than once he stopped to retch, but there was nothing in his stomach to bring up.

In all truth, he didn’t have a clear idea of what he was doing, or where he was going. He didn’t know where the nearest civilisation was, or if there was civilisation. All he knew of the world he was in was what Darien had told him, and none of it was particularly complimentary. For all Jack knew, he was literally walking out of the frying pan and straight into the fire. He had no way of knowing that whoever he found wouldn’t simply kill him on the spot. All he could do was hope that if he was walking to his death, then it would at least quick. Anything had to be better than the prolonged torment that Darien had been inflicting on him.

He shivered violently as he made his way along what seemed to be some sort of a road. Logically, he knew that he should have tried to move off the road, but logic was not his greatest strength right then. It was enough of a struggle just to wipe the sweat from his eyes so that he could see more than six inches ahead of him.

Above all, he knew that he needed to keep moving, or he ran the risk of hypothermia. The robe he wore provided no protection at all from the elements, no matter how much he tried to tug it around his body. He coughed painfully, and winced at the pain that shot through his chest at the gesture.

Gradually, he became aware of the hard, rocky ground that cut into his bare feet. Every step felt like shards of glass beneath his feet. He stumbled frequently and he was finding it increasingly hard to stay upright.

He dared not look back, not even to see how much distance he’d covered. All the while, he anticipated Darien’s hand on his shoulder, ending his bid for freedom and claiming him once more. He was so focused on escaping what was behind him that he never saw what was ahead of him until it was too late.

A cry of fright escaped Jack’s lips as he walked right into a very solid wall of flesh that was in his path. Panic struck, and he collapsed painfully to his knees, not even daring to look at the face of the one who had stopped him.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out, hoping fervently that a genuine show of repentance, along with some serious begging and subjugation, might be enough to keep Darien from killing him. “I’m sorry, Master, please forgive me. Please don’t hurt me, I’ll go back, I swear it. I’ll be good, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry...”

Hands grasped his shoulders, and Jack uttered a scream of fear at the contact, but the crushing grip that he was anticipating never eventuated. Instead, he found himself drawn unexpectedly into a gentle embrace.

“Hush, now. I’m not going to hurt you. You’re safe. It’s all right.”

The voice was not Darien’s, though it took Jack long seconds to register that fact. Slowly, as his heart pounded slightly less forcefully, he risked a look up. Sure enough, the fact above him was not Darien’s face at all. Instead of black and silver hair, there was a head full of greying hair, and in place of those terrifying green eyes, there was instead a pair of pale brown eyes. The age-lined face looking down on him now was confused and concerned, but above all else, it was kind.

“You are human,” the man said with a puzzled frown. “How did you come to be here? Mendyr is a closed world.”

Tears filled Jack’s eyes, and he was almost overcome with terror as Darien’s warnings came crashing back down on him in force.

“Please, don’t kill me,” he begged, and hating himself for having to beg. “Please, it was him, he brought me here. I’m sorry, just please don’t hurt me.”

A hand caressed his hair tenderly, with none of the underlying malice that was always present in Darien’s touches.

“Calm down. No one is going to hurt you or kill you. Now tell me, who is responsible for you being here?”

Jack almost choked on the name, and it took him a couple of goes before he could say it.

“D... Da... Darien...”

The other man’s face clouded over with anger and Jack cringed in fear, even though he knew instinctively that it wasn’t directed at him. The man saw Jack’s fear, and sighed sadly.

“Hush, child. I told you I’m not going to hurt you. But tell me, is Darien also responsible for you being in this state?”

Jack couldn’t answer that, and he hung his head in shame. Cool lips brushed over the top of his head, and it took everything Jack had not to shudder.

“You’re safe now, I promise you. He won’t be able to hurt you anymore. Now, can you stand? My home is not far from here.”

Jack felt acute panic at the thought of going into another house, but in the end he had no choice. With the help of his apparent rescuer, Jack got awkwardly to his feet and began to move forward once more. He made it all of three or four steps, though, before the pain of his injuries became too much and he stumbled. Before he could collapse, though, an arm went around his waist, supporting him to keep him on his feet. The contact resulted in a frightened gasp from Jack, and the man murmured soothingly in response.

“It’s all right. I’m just going to help you walk. That’s all. Come now, one step at a time. That’s the way. My name is Jal, by the way. What is your name?”

Jack shivered violently. The mind-numbing haze was threatening to engulf him once more.

“He… He calls me his pet.”

Jal frowned in disapproval.

“I would prefer to call you by your name. You are nobody’s pet.”

Jack continued to tremble, partly from fear and partly from the cold that was chilling him to the bone. He’d had so many identities over the last several years, and now he had trouble distinguishing each one from the other. There was a common thread, though. He always chose a first name that, if not the same as his real name, was at least a variation of it.

“Jack,” he answered finally, opting for his favourite variation. A smile warmed Jal’s face.

“Well, I am glad to meet you, Jack. Look, we’re here.”

Jack looked up in a daze as they approached a house that, for all appearances seemed disturbingly similar to Darien’s. Before fresh panic could take hold, though, they were through the door and Jack felt the differences as much as he could see them.

Jal’s home was nothing like Darien’s house of horrors. Where Darien’s home had been dark and forbidding, a tormenting maze, Jal’s was brightly lit, and full of welcoming warmth. He was vaguely aware of being guided into a large, open room where a fire was burning warmly, and Jal urging him to sit in a big, comfortable chair. He did so stiffly. It was a luxury that he hadn’t been afforded in a long time, and he was terrified that Jal’s kindness would turn out to be a façade.

“Jal? What is this?”

An older woman approached with a puzzled look on her face. She was approximately the same age as Jal, as near as Jack could tell, and like him she had kind eyes and a gentle smile. Jal spoke as she came over, his focus all the while on Jack’s torn and battered feet. He would not have made it much further, even with help, and they both knew it.

“Kyrii,” Jal told her, “this is Jack. I found him not too far from here, on the road.”

Her eyes widened with shock.

“He’s human!”

“Yes, he is,” Jal confirmed. “He is also injured. Please bring me the healing bag. And then I need you to summon the Elder Council.”

The shock in her eyes faded to make way for suspicion.


“Please do as I say. We need to hurry. Jack just escaped from Darien.”

She gasped in shock, and hurried to do as he’d asked without further argument.

“It will be all right,” Jal assured Jack as Kyrii disappeared from the room. “Once the Elders arrive, Darien will not be able to harm you again. Now, will you let me tend to you?”

Jack went rigid with terror. Even though his logical mind told him that Jal only wanted to help, he still could not keep his thoughts from being overwhelmed by images of Darien’s version of ‘tending’ to him. Panic threatened to engulf him, but in the midst of it all, he felt gentle fingers brushing against his temples. Gradually, the terror abated long enough to see the anger and dismay on his rescuer’s face.

“Darien, that slaakku... Jack, I promise you that I will not do that to you. You have my word, my friend. I only want to help the healing process along. I understand how hard it must be for you to trust me, but I ask you now. Please trust me. I won’t hurt you.”

Jack knew that, in the end, he had little choice but to allow Jal to do whatever he wanted. He found himself wanting to trust the older man, though, and in the end it came down to the simple fact that he really did have no choice. He was at the end of his proverbial rope, with no strength left to even attempt to defend himself. He was literally at Jal’s mercy.

With reluctance and visible fear, Jack answered wordlessly with a slow nod, giving Jal permission to continue.

“The Elder Council has been alerted,” Kyrii said as she ventured back in with a large, cloth bag. “Leesa and Krandl will be here soon. They wish to know the wellbeing of the human.”

“He’s been severely ill-treated,” Jal replied tightly. “Darien has much to answer for. Perhaps now the Council will finally act, and stop allowing him free reign to come and go from Mendyr as he likes...” He trailed off abruptly and paused in his ministrations to look up at his wife. “I won’t apologise for that, Kyrii.”

“I’m not asking you to,” she answered softly. “You’re right, but this is not the time for that discussion.”

Jal nodded in concession, and returned his attention to the young man hunched in the chair and shaking almost uncontrollably.

“Jack, I need you to open your robe, my friend. I need to see your injuries.”

Jack’s reaction was predictable. He pulled it tighter around his body, and stared at Jal with frightened eyes. Jal regarded him with sad understanding.

“All right, then. We’ll leave it for now.”

“Jal?” Kyrii asked, but he shook his head to stymie any awkward questions.

“When will the Elders arrive?”

“We’re here,” a new voice intoned, and they looked to see a man and woman standing on the threshold, radiating authority. The senior of the two, Leesa, came forward quickly.

“Let me see him, Jal.”

“Be kind,” Jal begged her as he moved back. “Darien convinced him that he would be put to death for simply being on this world.”

The woman’s stern expression softened at his words and she came forward and crouched down in front of Jack.

“Look at me, human.”

“His name is Jack,” Jal interjected. She nodded in acknowledgement.

“Jack, look at me.”

He raised his eyes towards her tentatively, fearfully.

“Please, please don’t kill me,” he pleaded with her in a barely audible voice. Sorrow clouded Leesa’s face. She reached out a hand towards him, and was not at all surprised when he flinched away from her. She withdrew her hand, not wanting to frighten him any worse than he already was.

“It is true, we have not hesitated in the past to execute those found on our planet illegally, but you appear to be here through no fault of your own. You have no need to fear. You will come to no harm by us. Besides, it would seem that Darien has done enough damage already.”

“I’d just begun to treat his injuries,” Jal told her. “I’m afraid he will be need to taken to the Healers’ House, though. I’m not skilled enough to be able to give him the help that he needs.

Leesa nodded, and stepped away from the trembling human.

“Krandl, deliver him safely to Brenna at the Healers’ House. Tell her to treat him with special care, that he has been through a terrible trauma.”

Krandl came forward, finally, and moved around to stand at Jack’s side. He spoke to the distressed man in a calm and soothing tone.

“Jack, my name is Krandl, and I need you to listen to me now. I am going to take you to our Healers’ House. Our healers are among the best in the universe, and they will take good care of you, I promise.”

“Whatever you do,” Jal said in a low voice as Jack seemed to fold in on himself again, “don’t say they’ll tend to him. I think that’s what Darien told him, and then I think the shakkran raped him.”

Krandl tensed with anger, and his gaze went to Leesa, who wore a similarly furious expression.

“Take him to Brenna,” Leesa said again. “Do not give him into the care of any other, and tell her to give him the possible care. I will deal with Darien personally.”

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