Chapter 76

Blair raised his head slowly, almost unable to look. Jim still hung upon the scaffolding that had been erected behind the altar, his arms spread wide and bound to the driftwood crosspiece with thin leather straps. His head hung down, blood dripping from his face like tears. His eyes were no longer resigned but vacant and empty, as though the man Blair had once known was already long gone. The soldier who had flogged Jim stood to one side, grinning at his fellows and panting from his exertions.

Blair didn't scream or cry out. He was beyond rage or grief or despair any longer. He just wanted to take Jim home. No one could stop him from doing that. It was the last thing he would ever be able to do for Jim -- who would dare stand in his way? He clambered up the stones of the altar, reaching desperately for the straps that kept Jim upright, but before he could even touch Jim, the nearest soldiers had caught him and pulled him down once more, and a not-ungentle voice told him, "No, son, not yet."

Blair struggled, but he was held easily by the men around him, and when he turned his head to see who dared to keep him from his last duty, he found himself face to face with their commanding officer. The centurion's breastplate gleamed in the dull sunlight, and the plumes in his helm were hollywood red. In one hand he held the whip that had been used on Jim, the bloodstained leather dull between his fingers. Blair whispered, "Please," but they dragged him away as the officer mounted the crude steps of the altar himself, leather soles creaking, and came to stand before Jim. "Your comrades will never forget you," he told Jim, who hung in his bonds more dead than alive. He coiled the thin, bloodstained lash once around Jim's throat, and then took either end of the leather rope in his clenched fists, scarred forearms tensing for the final slow pull. "And the Gods wait to welcome you."

Jim's captors weren't affected by his wild struggles or the dense, impermeable darkness ahead, and Jim wondered if he was being dragged toward the tunnel leading down to hell itself. Then his sentinel sight took over, penetrating the black shadows, and the resulting vision was worse than he had imagined. What he had thought were glaring golden eyes shifted, blinked, became ocean-blue, and he recognized Blair. For the first time Jim cried out, his voice rising in a despairing "No!" that echoed back mockingly from the walls of the cave. It wasn't his life that was lost, but his soul, and it would have been safe had Blair not brought it back with him to this place.

Blair called his name in return but it was a small, lost sound in the din of raucous laughter and cheerfully cruel speculations of Jim's captors. The touch of Blair's voice and presence should have been comforting, but Jim was so afraid of what was going to happen he couldn't relax and find the calm Blair normally brought. Even if he had been able to fight his way free of the morass of his own fear, he could never have subdued the rage that burned through him at the sight of Blair held by two thugs who grinned with death's-head smiles at his struggles.

The cave was lit with the red-orange glow of coals filling a brazier, its bowl supported on a tripod of black iron. Around the edges of the open area, the orange faded away into dark blue shadows where things he could not quite see clearly moved with slow, oozing deliberation. Jim struggled, but he was held securely against a cold, damp wall, his arms outspread. A sense of inevitability descended upon him as a heavy chain was lifted off the brazier, still smoking, then wrapped around his joints, pinning him to the stone. Behind his back, trapped between his body and the wall, something squirmed wetly in protest.

It was all part of the pattern of his life, he recognized that at last. It had never mattered what he knew or how hard he tried, or even how special his talents were, not in the end. When the final call was made each time, it was always somebody else's decision, and his duty had always been to obey. He let his head drop forward, watching the reflections of yellow torch light playing on the wet floor like abstract art because he couldn't bear to meet Blair's eyes, not any longer. Jim knew too well what would show in his own. There was no strength left in his body or his heart, despite what his surrender would do to Blair, and his pain at knowing how this final defeat would hurt his friend was the one last thing he couldn't seem to let go of.

The flickering orange torchlight mixed with the darkness and a clear blue reflection had somehow entered the mix, all dancing together at his feet and in the drops of sweat his peripheral vision could see already rolling down his own chest. A whole universe of color twisted and beckoned, promising escape, and he went willingly, dropping himself into it, letting the dizziness come, and the great, deep silence Blair had always led him safely out of. The sounds of coarse laughter in the distance and harsh breathing in the small cave began to fade away, and the scents of stale beer and rank sweat filled his head, then dissipated as well. A single sound rose out of the gathering quiet, distant and thready at first, growing stronger as Jim left his body behind, becoming a beacon that held a promise of joy.

There was a time when he had held that sound close to him and all his fear and pain had been washed away, so he sought it again, letting everything else slide further into the distance. It took shape and he reached for it, recognizing Blair at last, when a sharp blade of pain cut across the world and left him gasping from the involuntary cry it had wrung from his throat. Colors and shapes resolved back into solid forms and sound returned, the echo of his scream captured in the high pitched call of a seagull circling overhead, the roar of the nearby surf mixing with the increasingly strident laughter of the men around him. Bewildered, he looked for the thing that had hurt him so, and found the glowing yellow tip of the poker that had touched his breast.

It moved forward inexorably, reaching like a thing alive to touch him again, and though he curled his spine and sucked in his stomach as much as he could, he did not buy himself any time. The tip landed where it would, and agony blossomed there, pulling Jim's breath from him and then letting it back only in sobbing gasps. His eyes blurred with tears that stung as they crossed his cheeks and left his vision hazy. A muscle twitched uncontrollably in his side, as if independently trying to flee, and was punished in the next moment with its own drop of deliberate fire. The sound of the surf crescendoed in his head, blocking out everything but the heat of pain spreading out in waves from the point of contact, leaving nerves vibrating in its wake so frantically the cool sea breeze caressing his skin felt like the burning of ice left to sit on his flesh.

Jim writhed, pulling in vain against the chains that held him, laid open and vulnerable to each carefully chosen press of the hot iron. After a time, he lost count of its visits, and a while after that, he was no longer aware of the shore or the sea. A dark voice whispered to him, reminding him that he had chosen this path of his own free will, and when he flinched away from the brown eyes, hell wrapped itself around him again.

When he could no longer hear words, only the voice and its insinuations digging in where the poker could not reach, he found the white, quiet place once more, and rejoiced. He would have stayed there forever, but for a pure, clear sound that called him back irresistibly. It was more compelling than release would have been, until he understood the words, but then it was too late to turn back and lose himself again and all he could do was weep silently while they cut out his heart.

"Let him go, he's no fun any more like this. You want something entertaining? Put me up there instead, I'll give you a better game."

As the whipcord tightened around Jim's throat, Jim's head came up, and though Blair had believed Jim was utterly, horrifically resigned to this unspeakable sacrifice, he saw Jim's chest rise once in a final gasp for breath, and Blair felt the gasp of hope in his own breast as well. If Jim hadn't given up completely, then there was still a chance. The madness of that hope freed his tongue, and he shouted in a voice he hardly recognized as his own, "You can't send him to the Gods. He isn't worthy."

Blair thought they would drag him away or at least try to silence him, but instead, wonderfully, the centurion who stood poised to strangle Jim suddenly unclenched his fists, allowing the whip to lie loosely around Jim's neck, and he turned to slowly to face Blair. "Speak," he said.

The soldiers around Blair had fallen back, awed or frightened by his daring, and Blair felt as though he were standing alone under the pewter gray sky as he argued for Jim's life. The face of the commanding officer shifted subtly, and for an instant Blair thought it was Simon who stood there before Jim's crucifix, but that wasn't quite right, and as the face of Jim's killer continued to change, Blair saw a man he had never met in his waking life, but whom he knew all the same. "He's not one of you," Blair said, choking a little on his hatred, and managing to speak despite it. "He would have betrayed you if you hadn't caught him first, don't you know that? He's not innocent. I am. Take me instead."

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