The captain’s mind clung to the demon, resisting treatment. He jerked his knife backwards and cut the gag free at the same time that he yanked his other hand out of contact. “None of your tricks now!” He pointed the tip of the knife at Nik’s face.
I am dealing with a madman who does not want to be cured. Nik shivered violently. “What tricks? What do you want of me?” he asked, voice hoarse and shaken.
Another grim smile. “Same thing I’ve wanted all along, m’lord.” The door opened, and the demon-ridden man turned to it. “Thank you, Crit.” He took a woman’s arm and guided her into the room. She was middle-aged, with similar features to the captain. Her eyes were vacant, gait a clumsy shuffle. “I want you to heal my mother.”
Nik’s stomach sank as recalled them both now. They’d come to petition a few weeks ago: the woman was unresponsive but was not demon-ridden and had no deformities in her mind that Nik could detect. Her son had threatened him then too, but Anthser had intervened before it came to blows. “Sir, the reason I did not heal your mother is that I cannot.” What was their surname? Brock? So many petitioners since then.
“I don’t think you understand your position here, m’lord.” The captain’s thin brows drew down. “You will heal my mother. No warcat is going to turn us out now, and I don’t care how much time it takes or what you expect to be paid. You will cure her.”
“It is not a question of time or money, sir. I cannot diagnose her. I cannot heal her.”
The curly-haired man released his mother’s arm and stepped forward to strike Nik with the back of his hand. “You lie!” he snarled. “You are the best! I know you can do it and you will!” Even as Nik reeled, whimpering, he tried to cast out the demon again at the contact, and felt the Savior’s sorrow at being refused. The captain shook his hand as if it stung. “What are you trying to do to me?”
Nik hunched his shoulders against another assault. “Mr. Brock, you are not in your right mind. You’re possessed by a demon. You must allow the Savior to cast it out.”
“Brogan.” The captain took a step back, reaching into his pockets for thick gloves. “My name is Brogan, and I am not the one who needs healing. Look at my mother!” He grabbed Nik by the hair with one gloved hand, hauling his head about to force him to look at the woman. “Look at her! Are you trying to convince me she doesn’t need help? Do you think I’m stupid?”
Tears stung at Nik’s eyes and he hated the whimper that escaped as he tilted his head further to ease the tug on his hair. “I am not saying she doesn’t, but I can’t—”
“Shut up! Shut up!” He moved to hit Nik again and this time Nik raised his bound hands in time to deflect the blow.
“Don’t hit me!” Nik yelled back, wishing he sounded angry and not pitiful, begging, trembling with fear. “I’ll try, all right? Let me try again with her. Please don’t hit me.”
Brogan grunted and released his hair. Nik swallowed, still shaking. I can’t. I know I can’t. What is he going to do to me when she’s not healed? Brogan led his sleepwalking mother closer. Nik licked dry lips. “I need to touch her face to mine. I can see her mind best that way.” His captor pulled another chair adjacent to Nik’s and sat her in it. Awkwardly, Nik leaned over to rest his forehead against hers. Her mind was much as he remembered it: he’d spent several minutes studying it the last time. It’s not that I didn’t try. I tried. Looking again isn’t going to change what I see, and everything is…fine.
Minds were astonishingly complex and varied, and it was all but impossible to learn what was wrong with a defective mind without guidance of some kind. Most of what he’d learned about non-demonic problems had been from either his great-grandmother, who had shown him what to do on her petitioners, or from her grandfather’s papers. The rest had been from observation of healthy minds: studying all the ways a particular mindshape might look when functioning properly helped in recognizing when it wasn’t. On rare occasions, re-examination of those he could not quickly diagnose let him see a problem he had missed, but it had never, not once, taught him to identify a new cause of dysfunction.
Maybe this time would be different. Or maybe it was something he’d missed.
Nikola subjected her mind to the kind of scrutiny he reserved for study, the kind he’d given to his great-grandmother when she was teaching him to identify various mental structures and how they interacted. He’d examined perhaps a dozen volunteers – greatcats, family members, Fireholt subjects – this closely. He mapped the shapes of Mrs. Brogan’s mind now, outlining each part, the borders of different emotions, types of memories, connective webs, the texture, color, shape, feel of each piece. The last time, he’d focused on motor control and the centers that controlled sleep and dream states. He intensified that search, looking for any granule that might be an irritant, any hint of wrinkling that might indicate dysfunction, anything at all.
He invoked the Savior anyway, to wash over the seemingly undamaged mindshapes, and felt his god’s too-familiar sorrow, unable to help. Nik moved to the other parts of the mind, though he could imagine no way a defect in hatred or love or compassion could cause her condition. He examined slowly and thoroughly, aware that he was stalling, aware there was nothing he could do but stall.
About halfway through this examination, Brogan hit Nik, knocking him out of the trance. “What are you doing?” Brogan snarled. “Why haven’t you cured her yet?”
“I am looking for the problem, you imbecile!” Nikola yelled back, and received another blow for it.
“I don’t believe you.” Brogan glared at him, eyes narrowed.
“Demons and angels! What possible reason would I have to lie?”
Brogan flexed his fingers. “Reputation. You don’t want anyone to find out you’ve been turning away petitioners you could cure out of greed. I won’t tell a soul, I swear. I just want my mother back.”
Nikola stared at him. “Sir, you are not in your right mind. There’s a demon—”
“SHUT UP!” Brogan punched him again and Nik cringed, whimpering. “Stop lying! Stop wasting my time! I know what your problem is – you’re just not motivated yet.”
Nik swallowed against mounting terror. He’s insane and I can’t cure him because he doesn’t trust me and I can’t make him trust me because he’s insane and oh Savior he’s going to kill me because I can’t—
Brogan turned away, moving out of sight behind him. Nik twisted as much as he could while secured to the chair, trying to project calm, willing it to be contagious. “It’s not a matter of motivation, Mr. Brogan. I am doing everything in my power—” which is nothing there’s nothing I can do Savior help me “—please let me—”
From behind, Brogan struck the back of Nik’s head with something hard. “Don’t lie to me! If you were doing ‘everything in your power’ she’d be cured now!”
Dazed, Nik said thickly, “I need time—”
“Shut UP!” Brogan forced another gag into Nik’s mouth. “I don’t need to hear your excuses! I don’t need anything from you except for you to cure my mother, and you needn’t talk for that.” He knotted the ends of the gag behind Nik’s head then circled around to his front. He dropped a leather roll onto the tabletop nearby – something inside it clinked – and grabbed Nik’s bound hands to tie his left wrist to the arm of the chair. Panicking, Nik struggled. He nearly toppled the chair he was secured to but Brogan just backhanded him until Nik was too dizzy to resist. Then his captor finished tying down his left arm, cut apart the rope holding his wrists to each other, and tied down his right. His feet remained bound to the legs of the chair. Brogan removed Nik’s gloves next, then tilted Nik so that the side of the lord’s head touched the cheek of the unresponsive woman in the chair beside him. “This stops,” he told Nik, “when she’s better. Not before.”
Nik tried to focus on the woman’s mind again, but his heart was hammering, eyes tracking Brogan as the man unrolled the leather wrap he’d set on the table. It was a toolholder, little pockets holding an array of metal implements, from long thin needles to slim metal picks, pliers, tongs. Brogan fetched a pot and filled it with glowing coals from the stove. He pulled several needles and a pair of pliers from the toolkit, and dropped them into the pot.
Brogan positioned a chair before Nik and sat, splaying Nik’s shaking fingers and eyeing them with a clinical detachment. “Cure her, Blessed,” he growled.
Nik choked around the gag, struggling to breathe. If he could have willed himself to faint, he would have. Savior oh Savior please – eyes squeezed shut, Nik scanned desperately over Mrs. Brogan’s mind – how can he do this in front of her, Savior, unresponsive is not the same as unaware – praying for some new insight, invoking his god anyway, feeling the Savior’s grief mingle with his own despair.
Brogan used the toolkit’s small tongs to pluck a needle from the brazier. Nik could feel heat radiating from it, Brogan’s hand forcing his fingers straight when he tried to fist them, the shocking, excruciating pain as the searing needletip bit into his finger just under the nail.
The only thing that stopped him from screaming was the gag.
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