Darke opened his eyes to find he still occupied the same small cabin, though now he was lying in a dust-ruined cot in a corner near the hearth. The hulking attacker, however, was nowhere in sight. Instead, he found a man in a tattered green cloak warming his hands by the fire.
“You’re welcome, Darke,” the man said, not bothering to turn and face him.
“For what?” Darke asked.
He quickly scanned the room for something he might employ as a makeshift weapon, but found nothing.
“Saving you from a cruel end,” the man answered. “Or reattaching your sword arm. Take your pick. But don’t try to stand, hmm? You lost a dear amount of blood before I got to you. That devil kept me so busy, you very nearly died before I managed to drive him away.”
Darke looked in disbelief at his restored right arm. But for a rather nasty burn that marked the spot it had been cut, it seemed as whole as it have ever been. Poe warbled confirmation. He was alive and, somehow, still in one piece.
“Just as you predicted,” the cloaked man said. “What began in Greyfolk has come back to haunt us. A friend has, once more, become an enemy. What little good remains in the poor soul is powerless and held captive again…though not in some cold and lonely cell this time, but within his own formidable frame.”
“I don’t mean to seem…ungrateful, sir,” Darke said, “but I’m not sure I follow you.”
“There’s a delicious irony in that,” the man said. “Also, I find it more than a little offensive that you continue to look as young as you did the day we first met.”
“We…know each other?”
“Rather intimately. But you know all this.”
“I really, really don’t.”
“This is tiresome,” the man said. “Are you here to help me, Darke, or merely passing through on your way to another tale?”
“Another tale? Then, you do know me.”
“And what I do.”
“In the Great Library? Naturally.”
“H-How is that—what’s your name?”
“Why do you insist on playing this game?” the cloaked man asked, turning to face the wounded traveler. “Did something happen to you, Darke? Has the battle in your mind taken a turn for the worse?”
“Azael?” Darke asked, his features hardening. “Are you Azael the Sly, wizard of the Host?”
Had his body been whole, Darke would have attacked the wizard with his bare hands and, though the seasoned wizard of the Host would surely prevail in such an encounter, Darke knew he would take great pleasure in whatever blows he was able to land on the magician’s face. Darke’s body, however, still weak from his loss of blood, only managed to roll off the cot to hit the dirt floor, face-first, with a dull thud.
“Oh, please, great warrior of the Evermore,” Azael said, one lip curling in a smirk, “have mercy on me for I am sore afraid.”
“Help me,” Darke mumbled.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t quite hear you, what with your mouth being all full of floor and such. Did you need something?”
“Just help me,” Darke said. “I’ll kill you later.”
“You’re welcome to try. Pray tell, what have I done to earn your ire this time? Spare me no detail. I wouldn’t want to get it wrong.”
“Wait. What page is this?”
“Not talking to you, wizard. Poe, where am I?”
The brace on Darke’s arm produced symbols and graphs that meant nothing to Azael, even though the wizard had some vague recollection of reading them long ago.
“How can this be?” Darke asked Poe, but his artificial friend gave no reply. “This page does not exist in any story I’ve read.”
“Strange, but I think I now understand your vinegar,” Azael said.
He turned from the fire and approached Darke cautiously before helping him back into the cot.
“You are angry about my…intrusion, I believe you once called it…into young Dylan’s world,” the wizard said. “You blame me and it’s all somehow quite fresh for you.”
“Of course I blame you,” Darke said. “You don’t belong in my world. Or any world other than your own.”
“Are you, then, the author of my tale, Darke?”
Darke glared at the wizard.
“You know I’m not.”
“Then it isn’t your place to say where I do or do not belong,” Azael replied. “Besides, if you’ve read my tale—”
“—then you surely know that my time scattered throughout the Evermore was none of my doing.”
Darke ground his teeth a moment before speaking.
“Part of me knows you are correct…that I am angry with you for things beyond your control. But, the other part of me—”
“Is really and truly me,” Azael said, nodding. “And I have long hated myself for all that led me to that dark moment. How you feel about me, Dylan, is really how I feel about myself. Or, at least, how I felt during my imprisonment.”
“Don’t call me Dylan. Don’t ever. Your story ends with the moment of your imprisonment, Azael,” Darke argued. “There are no pages after that for me to journey into. I, quite literally, cannot be here.”
“Between all that I know of your story and the way things ended with your eternal imprisonment, what changed?”
“It began with a boy, a pirate, and a nudge from a stranger. But the truth is, it took betrayal and heartache to kill what was and fan that spark into the flame of something new. I needed a line.”
“A line? What does that mean?”
“When we first met—something which clearly hasn’t happened for you just yet—you said that I was both evil and good…that I followed whatever whim I chose and didn’t fully know who I was or what I might become. That truly, systemically changed when I beheld the betrayer and all the bloody work of his hands.”
“And by ‘betrayer’ you mean—”
“Do not speak his name,” Azael warned. “He has been dealt with. When I saw, at last, what genuine, unflinching evil looks like, I realized, at long last, who I truly am.”
“And who is that?” Darke asked.
“Not him. Not evil. Am I good, then? No. Perhaps such a word will never be used for the likes of me but, if the betrayer stands on one side of the line, I must and always will stand firmly on the other.”
“What does that mean for me? For Dylan?”
“I know not,” the wizard admitted, “nor, truly, do I care. I have my own grim business to concern myself with this day.”
“And what business is that? Tracking down the beast that attacked me?”
“You don’t recall? From your books if not experience?”
“It’s hard to explain,” Darke said, “but what I’ve read about a story can sometimes get scrambled once I journey into it. It’s especially bad when—”
“When you come here,” Azael finished. “So you’ve said. As for your attacker, let me say that he was not always the feral creature that relieved you of your arm today. He was once my friend, and…I was infrequently his. That man, though, is no more. All that remains is the demon that slowly devoured his soul.”
“And you knew somehow that he would be here waiting to attack me?”
“Hardly,” the wizard replied. “I had been tracking the devil for nine days, always a step behind him. Yesterday, outside a village called Treintas, I tried to slay the creature and was…unsuccessful. I did, however, manage to wound him rather severely. I skewered his right calf just before he shattered my ribs. He then turned his wrath on the innocents drawn from the village by the ferocity of our fight and, while I did what I could to protect them, the creature fled.”
“And you tracked him to this cabin?”
“He was, most likely, looking for a place to rest and heal. The Dark Queen’s magicks have made him damn near immortal, but he still needs time to fully recover his strength.”
“You’re saying that my coming here was merely a coincidence?”
“No. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“Well, I wasn’t trying to come here,” Darke admitted. “Something went wrong with Poe. Somehow I was sent through the wrong door.”
“Or the right one, depending on your perspective,” Azael replied. “I could use your help putting an end to the beast before he reaches his intended target.”
“You saw how successfully I managed to choke the life out of you,” Darke said. “I need time to recover before I’m of use to anyone.”
“We don’t have it. The Queen has put the beast on the hunt for someone dear to me, and I’ll not have her die for our lack of effort. I know a spell or three that will speed up your recovery.”
“Then why didn’t you use them before?”
“Reconnecting your limb took a lot out of me,” Azael admitted, “and was a great shock to your body. I wanted you to, at the very least, regain consciousness before I attempted anything else.”
“My life was torn apart because of you,” Darke said. “Why would I ever trust you?”
“You don’t have to,” the wizard replied. “But you will come to, nonetheless.”
“You didn’t tell me who the monster’s target is,” Darke pointed out. “You only said she was dear to you.”
“Yes, well, that narrows the field considerably, does it not? Ven Islen, she is known to you?”
“She is. She’s the target?”
“So long as he is a pawn of the Dark Queen, this devil will not stop. He will relentlessly pursue her end until it is accomplished. And for a great many reasons, Ven is not prepared to defend herself from such an assault. I plan to deal with the threat in such a way that she will never know it existed.”
“Do the spell.”
“So you’ll agree to help me?”
“Do the spell and find out.”
“You’re a difficult man,” the wizard said.
“Am I?” Darke replied. “Or do you just enjoy arguing with yourself?”