Pt. II of IV

The dull thuds were louder as well, though still as undefined as before. They played a neat harmony to the throb of the engine. Just as the shaking walls spoke of the engine's power, other vibrations caused by the drab thuds hinted at their potential power. Silence was absent.

And finally the aching. His whole body felt used, as if someone had stolen it and thrashed it within inches of falling apart. Snapping back into his body - was it his? It felt older than his twenty-three years - was a shock even his death couldn't match. He'd been in total control, willing himself to face the next great adventure, determined to fast-track the stages of his existence with a wisdom realised in only a few short years.

He'd thought life had no new discoveries for his old soul. That only unexplored death beckoned. Now he felt the true implication of his action sag upon him suddenly, pushing in his chest and making it impossible to breathe. His lungs felt empty.

The doubt yelled in his head: Ya gonna crack! Ya gonna die all over again! Come on ya bastard, canna ya not even breathe?! What control?! What fucking wisdom?! Choke! Choke!

Stel doubled over, knees crashing to the ground as he tried sucking air into lungs he couldn't feel. He felt crippled, his confidence with death evaporating. Try as he might, air wasn't going in!

With his doubt cackling louder and louder, he felt panic grasp him, a dark stain boiling deep within and starting to rise. He fell onto numb arms, even as panic rose slowly and inexorably to cover his entire vision. Panic jammed its dark arm down into his throat even as he struggled to taste the air, to clear his vision.

Despite his suicide, Stel felt another death, one lasting and final, pecking solidly at his will to survive. The stain covering his senses was an agent of this final death, oozing corruption into each of his pores

And then?

It stopped. Or rather, receded at a pace doubling its slow rise. It slinked back and Stel could feel its frustration, a solid lump of anger retreating from deep within his aching chest. Still the uncertainty covering him since his arrival blanketed his ears and mouth, making it impossible for him to articulate the strange retreat, or even cry out his fear.

What had stopped his panic?

He did hear voices though. They mingled into one another, pitched at a low level competing with the engine noise for attention. Only a few words separated to enter Stel's blocked ears.

"... It's getting way too rough... pushing on until Wolseley says stop..."

And an answer, equally as mingled.

"... Sure he will not mind... not a thrall, not ... Coldheart tried for him..."

"... lost two to the soulwelding... when you'll be finished?"

"... soon, maybe a little while... thrashing and seeing the colour of the dark... attend them, let none fall to Coldheart... go!"

The last word stung through the haze, releasing the pressure keeping Stel befuddled.

He noticed several things at once, his mind assimilating information faster than he could react to it. He had stopped breathing, no longer requiring this innate act to function. He looked like a corpse who had dug his way out from the grave, exhausting himself. A posthumous ache enveloped his body, though none of his limbs in particular exhibited exact symptoms of this pain.

Everything was dim. A small amount of light let him see two shapes explaining the voices, up against the far reaches of the container he was within. But they seemed old, decrepit souls, human figures coated with the same corruption clinging to the walls, hanging from the ceiling and flying in the air he no longer breathed. This taint covered everything; he even felt it clinging to himself, oozing through wounds he still bore.

The two figures were hard to make out against the backdrop of the darkened room, until he willed himself to look closer at them. They obviously knew more about where he was and he needed answers if he was to start from scratch, forget the life he'd terminated. It was time to take the advantage.

The first was a woman, her hand draped casually over the handle of a large sliding metal door. She wore the hardened leathers of a munition supervisor he'd seen in darkened, London War years. A toughened, full-length apron complemented elbow-length gloves stained black. Her face was reasonably well-hidden by bug-goggles, and her hair was pulled into a rough bun. A long-handled pair of tongs dangled from the leather-blue apron, reaching almost to the dust-boots covering her feet.

Though the goggles covered her eyes, Stel saw her anger in the drawn-out stare directed squarely at her unflinching companion: "Just make sure you're not too long. He may last, he may not, but we definitely will not unless we make dry dock. We're not picking up enough forgibles from the Storm and I'm losing too many men in this fool's scavenge. We're running low on Thralls and they don't make good repairs anyway. We're still managing to limp with the rest of the fleet but no-one's going to stop to save our sorrying ass from the Storm.

"So don't let me hear the scream of Nephwracks among the turrets before I hear your answer."

She turned and pulled on the door, throwing one last comment over her shoulder.

"Before you ask - large enough."

The opened door let in enough light for Stel to make out the marks of a ship's hold. It was musty, dank and reverberated with the sound of metal on metal as someone pounded on the outside hull, sounding like a plaintive call for help.

Occasionally the pounding carried a different, lighter sound upon its back, indistinct, yet somehow hinting at terror and immense fear.

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