â€œControlled?â€ the Chief Spider said after Andrew explained what had happened earlier. They were standing in nest chamber looking at the sole surviving alf. â€œIâ€™ve been considering it, and those circlets have all but convinced me.â€
â€œIâ€™ve certainly never seen alfer wearing anything like that before,â€ Korrig agreed.
â€œWe tried to remove one when it first occured to us, and it shattered the alf in questionâ€™s heart stone.â€ She gave a brief shudder. â€œNo one would willingly wear something that did that. Itâ€™s why we havenâ€™t eaten this last one, but we donâ€™t know what to do with him. We canâ€™t release him if someoneâ€™s controlling him.â€
Lydia walked up to the alf and laid a hand on his arm. As when sheâ€™d touched Korrig she felt herself sucked into his mindscape – except it was empty. His mind was vacant and all she could feel was a terrible weight bearing down on him. That must be why there was no thought.
â€œWe have to get that thing off him.â€ Lydia turned to Korrig. â€œI take it your heart stone is the thing in your forehead? And that breaking it is bad?â€
â€œItâ€™s fatal,â€ he said. â€œAnd not quickly.â€
â€œWell then, we want to avoid that. Can you look and see if you can see a way to remove it without breaking it?â€
â€œCan we get him down, please?â€ he asked. â€œI can try, but not if I canâ€™t reach.â€
â€œOf course.â€ The spider cut the alf down and he collapsed to the floor.
Lydia and Andrew quickly laid him out on the floor so Korrig could examine the circlet. The dwarf bent over the alf and frowned.
â€œWhen you tried to remove one, did you just pull it off?â€ he asked.
â€œIndeed. Weâ€™re not really made for fine maniplation,â€ the spider replied.
â€œI see, well let me get my tools from the cart. Itâ€™ll be a delicate job. Itâ€™s been deliberately designed to shatter the stone if removed. Iâ€™ll have to cut it away, but I think I can do it. Itâ€™s really our only chance to get it off.â€
He headed out of the cave and returned a few moments later with a canvas wrap full of jewellerâ€™s tools. â€œLetâ€™s see. Lydia, can you hold the part over his heart stone in place while I remove the rest the circlet?â€
Lydia did as he asked as Korrig set about carefully cutting through the circlet metal in several places, removing the segments. â€œSo far so good,â€ he said. â€œBut now the difficult bit. I need you to keep holding the section in place while Iâ€™m cutting it. Iâ€™ll be careful but if my hand slips…â€
â€œI get the picture. â€œ Lydia adjusted her grip so he could get at it. She could feel how it was attached liked a vice to the stone beneath it.
â€œGood.â€ Korrig began to slowly slice through the metal. He removed it in half-centimeter long chunks, gently pulling it away and cutting through the fine gold wires which attached it to the stone. It seemed to take a painfully long time, but eventually only a single piece, held in place by Lydiaâ€™s finger, remained. She let go and Korrig removed that bit as well.
â€œSo thatâ€™s done,â€ Lydia said.
Korrig shook his head and pulled a pair of tweezers from his kit. â€œI still need to remove the wires,â€ he said and began gently teasing them out one by one.
Now that her hands were free, Lydia found herself chewing her nails and jerked her hands away from her mouth. She hadnâ€™t done that for years, but this was nerve-racking.
A loud cracking sound and a scream from the alf made her jump. Her mouth went dry and she looked at Korrig frantically.
â€œOh God! Did you break it?â€ she asked.
â€œI did, but itâ€™s only cracked. Heâ€™ll recover from that,â€ Korrig reassured her. â€œAnd thatâ€™s the last wire. Letâ€™s get him outside, warm him up and see what he can tell us about this.â€
â€œCome on, drink this. Itâ€™ll help warm you up.â€ She held the steaming mug to the Alfâ€™s mouth.
He was rambling incoherently and didnâ€™t seem to understand her. Theyâ€™d wrapped him in blankets and Bennu was helping warm him, but he wouldnâ€™t stop shivering.
â€œWell he was in there longer than me,â€ Karen said. â€œAnd I think he probably had more venom in him than I did.â€
â€œAnd heâ€™s been hurt.â€ Lydia nodded.
â€œDoes he look different?â€ Andrew asked.
Lydia blinked and looked at the Alf again, he seemed smaller and there was a small patch of discoloured skin where his heartstone would be. â€œHuh? He does.â€
â€œItâ€™s his resting form,â€ Bennu said. â€œLike my falcon or Kimiâ€™s leopard form. He canâ€™t hold his full form with his heart stone cracked.â€
â€œThatâ€™s interesting,â€ Lydia said and went back to coaxing the alf to drink the soup.
Eventually his eyes cleared a little and he took a sip, then choked and muttered something about a bad taste. He did drink the rest however, though not without more complaints.
â€œAt least he seems to know whatâ€™s going on now,â€ Andrew said as Lydia started feeding the alf chocolate.
â€œYouâ€™re humans arenâ€™t you?â€ The alf said suddenly.
â€œEr, yes,â€ Lydia said. â€œAre you one of the Speakers who has a problem with that?â€
â€œNo, and if I was it would be churlish of me to mention it when you saved me.â€ He inclined his head to them. â€œI am named Eyvindr of the Ljos-alfar.â€
Lydia made the round of introduction and then said, â€œStrictly speaking, it was Korrig who saved you. We couldnâ€™t have got that thing off you without him. Who was controlling you?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, there was a dragon. I remember that, but… something is not right with this. It was controlled as well.â€
Korrig gave a sharp gasp. â€œThe Dragon Lord! Youâ€™re from Elapyron City, arenâ€™t you?â€
â€œI am,â€ Eyvindr said.
â€œWho? Where?â€ Lydia asked, but before anyone could answer all four Speakers looked sharply in the same direction.