Marc was not even surprised when Anton showed up at the inn the following morning. His host was cordial, and barely mentioned the previous day’s confrontation.
“My superiors tell me that everything is going to be alright now,” Anton said. “You are prepared to act as a proper human does on Kelphi.”
Before Marc could reply, Anton said: “I’m sure that everything will be fine now. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I believe that Rapid GeoWorks will get the contract—as long as you don’t offend Lord Satu any further.”
Once inside Lord Satu’s cave, Marc again witnessed the bizarre sight of Anton yielding his consciousness to the Kelphi. Anton passed through the same fit: His chin jerked upward and his eyes rolled back in their sockets.
Then Anton entered a trance state, and addressed Marc as the Kelphi’s “vessel.”
“Ah,” Anton said with a gurgle. “You are back. This pleases me.”
“I am here to please you, Lord Satu,” Marc said.
“Kindly resume where we left off. I want to hear more about how you will fix our problem.”
Marc continued to explain the volcano stabilization process. He knew the details well. When the Kelphi asked more questions, Marc was able to answer without missing a beat.
Then he felt the inevitable tap, tap, tap. An invisible, scaly limb skittered across his head. An unseen appendage traversed his forehead and eye sockets. Without actually touching him, the Kelphi wrapped itself around his consciousness. Behind the psychic grip was a monstrous force that was deliberately restraining itself. It was a giant claw that could have crushed his skull in an instant.
Horrifying as the prospect before him was, Marc had made his decision. Larry was counting on him. Beth was counting on him. Instead of barring the Kelphi as he had done previously, Marc dropped his defenses.
Given an opening, Lord Satu did not hesitate. Marc felt an immediate, sharp stab, as if a shaft of metal had been surgically implanted in his brain. The Kelphi’s invasion was painful at first; but it was immediately followed by a numbness that was not wholly unpleasant. Marc swayed on his feet. He was woozy, intoxicated. He paused in mid-sentence, halting his explanation about the containment of lava flows.
What was it that the minstrel had said? “Submission is the path to peace.”
Marc did not feel at peace as the alien presence rushed inside his head like a cold liquid and expanded there. He heard a dim buzzing sound inside his ears. Blood pounded in his temples and his vision blurred.
He was now “acting like a proper human does on Kelphi”—to borrow Anton’s expression. And he felt violated in doing so. The Kelphi’s mental tentacles were somehow polluting him, he was sure.
“What is wrong?” Lord Satu asked through Anton. “Are you ill?”
You’re not going to beat me, Marc thought. He wondered if Lord Satu had read this sentiment as it occurred. Probably he had.
“I’m fine,” Marc answered. “Anyway, as I was saying…”
While Marc talked, he could feel the creature rifling through his mind as if his thoughts and memories were the pages of a book. He now had no secrets from the Kelphi, he was quite certain.
Then the Kelphi withdrew. One moment another being was ransacking his consciousness; and the next moment it was gone. Marc was once again alone inside his own head.
The rushing sense of release brought relief—a feeling like gasping for air after being held underwater. Interrupting his own speech again, Marc took a series of deep, rapid breaths. He was dizzy. The buzzing inside his ears continued, as did the throbbing in his temples.
And the Kelphi had only accessed his mind. How invasive it would be to submit as Anton was now submitting. Marc couldn’t imagine how a human could allow himself to be used as a mere “vessel.” But he knew that he had come close to that a few minutes ago.
There were more questions and answers about the volcano. Then the discussion concluded with Lord Satu’s assurances that matters were proceeding satisfactorily.
Marc’s second interview with Lord Satu was over. Anton stumbled and collapsed onto the ground as Lord Satu relinquished him. He let out a low groan as he stood up and steadied himself.
This time, Marc did not offer to help him up.