Chapter 2 - Lost to the Darkness
The caravaners had all fled down the right hand side, so rightward he fled, turning the corridor as the thump thump thump of the beast behind him told him he was but seconds from being dragged back by a massive bloody claw. Heart beating, blood pacing, he finished his sprint down the short corridor and turned left, into a wider hallway, some eighty yards long, lit all along its length by ensconced torches, the monster right on his tail.
Past arch after gothic arch he ran, the sound of his footsteps inaudible against the rhythmic pounding behind. As he ran he saw the row of windows passing by his right, through which only the black of midnight could be seen. Each too narrow for a man to fit through, even breaking the glass, the windows separated from each other by fluted stone columns half the width of a man. To his left, door after door, all left ajar, abandoned by their occupants. Art dared not enter any of those, they were almost certainly dead ends.
Why in the hells had he waited so long? He cursed himself for his stupidity. If he lived to see another day, he'd never again take a risk like this one. Standing all alone without anyone to back him up, even when he'd known that the enemy could break through ranks of Rogue archers -- what a fool he'd been! And where were they when he needed them? He needed to find them quickly, find them so they could all take on the beast, else he'd trip somewhere along these halls and die…
The image of all those archers arrayed in a neat row, their bows loosing volley after volley of fire and lightning… He'd seen that before, he realized. He shook the thought of depending on them out of his head. No way could any of them stand up to this. If he found the rest of the Rogues, he'd have led the terror right to those hapless archers, and they'd all be slaughtered, and then he'd die along with the rest of them. No, he could not seek their help. He'd have to find his own way out of this.
Having run to the far end of the long corridor he turned left - the caravaners and the Rogues defending them would surely have gone to the right, as that was the exit if memory served him. He cursed at having not memorized the floorplan before heading to bed. He'd no idea whether he'd just doomed himself to a grisly fate with his back against the wall of a dead-end room and his chest being run through by the thing--
But looking at the chandeliers suspended overhead, with its myriad torches, and the width of the hall he'd now turned into, he thought he'd judged correctly. He'd entered another part of the complex, one that saw much more traffic, which would mean a series of interconnecting rooms - rooms with exits, so he'd not be trapped. Into one of these rooms he fled, racing past couches and sofas and an overgrown potted plant, took one of its other two exits at random and sped out of the withdrawing room and into a room with several easels with painted canvases atop them and plain wooden benches before them. Taking care not to ram into anything - getting paint on his boots would make it child's play to track him - he leapt over a bench that stood in his way, and fled through the door opposite the one he'd entered, into a hall covered in lavish tapestries illuminated by a pair of braziers in the center of the room. He doubled back through a room on the same side of this hall as the one he'd come from, this one filled with spinning wheels and yarn, distaves and spools. Making yet another turn, he found himself out in another corridor, one leading directly to a spiral stairwell leading downward.
The last place he'd wanted to go was downward. The beast had originally come from below, and if it had compatriots there'd probably be more of them in the cellars. Knowing he had but a moment to decide, he gave a quick look down the other way - no lit torches down that way, and the darkness beckoned with a promise of staying out of sight of the monster, and the safety that would bring. That way seemed more promising… until he heard more thumps in that direction. No, that way was a swift and foolish death. Downward it was, then.
Taking the stairs down two at a time, he exited the stairwell into an unlit corridor. Feeling his way around the smoothly-cut walls, he found a wooden doorframe and stepped into it, into another room shrouded in pitch blackness. Walking forward slowly with his hands outstretched in front of him, he came upon the far wall and hurt the side of his arm against a doorknob. He grasped it with his hands and swung the door open, then stepped inside and shut the door behind him. Finally, he knelt down against the wall beside the door and took a moment to gasp for breath, several aspirations without feeling the leading edge of breath-debt subside.
Was it coming closer? He couldn't be sure, the beast could be a great distance away, but it could also be close and on that chance he dared not breathe, yet breathe he must! His gasps for air, ragged and fast, reminded him of how his lungs felt like exploding. He could feel the pumping of excited blood coursing through his veins, however, and so loud! Surely the beast would find him here on account of his haggard breathing alone.
Worse, he felt like he'd lost control of his body and it was now living, truly living, of its own accord, without a care in the world for what his mind wanted. And he as his mind hated that feeling. The way of the ways was the mastery of the mind over the body, mind over matter.
Squatting down on the cold stone floor, legs crossed, he set his arms down his thighs. He closed his eyes and thought of the words he'd been taught, the way of deathly living. Just for a few minutes, he thought. Enough for me to regain control of my self.
My arms, resting before me, stay in place. My body, balanced in place, lies at rest. My lungs, now at peace, hold still, unmoving.
As he thought these words, he kept his arms perfectly still, and balanced the weight of his body. He slowed his breathing, stopped it completely.
My eyes, closed and shut, see only darkness. My ears, deafened by sound, hear mere silence. My skin, numb and cold, lose all feeling.
Closing his mind to all sensation, Art could feel nothing, notice nothing. If the beast had found him, he would never even know.
My heart, clutched in ice, beats no more. My blood, stilled in my veins, courses not. My mind, once racing, watches over my deathly sleep.
With but a thought, he became indistinguishable from yet another cadaver in the unforgiving darkness, his heart not beating, his blood not racing.
For several long moments he lived almost as one dead, even as his mind maintained a sort of unsensing consciousness.
When he came to, it was a slow, uncomfortable awakening from his body's induced sleep, as if his body were being dragged kicking and screaming from its slumber. With a pang of pain his heart began to beat again, slow and palpitating to the rhythm of lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. Once again blood began to flow through him, cold as ice water. With a sudden, deep breath he aspired fresh air into his lungs, and it left him gasping for breath.
The first sensations his skin felt were of a spreading rippling of pinpricks all over, as if someone were rubbing porcupines over every inch of his skin. He heard, felt the ringing in his ears, growing louder, deafening, before gradually subsiding. Waves of color-that-was-not-color rippled out from the center of his vision, colors that felt purple and orange and purple again yet pitch black at the same time, like one could see if one stared too hard into the back of the eyelids.
He could open his eyes, but he could not move, he was a prisoner in his own body. Then his muscles twitched in pain, and slowly, gradually, he commanded his muscles to contract and relax, until he could move his hands and feet, arms and legs, until he was able to stand up once again, until he was back to being his normal self once again.
How long had it taken, three, five minutes? The beast had evidently been unable to find him; where had it gone off to now?
Ignoring the shouts and screams, he listened for the sound of the beast's thumping, the telltale signs of its moving.
He didn't hear any.
He resumed gasping for breath, looking about him in the utter darkness, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Just where was he? He'd managed to shake the beast off his trail, but now he had no idea where he was, and thus, no idea how to get out of here. And if he just backtracked, he'd stand a good chance of running into it again. Not that he could even remember the path he'd taken -- was that three lefts? Four? How many rights and straight-throughs did he take along the way? He was pretty sure he'd doubled back at one point too, but had he done that in the drawing room or in the room with all the drawings?
Then a mighty roar. For a frantic instant Art almost fumbled his sword, thinking the beast was upon him, but no -- loud as it was, he knew how loud it should have been from having heard it earlier, and he now knew it to be a good distance away. It probably had been lurking through the rooms upstairs, trying to find him, and had gotten frustrated with its failure.
Renewed anxiety arose within him at the thought of being a mouse trapped in a maze with a very hungry cat. No, I need to stop panicking, he thought to himself, and took a moment to calm his nerves. Alright, I need to move quietly and listen carefully, so I don't stumble upon that creature…
That's when he realized he'd been ignoring the screaming. Gods, they seemed to be coming from all around him, a cacophony formed of the high pitched, coarse cries of the archers who'd fought down here and who were now doomed and dying.
He had to get out of this hell, he just had to…
His eyes now adjusted to the darkness, he could make out the faint silhouette of the door at the far side of his room. Walking to it, he propped the door open a mere inch or two, to see what was outside. Outside seemed a bit better illuminated by torchlight, it seemed, and was it growing brighter? With a sudden realization he slunk away from the door and planted himself against the corner of the room. That amber light was of a torch being walked towards the door to his room, from the opposite direction as the direction he could see with the door slightly ajar. Had he opened it but a fraction more or a moment later, whatever was holding the torch would have noticed him opening it.
An enemy? No, it wasn't the beast; the eerie cries all about him would not have muffled the sound of a ton of muscle taking steps through the halls, especially not when the stone would have propagated that sound a much further distance. But the fact that it was holding a torch, down here in what was clearly enemy territory, and seemingly striding down the hallway without worry for the beast? No surviving Rogue would be such a fool, which meant that this could only be a conspirator of that monster. A minion, perhaps?
He approached the ajar door, and he could easily see the flickering of reflected torchlight. Then the torch itself passed into view as whatever was bearing it proceeded down the hall, oblivious to Art's presence. The form, some emaciated humanoid with red skin, with what appeared to be a feather headdress and various sashes in various states of disrepair. That was no torch it was holding, but a gnarled walking staff, six or seven feet tall, with a headpiece shaped like a crescent moon and a glowing orb of captured fire floating right in its center, and a skull pinned at the bottom. The creature was limping along with seemingly exaggerated movements, swaying to and fro as if it were a miracle it could remain upright with each step it took.
Holding his sword in hand, Art braced against the door, ready to leap out. He could take this creature unawares, sever its head in one blow before it could cry out for help, and claim his first revenge for the devastation wrought upon the Rogues--
The next moment another red-skinned, hardly-clothed creature passed into view, then another, and another. Twelve in total. Unlike the first one these appeared as midgets - barely four feet tall, following the first one in a procession. Some held their bucklers and scimitars hand in hand. All were stark naked except for their loincloths, their skins red, their heads bald. Others were hauling, with apparently strenuous effort, what seemed to be a pair of human-sized figures across the stone floor.
Oh, he thought, taken aback. Good thing I hadn't attacked just then.
Though overall the situation looked bleaker with each passing moment. There was not just the lone beast stalking the shadows of the monastery halls, as Art had previously thought. Here were some other creatures invading alongside it, and where there were some there would surely be more. He'd have that many more enemies to avoid, and any one of these could raise hue and cry and bring the demon snarling down at his throat. And, he thought with mounting worry, this was beginning to look like a proper invasion, with a terrifying vanguard and lesser forces to fill out the rest of the attacking forces. The monastery had already all but fallen, and given the monastery's key geographical location, he wouldn't raise an eyebrow if they decided to turn this place into a base of operations. No, this was not looking good at all.
If the rest of the Rogues and the caravaners had managed to flee to safety instead of being separated like he was, then they'd only have known about that first monster, and not of all the other forces. If they then tried to take back the monastery, they'd be in for a painful surprise. He was probably the only one here who had an inkling of the enormity of the situation. He had to let the rest of the sisterhood know.
Which led back to the question of how to get out of here. Sneaking a look back through the ajar door, saw the smaller creatures had turned around a corner, with only the shadows their bodies cast against the receding torchlight as an indication. Without a sound, he snuck out into the hallway they had just walked through, poked his head out into the adjoining corridor they had turned around to ensure that they weren't looking back.
Oh no, they were coming right back the way they'd gone. Art doubled back immediately and dove into the nearest adjacent room he had available, the one on the opposite side of the hall from the room he'd just emerged from, and stepped into dark liquid. In the darkness he could not make out any red, but he didn't have to see to know what it was. Shit, he thought as he tossed the boot aside. He couldn't afford to leave a trail of blood for pursuers to follow.
When he put his foot down he almost tripped -- he'd stepped on something. A leg? There was someone lying on the ground, in the darkness. The man gasped in pain, and groaned. Whomever he was, he was probably badly injured, too weak to protest much.
Art heard sounds behind him, out in the hallway, or the adjacent one. The midgets were very close. With a start he realized that there was no they they hadn't heard the man, and they'd be coming to investigate. Then he realized that his little stumble had probably just cost the wounded man his life. Then he realized the patter of the little creatures' feet was getting closer. They could be in the room in seconds, and their leader had a staff that doubled as a torch. They'd see the both of them.
Art felt his code of chivalry tugging at him, and had to consciously suppress it. There was a man not fen feet away from him who would most likely be beaten to death in mere moments unless he acted. A man, which in the Monastery meant someone who wasn't part of the Rogues' defensive forces, who hadn't gone willingly to battle against the invaders, a man who was just your typical caravaner, most likely a civilian. That man could easily have been Warriv, or any of the others he'd been sleeping in the same room as but a mere half hour ago.
What to do? He thought. He could make a stand here, and make up for his failure of resolve back upstairs, and save someone's life. But then it'd be his last stand, because the moment they fought there'd be battle cries and then the beast would be on its way, and if not the beast then certainly these lesser creatures' compatriots. And then they'd both be dead.
Instead, he felt along the walls in the darkness, taking steps back from the door, hoping to find a way out of this place, and there his groping hands felt the handle of a wooden sliding door. With a 'sorry' on his lips, he snuck into the adjoining closet room not a second too soon. He stopped all breathing, dared not make a move in case it tipped off whomever was right outside. He mentally berated himself for getting trapped in a dead end like this, exactly what he'd been intending to avoid, and prepared for a final showdown with the the mob of creatures right outside. Yet, they didn't come for him.
Looking through the narrow slit between the twin closet doors with his right eye, Art watched as what seemed to be the shaman of the group -- the barely clothed lanky one who towered above the rest - started shouting in a harsh, guttural language that Art couldn't recognize, filled with K's, G's, and Z's, repeating itself twice as if in chanting. The smaller ones, their snarling bright red faces covered in streaks and markings of woad paint, had formed a ring around the corpse on the ground followed with what seemed to be cheers and shouts of their own. Victory cries? War cries? Art couldn't be sure.
He saw the shaman pull out a wavy dagger out from a sheath in its sash, and raise it above the man, preparing to stab down. The man, it seemed, knew that his death was a-coming. In seconds his cries went from a halting, almost whispered "Uh, uh, ah, ah" of terror to a gasping, sustained scream of pain shouted from the top of the man's lungs.
Then he saw the smaller ones kick the prone figure they'd surrounded. Groaning and softly wimpering, the man was begging for them to stop their sustained assault, and it was all too apparent that his pleas were falling upon deaf ears.
With a rush of fear he realized that but for the fact that he'd turned tail and ran from the monster earlier, he'd be screaming right alongside that man right about now.
Yet if he acted now, it would expose his position. As deep within the monastery as he was, as completely outnumbered as he was, he would just be asking to get himself killed. He had important intel to deliver to the Rogues. He couldn't die in vain.
Then the shaman shouted over the rest, and all the others rushed to back away from the man in silence, forming a circle. Then, with its right hand gripped right under the the staff's crescent headpiece, he lifted the staff, and the floating flame above it started to grow. In the space of one second it had gone from burning flames the size of a man's fist to an orb the size of a man's head. The shaman then pointed its right index finger at the man, and the sphere of flame launched in the direction it had pointed.
The man cried out in pain, a terrible, desperate scream so loud it pierced the gleeful laughter of the midgets ringed around him. Art stood transfixed at the thought of what they were doing to him as the man's screams continued for several long seconds before abating into choking, coarse cries, cries that soon could not be heard amidst the shouts and jeers of the mob. For even longer moments the midgets hollered and cheered and the fires crackled and burned.
The shaman pointed a finger at the midget next to him, shouted some commands. The chosen one, its mouth slavering with saliva, its incisors large and protruding, cackled rambunctiously with its buckler and then stepped forth with its three foot long scimilar and began to stab and stab and stab, and before long the others had joined in, cackling with glee as they swung their scimitars and proceeded to hack the corpse to bits. Blood splattered the walls and besmirched the faces of the red-skinned midgets. Art looked away, then shut his eyes and stuck his fingers in his ears, wishing he could be spirited away from this hell on earth.
After a few minutes the madness and the hacking had stopped and he instead heard much gnashing of teeth, cackling, and brazen shouts and hollers. Overcome with curiosity, he looked once again through the space between the closet doors and instantly regretted it. Turning to stare at the utter blackness around him, he cupped a hand over his mouth and fought down his gag reflex, to suppress the bile that had grown to the verge of vomiting forth, and slunk his back to a side wall in misery.
The midgets were feasting.
Trying to push the sight out of his thoughts, trying to clear his mind, Art thought back to one of the first meditation exercises his master had taught him, back when he'd been but an initiate into the Order of the Flying Feather.
Slowly, let your eyes fall shut of their own accord… There is no past, no future, to take to heed… There is only the now… Focus the mind inward... Back of your head… You are all that there is, was, and will be, in this world… Nothing outside of you, in this world… Nothing to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell… Only you exist in this world… It is you who is feeling, touching, and experiencing this world…
Thus Art meditated, silent in the darkness, bringing his thoughts inward to himself, paying no attention to the outside world.
Take a deep breath, and hold it… Slowly, steadily, let it out… As you let out your breath, you feel more at peace, at home in this world… Let your body be at ease… Relax your shoulders… Rest your hands upon your lap… Another deep breath… Let it fill up your lungs… Gently breathe out… Set aside your worries… Put off your desires… Let your mind rest…
For several long minutes Art meditated, and as he did his hearbeats slowed, his mind eased. He felt better rested than he had when he'd been awakened out of his sleep.
…And now, slowly, open your eyes.
Art opened his eyes once again to complete darkness. He heard no sound outside, nothing to indicate any continued presence by those creatures. Looking out the slit in the closet doors, he could see only the same darkness -- the shaman had taken its torch staff and left, and his band of followers as well.
Sliding open the closet door, he stepped out into the room, his hands held out before him. In this darkness he was just about blind, and feeling thankful for it being that way. He didn't want to have to see that again. For a moment a vision of what he'd seen earlier flashed into his mind -- a managerie of blood and gore, flayed skin, snapped bone and torn sinew, the man's entrails plucked out from his guts and tied into a noose around the chin and neck of his severed head--
Despite the thought having been recalled to mind, Art set it aside. With the lingering state of mind brought on by the way of inner peace, he felt no distaste, no revulsion. When he heard the continuing shouts and desperate screams echoing in from all around him, he ignored it. When he took several more steps forward into pools and etched trails of blood, so that it stuck to his boots and dripped from the soles of his feet, he ignored it. When his feet bumped into the remains of chewed up flesh scattered all about the floor, he ignored it.
He reached for his discarded boot and put it back on his foot. With the blood all over the place like this, the midgets were sure to leave bloodly footprints all over the halls and rooms outside now, and one more set of bloody footprints wouldn't even so much as stand out, not any more. And then he stepped out into the hallway, advancing through the darkness without any worry to slow him until he came across a connecting corridor with several torches lit. He thought he saw bodies--
He stepped back in a hurry, berating himself for letting him get too immersed in the way of inner peace. He shook his head to clear his mind of its last vestiges. There was a time for everything, and the time for tranquility and being free of worry was not when trapped in a place he didn't know, in the presence of enemies he could not freely engage.
Realizing that he'd seen bodies and not, say, prowling demons or patrolling midgets, he took another peek into the lit corridor. He could make out in the flickering torchlight a cluster of bodies collapsed on the ground, connected by dark pools of blood seeping into the cracks of the floor. Brown and white gambeson -- fallen Rogues. None of them moving save one, its motions almost indiscernable.
Nothing outside of you, in this world…
So many dead, mangled bodies. Strewn all along the length of the corridor they had fallen. The closest archer's body looked horribly contorted, lying on her back and curled up but with her head sticking out between her lower legs -- her waist had been snapped. The next nearest was propped up in a standing position by an unlit wall torch, whose iron spokes were stabbed up through her eyes. Art couldn't bear to look further down the length of the corridor.
Nothing to see, hear, taste, touch, or smell…
Mind still stunned by the horror, Art took a few steps forward, stopping by the side of the archer who had fallen but was still alive, and took a closer look. Looking no older than twenty, she was lying flat on her back, her mail-gloved hands clutching at her throat, her hands seeped with blood, seemingly trying to staunch its flow. Art shook his head and sighed. That the Rogues were sending barely trained younglings into battle reflected just how sudden the attack must have been, or how desperate their leadership had become.
She looked up at him, eyes wide, she made as if to speak, her lips moved, but no sound came out. Her windpipe partially crushed, then? thought Art. It looked as if she had great difficulty breathing. What had happened? Had the beast run them all over and taken a swipe at her neck with one if its massive limbs? She was lucky -- or unlucky -- to have survived this long.
There was, of course, no way to fix either affliction. She was going to die, he thought, and she probably knew it too, and just hadn't made peace with the fact. Art felt only a useless sympathy for her plight. Most people had difficulty making peace with their impending death; he probably would be too if he were in her place. She was no exception, and by trying to prevent any further blood loss, she was prolonging her own suffering. She was a warrior. She ought to know when more struggle was futile.
And if one of those shamans and their bands of midgets happened upon her and saw that she was still alive but too weak to resist… Well, he didn't know if they'd consider a woman's flesh to taste a bit better than a man's, but there was more than one way to savor a woman's flesh.
He raised his arming-sword before her so she could clearly see it, pointing its tip down at her throat. The gesture was unmistakable. At the sight her eyes opened wide and then shook her head vigorously, her lips in a rictus as if about to cry, and she raised an outstretched arm toward the blade as if to ward it away. More blood spilled from the lethal wound in her throat, now that she had only her left hand to sustain the pressure on her bleeding carotid artery.
"Fine," he muttered to her as he returned his sword to its sheath. She'd indicated that she didn't wish to die a warrior's death, or so it seemed. At least he could give her that, if she so wished. It mattered little in the end how she died. "Let me grant you a peaceful rest then." She continued to shake her head, her lips moving as if to say, No. He shook his head. "You know I'd save you if I could. You know as well as I do that you're not going to make it."
He knelt down by her side, gently took her hands in his -- so small and cold they were -- and lifted them up, away from her neck. She struggled to keep her hands in place, her efforts weak. Unyielding, he brought her hands above her head and pinned them there. "Stop struggling. It will be over soon. It's the least I can do," he whispered.
Lips quivering, she gave one last look at the torch on the wall and closed her eyes as the blood spilled unabated out of her artery to join the ever growing pool that she was soaked in.
He waited in patience and silence as her pulse slowed, then stopped altogether. There, he'd done it: his first kill of the night here in this accursed cellar, and it was to kill an ally. She would have died anyway without his help, but that didn't make it any better. He wondered if the invisible stains he'd brought upon his hands could ever be washed away in the waters of time, if Tyrael from on high would pass condemnation or pardon upon his soul. Kneeling there, the only one to hold her vigil, he wondered if he was supposed to feel a bit more grief or anger -- at himself, the invaders, their plight. But no tears came to his eyes. If anything, he felt at peace with himself and with the world.
How ironic, he thought. He stood as a warrior in a place surrounded by enemies, and the only one he'd felled was an ally. May the heavens find much amusement in that, he thought, for I am too emotionally spent today.
For a long moment he lingered there, wondering if there was something more to be done and giving the rest of the corpses a once-over.
Why yes, there was something more he should do. He slipped the bloodied gloves off her hands and put them on his own. Turning around, he saw that one of the other fallen sisters had a helmet with attached aventail. He promptly relieved her corpse of it too and donned it on himself. Armor was wasted on the dead.
Where there anything else he could use? Looking over their discarded weapons -- javelins, spears, arrows -- he picked up a bow. Elm, five feet long, twenty-five inch draw length. All along its length ran a series of carvings, no more than a tenth of an inch thick, not deep enough to weaken the bow to any noticeable extent. Straight lines, all of them, the longest ones going up and down the length of the bow, but with several smaller ones formed into several runes at both tips, and a more extensive series of easily hundreds of cuts arranged to runes at the center, right around the depression where an archer would have fit her fingers. Symmetrical, beautiful to behold. This much finesse could not have come cheap.
So that was how the Rogues went about wielding fire and lightning. He'd thought it was strange, for the Sightless Eye School, a school known for its clairvoyant ways, to be proficient in elementry. What was this bow's element?
He just picked it up in his left hand, picked up an arrow from the quiver on the floor beside him, and nocked an arrow against it with his right, like he'd seen the archers do. The moment he had the posture just right, a foreign sensation poured into him, like his body had learned a way of its own accord, like muscle memory, and was now teaching its mind. If he tried to empty his mind and sense what way it was, he could barely make out a feeling welling deep within him, reminiscent of sparks from crashing flint, as if he were but an ember floating through the air, eager for kindling to set alight. Had it been taught as a way, its lines of thought would probably be intended to evoke the awakening or hunger of a newborn fire, and its practitioners would probably evoke much the same state of mind as this bow was doing for him. The focus evoked by this way felt crystal clear, potent; one would have to spend months to master a way to the level granted by the mere wielding of this item.
He tossed the bow back onto the floor, it clattering as it went. He'd not shot an arrow in his life, and he was not about to start now, not when he had his sword, not when he was in close quarters, not when most of the rooms were shrouded in darkness. The foreign way had left his mind the moment the bow fell out of his hand.
Power right at their fingertips, to grant their untrained minds a way of fire. And it had all come to naught, thought as he shook his head, looking at the woman he'd helped expire as he stood up.
His trousers and the lower part of his gambeson now bloodied, he proceeded down the lit corridor, then another, trying to get a feel for the layout of this part of the monastery.
It didn't help that most of the rooms and hallways down in the cellars here lacked lighting whatsoever, so that his outstretched hands kept bumping into walls where he least expected them; that he kept almost-tripping over fallen archers or kicking arrows and bows into the distance with a clatter; or that he kept having to change directions. Within the span of a single minute he'd happened upon the torchlight of three separate midget patrols -- or perhaps the same one that just happened to never be where he'd expected them to be -- and had to make a quick turn into a side room or an adjoining passage, or backtrack.
His wandering led him to a small room of worship with a standing torch at each corner and an altar table set in the middle. The purple prayer mat had been kicked into a corner, colorful tapestry showing portraits of an elder motherly figure ripped off the walls or set aflame. Incense lay strewn about the floor and the white cloth covering the altar that he'd expected to see was nowhere to be found. Instead the mahogany of the altar was bared.
A young woman, stripped of all clothing, lay spreadeagled upon the altar, raven hair splayed out behind her, wrists and ankles manacled to chains looped under the wooden legs of the altar. She had been crying out continuously until she caught sight of him, upon which she abruptly stopped her wailing and, with tears flowing down her cheeks, stared at him in disbelief.
He stared at her naked breasts and abdomen in disbelief. "Well, aren't you a sore sight for eyes." Red streaks covered her skin, bloodied cuts as if carved by an athame, a grotesque work of corporeal art. The intricate flesh cuts included several strokes that had been made in the arrangement of a crossed diamond above her left breast, where her heart would have been, with a circle of smaller, more precise cuts arrayed around it; several alternately large and complex cuts going down the length of her chest and abdomen; and long, simpler cuts going down the length of each outstretched arm and leg, interspersed with more complex cuts on the joints -- the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, and ankles. Several hundred slashes, at the very least, and a few drops of blood dribbling from every one. It seemed a testament to the skill of whatever artist had done this, that she was still alive, and, he suspected, she was probably intended to live through the ordeal.
It seemed he had arrived just in time to save her. One glance at what those manacles connected to, and he figured it would be dead easy to just remove the chains out from under the wooden legs of the altar, without making any loud noise that would alert the patrols, and then she'd be free. She was helpless to do it from her position atop the altar, but it would be no difficulty for him, he'd just need to tip the altar-table enough to tank the chain out from underneath the table leg, and do it four times.
The captive tried to move, but instantly stopped, crying out in pain and biting down on her lips so silence her outcry.
No, even if he'd gotten her free, she'd be in too much pain to so much as stand, much less walk the distance it would take to escape the monastery. What left but to put her out of her misery, as he'd already done before?
Art stepped before the altar-table, entranced. Just what had they done to her? He was sure he'd not seen such horrible marks before, it looked completely nonsensical to him, and yet felt a sense of familiarity, just looking at it. It reminded him of something he'd once seen before, what was it again? Then it came to him. These were like the runes he'd seen etched into arms and armor, like the carvings on the Rogues' bows, just with different shapes and patterns and transplanted on flesh where they looked far more abominable. And just like those etchings and carvings, he surmised, the connected series of runes comprising these cuts into her flesh most likely could also be used to trigger certain states of mind.
Swords and shields with etchings upon them had a clear use for them: a sword might have runes to trigger ways of agility or accuracy, a shield ways of resiliency. Tools, in a word. That was fine: having a sword that granted the wielder enhanced agility made sense, because there was practically no situation where using a sword well could be useful and using a sword better wouldn't. But those were tools. The human body, on the other hand, was not a tool to be wielded. Or was it? The implications were disturbing.
So what, they were turning their captive into a living weapon? Why were they going through the trouble of making this intricate a series of cuts in her flesh? It would have been much easier to simply kill her along with all the rest. It would be a complete waste of time unless they planned to get some use out of her.
"Please," she rasped out at barely a whisper, her voice hoarse, "The blood priest will be back soon."
Blood priest? Ah, the shaman from earlier, or another like it. He'd seen that other one raise a ceremonial dagger. Back then, they'd killed and eaten the man. They'd not done the same with her. Why? Was she one of the Rogues? She didn't have any of the Rogues' gear on her any more, but one look at the muscle in her arms and he was almost sure she was an archer. Perhaps they only did this with women, with the Rogues, with those not seriously injured or with those who could fight? He couldn't be sure which of those applied, not until he knew what all those cuts on her meant.
"Please", she continued, "Don't let them do this to me." -- "What would you have me do?" -- "Cut me." -- "What, like into pieces?" -- "A big X, right through the heart of all of the blood priest's cuts. Ruin his work. I want to see the look of frustration on his face, even if it's the last thing I see."
Art nodded, realizing what she was suggesting. The etches on arms and armor were in those particular patterns because they had to be in order to work. They would be ruined if additional etches were made. Etched objects were usually made of metal, so they'd not take additional etches readily, but cuts into flesh? It would be all too easy to make a cut in the wrong place and render the entire pattern useless, and even if one lived long enough for a cut to heal, a deep enough cut never truly fades away.
Yes, he could imagine the rage that would send the shaman into when it returned. He could also imagine what the shaman would do next, when it realized that its captive was now useless to it, and took out its fury on her. Surely she could see that? If he were in her position, he'd ask for a mercy killing instead. "I mean, are you sure about this? You won't get another chance. For mercy, you know. Trying to spite the blood priest, probably not the best if you eventually decide to beg for mercy. I mean sure, they're pretty tame for demon spawn. All I've ever seen them do is skin a man, rend him limb from limb, tear flesh from bone and eat it, and laugh about it. That, to a man who had done nothing but be unconscious when they showed up. Like I said, pretty tame and predictable. As for you, if you pull this off? All bets are off."
What am I saying? Art thought as his words echoed in his mind and he heard what he'd just said. Just listen to myself, making light of this situation. How could I even say such things? I think I'm losing it. This place has gone to hell in a handbasket and now I'm losing it. Preoccupied as he was with his thoughts, though, he didn't miss her next words.
"I don't care."
He could see the resolve in her eyes. What a fool. As he unsheathed his sword, he realized that when the shaman came back, it would immediately deduce the presence of an intruder and would set his midget minions to look behind every doorhinge. He'd have to move quickly to avoid capture.
"Ah, very well. I guess in such circumstances not caring is good. Easier said than done, I suspect, but a wish is a wish, and I shall grant you your final wish. May you not live to regret it."
He brought the tip of his blade up over her right breast, near the top of the main body of cuts, and set it down upon the flesh. He saw her taking in a deep breath and bite down on her lower lip, preparing to receive the pain.
What the hell, he thought to himself as he took in the sight of his unstained blade. That his blade would be stained with the blood of a captive ally and not by any of his enemies -- that was just too cruel. That his blade would be doing it in, and in the process desecrating, a sacrosanct prayer room of the very order who had sacrificed innumerable sisters in a selfless act of valor, why, that was just the cherry on top.
He wondered for a moment, considering whether to ask her name. Such courage wasn't in great supply. Then he reconsidered. Someone this foolhardy deserved to be forgotten.
He slashed his sword across the captive woman's skin from her right breast to her left hip, then from her left breast to her right hip, taking care to only cut skin deep. She cried out in a muted scream with each stroke of his blade. Blood dribbled from his sword as he resheathed it.
Then he turned and fled out of the prayer room. She would get to see her vengeance and live to suffer dearly for her insolence. He would not.