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Chapter 25 - Engagement in a Brothel, Part III

With a look of utter shock, Elexa crumpled to the ground in Liene's arms, her gambeson stained with blood. Natalie dropped her shield, horror written on her face. Jezebel and Roland stared first at Elexa, then at each other, then raced up the stairs to Elexa, with Diane following right after. "No," shouted Art as he picked himself up. Natalie stood aside, not stopping Art from getting up. Then they both rushed over to the two sisters.

"No, Elexa!" said Liene. She knelt and rested Elexa's chest upon her calves, caressed her head in one arm, then pressed down on the wound with her other hand. -- "Elexa!" shouted Diane, before she rushed to kneel before Elexa and tend to her as well. "Oh god, so much blood…" All her chest appeared stained.

"Oh my god," said Natalie from three paces away. -- "Away with you!" Liene screamed at Natalie. "You've already felled her, what more do you want? You want my life too?" -- "No, I--" -- "Go. Just go," said Liene with steel in her voice, before bursting into wails. Tears fell from her and Diane's faces. -- "Sister Elexa, stay with us!" -- Elexa stared up at them in mute shock, clutching at the wound in her chest.

"Stay with us," said Roland. -- "I… feel so tired," said Elexa, her eyes drooping. -- "No! Keep your eyes peeled! You're not allowed to go to sleep! As your elder sister, I order it!" -- "Elder sister Elexa…" -- She smiled back at them. "It was a nice time while it lasted, sisters…" Elexa spoke, her voice weak. "To have shared a joyful life with you all together at the monastery…" -- "What are you saying, elder sister?" -- "Having spent my time with you… Even if I go now to heaven, I won't feel any regrets…" -- "You're not going anywhere sister Elexa!" shouted Liene. "We still have to reclaim the monastery. You can't abandon us until after we've recaptured it!" -- "Stay strong!" -- She closed her eyes. -- "No, Elexa, please!"

Liene and Diane worked to wrap a sash tightly around her waist, like a tourniquet, so as to lessen the bleeding. It stained a bright scarlet almost immediately. They worked with practiced hands, and within moments they'd finished, though with the cloth already thoroughly stained, it was hard to tell how much the blood loss had been slowed.

Roland squatted down. "If I may." -- Liene looked back at him, teary-eyed. -- "Let me use my way of channeled vigor." -- Art put out a hand to stop him. "Roland, you've not even recovered from doing the same for Ryann in the morning. Back then you mentioned that doing it twice in as many days would have significant consequences. What are they?"

"I'm not sure I want to get into the details," Roland said, making a gesture toward Natalie, whom a moment ago had been trying to kill him. Ah, something involving being less able to fight in battle for a while, then? Art mused. That was all Roland needed to say; he got the gist of it, but the plausible deniability meant that Natalie couldn't simply assume Roland would be powerless to defend himself for the time being.

"Are you sure you want to got through with this?" Art asked, concerned. -- "I don't see any choice in the matter. The Fourth Tenet commands me to. Liene, if you would allow me?"

Between sniffs, "Way of… channeled vigor…" She nodded, causing more tears to fall, then moved aside. -- "I'll need someone to remove her clothes." -- "I'll do it," said Diane, and she proceeded to help Elexa out of her clothes and prop her up while keeping pressure over her wound. Roland knelt behind her, and began to mutter to himself:

"Gift of vigor, freely given. A grace from God, glory be. To see the world all abound with life, To participate in activities of love and strife. To sense this world with touch and taste, To see this world with eyes and ears. To dance about with this mortal frame, To speak of this world, all abound with hope. Gift of vigor, I freely give, In honor of God, do I gift to thee."

Over and over he repeated the mantra, and the air around his arms and around Elexa's arms rippled.

As Roland did this, Jezebel turned to Art. "Fourth Tenet?" -- Art nodded back. "Fourth tenet is to help those in need, which is why he feels so obligated."

Guards poured into the brothel, quickly securing the first floor, and a dozen of them raced up the stairs. They didn't move, instead they continued to tend to Elexa. The lead guard approached them, spear in hand, but did not strike a hostile stance toward them. -- "Thank goodness you're here," said Liene. "He just left." -- "Where did he go? What did he look like?" -- "The assassin was wearing a gambeson all in black, he had a shield and scimitar at his side--"

Art chimed in, "Couldn't have been more than four foot eight. I caught sight of his face at one point. Red skin all over, he must have been one of the--" -- "Damn redskins at it again," shouted the guard, a look of fury half hidden beneath his helmet. "Don't worry, he's probably fled for the gates by now. There'll be no one in town he can look to stay with. Men, with me!" he said, and he turned and ran with the others following close behind.

He stepped to the edge of the railing, watched them leave, and when they'd left, he shook his head and chuckled, as did Natalie. He turned around to see the others looking gloomy. "What?" -- "If you hadn't noticed," said Jezebel as she gestured toward Elexa. -- "Oh… Right…"

"Is… is there anything I can do?" asked Natalie -- Liene rounded on her. "Why are you still here? Didn't I tell you to get out? This is all your fault, and I don't want to see your face ever again!" -- "I never intended for this to happen--" -- "What did you think was going to happen when you started attacking everyone?" -- Natalie dropped her head. "Not this… Never this…" -- "You in your self-righteousness became so blinded by your desire to kill," said Art behind her, "That you forgot that others' lives are put at risk by your actions." -- Natalie's eyes scrunched up into tears.

"How dare you weep for her? How dare you?" Liene shouted, shaking a finger at her. "You're not a member of our sisterhood. You don't know her. You don't know what it means for us to lose someone we care for. So don't put up an act. Her death is nothing to you, isn't it?" -- "Please, you have to understand, it was all a misunderstanding--" -- "And now you want to claim a misunderstanding?" Art retorted. "After never giving anyone else the benefit of the doubt when they claimed the same?" -- Natalie collapsed before Elexa, bursting into tears. "Sorry… I'm so sorry… I never intended to hurt one of your sisters…"

"Oh, and it was okay for you to try to kill us?" asked Art. -- Diane asked, "Why, Natalie? What beef do you have with the sisterhood?" -- "I have no quarrel with you. The sisterhood has been a shining beacon of women standing up for and defending their own, I admire everything you and your monastery represent! The only institution of martial arts learning for women for several hundred miles in every direction, of, by, and for women, taking care of your own and not caving in to the king's demand for submission… Yours is an organization I look up to every day."

"Then why did you attack them?" -- "I… I'd only intended to rid the world of the scum of the earth… I didn't know until the very end, when Jezebel spoke up on their behalf, that these two were acting in the interest of the sisterhood, rather than their own. Otherwise… otherwise I would have stopped the fighting much earlier, and this would have never happened!" She stared at the ground ashamedly. "Speaking of which, Jezebel, what were the incidents you were referring to, when you said the Art had risked his life in defense of the sisterhood? Is this true?"

Diane nodded and explained, "What Jezebel said about Art and Roland is true, but for that you have to first understand our situation." She sighed dejectedly, then shared a look with Liene, who nodded for her to proceed. "Secret's out anyways, so might as well. Our sisterhood lost the monastery a few nights ago. Lost it to an attack from the redskins, took us by surprise. In the process they made off with all our assets, and this morning, we came across some of them at the market, attempting to trade our very own silver for supplies to sustain their war effort. If they succeeded, they would have solidified relations between them and Tristram."

Natalie nodded in understanding. "So the fight this morning at the market?" -- "He started it," she said, pointing a finger at Art. -- "Hey, you're making it sound--" -- "I'm not accusing you… Or, I guess I am, but what I mean to say is, he incited them into a rampage to deny them that victory. But it came at the cost of a great many dead. We came upon their aggreved friends and family just now. They recognized the sisters, and gave chase." -- "So then, the reason you lot wound up here--" -- "Is because we were trying to hide the sisters from them," explained Art. "Liene, Elexa, and Diane went into one of the rooms to switch out of their clothing, which would have identified them as members of the sisterhood." -- Jezebel then said, "And the mob which followed us in wanted to find them."

"But if that's true," said a mortified Natalie, "Then--" -- Jezebel nodded, saying, "Then they had reason to be searching the rooms." -- "So you're saying this is all my fault?" -- "You can hardly be faulted for that. A misunderstanding, is all." -- Natalie stared at her boots, sullen. "And to think that I had judged them so harshly, even hurt them…" -- "Who, Kylan and Eomar? Don't you worry about them, they'll recover. It's just good that at least you hadn't killed them. If you had, then it wouldn't be anything mere time could fix."

"There's another noble thing Art did," said Roland. "We met with Count Traben earlier today. He had found out about that incident, about how the sisterhood had incited their redskin guests to violence…" -- "And he was deadly serious about killing a sister or two," Jezebel chimed in. -- "But Art went and all but asked to shoulder the count's full fury. It could have easily gotten him executed." -- "All in the hope of distracting the count away from placing the blame on the sisterhood." -- "Something like that," muttered Natalie, looking at Art with a renewed light. -- "You have no idea how terrible the count looked," said Diane. "If it wasn't for Art, it's likely none of us sisters could have made it out of there alive."

Natalie nodded to Art. "It seems I have greatly misjudged you," she said. "I have no right to ask it of you, but please accept my apologies." -- Art waved it aside. "I think your not killing me was apology enough. Thank you for that, by the way." -- "I don't deserve your thanks for something like that. Not killing someone is easy. It's the killing that's hard." -- "You're really going to need to stop thinking about killing all the time. The way you're going about it, I'd really have to start worrying if you were some kind of assassin."

Natalie turned to Roland. "And you? Jezebel said something about how you're the only hope left for the sisterhood." -- Jezebel shot Liene a look, and she returned a nod of approval. -- "After the count's refusal, the sisterhood is in dire straits, and has next to no money left to maintain their war effort." -- Art added, "Roland here has graciously offered to go speak with the bishop tomorrow morning."

"It's… it's that bad, huh?" said Natalie, squatting down on the floor. "And what if Roland can't secure the bishop's aid either?" -- "If he fails too, then I fear there may be precious little that can be done for them," said Jezebel. -- Art looked askance at her. "What are you saying? Even if the plan falls through, they'll make do, like they always have. Where there is a will, there is a way, am I right?" -- "You seem so confident about all this," said Diane, pouting. "But I don't see how we can manage."

"Well it won't be easy," replied Art, "and it will require you to put up with difficulties you're not accustomed to facing, and suffer hardships you thought beneath you. You'll have to compromise on things you've previously thought inviolate. After all, if the bishop agrees to aid, it will almost certainly come with strings attached, so that even if you regain your monastery, the sisterhood will never be the same."

"She's awake!" Jezebel exclaimed, rushing to kneel by Elexa's side. Art turned and saw that she'd indeed opened her eyes, though she yet looked too weak to move. Roland still had his hands pressed against her back, and he was murmuring to himself between clenched teeth, his arms shaking violently.

"…To dance about with this mortal frame…"

"Elexa! Speak to us!" said Liene, holding Elexa's left arm in her hands. "How are you feeling?"

"…To speak of this world, all abound with hope…"

"Like someone's been doing their darnedest to stop me from falling asleep," she murmured.

"…Gift of vigor, I freely give…"

Liene burst into tears of relief and embraced her. "I was afraid… I was so afraid we'd lost you." -- "Oh, sister Liene…"

"In honor of God, do I gift to thee."

Roland toppled over backward onto the wooden floor, heaving with labored breaths. Jezebel held on to Elexa to prevent her from falling backward as well. -- "Thank you, Roland," said Diane. "That was amazing." -- Liene cuddled Elexa's head against her shoulder. "Sister… Thank the heavens you're okay. Thank the heavens…" -- "Don't you mean thank Roland?" asked Art. "If he hadn't been here, the heavens can thunder all they want and all their storm and fury would be for naught." -- "You're right." Liene sank to her knees before him. "Please, as Elexa is still too weak, let me thank you in her place for saving her life," she said, and tapped her head to the ground before him, three times. -- "If anyone's keeping score, Elexa, you now owe Liene three kowtows when you get better," said Art.

"It's not my doing," Roland said, weakly. "All due credit rightfully goes to God. And besides, I hadn't healed her wounds, only gave her some of my vitality. If she was going to die, no amount of channeled vigor could have saved her. So really, you needn't thank me."

"You are too humble. If you hadn't shared your own vitality, she'd not have had the strength to continue living," said Liene, "so I must thank you anyway." -- "No, don't, it's the least I can do," Roland said between labored breaths. "It's not like I can do much else for your sisterhood." -- "Nonsense! You'll be speaking to the bishop after this. And after that… Would you consider joining the sisterhood?" -- "Sister Liene!" said Diane, looking scandalized. -- "I mean, not like that…" -- "I know what you mean, Liene, and no, I can't. I mean, I can use the way of channeled vigor, but other than that, I'm useless to you. I can't fight--"

"What do you mean you can't fight?" interrupted Art. -- "We've been through this before, Art. And just now, well, you saw the fight just now. Yeah, yeah, go laugh, I'm no good at this." -- "Uh, no, actually I don't see that at all. For all your screaming, you actually put up a pretty decent fight. Don't you agree, Natalie?" -- "That was pretty good. Better than most people I've fought," she agreed. -- "What are you talking about? I could barely hold my own against her! She gave me several cuts, and if I hadn't been wearing my gambeson, I'd be bleeding my guts out on the ground right now!" -- "But you were wearing your gambeson, Roland, and who the hell would go into battle without their armor?" said Art. -- "You gave me a downright hard time of it, and I'm no amateur at it myself. Don't sell yourself short, Roland, you're not half as bad at it as you think you are." -- "Hah, me, good at fighting?" Roland burst out chuckling. "This is a joke, right?"

"No actually I think we're all agreed," said Art. "You know what? I think your problem is you lack confidence." -- "Damn right I don't have confidence, I don't want to get myself killed. Which, you'll notice, almost happened to Elexa here. Anyone who can go into something like that is either exceptionally brave and capable or a fool."

Art thought back to when he'd fought in the monastery, how he risked life and limb holding at the gates to buy Selena some time. If she hadn't been there, he wouldn't have paused there at all, he'd have run right on into the darkness of the wilderness. And he didn't think himself either brave or a a fool. "No," he said. "They're either a fool, or they have someone to protect. When you have someone to protect, the courage comes more easily."

"And? I don't have anyone to protect. When I was fighting, you have no idea how terrified I was." -- "You stopped shouting in terrror once you got the hang of it, and you caught on pretty quickly," Art retorted. "Once you set your mind on the battle, watching Natalie's every step, you didn't have the time and attention to spare on your fears." -- Roland shook his head in disbelief.

"That kind of fear is perfectly natural. You think I don't have that same fear? You think Natalie or Jezebel is exempt? No, we all fear it just as much." -- "Well I felt it a lot more. You weren't in my head, you don't know…" -- "You weren't all that afraid, Roland. You know how I know? Look around. It's just us here. Why's that? Moments after Natalie started attacking us two, people started running for the exit. The clients, the courtesans, the madam, the people who had been chasing us, they all fled. But you stayed behind. You knew Natalie was attacking you with a nigh invisible weapon and you knew that a single misstep would have spelled your death. Yet you fought on."

"You're not half as bad as you think," added Diane. "You fought, right there in the thick of it, and for so long. Even when Jezebel joined in the fight against you, you didn't freeze up, didn't turn tail and run. Unlike me," she finished, lowering her head in shame. "I couldn't do anything. Even when I saw all of you in danger, even when I could have easily gone with Liene and Elexa to get our armor and weapons, even after having trained in the ways of the bow for years with my fellow sisters, and even after I had promised myself that no matter how difficult or scary the challenge I'd still persevere… Even after all that, I still couldn't do anything. Now that was pathetic. Compared to me, you're… well, I don't know what you think you're so afraid of."

"Diane," murmured Elexa. -- Liene leaned forward. "Don't say that, Diane--" -- "You know it's true," shouted Diane, rounding on her. "No need to mince words about it: I'm hopeless. I can't shoot, can't fight, and the moment I get caught in one I go cringe in a corner." She clutched at her knees. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Oh dear," said Jezebel. -- Liene clutched Diane's hand. "Why would you ever think something like that?" -- With tears falling down her face, she related, "I… When I thought to join the fight just now, along with you and Elexa… I was so terrified. I couldn't help but think of the beast. How it was coming for me. Death was coming for me, and I couldn't think of anything except to get away from it all. It didn't even cross my mind to fight back, sister Liene! I couldn't even think, much less act. And that with opponents who were already preoccupied with others and who could only threaten me up close. If I can't even handle that, then how am I possibly going to be of any help when enemies are charging right at us?" She cradled her head in her hands.

"Nonsense, Diane. You've trained with us, you know how to use a bow and fight. You've proven it to us on multiple occasions. If you're worried about how well you'll do in battle, well, only time will tell. You're still young. You have a long way to go, much more to improve--"

"I knew it, I'm no good as I am right now, am I? And the war's already going on. It's not like I'll have the time to improve enough to be an asset in time. And if I can't help in a fight, when the sisterhood is at war for its very survival… Then I'm nothing but a drag to your sisterhood." She broke down sobbing.

"No, Diane, you're not a 'drag' to any of us. You're one of our sisters. And that makes you just as valuable as everyone else." -- "You know that's not true!" -- "Diane! Listen to me. We need you just as much as we need every last one of our sisters. And no matter what happens, you should always feel at home with us. We're not like those mercenary groups that toss out members the moment they get too crippled or decrepit to fight. You're a sister of the Sightless Eye. You're family, and that means you'll always be welcome here, no matter what happens or how little you can do to help us."

"And with the sisterhood's finances as lean as it is, and you need to save every last morsel for those who can actually contribute… I have no right to partake of your food. It will just pointlessly waste what little you have left."

"Hush, Diane. Don't you worry about our finances, leave that to me." -- "But how can I not? We're terribly short on silver, and we all know it." -- "We'll manage. I swear to you, we'll find a way to manage." -- "But I have no right to make it harder on any of you." -- "Younger sister Diane," Liene chided, "What did I just tell you about us being a sisterhood? You are our sister. That means you have every right to share in what we all have. Don't for a moment think you don't deserve it." -- She nodded, sniffing. "But deserving ought to be earned… And I haven't done anything to--"

"And how do you expect to be able to do anything for the sisterhood if you abandon us?" Liene pulled her into an embrace, tears falling from her eyes. -- "I can't lose you, Diane," said Elexa weakly. -- "And me neither," continued Liene. "Having spent so many years growing up together, and after all we've experienced… You are like a true sister to me, and you are dear and precious to my heart. I've lost so many beloved sisters already in just the last few days, far more than anyone could ever deserve to lose, and all of them so soon after each other. I… I can't bear to lose you too! I can't bear to lose anyone any more!" she wailed as she rested her head on Diane's. "Please… Please promise me that you'll not do anything reckless!"

Diane wrapped her arms rightly around her elder sister. "I promise, sister Liene… I promise," and then the two burst into a renewed round of tears. "I'm… I'm just so worried that I won't meet the expectations you all seem to have for me."

"Don't worry," said Roland. "I'm sure the sisters will make a warrior out of you yet. You just have to give them the opportunity." -- Diane smiled back at him. "Thanks, Art, for trying to give me the peace of mind. Don't you think, that if I could have fought, I would?" -- "Just now? Not necessarily. You had people fighting for you, in a situation that was nonetheless decently under control, a two on two fight, and where none of the combatants were the sisters you've known. I'm sure that, should the lives of your fellow sisters were to come under threat, you wouldn't hesitate to fight in their defense."

"There will be plenty of opportunity for that," Roland replied. "Trust me. When the time comes, when you see what they're about to do to your sisters in the heat of battle, you'll loose your arrows without any difficulty." -- "I'm not so sure it'll be all that easy," she replied, her face red. "Training and the real thing are quite altogether different matters after all. What's to prevent me from freezing up again like I have just now?" -- "Don't worry. In the heat of battle, all you will worry about is your own safety and the safety of your friends around you. When you see the enemy bearing down on you, and you see them for the threat they pose to you, you will act, no doubt about it."

Listening to them, Art recalled the battle at the monastery, where the unpainted midget warriors had shirked away from engaging him, giving him openings to back into, time and again giving him the opportunity to close in on them and strike out with his sword. If they had all fought him in earnest, coming at him all at once when they had him encircled, he'd have been forced to retreat. But they hadn't, there was always someone who hadn't done their part, and he'd taken advantage of that weakness to the fullest. He'd killed them one after another, thinning out their numbers and breaking their morale until the three adepts had no one left to support them. For want of disciplined fighters, the redskins had lost perhaps a hundred of their child warriors to his blade that night. He couldn't let the same befall the sisterhood.

"That's not… entirely true," said Art, causing Liene to shoot him a look that said, shut up. "I'm only saying this because let's face it, it isn't easy to stand up to the challenge, and if Diane doesn't loose an arrow or thrust with her spear at the critical moment, that could cost the lives of your fellow sisters. This is nothing to paper over." -- "Enough, Art," said Liene. "Are you trying to discourge sister Diane?"

"You know all those mercenaries you and Paige were looking to recruit back at the square? Know how they bluster about all the kills they made, how heroically they acted? Liars through and through, most of them. I would know. I'm a swordsman; I've fought for a living. I've fought alongside fellow guards as part of Warriv's caravan in quite a few battles. I've been watching everyone's movements in those engagements. I can see the fear in the whites of their eyes, sense their unwillingness from their inaction. I've taken advantage of it multiple times in battle, and I guarantee the enemy will try to take advantage of any weakness they sense."

"So what's your solution, then? That we kick our dear sister out of our order? Banish her to who knows where, leave her to be forgotten?"

"I'm suggesting we strengthen her resolve," he shot back. He sat down opposite Liene, and thought for a moment, pulling back up those memories of the horrors he'd experienced back at the monastery. "Liene… You know we fight the redskins. Tell me, what do you know about them?" -- "Um… They're from one of several tribes to the northeast-- " -- "No, I mean as to their behavior." -- "The young fight with melee weapons, the elders wield staves that shoot bolts of fire and raise the fallen to fight again."

Art sighed to himself. "Diane. I want you to close your eyes." -- She did. -- "Now. Envision that you, Liene, and Elexa, and the rest of your sisters, are traveling back to Thistledown tomorrow. For some reason or other, you are all separated from Elexa. Perhaps an ambush or some such forced you to make a run for it. A horde of a hundred redskins, many times over what your group is able to handle. You lot are able to dash to safety, but Elexa here is still weakened from her earlier wound, and you and your sisters are forced to abandon her."

"What kind of crass hypothetical is that?" Liene replied, voice full of anger. "How dare you imply we would abandon one of our own!" -- Art put up a hand in surrender. "Like I said, a hypothetical. Perhaps I should have phrased it differently. Close your eyes again, Diane. Say one night your group is caught in the forest at nightfall, a good distance from the nearest village. You've circled the wagons and set up sentries, and Elexa went without to relieve herself and never came back. She's been abducted, far as you can tell. Now. What do you think will happen to her?"

Brows furrowed, Diane gritted her teeth. -- "Why are you asking this?" said Liene. -- "Isn't it hard enough on her already, without you making her suffer more?" -- Art laughed. "Suffered? Don't make me laugh. You two are alive and well. You may have lost some loved ones, and I understand you love them as if they were your own flesh and body, and you are greatly aggrieved for them, but all that you've suffered is but a shadow of theirs. Or mine," he said, raising his right arm. "I won't belabor you with tales of how much hardship I've had to undergo as a result of losing this hand, all the trials and tribulations. You're not going to be interested. But, and this is important, Diane, if for no other reason then that that way, you'll be able to loose your arrow when it matters, and perhaps save the lives of your fellow sisters… You need to know what's going to happen to the sisters whom you lose to the redskins."

"And my, ain't it so convenient that you would just happen to know?" Liene retorted. -- "Yes, Liene, I do happen to know," Art said, speaking with resolve in his voice. "As I've told you before, I was the last to exit the monastery. I saw things there that none of you have seen. And trust me, I wish every day that that wasn't the case. Because then, I would still have the use of my right hand. I'd still be the martial arts adept I once was, and not the likes of which would be fought to a standstill against the likes of Natalie and Jezebel's caliber. Not a night passes by without me dwelling on the nightmares I've seen."

Diane had opened her eyes again, and was staring at Art with a look of worry. "And… Just what did you see?" -- He'd seen a screaming man get torn up right before his eyes, the midgets tearing into his roasted flesh and feasting of him; but that was a man, and he'd plenty of examples of what happened to women that night, to describe. He figured it would have more impact on them that way, seeing as how the people the sisters cared the most for would of course be each other, all of them women. He'd seen the discarded corpse of an abused and dismembered woman, hanging on the wall in one of the dungeon cells. -- "You know Selena, I take it?" -- A slow nod. "What happened to her?" -- "Not her, her mother. I found the both of them put in a cell within the dungeons, shackled to chains placed into the wall." -- "They… Killed her, didn't they?"

"Yes, they did, though they made it quick," he lied. He'd done that, but he doubted they'd take well to a confession of murder. "But that was a blessing. I happened to also see the woman in the next cell over. By then it had already been far too late. Now really, you should close your eyes, and imagine this happening to Elexa. Or any other sister. The one you hold dearest to your heart. Have someone in mind? Good. You are to imagine that she was stripped naked, all her limbs bound in chains.You are then to imagine that one of the redskin elders then clambered upon her and raped her--"

"Art, what the hell?" shouted Natalie, wrenching him by his ear. -- "Have you no sense of decorum?" added Liene, while Jezebel shot him a disapproving look.

"Ow ow ow let go," said Art, pulling her hand aside and grimacing from the pain of that final tug on his ear. "A better question would be, do you think those barbarian redskins have any sense of decorum? I'm sure you know the answer. And Liene… Stop babying her, or she'll never grow up. Part of becoming a warrior is understanding the horrors of war. Famine, disease, murder, torture, slavery, rape, pillage, descending in significance, in that order. That makes rape only the second least consequental of the six horrors. Oh that's right, with the kind of sheltered life you live, you probably don't even know what rape means--"

"I know," said Diane. It's not like the sisterhood doesn't teach us all the abhorrent consequences that might result from interacting with men."

"Good, then that spares us all the me having to describe it to you. Close your eyes again, Diane. You are now to imagine that, after the first one had raped her, the sister you cared the most for, that each of the redskin midgets under him then took their turn with her as well, caring not for how desperately she begged. Redskins' semen runs black like pitch, did you know? Saw it myself. You are then to imagine that after the ten, twenty, or however many of them had finished using her for their pleasure, and her nether regions all besplattered by that ichor, that they then set her down on a table and chopped her up, limb after limb, at her shoulders and at her hips, cauterizing each wound to prevent blood loss so that she would stay alive."

Art turned around to look at his audience. Several of them had shut their eyes. Diane covered hers with the back of her hand. Liene stared as she slowly shook her head as if in disbelief, tears falling down her cheeks. Natalie stared at Art, aghast.

"You are then to imagine that after they had severed each of her limbs, inflicting such grievous pains on her that she fainted with each cut and forcing her awake again by pouring bucketfuls of water on her, so that by the end of it all she was begging for them to grant her the mercy of death, that they then hung her against the wall by a collar placed about her neck. You are then to imagine that, as she hung suspended against the wall, choking from her own weight and having no limbs to even attempt to struggle with, that they then gang-raped her again and again until she died."

"Damn it, Art, are you quite finished?" shouted Liene, wiping away her tears. "Telling us such a horrific story… Did you have to tell it with quite so much gratuitous detail?" -- Natalie asked in a slow, disbelieving way, "Art.. What you said… is all this true?"

He'd only seen the dismembered woman's corpse hanging off the wall. The rest of it didn't take much imagination to extrapolate. Art replied in a somber tone, "Yes, though I only saw her after they'd finished with her. It was too late for me to do anything, then." -- "Did… you put her out of her misery?" -- "I couldn't… She was dead already."

They looked at each other, looking depressed, and for a long moment not making a sound. Then Art spoke up. "I told you this, Diane, so you would understand what it is you fight. Remember… when the time comes, you must act. You cannot flee the battle the way you fled from the beast last time around. And not just you. This goes for all the sisters, everyone who's going to be fighting. There's not anything quite like war. Compared to that, this little fight we had in this here brothel is nothing but a jolly bit of exercise. And yes, that's even with the casualty."

Diane looked downright terrified. -- Liene saw the fear apparent on her face, and clasped her hand. -- "I… I'm afraid, sister," Diane admitted, turning to her elder sister. -- "Don't be," said Liene with a look of resolve on her face. "We're here. We -- all the sisterhood -- will be there to protect you. We will go through it together. That I swear." -- "I can't…" Diane sniffed. "It's too much. To have to experience a personal hell like that…" -- Liene embraced her. "Now, now, younger sister, I'm sure Art only chose the worst of them to describe and most of the sisters we lost that night met a shorter, more merciful fate. Right, Art?" she shot him a look.

He stood frozen in place. He didn't have the heart to tell her about the sadistic fates that befell the others who the fleeing sisters had abandoned. But he took too long to speak, and he knew that the others knew, just from looking at him, that there was much more where that had come from.

"Unacceptable," said Natalie, clenching her fist. "The sisterhood is the premier self-reliant institution by, of, and for strictly women, an example for women to aspire to in all Khanduras. I for one will not abide while these redskin brutes rape and abuse its sisters and make a mockery of everything that the order, and I, stand for."

"Oh?" said Roland. "And just what do you think you can do about it?"

Natalie shot him a reproachful look. "That's exactly the attitude I seek to curb, that deep-rooted belief that women can't help themselves and need men to help them. You've given up? Fine. I get that you have no balls." -- Roland gritted his teeth. "I will help the sisterhood in my own way." -- "Yes, well go speak to the bishop for all I care, but if you're not going to put your martial arts to good use fighting alongside the sisters, then you're just a part of the problem, and why bother having martial arts abilities at all?"

"You speak all high and mighty, what are you going to do then?" challed Roland. "From what I gather, you may have been picking fights with individual abusers and rapists here in Tristram as part of your own way of setting things right, but the redskins are a whole tribe, which, need I remind you, had in a single night and with hardly any effort, kicked the Sisters of the Sightless Eye out of the monastery they've held for nigh three hundred years. So you're going to pick a fight with them, huh? You and whose army?"

"Me and the sisterhood's army," Natalie shot back, causing Roland to glower at her in stunned silence. She whirled around to face Liene, holding clasped hands out before her. "Liene, if you would have me, then I, Natalie Ingusetia of Tristram, would pledge my service to your cause."

Liene looked at her in surprise. "I appreciate your offer Natalie. I understand why you would be interested in fighting by our side, but do you know what you're getting yourself into? The sisterhood is caught in a war footing. If you were to come with us, you will not be coming to any place of safety. We have little in the way of shelter or support to provide you. It will not be easy on you," she said, visibly struggling to hold back her tears.

"And that is precisely why I feel incumbent to join you and your fellow sisters in your fight," Natalie replied. "It is only now that your sisterhood even needs the help. Had it not been for the plight you now find yourself in, I would have chosen to remain."

Liene wiped away her tears, her eyes brimming with hope. "We had lost so many of our fellow sisters in the space of mere days. We've lost our monastery… and, except for a little village whose people are putting up with us for now, have no place we can truly call home… Even so, you would join us in our struggle?"

"I would," said Natalie.

"Then… then yes. I believe I can speak on behalf of the rest of the sisterhood, that we'd be happy to have you."

Natalie got on one knee before Liene, still with her hands clasped. "I, Natalie Ingusetia of Tristram, hereby do pledge my service to the cause of the sisterhood. My arms are yours to command."

Standing before her, Liene set her hands on the side of Natalie's shoulders, smiling as she locked eyes with her. "And I, Liene of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye, on behalf of order-mother Akara and bow-mother Kashya, hereby do accept your oath of fealty."

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