Chapter 3 - From the Depths Redeemed
Heading further down the hallway, he saw torchlight growing into view straight up ahead and leapt into a side room, holding his breath in the relative darkness as the troop of the midgets, led by a shaman, walked down the path, two captives in tow, both being dragged by their ponytails, neither struggling. Whether this was the same shaman as the one who had left the captive untended, he could not be sure, but he didn't want to be anywhere near if it turned out to be one and the same. Feeling his way to the back of the room, he nearly knocked over a pile of scrolls, managing to keep them from falling just in time. Patting that down flat upon the table, he kept moving, into another corridor on the other side.
A straight corridor, torches placed upon the walls at regular intervals, with doors placed close together on either side, mostly solid but for small slits at their bottoms and square barred windows at head height.
As he proceeded down the corridor, he looked in through the windows. Dungeon cells, no doubt about it: chains, manacles suspended from bars nailed into the walls, most of them unoccupied, several holding men and women bleeding or dying. None seemed to be in any state to notice his passing.
The sight of the grotequeries that he had come upon earlier came to mind. Instinctively he returned to his meditations.
Focus the mind inward...
One woman had her limbs hanging from four separate chains along the wall, all of them hanging separately as if for sale at the butcher's.
It is you who is feeling, touching, and experiencing this world…
The one in the next cell over was unclothed and was hanging by an iron collar around her neck, her arms and legs reduced to stumps dripping red blood and her nether regions dripping black ichor.
As you let out your breath, you feel more at peace, at home in this world…
With a grimace Art had to admit that his search for inner peace was not helping.
So many had been captured. It seemed the invaders had moved quite quickly, securing so many captives, both Rogues and caravaners. Had some of them been cut off from the rest during their escape? Or had these caravaners been residing on guest bedrooms in the lower floor and been trapped when the beast began its sudden attack in the hallways right outside their guest bedrooms?
The moment he heard the rhythmic patter of approaching footsteps, he opened the nearest open cell door and snuck inside, closing the door behind him but making sure to keep it slightly ajar, in case it locked upon closing. He hadn't the cell keys with him. A bit of apprehension rising up in him at the thought of being locked inside the cell like all the other prisoners. For several tense moments he waited for the procession of midgets to pass by, until their footsteps had faded away.
"You… You aren't one of them, how?" whispered a woman right beside him. Art whirled in surprise, his hand already on the grip of his sword when his eyes settled on the woman before him, visible through the indirect torchlight that filtered through the barred cell window. Her arms were raised above her to either side, her wrists chained to the wall behind her. She was dressed in a peasant woman's gown and her hair looked quite frazzled. To her right was a girl who didn't look even nine, similarly attired and chained, with snot running down her nose and lips, looking like she'd cried her tears out until her tears had run out. The girl looked too tired and scared out of her wits to speak, just darting her eyes back and forth between him and the woman to her left.
Art could feel his mind easing. After what he'd just seen, it felt a bit better to be in the company of someone who wasn't just another mangled bag of meat. It felt like he'd returned from a very long sojourn into hell.
"I happened to not be born to a midget, is my guess… Ahem, I… got separated from the others when trying to escape. Then I got lost. How many of you are trapped down here?"
She shook her head. "A couple? Several dozen? I don't know." -- "I see." -- "Please, you have to get us out of here. You're the only one who can."
"I… I seem to have misplaced my keys. Funny how these keys seem to just fly away on their own, I was sure I had them when I entered."
"One of the tall ones probably has them. You have a weapon, you could--"
He could what, take them on? Yes, he'd thought of that earlier. He could fight these midgets, even the shamans if it came down to it, but there was no telling how many of them walked these halls now, no telling if the beast was right at the end of the hallway. Here in these closed quarters he'd have no room to use Flying Feather's ways, and he knew he could not face the demon using Arid Mesa, not when monolith had failed him already. If it showed up, he was dead. No, he could not risk it--
He dropped his head, and stared at the pommel of his sword.
"Please, don't just leave us here," she beseeched him, seeing his indecision. "My little daughter is only five…"
He continued to stare at his sword, wanting to just bash his way through the walls til he'd come out into the open. All this mucking around in the dark, avoiding pathetic minions as if someone like him could be afraid fo them, it made him feel so out of his element, a shadow of his true self. If only he could smash all his problems out of the way--
Oh that's right, he had a weapon at hand, and he was a graduated disciple of the Arid Mesa School. The way of the crashing boulder and smashing through things was practically a match made in heaven. Art took another look at the chains. Iron, the individual links just under a quarter of an inch thick. If he wanted to he could break those chains, but the crack of crossguard on chain would bring all the patrols on the floor down upon him. He'd have almost no chance of making it out, then. Not unless he moved fast. Never mind breaking all the others out of their chains; just breaking the two of them out would take too long.
Should he do it? Neither of these two would be of any help in facilitating his escape, especially not the girl. Their presence would only give away his position. And he was no closer to figuring out how to get out of this damnable labyrinth than when he'd first tried to shake the beast loose.
Did he dare risk it? Damn it, he thought. Here he was, an adept of two schools with proud histories stretching back centuries. And yet, when the beast attacked, he'd failed to stand his ground. When the midgets had attacked the unconscious man, he'd cowered in a closet. He'd been unable to save the one who'd been bleeding out and had helped doom the one covered in flesh cuts. What would Warriv think if he could see him now? Code of chivalry his ass, he couldn't name a single good deed he'd done in all this nightmare. What a failure. He'd be damned if that was all he'd ever amount to.
He turned to look the woman in the eye, then at the girl, then her again. He knew full well what her answer to his question would be. "Choose."
Tears welled in her eyes. Tears of sorrow and grief, he thought, until she followed up with a sigh in relief. "Thank you, kind stranger," she whispered, all calm and collected. "If no one else will tonight, at least let me call you a hero. My name is Cassia Aurelia. Please tell my husband Eamond, if he still lives, and my daughter, when she has grown, I love them very, very much."
"Mom?" the little one looked at her mother askance, looking like she hadn't been following the plot and was now very much confused.
"My sweet Selena, listen to me," she cood to her daughter. "This man will be getting you out of here, okay? You must go with him. Promise mommy you'll be a good girl and do everything he says, alright?"
"But mommy, I want to be with you…"
"Hush, my dear. It will just be for a little while. He's going to get you out of here first, then come back for mom, so mom come back for you real soon. Till then you have to promise mommy you'll listen. If you do you'll make mom very happy, okay?"
"Promise you'll come back for me?"
"There's a good girl. Now what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to follow him and do as he says."
"Good girl! And remember, don't make a sound till he says it's safe, got it?"
"Got it, mommy, not a sound."
"Good. Be a good girl, and mom will be back for you real soon."
Cassia turned to Art and made a slight nod.
"After we go, the monsters will come for you," he said, and set the edge of his blade over her neck. "Worse than you can imagine. Shall I?"
"I know. Please do."
With a nod, he shifted his grip to hold the sword in the middle of the blade with both hands, pommel side up. With mail gloves on, his palms would feel the vibration but be otherwise fine. It felt good to be taking action for once. Half-swording, he channeled the way of the crashing boulder and threw his weight behind his strike as he swung the crossguard at a link four inches above Selena's right hand.
Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, I crush all beneath me.
With a booming crack the link shattered beneath his blow, allowing Selena's right hand to drop. Selena cried out in surprise before silencing herself. The crack echoed down the stone corridor and its adjacent rooms.
Art's hands felt numb from the shock of the impact. He took a moment to flex his hands. As he did so, he heard disorganized shouts in the distance in the guttural language of the midgets. Time's ticking, he thought to himself. He channeled the way once again as he swung at a link four inches above Selena's left hand.
More mighty than any giant, all shall break beneath my strike.
With another thunderous and resounding crack the link broke. With another halting cry, the freed Selena collapsed into Art's chest.
Art flexed his aching hands and readjusted his grip, turning it around to hold it by its pommel once again. He brought the blade against Cassia's exposed neck.
"Thank you," she said, closing her eyes. Art could barely hear it with the ringing in his ears.
If he'd had the option, he'd visit revenge tenfold upon the invaders for what they'd forced him to do. For all the death and suffering they'd caused, he thought. They'd better manage to kill him before he made his way out of the monastery, or he was coming back to dispense justice.
He slashed the sword across her throat. Blood spurted, over Selena's back, over him, and over the barren stone floor, and a long streak of it quickly trailed down into the neckline of her gown. He suspected he would be having nightmares about this deed if he ever made it out of here in one piece. At least the girl had been looking away. That was one little saving grace.
"May you find peace in heaven," Art whispered as he rushed to resheathe his bloody sword. The voice in his mind was now shouting urgently, Go go go, move!
Then he lifted Selena up to hold her in his arms and against his chest. He propped open the door with his feet and then they were out of the cell and he was running and running and running down the hall. As he ran, he ignored the desperate shouts that suddenly started up from all around him, each one a voice pleading for him to either save them too or put them out of their misery. The midgets would be drawn to the dungeons any time now with that racket he'd just made, and he had no time to spare. If because of his actions, the invaders took out their fury on the other captives, well, he'd have to hope the high heavens would show him forgiveness.
Art heard a war cry from behind him, and turned to look. Several dozen yards behind him, the first of a stream of scimitar-flailing midgets had rounded the corner and were now spilling into the hallway, chasing after him. "Oh shit oh shit!" he exclaimed even as Selena, looking over Art's back with her chin propped on his elbow, screamed out in fear.
He raced down the hallway, his heart pumping furiously, knowing that the moment he encountered a dead end he'd have to fight his pursuers with no hope of escape. That, and the fact that encumbered as he was by this girl, he couldn't run half as fast as he normally could, which meant that even though they had short little legs and couldn't run fast, the midgets were gaining on him with each passing second. "Remind me why I agreed to save you again?"
He rounded left around corner into a corridor, then right at the end of that one, into a longer, lit hallway some six meters across, drenched in blood and littered with the bodies of men, women, and children, and a great many javelins, spears, scimitars, arrows, bucklers and round shields. Interspersed among them he saw dozens of midget corpses.
So the battle had started here and the first wave of attackers had included those, and those were eminently killable, as he'd guessed just by looking at them. It looked like the Rogues had managed to put up a good fight at first, with javelineers and spearwomen to hold the line and the archers behind them to keep up the pressure with their flaming and electrified arrows, until the beast had come and annihilated the defense.
Picking through the equipment all over the ground, stepping over the bodies of the fallen, a trio of the midgets were at work. One shaman stood on the side, facing away. It had just tapped the skull bottom of its wooden torch-staff against the skull of a fallen midget when Art had come into view. Now the fallen midget warrior began to move, climbing to its feet in uneven lurching movements.
Art paused, almost tripping over himself in surprise. These shamans moonlighted as necroturges? Crucial news indeed. He would have to bring this intel to the Rogues once he'd found them again.
At his loud approach they noticed him, turned to face him with their weapons at hand, a surprised look on their faces. One of them shouted, "Rakanishu!" and banged its scimitar against its buckler before thrusting them in the air. Then it charged right at him.
Given the width of the hallway and the fewness of his enemies, this was something Art could dodge.
A leaf, a petal, a feather, I drift in the open sky.
Art fell into the way of the dancing leaf, easing his muscles and feeling the slight movements of the air around him.
Carried by the wind, I spin, going where it takes me.
His footsteps softened, his body flexible and ready.
Slender, soft, small, I float on through the sky.
Then the first of the midgets was lunging for him, scimilar lashing out and down. Art crouched as he spun out of the way, past the creature before it could turn around to face him, and taking him within arm's reach of the second warrior. He'd had the opportunity to lash out and kill the first one just now, but he opted against it. He didn't want to put Selena at risk for anything.
It struck out as well, a horizontal sweep of its blade to bear down from behind Art, where he could not see it. And yet he didn't have to. The zephyr before the blade's edge was enough to propel Art to out of the way as he shifted his balance. The swing came right past where he'd been, missed by a hair's breath, yet still completely missing. That was too close, he thought. The swing would have missed by more if he hadn't been carrying the girl's weight with him as he went.
Dancing upon the breeze, I sweep past all that approach.
And then Art was spinning past the next midget warrior, his blade not needing to parry as his swirling movement took his completely out of danger's reach. The attacker's blade swept through the air to cut into his gambeson -- and cut it did, slicing through half a dozen layers of wool before glancing off.
For that fraction of a second Art felt panic, even as he realized his skin had remained intact. Heavily padded armor such as his could block cutting weapons, but not if it cut along the grain of the fabric, which meant that occasionally a cut would come through. The way of the dancing leaf usually protected him from even getting a cut -- but he'd been carrying an extra burden with him.
The fourth one, now the only one between him and the end of the hallway and the one that had been reanimated, swept its scimitar horizontally and close to the ground, moving slow and telegraphing its action as it went, as if attempting to trip him. Art did not even have to look as he felt the soft turbulence of air preceding the midget's attack, and leapt right over the approaching blade. And then he was behind the last of the warriors, and proceeding down the hallway. He did exactly that, slowing but for a moment to snatch up a round shield with his left hand.
At the end of that he turned left into another corridor, then right around another corner, whereupon he entered a torch-lit hallway with several gambeson-wearing corpses in a line on the far side. As he raced to that end of the hall he realized why this was tugging at his memory: this was where he'd descended to earlier, and had to double back because the retreating archers had gotten in his way. It seemed the one who had told him to go back, along with the others in her squad, had held their ground after all, sacrificing their lives so that the retreating archers and their commander could make it up the stairwell.
He turned left into the corridor he'd expected to see and, true to form, there was the spiral stairwell up. With the Flying Feather School's way of the albatross -- With a single flap of wings might I glide through the sky, horizon to horizon might I fly -- He bounded up the stairwell three steps at a time. That was pathetic for the way, but given the cramped quarters -- each step only a meter wide -- and given the girl he held, that was as good as he could get.
And then they were atop the stairs, where he for the first time saw the carnage where the archers had made their last stand. A dozen bodies were strewn along the sides of the room, their gambesons coated in blood, impaled by wooden stakes amidst larger pieces of the ruined railing. He felt a bit thankful that he hadn't successfully volunteered to stand at the front of the stairs, or he'd just be another nameless victim.
He proceeded out of the stairwell room. In the corridor he stepped over the mangled corpse whose head was facing the opposite direction as her breasts and whose limbs were all twisted the wrong way, and down the hallway that connected to his guest bedroom, which now had several corpses on the ground -- they must have been the stragglers he'd told to hurry up, who'd tried to flee when the beast had finally entered the hallway, at which point it had been too late for them.
At the end of the hallway he turned right into the corridor, left into a long and well-lit hallway, and came face to face with a squad of midgets led by a shaman. He'd made too much noise with his hurried entry, and they all turned to look at him. He halted for a moment, they stared at him stunned. But a moment later all of them had snapped out of their surprise.
Looking at them, Art noticed that none of these had the woad paint he'd seen on the earlier ones. Were they a different tribe? Or did the painting signify something else? A mark of prestige, perhaps? If so, were these the runts of the litter?
This hallway was too small and cramped with the midgets for him to dance past them. After all, though the way of the dancing leaf granted him a preternatural ability to go with the flow of the wind the way a leaf might, he nonetheless took up the space of a human.
After banging their scimitars against their bucklers and raising their scimitars in challenge with a shout of "Rakanishu!", they charged at him with a cacophony of hollers. He charged at them in silence and in the way of the whirlwind.
Watch the whirlwind, as a top it spins. Feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky. Though you know the whirlwind by that which spins, Never shall you touch the whirlwind passing on by.
The moment he got close, he dove through the air with his legs out straight behind him, his entire body spinning left over right over left as if rolling in midair, his sword pointed straight forward: Bird Leaps for the Worm. The midgets dodged out of the way of his outstretched sword and tried to cut at him with their scimitars, but his revolving round shield forced them back or knocked them aside, and one who came too close received an ignominous bash on the head that left it face-planted into the ground and its scimitar and buckler spinning across the floor.
Landing with grace, Art found himself face to face with the shaman. It wore nothing more than a crudely painted loincloth and held a jagged knife and torch-staff in hand, and looked at Art in surprise. The staff it held was raised, and the moment it pointed its finger at Art, the growing ball of captured fire at the center of its torch-staff's headpiece practically lunged for him. Art knew it was coming, of course, having seen how quickly the shaman had blasted fire at the man he'd failed to save, and was already moving to block with his shield before it had started to point its finger. He blocked the fiery bolt with his shield, dissipating it harmlessly, then was past it, with his outstretched long sword in tow, pointed at the shaman, and the shaman's flying severed head followed right after, and the shaman's decapitated body right thereafter, to collapse onto the floor. Its staff clanged to the floor and rolled, no fire left atop it.
Only then did Art notice that Selena was shrieking and clutching onto him for dear life. Art patted her on the back. "Hey, now I'm offended, that was my best rendition of a spinning embrace. I put a lot of effort into learning it."
The rest of the midgets gave one look at their fallen shaman and fled screaming at the top of their lungs, right into the mass of midgets that had been pursuing Art, who upon hearing the retreating group scream, started screaming also, causing the retreating group to scream even more, and within seconds the rout proved contagious and then they were fleeing in all directions with their hands empty and their arms on the floor.
Another ear-splitting roar from the beast, this time from down below. He could feel the stone beneath him vibrate. Had the sounds of terror from its minions routing angered it to action? The memory of its snarling face, bloodied claws, massive legs and overwhelming size came unbidden to him. If he came face to face with that thing, if he were honest with himself, he'd probably abandon Selena as a decoy and flee for his life. And he didn't dare hope that it would be long before the rest of the shamans whipped them back into fighting formation. Either that or the beast would. He was pretty sure the midgets were more afraid of the beast than they were of him.
Art took the opportunity to keep running. At the end of the long hallway he turned right this time, where previously he'd turned left, into a much larger hallway with a wide, long carpet scorched black by fire and a trio of crashed chandeliers and melted wax candles amidst them. Running through the smoke without breathing, he felt its irritating sting in his watering eyes even as he tried to blink it away.
He knew this place now. The carpeted hall led right to a wide open space, the atrium of the monastery. To the left, a pair of wide oaken doors were fully open, and he could see the order's cathedral through them, illuminated as it was by a series of torches and chandeliers down its length. Many of the rows of wooden pews had been upturned, many stained glass windows shattered.
He and all the other members of the caravan had been invited in here to admire the beauty of that grand hall, reading plaques underneath each of those stained glass windows which had explained the imagery of the order's religious beliefs and foundations, like they were so many tourists. The largest window, right behind the pulpit at the far back of the cathedral, had depicted the most crucial scene in the lore of the Order of the Sightless Eye: That of its founder and greatest clairvoyant, Edenna, being shown a vision of the high heavens and of the akashic records, said to contain every truth, all history, past, present, and future. He'd marveled in awe then. Now he wondered if Edenna had foreseen the tragedy that had befallen her order.
That tour was earlier that very evening, not long before sundown. It seemed to Art like days had passed since then, dark days and nights black as pitch.
Taking a final right, he stepped out of the atrium, pushing out past massive, groaning oaken doors, and into the cloister, stepping aside from the doors so that anyone within couldn't see his illuminated back, and anyone outside couldn't see his silhouette against the brightly illuminated tapestries of the atrium. Looking around, he judged the coast was clear. Well, at least until they got to the gates. If the invaders were at all smart they'd have the gates guarded so no one could sneak into or out of the place.
Here in the darkness of what must have been an early hour of the morning, he could see naught but the glowing sliver of the gibbous moon suspended high up in the sky, and all around it, thousands upon thousands of pinpricks of shimmering light.
He took in a deep breath, filling his lungs with the soft scent of nearby jasmines. Finally, he was out of those oppressively close quarters. He'd never felt so much relief at being out in the open at night, as that generally didn't feel safe. But after this he just might decide to never sleep indoors ever again.
He set Selena down on the gravel path. "Hey, girl, you all right?"
She looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, mute.
"Can't even say yes? I gave you a nice tour of the monastery, you know. Better than the one the Rogues gave me."
"Are you going back for mommy now?"
Art grimaced. "Oh yes, right, about that. I'll be going back for her. Yes, yes, definitely. But first I need to get you further away from this place, somewhere where you'll be safe, before I can go back to get her."
"But I want my mommy…"
"I do too, girl, I do too. Just snuggle in to her lap and have her sing me a lullaby and rock me to sleep."
The girl looked at him out the corner of her eyes. "Ha, for a grown-up like you? That's funny."
"What? Am I too old? I'm barely older than you are." -- "What! You're kidding. You're at least thirty." -- "Hey that's insulting! I'll have you know, I'm only twenty." -- "Forty!" -- "Ten." -- "A hundred! A thousand! Ten thousand!" she said, poking at his chest with each revision as she blossomed into a smile.
Well, at least he'd managed to distract her from thinking about her mommy.
"Ow ow ow," he said, backing away from her as she started to lunge forward so as to keep poking at him. "Stop poking me!" -- "I'm not poking you." -- "Yes you are." -- "No I'm not," she said as she raced after him as he hurried down the gravel path toward the cloister gates, feigning trying to avoid her touch.
Within seconds it had become a full on run, as they in relative quiet sped on through a wide open, grassy quadrangle dotted with bushes and trees and lined with wooden benches backed against ornately masoned stone fences overgrown with ivy.