Chapter 6 - A Price Most Dear
Art leapt back the exact moment the great claw decapitated his hand, with the thought of With a single flap of wings held in mind carrying him back a dozen steps. The next moment the beast had finished smashing the door wide open to expose the silhouette its massive demonic body before the torchlight of the atrium and made a second swipe right past where Art stood just a moment ago. Had he not leapt back, he would have been struck down where he stood.
Blood splayed from the severed arteries of his hand. His severed right hand, still holding gripping the bloody sword right above its wing-crested pommel, flopped to land, an inert, gory chunk, against the doorsteps. With a clatter, the sword went spinning away from the grip that held it.
Searing pain shot through Art's hands and he gasped in agony, a rictus of surprise upon his face, his eyes squeezed shut. He dropped the round shield in his other hand, used it to clutch at the stump of his wrist, capping it with his palm and applying pressure. Blood leaked through his hands regardless, right through the mail of his gauntlets, to splatter in a continuing stream across the ground where he'd landed.
So much pain. Art felt it hard to concentrate, his mind screaming to relief and almost breaking his focus on the way of the albatross. Yet grit his teeth through the pain he had to, for the beast was lunging for him now, crossing a dozen feet with a single bound. The moment Art landed, he spun about and leapt forward, fleeing from the beast as fast he he could. Horizon to horizon… Flap of wings… Glide through… Fly… He could barely keep the mantra in mind.
Blood pumping hard through his veins, he heard the thump of the beast's great legs against the gravel path of the cloister, its approach swift, it managing to keep its distance to Art even as Art used his way. He stood no chance of fighting such a creature, not without aid, not after all the fighting he'd already been through, not after losing his arms and certainly not after losing his right hand; and so he fled, bounding across the steps, leaking a dribble of blood after him as he went.
Hoping against hope that he could make it out of the monastery, that the beast would not manage to ensnare him in its terrible claws with its next lunge, he raced through the darkness for the front walls. Eighty meters of courtyard had never seemed so far away as it did now. Already he could feel weakness starting to manifest within him, adding to the exhaustion that had set in from his earlier battle. Through the pain, he could conceive of the notion that if he weakened too much, slowed just a moment, he would be killed.
Another leap brought him by the middle of the cloister, where a row of wooden benches backed up against ornate stone patternwork. He passed right on through, his feet landing upon the back of a bench and kicking off again. But two seconds later he heard a crunch and the shattering of wood as the impact of the beast's great bulk ripped it right off its hinges in its mad dash toward its prey and spinning across the gravel path before it to crash into the opposite bench, shattering it against that bench's patterned stone backing. Art did not have to look back to know of the beast's proximity. He could tell just from the chain of sounds wrought by the devastation.
With another leap he sped through the gate-side half of the cloister, paying no attention to the trees and bushes as he passed, only to the gravel path approaching beneath his feet to time his kick again. His vision swayed from the tears that flooded across his eyes, aiding the darkness of the night in hampering his sight. He could barely make out the approach of the two braziers bestride the still open gates.
Before him, the braziers banished the darkness. Yet out beyond the monastery, he would need a light to go by. Crossing over the field of midget corpses he'd slain, he slowed for a fraction of a second to snatch at one of the forch staves dropped by a shaman. He held it in his left hand even as he continued to try to use his hand to staunch his endless bleeding.
He looked up. Before him stood the gates of the wall, the doors wide open and beckoning. Yet he could pass through them, and the beast would be sure to follow. Then deciding against that, he took his next leap, one taking him high up to top the battlement upon the monastery walls and that almost sent him careening into the machicolations lining the other side. In his rushed dash for safety he saw nothing but the shadows of the path before him.
With a side step of his feet he turned. With another kick, the way of the albatross took him down the walkway atop the wall, toward the wall lining the west wing of the monastery. Another leap, and he had reached the turret at the corner; another leap, and he had cleared the monastery walls by a good ten meters, to land upon the ground of the valley below, stalks of waist-high grass poking into his trousers and tattered gambeson as he landed.
Even without being able to make out the silhouette of the mountain in the darkness, he knew its general contour, from having seen it when approaching the monastery as part of the caravan. The mountain on this, the south side of the monastery, stood as the northernmost of a long chain of mountains before the path north of it, the path the monastery nestled within. Here began a steep climb up, with only a handful of alcoves and cliff tops for a person to find proper footing, and hard to reach by normal means.
He had to reach safety. The beast, with its great mass, would probably find no purchase up these sheer cliff faces, not those wide enough to support its weight, certainly not enough to allow him to proceed up. Even if it could track him by the scent of his blood, even if it could hear the beating of his heart, it would have to take a detour, scaling these mountains up from the west instead of from their north, from the monastery like he was. It would be a measure of safety, and give him time.
Using his fingers to slide his left hand up and down the wooden shaft of his looted torch-staff, he found the series of smooth depressions in its shaft that indicated where it was meant to be held, and held it properly.
The way of the albatross fled from his mind, instantly replaced with a foreign thought of the crackling of a fireplace, the flickering of its light, the warmth of the hearth, the heat of its fire. The though immersed him, infused his soul with its glory. It felt similar to that of the bow enchanted to spit flaming arrows that he'd encountered back in the monastery cellars.
Atop the crescent of the staff, a ball of captured fire burst into existence, illuminating the great many stalks of grass blanketing the ground before him in its coppery light and showing him where he was going. He pointed a finger, and that fire shot off into the distance, illuminating the ground before him as it went.
With a single flap of wings…
Nothing happened. He could not call upon the transcendent feeling of his way. Oh that's right, Art thought. He was still holding the staff, so that its way overrode his own. He shifted his fingers out of position, and its way of the hearth evaporated, its hold over his mind broken. The ball of fire over the staff's headpiece winked out in a puff of air, leaving him once again shrouded in darkness, yet he had already seen the path before him, already knew where to proceed.
With a single flap of wings…
Art leapt up the gently curved grassy fields, then with another bound into the more graduated foothills of the mountain, skipping over its many jutting stony outcrops. He readjusted his grip so that he held the staff properly once again. As soon as the way of the hearth flooded back into his mind, the torch of his staff blossomed again, lighting all near him for but a second before he extinguished its light.
Might I glide through the sky…
With another bound, he arrived at the bottom of the first sheer cliff wall, and the next one, aiming upwards, brought him up the cliff to a narrow cleft, a dozen feet long and a foot wide at its widest, with a steep drop on one side and a steep wall on the other. With another adjustment of his grip, the light returned, and seeing the shadows cast by that light reflecting off the cliff face, he knew the position of the next cleft further up the mountain.
Horizon to horizon might I fly…
Leaping from cleft to cleft to cleft, he worked his way up until he landed on a cliff top a meter wide, enough for him to sit or lay down without falling to his death. This must be almost two hundred meters up from the valley floor below, and far out of range of how far the beast could leap, if it was still coming for him. Safety, at last. Art collapsed onto his knees.
The adrenaline had kept him going just now, he knew, kept him going through all that strenuous exercise despite his blood loss. But now its time had passed, leaving him a bloody, throbbing mess, in pain from his lost hand and a dozen other wounds, and deathly cold. He felt so tired, like he could just lay down and die… He barely reserved the mindfulness to realize that would be his fate should he enter that welcoming sleep. The rest of his blood would simply pour out of him. Stopping that loss was his highest priority.
Holding the torch staff in hand, he gripped it properly and it burst once again in flame, illuminating his body and the stump of an arm. Still holding on to it, he set it flat against the ground so that the fiame swirled in a spot right above the stone. His mind told him, no, don't do it, it's fire, holy hell it's fire he was playing with, that is going to hurt, hurt like nothing he'd ever felt before, not even the pain of getting his arm cut off, but he knew it was do or die.
No, no, don't you dare do it--
He… he couldn't bear to do it, not with the kind of suffering he would be inflicting upon himself. Just the thought of it was making him hyperventilate, quicken his pulse. There was no way he could bring himself to do it when his mind was this afraid. Fortunately, he'd had training to overcome it.
Slowly, let your eyes fall shut of their own accord…
He closed his eyes, took control of his breathing, started to banish his mind from thoughts of his own condition, even as he could feel the tendrils of death seeping into his weary mind.
There is no past, no future, to take to heed… There is only the now…
He put out of his mind, the thought of what he had to do next and of just how hard it would be.
Take a deep breath, and hold it… Slowly, steadily, let it out…
He felt the calm returning to his mind, felt himself gradually reasserting control over himself.
Set aside your worries… Put off your desires… Let your mind rest… …And now, slowly, open your eyes.
It took him going through the entire mantra of the way of inner peace before he sensed in the back of his mind that feeling of being cool, calm, and collected that he knew to be the successful evocation of the way.
He stared into the staff-evoked sphere of flame before him with placid eyes, his mind uncaring for what it meant, how it would feel, focused only on the task at hand. This time, he felt no instinct to balk and pull his arm away.
Gritting his teeth, he smashed his stump down upon that same section of the stone, sinking his weight on his arm and grilling it upon the fire.
His scream reverberated through the impassive, stony faces of the cliffs.
Though it lasted mere moments, it left his eyes streaming with tears. Doubled over and shaking in pain, he let the shaman's staff drop out of his hands to roll into the cliff face, and clutched at his wrist. In the darkness he was glad he could not make out what a burned, cauterized mess he'd made of his arm.
Heaving, gasping in agony, he righted himself again to squat upon the cracked, bare granite, his legs crossed beneath him, and continued to hold his cauterized arm against his left palm. He could think of very little else but the sheer unbearableness of what he was now feeling, one that stretched out each second to feel like an hour.
Though he had burned his arm, cleansed it with fire, it was still bleeding, albeit more slowly now. He had to staunch the blood flow. One more thing to do, he told himself, one more thing and then he could truly find rest after this nightmare that he'd been through.
My arms, resting before me, stay in place. My body, balanced in place, lies at rest.
This time, he sat as still as a statue, his mind and body centered.
My lungs, now at peace, hold still, unmoving.
He brought his breathing to a halt, without the attendant gradual build up of a need to resume breathing. He couldn't be sure if that was because his body was shutting down, or if he was successful in channeling the way.
My eyes, closed and shut, see only darkness. My ears, deafened by sound, hear mere silence. My skin, numb and cold, lose all feeling. My heart, clutched in ice, beats no more.
One by one his senses ceased. He felt so cold, so very cold, and could not be sure if that was because it was supposed to feel that wa or because he had lost a fatal amount of blood already and was a dead man who just didn't know it.
My blood, stilled in my veins, courses not.
His heart ceased pumping. His arteries ceased throbbing. The flow of blood out of his severed arm reduced to a trickle, then ceased entirely. He had never come this close to dying while using the way of deathly living. His second last thought, then, was that if he was now consigning himself to death, he would never know.
My mind, once racing, watches over my deathly sleep.
For hours he sat, barely noticing the passage of time, all alone on the mountainside beneath a ceiling littered with stars.
Slowly, the blood on the severed stump of his right arm began to clot over.
Art came out from the way of deathly living slowly, as with a throb his heart began to beat and his blood to flow and his mind began to awaken.
He was alive, though it seemed to him as he chuckled, just barely. After what he'd been through, he wasn't sure whether he wanted to keep on living. The memory of his experiences felt too painful for mere nightmare, yet too terrible to be real. How he wished it had all never happened, that he could still have the use of his right hand, to be whole once more.
A wave of tingling needles washed from his chest down to his fingers and then his toes, fading into the sensation of the cold of the night and the dull ache all over his weary body, his muscles cramping all over, and the intense throbbing of his burned, lacerated wrist.
Gods, he thought, as his mind finally began to realize the significance of what he'd lost, and despaired. His right hand. His right hand! There by the cliff side, all alone, unmoving and staring into the sky, he burst into a loud, screaming, then wailing cry. His tears to flow freely, hot and endless upon his cheeks as bit by bit he realized the enormity of his loss.
He would never have his arm back. He would never know the feeling of holding anything in that palm, touching anything with those fingers. Never again would he be able to use that hand for anything. Tying shoelaces, buttoning shirts, putting on sashes… He would not be able to do any of that ever again, not without assistance, and that was just the first things that came to mind. If he were to make a list of all the things he could no longer do, he would never reach the end of the list, not even until the day he died.
"Damn you, gods! Damn you, heavens!" he screamed into the sky, his words echoing along the stone, as he clutched his head in his left hand and right arm. "Damn all of you!" Overwhelmed with frustration, he beat the ground with his left hand clenched into a fist, pounding weakly and bruising the butt of his hand. "Damn you for letting this happen to me! Have I not suffered enough?"
How would he be living his life, from now on? Without his right hand, he couldn't very well stay as a caravan mercenary. Any potential employer would take a look at his maimed figure and know him for a fool, should he attempt it. Perhaps Warriv might accept him back into the caravan, but Warriv was an old pal of his. He'd be taking Art back on out of loyalty's sake, not because Art could possibly stand to be of much use in a fight. That, and he'd certainly be the fool if he carried on as a mercenary even if Warriv or anyone else agreed. He'd be dead meat.
He'd not be able to use a shield at the same time as his sword. Without a shield, he'd be exposed -- so terribly exposed to enemy attack. Oh, he could get himself a suit of plate, that way he'd not need to use his shield -- but without his arm, he could not very well continue on as a fighter, could not earn his pay. Buying a full set of plate? Forget it. It was not a question of whether he'd be reduced to starving, but when. The thought of having to beg for scraps out on the streets -- him, who had single-handedly slaughtered so many before him -- it rankled him greatly.
And not just the use of his shield, either. Not all his techniques worked with just one hand, he realized with horror. Mentally he ran down a checklist of his combat techniques. Without his second hand, he could still perform a murder stroke with the way of the crushing boulder, but with just one hand? He'd either be very much exposed, or his strike would have half as much force behind it, even less. It would hardly be useful; any sellsword without training in the ways would do better. The way of the monolith he could still use with his shield, but it'd leave him with no means to counterattack, which meant he would be easily overwhelmed by an enemy who would no longer need to be afraid of any counterattack. Useless. The way of the cyclone, without a spinning shield to force back would-be attackers and block the ones that they pulled off? It would see him hacked to pieces the moment he used it. And the way of the dancing leaf, while the reflexes it granted him remained, was the most exposed of his combat styles, and imperfect -- without the shield, he'd have to backpedal and dodge far more often, have far fewer opportunities to kill the enemy, and they'd have that much of an easier time getting the surround on him to take him down.
Fighting would be insanely dangerous from here on out.
For long moments he stayed put, waiting for the paralysis to fade, even as his sobs sent tears of grief and regret cascading down his face, his mouth in a rictus of anguish.
If only he hadn't lost that arm. If only the beast hadn't struck right then and there, giving him absolutely no advance warning. If only he hadn't picked that fight, or hadn't stayed so long…
Why had he even stayed to fight so long? Had he made a massive mistake in doing so? He thought back to the events that had led up to the loss of his hand. He'd gotten his hand hacked off because he'd attacked the last adept right when the beast came out the door. Had he at least killed that one? He couldn't remember, as all he could remember of that moment was what had happened immediately thereafter, of his need to flee. He'd gone after it after killing the other two adepts; and had gone after those adepts because of the threat they posed to the local villages, with their martial arts skill. He'd been forced to fight them after he tried to go after the shamans and they'd intervened; and he'd done that because he'd wanted to keep the midget forces' attention on him after they'd broken through the gates, to draw them back in. They'd gotten through after the shamans had practically wreathed him in flame, which they could do because he'd been holding at the gates with his way of the monolith. During none of that entire sequence of events had he made any errors in judgment. And finally, he'd been holding that position to give someone time to flee.
Selena. Who was she, a mere six-… seven? -year old, for him to put his life on the line for her behalf? Vaguely, he recalled making a promise to himself, to save at least someone from the abandoned monastery. A sight of the girl's mother Cassia, face visible in torchlight, wrists bound and chained above her head, pleading for her daughter's salvation. Him, asking for her to "Choose". Why had he agreed? Heavens, how was he such a fool?
The cramping of his muscles subsided, and he could hear the soft, repetitive chirping of insects all about him. His vision returned, bringing the sight of the serene stars suspended overhead, without a care for worldly matters. The numbness had left his body, and he began to flex his body. His legs, his ankles, his toes, his arms, his hands… His left hand, only. He thought he could feel the fingers on his right, but with a touch by his left he knew that to be nothing but phantom sensations. His right hand was well and truly gone.
He was now, seriously, seriously regretting having done so. It had not been worth it in the least. Saving the life of a stranger -- a stranger he could not depend on for anything, seeing as the little girl couldn't help in a fight. Young, delicate, and innocent as she was, she couldn't do much anything. Why then…?
In that entire battle at the monastery, it had been the only truly good thing he'd done, amidst many morally gray ones. He'd done it, of course, because he'd seen her vulnerability, and wanted to save her from the fate that awaited her. She'd needed his help then, and he'd saved her, breaking her out of her chains, bringing her to the monastery gates and commanding her to run into the night, never turning back. She'd ran has he commanded; she'd be safe. Or would she? Last he'd seen before returning to fight within the cloister, he'd seen at least some of the midgets head off into the night. They were probably searching for her.
If they found her… It hardly required any imagination to know what they'd do to her. It would render what he'd done, the battle he'd fought, the sacrifice he'd made, completely in vain. And besides, out in the open wilderness and without any guardian, even if she managed to avoid the midgets… Out there, all alone by her lonesome, she'd not survive more than a day or two. She still needed his help.
He sighed, weary. Once again he would have to answer the call to action. And if he came across any patrolling midgets, once again he'd have to enter the fray. Without his sword and shield…What could he even fight with?
With his left hand he fingered the iron crescent of the torch-staff. Sharpened to a blade's edge all along its length, curving to very pointy ends on either side. He could thrust it at his foe to stab it to death. He could also use its shaft to parry, though against fast-swinging weapons like a scimitar he doubted it'd be much good. At six feet tall from the two pointed ends to the staff at the bottom, it gave him decent reach, allowed him to strike first in melee… Though without a shield and a line of spearmen at his sides, the moment a midget closed in past his thrusting staff, it'd have no trouble attacking him. Overall, the staff was not as good as an arming-sword, for his purposes. He'd have to hope his now tattered gambeson continued to protect him. It had served him well; in the entire fight of the last battle it had resisted cuts with the scimitar very well. Yes, if it came down to it, he could potentially fight the midgets, one at a time.
Then he paused to reconsider. He could hardly fight now, decrepit as he was: lethargic from lack of sleep, separated from potential allies, exhausted from the fighting, wounded in a dozen places, debilitated by the beast, disarmed as he fled, weakened from the blood loss, agonized by the burn on his wrist.
If only he could rest a day, it could mean the difference between life and death. But he also knew that Selena could not wait a day. The longer he waited, the harder it would become for him to find her again, and the more likely she'd be captured or killed. If he was going to act, he would have to do it now.
He stood up, his torch-staff in hand, beneath the starry night.