Nothing but mud and bones grew in the garden. It was an open air courtyard in the center of the keep surrounded by sheer stone walls, un-interrupted by windows or design of any kind. Single door was the only way in or out. Crows swollen from feasting on corpses left to rot peered down from the their perches at the tops of the walls at their next meal chained to the lone wooden pillar in the garden. He yet breathed with head hung low dripping from the cold rain that beat against his body, mouth speaking words that only he could hear:
Weave and Spin
Hammer and Forge
My life your work
Crafted and shaped
Instrument of your hand
To live is to serve
Until upon your Mountain
I am born again
He finished his prayer and hung silently listening to the rhythm of the rain dancing on stone in the dark. The door to his prison opened and man stepped through, lantern in hand. He wore the armor of the guards, dual short swords hung at his sides. Orren raised his head to greet his new visitor.
“You must be the flayer. I’d tell you not to waste your time, that I have no knowledge that could aid you, but I doubt you’d listen. I imagine with a name like the flayer you probably enjoy your work too much to be dissuaded.”
“Keep quiet” he replied. “I am no flayer. That degenerate fetishizes his knives too much to be caught dead with them in the rain. I have come simply to ask you a question.”
“And what might that be?”
“Was it truth you spoke in the great hall? Have you power to vanquish the one that dwells beneath the mountains?” the man said.
“The power is not my own, but I am it’s conduit. Darkness flees at the name of my master. With who am I speaking?” Orren replied, confusion in his voice. Then he recognized the man as one of that stood guard upon dais of the master’s throne
“Does it matter who comes to free you?” The man said as he pulled a set of keys from his cloak. A moment later Orren was loose.
Orren rubbed his wrists and stood. “I suppose it does not, but should we die this night I’d like to know the name of the man for whom I will advocate at the gates of my Lord’s feasting hall.”
The man handed Orren one of the swords that hung at his side and spoke:
“Much blood will be shed this night, may it not be our own. My name is Berek. Follow me”
Berek extinguished his lantern as soon as they entered the corridor that led to the garden and they raced along the damp stone, extinguishing every torch they passed that lit their way.
“I sent the guard on duty away on an important task, an important task that does not exist. He will realize my deception soon and alarms will be raised. We have little time.”
Berek navigated the labyrinth that made up the halls of keep without hesitation. Even had Orren freed himself of his bonds he would have been hopelessly trapped here in the winding hallways, a structure designed to confuse and disorient. They came to an abrupt halt by the a large wooden door flanked on either side by torches. Berek extinguished both of them, then he knocked.
“‘Berek, captain of Lord Zathen’s guard requires entrance. Official orders.” He shouted.
There was a rustling from within, the sliding of a deadbolt, and the door swung open. Orren stood in the shadows to the side of the doorway, sword in hand.
“Who is in charge here?” Berek barked, surveying the room before him. Swords and battle axes hung on walls next to shields and mail, they were nothing if not well armed. Three men sat at a round table playing cards, faces full of shock at seeing their captain unexpectedly.
“I…I am” said one of the men as he jumped up from his seat, spilling ale on the cards laid out on the table. “Forgive me, I did not know that you were coming.”
Berek frowned. “We will discuss playing cards on duty at another time. I’ve come to retrieve the armor and weapons confiscated from the prisoner. Our Lord wishes to study them.”
The guard squinted. “I was commanded not to release these arms to anyone, not unless the Master himself comes down here to retrieve them.”
“I catch you neglectful of your duty and now you are also calling me a liar? Perhaps you would like to see the flayer when he is done with our visitor?” Berek said moving his hand to the hilt of his sword.
“I mean no offense captain, but he will have my head without his direct order. My head is much more useful attached to my body.”
“That’s not what your wife told me” one of the men from the table interjected, causing the other guards to roar with drunken laughter. The head of the guard made an obscene gesture and threw his mug of ale at the offender, then turned back to Berek.
“I will go myself up to the throne and verify the orders. You can wait here with the other guards.” he smiled and started for the door. Before he could take two steps Berek drew his sword and removed head from shoulders in one swift movement. There was a moment of calm as the headless body crumpled to the floor. The blood streaked faces of the remaining two card players stared at their captain in disbelief, the head of the third player rolled with an almost comical wobble to their feet.
“Should have just given me what I came for.” Berek sighed.
Shock turned to rage on the faces of the living guards and swords were drawn. Berek was surrounded for a brief moment before Orren appeared in the doorway and ran his sword straight through the chest of the unfortunate fellow at the door. He kicked the now limp body off of his blade. It was now an even fight but not a fair one for drink had slowed the movements of the remaining guards. A few clashes of steel, screams of agony, and the fight was finished.
Berek walked over to the headless body and searched through the pockets. A moment later he produced a ring of keys and tossed them to Orren. He pointed to a chest in the back corner of the room.
“Put on your armor. More will be here soon and they aren’t likely to be drunk, just angry.”
With armor donned and weapons in hand, Orren and Berek stepped out once more into the dark corridor. Berek had traded his short sword for a large double bladed axe. “We might have to hack our way out of here, this will help” he had said with a grin. Orren’s travelling bag was also recovered. His runic stones were all accounted for, but the flask was emptied of its contents. He would have to find a fresh water source when they escaped this wretched place.
They raced through the endless inky black, extinguishing all light as they passed. Darkness swallowed their path, there was no going back. Noises that no human could, or should, make could be heard behind some of the barred doors as they passed, they pressed on. Neither man spoke a word. Then Berek stopped suddenly. He remained silent for a moment then turned and spoke:
“Ahead is an entranceway to the keep. I thought it known only to myself and the master. Someone else has opened the door. I thought we had more time.”
Orren grinned. “The time for skulking in the shadows has ended it seems. Let us go to meet our fates beneath the light of the stars, the eyes of our ancestors.” Orren walked past Berek and out into the night. Berek hesitated for a moment in the black hall. He muttered to himself as he drew his sword and followed the foreigner out into the night, “At least it stopped raining.”
They came out to a stretch of flat ground flanked by tall trees. Across the clearing directly in the path of Orren and Berek stood was tall tussock grass swaying in the night breeze. Beyond that were the mountains. They were free.
“Let’s go before we are seen” Berek said. The began their way across the clearing when Orren stopped. He reached down to the pouch that hung at his side a flipped open the flap. The four stones were aglow, pulsating slowly, blue light emanating from the bag.
“We are not alone.” Orren said with grim look upon his face.
“Indeed we are not. There in the grass.” Berek pointed the tip of his sword at the swaying tallgrass. A lone figure stood where the blade pointed, dressed in a long shredded shawl like that of a beggar. It stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and threw off the shawl. Orren’s grip tightening around his pike and he felt his jaw clench.
“Rather we’d have run into the entire barracks than him.” Berek said, spitting. Orren believed him.
Before them stood a man grinning madly wearing naught but a small cloth to cover his loins. He was lean and pale, almost sickly looking if not for the tight muscles that rippled beneath his skin, or at least what once was skin. His body was covered from head to toe in ancient script from the infernal language; words from the deepest of frozen hells, spoken only by the many tongued abominations that dwell there. Dark prophecies, blasphemies, horrific tales from the abyss had been carved into his flesh. His skin was but a monstrous scar, a walking testament of primeval malice.
In his hand was a dagger, a black blade attached to a gnarled wood handle. Orren could see it clearly in the moonlight, but no light reflected off of it. The blade was alive. He could feel its presence, and it could sense him.
“She was promised blood, she was.” The scarred man hissed. “I get to keep the skin but she takes the blood, your blood” He pointed at Orren. “Don’t put up too much of a fight and maybe we’ll kill you quick. Maybe. She always gets what she wants. It’s been too long since I’ve had to hunt my own prey.” He grinned, mouth full of teeth filed into razor-like points.
“The blade…” Orren said. “I have seen its like before. It is not of man.”
“I’ve seen it before too, and I’d prefer to not be skinned by it. We have the advantage. Hurry before he calls for aid!” Berek shouted as he advanced quickly towards the scarred man.
Berek moved like a charging bull, an avalanche of steel and fury. He swung his blade at his foe but cut only the air. His opponent was quick, quicker than any human should be. His movements were almost arachnid in nature; limbs outstretched and dashing angularly from one point to the next. Before Berek could turn the abomination was behind him, a moment later and the stygian blade was brought across the armored shoulder before it. Metal and flesh split open like the seam of grainsack had been cut. Blood appeared for a moment…and then stopped. The wound was immediately blackened, as though a searing heat had cauterized it.
The ghoul jumped back a few steps before his now kneeling victim and held out the dagger. Not a trace of blood or flesh could be seen on it.
“Ohhhhh she likes you. Lots of fight. We will enjoy draining the life from you one cut at a time.”
He began to step forward with blade outstretched when the hook of Orren’s pike caught him from behind, hooking his right side. Orren pulled with all his strength, spinning the antagonist around to face him. A sound like metal scraping stone could be heard. The flayer glared at Orren, then reached down and unhooked the pike from his side. No mark from the blow could be seen. Any other man would have lost his innards from the force with which Orren had struck.
“She has remade me in her image. I am darkness incarnate. You can no more strike me down than you can the shadows that haunt your dreams. And you do dream don’t you? I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them.” He said ,curling his lips into a sneer. Then he charged, swinging his dagger. Orren was able to lift his shield in time and the black blade bounced off the woven strands, staggering its wielder. The flayer regained his footing and stared at the armored man across from him. His eyes narrowed and the grin he wore until now was no more. Uncertainty was now in his eyes, uncertainty and rage.
Orren slowly advanced. With shield raised he absorbed blow after blow from the demon blade, pushing that tattooed man back further and further. Orren left no opening for him, corralling him with pike and shield, always at his front. The flayer cursed and spit like a feral cat, blows harmlessly bouncing off the holy shield, ever retreating. They were now almost to where Berek kneeled. He was conscious, but his face was covered in sweat and pain. His eyes met Orren’s for a moment, and then he smiled. Berek grabbed his sword and lunged towards the legs of the assailant. At first glance it appeared to Orren that Berek had missed, the blade entering the space between the torturer’s legs. Then he jutted the handle of the blade forward, disrupting the cursed man’s balance.
Orren saw his opening and lept forward, bowling the flayer over onto his back. He landed atop the foe and pinned the evil weapon beneath the shield. The demon’s free hand raked across Orren’s face. Blood poured down and stung his eyes, yet he remained firm in his positioning. With his pike Orren slashed at the flailing limb, but he could only fend off strikes. No lasting damage could be done to anywhere the text of damnation was written. Berek saw the struggle and crawled over to aid. He managed to pin the other hand of the ghoul and for a moment all was quiet. Then the flayer began to laugh, a cackle straight from the bowels of the demon serpent itself.
“You going to hold me here forever? Why don’t you tell me a story while we wait? HMMM? Tell me of your family foreigner. How are they doing? Would you like me to tell you?” The flayer howled with evil glee, teeth glinting in the moonlight.
Teeth….teeth. There is no writing on the teeth.
Orren lifted his pike and with the butt of the handle began to slam it on the open jaw of his captive. Teeth splintered and broke beneath the onslaught, howls of laughter turned to howls of pain and the sound of gargled blood. Then Orren reached down into the pouch at his side and pulled out one of the stones, still pulsating with light, and shoved it into the bloody maw of the flayer. The flayer began to choke and tried to spit, but orren held his mouth shut with his knee and his nostrils closed with his mailed fist. He swallowed and the stone was gone.
The flayer’s eyes opened wide and his face became twisted with agony. He opened his mouth and coughed up smoke and black tar like substance.
“We should probably get clear” Orren said to Berek. He stood up quickly and dragged his companion away . As soon as they released the hands of their captive he sprang to his feet, both hands raised to his throat, dagger lying in the grass beside him.
“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN ME?!? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” he screamed through coughs of smoke. “GET IT OUT!”
He shrieked in pain and began to claw at his stomach to no avail. Then he saw the dagger in the grass. He picked it up and plunged it into his abdomen up to the hilt, then dragged it clean across the width of his body. Black liquid poured out as he shoved a hand inside the gaping wound. He dug through his bowels as Orren and Berek looked on in horror, and then produced the small stone, still glowing.
“I’ve got it…I’ve…got it.” He said in a voice barely above a whisper. He looked at the two men before him and smiled, then crumpled to the ground.
Berek and Orren sat in silence for a moment staring at the carnage before them. The words carved into the flesh of the now dead man began fade before their eyes, and then disappeared. The black knife was gone.
“Did you know that making him eat that rock would do…that?” Berek asked, still staring at the corpse in front of him.
Orren shook his head “No…but…I knew he wouldn’t like it very much.” He walked over to the dead man and pried the stone from his crooked fingers. He wiped some black gunk off of it in the grass and placed it back in his pouch. They were no longer glowing.
“We should go. Can you walk?” Orren looked at Berek.
Berek stood slowly, wincing in pain. Then he smiled, “I’ve had worse.”