"Agnes Excidere" is a narrative written by Remington Dalson on her experiences before and after the Plague's outbreak in the Western Plaguelands. It is told from the first person perspective. As more texts are completed, they will be added here.
Physically, Agnes Excidere is a rather unassuming book. It is most commonly found in the imperial octavo styling, bound by leather and clasped with a strap. Its pages contain a good bulk and opacity, while keeping a matt surface to be easily turned. Written upon the cover are the words "Agnes Excidere". The writing within it is smooth and legible, and although in some places it may appear to be frantic if re-copied by a skilled scribe or printer, it nevertheless maintains a look of dignity and order. These traits of refinement, though, do not extend to the contents of the book.
Agnes Excidere is the personal narrative of a young woman who survived the horrors of the Scourge's arrival, before and after the Plague spread in the Western Plaguelands. It details the depravity of humanity; exploring s a darkness that many would rather not consider part of themselves. Survival is a theme that is both vaunted and despised by the author, and while she is given to meandering between self-loathing and the haunting memory of the nightmares she experienced, it nevertheless depicts a thoroughly moving and heart-wrenching tale of humanity at its truest, most unabashed form. Ms. Dalson actually seems more critical of herself than the ghouls and abominations that litter the narrative, and in the end one is left wondering exactly who is the villain in the chain of events that followed the fall of Lordaeron.
This book is hardly considered light reading and has been banned from some counties and townships.
Agnes Excidere has been met with a mixture of positive and negative reviews. Many that place their faith in the Light complain that Agnes Excidere places too much importance into the supposed sentience of the Light, and cites that Ms. Dalson often leaps to negative speculation in lieu of seeking out other reasons for why things occur. Her constant emphasis on prayer and references to herself as a lamb clearly depict that she does not attempt to take charge of situations and instead expects the Light, like some omnipotent father, to solve all of her problems for her. As she constantly fails to find her supposed "salvation" through doing little more than reciting prayers, it is not surprising that her views on the Light are dour and often contemptible.
Those that do enjoy the book, though, often point out that although Ms. Dalson does not find salvation through the Light, by her own mortality does she overcome the tasks placed before her. The many quips and comments that she makes in regard to the human condition are both realistic and empowering in a sense, as to each time that she is tested and prevails it shows that humanity does not require "the Light" in order to survive through the darkest hours of its existence. It is also seen as one of the realest and most unadulterated looks into the plight that the survivors of Lordaeron faced as they made their journeys through the perilous land they found themselves in following the onset of the Plague.
Several aspects of Agnes Excidere have been considered controversial. Amongst them are the themes of humans being depraved by nature, lack of faith in the Light, a lack of punishment for wrongdoing, and elements of prostitution.
Prostitution in Agnes ExcidereEdit
Throughout the narrative, Ms. Dalson constantly refers to the fact that she would be willing to do many things in order to survive. In the third chapter, for example, she not only states that she would be willing to prostitute herself to the cannibal Desmond Groves for food, but later she enters a contract of protection with Captain Phillips from which one can only assume sex is the tool of bartering. While Ms. Dalson never expressly states when she does believe prostitution is a valid action, it is ever present in her writing that she does not feel it is a detestable act and furthermore, is one that is above reproach in comparison to many actions that people of the world make to this day. This lackadaisical look at something as virulent as the above mentioned has led the book to being banned in areas that while not as staunchly defensive of the Light as others, nevertheless fear that Ms. Dalson's words may poison the minds of the youths in their counties.
Cannibalism in Agnes ExcidereEdit
Another controversial theme is the belief that ghouls and humans do not experience cannibalism in the same way. According to Ms. Dalson, cannibalism is a forgivable aspect of ghouls because they do not act upon their own accord; however, humans that engage in cannibalism are giving into a shared desired between all humanity. This belief that the desire to devour the flesh of another is somehow inherent within the human mind has stirred more than a few vehement detractors, who claim that Ms. Dalson's views border on heretical. She implies that the urge to survive is directly intermingled with the desire for cannibalism, and it is through this "metaphysical organ" that acts of depravity are created.
I. The EndEdit
I was not afraid. I was terrified.
The din of combat had become something of a mainstay within our minds; it was as natural as rain, and as expected as the Sun’s rising. What sleep that I could capture was punctuated with the sounds of ghoulish cries and iron being rent beneath the mangled claws of men and women we once knew and loved. Each time that a militiaman cried out, I feared that this would be it, and soon the Scourge would break through our defensive barriers and devour us all. Each breath I took, tainted with the foul stench of death and carnage, promised to be my last. We survivors, we lost souls trapped within what seemed like the last shred of humanity in an ever-expanding world of darkness, could do little more than await our untimely ends.
In the first night of fighting, several men of the militia had been injured. I was initially assigned to keep them company and tend their wounds, but when I began to notice the same symptoms upon them that I saw on my father, my mother, and the other members of my family I knew that it was too late to save them. Allow me to explain that I didn’t know what it meant to be “too late to save them”, but I knew that it simply could not be done. The gruesome reality of what action need be taken when faced with my prognosis was soon realized, though, when Captain Phillips had each of the afflicted men set ablaze. Those brave, gallant men who could have fled for their own lives were set to the torch one after the other; the stench released enough to roil the stomach and sour the tongue. Oh, that stench, how I remember it well. Those that hadn’t soiled themselves in outright fear were given to vomiting from a mixture of disgust, hopelessness, and revulsion. All of these competing odors of fright, when mixed with the smell of human flesh and hair burning, were enough to make me wish that death would descend upon me and free me of our morbid plight.
To this day I still feel pangs of guilt that I could not help those brave men who gave their lives to protect us, but I know that there was nothing I could have done.
They were lost.
But weren’t we all, I had to wonder? True we had erected shoddy palisades and barricaded ourselves off from the onslaught that threatened to overtake us, but we were doing little more than stalling the inevitable. Each time that the Scourge engaged us, another man or women was dragged screaming off into the night. Each time that we heard the dry, rattling cry of one of those despicable monsters, our souls shattered and our hearts clenched; fear ran down the legs of many or stained the cheeks of others. Each time that Captain Phillip’s shrill whistle called out over the gathered defenders, we held our breath and waited to see if this would be the time, that inevitable time, in which our mortal coils were forever lost.
There was no glory in our hold out – no grandiose moment in which we; painted as veritable gods and goddesses, arose from the pits of our despair and emerged triumphant over evil. We were scared children, townsfolk, mothers, and fathers. We were bakers, maids, carpenters, and farmers. We were wives, husbands, sons, and daughters. We were alone.
We were so very alone.
I’ve often heard people mention that “it is better to stand together than die alone”, but I have never seen an incident in which the two are not simply different stages in the same sequence. Although we were all standing together, we were all alone in our own worlds of fear and desperation. In fact, the only unity we knew at any moment was when Captain Phillip’s strident whistle sounded over the chaotic clamor of fighting, and for a moment our minds collectively joined as one to heed his call.
"Ready yourselves!" Captain Phillips called in his baritone voice; a voice that had sung in fairs in times past; a voice that had chased meddlesome children away from his farm when they were lofting about in his melon patch; a voice that now quaked the earth and silenced the heavens with its commanding presence. Of the many men that had left for Prince Arthas’ campaign, Captain Phillips was the most distinguished to remain. In times past the children of our farmsteads had ridiculed him for his strict mannerism and attempts at maintaining protocol, but when malingerers such as my father signed up to “spend a weekend with the boys” as he so aptly put it, it was obvious that Captain Phillips could only work with so much. The militiamen that had fought in the initial outbreak of the Plague – those that had given their lives for us to escape, were the ones that had trained and drilled for combat. Truly, if men such as they stood no chance against the Scourge, what could we do?
I fit my shield securely against my arm. My “shield”, which was actually a piece of iron folded and heated over a thick chunk of wood, was joined in a row with the others present. We were to line ourselves in the gaps that were presented by the palisades, and brace for impact. Behind us, men and women with pitchforks were prepared to take advantage of our openings on the call of the whistle, and impale whatever ghouls they could. In shifts we worked this way, shield and polearm, throughout the day. In my right hand I tightly gripped the hilt of a rusty and battered blade; caked with decaying flesh and blood. My nerves were frayed, and my hand shook slightly in a manner that caused the sword to rattle against its hilt. Each of us could claim no more than three hours of sleep before the next shift began, usually that of the polearm, and then the shield shortly after. In such a state of unrest, with the world so bleak and dreary, you can see why it is that so many were willing to simply surrender their lives.
The whistle sounded. I instinctively lifted my shield and closed my eyes. I did not need to see what was going to happen to know what it was; the stench of encroaching death was more than vivid enough for my mind to see. I slid my foot sideways and locked my legs slightly; not so much as to be unrelenting against the initial blow (for in doing so I’d easily be knocked over), but enough to offer staunch resistance when the time came. My forearm was already badly bruised and I am certain fractured in several places, but that was of no matter. When the whistle sounded we acted, and when we acted we did so with a single, unifying concept in mind:
I would have given anything in the world if my brother could have returned at that moment. If Bryson could have simply walked across the threshold and bore the burden of this shield for me, it would have been a sign that the Light truly had not abandoned us. I closed my eyes and I prayed; I said every word of prayer I had ever encountered, and wished with all of my heart for our saviors to return, or for the strength and constitution to see this nightmare through to its end.
But I felt neither braver nor stronger. I was not filled with the clarity of knowing that the Light was with me; the darkness did not open and reveal to me a fountain of hope to save us from our pitiful fates. No, the only thing that appeared before us was the rolling groans of those undead fiends, like a palpable wave of malcontent, as they progressed on us in their rabid pack. The only thing that would hold my shield for me was my own desire to remain standing at the end of combat. The saviors that we had were ourselves.
The whistle sounded.
The first blow was always the one that foretold what would happen in the following moments. As I clenched my teeth and bore under the unyielding strain of the ghoul attempting to pass through me, I grunted in defiance and pushed back into him. It struck fiercely against my shield with one of its elongated hands; iron stripped from my shield under the ravening strike that it delivered. I held still against it as it struck again, and then opened my eyes and looked toward the ground. As it drew closer, I waited until the creature’s fatty leg was near me, and then dispatched a single slash from my sword. To say “slash” implies an elegance that I am sure I did not have at the time with weaponry; I should say, I hacked at the leg and it yielded unto me as a lover long absent its love. No resistance – no hesitation. The creature howled its discontent and staggered backward just as Captain Phillip’s whistle sounded. I pulled backward and allowed my spearman to rush forward and impale the beast. In that moment I was able to see my enemy, and I was reminded of why I closed my eyes in the first place.
“Beast”, “monster”, “fiend” – these words were all convenient methods to forget the undeniable fact that the creatures that attacked us; the abominations that sought to end our lives, were in fact people that we knew… people that we had once shared drinks with, told that we loved, or simply seen in passing on the way to town. These were people that had once been as human as we were and now simply had the misfortune of revealing to us what we would surely become. I had never seen the creature as a human I was sure, but that did not mean I did not feel my heart clench as I realized that it could have been my father or mother. As the pitchfork struck against the ghoul, it released a pitiful shriek and grabbed hold of the weapon in an attempt to pull its assailant forward. My reverie was broken. I had to act.
I placed myself between the man being dragged forward and the ghoul. Its support may have been weakened by my attack on its leg, but it still seemed capable of accessing some level of strength that we living men and women simply did not know. My shield bore instantly against its chest with enough impact to compress the decayed flesh there in such a manner that a gust of putrid bile escaped its mouth and careened past me into the face of my spearman. I heard his cry, but knew that if I turned to assist him we would both surely be lost. Instead, I lowered my shield and delivered a succinct thrust of my rattling sword into the ghoul’s chest. It fell backward once more and struck the ground without any attempt at rising again. My shield was once more lifted, and my sword put at the ready. No sooner had I prepared for the next attack than did I hear my spearman being dragged away. I knew what it meant; I knew what happened when a person was introduced to the Plague. He begged, he pleaded. He swore that he had not be infected, but it was too late.
It was too late to save him.
What had his name been? Robert? Rowen? Ralph? I couldn’t recall, and I sorrowfully realized that it simply did not matter. He would be replaced and if not, then eventually I would be meeting with him in the afterlife. The whistle cried once more, and as I pulled away I saw a new person had taken his place; a boy no older than twelve, with straw blonde hair and freckles that stood out against the grime on his face. After he had effectively thrust at the ghoul, I closed ranks and once more defended against the enemy.
It didn’t matter who died or when; it didn’t matter how many of the enemy we killed or how many of us perished with each skirmish. The Light was not there for us in that dark hour, nor would it ever be. All that mattered was that my shield joined with the shield of the man next to me, and that his joined with the one next to him. All that mattered was that we defended until we could no longer defend. And when we could no longer defend, then nothing mattered at all. For that would be the end of us all.
And in the end, all that really mattered, was the end.
II. The HungerEdit
I do not believe in miracles. I do not believe that the Light acts in the best interest of humanity. Allow me to explain further, that I do not even believe in the concept of Heaven or reward for suffering. I have lived through Hell, but it is truly a false dichotomy to suppose that because there is an extreme evil there in turn must be an extreme good. If whatever created us, be it the Light, the Titans, or some other supernatural entity had enough malcontent and vehemence within its soul to produce something so vile as Hell, then why should they in turn be charitable and benevolent enough to create a diametrically opposed reality in which pain and suffering are but figments of the imagination? And even if there were a being charitable enough to offer reward for our relentless self-sacrificing and piety, then how could it simply ignore our cries for help and pleas for mercy? Would it be able to stand unmoved and unremitting as we faithful children, with blood on our hands and tears our cheeks, fell to our knees in obeisance and pleaded for reprieve from our suffering – for salvation from the never-ending nightmare that chased us like hounds through the night. How could a being that knew any good leave us to stagger through the darkness as wounded animals, frightened by every sound and startled by every sight? The only reality more gruesome than the fact that the Light’s benevolence does not exist, would have to be that it simply opted not to care for our plight. That although we outreached our hands to the Light, it did not reach back for us.
That the Light did not love us.
To the few people that I have shared my views with, I am often told that my beliefs are too dour; too grim: that I place too much importance in the concept of reward and not in the duty that we must suffer to attain it. I am told that the Light does not act in accordance with what we desire, but rather some unseen plan that none can ever truly know and must simply follow as the lamb does its shepherd through a daunting forest on a dreadful, stormy night. I have been told that it was my fault for our suffering because I did not have unmitigated faith in the Light; that because I knew fear, I would never know the true embrace of the Light. I have often wondered if these same people would blame the buck for being stricken by the hunter’s arrow, or the bug for being caught under a child’s foot. I have also wondered if they were correct, and if that perhaps because I did know fear in my time of testing I was forever to be damned. But how could a benevolent entity truly curse its children to so malicious a fate? How could the shepherd have led his flock into the midst of a treacherous ravine, only to leave them without a hint as to where to go? How could I have been such a devout lamb only to be lost in the maelstrom of dread and torment that was to follow me everywhere I went?
I recall that I was too hungry to be cold. I know, it is a rather strange thing to think that two levels of discomfiture could not amicably share what little space was left of my crumbling consciousness and waning sanity, but my hunger was so voracious that I could think of nothing else. At first I feared that I had been inadvertently introduced to the Plague and that these pangs of hunger were but the precursors to becoming the ravenous creatures that shadowed our every step. The groaning of the ghouls was no different than the groaning that left our stomachs, was it? I lay awake when I should have been sleeping and listened for something – anything to tell me that I was becoming one of them. Hadn’t my father often complained of insatiable hunger before his death? Hadn’t my mother said her legs felt like jelly when she went to bed that final time? I had long since lost the ability to cry for my parents from a mixture of malnourishment and the simple atrophy of whatever piece of my humanity that it took to know sorrow. I was too hungry to be sad; I was far too hungry to cry.
We had been forced to move our encampment twice in the space of two weeks. The Scourge was an indefatigable enemy, and although we tried our best to hold out against them, each barricade would eventually be shattered and each wall breached. The first time that we moved we managed to bring along many of our food rations, but the second time we had been startled out of our hiding places and forced to abandon what we had. The remaining food went first to the militiamen that remained, and then was rationed off to us in order of our ages. I received a meager amount of food and hardly had taken a bite into it before I was already swallowing nothingness. When the food ran out, we took to eating the bark of trees and grass. So much money had been placed into the blighted wheat that we simply did not have other foodstuffs on hand, and many of the abandoned farmsteads we found offered nothing more than the signs of carnage and perhaps a browning apple left half eaten on an overturned table. When the bark of trees and grass could no longer sustain us, we turned to clawing against the ground in search of insects. And when the insects proved to be too little, we turned our hunger to shoes; belts and anything that could be boiled and made malleable to some degree.
Once, we came upon a farm in which all its occupants had either been killed or fled to Lordaeron. We crept silently through the night, for if we alerted the Scourge that we were without defense there would be nothing to save us from our deaths. Walking was an exercise that I rarely attempted as it simply burned more energy than I had, but one of the shield-bearers said that he knew of a farm where there was sure to be something to eat. I was too hungry to be cold, so I was definitely too hungry to be afraid. The others moved instantly to the main house, but I decided to not compete and instead look for something else; perhaps a melon patch or something to tide me over until our next foraging expedition. Oh, how I would have died for a melon at that moment – the crisp, succulent flesh of the split gourd and the near ambrosia that squirted into one’s mouth with each delightful chew. To be honest I would have settled for a rotting melon, with mushy insides and fetid odors, so long as it was something to fill my grumbling stomach. But I did not find a melon patch.
I found something far better.
If I could have cried I am sure that I would have. Standing before me was none other than perhaps the most beautiful stallion that I had ever seen in my life. In reality it more than likely was on its last legs of life, but that did not mean that my quixotic mind could not paint it as some noble charger that would carry us to freedom. More than the promise of freedom, though, it reminded me of what life had once been like. It reminded me of the long rides my brother and I would take through the countryside, or even the competition I had competed in and caused my family to lavish me with praises. It reminded me that there was a time when we weren’t all so wretched and dismal, and that the only Light we had to worry about came from the Sun on a warm summer’s afternoon.
The horse saw me and lifted its head inquisitively as I approached it with just as much wonder. I am sure that it must have feared me to be one of the dreadful creatures that had chased its owners away, and I have to wonder why it was that it was spared at all if the Scourge had already visited the farmstead. Nevertheless, as I drew closer its large nostrils flared and it gave me the tell-tale shake of the head that spoke of uncertainty and wariness. Still I advanced, and held my hand out tentatively if only to show I was capable of being gentle. I do not know if it was my sad appearance or perhaps something in my eyes, but that beautiful stallion relaxed slowly, and then outstretched its elongated snout to my hand to sniff it inquisitively. I can hardly imagine what my hand must have smelled like. We can safely say that my days of picking flowers had passed, and that if I saw one the first thing I would do would be to stuff it into my mouth rather than smell it, so I am sure that there was nothing at all delicate about me in that moment. Still, the horse nuzzled my hand, and I offered it a very faint pat upon its bony brow. By the Light, how very wonderful a creature he was. He reminded me of my old pony, and although I knew that she was dead, that did not mean a bit of my affection could not be transplanted to this exquisite steed.
I noticed the horse’s ears suddenly swivel and my blood ran cold. A look of panic entered its eyes and it neighed pitifully, obviously detecting a danger that I could not yet see but was nevertheless a potential victim of. The Scourge must have found us, and with Captain Phillips and his men so very far away that could only mean that we were soon to die. I have to admit that for a moment I actually felt relief. There would be no more running; no more hiding. I wouldn’t have to wonder if every thump in the night was actually the arrival of the fiend that would kill me, nor would I be afraid of the darkness anymore. No, this ghoul that was sure to appear before me was to be my savior in a sense, and I only hoped that it did not hurt the horse too much before it sent both he and I to our final resting places.
This was it.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, and as I turned to address it I found that it was moving far too stealthily to be one of the ghouls that chased us. Though it was garbed in shadows it had the shape of a man, and slunk with a careful grace toward both me and the horse. Why would the Scourge employ such a stealthy tactic? It was not until I heard the mighty neigh of the horse that I knew what was happening, and by then I could hardly act to prevent it. I was dragged backward suddenly and found myself on my rear before I had time to think. My wits were jarred, but I knew that I had to try and protect the horse. When I rose I was shoved backwards once more, and at that moment knew that I was not the target at all. No, the mighty cries of the horse as it pranced back and forth spoke of who the intended was, and as I saw two of the militiamen stabbing that beautiful creature, my mind could hardly comprehend what was happening before me. They looked no different than wolves, tearing and pulling at the stallion until its support was lost and it slowly was forced to kneel. From there it bowed its head in what almost seemed a prayer, and with its large beautiful eyes focused upon me surrendered its will to live. Cries of “meat” and “mine” filled the air as the “survivors” dined upon the recently slain creature. Clubs, swords, knives – they’d used whatever they could to subdue the animal and from there made short work of what was left of him. I had not the food in me to vomit, though I did drily heave as I heard them tear into the carcass with unabashed avarice. They were tearing into the horse; into each other if need be; and reveling in their kill with such delight that I had to wonder, truly, if we had really escaped anything other than our own primal instincts. Were we any different form the monsters that chased us? Was our flight through the night truly an escape, or simply a retreat from reality?
I lie awake from that point on when I was supposed to sleep and thought of the horse. It had trusted me so completely, and I in turn had let it come to harm. As I think of it now it was very much like my relationship with the Light, although I suppose the difference would be that if I were able to save it I would have, whereas the Light which should be capable of any great deed simply does not act. But perhaps that is simply an excuse; I could have killed them. I could have lifted a discarded sword and hacked them in to giblets and used their remains to lead the Scourge away from the others. Wouldn’t that have been justified? Even if it was, though, I knew that I was too weak then – that I am too weak now, to do such a thing. That I sat there and watched them devour that poor, helpless creature not because I wished to abstain from the carnage, but because I was simply too terrified to act in one way or the other. I know that I was then and am now a coward.
I know that I could not cry, but that did not mean I could not feel the phantom of emotions I should have had stirring in that moment. I did not weep for our sad states, or the fact that we were little better than the monsters we ran from. I did not weep for the house that I once knew, or the family that once inhabited it. In fact, I did not even weep for my own hunger or the fact that I knew at any moment we would all be washed away into the tide of darkness that had so intently followed us. No, those phantasmal tears that could never manifest but rent my soul just the same were dedicated solely to those large, innocent orb like eyes of the horse that had trusted in me. That had seen me as something more than the hungry devil that I was – more than just the scared little girl I truly was. It had seen me as a friend, as someone that could help it, and I had in turn revealed that I was anything but. I had revealed that the only thing worse than survival was cowardice, and that the only thing worse than hesitation was willful inactivity. So it was that I remained awake and thought of a creature I had only known for five seconds, and promised myself one thing:
No matter what happened, I would not become like them.
It was not long before we experienced out first incident of cannibalism.
Upon reading that line I am sure confusion will be your natural response, as with ghouls so persistently on our heels there is very little chance that I escaped seeing one dine upon the flesh of another. In that assumption you would be partially correct; I had seen people that I thought noble pulled to the ground screaming as their innards were torn free. I had seen sinew and viscera masticated with the voracity of wolf consuming a fresh kill. I had seen beings that gorged themselves not only upon their flesh of their victims, but also their suffering. But even to this day I find it thoroughly insulting that the practice of ghouls is considered “cannibalism”. We are not the same as them. They operate against their will; slaves to compulsions manifest not within their own minds, but a sinister lord that commands them with impunity. No, the depravity we experience from the Scourge is not wrought of their own internal demons, nor the avarice and vaunted idealisms of self-preservation that cause once great men to become mere, wretched fiends. They are predators, not cannibals. They hunt and devour that which occupies their environs. We, however, have no such excuse for our acts of immorality.
We had been without incident from the Scourge for the longest time since our flight from the farmsteads. Two days had come and gone and our encampment had not yet been beset by the ravening ghouls that hunted us so relentlessly. Captain Phillips reduced our guard detail from the full eight militiamen that remained, to four, and allowed us to rest in the lull presented to us by the seeming reprieve the Scourge had granted us. Those of us that had energy were expected to go foraging in a relatively safe distance and bring back whatever we found. Very few people wished to undertake these tasks, as to step outside the blanket of Captain Phillips’ men, willingly, was the same as offering a bleeding hand to a wolf. Because I had hardly slept since the slaughtering of the horse, I offered to journey out into the wilderness and see what I might find. In truth I knew that I was too cowardly to end my own life, but that did not mean I could not pray for a ghoul to happen upon me and perform the deed for me.
As you can see, once more my prayers went unanswered.
In all there was very little to forage for. The animals of the countryside had taken flight from our locality long before the Plague had overwhelmed us, and most of the vegetation had either become blighted or foul. I managed to find a few roots, a questionable collection of mushrooms, and three bird’s eggs. I wrapped them into a bundle using the bottom half of my now impossibly dirty shirt, and carried them back with me toward the camp. I knew that I was expected to bring everything I found back with me, but I could not help slipping a single root into my mouth and chewing on it as I walked. It was bitter and partially dry, but my saliva managed to soak it well enough to make it malleable. It was more a process of gnawing than chewing as I think of it, but regardless it gave me the energy I needed to make it back to the camp. With each chew I took, I was flooded by pangs of guilt, but could not deny my ravenous hunger any longer.
I could hardly believe it when I smelled meat cooking. Not the stench of warmed leather, or of rotting wood, or even of roots and grass boiling! It was meat -- roasting, fatty, meat! It was a scent that instantly caused me to drop the root from my mouth and hurry in its direction. If it was a trap or not, I did not care! Truly, the very thought of a single bite of roasted meat, melting in my mouth, was enough to make me forsake myself a thousand times over. I was not so delirious as to drop my cache, though – no, even if I did have some meat that didn’t mean I needed to forget about the hunger that could be alleviated by that small trove of mine. The scent was coming far enough away from the camp that I was certain the others could not smell it, and so as I walked in its direction I became more confident that it could not be something that the Scourge would do. Why lure me away alone, when they could have brought all of us out of hiding? My nose practically twitched as I followed the scent to its source, and walked deeper into the wooded hills that it originated from. What I found there was something that still to this day haunts me.
I do not know if it was simply a sense of self-preservation that kept me from rushing headlong out into the clearing as I wanted to, but I found myself slowing my jog to a walk as I came to stand behind a tree. My stomach growled ferociously at me as I looked outward and toward the camp fire, upon which a piece of meat had been placed. The meat was elongated and supple, providing the air with a scent that though obviously fleshy, was of a variety I had never before known. A good deal of it was covered in thick layer of white fat, soft and sweating into the fire to sizzle slightly as the embers licked at its with a seductively alluring rapidity. I could see the red meat beneath it already becoming browned. It was, to be quite honest, the vision of heaven.
Not long after my eyes fell to that piece of meat though, I looked further about and saw the one who was preparing it. From his long, ratty hair and thick build, I knew it was the town’s butcher Desmond Groves. I had very few dealings with him, but I recalled vividly that he always had a lupine look to his eyes, even when times were not as harsh as they were now. He was perhaps the last person that would freely share with another, but I had long since given up the concept of self-worth if it meant survival. If he would not barter with me over the worth of what food I had collected, then I would offer my body if not more to him. More important than any idea of self-respect was the desire to taste but a bit of that meat. I was fully prepared to turn step forward and make my offer, when he suddenly turned about and prepared to place another piece of meat on the fire. What shocked me was not the blood that stained his body, or even the maddened look in his eyes. No, what truly traumatized me was what he revealed as he moved away.
I can tell you now, at this moment, that Desmond Groves was a skilled butcher. Of course then, when I saw what I did, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was the remains of a person, quite obviously, flayed with such care that not a piece of meat was taken away with the pile of skin that had been cast to the side. I could not tell who it was from my location, but I could only suppose that it was one of the survivors. Groves was far too focused on his cooking to bother looking for me, so as I stood in a near state of catatonia, he was given free rein to add the disarticulated arm from the corpse to the fire, beside the leg that now cooked. This man had not only murdered someone, but was now set to consume their flesh! Was that not the very behavior we had been fleeing from for so long? I did not know what to do – what to think. Before my very eyes Groves tore from the leg a tender sectioning of meat and chewed upon it noisily. I can tell you now that what I felt was not what I expected to, nor is it something that I am proud to admit:
I was envious.
I wanted to eat that piece of meat. I wanted to know what it meant to be content and full again. It was a horrible thing to realize and an even worse one to experience, but I can say without doubt that if not for the final shreds of my humanity, I would have rushed out to join Groves in his feast. That I would willingly trade my body for food was one matter, but to think of using the body of another for food? That truly placed fear into my heart. How could we escape the monsters that were hunting us if we became them? How could we ever truly escape from the horrors of our unseen predators, if we began to consume each other as they would us? It was a thought that I could not answer then and cannot answer now. It was a thought that sent me running, with energy I did not know I possessed, back to the camp.
As you can imagine, Captain Phillips was not at all pleased to hear what I told him. I explained in as much sense that I could what I had seen, and begged him to keep us safe from such acts of depravity. Captain Phillips, who had already begun to become the shadow of a man he once was, still stood resolutely before me and vowed that no harm would come to me or any other. He dispatched two of his men to retrieve Groves and bring the carcass back with them, so that it might be properly buried before Groves was given a trial by military court. The men did as they were ordered, and I sat awake, nearly paralyzed, as I thought over what I had seen and what I had felt. I knew that I did not tell Captain Phillips out of some great sense of moral correctness, but rather because what I had seen in Groves was something that I could partially see in myself. I was so close, so very close, to joining him in his disgusting revelry that I hardly had it in me to turn away. At that very moment, thick saliva coagulated in my mouth as I thought over that heavenly scent and about the delectable leg that had been presented to me if only for a moment. It was then that I realized that buried within each of us was a Darkness that while we may attempt to hide, is something that we cannot avoid.
The darkness that is within us is as natural as our heart, liver, or lungs. It is a metaphysical organ that although unseen, occupies an aspect of our beings that we nourish by repressing our urges and denying malicious thoughts. It is suppressed by decorum, rules, regulations, and propriety. It is a fiend that we know intimately and yet refuse to allow passage into the light of day. It is a lover, a foe, a child, and a parent. It is the entirety of our existence and yet the denial of our desires. That darkness is kept sequestered from our rationality because it is perhaps the most rational thing that we can do to allow it to become realized.
And when we see that darkness exposed upon another, we are swift to squelch it, ‘less it arouse within us those same feelings that roil beneath the placid veneer of our sanity.
The soldiers returned before daybreak with Groves and the remains of the body. I did not see the leg and arm, and I was certain that either Groves or the soldiers had eaten it on their way back. I couldn’t necessarily blame them for what they did, but I could chastise them in my mind just the same. They had failed a test that I passed; they were the beasts, I was the person. Inwardly that provided me with some comfort, but not the same comfort as they must have felt as they walked with full stomachs and I sat with an empty one.
There was no excuse for what Groves did, nor did he offer one. He explained that he had lured his foraging partner deep into the woods only to beat her to death and then flay and eat her remains. By the way that he spoke it seemed that he had done nothing wrong, at least in his mind, and that shame was as far as from his person as contentment was from mine. He was practically smiling as he recounted the gruesome details of what he did, from the flaying to the cooking, and while I had been ready to testify against him out of a vindictiveness that I could not claim but would not relinquish, he effectively placed himself at the mercy of the court without a word from me. Captain Phillips ordered him executed.
The execution is still vivid in my mind, only because its purpose and its intent were not the same thing. The purpose of an execution is obviously to kill a person, and that was exactly what they did. Groves was beaten with split branches until eventually he could stand no more and fainted. Then he was roused with smelling salts and led to a tree whose branches were as thick as a horse. A rope was taken and used to fashion about his neck, while several militiamen were forced to hold him up. Groves still seemed to be smiling through all of it though, as the fact he had eaten while we had not truly placed him on the advantage. I know that my heart bled with hatred for him and his happiness as I watched him hung. It was only then that his look of happiness left him and in its place panic emerged. He tried to free himself as he dangled helplessly by that rope, but it was of no use. Color rushed to his face, first red, then blue, and then finally purple. Finally he relaxed and his pathetic moans and cries bled into silence. Finally, Captain Phillips strode over to the deceased man and with his field knife, cut open his chest and pulled free his heart and dropped it to the ground.
“For treason against humanity, may this man be damned,” he said. He then stamped his foot against Groves’ still warm heart, which squirted a stream of blood to paint the Captain’s face.
The intent of that execution, though, was something different than simply to punish Groves. It was a warning to each and every one of us that while we may have all had desires; that we may have all wanted to do what Groves did, it was unacceptable. There would be no exception to the rule and if we did ever break free of our humanity and dive into the darkness, we too would be killed. It may have seemed like a harsh message, but I know now as I did then that Captain Phillips had no choice but to do what he did. To show leniency in any instance of cannibalism would be to validate it, and when that was validated then we would no longer have a reason to fight as we did. It was an incident that still paints my views of humanity today, and I cannot help but wonder what it was that allowed me to run away from that act of depravity, while Desmond Groves fell wantonly into it.
That night I kept quarters with Captain Phillips, the only person that I knew would not turn on me in the night and attempt to gormandize what little pieces of me remained. That night, Captain Phillips and I agreed upon a single thing, spoken through our eyes if not our mouths:
If we did not find civilization soon, then savagery would find us.
It was at the The Gahrron Farmstead that savagery found us.
Before I continue further with that line of thought, though, I think I owe it to both myself and whoever may find this book in their hands, to elucidate the reasoning behind why I began my liaison with Captain Phillips. The easiest explanation, of course, is that the man offered me protection in my time of need, but in all honesty it was something more than that. If I did not do as I did with him, he surely would have still been protective of me if only because I was one of the few women left in our group, and since we had no idea as to how many people existed in the world still, well, that could make me quite the asset to humanity. But more importantly, on a humanitarian level, I believe that there existed within Captain Phillips a sort of chivalry that many people simply no longer exercise. I saw it in his eyes when he looked at me, and although I cannot deny that our couplings were of an illicit nature, never did I truly feel as though I was disgracing myself. Between us there existed a likeness of mind that sought only to survive to the next day. I have no illusions, though, that if I did not occupy the spot in which I did, surely another would have.
Captain Phillips, for all of his many great features, was not an attractive man. He was nearly three decades my senior, and had a face that showed he lived through his fair share of hardships in the past. His complexion had once been ruddy and vibrant, but as with all things that we encountered, over time that vibrancy faded and he began to turn sallow and grey. He was balding, with a hairline that seemed to start nearly at the middle of his head, and his eyes were sunken and small. An amusing thing about him that I recall is that while his body did lose weight, he maintained the paunch that hung predominately over his belt. He was also a rather poor “lover” (a word I opt not from any concept of actual affection, but because I cannot think of a similar word that adequately describes the act of coitus) and was somewhat boorish in his advances when we were by ourselves. In truth, I would never have considered Captain Phillips for anything remotely sexual if not for the fact he had become the most powerful man in my world, and I by proxy as his doxy, had become the most powerful woman.
Power was hardly something to boast about though. As I think of it now it was a rather petty affair to consider. I still worked as the others did – still held a shield when it was my turn, or thrust a spear when my shift arrived. I still cooked, still foraged, and still kept after the sickly. In fact, the only inclination that I had any real power came when it was time to march and rather than trudge along with the others who seemed to carry the weight of the world upon their stooped, beleaguered shoulders; I sat behind Captain Phillips on his old nag as we led the procession. That was exactly the manner in which we marched; as a funeral procession. I cannot claim to know the agony of those that marched about, and it filled me with a sickly glee to be absent their weary groans and sighs as they were prodded onward by the militiamen. The only question that remained to those that struggled to take the next step was a very serious one: for whose funeral did they march? As I think of it now, I have to say that a better question would be: whose funeral was it not?
At the The Gahrron Farmstead, we could move no further. We still had nearly four days travel before we would arrive within the Stratholme, but the blisters on the feet of those that traveled by foot were so inflamed and sore that many fell from the devastating aching that overwhelmed them. Captain Phillips ordered three of his remaining six militiamen to secure the area, while the rest of us were to stand on our guards. A feeling of guilt made me surrender my seat on the back of the nag, though I stayed close at Captain Phillips’ side from both a desire to be protected and an almost dutiful eagerness to be there if he required my assistance. These faux emotions that I felt for him, pantomimed by my mind if not my heart, were the small details that kept me in the man’s favor and others incapable of wresting it from me.
The group of survivors was truly without spirit as I looked over them. The young were crying and the old simply closed their eyes in an attempt to find whatever rest they could. If the Scourge did happen upon us, they would probably have turned about and sought out something that would provide a better meal. We were disgustingly emaciated, dirty, and without that buoyant quality of hope that makes a person seem alive. There was no doubt that if we did not rest at once, then there would be nothing left of these people to make it to Stratholme. The soldiers returned and informed us that not only was the perimeter secure, but that there was still some food left in the cupboards. Those same people that seemed to be without life suddenly roused themselves, and before Captain Phillips could give the call to remain calm, many were running in the direction of the farmstead. It was only on the sound of his whistle, which we had been trained to view as life and death, did the stream of near skeletons come to a halt and look back at him.
“Women and children first,” Captain Phillips said. To no one’s surprise, I was allowed to move to the front of the line.
I cannot tell you what the food tasted like as I ate it. It was a cold and stale roll, the salted snout of a pig, and wild onions, but there was simply no taste to it. My tongue had lost its ability to detect taste and in truth, I was glad that it had. Many of the things that we had turned to eating were absolutely detestable, and to be blessed with the ability not to taste them was a gift that I can attribute to the body knowing how to adequately protect the mind. In times to come, the mind would have to return the favor to the body. But that is another tale entirely which we will address at another date.
It was the first time since our flight from the western ends of the countryside that everyone could say they were relatively content. Captain Phillips had two men remain alert to patrol at night; while the rest of us were permitted to rest before setting off the next day. I am unsure if I felt guilt or relief that Captain Phillips did not wish for me to perform any acts for him on that evening; guilt because he had allowed me to move to the front of the line and it was the least I could do to reciprocate, while relief because in all honesty although it was a necessity it was not something I thoroughly enjoyed doing. In the end we shared bedding, if not contact, and fell into a state of sleep that otherwise would not have been granted to us if not for the food that now sat heavily on our stomachs.
That sleep did not last for very long.
I was startled awake by something that I cannot quite explain. It was not as palpable as smell, nor was it as definitive as sound. There was an elusive quality to the air that was powerful enough to shake me free of the black sleep I had descended into, and roused me to a level of clarity I had not had for quite some time. At first I thought it might have been indigestion, as after fasting on bark, roots, and leather for so long my stomach was not exactly prepared to handle the digestion of salted meat; however, when no further stirrings from my stomach met me I was thoroughly confused. My first instinct was to shake Captain Phillips awake and have him investigate what it might be, but as I looked to the man who had received so little sleep and commanded us all so bravely, I felt it wrong to force him into consciousness simply because I had a feeling. No, if I simply went back to sleep it would be daylight and we would all be fine. I closed my eyes and sleep claimed me once more.
And again, I awakened.
My heartbeat was faster than it had been before, and it thudded against the inside of my head with enough force to cause echoes to resonate. I was sweating slightly and felt my body reacting in the manner it might if a wolf appeared in the distance, or a loud noise sounded in the dark. It was an adrenal high that had no explanation and the more that I gained from it the more I realized I simply couldn’t ignore it. I had to move; of this there was no doubt. Carefully I left the bed that Captain Phillips and I shared on that evening, and moved toward the nearest window. My eyes flitted back and forth as I attempted to find a sign of anything that might have been amiss in the darkness, but other than the sight of one of the militiamen standing with a torch beside Captain Phillips’ old nag, there was nothing that seemed at all wrong. What could it have been that was bothering me? I was preparing to return to bed when I suddenly noticed motion to the right of the militiaman. My heart leapt into my throat and my hands instantly dampened. Could it have been a ghoul? Was I supposed to shout? How could he not notice whatever it was slowly slinking up behind him, crouched to attack? I had to do something; I had to yell.
But I couldn’t.
What left my mouth was a muffled cry. I could tell by the acrid and bitter smell of the hand that secured itself about my mouth that it was one of my fellow survivors, and though I tried my best to shriek the sound that followed was muted and dull. I was pulled backwards quickly, tearing at the curtains of the room as I was moved toward the hallway. In moving I managed to reach outward and grab for the armoire, which I shook and sent the former occupant’s ornate pottery shattering upon the ground. This roused Captain Phillips at once, who awakened in time to find an assailant looming over him with a rather pointed pickaxe poised to strike. He turned sharply as the man lunged inward at him and then clubbed him in the side with his elbow. While he took to fighting his attacker, I tried my best to free myself and swung my fist down so that it caught directly against my captor’s genitals. As you can imagine, he howled in pain and released me. I dove forward and struck the ground just as he pulled me by my leg toward the hall once more. In panic I looked up to see Captain Phillips still wrestling with his foe, and thus rendered incapable of saving me.
My hand blindly searched the ground as I was moved backwards, and I was rewarded with finding what I sought just as I was dragged to a stand. The man was prattling on about something unintelligible, words that meant less than the actions that he was trying to carry out. So distracted was he with trying to hurry me along that he hardly noticed the large, triangular shard of clay that I had placed in my hand. He attempted to herd me down the stairs, and I feigned tripping which instinctively caused him to pull me back. At once I swung that shard into his neck, and then ripped it away. His staggering gave me the chance to attack him mercilessly as I brought the shard down upon his head again and again until my hand was covered in blood and his cranium looked like the shattered pot that lay on the ground beside me. Shaking, I dropped the shard and prepared to head for Captain Phillips, but when I looked into the face of my would be abductor, I was shocked into inertia.
He was truly gone. No, not dead, he probably wouldn’t finish bleeding out for quite some time, but there was no humanity left in his deadening eyes. If he had become Scourge at the very least he would have shown a look of hunger, but what was before me was simply the wild and rabid stare of an animal that had lost its last shreds of sanity. Even in death he was still menacing, and it was only when I felt a hand upon my shoulder that I whirled about to prepare an attack against whoever had emerged from the door.
“Be calm,” Captain Phillips said in a dry voice. “They’ve started a coup and the only way we’re going to make it out of here is if you remain calm.” I do not know how people are capable of retaining calm and collected heads in times of distress. I am completely capable of being calm, or at the least not panicking, but constructing battle plans in the heat of the moment? No, this head of mine has never had quite so spectacular a quality for such things. I nodded my head to show that I understood, and without another word Captain Phillips took the lead with his bloody sword held defensively at the ready. I did not need to know what had happened in the room to know what the outcome was.
I was truly under Captain Phillips’ protection in those heated moments. Hardly skilled with a weapon and already shaken greatly by what was happening, if not for the fact I held onto the back of his shirt I surely would have drifted off to wander aimlessly into the fields. I was snapped into awareness when his body suddenly stiffed and he pushed me back, only to engage another two of the survivors, obviously affected by the same madness that the other had been contaminated with. To this day I do not know if it was a ferine response to the food we were given, or simply the natural collapse of their minds into the state of bestiality our environments had placed us within. What I do know is that while Captain Phillips battled his way outside, I was little more than a lamb in the shadow of a lion.
We were soon joined by two of the militiamen, although they were in bad shape. The band of survivors had been incensed by the preferential treatment that the militia received, and with the help of a militiaman by the name of Thomas, had effectively turned themselves into a roaming band of “liberators”. Captain Phillips and his men hardly had time to speak of what to do, when the group found us. What followed next was absolute chaos.
As you will recall being mentioned in a previous chapter, Captain Phillips was a career soldier. Those that fought him were more or less starved animals looking to improve their lot. When the two sides met, the resulting fight of savagery and hatred exploded with such vibrancy that the ground could only be coated in the crimson tears of those fallen. Still, despite his superior knowledge of combat and the intensity with which he and his men fought, even a mighty lion could be felled by a pack of hungry wolves, and before long the only ones remaining standing were myself, Captain Phillips, and his lieutenant who seemed to be on his last legs of life. Through the fighting we had performed a circle about the enemy, who had already been egregiously wounded, and were now with our backs to the field while they had the farmstead to their rears.
“Surrender yourself,” the traitor Thomas said with malice seething off of his every word, “you’ve led us as far as we can go, old man, and it’s quite clear you’ve allowed lust to mar your vision.” I cannot speak objectively of the man who started the coup; I recall that his breathe had the alluring odor of fresh cow’s dung and his face looked similar to a bird that’d flown directly into a tree. Despite these qualities, though, he had the upper hand over us, and I knew that Captain Phillips saw it just as plainly as I did.
After a moment of pause to think, Thomas added with an almost condescending smirk, “Unless, of course, you would rather barter your woman for your life.”
I did not know what to say at that and looked expectantly to Captain Phillips. Everything that I had done with him had been to prevent a moment like this arising and now that it was here, I was suddenly unsure of how things would play out. Would he keep his word to me and keep me free from the ravenous men that waited before us, or would he protect himself and admit that he and I had no official attachment to one another. It was the most helpless I have ever felt in my life; something that I take no pride in confessing as I think back to it. At that moment I realized that I was in control of absolutely nothing and that my very well being and livelihood could only be assured by the whims of a man that I had become little more than a trinket to. Why would he cast his life down before my own? How could I expect anyone to make that sacrifice for me?
I never did find out what would have happened if we were granted but three more seconds of silence. No, I never did find out what the worth of my relationship with him truly amounted to. As though they had been waiting for our attention to be driven completely onto the topic at hand, in the droves the Scourge poured out from behind the farm house. Although they were armed, the men that had previously been attacking us were hardly prepared to respond as the groaning cries of the charging ghouls devoured them in one large gulp. What fighting they gave was half-hearted, and before our eyes the men were pulled down to the ground. Thomas, who had been almost arrogantly sure of himself moments before, pitched out of the mass of undead only to be dragged back as I had been in the hallway. The hatred in his eyes replaced with panic as his body was absorbed into the ravenous group that claimed him. Oh how I remember his screams, endless and full of pain.
Oh, how I loved that sound.
I was too overcome with terror to appropriately to what was happening, or perhaps I simply didn’t want to run away any longer. If I simply stood as I was, all of the pain and hunger would be replaced with the unity of joining the masses who had so passionately pursued us. This singular incident could be the end to everything I’d suffered; everything I feared. I could embrace eternity by relinquishing my hold on the present.
I could be free.
As the men that were before us were torn asunder, Captain Phillips moved me as an accomplished artisan might a marionette. It was only after I was on the back of his old nag that I returned to my senses, and as I looked about in stupefaction I was reminded of where we were and what was happening. More important than the fact that I was on that horse’s back, though, was that Captain Phillips was not. I could see fresh tears in his eyes as he looked up at me, and held my hand in a manner far tenderer than I had ever imagined possible.
“Your brother would often tell us what a marvelous equestrian you were,” the Captain voiced in words that seemed a mixture of an unspoken passion and an unwarranted guilt. “I promised you that I would protect you from harm, and so I shall. Louis and I will remain here to hold the Scourge back for as long as we can. You must be ride until you reach the gates of Stratholme, my dear.”
I knew that there was no chance the two men, heavily fatigued from marching and fighting could hold back the Scourge that were quickly advancing upon us, but I also did not know what else could be done. My lips trembled: I wanted to say something to at the very least show I shared the Captain’s feelings of affection, but as I tried to speak nothing managed to escape the torrent of emotions that I felt at that moment. The only thing that found its way out of me was a single tear. I did not know that I still had tears to shed, and the lone droplet was almost painful in its descent down my grime covered face. I mouthed something, I do not know if it was “Thank you” or “I love you”, or anything else that truly made no difference, but I know that I felt, if not said, something.
Without another word spoken, Captain Phillips struck the horse’s rump and it set off at a rather impressive gallop. I watched, breathless, as Captain Phillips and Louis the Militiaman received that same freedom I had moments before been awaiting.
Thank you, Captain Phillips.
Captain Phillips’ old nag made it a few miles short of Darrowshire before it collapsed. I fell without ceremony from the saddle and landed in a heap not too far from the expiring beast. The half-hearted, empty whinnies that escaped her weary body came in strained intervals, until finally the sound of its panting, like wind brushing across a jagged surface, eventually faded into nothingness. That noble horse, who had survived not only our ravenous hunger but also countless ambushes by the Scourge, was incapable of rising once more. I watched her left foreleg stamp slightly at the air, attempting in vain to find the energy to bring herself to stand once more, and then slowly go limp. So close to freedom her tired body betrayed her and as I witnessed the last remnants of life slowly dwindle into oblivion within her eyes, I knew that I was alone. I was the last survivor.
But I did not have to be.
The mist that blanketed the ground on that morning was thick and pungent, carrying with it the smell of blighted earth and stagnant water. Its touch was soothing despite these acrid qualities though; alluring in a manner that brought to mind the whispering feel of silken sheets sliding slowly against one’s flesh. It was a feeling of yearning that wished to coax my mind into a feeling of serenity, and allow me to slip without complaint into the darkness that was beginning to creep into my mind. The miasma’s cold embrace seduced me into a state of passivity, and I, without any form of protection against those delectable thoughts of freedom, fully prepared to relinquish my hold upon this world. Each breath I took was harder to find than the last and each thought I had slipped more provocatively toward the shadows of my mind. The tempting saunter of my soul’s willingness to surrender felt nothing short of surreal, and as I closed my eyes I prepared to embrace the eternal slumber I had denied for so long.
I do not know how long I slept, but I do know had it not been for the sound of horse hooves pounding against the damp earth that my slumber surely would have been eternal. From my position on the ground I could hear two horses, each much more robust in their stride than my nag had been. From the weight that was placed behind each hoof beat I could only assume they were fine animals indeed, but I was so close to entering a comatose state that I did not have it in myself to lift my hand and signal for them to stop. Perhaps, blanketed by the miasma as I was, I would simply be trampled by those approaching horses and stamped into nothingness. Luck did not favor me in that way, though, and to my dismay I heard the horses not only draw to a halt, but one of their riders drop form the saddle. Each step that he took filled the air with the wet sound of his plate-clad feet pushing the moist soil into the ground.
“Another who sought to make it to our protection,” one of the two said with little doubt on his tongue. I could tell from the manner in which he spoke that he was not the one that approached me at that moment, and in fact he had already given up hope on me. We were of like mind in that regard. “She is either dead or scourged by this point; mount once more and let us return to Tyr’s Hand.”
“Sir,” the other began with hesitation on his lips. “I do not think this girl is yet dead.” After his words had been related to his superior, he knelt beside me and lowered his gloved hand to my face. The feeling of human contact caused my eyes to slide open and the first thing that I saw was the dark red flame that was affixed to the center of the man’s tabard. It was a symbol that I had never before seen, but it was nevertheless one that I quickly knew to be my salvation. “She’s awakened.”
“More than likely scourged,” the superior responded with agitation now cloaking his voice as the mist did the ground. Clearly he found me of less interest than whatever was waiting for him back at Tyr’s Hand. “The Light has been benevolent enough to bring this child before you so that you might save her from what she is to become, boy. Do not hesitate in your blessing.”
I knew all too well what the man meant as he spoke, and although I doubted I could bring myself to move, I tried with enough force until I could roll myself onto my back. I am sure that as they looked at me I was little more than a zombie; emaciated, thoroughly dirty, and without the faintest shred of humanity upon my face. If I had been in their place at that moment I would have found no reason to hesitate in smiting the evil that was before me; however, the man that had come to see me was not quite as rash in action as I was. In fact, he hesitated in a way that would have had him killed on the battlefield.
Months later, when Corin’s Crossing was lost at the hands of an inept commander, that reality would come to pass.
My eyes drew over the body of the young man that was sure to be the end of me. Trembling, fearful; he was no more a murderer than I was Scourge. Still, his hand moved to the hilt of his sword and he brought it uneasily from his side. The sound of his mentor’s heavy sigh must have steeled his resolve somewhat, for he found it in himself to withdraw the weapon and with its point directed at my heart, murmured a soft prayer. I could feel the cold kiss of steel poking through my threadbare shirt, and closed my eyes once more as a relieved sigh escaped me. My fingers slowly curled into a ball as I felt the sword drag upward across my torso and finally come to rest under my chin. It was there that he forced me to look up with a slight pat, and as I did I could not help but open my eyes and look upon the one that would finally free me from my suffering. The mist concealed his face for a moment, but as he joined his left hand to the hilt of his sword and lifted it, I was granted a sight I hardly expected.
“Simon,” I said in disbelief. More surprising than the fact that I had a voice was that the name escaped me with so little effort. Raspy and dry as it was, the word was spoken with a level of bewilderment that seemed almost joyous. For a moment I thought that the strong-chinned face that was before me was but a delusion and soon the world about me would plunge into darkness; however, no action came from the young man. He held his sword uncertainly, obviously attempting to figure out what was happening just as I was.
“Remy?” He asked. It was a chance meeting that to this day I cannot explain. To be met with my brother’s best friend at my time of judgment was an occurrence that I know to be coincidental, but some have told me was the working of the Light. Regardless of what it was, be it happenstance coincidence or part of the orchestrated plans of the Light, I was spared from experiencing a swift death on that cold morning in the Eastern Plaguelands. No, a swift death would have been a merciful act, and acts of mercy are not things that I expect nor desire any longer. As Simon Withers knelt once more beside me and touched my cheek affectionately, I could not help but weep with a mixture of joy and sorrow. If he was alive did that mean Bryson was as well? If he was alive, did that mean that there was still hope for us? My emotions were as difficult to read then as they are now. All I knew for certain, as I was helped onto the back of Simon’s horse, was that my life was going to change.
I simply could not have expected what was to come.
I was hardly within Tyr’s Hand before I was snatched away from Simon and his mentor, Sir Lightstone, who did not like me then and does not like me to this day. Much like Sir Lightstone, the guards at Tyr’s Hand were fearful that I either carried the Plague or was already an agent of the Scourge. When doubt is introduced to people as passionate as the Scarlet Crusade there is only one method in which to dispel it, and that method is what haunts me to this day. For all the darkness that I experienced before that moment – for all the depravity that I escaped from, succumbed to, or ignored until that point, I was not prepared for what waited for me in Tyr’s Hand.
Before I go into detail as to what did occur to me, I would first like to specify that I do not hold the Scarlet Crusade in disdain for what they did to me. The times that we lived through were harsh ones, and if not for their diligence then surely many of the people that now live to decry them for zealotry would have been lost in the unchecked throngs of Scourge that they effectively stymied with their stalwart campaigns. I cannot deny that among their order are men and women that act without remorse, or have far more zeal than any person should, but these caricatures should hardly be seen as the rank and file soldier of the Crusade. Fear is a powerful tool for motivation and when one only knows fear, there is one of two options from which to choose: fight or flee. The Crusade chose to fight to the last man, and in doing so encouraged the blind fanaticism and idealistic quandaries that have created a negative name for their order. Nevertheless, they were and are a necessary force, be they deemed evil or good. To those that dislike them simply because of their rhetoric, I must say to you this:
You were not there; you cannot understand.
Unless you survived the horrors that I have recounted in this story; unless you realized that your humanity was but a thin cloth easily torn asunder in the face of the horrors we survived; unless you joined shoulder to shoulder with your brothers against an insurmountable foe, then you will never understand what caused the Scarlet Crusade to become what it did.
But I allow my explanation to step ahead of my story itself.
I was taken by two armored women who carried me as a tired farmer might a sack of flour; dutifully but without concern for how the sack felt in the slightest. The rough stones of Tyr’s Hand’s walk ways caused my feet to bleed somewhat but those minor irritations did little more than remind me that I was still alive. In the eyes of those we passed, I saw the same level of resentment we had shown Desmond Groves when he was marched in by Captain Phillips’ men, and try as I might to explain that I was not contaminated by the Plague, they would neither stop to let me explain myself nor give me a moment to gather my wits. There were so many faces; so many incredulous faces looking my way. Monster, I know they wanted to say. Wretched beast! I did not know if they were right or not, but I did know it did not matter what I thought. I was marched with my head bowed shamefully until finally the light of day vanished as we entered a fortified keep.
The length of that keep is uncertain to me, but I know that eventually I was lowered by my guards and fell without effort to my knees. My hands, coarse and calloused, supported me. I had not noticed until that moment how gnarled and bitter my hands had become. Had I truly escaped the Plague, or was it simply slower acting upon me than others? That thought sent a shiver up my spine, the same shiver that had been within me the night of Captain Phillips’ death.
“Inquistor Valroth,” one of my guards said to as she performed a salute. “Lord Lightstone and his boy, Sir Simon the Lesser, found this girl lying west of Darrowshire.” The manner in which she said the word “girl” was akin to how one might say “dog”. I did not doubt that they thought I was turned, but then I also had to suppose if they truly believed that I would be dead. Unsure of what I was to do, I kept my head bowed and waited for some form of judgment to be passed upon me.
There came a soft, creaking sound as the man that was addressed shifted in his chair. The sound of his fingers tapping against his oaken desk filled the chamber for several moments, before a soft sigh escaped his lips. “And you have brought her to me, Uncleansed, because you wish for me to catch whichever contagions she may carry, yes?” The man’s words were not at all offensive, and as I think of it he seemed more irritated with my guards than me. Of course, he also probably saw me as little more than a corpse, as in fact at that time there was not very much of me to be considered contemptuous.
The inquisitor’s comment must caught the woman that had spoken previously off guard, for she coughed slightly and shook her head. “Not at all, sir. We simply were told that all survivors should be brought to an inquisitor before any resources are wasted on them.”
“Whose bumble-headed idea was that, exactly?” Inquisitor Varloth asked with the irritation on his voice now slightly palpable. I was afraid to chance a glance up at the man, but I could not help but wonder what he looked like at that moment. My guards, I knew, were either extremely frightened or extremely angry. The manner in which their hands trembled caused the plate to rattle very faintly, a sound that reminded me of the defensive lines we’d been forced to at Captain Phillips’ behest. “If we were to carry on with something as dimwitted as that, then there’d be no reason for quarantines at all, would there?”
“Sir, it was in Grand Inquisitor Isillien’s latest pronouncement,” the guard responded.
I do not write this now to make neither Inquisitor Varloth seem inept, nor the guards seem stupid. What I do want to inform the reader of is the fact that the Crusade was hardly a unified front in the time of my arrival. Petty differences such as I experienced on my first day in Tyr’s Hand were commonplace, and while this may seem to be little more than a trivial tiff, there came times when those with power opted to settle their difference with the lives of their men rather than as men.
To further the story, the guards finally took me away to be Cleansed, and I never again met Inquisitor Varloth. To be “Cleansed” was one of the lesser torments that I was forced to endure, and thus one of those that I will most easily be able to recount.
I was taken by my guards into a large room that had dark, grey stone floor and dark, grey stone walls. A single torch illuminated the room, which allowed me to see a set of shackles lying limp to my left and my right. I began to ask what was happening, but no sooner had the words left my mouth than did I feel my clothing ripped away from my body; clothing that would have disintegrated if even the faintest of rains had touched upon their threadbare surface. It is almost amusing to think of now, but I still had enough humility to attempt to hide my nakedness from the others, though I lacked the energy or will to fight as they slipped first my left hand and then my right into the shackles. After they had finished, the chains were tightened and my arms forced open. The guards left me without a word, and I bowed my head in shame. Why were they doing this to me?
My answer arrived not too long after the guards had gone.
There were three of them that entered. The first two were carrying objects, while the third simply stood by the door. One of them walked around behind me, and in my state of fear I chanced a glance up to see that it was a round, elderly woman with a bucket held in her hands. In confusion I looked to the fore and found a second woman, much younger and quite a bit thinner carrying a bucket as well. Both women wore crimson habits that made it difficult to distinguish when their bodies ended and the robes about them began. The third person, who remained beside the door, was surprisingly calm despite the strain the other two displayed. Unlike the others she wore a white dress, official in appearance, with a red flame embroidered upon the bodice. A chapeau rested atop tresses as red as the flames on her dress, while a kind although misleading smile rested on her full, red lips. My eyes drew to hers, searching for an answer as to why I was being kept in such a state of disgrace. I recall that her left eye was slightly darker than the right, causing one to appear hazel while the other was nearly green.
It was an odd thing to notice, I know, but it was the last thought I can recall with absolute clarity before my memory begins to leave me.
“Begin,” she said.
And so they did.
I must pause here once more to explain something to the reader. Of the many trials and tribulations that inductees of the Scarlet Crusade face, at my time of introduction to the Order there was nothing quite as gruesome as quarantine. I have found no other person capable of putting to words what happened to them in their quarantine, and even now as I try to find the words I feel myself attempting to write the ineffable. I do not mean to say that I wish to deprive you of knowledge of what happened to me, or even that I feel it is excusable and thus needs not be recorded, but my hand trembles the more that I attempt to recall and my breathing begins to become labored. I will attempt to remain on point, though, and relate what I do remember. Forgive me if my heart is not up to the task my mind has set for it, though.
It was actually the second strike that felt the worst. The first splash of water, scorching hot, was so sudden that I was sent into a momentary state of shock. The feeling instantly sent a wave of intensity roaring through my body, and I jerked instinctively against my chains which caused them to rattle. I believe I cried out in dismay, but no sooner had I begun to process what had happened before the second bucket was thrown forth, as cold as the glacial waters of Northrend, to address the front of my body. The water moved like a whip and as it lashed upon my nude body, it sent pangs of unbearable torture circulating through my consciousness. I know that I screamed on the second lash, and on the third as well.
The woman by the door continued to calmly watch as the two women set to “Cleansing” me. Steaming hot water, chilling water, boiling water, freezing water; the cycle seemed to be endless. I cried and begged for them to stop, but with each attempt I made to reach out to them – to grasp upon whatever humanity may have still been within their bodies, they simply chastised me for my weakness. They were purifying my soul, they said, they were stripping away the layers of Death that I had surely acquired when I was brought before them. I am certain that I was on the brink of entering a catatonic shock, when finally they stopped their alternating cold and hot splashes, and left me to weep and sink against my restraints. My skin, scoured by their diligent hands and cloths, was startlingly red by the time they finished.
It was as scarlet as the Crusade.
My hair was cut to a much shorter length, something that was done they said to keep me from exposing anyone to the pests and parasites that I had found in the Western Plaguelands. My nails were scrubbed clean; the skin of my feet practically peeled by the time they were finished. When finally all was said and done the two women left me sobbing upon my chains. The third woman continued to stand there. She continued to stare at me. I listened to the tapping of the water as it escaped my body, until finally there was no tapping at all.
“I can be your salvation,” the woman said. Although the first word that I truly heard from her was “begin”, these were the first words that she said to me. I looked up at her, my eyes no longer concealed by the girlish bangs I had taken such pride in as a child. I may have been nude, but I did not feel exposed until I saw the manner in which she looked at me. It was not a look of disgust, interest, lust, or hate. It was a look that one might give a book that they had not yet opened, but were told it was sure to be an interesting read once they did. It may have been the phantom of a simper that blossomed upon her lips, or the manner in which she tilted her head after she spoke, but I knew that she was intrigued by something about me. I simply did not know what that was.
“Or, I can be your demise.”
And that was the manner in which I met Inquisitor Corerin Cloutier, a woman that shaped my life in more ways than any other force I have ever encountered. Inquisitor Cloutier, whose comely face seemed woefully inappropriate for the malicious blood that circled about her veins; whose melodious voice was horribly unfit to relate the savage words that dripped from her mouth like venom might off a snake’s fang.
“You may ask me for one thing,” she said with her ever-present smile favoring her lovely voice. I was unsure if she felt badly for me because of what I had endured, or if she wished to reward me for the wonderful screaming I had allowed her to listen to. But when stated that I could have anything I wanted – anything that I could have possibly desired, I could only think of one thing.
“Food,” I said, all too readily.
The Inquisitor’s eyes flashed with something akin to disappointment, but she smiled in spite of whatever she may have thought. “I expected as much,” she remarked smartly and stepped backward and into the hallway. The door that she had previously positioned her body against closed firmly, and for a moment I had to wonder if she was simply testing me to see what I would have requested without having any intention of actually giving me it. I waited patiently or as patiently as I could wait (as truly, I had no choice in the matter), until she returned with a plate of meat, vegetables, and a roll. The smell alone was enough to make my stomach growl and saliva instantly came to my mouth. She sauntered close to me, and then stopped. Several feet away from me, she lowered herself and placed the plate on the ground, and then rose and walked back to the door.
“There is your food,” she said.
Did she really think that I was too proud to eat off the floor like a dog? I would have eaten a dog if she had brought me it! The moment that she stepped away I started forth, and just as I prepared to reach out for the plate, the chains on my arms restrained me and I was left leaning forward, incapable of acquiring that succulent meal that awaited my teeth and tongue. “I can’t reach it,” I pled with frustration and tears coating my voice.
“I know,” Inquisitor Cloutier said. She gave me a musical hum, and turned about to close the door.
You cannot imagine how torturous it was to be on the brink of starvation and unable to eat something that looked so delicious before me. I logically knew that the chains were far too restrictive for me to reach the food, but I would not be stopped simply by logic in my hungry state. I pulled against those shackles; I challenged them with all of my might and practically roared as I tried to free myself and get hold of that meal. The chains did not struggle in the slightest to keep me in check, nor did I make any progress. My wrists began to bleed as I tried to free my hands, but the shackles were too secure to free myself of. Left and right I swung, attempting in vain to slip away, and eventually I simply kicked my foot out only to fall harshly and bruise my backside. I scrambled, I charged, I pounced and I lunged. That plate of food remained just out of my grasp, and yet its alluring aroma continued to tease my senses; invite me to taste that which was out of reach. I cannot put into words how desperately I sought to seize that meal, and how relentlessly the chains held me back. At one point in the night, I dislocated my shoulder and was forced to scream in agony as I fell backward. No one came to my aid; no one came to investigate.
In many ways, I am sure that this was the worst of the tortures I was forced to endure.
Eventually I exhausted my energy and in my near maddened state slumped down and fell unconscious. It was not until the sound of the door opening alerted me that someone was approaching that I opened my eyes slightly and saw Inquisitor Cloutier standing over me once more. The light that the torch afforded me revealed that she was rather satisfied with her work, be it from the discoloration on my shoulder or the blood that stained my hands. She leaned forward and placed her hand to my cheek, a feeling that was cold and reprehensible as I think of it now. Had I the energy I would have bitten her, but I did not. Instead, I looked away from her. She leaned forward, the hand that had been on my cheek cupped about my ear as she whispered softly.
“You may ask me for one thing.”
I could have asked for her to kill herself, or for her to untie me so that I could eat, or perhaps even for her to let me go so I could return to my journey for Stratholme. I could have asked her for any number of things, but some level of childish dissidence that had been stored for far too long inside of me decided at that very moment to show its ugly head and as I looked up at her, with eyes narrowed into a serpentine glare, I said the only word that I could think of.
This time, disappointment was not what showed on her face. I suddenly realized she had been anticipating my answer, for she only gave me a smile in response. She nodded curtly and then turned about. I watched her leave and then looked back to the plate of food that she had not at all moved closer to free me of my hunger. Weakly I tried to reach out for it, but it was no use. For the entire day I was left to stare at that food until finally I fell back into unconsciousness.
Incidents such as this continued unabated. One day she entered with a tall glass of water. I opened my mouth eagerly to her and she poured it into my mouth, clearly knowing that I could live longer without food than water. I do not know if she did this to show me that she didn’t wish for me to die, or if she did so to make sure that I simply didn’t die from dehydration. In either event, that water was the only thing in my stomach, which had become quite uproarious whenever she entered the room. Whenever I asked for food, she would give me her fixed smile and leave once more.
On some days she would enter with a chair and a plate of food and sit leisurely before me. She said nothing to me, and instead ate in small portions, forcing me to watch each delicate chew that her frail jaw made. Once she even allowed a hound to lick her plate clean, and then with a merry smile left me to linger in my room.
My anger had begun to become all consuming and at the same time, I realized that there was something I was missing. If I could just escape the pains of the moment, surely I could find a way outside of the darkness that surrounded me. I had done it before, hadn’t I? There was no denying that I hated this woman with more passion than I had ever hated anyone in my life, but she was attempting to show me something that the hatred was incapable of seeing. My shoulder hurt so badly and yet I knew that if I focused on something – anything other than my hunger, I would find the path to my freedom. On the fourth day of my quarantine, Inquisitor Cloutier arrived as always and came to stand before me with her smile ever present.
“You may ask me for one thing,” she said.
There had to be something that I was forgetting: an answer that she was expecting that I simply didn’t know, or didn’t want to remember. If I guessed incorrectly she would leave again and I was certain to perish before the day had ended. My stomach was already turning upon itself, and my body lacked any excess fat to ensure that it didn’t simply devour my soul and end me. I wracked my brain in an attempt to think of that one elusive thing that was keeping me separate from the food I so desired; that one thing that she wanted to hear, for surely she was not simply doing this out of spite. I thought over what had transpired until that point, from the numbing pain in my shoulder to the bruised state of my body from my constant thrashing. I thought of every word she had said, and cast my eyes to the stone floor in an attempt to draw from that blank space an answer. What was I forgetting?
And then I knew. It was an epiphany the likes of which not even the Light could outshine. Languidly I drew my eyes up to her face, her the smile ever-present waiting for me to respond with my ire once more so that she could return to whatever it was she did when she left me to starve.
“Salvation,” I whispered, not from some enthrallment with the concept, but because I was too weak to speak any louder. Inquisitor Cloutier’s features brightened dramatically as she heard my statement, and she placed a hand to my shoulder. For a moment I thought she would bless me, but instead she suddenly shoved inward while her other hand held my arm steady. A loud popping filled my head followed by the white-hot pain of nerves being readjusted from their previous strain. I wept in both ecstasy and torture as that feeling washed over me, and let off a shaky sigh that came out in tufts as my sobbing masked the sound.
“Weep, dear Remington,” Inquisitor Cloutier said while gracefully lowering herself to pick up the plate of food that had tormented me so. “Weep with joy, for your salvation draws nigh.” She held out to me a single bite of food; the meat now dried and the vegetables having become soggy. Nevertheless, as I opened my mouth to her it was the most wonderful moment that I can recall to this day. I savored that morsel of food, and the one that followed it as well. She smirked as she fed me at her own methodical pace, and I greedily ate whatever she had to give me. When finally the plate was barren, she patted me on my cheek and left her hand in place to rub soothingly. “But tonight you must rest. For you have much to endure and even more to discover.”
At the time the comments meant nothing to me. So long as I had a stomach full of food it did not matter what they intended for me.
That childish optimism did not survive my quarantine; it did not survive my salvation.
I recall screaming. Trapped within that horrible, stone room I screamed as though it would make a difference to what happened to me. At times my voice trembled with unrelenting agony, while at others it was a dry pitch that was nearly as exhausted as my will to live. I do not think I ever said anything other than the occasional “please” or some other entreaty for those that kept me captive to release me, or end the suffering that they inflicted upon me. I had stopped thrashing against my chains some time ago and was left instead with little more than my voice to show what remained of my humanity. Not an inch of my body did not hurt; be it from blisters, cuts, scrapes, lashes, burns, or indignities that I will not recount, there was nothing to my person that did not ache; that did not beg for the end to arrive. In that room that smelled of stale blood and filth that I care not to recall, I know now that I screamed only because it reminded me that I was still alive – that within my battered body still existed something that had not yet been broken. My very lungs ached as though each breath I took was made of glass, and my stomach was knotted more tightly than rope. Each wave of pain felt like I was being pushed under water, and whenever I managed to resurface I was introduced only to the sight of Inquisitor Cloutier and her resplendent smile as she watched me as a mother might her child.
For all of the flaws and faults that I would like to pile upon her, Inquisitor Cloutier almost never actively took part in my quarantine. Well, perhaps I dress her role with a bit less importance than it deserves – she rarely participated in the deeds that were carried out, under her guidance and supervision, to ensure that I realized my salvation. She was always there, I cannot say she was too squeamish to watch her own work, but she hardly joined in the revelries that caused my cacophony of shrieks. No, she left most of the more gruesome tasks to the hands of her initiates and disciples, who set to me with their malcontent as a farmer might an errant patch of weeds. Had she even laughed, but once, I would have been able to revile her all the more, but in truth other than sit and watch what was carried out and on occasion ask me a question that hardly seemed appropriate for what was occurring, she did very little.
“What was life like on the Dalson Farmstead?” She would ask. To listen to the tone of her voice you would think she was in the middle of a lovely conversation with a new acquaintance. Even as pain shot through my mind and blood escaped me in small rivulets, her tone never wavered nor did she express any form of discomfiture. In fact, she would often draw to a silence as I screamed, sometimes for so long as ten minutes, before resuming her questioning with a certain twitch to the corner of her smile. “I forgive you for your rudeness” it seemed to say. The audacity that the woman that subjected me to these horrors – to these gruesome feats of depravity, would tell me that she forgave me! I was incensed within myself at first, I was enraged. But that anger gradually faded away and my sense of entitlement became as depleted as the stone about me. Before long I had come to cherish that forgiveness she offered. I had come to understand that with it was the promise of something more. I still screamed, but I no longer knew what for.
I cannot speak directly as to what happened to me, but I can explain its importance. Initially, I believed that everything that was occurred was for the express purpose of making sure that I did not carry any traces of the Scourge upon me. I was isolated because if I did carry the Plague, then to be kept with others would be to doom the entire town. I was kept chained to ensure that I did not lash out at my captors when they fed me. The pain that I endured was simply the best tool to show whether or not I would break and confess that I was an agent of the Lich King. In truth, there were several times that I considered “confession” if only to escape the sinister machinations of my captors. I believed that the worst that would happen to me if I confessed was a swift and painless death; something that I had desired for quite some time. Why did I need to suffer the horrendous pain, humiliation, and degradation that I felt at those moments of “redemption” if I could simply admit to something I had never done and be free of it all? Although some sliver of my mind told me that it was best to hold on; that the excruciating agony would eventually be forgotten, the greater part of my being told me that it was simply time to let go. The words of confession were practically on the tip of my tongue when Inquisitor Cloutier did something that I never would have expected.
She unchained me.
I do not know if you have ever experienced attempting to walk after being without the usage of your legs, but it not as simple a task as you may think. When my left arm felt, the painful feeling of recirculation hit me with enough force to cause me to gasp momentarily. It felt as though sand was shifting through my skin; that the thick fluid trapped in my arm was attempting to break free of my veins and burst free of my skin. Had I anymore tears left I would have wept, but once more I found myself without and could do little more than whimper as my other arm was lowered. I fell forward and would have surely landed on my face if not for the fact Inquisitor Cloutier caught me, effortlessly, and held me against her body. It was a hold that I found surprisingly comforting, something that told me of warmth I had long since forgotten. I was neither spiteful to the woman nor did I think to harm her as my arms weakly wrapped about her for support. No, I required her and she held me until I was capable of standing on my own. Was the pain over? Had the nightmare come to an end?
I felt the warmth of a blanket being rested about my shoulders by one of the disciples; the first time that I had been clothed in any way since I was stripped and chained in my room. With my newly freed arms still greatly overcompensating for their motion, I pulled the blanket tightly about myself and shivered against its damp warmth. The thought of falling to the ground and sleeping hit me suddenly, but just as I prepared to follow through with my plan I felt Inquisitor Cloutier’s thin hand upon the small of my back as she pushed me forward. “In your eyes just now, I saw something that told me you have not yet understood exactly why it is that you go through what you do, my dear.” I attempted to plead that I understood full well what was happening to me and why, but other than the fact my throat had become dry and my voice hoarse, Inquisitor Cloutier placed a single, slender finger to my lips and effectively silenced me. With care, she helped me take my first step, and then my second. Soon I was limping along beside her, with her two disciples walking closely behind us. Where I was being taken I did not know, but I was glad that the blanket hid my face for the time being. I had never felt more wretched in my life.
Surprisingly, the world outside of my room was not nearly as dark as the room itself. The hall was lined with torches that banished the darkness that would have been present, and several other rooms indicated that there were others who were also under interrogation. I had often thought that the screams of agony that echoed through my room were the traces of my exhausted spirit, but I now understood that like good neighbors, we shared each other’s agony. If one person was out of screams, why there was always a fresh set just down the hall waiting to be sent into the air. Our walk informed me of just how many others were also being introduced to similar torment as I was. I found myself hoping against hope that at least one of them was actually Scourge, so that he might be killed and his suffering brought to an end. Men, women, and children – the cries of agony knew no distinction save for their durations. With each step that we took I had to wonder if this was what the lamb being led to the slaughter felt like. Had my eyes betrayed my desire to confess and Inquisitor Cloutier, in a rare act of kindness, decided to simply act upon that glimpse of doubt? Was I soon to be no more?
I was told to stand on my own for a moment while Inquisitor Cloutier left to speak in a soft voice to her disciples. Once she finished her speech, they each gave her a respectful nod and turned about to complete the task assigned to them. Although I detested my tormentor, I felt alone and afraid when she was not at my side. There was a certain level of safety afforded to me by Inquisitor Cloutier’s wickedness – so long as she was close at hand I knew that the only pain that would befall me would be as a consequence of what she asked me and if I did not answer correctly. True, I had only experienced pain because of her question but the fault for that was not hers, but rather my own inability to properly respond to her inquisitions. The fault was mine for not being good enough to deserve her salvation. I trembled in those moments that she was away from me, holding the blanket tighter to myself and looking down when I heard anyone nearing. It was only after I once more felt her hand, small and frail, press to the small of my back that I knew I was once more under her protection. My trembling quieted into a shiver, and soon I was being led once more along the pathway.
Our journey came to its end at a courtyard. The courtyard itself was in no way remarkable; verdant grass lined the middle, while white stone pillars and columns addressed the area outside of it. There was a long walkway of similar white stone that stopped at a large set of doors, each of which was made of thick and finely polished wood. More important than the courtyard itself were the peculiarities that surrounded it. All along the sides of the enclosure were men and women with either tabards of the Scarlet Crusade, or frocks, gowns and robes with the insignia upon them. Each of them was focused on the center of the courtyard, upon which sat a contraption that initially seemed to be an ordinary chair. I had heard of people gathering to see a king sit in a chair, but never to simply stare at the chair itself. Had these people all gone mad?
“Watch carefully, my dear,” Inquisitor Cloutier said to me, softly. I followed her instructions and lifted my eyes once more to look past the throngs of people toward the chair once more. I will say now that it was not until after my stay with the Scarlet Crusade that I learned to overcome my naturally solitary nature. At this point in my life, though, the thought of all those people singularly focused upon one thing made me feel not only squeamish but also sickly. What would happen if I made a mistake and they all turned to look at me in my pathetic and wretched state? I feared I might vomit for a moment, but the soothing feeling of Inquisitor Cloutier’s hand rubbing my back managed, rather surprisingly, to steady my resolve. I could look more closely at that chair then, and I at once began to notice that things were not exactly as they seemed about it. That chair was perhaps one of the most perplexing things I had ever seen in my life.
Four legs, two arms, and a back. That is how we all imagine a chair to be, yes? Well, this chair in particular had all of those things. It was made out of what looked like thick, reliable wood, and had upon it the imprint of a scarlet flame, although the imprint was without color. More important than these minor qualities though, was the fact that spaced out evenly in rows and columns were a plethora of needles, pointing upward form the seat, outward from the back, and inward and upward from the arms. To be quite honest it was a chair that I personally never would like to sit upon, and I doubt anyone else would want to either. As I recognized these confusing additions to the chair, my attention was suddenly dragged away by the arrival of a young man who walked to the center of the courtyard. He wore the ceremonial uniform of a Crusader, and spoke with a voice that was surprisingly loud despite his size.
“Upon this glorious day, which has been kissed by the glory of the Light, do we now reveal the creatures that lurked within the shadows!” The power in the boy’s voice reminded me of a team of running stallions, and the reverberations of his cries, bouncing off of the walls, managed to shake me to my core. Those around the clearing stirred, although I am unsure as to what they were expecting. I know that I was completely at a loss. “A traitor has slept amongst us for far too long!”
“Traitor!” The crowd shouted with one mind. They spoke in a way that birds flew in formation, or fish swam in a school. I did not know where their focal point came from, but I knew that they all responded together.
The young man waited for the crowd’s fervor to die down before he continued. “If not for the impressive interrogation at the hands of Inquisitor Varloth, this vile beast would have surely been the end of us!” I could not help but shiver as I heard those words. Had that not been the man I was initially taken to, only to be turned away? After having survived what I had of my quarantine, I did not doubt he could have gotten me to confess as well. At that moment I was still considering confession if it meant freedom from that cell. I saw the Inquisitor standing amongst other highly ranked men, his lips thinly formed in a smile. “This reprehensible, detestable, contemptuous monster would have swallowed your children whole! This despicable, abhorrent, disgusting fiend would have gorged himself on our innocents and then returned to the frozen north to frolic with his demon-spawned lord!”
“Vile traitor! False brother! The Throne of Thorns for him! The Throne!”
Truly I had never before experienced such intensity! If not for Inquisitor Cloutier’s reassuring hand I surely would have turned and fled, but as she held me in place so did I remain steadily at her side. I was truly a beaten dog that desired nothing more than her mistress’ consoling hand. How pathetic I was, indeed.
“As the people have declared, so shall they receive! In accordance with Grand Inquisitor Isillien’s directive; all those who have been found guilty of treason against humanity are to meet the same fate! Of that, no exception shall be granted nor any mercy shown!” The words were spoken with a poetic touch that I to this day fail to recapture. The manner in which he worded “treason against humanity” at once called to mind the sad fate of Desmond Groves, and I for a moment allowed myself to remember what Captain Phillips’ touch had been like. In many ways, I rationalized; it was not very different from Inquisitor Cloutier’s. Although I was but a spectator to the play that was being put on before me, I felt unexpectedly involved in a way. I do not know if I was more interested in the crowd’s reaction or the fate of the supposed traitor, but I did know that I was completely enraptured with what was happening. It is a sad condition of humanity to find elation in the suffering of another if it alleviates your own.
“Bring forth Edward Dobbins, traitor to his people!”
The large doors creaked as they opened and two large and imposing men emerged from behind them. They clicked their heels together and then performed sharp pivots to turn so that they were facing one another. Each of them seemed like statues in their own rights, with physiques that were without fault and bearings that would have made the virtue of Lord Uther the Lightbringer seem crooked. Each held a voulge at his side which had its end slammed against the ground to announce that they were in position. Shortly after their emergence, two men in robes emerged from the hall behind them, dragging with them a person’s body. By the manner in which the man writhed there was no doubt that he was still alive, but the sounds that came out of his mouth hardly seemed human. It was not until he was completely dragged past me that I saw why his sounds were so guttural: blood flowed from his mouth, with the stump of his tongue flaying about madly. I had never before seen the man, but I felt a repulsive sense of relief that he was not someone that I did know. Could I really be glad that he was in a worse way that I was? One of his eyes was but a battered remnant of what could be considered a socket, while the other was red and bulged unnaturally. Each time that he spoke, a new gushing of blood fell down his naked chest and spread about as a flower might its petals in spring. The two men in robes continued to bring him to the “Throne of Thorns”, and lifted him to stand upright. That was when I saw why he had to be dragged at all.
He had no feet.
Oh, I do not mean to say that his feet were broken or shattered; or even that they were missing toes or something of the like. No, what I say to you is exactly what I witnessed: the man had no feet. The skin on his legs was burned and blackened, and there were fragments of bone where his ankle should have been, scorched and brittle. As the men stood him he fell instantly to his knees in what looked like obeisance, but whatever it was that he was trying to say could not be heard over the din of the crowd’s elated cries. I do not mean to be perverse here, but I have a feeling that the differences between the feelings of an orgy and a public execution can only be so small. The desire to do harm is as natural as the desire to experience sexual pleasure, and in that moment I saw that each and every one of the people in attendance derived some level of gratification from what was occurring. I do not know how I felt then – I know I am repulsed now, but then? It would be a lie to say that I felt so clearly. It is hard not to be swept up into the wave of arousal that permeates from a large crowd; no matter what they feel, your soul attempts to mimic it. It explains more than orgies; it explains violent mobs, drunken crowds, and elated fans. Mimicry is not the finest form of flattery; it is the best form of survival. The only thing that separated me from that group was the feeling of Inquisitor Cloutier’s hand on my body.
In any event, what occurred next was something that I have relived often in nightmares, and awakened from in a panicked sweat. Edward Dobbins, a blacksmith as I later learned, had been placed under suspicion by a fellow blacksmith who said he witnessed Dobbins speaking with the ghost of his dead wife. Not surprisingly after Dobbins died, that blacksmith received his shop and went on to become one of the more renowned smiths under the Scarlet Crusade’s banner. That being said, the before and after do little to explain the moment and so I will stop prancing about the subject and address it directly.
Dobbins the Blacksmith was lifted from his knees amidst his own protests and the cries of the mob. He was brought to his full height once more, held up by the two men in robes. They took a step to the side which he attempted to resist but it was too late. Without feet to fight with he was as helpless as I had been in the chains when my tormentors had taken their sick fantasies out on me. In a way, despite the fact that I felt something close to relief in not being the one to sit on that throne, it did not at all stop me from imagining myself in his place. There was something close to empathy in that moment as he looked out at the crowd, pleading for redemption and finding none. The robed men pushed him downward, and he let off a gurgling cry that silenced the masses.
The Throne of Thorns, as it was called, caught him readily in its embrace. As his body weighed more than the needles, he quickly sank against them, and as the robed men pushed him down his thrashing motions began to end; not because he wished to stop, but because the needles were so deeply embedded that he could not move. He was effectively snared by his own flesh; a gruesome fate that inevitably left him little more than a fish in the maw of net. Each move that he made sundered a bit of skin but did not dislodge those metallic needles from his body. In fact, it only further entangled him in the net, so to speak. I watched, wide-eyed, as he tries his best to free himself just as I had from the chains. I watched, wide-eyed, as suddenly a fountain of blood escaped his mouth as the result of his lungs being punctured by the needles that continued to sink into him. I watched, wide-eyed as his gurgling cries began to fill with urgency as his lungs continued to fill with blood, vitae which spilled from his nose and mouth without relent. I watched, wide-eyed, as he lurched forward once, and then slumped with his elastic flesh pulled outward upon the barbed needles.
I watched, wide-eyed, as he died.
The crowd roared their approval as the man was pulled free of his seat and the previously blank “flame” on the chair had been colored red in his blood. Eventually they began to fade away little by little until only those assigned to clean up the mess were left behind. The young man with the booming voice was gone; the magnificent guards were gone; the cheering was gone. All that remained was Inquisitor Cloutier, myself, and a few lesser people. I wanted to ask to leave, but the words would not manifest on my tongue. I wanted to look away, but I knew that I was supposed to watch. Only after the Sun had begun to descend behind the raised walls did Inquisitor Cloutier pat my back slightly and guide me to turn about. When I glanced to her, the same smile that she always carried was still painted lovingly on her face. We had just watched a man die and it didn’t seem to bother her at all. What bothered me even more than that, though, was that it didn’t bother me either. What was happening to me?
The walk back to my room was one that I both dreaded and desired. I dreaded being invited back into the chorus of pained cries that were sure to be waiting for me, but I was thankful to be away from other people. Would they shackle me up again and do with me as they pleased? Would they beat me into an inch of my life and make me beg for them to continue? I did not know. When I returned to my room I was surprised to find that my shackles were no longer there. Instead, a small beaten mattress was placed in one corner, with a chamber pot in the other. In the center of the floor, a single book was placed. I was unsure of what to make of the changes, and so I turned without understanding to Inquisitor Cloutier.
“Your salvation draws closer, my dear, but has not yet arrived,” the woman said with a sorrowful gaiety to her voice. “Remember that it is darkest at night before it is light.”
That statement sent a surprisingly acute chill up my spine. I did not know I still had the ability to be afraid. Nevertheless, I walked cautiously forward and came to stand over the book. I gave Inquisitor Cloutier a glance, and when she gave me an encouraging nod, I fell to my knees and reached out cautiously to see what it could have been. The only books I had read at that time were mostly fairy tales given to me by my mother, or on one occasion a book of hers that I was far too young to understand at the time. This book, though, was more of a journal than anything similar to those things I had read in the past. The writing was difficult to discern, but I tried with my best efforts not to give up on it. Clearly whatever was on the cover was something of importance to my salvation.
“On Edward Dobbins, the False Confessor by Inquisitor A. Varloth”
That title alone had been enough to make me feel as though I had been doused in cold water. The reasoning behind why I had been taken to the execution now all made complete sense. In disbelief I looked up to Inquisitor Cloutier. Silence existed between us save for those woeful wails that came out of the rooms beside my own. Those terrible groans that accented my every breath and thought! The inquisitor closed the distance between us with graceful steps and leaned over me to whisper a single statement:
“Damnation, be it genuine or forced, is never the appropriate course to take, my dear. You are ever so close to your salvation,” her voice softened as she caressed my cheek. “Do not lose sight of our goal.”
Our goal. My salvation. I nodded my head and watched the woman leave my room once more. The phantom of her smiling visage still loomed before my face, but I managed to quiet the fear that was roaming through my body at that moment. With my blanket still wound about my body, I dragged myself over to the mat with the book still in hand. The world around me suddenly seemed so cold and empty. I was no longer shackled; I was no longer kept in the dark. My body still ached, but my soul felt something that it had not for quite some time; something that surged forth and caused my pains to become muted if only for a second.
I felt hope.
I did not read the book that night. Instead, I set it aside and leaned my head against the cold stone as I listened to the sounds of the others. I listened to their wailing, their sobbing, and their pleading. These people, as broken as they were, were my family in some way. We were all joined by the same level of pain and torment that separated us from the people that had been cheering at Edward Dobbins’ death, and I knew that each and every one of those people that suffered with me were on the brink of confessing just as Edward Dobbins did; just as I had been seconds away from doing. With one hand placed against the slab of wall before me, I murmured softly each time that I heard their cries until I had broken into something of a mantra.
“Salvation is almost here; don’t lose hope.”
“Salvation is almost here; we can make it.”
I could continue to explain, in an indirect manner, the various tortures, horrors, and humiliations that I was subjected to. I could continue to explain, in a more direct manner, the things that I considered doing, or saying, in order to survive the strenuous pressure placed upon both my body and my mind. I could continue to explain, directly, how it was that I turned from despising Inquisitor Cloutier’s every word, to nurturing from her presence as an infant might her mother. But in the end all that truly matters is that one day I awakened to the unfamiliar sensation of light on my face and found before me the door to my chambers open. In the center of the stream of light afforded to me, a neatly folded set of clothing awaited me.
I did not know what to do initially; captivated, I sat staring at the clothing. Was it another ploy by Inquisitor Cloutier to test my resolve, or had I finally earned my salvation? With the caution of a mouse searching out food, I placed my hands upon the cold floor and rolled off of my matted bedroll. Carefully, I crawled toward the foreign articles and hunched over them in uncertainty. It had been so long since I had been afforded clothing –so long since I was given the illusion of being a human being. The feelings awakened within me as I lowered my abused hand to the fabric before me caused tears to come to my eyes. In the stream of light afforded by the opened door, I could see that my knuckles had been thoroughly battered and my hand lacerated several times over. My fingers flexed with trepidation, trembling slightly as I pulled the first article of clothing up toward my face. It was a shirt, red and made of linen. I felt its scratchy surface against my face as I rubbed it in place, and luxuriated in the concept that I would no longer be shamefully revealed. Each piece of article was stained in my tears before I placed them on. Each article of clothing was worshipped as a gift from the Light. I had placed on the undergarments, red britches, red shirt, belt, and boots by the time that I came to the final piece of clothing. This piece was far more intriguing than any of the others I had placed on in my hurry to hide my nakedness. This piece was something that I would never have expected or believed myself worthy of.
This piece was a white tabard with the flame of the Scarlet Crusade displayed upon its center.
I had been weeping silently before I saw the tabard, but as I held it up to myself I could not resist the urge to cry. I cried for my mother’s touch, which I would never know again; I cried for missing the smell of my father’s pipe; I cried because I did not know where Bryson was, or if he was still alive; I cried for the lack of Uncle Harold’s conspiritous grins when he stole Aunt Dalson’s pies; I cried for never seeing my brother Seamus’ first step; I cried for Captain Phillips, who could have escaped with his life but instead surrendered it to me; I cried for the men and women that struggled so far only to perish at the Gahrron Farmstead; I cried for the horse that had been killed on that night; I cried for Captain Phillips’ old nag that could not make it across the bridge; I cried for those unfortunate souls that were in the chambers beside mine, still wailing and crying for salvation; I cried for the sake of humanity if it was to face the trials that I had.
But the one thing that I did not cry for was myself. I managed to look past the torture; the pain; the degradation. I managed to look past the forlorn aspects of my life and the darkness that I had been placed within. I managed to look past everything that had been done to me, because as I placed that tabard upon my body I was no longer the person that it had been done to.
I had attained salvation. I was redeemed.
I would like to think that I left that chamber with a regal bearing and a positive stride, but I know that I did not. I was still far too weak, physically, to be able to move more than a few steps at a time and I was so unused to walking that I did not know what it meant to be regal. With the aid of the walls about me I managed to my way through the illuminated halls of the quarantine ward. I did not find a waiting group of people to welcome me into the fold, nor did I ever see Inquisitor Cloutier again. I suppose that when one’s life is dedicated to the redemption of others, once they have achieved it there is no longer a reason to exist within the redeemed one’s world. I sometimes wonder if Inquisitor Cloutier was a real person at all, or simply my mind’s attempt at explaining the horrors of what happened to me. I never had the courage to ask another about her existence and we simply did not talk about our quarantines with one another. It was not proper; it was not necessary. Although we may not have all shared in the same tortures, we all left with the same understanding of self. We had left the darker aspects of our beings behind and emerged as virgin babes.
I had wandered aimlessly for less than thirty yards when I came across a young man speaking with a young with auburn hair and an impressively forceful voice despite her size. I had hardly begun to approach the two when the woman looked away from the man and to me; I instantly felt as though I would be torn asunder by the agitation resident to her leering glance. I thought to retreat a step and turn around, but just as the sensation appeared to me, the man she was speaking with turned and gave me a wonderfully charismatic smile. “Remington!” The man called with enough force to shake some sense into me. I was forced to squint my eyes before I realized that the gentleman was none other than Sir Simon the Lesser, former apprentice of Sir Cedric the Lightstone. Sir Cedric the Lightstone had fallen in battle two weeks prior to my release from quarantine, and Simon seemed to have aged a decade from when I last saw him. Much of the innocence that had once been resident to his face had been stripped away and in its place something akin to the child of dread and pragmatism had taken place. It manifest in the worry lines about his face, as well as the small red lines within his eyes.
“Simon,” I finally managed to say with consternation resident to my voice. My mouth suddenly went dry and my hands began to tremble uncontrollably. Suddenly my chamber did not seem so bad: I knew what I was to do in it. How was I supposed to address Simon, a paladin and more than likely my superior in every way imaginable? How was I supposed to present myself to others? The area around me was so vast and bright, and I felt so pitiful and small. Where were Inquisitor Cloutier and her disciples? I did not wish to be free any longer: I did not wish to be in the light. I feared I would vomit when the abrupt feeling of Simon’s hands on my shoulders managed to rouse me from my momentary catatonia. He drew me into a hug, the first hug I had had since leaving the Dalson Farmstead, and held me steadily in his arms. It was a hug that only a brother could give his sister, and in that moment as I felt his arms encircle me with warmth that managed to mute the pain I felt or the horrors I knew, I realized that we were siblings. We had both been born again through the Light, and we were as connected as Bryson and I had been. My arms lifted shakily and I returned the hug; I surrendered myself to the feeling of security that Simon’s body gave me; to the security that the Light afforded me.
The sound of a woman clearing her throat drew me from my fleeting reverie. “So this is the girl that you were referring to. Bryson’s sister,” the auburn haired woman said in a voice most unimpressed. At hearing my brother’s name my heart beat in a manner that was far too intense to quantify, but it is safe to say that I would have fainted if not for the feeling of Simon’s hands on my shoulders. I was turned by Simon’s effort to face the woman, and instinctively bowed my head and lowered my eyes. It was a gesture I had learned to do when my grandfather introduced me to one of his friends, and although I did not complete the motion with a curtsey it was there in heart if not action. These gestures of mine must have pleased the woman; the irritation evaporated from her voice and was replaced within a mild sense of interest. “If you are even a third as skilled as he was on the battlefield, then I suppose you would be worth the resources we’ve expended in your quarantine.”
Despite the fact that I am certain that somewhere between the condescending drawl with which the woman adapted whenever she spoke to me there existed an insult, my mind instantly seized upon the fact that she spoke of my brother in the past tense. I did not break down and cry as I feared I might have; in fact, in knowing that my brother was dead I was released from the uncertainty of having to face him on the battlefield one day. It is odd to think of now, but “relief” is the best way to express myself in that moment. I was not happy nor was I contented; I was simply freed of the burden of worry.
“With talk like that one would assume Bryson was dead,” Simon said with something close to a chuckle on his voice. He must have felt me stiffen slightly when she spoke, because his hands closed tightly upon my shoulders and offered a consoling rub. I relaxed visibly; he continued. “Remington, this is General Brigitte Abbendis, daughter to High General Abbendis the Elder.”
Paladins and generals! It was a lot to take in after spending a month in near isolation and yet as I chanced a glance toward General Abbendis’ face, I did not see anything worth being afraid of. She was an intense woman; she was a passionate woman; she was a woman that was everything the world required of her to be. I did not require any further instruction to know what to do. With a reverence that seemed manifest some humility planted into me by my stay in captivity, I fell to my knees before the general and prostrated myself respectfully. My hands trembled, my voice was small, but I spoke with a clear tone that denied the apprehension I felt:
“Thank you, General Abbendis, for rescuing me from the darkness that surrounded me. I did not know how lost I was until I was found; I did not realize how cold I was until I was warm. The Scarlet Crusade’s passion is something that I feel coursing through my veins. Until I am no more, I will serve your cause – our cause – with every fiber of my being. “
I was met with silence after my speech, a silence that terrified me like none other. I do not know what had motivated me to make that speech, but I knew at once that I wished I had not. All of my life I had been quiet and out of the way; my survival had been based upon not being the center of attention. Now I was kneeling before one of the Scarlet Crusade’s most venerated commanders and had not an eave to hide behind or shadow to conceal myself in. I could hardly breathe as I waited to hear something, anything that would tell me I had not made a larger fool of myself than I already was.
“You speak with poetry,” General Abbendis said as she lowered her hand to rest upon the top of my head. Her hand, which was by no means large or imposing, had within it enough power to end my life without so much as a second thought. It should have been a harrowing experience to feel her fingers against me at that moment, but it was not. I was soothed; relaxed into a state of pacification. “Be your convictions true or not, that will be a very utile trait in times to come.” She removed her hand from my hair and I looked up almost as though pleading to feel her touch once more. After the cruelty that I had experienced, you can imagine any comforting touch – any consoling word, would have earned my undying loyalty. It was a brilliant tactic of the Scarlet Crusade and one that both causes me to feel both jubilant and agitated.
My emotions were so genuine to me at the time, but they had been crafted by the actions of another’s painstakingly sinister machinations. That, sadly, would be the ultimate lesson I learned from the Scarlet Crusade.
“I had initially intended to send you and the other survivors of the quarantine to assist Sir Eldanesh at the base camp in preparation for our attack on Corin’s Crossing, but since you are Bryson Dalson’s sister and a friend of Sir Simon, I suppose it would be short-sighted of me to send you heedlessly into such a precarious position.” I did not understand at the time that she was unsure whether or not Sir Eldanesh’ corps would be capable of completing its task, but I also was more concerned with what would happen to me specifically. “I take it that you are capable of reading and writing?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster. “My mother strictly enforced the importance of literacy upon me.”
“Good,” she said. “Simon, come with me. We still have much to speak of in regard to how Corin’s Crossing will be cleansed of the rancid filth that currently infests it.” After she finished speaking she turned on her heel; a sharp, militaristic gesture that showed the general was not at all a slouch when it came to her own training. I could not imagine that any aspect of her person was out of protocol with her. Her hair was masterfully kept; her physique was without any unnecessary poundage; her features were clean and orderly. If I could be like anyone in the world, it would have been General Abbendis. “Private Dalson, report to Commander Marjhan until I have effectively found a place for you to serve.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I responded and rose to my feet. Simon’s comforting smile caused me to blush, but I did not falter as I feared I might have in the past. No, fear and consternation were aspects of the person that little Remy Dalson was known to have. But now I was Private Remington Dalson, and that meant that I had the support of the Scarlet Crusade backing me. That meant that I was more than just a lost child in a violent storm. As the two of them walked away and continued to speak of plans that I was far too insignificant to be privy to, I was suddenly filled with a sense of purpose.
It was with that sense of purpose that I made may way out of the cathedral. Not weeping, not limping – but striding. There are times in life when we walk simply because we know where we are going, even without knowing where we are going, and that this was one of those times. I did not falter nor did I hesitate as I made my way through Tyr’s Hand with the confidence of the Light guiding my every step.
It was with that sense of purpose that I came to stand before Scarlet Commander Marjhan, a woman who I would later come to revile with every aspect of my being. Scarlet Commander Marjhan; she who taught me what it meant to be a woman of the Scarlet Crusade.