In the absence of a D&D summery this week, please enjoy this short story I wrote, inspired by the world of Greyhawk!
My brother is clamoring for it to continue to a better resolution…What do you think?
Marcius woke, shivering the whole length of his body. The back of his tattered tunic stuck to the stone wall, and his legs and arms had long passed the point where he noticed their throbbing.
By all rights, he should have been surprised at being able to sleep at all…but he couldn’t ignore the pressure of sheer exhaustion.
The clanks of armor and the flap of feet snapped his attention back to what had woken him.
Marcius peered through the bars of the cell, fighting the surge of panic that shot up through his heart.
He recognized the figure that led the small party — though Gorm, as he called himself, shared the ruddy skin and dark robes of a human cleric, the fangs sticking up from his lower jaw betrayed his orc parentage.
The green-skinned grunts behind him were dragging another prisoner — human, and dressed in something brown, though that’s all that Marcius could see underneath the mud and dried blood.
The orcs in chainmail dragged their prisoner to the wall opposite Marcius and began shackling him in the same way – locking his wrists in manacles just above the head…at just the right angle to prevent him from hanging his body in a comfortable resting position.
Gorm, the so-called cleric, approached Marcius.
At his smug smile and squint, Marcius felt the bile rise in his mouth.
“Good morning, holy warrior,” Gorm croaked past his fangs, giving a smile that revealed all their jagged glory.
Marcius tried to lick the roof of his mouth, and failed.
“I could tell you that Pelor has brought the sun back to the skies outside,” said Gorm. “And that in the peaceful lands of your home, the green fields wave back a welcome to the light.”
Marcius said nothing. There was no answer.
He knew as well as Gorm did that he was not out there, raising his sword against the invading hordes to protect his master and his people.
No, he was here, buried deep in a dungeon where the only light were the torches of his enemies…or their sickly green orbs placed at the foot of the stairs.
“You must long for it,” said Gorm, with another smile. “The holy warrior misses his brothers-in-arms – misses his polished armor and his sharpened sword. Perhaps we should have let you watch as we melted it down.”
Melting Marcius’ blade would negate the enchantment on it. It was just the sort of thing they’d do, though, as Quintus had been outspoken about his loathing for foul humanoids.
Thinking about it would do no good…but at the memory of his enthusiastic sentient sword, Marcius choked.
The two foot-soldiers, finished with their work, glanced at Gorm. At a nod from him, they passed through the cell-gate to head for the stairs.
“Have you spoken with your god, holy warrior?” asked Gorm. “Surely his light could do something for you here. Surely he would send aid to you…if he knew you were here, of course. The mighty master of light is strong enough to reach these halls, is he not?”
When Marcius didn’t answer, Gorm reached into his cloak.
“No,” he said. “Surely he would not abandon his child like this – would he, paladin?”
With the final sneer, he pulled something out of his cloak and shoved it into Marcius’ face.
It was a mask – worked to resemble a bear, or a wolf — it was impossible to tell which, exactly.
A red teardrop painted on the forehead was almost obscured by the crusty stains of real blood.
Marcius screamed, lunging to the side. The chains snapped metallically, bringing him to a halt; the manacles bit into his wrists and the fleshy base of his thumb.
The sores in those places broke open – warm blood trickled down his arms in well-worn patterns.
But he noticed none of that. Darkness clouded his vision, as the cleric’s taunting laugh echoed in his ears.
Pelor should hear him. Pelor was his Master, the Lord of Light. Pelor was the name he carried when he defended the widows of homesteads, and the orphans of besieged towns.
Yet here he was.
Marcius slumped, hanging in the chains. They were placed so high that he couldn’t kneel on the ground…either his swollen and aching legs must support him, or his shredded arms and wrists would.
How long had this gone on? How many days had this fiend with the shape of a man, who worshiped an obscene and vile god, come down here to taunt him?
How often had he been forced to face that thing – that symbol of all that was twisted and murderous in this castle?
That reminder – in physical form – that he had failed…that the patrol had been slaughtered…that he, Marcius Farin, had been dragged from his company and his duty, and locked up here…perhaps to die, perhaps worse –
Worse? To renounce his oath. He was no ignorant blade-for-hire…He served a higher authority, and dedicated himself to the cause of his master.
From his sword to his speech to the manner in which he passed his free time, everything was a reflection of that greater light – the great Pelor, whose sun shone on the just and the unjust, and whose will was the protection of the helpless and oppressed.
And now…where had that brought him?
Marcius realized he was sobbing. A fiery pain stabbed through his limbs, raising them above the constant ache that racked his whole body – and making them worthy of his mind’s notice.
But there was nothing he could do. He could no more protect the innocent than he could keep himself alive. No more than he could make the sun rise.
He was nothing.
Gorm laughed again — for as human as his face was, his voice sounded like a pig fused in an unholy union with a bear.
“We’ll talk again tomorrow, holy warrior,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll find something more to talk about. You must tell me all about the wonders of Pelor, and how he takes care of his faithful servants.”
Gorm turned and strutted out – locking the cell with the keys at his belt before climbing the stairs.
In the sickly green light of the orbs by the staircase, Marcius huddled against the wall at his back.
Sweat coated his face and ran into his eyes. With a shaking arm, he drew his hand far enough over to wipe the hair out of his eyes.
Across the way, the new prisoner was watching him. He twisted his hands in the manacles, as though testing their tightness…but Marcius knew there was no way to slip out of them.
How often had he tried? Even with shredded skin and blood-slicked arms, the metal was sized just right to keep his bones pinned.
How often…? How often had this happened? How long had he spent in this hell-hole?
And could Hell itself possibly be any worse?
A part of him rebelled at that thought. Ever since he was a child in his father’s house, he had trained his body and disciplined his mind for service to Pelor…and, by extension, as a symbol of Good and comfort to all innocent people who depended on him.
And that had brought him – what?
Was this, then, to be his end? This dim, stinking dungeon would be his grave?
Or would one day…one black-as-night morning…would his resolve break? Would the torture of his body and mind become too much, and would his mouth speak words that he himself would never dream of?
At the horror of that thought, Marcius sank into a revery that eventually led him to sleep…or rather, the shifting consciousness that served him as sleep in that place.
Once or twice, he started awake, straining his ears for an unfamiliar sound…
A soft crunching – like the chewing of flesh and bone…accompanied by stifled gasps of pain.
But his blurred eyes could see nothing in the dimness – and even if there were undead in the shadows beyond the cell, preying on some helpless victim, it wasn’t like he could do anything to help them.
Finally, he heard the familiar alarm of morning – the thump of the cleric’s boots, and the jingle of his chainmail and keys.
Gorm reappeared – this time alone – and placed a torch in a bracket along the wall before unlocking the cell door.
Marcius already felt the tears coursing down his face. His heart pounded. He had no more blood to bleed, no more strength to stand –
“Morning has dawned yet again,” said Gorm, with another of his hateful smiles. “Or do I need to tell you that, holy warrior? A devoted acolyte of the sun-god surely knows when the sun rises and sets. Who am I to tell you differently, my righteous friend?”
Marcius could think of nothing to say. Instead, he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his cheek against the wall, steeling himself.
“I hope you have enough light to see, you little human weakling, you,” said Gorm. “I have something to show you. Open up and look, now. I think you’ll find it very interesting–”
Something clanked and gurgled.
Surprise overpowered Marcius, and he instinctively looked.
First, he noticed Gorm’s starting eyes and pale complexion.
Next, he noticed the other prisoner, pinning a metal bar from the prison floor against the cleric’s neck with his elbows – and hauling back for all he was worth.
A moment later, the prisoner raised his knee to Gorm’s back, and convulsed backward with a jerk.
Gorm gave an explosive cough, and crumpled to the ground, a little trickle of blood darkening his mouth.
The stranger exhaled, and straightened up, letting the bar drop.
As he straightened his arms, Marcius saw that his hands were entirely red. Now that they were closer together, he could see the pulpy stubs were both his thumbs had been.
From the blood around his mouth, the stranger had chewed them off.
Marcius felt oddly sick – but as he hadn’t eaten anything in several days, nothing happened.
“Oy,” said the stranger, and stepped forward, holding out his hands. “Do me a solid, man?”
Marcius continued to stare.
“Snap out of it, greater-goody,” said the prisoner. “You’re a paladin of Pelor, right? Can’t be all bad, right? So lay it on me before we blow this.”
After all this time…how long had it been, again?…surely the power of Pelor had left him.
Surely, in this vile place –
Marcius reached out — he couldn’t lower his hands below his head, so the stranger stepped forward and raised his arms. Marcius cradled the strangers’ hands in his own, closed his eyes, and started mouthing a prayer.
If Pelor heard him…if Pelor regarded him…then surely it was Pelor’s will that he help someone else…
At the long sigh of relief, Marcius opened his eyes.
The stranger examined his hands, turning them over as he opened and shut his new fists – complete with new thumbs.
“Feels good enough to function,” he said. “Now—”
He bent over Gorm, and within seconds was unlocking Marcius’ manacles with the keys.
As soon as his arms were free, Marcius sank to the ground. At the sudden relief, every nerve in his body seemed to fire, and every tense muscle collapsed.
The stranger busied himself rooting through Gorm’s body.
Yes, the cleric that had tormented him for time without measure was well and truly dead. And so easily. It made him wonder– But he was too tired to wonder. Besides, there was no time for it.
Marcius forced himself to crawl forward and join the hunt.
While his new companion stripped off the chainmail and pulled it on, Marcius detached the cleric’s small hammer — Gorm’s main weapon, a mace, was hanging from a loop on his other side.
Good thing he’d done some practicing with maces. They couldn’t compare to his old sword, of course, but at least he’d have an idea what he was doing.
He looked up at the stranger.
His new companion was standing again, and muttering something.
“Well, been worse,” he said at last, and looked down at Marcius. “Can you stand, paladin?” He held out a hand.
Marcius honestly didn’t think he could…but he said nothing. Instead, he took the offered arm and scrambled upright – letting the stranger pull him to his feet.
“Marcius Farin,” he panted. “Do you have a name, my generous friend?”
“Generous is new,” said the stranger. “Call me Benj.”
He picked up his length of metal and hefted it a moment. “Nope. I’ll trouble you for the hammer. Hope we meet some grunts soon. I don’t do much with blunt trauma. Needlessly delays things, if you ask me.”
Dark spots washed before Marcius’ eyes. “You realize we have no real chance –” he began.
“Stuff it, city boy,” said Benj. “Is that any talk for a paladin of Pelor?”
He headed for the door of the cell.
Marcius said nothing and followed.
Benj took the torch from the bracket and held it in his off-hand. He glanced up the stairs, then along the wall that led farther into the dungeon.
When he looked back at Marcius, he smiled. “Guess you can’t do another number on yourself, eh?”
Marcius shook his head.
“Ever been down that way?” He pointed into the darkness. “Is there another stair you could find for us?”
“Sorry,” said Marcius.
Benj glanced up the stairway again. “Known impossibility,” he grunted, and turned toward the darkness, “Or unknown possibilities.”
He shrugged. “Come on, man. We’ll stick together, that’s all.”
He headed off along the wall.
Who knew what they would find over there? On the other hand, could it be more threatening than the full guardhouse at the top of the prison stairs?
Marcius followed close behind.
Kimia Wood lives somewhere in the American Midwest, bracing for the collapse of society by knitting, baking, writing…and other excuses for not gardening.
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