Arwenna closed her gray eyes against the death blow she knew was coming. A cool breeze brushed against her cheek as the blade drove down into her spine. Pain flared through her briefly before her soul was set free. She had a vision of her body crumpling to the ground in front of her companions, and then she felt the pull towards the paradise she believed was waiting for those who led their life honorably. A faint smile of expectation crossed her lips.
The smell of acrid, sulfurous smoke assaulted her nostrils. A dull ache crept into her consciousness as rocks ground their way into her hands and knees. Raising her head in disbelief, she took in the bleak landscape. This is no paradise; this is a hell,she thought. Broken rocks rose up in craggy spires from the parched ground. The perpetual haze of a never-rising sun bathed the cracked earth in an eerie red glow. Stone monuments seemed strewn at random, each bearing the mark of a different deity. Arwenna’s mind reeled as her eyes focused on the tortured figures left hanging from these roughly-hewn altars.
Hands grabbed at her ebony hair, jerking her head up and back. The face in front of her made her eyes bulge in terror. Hooked teeth protruded from the mouth like tusks, curving up towards where a nose should be. Her gray eyes met red ones, the hatred clearly visible.
“You think Silas cares for you, a simple woman?” the creature sneered. “He has deserted you, given you over to us. We will crush your will,
, and bring our master
forth to rule this world as was meant to be!” A whip was brought down hard
against her back. Her knees gave way, the pale flesh rendered open by the sharp
rocks she landed on. Her screams of pain were soon drowned out by laughter.
Arwenna’s mind searched for a memory, any memory, that she could cling to.
Anything to ward off the agony:
The forest gave way to brushland and open fields. The sky was getting darker; it would rain soon. The wind came in from the south, bringing with it the smells of Tanisal and the ocean. Arwenna and her companions crouched behind the brush. They hadn’t expected to find a small army when they set out to find aid. Barek, Senyan and Mialee were somewhere inside the city. Now, they would need to circumvent the army. She glanced to Y’Dürkie and Rhiannon, both ready to attack or defend as necessary.
The scream of an eagle pierced the air. Even the soldiers, barely yards from them, looked up as something fell from the sky. The broken body of her cousin, Lexi, landed close to where Arwenna was concealed. The giant eagle on which she had flown followed, the ground shaking slightly with the impact. Arwenna’s face contorted in rage and grief as she saw Lexi’s body lying so still. She wanted to run to her, they all did, but dared not give up their location.
There was a rustling behind them. Arwenna looked to each side and saw naked steel pointed at the throats of her and her companions. She had fought with them for too long to risk their deaths. Silently, she gave up her weapon and motioned for the others to do the same. There was a time and place to fight, but this was not it.
Strong hands jerked them to their feet and bound their hands. The men wore the livery of the Paladins of Silas. Arwenna recognized it as the militant arm of the church she belonged to.
“What cause do you have to arrest us?” she asked them quietly.
One of them, a youth barely old enough to shave, looked at her briefly. His face openly displayed his dislike for what he had to do. He spoke apologetically. “It’s orders, Holy One. We were told to seek you out and bring you before the Justicar in town.”
Carts were brought, like rolling jail cells. They were separated quickly. Lexi’s body was thrown onto the back of a horse and her once splendid eagle left on the ground for the vultures. Arwenna looked to the sky, offering up silent prayers for her cousin. There was no answer to her prayers as rain started dripping, mixing with her tears as she curled up into a ball.
The feel of stone scraping across her feet brought her back to consciousness as she was dragged across the rocky landscape. Shattered ruins of stone lay everywhere on the cracked ground. When they finally stopped, she was roughly pulled upright and bound by thick rope to one of the stone altars. A fire was burning nearby. Figures darted about, partially obscured by the smoky flames. They stoked the fire repeatedly, building it until it reached into the perpetual twilight. It did nothing to lessen the cold piercing her skin. The smoke cleared for a moment, and then Arwenna saw nails being tempered in the fire. A plaintive cry escaped her throat as desperation fueled her struggle against the ropes that held her. The creatures laughed at her efforts, stirring the coals even hotter. Another creature joined them, so massive that he blotted out all manner of light. He carried a hammer the size of her head. Biting her lip against what she knew was coming, she redoubled her efforts to free herself when she saw a white hot nail pulled from the fire. A soulful scream escaped her mouth as the first nail drove through her hand and into the stone. She searched her mind for another place, another memory, in which she could escape.
She was back in that cell. Chains snaked from her wrists to the wall. A small beam of light penetrated the darkness of the dungeon, offering a glimmer of hope against the sounds of tortured souls. She had been placed here after her arrest. This was where she would await her trial. She turned her thoughts inward to gain the insight she would need to fight the battle ahead of her.
Footsteps approached, and she heard the sound of keys being searched through. She did nothing but raise her head as the door to her cell creaked open. It took a while for her to focus; it was the Paladin leader, and her eyes widened briefly as she recognized his face.
She watched him closely as he dismissed the guard and set the torch into a sconce on the wall. This man was only interested in what he wanted to hear. There was always something dark and cold about him.
“Are you ready to speak the truth now, or are you still determined to lie?” he said in a demanding voice. “I know not how you are able to still lie given the magic we have placed on you. It’s demon magic, I’m certain.” He knelt before her and stared into her eyes. “You don’t have to die here. One word from me and you would be free of those chains.”
“And what word would that be, Brother? One that would lead me down a path of darkness? I know in my heart I have done nothing wrong. Those who speak lies are the ones who bring darkness, not me,” She said, mustering all her defiance. “I do not fear death. Silas will take me in. And His justice will be visited on you.”
He straightened himself and jerked Arwenna to her feet, making her wince as he held her arm tightly. He smiled coldly.
“Silas? He has deserted you and taken your magic from you. You are nothing but a mere shadow.” He ran a cold finger down her cheek, making her shudder. “Renounce your companions and submit to me and you will live.”
Something deep in Arwenna began to stir, some long-forgotten truth from which she drew strength. She looked at him, seeing the hunger, and stepping back until she touched the wall, spat in his face.
“I will never submit to you. I would rather die and answer to Silas before I ever allow you to touch me!”
Roaring in anger, the Paladin strode towards her and grabbed her by the back of her head, forcing her to look at him. “I will break you, in life or in death. And it will be sweet indeed.” He kissed her, giving her an idea of the torment he promised, before throwing her to the ground and leaving her there.
Arwenna awoke again, her hands and feet still throbbing from the red-hot nails. It seemed the pain would last forever. This must truly be Hell. Silas had forsaken her and the tears began to fall down her face; this insight was far more painful than the nails buried in her limbs. Arwenna’s will crumbled as she lost faith. She sought another memory, anything to escape the pain.
The lake shimmered in the morning light, almost blinding Arwenna as she headed to the well near the compound. She hadn’t been here long enough to become used to the beauty of it, although she’d been reprimanded frequently by the head of the Order for staring at it too long.
Sighing, she brought a full bucket to the top of the well. She may have been a full Cleric of the Order, but the local church didn’t care much for her title. She did have her own bed in a corner of the dormitory, which seemed like the only affirmation of her rank. Her days centered around the menial tasks of cleaning, fetching, and cooking as opposed to healing. Brother Rey said he’d soon be instructing her on how to deal with the Undead. She looked forward to those lessons.
“Arwenna! Arwenna!” a voice called out to her. Raising her head, she saw a young ward of the Order running toward her. Myra’s skirts were held high, but she still found a way to splash mud on them.
“Arwenna, you must come quickly!” Myra paused to regain some of her breath. “Travelers have brought in strangers, five of them. They found them alongside the road not far from here. There’s an elf!”
“Myra, you can’t be serious. I’m the only elf around for miles, and I wouldn’t be here if not for the Order. I’m sure you just thought you saw an elf.” Elves preferred wooded areas or riverbanks, not the scrub brush filled hills of a mining community. This was dwarf country.
“No, really! It is an elf! And the elders want you to come and help with the healing as quickly as possible!” Her voice didn’t suggest any trickery, and Arwenna wondered how this could be possible.
“Here, carry one of these then. I can move faster with just the one.” She shoved one of the buckets of water at Myra before gathering her own skirts and hurrying towards the vicarage.
Arwenna then stopped and put the bucket of water down. She smoothed her skirts and walked through the arched walkway and across the inner courtyard towards the infirmary.
There was more activity than usual, with all of the healers trying to find a way to help. There were not many beds; few who came in need of treatment remained more than an hour. Now all the beds were full. There was a group of travelers speaking with the local watch commander and the head of the Order. Arwenna craned her neck, hoping to get an idea of what was going on. Brother Rey saw her, and called out her presence to Father Morgyn before returning to his patient.
Father Morgyn motioned her over to where he was listening to the traveler relay what they had found. He then excused himself and took her arm, leading her towards another cot.
“These people were found about two hours from here, along the road. We’re afraid most won’t make it through the night. However, there is one that we think you should care for. He’s an elf, you see. He will heal better if he is looked after by another elf. You will probably not be able to heal him completely, but just get him stable. And do not touch him if you don’t have to.” His eyes traveled down to the elf lying on the cot.
Arwenna glanced down at her new patient. He was a younger elf, but his hair was gray as if aged, which was very strange. There was a look of pain on his face that ran deeper than the cuts she could see. “What is wrong with him?” She looked back at Father Morgyn.
Father Morgyn spoke low. “He’s been cursed, my daughter. He’s been touched by some great evil. Even now, his insides are being eaten away. I think we can save him, but it will take much effort.”
Arwenna nodded and carefully sat beside the elf. She began the prayers of healing, concentrating on the task at hand.
Myra brought a bowl of cool water and a rag, watching intently. “I wonder what his name is. Brother Rey said he couldn’t tell where he came from.”
“I’m sure he’ll tell us when he awakens, Myra,” she answered absently, as she turned her attention to her patient.
“The others are all dead or dying, so they won’t be able to tell us. Don’t you think we should give him a name at least?” It seemed very important to her.
Arwenna sighed at Myra’s single-mindedness. “I suppose it may be necessary, Myra. Do you have one in mind already?”
“Yup! Senyan Dakar,” Myra nodded, satisfied.
“Senyan Dakar it is then,” Arwenna declared. She held out hope that they would not have to use this name for his gravestone.
The elf stirred on the cot, opening his eyes for a moment. Arwenna could see both great intellect and great pain in those eyes before they closed again.
The brightness of the flash brought her back to consciousness. Four creatures stood in front of her, three of which held glowing, barbed whips. The fourth looked at her, with what passed as a grin on its face. “Are you ready to renounce your God, bitch?”
“Never” she threw the word out with all the defiance she could muster.
The first lashing tore into her flesh. She bit her lip to keep from crying out and searched her mind for another place to go, anywhere but here.
The early morning sunlight stabbed at her eyes. She had been brought out to the courtyard to have judgment brought upon her. The tracks from the recent rain slid down the white stone walls, as if tearstained. It seemed the world wept for her as well.
There were few spectators; their prosecutors could not afford a proper trial, but she could make out some of her companions. Rhiannon, defiant as ever, and Y’Dürkie, chained and shackled against her mighty rage. Arwenna could imagine how many guards it had taken to subdue her. She forced thoughts of them out of her mind. If they offered to spare them, she may well have been broken. She couldn’t think of them and do what she had to do. Holding her head up proudly, she looked at those in front of her.
“Arwenna Shalian, you and your companions stand convicted of treason, thievery, and consorting with demons. Do you have any final words before you are put to death?” the Justicar proclaimed, looking past her at the small crowd of witnesses. The Paladin stood behind him, staring at her, waiting for her to break.
“If this is indeed justice, then let it be done. If it is not, we will return and seek justice of our own,” she called out. Y’Dürkie and Rhiannon echoed her words.
The Paladin strode towards Arwenna, grabbed her, and forced her to kneel in front of her companions. “I give you this one last chance. Renounce them or die.” His voice lowered as he spoke in her ear, “Submit to me, and I will spare their lives.”
Arwenna looked at the faces of her companions. Each one of them told her the same thing: death would be preferable to submission.
The Paladin saw this and furiously brought his blade down into Arwenna’s spine. Darkness enveloped her as she heard the dying screams of her friends.