The year 360, the eleventh month. (The year 1881 Fallow by the Old Calendar.)
The trouble was, he could still think.
Pain. Deep pain. Deep as an oil-well dug into his body. Catch breath. Breathe, long and slow. Wait for the next stroke.
He hadn't expected to be able to think, after a certain point. He had imagined it would be like when his grandfather died—
Pain. Claws ripping across the flesh. Screams. His own screams.
When he was four years old, his father the cleric had taken him to their family cemetery. They had explored the ash-tombs, his father reading aloud the memorials: the promises that every man and woman and child there had entered into death, transformation, and rebirth.
In the end, he had asked his father only one question: "Does it hurt?"
His father had smiled. "Come and see."
They had gone then to see his grandfather, who was old and frail and appeared to be sleeping. Sometimes Grandfather would murmur something in his sleep. Otherwise he lay still, as serene as though he were taking an afternoon nap.
Afterwards, his father said, "That is what death is. It is a peaceful process. You gradually enter into unawareness, no matter how much pain you suffered before. And then you are transformed, and you become a new person, born again."
That was how it was supposed to be. That was what he had expected—
Pain. Red like fire, eating his very bones. No screams left now – only sobs.
He had known that the pain would be very bad. One hundred strokes at the hands of the most skilled whipster in the Eternal Dungeon – perhaps the most skilled whipster in the world. It was only a disciplinary punishment, but he had known that he would not live through it. Death would come for him, in the end.
But death had not yet come, only unending pain. He could still think clearly. That was the worst of it. He was aware of each deep stroke, tearing into his body. The blessed unawareness that his father had promised had not come. Only pain—
Pain. Sobs racking his body. Anger.
Anger? No, that was wrong; he was not angry. Not at the guard making the count – his closest friend, who, in agony of conscience, had chosen to follow his duty. Not even anger at the whipster, who, in his misguided manner, thought he was protecting the prisoners by beating the man who had broken the dungeon rules deliberately, for the prisoners' sake.
Guard. Whipster. What were their names again? The first touch of fear seared him as he—
Pain. Fire. Anger. Guard. Whipster. Enemies.
No, no, not enemies, though he grasped at their names. The names would not come. Was this part of the process of dying? When he was four years old, someone had told him—
Who? A cleric. Why had he been speaking to a cleric?
Pain. Anger. Fight.
Anger choked the breath from him, drowning him in waves, like the pain. He tried to surface from it, to find his memories, but the memories drew away like waves on a beach. Who was the guard? The whipster? The cleric? Sweet blood, what was his own name?
The anger was still there, alien to what he desired. His bonds strained as he moved his body, risking a look over his shoulder. He could see the guard to one side, and behind him the whipster—
Enemies. Kill, kill, kill.
No, not enemies. Why was he thinking this way? Those men were no more his enemies than his love-mate was—
His love-mate. What was his love-mate's name?
Anger. Must break bonds and kill.
Anger had no place, here in the Eternal Dungeon, except anger in service of justice. He had known that, from the day he first became a guard. No man who allowed anger to rule him was fit to work in the Eternal Dungeon, for the Code of Seeking required deep sacrifice of all who worked there. The Code of Seeking said that the prison-workers must serve as models for good behavior, so that the souls of imprisoned criminals could be transformed—
It was then that he realized what was happening.
"And then you are transformed, and you become a new person, born again," someone had said, long ago. It was happening now. He was transforming. But how could he transform, if he was not yet dead? And how could he transform into this monster with no thought for justice, no desire to care for others?
Ferocious anger, searing him.
The count had ended, but the pain continued. Something was wrong.
Whipster. Whipster is evil.
Something was wrong, and now there were cries around him. He didn't understand, and he had no energy to spare for it all. He was wrestling with a monster—
Murder the whipster. Murder the guard.
No, he mustn't become this. He mustn't become a monster, caring for no one besides himself, lacking justice and love and self-sacrifice.
Even as he thought this, he could feel bits of him disappearing: he no longer knew who he was, or why he was here, or why he was being hurt so badly. He struggled to keep what was left of himself. He mustn't die; he mustn't become a monster.
Fresh agony. A determination to murder.
Once, long ago, he had seen a soldier undergo surgery near the battlefield. He had helped hold down the soldier as the man screamed, feeling his flesh and bone torn by the saw.
This was like that. Surgery was being done upon him, tearing out his soul, replacing it with a monster.
No. No. He fought.
Pain. No breath. Someone shouting, "That was the hundred and first stroke!" That was important. He couldn't remember why, though. It didn't matter. He was dying, and soon only the monster would be left.
He surfaced briefly, gasping, and realized that, if he was to win against the monster, he must abandon the last portions of himself. He must deliberately give away the remainder of what he had, his best qualities, in hopes that the monster would take those qualities into himself.
What remained? He tried to think.
The prisoners. He was doing this for the prisoners. And his love-mate, though he could no longer remember the man's name. And most importantly, the Co—
A voice, crying from a distance: "Stop the beating! For love of the Code, stop the beating! Don't you see he's fainted? Stop the beating, I say! You must release him! He's hanging from the whipping post! He can't breathe that way! His mind is—!"
He was dying—
He was gone.
Light, shining like stars in the distance. He reached upward, trying to grasp the glow. Then pain ripped through him again. He opened his eyes.
He was in a dark room, lying upon a dark bed. Dark figures watched him. Strangers.
No, not strangers. The whipster. The guard who had kept count. Enemies. He willed himself to move forward, to kill.
He did not yet have the strength. Pain drew him down into unconsciousness again. But as it did so, he saw the light he had seen before, and he knew.
He must come back. The dark figures were his enemies. But there were others out there, trapped, who needed him. Prisoners. And someone else, whose name he could not remember. And something else, just on the edge of memory, but gone again. Co?
It didn't matter. He had time enough to figure out these mysteries. For he knew now that he must return to the world of pain. He must find and protect the Shining Ones.