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Reaching for Empyrean

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                                                                                                             Grima's Mark/Fell Brand

 

The dungeon reeked of damp and mould, but at the very least the torches in her cell had been kept burning for hours, and she was provided with bedding -- old and threadbare, but bedding nonetheless.

And though she had spent the last several hours flitting in between consciousness and delirium, the knowledge of her imminent death brought her some form of clarity. 

Stifling a pained groan, she settled her hands on her hardened stomach. The manacles clamped to her wrists had grown sweaty and hot and proved an insufferable hindrance to her movements. As another contraction ripped through her back, she fought to stay silent; she would not give the robed figures who watched impassively the satisfaction of seeing her pain.

 

This wasn’t supposed to end like this, she thought bitterly. I’m so sorry .  

 

Her plan was supposed to be foolproof...she had gone through it for months, reviewing every possible gap in the fortress’s defences, every crack and crevice the ancient structure hid beneath bone and rubble. She had studied the surrounding terrain and weather for patterns and trails, hiding caches of food and weaponry on previous outings, when she was still free to move. The possibility of a betrayal was inconceivable because she had tested the mettle and loyalty of her allies several times over in increasingly gruesome trials.

 

She had begun to think of an escape for years before and had developed her plans accordingly, discarding and reinventing as needed. Her calculations were faultless, and they dictated that this had been the best opportunity she had to execute a successful getaway.

 

So why did she fail?

 

Her stomach tensed as a particularly hard contraction hit the place lying between her back and hips. The woman she was propped up against murmured half-hearted assurances and wiped the sweat off her brow -- her agony was temporarily soothed by a flash of annoyance and a desire to bite the hand holding the slimy, slimy cloth.

“So you say her fever has not broken,” a dry, reedy voice spoke from between her legs.

The woman hummed an affirmative as she returned the rag to its bowl of water. “Milady has been like this throughout the night, I’m afraid.”

She recognised the voice through her hazy thoughts. Oh, don’t you ‘milady’ me Gulnaz, you little bitch. You would have ratted me out for less if it meant a space in his bed, and you would have done it gladly .

Then again, he never needed an excuse to bring other women to spend the night with him, did he? It was the first of many problems that plagued their marriage: back then, when she was young and stupid, she lamented his many infidelities and wondered if it was some terrible flaw in her looks and character, resolving to better herself as a devoted wife. Now? She marvelled at the fact that Validar’s unfaithfulness was what alerted her to his less than ideal personage.

 

As though sensing her turmoil, the elderly doctor placed his hand on her knee and squeezed reassuringly. She didn’t care about the blood on his fingers smearing -- there were more pressing things to worry about. Noam was one of the few people loyal to her in that wretched place, and his presence after days of isolation and struggling to stay conscious had been a godsend.

“How far along are your contractions now?” he asked, wiping down her bloody front with a refreshingly cold rag. His hands returned to their position below her, cupped and waiting for the new arrival.

“Th-thirty seconds --” she sucked in a hard breath as her pelvis throbbed, and pressed down hard on the wave of pressure; a low moan ran throughout the cell eerily until she realised that it was hers. Noam’s eyes, though they had begun to show signs of his glaucoma, were still clear enough to convey his encouragement and she pressed harder.

Noam exclaimed in surprise. “The head is crowning!” She felt his wrinkled skin against her inner thighs, slippery and warm, and though her torment was becoming nigh unbearable at this point, she shared his excitement all the same. “Push, push hard.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing!” she panted miserably, and her legs kicked out with a sudden spasm. A foot connected satisfyingly with a cultist’s face and she took pleasure in hearing his muffled yell from under his hood. He was not so amused and jumped to a stand with his dagger drawn.

“You bitch!”

“Careful now,” she sing-songed, grimacing mockingly up at his bloodied nose. “Wouldn’t want to do something you regret, would you?”

“Yes, it’d be a pity if he followed your example and managed to throw himself in the dungeons as well,” a silky, sinister voice rang crisply throughout the darkened hall.

 

Everyone assembled jumped to stand immediately and bowed low from the waist as Validar appeared at the grate; she grunted as Gulnaz scrambled to her feet and let her fall hard onto the thin mattress. Noam turned and lowered his head respectfully, but he stayed with her and focused on the tiny head inching out of her body.

She met her husband’s eyes with undisguised loathing, ignoring the dozen or so guards behind him observing her bared lower half with interest. With every blink, she made an effort to display as much hatred as she could in her expression, and he returned her gaze with a sort of cool, detached amusement as the men and women returned to their positions.

He was still handsome, yes, but his good looks were tempered by her knowledge of his cruelty and vanity. Validar was dressed as though returning from another ceremony: an enormous golden ring shone on his bared chest, oiled and supple like the rest of his body. His thick, woolen hair was circled by an elaborate crown resembling antelope horns, and costly purple robes billowed from his waist. Golden necklaces and chains were looped around his neck and hips, gleaming and marvelous. Quite the contrast to her: sweaty, dishevelled, delirious.

They stared at one another in silence for a time, the cultists waiting for his next move with bated breaths. Had she been less disoriented, she would have scoffed at them for their simpering attitudes. She had forgone pitying them long ago and had no qualms directing her hate towards them as well, cursing their single-minded dedication to their leader.

 

“You know,” he said, his low voice breaking the lull with those brief, hypnotic syllables, “when I was younger, my first test of manhood was to capture a falcon with my bare hands and train it for the hunt.” His lips curled into a smirk. “How fitting it is then, to have you back here with me just as I am to pass into a new stage of life, dearest Shahin.”

“Fuck you!” she spat, the insult echoing loudly in the cell. She couldn’t feel the doctor’s hand pinch her thigh warningly and ploughed on, spurred by a rush of hormones and contempt.

“You are hardly in a position to speak such crude words so freely, need I remind you.”

“Like I give a damn! We all know you will kill me soon enough, why not just go ahead? You would be doing yourself a favour and I would finally rid myself of you forever.”

“So eager to leave our child already? I never did take you for the maternal sort, but this is a new low for you.”

She had no reply for that. The best she could manage was a glare, even as her short, forceful breaths became louder, more ragged. That insufferable gloating smirk was still plastered to his thin face, and a guard opened the grate with a loud clank. Shahin’s head swam feverishly while the cultist with the broken nose rushed out the cell as Validar and his replacement stepped in. He sat cross-legged by her side, and she almost turned to slap Gulnaz for visibly swooning in his presence.

 

The hot steel bit into her wrists and kept her arms down.

 

They all sat in another tense period of silence; she, stewing in rage and pain, and he, peering into the space between her legs with a razor sharp stare. Occasionally, Validar would exchange words with Noam, too low for her to eavesdrop, or rest a hand on her belly to feel the baby’s progress.

Had she been younger and more gullible, she could have pretended he was concerned for them and simply acted out on that, and all she had to do was beg for his forgiveness and pray in penance for her misguided actions. Things would go back to normal, and they could play at his pretenses of a perfect family while he tended to his Grimleal, and she would be a model wife and sit obediently at his side.

But that was then, and this was now, and Shahin knew that had she settled for such a meagre existence, she would have resigned herself to a life of constant misery; her every move under intense scrutiny, their bed occupied by a parade of equally deluded girls while she was shunted to the side; bearing witness to the unspeakable atrocities committed on Grima’s behalf, and their child --

 

-- No, her child, wrestled out of her arms and into the bosom of a stone-faced nursemaid, raised on another’s milk and lies (of Validar, of Grima, of all that was good and warm in this world), raised in fear and away from the protection she should have been able to provide.

“Most of your companions are long dead,” Validar stated matter-of-factly, “and while a few have escaped, rest assured; I will find them sooner or later.”

She fought the urge to dart her eyes towards Noam. “You underestimate them, dear . And you cannot simply abandon your life’s work to go traipsing about the continent for them your entire life, can you?”

He shrugged, unmoved. “I have many willing to spill blood for me...they will be glad to take this cause in my name. And besides, I am in no hurry at all...even should they avoid me, their grandchildren will suffice.”

Validar suddenly regarded her intently. Shahin kept her lips in a stubbornly tight line, until his own curled up slowly in a disturbing, freakish smile. His eyes widened in tandem, and she was reminded of a snake sizing up a bird before the slaughter.

“Did you really think,” he whispered, and his hot moist breath crawled over her skin as though it were a spider, “that you had any chance of success? That you could play me for a fool and believe that I would never discover your little schemes?” He chuckled darkly. “To think that the greatest tactical mind in all of Plegia would fail so spectacularly! I am almost disappointed in you.”

Her arms shot forward with a shout, determined to claw at his face, his clothes, anything she could reach. Her chains kept her pinned down and writhing pathetically, and he leaned closer to taunt her further.

“You owe such a loss to your little friends...they held you back. You could have reached the border had you not had to mind the incompetence of others. You were always too soft as a leader, too forgiving...”

“My bonds are infinitely more valuable than the sorry excuse of the ‘flock’ you lead. Spineless, white-bellied cowards, ready to bend over and curtsy for any measly scrap you might throw out. I’ve seen beggars and drunks with a better sense of dignity and self-respect.”

“But not strength or fighting spirit, I’m afraid. Tell me,” Validar inquired, stroking his goatee and aping thoughtfulness. “What was that Ylissean sellsword’s name again? Robert, was it?”

 

A cold frisson of horror ran down her spine, and Shahin forgot her labour pangs for a single, terrible moment. Validar’s grin widened cruelly, triumphantly, when her mask of composure broke down and fat tears scorched humiliating trails down her cheeks.

“Tell me,” her voice wavered brokenly, “tell me what you did to him, you miserable bastard!”

“You need not know the full account...it is of no use to you now. However…,” his volume dropped in register, “you can rest assured that I’ve kept a little something of his to remember him by.”

She was wailing now, crying and defeated and so full of despair and loathing for the wretched creature responsible for her life’s misfortunes. Said creature just sat there with a smug smile of victory on his face. And oh, what she would have given to be able to scratch it off his face. If only she had the energy to face him and tear him up into a thousand pieces like he deserved. Yet she could barely lift a finger, and all she could do was cry, loud and full of anguish, not caring that she could be heard several stories up.

Validar took in her suffering with utmost relish, stroking her stomach tauntingly. Powerless to do anything, Noam kept his face down, but she needed him like that, small and unassuming so that he would not be taken from her too.

“Perhaps the blame does not lie entirely with you. After the incident with the merchant, I should have paid closer attention to your... questionable taste in partners.”

“You’re one to talk, you disgusting --” Shahin was unable to finish, having to gulp in trembling breaths and fight off a wave of dizziness. His thin lips pulled back into a jeer.

“Even so...it amazes me, to think that you could have entertained such fantasies of playing house with that man. Tell me, did you have a darling little cottage picked out yet? Was he to support you with his delusions of a life as a sellsword? Names chosen for the children you had planned, hm?”

 

His derisive cheer dropped faster than a dead fly as he seized her hair and wrenched it back hard .

“Don’t think for a second that I wouldn’t have dashed the little thing’s brains out on this very floor should I have seen a scrap of red hair.”

 

It was then that she realised with a jolt that the child was almost out: the knees were still buried deep inside her, yes, she could feel its tiny kicks. Somehow, she managed to push Validar away and struggle up into a seated position, watching as Noam cleaned the mess from the small grey body and tried to coax it to breathe. With a shout, she gave one final push, one final manifestation of her single-minded determination to get it out , and its legs slid out with a gush of blood and water and the veiny pink cord. A towel was wrapped around it to scrub it vigorously while a cultist descended upon it with a knife, clamping and cutting the cord with speed and efficiency. Noam soon had a clean, soft baby wrapped in good fine cloth in his hands, and he placed it reverently into her open arms.

“I give my warmest congratulations, my lady. She is a beautiful child.”

“A girl!” Shahin exclaimed.The baby was not crying yet, but no matter, she was at least gasping and blinking and squirming, her tiny fingers latching on quick to her mother’s outstretched finger. Soon the baby was butting her head into her mother’s bosom, who laughed and laughed deliriously while she was assisted into pulling down her tunic. She watched peacefully as she nursed, and caressed her newborn’s fine white locks, very much like her own. Shahin hoped that it would grow longer than hers and wondered if the infant would resemble her grandparents when she was older. Perhaps she would become freckled like her aunts and uncles, or develop light eyes like her cousins.

Sitting with her was enough to make her forget her troubles and pretend it was just the two of them, wrapped up in each other’s warmth and gentleness. Shahin’s entire world was reduced to that single, joyful gift.

 

It was not meant to last. Validar grew irritated, and curled his talon-like hands over the newborn. Shahin braced the girl tight against her, screaming  “No !”

“You have already outlived your usefulness, and at this point I am tiring of you.”

“You will not deprive my child of her mother, not when she needs me the most!”

“Rima shall take over from you, gods know that she is much more suitable than an apostate traitor.”

“Her twins have just died, how could you? Dumping another’s child on her like that? My baby is not their replacement, and Rima is not a broodmare!”

“She still has plenty of milk.”

 

The cultists watched their twisted tug of war, knowing it was only a matter of time until he triumphed over the weakened, feverish woman. And so he did, planting the heel of his sandal into her face and kicking her back onto her soiled bedding. The baby had already started to whimper loudly when it was pulled back and forth, and now began to cry in earnest in response to her mother’s shouts. Twisting and writhing in Validar’s grasp, her blanket was loosened enough for her to manoeuvre out of it, and the torchlight threw her skin into sharp focus.

Validar immediately snatched her right arm and stretched it out for everyone to see. His eyes took on a delighted, crazed gleam, and his madness only seemed to be intensified by the baby’s wails.

 

For on her miniscule hand, a purple, six eyed sigil flickered in the light.

 

“Yes,” he breathed.

 

No , Shahin thought, as her heart sunk into a dark, bottomless chasm. No no no no no --

 

“Do you see now?” he exhaled forcefully, and began to pace the cramped cell with a purposeful stride, “DO YOU SEE NOW?”

 

He stopped abruptly, and lifted the shrieking baby high above his head, his body shaking with absolute ecstasy. As though on cue, his worshippers all clamoured and wept and dropped to their knees, and the sick mother’s shouts for her daughter went unheard as their throaty, ominous chanting rose and fell in an eerie cadence.

“For centuries, it has been foretold that our Lord’s spirit would cease its wandering in the Outer Realms when a vessel suitable to contain His power would be found. For centuries, we have toiled and laboured for our Lord even as our land has been overrun with heretics, faithless, and Naga’s spawn.”

Validar licked his lips greedily and cradled the little girl close to him, tracing the mark on her hand with a tenderness that was entirely uncharacteristic.

“And now...our centuries of living beneath the earth, as though we were common worms, as though our devotion is meant to be hidden away while those liars and hypocrites rule Plegia from our throne, have come to an end. For Grima is patient, and Grima shall reward our services once He razes this earth and cleanses it of its filth and decay. And thus He spake, ‘when my slumber ends and my ascent shall be heralded by the skies, thine memory shall live on amongst the stars and the New Folk.’”   

“Hail!” the devotees roared and beat their chests.

“Our new age has just begun,” Validar crowed, “and you are the lucky few to have witnessed its birth!”

So consumed were they by their state of rapture that their tears flowed freely and more than a few began to froth at the mouth. Among the general sense of hysteria, Shahin stood alone in her rage, spitting and yelling for her daughter back. She screamed herself hoarse and kept at it as she saw her husband hand over her child to the physician and sent him to wait outside the gate, then turned to her with triumph outlining his every step, and bade Gulnaz to leave them be.

 

“What a joyous day this has turned to be...how it pains me to see you do not share our sentiment,” Validar’s hiss was a sibilant and deadly as a snake’s.

“I’ll not see you turn my daughter into a monster, at least not over my dead body!”

“Not a monster, but a god . A new being destined for greater things, for heights higher than any of our puny mortal souls could ever achieve.”

“‘Destiny?’ She is as mortal as you and I, and no amount of falsehoods you plan to feed her will ever change that!“

 

Hush.” He drew a beautifully engraved knife and held it to her throat, strangling her voice with its edge. “You can count yourself blessed by this day as well, my love. The very blade before you has been privileged enough to dedicate that Ylissean to Grima, and now, it will reunite you two in his service.”

 

As he carved through her throat with deliberately slow strokes, Shahin thought regretfully of her life’s mistakes, and the fantasies she would never able to fulfill flashed before her eyes: a little tumbledown cottage to call her own tucked into the mountains of Ferox; plaiting sweetgrass into her baby’s braids while they waited for Robert to return from the muster, her darling little girl meeting her family, with brothers and sisters of her own to play and grow up with.

The pain was tempered somewhat by her hallucinations, but soon the blood loss from the birth caught up to her fever and the knife -- her hands scrabbled uselessly at his as blood bubbled and frothed from the gaping wound and splashed onto their skin, and the sensation between her legs and neck built up into a terrible wall of agony. While Validar delighted in the arterial spurts staining his face and the feel of sinew and muscle snapping apart between his fingers and blade, Shahin’s final moment was of excruciating torment and a debilitating, all-consuming sense of loss.  

 

I’m so sorry, she mouthed to her baby as her life bled out.  

 

Noam would later be plagued by nightmares of how her screams had been masked by her newborn’s.   

 

 

                                                                                                          

                                                                                                                  Grima's Mark/Fell Brand