- Age: 13
- Trade: Assistant to his mother, the village hag
- Homeland: Iliesk - small state on the Hieriacca coast of Cerris, tropical climate, very pleasant all-year-round. Pre-industrial age, but magic and gods play a major role in daily life.
- Hometown: Varta (about a day's journey by foot to the nearest port city)
- Background: Always working to help make ends meet for as long as he can recall. No father or other family, just him and his mother and sister. Picked up a lot of basic skills - cooking, herbology, construction, medicine, animal husbandry and tracking. Mother always telling him he was meant for greater things, that he would one day go to Abearanoth and serve the gods directly; when she was killed in a pirate raid, he and his sister sold everything they had to try to start over and also send Ense on his way.
- Problem-solving approach: Apply grit and determination to see things through. Don't stop fighting, no matter how impossible the odds.
- Medical problems: Various common childhood ailments. Got pneumonia bad one year to they point where they had to get outside magic to fix it; were fortunate to be able to afford it at all. Rather small for his age as a result.
- Travelling experience: Prior to getting passage to Abearanoth on a trade ship, none.
- Weapons: Knife. Semi-capable in a fight, as much as a rather small boy with no real training can be.
- Vices: Pride - does not respond well to slights or insults
- Socialness: Somewhat of a loner, and awkward in social contexts. Good at small talk, but also very to the point, sometimes enough to alienate people. Does not make friends easily, but always remembers who they are.
- Hates: Does not like to be challenged. Despises those who consider themselves better than others, especially without any understanding of what those others go through. Hates nobles in particular.
- Age: 28
- Trade: Software engineer and designer, writer, miscellaneous hobbyist
- Homeland: Wyoming. Hot summers, harsh winters, thin air. Wind and grasshoppers possibly the prime inhabitants. Also contains some cities.
- Hometown: Casper (middle of nowhere; has a local airport, but it's tiny and very expensive, and the closest hub is about four hours away by car, so people usually just do that and save 400$)
- Background: Degree in software engineering, with studies in psychology. Grew up always reading and making things - drawing, painting, sewing, building little tiny huts for fairies. Had a difficult time getting into the job market due to unusual background - emphasis on open source and volunteer system administration and development, and the fact that as a software designer, she didn't actually have a degree in anything 'design-related'. Would constantly complain about how stupid this was because actual design degrees often didn't cover any of the important stuff - the software itself, or the psychology of the users. Puttered around doing freelance for awhile, then finally actually tried to make an actual job with grants, pulled it off, and loudly declared her life on track. Most of her spare time spent playing videogames, making stuff, writing, and surfing the internet.
- Problem-solving approach: Set things in motion and then wait and see what happens. Alternately, just step back and wait and see what happens. Pretty common for the field, where even the smallest changes can have unexpected impacts, and even the most successful propositions begin with essentially a gamble.
- Medical problems: Light sensitivity; can't see well in full daylight without sunglasses. Can't wear shoes unless it's cold. Possibly has various psychological problems, but never bothered to see anyone about it. Has trouble at high altitude getting enough air when doing anything remotely strenuous and has taken this to mean she's horribly out of shape, but is really mostly just fairly average. Often gets colds when travelling.
- Travelling experience: Occasional road trips, a few flights per year to visit friends, mostly in-country, a few in Europe. Ski trips, hiking trips, random trips on trains. Conferences all over the world. Has gone gallivanting off into random other countries just because she had a day to kill and no idea what better to do with it.
- Weapons: Six-foot pole (steel or pvc depending on mood/importance of not breaking anything). Mostly just carries it around using it as a walking stick, balancing aid, thing to poke stuff with. Sometimes has to smack wild animals with it. Also various knives and a sword, but these aren't really used as weapons.
- Vices: Laziness, apathy (somewhere along the way lost the ability to take deadlines and the like seriously and has major struggles with motivation), stories (can't put them down until she sees them through to an end), potted plants, especially ferns
- Socialness: Quick to make friends, but even quicker to totally forget who they are. Doesn't much care for normal socialising or small talk and prefers to focus on practical, interesting, or productive things. Very loyal to friends if something does come up (and she happens to notice), but unlikely to be the one to even ask about personal matters.
- Hates: Doesn't hate people. Doesn't even usually become angry with people, but will become unreasonably angry at poorly-implemented code, processes, tools, etc when she has to work with them and they cause problems, which can spill over into yelling at their creators. Takes far more issue with incompetence than directed ill-will, but also understands that people can just plain screw up at times.
- The only things she really hates are very specific products such as macromedia flash.
- Backstory. Sidestory. Supposition, the antithesis of practice. Nevermind practice. This isn't practice. This is a treatise by the narrator, an examination of could-have-beens, an aside from the GM. We can talk about anything. Let's talk about anything.
- He was your favourite, your least understood. His world is yours, and yet he no longer is. Can you take his place? They will know you to be him, so long as you don't give up.
- Ense Vardaman.
You dream. You've dreamed this dream before.
You're in Abearanoth, or what it would have been. This time you recognise it immediately, but instead of grassy hills and rocky outcrops and woods beyond, it's all jungle and jagged spires of plant-encrusted geology. How the dream changes, with understanding...
The city itself is much as you know it now, tall and intricate, but somehow grander than ever, more, capping the mountains, framing the waterfalls. It isn't so much a layer cake as it's a giant ice sculpture, buildings and spires reaching up and trickling down all at once. Because the elves never left. They never stopped building it.
Even the temple is more, tall and stark and grey against the rest of the city, almost surrounded, but walled still, apart.
You need to get in there, somehow. Past the guards, past the onlookers, past any who might recognise you. It's not yours, not anymore, and that's the problem.
It's night. Insects blare. You go around, as much as you can, around the edges through back alleys, over half-built expansions, across rooftops and scaffolding. You slip into the trees, sticking to the deep, moist shadows, and out again. You know the way from your youth, from when you'd been but a wayward acolyte sneaking out in the night. You'd been scared enough then, but now the pain of discovery would be so much harsher...
The wall of the temple itself is an obstacle, tall and grey and smooth, the entrances watched and guarded. But you know of other entrances, hidden ones, forgotten ones. You climb up, ease the grate loose, slip through, and place it back. It needs oiling.
The temple complex is well-lit, by comparison to the rest of the city, with magelights every few metres, but you still you manage to stick to the shadows between them, behind things, around the guards patrolling. Your footsteps are soft like a cat's. A lifetime of training and experience has prepared you for this, except...
Nothing had prepared you for this. None of this. How could it? The first time you had dreamed this dream, you had not realised the hugeness of it all. You hadn't even realised... all you'd known for sure was that you were Vardaman, and you'd brought out a name. But now... it's all different now.
You're not sure how you find her cell in the catacombs beneath the temple, only that you do, slipping past the guards, easing open the lock. The door opens with a creak, and she looks up in surprise as you slip inside. She's beautiful. You always forget how beautiful she is, her elemental heritage only accentuating her perfection.
"Shalias," you whisper.
"What? No! Vardaman!" she says, jumping up in horror, moving as if to push you out. "Why are you here? You can't be here!" The chain to her wrist stops her before she even reaches the door. The collar on her neck binds her magic...
"You're more important," you tell her. "You always were."
"But they don't know that!" Shalias replies, her voice an insistent whisper. "As long as they don't know, it's okay, it's okay..." Her voice breaks as you take her into your arms, hugging her.
"It's okay," you agree. "I'm getting you out now."
She doesn't answer, instead sinking into your embrace, sobbing. You sense her terror, and beneath it all, relief. A glimmer of hope, where once there had been none, coupled with even more fear that this might fail too. You survey the room as you hold her, noting the small barred window, too high and narrow for any person to slip through, the solid metal door almost shut behind you, the smooth stone walls, the thin cot on the floor, a bucket, a bowl... no lights. Several brackets are mounted to the wall, but only one has a chain attached, the manacle holding her from the door. They're not concerned about her breaking free.
You pull away slightly, and she looks up uncertainly, wiping an eye, her skin glistening even without the tears.
"If I get this collar off, can you become mist?" you ask, indicating the window.
She glances over and says, "I think so."
You feel around the collar, sensing its magic and its void. You still have your senses, uncanny, unreal. It would have been so easy to open this with magic, but now your own magic is gone, for it came from your god, and he is also gone... only the Keepers still have any, entrusted directly with fragments of the god's own power. Shalias is one. Probably the last.
You get out a pair of boltcutters instead, brace them against the wall, Shalias leaning back as well, and snip through the collar. She makes a surprised noise and then quickly claps her hands over her mouth as you move around to cut the other side as well. The huge cutters snick through the thick metal like cheese, and the halves clatter to the ground.
A line of blood trickles down from her neck, and Shalias reaches up to touch it - you'd nicked her, or perhaps the cut metal of the collar itself had. A soft glow appears at her fingertips as she brushes the cut, and the blood disappears, the wound closing immediately. She's smiling, and then she's laughing.
Voices outside, footsteps, running. They know. You shove the door shut and it latches, locking you in.
"Go!" you tell her.
"What?!" she says, panic tinging her voice. "What about you?"
You push her toward the window, shaking your head. "It's too late for me. Go."
She stares at you for a long moment, too long, it feels. There's a scraping, a clacking, of a key in the lock, and you put your weight into holding the door, pushing it shut even as it rattles against you...
"Ense Vardaman," Shalias whispers. You feel her voice in your soul, your full name awakening something in you that you had thought gone, lost forever. A stirring of power. Of faith.
And then she's gone, the manacle and chain clattering to the floor, wisps of white mist drifting out the tiny window, into the night, away.
The door rattles again as the people in the corridor pull against it again, hard, and you let go, jumping back, drawing your sword, as it bursts open and the black guards spill into the room. You fight them, but without magic, it's only a moment before they've overwhelmed you anyway. They beat you down, take your weapons, bind your hands behind your back, drop spells atop you. You don't resist as the floor digs into your face, as the spells bind your nerves and senses.
"Where is she?" one of the guards yells. You can't see him. All you see is floor and boots.
"Gone," you say.
"Damn you..." the guard says. Then the weight holding you down disappears, and the guards are picking you up, turning you around to face their leader. His armour is fancier than the others, more trim, more decoration, but still black, all black.
"Vardaman?" he says, surprised to recognise you, wonder filling his expression and voice. "You... you should not have come back."
You don't respond. There's nothing to say.
One of the other guards picks up the broken collar, speaking words of magic to repair it as he moves toward you, but their leader simply shakes his head. "There's no need. His magic will have already failed." He turns back to you. "Isn't that so... High Priest?"
You meet his eyes, glittering blue, so bright compared to his armour and greying hair.
"I am genuinely impressed," he goes on. "Your god is dead, and yet still you persist, alone, with nothing to back you. I can't say I would go so far..."
"Are all servants of the black so weak as you?" you reply.
"Weak?" he laughs, turning away. "You're the one who's fallen."
They walk you down the corridor. More guards fall in around you, silently, a grim procession to... you don't know where. At best, your execution. Some appear surprised, others pleased, but one gives you a horrified, confused look before he catches himself and looks away.
You hold your head high as they take you through the temple, meeting the eyes of those you pass. Priests and followers of the new god, filling the corridors with the smooth walls and high windows and soft magelights that you knew so well. Most look away. Some make signs at your passing, banishing motions, protective shapes. You notice a few, however, making the old signs for you, the eternal, the guiding, the passing, furtive but defiant, just one last time. You know these people. Defectors, and yet... not entirely. But there's nothing they can do, either.
The corridors open into a vast hall, with high ceiling and wide, ordered columns precisely spaced, hushed crowds gathering between them to watch the procession pass, as more and more people press in, leaving only a narrow passage clear, closing behind you. They all know what this means. The High Priest of the dead god, finally captured. The end of the old religion, finally. You would pray that it weren't so, but there is no point in prayer, not anymore. Prayer is lost.
An old man steps out of the crowd, in front of the guards, and makes the sign of the guiding, covering his eyes briefly with his hand, before balling it to a fist over his heart.
"Don't do this," you say, shaking your head at him pleadingly, but he just smiles, looking right at you, standing his ground as the guards ahead stop in front of him.
"Move," one of them says.
He doesn't, and continues to smile, holding the gesture, meeting your eyes. You know him. Hanolf Odim. A simple cook, but a kind man, always so generous even to those who very definitely should not be in his kitchens...
A guard simply stabs him, shoving him aside, and then you're moving again, toward the huge, tall doors at the far end of the hall. But there's a stir in the crowd around you, now. The gesture, repeating. The sign of the guiding, covered eyes, fist to heart. An old sign, one last time, for you.
The guards ignore it, just this once. The procession presses on. The huge doors loom, bigger and bigger, carved in intricate designs, telling ancient stories you can't quite make out, and then you're right in front of them. Two more guards fold in from either side to push each door open. They swing inward, slowly, silently...
The inside of the chamber is nothing like it had been, barren, now, with only a low stone block in the centre, and chains mounted to the floor around it. Standing over it is the High Priest of the Black - your successor, but for the wrong god - wreathed in twisting black, not rags, but wisps, almost. Her face is shrouded, but you still make out her eyes and mouth like black holes in her visage. Everything is covered in black, in here - the stone, the floor, the walls, and yet another colour stands out atop that. A not quite brown, dark, crusty, muddy. It tinges the priest's wisps, and her hands...
The two guards holding you force you forward, toward the block, and then push you to your knees in front of it. The others have all peeled away. It's only the four of you, in here.
You realise what the brown is. Blood, old and dried. The blood of your brothers, your people. All the servants of the old god who had already fallen. The smell fills the air, like rust.
The guards chain you down, locking your feet in place, and affixing more chains to your arms, preventing you from rising.
"Ense Vardaman," the black priest says, stepping forward, standing over you. Her voice is smooth and low and strange, but holding your name, it cuts into you like a knife, oily, twisting. "High Priest of Kyrule. Had you simply come forward in the beginning, we could have avoided so much blood, so much suffering. So many souls condemned only to slow the dying of a passing god."
"Fuck you," you say.
"Ense Vardaman," she purrs again, leaning down, brushing a hand on the block, the blackness of her eyes, or perhaps the idea of her eyes, boring into you own, "It's over. Surely you must see reason. Save yourself. Save the rest."
"I will not betray my god," you tell her.
She sighs, deeply, but her smile only widens, bisecting her face, deep and unreal. "You will," she says, slowly. "You already have." Even her voice is oily in its smooth, low, strangeness.
She flicks up her finger. Touches your forehead. At first it's a pinpoint of cold, and then it explodes under your skin, burning, spreading outward through your face, your mind, your body, an impossible agony. You try to scream, but it floods your throat like burning oil, burning black, searing away as you choke, you drown, surrounded only by black and pain and black...
It stops. You gasp for breath as your vision clears. You're on your knees, chained to the ground before the block. You haven't moved. The black priest is smiling at you, watching you with empty eyes, her finger pointed just in front of you.
"I do this to save you," she says in her low, smooth voice. "A little pain to save you from an eternity of torment." She rolls the words like bubbles, unreal, slow, as they press into your mind.
"No," you say.
"Not your name, then," she says. "Other names. Those already passed. You can still save them."
You look away, away from the horrors of her robes, her unreal face, her dark pits of eyes. The spare chains are coiled piles on the floor, uninteresting, but just not so horrible as she is.
This time you do manage to scream, as the black spreads beneath your skin, into your muscles, your bones, fraying your nerves away into liquid, white, agony. It fills you, pushing everything aside, every thought, every feeling, until you're full - there's nothing left but the agony itself, almost bursting. But then it keeps on pushing. Larger, and larger, and larger.
You don't even realise it's stopped, at first. The pain and the blackness is still there. You still feel it, even as you become aware, again, of the room around you; of the floor, digging into your knees; of the chains holding you to it; of the smell, cloying; of the black priest, smiling down at you...
"They hear you," she says slowly, delightedly. "They all hear you, now!"
You try to ask who she means, but then you forget the question, too, even before you can form it. You're too busy screaming, straining, trying to get away from the sweet, burning black crawling under your skin, under your mind. It's in your eyes, in your eyes, and you try to scrape at them, to claw them out, but you can't, your arms won't move, you can't move. All you can do is scream.
You can't scream. You can't get the air, your throat won't work, there's no pause, no respite.
"No," the black priest purrs, soft and low. "That won't do at all." The words boil into your brain, her voice rising and falling in all the wrong places, tickling the backs of your eyeballs.
You almost scream again at that alone.
"Tell me," she says, "about Shalias."
You whimper, leaning away from her, but there's nowhere for you to go, only the floor, and you're already on the floor...
"Why is she worth so much to you," the black priest asks, slowly, softly, "that you would give Peledeska your soul? For hers?"
The black pits of her eyes are boring into you, again. You can't look away.
"There's no reason not to tell," she says. Her voice is everywhere, deafening, flat and viscous. "The God of Death will know all you know soon enough. Make it easier for yourself now."
"Not my god of death," you croak. Your voice is like dust on your lips. Your tongue almost crumbles as you speak. "I do not willingly betray my god."
"Oh, but your god is dead, Ense Vardaman," she says in her horrible, viscous voice, rolling your name on the unreal smoothness. She's still smiling, widely, ever too widely. "There is nothing left. You cannot betray nothing."
"Fuck. You." You have to force the words out, like fighting your way uphill through black snow, both ways.
The black priest throws back her shrouded head, her robes trailing after her in drifting wisps, and laughs, absolutely delightedly.
Suddenly she's sitting on the block, legs crossed, leaning over you, holding up your head with icy fingers, her shrouded, empty face close, so close, as she peers down into you. She's not laughing. She's not smiling. Raw menace oozes off of her. "I will save you," she whispers, soft and low, reverberating through your skull.
Her breath smells strange, dry, like rotting citrus.
Her lips on yours are like death itself, spreading sweet oblivion through your senses as everything you are simply drains away.
You don't know where you are. You don't know who you are. It's dark. You're cold. You're on the floor, bare, stone, feeling its texture dig into your skin. You've been stripped naked, with only the manacles on your wrists and ankles weighing you down, chaining you to the ground.
You sit up. Space seems as if to spin around you, uncertain whether it agrees or not with your questionable decision.
Silence bores into your mind, with only your own breathing to interrupt it.
There is simply nothing. Nothing here. Nothing to fill your mind, nothing to distract from nothing at all. No purpose, no presence, no name. You are alone, and you are bound. You raise a hand, and the chain scrapes, rattling against itself. It's heavy. You drop your hand. The chain clanks.
Everything is heavy. You have no strength. Even sitting upright is beginning to be too much...
You let yourself fall, collapsing to the cold stone floor, the chains digging into your flesh, untold weight forcing you down, even as the floor pushes back, crushing... crushing.
Only the smell of blood fills your senses, old, dried, cold.
Light floods the room, harsh and white and blinding. Her footsteps are soft, gliding, as she comes around to face you, out of the light, a dark, shrouded figure that seems more shadow than shape. Her face is mostly hidden, and yet her eyes stand out, and her mouth, darker than black.
You pull yourself up uncertainly, staring at her, searching for something, anything, any clue as to what is going on. You know her from somewhere, or at least you know... you should know her, but you don't know from where. You don't remember. You don't remember anything, really. All you remember is this room, being here, being bound, and darkness, silence.
"Ense Vardaman," she says slowly, her voice smooth and low and strange, shaping the words... your name? like a bad paint job.
Is it your name?
"Who are you?" you ask.
"The real question, I think," she purrs, "is who are you?"
You stare at her, utterly lost. You don't know. You never knew.
"Thief," she says, rolling the word. "Murderer. Destroyer of souls."
"I don't remember," you tell her. "I didn't..."
"You are all these things, Ense Vardaman," she tells you in her soft, low voice, the words rising and falling, lapping at the edges of you mind. "Shall I remind you?"
"No," you say. "Don't..."
"Hanolf Odim," she says, smoothly, oilily. "Kaelyn Amoggan. Shalias zu Harenai. Ashasiss Lazall. Bertram. Lander Albright... You took them from their lives. And others. So many others. Thousands and thousands and thousands of others."
"No," you whisper. There is something... familiar about the names. You do know them, somehow.
"Are you sorry at all?" she asks, smiling, her voice writhing into your mind, digging at the ashes of things you don't even know. "Even the slightest amount?"
"I don't remember," you say. Terror wells up in your throat, and you almost choke. It's not just terror.
"You will," she says, leaning forward, almost bonelessly, bringing herself down to your level, putting her horrible empty smile right in front of you, as her voice slides out like eels. "I'll help you feel what you've made them to feel."
Abruptly she straightens, leaning away, and looks off to the side. You look too, but it's just a wall, black, empty, barren.
You wait, uncertainly, anticipating just what that might mean, but then she doesn't say anything more, doesn't do anything. Just... seems to be thinking, perhaps. Considering.
The moment stretches, stretches, stretches.
"You do remember," she says, still not looking at you, not moving. "The names. Tell me the names."
And you do remember. You feel them welling up in your mind, so many of them, beyond count. They were all... yours. Your names. Your victims?
"Hanolf," you whisper, tasting the name as you speak it, remembering a face, a feeling, to go with it. But something's wrong. This is all wrong.
"He suffers because of you, Ense Vardaman," she says. "All for you."
"No," you say. "I didn't do this. You..."
She's on top of you, in your face, drawing you up by your head, fingers digging into your skull. The chains snap taut to the floor, holding you back, even as you're locked in her grip.
"Yes?" she says, slowly, exactingly, drawing out the word like nails on a chalkboard.
You choke. You're drowning, you can't breathe, you can't move. It's burning, inside you, your lungs are burning, screaming at you, your throat, your nose. You choke, you gag, you try to cough, but it doesn't work, there's too much of it, oozing out of your mouth, bubbling over, you feel it tricking. You struggle, try to thrash, to flail, but you can't, you're still chained down, and her grip holding you up is too strong, her fingers digging into your skull, too deep.
It hurts, it burns, and yet the pain is nothing to the fear, welling up with the same black ooze filling your lungs. You are helpless. You are at her mercy. And she is enjoying this.
She throws back her head and laughs, a horrifying, happy thing, bubbling up like the black inside you, unstoppable...
It stops. She lets go, and you fall back to the floor, hard, choking, coughing it up, barely even conscious as it sears at your membranes, falling steaming to the floor.
"Just tell me who you are, why you are here," she says, her voice smooth, silky, oozing into you like an anthill. "Help me to save you."
You don't know what she wants. You don't know who you are, or why you are here. You have nothing left, except... defiance. All you have left is defiance, and so you cling to it like a life preserver...
"No," you tell her.
"Then your life shall end," she tells you, her voice falling into new lows, strange pits and valleys. "Again, and again, and again."
And then it's back. You can't breathe, can't get it out, as you choke and gag on the burning filth. You claw at your throat, struggle against the chains binding you to the floor, but you're drowning, you're drowning in burning black, and there's nothing you can do, nothing
You know who you are. You know why you're here. You're in the room, the bereft chamber with only the bloodied walls and floor, the low stone block, the chains holding you in place, naked and alone. You remember dying, twice, now. Was it only twice? It feels like more.
You chose this. You knew what might happen to you, and you chose it anyway, for her. For Shalias. For the one last fragment of Kyrule.
A hand brushes your back, gently, delicately. Cold. "Ense Vardaman," the black priest coos, in her strange low voice, twisting your name against you. "You can still save yourself. It's so easy. Even from the start, it would have been so easy..."
She's not wrong. It would have been very easy to save yourself. Just never come back. Stay in hiding. Bind your soul to this world, and never pass on to the reigning god of death. But to do that would have been to betray everything you had dedicated your life to, your soul, your very being. This last sacrifice, in all its exacting torment, was nothing more than the final fulfilment of all your oaths.
She caresses your shoulders, your arms, your neck, her touch soft, almost fond.
She will break you, in time. You know this. There is nothing to save you, and she has complete control here. But this is not a matter of what you know, but of faith...
"I do not willingly betray my god," you say.
She withdraws her hand. Steps back, peers at you, curiously, her black eyes and empty smile making a mockery of a face.
The doors bang shut, and only darkness remains.
You're alone. Alone in the dark, in the cold, chained to the floor, to the blood. The smell is there, old and stale, lingering.
Alone with your thoughts, your memories. Regrets.
It was worth it, you tell yourself. It was worth it.
Hunger weakens you. Thirst breaks you, until you cannot sleep, you cannot think...
And still you remain, alone in the dark, in the silence, as the hard floor digs into your skin and bones, as the chains hold you down, down, down.
It was worth it.
It goes on, and you fade, fragmented consciousness. It goes on.
It was all worth it.
And then, eventually, there's nothing at all.
And then you're back. Alive. Aware. She's back. Peering down at you, her strange eyes stand out gleaming against the darkness of her robes, her wisps.
"Give me your name," she says. Her voice bores into your skull, your mind, your very soul, twisting and oozing. You fight it with everything you are, straining against its horror, its wrongness.
"Fuck you," you say, and it's all you can do to say it at all, and then there's nothing left, as your strength drains out of you, pools on the floor, trickles into corners...
Her smile is huge, bigger than anything. She has a sword in her hand. You know that sword. It's your sword, marked on the blade with the symbol of Kyrule. Blacked out, now. Profaned. Removed. You're powerless to move, to do anything at all, as she sits down in front of you on that low stone block, picks you up by your chin, and runs you through the ribs. It barely even hurts. The blade is so sharp, so perfect, there isn't even a flaw to catch.
She lets you go, and you fall back to your knees. She watches you, as you fade. It's slow, with the sword still there, stopping you from bleeding out entirely. You feel... heavy. Light-headed. You can't quite breathe. The pain is everywhere but your chest, dancing around your shoulders, your back, your stomach.
She's leaning forward, kissing you, slowly, deeply. This time there's no rotting citrus, no sweet oblivion. Just the kiss itself, in all its fullness, as with one hand she caresses your head, and with the other, slowly, so slowly, she pulls out the sword...
You're losing yourself. You can feel it. Every time she brings you back, every time she kills you, a little more of you is gone. Your reasons. Your purpose. Your very being. Fading.
And then you're back again. Alive, aware. Whole? Not whole. You will never be whole again.
The black priest skips the questions, the prelude. Jumps straight to the torment, the agony, all the many ways to make you suffer, all the ways to die, never leaving this room, never...
This time it's Shalias. She's sitting on the low stone block, uncertain, hesitant, peering down at you. In her eyes is a profound sadness, as she reaches forth you touch your face, because she knows, she knows...
It's not Shalias. It's the black priest, as always, smiling coldly, her black and empty eyes entirely devoid of any reasonable emotion. She slithers down, onto you, straddling your lap and pushing you down to the floor as you yell in pain at your joints and muscles being pushed too far, too far. Her shroud, her robes, her wisps and tatters, slide from her body, coiling onto the floor as she comes down with you, playing on your bare chest with a finger, burning deeply, deeply. She kisses you, up from your groin, your stomach, your chest, to the hollows at the base of your neck, your throat, and that burns too, an acidic fire burrowing into your flesh, before finally she settles on your lips, all tongue, into your mouth, your throat.
You want to scream. Every part of you wants to scream at this invasion, this horror, even worse somehow than all the agony that preceded it, but you can't, she's in the way, blocking you. You try to pull away, but you can't, there's nowhere to go, and you are too weak to do anything, too weak.
She sits up, and finally you do manage to scream as she takes your dick, inexplicably erect, into her. It's all you can do to scream, you have to scream, for there is nothing left to you but the white liquid agony spreading through you, all-encompassing, from the very core of your being. Every orgasm is a rush of new horror, of wrongness, of utter pain.
She spreads her arms above you, her naked form a twisted mockery of beauty, all burning pale, black and white.
You struggle. You... try to struggle, in between the screaming. You're not even sure why you're struggling. There's no point, no point to any of it, and yet for all your fear, all your agony... this is the true agony. It's not even as if you're still more afraid to give in; giving in would be worse.
"I do not willingly... betray my god," you mumble. You've no more strength for screaming. No more strength for... you hardly even know what you're saying, anymore, but you say it anyway, because it's all you've got. "Not willingly... not willingly..."
When she allows you to die again, finally, it is the greatest relief you have ever known.
It goes on. It goes on. You beg the black priest for mercy, for an end, for release. You beg and you plead, and she doesn't answer, because you still won't give her what she wants, either.
She just keeps hurting you, rinse, repeat, on it goes, and you scream your throat to ribbons, but it doesn't even mean anything anymore, as it wears you down to nothing. Not willingly, not willingly... until even that loses all meaning.
You go numb, and the pain is just replaced with another pain...
It's the silence that gets to you. Down here all is silent, save for the black priest's terrible smooth voice, as it rises and falls in all the wrong places, oozing into your mind, coaxing you, taunting you, taking such delight in your horror. The echoes of your own screams, your pleading, your humiliation. Your last gasps as she takes the life from you again and again and again.
Behind it all is only silence, and more silence. You are alone. You are alone. You are
"Please," you sob. "Please, have mercy."
Finally she pauses. "You want mercy," she says slowly, the words twisted and oily.
"Yes!" you cry.
"You want mercy from me?" she says again.
"Then beg it of Peledeska," she says.
And you do.
You've broken. You know you've broken. There is no point to any of it. There never was. You'll give her anything, anything...
And then she doesn't ask.
And you don't remember what to give her...
The black priest glides around you, her robes trailing behind her in wisps and tatters, her hands gloved not in black, but rusty brown, in cracking, flaking blood. Your blood? Maybe. It doesn't matter. None of it matters.
She brushes a hand across your shoulders. You flinch, though it doesn't hurt, not anymore. Or does it? Like molten ice spreading slowly through your flesh, it ripples in your muscles, your tendons, your bones. She trails a finger along your jaw, your chin, and it splits your head like a migraine. She's going so slowly, now, almost lovingly, drawing out each touch, each agony, as if it might be the last...
You don't resist as she raises up your arms, and the manacles fall from your wrists, as the ones on your ankles likewise fall open. You don't fight her as she draws you to your feet, as she traces lines of your muscles, your joints, your
The agony blooms, thick and viscous, filling every part of you, every crevice, every outcrop, as she pushes your back roughly against the door, as her black robes slide again from her form, as she embraces you once more, takes your mouth to hers, your parts into hers, raping you again, and again, and again. And you don't resist. You let her do as she will, responding, going along with all she inflicts, because there's just nothing else left.
And you do respond, rising with her in a crescendo of black fire that burns away all that you might have been, higher, higher, higher. It is a torment with no release, building up in a confusion of feelings, of utter climax and inescapable pain, until finally it all explodes
You don't look up, as they take you through the temple. You're dressed up, your old regalia, though you don't know why, with the black priest on your arm. Her twisting black robes might almost go well with your white and gold, except... what?
It doesn't matter.
You watch the floor beneath your sandals, both familiar and strange to you, as the tiles change from pattern to pattern, as you follow the boots in front of you. Shapes. Vines. Cats playing. Things that might be... flowers?
The corridors widen. The halls draw you upward.
The sunlight hits you like a fist to the face, and you flinch back, covering your eyes, even as the black priest urges you forward. "It's almost over," she reassures you, in her smooth, low voice.
You're at the thing, overlooking the crowd, immense and loud and colourful, laid out all before you, so many, as you've done so many times before. But now the black priest is with you as well, standing beside you. You're standing beside her, as she raises a hand, and the crowd slowly quiets...
You stare at it blankly, not even listening as she addresses it. This crowd. This crowd of... people. Colourful lively people. They have lives...
"Ense Vardaman," she says, and your name cuts into you like a knife, and suddenly you're listening, you're paying attention. She gestures out over the crowd. "Tell them who you are."
"I am Ense Vardaman, High Priest of Kyrule," you say, and your voice is amplified across the entire plaza so all can hear.
They hear. They cheer. Why are they cheering? Don't they know...?
The black priest directs them to stop, to wait.
"You hold the names of the faithful," she goes on. "Give us the names, that they may be saved."
You give them, reciting them all, each by each. Some who are living, some who are dead. Some who were hidden. Some who are here.
You trail off. You reach the end. You look at the black priest uncertainly.
She smiles as she looks at you. Her eyes and mouth are like holes, horrible and dark. "You give them to Peledeska?" she asks, slowly, so slowly.
"I give these names to Peledeska," you say.
"And your own? Ense Vardaman?" Her smile widens, somehow. It was already so wide. "Your name and your oaths?"
The crowd is a silent mass below, oddly hushed, suspenseful, waiting. Waiting for you. But why?
You need to do this properly. You cannot give what has already been given, not again, unless... "I, Ense Vardaman, High Priest, reject Kyrule," you say. "I reject the name, the god, and all that he stands for. I reject the teachings and the stories, and I take back my oaths, the words and the rituals, the sacrifices given. I take back my own name, for Kyrule is dead, and he is not mine.
"I give myself to Peledeska," you go on, "and I give to her my name, instead, Ense Vardaman. I give to her my oaths, that I am hers, and will forever be hers. My name, my life, my soul."
The black priest turns back to the crowd, but they're already cheering. "Witness!" she shouts over the rising din, throwing out her arms. "The High Priest of Kyrule! No more! Witness, the dead god's taint, finally removed from the world! The old god is dead! Gone! No more!
"We are free!"
It washes over you, the noise, the excitement, the sheer exuberance. But it's not over. Almost, but not quite.
"Kneel," the black priest orders.
You get down on your knees, and she pushes you down even further, your face so low that the ground is all you can see. Something touches your back, briefly, and then the air is knocked out of your lungs as your own sword punches through your back, and through your heart, into the stones, pinning you in place.
"And now you die, Ense Vardaman, one last time," she purrs by your ear, her voice smooth and low, and soon drowned out by the cheering crowd, a roar fading from your hearing, fading as everything fades away, so, so slowly...