by Tyler Bourassa
Luzian slipped reluctantly from his dream, but refused to open his eyes. The dream had been amazing, he remembered that much, but the particulars of it were already fading beyond memory. He thought he could recall a beautiful woman feeding him plump, juicy strawberries, and his mouth watered at the hazy recollection. He lay there a moment trying to fall back asleep and perhaps sample another strawberry. If the woman returned then all the better, but it was the strawberries that he truly desired. He’d been in this cell far too long.
Something cool and wet tickled Luzian’s toes and ran up his bare legs to his knees. He opened his eyes, then glanced in the direction of the wetness and saw a rat sitting on the knocked over bucket he used for his necessities. The rat was twitching its whiskers at Luzian and squeaking, as if reprimanding him for leaving his mess where it could be so easily knocked over.
“Damnit!” Luzian swore, then jumped up and away from the filth.
He ran to the other end of his cell and searched for the bucket containing his ration of water. Luzian had no desire to waste what precious water he had on cleaning himself, but the idea of spending the day coated in his own urine and feces was too much even for him.
He poured water from the bucket over the tattered remains of his pants and shirt, trying to clean them as best he could. When he was done his clothes were only a slightly darker shade of brown than they were before, and he still had enough water left over for two long gulps. Unfortunately the floor was still a mess, but he had no way to clean it.
Luzian carefully walked around his filth to the knocked over bucket and placed it upright. He briefly wondered where the rat had gone, then glanced at his cell door. He expected to see his morning allotment of slop, and frowned when there was nothing there. Luzian walked over to the door and banged his fist on it to get the guard’s attention.
The door creaked open, revealing an empty cell across from him. Luzian backed away from the door, falling onto his backside in his haste to get away. As he gazed through the open doorway, dangerous thoughts entered his mind. Thoughts of a life beyond the four walls of his cell. The promise of freedom and revenge was sitting in front of him, ripe for the taking. All he had to do was find his courage.
Old memories surfaced and Luzian let them wash over him in a wave of emotion. He remembered the day he discovered King Garran practicing the dark arts. Luzian had grown up with the King, and when he saw Garran’s snarling face, twisted and hate-filled by the power of the Netherealms, he had foolishly demanded that Garran abdicate the throne. He barely escaped the castle alive that day.
Rallying the rest of the Lords had been easy when they heard of Garran’s betrayal. They all worshiped the Holy Mother and had no patience for those who would barter away their very souls to the demons in the Netherealms for worldly power. The Lords all spoke brave words and made boastful claims about the glory they’d gain fighting against the King. Speaking of glory is much easier than attaining it however, and their armies were soundly defeated in only their second battle.
Luzian pushed away the bitter memories of his defeat, and searched inside himself for his courage. He tried to find a shred of the man he once was, before torture and captivity had taken their toll. He breathed deep, then stood, and crept towards the door, listening for the jingle of armour, or the hiss of an indrawn breath that would give away anyone lurking in the hallway. He heard nothing but the steady drip of water from outside his cell somewhere.
“Damn me for a coward,” Luzian growled, then pushed open the door with a trembling hand, and stepped into the hallway. Shadows danced along the walls in the flickering torchlight, and the steady drip of water in the distance continued, but no one jumped out of the darkness at him. Luzian slowly walked down the hallway, as his eyes searched frantically from side to side.
The other cells were all open, but there were no prisoners in any of them. Just echoes of pain from the poor souls who had been locked away in them, and dark pools on the ground that looked suspiciously like blood. Luzian was sure that there had been others. He remembered listening to men crying at night, and enjoying the sound, because it meant that he wasn’t alone in this nightmare. There were other people with him sharing in the suffering.
He continued down the hallway until he reached the door at the end. Even making it this far was a victory of sorts, but he knew that this was where his journey would end. Beyond this door was the guardroom, where the sadistic bastards who kept the prisoners in line lounged around playing cards, and laughing. This is where his freedom would end and pain would begin. Despite this, he felt compelled to go on.
Luzian pushed at the door and winced as it screeched open. The guardroom beyond was completely dark, and as far he could tell, empty. He stepped inside and immediately slipped in a puddle, falling backwards, and slamming his elbow on the ground. His arm went numb and he cried out in pain, then lay in the sticky puddle for a moment until the pain subsided.
“Help me,” a voice croaked from the darkness. “Please.”
Luzian jumped up, then bolted out of the guardroom, hiding around the corner. He tried to calm his frightened mind and reason out what was going on. There had obviously been an attack on the castle, and it must have spilled down into the dungeons.
Luzian grabbed a torch from the wall beside him, then carefully walked back into the guardroom. The hand holding the torch began to tremble when he spotted blood slowly dripping off a table into the puddle he’d slipped in. He swiveled his head, taking in the torn bodies of dead guards scattered around the room. There was blood coating the walls, as if the murderers had taken a special pleasure in the feel of it, and lingered there a while to paint a twisted mural.
Luzian’s head snapped towards the voice. He saw a guard laying against the wall in the corner of the room, clutching his abdomen. Luzian grabbed a sword that was laying on the ground, and cautiously approached the guard. The guard was extremely pale and sweating, it didn’t seem like he was long for this world.
Luzian knelt down in front of him. “What happened here?”
“Death came for us, creeping along the walls, tearing at our flesh.” The guard winced and licked his lips before continuing. “We had no warning.”
“What came for you?” Luzian asked harshly.
“He… Ahh, the pain!” The guard let go of his stomach, and foul smelling blood and coils of intestine poured out of him.
Luzian jumped up and backed away from the moaning guard and a shred of pity touched his heart. “If it was me I’d want an end to the pain,” Luzian muttered, then walked over to the guard, trying to avoid the blood pooling around him. He tightened his grip on his sword and took aim. The blade was sharp and did its job well, silencing the guard’s moans and Luzian thought he could see a look of relief on the guard’s face as he died.
Luzian wiped the blade of his sword on the guard’s cloak as best he could with one hand, then stood up and turned towards the door across from him. If he remembered correctly, that door should lead out of the dungeons and to the lower levels of the castle. He stood up and walked to the door, then leaned his sword against the wall and pushed it open with his free hand. There was a curling stairway leading up, just as he remembered from years ago. He picked up his sword and began his ascent.
Luzian walked down the empty halls of the servant’s quarters, trying to smother the fear that grew inside him. The words of the dead guard echoed loudly in his mind and he kept glancing at the walls and ceiling, expecting to see some fanged monster creeping towards him.
As he walked further down the hallway he started to hear something. At first he couldn’t decipher what it was, and he stood still a moment, listening. He slowly came to realize that it was a gentle sucking, like the sound of a baby at its mother’s breast, coming from many of the rooms around him. The normally comforting sound was at odds with the nameless terror that was creeping up his spine, and he hurried down the hallway.
He rounded a corner, and left the terrible sound of feeding behind him. A door just ahead of him was slightly open, and when he got closer he could hear quiet sobbing coming from the room. He’d spent enough days and nights over the last few years doing the same thing, and recognized the familiar sound of hopelessness. Every inch of him told him to keep walking, escape from this nightmare, but instead he found himself pushing open the door.
The room beyond was covered in thick filaments that glimmered green in the torchlight. Luzian thought that the hanging strands looked like a horrible parody of a spider’s web, and nearly fled as he imagined the terrible creature that must have wove it. He fought down the urge to run as his eyes were drawn to the source of crying he’d heard from the hallway. It was a woman, covered from foot to neck in the green webbing. Her eyes were wide and panicked.
Luzian put a finger to his lips and walked towards her. Each step finished was a small victory, and each step started a new battle, as he wrestled with his fear. He knew that he should keep his eyes searching for any potential danger, yet he worried that the only thing keeping him on his quest was the imploring gaze of the woman tied up on the ground.
When he got to her, he placed his torch on the floor, and began to saw at the sticky strands, surprised at how difficult it was to cut through them. “Are you alright?” Luzian whispered.
The woman shook her head frantically from side to side. “Shhh,” was her only response.
Luzian nodded and continued in his efforts to free her. When he cut through the final strand he helped the woman up, then picked up his torch. “What did this to you?” Luzian asked.
“Not here, you fool!” The woman hissed, before blanching and pointing behind Luzian.
Luzian whirled around and nearly dropped his torch when he saw the horrific creature in front of him. It walked on two legs, but was small like a child, and maggot-white with glowing green eyes that burned hatefully. It glistened with moisture and Luzian was reminded of a drowned corpse that didn’t know enough to accept that it was dead. Its lipless, gaping mouth, was full of pointed teeth that were coated in green slime, and Luzian realized that the filaments covering the room must come from there.
“Holy Mother,” Luzian breathed.
The creature screamed hatefully at Luzian, filling the room with its reeking breath, and covering Luzian in green spittle. He swung his sword at it, but it leaped into the air and clung to the ceiling on all fours, scuttling away.
The woman grabbed Luzian’s arm. “Run!”
Luzian started to run, but only took a couple steps before the creature fell on top of him, knocking him to the ground, and sending his sword and torch flying away. It clawed at his back, leaving burning trails of pain, and Luzian screamed. He tried to pull it off of him, but he couldn’t get a grip on it while laying on his stomach. Its fist slammed into the side of his head and stars danced in his vision.
The creature wrapped its clammy corpse-hands underneath Luzian’s chin and began to pull his head back. It had its knees pressed down on his arms, surprisingly strong for so small a creature. His neck began to crack and he cried out in pain.
Hot, wet fluid suddenly covered Luzian’s back and the creature released its grip with a groan. It collapsed on top of him, leaking saliva and blood. He frantically pushed it off and stood, whirling around and facing the woman. She was holding his sword, its blade coated in black blood.
“Thank you,” Luzian rasped, rubbing his aching neck. “That thing was about to pull my head right off.”
The woman didn’t respond. Luzian figured that she was probably in shock and gently took the sword from her. He saw his torch lying on the ground, with a pool of blood inching towards it. Luzian ran over and scooped it up, shuddering as he thought of being in the dark with that creature.
Luzian turned back to the woman. “We have to get out of here. There’s more of those things, right? I could hear them feeding as I was coming down the hallway. I’m pretty sure most of the rooms are filled with them.”
The woman looked at him, as if just then remembering where she was. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. Come, let’s get to the main floor,” she said brusquely.
Luzian nodded, and the two of them exited the room. They walked down the hallway quickly, neither talking for fear of alerting more of the creatures that they could hear feeding in the other rooms. When they got to a closed double door, the woman pushed them open without hesitation, then took the stairs two at a time. Luzian followed as fast as he could, but he was tired and hurt from his encounter with that creature, and years of confinement had stolen away most of his strength.
She waited for him at the top of the stairs, clearly annoyed at having to do so, but unwilling to leave the man behind who risked his life to save her. “This leads to the kitchen, then the dining room. After the dining room, we can get to the King’s audience chamber, and through there is an exit. Can you keep up?”
Luzian thought of what it would be like to feel the wind blowing through his hair and almost wept with desire. “Wait. You must tell me what happened here!” Luzian demanded.
“We have to go! Even here isn’t safe.” The woman said, then turned and reached out to open the door.
Luzian slammed his shoulder against the door, holding it closed. “I must know, my lady! Does the King still live? Does he control these creatures?”
The woman frowned and looked as if she’d argue further, but her gaze roamed up and down Luzian’s skeletal body, taking note of the pattern of scars across his chest. Her eyes softened. “First off, I’m no lady. My name’s Rola, and I’m the Mistress of Housekeeping here in the castle.”
“My name’s Luzian.”
Rola’s eyes widened in shock when she heard his name, but she recovered quickly. “Luzian, the traitor?”
Luzian chuckled mirthlessly. “Some may call me that.” He quickly turned behind him, shining the light downstairs. Seeing nothing, he turned back to Rosa. “Well? Are these creatures the King’s doing?”
“You’re going to get us killed standing here,” Rosa muttered. “If you must know, yesterday my girls came to me, whispering about strange noises coming from the King’s study. Voices speaking a language no one could understand. I told them to mind their business. What the King does is none of our concern. True, he’d changed over the years, perhaps for the worse, but he is still the King.”
Luzian nodded, then motioned for her to continue.
“Then, this morning, these creatures came upon me. I was knocked unconscious and wrapped up like a midnight snack. I heard the cries of my girls though. I heard them suffering as those things fed from them!” Rosa grabbed Luzian’s arm. “Please, Luzian, we must get out of here!”
“I need to make sure the King is dead. I know there’s a stairway in the audience chamber that leads directly to his private chambers. I’ve walked those very stairs with him many times, laughing and joking about the odious requests the farmers always make of him.” Luzian put his hand on hers. “We’ll go that far together, then you can leave, and I’ll go pay my respects to the King.”
“The King is surely dead, Luzian! These things will have killed him, as they killed everyone else!” Rosa said.
“I need to be sure,” Luzian replied.
Rosa threw up her hands up in disgust. “Fool! You’re half starved, more a walking corpse than a man, but you want to travel through this nightmare to kill a man who’s surely already dead.”
Luzian smiled. “I’m glad you understand.”
“I understand you’ve got a death wish,” Rosa muttered, then opened the door.
The kitchen was empty, save for the unfinished beginnings of breakfast. Bacon, eggs, freshly baked bread, and bowls full of every fruit imaginable were covering the tables. Luzian handed the torch to Rosa, and rested his sword against a wall, then started shoveling cold bacon into his mouth. He knew that he should slow down, and only eat a little. His stomach wasn’t used to such rich food, especially not in this large quantity, but it had been many years since he’d tasted bacon, and the memory of it paled in comparison to the real thing.
Rosa slapped Luzian in the back of the head, and said, “Enough! No wonder you lost the rebellion, you don’t have enough sense to stop eating before you’re sick.”
Luzian dropped the piece of bacon he had been holding regretfully. He knew she was right. A bit of food in the belly would give him the strength he needed for what was ahead. Too much would leave him crouched in the corner, attending to his business while one of those creatures crawled along the ceiling towards him.
“Thanks, I guess I got carried away,” Luzian replied sheepishly, then took a big sip from a pitcher of water. “Let’s continue.”
Rosa nodded, and Luzian picked up his sword, then gestured for Rosa to hand him the torch. She did, then grabbed a torch for herself off the wall. “That door leads to the dining room,” Rosa said, and pointed at the door on the other side of the room.
Luzian nodded and walked to the door. He put an ear against it, listening for the sucking sound the creatures make when they feed. Hearing nothing, he pushed open the door and stepped through.
The dining room had blood covering the table, but there were no bodies, or green webs hanging from the ceiling. There had obviously been murder done, but the victims must have been taken somewhere else to be eaten later. Luzian shuddered at the thought.
The two of them hurried through the dining room, then stopped when they got to the door that leads to the audience chamber. Once again Luzian put his ear to the door and listened. There was a soft crooning emanating from the room. It was soothing, and made Luzian want to lay down and sleep. He shook his head angrily and looked at Rosa. “There’s something in there. I’m not sure if it’s the same creatures we saw or something else. Are you ready?”
Rosa’s eyes were tight with fear, but she nodded.
Luzian slowly pushed open the door, praying to the Holy Mother that it wouldn’t squeak and alert the monsters to his presence. He wasn’t sure if his prayer worked, or if the servants in the castle were to thank, but the door opened soundlessly. He held up his torch and saw dozens of people hanging upside down from the ceiling, wrapped up in the thick green webbing. The ground was littered with the remains of people who had been taken down from the ceiling to be fed upon.
Rosa let out a quiet sob and put her hand to her mouth. “Luzian, we must free those people. I’ve known them for years, we can’t leave them to be eaten by those monsters!”
Luzian looked up at the people hanging from the ceiling, then turned towards the corner where the crooning was coming from. The creatures were laying there, piled up on top of each other, and sleeping. There were a lot of them, far too many to count without getting closer than Luzian dared.
Rosa followed Luzian’s gaze and gripped his arm tightly. “They’re in front of the way out!”
Luzian frowned. “Is there another exit?”
“Not close by. I’d have to walk through half the castle to get to the main entranceway.” Rosa took a deep breath. “I guess I’ll have to come with you.”
“I’m sorry, Rosa. I wish there were another way,” Luzian said, and squeezed her shoulder. The two of them walked to the centre of the room, trying not to look at the corpses littering the ground, then stopped when they were underneath the sleeping prisoners. “They’re so high up, I can’t reach them.”
Rosa pointed at a knocked over chair a few feet away, then walked over to it. When she picked up the chair it scraped on the floor. The crooning stopped and the room lit up in an emerald glow.
“Run, Rosa!” Luzian yelled, then took his own advice, and ran for the doorway that lead upstairs.
Luzian kicked open the door, then turned, and noticed that Rosa was still a few feet away. Behind her, the creatures exploded from their pile like spiders bursting from a pregnant mother, then scurried across the floor, walls, and ceiling, shrieking as they came. Rosa ran by Luzian and he followed, slamming shut the door, then charging up the stairs.
Luzian’s legs cried out in protest with each step he took. His neglected muscles weren’t used to so much exertion and he was sure that each step would be his last. He could hear the creatures shrieking hungrily behind him.
“Hurry, Luzian!” Rosa yelled from somewhere in the distance.
Something grazed his foot painfully and Luzian glanced back. One of the creatures was there, snarling at his heels, so he rammed his torch into its mouth. It cried out, pawing at its face as it caught fire and fell backwards down the stairs. Luzian kept running.
He saw Rosa at the top, pushing frantically at the door. It was locked. Luzian took a deep breath and lowered his shoulder, sprinting up the last few steps, refusing to give in to his fatigue, then leaped. His shoulder slammed into the door, and he grunted in pain as he slid across the floor, and into a nightmare.
Luzian was laying in a pile of snow, shivering as the cold seeped into him. He looked around in bewilderment. He appeared to be in some frozen mountain range, beneath a weak red sun that looked strangely out of place. He had a feeling that the light was an intruder here, and the world was holding its breath, waiting for darkness to fall.
“Where are we?” Rosa asked in a shaky voice.
Luzian stood up and turned towards her. He saw a glowing rectangle in the distance, and he could only assume that it was the portal they came through. It was much farther away than it should be, as if it deposited them here then left, wanting nothing more to do with them. “I don’t know,” Luzian muttered
“The Netherealms,” a voice said from behind them. They turned, and as they did, they saw a shadow coalesce into the shape of a man. It was tall and thin, and pale as snow. Its skin was wrinkled and hung from it in loose folds, and it was draped in a black cloak that seemed to ripple, despite there being no wind. “How are you, Luzian?”
Despite the horrific changes, Luzian recognized his King right away. “What’s happened to you, Garran?” Luzian asked in a voice thick with revulsion.
Rosa cowered behind Luzian, clutching her torch in shaking hands. “That’s the King?”
“What’s left of him anyway,” Luzian replied.
“I have been remade, old friend. Into something more than human, given great power by the Lords of the Netherealms in exchange for access to our world. You’ve seen my children already? I sent them on ahead to prepare the castle for my coming,” the King said in a hollow voice.
“Your children slaughtered everyone in the castle!” Luzian growled, gripping his sword tightly.
Laughter assaulted their ears. “Is it wrong for the butcher to slaughter the lamb?” Garran asked, then began to approach.
Luzian stared into the King’s emerald eyes. “This time I will kill you, Garran. For what you did to me, and our people.”
“Such arrogance,” Garran whispered, with a grin twitching at the corners of his lips. “Fine, Luzian. I’ll kill you now as I should have done all those years ago.”
Garran raised his hands over his head, and Luzian saw a flash of emerald when the King’s movement exposed his naked belly. A gem was lodged there, swirling with green mist, but Luzian had no time to admire it. A sword of ice crystallized in the King’s hands, and Garran charged at Luzian, swinging his sword. Luzian desperately blocked the attack with his own blade, but was thrown backwards from the force of the blow. He landed on his back, and all the air was knocked out of him.
Garran loomed over Luzian, fingering his sword and grinning. “Failure is becoming habitual for you, Luzian.”
Luzian opened his mouth to reply, but snapped it shut again as the King’s cloak went up in flames. Rosa was standing behind the King with an open mouth, as if surprised at what she’d done. Garran started to scream and backhanded Rosa away, knocking her torch from her hands. Garran twirled in circles madly, then dropped to the ground, rolling around in the snow.
Luzian jumped up as quickly as he could, and ran towards the fallen King. He waited until Garran rolled onto his back, then struck. The sword sank into Garran’s belly and thick black blood leaked out. Garran punched Luzian in the chest, and Luzian grunted in pain, sure that his rib was cracked, but held on. He pried at the gem with his sword, and Garran howled in pain, flailing his arms around, blind with agony.
The gem shot out with a moist tear, then landed sizzling in the snow. Garran leaped up, knocking Luzian over, but fell right back down. Smoke was rising up from him and his skin was bubbling, and filling the air with an acrid stench.
Rosa ran over to Luzian, and helped him up. There was blood running from her nose and mouth. She pointed at the portal. It was blinking in and out of existence, becoming less substantial with each blink.
“I’ll kill you!” Garran shrieked from behind them. They turned and saw him crawling on his hands and knees as his body boiled, and popped. He was leaving puddles of himself in a trail as he crawled.
They took off running for the portal. The hard snow cut painfully into Luzian’s feet as he ran. Each step brought them closer to the portal, yet Luzian was sure that they wouldn’t make it in time. Whenever it blinked out of existence it took a little longer to re-appear. When they were a couple feet away Rosa leaped through, disappearing into the portal. Luzian jumped next, closing his eyes as he flew through the air, praying the portal would be there for him.
The cold disappeared and Luzian tumbled down a flight of stairs. When he finally stopped, he groaned in pain. He was laying in a puddle of foul smelling slop, that looked the same as the substance that Garran had been melting into.
“Luzian!” Rosa shouted with a smile. She ran over to him and helped him to his feet.
Luzian looked around and saw that the stairs were filled with fetid puddles that were coagulating into a green skin. “It looks like they’re all dead,” Luzian muttered, looking around for any of the creatures that were still alive.
Rosa said nothing, instead she grabbed Luzian and wrapped her arms around him. Her embrace made the dozens of cuts and bruises all over his body cry out in protest. She smelled like a latrine on a hot day and Luzian assumed he smelled even worse. Still, it was the first human contact he’d had in years that didn’t involve pain or punishment and he reveled in the simple feeling touching another person.
She pulled away, still smiling like a child on feast day. “We’re alive, Luzian.”
“Yeah,” Luzian mumbled. It had been a long time since that meant anything to him. He didn’t know where to go, what he’d do. Suddenly the feeling of freedom overwhelmed him and his heart started to race.
An errant breeze blew in from a window in the stairwell, cool and smelling of fresh rain and hope. It lifted the matted hair out of Luzian’s eyes and calmed his pounding heart. He was alive and free. That’s really all that matters.