Author Topic: The Price of Freedom ~ Immith  (Read 1417 times)

emptyanima

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The Price of Freedom ~ Immith
« on: October 05, 2019, 11:38:51 AM »
Immith
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Name: Immith
Age: 19 Yrs.
Race: Human, Rashemi
Religion: The Lawgiver
Former Slave
Origin: Ramulai, Hazlan (Ravenloft Native)


The Slave Who Became A Gladiator - Gladiator - Hans Zimmer

Now We Are Free - Gladiator - Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard
 1. Artwork by vitellan
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 03:28:24 PM by emptyanima »

emptyanima

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Painful Anticipation
« Reply #1 on: October 05, 2019, 02:55:10 PM »
The earth had turned to mud.

Immith looked up at the sky, distant and unforgiving, as the torrential downpour refused to abate.

How long had she been sitting here? She could not tell; the minutes and hours had blurred together and become indistinct. A weak, flickering fire continued to fight in the fire-pit beside her, providing little warmth. The smoke stung her eyes. She glanced down at her wrists, and the manacles that surrounded them. She could see her face, young and devoid of feeling, a distant reflection. Her lips trembled faintly, brow furrowing in thought. It ends today.

The thought provided her with a measure of comfort. Even now, she felt the welts all over her body. She felt the imprints of the hands that had struck and pinned her so heavily, with such force that she half-believed that they still lingered upon her, unseen. She felt the crack of the whip on the backs of her thighs, and tasted the bitterness of failure.

She felt all these and she was weary of them. It was this that had driven her to disobey, to deviate from the silent acquiescence she had kept all her years, to reach out to grasp the forbidden fruit of freedom, that taste unknown. She had brushed the tips of her fingers against it, her heart thudding in her chest as she ran, daring to hope for just one moment that she might escape the only life she knew.

They had found her. They had crushed her, body and soul, their hands at her throat and smiles on their faces as they set before Immith a choice.

Choice... it was alien to her. She had no choice over the course of her life; she was born into slavery, into hard labour on the fields and in the home of her masters. In recent years, they had found new ways to humiliate her in servitude. It mattered not a whit. This body, the one she carried with all the bruises and searing pain, did not belong to her. It was theirs. She was theirs.

There were days that she strained to recall her own name. But this day, the day of her death, a thought sounded clear in her mind.

Today, Immith, you will feel nothing.

The choice she had made was to decide how it was she would be punished for her crime - theft. Her body was worth much more to them than her life, and the price for trying to take it from them was death. Either she would die where they found her, or she would die for the entertainment of the Mulan, in blood sport.

So it was that Immith had chosen the latter. And so she sat, and so she waited... waited for the hour of her death, and the brief relief from all sensation it would provide, before her soul was torn into the Hell of Slaves. How Hell was worse than life, Immith did not know.

She looked up from her thoughts, her attention drawn to the willowy, pointed-eared woman beside her. A fellow slave who had been conscripted into the blood-sport. Ahead of them loomed an imperious, terrible figure, watching their every move. Immith was used to scrutiny, but there was a new dimension to this gaze; Immith felt as though the Hell of Slaves had already opened, and one of its keepers was watching her, eyes full of fire and brimstone, waiting to bear her soul away into eternal torment. She swallowed.

As if on command, the figure loomed closer, leaning down to examine Immith as a cooking slave examines the meal in the pot. It growled hungrily. And then, there were footsteps. The looming figure shrunk back. The elf beside Immith rose to her feet quickly and bowed to the owner of the new footsteps. Immith scrambled quickly to her own feet. Before them stood a woman in red and gold, a mask covering half of her face. Her arms were adorned with gold bands, but these were decorative, unlike Immith's shackles. This woman was one of the Mulani, a Red Wizard, and she could kill either of them with a single word.

"Good evening," the elf beside her went, her words clipped and uneasy. The red woman's voice followed quickly, imperious.

"It will be. If you were not going to die shortly, I would kill you for the sheer gall of speaking without permission, you sub-human waste of space."

"Of course, forgive my impertinen..." The voice beside her died quickly as the she-elf quietened, stopping herself from repeating the same mistake. Immith stared at the red woman's skirt, remaining silent. The red woman barked a few orders, after which the hellish figure departed. Then, she felt the red woman's gaze as keen as a blade, examining the pair as though they were cuts of meat at a butcher's shop. Such a look was not unfamiliar to Immith. The red woman spoke again.

"Tch, could be worse." She pointed at Immith. "I assume you have some kind of story. Speak." Despite being ordered to, Immith hesitated, fearful of what opening her mouth might bring.

"I-... as you wish."

"Yes, yes, hurry it up, you are not going to live forever." This reminder of her mortality sped Immith's tongue to action.

"This is my punishment for theft. My theft being... this body." She gestured to her sodden form. "I... tried to run. I was caught. Either I died there, or I died here."

"Wonderful," said the red woman, "Justice at its finest. And you, sub-human?" The elf's voice came shortly afterwards. Immith watched her as she spoke.

"I am from Hroth, originally. I ventured out... and in my foolishness, I trusted the wrong human... and so now I am here. To take part in this spectacle... and to likely die in it. That is my story, rothihir."

"Oh, good, you have had a learning experience. I do so hate for education to go to waste. Such is life for sub-human scum."

"A shame that it is a lesson I shall likely take with me to my grave, mh?"

Immith tensed up at the elf's response. Her moment of rebellion notwithstanding, Immith was unused to hearing anyone talk back to the Mulan, especially not to a Red Wizard, and especially not from an elf. The red woman's smile widened.

"With that arrogance? I believe you are accurate. I could take this chance from you, if you like? You can always join the ones below as a test subject? The unlucky ones live a long time."

This threat caused Immith's neutral expression to falter. There was little that troubled her now, after a life of relentless cruelty, but the thought of being subjected to the testing of the Red Wizards sent shivers down her spine. That was a fate worse than death. It seemed that the elf knew this too, as she threw herself upon the muddy earth before the red woman, prostrating herself. Immith knelt too, not really thinking - when one slave acts, others usually follow. This seemed to placate the red woman. "Good. Keep this in mind, slaves. Wizard Rannoch is experimenting on pregnant women and always in need of new subjects, even if he has to make you pregnant, first."

Immith closed her eyes, drawing her legs together as she knelt. More footsteps came, and soon enough, the red woman was taken up in discussions with more of her fellows. They seemed eager to discuss their methods and various cruelties in front of the slaves; perhaps to make them increasingly desperate, and increasingly violent when the time came to fight.

The newcomer approached the pair and began to examine them, lifting their limbs for inspection and judging their faces as one judges cattle. As she felt the masked face's stare upon her, the newcomer asked her name.

"Immith."

Beside her, she heard the elf woman give her name, once asked for it.

"Maleesa. Maleesa Starbreeze, once of Hroth." Immith noted the name, whispering it in her heart privately for safekeeping.

"Subject Immith, what do you hope to achieve if you survive this?" Immith's dark eyes widened at the question, and she struggled to answer.

"I do not know what I could... achieve. I do not allow myself to imagine it." She spoke in a soft voice, as though afraid to do so, despite being asked.

"And that is why you kneel where you are today. If you were strong in mind, you would have been able to achieve more than where you are now. A cog with the purpose of spare parts."

A small voice whispered to Immith.

"Don't listen to them. It's not true." The elf woman was as bold in soft words as she was in her interactions with the red woman. Immith hesitated before responding with soft words of her own.

"I have never had the fre..." The word died on her throat, so foreign it was to her lips. "The time to imagine. I have been a slave all my years. It is all I know."

"I remember what it was like, before I was taken. Before I was brought here." The thought quickened Immith's heart, and her mouth moved quickly with eager questions.

"What is it like? To choose? To... choose who touches you, and where you travel?"

"It is like nothing else, Immith. Tragically, you do not come to appreciate it until it is all taken away from you. " In her mind's eye, Immith reached up towards the branches of that tree, ever out of reach, where the forbidden fruit of freedom lay beyond her grasp, more beautiful than ever...

Her imaginings were shattered by Maleesa's speech.

"I must be honest... I do not know if I can do this. To... kill. To take a life, even a human's. Even if it means I'm free."

Immith had not yet properly grappled with the fact of what lay before them. Inwardly, she admitted that she did not think of killing, because she was to die long before that could happen. She tried to keep this thought from reaching her expression, speaking swiftly and softly to the elf.

"Maybe... maybe we will only know when the time comes." Maleesa sat up, adjusting her seated position on the muddy grass.

"Who else is taking part in this? Who else do we fight?"

"I... I don't know. More like us, I imagine." By this time, the rain had been so relentless that Immith's hair was almost free of its loose ponytail, clinging to her skin. Maleesa shivered, her silver hair also soaked through. They continued to distract themselves with talk of Maleesa's people, the crumbling cities of her sorrowful kin, and the failure of their past that had resulted in their deep melancholy.

"In spite of everything I just said, I wish I could be there, and not here. There, with my mate. With my child."

Immith stiffened. Already, Maleesa, that which the red woman was so quick to call sub-human, had excelled her in worth. This woman would be mourned if she died here. No one would mourn Immith. No, Maleesa deserved to live more than her. Immith trembled.

"Then... that is what you must think of, when you fight. The chance... I know it is much to hope for."

"What makes the connection I have with them worth more than the connection others have with their loved ones? I imagine there are a fair few others here who... well, are like me. Proud as I am to be an elf, I recognise that we are all living things."

Living. What was living? Living was pain, a dull ache that never fades, a burden that never eases.

"Someone will mourn you, if you go. No one will mourn me. No one will mourn most of us." Maleesa was wringing her hands now, anxious and covered in dirt.

"That's not true. There must be someone who would remember you, who would miss you. Someone who you miss." Immith swallowed hard, a coldness pressing against her chest.

"You are right. There is someone who would miss me. My... my masters will miss tormenting me. Miss ordering all they wish of me. All... all they wish of me."

The pair had been so distracted by their conversation, that Immith had not noticed the approach of many more wizards, until one of them addressed them both.

"I can certainly see a winner if these two were to fight. The elf is simply not fit enough. Surely... there are more than just these two fighting?"

Maleesa's boldness continued as she gave a reply.

"Looks can belie reality... your Omnipotence." This boldness no longer seemed of interest to the red woman, who turned to continue speaking with the one who had spoken up - Wizard Rannoch, the one who was experimenting on pregnant slaves.

"Obviously, sub-humans are going to lose, but is that not part of the fun?"

Immith's mind remained on Rannoch's comment about the lacking fighters. She whispered again to Maleesa.

"Surely they will bring the others soon,... surely. Perhaps... their masters wished them to attend their duties before they went to the grave."

"It is possible..."

Immith stared at the hem of Rannoch's robes, trembling.

"Do not anger that one. Surely death in the arena is better than becoming one of his..."

She couldn't bring herself to say the word.

"Experiments." Maleesa finished.

Immith was silent for some time, contemplating the horrors to come. Then, Maleesa's voice came again.

"This... this is it, isn't it? After two centuries, this is how it ends." Immith spoke to comfort her the only way she knew.

"If you kill me, it will be a kindness. I won't... I won't have to feel this pain anymore. Every time I move... no, it would be gone. It will be the same for many of us."

"Ust. No... I won't have them make of me a killer. That's... that's not who or what I am." Immith began to tremble, now. Was there to be no convincing her? The one who deserved life more?

"Then... what will you do, if we must face each other?"

"I... don't know." Something in Maleesa seemed to snap, and she began to weep, choking on her hushed words.

"I don't know. I don't know!" Immith trembled more violently.

"You *will* know... when we are in the arena and the time comes. You will know then. You do not even have to fight *me*. You can imagine me as your kidnapper, and you can have a second chance to break free..."

The red woman had noticed their fear made manifest, and turned to address them again.

"Oh, no. No tears. At this stage, it seems you both have a fifty percent chance of winning. Those are wonderful odds. Let us see some happy smiles, mmm?"

Maleesa dried her eyes, before looking up at the red woman and offering a pained smile. "Good girl," said the red woman, as though praising a well-trained dog. Immith's trembling eased a little as she lifted her face, still avoiding the red woman's gaze, offering a smile of her own. It did not reach her eyes, which looked... wrong inside her young face, full of the bitter resignation that might more usually be found on far older faces than hers. Immith looked at Maleesa.

"You had many words for the wizards. Is there... more that you had running around inside your head? More that you wanted to say? I am but an ear, if you wish it."

"I did, but it hardly matters, does it? Who cares about the heavens as seen in Sithicus? Who cares about those among my people who wear black robes? I just want to see my girl again. I just want to see the one I love again. But... the only way I can do that is by taking a life. By making myself a monster. By killing their command, for their enjoyment. For their entertainment."

"Monsters do not care for their families. They care only for themselves."

There was a small commotion nearby. Soon, another was present in the slave encampment, a man that Immith immediately recognised as Rashemi. He sat in silence in the corner, keeping his distance. Immith and Maleesa resumed their whispering.

"What's with all this whispering between you two?" The Rashemi man piped up from the corner, before continuing with his questions. "Are you friends? If they told you to kill each other for their amusement, would you?"

"We are not friends, hirsute stranger. Merely... good acquaintances," Maleesa replied. Immith was content with this answer, and content with their unspoken agreement not to answer his last question.

"I doubt that my tongue will move again once this day is over. I speak now, and likely my last." Immith added.

"It was... good, coming to know you, Immith." Maleesa said, "I do not say this of many humans... but I do say it, of you."

"Then I am glad that I chose this punishment, and not the other..."

A few more moments of quiet passed.

"I... expect there shall be at least one more. Difficult to make a contest of three." Immith murmured.

The sound of rattling chains drew near. Immith looked up, and she gasped. The hellish figure was leading a huge man, armoured, with the skin of a leopard draped over his shoulders. A helmet concealed his features.

"Speak... and he will appear." Maleesa whispered.

"He... is a bear of a man." Immith regarded the man fearfully as he stood before her, trembling anew. The red woman seemed pleased.

"Now the hope is that there is some fight in the others, or else this will be butchery. Glorious butchery." The Rashemi man beside Immith shifted uncomfortably where he sat.

"How long are they going to keep us waiting?" Maleesa whispered, "The anticipation might kill me before the leopard-man does."

"They might mean to make us mad. Perhaps they believe we shall fight harder."

"It is possible..."

The red woman snapped her fingers.

"Right, gather them up. To the arena."
« Last Edit: October 06, 2019, 02:11:22 PM by emptyanima »

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The Desperate Struggle
« Reply #2 on: October 05, 2019, 05:00:41 PM »
Calling the place to which the slaves were brought an 'arena' was a cruelty all of its own; in the belly of the Red Academy, there was a short, deep pit, surrounded with enough space for the Red Wizards to stand on as they enjoyed the carnage that would unfold. As they entered, Immith saw more slaves had been brought to fight. She saw a woman with eyes that did not match each other, dressed in the attire of a harlot. Immith winced inwardly. The other was a gnome, short and strangely-haired, whose visage was one of terrible anticipation.

The slaves huddled together, waiting to receive their judgement. Waiting until they heard their name, and the name of the one who they would kill, lest they die.

Rannoch called forward the first pair - the Rashemi man, and the harlot.

They were led to a chest which contained some equipment for them to use. The Rashemi took up a dagger. The harlot, perhaps surprisingly, selected a spear. Her eyes were wide and full of fear, her chest heaving with the effort it took to breathe. The Rashemi man spoke up.

"Into the pit, then?"

"In," went the red woman.

"I don't want to do this, but I suppose there's no choice, is there?" The Rashemi man added, before heading down the slope into the death pit. The harlot followed.

The red woman smiled, and a moment later, her voice filled the dingy dungeon, echoing on the damp stone.

"Begin!"

To the surprise of all present, the Rashemi began to incant, forming a spell in his hands...

It burst quickly, rendering the harlot asleep on the floor... as well as the Rashemi. In the tiny pit, he had failed to give himself enough room to pull off the incantation without succumbing to its effects himself.

The dungeon filled quickly with the laughter of the red wizards, and it echoed menacingly off the walls, and it seemed that the few in red had become many, their eyes everywhere, their relish in the Rashemi man's mistake rich and sweet.

The hellish figure was among the watching wizards, and she spoke up through their laughter.

"I suppose whoever wakes up first and slits the throat of the other wins?" Quite suddenly, the large, leopard-skin wearing beast of a man spoke loudly. "HERESY. HELL. OF. SLAVES!" It rang around the dungeon, leaving the remaining slaves trembling as they looked on helplessly at the slumbering pair in the pit.

Beside Maleesa and Immith, the gnome whispered.

"Nothing is amusing about this."

"No, you're right," Maleesa replied.

"Come on, one of you, get up..." The gnome pleaded in whispers, desperate as a prayer, "They'll kill you both..."

"Come on..." Immith added her plea to his.

The large man growled. And then he descended into the pit.

"WAKE!" He bellowed from the depths of his mighty lungs.

"Wake them both," ordered the hellish figure. Obediently, the large man struck the pair with the flat of his blade, stirring them from their slumber. The lethargy was dispelled quickly, replaced instantly with the fear that if they did not strike, the other would kill them. The Rashemi tried yet again to set his sleeping enchantment on the harlot, but it glanced off her like a parried blow, so set was she on survival. His dagger proved little defence against a spear. The Rashemi man fell onto his back as she lunged towards him, the spear striking through flesh and organs and out the other side. As he struck the ground, she lifted the spear, taking some of his guts with it, before plunging it into his heart. His death cry filled the whole dungeon several times, echoing away into nothing. The stench of blood and death rose from the pit. As the harlot removed the spear from his heart, she had a troubled look on her face, swallowing hard.

"Good," said the red woman, "Out of the pit. Rannoch, your next pairing? Leave the corpse."

Rannoch was only too happy to oblige the red woman.

"Our non-human slaves should help us solve the question, which is stronger, elf or gnome?"

Immith drew a sharp breath.

Fight. Please, fight...

She pleaded inwardly, watching Maleesa with worry. Maleesa, the hissing elf, the nearest thing Immith had ever had to a friend.

The two went to the chest to choose their equipment. Still, the stench of death spread throughout the dungeon. Immith's eyes were watering as the miasma rose, her heart thudding in her chest.

"Remember them..." Immith whispered, as the pair descended into the pit. "They will miss you."

Maleesa reached for the longsword at her side... then paused, removing her hand soon afterwards. Immith started to panic. The gnome looked forlorn, holding tightly to a mace in one hand, and a shield in the other.

"I'm s-sorry..." The gnome said.

"FIGHT!" cried the red woman.

Maleesa's voice was quieter than the red woman's, but her words chilled Immith to the core.

"... I will not fight you. Not for them..." The gnome looked up at the wizards.

"We must, lest we both die..."

"Kill her, Gnome," spat the red woman. Maleesa's voice came again, louder now, and full of despair.

"Forgive me, Xanaphia. Forgive me, Quarion!"

Immith felt as though she had been struck in the heart. Her child... her mate.

The gnome lifted his mace, but he was sluggish, as though it was heavier than before, his voice strained. "Forgive me..."

And then, he swung at her. Maleesa closed her eyes, still and unyielding.

"NO!" Immith screamed, her heart breaking.

The gnome swung, and swung, each strike crushing Maleesa's skull further and further. Her face was altered and inhuman and decreasingly Maleesa, red and streaming. Maleesa's voice went up again, a shrill scream of incredible pain, until even that failed, replaced with a death rattle.

Immith sobbed, the coldness spreading inside her, burning as much as a fire, her legs unsteady as they carried her. She imagined the faces of Xanaphia and Quarion altered in incredible grief, the anguish of centuries without the Maleesa they loved. She barely heard the red woman's voice.

"Rannoch, next pair!"

"It seems gnomes are stronger than elves." Rannoch observed neutrally, before continuing. "The next pair is what is left from our beginners. The man in the leopard coat, and the Rashemi woman."

Immith swallowed and walked to the chest. The ice in her chest did not press so harshly now. It will be over soon. It will be over soon, screamed her heart.

"Into the pit, Krazos," the hellish figure commanded the large man.

"Fetch your weapon and armour and fight!" Rannoch snapped at Immith. Immith chose a light armour, a helmet, and a greatsword, which she carried with an ease that seemed to surprise the red woman. Years of hard labour had left Immith with the use of a strong body, and she employed this strength as she wielded the blade. She took a deep breath, approaching the death pit, the stench incredible as she tried not to slip on the viscera left on the slopes and stones.

"Well, well..." said the red woman, observing Immith. As Immith approached, Krazos dropped the handaxe and shortblade he was carrying, opting instead for the larger blade on his back. Immith took another breath and spoke aloud, drawing on the boldness her fallen friend had shown.

"Before we fight... before you kill me... will you permit me to close their eyes?"

Krazos grunted. "Do it." Behind Immith, the gnome fought tears, hiding behind his shield. Immith knelt, beginning with the Rashemi man, closing his eyes carefully. Then, she turned to where Maleesa lay. She whispered, fighting new tears. "They will mourn you. I am sorry..." She did her best to close Maleesa's eyes, but it was difficult, given that Maleesa's head no longer resembled one, and was instead an unrecognizable pile of bone and flesh.

Immith rose to her feet, steadying herself, before turning to face Krazos. Here was her death. Here was her path to nothingness, that brief reprieve from pain before her eternity in Hell.

"Fight!" cried the red woman.

"To the death, I fight." said Krazos. He growled, lifting his blade and charging Immith. Immith flailed with the blade, swinging despite the futility of her efforts. Take me to the nothing. Take me from this place. Krazos's large muscular form crashed against her, his blade forcing Immith down onto the floor of the pit. She groaned, feeling the viscera beneath her on her arms and legs, and seeping into her hair. "Thank... you..." She spoke with difficulty. "Soon... soon I feel nothing."

"Finish it."

Krazos sheathed his blade. He turned and reached down, grabbing Immith by the helm and pulling her up from the floor of the pit. The hellish figure's voice came again.

"Mrh... this is... just finish it, Krazos, this is boring! Crush her skull with your bare hands! I want to hear her plea and scream!"

Immith's brow furrowed in confusion beneath her helm, her bruised body covered in blood as she fought for breath. She fought... why did she fight? Death was coming... it was coming... she began to properly feel the pain that shock and grief had masked, and she groaned. She saw again in her mind's eye that tree, and the forbidden fruit of freedom just out of reach. Krazos wrestled with Immith's helm, trying to pull it off.

Immith reached out for the fruit.

Immith gasped for breath, and reached out for the blade she had dropped. As she moved, however, Krazos pushed back, pushing her forcefully towards the wall behind them. As Immith's back slammed against the cold, bloodied stones, she cried out in pain. He wrestled with her, trying to smash her helmeted head against the stones. Immith gave a loud cry, shoving her helmeted head towards him, trying to stagger him and get free of his grip. His hands were on her shoulders now, pushing her firmly against the wall. Several painful memories flooded through Immith's mind.

She tried to break free from his grip, grasping at air in hopes of finding her fallen blade. Krazos gave a terrible cry, one that echoed inside Immith's helmet, and he struck her head against the wall. The Rashemi slave steeled herself. The dying fire burned anew and more brightly within her. Immith fought for her life.

The sound of steel striking stone as the helmet clanged against the wall echoed around the dungeon, but Immith seemed unfazed. Immith growled, Krazos growled; like animals, they fought for survival.

Immith tried once more to break free of Krazos's grasp. He lifted one hand, striking her hard in the gut. Immith groaned, her eyes watering with the force of it, her body crying out as the pain shrieked through her.

"DESTROY HER!" cried the hellish figure. Immith again tried to reach for the blade; she could see it, close to her feet, so close, so close...

She ducked, avoiding a strike from Krazos's plated knee, and took hold of her blade once more. It felt heavier than before, but with a gurgled cry, Immith swung the blade, searching for exposed flesh. As it drew close, he ducked into a roll, narrowly avoiding its path as he took hold of his own dropped weapons.

"THE HEART, KRAZOS, I WANT HER HEART!"

Again, Immith swung her blade towards Krazos, gritting her teeth against the terrible pain. He blocked her strike with his newly-claimed weapons, which he soon sought to take advantage of as the blades hurtled towards Immith's belly. Again, Immith saw the tree in her mind's eye, and the forbidden fruit of freedom, nearer, nearer...

She lifted her blade and parried his strike with such desperate force, it staggered the brute of a man, creating an opening for her to exploit as he stumbled back. Her blade swung again, singing with lethal purpose, until steel met flesh, blood spraying over the pair. Krazos growled, staggering backward now as blood oozed from his belly, but he remained standing. Steadfast. He was a seasoned warrior, and what was Immith but a desperate woman? Her strike only increased Krazos's fervor, and he gave another animalistic cry, one that Immith met with a desperate equal.

Immith swung. Krazos lunged. Their cries echoed around the dungeon.

And then, Immith screamed.

She felt the blade in her belly, the chill of the steel and the cries her body made as that which was supposed to be inside her was forced out. Krazos grunted, pushing the blade further, further...

Immith crumpled, and fell in a heap onto the floor of the death pit, her intestines beginning to fall out of her battered carcass as she hit the ground. There was a slick sound as Krazos twisted the blade in Immith's abdomen. She began to feel... cold, and numb, as she stared up at her killer through the eye-holes of her helmet. In her mind's eye, she saw the tree, and the forbidden fruit of freedom, growing higher and higher and out of reach - or was she falling?

Soon, it was hard to see at all. It was coming for her now, that end to all things, that reprieve she had desperately sought. It was the next best thing. Her voice came soft and distant, as though it was not hers at all.

"Free..." She whispered.

"Free. Valiant. One." came Krazos's reply.

The spark of life went out in Immith's eyes, and she fell into the Grey. Into Nothing.
« Last Edit: October 17, 2019, 04:02:42 AM by emptyanima »

emptyanima

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Stolen Valour
« Reply #3 on: October 05, 2019, 07:20:04 PM »
The Grey was still.
The Nothing was silent.

Nothing could be felt. There was no pain. There was no shame.

No Mulan. No Rashemi. There was no Hazlan at all.

Immith was there, and Immith was not. Immith did not mean anything anymore.

Immith was the Grey.
Immith was the Nothing.

Still.
Silent.
Silent.
Still.

Suddenly, the Grey lurched.
The Nothing screamed.

It contorted, trembling as it shattered and fell away, falling apart in the presence of a sudden light, a yellow orb hurtling towards the fragments like a vengeful sun.

~~

Immith howled.

Her soul was sucked into her carcass with a sudden, sharp force. She felt the bloodied leather armour stuck to her wounds. She could smell the stench of the pit again, slick with blood and thick with death. She felt the helmet around her head, and peered dizzily through the eye-holes. Through them, she saw Krazos, looming over, hands about the handle of his axe. Before him stood the red woman, her grasp tight on her staff.

"Wh-wha..." Immith's voice came rasping, desperate, "Is this Hell? Why does... why does it look like..." The words died on her lips.

The red woman addressed her directly.

"You get to live. How.... fortunate."

Suddenly, Krazos stirred as though from a daze, raising his blade.

"DEATH!" He bellowed, his weapon swinging towards the red woman.

There was a commotion of steel and spell, too much for Immith's death-addled mind to comprehend.

Suddenly, the hellish figure was there, in the pit, clawed fingers pressed against Krazos's chest.

"Die... with your glory, great champion."

Immith wasn't sure if her sight was still blurring from her return to life, or if she really did see as she believed she saw. There were tears in the hellish figure's burning eyes.

Immith was dragged from the pit by two of the Red Wizards, her mind still lost in a whirlpool of confusion. A sound dragged her back to painful awareness.

She heard Krazos, his cry of agony rounding the stones of the dungeon once, twice, three times...

"Why...? How...?" Immith whispered.

"That beast made one request," said one of the Red, "To have you revived was his wish. Then he attacked Sefris. Attacking a Red Wizard of a noble house isn't the smartest idea."

"He... I was his request? I do not understand. He won..."

"The winner gets one request that can be done. That was his, to revive you."

Immith saw the hellish creature's claw dig deep into Krazos's chest. Heard the soft weeping it emitted. And then, she heard it, heard Krazos hit the floor of the pit as he died. She slumped back onto the bedroll that the Red Wizards had set her upon, and stared up at the stones.

She was stirred to action by the Wizard Rannoch's voice.

"What, take a corpse?"

"The beast in the pit," said the Red beside Immith.

"Useless to me," snapped Rannoch, "I have better beasts. She however..."

Immith held her breath.  The red woman, Sefris... her voice sounded now in her mind.

"... even if he has to make you pregnant, first."

No...

"She would do nicely." Rannoch finished.

"What..." Immith's voice cracked as she spoke, "What do you want from me?"

"You will learn soon enough."

Immith drew her legs together, reaching now for the straps on her helmet, suddenly finding it claustrophobic. She sucked in a breath to try to ease her nerves as she pulled it off. Had she really been condemned to this? Was this really the Hell of Slaves, so indistinct from the world she knew?

One of the Red slid a potion bottle towards her. "Drink - you are of no use to anyone in that condition."

She drank, thirstily, finding its restorative effects enough to help her sit up. She looked down at the pit once more, properly, for the first time.

She saw the corpse of the Rashemi man.
She saw the corpse of the Harlot.
She saw the mutilated remains of Maleesa.
She saw the corpse of the Gnome.
She saw the corpse of Krazos, burning away into nothing, the stench of burning flesh hitting her nostrils.

Immith drew herself up onto her feet, and walked carefully through the blood and viscera into the pit.

Why?
Why?


Behind her, she heard one of the Red speaking with Sefris, who was now recovered from her near-fatal engagement with Krazos.

"Sefris."

"What?"

"Has this one won her freedom?"

"Yes."

The words didn't register with Immith at first, so lost was she in the pit, staring down at all those who had died, while she yet lived.

"Ah, very good. So now you-" the Red addressed Rannoch, "-can keep your impure thoughts and desires to the whores in the brothel, foreigner."

"All crimes forgiven, free citizen, and so on..." intoned Sefris, neutrally. "And it only cost five lives."

Immith's breath caught in her throat, the weight of Sefris's words, and their many implications, finally clear in her mind.

"I am sorry..." She whispered, feverishly, to the corpses that could not listen. "I am so... so sorry." She turned slowly and began to drag herself out of the pit, tears stinging her eyes.

"What is your name?" Asked the Red.

"Immith."

"You're free now to do as you please."

"Free..."

"I will be returning to the Fane to pay my respects to the Divine Emperor. If you want to accompany me to the Fane and see my Mistress if you desire some sort of work, you may."

"I..."

A thousand thoughts raced through Immith's mind. What were these... choices?  "I have never given thought to my own desires." Another of the Red observed Immith now, peering at her.

"You have no aspirations? Interesting..."

"Slaves with aspirations..." Immith began, "They are not obedient slaves." Immith cast her eye over her bloodied limbs, the scars and welts, the wounds sustained in her battle with Krazos. She noted that her intestines seemed to be back in the right place, but how, she could not know.

"You are a not a slave anymore, Subject Immith."

Immith's mind reeled with more questions.

"This... this body is mine?"

"Yes." Went another of the Red.

"Yes, the body is yours," Sefris confirmed, "I will write you a receipt." With that, Sefris took pen and ink and went to prepare it.

Immith fought new tears. She saw the tree, the forbidden fruit of freedom. She reached out to touch it, and it was fragrant and redolent.

"Do you care to explain how you feel at this moment? Please describe, for research."

"I.." Immith stammered.

She felt so many emotions - relief, anxiety, hope, grief... guilt.

Guilt.

Guilt.

"I feel sick."

Immith disgorged herself onto the stones. One of the Red quickly offered her a handkerchief and she wiped her mouth.

Sefris returned with the papers, formally written, that set out Immith's ownership. She handed it to her. Immith peered at the lines and markings; the pen scratches meant nothing to her, for she did not understand them, but she understood the value this paper held. This would prove to those who could read them that she did, in fact, own herself.

"You officially belong to yourself."

Another of the Red spoke.

"Should you wish to leave this land completely... I will bring you to Vallaki."

Vallaki. What was Vallaki? This name meant nothing to Immith. It was foreign...

Foreign...

Away from Hazlan.

Immith looked over her shoulder at the corpses again, the shells of those spirits who had all had their own dreams. Their loved ones. Their people.

Guilt.
Guilt.
Guilt.

Immith took a breath.

"I... I will go with you."

For the first time in nineteen years, Immith left Ramulai and its surrounding farmland. She followed her guide through the perilous woodland, past the strange roaming beasts and other dangerous wildlife. They filed onto a wagon, shepherded by the Vistani.  Immith sat in silence as they made the journey.

As she stepped out of the wagon, the grass felt different. The air had a different scent. There was beauty, and peace, and sweet scents. Before much longer, Immith was alone.

Immith was free.

Immith reached out to the tree, and reached out for the fruit of freedom, no longer forbidden.

She lifted it to her lips, broke through its sweet, crisp skin with eager teeth.
She sank her teeth into the fruit, the sweetness strange and stinging on her tongue for all its novelty. But it was sweet, and it was good...

For a moment.

Immith wept.

The fruit was sweet to taste. But the aftertaste, the impression that lingered long after the bite was swallowed...

The aftertaste was ashes.
« Last Edit: October 06, 2019, 03:43:02 AM by emptyanima »

emptyanima

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Open Wounds
« Reply #4 on: October 25, 2019, 05:51:35 PM »


She was there again, in the pit. It was deep and damp, and she struggled to walk without slipping through the blood.

It was the pit, and it was not. It seemed... stretched too wide and too tall, and everything was distant. The laughter of the Red Wizards stood upon the lip. The torchlight that barely reached its base. The echoes that still sounded, but took longer to come back.

Immith was there, and so was she. With her silver hair and her kind face.

"Maleesa!"

That is what Immith would have cried out, if any sound had been forthcoming. She felt the word, but she did not hear it. But this did not matter, because Maleesa did respond. She drew closer, arms wide as though to embrace Immith. Slowly, slowly, Immith ran to meet her. Maleesa was smiling. She was smiling...

And then she screamed that shrill scream.

Immith tried to move faster, but the harder she tried, the more Maleesa was out of reach, still screaming.

Her face was changing again. Unseen blows distorted it, mutilated it. Her skull's shape was altered. Her eyes, wide and fearful, slid wetly down her bloodied cheeks, and still her mouth was wide with that scream. Immith finally reached her now, tried to take her in her arms...

Her arms. They were crimson, heavy with blood and viscera. The wretched creature who was Maleesa recoiled from her, her scream shifting to a hateful Sithican hiss...

"Ssslayer!"

As she reached the end of the word, the hiss altered again, its spiteful sibilance giving way to a death rattle as she fell to the ground before Immith. Immith tried to turn away now, her heart in her ears.

She screamed. Something was holding on to her ankles. She looked down, and she could not see her feet, but she knew...

Maleesa's cold, dead hands were holding fast to her now. She tried to move, but she was even slower than before, struggling along with her own weight, and that of the dead elf's bony hands around her leg. She pressed on, the pit stretching out before her into infinity. In the distance, she saw them... the others.

The Rashemi man, hirsute as ever.
The harlot with mismatched eyes, spear in hand.
The gnome, with his shield and mace.

Immith struggled forward to try to meet them, to know them... those whose deaths she had seen and who she wished desperately to remember; how could she, when she did not even know their names?

As she drew close, a voice, loud and imperious, boomed around the infinite pit.

"FIGHT!"

Immith looked up. Sefris loomed over them, the hellish figure beside her, and they seemed almost as large as the pit itself. Immith tore her gaze from the Red Wizard and her pet to find the trio advancing on her. The Rashemi woman reached for the blade at her back. Maleesa's corpse hissed its disapproval.

As Immith took hold of the blade, she found it almost impossibly heavy, dense and cold. She felt her arms trembling under its weight. And still the trio advanced on her. However, as they ran, the Rashemi man summoned that spell between his fingertips, sending himself tumbling to the ground. Beside him, the harlot lunged with her spear, skewering him as he fell. This drew the attention of the gnome, who turned on the harlot, slamming his mace into her skull as she held to the spear, the regret in her expression turning to fear and then pain as she fell apart, the pieces of her body sent astray as the gnome smashed his shield upon her corpse. He drew it up, dripping with viscera, and continued his advance upon Immith. She tried to move, but she felt even heavier now. She looked down, and she knew again... she felt them. The hands, holding her legs again, two more bodies to bear as she struggled on. The gnome had almost reached her now, but the look on his face was not murderous; it was desperate.

Suddenly, she felt her blade, much lighter now, swing forward, cleaving the gnome in two at the waist. Both pieces fell at her feet, and she felt the blood running hot between her toes. She looked down at the hilt of her blade, and she froze. There was another pair of hands over hers, large and strong and worthy of such a blade. She heard a voice behind her.

"Your victory. Is mine." Immith's blood ran cold.

"Krazos..."

"Valiant. One." He laughed a humourless, booming laugh behind her, echoing in her helmet. "What a. Mistake."

Krazos let go of her blade now, and she felt its heaviness anew. It was too much. She was weak. Too weak...

He stood before her now, blade in hand. "My. Prize."

And then, from nowhere, came the claw in his chest. The hellish figure's burning eyes filled Immith's sight, like twin portals to the same Hell of Slaves. Its tears engulfed everything, snuffing out the torchlight for several moments. When at last Immith could see through the gloom, she tried once more to step forward. She could barely move an inch.

All five of them held her now. Her body screamed with the effort, the pain screaming through her battered limbs. But still, she pressed forward, heavy-laden as she was. The path before her did not feel like the pit now. The stones were gone, replaced with something soft, but unsteady.

As the gloom continued to clear, Immith realised that she walked upon the backs of the five. The same five that still held to her ankles. And the same five appeared over, and over, and over beneath her as she struggled on. Light filled this place, a heavenly balm, a promise of peace unknown to the Rashemi woman. It bathed the field of corpses, and caught in the branches of the tree.

The tree...

It was before her now, as steadfast as it had ever been. Its branches stretched broad. She looked up into the branches, and she found it. That forbidden fruit. Freedom.

She let go of her blade, its weight unbearable now, and she staggered forward, ascending the mount of corpses in search of that prize. Her every step was gentle against the bodies, as she fought not to disturb or disrespect them in their stillness. Still, the same bodies held to her ankles, slowing her progress, sapping her strength. Higher, higher, higher she went, her sight distorted with worn, guilty tears.

She reached for the fruit. She almost felt it beneath her fingertips, but still, she was too low. She crawled forward a little further, every limb trembling, screaming for relief. She pressed her hand gently against one of Krazos's corpses, and it lifted her, higher, higher. She felt the fruit in her grasp now, could smell it, see her face in its skin...

As she saw herself, she trembled. She saw every mark and scar and bruise. She saw her tears. She saw the bodies around her, behind her, holding her fast. Her heart grew heavy and cold. She could barely move at all now, so weary she was. She lifted the fruit to her broken lips, and she struggled, as though she carried the very world in her hands. She sank her teeth into the fruit...

And it turned to ash.

She gave another silent scream, and though unheard she felt it cut through her heart. The ashes tumbled down her trembling arms, and coalesced at her wrists, growing tighter, tighter. Where the juice of the fruit should have been, ashes ran down her face, her chin, her neck, before gripping fiercer, fiercer...

She gave another scream, and the ashes turned to metal, the shackles at her wrists and her neck returning to where they belonged.

Immith heard a laugh, now, and it made her blood freeze. From behind the tree, he walked, his robes flowing like blood from a wound, the tattoos in his skin twisting like snakes, his bald head reflecting the brightness of the grove, stinging Immith's eyes. He was carrying a bowl in his hands, filled with stew, hot steam rising from within. He looked down at Immith, and he smiled as he spoke.

"Oh, you simple creature. You thought to run away from me? There is nowhere left for you to go, slave... and it is time for my meal."

Immith shrank back from the bowl, her heart thudding in its cage. She tried to move, but the bodies around her moved now, and their many limbs - Maleesa's, Krazos's, and the rest - held her fast. Still, the five held to her ankles. He laughed again.

He stepped forward, tilting the bowl of stew upward. Immith could almost smell it. She felt the steam on her face.

He lunged now, throwing the contents of the bowl over Immith's face. She screamed as it scalded her skin, again unheard. Then, the bowl itself followed, blotting out her surroundings like a vengeful eclipse, and he pushed her down beneath it. Her helpless cries echoed around the bowl as he moved over her, pressing her down upon the mount of corpses, his cold, slimy hands on her skin...

Immith sat up with a start.

She peered around the dark, panting for breath. She was seated upon the furs she'd been provided by the kind folk she had met - those who had broken her shackles. She felt the air leaving her lungs. She felt her hair clinging to her neck, lank and soaked with sweat. She sobbed, and she could hear it now, pitiful as it was. She looked down at her ankles, and she was relieved to find no hands holding them. As she worked towards full wakefulness, she remembered those who had broken her bonds. Those who had clothed her. She was grateful to be spared the sight of her bruised and battered limbs. She remembered her words...

"I believe in you, and I'm sure Aron does too. And most of all, that fellow who died, he believed in you, so I know you're going to be amazing."

Immith closed her eyes.

If he believed, why does he haunt me? Why do they all follow me?

She took a breath, trying to stoke the fire Krazos had kindled in her heart.

I cannot waste this life. I must be as she said - amazing. But how?

Immith pushed herself, bleary-eyed and still trembling with the memory of her nightmares, to her feet. She stumbled out of the door, and began her search.

A search for her purpose.

 1. Artwork by Vandal/BastardSon of PoTM
« Last Edit: October 25, 2019, 07:35:02 PM by emptyanima »

emptyanima

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Runaway
« Reply #5 on: November 16, 2019, 12:12:10 PM »
Immith had found herself returning to an old pastime, only now, there was no risk of being beaten if she was caught pursuing it.

She stood upon the roadside, taking all in the folk going about their daily business. She regarded most with shy curiosity. For the guardsmen, she reserved a measure of apprehension; she feared to stand out too markedly from the other free folk, and she feared draw the suspicion such notice might bring.

As she took everything in, she noticed a little woman, dressed in black, stood by the roadside. Immith peered at her for a moment. She thought again of the gnome in the pit. She shook her head, dispelling the thought, and moved to pass her. Immith's stare, however, had not escaped the little woman's notice.

"Hello, dear."

Immith paused in her steps, turning to look at the woman. Years of habit won against the newness of freedom, and she bowed to her.

One of the little lady's eyebrows rose. "Not often I have people bowing to me." The words, while not meant unkindly, gnawed at the Rashemi woman's heart. She was standing out, and the guards were still close by...

Immith's cheeks flushed. No words were forthcoming.

"You're a quiet one," the little lady commented. Her words hurried Immith's tongue.

"I-... I am not used to talking very much." At her words, the guards marched by, causing Immith to involuntarily stiffen. The little woman spoke again, but this time, her words came in the Vaasi tongue.

"Servant class from Hazlan?"

Immith's eyes went wide. Was it really so obvious? Was it written into her skin like the tattoos forbidden to all but the Mulan? Or had this little woman been sent to take her back?

Immith turned on her heel, and she ran.

She ran into the woodland, tumbling on the underbrush. She curled up as the rain pelted her and gasped for breath. That name, that place... it followed her as the ghosts did. Their presence was not only limited to dream, at least, not to dreams in slumber. There were times that she felt them in the shadows, watching her. When she laid down to sleep, she felt their bodies alongside hers, heard their cries. Immith was tormented. Immith was frightened. But most of all, Immith was exhausted, and exhaustion had made her act strangely. There had been no cause to fear, to run. Though Barovia felt a world away from Hazlan, they were neighbours. It only makes sense that the folk here would know of it. Immith dragged herself to her feet, dusting the forest from her modest, warm clothes, and made her way slowly back to civilisation. The evening was coming soon, and she began to feel the chill on the air, biting through the woolen garb she'd been given. The glow of light from within the inn drew Immith inside like a moth to a flame.

She must have still looked a little wild, as one of the patrons was quick to ask if she was well. She nodded quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Then, she heard a familiar voice behind her. She turned, and the little woman was there again. Immith took a step back.

"Sorry, dear," said the little woman, her tone soft and soothing. Immith drew a breath, her gaze pointed down at the floor.

"I am sorry. I-... I did not mean to run. Well, I meant to run, but I should not have. I... I was a little frightened." She felt the patron's eyes on her again, but this did not bother her greatly; she was used to such scrutiny, after all.

"It is alright, dear, I understand." The little lady revealed that she in fact hailed from Nova Vaasa, hence her knowledge of the Vaasi tongue. She was all too familiar with the faith of Lawgiver, and the servant class that faith required.  "We have much in common."

"We do?"

"I escaped the oppression of the Lawgiver, as well. Not the same oppression of you in Hazlan, but oppression nonetheless. You are safe here."

Immith's mouth quirked at her words.

"I-I didn't escape, no, no... I didn't run away. I was freed." Behind her, Immith heard a soft cough, a woman's. She turned at the sound, and bowed before she could stop herself.

"Evening," said a familiar voice, as the speaker arched a brow at Immith.

"Sorry, sorry... it is a hard habit to break." She looked closely at her now, recognising the woman as one of the Red, Feyza. This was the one who had been kind to her, who had spoken against Wizard Rannoch's claim upon her after the fights were over.

"Apologies if I am interrupting. I am hoping to have a word, some time?"

"I am here, if you require a word with me."

"In private. Won't take long."

Immith followed Feyza downstairs into the basement, a pleasant room with rugs on the floor and a fire at the rear, warming it. Soon, Feyza was speaking again. "How are you finding Vallaki?"

"It... it is strange. People speak of many dangers, and I have seen the dead walk, rotting..." She drew a breath before pressing on. "But... the people I have met are kind. I hope I will learn how to live here, as they do."

"Well, that is good. I have a proposal."

"A proposal?"

"My Mistress is interested in you." Immith trembled more violently now.

"Why?"

"Well, you're all alone in a foreign land with foreigners."

"I... I am in the foreigner in this place, but yes."

"Well, we're offering you some support. Do you know of House Seyda?"

"I...   I think I heard the name spoken, down... down in the death pit." Immith swallowed.

"Well, unlike the other sinners and degenerates, if you want some work, we're happy to provide. Most of us are Rashemi, in fact."

"What sort of work?"

"Well, I work for my Mistress directly, but I'm sure we'd allow you to tag along with our expeditions and such. Mistress is interested in you, I told her of your tale. Would you be interested in meeting her, or the others? We're not like the... others with their perversions and such. You'd get some soul-orbs, training and such." Immith, who had been listening attentively, found one question immediately leaping from her lips.

"Back in Hazlan...?"

"No. Would be around here, I'd imagine."

"Then..." Immith drew a breath. She felt the guilt pressing again now, but beneath that, a faint hope. Could this be the path to the purpose she sought? "Perhaps I can meet her. I do not know why she would be... interested in one like me. I do not know what that warrior saw in me, to exchange his life for mine. I just... I saw a chance to be free. That is all."

"Maybe someday I'll know freedom, but anyway..." Feyza began. Immith's heart, and then her expression, filled with guilt. "Good, I'll tell her you're interested and you can meet." Immith was distracted and she spoke quickly in reply.

"Please, forgive me. I thought...  I thought... well, you could travel, and speak openly, and..."

"It's fine. Though in the meantime, I wonder if you would like to meet a fellow Rashemi. If you have time."

Immith nodded, a little soothed by Feyza's words, and filled with curiosity now.

"I have no demands on my time. It is... strange."

Immith followed Feyza outside, and they spoke for a short while as they waited. As they spoke, a new question occurred to Immith. A question that took her back to the pit. "What... what happened to the bodies?"

"Probably left there, or tossed away by the slaves."

Tossed away... Immith looked away, sucking in a breath as her eyes began to water. And then, a man appeared, steel bared, stirring the Rashemi woman from her melancholy. "There you are," said Feyza, addressing him. "This is Immith, the one I spoke of. The Champion of the Pits. She'd like to know more about the House."

Immith felt the man's appraising gaze, and she regarded his blade with open worry until he set it aside. As he did this, she felt able to shift her own gaze from the blade to the man himself, but she could not bring herself to look him in the eye.

"You are from home, yes?" He asked in a quiet voice.

"Yes."

"Why do you wish information on the house of Seyda?"

"I was told that your Mistress has an interest in me. I... I wanted to know why." The man's gaze moved over her again now. It was not like other looks of scrutiny that Immith had endured. No, rather than looking at her limbs and her features, she felt as though this man was trying to find out who she was.

"Hm... she wishes for those that..." He paused. "She is not like the others. Who sent you to this land?"

"It... it was set out as a choice to me, after I was given freedom. I didn't want to linger in... at home, anymore. So I came." The man grimaced.

"Yes, running from that which we face is easier." His words hit her like a body blow, and she drew another deep breath, her dark eyes glassy.

"I couldn't... I couldn't stay. The ghosts were too close. Too close. But... they have followed me here." Immith stared down at her feet now. She could feel them again, pressing down on her back, heavy and hard to bear. "I see them when I close my eyes. I hear their screams." The man's voice came again.

"When you run from your purpose, you carry that guilt with you."

Purpose. There, there it was... the tonic she needed, the element that she lacked. That which would lighten her burdened spirit and make the deaths that haunted her mean something. Tears began to roll down her rough cheeks.

"What is my purpose? For what reason do I live, was I chosen to live, when they died?" She lifted her head, just a little, but still she did not meet his gaze. "Please, tell me. Tell me." The man's hard expression was altered in thought for a moment, but afterwards, it softened. He nodded.

"Let us speak of this out of the night."   

emptyanima

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Purpose
« Reply #6 on: November 17, 2019, 09:36:29 AM »
"Come," said the man as the trio went inside, gesturing to a round table, "sit."

Immith did so obediently, quickly finding an empty seat and claiming it. As she did so, the man continued, "Do you need food or drink?"

Immith felt her stomach rumbling. She had eaten very little since her arrival. She felt the purse of soul-orbs at her belt, and while she knew they were numerous, she had never been taught how to use them. So there they sat, cold and dormant, while her hunger grew. She nodded eagerly at the man.

"Please."

Feyza was sitting in the chair opposite Immith's, with the remaining seat, next to hers, temporarily vacant while the man was ordering their meals. The pair sat quietly for a while as Immith's stomach rumbled. Then, the scent of cooked food wafted towards the table, and she began to salivate. Several dishes were set before Immith. The man gestured for her to eat. Immith's eyes went wide. "This... all this, for me?"

"As much as you need to eat, yes," came his soft reply. Immith trembled as she tasted it all, letting its goodness fill her and sate her hunger. As this eased her pangs, she took a breath, and managed to murmur some soft words of gratitude between mouthfuls. "Each of us has a purpose," the man said softly, suddenly. "The Iron Faith speaks of duty... and it is correct. Duty is at the heart of order, at the heart of all things, of all society. But duty to what?"

Immith's brow furrowed a touch at his question, and she swallowed her mouthful before replying, her words uncertain.

"To... to him? The Divine Emperor?"

"Purpose. That for which we would die."

Immith's lips quirked at his response, and she glanced downward, appearing for a moment like a chastened, disappointed schoolgirl, unhappy with her answer. "I would die for our people," the man continued, "what, Immith, would you die for?" The question was heavy and uncomfortable in her ears, and pressed down against her chest. She stared into her lap as she spoke.

"Yesterday, I died to be free. But now, I-..." Immith closed her eyes. "I do not know. All I know is that I must be... deserving of the life I have now." She saw them again in her mind's eye. Their bodies. Immith swallowed. "It... it cost five." The man beside her exhaled a long, slow breath at her response. Feyza shuffled in her seat opposite, crossing one leg over the other.

"Seyda is not like the others," the man replied. Immith lifted her head a little to address him, but still did not meet his gaze.

"What is she like?"

"She will leave her name carved in stone for a thousand years, that always her deeds are remembered and known. She has elevated those that... that can handle such things." Immith's brow furrowed.

"Elevated?" He gestured between Feyza and himself.

"She attends the Academy." He said this with unveiled repugnance, as though trying to spit the word like a rotten fruit from his mouth. Immith shuddered at the word. "And I manage her affairs here."

"What does she ask of you?"

"Of me? That I care for those that she sends. That I train them, that our venture here is profitable. But for me... it is much more than that." Immith listened intently as he continued. "Of the three of us, I am the only one a... a slave. But I have much freedom. It is my duty that she sees what things we can accomplish when given the freedom to do so. That we may rise and prosper without the whips of the masters. Without the spectre of death and torture hanging over us." Immith's eyes widened a little at his words, her heart lifted a little by the hope in them.

"You believe it can be different?"

"It is my duty to show her that this is possible. That her openness to it is not a mistake. That she will be great by realizing this, by making it so. Here in her family's holdings, in all of Hazlan."

"It... it is a fine duty." There was awe in Immith's gaze now as she looked at him.

"She wishes you perhaps because you showed mettle in the pits and she feels you can add to her greatness."

Immith's mind wandered back to the pit once more. She saw them all anew. She saw him, the one who had given her that second chance at life, and the inner sight of him spurred her to tell the tale.

"I... yes. I fought Krazos. I expected to die very quickly. But... but when he pulled me up from the floor of the pit, and began to wrestle with my helmet, I... I felt something inside me, and it was saying "Fight, Immith. Fight," and so I did. I tried... he was very strong, a true warrior. But... I managed to land one good strike, into his middle..." Immith was trembling again as she recalled each moment, and saw afresh Krazos's blood, the blood she had spilled. "I saw it, the blood... then we both swung again, and he... he won. He buried his blade in my belly, and I fell. He was the victor, then. But..." Immith frowned as the guilt welled up more strongly within her, her confusion evident in her tone as she spoke the words, "When the time came for him to have his boon, he asked to restore me. That is what she said..." She nodded to Feyza, now.

"It was his one wish he wanted granted," said Feyza.

The man's expression was one of sorrow at her tale, a flash of regret crossing his features as Immith continued. "When... when I was dying, and growing cold and numb, I heard his voice. He... he said..." She was there again. She felt the blade in her belly and the world blurring around her as the numbness spread. She heard again his voice, as though she was submerged in water, and he was above. "Free. Valiant. One. But was I really valiant, because I decided that I wanted to live?"

"What you do with this life will determine that, Immith." The man removed one of his gloves, then, and offered his hand to Immith. "I am Mikos." Immith looked down at his hand, brow furrowed. "You may shake my hand, Valiant One."

Immith exhaled a shaky breath, gingerly taking Mikos's hand and shaking it.

"I hope to be worthy of that title. One day."

Mikos looked at Feyza, now.

"She has not met Seyda, then?"

"No. She desires to, though. Seyda to Immith, that is." Mikos looked at Immith.

"She will have to see you and accept you as a servant of the house..." He grit his teeth at those words.

"Servant..." Immith considered the word carefully.

"Other than a pit fighter, what did you do, back home? Were you in the fields or the home?" Immith ran one hand around the wrist of the other, remembering where the shackles and manacles once gripped her.

"That was the only time I have fought, Mikos. It was death there, or death when I was caught running. I simply... wanted to make one choice in my life, and that was how I died. Before then, I worked on the farmlands by day, tilling the soil. By night, I helped in the home..." Immith looked down at her lap once more, adding in a soft voice, "fulfilling each of my master's desires."

"You're not beholden to that," said Mikos, "if Ozno tries to bed you, you remind him that you serve of your own free will. If he persists, then you will find me."

Immith nodded, her breaths easing a little. "Good," said Mikos, "Ozno is an animal, who barks much, but he is still dangerous when angered."

"I understand," said Immith, "what is his relation to Seyda?"

"He is an enforcer as I am." Mikos said the word with disdain. "Though he wishes to prove he is Mulani in all but skin. The more we succeed in opposition to his advice to Seyda, the more he is marginalised."

"You think he can be convinced?"

"No. Not by words. Perhaps by successes."

"You must work very hard, to challenge the way things are." Mikos seemed to consider these words for a moment.

"I must be off, Immith, for now. Be careful of all and who you speak to." Immith nodded.

"It was good to meet you, Mikos. I will be careful."

"And you." He said, handing her a small bag. "These will help you on your way. We will see that you are properly outfitted for your work, soon."

She thanked him for these, watching him go as new thoughts took her. Could this be what she sought? And what work would they ask of her, that she would have to be properly outfitted? Her hand moved the hilt of the sheathed blade, and she paused. Did she wish to raise it again? She saw again the blood and viscera. She heard the screams. She shuddered. Champion of the Pits, Feyza had called her.

That name, like the armour she had worn, did not sit right with her. But was that because it was true? Immith closed her eyes. For what was the pit but mire and muck, and what was she?

What was she?

Unworthy.

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Unworthy
« Reply #7 on: November 21, 2019, 06:11:31 PM »
There had been much kindness in Barovia.

So many had given advice or offered a listening ear. The man who had gifted her a spear, to help defend her against the dead that walked. The Gundarakite woman who could understand her pain, who encouraged her to lift up others from their oppression. The man who had found her quivering after she saw a little creature with its skull caved in. It had been a mirror to Maleesa's terrible fate; that man instantly knew her former suffering at a glance. There were also those who sought to offer her comfort of a different sort, seeking to share soft, sweet sermons and promises of hope in whichever faith they professed.

But while Immith was grateful for this kindness - grateful for the words shared, the freedom to speak them and the good intent behind them, it gnawed at the Rashemi woman, adding to the weight that pressed against her chest.

The weight was heavy when she found Mikos again, seated at the same table at which they'd spoken previously. She was drawn to approach, the siren song of the purpose he offered echoing in her ears, and she took a seat beside him.

"There is still much to discuss of things," said Mikos, looking at Immith. "Of you."

"Of me?"

"Who you are and what you can do for us. Should you truly wish to do what is right for those that remain without our opportunities." Mikos gestured to the blade which still had not been lifted since her arrival in Barovia. "Both practically," he said, before tapping his head demonstratively, "and here."

Immith's shoulders slumped, and she stared down at the table, her hands balling into fists as a defeated look carved itself into her worn features.

"I... I did not even win my fight, Mikos. What could I do?"

"Many things. If you wish to fight, we can fight. If you wish to read, then you can read." Mikos leaned forward a little as he spoke, both forearms on the table. Immith noted the fierceness of his gaze as she stole a fleeting glance, his jaw set firm as he watched her.

"I wish I could read," said Immith softly, "I do not know how to use the soul-orbs I've been given, or... how to live as a free person. But," she drew a breath, "at the same time, there... there is part of me that does not wish this sword to hang unused forever." She tried once more to meet his gaze, to fight the conditioning of a lifetime which had kept her head lowered, but it bested her as it had done many times, and she shuddered as she stared down at the table once more.

"Then we will start with how to be free." There was a waver in Mikos's voice at the word, and his gaze shifted aside. There was a pang of guilt in Immith's chest that spurred her to look once more in his direction.

"I... I am sorry. I throw that word around while you... you..."

"The only thing harder than being free when you have been a slave, is knowing that you could be free if you wished it but choosing to remain one." Immith regarded him silently for a moment.

"Why... why don't you tell me of yourself, Mikos? If that is your wish."

"My wish is to help you. To show you how to be and, when you decide of things, to have shown you enough so you see the value in helping me." She listened quietly to his words, watching him but not meeting his gaze. "I have always been with the family," Mikos continued, "we are of Sly-Var. I have brothers, many older brothers. They were not kind to me. I was young and small. I grew into my arms and back late. For a time, even my youngest brother was as large as I was. They wished to be as Ozno, an enforcer, all of them. To show how ruthless they could be and they did so to all they could. As they did to me, until they could not." Mikos looked down at his hands, clenching his fists. Immith drew a sharp breath.

"What happened?"

"I don't know why they did it to me. Perhaps they saw what Seyda saw, that I was better than them. They didn't stop because I fought them - I never did. I did not need to do that to know I was better, to know what they feared was true. They couldn't continue because Seyda brought me into service as her personal guard. And that is how I know she is different." Immith nodded, speaking softly.

"She... she saw something..."

"She did not punish for a lack of viciousness. Perhaps she was just curious why I didn't do what I could. But it is more than the others. More than her sister ever would."

"Her sister?"

"We are in this country searching for her father. Until we recover him, her sister stands to accumulate the family holdings. Though Seyda was chosen, without official word she cannot claim it."

"So... this is the business she has sent you both on."

"That is what we do here, yes. And we are doing well. We are also to generate funds. There are others among the family more suited to that, and they carry their weight in this."

"What are you saving for?"

"To show that our way can make the family wealthy and powerful. That Seyda approves of such production without the methods of home. I make potions. Others guard, some take deliveries, and we scout the lands for signs of her father. All these things we do... and one day we will go home."

"What will you do then?"

"I will see Seyda take control of her house, to leave her name and hand print on it for all to remember." Immith paused a moment, brow furrowing.

"And what will.. you do?"

"When that work is done and she takes the lessons of this place and of us to heart, there will be nothing left for me to do. Purpose, as I said when we spoke before." The guilt pressed again, drawing a question from the Rashemi woman's heart.

"Will she free you?"

"That matters very little. Freedom is not why I do these things." Immith's brow furrowed.

"How is it that I can help you, then? What is it that you would... want from me?"

"We will work and train together as we search for signs of Seyda. On your own, you can do as you need to collect funds for yourself. Learn what things you need, and we will find or buy them. You can collect herbs for me that I may keep brewing potions for you and others. Which is why I asked about what you can do... and what you need to know about this place to begin to set yourself here."

Immith spent a few moments in thought, her mind wandering back to Hazlan, painful though those thoughts were.

"If... if this might lead to less pain for those who remain, let me help. But I doubt it will change the hearts of men like my masters."

"That is why we must elevate Seyda, that she may do it. She is young, but she is strong-willed. And she is able to see a person for a person, even if not Mulani." Mikos drew a long, deep breath, his eyes closing. "If she cannot, or will not, then we are truly doomed forever." Immith froze.

"No, no it... it can't always be like this." Her dark eyes became glassy and she trembled faintly. "Let me help you. Help them."

"A woman mocked me once, for being willing to serve another. For doing my duty. All of those here, they are outside, looking in with their outside eyes, thinking with their outside minds that those inside our life are weak or stupid. Being inside is much harder, Immith. If you help me, you will be going back inside. Not a slave in total, but in practice, serving once again." At this admission, Mikos exhaled a breath, his shoulders sinking. He looked away now, his turn to stare at the table. Immith closed her eyes, a tear rolling down her cheek.

"I... I want to honour those who died in that pit, Mikos. I want the freedom that Krazos gave me to mean something. Their... their awful deaths to mean something."

"It has almost nearly cost me my life once already. I defied her. Seyda. Openly. It was what I thought she needed. Service even in defiance to my purpose and hers. You understand that, yes? If I fail, I will be killed, and those that help me..."

Immith swallowed, her voice barely audible. The guilt was a heavy chill upon her heart, and it pressed more closely against it now.

"I feel them when I walk, Mikos... like they are holding onto my ankles. I see them in my sleep. Whether I walk your path with you, or I turn my back on it... death will not be far."

"You are right." Mikos sat straighter now, looking at her. "What do you need to know of this place? What questions do you have?" Immith ran her forearm over her eyes, clearing her throat.

"Where do you and yours... train here?"

"We train against the horrors of this land." Mikos paused. "Another is being sent from home, as well. I will have to meet him soon."

"This... this is all a lot to think about, Mikos."

"Yes. The family will help with all these things and more. Armour, blades..." Mikos pointed at her sword. "You use a sword as this, a two-handed flat blade?" Immith ran her fingers along the hilt, and for a moment, the memory of the pit's miasma struck her senses.

"I... I chose it, when the time came to arm myself from the Red Wizard's chest. I've not drawn it since... since the pit."

"You will have to again, at some time... unless you would rather leave that place further behind."

"It... it came naturally to me, when pressed. Perhaps it has chosen for me."

Mikos turned now to examining what else she carried.

"And your armour?"

"I... let me show you, downstairs."

---

They were back in that warm place with the rugs and the glow of the fire. Immith opened her pack and pulled out her armour, unworn since the pit, reeking of blood and other unpleasantness. She set down her helmet, which had kept her head from shattering when Krazos slammed her into the wall.

"These will do for now," said Mikos, "we shall acquire better ones soon, and other equipment. Seyda wishes to you be capable and equipped as if you were the highest born Mulani." Immith's lips narrowed, pressed together, and she leant down to set her equipment away.

"Did... did Seyda say more, of what she wished from me? What did she say of me?"

"She wished to know of you and how you won your freedom. She... dislikes the Seprets." Mikos's voice softened at this admission, continuing quietly, "She will likely ask you of them."

Immith shuddered.

"To think that Krazos almost slew Sefris. I saw them in the pit where I lay... when life returned to me."

"Hm. Yes. A troubling thing. But... this is the sort of thing that will never work. Kill one and..." Mikos paused for a moment, searching for the right words. "The thing that was done to Sefris was deserved, but it will never make it better. He is now outside and we remain in. All those in must pay for his selfish rage."

Immith lowered her head, the weight of guilt upon her shoulders heavier than ever. She felt his hands around her ankles. Her words came softly.

"I do not want to speak ill of him. He... he is near to me, always."

"Did you know him? Before, I mean."

"No. I was a stranger to him, and he to me. I... I knew none of them before we died together." Mikos regarded her silently for a moment.

"Did you know..." He paused before continuing, "Not all families are like mine. Did you know yours?" Immith shook her head.

"When... when I was little, my fellows told me that they died after my father... made a mistake. He was tired, and he... he had not separated the wheat from the chaff in the fields. So... so my masters said that it was they who would separate the wheat from the chaff." Immith drew a breath. "I was only newly-born, then. I have no memory of them." Mikos shook his head sorrowfully.

"That is... it is the way it has always been."

"I suppose I should be glad, that I do not remember. It must not hurt as much."

"There is enough pain to be had." Immith closed her eyes, remembering the bite of the whip and the stinging in her skin when she was struck. She saw in her mind's eye her own form being beaten, and a shudder of revulsion ran through her.

"I... I do not like to look at myself." She pulled her sleeves down over her gloves. Mikos stepped back, looking over her now, as though her words forced him to examine her afresh.

"Because of what happened there?"

"Yes, but not only this..."

"They are part of you. And they will still be part of you when you are successful in Seyda's eyes."

"I... I cannot see myself without seeing what came before. Every mark of the whip, every welt. Every bruise. My body may now be mine, but that doesn't make it any less the body of..  of a slave." Immith closed her eyes, the words becoming increasingly difficult to set free.

Mikos made a soft, thoughtful sound, still considering her. Immith gulped, her throat dry as she fought to keep speaking. "It must... I'm sorry. It must sound so selfish. So... small a thing." Her eyes pricked with tears, and she spoke with a sort of sing-song mockery in her voice. "Oh, look at this free young thing, still so sorrowful. A waste..."

Mikos spoke softly, but firmly.

"You are what you are. I am what I am. Why hate your words, when I can help you learn their value?" Immith was trembling now, something approaching anger in her voice.

"Everyone knows what I was, to look at me. They are kind and good to me, because they pity me. They see me as I was... and I still feel the chains. The habits are hard to break."

"I have designs for you to. Not pity and such. Though I am sorry you had to do that. I wish to elevate you to the place where you are worthy of yourself and your freedom. As Seyda elevates me, as we all elevate her." Immith trembled more violently now as she listened, his words sharp in her ears. "That you are from home means you understand how it is. I care very little for what other nice people think of you."

Worthy. The word stuck in her head like a sharp knife.

She threw herself down upon her knees before Mikos, her hands laid out before her as she prostrated herself at his feet. Mikos stepped back in shock, stumbling before catching himself. Immith struggled to breathe, as though some unseen force strangled her, and her whole body jerked with nervous energy, every muscle taut in her frame. She could feel their feet upon her back, pressing her against the floor. The words did not come easily.

"I... I am not worthy, Mikos. This... this is who I am."

Mikos's voice came more firmly now.

"It is who we all are. We have done many things here. Earned many orbs. I have brewed many potions. Seyda has won many praises. And when you slay monsters, man or beast, you will see this place for what it is. The place in which you will learn to be a person... as I was forced to."

He stepped forward to help lift Immith up, sinking to a knee before her. As she felt his hands upon her, Immith shrank back with a start, without thought. She swallowed thickly, still staring down at the floor.

Mikos's voice softened again. "I... where you started means little, about who you are free to look in the eye. Immith. Only what you do. So do. With me and the others." Mikos rose to his feet, reaching forward to help her up before stopping himself. "Do not kneel to me, please."

Immith lifted her arms, reflexively, in a defensive motion, taking a deep breath, before remembering who was before her. Shame filled her expression as she pushed herself up from the floor. Immith still did not dare to look him in the eye.

"We have talked long," Mikos continued, his voice still soft. "The soul does not always need to be revealed to a friend, Immith, for them to know that it is there." Immith's cheeks darkened further with embarrassment.

"I... yes, Mikos. I didn't... didn't mean to be like this, with you. I needed to say it. For someone... someone to hear."

"There are many wounds that need to be opened to heal. We are Rashemi, it is the way of it."

Immith thought again of the dormant blade at her back. Each time she dared to touch the hilt, that wound of guilt bled anew. It festered, untreated, within the Rashemi woman's soul, spreading like a cancer through her weary spirit.

She did not sleep well that night.
« Last Edit: April 27, 2020, 04:44:01 AM by emptyanima »

emptyanima

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Soul Sister
« Reply #8 on: November 22, 2019, 08:19:03 AM »
"Immith, soul-sister."

The little woman's words freed Immith from the confines of her own mind as she took in the morning sun. Anezka, for that was her name, was one of many people Immith had met in a very short space of time. But Anezka was not like the others. Anezka was a former slave, just like Immith, a creature full of fear and bearing a burden of anguish all her own. She was strong little woman who had been brought up on a diet of despair, who fought now against the pangs of dark hunger; she fought to forge a new path of her own. Immith was glad to see her here now.

They spoke for a short while, breath misting in the Barovian chill, and Immith soon learned of her intention to go and do battle. The creatures of which Anezka spoke were not the small, round, many-legged things that came to Immith's mind at the mention of  'beetles', but were in fact very large and gifted with the touch of flame. Immith's eyes widened at this description, and she looked over Anezka with worry. The little woman looked up at her intently, a smile baring sharpened teeth. "Immith come?" Immith stiffened.

"You... you wish me to fight?" She reached for the blade at her back, drawing a sharp breath. She frowned in thought. Battle brought despair and anguish. Battle brought blood and death. Immith's hand trembled. Could it be more than the cause of her guilt? In battle, Immith had found freedom. Through it, could she find some way to atone, to be worthy of the life she had now? A fragment of wisdom, softly-spoken, cut through to the front of her mind.

"There are many wounds that need to be opened to heal."

Immith looked down at Anezka.

"Anezka, will you wait for me, for a moment?" The little woman nodded; Immith turned on her heel and went inside, digging out the foul-smelling armour from her pack and slowly fastening the ill-fitting leathers around her scarred, battered body. She stepped outside once more before she could change her mind, shivering in the chill. The stench of the pit still clung to her leathers, drawing a frown from some of those round about. Her shivering did not go unnoticed, and a kind woman offered Immith her own cloak, which she fastened about her shoulders. Immith offered earnest thanks, before her attention returned to the little woman at her side.

"You have waited very patiently, Anezka."

"I getting better!" She responded brightly, a proud smile on her face.

Immith followed Anezka along the path toward their chosen quarry. As they drew close to their warrens, Immith's eyes widened. The beetles were huge, each larger than Anezka, and most of her own size. The sounds of the little insects that Immith had known while sweating under the Hazlani sun, as they buzzed around her ears and crawled across her skin, softened into near-silence in her memory at the cacophony of these large creatures. Slowly, Immith drew her blade out of its sheath with a soft metallic shrill. The pair clambered down into the warrens themselves; the Rashemi woman was struck by how suddenly the Barovian chill was forgotten, replaced with a heavy humidity that made her sweat, slightly stinging the more recent of her healing scars.

Anezka pressed on ahead through the tunnels, dwarfed by the high dirt walls and the swollen cocoons around them. Then came the sound of many, many limbs clattering against the dirt, closer, closer. Immith readied her blade, gasping a breath as she imagined the coming swarm. And then they came, in number, hurtling towards the little woman and her twin blades. In her mind's eye, Immith saw them tear the little woman apart, burning her flesh, consuming it...

Immith ran forward, swinging her blade over her head. With a cry of determination, she brought down her blade in a descending strike, piercing the thick chitin, then the body itself, sinking all the way through the beetle's huge form and out of its belly. The beetle writhed, trapped by the blade. It gave a shrill, chattering cry as it expired. Immith gasped for air, looking over Anezka now, finding her unharmed. She pulled out the blade with a slick sound at first, before it broke through more chitin as it was freed of the beetle's carcass. She hurried forward again, moving to keep Anezka from the hungry grasp of those that came for her. She swung her blade in a wide arc, shattering chitin and piercing organs. Anezka, meanwhile, was not idle, moving with an easy grace in an almost dance-like fashion around the beetles, striking at the flank with daring, lethal purpose.

Immith frowned as she noticed all the decidedly-human objects they found within. The jewels and weapons and personal effects of those who had met their ends here, torn apart by the huge beetles and consumed, alone in the dark. Immith peered around with a worried expression, more and more certain of the fate that awaited them if they failed. Anezka looked up at the Rashemi woman.

"Immith fight good, no worry."

The more the pair fought, the more eager Anezka was to fight on. Together, they made quick work of those that crawled about the upper levels. As Immith panted for breath in the heat, Anezka pointed at another entrance to a deeper part of the warrens. "Can go deeper."

Immith followed the little woman down. Immediately, the dark was deeper. The heat was hotter. The humidity was heavier, leaving Immith slick with sweat, each breath a ragged gasp. Through the darkness, she saw human bones scattered about across the floor like detritus, and she shuddered. But in this dark place, as they did on the levels above, hope sprung up from the earth in the form of tiny mushrooms. They were soft and moist, and did a little to soothe the throat and ease any hurts they had sustained. The pair fought on through the warrens' many chambers; the beetles were larger here, and some seemed to glow with the gift of flame about which Anezka had warned her.

Deeper still they went, hot steam rising through some of the chambers, the earth red and hot. And then, they came, the largest of them all, barreling out of the heart of the warren, charging at the little woman and her short blades. Immith readied her blade, hurrying forward to protect her. She saw the glow brighten between their mandibles, and her eyes went wide with fear as fire burst forth, surrounding the little woman before her, burning hot and hateful on Anezka's scarred limbs. The strong little woman fell to the ground with a gasp. Immith's heart screamed.

"No, no, no...!"

The many beetles that remained turned their hungry ire upon the Rashemi woman now, ignoring for now the little woman who was sprawled in the dirt, crawling over her body in pursuit of Immith. Immith grit her teeth. If she failed now, another would be dead. By choosing to fight, she would again have condemned another to death. The wound of guilt bled afresh within her, but rather than leading the Rashemi woman to despair, it only caused her to try to meet the beetles' fire with a flame all her own. They followed her down the narrow passages, groping hungrily at her limbs as they sought to bring her down and consume her as they had so many others. But Immith refused to be beaten. She refused to leave Anezka to her fate. But most of all, she refused to fail Krazos, and Maleesa, and all those who had died so that she now lived. She gurgled a pained cry, and she swung, and swung, and swung...

The aid the pair had been granted on their arrival at the warrens had long since faded. All that Immith had was her own strength, her own fire, her own purpose. Purpose... The promise she had made to Mikos rang again in her ears, another reason to fight on. Steel slashed through chitin, again and again, and the mound of beetle bodies rose higher and higher, a macabre monument to Immith's determination. But still they came, and still Immith fought, though each breath became sharper and shallower, and her eyes half-closed as she fought to keep the sweat from stinging them. Her body trembled with the effort, but still she pressed on, until she could no more. She collapsed into the dirt with a gasp, and for a while, there was nothing.

She was not sure how much time had passed when she woke. Her skin was clammy and cold, despite the oppressive heat of the warrens around her, and she gasped for air that reeked of blood and death. Her eyes widened.

"Anezka...!"

Immith pulled herself to her feet, grasping for the blade beside her, and stumbled through the dark in search of the little woman. She climbed over the mound of beetle corpses and followed the trail of bodies until she reached the place where she had fallen. Still, more came, and Immith drew from a well of strength deep within to lay them low. As the last beetle crumpled beneath her blade, she heard footsteps. But these were not accompanied by the chattering of mandibles. No, these were...

"ANEZKA!" Immith breathed the word as a hoarse cry, slumping to her knees, every limb trembling as that well of strength dried up.

"Anezka no die." Immith's heart lightened, her body enveloped with a deep sense of relief.

"I... I am just... just glad, that you are alright."

"Immith wonderful warrior." Following this remark, she shoved a little mushroom into Immith's mouth, and Immith chewed eagerly, finding succor in the healing it provided, restoring something of her strength. "Still fighting spirit?"

"Yes." Anezka smiled, at that.

"Immith really is souls-sister."

The pair made their way slowly through the heat, each step harder than the last, until they made their way to the upper levels, where the air was a little easier to breathe, until finally they climbed out of the warren into the cool night air. Immith had never been so grateful to see the sky, the blanket of stars more beautiful than ever.

Immith smiled. She had fought at Anezka's side. She had saved her. She had wrought goodness with her blade, not guilt. She closed her eyes, recalling again more of Mikos's words.

"And when you slay monsters, man or beast, you will see this place for what it is. The place in which you will learn to be a person... as I was forced to."

A thought crystalised in the Rashemi woman's mind.

I am ready.

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Two Teachers, Two Pupils
« Reply #9 on: November 23, 2019, 06:50:11 AM »
The snowflakes caught in Immith's lank hair as she leant against the trunk of a large tree.

She was watching the passersby again, finding regarding them at a distance less likely to attract shame or embarrassment than attempting to move among them. She had already made herself stand out that day; she recalled her cheeks darkening as she realised that the traders, unwilling to cart around their heavy goods everywhere, instead carried papers detailing the items they wished to sell. At least, that is what Immith had been told, being unable to read them. She remembered the looks of pity from some and rolled eyes from others. She had wished then for the world to swallow her up. She exhaled a misty breath, shaking some of the snow from her hair, and stood up.

She looked across the road, noting how all those 'outside', as Mikos described them, carried themselves. She noted one man in particular who had an easy confidence in his stance, arms folded. She peered at him for a moment, before attempting to fold her arms in the same manner, hoping to grant herself that same look of confidence. A moment later, his gaze shifted, examining Immith as he copied his stance. Immith's cheeks flushed as she was caught, and she looked away sheepishly, allowing her arms to part and hang at her sides once more.

It was not long before Immith felt more eyes upon her, and she turned. A man garbed in white called her over, and soon enough, they were inside. Again, this one had known her at a glance. She obeyed his wishes, speaking as she was asked to; her service was not easily forgotten, and though there was a faint glow of anger burning within her as she accepted his pity, it was not enough to make her rebel against it, or to fail to do as she was told. Despite the oath she had sworn to herself, that she was ready to learn how to be free, she was trapped by habit to remain otherwise.

It was the return of purpose that freed her, as she noticed Mikos once more, accompanied by a young man with dark hair whom she had not seen before. They were both seated at a table, until she approached. The young man rose from his chair and lowered his gaze.

"Let us speak in privacy below." Mikos's voice was as clear and sure as ever, and both Immith and the young man followed him downstairs. Mikos led the pair to the glowing hearth, where he warmed his hands. "Thank you for joining us," he said, regarding Immith. The young man resumed his prior pose, hands clasped behind his back, eyes downcast. Immith cleared her throat before speaking.

"Of course, Mikos. Who... who is this?" She looked at the young man.

"This is Immith," said Mikos as he gestured to her, glancing at the young man, before doing the opposite, "and this is Shausek. He has been sent from home for our endeavours here." Shausek. Immith committed the name to memory, regarding him quietly, not meeting his gaze. Mikos smiled. "He will begin teaching you to read as soon as he is settled in."

"Good to meet you, Shausek, I-..." Immith's eyes widened, and she looked at Shausek again, this time her expression one of awe. "He... you... you know how to read?" Shausek still looked at the floorboards as he responded.

"Yes. I have been taught the skills of a scribe." Mikos looked at Immith.

"I have told him of your situation and he understands - correct, Shausek?"

"I understand," said Shausek. Immith looked at Mikos, brow furrowing.

"What... what did you say of me?" Mikos smiled.

"That you were freed from the pits and yet chose to commit yourself to the goals of myself and the house here in Vallaki."

Suddenly, quite out of nowhere, a little woman dressed in dark blue appeared. She raised a hand to Mikos.

"I see you're pulling duelists out of the mud." Immith turned to look at the little woman.

"This is Tandria," said Mikos, "she also serves the house. She will be the main one to acquire funds should you need them for equipment, or the equipment itself. She also collects herbs for me from odd places."

"How do I address her?" Shausek asked. Tandria looked up.

"However you'd like." Shausek's voice softened at her reply.

"Is she slave or free?"

"She is a servant willingly." Mikos said.

"It is good to meet you, Tandria," said Immith, "I am Immith."

"Good to know your name. I watched your fight the other night." Tandria watched Immith as she said this. Immith started.

"You... you were there...?"

"I was. I dislike the way things are done in the Academy, but Mistress Seyda hardly ever walks around without an escort. Even if we are unseen." There was a low rumble in Mikos's throat at the mention of the Academy.

"How... how much did you see?" Immith asked. Shausek looked at her, trying to sneak a sideways glance. Tandria continued.

"Enough to know you were lifeless for some time." Immith's voice softened.

"Yes."

"Immith will be using the gift she received to help us in our task," said Mikos, "here and back home." His voice had also softened.

"Yes... it really was a gift," said Immith, "and it came at a heavy price. I mean not to squander it. I mean to honour them."

"You will not squander it," said Mikos, "what we do here is important. Tandria has collected an impressive sum in her works. Naliah has just begun working independently as well." Tandria went to hand Mikos a box of herbs. She glanced at Shausek.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"Shausek Dyengothra, owned by House Seyda." Tandria nodded, looking at both Shausek and Immith now.

"How does your freedom taste?" Shausek kept his gaze fixed on the floorboards. Immith inhaled sharply. She glanced down at Tandria, then shook her head, kneeling so that she was not peering down her nose at her. "It doesn't look like you're free. Free men look their peers in the eyes."

"She has had a hard time, Tandria," said Mikos, softly, "she will learn it." Shausek finally felt able to answer.

"I am not free. I am a willing tool."

"I see," said Tandria.

"He will learn it too," said Mikos, "when he realises what must be done here to serve Seyda. When he learns the precious small chance we all have." Immith drew a breath as she rose once more to her feet. "Free men look their peers in the eyes." She tried to meet Mikos's gaze, and for a moment, she did, before conditioning won over once more and she averted her gaze, shuddering.

"We have worked in these lands for quite some time now," said Tandria, "there is much that can be done." Immith's brow furrowed at this, and she thought again on the battle in the beetle warren.

"Mikos, I.." Immith looked at him before continuing, "I have thought... and I have fought, since we spoke last." Mikos's expression altered at this, his eyes brightening, and he nodded gently as she spoke. "I... I feared that the blade might be... heavier now, but... it came to me easily."

"That is good," said Mikos, "the size felt right?" Immith nodded. Again, Shausek regarded her out of the corner of his eye. Mikos's attention moved to Tandria.

"She fights with a heavy blade and wears leathers," Mikos gestured to Immith as he spoke, particularly to the greatsword on her back, "if you find any worth purchasing."

"I see. Would she benefit from a sturdy pair of boots?" Immith looked at Tandria, a small smile forming.

"Ah... please." Tandria handed Immith a pair of warm-looking, sturdy boots, her eyes widening. "Thank you..." Immith pulled them on quickly, finding them far more comfortable then her sandals.

"They have not met Seyda yet," said Mikos, "though I am sure she will be pleased with Immith's commitment, and will take an interest in Shausek as well."

"I know that Seyda was impressed with your will to live the other day, Immith." Tandria said.

"What did she say?" Immith asked.

"You fought well in your desperation." Mikos frowned at this, a flash of sadness crossing his features. Immith swallowed, nodding.

"I was... happy to die, until the time to die came."

"I imagine that is how the life of many of the academy's slaves are spent," said Tandria, "perhaps we can do something about that, one day." Mikos gave an approving grunt. Shausek's gaze shifted before resting once more on the floorboards. "We shall see, though," Tandria continued, "for now, work together, get familiar with each other." Mikos nodded, at this, gesturing between Immith and Shausek.

"Reading," he said.

"I am to serve Immith then, for now?" Shausek asked. Immith's blood froze, her eyes widening, and she shook her head quickly, her words equally hurried.

"No! No. no..."

"You are here to help her read," said Mikos, "this task you do for the family."

"Forgive me. I will do as commanded." Mikos took a deep breath, watching him.

"Perhaps you will learn something important from each other."

Immith regarded Shausek with sad eyes. Shausek spoke softly. "Besides lessons in reading, what else should we do?"

"You may make fang for yourself and the family," said Mikos, "search the stores for things you need to continue  your studies. I will lead you to places on occasion. And you may travel together, as well. Collect herbs you see, and I may make potions for you." Immith nodded. Shausek did not look up as he spoke.

"It will be done."

"When Seyda evaluates you, she may assign a task or trade for either of you, or both."

"Do you know when that might happen, Mikos?" Immith asked.

"It is my hope that it will be in the next two days. She is in Ramulai still... but will return soon." Immith frowned as she considered his words. Her own came nervously.

"Will I bow, to her...?"  Shausek looked sidelong at Immith at this question, incredulous.

"I do not often bow," Mikos replied, "she knows that she is the most important person in my life and in my purpose."

"Your purpose..." Immith nodded. "I... that is why I asked. I do not want her to doubt you."

"She will be happy that I was able to speak to you and show you reason to join us."

"Good, then.." Immith's shoulders sank a little in relief.

"I leave you all, then," said Mikos. "If you've need of anything material, you may ask of Tandria as if she were me. That you may do your work properly is of the utmost importance."

"It will be done," said Shausek. Immith nodded. Tandria left when Mikos did. Immith looked at Shausek now, not meeting his gaze.

"Perhaps there might be something you can teach me, before you buy me a book?"

"As you wish, Immith, it can be done." The guilt that pressed always against Immith's chest flared at these words, and it was for a time visible in her expression.

"Shausek." Immith spoke gently. Shausek still kept his gaze lowered.

"Yes, Immith?" He said her name carefully, as though it was uncomfortable. Immith reduced her own voice to a feverish whisper as the fire cracked behind them.

"You do not serve me, you hear me? It... it hurts me in my chest for you to talk to me as though I... I... no.." She swallowed.

"How do you wish me to talk to you?"

"As an equal. If you must not in front of the family, in front of the others, I understand. But to me..." She shook her head, "I am just Immith." Shausek lowered his own voice now.

"I was told not to make you uncomfortable about being free. I was told to call you Immith. If you say you want me to speak to you as an equal, it will be done." Immith exhaled a sigh.

"No, no... that is what I mean, Shausek. Call me Immith, by all means, it is my name... but you need not say 'it will be done'."

"What do you prefer?" Shausek asked. Immith swallowed, her eyes welling with sorrow as she regarded the dark-haired man once more.

"What do you prefer?"

"Do I have to answer?"

"This.." Immith balled her hands into desperate fists. "This is your choice, Shausek. I am not here to command you."

"... I... can choose what to say," Shausek replied, choosing his words carefully, "If you do not command me to say what I would prefer." Immith took a deep breath, closing her eyes. Thin tears streamed down her cheeks.

"Be... be as you are, Shausek." She turned away from him, guilt once again heavy on her features, and she sat before the fire, drawing her knees up to her chest. Her tears seemed to breach Shausek's reserve, and he quickly looked away.

"I was not trying to be difficult," he said, softly, "I am failing in what I was commanded, now.."

"I... I did not mean to force anything upon you."

"Do you want me to act like you are not free, or to act like I am not a slave?" The words cut deeply into Immith's heart, the guilt inflamed once more.

"I... I want you to do what is comfortable. What... feels right, to you. If I must... adjust. So be it." Shausek stiffened.

"I am not trained to do what I feel. What I feel, is ne-..." The word died on his lips, killed by a sudden a sound at the door, but then there was nothing. Immith offered him a look of encouragement.

"You were saying." Shausek looked down at her.

"We can start a lesson, if you wish."

"I..." Immith took a breath, her voice altered for a moment with disappointment, but this was soon replaced with an eager earnestness. "I would like to, very much."

Shausek took a seat beside her now, and he began to explain the basics of literacy. How symbols, namely letters, represent sounds, and how several letters strung together form a word. It is with letters that they would begin. She followed his movements intently as he demonstrated various shapes.

"Can you cook?" Shausek asked.

"Yes."

"Think of a recipe. You make dolma?" Shausek paused, at this. It was only brief, but it was noticeable.

"Ah... sometimes."

"What is your favourite thing to make?" Shausek's speech became less stilted as he continued the lesson, decreasingly formal. Immith's shoulders lowered a little in ease and relief. "Tell me what the ingredients are." Immith hummed softly as she was transported to another time, another place, a slightly bashful smile touching her features for a fleeting moment.

"I... I often imagined eating kebab. I often made it, but never for me, but there was.." She began earnestly describing the ingredients, seemingly close to salivating. As she was taken up with the imaginary kebab, Shausek looked over at Immith properly for the first time, his gaze not lowered. Immith was drawn from her distracted mutterings with a gasp. Shausek worked gently to bring them back on track.

"Peppers, lemon, cumin if it is a special day," said Shausek, "some oil..."

"Yes, yes... I... I can see it." Immith's stomach rumbled.

"It is tasty," Shausek said. Something approaching a tiny smile threatened to appear on his face for a fleeting moment. "You can have it now, you are free."

"Yes..." Immith gasped a breath, "I... I will make some, for our next lesson." Immith stiffened, her cheeks darkening. "... The lesson! Shausek, I didn't mean to sidetrack us..." At this, Shausek did in fact smile, briefly.

"Anyway. Think of a word as being like a kebab. Each letter is an ingredient, and has its own sound, its own taste. But you put them together, and you make a meal. A word that means something, yes? Does that make sense?"

"Yes, I think so."

"So you see... 'duh, oh, guh' on the page," he formed the letters with his finger, "and you know that is the recipe for 'dog'... but do not eat a dog." Shausek permitted himself another tiny smile at his joke, before it faded.

"I did not plan on it!" Immith looked at Shausek, now. Although the dark-haired man was subdued, and studious in his duty, Immith could not help but notice that his *presence* was strong. She could sense that he was restraining himself, holding some hidden strength within his body, as though the flesh itself was a prison. Her attention returned after a moment or so to the lesson at hand as Shausek continued for a while.

"It does get more complicated as we add more and more," he said eventually, "it will be worth it, though. You can travel far with words." Shausek watched Immith now, falling silent, something on his mind.

"I am sure," said Immith, as she drew one hand over her mouth to stifle a yawn. "Ah... sorry, sorry." Shausek smiled a tiny smile once more as she yawned.

"So hungry you will eat your hand?" Immith's eyes widened.

"No..! No, I..." A small smile was summoned by his own, passing quickly.

"We shouldn't carry on if you are tired. It won't go in. Will you rest now?"

"Yes, I will." Immith reached over her shoulder with a soft wince to remove her sheathed blade from its place at her back.

"I do not know where we are meant to sleep. Is it here?"

"I... I have been sleeping here, on the cushions. They are very soft. But there are are also rooms upstairs, that... I do not know how pay for." Immith's cheeks flushed a little at her admission.

"I can try, if you like." Shausek said. She followed him upstairs to the bar. He handled the transaction with no trouble at all, and soon he held the key between his dark, smooth-looking fingers. He offered it to Immith.

"Thank you."

"Have you used a key before?" There was a sense of light teasing in his tone. Immith looked down at her wrists, noting the slight demarcation in skin tone that revealed where her shackles used to be.

"No, but... I have seen them used." The ghost of the smile that Shausek had threatened to show fled away, replaced with a look of embarrassment. He hurried upstairs, and carefully turned his own key in the lock. The door swung open. Immith's eyes widened, and she stared in disbelief into the corner of he room.

"A... a bed." An excited smile tugged at Immith's lips. "I've... I've never slept in a bed before."

"It is like sleeping on straw or rock," Shausek said simply, causing Immith's smile to fade. "The difference is, you can actually sleep on it when you aren't exhausted, and sometimes you don't want to get up."

"Hm... you can feel that whether you sleep in a bed or not," she said quietly, remembering the mornings she had woken, wishing she had not. Remembering her life in slavery, and the woman she was, Immith balled her hands into fists, and she took a breath.

"Do you want me to come and find you, tomorrow?" Shausek looked down at her hands as she uncurled them.

"Yes. Please." She looked at him, easing now, letting her old woes leave her mind. "Thank you, Shausek. It... it was good to meet you." Shausek looked at her, seemingly speechless for a moment before he looked away, uncertain, as he spoke.

"I will try not to upset you again." Immith smiled sadly.

"So will I. Oh... and I will see what I can find, for the kebab. I've not forgotten." Shausek glanced another sidelong glance at Immith, his expression conflicted.

"I should sleep," he said suddenly, then closed the door in front of him, granting him solitude in his own room. Immith sighed, shaking her head softly, before finding her own room. She set aside her arms and armour, and tested, for the first time, how a bed felt beneath her. She paused, then, confident that was not going to roll off in the night, she enveloped herself in the blankets, ran her hands over the pillow... she found herself overwhelmed by the luxurious comfort of the Lady's Rest lodgings, and soon, she was asleep.
« Last Edit: May 05, 2020, 02:24:56 PM by emptyanima »

emptyanima

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Seyda
« Reply #10 on: May 05, 2020, 06:26:32 PM »
Immith had retreated into her own head, that place of safety and suffering. That which lay within could not hurt her - that is, not without her consent. She lay in the shallows of guilt and grief, and they lapped at her in a constant ebb and flow. But as her subconscious sought to pull her down and drown her in this misery, she focused upon worries of another sort. Words spoken with Mikos, concerning the scribe assigned to teach her to read, to write. Her voice echoed softly through her mind.

"I... I do not know what Shausek makes of me. I... perhaps I make him... uncomfortable."

"Why do you make him uncomfortable? Is he not capable of teaching you language?" Mikos's voice -  warm, steady and assured - was as much a comfort in this state of daydream as it was to her when she was awake.

"No, no... the first lesson was good." Immith lifted one finger and spoke as though reciting from memory. "Each letter is like an ingredient in a recipe." Her shoulders sagged a little as she lowered her finger. "But..."

Mikos looked at her, watching expectantly. Immith hummed softly before continuing with her thoughts,

"Sometimes he wants to ask me questions. Sometimes he tells me that I am... that I am treating him like a master would, and I do not want this. Sometimes he... he almost smiles, but then he is stern again, with a mask for a face."

"The two of you are more alike than you know," Mikos replied, "it will be good for you to learn to be people together."

That is not how Shausek had described them. His words sounded in her mind.

"We are not the same."

Immith looked up from the deeper dream-thought, back to her memory of speaking with Mikos. It was her turn to speak.

"I hope so." She looked down into her lap, expelling a soft sigh.

"That a being would have to learn to be a person after they are grown full..." He shook his head.

"It... it makes me feel foolish, Mikos. I ask certain questions, and... and I see the pity in their eyes. I see the sadness on their mouths. They know me to look at me. They see it all."

"As I said before," Mikos replied, "they are outside. They do not see what you are really like, and what you have done. Why does it make you feel bad to receive pity?" Immith remained silent for a while, considering his words, slow to speak. the action still not yet habit to her after years largely spent in silence.

"It... it is a constant reminder of what I was. Even if I am free, I do not look it. I... I don't fit with them."

"Do you wish to become them?" There was a touch of offense in Mikos's question.

"I just... I just want to forget everything that made me hate living. Not.. not those who died, or anything that happened in the pit, as much as it weighs on me. I... I want to forget the reasons behind each bruise and mark... the constant soreness... the feeling that I was nothing."

Those feelings of nothing lingered about Immith like vengeful spirits in the place they were sitting in now. The chatter of those around her drew her from her thoughts. They were seated around a table, within a dark room with dank walls. Maps and papers that Immith could not read were strewn across the table's surface. At the head of the table stood Mikos, firm and sure as ever - nay, purposeful. Next to him, Naliah, an Akiri woman who also served House Seyda with him. Next to her, Shausek, worry and questions knotting his brow. This den in the darkness served as their war room, in which they planned the details of their service.

Suddenly, the door swung open, and a small, familiar figure entered the room. Tandria.

"Mistress is here," she said, simply.

Immith's eyes went wide, and she scarcely had a moment to feel fear before the Mistress - Seyda - entered. She moved with quiet steps, her eyes taking them in one by one as she adjusted her cowl around her features. Immith inclined her head, a faint shudder running through her.

"Seyda," said Mikos, "I am glad you could venture to this place again." He bowed his head.

"I am reluctant at best," replied Seyda, "I think I deserve better than the filth." She looked again at Shausek as she finished speaking, then Immith. Immith took another soft breath, trying to meet her gaze with her own. She held it, just for a moment, before gasping softly and lowering her gaze.

"I understand, yes. I appreciate when you do come to attend to us. And your discomfort makes me that much more grateful. "

"Of course, my generosity knows no bounds."

Mikos nodded. "Immith and Shausek are here for your evaluation." Shausek was staring at the floor, as he had been since Seyda's arrival. He did not move. He did not speak.

"So I see. Mikos has spoken of each of you. I thought I would drop in and see for myself." Her attention turned fully to Immith now. "I am only vaguely familiar with one of you." Immith opened and closed her mouth a few times, trying to speak. She felt the words in her throat, trying to force them out, but they died before they reached her lips. Until...

"The... the pit." She managed.

"Yes. It was quite rude of Sepret to interrupt my studies with such trivial things." Trivial...

Immith's jaw tightened. Her trembling eased a little. She felt the ghosts upon her shoulders, weighing her down. But she couldn't speak. She was free, yet the words remained caged. They feared to make themselves known.

"You put up quite an impressive stand," continued Seyda, "if I don't say so myself. Though I think the true victory is your life. I had assumed the worst for you, though I suppose your resilience is quite profound. More so than I can imagine." Seyda was looking over her nails as she spoke. "Finding yourself in such a place and living to tell the tale... now that is quite something, wouldn't you agree?"

Mikos hummed softly at her words, his attention also on Immith now.

"Yes..." Immith's voice came in a breath. "It... it came at a high price." Seyda looked up from her nails, at that. The directness of her gaze worried Immith, her throat tightening, making her continued speech more difficult. "I... I intend to be worthy of it. What... what was given to me by the one more deserving." Her tone steeled a little upon the final word, her expression altered with guilt. "I... I intend to be what he saw." Immith's breaths came softly but swiftly now. The ghosts tightened their grip on her.

"And what is that?" Seyda asked, "you have made it far from the... terror that loomed over you then." Inwardly, Immith screamed. While she was no longer physically in Hazlan, she had not escaped at all. The ghosts pressed heavily against her chest, a lead weight.

"He... he called me Valiant One."  The words sounded strange in her mouth, on her tongue. She felt foolish saying them. "If I am... then perhaps... perhaps I might be worthy of the life they all gave up for me. All... five lives." She lowered her gaze to her feet, seeing the dream blood between her dream toes. Her shoulders sank as though under the weight of the earth - or perhaps five bodies.

"Valiant One..." Seyda echoed her words, though they had a sharp elegance in her mouth. "You know... there are many reasons one can find their way to such pits. I can commend your resolve, it must not have been easy serving under them." Immith saw herself running. She saw the hands of the enforcers around her neck. She saw his eyes. "If that was truly your past... surely you must harbor some resentment towards their family... no?"

Immith saw his face again. She felt the coldness pressing against her chest. Her throat tightened. She felt small again. She heard his laughter in her ears. She felt the whip across her back. She felt numb. She opened and closed her mouth, but no sound would come. Too many words were needed to correct, to explain... she swallowed.

"Our... our pain is their pleasure."

She heard Seyda speak in that she felt the sound move over her, but she did not listen anymore. Though her feet did not move, she fled. She searched for some sanctuary from memory, an empty space in which there was nothing that could hurt her. Her cheeks were wet with tears but she did not feel them. The thoughts she had tried to escape crashed against the door of her sanctuary, echoing in distant voices she tried not to understand. Why did he choose me? Why me? Why me? I should be de-

"Immith." The voice, soft, was below her. She looked down. Tandria was watching her expectantly, her arms folded. "Wipe your tears, Valiant One. What plagues your mind?" That name again...

"I... I do not yet feel worthy of that title. I feel them with me, always. The five. Like they are holding onto my ankles when I walk." Tandria nodded.

"We cannot change the past, Immith. There is nothing you can do, but move forward with their wind at your back. If you allow their memory to draw you down, you dishonour them, and waste your own potential." Immith closed her eyes. The water was deep and dark and it numbed the voices in her ears. They could pull her down and she would not feel anymore. But the price was already paid.

"I-I know..."

"I know. You wouldn't be here if you didn't. So straighten your back. Wipe your eyes. Keep your head high knowing they would want you to thrive." Immith ran her thick sleeve over her eyes, keeping it pulled down protectively over her wrist.

"I understand you have your freedom now," came Seyda's voice again, "whatever that is... and I will not remove that right from you."

"I... I will strive to be worthy of it."

"Worthy of freedom?" Seyda smiled faintly. "You could certainly have a new beginning." Immith looked at all those stood in the dark, damp room.

"This," she said softly, "is the new beginning." Seyda looked at Mikos.

"Keep her out of the sight of those back home. There are many travelling across the border." Mikos looked at Immith now.

"We will be careful that she draws no attention." Mikos and Seyda covered a few more matters of course as Immith's mind raced. New beginning. Do not waste it. Do not waste it...

"Well then," said Seyda, "do you have any questions?"

Immith placed her hand over her heart. One question, above that which sought the answer of her continued existence, screamed over the din in her head.

"I..." She took a breath, "I wondered if you knew what happened to them. To the.. remains of the fallen."

"They could indeed be in a number of graves," said Seyda, thoughtfully running a finger over her lips, "I regret that after your bout in the ring, I saw no further climax that would interest me. Though I can inquire if you wish to pay your respects to the one that has given you this chance." Immith nodded.

"Knowing... knowing all their names, if I could - perhaps I might feel able to live to honour them. I... know only two of them. Maleesa, the elf. And Krazos... the one who gave me his boon."

"I will see if there is a manifest back in Ramulai. I can afford you that much."

--

The evening was a whirlwind of danger, both anticipated and unforeseen. One of the Red Wizards had found them in the dark tunnels, but had deigned to leave them be. She remembered the mask. The voice. She was the one who had examined her before the pit as one examines cattle to be sold at market. There had been battle; Immith stood with Mikos and Shausek among the ruins, facing vengeful shades and spectral spiders. Everything had frightened her, but Mikos had been there, firm and sure as ever.

For the first time, Immith saw Shausek's weapon - the magic rising from his hands. She thought of the Rashemi man and the sleeping enchantment that had pulled him down with his opponent. She did not see Shausek making such a mistake. His presence was tangible as it had been before. That strength of will. It was something that she both admired and feared.  All had been well, until it was not. The shades broke Immith's resolve.  They bore their faces, and they grasped at the Rashemi woman, seeking for her to join them. It was a dream state, in which fleeing did not bear fruit. When she at last regained control of her own mind, Mikos's face filled her gaze, apologies on his tongue. This was his fault, he had said. He had not taken the proper precautions. This was not her fault.

Not her fault.

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Unbridled Tongues
« Reply #11 on: May 05, 2020, 06:54:47 PM »
They were in the dark again, but it was familiar now. Below the earth there were fewer eyes to look upon Immith with pity or confusion. This distance seemed also to set Shausek at ease. His eyes had held unspoken questions for Immith for some time, but the moment was never right. Until now. Shausek paused in his steps, looking at her now. Immith set her gaze upon his face, just below his eyes.

"I wanted to ask..."

"Yes?" He stepped a little closer, his voice quietening.

"Why don't you hate?"   

"... Hate, Shausek?" Immith's mind ran for a moment until she found it. The question Seyda had asked of her, concerning her resentment. The question that had trapped Immith within her own mind for a time. But these were not Seyda's words now.

"Rashemi are wild and uncontrolled without faith and discipline," said Shausek. "They hate. You were the lowest of the low, and you have no reason to do anything but hate, except if your spirit was broken." Immith suppressed a shudder. She hated. She loathed. It felt thick and heavy in her chest, and it closed her throat. But Shausek kept speaking. "But your spirit is not broken. That sword is bigger than you, and you swing it like Berineth Waeysdottir. But you are... kind."

He had mentioned that name, Berineth, before. A folktale. She looked at her hands. Was she kind? Maleesa was kind...

She saw the whip.  She saw his eyes. She saw herself, weeping in her cot, the exhausted eyes of her fellow slaves begging her to be silent. The hatred tightened its grip on her heart. Immith took a breath.

"I... I feared them too much to hate them, Shausek. I feared the whip. I feared their hands." She swallowed, forcing down the fear that was trying to close up her throat. "Later, I dreaded bringing them their meals, after the night one of them threw it in my face, and while I tried to stand, he pressed me against the ground, and..."

She felt the steam on her face, the burning in her eyes. She heard his laughter. She saw herself on the floor. Hatred rose again in a throbbing pain. Immith closed her eyes. "No... the hatred, I... I reserve for myself." Once that confession passed her lips, it slightly eased its grip upon her heart. That ease gave her a chance to see beyond. She saw silver hair. Pointed ears. A kind face. "Now... now that I am not in that place... I would like to be all it is not. I..."

Shausek was staring down at her, brow furrowed, as though there was a silent war being waged inside him. Immith's heart opened.

"I wish to be Maleesa's kindness. I wish to be the gnome's bravery. I wish to have the Rashemi sorcerer's cunning. The tenacity of the woman with her spear. And... I wish to be as fierce in battle as Krazos."

"You must have... done... something," said Shausek, his gaze shifting from her. "We are animals, and we need to be guided to be better. If the dead ones are how you will do it, then... good." His hands found their position of service behind his back, but his jaw was set, his cheeks red, at odds with that servile stance. Immith found questions of her own forcing their way out as she watched him.

"What... what guides you, Shausek? Who do you want to be?" She tried to meet his gaze, her curiosity overtaking, for a moment, a lifetime's conditioning. He avoided it at first, his face twisting in frustration, until at last they met. Immith trembled. She wondered, a little fearfully, what she might see in those eyes, but more than that... what he might see in hers.

"I want to carry on learning. I want my magic to grow, to be focused and trained, so that I am almost the equal of..." A thought died on his lips, but another sprang forth to replace it. "I want my old master back. He made me. He saved me. He rewarded me with everything I could want, and punished me for my own good, not for sadism."

She continued to tremble. Were there really masters like this? Was it this master who placed such words about the Rashemi in his mouth? She remained silent as he spoke further. Freely. He must speak freely.

"I don't want to be rendered down to being just another Rashemi, down with the people who betrayed me."

"Who... who betrayed you, Shausek?" Shausek's eyes, dark and burning with rage, bore into hers. Her trembling became increasingly overt. She forced her hands down by her sides, as though trying to push the fear away, fighting to hold his gaze even as it terrified her. There was that presence again, burning.

"A girl in the village. Her brothers, including my friend. Her parents. Hala. All of them, they would have seen me dead, or breaking rocks until I died. But I lived, and my master... he took me out of that. He gave me learning and training, so that I could use my magic. I wasn't born a slave."

Immith swallowed. We are not the same, his words sounded again in her head, we are not the same.

"You.. you had a taste of it, before it was taken from you, then.."

"Most of my life, I was free. But I knew nothing. Now I know my place, and I know feelings... are foolish."

Despite his words, his eyes blazed with wrath. Immith thought again of the hellish figure. Her vengeful stare. She finally lowered her gaze from his, gasping a breath.

"I don't understand why Mikos... talks as he does," Shausek continued, the anger beginning to subside, "it doesn't make sense." As his rage dimmed, Immith felt able to reply.

"We... we have much to learn of him and his purpose, I am sure. But... I also have much to learn of myself. And of you."

"They will kill me if I am not useful. You heard the mistress say it. I am too dangerous to keep alive." Immith's heart dipped in her chest. Five lives weighing upon her shoulders were already too many.

"I won't... let them." Immith's eyes widened a little at her own words, as though she had not been the one to speak them. Shausek's cheek twitched, his voice coming uncertainly where it had been so sure.

"... why?"

"We..." She looked at him. He had magic. He had that presence. But he also had the voice of home, and the Vaasi language on his tongue. He was of the Rashemi, a man with a heart, with wishes, with fears. "We should not suffer, for how we are born, Shausek."

"But we do." He wasn't wrong. "We all have wild hearts. Mine just... sets things on fire. We are animals." Shausek looked away once more. "Except you, apparently. You're just... like something out of a tale. The tales you don't even know." Immith's brow furrowed. What was he saying? "I mean, you aren't even Rashemi in a way. You don't know how we live outside."

Those words were sharp in her ears. She stared at the floor. Was he wrong? She knew so little of the Rashemi ways. There had been no room for custom and tradition. No room for celebration. Her life had not been hers at all. All she had known was service. There was no place she could truly call home. There was no family name to add to her own, for there had been no family for her. She was alone with her ghosts.

"I... I am just Immith. I have a very large debt to repay. That is all."

Shausek took a breath, then another, the weight of feeling he held as foolishness heavy upon him.

"I speak harshly to you. You don't deserve it." Immith lifted her gaze to look at him anew, worry knotting her brow.

"It.. it has been a long day, Shausek. Very tiring."

"I haven't spoken as long as this to anyone except my master, Ossan-Ke, and my tutor, Aobaris for the last... it must be six years."

Until the pit, I barely spoke a word. Perhaps this is what Mikos meant, when he said we are alike.

"I was not allowed to talk to the ones who brought me food. I wasn't allowed to talk to the... uh." Shausek stopped, leaving his words in fragments. Immith did not pry.

"I... I am glad you feel you can speak freely, with me. Please feel that you can. Even... even if you fear to speak harshly."

"I'm sorry I shut the door in your face," said Shausek. Immith recalled their first lesson with a nod.

"It... it did amuse me, a little."

"It did?" Shausek looked at her, incredulous. "I wasn't sure if you can laugh." The ghost of a smile appeared on his lips, reflected in Immith's own expression as she saw it.

"I would like to laugh."

"I used to be able to make people laugh. Before I became what I am." The smiles faded.


Inwardly, Immith swore a vow as she went to find rest. One way or another, these Rashemi would know laughter again.
« Last Edit: May 06, 2020, 05:12:48 AM by emptyanima »

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A Contradiction
« Reply #12 on: July 15, 2020, 05:53:24 PM »
In the days since Immith's depature from Hazlan, Immith found that sleep remained elusive, and when she did finally take hold of it, her nightmares still troubled her. During the light hours it would creep up on her and close her eyes, though it was no less fitful despite its stubborn approach. It was from one such restless sleep that Shausek woke her by clearing his throat. As Immith stirred and ran her hand over her sleep-filled eyes, she lowered her gaze.

"You were dreaming." Shausek said with a frown.

"Oh... you were stood here long?"

"Not long." He exhaled a little breath before taking a seat a short distance away, but his frown remained.

It was this frown that Immith's thoughts had turned to, only briefly, as the familiar, uncomfortable heat of the beetle cave pressed against her. As she and Shausek moved deeper through its warrens and the light became more distant, her resolve to keep the creatures from harming her sour-faced companion only increased. As they had begun their journey, he had chastised her for offering up some of their supplies to tend a lone adventurer who had been injured in the caves. She remained silent on her reasons for doing so.

When they came upon their quarry, Immith watched something glow strangely in Shausek's hands, before arcing forward towards the oversized beetles and striking them with shards of ice. For a moment, she stiffened, beginning to understand fully for herself just what Shausek was. He was someone to be feared. She thought for a moment of the Red Wizards, then cursed herself for doing so. This was no Red Wizard before her. He was not them. He was not him.

Distracted by her thoughts, one of the beetles broke through the defense she had sought to offer him, a hairy appendage reaching to strike at Shausek. Guilt gnawed at her gut as she swung her blade to slice the appendage in two before it could touch him, her cheeks darkening in shame.

"Is that guarding?" Shausek asked, his lips twisted into a smirk as he glanced at her.

"N-... no." She replied in a small voice. The small voice grew a little louder. "I must be better, Shausek."

"I'd be dead without you." Shausek replied. Immith paused. From his mouth, this was practically a compliment. "I can't fight these on my own," he added.

"I... I hope you would not fight alone. I do not... want to find you dead, Shausek."

"I would not." He paused, seeming to consider his words carefully. "I am saying... you are good at defending me, I suppose."

Immith's voice softened again, shrinking behind her teeth.

"Not good enough."

A few moments passed quietly between them as they trudged on through the caves, Immith slightly ahead, dark eyes keenly searching the gloom for more of their quarry. Soon enough, their many limbs echoed around the warrens, not only approaching from the front, but from behind as well. Once more, Immith leapt into action, swinging her blade to bring the beetles their end. Despite her attentiveness, one of the creatures lunged at Shausek, almost upon him. She sank her blade into its carapace a second before it could strike him, gasping for breath.

"They did not touch me," Shausek spoke up suddenly, "that is a swift blade."

"It must be swifter."

The mage seemed to consider this for a moment.

"I don't understand you, Immith. I really don't."

Further and further they went. As before, when she had travelled here with Anezka, Immith reached the lower part that was even darker, even hotter than before. The deeper they travelled into the beetle's lair, the larger the groups that came. Finally, one of them was able to break through the Rashemi woman's defences, scratching at Shausek. Immith almost growled with anger as she fought for their attention. Then, the sound of more steps made by many hairy limbs erupted behind them. and still, they kept coming. She moved quickly with her blade, swinging it wide in a desperate bid to take their attention away from Shausek. The halls became cramped with bodies, living and dead, and the pair began to tread on the beetles under their feet. Before them, a mound of their quarry's corpses grew higher and higher. Immith clambered over the chitinous pile and gave a loud cry before plunging her blade into the swarm of beetles that remained.

She fought for breath. The air was thinner here and it burned in her lungs, and her eyes were stung by the heat. Despite her vision hazing, she could see that Shausek was staring at her, wide-eyed.

"You... are barely scratched," he said finally.

"I... did not keep them off you. It is better that... I be scratched and you unharmed."

"They surrounded us, Immith. I am fine. I lived."

"Lived..." Immith echoed the word as she dwelled on it, before choking on the stale air in her lungs. She was tired but determined. Shausek, meanwhile, seemed in an increasingly lighter mood, as though using his magic had lifted a weight from his shoulders and drawn him out of himself. She did not dwell on this for long. She grit her teeth against the pain of her wounds, and the stinging of her sweat in her scars. She tried to swallow one of the small mushrooms that thrived in the caves, as she found that they soothed her hurts, but it was stuck in her dry throat and she coughed.

Shausek frowned again. This time it was a frown of worry.

"Are you alright?" Immith forced the mushroom down with a dry swallow that left her voice raw.

"Hot." She croaked.

"We should leave soon, before you tire." Immith did not answer immediately, listening out for the sound of more beetle steps in the caverns, and soon enough she heard them.

"Not finished."

Slowly, they moved through the final tunnels of the beetle lair, coming upon their mound of stolen treasures, in as far as they called be called such. It would be a start for Mikos's mission. Finally free from the threat of further attack, they paused to catch their breath.

"Well done, Shausek," Immith said, "you... you made me more than I am. I... I saw the ice from your hands."

"That is only the second thing I have killed with ice." Shausek paused briefly, before continuing, "and the first thing that was not tied up." Immith stiffened.

"What... what was the first?" Shausek did not answer.


Immith drank the fresh air in deep gulps as they emerged from the caves. Her limbs ached with all the effort they had used in wielding her blade, and her eyes were heavy in weariness.

"I'm sorry." Shausek said this suddenly.

"Why... why are you sorry, Shausek?"

"There is nothing I can do to kill them quickly. Those ones hurt you." Immith spent a moment thinking on his concern before she could reply. This was new from him, yet it did not feel forced. The clipped, short, sharp Shausek was Shausek. But this concerned, sometimes-smiling fellow was also Shausek. A contradiction.

"Shausek... I am alright. Only held back by being tired."   

"I have never seen anyone fight like you do?"

"Is that... good? Bad? O-" Immith went to say more, but she was stopped short by the appearance of a familiar face. Shausek spoke before she could.

"Mikos."

"We have coins for you," added Immith.

"I have a blade for you," came Mikos's reply. "Tell me about your time with the beetles. It went well?"

"I... I would say so," said Immith. "But it could also have been far better. There... there were times that the beetles slipped past me, and hurt Shausek."

"She exaggerates," Shausek added quickly, "I could defend myself, the ones that got past were wounded." Immith's brow furrowed a touch.

"There were... many long fights in the heat," Immith added, "many bodies to push through."

"And the heat did not affect you over much?" Mikos asked.

"We stopped regularly, so it didn't," said Shausek.

"Shausek made sure that we collected many of the little mushrooms down there... they eased it a little."

Mikos arched a brow under his hood.

"This is good thinking." Immith nodded her agreement, prompting Mikos to turn to address her now. "His protective magics, were they sufficient?" Immith looked at Shausek as she answered.

"Yes. There... there was no enemy we could not defeat together."

"And his comportment in battle? Panic? Terror? Anything like this?"

"No," she replied. He looked at Shausek now.

"And in Immith?" Immith saw Shausek tense at the question, looking at her curiously.

"She fights very well. It's hard to believe she is not trained. She also is attentive to my safety."

"Good," said Mikos, "in the coming days, we will be arranging treks out East. Some in which you will observe, and some in which you will be observed."

--

Some time later, Immith and Shausek left Mikos, having each taken a small portion of their earnings to cover their daily living. The pair walked together towards the city of Grey.

"Are... are you upset with me, Shausek?" Immith asked in a soft voice. Shausek stopped in his tracks, turning to face Immith now.

"You didn't have to make it seem like I did as much as you. I don't understand why you did it, and why you do these things, say these things." Immith pressed her lips into a thin line, remaining silent as Shausek continued. "I am no one to you. Why are you... nice.. to me?"

Immith shook her head.

"You are not... not no one, to me."

 hausek stared at her expectantly. Was this sharp, cold Shausek, or concerned Shausek? Immith could not tell, but she was not thinking of Shausek. She was thinking of another.

"What... what was it she said? Yes..." She looked at him with a nod. "Close acquaintances. That... that is what she called us." Immith frowned. "I... I have seen one close acquaintance die. I... I would not like to see it again."

"Then that's mutual," Shausek said quickly, "if they let you die, they'll know I'm useless." He looked away. "We should get-..."

"Shausek," Immith interrupted him, her voice firmer but still quiet.

"What?"

"You are not useless. You... you are clever, so clever. And... even if I wished it with everything in me, I... I couldn't make ice in my hands..."

"It's not coming quick enough," said Shausek, an edge of fear in his voice, "I can't make it come quicker."

"Can... can I help, in this?"

"I don't know. I have no books, but... I don't know what... the books only help controlling what comes. I don't know what makes it come. I don't know."

"Then... we shall find out, yes?" Immith said this with more certainty than she felt, but it was sincere. Shausek smiled a tiny smile.

"It's getting dark."
« Last Edit: July 15, 2020, 06:25:25 PM by emptyanima »

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Two Shauseks, One Window
« Reply #13 on: July 17, 2020, 07:19:57 PM »
Immith was exhausted. Restful sleep continued to elude her, while the pale imitation that she could find drove her to tearful frustration.

Barovia continued to show its flaws. Disagreements ended in bloodshed. Immith recalled the wet eyes of one woman who had been beaten for one such misunderstanding. She had looked to the Rashemi woman for comfort, but who was she to offer it? All she could offer was one weak tonic and unspoken sympathy.

Shausek had been eager to ferry Immith away from such dangers, knowing the purpose for which they were training and the risk to himself should she come to harm. Although Immith could not fully comprehend the burden set upon his shoulders, she knew that this pressure pushed him forward. She had sensed, however, that he was at the very least trying to be pleasant in his duties.

They did not speak a great deal as they passed through the gates to the city of grey, and what they discussed was of little substance, until he asked one innocent question.

"Did you sleep well, Immith?"  Shausek's question, while routine and polite, only added to Immith's frustration with her insurmountable exhaustion.

"Ah... mostly," she lied. This seemed to satisfy the scribe's curiosity for a moment, but then he pressed further.

"What helps you sleep?"

Immith recalled how she had struggled, tossed, and turned in the dark. She recalled those moments when sleep seemed ready to grant her the reprieve that she desperately craved, when suddenly she would see Maleesa's face, or hear Krazos's cry, or feel their cold hands in a death grip around her arms or legs. There had been no rest since she left the Pit. Her blood chilled for a moment at the thought, and finally she had an answer for his question.

"A strike to the head."

Shausek chuckled, a smile forming on his lips as he turned back to look at her.
He took in her expression.
His smile faded.

"We could... get something to eat," he offered. Guilt panged within Immith's chest as she recalled the promise she had made during their first lesson.

"Oh, I... I didn't get the items for the kebab. I will, for next time."

Shausek looked, for a moment, disappointed. There was a second pang of guilt which passed more slowly than the first.

"Fine."

Shausek led Immith into a nearby building. She was immediately taken aback by the scents within, and she looked at the bread and cakes on display with an awed expression. She noted that some of the cakes had been set aside, and the pair soon discovered that they were set out for patrons to try. Immith took the smallest piece she could find and set it in her mouth, chewing slowly, almost relucantly.

Her eyes went wide, and she fought with her jaw to continue to chew slowly, but now she did so because she did not wish for the sweet honey taste to end. When she finally swallowed, her sight was blurred, and before long she had tears streaking thin lines down her cheeks. Shausek took in the display with a troubled expression. When Immith finally spoke again, her voice was softer.

"I never knew that food could taste so good."

Shausek promptly ordered two more cakes, and once paid for, the two made their way to the nearby inn which would be the venue for their next lesson. Shausek carried the cakes carefully.

"At least you told her they were nice... after you burst into tears." Shausek said.

"I... I never used to enjoy food," admitted Immith. "Food... food meant that there was work to be done, to be strong for. It... it meant I would live another day, if I ate."

Shausek did not respond to this, going ahead to pay for some drinks from the inn's bar before picking up a key. Their lesson would take place in one of the upper rooms, away from the patrons' merrymaking.

As they entered the room, Immith marvelled at the wide, clear windows overlooking the streets below. She noted all the little windows and sloping roofs of the buildings beyond, and wondered for a moment about what lives those within might lead. Guilt again gnawed at her when she recalled the life she lead in Hazlan, and those left behind, toiling in the fields and suffering the cruelties of their masters. She turned to see a particularly fastidiuous Shausek preparing the table for their lesson. She stepped closer. He waved his hand in a shooing motion.

"I am not ready for you."

"Yes, sir," said Immith, quickly and reflexively, before looking down with a frown. "Not sir... why did I...?"

Shausek was looking at her now, perplexed himself. Immith exhaled a sigh, becoming suddenly very interested in her own feet. She heard Shausek's pen scratching against the paper, but she did not look at him. "Sorry, Shausek, my... my head was back in the other place." Immith finally lifted her head and drew closer, slowly, marvelling at what Shausek had been preparing for their lesson. "It... it amazes me that you can see all these lines, and shapes... and know what they mean." Following some more preparation, Shausek turned the paper around and set it before Immith.

"These are the capital letters. They are what you use to start names, or for inscriptions or the like." As she scanned the list of letters for a trace of familiarity, she found herself pointing at a round shape.

"Oh."

"Yes, that is O."

"You.. you made this shape, on the floor." Shausek nodded.

"Each one of these is an ingredient to a word." Immith's gaze continued to dart around the page, her curiosity evident as her finger ran across it. "I've written out this page so that you can practice in your own time. You need to be able to write all these letters neatly." Another sheet emerged in Shausek's neat handwriting, covered in further shapes, the lower case letters. Immith's eyes went wide.

"How... how can I remember all these?"

"Practice." To demonstrate, Shausek pointed at the first lower case letter. "This is A. It makes the sound 'ah'. Try and copy the shape." Immith took the quill, her brow furrowing in intense concentration as she attempted to mimic the shape, the sound repeated under her breath as she did so.

"A. Ah."

"Write it again."

Immith took a breath, setting the quill against the page once more as she tried to copy it. Slowly, slowly, the letter took shape. Shausek watched her before speaking. "What does it sound like?"

"A... Ah..." Immith frowned. "Am... am I wrong?"

"No, you are right. Repetition sets it into your mind. I can't copy entirely how I learned, but I am getting it as close as possible."

"Alright... sorry, I... I thought I was being... dim."

"I cannot punish you for failure."

Immith looked down into her lap at his words, but he carried on. a light smile forming on his lips. "I cannot withhold the cake until you succeed."

"Why not?"

"Because... you would take it from me, Immith, with your big sword." Immith finally looked at Shausek, at that, worry in her brow, but it eased at the sight of his expression.

"Yes, I... I have already taken so much from you with it." This seemed to spur him to speak further.

"Keep going. Write it. Say it."

"Oh, sorry, sorry... the lesson. A. Ah. A. Ah."

"Now B. Buh. Write it, and repeat it like before."

"B. Buh. B... Buh." Immith paused. Her brow furrowed at something. It was an odd sound, and it triggered something in her foggy, sleep-deprived state that she hadn't felt before.

Immith laughed. It was quiet laughter at first, but as is the way of laughter, it grew louder and took hold of the Rashemi woman. Shausek raised a brow, reaching for his tsuika.

"What?"

There were tears in Immith's eyes now, but they were not the frustrated, sleepy tears of nights past. Her body trembled, but not with exhaustion.

"Beebah... it..." Her breath caught for a moment as she struggled for it, before she contined, "it just sounds so... so silly! Beebah!"
 
Shausek took a sip of his tsuika. Immith continued to laugh in her chair with greater intensity, until the laugh had such a hold of her that she barely made a sound at all, vibrating silently as it stole away the lion's share of her breath. She brought her arms to her sides, wincing slightly as the alien feeling overwhelmed her. "It... ah, it hurts, but I can't stop..!" The laugh continued, and she began to cough as she felt it more sharply at her sides.

"You're ridiculous," said Shausek. This was not spoken in the cold tones of distant Shausek, but with mirth. as his other Shausek. The Shausek beneath the first.

Immith's face was bright red now. Finally, she flopped, face first, onto the table, breathing in deep sighs as she took control over herself again. Shausek pushed Immith's glass of tsuika towards her. "Have a drink." She took a gulp, then gasped.

"It's... hot! Like fire inside..."

"It's one of the few things I have found here I like. Do you need more time? We have another twenty-four letters to go through. Who knows how much laughter awaits?"

"We... we might have to slowly, or you'll kill me!"

"We'd both be dead then. Then only thing I have going for me now is that I can teach you. Try B a few more times."

Immith's brow furrowed at his words, and she returned to her studies with an even more studious air than when they had begun. Onwards they continued through the letters, her attentiveness remaining. She could not give Shausek's masters a reason to harm him. She had to succeed, for his sake as well as her own, and she wished to for herself. With each letter vanquished, she could become more unlike the woman who died in Hazlan, the Immith who suffered so much, who deserved so little of what she had been given...

This pressure added to the exhaustion that already wracked her, and before long, she was struggling with the work. She threw down her quill upon the table, shaking her head. Shausek's brow furrowed as he followed the quill's path to the desk, before looking at her, thoughtful.

"So Immith can be defeated?" Again, his tone was mirthful rather than cruel, but this did not do much to soothe her.

"I... I have to get it right."

"You're doing well so far." He stood up and walked to her side of the table. Immith gritted her teeth, taking up her quill to try again. Her voice was soft and small.

"I... won't let them..." Her hand trembled, the quill uncontrollable in the state into which she'd worked herself.

"Stop," said Shausek. The guilt came again.

"No... it needs to be right, to be ri..." Immith trailed off., stiffening Shausek had lightly placed his hand over hers to still it. It was soft, most unlike her own rough hands, calloused with hard labour.

"Just... feel the movement." Shausek guided her hand carefully as she held the quill, showing hern the shape that the letter should take. There was a slowness to it that was tentative as she trembled. Once he had completed his demonstration, he resumed his own seat. "Try it again."

Immith took a breath and found the letter seemed to form naturally upon her next attempt. A small smile tugged at her lips. She looked up a little as he spoke again. "Do you remember everything you said about our trip to fight beetles?"

"I... I think so, why?"

"This is as hard for you as fighting felt for me. We'll do it together. Alright?" Immith nodded, and renewed by this support, they carried on further through the alphabet, Shausek's smile growing all the while, until they reached a simple shape, a single vertical line topped with a dot. "So this next one," began Shausek, "can you guess what it is?"

Immith peered at it, not replying. "It's the first letter of your name."

"Oh..." Her eyes widened a little, "it looks like this?"

"It does. It's not a hard one, but it's a bit different to a lot of the others, you see? It has a dot. Do you want to give it a try? Then we can take a break." Immith nodded, drawing the line down carefully, before gently placing the nib of her quill at the top to mark the dot.

Shausek nudged one of the cakes towards her. "I think you've earned this." Immith reverently lifted the cake to her face, inhaling the sweet honey scent. As she did so, Shausek slid another sheet of paper towards her.

"What's this?"

"That's your name."

"Oh. Immith."

"I thought you would like to see it." He smiled another small smile.

"I do, thank you, Shausek. I will try to copy this too." At this, she lifted the cake to her mouth and took a small bite, trembling a little in anticipation of the taste. Shausek was watching her, fascinated. Her own smile trembled a little at a thought. "Shausek," she said as she swalloed, "I... hope I've not ruined all other food with this."

Shausek laughed.

"I am sure we will find other food that will satisfy you, Immith. Or will your tongue be too lofty for porridge now?" Immith's eyes widened.

"I... I hope this did not cost many coins, Shausek. It tastes like it does. Like it is worth all the coins..."

"It cost a bit more than a room at the Lady's Rest for a night. It was not too much. If we are questioned, I will say it was part of the teaching process."

Immith's gaze lowered. The words were formal, but they were not said in Shausek's usual cold way. No, this was the Shausek beneath once more, the Shausek he had been for most of their lesson. A lesson in which they had laughed and shared sweet cake and kind words. Surely, there was more than duty in this? She had not felt so able to speak with another since... Maleesa, her first friend. But Shausek was different, and even when he was warmer, there was still something about him that she could not place.

"You are good to me, Shausek. I... I will try very hard when I am alone, and practicing this."

Shausek's brow furrowed.

"It is my... duty, Immith. I am commanded to teach you." He looked away as he said this. "And.. you are too..." Shausek paused, searching for a moment for the right word, and finding none to suit, continued, "Immithy, to distrust."

Immith looked at up at him, at this, still cradling the final motes of honey cake in her palms. She opened her mouth to allow the crumbs passage into her mouth, but Shausek spoke first, looking at her again.

"Do you remember your parents?"

Immith's hands curled briefly into fists, the crumbs slipping through her fingers as she uncurled them again. She shook her head.

"They... they died when I was very young. I only know them from what the others told me." Shausek's gaze dropped to her hands for a moment before returning to her face.

"I shouldn't have asked."

"Why not? I... I do not know why you cannot ask these things?"

"It's not my purpose to upset you."

"They... they may hurt a little to speak of, but... I want to tell you."

Shausek reached for his glass once more, his familiarity with drink an oddity to Immith, but not a concern she voiced.

"I listen." Shausek said simply. Immith nodded.

"You... you listen to me. You do not... ust see me as a Rashemi slave. As a... a sad tale."

Shausek smiled.

"That is because I think you are mad." He took another sip, his smile hidden by the cup before he continued, "I don't know how you are so... Immith, but you are."

Worry played on Immith's brow at his words, despite the smile in them.

"What.. what does it mean, to be Immith?" She looked at him, fighting with years of habit and smallness to meet his gaze. "Who am I, Shausek?" She found something within to hold to, and as such, she managed to hold his gaze, watching him expectantly.

"If I had a better way to say it, a better word, I would use it. It's... like you are a coward and fearless all at once. You're gentle and violent. You're naive, but enduring.You can barely hold even my gaze, yet you've defied the masters to live. If you were any one of these things, maybe I'd have a word for you. As it is, Immith suits best."

"So... to be Immith, then," she said as she looked down, "is not to make sense."

Shausek snorted, amused, before she spoke further. "You don't make sense either, Shausek."

"I mean, you could say that to be Immith, is just to be something I don't understand. But, it's also to be something I trust." Shausek took a drink, at that, gulping quickly before mumbling. "You don't harm people."

"Do... do other people make sense?"

"I don't know, my master did. I understood my place and my worth. People in books make sense." Only now did Shausek return to the second of Immith's statements. "How don't I make sense?"

"Well, you..." She took a moment to steel herself, but the words came easily enough. "You are firm with me, and then you are gentle. You follow and command. You... you are distant, and you are near. But... perhaps you made more sense, bnefore I confused everything."

Shausek stared into his glass.

"It would have been easier if I could just serve."

"I... I am glad you did not. I feel I... I get a sense of you. A look at Shausek."

Shausek frowned. Immith tensed.

"... Shausek? Did... did I say something wrong?"

Shausek set down his glass, looking at her.

"I don't know what you see, if you see what I was made to be, or the weak and wild thing I used to be. I don't know. I don't know which I am."

Immith paused. Were these the two Shauseks she had seen? No...

"You are certainly not weak, Shausek. I almost fear you at times. Even... even when you speak quietly, there is a... a power when you speak, how you carry yourself."

Shausek sipped at his drink, his face twisting in frustration upon finding it nearly empty. Immith gently pushed her cup towards him.

"How I wish I was worthy of being feared, Immith. I'd be useful then. I would not have to fear like I do."

Immith's heart raced. Although some of the words were not ones she would use, she saw in his fear a mirror of her own.

"No, no, Shausek... you are useful." Shausek placed a hand on the cup, lowering his voice, leaning his head closer to her

"You heard what... Mikos expects blood. I'm alive for only one thing. I will be spent fighting Seyda's sister."

Immith remembered the words Mikos had spoken to them in the dark, and the realisation in Shausek's expression.

"Shausek..." She shook her head, trembling a little at his close proximity to her.

"I was being trained to be a weapon, and that is what I will be used as. Or I will be discarded. The house does not need a scribe that is an affront to the Lawgiver."

"How... how could... could you be an affront to anything? It... it doesn't make sense."

"My magic, Immith. It's a curse in their eyes. The only one who has ever told me different, was my master. He told me it was a gift of power."

"I... I don't know much of these matters."

"I'm a witch. I'm an embarrassment. My own parents turned their backs on me for that. And so did-..."

Immith's gaze intensified as she took in Shausek's words, watching him even as he trailed off. She strained to imagine the family he had. She knew from his words that he had been wronged, but she struggled to comprehend the feeling. How did it feel to be abandoned by those that you loved? How did it feel to be loved at all?

"So did?"

Shausek had closed up again, retreating from the conversation. He ran a fingernail against the table, not looking at her. There was pain in Immith's voice as she spoke.

"I... I won't press." Immith added.

"You're like... a blank piece of paper, Immith. It's like you've chosen to write a new Immith since you came back, and became free. Because the one that came before only knew how to be hurt." He looked at her, then, his eyes shining. "Don't... write things that make you less... kind."

The sight of Shausek's emotion, rarely revealed, and the words that he spoke ensured that Immith's own eyes were misting with tears in an instant. Just as Shausek told her that he was not sure what she saw of him, she could not make out what he saw in her. Was it kindness? Was she a hero, the subject of fireside tales? She felt anew the weariness that enveloped her, her emotion and introspection wearing away at her resolve.

"I just..." She took a breath. "I just want to honour them. To be.. to be what they saw in me. To be what Krazos saw in me, to give his life for mine."

"How do you know he saw anything? How do you know he wasn't just broken? How do you kow he just didn't want to leave his mark? How do you find this... well of strength? Because it's from you, not their words."

Immith trembled at his questions. Surely, it had to hold some deeper meaning. Surely, Krazos's sacrifice had to be for a reason.  If it was all for madness, or because he had broken, or because he simply wanted the chance to strike back at the masters, it would not explain why he chose her, the least worthy. Worse yet, if it had been for nothing....

She tried to shake off these thoughts, intrusive as they were. Still, the others lingered in her mind. She felt them nearby.

"I... I have to be strong, Shausek. If I am not strong, I will be crushed under their weight."

"I can't help but wonder whether you are a madwoman, or sent by my mother's goddess to remind me what I've become."

Immith tensed at his words. She was certainly not chosen by any god or goddess. Who was she to be worthy of it? Perhaps he was right. Perhaps...

Immith shuddered as she recalled her own dreams once more, the weight of the bodies against her.

"Perhaps... perhaps I am mad. Do you feel the dead, Shausek?" She paused for a moment, barely able to comprehend the strangeness of them, but in her weariness and guilt, she could not keep further words from spilling out, hurried and breathless. "Do you feel their arms around your neck? Do you feel them beside you when you sleep? Do you feel their eyes on you? Watching. Waiting. Waiting for me to give their terrible deaths some meaning..."

"No," replied Shausek. "I feel nothing. The first time I remembered the first life I took myself was yesterday." He paused for a moment. The next words that came had the cadance of an often-heard quote. "Worry for mundanes is for lesser souls. So you are... mad."

Immith's heart screamed. She recalled her dreams once more. She could not deny them. She could not deny it any longer.

She sobbed.

Shausek averted his gaze. His expression was troubled, and as Immith continued to weep, shame radiated from him, his shoulders sinking. Immith looked up at him through tearful eyes. Perhaps he hadn't meant it. He regretted it.

Before her eyes, he vanished.

Immith's mind reeled. Had Shausek been here it at all? Had she come to this room alone, and in her madness imagined kindness and company for herself? Her heart rhudded in her chest. She was mad. She was mad. Unworthy. Krazos had made a mistake. It should have been him, or Maleesa, or any of the others... but her? No. No.

She pushed herself up from her chair, stumbling uneasily away from the table. As she almost slipped, she saw the bloodied floor of the Pit. As she moved forward, she saw their corpses strewn about around her.  The ghosts refused to leave her alone. Why? Because she was unworthy. Her freedom, stolen. She looked out of the wide windows and the street below. It was quiet out there. A quiet she hadn't known since she left. And in her exhaustion, her guilt, her shame, a solution sounded clear in her mind.

She was unworthy of the gift of life. She would give it back.

She pushed the windows open and gulped in a breath of the cool night air. For a moment, she paused, the quiet soothing her, but then she felt once more the heat of her wet cheeks, her heart beat echoing in her head, saw Maleesa's face beaten to a fleshy pulp.

Immith clambered onto the windowsill, her hands trembling  as she moved to open the windows wider.

She felt a hand grip tightly at her arm and she yelped.

"Leave me, ghosts!"

She fell back from the sill and hit the floor with a loud thud. Her sight blurred. She heard a voice. Shausek's voice. But it couldn't be. He wasn't here...

The grip shifted, moving to her shoulders now. She gave a cry, but was interrupted by more words, Shausek's words., clearer now.

"Immith, look at me! Look!" Defeated and exhausted, Immith looked up, and as her sight cleared, she saw his face, upsidedown, and worry in his eyes. She gasped for breath.  "Just... come away from the window." Immith trembled violently, sure now that it was his hands that she felt upon her shoulders. "You can hear me?" Fear and worry were evident in his voice. His gaze shifted between cold and compassion with each moment that passed, as though the two Shauseks were warring inside him.

"Yes," she managed, her voice hoarse. She remained frozen in place upon the floor, gripped in terror and uncertainty. A shadow passed over Shausek's face and he closed his eyes. Opening them again, they were softer now, and less uncertain. He lifted a hand from Immith's shoulder to rest upon her cheek.

"Come with me." The words were not harsh, but Immith knew that it was also more a command than a request. She allowed him to lift her up from the floor, watching as he brought the windows closed with a flick of his wrist, a brief arcane light visible in his hands. He guided her to the bed in the corner of the room, easily done as exhausted as she was. As she felt the pillow behind her head, Immith gradually began to feel more present, more distant from the screams inside her head that came before.

"Shausek...?"

"I'm here."

"Yes. You... you're real." Her breathing gradually eased.

"Yes. Whatever I am, I am real." Guilt filled his voice. "My magic scared you."

"Is... is that why you vanished? Magic?" Yes, that made sense. That could explain it, how he could have been there one moment, and gone the next. "Then... then maybe I am not mad. At least... not so mad as that."

"I think so. I felt it well up. I think I understand now what makes it grow."

"What... what makes it grow?" A trace of worry entered Immith's tone.

"Emotion," said Shausek, similarly shaken. Immith remembered his former words on the foolishness of feeling. It seemed he would be eating them now.

"You... you must let yourself feel. Be Shausek." As she spoke, she stifled a yawn. The pillow really was soft, and she really was tired. Her eyelids became heavy as they closed. She heard Shausek's voice, more distant now.

"Shausek was weak. You saw what Shausek's magic does. You almost..."

Whether he finished his thought, or left it dangling, Immith did not know. She was asleep before any further words came.