Rilen, stop! Please!
Rilen, stop! Please!
The desert of Stygia was worse than the stories he’d heard. Which was surprising, since those in Aquilonia are often quick to exaggerate everything else about that hellish land.
Still, if you don’t want to be found, and water isn’t a concern, there are scant few places that would serve better.
I have to do this.
In the years since he’d left – or more accurately, had been run out of – Poitain, he’d searched for other places to disappear. Unfortunately, of all the things humanity does well, learning to survive in the strangest and harshest of places is certainly one of them. Just ask the Cimmerians. The hardships faced there define them as people. They have adapted; they are strong – instead of bending to the will of the world, they have bent the world to their will. Not like him. That cold wasteland was no place for someone like him to disappear. No, he deserved to rot in the desert. Somehow dying in Stygia amongst the demon-worshippers seemed like an appropriate fate.
It’s not worth it! I’m not worth it! You don’t have to do anything!
Power to the Stygians is like booze to the Cimmerians. Those that don’t have it, crave it. Just a taste and they want more. And the more they get, the more violently they will protect it. In this way, he was as different from the Stygians as he was from the Cimmerians. He was approaching thirty years old, and his only taste of power had been as repulsive to him as a pint of ale must be to a child of the self-righteous Tarantian nobility.
Unfortunately, unlike the ale, this wasn’t something he could just spit out. It was, if anything, quite the opposite.
You do not understand. What sort of husband would I be if I could not protect you? What sort of father?
The caravan he had been paid to escort, then abandoned, was halfway to Sukhmet by now. He wondered idly if they’d found the body of the other mercenary, or just assumed he’d fled into the night as well. It wasn’t an uncommon occurance in Stygia – most caravans don’t have the time, patience, or manpower to hunt down those who flee into the desert with their payment. It was the reason most merchants – at least most respectable ones – refused to give payment until they reached their destination. The mercenary’s death would keep him going for at least the few days it would take to get as far away from civilization – if you could call Stygia that – as possible.
This is not protection, Rilen! This is insanity!
He had grown beyond trying to justify the man’s death to himself. At first, it was different. He sought out the scum of the world. Terrible people. People who needed to die. But as the years passed, and the hunger would come more frequently and intensely, there simply wasn’t time to give everyone in the area a quick morality test.
They will be coming again for us soon. And I will not let them take you. I will not let them take either of you.
It’d been a day or two since he’d seen another living, breathing human being. There were plenty of ones that didn’t match either description out in the wastes, some of whom had been unceremoniously dumped there, others who had simply been left to die. None of them would serve the purposes he’d need. He’d quickly learned that they had to be killed by his hand, or for whatever reason, it didn’t “count”. The gods – no, this, if was anything was response, it certainly wasn’t the gods – had a sick sense of humor. The few scorpions and snakes that he had caught resting in the afternoon heat had served to satiate him for, at most, a few hours. Another thing he’d learned quickly – animals would only keep him going just long enough to continue hunting for a human. Still, all the better, as he approached what he hoped would be the end of his journey.
I would rather die than see you like this.
The sun vanished behind the top of an ancient, long-abandoned pyramid when the pain began. As always, it started in his stomach and worked its way up. This time, however, it would be different. Everything was going as he’d hoped. There was nothing living , not even a plant, within half a dozen miles. Nothing for the hunger to reach for. The world grew dark.
He said this was the only way.
He fell to his knees, and shortly after, the taste of sand entered his mouth. He lay there, between life and death, starving as though he had not tasted food for half a dozen years, until long after the sun had completed its own journey beneath the horizon. Alone, here, he would perish, forgotten as so many others had been, taken by the blasted wasteland the Stygians called a country…
“‘Ey, look at that ‘im. We can use ‘is water – don’t look like he has much need of it ‘imself”
After that, it was all a blur. The dying man, against his will, surged with life for just a moment. But that moment was enough. In one swift motion, he rolled forward, unsheathed his gladius, and thrust it towards the voice he had heard but a moment before. The blade struck home, and he did not even hear the man’s cries of pain as Rilen’s sword found a path through his studded leather. The only feeling he was aware of was the life surging back into him – like he’d just taken a bite of the best Cimmerian steak, or tasted a sample of the finest Tamantian wine. Then, just as soon as it began, something large and heavy slammed into his face. Rilen tasted his own blood in his mouth as he was thrown back onto the sand that had been his would-be grave. The shield that had knocked him back – bearing the symbol what looked like a rose and two crossed swords – hovered in the air above him, like some sort of sign from the damned gods, and a longsword was pressed against his throat.
He had come here to die, and yet, he found himself fighting for his life, more on instinct than a true act of conscious self-preservation. He knocked the sword at his throat away with his own, then spun back on his feet, taking his own shield from his back and meeting eyes with his attacker. The man who had spoken but a scant moment ago lay on the ground clutching his side, the blood pouring from his wound onto the desert floor looking more black than red in the moonlight.
“Who the fuck are you?”
Leave. I never want to see you again.
Rilen’s only reply was the swing of his sword. It was beyond his control now – they were here, and, it seemed, they would have to die before he could do so. The moonlight danced off their blades and armor, matching their own dance in the sand. Rilen’s opponent was, quite obviously, better trained than himself. The only thing keeping him from losing the fight outright was his hunger, and the fact that every small blow he landed brought him just a bit more strength.
It wasn’t enough. A well-placed blow, and his gladius was sent spinning into the desert night. He found himself on one knee, his old, battered shield the only thing protecting the very life he had been trying to end just minutes ago. All he had to do was lower the shield, let the blade strike true, and he would be just as dead as if the desert had took him – and yet something kept him from doing just that. The blows rained down, and his arm grew weaker. Soon, it would not matter if he lowered the shield willingly or not.
I did it for you. For both of you. Can’t you understand? You’re safe now.
“Sir, he tried to kill Dodger!”
“Dodger tried to take water from a dead man who was not quite dead. These things can happen. And seeing how long he held you off, Sarge, it seems he might be useful for more than just his water. Did that not occur to you? You – what is your name?”
The question caught Rilen offguard. It had been a long time since he’d spoken to anyone about anything other than business, much less someone who actually seemed remotely interested in his survival.
It does not matter if I live, when the man I gave that life to is no more. And I do not want to be with the man who has taken his place. Out of respect for the man you were, you have ten minutes before I tell the town guard you tried to kill me, and they respond in kind. Leave me, and never return.
“Well, Rilen. You aren’t terrible with a blade. Tell me, what have you heard of the Rose and Swords?”
Perhaps it was not the most formal or traditional of initations, but so it was that Rilen joined the Black Rose Society, a little more than ten years before their curse ended and they emerged from the Stygian deserts. The Society had been cursed nearly seventy years ago to never find shelter, shade, or running water in the Stygian desert. It was – in some sick way – the perfect match, once again showing that the gods – or whoever – have poor taste in humor. He did not seem to need any of the sparse water they did find, he provided an extra blade for them when one was needed, and his curse was fed on the occasion they had to take water from the still-living – as he was almost always the one to do it. None, save the Ataman, truly knew why.
Rumors spread, of course, as they are like to do. That Rilen offered to kill simply because he was bloodthirsty and relished in the slaughter. That he did not drink any of the water that was taken or found – so, of course, he had to be some sort of a demon or undead creation of a mad Stygian priest. His new brothers almost universally feared him, but he proved a loyal – if unconventional – ally, and many did gradually come to appreciate the lessened burden, no matter the reason. The first Rose blood his blade had tasted would be the last. He even found that, the longer he was with the Company, the less often he had to satiate his hunger and, in time, even the small desert animals could keep his curse under control for days rather than mere hours.
Still, when someone had to be taken for their water – be they a bandit or priest, husband or son – Rilen was there with his blade. In this strange way, he gave the Company a bit of their humanity back, in exchange for whatever was still left of his. He used his own curse to help ease the burden of their own. Years ago, he probably would’ve appreciated the poetry.
If you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss will gaze back into you. – an overused, but still appropriate, quotation