The sun was just beginning to peep its face over the mountain ridge, giving Meadows just enough weak morning light to read the Temple’s message. It didn’t take long, there wasn’t a lot there to read. The Doppler took their time though, eyes tracking back and forth, chasing the words across the page like a dog chasing its own tail. Perhaps they thought that if they kept searching they’d pick out some new, crucial piece of information and crack the code to solve all their problems. Or maybe they were hoping that the harsh words might change into something more pleasing, something that left more room to manoeuvre. But they won’t. I should know, I spent last night reading and re-reading the damn thing myself. Look as hard as you want. It never gets better.
The letter was short and concise. Mercifully so, in fact. Usually the Temple’s missives were couched in flowery language, dressed up in all sorts of religious iconography, parables, and dogma. It was a fact Feras had learnt during his time in the Abbey that as soon as you teach a man to write that's all he wants to do, write and write and write, using a hundred words where just ten would do. Not difficult to understand why, when you have a talent that so few share then it’s understandable if you want to show off.
Someone in the church had obviously decided to dispense with all the pretence here, perhaps deciding Feras and his rebel Commandos weren’t worth the effort. No, this writer got straight to the point. Feras.
Surrender yourself by noon, and your people go free.
Refuse, and you all die.
It wasn’t the kind of letter that left much room to manoeuvre.
“Fuck.” Meadows finally muttered.“Fuck.”
“They can’t seriously expect you to go through with this, it’s tantamount to suicide! Do they think you're an idiot!” Meadows' rasp-like voice continued on in their berations of the Temples' demands, but Feras let the noise wash over him. He’d already had this argument with himself last night, weighed up all his options, considered all the angles. What options do you think we have left, Meadows?
Instead he let his attention wander across the outcrop the Rangers had set their camp upon. The rest of the crew were rousing now, rolling awake and alert. It didn’t matter how restless a night they’d had, his lads were experienced woodsmen, able to leap from sleep to wakefulness in a heartbeat. Slim was already at the cookfire, getting the oats ready for the band to break their fast. Or at least try to break it. We’ve barely got enough supplies left to slate Polly's appetite alone, never mind the rest of us. Denting the fast might be the best we can hope for.
He realised that Meadows had stopped ranting and was instead fixing him with those black, inscrutable eyes. Feras remembered being off-put by those midnight, slanted orbs when they had first met. They were too dark, too inscrutable, too alien
. Not human enough, was the problem. Funny, in a sad, futile sort of way, that he, with his orc-tainted blood, had been so concerned about someone not appearing human
enough. But then time had taught him that while he had inherited the strength, hardiness, and temper of his Orc forebears, unbased prejudice seemed to be the most obvious gift he had received from his human side.
“You can’t go along with this.” Meadows rasped, his silvery brow furrowed in concern. “We don’t have any other options.”
Feras replied softly, waving his arm to gesture at the box canyon around them, and the Commandos trapped within it. They had been cornered by the Temple’s soldiers, two whole platoons dedicated solely to the capture of twelve demi-human ‘heathens’.
It had been bad luck that did them in the end. Bad luck that Polly had broken her leg a few days before, kicking a platemail wearing Temple commander to death. Bad luck that they’d beaten one enemy force, just to exhaust themselves before more arrived. Bad luck that the weather had turned, and forced them deeper into the mountains to evade their pursuers. Bad luck that Cateye had also been wounded during the battle, so he hadn’t been able to take up his usual role of scout, leading the whole force of rangers to taking a wrong turn into this death alley.
Only one way out, and the Temple soldiers had sewn it up tight behind them.
Aye, if war had taught Feras one thing it was that you can be as big, as tough, as experienced and as mean as you like, but if you haven’t got luck on your side, then your as good as fucked before the first arrow falls.
“We can try to climb out … ” Meadows started weakly then petered out, knowing that wasn’t an option. Not really. Polly couldn’t climb, not with her leg as bad as it was, and no one else could carry her out. She was just too big. That was the problem with Cyclops, great to have at your back in a brawl, not so easy to give a piggyback to, especially not when scaling the side of a vertical cliff. Not to mention that would mean having to leave Redmane behind as well. Centaurs weren’t known for their climbing ability, after all. And I’m all done leaving people behind.“No Meadows. My mind’s all made up. I give myself up, and you all get to live. That’s a fair trade in my eyes.”
The smooth silvery flesh around Meadow’s eyes creased and furrowed, the Skinchanger readying his arguments for why that was a terrible idea. Feras cut him off before he had a chance, plastering a glib smile across his face - not the easiest thing to do with tusks - and forcing a confidence into this voice that he didn’t feel.“Besides, the worst they can do is kill me.”
He had been wrong.
This was worse.
This was much worse.
The last good memory he had was watching his crew march out of the box canyon, all eleven of them in a line, casting worried glances over their shoulders back towards where he stood ringed by a guard of Temple of Sun Soldiers. My life for theirs,
he’d reminded himself as they disappeared out of sight, the fear and crushing realisation of the choice he’d made weighing heavy, like an anchor round the neck of a drowning man.Fair trade.
The beatings had started almost immediately. Soldiers, inquisitors, priests, Hell, even the camp cook, all took their turn thrashing the Half-Orc who’d killed so many of their friends and comrades. Half-Orcs are hardier than any human which in his line of work was usually a good thing. Usually
. The kicking seemed to go on for eons, until they’d surely tenderised his hide to the consistency of warmed butter, but eventually - mercifully - he lost consciousness. As silver linings went it was decidedly thin, but considering the fix he was in he couldn’t afford to be choosey.
He couldn’t say how long ago that had been. Every time he’d come back to the soldiers would just beat him again. It was a savage cycle, but no more than he had expected when he’d surrendered himself. The Temple of the Sun wasn’t known for being merciful. In his brief moments of lucidity he had wondered why they hadn’t started on the real, proper torture. Fingernails pulled forcibly from their nail beds, pointed ears being sliced off, hot pokers getting shoved up places where no one wants a hot poker; that kind of thing. Lacking any other information he was forced to assume it was because the Priests wanted him whole and relatively healthy for his trial and execution.The plebs always preferred their victims fresh and unmarred. It made the gradual torture all the more entertaining, to see a fresh canvas filled in. The Priests were nothing if not showmen.
It was with some surprise then when he began to rouse from his stupor and wasn’t immediately greeted with a blow to the face. Try not to get too excited though. They might just be taking their time to put on gloves.
However as the seconds ticked by and he remained un-assaulted he began to realise that something must have changed. He wasn’t optimistic enough to think it had changed for the better though. The only reason his captors would stop torturing him would be if they had some worse punishment in mind.
He clambered to his feet with a groan. Didn’t feel like anything was broken, but he ached all over. Even his pinkies hurt. He took a moment to let his head stop spinning before glancing around. The vault - for vault it appeared to be - was damp, and dark, lit only partially by some ghostly blue light that did little to take either the chill or the dread atmosphere from the room. Orc eyes were well suited to seeing in the dark, though that felt like more curse than blessing right now.
Everywhere he looked there was some new horror advancing out of the shadows. Looming giants, clanging metal monstrosities, smirking madmen. And there in the centre, the worst of the lot.
He wasn’t sure what exactly it was he was looking at. The creature, for thats the only word he could use to describe it, wore the shape of a woman but he doubted thats all it was. It was difficult to even look directly at it, like trying to stare directly into an open flame, though there was nothing warm about this figure. It’s like somebody has wounded the world in the shape of a person,
he decided, some horrid scar that even the shadows don’t want to touch.
He wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but he was certain he didn’t want to be any closer to it than he had to be.
Feras backed off a pace, hands dropping towards his waist and a weapons belt that wasn’t there anymore. The soldiers had confiscated it when he’d surrendered, figures that they wouldn’t give it back. From the frying pan into the fire.
He balled his fists, not sure he liked his prospects throwing hands with all these devils, but it wasn’t like he had a wealth of options
He waited for what came next, trying to stifle his rising panic and praying there was a reason he was down here beyond becoming a green-tinged entrée.