The sixth installment of my novella, Artisan.
|Six patches. Six patches of mold grew in just one of the damp wooden corners of the rotting hospital. This place had caused more illness than it had cured judging by its condition. The smell of death and disease and an oncoming infernal misery floating about the air explained the fact that only Amnar, Pannan, Zanril, Art, and a single nurse stood within these walls--not even the rats dare visit.
As the spirits of men, women, and children in the area haunted Amnar, Pannan spoke briefly and pragmatically to the nurse, as if wanting to leave the hospital as soon as humanly possible.
Pannan: Is he well enough to leave?
Nurse: We applied a regenerative ointment to his injuries. How do you feel Art.
Art: I'm ready to leave.
Nurse: Then I guess...
Art left his bed and, with his companions, escaped the stench of the room. They thought it odd as they saw the Nurse--polite in an automated manner, and in her eyes they found no soul.
Everyone in the town started acting like the nurse had, as if the souls were being driven from the men and women...or worse...destroyed. And the clouds turned black and thick above them; a wind storm void of water or thunder assaulted the city. In the midst of the gales an old man, one who somehow still held on to his human side, commented.
Old Man: We don't have much time. They're opening the gates.
Amnar: What do you mean? What the hell's going on?!
Old Man: I fought this...thing's...servant, Chaos, when I was younger. Without a doubt, this is the beginning of the end.
Amnar: Who the hell do you think you are?
Old Man: Hadrian--just an old adventurer who knows what he's talking about.
Pannan: Wait...Hadrian--my master, Erigus--
Hadrian: Yes, he was my friend.
He spotted the onyx on Amnar's necklace. His eyes widened and a glimmer of hope shone in them.
Hadrian: Maybe it's not too late...
Art: We don't have time to deal with your ramblings! We need to find that witch--what's her name?--Hecate and save Aemilia now. So unless you know...
Hadrian: That's the key! You must present your onyxes to the witch and enter hell. Yes...yes...the time is right. Quickly, follow me!
Zanril: Can we trust him?
Pannan: Look at the sky; we don't have much to lose. Plus, he knew Master Erigus; follow him.
The four immediately followed Hadrian as he darted away from Tertius toward a distant and lone yurt on the horizon. As they ran, Amnar asked aggressively about the sources of this old man's knowledge.
Amnar: How do you know about these stones?
Hadrian: You found them in a well right?
Amnar: Yes. How do you know?
Hadrian: I was the one who put them there fifty years ago. Some old lady gave them to me after I faced an enemy not unlike the one you are soon to face--lesser but similar. She said they were the key to ensuring our future. I don't know why, but I trusted her and I buried those stones deep in the safest place I could think of--just as she had instructed.
Zanril: Some old lady? Are you even sane?
Hadrian: Barely, it's the clouds. Thoughts, rationale--it slips away...we must hurry.
And so they ran on.
They stopped and stood only a foot away from the yurt's door.
Hadrian: This is as far as I'm meant to go. And listen to me when I say that no matter what, don't lose faith in what you know to be true and right.
He breathed deeply.
Hadrian: God bless.
He left them alone, and they were not sure whom to believe and whom not to, but they did know one thing and that was that something horrible approached, and approached quickly. Pannan opened the door to the yurt, and in an instant the witch, a woman clad in a black dress--somehow still youthful--scowled at them. When her mouth opened, a blend of growls and screams and sorrowful voices erupted.
Hecate: Who dares disturb me!
She turned around and spotted Pannan, her face curled into an even tighter scowl.
Hecate: Fool! I am not in control of myself! Leave before I kill you and your--
Art walked in too; Hecate's face turned docile, but she then began to cry hysterically, laughing as she did so. Pannan looked overwhelmed at the sight before him--the irrational, the insane, the improbable--oddly, the far too familiar. As the witch wailed, Pannan held back his own outcry and retained a stoic appearance for the time being.
Amnar and Zanril finally entered, closing the door behind them.
Hecate: Finally! After so long. You...you are the Lowly Artisan...you are my salvation...our savior.
Art: Another one who says things that just don't make sense. I don't have time for this. I must venture into hell and save my love. You can do that right?
Hecate: As you wish, but please...once you have saved her...save me. End my immortality.
Amnar: What? Immortality?
Her voice became despair-filled whispers.
Hecate: Eight hundred years ago, the prophet Holtarna cursed me with never-ending life. He said that I would spend the rest of eternity in misery and he was right. I can't find my way even after centuries of looking desperately...all that search granted me was more loss. I've forgotten who I am.
Her eyes began to look into the distance; they twitched as if searching for something in the specks of dust gliding around in the air. More screams.
Hecate: Who am I? Who am I? Who am I but a taste of Hell itself?...Who am I?!
Art: Slow down. Listen, if you help me rescue Aemilia by opening the doorway...
He placed his hand on her shoulder, calming her instantly.
Art:...I will answer that question for you.
As he spoke, unusually prophetically, at that very moment that Amnar saw the slightest of glows--an aura of sorts--envelop Art. This triggered a memory and as he recalled the scriptures he had read as a student at the abbey, the path ahead became clearer, he could feel the doubt in his soul begin to fade as the light before him appeared. It all made sense...the events of the past few days and even of his life before all had led up to this moment. His suffering and his hardships had all happened for a reason. He now faced his destiny.
Hecate: It is a deal, savior. I will open Hell's door, and you will help us find us. I need four of the five onyxes.
Art and Amnar handed Hecate their onyxes without hesitation.
Amnar: Oh no. We have only three.
Hecate: Then I am sorry, but we cannot help each other.
As she frowned and began to turn he back, Pannan and Zanril both pulled an onyx from their pockets and handed them to Hecate.
Pannan: This better work, Amnar.
Amnar: It will
Hecate: The fifth stone is your ticket back to the mortal realm. With it you can make any wish, but be warned the more powerful the wish, the higher its price.
Art: And what is the currency?
She placed the four stones into a square and uttered an incantation. Nothing seemed to happen.
Zanril: Where's the portal?
Hecate: Follow me.
She walked to her door and opened it, and as she did Amnar caught his first glimpse of what could only be hell.
The only light Hecate held--a lantern in the witch's hand. Before the heroes a road stretched into the darkness--one without forks, without branches. On both sides of the lone path lay endless plains of ash and the orchestra of screamers and moaners and ramblers played endlessly as the heroes did follow the witch into the black. As they looked to their sides the residents did dance and frolic pale, filthy, naked in the ash and sang with the siren on a distant hilltop.
Siren: No lover for no love. No artisan for no art. No pathfinder for no path. No savior for no salvation. Nothing for nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing at all.
As the heroes looked on in bewilderment Hecate warned.
Hecate: Keep your eyes on the road ahead. It is easy to get lost in the siren's songs.
Amnar: What's wrong with these people?
Hecate: They have lived here without death in a life after death for a long time. Unlike me, these people have been here for millenia, not mere centuries. The rulers of this realm gave them the power to create within their minds their own fantasy worlds. There they could have whatever they wanted...whomever they wanted...or at least the illusion of such, albeit an illusion as real as anything else you see or touch or desire.
Amnar: That doesn't sound too bad.
Hecate: It isn't...not for the first two or three hundred years. After that you get a little bored. After that you realize you have no idea where or who you are. After that you spend the rest of eternity frantically searching for your own soul only to realize it left you when you entered the cursed place you now find yourself trapped in. It is a fate infinitely worse than any death or physical torture you can imagine. And I have tasted this fate; until today knew it to be mine.
Amnar: Is this the fate of us all after we die?
Hecate: I never got to find out.
Amnar: The scriptures say that those who do good and have faith are granted eternal life. Are those the people granted immortality.
She stopped and turned around to face Amnar. She looked at him in the eye, angrily.
Hecate: Your prophet, Holtarna, was a liar! His scriptures were a collection of an old man's ramblings and nothing more. The ones who grant immortality do not choose the evil over the good, or the good over the evil, or the faithful over the faithless. These concepts of morality mean nothing to them, and the three gods of this realm have already acted as tribunal and judged human-kind unworthy. In time they will destroy all that is good and evil--look around you.
Hecate: The fate of all people, in time, will be the fate of these residents. There is no eternal salvation. That is, unless, the artisan here can stop them.
She turned back around.
Hecate: Keep following.
She continued walking until they reached the edge of a stream of black water. There she stopped.
Hecate: This is where I leave you.
She handed Amnar the lantern.
Hecate: I can find my way back to my yurt without it. Walk across the stream for it is shallow. Continue walking up the stairs until you reach the prisoner's cage in the middle of the platform.
The witch walked away without another word.
Amnar, Pannan, Zanril, and Art crossed the stream, hurriedly climbed the stairs and ran to the platform's center. Within the cage crafted of solid gold, a catatonic girl sat motionlessly against the bars and stared with cloudy eyes into the blank, black sky above. Her head had lost its hair and her skin had lost its color as had her eyes and lips. All beauty she had had left, but still, this was her. This was the one person they had been looking for. This was she who Art had journeyed into hell for. This...this was Aemilia.
He rushed to her cage and yelled her name again, but no response came from her. Her eyes did not turn and not a muscle moved. He tried to break open the cage with his hands, but to no avail. Then, from nowhere, a spotlight appeared on the platform. The heroes turned toward it.
Surrounded in a grand aura the tribunal members descended. They wore black robes and their faces, if they had any, hid behind white masks that showed an expression void of any emotion. Hell's orchestra dissolved into nothing more than an ambient buzzing, and a thousand subtle ethereal voices emitted from the three beings that floated before them.
Their presence paralyzed Pannan, Amnar, and Zanril, but not Art, who stood up and, like an mouse making demands of a lion, he shouted.
Art: What have you done to Aemilia?!
The beings muted Art with a wave of a hand. When they spoke, they spoke as grandly as they had entered.
Middle Being: We are the one that your people call the Three Judges of the Tribunal. I am the First Judge and I speak for us all. To answer your question, human, we merely granted her wish. We needed you and your friends to come down here on your own will, and so we kidnapped Aemilia and convinced her to be our hostage in return for immortality. We do not hold her against her wishes.
Like in a nightmare, Amnar found it hard to utter words, full of fear.
Amnar: Why? Why have you brought us here?
Judge: There is a message you must present to all of your people. We need humans of good moral standing to deliver our offer to humanity.
Amnar: What offer?
Judge: Every man will have to choose for himself, but we offer them a choice between immortality in this realm and simple, all-ending death. A choice between an eternity of infinite pleasures, or an end to suffering.
Amnar: You're responsible for the chaos up there.
Judge: Yes. Chaos, in moderation, is an effective tool for establishing order.
Amnar: The order of what?
Judge: The order of the universe we created. The one you inhabit. It is our realm too, and it is a realm of perfect order. Crafted like a clockwork and running perfectly, predictably--except for one bug--humanity.
Amnar: How are we a bug?
Judge: We have yet to understand how it came to be, but your kind had, by accident, adapted free will. Your ability to choose your path, even with the obstacles we place before you, makes you a threat to our perfection. In essence, humans are a broken part that needs to be replaced.
Amnar: No! We are more than that.
Judge: You are not. You do not obey the rules we gave you; you do not even obey the rules you give yourself. We do not offer certain death for you anyway. We offer paradise.
Amnar: Some paradise. Have you seen the people trapped in your own realm?
Judge: Their outwardly appearances can be deceiving. I assure you; they live as they chose.
Judge: Illusions far sweeter to the human perceptions than reality is.
Amnar: There are things worth living for! Compassion and love do exist in spite of the horrors we cause ourselves.
Judge: Compassion, love, horror. These words mean nothing to me. They are concepts so inferior to my being, that I cannot be bothered to comprehend them.
Amnar: Your rationalizations don't mean anything. Someone higher than you agrees with me this time; I have seen the seeds of destiny be sewn. God will stop you if no one else.
Judge: We are God. We are the creators. There is nothing above us. No benevolence, nor malevolence. No destiny. The stones we had crafted so Art may find them. The urges and greed I had thrown upon Patricius made him take that fifth stone from Aemilia. The pain the inquisitors, instructed by us, inflicted onto Art baited you into entering the fort. The anger this gave you led to Tomas's interrogation and death, and thus, your finding of Hecate. The witch, we gave our knowledge to so that you could enter this realm and know how to find us. And we did all of this in this way so that you would perceive benevolence and be unafraid to come to us. There is no destiny; there is only us. We are alone.
Judge: The universe simply was not crafted for your kind, so let your kind craft their own universe and deliver my message. That is the only salvation to be found.
Any bravery that had just enveloped Amnar left with a flash. He had been through too much. He fell silent, realizing that it was simply denial to argue against these "gods". There was, is, no loving God in the sky above. We are alone.
Art found himself able to speak again.
Art: Amnar, don't lose faith! Remember what Hadrian said.
Amnar ignored him as he ignored the words of Zircles that replayed in his head. Nothing but lies. Art turned to the Tribunal. He looked at them angrily.
Art: We're here for Aemilia, not to help you with your plans. I must speak with her! Release her!
Judge: No, but I will allow you to speak with her in her own world to let you see how satisfying paradise can be.
The Judge waved his hand and Art blinked as he felt wind touch his eyes.
Upon reopening his eyes, Art saw Aemilia lying, color and life returned, nearly naked back upon a silk bed. Everything around her a luxury. Jewels and perfumes, incense and exotic flowers everywhere. On a wall, encased in gold, he saw a mirror and in it himself. He did not recognize himself, but instead saw a very handsome man--one who had wooed Aemilia right before his eyes--someone he had once wished he could be.
Aemilia: Art, come, lie with me. Please.
Art: We need to leave this place Aemilia. I know it's a dream now, but it will soon become a nightmare. Please, take my hand. We can leave using this stone.
He presented the onyx.
Aemilia: How cute, the gift you gave me in childhood, but look around. Why would I leave? This is beauty.
Art: Please. It won't stay that way.
Aemilia: Then let me rot, because, frankly, no matter how ugly it gets here, it can't be any uglier than home.
Art: It can and it will. Please, I beg you, trust me just this once.
Aemilia: I no longer desire you, leave.
She looked away, as if disappointed that Art didn't serve her as she pleased.
As Art looked into the mirror again, he returned to his normal appearance.
Art: There is something to live for back home.
Aemilia: No, there isn't. Life isn't worth living there. My parents sold me to come creep who I grew up getting raped by. No one gives a shit about me. No one loves me.
Art: I love you.
Aemilia: No, you just want me, like every other man. You want me.
Art: I truly love you. I want you to come with me so you can be safe.
Aemilia: Well I don't love you Art! I never did, and I never will. As a matter of fact, I hate you. You're not handsome, or charming, or even cute. You're just another ugly little creep who lusts after me. The only difference between you and Patricius was that he had the balls to act on his desire, you're just another pathetic coward who wants to sleep with me.
Art began crying, but silently. He shook as he held out the onyx.
She rose from her bed and angry walked over to Art.
Aemilia: You are nothing to me.
She spat at him and left the room.
Art sat against a corner and continued to cry in silence. He twiddled the onyx around in his hands. A tear fell on the stone and he remembered what the witch had told him about the wish. He had been through dungeons and battles and even Hell for Aemilia; he didn't come this far to give up.
He held onto the stone tight. He looked up, to the heavens so far above. Blood began to pour from his hand onto the stone. He shook, and forced a smile onto his face. He whispered.
Art: I wish...
Everything around shook and then a blinding white light flashed. Nothing could be seen.
Amnar, Pannan, and Zanril had also seen the white light. As it faded away, they lay on the ground--back home, in some forest, lost and full of despair.