Kill them all.
The silver-haired youth sighed as he resigned himself to his chains. The poison was swelling in his brain, the blood boiling in his veins; he could feel the serpents writhing beneath his skin, and like tightened springs they awaited their moment to be released. But it would not be, he knew, not today. The cold manacles were as strong as ever, and his struggles left naught but burnt and bloodied wrists.
Just how many days has it been? Since he last had food and drink? Since he last felt. Martin shook his head as he tried to push the whispers away.
Hanging against the dungeon’s cold walls, his head trembled as he looked up to his roof of stone. For all Martin knew, he could be miles beneath the waking world, but through his bloodshot eyes, Martin could imagine His stars in the cracks. The thought was enough to make him smile.
This would be Martin’s prison for another day, but he would not be alone.
He was never alone.
The words were clear on his lips, a prayer spoken a thousand thousand times.
“Oh Lumen, hear my cry-”
But it was not his god that answered; it was his demon.
“Stop it, stop it NOW! Hold your tongue, or I will gut it out myself!”
As the door swung wide, Martin closed his eyes as the room was illuminated with torchlight. As his sight returned, Martin could see that his would-be captors had returned. He had grown quite familiar with them during his stay, much to his disgust. Of the trio, two were dressed in robes made from tattered red cloth. Short, hunch-backed, the two hid their faces behind a sheet of ashen wood. There were no eyes, nor was there a place for a mouth. No detail that could be called human.
He had never seen the two without their masks. Martin wasn’t sure if they even had a face. Perhaps they weren’t even alive at all. But as Martin swept his gaze across the two, the mites locked their knees. The torchbearer turned and looked breathlessly to their screaming messiah. The master waved his hand with a screeching hiss. Immediately, the torchbearer placed his charge in a fixture, and the two sprinted out, the door slamming behind them.
The faceless red mites were not worth his time; their fates would find them as written in the stars. But this man had a face. He had a name.
He called himself the Shepherd.
He has it.
In place of mismatched shreds, the figure bore a robe of fine purples. He was tall, strong, everything that his servants lacked. As the Shepherd approached, he raised his right hand once more, and the torchlight glinted across his inhumane hands. His digits were like living blades, bending as one’s own flesh, but they were blades all the same. Blood dripped like sweat as the Shepherd pressed them into Martin’s temple.
“So? Are you done blathering now?”
Martin gritted his teeth as the Shepherd spoke. The two were locked in focus, eyes unblinking as the moment passed in silence. Eventually, the Shepard broke away and stepped back. He pulled a cloth from his robe and wiped his tools clean. The figure looked back to the youth with a content smile.
“Good.” The Shepard ran his blades through his locks as he paced back and forth. “If I so much as hear even a whisper of that again. . . Do you understand?”
A smirk crept upon Martin’s pale face as the Shepherd looked him in the boy’s green eyes. “Shepherd, was it?— I have never seen a shepherd dressed like a king.”
The messiah placed his hands on his chest as his voice rose from a whisper. “Oh, poor, poor Misery. . . Don’t make me repeat myself. You and I are so much greater than kings— We are gods in the flesh!”
“Save your boasting . . . for someone who cares.” Martin's voice cracked as he replied. “What a weak god you are before Lumen—”
“SILENCE!” Martin gasped as the claws were swept across his face. Before he could take another breath, The Shepard drew close, grasping with his bladed digits at the young man’s throat. “Your faith is WEAK.” The shepherd pulled his arm back and forth, slamming Martin’s head into the stone. “He has stolen your birthright, your destiny! He has made you a slave! Why can’t you see it, Misery? Why do you-”
It was then the Shepard saw that boy’s form went slack, and the focus was gone in his eyes.
He released his grasp on Martin; there was no purpose in torturing the unconscious. It would be the greatest hubris to kill him. No, the Shepherd needed him alive. Content with his work, he reached into his robes with his blood-marred hands and pulled out a necklace fixed with a gem, an emerald sun caught between his blades. “Soon. Soon you will come to forsake your faith, and in that moment of despair, you will join me and your sisters for the end. You will be free, o Harbinger of mine—”
“Oh. . . Are you finally awake?”
Like shards of glass, the voice pierced through his ears.
“Hey- Hey, are you there?”
His heart pounding in his skull, Martin rubbed his temple as the haze began to lift. And as his mind returned to him, it finally dawned on him.
This was not the Shepherd’s prison.
Without warning, he leaped to his feet and put his back into the nearest corner, his arms held forward to meet this new voice. Whatever it was, he would—
All of the voices in his head went silent as one thought pushed forward. His arms— his arms were free! His legs were free! He was—
Martin looked down at his form, and his hands were without a mark. But more than that, his equipment was there too. His robes, his leathers. . . He could feel the twinned tomahawks perched along his belt. It was all restored as if he were plucked by Lumen’s own hand.
If it was all there—
The silver-haired youth reached for his neck, and it was there. He traced his fingers along the silver chain until he found his treasure. Martin pulled out the emerald sun and clutched it in his hands, tears flowing unbidden from his green eyes. The whispers would be gone for now.
“I knew it. . . I knew you would rescue me, Lumen—”
“Lumen? Who’s that?”
There was that voice again. He turned to look, and there was a cloaked person sitting on the floor in the center. A young boy, Martin figured, given their size and their voice, but he wasn’t sure. Their clothes completely enveloped them with not a single inch of flesh visible.
“I know you can hear me. You’re looking right at me.”
Martin stared at the child for a moment before giving a sigh. “I’m sorry, but— I have a lot to take in.”
Another moment passed with Martin frozen in place. At last, he gave a nod and walking next to the child.
Taking his place on the wooden floor, Martin looked down at his hands again. He tried to piece together the last few moments. Some time ago, the Shepherd had captured Martin while he was on one of his investigations. He had received a rumor that one of the local farmers had been hoarding grain from the city. A dull task for a Life-Taker in retrospect, but an important one all the same. No one was excluded from the Tithe, and there were mouths to feed. . . Sure enough, when he arrived at the holding, the barn was overflowing with grain. But as he was surveying how much the farmer had withheld, all went dark. One of the Shepherd’s had used black magic on him. When he awoke again, Martin was in the dungeon.
But now— where was he? Martin peered around the room. Three walls made of stone stood without windows, a set of iron bars and a matching gate made the fourth. Scattered across the wooden floor were stacks of damp hay. Oddly, there was no source of light, yet the whole room seemed to be painted in a white glow.
“We’re in a cell” the boy spoke up.
“I see that— What are you doing here, then?”
“I took some bread.”
“Pocketed food from the markets, huh?” Martin gave a chuckle as he turned to the boy. “I remember when I was younger, I stole some bread once.”
He nodded. “I was so hungry that I was going to die.” As he spoke, Martin could feel his stomach aching from just the thought of food; that pain was real to him. “Was that what you felt?” The boy replied with a nod of his own.
“Well, I know how to help that. Hold out your arm.”
The child shuffled in place before giving Martin his arm. Martin held the boy’s palm before tracing a finger along the boy’s arm, slowly working his way until he was just above the elbow. Without warning, he brought his hand down like a sword against the child’s arm. The boy winced as he pulled back.
“In my home, they would take your arm if you were caught stealing.”
“My— my arm?” Martin did not need to see the boy to know that he was wide-eyed. “I don’t wanna lose my arm!”
“Then don’t steal, aye?” Martin pointed at the boy. “Even if you think they deserve it, you can’t feed yourself by taking food from another’s mouth no matter how bad it seems. We all have to eat, or we all starve.”
The boy nodded once again and rubbed his arm, much to Martin’s satisfaction. “That’s good. A lesson learned before it is hopefully too late. Maybe you will walk away with both arms as I did.”
The two sat in silence for a few moments. Eventually, the child spoke in a hushed tone. “What are you doing here? Did you do something bad?”
“I don’t know.” Martin scratched his head. “I . . woke up here and not there. . .” Confused as he was, Martin was thankful for that fact alone. “Just where are we?”
The child did not move as he gave his reply. “The Chequered City.”
The words echoed in the air for the moment as if the words carried a magic of their own as if he had heard them once before. “I’m sorry, the. . . Chequered City?” Martin muttered the name, and he felt his skin run cold.
Before another moment passed, a loud screech echoed through the cell as Martin reached for his ears, his heart pounding in his head once more. The boy looked at Martin, a booming voice pierced through infernal noise.
“What do you call yourself?”
He closed his eyes. “I. . . I am Martin Talhmore, Life-Taker of His Sidereal Majesty, Lumen.”
“Really? And not Misery?” The voice rang clear in Martin’s head, and his eyes went wide.
“No— I don’t know what you are talking about!”
The boy now stood up; where there was weakness in his form before, it was gone, replaced with unyielding strength.
“This is a test, your greatest trial, one that will tip the scales between Order and Chaos. This is a war, and the battle here will decide who will return— you, or me.”
At once, the gate swung wide, and a blinding light poured into the room as the boy ambled towards the exit. Martin staggered forward and reached out.
“Who are you?!”
His hand went to grasp the being’s arm, but he pulled back, he had found only his cloak. And as it came off, Martin stood paralyzed in awe.
Snakes. Dozens of black snakes hissed as they were wound around the boy’s pale form, twisting and contorting like waves in the sea. His arms, his legs, and his neck were all covered in these serpents, but one part was left exposed where Martin saw a familiar sight: a pale oak tree. From the limbs of the tree, new snakes sprouted to join their brothers.
The child did not falter; he simply towards the light. The boy made one last look at Martin, his green eyes nearly fading into the white glow.
“Come, Misery. They are waiting for us.”
On the other side, Martin took a deep breath and he stepped onto the soft, damp ground.
Fresh air. Sunlight.
For the first time in days, Martin felt refreshed. Better, he felt invigorated, free of the pains of thirst and hunger.
He was ready for war. But where were his opponents? Martin looked to the earth around them. Beneath him was a sea of wildflowers. To his left and right, they stretched for a way until they met the waters. Before him was a central lake, and two crystal rivers spiraled out from it, their path carved by some unseen hand. If he didn’t know better, Martin would have sworn that this was the afterlife. After the nightmare that was the Shepherd’s dungeon? This surely seemed like Paradise.
Suddenly, a cry erupted across the battlefield as several figures seemed to slip into place.
“You stand upon the Hallowed Battlefield. No Good can save you, no Evil can claim you. Prove yourself worthy, Pawns, or perish in the very waters that sustain!”
It was time, then. Quietly, he let his robe fall onto the flowers below. Then at once, he cried so that all could hear.
“So then, who is worthy among us?!”
Martin knelt down the flowers below and drew one of his tomahawks. The words came to him once more as he made a cut along his left palm.
“Oh Lumen, hear your vengeful servant—”
With the wound made, Martin pulled his hands together, anointing his palms with his own blood before taking both of his weapons in hand.
“I offer myself as a living scourge to the One above all, to the sun and stars that grace the sky. Let it be known that evil shall never reign where I walk. To those who live righteously, have no fear; He shall protect you, and my steel will not find you! But to the guilty ones—”
With dark blood and heavy steel in hand, the snake-bearing youth rose to his feet.
“. . . May Lumen have mercy on you, for I am His Life-Taker, and your trial begins.”
Now, Martin would wait and see who would dare answer his challenge. Doubts and whispers leaped in his mind, but he pushed them back. For this was no time for fear.
Besides, what did Martin have to fear? He was the Life-Taker, and he knew that he was never truly alone, not even here.