You race through the halls in a mad attempt to find a way down. After a relatively short while, however, you begin to dispair of ever finding your way. The hallways twist and turn at obscene angles. Staircases go down and then back up again into some other part of the building. Doorways lead into rooms of odd shapes and sizes and with all that confusion you quickly lose your sense of direction. You have no idea which way you came.
The sounds of Harold and Benziah’s battle, however, never fully fade — so you keep running, confident that you are close and hopeful that the sounds you hear are not merely conveyed through the strange accoustics that a building like this must have. After what seems like an eternity, you finally find yourself back in the grand hall, this time on the ground floor. You see that Harold and Benziah have fought their way over to the other side of the room and are currently hacking away at each other with great vigor. You sneak from pillar to pillar, attempting to keep in the shadows of this mostly-lit room, but as you do so you have the chance to marvel at the skill of both fighters.
Benziah’s style can almost be described as lazy. He slouches and slimes his way across the floor and his blade whisks through the air almost effortlessly. Every attack is parried, every reposte perfectly targeted. His balance is flawless, his technique impeccable. Harold is no slouch either. His attacks are fluid and graceful — his footwork gliding him across the floor with such practiced ease that it seems as if he’s almost hovering. After watching for a few minutes, though — you come to the sinking realization that Harold is vastly outmatched. His breathing, although controlled, is raspy and less even than it should be. Blood flows freely from his many wounds.
You’re unsure, actually why he continues this fight. Clearly it must be obvious that he can’t win it. Surely he knows!
You get within a few feet of the melee and all of a sudden you know somehow that Harold has seen you. His eyes don’t betray your position with a glance, nor does he change any aspect of the fight that you can see — but somehow you are certain that he knows. After a few moments, he smiles wryly and begins to change his tactics. He begins hammering Benziah with a series of attacks that leave no room for response. Benziah, his back towards you, has no option but to retreat in your direction.
Harold is leading him to you like a pig to slaughter.
You coil your leg muscles underneath you, ready to spring at a moment’s notice. Your shiv, which has ridden with you for so long, rests in your hand almost naturally. All you need now is an opening.
Your instincts stay your hand, though. Something in Benziah’s posture tells you an attack at this moment would be premature. That it might open you up to counterattack, or worse — put you in Harold’s way somehow. And so you wait for some mistake on Benziah’s part. Some hint of overeagerness. A slight shifting of his balance away from you, perhaps — or a small misstep. Anything to give you a momentary advantage.
And then it happens.
All of a sudden, Harold’s barrage of attacks ceases and he staggers back a step, clutching the wound in his side. His sword dips for a fraction of a second and in that moment Benziah is there. He shifts his balance, lunges in, and strikes.
In that moment, you have your opportunity. All the tension in your muscles releases and you fling yourself through the air with a blind fury born of all your recent trials. With the memory of all who have fallen, with the knowledge of all that you’ve sacrificed, with the pain and the hate and with pure blind rage, you cover the distance with ease and sheath your blade at the base of Benziah’s skull, burying the point deep into his brain.
Benziah freezes for a moment, takes a faltering step back, and raises one hand to touch the shiv in the back of his head in disbelief. He turns to face you, eyes wide with shock, and his sword falls from his limp hand to clatter on the stone floor — dark no more, it lies there a normal piece of metal, no more magical than your shiv.
Then he falls to the ground, tremors for a moment, and is still.
All your adrenaline rushes out of your body, and for a moment it’s all you can do not to collapse in a heap between Benziah and Harold. Mustering the last of your strength, you manage to make it a few steps more and kneel by your friend.
Harold is still alive, though you can tell he is very hurt. You’re not a physician, but you’ve had enough experience with stab wounds to know that Harold needs a doctor badly. Cradling his head in one arm, you look into his eyes and speak his name. At the sound, he opens his eyes and smiles weakly. A thin line of blood runs down from one corner of his mouth and he mutters…
“About fucking time. I’d been holding him there for a while waiting for you… what took you so long?” He coughs up some blood and continues before you can answer him. “Look, we don’t have much time. You need to get yourself into the heart of this place as fast as you can…” he points to an ornate door at the far end of the room “that door should take you there.”
“What do I do, Harold?” You struggle to hold back tears, but a few manage to sneak through and battle their way down your cheek. “After all you’ve told me, after all I’ve read and seen, I still don’t know what it is I need to do.”
“You’ll know, Vlad. I promise you. You’re almost there. The heart of this place will present a choice to you in a manner it thinks you will understand. With Benziah gone…” he coughs “it’ll be up to you.”
“But I didn’t finish the book, Harold. I… I don’t know what the third option is. I haven’t read the Order pages — I don’t know what the thing that’s backing us wants. I don’t know if it’ll be any worse at all than what the other two want… I just don’t know anything.”
“You’ll be fine. Remember when we first met? I told you you were in purgatory… well that all ends soon. That’s the difference between purgatory and hell, after all — purgatory ends…” He coughs, this time a wracking horrible thing. It’s a moment before he recovers enough to continue “I’m rambling again. Look, just go through the door. You’ll be fine. Afterwards we’ll get together and have coffee or something else wonderfully normal and laugh until we cry. Just… go…” Harold smiles weakly and pushes you away. Shortly afterwards, he loses conciousness.
You gently set his head down on the cold floor. You pull the small packet of yellow powder out of your pocket and sprinkle a small circle around him. Thanks to the King’s gift, you somehow remember the words that Harold spoke back at the abandoned building. Hopefully the circle will keep him safe until you get back.
After you finish the circle, you hear a noise coming from the direction of Benziah’s corpse. You turn your head and are astonished to see a white smoke billowing up out of Benziah’s mouth and nose. After a few seconds, the smoke takes shape and begins to rise towards the ceiling. Soon after, a few more shapes follow. Faster and faster, the shapes rise from Benziah’s still form and move upward — through the ceiling and out of view. A few of the shapes you recognize as Benziah’s victims from the attack in the hallway. After a while of this, the smoke ceases and Benziah’s lungs fall still for the last time. His victims, it seems, are free.
You barely succeeded on the check to navigate your way to Harold. Direction sense is not Vlad’s forte…
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