Those Once Human
The sting of cold cutting relentlessly against exposed flesh and the incessant throbbing of open cuts and broken bones had plagued the doomed pair of Amurai for more days than they could recount. After the chimera’s brutal attack on the small Frostdale village the world had been nothing more than varying frames of black unconsciousness or freezing white oblivion for Starks and Martello. At first, the Armurai wondered if they had been slain in the combat and were experiencing the transition into the afterlife. I did not take long for the two wounded men to be rid of that illusion and come to understand the grim reality of their situation. Starks and Martello shared in the unified longing for an honorable death on the battlefield as many of their brothers and sisters-in-arms had come to know. The facts of their present circumstances were far less appealing than a bloody end in the freezing wilds of Frostdale. The men had survived their wounds and been captured by the chimera. For days and nights the two Amuari had been dragged by their crippled and broken limbs through fields of snow by their monstrous captors. For Starks and Martello their existence had been reduced to nothing more than pain, cold and ever-present fear adeptly eroding what little remained of their impressive reserves of bravery.
The surrounding ice and frost was not nearly as intense this time when the two warriors returned to the waking world. The pain that coursed through their broken bodies was ever as potent as it was during their cross country trek from the outskirts of Frostdale. The chill in the air and the pulse of traumatic injuries were no longer the greatest cause of displeasure for Starks and Martello. It was now the overwhelming rank odor of rot and decay that caused them the most discomfort.. The blinding white sprawl of snow covered hills and plains had given way to the dark and foreboding confines of some kind of subterranean warrens. The telltale ghostly howl of wind whipping across the frosty kingdom above echoed throughout the tunnels and told the men they were sequestered deep beneath the ground.
“Brother, are you still with me?” Martello asked in a raspy voice as his eyes adjusted to the dim flickering torchlight of their surroundings. The bulk of Starks lay motionless on the cold stone of the cavern floor. A haunting silence endured and threatened to mark Martello as the last man standing.
“You will not outlast me. I have lived through worse,” came the diminished sound of Starks voice as he achingly sat up. The Amurai Warrior shook and shivered as he gestured to a large gash in his leg that had stopped bleeding but was clearly battling both frostbite and gangrene. “What is this place?”
Martello continued to scan the dank hollowed out cavern. He could see the shadowed outlines of their captors moving in the distance beyond where the torches embedded in the stone cast there brightest light. By the size and bestial movements of the shapes it was the Amurai’s guess that the tings hiding in the dark were chimera. Any remote doubt of the identity of the figures beyond the light were erased by the unmistakable sounds of snarling and growling that passed between the darkened shapes. “It must be a one of the chimera strongholds. We are still within the borders of Frostdale. Of that I am certain,” said Martello in a low voice as to not draw the attention of his jailers.
“I would guess we are under the earth somewhere. Perhaps burrowed into the side of a mountain or something of the like,” Starks grumbled as he slowly and subtlety inched his way over to his fellow prisoner.
“Safe to say so. Curios though,” responded Martello as he noted the traces of civilization within the expansive cavern. There were tool marks upon the stone where he and Starks lay. It seemed as though the chimera in the distance were milling about something resembling constructed shelters.
“Why say you? What is your thought, brother?” queried Starks as his comrade seemed to be pondering something.
“It is clear that this is a place that the chimera use as a haven. There are signs of architecture and such. Yet we are unrestrained and free of bonds,” said Martello with a tone that was equal parts confused and amused.
“The rain spawn must not feel that we are at risk of escaping,” responded Starks as he once again motioned to his condemned festering leg. “or maybe they mean to move us again? Who knows what transpires in the mind of those miserable things,” he continued as he winced at the renewed painful throbbing in his wounds.
Before Martello could say anything more the sound of another human voice broke from out of the darkness and found the two Amurai. “You must not speak of the children of the dragon so disrespectfully. If you care to have any hope of life beyond today you will learn to respect their strength and right to reign,” said a man as he entered into the area where the torches shown their light. At first he was little more than a black mass, one shadow in a sea of darkness. When he stepped into the light both of the Amurai warriors had to look twice to ensure that their eyes had not betrayed them. The man walked like he was possessed of infinite might and void of fear but he was clad in filthy rags and covered in dirt and grime. He was tall and muscular but his body was a chart of pain and suffering. What skin was exposed was clad in scars upon scars. One of the man’s eyes seemed to have been plucked form its socket and was nothing more than an empty hole sounded by marred flesh. He was missing several fingers on each hand. The man was without shoes and all the toes on his left foot were no more than severed nubs. When he opened his mouth to speak it was plain to see that the teeth he had remaining were all broken and in varying stages of decomposition. The man illustrated nothing to distinguish himself from any one of the innumerable beggars and vagabonds who littered the streets of Argaia’s great cities poor districts, save for one thing. Amid the bevy of random scars that covred his body his forehead had the symbol of a great horned beast branded upon it.
“Right to reign? Are you mad?” gasped Starks defiantly as he tried to stand in the presence of the newcomer. The Amurai’s ruined leg made it impossible for him to get up from the stone of the cavern floor.
As Starks winced in pain from his spreading wound the disgusting dirt covered man struck a blow against the Amuria’s chin. Martello started to lurch forward in a reflexive attempt to confront the new assailant. A chorus of roars and snarls from the darkness and a flash of steel from a short blade drawn by the scared man quickly returned Martello to a docile and helpless state. “Either of you speak unprompted again and I will cut you tongues from your mouth,” Hissed the man. Both Amurai gave the man nods of comprehension after the gravity of their lot set in.
Starks and Martello exchanged nervous glances as similarly grim-ridden, rag clad and mutilated people emerged from the darkness. Each of the people who entered the glow of the torchlight bore identical brands on their foreheads. These people wore the same kind of rags and had just as many scars covering their bodies as the first man but they were possessed of a much different disposition. Where the first man was undoubtedly confident and self-assured, the men and women who filtered into the light moved like whipped beasts of burden. Their faces were set in fear and their eyes continually darted around as a hair would scan for a stalking fox. These people could hardly be called human. They presented more as prey and their spirits were clearly as broken as their bodies.
The man who had entered the light first taped the tip of his blade against the embossed armored hound on Starks’s breastplate. “Get these dogs on their feet. Our master and savior has demanded them be presented,” said the man with malevolent venom and fanatic bloodlust in his voice.
Scores of crippled and unwashed rabble set upon the two Amurai and carried them shouting and screaming into the darkness.