I don't own or indeed have anything to do with the excellent Skies of Arcadia. This particular story was sparked off by a little idle speculation on the inhabitants of the catacombs in Valua. Companion art can be found via my profile.
Only In Death
A ragged figure stumbled through the dark streets of Valua's Lower City, driven on not by hope, but by hopelessness, by the shreds of a dream that taunted him with its refusal to die. Somewhere out there, beyond these mean and dirty streets, beyond those pompous nobles on the far shore whose very existence made countless lives a misery, beyond the grim skies of Valua, was freedom. It haunted his thoughts, daring him to find it if he could, but there was no escaping the city. Years of endless, thankless, monotonous toil wore away at the spirit, exhaustion dulling the senses, sapping the strength and determination from even the most strong-willed. Upper City was a parasite, sucking the life from Lower City and everyone in it to feed itself. He didn't know where he was going, and he could never escape the city, but he would serve it no longer. Freedom's illusion had haunted him too long.
The sound of loose metal beneath his foot brought him to a halt. It was a drain cover, old and ill-fitting. Lifting it to one side revealed a ladder, leading down into the sewers beneath the city. Every child knew they were dangerous, but he was past caring. Death was the only escape left to anyone here. Climbing down the ladder, pulling the cover back over as he did, the lone Valuan was soon enveloped by the darkness.
It wasn't long before his feet touched the bottom, almost slipping on slimy, damp stonework. Turning to his right, the ragged figure paused to listen. The sound of flowing water didn't completely mask the stirrings and chitterings in the darkness around him, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the sewer's denizens attacked. To be honest, he wasn't sure if he cared – and yet that cruel, impossible dream drove him onwards, drove him to reach for the dank stonework of the wall with his left hand and start slowly walking, using it as a guide. As he moved, he realised he could see, after a fashion, see edges and outlines in the faint light that filtered down from above.
Could he survive down there? Could he find freedom, of a dirty and desperate sort? Perhaps it might have been possible, but it was despair that moved him now, not hope. Even if he could, what would it possibly be worth? With neither the knowledge nor the strength to fight, how long could it possibly last? No-one would help him.
Stumbling alone in the dark, the Valuan stopped abruptly. His hand had found a sudden emptiness, uneven edges of stone revealing where the wall had crumbled. A patch of deeper black in the dimness suggested a small hole in the wall, a refuge with only one entry. Cautiously, he knelt, balancing himself with his right hand as his left reached in. First one rough earthen wall, then, to the other side, another, and though he couldn't quite reach far enough in to feel the back, he sensed that it wasn't far away. Nothing had attacked him as he reached in, nor made any sounds in moving away. The little alcove seemed a safe, if somewhat cramped, shelter, and for the first time in months, a faint spark of hope flickered back to life within his heart. Could it be possible…?
Crawling into the enclosed space, feeling his way cautiously, the lone figure soon found the back wall. The space inside was just large enough to shelter him, protect him from attack, and the confines of the entrance meant that nothing large could easily attack him from the outside. Tired out from the blend of permanent exhaustion and despair his life had left him with, he curled up against the rough walls and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The ragged Valuan's thoughts hadn't been clear for a long time. Exhaustion and despair had clouded his mind for years, ever more so in the past few months. Perhaps if that hadn't been the case, he would have thought to check more carefully, would have felt for the top of the recess he was sheltering in… but he hadn't. The sound of liquid flowing by outside masked the faint scuffing sounds of something moving…
An unknowable length of time later, he stirred. He could have slept for hours, or days; he had no way of telling. But although he was rested, something didn't feel right. He felt strange… strangely numb. The Valuan tried to move his right hand, but the motion was awkward and clumsy, and felt as if he was pulling against something, or something was tugging at his hand. Reflexively, he tried to turn his head to look – but it wouldn't move.
At that point, the dull fear already present in his mind turned into something approaching panic. Attempts to struggle against whatever held him became little more than feeble twitches against resistance seemingly from within his own body, and then not even that as he gave up, staring sightlessly ahead. Despair, his one constant companion in life, overwhelmed him. Here, in these foul sewers, in this blighted city beneath its bloated, parasitic overlords, death had found him.
Then, slowly, in a jerky, uncoordinated fashion, he began to move.
It wasn't him, wasn't his mind guiding it. His body was moving, that was beyond doubt, but he wasn't issuing the orders. If it hadn't been for the despair that numbed his mind, isolating him from the world, he might have panicked once more. As it was, he could only watch in a detached, hopeless way as his body slowly and clumsily raised itself on knees and elbows, commanded by an intelligence not his own. Keeping far lower than he had needed to when he entered, it crawled out, and in the dim light of the sewer, he saw for the first time what he had become.
Long, slender limbs extended from the backs of his hands to somewhere behind him, out of his restricted field of vision. Blood had dried around their entry points, and yet he felt no pain, despite the new ridges all around them speaking of finer tendrils extending beneath his skin. No longer his own, his body clumsily got to its feet, leaning forwards to support the weight on its back, and the truth of his situation finally sank in.
After all his years of servitude in Lower City, worked to exhaustion every day solely for the benefit of so-called nobles who could probably barely feed themselves without help and wouldn't know a tool if someone hit them with it, it came to this. After so many years of dreaming secretly of freedom, watching his hopes fall torn and fading with every harsh and thankless year that passed, despair had led him here, not caring what he would find so long as he need serve no longer. And when a faint spark of hope had finally returned, when the ghostly illusion of freedom, however short and desperate, had taunted him once more and he, like a fool, had reached for it, it had been the cruellest trap of all. His own body no longer his to control, bound to a will he could never escape, the helpless Valuan didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or scream. In the end, the sound that emerged was a bitter combination of the three, an almost inhuman cry that echoed eerily through the deserted labyrinth of the sewers.
His head swayed awkwardly from left to right, more pushed by something he couldn't feel than controlled by his muscles. Seemingly satisfied with what it saw, the thing that had taken control of his body turned it and began an unsteady, shambling walk along the edge of the sewer.
Deeper into the maze of ancient passages, the helpless Valuan saw with horror that he was approaching another victim of the parasites. The darkness kept his fellow human from full view, and perhaps that was a mercy. The little light that reached that far into the underground reflected from dulled, empty eyes, dimly outlined improbably thin limbs beneath ragged clothes almost ready to fall from the wasted frame. The emaciated body of the human was a stark contrast to the fat, healthy creature riding on its back.
His mouth was numb, reluctant to move. The other person, whoever he or she was, didn't even twitch in response. Their two riders brought them almost face to face, making soft clicking noises and twitching their forelegs as they sized one another up, and he saw the other human's vacant expression, thin face completely blank, mouth hanging slackly open. It had no hair, but something about the face suggested it had once been a woman. Whoever she had been, whatever she might once have looked like, now she was almost indistinguishable from any of the other shuffling things that lived down there.
Abruptly, the parasites turned their hosts away from one another, both facing in the same direction, and began walking once more, this time together. Another emerged from a shadow a little further on, and the ritual was repeated. Again, this victim seemed little more than skin and bone, and completely unresponsive - dead to the world.
Once the newest parasite had been greeted to the others' satisfaction, the three spread out, moving along in a loose group, searching for food. The last of his hope gone, the Valuan who had become their most recent victim didn't even bother to try and resist. There would be no point… he could never find freedom. The only time he would ever know such a thing would be in death.
He quickly lost track of time. Valua's eternally stormy skies meant there was little enough difference between night and day even on the surface, and underground, he rarely had any idea at all which was which. Despite the constant search for food, he grew rapidly thinner, the creature on his back consuming everything not strictly necessary to keep its host alive. His thoughts, already clouded with despair, became vaguer and vaguer as it changed him, slowly absorbing and disrupting the parts of his brain it didn't need, making him into the perfect, obedient host.
And then, one day, as his captor steered him around the sewers and his fading mind wandered aimlessly in its abyss of despair, he saw light shining from around a corner, not particularly bright, but still more than enough to dazzle eyes adapted to near-complete darkness. Shadows flickered in a way that suggested the source was moving, and coming closer. Both his parasite and the other two that had become almost constant companions turned their hosts to face it. The light came around the corner, and the Valuan's eyes reflexively closed against it. Moments later, they cracked open again, blinking repeatedly against the brilliance, adjusting only slowly.
There were three people ahead, two young, one old. All seemed confident, and ready to fight, a willingness proven as a pack of the rangy felines that also inhabited the sewers dashed out of hiding to chase the intruders from their territory. That move, it seemed, was all the three parasites needed to guide their hosts into battle. They were certainly too slow to run from it, so better to fight with allies alongside, however temporary the alliance.
Who were these people, the Valuan asked himself. The young ones, with their bright clothes and the light of hope shining in their eyes, a light he had almost forgotten? Strong and daring, despite their youth; courage in their bearing, determination in the set of their faces; who were they, and why had they descended to such a wasteland of horror and despair?
Quickly dispatching one of the already depleted band of felines, the boy turned to him, curved blades glowing faintly with the power of their Moon Stone enhancements. Even as his parasite struck clumsily at his attacker, he felt no fear, but a strange flare of dark hope washed across the bottom of his mind.Moons take me…
Perhaps this fight would finally end this wretched existence. Perhaps at long last he would find the freedom whose broken illusion still haunted the edges of his tattered mind; perhaps, after so long, death could claim him. Once, he had dreamed of the world beyond Valua, but now, his only dream was of oblivion.
The boy dodged his strike with an athletic ease that the broken Valuan could only have envied even at the height of his physical ability. Light shone off the longer of the two blades as it swept in for a deadly counterattack, a final act of resistance putting paid to his parasitic master's attempt at defence by making his half-raised arm jerk and hang immobile for a moment. Just before the blade touched his neck, the Valuan looked at his killer, and smiled.Oh, Moons…
At last, the only freedom he would ever know was his. This boy, unknowingly, unthinkingly, had granted it to him. His life of servitude was over.Thank you…
There was a moment of dull pain, a dizzying whirl as he fell, and finally, blackness. Oblivion claimed him.
- - -
"What happened, Vyse?" Aika asked. Even given what they'd just been fighting, her friend looked a little shaken.
"That thing…" Vyse replied, indicating the fallen corpse. "Just as I was about to kill it, it smiled – he smiled. I couldn't stop…"
Drachma's expression didn't change as he looked down at it. "Those things are as good as dead, boy. Killing that one was a kindness."
Their mission too urgent to rest, the young Rogues and their older companion moved on. Their courage and hope were all that stood between them and failure, and they couldn't falter. If they fell, or spent too long wandering through the catacombs, their friends would die.
Please, let me know what you think, and how I can improve. Thanks!