That Which is Worse Than Death (Part 1)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
A man wakes up in a bathtub, with no recollection of where he is, who he is, or how he got there.

Submitted: July 15, 2014

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Submitted: July 15, 2014

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Naked as the day he was born, and with a scream that would shatter diamonds, he rose. Gasping for air, he sat up and expelled a thick, viscous fluid from his lungs. Like water, he would think later after a thorough examination but thicker, more sinister. He would shudder at the thought.

But for now, he found himself naturally preoccupied with ridding himself of the discomfort he felt deep in his chest. He coughed a few more times, pressed his hand to his sternum, took a deep breath. Better, he mused as he weakly gathered himself to his feet. His legs felt atrophied. He'd been there awhile, he guessed.

Stepping out of his liquid prison, he surveyed his surroundings and found himself not pleased. The room he woke in, made entirely of stone, was cold and lonely, and he found it downright frightening. The chamber he had climbed out of was ordinary but disconcerting. It was a normal, wooden bathtub, yet it gave off an inexplicable glow that suggested something ethereal but was, beyond that, impossible to describe. He sighed, and shuddered, then, for the first of many times, asked "Where am I?" to no one in particular. He was certainly alone, he noticed. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it. In the corner, he noticed, were a pile of clothes. He tried them on. They fit, but a bit too perfectly, and his fear surfaced just a bit more.

Looking behind him, he was pleased to find that there was, in fact, a way out. The door was thick with wrought iron, obviously meant to keep something out (or in), and he feared for a moment that it may now be exacting that purpose. He pulled the handle, and his fears were confirmed. Essentially trapped, he turned around morosely and continued to survey, looking for some other way out.

Click.

A jagged chill stabbed his spine. His vision clouded for a moment.

Click.

He heard a shuffle behind him, and turned around. Nothing.

Click.

The noise was definitely coming from a latch on the other side, and he found himself bound by an invisible chain of dread. It was a good 40 seconds before he managed to move, and when he finally did, the only thought that came to mind was that he should try this door again. He did. It opened. A second shuffling came from somewhere on the left, but fear overtook him for a moment too long, and by the time he mustered the courage to look, the culprit- whoever, whatever it was- had gone. On the bright side, I suppose I’ve found a way out, he thought. Swallowing his already well-acquainted fear, his only friend in the unrelenting dark, he took a step forward.

***

An older man, hair white with age and death and speckled with dirt and grime, found himself walking a familiar set of tunnels. It was not just the tunnels that were familiar, however; his duties toward his master demanded more than a bit of repetition, and as such, the work itself was more than familiar. But he didn’t mind the repetition, or, more appropriately, it wasn’t the repetition he minded. The man scratched the skin under his beard, and found it raw from lack of care. He winced, then reached out to blacken a wall torch. Darkness, as usual, would be needed for this.

Finally, he came to his destination- the same uncompromising, almost bitterly stoic wrought iron door. He found himself anamorphosizing often, a potential psychological side effect of a job that demanded such solitude. Well. The old man reached to unclasp the first latch- one of three that held the large door in place.

Click.

He heard a startled gasp from inside, and a desperate shuffling.

Click.

The second latch released, and he moved his hand towards the third.

Click.

He sighed and turned to walk away. Looking over his shoulder, he anticipated movement. As he expected, nothing- the door remained unopened, at least for the time being, which made him feel an incomprehensible twinge of conscience. Excarberating fear within the poor fellow wasn’t exactly weighing the karmic scale in his favor. But, it came with the job. The white haired man expelled a quick burst of air from his nostrils, looked forward, and and began to walk. Behind him, he heard the  recently opened door creak, almost in fear, as the man inside pushed on it. The old man, hair white with age and death, considered his own life with fear as he walked. It was better that way. It helped keep his mind off work.

***

As he sound found out, the sort of fear he found himself exposed to was much less of a pit, especially one that you could swallow. It was more of a ghost, a phantom of sorts. Like a shadow, but stronger in the darkness, where no shadow would ever dare to travel for fear of death. Now, he had found torches, of sorts, along the wall. At least, they presented light like torches. They turned on and off when touched, as if enchanted with a kind of sorcery. It set him on edge, as did everything else he saw, which wasn’t much at all. The tunnels he found himself traversing now were made from what seemed to be a singular stone, fashioned time and time again with absolute uniformity in mind. They were untouched by natural weathering, leading him to guess, incorrectly, that his prison had been built recently.

As he continued walking, he found himself steadily being driven mad by lack of landmarks; everything was completely, utterly, the same. from time to time he would come to a fork in his path, and would be force to make a choice- less of a choice, really, and more of a wanton guess, as thorough scrutinization of those surrounding areas would offer not even the slightest advice on which way to go. At one point, he lit a magic torch to find himself in a sort of meeting point for all the paths, and offered 5 potential directions to take, excluding the one he had came from. This had no good effect on his morale, and he ended up sitting dejectedly for what he could only guess was around a half hour.

Time continued to pass, or so he figured. He had no way of gauging the hours passed, no idea the day, time, whether or not the sun was out. This made him increasingly tired, though he was already tired. While he didn’t know the length of time he had been walking, he understood that it had exacted his effect on him; he was exhausted despite sleep, thin with hunger, and weak with dehydration. His mouth and throat felt dry, like one could write on them if they chose to do so. One day (or night), he stopped to catch his breath, and collapsed along the wall. He doubted that he would be able to continue.

Perhaps he would have been right, in fact. He was at the end of his proverbial rope, and wouldn’t have made it but perhaps another 5 minutes in such a state. However, a blurry, faded peer down the hallway revealed just the slightest glint pulsating and flashing in the darkness. And so, hope did for him what he couldn’t do for himself, and he found himself lifted to his feet by forces beyond human, stumbling toward this glint of light. As he moved closer and closer, the aid of hope slowly left his legs as the glint turned into a flickering light, and as the flickering light turned into what he realized was simply another one of those damned magic torches, which seemed to be having trouble working. He had been here before, he figured, and that musing crippled him beyond repair. He fell to the ground and waited for death, his body devoid of any energy or ability.

Which, of course, didn’t stop him from jumping to his feet when he heard a voice.

***

The old man recognized the gauntness, the hollowing in the man’s strong, albeit exhausted, face. As he ran his hands through his hair, natural brown darkened by dirt, He wouldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt.

“You’re lucky I found you when I did,” the old man said with an empty smile. “A few more hours and you would have been a bit too far gone, perhaps. Or maybe not. Either way, just be glad.” The man he spoke to sat across from him, eating a loaf of bread in small, careful bites so as not to lose everything he had put down. Days of starvation would do that to you, I imagine, thought the old man. He didn’t know from experience, thankfully.

“I guess I am,” the man said in between bites. “I would be more lucky though, if I had maybe the slightest idea what in the hell I was doing here. You can feed me and give me water and clothes, but if you can’t answer anything for me, then you’re of little help.”

“Don’t be so hostile,” the old man said. “I’m on your side, remember?” he lied.

“Right,” he responded with a sigh. “Sorry. Can you at least tell me your name, though?”

The other supposed that it would do. Not as if he would remember much, anyway. “Of course,” he said. “Charadi.”

“Charadi?”

“Yes,” Charadi responded. “That is my name. Very good,” he said with a hint of well-meaning sarcasm. He smiled again, with a bit less emptiness.

Ignoring the short crack, the man looked up at the sky. Or, where the sky would be. “Where are we?”

“I can’t answer you that,” Charadi lied. He lied through his teeth, and he felt all the worse off for it. His smiled faded. “I know about as well as you do.”

“But you knew where to find me.”

“No. I got lucky as to where to find you.”

“You knew the way out.”

“My memory is still what it used to be, even if my body isn’t.” Charadi smiled a little, and stroked his beard.

“Did you let me out? Out of that… that cave, of sorts? That prison cell, I guess? The one with the bathtub. Did you see it?

“No.” Lying again. “I told you, I don’t know this place any more than you do.”

“For some reason, I don’t believe you,” the man said with a dry cough. “But it doesn’t matter, I guess. Do you have any more to drink?”

“No more water,” Charadi responded. “Just…. just beer, actually.”

The other man smiled. “That’ll do,” he said. “That will certainly do.”

***

The heavy amount of alcohol helped him sleep that night. To his surprise, no nightmares of any sort came, and in the morning, he woke up feeling almost refreshed, Like he hadn’t wandered a seemingly unending dungeon for the past few days.

But with that newfound energy came a new set of questions, much to the chagrin of Charadi. Who are you? He would ask. Where did you come from? Charadi was almost sure he would trip over the barrage of questions, but he came out unscathed. The man came out satisfied, if only a little. Charadi wasn’t.

“We should probably get moving,” Charadi said. “Try and find a way out of here.” The man suppressed his suspicion for the time being and nodded. He would follow the devil himself, had it meant a bit of sunlight.

“You’re right, lets get moving.” Charadi handed him a pack, light in weight, that made a rustling noise when moved.

“You carry the food,” Charadi said. “Its a bit lighter. I’ll carry the water.”

“I thought we didn’t have any water.” His suspicion began to surface.

“Figured you could use a drink,” Charadi said with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. This time, he told the truth. Perhaps it would be the last time, but regardless, it made the man smile and even laugh a little. “Come, my friend. Let’s move.” The two friends, one the ignorant and one the liar, lifted their packs and began their trek into, for one of them, the unknown.

***

It was a long time before they stopped to rest, but the man thought it was might have been worth the wait worth the wait. The place they stopped, while devoid of the man’s coveted sunlight, was one of beauty: pillars of gold held streaks of jewels of the highest quality, and the room (a hall of sorts, he gathered by the lines of tables and wine stains on the wooden floor) was unequivocally large. It was a wondrous sight indeed; however, the man was tired, and the place began to lose its luster in the fury of his exhaustion. He wasted neither words nor time as he stretched out to sleep on the cloth that Charadi had supplied; but when he woke up, he found himself alone. He started and looked around the room in desperation

“Charadi?” His voiced turned at the end, out of fear.

“Sorry?” He popped his head out of a smaller room nearby, and the man felt himself uncoil. He held a lump of salted meat in one hand, and a mug in the other. “Come, my friend!” he said joyously. “Look what I’ve found!” The man stretched quickly, then leisurely walked over to the room where Charadi had called from. “Its astounding, isn’t it?”

The man chuckled a little as he looked around at what seemed to be a pantry of some sorts, filled with fruits, different meats, and full barrels of beer. Unquestioningly, he followed Charadi into the room, glad to find something to eat, something with flavor to it. Something besides bread.

Taking a bite of the nearest slab of meat that he could find, he turned to Charadi. “This is something, huh?” He nodded in response, his mouth too full to properly respond. The man followed suit, filling his mouth with what he held in his hand. It was salty, almost criminally so, but still delicious.

A half hour later, the two of them collapsed delightfully, reveling in satisfaction of good food and company. The man, for the moment, forgot his predicament, his troubles, and even the fact that he didn’t know if he would ever get out of this place alive. For just a moment, he thought everything would be fine.

Until he tried the wine.

It was at the insistence of Charadi that he try it: his stomach was full, and he felt content and even sleepy. But his friend had insisted that it was good, very good, though he had never seen him drink it, at any point. It didn’t take much pressure for him to at least take a few sips from the leather skin it came in, and it only took a few sips for the effects to kick in. It started with a sort of euphoria. Strong wine, he’d thought. He’d smiled at Charadi, whose mouth smiled back. The feeling began to change, and it was then that he knew something was wrong. “You-” his sentence tapered to an incomprehensible slur and he dropped the wine. Charadi’s smile faded into sternness, and the man could have sworn, right before he lost consciousness, that what he saw was remorse. It didn’t matter much, though- the wineskin hit the ground a moment before his body did.

“Sorry, my friend.” Charadi grimaced, knowing his apology fell on deaf ears. Again, nobody would hear his often repeated apology. Not Ardund, who lay unconscious before him, and not the gods, who, if they existed, would have found his words empty a long, long time ago. He muttered the words one more time as he struggled to throw the man over his shoulder. It comes with the job, he told himself. Its not my fault. Comes with the job.

***

Blackness. When Charadi looked at the figure before his, he saw nothing but blackness, and blackness was the only thought that went through Ardund’s mind as he came to. Not from his own head, foggy as it was. Not from his own head. The blackness radiated, strangely like light, but opposite, from the figure, and the clouds in his head began to dissipated. They were replaced by fear- shadow fear, fear that he knew would follow him for a long time, if a long time he had. This man was evil, pure evil- a black hole of malicious intent, and someone who he certainly did not want to cross paths with. Not that he had much of a choice, at this point. The man took a quick look around, and with a swivel of his head he noticed the room had an overarching theme- it was wealthy. Very  wealthy. Plates of gold sat by a wooden, deep red table. Gold laced the walls, the ceiling, hell, even the carpet, which had the softness of a high class lifestyle. It was obvious that the shadow-man had money.

“Rise, Ardund.” Even his breath was black as he spoke, and his words cast fear-shadows on the walls. “Get up.” Nobody moved, except the man, who swiveled his head back and forth, looking for someone named Ardund. But there was only Charadi, who stood fearfully way from the figure. The man had wrath waiting for Charadi, wrath he wanted dearly to manifest. Physically.

“I said get up.” The shadow-man kicked him.

“Oh. Me?” Ardund looked up at his confusedly. He slowly stood up, legs aching, and shivered. “I guess that answers my first question.”

“Thank you.” The shadow-man turned to Charadi and nodded; he bolted through a door, reasonably close to him, as fast as he could- it was obvious that he was no less afraid that Ardund was, and that certainly didn’t help his own fear.

Putting on his best brave face, Ardund turned to the shadow man and smiled. “Hi.”

“Hi.” He looked taken aback slightly, but he quickly recovered , and stared back at Ardund with a grimace. The air soured with tension and malice as the two men stared at each other. Finally, Ardund spoke, but tentatively.

“What am I doing here?” The shadow man had been waiting for it, and Ardund could see it in his face.

“What are you doing here?” He responded cryptically. “What, indeed. Well, my friend,” he paused for a moment to splay his hands out in gesture, “this… this is my home.”

“I gathered.”

“Right,” the shadow-man responded. “As for who I am… well, I suppose there’s no harm in it. You won’t remember anyway. You can call me Malvich,” Ardund shuddered at the name, “and I’m… well, we have a bit of a history, let’s say.”

“I don’t remember you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Malvich the shadow-man responded. “You wouldn’t remember me at all.” He smiled, and it curdled the air around him. Ardund felt ill; he didn’t know why, and he doubled over slightly as Malvich called Charadi back into the room. “You can thank your friend, here, for bringing you to me.”

“I get the sense that he isn’t my friend,” Ardund said with a grimace.

“Understandable.” Malvich waved Charadi over, and he responded, Ardund thought, almost like a dog. “But, you mustn’t hold it against him, Ardund. He’s only afraid. As you, my friend, should be afraid.”

“You’re not my friend either,” he responded, scathingly.

“Seems you don’t have many. Since, for one, they’re likely all dead at this point.” Malvich moved toward Ardund, and he shrunk as Malvich placed a cold, bony hand on his shoulder. “Sit. There’s no need to be uncomfortable.”

“I’ll stand, thanks. What did you mean by my friends are dead?”

“Ah. Well,” Malvich began, its been… a long time. Years, lets says. Millenia, even, if you choose to believe me.”

“Years? Since when?”

“Since you lived.” That didn’t sit well with Ardund, and he grimaced to show.

“I don’t follow.”

“I wouldn’t think so.” The shadow-man smiled his sour smile, and shrugged his bony shoulders. “I guess we have a few moments. Charadi, drinks, would you?” Charadi nodded and moved swiftly into the other room; the other room, Ardund guessed, was a kitchen or pantry. He wondered idly if the shadow-man had servants.

“Well…” Malvich began, “where do I start?”

“The beginning would be nice.”

“Beginning? Beginning of what?” Malvich stared at him with feigned curiosity.

“Me, I guess. Can we start with the bath? The one I woke up in?”

“Of course.” Malvich pushed out his sinister smile, and followed it with words that both shocked and confused Ardund. “You are immortal,” he said.

***

“Inmortal?” Ardund, after a long minute of silence, managed to find his voice. “How can I be immortal?”

“I don’t know.” There was no smile on Malvich’s face. “I honestly don’t know. I wish I did, Ardund, because if I did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Why’s that?”

“I would have killed you.” He let out a long, pointed sigh; Ardund felt it was for dramatic effect. “I would have killed you a long time ago.”

“I don’t understand,” Ardund replied. He didn’t feel well. You would have killed me? Why?”

“Because, Ardund.” The shadow-man’s smile returned. “You’re the only one that can stop me.” The confusion that registered on Ardund’s face demanded a further explanation. “You see, my friend, its been… well, its been millenia. Its been millenia since, on this planet we live in, anybody was able to come against me. Here, a picture is worth a thousand words, I suppose. Let me show you.”

He moved slowly, but with meaning, towards a panel on the wall- a push of a button, and Ardund realized that it wasn’t a panel at all, but a window. And what he saw, as he looked out through the sparkling pane and out into the distance, shocked him immensely. Not for the last time, Ardund’s stomach twisted in pain.

“My God.” Beneath an unnaturally blackened sky, Ardund saw a horror beyond belief; he understood at once the inconceivable power of the shadow-man, and understood that he wasn’t destined, at this point, for a very long life, unless he chose to believe Malvich’s words. Because beneath that blackened sky, tinted by a darkness the likes of which Ardund had never seen before, even in the caves where Charadi found him, were people in suffering. Many people in suffering, at that, working, digging and suffering for a reason that Ardund could only guess at, but felt he knew.

“200,000.” The shadow-man’s voice pulled Ardund’s eyes from the sight, and toward him.

“What do you mean?”

“200,000 are all that’s left. Or, something like that. Its been a while since I counted, honestly. I know, I know. It used to number in the millions. Billions, even?” Malvich cracked a grin. “Really just too many people. Too much to keep in track. So, I killed them.” The words cast cold dread over Ardund, and it showed in his face. He didn’t respond. He couldn’t, he didn’t know how.

“The rest,” Malvich continued, “work for me now. Doesn’t matter what they do what I ask them to. Or they die,” he snapped his fingers as his grin widened even further, “just like that. Except for your friend, Charadi.” He spoke as if he wasn’t in the room. “I count him as one of the lucky ones. He doesn’t suffer, as long as he does what I ask. But the rest… they die.”

“But not me?” Ardund found his voice. “Why not me?”

“My friend, I can kill thousands in the blink of an eye. hundreds of thousands. With one though, I could completely end the human race… except you, that is. I can’t touch you with my mind, and even if I could, you’d just end back up in that godforsaken bath, with your memory clean slated like nothing I’ve ever seen. It's fascinating, really. As for why… like I said, I don’t know. I don’t know, and we’ve been playing at this game for a thousand years off and on, and I’ve never been able to find out. Someday, maybe. I will. And then you’ll stop bothering me.”

“But, for now… well.” Malvich moved, much more swiftly this time, to the other side of the room- and from an old, wooden cupboard, he pulled a dagger. And Ardund, skeptical of everything he had heard, suddenly understood. Because the dagger, once shining and sharp, was now dirty and dull- and spotted with flecks of blood that looked as though they would never be able to be cleaned. He understood, finally, that he must have been here before.

“How many years did you say its been, Malvich?” He forced the words out, trying to distract the shadow-man from his task.

“83,786. So, millennia, Ardund,” Malvich said with a devious smile. He thrust the blade forward. And as Ardund buckled, curled into a fetal position, and took his last breath, a hundred millennia of memories poured into his mind, and he realized that he’d done this before. I’ve a lot to forget, he thought, and somehow managed to smile as he closed his eyes.

***

Charadi, the white-haired man who had seen too many years and too many deaths, sat outside a door, thick with wrought iron, obviously mean to keep somebody in- or out. And he contemplated to himself. He contemplated if he was ready to die, or not. And he decided to himself- he decided that maybe, finally, he was. He thought his ancestors, his family line who had taken this abysmal job before him, would be proud. And he wondered to himself, wondered why none of them had ever done this before. Then he realized he knew- it was the shadow-fear that engulfed Ardund when he woke, that would engulf him further when he heard the telltale clicking of the door unlocking, that would give Charadi just long enough to escape into the darkness. That same fear, that fear of death and of the unknown, had kept his family, and his fellow race, in servitude for 83,786 years. He felt that fear behind him as he clicked the door open.

***

Naked as the day he was brought into the world, and with a scream that would shatter diamonds, he rose. Gasping for air, he sat up and expelled a thick, viscous fluid from his lungs- and sitting next to him, shivering on the floor, was an old man, hair white with age and death.

“Hello,” he said with a bitter smile. And Ardund screamed again.


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