For three days, they tormented me. They beat me. They whipped me. They cut me. They burned me. They made me feel more pain than I thought was ever imaginable. And now, they finally started talking to me.
“You’s pretty foolhardy for a paladin!” my torturer, a small, thin man with a sparse beard and a giant rat’s skull for a helmet, cackled as he casually emptied a vial of acid onto my chest. I grit my teeth, and with all my willpower, I was barely able to contain the screams. “I thought you’s was supposed to have respect for life an’ all that,” He studied my face with his beady little eyes, trying to read my expressions, looking for any sign of pain, or fear. I did my best to ignore the searing pain, and tried to give him the coldest glare I could muster.
He didn‘t react.
“Though you’s seems to got none for your own,” he murmured, mainly to himself, with his thin, raspy voice. “Otherwise you’d just tell us what you‘s was doin‘ in the camp, anyways, so‘s we could get this whole thing over with,”
In a way, he was right. I had come all this way in search of Natalia, even going so far as to sneak into the Crownbreaker camp, which was certainly something no one afraid of death would even attempt. At least not lightly. But I had taken it upon myself to infiltrate the camp, risking not only my life, but my paladinhood, because a talking stone told me to. And as a result, I ended up tied naked to a table in a blood-covered tent high in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to show for my efforts but scars.
And yet, at the very heart of things, my tormentor was wrong. I did value my life, and right now, I was scared out of my mind. Scared that I would die cold, and alone, wracked with excruciating pain. Scared that I would die, having accomplished nothing. Scared that I would die without ever seeing Natalia again.
But I valued her life even above my own, and for that, I did not regret the actions that brought me here in the slightest. Now, I was inside the camp, and I would be closer to finding her than I had ever been.
Just as soon as I escaped, that is.
When my torturer had finally gone, I got to work. I struggled against the ropes that had me tied down, as I had done every day every during my captivity. Fortunately for me, my captors never bothered to check them. Three days worth of wear had finally loosened the ropes enough for me to move. I wriggled my arms free, and with a lot of effort, I managed to break the rope that bound me. I rolled off the table and hit the ground, my legs weak from disuse. But I pushed myself off the ground, forcing my legs to support my wait. I was going to get away, and I was going to find Natalia.
Cautiously, I exited the tent, and was immediately met with a blast of snow, carried by the mountain’s cold wind. The wet frost mingled with the fresh wounds from my torture, and I was barely able to contain the urge to scream in pain. But there was no way I was going to give myself away. Not this soon. Instead, I stomped my bare feet into the snow, and steeled myself against the cold.
It was then that I heard the scream. A deep, bellowed wail, it erupted from a tent just a few away from my own. My heart sank. Someone there was being tortured as well, and even though I needed to find Natalia and get away from this hellish camp, there was no way that I was going to allow anyone to undergo what I had gone through.
And so, against my better judgment, I dashed to the tent, using the sound of the screams to hide the crunching of the snow as I ran.
I burst into the tent just in time to catch my same torturer laughing over the broken body of an orc, still tied to a table of his own. Rage boiled within me, and the next thing I knew, the torturer was on the ground, my knees against his chest, and my hands around his neck. He thrashed. He gurgled. He screamed in fear. And then he stopped. When I finally regained control of myself, I could only stare in shock and revulsion at what I had done.
“Thank you… friend…” A deep raspy voice broke my trance. I turned and, to my amazement, the orc was alive, but only just. His body was covered in sweat, grime, and blood, and he was so badly bruised that I couldn’t even tell what his original skin color was. To my horror, the ‘table’ that held him down was actually a rack, and his body had been twisted and broken in a horrific fashion.
“Hold on,” I found myself whispering as I hurriedly freed him from his bonds. “Hold on, you’re going to be alright,”
“You… should probably go,” he croaked. “The scream would have alerted someone… you don’t have a lot of time…”
“Maybe, but I’m not going to leave anyone behind to face what you just did,” I said as I helped him to his feet.
“You are a good man, and I see that I will not be able to discourage you,” the orc half-laughed, half-wheezed. “I am Bagran Bearfang. I have been here for weeks. I cannot thank you enough, mister…?”
“”Varen,” I said. “But don’t thank me now. We’re not safe just yet,” I slung his arm over my shoulders, and together, we hobbled out of the tent.
At first, it truly seemed as though fate was smiling upon us. We had managed to sneak away from the torture camps without so much as a hitch, and I was even able to find all of my gear, hidden away in a storage tent.
But of course, things couldn’t have gone that easily. When we were about halfway out of the camp, I heard the blare of horns, alarming the whole tribe of our escape. And soon, it seemed as though we managed to run into every single patrol group in the camp.
We escaped under a hail of arrow-fire. I’m still not sure how we even managed to get out alive, but somehow we made it far enough into the surrounding forest for the Crownbreakers to give up the chase.
I hid Bagran against a tree, and when I was sure we were safe, I started to head back.
“Wait!” Bagran yelped in shock. “You’re going back? Why?”
“My friend is still be back there!” I snapped at him despite myself. “She was captured by the Deathwind; I need to get her out of there as well!”
Bagran sat in silence, wearing a puzzled look on his face as he examined mine, as though trying to determine whether I was serious or not. Then he spoke.
“My friend,” Bagran said sadly. “The Deathwind leads the Fear Legion. This is the Pain Legion. You will not find your friend here,”
There were multiple legions of Crownbreakers? No wonder I had so much trouble tracking them down! They really could have been everywhere at once!
I felt hopeless, defeated. It seemed as though I would never be able to find Natalia.
“How do you know?” I asked, miserable. Even though I believed him, I just had to have proof. I couldn’t let my hopes be crushed just yet.
“I was once a Crownbreaker,” he said sadly. “I wanted to overthrow the Emperor, so that my people could return to life in the old ways, so that my people could once again become one with nature,” He coughed again. “But soon I realized that the Crownbreakers were not in the right. They were evil, and only lived to cause pain and misery. So I tried to leave once before, but they would not have that,” he coughed. To my alarm I realized that he was hacking up blood. “And there is nothing a Crownbreaker hates more than a traitor…”
“Hold on!” I shouted frantically.
“It is no use my friend,” Bagran smiled sadly. “My wounds are far too severe. Perhaps this is justice for my actions as a Crownbreaker,” Trying to hold back the tears, I watched the light fade from his eyes as his breathing stopped.
And so, cold, lost, and alone once again, I stumbled off into the wilderness.
“You don’t talk much, do you Tavor?” Nasser grinned at me from his perch atop the camel. Despite the beast’s great height and precarious load, the halfling had still managed to find a way to get on top of it. Even with the heat of the desert sun beating down on us in the middle of the day, he was still able to find the energy to climb and annoy me at the same time. And now, wedged between Rafiq’s bag and Quasim’s boxes, Nasser had decided that it would be great fun to torment me. “Why’s that, huh?”
I shrugged. He laughed and shook his head.
“C’mon, humor me a little, eh?” he said. “All I know about you is that Hajra yanked you out of Sayur when you got in a tussle with a gang or something like that. C’mon, we’re supposed to be buddies now right? Searchin’ for adventure and whatnot?”
I shrugged again. I really did not feel like talking to Nasser at this moment. He was always loud and obnoxious, and right now I just wanted to get moving. I had things to pack. Nasser pretended not to notice my lack of interest though, and continued to babble.
“Why don’t we play a game, eh? ‘I Spy With My Wee Eyes’? You know that game? …No? How about ‘I Never’? Oh wait, we gotta save the liquor for later… Oh! I know! ‘Twenty Questions’! You can go first!’
I tried my best to ignore him, but he kept going on and on and on. Fortunately, Quasim came to my rescue.
“Nasser! Get off! Now! I’ve got some very unstable reagents in there! Off!” Knowing better than to irritate the wizard further, Nasser climbed down from his perch, obviously put off.
“Alright, alright! Geez!” Nasser whined. “I’ll keep off your stupid stuff! Calm down!”
“Don’t you have things you should be doing?!” Quasim was merciless. “Hajra must have something for you to do, and I’m sure she would not appreciate you shirking your duties and distracting someone else from theirs!” Nasser opened his mouth in protest, but Quasim killed the objection before it could even form. “Get going!”
Sulking, Nasser trudged off through the sand towards the rest of the party. Quasim watched him go until he was out of earshot, then turned his attention to me.
“If that bothers you, you’re in for quite a long journey my friend,” Quasim smiled at me wryly. “Sometimes it’s best just to talk to him. He’ll lose interest quicker that way,”
“Thank you,” I said, without looking up. Quasim didn’t move. I continued to work, but Quasim just stood and watched me. Finally, he spoke again.
“Do you even want to be here?” he asked. “I mean, running around a desert searching for an ancient artifact must seem ridiculous to you. It certainly did for me, at first,” he chuckled half-heartedly. I kept working. “Look, you shouldn’t feel obligated to come just because Hajra got you out of a little bit trouble. I could talk to her if you’d like to leave-”
“No,” I interrupted him. “I will come with you,” Quasim looked perplexed.
“But… why?” he asked.
“Because finding this artifact is the only chance I have of making it home,”