C H A P T E R
Raising his right hand, he swung the sword down on the inside of his left elbow. It cut through his flesh but stopped at the bone. The blade was dull with rust. A clean swing had turned into a messy one. Blood began to pour from his arm. He lifted the sword. One half of the blade was red.
He swung again, harder this time, crying out first in determination and then in pain as the blade landed. Only he missed the first cut. He hacked deep into his arm an inch lower. Blood streamed from both wounds, bathing his forearm in warm crimson.
Stop, a voice rang out. A man’s voice, deep and long. It burrowed inside his mind, pushing his own thoughts aside. This is unnecessary.
His head began to feel light. His right hand shook violently. He vision blurred and his lips trembled. He could not swing his sword again, not with accuracy. So what, then? So he sawed. He pressed the edge of his blade into the first cut and pushed it forward, then pulled it back, keeping a firm downward pressure, grinding his bone. Back and forth and back again as more and more blood spilled onto the floor. He grew dizzy.
The warmth of this blood was the only warmth he’d felt in a long time. Was it summer or winter? He wondered if his wife was still alive. What would she think of him if she saw him now? He wondered, in the coldness and the darkness of the cave, if he would ever know something other than the cave, though he knew the answer, and he knew what he had to do now regardless: a task before him to complete before his blood was gone and he died and failed everyone.
Finish what he started. That’s what he had to do.
This is a mistake, came the voice again, echoing off the dank stone walls, reverberating inside his skull. Stop.
He pushed the voice aside and sawed faster. Harder. He fell to his hands and knees and placed his left forearm on the cold floor. He pressed the sword against the bone, pushing it with all his strength, as if willing the blade to cut through. Then he threw his right arm into the air and swung down with energy he didn’t know he had. The blade landed cleanly inside the wound. He heard a metallic crack as the blade crashed against the stone beneath his arm. He pulled himself up. His forearm stayed on the floor.
Tearing off his cloak, he wrapped it tightly around the stub of his left arm. He tied a rope around the cloak, which already was swelling with blood, pulling on it until he winced, then pulling it more, until he screamed. He knotted it thoroughly. Then he raised his arm high and pressed the stub against the wall to ensure the outpour had nowhere to go.
A mistake. The voice was everywhere and nowhere at once, so thick it seemed almost physical. I could have set you free.
He winced in pain and shut his eyes. With them closed, he saw the same things, the only things he could see: walls, dark and unchanging. Wooden crates, empty and full of things eaten and things to be eaten. And a slab of stone, wrapped in massive chains, as if made by giants. He opened his eyes and turned his gaze to those chains, sleeping metal snakes coiled around his source of madness.
“Do you see this?” he asked the cave, pointing with his right arm to his left, his eyes fixated on the rectangle of stone. “Do you see what I have done?”
He kicked the stone once, twice, thrice. He climbed on top and began stomping on the lid. Then he jumped off, grabbed empty crates, and began hurling them at the rectangle. The crates splintered into dozens of pieces as they crashed against the stone. By the time he was done, shards of wood littered the cave floor. He dropped to one knee, panting. How old he had grown, he thought. How weak.
“You… lost,” he said, gasping for breath, the stub of his left arm aching. “You tried to break me, but you lost.” He held the stub up as if it were a trophy.
You’re a fool, Orson, the voice rasped. My time nears.
Orson began to laugh, soft and slow at first, then loud and rapid. His laughter echoed off the cave walls, bouncing back and forth until it sounded like the laughter of a hundred men.
“Do your best,” he spat. He kicked the stone again. “Come now. Do your damned best!”
Suddenly his throat felt tight, two invisible hands wrapping around his neck. Orson, the voice said, slithering through his ears. I was going to kill you. His throat tightened more. He started to choke. He grabbed at his neck but nothing was there. Now I’m going to do so much worse. Orson doubled over, his fingernails digging into the hard sand, and then collapsed to the floor. He began to writhe in pain, wheezing as he clutched his own throat, struggling to breath.
“Stop,” he gasped between chokes. “Make it… stop!”
Balls of light formed in Orson’s vision, dancing about. The shadows on the walls leapt outward and began swirling around the cave. His throat became unbearably dry. When he inhaled, he sucked in dry cold. There was no air. His tongue flopped out. His eyes rolled back until only white showed. The cave closed in around him.
Shrieks of women and children filled Orson’s ears. He was in the middle of a town on fire, buildings blazing, people scattering from clouds of smoke. Orson, one screamed. Orson, save us! Please! He could see her vaguely through the smog: a comely woman with short brown hair and a heart-shaped face filled with horror. She was pregnant. It was his. A child held her hand. A little boy with a shock of brown hair. His son. He tried to run toward them but he couldn’t move.
Tears streamed down the boy’s face, his mouth wide open as he cried. It hurts, he squealed. Blood began trickling from his nose. He crumpled to the floor like he had no bones, still crying, blood now seeping from his ears and mouth. The woman hugged her womb, falling to her knees, her face soaked with tears. Orson, he’s broken us! she wailed. Then her eyes widened like saucers. Her jaw fell open, hanging limp. And her body burst from the womb into a thousand shards of flesh and bone. The boy’s scream shot through the air like an arrow as his mother’s blood rained down on him.
Orson sat up, sweat pouring from his wrinkled brow, drenching his white beard, his heart thumping. He reached for his neck. It was fine. He turned his head to the stone rectangle. Still as ever.
“You’re a monster.” He tried to yell, but instead his words sputtered out as a feeble whisper. He coughed, spitting blood. He felt hot tears burning his cheeks.
He waited for a response, for the voice to ring through his ears, dance in his skull like a ghost he couldn’t run from. He heard only his heartbeat and his breathing.
Excerpted from Tempest Bound © Knowlton Thomas 2016