C H A P T E R
A scream erupted in another room, its high pitch slipping through cracks in the stone, seeping into the ears of Artem. The scream carried on and on, lungs near to bursting, vocal chords straining in anguish. And then it stopped, swallowed whole by an immediate, chilling silence. The cracks in the wall offered nothing. Artem’s ears rang with the past until even those echoes dissipated. Then it was he and cold and stone.
His room looked the same whether his eyes were open or closed. A dark, dank square of stone bricks. He owned but one wall. He felt the uneven surface scrape his back, a back made almost art by a maze of scars. He adjusted himself, as best he could with his ankles chained to the floor and his wrists chained above his head. The metallic rustle of chain links was a sound he knew intimately; the hiss of a whip through air was another. And yet if he could hang there until his flesh sloughed off his bones and his skeleton slipped through the shackles and crumbled to dust on the floor, he would. If he could spit out the foul gruel they shoved down his throat and embrace the cold, harsh lashes to his back until he starved or bled to death, he would.
But they would not let him die, this wildly scarred and heinously gaunt husk of a man, no, not him; he was to become screams on the other side of the wall, he knew, no matter his wishes.
A lantern-jawed brutan, cloaked half in shadows, stood over an oak table covered in crumpled, tattered parchments. His cheeks and neck were masked in a thick, black stubble, his hair slicked back, his eyes two frozen lakes, each vein a splinter in the ice, a dark and terrible monster lurking beneath the hoarfrost.
“This is not right,” he said to himself. He was alone, save for a corpse in the corner. The room, poorly lit by flickering wall fires, showed signs of a previous life: crumbling benches that once might have been comfortable, a stained rug that once might have been beautiful, scorched and ripped tapestries that once might have meant something to someone. Now the room was dark and still, filled with the stench of death and other, more curious, more foul smells.
“This is not right,” he said again, louder and with a surge of anger, and his hands curled under the table and threw it up, its four legs leaving the floor. The table flipped, landing upside down, the wooden legs shuddering, parchments flapping in the air like wings without bodies. His fists clenched and sought for something to punch, something to crush, but there was nothing beside stone walls and a small box filled with jewels and trinkets and bottles. His chest heaved and he inhaled the toxicity of the room’s air, embraced it, exhaled it with vigor to let the room know it did not offend him, did not scare him.
His fingers slowly released themselves and he drew in another breath to calm himself. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind. He opened his eyes and kneeled down before the box. He tipped it on its side and let the contents spill out, clattering and tumbling onto the floor. Before him were ruby and sapphire rings; bracelets and necklaces adorned with topaz and amethyst; eggs of gold and silver; bottles with fat bottoms and narrow necks and labels written in strange symbols faded next to nothing; and bones and bones and bones—fingers and teeth and fragments of skulls, some crude, others smoothed and carved, some linked by thread, others bejewelled and painted.
The brutan combed through these tiny items. His palm scooped a handful up, and let half of them slip through his fingers as he opened them. He turned his palm over and let the rest drop back into the pile.
“Jewels,” he said in a tone of disgust. “Just jewlery.” He stood up and picked papers off the floor, tore them in half and their halves in half, shredding them into minute beige specks that floated toward the ground. “Papers and ink,” he hissed. “Tales, just tales!”
He opened the only door in the room and stormed through a narrow, pitch-black corridor. He reached another door and opened it. The room was like the first, but entirely undecorated. Three of its four walls were adorned with shackles. A man hung against one wall, his bones poking through taut skin. Long, unkempt hair clung to his face. The decrepit man was young but without vitality, his eyes even more dead than his skeletal body. He raised his neck barely an inch, tilted his head slightly toward the door. He went to speak, but coughed instead. He tried again, and in a quiet, broken voice, managed, “I am not hungry.”
“And I am not here to feed you,” the brutan replied.
From this the man gained a burst of energy, his eyes suddenly wide and alive. “No,” he said through dry, cracked lips and a swollen tongue. “Please, no.”
The brutan walked to the man and withdrew a key from his pocket. He inserted the key into the shackles around the man’s ankles first, then his wrists. The bony man fell into the brutan’s massive arms, unable to stand on his own.
“Please,” Artem coughed. “I beg of you.”
The brutan dragged him through the door, the man’s bloody and bruised ankles scraping the floor of the black corridor, and brought him into the first room. The wall fires flickered in unison as if to welcome the man, whose eyes were still wide, whose body was too weak to resist.
The brutan chained the man’s arms against a new wall so that he could stay upright. Then he paced the room, his eyes wild as a winter storm.
“Have you ever had anything stolen from you?” the brutan asked the hanging man, who only hung, who could already be dead if not for eyes still wide and filled with fear.
“Of course you have,” the brutan continued. “You were a free man once. You had your freedom stolen.”
The brutan kept pacing, back and forth, his boots stepping over the parchments, jewels and bones crunching beneath his weight.
“You had parents, friends, a wife,” he said. “You had that warmth, that love, stolen from you.”
The shadows danced on the brutan’s face, his flesh seeming to move like liquid as the wall fires stirred restlessly.
“You had a home,” he continued. “You had that stolen from you.”
The brutan stopped pacing and faced the hanging man.
“So you must know what it feels like, then,” he said, “to have things that matter stolen from you.” He sighed. “Recently I learned how this felt. I can empathize.”
The hanging man lifted his head high as he could. Tears formed in his eyes. “What is going… to happen to me?”
“You are going to die,” the brutan said. “Not for a while, and not quickly, but you are going to die. And from your death I will learn, as I have learned from all deaths in this room before you. And then I will seek revenge.”
“And that is the difference between you and I,” he added, his lips forming a smirk. “I will get back what was stolen from me.”
The brutan swept his hand in front of him and the wall fires died, their smoking remains invisible in the blackness. And Artem closed his eyes and promised himself he wouldn’t scream, promised himself that evidence of his end would not slip through cracks in the stone.