Devil-worshipping monks rescue a young traveler from the brink of death, only to deliver him into the hands of something far more heinous! This short story appears as Chapter 5 of "Prisoner of Time."
The knife stabbed into his hip, the finely-honed implement scraping against the bone as it came to rest within bleeding flesh. The pain sent the Asian man staggering to the ground, his sword's hilt slipping from his grasp and clacking audibly against the cobblestones of the bridge that spanned the small river of the glen.
The robber yanked his blade out of his victim's side, and he tried to strike again at his dazed target lying helpless on the path. His aim was accurate, but his prey was agile and managed to roll sufficiently to avoid further injury.
A swift left kick from the bleeding man evened the odds, sending the robber onto his back, though it was only a temporary arrangement, for the beast's strength far outweighed his beauty. He hadn't lived so long, killing and stealing from travelers on the secluded highway, by being a weakling. He had a peak physique, though his face could have used a coat of paint. The puffy, pocked cheeks sent shivers down the spine, as did the ragged strands of brown hair that danced around as he moved, almost like snakes upon the head.
Jumping to his feet, the beastly robber prepared to strike at his intended victim again. Gripping the pommel and setting the blade tightly against his wrist, he moved in to swipe with the razor-sharp edge.
With blood trickling out of his right hip, the traveling man knew he wasn't about to best his foe. He was a poor swordsman, and there weren't any guns in this simulation, so never mind equalizing the playing field.
Scrambling to his feet, the traveler avoided a lethal swipe by mere inches, yet a secondary thrust sent the blade into his left shoulder. Leathery garments provided some protection, but the thrust was strong enough to penetrate the tanned hide and slice flesh.
Screaming in agony, regrets filled the traveler's mind. Why had he ever bothered booting into this fantasy program? What was the point of escaping reality, only to find himself in a wholly worse world than the one he'd just left?
Dragging his thoughts away from meaningless contemplation in a hurry, he avoided another lethal chop, throwing himself against the upraised concrete at the bridge's edge. Staring down at the rushing waters below, he saw his only hope of salvation. The cold spring waters would be a marginal improvement, at best, yet they were his only alternative to the deadly steel.
Stumbling to the apex of the stone bridge, the traveler hurled himself over the raised edge, barely escaping the grasp of the robber who attempted to snag some clothing and drag his victim back for a deathblow.
Fortune finally smiled upon the wounded traveler, as the robber's arms proved too slow, and the leap dragged him forever from the lethal blade.
Falling a few feet, his wounded body hit the water like a ton of bricks, and the icy liquid stung his skin. It soaked his heavy garments, which made it a struggle to stay afloat against the current.
The cold of the rushing waters worked quickly to draw the heat from his body, and before long the onset of hypothermia seeped into him. The euphoria blanked out the passage of time, and the struggle for survival grew feeble. Somehow, the wounded man managed to stay atop the current through the delirium, and after a while he found himself deep within uncharted woods, beached on a sandbar at a fork in the river.
Dragging himself up onto a mound of dirt in the center of the river, he lay upon the muddy sands for a long time, absorbing the late afternoon sun, too chilled to move. The ghosts of his past visited him as he rested upon the simulated ground, trying to regain some equilibrium.
So much he'd abandoned, just to lie here in a world where nothing was real, except the human mind. This expansive computer program, in which millions of minds cohabitated and lived out realistic lives. So like, yet unlike, the world into which he'd been born; this world called Fantasan. The great fantasy program of Simworld Incorporated, which brought to life sword and sorcery, myth and magic, for the entertainment of anyone with sufficient funds to have their body frozen and their consciousness downloaded into the system.
This escape had seemed like such a good idea to the wounded traveler, as real life had brought him to ruin. He'd lost a small fortune on a pyramid scheme, and if that hadn't been traumatic enough, his wife had found a more alluring mate in the neighbor's delinquent son.
Six months of toil in an office cubicle had earned this man enough pay to get himself booted into the virtual realm, and here he lay, bleeding to death, half drowned, vaguely aware of the simulated sun beating down upon his face.
He faded in and out of consciousness for ages, patches of darkness and light blinking in and out as he struggled to live. The day turned to night, and as the twilight came upon him something grabbed hold of his body and dragged him off the sand. As vague awareness drifted back momentarily, he felt the hard boards of a wagon upon his back, and heard muffled voices speaking.
Time passed rapidly in bursts, as he was moved from place to place, eventually being set in a soft bed. Various robed figures applied salves to his wounds, and mystic incantations brought rapid healing.
The delirium eventually dissipated, allowing the man a chance to study his new surroundings. The bed was the sole piece of furniture in a bleak, stone room, with a solitary window that provided minuscule sunlight to expose the gray walls.
Turning his head to the right, he saw a white-robed figure sitting on the floor, giving him a blank stare. The middle-aged gentleman, with a graying beard and frizzy eyebrows, sat in a stoic pose, almost a statue.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, brother," the robed figure said with a British accent.
"Brother? Where am I?" the traveler asked, scooting up in bed, feeling no pain from his healed injuries.
"You are home at last, among your holy deliverers."
"This is some kind of monastery?" he asked, sliding into a sitting position and finding his torso devoid of clothing. Feeling his legs under the heavy quilt, he confirmed that his lower half was equally naked.
"Much more than a monastery. This is the Church of the Holy Sword," the monk said, standing up. "Allow me to escort you to our Archon. His words shall enlighten you."
"I appear to be missing my clothes," the man mentioned, unwilling to expose his bare flesh in front of a stranger.
"We are all naked, lest we be clothed in the blood of the sword," the monk said cryptically. Standing up, he walked to the foot of the bed and retrieved a white robe lying on the floor. "Truly, can any fleshly clothes cover our iniquity, and enter us into the light?"
"I'd just be happy to walk around without my butt hanging out for everyone to see," the traveler said, taking the robe from the monk.
The traveler sought to get dressed in private, so he sat and waited for the monk to turn his head, or leave the room, but the robed figure just stood there, staring down with impassioned eyes.
"Could I have some privacy?" the traveler finally asked.
"The bearing of flesh holds no significance to me. Abandon your animal shame, and embrace the honesty of the light," the monk replied, refusing to avert his gaze.
The traveler tried his best to get dressed while remaining hidden under the quilt. He managed to slide the thin clothing under his backside before standing up to complete the task. Thoroughly concealed, he tied two straps across his waist and was prepared to venture out into the compound.
The monk turned and stood before a stone wall. With a wiggling of his fingers, an open archway appeared, revealing a gloomy corridor beyond. The only lighting was that of smoldering torches, and the traveler followed the monk through twisty passageways at a jogging pace.
Eventually, they came out into the sunlight, and a vast courtyard appeared before them. There were many robed figures moving about. Some pulled weeds from flower beds that filled the open spaces, while others talked to one another, their hushed voices noticeably concealed as the strange traveler brushed by them. There were both men and women in the crowd, from all walks of life and with all manner of skin pigments. Truly, a diverse group.
"I'm glad to see you don't discriminate," the traveler mentioned as he followed the monk out of the courtyard, down another gloomy corridor.
"Our Lord's image is diverse, and comprises the sum total of the body of humanity. No child of the light shall be denied entry into his kingdom, should they seek the blood."
They walked on a short distance, and reached a spacious hallway, with tall, stone archways free standing below a cathedral ceiling, accentuating a path toward a pair of massive wooden doors that creaked open as they approached them.
The room beyond the doors was a spacious chapel. Windows high up in the walls provided ample lighting to see the glossy rafters and cross ties of the ceiling. The wood looked relatively new, as if it had been cut within the last year.
Walking down the aisle, the smell of incense stung the nostrils. The scent was peculiar to the traveler, and it made his stomach turn in response to the pungent aroma.
Beyond the long row of pews was a spacious pulpit, and in the shadows beyond it sat a throne, where a large man rested in seclusion.
The bulky man rose from his throne and greeted the visitors with an upraised hand as they climbed the stairs to reach the pulpit. His robes were different from those of the other residents of the compound. Rather than bland beige, his cloth was blood red, with golden tassels along the cuffs and neckline.
"Archon, I bring the traveler," the monk said, bowing in supplication.
"Summon the attendants, brother. Let them prepare for the ceremony," the Archon said, his fat jowls shaking with each word.
The monk hurried off, disappearing down a small side door near the pulpit.
"What ceremony?" the traveler asked, feeling his skin crawl in the Archon's presence.
"Why, your consecration ceremony, naturally," the Archon replied.
"I don't understand. I'm not a member of your church. I have no idea what you believe, or whether I'd want to be a part of it."
"Belief and understanding shall come with the blood. Fear not, brother. Yours is a unique place among all mankind, and all shall cherish the life of the light, and perform great deeds in the Lord's name."
The traveler really wished somebody would give him some straight answers, rather than spew forth convoluted riddles and abstract pontifications.
Before more could be said, creaking doors sounded, and a dozen robed individuals walked up to the pulpit. The Archon motioned for the traveler to step back as the robed monks began prying up boards. As the hardwood flooring was removed, an enameled bathtub was revealed beneath it.
"The baptism of blood shall commence!" the Archon said.
As if in summons to his words, an aged man appeared before the traveler. The withered monk, whose face was almost skeletal, gave a creepy stare, and then turned his attention to the tub under the floor. Humming lightly, the ancient monk proved himself a wizard, as a bright glow surrounded him. Reaching his arms out over the tub, he closed his eyes and the enameled object rose upward until it was level with the pulpit's floor. The magic left it hovering, as the other monks hastily threw boards back over the hole.
With the flooring replaced, the old monk released his magic, and the tub sat down gently and securely. The aging figure then set his arms across his chest, and the tub rapidly filled with water.
With the tub prepared, a great horde of people entered the room from the massive doorway. Over a thousand men and women, all dressed in the same beige robes, shuffled in and filled up the pews in minutes.
"Bring in the sacrifice!" the wizard monk said with a voice scratchy and sharp like an old woman's.
A commotion sounded from a side doorway, and the traveler watched as a pair of monks dragged another man toward the pulpit, the captive dressed in leather garments and appearing very out of place amongst the worshippers.
As the captive man was dragged kicking and screaming up onto the pulpit deck, the traveler's eyes could discern features that were not quite human. The pointed ears and eyebrows, along with the fair skin and hair, revealed the captive to be of an elvish clan.
The elf cursed out words in a strange language as the monks forced him to his knees in front of the bathtub.
With the elf subdued, the Archon stepped up to the tub and spoke to the congregation. "Brothers and sisters, the time grows nigh. The day of the light approaches, and the Church of the Holy Sword shall spread gospel to all corners of this realm. We shall purge the world of evil, and unite it under the blood of salvation!"
A groan sounded from the congregation in agreement.
"Today, we make the way clear for the return of our Lord. He has delivered unto us his vessel, whom he shall inhabit! Let us rejoice in his salvation, as the blood bonds him to this flesh." The Archon waved his hands over the tub dramatically.
The traveler was grabbed by the arm and dragged over to the tub. Staring upon the crystal waters therein, he saw his reflection glowing back at him. His skin was shimmering with golden light, as a spell was enveloping him.
Kneeling down beside the tub, the skeletal wizard monk drew a stiletto from under his robe. The elf squirmed, with terror on his face, but three other monks held his body down and prevented him from fleeing.
It was clear they intended to kill this man; a bloody sacrifice to some pagan god.
The traveler wanted to shout in condemnation, but something was stopping him. A little voice in the back of his head told him to surrender, obey the Archon and follow the ritual. It wasn't an inward thought. There was something else at work, a psychic magic trying to rewrite his memories and reprogram his thoughts. The realization made him fight it fiercely.
The Archon sensed the traveler's mental resistance, and whispered words of comfort. "Fear not, brother. Today, you become a new creature, bonded body and soul with our Lord. It is the greatest honor of all." Raising his voice, he spoke for the entire crowd to hear. "Henceforth, his name shall be revered as Haloran, vessel of the true Lord, sworn deliverer of his might!" The Archon motioned toward the wizard monk to complete the sacrifice.
As the blade approached the elf's neck, the captive shouted, "Solvo mihi, vos malum barbarus!" The cry did not deter those who sought to slay him, and the knife touched his flesh ever so lightly, preparing for the fatal slice.
The horrific sight bolstered the traveler's will tenfold. Even so, it took every fiber of his being to whisper, "Stop."
That tiny utterance brought the ceremony to a halt.
Those around the pulpit glanced back and forth at each other, as if they didn't know what to do. Some began to panic as the traveler's mind cleared and the glow dissipated from around his body.
Feeling a surge of anger flow over him, the traveler reached over toward the wizard monk and yanked the blade out of his hand. "What do you think you're doing? Murdering in the name of God?"
"This is not murder!" demanded the Archon, yanking the blade out of the traveler's hand and returning it to his wizard. "This creature is not a man."
"You can't honestly believe that," the traveler said, stomping a foot in protest. "He may not be human, but he is still one of God's children."
"They are not of our Lord! Elves are the children of evil! They shall be given no quarter, no refuge. Their hindrance to our Lord must be removed, as must all things evil!"
"Who’s really evil here?" the traveler challenged. "This nonsense; a baptism of blood. If that isn't evil, then I don't know what is."
"You dare to desecrate this sacred ceremony, and now you blaspheme against the Holy Sword!" the Archon shouted. "The Lord demands your compliance!"
Working on adrenaline and instinct, the traveler rammed his shoulder into the Archon, and sent his grotesquely fat body flailing off the stage, onto the stone floor below.
Turning to the wizard monk, the traveler sent a swift foot toward the man's head, only to feel the sharp pain of the stiletto stabbing into his naked heel, followed by a ball of magic smoke shoved in his face, leaving him blind.
Seeing an opportunity, the elf prisoner darted his head backwards and bloodied the nose of one captor. The motion threw the other monks off balance, and their captive managed to slide from their grasp, and he swiftly pushed them off the stage. Free at last, he charged at the wizard monk, forcing him to the ground and making him drop his stiletto. Several swift punches left the wizard unconscious.
Picking the dagger up off the floor, the traveler blinked his eyes, trying to clear his vision. Everything was blurry, but he could make out shapes, and could recognize the elf hovering over the limp form of the wizard monk.
As the elf stood up, the thousand parishioners rose from their pews and rushed toward the stage, prepared to defend their faith. Hissing noises erupted, and the traveler's eyes cleared enough to see that the parishioners were all unsheathing swords.
With the horde approaching, the elf grabbed onto the heavy tub filled with water, trying to push it over. "Succurro," he said, and the traveler understood his meaning and added his strength to the effort. The heavy basin began to move, and they managed to slide it off the loose boards.
The elf yanked up a couple of planks and dashed into the hole beneath the floor. The traveler followed with all the haste of a man running from a thousand crazed fundamentalists waving elongated metal implements, eager to disembowel.
Beyond the compartment that housed the tub was a dark tunnel. It didn't matter where it led; it was the only path away from the crazed monks.
The tunnel was low, but wide, allowing elf and traveler to stay side by side as they crawled forward, but before long the passageway dead-ended, landing their faces into a patch of soft dirt.
Clawing at the dirt furiously, they soon saw a streak of daylight shining down upon them. They continued pawing away at the dirt until there was a large enough opening to slide through.
Rushing out of the hole, they found themselves in the spacious courtyard, now devoid of life. The tunnel had been blocked by a planter bed that had been recently tilled, providing for easy digging.
"How did you know that tunnel was there?" the traveler asked, not sure if the elf could understand his language.
"Adveho," the elf said, as he began running across the courtyard toward an open archway that led outside.
The traveler followed with all due haste, hearing the faint protests of a sword wielding horde who would be coming after them at any moment.
Reaching the archway, the stone turned to gravel, and his bare feet stung with agony as the sharp granules dented and cut his tender flesh, and the bleeding knife wound filled with dirt. The pain did not deter him, however, as he followed the elf into the underbrush a hundred yards from the gray walls of the fortress.
They continued through the woods for almost an hour, traversing mossy ground sparsely specked with twigs and thorns. The elf retained his leather footwear, but the traveler's feet had no such protection, and eventually he could limp no longer on his bleeding soles, so they stopped and rested by the bank of a small stream. They heard no voices, and could only hope that the monks had lost their trail.
Rinsing his feet in the cold water, the traveler inspected the damage. There were a few bleeding cuts, but nothing terrible. He let the wounds soak in the cool water.
The elf sat down beside the traveler and stuck out his hand, which held a green stone attached to a string. The glowing rock was beautiful, and it seemed the elf wanted the man to take it from him. As the traveler reached to grab the stone, the elf grabbed his palm and slapped their hands together firmly, rubbing their flesh against the pendant. For a few seconds, the green light shone through their skins, exposing their bones like an x-ray, then all grew dim, and the elf pulled his hand away and returned the pendant to a hidden trouser pocket.
"You want to speak, now the stone shall translate," he said.
"Thanks for helping me out of there," the traveler said.
"It is I who should be thanking you. You didn't have to risk your life so readily."
"I wasn't about to stand by and watch them murder you, and then bathe me in your blood," the traveler replied, shivering at the thought of the crimson baptism.
"Those fanatics are just one of many new cults that have formed since the world awakened from limbo. It seems that many souls were drenched in darkness during that time."
The limbo he spoke of had been a five year span, during which the virtual reality system had been deactivated in order to purge the computer virus. Theoretically, none of the simulated characters should have experienced anything during the shutdown. They were just elements of the program, with no substance. They couldn't perceive time.
"Are you a native of Fantasan, or a traveler from the other realm, like myself?" the traveler asked.
"I was born and raised here, and have little understanding of this 'other realm' you come from. I have friends from that place, but we do not discuss it."
"And you felt the passage of time when this world was inactive?"
"Personally, no, but many have spoken of it, enough for it to be common knowledge to all that our world was subjected to Limbo. It drove some people mad, and others were poisoned by whatever evil spirits lurked in that void, such as this Holy Sword Church."
"What can we do about them?" The traveler asked.
"I must return home, across the channel," he replied. "My people, along with many other elven clans, reside on the isle of Corpia-Minor, several miles off this continent's eastern coast. I was on a merchant expedition when those monks captured me."
"I haven't been here long. I really don't know my way around. Would you mind if I joined you?"
"Do you think that is wise? I have seen the extent of your bravery, but you have no idea the kind of peril you might face in my company."
"I have the feeling I'm in for trouble, regardless. We stand a better chance together."
"In that case, I am honored to call you friend. My name is Alvaris Harvein. Tell me, what is yours?"
Until it was brought up, the traveler hadn't given it much thought. The past hour had been so chaotic; his mind had been preoccupied with escape to the point where he hadn't perceived anything to be wrong. Now, he knew better.
The mental spell the wizard monk had used hadn't left the traveler wholly unscathed, as the only answer he could give about his name was, "I don't know."