by Kaden Vas'amaen-Ashaela - April 2020
I have always felt different from my fellow guards. They say that I am too quiet; that I think too much and drink too little, which is a serious character flaw in the eyes of most Cyrenians. They also liked to rib me about how being easy to distract was very bad for the life expectancy of someone in my profession.
They may be right about me being too comfortable with my inner voice. It must be hell for them too but I have not stopped screaming inside my head ever since the Tsol'teth wrested control of my body with their Litany.
We had been on high alert. We all knew that the Tsol'teth were coming but we were unprepared anyway. We had been called on to station our posts, while the adventurers prepared near the tunnel. Then the Tsol'teth appeared, the barrier that had kept them at bay flared and shattered under their assault and they spoke the dread words that filled our ears:
"Hwarak alshamar osang rach haahl! Kwarak alshamar osang rach haahl! In the name of the eternal darkness, you will all obey ME! Turn on your brethren! Turn on those you love! Slay them all! Hwarak alshamar osang rach haahl!"
The words were like a shot of ice through my senses. I felt myself snap back and realised that I no longer had control over my own body. I felt a surge of panic; I had become a prisoner in my own body. The guardsmen in front of me had also gone rigid, and we wordlessly charged as one, raised our weapons, and attacked our citymates.
I wish I could say that everything had been a blur, but the memory is still vivid in my mind. I could see and feel everything from the first of my fellows piling on a hapless Atavian to the shock through my arms as I hacked into one adventurer after another. We ignored them as they pleaded with us to resist the Tsol'teth and yet the sight of a dragon bringing its claws down on one of my fellow guards still felt like betrayal. I couldn't blame them; what choice did they have? Yet the sight of it stung all the same.
I barely saw any Tsol'teth during the hours of fighting. I only caught rare glimpses of them striding through the streets and once in the midst of combat when a single one of them swept through a group that had almost succeeded in breaking through our lines. She killed them all, as if they just so much chaff.
After what seemed like a lifetime, their amaranthine mist descended upon the city and all was silent. The Tsol'teth walked among us, unperturbed by the signs of fighting and death. We began to march in lockstep, still enthralled by whatever mysterious power they'd employed. I caught glimpses of frightened faces from windows and alleyways; my fellow citymates wondering what would become of them now. I wondered much the same, as we finally came to a halt before the Icerune Crater.
"Bring the dragon," one of them said and there was no doubt in my mind which dragon they meant. They brought Blu over and we watched, as our beloved defender tried to resist but even he seemed diminished and exhausted, bound as he was in shadows and subjected to the full might of their magic. In the end, even he was unable to defy them. We watched, as he raised his tail and smashed the font. They left Blu here while we were pulled away one by one to establish a perimeter across the city.
The past months have been hell, or has it been years already? I've long since lost track of time in this waking nightmare. We follow a daily routine so mundane it has taken on its own hues of horror and madness, as we go through the motions. These Tsol'teth are nothing if not logical, so we sleep our eight hours, get our regular meals and then do our patrols. It would all be so boring if it weren't for the fact that we did it like clockwork on a fixed schedule, as if we were nothing but wind-up soldiers.
But we learned to quickly prefer this drudgery to the alternative. They were more than happy to use us to enforce their atrocities and we sometimes found ourselves dragging whole families into the night to be processed, tearing children from their mothers' arms, and killing anyone trying to escape or resist. And we also helped them feed Blu. Gods help us but we helped them feed Blu.
The singers love a good story with explosions in them. They love to talk about the awesome might of the holobomb. They never really describe it well, though. They don't describe the shockwave that comes with it. The sheer force that can knock men down and liquefy their insides or the sudden unease felt by those blocks away. They never describe the intense heat or the cloying smoke that smothers your lungs.
My mind is frayed and I no longer know how long I've endured this, and yet all I can think about are singers and explosions, as I watched smoke rise from the Lyceum. I had just been a few blocks away and the sheer force of it made me stumble. My mind raced, panicked and confused but my body moved forward with a purpose. I drew my sword and I knew then that the explosion had been an attack on the city at a time when the other Tsol'teth had ridden out with their allies to attack Mhaldor and Ashtan.
My squad and I were diverted, sent out to guard the path to one of the shrines the Tsol'teth had raised in their initial invasion. I could hear the sound of battle throughout the city and the shouts of the Adventurers returned to reclaim Cyrene. My heart felt elation and anger in equal measure. I knew rationally that it wasn't their fault they had been pushed out, but they hadn't been here. They hadn't seen or endured what we had to. I shoved the thought back viciously. That they were here and fighting meant that there was a slim hope that the nightmare would end, even if it was through the hands of a fellow Cyrenian.
I should have felt tense, but the Litany forced my body to relax and conserve its energy for the coming fight. I could hear the terrible battle, as it inevitably moved closer only to be interrupted by a second explosion. This staggered my body, and I watched through deathsight as a river spirit snuffed Hailqas'an's life and sent her to the Halls of Death.
I don't know if it was her death that did it, or some other cruel twist of fate, but I rocked back and felt the tension fill my limbs. I felt weak and disorganised as the Tsol'teth's hold broke. My fellows seemed unaware of the change. They kept still, their faces towards where the adventurers were likely to come. We never saw them, as a childish voice called out in glee.
"Wake up! Wake up! It's time to feed! Make the mountains bleed!"
I saw it coming. A ten-foot wave, its crest frothing. I looked around me; my fellow guardsmen didn't move, enthralled as they were but I could seek shelter. I turned to move but stop, as I felt the familiar clawing in my mind as the Litany tried to snare me once more. So I did the only thing I could do given the chance. I turned to join my fellows and embraced the coming wave. This at least was my choice.
I drifted in the dark for years. An end to torture and horror should have been welcome, but my mind still raced with all my regrets. It was irrational but I wished I had done more. I wish I could have resisted. I know it wasn't my fault, and I still felt responsible. The only thing I didn't regret was denying them the chance to get their claws into my mind once more. In the cold and the dark that was the only thing that made me smile.
And then there was warmth, and a call that stretched out from the unending darkness into a sudden tunnel of light. I could hear my name being called by those who knew me in life, and I wondered if these words came from the lips of other dead men. Yet there was warmth and light and that gentle pull. I hesitated, feeling unworthy after everything my body had been party to. Yet there was hope, and I yearned for it so badly that I reached out and was pulled back into the light. Into Cyrene.
The city was a heartbreaking ruin but my heart lifted when I saw the people surrounding me, both the living and the dead. I could see the very wonder I felt in the spectral faces of my squadmates. I looked at my own hands and saw that they too were translucent and off-colour, but there were tears of joy in the faces of the living, as they mobbed us and welcomed us home.
And looking at them, I couldn't help but think that the need for absolution extended both ways.