Her sword tore through sinew and bone. Rotting flesh fell to the ground in chunks, splashing blood around her ankles. Around her mindless beasts swarmed her, each pushing forward with no concern for the ones before it. None phased in the slightest by their predecessor, sliced down in a single strike. Each, madly rushing for her beating heart.
When had she arrived in this hell? She didn't ask that question anymore.
A man shaped creature shuffled before her. One leg was twisted. An arm trailed behind it, the tissue connecting it to its socket hung in tattered, stretched strands, ripping further with each jerking movement. What rotting flesh remained was discolored, alternating between putrid green and burned black. Malice and magic alone kept the thing on its feet.
A swift horizontal strike put an end to that. Its torso fell one way, its mangled legs fell the other. A howling female form lurched into the suddenly vacant space, tripping over the fallen legs.
She stabbed down into the fallen creature's head, twisting the blade as it went. It fell still in time for a burning hound to leap from the back lines of the fray.
The hound collided with her, knocking her from her feet, pulling her hand from her great sword's handle.
The two rolled in the muck. It wrestled to bite its ebony teeth into her neck, she clenched top and bottom of its gaping maw, shoving it open and back. The beast's flaming skin scorched her armor and burned her face.
But she'd been here before.
She rolled so she was onto of it, shoving one armored arm down the beast's throat, bearing the rising heat of its flaming body. With her free hand she pulled her dagger from her belt and stabbed directly into the nearest crimson eye. Again and again until it stopped writhing.
Until a clumsy hand grabbed at her hair and clawed at her armored back.
She spun to her feet, kicking back the monster at her heals. A flick of her wrist and she embedded the dagger between another's eyes.
She pulled her sword from its last victim and made a great sweeping strike, again buying herself a bloody circle of deathly peace.
When had she learned how to fight these things? She couldn't remember now.
She cut down another and another.
Where had she been before? Vaguely it seemed to her she'd been somewhere else before.
Why had she come here?
Three more fell to a diagonal strike, slicing through burning flesh and shattering bone.
Had she been looking for something once?
She spun, knocking those around her from their feet with her extended blade.
A head rolled from its shoulders.
She had these thoughts occasionally. A nagging feeling more than thought really. A sense that there had once been more to surviving than slaying these creatures.
Was there something more than surviving?
Limbs fell to the ground separate from their bodies.
Screaming joined the howl of beasts and growl of monsters.
She cut another in half, head to toe.
No, maybe not screaming? There was another word for this noise.
Flaming bats shot toward her face. She side stepped them, cutting one down as it flew past her, tossing her dagger after the other.
Crying? Was that what it was?
She frowned as she sunk her sword hilt deep in the next body.
Not the broken crying of the witches or the gulping crying of the bodies whose necks already had holes either. Real, sorrowful crying?
She pulled her sword free, burying the pommel in the gut of the man like creature behind her. It crumpled at her feet, only to be stomped on with one metal boot.
Sorrow. She remembered that one, maybe.
Four more collapsed in a pile of pieces on either side of her.
She'd stood under the night sky once, that same crying coming from her lips. She remembered that now.
She didn't think she could make that noise anymore. Couldn't think of any sound but the grunt she made as she drove her blade through decaying flesh or burning skin.
But she'd held something then, under that dark sky. Hadn't she? Something small. Something warm but growing cold?
She'd fallen to her knees that night. Wailed until there was nothing left.
Another. And another.
The crying continued.
She spared a second, expanding her sight beyond the immediate circle of prey around her. Each direction seemed the same as always. An endless pool of crimson blood. Still corpses sinking into the unknown depths, thrashing creatures, barely more than corpses, crawling back again. A haze of smoke hung over the landscape, oppressive and omnipresent.
Two more crumpled.
Was it above her? She looked up, into the abyss above, frowning.
What was it that had made her cry like that? What had sent her, with the crimson dawn to draw her sword? What had sent her swinging it, never to set it down again?
Above, a single star hung in Hell's firmament. A single star shown through the smoke.
Was that where the crying came from? Did stars cry?
Something beat at her chest plate. She ignored it, her head cocked to one side.
Something grabbed her ankle.
The crying grew louder. Was that words there?
“Help me! Someone!” It was a desperate sob to her ears.
What did a star have to cry like that about? Why did anyone cry? She couldn't remember why she had. Would it know?
It was a child's voice, she realized suddenly. Something fluttered in her chest. Something that had been still for as long as she could remember. What was that?
She wanted to go, she realized. She didn't understand why. Maybe because they would be able to answer her questions? Would be able to tell her why she'd once made those sounds, had once been so desperate?
She found herself reaching for the star above her. Found her fingertip brushing it.
It was cold. So cold. She'd forgotten cold. But as she touched the star, cold rushed back into to her, sunk into her bone. It pulled her up, through the smoke, from the iron-scented world. The hands tried to pull her back, tried to hold her down, claw her down.
She found herself in a courtyard, bathed in silver starlight. Behind her, curled in a broken ball was a sobbing child, begging anyone, anything to save her. Before her, a group of twisted men with blood-stained daggers.
They edged back from her at first, fear and hesitation on their faces. They looked between each other, each encouraging the next to be the first to step forward again.
One finally found his courage or lost his reason. He rushed her, the other three, emboldened, followed suite.
Blood splattered across the courtyard's stone.
She turned to face the crying child. The girl looked up at her with terror in her eyes. Fine fabrics lay in tatters around her bare shoulders and exposed legs.
Fine fabrics, drenched in blood, covered the woman lying in the girl's lap. Or rather, the corpse of a woman in the child's lap. The child held the woman's hand, desperately clinging to something.
She wanted to ask why. Why did she hold a corpse so desperately? But she found her tongue didn't remember the way to form the word anymore.
She wanted to ask where they were. Why it was so cold? Why the dark sky shone so bright?
“W-who are you?” the girl asked first.
She cocked her head to one side.
“D-did you c-come to hurt me?”
“C-can you save my momma?”
Momma? That resonated somewhere in the depths of her memories. Mother.
She must have had one once. Yes, certainly. Was that why the child was crying? Was that why she had cried then?
“Please,” the child begged. “Please, save my momma!”
“Momma?” she tried the word. Her voice was raspier than she remembered, the girl recoiling in fear. “Your. Mother?”
Hesitantly the girl nodded. “Please. I don't care what happens to me. Just, just save her.”
She frowned. That seemed backward, though how, she couldn't place.
“She was just trying to protect me,” the girl sobbed. “If only I… I just wanted…” Her voice broke into indistinguishable sobs.
“Protect you.” The words seemed right. Natural. “I will protect you.”
A glowing red circle appeared around their feet. A pentagram, she and the child in the center.
The girl's eyes grew wide, from fear or shock, she couldn't say.
A hazy memory swam before her eyes. Another night, cold like this, in a circle of blood like this. With none but the stars as her witness, a man had appeared from the depths.
“Will you make a contract with me?” he had asked, and she found herself asking now, a hand outstretched to the vulnerable heart.
And just as then, once again, the broken girl took the blood-stained hand.
Truman looked deep into the cave. His mind, buttered with delirium, yet his focus on the black void in front of him could not be broken. There was a scent in the air; the kind of smell that invaded the head with heat. It was dense as if its salty musk had pushed out all the light around him and l...