By Kirsty Singleton

   I remember little that went before I arrived here, and I doubt I shall live long after I leave this place. If I ever do. My entire life as I know it, wasted in a crumbling stone palace as dark and as miserable as this. The company has not been much better. My fellow comrades are drunkards and idiots. Often they are both. And those that are not…they are disturbing. It is little wonder. This place seems to have that effect on its inhabitants.

   I can honestly claim absolute ignorance to the fact. None of us know. There are mutterings, snatched whispers of a name none of us can quite grasp. If they live, my master that is, I have never met them and I doubt I ever will have that dubious honour. I spend my days pacing these empty halls of sorrow and ruin…there was something once here that was majestic, beautiful…now it reeks of decay, of filth…and of evil. Am I part of that evil? Perhaps. I am certain that I am surrounded by it. After being here for so long, how can I be sure that the evil is not ingrained into me? Into my very bones? My very soul?

   I do not rest. I cannot. Sleep seems almost an unnatural concept to me now, but I know at one time it was not. As I already said…I remember little of before. It has faded from mind and memory; an echo in time I can no longer recall. I keep mostly to myself in this place, but it is not healthy, I know. We see little of outsiders…and when we do, we fall over one another in our mad and inexplicable attempts to destroy them.

   There is sorcery involved, black magick, I am certain. We are bound to this place, unable to leave until our purpose is served, which may be never. So many have fallen by my hand, and by the hands of others here. I’ll never forget the blood…their cries of agony, their dying pleas. They all come so ill prepared. I never find out why they come. I never pause to ask. It is as if I am another, taken over by some blood lusting beast. Often by the time I come to my senses, it is too late. Only their bones lie here now…decomposing corpses that just add to the stink of this place. To the evil. Are we guarding some fabulous treasure? I do not know, and none of the others seem to either. Or are those that venture here just seeking adventure? Excitement? Knowledge perhaps? Regardless of why they come, they all fall. They all die in the end. And it satisfies me. Though I could not tell you why.

   Years have passed since I came here. I am sure of it. Perhaps even decades. Time is hard to keep track of here, in this place of eternal night. The torches burn without respite, they never flicker, nor do they burn to nothing as they surely should. It is not natural or right. Sometimes I like to seek a dark corner and close my eyes and try to remember what came before this…sentence. When I can not remember, I like to imagine. It is hard to tell the difference between what was real, and what is pure fantasy now…not that it matters.

   In truth, I welcome the arrival of strangers. It breaks the monotony…the glory of the kill, though the thought now repels me, I can never deny the sweetness of the feeling when the gauntlet falls to me. They are few and far between though, these strangers, especially those that make it to the deeper levels of this place. Sometimes I wonder though, when I awaken from my murderous frenzies and see them dead and broken at my feet, which of the two of us has the worse fate. They are at least free of this place.

   The air in this place has been different recently though. Perhaps the world outside is changing. I could not say. But even my comrades…if I can even use that word to describe them…they have changed. They are alert now; they prowl day and night, spears sharpened, their quick eyes beady and forever watching. Perhaps something is coming. Something that will change our existence, for the better, or perhaps for the worse. I could not even imagine how my existence could become worse than as it is now, but I was never renowned for my imagination…at least as far as I can recall.

   There have been tremors deep within the earth. The walls shake from side to side, briefly, momentarily. Debris falls, my armour rattles. I am convinced it is a sign. An ominous one perhaps, but a sign nonetheless. My heart beats faster at the thought of it. The very thought of change from this existence, whatever that change may be, is a welcome one. Even if it is only a thought, it is better than this despair.

   It has been days since the last tremor. Perhaps weeks. No stranger has ventured into these halls for so long now, the last to arrive has been reduced to bones. The rats no doubt sped along the process, gnawing on the flesh of the would be adventurer, cleaning his bones to nothing. I long for this to end, this sick apprehension that has settled in the pit of my stomach. I am sick of waiting. Why has no one come? Why has nothing changed? Had I not already lost it long ago, I would fear for my sanity. There is an irrational anger mounting up inside me, a longing to kill. It is building with each passing day, and I wonder how long it will be before I turn on those around me. There was another, another who went mad as I fear I soon will…he killed a good few of our number before he was stopped. Those that caught him did not kill him though. He was confined to a room in the bowels of this place, the door barred. Sometimes I can hear his howls. Will I join him? Every day that passes without incident draws me nearer to his fate. That I do know.

   It is time. I can hear the excited cries of my comrades above. Someone, some thing is here. My palms are slick beneath the metal of my gauntlets. My sword arm trembles. The shield on my left arm is heavier than it has ever been, and the helmet that I have worn since I arrived here has never felt so much like a prison. This time no mad passion has gripped me, perhaps it has been outweighed by the giddy anticipation of the thought of the foe I am certain I shall soon face. Will he be the last? Will he free me from this existence? I dare not hope. But I can only wait, for now. Pace up and down this debris littered corridor, waiting for his arrival. I know he will come. He will not fall before he reaches me. I have faced so few in comparison to some my fellow guardians, but I know I shall face him. I am uncertain, however, perhaps for the first time, if he will fall by my hand. There are others that lurk deeper in this place, waiting to kill. If I can not do my job, then perhaps they shall finish him instead.

    It has been hours since I heard the excited howls above, echoing down into my domain. All is now silent. It concerns me. Had the stranger been slain, his body would have been paraded through here by his killers for all to see. We would have rejoiced. Another outsider slain. Was I the only one who ever greeted the news of another death with disappointment? But that has not happened this time. Perhaps the stranger left. If he could. I continue to pace, my iron boots feeling heavy upon my feet. I am tired. Tired of waiting, tired of hoping for things that have not come to pass. And then, I hear it. So quiet, the padding of leather heeled feet not far from where I now stand. Is this him? The stranger that will defeat me? Or is it just another who will fall, crushed?

   I turn to face the direction of the foot steps…they are so quiet; one would struggle to hear them. But I hear them nonetheless, perhaps because they break the utter silence that has lain over this place for the last few hours. Maybe it was really only minutes? I raise my sword; it glints in the torchlight, white steel, flawless and without stain. There is a pause in the foot steps, and again, the silence seems to stretch far longer than it should. I realise I am inadvertently holding my breath. There is a flicker in the shadows, and suddenly I am confronted – a stranger clad in green charges towards me, his own sword shining like a beacon of light. I only just deflect his first blow, but I fall to my knees in the effort, and he moves to strike again.

   Instinctively I raise my arm, and the sword strikes my armoured forearm, making me grit my teeth in surprise. I bite my tongue, and the taste of copper fills my mouth. A growl raises from my throat, and the stranger looks at me, dumbfounded for a moment. Rising to my feet, I tower over him, and he steps back, raising his shield. For a second, no more than that, I see courage, not fear, his eyes. I wonder what he sees in mine? There is little time to contemplate, for he strikes me again, this time his sword ringing against my shield. He has strength, despite the slightness of his appearance. He is no more than a boy, I suppose, seventeen, maybe eighteen years of age. It’s possible I’ve been languishing away in this place before my new foe was even conceived. I’d smirk at the thought, if I were not too busy defending against his determined attacks. But then he makes a mistake, and I see an opening too easy to miss. There is a flaw in his defence, and I do not hesitate, lunging for his side with my blade. He steps away so nimbly, so quickly, I can barely comprehend his speed. And then I realise my mistake…it was no flaw in his defence, but a purposeful feint, designed to lead me into a vulnerable position which he quickly capitalises upon. Seconds after my mistake, I hear a shriek as his sword pierces my armour and into my side. I lunge out with my left arm, catching him with my shield and knocking him back a few steps, but the damage has been done. I am suddenly perspiring, breath ragged, blood oozing from the wound he has just inflicted.

    “Curse you boy,” I utter, my voice guttural, unrecognisable. He does not flinch, and I charge towards him, suddenly intent on repaying him the injury he has dealt to me. My sword crashes against his shield, and he leaps back, still not a trace of fear in his eyes. I stagger towards him, when I notice him uttering a few words…he is suddenly bathed in a blue light and he suddenly leaps high above my head. I am dumbstruck, I turn to watch him…and see him coming down towards me, sword thrust beneath him. How I wish it was the last thing I recall.

    There is a sickening crunch as the blade sinks into my collar bone, cutting clean through armour, skin, muscle, bone. I am forced to my knees; the stranger perched on my shoulder, the hilt embedded in me still gripped in his bloody hands. I gasp, sheer agony coursing through me, I feel nothing but the blade that I know will end my life. I try to turn my eyes to his, but he does not meet my gaze. He has ended my life without thought…as I ended the lives of so many others. It occurs to me, only now, how senseless it has all been. I killed without question. I gave no mercy. But nor did I ever expect it. My killer, or that is what he shall soon be I know, pulls the blade from my shoulder, and from the wound erupts a gush of gore. He does not watch my death…he wipes the blade and moves on. I fall to my side, utter pain the focus of my final thoughts. As my blood pools around me, my eyes slip shut, and finally I sleep forever.



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