Friday, 28 October 2016

Artel, 12 - A Beautiful Beast

How long had it been? Weeks? Months? Years? In the darkness there was no way of telling, and Artel was growing restless. He could feel the energy building inside of him, tumbling through his veins like so many little creatures itching to be free. His nerves were fraught. The dim green tinged darkness reeked of captivity, of subservience, of slavery. He had to submit, had been forced to do as he was bid. He had accepted that to fight, to escape, would only lead to certain death. The warren these creatures lived in, that he now lived in, was too vast and too complex for him to even imagine he could find a way out before he caught his death in one of the dark, earthy tunnels. He had even wondered at one point if there were tunnels leading to the surface at all. He could not imagine the strange, pale, creatures having any need or desire to visit the surface, they seemed quite content to exist in their subterranean universe. But he had felt it, the other day, as he was being lead from his cell to the hall where he would spend his day, if you could even call it a day. They had lead him down the usual corridor, and he had expected to continue past three exits, make two left turns, one right turn, another two lefts, then it was a long walk down a tunnel that curved slightly to the left and sloped gently downwards until they reached a great door, behind that door was what he supposed you would call a kitchen, although it hardly looked like a kitchen to him. It certainly was where they prepared their food though, which was a strange mix of captured rats, earthworms and other insects, and root vegetables they seemed to have harvested from the tunnel walls themselves. He had even seen a mole in there once, the poor animal had still been alive when one of the creatures had brought it in, exclaiming loudly in its strange nonsensical language and swinging it by its back left paw. The mole hadn't even had time to put up a fight. The cook, if you could even call him a cook, had gripped the animal in a wave of something that looked like it might have been joy, swung it down atop an earthen surface and promptly released it from the burden of having a head. The severed head rolled away and dark blood leaked down across the grimy floor, seeping into the earth, as the body jerked and twitched unpleasantly before finally laying still. The cook picked up the head in one hand, then the body in the other, then turned and held Artel's gaze for a moment before making his way over to a large bubbling pot in the corner and throwing both parts in to it. Artel looked at the floor, he couldn't help but feel that gaze had held a very real threat. Misbehave, it had said, try to escape, it had said, and this is what will happen to you.
But the other day they had turned right instead of left and he had been lead upwards, definitely upwards, he could feel the ache in his legs. They had made a left turn, then two rights, then another left along a long tunnel that seemed to slant upwards. It was just as they were reaching the end of that tunnel that Artel had felt it, the rush of cold air, like a breath of freedom, taunting him from the end of the tunnel. They had to be near the surface at that point, they had been going steadily uphill, and in that rush of air he could smell the forest. He only got a whiff, a sharp intake of breath before he was pushed right into another tunnel and away from the promise of freedom. But that was all he needed, that one precious moment had delivered to him something he thought he had given up, hope. There was a way out, and now he knew where to find it. All he had to do was create a diversion, something that would distract his guards, allowing him time to make a break for it.
Right, left, right right, left and up. Easy.

He was still asleep when the sharp kick sent a flare of pain through the right side of his body. He yelped and rolled away, instinctively reaching for the sword that was no longer there. Consciousness brought with it the memory of reality and he pulled himself to his feet, facing the guard standing in the doorway.
"Big thing sleep late, big thing come now, much work to be done."
"Y-yes." Artel stammered. "I just need to get my cloak."
This was it. Today was the day. He bent to retrieve his cloak from the hard ground, the only bed he had been afforded. As he gripped the cloak he also picked up the small device he had so lovingly created the night before. He swung the cloak over his shoulders and held the device in the palm of his hand, which, despite his years of training, was beginning to sweat. If this didn't work he was screwed, they would kill him there and then, no second chances. But better dead than a life lived serving giant white rats beneath the ground though. He took a breath and walked towards the guard that stood at the door. The guard nodded and stepped back into the corridor, waiting expectantly for Artel to join him. Artel walked forwards, exiting the cell and following the guard along the corridor, a second guard falling in behind him. For a moment there was nothing except the shuffling sound of their footsteps in the silence, then Artel let out a small yelp and crumpled to the ground. As he sank he twisted and stuck his foot out so that he was facing the guard behind him, who, taking an instinctive step towards his captive, struck Artel's outstretched foot and plummeted to the ground himself. Artel threw out his right hand, releasing the device which flew through the air into the darkness beyond. For a terrible second there was nothing, and Artel heard the guard who had been in the lead begin to speak. A half formed word erupting from between his lips, Artel's heart began to sink. Then several loud bangs echoed through the earthy tunnel and suddenly fire was spitting out from the direction they had come, lighting up the dark earth and roaring up the walls. The guard behind Artel pushed past him, at once terrified and full of a duty to protect. Artel took his chance. He knew the fire would last only moments, then it would die, suffocated beneath the earth, as he would if he didn't get a move on. He pushed himself to his feet and began to sprint up the tunnel.
Right, left, right, right, left and up. He could feel it now, the cold air on his face. It filled his chest, his mouth, his nose. The smell of the forest. The promise of light, of life, of escape. He pushed on, though his aching legs complained and his breath tore his throat, certain that his captors were only moments behind him, ready to grab him and pull him back down, down into the depths and the darkness that waited beneath. He was almost there. He could feel it in the clarity of the air. It was crisper, sweeter, lighter. A few more steps. One foot in front of the other as the adrenaline coursed through his body. He could feel his heart pumping in his chest, beat after beat after beat, so fast he thought it might explode. Step, step, step, step, step. What if he was wrong? What if there wasn't an exit? No. He beat the thoughts from his mind and pushed his body on. Surely it wasn't much farther yet. His lungs burned and his heart raced and his legs screamed. He squeezed his eyes shut, opening and immediately closing them again as he rounded a corner and the bright light of day blinded him. His instinct was to stop but he forced himself to continue, blind, out into the world. He felt something break around him as he left the tunnel, some sort of guard, shield, netting, web, he couldn't be sure. He stumbled forwards, his right arm shielding his eyes as he blinked in the bright light and tried to make sense of the blurry shapes around him that refused to come into focus. He pushed on no matter, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the terrible tunnel he had just left.
He ran at first, until his run became a stumbling jog, and his stumbling jog became a walk, and then he tripped on a tree root and found himself spread eagle on the floor, panting and breathing and sweating and whimpering and alive, oh so very, very alive. He lost consciousness then, his tired body shutting down and sending him into its own darkness.

When Artel woke the sun was setting, sending streamers of colour across the sky. Pink and orange and yellow and red. It was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. He pushed himself into a sitting position, brushing the dirt from his clothes and breathing in the clean, fresh air. He looked around him, he was no longer in the forest, which was perhaps half a days walk behind him now. To his left endless plains stretched towards the horizon, but in the far distance to his right he could see what looked like the sparkle of a river, beyond which smoke rose from a collection of tiny houses. It would take him a day or so to reach the village, but there he would be able to find food, and shelter, and, most importantly, a new sword. He felt pained to have had to leave his behind, it had been a gift from his father. But he had no idea where the creatures had put it after they had disarmed him and he couldn't have afforded the time to look for it.
Beyond the village and the plains, great mountains stretched their inky fingertips towards the slowly darkening sky. That was where he was headed. Somewhere in those mountains were the answers he sought.
Artel stood and started walking, heading towards the village and the mountains beyond and thinking about his fire device, made from a piece of flint, some string, and a several matches he had found in his pocket. It had been a stroke of genius, and it had worked perfectly, he almost laughed out loud. Freedom was a most beautiful beast indeed.

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