Runo was breathing people.
She stood in front of the postal tower, where Heleth had smeared te remains of the village’s inhabitant, with the same passion and creativity as a painter would do with her brush.
“Heh,” scoffed Triskel next to her, bent over the weight of the iron hooks and chains wriggling out of his gnawed body. For a Marrower, he was much too devoted to the cult of iron. “Our leader sure likes to show off.”
“Is it showing off if you have actual skills?” Runo replied with a look of her silver eyes. Triskel chuckled, the sound coming like grinding ice from behind its steel teeth. How much of his body was still flesh, and how much his flesh could still bear to add more metal, was anybody’s guess. A true devotee of the Gloom Lords.
For all the good that did him.
“You surely are one to talk, sister.”
Runo rolled her eyes, and made no answer. She had to pretend his comment smarted her pride, so she just threw her chin up and walked away from the chuckling Marrower.
The village had been small to start with – why choose such a desolate place for the Harvest was beyond her, but who could peer through the abyss of cruel wisdom of the Gloom Lords? Heleth was the only one of their coven who could talk directly with one of them, and so she had the mastery.
They were all just links hanging from her chain, even though many among the Marrowers, like brother Triskel there, would bite at the chance to replace her.
Runo walked through the destroyed streets, covered by the shards of windows and broken wooden beams, her boots creaking over the debris. It was difficult to see through the red mist that was already spreading to cover everything and beyond, the fruit of Heleth’s skills, and each breath tasted like iron and death.
A taste of home, to be sure.
Expanding Tuonela’s borders was one of the goals of the Harvest, after all.
The other was, at least judging from the agitated chatter reaching her ears from the corners of the destroyed village, to feel good and have a few hours of good fun.
Pulling people away from their homes, flogging them, making them watch, and then pick up a few and use them as the new seed for the glory of the Gloom Lords. The same seed that, by Heleth’s hands, now adorned the postal tower.
Runo entered a collapsed house, making the door creak. Everything had been overturned, broken. The passage of the Harvest was always easy to recognize.
She crouched to touch a few blood stains covering the floor, next to a few missing teeth.
The echoes of blood sang of torture and delight, so it was likely that came more out of pure spite and desire to have some fun than a resisting villager.
Now, that was an interesting concept, wasn’t it?
They were all dangling from the same chain – and resisting was such an alien notion, flogged out of existence day after day after day.
Runo withdrew her arms into her heavy coat and felt the hidden pocket where she had collected the notes, maps and plans she needed. They were still safe.
Her ticket to freedom.
She pulled back from the broken home and its remains.
To her detriment, she still couldn’t feel anything but a light ache for those people. Was it necessary to feel grief to understand she was repentant?
She did feel disgust at her actions as a Marrower, but for all intents and purposes, her attempt to escape was mostly a way to save herself more pain.
She could only decide her own fate, after all.
This decision of hers would only save her hide.
But at least, it would not be requested of her to take part in another Harvest ever again.
She reached the centre of the village once again – more Marrowers had gathered to admire Heleth’s handiwork.
They still held their consumables by chains. Runo had run out of her own shortly after the attack began – a waste, but she had made it quick.
An image of the mill-slaves falling down on their knees as their eyes popped out in a spray of burning acid, their blood turning black and tar-like as it burned them from inside and she could cast a spell powerful enough to uproot the western gate to the village ran through her mind.
She had made it quick. As quick as she could.
Her stomach still churned at the sight.
Unbecoming of a Marrower.
How long until she couldn’t pretend anymore? Until her disgust and her fear gave her away?
“I hoped I could find you here,” Runo purred, painting a salacious smile over her face as she wrapped her arms around a tall blonde woman, her body ran over with hooks and small iron rings from which strips of skin hung, each of them painted with a specific spell or curse. “Beautiful work with the seed. It will grow into such a beautiful garden for the Gloom Lords,” she whispered against her pale ear, giving it a playful lick.
The other Marrowers threw the two of them a scornful look, but they did not dare say anything.
Ever since… the beginning, Runo had been under the protection of Heleth Skinflayer.
“Another link forged,” Heleth chuckled, moving her silvery eyes to look upon Runo.
She has a hard time suppressing a shiver. She had to know.
Heleth knew, she had to. She was so much stronger than her, so much smarter, and that was why she was taking all the decisions.
That was how things had been, ever since the first time Runo had been flogged, back when she was still little more than a kidnapped child, taken to become a Marrower apprentice.
That, it had been carved into her flesh, had been her destiny.
And holding Heleth like that, knowing that their bond and her subservience was the only thing that had helped her survive that far, Runo was shaken down to her bones.
But what if Heleth did not know.
If she did, she would have already made herself very clear: that Runo had no right to leave the Iron Crown, the Gloom Lords, and especially not to leave her. Even just the though would have her chained to Heleth’s wall, her skin pulled off bit by bit, until Heleth had carved that truth onto her leashed flesh.
So she must not know.
Not now, not ever.
Runo called upon her own blood to slow down her heartbeat. She took control of her breathing, affecting the moves and behaviour of a girl struck by love, obsession and servitude.
Now and forever, Heleth Skinflayer’s little plaything.
As long as she believed that, she had a chance to leave for good.
Thanks for reading.