I wake up with a piercing headache, waves of pain crashing against my mind, then receding, only to come back again even stronger than before.
…Am I still alive?
I was sure those people were going to kill me.
What on earth is going on? Why did they kidnap me? If they kept me alive, it’s definitely for a reason, but what could they possibly want from me? Is it for ransom or something like that?
I try to open my eyes and take a look at my surroundings, but my eyelids don’t even twitch. I try to stand up, move my arms and legs, but I don’t have any more success with that. It’s like my brain has been completely cut off from the rest of my body. It’s even worse than the magic that man used, back when he captured me. I could at least blink my eyes, then.
My pulse hammers loudly against my temples. Tears leak out of my closed eyes and stream uncontrollably down my cheeks.
Am I going to stay paralyzed forever?
What’s going to happen to me?
Are those people going to hurt me?
Someone… Help me…
Ah! Right! Am I an idiot? Nerys! Father! The two of them weren’t at the house when those people came. They should still be fine. They should be looking for me right now. I ran away into the forest, but I didn’t get very far from the house before I was caught, so they should be able to find me quickly.
But what if those people attack them too and –
Am I even still in the forest?
The ground beneath me is cold and rough and uneven. It digs uncomfortably into my back, my thin dress providing little in the way of padding. However, I can’t feel any grass or twigs or any such things. It’s only bare rock. I focus on my hearing for a few moments, but my frantic heartbeat drowns out everything else. I force myself to calm down and listen. But I can’t hear the flutter of the trees, or the whisper of the wind, or the chirping of the birds.
In fact, now that I think about it, neither can I hear anyone around me.
Did those people leave?
That’s good. That’s good.
But… Where am I?
Did they move me somewhere while I was unconscious?
A tingle slowly climbs up my limbs, then spreads throughout the rest of my body. It’s probably a hopeful sign that my paralysis is wearing off, but the sensation of it is unbearable. It’s as though millions of tiny insects are crawling inside my body. I’m almost thankful that I still can’t move because otherwise, I would most likely claw my own skin off to try and make it stop.
It goes on and on and on for what seems an eternity, while I lie there unresponsive.
Even when the tingling itself stops and my body is released from the magic binding it, phantoms of that sensation continue to crawl under my skin, and I instinctively curl up into a ball, shivering and shuddering, waiting for it to subside.
Several agonizing minutes elapse before I can finally let out a shaky breath.
I slowly unclench all my muscles and stretch my limbs, lying exhausted down on my back, before opening bleary eyes to an unfamiliar ceiling. Bleak rock, patchy clumps of moss growing sparsely over it. Glowing blue stones randomly protrude from it and provide some meager illumination to the… cave?
…Am I in a cave?
I stand up unsteadily, propping myself up with my hands against the ground and the walls. My limbs are still a little numb; they shake as I put my weight on them. My tail is even more so. I must have been lying down on it the whole time I was unconscious. I flick it left and right to try and get some feeling back into it.
I gingerly look around myself, trying to get a measure of the place in which I find myself. I’m standing in a chamber closed on three sides by solid rock walls – although calling it a chamber is a bit too generous; it’s small enough that it might be seen as the dead-end of a wide hallway. The fourth, open side only leads a few meters away before being swallowed up by a darkness even my eyesight cannot pierce through – and I remember Father saying that I have better night vision than even elves and rakshasa.
I wish those blue stones glowed a bit brighter; I have to strain myself to even see anything in here. As it is, there might be a ravenous, ugly monster staring at me right this moment, and I would stay entirely oblivious to the threat right up until it pounced on me and –
A small shiver crawls up my spine at the thought, and I quickly force my mind back on track before I scare myself silly.
Still, this gloom can’t conceal one crucial fact. This cave is artificial. The rock walls are rough and uneven, yes, but they’re still too regular, their angles still too sharp and clean, to be the product of nature alone. This ‘hallway’ was excavated by (non-)human hands.
Was there such a cave in the forest near my house? Or I am somewhere else entirely?
In any case, the first thing to do is to escape this place.
But after I’ve successfully escaped, what then? Do I go back to the house? It was destroyed during the attack, but that should still be the first place for me to go, I think. I should be able to find Father and Nerys, there.
Right. Let’s do this.
I look around the chamber for a moment, wringing my hands, trying to dredge up the courage to venture into the darkness.
I hope I won’t stumble into a wild animal or something…
Could demons be hiding in this cave, even?
The fur on my tail rises on end at the thought, and a drop of cold sweat runs down my cheek, but reason and logic quickly reassert themselves and tell me that I shouldn’t encounter such creatures here. The people who kidnapped me would necessarily have cleared the way as they passed through the corridor to dump me in this chamber.
Which means that, if I have to face danger, it will come in the form of… my captors themselves.
I swallow my saliva, forcing it down past the lump in my throat, and swivel my ears toward the passageway. I stay as quiet as possible, trying to still the sounds of my breathing and heartbeat, and focus for a few minutes, but I still can’t hear anything in particular.
Well, I can’t just stay here forever, can I?
Deep breaths. Remain calm.
I hesitantly, reluctantly, gingerly start toward the open end of the chamber, sticking close to the wall on my left, letting my hand trail along it as I walk.
As expected, I haven’t encountered any threat or obstacle for the past few hours. The corridor stays straight, without any branching paths, but it progressively shrinks until I can almost span its width by stretching my arms out.
I still haven’t seen any signs of anyone’s presence.
My questions increase with each step I take.
Why on earth did those people bring me so deep underground?
Why is no one guarding me?
Why go through the trouble of kidnapping me, only to abandon me in an uninhabited cave?
I simply cannot understand any of it.
Just what is this all about?
In the first place, I can’t even fathom what could justify my kidnapping, either…
My steps abruptly stop as I notice something, lying down in the middle of the path, just a few meters in front of me, and I bring a hand up to my mouth to try and cover the sound of my breaths.
I peer through the darkness, straining to make out the form of – Huh?
It’s… a rat.
A huge, massive rat, as big as a cat.
Perhaps woken by the sound of my footsteps, the rat opens its eyes and turns its head toward me.
And the blood drains from my face when I get a closer look at its appearance.
Under the cave’s lighting, the rat’s fur looks pale blue, but I suppose it should be white instead. Its eyes are red and slit, and they glow very brightly in the darkness as they lock onto me.
White fur. Glowing eyes.
That thing’s a demon.
It looks slightly wrong for a rat, too. Its limbs are too long and too thin, and its lower jaw too prominent. Irregular teeth jut out of its mouth in every direction, like tusks. Its eyes are lopsided, too, one of them placed a bit higher up on its face than the other.
Did the Taint make it mutate?
The rat and I both stay silent and motionless for a time, staring at and examining each other. Beads of sweat roll down my brow. I don’t dare to move forward and attack it. I don’t dare to retreat and flee back the way I came. I hardly even dare to breathe; I’m afraid it’s going to attack me the moment I do.
W–What should I do?
I can’t flee. I’ll trip in this darkness. And rats are fast, too. This thing can most definitely outrun me.
Should I try to kill it, then?
No. No way… I’m not some skilled demon hunter. I’ve never fought anything in my life before, and I dislike violence in all its forms. Also, with what weapon am I supposed to kill it? I don’t even have a convenient wooden stick on hand, at the moment. Plus, the rat’s claws and teeth look quite dangerous, and I wouldn’t –
The rat doesn’t leave me any more time to think.
It stands up from its resting position and darts in my direction like a gust of wind, pouncing on me as I stand there dumbfounded. Its full weight hits me in the chest and drives the air out of my lungs. The rat isn’t very heavy, but surprise and shock and fear make me stumble back several steps. I strive to keep my balance, but my heel bumps into an unexpected piece of rock sticking out of the uneven ground, and I end up falling heavily down onto my back and knocking my head against the stone floor.
My mind blanks out for a few moments, and my vision swims dizzyingly around, trying and failing to focus on any one thing.
Those few moments are enough for the rat to jump onto me and sink its claws into my flesh.
The pain certainly does wonders to clear my head, and more as a reflex than a conscious action, I gather up all my strength to seize the rat’s body and fling it away from me. The rat bounces off the stone wall of the corridor rather violently and drops to the ground with a high-pitched squeak. It seems to have been stunned by the impact, because it takes several seconds for it to work its way back up to its feet, shaking its small head in an almost human-like gesture.
Of course, I don’t let the opportunity escape.
While the rat is still in a daze, I frantically slam my foot into its ugly face, pounding it against the wall. Lying like this on the ground, I don’t have very good leverage, so I have to do it several times, until finally, with a meaty, wet, disgusting sound, its skull caves in and its brains are smeared across the rock.
A brief, stabbing pain shoots up my heel.
I ignore it and shove the carcass as far away from me as possible with another kick, then retreat until my back bumps against the wall of the corridor behind me.
It’s been at most four or five seconds of flurried, blurry action, but I’m already exhausted beyond words. I’m panting for breath. My thoughts are fuzzy. My heart beats madly inside my chest. My limbs are all shaking uncontrollably.
I feel sick.
The sensation of the rat’s head smashing open, the slimy touch of its blood and brains on the sole of my foot...
Nausea wells up, and I lean to the side to throw up. Nothing comes out of my mouth except for bile and saliva and a bit of blood. I must have bitten my tongue at some point, without even realizing it.
I straighten up and lean back onto the wall behind me, breathing even harder than before, my entire body coated in sweat.
My eyes are wet.
I hug my tail against my chest and bury my face into its fur so that it will soak up the tears.
I’ve calmed down a little.
The pain, dulled until then by the adrenaline coursing through my veins, comes back to the forefront.
I suck in a breath through clenched teeth and look down at myself. The front of my dress is wet with blood and sticking to my body. I shakily peel the fabric away from my skin to take a look. There is a series of still-bleeding gashes on each side of my chest, under my breasts, where the rat sank its claws.
It hurts a lot, but it doesn’t look life-threatening. Judging from the length of the rat’s claws, they couldn’t have pierced more than a centimeter inside me. I gently clamp my hands over my injuries to staunch the flow of blood, using the bunched-up fabric of my dress as a makeshift pad with which to apply pressure.
When I shift my body to find a more comfortable position, my right foot bumps into the same piece of rock that tripped me earlier, and a sharp needle of pain lances up my leg. I gasp, and my body stiffens up.
Right. I did feel something sting me during the fight.
I make an effort to control my breathing, then bend down to take a look, careful not to let the motion unknowingly worsen the wounds on my chest.
Immediately, all color drains from my face.
There is a small piece of broken bone buried in the sole of my foot, probably a fragment of the rat’s skull. That, in itself, wouldn’t be too bad. It’d make walking uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t be all that dangerous. However, the problem lies in the blood coating that piece of bone. Blood that is very clearly of a darker color than mine, even under the faint blue lighting of the glowing stones.
Well, that’s it, then…
This is precisely why I didn’t want to fight a demon. The Taint in their blood is a highly virulent poison. A single drop is enough to kill anything that isn’t already a demon itself.
Although it’s too late now, I remove the piece of bone from my body – I suppose it hurts, but this is the least of my concerns, right now – and toss it to the ground next to me. It clatters against the rock, bouncing several times in random directions.
I sit there, staring numbly, as the poison invades the meridians in my leg, drawing an intricate pattern of crisscrossing, curving stripes over my skin. The stripes grow slowly, interlocking and building upon each other, first turning my foot completely black, then my ankle, then my calf.
The black goes up and up, spreading up my leg.
Isn’t it slowing down?
Soon, the Taint stops spreading altogether. Half of my calf is completely black, but as for the other half, the stripes aren’t thick enough to completely cover my skin. My knee and above are still untouched.
Even after waiting for half an hour, I can’t notice any change.
This doesn’t make sense.
‘The deadliest poison in the world.’
‘One drop will kill anything that lives.’
This is what the book said. I have a very clear memory of it. These sentences were accompanied by an account of the life of a demon hunter, and how she lost all her colleagues to that poison over her years of service. There were very vivid descriptions of their deaths written in, too. For the next weeks, Nerys had to hug me to sleep, or I would have nightmares about this.
Were all those stories fake?
Those black stripes are consistent with what the book described, so I’ve clearly been infected.
But why did they stop spreading?
Was the book written to scare people into being careful around demons, maybe?
But in fact, the Taint isn’t all that dangerous?
Yes… I suppose it could be something like that.
I gently poke my foot with a finger. It’s vaguely numb, more uncomfortable than painful. It feels faintly cold, as well, as if the heat has escaped from my leg in fear of the poison. I’ll probably need some medical treatment at some point, but for now, it seems I’m safe.
I breathe a sigh of relief.
I thought I was a goner, this time.
I grasp the hem of my dress and rip out a piece of it – it takes quite some effort for me to achieve that – which I use to clean the wound on my foot. I use yet another piece to wrap around it and protect it. I also treat the injuries on my chest as best I can.
It takes me a while, but I don’t hurry.
I take the opportunity to rest.
I let out a tired sigh and stand up carefully, resting most of my weight on the rock wall behind me. Then, I take an experimental step.
Still, I should be able to walk, I think. I might even be able to run, just barely.
I glance at the rat, lying lifelessly at the foot of the opposite wall in a small pool of its own blood.
Was this demon left here by the people who kidnapped me, to act as a guard dog in case I tried to escape?
I didn’t know it was possible to tame demons…
Whatever. It’s dead, now.
I grit my teeth and resume walking down the corridor.