William was having a week of bad luck.
It seemed no matter what he did, whoever was responsible for the disappearance of maiden Sarmenti was two steps ahead of him. However, this time, he got a clue, and he would waste no time in reporting it. It was a freshly bloodied scrap of a red fabric, and by the time he would get to the station it would be dried and useless. So, not this time. The trail was hot and fresh, much like the humid quivering nose of his loyal Fergus, who swiftly sniffed them along. Still, a gnawing sense of unease carved deep lines into William’s stomach and lungs, narrowing his focus to a tunnel vision. Fergus guided him, steadfast and poised with restrained energy.
“Sniff well, girl,” he murmured to himself as he followed his clever hound, “That poor girl has waited long enough for help.”
Sniff well Fergus did; for she led him to a closed door which she pointed her mustached snout at, certain of her senses, bushy tail dancing as her master complimented her job well done with a couple of silent caresses, and the smallest of treats to boost her vigil.
Voices came from within - among them, he recognized the belching laughs of men, and what seemed like a maiden in terrible distress.
With a finger to his mouth he hushed his faithful companion: criminals cower the most when they do not hear justice's growl before their abode is fiercely opened and the shout of the lawman predicts his hands around their chainbound wrists. That was how he entered with triumph.
And the lawman stepped back in shock, for the sight he is treated to is one of utmost horror.
It all makes sense now, as gruesome as that sense is.
He felt like throwing up as they laughed on-- now at him. His eyes were trapped on that badge, beyond it the shuddering body of his search.
He did not hear his own voice, but he felt his mouth deform; and he recognized how the laughter turned to screams under the white haze of rage that consumed him, under the white glimmer of his loyal friend's teeth as they stained themselves red, ripping through cloth. He saw a hand rise against his dear beast, and he felt that same palm be crushed beneath his blow. Still, one beserk man of justice is nothing compared to the bone wrenching waves of corruption that seek to lay him low, and despite his fierce and commendable effort, he found himself with his head spinning and many pairs of boots in his vision, Fergus’ yapping and whining drilling into his ears.
He called out to the maiden in his confusion, begging her to flee as he searched for her face in his shaken and hazy vision, once more obliterated by another sharp jab into his shoulder.
Faces he had known swayed blurry in front of his eyes - faces he had believed just, faces he had thought of as friends, maybe. His lip ached and his shoulder stung, and he definitely had welts and bruises along all his limbs. Even the chief was here, even the deputy. He seemed to be the only one who had truly ever given a damn about ensuring the people's safety, instead of hoarding wealth and fame and untouchableness in the face of a law they should have upheld.
Each time he reported to the station, it only drew the noose tighter around his own neck.
Who would stand for justice, if not the justices?
He was left on the floor as they shouted, enraged at some minor misfortune that touched them. Sarmenti was gone. They turned to him once more to take out their anger, and William had never felt more alone. Who would he have gone to, anyways, to denounce them? To them? He felt tears of rage and hopelessness mix with blood inside the cracks of his lip. His voice called for Fergus in tormented desperation: alas, his faithful friend did not respond. He felt his throat constrict so terribly painfully.
He cried silently on the floor, unable to move as he found himself clasped in chains. William had often protested against the bruises and bumps he had seen on some of the people that the other members of the force had brought in, and being on the receiving end felt no better.
A harsh voice barked out at him, grabbing the back of his shirt's neck and yanking him up, a strong arm hoisting him above the ground. It spoke with teeth dripping saliva, like a maddened man; it asked if William had earned himself a bed next to the fish, for that night and for as long as his bones would have lasted before melting away, or forever more-- bacteria and small beings fled from the waters here. His head lolled to the side, hearing as if already beneath the tranquil waves.
He expected to be dragged off to a final resting place from the bridge, but a hoarse voice - Tardif, he recognized, and it was much like a shot had been fired into his chest - grumbled softly to leave the man as he was: broken, defeated. Purposeless and empty. Any further effort to worsen his situation would have been but a waste of time. Hearing those words from his closest friend-- his brother in arms, the bounty hunter of whose catches he had processed so many scoundrels-- felt worse than the surely infected wounds along his body.
Much time later, he would have recognized that hoarse voice beneath the veil of its owlish mask, in a town riddled inside and out with putrescent monsters. And though his broken and betrayed heart would have deafened his ears for days if not months, he would have once again embraced the bounty hunter like a brother, for his terrible words had been but a ruse to save his friend's life. However, right then he did not know; and it hurt so tremendously that he thought of leaving the world to itself right there and then, for he was alone, alone, alone.
Alone; that he truly was, he noticed, almost absentmindedly, as his once brethren had left him there, bloodied and bruised and miserable, still manacled and unable to raise himself from the dirty floor.
He closed his eyes while blood matted his blonde beard, and he did nought but cry.
Suddenly - something bristly, and wet and warm and affectionate, covered his cheeks in slime and whined and barked as if crying - and William felt life jump back inside his chest as his arms raised in jubilation to hold the rough hair on Fergus’ neck in a hug, the darling hound kissing his face clean of salt and iron. She wagged her tail enthusiastically, and growled at the chain on his wrist. He easily snapped it off with a key of his own. At least that- all of the cuff keys worked on each other.
“Did you rescue the pretty lady?” he asked in a gruff whisper, his throat quite raw. A quiet bark was the answer he received. “Good girl… good girl….”
He got up from the floor and rested himself in a sitting position, surveying the wounds along his body. None were life threatening, but none were pretty, either. He hissed as he prodded at a nasty cut, his mind wondering where he could go to lick his wounds and heal.
William was alone. He sank into hopelessness, and yearned for mental and physical relief. Luckily for the battered policeman, he knew where to go on instinct alone, leaning heavily on Fergus. He crept to a home of the light, and was tended to by the sisters who had mercy on him.
And Sarmenti ran. Escorted by the dog out of the clutches of the men she had turned to for protection, they ran and ran. Their bare feet were scratched and gnawed at by the cold mud he threaded through, and still he ran and ran and ran, as if determined to reach the brink of insanity. Only when his lungs began to crumple like paper soaked in orange juice and lit on fire and their heart started to lacerate as it attempted to keep its own maddening rhythm, only then Sarmenti allowed herself to fall to the ground and regain the air that her nose had neglected inhaling.
Injuries covered her body. Sores thundered on her feet. Shivers and terror wracked through his lungs. Her hair was matted; her dress torn up. With part of the strength he still had, he turned to look behind: the walls and buildings which housed her torturers stood far, far away, infinitesimal on the horizon.
And now, worry.
The same fears that afflicted Sarmenti then stayed with them now.
They stood on trembling, aching legs; and with the terrified determination of despair pushing his limbs to move much like a river against the paddles of a watermill, he stumbled away, away, deeper into the uncharted paths of mountain woods, in the hopes that they would lead her away, away, so very impossibly far away.
She was hungry, cold and tired., and her body shook from all of those things.
All she could do was walk further, and pray. She struggled to remember, and found that he could not. His hands itched for something to grasp between them. Yet, he stumbled on. Somehow, he came across a castle. There, he could beg for food and drink, no? It was better than dying.
The door was thick and seemed to swallow up Sarmenti’s knocks. It was a disparate, loathsome notion, and they tried again, fisting their hand and slamming it onto the glass above. As it too was reinforced, it did not give way under their blows, but it at least gave a hollow pealing note, as though it were offended by the maltreatment. Well, join the club.
As Sarmenti was about to collapse in distress, at the thought the house was barren, the door slowly creaked open. He stared at the woman across from him, her hair mostly covered and glittering jewels and baubles along her hands and neck.
“Hello,” she curtly stated. “Well, I’ll be assuming that you are here looking for money- and be off with you. My master does not give away his riches.”
“Just food and water would be nice,” Sarmenti quickly parried the words back, doubling over with hunger pains. “Rest would be a dream.”
“Ah.” she seemed to shift uncomfortably, and then nodded with a sigh. “That I can arrange for. He is most hospitable with such needs. Come along in, then.”
Sarmenti silently entered, shivering even though the sun was warm on their shoulders. The woman led her into a dimly lit dining hall, where there were dried fruits and pickled vegetables laid in a neat central setting.
“Help yourself,” she remarked, and reached for a pickled mushroom herself. “There is more on the fire for when the Master returns. Will you be with us long?”
“I- do not know,” Sarmenti whispered, eyeing the foods with salivating desire. The woman noticed their frozen stance, wanting yet unwilling to bend their pride. She made her way to them, and firmly placed an apple in their palm. Sarmenti stared at the gorgeous red, a glimmer of hope in the rusty and tarnished world that had become their life. They bit into it, juices running down their chin like the blood that surely still stained their face. Sarmenti nearly wept with the taste, devouring the fruit with desperate haste. The woman had, at one point, not that Sarmenti noticed, left and returned with a plate of some cheeses. “Oh- oh, thank you.”
“It’s quite alright, miss-”
The woman tilted her head and then nodded, once.
“Mister. Do you have a name other than the one that denotes your status?”
“My name is Sarmenti,” he replied. “I come from the city to the- the east, I believe. And what is your name, if I may be so crude, good lady?”
“Ah…” she said in response to where Sarmenti had stated his origin, and then replied to his question with; “My name is Josephine. I am an apprentice antiquarian.”
“Josephine…” Sarmenti savored the musical name on his tongue. “It is a lovely name. Befits a woman of such generosity.”
“It is not I who is generous,” she said, but she seemed pleased by the compliment in any regard. “But my it is my master who says to feed and give room to those who may be in need of such. He is not so kind with coin, however.”
Sarmenti noted the way she fiddled with the shining marbles along her throat, a look of displeasure crossing her face for but a moment. Sarmenti examined her clothes, finding them to be quite elaborate and well crafted. It seemed, though, an old design, and had the slight musky tang of ancient and secretive garb.
“I take it he pays you in trinkets, baubles, and relics?” Sarmenti inquired based on his observations. Josephine looked a bit surprised at the comment before flushing, lips pursed. Sarmenti raised his hands, eyes widening in innocence. “I did not mean to overstep with the question-”
“You did not,” Josephine curtly remarked. “You are correct. He does not give gold, except that which is in a ring. I suppose I could go sell it, but he would notice and become furious. I can only sell those of which he already has a replica of to purchase our supplies for living at such an outpost.”
“Why do you live at this outpost?” Sarmenti probed further, relieved that his inquiry had not made Josephine angry at him. She shrugged, smiling bitterly. “Your master?”
“Why do you stay by him?”
“I enjoy the work,” was the simple answer. Sarmenti nodded. Josephine stood, and made her way through a side door, and returned with two steaming bowls of stew. Sarmenti eagerly held out his hands for a portion, and Josephine smiled as she handed it to him. “Here. There’s more if you need, but… judging by your condition, I would not necessarily recommend it.”
“You seem as though you went through a…” Josephine stopped to ponder her words, brow furrowing. “Unpleasant experience.”
Sarmenti looked down at himself, flushing somewhat. His dress was torn and disheveled, stained with blood and grime. There was gore yet on his hands as well. He was certain that his face was no better, likely swollen and dark with abuse. Still, he looked up at her, and smiled as much as he could.
“It was pretty awful, I’ll give you that,” he said at last. Josephine was not surprised by the statement. “I’m realizing how tired I am.”
“This way,” Josephine turned away. Sarmenti followed to an antique styled room. “Here.”
Sarmenti did not recall if he mumbled thanks. He had fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
It was painfully dark. The dark literally burned against Sarmenti’s flesh. The bed beneath him no longer felt comfortable and plush, now rank and disquieting, like a slab of rock had replaced it. Something was covering his eyes, and he reached to remove it- and found that he could not move his hands in the slightest. A panic gripped him and he began to writhe. He struggled enough to loosen the blindfold on his face, and the first thing he saw was the pained expression of Josephine. Above him was a man with a strange canister, or at least, that was what it appeared to be to Sarmenti.
He was shouting something about almost having enough souls, and Sarmenti stared at him, trying to understand the insanity coming from the foaming hole of his mouth.
“Just one more soul!” he raved, cackling madly. “One more precious soul!”
Sarmenti wanted to cry for Josephine to help, but his mouth felt heavy and pried, as though something was jamming it open, though he could feel his teeth clenched against one another. It was an awful sensation. His wild eyes, though, rested on the antiquarian.
A foggy light, of a disgusting marsh-like hue, green and yellow and luminous yet not bright at all, enveloped the object in the madman’s hand as it dangled from the chains stuck to the horned skull upon it. It did not take long for the unnatural smoke’s light to be almost overwhelmed by a much brighter, even more sinister shine: a mass of flames burst to life on the man’s other hand, enveloping it without burning even one finger, and for a moment Sarmenti looked into it, and felt something lodged so deep inside himself that any attempt at removing it would have torn him wide open move invincibly towards the epicenter of the fire.
A nervous stab shot forward, and the Master’s smile froze on his face, eyes widening. Blood began to drip through his teeth, dripping onto the censer rapidly.
He began crumpling.
Cell by cell.
Josephine unlocked Sarmenti’s shackles, but her eyes were locked on the bloodied censer.
“Mine at last,” she whispered. Her gaze- crazed and demanding- struck Sarmenti. “What is your trade.”
Sarmenti stared at her, still reeling from the ordeal.
The woman’s eyes pierced through him: his answer would have had to come quickly.
“Musician- I was in an orchestra-”
“There is a lute in the second room from the entrance. Take it and go. Take the food as well, if it so suits your purposes. I no longer need it.”
Sarmenti swallowed harshly with a nod, and quickly pushed himself off the slab. He ran, shoving the canned foods on the table into a bag. The lute was where she said it would be, a gorgeous contraption still in tune.
He did not bother to play, though. He ran.
Years later, with a new face, he was in a hamlet.
A familiar dog. A familiar beard. Familiar marbles.
Sarmenti smiled invisibly.