Tartarus


Cold. Damp. Dark.

Two guards on each side hold me. I am weak. My feet dragged on the floor. I am being taken through a long barely lit corridor to an area closed by a wooden gate. The walls are closing in, the corridor gets smaller and smaller.

By the gate a guard remains stationed. As we get closer he inserts and turns a rusty key in the lock, and opens the gate.

A well lit room with three cells sectioning the end bring about an air of pain and despair. A prisoner is sleeping in one of them. An unassuming person fresh out of luck. Was he loitering? Was he rioting? Did he blaspheme against their leader?

Another guard is sitting on a wooden chair. He’s the authority here, God of the cells. Fat and lazy, full of confidence, content and hubris. And he’s eating a ham sandwich.

While being dragged they scuffle trying to find the right key to open the cell I will be thrown at. One of the guards holding me looks incredulously at the other, while the other struggles to find the right key.

“One second, it must be this one”, he said.

With ease, like lifting a sheet of paper they throw me to the wall and lock the door. As they walk away from the room, I manage to gather the strength to lift myself up and sit on the bed. In the cell next to me a prisoner seemed to know more than I did. Lying in a fetal position, he sobs.

What the hell have I put myself into? What the hell have I done?

And just like that, candles are blown. One after the other.

“Sleep!”, the fat guard declared. He had just finished his sandwich and was ready to leave the room.

Pitch dark. Time to rest.

I was tired, sore, in pain. Just like that my eyes close and I black out.

I cannot figure how long it took. Hours, minutes, seconds. At least it felt like a single second. I am shaken awake from echoes in the small chamber, as the prisoner lets out a loud yelp. He is shaking in fear, as if running away from death in dreams.

“Buddy, you okay?”, I asked as I struggled to turn his way.

The shakes stop with a final spasm. With a whimper he wakes up. “Uh… hmm… what… w-who’s there?”

He struggles to open his eyes, swollen by beatings and dry tears. Only to figure out if I am real.

“You okay there?”

His natural reaction was shutting down, turning his body so he faced away from me. Sitting on the floor with his head over his knees, his body rocking back and forth. I can see through the rips on his dirty rag some could call a shirt. I can see open wounds, red flesh, scars. Some of the wounds look septic. He had been tortured constantly, it seems, for a very long time.

“What have they done to you?”

“K-keep quiet!”, he answered in a whisper. As he turns to answer he recognizes me. “No…” His face twitching to a tone of despair. “No, no, no, no… I am s-so, so sorry!”

“What? What are you sorry fo-”

“This, this!”, he uttered. “This waking nightmare!” An ugly cough stops his logic. Pausing for a few moments, with his hand on his throat, trying to catch a breath. “No matter what you do, you can’t leave! You try and t-try and…”

“Hold on. They keep bringing us back? We can’t leave here?”

“What… what are you talking about?”

“What are YOU talking about?”

He looks at me as if he’s staring at a stopped clock. “Y-you can’t remember?”

“I can’t — buddy, do I know you?”

“Oh man… Oh m-man!” He exasperates as he raises his hand over his head, nodding back and forth. It took him a minute, but he composed himself again. “They did a n-number on you…”

“…What?”

“Look, you were here b-before. Quite a few times before! You’re being brought back over and over and over again!”, he tries to make sense in his head before being able to explain what he means. “Y-yo-you have tried and tried to find a way out. But at the end of the day you always come back here. F-fucking square one!”

Looking away he sighs, frustrated with the situation. “You can’t even die! You c-can’t die! no matter how hard you try…”

“I can’t — “

“Silence in there!”, growled the guard stationed outside the door. “You’ll know what happens if you don’t shut up.”

“Quiet!”, whispered the prisoner. “Sleep!”

“But…”

“Try to sleep! Please!”, he pleaded.

With my head and my body lain on the wooden bed, I close my eyes and try to focus on the dark.

I cannot figure how long it took. Hours, minutes, seconds. At least it felt like a single second.

“N-no! Stop! Leave me alone!”

It’s hard for my eyes to open after I hear this call for help. “He must be having a nightmare again”, I thought.

A sudden creak and a loud clang follow the cries. My sleepy stupid slow mind finally wakes to the urgency. I open my eyes and turn to my fellow mate.

He is gone. No guards around either.

I could not force myself to fall asleep again. Distant screams and bashing reverberate through the corridor and reach the chamber from under the door. Time passes for what feels like hours. The last thing I hear from a distance is crying, and a thud.

Footsteps of two in unison are coming towards the door, dragging something through the floor. Two guards come in while grabbing the prisoner in between them. They open the door from the cell he was before and throw him inside without a single care for his well-being.

Then they look at me. And they see me looking at them. The prisoner lies near-lifeless on the ground, with blood flowing from his wounds, out to the stone floor. As they open my cell door I cower in the bed with my hands raised to defend myself. My whole effort is for naught, as one grabs my hands while the other puts a shackle around my neck, then on my hands.

“Don’t even try anything funny”, said one of the guards. “You have been granted audience.” The one in front of me pulls me out of the bed from the shackles, while the other pushes. “Come with us.”

Photo by Kasper RasmussenPhoto by Kasper Rasmussen on Unsplash

The long corridor is the first thing I remember seeing from this forsaken place. If my sore arms and chest allowed me to think of anything else, I would even feel excited. But no. I can only feel pain. Pain and worry.

I hope the other guy pulls through.

At the end of the corridor we can see three exits. I am taken to the left exit, on yet another damp grey cobblestone corridor. Another guard is stationed at the door, which he promptly opens. Bright light emerges from beyond the door, from where voices and laughter can be heard.

A gust of freshness surrounds me the moment I enter the hall. It is well lit, yet cold. The arched ceiling is held by three sturdy pillars on each side. At the end of the hall people of different statures convene with each other. above them, after the steps, sits the King on his throne. An advisor whispers to him while looking at me. The King finally acknowledges my presence and raises his hand.

From a simple gesture, a lively gathering was turned mute. Heads are turned in my direction. I am greeted with disgust from others that display an air of superiority. The King then gestures for us to approach.

“Move”, ordered the guard. Slowly we walk towards the gathering, as they part each to a side, allowing the audience to take place. “Stop here.”

I raise my head and stare at him, then at the King. The other guard grows impatient and hits me with the back of his spear in the back of both knees, forcing me to…

“Kneel!”

The blow itself didn’t hurt, but it was uncomfortable, humiliating. Some in the audience gasp, and I lower my head.

“Do you know why you’re here?”, asked one of the King’s advisors.

I shake my head without looking up. I really had no idea how and why I had gotten myself into this situation.

“Raise your head when you are being spoken to”, said the advisor.

I raise my head as ordered, he opens a long scroll and begins to announce its contents.

“I will henceforth channel the voice of the Kingdom in this royal decree. May all of us noblemen, merchant and common-folk be equal, witness and judge on the evidence at hand. We, a collective, as witness and judge, accuse you of the following crimes.”

“Wait, wha-”, I tried to ask before one of the guards gags me with a piece of cloth.

The advisor stares at me, raising an eyebrow.

“We accuse you of invasion. We accuse you of subterfuge. We accuse you of vandalism. We accuse you of attempting usurpation.

Taking into consideration all the witnesses you see here today, and all the evidence gathered, after careful deliberation an unanimous decision was reached. We, witnesses and judges, see, witness, and judge the accused.

Our verdict is guilt.

You have invaded our most hallowed ground. You have hidden your intentions. You have destroyed all goodwill we would have of outsiders from beyond. You have usurped the throne of all empathy towards you.

Due to the heinous nature of your crimes, we have no choice but to sentence you to fight for your life, as tradition demands. Trial by combat. A duel to the death.”

“Hear, hear”, one in the audience interjects enthusiastically.

“May the elements show mercy on your life, may your passing to the other side be swift.”

The King, ever silent nods and gestures to the guards to take me away.

No matter how hard I try to scream in protest, my voice is muffled by the loud celebration from within the audience. Naturally, the gag did not help.

And so I am pushed and prodded towards a side door on the left. The guards sit me on a long wooden bench in a small room. One of them rubs his hands.

“So, would you partake?”, asked one guard to the other. “On what? On him?”, he replied while pointing at me. “There’s more of a chance the knight trips and stubs his toe before this one has even a chance of winning.” “What, you don’t like those odds?” “Losing money, is what I don’t like.” “Come on, just a little gander!” “Leave it, we should take him to the armory now.” “…Fine. Spoil sport. You, move!”, ordered the first guard, while pulling my shackles.

After being outfitted with a set of leather padding on my arms, chest and legs by wrapping sheets and binding them with string, they remove my shackles and take me to the final door.

“Where will this take me?”, I ask, while taking out the gag.

“You’ll see. It’s called the bridge of commons.” “Good luck!”, wished the second guard as he opened the door. “Pray for a quick death.”

“Wait!”, I begged.

“Oh, what now?”

“Don’t…”, I hesitated in asking, gesturing instead with my hands. “Shouldn’t I get a weapon?”

They stare at each other and begin laughing.

“Well, why not? It’s not like it will make much of a difference.” “Here you go, if it makes you feel better!”

I am given a rusty short sword with a broken grip and a missing pommel. I'm not sure if I should thank or curse them.

“Off you go now.” said one of the guards. “They’re waiting for you!”

Photo by Joakim HonkasaloPhoto by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

With hesitation I step outside. I am instantly greeted with jeers and cheers. Flags from all nations decorate the walls in the circular arena. An audience is watching in their seats on each corner, as if a play or opera would take place. A gladiator match would be better fitting, if not for the strange fighting pit.

The bridge is suspended and below waves of dark water ripple in a chaotic dance. Almost as if the water was alive. Why was it so dark? Too deep?

On the other side of the platform a dark knight stands patiently, with a blank stare. His huge long sword stuck blade-first on the wooden floor in front of his feet. The King’s box area is right behind him, on top.

Declarations are made introducing both fighters, I assume. Hard to recognize what was said, as the voice is by muffled the crowd’s enthusiasm, and the echo of everything.

The knight picks the sword from the floor and lifts it in the air. The crowd is ecstatic. Three times he lifts the sword. Three times they cheer. A trumpet loudly interrupts everything, and there was silence. It is time.

And nothing happens. He does not move, and I dare not move. Even though he’s far I notice his stoic invitation. Am I supposed to attack instead? Or is that what he actually wants? Should I grant him this?

Maybe I should. And I do.

I run towards him with my lame rusty sword asking myself what is wrong with me. I am afraid, hesitant, tired, confused. Why would I do this now, if I played along so far in order to be able to see another day? To get the hell out of here? Are these not then the rules of the realm?

What do I know, anyway?

As I lean forward to strike in my run with my sword held high, he drops his and slaps me in a vertical swing. The strike was devastating, in a way that I could feel my bones reverberate and my ears ring. I meet the floor in a strong impact. After a while the ringing sound is replaced by the cheers of the crowd. The knight is celebrating with arms wide open.

Trying not to notice the pain, I spit, lift myself off the puddle of blood I drew with my face and face him again. He is turning away, still cheering.

“Moment of opportunity”, I thought, as I limped forward. But I look at my right hand and notice something missing. “The sword! I dropped it, where is it?” I hear a gulp coming from the water, right beside me. “Damn! Figures…” Yet, his long sword laid beside him on the floor. So I grabbed it and tried to pick it up.

He notices, turns and grabs my hand. I hear a cracking noise and yell in agony. With his foot on my face I am shoved, projected back to the puddle.

“You dare acting like a coward?”, he shouts with surprise. “Do you know who I am?” Grabbing his sword he moves furiously towards me “I cannot be moved. I cannot be stopped. No one can defeat me in battle. I am. The undying.”

A dark energy spreads from him, reaching me in shock waves of dread.

“It’s no use”, I thought, with a sigh. With my hand shaking I gather all the strength I have to get up, but I can only kneel. “So this is the day I die… There are worse ways to go.” I try to focus on my surroundings, and I smirk.

He stops at a few feet in front of me. I am lifted with his hand grabbing my collar to then be left standing.

“Any last words?”, he asks. My eyes are closed, my mouth shut. “So be it.” The long sword is prepared for the final blow as he lifts it above his head.

And I hug him.

“…What do you think you’re doing?”, he asks, perplexed.

“Stop. Fighting…”

His guard is lowered, as is his sword. He has no idea what to do.

Suddenly, the sound of splashes from both sides distract him. The water starts flowing by itself, and raising in spiral waves. First small, dying in a few seconds. But then their violence breeds wider, taller waves. He starts to get scared and shoves me back.

“Don’t fight”, I plead to him.

“What is this? What are you doing?”

From this point onward I remain silent, spectating only his surprise, panic and fear. The spiral waves twist his way from both sides. The surf engulfs him, again, and again, until he is nearly nothing. Turned to vapor, becoming mist.

The waves then turn to me, carrying the mist my way. His foggy aspect wraps around me, and I accept it.

“I cannot be beaten”, he said.

“Don’t fight”, I replied.

π
+