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The Grip of Death

“I hate this place,” Lavinia blurted to her handmaiden as they sat in the sitting room. “Everything about it is so… so…” She paused, the silence pregnant with anxiety and restlessness, searching for a word. “I don’t know… I’m having problems with adjusting to a slower way of life.” Shifting on the cushioned stool with a rustle of petticoats like paper fluttering from a breeze. In her hands, she held two vicious-looking darning needles and a pair of old beaten-up socks that looked as if they had been through a war and come back beaten into the dirt.

The handmaiden, a robust young woman with cheery cheeks and turned-up nose, nodded meekly in understanding even though Lavinia hadn’t really described anything tangible enough to agree upon.

“I don’t think I can stay here for another minute longer.” Desperation electrified the air, palpable to even the most clueless. Truth be told, Lavinia wanted to run—desperately run.

She stood bathed in the moonlight coming through tinted windows of stained glass, the colors as much a cacophony as her thoughts were for a moment before settling in a glinting array on the rough floor.

For the moment, Lavinia simply had a servant girl with a sharp mind and a few pieces of gold sewn into the miserable petticoats—though she’d need more than that if she were going to escape from Baron Teodor on her own.

They often even kept traitors of the highborn in civil conditions, and by her host, Baron Teodor’s reckoning, Lavinia was no traitor. He spoke in glib fashion before they had escorted her from Cairan’s Watch to Tiragarde Keep in the northern stretches of the Landing. Teodor did not accompany her on the trek, however, but he placed her in the hands of those he considered his most trusted knights. He assured Lavinia that the entirety of his time would be to ending ‘that wretched business’ in the Windlands and playing a role in restoring decency and peace in the region.

A few moments later Lavinia was standing at her bedchamber door and listening intently to the hallway just beyond, trying to discern whether anyone was nearby that might see her leaving or catching sight of her through a narrow slit in the wood. The door’s jagged edges brushed against supple hands that lay upon the solid representation of her captivity.

Her handmaiden sat in silence, darning, staring out the window in forced oblivion. It wasn’t her place to keep the woman in her room.

The silence was all Lavinia heard. Tense and foreboding. A lack of sound, which meant little of anything because it seemed like most of the Baron’s men were oblivious at this point between drinking and abusing card tables late into the night. She slipped out after a moment and made off down the hall in mouse-like fashion in search of the kitchens; having eavesdropped on kitchen conversations, there was an old door that went directly into the streets surrounding the keep. She gathered an expression of pensiveness as she thought about the entire situation in which she found herself.

Her captors had a sparing hand. They did not abuse her and allowed her as many comforts as allowed so long as she dwelled within that singular prison. There was no communication about what had transpired in the three months since her capture from her home. She had no word on how the war was progressing in the Windlands, no updates on how Baron Tedeor’s peace negotiations were moving, and certainly, no communication from her mother or if her mother even knew where she was to send a missive.

Indeed, she would have been spared any of that worrying if not for the vagaries in her mind that kept circling back to a simple fact: she was in Teodor’s hands and his machinations were something wholly unknown to her. She knew he was a shrewd politician and an even craftier warrior when it came down to steel against steel. He took Cairan’s Watch from her father with, but a paltry garrison stationed at the keep.

Soundlessly, she slipped over the cobblestones to reach the kitchens with no interaction between herself and anyone else in the household. It was late at night, and most were sleeping at this point in the evening.

“Hello dearie,” a stout cook named Anise greeted her, barely looking up from where she was chopping vegetables for soup. The heavy scent greeted her, confusing her poor brain with the sense of pleasure in it, and the sudden fear gripping her from being caught.

Lavinia jumped, startled, and burst into a phony smile.

“Hello,” she chimed before moving toward the kitchen door, which led below.

And her freedom. Or so she had dreamed some nights ago, a delusion, or perhaps not. She couldn’t just let it lie in the recesses of her mind and not find out.

Anise turned her head and called out, “That one leads down into the cellar, Miss!” Eyeing her as she paused in her chopping. The last slice sounding final and hollow. “I don’t wan’you to git in any trouble now. Don’t be gittin’ into anything that ain’t yours.”

Lavina reached the door, the handles with smooth edges feeling cool against her palm. She gave Anise a firm nod.

“I won’t. Thank you, Anise. I’ll be right back., I’m just getting some jam.” Snapping the door shut behind her, she scurried down into the darkness with only half a guttering candle, snatched from the table nearby, to guide her way.

And so, into the dark recesses of the keep, past stores of food—here water was dripping somewhere nearby, but things were at a standstill in these parts of the cellars; they rarely saw people at all this deep save for the food storage.

Hurrying on light feet over damp stone with water seeping through cracks in the wall and many unpleasant things which grew down here where even spiders didn’t bother coming. There were more signs that people had been about lately than before—a pack of rats scurried away from her candlelight just ahead and straw-covered some parts of the floor she trod upon for lack of any better option.

The stairs skirled down as far as she could see before the darkness swallowed them up and her candle stuttered to near guttering before snapping back to life again in a desperate gasp for oxygen fueling illumination in the inky dark.

The air here was musty, and Lavinia wrinkled up her nose against it as she finally reached the bottom. Even though she’d been expecting it, what must have been close to five decades’ worth of stale air washed over her at once when she stepped into a room that had obviously been abandoned for some time.

The suffering candle illuminated the surface of things—first throwing itself aimlessly across one brick wall and then another before finally settling down long enough to light up the entire room, save for its deepest corners.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the room other than that it had clearly taken someone with some sense of attention to detail a long time indeed to create the cellars, so they stood unyielding under a keep so burgeoning as this one.

Lavinia held her candle close and peered closely at the room’s interior, which meant she didn’t notice the pinpoints of light above. Lavinia let out an abrupt shriek once her attention found its position, making them blink as if there was a living being there in the murky dark.

“Who are you?” Lavinia asked as bravely as she could manage under the circumstances. She didn’t even know if it was alive or not, not hearing any sounds of breathing or… any sound.

Taking a step forward, she tried to ignore the feeling of baleful curiosity emanating from this thing in front of her where the candle’s light failed to reach. It turned its head (at least she thought it was its head by the shape she could make out) down at her curiously after a moment or two more had passed in silence–staring at her.

“I said ‘who are you!?” Lavinia asked again, trembling despite her best efforts to remain calm.

“I am death,” The voice sounded like two rocks grating against each other and Lavinia wasn’t sure about it—it was cold and hollow but full of… what? She couldn’t put her finger on it. All she knew was it radiated an aura of danger.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” she said, trying to sound brave, but her heartbeat against her chest was like a wild, caged bird.

“There is no other way to put it. I am death. I have been death. I will be death.” Its voice sounded chillier now than before.

“But what are you doing here?” She asked, eyeing it as it moved… and she moved away, but not before the dying candles’ pitiful rays illuminated it.

There was something underneath that skin which she could see now as the light danced, oblivious, against the creature’s frame—it looked like nothing more than an emaciated skeleton covered in flesh, with something moving underneath the surface.

The thing looked at her with eyes blazing like blue fire, and slowly it bent its writhing shape down towards the floor, skittering with what seemed like a million legs across the stone and onto the floor near her. Death and decay hung in the air, cloying.

“I’ve seen you die more times than I can count since you’ve been born.” Its voice lowered to something near a whisper, as though there were people around who might overhear, even here in this prison deep under the earth where no one could hear them talk. “But it is not the death you think of.”

The thing was skittering back towards the wall now, moving along the stone much faster than she thought one with such thin legs could manage.

“I want to know,” she breathed, as though trying not to wake up from a dream or make another sound lest it take offense.

She did not know how much longer she could just stand here and wait for whatever she needed to see—she didn’t want to die down here, not when there were people who would miss her.

“They’re trying to keep me here because I’m supposed to marry someone who has terrible plans for this country, and they think I’m going to help him do them.” Distress filling her lungs with a cloying thickness—making it difficult to breathe.

Before she could try to brush off the feeling of uneasiness at whatever was going on around her, she found herself thrust into darkness without warning. The last thing she remembered before that fall into pitch-black was the creature giving a toothy grin. It had its teeth sharpened into points, the words now cutting deeper than they had before.

She could feel herself being dragged downwards into darkness, her body falling to the floor, jerking violently as though it caught her in some frantic storm.

She drifted in darkness. The candle had long burned out before she came to herself. Its lifeblood spilled on the floor and hardened. Did it burn out? Or did she drop it?

Open your eyes, Lavinia. Something panicked, a wild scrabbling thing, scratching in her mind. NOW!

She thought she had opened her eyes—struggling now with the weight of her eyelids as she became more aware of herself.

“You were born to die at this moment, and I’ve been waiting for what seems like an eternity for it. So, it was only fitting we should finally meet. Your destiny lies in the present, and if you are reborn, the world will suffer your wrath. Your future husband is not that catalyst that sets the world afire… you are.”

The creature’s eyes blazed red now in the darkness. It made her clench up in fear, a feeling she wasn’t having until now, its cloying grip snatching her breath away with each pulse of its putrid, ghostly fingers. Lavinia wasn’t sure what it meant; she didn’t have a mean bone in her body. Though lately there had been some pent-up frustration over her situation that was entirely out of her control. She couldn’t admit she didn’t have some resentment for those that brought her here and kept her captive.

But… she was dying, wasn’t she? She wasn’t sure if she was or how, but she knew it with every fiber of her being, which was coming apart bit by bit until there wasn’t anything left but a fine mist. She was not in a good place. Her last conscious breath escaped with a sigh, and she was dragged down into the darkness once more. She was sure of one thing—she would never be free from this place. No matter what happened to them next, only it knew and all she could do was wait in a world of reticent bedlam.

It was a moment of scintillating clarity that pulled her back up towards consciousness. Swimming through the thickset fog of fear while she sharply inhaled to ensure she was still breathing.

Fight. Fight and live. Fight like you have all your life. This isn’t where you die. The little voice scratched—pulling her upward towards a brackish dim light.

Finally—life. Breaking the slick surface between awake and asleep—gasping, flailing, the burden of clothing dragging her down, she awakened.

Good. Now go forth and destroy all who have gone against you. Your destiny awaits. The room appeared before her like land for a drowning sailor, the creature nowhere to be seen. Did she dream it and somehow fall asleep? The thought disgusted her as she watched a roach crawl across her embroidered slipper.

Cobwebs clouded her mind, alive yet having touched death—it changed her.

Stumbling towards the door, she had been seeking all this time, freedom of will, and… at last, escape.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Fantasy, Fiction