BRING ON THE PAINBRINGER

The clanking of pickaxes against stone with the irregular ring of Kasvite upon metal is endless. The sound is piercing, even from the main camp where the distance makes the strip mine prisoners look as tall as the mountain wolves. This place is unforgiving. The mountain wolves come at night and drag off the weakest prisoners, filling the night sky with howls and screams. Sleep is broken and unsatisfying here.   

I remember happier times in the Warrain Jungle before the Astracites came and turned the vibrant green pallid and black, draining the life from everything they touched.

 

The Watchers with all their magic and expertise could not stop the Astracite’s soul-sapping march through the jungle. They were supposed to watch over the jungle, protect it, but all they could do was watch our world wither, and then – there was nothing. With our home but a brittle husk of what it once was, we began our own march with a pain that went much deeper than the soreness in our bodies and the ache in our feet.

 

The boarling next to me grunts for affection, and I pet its snout, move to its tusks, and give them a playful shake. He pulls back playfully, and I let go. As I sit on an uncomfortable misshapen rock, I bend over and pick up a handful of dirt and lift it to my face. The dry air blows the grains from my hand, leaving a fine ocher dust. I miss my home.

As I watch the tiny silhouettes in the distance, one comes towards me, growing in size with each step. It’s an overseer. They are more watchful than the Watchers, mastering the furrowed unimpressed glare given to the prisoners mining the Kasvite. They watch every muscle tighten and release with each swing of the pickaxe, memorizing the maximal exertion of each sinewy fiber. When that muscle isn’t as tight as it can be, they force it with the crack of the whip. The skin tightens and the swing strikes the stone with renewed force, but the mind can convince the body to slow the swing despite the whip. Even a strike down to the bone will not urge a prisoner to proceed.

The overseer stares down at me, her face flush with blood and sweat. The blood isn’t hers, but the sweat is. She’s irritated and gives the boarling a threatening glance. Her whip is stretched across the back of her neck and she pulls at each end causing it to creak under the strain. At the end of the whip, blood drips down to the dirt in front of me. The whip has failed once again. I stand up, kicking dirt over the blood, leaving a muddied clot.

“Painbringer Tarruck, you are needed at the mine,” the overseer said.

I sigh. “Laeira, I am needed at the mine far too often.”

“These Rotsguard are poor miners, their bodies are thin and weak from years of necromancy and corrupted Trilisian magic,” Laeira said, swinging her arm in the direction of the mine.

“You are far too quick to strike with the whip. Those Astracite sympathizers no longer fear it. They know when you’ll strike and they can spread the pain on their terms,” I said.

Laeira was unconvinced and began wrapping her whip around her arm. “I am here to oversee; you are here to bring the pain Tarruck. I do not need a lesson from you.”

Laeira wiped the blood from her whip and smeared it across her pants.

“Make the whip a constant presence. Brush it against their skin, let them clench, and when there is no strike, they will dread knowing pain is near. Drag it across the ground, let it leave a trail in the dead earth – show the prisoners it is something that lingers long after a strike. They will learn to fear its presence, not the sting or the slicing of flesh, and that will mean less walks to ask for help and less walks for me to the mines,” I said. 

“If you know so much about overseeing, why don’t you do it!” Laeira said, shoving the coiled whip into my chest.

I step back and let the whip fall to the floor and shake my head. “No, you are here to oversee, and I am here to bring the pain.”

Laeira picked up the whip and gave me an expression of satisfaction. She stepped to the side, let me pass, and followed me to the mine.

 

As I moved closer to the mines, the sound of the pickaxes against the stone grew rhythmic. None of the workers mined in unison, but instead, mined in rapid succession as if one strike let out an infinite echo. A pair of overseers walked up to me, dragging an enfeebled Rotsguard prisoner behind them. They tossed him to my feet with ease, like the wind blows the dirt here. The Rotsguard sat on his shins bent over, holding his small frame up with his trembling arms. His back was marred with lashings in a haphazard pattern of rage.

“Look up,” I said.

The prisoner ignored me and continued to look down, his arms trembling more under the weight of his ailing frame.

“When a Painbringer tells you to do something, you do it,” I said.

He looked up to me, and past the sweat-drenched strands of hair I could make out the three-pronged symbol of the Trilisian on his forehead. I reached towards him and he flinched away. I grabbed the side of his head, pulled him closer, and moved my thumb across his forehead and the symbol. He had etched the pattern into his flesh. The cuts were fresh, but they were cuts over flesh that had been sliced, scarred, and reopened numerous times.

He was a Trilisian Cultist, a pathetic breed of magic wielder who spent their days in the ruins of Baphodia looking for whatever scraps of Trilisian knowledge left behind by the Astracites. Despite all the Rotsguard’s conniving, the Astracites gave them very little in return for their allegiance. They were opportunistic and careless, and it was these set of values that led to the Astracite’s rise and the ruin brought upon our home. I let the wet clump of hair fall back into place and cover the wound.

 

I pulled a translucent seed from my waistband along with a knife, and the cultist shifted his arms behind him and leaned away. As I began to crush the seed into a fine glittering grain with the flat of my knife, the cultist moved closer with curiosity. I brought the glistening dust towards him, and as he reached out to touch it, I blew it into his face. The cultist jumped to his feet and twisted his head in frantic jerky movements. I stomped towards him, the sun against my back, draping the cultist in my growing shadow. With his arms outstretched he screamed for me to stay away, but the pain was just starting.

 

All Ironbrand that want to become Painbringers must first subject themselves to the effects of the Warrain Arbormon’s seeds. They are then led to the heart of the jungle, left to her mercy and power. The terror filled in the Rotguard’s eyes, and I understood the nightmares he was seeing. His mind would be taken to the Warrain Jungle, but in her most deadly form. He would be chased and threatened by all sorts of beasts. The jungle would close around him in darkness, then retreat, revealing more monsters from the darkness. Despite all this, not one beast from this illusion could touch the cultist. I was to make it real, to make the torment physical. I watched his spastic movements and struck him every time the giant serpent would lunge or the wild boar would butt his head.

The cultist understood now there was a world that could harm him and there was nothing he could do to stop the advances of the monsters around him. He screamed and begged for it all to stop; he clawed at the air around him in desperate retaliation before collapsing onto the ground. Each attack thereafter was met with unrestrained acceptance. There was no rebellious fiber left in him. The seed’s effects waned, and the cultist looked up to me with fear in his widened eyes. I had seen that same fear with each prisoner I was brought to. I saw the same fear in my mother’s eyes the day we fled our home.

With the jungle burning around us, we ran from the Astracites and the sound of screaming Manglers behind us. My mother tripped over one of the great roots that covered the ground, and as I turned back to grab her, I saw the fear in her eyes. No, now that I see the fear in this one’s eyes I realize my mother’s was different. Her fear was not for her own life like the cultist, it was for her son. She had resigned herself to the fate of the Manglers, but not to the same fate for her child.

 

I wonder now if she feared for what the future held for me. That if I survived, this would make me cold to the world, forget the lushness it once had – that I would spend my days torturing cultists and bringing fear to the world in an attempt to equal the scales. That the only eyes I’d see are eyes of dread and no longer eyes that would look upon me with love or affection. Maybe that is what my mother feared most. As I gazed at myself and my frenzied expression in the tearful gaze of the prisoner, I realized that softness was gone. The cultist blinked, and I turned away.

The overseers quickly collected the cultist, placed a pickaxe in his shackled hands, and put him at a nearby boulder to strike upon.

“He swings with such vigor!” Laeira laughed, placing her hand on my shoulder.

I pull away, Laeira’s hand falling to her side.

“You are much too bothered by this work Tarruck,” Laeira continued. She let out a sound of disapproval, “go back to the boarlings, you seem better suited for pig raising!”  

With my back facing Laeira, I waved to her and made my way back to camp.

JONATHAN FLIKE

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