The figure twitched for a moment, then tensed. Suddenly his body fell slack against the table, and he lay there for a time, drool oozing down a narrow brown chin. His eyes were vacant and distant, staring into nothing, and the iron bonds that held him so securely seemed an unnecessary contrivance for something so small and seemingly helpless.
A man leaned over the creature, his body draped in the heavy linen robes of a healer and surgeon. A thick leather apron, smeared with blood, both fresh and dried, hung from his shoulders and his hands held a thin scalpel. A young boy stood by, his hands holding a crystal, burning with a magical glow, inside a deep mirrored disk; concentrating the light to help all who would witness see clearer.
Surrounding them both in the shadows were jars and chests filled with oddities, tables of scrolls, both fresh and other more weathered by time, and implements of medicine… or something darker.
Pressing the scalpel gently into the left temporal lobe of the creature the surgeon let a nervous hiss through his teeth. His charge, chained to the operating table, still lay unmoving. Signaling to the boy for more light he pressed the blade in deeper, until he reached the skull. A few gentle cuts allowed for a large flap of skin to be lifted with the greatest delicacy, then pinned back with a series of tiny needles.
“Hand me circular saw, Malach,” he said, his voice a hushed whisper, sweat dripping on his forehead, concentration etched on his face.
“Aye, good sir,” the lad answered, and lifted a delicate device with a circular blade and a rotating crank and winch.
The doctor switched the scalpel with the saw, then placed the fairly clean, though jagged, edge to the surface of the bone of the skull and held it firmly with his left hand, his right beginning to spin the wheel faster and faster, until the blade began to cut into the skull gently and precisely.
In moments the smell of burning bone from the friction of the cut filled the room, mixing with chemicals and other more potent solutions; yet the doctor continued his meticulous cutting until a small piece of the skull was removed from the subject’s head.
With the most extreme delicacy he gently removed the piece of bone and laid it on one of the cotton towels next to his instruments.
“Malach, the light,” he instructed the boy, who quickly adjusted the light, shining to the now exposed brain matter, wet with blood.
“Observe, my lord,” the surgeon said in his intent whisper, his face still flushed with determination “the subject yet remains unconscious, as per your request. He feels no pain, and is still alive. It is at this point that we are able to see the strands that make up his brain, which are still living, and are still affected most by the palsy.”
A movement in the darkness didn’t dissuade the surgeon as a tall looming presence slowly slid to move behind him.
“You see, my lord, as recorded in the texts there,” he gestured vaguely with the saw as his eyes peered intently at the ridges of the brain “a normal subject’s mind would conform to certain… normality’s? This subject does not…,” he said, his eyes narrowing, examining the ridges intently.
“We see here that the subject’s mind is not typical, but the ridges crisscross in a seemingly random pattern.”
The shadowed figure moved closer to the surgeon from the shadows, his face obfuscated by a dark cloth and hood.
“From this perspective, I believe that if the right powers were introduced into the subject’s brain directly we could effectively reverse the… mutation? Of course, there is no way to know, for certain, but this subject and this test has allowed us to make a tremendous jump forward. The typical methods of healing have run into many difficulties, as you know,” the surgeon said, speaking faster, growing more excited about the possibilities. He had placed down the saw and gestured to Malach, instructing him to record the events on a wax ledger for future records.
“Naturally all the usual remedies have been tried and failed. The most obvious ones were healing spells, and the more hopeful attempting to remove a fallen curse. This specimen leads me to believe that a simpler, more conventional method may be tried with great success.”
“I am no physician, speak plainly. Our purpose is to heal, not pontificate on the glory of this procedure and what honors it may bring your reputation,” the cloaked figure said, his voice a sharp admonishment, laced with dark undertones.
“Of course, my lord,” the surgeon said, looking up in nervousness at his guest, quickly dabbing his forehead from the sudden chill of sweat that had stopped long ago during the surgery.
Picking up a long thick needle, he began to indicate gently to the subject’s living brain, as drool continued to run down the subject’s face.
“Observe the ridges in the brain itself, yes? As I said, they do not run in a typical fashion, linear to each other with a parallel bent. Instead, we see that they are a mass of lines and ridges that overlap and run through each other like a maze of cords. I suspect that a spell of divine favor from a deity of great power could work, but only if properly utilized, like a scalpel? Malach, attend to this,” he said briskly to his aid, who scratched now feverishly with the stylus, attempting to keep up.
“Each ridge of the brain holds a secret; some to movement, others to thought and reason, others to memory, and others still to the arcane and metamagic arts.”
Seeing the eyes of his guest he wet his lips and continued quickly.
“A cure for the subject will not work. Once the subject is healed, he is healed, yes, but a single strain within the brain is the cursed element. To remove a cursed item from a subject takes a magi or priest of power, and it can be done. But it is no good to remove the cursed artifact from the subject and send him on his way, only to return the cursed item to him a moment later. You see? It is my belief that a singular thread of the brain in the subject, but not OF the subject, is the cursed area. A priest or magi, removing the curse from the subject will be successful, for a moment, but the brain itself holds a mystery within. That strain is a false creation, born to the creature at birth, corrupted, and not of the creature’s own mind. We find the strain in the mind, isolate, it, and banish the strain itself, then true healing can begin.”
“Once the strain in the mind is isolated, is it safe to assume that it will be easy to discover in all future subjects?” The shadowed man gestured gently to the subject on the table, his eyes intent. “Will we be able to isolate the path easily in future subjects, and perhaps find a cure that doesn’t involve this… barbarism?”
The surgeon lowered his tools for a moment and twisted his lip.
“That is the difficult part, my lord,” he said, his eyes distant, thinking. “Of course, this is our first subject, captured alive, and given the full benefits of the procedure without, er… dying in the examination. I have no way of knowing, for certain…”
“I don’t want guesses or excuses,” the shadowed man said with a cold hiss “You are paid a good deal of money to know, not guess. I want results. If you can’t find the answers I seek, I will find someone who will.”
“But, but my lord, I cannot surely know, not yet. I need more subjects, more time…”
“More subjects are expensive, and an investment. I expect that investment to be compensated, then. I want results.”
“My lord, in truth I think it is unlikely,” the surgeon said after a brief moment, wetting his lips. Taking a deep breath, he continued speaking, rapidly. “The subjects in question are accursed. I do not believe the strand within their brain will be easily discovered in the same path or pattern. My opinion, after examining this subject, is that a deeply chaotic force inside every subject afflicts them in a chaotic way, and therefore I suspect each subject will be unique.”
Dabbing his forehead, for a moment he continued.
“A further hypothesis from others before me,” he said indicating the texts near the wall on the tables “seems to suggest that all the subjects are so accursed at birth from beyond the material plane. I therefore suspect that even if we can find two subjects, male and female, remove the curse, heal them fully and encourage them to breed, that their offspring will still be cursed at birth, as they were at their birth, as the curse came from beyond this plane.”
“That’s not the answer I wanted to hear,” said the other, his voice stern.
“I understand, lord,” he said dabbing another bead of sweat from his head. “Very well, then. Allow me time to at least isolate the strand in this subject. Perhaps, if I find the strand that is cursed, we may have more… conclusive results, yes?”
The cloaked figure stared at the shackled subject, his dark eyes flecked with a sudden modicum of pity, watching the unconscious figure.
“Proceed,” he said, after a moment.
The surgeon dabbed the sweat from his forehead again and summoned his assistant to him, who now held another blank stylus. The lad came close, and the surgeon leaned over with the thick needle, dictating quickly and efficiently as he began to prod and examine the twisted mix of ridges in the brain.
The process was time consuming, and monotonous. As the needles brushed various strands the subject would grunt, sometimes twitching a finger; at one time jerking his right leg and arm directly into the air in brutal and intense motion, where they remained stiffly for a moment before collapsing back at his side.
“Each ridge controls a part of the body, my lord, as we examine each ridge we discover what part of the body it prods, take note Malach,” he added as an aside to his aid a he continued his research.
The shadowed figure stood unmoving throughout it all, his patience with the proceeding seeming otherworldly. After nearly three hours of work, the surgeon let out a thin gasp of astonishment.
“Ahh… look here, I see you now,” he muttered, half to himself, drawing both the attention of his aid and the shadowed man. “You see… here, here! This strand, I nearly missed it. But can I be blamed? I think not… heh heh… oh you’re so clever, aren’t you,” he added, speaking to himself.
“You see my lord, the strand, it thickens, widens, and elongates in the very living brain itself? I had almost passed it in my examinations altogether, as it changed it shape so many times that I assumed I had already examined it, knowing only that I had missed it, when, by chance, I noticed it suddenly split apart then splice itself together…”
The shadowed man moved to the light, grim fascination writ in his face, desperation in his eyes… so close to the source, so close to a cure…
“This is the key, my lord, the strand of the brain cursed with the element of Chaos itself,” he said leaning over the subject, his eyes concentrated, his voice a harsh whisper. “Born into the subject at birth, dictated by his deity’s demise in the celestial planes… This strand, if affected directly by a proper spell, focused on this strand alone, should remove the curse from the brain, and the subject itself. As we saw before, different strands are linked directly to different parts of the body… this strand is directly linked then, to the very force of Chaos itself. Banish the strand and you banish the insanity from the subject,” he added, his needle sliding forward to the strand, indicating with the gentlest of touches.
And as the strands of the brain caused the subject to move or twitch when so touched, the needle touched the strand that held Chaos, and Chaos moved forward.
The subject’s eyes, once dim, now flashed with eerie light, and his entire body convulsed in desperation against the chains. The surgeon and the youth had jumped back with shock, as did the shadowed man, yet with no true fear yet, for they all knew that the chains were magically enhanced, enchanted against the strongest muscle. The subject could not break the chains.
But the subject did not attempt to break the chains. Tearing madly at his arms and legs there was a cracking and popping sound, and three observers watched with horror as the creature tore against its bindings until its hands and feet had been ripped from the manacles.
Contorting its ruined body, the neatly cut flap of skin waving in the air that dangled from his scalp, misted with blood, the subject launched its small form at Malach with a wide open grin, and pummeled him with his bloody stumps, his sharp and broken teeth gnawing at the lad’s throat, tearing it open.
The surgeon stared in horror, his eyes aghast, his mouth working spasmodically, though no sounds could escape his lips.
The subject pressed the stumps against the ground and loped with alarming speed to the paralyzed surgeon, thrusting himself up, biting deeply into the surgeon’s abdomen, rending into the man’s intestines. The surgeon was dying on his feet and screaming for help as the subject rained hammer blows on his chest with the stumps of his arms, pulping the surgeon’s head into the stone floor as he gnawed more and more into the man’s belly, until the stomach was rent asunder and the acid inside burst open, squelching the subject’s face with what spewed forth.
The man in the black cloak turned with a rush and flung himself against the thick iron door of the room, the surgeon’s screams for help unheeded. Rushing outside the room he slammed the door shut, but struggled against the sudden weight on the door, knowing that the creature was trying to get out, trying to get to him.
Horror leaped at him as he struggled against the power of the monster within the room, the power and awesome savagery. Knowing any second he might lose the struggle with the slipping door he mastered himself and slammed his shoulder against the iron door hard with his full weight; then jerked the hilt of a silver dagger from his side in a flash and held it to the entrance to the laboratory beyond.
“Grond,” he roared out in a voice laced with darkness that sent shadowy tendrils from his mouth to seal the iron door closed with bonds that seemed like black tentacles of Abyssal midnight.
Through the three inch thick glass observation window of the now sealed door he saw increasing streaks of blood lancing across it, obfuscating his view, as he heard the slow thudding of the stumps of arms and legs, and what he also surmised to be the subject’s head, hammering against the door until, eventually, there was only silence.
Panting heavily, the shadowed figure tore off his mask and cloak, gasping for air, choking for breath. The covering had not been to disguise himself, but as a precaution from disease, and now he wished he had had something more substantial then black silk and calfskin leathers.
Throwing his gloves onto the cold stone ground he slowly made his way down the passage to the stairs that led toward his chambers above.
…The towel was warm, steeped in hot water and rose blossoms. It eased his muscles and the tension in his face and shoulders, the smell clearing his nostrils, but the hot wet cotton cloth could not wipe away the images in his head.
He had long since bathed and changed and was now wearing a burgundy colored silk shirt with silver clasps, with comfortable sandals riding beneath long black cotton trousers. Standing in front of a low cabinet in his office he placed his hands on the well polished surface and rested his weight against it, leaning forward, considering what had happened and what would happen next.
Lifting one hand he wiped the back of neck for a moment with the towel then threw it onto a tray littered with his shaving implements; brush, mirror, a bowl of hot water, a powder to mix with the water to form a soothing lotion, elven cologne, wet stone, and of course, the razor itself.
He turned his eyes from the razor and walked over to his desk, flinging himself into the chair with frustration writ on his face. A knock on the door to his outer chambers startled him, but he sat up straight, rolled his head back and forth, shaking the tension from his features, and answered.
The doors opened and a young woman entered, perhaps in her late teens. She was tall for a woman, nearly six feet, her body thin and muscular. Her long dark hair was swept back in a neat braid, and her frost colored blue eyes were cool and calm. A scarlet silk dress was clung to her shapely tan features, and the symbol of a single eye stitched on a gold sash draped over her left shoulder down across her narrow waist.
She would have been considered beautiful by many men, but she held herself distant and aloof to would-be suitors, her heart given to higher purposes, such as learning, knowledge, and the powers of the arcane arts. She had little room for men who would seek her for her beauty alone, and less time for men with little to offer her in discovering the great secrets of this world and the planes beyond.
Yet Alexander Luthoro was such a man that he could help her on her quest for knowledge, and so she found herself working with him more and more since she had become a Citizen and a novice at the temple of Baccob. During her studies, when he had found her, he had been very helpful, very charming, and very intriguing as both a teacher, and sometimes confidant.
As for himself, when Luthoro considered her, he considered a woman who was intelligent, cunning, ruthless and wise, as well as very beautiful, and he found himself increasingly attracted to assisting her in many capacities. During their time together he discovered her true gifts, and was pleased to find over the past year that he had grown to know her that a trust had been built between them and that in that short time that they knew each other she had become completely loyal to every element that made him who he was.
At least, he amended to himself, she is loyal to every element I’ve been willing to share.
“Ambassador Lutharo,” she said, entering.
“Selene, what brings you here?” he asked pleasantly, standing from his chair, relieved to find his manner suddenly relaxed in her presence. “And you should know by now that such formalities between us are completely unnecessary. You know you can call me Alexander,” he added softly.
“Of course, yes… well, and good afternoon, Alexander,” she said with a light bow, hiding a sudden blush that colored her in his presence. Then composing herself, she raised her head and continued. “I am inquiring about your studies with the curse. Are we closer to finding a cure?” she asked, her voice soft and musical, rich and deep.
“Research is progressing well, I think,” he said, stepping from behind the desk, a friendly smile on his face as he turned briefly to move to a small glass case. Plucking a flagon of brandy, he sniffed the contents, replaced the stopper and selected another vintage, then poured two glasses, and offered her one.
“Thank you, Alexander,” she said, bowing her head gracefully as she took the drink.
He sipped it delicately, savoring the flavor, letting the alcohol cleanse his palate of the acrid taste of carnage he had so recently witnessed.
“I am eager to read the results of your latest reports,” she added quietly, yet with enthusiastic sincerity.
“Of course,” he nodded with another smile. “I’ll have one of my scribes attend to that at once. It shouldn’t take much longer and I should have a copy for your examination by this evening. I would have had it sooner, but getting all the notes organized and transcribed into a logical and coherent medical report for the perusal of the general public can sometimes be a little messy. But don’t worry, when it’s finally put together you’ll be getting the first look,” he added pleasantly, taking another sip of the brandy, watching her turn to the window that overlooked the great bay of Tharavoace and letting his eyes roam over her body, so easily caressed by her tightly fitting silk robes.
“Alexander, there’s something else,” she said tentatively. “I’ve… I’ve been giving some thought to the experiments, and finding the cure you’ve been talking about. Lately I’ve grown somewhat concerned… tampering with a creature’s mind, even a Halfling… such a thing strikes me as somewhat, well, unwholesome. Many priests would suggest that to practice such things would be an act that the gods may view as evil,” she said with a nervous laugh, her voice laced with a touch of self-doubt.
“Have you been talking to the priests about our work,” he asked, his voice soft and neutral, his stomach suddenly lurching at the wiles of overzealous fools who might violently interfere with his projects.
“No, of course not,” she said, her eyes on the ships in the bay, watching sunlight on the water “I would never betray your trust. But, it is a theory that has been discussed by many priests and the faithful over time at the temples… not in this situation of course, but in abstract and theoretical concepts,” she added, feeling a pang of guilt for upsetting such a good man.
“Selene,” he answered calmly, striding toward her with determination “you know we could debate the philosophy of what constitutes good or evil all day. Countless sages have come to many conclusions on what is truly an evil action, or a good action. But you and I, we are educated, gifted, intelligent people. We’ve studied at temple, from the greatest magi and priests in the kingdom, and we know what is truth,” he said, his voice tender, laced with charm and infused with the natural charisma that drew people to his ideals with equal enthusiasm.
“And what is that ‘truth’, Alexander?” she asked softly, turning from the window, her eyes lifting to look up at him, her lips parting slightly at his closeness, as well as his passion and the hidden intensity that he carried, and the chance for her to be the one woman in the world to unlock all his mysteries… that and more was what drew her to him from the beginning.
“The truth, Selene,” he said with the same calm voice, placing the glass on his nearby desk, then putting his hands on her soft shoulders “is that there are forces in the realms of man and gods that are beyond our understanding. Some people call them ‘good’ and others call them ‘evil’, but really they are just forces; gods, magic, power… all of it a means to an end. All if it a way for people with wisdom, generosity, courage, and honor; people like us, can use to bring order, peace, and stability to a chaotic and dangerous world.”
She placed her own glass on the windowsill and gently inhaled the mingled smells on him; the cologne from his shaving, the smell of flowers rubbed into his skin, and underneath it all the very masculine smell of his sweat and body. She pressed her head gently against his heavily muscled chest and enjoyed feeling his arms wrap around her.
“But Alexander,” she whispered from his embrace “the gods themselves made Order, but they also made Chaos, too. They ordained that certain creatures would be born with the spirit of Chaos in their very bodies, as a natural occurrence. Perhaps it would be wrong of us to attempt to ‘cure’ a creature born with Chaos in them, for that would thwart the will of the gods themselves. Would it not?”
“Selene, that’s why I value your wisdom, your council,” he said, gently stroking her hair, feeling the swell of her young body pressed against his, his voice smiling but eyes staring distractedly above her head, his brain tacking rapidly back and forth.
“Perhaps you’re right, and it is not our place to ‘cure’ a creature who is born with chaotic tendencies, even if these things are born with a curse that may be cured. Perhaps they were not meant to be cured of an ailment. But their existence, such as it is, does still serve a purpose in the greater plan of the gods. The gods may have made such creatures for a great reason, you may be right. And as observers, healers, and students it also seems to me that it should be our purpose to find that reason and help bring it to its full potential.”
Alexander’s mind suddenly recalled with vivid clarity then how the chained Halfling had reacted when he had attempted to remove the strand of Chaos from its brain and save it from the madness that seemed to inflict all Halflings; the Halfling’s curse. He recalled the creature’s passion to hold onto that Chaos so strongly that it had ripped its own body into pieces to stop any man who would remove the Chaos from it.
The creature had been under heavy sedation, its skull had been cut into, its brain had been tampered with, and its body fastened to a table with magical bonds. Yet it had tore its own limbs off and flung its ruined frame at any and all who it could reach, using only its mouth to shred and rend in horrible barbarism any who might take the thread of Chaos from its brain.
Such bestial power was something he had never witnessed on creatures twice its size. And the Halfling used every part of its body as a weapon and would not have stopped except for the fact that all of its blood had spilled out from its severed limbs until it lay dead on the cold stone floor of his private examination room.
Whatever, or whoever, could control such strength, such power; they would be an unstoppable force in battle. Their armies would be unbeatable, their reputation unmatched, and no one could stand in their way.
Selene was right; the gods gifted these creatures with Chaos for a reason. It wasn’t his place to cure the Halflings of their curse; instead, he should examine other alternatives. He should use this great gift of the gods to further his plans; such a mighty tool, if properly controlled, could surely bring about true stability and order to the entire world. With these forces on his side, he would be able to crush the foul denizens of the Underdark, and bring about the destruction of the Ravannese usurpers as well as any who would stand in the way of righteousness.
“Ahh, Selene,” he said softly, his heavy fingers massaging the tension in her firm back “thank you for your words. They’ve helped me put things in perspective. You’re right, of course, I shouldn’t be trying to ‘cure’ Chaos, or purge it from creatures born with it. But, perhaps, I can do my best to use the gifts the gods gave such creatures to help all of the mortals in this world for a greater good.”
Selene’s eyes closed under his probing touch and she let her head loll from side to side.
“Oh, Alexander, you’re a man among men,” she purred as he pressed his body more firmly against hers. “And I know that with such good, noble and pure intentions as the ones you have, I will always be at your side,” she added in a short gasp as his fingers slid lower and harder over the tight muscles of her body.