This one is just plain sick, so consider yourself warned. Don't judge it too harshly till you've read all three parts, though--it's not going where you probably think it's going.
"Why are you doing this?" the girl asked, and for a moment Tolliver wondered that himself.
"Because you deserve it," Vyce responded. He gripped her right arm as tightly as Tolliver held her left, leading her down the dimly lit staircase that led below the labs.
"Do you know what the Tyrant did to me? What he did to all of us?"
"You won't get anywhere with Vyce," Tolliver interrupted. "When we learned that the Tyrant was dead, he was in the first ranks to storm this castle. His sister was one of the girls in the labs, and he found her too late. You weren't barred in like she was. You could have saved her."
"The Tyrant needed a few people to give the others food. A few to clean the floors. A few to . . ." She broke off. "But you know his power as well as I. If I'd done anything, I'd have wound up on the other side of the bars myself."
"You're a coward," spat Vyce. "But we're giving you a chance to prove you're more than that."
"He had me lead a few of the other girls down here. None of them ever came back up."
"The notes in the lab mention two experiments," said Tolliver. "A monster, and a weapon to kill it. If you can get the weapon, you'll have a fighting chance."
The girl was close to tears. "I'm just a maid! I've never killed anyone!"
At last they reached the door, thick steel with a single barred window. Tolliver held the girl while Vyce opened it. Vyce shoved her through, and the door swung closed behind her with the sound of screaming metal.
The girl pressed her face to the bars. "This is crazy!"
Vyce ascended the stairs without looking behind him. Tolliver barely heard his muttered words.
"This is justice."
The girl slumped to the ground. She was dark of skin and hair, far darker than Tolliver's pale brown, and in the gloom beyond the door he could no longer see her. But he could hear her as she cried, and he thought of ghosts as he left her alone in the dark.
- - - -
It took two minutes for Meg to finish sobbing. Then she lifted herself up off the floor and dried her eyes. The Tyrant had taught her that pleading with fate accomplished nothing, and pleading with the man referred to as Vyce had done even less.
Kill the monster, she told herself. Find the weapon first, then kill the monster.
She did not have far to go. Fumbling in the dark revealed a bucket full of charcoal, and while magic was hardly Meg's forte, it was a simple spell to call out light and warmth from one piece. At the other end of a narrow stone corridor was a chamber nine feet by nine, its floor patterned with tiles that were etched with symbols she did not recognize. On a small plinth at its center lay a well-sharpened steel sword, lacking only a cross-guard.
She knew her letters just well enough to read the words engraved into the side of the plinth:
Die a hero
Die a coward
Live a monster, flesh or steel
The sword shall guide you
To the side of the plinth, a small steel gauntlet lay discarded, a perfect fit for a young woman's hand. Faint bite marks indicated an unpleasant end for its owner (and Meg couldn't help but wonder at what sort of beast could mark steel.).
For the moment, Meg had no intention of touching either the sword or the gauntlet. In each wall of the chamber was another opening, leading off into what she suspected was a maze. I'll go right, she told herself. Go around the edge of the maze. Maybe the monster's already dead--
From the left passageway, a loud growl disabused her of the notion.
The beast that stared at her was something like a wolf, though far larger, and clearly sick. Its fur was falling out in patches, and it could not stop itself from drooling. It growled again at her, preparing to leap.
Meg did not run. It was clear to her that many other girls must have fled, only to be cornered somewhere in the maze. Nor did she stand and wait for death, like whoever had owned the gauntlet. She tossed the piece of charcoal directly at the wolf's head, and was rewarded with a yelp of pain. Then she grabbed the sword, and rushed at the creature before it could rush at her.
As the blade found its mark, a strange power entered her right hand, both ice and fire in a rapturous combination. The monster dodged the worst of the blow, and it howled as it ran back the way it came, disappearing into the darkness of the maze.
She watched the red trail it left behind, and her mind emptied. Wrapped in bliss, she knelt and licked the cold tile floor, the blood somehow sweet to her tongue. Raw energy ran through her body, and she gasped, letting the sword clatter to the floor.
Just as suddenly, she was herself again. She spat on the ground, trying to clear the taste from her mouth.
There was a strange coldness in her right hand. The coldness of metal.
- - - -
Alone, Tolliver waited outside the steel door, patiently sitting on a metal stool he had brought down from the lab. He did not know why he was there, and he did not expect the girl to return. It was therefore with surprise that he beheld her running down the passageway, her mouth smeared with blood.
"LET ME OUT!" she screamed. "The sword, it--" To his eyes, she seemed to convulse. "I can't do this."
"Are you hurt?"
"It's not my blood. Here." Her fingers barely fit between the bars. "Feel my hand."
He only hesitated for a moment. "I can't do that."
"Then let me out. Or give me a weapon. Don't just leave me here."
"I can't interfere. What do you think Vyce would do if he caught me? And what of the other rebels? I'm as trapped as you are."
A strange glint entered her eyes. "And just as much of a coward." She turned away, and once more Tolliver caught a few quiet parting words.
"I will enjoy watching you bleed."
- - - -
With the gauntlet over her right hand, and the sword beside her on the plinth, Meg awaited the monster's approach. She did not know how it lived, amongst all these stone walls, but she doubted that it had much to eat besides girls. The Tyrant had clearly intended that each girl either die, or kill with the sword--she could only hope that the blade's curse required the touch of skin.
Again, the growl alerted her. The beast did not have a hunter's instincts. She gazed upon its face, strangely human despite its snout, and wondered if it had once been a girl like her. Knowing the Tyrant, the answer was probably yes.
She did not have long to think before the creature leapt at her. She did, however, have time to grab the sword in a gauntleted grip. She thrust it out before her, straight into the monster's mouth, letting the creature impale itself cleanly.
She was taken off guard when it worked its way up the blade.
Strong jaws bit down on her arm. The creature's death throes loosened the bite, but it was enough to break the skin. She let go of the sword and dropped the writhing beast to the floor.
Warmth ran through her arm, then up to her head. For a moment, she wondered whether the monster's bite had been venomous. Then she felt a sudden urge to howl, and she understood.
- - - -
Slumped back on his stool, Tolliver dreamt.
The face he saw every night floated before him once again. Vyce's sister. A girl he'd once loved, though neither she nor Vyce had ever known it.
Though she did not speak, he could somehow hear her words. You're a coward. You've always been a coward. You wanted to fight, but you didn't want to get hurt.
He struggled to speak. "It wasn't my fault. What the Tyrant did to you--when we found you, death was the best we could give you."
You let me die!
Her face shifted and changed, and suddenly she was the girl beyond the barred door. She screamed in pain and fear, and Tolliver awoke.
Awoke to realize that the scream had not been dreamt.
- - - -
Flesh or steel? Meg asked herself, almost laughing. Let the beast infect me, or the sword curse me?
It was too late to die a coward, eaten like the girl who'd had the gauntlet. And if she had been willing to kill herself, and die a hero, she would have died long ago in the Tyrant's employ.
I already know what flesh means. Prowling this maze forever . . . I choose the unknown.
She cast aside the gauntlet, and with both hands she grasped the blade, pulling it from the monster's mouth.
- - - -
If Vyce had taken the time to check on the girl, he would have been outraged to discover the steel door wedged open with the stool. Tolliver had rushed down the stone corridor, expecting to find a lifeless body. He was unprepared for what he saw in the chamber.
With her right hand, the girl plunged a sword over and over into what was left of the monster, gasping with each strike. Her left hand tore at her dress, shredding it with inhuman force, at last leaving her bare. Her fingers ran across her body, and wherever they touched, she seemed electrified.
"Stop!" he yelled. "Can you hear me? It's dead! You can go!"
She did not even notice him, lost in a very personal pleasure. At last, she reached some critical point, and she let go of the blade. Both hands ran up and down her, and she reminded him of nothing so much as a man stroking his own cock--if her entire body was like a cock.
The ultimate rapture came in a spray of red from her mouth, and her back arched as her body emptied--blood, flesh, and bone pumped forth in liquid form. Skin and hair sloughed away as she collapsed to her knees.
Smeared in blood, a suit of steel armor stood up, and an empty helmet turned in his direction.
- - - -
As Meg's mind slowly gave way under the weight of a driving thirst, a small part of her hid itself where even magic couldn't find it. The rest crumbled into pieces, and was swept away.
The armor rose, and stared at the intruder. The magic that ran through it resolved its thoughts into a single word.
In a voice of ringing steel, it asked, "Commander?"