I wander through the streets of Tantallon, keeping an eye out on anyone needing clerical help. I don't mind my feet taking me to some of the less well-to-do neighbourhoods as well, since it is often where the greatest need is found. In any case, most of the time the residents of more questionable employ leave me alone to focus on more fruitful prey.
Tonight, however, I am met with something much more determined than an occasional pickpocketing beggar. I pause for a moment to glance over my shoulder at a strange sound, and find myself lifted nearly off my feet and shoved into a nearby decrepit house.
I catch a quick glance of the house while I stumble down to land heavily on my hands and knees. It has only one room, and barely any furnishings. I turn around to see a black-haired elf clad in dark leathers ram something between the door and the hinge, presumably to keep the door closed. I have a bad feeling about this.
I catch a glance of the elf's features and blood freezes in my veins. Moriyokiri.
The man is a notorious thief, but he is also known for being a ruthless and efficient killer. He will not hold any grudge for long; the people who cross him tend to be found dead soon afterwards - if they are ever found at all.
I scramble away from him, trying to get on my feet while he takes his time with the door. I have no idea how he has gotten into Tantallon; the guards check for bountied criminals on the gates, and they know their business. The streets are packed with posters promising a reward for his head. Well, so much for that feeling of security.
"You remember me, don't you?" He has now turned his attention to me. I look desperately around for a place to get out or hide behind, but a small cot in a corner and a shoddy table against a wall provide no protection.
Some section of my panic-filled mind realizes he seems to be waiting for an answer. I swallow hard and quietly ask Antana for strength. My throat seems too dry to form words, so I just nod timidly.
His steely, light blue eyes pierce through me. I resist an impulse to whimper. Dread has turned my limbs to lead. I wince when he shifts his pose just slightly, as my imagination tells me he will spring at me any second now. I have already forgotten how to breathe a while ago.
"Now, why am I here?" He asks the question as if he had forgotten himself and I might enlighten him. I open my mouth, then close it. Does he always toy with his marks like this, or does this mean he is irked enough to slowly torture me to death from sheer panic?
Yes, I know why he's here. In the not very distant past, I happened by a gory site in the south-western woods, where the ruthless elf had just butchered, maimed and in some cases merely terminally disabled a band of bounty hunters. The carnage was nightmarish enough to turn my knees to jelly, even though it was by no means the first time I had seen a site of battle. Many of the victims appeared to wear the Scythe brand, indicating that they were not at all inexperienced in the business of killing, either. I could hear sounds of ongoing battle somewhere nearby; the rogue was busy finishing off the last hunters. Then I noticed that there was still a flicker of life left in some of the broken bodies.
My heart ached to help them. The sight of the clearing was dismal, and I knew there was something I could do, even if to make it just a little bit better. The fighting was just distant enough and just intense enough that I figured I could heal the ones still alive just enough that they'd have a chance to get away, without me or them being noticed.
I honestly did not know who I was dealing with. Not, that is, before one of the men I healed refused to try to crawl away to hide; he shook his head and spoke in a low voice: "It's no use; this is Moriyokiri. He never leaves anything halfway." He gestured for his fallen sword instead, and I had no better idea of what to do than to give it to him. He squeezed it to his chest and seemed thankful. "He'll come for you, too, for meddling. You should start running now."
I wanted to stay and finish my work; I healed one more half-dead man up to running shape before the quiet insistence of the bounty hunter convinced me I had better make myself scarce. I fled the scene, and after I made my way back to Tantallon and to the inn room I was staying at, I locked and barred the door. For once was glad I had a windowless chamber. After a few hours of fitful worrying that something might still get through the door, I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
By the next morning, however, I felt much better. I was relatively convinced I had managed to escape unseen, or at least that the bounty hunter was exaggerating. So my life returned to normal - for a while, anyway.
Back in the more bleak current reality, the rogue walks to the cot in the corner and sits down. "Does this mean your memory's bad or that you have too many reasons to choose from?"
I snap out of my reverie, and find my voice again. "Uh, no. I... guess you're here because of the bounty hunters."
"Damned right. I had them all nice and piled up, and the next thing I know, I have to kill the lot all over again." He makes illustrative chopping movements with his hand. "You have any idea how fast those buggers can crawl? It took me the best part of the day to hunt the last ones down!" After this sudden outburst, he falls back to an almost meditative mood.
I do not have much time to process the dismay of all my healing having been for naught, before the rogue continues and changes the topic. "Since you're clearly over-eager in doing your healer thing, how about you give me a purge? I've been drinking so many potions I can hardly feel their effect any more."
He is referring to the tolerance a body quickly develops in response to being subjected to unnatural, magical healing. Clerics can see the hazy scarring that healing potions leave in the spirit of those overusing them, and are able to remove the impurities in a delicate extraction ritual, somewhat like healing an illness of the soul.
That he would ask me to purge him at a time like this makes me see two things: First, that he is an extremely unstable mind, who can fluctuate between murderous intent on one moment and colloquiality on the other. The unpredictability makes him all the more dangerous; I promptly abandon any fleeting hope of bargaining with this man. And all the while, at this very moment he has shown me a way out of this death trap.
The process of purging someone is extremely delicate; if the cleric tries to extract the hazy impurity from the person too quickly, it will tax the cleric much more, but can also seriously harm the person being purged. I have seen this happen before, and am privy to the hidden knowledge on how the ritual could be modified for this particular effect. I know that without using up all my strength, I can disable him for just long enough to break through the door and find help.
Careful to not let the wild hope show on my face, I nod quietly and come to kneel before the elf. He sits back and grins smugly, nodding for me to go ahead.
I focus on my holy symbol and begin mumbling through the ritual. The beginning is identical, and I do not pause or hesitate when I move on to ask Antana for the strength for a much more potent purging than usual. I start to move my holy symbol towards him, to focus the haze around it.
I do not get even halfway when he suddenly sits up straight and grabs me by the throat, squeezing my windpipe just enough that the last preparatory words of the ritual die before rolling off my tongue.
"I know how the purging ritual goes. And I really hate it when people improvise."
I'm not sure what he reads in my look of horror at having been found out, but he releases his hold, rolls his eyes and groans. "Don't tell me you're one of those people who insist they have to be gutted before they do a single nice thing to a punk like me!"
I am at a loss for words, and for a moment, I can simply stare at him. Then I gather my wits and try to find a soothing tone of voice to try to appeal to the more calm side of his madness. "No, no. I'm sorry; I made a mistake. I'll purge you the usual way, if you'll let me."
To my amazement, it seems to sink in successfully and the ruthless killer appears to calm down. He makes a regal gesture for me to proceed, then sits back again.
I pray to the gods again, careful to keep my intonation level to not arouse any more suspicion. This time, he does not stop me either. I gather a cloud of haze around my holy symbol and pull it from him. When I finish the ritual, the hazy mass flows down to the floor and dissipates.
I can sense that some impurity remains, so I repeat the prayer and the purging. I soon realize that the elf probably has developed the worst case of tolerance against magical healing that I have ever seen. I look up and boldly open my mouth to ask, but he grins knowingly, already expecting my bafflement. "Yes, I use quite a bit of potions, and it is a royal pain to find people to purge a dangerous outlaw. So just give me a proper spring cleaning, will you?"
I swallow down my unasked question and continue the ritual. The haze shows no signs of weakening. I tire, but go on, desperate to push back the inevitable, the moment when I have outgrown my usefulness to my temporarily pleased captor.
After a while more, my fingers are cramping, my hands shaking and my voice is raw. I attempt one last extraction, but can barely hold on to my symbol. I pause in mid-sentence and find I cannot continue; I am at my limit, if not already beyond it. I cannot fully purge him; all my resources are spent.
The rogue waits for a moment, then stands up and crouches on the floor next to me. I cannot even find the strength to turn my head to look at him; right now, I have to focus on breathing and staying conscious. He puts an arm across my shoulder, squeezes it reassuringly and asks in a gentle voice: "All wiped out, huh?"
I nod my head downwards; it won't come back up. Somewhere in the middle of the deep weariness, a part of me forgets to be mortally afraid and just pauses to amaze at the beauty of a few compassionate words.
I suddenly feel giddy just from him being so close; his scent, oiled leather mixed with nightshade, makes my head swim. It must be the exhaustion, but I find myself shifting to rest my head on his shoulder. He keeps his arm around me and makes soothing sounds while stroking my upper arm. With each stroke, my heart takes another step towards simply bursting from all the emotion.
I soon find myself in desperate need of his approval. I feel a lump forming in my throat, and force it back to whisper, "I'm sorry." Just now, I only want him, no, I need him to forgive me and not resent me for helping his enemies.
He does not react to my words, but continues to stroke me calmingly. I lean against him like he were the last and only paragon of stability in this world. Strictly speaking, this implies an entirely new meaning of the word 'stable', but I am in no state of mind to care for such details.
It is possible, no, even rather probable that something in me has simply reached a breaking point. All other sense lost, I feebly grab a hold of him and beg him to forgive me. This time he responds wordlessly, giving me one more reassuring squeeze.
Then I feel a sharp pain as he sinks a jagged blade into my side, down to the hilt.
He bends to whisper in my ear. "I forgive you." For a moment, time stands still; then he pulls the weapon free, tearing up even more tissues, and turns to face me. Taking in the baffled expression on my face, he adds, "Thanks for the purges, love," and kisses me full on the mouth. Despite the searing pain on my side, I honestly forget for a moment that I have been stabbed. He then stands up and steps to clean the blooded blade on the cot.
I remain gaping for a good while. While I watch him acting as if nothing out of the ordinary were afoot, I gather up some parts of my somewhat scattered mind. A semi-coherent thought forms in my mind. I stammer: "You... you made sure that I... can't heal myself?" I am a cleric, a born healer; to be incapable of stopping myself from slowly bleeding to death is something bordering on unimaginable.
He turns to look at me again. With a contemplative expression, he wonders, "Yes, it would appear I did, wouldn't it?" - as if he were digging around in his memory for whether this is indeed the case or not.
I press my side feebly, but I can feel blood seeping through my fingers. As my head starts to feel light, I slowly crumple down to my side, and end up lying on the floor. Amazingly enough, I finally feel rather calm.
"It will take a while," he comments, shifting around in the room. I cannot bring my eyes to follow his movements. "But I think I'll stay and watch."
I am rather confident that he is referring to the possibility that I might somehow manage to get out alive, like his earlier victims. Still, for some reason the thought of having him watch over me, even if to make sure I die as ordained, is infinitely reassuring. I have not imagined how I would die, but lying alone on the floor of a strange house while the last of my blood flows out of me would not have been among the options you can really prepare for in any case. I breathe a mildly delirious
"Thank you." and close my eyes to rest them for a moment.
I have no perception of how much time passes before he breaks the silence dominated by my gradually more laborious breathing. His voice sounds mildly frustrated. "You are thoroughly resigned to your fate, aren't you? Is that some kind of a clerical thing, now, or are you just seeking death for the heck of it?"
I might chuckle at the absurdity if I had the energy. Instead, I just squeeze out a nearly automatic response, a hoarse whisper at best. "I expect Antana will be waiting for me." What else could I possibly say?
He clicks his tongue disapprovingly. I can hear him take a few steps towards me, then he lifts my head. Something cool trickles down my throat. I idly wonder for a moment if he would feel the need to poison me to boot; I am not sure if I care, but I somewhat hope it does not add to the pain much.
Then, suddenly, the exhaustion is removed; my mind is as clear as a mountain lake in the spring. I can feel a connection to the powers of the gods, and almost before I even have time to grasp the full implications, I can feel the tear on my side starting to mend as my training kicks in reflexively. I draw greedily on my new-found strength and heal myself. While I am still left weak and physically exhausted, I no longer feel drained, let alone incapacitated.
It dawns on me that the rogue must have caused this. I blink at the realization, then I have to ask: "You healed me? But... why?"
There is no reply. When I turn to look, the room is empty. The rogue is nowhere to be seen, and the door out lies ajar, letting the last rays of sunlight in.
A half-laugh, half-sob escapes through my lips. I guess that means I live for now.