3,109 words. Chapter Summary: Marril fights to keep her integrity in the Judge's hands.
She was on a stone slab, unbound and unarmed. Her mind was hazy, perceiving her body as something more ethereal than flesh. Gradually, she felt the stone slab on which she lay, the sweat that coated her fur, another’s large clumsy hands against her throat. She reacted, kneeing the attacker, then rolling to the floor with an undignified thump. Before she could think or even process the signals of pain from her body, she flung herself at her attacker and sank her fangs into its neck. Hot blood filled her mouth, thick and pasty like mud but with an oddly sweet sub-flavor.
Hands took hold of her tail and she whirled, kicked the offender in the gut, then broke its neck as it doubled over with pain. A gentle blow to her damaged shoulder sent her to her knees, her breathing harsh and erratic. Now that it had been bridged, the pain rushed at her, overwhelming. "So you do still have bite." The Judge mused, lifting Marril with her good arm. The Nineko bared her bloody fangs but could not find the strength to attack. "Animal." The Judge said with disgust, touching its bloody neck with its free hand.
“Why am I still alive?”
“You are as much of a symbol of the freedom of halflings as the royal family. You are the last surviving member of the first legion, the strongest in the Empire.”
“I am no one’s pet.” Marril growled, clenching her fists.
“You are very stubborn,” the Revenant agreed, punching the warrior in the gut. She fell, wheezing, to her knees. “Yield.”
“I will not betray my people!”
“Why not? They would betray you.”
“They are my people! We do not turn on each other like you lot!”
The Judge sneered at its captive’s pride. “Follow me.”
“Why should I?” Marril spat, her vision slightly hazy from the damage her body was taking.
“Either you follow, or I will drag you.” The Judge smirked.
Marril decided to follow. If an opportunity to escape presented itself, being in physical contact with a Judge would most certainly abolish it. Her bare cell opened into an equally desolate hallway. Cold, impersonal concrete walls supported a narrow hallway just big enough for three Revenant’s to walk side by side - four if they were friendly. A dim light came from the ceiling, as if the ghosts of fluorescent lighting had inspired the grime and other indistinguishable substances to copy it. The floor itself was thick with footprints stained in earth, blood, and sweat.
The place made Marril’s eyes water.
She kept close to the walls, staying a few feet behind the Judge. Her feet made no sound on the cold concrete floor of the strange bunker they were in, and she received many hateful looks from the Revenants they passed (though some were aimed at the Judge). The Nineko raised her head proudly, baring her teeth in warning every time a Revenant stared too long. The dank smell of unwashed concrete mixed with sweat became stronger the further they travelled, the dull lights making long shadows that she could use to sneak away. As the thought crossed her mind however, the Judge looked at her. “Do not even try.”
Marril kept quiet, keeping an eye on the Judge as they walked just in case the creature’s attention slipped away. Unfortunately, they reached their destination soon after. To the left of the corridor they were following was an alcove, a Revenant guarding the door in the middle of it. Six feet away from the door was a tinted panel of glass through which Marril could see two starved-looking Nineko teenagers. She was hungry as well, but years of being a soldier on short rations allowed her to control herself; these two were too young to know how to deal with their bodies.
“Stay here” said the Judge, setting its palm against the middle of the door. It swung open. The guard watched the Nineko with mindless menace.
Marril watched from where she stood as the Judge walked into the room, noting how the prisoners trembled in front of its malice. She understood how they felt in that respect, but their submissive attitudes angered her. No proper Nineko should cower before the enemy no matter how strong they are.
The Judge handed them both a wooden pole. By the way they handled them, Marril knew they had no training whatsoever. One tried to hit the Judge but it did not even bother to dignify the attempt by defending itself. Cowed, they listened with dawning horror as the Judge told them exactly what it wanted them to do. They cried, holding each other tightly, but the Judge had already told them their fate.
Abruptly, one broke apart and swung the pole at the other’s head, his eyes closed. The blow did not connect, but it elicited a counter attack that also failed. Marril watched in confusion as they started to fight in earnest, desperately trying to subdue the other with wild untrained swings. The Judge looked her way and smirked.
Marril growled, her tail swishing angrily as the two children got more and more vicious, scratching and biting - their pole-arms forgotten. The Judge collected both poles and knocked them both on the head in reproach. Then it gave one pole to the more vicious child. He took it eagerly, turning on his companion until blood started to flow.
The former lieutenant-general could watch no more. She ran up to the guard, stealing its taser before it could remove it from the hostler. She stabbed it in the eye with the taser, pulling the trigger as soon as it made contact. With a flash of technological insight, she directed the falling Revenant’s hand towards the palm-reader. The door hissed as it opened and Marril jumped over her victim’s convulsing body. She quickly grabbed the pole out of the stunned prisoner’s hand. “Don’t you have any honor?” she demanded in her native tongue, exuding an aura of command without meaning to. “You are Nineko, not barbarians! What would your parents say to such shameful actions! And you!” she turned to the Judge, twirling the pole to stretch her muscles. “These are civilians! You’ve won your war, let the innocents be!”
“Wars are never over, halfling.” The Judge said calmly, its green eyes unreadable in the low light. “And can you say that you have never hurt another halfling?”
“I have never swung at a Nineko who was unarmed or untrained.” The warrior said archly, whipping the Judge’s hand to make it drop the other pole. The she brought it up to connect with the Revenant’s jaw.
The Judge kicked the Nineko in the side of her right knee and then smacked her wounded shoulder. “Do not presume to harm me in such a story state, halfling.” It said, stepping on Marril’s back to drive her flat against the ground. The halfling gritted her teeth as the foot pressed against her wounded shoulder. “If you two kill this one, I will let you both go.” It told the two young ones.
“Liar.” Marril snarled, twisting so she could scratch at the Judge’s legs.
“I think you will find that not every halfling is as stubborn as yourself.” The Judge tossed the poles at the two petrified prisoners. “Yield to order and live or die like that one. That is your choice. Go on, she said she would not harm you.”
“I can’t...” One said, terrified of the brutal aura of command Marril displayed and of her scathing reproach. The other whimpered in agreement, bleeding from the other’s attacks.
“Die then.” The Judge moved too fast for the stunned warrior to stop it from snapping the weaker Nineko’s neck like a twig. “Will you share the same fate?” The Judge asked the survivor archly, throwing the limp body to the side.
Marril closed her eyes as the weeping prisoner started to pound her body with the pole, consciously preventing her deadly reflexes from taking over. Pain was her focus to consciousness and she clung to it stubbornly. She would not give into the Judge’s desire. After a while, she made her body jerk and go limp. She even stopped breathing.
“I did it!” The prisoner pleaded, voice harsh from his tears. “Let me go!”
“Do you know who you were beating?” The Judge asked mildly.
“Marril, the lieutenant general of the first legion of the Imperial army. Her being alive has been the only hope of the rebel forces you were considering joining. As you can see, she can be very charismatic and would have brought the insurgence to the point that it could have actually accomplished something. I’m sure you will be welcomed with despair when you inform them of her death.”
The youth started to gibber, falling to his knees in horror. He reached out to touch Marril’s beaten body, but could not bring himself to do it.
“Of course, that is what I would have said if you had actually killed her.” The Judge stomped on Marril’s tail. She screeched as she lunged at the Judge, her hands tightening around its neck. Before she could do any damage, it flung her against the wall hard enough that she lost consciousness.
Marril woke as someone slid a syringe into her injured arm. She jerked instinctively at the intravenous injection, but could not stop it. Through a haze of pain, she realized that all four of her limbs were bound firmly. She growled, opening her blood-shot eyes blearily.
The Judge stood before her, looking pleased with itself. The now-empty syringe was in its hands.
Marril forced herself to stay calm. Whatever the Judge had injected into her body would do her no good, but she would not show her fear. “Let me go.”
“Of course.” The Judge sneered, cutting the leather bonds with a blunt knife.
As it worked, the Judge clicked its tongue. A door Marril had not the presence of mind to notice beforehand opened with a hydraulic hiss, permitting the entrance of a slimmer, odd-looking Revenant. Hairless as the rest of its kind, its build was shockingly light, and the taut skin was an odd golden-brown colour instead of an angry red. It even smelled different, a mixture of sweat and sickly sweetness. It looked at the Judge with dead yellow eyes that were more oval than spherical.
The Judge turned to the newcomer, its clear green eyes glittering as she landed in a heap at its feet. "I believe this is the first time you've seen a halfling saved by the vaccine, isn't it?"
"No!" Marril chocked, eyes widening as she looked at the fallen Nineko. To her horror, it revolved slowly at the Judge's signal, showing her the sawed-off remains of its feline ears and a stub of a tail. "You do this to prisoners of war?!"
"Of course not," the Judge smiled benignly. "He volunteered."
"No one!" Marril spat, her fur erect as she crouched on all fours, her tail fluffed in anger. She did not bother to try and stand upright, her limbs were too weak. "No one would corrupt themselves willingly!"
"You should know better than to underestimate the will to survive. " The Judge's soft voice crawled over her like a legion of slugs. "It is especially strong in your family after all.. little Darril's looking much healthier since he took the vaccine."
Marril looked at the Judge scornfully. "My brother is dead."
"He was for a few minutes before the vaccine took effect, that is why he is a drone; but you could have guessed that. You've killed many of the Improved workers."
Marril drew herself to her full height through sheer willpower, only wobbling a little. She put her hands on either side of the slim Revenant's shoulders. In this condition, it was impossible to tell if it was truly her brother, but that did not matter. The Revenants had defiled one of her kind.
"You would make a true Improved halfling, strong and intelligent as you are." The Judge was saying. "The vaccine will even heal all of your wounds overnight, letting you live forever. What do you say?"
"Rest." She broke the fallen Nineko's neck, letting her tears flow at the destructive act of mercy.
The Judge sneered, uncaring in the face of another Revenant's death. "You have already taken my blood into your body," it grabbed Marril's forearm, holding her up as she wobbled. "The vaccine should already be working on your cells, I received the most potent first strain. Halflings are too weak to resist its power, even if was designed for full-blooded humans."
Marril looked at the Judge, her golden eyes cold and unyielding even in face of the confirmation of her thoughts. She did not especially care about her own fate, but she would take her own life before she became a Revenant. "No."
"You have no choice."
"There is always a choice."
"If you mean dying, do not think it will stop the vaccine. Whatever hope the halflings in the insurgence still has will be destroyed by the sight of you as a drone." The Judge remarked, letting go.
Marril fell to the ground. The lights went off as the door closed behind the Judge, leaving her in a tomb to fight against the virus in her blood.
Hands holding onto her; rot dripping into her mouth like snake venom, burning and numbing nerves in an ever-spreading web. Vile liquids coating her hands- thoughts like fragments of faith in herself.
-she was younger, playing with her brother’s corpse as earth entombed them, crushing her lungs and filling her mouth with slimy smooth maggots. When she screams, the nightmare is real-
Burning; the cloying scent of sweaty musk, salty tears, and pain like noxious purple clouds pressing in on her. The dead masses of red sinew pulsing as blood poured to make the ground slick and powerless, its rapidly beating heart beating in anticipation. Her general, headless and screaming for letting their family die without a fight. Apologies like skipping stones that never settled, waters churning in unrest. Then stillness of defeat.
Dead kits. Dead lovers. Dead family. Blood and pain, her presence a wave or war and its despair. Where was home? Did it ever exist? Could it exist?
Could she let death be her home? Would pain let her die when it was so much more fun to let her struggle? Fury driving the life out of her and the earth she thought supported her. Fire. Ice. Darkness of soul’s night.
An end. Her death?
She screams in defiance and everything goes to water.
She wakes, golden eyes clear for the first time in... she does not know. The Judge is sitting on a chair beside her rigid bed, its green eyes unreadable. Marril lifts her head, looking at the sweat-drenched black-and-orange fur in relief. She flicks her ears and tail, unable to stop the smile or her trembling. The injuries inflicted by the Judge and its followers were healed, stubby patches of fur covering scar tissue.
She felt better than she had since the fall of the Empire.
“Why do you refuse evolution?” The Judge asked, grabbing Marril’s tail as it flicks too close.
Marril barely kept from flinching as the Judge brushed her fur the wrong way. A Nineko’s tail was extremely sensitive to touch, heat, and pain; and the Judge’s unthinking action caused Marril to flinch. Among Nineko, it was taboo to touch another’s tail without express permission. “That’s not evolution,” she chocked out, her throat raw.
“My body is stronger than yours, the sun’s violent rays do not harm my skin, I can go without water or food for months.” The Judge pointed out.
“And you can’t feel anything other than pain.” Marril snarled, her ears lying flat against her head as the Judge’s grip on her tail tightened.
“You’ll always lose against me,” it breathed, pinning the Nineko against the slab, hands against her neck. “I could crush you.”
“Why haven’t you?”
A flash of hesitation. “You are more useful alive.”
“I am your enemy and I will kill you.”
“Harm me and the unit keeping the remainder of the royal family will be disposed, extinguishing whatever hope your people have to resist order.” The Judge whispered in her ears, its rancid breath making Marril’s eyes water. The heavy scent of sweat poured off the Judge, but its core temperature never cooled. It was permanently hot to the touch.
“They would already be dead if you knew where to look.”
“You were sure I would kill you as well.” The Judge noted with a sneer that showed off its rotted teeth. “Do as I order and your hope will not be terminated.” it gave the tail another squeeze, making Marril shudder.
“”Why won’t you just let me die?”
“A weak death is not interesting,” the Judge increased the pressure on Marril’s tail and pushed a thumb against her windpipe. “I heard that halflings considered themselves honorable, but so far I have only encountered cowards. However, you fought off the vaccine... You may be suitable to do my bidding.”
“That would be cowardly.” Marril hissed, barring her fangs as her claws dug into the Judge’s wrist, trying to relieve the pressure on her throat.
“Killing the royal family because you do not have the courage to smother your pride is more cowardly... Or so I’ve been told.”
Marril snarled, pushing the Judged to the floor with a sudden burst of strength that surprised them both. “My pride is not the thing I’m worried about; it is your word that’s in question.”
“Your pride is risking your hope.” The Judge got to its feet calmly. “We will speak later.”
Marril moved quickly, seizing the Judge’s neck with the intent to snap it. The Judge made no move to defend itself as the warrior hesitated. “What have you done to me?”
The Judge merely touched the scars on its neck, the remnant of the damage caused by Marril’s fangs not so long ago. “Your decision?”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Irrelevant. Will you continue your role as a protector or will you forfeit everything you’ve lived for?”
Marril closed her eyes, allowing the Judge to stand before her without attacking. “I’m no puppet. Understand?”
The Judge’s smile was grotesque.