Mei smiled as she heard the gong of the Great Bell resonate throughout the monastery. The chill of winter filtered in through the stone and chilled her feet as she leapt from her bed down to the floor. Her long shirt doing little to keep cold away without the aid of her blanket, she raced to change into her furs and leathers, knowing that she’d be busy today.
Grabbing her footwear, she dropped onto the bed to pull on her boots. She took a moment to stare at her toes, the curling digits capable of grabbing onto things just like her hands. She took care to hide this fact from the instructors of the school, as Aberrants were frowned upon. An Aberrant was a sign from God that you were touched by the Darkness, and that you needed to be “fixed”. The Inquisitors that would bring in Aberrants from the valleys surrounding the monastery were often pitiful wretches that were deemed less than worthy to receive the Lord’s blessing. Many of them languished in the labyrinthine prisons that coiled deep beneath the school.
It was her job to tend to the men and women trapped here, bringing them food under the cover of night. Well technically it was her father’s job, but he was getting old… plus the Abbot didn’t exactly know she existed.
Abbot Redmoss was a man with stern features but a kind heart. His hair was black with streaks of grey, long enough to be pulled into a long braid that traveled down his back. He wore a short silver streak beard, and often garbed himself in boiled leather armor for martial training with the students. While not in tune with the Ether himself, he was able to sense it and help the children he instructed tap into it when needed. A no-nonsense man, Mei’s father often joked that the good Lord had blessed the Abbot with everything but a sense of humor.
Mei finished lacing up her boots, her bare arms prickling from the cold that permeated the mountaintop stronghold. She shucked on her overcoat, a thick black fur of a wolf touched by the Darkness that her father had helped bring down back during his days as a warrior. He’d had it fashioned for himself, but Mei was a growing girl and had already reached her father’s height by the tender age of twelve years. Reaching for the hat rack that held her bandolier of throwing knives, she slung it around her chest before tying it off at her hip.
Walking from her room into the main living quarters of the Custodian’s living quarters, Mei smiled as she caught sight of her father, dozing in a stuffed chair by the fire. Time had not been kind to the man, lining his narrow face with heavy wrinkles. His hair, once long and wavy like her own was now stiff and white. He claimed it was from experiencing the Darkness too many times, but Mei knew it was because of his age. He didn’t like to admit it, but he was getting old enough that the everyday tasks of keeping the prisoners fed and watered was taxing to his brittle frame.
He left leg from the shin down was made of solid walnut, engraved with blessings from Elohim from the priests of the order. He’d lost it to a great beast that had attempted to claim the lives of several hunters while they were on patrol together. The team medic had saved his life but consigned it to a time as a servitor instead of a warrior. This didn’t hamper him in any way (save for the noticeable limp) and he still carried his rounded battle axe with him when he patrolled the halls. It glowed an eerie green light at all times, illuminating dark corridors when he rounded corners.
He said it glowed whenever an agent of evil was nearby.
Mei smiled as she watched her father stir, his blue eyes blinking blearily to fight away the sleep that threatened to reclaim him. The fire was inviting and, judging by the smell, he’d enjoyed some lamb stew before relaxing by it with a treatise on the fine styles of martial combat used by the Order when hunting and tracking those afflicted by the Darkness.
“You’re awake,” he groused, yawning out the last word.
“The final bell tolled a few minutes ago,” Mei said with a soft smile. “Why don’t you let me handle the prisoners tonight. You know how the winters make your joints lock up.”
Her father stared at her for a few moments, one knotty hand coming up to stroke his short beard. “The Abbot wants me to take special care as we will be having a new corrupted soul coming in soon, one said to contain enough Darkness to snuff out even the brightest of lights.”
“Are they here yet Pater?” Mei asked, walking over to the fire, grabbing a wooden bowl and ladling another helping of lamb stew from the blackened cauldron. Turning, she passed it to her father, who merely smiled at her.
“No,” he replied after a minute, picking up his spoon from his lap, where it’d fallen earlier. Blowing off the stray bits of fur from his padded clothing, he dug into the hearty meal. Mei smiled before serving herself a small portion. She never had to eat as much as the others in the Monastery. She would often go to the kitchens, where the dishes would be stacked high on a long wooden table, several cauldrons burning over low embers the following days meals, enough to feed an army. Rarely did she encounter any of the staff, and when she did she merely spoke in her father’s rough voice while keeping her hood up.
No one was ever the wiser.
“Your Pater isn’t feeling so well tonight Mei,” he said after finishing his bowl of stew. He set it on the side table next to his chair before heaving himself up. His wooden leg held surprisingly well, and he plodded towards his bedroom. “The keys are hanging on the rack, the kitchen staff should have loaded up the materials for the prisoners. I’ll just take a nap and wait for you when you come back. Try not to take too long.”
“You can count on me Father,” Mei said, walking over to the rack by the door, a ring of iron keys hanging from a verdigris-covered ring.
“Remember, don’t talk to anyone or look them in the eye. Just serve them their food and water and move on. Some of the people we have trapped in the dungeons are terribly dangerous.”
“I know Father,” Mei said. “They all have the Darkness within them, and allow it to flow freely through them. The Aberrants shouldn’t be tolerated for what they are.”
“That’s a good girl,” her father said, slowly walking into his room. “Do what you must to keep them in line. You have your knives?”
“Of course,” Mei replied.
“Don’t be afraid to use them. Some of the Aberrants down there are truly monstrous,” her father warned before closing the door to his room, a loud click signaling that he’d locked himself in.
Mei felt a surge of pride as she walked to the door: her father trusted her to care for the prisoners of the Order in his stead! He’d brought her along a few times, and she’d done the job a few times with only a few hiccups, but he truly trusted her with the criminals held in the dungeons.
Mei adjusted her bandolier over her shoulder before unlocking the door to their living quarters. Pulling the hood of the coat over her head, she walked out into the hall, closing the door before locking it with one of the long keys.
Walking down the darkened corridors towards the kitchens, deeper within the mountain, she smiled as she slinked past one of the monks. Elder Briarwood, a hook-nosed man with piggish eyes and slicked back black hair dressed in ornate robes. Supposedly a master of the White Way, he served the Order as a trainer to new recruits and students in how to identify the threats that lurked in the world.
Strange how she was able to slip past him as he walked into the upper reaches of the Monastery. Perhaps he was losing his edge…
Mei turned the strange old man’s ways of dealing with Aberrants away from her mind. His flickering torch had made the corridor bright for a brief moment, illuminating the murals of the great battles the Order had fought against the followers and creatures consumed by the Darkness. Despite the lack of light, Mei’s glittering eyes could still see the intricate painting along the walls.
Her favorite mural was perhaps ten feet wide, showing a towering skeletal figure standing over a crimson landscape. Demons struggled with men and women dressed in white, all while the figure watched on unimpressed. The dark figure always seemed to be something that Mei pondered during her brief few moments a night.
What was it? Was it a supposed font of Darkness, or a Dark God? The monsters struggling with Order members all looked different, large with spines and multi-colored skin. Some had no eyes while others bore dozens. The artist had outdone themselves when painting the mural, no doubt about it.
Reaching the door to the kitchen, Mei pushed it open and slouched into the room. She could hear the bustling of someone within the room.
She had to be careful.