The corridor is long, unnaturally so it seems; the cuffs chafe his wrists, even though he hasn’t fought against them. The hard, heavy thumping of two pairs of booted feet dog his own shuffling steps. He’s lost all sense of how far they’ve descended.
Up ahead, he sees a portal of light: the red flickering of torches against a background of… something else. For the first time, he imagines his steps turning, ducking under the grasp of one guard, catching his knee with a sharp kick, and running, running… But there’s nowhere to run. It’s taken a long time, but he knows that now. He could elude every guard, every templar, and disappear into the wilderness; and he still would not have escaped. You can’t escape the things that you carry with you.
The portal is an archway now, shaped from the living flesh of Wormwood and inscribed with holy sigils in a long-dead language. The room beyond is circular and domed. Torches line the wall, casting a ruddy ring around the perimeter. The upper reaches are illuminated only in the shifting blue radiance cast from the deep pool in the room’s center: The Pit. Talmund Harden, up to this moment unresistant, needs to be shoved into the room.
A priest, tall and gaunt with straggles of grey beard, turns as they enter. His face his hard, unreadable, and deeply grooved: like old scraps of wood in the garden pools at the Greenery. His eyes are deep and thoughtful, though.
“Talmund Harden, son of Lothan and Iolanth,” the priest intones, “do you come willingly to The Pit?”
“I do,” Talmund pushes up through his raw throat.
“Do you come here of sound mind and free will, and knowing the path you have chosen to take?”
The priest nods, and then motions the guards away. Talmund can hear their footsteps recede down the long hallway. The priest’s eyes are on Talmund until the sounds fade away entirely. Finally, the weathered wood of his features softens.
“You understand the choice you are making.” Half observation, half question.
“I d—yes. I will become apok.”
“You understand that this is not the easy road. That the punishments a judge would have doled out to you, although harsh, would have been kinder than the life you will face if you survive The Pit. And that, if you do not survive it, your death will be one of unimaginable pain and torment.”
Talmund nods mutely.
“You understand that this path does not absolve you, not in the eyes of the Light and not in the minds of the people. You will never be trusted, never be thanked, you will receive no helping hands nor smiles. The road will be hard, and long, and there is little comfort along it.”
Talmund does not respond.
“Knowing all of this, Talmund Harden, is it still your choice to enter The Pit?”
He raises his eyes to the priest’s. “There was never any absolution,” he says quietly. “Not for me. There is no undoing what I have done. Villages can’t be repopulated, families restored. Any such hope is naive. There is only one choice left to me, father, only one I can stomach: to become a dagger, and drive myself as far into the black heart of the Unholy as I have driven myself into my people.”
The priest’s lip curls into the faintest of smiles, but there’s pity in his eyes. “Very well. Talmund Harden, hold in your heart and your mind the sins you have committed against the Light, and step into The Pit.” He stands aside, and motions Talmund toward it.
Talmund finds it easier to walk now. Gone is the shuffling, the hesitating. The rippling, variegated surface of the glowing Pit draws him forward. It laps at the edges of its well, as if reaching for him. He finds himself standing at its edge, and he looks into its depths. At first there are only shades of blue and black, but then… he sees faces there. Bloated faces twisted in agony, poxy and boil-ridden. He sees the disease-bent arms of children, still clutching rough blankets. And he sees the eyes: wide and terrified and angry and betrayed. They stare at him. He flinches, but only for a moment. He’s earned their anger, and he will hide from it no more. He steps forward.
He had expected stairs, or a ledge of some kind. He had envisioned a slow descent into The Pit. However, his foot meets nothing but viscous liquid and he plunges into its depths, the light going out as if by a switch. The water engulfs him, and he cannot tell which way is up; he couldn’t swim to the surface if he tried. His lungs give out, his mouth opens, and the thick waters flow into him. He cannot breathe. Then he cannot feel his hands or feet. Then, as the blackness takes him, he hears the faint whispering of an ancient and joyous voice.
Father Reinart has overseen this ceremony four times, more than any other living priest. Each time is different. As the ripples in the pool fade, though, he figures that he knows how this one ends. Few people choose the path of the apok, and their reasons vary. Some believe they’ve found a loophole, an easy way to avoid just punishment; some want to torture themselves without really understanding what they ask; some are simply lost. A few—a very few—really understand what the apok is. This Talmund seemed like he could have been one of those. No matter now; Reinart only hopes that he has some peace down there amongst the old bones and deep secrets.
A splash interrupts his thoughts, and he raises his eyes to The Pit. As he watches, a hand emerges from the surface. It’s shaking and gnarled, and the skin is cracked as if by fire. It stretches its fingers once, twice, three times. Then it reaches and slowly finds the edge of the well. Another hand follows. Together, they pull against the viscous waters and drag a figure up from the depths: hairless, cracked, still smoking. And the face… the twisted visage of a demon, covered in boils and pustules, with sharp teeth and wicked brows. Behind it, though—behind the mask—are eyes that bristle with purpose.
Father Reinart and the creature regard each other for perhaps minutes before he works up the nerve to ask it. “What is your name, apok?”
“My name…” the creature breathes, “… is Penitence.”