“’ere now, ain’t you a pretty one,” came a voice, followed by a chorus of laughter. Orteg’s head jerked around to see the torturer and his assistants approaching, each bearing two large amphoras. “We was thinking youse lot might be gettin’ ‘ungry so we brung ya some breakfast.” He sloshed one of the amphoras.
Barris groaned and turned his head away as far as he could. “No… no more milk, please.”
“Now now, we brung ya this special and it ain’t perlite to refuse gifts from your hosts,” the torturer said in a simpering tone, brushing the flies from Barris’s face as his assistants guffawed. “Minky, ‘old his mouth open.”
Once the six amphoras had been emptied into and over the hapless Barris, the head torturer moved to Orteg’s cage and tossed a water bladder through the bars. “Eat ‘earty, mate,” he sneered. “But none for ‘im, unnerstand?” He jerked his head toward Barris. “Less’n it’ll be the worse for you.”
“No,” murmured Orteg, his trembling hands fumbling with the bladder spout. It was warm and brackish and he could feel little shreds of skin from the bladder on his tongue, but no drink in his life had ever been sweeter.
There was a rumbling, then the sound of diarrhetic voiding. “Fuck!” screamed Barris. Orteg could hear the wretched man’s cramping stomach all the way over here. He closed his eyes, pulling his jerkin up once again. It was going to be a long day.
Worst by far was the midday heat, during which, seemingly every insect in the swamp seemed to appear in the little clearing to investigate. Some of them were interested in Orteg, but for the most part, their attention was focused solely on Barris. Try as he might, thrashing his head from side to side and blowing frantically did nothing to stop their assault. Orteg did his best to avoid watching Barris as he suffered but sometimes was unable to tear his eyes away. The sound of his tortured bowels continued regularly until Orteg thought he would go mad with the stench which somehow found its way under his jerkin.
When dusk fell, the worst of the insects left Barris alone and he was reduced to tearful babblings that Orteg could only partially interpret. There were pleas, curses, and nonsensical ramblings. He complained of the flies which had crawled down his body, attracted by the warm moist fecal air between the two hollowed-out shells. He bemoaned how asleep his arms and legs were, after being held in that position for so long. He cajoled and threatened, begged and demanded, that Orteg throw the half-full water bladder to him. Orteg said nothing to this, seeing its futility and fearing retribution by the torturer when he presumably returned the next morning with more milk and honey.
“…just a little water, nobody’ll ever, if you just—OW!”
Orteg’s head jerked up from a light doze. “What? What’s happening?”
“A rat! A rat!” screamed Barris. “A rat just climbed up the log and bit me on the lip! I’m bleeding! Help! You have to help me!”
“I can’t!” Orteg screamed back, dancing from foot to foot and rattling the cage door. “I can’t get out of this cage you stupid fool!”
“Help! You have to get me out you have to you HAVE TOOOOO…”
Barris began thrashing about with a frenzied strength but the logs did not budge. Orteg could hear the squelch beneath the bottom log and a wave of excrement-smelling air wafted his way. Fighting to control his gorge, he looked up at the sky. Through the haze of tree limbs, he could see a star.
After panicking for a time, Barris ceased, panting as he licked at his wounded lip. “Can’t fall asleep,” Orteg heard him mumbling. “Got to stay awake. They won’t come if I’m awake. They won’t come if I’m awake. They won’t come—”
He was still repeating this when Orteg fell asleep.
A bloodcurdling scream rent the night, wrenching Orteg from his dark dreams. Leaping to his feet, he hit his head on the cage. Stars burst in his vision and he grabbed at his head as another scream shot into his ears. Turning to face Barris, Orteg saw something he would never forget. The moon had come out from behind a cloud and illuminated a large mass of squirming bodies completely obscuring Barris’s head. At least ten huge rats squeaked and crawled all over themselves and Barris, licking and chewing the sweet sticky residue from his face. His cries did nothing to deter them, Orteg saw, as one of the rats stuck its head into the screaming mouth, cutting off its cry for a second. There was a crunch and a brief squeal as Barris bit its head off and continued screaming.
Orteg turned away from the dim shape thrashing around in the silver moonlight, sinking to the bottom of the cage and putting his fingers in his ears. He looked for the star he had found earlier and found solace in the hundreds which had appeared around them. Eventually his ears grew numb to the screams and he drifted off into a slumber, deep and dreamless.
Orteg stirred, yawning, from some of the best sleep he could recall. It was very still, and the sun streamed through the gnarls of tree branches, illuminating the mist which rose from the swamp. Bars of rising steam were danced and played between the trees, the light creating beauty wherever it touched. Turning, Orteg caught sight of Barris. His stomach contracted violently and seemed to shift inside him as he stared in horror.
Barris’s face had largely disappeared from the nose down. His teeth were displayed in a hideous grin of agony which made Orteg’s testicles shrivel. His nose had been whittled down to a stub and the nostrils were gaping canyons into his head. The eyes were as yet untouched and the flesh around one of them quivered as a nervous tic made it jump.
“By the gods,” breathed Orteg.
Barris’s eyes shifted to Orteg and he grinned at his comrade. Or maybe it was a grimace. “They’re inside me.”
“What’s inside… not the rats?” Orteg asked, his stomach rolling even more at this fantastic but easily visualized horror.
Barris shook his head, just once, side to side. “Bugs.” He nodded downward, his grinning face a horror show. “They smelled my shit… they came… I couldn’t stop them… now they’re inside me.” A tear ran down his macerated face as his hoarsened voice neared panic again. “They’re inside me… laying their eggs, I can feel it…” He winced and shifted. “I pray to die, but the gods are not listening.”
That night, the rats returned and removed most of the flesh they had not already consumed, ignoring the ragged screaming. Orteg dreaded the visage that would greet him the next morning. When the sun finally came out, Barris’s entire head had been chewed bald and red, several layers of skin missing. The next night they took one of his eyes. Barris had very little use for the other one at this point however as his slide into delirium accelerated. His sentences descended into madness as the insects invaded his festering flesh, moving upwards through his digestive tract. He was reduced to nonsensical babbling, and, most disturbing to Orteg, periods of laughter which could not be stopped. Between these were periods of silence where Barris often stared at the ground with what remained of his face, drool dangling from his mouth on a long string. Every day the torturers brought more milk and honey, but after several days they stopped the charade that the doomed man would drink it and simply dumped it on his head for the vermin. Orteg tried not to look.