“Thirty Gold if you dare to enter the lowest passages.”
Thirty Gold! Why on earth did he agree to it? “My damn boot is worth more than thirty Gold”, Alonso hissed. It was a subconscious expression of his displeasure, yet he flinched at once when the amplified echo of his soft murmur lunged back at him from the black maw that was the end of the staircase. And while the surprising sound alone made him shudder in the beginning, the thought who else might have heard it made him shiver even more.
Silently he cursed Frederigo. He hadn’t just thought up this damned challenge, everything started with him one year ago, come to think of it. What a day it had been! What an honor! The count himself had handed him the green tunic of a soldier of the Mark. “From henceforth you shall serve my House with your arm and life” he had said and Alonsos chest swelled with pride as Mark count Heron lifted his finger solemnly and added: “But not only so! You will serve the people of the Westmark, your people. And in serving them and my House, you serve the whole of Myrtana. For the Mark separates the righteous Men of Myrtana from the savage Sons of the desert and Trelis alone stands between them and the realm. Should the Hashishin rise again and march on Myrtana, then Trelis shall be the bulwark that protects the realm and it will fall upon us, the people of the Mark, to stop them from ever reaching the heart of Myrtana. It will fall upon you, Alonso.“ No sermon he had heard, no divine blessing he had received, had ever elevated him this much. Never had he felt such a tingling permeate through his body, not even that one time, when his father had sent him to the village of the rangers to fetch medicine for their sick bull, where he met their druid.
But now, just as he took the last step, he felt the tingling again. Yet it this time it was different. The enormous, dark shadows cast by his torch appeared almost like the ghastly hands of specters, reaching for him from the walls of the narrow corridor. Moving, erratic and twitching. And for a few moments their sight captivated him, standing there, lost in them. At once he awakened, like from a trance, tearing himself free in fear. Were they really ghosts, he asked himself, inching away from the wall, did they hypnotize him with their movements? But no, ghosts, hah what an old wives’ tale! The light was too dim and staring at a wall for this long made his eyes water and his skull throb, yes that was it. Slowly, as if his legs would not obey his command, he started moving again, imagining how Frederigo would laugh at him. And yet his thoughts started returning to that day which anniversary they had celebrated at the Dancing Meatbug today. It was Frederigo who had showed him around the castle. It hadn’t been the first time that he went to Trelis. He was sent to the blacksmith with broken scythes and went to the small temple of the castle to attend a service. But it had been something very different to be shown around this stronghold, the pride of every man of the Mark as if they had built it themselves, knowing that he was to defend it from now on. He, just a son of a menial worker from the farms! He felt like a real man for the first time of his life. But Frederigo, with a laugh, had set him straight at once: “Don’t believe for second that that green tunic makes you a man, whippersnapper. –In this big hall is the throne room of our count Heron, but you probably know that already. -My sister also has a green tunic. And when the Hashishins come I trust her way more than such a boy like you. -And here you can go down into the catacombs of the castle. Be careful, quite a few guys went in and never returned. If you had to go down there you would soil your fancy new green coat.” Frederigo had called out the buildings of the castle dismissively in passing. And his breath had smelled of wine. Alonso had paid little heed to his mocking words. And yet, the catacombs had haunted him from this day onwards.
He almost screamed as something brushed his head and caught onto his hair. Fear turned to shame as he realized that it was just a cobweb. A spider had spun a web across the whole passage. He tried to muster some courage, telling himself that such big cobwebs were absurd, how could there ever be enough flies down here in such a dark and forsaken place. Yet not even the hint of a smirk could crawl over his face at the thought. If only he had taken his helmet!
It hadn’t taken long until he, instead of keeping watch on the walls, at the gates or patrolling through the streets, was sent down the stairs, below the main building of the castle. And what of it? It was just a cellar, nothing more nothing less. A bit dark, a bit cold, but just that. No guard liked having to patrol through these tunnels, not out of fear but because it was dreary and uncomfortable. Neither did it appear to really matter, as far as he could tell. Of course, Trelis was rich. But what thief would even dare to enter its deepest depths? Furthermore, wouldn’t the guards up in the yard, in front of the stairs, be more than enough to repel every trespasser? However that may be, he had never been afraid while shuffling through these corridors to guard crates and barrels, sacks and chest, holding the grain of the numerous farms of the Mark.
There! A sound! A quiet scratching or scraping had found its way from the darkness to him. Or did he just imagine it? Yes, surely it was just his imagination! -At least that was what he tried to tell himself, hoping to calm his racing heart while carefully inching forward, one hand against the wall to steady himself. He rued the glance to it immediately, wincing as it seemed that there danced more than just the shadow cast by the fire. His free hand fumbled around on the belt, yet while he knew exactly where it hang, yet while he had practiced drawing it quickly so often, his fingers did not find the handle of his sword and just grasped empty air time after time. When they finally closed around it, he hesitated for a moment to draw the blade and risked another look at the wall in front of him. Once again, he chastised himself for his skittishness. They were just murals! Glyphs, figures, humans, animals, he was barely able to distinguish them and not just because of the dim torchlight but because they were faded and withered away, so much that even the brightest sunlight would have yielded a faint idea of how this hallway might have looked like, centuries ago. How old was it? Surely older than even Trelis itself.
He had heard stories about the catacombs of the castle even before his time in the Guard, even before ever setting one foot into the stronghold. In the Mark mothers told their children bedtime stories about them and the Castle Guards scared the farmhands in the Dancing Meatbug after a bottle of wine or two how deep these tunnels ran below the castle, down into the earth. “Some even say down into Beliar’s halls!” he recalled the words of his grandma, seeing her wrinkled and weathered face again, despite her having closed her eyes for the last time so many years ago already. Old wives’ tales, he reminded himself once more. Some of what they say, might be true: The tunnels below Trelis were, in part, older than the castle itself, remnants of days gone by, and old buildings lost in time. The lowest reaches were barely used, but that did not mean that they were haunted. And a tunnel down to Beliar’s halls, something like that did not exist anyways!
There it was again! This time he heard the scratching clearly. No, it was impossible this time to dispel it as just his imagination running wild. He paused, hesitated. He could just turn back, he told himself. Surely, he had ventured down deep enough… But no, he had to press on, to the end of the line. It was a question of honor. A question of manhood. He would show Frederigo that he was no coward. Surely, it was just rats that he had heard.
But what if it was a giant rat? He knew that there were rats almost the size of wolves on Khorinis. One had snuck on a ship bound for Trelhaven, where the Guard was called when it made landfall. They had surrounded the rat and, with their spears, stabbed it till the bloody end. But it had been in broad daylight and there were five of them. Down here he wouldn’t want to meet such a beast…
Had anyone been down here since they had lain the old count to rest after he had fallen in the varant war? Alonso hadn’t even been born back then. Of course, a select few were also sent down to the lower levels of the catacombs. Where not wheat and cheese but the fine wines of the count were stored – as well as the counts gold. And where the dungeon was, where the counts kept their prisoners. But Alonso had entered to recently into the counts service as to be trusted already with standing guard down there, where treasures and criminals were hidden from the light above. And now he had passed even that level for quite some time already. Down here was where the ancestors of the count were laid to rest. As long as nobody of the noble House was about to be interred, no living soul would find it its way down here.
There was a passageway. He would cross it, then turn back. Yes, Alonso decided, that’s what he would do. And then to Beliar with everyone. He’d showed them then! He wanted to celebrate being a guardsman for one year and not go delving into some dusty, meatbug infested cellars! He cursed Frederigo and his bragging. “Don’t even think you’re more of a man than one year ago!” he had said between laughs, somewhere around the third bottle of wine. “Stood around ‘til you sprouted roots, watched over the farms, tracked down some goblins on the road. That’s nothing. Me? I thought the Hashishins, back in the war. You didn’t even go down into the catacombs below the castle. The true ones, not just the storage cellars where you are never deeper below the earth than in a ripper burrow.”
“Who dares to disturb my rest? Who dares to awaken Beliars Demon?”
The dreadful voice that boomed at him as soon as he stepped over doorstep, chilled him to the very core. He was so terrified he dropped his torch. It clattered on the floor, extinguishing itself. But it was dark for only just a brief moment, then two cruel eyes lit up in front of him. Their glow allowed him to dist a silhouette, big, with two curved horns on a bully head. Alonso screamed like a startled harpyie and felt a warm wetness soak down his pants. For a moment longer he stood still, like he was paralyzed, his legs betraying him, keeping him in place no matter how much he wanted to run. Then finally, they started working.
His flight from the cellars of Trelis seemed to take ages. He ran, stumbled through the darkness, slammed into walls, slipped on stairs, scraped his hands bloody, slammed his nose, ran into cul de sacs and maybe also in circles, thinking he was lost forever. Nonetheless he pressed on, no matter how lost he seemed, feeling the demon breathe down his neck still.
Miraculously he found his way to the surface. The blue night sky, the countless stars on the firmament, it seemed as bright as day to him after the darkness which he had escaped just now. Panting he collapsed in front of his brothers in arms, that sat around the stairs to the cellar, wasting their time with drinking and singing obscene songs. They didn’t seem phased at all by his ashen face, his haunted eyes, and his pained words, exhaled with the last of his strength: “D-demon!” They just laughed and laughed and laughed.
And then somebody behind him laughed as well. A man wearing the same coat of arms as him, strolling up the stairs. He looked almost funny with the two shadowbeast horns and glowing crystals beneath, all fitted to his helmet. Frederigo leaned down to him, padding him on the shoulder. “Brave boy, you actually dared to go all the way down. Awakened the Demon.” Alonsos Head turned, barely registering the laughter around him as if it came from a distance. He felt how Frederigo put a bottle of wine in his hand. “But still, you will only be a man once you locked blades with a Hashishin, whippersnapper. For now, you are still just a greenhorn who soiled his pants.”
Alonso wouldn’t become a man that evening, that opportunity would arise on his second anniversary, when the Hashishins stormed the pass and an arrow took one of his eyes.
Author: Jünger des Xardas