The Haunter of the Catacombs By Gavin Chappell
1. The Death of Beauty
Talon was a thief.
This wasn’t the way he’d envisaged his life, it was just something he was doing until something better came along. So, he was a thief. Oh, and sometimes he cut throats. Purses, too, on the more profitable nights. Or maybe none of that was true. Because Talon was also a liar. A thief and a liar. And a cutthroat. But this was only temporary. One of these days he would really be somebody.
Talon the Cutthroat, some people called him. But seldom twice. And even Talon the Rogue. He didn’t like that either.
That night, that fateful night when it all went wrong, he was making his way through the Forest of Light in the direction of the holy Lawberg, not as a plaintiff, or a jury man, or even a sightseer, but as a thief. He had a plan to rob the ancient catacombs beneath the citadel, home to the mortal remains of Lord Zennor’s august predecessors. If he pulled off this job, it ought to net him enough coin to settle down, go straight, become a force to be reckoned with in some real line of work. That was what he thought. That was what he hoped.
No thief wants to be famous, it’s bad for business, but how it had warmed his cockles to learn that he was notorious in some quarters. Thieves’ quarters, of course. In the stews and the brothels of the cities of the western continent, he was known to all the wrong people. Sometimes that was a help. Often it was more a hindrance.
Regardless, he had little to fear on that score, not in these parts. The wrong people simply didn’t go near the Lawberg… Except as prisoners.
Six times had the greater moon chased the lesser from the night sky before he finalized his plans. He much preferred the planning stage to the venture itself. Usually, the latter was either tedious—that was when the plan went off without a hitch—or terrifying and needlessly adventurous, leaving him reflecting, sometimes from the dank confines of a dungeon, that he was really getting too old for this. When the plan just didn’t come together. When it all went wrong.
It was all going to go wrong tonight, far worse than it ever had before. But right at that moment, as he flitted from glowing tree to glowing tree, his eyes fixed on the Citadel of Justice that topped the Lawberg like an accusing finger pointed at a recalcitrant sky, he had no notion of quite how sour the plan was going to turn.
He pulled up sharply, hearing the clank of metal shod feet on rock. Darting into the cover of a glowing tree, careful to avoid contact with the radiant foliage, he peered out.
Coming up the path, the crash of their armored feet providing a discordant counterpoint to the ceaseless tintinnabulation of the iridescent crystalline leaves, were two guards, bearing halberds. A patrol! Nothing he had gleaned from a dozen quiet enquiries had prepared him for this, patrolling guards in the Forest of Light. Its lethal vegetation was seldom traversed by any but the most rash. Gamblers. Daredevils. Those who would face all risks in return for a quick profit.
Yet here they were, and from the scales of justice emblazoned on their armor, he knew them for imperial guards of the High Council of the Lawberg, possibly even Lord Zennor’s personal troop.
He sat tight in his hiding place and waited for them to pass. But what was this? Both had halted mid-path and were staring at the starry sky. Talon glanced upwards and that was when he spied what had alerted them.
Tumbling through the night towards the Citadel, clearly in trouble, was a tiny dot that abruptly resolved itself into that rarest of flying beasts, a hippogriff. On the back of the hippogriff sat an armored figure.
Elenara Moonstar held on tightly to the reins of her steed as its wings beat the air. It spiraled wildly towards the landing platform on the citadel like a leaf in a storm. The hippogriff, perhaps the last of his kind, was severely wounded, the broken off shaft of an arrow jutting from his breast feathers.
Elenara’s armor also showed signs of recent fighting, scored and battered as it was and even burnt in places. Her eyes were wide with horror as she struggled to guide her steed down. It was imperative she bring her message to Lord Zennor and the High Council. A terrible tale it would make.
At last, the hippogriff landed on the smoothly polished stone of the landing platform, a wide expanse big enough to hold hundreds of such mounts, hoofs clicking and clopping before he collapsed, sending Elenara sprawling, undignified, on the stone. But as attendants hurried out from the citadel to aid her and her steed, she spared no thought for her own pride.
The hippogriff was dying.
Elenara had raised him from the egg. All the imperial paladins had reared their own hippogriffs—an inseparable bond was thus created, one that lasted until either paladin or hippogriff died. And even as an attendant helped her rise, and the rest tended to the mortally wounded beast, she knew they had reached that point. Bleakly, she accepted wine from the attendant, but it did little to wash away the pain.
One of the others approached her tentatively. “Ma’am,” he said, his insect like mandibles clicking as he helped her remove her armor, “we’re very sorry. We were too late.”
“He bore me long and far, through the dimensional gates,” Elenara said with a sigh. “And already his wounds were mortal. I will see he is interred in the most ancient of the catacombs beneath the citadel. But just now I have urgent news. Where will I find Lord Zennor?”
“He and the High Council are gathered in the Chamber of Justice,” clacked the attendant. “They await news of the war.” His compound eyes were hard to read, but Elenara knew that he was curious himself. However, she refused to slake that unspoken curiosity. She could not tell him that Evil had utterly triumphed.
“I must go to them,” she said. ‘But I will return to see that all is done as it should be for my steed.”
Fair locks whirling around her head like a lion’s mane, she turned and strode across the platform towards the high ivory gates of the citadel.
The two guards were talking in an undertone. Talon was growing impatient. They stood between him and his destination, showing no sign of moving on. The hippogriff who had caught their attention was out of sight, no doubt having landed on the citadel above, although at this point it was impossible to see due to perspective.
With one hand Talon hunted about in the dry soil. Then his fingers closed what he had been searching for—a stone pebble. He flung it into the trees on the far side of the path. The clatter rang out harshly over the jingling of the leaves. Both guards whirled round.
“What in Ti’s name was that?” one asked. Both had their backs to Talon now, but still their armored forms blocked his path.
The other guard issued a challenge, but there was no response.
“We must investigate it,” urged one of the guards.
“No sense in us both going,” said the other. “You go, but be cautious. I’ll keep the path guarded. Remember, raiders have been sighted.”
Talon tried not to giggle. One guard was now forcing his way through the glowing trees, halberd at the ready, searching for any sign of interlopers. But his companion remained, guarding the path. Talon considered trying to make his way through the trees, but he was unarmored, and the crystalline leaves were sharper than any thorns. They would cut him to pieces before he had got a man’s length further.
Only one thing for it. Silently drawing his long knife, he slipped out of his hiding place and padded across the rocks towards the guard. Still the man kept his back to him. This would be only too easy.
The guard stamped his feet. It was a cold night, and the steam of his breath issued from the ventail of his horned helmet. He gripped his halberd in one gauntleted hand and watched where his mate had gone. In the eerie light of the lesser moon, he could see little but the gleam of the man’s armor.
Then something was on his back like one of the legendary vermin of the catacombs.
Talon gripped the armored man by the throat with his left forearm, forcing the ventail upwards. Instinctively the man caught Talon’s arm in his gauntlets, metal fingers bruising his flesh. Cursing inwardly, Talon thrust his blade through the resultant gap, felt it slide slickly into flesh, gritted his teeth again as he jerked the knife across in a horizontal slash. As blood jetted from the guard’s helmet a gargling cry of alarm burst from his lips, then he fell with a clatter.
His corpse lay in a heap of ironmongery, blood seeping sanguinely across the stones in the light of the lesser moon. The thief cursed. This was what he always hated. The plan had gone awry. That appalling, inhuman noise would have alerted the other guard, who even now could be heard blundering back through the crystalline vegetation. Not stopping to wipe his blade, Talon ran down the path in the direction of the catacombs entrance.
2. The Solace of Shadows
Elenara strode into the council chamber, head held high, though her heart was heavy. She endured the questioning stares of the High Councilors as they gazed down at her from the serried ranks of seats, dwarfed as she was by the immensity of the chamber. A hush descended upon the robed figures.
She reached the bottom of the three steps leading to the podium. Lord Zennor sat upon his modest stone seat, watching her approach. She knelt on one knee, inclined her head.
“In the name of the Sword and the Ring, may I speak with his lordship?” she asked, her voice clear and carrying.
“Of course, child,” said Lord Zennor. Was that anxiety lurking at the corners of his ice blue eyes?
Elenara ascended the steps, made another obeisance.
“Enough of this bowing and scraping, child,” Lord Zennor said gruffly. “Please make your report in the usual fashion. Tell the High Council why it is that only you return from the thousand strong force that issued forth.”
Tears threatened to manifest in her eyes. She turned to regard the whole chamber. A galaxy of eyes gazed back at her.
“My lord, august councilors, we paladins encountered the Sons of Darkness mere worlds away. Their army was vast, comprising of ranks upon ranks of hideous creatures, norns, and corrigans, dark knights and things for which there can be no name, only that they are horrors. We were desperate, seeing the smoking ruin they had made of that world, a once pleasant forested place known as Ebonvale. Grizzled General Melanicus led us in the fray, his armor glittering in the harsh sunlight of that dimension, his red cloak fluttering behind him like a banner. I did not see what happened to him, being beset myself by many foes. But when I saw how many had been lost I realized at last that we had no hope.”
“Paladins were slain on that field?” asked a High Councilor.
“Paladins were lost,” Elenara corrected him. “Some were slain, aye. But more were… altered. I saw the change come over them with my own eyes. Their gleaming armor grew black as if darkly corroded. Their eyes changed, their faces too. The hippogriffs also altered under the baleful influence of the black sun that rose above the field, became twisted and horrific, until they were the foulest of manticores and hippogriffs no longer.
“I saw in the end that it was hopeless, futile. A message must be sent to the High Council. I sought for someone who could go but could find no one. So I went myself. As I did, an arrow caught my hippogriff in the breast. He flew long and hard before he came to this dimension, this world… The exertion was too much for him. He died on my return.”
“You fled the field?” another High Councilor taunted her. “Confess the truth! It was you who deserted your comrades!”
Elenara shook her head. “That is not true. Besides, by the time I commanded my hippogriff to fly for the dimensional gate, I had no comrades to desert. Do you not understand? It was the corrupting power of Evil… some spell, perhaps, some baleful influence of the black sun that shone above the field of fight. I remember the same story from when I was young, before I joined the paladins. Time and again have they set out against the Sons of Darkness. Time and again have few returned. All told the same tale.
“And now none but me, most recently raised to their ranks, are left. The corrupting rays of the black sun… the dark flame… it is not just that paladins have been slain, they have been… converted. Gone to swell the ranks of evil. August councilors, my lord Zennor. Darkness devours light, night swallows the day. evil eats up good. Evil cannot be fought, for those who fight it can only do so by committing evil acts themselves. By fighting Evil, we join its ranks…”
Lord Zennor tugged furiously at his long white beard. ‘If what you say is true, child,’ he interrupted, “we have no defense against the Dark Ones. Our every endeavor will be futile. Evil must be fought, or it will consume us, and all the worlds. But only evil can fight evil. Were we to raise a new army, it would be in vain. The champions of Good cannot prevail, cannot hope to prevail.”
“Only evil can fight evil…” Elenara repeated his words, gazing at him wildly. “Therein lies our hope! We must pit the forces of Evil against Evil itself.”
“And how can we do that, child?” Lord Zennor chided. “How can we hope to induce Evil to fight against itself?” He rose stiffly to his feet, with the aid of his ornately carved staff. “This meeting is ended. We have heard enough. Return to your duties.”
As the meeting broke up, Elenara turned to depart.
“Where will you go now, child?” asked Lord Zennor gently.
“First I must see to the entombment of my hippogriff,” she told him.
“Very well,” said Lord Zennor. “When it is done, come to me in my chambers. There is something I would speak with you about…”
The clatter of armored feet echoed from the singing trees as Talon ran towards the catacombs. The guard was after him! He had been seen! Seldom had a job turned this sour before.
Down a narrow cutting in the stone he went, with the great cliff of the Lawberg rearing high overhead. The stone was wet and slippery, and the steps that had been cut into it in places were hard to traverse. But soon he was at the gates, which were of beaten brass, richly ornamented, and as tall as three men.
He paused, reaching into his shirt for the forged key. The tale of its procuring would be a long one, best saved for the tavern. He inserted it into the keyhole, then paused, about to turn it. The clatter of the guard’s armored boots was growing louder.
Talon looked over his shoulder, to see an armored shape silhouetted at the far end of the cutting. At that moment the greater moon rose above the horizon, and the cutting was flooded with its yellow light.
Cursing, Talon turned the key and shoved at the gates. With a grinding and rumbling they slowly opened.
“Hold!” The voice was loud and booming, magnified in some way by the armor the guard wore. “Hold still and submit yourself to judgment!”
“Not likely, friend,” said Talon. He could see only one hope for it. As the rocks rang to the sound of the guard descending, he gave the gates another push and shove. The one on the left slowly opened to a crack, and darkness seemed to ooze from the catacombs within.
Talon darted inside, seeing only darkness, feeling the cold of the tomb, smelling the spicy scent of flesh embalmed with natron. Into the darkness he hurtled, seeking only to lose his pursuer in the catacombs. Later he might be able to rob at will, but the richest and oldest tombs were on the lower level, and he would find them when he had the time and the leisure.
As he fled down the long, night black passage, he thought he heard strange scuttling noises from the rock above. Things were rumored to lair down here in the darkness, despite the best attempts of the guards to cull them. Quite what things they were nobody seemed to know. Nobody who had met them had lived to tell the tale.
There was a great roaring crash from behind him. Talon spun round to see the gates had been forced fully open. A man stood in the arch, armored arms akimbo, the light of the greater moon gleaming from his horned helmet and his halberd.
“Give yourself up and you will be treated according to your deserts,” boomed the guard’s voice. Hardly a persuasive argument, Talon thought wryly, as the moonlight flooded the high vaulted passage. Seeing in its gleam a doorway hewn from the living rock on the left-hand wall he darted inside, seeking the solace of shadows.
Colliding with a carved stone slab in the darkness, he halted. Glancing back at the doorway, he saw the light was increasing. But mingled with the cold glow of the greater moon was the flickering light of flame. He smelt smoke drifting down the passage. The guard had lit a torch, and was coming after him.
A tortured scream rang out, the torchlight winked out, and then there was only silence. For a long time Talon crouched beside the slab, eyes on the doorway, trying to control his shaking limbs.
What in the name of Zorn had happened to the guard?