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?
3. Into the Labyrinth
Eventually, after an aeon when he had heard nothing but the distant drip of water, Talon crept out of the room of the carven slab and paused in the passage. All was silent and dark, except for the hazy moonlight but it did not reach as far as his position. A star winked in the darkness nearby. A fallen star? He caught a whiff of smoke.
Kneeling down, he discovered that what he had seen was the guard’s torch, guttered down to an ember. He snatched it up and blew on it until this ember blossomed with new flames that illuminated the great vaulted passage. Above his head the shadows still swallowed up the light.
He held the torch high but saw nothing. No one. No sign of the guard, not so much as a bent vantbrace. He held the torch as high as he could, and still the light did not shine on an armored form, alive or dead. But it stirred up movement somewhere in the shadows high above. Something scuttled across the unseen roof.
He turned and hurried deeper into the labyrinth.
He had tombs to loot this night. Riches to reap.
Elenara stood gazing down at the great carcass. Guards and attendants stood respectfully back as she crouched, stirred her hippogriff’s dorsal feathers for one last time. The bird like head, once warm with life was cold, the body limp, no more than dead meat.
She rose, and made a curt gesture to the attendants. They moved forward jerkily, and lifted up the creature’s carcass on a palanquin of spears. One of the guards began to beat solemnly on a kettle drum. Elenara standing tall amongst them, they began to march down the flight of steps that led to the foot of the Lawberg, to the vaults where the hippogriff would be interred.
“And so passes the hope of the Citadel,” she murmured to herself as she trod the stone steps solemnly, and the pounding of the drum sounded like the slow footsteps of a somber giant. The hippogriff had been the last of his kind, just as Elenara was the last paladin fighting for the forces of Good. Rumor had it that a clutch of eggs was concealed in some part of the kingdom, but none knew where.
Once there had been a great, merry band of paladins, sworn to defend the worlds of Light from the encroaching Sons of Darkness. Now the rule of Good obtained in only one world, this world where the Lawberg stood in the light of the greater moon like a statue to some embodiment of justice. The drum sounded the death knell not only of her dearly loved mount but of the hopes of fairness and honesty and justice in all the dimensions, all the worlds.
She knew that Evil existed everywhere, and was to be found even on her own world, but in former days it had been countered by equal amounts of goodness. Now Good was beleaguered, forced back to this one world. And Evil had become so strong that it could not be fought. It was the age old moral quandary made manifest. How to take up arms against Evil without becoming that which one fights. From what she had seen in the battle, it was no longer a mere philosophical abstraction. Those paladins who had not been slain, their hippogriffs with them, had renounced their vows, joined the forces of Evil.
They reached the foot of the Lawberg where the Forest of Light cast its hazy glow in the moonlight, only to find that Evil had struck once more.
Talon had reached a crossroads. Holding his torch up high, he gauged his chances down each one of the dark passages. Each wall was lined with doors, which led into tombs like the one within which he had concealed himself. He had inspected each one to learn to his dismay that these must have been the resting places of paupers, or those so vowed to a life of poverty that their grave goods were non-existent.
Another likelihood was that these tombs had been rifled by long dead thieves. Some still had doors, but usually their hinges were corroded, even if they had not been forced by earlier rogues. It had been an easy matter to gain entrance, but the effort had not been worthwhile.
Something scuttled across the roof high above him.
Talon increased his pace. These catacombs had become home to creatures of dire provenance, lairing within the ice cold passages during the night. Nothing had shown so much as a mandible as yet, but he was beginning to speculate about the fate of the guard who had come after him. The guards and the paladins and other high up folk from the Citadel of Justice neglected these vaults. Or perhaps they allowed dangerous creatures to take up residence to deter thieves.
But Talon was no ordinary thief. No ordinary thief, and this was no ordinary theft. This was the one that would make him rich, rich enough to quit this life of stealth and sleight, set up in a respected profession that had convenient working hours. He rather fancied training to become a lawyer, but no. He wanted to give up being a thief, and what were men of law but the biggest thieves imaginable?
What else, then? A royal minister, that would suit him down to the ground. He would implement the policies of some great king, working for the greater good, taxing the populace to pay for his king’s righteous wars, along the way taking the opportunity to put by certain funds that would never be missed… but no! He wanted to give up being a thief.
Then maybe, with all the gold and treasure he would amass tonight, he could buy himself a position as an archpriest. Lead the commonalty in prayers and sacrifices to Zorn or some other equally pompous deity. Tithe his flock to pay for his own luxurious life like all the archpriests did. But he wanted to give up being a thief.
Was there any line of work that was anything other than thievery writ large? He was in the wrong profession. And he wanted out.
Turning a corner, he saw that the passageway beyond widened into a long, wide hall. Carven niches lined the walls and in each niche was a statue, or the remains of one. Solemn, lordly faces gazed blankly down at the small thief as he crept beneath them, torch held high. Between each two sets of statue was a large stone doorway. And all but one was shut fast.
No detritus lay on the floor, no signs of neglect were visible on the walls, other than the inevitable stains of moisture. He had at last reached the deeper catacombs, the ones he had heard whispered about. Where the treasures lay stacked in great pyramids of gold, heaps of silver, mountains of rubies and emeralds and sapphires. With his left hand, he wiped his mouth dry from the drool that had unconsciously gathered there, as he approached the largest of the doors.
He searched for some kind of keyhole. At last he detected one high up, out of reach. Producing a slender rope made from dead women’s hair he fitted it to a grapnel, then swung it round several times and cast it high so it wound itself round the statue to the left. Now he began to foot it up the doorway, holding the torch in one hand, until he was level with the keyhole.
The statue’s hand looked as if it was intended to grip something, as if it had originally been depicted holding what, a spear? A flagpole? Grinning cheekily, Talon inserted his torch into its grasp.
These vaults were ancient, sturdily built, but the art of lock making had come on since those antique days. He examined the lock, probed it with lock picks. It would take time, and it would hardly be comfortable, picking the lock one handed while hanging from a rope, but it would all be worth it. No thief had rifled these vaults in the thousand years since their construction.
He had just picked the lock and was gazing at the riches that surrounded the interred corpse within when a cry of horror echoed down the endless corridors and passages of the catacombs. It seemed as if it came from the direction of the main entrance, although sound travelled strangely underground. Talon panicked. Had someone found the gates open, or the dead guard he had left in the Forest of Light?
Perhaps it was that echoing cry that inspired the scuttling thing that had been trailing Talon to make its attack. After gathering its many legs to itself up where it hung from on the shadow cloaked ceiling, it sprang at him.
4. The Haunter of the Catacombs
The first Talon knew of the attack was when a heavy, chitinous weight struck him between the shoulder blades and he was knocked from his perch on the rope, falling helplessly to the hard stone floor. The thing attacked him in a frenzy, and he tried to fend it off despite the ringing in his skull.
Rolling on his back he looked upwards to snatch a glimpse of an immense creature with far too many long, hairy legs, a constellation of staring eyes, a pair of clacking mandibles oozing venom. All this in the flickering, uncertain light of the torch that remained held in the stone hand of the statue.
He managed to free his long knife and jabbed upwards, catching a lashing leg clumsily. Then he hacked back and forth, flailing in horror at the barely illuminated monstrosity. It snapped at him with its fangs, and he scrambled backwards with the aid of one hand while flailing at the creature with the blade in the other. His retreat was curtailed when his back collided with the stone door of the vault.
“So you’re the haunter of the catacombs,” he said, gazing back into those staring idiot eyes clustered above the mouthparts. It must have been this creature that had attacked the second guard, carrying him off to its cobwebbed lair high overhead.
It struck again. Talon lurched to one side to avoid its fangs but it caught him a glancing blow to the shoulder. He felt no pain, only a light punch such as a hearty man might give in fun. But when he stabbed at the many eyes, a wave of nausea overcame him and he fell to one knee. The knife slipped from his hand, skipping and clattering across the stone floor, vanishing out of the ring of light afforded by the torch.
His opponent, fat and hairy, chitinous and glistening, lowered itself onto him, crushing him down to the floor. This job was really going wrong, he reflected as he lay helpless and paralyzed. It should have been easy. He had planned well, done his research…
As the thing industriously wrapped him in bone white, sticky silk that oozed from the rear of its abdomen, he cursed the paladins. What did they think they were doing, allowing wild and dangerous animals to lair in these vaults? It was downright negligent of them. What would their ancestors think…?
Numbness crept through his brain. Everything seemed to happen so slowly. Aeons passed, and still he was being enfolded in silk, until he resembled some antiquated mummified king of the kind he had seen in the vault. He could no longer move his eyes, although he could see perfectly well until a greyness began to swim up on the sides of his vision.
Almost the last thing he was aware of was a clatter of metal shod feet which he felt through the stone floor rather than heard. Then the impression of a kind of lightning strike. The creature jerked as if it were a puppet and the puppet master was going into spasm. Absently, Talon noticed some kind of war hammer jutting from its head. Darkness swamped his mind.
“Then this is he, child.”
Talon didn’t understand. Oh, the words made sense, spoken in a rich, rolling, sonorous voice, a little crackly with old age. But what in the name of Zorn did the speaker mean? The sentence was so vague as to be meaningless. He tried to say so, but somehow he couldn’t open his mouth. He tried to struggle, but he couldn’t move. He felt nothing, saw nothing.
It was as if he were nothing but a disembodied consciousness, hanging in the dark void. Talon had never believed in ghosts and spirits, but was that what he had become? Was he now an ethereal spirit? He ought to panic at the notion but he felt nothing. No emotion. He was numb in every sense.
And yet he could hear.
“Yes, my lord. He who killed one guard and led another into the grasp of the arachnid.”
The new voice was female, strong, vibrant, spirited, assertive. Humorless. He didn’t think there was much hope of him sharing a flask of wine with its owner, followed by some intimate conversation in the private booth of a tavern.
“Now the attendants have finished stripping him of the spider silk, we will be able to bring him round for questioning. Happily you stumbled on him in the catacombs just before the arachnid began to suck out his juices. Now he can face justice.”
“Yes, Lord Zennor. Had I not slain the beast, he would be a withered husk like the guard we found. Those catacombs would be purged of such horrors, had we the means.”
Lord Zennor! Talon was in the presence of one of the most powerful men in the empire, the Lord of Lawberg, Chief Judge of the Citadel of Justice. He avoided judges at the best of times, and this was distinctly not the best of times. As for the other voice. Was this female the one he had to thank for his life?
“It has been tried. But perhaps it is better we do not slay them,” Lord Zennor said, his voice coming closer. “They do not trouble us in the citadel, and they are effective guards against those who would come to the catacombs to rob and plunder.”
Talon felt a flash of pain. It came from where his shoulder ought to be. Gradually, feeling returned. His hearing improved, the greyness that had obscured his vision shrank back like cobwebs before a flame. He found that he could move somewhat.
Painfully he turned his head.
“The prisoner has recovered,” observed the woman. Talon glimpsed cold, classic, austere, icy loveliness gazing dispassionately at him. At the side of this statuesque virago was a white bearded old man who leant on a staff, a glowing wand he held in his other hand. Beyond them…
They were in the middle of a large chamber. Daylight streamed in through openings in the distant roof. He stirred again and found that his movements were hampered. He was bound to a stone post, and yet the paralysis that he had felt earlier had now lifted.
“Let me go,” he pleaded.
The old man—Lord Zennor?—placed the now dark wand in his belt and shuffled forwards. He peered into Talon’s eyes. “When the paladin Elenara went into the catacombs to inter her slain hippogriff, you were found before an open tomb. She rescued you, slaying the arachnid that had attacked you.”
“I’m very grateful.” Talon gave the woman—Elenara, a pretty name—what he wrongly thought was a winning smile. Coldly she looked away. “I’m indebted to you. Now please set me free.”
“You have been tried and judged while you were still unconscious,” said Lord Zennor, silencing his protests with a further, “and your sins are deemed to be most grave. You murdered one guard, endangered the life of another—happily he is recovering in our infirmary. But those are not the worst of your crimes. Only a very evil man would rob the riches of the ancient dead.”
“Oh, come on now!” said Talon. “That treasure was benefiting no one! Better I should redistribute it amongst the poor—innkeepers, brothel owners, and the seedier kind of alchemists would benefit from my generosity—than that it should spend all eternity in some underground crypt.”
“You are evil,” said Elenara with a snort.
“Evil?” Talon was offended. “I’ve done wrong in my life, but who hasn’t?” His nervous laugh tailed off in the cold blaze of her withering scorn. “You don’t know enough about my life, my background, to judge me. I was an orphan, living on the walkways of a floating city in the Sea of Many Islands from an early age. Even before that, life was harsh. I was beaten every day by my mother after my father ran off with another man. When my mother died in a knife fight, I ended up on the walkways. I had to steal to survive. I had no chance to make a better life for myself. But I didn’t ask for this life. Lord Zennor, you’re a powerful man. You can afford to be merciful. Give me a chance and I’ll change my ways, become a better person.” He trailed off as Lord Zennor shook his head.
“But we want an evil man,” he insisted. “We need evil to fight Evil. We have chosen you as our assassin. You will travel through the dimensions to the world of the Sons of Darkness, there to gain access to the halls of the King of Darkness. You will slay him.”
Talon’s face cleared. “You want me to kill someone? Well,” he added with a laugh, “why didn’t you say? Just set me free, point me in the right direction, and I’ll set out at once. I’ll need a knife.”
“He’ll bolt and run at the first opportunity,” said Elenara, to Talon’s chagrin. That was exactly what he had been considering.
Lord Zennor gave a smile. In a man less famed for his goodness of nature it might be called cruel. Even evil. With a suddenness that was almost as shocking as the action itself, he thrust out his hand and it sank impossibly into Talon’s chest. The thief gasped. He thought he felt fingers clutching tightly round his heart as Lord Zennor uttered some kind of incantation.
The lord withdrew his hand, leaving no sign of any hole in Talon’s chest. “A geas has been cast upon you, a sorcerous compulsion,” he said. “You must fulfill this quest else die in the attempt.”
“But I don’t know how to travel between the dimensions,” Talon carped.
“I will accompany you,” Elenara said quietly. “I know the way. I will guide you to the Lands of Darkness.”
“Why don’t you kill its king, then?” Talon asked. “If you know how to get there.”
“Evil consumes good,” she droned. “Were I to set myself up against the King of Darkness, I would become evil like so many paladins who have tried before. Even if I cast him down, I would be corrupted by power, perhaps even becoming Queen of Darkness in his place. You are evil…”
“You are evil,” she insisted. “So you will be able to prevail where a paladin would fail. That is why Lord Zennor chose you as our champion.”
Talon looked from the paladin to Lord Zennor in horror. All his life there had been people like this, sanctimonious, mealy mouthed hypocrites who dedicated their lives to pushing him around. None of this was fair, but he was under a sorcerous compulsion now. He had no choice. It seemed he had no option but to do as they wanted. A hopeless quest across the dimensions, just him and this lady paladin against the Forces of Darkness. There were faster ways to commit suicide.
Numbly he heard his foolish mouth say, “So when do we set out?”