I have often wondered if the name of the Caves of the Dead was incorrect, or if we were just lucky. The walls between this world and another, were definitely thinner in those dark and winding caverns, but either that world wasn’t the next, or we were just pretty lucky.
As we made made our way deeper and farther underground, the temperature plummeted. In no time at all, the air was filled with our frozen breath, and the steady dripping of ice cold water. I had sold some of my winter clothes in tiny little village on the way to the Margomarissi, and used the money to purchase food and a thin mail vest, expecting to need that more than some stout under garments. I was regretting that decision at the time, and had to make do with wrapping my cloak tight around myself and pulling on my thin gloves, for all the warmth this afforded me.
Fjorlief looked to have the best protection from the cold, wrapped up like a swaddled infant, but if we got into a fight, she would be ill prepared to let alone draw her new two handed sword, let alone swing it to attack. Those of us on foot did the best we could, helped out by walking rather than sitting stationary as the cold seeped into our bones. One of the Pelosian drivers, Catranasia, seemed to be suffering the most, even with advice from the Hutzlunr on how to keep the cold at bay.
She had obviously come to the conclusion that Skuza would be too damned scared to take any route other than on approved Pelosian roads, and would arrive at market in time to spend her share of the profits on buying some warm and woolly clothing. Hopefully this would be a rare mistake, and one that she wouldn’t come to regret. Something seemed off about Drazar now I think back on it, but since he was always hidden behind that damnable mask, I have no idea why such a thought would come to me.
Maybe it was just the way he sat as the dripping intensified, huddled even more closely to himself, as if he could force the water to ignore gravity’s call by sheer force of will. For the rest of us, the heavier water falling was something to be pleased about. “We’re about half way there, by my reckoning”, piped up Caderyn, “or at least we will be once we’re under the river proper”. Everyone nodded, happy in the knowledge that we would only have to endure the biting cold and wet surroundings for a few more hours at most.
The darkness of the caves cannot be over-emphasised at this time, but when it lessened, we weren’t happy with what the light revealed. With few light sources available to us, and the walls slick black with moisture, we were lucky not have had any accidents as we moved through the tunnels. Ahead though, there seemed to be light. Moving closer we found ourselves in a pool of white, above us a natural fissure in the rocks wide enough to let light down even this far. I blinked my eyes rapidly to get accustomed to the glare, and around me the walls of of the cave stared back unblinking.
Embedded into the walls were countless skulls, their empty sockets staring at us all. Some were certainly – or at least at one time were – human, but others were either men from an earlier time, when savagery had warped their physique, or they were something different entirely. Something from another place, that may have tried to look human, but had failed in some small way. Too long in tooth, bigger in eye, flatter of the skull…
Enough to fool some people, maybe allowing them to get close enough to feed, perhaps? I know now why I was feeling such things, why my mind was drifting further into fantasy, rather than concentrating on the very real dangers around us, but it took a Hormorn bellowing and dragging its horn against the stones to break me out of my fancy, and think about why I was acting so strangely.
Covering the walls, the bones, the skulls – everywhere, around us and above – grew a black moss. Shadow moss. An hallucinogenic growth taken by Dummonii priests as part of their rituals, and anyone else for that matter, who just wanted something of an escape. The water dripping from the ceiling, that had been falling onto our faces for at least an hour solidly had run through the moss, picking up fibers as it did. What ever alchemical agent it was within the shadow moss that caused its users to see what could not be seen had obviously been working on me, if not all of us.
In that moment of clarity, I knew I had to warn everyone, lest we all succumb to delusions, trapping ourselves forever in not only the caves, but also our fevered imaginations. Most of the party was quick to heed my warning, wiping their water away from their mouths, and pulling their hoods further over their face to prevent more from dripping onto their lips. There was little we could do for the hormorn, and we could only trust to their constitution and the skill of their handlers.
“It lets you see the dead”, I heard Caderyn say, as we made ready to move once more into the darkness. He was staring at the moss covered walls as he spoke, seemingly lost in thought, maybe remembering his last trip to this hellish place. I was about to ask why that could be considered a good thing, when he reached forward and tore some of the moss from the wall and held it in his hand. I could see what was going to happen, but seemed unable to stop him, to even want to try. In all honesty, if he hadn’t done what I knew he was about to do, I dare say I would have. With barely a moments pause, he opened his mouth and pushed the small handful of moss between his lips.
I half smiled at this. His reasoning was clear; if he could see the dead, he could warn us all of dangers we might not be able to comprehend. I’d have done it for the thrill myself, and to have saved anyone else from having to do something they may not have wanted to. I wasn’t sure if he was doing because he wanted to, or because he saw it as his duty to as the only Dummonii amongst us. At least, so far as we knew. I wasn’t going to let his visions take us too far off our course though, or allow him to hurt himself as he had done something quite noble, intentionally or not. I would stay by him until we were out of the caves, watching his back for corporeal threats, as he guarded us from other worldly ones.
* * *
We walked some way, Caderyn at our front, with me as his shadow. Valerius stayed close by too, for which I was thankful. The markings we were seeing on the walls near splits in out path meant nothing to me. Caderyn seemed led by something else, and I was following him, Valerius had to act as our guide.
I had seen a few of the others strip some moss from the walls, but they weren’t ingesting it, so I said nothing. If they wanted to partake on their own time, that was their call to make. Hell, they could sell the stuff to Pelosian mercenaries for all I cared. It was when I saw the glint of amber that I started to worry about taking things not meant to be touched. Everything we had picked up so far on the road had been taken and counted by Valerius, with the understanding that even if you carried it now, it was the property of Skuza.
This was his endeavour, and I had no problem with this ruling. Fjorlief would have to pay the value of her new sword from her share of the profits, and I was happy to give up a few coins for the Hutzlunr ’s battered brigandine. Caderyn claimed no desire to keep hold of the battered and rusty helmet he was wearing, but that surprised no one. A hunk of uncut amber the size of my fist though, that was tempting to take. Something told me that to do so would to be to risk the ire of whatever else lived inside these caves though, so I stepped quickly forward, keeping the Dummonii at my side.
“That is not for us”.
It took me a moment to realise that he had spoken at all, and I wasn’t sure to whom he was directing the admonishment. I quickly looked about, spotting Catranasia eyeing the amber. I don’t know if she had jumped down to grab it and been stopped, or if Caderyn just knew her mind and was quick enough to stop her from making a grave error. She complied, but others were also keen on taking souvenirs. As I said, there was plenty of shadow moss going to be walking out of the caves with us, but some were looking to grab other fungus too. “Put it back, the spirits ain’t pleased”, once again it was Caderyn who spoke, but I was never sure if he even saw what the others were doing, or was following instructions from the voices in his head.
As we approached another junction, I was sure that he was seeing things the rest of us weren’t. he paused as we neared the left hand turn, but never made a move towards it. Valerius seemed happy to be continuing on our way too, but there was something there that had captured Caderyn’s attention. “Don’t interfere, don’t follow”, he said to the darkness down the tunnel, “We’ve already dealt with you. Go along your way.”
I should have asked who was there that wanted to dog our steps, but it seemed a personal moment, and with a shake of his head, Caderyn turned away and continued down our chosen path. No matter how intently I stared down the side tunnel, I saw nothing but blackness.
* * *
That wasn’t the last strangeness that awaited us down paths not taken, but rather that than anything blocking our way. Another alcove, this time with something of flesh within. Almost human from a distance, but up close, it was an “empty one”. No soul left, maybe never had one. When Caderyn spoke, it was getting harder to keep up with his thoughts. It was as if he was asking questions of someone not there, and getting interrupted by them too. He seemed to know what this thing was though, and kept his distance.
The figure was short and squat, barely covered in ragged clothing, but with a clay bowl in its hands. It turned towards us as we approached, and Caderyn assumed a defensive posture, clearly worried that this little thing might be dangerous. It seemed small and inconsequential to me, but I wasn’t about to die because my pride had made me stupid. I didn’t move too far back though, and used the length of my sword to steer the bizarre little homunculus past me, towards the carts.
It didn’t seem to care, or even notice that it had come close to being impaled on several feet of steel, and just carried on until a hormorn put its mouth into the bowl and took the entire wad of moss. With that taken care off, it just carried on back the way we had come as if it hadn’t a care in the world.
I looked towards the Dummonii, hoping he would have something to say that made sense. “We are being hunted. The Toma comes, and this was a warning. It meant no harm, and was sent by a benevolent spirit”. All I could do was nod, but over his shoulder, I saw that this spirit, friendly or not, might have more to say. Another Empty One was heading towards us, slowly, feet almost dragging as it held its bowl of moss towards us. Caderyn turned to follow my gaze, and I saw a smile play across his lips, “They bring more shadow moss, this is a good sign”.
My sword was already in hand, and I wasn’t yet ready to sheath it, as further ahead, I was sure there was another. Caderyn took the moss from the closest one’s bowl, putting into his mouth and began to chew. There was definitely another ahead of us, moving out from an alcove to head in our direction. As it closed on us I directed it past, trusting the others to do the same. looking over my shoulder, it seemed the biggest threat to it was the hormorn.
At least a couple were almost as high as our guide, and none of them seemed to care about trampling one of the creatures underfoot. More were approaching though, and further ahead, more still. I soon lost count, as the darkness made it impossible to keep track, but it seemed like only seconds until the entire cave ahead of us was packed wall to wall with Empty Ones. Were they as friendly as Caderyn thought?
He looked to be changing his mind, but the shadow moss made it a slow process. As they gathered about him, he seemed confused at first. He was obviously certain that they were supposed to be on our side, and was struggling to cope with the idea that they may not, especially as so many were closing in on us like a tide. Eventually, his resolve stiffened and he brought his shield to bear. Although he still seemed determined to avoid killing them, he was less than gentle, pushing them hard away, knocking several from their feet as he diverted them past us.
I was even less forgiving, and had my sword pointing directly at them. The flat wasn’t doing enough to keep them from my way, so I was pushing out with the tip, stabbing into flesh in the hope that they’d realise the danger they were in and keep clear of my sword. It was not to be however. When they had lost their souls, they had obviously also lost a reason to preserve their lives – if one could claim they had such a thing – and they continued to move inexorably against us.
By this time dozens had moved past us, but even more lay ahead. I had stopped caring about what could befall my companions, concentrating on staying on my feet, with enough space about me keep thrusting the basaedo where it needed to be. It wasn’t until I felt warm breathe against my neck that I realised this wasn’t going to be enough. At the front, he wad stalled against the mass of creatures, but those behind had carried on moving. The hormorn had cared not about what they stood on, and were now close to using us as a walkway too.
Panic finally settled upon me, and I found my eyes alighting on anything that might offer a way past, but finding nothing. Caderyn looked almost as worried, with no solution presenting itself. Thank the Gods for women though, especially those with Vytch blood running through their veins. “You’re all idiots! Do what I’m doing!” I looked behind, and was thankful that both Fjorlief and myself were taller than almost everyone else. I could see the Empty Ones streaming past her, not impeding her in any way, but it took a few seconds to see why.
She was taking the shadow moss from each creature as it walked towards her, pocketing it as fast as she could, and then they were just walking on by. Behind her I could already see that dozens were disappearing into the darkness just as eerily as they had appeared ahead of us. There were still dozens ahead, but with the Hutzlunr’s plan seeming to work, we set about it. I was happy to drop the black mold onto the ground as the Empty Ones streamed past us, but others were filling their pockets. I may be mistaken, but I’m almost sure I saw Caderyn stick a handful or two more into his mouth as we thinned out the crowd.
Behind us, the others were following the Vytch’s lead, and within a few minutes the throng ahead of us had started to thin, and minutes later the Empty Ones were nothing but a few retreating shadows. I was happy to take a moment to breath, and at any other time would have been quick to lash out at Caderyn for insisting we were in no danger. A momentary glance was enough to make me wind in my tongue though. His eyes were almost totally glazed over, and I doubt he could have heard what I said, let alone take in its meaning. I remembered my promise to protect him, and went to his side, patting his shoulder and turning him once more in the direction we so fervently hoped would lead us from these dismal caves.
* * *
Drazar didn’t seem to come out of this encounter as well as the rest of us though. In the confusion something had happened to him, but I never found out what. Fjorlief was quick to offer her aid though, or at least, so I thought. As I was still more concerned with making sure that whatever was going through Caderyn’s head didn’t spill over to dangerous levels, I missed most of what happened. I would like to think that she was trying to help him, in her own way, and what happened afterwards was just unfortunate. She placed her hands on him, or maybe on his mask, to see what was wrong.
Him apparently. With a look of disgust on her face, she quickly pulled her hands back, “You’re wrong”. Two words, and in relation to no other conversation. She wasn’t disagreeing with a point he’d made, or an idea he’d floated. He was just wrong, in some way that she could sense and was repulsed by. It would of course be nice to live in a world where everyone just got along, but at the time, I would have been happy if they could have at least pretended to for the rest of the journey.
And we were still a way to go until we were even out of the caves. True, the path had inclined back up by now, and the dripping water had slowed considerably, but with possibly hours to go it seemed like scant good fortune at all. Ahead though, there was light. My first thought was daylight, but we were still too deep underground for that. As we moved closer, the light coalesced into a human form. Well, nearly human, and also more than.
She was a head and a half taller than either Fjorlief or myself, and built like a Hutzlunr warrior of legend. Armed with a long spear, and wearing the bare minimum of armour, she was nevertheless impressive. From each temple grew a long curved horn which added to her height and marked her as the Toma that Caderyn thought was hunting us. He seemed unimpressed and stepped forward to meet her, myself still acting as his shadow, unwilling to give up the chance of fighting a Goddess.
“You have brought filth and contamination to this place”, she intoned, “You shall no go further with such abominations in your company”.
“We bring nothing”, replied our half cut guide, struggling up the steep incline to meet her, “many times have people passed through these caves without the likes of you stopping them! The Corbie tribe have allowed us passage, so let us pass!”
“The Corbie have no right to say who walks these caves, that is my right! And I will have tribute. Their shadows will suffice, if any of you hope to see daylight once more!” Caderyn seemed shocked by these words, and was moving forward to meet her, weapons drawn.
“These are my men! Leave them be”, came a shout from behind with a thick Hutzlunr accent. Toma smiled, and left the shout hanging in the air, offering up the silence to be filled. I was almost close enough to slash at the huntress as she spoke first.
“Tribute then. Who shall you offer up to appease me?”
Thinking this a feint to give us opportunity to strike, the next words I heard threw me out of kilter, “Him”. I stopped suddenly, and looked behind, wondering just who the Vytch was was so willing to sacrifice.
I should have known, and you dear reader are almost certainly ahead of me, your lives not being in mortal peril as mine was. With one arm extended, the finger pointing solidly at Drazar, I found I couldn’t move or speak. If she accepted the offering, would we leave the man to have his soul taken by the Goddess?
Time slowed for me, but I imagine Drazar’s mind was racing. I had already seen him wield the earth power, and expected that the Vytch would be just as powerful. Would he strike at her before Toma came for him? Allowing himself vengeance at the cost of his life? Toma spoke first though, “He is unclean, and not worthy of my bite”.
“How about a bite on his shadow then,” countered Fjorlief, indicating Valerius. Surely this was a jest to distract Toma, and we must act quickly. Caderyn jumped at the chance too, and it seemed that a thought that had been fomenting for some time was finally allowed access to his tongue.
“We cannot trust her, she will take more than a bite! She is a Succubus, how do we kill her”, and with that he was charging in to the fight. I was quick to follow, but in less than a second realised that I was too late. She threw her spear like a javelin, and it burst into flame as it flew through the air towards Valerius. Brand was not to be outdone though, as his own weapon was soon engulfed in fire as he drew it ready for combat. I knew him to be a fighter without equal based on only a short time in his company, and with a magic weapon in hand, even the Goddess must not have seemed too challenging. But I swear on the Gods, as the fight started, and his sword lit the cave, a look of terror seemed to come to his face.
Other things were more important though, as I was close enough to Toma to strike out. Before I knew what was happening though, she had vanished, replaced by a fast moving tendril of smoke that began to quickly wend its way towards Valerius. She was certainly keen to get what was offered to her, and there was little I could do to stop her. In this form, she was impervious to my attack, no matter how well placed my blow, it slipped through the smoke as if it wasn’t even there. Cursing her I threw my torch to the ground and pulled out my dagger, readying myself for her counter attack.
It never came though, at least not at me. With flaming sword, Brand slashed at the smoke, and it quickly took on a solid form once more. Whatever hunger she felt, it had obviously gotten the better of her, as she was now surrounded. Caderyn had charged after her, smoke or solid, and was swinging his axe with a look of hatred on his face. Valerius had somehow managed to string his warbow ready to loose an arrow, and with flaming sword Brand was tearing her flesh open.
She was certainly more powerful than she looked, but being either a Goddess or a Daemon, that wasn’t much of a surprise. The wounds inflicted seemed to be closing up almost as quick as they were opened, but never fully sealing. I imagine that if she wasn’t so outnumbered, she would have made short work of us indeed. With the melee tightly packed, I was willing to hold off in case one of our men should fall, and careful enough to avoid getting too close the Dummonii, as he slashed about himself with wild abandon.
Thankfully, I wasn’t needed in the fray, and before long, the creature that called herself Toma was down and vanished, and the group was victorious. I dreaded the conversations that would follow the offering of tribute, but they would have to wait. We still needed to get ourselves free from these caves, and hopefully we had faced the worst they had to offer. I went to check on the Dummonii, to make sure he wasn’t too badly hurt from the fight, but apart from still looking bleary around the eyes, he seemed in fine form. Mostly.
Maybe it was the moss that made him do it, but as I watched, he looked down at the bloody axe in his hand thoughtfully, before lifting it up and running his tongue along the blood soaked edge. Once more I found myself ready to explode at him for being such an idiot, but he had just gone toe to toe with a Daemon, and come out on top, all the while being off his head on shadow moss. Whatever his reason for drinking the blood of his enemy, it was his own.
I followed him once more to the head of the group, as the Pelosians behind us began a pitched discussion on the implications of imbibing Daemon blood. Since I had fed some creature my own blood only a few hours earlier, I saw it as fair game, and just hoped we would see daylight soon enough.
* * *
We were to get my wish, but exhaustion had robbed me of the ability to keep track of time. It was early evening when we emerged, and I would like to think we had managed the trip in a day, as I don’t remember sleeping at all while we were down there. One of the Corbie tribe was waiting for us, and in my addled state I was sure it was the tribal leader who was there when we set off. I have no idea if such a thing was even possible, but I just needed to get away from the caves, and out of my damp cloak before the chill could get into me. “Well that was fucking fun”, says I, as the Corbie waffled on, “but it’s going to be dark soon, it’s bloody cold, and we’re all wearing wet clothing. How about we move on sharpish and find somewhere to get a fire going where we can sleep”.
Valerius was too busy engaging with the Corbie, and I was too strung out to be diplomatic, “Or we could just stand around here in our wet clothes having a chat I suppose?” Not the brightest thing to say, and Valerius’ patience must have been wearing almost as thin as mine, as he put me in my place.
“After what we’ve just been through, this is the done thing. I know we’re all wearing cold wet clothes, but I’ll ask for directions to campsite when we’re done talking.” There was little I could say to hurry him along, so I trudged forward and waited for us all to move. Eventually we did, and once we exited the shadow of the mountains, the chill in the air vanished. If we hadn’t been wearing such wet clothes, it would have been quite pleasant. As it was I was very happy to see a patch of open ground ahead of us, with two tall totem poles topped with corbie facing away from each other up ahead.
Well, Valerius had done his job alright, and led us to a campsite. I decided not to mention that we could have found it ourselves by simply following the path, as I think he would have quickly lost what little patience he still had with me. Instead I got a fire going and hung my cloak to dry while the hunters went after our evening meal. I was honing the point of my Basaedo as Skuza prayed to his God for delivering him – somehow forgetting to thank the men and women who dragged his pox ridden arse through the caves – when I heard Drazar and Fjorlief exchanging some loud words.
I didn’t need to make out the details, as I could be pretty sure what they involved, so I just waited for it to all die down. Once they had gotten it off their collective chests, Drazar walked back towards the fire. Although his mask prevented me from seeing his expression, his body was practically humming with anger. “What happened in those caves wasn’t right for anyone. We still have a way to go though, so how about you two learn to live with each other until we get someplace safe”, says I, and hoped that’d be the last of it before we could all get some sleep.