Lorwin Leatherworker grew uneasy as the warm winds of the wastelands rustled his dark, flowing hair. It had been little over a day since their improvised caravan had left the ravaged village, the only home he had ever known. He was accompanied by a handful of fellow nervous villagers, the Elder Guard and their leader.
Most of them were silent, still in shock after the horrors they had witnessed the previous night. The guards marched them along on horseback with somber faces, likely thanking whatever gods they bowed to for delivering them from the task ahead.
None of the chosen had any useful training or actual experience in the art of battle. They were just simple peasants driven by their faith in the prophets of old and blind rage over their recent losses. Their baggy, worn clothes and rusty makeshift weapons were hardly ideal for traversing the deserted wastes, not to mention actual combat.
The shrieks of the giant scavenger birds above reminded Len of the horrible night; he and Wenda had been fast asleep in each other’s arms when the raid began. It was only a matter of minutes before the airborne demons had all but completely razed the once-quaint town, their black leathery wings fanning the flames that engulfed the villager’s defenseless homes of brittle straw and wood. Lorwen had come face to face with one of the horned aberrations when the roof over the bedroom collapsed on him and his beloved wife. The red-eyed creature had gazed at him curiously for a moment as it hovered over the burning house, and then flew off to continue with its siblings’ rampage on the dark, moonless night.
Lorwen had managed to drag his unconscious wife away from the flaming wreckage before joining the other desperate villagers in their futile attempts to put out the inferno and ward off the incoming attackers. It wasn’t long before all that remained were ashes and corpses as the flying beasts returned north before the night reached its end, leaving the devastated settlement behind.
It was only after sunrise that the sobbing had ceased, and the survivors began reclaiming their possessions from the smoking ruins. It had been ages since they had suffered an attack of this scale. As the peasants calmed down, the village Elder elegantly emerged from the smoke in tattered robes and began his speech, attributing the sudden attack to prophecies of old. He told the tale of the Great Beast, which had now awoken and had sent his heralds to announce his terrible return. Lorwen paid little attention to the faithful rambling, being more preoccupied with his wife’s failure to wake up.
In his fragile state of mind, he still harbored disdain for the talk of prophecies and monsters, but the townspeople cheered as the Elder offered them a solution to their woes. The prophets had long foretold that on the advent of such a tragedy, a small group of warriors would unite against the forces of the Great Beast and drive it back into oblivion from whence it came.
In the commotion, Lorwen hadn’t noticed the Elder approach his wife’s sleeping body. As he carefully touched her silky brownish hair with a wrinkly hand sporting various golden rings, he claimed that there was only one way to bring her back; appeasing the gods and fulfilling the prophecy.
God or no gods, Lorwen accepted the offer to become one of the Chosen Few. Whether for love or hate, he had embarked on the journey not for his people or his fallen brothers, but for Wenda Rivercrosser. However, he was certainly not alone in this endeavor, for three others had been chosen as well.
Leaving Wenda behind was not an easy task, but at least Lorwen had guaranteed she would be taken care of by accepting the Elder’s offer. A hero’s wife could not simply be left for dead, no matter her condition, he had thought. The best healers would certainly try their hand at aiding her recovery.
Lorwen and the other chosen warriors left the village as the priests had commanded; with only their present clothing and whatever crude weapons they already owned, as it was prophesized. And so the guarded caravan, led by the village Elder, parted soon after the break of dawn from the peaceful village towards an uncertain fate.
Though at first the group was accompanied by the greenery and wildlife of the southern Livelands, the heat and despair of the rocky north was soon upon them. The famished birds overhead were the only reminder of the natural world, now. Legends claimed that the north was once thriving with life, long before the dark magic of the Ancient Wars, though it was now hard to believe.
Lorwen adjusted his hand-made quiver and hunting bow, looking around at his fellow village folk. Having lived his entire life there, he knew most of them personally. Bal’nur Smithand was shambling to his right, as if in imaginary chains of grief. A large hammer, probably crafted by his own hands, was slung over his broad, unarmored shoulders. His eyes, however, contrasting with his imposing figure, were that of a frail, broken man. He had lost someone in the raid.
Up ahead trekked Farel Lakeson, who was borrowing a canteen from one of the guards. He had no living family in the village, so Lorwen wondered what would drive a homely merchant to enter such a perilous quest. Probably the potential rewards, he concluded.
The last of Lorwen’s companions travelled closely to the Elder’s horse. Marlon, son of Markon. He used to be in the city guard before falling into disgrace after wounding his fighting arm during a duel with a fellow guard, back when Len was a young lad. Still, the old one could be their savior. Despite his crippling injury and apparent uselessness as a guard, he still carried a proper blade.
As the ill-fated caravan drew nearer to a cluster of rocky hills, they saw the cracked metal entrance grow larger in the distance, rising up from the dry earth as an ebony tombstone. It was, for all intents and purposes, a gateway to the underworld. On the dusty soil they could find faint specs of blood; perhaps the city guard had not been entirely incompetent and had wounded some of the devils. It was more likely that the creatures had brought some reward back with them. Ahead of the massive entrance, the Elder signaled for them to stop. The guards on horseback formed a corridor leading up to their master. The four warriors approached him as they were summoned by name. Lorwen was the first to be called upon.
“Lorwen Leatherworker, step forth.”
Lorwen did as he was told. This was no time for hesitation or regrets. Even so, the old man’s condemning eyes were heavy with a condescending gaze. They told Lorwen his odds of returning with life were slim. The Elder continued:
“We leave you, the chosen, as you were on the crimson night, in the manner that the gods have commanded. May they watch over you.”
A red cross was painted on Lorwen’s chest with a foul smelling substance. He waited for the Elder to finish the ritual with the others, who were just as perplexed as he was. When they were ready for entry, a pair of guards dismounted their steeds and began to operate a complex system of gears and pulleys connected to the iron gate. The ancient tomb was slowly being unsealed, and Lorwen wondered how the Great Beast’s servants had escaped it in the first place.
When the grinding of ancient machinery ceased, a large wooden platform was revealed, suspended in the air by colossal chains of iron, leading downwards into the cavernous abyss. The chosen warriors reluctantly stepped onto the contraption and heard haunting echoes of their footsteps in the vastness below. A disturbing rumbling sound answered their entrance into the monstrous crypt.
The Elder solemnly waited for the ominous sounds to subside before lighting a torch and handing it to a startled Lorwen. He then quietly whispered into the warrior’s ear:
“Wenda Rivercrosser is in good hands.”
As Lorwen quietly nodded, the Elder stepped back, and the guards began turning the cogs once more, lowering the chosen few into their pitch-black fate. Bal’nur clutched at his hammer as if he intended to strangle it, breathing heavily. The others were in better control of their emotions, but equally frightened. Marlon stepped closer to the torch, with the flames exaggerating his already stern features. Farel, remarkably calm for a merchant, had one hand in his pocket as he stared at the blackness below.
Lorwen studied his surroundings, attempting to use the light from the torch to gauge the size of the chamber, but it was of no use. Nothingness surrounded them on all sides, and the light from the entrance was now no brighter than a lone star in the sky. The merchant then broke his concentration:
“Do any of you gentlemen happen to have a plan?”
These were the first words any of them had spoken to each other since their ordeal began, though Lakeson’s query was a useless one. After a few moments, Bal’nur replied:
“We go down, we kill what we find.”
The comment managed to silence them for a little while longer, at least until they heard fluttering and bizarre chirping in the distance. Lorwen was about to draw his bow when Marlon interrupted, placing his good hand on the younger man’s trembling shoulder.
“Don’t bother, Leatherworker. If they were going to attack us, they would have by now. Save the arrows.”
Lorwen nodded in agreement; perhaps the geezer wasn’t as useless as he’d previously thought. Whatever waited for them in the shadow of this unholy dungeon would be far worse than the winged vermin. Still, the group instinctively huddled together near the torch. Together, they would be difficult prey to pursue. The flying demons would occasionally be glimpsed circling the lift, but always far enough that their exact number and position could not accurately be determined. Eventually, the animalistic chattering and flapping of wings stopped altogether. In the corner of his eye, Lorwen glimpsed the stony walls of their destination.
As the warriors drew nearer, it was apparent that this forsaken place was not of their time. The little that they could see of the dungeon’s exterior was unlike anything they had ever witnessed in the surface world. Stone blocks interlocked seamlessly in this buried tower, as if the entire structure were one solid monolith from a bygone age, carved by beings of unimaginable power.
The lift came slowly to a halt, barely touching the sides of the Great Beast’s peculiar home. The doomed party cautiously stepped into the underground entrance. The structure’s interior was comprised of an interlocking maze of damp corridors and smaller chambers. Boots steadily sank in the wet, spongy floor of the concealed labyrinth, and the stench was inhuman. Farel Lakeson appeared to be feeling queasy, and the other warriors promptly stepped away from him.
“I suggest none of us stray too far from the light. If one of us were to get lost in these corridors, I doubt we’d meet again,” stated a concerned Marlon.
The sick merchant quickly concluded his retching and resumed his place amongst the others. Wiping a rust-colored liquid from his mouth, he questioned Marlon:
“That’s a fine idea, old man, too bad none of us know which way to go.”
Lorwen paid no heed to the ensuing argument as he silently surveyed the dungeon floor. His years of tracking exotic-skinned game to be used in his inherited leather business had provided him with a hunter’s intuition, although the Beast they currently pursued was definitely no prey. To his right was a pile of human-sized bones, with several more littering the wet floor further down the corridor. Lorwen shone the light towards the bone trail and pointed. The others understood immediately.
The group was silent during their wandering in the damned ossuary, contemplating how many men had died there. Scraps of rotten clothing still clung onto scattered remains of their former owners. This was not the work of one of the lesser devils. No, this brutality was caused by something far more insidious. They could tell that the gods offered no protection there.
Finally, they reached the end of the corridor, with the trail leading into a tight metallic stairway and into deeper levels of the dungeon. Some of the lower floors were flooded, whilst others contained bizarre artifacts from a younger, more innocent world.
The merchant stuffed his pockets with useless metallic boxes which he found scattered across the lost chambers of the massive crypt. Perhaps they would be worth something to the outside world if they ever managed to return from their quest. None of it mattered to Lorwen, however, whose thoughts still dwelled on his beloved Rivercrosser.
Eventually, the estranged party reached a collapsed portion of floor, with a dangerous drop leading into an even larger chamber. Above the caved-in ruins was ancient message, scrawled crudely onto the walls in reddish brown:
As the group took a risk and dropped down to the other floor, the stench of death and rot became much worse. After recovering their senses, they found the author of the foreboding message lying against a large pile of rubble. The skeleton was almost entirely preserved, and still wore his village guard’s distinctive armor. Lorwen pondered over the hows and whys of the unfortunate man’s death in these forgotten catacombs. Had he really made it this far on his own? And if so, what business had h-
Marlon suddenly pulled Lorwen by his collar and pointed to his own ears, indicating there was something of importance to be heard. The confused Leatherworker lowered his torch, careful not to put the fire out, and drew his bow silently. The extension of the darkness ahead of him was immeasurable; this was by far the largest chamber they had encountered. Enormous pillars were spread amongst the looming shadows, serving as a foundation for the accursed buried palace. Metal husks of ancient box-shaped carriages were abandoned in the darkness, worn away by the forces of time. It took a moment, but Lorwen heard what the son of Markon was referring to. He signaled the others to stay put and focused.
It was the sound of blowing wind. Oh his grimy skin, Lorwen felt a humid, warm breeze. Where in the nine hells was it coming from? Unable to bare the shear blackness any longer, he took an arrow and held it up to the torch, turning to Marlon for his consent. The old man nodded, and Lorwen shot out an arrow with flaming quills. It did not need to travel far before it revealed the object of their supposedly holy quest in its brief, shimmering light.
The Great Beast was already staring at the unsettled party with numerous shining red eyes, breathing heavily. It had been expecting them, waiting. The entire structure trembled as the gargantuan Beast lunged towards them like a tremendous mad reptile, dragging itself along the damp, stony floor. The extremities of its titanic limbs were freakishly large but also disturbingly man-like. The grand demon sported several serpentine necks culminating in eerily expressive faces, which looked to be crying out in agony with terrible fangs and forked tongues. Luckily for the chosen warriors, the crude lighting and the direness of their situation prevented any further description of the dark creature, whose complete appearance would have certainly driven even the sanest of men to madness.
There was no way any of them could feasibly defeat the beast in combat, even with legions of well-armed soldiers. But before the others could properly react, Bal’nur Smithand charged with the fury of one who had lost all he had once held dear in life. Alas, even as he bellowed the sacred names of gods and ancestors to aid him in battle, an oozing black tendril emerged from the roaring beast and impaled the foolish warrior to the ground, leaving behind a lifeless doll of flesh.
Learning from Bal’nur’s foolish example, the remaining few attempted to retreat. Lorwen gripped the torch as if it held his eternal soul in the flames, and led the way atop the giant pile of rubble which had led them to this final chamber. He, the merchant and the old man were no longer warriors of fate, only desperate mortal men on the run.
None of them dared to look back during their tiresome climb out of the treacherous dungeon, but the chase soon took its toll. Fortunately, the Beast found it difficult to pursue them through some of the more compact stairwells and corridors, which slowed it down. Their bodies were weak, but before long the frightened men were sprinting though the upper levels, dodging bones and following the light of the torch. Damn the gods, thought an enraged and worn out Lorwen, damn the Elder and his prophets too! But before he was finished cursing, Farel let out an excruciating cry of pain.
A black tendril had pierced the merchant’s ankle and had begun dragging the writhing man down the corridor as he tried to no avail to stab the accursed thing with a shining gold dagger previously concealed in his pocket. The two survivors picked up their pace as they heard screams and the sounds of the metal trinkets the merchant had attempted to loot being flung about.
They were almost free, approaching the wretched lift that had first brought them to the decaying labyrinth. For a moment, a dreaded thought plagued Lorwen’s panicked mind; who would stay behind to operate the lift? The only observable controls were at the entrances, so only one of them could embark.
The two men reached their only known means of escape with a few moments to spare, and it seemed Marlon already held the answer to Lorwen’s burning question. As they stopped running, the old man approached Lorwen and handed him his rusty sword.
“You have a long life ahead of you, lad, and I’ve many a deed to atone for.”
Lorwen was speechless, but he saw the weight in the once-disgraced guard’s gaze. He had accepted his long-overdue fate. Lorwen put the sword away and Marlon was soon operating the ancient controls. The Beast was approaching fast, but the lift would be on its way, powered by dark magic from another age.
The beast did eventually reach the son of Markon, but Lorwen was already too far to see or hear most of the ungodly carnage below. Even the lesser demons were quiet now. The old man’s sword was all that remained of the brave party, but before melancholy could set in, Lorwen sensed something had gone awry. Curious sounds and vibrations indicated the contraption was stopping, not far from the exit.
As the chains rattled and walls trembled, light from above blinded the lone warrior. The gate was opened, and as his eyes adjusted, Lorwen saw the Elder, looking disappointed. His mind raced, but before anything intelligible could be uttered, the man spoke in a thundering voice:
“It’s a shame you had to find out this way. Most perish feeling honor in their hearts. Yet now you see the truth, unlucky one. We always pay what is owed.”
Lorwen’s heart was almost escaping his chest. There was nothing he could do at this distance, but he did not wish to hear the Elder’s story.
“Be assured you are not the first, or the last, and we pray that you shall be rewarded accordingly in the next life. It was never intended for you to slay the Beast, foolish boy, but to feed it.”
There was no time to ponder the consequences of his words. The contraption was now moving again, only downwards. The gate was closed once more, to be opened again only for the next generation’s sacrifice. Very little passed through Lorwen Leatherworker’s mind as he descended towards the gaping maws of the Great Beast, which anxiously anticipated their next meal.
He held out his sword firmly, as if it were one with his arm. He could smell the decay which emanated from the demon. It would not end like this. Lorwen dropped his torch into the fathomless depths below. He hesitated for a moment, and then he jumped, his last thought being the memory of Wenda Rivercrosser’s loving embrace.