On all sides, only cold stone was found. Some crumbled, some crumbling, but all in a state of ruin. All was silent except for the crackle of flame. All was motionless except for the fire, dancing just above the wooden planks that fed it. The light illuminated the dark passages – just barely.
Four figures rested on the hard rock – bloodied, dirtied, and tired. Even so, they could not fully rest. They knew all-too-well of the danger just beyond the edges of the light. Hard-won battles had put all on edge. Before, what lurked below was just myth, and not many believed in it. Now, it was a grim, brutal reality.
The flame made its way across the metal of a mace and a shield, illuminating the weapons of war. It made them look like they were red hot, set ablaze by the burning embers. The man to which they belonged wore heavy armor, but kept his face unmasked. An eyepatch covered one eye. His face was grizzled, yet determined. He had the confidence of a man who was well-versed in war. He was the first to break the silence of the desolate caverns.
“We must discuss our ranks. You, Vestal, you are too soft to be out in front. You should be in the back. Watch for cuts and wounds on the front line, and provide your healing to those that need it most. Crusader, you should be in the front lines, where your sword and shield do their best work. Leper, your armor is thick. Do your best to defend the rest of us, and I will as well. Remember, you must continue to move your feet during a battle. Battle is not so different from a dance. Keep moving. Watch your opponent. Watch their eyes.”
The light of the flame lit the helm of the Crusader. He wanted to believe in the advice of the Man-at-Arms, but he had seen too much of what these walls had to offer. “And what if they have no eyes?”
The Man-at-arms looked at the Crusader, and gave a sympathetic glance. “Yes. Of course, these are not like mere men. These are the manifestations an unnatural place. A place where morality is not known. Or perhaps it is known, but has been overturned. A place where the greatest evil also has the great power. A place where altruism is a mystery. They were never meant to walk in our world.”
He continued, “We did not ask for this, but here they are. They are not men, but things, seeking those they may devour. And so, these are battles the likes this world has never seen, and nothing like the battles out there, in our own world. Out there, you have order, an understanding, a respect for your fellow man. You have humanity. Yes, it may be true that your objective is the decimation of the enemy, but all the while, you know that it is man against man, and they are people just the same as you. Here, you have none of it. All you have is all-encompassing, all-consuming evil. They fight because they want to kill. Their greatest desire is to spread fear and terror into our world, and, if given the chance, to consume it.”
A gentle breeze blew through the ruined halls. The flicker of the flame fell and rose as if it had a will of its own.
The Vestal was the next to speak. “No. You are wrong. That is not the greatest evil. These creatures are simply doing what they were meant to do. Perhaps you could call it instinct. There is greater evil still. There was a desire manifested in the heart of a man. The desire for power and riches. And that desire propelled him to squander his wealth, to abuse and extort men, all in order to unearth the evil that we fight today. And I fear that this same evil is seated in the hearts of all men. For some, it is buried far down, and kept in check. For others, it bubbles near the surface, prepared to erupt, the fear of law and order the only thing keeping it in place.”
Just then a distant growl rose from down one of the halls. All leapt to their feet and tensed, their fingers white on their weapons. But the growl died as quickly as it rose.
All others resumed their resting positions. The Crusader did not. He pivoted towards the three. He looked the most uncomfortable of them all. “You all talk philosophy. All the while, here we are. We have set out, hoping for adventure, hoping for enough gold to cancel our debts. But we were deceived, all of us. The task we have before us is impossible. We, mere men, are tasked to bring down giants. What can sticks and stones do against these brigands? We are ants to them. The truth, as I can see it, is that we are doomed. We will never leave this place alive. Our one hope is that our names are not forgotten.”
The last of the four spoke through bandages wrapped and re-wrapped five times over. He held a massive sword, broken in two. It had come apart even before he came to this accursed town, the steel of the blade not strong enough when matched with the strength of the Leper.
“Crusader, you amuse me. You talk as if you have real concerns. I will tell you of adversity. When you undo your bandages and hope you do not lose more of yourself with every unwrapping. You, with your muscles in tact, dare to lecture about trouble. What we do now is bigger than any of us. I did not come for fortune, or adventure. I came because it must be done. If we few cannot stop these forces, then what will follow? And if not us, then who will do this?”
The flame died bit by bit, until it was but an ember.
“Enough talk”, said the Man-at-Arms. “It is time for rest. Remember, we have no scout, and we are all too tired to stand watch. Let us hope that nothing finds us. Perhaps the darkness will hide us well enough.”
And with that, he unsettled the flame, and it died, slow but sure, until the room was black.
. . .
“Awake! All of you!”, shouted the Man-at-Arms, clanging his mace against his shield. He leapt to his feet as if he never had rested. The others were slower to stand, and did so without coordination. All talk of rank-and-file was forgotten. The Vestal was found in the front lines, the Crusader in the back.
Before them, a skeletal figure stood.
“Bone Soldier! It is only one! We can win this!”, shouted the Man-At-Arms.
The Bone Soldier struck at the Vestal, and connected, and she fell back as she cried out in pain.
The Crusader charged towards the soldier, and delivered a mighty blow. The soldier’s left arm crumbled into dust.
Just as confidence grew, a new enemy emerged from the darkness. He crept forward, his skull snarled into an exaggerated grin – or perhaps he really did grin with joy and delight. In his right hand was a golden goblet, laden with jewels. There was a black liquid hidden in the cup.
“Bone Courtier! Don’t let the blackness from the cup touch you!”, said the Leper. And a wave of fear washed over those few heroes at the sight of those dead, hollow eyes.
But not one was quick enough to react. The Bone Courtier flung the black ooze at the Crusader. A hiss was heard as the ooze ate away at armor and melted into flesh. The Crusader cried out in agony. He dropped his sword, and knelt on the ground, cradling himself on the cold stone floor. All gazed in horror at the man who had been reduced to a child.
“I can’t. I can’t!”, the Crusader mumbled into the ground.
Then, a rumbling of brick and stone. The steady thump of large limbs was heard echoing down the chambers. And a mighty beast raised his head inside of the room.
“Bone Captain!”, the Man-at-Arms shouted.
“No! No! It can’t be!”, shouted the Vestal. “I thought they were only legend! I did not imagine something so terrible could exist! We can’t face him now. We are too weak!”
The Bone Captain raised his mace. The Vestal stood motionless, terrified to her core. The Man-at-Arms ran to her aid, and intercepted the blow. The strike dented his shield and forced him backwards, half-way across the room. The Man-at-Arms looked up at the creature, and met the monstrosities gaze. Most men would have surrendered and let death take him. Today, the Man-at-Arms did not. He looked up, and his eyes glowed a bright white.
“You can’t have them! Not today! Not any day!” and he charged, his mace held high in the air.
. . .
The dust settled on the battleground. The Vestal had finished healing the damage to the Man-at-Arms. The Crusader was able to walk, but not much more.
The Leper motioned to the next corridor. “Come. We must finish this, and get our Crusader home.”
They turned, and trudged down the next path, into darkness.