They ventured into the crypt: five militias, two knights, two priests, and one dog; torches in hands, provisions on backs, and a primal fright at heart. Leading the pack, the younger of the knights, Sir Rathamul brandished a sword and a spiked lantern shield. The oil lantern, a part of his shield’s gauntlet, emanated a dim orange light the radius of two meter–about two third the reach of his sword–accompanied by a sweet incense whose cost per pouch far surpassed the blue fur cap on his shoulders, and whose sole purpose was to veer away the stench of bat droppings.
Father Germini claimed the incense warded evil spirits and kept one sane by the grace of God; how much of this was a priest’s belief and how much was an apothecary’s consideration for the laymen, Sir Rathamul knew not. The priest knew his craft; that was certain. In this party, he was the only person who could speak Gondrash—the language of the dragons—and his healing arts could bring a man back from the brink of death. His young age was of no relevance to his wisdom, or so Sister Forse, who on the same day resorted to young age as an excuse for her inability to read, spoke about the man in white cassock, clutching a golden pectoral cross in his hands.
When it came to wisdom and age, however, no one in his homeland or that marble city of Azeth to the west could match Sir Winfried of Ursland in the south. The city of Ironheart had always produced the finest knights in the kingdom and Winfried was this generation’s most skilled red-helm guard. With his blessed tower shield, which was being strapped to his back for ease of travel, he could deflect arrows back to their shooters from fifty meter away.
In the end, only Sister Forse and three fifteen-year-old and two sixteen-year-old militias were childish enough to argue who, Germini or Winfried, was the wisest of them all. The children had grown attached to her since the day the chieftain commanded them to assist Sir Rathamul on his first quest as a blue-shield crusader. That was a mere fortnight ago, and yet their homeland—his homeland—the fishing village of Merlock, already seemed a distant memory.
Sister Forse, in a standard Azethan church’s black habit, would turn twelve this year. She was at the age where she could be courted by and married to nobles if not for her clergy duties. Sir Winfried opposed her coming with them; he saw her as a dead weight, a fine companion at the dining table but a dead weight in battle nevertheless. The one-meter-and-eight giant watched her slender back from the end of their human column, keeping a short half meter distance from the militia before him so that his torch would not drip oil on the boy’s leather helm. At times, he would nag her and her boys to keep quiet else they would wake the dead.
One last member of the party was Sister Forse’s dog: Dust. It was a large brown dog; large enough to carry Sister Forse on its back when she was younger, Father Germini said, but he could no longer. His mistress had outgrown him to the point he could be picked up in her arms and cuddled. This, Sir Rathamul later learned, was no exaggeration. Her work in Azethan church’s eatery apparently gave her the strength to pick up sacks of potatoes with one hand and the dexterity to outrun a chicken.
Inscribed along the crypt’s walls were oval glyphs indecipherable by either Father Germini or Sir Winfried. These black, obsidian glyphs gave off an apprehensive sensation when gazed upon and strange warmth when touched—in contrast to the cold haze permeating from the blizzard outside through the rocks and into this ancient sanctuary. Everyone was as tense as a harp’s string when Sir Winfried ordered one of the boys to inspect the glyphs. Reluctantly, the militia obliged and poked his spear at the wall, breathing a sigh of relief when nothing happened.
They split up into two groups. The first group consisted of Father Germini, Sir Rathamul and three militias traveled eastward along the wall. The second group; Sister Forse, Sir Winfried, two militias and the dog; went in the opposite direction, following the western wall. The knights with their shields and swords guarded their own respective group from frontal attacks, the militias with bronze spears shortened for indoor fighting covered the flanks, and the priests with torches remained protected at the center of the formation. The goal was to circle the crypt, estimate its layout and gather fuel for a camp fire.
Every step he made, Sir Rathamul counted it in his mind. Every hundred steps he made, he counted it aloud for Father Germini and the boys. Meanwhile, the priests and the militias kept their eyes peeled for dry branches, hay, linen or anything of interest in the premise, or anything that lurked in the shadows. As the step count reached a staggering thousand, Father Germini grew anxious. Even the Common’s Hall—the parliament building in Azeth city—was not as vast as a thousand steps in diameter, he said, and something was out of the ordinary, he concluded.
Sir Rathamul had also noticed the peculiarity of their situation. His senses told him they had been walking downhill for a while; but he knew not how steep the slope had been without a natural reference such as the sky, whereby the hypnotic, swirly patterns on the ceiling did nothing to help as they induced the same apprehension as the glyphs on the walls, then seemed to be coiling like a giant, living, stone serpent in his eyes. His feet, however, told a different story. The unarmored priest and light armored militias might not have felt this, but Sir Rathamul, cladded in steel from head to toe, had an acute awareness of this so terrible a weariness for a leisure stride downhill.
This surreal discrepancy struck him as dreadful for they could have walked themselves to exhaustion and been swallowed up by the eternal darkness, had they taken the trustworthiness of their senses for granted. Having understood the situation—that the crypt might be so vast, they would not be able to circle it with their depleting oil reserve and waning stamina—Father Germini urged them to withdraw if they ever hoped to see the sun again. He commanded Sir Rathamul to burn a bit of the expensive incense they were saving for the whole party after they rendezvoused.
The way the priest gave the commands got on the young knight’s nerves and the knight became infuriated. Sir Winfried was the party’s leader and Sir Rathamul was the second in command, this made the knight the group’s bona fide leader when the party split. Young as he might be, Sir Rathamul was still four years older than the priest and in his village, age and wisdom came in hand.
The knight was being unreasonable; Father Germini contested. But surmised he had authority, what suppose his plan was? Was it not the same? The priest challenged. To this point, Sir Rathamul had no retort and as soon as the incense was lit and they began marching to the crypt’s entrance, he felt petty and angry at himself for crying attention to someone younger than he was. Perhaps having seen through the knight’s frustration, Father Germini offered the first apology, saying, he had been a big brother to Sister Forse for so long that he had forgotten his place in the larger group. Afterward, words of confession poured out of his mouth so easily that Sir Rathamul had a vision: that this priest had brought out a church from the cross on his chest and placed them all within its sanctuary.
When they backtracked to the entrance, it took them only eight hundred steps and the uphill climb felt much worse than the other way—and yet his mind was exhilarated, thrilled by the normalcy, so filled with euphoria that the toll on his body eluded him until they reached the exit and finally got to settle down on the dusty floor. They welcomed the sound, the sensation, and the vision of a sensible and cruel world like an old friend they had not seen for many years. The roar of winds, the chill of snows, and the orange glow of lantern reflected off the dull rock face beyond the crypt’s entrance had become so beloved in their eyes. They had no sense of time in that strange place, but given the blizzard had yet to subside, it could not have been more than a few hours.
They sensed an imposing desire to flee the shelter and run into the raging storm. Indeed had they not been so weary to the point of collapse, the militias would have done so, and there would have been nothing Sir Rathamul or Father Germini could do to stop them. At the border of the blizzard and the crypt, they were assaulted by both the cold and the darkness. While the blizzard soon subsided, the chill lingered and the snow kept pelting down till dawn of the next day. But, dawn was seen by none of them for at midnight they heard a series of loud barks in the crypt.
Father Germini was the first to notice and he cried the dog’s name and brought a torch to the dark entrance. The soft galloping of a dog answered, drawing closer to their camp until the dog jumped out from the void like a javelin. All of them froze at the terrible sight in front of them: the dog with blank white eyes growled and bared his canine teeth at them, his mouth foaming crimson saliva, dark stains splattered his brown fur, and a nauseating stench distinctive of blood radiated from the creature. Sir Rathamul drew his weapons and the militias followed suit. Hearing the sound of sheathing metal, the dog flinched and darted back into the crypt. Father Germini, with only a torch in hand chased after the dog; all shouting from the knights and the militias went into deaf ear.
Sir Rathamul and his fellow warriors, who could not bear the guilt of abandoning their comrades, held their breaths, gathered their courage and once again plunged into the crypt. This time, they were much less prepared than before; much of their provisions were left by the camp fire and they only had on them the bare minimum oilskin for half an hour of fire. As they ran, the knight shed his plate armor pieces by pieces, with each piece making a resounding clang when it hit the stone floor, until there were only greaves and gauntlets on him. When he did so, he felt his body wrapped in both a physical and mental chill. Without the iron clad he would have nothing but the lantern shield and the short sword to fend off the mortal dangers implied by the sorry state of the dog. However, his mind rejoiced as his legs became nimbler and he could sprint faster than ever.
They covered a great distance before they caught up with Father Germini. The priest lost sight of the dog and was desperately shouting its name. They were at the center of the vast chamber, darkness stretching in all directions for as far as the eyes could see and the torchlight could reach. Sir Rathamul feared the worst had come to pass to Sir Winfried’s party, and should it have been the case, he feared there would be no going back from this adventure for he was nothing but a mere shadow of the great red-helm knight. He would rather fight bandits and wolves than fumbling in the dark, looking for a danger he could not perceive. Even swamp giants stank less than this crypt, said one of the militias, they would be better off in the blizzard than here, the other two militias added in unison.
This was the foolish priest’s fault, Sir Rathamul accused, he just had to run after the dog and drag them all into this situation; now without food and water, they would starve faster, if whatever was lurking in the shadow did not get them first. Father Germini said nothing. He let them vent their frustrations on him until they exhausted, then sighed and knelt down on the floor. Holding the golden cross in his hand, he prayed God for their deliverance and requested them to join him in prayer, which they eventually did. They all closed their eyes and chanted prayers after Father Germini. After a while, they could recite different prayers from memory and this, for a time, brought their souls closer to God, closer to salvation.
As it came to pass, he told them the method to find the exit. They would travel in zigzag pattern until they caught a breeze, which could only come from the outside world, and following the wind would lead them to safety. Sir Rathamul found the knowledge assuring, he removed the gauntlet of his sword hand—then felt like a shackle—and licked one side of his index finger, raising it up high to sense the cold embrace of the mountain wind and began to lead the party to and fro. It took no time for them to encounter a welcoming headwind, which they followed in the previous formation, having regained a sense of unity, and all the while reciting biblical passages after Father Germini. The sweet incense, the priest explained, was often used in cleansing rituals at the church and when combined with prayers from three clergymen formed the essences of God and called upon his divine power to vanquish the evil one. They did not have much of the incense left in reserve but he surmised it should last long enough till the exit.
At length, Sir Rathamul noticed the fragrant smoke from the incense was flowing against the wind, toward the direction they were traveling instead of trailing behind them. When he spoke his discovery to Father Germini, the priest dismissed it with a hint of ire in his tone, saying this was a miracle, proof that God was leading them to deliverance, and that they must be as silent as a lamb and have faith in the Lord’s guidance. Thus, Sir Rathamul, having been proven to be the foolish one for the second time, kept his doubts to himself and spoke his own foolishness no more. But the fragrant led them not unto their deliverance but into temptation, and into the hand of the evil one, as creeping into the foremost corner of their vision at this very moment was the remnant of Sir Winfried’s party, which they thought to have left behind in the void and ought to remain there for eternity.
There laid the corpses of two boys on the floor: one headless and the other had one arm impaled by a bronze spear, and a fatal stabbing wound at his side. The blood of their bodies had ceased to flow, the limbs were stiff, cold and blue, and when the party approached, the men caught glimpse of a few rats feasting on the boys’ flesh. A distance away, they found Sir Winfried in a frightening state; the man was groveling, hands holding his bleeding eyes, his scarlet helm thrown away, his large rectangular tower shield and his sword, covered in blood, laid flat on the ground nearby. Upon hearing Sir Rathamul and his aides coming, Sir Winfried picked up his weapons and charged at them, cursing witches and shouting repentance.
Father Germini, who had been squeamish and shaking, and the militias, who had cried their hearts out to the loss of their spear brothers, shouted at Sir Winfried to stop but it was in vain. Their leader saw them as witches, as heretics to be vanquished and his ears were shut as his mind was clouded. Get up and run! Screamed Sir Rathamul as he picked up a spear on the ground and flung it at the red-helm knight’s exposed head. This halted Sir Winfried for a moment, he was forced to bring up his tower shield to defend, angling the shield at an angle to deflect the projectile upward and bashing the spear back at Sir Rathamul when it fell back down. This was Sir Winfried of Ursland’s famous counter skill and it was only because Sir Rathamul had anticipated this coming that he was able to parry it.
Sir Rathamul knew he would not last against such a mighty foe on equal footings, let alone at a disadvantage; he had no armor on him while Sir Winfried was almost in full iron clad. But he had to buy time for the others to get away. He lunged his sword to intercept Sir Winfried’s charge and raised his shield to protect his chest. His strike landed squarely on the steel cuirass and did nothing to Sir Winfried, who knew his advantage so well that he did not bother dodging or deflecting the attack, while his arm received a blow from the tower shield so tremendous that his joints crackled and his forearm twisted as though dislocated. Sir Rathamul staggered and fell on his back to dodge the horizontal slash at his abdomen, shoving a circular opening on his shield, from which the lantern light shone through and with which he could blind his opponent, into Sir Winfried’s face. In light and the intense fragrant took Sir Winfried’s off guard long enough for Sir Rathamul to escape. As he was without armor, he was nimbler than Sir Winfried and was able to put some distance between them with ease, eventually catching up with the priest’s group before the oil in his lantern ran out.
They found an extra hour of oil from the corpses of the militias and a torch on the ground; the torch that was supposed to be in the hand of Sister Forse. She was nowhere to be seen but given the torch, the militias, the dog and Sir Winfried, they came to a hard conclusion that she must have been killed and eaten by creatures of the dark. Father Germini did not take the news well, he was quiet and falling behind, at times, stopping and staring into the darkness as though hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of the twelve-year-old nun. Perhaps, it had been for the best that they did not find her half-eaten body else the man might have lost the will to live.
Sir Rathamul asked the militias if they were okay, one of them had been sniffling for a while and the other two dragged their feet in silence, grim looks on their faces. They were okay, they said, as men at arms, they knew what they had signed up for and they were thankful they were still alive. But Sister Forse, she did not deserve this, the sobbing boy uttered, Sir Winfried was right: they should have left her in Azeth. At his words, the other two started weeping as well, swearing to get stronger, stronger than Sir Winfried, stronger than the darkness that begat this tragedy and swearing to avenge their losses this day.
These too were what Sir Rathamul would have wished for, had he not faced the wild blank eyes of Sister Forse’s dog, rummaged the pale and rotten corpses of young boys for provisions, and then stared down the killer end of Sir Winfried’s bloody sword, but he had and the young knight could not imagine escaping from the shadow of such primal, paralyzing and overwhelming fear for the rest of his mortal days. Thus, he wished for a life less strange, less otherworldly than this one; perhaps he should quit his adventuring ambition and settle down as a city guard in Azeth.
At last, the little incense they had ran dry and the smell of sweats mixed in the smog of burning oil were all that left for them. Up on the ceiling, the faint purple patterns continued swirling about; it was strange, when he thought about how they could see these phantasms when it was so dark, they could not see their own hands without a lantern; and then there was the wind, and the glyphs, and the witches. He realized his consciousness was fading and salvation drifting away. It felt almost as if…
God had forsaken them, Sir Rathamul spoke aloud.
This was God’s trial, Father Germini said—his voice seemed hollow and devoid of emotions—and only the most devoted of souls shall receive his divine guidance. He asked them to pause, get on their knees, put down their weapons, and pray the most sincere prayers to God, may his almighty show their sinful hearts mercy. That, they did. However, unlike before, when Sir Rathamul closed his eyes this time, he could not see the sanctuary of a church, nor could he feel his soul overflowed with hopes. He felt powerless, wretched and hopeless. He said he would fight and prevail against any enemy he could perceive and there he was, running away from Sir Winfried like a coward he was. He said he would lead them to safety as the rightful leader and there they were, fumbling in the dark, praying to a heavenly power for deliverance. His face grimaced, twisted in agony, as he struggled to cite the Lord’s prayers amid a torrent of self-pity and regrets.
Then, abruptly, a spear punched through Sir Rathamul’s chest, his eyes flung wide open and, behold, Father Germini’s bloodshot eyes were staring down at him from the other end of the bronze spear. It was so sudden that the knight could not utter a word as blood gushed forth from his chest like a fountain, and he slumped to the ground, making a dull thud. All three militias heard the sound and opened their eyes. It took them precious seconds to realize what was happening and when they did, the priest had already knocked their weapons into the darkness. Without their weapons, the militias were helpless children before this spear-wielding man, who then also armed himself with the fallen knight’s lantern shield.
Father Germini cried and slew two of them: his spear skewed one boy’s throat and bashed the other’s head, splitting it in two. The two boys who moved their fingers toward their weapons were mercilessly put down on the spot, in manners so brutal that the last boy who was too stunned to react had no choice but to grovel on the ground, his face so low he could taste the blood of his brothers on his lips, and pledged allegiance to the priest in the name of his ancestors to save his own skin. This, in Merlock’s tradition, was the highest oath he could make.
At the boy’s pleading, Father Germini halted, lowered his weapon and slowly looked at the scene he had caused. His breaths were heavy, his movements rigid and his limbs were drained of strength. As his eyes drifted from the groveling boy, still too horrified to face reality, he saw it: the bloody spear in his hand, red droplets splattered on his white cassock and ponds of viscos liquid crept toward him, converging into a single mass centered at his feet, formed by the blood of three humans, the boy’s tears and his dreadful sin. The bloody spear hit the ground with a cold, metallic clang, which made the boy shriveled and started begging the priest not to kill him again.
But, Father Germini had stumbled backward, barely remained on his feet, both hands grabbed hold of his own head. Forgive me, Lord! Forgive me, Lord! Forgive me, Lord! So the priest moaned as the boy continued begging for his life. The lantern shield flickered, became dimmer and dimmer until finally it went out, and darkness swallowed them both. Then, the boy felt something sharp, oozy and furry wrapped around his arm and something else sweaty, soft and powerful wrapped around the other arm. These invisible creatures tugged at him, pulling him away from the priest and his brothers. He let out a high-pitched shriek which was muffled almost instantaneously. Nothing else could be heard but the sound of the boy’s feet being dragged away.
Soon, the unseen forces of the void turned their vicious jaws at the priest. Father Germini picked up an eerie sensation of things shuffling around him. He swung his lantern shield in the dark, crouching down and using his sense of touch to search for Sir Rathamul’s corpse, in the process he stumbled upon an oozy, mushy substance on one of the boys’ heads. His hand jerked away from it, his imagination spun wild and he became panicked for he did not recognize what this unknown substance was. Gulping down his saliva, he pressed on and his hand came into contact with a human’s hand so warm that almost felt like it could still be moving. Each artifact he touched fueled his paranoia further; by the time he found the oilskin on the knight’s body and refueled the lantern shield, he was so paranoid that he was convinced Sir Rathamul and the militias were alive and stabbed their dead bodies repeatedly with the spike of the lantern shield.
The fifteen year-old boy, the last survivor of the spear brothers, stiffened in fear by his plight and found it hard to breath. These unknown things had dragged him so far away from the priest that when the lantern light was lit, it appeared to him as a tiny orange dot at the distance. He knew neither what these creatures wanted nor what fate awaited him in the void. He could not cry, he was scared, too scared, in fact, that he could not remember his own name when a familiar voice asked him. His mind blanked out and when he came to be once more, he was already at the crypt’s entrance, next to a smoldering camp fire, next to Sister Forse, who was pouring a waterskin on her dog and washing his fur clean of blood. When asked, she told him that the dog—Dust—could navigate in the dark with his keen noses and ears, and while he had become both blinded and deaf after receiving a shield bash from Sir Winfried, as long as she was there, she could be his eyes, ears and mind.
Her escape in itself was as absurd as the boy’s own. These two children and a dog knocked on the doors of every church, every garrison in the kingdom, hoping someone would believe their story and help them free Father Germini and Sir Winfried from the clutch of that accursed crypt, recover the remains of the fallen ones, and vanquish the evil forces that lurked within. When at long last, the queen of Ironheart agreed to spare them a band of elite knights, who had been close friends of Sir Winfried, and they traveled to the snowy mountain north east of Silver Gallop harbor in order to challenge the accursed crypt once more, the landscape had changed so much that they had to question if their memories were real or dream. After two weeks scouring every crook and cranny of the mountain in search of the crypt without any luck, the party went back to Ironheart, disappointed and doubtful.
While years later the boy had given up the spear and became an apprentice of a blacksmith in Ironheart, he heard Sister Forse had never given up her quest. Last they spoke in Ironheart, she was chasing after the legend of the witches Sir Winfried mentioned in his fit of rage to the forest west of the city, and later her name, too, vanished into obscurity…