Paendragon thought he had seen it all. Sometimes, ignorance is a bliss...
The distant sounds of battle echoed in his mind, a fresh reminder of the mayhem taking place on the surface. We must be getting closer. If I can hear the battle rage… The battering rams and the siege towers have already advanced to the walls. Now, the bloodbath begins.
As his right boot found yet another pile of bat dung, Paendragon stopped and grimaced. The stench of the sewers was getting thicker. The filth flowing through the canal in the passageway was bad enough in its own right. To add to that, any unfortunate traveler who ventured inside was bound to come across the occasional pile of dung and quite a multitude of rotting, semi-devoured corpses. Although he could not tell for sure, Paendragon had the unsettling suspicion those remains were human.
He tried not to think about it too much yet, with every breath, he inhaled the unspoken warning oozing from their stinking, mutilated bodies. You poor bastards… you were trying to get out, of all things. Why would you? Didn’t you realize only Death was waiting for you outside? We have your city surrounded, every gate guarded by ruthless men with cold steel in their hands. Even if you made it out, you’d be dead in a heartbeat. Unless, that is, you were gals prettier than the wenches following the Legion. But then again, that wouldn’t be too hard, now would it?
His irritated kick sent the nearby formless mass of rotting flesh and bones splattering around. For a moment the sharp stench overwhelmed his senses and his nose complained again. His stomach was quick to follow. He felt like vomiting and they were not all that deep into the labyrinth of underground corridors yet. Good thing there wasn’t that much in his belly or else he would have contributed his fair share to the obnoxious surroundings. He exhaled and glared at the corridor ahead.
He was not a happy soldier, not even a bit. It was not solely the stink and the foul, stale air bothering him. The darkness was no less menacing. The torch in his left hand provided some light, true enough, yet he felt some unseen eyes lurked in the shadows, watching him and his fellow men.
Shortly after they had entered the underground maze, Voshar, the spineless drunk following in his footsteps, had fancied a ghastly monster. It had been just a rat; a big one truly, but a rat nevertheless. Still, the flickering light courted the solid darkness ahead and their never-ending dance produced more than enough tricks to fool the mind. To add to that, when they had entered the maze, Voshar had already stunk of ale. To believe anything this dim-witted mockery of a legionary sees would be stupid. Hell, he thought he saw a dragon this very morning, right as the sun went up. A big fiery one, with dark wings and steely fangs…. Then, he threw up. That seemed to help. What an old fool… damn it, we should not have let him drink before we went in. His delusional fears can spread and then I’ll have a problem on my hands. Last thing I need is a bunch of crying, terrified babies for me to look after.
“You sense them too, Sire?” Voshar whispered. ”Them monsters be waitin’ for us. Them monsters want our warm blood, I’ve heard the women in camp talk about it. The wenches say the city is cursed, Sire. We’d be better outside, lotsa’ light, no scary…”
“Keep quiet, old man,” Paendragon silenced him. “The monsters only live in your old head, Voshar. There ain’t nothin’ but rats down here. B‘sides, if ya’ catch a couple more, we’ll finally have ‘nough meat for dinner. I can use some after a month of bread’n water.”
His sarcasm did not lighten up the spirits of his men.
“I feel somethin’ too, Sire,” Kendar, the lanky man of ash-gray hair joined in. “It’s in my guts, Sire. I sure don’ see it, but I sure as hell can feel’t. It smells like death here, Sire.”
“Gather up, folks,” Paendragon commanded. “Next time I hear any of ya’ complain, I’ll have ya’ scoutin’ the corridors ahead. So shut up, get ya’ act together and let’s get this done. The less ya’ bitchin’ about it, the faster we’ll get outa’ this hellhole. Understood? Good.”
Paendragon spat and pushed forward. He could hear Voshar grumbling someplace behind. “What did I tell ya’, old man?” Paendragon reproached him. “Keep silent or be walkin’ in the dark alone.”
Voshar and the others fell silent. Still, as they went in deeper and deeper, the once slight noise coming from above turned into a screeching annoyance there was no escape from. I’d rather be storming the walls. This filth is no proper place for a soldier…
“Ya’ hear the lads go to work, up there?” Paendragon asked his men. “Five thousand good lads, not rats like ya’. They’ll do their job. All we gotta’ do is open the damned gate for them. The bloody idiots ain’t have anybody guardin’ the sewers. So, it’s nothin’ that special. And then, you’re gonna’ have all the wine and women ya’ want. If I can beat that stench outta’ ya’ first, that is.”
“But Jerhana has never fallen before. No invadin’ army has ever come back from here,” somebody objected in the dark “,Sire,” the soldier remembered to add.
“We ain’t just any army. We’re the Legion. I’ve been anyplace on the Emerald Islands, lad, and the Captain has yet to meet a castle we can’t take or a province we can’t plunder.”
“Yet, we are all fightin’ on an empty belly, Centurion,” the same soldier commented. Strange, I do not seem to recall his name. Prynor from the Third sent him over, didn’t he? Or maybe not… they should have let me pick my own men.
“That’s why we’re stromin’ the city, lad,” Paendragon explained. ”We need some provisions… B’ sides, we’re almost there. Just ‘round the corner and we’ll be out…”
“Can’t wait…” Voshar murmured next to him. “Get outta’ here only to have a score of swordsmen hack me to death. We ain’t getting’ out of here in one piece, Sire.”
“Enough there, Voshar!” Paendragon spoke back in anger. “I warned ya’. Now, since ya’ don’t listen… you are to lead the way…”
“Damn.” Voshar did not sound thrilled at the opportunity to prove his courage.
“Take a left on the next turn, then walk some sixty steps and turn left again,” Paendragon went on, not giving Voshar the chance to talk himself out of the punishment. “Then walk some more and ya’ll see the exit to ya’ right. Look for guards and come back to tell us what ya’ saw. Now!”
“But, Sire… one man, only?” Voshar sounded desperate. “Order Jimmy to come join me. Young man, strong eyes. He’ll help me a bit…”
“Now!” Paendragon reiterated. With a curse leaving his lips, Voshar picked up a torch and headed forward.
As the light ahead faded away, Paendragon allowed himself to rest for a moment. Why did they send me with that bunch of green boys and old crooks down here? Why in hell…
The morbid scream filled the air.
“Voshar!” Within a second, Paendragon’s longsword was out of the scabbard. He wasted no time and ran down the corridor towards the location from where the scream had come. “After me, lads! Don’t fall behind so ya’ can see each other…”
A sudden gust of icy wind swept through the sewers. His flame flickered for a moment, as though attempting to fight back the advancing darkness. That was, however, a one-sided battle. In a heartbeat, the light that he relied upon for guidance and protection died out.
Another scream echoed through the chamber, that time coming from behind him… and then another, and another. After a few short moments that sure felt like an eternity, a deadly silence followed. His heated blood pulsating through his veins, he fought hard to prevent his mind from giving in to dread. Calm down, you fool, calm down... panicking won't help. Get a hold of yourself! He exhaled heavily. Damn, it does smell like death here.... Die in a damn sewer like a damn rat. No bloody way! This can’t be what Fortune has chosen for me.
He got a hold of the richly decorated leather sash that tightened his scale mail. His fingers caressed the fine brass badges of honor that he had earned in the fields of battle. His mind calmed down. I have survived the most gruesome bloodbaths of my time. This will not be the end of me. I will see another sunrise and there is not a damn thing that can stand in my way. If only I can light the torch again...
Paendragon tried to fine-tune his other senses to compensate for the temporary lack of vision. The stench of the sewers made his nose all but irrelevant. He could not hear a thing. In fact, he felt as though he had walked into some sort of black void that denied him even the most basic of perceptions. All that hinted that his life probably hanged by a thread was the uneasiness that made the hairs on the back of his neck straighten. He frantically tried to re-light his torch. No panic. I need some light, damn it, and I need it now!
“To me lads! To me!” He shouted. He hoped somebody would respond to his call.
“They are not comin’, Sire,” the unknown soldier’s voice pierced the darkness. “I say we save our skins…”
“And leave them here? You son of a dog! How dare you abandon ya’ comrades?”
“They’re all dead, you know…”
“And how would ya’ know, you dog?”
The low sarcastic laugh froze Paendragon’s blood. “Let us say, Sire, that I am not what you think I am… and neither is the city above, the very place I call home.”
What in hell is he talking about? Here, that’s it. Finally some light. Let me see your face, you coward dog before I stick a sword in your heart.
“Feel better than that you can see me?” the mockery tone did not go unregistered.
“I’ll have ya’ birched…” The words died in Paendragon’s mouth when he caught a glimpse of the creature standing only a yard before him. The beast resembled a man, at least somewhat. The pale grayish skin seemed to soak up the light while there were two orbs of obsidian blackness where the soldier’s eyes had been. Blood was covering the stout legionary armor, his men’s blood. The creature had a satisfied look on the now ageless face. “Who in the Heaven’s name are you?”
“You are asking the wrong question…Sire,” the beast answered. “Not ‘who’, but rather ‘what’ would be a much more fitting one. And,” the thing went on, “Heaven cannot save you here. You should have never come.”
”If I waited for Heaven to save my butt, I’d be dead a hundred times already.” Paendragon smiled through the terror. “But I am here – and you know what? I’ll have every one of your kind impaled… just for the sake of it. I’ll open that gate and my lads will kill ya’ all.”
“You think that is going to be so easy? Hahaha…” The beast laughed. “I wonder, even if I let you live, can you escape my kin? Well, let us see…”
Another strong air current put out his torch yet once more. In a heartbeat, Paendragon felt a supernatural cold start creeping inside his body. He no longer minded the stench of the sewers. Instead, he feared what replaced it. Still, he did not hesitate. He aimed the thrust of his sword high, directly at the creature’s throat. Yet, somehow, his blade missed both the iron armor and the flesh underneath it. He felt the air around him swirl in the savage dance of an icy blizzard.
“Well, that wasn’t nice.” The beast’s voice echoed through the chamber, the jovial tone gone from its words.
“Show ya’self, ya’ sneaky bastard!”
“Your next glance at me will be the last thing your eyes will see…”
Paendragon swung his sword in blind rage. ”SHOW YOURSELF!”
Something cold and heavy struck him right in the chest and he fell to the ground, the air forced out of his lungs. He tried to catch a breath but a strong ache pierced his lungs. He chocked. The ethereal chill always remained close, playing games with his senses. Gradually, the spasms in his chest subsided and the life-saving gulp of air finally arrived. He sighed.
“Run, you mortal fool…. Run for your life.”
Paendragon did not wait for another invitation. The freezing sensation spreading throughout his muscles, he ran. The air current seemed to follow him, the ice embracing his body and soul. His feet and hands started to feel numb. He ran. The coldness was getting unbearable. Still, he never stopped to look behind. Somebody whispered in his ear. “Make sure to remember the way, mortal, for there is no escape from here once you get lost. Hahaha. Was it left? Or maybe right? Run, run, run. My kin is coming for you and they are swifter than the wind…”
He felt the air shift and instinctively ducked. Something flew right over him and a ghastly roar filled the emptiness. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Paendragon turned left. Almost there. Now, look for the exit to the right… there it is. Run, you bloody idiot, run. There are five thousand men above. I’ll be safe there. Run. Do not stop.
As he charged out in the open, he thought he heard somebody hiss behind him.
“And you let him get away?”
“Some sport never hurts,” the unknown soldier, the beast that had spared his life answered in amusement.
“You will owe me for this…” Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Paendragon found himself on an empty street near the city wall. The sun had almost set. He could clearly see a pyre of flame and black smoke rising from another part of the city. The boys have been busy… and beasts or no beasts that city will be ours. And, I’ll make sure that everything that can burn will burn.
Paendragon could not believe his luck. There, right where the insiders had promised him, a tiny, unguarded gate led to the outside. That was the gate to freedom. That was the gate to his salvation. He forgot about the ice spreading in his veins and ran again. Suddenly, he felt the second creature start a chase. He was so close. Right there. Open you damned door, open! Urghhh, open!
A shard of ice stabbed him in the back. Urghhh! He turned around and swung his sword yet his blade caught nothing but air. Where did it go? It doesn't matter. I have to get out. He focused his effort on the gate. One more push...
The small gate opened and, consuming all of what was left from his inner vigor, he leaped to salvation. He fell hard and stumbled. Face down in the warm mud, he found no strength to get up. He felt so cold….
His vision blurred in a haze of black and red. Suddenly, a strong hand helped him up. At first, he could not distinguish any details yet his eyes recovered quickly. Looking down, his gaze rested on the man’s forearm. A vembrace issued by the legion! This man wears the armor of the legion! I am delivered.
He felt exhausted. Paendragon could barely wait for the Legion to capture the city, slaughter those damned beasts, whatever they were, and assign him to a warm, comfortable bed in the company of the finest wench he could find.
“Thank you,” he uttered. A moment later, he finally gathered the strength of will and body and looked up in triumph. Five thousand pairs of black obsidian orbs stared back.