by Nick LS Whelan
Discovering the drawbridge had renewed the trio’s dreams of fabulous wealth. Upon returning to camp they spent hours in excited conversation. Wild speculations of what was behind the door, and what they’d spend it on when they got it. The mysterious sound they’d all heard was conspicuously undiscussed. And, after a night of fitful sleep, they returned to the cellar, and the cavern beneath it.
Banros hefted his grapnel, standing at the ledge across from the drawbridge. He hurled it across the chasm, and it caught at the top of the drawbridge on the first throw. Alger and Jeanette shared an impressed look. Banros was apparently quite the expert. He tested the line, pulled it taught, and hammered it to the stone floor with a stake. A second rope he tied around his chest, just under his arms. He checked its security three times before handing the other end to Alger.
“If I fall, the pull will be sudden–” Banros began.
“I’m understanding.” Alger interrupted. Banros’ jaw clenched, and even in the torchlight Jeanette could see him turn red.
“If I fall to my death because your grip is too loose, the spell will kill you too!” he snarled at the soldier. Then, turning to Jeanette he added “Right?”
“It will.” she confirmed. Alger looked annoyed.
“I’m understanding.” Alger said again, with careful solemnity. He stepped forward to stand on the spike pinning the grapnel line. Banros gave the other man a curt nod, and knelt beside the rope. He wrapped his body around the rudimentary ‘bridge,’ clinging with arms and legs. He adjusted his grip a few times, then shuffled over the edge of the chasm on his back. The taut rope drooped, and the wood of the drawbridge creaked, but the rope held. Banros’ movements were slow. With crossed legs and white knuckles, he inched across the chasm.
He’d made it halfway across when Jeanette noticed his breathing quicken. It took her a moment more to notice the gradual slackening of the line he was clinging to.
“Alger! Hold fast, the–!” she shouted, before the rotten drawbridge plank gave way under the grapnel’s weight. Banros’ arms and legs lashed out for purchase, but there was none. His scream lasted only a moment before the second rope went taught. The sudden tightness around his chest knocked the wind out of him and cut his scream short. There was an ugly thud as Banros’ falling body swung into the side of the chasm.
“Pull me up-pull me up!” he sputtered. Alger and Jeanette heaved at the rope together. When Banros’ hands came in sight, Jeanette dove forward to help him the rest of the way. He rolled away from the chasm, onto his back, covering his face with both hands. The other two fell to sit on the ground beside him. All three were silent, save for their ragged breathing.
Banros held up his hands to look at them. Jeanette saw the last two fingers on his right hand were at incorrect angles.
“Gods” he wheezed.
Jeanette helped fashion a splint with torn cloth and a piece of the floor-testing stick. After a short rest, Banros was the first to stand back up.
“Torchlight’s burning. We need to try again.” he said.
Using a torch tied to the floor tester, Banros examined the drawbridge. He found the most reliable looking planks, and tossed the grapnel again. It missed, latching instead to a plank Banros’ didn’t trust. It took several more throws before Banros managed to hook a plank he trusted. With even more caution than the first time, Banros climbed out onto the rope again.
It was clear to Jeanette that the crossing was a strain. She worried he was too weak to make the transition from the hanging line to the top of the bridge. If he fell from that high, the safety line might still kill him.
He stopped moving as he reached the end of the rope, perhaps wondering the same thing. Jeanette wondered if perhaps she should shout some encouragement to get him moving. As she was trying to think of something good to shout, he lashed out with his uninjured hand. It clamped down on the edge of the bridge. His strength held as he pulled himself closer, and added his second hand to the first. He wiggled his elbows over the lip before releasing the rope with his legs. He let his body drop before pulling himself up, and swinging a leg over the edge to straddle it. It was too dark to be sure, but Jeanette could hear the grin on his face as he called down to them.
“I’m untying the safety rope, and tossing back the grapnel now, Alger. Pull them back up to your side! I’ll see about getting the bridge down so you can join me.”
“Be careful!” Alger warned, sounding nervous. The sound of Banros sliding down the other side of the drawbridge was his only reply. Then there was quiet.
“If what’s past the door kills him, do we die?” Alger asked.
“No,” Jeanette answered, starting to feel a little exasperated with maintaining this particular lie.
“Good.” Alger said
The two were saved from further smalltalk by the sound of a large crank. The bridge began to descend.
“That was fast.” Jeanette remarked, stepping back from the bridge to avoid getting caught beneath it. The chains thunked and the bridge came to a stop four inches from the edge of the precipice. Standing across it they saw Banros, surrounded on all sides by pale, gangly monsters.
Jeanette turned to run. She saw Alger already had his sword in hand, and ignored him. She set her eyes on the passage hidden in the darkness beyond. She made it a few steps before a dozen more of the creatures emerged from the darkness ahead of her. She reversed direction, tumbling to the ground, and scrambling back towards Alger.
None of the creatures moved, and Jeanette realized that they weren’t monsters at all. They were human, or at least something like it. They were pale, with wispy hair and hollow faces, but they were human. She could see them breathing, see the nervous glances they gave each other. She realized they were afraid to approach.
She also noticed that each one of them wore jewelry of gold, and gems. Any one of them was wearing enough wealth to make a Rotain noble jealous.
Beside Banros, one particularly saggy-skinned creature wheezed a command towards Alger and Jeanette.
“Do not struggle and we shall do no harm!” Jeanette’s eyes went wide. The saggy-skinned man was speaking Ancient Brimese. Alger raised his sword higher, panic in his eyes. Jeanette realized the words would sound like a spell to the soldier. She clasped a hand to Alger’s sword arm and forced him to lower it.
“Weapons down!” she called, loud enough for Banros to hear “They say they won’t hurt us.” Alger’s head turned towards her, a protest forming on his lips. She shook her head. “Keep calm. Don’t start anything.” she said. Alger sheathed his sword.
The ‘pale folk,’ as Jeanette dubbed them, pressed inwards. They were nervous. She noticed even the tallest of them was shorter than she was. Burly Alger would be a giant. She could understand their fear. The pale folk herded the three companions together. They tied their hands, and took their equipment. The torches were thrown into the chasm, leaving the party in total darkness. Pressed against one another by the shoving crowd, they stumbled through the black.
The pale folk moved without speaking. Their bare feet padded with hardly a sound, even in so many numbers. Jeanette was searching for some way to weasel away, when Banros’ spoke up.
“There is no unbreakable promise spell.” he said. Jeanette thought she detected grudging respect beneath the resignation in his voice.
“What!?” Alger gasped.
“There were too many of them. It would have been futile to try to save you. If we’d tried to fight we would have died.” Jeanette explained. “We weren’t abandoning you. We could have come back once we were able.” Banros snorted in forced amusement.
“You’re not my captive anymore. There’s no point in lying to me.” he said.
“The trick to being a good liar is commitment.” Jeanette replied
“You bitch!” Alger shouted. His voice echoed through the caverns. Jeanette thought she heard a few of the soft footsteps around them stumble in fear. She wondered, too late, if they could have escaped just by yelling loud enough. The trio stopped speaking for a few yards before Banros’ again interupted her thoughts.
“I just hope you have a better lie for the monsters.” he said.
A short distance further, the room grew brighter. Dim at first, but she could make out the shapes of the pale folk, tinged yellow by the light. They crowded around the captives. Jeanette thought their numbers had grown in the dark. Further into the cave complex, she saw that the light was emanating from channels on the wall. A few feet above her head. It was bright enough now for her to study her captors in detail.
A latticework of blue veins spread across the pale bodies, bulging beneath their skin. Their eyes were larger and more widely set than normal. There wasn’t a full set of teeth in the bunch. But more interesting than their commonalities, were their many differences. Every one had some deformity or blemish. She saw bulging foreheads, black rashes, noses with only a single nostril, crooked legs… There were as many deformities as there were pale folk. They may as well be monsters, Jeanette thought.
The mob entered a large chamber, and ushered the three prisoners to a stone column. Iron manacles replaced the rope bindings on the trio’s hands. Once they were secure, a ring formed around the party. Those in the rear pressed forward, while those in the front tried not to get too close.
A break in the crowd appeared, approaching the column. A decrepit pale-man emerged from the crowd. His skin sagged so much Jeanette thought it might fall off. She also noticed he wore twice as much gold as any of the others. He approached to within a few feet of Alger, studying him with his gaze. He moved between them, pausing before each of the three before moving to the next. Jeanette saw disgust in his eyes, and decided to break the silence.
“Are you the leader here?” she asked in Brimese. The old man’s eyes narrowed. With slow, deliberate movement, he turned away from Banros to examine Jeanette again.
“You speak the civilized tongue? You are no barbarian?” he asked. Jeanette had some trouble following the words—she hadn’t conversed in Brimese since childhood. It was a dead language; useful only to appear cultured or mystical.
“We are no barbarian” she replied. She hoped her broken syntax wasn’t too obvious. “We are not here to be cruel to you.”
“Why do you come here?” There was a threatening edge to the elderly pale-man’s words. Jeanette needed to say something interesting enough to keep his attention.
“I am Jeanette Malbrache Piiremus,” she began. “Descended of the Nobeli from many parents ago. I came on a pilgrimage to see the ruins of my ancestor’s homes.”
The old man moved his face close enough for Jeanette to smell his rancid, flaking skin. His eyes bore into hers. She suppressed the urge to crinkle her nose at the smell of his breath. Finally, he took several steps back. His face softened. Slightly.
“We also value the ancestors.” he said. “We descended from those who made their home above. I am Caller Eclesius. I speak for those now gathered here.”
“What’s he saying?” Banros asked.
“Quiet!” Jeanette spat at him in the common tongue. To the caller she asked, “The villa has lain abandoned for many hundreds of years. You stayed here all that time?”
“We must stay here!” he raised his voice with indignation. “The ancestors fled here to escape the barbarians, who overwhelm everything above! They command we maintain their vigil.” Eclesius paused. A strange, almost mischievous look filled his face.
“But you are of our people. You will remain here. With us. You will tell us of the world above. Perhaps with your knowledge, the ancestors will guide us to renewed prosperity!”
“Yes! I would be happy to tell you anything you want.” Jeanette replied. Eclesius then gestured to Banros and Alger.
“And who are these with you? They do not speak our tongue.”
“They are my servants.” Jeanette lied.
“Are they, then, loyal servants of Brim?”
“Yes! They are.” Jeanette put on a large smile and nodded. She hoped the others would take her lead, which they did.
“Then all three of you shall become one with us!” Eclesius cried with a celebratory raising of his arms. The crowd behind him began murmuring.
“How do we become one with you?” Jeanette asked. She tried to sound as pleased as the Caller did. The way he was phrasing things worried her.
“It is as you said. We have been one people for many hundreds of years. The ancestors will not allow us to return to the surface to seek fellowship. And you are only the third to come to us in our long history.” Eclesius explained. “No one now standing in this hall is not sibling, or cousin; parent or child to everyone else. Our bodies grow weaker with each generation. But you, and your loyal servants, shall give new life to our community!”
Jeanette began shaking her head, even as the excited throng removed the group’s manacles.
“No, um, we can’t…” Her voice was soft, and trailed off without finishing the objection.
“It is a joyous occasion, Jeanette of Malbrache” Eclesius said. The merriment in his voice didn’t mask the sternness of the command. “You and your companions will add your blood to ours and all will grow stronger for it.”
Jeanette lay awake long after everyone else had fallen into exhausted sleep. The pale folk seemed to trust her. At least enough that they hadn’t restrained her. Their inexperience with outsiders was to her benefit. Gingerly, she stepped over the hairless, mushy bodies that surrounded her. She’d suffered through the retch-inducing series of mutated partners with stoicism. But she didn’t intend to be around long enough to suffer through it a second time.
She gathered her personal effects and crept out into the main cavern. It was tempting to make a break for it. But she didn’t want to leave empty handed. The pale folk had separated her from Banros and Alger, but she’d need their help. She followed the lighted corridors, peeking into each of the small chambers she passed. Most housed a few sleeping pale folk. Others were empty, most likely the homes of those she’d left back in her chambers. Or those she expected to find in the chambers of her companions.
Sure enough, she soon found a chamber with two dozen sleeping women in it. Jeanette left her boots outside, and tied her skirts up around her waist. Every step had to be planned. It was a careful, tip-toeing dance. When she reached the bed she found Banros, fast asleep. There was a woman’s leg across his knees.
With the lightest touch she could manage, Jeanette shifted the woman’s leg aside. She knelt beside the bed, and placed a hand of Banros’ mouth. Jeanette paused, unsure how to wake the man without waking the woman as well. She tapped her hand against his cheek, but he only flinched and continued to doze. She rapped her knuckles hard against his forehead, careful not to shake the bed. Banros’ eyes snapped open. He glanced around in fear, then saw Jeanette, and gave her a slight nod. She released him, and together they tiptoed back out of the room.
They stalked the halls until they found Alger. Jeanette let Banros wake him while she stood watch. Reunited, Jeanette led the others to the center of three adjacent empty rooms. She’d noted it as a place they could talk without disturbing anyone nearby.
“If’n the whole lot of them are asleep, no need to talk! We run for the exit.” Alger insisted “We’d be far past camp ‘afore the soggy fucks knew we’d gone!”
“What about the gold?” Jeanette and Banros asked in unison. They looked at each other, then both turned to Alger. He looked ready to hit them.
“Hear me out.” Jeanette said. “I saw maybe a dozen rooms along this passage with between one and four pale folk each. If we work together, and work quiet, we can have a whole room dead before they make a sound. With all the gold the ‘soggy fucks’ wear, we’ll have more than we can carry!”
“It’s a solid plan, Soldier.” Banros said. “At most we’ll be here an extra three quarters of an hour.”
“Fine.” Alger conceded after a resigned silence. “Plenty time to get caught in, but we’ll do it. But I’ll kill you both before I fuck another sogg.”
The three moved first to the central cavern where they’d been prisoner. The chamber was well lit, and there were no guards. Their equipment was still laying against the wall where it had been thrown.
“These soggs are too trusting.” Banros whispered. His voice was jovial as he tied his short sword to his belt, and clasped his dirk. “Lets go kill them and get rich.”
The process wasn’t any more difficult than Jeanette had predicted. The pitiful less-than-humans snored loudly and slept deeply. In most rooms, the three of them were enough to kill everyone simultaneously. In the rooms with too many soggs, they kept their murders quiet. Nobody ever woke up, and they were able to finish of the rest without worry.
And the riches! They filled sacks with golden rings, elaborate neck pieces, bejeweled headdresses, and fanciful brooches. Each corpse they made yielded new treasures. After a dozen rooms, all three held hefty sacks over their shoulder. They jingled and jangled with wealth as they walked. As the group crept, tinkling, from their final kill, Alger remained steadfastly silent. But Banros and Jeanette were giddy. They made ridiculous grinning faces at one another. It was hard to restrain giggles as they moved to the passage leading to the drawbridge.
Their merriment vanished as they turned the corner. An incriminating clatter echoed from their dropped booty. The three companions stared at the creature which towered between them and freedom.
Unlike before, there could be no chance this monster was human.