Sunday, 18 September 2016

Stonesworn - Part 3

The final part of Stonesworn sees young Benyar sent to suffer his punishment. Framed and wronged by his brother and cast aside by the Syladrians, Benyar is condemned to the Pits to try and win back the familial honour he is accused of losing. As he journeys deeper and deeper into the Pits, though, he soon realises that there is more than just shadow waiting for him in the Below...

As usual, next Sunday the 25th of September (coincidentally also my birthday) the entirety of Stonesworn shall be released as a single blog post, as I know some readers prefer such formatting.

Benyar had only ever stood upon the precipice of the Pits once before in his life. To get to the Pits, one had to walk towards the Great Mines, the source of all the Syladrian Halflings’ wealth, and then turn south. A long walk through an old, abandoned mineshaft would lead the intrepid adventurer out into a wide cavern with a huge natural lake of greenish water in the middle of it. Yet, on the far side of the water, known as the Lake of Tears, was the entrance to the Pits.
            ‘They called it the Lake of Tears because, so the legend says, the families of those who died in the Pits all gathered here and wept,’ Benyar remembered Ermoldulus telling him. ‘So many were lost, and such was their grief that their tears became this great lake.’
            At the time, Benyar had only nodded. His eyes had been fixed on the entrance to the Pits itself. The enormous cave-like maw leered out of the dark rock, hissing as drafts of wind blew up from the maze of tunnels and caverns below. Benyar had watched and waited with his entire house-clan only weeks ago as Gorgrim and his dozen companions had walked past the huge, fang-like stalactites and stalagmites that guarded the Pits’ entrance into the wide, downward-spiralling cave.
            ‘Wha’ ‘appened down there?’ he had asked the old Gnomish servant as he watched his brother’s figure disappear into the gloom. He had seemed so young then – fresh-faced and with a pride-puffed chest. He had hoisted his sword in his hands and turned to wave to his house-clan before vanishing into the shadows.
            Ermoldulus had blinked his large, heavy lidded eyes and, with great care, had glanced at the figures around him. Dropping his voice to ensure no-one could properly hear, the Gnome had then turned to Benyar. ‘The Pits were mines, originally. The oldest, deepest, and those most used by the Halflings of the First and Dark Epochs. They were soon stripped or their resources, but it became traditional for miners to be sent deeper into the Pits. There were terrible cave-collapses, mutinies, and thousands of Dwarf-folk simply got lost in the shadows and never returned. No-one who came out was ever the same again.
‘Yet the episode that the Pits are best known for happened in the one-hundred and fiftieth year of the Dark Epoch. The son of King Torunsson II, Thane Udgarr, travelled into the Pits on a whim by himself. Days later, he returned – raving and babbling, driven mad by the shadows. No-one could make sense of a word he said, and within a week he was found dead in his house-clan home; he had opened his wrists and his throat with his father’s sword. In grief, King Torunsson II, of Rockhammer house-clan, closed the Pits to all but the Stonesworn and those with the express consent of the Ironrend Covenant. But to this day no-one knows for sure what’s down there,’ the old Gnome had said.
‘Some of the stories say that the Pits all lead to a great goblin city. Others claim that your darkest fears come alive, made manifest in the gloom.’ Ermoldulus had quickly stopped and shaken his head. ‘Myth and rumour – they are simply a dangerous place. Your brother is a strong, level-headed young fellow. He shall return.’
            On the day he entered, Benyar had been alone. No-one had come to watch him set off on his journey down into darkness – only the half-dozen Ironrenders who had escorted him cross-city from the Durhzal Dungeons. They had used a small wooden boat to cross the Lake of Tears and approach the entrance to the Pits, where twenty Dwarf warriors guarded the great stone maw at all times – as much to keep the Stonesworn in as to keep the monsters and whatever else lay in the Below from getting out.
            Just before he had entered the terrifying cave-entrance, the captain of the Dwarf men who had escorted him produced a familiar-looking weapon. ‘Your brother sends this,’ he had said from under his full-faced helmet, his waist-length grey beard bouncing. From behind the thick cloak he wore, the captain had produced Lightstorm, the weapon that Thane Gorgrim had retrieved from the Pits himself. ‘I’ve no idea why ‘ee’s so keen to get rid o’ it again. Tha’, or maybe he feels bad for tossin’ yer treacherous arse out the window.’
            Benyar had said nothing as he took the hammer. It was either meant as a gesture of remorse, genuinely intended to help him on his way, or a reminder of the shame he had brought his family as its second Stonesworn son. Damn ye, Gorgrim, he had thought with a sigh as he had eyed the gold-plated sun etched onto the side of the weapon. May the Great Creator ‘imself unmake your very bones.
He had his own sword at his hip, hanging from a long, cross-body leather belt he wore covered in pouches he had filled full of essentials: a tiny tinderbox, a whetstone, a small knife, and as much food as he could cram into the gaps in-between. He also wore his own chainmail hauberk, reinforced at the chest, legs and shoulders with heavy plate-forged armour. He wore a humble helmet – a small, open-faced pot-helmet with two large goat-horns protruding from either temple. I’ll be fine against a few dozen goblins, he thought to himself, but no’ anythin’ larger.
            He had entered the Pits what felt like forever ago. For what seemed like weeks, Benyar had wandered through the darkness, sucking moisture from stalagmites and chewing on tough, dry cave-fungus for sustenance. He had encountered nothing, only far-off whispers and echoing scuffles that taunted and lingered upon his mind like a millipede crawling through his brain.
            Everything was pitch-black. For hours upon hours, he stumbled blindly forwards. Ever-downwards, and ever-frightened Benyar scraped this way and that with his hands and he fumbled for guidance. He heard bones snap and crumble beneath his feet – Dwarf, Gnome, goblin or other, he could not tell, for the mineshafts he scrambled down were so dark. In the eternal gloom, every sound he made seemed ten-thousand times louder. Benyar was certain that at any moment an entire army of pale-skinned, slit-nosed goblins would descend upon him, shrieking and bawling as they waved pillaged Dwarf-weapons and crude iron implements of death about their heads.
Eventually, after what felt like aeons in the dark, his eyes began to accustom to the gloom. Or ‘as it simply got lighter? I cannae tell. Shapes became distinguishable: more sharp stalactites and stalagmites reaching up and down towards him. He was long out of the Dwarf-made cave-system, that much was certain. Benyar had walked much further than he had first thought, and every inch of it had been done with his grandfather’s hammer in his hands.
He stopped for rest a few times, never sure where he was, nor if it was safe. The shadows flickered and moved, slithering this way and that across rocky cavern walls and behind the great piles of boulders and mounds of rock that littered the hundreds of miles of natural caverns. Every shimmer in the shadows sent waves of fear pulsing through Benyar’s mind, and dozens of times he came to his senses cowering behind something – a low rock, a fat pillar of rock-wall, the bones of a long-forgotten Dwarf. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.
As Benyar staggered ever-downwards in his quest for redemption and glory, time became his mortal enemy – trying to keep track of it was like trying to catch mist. He would walk, rest, and wake, each one to shadow and darkness. The ever-shifting shades of black and perpetual deep-dark of the Pits slowly became his only friend – the only thing he could count on. It was always there, and, just as it concealed the bones of thousands of dead creatures, it also concealed him. Not like time, Benyar caught himself thinking. Time will betray you. Shadows are security.
            His voice was horrid, so for a while he stopped using it. With every trip and stumble, Benyar found himself crying out – his empty, hollow voice bounced about the long, looping entrails of stone he was lost within. He sounded as if he had already died and been forced to return as some terrible form of shade or spectre, sent back to forever haunt the long, dark caverns and caves of the Pits. I could have died, Benyar thought as he stopped and ran his hands over the shadowy bones of a thousand-year-old Dwarf. These could be my bones. The bones of a Volostag. The bones of a warrior.
            After an unknown length of time spent staggering through the darkness, Benyar had given up on all hope of ever seeing Khur-Karzana again. He had eaten all the food he had brought with him, though he had found a musty old leather pack which he had filled with every kind of cave mould and moss he had come across. He had also happened across a half-full wineskin, so ancient and aged that its taste was rancid, but numbed the ever-present terror that plagued his head. That had quickly vanished, though for one night he had not been plagued by awful nightmares. He had awoken hours later with a hammering headache. At least I’m alive, he had thought as he had risen, shaky and scared. I am still a Volostag. I am still a warrior. I’m not a corpse, not yet.
            Something he had noticed during his voyage into the Pits was that the deeper he went, the brighter the caverns seem to become. Once or twice, he passed huge lakes of molten rock, bubbling and rumbling quietly to themselves, casting aside Benyar’s shadow-friends and revealing the cold, hard solitude of the endless cave-system he was trapped in. The light showed him misery; it reminded Benyar of his failures, of where he was, of what he had done wrong.
            ‘Lightstorm,’ he said as he rested in the far-off corner of some long-forgotten cave. ‘What a stupid name. Ye give no light, an’ light is for the foolish. Light shows everyone what ye’ve done wrong, it shows everyone who ye’ve let down, it shows-…’ Benyar caught himself babbling and bit his tongue.
Don’t go mad. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.  
            More time passed. Benyar staggered ever downwards into the Below. At some point, he was vaguely aware of happening across something alive. Was it a Dwarf? A time-lost Gnome? A goblin? He could neither see it nor hear it, but whatever it was, he killed it. It broke under his hammer like a pot dropped from a roof onto a cobbled road. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior, he thought as he felt the skull of whatever it was shatter under his hammer. ‘The shadows hid me,’ Benyar hissed to himself as he kicked at whatever it was he had killed. Without so much as glancing at it, he continued forwards.
More time passed – Benyar knew not how much. Time’s always passin’ me. It never stops to ‘elp. It never stops to give directions. It’s always goin’, always in a hurry. The shadows are always there. The shadows are friend, Benyar thought as he sat down heavily on some darkness-shrouded rock. He held his grandfather’s hammer in his hands, twirling the heavy weapon between his hands as he did so. He could not put it down – putting it down made him feel weak, made him feel unsafe.
‘Grandfather wouldn’t mind if I renamed ye, I’m sure,’ Benyar said as he sat in the shadows of another long-forgotten cave. The shadows twitched and shifted across the low, dark walls. From somewhere came the quiet drip-drip of water into a pool.  ‘Lightstorm – there’s no light ‘ere, how can there ever be a storm?’ Benyar said and laughed at his own piece of deduction. He continued to twirl the weapon in his hands for a few more moments before pausing to think. ‘Wha’ about…’ Benyar paused to think, running his fingers through his messy beard. The plaits and braids had long come loose and frizzy, and most of the rings and beads had fallen out. ‘I’ll call ye Shadow’s Tempest – there’s plenty o’ shadows for ye.’
Pleased with himself, Benyar looked at the hammer. ‘There, now ye can take yer power from the shadow – ye can summons storms to crush my enemies, ye can-…’
Benyar blinked. ‘Who’s there?’ he said, getting to his feet and holding Shadow’s Tempest in his hands. ‘Show yourself, ye coward!’
You’re losin’ your mind, Benyar. Get a grip. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.
‘I am shadow,’ Benyar hissed into the darkness. ‘Anything that was before is from Up. Everything from Up is treacherous. Everything.’
Not everything-…
‘Father. Brother.’
Listen to yourself, ye’re losing yer mind! Just stop and think for a moment – ye’ve a job to do: find some treasure, kill something big, you can do it! Take it back to the king an’ ye’ll be free from this nightmare. You can drive out the shadows an-…
‘There is nothin’ down here!’ Benyar leapt to his feet and screamed at the cavern. ‘I’ve been walking for weeks an’ weeks! I’ve killed one wee lil’ thing – wha’ even was tha’? A goblin? It doesn’t matter – there’s nothin’ ‘ere! Only the drip-drip of the water and the groan of time.’ Benyar began to claw at his ears until he felt blood on his fingers. ‘The Stone itself is talkin’! It’s callin’ me a failure! It’s-…’
The stone can’t talk. Ye know tha’.
Benyar suddenly froze. There was a scuffle – something somewhere moved. ‘Did ye ‘ear tha’?’ he whispered.
Of course I heard it – I’m ye, ye prick! We are Volostag! We are warrior!
Benyar froze, his maddened mouth and eyes wide. He held his breath, and there it was again! The shadows were revealing it to him – through their inky black bodies, noise came. Far-off feet, something walking, someone moving. No – some things moving.
Look, there.
Benyar spun about. Behind him, the long, low cavern he was in continued, gradually narrowing to a tight passageway. It just large enough to swing an axe in, and was framed with a faint, flickering orange light. From the shadows within came the hiss of whispering, dark voices.
Glory, Benyar thought. Maybe it’s a goblin raidin’-party, bound for the mines. If we jus’ follow ‘em an’ kill ‘em in sight o’ all the miners and guards, we’ll surely have our oath lifted-…
‘The light,’ he whispered. ‘The light cannot be here, it cannot exist here!’
What? Stop.
Benyar began to walk forwards, hoisting his hammer in his hands. ‘Shadow’s Tempest will extinguish the hideous light in a storm o’ darkness!’
You must stop! You don’t know wha’s down there!
Ignoring himself, Benyar stumbled forwards. He began to growl and snarl as he ran through the darkness. The shadows about him amplified his voice – he sounded ferocious, like some terrible cave-beast of old, slavering and snarling at the scent of flesh. ‘We’ll slay ‘em all,’ he hissed, ‘we’ll slay ‘em all for the Great Shadow.’
He dived into the narrowing passageway and stumbled forwards, the light about him growing stronger and stronger. Soon, he could hear individual voices – high-pitched, hoarse, and grating. They spoke in a tongue Benyar could not recognise, and their words were a hostile hiss upon the ears. Shuffling footsteps accompanied the foreign words – the gentle rattle of half-disturbed stones caused by light, bare feet.  ‘Ye cannae be here,’ Benyar heard himself growl. ‘Ye cannae bring the hated light before the Great Shadow.’
Then the light was there, bright and terrible. About it stood twenty pale creatures, Gnome-sized and spindle-limbed. They had large, jet-black eyes and mouths full of horrid, razor-sharp teeth that hissed and spat like the terrible flame they carried with them. Their nostrils were slits in their hideous, marred faces, from which long tendrils of snot hung. Mismatched bits of armour covered various parts of their bodies. Some wore crude, dented iron about their horrid, pallid-coloured and near-bald heads and chests – bent breastplates pillaged from the corpses of ancient Dwarf and Gnome warriors. Others had opted for wrapping moulding pieces of dark cloth about their faces and bodies, covering their sharp, uneven ears and thin, insipid frames.
‘Goblin scum! Sacrifices for the Great Shadow!’ Benyar yelled as loud as he could as he sprinted forwards, the rocks under his feet never tripping him. The shadows hold ‘em. The Great Shadow keeps me safe. The goblins began to shriek furiously when Benyar burst from his side-passage with a bone-chilling roar. Temporarily blinded by the glare of the torch, Benyar sightlessly charged into the fray of goblins, blindly swinging his hammer with overzealous force.
For the first few seconds, he only had the sense of sound and the weight of his hammer to guide him. He felt bones crumble and heard fang-filled mouths scream as Shadow’s Tempest bludgeoned its way through the many goblins. He heard them screech and scream in terror, and even felt a few weak blows from their ineffective weapons bounce off his helmet. ‘The Great Shadow reclaim ye!’ he cried. ‘Take ye back to the darkness! Take ye back to the Great Shadow!’
Listen to yourself!
‘Death! Shadows take ye all!’ Benyar roared. Slowly, as he continued to whirl and flail amongst the party of goblins, his vision returned to him. He had smashed the head clean from the shoulders of the torch-bearing goblin, and the fiery brand it held had fallen to the floor. By the time he could see clearly, over half the goblins were dead. Their pallid, broken bodies littered the narrow passageway. Their crude and stolen armours were broken, wrapped about their bony bodies in a mangle of poorly-forged iron and pilfered steel.
The last few goblins began to panic and flee, tossing their weak weapons aside and disappearing into the shadows. ‘Deeper no!’ they cried in the Dwarf-tongue as they ran. ‘Deeper no! Deeper no!’
‘Shadows take ye!’ Benyar cried, continuing to swing and flail his hammer this way and that, even though the goblins were long gone. He felt the heavy hammer split rock and shatter boulders as he continued to flail, lost in a blind, senseless fury. He screamed and howled, his voice taking on a haunting, eerie echo in the long, dark tunnels. His own roars and yells drowned out the screeches of the last few remaining goblins. ‘Sacrifices to the Great Shadow! Sacrifice! Sacrifice!’
Suddenly he was falling. The stones under his feet slipped and he tumbled, landing hard against the rock. His hammer flew from his hand and he bashed his head painfully upon a loose boulder. Stunned, Benyar lay in the half-light thrown up by the lone, guttering torch and gazed up into the shadows that shrouded the roof of the passage above him.
Taking long, slow breaths, Benyar slowly came to his senses. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior. He looked around him at the carnage he had wrought. The weak light of the single torch touched upon the broken faces and shattered bodies of the dozen or-so goblins he had slain. They lay about him in a bloody arc of twisted iron and rent flesh, their greyish innards oozing over the cold, hard ground of the long, downwards-spiralling stone passage.  
Slowly, Benyar rolled onto his knees and let out a long, low moan. ‘Wha’s ‘appenin’ to me?’ he said in a whisper. His eyes fell to his blood-drenched hands, then down to the floor – slick with red ichor. The savagery of his attack came back to him, the unprecedented fury with which he had savaged the goblins. He had not even known they were goblins when he had attacked – but he knew he had done so for the Great Shadow.
‘The Great Shadow…’ Benyar’s whimper trailed off and he slumped forwards, suddenly wracked with sobs. ‘I’m going to die down here,’ he whispered, clutching at the bloody stones. ‘By the Great Creator, I’m goin’ to die down ‘ere. Arganon, preserve your child of Stone!’
Misery washed over Benyar. The spaces in his mind which had been held by his now-retreating lunacy filled with sorrow. Wracked with terrible grief and self-pity, Benyar fell to the floor once more. He felt thick goblin blood soak his mail and tunic underneath, wetting his thick, scraggly beard and slathering across his face. ‘I’m goin’ to die,’ he whispered. ‘I’m goin’-…’
Look up.
Benyar slowly raised his head from where he lay. The last remnants of the torchlight that lit the narrow cave-passageway illuminated something before him. The faint glow from the burning brand danced upon well-forged silver, glinted over details, inscriptions and carvings. ‘By the Stone,’ Benyar breathed, ‘wha’ is this?’
He scrambled to his feet and practically threw himself upon the object. It was heavy in his hands, and his fingers felt the familiar, reassuring texture of hard, well-cut wood. Lifting his charge, Benyar stumbled to where the gradually failing torch had been dropped and placed the object down beside it. When the last of the light touched what he held, he could not believe his eyes.
The chest was sublime in its beauty. Each edge and corner was wrought with silver and gemstones – vibrant purple amethysts and glittering green emeralds shone up at him. There was a large lock and latch upon the front of the hefty chest, set into the hard, near-black wood that made up the rest of the container. It was incredibly ornate in its design and beyond any level of craftsmanship Benyar had ever seen. It was not Dwarven in origin, nor was it Gnomish, for there was a level of intricacy in the detail that was beyond any Halfling craftsman that Benyar had ever seen or heard of.
As he admired the lock on the chest, a flicker of the light drew his eyes to the pattern wrought between the lid and the trunk of the heavy container. The silver had been wrought to look like terrible, sharp fangs, and between those fangs were hundreds upon hundreds of tiny figures, made to look as if they were being crushed by the chest’s horrendous silver jaws.
Think of what could be within! Benyar found himself thinking. Hands scrabbling, he tried to heave the chest open, but the lock would not give. He tried again, but still it remained sealed. With a grunt, Benyar placed the chest aside and found where he had dropped his hammer. What was I calling it? he thought as he felt the reassuring weight of the bloody weapon in his hand. Shadow’s Edge? Shadow’s Tempest? He shook his head, appalled by his own weak-mindedness, and lifted the hammer high over his head.
Benyar brought the weapon down onto the chest with all his might. He heard a great, loud crack that sent a juddering reverberation up his arms. The chest had not broken – his heavy blow had not even chipped the wood, nor dented the silver at the chest’s edges. The hammer suddenly became very light in his hands, and as Benyar lifted it to strike again, he realised it had snapped clean in two. ‘No!’ he cried, looking about desperately. ‘No, it cannae be!’
The head of the hammer had snapped clean off the haft and lay a few paces away in the shadows. With a dozen Dwarven curse-words, Benyar hurled the haft of the hammer aside and seized hold of the chest with both hands. He picked it up and cast it against the stone wall, yet the chest seemed to be completely impervious to his efforts. ‘Open, damn ye!’ he cried. ‘Open, an’ I may be able to leave this accursed place! Open!’
            Calm, he heard himself think. The goblins brought it up from further down the passage. Go down there an’ see if ye can find a key. If not, take it back to the surface – the king an’ the Ironrend Covenant will be impressed ye’ve found a magical chest.
            ‘Yes,’ Benyar took a few deep, steadying breaths. He grabbed the goblin party’s dropped torch – as weak as its light was – and hoisted the chest up under his left arm. ‘I can do this,’ he said. ‘I can do this. I can go home.’ He set off down the passage which the goblins had come from. As he went, he could feel his sword in its sheath tapping against his leg with every pace he took. I can do this. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.
            Down he went again into the twisting and winding network of narrow tunnels that led deeper and deeper underneath the Syladras Mountains, torch thrust before him. In truth, Benyar had no idea where he was. He had no clue if he was even under the Syladras Mountains anymore – he could have walked a thousand miles north, south, east, or west, and he would have no way of knowing.
            The deeper he went, the more the shadows and gloom seemed to press in around him. Gripping his torch as if it were the only thing keeping him alive, Benyar strode onwards and deeper. He passed more ancient skeletons on his downwards-bound journey, though for a time they became infrequent and far-between. Some seemed to glare at him as he crept past, the faint light of his torch offending their cold, sightless faces. Shadows retreated into their eye-sockets before springing out again to swathe again in darkness what areas had been lit by Benyar’s torch as he passed.
            They whispered to him as he went, asking him to put his torch down and to re-join them in the blackness. Benyar felt cold, ethereal fingers on his face, his brow, and the back of his neck. Each one made him cry out in alarm and stumble forwards faster, slipping and tripping on spikes of stone and shards of rock as he scrambled ever deeper into the Pits. ‘Don’t go mad,’ he whispered to himself as he went, ‘don’t go mad. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.’
            You’re going mad.
            Benyar ignored the icy sweat on his brow and the doubt gnawing at his mind as he went. Am I mad already? He thought. Was I mad? Have I always been? Would I even know? He swallowed and pitched ever-deeper into the dizzying dark. ‘Don’t go mad. Don’t go mad.’
            And then there was light. Quite suddenly, as Benyar rounded a narrow corner in the endless spider-web of cave systems, he saw a glow coming from the far end of the dark and rough passageway. It was not a warming yellow, nor did it flicker and dance like torchlight, but it was light nonetheless. It was a low light; an eerie, dark purple in hue. With nowhere to go but forwards, Benyar continued to walk. Slowly, he edged forwards inch by inch. With his torch thrust before him like a sword and the invincible chest under his arm, Benyar tried to avoid the hissing shadows around him. ‘Focus on your feet,’ he whispered to himself. ‘Don’t trip. Don’t fall. Don’t listen to the shadows.’
            They can hear you think.
            Benyar swallowed and stopped for a moment, screwing his eyes shut and trying to keep the thoughts out – they sounded like his own, but they felt like someone else’s. He tried to think of home, but when he did he saw only blackness. He tried to picture his mother and his sisters, but when their faces came to him their eyes were nothing but pits in which only shadows swirled and seethed. ‘Shadows can’t move and talk,’ he told himself as he fell to his knees, eyes still screwed shut. ‘Shadows can’t-…they can’t-…’
            But when he opened his eyes again, the dark walls of the underground passageway were swirling and shifting. Like liquid smoke, the shadows about him slithered and hissed as they glided over each other and around Benyar. With a cry, the young, terrified Dwarf hauled himself to his feet and started forwards at a run. He cast his torch aside and surrender to the shadows about him in a last-ditch effort to reach the far-off, purple haze of light. He felt the darkness tug at his frame as he ran, pulling at his beard and scratching at his eyes. Benyar pulled his sword from its sheath and slashed wildly this way and that, but to no avail.
Phantom fingers pulled at his body, but insane determination drove Benyar forwards. Quite suddenly, he felt the space around him change: no-longer was he walking over loose and uneven rock. There was solid, flat stone underneath his feet, and the walls either side of him evened out and flattened. The mysterious purple light from the end of the corridor was now much nearer, and illuminated an obviously crafted space: the walls were of great chiselled and smoothed slabs, as was the floor. Benyar could see the shadows creeping about in the cracks between the huge tiles, and he felt his stomach turn.
With the last of his energy, he ran towards the light. He could see it clearly ahead of him: there was a tall, narrow archway at the end of the long passageway, carved into the rock. Similarly to the chest under Benyar’s arm, it was decorated with hundreds of tiny figures, all writhing and screaming as if in great pain. As Benyar stepped into the light, the terrible hiss of the shadows ceased, and for a few moments everything was calm.
He stood still, glancing about him. The shadows seemed not to dare touch the dark purple light, and their scratching claws left him be. A great weight seemed to lift from his mind and for the first time in what felt like aeons, Benyar was himself. I’m not goin’ mad, he thought as he clutched the chest he had found under one arm, and his sword in his free hand. I’m not goin’ mad. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.
‘Yes, you are.’
The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. The words were already in Benyar’s head before they were at his ears, and the great rumble of sound that rocked his consciousness drove him to the floor. His sword fell from his hands and the chest slipped from under his arm as he slumped to his knees and clamped his hands over his ears – little good did it do, for the colossal echo was in his mind. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘No! I am Benyar! I am not mad, I am-…’
Benyar’s words trailed off as he lifted his gaze and looked beyond the archway which he had slumped down before. There was a tall, rectangular room beyond. The walls were like the archway: frozen hands and faces reached out from the very stone, contorted as if in agony, as if scrabbling desperately for aid in the moment that they were turned to rock. Every hand and face was directed towards the centre of the small, square chamber, where a single stone seat four times the size of a regular chair was.
But it was the thing in that chair from which the purple light seemed to emanate. Now it moved, great tendrils of gloom once again distorted everything, slithering and curling through the low purple light. The being from which the darkness emanated was enormous – twice as large as a Man and wrought entirely of shadow. Two jet-black horns coiled around a face made only of blackness in which two burning red eyes were set, whilst the rest of its colossal frame swirled and shifted with the darkness it seemed to control.
‘The Great Shadow,’ Benyar whispered through trembling lips. As he raised his gaze, for a fraction moment he locked eyes with the terrifying creature. A million images flashed through his mind – in a moment he saw the rise and fall of a hundred-thousand empires, the birth and destruction of kingdoms, and more blood than he could ever imagine. Tides and rivers of red ran across unknown lands, getting ever deeper and deeper. Soldiers drank from it, then they themselves drowned. Fire, water, earth, air, the stone, the stars all came and went, yet the tides of blood rose and rose. A great red ocean that got higher and higher, swallowing everything, consuming the mountains, drowning the entire world.
With a shriek, Benyar tore his eyes away from those terrible red flames set in the shadow’s face. He lay on his back, staring up at the far-off ceiling above his head. ‘No,’ he said in a babble. ‘No, no, no, no, no.’
The shadow spoke again – if the aura that washed over Benyar’s mind could be called speaking. ‘Such a rudimentary creature,’ the great rumble of voice said. ‘So fragile. You writhe and wriggle like the worms that shall devour your carcass. You alight upon my existence like a particle of dust on the wind. You are nothing, and shall neither be remembered nor cared for.’
Benyar lay on his back, tears pouring from his eyes. His whole body shook and quaked with a mindless horror like nothing he had ever imagined. ‘Ye’re no’ ‘ere,’ he whispered through his dry, cracked lips. ‘Ye’re no’ real.’
            The shadow’s laugh tore the world apart. Benyar watched helplessly as the stone arms and faces reaching from the walls about him began to scream and writhe, grabbing and pulling at the air. ‘I am as real as your terror,’ the voice came again, turning the remnants of reality to dust with its magnitude. ‘I am as real as the insanity that crawls and gnaws its way through your limited mind like maggots burrowing into a corpse.’
            One of the stone hands grabbed Benyar by his hair. He screamed as he felt himself dragged backwards. Desperately, he tried to find something to grasp onto, but the floor was smooth. Another hand gripped him around his chin, then two got hold of his shoulders. The young Dwarf screamed in horror as he felt dozens of stone fingers claw at his flesh. He was dragged up against the wall and held there. Stone hands forced his head to look towards that terrible seat of rock and the shadow-being upon it. Benyar directed his eyes away, looking at everything else in the room, for anything was better than the thing in the stone seat.
            ‘What…what are ye…?’ Benyar managed to splutter.
            The great shadow-being in the seat seemed to shift a little. For a moment, it was everywhere and nowhere – in the seat, on all the walls, inside Benyar’s mind. ‘You could not even comprehend what I am,’ the aura-voice cracked through Benyar’s shattered world. ‘I exist. I have done for longer than you could ever imagine, and I will do forever more – even though I am but a fragment.’
            ‘Please,’ Benyar said, ‘I jus’ want to go home. I jus’ want-… I jus’…’
            There was a flash and suddenly Benyar was no-longer in the chamber. It was as if the walls and floor had vanished to reveal a bird’s-eye view of Khur-Karzana, though invisible arms still clung to him. Benyar could see the High Chamber, the bridge, his own house, and hundreds of Syladrian Halflings upon the streets.
The great shadow-creature was still there, sitting in his seat which seemed to float hundreds of feet above the city. ‘Your people,’ it seemed to say. Benyar became aware that somehow the shadow was looking at everything. Its fiery red gaze was upon every single Syladrian Halfling at once, and each only for a glance. Yet in that glance, the shadow seemed to learn everything. His malicious red eyes flashed in keyholes, through windows, and around cracks in doors as it saw everything and everyone.
‘So short-lived – mere twitches in the movement of the great cosmic eye,’ the shadow-being said. ‘Each and every one; basic, undeveloped. You creatures are nothing. You mean nothing.’
Benyar looked away, though the stone hands about him jerked his head around again, forcing him to look down upon the world under the Syladras Mountains. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior. Benyar clamped his eyes shut and filled his mind with the thought. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior. I am a Volostag. I am a warrior.
You are nothing and you mean nothing.
Benyar let out a cry and fell. He was back in the terrible chamber, face-down on the stone floor. The hands and faces in the walls had stilled, and no-more was he being clutched at and pulled around by things that should not move. He tried to stagger to his feet and run, but his whole form felt as if it were being pinned down by a huge weight. I’m going mad, Benyar thought as he clutched at his face. I’m losin’ my mind.
You’ve already lost it.
‘No!’ Benyar cried. ‘I am Volostag! I am a warrior! I can’t-… I have to get out! I must open the chest an’ take it to the king, I-…’
Again came the laugh that rocked the world. The shadow-being leaned forwards from its seat, its ethereal, horned head and burning red eyes mere inches from Benyar’s tear and sweat-soaked face. ‘Then open it,’ it said in its voice that defied all reality. ‘Pick it up and try the lock.’
Benyar scrambled to his knees and looked for the chest. He found it here he had dropped it by the archway to the haunting room of purple light and shadows. Wearily, and moaning in terror and pain as he went, he crawled to the chest and took it in his hands. No more did it feel heavy – instead, it was impossibly light. He could feel the shadow in its chair looking at him; those burning eyes were both hot and cold upon his form, reading his every thought and every memory.
Open it, a voice said in Benyar’s mind. Open it.
Hands trembling uncontrollably, Benyar placed his fingers on the lid of the chest. He could feel something inside it, something moving, something alive. A ka-thump, ka-thump of a heartbeat pulsated through the wood and silver of the chest and into his palm. Gently, gripped by fear and sheer lunacy, Benyar pushed the lid backwards.
Shadows and screams poured from the chest. Benyar hurled the container aside and shrieked in fear. The great tendrils of smoke-like darkness came for him, pouring into his mouth, his eyes, his ears and chest. It stifled his breath and blinded him, tightening his throat and sending his whole body into a fitting spasm.
With one final moan, Benyar pitched backwards again, lying upon the stone. The terrible, all-consuming laugh came once more, making the whole world shake. Benyar felt his very soul quake as the great force rocked his reality. As he fell, his helmet with its battered goat horns rolled from his head as more and more of the darkness forced its way into his body. Paralysed by maddening fear, Benyar lay still as shadow took over his world. I’ve gone mad, he thought. I’ve gone mad.
Benyar plunged downwards as the world around him fell away. He could see nothing – only shadows and utter darkness. He could feel rock whizzing past him as the world grew colder and colder. Still the shadows were locked to him, pouring into him. He was the host upon which the inky parasite was feasting, draining from him everything he had: his memory, his hopes, his fears, his very life and soul. I’ve gone mad, he found himself thinking again. By the Great Creator ‘imself, I’ve lost my mind,
The final thing Benyar knew before total darkness took him was a last, mocking thought. No, it said to his warped and shattered mind. No, you haven’t.

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