In battle, the man realized, all is confusion and light and noise. Hertan gritted his teeth and caught the possessed warrior's sword on his shield. Yanking his foe down as he turned, he plunged his sword into a gap in the warrior's armor; as it crumpled to the ground, he whirled and decapitated its companion with a yell. He started to relax, then realized that both fallen knights continued to move, armor rattling on the flagstones of the catacombs. Breathing hard, the man turned and plunged his sword through both warriors' chests, the only sure way to destroy them, and stood for a moment sampling the new silence that always rang out after a fight. Then, with a sigh, he closed his eyes and collapsed against one of the crumbling pillars that adorned the hall.
Breathing heavily, spattered in old gore, Hertan was an impressive sight. He was a huge man, easily six feet tall, with a close-trimmed dark beard and long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. He wore his bulky armor as others wore casual clothing; it shone silver-grey in the werelight, thick and impressive. His sword and shield were held loosely at his side, ready for action at a moment's notice. His face was ruggedly handsome, with chiseled good looks. He was, in short, a warrior such as many young recruits only dreamed of being.
He was also tired. Possessed warriors had some disturbing abilities in their arsenal, not the least of which was an aura that seemed to sap the strength from their opponents. You could dodge every one of their blows and still come out of combat exhausted. With a grunt, Hertan levered himself away from the wall and dragged his pack over from where he'd dropped it when the fight began. After a few minutes' rummaging, he produced a package of cold turkey, and set into it with a will. As he ate, he pulled out a notebook and began flipping pages until he found a particular entry, a sheet covered with sparse notes about two-thirds of the way through the book. Skimming over it with his finger, the big man began to mutter to himself.
"He said twelve from the troop were taken… and I destroyed three in the front hall, two in the west tunnels, and three in the north… so these must have been nine and ten…" Frowning in concentration, he pulled out a pencil and added two additional tallies to a row. "Which leaves two of the warriors… and, of course, the sorcerer himself." Hertan grimaced. "God. I hate fighting magicians, of whatever stripe." Groaning, he heaved to his feet and stowed his food, then swung his pack onto his back and began to descend further into the catacomb. As he walked, he glanced at the notebook again. He'd taken all the notes he could, with his handwriting, but only one concerned him now:
Note: Don't know real shape, but E tunnels thought longer and deeper than N and W.
He snorted. It wasn't the "longer" that concerned him; it was the "deeper." It could be dangerous to descend too far into the Earth; sometimes you met things that didn't like your intrusion. Shaking his head, he stowed the notebook and moved on through the tunnels, footsteps echoing in the hollow space. The chamber he was walking through had once been some sort of great hall; it was wide and long enough that he couldn't see any of the sides for walking through the middle. The entire complex was lit by werelight, a green and eerie glow, omnipresent and unnaturally steady. It was almost like walking through a thin, glowing fog.
At the end of the hall Hertan found a low, rough-hewn tunnel, the entrance to the catacombs proper. The tunnel was low enough that he had to stoop slightly to fit inside; on the plus side, though, it was small and narrow enough that he could see much farther ahead. He proceeded carefully, picking his way down the narrow winding passage. Long shelves lined the walls, most holding moldering skeletons but a few—far more disturbingly—empty. Hertan grimaced; reanimated beings could be hard to kill.
Turning a corner, Hertan came up short and swore, vividly, under his breath. The tunnel branched into three separate passages, here: one to the left, one continuing straight ahead, and the third doubling back to the right and plunging down at a sharp angle. Hertan considered them. The one to the right worried him the most, since there might be even older burials—with, perhaps, curses or other arcane protections—in the deepest sections of the catacombs. The other two were not necessarily… appealing, though. Of course, very little was in these dank tombs.
Finally reaching a decision, the warrior took the most direct course, striding down the central passageway. At first, all seemed as normal: the burial shelves, the wet and rotting odor, the dim glow of the werelight throughout. But then he began to hear… no, feel… a sound. It was like a humming in the air, some sort of charged aura that set his teeth on edge. The farther he went, the stronger it got, until he could feel it in every bone in his body. The feeling made him want to writhe, to squirm in irritation, but he kept himself steady. He knew the feeling; he was getting close.
His suspicions were confirmed when the tunnel led to a broad, circular chamber with a raised dais in its center. It was not, however, the dais that caught Hertan's attention; it was the figure sprawled on the ground in front of it.
The man was of only medium height, with thin shoulders and sparse brown hair. He had a bald patch instead of a part, and his face, from what Hertan could see of it, was round and innocuous. In another reality, he could have been a clerk, or a businessman. But the glowing sigils traced into the circle around him, his black robe, and the acrid smoking candles that adorned the room left Hertan in little doubt of who the man was: Caergeth, the sorcerer.
Hertan almost attacked him as he lay there. The man was clearly in the middle of a summoning; his attention would be distracted, trying to ensure control over whatever demon he was summoning to do his bidding, and Hertan could be upon him almost before he knew what was happening. Almost. But Hertan had tried to slay sorcerers in the middle of their summonses before; he was not about to be so foolish again. Outsiders could not enter the circle, unless they were very powerful magi themselves; and even so, all but the most incompetent magic users set up Alarum Spells over their doorways when they were in the middle of an important or private work. And any sorcerer who could capture, enslave, and maintain twelve individual caravan guards was no amateur magic user.
Retreating quietly, Hertan set off to explore the left-hand tunnel. It forked again, but he found both of the remaining possessed men in the first room. The other, to his disappointment, had held only a moldering body, presumably some long-dead king. Even the man's grave goods were rotting or broken, not worth taking. Hertan dispatched both warriors quickly and ruthlessly, working efficiently now that he had a goal—Caergeth—in sight. Relieved that he would not have to explore the deeper right-hand passageway, he returned to the tunnel near Caergeth's chamber and mentally prepared himself for the coming battle.
Any sort of magic user, in Hertan's experience, made a difficult foe to handle. Sorcerers were particularly bad, since they dealt directly with the darkest forces in the universe. Hertan shuddered slightly. Wonder if this is a man controlling some demons, or some demons controlling a man. You can never really tell…
He peeked around the corner of the tunnel. The sorcerer had almost completed the summoning, and the demon stood—no, floated—in the center of the circle, bound in place by the sigils of the circle and by Caergeth's will. Caergeth was speaking as he strode around the demon; his voice was authoritative, and the demon hissed, rippling away from the man that had bound it. Finishing the incantation, Caergeth stepped forward and broke the circle. This was the moment of truth: if the binding lacked strength in any part, the demon would surely consume and destroy the man who summoned it.
But the demon did not consume Caergeth. It hissed as it billowed out from the inner circle, rushing up to the man in an attempt to intimidate, but Caergeth met its rush squarely, hissing three words in what Hertan could only assume was Gh'Urat, the tongue of demons. As he watched, Caergeth's will forced the demon's dark billowing form to the ground, where it twisted as though being struck. The sorcerer smiled cruelly.
Hertan drew a shaky breath. So. Not a mere dabbler in the arts of sorcery at all. He glanced at his sword. It was enchanted, he knew, but he doubted it would do much against a demon. He would have to focus his attack on the sorcerer. With Caergeth dead, there would be no reason for the demon to continue fighting, and it would return to the Howling Void, the place where demons existed freely—and where souls abandoned by or abandoning the Gods went after death. Souls, in all probability, such as Caergeth's. Hertan breathed deeply once, in and out. Speed would be of the essence. He cocked his head, listening; he could still hear Caergeth speaking to the demon, giving it some sort of instructions. Now.
Hertan turned and charged down the center of the room, straight for Caergeth. The circle was gone, leaving only a few black powder smudges on the floor. As expected, Caergeth turned in shock as Hertan charged, alerted by the Alarum. The sorcerer's lips moved soundlessly, and the demon flowed from its place by its master's side to meet Hertan's charge. The warrior had a split second view of it coming at him in the form of a dense pillar of black smoke with two glowing eyes, unnaturally silent—and then it struck him, bowling him over backwards onto the floor and knocking the wind out of him. Hertan grunted in pain and rolled away. As he rolled, he saw the demon change shape, becoming almost man-shaped, with long thin arms that looked like stilettos from the elbow down. He pushed himself off the floor and sprinted away just as the first blow from those arms struck the place he'd been lying, blasting splinters of stone high into the air.
Hertan could see Caergeth now, still standing in the center of the room, and again he charged. As he charged, he instinctively dodged to the left, letting the demon's second attack barrel over his head as he continued on to the sorcerer. He saw the other man's wide, frightened eyes for a second before the sorcerer screamed words in Gh'Urat, and disappeared in a swirl of cloak through the portal he'd opened. Letting the momentum of his charge take him past the portal as it closed, Hertan could feel the unsettling sensation of passing near to a place that led directly to the Void. It was as though something had pulled, firmly, on his very molecules, tugging him towards the whirling destruction within—and then he was past, and turning to face the next foe. He saw Caergeth step, panting and white, out of the Void and back into the middle of the chamber and prepared to charge… and then the demon was between them, its smoky blackish form still that of a man with stiletto arms, its oversized, pupil-less white eyes staring at him, devoid of emotion. As he backed away from the demon, Hertan's foot touched the wall—his charge had taken him all the way across the chamber. Cursing to himself, he raised his shield and considered his options. He couldn't hurt the demon as he would a normal opponent, and there wasn't enough room to go to the side. He was well and truly boxed in. This was the point at which most fighters would have died.
Surrounded by the acrid, metallic tang of the demon, Hertan closed his eyes, brow furrowing. He tensed, inhaling sharply; his fingers, on his sword, seemed to twitch. Then he released the pent-up breath as his head snapped up, grinning defiantly at the demon. It drew one arm back, then drove it forward like a piston. And Hertan leaped.
From a standing start, the huge man in armor jumped clear over the demon's head, somersaulting in the air as he went. Landing with a clank on the other side of the demon, he turned to face the sorcerer, who backed away, wild-eyed and pale with shock. Hertan's lip curled scornfully, and he began what he knew would be the last charge of the battle. Shrieking and gabbling demonic words as he cowered against the opposite wall, Caergeth hurled Darknesses at Hertan as he ran; he deflected them at angles with his shield, smashing pedestals and even chunks of the ceiling. As he neared his prey, the man screamed something else, and Hertan's sword glowed suddenly red-hot in his hand, searing him through his gauntlets; he gritted his teeth and maintained his grip and his charge. In one desperate final measure, Caergeth tried to block the downswing of his adversary's sword with his staff; the sword sliced cleanly through it, leaving the stupefied man holding two useless sticks. Hertan paused for a moment, and Caergeth's eyes sought his, beseeching, even pleading—and then he hurled another Darkness, square at the fighter's face. Hertan barely dodged this one; with a snarl, he plunged his sword into the man's chest, stopping it before it could go clean through and chip against the wall. The man shuddered, then lay still, his eyes dimming.
Panting, Hertan turned to the demon. It still retained its man-form, and it stood stock still, staring at him almost… hungrily. He stared back. Slowly, one thin arm reached out, morphing into a tendril. Hertan tried to match the demon's stillness as the tendril reached slowly towards his face, eventually resting lightly on his cheek. Hertan tried not to flinch or scream—the tendril burned. He held himself still, sensing—vaguely—a feeling almost of…approval, from the demon. Then it whirled away, the smoky tendril leaving a faint burn in an arc across Hertan's cheek. As he watched, the demon leaped into the air and whirled around, seeming to devour itself as it turned and lost all definite shape. Then it was gone, back to the Void.
Hertan slumped in exhaustion, spent from the battle. Fingering the burn—which was not as bad as he'd feared—he set about methodically searching the corpse. Although he was neither a collector of arcane paraphernalia nor a magic user, he could generally tell valuable items from trash. The two pieces of the man's staff he pocketed, as well as all of the money and some of his jewelry. No sense letting it sit here and go to waste. He glanced around, performed a few final tasks, and left the catacombs at a brisk walk.
It was a good half-hour later that a weary Hertan finally cantered into the nearby village of Ingolswot. Ingolswot was a small—but prosperous and clean—town of about three hundred souls. Dismounting at the inn and leaving Tabitha in its stables, Hertan strode into the common room and tossed the innkeeper a silver. Mounting the stairs slowly—and trying not to fall down them—he chose a room at the end of the hall, where he slung his bag in a corner, and slowly stripped off his armor. It was an impressive sight, all gathered in one pile, but Hertan simply stacked it neatly in another corner, tossing his clothes on top as he lay down on his bed in his undergarments. Glancing around at his possessions, Hertan gave a satisfied sigh, leaned back, closed his eyes…and vanished.
And in an entirely different reality, Mel Ferron stretched, sighed, and unplugged himself.