Dreylen fled in the cover of night, the clank of his armor bouncing crudely off the walls of the decrepit stronghold. Tall broken pieces of the misshapen bodies loomed around him like a stone forest. The darkness was a veil to his eyes. He knew the path during the day, but now, it became a maze seemingly closing in on him. Even so, he couldn’t stop. To stop was death!
He narrowly managed to avoid a jagged column. The maneuver made him cringe reminding him of the wound at his side. He gripped at the deep gash in his armor where beneath, it had reached near his ribs.
A sharp wheezing tore through the air behind him sending Dreylen’s heart into the depths. It was still in pursuit, and worse, drawing nearer. He could hear its claws and rough breathing, the sound of thick rock crumbling with ease in its path. It was eager to taste his flesh. He didn’t know how long he could withstand this dwindling chase. Adrenaline filled his veins but to what extent? He dreaded to think what would happen if—Without warning, he stumbled, losing his footing. The world became a blur as he was sent rolling downhill.
Each painful tumble mocked his labored body as if taking a turn to spit on his wounds. Finally, he crashed into something hard. More agony emerged from all over while his mind was still spinning. He felt a cold liquid from his temple. Blood?
When he touched the area, he realized it wasn’t his own. Instead a foul smell burned his nostrils and to his horror saw it belonged to a corpse. It was one of his fallen brethren split down the middle like a burlap sack – his innards coating him. There were two more piled near. He opened his mouth to let out a shrill, but a hand clamped over it. Dreylen’s heart nearly leapt out of his chest.
A voice hushed him calmly. His widened eyes were drawn to find a man veiled in shadows. Where had he come from? He glanced further up and realized he had knocked against a rusted door.
The sound of the creature’s guttural wheezing grew closer. Without hesitation, he was reeled in by the man, who quickly slammed the door behind them. The pounding of his pursuer came to a halt. The two men sat in silence, each stifling a heavy breath pumped by fear. They listened as the unholy beast could be heard sniffing the air, searching for its prey. Its breathing was strange as if struggling to earn it, coiled with fluid and gurgling.
Dreylen’s lungs burned, the air tearing at his mouth for release but he dared not let it go. The claws outside scrapped closer no doubt drawn by the corpses just a hair’s length away. All that separated them from it was the metal door – might as well have been cloth. Suddenly, a distant rock fell with a clatter. The creature let out another loud wheeze and took off in the direction. Once its pounding faded Dreylen let loose the air, inhaling greedily. The man did the same.
“That was too close for comfort,” Dreylen whispered. “Thank—”
The man hushed him again and rose. He walked further back in, gesturing him to follow. Reluctantly, Dreylen got up, wincing in the process, and proceeded in tow. This area… it was a long corridor built within the mountain. It was tight and rundown filled with broken pots, torn sacks and other items haphazardly strewn about. He stumbled trying to follow.
“Hey!” he called out into the darkness ahead. “Is this place truly safe? Can we trust it to hold?”
The air was silent except for the moan of the corridor. It stretched ahead out into seemingly endless darkness.
“Hello?” he called out. Again, silence was returned.
Dreylen winced as he pushed himself forward. He continued with a hand out hoping to avoid any future collisions. Finally, the corridor expanded into an open chamber. He could vaguely make out a throne at the center, tables layered throughout. Dreylen flinched as a sudden spark of light appeared in front of him. The man from earlier had lit a torch.
Now visible, Dreylen studied him in the light. He had a well-built body with tan skin. His hair was quite dark and lengthy and settled at his shoulders. Leather hide adorned his chest leaving his arms bare. Dreylen noted a bloodied bandage wrapped tightly around one leg.
“…You’re a Diretin, I see,” Dreylen grunted.
He could now see the man’s limp as he drew closer. His wild hair fell around stern eyes.
He nodded. “My home is in Hossop, but yes, it lies in Diret,” he responded in a strong accent.
Dreylen smirked. “You speak my country’s language pretty well… for a barbarian.”
The man scoffed. “How can a man fight alongside his friend without speaking his words?”
“We’re not friends,” Dreylen replied, cringing as he settled against a wall, “we just happen to have a common enemy in our lands. Besides, it’s worked fine for me.”
The Diretin man leaned the torch against the wall and squatted to check on Dreylen’s wound. Dreylen attempted to push his hand away but received a glare and sat back. The man revealed a small pouch and pinched out what appeared to be dust.
“What’s that?” Dreylen asked.
“Something that will help,” he replied, spitting into his hand. He lathered the dust until it became pasty. Once satisfied, he applied it to the wound. Dreylen scowled at the sharp burn it produced.
“Easy,” he shot. “So… What do I call you… ‘friend’?”
Dreylen chuckled. “Even your names are bloody ridiculous. Name’s Dreylen.”
Tyirn grunted at the remark. “You asked if it was safe. It is, if we do not draw them here.”
“Good to know. So, I take it you’re the only survivor of your group?” Dreylen asked. “I saw a few of you lined up before everything went to s**t.”
He nodded solemnly. “Many of my brothers were lost.”
“Yeah same. The Corrupted—cursed creatures—just one slaughtered ten of us. Can you believe we were proud of that? Of killing one? Then a f****n’ wave of them came through out of nowhere. Overtook us with ease. Makes you wonder what the point even is.”
“The point? My friend, we stood our ground. To challenge them is to prove man will not watch idly and die. Unchecked, it would be our villages and homes. That’s a victory.”
“Yeah?” Dreylen replied. “What good is a victory if you’re not alive to celebrate?”
“But for how long? Look at us. Either can barely walk let alone fight.”
Tyirn sighed. “We must be strong and give our faith in the Fates.”
“The Fates?” Dreylen spat to the side. “The only thing I’ll give them is a piece of me arse.”
“Are the Chuuim not strong with the Fates in your lands?” Tyirn asked. “Did your enemies not crumble with ease because of Lady Rota. Her power fueled your people with good fortune, yes?”
“My people have ‘faith’, but not me. I’ve always made my own luck. The Fates never had anything to do with that… C*********s, all of ’em.”
“Man can only survive on the will of the Fates.”
“The will of the Fates?” Dreylen scoffed. “You want to see their ‘will’? Look out there! It’s splayed all over the f****n’ battlefield. Was it their will that allowed our bothers to die for nothing? For us to become nothing but fodder?”
Tyirn’s eyes fell to the ground.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Dreylen continued. “Out here, you have nothing to trust. Nothing but the men at your side, the blade in your hand, and your wits up here,” he said, tapping his temple.
Tyirn shook his head. “I trust Fortuda of Strength just as I trust in all the Crowns of Fate. I know my faith is being tested, even now… Lady Fortuda’s presence is strong in these lands. Perhaps… that is why Lady Rota abandoned your peo—”
“F**k off already,” Dreylen interrupted. “Just let me be.”
Tyirn nodded and walked over to another part of the wall and sat.
Dreylen awoke drenched in sweat. The echo of screams lingered in his mind. He could still see their torn faces frozen in terror and agony, feel their mutilated bodies pressed up against his. He glanced over to see the low light from the torch and rendered a sigh of relief. He saw Tyirn further down on the wall propped up against it. His head was low as he produced a light snore.
Dreylen’s eyes fell to his wound. Whatever remedy the Diretin had used was clearly working; the bleeding stopped. He slowly rose, still feeling a sharp sting. He grabbed the torch and blew lightly to add life to the flames. Satisfied, he took the time to examine the chamber. It was mostly jagged rock at the ceiling from the mountain, but the stonework began at the walls and made up the flooring.
He noted the seals draped. The symbol displayed a wheel with several letters inscribed around it. It was Rota of Fortune. Chuuim’s symbol. The power behind their good fortune. Their Fate. The image made his stomach churn. He turned in disgust, noting the tables from earlier and approached them. They were covered with parchments of the terrain.
He saw the stronghold’s position with toppled pieces representing their forces. Tracing the map, he saw where the enemy had been annotated: The Gate. He didn’t realize how close they were to it. Dreylen had been among the third line of defense. The last was the sixth. Beyond that was the Captain’s position.
At that moment, his eyes sparked. Where was the Captain? Or the other Guard Sergeants? If this was their last stand shouldn’t their remains be about? They would’ve clearly been seen or better yet smelt by now. He recalled the bodies he had seen near the door. Was that them? Possibly, but he didn’t recollect the Captain among them. That had to at least been the Guard Sergeants.
If he wasn’t dead out there and he wasn’t inside here, then… His eyes traced the map. Immediately, they grew wider; there was a back way, an escape route!
“B*****d…” he whispered under his breath.
He hobbled as fast as he could around the chamber as he scanned the area. Where was it? It appeared to be one solid room except for the entrance. The mess of pots and crates spilled into this space as well. It had to be here. He settled on the large throne at the center.
“Couldn’t be…” he whispered.
He approached it with haste. It was made of stone, partly cracked but for the most part in good shape. He could picture the Captain in the chair, fancying himself over the others as they argued over strategy. Being the Captain, he wouldn’t privy anyone else a seat in it. That was the type of man he was.
Dreylen studied the chair with his fingers, combing every inch. The Captain wasn’t the type to place himself in a hole trapped. Not without having… —his finger grazed something extending under the arm rest— …a backup plan. He pressed it and a deep rumbling filled the air.
A gust rushed out from the back of the throne. He coughed and glanced back to see a square opening in the ground. The torch revealed a set of stairs descending. He found it!
“What are you doing?” Tyirn said suddenly.
His voice startled Dreylen.
“What is this?” Tyirn asked. “What did you do?”
“Don’t you see, my friend,” Dreylen said excitedly, “it’s a way out! We can get out of this bloody place!”
Tyirn shook his head backing away. “No. This is not good. We cannot go down there.”
Dreylen gave him a look of disbelief. “Are you mad, Diretin? Don’t you wanna to get out of here? Don’t you want to leave?”
“I do but this is not the way.”
“Really? And what’s your plan, then?”
Dreylen scoffed. “Please tell me you jest? That’s it, that’s your plan? To sit and do nothing?”
“So, you’re giving in, then?”
“Does your plan include food? Because we don’t have any or water. Unless you count that magic dust, we’ll die down here.”
“I leave our well-being to the Fates. Lady Fortuda will deliver us.”
Dreylen rolled his eyes. “Not this f****n’ thing again. Why does you and everyone cling to these f****n’ Fates?!” he yelled.
Tyirn recoiled. “The real question,” he began, “is why do you not?”
Dreylen scoffed again. “What does it mat—”
“Tell me,” he pressed.
Dreylen sighed, running his hand over his shaven hair.
“I can never understand it,” he started, “how people can worship them. How can you put trust in beings who do nothing in return? You said you put your hope in the Crowns, right?”
The man nodded.
“Funny, everyone is so quick to kiss their arse but seem to forget about her! The one who turned her f****n’ back on us!” He was now in the face of Tyirn. “Fancied herself the title ‘Queen’ and created those unholy shits to wage war on everything that has bloody meaning! The same unholy beasts that ransacked our lands, fed on our light, our hope…” he choked on his words, “…our wives and our… c-children—” He stopped to wipe his eyes.
“You cannot blame the action of one on the many,” Tyirn stated.
“Really?” Dreylen replied. “Are the others any different? What have they done to right this wrong? It was one of their own f****n’ kind in the first place, and what have they done?! Nothing!!
“Instead we have to fend for ourselves, dying by the thousands! They’re no better than that wench!! And the mucks like you still pray to them!” He paused to collect himself. “The Fates have been nothing but a thorn in mankind’s arse since the Dawning. Only blind sheep keep on trusting them. Not me. Cause I know what you’ll get in return if you do. Silence. Suffering. Death.
“C*********s. That’s what I think of the damn Fates. They can eat mine and some.”
Tyirn was speechless. For a long minute, the burning of the torch filled the void in the air.
“I’m sorry,” Tyirn finally spoke. “You have clearly suffered loss. I understand your pain. I too have lost my family: my wife and two sons… I thought Lady Fortuda wanted me to use my anger to harness her strength but… I was wrong.
“The truth. I… I am a coward. I rushed into battle and found I was afraid. When the Darkness attacked, I fled. I left my brothers to die…” He paused. “This is why I must atone. I believe this is my test. To listen. To wait. That is Fortuda’s true power; true strength is patience. We must wait.”
He placed a hand on Dreylen’s shoulder, but it was pushed away.
“Atone on your own,” Dreylen stated coldly. “You can stay here. I want to live.”
“No, I cannot let you leave,” Tyirn stated.
“Heh. Let me leave?”
“You may draw them here. It is a risk. We must wait patiently. We cannot go against the will of the Fates. To do so is death.”
Dreylen threw a punch into the Diretin’s face. It felt like he had struck a wall. Still, the blow managed to catch the large brute off guard. It wasn’t enough though as the man quickly retaliated with a backhand that sent Dreylen flying to the ground. The torch fell from his hands, rolling into a flurry of light.
“Never go against the will of the Fates,” Tyirn said as he slowly approached Dreylen.
Dreylen’s ears were ringing. A sharp pain pulsed from his lip. He looked to see Tyirn reaching for him. Quickly, he launched a dirty kick to his groin. The giant howled in pain toppling to the ground. Dreylen took advantage, mounting him, and rained down heavy blows to his face.
“Here’s what I think of your c*********g Fates. Don’t you understand, you bloody lout?! We need to get out of here while we can!”
Tyirn reeled his hands free to grab his attacker by the shoulders and rendered a headbutt. Dreylen’s vision became a flash of black and white. He moaned in agony, rolling over while gripping his head. It felt like he had rammed it against ten metal doors and some. He braced for another blow… but it never came.
He glanced up and saw Tyirn standing over him. What was he waiting for? This was his chance! Dreylen’s vision finally cleared. In the torch light, he noticed the man’s eyes were not on him but beyond. He could see the fear in them. That’s when he heard it: a guttural wheezing. Immediately, Dreylen’s eyes shot towards the corridor bathed in shadows. He could hear the clank of pots crunching and sacks being slid.
It was one of them. Their scuffle must’ve have drawn it inside. He quickly scanned the room noting a fallen table.
“Take cover. Quick,” he whispered to Tyirn.
Tyirn nodded and scanned the area until settling behind some crates. Dreylen made his way to the table. Just as he knelt behind it, the wheezing grew louder. It had reached the chamber. He swallowed hard. They were trapped. The torch teased its irregular figure on the walls.
He listened as its heavy steps brought it further in. A foul smell accompanied it. It was beyond rancid like soured fish bathing in s**t, no doubt a blend between its own odor and its banquet of flesh. It was hard to tell which he’d prefer over the other. Regardless, he choked back a wave of bile that reached his throat.
The creature navigated aimlessly. Dreylen peeked around the table to catch a glimpse of its tar-like skin as it began to turn his way. He quickly reeled back. What was their next move? It wasn’t a big area for it to move around in, or for them either.
He could hear it make its approach to his side. His heart pounded like a madman. He was sure it could be heard against his armor. Dreylen noted a crate nearby and realized he had no choice. If he didn’t try for it, he’d be spotted anyway. He took a few deep breaths and crawled. He fought to keep his armor from clanking, but that was easier in his mind. The creature continued to stir around in the background. Finally, just as he reached the crate, his foot scrapped.
It growled and shot for the table. He could hear it launch it without effort causing it to splinter. Dreylen fought to stifle his breathing as it combed the area. It turned its attention to the air, sniffing once again. Dreylen attempted to find another sliver of salvation. He knew his options were waning. His eyes landed on Tyirn still safe behind his own crate.
His gaze was clearly on the creature until they locked onto his. Dreylen could hear the wheezing morph into another growl. It realized their presence. His eyes fell upon the throne.
The escape path! How could he have forgotten about it? The claws started to make a beeline on his position. Could he make it to the hole? Even if he did, would he be able to outrun it if it followed him down?
Suddenly, an idea dawned on him. He had little time to dwell on its success. His gaze met with Tyirn’s again and rendered a nod to him which puzzled the man. Instantly, Dreylen took off. The creature let out an ear-piercing wheeze that became a howl.
“Diretin!” Dreylen shouted. “Follow my lead! Now!”
The creature launched itself with an insane speed. Dreylen narrowly dodged it throwing himself to the side as it slammed into the crate. Its momentum sent it into a wild roll, barreling into the wall. Large chunks of rocks were sent hurdling.
Without hesitation, Dreylen grabbed the torch. Tyirn appeared behind him.
“What is your plan?” he asked.
“That dust, you have any more?”
The creature finally recovered. It moved with a sickening crack, turning its form in their direction. Its fluid-like wheeze eased into another growl. Tyirn’s fingers fumbled to reel out his pouch.
“Hurry!” Dreylen hissed. “It’s coming again.”
Tyirn tore opened the sack, pinching out the dust. The creature posed itself for another pounce. Tyirn threw the dust onto the torch, sparking the flames to leap out just as it started to move. Instantly, it halted in its tracks, roaring from the brightness. Dreylen held the fire out, waving it to keep it at bay. The creature wheezed in contempt, pacing and backing off with each wave.
“What now?” Tyirn asked over his shoulder. “That flame’s strength won’t last long.”
“I’m aware of that,” Dreylen retorted without taking his eyes away.
Now in the light, the abomination could be fully seen. Its body was large rivaling a horse. Its shape was off-putting, to say the least. It was obese in some areas—coated thick with a web of veins—yet muscular in others, mainly from its beefy arms. Its head shrank deep into its torso absent a neck.
It was hard to believe it once had been a person. The eyes were embedded deep into its sockets which accented its skull seemingly on the verge of tearing through its skin.
Dreylen noted the golden hilt of the sword wedged in its back, the one he lost after it clawed him.
“Didn’t think we meet so soon again…” he said under his breath.
Its mouth was like a crater stretching down its chest. It rendered another wheeze revealing the intricate rows of daggers.
Dreylen noted the flame’s dwindle.
“Give me the rest of the dust,” he stated, reaching a hand back.
“What are you—”
“Just give it and head towards the throne. Be ready. On my mark, move out the way.”
Reluctantly, Tyirn obliged. Once in hand, Dreylen slowly backed up. The creature began to make stronger advances as the flame got lower. Dreylen tore the bag with his teeth and began dumping it on the ground.
“Alright, be ready,” he whispered.
He hoped this worked. The flame finally settled into low embers. At that, the creature growled deeply.
“Now!” Dreylen screamed.
He threw the torch down at the dust just as it launched itself. Once again, he narrowly evaded. The dust ignited into a bright blaze, stunning the creature as it propelled into the wall. It fell to the ground, thrashing blindly. Small bushes of fire still lapped at its skin.
Dreylen didn’t waste time and quickly bolted to it. He ducked avoiding an arm it swung. His eyes were on the prize: the sword wedged in it. He attempted to reach it but was forced to evade another wild swing.
Finally, he found an opening and jumped for it. The handle was still hot, singing his flesh but he held on, pulling with all his strength. The creature shook violently throwing him off.
Dreylen hit the ground hard. Yet, he glanced at his hand with the sword in it, and smiled. The creature released another loud wheeze. This pulled him from his minor triumphant. It wasn’t over yet. He found his legs and made his way near it.
“Over here, you bloody b*****d!” he yelled, clanking the sword on the ground. “Don’t you wanna finish the job!”
It quickly turned its head towards him. He could see its eyes were charred over. He hit the sword harder.
“That’s it. Come on!”
It growled again and scrambled with haste towards him, hatred boiling for him.
Perfect, Dreylen thought.
The creature stumbled nearly falling completely into the opened trap door. Its torso was halfway through, but it managed to catch itself with one arm. Dreylen swiftly closed the distance and rammed the sword deep into its head from behind.
It cried out in agony, but it didn’t die. It kept thrashing, fighting to pull itself up. He struggled to keep its body pinned. He could feel the beast’s resistance increase. At the corner of his eye, he noticed Tyirn watching.
“Diretin!” he screamed to him. “Help me hold it!”
The man was frozen, his gaze full of terror.
“Diretin, I cannot hold this beast alone!”
Dreylen could feel the blade tearing through its flesh providing more leverage to the creature.
“Tyirn!!” This pulled the man’s eyes finally on him. “Help me, dammit!”
The man sprang into action. His hands wrapped around the sword, pushing it down with greater force.
“Hold it!” Dreylen ordered, releasing his own grip.
Tyirn nodded but struggled to hold it steady. Even with his strength the creature was too much. Dreylen rushed over to the throne. His fingers fumbled for the switch until he found it and pressed. The door rumbled with life and began closing. However, the creature stopped it with its brace hand.
“Cut it!” Dreylen yelled. “Hurry and cut the damn thing!”
Tyirn yanked the sword up and began hacking away at its arm. Each blow slowly ate at the flesh, accompanied by an anguish squeal from its owner. Finally, he rendered the final blow. The door slammed shut cutting off its whimpering head.
Dreylen sighed in relief. His heart was beating at full steam. He fell to his knees. They did it! Tyirn began laughing uncontrollably, and fell to his back.
“What’s so funny?” Dreylen asked.
“Don’t you see, friend? This was my test. This was a step to cure me of my cowardice, and I succeeded. I faced the Darkness!”
Dreylen chuckled a bit finding his footing.
“You see,” Tyirn continued, “I was patient all these years and Lady Fortuda came through. They are for mankind. This is the reason, my friend, why we must wait here. Salvation will find us in due time. To go against the Fates is death.”
Tyirn attempted to rise but winced in pain. He chuckled. “My friend,” he said holding out a hand, “can you help me up? I am sore.”
Dreylen’s footsteps carried over to him. Tyirn waited with a smile. However, it soon faded when he heard grunting.
“W-what… Dreylen, what are—” he started to ask but before he could finish, Dreylen slammed a large chunk of rock onto his head. A loud crunch filled the air. The Diretin’s body twitched erratically. Dreylen cringed as he lifted the now bloodied rock up once more, slamming it again. Tyirn stopped twitching.
“Sorry, friend,” Dreylen said through heavy breaths, “but I’ll wait no more, especially for one of those things to return.”
He hobbled to his feet and made his way to the throne again. He pressed the button to open the trap door. The creature’s body tumbled through, cracking as it descended the stairs. Dreylen chuckled. He took a moment to compose himself.
However, a noise threw his heart back into the depths: footsteps. They came from below. It was still alive? But how? Frantic, his eyes scanned the area for something to grab. He noted the sword near Tyirn, but the shadow of the beast was emerging too quickly. He grabbed the first thing next to him—a rock—and held it up.
As it emerged, Dreylen stood in awe. The rock fell from his hands. It was… the Captain. The nobleman was a sight for sore eyes. He had rounded features with a face plastered with fatigue. The tall man donned red armor without a blemish, decorated with a white cape.
“Captain… Woller?” Dreylen said.
The man produced a warm smile. “Soldier, I’m surprised you managed to survive.”
“It-it wasn’t easy, Sir.” Dreylen made a chest salute. Tears formed in his eyes. “I’m so glad you made it, Sir.”
Captain Woller nodded. “Carry on.”
Dreylen wiped his eyes.
“Are you the only one left?” the Captain asked.
“I am, Sir. It was only me and that Diretin.”
Captain Woller glanced over to Tyirn’s body. He noted the sword and picked it up. “Well, it’s all over now, son, rest assure.”
Dreylen approached the trapdoor.
“Are reinforcements here, Sir? Are they down—”
His words were cut short. He glanced down and saw the bloodied tip of the sword through his stomach.
“Sorry lad,” Captain Woller said softly. “Can’t have word out how I abandoned my men to die for my own survival. To think, this hole was a blessing and a curse. The path out had longed caved-in and I was trapped. However, Lady Rota smiled on me when she sent you here.”
He reeled out the blade. Dreylen coughed out blood. He fell forward, passing through the hole. He plunged, feeling every crunch of the stairs along the way.
Captain Woller wiped the blood of the sword. Immediately after, a loud thunder erupted from the corridor. A group of soldiers stormed the chamber with swords out. They halted upon seeing him.
“Sir!” one of the men stated, producing a salute that sparked a ripple from the others. “Reinforcements have arrived. Are you hurt?”
Captain Woller waved them at ease. “I’m fine, Lieutenant. Perfect timing.”
“Are you the only survivor, Sir?”
Captain Woller paused to glance back at the trapdoor. “Yes. No others made it, I’m afraid. Let us leave this place. I’ve been without fresh air for too long.”
“Yes sir. Everyone fall back!”
As the horde exited, Captain Woller noted the sound of metal still lingering in the air. It was accompanied by grunting and coughing. He turned and realized it came from the trapdoor. He sighed and walked to the throne and pressed the button to seal the door.