Last of His Kind
Written by David Craddock
Blood mixed with the red light spilling from the monastery's antechamber across the narrow dirt path that led to the church. The Fallen lay splayed across the light, its spear and wooden shield slipping from emaciated brown hands to the dirt beside it.
Caliat wiped his blade on the dead grass to either side of the dirt path. As he bent to examine the creature, he heard nails scraping hurriedly on stone behind him, like paws scrabbling across a floor. He hissed a breath before standing, backpedaling and pressing his back against the rounded sidewall of the monastery entrance. A hunched shadow slowly stretched across the blend of torchlight and blood coloring the dirt before another beast stepped into the night.
Stubby spines stood at rigid attention down the center of its hunched back. It loped forward on all fours, curved claws scraping along the stone antechamber before sinking into the gore-soaked earth surrounding the goblin and pulling free with wet, squishy sounds.
Sweat molded palm to sword hilt as Caliat watched the creature. It sniffed the air before lowering its scrunched face to the body at its feet. Long moments passed. Caliat eased away from the wall and began to stalk toward his prey, taking care not to crunch the brittle grass beneath his feet.
He inhaled slowly as he intertwined clammy fingers and hefted his sword high above his head just as one of the creature's claws shot forward, ripped loose a chunk of the carcass and shoved it into its mouth.
His breath escaped in a shuddering moan that caused the creature to whirl and hiss with anger. Its legs went taut, but Caliat's sword whistled through the air and slammed into the left side of the beast's skull before it could pounce, flipping it from its feet to crash onto its back. It gave a throaty rattle as four shriveled legs kicked and clawed at the air before going still.
Caliat fell to his knees and retched. He wiped his lips with a quivering palm and used the sword to push himself upright before dropping it in the grass, grabbing each corpse by a leg and dragging them to the darkness where he'd hidden. He returned to his sword, wiped it clean against the grass, sheathed it, and looked askance at the open monastery entrance.
No other elongated shadows emerged from the vestibule, nor from the wide stairs beyond that descended into the church. Two lamps bracketed to either wall crackled like the scavenger he had slain, but the blush of four strong flames didn't account for the vibrant red glow that oozed up the stairs, flooded the antechamber and spilled onto the ground outside.
Caliat wearily made his way down the path and straddled the low wall surrounding the church. He adjusted his sword before digging into one of the three packs at his feet and biting into a chunk of stale bread. To his right, the path from the church curved between the squat cottages of Tristram. All were dark save for the tallest and widest structure some distance away, the lower interior of which was flooded with lantern light.
Dried blood adorned the trail like rubies on a necklace before disappearing between two houses.
The bread turned to ash in his mouth, but he continued chewing. Caliat focused on sounds--crickets, the bubble of the brook to the east of the church--so his head wouldn't swivel left. He could feel it staring. Warmth flushed his cheek, as if the monastery's open entrance breathed fiery breath over him. The blood decorating the trail began in the tongue of red light, lapping at it like a horse at a stream. He knew the monastery hungered: it hadn't fed since last night.
Caliat absently fingered the broad gold "GK" molded to the sword's hilt. Sometimes he could feel the monastery inching closer to him, its bulk sliding along the ground like...
The grass crunched behind him.
Caliat shot from his perch and flowed into a stance, his feet spaced evenly, both hands firmly interlocked over the hilt of his master's blade. The church stared back at him. Its redness pulsed rapidly like a gut booming with silent laughter before darkness swallowed everything but the entryway torches.
He didn't move, but something else did. Grass crinkled again, then once more before a yellow leg and dark boot stepped into view from beside the church. The rest of the form was hidden in shadow until the redness flared again, revealing a stooped human form. A cudgel was held limply in one hand.
Suddenly it stopped, reached its free hand to its chest, removed a small object, and raised it to its lips.
Caliat lowered his blade. "Farnham."
The man started and tucked his flask back into an interior vest pocket. "Aye," Farnham said, hefting the club over his scrawny shoulder as he came toward Caliat. A patch of wet blood dampened the wood. Caliat saw it and tensed.
"What happened?" Caliat asked.
Farnham gestured behind him with his head. "Caught one of the smaller ones coming out a window 'round back." He grinned. "Caught it with my club, I mean."
"Are there more?"
"Not that I could see," Farnham said. His other hand twitched, as if drawn toward the flask in his vest.
Caliat licked his lips. "What word from Pepin?"
Farnham's grin faded. "That's why I'm here," he mumbled, rubbing a hand through his hair. "The healer tried to save Thomas, but there was nothing more could be done. I'm sorry, lad. Thomas passed not ten minutes ago."
"But Pepin's tonics, his salves. They--"
"Not a tonic in all of Khanduras that could reattach half a man's skull." Farnham cleared his throat before sitting on the stone wall. "Thomas's gone."
Caliat sank down next to him and stared at the bloody dirt. "Then I'm alone out here."
"Has Sir Garrett come back?" Farnham asked.
Caliat's lips thinned. His eyes pulled toward the monastery, but he held them back. "No."
Farnham nodded at the ground. "Probably for the best."
"Have you told anyone?"
"About Sir Garrett."
"Oh." Farnham glanced at Caliat before he vigorously shook his head. "No, not a word." He drank deeply. "What will you do now?"
"The same thing I've done for four nights," Caliat said. Now he did glance sideways at the entrance, making sure that nothing came crawling or shambling out.
"You can't stay here, lad." Farnham said as he stood. "You've got to come to Ogden's."
Caliat shook his head. "I can't. This is my post. I will stay here until--"
"The tavern was attacked," Farnham said.
Farnham took a moment to respond; he was scowling into the red entrance of the church. "Just ain't natural," Caliat heard him growl.
Farnham turned toward him slowly. "Little while ago," he finally said. "Ogden heard chanting outside. He goes out and sees a group of the imps--Fallen, I believe you call them--standing around his sign of all things. I followed Ogden outside and tore into 'em with this." Farnham hefted his cudgel. "There were too many, but the next thing I know, Griswold comes runnin' over from the smithy swinging the biggest axe I ever seen. They scattered, and I don't mean they ran, either. Two of 'em did try to run off, but Griswold wasn't having any of that. He split their skulls as cleanly as I've seen him split logs."
Caliat turned to stare at the monastery. "I'm not supposed to leave. I have to stay in case they return, or if Prince Albrecht--"
"They're all dead, you fool," Farnham near bellowed, then recoiled as Caliat spun on him. "I'm sorry, lad," he said more quietly. "But you know it's true. They're not comin' back, not Sir Garrett, not Lachdanan, not any of 'em. As far as the prince is concerned... if he wandered into the monastery... "
Caliat looked at the packs slumped against the wall.
"There's a caravan leaving tomorrow," Farnham said quietly. "Last one, I suspect. Ogden told everyone who's leaving to bring their families to the tavern tonight. Strength in numbers, I guess." He emptied his flask and tucked it away. "The creatures are already sneaking by you, Caliat. If you want to do your duty, you'll come to the Rising Sun."
* * *
They followed the path until they came to a sign staked in the yard of a wide building. "Tavern of the Rising Sun" was scrawled on the wood beneath a brilliant sun crest. It listed toward one of the building's windows, as if to peek inside. The tavern wall nearest the sign, as well as the sign itself, bore a red stain that glistened faintly in the light oozing from the window above.
"Filthy bastards," Farnham mumbled as he straightened the placard. "Ogden and Garda'll be scrubbing for days." He snorted and leaned against the wall. "Serves the filthy imps right, thinkin' to come into Tristram and dance one of their devil rituals around--"
"When did that happen?" Caliat asked.
Farnham blinked. "I told you before. The Fallen came from the church and--"
"Not the blood." Caliat pointed to where Farnham's hand propped him against the wall. "The engraving."
Farnham frowned, lifted his hand, looked, and recoiled with a yelp. Carved into the stone was a broad-lined star encased in a ring. "Filthy desecration," he growled, fervently wiping both hands on his trousers. "Folk won't come if they see that."
"When did that happen?" Caliat asked again.
"Had to have been a few days ago, before the knights chased the king down into..." Farnham cleared his throat and avoided looking at Caliat. "Ogden will know. He'd have to."
"Then let's ask him," Caliat said quietly, and entered the common room.
The spread of tables sat forlorn and lonely, as did the bar at the far end of the room, but the dim light of each table's single lantern contributed to a comforting glow. Beside the bar was a staircase that led up to the second floor.
Standing beside the staircase were two women and a man. One woman, large and muscular, stood scowling at the man, whose head bobbed in time with her scolding finger. The other woman was younger and shapely, and wrung a towel in her hands as she looked worriedly between the arguing couple.
Upon noticing Caliat and Farnham's entrance, the larger woman peered over the man's shoulder, shook her finger at Farnham, and huffed up the stairs. A door opened and slammed, signaling a sigh of relief from the man.
"The wife give you another talkin' to, Ogden?" Farnham asked as he and Caliat took seats at the bar. The innkeeper crossed to them and went behind the counter.
"When Garda is frightened, she becomes angry," Ogden answered, "and when she is angry, she becomes frightened."
"Which is she now?" Farnham asked.
"Too difficult to tell," Ogden said with a small smile.
Farnham nodded absently as he considered the shelves of bottles behind the bar. "That one, Gillian," he said, pointing to a green decanter on the second shelf.
The barmaid frowned as she joined them. "Should I serve him?" she asked Ogden.
Farnham bristled indignantly as Ogden sighed and turned to retrieve the bottle. "I don't suppose you have any copper, Farnham," he said.
"A whole sack of gold," Farnham drawled, patting his deflated purse.
Ogden shook his head. "This is the last I can give you. I'm sorry," he said, raising his hands to ward off Farnham's sputtering, "but Garda says we no longer serve those who aren't able to, ah, make the required transactional exchange."
"But I'm your best customer!" Farnham said as Gillian set a clay mug and the bottle in front of Farnham.
"You're also my thriftiest," Ogden said before turning to Caliat and bowing his head of thin brown hair. "Welcome, Master Caliat."
"Hello, Ogden," Caliat said. He'd sat quietly throughout the exchange, staring expressionlessly at the bar. Now he looked at the innkeeper. "Slow night?"
Ogden picked up a rag and began wiping the countertop. "Other than the Fallen. No supply carts have come since the war ended, and after the caravan leaves tomorrow morning, there won't be much reason for them to come."
Caliat nodded. "I don't imagine your wall does much to attract customers."
Ogden looked up at him in confusion, then the rag slowed. "Ah, that."
"When did it happen?"
"One week ago, the night before you and the others returned from Westmarch."
"Same thing happened to ol' Toren day before that," Farnham muttered into his mug. "One morning I woke up and called on him. He said he'd spare a copper if I helped him with the crops. I knocked on the door, right on the symbol. Didn't see it at first, but you can bet I pulled my hand right back and washed it in the creek when I did.
"King's guard came during the night, I guess. Took the whole family to the monastery, may the Light shelter their souls. The carving's still there, too."
Farnham stifled a belch and leaned close to Caliat. "Toren and his lot weren't the only ones. Leoric started looking at everyone sideways the night Albrecht disappeared. That was, what, a fortnight ago, Ogden? Hell, Lazarus himself vanished that next morning. Leoric probably marked him first. Imagine, accusing the Archbishop of kidnapping the prince! Makes as much sense as thinking ol' Toren did it."
He took another drink. "There's many who hope Leoric won't come back. Oh, they won't say it out loud, but they're thinking it. There may be abominations creeping around in the night, but at least you can usually see those coming. Can't stop madness."
The tavern fell silent. After a few moments, Gillian gently pulled the rag from Ogden's hand and moved about the room wiping tables.
"Has there been any sign of the prince? Or Lazarus?" Ogden asked.
"No," Caliat said.
Ogden shook his head sadly.
"Tell me about your trouble, earlier," Caliat said.
Farnham waved offhandedly. "Some of the goblins came up from the monastery and tried to steal my sign. It was strange, but I'm not concerned about it. What worries me is that they got so close to the tavern."
Caliat looked at the counter. "I'm sorry."
"You're only one man. No one was hurt, thank the Light. Farnham ran out waving his club, and Griswold... where is Griswold?"
"Had to check my smithy," a booming voice said from the doorway. Stools and chairs shuddered as he clomped into the room and approached the bar. "Thought some of the bastards might've tried to make off with my weapons!"
A foot from overhead stomped three times, showering the group with slight traces of dust. Griswold frowned at the ceiling. "My apologies," he said to Ogden. Griswold planted his bulk on a stool beside Caliat and turned to him. "I heard Farnham and Ogden tussling with a bunch of the little uglies," the blacksmith went on, "so I came running from the smithy with the biggest axe I could find and started to swat Fallen out of the way like"--Ogden looked pleadingly at Griswold--"like flies," Griswold finished softly.
"We gave it to 'em but good, didn't we Griswold?" Farnham asked. He swayed slightly on his stool as he dumped the bottle's remaining contents into his glass. Gillian tsked when liquid sloshed onto the counter.
"It's good the two of you were there," Caliat said. "I'm sorry I wasn't nearby."
"Ah, you needn't worry," Griswold said. "The mercenaries were here."
"The mercenaries?" Caliat said flatly.
"Aye," Griswold said, apparently unaware of the shushing motions made by Ogden. "They came runnin' and helped us deal with the little bastards. Said they'd heard us from near the monastery, where they--"
"They didn't come from the monastery," Caliat said. "No one has come since yesterday morning, when Griswold came to carry Thomas to Pepin's."
"I am sorry about Thomas," Ogden said softly. "I still remember the three of us playing swords in the churchyard. Thomas would have made a fine knight."
"Yes," Caliat said, "he would have." He shook his head. "I have no idea where the mercenaries reside, truthfully. They had better hope I don't catch them squatting in one of the houses."
Gillian came up beside him. "Actually," she began, just as the door opened from behind them.
Raucous laughter preceded three men in tattered clothes. Each removed a cudgel from his belt and tossed it at his feet as they dropped into chairs at the table nearest the door.
"When did Tristram start accommodating thugs?" Caliat said flatly.
"About the same time King Leoric ordered all his knights on a fool's war against Westmarch, that's when," Ogden said. "They fought in the war, Caliat, and for King Leoric, too."
"So much for your stance on freeloaders."
Ogden's face reddened, as did Gillian's. "All the knights are gone, Master Caliat," Gillian said. "Sir Garrett was the last. The townsfolk want to feel a little safer, that's all." She winced as the talk at the table turned crude.
Caliat opened his mouth, then closed it. "They'll be back."
"I hope so," Gillian said.
"And until then, you have me. If you have one more room," he continued to Ogden, "I'll gladly pay your price."
"Done," the innkeeper said. He looked at the newest patrons, then at Gillian. "I believe your shift is about over."
She smiled gratefully and reached back to untie her apron. "Thank you," she said, handing the cloth to him.
He took it, and in exchange handed her a large brown sack. Its contents clinked as she took it. "Pepin's tonics," he said.
"Wonderful," she said. "I give her the same dosages as before, then?"
"Indeed." Ogden hesitated. "I don't suppose I could again try to convince you to join the caravan with the others. Bramwell is a safe town, and--"
"Grand-dam can't move," Gillian said, "and if she can't, I won't. We're just next door, and Griswold can keep track of us well enough from his smithy."
Griswold stood. "Speaking of which, it's time I got back. I'll see you home, Gillian." He proffered his arm--the one furthest from the newest patrons--and escorted her to the door. As they passed, one of the men turned to Gillian and said something that caused her to turn up her nose as they disappeared into the night.
"So much for feeling safer," Caliat said to Ogden. He stared again at the tabletop, but his ears were attuned to the table across the room.
"... doesn't know what she's missing."
"Not much, from what I heard."
"You been listenin' to the wrong talk, friend," the first man said, turning from the doorway. "In Westmarch, I had three Sisters of the Sightless Eye at once. They had their way with me, and--"
"Belial guides your tongue," said the second man.
"Maybe not," said the third man. One boot swung up onto the tabletop while a gloved hand scratched somewhere below his waist. "The Lord of Lies himself knows any woman would have to be sightless to get with Corim."
The second man gave a raspy laugh. "True enough, Bek," he said as he rapped on the tabletop. "Any one of the Sisters would smell him comin' and stick an arrow between his eyes from a hundred paces."
"To hell with you, Barl," the one called Corim said.
Ogden came to stand beside them. "Greetings, good masters," he began, dipping into a low bow. As he head came level with theirs, Ogden's stomach buckled. All three men stank of sour wine and stale sweat. "Welcome to the Tavern of the Rising Sun," he continued, his voice tighter than before. "How may I be of service?"
Barl tossed three coppers onto the table. "What'll that get us?"
"Three ales," Ogden said.
"That, then," Barl said, shooing him away.
Ogden scooped up the coppers, bowed again--though it wasn't as low as the first--and took a gulp of air as he crossed the room to the bar. "They've been rowdier the past few nights," he said quietly to Caliat as he readied the drinks.
"Then why do you serve them?" Caliat asked.
Caliat reached into his purse, withdrew a single gold piece, and pushed it toward Ogden. "You could ask them to leave."
"They served Khanduras against Westmarch," Ogden said as he set three mugs on a wooden tray. "They're king's men."
"The war is over," Caliat said softly.
"They'll be moving on soon enough," Ogden said as he picked up the tray and moved from behind the bar. Caliat said nothing. Beside him, Farnham gulped down another drink.
Ogden carefully set down the tray. "There you are."
Bek took a sip, scrunched his face, and spit. "It's horrible."
Ogden stiffened. "If there's nothing else," he said, then turned on his heel and went back to the bar.
"Touchy," Bek grumbled.
"What the hell are we gonna do now, anyway?" Corim asked.
"Stay here for awhile longer," Barl said, shrugging.
Bek tapped his fingers thoughtfully against his mug. "I say we cross back into Westmarch," he said, looking back and forth between his friends.
"War's over," Corim said. "There's no fighting to be had since Khanduras withdrew. You want to go back into Westmarch, you go alone. Those filthy Zakarum zealots haven't spread their damn Light too far this way, yet."
"Leoric belonged to the church, didn't he?" Barl asked.
"Sure he did," Corim said, "but he was only one man. Church of the Zakarum is still in Westmarch."
"Only a matter of time 'til it spreads into Khanduras," Barl said. Bek nodded and took another drink.
"Besides," Corim went on, "Leoric didn't walk in the Light, not for long."
"He was right mad, he was," Bek said, making a sound of disgust.
Ogden placed a hand on Caliat's arm as the younger man clenched his teeth. Neither noticed Farnham, whose bleary red eyes had narrowed and swiveled toward the three men as his face twisted hatefully.
"Leoric sends his best knights to stand against Westmarch's thousands, and for what?" Bek continued. "No, Westmarch is brimming with treasures, but it's too heavily fortified for the likes of us." He leaned forward. "The monastery, however..."
"No," Corim said, and crossed his arms. "There's no way you'll be dragging me down there. Right, Barl?"
Barl wore a rare look of contemplation.
"You can't be considerin' this," Corim said.
"Fewer horrors have been coming out since the knights took up against Leoric and his guard," Barl said. He spread his hands. "They go in, fewer creatures come out."
"So why would we go running down after them?" Corim asked.
"We wouldn't go down far," Barl said, looking at Bek. "Just enough to take a look at what the dead kept with them when they passed on."
"That's right," Bek said. "We go down, grab what we can, and get out."
"I don't know," Corim said. "What we need to do is earn some coppers. I hear there's--"
"Why fret over coppers when there's gold to be found down there?" Barl said.
"Gold?" Corim asked.
"Of course there's gold," Bek said. "How couldn't there be? It was a church, sure, but it was Leoric's castle, too."
Corim looked to the doorway for a moment. "Are we really doing this?"
Barl and Bek looked at him, and at each other. "We are," Barl said.
Corim thought about it. "All right. Let's go."
"Not until morning," Bek said hastily.
"'Course not," Corim quickly agreed. "Let's turn in for the night, then, eh? In the morning, we loot what we can and leave this town in peace."
"Aye," Bek said, "and the bloody Black King, too."
The three men raised their mugs and clunked them together. At the same instant, a green bottle flew from the back of the room and shattered against the wall near their table.
"What the hell?" Bek said, who like his companions had thrown himself half on the table and was looking wildly around. His eyes settled on a seething Farnham, who staggered toward him with a frantic Ogden in tow. Caliat rose from his stool.
"You hold your tongue," Farnham slurred. He stabbed a shaking finger at the three men. "Don't you go insultin' the king."
The three men grinned, picked up their weapons, and sauntered over to the pair.
"I'm sorry for the disturbance, good men," Ogden said, wiping his hands nervously on his apron. "He's had a bit too much to drink and will be heading up to bed immediately. Isn't that right, Farnham?"
"Will he, Ogden?" Barl said. "I don't know about that. Farnham looks as crazed as the Black King himself. Maybe he has something he wants to say." The three came to surround Farnham, but the drunken townsman only stood straighter.
"King Leoric is a good man, better 'n the likes o' you."
"Farnham, please," Ogden said, linking an arm through Farnham's and moving toward the stairs. "You've had too much to drink. You know what ale does to your temper."
The mercenaries crowed with laughter. "Good thing Farnham's papa's here to cut him off," Corim said.
Farnham's face darkened. He twisted out of Ogden's grip and stood nose-to-nose with Corim. "You're cowards, all of you, not even fit to say King Leoric's name. Probably didn't kill a single man in Westmarch. Plenty of women and children, though, I'll bet."
The mercenaries' laughter died. Caliat strode across the room as the men advanced on Farnham, backing him into a corner.
"You'd best get him out of here, Ogden," Bek, whispered. Ogden reached through them to tug on Farnham, but Farnham again shrugged out of his grip.
"You think we didn't hear you talkin' back there?" Farnham said. "You're not men. You're carrion, picking the remains of a battle. Girl wouldn't have to be a Sister to put any of you three in your pla--"
Bek grabbed two fistfuls of Farnham's tunic and slammed him against the wall. "You little bastard," he whispered. "I'm going to smash your skull like a--"
He stopped, eyes widening, as a blade appeared at his throat.
"Let him go," Caliat said. He didn't acknowledge the other two, whose hands had tightened around their clubs.
"Don't," Bek hissed. He unclenched his fists and backed away slowly, watching Caliat as he did so.
"You were just leaving," Caliat said, lowering his sword.
Bek said nothing. His eyes were fastened on the "GK" engraving on Caliat's blade. "You're not Sir Garrett Kinian."
Caliat stiffened. "No."
Bek grinned. "You're one of his squires, aren't you? The one he didn't kill before running down into the church, anyway."
Caliat glared at the mercenary before turning on Farnham, who shrank back. "They bought me a drink," Farnham said lamely.
"So," Bek said, and Caliat turned back to him. "You know how to use that sword, boy?" he finished quietly. Corim and Barl leered behind him.
Their attention was stolen by the door cracking against the wall. Silhouetted in the doorway was the thick frame of the blacksmith. Griswold's eyes shone like the fires of his smithy, and a great axe was held easily in one hand. He looked first at the mercenaries, who had recovered from their surprise and were now backing away slowly from the towering blacksmith, then to Caliat.
"Put away your weapons," Griswold said softly. Bek opened his mouth but snapped it shut after the smith spun to face him. The three made sounds of consternation but slid their cudgels into their belts. Caliat lowered his sword but did not sheathe it.
"Has something happened, Griswold?" Ogden asked.
"Aye," the smith said, and looked at Caliat. "The Archbishop has been found."
Caliat turned to Griswold, his adversaries forgotten. "Is Lazarus alive?"
"Aye, but he--"
"I must see him at once. What of the others?" Caliat sheathed his blade. "And the king? Have they--?"
Voices from outside cut him short. Moments later, a trio of footsteps and shadowy forms were given definition as they crossed the threshold: Gillian whispered soothingly to the man in the middle, while an older man whose bright white robe matched his beard eased a small bottle of red liquid to the same man's lips. The eyes of the man between them, arms splayed across their shoulders like a scarecrow, were bright with panic. His robe, pale blue with a golden cross adorning a white vest, was torn in several places.
Griswold hastily set his axe on the closest table before pulling out a bench. "Sit him here, Pepin."
The man in white nodded at the smith then at Gillian before turning and easing the man they guided to the bench.
Caliat knelt before the struggling man. Lazarus's young face was haggard, and his wild eyes flitted rapidly between the onlookers. "Archbishop," he whispered.
"Not now," Pepin said gruffly as he uncorked another bottle he'd pulled from a robe pocket and raised it to the Archbishop's lips. Gillian continued whispering as she smoothed back Lazarus's blonde hair. As Pepin corked and replaced the bottle, the Archbishop's eyes fluttered closed, and the rapid heaving of his chest slowed to a normal, even rhythm.
Caliat stood and looked at Griswold. "Keep them back," he said. The mercenaries glowered but leaned against the wall with their arms crossed when Griswold walked toward them. Farnham sat staring stupidly with Ogden standing behind him.
Pepin straightened, wiping his hands on his robes. "He's in shock, and needs time to recover. My place is still a mess after..." He glanced at Caliat. "I simply don't have the room," he finished. "Ogden, do you have a spare--?"
Lazarus opened his eyes. "I will be fine, healer, thanks to your sureness of hand."
"Archbishop, I must insist. Ogden will see to preparing a room."
"No," Lazarus said. He braced himself on the bench and tried to stand but groaned and sat back.
Caliat again knelt before the Archbishop. "You should do as the healer says," he said.
Lazarus blinked for a moment. "Caliat! Thank the Light you are still alive. You must come with me. We've got to save him before..." At that, Lazarus again tried to stand.
"Who?" Caliat asked. Pepin placed a gentle yet firm hand on the Archbishop's shoulder. Behind them, a number of townsfolk filed into the tavern and stood against the back wall or sat at tables. Most feet were bare and dirty, though some wore patched boots or sandals. Women and children kept close to their men as they stared worriedly at Lazarus.
The last to enter the tavern was an older man, his wrinkled skin tan and leathery. His beard was as white as Pepin's, but his robes were a dark blue. His eyes took in the Archbishop slumped at the table, the rough-looking trio of men sulking against the wall, and the group huddled around Lazarus before he stopped, crossed his arms within the folds of his robe, and watched.
"What happened?" Ogden asked no one in particular.
"A scream woke me," one man said from the wall. "Come from the direction of the monastery." He shivered.
"Heard it clear as a bell, I did," one woman at the table said. "I wasn't sleeping, though. Haven't slept through the night in months." The dark grooves beneath her eyes provided testament to her claim.
A young boy with sand-colored hair scrabbled from his mother's grasp and stood on the table. "I ran right over to see what it was," he announced, "and I wasn't afraid, either." As he readied to continue, his father's hand closed over his mouth as the other wrapped around his stomach and placed him back in his mother's lap.
"I was the one who cried out," Lazarus said softly. Everyone turned to him. "The blacksmith was kind enough to come to my aid, and these good people provided escort to your establishment," he said, looking at Ogden.
Soft murmurs and small smiles filled the room.
"Your help was appreciated," Pepin said to the assemblage, "but the Archbishop needs rest." Pepin reached toward Lazarus. "Gillian, please aid me in guiding the Archbishop--"
Lazarus rose determinedly to his feet. "I will recover," he said, "but King Leoric will not."
The gathering gasped and stared wide-eyed at Lazarus.
Caliat opened his mouth, swallowed, and said, "What of King Leoric? What of Lachdanan and the other knights of Khanduras?"
Lazarus held his gaze for a long time before dropping his eyes. "All dead." Some of the women moaned, and men raised shaking hands to their faces or bowed their heads. Many, however, stared stonily ahead.
"Dead?" Caliat repeated. The room seemed to be spinning.
"The knights cornered his guard and cut them down," Lazarus continued, "though many knights fell to their blades. Leoric stood to the last. It was Lachdanan who drove his sword through the king's heart."
The room was silent.
"How do you know this?" Caliat asked.
Leoric sank wearily back to the bench. "I was with Prince Albrecht the night he was taken."
The word echoed around the room in low, frightened tones.
"The creatures from the depths of the monastery came," Lazarus continued. "I tried to fight them off, but my strength alone was not enough. They threw me in a cell and carried the boy away. When I saw Lachdanan and the knights of the Order of Light battle Leoric and his guard, I thought though the whole world had gone mad. Only Leoric had. Lachdanan had no choice but to..." He trailed off and lowered his head.
"Then Lachdanan is alive," Caliat said. "If he slew the king..."
Lazarus closed his eyes and took a breath. "Leoric was too far gone," he said, looking sadly at Caliat. "He said things, Caliat, terrible things, curses in a tongue I've never heard. When at last Leoric died, Lachdanan and the others... changed. Their eyes glowed red as coals behind their visors. They lifted their blades and marched toward the priests. I ran."
"And you're sure," Caliat said quietly, "that you are the only one who survived?"
"I'm sorry," Lazarus said, shaking his head.
Caliat closed his eyes. Lachdanan, Thomas, Garrett, the others... all dead.
"Then Tristram is lost," said a voice from the top of the stairs. All eyes turned to see Garda, a woman whose reprimands could make Griswold cower, sink to her knees. Ogden bounded up the stairs and pulled her close as she buried her face in her hands.
"Saved, you mean," said a man from against the wall. He stared defiantly at the looks of anger and horror some turned on him, but many nodded discreetly. "You all know it's true," he said. "How many of your kin have been dragged into the monastery on order of that madman?"
He winced as he turned to Lazarus. "I'm sorry, Archbishop, but Leoric left the Light months ago. He's terrorized this town, and I for one am happy he's..."
Lazarus gave a small smile and nodded. "I accused Lachdanan himself of forsaking the Light when he came to me with similar concerns. I was a fool. Perhaps if I'd listened, all could have been averted." He took in the entire assemblage before continuing. "The king is lost, but Prince Albrecht--and Tristram through him--may yet survive."
"You found Albrecht?" Caliat asked as hushed whispers of the prince's name swirled through the common room like dry leaves in an autumn wind.
"I did. The child is being held in a small reliquary two levels into the labyrinth." His fists began to shake. "I was unable to go to him in my current state. The Light damn me for a weakling. If only I had been strong enough to--"
"If you had attempted rescue him as you are, it's likely you would have both been struck down," Caliat said. "Tell us, Archbishop: How fares the boy?"
"My glimpse of him was fleeting, yet he did not appear to have been harmed. That he will remain as such is unlikely, given the horrors that dwell within the cathedral."
Caliat's hand clutched his sword hilt. "I will save Leoric's son."
Lazarus looked uncertain. "Alone, Caliat?"
Caliat nodded. "The knights of the Order of the Light swore a blood oath to King Leoric: our blood before his, and before that of his kin. We couldn't save Leoric, but I don't mean to let that forsaken church have his son."
"Your dedication to the royal blood is admirable," Lazarus said soberly. "Your master chose his squire well."
Caliat felt his stomach tighten. "I am still capable of--"
"Of course," Lazarus said, raising a hand. "I do not doubt your courage or ability. Yet I worry that this quest might prove too great for one man."
The man who'd spoken out against Leoric stepped forward. "All of us knew someone who was accused of kidnapping the boy and sentenced to death in the monastery. At sunrise tomorrow, I'm taking my family out of this town. Why should I or any other man leave his family to risk his neck for the boy?"
The old man in blue robes stepped forward. "May I speak, Gerald?" he asked.
The man looked at him in surprise before he inclined his head. "Please, Elder Cain."
The Elder smiled in return before turning to Lazarus. "I have also witnessed the monastery's horrors. I have seen good friends led into the labyrinth never to return. I have seen boys who I watched grow into capable warriors die in the healer's arms from wounds indirectly inflicted by the madness that leaks from the very stones of the church."
Caliat lowered his eyes.
The old man spread his hands. "These are men with pitchforks and scythes, Archbishop. I respectfully ask that you consider their safety in this situation."
Lazarus sighed, deep and long. "Normally I would, Elder Cain, yet I'm afraid there is a greater concern than just the prince. The king's death, and the utter corruption of his soul, comes as a great blow to Tristram, and to the kingdom of Khanduras as a whole.
"Albrecht is as pure as his father was before madness took the king. If the denizens of the labyrinth claim the prince as well, there will be no bastion of Light to stand against the coming darkness." Lazarus tapped his lip thoughtfully. "But if the prince were to return, his presence might be enough to abolish the terrors of the monastery."
The man who'd spoken against the king studied Lazarus for a long time. Groups at tables spoke softly, and whispers were traded along the wall.
"The Archbishop's right, Master Caliat." A bald man with a bushy moustache stepped forward. "You won't be able to save the prince all on your own. I'll go with you."
"As will I," said the man who'd spoken out first. Three others stepped forward.
Caliat raised a hand. "The creatures in the labyrinth are many, but they are weak and cowardly. I cannot allow any of you to risk your own lives," he finished, but his words were drowned in a sea of protests.
"If we go, your odds will be better," one man said.
"This is our town," said another. "We have to defend it!"
Caliat looked helplessly at Deckard Cain. The old man was frowning at Lazarus.
"It is decided, then," Lazarus said, turning away from Caliat to address the standing assemblage. "All able-bodied men are to gather what weapons they have and congregate at the fountain. We depart imminently."
"A pitchfork is not a weapon," Griswold grumbled from where he stood near the mercenaries.
Lazarus turned to him. "Quite right, blacksmith. I'm sure you might have a few instruments scattered about the smithy."
Griswold reddened. "I don't have much, Archbishop. Haven't had customers in ages, and that lack of income has all but stifled my business."
"I'm positive that the prince's safe return will mark a new beginning for Tristram," Lazarus said, "and for your smithy as well."
Griswold unfolded his arms; his hands fidgeted feebly at his sides. "Send anyone over to me who requires my services." He bowed stiffly and stalked out the door, followed swiftly by Tristram's remaining populace and the Archbishop himself.
Caliat stood in the doorway and watched men clumsily hoist clubs and short swords, with many pointing their blades at the ground as if they meant to plow it. Others sat around the fountain in the town square and held women and children tightly, smiling through masks of confidence that belied the fear in their eyes.
Elder Cain came to stand beside him. Together, they observed the three mercenaries approaching Lazarus. Bek pointed to his empty purse before shrugging at Lazarus. The Archbishop nodded and smiled, and the mercenaries smiled, too.
Caliat felt a small tug on his leg. He turned and looked down into the fierce brown eyes of the sandy-haired lad who had declared his bravery in the tavern.
"I want to go with my father, but he says I can't," the boy said.
Caliat smiled. "He's right, Wirt. You must stay here with your mother."
"But I'm not afraid!" Wirt said.
"I have great respect for your courage. But what of your mother? Would you have Canace stay alone and fret over both of you?"
Wirt opened his mouth and looked toward a couple embracing near the fountain.
"She needs you," Caliat said. "And your father needs you to protect her."
The boy nodded sullenly and returned to his parents. Caliat resumed his contemplation of the townsfolk.
Cain chuckled softly. "I seem to recall seeing such courage in a lad before, many years ago."
Caliat said nothing.
"Will you lead them?" Cain asked.
"Yes," Caliat said. "I have watched Tristram grow emptier by the night since I returned from Westmarch. I swore to protect King Leoric and his blood, but I also pledged my life and sword to all of Khanduras--and to my village."
Cain nodded. "That is what I thought you would say. I have watched you grow from boyhood to knighthood, Caliat. Though I have reservations about the Archbishop's plan, I know that Tristram's folk, and the young prince, could not be in better hands."
"I am not a knight, Elder."
"Your honor defines you; that is what makes a knight. Lachdanan spoke to me of your accomplishments in the war against Westmarch before he and the others took up swords against Leoric and his guard. You have guarded Tristram well, and by continuing to do so, you have earned your knighthood."
Caliat's eyes were bright. "Your words mean much."
Cain placed a hand on Caliat's shoulder. "They are more than mere words. You are the last of your kind, Caliat. Do your duty. Guide Tristram and Prince Albrecht back here to safety."
Caliat looked toward the fountain. Torches, pitchforks, swords and clubs had begun to move along the path. Lazarus stood at their front. Caliat turned to the elder. "I will do my duty," he whispered.
As the monastery swallowed the party into its red belly, a small shape peered over the outside of the low churchyard wall. It crept toward the entrance, shied away, and scurried toward one of the open windows. It hopped once, twice, and clambered up, over, and through.
* * *
The ruby glow peeled away to reveal a great hall laden with shadows. Sarcophagi dotted the floor. Lamps stood near the coffins or along walls made of stone or nets of rusted steel grating. The party stopped at the foot of the stairs and shuffled close as they squinted nervously into murky silence.
"The sanctity of this place has been fouled," Bek whispered. Murmurs of agreement wafted up around him.
Lazarus turned to face the party. "Those who walk in the Light need not fear darkness. I will lead with Caliat at my side. Stay with us and you will not be lost. When you are ready, we will resume our journey."
Caliat considered the group. The fear in their eyes was illuminated by the torches bunched closely together like frightened stars. "There is no shame in returning to wait for the caravan," he said.
"We won't abandon you, Master Caliat," Griswold said.
"Besides," one man said, "not all of us are able to leave."
Several nods followed the statements, though their eyes remained afraid. Caliat inclined his head and turned to Lazarus. "We are ready," he said.
The Archbishop led them effortlessly through chambers as wide as the first, down narrow corridors lined with lamps and grated walls, and occasionally to tall wooden doors. At every door, Caliat and Griswold eased open the creaking wood and stepped quickly through, blade and axe at the ready. They would disappear for several moments before reappearing to wave the party through.
Silently the villagers marched, their feet carrying them forward as their eyes jumped from shadow to shadow, bodies tensed in anticipation of what might emerge. Nothing ever did.
They came at last to another set of wide stairs surrounded by high walls on three sides. Lazarus paused, looked back at them, and began his descent. The villagers' heavy breathing echoed in the enclosed staircase. Sweat plastered their clothes to their skin. When they emerged, most were shaking and looked as if they'd not slept for days.
"Their anxiety fatigues them," Caliat said to Lazarus. "They need a short rest."
Annoyance flashed across the Archbishop's eyes. "Have them gather around me. We will use the wall as shelter." He went to a coffin set to one side of the stairs and leaned over it.
The party gratefully sank to the floor and huddled together. Ogden whispered to Griswold and Farnham, who drank from his flask as he stared straight ahead. After moving among the party and speaking reassuringly, Caliat joined Lazarus.
"How much further?" Caliat asked.
Lazarus didn't look up as he waved noncommittally to his right. "We were kept in a storage area down that corridor. It will not be long, now."
Caliat mulled over the Archbishop's words. He'd mentioned spotting the prince on this level of the labyrinth, yet something felt... odd. "And the knights?" Caliat said after a few moments. "You say Leoric brought a curse upon them. Is there a chance they--?"
"The king was slain and entombed in the third level. If anything, I believe the cursed knights will descend deeper into the labyrinth rather than higher. We needn't worry about them."
Caliat suppressed a shudder at the thought of his former brothers-in-arms wandering through the corridors as crazed as Sir Garrett had been, their blades for darkness instead of the Light.
"You carry your master's sword," Lazarus said. Caliat blinked and looked down. One hand was absently caressing the hilt's engraving. "I did not see Sir Garrett among the knights. Where is he?"
Caliat willed his hand away from the sword and stared at the coffin. "Lachdanan ordered Sir Garrett to guard the town; everyone else was needed to stand against Leoric's guard. Thomas and I stayed with Sir Garrett, of course. All was well, at first, but a dark mood descended on Sir Garrett. He sat at the entrance of the monastery and stared into it, mumbling to himself. Two nights ago I awoke to Thomas's scream. Sir Garrett had impaled him with his sword. Sir Garrett pulled the blade free and threw it down before he ran into the monastery."
He swallowed thickly. "Pepin tried to save Thomas, but the wound was severe. I stayed at the church, hoping to see Sir Garrett emerge in control of himself, or for Lachdanan and the others to return, or you, or anyone."
When Lazarus didn't answer after several moments, Caliat looked up to see the Archbishop's mouth working soundlessly before he finally said: "All men try to walk in the Light, Caliat. Some of us are called away willingly, while others struggle. Sir Garrett was a good man, but the monastery, whatever it is that dwells within that place--it's powerful. Do you understand?"
Abruptly Lazarus gripped Caliat's tunic with both hands and looked at him with bright, pleading eyes. "There was nothing he could do! His spirit was pure, but something far greater, far more powerful, shattered it."
Caliat carefully pulled Lazarus's hands from his chest. "I understand."
Lazarus's face was sad. "Do you forgive him, Caliat?"
"His actions were not his own. Do you forgive him?"
Caliat thought. He thought about playing swords with Thomas in the churchyard during their boyhood, and about riding next to him in Westmarch. He thought about Sir Garrett, about his friendship and the training and respect he'd offered Caliat, of the battles they had fought and survived together.
Then he thought about the last time he'd seen Sir Garrett, a great beast clad in black armor lurching into the red embrace of the church after throwing down his bloodied blade, his mad laughter echoing off the walls as the silver horns curling up from his helm disappeared down the stairs.
One of those two men had been his friend and teacher. The other had not. He knew which was which.
"I forgive him," he finally said.
Caliat's words seemed to take a great burden from the Archbishop. Lazarus turned and slumped against the sarcophagus with his head bowed. Caliat approached him. "Archbishop?"
Lazarus looked up suddenly toward the direction he'd waved earlier. Caliat placed one hand on his sword and stepped in front of Lazarus. "Did you see something?"
But Lazarus only stared.
A grinding sound spun Caliat around. Several villagers stared in horror at the three mercenaries, who were in the process of hefting a solid gold lid from its marble coffin. Caliat crossed quickly to them. "Replace it," he hissed, "unless you wish to bring the monastery's hordes upon us."
"This isn't our town," Corim said, "and it's not our fight. You all can die down here if you want, but that's not for us." The three hoisted the lid with a grunt, but Caliat placed a hand upon it.
"I won't have you grunting up two flights of stairs and alerting everything to our presence. You may leave if you wish, but this," he tapped the cover, "stays here."
Barl's face became strained as his hands shifted his share of the lid's weight. "Archbishop said we could take what we wanted if we came down here. We came; now we're leaving."
"I doubt the Archbishop intended for you to abandon us at the first opportunity." Caliat turned, hoping to petition Lazarus's support. The Archbishop was gone.
"Lazarus?" he said, rushing toward the coffin where they'd spoken.
"Now!" he heard from behind him.
Caliat turned to see the mercenaries take two steps forward before Corim caught his boot in a crack. The man cried out, fell, and released his end of the cover. Bek and Barl staggered under the extra weight before the lid slipped and thundered against the floor.
The booming resonance stretched on like a great roar before languidly fading to stillness. Everyone stared in slack-jawed horror at the mercenaries, who stood as frozen as stone statues.
"You see?" Barl said, looking around nervously. "We're fine. All the creatures are probably up above, stealing your wives and children from their--"
A shrill cry sounded from a side corridor--the same corridor at which Lazarus had waved and stared intently. Caliat hurtled in its direction, followed by a storm of pounding feet. They rushed through an open door set in a wall of steel lattice and halted in an expansive chamber. In its center was a squat edifice almost as broad as the chamber itself. ; the avenues around its perimeter were dark and cramped.
Standing before them, his back set against a door leading into the structure, was Lazarus. One arm held Wirt to his chest. The boy's feet dangled inches from the floor, and his eyes danced with terror as he squirmed against the Archbishop. Raised in Lazarus's other hand was a curved dagger. Lazarus's lips moved as he gazed at it like a favored concubine.
Panicked whispers broke out among the townsmen. Caliat spread his arms to keep everyone at bay before slowly walking forward, lowering his arms to his sides. "Archbishop?"
Lazarus slowly broke his gaze.
"Please release the boy, Archbishop."
Lazarus frowned at him, looked at the struggling youth pressed to him, and looked again at Caliat. "He requires blood, Caliat."
"Who does, Archbishop?"
"Terror. Terror wants blood, blood to feed the butcher. Clear the path. No impediments to Terror." Suddenly his eyes cleared, and he smiled at Caliat, small and sad. "Do you forgive me?"
Caliat lunged with his sword and sent the dagger spinning from Lazarus's hand as it fell toward Wirt's chest. Lazarus cried out and dropped the boy. Wirt scrambled to his feet and ran toward Caliat, who pulled him back and into the arms of Griswold.
Lazarus clutched his bleeding hand and snarled at Caliat. "Terror needs blood," he croaked. "Feed the butcher. No opposition."
"Please, Archbishop--where is Albrecht?"
Lazarus's eyes cleared again. He moaned and clawed at his head, smearing his blonde hair with blood and tearing at his face. One quivering hand reached toward Caliat, who slowly extended his own.
The room filled with blistering crimson light, and from every corridor came the screams of the damned. The townsmen fell to their knees with their hands over their ears and howled with them, but Lazarus's voice drowned them out as he turned from Caliat, gripped the door of the edifice, flung it open, and ran, shrieking, down a corridor.
Darkness returned. Caliat rose shakily to his feet and opened his mouth to call for Lazarus before he fell back to his knees, retching. The scent of death flowed from the open doorway and washed over the party, setting them to gagging and moaning. Covering his face with his arm, Caliat inhaled and held his breath as he forced himself to stand. When he looked through the doorway, he released his breath in a scream.
The walls and floor were soaked in blood and rotten limbs. Naked men and women--Toren the farmer; Abigail the apothecary; Brent the woodcutter; Duran the tailor--hung from hooks and ropes like decorations. Their eyes stared sightlessly; their decayed flesh sagged as if they had been pickled.
Striding out from among them was a hulking brute as tall as two Griswolds. Horns curved from the side of his head. The bloodstained apron that stretched around his bulging chest blended with his red flesh, and an equally bloodied cleaver was gripped tightly in one clawed hand. Caliat watched in a daze as the creature raised the cleaver above his head. It grinned at him as the cleaver snapped down.
Caliat's arm numbed as the blow clanged against his half-raised sword and sent him spinning to one side. He regained his senses and rode the momentum, using it to whirl back around to the abomination. What he saw instead was utter pandemonium.
Small brown shapes wielding spears and shields charged from the alleyways around the edifice with wild, pig-like cries. Shouts of the Fallen mixed with the terrified screams of the townsmen who haphazardly swung torches, clubs, and blades. A trio of creatures pounced on one man, pinning him with their spears before tackling Corim, who'd stood trembling as the man was stabbed to death. His screams turned to gargles as two spear points disappeared down his throat.
All the while the brute's cleaver continued to rise, and with every descent, men fell to the ground, hands grasping at internal organs never meant to feel air.
Caliat barreled into the beast and drove his blade deep into its back. It roared and batted him away with a mighty swing, sending him flying back to slam against a wall, freeing his breath in a whoosh. He saw it coming toward him through blurred vision. Behind it, those still alive ran or crawled through the doorway. Ogden and Farnham were among them. The Fallen pursued, but they might escape if they didn't stop running.
Caliat smiled. He would do his duty.
Suddenly the beast grunted and spun on Wirt. A club fell from the boy's hands as he turned and ran. The butcher's cleaver swiftly rose. Caliat rushed toward them, but his unsteady legs couldn't carry him fast enough to prevent the hatchet's descent. Wirt's left leg vanished in a miasma of blood. The youth toppled to the floor, screaming as his stump twitched in agony. The butcher's cleaver rose again. Caliat threw down his blade, scooped up Wirt, and heaved him at the doorway.
The cleaver fell, and Caliat became pain. Through whiteness that flashed like endless lightning he saw Griswold bend down and lift the boy over his shoulder with one hand as the other reached down and hefted Caliat across the other shoulder. Through the pain Caliat watched the chamber recede, and through the unending scream he knew must be his he heard the great door slam closed, heard the butcher bellow with rage as chattering Fallen threw themselves at the grating.
* * *
Chaos reigned in the churchyard. Wounded townsmen collapsed in the grass, and their cries summoned Pepin and the women and children of those who had prayed for their return. Few prayers were answered.
Caliat's view lurched as he tumbled from Griswold's shoulder to the ground outside the monastery entrance. He cried out wordlessly as his back collided with dead, hot earth. Pepin appeared over him, barking for scissors, a thread of stitches, bandages, and salve as his eyes scanned Caliat--eyes that went from frightened, to determined, to hopeless.
Griswold stood holding Wirt. The boy's mouth hung open; his face was the shade of a bruise. Blood gushed from his stump. The smith looked frantically in the direction of Pepin's hut before looking down at Caliat.
Caliat opened his mouth and gathered breath to speak. There were things he wanted to say: Take me out of this damned light, and Help me, Pepin, and For all that is holy, please make the pain stop, make it stop, make it--
"Help the boy."
Pepin's mouth worked soundlessly before he looked up at Wirt. "Master Caliat," he said, "there's... if you... I can..."
Pepin stood slowly, mouth set and quavering, before turning to Griswold and dashing off with the smith in tow. Caliat closed his eyes for what seemed an instant. When he awoke, all was quiet, and the sky was brightening. He could feel his wound bubbling and clawing through him, and Caliat idly wondered why he wasn't dead yet.
A man appeared over him. He wore garb similar to that worn by the mercenaries, but his face was clean and kind. Caliat reached up to him, and the man crouched and gripped his hand.
Do you forgive me, Caliat?
"Please, listen to me," Caliat began. "The Archbishop Lazarus, he led us down here to find the lost prince. The bastard led us into a trap! Now everyone is dead... killed by a demon he called the Butcher. Avenge us! Find this Butcher and slay him so that our souls may finally rest..."
He felt his body lighten as his last words trailed away. The redness of the monastery receded, and a chill swept through him. The last words he heard were those of the mercenary who swore to avenge his death before he stepped carefully around Caliat and disappeared inside the church.
Caliat smiled. This was a good and honorable man. Tristram was in good hands.