As it turned out, the Deeps weren't nearly as bad as Telumhan feared.
Sure, the temperature hovered just above freezing. Sure, every inch of the cave was damp and she feared she'd never be dry again. But the fact of the matter was, the cavern was deserted.
It wasn't like they'd made any effort to hide. Telumhan and Rohanee had quietly crept into the cavern, taken a look around, and decided to proceed quietly. The Witch, upon entering, had immediately dispatched a roaring wall of fire and demanded quite loudly that any creature hiding in the darkness come and do battle.
So far, nothing had responded. Unconvinced, Chatechi had dispatched two of her corpse-minions (In this case they had been raised from Rheas that she'd killed after one of them had the tenacity to defecate in her sight; the raise dead spell had given them a curiously humanoid appearance) to search the tunnels in front of them.
Corpses, especially fresh ones, were like steaks to wildlife. The minions returned in due course without so much as a nibble out of either of them.
As Chatechi put it, "Anything in here is either dead or buried, and of no threat to me." She'd said me with emphasis and bared her sharp teeth at the Ranger.
"I thought you said this was the lair of a psychopath," Chatechi called back to the Ranger after they'd walked for about a half hour. "This place is deserted."
"I thought it was. I could be wrong. The last time I was here, it looked a lot different and I was…" Her face lost all its color and she struggled not to remember. "Not well." Chatechi shot her a look and kept walking. Telumhan felt the Marauder's big hand on her shoulder. She took an inkling of comfort from his touch.
They came across a rickety bridge that went over a small stream. The water inside appeared black as night.
"Don't so much as touch the water," Telumhan warned. Chatechi snapped her fingers at one of her minions and pointed to the water.
"Drink that." The obedient corpse dropped into the stream. It barely came up to its waist. It bent down and drank the water. Within seconds, the corpse was bubbling and melting horridly. Telumhan and even the Marauder looked away, but Chatechi stared. "Fascinating," she muttered, and moved on without a glance. If the other corpse knew its companion had been ordered to its death, it gave no sign.
An hour passed, then two, still with no sign of any creature. Chatechi began to openly scoff of Telumhan's tales of horrors in the deeps.
"I mean, really," She said as she walked over another bridge. "There isn't so much as a mosquito down here. I don't know what you were worried abou-" There was a roar and a massive surge of water as something leapt up from the water beneath her, its jaws closing around her with a mighty snap, swallowing her whole. Her guardians scrambled back, drawing weapons as tentacles whipped out of the darkness towards them.
Now the cavern came alive. Little squid things crawled out of every corner, their suckers making disgusting noises on the cavern floor and their beaks snapping incessantly. Telumhan drew her bow and shot an arrow, impaling three at once, but it did nothing to stop them. Rohanee swung his hammer and squashed one.
The big creature in the middle howled in pain. Everything stopped and turned to look at it. It thrashed about as a huge white something stuck out of its abdomen. More spurs of what Telumhan now recognized as massively large bones stuck out of it. It croaked once and died, slumping on the ground.
There was a moment of silence, then its face exploded. Chatechi jumped out and swept the cavern with cold eyes. Fire smoldered in her hands, and her gaze seemed empty and dead. She raised her hands and screamed, a primal scream of raw terror. The Ranger and the Marauder went down clutching their heads- the noise was everywhere, everything, and inspired fear like nothing else could. There was a shrill noise as all the creatures screamed and died slowly, only to have their flesh and bones reanimated and reshaped in monstrosities out of nightmares. The Witch laughed, the sound alien and chilling.
Ring around the rosy,
Pockets full of posies,
They all fall down!
Back home, the song had originated from the plague- praying around rosaries, carrying posies superstitiously, burning the bodies- and was chilling enough, but in the Witch's hands it took on a whole new, sinister meaning. She continued to sing those four lines, over and over- her undead minions began to move, a circle, a macabre dance. Flowers bloomed, a sickening stench wafting from their unhealthy blossoms, a terrible facsimile of a posie. Then the witch giggled and raised her arms- and fire rained down from the sky. Small meteors, everywhere, incinerating the undead- but still they continued to move, unheeding, the sight and smell of their flesh burning and peeling off of slowly melting bones filling the cavern. Telumhan curled up in a ball, pressing her hands over her ears, squeezing her eyes shut, willing it all to end.
After an indeterminable length of time, it did. All was silent. Telumhan waited, feeling her heart beat rapidly. She slowly opened one eye.
Chatechi stood in the middle of a circle of ash, looking at what she'd done. She turned to face the Ranger- looked directly at her.
"That was fun!"
The Ranger crawled off to throw up.
Suddenly, another voice wafted down, echoing in the cavern.
You have done well, to come this far;
You're so close to the end-
I'm waiting, my sight unmarred;
Maybe one of you, you'll send?
The voice was ethereal and beautiful. The Marauder stood up, entranced, all emotion leaving his eyes. All that mattered was that voice. Chatechi snorted in disgust.
"It's a spell designed to exploit the weakness of the male brain," she muttered. "The tone of the voice suggests a thing of great beauty lays at the end, when in reality it's not. How gullible can you b-" She turned and saw the Ranger afflicted in the same way the Marauder was. She sighed irritably. Presumably, the voice had been sent to stop them, or at least certain members of them- she herself would have pulled the same trick on the Marauder, but Telumhan was probably just an added bonus. The Siren wouldn't have counted on a Witch.
She sniffed distastefully and took a deep breath. She was going to have to sing about nice things. How disgusting.
Rohanee and Telumhan's heads immediately swiveled towards her as she began to sing. She was closer- her spell ought to have been stronger, but she still had to battle for control. The Siren was a master of her craft. She led them through the tunnels, battling the whole way against the Siren and against her own urge to abandon the two to their fates. Normally, she would've done it in a heartbeat-but, she reasoned, she could very likely use their respective talents in the days to come.
Finally, they emerged from the cave and the echoes of the Siren's voice faded. Her two companions immediately stopped, their eyes rolling up into their heads and their bodies collapsing to the ground. Wearily, Chatechi allowed her voice to rest. She conjured up a fire and looked around.
The breeze blew softly, carrying with it the scent of bone and, far off, blood. There was a single path that switchbacked up a tall cliff. To the other side was a sheer drop into the sea. The area looked relatively clear- a few lonesome undead wandered about in the distance, but at least there were no hordes of cannibals about. She nodded, satisfied for the time being.
Scuffling and cursing alerted her to the fact that her companions were awake. She turned and gave them a disappointed look.
"Really, one would think you were a child, Marauder. So big and strong but as helpless as a mewling kitten to a pretty voice. And you, Ranger," she said, turning on her, "I never would have expected that from you. You call me a monster, yet look at the perversion in your heart." The Ranger flushed crimson and the Marauder looked at her, astonished.
"Is this true, Telumhan?" He asked in that curious accent of his. "You too were taken in by the voice?" She nodded once, a short, jerky movement. She was hugging her knees to her chest and all the color had gone from her skin. She looked terribly vulnerable. The Witch didn't hesitate.
"Just wait until Nessa hears," she taunted. "She'll never be able to look at you the same way. And Bestel- why, just think of the sonnets he'll compose about you now!"
"Stop," she muttered quietly, her face pinched. Chatechi paid her no heed.
"I can just hear him now! Watch out for the Ranger, she's backwards- it's true! She's a danger to girls- Light, who knew!" The Ranger was trembling now.
"I said STOP!" She roared and leapt to her feet, snapping up her bow and drawing an arrow to the string. It got deadly quiet. The Witch swallowed, realising that she was now very, very close to death. The Ranger's eyes were filled with hatred and- very deeply- a wild, animal sense of terror.
Everything stayed silent for a moment. Then the Marauder slowly placed one of his big hands on Telumhan's shoulder. She shrank slightly from his touch, looking at him.
"I'm sorry, Telumhan," he said quietly. "I didn't know." Then he looked at the Witch, and she stared back coldly. I have no regrets, her eyes seemed to say. Surprisingly, the Witch saw sadness and pity in the big man's eyes instead of the anger, hate or disappointment she expected. It unnerved her and she walked away, striking for the road. She didn't check if the other two were following.
Then she got to thinking.
People are made basically all the same. A blank mold, a lump of clay. It's their life, their experiences that shape their character, their being. Every bit of behaviour can be traced back to some life event. Thus, something must have happened to the Ranger to make her what she was today. The only question was, what was it?
The Ranger had mentioned before that she had scouted out this way before, and that she'd barely came out alive. But she'd managed it alone, so it couldn't have been that journey, could it? She watched the Ranger surreptitiously. She seemed relaxed on the outside, but her fingers never strayed from the arrow clutched at her side. She was tense, ready for action, and she kept glancing off to the side. The Witch followed her gaze to the distant ruins of a prison.
Ah. There, then. She extended her consciousness, slowly feeling her way up the slope with her mind. It was a long way to the prison, and by the time her sense-lines got there she could only feel the largest of life. But right there, right in the prison, was a huge, enormous malice, so large that its evil radiated like the sun even from where she was, miles away.
She stopped, turned about, and stared directly at the Ranger.
"What's in that prison?"
The blood drained from the Ranger's already pale face.
"No-Nothing," She lied, her knuckles white from gripping her bow. The Witch snorted.
"You think I can't tell a lie when I see one? I'll ask again- what's in that prison?"
Telumhan blinked rapidly and swallowed, beads of sweat forming on her forehead. Her eyes darted around like that of a cornered animal. She was breathing raggedly and Chatechi could sense her fear.
"S-something evil a-and… very, very old. Dead, yet not dead. Cruel, m-mean and vicious." Chatechi reached out and thumped the Ranger on her forehead.
"Quit speaking in riddles!"
"Brutus." The silence after the word fell was deafening. The very air seemed to drop several degrees. The Marauder stepped in.
"The Warden of the Prison. Been here since before any of us. Nobody's seen him and returned to tell the tale." Chatechi's blue eyes surveyed them both, resting for an additional second on the Ranger. Then she spoke quietly, so that only the bowwoman would hear:
"Something else happened in that prison and I intend to find out what." She whirled around and continued marching up the slope. "Now, there is something in that prison more evil than me and that is absolutely not allowed. Let's go kill it."
The Witch will save us or she will destroy us. I know not which.