In the beginning…
No. That’s rubbish. That sounds like the start of some silly bedtime story. “In the beginning, there was a dragon, and a pretty unicorn, and they needed to go on an adventure.” All exposition and no essence, no character, no balls. It’s an established fact among expert storytellers that the best stories don’t start “in the beginning.” They start in media res, in the midst of clashing swords, dire happenings, and dark deeds. Why should you give a rat’s pancreas (they’re an acquired taste) about the beginning if you don’t know anything about the terrible things to follow? You seem like sensible fellows (I should know), I’m sure none of you go in for sugar coating, excuses or such.
So I know you’ll simply take it on faith (haha) that there was a very good reason for Faron to be knee deep in gods know what filth in an poorly lit, unventilated bend of Kirkton’s sewers (but it’s probably because of a wizard, they’re always making life interesting).
Though he didn’t cut the most handsome of figures, even in more refined settings, the thick coating of slime clinging in dribbles to the dwarf’s graying beard transformed Faron’s visage into a ghoulish mask that matched his mood. His worn blunderbuss was in his hands, a handaxe at his hip, and underneath the grime, he wore the determined leathers of a man on a mission.
“Gods’ bollocks…” Faron spat, “Hold the light steady, Stib. Son of a whore, what do I pay you for?”
“S-s-sorry sir, I was just adjusting the…” Stib stammered as he fiddled with a knob on the handheld lantern, which shed a soft, steady reddish glow on the slick stones and noxious pools. The journeyman hunter was barely 17, sandy haired and jittery. It’s hard to say what unnerved him more: what lurked in the dark, or the lashing of Faron’s tongue.
“Leave the boy alone, Faron. The vapors down here make it hard enough to get a fix on our mark without your incessant….” Cyrilla’s nasal voice trailed off into the skittering and dripping; the pedantic old elf’s normal reserve was beginning to crack under the strain of the stinking dark, and her compatriots’ exasperating tendencies.
“Just keep scrying ‘Rilla. I’m in charge of this job. We’re getting paid to retrieve the little rich girl, not hug each other.” Faron retorted.
Cyrilla pursed her lips, adjusted her crystal focus (which had been humming and bopping about in the irritating manner of naive, optimistic young people blissfully ignorant of the terrifying indifference of the world around them) and once again found the faint ripples of the girl’s aura, getting slightly stronger as they descended through the fetid maze.
This wasn’t the worst hunt Faron had been on, but it certainly earned a place on the list. The world was a dangerous place, and Alexandria was no exception. Folks and things went missing all the time, and when you needed them found you went to the Hunters. Adventurers all, the Hunters counted all sorts in their ranks: nobles and peasants, sinners and saints, muscle-headed brutes and certified yggineers. Their motivations and methods varied, but the Hunters were guaranteed to sort you out, one way or another. Faron had walked away from a lot of close calls and performed his fair share of miracles to the Chief of the Kirkton guild. He’d earned the right to be crotchety and lazy. Nowadays, he didn’t go on many hunts. Just the important ones, the ones that demanded an expert’s touch. In particular, the ones with big, fat, VIP purses attached.
With a grunt and a nod, Faron motioned for the party to continue. The three Hunters had been combing the sewers for nearly 8 hours. The job had come in from someone who wished to remain anonymous but indicated the utmost urgency and potential for reward. And retrieving one little girl, alive, from the sewers had sounded simple. But as the hours wore on, it became harder and harder to believe that any child could survive down here for the days this one supposedly had been missing. There were the rats, certainly, and they were big enough to take down a horse if they surrounded one. But there were rumors of other things down here. Darker things. The kind of nightmare creatures that parents tell their children about to make them behave. Lumbering, slavering things.
But probably just rats. And after all, what creatures could long survive the sludge the yggdrium processing factory dumped down here? There was a reason Kirkton got its drinking water via aqueduct.
It was after hour nine that Faron began to hear the sound. There was the dripping, the scuffling of boots, the periodic flowing song of questionable fluids, the groaning of the pipes…and another noise. A skittering that seemed to disappear the moment he stopped moving. He’d catch himself listening to it as he stopped to consult his maps. Stib and Cyrilla heard nothing, but that was no wonder what with Stib’s mouth-breathing and the wizard’s overly cheerful crystal. Three times Faron sent Stib around corners seeking the sound, and each time the boy reported nothing but shadows.
They had just rounded a bend of tunnel opening onto a chamber dominated by a huge swirling cesspool when they found the rat colony. The beasts were all grime and claws, some as big as hounds, dozens of glowing red eyes glaring at the interloping Hunters. Cyrilla recovered from her surprise first, her eyes narrowing as she set the closest rats aflame with a wordless gesture, a matter of reflex. Faron’s hands remembered his blunderbuss’ purpose before his brain did; his shotgun blast nigh deafened the group, but they were rewarded with the brains of 3 rats sprayed against the sewer wall. Stib stood slack-jawed until a rat pancreas (you can tell by their distinctive color and aroma) landed at his feet. Then he fumbled futilely for his sword.
The rest was a blur of snarling teeth, an ax, and the occasional burst of fairly pedestrian attack magic.
Stib had just managed to free his sword from his belt as the last of the creatures found Cyrilla’s staff protruding through its cranium. The lamp now illuminated a ghastly scene of dismembered rodents, scorched hair, and a variety of viscera scattered about the entrance of the chamber. All the while, the cesspool swirled on, a constant, stinking, rushing roar.
“I-I-I…that was…fast,” Stib managed. His blade hung limp at his side; it was more disappointed than Stib at having missed the fun.
“Hmph. Fat lot of good you are,” Faron grumbled, wiping his blunderbuss and axe down with a rag of before holstering them. Getting Stib blooded was not on the Chief’s agenda for this mission (though it would have been a bonus), nor was spending a full day in the sewers. Surprises were not among Faron’s favorite things.
“Uh oh,” Cyrilla interrupted, in the same slightly perturbed tone she used for demons springing from gaping portals and dropped dish towels. She steadied the gently swinging crystal and muttered some words.
“Uh oh? What? What’s ‘uh oh’?” Faron stomped over to the wizard, readying curse words for several different eventualities.
“Well, remember how the map only had 9 levels on it?” Cyrilla’s eyes never left the crystal, which had once again begun to happily swing and chirp, quite oblivious to the angry dwarf.
“Yeah I f%$@’in remember, I’ve been reading the damn thing for the whole f%#$in day!” Faron fumed, pulling the now filthy map from his belt.
The sharp sound of stone debris falling pierced the roar of the pool. Stib turned, peering into the darkness of the passage they’d entered by. “Umm..sir? I think I heard someth…”
“Not now you clod! You’ve still got an ear-boxing coming you useless lazy…can’t you do anything for yourself?” Faron’s annoyance flared briefly before turning back to Cyrilla (still chanting and exhorting her crystal), leaving Stib to continue peering into the hall. “’Rilla, spit it out.”
“The child’s aura. She is terrified…” Cyrilla began.
“Yeah, I’m shocked,” Faron threw his hands up in feigned surprise. “It’s dark and reeking and awful down here. We don’t have time for a remote counseling session. What’s your point?”
The elf frowned, the furrowing of her brow summoning care lines her long-lived countenance otherwise cloaked. “This is something new. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that we’re on the lowest level of the sewers and her aura is coming from even further down.”
Faron scratched his beard. “Not f@#$‘in possible. Everyone knows it’s solid bedrock beneath here…” His words trailed away as Cyrilla kindled a flame in her hand and walked toward the far side of the chamber.
As she approached the far wall, it seemed as if the darkness grew bold, and suddenly swelled up great waves to devour her tiny flame. In place of the far wall of the gigantic chamber was nothing. Cyrilla gazed into the darkness, seeing no sign of a far wall or a bottom to the unexpected, endless chasm.
“I’d go with the empirical evidence in this case,” the elf muttered, torn between the satisfaction and apprehension of being right. “Stib, can you bring the ygg-lamp here? We need to get a better idea of how big this thing is. Stib?”
The glow of the lantern swerved jarringly, a dark maestro making the shadows of the room spin and dance.
Faron spun around. “For the last time,” he barked, “hold the light…GOD’S BOLLOCKS!”
Faron froze in mid-curse as Stib stumbled toward him grasping the light with both hands. Below the sandy mop of hair, where there should have been a mouth, a nose, and 2 eyes, there was…nothing. A blank whorl of skin, somehow more hideously wrong then any mask or scar could have been.
The faceless-boy dropped to his knees, and to Faron and Cyrilla’s horror, they heard an anguished vaguely human moaning coming as if over a great distance. They gaped, aghast.
With such a gruesome spectacle before him, Faron could be forgiven for not noticing that, while the lamp had come to a halt on the ground next to Stib, the shadows of the chamber had not stopped their wicked dance.
“Faron, what is that??” Cyrilla pointed frantically as the largest shadow seethed forward, trapping the elf and dwarf with their backs to the inky abyss.
Then there was lumbering.
And far too many legs.
And finally, darkness.