The old fortress was built into the cliff face. From the outside, a passer-by could see no more than a few cracks in the rock and a narrow slope that led up to what seemed to be a small cave. Anyone with a healthy fear of caves and what dwelled in them would think nothing of it and move on. It was quite a feat of engineering, really, but the mercenary Adelard had picked up in town didn’t seem to appreciate it. He gripped his shield tightly and threw vigilant glances in every direction.
‘Will you calm down,’ Adelard said. ‘You’re getting on my nerves.’
‘Calm will not serve us here, mage,’ the mercenary said. ‘This place is haunted.’
Adelard rolled his eyes, they had discussed this several times already. ‘This place is indeed haunted,’ he said, ‘and since the eternal spirits dwell all around us, technically the entire world is haunted.’ He looked at the mercenary. ‘And when you eventually die to leave the world a less foolish place, your spirit will linger and you, too, will join the haunting.’
The mercenary spat and grumbled a few angry words.
Adelard closed his eyes and muttered a few words under his breath. He focused his mind and willed into existence an orb of light that was no larger than his fist. It hovered a few inches behind his head and hunted away the shadows cast by the sun setting behind the cliff.
The mercenary looked at Adelard with disapproval. ‘More devilry,’ he said.
‘Don’t be such an idiot, man,’ Adelard said. ‘It’s just light, it will aid us when we go in.’
‘You want to go in now?’ The mercenary asked.
Adelard sighed. ‘Do you have a better idea?’
‘It’s almost nightfall. We should wait until first light, that’s safer.’
‘We can go in now or tomorrow morning, it’ll be dark in there either way. I would say, from your perspective, that it’s better to get it over with now than spend another night in this place, which you so adamantly believe to be haunted, and risk. . . well, whatever it is you think ghosts would want to do to you.’
The mercenary took a step towards Adelard. ‘I’m starting to wonder if this trip is worth the pay.’
The mercenary was a big man. His fists were about twice the size of Adelard’s. One of them firmly gripped the haft of his axe; it had a crudely hammered and wickedly sharp blade.
‘Alright,’ Adelard said, ‘an extra tenmark for your troubles. Now come on.’
‘Five. Up front.’
‘Five?’ Adelard said. ‘That’s twice the agreed amount.’
The mercenary lifted the axe an inch from his belt.
Adelard made a dismissive gesture. ‘Alright, fine,’ he said. He took five coins out of his purse and placed them in the mercenary’s open hand. ‘But I expect a refund if there’s any more trouble from you. Now let’s go.’
The mercenary looked at the copper coins with satisfaction. His smile reminded Adelard of the jagged and broken battlements of many a ruin he had visited.
‘As you wish,’ the mercenary said.
The entrance to the fortress was nearly blocked off by rubble. Among it lay some objects that had once belonged to the fortress’ dwellers. There were weapons, coins, and even some old plating made of an alien green-black steel. All of these artefacts were valuable to those who knew their true worth, but Adelard was not here to scavenge.
Deeper down into the fortress, the masonry walls were made of large slabs of black stone laced with slightly glowing green veins. The masonry was decorated with inscriptions in a language that only few today could read. Adelard had seen such things before and could even make out some of the arcane symbols, but the mercenary gazed at them with eyes wide with fear.
To their left and right, Adelard's orb of light revealed doorways and hallways, all leading away from the main corridor. Strange smells permeated the air around these openings. The mercenary glanced carefully into every one of them, seemingly more ill at ease with every step they made.
When they came upon a large junction with an elaborately carved, man-high obelisk at its center, the mercenary placed his hand on Adelard’s shoulder. ‘We should stop,’ he said.
Adelard turned to face him. ‘And why is that?’
‘Haven’t you seen enough yet? This place goes on forever.’
‘All things end,’ Adelard said, ‘even these tunnels.’
The mercenary ignored him. His eye was caught by the obelisk. He pushed Adelard out of the way and stepped forward.
‘What in the Pale One’s name is this?’
The mercenary pointed at a carving of a beast that was half scorpion, half spider; in each of its four arms it held a long chain, to which naked men and women were fastened by their wrists and ankles.
‘It is a carving,’ Adelard said. ‘And it depicts an Etter. They are the creatures that built this place and ruled the world in ages past.’
‘Is that what’s further down there?’ The mercenary cast a furtive glance into the darkness ahead.
Adelard sighed. ‘It’s what’s further down everywhere,’ he said. ‘Now come, we continue.’
‘No,’ the mercenary said. ‘We should go back.’
‘I am paying you to accompany me,’ Adelard said through his teeth. ‘Now be a good dog and do as you’re told.’
The axe came out of the belt.
Adelard closed his eyes and whispered a formula of power. He heard the mercenary’s voice, but the energies swirling through and around him dampened all sounds so that Adelard couldn’t quite make out what the mercenary was saying. It mattered little anyway. When Adelard opened his eyes again, the mercenary’s red face was but a few inches from his own. He had grabbed Adelard by the collar of his robe with his one hand; the other hand held the axe’s blade close to Adelard’s face. The mercenary’s voice became clearer.
‘--and if you think I’m going to--'
From Adelard’s body came forth a wave of energy; not heat, cold, or lightning--although Adelard mastered those at well--but an energy as black as the hearts of the men who taught Adelard to summon it. The mercenary sensed the threat; he let go of Adelard's robe and jumped back. For a moment, it seemed clear of the destructive power until the black energy lashed out from Adelard's position and grabbed hold of the mercenary. There was a short struggle, but the mercenary was not a strong man--at least not in the spiritual sense. With a flick of his wrist, Adelard drew the mercenary’s soul from his body as if he was wringing water out of a cloth. The mercenary’s mouth contorted to let out a howl of terror that never left his body. He stumbled and collapsed against the obelisk.
Adelard licked his lips.
‘Isn’t this much better?’ Adelard said.
No response came from the lumbering shape behind him. Although the quality of the company had improved, Adelard was slightly concerned about the noise they were making. The mercenary had never been a nimble man, but he was much less so now. Fortunately, the sanctum should not be far now.
Adelard caught a pungent, spicy odor. He cursed softly and looked over his shoulder at the mercenary. ‘It seems your ill-timed tantrum has ruffled some feathers, my illiterate friend,’ he said. ‘We should move more swiftly.’
They doubled their speed. Hallways and doorways flashed past them. Adelard’s orb of light lit places that had not seen men or light in centuries--if they ever had at all--until they finally came upon a double stone door. It was decorated from top to bottom with intricate carvings that depicted Etter and their slaves: all creatures of the world, perhaps even of the universe, were there, some of which Adelard recognized, and some of which were a mystery even to him. The large, intricate lock on the door shone a challenge in the light of Adelard’s orb.
‘Finally,’ Adelard whispered. He retrieved a green steel key from his pouch. His hands trembled slightly with anticipation as he placed it in the lock. The key turned easily, as if the mechanism had been in regular use during all these centuries. The door opened of its own accord; its slow movement spread a low, rumbling sound through the fortress.
The smell was much stronger here. Adelard already heard the terrible skittering in the distance. They were much closer than he had anticipated; he would have to move quickly. His orb hovered forward into the sanctum and its bright light unveiled a monstrous statue that filled Adelard’s heart with joy.
The statue’s base was a ten-foot high conical web in which were caught men, beasts, and things that defied definition. Atop the web, at the apex of the cone, stood a creature that was not a spider, and yet it was. A sensual and tempting form, yet at the same time quite repulsive. It inspired fear and confusion, but above all a feeling of insignificance as it clawed for things unseen and hatched schemes unimaginable.
Adelard smiled at the sight of his god.
The altar before the statue was modest. On it lay the object of Adelard’s quest: a small vial of purple liquid. He couldn’t suppress a little cry of elation, despite everything that was crawling up to the sanctum, ready to rip him apart tendon by tendon, bone by bone. He rushed forward and grabbed the object of his desire from the altar and carefully wrapped it in a piece of cloth.
‘Dog,’ Adelard said loudly.
When the mercenary stepped into the light of Adelard’s orb, the strangely contorted face and the lolling and swollen tongue almost startled Adelard. He sought to look the mercenary in the eyes, but they had already turned upwards in their sockets. From the way the mercenary stood, Adelard could tell his muscles were stiffening, but Adelard’s magic should be enough to keep them flexible just long enough.
‘Kill everything that steps into this room,’ Adelard said.
A yellow fire blazed in the mercenary’s upturned, watery eyes. He planted his feet in a warrior’s position half-remembered and held the crudely crafted axe firmly in his swelling hands.
Adelard slipped past him. But before he ran back to the fortress’ entrance where he would be greeted by safety and fresh air, he lifted the mercenary’s purse from his belt.
‘A refund for my troubles,’ he said and smiled.