The air stinks of rotting flesh. The back of my throat tastes like bile. I cover my nose and my mouth as I move down the passageway, past the first ghoul that crawled out from a crevasse in the wall and attacked. The presence of ghouls explains the foul stench, at least. With the odor so powerful, there were surely more to come.
Balthazar and Sir Connor follow close on my heels. They mutter between themselves about what they see. Balthazar quickly searches the body of the ghoul but finds nothing, and Sir Connor notes that, so far, there doesn’t appear to be much of anything in the ruin. It’s just a stinking, winding cavern leading ever deeper into the dark.
As I round the corner, I hear the sounds of teeth gnawing flesh and bone. I know those sounds. They echo in my ears, a memory.
In the dim cavern that opens up before me, I see a ghoul crouched over an old body. Breaking bones with its broken teeth. Sucking at the marrow. Rending the flesh.
“More,” I say to Balthazar and Sir Connor, and beat my shield to draw the thing’s attention.
Its eyes reflect the dim light as it lifts its twitching head and sets its sight on me. It drops the limb it had been holding, stumbling to its feet and coming at me, giving wet hisses and snarls. It’s easy enough to drop—as is the one that lunges at me from behind, its gnashing teeth clipping uncomfortably close to my arm before I’m able to beat it down.
When I turn, I see something else crawling out of the dark. Something monstrous but skeletal, and bearing a weapon. “Fuck,” I mutter, keeping my eyes on the monster as it stalks toward me. I hear Balthazar shout as more ghouls come up behind him and Sir Connor. The sounds of fighting erupt behind me as I brace myself to fight the thing ahead of me.
The weapon it carries is long and heavy—a thick, curving metal spike on a pole that it thrusts at me. I stumble backward as I manage to block the first blow with my shield, but the second blow comes before I’ve recovered my footing and my shield is held just a bit too high.
The spike slams into my stomach. I feel it punch through my furs and leathers into the skin underneath. My body doubles over the weapon as sharp white pain splinters through my abdomen. My guts are forced to make room for cold metal.
But I’ve known worse pains before. I’ve been stabbed deeper, and with colder blades.
Shaking off the pain as the monster wrenches the weapon back, I pull my shield tight against myself and plant my feet, looking up at the monster. It’s about to strike again, as more ghouls flood out of the darkness beyond, then—
“Freydis!” Balthazar shouts behind me, and I hear ghouls dropping. The monster turns its attention toward Balthazar. Finally, his inordinate loudness is useful.
I’m able to fight back two more ghouls, killing them with relative ease, and when I turn toward Balthazar and Sir Connor, I find only the monster. Blocking the entry. Turning toward me.
Bracing myself, I crouch behind my shield. I deflect the first hit as the monster comes toward me, then it aims lower and splits open my shin, splintering the bone. For a moment I’m down on my knee, blocking a blow aimed for my skull, then—as I am dragging myself back up, trying to angle myself toward the entry and away from the monster, another blow catches me on the shoulder.
Pain rains through me from every angle, and I can feel the heat of my blood pouring from my stomach, soaking my pants. The cloth of my shirt clings to me, sticky with blood, and now my pantleg does the same, plastered against my skin around open flesh and bone. Blood is now running in open rivers down my back and front from the fresh wound opened on my shoulder.
Parrying another blow, I make another effort to rise. If I can only manage to get to my godsdamned feet—the monster has moved away from the entry. I might be able to drag myself out of here and back into the light of day.
The weapon, slicked now with my blood, gleams in the dim cavern as it swings toward me once more. Fuck.
With my shoulder in ruins, I struggle to lift the shield. I manage to get it partway up, but too late. The hook catches me in my back and I am dragged to the floor.
As I am slammed into the cold earth, I hear Balthazar’s voice again, and Sir Connor close behind him. Their shouts echo through the cavern, a great and horrible commotion, and the monster looks to them again. It wrenches its hook free of me and goes to them.
If only I could just…get to my hands and knees, it wouldn’t be so difficult to drag myself out of here—
Pain, a searing flash through my calf, ignites within me. I hate to hear the sound of my screams, almost as much as I hate knowing without looking that a ghoul has set on me, and is tearing the living flesh from my bones.
Reaching for my mace—when did I drop it?—I feel another ghoul fall onto me. It seizes my arm and wrenches it back, just about tears it from my body, and it bites into me. I close my eyes against the pain, try to grit my teeth and swallow the screams, but they come boiling madly out.
Somewhere in the distance, through all my screaming and the gurgling snarls of ghouls, I hear Balthazar. “Freydis! No!” I manage to wrench my head up, to see him coming toward me, his mad blue eyes wild with fear and dismay. And there is Sir Connor behind him, spotting the monster looming toward them and vanishing right there into the dark.
That spell of Balthazar’s, his hiding spell—the one he’d put on Sir Connor before we came here. The one I’d sneered at. “A child hiding under a blanket,” I’d said when first he’d showed it to me and, sulking, he’d returned to visibility.
“Balthazar!” I shout, stretching out my other arm, reaching for him with a hand weighted down by a shield and near useless from the ruin of my shoulder. I imagine he’ll grab me, yank me carelessly from the mouths of the ghouls and fly us out of here.
I remember being thrown into the sky—one of his madman’s spells. Next time, I’ll go willingly to dance with him in the clouds.
He’s reaching for me, the jewels on his fingers glittering in the dark. I can almost touch him.
Then he remembers the monster, looks up at it as it moves towards him, and as he lurches back from me and vanishes.
“Tell me,” I once said, sneering, “are you a weak man, Balthazar?”
Some uncertainty wells up inside of me as I am left alone to the devouring mouths. The pain rushes through me renewed, and I am screaming again. I hate these screams—I would give myself up to these tearing mouths and wait it out. They cannot kill me. But these fucking screams…
Blackness eats away at the edges of my vision, and I grow dizzy. My consciousness is fading—it’s okay, I’ve been unconscious before, alone in the forest, in a snow drift, at the bottom of a glacial canyon—when I hear a crash. The ghouls wrench free of me and scatter. They run after whatever sound that was, from wherever it had come, and for a moment leave me in blessed fucking peace.
Slowly, the feeling of the cold earth beneath me comes back. I grit my teeth, blink my eyes to clear my vision, and begin pushing myself to my feet again. I stumble up, pain rocketing up my leg, and I growl low in my throat as I lift my shield and my mace and—
How is the monster back? The cursed skeleton storming toward me and lifting its weapon and—
Back to the earth I crumble, and am barely able to make out the monster aiming its finger at me. The ghouls come in seconds, and I close my eyes and give myself up to the pain.
There is more screaming than just mine. There is a crash of stones, a collapse, and some part of me wonders if the whole cavern is coming down around us, but the ghouls don’t stop eating. Balthazar’s voice returns like thunder through the cavern, chanting some ancient language that I don’t understand, but no spell seems to come.
The ghouls keep eating.
Somewhere in the distance Sir Connor’s voice reaches me: “We have to go, Balthazar! She is dead! This is her arm! She’s dead, we have to leave!” And as I scream, I laugh. I cannot die. I am the Undying.
The ghouls keep eating.
More shouting, more fighting, the sounds of bodies being thrown to the floor and the eruption of magic down the halls. A riot of violence and booming voices intermingled with eerie silences…
…and the ghouls just keep eating, leaving less and less of me to drag out of here, and the less there is of me, the further into the darkness I seem to go.
It’s okay though.
I’ve been in the darkness before.
I’ll be okay.
I always am.