A Fall into Darkness

Why it might be better to leave treasures in ancient tombs where they are – by Elathan of Karickbridge

As my sister Elowyn wrote an account of our last adventure, I thought it should be my turn to recount the events leading to our ending up in a nightmare world full of living trees, shadows with minds of their own and mad spectral ladies. We should never have taken the treasure trove from the barrow in Hob’s Dell. Things like that are often tainted by evil and should be left where they are. Unfortunately, dwarves don’t tend to listen to reason when it comes to trinkets like this, particularly when the dwarf in question has a studious mind, and so it was against my better judgement that our companion Isembard picked them up.

* * *

Whilst we were licking our wounds at the ruined farmhouse outside Saxton after our last scrape, it seemed that his fascination with the treasure was becoming unhealthy. Day and night he was pouring over them, trying to decipher their sigils and signs. He seemed possessed by the items. Even my suggestion to go hunting to take his mind off them seemed to meet with complete indifference. I often admire him for his scholarly knowledge of things, but this was simply going too far. Anyway, it appeared that one evening he forgot to take a ring from the trove off and fell asleep whilst wearing it. We only noticed the next morning when he didn’t appear from his blankets to break his fast – most unlike him! Nothing would rouse him; shaking, shouting, slapping, not even a bucket of cold water. Removing the blasted ring had no effect either. Dougan, a Cornumbrian emissary who had come to escort us back to his chieftain brother, suggested that one of us try to go to sleep wearing one of the other trinkets. Elowyn was the only one stupid enough to try. When we couldn’t raise her either, we decided that it was all or nothing, we all had to try in case the others needed our help whatever was happening.

* * *

I woke to find myself walking in a sunlit forest on a warm spring day. Elowyn was beside me with a basket in hand, looking for herbs or some such nonsense for her poultices. A majestic hart grazing on the bank of a stream caught my attention through the trees. I started off towards it but soon found the forest around me growing thicker and thicker and the clouds covering the sun. Having lost the hart, I tried to find my way back to Elowyn, but couldn’t find her anywhere either. Normally I have a good sense of direction, but somehow it was letting me down. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted first one shadowy shape slinking between the trees and then another. Whatever they were I thought I would be better off standing them down rather than running, so I drew my trusty sword and waited. All of a sudden, a bone-chilling wolf-howl went up. As I waited more of the shadowy creatures became apparent in the gloom, their yellow eyes viewing me hungrily.

* * *

There comes a point when even the bravest warrior knows that it’s better to run and fight another day than make a stand. For me that point was reached when I counted the 12th shadow-wolf snarling at me. Running in full armour, however, is not something that I would recommend to anyone, not in an open field and certainly not in a gloomy forest with roots everywhere. The forest seemed to stretch forever and I soon lost track of time. Had I been running for mere minutes or even hours or days? It was impossible to tell for there were no reference points, no sun to track across the sky, nothing. At every fall I expected to find a slavering jaw gripping my leg, but for some reason I managed to keep just ahead of the pack, clearly a sign that my armour training has been paying off. At last, however, I stumbled one more time, only to find myself in a forest clearing approximately 30 strides across. At the centre stood an old blackened willow tree, at the foot of which sat the armoured form of a long dead knight. Astoundingly my companions also emerged from other points of the forest at exactly the same time. Obviously the greater number of foes was causing these hellish hounds second thoughts, for they would not enter the clearing but remained snarling amongst the trees.

* * *

After assuring ourselves that we were all in a fit state we turned our attention to the figure at the base of the tree. Clutched in his skeletal hand was a piece of parchment. Approaching to take it we were all taken aback when the willow started lashing out at us. Nimble Nah’ban managed to duck under the tree’s reach and rescued the letter. On reading it we found out that the poor chap had decided to take his own life in this strange place, as he knew neither the way onward nor the way back. He also included some hints about what lie ahead, hints that turned out to be invaluable to us in our travels in this realm as well as suggesting that we take a vial of holy water from his belt, which turned out to be of great use to us. It was also apparent that the dead knight’s corpse concealed an entrance between the tree’s roots leading to an underground passageway. Daring the tree’s branches one by one we all dodged through, sliding through the soil- and root-lined channel into a stone tunnel below. Progressing along this we emerged into a natural rock cavern through which we must pass in order to continue our progress. Walking though the cavern we observed an unusual phenomenon whereby our shadows came to life to haunt us. They seemed able to reach through our very armour with their bone-chilling touch which drained us of all strength. Although apparently resistant to normal steel, their fabric quickly yielded to Vallandar’s swords.

* * *

Our strength returned to us slowly as we continued along the passage on the far side of the cavern. Eventually it came out in a great underground hall, at the head of which sat a shadowy lord on a throne of darkest ebony, wearing a diadem seemingly identical to the one which I had put on my own head in order to come to this wretched place. The fallen knight’s note had included a cryptic note about this fell creature, that we should beware of cutting him down for fear of having him spawn a vast multitude of shadows. Isembard and I were astounded therefore to observe the shadow lord’s diadem float off his head whilst we were still trying to develop a suitable battle plan. It took only one look at the concentration on my sister’s face to realise that this was her doing. Leaving no time to think we simply grabbed the diadem and ran to the back of the cavern as fast as our legs would carry us. Fortunately the shadow creature appeared to be incapable of leaving his lair and so we were able to escape unscathed.

* * *

At the end of the seemingly endless tunnel we emerged into foothills above a vast mist-covered plain. As we descended into the mist in eerie silence a great stench rose to greet us. The mists covered an enormous marsh that seemed to extend in all directions. Standing at the edge of the marsh we were at a complete loss. How were we going to navigate our way through this maze of islands and causeways? The cawing of a crow in a nearby blackened tree slowly broke its way into our consciousness. Although we had become used to the absence of all creatures save the hounds in the forest and still it took us several minutes to register the presence of the solitary bird. It seemed to be wanting to communicate with us and when we walked towards it, the corvid took off, flying a little way into the marsh above a causeway leading to a nearby island.

* * *

Thus our journey continued with the crow leading us from island to island along a series of paths between the waterways. Again we lost all sense of time as we had when running from the wolves in the forest. The marsh seemed to go on forever. Once I made the mistake of peering into the miasmal waters, only to see the whitened bones of long dead warriors resting in the mud at the bottom of a pool. I fancied I saw a ghostly face overlying a skull until I realised that it was merely a reflection of my own visage in the dark waters. After what could have been simply a matter of hours or even days or years the mist slowly receded and we found ourselves on the bank of a huge inky lake. The water was so still that to look out created the illusion of gazing into a vast black void. As a child I would no doubt have thrown a rock in for the pleasure of seeing the ripples spread across the surface. Here, however, I found the expanse of water unnerving and I didn’t dare throw anything is for fear of disturbing something lurking in the dark depths. The crow had brought us to a small inlet into which a rowing boat had been drawn as if waiting for us. The bird perched on the bow as if willing us to push it out and row into open water. In the distance we could make out a large black island – perhaps this was our destination.

* * *

The knight’s note had spoken of a champion that we must first search out in the marshes. It was clear that the crow wanted us to enter the boat, but what about the champion? Scouring the mist behind us we were able to make out a small rise about a mile or so off with some sort of pole at the top. An ancient standard perhaps? We decided to investigate despite the crow’s protestations and were able to retrace our steps to a point closer to the mound from where we found a narrow path between the pools leading in the direction we desired. Getting closer we could see a slumped figure at the bottom of a ragged standard. As we approached, we could see the seated figure raise a verdigrised horn to its face and appear to blow a soundless note. Soundless it may have been, but we could feel a wave emanating from the call, as could the skeletons in the water surrounding the mound. They started to claw their way up through the water towards us. At the same time, a huge skeletal figure began to assemble itself on the brow of the hill. It must have been at least 9′ tall. It brandished a huge two-handed sword as it roared in silent challenge. The giant was no match for the four of us fighting in concert and was quickly dispatched, enabling us to retrieve a pair of bracers from its arms matching those we had found in the barrow. However, just as we had outnumbered and surrounded the giant champion, so we were now being surrounded by countless corpses emerging from the slimy water. Every way we looked we could see the skeletal forms of long-dead warriors approaching from the marsh, responding to the standard bearer’s call. Remembering the vial of holy water that the knight under the tree had posthumously entrusted to us, we were able to keep the dead at bay by sprinkling the water over them and also between us and them on the floor. Thus we made our way back to the boat and were glad to put out into open water, putting a barrier between ourselves and the restless dead.

* * *

After all we had been through so far, rowing gave us a respite and the steady dip and pull lulled us into a state of wary relaxation. After what seemed like an eternity, we realised that what we had initially thought to be a single island was in fact two; a nearer rocky outcrop upon which a high tower was perched and a much larger second island behind with what looked like an ancient fort on the cliffs above a natural harbour. As we approached our avian guide alit from the bow and flew up to the top of the tower, and so we followed. We drew our boat up on the shingle before treading through the stones, our boots sinking in with each step. The larger part of the tower was a spiral staircase leading up to a high circular chamber. Nearing the top we became aware of a low, constant humming. Cautiously opening the door I was surprised to see a cylindrical silver cage at the centre of the room. The humming appeared to be coming from the very material of the cage itself – a magical containment chamber of some sort. The crow we had been following since entering the marsh was sitting one of the windows apparently cawing to his mistress: At the centre of the room sat a woman with her back to us, brushing her raven hair with a silver brush. Her form, and that which we could see of her face in the mirror she was sitting before were exquisite. I could do nothing but stop and stare whilst the others entered the circular room behind me. None us missed the significance of the ring adorning the hand brushing her long tresses, a ring identical in design and proportion to that which was born by Elowyn.

* * *

“Thank you Odin my friend” she spoke to the bird at the window. “Welcome to my prison. I am afraid it is a poor one and I find myself unable to show any hospitality, but welcome nevertheless.” Her words and the voice which embodied them seemed as fair as the lady herself. My companions seemed to lack any decorum whatsoever and immediately addressed her regarding the ring and whether we might have it. She was immediately put on her guard and seemed to become a little agitated. After a while, however, she agreed to part with the ring in exchange for the head of the lord of the realm, who appeared to be her gaol keeper. Some of her intention was difficult to decipher as not all that she related to us made sense and in one or two points she appeared to contradict herself. My rude companions, and unfortunately I must include my sister in this, did not appear willing to enter into this compact and seemed intent on tricking her out of the ring then and there. Circling round the cage they attempted to approach the poor woman, who attempted to hide her face from our direct gaze by hiding it from us in her cloak. Whilst the others distracted her, Nab’han was able to destroy the mirror on her desk with an arrow. At this point she flew into a complete rage, reaching for Nab’han through the gaps in the cage. In doing so, however, she revealed her true nature. Separated from the mirror, the rotting flesh of her face showed her to be some foul undead creature. Nab’han was quick enough of thought and eye to grab her arm and Isembard was immediately at hand with a blade to lop the extremity bearing the ring off. Never will I forget the bone-chilling shriek that resulted from this action and which haunted us all the way down the stairs to the boat and out onto the lake.

* * *

It should only have taken 10 minutes or so to row from the spectral woman’s tower to the natural harbour at the base of the cliffs below the fort. At first we thought it was simply Nab’han’s lack of familiarity with the oar that caused him to tumble back arse over elbow, but then the waters below us started boiling and a half-dozen or so monstrous tentacles emerged and started bludgeoning us. Nab’han was the unlucky recipient of two or three blows in quick succession, rendering him unconscious. I found one of the tentacles snaking round my waist crushing the air from my lungs. Fortunately I was able to saw through the hideous trunk and free myself. Fighting from the close quarters of the little rowing boat was proving increasingly difficult, especially when Isembard decided that he was better off fighting from a standing position. Despite his short stature the boat was rocking intolerably, forcing Elowyn to focus on trying to stabilise the vessel and leaving Isembard and myself to dispatch the lake monster ourselves. At last we managed to land what must have been a mortal blow to the creature which retreated below the surface before propelling us towards the shore with one last effort, forcing us to crash on the rocks.

* * *

How we all managed to remain in the boat during our encounter with the lake creature I will never know. After dragging the prostrate Nab’han onto dry land from the wreckage of the boat, Elowyn related to us that she had seen something metallic shining under the water in the bay. Being the strongest swimmer, I decided that I should be the one to swim out into the lake and attempt to identify and retrieve whatever it was that my sister had seen. After finding the spot it was quickly apparent that whatever it was was too deep for me to reach unaided. Loading a heavy rock onto a part of the boat that could still be used for this purpose,I swam back out and, grasping the rock in my arms, allowed myself to be carried down into the depths. I don’t mind admitting that I was nearly unmanned when I saw the face of a drowned corpse in the silvery glow of a fine chain and let go of the stone. The corpses eyes flickered open and my arm was caught in a vice-like grip. “Must kill Tuannon Dur”, a watery voice intruded on my thoughts. “Use chain… bind him… free… us… all!” Unwinding the chain from the corpse’s arm and freeing myself from his steely grip cost me all my reserves and I exploded to the surface, gasping for breath. I explained my encounter to the others, showing them the length of fine silver chain that I had been able to retrieve. As it was passed to Elowyn she dropped it as though it had just been pulled from a fire. Apparently whilst in physical contact with the chain, she was unable to reach her source of magics. Somehow we must seek out and bind Tuannon Dur with this chain in order to free ourselves from his domain.

* * *

Nab’han had come round by this time, and after re-donning my armour we set off up a narrow path through the cliffs to the high plateau above. The eerie silence of the place had re-established itself. Without a breath of wind, the fortress was as still and quiet as a grave. When things are so preternaturally still, making noise yourself seems somehow sacrilegious, and so it was in complete silence that we progressed through the outer fortress to a wooden rope bridge spanning the gap between the main plateau and a rocky outcrop high above the dark waters below. Carefully we crossed one by one, not entirely if the bridge would hold us securely. At the other end we found ourselves on a mountain ledge decorated with four stumpy obsidian pillars standing in front of a cavern that appeared vast enough to house a dragon. The pillars sported obscure engravings, which Isembard knowledgeably assured us were runes resembling those in other scripts known to him to represent dawn, noon, sunset and night. Any further import was hidden from us at that time, however.

* * *

Thus we entered the cavern. The mouth soon opened out into a cavern that might in another place have been taken for a great church or cathedral – an enormous open chamber with galleries above supported on massive stone pillars. You didn’t have to be a dwarf to realise that this had all been carved carefully from the rock within. Sitting on a throne at the back of the chamber was Tuannon Dur himself, or so we thought. The likeness to the ancient wight we had defeated in Hob’s Dell was unmistakable. A rough voice carrying the age of the hills echoed within our minds: “How dare you trespass my domain! Wasn’t it enough to destroy my earthly shell, must you torment me here as well? You steal from my brother, destroy my champion and maim my wife. Have you come now to seal my doom? Or will I seal yours, condemning you forever to share my timeless torment? This place is of my making. I spent my declining years ensuring my immortality by creating this realm for all my faithful warriors. My brother a shadow of the night, my champion of the dawn, my wife, my companion of the evening, a creature consumed by ambition and hate whom I have to keep locked away for my own safety. The blood of many was spilt to carve out this place. You. Will. Not. Destroy. My. World!”

* * *

Slowly and cautiously we approached the throne, weapons drawn and weary of a trap. Nab’han sidled through the shadows at the edge of the hall, silver chain in hand, ready to bind the mage and thus impede his deadly magic. Sneaking behind the throne, he threw the chain over the seated figure, only for him to disappear completely. What had happened? Had he used his powers to transport his frame to anther place?, or was his image a trick of the mind, like his speech? Then Elowyn caught sight of him again, up on the gallery looking down on us. We charged up the stairs only to have him vanish on us again. A merry chase he lead us on through that chamber until my sister employed her gifts, only to determine that he was not even present. A hallway at the end of one of the galleries led us to a circular room where we were once more confronted with the mage’s visage. Between us and him a huge opening in the floor filled with the spirits of many men howling in torment. Elowyn let loose an enchanted arrow, piercing the wizard in the chest. At last we had found the true Tuannon Dur. Skirting the foul well of souls and dodging his mystic blasts we at last stood face to face with the master of this realm. Isembard and I rushed him, whilst Nab’han circled round behind him. His end came quickly after that. Isembard landed a heavy blow, Nab’han managed to whip the chain around the legs, effectively preventing him from employing any more magic and enabling me to land the deathblow. Tuannon Dur was dead at last, for good this time. Removing the torc, the last item of the four, from his neck we left that place and headed once more for the obsidian pillars.

* * *

How to activate the pillars and return ourselves to the world we knew outside Saxton? What had the evil mage said about his followers? Companion of the evening – so the ring belonged to the pillar with the evening rune. What were the other titles though? Our minds were a blank. If only we’d paid more heed to his words! Champion of noon? Brother of dawn? Slowly we became aware of a familiar scream increasing in intensity. Looking out across the water to the spectral lady’s tower we could see a dark figure flying towards us, black flames in her wake. ‘Brother of the night!’ That’s what the mage had said. Quickly we placed the diadem on the pillar with the night rune, leaving the bracers and the torc. Finally all of the artefacts were in the correct position with mere moments to spare before Tuannon Dur’s wife would be upon us to extract her mad vengeance. A soft ball of golden light began coalescing at the centre of the pillars, growing rapidly in size until it first engulfed us and then continued to spread until it covered the island, the lake, the marsh and the mountains beyond.

* * *

The next thing we knew, we were waking up in the farmhouse outside Saxton on a beautiful early summer morning. We had done it! Tuannon Dur was now defeated once and for all. Dougan and Madelaine made us a hearty breakfast of porridge spiked with sweet honey. Not much had transpired in our absence – our passage through Tuannon Dur’s realm had lasted but a night. All that remained was for us to accompany Dougan back to his home country of Cornumbria to fetch his niece, the daughter of a Cornumbrian chieftan, to marry Baron Aldred’s son Sir Almeric and thus help cement peace between our peoples, but that, as my sister is wont to say, is another story…

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