Friday, 16 September 2016

Artel - What Lives Beneath

Artel didn't know how long he sat for, alone in the darkness in the strange pit with only the watery drip, drip, drip to remind him that sound existed at all. He had tried to break the door, he had pushed it, and banged it, and ran at it, and he had injured his shoulder in the process. He had the idea of trying to use his sword as a sort of oversized lock pick, until he realised there was no lock on his side of the door. He had even made his way back over to the skeleton he had found on the floor and searched pile of bones for... for what... something... anything that might help. At last he had given up, accepting defeat as he slumped against the mud wall, tired, hungry, and although he did not like to admit it, scared. Perhaps he had dozed, he couldn't be sure, time was a whole new beast down in the darkness. It plodded by of its own accord, no longer adhering to the constraints of the normal world, it could be as fast or a slow as it wished, or it could stop altogether. Artel would never know.
It crossed his mind as he sat there that he might die in this hole, like that other poor sod whose skeleton he had found.
"How ridiculous," he muttered in the darkness, "that I, a decorated knight, should be defeated by a hole in the ground on a quest for a myth."
He thought of Millon too, the bumbling fool would be lost in the forest by now, probably eaten by some large beast, or fallen down a hole of his own. He was half surprised the smaller man hadn't jumped down the hole after him, he was always so desperate to please, always fussing over Artel like a worried mother hen. He imagined the strange little man sitting at the entrance to the hole, too afraid to jump down after him, too stupid to leave or get help or shout down. The notion played on his mind, slipping through his thoughts again and again until he became convinced Millon was indeed sat at the entrance to the hole. Artel stood and almost ran, shakily, to the point in the strange chamber where he could just about feel the slight draft of cool air coming from the ceiling. He raised his face and stared up into the darkness.
"Millon!" He called, tentatively, then louder. "Millon! Miilllooonnn... Miiilllloooonnn... Miiilllooonnn... "
His voice echoed through the empty chamber and he fell silent, listening as the sound faded into silence. There was no answer, no response, no light in the darkness. He waited for a while longer, then went back to his spot by the door in the darkness.

Time must have passed, things must have happened on the outside world. Somewhere his Queen waged a war put upon her by another, somewhere brave men fought for their lives, and for the lives of their wives and sons and daughters, somewhere a village burned, a child cried and another life was taken into slavery. Somewhere a storm raged around the tip of a faraway mountain, encircling a secret so old it may not exist at all.
Visions slipped through Artel's waking dreams, appearing before him in the darkness, so real he could almost touch them. The red-haired woman dancing by the fireside, her green eyes fixed on him, a small smile playing across her features, how he had wanted to touch her then. He remembered the smooth softness of her pale skin as he brushed his fingertips across her back, he remembered the cushion of her lips as he kissed her, and the tangle of her fire-red hair splayed out across his pillow later that night. Emerella.
The image shifted and the red-haired woman was gone, leaving as quickly as she had appeared. Towards him stalked a hunter, scantily clad in mismatched armour, the man was a joke and Artel heard his dream self laugh. He turned away from the small man, he turned away from an opponent, an armed opponent. The barbed club the hunter carried was simple, simple but effective, effective and painful. Artel watched in horror as his dream self taunted the hunter, showing off, making mistake after mistake as he sought to prove his superiority. When the hunter sprang he had been unprepared, he had fallen and failed to regain the upper hand. When the fight was ended by Starn, who shot the hunter through the skull with a black tipped arrow, Artel had been a mess, bloodied and barely conscious. It was his downfall, the final straw that saw him removed from the ranks he so proudly led, removed and sent away on a fools errand with a fool all of his own to accompany him.

The vision vanished and cold consciousness struck Artel in the face. He blinked in the darkness, looking blindly around him, sure that something had alerted his senses but unable to work out what. For a moment there was only silence, echoing through the chamber, then the clunk of a lock and the clinking of a metal chain as it was pulled through bars and then dropped to the floor. Artel was on his feet in a second, his heart beating hard and his sword in his hand, glaring into the darkness. Something pushed against the door and a muttered voice floated in from the other side, too low for him to hear, then with a creak the old doors swung open and the world went from black to white. Artel swung his sword through the air in front of him, unable to see his opponents who yelped and let out a stream of unidentifiable vowels that ricocheted through the chamber. He turned, blinking in the bright torchlight. Figures came into view as his eyes began to adjust, there were several of them and they were short, about half his height. He swung his sword again and felt something hit his arm, his hand opened reflexively and the sword fell to the ground with a clatter, then something took his legs out from under him and he landed on his back on the hard floor, the fall taking his breath away. Little hands scrabbled across his body as he fought for breath, rolling him over and binding his wrists behind his back. He struggled but they held him fast and the knots in their ropes held true. He was pushed upwards and forwards into a kneeling position, two of them held his arms, one either side and slightly behind him so he could not see them, he didn't know if they carried weapons. A third tottered forwards and to his right, heading towards the discarded sword lying on the floor. Now that he could see, Artel watched the little creature in puzzlement, it was roughly half his height and had a strange gait that was somewhere between a limp, a jump and a waddle, and white hair streamed down its back. His attention was interrupted as a fourth creature moved in front of him and began speaking, its voice rough and fast, a stream of incomprehensible vowels and grunts falling from between its thin lips. Artel stared. The creature wasn't pretty, but it wasn't really ugly either, in fact it was rather plain, albeit slightly stocky and white haired. What caught his attention most was its eyes, set in smooth papery skin they were wide and at first he thought they were grey, grey and luminous, but as he looked closer he realised that what he had mistaken for grey was in fact milky white. The creature was blind, and yet it looked straight at him, and its words were spoken directly too him. He shook his head slightly and saw the creatures ears, larger than his own, twitch. The creature paused and its nostrils flared slightly as it cocked its head, then, satisfied, it continued chattering away. When it eventually stopped speaking silence fell across the chamber again, it seemed to be waiting for something. Moments slipped past, slow and steady and pregnant, until, unable to bear it any longer, Artel cleared his throat.
"I," he began, at a loss for quite what he should say, "I, don't understand you... I, didn't mean to intrude..." He trailed off and the creature in front of him turned its head and let off another stream of chatter, presumably to the creatures behind him. Artel waited. The creature turned its head back to him, its milky eyes staring at some point in the middle of his forehead, which he absently thought was pretty good going for something blind.
"Big thing fall down," it began, startling Artel, "land here and make noise, much noise, big thing wake whole colony, hurts ears. Big thing will come now, will behave and not make noise."
"I..." Artel began, but the creature in front of him tutted angrily and he lapsed back into silence.

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