by Matthew Acheson
There are none who have trespassed twice in the lair of the Sea-Hag.
Of this fact Dougal was keenly aware, as he stood down by the water with his shoes covered in sand and dune grass up to his knees, watching as the waves broke against the gaping maw of the cave. The entrance was a short but wide shaft in the face of the cliff that plunged sharply down into the earth. A foul stench that overpowered even the salty aroma of the ocean arose from its depths.
Dougal looked to his companions, the baron and the knight, and saw that their faces were pale and grim. He wanted, more than anything, to tell them the truth. He wanted to take the baron by his thick shoulders and shake him, screaming, This place will never give you what you want! There was no hope here, only damnation and death.
"Men were not meant to walk in those depths," Dougal said.
"I cannot bear to lose them both, my old friend," the baron replied. "I have to try."
Dougal's eyes lingered on the baron's familiar form. He wore a chainmail shirt underneath an antique iron breastplate that bore the scars and dents of many battles. Engraved on the front, in solid gold, was the ancient crest of his household. Once the baron had been a powerful north-man, but these last few weeks had transformed him, and now he looked broken and haggard.
Dougal acknowledged the large satchel that hung from his friend's shoulder, and immediately he eyes began to water and his throat ached. He tightened his jaw and reminded himself that what was done was done. The die was cast -- there could be no going back now.
"This pit will be the end of us," he muttered.
The baron shook his graying head. "Where I must go, I cannot ask either of you to follow."
"That is a hell of a thing for you to say to me." The knight's expression was firm and he carried himself with an air of dignity and strength. He smoothed his beard with one hand, while the other rested on the hilt of a sword he wore at his hip. "Are you with us, Dougal?"
Dougal's hands shook and his stomach twisted in knots. He drew in a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. He desperately wanted to believe that with men such as these at his side, perhaps there was some hope after all. "I am with you."
The reformed burglar turned friar said a silent prayer and kissed the holy symbol of his god which hung from a chain around his neck. Then he took his first trembling step into the lair of the Sea Hag. "Keep silent, and step only where I step," Dougal whispered.
With their swords drawn and torches held aloft, the three made their way into the black. The air in the tunnel tasted stale, and the darkness ahead had a mist-like consistency that the sputtering torch light barely penetrated. The tunnel narrowed as they crept deeper into the earth, and after a long descent, it leveled out and opened up into a small grotto.
The entire cavern was rimmed with stalactites and stalagmites that oozed a strange copper colored liquid. The walls and floor were stained with patches of moss, and formations of large, oddly shaped mushrooms sprung up everywhere. Two tunnels forked off in opposite directions; their mouths were as black as pitch. In twenty six years of robbing tombs and crypts, Dougal had never seen a more unwelcoming place.
"Which way?" the knight asked.
Dougal made his way across the grotto and stopped at the entrance to the smaller tunnel. "This way," he said. He heard scuffling of booted feet as the baron and the knight followed closely behind.
The narrow tunnel weaved and pitched so haphazardly that Dougal began to feel sick and disoriented.
"Surely this tunnel was dug by madmen," the knight whispered.
As they continued their descent, the tunnel widened and branched off into several smaller side passages. They followed the main artery until it rounded one final bend and opened up into a small chamber. Dougal saw an eerie green glow in the distance.
"The fishermen speak of green lights that sometimes haunt the shores of St. John's Bay," the knight whispered.
"The ghost of the Sea-Hag." The baron's tone was almost reverent.
"Be still, both of you," Dougal said. "We are in no danger -- yet."
Dougal wiped the sweaty palm of his sword hand on his pants before inching his way into the chamber. Near the center was a pool of water whose depth seemed to ebb and flow, as if with the tides. The rim of the pool was lined with seaweed and barnacles. At the bottom Dougal saw a tunnel that, he assumed, must have some communion with the sea.
The dripping walls of the chamber were covered with patches of moss and small flowers with purple bulbs. The strange moss pulsated with a hellish green phosphorescence.
"What manner of devilry is this?" The knight's voice had an edge of fear that Dougal found disconcerting.
Dougal carved a hunk of moss from the wall with his sword and held it in the palm of his hand. It was cold and damp, like the earth of a grave. He tossed it aside and scanned the rest of the chamber.
At the far end of the cave, four tunnels stood menacingly. Dougal shined his torch down each in turn. Three of them stretched off into inky blackness, while the fourth transformed into a roughly hewn staircase that plunged deeper into the mountain.
Dougal looked back at his companions; their faces were as pale as marble. Again, his eyes moved to the satchel which hung limply from the baron's shoulder, and he was immediately overcome with feelings of sadness and guilt. Much had been asked of him, all those years ago. Sometimes, during the dark watches of the night when sleep was an absent mistress, Dougal wondered if the burden of the Covenant was more than he could bear.
"This way," he said.
As they descended, Dougal noticed scrape marks on many of the steps, and some were discolored by dark stains of dried liquid. He understood the riddle of those marks all too well, and the thought made him shudder.
The foot of the stairs opened up into a large cavern whose height could not be discerned in the torch-light. The air in the cavern was damp and oppressive.
They followed the scrape marks on the floor, through thick patches of moss and mushrooms, and across ankle deep pools of stagnant water. The trail twisted through the deep places of that underground kingdom, until finally they came to the edge of the cavern, where a large tunnel had been excavated into the rock.
The aperture was framed by an archway of granite blocks that had been cut and dressed by craftsmen of exceptional skill. Dougal looked up and saw a bas relief carved into the face of the keystone, several feet above his head. The relief depicted a tall, lean figure with green gemstones for eyes, and a purple stone hovering above its forehead. Inscribed into the floor below the archway was a circular emblem with markings that looked strange and mystical.
Dougal thought back to what had lured him here, all those years ago.
He remembered the vile accounts he'd read in a worm eaten text with the black binding that he'd found hidden behind a false panel in the secret underground vaults of the Temple of a Thousand Lights. It was the journal of a warlock who had studied the dark ways under the empress Kith-Anon. In foul laboratories, the witch had conducted experiments on the peasantry that were too heinous and evil to imagine. When her subjects finally rose up against her, the empress and her bodyguards fled into the caverns that lay beneath her marble palace, and never emerged again.
Dougal had once braved this black labyrinth to pilfer the crown of an empress, the price for which, he feared, had been his soul.
He stood before the archway and bowed his head in silent prayer. Please god, let me know sleep again, without the terror, and the nightmares, and thoughts of her! I would give anything, even my soul -- if it is still mine -- to be free of this burden.
Dougal wiped the grease from his forehead with the back of his arm and swallowed the lump of fear in his throat. He removed an object from his pack and handed it over to the knight. "I need you to bless this."
The knight looked down at the strange arrow with black feathers and a bone white tip and his brow furrowed up in a puzzled expression.
"There is no time for questions." Dougal removed a small glass vial of clear liquid from his belt and handed it over to the knight. "Just say a prayer and bless the tip of the arrow."
"You are the priest, Dougal, not I." The knight eyed him suspiciously.
"As you know, I was not always a friar," Dougal whispered. "I have done much evil in my time. The arrow must be blessed by a man of true faith and a pure heart."
"Dougal knows of these things," the baron said. "Do as he says."
The aged burglar looked back over one shoulder, and then the other. "Be quick about it, we need to keep moving."
The knight uncorked the vial and sprinkled holy water over the shaft of the arrow. He whispered words of prayer as he poured several more drops onto the arrowhead and massaged it with his thumbs. When the ritual was over, the knight passed the arrow back without a word.
Dougal handed the arrow to the baron, who fitted it into a crossbow that hung from his shoulder. "You remember what to do?" he asked.
The baron nodded.
Dougal saw the fear etched upon the faces of his companions, and his own courage left him like a sudden gust of wind. His entire body began to tremble, and he felt the cold touch of genuine terror on the back of his neck. The three of them huddled close together as they entered the tunnel which, as any fool could sense, led into the beating heart of darkness.
The air in the tunnel was thick and stank of dampness and decay. The light from the torches licked at the darkness, which danced like a shadow barely fifteen feet away from them in either direction. The muscles in Dougal's back and neck tensed, and his entire body felt like a taut wire. We will all die down here -- or worse.
At that moment there was a scuffling sound behind him, and Dougal spun around and brought his sword to bear. The knight wore a wide eyed, terror filled expression on his face. "Be silent," Dougal hissed.
"It wasn't him," the baron said.
The three of them stood absolutely still and breathless. Dougal turned his keen ears to the darkness behind them and listened. At first there was nothing, just the gentle throbbing of his heart in his chest. Then Dougal started suddenly. Although he'd heard nothing, he was struck by the odd notion that something had moved closer. This was followed by a grotesquely sinister impression that the atmosphere of the tunnel had changed somehow, as if some unnatural influence was now present.
On a whim, Dougal thrust his torch out into the darkness and took several quick, bold steps forward. The inky blackness retreated with his every step. There was nothing, just the cold emptiness of the tunnel.
Dougal was momentarily relieved, but then felt a strong urge to probe further. Every nerve in his body whispered in alarm, and a burglar with any talent knows that it is wise to listen to his instincts. He flung his torch into the darkness, and it struck the stone floor fifty feet down the corridor with a sharp crack. The shadows parted and Dougal's heart froze in his chest.
A host of hideous, preternatural faces, with eyes that shone with an evil cunning, leered back at him from the gloom. Their forms were hunched over and twisted, and although they seemed to walk on two legs, it was absolutely clear to him at once that they were not human.
Terror welled up inside him. He opened his mouth to shriek a warning to his companions, but no words came. The blood froze in his veins, and his limbs were paralyzed, until that awful sound finally came. As the light from the distant torch sputtered and faded, Dougal heard the scraping of clawed feet on stone.
Dougal's entire body flashed hot, then cold, as he, the knight, and the baron fled down the corridor. His knees quivered and he came dangerously close to losing his footing. The stench of decay and death burned in his nostrils. They ran until Dougal's lungs seared with pain and beads of sweat stung his eyes. Terror spurred them on, keeping exhaustion at bay long after it should have overcome them.
The feeble glow of the baron's torch behind him threw just enough light for Dougal to see where his footsteps fell. The darkness before them was so thick that he couldn't help but wonder if they were marching straight to their doom. With every footstep he imagined that a pack of the gruesome fiends waited for them just ahead.
The scraping of claws on stone drew closer.
The end would be upon them in moments. Dougal knew the creatures would take the knight first; his heavy footfalls and the jingling of the buckles against his armor grew more and more distant. Almost on cue, the tunnel echoed with a fearsome battle cry.
"Go my lord, I will hold them," the knight bellowed as he turned to meet the writhing sea of claws and fangs in his wake.
Dougal didn't turn to witness the man's destruction. The inhuman shrieks that echoed throughout the tunnel confirmed that the knight had secured for himself a good death. Dougal and the baron ran on, panting and heaving as the sounds of battle grew more and more distant.
The tunnel opened up and they found themselves in a cavern, the dimensions of which their single torch could not reveal. They fled into the emptiness of the grotto until the tunnel entrance was enveloped in shadow. The two reeled and turned, desperate to keep their backs from the darkness, until they lost all sense of bearing. Dougal and the baron stood back to back, leaning against one another, panting like animals in the stifling damp.
Dougal knew the creatures would be upon them soon. There was only one chance. "Kith-Anon," he shouted into the blackness. "Kith-Anon, we come for you." His voice echoed throughout the cavern. He shouted her name again, and again. When the echoes finally died out, Dougal heard hissing in the distance.
"Remember what I told you about the crown," he said.
Over the murmuring of the baron's prayers, Dougal heard the hissing draw closer. Within moments, predatory faces loomed at them from every direction.
"Kith-Anon," Dougal howled.
They were blasted with a cold wind that brought with it the overpowering stench of the grave. A terrible voice that was like metal scraping against stone called back to him. "What fool dares utter my name?"
A figure hovered at the edge of the light. Her face was bone thin, with dull green orbs that glowed in hollow sockets. She wore a ragged dress of an imperial style not known for several centuries, and the figure beneath it was tall and gaunt.
Dougal felt bile crawling slowly up his throat, and his stomach churned. A warm liquid trickled down his legs. The voice seemed to chill the air around them, and his body shivered violently.
"We have come to make a trade." The baron's voice was cracked and hollow.
"How interesting," she hissed. "Let me get a closer look at you."
Tittering, soul rending laughter filled the cavern. It took all of Dougal's willpower not to cover his ears and fall to his knees. "You have brought him to me at last, Dougal, my love."
Dougal felt the baron's hot breath against his ear. "What treachery is this?"
"She will try to divide us," Dougal whispered. "The crossbow -- use it now!"
"I have come to offer you a trade, Kith-Anon." The baron removed a large bundle from the satchel he carried and set it gently on the stone floor. He unraveled the white cloth and revealed the pallid form of a dead child.
Wicked laughter lashed out at them like an icy whip. "What need have I of that? My minions know the carrion mounds of your graveyards perfectly well."
"Restore the life of my child," the baron commanded in his deep baritone. "Do this and you will save the sanity of my wife as well. Do it not, and I swear by almighty god that we will all die here today."
"You are a fool," the dead empress hissed. The host of creatures inched forward. Claws rose and fanged mouths opened in preparation for the kill.
Dougal watched the baron's hands tremble as he slung the crossbow from his shoulder and pointed it directly at the jeweled crown atop Kith-Anon's head. "This is an ivory tipped arrow that has been blessed by a man of courage and faith. That sapphire on the front of your crown is your phylactery -- the receptacle in which you trapped your own soul. Its destruction is your destruction, lich!"
The creatures stopped suddenly, and the dead empress regarded the baron with cold, passionless eyes. "Restore her life? As you wish, mortal."
Kith-Anon reached forward and placed her bony hand on the forehead of the baron's daughter. Dougal watched in horror as she spoke words and performed rites that were so vile and terrible as to defy description. The child's eyes opened and it shambled to its feet. It was no longer a girl, but a twisted and hideous mockery of life!
The baron was blinded by his love and took the creature-child into his arms. Dougal closed his eyes and wept, as the shrieking cries of his old friend, the baron, echoed in the darkness.
Dougal felt a cold breeze against his neck, as the dead-empress pressed close to him. "Why did it take you so many years to return to me, my love?" she asked.
"What you asked of me was difficult," Dougal croaked.
"Why? Surely you love me more than him?"
"Of course, my empress, but they were my friends since I was a boy..."
"Silence! I knew you would return to me eventually, but I was not expecting such treachery. Why did you tell them about my phylactery?" she said with venom.
Dougal was paralyzed with fear. He felt the soft caress of a cold finger against his cheek.
"I see," she purred. "If they defeated me you would be free of our Covenant, and if they failed then you would pretend that you brought the baron to me in good faith. My dear, clever Dougal, you are a survivor aren't you? That is what I love about you."
"Will the nightmares stop now?" he asked.
Kith-Anon reached down and took the holy symbol he wore from a silver chain around his neck in the palm of her hand. "Is that why you turned to their god, to protect yourself from my nocturnal visitations?" She howled in laughter and Dougal began to feel light-headed.
The dead-empress tore the chain from his neck and hurled it into the darkness. "Your nightmares will never end. Dougal, my love, until the descendants of the four barons who betrayed and imprisoned me are cold and dead."
Dougal looked at her pallid face and thought of how beautiful she must have been, once.
"Tonight you will come to my bed and love me," she hissed, "and tomorrow you will return to the world and bring me another baron."
"Yes, my empress." Dougal felt his heart beating faster in his chest.
"Once the last drops of their blood have been splashed on the sigil in the tunnel above, the seal will be broken and I will be free at last. Then, I will go forth from this infernal prison at the head of an army of the dead that is so vast the stench of it will choke the gods themselves!"
"Yes, my empress."
Her voice rose to a terrible crescendo. "The world will know pain, and they will know fear, and the name of Kith-Anon B'aalbareth again. One last time!"
© 2012 Matthew Acheson
Bio: Matthew Acheson is a member of the Horror Writers Association whose fiction has appeared in Pseudopod, Raygun Revival, Allegory, Spinetingler, Morpheus Tales, and others, including Aphelion. His most recent appearance in Aphelion was Whispers From The North in the June 2011 edition. For more by and about Mr. Acheson, visit Cryptic House.
E-mail: Matthew Acheson
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