Vol.1, Ch.4, P.4
Down through the depths of Godrika we wended.
The widths of the tunnels varied here and there, though not a soul may doubt their overall generosity: about four passūs was the girth of the gangway we were passing through at present. But the situation would devolve to our great despair were we to face the greathorn here, for little around us availed any means of cover or escape.
However, the tunnel network itself was dotted through with a number of hollowed-out rooms: “stopes” from which ore had been extracted. If a battle were to break out, we should best bring the brunt of the chaos to any one of such spaces.
“Tch…” A click from Raakel’s tongue echoed through the dark. As the vanguard of our group, she stood up ahead, halted and vexed. The focus of her attention fell upon the rows of bodies strewn through the gallery—knights, silent in their eternal sleep.
Thus did we find ourselves in the infamous tunnel: four entire squads, frantic as they funnelled into this bottleneck, only to tumble upon each other and make themselves ready for their own slaughter.
One body was so bent at its spine that the back of its head met with the back of its heels. Another was disembowelled, the guts gruesomely agape. None of them escaped a cruel end—they were all of them run over and crushed in some way.
Emilie bit at her lip. To be presented with her stilled subordinates, dead in their duty so assigned by her command, all but stole the words out of her. It was her fists that spoke instead, clenched white as they were, and quivering.
“I do find it rather curious that a greathorn would make its way into the tunnels so,” Sheila thought aloud. “Why now, I wonder?”
“No need to wonder. One of the leaders said it; didn’t you hear, Sheila? Turned the tunnels into its very own feeding grounds, the bloody beast did,” Gerd reminded her. “I suppose it hit the mark, though. These driftways were as larders stocked full with fodder, whether fresh or foetid.”
These mines had once bristled so bountifully with behemót that no man dared to venture into its vicinity. But to the greathorn, Godrika was a dinner platter piled high with all sorts of palatables, and it was not just behemót that composed its endless meal.
“And we very well find our names writ large on the menu,” I observed.
“Quit that yapping, will you, ungraced? Any half-pated spelunker can figure that out, what from the look of this bloody place. See here?” Gerd snapped, flicking his chin up at one of the corpses. The sight earned a shake of his head. “The bloke’s stomach’s all eaten off. Yoná, Almighty…”
“By gum…” Raakel seethed. “Grass be what a cow gobbles, not… not this.”
“Miss Raakel. Need we remind you? It is not the work of a cow we witness here, but a behemá’s,” Sheila pointed out, and as if her words were as a signal, there flickered in the dark ahead of us a series of flashes—illumination of the magicked sort.
“…Tonitrus! Someone’s incanted a Tonitrus!” Emilie broke her silence. “There’s a battle up yonder—we must hurry!” And at once, we all rushed deeper into the tunnel.
It’s all right.
Felicia’s all right.
She has to be.
She’s strong, after all; the brigadier to our sorcerers, no less. A greathorn should hardly be a match for her.
Such faint wishes whispered in my head as I sprinted down the dark corridor. It wasn’t long before we all emerged into an open space, only somewhat wide in its total area.
And there she was.
My sister, standing before a towering, heaving, bull-like behemá.
Dwarfed by the beast, Felicia breathed laboriously, her staff trained forth at her opponent.
Blood—there was deep red upon her person, all in a great stain across her chest, clotted and terrible. And upon her face was pure despair.
One of her knees gave out. Down she collapsed, perhaps having spent her spirit overmuch in the course of the long struggle. Seeing this, the mad beast became but a blur, charging straight into her.
“Felicia!!” I screamed, breaking into a dash. At once, I took her into my arms and lunged forth, missing the behemá’s hewing horn by a hair’s width as it skimmed across my calves.
“Brother!?” Felicia gasped. It was then that sharp cackles stung the air and drummed tangibly against my ears.
She bent down low, her silverblade drawn and shrouded in shrieking electricity. Then, like an arrow, she bolted straight at the greathorn, meeting it face-to-face.
My face twisted at the sight. “Emilie! No!”
The warning did little to halt her assault: a wide slash of the sword, like a horizon of lightning, pealed across the beast’s body. With her mark struck, sparks crackled and forked in great flashes through the subterranean air.
Behind that blinding veil of light, the greathorn loomed…
“How…!?” Emilie muttered in a gasp, a moment of surprise presented before a beast much fain to seize it.
And so it did.
The demonic bull heaved its deadly weight unto a wide-eyed Emilie.
“Radiāns Aulaeum!” chimed Sheila’s voice, and there welled up before Emilie a pall of light, into which the beast’s lethal horns crashed. For but an instant, the attack was stopped, but it was all that Emilie needed. Her wits recovered, she darted away, with Sheila’s shining shield shattering into nothingness in that same moment.
“Wh… what’s this!?” Emilie doubted aloud as she renewed her stance. “No greathorn should resist lightning! And my sword—’tis left nary a scratch on the beast!”
Of course not.
It was natural that nothing in Emilie’s arsenal could harm the beast before us, whether it be strikes of sharp silver or lightning.
“Lady Emilie! That’s no greathorn—we face a catoblepas!”
My words warped the others’ faces with immediate dread.
“Aoouhhrraahh!!” balefully bellowed the behemá, before charging straight at both Felicia and me. At once, I leapt out of the way with my sister still in my arms.
“Eagh!” I cried. My shoulder tore open—the bull’s gnashing horn had met its mark.
“B-Brother!” wailed Felicia.
“Everyone! Over here!” Emilie shouted from a ways off, pointing behind herself. “We descend below! Hurry!”
The tunnel system also splayed vertically into several levels; where Emilie indicated was an incline shaft sinking almost fourteen passūs down, about the height of a five-storey building.
Nay. With a drastic slope like that, a “winze” seemed more the word: a steep, vertical passage connecting disparate tunnels, like an underground cliff. I let Felicia off, and together we ran to it.
“Bloody hell! Here goes!” Gerd winced, sliding down the precarious drop with the rest of us not far behind.
“Dēfendēns Spīritus!” came another incantation from Sheila.
A wall of winds, meant to deflect incoming arrows and like projectiles, awoke and whirled upon our landing spot. Yet it was oriented in reverse—right before our feet could crash into the ground, the gales billowed and cushioned our fall. A safe landing—the deft work of a dame, exceptional in her practice of succouring magicks.
Looking up, we found the catoblepas looming over the edge of the winze. It returned a gaze of its own, its eyes veritably ablaze with a fell light. It would seem it held no delusions of peace between us.
“Ye cow-faced guffer! Gawp down on us, do ye!?” roared our red-haired warrior.
“Tame your taunting, Raakel,” Emilie appeased. “Sheila, pray see to Felicia’s wounds. Rolf’s shoulder, as well.”
“Of course,” our surgien obeyed, before turning to my sister. “Miss Felicia, where are you hurt?”
“My rib… it may be broken,” Felicia answered. “I’m bleeding as well, but not very much.”
“I wouldn’t call the stains on your bosom ‘not very much’, Brigadier Buckmann,” Gerd observed. “Might we know what’s happened?”
My sister’s gaze fell at once, her spirit lost. “…This blood… is not my own—’tis my officers’.”
“Officers?” Emilie blinked. “Felicia. What’s happened to the 16th?”
“My squad… I… I’m the only one that’s left…”
Emilie’s shoulders sank. “I see… The terror. It must’ve been dreadful,” she quietly condoled. Her eyes then went to me. “Rolf. This catoblepas—are you certain?”
“I am,” I nodded. “It well-pretends the greathorn, but the hue of its hide and the shape of its horns betray its true nature.”
Like the greathorn, the catoblepas is a bull-like behemá, but unlike the former, it is further classed amongst the mythoferae: creatures more at home in legends than in the living world. The dread bull brims with odyl at every bend and span of its body, affording it great protection against nearly every known elemental magick. And its azure-night hide is as a skin of iron, rejecting the bite of any blade sent against it.
And nothing stops its sundering charge. What such violence leaves in its wake are piles of the dead, men and behemót alike. Filed away in the knightly records are reports of but a single catoblepas felling an entire fortress, manned by no less than members of the Order itself.
Make no mistake: the greathorn pales in comparison to the catoblepas, and we now had the misfortune of being the mark of such a monster.
“Emilie, we must act,” Gerd pressed, and the answer he received was immediate.
“That we shall. But by Rolf’s ken, ‘tis not a greathorn we grapple with. And if so, we’re in dire need of another plan.”
“Emilie, if I may,” Felicia spoke up. “What if we were to seal off the tunnels? That way we may starve the beast to its death, should we wait long enough.”
Emilie then turned to the rest of us. “Everyone. What think you all?”
“I’d rather we bray its brains in, if I’m honest,” Raakel shrugged.
“Yet these tunnels make an ill host for such a pitched battle, I think. That behemá holds too great an advantage,” Sheila reasoned whilst weaving her mending magicks. “I see much merit in Miss Felicia’s idea. Time may yet be our keenest weapon here.”
“Time?” Gerd cocked his head. “And how many swings this of ‘weapon’ need we endeavour till that bloody bovine bites the dust, eh?”
He’s right. A siege against a host of men this will not be; such a beast can make a fast ally out of time itself.
“The catoblepas—it is ranked highly as a mythofera,” I began explaining. “Accounting for all the odyl it has built up in that body, I’d say it can last several months, at least. And if the fates have fed it well, perhaps a year and more.”
That option’s off the table, then…” Emilie relented. Maintaining a seal upon the mines would require personnel, but with every coin in the operation’s coffers already reserved for some purpose, a siege—months-long at minimum—was a failure in feasibility. “In any case, we’ve succeeded in securing our sole survivor. ‘Tis best we withdraw for the time being. Sheila, how fares Felicia?”
“Well enough. The mending is finished,” the surgien confirmed. “Miss Felicia, are you yet in pain?”
“Nay. I can move now, I think. Thank you.”
It bears another mention here that the mending magicks are generally tasked to closing wounds, stopping blood loss, and recovering a measure of spent stamina, for that is the usual extent of their effects. But to repair bones, like those of Felicia’s broken ribs, in so short a span of time spoke volumes of what an extraordinary healer Sheila was.
“Pray see to Rolf’s wound as well, Sheila, if you can,” Emilie requested.
I shook my head. “Nay, Mareschal. We’ve no time. Let us quit the place before the beast finds us again.”
“Bugger, the thing’s gone off!” Raakel groaned as she squinted at the winze edge above. “It be comin’ after us, ye think?”
“I’ve no doubt,” I confirmed. “The catoblepas is a creature whose spite is as keen as its horns. I’ve read reports of a platoon charged with slaying one of its kin. They were routed and thought to retreat—only, the beast had other ideas. For the next three days and nights, it pursued those men. And now we share in their ill predicament; we’d best assume it’s hot on our tails.”
My words were unwelcome news to all that heard them, for their faces now furrowed with fear. A winding detour to the adit awaited us from the lower levels where we now found ourselves in. With such a long trip ahead of us, it wouldn’t betray reason to assume that the catoblepas would catch up to us at some point.
“Right then. Let’s be off,” commanded Emilie, and at once, we were on our way.
What foul fortune.
I should have realised long before.
To point, it is outlandish to think that a greathorn could mow down four whole squads with such frightening ease. And furthermore, the thought hadn’t even occurred to me that there existed some possibility that our menace might not have been the greathorn it ought to be.
My mind turned to the battle at the Erbelde.
It was only after the river began swelling that I realised some diablerie was at work upon the tributary. Nevermind the fact that the tributary itself was clearly drawn upon a map, so splayed out for us all to see during the war council on the night before.
Am I at fault? Or is it conceited overmuch to even think that I have some say in all of this, mere swain that I am?
That’s not it. Not at all.
I am a party to this operation, an actor within this woeful play. And so long that I am, I share in the responsibility of noticing such fatal details.
The moment my myriad counsels were unheeded by Emilie was the moment I had given up—the moment I convinced myself that my duty was all but done. I deceived myself, dusting off my hands and thinking that the rest should be shouldered by Emilie, mareschal of the 5th as she was.
How mistaken I was.
I would do ‘all that I am able’—were those not my words? Spoken so resolutely to my sister after the war council?
Racked by such thoughts, my eyes turned themselves to Felicia, who, noticing me, parted her lips.
“Oh, B-Brother… I…” she stammered softly. My brows raised quizzically at her. “Th-thank you… for saving me earlier.”
My eyes went back to the way ahead.
“Nay. Let it not trouble you,” I returned, “Lady Felicia.”
She pressed not the exchange any further, falling silent and casting her gaze down sorrowfully. Emilie, seeing this for herself, couldn’t help but share in my sister’s grief.
(Language: Latin; original name: “Shield Breath”) A succouring magick. Accretes together a collection of convective winds, forming a veil that repels projectiles.
(Language: Latin; original name: “Fierce Volt”) A levin-elemental bladespell. The sword is imbued with a shroud of electricity. When swung, a fan of lightning is thrown forth, burning and shocking targets caught within.
(Language: Latin; plural: mythoferae) A cryptid; that is, a creature of legend or myth. A rarity amongst rarities, they are implied to be behemót of the most dangerous sort.
(plural: passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the length of a pace (2 steps). 1 metre is equal to 0.6757 of a passus. A passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half metres.
(Language: Latin; original name: “Gleam Curtain”) A succouring magick. Remotely manifests a luminous paling that shuts down the momentum of incoming attacks.
(Language: Latin; original name: “Lightning”) Levin-elemental battle magick. A spell in the form of lightning strikes, summoned out of thin air. Shocks, cauterises, and potentially electrocutes on impact.