Asher’s short sharp pointed ears shot up at the sounds of footsteps on the stone floor that dominated most of the human castle. Opening his keen yellow eyes, the young warhound’s head slowly lifted in the direction of the approaching noise. It was a heavy set of footsteps of leather and steel clashing against stone, and it was moving toward his master’s study. Hearing the armored footsteps Asher quickly pushed himself up to a standing position, his ears fully perked up, his long black furred tail as still as a stone as he tensely waited for the owners of the armored boots to approach. Carefully listening Asher could distinguish two sets of steps right before their owners appeared into his sight, his strong lean muscles tense and ready to launch him forward at a potential threat to the master. He stood alert as the footsteps and voices got closer. Then they appeared in the doorway! Two armed men dressed in… the apparel of the castle guards. Asher’s heart and tail sank to the floor in unison as the continued reality of his boring role of being a guard Adolwolf in a well defended fortress.
Asher’s body relaxed as he sat down feeling unsatisfied as he watched the two armored guards continue their patrol through the castle. Deep down he knew there was never a threat, but he had suspended reality enough to believe there was a chance of excitement for a few moments. Asher was a proud war adolfwolf of Halosin! He should be out fighting alongside his master against monsters, and saving the kingdom! Pulling down evil men and beasts alike before going for their throats. Instead he was stuck guarding the room his master spent almost all his time lately in reading books or studying random nick naks. He let out a low moan in protest of his currently bland existence, and after a few minutes of sitting there staring at the empty hallway, Asher pushed himself from a sitting position. Master was safe in his room so the black haired Adolwolf decided that walking around the grounds of the castle would be preferable to resting outside his master’s room for endless hours.
Meandering around the familiar fortress of stone, wood and iron, Asher first stopped by the kitchen to attempt to sneak a bite to eat. Coming to the servant’s entrance in the back, Asher looked inside the vast room filled with large black metal ovens, fire spouting countertops and counters where delicious meats and less appetizing plants were chopped. A dozen servants, a mix of cooks and servers, were still cleaning up after the night’s feast or preparing meals for those of lesser status who had to serve during the feast. Asher looked around for a choice slab of meat to sink his fangs into, but could only spot small thin strips of meat that looked more tough than juicy and tender. ‘Why don’t they save a few pieces of choice meat for themselves?’ wondered Asher as he sat there wagging his tail, the memory of the pieces of fine juicy meat that had been slipped to him by his master making his mouth water and making him lose focus.
“Shoo!” announced one of the servants as she waved her greasy, white rag at the Adolwolf. Asher snapped out of his wonderful recollection of a fine meal, and stared at her for a moment before walking away. No second dinner tonight, he knew he was not welcome in the kitchen and while many of the servants seemed to tolerate his presence there, but if one wanted him to leave he had to respect that. Walking through the castle he past by dozens of rooms, but none interested him at that moment, so he had determined he needed some fresh air. He walked out of the well guarded door of the vast central keep and past the half dozen well armed knights that kept watch for any unwanted guests from the castle. Alongside these knights were two of his fellow war Adolwolves, but they were on duty so he decided to not bother the other members of his war pack.
Wandering a dozen yards away from the vast, metal-reinforced-wood gate entrance to the central fortress, Asher took a deep breath in to take in the crisp night air. His ears suddenly perked up as he heard a faint noise above him. The sound of leathery wings disturbing the air made his tail involuntarily begin to sweep back and forth as he looked up. He then spotted his master’s sister’s blight urodia, Talos! Asher could not contain himself as he found himself energetically hopping around as he barked at the tiny dragon, “Blight urodia Talos! What news do you have? You and Miss Master have any new tales?!” Talos got out of the castle far more often than Asher, and, while he was a smaller and far weaker creature, he got to see far more adventures than Asher. He always had stories to tell, and often had valuable information on monsters that Asher could one day face. Talos was more than a welcome sight for the bored Adolwolf!
When one is told to imagine a catacomb, they would envision a realm of the dead. A place, confined underground to the depths of the earth. A series of cramped hallways, lined with the departed forms and the empty shells of what once was. Sacred places, where the souls of the lost may finally rest.
The Catacombs, as Caelum and Celeste called them, are not this type of sacred place. Though still a series of hallways descending into the darkness of the kingdom, this descent branches off into various libraries and storage rooms, containing wealths of knowledge and research, artifacts and concoctions. These spaces are the organs of the Kingdom, supplying the safety and understanding to keep Halosin going. And the Catacombs are it’s brain stem, to keep the flow of information quick.
Caelum crossed the courtyard, late morning light glowing overhead. Ahead of him rose the eastern turret of the castle. The white brick exterior shine in the light, as the Blights above sang out in the calm of the day. A looming wooden door grew larger as Caelum approached, who was rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Ugh…” Caelum groaned, as the turret grew closer. “I guess I didn’t get enough sleep last night.” Caelum reached the door and pulled on the iron handle. As the wooden door creaked open, Caelum looked around the courtyard. Several members of the court were resting beneath a nearby Wethein tree, apparently talking and finishing a later breakfast. Or early lunch? Caelum couldn’t tell, as the food seemed mostly eaten.
Caelum walked in, eyes adjusting to the dimmer light of the inside of the turret. As the door closed behind him, the singing of the Blights faded, silencing once the door sealed behind him. Before Caelum stood a statue of the king, appearing to bless the visitor with a raised hand. It’s marble features appeared untouched by the ravages of time, protected from the elements by the vaulting tower around it.
A pair of stairs lay on either side of the statue. The left spiraling toward the top of the tower, leading to the daylight and the watchtower. Caelum turned and descended down the right stairway, leading down toward the base of the castle, and toward the entrance of the Catacombs.
The slits in the stone allowed the morning air and light to creep into the stairway, slightly blinding Caelum every few steps as his face passed an opening. The stone clicked softly beneath his feet, as he continued his descent lower and lower into the castle.
The journey was short enough, as he reached the main floor of the castle shortly after. However, rather than leaving through the sturdy wooden door at the base, Caelum raised his right hand and pressed it against the stone pillar the stairs spiraled around. The cold stone sat quietly as the palm pressed against them.
“Threshun Halosin Fruin Drast Thrixus” Caelum muttered, closing his eyes as if in prayer. He knew he didn’t need to do this, having uttered the pass phrase for months. But saying the phrase, speaking the language of the ancient people of Halosin, felt like he was honoring their memory. The words he spoke almost sang in his mind as they translated to what he could understand; ‘The Cradle of Halosin shall Thrive Beyond’.
The pillar shook slightly around Caelum’s palm, though the rest of the pillar remained still and unmoving. A ripple in the air emanated from his hand, expanding up his arm and extending to encapsulate his whole unmoving body. Surrounded by an invisible aura, Caelum cleared his mind, and breathed out slowly. Then, he vanished.
Caelum appeared again in a darker space; torch flames danced and flickered against the cool stone blocks, continuing forward in a straight line. Where the stairs were previously stood another stone pillar, reaching into the ceiling above. Caelum smiled to himself - he was in the Catacombs. The system of stone veins beneath the kingdom, built into the cliff as a fortress of knowledge and research. The place he knew his questions would be answered. His and Celeste’s.
Caelum started down the hallway, passing flickering torches and branching corridors as he walked. Down several of these he could hear voices speaking; some reciting passages of ancient tomes, some cataloging relics from a recent excavation. And the occasional complaint and groan as researchers were waiting for results to process, or just taking a well deserved break. Though down many others, silence echoed his footsteps back at him, as the stores artifacts and scrolls could not be heard, or the corridors ended at sealed doorways.
As he walked, Caelum mused over the progress the kingdom had managed, and the power behind the magic within these halls. From the ancient magic used to teleport the King’s trusted researchers into the Catacombs, to the specialized charms and supplies made to help the citizens with crop production, medical concerns, and even entertainment. Gone are the days of lost lives, empty stomachs, and wasteful violence. Truly this is a time of prosperity.
Yet…Caelum couldn’t help but wonder. The excursions Celeste had been going on, the recent raids on the outskirts of the kingdom, and the destruction of the Kindlemage guild. The recent issues appearing as quickly as they supposedly vanished. The King had increased security and issued a proclamation of strict magic restriction, particularly against Inferno elementals. Such discrimination might appear targeted, but when an entire group of skilled warriors is eliminated by their very own weapons…
Caelum shrugged. The King is beloved and his word is law. As long as he is maintaining the peace, he is less occupied keeping an eye on Caelum and Celeste. Though the recent excursions seemed to be the King’s attempt at distracting Celeste. Not like she could be. Caelum smiled at this. No, Celeste could not be so easily distracted.
The flickering stone face continued before Caelum as his soft steps echoed behind him. The slope had begun to descend and twist, leading him to the heart of the cliff. The air was cold as he continued, lost in his thoughts. Thoughts of Celeste, of the King, of his questions of his own soul. Thoughts swirling and branching, like the very tunnels he continued into.
Eventually, a door materialized ahead of Caelum, who had snapped out of it and looked to his right. A plaque, set into the stone and with two torches around it, read ‘The Vault’ in solid, bold letters. Caelum pressed against the wooden door before him, and pushed himself into the room.
The Bestiary of Halosin describes the species of creature commonly referred to as Atterbanes as “*Multi-limbed insectoid beings with numerous rows of teeth, highly muscular abdomen, and the ability to create and weave a highly adhesive thread-like substance from the ends of their limbs. Many species exist, and at various sizes, and there are stories of Atterbane with what can be described as an acidic and corrosive touch.*”
Celeste never worried about the strength of such creatures, nor the size or potential lethality of their secretions. After traveling this world for years with her brother, and of course her best friend Talos, both the common and deadly varieties were little more than a swing of a sword away from the ground. The worst were the more armored varieties, though this south she did not expect to see anything harder than the Dawn.
No. Celeste was not worried about nearly any aspect of these creatures. Except for the webs themselves. Such thin, glistening threads, the ghostly strings of a marionette that seem to appear in an instant, always managed to find Celeste and stick to her.
As the ruins grew larger before her and the rest of the group, the shine from Cressedea reflected off of the morning dew captured by the surrounding webbing. A light breeze swept from the area toward the group. Celeste shuddered - the webs seemed to be reaching toward her, their loosed ends appearing to grasp at her, hoping to connect and bind to her and never let go. Talos flew closer to her, letting out a low growl as he sensed Celeste’s fear.
“So these are the Ruins of Zerran.” Celeste stopped her Stralon and looked toward the ruined site. Behind her, the sound of heavy hooves stomping to a halt seemed to echo off of the cold, unchanging stone walls. The Shields looked around as she dropped off of her Stralon. She stroked its bristled mane as she walked forward, other hand wrapped tightly around the Dawn. She was aware of the mission, and aware of what made so much webbing.
“Yes, mame.” Ballunn was the first to speak as he descended from his mount. Ballunn approached Celeste, his steps against the loose stone were heavier than hers, seeming to echo across the area and fill the once quiet landscape with a light tap, tap. As he walked, Celeste noted the eeriness of the quiet buildings, noticing that not even a Blight could be heard in the nearby trees.
Ballunn was next to Celeste now, holding a map of the area. The paper appeared somewhat fresh, as if recently prepared by the Researchers in the Catacombs, which Celeste expected was true. New ruins and sites were constantly discovered across the kingdom, and the notes and original map from the Krows, the King’s Surveillance s squadron, were probably collected, analyzed, and condensed into the paper now being handed from Ballunn to her. As she shifted her gaze to its surface, her eyes were drawn immediately to the north arrow in the corner. A piercing dart pointed ahead of her, toward the spire in the distance. Wrapped around it was a Dracloud sketch, with wings spread and a trail of smoke wrapping symmetrically in the opposite direction. In the heart of the arrowhead was a large N, and below that, a tiny “C.T.”. She grinned at this - only Caelum would design a Talos-like guardian on a map, and then sign it with her and Talos’ initials. Thank you brother, Celeste thought as she finished scanning the map.
She pointed to a location on the map, appearing to be in the direction of the spire. “Is this where the Atterbanes were last seen?” She considered the facts of the mission, and it made the most sense. Atterbanes are notorious for building nests in high structures, using the altitude to extend their webbing to a larger area below. Surely the spire, being the highest point in Zerran, would be the optimal place for their nest.
A voice behind her spoke up, as it approached. “Actually, further into the ruins.” Celeste turned her head to see another Shield. Helphiss, was it? She knew this Shield is the Information Officer assigned to the group, who assisted the Researchers in gathering the reports and information for the mission. “And apparently not from any of the surrounding buildings.”
Celeste raised an eyebrow at this. Atterbane were known to populate all sorts of tight quarters, using the smaller spaces as areas of ambush and feeding. “So if not in the buildings, where?”
The Shield, who Celeste correctly remembered as Helphiss, touched the northwestern section of the map. Her finger, covered in a leather glove, pressed the paper softly, causing the surrounding ink building to fall into the open area. “According to the reports, travelers witnessed creatures and spirits entering this area here. The scouts reported that those was where a pond once stood, before being drained decades ago by a clan of Infernomancers”.
“Not a surprise.” Ballunn shrugged, reaching for his waterskin and taking a swig. Some water trickled down his armored chest as he drank from it. “These ruins have been abandoned for centuries. Perfect for practicing Charms away from the watching eyes of the Kingdom.”
This also didn’t surprise Celeste. This was how she and her brother practiced back in the day. Her father was known for his scouting capabilities, said to have had the eyes of a trained Blight and be able to spot points of magical interest from miles away. And when a spot was found, he brought the twins to them to train and discover what the spots may be hiding.
The thought of those days brought a smile to her face. Not one of joy, like how the doodle on the map did. But one of sorrow, as she remembered those more simple days. Before that one day. Before she returned with supplies from that fisherman’s village. Before their family splintered.
She looked up and pointed forward, toward the spire overlooking the ruins. It’s dark black facade seemed unnatural in the daylight, as if to oppose Cressedea’s blessings of warmth and light by remaining a looming shadow. “This tower here, the…” she glanced at the note on the map, “Watchtower of Zerran. Were there any reports on Atterbane activity from here?”
Helphiss looked up and then at Celeste. “None actually.”
“Are you sure?” Celeste never heard of an Atterbane who didn’t gravitate toward higher points in an area.
“See for yourself.” Helphiss extended a hand and pointed at a strand of web sticking to a nearby structure. “It looks like the webbing extends to many of the lower structures, but beyond that, does not extend to the higher ones. And.” Helphiss closed her eyes and uttered a Charm of Sight. When she opened her eyes again, the green of her eyes was replaced with a glinting silver, pointed toward the looming tower. “Particularly not from the Watchtower.”
Celeste looked up and squinted. Unlike her Shield companions, her eyesight was strong enough to not need a Charm to see clearly. And she looked in shock as she confirmed Helphiss’ observations - the webbing in the area did extend in mass from the lower structures and the surrounding ground, but thinned as the ruins extended toward the sky. And the Watchtower…that obsidian blade piercing the blue sky, stood untouched by the wisps of thread, no ghostly hands wrapping their sticky fingers to choke the outside of the tower. As if the threads dared not mar such a sacred spot.
“So the reports were from the pond?” Celeste reached behind her and pulled a copper colored dagger from its sheath. As the rest of the Shield stood and watched her, she cut at the webbing near them and let it fall to the ground. She reached out and grabbed the reins of her Stralon, and walked it over to the now cleared stone. She tied the creature carefully to the edifice, and turned to face the Shields with her. “So let’s make base camp here, and check the pond area.”
The rest of the Shield nodded, and began unpacking their Stralons and setting up a safe perimeter. Celeste smiled at this and turned back toward the Watchtower. The dark form continued to loom over them, as if disapproving of their intrusion. The smile faded as Celeste continued to stare ahead. As she stared, she closed her eyes and listened. The echos of the Shields unpacking faded away, as she focused toward the rest of Zerran before them. The quiet seemed to permeate the air, being carried gently by the light breeze continuing through the ruins.
Celeste opened her eyes as she felt Talos land on her arm with a light thud. She looked at him and saw him looking at her, concern on his tiny face. She gave him a light pet, and could feel his worry escaping from his face. “Me too, Talos. Something doesn’t feel right…”.
Celeste turned around to help in the unpacking, as Cressedea continued it’s arch through the clear blue sky.
As Cressedea lowered itself through the blue sky, the Shields completed setting up their camp and now stood at the foot of the pond. What was left of the pond, of course. Since the evaporation years ago, the barren bowl, nearly 30 meters in diameter, lay under Cressedea’s watchful eye, shimmering in the light from the thousands of threads scattered around the base. And, like the veins of some unholy creature, the threads seems to branch from the center of this depression, falling back to the earth through what appeared to be a hole in the center.
Celeste raised a hand to her forehead to block the daylight to get a better view. She could see Ballunn slashing at the webbing, with Talos flying behind and burning any loose webbing, the two clearing a path into the pond area. Beside her, Helphiss stared down at a map she was drafting, sketching pathways and notes on their current observations. Celeste couldn’t help but admire such attention to detail; it was a trait that Caelum has, and one that she couldn’t seem to properly grasp herself.
Behind her, Shren and Bree, the two remaining Shields and twins, observed the edges of the area, following the webbing as it stretched beyond the pond and throughout the ruins. The gentle breeze from earlier that day seemed to follow the group, as both hair and threads seemed to flutter and flow in its grasp, toward the center of the pond.
It was Bree who spoke first, taking a step toward Celeste and the pond. “Miss, I think there is something magical here.” Her voice, pitched with a light accent, seemed to be hiding a hint of embarrassment. Which isn’t out of the question, thought Celeste. Surely anyone suggesting such a thing in a world full of magic would expect a sarcastic response.
But Celeste understood her and nodded. “I noticed something was off when we arrived. The webbing is focusing on the lower levels of the buildings, and the reports”, Celeste turned toward the Watchtower and squinted in the light, “seemed to indicate the Atterbane are not only avoiding the structures themselves, but particularly the Watchtower. The ideal place for an Atterbane nest.”
Bree nodded and pointed a finger toward the webbing. “It was the wind that is off to me. Watch this.” She reached over a plucked a strand of her brothers hair. The crimson strand waved gently in the breeze, as Shren, surprised by the sudden attack, stepped back and let out an annoyed “Hey!”. Celeste hid a smile at this act of sibling affection. Bree shushed him, then turned toward the center of the pond.
Bree let the strand go into the breeze. The red hair, like a fiery dragon, swirled about and drifted toward the center of the pond, floating above a strand of web as if following it. As it vanished from sight, Bree looked back at Celeste. “The nearby leaves seem to direct toward the middle, as do the loose strands of webbing. Almost as if this pond is the focal point of the phenomenon.”
Celeste nodded again, and shifted her gaze toward Ballunn and Talos. They made good progress down the slope, though she could see Ballunn, unable to fly above the webbing, was covered with the loose fragments of the cut threads. “The fact the Atterbane, creatures of the forests, would be nesting under the ground…”. She paused to consider. What could cause these creatures to act so oddly. And furthermore…
“Helphiss, have you noticed any Atterbane remains? Like bodies of themselves or their prey?” Celeste had walked ahead of the group as the traveled through the ruins to the pond, and only saw the shining threads sticking to the cold stone surface, as the Watchtower looked above them. But with this much threading, surely skeletons of the victims, drained of their life, would be present. Instead, the only objects of death visible were the lifeless stones of what once was Zerran.
“No, and further more.” Helphiss looked up and pointed back toward the camp. “Since we came in, I’ve noticed the lack of anything organic. Well, anything but these webs.”
Celeste considered this and realized Helphiss was right; since leaving the path and entering Zerran, no surface held mold, no crevices hid flowers and fungi, and no colors seemed to exist except the grays and browns of the stones, and the white of the webs. “Any idea what that means?”
Helphiss shook her head. “This could mean two things.” She turned again toward the pond, looking down at the center, at the hole and retreating threads. “One, there’s a clan of Shadowkin in the area, using the remains for their charms and the Atterbane as puppets.”
This thought seemed to simple to Celeste. Shadowkin, the common term used to describe those in Halosin affiliated with the Shadow element, were often viewed in a negative, necromantic light. Of course many Shadowkin do practice their skills with the remains of the deceased, but Celeste knew many Shadowkin in the kingdom, including Shren himself, and knew such a stereotype couldn’t be the answer.
Shren must’ve thought this as well, as he chimed in with a laugh. “Oh, creepy crawlers and an ominous lack of bodies? Must be a Shadowkin.” He raised his arms over his head and uttered a wavering “Oooooh”. Bree punched her brothers shoulder, causing Shren to turn around and start “Oooooh”-ing toward her. As he approached, Shren grabbed a handful of webbing, and threw it at his sister. The sticky mess flew toward the armored leggings, but seemed to separate in the breeze and gently glide away, back toward the pond.
Helphiss sighed as the two fought, and turned back to Celeste. “Or two, there is something unnatural about the only structure not covered in Atterbane web.” At this, she pointed behind Celeste toward the Watchtower. “How this much webbing could exist and a structure is not covered….”.
Celeste had considered this, but it also felt like an obvious answer. The dark foreboding tower, cold and looming overhead? That was as cliche as it could be. Still, the distance from the pond would explain why the Atterbane had retreated, and why they webbing was not approaching the tower. Still…
Celeste’s thoughts were interrupted by a gruff voice behind her. “Whatever the case may be,” Ballunn yelled up as he raised his web coated blade above his head, “the mission is to discover the source of the Atterbane’s and eliminate the threat to the trade in these parts.” From above his head, Talos let out a small burst of flame, erupting the outstretched blade in embers as it cleansed the webbing off.
Shren smiled and put an arm around Helphiss. “He’s right, as usual.” Helphiss, blushing slightly, rolled her eyes in agreement. Though Celeste only recently met these Shield members, she understood the sarcasm toward Ballunn, and the affection between Shren and Helphiss. She did feel some loneliness, knowing she could never truly connect to her squad mates in such a meaningful manner, but this washed away as she heard Talos overhead, spiraling playfully around the now smoking sword.
Celeste, smiling lightly at Talos, stepped forward onto the cleared path by Ballunn and Talos. “Let’s clear out the nest first, and then we can investigate further. If this is Shadowkin activity, removing the Atterbane means removing a present threat.” This thought seemed reasonable to Celeste, and seemed to be reasonable to the rest of the Shields, who nodded and filed into a line behind Celeste. As the group descended into the pond to meet with Ballunn, the gentle breeze seemed to carry them forward, as if they were like the threads around them. Descending toward the dry and lonely drain of Zerran.
Written by Christopher Rentko