Terrible Stranger

By Drunken Fist

I tried to stop the evil from spreading. You must believe that.

I try to tell Duncan, to make him understand, but I can barely form any words with my battered lips. He is speaking to me, but I cannot make out his words. I try once more to warn my old friend of the horrible threat looming over the kingdom, but my smashed and bloody lips seem to move with a will of their own. At long last, I give in to despair. What good could it do, even if I told him everything? I have witnessed such horrors these past days as I never dreamed existed, and have lost all hope that it can be defeated. The kingdom is doomed. Eternia will fall. Of that, I am certain.

When we met the stranger, he seemed harmless enough. A tall, pale-skinned man, with jet black hair, clad in a dark robe with a crimson sash. It is unusual to pass a lone traveler along that road after dark, but we 5 weary soldiers were only concerned with the ale we would be drinking when we reached town, and thought of little else. I began to mutter a cursory greeting to the stranger, but the words halted dead on my tongue when I saw his eyes. Dark, lifeless things they were, cold as the pits of the nether regions, filled with an abysmal contempt. His manner as he addressed us was coldly cordial, but nothing could take my mind off of what I had glimpsed in the stranger’s eyes.

“You are soldiers in the service of Randor,” the stranger said. “I have been waiting for you."

“Have you, now?” I asked him, a bit embarrassed at my own unease. “And just how did you know we were going to be along? We’re on leave, and no man apart from the five of us knew whither we were bound.”

“Nevertheless,” the stranger said, “I have been waiting for you.”

This man’s arrogance was beginning to get to me, I must admit.

“Well,” said I, “ you can just keep on waiting, as we have business in yonder village, and it doesn’t concern black-eyed strangers who delay tired old soldiers on the side of the road. Fare thee well!” With that, I started forward, and motioned my men to do the same.

Now, I’ve been soldiering under Randor since the Great Unrest, and I’ve seen plenty of combat, but I never did see anyone move as fast as that man did right then. Before I knew he was moving, he’d cut down Porthas where he stood, without any weapon at all. That did it. I drew my sword, and by all the Elders, that blow should’ve killed him instantly, but the fiend stepped aside faster than my eyes could follow, and before I drew my next breath, he was right in front of me. Next I knew, his hand was wrapped around my throat like a vise, and he was holding me half my height off the ground, and his touch was a burning cold; it chilled me right to the bone. My men were quick to react, but some dark shapes sprang out of the shadows and pulled them down. I heard their screams for a few moments, then all was quiet as the grave.

I was wheezing by that time, and the stranger seemed to be enjoying himself as he watched the dark things do their work. Then he turned his gaze back to me, and when those awful, cold, dead eyes bored into mine, I swear, I could feel my very soul begin to whither. I’ve been on many a battlefield, and brushed shoulders with death more than a few times, and I’ve rarely felt true fear. But in that moment, I would have been blubbering like a newborn babe, if only I could have caught my breath.

“And so we stand revealed for what we truly are,” the stranger said. “You five for the violent louts you are, and I as– well, suffice to say, I am your new master. I won’t lie to you; your life will be a study in abject suffering and misery from this night forth, but serve me well, and your agony will not be quite as unbearable as it could be. My, you are strong; you’re taking much longer to pass out than I anticipated.” It was at that moment that I realized that the stranger wasn’t breathing, and that he hadn’t been from the moment we first saw him, and it was too much for me to bear. I tried to scream in terror, but I still had no air, and after a few moments more, the world went black.

When I awoke, I was lying in what appeared to be a cave, but there was very little light, so I couldn’t tell how large it was. The darkness seemed tangible and malevolent, and I was afraid to even turn my head to try and look around. When I finally mustered up the courage, I found that my head, like the rest of my body, was fixed in place. The encounter with the terrible stranger flooded back into my mind, and I nearly cried out in grief and fear. It was monstrous the way the stranger had slaughtered my men, and how he had coldly watched while I struggled for air in his unbreakable grip. My mind raced, going back over all my years of training, but nothing in my experience had prepared me for anything like this. I was helpless, completely helpless, and completely doomed as well.

The shadows seemed to press closer, and I began to feel that they would smother me. Thicker and thicker the shadows grew, and the silence became deafening. When it seemed I would go mad from this new ordeal, a sharp voice broke the silence.

“Awake at last, I see.” The stranger walked into view beside me. “But how rude of me! I’ll have one of my servants attend to you. You’ll have to excuse him if he seems a bit clumsy; he is new here, after all.”

With those words, a man strode into view. I say a man, but it wasn’t quite a man any longer. Its movements were stiff and a bit awkward, it’s unseeing eyes rolling back in its head, with a dark red gash across its throat. Staring in disbelief, I realized this monstrosity was Porthas, my friend, who was struck down by the stranger! My mind reeled in horror, and I screamed uncontrollably. I screamed until my throat was raw, and it seemed that all I had ever done since the dawn of time was scream in terror. At last, in the throes of exhaustion, I was taken again by the merciful blackness.

When I awoke again, I was in the same cave, or so it appeared. I was still bound, but I now stood upright. There was even less light than before, and I could barely see a hand’s breadth in front of my face. Gradually, I realized that I was not alone. I heard faint skittering and clicking noises, and I could feel the fear growing within me again. For I had felt the touch of something unknown on the bare skin of my left foot. And whatever it was, it was working its way up my leg!

I mustered all of my remaining will, determined not to give my captor the satisfaction of hearing me scream again. I felt what seemed to be large, insectoid legs moving across my knee, and cold sweat was running down my body. My body trembled, my mind raced feverishly, trying to find something, anything else to focus on, to try and take my mind away from this new horror. It was crossing my waistline now. I closed my eyes in terror. Yet, my curiosity was at least as great as my fear, and I could not resist opening my eyes after a few moments had passed. Oh, that I had left them closed forever! For, at the very moment I opened my eyes, the light in the chamber grew, and I saw in full detail the abomination that was working its way up my body! Latched onto my chest, it looked up at me, it’s large, misshapen head an unholy amalgam of the faces of my other three comrades, who were taken by the black shapes at the stranger’s command! And its “legs” were the very bones of their hands, with a network of exposed muscle connecting them, granting them the strength to move! As one, their mouths opened, and they uttered a pitiful and blood-curdling wail that was never meant for the ears of a mere mortal! I had summoned my will to resist my terror, but my resolve melted instantly in the face of this abhorrent creature. I tried desperately to scream, to vent the unrelenting horror and anguish that burst forth from my soul, but my throat was still too raw from my previous ordeal. The only sound that came forth was a harsh, grating rattle. I closed my eyes tightly, and every fiber of my being was focused on keeping them shut, no matter what the cost. It wasn’t long before unconsciousness overcame me again.

When next I awoke, I was too afraid to open my eyes, for I knew another inconceivable horror would be unleashed upon me as soon as my captor knew I had awakened. Instead, I let my head continue to hang limply, and I listened. After a few moments, I could make out two voices conversing softly, some small distance away. I could only make out portions of their conversation, but what I heard shook me to my very core. I recognized the voice of the stranger, my cold-blooded captor, and the other voice was deep and resonant, its very tone exuding authority. It was the voice of a leader of men. They kept referring to a “subject,” and I came to realize they were referring to me. For whatever reason, it seemed that these men had turned their attention to the kingdom of Eternia, and the stranger had sought out high-ranking members of the king’s army to test their mettle, more or less. Apparently, I was only one of several who had been abducted. The stranger seemed content to use this as an excuse to carry out his detestable experiments. While my mind contemplated the implications of these words, I stopped my eavesdropping. Thus, it surprised me completely when I heard the deep voice right in front of me! I felt my head being lifted upright, and that resonant voice commanded me: “Open your eyes, Dathron of the royal army!”

I felt compelled to obey. The man standing before me was not unnatural like the stranger, but his appearance filled me with a great dread nonetheless. Because of the limited light, I could only see him from the chest up, but I could tell that he was very large, and covered in armor. The armor itself was a marvel, and would shame the Man-at-Arms himself. His head was covered by a red helmet, which had an odd black symbol emblazoned on the left side. Even seeing so little of the man, he possessed a terrible regality, and I found myself fearing him even more than the stranger.

“You have suffered much, Dathron,” he said, “and I would have your suffering end now. Yet, my ally,” he gestured to the stranger, “would have you serve his needs one final time. He is so useful to me that I find it difficult to deny his wish. Therefore, you will run a gauntlet, and this will give you your one hope for escape. There will be a clearly-marked path leading out of this network of caves. If you make your way outside, you will be allowed to leave. Otherwise...” The implication was clear. I scarcely dared to imagine what might await me on the path leading to freedom, but it was my only choice. The alternative was spending what little life I had left being gradually destroyed by the stranger’s experiments. I managed to nod my agreement to the terms.

Some unseen creature released my bindings from behind the slab on which I lay, and I fell to the floor. The armored man surprised me by helping me to my feet.

“Understand this remarkable opportunity you have been given,” he said. “You have displayed more courage and mental fortitude than expected. Thus, I have decided to grant you this chance to win your freedom. If you make it back to Randor, tell him what you have experienced here. This is only a glimpse of what we will unleash on his kingdom. Nothing can prepare him for the storm that is to come. Go now, and fight well.”

With that, he handed me my sword, and waited motionlessly for me to begin. Trembling with fear and anticipation, I turned toward the only visible tunnel in the chamber. The lights led down that tunnel, so it was obviously the path leading out... to freedom.

For what seemed an eternity, nothing happened. There was just enough light for me to see which way to walk, but darkness was thick all around me. I heard small, indecipherable noises, but I kept walking. My every sense was on edge; exhausted though I was, every reserve I had was now driving me toward freedom. The chance for escape had rejuvenated me, and I felt I was ready to meet nearly any attack.

But when it came, I found out how wrong I was.

Porthas suddenly appeared, blocking the path. His mouth worked slowly, as if he was trying to form words, but his ruined throat was not capable of speech. Whatever he was trying to say, his intent was clear. He lurched toward me, swinging his sword. It was notched and bloodstained, and I shuddered to think to what use it had been put in the past few days. I met his attack, and though it pained me to fight my friend and colleague, it was necessary to win my freedom. With tears rolling down my cheeks, I parried his blows, and finally managed to behead him, and he toppled. His body continued to writhe like a serpent, trying to rise and continue its attack, but unable to do so without its head. My skin crawling, I hurried forward.

So intent was I on covering the distance as quickly as possible, the next attack caught me completely off-guard. The three-faced abomination suddenly sprang out of nowhere, knocking me to the floor. Scrambling to recover my sword, I felt the creature crawling up my back. Its “legs” tore my flesh wherever they touched, and I gritted my teeth in pain as I felt for my sword in the darkness. As my hand closed on the hilt, the creature was shredding the flesh of my back, uttering its unholy moan all the while. I tore the thing from my back, hurling it to the floor. It skittered toward my leg, and I thrust downward with my sword as I leaped backward. The creature split in two, and I ran past the remains to avoid seeing what became of them. I heard the loathsome howls of other creatures now, growing ever closer. I ran, heedless of all, seeking only the final turn that would reveal the exit to the tunnel. My lungs burning, sweat rolling down my skin, I raced for freedom. Suddenly, something large moved in the tunnel up ahead, and the way was blocked. I stopped abruptly, and waited, my sword at the ready. I could hear the sound of rushing water somewhere nearby. The howls were now farther away, as if the creatures had drawn back. Whatever was in front of me was coming closer, and it seemed the other creatures feared to go near it.

A stench began to grow, faint at first, then ever stronger, as the Thing drew closer. I trembled, but the only other option I had was to go back, and that was out of the question. So I waited, numb with terror. The creature seemed only mildly interested in me, and shuffled past me in the darkness, toward the sound of the rushing water. I only glimpsed a small part of it as it shambled past, and I won’t even try to recall what it looked like. What I saw scarred my very soul, and as I tried to comprehend the impossible construction of the Thing, my mind began to reel. I felt I would go insane if I looked any longer, yet I could not turn away. It held my attention, and it was only when the Thing had vanished into the shadows that I was able to continue onward.

It wasn’t long until I glimpsed daylight, and I rushed madly toward it. As I burst into the sunlight, I ran even faster than before, so convinced was I that some unseen horror would pull me back into the tunnel, unwilling to let me leave that subterranean nightmare. I recall nothing else of my flight, only running until I dropped from exhaustion. Whenever I awoke, I simply ran until I dropped again. Some instinct must have guided me back to my home, for I haven’t the slightest idea where that awful cave was.

Now, my mind dredging up all those appalling memories, I lie here, even more miserable than I was when I was trapped in that terrible cave. After all I endured, I have failed now, at my very doorstep. I lay dying, my body in such a ruin that I am unable to warn my friend of the unholy doom that will soon come down on them all. I know, now, that all our fighting has been in vain. With such evil in the world, how can even Eternia’s mighty heroes triumph? On dozens of battlefields, I faced my own death without fear, but now, after all the horrors I’ve seen, I am terrified of what awaits me when I die. I feel my life slipping from me even now, my consciousness fading... by the Elders... I am so sorry... forgive me...