The tavern room was dark, and shrouded in dust. The candles on the table were melted to nothing, but a dull red light suffused the whole chamber. Jonn shivered in the still, numbing air, and looked up to see that the ceiling was gone. A blazing red moon hung low in the sky, cutting through the thick clouds. Quickly he wrenched his gaze away and took a seat at the table.
His companions were all there, wrapped in cloaks and hoods. They said nothing. Sir Garath reached out to take hold of a goblet on the table before him. His hand was gaunt, the skin rotted and peeling. He raised the goblet and smiled from the depths of his hood with tattered lips. The others reached forward and took goblets as well, all with hands that were near-fleshless. They raised them in the air, and turned their heads towards Jonn expectantly.
Jonn reached his hand forward toward his own goblet, and was relieved to see that his own hands were normal. The goblet was gold, and the liquid inside was black and smelled of fresh-tilled earth. His hand brushed the goblet, and suddenly his skin started to turn green and peel away. He jerked it back, and nursed it under his arm. The others waited, their goblets still raised. Jonn stood up from his chair, but none of them reacted.
There was a creaking noise behind him. Jonn turned, but there was nothing there. He turned again, and the table was gone, along with his companions. Instead there was a woman in a rocking chair, creaking as she rocked back and forth. It was his mother, looking almost as skeletal as his companions, yet not at all different to how she had been three years ago, when he had seen her last. Her hair hung in matted strands around her face, and she seemed shrivelled and frayed at the edges. Her mouth worked soundlessly, and her red-rimmed eyes wept constantly. Only her hand showed any sign of life, with its white-knuckled grip on an ivory pendant.
"Mother," he croaked. "It’s not you... I didn’t come looking for you."
She continued rocking, her head lolling drunkenly on her shoulders. Jonn stepped forward and grabbed her by the shoulders. Her skin felt fiercely hot beneath his fingers, but her body flopped lifelessly as he shook her.
"I’m looking for father," he said. "Where is he? Where has he gone?"
Her eyes met his, watery and shot with blood, but now alight with grit and hellfire. "He’s gone below," she said with a voice like splintering bone. "He’s gone below, where light and warmth and love go not. He’s gone below, and he'll never return."
At the sound of her voice Jonn recoiled, sending the rocking chair crashing to the dusty floor. His mother sprawled on the stones, arms and legs twisted awkwardly. She did not move, but her voice echoed all around, louder and louder.
"He’s gone below. He’s gone below. He’s gone below."
An inhuman cry wrenched from Jonn’s throat, and he pushed the door of the chamber open and ran out into the cool night air. He was on a trail in a twisted forest. The blazing red moon still hung in the sky.
The words of his mother still echoed in his ears. He fled further down the trail, hoping he could leave them behind, breaking from a stumbling walk into a run. His boots scraped loudly in the dirt, and he convinced himself that he could no longer hear her words, but then another familiar sound came to him. Metal crashed on metal, and men bellowed in pain and rage. A sword appeared in Jonn’s hand, and he charged from the path towards the din of battle.
White snow flecked with red crunched beneath his feet. Through the trees was a vast, icy plain, where the soldiers of Tyrest, numbering in their thousands, did battle with brawny northmen. The northmen fought with abandon, many with a smile or a song on their lips, or a crazed inhuman laugh. The men of Tyrest were hesitant and fearful, but they held their formations and pressed grimly forward behind a wall of shields. Men died on both sides – short, brutal, bloody deaths – but still they fought on.
Then he saw her, hunched on her chair in the middle of the battle. She paid it no heed, and the charging northmen ignored her as well. She opened her mouth to speak, and even over the roar of a thousand warriors Jonn could her her.
"He’s not here. He’s gone below."
Again, Jonn turned and ran, back through the trees and over the path. The sounds of battle cut off instantly, and for a moment all was silent. He heard a bell. It sounded familiar, like the old supper bell from his youth. He turned to his right, and saw a yellow expanse of swaying corn, and beyond that the towering eaves of a manor house. He grinned and ran off through the corn stalks, even faster than before.
The corn parted before him and soon he came into full view of the manor. It was just as he remembered: the bluestone walls and slate roof, the old well that he had knocked Graem into while playing at knights, the barn where he had kissed Sera after the midwinter feast. The old gnarled oak, where Sir Garvin had told him about his father.
He stopped, and stared at the tree. He had loved climbing it as a boy, scrambling around its twisted branches and concealing himself within the leaves. There were no leaves now. A cage hung from one of the branches, creaking in the wind. Inside, slumped against the bars was an emaciated figure with skin pulled taut over his skull. He wore the tattered remains of a knight's surcoat, and Jonn thought he could make out the raven of Sir Garvin’s sigil. The knight, too weak to call out, reached an imploring hand to him. Jonn turned away, towards the manor house.
Smoke curled from the chimney, and Jonn could smell roast pork. There was a pie cooling on the window-sill, but there was someone sitting in the room beyond. It was his mother, slumped in her chair, staring into space. She did not move or speak, and seemed not to have noticed Jonn staring in through the window. She just sat, slouched, with mouth agape and eyes watering.
Jonn stood and watched her for a long while. She never moved, not even when one of the servants came in and wiped her chin with a towel, and fed her soup with a spoon. She sat and stared, until the blazing red moon had vanished and the sun started to creep over the horizon.
As dawn approached, Jonn turned his back to the manor house, and made his way past the oak tree and the cage. He walked through the corn, parting it easily with his hands as he went, and eventually he came back to the path. He could see now that it ended in a looming white skull, nestled between jagged black rocks.
He walked slowly forward, up to the edge of the cavern entrance set into the skull mouth. It was dark inside, impenetrable and cold. He took and step forward, and vanished into the darkness.
"I’ll find him, mother," he whispered. "I’ll find him for both of us."
He went below.
His skull ached. He tried to open his eyes, but something had gummed up his eyelashes; the small amount of light that seeped in sent his head spinning. He lay on the floor, eyes closed, until it passed.
He brushed his face with his hand, and felt a sticky smear on his cheeks and mouth. Dull pain throbbed inside his head when he touched it, and his ears were screaming.
"He’s awake." He heard a voice, distant and muffled. "Looks like he’ll need more’n a bit o’ beauty sleep to fix that mess. Orguss, bring the priest, will ya?"
There was a mirthless, grating laugh. "Why should I?"
"It’s your mess, ain’t it? Ah, I’ll send Eracos then."
"Why bother," sighed a doleful voice. "He's going to die eventually. Oh, very well then, I will go. What's the point of arguing?"
Jonn tried to speak, but his voice was just a croak, and the pain was making him sick. It was hard to breathe. That mirthless laugh came again.
"He wants help, does he? He only got what he deserved."
"You think so? He might be a fool, but at least he's a brave fool. Hold on, here’s the priest."
"Stand aside," said Father Beren. "I’ve no room for such louts here now, if you don’t mind. Go and drink or wench or whatever it is you fellows do for stimulation."
There was some grumbling, and the sound of footsteps.
"Alright my boy, can you hear me? Of course you can, it’s not your ears that were broken. Here, I’ll prop your head up. Drink this."
Jonn felt a gentle hand slide under his head and tilt it upwards. A warm mug was touched to his lips, and liquid poured into his mouth and down his chin. He drank feebly. The brew was foul, but better than the thick coppery taste in his mouth before. His nausea subsided, and the pain in his face eased a little as well.
"What happened?" he croaked.
"If you’ll wait a second, you can see for yourself," said Beren. Jonn felt a damp cloth pressed to his face, and flinched away. The priest pressed it there again, this time holding Jonn’s head in place, and washed away the blood in his eyes and around his mouth. When he was done Jonn opened his eyes a fraction, waiting for the blurry light to focus into something he could recognise.
He was still in the chamber where the beast-men had attacked. Bodies lay strewn about everywhere, and the floor was thick with blood and black dust. He could barely turn his head to see, but none of the bodies were those of his companions.
"You could say that they saved us," said the priest, gesturing with a nod of the head in the direction the sellswords had gone. "They certainly saved you."
"That's... not exactly how I remember it..."
"Well, you’re not dead my boy, are you? Just a blow to the head. Our good friend Orguss assured me that it was an accident."
"And you believed him?"
"Never mind that," said Beren. He lifted Jonn’s head again and placed a folded cloak beneath it. "You need to rest for a time. Sir Garath will want to move on soon, I imagine, but you should take as much time to recuperate as you can. I have other patients, I’m afraid."
When Beren started to rise from the floor he grimaced, and Jonn saw the bloodstain on his sleeve. He started to say something, but caught the words in his throat and fell silent. Beren stopped and looked at him with a frown.
"You’re concerned about this?" he said, holding out his wounded arm. "It’s but a little thing. I’ve had worse paper-cuts in the repository."
"I shouldn’t be," said Jonn, turning his head away. "I shouldn’t be concerned about you at all."
"I think I understand you, Jonn. You and I should have a talk, when you are ready. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check up on our northern friend. The way he’s been moaning about his minor abrasions you’d think he’d had his arms cut off."
The priest shuffled away and Jonn let his head rest back on the cloak and squeezed his eyes shut. Why didn't I flee? Why wasn't I afraid? I must be mad.
The thoughts circled around in his head, chased by pain and the ebb and flow of nausea, but eventually he fell into unconsciousness. He did not dream.
When he awoke his head still throbbed, but the nausea had subsided. There was a weird shrieking sound in his head. The mug that Beren had given him earlier rested next to him, full of steaming liquid. Jonn sat up and drained the acrid brew, glad to feel the pain ease, but the noise in his head continued.
"You’re finally awake, lad?" said Sir Garath, who sat beside him eating a trail biscuit. "Get on your feet and we can get out of here."
"Sorry, I..." Jonn faltered as he spoke. "I’ll gather my things, and we can..."
"What things?" said the knight. "The arms and armour of a soldier? Brave men are well and good, but I would take discipline over bravery on any day. I've a mind to send you home."
Jonn blinked. "You can't."
"I might, if I didn’t think you likely to follow in our wake regardless."
Jonn pushed himself up and grasped his sword-belt in trembling fingers. "Next time I’ll do better," he said.
"You will," said Sir Garath. "Or you’ll die. Up. We move within the hour."
Jonn held his temples and shook his head. The shrieking continued in the back of his head, just loud enough that he could not ignore it. He took a few deep breaths; the air was cold and stale, but it cleared his head a little. Even so, the screaming continued. He opened his eyes and looked around the chamber.
Close to his right was Tharissa, lying on a blanket, her skin clammy with sweat. Father Beren was kneeling beside her, leaning on his staff with a stern frown furrowing his brow. He held a steaming mug in one hand, but she glared at him icily.
"Drink," he said cheerily. "You’ll feel much better."
She turned away and pulled the blanket close to her chest. "Go away," she hissed. "There is no kindness your kind has ever done that could make me feel better."
Beren shrugged his shoulders, and flashed Jonn an exasperated look. He placed the mug on the floor next to her, and left Tharissa curled up in her blanket.
Sir Garath stood a little further on, checking over his arms with his squire. Harin’s face was sour, though little more than usual, but he didn’t appear to have any injuries. Myrio was nearby, practising with her sword. She seemed tense, her strokes less fluid and more aggressive. Saskar sat with his back to the wall, watching her with fascination.
The mercenaries were huddled by the far wall, talking and laughing softly amongst themselves. The sallow-faced knight in his battered armour sat a little apart, drinking from his flask, and the Desert Scorpions sat silently with him. The others were playing a game, tossing a knife back and forth between each other. Captain Dursk dropped the knife with a curse, and Kejakena laughed heartily. Even sad-eyed Eracos smiled wanly. The giant Orguss started to laugh, but then his one eye fixed on Jonn, and he stopped. A grave expression on his face, he inclined his head towards Jonn, as though offering an apology. Then his beard split in an evil, gap-toothed leer, and he went back to the game. Jonn shivered.
Artis and Krago were in the centre of the room. Artis knelt by the large bowl that was full of skulls, and Krago towered over him with arms folded, an exasperated expression on his face. Artis was picking up each skull and shaking it before setting it down on the floor. Eager to put the giant Orguss out of his thoughts, Jonn stumbled over towards them.
"Come lad," said Krago, beckoning. He was smiling, though Jonn thought there was something a little strained about it, like it did not touch the sadness in his eyes. "Artis needs help searching for untold riches."
"I will tell you what I have told my beard-addled friend," said Artis, not bothering to stop in his task. "Every untold fortune begins as a small fortune."
"I’ll give you this," said Krago. "Many a fortune was made over the bones of the dead." He turned to Jonn. "How’s the head lad? That fellow gave you a nasty blow."
"I’ve had worse," said Jonn, though he wasn’t sure that he was telling the truth. He turned his attention to Artis. "What do you expect to find in there?"
"Coins, of course," said Artis as he held an elongated skull to his ear. "Those who follow the Elder Gods often put them under the tongues of the dead. To buy their way into Heaven, supposedly. Something I would much prefer to do in life."
The Elder Gods. Jonn’s mother followed them, even after marrying his father, but he said nothing about it. "You put yourself in a lot of danger out there, scrabbling for a few coins," said Jonn. "Not to mention the rest of us."
Artis looked up from the skull and narrowed his eyes. "It seems you did a fine job of placing yourself in danger on your own."
"Peace," said the barbarian, holding out his hands. "Jonn, what do you make of this?" He held out a scrap of cloth, faded white with black stripes. "Some of the beast-men were wearing rags just like it."
"I’m not sure," said Jonn. "It looks familiar."
"Artis thinks they’re prison clothes."
"I’ve seen the inside of a Tyrest prison more than once," said the thief. "And I was threatened a time or two with being thrown in this hell-pit. Either these creatures ate and killed some Tyrest prisoners, or..."
"This is what the prisoners became," said Krago gravely. "What the Hellwarren made of them. We would do well not to extend our stay too long."
The sick feeling in Jonn’s throat returned. Five years ago his father had disappeared. Even if he lived, who knew what state he would be in by now? How long would it take? The shrieking in his head intensified.
"Can you hear that?" he said. "Can anyone hear it?"
Artis and Krago exchanged troubled looks.
"That screaming, it’s..."
"Don’t ask lad," said Krago, placing a hand on Jonn’s shoulder.
"Wait," said Jonn, shaking the hand away. "Where’s Gam? I haven’t seen him..."
"They took him," said Artis. "After you were knocked out. But he’s not dead. Not yet."
"Didn't anyone try to find him?" said Jonn. "We need--"
"I tried to convince Sir Garath," said Krago. "Myrio backed me up, as did the priest, but no others. Not even my supposed best friend."
Artis grunted. "He seemed a fine lad, but not that fine. We're risking our necks just being here, and I'm not about to seek trouble any further. You know I'm right, Krago. Ah, that boy didn’t belong here anyway."
The screams were everywhere, in his ears, in his head, and nothing he did could shut them out.
And then, suddenly, awfully, they stopped.
"And now he is dead," said Krago. "I fear he will not be the last."