Orren had crossed half the distance to the tent before Berek noticed his companion had left. He saw him throw back the drape covering the entrance and disappear inside. A moment later a naked, hairless man with sunken grey-white skin came hurtling head first from out of the tent. He grunted as he hit the floor. He rolled onto his back and Berek could see blood dripping from his mouth. He raised his hands to shield his face in anticipation of further attack from the assailant.
Orren’s eyes blazed with fury. His pike was still slung at his side, but his shield was covered with spotted blood from where it had been driven against the face of the cave-dweller.
“Orren! This is the demon? Surely this shriveled man is not the one we have feared all this time, the one that has consumed my people’s innocence.” Berek shouted, trying to calm the rage burning inside the shieldbearer. It was a moment before Orren gained his composure and looked up at Berek.
“This is not the demon, but neither is it a man.” Orren replied. He then looked down at the man lying before him. “You know not what I saw in the tent, things no man should see.”
The being on the ground began to laugh, deep choking cackles that gargled blood.
“If you did not wish to see then why did you come you fools? What did you think happened to the ones left as gifts for my master? I am simply the servant. I deliver the parts that he requires, the rest…”
Before he could finish Orren slammed the base of his shield against the man’s chest, knocking the wind from him. The grotesque man spit out a mouthful of blood and looked up again, laughing.
“What can I say? A man must eat.”
Orren drew his pike and in one swift movement drove the blade through the neck of the monster that lay before him. Berek stood staring at the bloody scene, then fell to his knees. He looked around at the cave. This was a tomb. The sins of his people laid bare before him like some hellish monument, his sins.
Orren turned and faced the frozen lake and spoke. “There will be time for mourning later. We must finish the task at hand.I need your help with this body.”
Berek stood. “What are we to do with it?”
“We’re going to fish.”
The two men picked up the naked corpse, one holding the head and the other the feet, and carried it over to the shore of the subterranean lake. The body had already begun to decompose. Foul powers had kept it alive, had prevented its aging during its unnatural existence. They were needed no more. They swung the body like a sack of grain and launched into onto the icy surface of the water. It landed with a sickening thud, but did not break the ice.
“Now what?” Berek said, dipping his hands into the icy water to wash the stink of the corpse away.
“Now we prepare.” Orren removed his shield from his back and held it out. “Take this. When it arrives you must protect me until the rite is completed.”
Berek hesitated, “Why don’t we just stab it to death? That usually works.”
“It will not work…not for this. You must trust me. Please, take the shield.”
Berek reached out and took the shield. He was startled at the lightness of it. It became like a natural extension of his arm. There was no struggle in his grip, swinging it around in different defensive positions was effortless. Berek was not one to use shields but this…this was different. There was power here.
“Ready yourself. It is time” Orren said, pointing his pike out across the frozen lake. A great shadow began to grow beneath the ice. It was larger than any beast Berek had ever seen, larger even than the great horned beasts from the scorching plains of the southlands. Orren walked down a few steps from the edge of the water and drove the end of his extended pike into the rocks until it stood on its own. Then he knelt behind it. Berek looked at him for a moment and then turned to the coming shadow. He drew his blade and held up the shield. Then he laughed.
“We’re gonna die.”
The ice cracked beneath the rotting corpse and two black tendrils the size of tree trunks broke through. Each tendril was covered in a sheen of glowing mucus. The black appendages arced and bobbed around the corpse like a snake about to strike, then they shot down and coiled around the body pulling it beneath the surface.
All was silent for a moment, then a great roar rang out from below the ice shaking the walls of the cave. The tendrils shot back to the surface still holding the now dismembered corpse. They arced back before hurtling the pieces in Berek’s direction. He was able to dodge the flying torso at the last moment but was not prepared for the second volley. A pair of legs struck him in the side and sent him bowling over. He landed on his back not far from where Orren still knelt.
“I guess it doesn’t like the taste of old rotting man.” He called over to Orren. It hurt when he spoke, probably due to a broken rib, or two, or three. Orren gave no response. Berek winced and got back on his feet. He looked down at his companion, lips moving and eyes closed, hands clasping his pike driven into the ground.
Another roar erupted from the lake and the whole surface heaved upward. The ice broke into massive chunks and splashed down around the gigantic shape rising from the waters. It was matter without form, an ever shifting mass of congealed night. On the surface of the shapeless behemoth were thousands of small human eyes. They were different colors and shapes, each one blinking independently.
Berek gaped in horror at the madness before him, the existence of which was more than his mind could comprehend. It bore no resemblance to anything in this dimension for it was an affront to creation, a demoniacal mockery of all that is good and true. His grasp on reality begin to slip; then he looked down and saw the shield. He felt the cold steel of his blade in his hand, remembered the one waiting for him.
There are worse fates than death. It was the cowardice of my forefathers that allowed this curse…this plague. If my life is the price for defiance of that horror…then so be it.
Berek ran to the shore slamming his sword against his shield. He stood with his arms outstretched at the water’s edge and let forth a primal howl of fury. All of the beast’s thousand eyes focused on the challenger, and then it lurched toward the shore.