The Last Laugh
by Zirilian in Dark Ages
Kaieve and I were best friends. Ever since we'd first met, after receiving the spark, we were inseparable. We'd bound through the grassy fields, fantasizing of what we'd do when we had more insight. In our games we'd slay monsters, even the biggest of them would cower at the sight of us.
On some days we'd lie in the grass, staring at the clouds and imagining great beasts. The white puffs would become Succubus and Kraken, the stouter ones Dwarves and the largest of them Dracos. And of course, in our minds we'd slay them all.
On other days, when we were in a more adventurous mood, we'd journey down to the Crypt and, with our freshly cut sticks in hand, beat senseless whatever unlucky beast happened to cross our path. When our insights became sufficient, we hefted dirks and sliced the things open instead of beating them. With those tiny mockeries of swords in hand, we felt we could battle anything.
* * * *
Eventually, as with any aisling, our insights grew. We were, in time, able to take up the great Claidhemah. I wish we had never done so, for this was what prompted the fateful words.
"Zirilian, we are powerful," Kaieve said. "We have traveled to low dungeon depths, and slain the monsters there. Let us truly test our strength. Let us journey to the Castle Dubhaim."
These innocent sentences, little to my knowledge, would turn into the manifest fear and terror. Nonetheless, I paid no heed to the words when I heard them. It was simply another adventure. Therefore, the two of us set off for the Castle, chartering a ship from Abel to Recusion. The voyage was a rough one, now that I look back upon it, it was almost certainly a prophecy. Again, I pushed it from my mind. Of course, it was hard to ignore the sea. Gargantuan waves crashed against our ship, several times nearly flipping the boat on its side. The gods themselves seemed to warn against going to the Castle. We pressed on, however, the prow of our vessel slicing through the shroud of fog like a sharpened knife.
Within three days' journey from Abel we were within sight of the Isle of Dawn. Even at the time I thought the thing poorly named, for an endless cloud of fog and gloom hung over the island, as though the Specter of Death were watching his domain.
The Castle Dubhaim was quite a bit farther than it looked. Even after spotting it from the ship, it was another full day's travel before we made landfall. As soon as we stepped on shore, I could feel the evil permeating that place. As we stepped inside the Castle gates, the sailing vessel we'd come on disappearing into the fog, I was sure Sgrios himself resided in that dark place.
I looked over at Kaieve, standing beside me, who himself seemed to be having second thoughts. He was trembling the slightest bit, and, though many would have passed it off as the wind, I knew better. I knew Kaieve was the kind who tried not to show his fear, but would admit it if someone else were to speak up first.
I was quite tempted to ask him of his fear, to offer him a way out, tell him he would be no less in my eyes for it. I was goaded on by the sight of his mop of brown hair, already beaded with sweat, vibrating like a string plucked by a musician. I should have. Should have. Alas, we pressed on.
* * * *
Presently we took our first step into the Castle Dubhaim. The instant we did, I felt a cold chill come down my spine, tingling like an electric shock. The air seemed to freeze here; not from cold, but from evil. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the castle was the loneliness. Secreted away on the Isle of Dawn, the cold grey walls seemed to stare at us, utterly indifferent. There was no sound whatsoever, save for the clacking of our boots on the stone and the rasping hiss of the flames in the torch we carried. We lit several torches we saw mounted on the walls, lest we lose our way and be trapped forever in this realm of death.
Those very torches reflected our fears on the walls, the flickering shadows playing out for each of us our own private demons. Suddenly, in a flash of insight, we realized that the true evil at Castle Dubhaim was not so much in the beasts that lay there as in the uncontrolled rants of our own minds.
Nonetheless, the fear continued to accumulate. And, suddenly, those fears became manifest.
* * * *
The first we heard of it was a rasp of breath, as though pushed through gritted teeth. Then, four taps, one right after the other. Footsteps. Four feet. What kind of beast, I wondered, has four feet? Not bug, nor aisling, nor anything I'd ever seen. A creature more surreal, and, in this place, gods knew it would be demonic. The rasping breath, if breath it was, continued. The sound of our own footsteps had ceased, as we had long ago stopped moving.
I could hear Kaieve's breathing, tumbling out of his mouth in short gasps, and I could feel the fear rolling off him in waves. Meanwhile, the footsteps came ever closer. We held ourselves firmly in place, daring not to move, lest we agitate the creature.
With the subtlest of motions, we both drew our swords, Claidmeahs both. I grasped mine with both hands, preparing to fight whatever came around the corner. However, as all the turns in the castle seemed to be cut at ninety-degree angles, it was very difficult to see anything in advance. That aside, we stood at the ready, prepared to defend ourselves. And the rasps came closer.
* * * *
Suddenly Kaieve collapsed under a writhing mass of something. The beast opened its gigantic black maw and made to close it on Kaieve's head. I shook myself from my trance and, right before the thing would've ended our adventure, I jammed my sword against its back.
The metal rang, the sound sliding along the corridor, against a rock-hard carapace. It certainly didn't hurt the creature, but it was enough to distract it. The beast abruptly closed its mouth and looked toward me.
Kaieve seized the opportunity to switch his sword to his now-freed left hand and brought the blade up against the side of the creature's head. The beast let out an inhuman shriek that resounded off the walls and surely alerted whatever else was in the castle to our presence.
Nonetheless, the forced "experiment" showed the strange shell didn't cover the beasts' head. We treaded quietly farther in, knowing another one of those things might come around the corner at any minute. Fortunately, there were no further rasps or footsteps.
* * * *
After some time wandering uneventfully through the castle, we came upon a door. It was a monstrosity, half again my height, crudely smithed, thousands of tiny flecks of rust spotting it like a winter snowfall.
We looked at each other, then I went up and pushed.
* * * *
The portal swung open with many a bang and creak, revealing inside a room that was sparsely lit, yet seemed as though it contained a small sun compared to the rest of the castle. Slowly we stepped into the room, measuring our steps as though our lives depended on it.
Suddenly, three forms appeared in the shadows. Shortly after, a fourth and a fifth. The first four, or at least their outlines, were like the beast we'd encountered in the hallway, but the fifth was different. It resembled a twisted humanoid, horns jutting from its skull and curling backwards. When I thought about it, it looked just like the stone gargoyles that adorned the buildings at Loures. All five grinned sadistically at us, their combined evil seeming to parallel that of Chadul himself.
Then the gargoyle pointed at us. A guttural sound came out of its mouth, and I suddenly realized it was talking. It said only two words, but they were the worst it could have spoken: "Kill them."
* * * *
The four skull-faced creatures (Dunan, Kaieve informed me, or at least the name was something like that) lumbered forward, the gargoyle (a ghast) hovering in the background. These things seemed to have far less vocal capacity than did their master. Their hissing, rasping breaths, however, were far more frightening than if they'd talked.
Slowly the beasts surrounded us as we stood back to back, swords drawn. Kaieve cocked his head a bit and whispered to me, "Zir, let's take one out, then I'm going for the ghast over there," indicating the gargoyle thing with his eyes. "I figure if we can knock him out, these guys'll be like a snake without its head." I nodded silently in agreement. Finally, one of the creatures leapt.
* * * *
Instinctively, I pushed my blade into the gaping maw and twisted it about. I was fortunate the thing hadn't the presence of mind to bite down, or I'd not have stood a chance. As it was, a grayish goo, the creature's blood, I presumed, until finally it coughed up one more burst and died.
Kaieve again grabbed the moment of distraction and, placing a hand squarely on top of "his" beast's head, hurtled over it and began running toward the ghast. I, meanwhile, continued to parry the leaps and blows of the three dubhaimid still surrounding me, as they were dashing about too quickly to make an escape between any two of them.
I looked on as Kaieve made contact with the demon. He dug his sword deep into the thing's shoulder, causing a spray of gray blood. Undaunted, he removed his blade and hacked at the ghast's wing. It aimed a clawswipe and struck, leaving three bloody trails across Kaieve's face. He flew backwards. I forced myself out of my shock, and ran toward him, having finished all but one of the dubhaimid attacking me.
Kaieve's breathing was ragged and he had virtually no pulse. I cradled his head in my hands and selected a small vial from my belt. I popped off the cork and poured the red potion down his throat. Kaieve opened his eyes and blinked owlishly. Then he jumped up and immediately took up his sword again. The ghast started at this, and, as we looked at him triumphantly, let out a snort. After a moment's pause he growled, "I will have the last laugh."
* * * *
The remaining dubhaimid tried once more to take us on. Just as the beast was about to attack, Kaieve leapt once more. This time I wasted no time in swinging my sword, digging it into the soft flesh of the heads of several new dubhaimid that shimmered into view, now cracking down with such force as to shatter skull and carapace. I finished my beasts, but I was too transfixed with horror to help Kaieve. He and the ghast parried back and forth. Finally, two blows were dealt simultaneously.
Kaieve dug his sword deep into the creature's unprotected stomach. At the same instant, the beast put a new set of bloody gashes to Kaieve's cheek. Both fell heavily backward, both breathing laboriously. I ran to Kaieve. Both knew their end was at hand, but the ghast looked far more pleased about it than Kaieve.
I glanced quickly down at my belt to verify I'd no red potions left. I didn't. Kaieve looked up at me, and his eyes burned with an ethereal fire. Then he looked at the creature. And with his dying breath, he let out a chuckle.