Into the Black by Konrad Bennett Hughes

Before the silent crowded court of the ragged king, an old man with but one eye stood and spoke.

“I, the Várdos Euphranor, will tell you of the first tragedy of my life:

Before us I could hear the drums resounding off stone walls from deep within the cavern. We entered with swords drawn, torches to every other man. The four of us had tracked the wounded Minotaur far from our village into the Pindos Mountains. Through the night, we had listened to the labored breathing ahead of us as the horned beast crashed through the forest, racing back to its lair, which lay within a secluded syncline of rock. Our skills in tracking were barely needed for a hunt such as this. It was courage which we needed.

The stink of rotting flesh and sorcery made us gag, as we began our descent into the black of the cave, in the wake of the horned creature. Ulos walked first, with his torch raised high, peering into the emptiness. I came next, my father’s shield, brought back from the wars with the barbaroi of his youth, was strapped to my left arm. The dents in the bronze covering showed years of violent use, obscuring the figures of the bear long ago painted. I was unfamiliar with the weight of the shield. My arm felt leaden after the nightlong hunt through thick brush and foothills. Aching, I tried to stretch my cramping muscles before the coming violence. The brothers Gogre and Tyro walked behind me, defending our rear with their matching shields emblazoned with leaping wolves, heirlooms of their house. 

As we passed below a heavy stone lintel carved with a hideous script, I shivered. A faint sound of drumming had begun from somewhere ahead. Only our torches lit our way as we drove on, deeper into the cave, deeper into the black. Courage and vengeance were all that kept us warm. None of us had a spear, the weapon which we each wished for. All thirty-five of the ashen polearms had been broken on the massive hide of the Minotaur, as it slaughtered our warriors, to the screams of horror from our wives and children, in the setting of the autumn sun. 

As dusk settled the night before, a roar resounded, tearing through the peace of our secluded village of Epirus. The watch tower then collapsed as a bull-headed creature rammed the center post, shattering the large timber. The enormous tree trunks splintered like twigs under the ferocious swings of the Minotaur’s axe. The tower toppled, flinging its occupants through the air. I saw my father die in the first moments of the mayhem, thrown through the air from his post atop the watchtower, to be skewered upon our own palisade wall. The very section we had recently replaced. His body slid far down the post, fingers and intestines brushing the muddy ground. When we pulled the posts up for replacement last summer, the rotting bases revealed a mass of squirming insects. 

Squirming insects much like those crunching beneath our feet now, as we wound through the dark cave, drawn on by the beat of drums growing ever louder. We heard a shrill cry, echoing with percussive sound against the cave walls. A tawny wail calling us onward, deeper, deeper to a haunted hall beneath the earth. The breath of death seeped out from the depths of the earth, through rock and stone into mystical magical monstrous forms. 

Before me, I saw Xenokrates and Timo, our village’s potter and his lovely young wife, each sliced in two through the waist with a single swing of the Minotaur’s axe, spraying blood across my then clean tunic. The brains of Ulos’ young son were strewn across the muddy ground, while my younger brother stared on in horror, unable to comprehend the death filled madness before us. My wife screamed, as the Minotaur grabbed her by the hair and sniffed her, with his beastly snout, as if in appraisal. Blood and madness filled the evening wind, wafting through tall trees and into the very rock of the earth.

My mind and soul were savagely assaulted by a barrage of unholy and terrifying thoughts.

I stopped, shaking myself free of the evil nightmare remembered, and looked to my companions. Tyro met my stare knowingly. They had been entranced as I, losing ourselves within this maze of eerie dark corridors of wicked dreamscapes. In front, Ulos slowed and stopped, hearing our footsteps pause. He looked back with a haunted gaze, his eyes wide, all seeing into our fearful hearts.

I broke the silence, “I do not know what lies ahead my friends, but we must be ready for more than simply the beast.” I tried to sound confident with my words, as our minds stumbled through terrifying fog. I nodded to my companions. They had no words for me, or each other, only the stalwart shoulder and shield of the man beside him to rely upon. We resumed our march, ever wary, the stench of death ever growing, mold and rot oozing from fissures in the rock. The walls of the cave were ever groaning with the ferocious beat of the wild drumming and shrill cries of naked horror and ecstasy bellowing from far below. We had been travelling for some time through the cave, dreaming awake of our dead relatives and friends. 

We had lost over thirty villagers last night, by the time the horned monster turned back, launching itself into the forest with my wife, Hirra, within its grasp. She had been knocked unconscious, not dead. I was sure. Why else would the Minotaur hold on to her? Unless to eat her still warm flesh deep within this dark hole.

These thoughts were just what needed to be avoided. Ulos had lost more. All his family had fallen to the double-bladed axe or the sharp horns of the Minotaur. All except his young son, who it had only taken a bestial punt of the hoary foot of the horned monster to send the small boy sailing through the air, body broken. His soft skull smashed upon the hard earth. Ulos had nothing to return to. Before him was but a red blur of vengeance. He would claim answer for his losses. We would all claim answer.

Thirty-five ashen spears we had crafted this past year. We did not plan to join in any campaigns of kings in far-away lands, so why make more than we needed to hunt boar and bear. The horrors of war had been veiled in the fireside stories of our fathers. None of us four hunters had ever killed in anger before, and certainly never a creature that walked on two legs. The Minotaur was not a man though. It could not be. Two doughty legs, yes. Human arms of immense size, yes. A burly chest covered in coarse dark hair, just as my father’s and every other old man’s in the villages, yes. The Minotaur could not be a man though.

The drumming grew, the howling cries rang through the labyrinth as we wound our way deep, deeper into the black. Upon the ground the insects had disappeared, replaced with fragmented bones. The floor was littered with the leavings of some wicked beast’s feastings, crushed to bare recognition. The tibia of a young human could be identified here, a fractured skull there, a severed hand lay half buried in the cold dirt. The reek of death swam through the air, palpable in gaseous fumes tinged green with enchanted light. My head swam in the deathly exhaust. Thoughts of my love captive in the arms of the bullish monster, would not leave my frightened mind.

Fear might have gripped our hearts, but revenge kept them beating steadily. As the shadows of flames from around a bend danced before us upon the wall, we extinguished the torches. Not twenty paces to the corner. What lay beyond, we did not know. The fevered drumming and hideous wailing were now a monaural horrendous cacophony, blurring our vision with reverberations. The stench of mortality was horrid, unmistakable upon the tongue. I could taste what was to come.

As we readied our weapons, tightening our grips, I considered the eyes of my companions. I attempted to portray courage, though I was lost to fear below a sea of anguish. Their eyes spoke the same tale. If we were to die here in this dreadful cave, we would die with our families upon our hearts. We would die in vengeance. 

Turning the corner at a swift pace, we four arrayed ourselves for battle, shields held high and swords cocked back at the ready, for thrust and cut, as a horrid scene of wicked debauchery appeared before us. Hulking in front of an altar of piled skulls and black volcanic rock, the skewered monstrous form of the enormous brown-furred Minotaur leaned against the stone. Two of our ashen spears’ shafts still lay embedded deep into his back. He had removed the others, releasing a torrent of blood down upon the dais before him. Down upon the altar, which my wife, who writhed in agony, lay. Her body, both innocent and tainted, possessed by some spirit, screeched a ghastly cry. Coming from her lips was a keening voice, not her own. It spoke in a language unearthly, demonic in origin. But I could understand:

“You would follow my Wrathful Companion, unto the very depths of my earthly temple, to release death, young ones, would you not? To avenge the dead. Fury and madness filling you with insurmountable rage. Vengeance! Hatred! Oh! How I shall feed! Primed and perfect sacrifices, each and all of you, for my sacred altar…”

The drums suddenly stopped with the keening voice’s end. My love’s body lay still. Silence washed across the room in a wave. Suddenly, shrill cries cut through the air as two previously unseen wretched creatures lifted malformed female bodies from their crouched drumming positions beside the altar. Throwing back ragged rotting cloaks of pale skin, with the scalps of children as tippets, long matted hair swung back from wicked eyes of soulless black, as the two Graeae rushed towards us. Claws of frightening length reached from their withered hands. The Minotaur was beginning to stir, though sluggishly, as if from a deep slumber.

The hag to the left jumped with alarming speed towards Gogre, who was nearest to the entrance, attempting to cut off our escape. He slashed out with his short sword. A swift and vicious wolf he was. With a horrid cry the hag recoiled. Its hand severed at the wrist, blood oozed thick and black from the wound. The claw-like appendage wriggling upon the floor searched for grasp. 

Before me, the other hag advanced, sliding back and forth, a slippery motion to confuse the senses, a scorpion’s dance. Then she struck, quick as a serpent biting. With a fluid twist around my thrusting sword and beneath the swing of Ulos, who guarded my left flank, she was between me and my shield in an instant, clawing my sides mercilessly with her sharp talons. Her face was scaly and horrifying, death incarnate. The face of something which hungers for human blood. Ripping through the leather armor across my ribcage with her claw-like hands, she hissed up at me in speech unutterable. The agony struck me dumb as she began to embrace me, slicing her razor-sharp fingers up across my back. The horrid stench, which had preceded us down the dark caves to this accursed shrine, poured forth from her gaping mouth of jagged rotting teeth lining sickly black gums.

A swoon gripped my mind. The dream I had begun in the writhing tunnels of this labyrinthine cave, opened before me once more. In the twilight, I saw the spears break again and again against the muscular hide of the Minotaur. My friends and family slain before my eyes…a child’s soft skull splatting upon the hard ground.

The monster, which would take all that I held dear for his own bloody sacrifice, began to turn around toward the desperate fight of his grey skinned acolytes. I had nothing left but death before me now.

Then Ulos caught the back of the screeching hag’s neck with his backswing, severing spine to squirt black goo across my haunted face. I collapsed with the deadweight of the witch clinging to my back with her talons, to watch the brothers, Gogre and Tyro, across the room, eviscerate the one-handed hag succinctly, as I hit the ground.

I was the only casualty to these two paltry enemies. I had not even made it so far as to face the Minotaur again. I had failed once more. These thoughts flittered behind my eyes, as a darkness began to creep over me. I fought to stay awake, to watch with horror.

My three comrades spread out to encircle the Minotaur, which now stood alone. From my vantage on the floor, I could just see the face of my beloved between its gigantic hairy human legs. She lay now quiet, at peace, upon the blood-soaked altar. Her spring white dress stained with the gore of the beast, crimson red. Not black like the blood still leaking out upon me from the wretched, nearly headless creature clutching me. Nymph-like, my wife lay there, no longer held by the horrors of this world. Would I meet her soon?

The Minotaur had lost or left his axe somewhere on the trail to the cave. He stood unarmed before my fated friends at over ten feet tall, a monstrous bull in its prime. His thick brown fur was matted with warm blood from the countless wounds still leaking, while the cold blood upon his horns had now dried black.

What had brought this thing down upon our people? Was not this mountain lair quaint enough for his ferocious vigor? What had we done to warrant such a wanton brutal attack? Were these despicable creatures before me truly evil? Was this thick black effusion oozing out upon me the life-source of woe to all mankind? Such simplified notions had always struck me as naïve. Black and White? Good and Evil? Maybe I was wrong? Maybe evil had poured its blood out upon my beloved and I? Or just me… I’m the one covered in black…she in red.

These were the thought crowding my mind, as I watched one after the other of my life-long companions bury their blades in the monstrous flesh of the Minotaur, to have the swords wrenched from their grasps as the beast violently turned his torso, laughing all the while as they bit deep into his flesh. A human laugh. The laugh of a mad man upon a bloodthirsty rampage. The laugh of a thousand wives weeping for a thousand dead husbands. The laugh of a human man who could have been your father in a violent rage. It was a storm rolling inland from the sea, poised for destruction.

The laughing faded to a gurgling chortle. After ripping the head from Tyro, the last of my unarmed companions, with callous ease, the Minotaur fell to his knees, two spears and now three swords were driven deep into its monstrous flesh. The all too human eyes on either side of the bull’s snout, beneath the pair gory horns, began to fade. His blood began to well up from his mouth, frothy and red, as he chuckled on.

After a time, I wrenched the claws of the hag out of my back and tried to stand. Thrice I fell, as I made my way over to the Minotaur. The glazed eyes of the beastly creature followed my progress, as a pool of thick red blood began to form around him. The chortling had stopped, but I could still hear a gurgling breath as I approached the beast, which had been skewered five times. Circling the monster, I pulled free one of the broken spears jutting from the broad back. As I did, a moan of pain escaped the Minotaur’s lips, and I heard these words in the same unearthly, demonic voice, which had come from my wife before this horrid battle, 

“You have not seen the last of my children, young one.”

Then I drove the wide spearhead into the back of the neck of the Minotaur, severing spine and artery. In a gush of red blood, the beast collapsed before me. I had little strength left, and I collapsed, falling into a swoon of blackness.

I, the Várdos Euphranor, stand before you now, so I can say I walked away from that accursed cave. But am I alive anymore after enduring such horror? I do not…I do not know. Though your kind ears, my friends, are all I desire now in my everlasting sorrow.”

By the end of the poem, full night had fallen upon the outside world, the flickering lamps were the only light, as the hearth fires stool unlit in the sultry summer heat. The sweat beaded men and women, who filled the hall of the ragged king, stared blankly at the one-eyed man, only released from the spell of his words as he began to walk from that place and out the door. A chorus of murmurs followed, each coming back to their senses slowly, back to their own bodies after they had ventured into a realm of black mist and myth with the words of the ancient Várdos. 

*

Konrad Bennett Hughes, aka Kaptain Viciorious Time Traveling Space Pirate Extraordinaire, welcomes all adventurers to read snippets from the grimoire of a Viking skald lost in a terrible modern century. “I write to allow all of you to see the wonders which continually relate themselves through telekinetic portals from dimensions unsounded.” Unbounded by time and space, Kaptain Viciorious’ Grimoire is first in interdimensional travel, dead last in customer service. “Read on fellow travelers, read on.”