Below, Part I
“The question of the final fate of High Marshal's Edon the Younger's host remains a hotly debated topic among historians of the Third War of Brothers. It was certain that if the host was to reach the Imperial City and Emperor Tyb III's beleaguered and demoralized army, it would surely have triumphed and brought about the end of the el Herash dynasty. Just days outside the capital, however, the host vanished off the face of the earth. Of its one hundred-thousand light infantry and skirmishers, thirty thousand Brazen Spear heavy infantry elite, ten thousand horse and a full thousand battle mages, theurgists and summoned abominations, nothing remained. The Imperial City was spared and the el Herash dynasty survived for another two centuries before finally succumbing to a combination of a wide scale invasion by the Purati nomads and heavy inbreeding.
The infamous Edon the Younger, Scourge of Rashada and Butcher of the Erfif, with his brutal yet undoubtedly effective strategies, the cult-like devotion of his followers and his pretensions of divinity, is a figure who captured the imaginations of scholars and poets both ever since. To his contemporaries he was usually a monster, a skin-bound nightmare even his mad thurgists could scarcely imagine in their darkest delvings. Later creators however often cast Edon as a more complex character, a tragic figure of noble spirit who gave in to corruption in order to overthrow a tyrant. He appears as such in Leviner's seminal epic poem "Sire of Storms", as can be seen in this excerpt from the third to fifth stanzas of the fourth chapter:
Sire of storms, hellbound consort
The riverbed is dry, for none are left to weep
Your cursed passage
To march upon the throne of stains
Your road was stained much darker still
For sacrifice, and grief and pain
Oh fair Edon, wretched saint
From the road did not return
Only devils now sing your mourning song
Leviner's antiquated style aside, this poem serves to demonstrate the common sentiment towards Edon (as well as other anti-imperial figures) among many during the twilight years of the Middle Dynasties. It is no wonder than that it was Edon's Mystery, founded a full three centuries after his disappearance, which served as the crux for the rebellion that led to the fall of the last of the imperial dynasties and the beginning of the Age of the Emirs.”
Koben Bin Lamdan, History of the Middle Dynasties, part II
The tunnel winded before him, utterly dark but for the low glow coming from Aralash’s amulet. Danni’s protective charm sought to defend her hapless husband even from his own folly, he thought bitterly. Behind him, and not nearly far enough as he’d like, came a hollow buzzing sound, like a swarm of hornets trapped within a stone bell. Aralash tried to pick up the pace, but the tunnel’s uneven floor and the poor lighting made that a daunting prospect - the smallest misstep and he could fall and break his neck. Though perhaps, considering the alternative, that would be a mercy.
Don’t think about that. Just run. One foot in front of the other, easily done.
Easily said. Aralash had long lost track of time in the tunnel’s dim confines. How long had he been running? Could it truly have been only an hour or two since he was forced down here by the monstrosities now gaining ever closer on him? Surely that couldn’t be the case. His feet wouldn’t hurt so if he’d only been running that long and his breaths would not come out so haggardly, so desperately. Surely-
His sandaled foot slipped on something wet and Aralash went careening into the tunnel wall. His knee struck the sandstone at a bad angle and he felt a terrible jolt of pain, followed by an enervating lack of sensation that was somehow even worse. He tried getting up, but his knee would not support his weight and he fell once more, this time face first into the wetness that caused him to slip in the first place.
Blood, still red and fresh. And its source.
Rami. Or at least what was left of him. Aralash stared in muted horror at the top half of his brother-in-law’s face, which laid at the center of the bloody puddle he had slipped on. It sat there almost comically, sheared like a honey melon at the market, everything below the nose gone. There wasn’t a sign of the rest of the body either, nor of what could have possibly done this to Rami. He wouldn't even had recognized him without the distinct family sigil tattooed onto the forehead, one which closely resembled Aralash's own.
Aralash had never liked his brother-in-law. The man was a drunkard and a fool, always wasting away his days playing Three Die Gambit at the Lower Bazar or cavorting with the offtown riff-raff which frequented Dianaros’ Square after sundown. Rami never had to work a day in his life, coasting away on his great father Uman El Rashad’s wealth and influence, spoiled and ruined by the man’s mollycoddling. Aralash did not overly blame his father-in-law - Rami was his only son, the late born child following half a dozen girls, and the old man wished to grant his son the carefree life he himself was never afforded as a young man. But even Uman’s forbearance had its limits, and he knew better than to allow Rami any real responsibility over the business. When Uman passed away the year prior he left to those duties the husband of his eldest daughter - to Aralash. Those duties and the care of his wasteral of a son.
A fine job he’d made of that.
Warmth streamed from Aralash’s amulet to his wounded knee, and he tried to rise once more. This time barely succeeding in standing up, Aralash desperately limped away from the remains of his brother-in-law. The light cast by the amulet was noticeably dimmer now, and Aralash feared that its attempt to repair his injury cost it too much of its power. Behind him the horrible buzzing grew ever louder, and now he could also hear a droning undertone beneath it, like a monotonic groan. The Walking Swarms were nearly upon him.
It was Rami’s fault he was here at all. Two day ago, though it seemed like a lifetime now, his young brother-in-law came into his office, which was unusual enough, and during business hours, which was practically unheard of. The useless sod never roused himself from bed before noon, and then only to attend a bathhouse to preen himself before the day’s debutchary. The young man seemed out of sorts, which Aralash first attributed to him being horribly hungover. Something was different about him though - there was an unmistakable tinge of terror to his red-rimmed eyes, a quaver to his voice that could not be attributed to mere alcohol. Soon, Aralash found out why.
In the present, Aralash came to a fork in the tunnel. To his left it continued as it were, an endless narrow corridor snaking into the dark. To his right he could see the tunnel beginning to expand, its walls disappearing into the gloom. For no other reason but that it was different, Aralash chose the right. As he rounded the corner he made the mistake of looking back.
There were three of them, coming for him with a speed which belied their awkward forms. Their bodies were vaguely humanoid, their naked frames emaciated but supporting large bulbous growths on their joints and extremities. Their heads however were entirely alien; they most resembled misshapen stone gourds, thick near the base of the neck then narrowing to a sharp tip. The gourds were filled with holes, and from those crawled and skittered creatures of nightmares - glistening scorpions, great venomous centipedes, spiders of all sizes and shapes, even the occasional slithering serpent. The air around the gourd-heads swarmed with flying insects, their droning deafening in the tight confines of the tunnel. The creature closest to Aralash turned its eyeless head towards him, then raised a tumorous hand to point in his direction. Aralash ran.
Rami has gotten himself involved with the wrong people, he told Aralash. He was playing table darts at Hamadi's Taberna, same as every Godsday (Aralash sighed at the sacrilege but knew better than to bother saying anything) when a group of colorful, richly-dressed fellows came to his table to play. Rami figured them for offtowners and thus easy rubes for his patented Three-Corner God Throw Stratagem (Aralash sighed again at the name, though Rami didn’t notice, of course). Well, it turned out that the colorful fellows were in fact off-duty officers from the notorious Bronze Battalion, a free company with a reputation for being efficient, brutal and brutally efficient. Also the type of people who don’t appreciate being cheated at table darts, as Rami soon learned. His father’s wealth and status, usually a bulwark against all such accusations, failed to do much at the face of a group of men who could order the city burned to the ground at their leisure.
The officers reckoned that Rami owed them five thousand dinar for his attempt to cheat them, and another five thousand for the emotional anguish such a low act caused them. Plus an additional fifteen percent, just because they could. If he didn’t pay within the week, they’d have him drawn and quartered in Temple Square, just before the morning’s prayer. Funny, Aralash thought as he tried to swallow down his impending panic, that would be the only time Rami was ever likely to be seen in morning prayer. Aralash figured that if he liquidated the business entirely, plus about 80% of the family’s personal assets, he might just be able to cover that sum. The family would be destitute, of course, but what other choice did he have? He swore to Uman on his deathbed to keep his son safe, and he knew the old man would have given everything to do so, even the comfort and safety of the rest of his children.
Rami said he had a plan though. A drinking buddy of his, once a junior lecturer of archaeology in the old Imperial Madrassa, confided in Rami one evening over arak that he had found the location of Edon the Younger’s legendary army, with all the riches that were said to travel with the host, the spoils of a hundred cities. For a mere hundred dinar he would give Rami a map to the place, which was a mere two days’ travel from the Imperial City. When Aralash asked Rami why this friend of his didn’t go find this treasure himself, Rami grew evasive. Apparently the reason this buddy of his wasn’t a junior lecturer at the Madrassa anymore was because he was charged with publicly assaulting the dean with a replica of a Third Emirate scimitar over a fight regarding the agrarian output of Saransa in the second half of the seventh century. He was forbidden from leaving the city’s walls until the magistrate decided his fate. Rami didn’t consider this offense to be a mark against the man’s credibility, but Aralash wasn’t so sure. Still, they had no other way to raise the money in a week, and so he reluctantly arranged room for him, Rami and five of the family’s trustworthy retainers to join an outgoing caravan that would pass near the spot indicated on the map.
The walls of the tunnel disappeared entirely as Aralash desperately stumbled away from the pursuing Walking Swarms, transforming into a cavern in truth. He had never encountered their likes before, though he had of course heard the stories. The Walking Swarms were creatures of the Nightmare Below, dredged to the waking world by the foul ritual magic of the theurgist. They were few and far in-between nowadays, the League of Emirs having hunted them to near extinction in their territories. Very few things could truly unite the Emirs, but the thought of a theurgist operating in their cities was apparently one of them. Aralash could certainly relate. The Swarms were once considered minor abominations, taken from the top layers of the Nightmare, and hundreds of them served as shock troopers for the old Imperial army, leashed to the will of their theurgist masters.
Aralash yelped in panic as a sudden stinging pain appeared in his left shoulder. Venturing another foolish look behind he saw the cloud of flying insects which accompanied the Swarms was rapidly gaining on him. The sting came from a huge black hornet, a vanguard for the agony which would soon follow. Aralash felt the last of his amulet's power flow into the sting, and the cavern immediately grew pitch black. He continued running for a few moments more before slamming face-first into something hard and, surprisingly, metal. A door?
Aralash and Rami's journey with the caravan was uneventful. Their retainers quietly wondered what the purpose of this unusual journey was but knew better than to question their masters out loud. The chief caravaneer had no such computations and repeatedly warned Aralash that there was absolutely nothing in the spot where the group was supposed to leave the caravan in. Aralash told the man some drivel about the spot being a particularly good vantage point for stargazing, which he was sure the man didn't buy for a second. He was paid handsomely enough for the trip, however, and two days after their departure from the Imperial City they had reached the spot Rami's friend marked on the map.
There was, of course, nothing there. Just a few stunted trees clinging desperately to what must've been an oasis a century or two ago. The group spent hours digging about the desiccated plants and broken pottery shards which littered the place, but it was clear that if there ever was anything of value here, it was long gone. Just when Aralash decided to call off the search, already going over the list of merchants who might purchase the business off the family without fleecing them wholesale, Rami seemed to remember something. He took a crumpled piece of paper from a pocket in his stained linen overcoat and showed it to Aralash.
Rami said that he just recalled that his archaeologist friend found the supposed location of Edon’s host from a diary left in the Madrassa’s archives by one Khalil Rawadi, suspected to have been a magus in the host prior to its disappearance. The man appeared in the Imperial City some weeks after the host was supposed to arrive, alone and half-dead from dehydration and heatstroke. He would say nothing as to the host’s fate, not even under threat of torture by the Emperor’s inquistors. He was eventually left alone, since even an emperor could ill afford to anger a magus of Rawadi's power. For ninety years the old magus had kept silent, until he had eventually perished in the cataclysmic War of the Ascendant, in which nearly every practitioner of the old magic of the Word lost their lives. As far as everyone was concerned, the secret to the fate of Edon's Host died with him.
The door wouldn't budge. Aralash desperately pushed and pulled on it, trying to find a knob or a lever that would get it to open, but he couldn't find anything in the utter darkness. Perhaps it wasn't a door at all, just a blank metal wall to mock him in the final moments before his agonizing death. The flying insects were upon him now, biting and stinging and trying to crawl into his mouth, his nose, his eyes. The awful hollow buzzing of the Walking Swarms was so close he was sure he'd feel the touch of a clawed, tumorous hand at any moment.
In what he was sure were his final moments, Aralash found himself wishing Danni would find another after he was gone. Though she had the business acumen and skill to easily manage the business without him, the laws of the Emir did not allow women to have any dominion over a man, and the business employed naught but men. Her status as a widow would at least afford her some legal protection, but her younger sisters may well end up in the streets, which would break her heart. He had never deserved her, in truth, and he knew she only married him because he was her father's finest clerc and that the old man wished for it. He liked to believe she had eventually grown fond of him, though he knew she was never as infatuated with him as he was with her. If she desired it she would find no trouble in finding a new husband, and she probably would, if only for the sake of her sisters. He just wished her new husband would be as understanding of her… peculiar talents as he was. Or that she managed to keep said talent hidden from him.
A thought occurred to him, a sudden comfort in utter darkness. Before he left for this fool’s errand of an expedition Dani gave him the amulet that now hung dead around his neck. She had imbued it with her power, seeking to protect him. But Aralash had only told Dani about the expedition the day before they left, and she couldn’t possibly have prepared the amulet on such a short notice. That meant she must’ve worked on it beforehand. That she cared enough for him to put all that time and effort. Perhaps she did truly care for him.
Aralash found himself at peace as death came for him.
Then the metal door opened, and he fell into darkness.