The Black Blade
Hristijan Pavlovski is a professor of Philosophy who loves art as much as he loves wisdom. His philosophy is that no other medium can summon the full range of human emotion quite like the literary arts can, and it is his goal to explore the extent of that.
Our story today begins in the market square of Rivermeet. On the board present in the square, we find a posting by the captain of the guard. It reads as follows:
The bailiff requires brave and capable adventures to investigate and inquire into rumors about strange noises emanating from the sewers below the city. Furthermore, in recent days there have also been reports of disappearances from the slums. We are unsure if these two events are connected.
A party is to be formed on the first day of the following week. Any adventurers who sign up will be awarded a gold coin for their services, with further compensation when the task is completed, based on the arduousness of the endeavor.
The Captain of the Guard
Even among the hustle and the bustle of the busy market square, a pair of prying eyes spied the posting. The eyes belonged to Vivian, an aspiring medicine woman.
She had recently finished her apprenticeship under her master, Dalaran, and was looking for an opportunity to test her knowledge. And, as most youths are, she was willing to potentially risk her life if it meant that she could gain some renown from her exploits. So, she decided to take up the captain’s offer. Even though she had no prior experience with adventures, Vivian understood that every party needs a healer, no matter the circumstances. It was better to have one and not need it, than not have one present when you needed it the most.
So, she proceeded about her day, and when the following week came, she headed straight to the barracks where the captain’s office was located.
When she arrived there, she was halted by the guard at the gate.
“Halt! What purpose do you have here?”
“I’m a healer by trade, sir. I wish to offer my services to the captain in his expedition into the sewers.”
The guard quietly grunted and commented, “Fine, you may enter. His office is at the end of the hall on the right. Just be careful; the sewers are no place for a young woman.”
Vivian proceeded in and hurried straight to the captain’s office. She knocked on the chamber’s doors and heard a single word sound out from the other side.
When she entered the chamber, she was greeted by the captain, surrounded by his aides. “Come, who are you? What brings you here?”
“My name is Vivian, sir, and I wish to enlist in your party for the trip down into the sewers.”
“Are you sure? The sewers are no place for a young miss like yourself.”
“I’ve made up my mind already. I want to go.”
“Very well, Vivian. Tell me, what can you do, exactly?”
“I’m a healer by trade, sir. I believe my services will be paramount for the sortie down into the sewers. You never know what you may encounter down there.”
“I know exactly what I’ll encounter down there, young lady.”
The captain smirked as he cracked a joke. “Yesterday’s lunch is what I’ll encounter down there!” The room burst into a cackle at the captain’s remark, but he quieted it down with a wave of his hand. He then proceeded, “Still. I can’t deny that it’s important to have a medicine woman for the occasion. Gods know I wish I could have had one present on some of my previous tasks. You may come with us. Just stay in the back; I’d hate to have to hoist your body up from the sewers if anything happens to you while we’re down there.”
Excited, Vivian replied, “You can count on me, sir!”
“Let me introduce you to the others who will be joining us.” The captain walked over to a man of a rather tall build, who boldly displayed his tenaciousness and prowess by the many scars along his body.
“This is Grigory. He’s a trapper. As you can probably guess by his looks, he specializes in hunting big game. Now, I don’t know what we can expect down in the sewer, but regardless, it’s good to have someone along who can track down and ensnare whatever creature we find.”
He then introduced the next man over; he had a dark complexion and menacing eyes that could pierce right through you just by looking at you.
“This is Sandor. He’s a mercenary. He’s fought in wars across the entire continent. If our problem is of a human nature, well, he knows how to deal with it.”
And finally, the captain introduced the last man present in the room.
“And that gentleman over there is Percy the Treasure Hunter.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma’am!”
“Thank you, Percy, but let me properly introduce you first. As I said, he’s a treasure hunter. There’s not much treasure to be found down in the sewers, I reckon, but I can’t deny that his skills for finding anything significant hiding in the tiniest nooks and crannies won’t come in handy.
“That’s everyone. Now, listen up! It’s still in the morning, so you have a few hours left to prepare anything you may need for our sortie down there. Pack only the essentials; some of the canals down there are old and compact, so you won’t get through them if you pack a whole baggage train. We’ll meet up again at high noon, at the sewer entrance located at the eastern canal. Since the sun will be the highest in the sky, it should afford us more lighting for at least a bit. Remember to pack your torches as well. That is all. Dismissed!”
Vivian was brimming with excitement, even though she tried to hide it. Finally an opportunity to be of use and show off her prowess! She was so excited that she didn’t even notice the irony of the situation. A healer should always seek to prevent an ailment, not be excited to have to mend an ailment. But, seeing how Vivian was still green, her excitement could be understood somewhat.
She proceeded out of the barracks and headed straight for the apothecary at her university. While walking toward the apothecary, her situation finally hit her. “Huh, now that I think about it, I’m really gonna be going down into the sewers, aren’t I? I hope none of my friends find out about this; they’ll never let me live it down… But wait. If all goes well and we come out as heroes, then the whole city will know about it regardless. Ugh! Why didn’t I think about this beforehand! Ah, it’s too late to cry over spilled milk now. What’s done is done. I just hope everything goes well.” She was so lost in her thoughts that she bumped into the apothecary’s door without even opening it first. “Ow!” After which, the door was opened from the other side.
“Ahh, Vivian. I thought it was you. Nobody else tries to enter my apothecary without opening the door first.”
Vivian recollected herself and broke an awkward smile. “Mistress Zephyr, good to see you again.”
The apothecary let off a small laugh before beckoning her inside. “Come, let’s hear what you need.”
“Well, for starters, I’ll need a couple of blades of lavender. I’ll also need two salves of healing balm, four sterile cloths, cured water for sterilization, a valerian root potion just in case– oh! And I think a splint will also come in handy.”
“By the gods, girl, if your patient is suffering from all of that, then he should have died last century!”
“It’s not for a single patient; it’s for an assignment.”
“Did you sign up for a military campaign? In that case, doesn’t the quartermaster usually take care of procurement?”
“No, it’s for another matter entirely.”
“If all goes well, you’ll be hearing my name across the city.”
“Quite gallant of you. We’ll see. That will be seventy-six silver coins for all the items.”
“Have your prices risen? They weren’t this expensive before!”
“You’re not part of the university anymore, so you don’t get to enjoy the privileges anymore.”
“Argh, I should have known. Fine, here’s your seventy-six silver coins.”
“Thank you. Have a safe trip, wherever you’re going.”
Vivian departed from the apothecary. She looked up at the sky. By the positioning of the sun, she reckoned that she had about half an hour to reach the rendezvous. So, she quickened up her pace, clicking and clacking along the cobbled streets as her medicine bag bulged from all the equipment she had in it. Not long after, she reached their predetermined meeting spot.
It seemed everyone else came prepared as well. Grigory came equipped with a few ropes and traps. He was also carrying a few whistles as well as a short bow and a quiver full of arrows. Sandor had donned a mail shirt that reflected the sun’s rays as it struck him. By his side, he was carrying his scimitar. Percy came carrying a peculiar box full of different tools. Some he could use to hear through walls, others were medallions he claimed vibrated when he was near treasure, and he also had a fancy dagger.
The captain looked more like a knight than an old veteran, and when Vivian looked upon him standing there, she felt safe: the same as she had felt when she heard stories about daring knights protecting the weak as a child. She knew that she was in good hands.
“You’ve made it,” said the captain. “Did you bring a weapon?”
“Um, no. I forgot.”
“You forgot? Even Percy brought a dagger with him! Eh, just stay behind us and call out to us if you see something strange, understood?”
Vivian took out the lavender she had bought earlier and wrapped it in a cloth, which she proceeded to tie around her face. The captain took a look at her and commented, “Huh, smart. Do you have any lavender to spare?”
“No, just this.”
“Shame. Wish I’d thought of that. Well, let’s go. The sun won’t last forever.”
After checking their gear one last time, their party descended down into the sewers. The captain took point, followed by Sandor, who was followed by Percy, with Vivian tailing them in the back.
The initial foray was peaceful. They encountered nothing that was out of the ordinary — just a few stray cats and some homeless urchins that lived down in the sewers. These were nothing unusual; they were a staple of almost every sewer.
After an hour of searching, Grigory spoke up. “Captain, this is pointless. We’re just sweeping the sewers; this isn’t how you conduct a search.”
“We have to check every nook and cranny of this place to find out what’s causing the noises and the disappearances. Do you have any better ideas?”
“Yes, I do. If it’s a creature we’re searching for, then we should head deeper into the sewers. It’s still daytime, and most creatures hunt at night. So unless you plan to stake it out till nightfall, I think our time and energy would be better spent if we went looking for it — before it starts looking for us.”
“Fine. Lead the way, then.”
The captain and Grigory switched spots.
As they focused their search deeper into the sewer, Grigory started to notice certain signs: strange scratches on the wall, primitive-looking murals depicting a hunt, pieces of trash left all over the place, and scraps of torn clothing scattered along the canal. They were strange sights for so deep underground. Eventually, they ran into something significant.
“There!” yelled Grigory.
“What?” responded the captain.
“Right there. That’s what I was looking for.”
“Someone’s lunch? If that’s what you were looking for, I could have shown you at least five along the way.”
“Look again. Look at the size of it. Do you know anyone personally who can relieve themselves that much?”
“Now that you mention it, no.”
“My thoughts exactly… Let me inspect it some more.” Grigory pulled out his sword and used it to scrape off some of the pile. He then brought his blade close to his nose and sniffed it. Vivian saw from the back and almost puked. She didn’t expect he’d do something as disgusting as that.
“Hmmm, pork… but sweeter… This is bad,” said Grigory.
The captain paused for a moment, then asked, “Why is that?”
“You don’t see many pigs in the city. Usually the farmers keep them outside the city walls…”
“Okay? So? Something managed to drag a pig down here and eat it. What’s so worrying about that?”
“No, that’s unlikely. The sweetness of it is what worries me. There’s only one kind of meat that gives off that kind of smell… human meat. Something’s been preying on the citizens above — probably on those poor urchins we passed on the way as well.”
“Well, what do you think it is?”
“I’m not sure yet. Let’s keep moving, and stay alert from now on.”
The party continued their venture deeper into the sewers. It didn’t feel like they were alone anymore. Hushed noises, the strange flickering of shadows, the stench of the air… Not welcoming signs by any means.
Eventually, the party reached an open room filled with pillars and proceeded inside. The room was so big that the light from their torches barely reached the far end. Grigory proposed that they should hug the walls until they reached the other side. So they did, hugging the wall to their left.
After walking for a bit, they reached a corner of the room and turned right. But in the corner of her eye, Vivian noticed something.
“Hey, Grigory! What’s that there on the ground? Behind the pillar.”
“There!” She pointed.
Grigory went over to inspect what she was pointing at. He bent down and picked up an eggshell. Grigory quickly became distraught. “As I thought. I hoped that it wouldn’t be this.”
“What?” asked the captain.
“This was the last clue in the puzzle, and I don’t like what I’m seeing now… I think we’re dealing with a heshti.”
“A what now?” echoed from the others.
“A heshti. Bizarre creatures by all accounts. I’ve never actually seen one in real life; I’ve only heard the stories. Apparently, they are scaly creatures that walk upright on two legs, just like humans. They are very vain, which is why some say they belong to the goddess Mirquiel. The irony is that they try to copy humans in most regards, but their animalistic nature rears its head every time. They can use rudimentary tools and have been reported to be able to create some pretty intricate designs. Some can live together in small communities, but those don’t usually last long, as they quickly turn vicious and make enemies of each other after a while. I guess this characteristic of theirs is the most human-like… The one we’re dealing with now is most likely an exile or one that has struck out on its own for one reason or another. They prefer dark, secluded places — it’s easier to avoid contact with other creatures that way. Ironic, since they’re carnivores. I’d wager that it’s the reason for the strange noises and disappearances that have been going on in the slums at night… It’s building its brood.”
The captain didn’t like the sound of that one bit. Something had to be done. “I don’t like that. Grigory, you know about this creature the most out of all of us here. Tell me, do we stand a chance?”
“We do, if it hasn’t fully settled in yet. The noises and disappearances are a new occurrence, so hopefully, that means it hasn’t had time to settle in properly. If we can cut out this cancer before it’s had time to grow, the better it’ll be.”
The captain still had a look of concern on his face, but at least now a gleam of hope could be spotted in his eyes. “We’re moving on, then. I’ll take point. Grigory, you stand in the back and guard our rear. Out of all of us here, your senses are probably the keenest. If you notice anything strange, call it out. That goes for the rest of you, too.”
Vivian lost all the enthusiasm she had about her little adventure after hearing all this. She felt a numbness in the back of her neck; she also hadn’t noticed that she had started tapping the metal on her belt buckle.
Percy shared her feelings as well. He had expected to potentially find a lost treasure down there, but the only thing he’d found was himself in a difficult situation.
Sandor just let out a sigh. He’d been through difficult situations before — he’d manage.
The group headed onward and downward toward the deeper confines of the sewer system. The light of their torches was steadily being devoured by the darkness that encroached on them. They were well aware of what would happen if they didn’t quicken their pace.
They passed many canals and seemingly countless chambers. Nothing. They could find no significant clue that would lead them straight to the creature. Even the feces trail had dried up. The creature was obviously getting smarter at concealing its presence.
“This is pointless! We should head back up and return with a platoon of soldiers,” said Percy.
The captain just replied, “Shut up!”
Percy was right, though. The question that remained was: how much longer could they continue their search? The captain kept repeating, “One more room! …one more canal!” yet they never found anything.
“Come on, folks. One more canal!”
“Our torches are gonna go out soon, Captain,” Sandor calmly commented.
“Alright then, pull out the replacements, but don’t light them. As soon as the old one is gonna go out, then light the new one.”
It was rather misfortunate then that all of their torches started to dim and go out around the same time.
“Damn it! My torch burned out. Vivian, can you bring your torch closer so that I can kindle the other one?” said Grigory to Vivian.
Vivian didn’t respond; she just turned around and brought her torch towards the unlit torch that Grigory held in his hand, when unexpectedly, a creature burst out of the sewer water that was running beside them. It jumped with such incredible strength that it landed on Grigory’s back and instantly rammed a blade through his jugular before he could react. It then leapt forward, trying to slice Vivian’s neck as well, but her fight or flight reaction made her jump out of the way. In the end, it only managed to slightly cut her shoulder. It landed on the walkway in the middle of the group.
By this point, everyone was alarmed and looking at the creature. Percy froze up, as he was most likely to be the next target. Thankfully, Sandor reacted quickly and threw a dart that pierced the heart of their assailant.
“What the grel was that!” screamed Vivian.
Percy, in his cowardice, just replied, “Well, that was p-probably our creature. Nasty little bugger, but we finally got him. Time to rekindle our torches and head back to the surface!”
“No,” said the captain. “It’s too small to be our prey. This was its offspring, most likely. Its mother won’t be happy that we’ve killed it.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want to be killed either!”
“Captain, as much as I find Percy tiresome, I believe he’s right. We should go up to the surface and return tomorrow with a platoon of soldiers. Our chances of finding the creature now, with Grigory dead, are slim,” commented Sandor.
The captain was now faced with a difficult decision. He could only let out a heavy sigh. “Alright. Grab Grigory’s body. We’re going back up again. I’ll send out extra patrols tonight; hopefully that will stop the incidents, at least until tomorrow.”
A feeling of relief flooded everyone. They’d live to see another day, at least.
As they made their trek back towards the surface, everything seemed to go smoothly. There were no strange noises, no flickering of the shadows, no ominous feeling of being followed. If they could only continue this pace, they would be out within the hour.
During the trek though, Vivian started feeling strange. Nausea was starting to creep in. This was an uncommon reaction to being cut, she knew. Usually, the adrenaline rush should have you feeling wide awake, but this was the complete opposite of that. She checked on her wound as they headed back. It looked pretty normal, as far as such wounds went, but when she went in and sniffed the wound, she was surprised. It smelled sweet.
After a few moments of recollection, she just let out an “oh no!”
“What is it, Vivian?” asked the captain.
“This is bad. This is really bad! We have to hurry.”
“Are you referring to your wound? I’ve had worse; don’t worry about it. Just clean it out with clean water and apply a herbal remedy. You’re a healer — that shouldn’t be a problem for you.”
“It’s not about the depth of the wound, it’s about the smell. It smells sweet.”
“Yeah, that is strange. Well, what do you think is causing that?”
“Poison. It’s definitely poison. The little heshti’s blade must have been covered in poison, and I’m concerned it might be the bad kind I’m thinking of.”
“Did you bring an antidote?”
“No. I didn’t expect to encounter it. It’s notoriously rare.”
“What does it do?”
“Well, because of its rarity, no master has had the chance to fully study and document its effects, but most agree on a single point. It causes the user to experience hallucinations a certain time after contact.”
“Mmh, that is bad. Do you have an antidote in the apothecary of your university?”
“I’m not sure, but we should hurry nonetheless.”
The group was now more motivated to reach the surface quickly. It’d be much harder to drag two bodies up to the surface than just one.
Yet as they were making their way towards the surface, Percy’s medallion started to vibrate uncontrollably.
“Whoa! I’ve never felt it vibrate so much… This means there’s treasure ahead!”
Percy dropped everything he was carrying and, in his avarice, rushed ahead with his medallion in hand. “The treasure is all mine. I found it first!”
The captain called out to him, “Stay with the group, you greedy fool!”
But Percy wouldn’t listen. The group started chasing after him as fast as they could to catch up with him. After a short run through twisting tunnels, they finally came upon him. He was standing in the middle of the walkway, just clutching at the medallion with both of his hands.
“You moron! Never do that again!” yelled the captain. He approached Percy, yet as he put his hand on Percy’s shoulder, he was taken aback by what he found. Percy was standing stiff, but he was not alive. His throat had been bitten out.
Shock flooded everyone. “Sandor. Drop the body. We’re leaving. Now!” stuttered the captain. Sandor instantly threw Grigory’s body to the ground.
They were now the prey that was being hunted. They rushed for the entrance they had come through, running for their dear lives.
There were no heroes down in the sewer. Vivian learned that the hard way as she was ran. There was no knight in shining armor coming to rescue her; they were just an old man, a mercenary, and a young girl — all scared for their skins.
As she was running, the poison was metabolizing in her blood. Her body started feeling heavy. She could only cry out, “Wait!” as she fell unconscious.
She dreamed… She dreamt that she had returned to her childhood. She was walking in the woods at night, alone. The weather was cold, and there seemed to be no end to the trees in sight. She heard strange noises all around, some natural, others, not so.
An ominous feeling overtook her. It was as if she was being watched all along. But by what? And if it was a human, would it come to her rescue?
A branch cracked. Vivian quickly turned in that direction, terrified. Yet, after a moment of peering into the dark, she calmed down. It was just a tree, with branches poking out like arms. Was she really alone after all?
She then felt slaps hitting her face. She snapped out of her dream to find Sandor trying to wake her.
“Good, you’re awake. Let’s get moving,” he said as he grabbed her and wrapped her arm around his shoulders.
After a few steps of walking like this, she regained her bearings. “Th-thank you, Sandor, but I can walk again. And thank you for not leaving me behind, Captain.”
The captain said nothing. This mission was his responsibility, and it had turned into a total disaster.
They continued onward. Vivian was now breathing with a wheeze, the poison heavily taxing her body. Yet they had to continue onwards, through the same canals and rooms that they had passed earlier. Now that they were fleeing for their lives, they realized just how far down they’d ventured. Even the captain and Sandor were breathing heavily. There wasn’t much air down there, and that which was present smelled horrible.
As they ventured onwards, Vivian started feeling the poison coming over her again. “Wait a moment, I can feel it agai-i-i–” She collapsed.
She was back in the woods. She continued searching for an end to her nightmare, hoping that if she found it, she might survive her affliction… A fool’s hope.
The strange sounds were now getting closer and closer. She definitely wasn’t alone anymore. Suddenly, out of the bushes, a pack of wild dogs jumped out and surrounded her. They barked at her as they circled her, going in to bite her, but quickly backing out just before they did. She could do nothing but put her hands on her ears, close her eyes, and curl into a fetal position on the ground as she began to cry.
A warm feeling overcame her. Was it finally over? Was she dead? Was it Carro’s grace that she was now feeling?
No. It was Sandor carrying her in his arms as they were running towards the surface. For the first time since she came down here, she felt relieved. Yet, she was aware that it was just wishful thinking: a delusion.
“You can put me down now, Sandor. I’m awake again.”
He placed her down and helped her get her bearings. They then proceeded onwards.
The nightmares were starting to feel more and more real. If they continued at the same pace, she knew she wouldn’t make it. They had to reach the surface as soon as possible.
They made haste as much as their tired bodies would allow them, passing through canals that were getting broader and more spacious. They would soon reach the room with the many pillars. Safety was but a few moments away. As soon as they reached the other side, they would only have to climb up one more level before gaining the surface. They didn’t even hug the wall as they had done coming down; they just ran in a straight line between the pillars.
Vivian was gleeful; safety was so close! She would finally see the sunlight again and could finally return to her normal life. She had learned her lesson: the life of an adventurer was not for her.
The joy started to quickly become overtaken by numbness. First it spread across her face, then her right arm, then her left leg stopped working properly. She barely managed to let out a sound to alert the others that she was falling unconscious again. “Mmmmmm!” The others quickly turned toward her, but this was a mistake because, in the corner of her eye, as she was falling towards the ground, Vivian could see the creature that was hunting them. It lurked behind one of the pillars just ahead. She could do nothing to warn the others as she fell…
Everything was dark now. Vivian didn’t feel like opening her eyes. What was the point, anyways? She knew that she’d be greeted by the dark and cold forest if she did. She wished the wild dogs would just eat her and get it over with.
Still… something felt strange. She didn’t feel cold anymore, and the eerie sounds were gone. What’s more, there was the sound of a firepit crackling next to her. This was unexpected. She opened one eye and saw a figure standing over her. She then opened the other eye and could fully make out the figure — it was her own mother. She was back in her childhood again, but this time, much earlier. She was now just a babe lying in its cradle. It felt… good.
She truly felt safe again, even better than when Sandor was carrying her. Her mother was singing her a lullaby as she caressed Vivian’s face. Vivian smiled when she saw her mother’s smile. The nightmares were over. This dream could last a little longer.
But oh, the good dreams never do.
Suddenly, her mother’s smile turned into a grin. She grabbed baby Vivian by the throat and started strangling her. Vivian couldn’t even make a sound, as no air could escape her lungs. She would have preferred to have been left to the wild dogs. After a few moments, her eyes started to close. This was it, she thought… The end.
But it was not meant to be. She opened her eyes again and was met by the eyes of the captain, lying next to her. She laughed internally, giddily. Look at the old man: he got tired and decided to fall asleep on the job!
But no… he wasn’t asleep. His body was lifeless, just as Percy’s and Grigory’s were. The heshti’s blade had cleaved right through his armor. Not even solid steel could protect against its ferocious onslaught.
Vivian tried moving, but it was no use. Paralysis had kicked in, and her body felt totally numb. She was now a spectator in her own body; the only thing she could do was watch.
And that she did. She watched on as Sandor battled the scaley creature. Thanks to his years as a mercenary, his reflexes were quick; he ducked and weaved around the creature’s attacks, but he was quickly getting tired. Unexpectedly, the creature used its tail to sweep him off his feet. Once he fell to the ground, the creature took its giant blade and rammed it through Sandor’s chest, piercing the mail as easily as it had cleaved through the captain’s armor.
It then turned to Vivian, with a sadistic look in its eyes. It started licking its mouth.
Vivian now realized why the little heshti had poison on its blade. It was preparing her for its mother, just as a chef would prepare a piece of meat before cooking it.
The creature then stepped sideways into the shadows, disappearing from sight entirely. Vivian could hear it dropping its blade to the ground, then its footsteps, as it slowly crept close to her. Vivian could do nothing but lay there, in horror at what was about to happen. At that moment, she could relate only to the cattle in a slaughterhouse: an impending doom that was slowly, but surely, approaching her. She couldn’t bear to look anymore, so she closed her eyes. She felt the heshti’s approach, kneeling down to get closer, sniffing her entire body, and finally, its saliva dripping over her abdomen.