Aefion sat cross-legged on the green, grassy plain on the outskirts of Vigilance, his brow furrowed in concentration. It was the day following the tournament. After a healthy sleep in one of the Galladorians’ surprisingly comfortable beds, he had dodged the attention of both Lord Tenegrin and women alike and set out to study the satyr note in solitude. As he finished off a small loaf of honey bread and washed it down with a swig from his waterskin, he let his eyes wander across the form of the note. It was a poem. He read it aloud to himself, his finger tracing the words.
’Over hill and under sky, that is where my lair does lie.
Maybe wood and maybe stone, where satyr chief he sits on throne.
Little princess, oh so brave, locked ’tween earth and serpent cave.
Who will rescue her and when? Can you count from one to ten?’
He pondered while he contemplated. Shifting slightly amidst the grass, he glanced up towards the hills that formed a natural barrier between Vigilance and Darkroth. He scanned the various hills. Most of them formed simple, rounded lumps, as if something was pushing up from beneath a green carpet. They were bare except for a few rocks and the odd stunted tree. Aefion grinned to himself. The satyrs’ lair was inside a tree.
Standing, he brushed off his breeches, shouldered his backpack and set off towards the hills.
The first tree trunk was exactly that: an average, old tree trunk. A grey-furred squirrel scampered down one of its claw-like branches and disappeared into a small hole. Sauntering off to the next tree, Aefion flicked his forelocks out of his eyes, keeping a careful watch on the edge of Darkroth. The sun was still high in the sky, but anything could emerge from the dark tree line at any time.
The second trunk was relatively the same as the first, as he had thought it would be. Aefion considered the remaining trees. One of them in particular stood out from the rest. Even from here he could see that its trunk was wider and riddled with cracks. Narrowing his eyes, he approached with caution.
Giving the tree a wide berth, he formed his left hand into a fist and aimed at the ground. Slowly, the triangular gem on the back of his vambrace began to emit a slow, pulsating light. Suddenly, a bright pulse of red energy, like a miniature, magical arrow sped down, plunging into the ground mere metres from the tree trunk. Immediately a system of sharpened metal stakes burst up from beneath the earth’s surface, spraying dust and soil.
A slight smile spread across Aefion’s face. It was a nasty trap for the unwary.
Picking his way between the protruding iron spikes, he ran a slender hand across the gnarled trunk. Detecting a groove, he tugged open a small doorway. It had been camouflaged well, blending in by way of natural cracks.
Inside the tree the walls were strangely smooth. The air was musty and stale, and stank of unwashed fur. Small beams of light penetrated through tiny holes and shone down onto a wooden spearhead image on the floor. A rusty iron ring revealed it to be a trapdoor.
Aefion rolled back his shoulders and took a deep breath. Removing his cloak, he rolled it up and secured in his backpack. Then, pulling open the trapdoor, he glanced down at the well-crafted, wooden ladder that descended into darkness and leapt down with enthusiasm.
The tunnel was like a well. It was circular and smooth, with no footholds at all on its sides. A bit of a tough task getting down here without the ladder, Aefion thought as he descended. Perhaps it could be done with a Levitation spell, like those of the Magellans. But the Eldenians didn’t practice magecraft.
Finally reaching the bottom, Aefion stared down a long passage that stretched off into inky blackness. It was lit periodically by wall-mounted braziers, the flames dancing and casting eerie shadows.
‘How convenient,’ he said to himself, aiming his vambraces down the passage.
It was a well known fact amongst Eldenians and Galladorians alike that labyrinthine cave systems existed beneath the surface on the island continent of Belanyr. It was thought they had been formed long ago before the arrival of the Ancestors and had since been used by bandits, demons and wild beasts.
The caves were dark and yet fascinating places lit by the soft glow of luminescent crystals and surrounded by an aura of both natural beauty and shadowy enigma. The Elde themselves retreated to giant, subterranean caverns when the surface world was gripped in the icy claws of Isryn. Having no weather, the caves were warm and dry.
The wind whispered creepily as he edged along. Eventually he left it behind, but that was no comfort. There were no niches, no corners behind which he could hide from patrolling guards. His face set in a grimace, his ears straining for the slightest sound, he continued on down the passageway.
Occasionally, he heard a strange, grunting resonance, somewhere in the earth below him. He didn’t know how deep he was, but the pathway sloped downwards slightly. The flagstones beneath his boots were smooth and the air was warm and filled with the scent of alcohol. Occasionally a pair of crossed spears and a deer skull complete with antlers adorned the passage wall. The Black Satyrs may have been transformed, he realized, but they had not turned their back on their loves of hunting and feasting.
Eventually, he heard a faint snarling and bickering. Black Satyrs, he thought, fighting each other. The satyr voices grew louder and louder as he rushed along, until the passage opened up into a great cavern. Looking down a flight of stone steps, he saw the Black Satyr warband.
As he had thought, there were two satyrs locked in a vicious, one on one duel. They seemed to be involved in a typical challenge for leadership of the tribe. Like their cousin satyrs, their bodies were a mix of man and goat, with the small horns and pointed ears. But where the majority of satyrs had reddish-brown fur, these ones had hair of blackest night. All around the combatants, sitting at tables and lounging against the walls, were many other satyrs, eating, drinking and yelling their encouragement. Some were armed with a variety of bronze-tipped spears but none paid any attention as Aefion’s head emerged from the tunnel entrance.
In the centre of the encampment was the smouldering glow of a campfire, its smoke drifting upwards to vanish through a shaft in the ceiling. Around the cave were arranged several wooden tables upon which lay various plates and goblets. The light sparkled from the many facets of giant, translucent crystals jutting from the walls. Their natural beauty was complemented by oversized, bioluminescent fungi sprouting in violent clusters. On the ground near the base of one, he saw what he supposed the satyrs were fighting over: a large, gold bust of a familiar royal personage. Now where would they have obtained that, he wondered. He also noted several other tunnel mouths, one of which was crowned with a stone serpent. Automatically he knew that was where he had to go. But first, he had to deal with the satyrs.