Paolo and the Witch walked in silence up the grassy hill, moving between the uneven grave plots and crumbling tombstones. As they walked, Paolo could see the walking dead watching them, studying them with a primal hunger that he prayed he would never know. Despite their great number, with four or five always lumbering within a few yards, they remained passive enough to keep Paolo from trying anything.
The Witch herself seemed to be in high spirits, whistling some nameless tune as she twirled her Linden wood cane in lazy circles, her form fitting black dress somehow staying free of dirt or moisture that seemed to pervade the very air of the island. Between the bitter wind and the growing fog, Paolo couldn’t even begin to see how anybody would willingly subject themselves to living in such conditions.
His thoughts, which were growing ever darker, were cut off as the Witch abruptly stopped before a moss covered crypt, twin hooded statues flanking the stone doors, brass sconces bearing dying embers shedding an aura of light and warmth over them that Paolo couldn’t help but to revel in. The Witch spun on her heel, a Cheshire grin splitting her face as she clasped her hands behind her back, thrusting her chest forward.
“Here we are my darling!” She cooed, bringing a faint blush to Paolo’s cheeks from the sudden change in attitude. “This is where we part ways and you get to prove your worth. Go into the crypt and make your way through the catacombs until you reach the Undercroft.”
The Undercroft… the fabled city of Witches and home to the Poveglia School of Sorcery. Paolo could only guess as to why she would send him, a Templar, to the most carefully guarded secret of the supernatural world. Marco had brought them to Poveglia to hunt the dead that he knew roamed here, to better hone their skills under pressure. To think that the fabled Black City of Undercroft was this close to the Vatican... it was almost laughable!
He swallowed his fear in an audible gulp, looking from the sealed stone doors to the Witch and back again.
She smiled even wider, revealing rows of glistening sharp teeth. “The spirits can tell you’re frightened. That’s good! That means you might just survive the catacombs and make it to town. There you’ll learn why I spared you instead of adding you to my collection.”
She turned to the crypt, muttering in an alien tongue as her eyes began to spark an unholy shade of green. As if struck by an unseen giant, dust erupted from the seams of the two great stone slabs before they began to groan. Slowly, the titanic slabs grinded along the stone floor of the crypt backwards, into the darkness, before sliding behind the walls. The crypts entryway was dark and cold, like the maw of some infernal creature held wide for unwary travelers to enter. Stale air and mold filled Paolo’s nostrils as he coughed and hacked, trying to clear his throat of the centuries old dust and grime shaken loose by the towering pieces of worked stone.
“If you can’t handle a little soot than you might not be as valuable as the spirits claim,” The Witch said doubtfully, appraising him as if he were a fresh side of beef.
One she would like to eat.
Paolo decided that the crypt would probably be safer than staying with the Witch of questionable sanity and reached for the hilt of his sword, just for reassurance, before slowly making his way up the uneven steps and past the twin statues and their somewhat comforting light.
The comfort didn’t last long, for as soon as he entered, the great stone slabs began dragging themselves back into place, slowly sealing him within the sepulcher. Spinning about in fright, he caught sight of the Witch’s face, a smile tugging at her lips as a mob of shambling corpses were slowly surrounding her.
“Turn back now little boy and I’ll add you to my collection,” She said before blowing him a kiss, “I know you’ll do fine. The spirits never lie!”
Paolo couldn’t think of anything to say as the light began to dim, the air began to grow stale and the darkness closed in around him like a crushing weight. The very last thing he saw before the light died was the milky white eyes of a dozen dead men glimmering in the dying embers flanking what was the seal of his own tomb.
Striking a sharpened piece of flint against a flattened square of steel, Paolo gave a cry of success as the end of his make-shift torch finally erupted in flames. He’d had to douse the old piece of dried wood with the last of his whiskey after wrapping the end with torn strips of his own woolen shirt, but the resulting warmth and light were well worth the cost. Holding the torch high into the air, his other hand gripping his sword tightly, he slowly made his way along the walls of the crypt, looking for… whatever it was he was supposed to find in here.
Two large sarcophagi, the lids cracked and fallen within the verdigris stained limestone coffins, sat flanking a wide set of marble stairs descending down into the darkened earthen womb of the graveyard. Faded mosaics depicting skeletal dancers and black robed figures decorated the walls, long fractured pieces of tile broken away by time.
“Guess the only option is down…” Paolo muttered to himself, frowning. In all the stories, going down was rarely a good move. Nevertheless, he slowly began to make his way down the stairs, his footfalls echoing throughout the cavernous crypt.
The flickering light of the torch pierced through the darkened veil of the ever expanding crypt, the stairs slowly going from finely crafted, albeit aged, marble to a steeper, more grainy rock stairwell hugging the wall to a cavern so large, Paolo could neither see the top nor the bottom with his feeble torchlight. The crackling of the flames, along with the echoes of his footsteps, were only drowned out by the sound of rushing water far below. The scent of stale air and saltwater filled the cavern, and the unprotected stairs had a slick sheen to them from the cold humidity hanging in the air like a dank cloud.
“Must be some sort of river leading from the sea…” Paolo muttered to himself as he carefully descended the stairs, hugging the smooth wall as he went.
Paolo didn’t know how long he climbed down those stairs, or how far below the surface he truly was, but just as his torch began to peter out he heard it.
The crumbling of stone, like gravel being stepped upon by a hefty man in boots.