Turning to the noise, he quickly swung his blade up to block the downward strike of a rusted scimitar. With a shriek of steel upon steel accompanied by the maddened laughter of a black-skinned figure, swathed in rotten rags so old that they’d melded to the creatures leathery hide. Skin drawn taut over vine-like tendons and bone, all black as night barring for the spots where the skin had been rubbed raw to reveal the yellowed bone beneath, the creature limped down the steps from where it had crawled up, narrow bony fingers worn raw from the climb up the steep cliff to where Paolo had been slowly moving.
The dead man’s face was contorted into a rictus grin, his eyeless sockets staring back at Paolo with an unholy gleam glistening within the cracked bone. Paolo could hear similar cackles echoing up from below, the scraping of bone against stone as more of the creatures made their way up the slope.
“Join us Templar!” The thing hissed in a low, raspy voice. “Join us, and forever serve in glory, a warrior eternal!”
Paolo replied by using his torch as a club, hammering the creatures face in a shower of sparks and cinders. The unholy thing howled, clutching at its smoldering rags with its free hand just as Paolo kicked it hard in the stomach, twisting his blade up and around to disarm the skeletal creature of it’s ancient sword, sending it clattering over the edge of the steps and into the river below.
The twisted thing lunged forward, small flames smoldering from the decrepit rags covering its body, only to be rewarded with another fiery slam from Paolo’s impromptu cudgel, sending it stumbling down the slippery steps past him. Turning with the creatures falling form, Paolo savagely kicked it in the side of its head before bringing his sword down point first into the partially caved in skull.
Yanking his gladius free from the rotting man’s ruined head, Paolo quickly sheathed it and began pulling rags from his attackers corpse, wrapping them around his dying torch for added fuel. The distant cackles coming from below were slowly growing louder, their echoes more precise. Once the flames of his torch were once again crackling freely he began quickly descending the stairs once more, hugging the wall while wiping his sword free of gore and rot on his leggings.
The stairs grew narrower and narrower as Paolo quickly made his way down, the constant sound of running water and crashing waves filling his ears, along with the distant echo of mad laughter and the rattling of bones. As the stairs finally became merely a narrow slope of slick stone, Paolo caught sight of what he prayed was to be his saving grace.
The bottom of the slope was a wide flat circle of stone jutting out from the cavern wall, water rushing past with terrifying speed beneath an old and weathered pier of dark, moldy wood. At the end of the pier, lashed to the wobbling structure with rusty chains, was a long, shallow boat, the front and back curling up into a loosely wound wooden springs where dimly lit lanterns hung.
And standing at the helm of the boat was a man bearing a long, narrow pole swathed in moth-eaten black robes, a hood drawn up to cast dark shadows over his face. Fleshless hands gripped the pole tightly, a long red and black centipede writhing along the thin cords of muscle and sinew laced over salt-encrusted bone. One hand moved fluidly, beckoning Paolo to come closer. With the raucous cries of the dead echoing from high above, the grinding of their blades against the stone wall as the ran to catch up to him, Paolo decided to take a chance and trust the spirits himself.
Paolo rushed forward to the edge of the creaking pier, stopping just out of reach of the robbed ferryman. Thinking back on the stories he’d heard as a boy, he quickly rooted about in his satchel, cursing as he heard the cackles of the damned slowly growing closer.
Letting out a whoop of joy, Paolo pulled two silver coins from the bottom of his weather-beaten satchel, holding them in a clenched fist before the ferryman, who merely leaned forward to peer at what the young Templar was offering him.
In a voice as thick as mud, he looked at Paolo and said. “Thank you friend, if it’s just the same I’ll merely take you to your next path without payment. Though I appreciate the offer.”
Paolo, at a loss for words, cast a worried look over his shoulder. “How can I know that you won’t hurt me? From what I’ve heard I’m supposed to pay you for your services.”
“By all means, we can stand here and debate the need to pay me as long as you wish. I’m sure the vagabonds coming down the walls as we speak will offer a unique perspective that I for one will most certainly enjoy.”
Paolo growled, whipping his gladius out, glaring at the hunched figure. “You better not try anything weird with me.”
“Perish the thought…” The creature wheezed, using the end of his warped pole to undo the frayed rope from the end of the pier. “Hop on while you can and I’ll take you where you need to go.”
Between the howls of the maddened dead behind him and the strange figure before him, Paolo muttered a quick prayer to God Almighty before hopping from the pier into the narrow boat, looking out over the foggy water of the rushing river with no small amount of trepidation. Turning to the ferryman, who had yet to reveal his face, Paolo moved to light the lanterns hanging from the curved sections of the boat.
“Not a wise idea,” The ferryman warned over the creaking of the wood as he pushed along the riverbed. “The light tends to attract, well, unwanted attention.”
“Is the attention from anything that can hurt us?” Paolo demanded, casting a critical eye over the hooded figure.
Said figure merely shrugged. “Not in so many ways, though they can be something of a hassle for those not truly prepared for them.”
“Then I’d rather have the small comfort of a light, to ward away all of this doom and gloom.” Paolo replied, closing the glass lantern definitively, smiling at the dim light radiating out from behind the smudged glass. Dropping down beneath the lantern, one hand holding his torch over the edge of the boat lazily as he rubbed his face with his other hand.
And for several moments this is how the two men sailed the stygian waters beneath the crumbling mortar and stone of Poveglia Islands catacombs, the ferryman guiding them deeper and deeper into foggy waters while Paolo muttered prayers to himself and to God, in hopes of finding some form of salvation from the strange situation he found himself in.
The silence was finally broken by the ferryman, who cleared his throat hoarsely, causing Paolo to jolt from his semi-lucid state. “So what brings a practicing Catholic to the Undercroft, if I may be so bold to ask?”
“Like you guessed earlier, I’m a Templar. I’ve been trained to fight darkness wherever it may hide.” Paolo recited from memory, doing his best to sound brave.
If only his voice didn’t crack when he spoke, the ferryman might believe him.
“Is that so? You’re the first Templar I’ve had the pleasure of escorting across the Misty River, so I must say I am impressed so far.”
“Impressed? How so?” Paolo asked, somewhat puzzled.
“Well, from what I’d heard of your order, you weren’t ones to tolerate Pagan practices such as witchcraft. And yet here you are about to enter the largest settlement of practicing witches and warlocks in all of Europe.”
“Not by my choice mind you,” Paolo said with a hint of disdain. “Some crazed witch practically pushed me down here, threatening to kill me if I couldn’t make it to the Undercroft.”
“Curious… how very curious…” The ferryman muttered, groaning as he pushed the boat to the left, entering a somewhat wider tunnel.
Whereas the last tunnel was mostly earthen with some stonework poking out from the darkness here and there, this tunnel was obviously a tad bit more maintained. Black tiles, festering with grime and mold, glimmered back from the shining light of the lantern and Paolo’s torch. A fine mist began to roll out over the black water, ethereal shadows darting to and fro beneath the surface, just short of breaking the rippling waves.
“What are those?” Paolo found himself asking, looking to the strange creatures as they began to surround the boat, swimming beneath it and around it like malevolent otters.
“Tatzelwurms… they’re from England, nasty little buggers that feast on souls rather than flesh and bone.” The ferryman replied, pushing along the bottom with his crooked pole with considerable effort. “The bones of countless men and women litter these waters, slowly turning to silt as time wears on. Not many save for a skilled practitioner of the Black Arts can handle a Tatzelwurm, let alone a swarm of them.”
“I’ve never heard of them… and all I’ve done all my life is research the things that go bump in the night!” Paolo exclaimed, looking from the water back to the cloaked ferryman.
Shrugging, the ferryman pulled up his weathered pole and sat down to relax for a moment, heaving a sigh. “That would be because you learned at the feet of holy men. Which don’t get me wrong, want to learn about the supposed pure and righteous, no better spot to learn. But if you want to learn about what goes bump in the night… well, you have to find something that does the bumping to teach you.”