Waking up to a crack from a whip across the back isn’t any way any man should be awakened. Alas, dear friends, twas how James was awoken. Shaking his head groggily, he rubbed at his aching head and stinging back, blearily looking around to try and figure out what exactly had happened to him. Last he remembered, he was serving as a guard for a Jewish Caravan traveling through the Northern regions of West Francia towards Bretagne. Spice merchants, they’d employed him and three others to act as guards for the journey.
For forty shekels a piece, we were more than happy to provide the service to the superstitious Heebs. They truly believed the hills of the area to possess mad ghosts of men and women buried at the crossroads, of the beasts that roamed the wood looking for the tender flesh of children, and most of all they feared the Slender. A tall and gaunt figure without a face, the Slender was said to scare you and, in your moment of fright, snatch away your soul through your opened mouth.
Well, judging by the knot on the back of his head, James was willing to bet they’d all been caught up by a group of people that liked spreading the rumors of all the beasties and nasty’s that supposedly haunted the wilds of Gaul. Looking up from his prone position on the ground, he groaned at the sight of iron bars, and a burly looking, whip wielding thug with a sneer full of yellowed teeth.
“Great,” James said, letting himself fall prone to the ground once more with a wet splat.
James winced as the whip snaked between the bars well enough to crack across his back once more, rolling over and edging his way to the back of his cell, however small it was. Set into unworked stone, he truly had no space to really even stand if so desired, and a crack above him allowed a continual drip of water into his cramped quarters, creating a perpetual puddle that he’d been rolling about in.
“We’re not bandits, you simple minded cretin!” The man sneered, twirling the whip loosely about the floor. “We’re followers of the Horned One.”
Great, James thought, rolling his eyes, Cultists. Damn countryside is getting full of ‘em.
Cultists to various dark or pagan God’s were commonplace in the wilds of Gaul, far from the bustling urban centers like Paris. The Word of God hadn’t made it this far, or hadn’t made it successfully. Most Cultists were mere lunatics and madmen that polite society had cast away, their only crime being perpetually on the verge of violence or possessing a horrifying temper. Exile was best for them, and sadly they usually ended up beneath one banner, the banner of the craziest amongst them.
Judging by the semi-official looking leather jerkin this goon wore, emblazoned with a horned diamond, James could hazard to guess where he was.
In a Cultist’s prison.
“You’re good with a sword, right?” The jailer asked James, cracking the whip against the wall, a torrent of cries and pleas letting James know he wasn’t alone. “The put you in the fighters block for a reason, right?”
“Oh yes, sure!” I said, holding up my calloused hands as if they were evidence. “Been using a sword all my life, why, damn things almost like a second hand to me.”
The guard squints at James before grabbing a rusty ring of keys… three keys to be precise. That is an odd thing to see, James thought to himself as the heavyset man began unlocking his door, you’d think they’d have more keys.
James scampers out of the narrow door, standing up with the help of the wall, popping his sore back as he finally got to stand up. He closed his eyes in bliss as he popped his back and stretched his arms before remembering why he was actually standing in the first place. Opening his eyes, he spun to look for the guard and see what the man wanted him to do…
…only to end up looking about two feet too high. The sneering guard with a whip was almost a dwarf when compared to James, who had an easy two and a half feet on him, as well as half a stone in weight.
Before he could get any plan into motion to dole out some justice to the minute man, the whip cracked painfully close to his ear, sending him back against the stone wall, panting as he rubbed at the aching spot.
“March pretty boy,” The dwarf chuckled darkly, twirling the whip back for another strike.
James chose to march down the dark, cavernous tunnel, the only light coming from the occasional sconce in the wall, usually a skull with a candle inside it, his only companion a surly sadistic dwarf that seemed to get off on hurting people bigger than him.
The sound of their footsteps, along with the dwarf’s labored breathing, was the only thing echoing about the tunnel for what felt like ages until James could finally see a light ahead at the end of the tunnel, and hear the steady hum that came from man voices speaking at once. Looking back at his guide, James decided to give the squat little toad the slip and burst into a dead sprint. Ignoring the foul midget’s cry, he ran as fast and as hard as he could towards the light, until he burst from the tunnel at his fastest.
Slamming into a poorly built iron rail, the metal bending loudly as James fell onto his back cursing and swearing everything that he could. Beneath his pounding fists he idly noted that wherever he was no, the floor was at least wooden instead of stone.
“Brothers! Sisters!” Came a shrill cry from below, echoing up along the curved walls and high cavern ceiling. Oh great… James bitterly thought. More Cultists… “Gather for tonight’s homage to the great Horned One!”
A chorus of mumbling and laughter broke through what sounded like a crowd, James noted sourly as he rolled to his side, pushing himself up to his knees. His friend the jailer had just caught up with him, panting and gasping for air now, with his hands on his knees as the small ball of greasy fat and muscle fought to remain standing.
Looking down, James could see he was at what appeared to be the top of a great carving of a human skull with prominent horns leading up from its temples, curling like a rams horns before swooping up and back, almost like antlers. Standing atop the skull, where a small wooden platform had been set coming from its own stone tunnel, was a miserly looking grey-robed man, half his face covered in weeping boils, the other half bearing a brand of the Horned One.
“He must not go out terribly often…” James muttered to himself. James’s own platform sat atop one of the stone horns, and overlooked a great auditorium, filled with grey-robed men and women, and even children, dancing about the seats surrounding a deep looking pit.
“Tonight the Horned One will dine on the souls of the wicked and the just! If the sacrifice lives, we shall not release the plague upon the merchants. If he dies, the merchants go free to spread the Horned One’s hunger to all they would trade with, those struck down by the illness fodder for our Lord’s unending hunger!”
“Ok, I don’t like the sound of any of this…”