The air this deep into the ruins was disgusting, oppressive, and uniquely scented. The cracks in the damp and crumbling walls provided no relief, revealed no landscape, they just gave way to oppressive dirt and rock. If you burned incense in a room down here, you could return years later to find its scent only mildly dissipated. I felt the rot in the air clinging to my lungs, coating them like oil. Given the strange fungal life we’d seen so far, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn the unusual odor was due to an abundance of spores. I imagined an impossible scenario where I died peacefully in my sleep decades from now and an autopsy revealed a bushel of mushrooms lodged in there, much to the bafflement of the local doctor.
My mildly amusing fantasy was interrupted by the whisper of one of my companions. Something was coming. Our Highwayman cocked his gun, the Leper readied his mighty sword, and I prepared my preliminary prayers to the Lord. The slow shuffling around the corner became clear to me now too.
The stale air stood even more still and our breathing became audible to each other as we braced ourselves for another grueling round of combat. Most abandoned places felt cold and uncaring, but these ruins felt actively malicious and cruel. What had apparently once been a warm and loving home had been warped and desecrated, twisted by its greedy sons into a maze of unfathomable evil. Their excavations into the earth below their home brought none of the power and riches that the rumors promised, just death and madness.
This place was an affront to the Lord and if my light was able to cast away even a fraction of the shadows that existed against His mighty will, then I would suffer whatever wounds, physical or mental, to do so. So what would I be smiting this time?
Giant slugs and spiders?
The shuffling grew louder.
Living mushrooms and slimes?
With proximity came clarity: it was the sound of footsteps.
Bandits and madmen?
We could see the vague shadows of a hand gripping the wall’s edge.
More of those blasphemous re-animated corpses?
As the rest of the silhouette stepped into view I called down the holy light, blinding the figure while the Highwayman interrogated it.
“Hold it! Who’s there?”
Instead of the usual ferocity, flurry of movement, and unfathomable sounds that started these battles the figure just held its thin arms in front of its eyes and whimpered “I mean you no harm.”
I dimmed the Lord’s light and took in the “man” that stood before us. There was no question of his humanity per say, but rather of his functionality. He was emaciated and pale, adorned only with tattered clothes and broken long-chained manacles clamped around his wrists. The most striking detail, though, were the scars: dozens upon dozens of them, some more aged than others, scattered across his skin like a dropped bundle of sticks.
“Please, help me get out of here. I’ve been trapped down here… so long.”
The Highwayman was a suspicious man under normal circumstances. He’d led a hard life, taking odd jobs and robbing banks when the work dried up. The only other thing I knew about him was that he’d been the lone survivor of a previous excavation, which was truly astonishing when you considered the wit and determination it’d take to survive the hostility of the ruins alone. So it made sense when he barked “Why should we trust you? How d’ja get here in the first place?”
“I was kidnapped by the cultists. I think they wanted me for a sacrifice, but the ritual… went wrong and I was able to escape.”
There was hesitation in his voice. He was holding back, but perhaps with good reason. We’d run into those cultists before and the power they had wielded in battle only hinted at the madness they might be able to inflict on a captive. We all had things we’d seen in the ruins we wished to never think of again and he surely felt the same about his torturous time with the cult.
The Leper, of course, immediately took sympathy on the tortured soul and sheathed his sword. I knew nothing of the Leper, but I sensed a piousness and decency about him that only those who’ve flourished despite true suffering seem to have. He did not speak, only extending his hand to the man in solidarity.
The Highwayman grumbled, “Keep in mind this gun of mine don’t leave my hand, should yah think of making trouble.”
Our newest party member nodded in acknowledgement, his gaze locked on the barrel of the gun that was equally focused on him. It was then that I noticed it: some weight behind his eyes, something dark deep within him. It almost felt… primal.
We continued on our way through the winding halls and crumbling rooms, stopping to search abandoned crates and bookcases. It was uncommon to find anything worth taking, but we’d found enough valuables along the way that this looting became something of a habit. We’d made our way to a library of sorts: lined with collapsing wall-to-wall shelves and populated with half-burned books. We were all indulging in our habit, but I was ignoring the handful of strongboxes and trinket-filled desk drawers in favor of the cryptic texts scattered about. The abundance of forbidden texts down here made it easy for me to learn about the dark arts and while I was reluctant to pursue anything that endangered my soul, I knew it would prove necessary to surviving this journey.
“Stay away from there!” screeched the Highwayman with unprecedented fear and anger.
I was startled by such volume, as we hadn’t spoken so loudly since before we entered the ruins. It was dangerous to speak that way in a place that can echo a noise for miles. The object of the Highwayman’s ire was the manacled man, who had his hands up and was standing stock still next to a small fountain in the corner. It had no water running, but had a stained and mildewed basin. What was truly strange was that the centerpiece was no angel, bird, or even abstract architecture, but rather an oddly detailed tentacle. Our party had seen one or two similar stoneworks but never bothered them, having more than once learned the lesson of staying away from anything that hinted at the unholy so strongly. The newcomer was apparently still naive.
The Highwayman brought his voice back down and said “Did ya touch it?”
“Good. Don’t. Lost some good men that way.”
It occurred to nobody in the room to inquire any further. It was not our place and we didn’t have the spare sanity to handle such things. I returned to my texts when I felt the slightest shiver on the back of my neck. Was the Lord warning me? Of what? I stood to attention, gripping my holy book tightly. I looked over at the manacled man and he returned the gaze, but with intense fear. There was a beat and I understood.
Unlike our last encounter, there was no time for preparation. A moment after the words left my mouth, cultists burst through the door we’d yet to clear. The Highwayman acted with his usual superb speed, letting off a pistol shot mid-dive behind a desk. Sadly his aim wasn’t as impressive and he only managed to clip the arm of one of the cultist brutes. I was already positioned beside a desk, so I had easy cover, but the Leper and the manacled man weren’t so lucky. The Leper was out in the open and his sword was sheathed, but on the opposite side of the room as the cultists. The manacled man was still at the fountain corner, which was adjacent to them. He ducked into the shadows and curled up, hoping his small stature would hide him.
There were four cultists: two brutes and two shamans. The brutes were massive beings of mostly muscle, probably supernaturally enhanced at the cost of their humanity. They were equipped with clunky gauntlet claws, essentially three swords attached to their hands. The shamans, always women for some reason, used their staffs to cast strange unholy spells, but each shaman’s magic was slightly different. Oh and they could see just fine despite wearing thick black blindfolds, which, while strange, was fairly useless knowledge combat-wise.
The bleeding brute leapt forward towards the Highwayman’s cover, determined to retaliate. Clearly the Highwayman wasn’t expecting such quick reaction, as he was reloading. I started to chant a stun prayer, but there was no need. The Leper darted forward with incredible speed, my vision blurring body and metal together as his sword swung downward, smashing into the ground. My eyes and brain caught up and registered the outcome. It looked like there was a section missing from the brute’s arm, as if someone had erased a few inches. The Leper’s sword had completely severed it, but at the cost of having those claws lodge themselves in his shoulder and upper arm. The brute’s delayed scream of pain boomed louder than overhead thunder, but the Leper made no noise as he discarded the arm, even though it took a chunk out of him in the process. The brute went to swing again, but was greeted by the barrel of a newly loaded gun and was swiftly removed from the fight.
To push our advantage, I’d have to take care of those shamans. I shouted the prayer of my Lord at one of them, successfully stunning her. As she collapsed, a slight glow around her, I heard the slight “thump” of her head hitting the stone floor. She’d be out for a while. The other shaman started muttering, practically hissing the foreign words through lips pursed with anger. Shadows slinked up from the floor, curling up the staff like snakes and gathering together into a ball around the tip. I was mesmerized by their movement, swept up in the surreality and a tad jealous I couldn’t wield light similarly. My stunned fascination kept me immobile for a second too long and I was swept off my feet as shadowy tentacles burst from the staff, stretching across the room and smashing into my chest. As my body collided with a bookshelf, which shattered easily, and then the wall behind it, I felt something in my body crack. A rib probably, given that impact.
I managed to keep my eyes open and stay conscious, but the wind was completely knocked out of me. I sat there wheezing, trying to regain my ability to breathe, but the musty and dust-filled air offered no relief. The Leper stormed forward offensively towards the shaman, his gouged arm dangling behind him as he ran. Before he could get close though, the remaining brute intercepted his path and the Leper narrowly avoided another claw strike. The Highwayman let loose a shot to cover him, which skimmed the neck enough to distract and hurt the brute, but not permanently impede it. The Highwayman cursed his shoddy aim this battle and ducked back down to reload.
The Leper heaved his sword and readied himself to attack again, but I could tell from the writhing shadows around the shaman that her counterattack was already poised. I tried to warn the Leper, but words require air and my lungs still had none to offer. As the shadow tentacles flew towards him the Leper defensively raised his sword, but there was no collision. The shadows just… passed through him. The Leper was stunned, but soon that surprise on his half masked face morphed into absolute terror and anguish. A pained croak, the most I’d ever heard from him, escaped his throat as he collapsed to the ground and began shaking violently. My recent research helped me recognize it: a nightmare spell, designed to make you relive your greatest traumas and worst fears. It’d take some time, some prayer, and a good woman but he’d be fine… probably.
The brute, its wound shaken off, advanced to finish the weakened soul. “Leper!” exclaimed the Highwayman as he vaulted over the desk. He ran toward the crumpled figure, drawing his dagger from its sheath. The brute ignored him, determined to wipe the Leper out. As it raised its metal claws in the air for the death blow, the Highwayman dashed across its vision, landing just outside the brute’s range with surprising grace. It took both the brute and I a few seconds to realize what the Highwayman had accomplished with such a strange attack, but as blood started to leak from a thin and long cut in the brute’s forehead I understood. The brute grunted, furiously wiping away at the blood that kept dripping into its eyes. The wiping became more and more exaggerated, slowly turning into a furious flailing as the brute lashed out against its blindness.
The Highwayman ducked a passing swipe and picked up the Leper, whose convulsing had stopped. As he turned to bring him back to cover, he stumbled and then froze. The shaman cackled, a single tentacle extended from her staff to the Highwayman’s ankle. That extra second in the range of the brute was all that was needed, as he was struck in the head by a passing arm and knocked to the ground. The brute, realizing it’d hit someone, re-oriented itself in that direction, and readied its claws for a more deadly strike. I begged the Lord for strength as I croaked out a stun spell, but the coughs confused my words and the sharp jab of a cracked rib weakened my will power. The brute’s fist came down and I closed my eyes. It was over.
The vibration of an unfamiliar roar shook my eyes open again. The brute’s fist was suspended in air, the claws paused mere inches from my companions. There was a chain wrapped around the brute’s arm, its links leading back to the corner with the fountain. From out of the shadows stepped a grotesque beast, a red-skinned devil with the teeth and claws of a wolf, the stature and build of a bear, and the horns of a ram. Where had it come from? Would its bloodlust end with the cultists or would it come for us too? How could we even begin to stop that… that monster?
The beast heaved back the ensnaring chain, pulling the brute off balance and bringing it to the floor. The predator leapt on its prey with uncanny speed for its size, its claws digging into the flesh of the almost-man that I now almost felt sorry for. The brutes death would have been quick and incredibly painful if not for its companion, as the shaman’s shadow tentacles wrapped themselves around the beasts neck and head, dragging the devil off her companion and slamming it into a bookcase. Unfortunately for her, the beast recovered quickly. She cast tentacle after tentacle, both tangible and not, but the beast kept coming and eventually overcame her. It took seconds for the body to become completely unrecognizable as human. The brute attempted to intervene, but the Highwayman scrambled to his feet and sliced its throat from behind. A more merciful death than it would have received at the beast’s hands.
Finally able to breath with some amount of regularity, albeit not painlessly, I too rose to my feet. The Leper propped himself upon his sword. The beast, bored with its prey, moved on to the unconscious shaman I’d stunned earlier. To die in her sleep was a mercy that blasphemer didn’t deserve. After finishing her off, the beast turned towards us. It walked slowly, each footstep almost as loud as its deep and labored breathing. The chains it was dragging clinked quietly, chains that were attached to… manacles? Wait… could it be? The beast roared a final time as its body contorted, shrinking and changing color. We all wanted to look away from the transformation, but we couldn’t. After what felt like minutes of convulsions and groans, the manacled man stood before us once again.
“Well… you know the truth now. I… am an Abomination. If you want to kill me, I’d understand, but I can’t guarantee that It won’t try and stop you.”
We were still dumbstruck, unsure of what to say. How do you address someone that’s simultaneously the most pathetic man you’ve ever met and also the most terrifying beast to walk this earth. The Abomination squirmed uncomfortably in anticipation of our response. For once it was I who spoke first.
“Do you have it under control?”
“Uh, for the most part? I can’t always control when it comes out, but I can stop it from hurting people I care about… assuming I have something else to attack nearby.”
The Highwayman sighed, sheathing his dagger and pistol. “Well that’ll just have to do then. We need all the help we can get I s’pose. Vestal, get to work healing Leper and yourself. We need to keep moving.”
The Leper smiled the faintest of smiles, patted the Abomination on the shoulder, and then followed after the Highwayman. I leaned over to the Abomination and whispered, “The Lord doesn’t approve of alcohol, but if- I mean when- we make it back to town I think we all owe you a drink.”
The Abomination smiled weakly and for a second I couldn’t see that weight in his eyes, that burden of the beast within.
He followed behind me as we joined our companions, resuming our journey into… The Darkest Dungeon.