Theodore felt a creeping unease as they approached the memorial. The wind was still and the summer crickets grew quiet. The evening sky burned and would soon grow dim, but Theodore knew he did not have the time to put this off until tomorrow.
The trees gave way to a clearing. Hundreds and hundreds of long copper spikes dotted the ground all around and peeked through the weeds and growth. They were bent and worn and greened from time but each marked the grave of a soldier who fought in the Great War against the Devil King.
Theodore’s skin prickled as they passed rows and rows of grave markers. At the heart of the burial ground stood their destination: A massive stone crypt with doors wide open.
There was no sound but the crunch of their footsteps. Somewhere below them was the Hollow, an underground township teeming with ghasts. Theodore wished Oboe would say something. Her silence only made him more nervous.
“You’ve been down here before, right?” Theodore said. “…It’s safe?”
Oboe looked embarrassed. “I’ve never gone inside before. It looks so dark and gloomy that I was too scared to go by myself.” She glanced back. “I’ve only ever met ghasts who like to hang out on the surface.”
This was not comforting. Theodore depended on Oboe’s knowledge of the Whirlwood and its creatures more than he cared to admit. He did not like going into a place like this blind.
They stopped on the threshold of the tomb. Weathered stone steps descended into dark below. On the interior walls and ceiling there was an engraved mural illustrating the Great War: The rise of the Devil King, the hordes falling upon the eight tribes, the hero Laien rising to unite the humans into one nation, and the peace treaties that banished the ghasts below the surface. It was elementary history Theodore took for granted. Here, the reality of the past felt real for the first time. He looked up at the towering image of the Devil King, all sharp angles, etched in gold and black amidst his army of the wicked. Theodore took a shallow breath.
“Why do they have to live under all these dead bodies?” Oboe said.
Theodore bent down to unpack the lantern. He lit it and handed it to Oboe.
“They lost the war. It’s a sort of punishment, I suppose.” He tried to recall the wording of the original decree. “Something about being beneath the lowliest of the fallen.” It wasn’t a topic he spent much time thinking about. Thinking about it now was odd. The treaties must’ve changed everything about how ghasts used to live. It made him think of Silas and how angry he was about how humans treated creatures. How many other ghasts resented humans enough to want to hurt them?
Oboe held out the lantern, casting shadows all around. Her hooves clacked against the stone steps as she led the way down. The murals gave way to bare stone as the stairs plunged deeper and deeper.
The lantern light pooled at the foot of the stairs. Bones were strewn at the foot of the stairs. Skulls, femurs and ribs, all human and all scattered floor of the chamber. Theodore felt his throat tighten. Were these victims? Was it a warning? What was waiting further inside?