Alexandre's Notes: The Catacombs
I have always hated the Catacombs. I hate the damp, musty atmosphere; the stench of centuries of moss and mold and rats’ dens. I hate the darkness that extends into oblivion, fought away by the frail flicker of torchlight but always lingering, subtly and imperceptibly, at the edge of my vision. I hate the cold. The dozens of meters of stone and dirt (and, in some places, even water) above the Catacombs insulate them from the outside world, leaving these ancient passages chilled, though they are habitable enough. It makes the skin crawl. But most of all, I hate their breath. The Catacombs exhale, almost so quietly as to be indiscernible, but as regularly as the sun rises each day or the tides roll in and out. If you stand absolutely still in one of the deep passages, you can feel it — a slow and smooth movement as the air flows in one direction and then, perhaps twenty seconds later, in the other.
I have been told that this effect is due to pressure differences in the tunnels. The immense length and complexity of the Catacombs causes variations in the air at small openings where the corridors intersect with a natural cave or an underground river, causing the atmosphere to flow back and forth in an attempt to equalize. I suppose this is plausible. In our scientific studies at the monastery, we have performed experiments using water and dye that demonstrate this very phenomenon. But something is different about the Catacombs. They are not a set of water-filled vessels set up in a precise, controlled manner. They feel almost organic. They feel alive.
When the monastery was first built, the Catacombs acted as a storage for the most precious of artifacts. Magical weapons, sacred books, holy potions…many of these have been lost to time — stolen, perhaps, by a rogue monk, or weathered into dust by the elements. This is what we have learned.
But monks never go rogue. And the Catacombs certainly do not have weather.
Over the centuries, these wandering tunnels have been extended in every direction, creating an unmappable labyrinth beneath the monastery that still has not been fully explored. It holds mostly books. The cool air and lack of sunlight makes it perfect for preserving fragile pages, some of which are older than most of the cities in Dántaine. There are artifacts, too (not as powerful as those lost ancient weapons, of course) but I have only seen a few of them, and they were, all in all, underwhelming. Some of the more valuable artifacts, however, are still used for certain advanced methods of prophecy that I have yet to learn. But these are stored deep underground and retrieved by experienced monks who know the routes by heart and will not get lost.
Speaking of which, did you know that in the past several years, three people have been lost within the Catacombs? Vanished completely — all except for one, whose skull and spine were found a couple weeks later by a group of trainees. I thank Ántou I was not among their number. I had no idea that a human body could completely decompose within two weeks, especially in such a controlled environment as the Catacombs. And I do wonder what happened to the rest of the skeleton. Taken away piece by piece, perhaps, by rats.
It may seem like a foolish mistake to become lost in such a well-documented and frequently-used place. But once you have been inside the Catacombs, you understand. You can imagine what it must be like — to wander past a corridor, or to take a wrong turn into an unlabeled passageway, or to go down a staircase one flight too many. The dark is oppressive, and it is easy to forget which way is North. And when you finally realize your mistake, when you turn back and find yourself at a dead end or an unfamiliar path, you flee deeper still into the maze. Perhaps you deny the inevitable, hoping for a rescue or for luck to guide you back to the surface. But in the end, you know that it is futile. Eventually, your torch burns out, the dim glow of embers just enough to show you your own hands. And you sit. You sit in the dark and the silence and stillness, and you listen to the Catacombs breathe.