Every story, every book and every legend has a beginning. In this land those legends are of heroes, might and magic. But eventually, no matter how grand the tale or rich the person, the story moves forward, and the story changes. Each one of these lives is like a chapter in a gigantic book on some distant dusty shelf. Or perhaps some are books all their own. In either case, there is only one way to reach the next chapter and the chapter after that, and only one way to ever reach the end, the page must be turned.For one young boy, a Prince, it was doing just that. The page was turning…
Here, only silence had lease. Lost in the western mountains, and long forgotten was a place far worse than most nightmares. To those who suffered here, it was called ‘Minux Slavain’, native for ‘Prison of the Damned’. It was by most accounts a dungeon, but by all accounts, the closest to hell the overworld could ever be. It was a prison, but murderers were to good to be housed here. Buried deep within the cliff, it was a forty minute journey through the pitch black maze of tunnels to the entrance. No man could ever escape, and if by some miracle they did make it out of the compound, whatever unfathomable beasts lurked in the caves would certainly let them go no further. A mammoth steel gate guarded the entrance. Inside of which was the courtyard, above was the carved stone ceiling, seven stories high. Torchlight was the only light this far underground, dimly lit passages branched out, there were thousands of cells in all, but only a small fraction had not been abandoned. No man has ever, and no man will ever leave here alive. Here is where the damned are sent. A population of over two hundred fifty who hadn’t seen sunlight in years. They were the cannibals, insane beyond reprieve, or enemies of the state, no God could ever have mercy on their souls, for down here, God would dare not go.
Throughout the dungeon, chanting could be heard. It was again almost time. The courtyard was dimly lit, but lit well enough to see the look of horror on even the most hardened faces. One of the prisoners was about to receive the only punishment that was handed out down here, if only it were death, things would be so much simpler. The man was likely eighty, or older. When he was four, he did not bow the King of Dorado as he passed, many generations later, he was still paying for that crime. Deemed an enemy of the state, here he was sent. It did not matter that the King had long died or that his family no longer ruled any land. He’d done the unthinkable, survived here over two years, most didn’t make it half that long. He had, and seventy-nine more. He was known to all, and had the scars to prove it. Now he was on his knees, thin from starvation, bruised from a beating, and a four inch gash across his forehead from a metal bar. The prisoners gathered around as he screamed, Kron was about to deliver his punishment. No man, let alone this one, could defend himself from this place, not to mention the tyranny of the warden Kron. This battered and bloodied old man had lost his arm in a mining cave in last year, and since they offered no medical attention, he had to remove it himself with only a rusted dagger and a few handfuls of dirty water as antiseptic. The inherent infection had spread through most of his chest, and left it a dark blue, he could barely breath. The prisoners became quiet as Kron spoke.
"No one tries to escape and survives"
The old man couldn’t breath, let alone respond.
"I…Wasn’t trying to escape, my cell door was left open".
"Disobey me, and your life is forfeit".
As the old man cried, the crowd again chanted. Among them were familiar faces. In the shadows waited a mysterious man, anxious but not antsy. Those who knew him called him ‘Severen’, he looked on grimly as the crowd continued to chant for blood, there was no doubt they would soon see it. Another figure approached Severen, it was girl and from her sleeve she brought forward a jagged piece of metal, but with torn cloth tied around the handle it was more a makeshift dagger. Severen took it discreetly, with it hidden in his palm he began to push his way through the crowd toward the front. Everyone again went silent as Kron raised his hand.
"As you know, there is only one punishment I assign".
The old man pleaded.
"Please… I have done nothing. Surely you wouldn’t…"
"I would", Kron interrupted. "There is nothing I enjoy more than this".
Throughout the entire prison, it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. From one of his guards, Kron was handed a knife. The man closed his eyes as Kron rose it high into the air. Striking it downward, it pierced the man’s chest, and out poured his blood. In a circular motion, Kron cut the man’s flesh, and then pushed harder to slice through the bone. Reaching in, Kron pulled the man’s heart and held it in the torchlight. Even separated, it still beat briefly. He held it infront of the man, as his eyes rolled backwards in his head. Perhaps the last thing the old man ever saw was Kron leaning over and biting into it.
Even though they had seen him do this dozens of times before, many of the onlookers still threw up. The old man collapsed and to no-one’s surprise died before their eyes. Unhindered, Severen pushed his way forward. The prison dogs were let loose and dragged the man’s hollowed remains away, his blood stained the stone floor as so many other men’s had. Kron shouted out.
"Bring the others forward".
The guards brought two more men forward. They were dragged by their arms and dropped in infront of Kron. They were held so that they could not fight back. One wore a black cloak and hood which obscured his face, the other wore the black leather of a Crimson. From his ear to his chin, a cut graced his face. Both had tattered clothes they had found, over top.
"Remove their hoods", Kron whispered.
The guards obeyed and pulled back the both their hoods. Behind one was Kain, and behind the other, Fearless. Kron put his hand on Fearless’ chest.
"This… I shall enjoy".
They both struggled but could not get free, the chains around their wrists were so tight that their hands were turning blue. At almost the same moment, Severen reached the front of the crowd, he readied his dagger. Meanwhile to the back of the crowd, the girl produced a bow, with only a single arrow, she drew it back and arched it high in the air. Taking aim at one of the guards watching from a level above.
"Today… You both will die".
Kron raised his knife above his head as he prepared to thrust downward. If their lives were to be saved, now is when they would have to act.
Fearless in association with the Souls of Sin, present:
"The Tangled Web We Weave"
Two days earlier.
Another day of rain. At least that’s what it looked like would be coming. Lifting his head from the mud, he could seldom remember a more restless night of sleep. Perhaps only the night before the invasion could even compare. He sat up and wiped the mud away, looking around he was disappointed to again find that the last few weeks hadn’t all been one long nightmare. The sky was darkening, thunder echoed in the distance, the thick forest surrounded him. Not far away, his horse rested, they were both tired after having rode for days, but it might has well have been months or years.
From a cloth bag he drew a handful of coins, they were all he had left other than his sword, his horse, and his courage. After all, he was fearless. Each coin bared the Crimson crest, as did his black sleeve and the tattoo on his arm, he was the last one he knew to be alive. When last he saw the great city and castle of Arcadia, capital of the Crimson empire, it burnt on the horizon as he rode off, with it everything that he once was and ever could be. He’d seen all his friends and comrades killed by the hundred thousand, he’d seen his father crucified, and his fiancé butchered. Maybe somewhere over the last few weeks this had driven him to insanity, and everything after had been a hallucination, that might explain why his head hurt so damn much. Getting up he drew his sword from the saddle bag, he checked it’s sharpness, and again he contemplated. Maybe during one of the first nights following the attack when he slept with his sword in hand, he had impaled himself in his sleep, and this was hell, or some type of twisted purgatory. But the scariest though of all was that none of those things had happened, and that he really was once the heir to the Crimson throne, and once a leader of millions, and once engaged to the girl of his dreams, and that he was no longer any of those things… Not to mention his foolhardy actions were responsible for all of their deaths. This, a wanderer, is all that he was now.
But perhaps what weighed most heavily on his mind was Intruder. After the siege of the Crimson capital, and the long nights that followed, filled with screams and the stench of death, he had convinced the Prince to ride east with him. There was after all, no reason for him to remain there. So they rode, east past the mountains and through the valley of death, ending up in a tiny town where they pledged to meet again the next day. But Intruder never returned. He had abandoned Fearless, and should they meet again, that would be something he would not so quickly forget. Every second thought he again reminded himself of what he had seen. The day he had met Intruder, and learned for certain that Diablo was not a myth. Not forgetting that same night, when the Crimson armies of darkness had swept across Khanduras, laying waste to all they had passed, and even setting ablaze the hellish city of Dorado itself. But most of all, no man could ever forget what took place after. Those beasts which blanketed the sky, and Abadon… whatever he was. The sweeping of the Crimson tide had been halted, and over a hundred thousand soldiers of his empire killed in cold blood, all at the gates and inside the city of gold. That was then, this is now. With no other plan, no other purpose, no other agenda and no other reason to live, the Prince rode east even further, finally reaching here. God only knows where ‘here’ was. Thinking back he could recall a sign he had passed a few days ago, ‘Northmarch’ it said, perhaps that was the name of the land he was in now.
He had stopped here because it was dark, raining and this was the only clearing in the thick woods which lined the road. But now, the next morning, he was first seeing it in the daylight, although the sun was well hidden behind the thick black clouds. Loose stones and dirt littered the clearing, the many tracks made it clear that not long before, many people had been through here.
Cupping his hands in a nearby puddle, he splashed some water on his face. It rinsed away the mud as he ran his hand through his hair. On the far side of the clearing was a stone, it stood much larger than the others and looked distinctly out of place. Picking up his sword, the Prince walked over, more hobbling than walking actually, his legs were as sore as hell. He paused as an ironic thought occurred to him, a mere few weeks ago ‘sore as hell’ was simply an expression. Soon he saw it more clearly, it was a tombstone. Making his way over he rested on it for support. The grave was fresh, not more than a few weeks old, but it had been dug up. ‘Scavengers’, he thought. Although, no man would ever want to meet the scavenger who could have dug up a entire grave. The hard rain of the last few days had washed most of the dirt back into the six foot deep pit, yet the grave still featured an indentation. Struggling, the Prince staggered infront of the headstone, finally collapsing to his knees right on top of the grave itself. He wiped his dark hair from his eyes so that he could read the inscription. But oddly, there was only a name. He read it out loud.
"Celes", he whispered.
‘What a strange name’ he thought. Gently, he traced each letter with his finger, he was unprepared for what happened next.
Without warning, something struck him across the back of the head, smashing his face into the tombstone. For a moment, he was dazed. He regained his composure enough to crawl away, seconds later he was struck again, this time across the face. Quickly he drew his sword, rising to his feet he raised it, but abruptly stopped. Three figures stood before him, the one who had hit him was a young woman, and he would not hit a woman. Fearless lowered his sword.
"Fight back!", she shouted.
Fearless ignored her, and looked to the two others. One was a cloaked man who stood over six feet, he carried with him two of the largest swords the prince had ever seen. The second man wasn’t as shrouded, yet still looked to be a formidable warrior, he was likely a wanderer. The wanderer spoke to the cloaked one.
"He’s not fighting back".
"He must be a coward", the cloaked one responded.
Fearless took exception.
"I assure you I am no coward, but I will not raise my sword against a woman".
The girl wasn’t impressed by that.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?", she asked.
"That is not your concern", the Prince responded. "Move along, and leave me in peace. I’ve seen enough blood to last ten lifetimes".
The travelers then looked at each other, the girl again spoke up.
"We’re not going anywhere".
Fearless returned his hand to his sword.
"Then it appears we have a problem… If one of you men wish to fight me, I would be more than happy to put either of you in your place…"
The Prince was cut off as the girl lunged at him, and with one of her swords, putting a sizable gash in his cheek. The cut ran almost from his left ear all the way down to his chin. Stunned, Fearless wiped the blood away.
"That’s going to scar…"
"If that’s the way you want it, young lady, I can show you the error of your ways".
Drawing his sword fully, and her with her two smaller swords in hand, they circled each other. The Prince made one last appeal.
"Don’t do this, you don’t know what you’re getting into".
"Obviously neither do you", she snapped back.
Circling, the girl again lunged forward, the Prince able to avoid her attack.
"Pretty quick for a child", she quipped.
"I may be young, but I am still the greatest swordsman you will ever come across".
The girl’s male companions smirked as they heard that comment. There was more posturing, then for the second time she jumped forward, this time, narrowly missing the Prince’s head. Although she missed, she was pleased.
"Feeling the heat a bit more?", she said sarcastically.
The Prince had to wipe away the streaming blood, and after he did, a look of seriousness came over him. Readying himself, he brought forward his sword, swinging it twice and then with it’s tip drawing a half moon as he swung it through the air. In a single motion, he knocked away the sword in the girl’s right hand and grabbed her left wrist. With a tap, he knocked her to the ground, where she now rested on her back, with the Prince holding his sword to her heart, he paused.
"Do you still want to fight?", he asked.
She smiled in spite of him.
"More than ever".
Slowly, Fearless lowered his sword. He helped the girl to her feet, and then staggered over to rest on the tombstone. There he cradled his wound.
"You’re a fine swordsman", he said.
"So are you", she responded.
The hooded man jumped in.
"I’ve never seen anyone move that fast".
He drew his swords.
"I would be honored if you would fight me".
Fearless was in no condition physically or emotionally to fight again.
"Another time perhaps, for now I am barely able to stand".
The man put away his swords. The wanderer whispered something to him, and then to the girl who was still recuperating while sitting on the ground. They exchanged some words, and then a few nods. The wanderer spoke up.
"I’ve noticed that crest on your arm".
Fearless looked down to the crest, it was of the Crimson emblem and said ‘Crimson Guard’.
"What about it?", he asked defensively.
"I’ve seen it many times before… But never on anyone alive".
Fearless now knew where they had been.
"Then you must have been to Dorado".
The travelers looked at each other, surprised.
"We have… Do you know what happened there?"
"I do", Fearless responded.
There was an awkward silence. Soon the wanderer asked what he had thought was obvious.
Fearless got off of the tombstone and rested on the ground. This was a story he had rehearsed many times to himself.
"Do you know what lies beyond the mountains to our west?"
Without looking to others, the wanderer knew none of them did. It was simply too far west.
"Of course not, they are impassable".
"I once thought so as well… But deep within them is a valley called…"
Fearless stopped as he nearly called it ‘Illiad Valley’.
"… ‘The Valley of Death’. It is… Was, the only known passage through them, but now it is all but blocked".
"What does this have to do with… Anything?", the wanderer asked, somewhat perturbed.
"Let me finish… On the other side exists a mighty empire, the ‘Crimson Empire’, it has a population of over fifteen million, or more. It once controlled everything between here and the western edge of the earth. And if you wonder how I became such a proficient swordsman, you must know. I was once the prince of that empire, and as such I was privy to the best teachers of swordsmanship in all the western world".
"And those thousands of bodies outside Dorado, they are from this ‘Crimson Empire’ as well?"
"They were… But they were also the last soldiers of the Crimson empire. My armies sieged the castle, brought down the outer wall and torched most of the inner city, we went as far as the throne room. But the beast who was there was no man of earth… He had blocked the valley of death thus setting in motion a classic end around attack on the Crimson capital of Arcadia. Nothing of my empire exists any longer… I watched the royal castle burn to the ground".
After a brief pause, the three travelers laughed loudly.
"You really had me going there for a moment", the wanderer said. "You claim you’re from a powerful foreign empire, the sheer number of soldiers we’ve seen and black uniform you wear seem to support that. You claim those same soldiers sieged Dorado, the bodies outside seem to support that also. But claiming the siege was almost successful was to outrageous for even the biggest fool to believe".
They laughed even more.
"I plunged my dagger into Abadon’s jaw, I’d bet he still has the wound".
They’ve had their fun, now the travelers seemed mildly annoyed.
"Do you really expect us to believe that?"
Fearless was sick of arguing.
"I’m sick of arguing, believe whatever you want to. I’ve given up hope and have nothing to live for any longer. I would have let the girl kill me, but could not have palliated to die with any man thinking I am a coward. All I want now is to ride east, and as far away from here as I can… That, and settle a grudge".
"A grudge with whom?"
"He calls himself ‘Intruder’, he coerced me to come to Khanduras then abandoned me not long ago". Fearless spoke very matter-of-factly.
The travelers perked up. Seeing this, Fearless continued.
"You know him?"
The cloaked man who was keeping relatively silent, responded.
"We’ve had our… Dealings".
"Then perhaps you can help me find him".
The travelers silently thought it over.
"First we’d need to know your name", the wanderer concluded.
Remembering Intruder’s reaction to him calling himself ‘ the Prince’, Fearless thought it wise to use a different title.
"Intruder called me ‘Fearless’, you can call me the same".
They pondered for a moment, the cloaked man spoke.
"Very well… ‘Fearless’".
Now they had some questions to answer.
"But what may I ask are your names?"
Fearless rose to his feet, aided by his sword.
"I am Severen", the wanderer answered.
Severen then put his hand on the cloaked man’s shoulder.
"This is Kain, and he doesn’t appreciate strangers around Celes’ grave".
Fearless was puzzled.
"You know the grave is empty, don’t you?"
Kain was quick to defend himself.
"Nevertheless, she was our friend. Whatever she is now isn’t the Celes I remember. As far as I’m concerned, OUR Celes is buried right next to where you’re standing".
Fearless didn’t quite understand, but then again, in Khanduras there were a lot of things he didn’t understand.
"And who is the short-tempered girl who has sliced open my face?"
The girl smiled as Severen looked down at her.
"…Rasha", she finished.
To himself, Fearless thought there was something a bit strange about this band of travelers, and that should he involve himself any further, he may be making a mistake. Although that is what he thought, his actions spoke differently.
"I am pleased to meet all of you, but I must ask. Is this land indeed called ‘Northmarch’?"
"No", Severen answered. "It’s called ‘Westmarch’, your confusion is a common mistake for a stranger".
Hobbling, Fearless made his way over to them, he shook all their hands.
"So tell me, how do you know Intruder", he asked.
Severen took a deep breath and began spouting off about any number of places and people Fearless had never heard of, after about thirty seconds of this, Fearless turned away. As he did, Severen stopped abruptly. The thought of ‘what am I getting myself into here’, again crossed his mind. But more than that, he wanted to know why Intruder had abandoned him. He turned back to the travelers.
"Allegiances, betrayals, double-crossing… It seems those things are a second nature to all of you".
Kain knew it was true, and that it took a stranger to say it out loud.
"I suppose you could see it that way".
Fearless shook his head in disgust for this back-stabbing and duplicity.
"What a tangled web we weave".
"The damn peasants have made off with most of it".
Abadon knelt to the ground, and from a corpse, pried the sword from his hand.
"I had hoped to be left with twice this much, but word has spread for miles around. They’ve come from every city within riding distance to get their share".
Outside the mighty Dorado, Abadon near literally waded through the bodies. Intruder was in tow, and even when shielding their eyes from the sun, neither could see where the carpet of death ended, bodies laid rotting as far as could be seen.
"There are still well over twenty thousand, a substantial number", Intruder countered.
For every dead Crimson soldier, there was one shield, a sword and often a bow. For days since the siege, every living person within a hundred miles had gotten word of the attack, and the treasure that the dead invaders have left behind.
"That’s not the point", Abadon charged angrily. "I have no urgent need for new weapons, although these are welcome. Every peasant, every farmer, every shopkeeper and every beggar for as far as word as reached are now armed with as many weapons as they could carry. If taming belligerent factions was difficult before, now it will be near impossible".
Intruder was confident.
"Abadon does not fail", he said.
"Of that you can be certain", Abadon added.
Abadon dropped the sword as he and Intruder walked back toward the city gate. As they spoke, the mighty outer wall, a portion of which had been brought down by Crimson catapults, was being reconstructed, it was nearly again at full strength. From the gate walked Exile, he also waded through the bodies.
"What about the Prince they call ‘Fearless’, he managed to escape. If any of his empire have managed to as well… He still commands a great deal of power, even if their capital has fallen".
Abadon was unconcerned.
"I have taken measures to ensure he’ll be a problem no longer".
"Until he is dead and you hold his skull in your hand, you can rest assured he will be a problem. Need I remind you…"
Abadon cut Intruder off before he could finish.
"No. I know as well as any of the danger he still poses".
Exile approached, and as he did, Abadon spoke to him.
"See that no more peasants take any more of my weapons. Every sword, dagger, shield and bow here is mine. The last thing we need are brazen farmers taking up arms and disturbing the social order".
Exile understood, Intruder pressed.
"What ‘measures’? We don’t even know where the Prince is".
"The Crimson prince is miles to our west in the tiny town of Montross… And he isn’t alone… Speaking of which, I have a favor to ask of you".
"…But I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can spit".
Xeiss was about to continue, Fearless interrupted her.
"I think that’s enough for now. Is there anyone else I should know about?"
"Just one more really, his name is ‘Ethon’. In many ways, he’s like you…"
Now Severen cut her off.
"I’m sure the last thing this stranger wants to hear is our troubles. He isn’t all that fond of ‘the tangled web we weave’"
Xeiss took exception.
"He’s been riding alone for weeks, and the only people on this side of the mountains he knows anything of are Intruder and Abadon, I think we owe him a better impression than that".
Severen became annoyed.
"Fine, tell him about anyone you want to, but not on my time. I’ve had to listen to you ramble on for almost an hour, and quite frankly you’re irritating me".
"I’m just trying to make conversation".
"Don’t tell me babbling senselessly for twenty minutes about the history Tristram and Silveryn is your idea of a conversation. I’m surprised he hasn’t passed out from boredom, God knows I nearly have".
Their tones grew harsher, their voices slightly raised.
"If he doesn’t want to get eaten alive by these places he’s going to have to know something about them".
Fearless tried to cut in.
"Actually I found what she had to say about quite…"
Fearless was ignored as Xeiss and Severen continued bickering.
"I wouldn’t worry about this country ‘eating him alive’, he sure put you in your place back in Westmarch".
Xeiss didn’t like that comment one bit.
"Perhaps I should put you in yours".
As Severen was about to snap back, Kain had heard enough.
"Enough!… All of you. I’m sick of your arguing. We’re nearing Montross, that means new people, let’s at least try to look presentable. I don’t want to be known as the man who rode through with a boy and two fools in tow".
Giving each other glares, Severen and Xeiss quit their arguing. Fearless rode his horse up along side Kain’s.
"Then where are these others that you travel with?"
Xeiss was about to give along winded answer, but bit her lip instead. Severen fielded this one.
"Occupied in Westmarch, something there has gone asunder".
Kain pondered explaining it, but realized the atheist probably would only have more questions.
"It’s a long story".
As they rode, the morning sun rose higher in the sky, the sky was clearing, not many Sundays were worth living for in this godforsaken country, but this one was. On the horizon, the tiny town of Montross stood in sharp contrast to the tree-lined road. Seeing this, Severen noted it.
Pleased, the Prince spoke.
"Good. We’ll split up to look for Intruder or signs of him. We’ll meet at the village center at noon, I expect none of you to be late".
Before anyone could object, the Prince spurred his horse and galloped of toward the town. The three travelers were left somewhat surprised. Kain said what they were all thinking.
"What an arrogant bastard".
That was something on which even the bickering Severen and Xeiss could agree. She made the only amendment.
"He may be a bit assertive, but I suppose that comes from always having everything his own way. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t shed a tear if someone in the village ran him through. But he is a fine swordsman…"
She sat up straight, still getting the kinks out of her back from being knocked over that morning in Westmarch.
"…That much my back assures me of".
Kain added his two cents.
"He does seem well educated… He did lead the siege of Dorado… And claims he was even able to get close enough to Abadon to strike him with his dagger, that has to be worth something".
"Do you really believe that?", Xeiss asked.
Kain led his horse to a stop, following suit, the others did the same.
"You saw the bodies littering the countryside outside of Dorado, they all wore the same crest as he does. You saw the hole in Dorado’s wall, and smelled the smell of torches, although there were none. We all saw the tower of smoke, and how the sky glowed red on the horizon that night…"
Kain had their attention, he said aloud the conclusion they had all reached.
"Given those facts… I don’t know what to believe".
Two days later.
"I don’t think they’ll find us here", Fearless said while panting.
They’d been running through the courtyard and were almost as far as the main gate. From the corner where they hid, they could hear the commotion. Kain, who was with him, was also out of breath. Fearless spoke.
"If I remember correctly, the gate is only a few dozen meters down this corridor. But we’ll have to wait until things calm down out there before we can make it any further".
"I agree", Kain responded. He looked around, careful not to be spotted.
Not far away from where they hid, guards ran by. Screams could be heard and loud crashes came from the courtyard. Kain peaked out long enough to get a glimpse of the chaos.
"We have to go back for Severen and Rasha".
"No", Fearless was quick to counter. "We’ve come this far we can’t go back. We have to get ourselves out and only hope that they can do the same".
"You propose we leave them and do nothing but pray for their souls?"
Fearless the atheist, gave Kain an odd look.
"I wouldn’t go that far", he countered.
"They are my friends, I can’t leave them there".
The tension mounted. Fearless was now almost shouting.
"You’ll have to. Acceptable tactical losses, if we go back we can’t even be sure we’ll be able save ourselves, let alone them as well".
Kain considered, he spoke quietly.
"Don’t you have any friends, Fearless?"
Fearless tried to ignore, but Kain pressed.
"Well… Do you?"
Fearless was now calmed as well, he felt this was the neither the time nor the place for this discussion.
"Yes, I did… But not anymore. They’re dead, every one of them. I was foolish enough to make the same mistake that you are about to make. I was lucky to escape with my life, my rush to judgment and my blind pursuit of honor and glory cost me all of them".
For Kain, that was a forgone conclusion.
"Even so, if you had it to do over, wouldn’t you have done as you had again?"
The look of anger left Fearless’ face, he drew his sword.
Kain now smiled.
"Then help me make the same mistakes".
"Yes… I will".
From their hiding, the two warriors emerged. They readied themselves for battle as Kain charged off down the dark hall from the direction in which they had came. Noticing something, Fearless called him back.
Kain rushed back, he saw Fearless eyeing an odd looking barrel near were they had been hiding. The top was ajar, and a thin, clear liquid could be seen inside.
"What is this?", Fearless asked to himself under his breath.
Kneeling down, Kain dipped his finger inside and tasted it. He nearly gagged.
"Bitter", he said as he grimaced. "However…"
Kain paused as he tried to place the smell.
"However what?", Fearless asked in anticipation.
"It smells like…", Kain made certain, "the tips of the arrows that the guards atop the tower use".
They were both stunned by that revelation.
"Do you mean the flaming ones?"
Two days earlier.
Strange, this was the first time had been so far from home, yet he saw more symbols of it here than he most often would have there. The late sunday morning sun beat down brightly, the gray blanket of clouds had been lifted, and in the sunlight he rode his horse through the tiny town of Montross. Lining the streets were merchants and beggars, most of them selling weapons, his weapons. They’d been taken from the over hundred thousand dead soldiers outside Dorado, and these vultures had near picked them clean. For a handful of sovereigns, any fool or boy old enough to lift one, could buy a sword and a shield. He’d be sure to purchase a bow before he left, he may need one to tame the wild country ahead. ‘Abadon must be furious’, the Prince thought. For he knew that had such an influx of arms happened in one of his counties, it would be years before the social order returned to normal. With weapons came courage, and with courage came revolutions.
By far the tallest building in Montross was the church, by this time in the morning, the villagers were beginning to file in. Fearless marched his horse to the front of it, he was slightly startled when the massive belfry began to ring.
"Excuse me sir, is this a ‘church’?", Fearless asked a passer by.
Both were somewhat confused. The Prince had never seen a church in service and the man whom he had stopped had never known anyone who hadn’t.
"What else would it be?", the man asked, thinking Fearless was either blind or an idiot.
"I’m not certain what else it could be, thus I reached that conclusion… If you eliminate that which is impossible, whatever left, however improbable, must be the solution". Quoted like a true scholar.
The man looked strangely at the Prince.
"You’re not from around here, are you?"
"You could say that".
Now the man was even more curious.
"And they don’t have churches… Wherever it is you come from?"
Surveying the church with his eyes, Fearless squinted as he looked up at the steeple and toward the bright sun. He thought back.
"We do actually, but not very many any longer. The few that still stand, have been turned into museums, or we have found some other practical use for".
"No churches, then where do you pray?"
Fearless finished surveying the building, then returned his eyes to the man.
"My people do not pray".
There was an uncomfortable silence, the man had never met anyone who did not pray. The Prince continued.
"My people were not unlike you once. We prayed to mythical Gods, believed old legends, feared the coming of winter we even blamed storms and natural disasters on the spirits and our own inadequate faith… But we have become enlightened".
The man was now as offended as he was confused.
Fearless responded in a very frank tone.
"Yes, enlightened through atheism. There was a period in my empire about four hundred years ago, we call it only ‘the great awakening’. The churches were burnt, the priests and ministers were killed or driven out beyond our borders, all believers in faith were made to pay for their crimes. We pursued science and reconstituted our military, my family came to power… And the rest is history".
"Then you don’t believe in any God?"
"Of course not, Gods are the hands held over the eyes of thinking men".
The man turned away, he spoke as he walked.
"Then I pity you".
Although the man likely didn’t hear, Fearless mumbled to himself.
"That’s quite all right sir, because I pity you as well".
The man continued to walk away, and as he did, Fearless turned to see a small boy, likely not older than ten, kneeling at his feet, his head bowed.
"Can I help you?"
The boy didn’t respond, he just continued kneeling and under his breath mumbled something quickly. Fearless was puzzled.
"Is there something I can do for you?"
Hesitantly, the boy spoke. His head still looking to the ground.
"My mortal voice is not worthy of your ears".
Not the response he expected.
The Prince looked around to make certain the boy wasn’t addressing someone else.
"I can see the crest on your arm, it is the same as…"
Now Fearless was beginning to understand, he finished the boy’s thought.
"…The same as the crest you see on all the swords and shields that the merchants are carrying".
The boy was awestruck by the Prince’s insight, to him it was as though he could read minds.
"I am your servant"
The Prince dismounted his horse, he grabbed the boy by the arm and pulled him to his feet.
"You are no-one’s servant, not God’s, not mine, not Abadon’s"
The boy still would not look the Prince in the eye.
"I am your servant. I have seen your army siege Dorado, only the God of war could have brought down the mighty wall".
The boy was almost fanatical, the Prince tried to talk some sense into him.
"I know it may have seemed as though those soldiers appeared out of thin air, but there is in fact a very reasonable explanation".
The boy didn’t want to hear it, he called out to so that everyone within fifty meters could hear him.
"This is the God of war, everyone! He has come to free us from the tyranny of Abadon!"
Many took notice, most stopped in their tracks as many more came over, closely crowding around the Prince. One skeptic passer by posed the most obvious question.
"How do you know this?"
The boy was quick to grab the Prince’s arm, he pointed to the red crest which stood out against the black leather.
"He wears the crest of the siegers of Dorado"
Many looked to the crest and then to the shields and swords they had just bought, making the connection, they, like the boy, fell to their knees in respect. As they did, dozens more rushed over and did the same. Soon, the streets were silent as everyone who would have heard was now kneeling before the Prince. He was disgusted by this.
"What a backward country this ‘Khanduras’ is", was all he could say.
Their faith in Gods and fear of the devil was so strong, it seemed that has assigned a religious merit to almost everything. He would have just mounted his horse and rode off, but the villagers surrounded him and just as the boy had, they were all praying. Not far down the road, Kain and Severen rode. Seeing a commotion and Fearless at the center of it, a look of bother came over Severen’s face.
"What the hell has that arrogant bastard gotten himself into this time".
They picked up their pace as the rode closer to see what was going on. From the well over a hundred people now kneeling around the Prince, someone shouted out.
"When will you defeat Abadon and deliver us from his tyranny?"
The Prince was quick to shout back.
"For now… It is beyond power".
The boy thought otherwise.
"Nothing is beyond your power".
The Prince was now very frustrated.
"Listen to me, all of you!"
The boy spoke quietly.
"Our ears are not worthy"
"Yes they are, now look at me!"
"Our eyes are not worthy".
The Prince grabbed the boy by the arm, and then by the chin, finally after much restraint, holding his face up so they looked right at each other. With his free hand, the Prince pointed to the large cut running down his face.
"Do you see this? I bleed like any mortal man. I am not your God any more than you are mine".
The boy almost couldn’t accept that.
"Who could have harmed a God?"
The Prince had no good retort to his backward beliefs, fortunately, sitting on the chapel steps he saw Xeiss, she was looking on with amusement.
The Prince pointed and the villagers all turned to stare. Now that she was implicated, Xeiss thought she’d better resolve the situation. With everyone watching, she stood up and walked over to where the Prince was holding the boy. The crowd, rose to their feet and parted in fear of a power they believed she had. Walking up to the Prince, she whispered something only he could hear.
"You owe me one".
In one motion, she pushed the Prince’s arm away from his hold on the boy and grabbed him with her own. Staring into his eyes, she concentrated on him. The villagers looked on, uncertain as to what she was doing. Fearless was uncertain as well.
"What are you doing?"
She concentrated even harder, grabbing his chin harder as she did, blood trickled down the boys neck where her nails dug in. Soon, his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed to the ground. Kain and Severen pulled up their horses and watched as the events unfolded. Slowly, rising to his feet, the boy now had no trouble looking either Fearless or Xeiss in the eye.
"You’re no Gods, only travelers who wish to be left alone".
Dusting himself off, the boy walked away, confused, but now sure he wasn’t a God, most of the villagers did the same. They again went about their business. The Prince was dumbfounded by what had just taken place. There was only one thing Xeiss could say.
Two days later.
With a nod to each other, the two warriors pulled back their bows.
"I’d trust my swords any day over this", Kain said.
"So would I", said the Prince.
That was one thing about which there was no doubt. Both Kain an Fearless released their bows, from the upper promenade their arrows lofted downward. Falling, falling, finally impacting in the hip and head of two guards below. In their weakened state, that made them easy pray for the many scores to be settled on the floor of the courtyard.
"One for me", Fearless said competitively.
Again the warriors pulled back their bows with a fresh arrow poised to strike. In the midst of the madness was Severen. Despite having been stabbed, he was able to hold back a guard while tearing one of his fellow prisoners limb from limb. The arrows again flew, this time the Prince’s arrow landing in a guard’s arm and Kain’s striking another man in the forehead. Kain was now counting as well.
"Now, that’s one for me".
From where they stood not far from the main gate, they’d be able to raise the iron bars once things had calmed down, and they could be certain they wouldn’t be followed into the caverns. As they prepared to fire again, Kain asked.
"Have you any idea how we’ll go about getting through the caves?"
"If that’s the biggest problem we face, I’d be happy to wander aimlessly for a few hours through the maze that they are".
Their arrows again flew.
"No man has escaped from here alive, what makes you so sure that we will do any better than the countless who have died trying?"
They rearmed their bows.
"Look around you, Kain. I’d bet no-one has started a riot here before either".
An unsound bit of reasoning, but in the interest of hope, Kain at least temporarily subscribed to it. From the floor of the courtyard where he had been stabbed, the warden Kron was beaten but not broken. Reaching up, he grabbed one his guards as dozens of the guards and inmates grappled around him.
"Take care of those two archers on the gate tower… I want their hearts in my hand".
Back up on the tower however, Kain had other ideas.
"This is where they keep their swords"
"…And ours", the Prince finished.
Not far from where they had been standing were dozens of trunks, each filled with weapons of every size and shape, some very old. Near the top were all their weapons, even the familiar murasame and masamune.
"I’m sure you could use those"
The Prince made the obvious observance. Far below as Kron struggled to his feet he was disturbed by what he saw. Those bastards atop the tower had found the weapons locker, and were now throwing weapons of every kind over the side and into the courtyard. The blood had just begun to spill.
Two days earlier.
"They’re here, just like the old man said they would be", Xeiss noted.
The travelers stood not far from the town of Montross. Leading off across a barren field were hove prints, someone had been through here on horseback. Severen was skeptical.
"They could be from any horse, we have no assurances that these belong to one Intruder rode".
He was right, it seemed their search had met another dead end. He dismounted his horse and looked at the tracks closely.
"I’ve never seen tracks like these before".
They all looked to the tracks that their own horses had left, the impressions were similar to each other, yet different from the tracks that they had found, all except for the horse the Prince rode, he noticed this.
"I may have an explanation".
The others listened.
"Horses used by my family are scarred on the hooves at birth, it’s one way of assuring that they’re not stolen or switched for horses of lesser breeding".
They all looked to the tracks Fearless’ horse has made and then to the others that they had found, they were almost identical.
"Upon leaving the castle Arcadia as it burnt, one of the last things I did was to release all the royal horses. I’d rather have them run free than have them be sold by some baron or starve before anyone else came across them… To Intruder, I gave one".
Severen mounted his horse.
"It seems as though we may find Intruder after all".
With their eyes, the four travelers looked to the direction which the tracks were leading. They led west toward the mountains.
"Why would he have rode full circle back west?"
Fearless asked, but no-one had a good reply. Hopefully, at the end of the trail they’d find the answers they were looking for.
Two days later.
Running along the catwalk atop the outer wall, arrows grazed both of them. Their destination was the main gate tower, only a few meters away. The prison guards were chasing, there was little doubt they’d soon be captured or die trying to escape.
"We have to get to the gate", the Prince shouted as they ran.
Looking down, Kain saw an arrow embedded in Fearless’ thigh, he surprised to see that he wasn’t limping.
"Doesn’t that hurt?"
As they picked up their pace Fearless glanced over at him.
"Of course it does".
Kain was confused.
"Then what’s the trick?"
"The trick", Fearless answered, "is ignoring that it hurts".
Another barrage of arrows landed around them, luckily, the gate tower was not far away. The only question that remained… Was if they would make it there alive.
Two days earlier.
They’d checked twice to make sure, there was no mistake. The tracks had led them all the way to the mountains, and now led into the mountain itself. Xeiss dismounted her horse and approached the mouth of the cave. Intruder’s tracks went to the inside and disappeared somewhere into the darkness. Xeiss looked in as the others looked on, picking up a stone she threw it inside with all her might. Skipping off of the ground and much deeper than any of them could see.
"Damn it", she said.
Her comment reflected all their sentiments perfectly. Looking into the cave, Severen spoke from experience.
"That cave could run for miles, it likely even branches of into other caves which run deep into the mountain. Once we go in, there may be no way out".
"Not to mention no light, food or water but what we carry with us", Xeiss added.
"It’ll be dangerous but I for one like a little danger".
The three others turned to Fearless. Xeiss was appalled.
"You don’t really think we’re going in there?"
"I do", he answered.
"Then you’ll go alone".
Contemplating, the Prince brought his horse closer to the mouth of the cave.
"I will if I have to, but I’d thought you all weren’t such cowards".
Kain was going to field this one.
"There is a difference between a coward and a fool. If we had something more than just footprints…"
No sooner did he say that than they did. Xeiss kneeled down to pick up a tattered wooden sign. It was old, but the writing was still readable, it was obviously once perched overhead but over the years had fallen and faded. She read it aloud.
"’Minux Slavain’", she looked at it puzzled. "What language is this?"
She handed it to Fearless knowing he was something of a scholar, he looked it over then passed it on to Severen.
"I’ve never seen that language in my life", was his expert analysis.
Severen looked at it, dusted it off then handed it back to Xeiss, after all, this was far to the west and his side of the mountain.
"It says ‘Prison of the Damned’".
Hardly conclusive proof of anything. Kain could feel Severen and Xeiss’ curiosity peaking.
"We’re still not going".
His words were now falling on deaf ears. From her sleeve Xeiss tore a piece of cloth, she then tied it around one of her swords. Still tearing, she tore three more strips and threw one to each of the others. Severen was quick to tie his around and so was Fearless, Kain was still trying to talk some sense into them.
"This is suicide".
Ignoring him, Xeiss rode into the cave, just beyond where the light could see. Using a piece of flint rock she had picked up at the cave entrance, she sparked up her makeshift torch, a least for a little further, the cave was lit. She was horrified by what she saw. Lining the cave walls and hanging from the ceiling were more spiders than most would have thought existed. Some were as small as a thumbnail, and some were as large as a Human torso. Webs dangled down as the creatures scurried to hide in the darkness. It was just a small sample of the horror they would find.
"Hurry up if you’re not afraid of a few spiders", she shouted.
It was clear the term ‘a few’ didn’t do the cave justice. They covered the walls almost entirely. The cave clearly widened as deeper it went, Severen soon rode in as well. Together they rode off deeper into the darkness, almost until the lights they had fashioned couldn’t be seen anymore. Xeiss yelled.
"Are you coming?"
Hesitant and annoyed, Kain shouted back.
"Do I have a choice?"
Echoing, deep from within the cave came Xeiss’ reply.
Perturbed, Kain tied the strip of cloth around the blade of one of his swords, as he was about to ride in Fearless grabbed his arm.
"Do you hear something?"
They listened, hearing at first nothing and then a distant rumbling as the sound came closer. When this became clear, Fearless whispered.
"What is it?"
Kain had no explanation. The sound became progressively louder, then louder still. Soon the ground beneath their feet seemed to shake. Shortly, without warning from over their heads, out of their field of vision and from somewhere high in the mountains flew four massive dragons, each likely weighing tons. They flew so low that they almost blocked out the sun entirely. Shocked, Fearless stood in awe, for him, dragons existed only in myth, legend and fairytale.
"What in the…?"
Frantically, Fearless fumbled for his bow. He drew it, arching it high as to take aim at the lead one. As he was about to let fly the arrow, Kain’s hand guided down the Prince’s.
"Let them be… We have enough trouble as it is".
They watched as they gigantic beasts flew into the distance as slowly the rumbling stopped. Fearless put away his bow.
"Where are they going?"
Kain sparked up his torch from the flint rock, then answered.
"Westmarch most likely".
Before he could ask why, Xeiss again called from deep within the cavern.
"I’m not getting any younger", her voice echoed.
Fearless dropped the subject as he watched them disappear over the horizon. Somehow he knew this wouldn’t be the last he’d see of the mighty dragons during his adventures in this strange land. With his torch he touched Kain’s, thus lighting his own as well. With a glance to each other they rode off into the maze of caves that awaited them. Behind them they left the last sunlight they’d see for many days to come.
By now they were sensible enough to ride single file. The narrow ledge that near cost Kain his life had taught them that lesson. They’d also put out three of the four torches, they’d need to ration their cloth, Xeiss was running out of sleeves. Only Severen who led them through carried a torch, as he had been for the last hour. There was no light other than that from the torch, and it generated not even enough to see the walls only a few feet away… For that they were certainly all thankful.
Without warning, Severen stopped. Following the light, the rest did as well. He turned to then to speak as in the darkness they could barely see his face.
"The tracks have stopped".
He dismounted his horse and waved the torch over the ground. The trail of mud tracks they had followed this far had met their end. The muddy path now became stone, and in stone no tracks were left. Xeiss, Fearless and Kain stared at each other, uncertain as to what to do next.
Severen walked forward, and a mere few meters away came to an intersection. Three stone passages, all leading in distinctly different directions. As the others saw this, Severen returned to his horse and mounted it. After a few moments of silence, he asked the obvious.
"What do we do now?"
They all considered, each with no answers. Xeiss proposed something.
"We could pick a path and follow it, once the mud resumed, if there are no tracks we’ll turn back".
The Prince shook his head.
"We’re almost two miles into the mountain, I’m surprised the mud has lasted this far. We’ll see no more of it I assure you".
The travelers again went silent, trying to come up with what next to do. Severen had an idea.
"We could split up".
Xeiss didn’t like that idea.
"There’s no damn way that’s happening".
The silence proved that the others agreed. After a few more moments, Kain looked up. Tapping his horse, it moved closer to the wall of the cavern. From it, Kain used the butt-end of his sword to break off a small piece of rock. As the others watched he turned and threw it as hard as he could near his feet. It hit the ground and skipped off down the left most of the tunnels. Pointing his sword forward, Kain motioned to the same tunnel.
Governed by no logic and only fate, they’d made their decision. They prepared to again get underway. But before they did, Fearless noticed something. On Xeiss’ saddle rested a spider, it was easily as big as her hand and was crawling toward her.
"Xeiss", he whispered.
Having her attention he pointed at it with his finger. As though it was nothing she raised her hand to slap it away. Severen grabbed her by the wrist before she could.
"Don’t touch it… It’s poisonous".
Severen knew the westerly species well, if he thought it was poisonous, there was no doubt that it was.
"They’re scared of fire though"
Severen lowered the torch to touch it, but scared by the light, the spider crawled up her arm and on to her shoulder. Acting very carefully, like a skilled craftsman, he brought the torch even closer, sweat rolled off her brow as the flames licked her face. But the closer the torch came, the quicker the spider moved, climbing up her neck and into the darkness in her hair on the back of her head.
Trying not to move, she turned her horse around so that Severen could reach it. She did and for the first time the light shown on her back. To their horror, over half a dozen of them, all larger than the first one, covered her from her shoulder blades all they way down her spine. Unaware of this, she asked.
"Did you get him?"
Severen swung the torch, knocking off the one nestled in her hair. Swinging again, he knocked off the remainder. Kain and Fearless weren’t idiots, they knew what this meant. Without saying a word, Fearless turned around. On his back were just as many as had been on Xeiss’. Severen knocked them off quickly. Kain now turned around, he had been bringing up the rear and on his back were more than three times as many as the others had on both their backs combined. They were two deep in most places and were all over the back of his horse. Severen waved the torch knocking most of them off. Relieved, Fearless and Kain turned back around. At almost the same moment, Xeiss did as well. She was surprised to see the stunned looks on their faces.
"It was just a little spider, guys. There’s no need to overreact".
Severen threw Xeiss the torch, and with it she began to slowly ride into the left most tunnel, Fearless soon followed. Kain leaned to Severen.
"How many were there on my back anyway?"
He hesitated for a moment with his response.
"Only two or three".
Kain nodded thinking two or three wasn’t so bad considering what he had seen on Xeiss and Fearless.
"Do you want to bring up the rear for a while?"
It didn’t take Severen long to give his answer.
"I’ll have to pass".
Following the light they rode off… The adventure had just begun.
Miles away, in the land of Westmarch, other battles were being fought. This time not against vampires, the undead or Abadon, but against the most dastardly enemy of all… Despair. Through the town square the great paladins of Westmarch marched, unprepared for what they had found. Most buildings had been left in ruins, and craters dotted the center of the town. From the rubble, mothers screamed and children cried out. The villagers scrambled as best they could to put out the fires. Look what those bastards had done.
The rider of the white horse dismounted. Leaving his shield and warhammer he walked to the center of town where debris lay, somehow thrown from the buildings it had come from, a hundred feet away. Frantically, a man dug through, throwing the debris as though he was searching for something. Walking over, the paladin looked on as the man spoke.
"Help me Glitterspike, I think there’s child trapped somewhere in this rubble".
As they both dug, they could hear a scratching coming from underneath. Almost possessed, they threw the wood and stone aside, soon before them the little boy was laying.
He was alive, but not for long. His legs had been crushed and blood covered him head to toe, he couldn’t have been much older than seven. Glitterspike knew the child well, he’d never hurt a fly yet someone had forfeited his young life. Glitterspike lifted him from the debris and wiped the blood from his face. His mother rushed over, taking her baby. She hugged him but knew her son’s life was almost at an end. This was the hard part, neither of them could watch as he died, they’d done all they could for him. They walked away, and as they did Glitterspike turned to the man.
"Shin, how many dead?"
They walked to the fountain in the center of the village square, the sad task of handing over dead children to their parents was by this time in the morning, something Shin Hikaru had done many times. He rinsed his hands, then looked to the paladin grimly.
"Fifteen or so, dozens more injured and missing".
Glitterspike held his head for a moment. Westmrach, like most lands of Khanduras were close knit communities, every time a person died, it was as though a brother or sister had.
"They’ll pay", was Glitter’s only reaction.
The entire town was little more than smoldering ruin, very few buildings hadn’t been razed. Changing the subject, Shin tried to ignore the death around him.
"Any word from Kain, Xeiss and Severen?"
Shin was puzzled.
"Where would they have ran off to?"
Glitterspike still couldn’t put the little boy’s face out of his mind. He tried to concentrate on the conversation but just could not. Slamming down his fist, he yelled.
"God damn it!" There was pause as he calmed down. "…I want revenge".
"You’ll get your chance", Shin answered.
With water from the fountain, Shin treated his wounds. Putting his head in his hands, Glitterspike sat down next to him as the only thing he could think of was the boy and the over fifteen others that had died at the hands of those bastards today. Shielding his eyes, Shin looked to the western horizon, through the air something flew toward them… Dragons, four of them.
"Perhaps you’ll get your chance sooner rather than later".
Looking up, Glitterspike raised his axe-like halberd. Shin searched for his sword as they both looked on.
"They’ll be here within a few minutes", Shin whispered. "It seems today has not seen the last killing it is destined to see".
A stern look came over Glitterspike.
"I certainly hope so".
Twenty minutes after having chosen left, nerves were running thin. The torch Severen held, flickered. The flame was burning from ashes, there was barely a light at all as it soon turned to no more than glowing embers. Now in the total darkness, the four travelers stopped.
"This is madness, we must turn back", Kain said.
They couldn’t even see their own noses, let alone each other.
"We have to admit it, there’s nothing here", he added.
The Prince raised his voice in the pitch black darkness.
"We saw only one set of tracks leading into this cavern, Kain. If they were made by Intruder, than he is here. If Intruder followed these tunnels to another exit, then that exit is here. In either case, what we are looking for is here".
Kain grew angry with frustration.
"The only thing ‘here’ will be our corpses if we carry on any further. These tunnels could wind for hundreds of miles underground. The fact is we don’t where we are or where we’re going".
A few sparks flew as Xeiss tried to light another torch. In their arguing, none of them had heard Severen wander off. His voice called out from deeper down the passage.
"Come here, all of you".
Xeiss was able to light the torch, it now glowed as bright as it ever had. Severen had made his way about twenty meters down the passage, he stood at an elbow, beyond which from here the others couldn’t see the far side of. Curious, they made their way over to him. Once there, they looked down the tunnel and saw nothing but more darkness, they all failed to see why he had spoken so optimistically.
"So?", Xeiss said.
"Look", Severen countered adamantly.
He raised his index finger and pointed it into the passage. Yet none of the others saw anything but darkness. Severen then reached for the torch, snatching it from Xeiss, he hit it against the cavern wall. The tattered cloth fell from it and landed on the rock floor, shortly after going out, again leaving them in perfect darkness. After a moment for their eyes to adjust, what Severen had been talking about seemed clear. In the distance and no bigger than a pin prick was a faint spec of light. They would never have seen it had the torch been lit.
"An exit?", Severen then asked.
"Maybe", the Prince answered.
Their apprehension was justified, an exit it was anything but. Motivated, they rode forward. Little did they know that what lied ahead was far worse than all their nightmares combined could ever have been, that they would soon find out. As they rode, the tiny dot of light became clearer. It didn’t glow white and yellow as the sunlight would have, it glowed a reddish orange as torches do. They could see that from where the light came, the passage widened significantly, they rode on. They rode to the end, emerging from the darkness. Their eyes had only seen the dim torchlight for hours, it took them time to get used to it.
Before them was a monstrous steel gate. They walked up to it, looking through they could see nothing. The corridor winded on the other side. On both sides of the gate were towers, they extended almost all the way to the top of the thirty foot ceiling. Kain approached the gate, sizing it up he put his arm through the bars.
"Too small to fit through".
The travelers looked to each other, uncertain as to what to do seeing as how they may have reached an impasse. Severen, who obviously had an idea, walked to the gate. He also sized up the gate, finally deciding it was too heavy even for all four of them to lift. With all his breath he yelled.
"Is anyone there?"
They all listened as his voice echoed throughout the caverns. They waited yet no reply came back. Discouraged, they all pondered what next to do. Seconds later, from the top of the tower a man walked to the side. He shouted to them as he pulled back his bow.
"Who goes there?"
The Prince brought his horse forward, he shouted back to the man.
"I am Fearless", he motioned to the others as he said their names, "this is Severen, Kain and Xeiss. We’re searching for someone whom we believe may have rode through here. A necromancer, he goes by the name ‘Intruder’".
The man didn’t waver in the slightest.
"There is no-one here by that name".
The Prince then asked another question.
"Are you certain? We know he rode into these caves only a few days ago and…"
The man interrupted.
"Turn around and leave here, now".
Fearless looked back at the others who also weren’t impressed by the man’s attitude. The Prince posed the only question he may get a response to".
"Is this ‘Minux Slavain’?"
"Some call it that", a voice answered.
It came from the same tower but was from someone they could not see. Another man walked out into the dim torchlight. He was a pale as ghost from lack of sunlight and was missing his left eye.
"I am the keeper of this place… This place of the damned".
Realizing he was now speaking to the man in charge, the Prince was more optimistic.
"Could you tell me if a traveler named Intruder has come through here?"
The man gave no answers, he simply paced the catwalk atop the tower.
"Your heart beats strongly in your young chest… How old are you, twenty, twenty-one?"
Puzzled, the Prince looked down at his chest.
"I have just turned nineteen".
The man smiled.
"And this one…", he pointed to Severen, "his heart is a mighty one I can tell".
Fearless was becoming bothered by this nonsense.
"Answer my questions or we will be on our way", he said sharply.
The man leaned over the edge of the tower, he spoke softly.
"You’re not going anywhere, I’ve decided to take all of you prisoner".
The four travelers all laughed. Still grinning, Xeiss yelled to him.
"You and what army?"
Severen added sarcastic comments of his own.
"Come down here and I’ll cut you to shreds".
Oddly, the man still wore a smile. It soon became obvious why. From where they had entered, over a dozen soldiers came. They were all similarly pale and all carried the scars of a harsh upbringing. Just as quickly, from the towers rose archers, their arrows lit with flame. Drawing their weapons, the travelers could see they had been ambushed. It was apparent, they had been badly out flanked as well as greatly out armed. Kain mumbled to himself.
"Damn I hate it when I’m right".
Fearless heard this, and gave the only response he could.
"Some days you get the bear… Some days the bear gets you".
Two days later.
"We jump", Fearless said.
It was over thirty feet down, Kain had other ideas.
"You jump, I’ll raise the gate".
They turned to see guards running toward them along the catwalk.
"We all leave here alive or no-one leaves here alive".
Kain thought for a moment.
"We have no time to argue about this".
Picking up the barrel of the strange liquid they had found, he handed it to the Prince. As the Prince looked down at it, Kain pushed him. From the tower he fell to ground far below. Injured more in spirit than in body, he was stunned that Kain had thrown him off. Now, only the caves stood between him and freedom.
"Do as we planned!", Kain yelled.
Rushing over to the huge wheel, with all his might Kain began to turn it slowly. As he did, the monstrous gate started to rise. As the guards came even closer, Fearless drew his sword. Stabbing downward, he punctured the barrel. With it secured under his arm, he ran for the tunnel, a trail of the substance leaking out behind him.
Two days earlier.
Their horses and weapons taken away, they were led into the courtyard. The courtyard was a massive place. Oval in shape, it was likely seven stories high. The ceiling was a smooth rock dome, although it could barely be seen by the dim torchlight, a huge symbol was carved into it. As Severen looked at it, it seemed familiar, but he couldn’t recall from where exactly. Blood stained the stone beneath their feet, much of it very old. Gothic in it’s construction, it seemed ancient but still stood sturdy. Although water did drip from the ceiling, likely from an underground river far above.
"Impressive", Xeiss commented.
Swiftly, guards knocked the four them to their knees. In a row they were lined up. With swords to their back, they thought better of fighting back. The man who had spoke to them from the tower approached. No doubt from the long exposure to dim lights, his one remaining eye was little more than a slit.
"Welcome to Minux Slavain".
None of the travelers answered. He continued.
"I am Kron".
Severen also knew the translation for ‘Kron’.
"He who keeps order".
"You can call me warden if you wish. In either case, you will bow before me and obey all that I say".
That’s a phrase, to say the least, the Prince was not accustom to hearing.
"We will do no such thing".
Swiftly and with Fearless still chained, Kron drew a metal bar and swung it against the Prince’s face. Blood sprayed all over the others, as it now streamed down his face and onto the floor, the bar had reopened the gash on his cheek. He hung his head limply. Kron served notice.
"Let that be a lesson to all of you, no-one disobeys me. From this time forward, the only penalty for your insolence will be death".
Looking up from the ground as he spit out blood, Fearless spoke.
"Is this how you treat all your guests?"
"Actually", Kron responded, "you’re the first we’ve had in a long time".
"Other than new prisoners, of course", Severen added.
"It’s been a long time since we’ve had new prisoners as well".
"How long a time?"
Kron looked at Severen.
Fearless, as all of them, were shocked by that answer.
"You mean that you’ve been running this entire prison on your own, under the guidance of no-one for over two decades?"
"I’m sure if we needed assistance it would have been sent".
The travelers looked at each other, amazed. As Fearless spat more blood, Severen posed an interesting question.
"What is the population of this prison?"
"Almost two hundred and fifty", Kron answered.
"And what was it last year?"
"About three hundred".
It was now clear what was going on, Severen continued asking.
"What was it twenty-five years ago?"
"At one time… Twenty-six hundred".
Severen looked around the empty courtyard.
"What do you do with the bodies?"
"You must have had a very dim light guiding you through the tunnels", he answered.
There was silence, Fearless, still bloodied, then posed the most interesting question of all.
"Who appointed you warden here?"
Kron was surprised by the question, he thought it had been obvious.
"The King of Dorado himself".
Severen was shocked.
There was silence as Kron tried to determine if that had been some kind of joke.
"…Who’s Abadon?", he answered.
The seriousness of his tone made it even more alarming. Now it was all beginning to make sense. It was with those words that Severen realized from where he recognized the gigantic symbol carved into ceiling. It was the crest of the royal family of Dorado, one which had been overthrown almost two decades before. This godforsaken place was some kind of twisted time capsule, a small corner of the earth, buried deep in the mountain that time had forgotten. The others may not have known that as exactly, but knew something similar was the case.
"How often does the King send you new supplies?", Xeiss asked.
Kron paused as he heard Xeiss speak. He walked over to her, he raised his ragged hand to her face.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a woman".
Squirming, she knocked his hand away and spat in his face. He wiped it from his face as though it was a reaction he had expected.
"The mountain provides us with all we need. Water runs through underground rivers, and the rats after having spent a few days in the tunnels are fat enough to make for good eating".
Hearing this, Fearless posed yet another question.
"Do you know what scurvy is?"
He smiled, and by his near toothless grin and the few scarce rotten ones that remained, it was apparent the answer was no.
"What crime are we guilty of exactly?", Xeiss continued.
It was ludicrous and they all knew it. This man was fanatical about justice, they knew the seriousness of, or intent behind the trespassing wouldn’t matter to him.
"I feel it necessary to tell you that I have very low tolerance for insolence and laziness. Should I find any of you being either or both, you will die".
The dullness of his voice and tips of the spears in their backs, made it clear this was one jam they’d be hard pressed to get out of, if they could at all. Kain was unimpressed, from his knees he spoke frankly.
"I also ‘feel it necessary’ to tell you something… The first chance I get I plan on spilling your intestines with the end of my sword".
Two days later.
"Damn", he said.
He stood the barrel upright, he’d have to act quickly, the trail he had left was drying. Fearless was now at a junction in the tunnels, he couldn’t remember which way led to the outside. ‘Was it left, right, right, center, left, right, left, center? Or was it left, right, right, center, left, right, center, left?’ he thought. Following the wrong path meant almost certain death. The wrong cave could lead miles more into the mountain, and by the time he realized where he was, he’d have long starved or died of dehydration. Staring down each of the tunnels he just couldn’t remember. Damn.
Seeing as how he had nowhere near the time to fashion a makeshift compass, there was only one way he could see to resolve the dilemma. Picking up a small stone from the ground, he threw it downward. It deflected off the ground and after ricocheting, it bounced into the center tunnel.
"Let’s hope Kain’s lunacy pays dividends this time".
As totally unsound as it was, luck had worked against them before, karma was on his side. Again tucking the barrel under his arm as to let a thin trail of the liquid run behind him, he made haste down the center tunnel, but what he would find there was anything but what he expected.
Half a day earlier.
Someone was coming. Down the dark passages and dimly lit corridors, footsteps could be heard. The thick steel door prevented them from escaping, but not the sounds of the guards approaching from coming in. Kain, Fearless and Xeiss waited in the fairly large cell, the door swung open. Half a dozen guards carried in Severen who had obviously been injured. With not so much as a word, they dropped him to the ground. They closed the door and walked out. Quickly the others rushed over.
"What did they do to you?", Xeiss asked.
Kain and Fearless sat him up as there was a glaze over Severen’s eyes. He soon came around.
"They’ll be coming back for the next person soon… They told me that would be you, Xeiss"
Looking at his back they could all see the long red streaks that were the signature of a thorn whip.
"They’ve whipped you", Fearless noted.
In obvious pain, Severen answered.
"The dunking machine was worse".
That didn’t sound to appealing to the rest of them, although holding one’s head underwater until they almost drowned wasn’t something that appealed to many people. While looking closely at the bumps on Severen’s head and knowing she would be next, Xeiss reached an obvious conclusion.
"We have to get out of here… And soon".
A rustling sound came from the darkened corner, they all turned as they heard it.
"Who’s there?", called Fearless.
There was no answer. Slowly from the darkness crept an a man, an old one. His was a ghastly figure. Skin as white as any they had ever seen, and a body obviously suffering from malnutrition. The lower half of his left arm was missing, and a deep blue infection spread throughout most of his chest.
"I’ve heard those words before", he muttered, "from many people over many years, none of them were able to actually do it".
The man was somewhat surprised he could still speak, these had been the first people he’d seen in many weeks, the raspiness of his voice reflected that.
"How long have you been watching us from that corner?", Xeiss asked.
"Since you were brought here".
"And why have you not said anything until now?"
"Until I saw that one of you had been tortured, I thought you were likely little more than another hallucination".
Being locked away in a solitary cell for weeks on end, with almost no water and only rats to eat will do that to you, the Prince supposed .
"Can you help us?", Xeiss asked.
The man had heard this before.
"Help you what? Die? No-one escapes here alive. If by some work of sorcery you were able to get outside the gate, no man knows the way through the labyrinth of tunnels that lead to the surface, all prisoners are blindfolded as they are led in".
"We were not led in", Xeiss noted, "we came looking for a necromancer who’s tracks led us here".
The man was stunned but cautious.
"Do you remember the way you came?"
"Left, right, right, center, left, right, left, center is the path to freedom".
The old man was still pessimistic.
"Even if you do know the way to the surface, once there, the King of Dorado would stop at nothing to make sure you were found. You’d be dragged back here within a week at best".
"I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen".
The old man was puzzled.
"How can you be so certain?"
"The King of Dorado is dead, and he has been for a very long time"
"Then who rules this land?"
Not any easy thing to explain, she said the simplest answer she could think of.
Now the man was sure he was hallucinating, he turned away and without another word went back to the corner.
"This crazy old man isn’t going to help anyone", Kain talked loudly so that he was sure the old man could hear, "he’s to old and stubborn to accept that the world may have changed somewhat in the last forty years. If he wants to, he can help us. And maybe find freedom or medical attention for that infection. But if all he wants to is stay in this cell and be eaten alive by the vermin, that is his prerogative".
From the darkness, the man’s voice came.
"Do you know what he’ll do if he catches you? With his bare hands he’ll pull your heart from your chest… It’s difficult to even imagine what he does afterward…"
"Help us escape, and you’ll have to live with that terror again".
There was silence. Thinking they could not convince him, Fearless, Kain and Xeiss turned away. Seconds later, without warning, along the ground slid a jagged piece of metal. It had cloth tied around the handle which made it a crude dagger.
"Take it… It’s the only the help I can offer".
Bending down, the Prince picked up the knife.
"Thank you", the Prince said.
No response came from the dark corner, somehow that was the greatest ‘you’re welcome’ they could have gotten.
From outside the door they heard a sound. It was the sound of someone coming, yet this time, not as many. One, maybe two guards at most. The sound came closer, they readied themselves. Severen managed to crawl to a nearby corner as Kain and Xeiss stood on either side of the door. The Prince examined the knife, getting a feel for it’s weight he knew what he would do. There was small slit in the door, on the inside a small two inch ledge was where trays of what little food they had was passed. It’s where they had delivered the food before at this time, and would likely do so again. Closer they came until directly outside the door, the footsteps stopped. Inside slipped a tray, and pushing it were the guard’s hands. Without hesitation, taking the dagger, Fearless stabbed downward. Going through his hand, the dagger pinned them where they rested. The guard screamed in pain, he pulled fiercely but couldn’t free himself. Severen tried to reach through, but his hands were too big. As he moved away, Xeiss kneeled down. Her arm was small enough to fit through. Reaching over she fumbled for the guard’s keys as he continued to scream. The jail was far too big, and this cell was far too isolated, no-one would hear him. Grabbing the keys, she brought them back inside and used them to open the door. Into the hall the four of them stumbled. Taking the knife from the guard’s hand, Kain was humane enough to slit the guard’s throat and end his pain. Severen labored to the door.
"Will you be okay?", Fearless asked.
Severen turned very serious.
"I have a score to settle".
On the wall of the corridor, a bow hung. Seeing it, Xeiss took it down. With a nod to each other and with Fearless leading the way, they made haste down the hallway.
For almost fifteen minutes they’d been walking in what seemed like circles of endless corridors and passages. Passing, and narrowly avoiding being seen by dozens of guards. At last before them they saw the courtyard. Crowded with prisoners, it was the converging place for them before they went to work in the mines deep below. Shrouded in garments they had retrieved from some of the many skeletons they had seen, the four of them made their way into the midst of it, careful to hide their faces. As they passed pale prisoner after pale prisoner, Severen was stunned as he caught a glimpse of some of them. Noting particular ones across the room, he whispered to Kain.
"Isn’t that Creelin Remhad?"
Kain looked twice to make certain of what he saw, he whispered back.
"Yes, Creelin Remhad, the man who legend has it killed an entire monastery of monks forty years ago".
"Legend also says that he went missing shortly after".
As they continued to walk, they were both now looking at the people they passed. Kain now spotted someone.
"That looks like Auchlin Niwrad, the scholar who challenged the authority of the church and was banished from Khanduras".
Severen noticed a third person.
"And that’s Medrun Submuloc, the famous explorer who over fifty years ago set out on an expedition to the west and never returned".
It was obvious this place was littered with people whom the rest of the world thought of as long dead. Toward the back of the courtyard, still shrouding their faces, they stopped to discuss what next they would do.
"Someone will have to raise the gate", Xeiss noted, "the controls are on top of…"
She was cut off as across the courtyard, they were stunned to see the old man who had been in their cell, stumble in and collapse on the floor.
"We should have locked the door behind us", Fearless muttered.
The old man was on both knees, just thankful to be out of his cell. Kron walked into the courtyard, the crowd hushed and parted as he did.
"Seize that man", he called out.
Quickly two guards took the old man and carried him to where Kron stood.
"Check his cell, there were others in it with him. They may have escaped as well".
The many guards in the courtyard scrambled as Kron had ordered. In the commotion, one bumped into Kain. His complexion made him stand out like a soar thumb.
"You are one of the travelers who rode in here yesterday morning".
He saw Fearless who was standing right next to Kain.
"So are you".
Kain tried to talk his way out of it although it was useless.
"You’ve made a mistake".
The guard grabbed them both by the arms and signaled for others to come.
"Come quickly, I’ve found two of them".
A number of guards rushed over, swinging the blunt end of axes, both Kain and Fearless were knocked to the ground. Chains were tied tightly to their wrists as Severen and Xeiss could do nothing but watch. They were brought to their knees not far from the old man, Kron took Fearless by the hair.
"Well done… Escaping your cell must have been difficult. Where is the other man and the girl?"
Both Kain and Fearless remained silent. Kron turned to his guards.
The guards scurried off. Kron shouted so that everyone could hear him.
"All three of these men will be put to death, the old man for attempted escape, and the two travelers for trespassing and treason".
The prisoners called for blood as the chanting began.
"What ‘treason’?", Fearless asked.
"Spreading your lies… Saying that the King of Dorado is dead".
Sparse laughter echoed throughout the crowd.
"Bring the old man forward"
The chains around his wrists made him easy to move, they brought, and made him kneel before Kron.
"No one tries to escape here and survives"
The old man couldn’t breath, let alone respond.
"I…Wasn’t trying to escape, my cell door was left open".
"Disobey me, and your life is forfeit".
As the old man cried, the crowd again chanted. Xeiss looked at Severen, they knew they would have to come up with something soon. She handed him the knife, he took it discreetly, with it hidden in his palm he began to push his way through the crowd toward the front. The crowd went silent as Kron raised his hand.
"As you know, there is only one punishment I assign".
The old man pleaded.
"Please… I have done nothing. Surely you wouldn’t…"
"I would", Kron interrupted. "There is nothing I enjoy more than this".
Throughout the entire prison, it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. From one of his guards, Kron was handed a knife. The man closed his eyes as Kron rose it high into the air. Striking it downward, it pierced the man’s chest, and out poured his blood. In a circular motion, Kron cut the man’s flesh, and then pushed harder to slice through the bone. Reaching in, Kron pulled out the man’s heart. Even separated, it still beat briefly. He held it infront of the man, as his eyes rolled backwards in his head. Perhaps the last thing the old man ever saw was Kron leaning over and biting into it.
As many threw up from the sight of the horror, Severen still pushed his way forward. The prison dogs were let loose and dragged the man’s hollowed remains away, his blood stained the stone floor as so many other men’s had. Kron shouted out.
"Bring the others forward".
Fearless and Kain were brought forward. Just as the old man had been, they were forced to their knees, the hoods still hiding their faces.
"Remove their hoods", Kron whispered.
The guards obeyed and pulled back the both their hoods. Slowly, Kron lowered his hand to Fearless’ chest.
"This… I shall enjoy".
Both Kain and Fearless struggled, but to no avail. Out of the limelight, Xeiss drew the bow she had taken from the corridor and took aim at one of the guards on an upper level looking down. As Kron spoke, Severen reached the front, dagger in hand.
"Today… You both will die".
Kron raised his knife above his head as he prepared to thrust downward. But before he could, Fearless yelled out.
"Stop this madness!"
Kron paused noting his courage.
"Why are we being killed… For justice? No court has ever tried us, and furthermore we are not guilty of any crime".
"Do you deny that you’ve claimed the King of Dorado is dead?"
Fearless was hesitant.
"I do not deny having said that… After all, it is true".
The crowd was taken back by his forthrightness.
"Haven’t you ever asked yourselves why you have heard nothing from him in almost a quarter century, why he has sent no supplies in so long?"
There was no response as no one had a good answer.
"You’ve let this twisted cannibal blindly reign over you for the last twenty five years guided by no agenda but his own… I don’t know what he’s promised you, but no-one here will ever be released. One day, each one of you will be where I am now, about to go under the knife on this lunatic’s dinner table".
The Prince’s words rang a truth that, deep down, they all knew.
"Not long ago, my life as I knew it, everything I held dear to me and everyone I cared about was taken away. That can never be changed… I did not have a choice… But right now, here, you all have a choice… You can either let Kain and I die by this maniac and one day be in the same position yourselves… Or you can stand with us, and for once in many years, yell out with your heart, your voices and your actions; ‘we will not go quietly into the night!’ …Freedom or a hellish death, the choice is yours…
An eerie quietness followed. All that was heard was an arrow that took flight. Climbing, climbing, it landed squarely in the eye of a guard on one of the upper levels, down he fell. The momentary confusion was what Severen had been waiting for. Drawing the knife, he walked face to face with Kron. They stared each other down, and as Severen tried to stab him, they battled for control of the weapon. Fearless and Kain used the distraction to their advantage as well. They attacked the guards holding them and were soon free from the chains which had held them. It was not long before chaos reigned. A full scale riot was in progress. History had taken it’s course.
A few hours later.
The Prince stumbled through the caves. If this was the right tunnel, he knew he should be nearing the exit by now. The barrel he carried was running low, hopefully it had been enough. With only a dim torch to lead him through, the cave was still very dark. It was late afternoon, getting out would be even tougher if he had no sunlight to assure him he had found the right route, should he be able to find it. Walking quickly as to cover plenty of ground but not waste his energy, he charged forward. That’s when it happened.
As though he walked into a brick wall he was knocked backward. After almost an hour of running it took him a few seconds to gather himself. He reached for his torch which he had dropped and held it up, looking for what had stopped him. He saw a pair of boots. He rose to his feet and panned the light upward, searching for the man’s face, he was startled by what he found.
Before him, Intruder stood. It had been the first time they saw each other since their parting of ways at Montross over a week before.
"Glad to see you my friend", Intruder replied.
He lied, he had been sent by Abadon.
"I’ve been looking for you, I followed the tracks of the horse you rode into this cave".
"When I ventured out of Montross the last day I saw you, I was careless and left my horse untied, it must have run in here".
His lies were obvious to the Prince, who as heir to an empire, was trained extensively in doing it convincingly. Intruder looked at the barrel Fearless was carrying.
"What’s in there?"
"Just water… I thought it would be needed should I venture in here".
Now they’d both done their fair share of it.
"Is this the way to the surface?"
"It is. We’d better get going, there’s someone I know who is quite anxious to meet you".
Between the lies he had told and the stories in which the others spoke of his dissension, it was fairly obvious that this ‘someone’ was Abadon. Although the Prince had sworn vengeance against him, and would one day seek it, being ambushed by him while unarmed wasn’t what he had in mind. The Prince knelt down as Intruder looked on.
"What are you doing?"
Fearless lowered his torch to the thin trail of liquid he had been leaving behind. It lit, very quickly, the flame sped away along the length of the route he had traveled, it would lead through miles of tunnel all the way to the main gate of the prison.
"I don’t know of any water than burns like an accelerant", Intruder quipped.
The Prince rose to his feet and threw the barrel at Intruder. The remainder of the liquid spilling all over him.
"And until I met you, I didn’t know of any traitor who would look a man in the eye and pretend to be his friend".
Throwing the torch, it narrowly missed turning Intruder into a human fireball. Mustering his strength, and knowing Intruder to be weak at hand to hand combat, the Prince swung at him, striking him in the face. Intruder struck back as they grappled.
Kain struggled to turn the massive wheel, as he did, the gate inched upward. It was not an easy task. He collapsed as it had taken him almost an hour to only raise it two feet. Kain staggered to the edge of the tower and looked out to the cavern entrance, still recuperating, he saw a thin trail of fire emerge, it ended in a small circle where Fearless had originally punctured the barrel. Seeing this he smiled as he knew Fearless had found the cavern exit, and that the path of fire would lead everyone to it. He turned and staggered to the other side of the tower, looking into the chaotic courtyard below. With what little strength he had, he yelled.
"The main gate is open! Follow the trail of fire to the cavern exit!"
Energized, dozens of prisoners charged toward the passage which led to the gate. Two feet may have been too low to walk under, but it was plenty large enough to crawl under. Still looking, he saw Xeiss running toward it as well, Severen not far behind. With a nod to each other they knew their mission was over, their only objective now was to get out alive. In twos and threes the convicts spilt into the caves. Xeiss and Severen crawled under the gate and now waited on the other side for Kain. Seeing more guards coming, Kain then did as he had made Fearless do an hour before, jump from the tower. Had the sand not been so deep below, he would likely have broken a leg.
They ran to the cave entrance and took their last look at a place they’d be content to never see again, although they knew that should they die and be sent to hell, they surely would. Cut, bruised and beaten, Kron walked to the gate as the prisoners ran past him. He knew the day was lost but also knew there was a debt he had yet to pay. Xeiss noticed him walking toward her, but as she turned to the others they were already gone. They’d ran into the cave and by now there were fifty people in between them, she was in this by herself. He walked closer, and although he was almost two feet taller, she stood proud, prepared to take him on with her bare hands if she had to.
She drew her two short swords, but being much stronger, he grabbed them by the blades and ripped them from her hands. She shuddered to think what that had done to his palms. He grabbed her by the neck and drew his dagger. She fought but he overpowered her, the passing prisoners were far more concerned with freedom than one girl’s life. With his free hand he brought forth his blade.
"At least I shall kill the girl who was brazen enough to spit in my face… I shall have justice!".
The dry spit still clung to his face, in almost two days he hadn’t bothered rinsing it away. His twisted idea of justice may yet take another life, her’s. He raised the dagger and prepared to thrust down, after he did so, there’s no doubt he’d withdraw her heart just as he had done to the old man and hundreds, perhaps thousands of others in the last decades.
Powerless to defend herself in body, she had but one option, defend herself in mind. Concentrating, she focused on his thoughts. His hand began to waver as now two forces were fighting for it’s control. Slowly the tide turned in her favor. Little by little she was gaining control of his mind and with it his actions. His eyes could only watch as she made him take his hand from her neck, however, she did not make him lower the knife. His hand moved outward, but still just as high. She spoke to him as it was clear what she was about to make him do.
"There will be justice today, but not your twisted brand… It will be my justice… Poetic justice".
He tried to resist but could only watch his own hands go to work. The knife thrust downward into his own chest. His mind now clouded with pain, he was even easier to control. She then made him saw through his own rib cage, withdraw the dagger and pull from his body his own heart. Now came the true justice as he bit into it just as he had done to so many others, the last thing he saw was his heart taking it’s final beats. Releasing her control, he fell to the ground in a pool of blood and an with an empty stare in his eyes. After one last look at the hollowed corpse of the pale man, she ran for the caves. For the first time in decades, this was a place where angels would no longer fear to tread.
The sun was starting to go down in Khanduras. From the mouth of the cave Intruder ran, shortly after Fearless followed. Tackling Intruder, they continued to exchange blows. They’d been fighting for almost twenty minutes, by now both were weary and badly scarred from the rock walls against which both had been thrown numerous times. Intruder pushed Fearless from on top of him. Picking up a fair sized rock, Intruder threw it. It narrowly missed and now they stood facing each other. As they both searched for breath, Intruder spoke.
"It isn’t too late, Prince. You can still save yourself… Forget those three, ride with me to Dorado".
"And betray those who have risked their lives for me, and the million who died defending Arcadia against Abadon? …That’ll be the day".
They watched each other, both poised to strike.
"Better to betray the dead than become so yourself".
"That is where we differ, Intruder. For if I betrayed my people, or abandoned my honor, I’d already be dead".
Fearless lunged at Intruder, knocking him to the ground. He picked up a jagged rock and tried to force it downward. They struggled, one to save a life, the other to end one. The outcome was not what either expected.
The cold steel of a warhammer struck Fearless across the back, he was thrown from Intruder. Above them, silhouetted by the falling sun and atop his white horse, Glitterspike sat.
"This must be my lucky day… Two men whom I wish to kill for the price of one".
Seizing the moment, Intruder leapt up. With a cold hard stare at the Prince he spoke.
"We will finish this another time".
With those words, he ran into the cave. Glitterspike would have liked to kill them both, but one would have to do for now.
"Defend yourself!", he shouted.
Unarmed, and after having been through what he had been through, the Prince would be no match for the halberd wielding, shield carrying, horseback riding Glitterspike. Yet he still prepared to defend. This was a good sign as any that he was indeed fearless, his courage had no limit.
"It’s a good day to die".
Standing at the mouth of the cave, Glitterspike raised his battle axe prepared to kill. It’s good thing Kain was there to grab it from his hand. From the cave emerged Severen not far behind, and seconds later a flood of pale, ghost like skeletons of people, most of whom fell in joy of seeing the sun, or kissed the grass as though they’d not seen it in years. Looking to Kain, Glitterspike was utterly confused. At their fastest pace, from the wood, Ethon and Shin Hikaru rode.
"What the hell is going on here?", Shin asked.
Kain looked to Fearless, then back to the prisoners as they ran into the countryside.
"This… This is going to take a bit of explaining".
Some time later.
The sky was dark, and outside the cave the Prince rested. Not far away, the band of adventurers sat around a fire, many had gone to sleep. Fearless looked into the sky and the near infinite stars that shown throughout it. He scarcely remembered the last time he had seen a night so beautiful, as he waited in only the moonlight, Xeiss walked over.
"Still waiting for Intruder?"
It had been hours, there was only a slim chance at best he would’ve returned.
"He was able to find his way out the first time without even leaving footprints, and find me the second time in the complete darkness. There could be dozens of exits to these caverns all over the surrounding hills. He has escaped… For now".
Xeiss smiled as she saw the cut on his face.
"I got you pretty good there didn’t I?"
The Prince felt the long deep cut which ran across his cheek.
"If this leaves a scar, you’d better run".
"Like the over two hundred psychopaths we’ve unleashed into the countryside?"
"Many of them are very old, some were committed for very trivial crimes against the state. Khanduras is a bitter land… The hunters will become the hunted as time passes".
Exhausted, she sat down across from him. To say the least it had been a long day, what they’d been through left her still taking deep breaths of the fresh outside air.
"So what are we looking at?" Following his gaze upward, she saw him looking at the constellations, "watching the stars I see".
Fearless looked away and down at the ground.
"They are beautiful… But these aren’t my stars, they’re too far east".
They sat in silence for a few minutes, then seemingly out of the blue, the Prince asked a question.
"Can you tell me why you three were so protective of that grave?"
She gave a simple answer.
"I suppose you have to have had cared deeply about someone to understand entirely".
The Prince ran his hand through his hair, he quoted something he had once read.
"’Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings’".
He then looked her right in the eye as above them, the universe unfolded.
"Maybe it was when I saw a hundred thousand of my countrymen die in cold bold… Maybe it was when I pulled the daggers from the pits that were once my father’s eyes… Maybe it was when I held my fiancé in my arms as she died… But somewhere along the line, I’ve forgotten how to love… All I know how to do now is hate".
For every page turned a new one is started, each one richer than the last. Perhaps somewhere in the hearts of each of these warriors were books of their own, each filled with as many pages and chapters that could last a lifetime. Perhaps they were simply chapters, or pages in a very big book on a distant shelf, but as is the case with any book, or any life, there’s only one way to find out what lies ahead…
Turn the page. Today a page had turned.