Chapter 11 – Crossing the Styx

Owen, Quinn and the Protector led the small group of men down the tunnel past the room that had once been Quinn's office.

Owen took a deep breath to try and control his emotions when he turned to look at the men behind him. Their small group was mainly composed of the masters that had not been part of the great betrayal a week and a half ago when the skull-heads had first come. Had it only been a week and a half? It felt like a lifetime ago! Very few of the rebels that had joined the original group still lived; there had been a good lot of them before those daemon hounds had come. So many killed … for what? So that Avatar Treasick could be satisfied with a 'clean' city? There would always be rebellion so long as the order of the Light had not been restored in the pious city of Val Duin. At least they had left a nasty surprise for the charculas when they returned to wipe out the rest of the rebels …

There were probably politics behind all of this, thought Owen glumly, but whatever politics had done, it was affecting him now. Things had been flashing by so quickly, shifting from attack to defense to running and back to attack, that the small rebel group had never had the time to sit down and ask themselves: what is happening in the world outside Val Duin that was causing all of this turmoil? Was evil re-awakening from its millennia of sleep? And what of this Art that they had seen: dead men that walked, fire-hounds and an old man that fought with magic?

Things were all too very much complicated for Owen who had grown up in Val Duin and had never left his home. Owen believed in strength and the existence of a strong back-up plan in whatever situation you were in.

Right now they were going headfirst into the center of the earth, leaving behind a camp that was certain to be overrun by mid-afternoon or so, although you could never tell, with the constant eerie darkness that shrouded Val Duin's skies. They were being swallowed by the earth and had to re-emerge in a different location with some kind of plan.

He looked over to Quinn who was staring at his shoes as hard as possible, hoping that when he looked back up they would not be heading into the depths. Quinn, although sketchy sometimes, was an over-all sensible man. If what had been in the depths had scared him so much, Owen wondered how he would fare.

The masters had of course taken the news very seriously, but with the usual attitude that there was no other alternative and thus no point in complaining.

Up ahead, the Protector stopped suddenly and everyone realized they were facing a dead-end in the musty tunnels. A few people cursed, ready to turn around, but the old man advanced and placed his hand ever so carefully upon the wall; he seemed to be reading something. Owen advanced and could make out faint marks in the wall and a few odd sketches. The old man wiped most of the dirt and dust from the wall with his sleeve and then proceeded to read the inscription out loud, even though Owen could not have made out what language had been used in the inscription; it had seemed completely alien to him. Large parts of the inscription were missing:

"… old city has collapsed … supplies have … trying to reach the survivors … efforts have been made to strengthen … seem to be gathered in … church of old Val Duin, down chute number seventeen." A little farther down the Protector read:

"… have been abandoned … many people throng … gathered among ruins … wishes to congratulate … keystone placed …" he paused here and then continued, "contact has been made with …the new Val Duin has been created! … camp-life will cease … abandoning posts within …" Apparently satisfied, the old man turned to the small group and said:

"To chute number seventeen!" Quinn whimpered.

Treasick felt his mortal body complain because it had not slept or eaten in over forty-eight hours. He let his organs groan. Ecstasy filled him in every moment of existence when the daemon king was near; he simply could not let himself become distracted, there was so much to do!

The entire population of Val Duin was hiding in their homes. All of them feared the arrival of the daemon king of Hounds! He had not yet made plans about the fate of those miserable people. Some would be kept for practical purposes: blacksmiths, horse trainers and so forth. The rest would be put into two categories: the fit and the unfit. The unfit would be disposed of, perhaps as sacrifices and those fit for manual labor would be granted the privilege to be able to work as slaves for the Dark Lord when he swept through with his armies. War needed lots of preparation and even more sustaining, but none of that mattered to Treasick; that responsibility would be given to lesser people, those who knew warfare but had no vision.

War had not broken out yet and in fact, he was almost certain the Capitol had heard nothing from Val Duin because anyone who arrived in Val Duin over the past few weeks was killed or thrown into the dungeons. Soon enough the ignorant peoples of the Kingdom of Atùmn would discover the corruption of Val Duin, but it would be too late. Lord Treasick the Dark, as he called himself now, had full confidence that Avatar Phinnister had the situation in the Capitol under control. In a few weeks, perhaps even within a single week, Phinnister would find a way to declare war upon the south and all the blind nobles would be rushed into an alliance with the forces of darkness, rushing like a storm from above the Icelands. The un-organized southern empires as well as the eastern ones, if they were organized at all, would fall quickly to the combined forces of the North. Cold and quick would be the conquering of the known world … and then, on to the unknown world and dominion over all …

Treasick had a vision: he could see the vast Empire of the Dark Lord spreading, even before they actually came to a new, undiscovered region, there would be many followers of the Dark Lord among the inhabitants, so strong was His will. Then would come the study of the Art, with unlimited resources granted by the Dark Lord's empire. He would become the greatest of all the dark Art users, surpassing all but the daemon lords themselves, who had been corrupted before the world itself had been created. He would visit the entire world, from the fabled island of the philosophers in the West, to the legendary flying city in the East and back to the mysterious island of Ice that lay thousands of lengths past the northern shore of Atùmn. The Light could never have given him this! He would gain power untold of since the days of the heroes when single warriors knew ways to level entire mountains! The dark Art was powerful but it needed one thing to power its user that the Light did not demand … blood.

Maybe some of the 'unfit' people of Val Duin would come in handy, thought Treasick gleefully as he started up the stairs to his tower. Justice was decided by those who had power and power came from knowledge. Wisdom could only be gained if all facets of knowledge were studied … even to the darkest recesses of daemonic worship …

The tunnels seemed endless to Quinn.

And we haven't even truly reached Old Val Duin yet, thought the young initiate. They had passed several chutes, most of which looked in deplorable shape as it was, never mind the more or less thousand years of decay. Owen seemed confident enough and so did the other masters. Of course, you could never tell with the masters … they were always silent and preserved an outward serenity that was seldom broken. Everyone had probably finally relaxed because of all this monotonous stamping through cold tunnels of packed earth. The most eventful occurrence was when someone at the back had fallen through a hole in the ground, probably loose soil released by too many feet pounding on top of it, only to be caught at the last moment by a quick master. The hole created had quickly filled with crumbling earth and they had nimbly left that section of tunnels in a hurry. The Light only knows where the poor man at the back could have fallen to …

The old man was unyielding; every time poor Owen tried to initiate conversation he would simply get a yes or no answer or sometimes just silence. He was in no mood for talking it seemed. Quinn guessed that the Protector himself was over a thousand years old and must have been trapped when everything collapsed. He had read about the fall of all of the North when the dark wizard had been defeated almost a thousand years ago. His death had shaken the world and whatever power was used to destroy him was lost. Cities fell upon themselves, families were torn apart and the landscape changed. A certain great city had been destroyed in the North, which Quinn had hazarded to be old Val Duin. He had no idea that this new Val Duin was simply built on top. Knowledge about the old city under the ruins must have been lost when people decided to concentrate on their present lives and start rebuilding. The reality of the old city became an old wife's tale about ghosts and ghouls near the ruins that they would use to scare children. Quinn was fine with people leaving these tunnels alone as far as he was concerned … no point in digging into the past; it was dead.

Looking up, he saw a sign indicating the presence of a chute, similar to the ones they had seen earlier, but this one was obviously larger and had been well kept because it must have been used frequently in the early years of excavation. The originally cramped tunnels expanded and became a large stone hallway. There were a few racks in the corners that must have held miners' tools and there were many tables and chairs remaining. This hallway must have been some kind of forward-operations office used as a center for all the information coming from the excavations; a much quicker and efficient way than having a single center on the surface.

While everyone was staring around, trying to grasp all of the fascinating room at once, the Protector seemed to home in on the large contraption at the end of the room, which finished in a T-shape, with arms that extended on both sides of the center point. A large machine that was a veritable maze of wooden beams, metal strengtheners and rope hung over a gaping hole. Darkness seemed to ooze from that hole and Quinn stopped in his tracks, frozen in terror. The Protector stopped the moment Quinn had, as if sensing his sudden pang of fear, and turned to face him. The old man paused and then, as if deciding what to do with Quinn, ran up to him quickly. The Protector handed the source of light to Owen and then pulled up his sleeves.

"You will be a problem if you still fear the darkness … I will need to help you defeat the fear", said the old man. He then said the worst possible thing Quinn could ever expect at that moment: "Don't worry; it won't hurt a bit …"

When those words were uttered, the vibrant imagination of the strategist flared. The old man obviously not the most tactful when it came to making people feel safe. Quinn closed his eyes, fearing the worst, as the Protector took his hands and placed them firmly on Quinn's eyes. The room became very, very dark, not only because his eyes were closed and covered by the old man's wrinkly, yet strong hands, but everything became entirely black. Normally, one still sees an infinite amount of small, unidentifiable images or patterns that seem to be retained in the eye, even after all light has been shut out and muffled. Quinn recognized the absence of such little patterns and he was suddenly very afraid. Blackness was everything. All the tension that had been accumulated from walking in these tunnels was released and he tried to rip the old man's surprisingly strong arms from his face, but he could not, however much he tried.

Then he suddenly felt his fear trickle towards the Protector; it seemed to leave him ever so slowly, as if it there was a funnel through which Quinn's insurmountable terror was leaking through. This funnel was placed above the Protector, who was willingly absorbing all of the fear, dispersing it into nothingness. If fear was firewood, the old man was a furnace that burned away the fear to simply fuel his stamina.

Quinn was now empty of fear. It had been replaced by … nothing … However, the moment the old man removed his fingers from Quinn, relief flooded into the emotional hole created – relief and courage, mixed with a little bit of hope, which had been as rare as a guyan in the Southern Kingdoms before the old man had placed his healing hands upon him.

Sudden relief instead of fear tends to bewilder a human being's motor functions and Quinn unceremoniously fell over backwards, effectively knocking the wind from his body. Some of the masters in his immediate vicinity scrambled to help him up and after a few taps on the back, he was right as rain.

Quinn looked up from the dust into the old man's bright eyes.

"Thank … you …" he managed to say, still utterly shocked. He wondered vaguely if the Art had any nasty side-effects … It was supposedly broken a thousand years ago with the death of the dark wizard, but apparently, that was not true. The Art had now been practiced many times through this Protector.

"You are welcome Quinn. I hope you will be able to keep up with everyone else now, won't you?" Quinn nodded, getting to his feet. "Good. Now, all of you!" he shouted, raising his voice, "We will reach the church of ancient Val Duin using this chute … I will try to support it, but I will need your help, emotionally and physically. You must believe strongly that the possibility of reaching the bottom is a reality. If you have doubts, or fears, I will have less power. Confidence is what I need … and a few very strong arms to hold onto the ropes at the four corners … let's get to work!"

After a few minutes of examining the machine, they came to the conclusion that its purpose was indeed to carry people down into the depths. It was held up by giant pulleys in six different places: at its four corners, going into the ceiling, and at the two sides, going up through a system of pulleys and leading into the two branches of the hallway. The system must have been extremely strong, oh, perhaps a thousand years ago, but now it looked very unstable. Owen remembered the Protector's words however and placed all his confidence in the old man. They tested the various pulley systems and ropes. They seemed steady enough, although in a few places they had to strengthen the rope using any scraps that were lying around. The ropes were long, which meant a long trip down. They took apart the rope and examined the whole thing, making adjustments here and there.

The daemon hounds returned to the campsite. Their leader, who was connected directly to the daemon king himself, sniffed around the abandoned campsite. The charcula's vision was twisted and his sense of smell was warped. Evil had long since robbed him of perfect senses, in exchange for immortality and immense strength. The rebels seemed to have left in a hurry, but their sent was still strong. The daemon lord, uncomfortable in the silly throne the humans had made for him, commanded his dog to follow the strongest sent. It led the chacula to the entrance of a small tunnel.

He signaled the others to follow him, and they began their cautious descent into the tunnels. The daemon lord grinned with what only a few would call a face; the feeble humans were trying to hide in the tunnels, perhaps making a last stand with that foolish Protector. That old man had tasted immortality for too long and deserved to be put down.

There was a silent click as the leader of the daemon hounds stepped on a cleverly hidden trap. The group of dogs stopped suddenly and before any of them could move a muscle, the entire tunnel collapsed, taking with it half the hounds of darkness. The Daemon King grunted.

Good move, he projected mentally to all of those capable of hearing such things.

A resounding rumble alerted all the rebels and made the Protector smile.

"Yes!" shouted Quinn, "Our trap worked!" There was much rejoicing as the level of morale visibly grew to the Protector's eyes. He chuckled; that one had not even been his move, although he had helped in the creation of the trap. However, a small battle won meant nothing in a war, but he kept that glum information to himself. They were done the renovations to the amazing bit of craftsmanship that lay before them and were now refitting the rope into the pulleys. The mechanism that had existed a thousand years ago but they had modified it to fit their needs. A group of men would be assigned to each rope so that they could lower the platform bit by bit to reach the ground below smoothly.

He saw many of the men mumble something to the Light as they stepped on board. It was just as well; he made his own little offering to the Light as to their safe journey down into the depths of the earth. Claustrophobia tended to lose its effect after a thousand years or so of living under the earth but the loneliness had more or less made him lose his sanity. When he had re-emerged from the earth and had felt the presence of the Lord Daemon, he had regained much. The battle with the charculas had awakened his senses and his Art. There might be more to uncover, he wasn't sure himself, but he would see. Rediscovering oneself was turning out to be quite the experience, especially in such interesting times as these.

The rebels took their positions at the corners and sides, gripping the rope very tightly. The Protector nodded to all of the men and they released the planks that supported the machine. Instantly their muscles flexed with the effort to uphold the platform and all those standing upon it. The Protector helped as much as he could. He gathered the forces of confidence from those around him and translated them, through his Art, into physical supports of air beneath the platform. The strain was removed from the rebels, surprising them all, and they started lowering the platform slowly. Everything made such a horrible creaking sound that Quinn would not be surprised if Treasick himself could hear them all from his tower in the barracks.

"Do not bestir yourselves! Concentrate on confidence, strength and lowering the platform!" shouted the Protector under the strain of holding such a strong physical support. He faintly remembered doing such things with help from other Art users and a whole army behind him. Such a situation would be much easier to work in, he decided, wiping sweat from his brow.

The rebels' strain was well rewarded: the platform was descending at a comfortable speed and soon they lost sight of the area above them. Eventually, the old man warned them all that he was extinguishing his light; he had to concentrate all of his powers on the air support. Darkness engulfed them and all that could be heard were the noises of exertion of a rough score of men, descending into oblivion.

Minutes that seemed like hours passed. No one spoke and everyone concentrate solely upon the ropes and the awful creaking noises. Every once in a while, what sounded like a horrible snap or crack would be heard way up. Everyone tensed for sudden death, but it never came.

Another one of those horrible sounds that breaks silences with sharp knives and which your imagination takes and twists into all sorts of things came ringing down the chute. This time it was accompanied by lengths and lengths of rope falling onto the platform, severed by decay. The platform lurched uneasily to one side as one of the corner ropes snapped. The rebels quickly made their ways to other ropes, supporting those with the kind of strength that is reserved for life-threatening situations. The old man tensed, and the platform leveled out.

"Hurry! Bring us down faster! I can't hold it for much longer …" bellowed the Protector over the other confused shouts of the rebels.

The platform resumed its descent none too gently as Quinn and Owen started working double-time. Everyone's muscles ached tremendously as they sped down the chute now. Owen's skin was ripping as he let the rope slide between his hands as gently as possible. The rope must have been bright red with the blood of the rebels.

Another rope snapped … and another … they were riding down now with half the number of ropes … but with double the amount of people on the remaining ropes. The Protector was straining quite visibly now; an eerie light surrounded him and seemed to also be issuing from underneath the platform. The light was more or less a yellowish tint to the blackness, and it revealed very little. The old man's hands were trembling with effort …

One more rope snapped and the Protector's powers gave out. The rebels gave one final outburst of strength and endurance, trying to slow down as much as possible before falling to their deaths, perhaps giving them the chance to latch on to loose dirt on the wall …

The platform fell … a mere length, and then stopped, because it had hit the ground. Everyone scrambled out shaking and collapsed onto the ground, breathing hard. A few minutes passed and all that could be heard were moans and heavy panting. A few were coughing from the dust that was settling. The air was old … they could feel it … it had not been disturbed for … probably a thousand years … at least, they hoped nothing still lived down here …

After a few minutes of resting the old man's light returned and the small group of rebels gathered together to assess their situation. Everyone was more or less fine. Most of the rebels had bloodied hands and one man had fallen on his ankle rather awkwardly, creating a semi-limp; nothing serious. The old man's hands, when he brought them to the light, looked quite horrible.

"What happened?" asked Quinn with a concern that surprised him.

"The pressure of keeping up the platform was supported partially by your help, partially by my own strength. It was as if I was supporting part of the platform with my own hands … all of this resulted in a lot of friction, which … well … hurt." The Protector did not seem to worry much about his hands. They looked slightly burned and had the fleshy, red look of raw meat. The old man closed his eyes and the rebels felt their concern for the old man flow out and he used it to mend his raw flesh. The skin re-knitted itself quickly and the fingers regained their apparent mobility. Amazed once again at the old man's Art, they all stared silently at his hands that looked good as new. They even looked clean, while all of their hands were dirty and bloody.

"Hold out your hands," the Protector commanded, "this might feel a little odd, but it will relieve you of most of the pain." They all held out their hands and felt a strange tingle flow through their arms. The blood dried, cracked and fell off their fresh-looking hands. They still hurt a little, but they no longer stung so bad they could not use them.

Owen wrapped his palm and wrist with a piece of torn cloth from his pants to strengthen his grip and Quinn followed his example. Owen flexed out his hands and then closed his fists tightly into a ball. It hurt only very little and compared to the stinging pain, it was much better of course. Surely, the Protector was a master at his Art, thought Quinn. When they had finally cleansed all the evil from the city of Val Duin (the initiate was practicing positive thinking), they would need to sort things out once and for all … what was happening to the fabric of his life? It was being torn apart by these gargantuan forces, upon which he seemed to have no control.

The old man walked slowly apart from the rebels to examine the new territory. The chute had ended in a medium sized hallway, perhaps the height of two men and the width of seven. It became larger a few lengths from where they were and expanded suddenly into a larger cavern. This must have been where digging had stopped for the most part, the original workers having connected with the underground passages that surrounded the fallen city of Val Duin.

"Come; we must not linger!" called the old man to the rebels and they slowly joined him.

At the exact moment that Quinn moved from his spot (relatively close to the collapsed platform) to go join the old man, a thousand tons of earth loosed itself from the ceiling and started rushing down the chute. They heard the rumbling first and it became louder every passing second.

The old man caught Owen's eye and they both shouted:
"RUN!" and they did.

Dust and little pebbles came first; the very ground seemed to shake, bracing for the impact. They made their way into this first cavern and tried to find spots where it was unlikely that they would be crushed or impaled by pieces of rock from the ceiling. A few seconds later, a veritable snowstorm of earth, rock and dust came out of the chute hallway. The first load of rocks to come through was not large enough to fit through the chute, so it made some small renovations to the size of the 'doorframe' if you could call it that.

Crossing his fingers to try and prevent a cave-in of the entire cavern, Owen picked up Quinn who had been knocked unconscious and made a run for an apparently safer area of the cavern where the old man had put up a shield around the rest of the rebels. The concept of chaos had never been fully grasped by Owen up to that specific point when he crossed the more than hazardous area between his relatively safe location and the Protector's shield, which was reflecting pebbles like sunlight off a bright sword. The shield was the only source of dim light in the monstrous cavern that seemed to suck in the unnatural sunlight greedily.

Dust and earth blotted Owen's vision as he dodged blackened rock issuing from the ceiling. The large chunks plummeted down and made deafening cracks of collision with the rocky, uneven surface that Owen was scrambling across. A large rock flew by the initiate's face at an alarming speed, narrowly missing its opportunity to create two unconscious targets. Owen dove the last few feet into the shield, which parted smoothly to receive him and his load. The final climax of the earthquake arrived, as if to spite the survivors; it tore across the cavern, completely covering the shield in darkness.

The Protector thought, good move, to himself as the dust settled, not wishing to reveal to the daemon that they had survived his attack. Only once he had heard the rumbling had he detected the large interference in the Art on the surface. He should be more on his guard from now on. The daemon's power was impressive; the old man could never have wielded so much strength into a single blow upon the ruins. Most of the tunnels closer to the surface must have been completely crushed. A useful asset in a siege no doubt, the old man conceded.

The prince of the Kingdom of Atùmn lay in his cell brooding. It had not taken Treasick long to simply throw all the original snow cats and masters into the prison cells, keeping only the ones that he absolutely needed. This appearance of the daemon king had offset everyone as they lay there in the darkness trying to ort things out in their heads. A few of the masters were conversing in hushed tones, no doubt trying to reach some kind of democratic decision that would ensure their collective survival; the masters were like that and that was what they did.

Jon himself had a few ideas on how to escape his cell. It was not a huge task to get a small knife and cut the throats of the stupid skull-heads that were supposedly guarding them. They could be easily confused and manipulated by a self-confident actor or trickster. The problem was getting out of the barracks themselves, which were crawling with more skull-heads than they could handle and a few prowling daemon hounds, not to mention the daemon lord himself and the elusive Treasick.

Jon had had plenty of time to think about the whole situation of the North himself and a lot of things did not make sense to him. He had realized from the first time that he had spoken to Treasick, perhaps a season ago, that the Art must have survived its supposed destruction a thousand years ago. From what he had read in the library about the Art, a wizard relied on the emotions and strength of the warriors around him. He could do very little with his own energies and could never use the energies of someone who did not have a certain level of trust in him. That was why wizards were usually attached to a specific group of soldiers and they fought together as one, the wizard supporting the troops with his Art, and the troops supporting the wizard through their strength and confidence.

He had assumed, naturally, that the users of the Art who concentrated their powers in areas of darkness and evil functioned in a similar manner. This was where these skull-heads didn't fit in. The skull-heads were as emotionally empty as a plank of wood, so their usefulness must not have been very great for a dark wizard. He also assumed that the daemon lord, no matter how vast his power, relied also on emotions. Fear powered their strength and Art though, Jon was sure of it. In the old days, it must have simply been a contest of will when two armies were facing each other. The evil wizard must make his troops respect and fear him, while the opposing force must build the confidence of his troops, and make the enemy fear them more than their masters. Fear was easier to acquire than confidence and courage, making battles very interesting.

Evil had spread in the north and Jon was convinced it would spread like wildfire all the way across the earth very soon. He wanted a piece of what would be left after the savage destruction of the weak institutions of this world. What he did not understand was why the Northern powers beyond the Icelands had not stormed down on an unprepared world with daemons and beasts to subdue all the populations of the south and east within a single year.

Jon would survive, he always had. He was not worried here in the cell; all he wanted was a piece of things. The most short-term 'thing' he could get at the moment was a part in the escape plan that was developing quite neatly a few feet from him between the masters. He had been listening very little, almost dozing off, but he had heard a proposition of an escape plan that sounded quite interesting indeed. It included the death of the Chief Avatar of the Council of Light; the one who had struck him and had probably forgotten all about it. Jon never forgot.

Quinn opened his eyes and rolled over, groaning. Clutching his head, he looked up painfully. A few particles of dust remained floating in the air around the group of rebels that were taking a well-deserved break and patching themselves up. The old man was going from one person to another, passing a few encouraging comments on and healing the more grievous wounds. The most serious injury seemed to be a large gash on the head; they had been extremely lucky.

"Decided to get up have we?" muttered Owen sarcastically. Quinn turned to see his friend going through packs of rations. Owen pulled out a little water skin for the wakened man to drink from. The water was warm, but it was wet and Quinn drank greedily.

"Are we leaving soon? I'd better get ready …" said the strategist as he got up painfully. He wasn't hurt all that bad; he was simply sore from having been tossed around a bit. Owen explained to him what had happened as he got his gear back on.

"You owe me one now Quinn, and i'd better start counting since we're doing all this adventuring now!" said Owen, grinning as Quinn choked on the last drops of the water skin.

"What do you mean, doing all this adventuring? Are you actually enjoying yourself here? We could have died! Some daemon Lord wants us all dead and you're talking about keeping score!" Owen doubled-over with laughter and punched Quinn in the stomach.

"Cheer up, and get moving! Mr. Old Man's orders!"

"I heard that!" shouted the Protector from the other side of the cavern. He resented somewhat being called old, even though he was at least five times all of their ages combined or something ridiculous like that.

The rebels continued on their blind quest, slightly shaken by the sudden collapse of part of the cavern, but reassured by the power of their guide.

They went through cave after cave, guided by the old man's sense of judgment and direction. Some were large enough to fit a dozen houses or even more, and some were so small they had to go in single-file. The only residual human presence was the existence of an extremely rough path and a few pick marks in the ceiling where rock had been knocked out of the way when the path was naturally too small.

After an hour or so of marching, they reached a few sections of larger caves, which contained a few sparse ruins. It was obvious though that the houses had not been built underground, but rather, had been crushed and over-turned in a cataclysmic event: the end of the second war of the Light. Some houses were smashed against the walls, some were completely upside down and some seemed to be scattered over large areas. It was a wonder that some people had survived the catastrophe. Then again, they had no idea how it actually had happened, except perhaps for the Protector. Citizens might have had lots of time to leave their houses before they were crushed and sent down into the earth, or perhaps it had been sudden, the earth splitting open right under people's feet.

Shaking his head to rid his mind of images of destruction, Owen carefully made his way across the 'demolished ruins' of the ancient Val Duin. Ahead loomed the promised ancient church of Val Duin and it resembled the church above ground immensely. The church seemed to have sustained minimal damage from its fall. The ground it was on right now was uneven, so it tilted somewhat, and parts of the roof had caved in, but apart from that, it looked safe.

Owen looked over to Quinn, who was now somewhat on edge. He asked him why he looked so tense.

"Oh, nothing really. It's just that I expected there to be some of those memory bats I was talking to you about hanging around down here", replied Quinn.

"I wonder where they've all flown off to …" wondered Owen, doubting somewhat the validity of Quinn's 'memory bats'. Quinn had been half-crazed from lack of water and exhaustion; it could have been anything.

"It's not so much as where they've flown off to, but why …" Quinn left the sentence hanging in mid-thought.

"Maybe we're too many people and they're intimidated by our presence? You were alone when they … attacked … you, so maybe they only prey on the multitude of stragglers that wander around in these tunnels and caves?" Quinn didn't even seem to notice the sarcasm and continued.

"Or maybe … they've been scared away … by something larger than them?" Fear visibly contorted Quinn's face as he imagined all kinds of fierce cavern predators that prowled the center of the earth. Perhaps they evolved from ferocious dogs that were interred here a thousand years ago and adapted to the darkness, becoming the fiercest predators under the earth.

"Oh come on Quinn! There isn't any food down here for any animals! Stop worrying!" This seemed to relax Quinn somewhat, although the preemptive strike of the predators that were watching them from one of the darker recesses of the cave sent him right back into hysteria.

A menacing growl that vibrated the rocks of the cavern made the rebels tighten up around the Protector, whose source of light was the only dependable element in the entire underground journey. Little pebbles on the ground shook violently from the deep, guttural growl of the approaching creatures. They were unlike anything any of them had ever seen (except perhaps, the old man) and looked even more menacing than the charculas if that was possible. The charculas were decidedly evil looking; they had black fur where it was not raw flesh and spoke intelligibly. While the daemon hounds were more obviously evil than these creatures that now approached them, they did not radiate the pure animal power and ferocity that these underground creatures did.

The creatures had slimy looking skin devoid of fur. They were larger than the daemon hounds and had a huge mane of very thick strands of what looked like wire. Their eyes glowed yellow in the semi-darkness, illuminating their enormous paws that showed forth large claws. Their claws seemed able to dig into the stone very well, judging by some of the smaller creatures that were making their way slowly across the walls and down from the ceiling.

The rebels tightened up even more, drawing swords. The old man shouted:

"Remain confident! The Light is with us! I need your confidence!" The old man's shout, which was high-pitched compared to what they had heard from the menacing animals, made the creatures flinch. They resumed their approach more cautiously, apparently confused by the sound created by the old man.

Inspired by the slight hesitation of the creatures, Quinn and Owen shouted at the top of their lungs, screaming out insults, battle cries and anything else that came to their minds. Most of the creatures just stopped, but many others closed their eyes and contorted in silent agony upon the ground. The other rebels took up the cries of Owen and Quinn and started to fight their way into the church through a sea of these creatures, big and small. A few rebels were instantly snatched up by the larger monsters and tossed all the way across the cavern into various ruins.

The monsters were slowed or stopped by the cries and by the light of the Protector, but if a man came into the reach of the paws of one of them without raising his weapon, he was gouged ferociously by huge claws. When a master's back was torn deeply by one of the smaller monsters, Quinn banished any thoughts that these creatures only wanted his memories. The rebels formed themselves up in groups of three, fighting back to back in circles, ever so slowly cutting their way into the church. The tide of monsters seemed endless and swamped the small group, which was dwindling slowly.

The rebels finally made it to the church doors and were now fighting off the creatures with their backs to the dark emptiness of the huge structure. The old man stepped forward, shining his light brightly and launched an enormous spew of liquid fire from the tips of his fingers. The fire hissed and bubbled when it caught some of the closer monsters, which immediately burst into flames. A small puddle formed in front of the church, creating a barrier between the silent creatures and the rebels. The old man turned and ran, the others following closely behind.

"That will slow them down! We need to find the key! The stone should be at the center of the church! Run and beware! There might be creatures hidden in the structure!" shouted the Protector as he ran ahead with surprising speed. He flared his light so it would illumine the entire place of worship. The light revealed an inside similar to the church they all knew, but it seemed more glorious and incited more respect and awe. The tombs along the walls were more numerous, marking the resting places of some of the heroes of ancient times. Many had been removed of course, perhaps to be placed in the current church, since the priests had always claimed that they had corpses thousands of years old.

Quinn hurried with Owen, burning to let out an "I told you so …"

Owen was walking quickly along the walls of the church, trying to look everywhere at once for this 'key'. One of the masters shouted out in a shaky voice:

"I … think I've found it!" Everyone turned to find him pointing at a life-sized statue in one of the corners of the church, near where the ashes of the daemons were supposed to be kept. It was of a soldier dressed in full armour, from head to toe, who was holding no weapon, but only a jeweled staff. Everyone ran up to the statue and the old man approached it, coming face to face with the statue.

"Reveal your secrets!" he shouted at the statue, just as a fresh round of growls came from the entrance. Quinn shook his head, convinced the Protector had gone mad again from all of this underground exposure. Surprisingly enough, the statue responded, tilting its head ever so slightly:

"What is your intent, follower of the Light?" The voice was deep and seemed to come from the church itself rather than the mouth of the statue.

"To cleanse the evil that has penetrated the great city of Val Duin! By the order of the Council of Light and the Protectors of Light, grant us the key of Val Duin!" The statue seemed to ponder for a moment and then, as suddenly as a three thousand year old statue can move, it plunged its staff into the old man. His light went out and the rebel group was plunged into darkness. Quinn made a move to help the old man but was stopped by Owen, who held him back. Whatever evil was happening, the only one of them able to dismiss it would be the Protector. Moments passed that seemed like hours, interrupted only by the low growl of the creatures who sounded a little too close for comfort.

Finally the light came back and the old man appeared, seemingly unharmed. The statue's staff fell to the floor and it hummed.

"Your intents are pure. The key is yours." The statue exploded to reveal a magnificent sword in its place. This sword shone brightly like the ones you read about that existed back in the age of heroes. This in fact probably was from the age of heroes, conceded Quinn silently. Its blade was deep into the stone but slid out easily when the Protector took grasp of the long hilt and pulled. Its blade was almost a whole length long and would have towered over a child. It seemed heavy, but the Protector wielded it lightly. He threw his other sword to the ground and gently traced his finger along the flat of the entire length of the sword.

Owen managed to look away from the sword when an arrow whizzed by his face to lodge itself into the throat of a lunging creature. He turned just in time to see one of the masters knock another arrow onto to his bow. They were coming now, swarming from the doors that were still smoking from the liquid fire that was now cooled. The rebels formed up again, many of them taking the example of Master Roland, who had launched the arrow. They formed a defensive circle around the old man who ran towards the dais of the church, launching fire and swinging his sword at lunging creatures.

Quinn started up the battle cries again, but they were less effective, the monsters having somewhat gotten used to the pitch of human voices. The rebels were now all on the raised platform of the church, fighting left and right the advancing monsters.

The old man let forth a burst of bright white light, temporarily blinding even some of the rebels. Quinn saw through burning tears the Protector raise the sword high and strike it blade first into a slit similar to the one in the statue, but larger, and raised onto a sort of podium. Low moans of creatures could be heard under a building rumble, not unlike the sound of thunder. Lightning flashed all around the ceiling, illuminating the church as clearly as if it were day, making many of the creatures run or stampede madly across the aisles, knocking over stone benches and pots of ashes.

Then all the lightning crawled into the glowing sword, shaking the podium violently. A brief silence ensued, like the silence between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder when it is close, and then, as the rebels dove for cover, an enormous wave of energy blew outwards in ripples, destroying the creatures surrounding the sword and quickly disintegrating all the monsters that were leaving the church. Quinn felt the wave pass through him with no effect other than slight warmth. It was actually almost pleasant.

Eventually, the waves of energy trickled to a stop and were sucked back slowly into the church 'key'. When the rebels finally looked up, certain that there was no more danger, they saw the Protector standing there beaming, holding the sword up triumphantly.

"Now I remember who I truly am!" he exclaimed, proud of himself. "The defender of the Light in Val Duin, the Protector of freedom and dispeller of afflictions of Val Duin, member of the council of the Protectors and The Key of the Church of Ancient Val Duin!"

Quinn waited desperately for an actual name, but when he didn't get one, he just sighed. The others looked at him with disgust, the masters swearing under their breaths about 'youth these days' and bent their knees to the old man. Their nameless savior rested his sword on his shoulder and said:

"Now, all we need to do is find the keystone of the church up above! We have the key, so it should be relatively simple!" Owen groaned and sat down on an overturned stone bench nearby, taking another well-deserved break. He shuddered at the thought of having to bury the few masters and initiates who had perished under the strange creatures of darkness. No matter how powerful the old man was, Owen doubted he would ever be able to reverse death. The ones who had died in the struggle to obtain the key would have hasty burials, but they would be entombed among the finest, in the walls of the oldest church in the world.

The Daemon Lord felt the energy wave hundreds of lengths under the ground and felt something he had rarely felt in his immortality: relief. If the blast had been larger from the Ancient Church, it could have returned him to imprisonment with the others, which would have been disastrous. He needed to be the first and hopefully the only one of his daemon brothers to escape from the prison. The bonds were weakening though as man grew more corrupt. Already, some of his brothers would be able to escape, perhaps in a few months.

He wakened his senses and felt around the church that was above the ground. He would raise its defenses tonight and then the world would see how this Esckati faced the Lord Daemon of Hounds and his troops.