Author’s note: On we go. Getting close to the end of this chapter now. Thank you for reading, everyone. —
‘Things do seem to end in fights wherever we go, don’t they?’
This came from another voice, as a lithe, athletic figure stepped from the smoke. She was taller than the Serpent Sisters, but shorter than Landred. Like her companion, her arms were bare and well-muscled, but she wore no armour, wearing instead simple travellers’ wear. She had strips of cloth tied around both hands, which were even now crossed in an imposing stance. Strapped to her back was a quarterstaff.
Her complexion was a deeper grey than her companion’s, her eyes fierce, her hair black, and there was a certain smug smirk about her lips. She moved gracefully, with the kind of confident self-assurance that accompanies those who have seen battle and excelled in it.
‘That is almost entirely your doing,’ came another, masculine voice, with a pronounced accent, suggesting someone from a distant land.
The scruffiest, dirtiest looking man Landred had ever seen came forth then, waving at the smoke and dust about him with an impatient air. His grey-blue hair was arrayed messily around a handsome face, marred somewhat by the dirty smudges on his beard, and a certain, hangdog look in his eyes.
‘I can think of a dozen situations where we might have walked away with new friends, instead of dead people and the law after us.’
‘Yeah?’ she said, turning belligerently to face him. ‘I dare you to name one!’
‘The hobgoblin mine.’
She winced. ‘I just fucking knew you’d say that one.’
‘So why did you ask?’
The warlock pointedly cleared his throat.
‘If we can get this back on track,’ he said, a note of frustration in his voice as he turned to his compatriots. ‘Need I remind you that we have a bit of a sticky situation on our hands?’
He turned to the Iron Hand, and spread out his own hands then.
‘I don’t suppose you’d be amenable to a peaceful resolution to our meeting?’
Landred cocked an eyebrow.
‘I wasn’t sure that was on the table,’ he said.
‘Wow,’ said the woman, looking at Landred as though he had grown another head. ‘That’s new. It talked.’
‘Suffice it to say that we weren’t sure it was, either,’ said the occultist warlock, glaring at the fighter.
‘Seems to me that they might be in the same situation as us. Somehow,’ said Gallian, quickly taking in the appearance of the warlock, the strange fighter and the dirty, dishevelled man who seemed to be a wizard. All of them Melechi. All of them here for the gods knew how long.
That was the key though… how long had they been here? The Melechi had vanished from the world for centuries. And this place could not have existed for longer than twenty years…
How is this possible?
For a moment, with his senses attuned, he thought he saw ethereal black chains linking them together… chains that also vanished into the earth.
The vision faded, and he became aware that Gallian was speaking again.
‘-placed here to fight?’ the Blue Pilgrim mused.
‘That does seem to be the case,’ said the other wizard, cupping his chin in his hand. ‘Though we have not yet divined to what end.’
The warlock cleared his throat. ‘Our wizard friend here has plenty of theories. But we agree that the worst-case scenario is that we’ve been placed here to fight for someone’s amusement,’
‘Or something,’ Meredith added.
‘Or something,’ the warlock agreed with a sigh.
‘If you don’t mind me saying so, this is not a place that someone stumbles on,’ said Lori. ‘You wouldn’t come to this place if you didn’t have a reason to.’
‘Could say the same thing about you,’ Meredith tilted her head. Blunt intimidation seemed to come naturally to her. ‘So why don’t you go first?’
The warlock grunted, clearly displeased by his companion’s lack of tact, but he did not gainsay her suggestion. He was interested, too.
Lori looked to reply for a moment, but then turned to Landred. Silently, the members of the Iron Hand turned to Landred. He was, in the end, the one who had gathered them together again, who had brought them to this place. Indeed, they all felt they had a debt to pay, but it was he who let them know that their help was needed.
For a moment, Landred looked lost. For a moment, he seemed nervous and unsure. But it was only for a moment. A wall rose up again, and he stood with calm confidence once more.
‘My father came to this place. This was the site of his greatest victory, but it was also where another journey of his began. I came here expecting to find a crater. Instead, I find a mountain and another world within it. After seeing this place, and finding all of you, I feel certain that he must have come this way. Looking for answers… just like us.
Have any of you seen a man named Kaiden Vhael?’
The warlock was nodding through Landred’s speech, but at the end, he shook his head.
‘Nobody like that down here.’
‘Yes, no victors,’ said the scruffy wizard. ‘Just fools afraid of responsibility.’
‘Speak for yourself, Rayeth,’ Meredith snapped. ‘Some of us spend our lives fighting for what we believe in.’
‘You say that like it’s supposed to convince me, Meredith,’ said Rayeth. ‘But if you were all that different from me, I doubt we would be in the same place.’
The warlock rolled his eyes and stepped towards the Iron Hand.
‘Sorry about this,’ he said, as the two began to bicker amongst themselves.
‘Do they do this often?’ Gallian asked.
‘More times than I care to count,’ said the warlock. ‘Sometimes I think they do it because they’re secretly in love with each other. Name’s Vaun, by the way. Vaun Drace.’
Then he turned to the Iron Hand, and noticed how they had all recoiled from his presence, save for Landred.
‘Is something wrong?’ he asked, his eyes wide with curiosity.
‘You’re Melechi, aren’t you?’ Landred asked.
‘Yes,’ said Vaun, then frowned as the others seemed to be even more on edge than before.
‘How long have you been here?’ Landred asked.
Vaun shrugged. ‘Not all that long. A month, maybe more. I fought alone for a time, then one day Merry there joined me.’
At the mention of her name, Meredith looked over at them, and though it was clear she had no idea exactly what they were talking about, she made a rude gesture at them before returning to her argument with Rayeth.
Vaun sighed. ‘Sorry about that. She’s not the most diplomatic person in the world.’ He grinned awkwardly at the increasingly massive understatement.
A month. That hardly seems possible.
If there was a band of Melechi adventurers about, I’m sure we would have heard about it. Something else is going on here.
‘Do you know what we are?’ Landred asked.
‘Sure,’ said Vaun shrugged. ‘Adventurers, like us.’
Landred opened his mouth, then closed it. It was as good an answer as any, he supposed, and whatever instinctive fears everyone had about the Melechi would just need to be dealt with on their own time. These three seemed to care not a jot about the nature of the world and the Melechi.
Gallian walked towards Rayeth and Meredith, casting an orb of blue light that flickered in the palm of his hand.
Rayeth and Meredith glanced at him. Meredith scowled, but Rayeth’s eyes lit up, then cast his version of the cantrip – an orb of red light glowed in the palm of his hand.
The wizards grinned at each other, and the orbs floated from their hands above them, performing a dance in the air, spinning around each other, shedding crimson and azure light all around, flickering and spinning. It was dizzying to look at, yet also entrancing.
‘Rayeth the Red at your service,’ said the scruffy wizard, bowing at his waist.
‘Gallian of the Blue Pilgrims,’ said Gallian.
‘Hmm, the Blue Pilgrims,’ said Rayeth. ‘I’ve never heard of them. A new school is it?’
‘Relatively, yes. Though we’re struggling to have our academy set up.’
‘The Synod always gets in the way of those things. I wish your grandmaster the best of luck,’ said Rayeth earnestly. ‘What is the focus of the Blue Pilgrims, if I may ask?’
‘Universalism,’ said Gallian, which saw Rayeth raise an eyebrow. ‘The study and focus of all forms of magic.’
‘That seems improbable,’ said Rayeth. ‘The Principle of Affinities seems to suggest that such an endeavour is exceedingly difficult, if not outright foolish. No one has a long enough lifespan. Not even we Melechi.’
‘For now, it is impossible,’ said Gallian, shrugging; he was used to this reaction from wizards of other disciplines. ‘But I have devoted myself to studying and mastering magic from every school, and I can perform virtually every well-known cantrip and low-level spell.’
‘That’s impressive enough,’ said Rayeth. ‘I imagine advancement is rather difficult.’
‘Well, our grandmaster suggested we structure our learning around our affinities first, then branch out from there. I admit, I have cheated a little in that regard, and am more advanced in one school of magic than most others of my rank.’
Landred listened with interest, before another conversation caught his ear.
Vindri had approached Vaun, and they seemed to recognize their similarity.
Of course, Vindri had seen Vaun’s magic, and she did not attempt to hide her features.
‘Who is your patron?’ Vaun asked, and Vindri was somewhat taken aback by his bluntness.
‘Does it matter?’ she replied.
‘It might,’ he said, ‘if our patrons are enemies.’
‘His name is Elmhazzar of the Midlight Abyss,’ said Vindri. ‘Though I know it is only the first of his names.’
Vaun visibly relaxed.
‘I am the servant of Ilithuros, Lord of the Tenebrous Ocean,’ said Vaun. ‘Ilithuros is his true name. Well,’ he amended, ‘true enough for those outside his service.’
‘I thought you were more advanced than I,’ said Vindri, nodding to herself. ‘Do you know what I can expect?’
‘Elmhazzar, if I’m not mistaken, is an entity of fire and destruction. Ilithuros is the lord of the sea, and the bitter cold of death. What they ask of their servants is vastly different. What is the nature of your pact?’
In response, Vindri held out a clenched fist, which lit up with red and green fires. Materializing in her grasp were chains, composed of those multi-hued flames.
‘Chains,’ said Vaun, nodding. He raised his fist, and blue and white flames materialized in it, extending from his grasp until it became a vicious-looking scimitar. ‘I follow the path of the sword. I’m not certain what insight I can offer you,’ he said. ‘But I know that the more I used this manifestation of my pact, the more dreams I had… and the more dreams I had, the stronger I became.’
‘So I should use my chains in combat,’ said Vindri. ‘I wasn’t ever sure.’
‘Just be careful,’ said Vaun. ‘This path we took has a sacrifice. We grow strong faster than wizards or other spellcasters. But our Lords take something from us in return for their strength.’
‘I knew that when I started,’ said Vindri.
‘Well,’ Vaun said, looking at her intently, ‘just… be prepared. You never know what it is that you can’t live without.’
He looked haunted for a moment, then shook his head.
Vindri glanced at her sister, who was talking to Giermund, pointing off into the darkened landscape. She seemed conflicted for a moment, then resolve entered her features, and ice entered her eyes.
‘I’ll be ready,’ she said.
Landred walked away from this conversation, deciding to interrupt the wizards, thinking that they might have the best idea of how to proceed.
‘I do have some theories,’ said Rayeth. ‘Considering that Vaun was able to fight alone until Meredith was released, and the two of them together until I joined them, I imagine it has something to do with the release of energy-‘
‘Before that,’ Landred interjected, ‘do you remember where you were being kept?’
Rayeth shook his head. ‘It was a place shrouded in darkness. I heard whispers and murmurs in a language I couldn’t understand. But those voices were muffled, as though they were in another room. I could not see anything, could not feel anything. I couldn’t move. I could barely think. It was as though I was in a state of perpetual exhaustion. Or perhaps as though I had just awakened, but could not be become any more alert. The only thing that I could think of was that I was dead.’ He mused. ‘Or in a state close to death, perhaps.’
‘That’s curious,’ said Gallian. ‘A cocooned-like state, perhaps? An engine of some kind that entraps wanderers, to be released when they generate energy?’
‘To what end?’ Landred asked.
‘I don’t know,’ said Gallian. ‘Though I am reminded uncomfortably of Blood-Seal Colosseums.’
‘That’s an unpleasant thought,’ Rayeth grimaced.
‘Explain?’ Landred asked, never having heard the term.
‘Ah, you must have encountered it, as a havarr,’ said Gallian. ‘Old vampire necropolises were built on the tombs of their elders, who were often venerated as gods. They built fighting pits over the tombs of these creatures, who often lay dormant for centuries. At times, the ruling vampires would require the power of ancient elders, and would round up humans or Melechi to fight in these pits. The blood from these contests would flow down to the tombs, and when enough was spilt, the elders would wake.’
Rayeth shivered. ‘Wretched things. But if something has decided to emulate the principles of the blood seals, then they have gone for a far more elegant solution.’
‘Indeed, the combatants tend to kill each other, but,’ Gallian said, his mind suddenly working furiously. ‘But if it’s simply energy then, theoretically, no blood would ever need to be spilt.’
‘That won’t work,’ said Vaun, walking over. ‘Remember?’
Rayeth nodded. ‘Yes, yes, I know what we all think we saw, but -‘
‘We saw it,’ Vaun asserted firmly. ‘We know what’s waiting for us.’ Then he looked at Landred, and a thought occurred to him, then. ‘Though, if we had you on our side, then perhaps we stand a chance.’