Part 2 - 'Abaddon'
… into another world.
The painful blue light that enshrouded their eyes on stepping through the portal faded to reveal they were now in a dank chamber. Its cold walls, beaded with moisture from the humid air, were carved crudely from solid basalt. The only features were wrought iron cups which contained oil lamps burning some form of animal fat which were better at generating a thick greasey smoke than the wan, thin light they produced. The forth wall opened into a rough passageway hewn into natural rock poorly lit by pale candles placed on any available level surface. The flickering light cast alarming shadows.
All seemed quiet with the only sounds the low moan of an unfelt wind and the occasional pop and crackle of the lamps.
Shade eyed that single candlelit passageway dubiously “Not much to chose from.”
Blackjack nodded, drumming his fingers on the haft of his axe which he rested against his shoulder. Briefly he studied at the incantation scroll one last time just to be sure they still had a ticket back to the Mortal Plane, then folded it with great care not to damage it with his claws and stowed it securely in one of the inner pockets of his sleeveless jacket, “Let’s go. Keep that sword handy.”
"Don’t have to tell me twice,” replied Shade, having no intention of letting his hand stray far from the Fireblade's hilt.
The twisted, convoluted passageway closed in sharply as the two Daemonslayers followed it. Soon it became so narrow they had to proceed in single file. The stale dampness of the close air made the passage breathless and claustrophobic. It led steadily downwards for what seemed like an eternity and just as they started to wonder if its confines would ever end they sensed an agitation to the air and though the scents this brought were in no way agreeable it indicated the end of the corridor was near.
On the strengthening air current came a new sound to accompany the low moan of that subterranean wind: the weak, hopeless cries of souls damned to suffer eternity in this hell dimension.
Shade failed to repress an involuntary shudder, “You’ve absolutely, definitely, positively got that scroll, haven’t you? I don’t fancy joining the poor bastards making those noises.”
Blackjack patted his coat with its precious cargo, “Damn right.”
With the next convolution the passage ended and before them stretched a vast, cavernous chamber of proportions made indeterminable as its far walls and ceiling were lost in smoky gloom. Countless pillars carven with grotesque and nameless horrors soared up into the glowering darkness while the floor, tiled with irregular flagstones some plain some engraved with strange symbols and designs, stretched illimitably away. Shade lowered his sword, almost overcome by the vastness, “Look at the size of this place!” He exclaimed in a hushed voice.
“Yeah. Make a note of this position: it may be that to exit this plane we have to be at the original point of entry.” replied Blackjack. The dracosvulf looked about, his heat sensitive vision revealing far more than he wanted to see in that cyclopean chamber.
A steady dripping noise came from somewhere and, now and again, there sounded a lonesome cry of despair.
With little else to go on Blackjack and Shade chose to follow the wall to their left, choosing their direction using the age-old navigational decider 'knife, parchement, stone'. The basalt wall now had a strange green tinge and was engraved with scenes of gothic horror. Depictions abounded of the triumphs and tortures inflicted upon mortal races by one-eyed daemons, the fanged maws in their stomachs proving them to be the darkly whispered of race known as sheekra daemons. The rape and consumption of virgins seemed to be a popular theme. At their sides and enjoying the spoils of their destruction dark elves were ever present. The carvings were slick with a thick dark liquid, difficult to identify in the poor light. Shade sniffed hard, looked purturbed then reached out to touch it and was surprised to find it warm. He sniffed his stained fingertips, “Blood. It’s fresh but where from?” he wondered aloud, looking up into the shadows.
Blackjack followed his gaze, opening his clear inner eyelids to and caught a glimpse of great racks attatched to the wall to which were nailed countless still-warm bodies. Some writhed and twitched loathsomely for there was no release in this deathless realm.
“Do you see anything?", asked Shade, frowning "Something about this place is dulling my senses. I can't see or smell as good. Maybe if I use Raven’s witchsight?”
“I would not recommend that.” Blackjack looked away from the torture above and out into the black centre of the room, wondering what lay out there and suddenly feeling very exposed.
There was a slight curve to the wall and as they followed it around, occasionally detouring a few feet from its base to avoid blood dripping from on high, they found it to be featureless save for the blasphemous carvings. With no sun, stars or variation in the sourceless green-tinged light time was difficult to measure but they must have been walking at least an hour when Shade spoke up, ”You know what would be funny?”
“If we found ourselves back at the passageway we came in at.”
“You mean that one.”
“Aw, crap,” groaned Shade. Up ahead in the murk a familiar gash now appeared in the intricate stonework. He stopped walking and went a short distance out from the wall and again craned his head in a failed attempt to discern what lay above, “You don’t suppose the denizens of this place could be fliers do you? Then there might be passageways halfway up the wall and stuff.”
“Damned if I’m fool enough to fly up there,” growled Blackjack, “If those carvings are to be believed then those sheekra daemons are flightless. I hope.” he stalked out from the wall, passed Shade and headed for their last option – the veiled darkness at the chamber’s heart.
The unnameable malodour of the cavern became decidedly noxious the further they went and after a certain amount of sniffing its source was identified to be the sickly green pall of vapour which hung listless in the gentle air currents at roughly shoulder height. The sounds of tortured groans and sighs that had been ever present in the background now grew steadily more distinct and now each noise of suffering made the Daemonslayers increasingly nervous. When they saw there was something moving, half-hidden, in the mists ahead they scrambled for cover behind the base of the nearest pillar, weapons at the ready. When no hostile entity revealed itself they peered cautiously round for a better look. The object was still there, twitching but otherwise immobile.
“After you,” offered Blackjack.
Shade cautiously approached the strange form. Its shape at first was obscure but as he neared the pall became thin enough to reveal its grisly nature. Twitching and writhing in the eternal spasms of a merciful death that would not come, the naked, impaled man stared upward, unseeing, a look of indescribable horror and pain upon his tormented features. The cruel, wide metal spike upon which he was impaled was driven into the blood-soaked flagstone beneath. “It’s a damned soul!” Shade lowered his guard. This wretched thing could be no threat.
“No pun intended?” Blackjack said without humour as his dispassionate gaze rested on the point where the rusty stake ruptured through the tormented’s chest. “Does it know we’re here?” he glanced up and realised that there were other shuddering and jerking mist-veiled forms all about them, “Do any of them?”
Shade looked around too, then lowered his head to concentrate on the dead man, studying that awful expression as he sought with his mind to touch its but there was nothing, “No. Even his mind is in its own private hell. I think the same will go for the others. Perhaps clairvoyance doesn’t work here.” Blackjack started to walk away. Before he followed Shade reached down and closed the staring, unseeing eyes thinking it was the least he could do. As he touched the cold, clammy skin a shudder ran through the chamber.
“What did you do?” Blackjack demanded.
“Nothing! I barely even touched him!”
There was another shudder, this time accompanied by a grating bass rumble, a sepulchral booming of ancient stone sliding against ancient stone.
“Then whatever’s about to happen is your fault!” Blackjack hissed.
As the echoes of that tomblike rumble died away the two felt a gentle, barely perceptible shift in the air currents, heralding the movement of some large body through the secretive gloom and then, without warning..
“Watch out!” Shade yelled then ducked instinctively as a monstrous beast charged them from the fog. Its hulking form a parody of intelligent life, it stood upon two thickly muscled legs supporting its bulky form. The daemon's shoulders were so massively hunched beneath natural plate armour that its horned, fanged head stuck out at right angles. It was instantly recogniseable as one of the sheekra daemons from the horrendous wall carvings.
In one heavyset arm it brandished a great spiked warhammer which it swung with intent as deadly as the balefire glare of its single eye. Shade barely managed to dodge a hammer blow as the daemon swept past in a silence made all the more sinister for its size. With frightening agility it slewed around much faster than he had thought it would be able to and caught him with a devastating side kick that sent the near-human flying. He crashed into one of the impaled souls, momentarily too stunned even to struggle free of the twitching, moaning thing as it clutched at him.
Meanwhile the daemon’s attention was already focused upon the second intruder. Using the same momentum that had sent Shade flying, it followed through with an overhead strike that Blackjack successfully blocked with the haft of the Unbinder, held above his head in a wide two-handed grip. He was forced down on one knee by the sheer strength of the attack. Their weapons remained locked for a moment longer and Blackjack found it hard not to be entranced by the glare of the single eye - its vertically closing lids narrowed but did not obscure the strange cross-shaped pupil – set in a long face with skin stretched so tight it more closely resembled a skull.
Blackjack forced his gaze down as something in his peripheral vision struck up an alarm. The ivory gleam of bone was showing through the daemon’s chest but this was no ribcage; there in its chest, jagged teeth slightly parted, was a horrible liplessly grinning second maw. Opening both its mouths the heretofore silent daemon bellowed at the dracosvulf and the sheer foulness of the torrid waft of its breath almost overcame Blackjack, leaving him gagging and his resistance to the downward pressure of the warhammer weakened. Composing himself he grunted and pushed back then in a dangerous gambit broke off contact and twisted to one side. As the daemon stumbled forward, briefly put off balance by the sudden lack of resistance, he landed a vicious blow across the beast’s tricep and his battleaxe’s edge sliced eagerly through leathery skin and sinew, spilling thick dark blood.
The daemon screamed in anger and rounded on him, arms spread wide with hammer ready in one hand and wicked claws splayed on the other. Blackjack stepped back, eyes fixed on that second maw as it split wide open. There was a ruddy glow visible between its teeth that intensified every passing moment. With a snarl the cyclopean beast flung its arms back and thrust its chest forward as it spat out a great crackling ball of red energy. Blackjack hit the ground, hands held protectively over his head as it roared past above, radiating hellish heat. Then the daemon charged again, making use of its opponent’s disadvantage.
Blackjack rolled to his feet, grabbed for his axe in a desperate bid to gain a better defensive position but knew already there was no time to gather his defences as the much stronger daemon bore down on him. However he had not seen the flash of steel at his attacker’s unprotected back right and the daemon screamed in surprised rage as its leg buckled, the severed hamstring unable to support its bulk.
“Good timing.” Blackjack grinned to Shade when the dire werewolf appeared at his side.
Shade smile, a blood-hungry glint in his eyes, “That should slow the ugly bastard down.” He looked back when the rushing sound that had accompanied the forming of the first energy ball sounded again, “Heads up.”
The two Daemonslayers threw themselves in opposite directions as another orb of demonfire seared through the fetid air where they had stood. Presented once more with two targets the daemon looked from one enemy to the other, spoilt for choice.
“You think that was hot?” Shade asked of the daemon, “Then try this!” The Fireblade gripped in both hands, he summoned forth the magical flame that burned within. Nothing happened. “What the…?” Shade tried again, mentally willing it with all his might but to no avail, “What gives?”
The daemon’s choice was made. It lunged at Shade, not even bothering to use its warhammer it just slammed into him, pinned him to the ground. When the jagged second maw opened to consume him the hapless Daemonslayer realised why.
“Shade!” Blackjack jumped onto the monster’s back and scrambled up the carapace-like armour skilfully dodging its wildly lashing vertebrae tail. A muffled yelp from somewhere under the behemoth spurred him to quicker action and, ducking under a particularly close strike, he reached its shoulders, raised the Unbinder above his head then brought it down with all the force he could muster. He growled in triumph as he felt the shock of impact followed by greater resistance to the motion as the leading edge of the axe’s double head cleaved into the midline of the daemon’s face. Gobbets of blood and glowing aqueous humour flew out as the fiend’s single eyeball split and then its entire body spasmed as the blade found its way into its brain. With a final shudder that made Blackjack lose his balance and fall off the cyclopean daemon exhaled its last groaning breath and died.
“Hey? F’lair are you okay?” Blackjack paced around the body, seeking signs of movement beneath. Just as he started to feel a twinge of concern there was a muffled sound, vaguely discernable (with a bit of imagination) as “get this bloody thing off me”.
Some heaving, grunting and hacking off of limbs to reduce the body’s weight later, Shade was able to squirm free. “I don’t want that to happen again,” he said simply as he dusted his chimera leathers down. He held up the Fireblade, inspecting it as though he would be able to see where lay the fault, “Why didn’t it work?” he wondered, bemused.
“Looks fine from where I stand.”
Shade held it out, squinting along its length, “Yeah it is. I don’t get it.”
Blackjack looked thoughtful, “We’re on a different plane of existence: perhaps the magic of the Prime Material Plane does not function here?” he ventured.
“Oh great. So you mean we don’t even have magic to defend ourselves with? That’s just perfect.” Shade growled.
“What about our keen wits and disarming good looks?”
“You’re funny.” Shade replied flatly. “Come on: we’re wasting time we just don’t have.”
Disregarding the butchered corpse they headed on into the foully aromatic mist. As they approached the heart of the cavernous chamber the foul air became thicker, condensing into a fog that made their eyes water. It soon became so dense that they could thankfully no longer see any of the twitching, flinching corpses on their dreadful spikes but still the flesh-crawling moans carried through the miasma.
It reached the point when they could not even see each other and their steps became more apprehensive. Shade looked about, cursing the stinking veil: some hidden danger was playing upon his senses but its nature was too nebulous and indistinct for him to know what. As he took another step forward something large and leathery suddenly buffeted into him.
“Stop” Blackjack said in warning and folded his wing back in.
“You’re sensing something too?” Shade asked.
“Yeah: The bloody great pit you were about fall into.” As the dracosvulf spoke the cloying fog began to lift and through the parting tendrils that remained was revealed a yawning circular chasm that descended into utter blackness. It was the foul breath of wind from this pit that briefly cleared the air.
There was a staircase of treacherously slick stone that clung precipitously to the side of the well. With no protective railing on its inner edge one slip would lead to oblivion. It corkscrewed down into the unfathomable darkness.
Blackjack heaved a sigh, “Normally I’d veto any suggestions of going down there but we’re lacking in choices.”
“Not to mention it’s probably safer for you to go down there than it is to face Kat’ empty-handed.” Shade quipped, trying not to think on what might be lurking in the dark.
Blackjack gave a slight nod but it looked like he had not been listening as his attention was currently focussed on the edges of the pit which were freshly scuffed and chipped, as though this grim aperture had only very recently opened. As they began the perilous descent down those lethal stairs into the inky shadows they tried to ignore the obvious connection between the rumbling sound they’d heard earlier and the sudden appearance of the sheekra daemon.
There were no locks or doors or bars. There was nothing to stop Crislana from leaving the huge stony bedchamber in which she had found herself save the fact that she knew there was nowhere for her to go. She sat on the strange bed and shivered. Although a roaring, unnatural blue-flamed fire heated the chamber there was a soul-freezing chill that pervaded this realm.
All alone, she reflected on the past day, on how she had shirked her mother’s chores and crept away to meet with her ‘coven’; of how Meesu had smiled strangely at their interest in the new book of enchantments she had brought along and at the sudden fear when the awful septogram portal had opened and a blast of invisible energy had hurled her and her friends through, Meezu’s laughter ringing in her ears as Crislana had lost consciousness. When she woke up she found herself alone in this room. She knew now that the ‘elder beast’ she and the other girls thought they had been calling upon was in fact Izael – a trick pulled by Meezu, or whoever that witch really was – and from her own limited occult readings she knew this was that Daemon Prince’s nameless realm in one of the Lower Planes. She had left her chamber but finding only a labyrinth of dank and sinister tunnels and passages she had returned to the chamber, fearful of becoming more lost and frightened than she already was.
“Do not be frightened child.” The sudden voice from behind made her start and she turned to see a tall, robed figure stood beside the fireplace, facing it with his hands clasped behind his back, “…Yet.” He turned to face her, idly pushing away a few strands of his well-groomed black hair from his face. He was handsome, his features perfectly chiselled and even the strange glowing gem in the middle of his forehead only seemed to augment his good looks. But when he moved there were… shadows, glimpses of parts of him yet unseen: strange hooked limbs, tentacles and twisting unnamed forms that made her shudder. “I am Izael and you, Crislana, have been given to me to be my bride.”
She gasped and scrabbled backwards until she found she was bumping up uselessly against the headboard, “What have you done with my friends?” she blurted, unable to string together a comprehensible response to the ‘bride’ comment.
“They are… were… also my brides. I used them but they displeased me for none were pure.”
Crislana went cold as she understood what the handsome daemon’s hollow voice was saying.
“But you,” he crooned, vanishing and appearing beside her in the blink of an eye, “you are pure” he brushed a hand against her cheek and she jerked away from his cold, soulless and loathsome touch but he grabbed her chin and with ease turned her head painfully to face him, “… innocent. You shall please me.” He vanished again and appeared beside the door. Where he had sat on the bed now lay an elegant white dress, more beautiful than even those the queens of the high elves were reputed to wear.
Izael held out his hand and a grotesquely designed sand timer appeared in it. He turned it over and placed it on the shelf of a small alcove beside the open doorway. “I shall return tonight – when the sands run low – and we shall be wedded.” With that he turned and strode through the door, followed by his hideous flickering shadows and Crislana was alone once more, shocked and shivering in terror as she contemplated her dire fate.
Interminably the dank stair twisted down into unfathomable darkness. The stench of the decay of souls hung heavy in the air disturbed only by the occasional sighing gust of the destitute wind.
Blackjack led the way, inner eyelids open so his glowing eyes could watch for any change in the slowly shifting patterns of weak thermals and cold sinks that might indicate the approach of a foe. He had inverted the jagged metal toe and heel plates of his boots to serve as crampons on the slippery rock and they had proved their worth once already when Shade had lost his footing on unseen slime and would have fallen over the unprotected edge had the dracosvulf not grabbed him. Shade followed maintaining his usual disquieting silence, the very faint greenish-yellow glow of his eyes, visible only in absolute darkness like this, the only indication of his presence.
Far above, only a tiny aperture now, was the circle of dull luminescence marking the top of this strange well that seemed to sink into the abyss and there came a point where even their night-vision began to fail. Progress was slow and the two moved in silence, saving their concentration for the assurance of safe footfalls.
Lacking Blackjack's heat-sensitive vision Shade considered the employ of the witchsight Raven might lend him through his liche-blemished right eye but he quickly discounted the notion, preferring to trust to his own instincts and abilities over allowing that parasite soul even the slightest of footholds on his mind and body beyond the unwelcome intrusions Shade already suffered on a regular basis.
Presently he began to realise he could almost see where he was going and wondered if the descent had become so monotonous that his mind had formed its own impression of what he could not see. He tried to ignore the hallucination for a while, lest it should prove false and some unimagined obstacle trip him but the impression only grew stronger and more undeniable. So I’m going mad he thought, Or… “Black’? Am I imagining it or can you see where you’re going too?”
A couple of turns of the spiral later they finally reached the bottom of the well. The illumination was greater here but still there was no definite light source, just a sickly and sinister phosphorescence, dark blue crossing into an ultra violet that Blackjack’s dragon eyes could faintly detect. The air was chilly and what they could only hope to be water lay in still, shallow pools upon the stony ground. There was but one passageway leading from the base of that maddening stair, marked by a Cyclopean arch of grotesque carvings that thankfully lost their definition in the leprous glow. Unmistakable though were the skeletal remains of some poor individual that hung shackled by the feet from the top of the arch where it gently swung in the soughing wind.
“Nice” Shade said ironically, breaking the tomblike silence.
“I wonder why it’s not a twitcher like the ones upstairs.” Blackjack said as he stepped beneath the grisly remains and craned his neck for a better look.
“Perhaps the daemons ate the poor sod’s soul. And if that’s what they do to the dead I don’t even want to think about what they’d do if they got hold of us.”
Refraining from reminding Shade that he was dead already Blackjack unslung his axe, keeping it in a loose grip and started down this new passageway. It stretched as far into the distance as the feeble illumination allowed them to see with similar repulsive arches placed at regular intervals along it. Though they fully expected a sheekra daemon or perhaps something worse to jump out at any moment they progressed without incident.
“Do you know much about these sheekra daemons?” Shade asked at length, desperate to hear something other than that awful wind. He was starting to think he could hear multitudinous voices, united in despair, in that deep abyssal moan.
“They’re big, surprisingly stealthy, have one eye and spit energy out of their stomachs.”
Shade looked at him sceptically, “Anything else?”
“They suffer a fatal reaction to having an axe buried in their skulls?”
“Right. So you don’t actually know anything about them, do you? What do you know about this dimension?” Shade demanded.
Shade stopped walking, “Then why did you act like you did?” he asked angrily.
“Excuse me? Do I look like the fucking Ars Daemonologica? I don’t know everything. Besides, I presumed you were aware we were just going to be winging it on this one” Blackjack answered hotly, his eyes flashing in annoyance.
“So you mean we’re just bumbling around in the hope of simply finding Crislana? Why in every frekking hell didn’t you bring the rest of that book with us if you didn’t already know any more on Izael’s world?”
Blackjack cringed, “Don’t say that word.”
“Why the hell not? What’s wrong with saying Izael that isn’t wrong with you leaving behind a book that might just have proved a teensy bit useful here?” an unwelcome note of mania had crept into the dire werewolf’s voice.
This is not the time to be freaking out, Shade, Blackjack groaned inwardly as he recognised the warning signals of his friend reaching his unpredictable flashpoint, “Don’t say that word, you moron!”
“Don’t call me a fucking moron. What’s wrong with saying Izael, then?” Shade demanded and when Blackjack cringed again as though expecting something horrible to happen he went on “Izael Izael Izael Iz-erf” he was cut short when Blackjack put a hand over his mouth and shoved him against the wall. He was thankful Shade’s accent actually made him pronounce the Daemon King’s name incorrectly (as Iseel) but he could not be too careful.
“Shut the fuck up! You’re being irrational for no fucking reason so get a grip and stop fucking saying Izael!” Blackjack yelled then sucked in a hissing breath when he realised he’d gone and said it. If there was one thing he knew about the Lower Planes, it was that you never, ever called out the name of the lord of a specific realm unless you wanted to see them.
Shade seemed almost to wake up. He looked dazed, “Sorry Black’. This place is getting to me.”
“I hope it’s just that.” Blackjack released his hold and stepped back, “These mood shifts’ve been turning into a fucking liability lately.”
“I don’t mean to weird out like that – it just happens.”
Blackjack just put a hand on his friend’s shoulder, his expression showed he understood. He looked like he was about to say something but then looked sharply about, suspicious, “That mist wasn’t here before.”
All around, almost up to waist height, a thick rolling mist covered the floor. The disconcerting wind had ceased to moan. In its place a threatening subsonic rumble, almost too deep to detect, was felt reverberating in the chest more than actually heard.
“Let’s not stick around.” Shade said nervously and started to walk again. His hackles rose and he could not shake the sudden agonising sensation that something bad was about to happen. Behind he heard the toe plate of one of Blackjack’s boots scuff against stone as the dracosvulf stumbled over some unseen obstacle in the sudden fog. Shade turned just in time to see him trip forward into the mist and started a nervous laugh before he realised he had not heard him connect with the ground, nor came any of the customary swearing to be expected in such circumstance. “Blackjack? Quit fooling around!”
The rumbling stopped and just as suddenly as it had appeared the cloying fog evaporated to reveal only an empty space and dank stone floor where Blackjack should have been. “Aw, shit.” a swell of panic twisted in the pit of Shade’s stomach. He ran back the way they had come but the great well was still and desolate as before. Back in the corridor he found it just as empty. After close inspection he could find no hidden doors or trapdoors. Caution abandoned he shouted a few times, even trying a lupine howl that he knew would carry much further than his human voice but he was answered only by the disconsolate wind and his own hollow echoes. Blackjack had simply vanished.
Shade indulged in another bout of swearing when he remembered Blackjack had been carrying the only copy they had of the portal spell needed to get home. “Oh, gods.” He groaned and slumped down against a damp wall, sank to the ground and put his head in his hands. Something awful had happened to Blackjack he was certain, and without the scroll he could never get home. Never see daylight, never see Meccha… The silence beneath the upper layers of his consciousness told him even Raven had abandoned him and the rise of panic gave way to the gently sucking swell of hopelessness.
Alone in that dark corridor with its sardonic and leering carven arches Shade sat and despaired.
Alone in the cave, bathed in the sinister blue glow of the portal, Katlinia paced impatient and anxious. Blackjack and Shade had been gone for several hours and she was worried. Much as she disliked Blackjack, and much as she felt dubious about Shade’s undead nature, she still had great faith in their abilities to look after themselves and trusted if anyone could bring back her daughter it would be them. Yet she could not dispel the nagging sensation that something had gone horribly wrong.
In her hand she held the dream-catcher Crislana had made. She fidgeted with it nervously, stopped pacing and turned to the portal, torn. She desperately wanted to go through, to be actively looking for her daughter, to be in some sort of control but she knew she had to stay here to ensure the portal stayed open or her daughter and her husband’s friends would be forever lost, trapped in some lower plane from which not even death would bring release. Part of her felt if they were to be trapped she wanted to be there with her daughter but if that happened she would never see her beloved Moorin again. She started to pace once more, agitated and irresolute.
The quietest of scuffing sounds from outside made her freeze. Already on edge from worry and disturbed by the unnatural portal, Katlinia silently put down the dream-catcher and drew her sword, her tufted ears pricked forward as she strained to catch any further noise, no matter how faint. She tried to convince herself it was just some animal, perhaps a foraging rodent of some sort but she could not deny her instincts as they told her the eldritch and malignant emanations of the portal would drive any natural creature away.
The noise came again, louder and much more distinct. There was someone outside! Katlinia swallowed hard, her throat suddenly dry and her heartbeat pounded in her chest.
A sudden ferocious gust of wind picked up. It blew over some of the more rickety handicrafts and caused Katlinia to turn reflexively toward the source of the cracking and tinkling sounds as they fell. When she swiftly turned back to keep her watch on the tunnel entrance she gasped.
A slender, ominous figure stood there, a cruel ugly smile marring the sinister beauty of her delicately featured pale face. The dark elf narrowed her violet eyes, “You trespass upon sacred soil, feline. For that I’ll send you to join your daughter!”
Shade blinked and shook his head, coming back into himself at last. He had no idea how long he had sat staring at the austere polished granite of the opposite wall before now when he realised with some surprise that he could see his dull reflection staring back at him. He noticed how ridiculous he looked sitting hunched up in a puddle on the eternally dank floor. I bet Raven would laugh if he was awake to see me like this, he thought ruefully.
He had a strange sensation as if he had just woken up and a sense of clarity not previously present gathered back his scattered faculties. Resolving not to let his hated lodger see him this way he stood and brushed off the worst of the muck from the floor. Finding new resolve in the knowledge only he was left to find Crislana, however much he might doubt his own abilities, he knew he could not let her down. Nor could he let his friend down: Blackjack couldn’t have just vanished from this realm – he was around somewhere and Shade resolved to find him, whatever had happened to him.
He took up the Fireblade once more, twirled the enchanted katana once to ensure his grip was perfect as it could be then headed off, the previous trepidation gone from his steps.
The passage stretched for about half a mile or so, marked by those awful arches whose decoration became more hideous the further Shade went until he made a point of deliberately not looking at them as he passed. At its end the passage opened into a large circular chamber of similar proportions. There were seven malignant gateways leading from it, including the once whence he had come.
The pillars supporting the arch of each gateway were engraved with strange writings, a welcome relief from the macabre and perverse designs of demonic victory and degradation Shade had previously witnessed but from each arch the grisly remains of the victims of unspeakable sacrifice hung suspended by cruel iron hooks and chains.
Ignoring the rotted flesh and mouldering bone Shade craned his neck to study the carven motif above each arch. Five of them showed a sheekra daemon or some variant thereon, on the arch he had just passed there was a design of what appeared to be a gathering of sheekra daemons whilst on the final gateway, directly opposite to where he stood, was carven a handsome humanoid face almost elven in the delicacy of its features were it not for the vertically opening eye in the middle of its forehead. None of the designs looked particularly appealing. Calling to mind what little he knew of the nebulous and conflicting legends of Izael, or Shargrul as he was also known, Shade made his choice.
Crislana stood and stared blankly at the mirror. She paid no heed to the leering, crawling grotesques that formed its wrought iron frame. Nor did she see the beautiful reflection the mirror showed anymore. The bridal gown, pristine as the coldest of snow, deathly white as the gnawing, gibbering emptiness of the Void itself, was bewitching. It covered her from its high-backed neck down to the ground but though not one inch of flesh (or fur, in Crislana’s case) showed apart from her head, it was in no way demure. It felt as if the sensuous clinging silks were trying to steal her innocence even before Izael would when he came to consummate their ‘marriage’. The dress made her look like a goddess of lustful temptation and she hated it.
Fresh tears welled in her eyes and ran freely down either side of her short muzzle, joining the streaks left by those she had cried for her friends. She knew they were dead and, if she did not please the Daemon Prince, she knew soon she would join them, or perhaps as Izael’s chosen bride she would pass into something worse than death.
She cast a glance at that accursed sand timer, held in the grasp of those hideous shrunken basilisk claws. There was less than an hour before he would come. She tried to dry her eyes on one of the graceful, voluminous bell-shaped sleeves but it did no good; thoughts of her parents, of the world she would never see again and of the fact she was more alone here than she could ever be caused even more to flow unchecked.
As she sobbed she did not hear the stealthy footfall at her chamber’s doorway.
“If you’ll excuse the cliché: What’s a nice girl like you doing in a nasty hell dimension like this?”
Crislana gasped in disbelief as she recognised the familiar and totally unexpected voice, “F’lair!” she ran over and flung her arms around the near-human’s lean but muscular frame, sobbing in relief and fear this would turn out to be a cruel trick of her imagination.
“That’s ‘Shade’, kid – I’m on the job here.” He chided though not unkindly.
Unwilling to let go of this miracle, Crislana stepped back just a little to look up at him, “We have to get away from here! He’ll be back soon!”
“Makes sense to me. Uhm, have you got anything more practical to wear? That dress is a bit…er… you know.”
Crislana shook her head, “Impractical? I know. But my other clothes are gone.”
“Oh.” He looked at the hobble dress again, “Don’t take offense at this..” with an expert flick of his katana he opened a slit up the side of the binding fishtail skirt.
Crislana smiled, joyous at her legs’ regained freedom, “Let’s go!” she said, with all the confident and commanding tones of her mother.
They moved at a stealthy run to begin with as Shade led Crislana through the blue-lit labyrinthine catacombs he had wandered prior to stumbling upon the furnished apartments where Crislana had been. Remembering most of the route he managed to take detours around corridors where disturbingly violated remains had hung from chains on the walls, his plan to get Crislana up to the secluded cavern where he and Blackjack had first entered this Lower Plane before returning down the well to seek his friend. However at some point a wrong turning had been taken.
“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Crislana said when, deciding they were currently far enough from Izael’s apartments, they stopped so she could catch her breath.
Shade would have preferred to keep running however blindly since breath was not an issue for him. “Maybe.” He replied cryptically, not wanting to alarm her whilst he inwardly panicked.
Then she asked the question he had been dreading, “Aren’t Blackjack and Soul with you?”
He could not hide the change in his expression and Crislana read it like a book, “Oh, no.”
“Soul’s still on Tymaera with your parents. Blackjack…” he tried to think of what to say when he didn’t want to face the possible truth himself, “I don’t know where he is. We lost track of each other.” He finished lamely.
“Then we have to find him!”
“Not before I get you to safety.” Shade said warningly. Crislana looked like she wanted to argue but Shade’s adamant expression changed her mind. He had no idea what had happened to Blackjack but if he was … If the worst case scenario had happened, he did not want Crislana to see.
She had walked on ahead into the next room where, glancing up, she stopped dead in her tracks and screamed. Shade sprinted forward and when he saw the sickeningly familiar but bloodied and broken winged form that hung motionless suspended by heavy hook-ended chains from the ceiling, he realised that matter had been taken from his hands.
End of part 2.
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