Part 3 - 'The Gauntlet'
“Oh gods, no!” Crislana gasped as she ran into the chamber, wide eyes fixed upon the still, macabre form hanging from the high vaulted ceiling.
Shade swore an oath as his stunned mind made the horrible connection between the bloodied, winged creature and his missing friend, “Aw, no. Blackjack!” he whispered then grabbed Crislana by the shoulder and pulled her away before a drop of acidic blood fell on her. It landed with a faint ‘plip’ in the dark pool already eating into the flagstones.
The dracosvulf was suspended, unmoving, by at least a dozen chains, each ending in a wickedly curved hook impaled through the skin of his back, arms, legs and wings. It was from these along with various other wounds and contusions, stretched painfully by his body weight that the thick dark blood dripped. Whether the wounds bled due to the blood pressure of a beating heart, or merely oozed due to the action of gravity upon dead veins, it was impossible to tell.
Crislana hung her head and started to cry, “This is my fault.” Still in a horrified stupor, Shade did not reply. As Crislana stepped forward again he just let his hand drop back from her shoulder to hang limply at his side. “I’m so sorry.” She whispered, unable to bring herself to turn and look at him.
“You should be.” said a voice. Hoarse, weak and barely audible but unmistakable nonetheless, “I hope you realise there is a lesson to be learned here.”
“Sy’?” Desolation turned to hope and then flooding relief as Shade saw Blackjack’s eyes slit open. Their glow was weak, reflecting his condition but it was better than the alternative…
Voice uncertain and wobbly from the tears, Crislana looked up at him “You’re okay?”
“Do I look ‘okay’ to you?” was the curt reply, “Believe it or not this is even more indescribably painful than it may appear so if you wouldn’t mind...”
They took the hint, “There must be a lever or something around here.” Shade reasoned, casting about for any kind of device to lower their stricken friend but seeing none, “Maybe there’s one in the next chamber.”
“I’m on it!” Crislana ran through the dark arch in the opposite wall. There was silence for a moment then a scream and she ran back in, golden eyes widened in terror and face so pale it showed through her fur. “It’s him!” she wailed.
“Who?” Shade stepped forward and protective pushed Crislana behind him as he drew the Fireblade. When no answer came he glanced back to her and asked again, despite the sinking, nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach that he already knew the answer.
“Izael.” Blackjack answered for her, his head turned as much as he dared without pulling on the hook through the back of his neck to look at the figure that had appeared in the far doorway.
There in the doorway stood the silhouette of a man sinister alone in how ordinary it looked in light of the evil, damned realm he ruled but what turned mere sinister into horrific were the crawling half-seen shadows that surrounded him and the way - when not looked at directly – his form became something so intolerable and chaotic as to be without name.
“It would seem I need no introduction.” The demon prince stepped out from the shadows, a smile on his radiantly handsome face laconic as his insidiously soothing voice. He spared Blackjack only the briefest and most dismissive of glances before fixing his gaze on Shade stood protectively before the fearfully shivering Crislana. Slowly, lazily, a vertical split appeared down what had at first glance been merely a large red gem embedded in his forehead, spilling red light as it opened fully to reveal an evilly glaring red eye punctured by a cross-like pupil, white as opposed to the black cross-pupils of the sheekra daemons. For a fleeting moment Izael looked perturbed but then his insouciant expression and oozing confidence returned, “I have not seen the like of you before, your soul proves an unusual puzzle: I think I shall study you for a long time.”
Shade’s skin crawled and unbidden images of the tortures he had seen inflicted on the unfortunates in this plane flashed through his mind and he knew they did not even scratch the surface of the agonies that would be experienced as prisoners here.
“But for now you must stand aside for you would appear to be an obstruction between my bride and I.” Izael’s form flickered and added to his silhouette were two limbs ending in long, spindly digits that, were it not for the lack of membrane and the fact these were evidently designed for impaling a victim, might have been the structures of bat-like wings. The whimper from Crislana told Shade exactly what she thought about that and for an instant red rage flared in his blood, the anger threatening to overrun his sensibilities and release the beast within. With great effort he chocked the feeling down and though the wolf howled in fury he did not let it overwhelm him, knowing that if he could not maintain control he and his friends would be lost.
“Over my dead body.” Snarled Shade then inwardly kicked himself for the unintentional irony.
Izael just smiled, “It would appear that has already been arranged by other powers, lycanthrope; you have the mark of Ra-Sep-Re-Tay's Necroclast upon your essence.” One of the loathsome, semi-seen limbs lashed out. In the moments for which it remained fully tangible its nature as what was best described as a wing without membranes was shown. The elongated ‘fingers’ were curled into something approaching a fist which struck Shade with devastating force then the appendage became flickering shadow once more.
The blow knocked Shade several metres but he hit the ground with an expert roll and was on his feet in the blink of an eye. Izael’s smile disappeared for a moment: that blow should have been strong enough to shatter bones – perhaps he had underestimated this undead creature. The smile returned as the demon prince drew his own sword. The intricately pointed and grooved black metal blade glimmered evilly as Izael held it before him and a ruby eye set into the demonically carven hilt began to glow.
“No fair” Shade muttered, “My magic sword’s not working!” The opponents started to circle warily, waiting to see who would make the first move.
In the meantime Crislana had backed into a corner. Without a weapon she knew it would be suicide to try and help Shade so instead she sought some lever or button to release Blackjack but the first clash of steel on steel made her look back to the centre of the room.
Thinking he had seen a gap in Izael’s defence, Shade had struck first but the daemon prince easily blocked it and answered with a strike of his own. Shade parried it but some property of the black sword sent strange reverberations along the Fireblade as the blades struck and made his arm ache and feel weak.
With each subsequent thrust and block, attack and counterattack the fight got faster and more dangerous. Shade wanted to tell Crislana to run since he doubted he could beat a daemon prince in its own plane of existence but he knew there was nowhere for her to run to. Suddenly Izael struck out with one of his semi-existential limbs and knocked Shade back again. The blow was harder than before and he smacked into the wall behind but once more he was up and ready to fight in the blink of an eye. He drew the back of his free hand across his mouth to wipe away a trickle of blood there, “Is that all you got?” he growled, his upper lip curling to reveal one of his elongated canine teeth.
Don’t tempt him, F’lair Blackjack thought, watching from his unenviable viewpoint. This fight wasn’t going to go well: no matter how good a fighter Shade was, he was way out of his depth this time. Their best bet would be to run but that was a little difficult when you’re chained to the ceiling like some stuffed bird in a trophy room and Crislana looked like she had frozen up. Blackjack sighed, Looks like it’s down to me, then. Until now he had remained as still as possible. The pain of the hooks was nigh unbearable but still his weight was distributed evenly between them with each piece of skin stretched to its limit but not beyond endurance. Thanks to the shape of the meat hooks and gravity’s dictation there was no chance of unhooking himself, so… Blackjack gritted his teeth, wishing he had something to bite down on as he steadied his breathing and tensed his muscles for the first wrench.
It took several agonising attempts to rip out the first hook but when his skin had finally torn the rest followed with merciful rapidity. Unfortunately the blood loss coupled with an agony almost as great as that which shape-shifting induced meant Blackjack was somewhat less able-bodied than he had hoped to be once he fell free. To make it worse, Izael side-stepped at the last moment, denying him a break in the fall and he hit the ground hard.
The daemon just laughed as Blackjack tried to rise, “Pathetic” he spat and kicked him so hard that he was knocked back a few feet. Izael raised his sword as he did so and blocked Shade’s sudden furious attack without even looking. “This grows tiresome” he said then turned his head quickly to regard Shade again, “Let us finish it!” The eye set in his sword hilt glared with hideous light and the next blow Shade blocked was struck with so many times the previous strength it almost knocked the fireblade from his hands. With an imperious smile the daemon prince changed to a two-handed grip and pressed forward again.
Although the undead typically possessed a strength beyond human, Shade knew with each blow this fight would not last much longer. He was battling admirably but besides the supernatural force of each blow Izael struck, there was a less pronounced yet more damaging effect: each time their swords clashed Shade felt his strength drawn out through the daemon’s blade.
A movement behind Izael by something other than the daemon’s shadows caught Shade’s eye. In that momentary lapse he had the sword sent spinning from his hand and one of the daemon’s semi-present limbs pushed him to the ground. As his head cracked hard on the stone floor he heard Crislana scream in the background and as Izael raised his demonblade for the final blow he was dimly aware of a huge, fearsome shadow looming up behind the monster.
Too late, Izael glanced up and saw the danger as a huge clawed foot, its reptilian skin a slickly shining black, slammed down upon him, crunching bone, cartilage and sinew into a meaty pulp.
Propping himself up on his elbows Shade stared up at the owner of that massive claw as the black dragon looked calmly back down at him.
“Blackjack?” Crislana said in a small, shocked voice.
“I prefer Bloodbane, in this form,” the dragon replied, swinging his head on his burly neck to face the young degarii. His voice sounded much less harsh than it did in his cursed form and was leant a strangely hollow quality by the deep, echoing resonance of his throat and cavernous chest.
Shade got up and dusted himself off, “I take it we have that amulet you swiped off those gobbos to thank. Are you ok?” he asked, one eye on the still swinging chains and their bloody hooks above.
Syrax Bloodbane blinked slowly and nodded. As his deep-set eyes closed his face became almost skeletal in aspect, so tight was the leathern skin stretched across sinew and bone. Without the balefire glow of his eyes to illuminate his face, in the shadowy blue light the effect was marked.
Crislana seemed to have at last gathered her wits, “You’re Bloodbane! As in the…?” she turned to Shade, “You knew that?” then in response to his nod asked, “Does my dad?”
“Yes” rumbled Bloodbane, “But kindly refrain from telling anyone else, especially your mother.”
“Oh.” She fell quiet a moment then a conspiratorial smile crossed her feline face, “It’ll be our secret,” she tapped the side of her nose.
“That’s the idea, girl.” The dragon lifted his foot and regarded the sticky mess on the floor. Both his upper and lower fangs and incisors protruded straight out from the skull-like front of his snout, so he only had lips at the sides of his mouth to curl in disgust at the crushed flesh and bone as it bubbled slightly, “The daemon prince will regenerate before long so may I suggest we take our leave.” He stretched out a spiny, heavily muscled foreleg. The others took the hint and climbed up to settled just before his wing ‘shoulders’, perched between the spiked and segmented plate armour that lined his back from head to tail.
“But we’re not even going to fit through the doorway!” Crislana said, looking from dragon to exit and back.
“Relax” said Shade with a smiling glance at her over his shoulder, “Any dragon worth his salt can size-shift, right Syrax?”
Bloodbane laughed “With the power that talisman gave me I can do better than that!” He lowered his head and charged through the doorway. His passengers would never be able to rightly say whether it was they who became ephemeral whilst remaining somehow solid or if the doorway grew (since they certainly did not seem to get any smaller) but they passed through without contact. As the dragon continued to employ this reality-warping magic its effects quickly became nauseating to all but him but still onward they raced through eerily lit passages and chambers; some plain and empty, some populated by half-eaten yet animated things that screamed or laughed in madness and others lined with macabre remains or exquisite carvings. Even though Bloodbane was maintaining a reduced size of a hundred foot from head to wickedly barbed tail tip the chambers that had seemed fit for a giant before now felt cramped and claustrophobic and it was a relief when they finally burst forth into the chamber at the end of the long corridor at the end of which lay that nigh endless black well.
Their way was not clear. Shadowy forms loomed and moved in the dark blue light, their nature soon revealed by the glowing orbs of red energy that drifted with a deceptive slowness toward them. “More sheekra daemons” growled Shade, reaching for his sword.
There was no space to manoeuvre to avoid the attack so with a bellow Bloodbane reared onto his hind legs, massive wings partly extended and deep chest thrust forward in a fearsome display that made even the daemons check their actions. He pulled his head back and let the energy spheres strike his chest, trusting to the solid natural plate armour that lined his entire underside. The gamble paid off and though the smell of singed keratin filled the air he was unharmed as were his companions.
“My turn,” Bloodbane grinned as green evilly glowing fumes drifted through the gaps between his teeth and from his nostrils. He reared again, sucked in a great gush of the fetid air and then dropped to all fours and charged forward belching great gouts of acidfire. The green-yellow of the liquid flames lit up the entire corridor, drowning the sickly blue phosphorescence. Even through the heat haze and their watering eyes Shade and Crislana could clearly see the daemons, three of them, as they perished both burned alive and dissolved in the lethal dragonfire.
Bloodbane rumbled in triumph and rushed through the acrid fumes. There was a last sheekra daemon at the end of the corridor but it perished beneath the dragon’s trampling feet.
“How’re we going to get up there?” Crislana mused, her neck craned back to stare up into the vast well’s heights.
“At a guess, we climb” replied Shade, “Hold tight!” he warned and grabbed hold of the armour plate in front of him as Bloodbane reached up and plunged his shining black claws into the grimy stonework. As Shade clung on he noticed the plate was getting bigger and stared at it bemused until he realised his friend must have discarded the necessity for limiting his size given the dimensions of the arena at the well’s top and the enormous girth of the well itself. There was something comforting in knowing you were riding a six hundred foot black dragon (and that your enemies weren’t!) and for the first time Shade allowed himself to hope that they might actually escape this hellish realm.
Katlinia widened her eyes, yowled and spat. Every fur on her semi-feline form stood on end as the dark elf approached, slender hands rimed with the summoning of dark magics. There was a familiarity about the woman that at first confused Katlinia until she suddenly placed it. “Meesu!” she hissed.
“Clever kitty.” Smirked the elf then sharply raised a hand, pointing at her. Luckily, even with settling down and years of motherhood Katlinia’s quick reflexes had never dulled and she leapt aside, still barely avoiding the magical bolt. She counterattacked with her sword but as she swung the elf vanished into thin air, only to reappear directly behind her and reach out, delicate fingers splayed. Katlinia felt something brush her back. It was the lightest of touches but the most devastating as she felt it burn with the cold of the deepest pits of the Abyss. With the strange burning sensation that spread from the point of contact she felt her energy drained. She cried out in pain and stumbled forward, coordination failed her and she fell heavily.
“So much for feline grace” Meesu smiled coldly down at the stricken degarii then reached down, her glowing hand stretched out to touch her head. Katalinia tried to flinch back; she had recognised Meesu’s spell as one commonly called ‘Abyssal blessing’ and she knew contact with her head would kill her. Her head bumped against solid stone: there was nowhere for her to get away. She closed her eyes, ready to welcome the darkness with regret for her daughter,
“Get. Away. From. My. Wife!” said a familiar voice, each word spaced for clear emphasis.
“You again!” Meesu shrieked in fury. At the sound of Moorin’s voice Katlinia’s eyes flew open again, raging with a new fire. She saw her husband and Soul by the cave entrance with Meesu’s full attention on them. It was the perfect opportunity and she took it, kicked her leg up and caught the dark elf in the stomach then leapt to her feet, clumsy from the spell but ready to take the briefly winded elf apart.
However Meesu had other ideas and summoned a blast of the invisible force Soul and Moorin had encountered already. It sent her would-be attackers flying. “This is going to be fun,” she said, a cruel and ominous smile playing across her thin ruby lips as once more she called upon the powers of darkness.
Though arduous and bone-jarring as the dragon plunged his claws into solid stone with each step, the climb still felt infinitely quicker than Shade and Blackjack’s long dark descent. Bloodbane was audibly huffing toward the end as the ascent would have taxed even the undead but the glow of light at the top grew steadily stronger and with it their hopes that the three of them might actually survive this ordeal.
Such aspirations began to waver when, within the last gruelling hundred feet they saw demonic silhouettes outlined against the greenish light. Blasts of red energy hurtled toward them and although many missed or were harmlessly absorbed by Bloodbane’s armour some of them caught his wings and seared the unprotected membrane. With a snarl Bloodbane called upon as yet untapped reserves of energy and sped up the last few metres, spurred by the pain, the knowledge his friends were desperately exposed on his back and the acute awareness that the power of the amulet was rapidly fading.
With a ground-trembling roar Bloodbane finally launched himself over the edge of the well. “Shit, they’re everywhere!” he heard Shade exclaim as the thunderous echoes died away. This region of the circular chamber was indeed crawling with sheekras, creeping through the stinking mist in their disturbing silence. He crushed the nearest daemons, tiny now in relation to his vast size, and quickly assessed the situation.
They were facing toward the crevice he and Shade had entered the hall by but a veritable army lay between them. He had hoped for the coast to be clear so they could use the scroll to escape but it seemed a moment’s peace was not an option. And neither was remaining in his true form.
Shade and Crislana were almost shaken from their perch as the first spasm shuddered along Bloodbane’s back, “Crap,” Shade hissed through his teeth as he recognised the signs of his friend’s curse taking hold. Frightened, Crislana asked what was wrong but Shade couldn’t answer since there was nothing encouraging he could think of to say.
In a last-ditch effort Bloodbane leapt into the air, flew low banking wildly to avoid the huge columns and aimed for a daemon-free spot away from the centre of the arena. By now a purplish glow surrounded him and scintillations of the curse’s demonic energy crackled across his wings and scales. The glow became blinding for Shade and Crislana and they had to shield their eyes. Bloobane let out a final, ear-splitting bellow of denial then they found themselves tumbling through empty space.
They hit the ground hard but Shade was on his feet instantly. He checked Crislana was okay then ran over to help Blackjack up, acutely aware the daemons would soon close in on their location. As he approached Blackjack rolled over onto his back with a heartfelt groan and blearily opened his eyes to regard the lycanthrope.
“You’ve still got that incantation, right? ‘cos now would be a really good time to use it.” Shade said.
Blackjack nodded, produced the folded parchment and handed it up to Shade before getting unsteadily to his feet. Shade read the incantation, running through the elven words in his head as a practice. “Got it?” Blackjack asked weakly as he tried to shake off the aches and pains of his transformation. As a bonus the amulet had healed his earlier injuries but when Shine’s curse reclaimed his form it always left him sore to say the very least.
“I reckon so.” Shade beckoned Crislana over, “Stay close, kid. Here goes nothing!” With a brief pause to clear his mind, Shade recited the portal spell, pronouncing each work with care. With the final impressive utterance he lowered the scroll and stared hard at the empty air before them as he sought the first indication of the portal’s opening. It failed to appear.
“Well that was certainly nothing.” grumbled Blackjack.
“I don’t understand - I said all the words right!” Shade waved a hand in front of him in the vain hope the portal had opened invisibly.
“Does this mean we’re not going home?” Crislana asked unhappily.
“Not yet. We need to get back to our point of entry.” replied Blackjack.
“How?” Shade asked as he stared at vague forms moving in the fog about them.
“By running!” Blackjack called over his shoulder, already thirty metres or so away with Crislana hot on his heels.
“And here I was expecting a clever answer.” Shade said under his breath as he sprinted after them.
Fortunately they had landed close to the rent in the horribly carven circumference wall and through the stinking foggy gloom that black aperture soon became visible. Blackjack was still in the lead with Crislana behind him and Shade watching their backs, all three painfully aware of the silent, shadowy forms that moved through the darkness about them.
Frequent glances over his shoulder revealed there was no immediate pursuit and as they neared their goal Shade wondered if the sheekra daemons were actually aware of their position. He was answered when Blackjack suddenly skidded to a halt and grabbed for his battleaxe.
“Daemons?” Shade queried.
Shade scanned the mist, at first seeing nothing then caught a shadow of movement succeeded by a sudden red glow, “Get down!” he shouted as the orb of daemon energy larger than any they had seen previously came straight at them. He saw the others hit the ground too just before he hugged his arms protectively round his head as the magic missile exploded into the wall amid a dangerous cloud of stone shrapnel from the blood-soaked carvings. Some of them cut his hands, a sharp cry from Crislana indicated she’d been hit too but the force of the blast’s shockwave both physical and metaphysical left him too dazed to immediately check up on her. A hand suddenly grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him upright. Evidently Blackjack had been far enough ahead to be spared the brunt of the attack.
“Wow. That was a doozey.” Shade said absently, his head still spinning.
“Yeah. It was hand delivered by Izael himself.” Blackjack growled and pointed at a partially seen and unspeakable shadow that was gone the moment Shade tried to focus on it.
Shade grimaced; the odds did not look good. “Look, Blackjack, you and Cris’ make a break for it, I’ll try and hold them off ‘till you’re clear then I’ll come after you.”
“Bollocks to that.” Blackjack all but laughed, “I'm not leaving you!” He spared a glance out into the arena, it seemed clear for the moment, “Now run!” he hissed with sudden urgency.
As they sprinted the last few metres something huge, at least twice the size of a normal sheekra daemon, loomed out of the darkness. Its skin and carapace were midnight blues and blacks, many tentacles and extra limbs of various descriptions grew from its body but the entire form shifted and disappeared when looked upon directly, which was something of a mercy. Shade looked quickly away when he saw Izael’s hideous true form, spurred to run even faster he was first to the opening. He waited for the other two to dash in past him then ran after, the daemon prince’s enraged scream ringing in his ears.
As they ran up the narrow gully-path Shade heard a rushing noise and felt a breath of warm air from behind, “Hit the dirt!” he heard Blackjack yell as Izael once more used the devastating magical attack. The blast smashed harmlessly into the naked stone some metres behind causing a rock fall that mostly blocked the passage. Shade grinned in relief when the dust cleared and he saw Izael’s unintentional barricade then continued up on the long dank slope.
Unlike Shade, Blackjack and Crislana’s bodies were subject to a little thing called fatigue and after a while their run slowed to a jog then a walk as the seemingly inexorable upward slope took its toll.
“Are we nearly there yet?” Crislana gasped between laboured breaths. She desperately wanted to stop and rest but knew this was not an option. Luckily she had inherited her mother’s steely determination and had thus far been successful in commanding her aching frame onward.
“Just a few more turns, I think.” Blackjack replied, equally breathless: the strain of his transformation and earlier ordeal apparent in his harsh voice.
Shade had spent the time constantly glancing over his shoulder for any sign of pursuit but as they neared their goal it began to seem that no one was giving chase. He supposed that should be taken as a good thing but could not shake a lingering sense of paranoia that brought with it an ominous sense of foreboding. Yet still they reached the small chamber where oil braziers still burned with their sickly yellow flame without incident. “This is too easy.” He said, looking about suspiciously as he once more unfolded the fragile parchment.
Blackjack glared at him, “I wish you hadn’t said that. Just recite the damn incantation so we can get out of here, will you?” but Shade was well ahead of him, already halfway through the recitation.
Without warning a violent shudder ran through the chamber and nearly took them from their feet. Crislana grabbed Shade’s arm with a fearful gasp as the earth trembled again and a terrible voice spoke, its thunder filling the air, “You shall not deny me my bride!”
At that Crislana shivered and stared around, eyes wide in fear and panic. Blackjack put a steadying hand on her shoulder, “Don’t worry Cris’, we won’t let that ugly bastard near you.”
“Perhaps you should be more concerned for your own wellbeing, Cursed One,” Izael spoke again. This time his voice was no sourceless thunder, instead it was the voice of someone standing right beside the dracosvulf. Fuck, Blackjack thought, freezing. He almost unwillingly slid his eyes to the left where a shadowy form suddenly occupied his peripheral vision. Before he could get a proper look something slammed into him with incredible force and smashed him against the wall. With a dull groan he slumped slowly to the floor.
Meanwhile Shade and Crislana stared aghast at the unwelcome being come among them. Izael was back in his ‘human’ guise and stood in the chamber’s centre sword in hand, his posture of stately authority indicating he considered the situation totally within his control. Not prepared to make the mistake of underestimating his enemies a second time he moved like lightning, straight at Shade sword raised for the kill. Shade’s reflexes did not require the lengthy synaptic response or physiological mechanisms of the living and was able to react instantly. Angered at the blocking of his first assault Izael did not let up that initial ferocity and with each clash of their blades Shade started to suffer the same draining of his energy as before, soon finding a struggle to maintain his defence. With a growing smile, Izael leaned in, "You can't keep this up much longer. I will pay particular attention to your suffering once you're mine!" he hissed.
So close to escape yet so far Crislana’s mind was reeling. She’d gone over to Blackjack but though mostly just dazed the dracosvulf was not much help in his semi-conscious state. The Unbinder was almost too heavy for Crislana to lift, never mind wield but as she wondered what to do she espied a creased parchment lying on the floor where it had been dropped. Without hesitation she scurried across the floor, staying low with a furtive eye on the combatants, grabbed the parchment and got back, still safely unnoticed by Shade and Izael. She stared at the swordfight, heart in her mouth but managed to tear her gaze away and look at the scroll. She and her friends (and she tried not to think on their fate right now) had been studying the book the incantation came from. With the little she knew she started to piece the words together and was successful in its recitation up to the last line, “In ul sarnith kaarik… uh, kush…” she screwed up her eyes in concentration and frustration, unable to decipher that last word.
“Ul Sarnith Kaarik Ksheurda” Blackjack completed for her and smiled at her surprise, “I’m down but never out, Cris’” he said then painfully got to his feet, holdind his left shoulder where the impact had dislocated his arm. A thrumming sound started and the room was bathed in a sourcless dark blue light, shadowy as the rest of the near ultra-violet that pervaded the lower regions of this realm. It intensified to a painful brightness then in thundering silence the portal opened. “Go!” Blackjack planted his hand firmly between Crislana’s shoulder blades and roughly shoved her forward, cannoning her straight through the mystic gateway.
Izael’s surge of anger was palpable.
Shade backed off to stand beside Blackjack as the daemon prince roared some curse in his own heathen tongue, “Ready?” Shade asked quietly as he steeled himself for the inevitable attack.
“You bet.” Blackjack hefted his axe menacingly, then turned on his heel and jumped through the portal.
“Oh. Right. Running away.” Shade muttered, remembering that had been the general plan. He saw Izael charge, yelped, then leaped through the lattice of blue light.
The witch elf cackled maniacally; the open portal was feeding her so much power the three meddlers she battled could not even get close.
“Considering it’s three against one, we’re not doing so well” Soul remarked breathlessly as she and Moorin landed alongside one another having leapt to avoid the same barrage of magic missiles.
“I’ve had better fights.” Moorin admitted, a grim downturn to his muzzle. Worry for his daughter was having a detrimental effect on his usual fighting spirit.
Meanwhile Katlinia was still fighting like a hellcat and was giving Meesu a hard time until a noise, like someone crying out in a very familiar voice, came from the portal, “Crislana?” she looked to the heart of the blue light and was rewarded for her distraction by a blow of mystic force that struck her midriff and sent her sprawling. Meesu cackled in triumph and made to attack again. At that moment a flailing shape materialised in the portal mouth and was jettisoned by it at great speed, smacking straight into her slight elven frame.
Moorin gasped. Heedless of the danger, for the elf was by no means out of the fight, he rushed over and scooped Crislana up in his arms, his hug enthusiastically returned by his tearful daughter.
Two more forms came flying through the portal. Blackjack landed on his feet but Shade crashed into Soul and the two ended up sprawled in a heap. Not for the first time that week Moorin came over and righted them.
“We have to shut the portal!” said Blackjack as the disorientation faded.
“How?” asked Soul, standing closest where she had gone to help Katlinia up.
“Put out the candles!” Soul nodded and turned to go and extinguish the closest. Her progress was checked by the lunaris suddenly blocking her path, delicate elven features contorted into a twisted expression of rage.
“I’ll see to it that you all are sent back to Izael where you will suffer forever in recompense for your meddling!” she screamed.
Upon the utterance of the daemon prince’s name a peal of thunder boomed outside and within the cave the portal began to emit a strange whine that rapidly escalated and became distinguishable as the screams of countless tortured voices. A great, clawed limb, like a wing with no membranes, groped through the portal.
“Tell you what, why don’t you go to him yourself, bitch!” Katlinia yelled and shoulder-charged Meesu, knocking her straight into the grasp of that awful hand. Unseeing, not distinguishing between enemies and servant, Izael’s taloned fingers closed crushingly around the elf’s slender form and dragged her back through the portal, heedless of her screams and beseeching.
“Put out the candles!” Shade broke the stunned silence that ensued, and sliced through two candles with his sword. Moorin dealt with the rest and the lines of power that connected them faded then failed completely, leaving them in darkness until Soul conjured a small orb of gentle light. She ran over and flung her arms around Shade and he returned the embrace with equal enthusiasm, running his fingers through her soft hair as the fears and horror of the past hours faded, “I was worried I’d never see you again!” he said.
Soul leaned back to look him in the eyes. “I can’t believe you guys went through that thing without me!” she started to chide but then just hugged him again, relieved he was okay.
Crislana, Moorin and Katlinia shared an equally joyful reunion though no doubt there would be stern words spoken by the worried parents when the initial swell of relief was done.
Meanwhile Blackjack busied himself with cracking his shoulder against the wall to pop the joint back into place then leaned against the cave wall and leafed through the book of Izael, forcefully putting from his mind certain parts of the experience. Though there were several interesting bits of information most of the tome involved fawning praise of the daemon prince and he could think of only one use for it. “Shade? That sword of yours working yet?”
Shade stepped back from Soul, drew Fireblade and willed it to ignite, “Yep!” he said with a satisfied smile at the resultant inferno.
“Good. You know what to do.” Blackjack tossed the ancient book into the air.
Its pages flapped open as it flew through the air but never hit the ground as the burning sword struck the target with ease, its heat so great the fluttering leaves ignited before contact was even made. Shade coughed and waved a hand before his face as the resulting cloud of ash drifted about him, “Damn, that felt good. What about the rest of this stuff?" he asked, looking about at the cave's various trinkets and paraphernalia.
"No!" Crislana jumped forward before Shade could act on Blackjack's suggestion. She looked around the small cave, tears welling, "Much of this belonged to my friends and now they're-" she broke into a choking sob, unable to continue. Her mother was instantly at her side, arms about her shoulders protectively. Drawing strength from this Crislana continued, "We have to tell their parents and it doesn't feel right to destroy this stuff without asking if they want it."
Blackjack shrugged, "There's nothing of power here but you think they'll want reminders of how their daughters died?"
Crislana sobbed again and Katlinia shot him a withering glare.
"That's a little harsh, Black'" Soul admonished.
"Well excuse me for being blunt but I've had it for today. Unless any of you got tortured and hung from the ceiling on meat hooks by Izael himself because someone thought it'd be cool to mess with dark magic, don't start telling me what is and isn't 'harsh!'" Blackjack snarled. Not waiting for anyone to break the shocked silence, he dragged a battered cigarette from his pocket and left the cave, muttering something about needing a smoke.
Crislana burst into fresh tears and as she sobbed all eyes turned to Shade who just shook his head, not wanting to talk about it.
"Look," Soul broke the spell, "we need to talk to the parents sooner rather than later. We need to figure out what to say."
Katlinia nodded, drew a deep cleansing breath and let it out, releasing the tension in her mind. "Moorin, take Crislana home and stay with her. We'll make a start."
Shade was still staring after Blackjack, clearly distressed. Soul gently put her arm around him, letting him know she was there. "Sometimes this Blood Oath is a curse," he said quietly.
Soul tightened her embrace, "I know. But if you two wouldn't stand against the likes of Izael, who could?"
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