Fallen Legacy

by BlueClaw


The groans of working men were well complimented by the hammering of pickaxes on rock, as dozens of haggard men and dwarves bonded by chains around the ankles feverishly slaved away in the deep mines of the lowest levels of the Abyss. It was hotter than an oven down here, the series of dimly lit caverns home to pools of molten rock and webbing veins of lava that poured throughout the hellish pit. Every so often a piece of ground or wall would explode in a shower of liquid fire, testament to the unbridled fury of the ever unstable volcano that had birthed this extensive subterranean network of tunnels and passages. Usually a slave would be caught in the shower and either maimed or killed, which amounted to the same fate, that being death, since the guards put down any who were seriously injured. Life was cheap down here.

Sweat poured down every slave's face; they were terribly gaunt and emaciated, whatever was left of their attire when they had been first captured was not fit to clothe the poorest beggar now. Many suffered burns to the feet from the searing rock floor, their footwear having been taken by their cruel overseers. Each slave was the epitome of misery; they worked mindlessly, hacking at walls in the desperate hope of discovering a new vein of valuable ore, all shreds of defiance and self-will long since ground to dust from months of similarly hard work and brutal beatings. While they had learned to ignore the searing heat, they still flinched from the crack of the whip, which lashed about at random regardless of the quality of work being done.

Survival in the service of such callous masters was a bleak uncertainty. Lumbering trolls two heads taller than the average man and lanky, lithe gray goblins watched over the smattering of slaves like hawks, armed with whips and cudgels to remind their miserable pawns who was in charge. The overseers gained a vile sort of sadistic pleasure from inflicting pain on the slaves, often whipping them just to hear a scream. Sometimes a slave fell from the blow, his final reserves of strength exhausted, and a horde of goblins would proceed to beat him to a bloody pulp with their cudgels as punishment for 'laziness'. As if the overseers had had nothing to do with the slaves' overwhelming fatigue in the first place. Lack of food and rest meant the dwindling of strength, but the goblin and troll slave drivers would accept no excuse, heedlessly striking out with extreme prejudice and brutality.

Tyball was not concerned in the least about the condition of his labour force. He saw them as mere pawns on a chessboard, expendable for the greater objective in sight. Watching from a high ledge, Tyball smiled coldly at the cacophony of pickaxes striking rock and whips striking flesh. It was all part of progress. His eyes glowed with a tint of red, and it wasn't a reflection of the fires below.

The fools below were mining for orb rock, although they did not know its purpose. Better they did not. That substance would be vital for his plans down here. The demon known as the Slasher of Veils had been summoned and now resided at the core of the volcano, temporarily bound and trapped. The impregnable giant doors to the Chamber of Virtue would hold for a while yet, although when the demon eventually broke his bonds, not even they would hinder his escape. It had been a miracle the creature had not broken free and caused devastation during the actual summoning itself, especially when Garamon had interfered. Being the benevolent altruistic brother he was, he naturally proved to be a bothersome pest bent on unravelling everything he had worked so hard to achieve to this point.

Well, he was actually more than a bothersome pest. He was equal in power to Tyball, if not more so, though it irked him to admit this even to himself. Fortunately, Garamon now lay in Tyball's quarters, which had formerly been the quarters of that virtuous fool Sir Cabirus, quite incapacitated. He wondered what course of action he should take pertaining to his brother when a goblin interrupted.

Boragosh was the contemptible creature's name, an arrogant gray who believed he would gain more in Tyball's service than Tyball ever intended to give. As Captain of the Guard, he wore a medallion around his neck, green and etched with a leering skull with two swords crossing blades in the background.

"Milord," the goblin croaked in an accent that vaguely annoyed the red robed mage. "Outpost report. A band of knights attacked but an hour ago. We repulsed them utterly, and now three of their number are our prisoners!" The goblin seemed excited by this achievement. Tyball merely snorted. Slightly nonplussed, Boragosh continued after several uneasy moments of silence, "Two survivors escaped to flee to the above levels. They have sought refuge in the domain of the magic-users, where we dare not tread."

Tyball sighed, although it came out as a hideous rasp. Boragosh started, red cat's eyes widening fearfully as the mage turned to face him. A smile was on his face. A smile that was devoid of all mirth. Briefly Tyball considered killing the fool as an example to his fellows to maintain a superior vigil next time, but then decided against it. The defences of his domain were not fully completed yet, and neither was the dungeon. They would not be constructed for quite some time. He needed every lackey he could spare should the pestilent knights mount another assault.

The seers themselves on the level above would not interfere; they were somewhat occupied with holding their own domain against the likes of Vilus and the rampaging beasts that had desecrated their precious Academy. He wondered whether the doddering old fools would be driven to violence against him had they know it was he who had had a hand in summoning the myriad of monsters that had made the Academy their new home. Once enough orb rock had been gathered, Tyball could begin the next phase of his plan, which would render all Seers powerless to stop him and give him the magical energy he needed to see his machinations come to fruition.

There was so much to do and so little time to do it all in. Briskly, he drew out a book from a hidden pocket called, 'Dungeon Design and Construction', whistling a perverted version of 'Stones' with an undeniably more malevolent tune to it as he flicked through the yellowed pages that were sketched with drawings of the finest dungeons ever created. Once his dungeon was completed, no prisoners would escape. He was fortunate that the legends of the ancient tombs drew enough unsuspecting treasure-seeking fools into his midst, otherwise he might not have nay prisoners, and on prisoners meant no one to mine the materials he so desperately needed. He was roughly aware of the location of the ancient dwarven tombs, and his magically honed senses could detect a darker presence lurking within those sealed off corridors, powerful and loathing of all things that lived. He would have to investigate that later, when he had the time.

Pocketing the book, Tyball returned his piercing fiery-eyed gaze to Boragosh, the goblin anxiously bowing his head in penitence, apprehensive.

"Good work, Captain." Tyball said, although he smiled no longer. "Put the newfound prisoners to work in the mines. Fresh, strong backs means a faster payload of mining dividends. Also, why don't you make yourself useful and select a 'volunteer' from our current ragged stock of slaves for a session in the experimentation chambers?"

"Yes, milord mage!" Boragosh said all too quickly and strode off into the midst of the mine, keen on making as much distance between himself and the vicinity of Tyball as possible.

Tyball no longer concerned himself with Boragosh's reservations. He was eagerly anticipating another session in the experimentation chambers, where he would test his already abundant powers on a hapless 'volunteer'. How he enjoyed twisting them with his potent magic, torturing them, transforming them, reshaping them like soft clay. He would relish the screams, as he always did.

Chapter 1
Anarchy of the Insidious

The massive door of steel slammed shut with an echo that reverberated down the tunnels of the subterranean labyrinth, sealing the entrance to the grave of Sir Nolan. The knights watched as one of their fellows, Cecil, locked the door with an iron key. Vitalar watched the meagre funeral service with a stony countenance that belied the inner turmoil raging within his soul. His profound sadness was not for the death of Sir Nolan; the bastard had received justice as was his due. It was the simple concept of the man's treachery that compiled with all other injustices that had come to pass in the fast splintering Colony of the Stygian Abyss.

Sir Nolan himself had once been a noble Knight of the Order Crux Ansata, the guardians of the Colony of the Abyss, and had earned the rightful reputation of a warrior who strictly adhered to the Eight Virtues and vehemently upheld Justice, Valour, and Honour. But in the post days of Sir Cabirus's tragic death, which had only served to worsen the discord and in-fighting between the colonists, the Abyss had plunged into corruption, and Sir Nolan had seemingly plunged with it. He forswore all fealty to the Virtues, the very foundation of the Abyssal Colony and, more importantly, of Britannia, to leave on his own quest for avarice and immorality. His decadence had begun insidiously at first, furtively thieving possessions of others that he so coveted and becoming brusque in manner, even to his fellow knights! With this degradation of moral values festered arrogance and contempt for all others, dragging on for months to the point where he actually had begun to openly accost others for their items and scarce wealth. The young aspiring Endicott, boisterous and full of life despite the collapse of the colony around him, a boy with such great potential, had caught him in the act of murdering another and valiantly engaged him in combat. Alas, Nolan's vastly superior years of experience outmatched Endicott's by volumes, and he had slain the lad in cold blood.

It was then that Nolan was ostracized from the Order, knights being dispatched to hunt down the fleeing renegade. And hunt him down they did. The very knights who had slain him were the ones conducting the funeral procession right now, solemnly watching as a message was engraved above the door by one of their number, Kyle: 'He murdered the young Endicott in cold blood.'

Vitalar could still hear the maddened ranting of the fugitive as they cornered him and prepared to deliver the final justice of death.

"Fools! Thou art all fools!" Nolan had cried as he lashed out at his hunters like a savage caged animal. "Fools to uphold the Virtues! Fools to settle in this forsaken pit of all places! Fools to pool together all the races with all the reason to hate each other! Thou hast made thyselves a rattrap from which thou canst not escape! We shall stew, the races shall, oh, they shall, succumbing to the evils of the Abyss as I have! 'Tis inevitable! No Virtues can save thee here! The Virtues are meaningless now!" It had been Vitalar who had delivered the maiming blow, slicing the madman's belly and sending him to the ground. When Nolan had looked up to see Vitalar raise his sword to end his wretched life, the man had actually smiled and ceased his ranting, tranquility relaxing his ragged visage and welcoming what was to come. "Thou dost grant me mercy by slaying me. 'Twould be best if thou didst likewise to thyselves." A single thrust in the chest had silenced the man forever.

The memory was still bitter, and rightfully so, for it was only several hours old. Some said that the Abyss itself worked to degrade the quality of a man's character, although Sir Cabirus had regarded this as sheer superstition. Vitalar was beginning to wonder whether the dark rumours of the Abyss's more sinister nature held credence after all.

Five of them stood there in the small rough-hewn walled chamber, illuminated by a spell of light. Dorna Ironfist, esteemed leader of the Order, Kyle, Cecil, the seer Milius, and Vitalar himself. In the hours following Nolan's death, they had dragged his corpse through the narrow winding tunnels to this insular chamber and hastily buried him, leaving only a gold coffer with his few remaining possessions (probably thieved from some other poor soul) behind his gravestone. He deserved that much honour at least.

Dorna assumed position before the steel door, in front of the small party. His eyes were teetering on the edge of despondency, his weathered, bearded face a grim mask that divulged nothing but the dismal tale of the falling of the once proud Abyssal Colony.

"So Justice has been served to one who was honourless." he said, voice taut with solemnity. "And Justice has been done in the memory of Endicott, whose ever-smiling countenance we shall not forget."

How ominously reminiscent this scene was of Sir Cabirus's own funeral, held more than a year ago in the tombs to the north on this very level. That day had been a mournful one, for Cabirus was truly the driving force that inspired the colonists to progress as a united whole. His death had been untimely -- and had heralded a new period of civil war and strife in the Abyss. Old prejudices that had been suppressed resurfaced between the races, the bickering over the Eight Talismans of Sir Cabirus, each supposedly imbued with a particular Virtue, only serving as incentive to shed blood. Hence the loss of many of the Talismans. Even Cabirus's grave had been desecrated by colonists hungry for treasure.

"However far the Abyss had fallen, our duty as Knights of the Order Crux Ansata remains, and it always shall…till the end." Dorna spoke gravely, looking at each of them. Vitalar did not favour either the pause or the last word too highly. "Our bringing of Nolan to Justice is indicative of this. Do not stray from the path of Virtue, or meet his fate thou shalt."

So Dorna led them out of the stifling and eerie chamber, and all were more than eager to follow. there was something distantly unsettling about burial sites, and the fact that it was one of an evil man made the feeling only worse. The chamber was closed off by means of a heavy iron portcullis, locked by Cecil, who subsequently threwe the key inside. Above another message was hastily scrawled: 'Herein lies one no longer amongst the living. Enter not unless thou dost wish to join him.'

Vitalar certainly had no wish to come here again. He bade the portcullis one last baleful look before trailing after the party into the uninviting labyrinth that was the Abyss.

Rumours purported that the catacombs adjacent to the old entrance to the tombs was now home to the ghouls, frightful creatures of ghastly appearance that fed off vermin and other things Vitalar did not care to think about. They were disgusting degenerates of former colonists who had abandoned the Virtues through wicked deeds and had been banished from Abyssal society. Foul in every way, Vitalar had had his share of dealings with the ghouls, and he knew for a fact that the fiends lived through trickery and deceit, and wouldn't think twice about eating you alive if they were hungry enough, which they usually were.

Deeming a skirmish with the ghouls unnecessary, Dorna led the party through a series of twisting passages leading away from the den of ravenous knaves -- the scum had moved next to the tombs for a reason. Vitalar could have almost thanked the mysterious mage who was said to have hidden the entrance to the tombs -- at least the ghouls wouldn't be feeding on the honoured dead anymore.

Milius's light spell travelled down the length of the passages with his presence, and the knights dutifully followed him and their leader. This level of the Abyss had never been used for living quarters, only state chambers, and the portions they were moving in were undeveloped, hence their narrow labyrinthine nature. They also proved to be a prowling ground for beasts like vermin, giants spiders and the like. The bones, human bones, that lay strewn across the ground were warning enough to all of them to keep vigilant.

The knights' armour gleamed in the magical light of Milius's 'In Lor' spell. Each wore hauberks of chainmail and leggings of plate. As was customary of Knights of the Crux Ansata, they wore horned helms of plate. Their ankh tabards were old and torn, stained with the blood of countless foes, evidence enough of the severity of the plight the underworld colony was in. They had quite literally dug themselves a pit they could not get out of.

On second thought, as Vitalar saw it, mentioning that particular pun to any Abyssal colonist would more likely than not earn oneself a knife in the ribs.

The knights instinctively kept a hand on the hilts of their swords, in a perpetual state of tension for any ambush. The elderly seer himself gripped his oak wood staff anxiously, the light globe hovering above his head and revealing the path lain before them. No words were spoken. Sound travelled easily in the Abyss and attracted unwanted attention. The grim silence was deafening.

They entered a chamber with several other passages leading in different directions. A battered sack lay in one corner atop a pile of an unfortunate's bones.

"I believe the way out of this maze is in that direction." Milius pointed at the passage heading west. He paused as his light globe began to flicker, dimming for a moment before regaining its full glory. "That is strange, the spell is still stable --" He started suddenly, gripping his staff with both hands, eyes narrowing and briskly scanning every shadow. "Undead!" he hissed.

The rasp of steel as the knights drew swords from scabbards echoed down the passages. A faint deathly moan responded, growing in loudness with each passing second. A foul wind seemed to blow down the passages and channel into the chamber.

Vitalar's skin prickled. He had known that eerie feeling before, and it was far from natural. He squinted when he spotted a shadow moving along the wall, detaching and floating into the centre of the room. Wreathed in darkness, this ghost was, and it was no ordinary disgruntled spirit at that. Gleaming yellow eyes regarded the living intruders malevolently -- dire ghosts were not known to be amiable and ranked among the most deadly foes of the Abyssal environs. The Seers theorized that they were the remnants of slain monsters that manifested themselves through their potent malignancy and hatred, hence the reason for their extreme lethality.

The dark spectre's hue made it difficult to track, for it could make itself ostensibly one with shadow. Kyle lashed at it, steel striking the insubstantial blackness, and with a howl the wraith pulled back, eyes burning balefully. Specters did not like the touch of metal; enough sword blows would either vanquish their essence or drive them off. Dire ghosts, however, always fought to the death; they did not care if they died, or to be pedantic, 'died again', so full of hate for the living were they.

The wraith retaliated, eyes burning fiercely, and Kyle cried out as if struck, falling to his knees. In close proximity, the ghost was draining him of his life force to feed its own implacable desire for death. Dorna suddenly leaped in, striking the undead again and again, joined by Cecil and Vitalar. The ghost howled and turned on them, but they leaped back, Dorna hauling Kyle away as the irate apparition floated menacingly towards them.

With the path clear, Milius bellowed 'Ort Grav', and from his finger tips he unleashed a near blinding bright blue lightning bolt of arcane energy, striking the wraith in the face, a gloomy visage so oddly devoid of features. It drew back, and another lightning bolt struck. Milius was relentless in his attack, for he knew from experience that anyone who showed mercy to a ghost or undead corpse usually ended up a corpse themselves.

"Por Flam!" Milius intoned, hurling a fireball into the intangible mass of the creature.

A ghastly, almost mournful cry escaped its darkly translucent lips, then it faded, its essence quenched forever.

"May it find final peace." Milius said, unusually solemn.

At least that was how Vitalar saw it. He didn't mourn the passing of any wraith. Anything that posed a threat to the denizens of the Abyss was better off destroyed.

Cecil was tending to Kyle, who was trying to stand on wobbly legs.

"I'll be fine." he said, tone tinged with weariness. Such were the repercussions of having a wraith drain your life energies. "Thank thee."

"This place grows more evil by the day." Dorna said grimly, looking down the tunnels askance. "No one could survive down here for long."

"Perhaps we should mount another undead cleansing campaign on this level." Cecil suggested.

Dorna looked at him questioningly, then shook his head. "We must hold our own against the trolls."

That, and the fact that the last undead cleansing campaign had gone horribly wrong. Two of their finest knights, Gringhis and Laman, had disappeared in these tunnels, never heard from again. What good had it done? The undead were as abundant as the vermin, and the ghouls…technically, they weren't undead, but that didn't make them any less foul. The corpse-eaters repulsed Vitalar. He would have rather fell into a pit of fickle wolf spiders than even reside on the same level as the ghouls.

"As Officer of Troll Watching, you should be aware of just how thinly our resources are stretched." Dorna told Cecil, slightly berating. "I will not waste men on futile quests, only ones with foreseeable gains to be made."

Cecil gave obeisance, though he was acquiescent.

"We must move." Milius interrupted, warily eyeing their surroundings. "I fear that we as living are a beacon to any undead that roam these passages."

Dorna nodded in acknowledgment. "Let's move."

The party travelled down the west passage with all due haste, eager to leave the haunted maze. It opened up into a wider hall that appeared to have been left uncompleted; the floor for half a dozen or so paces and ended in a sudden drop of more than twelve feet. A rope had been grappled onto the ledge; it was by this way they had first entered the maze in their hunt for Sir Nolan, unwilling to risk the alternative stairway that led directly into the ghouls' lair.

Each man descended, tautly gripping the rope while their feet pushed against the wall, until only Milius stood on the ledge above. Casting the spell of Slow Fall, he jumped and came floating down as slowly and serenely as a feather. Adjusting his blue robe when he hit the ground, he used telekinesis to yank the grapple out of the ledge, allowing it to land with a clatter. Cecil picked up the valuable piece of equipment up, wrapping it into a coil and stuffing it inside his pack.

Vitalar surveyed the subterranean 'landscape'. They were in a massive cavern, partially constructed and shaped by the dwarves as evidenced by the brickwork and pitted marble floor. Through the middle of the cavern ran a deep river of lava, one they would be forced to jump across to reach the hallway and their destination. A number of unfinished wooden platforms raised twice again the height of a man stood around them, their purpose to serve as a bridge from whence they had come to another entrance high on the adjacent wall. Vitalar believed that if a man were dexterous and determined enough he could jump from platform to platform to get to where he wanted. The risk of broken bones was not worth it, however. Being badly injured in the nether regions of the Abyss was an invitation for the myriad of beasts here to visit for dinner.

The width of the river of molten rock was only five feet or so, and the only person liable to have trouble making such a large jump would be Milius. He had his magic to support him. The lava below bubbled and belched, patterned erratically with shades of light yellow and darker orange, searing with withering heat.

A colony in the midst of an angry volcano! What a brilliant idea! Vitalar stamped upon the bitter though as quickly as it had come, reprimanding himself for his doubt. Doubt caused disillusionment, the same cruel fate that had seized Sir Nolan. And look where it had led him! Vitalar would not end up like that, to go down in the annals as a once noble knight turned rogue.

Vehemenly placing his faith in the Virtues, Vitalar took a running start and vaulted effortlessly across the river, clearing the distance and landing with a grunt on the other side. There was crunch of dirt, and Vitalar's sword whipped out of its scabbard to take a headless lurking behind one of the unfinished bridge platforms, slaying it in a fountain of its own blood.

The others made the jump, including Milius, the old mage having to aid himself with a spell of Leap. The knights turned to face the sound of scuffling feet, and from the entrance of the next hallway, a massive passage with a ceiling that loomed metres above into darkness, and out came rushing a pack of five headless driven by the insatiable desire to kill all bipedal creatures with heads.

The knights met their attack with finesse; they had dealt with such rabble before and knew all too well that the blade was more than a match for bare hands. Within minutes, the vile creatures were slain, Cecil putting to the sword any that lay maimed. There would be no mercy with the pestilent savages of the Abyss.

The party progressed through the grand hall of sandstone, ever vigilant as they entered the chamber that ringed around the volcano's main shaft. It had been walled off, but a window provided a view of distant crimson in the depths below. The bowels of the volcano were stirring. This did not bode well for the colonists.

Milius guided them to the main council chamber; previously when they had come through here, the place had been infested with deadly poisonous bloodworms. They had exterminated the vile vermaforms, for the worms were more dangerous than their size belied. Now the chamber was clear, but still dilapidated. It tore at Vitalar's soul to see the conference table, where once grand meetings had been held between the most influential nobles of the realm, in such a pathetic condition, the chairs smashed by rampaging colonists and worse.

They entered the connecting hall, which ran for some length and twisted sharply to the east to meet the Great Stair, a valiant attempt by a dwarven stonecutter, named Korianus, who had dreams to build a stairway travelling from the very top of the Abyss to the lowest levels. The dream had ended in a terrible collapse of the stairway, courtesy of the increasingly violent quakes that shook the region, and the builder's unfortunate death. The Abyss brought only misfortune its inhabitants, it seemed.

Not too far a distance were two doors in parallel across the hall form one another. It was here that they met Knight Ferwyn, who leaned against the wall, gripping his left arm in pain. It had been rapped in a bloody bandage.

"Ferwyn! What hast happened?" Dorna demanded, concerned for his fellow's well-being as he analyzed the wound.

Ferwyn's face was covered with a sheen of sweat, and he grit his teeth as if merely standing was a great effort of will. Vitalar thought that strange for only a cut across the arm, unless…

"Thou hast been poisoned." Vitalar said. It was a statement, not question.

Ferwyn nodded haggardly. "Attacked by skeletons while scouting the hall." he grated, as if the weariness of old age had suddenly pounced upon him. He certainly wasn't old enough for that to happen yet by any natural means. "One struck me with a tainted…blade, it doth seem."

"Allow me to help thee." Milius said, stepping towards the ailing knight.

"No!" he said, somewhat too forcefully, for the old seer withdrew slightly, taken aback. "Save thy mana for the task at hand."

The task at hand was infinitely more important than the slaying of Nolan. Ferwyn handed the mage an ordinary-looking iron ring. Everyone present knew what it was.

The Ring of Humility, one of the scarce few of Cabirus's Talismans left in the Order's possession. It had been thought lost when a lone vagabond had stolen it from under the knights' noses, but Ferwyn had obviously done well enough to track down the knave and reclaim their rightful property. That Ferwyn had managed to accomplish the task so quickly and arrive here at the rendezvous point ahead of schedule was testament to his Valour and prowess as a knight. He did the Order proud.

"The thief is now carrion for the giant rats, Dorna Ironfist." Ferwyn said, then gasped when his muscles cramped and forced him to his knees. "Go! Do it quickly!" he said, then cried out as the poison advanced through his bloodstream like fire. He hit the floor, comatose.

"Cecil, drag him inside!" Dorna snapped hastily. To the others he said, "Come! We must make haste!"

They entered the chambers, a small garrison with a stairway leading up to the higher levels. The floor was littered with bones and broken weapons. Whoever had fought here had done so valiantly, even though the battle must have been half a year old at least. Last in was Cecil, dragging with him the limp form of Ferwyn. He closed the door behind him.

There was an adjacent room, smaller than this one, with a stone pedestal upon which Milius placed the ring. The decision to hide the Ring of Humility had not been come to easily, but its attempted theft and the universal avarice of the colonists as a whole provided abundant incentive to acquiesce to Milius's plan. The others stepped back and watched reticently as Milius pulled out the essential runes from his runebag. Raising both hands, left hand possessing the runes, he began to intone the spell.

"Vas Sanct Lor!" his voice boomed, its aged demeanour replaced by the fierce power of the concentration of the flows of magic the seer was directing at the ring.

The ring flickered out of existence, then reappeared, teetering between the real world and the realm of the unseen.

"Vas Rel Por!" Milius intoned.

The crackling of energies could be heard, tendrils of arcane power flowing from the mage's fingertips and surrounding the ring in a bright yellow nimbus. The pedestal glowed with power. Several more incantations followed, accompanied by a distinct keening sound that grew in pitch with each passing moment. Then, when Vitalar thought his eardrums would burst, the keening abruptly stopped, the nimbus fading. Milius lay with his back slumped against the pedestal, looking more haggard than his age should have allowed. The ring was gone.

"There…'tis done." Milius said faintly. The amount of power he had used had been taxing, especially for one of his age, Seventh Circle mage or not. "The Ring of Humility has been sent from the realm of Britannia…to safety." Weakly, he raised a gnarled hand and pointed it at one of the four switches on each wall of the room. "Only the correct combination can reverse the spell and return the ring to the realm of men. Only Derek knows it."

That made sense. It had been Derek who had helped construct the pedestal and the switches in the first place, even though his skill lay primarily in gemcutting. He was talented at carving stone, despite his modesty pertaining to his artisan abilities. It was fitting for the man to be keeper of the only code that could recall the Ring of Humility. The knight had become a guardian of sorts.

Dorna Ironfist sighed, a heavy weight lifted from his shoulders.

Vitalar eyed him solemnly. So the Ring of Humility was now safe from the madness that had engulfed the Abyss. Vitalar wondered where it was.

The pedestal stood silently, revealing no secrets.

Chapter 2
Into the Depths

“Corby has gone.”

Vitalar looked up from brooding at the reflection in his mug of ale, fixing his attention on the block-jawed fighter standing across the table from him. Raltiir’s stubble-face was dark tanned from many years fighting aboveworld, crisscrossed with many scars. He head the strength of a bull and the deadly swiftness of a snake. A good combination when it came to the art of sword fighting, at which the man was master.

Another man, a fair-haired knight who appeared to be approaching his middle years, nearly snorted with contempt. “More like he has fled, the coward.” Eador was his name, a good soldier, but oft times possessing too fickle a temper. “Good riddance, I say. I could not stand his mewling.”

Vitalar took a bite of his bread. It was as brittle as brick, and tasted stale. It taste moldy too. Virtues, even his ale tasted stale. The Order had not received a fresh stock of food in months, ever since the Great Door had been sealed. Even the mages could not ferry through any supplies, cut off as they were by their own predicament.

Vitalar’s bitter thoughts turned to Baron Almric, the one who had ordered the door closed. Not for the first time he cursed his name. The man had always been a presumptuous, impetuous oaf, lacking the foresight to anticipate the repercussions of his actions. Rumour held that he was now using the Abyss as a dumping ground for criminals; little wonder there were so many bandits roaming the upper levels.

“What canst though expect from a piteous scribe who had donned a sword just for show?” Raltiir said contemptuously. “He could not even use it! Waved it like a flag, he did! At least he’d make a terrific bannerman!”

Raltiir and Eador laughed a shade too scornfully for Vitalar’s liking. Granted, Corby had become more another mouth to feed in the months following Cabirus’s death with his depressive pessimistic preaching of doom for the colonists of the Abyss, but the man had lost a benevolent master. One shouldn’t have blamed him for losing heart.

“Thou dost sully the man’s name for his actions?” Meredith, a dark-skinned knight who sat in a stool in the corner, interrupted icily. She was rubbing a whetstone along the flat length of his blade, as if the rasp were to emphasize his cold tone. “He has been through worse than thee. He placed his fiath in one man, and when that man died, he lost all hope.”

“He was a fool then!” Raltiir snapped. He was not a knight and did not grant members of the Order with the expected measure of respect. A brusque man from all accounts. “And so was Cabirus, to establish a colony here of all places!”

There was a unanimous intake of breath from the others in the mess hall. If Meredith’s gaze had been cold before, it was now cold enough to freeze a blazing forge.

“Pray that Rees does not hear thy slander, or he would kill thee where thy stood.” Meredith said, biting off every word with disdain.

“Bah!” Raltiir snorted. “I’ll skewer him like a rat for dinner, the idealistic fool!”

Vitalar winced. If their food supplies were not replenished soon, they would be eating skewered rat.

Meredith’s face became stony. “Thou hast obviously forgotten who pulled thee from the gallows and gave thee a new life.”

Raltiir tensed and reached for his sword, eyes flaming. Eador raised an eyebrow, but Meredith’s smooth expression did not change.

Vitalar had heard the tale of Raltiir’s past life, and it had not been a good one. Apparently, he had been a notorious highwayman that had terrorized the vicinity around the Great Forest, killing many innocent road travellers for their possessions. He had been caught by the Yew militia and was about to be hanged when Cabirus came along with his entourage of candidates for settlement in the Abyss. Upon interviewing the hardened killer, Sir Cabirus had seen some sort of redemption and willingness to change in the man, and thus had allowed him pardon and bade him join his contingent of settlers dedicated to the upholding of the Virtues.

Raltiir’s lips curled back in a menacing snarl, but no scathing words came out. Instead, he turned on his heel and stormed out of the mess hall.

Vitalar shook his head disappointedly. He did not trust that one. He was a brute. But he acknowledged him as a worthy warrior, for he was very good at what he did.

“May the Virtues rest good Cabirus’s soul,” Eador said softly, with a touch of solemnity that irked Vitalar somewhat.

He too rose and left the hall, rather briskly.

Vitalar sighed and took a pull of his ale. It still tasted stale.

Dorna laid out a yellowed, crinkled map upon the round table, looking at the other men - and women - who surrounded it. The war room was lit by flaming torches mounted on the walls, casting the room in flickering shades of red and yellow. The round table was an imitation of the one in Serpent’s Hold, for the Kingths of the Crux Ansata and the Order of the Silver Serpent had once maintained a friendly rivalry. No more, however, for the few members of the Silver Serpent Order that had resided in the subterranean colony had either been slain or fled in the ensuing madness long ago.

On the ragged parchment that was the map a rough sketch had been made of the seventh level of the Abyss, what little was known of it, which was scarce to begin with. There was little doubt that the lower levels had been altered a great deal, with the violent seismic activity occurring in recent months.

A number of esteemed knights were present, including Vitalar, Simmond, Eador, and Rodrick. Vitalar frowned in Rodrick’s direction. The lad was young to be a knight and had always been a hothead, possessing an insufferable nature that made all others shy away from him. Vitalar did not understand why such a tinderbox temperament knight was present at such a meeting of imperative importance.

There were others present who were not of the Order. Raltiir returned Vitalar’s studying gaze with a warning scowl of his own. His pride was almost as severe as Rodrick’s. A tall woman in chainmail and plate that glinted in the flickering firelight held her attention on Dorna, gloved hand instinctively lingering near the hilt of her jewelled sword. Saloria was her name, a paladin from Trinsic, the City of Honour. She had been serving by the side of the knights for the past several months in their incessant interdictions against the trolls and had proven herself to be a fine warrior. She was virtually the last of her kind in the Abyss; all others had been slain or driven off. Most had been slain, since a paladin’s sense of honour stood fast like a fortified wall.

Across from her a short figure leaned against the table with an elbow almost languidly, reaching barely over four feet. A mountainman from King Goldthirst demesne, Davarius was a gruff, oft times impatient fellow, but he was a good soldier. At his thick leather belt hung his hand axe, especially made for mountainfolk hands, and strapped to his back was his mighty two-handed battle axe. Both half-moon blades gleamed in the red-yellow light and were honed to hair splitting integrity. Vitalar knew for a fact that Davarius was as lethal as a daemon with either axe in his hands; he had seen him hew ravenous trolls and goblins to deadly effect a number of times.

Finally, there was the lithe and vaguely lanky green clad man who fingered the lax string of his bow. A ranger he was, from the deep woodlands surrounding Yew, named Banin. He appeared complacent as he watched Dorna, but that was a mere deception. Banin was ever alert as he was taciturn, and could strike a rotworm in dim light at more than fifty paces. The shortsword hanging by his left thigh was not just for intimidation either; he could wield it as well as any knight, if not better.

“Knight Trevane has not returned from his mission on the seventh level.” Dorna spoke, voice as steady as rock as he looked each person at the table in the eye. “As we should all know, there is a mad wizard down there terrorizing the region. This can be allowed to go no further. The Seers report that he is strengthening his holdings by constructing new passages and barring old ones, and that he is ever increasing his ranks of trolls and goblins.” Dorna studied the map for a moment, then resumed the briefing, “Trevane and his group have been lost for a week. It is more than likely he has been slain.”

“And thou dost wish us to send a new party down there? Art thou mad?” Rodrick interjected indignantly, eyes flaring with challenge as he stared at the leader of the Order.

Dorna returned his stare, face as if carved from stone. When he addressed Rodrick, he did so like scolding a recalcitrant child, “Yes, Sir Rodrick.” He put considerable emphasis on the word ‘sir’. Although his bearded face appeared impassive, his words were spoken with acidic sting. “’Tis our duty as Knights of the Crux Ansata. Thou shouldst know that well, Rodrick. If thou dost not, thou hast better relearn our doctrine before your title becomes forfeit.”

Rodrick almost sneered. “’Twas our duty when the colony was whole. Since it no longer is we should stop wasting our time on other people’s problems and start focusing on our own.” He spread his hands, a smile of condescension on his face. “Let the Seers deal with the mad mage. As I understand it, he was a part of their cabal. They should know best how to handle him and his lackeys.”

A hoarse growl, low and menacing, escaped Dorna’s lips. Saloria looked at Rodrick as if he had gone mad.

“Hast thou no honour?” she demanded angrily. “Thou dost know thy duty! Thou shouldst! I hold thee to the oath thou didst make when knighted! To serve thy sovereign, Lord British, and uphold the Virtues!”

Rodrick smirked as he openly appraised her satisfying physical appearance. “Oh? And where is Lord British now, when we need him most? He is as base as Baron Almric! He has abandoned us to our fate! And the Virtues…they won’t help us. In this pit, they are meaningless.” He leered at her suggestively.

Vitalar winced. That sounded uncomfortable similar to Sir Nolan’s anguished words preceding his death. Were they all becoming decadent?

Saloria’s hand was now gripped firmly around the hilt of her sword, grimace transforming like quicksilver into a mask of contorted rage.

Rodrick’s obscene grin only grew wider. “Thou dost look beautiful when thou art angry.”

Vitalar groaned almost imperceptibly. This was going to dissolve into a fracas soon.

Dorna’s face now betrayed a hint of potent anger, seeping slowly but surely through his controlled visage. “You speak blasphemy, Rodrick.”

“What wilt thou do about it? Banish me to the lower levels?” Rodrick snapped back.

Dorna shook his head slowly, even though Saloria nodded hers vehemently. “I cannot spare the men for my wrath alone. The sake of the Abyss is of too much import.”

Rodrick smiled victoriously. “I am too valuable to lose. Of course.”

Vitalar scowled. From pride to arrogance young Rodrick was leaping, and like Nolan, he did not think the end result would be very benign either for him or the rest of the Order.

“Thou art too insufferable to keep.” Saloria grumbled quietly, so that it only came across to Rodrick as a disgruntled murmur.

Rodrick looked at her innocently. Innocence didn’t suit him very much.

Vitalar glanced at Dorna, whose frown had deepened into a scowl as he regarded Rodrick. Nevertheless, he continued with the briefing. “The time to strike at the wizard’s lair is now, while his defences are still incomplete. His minions number many, but they are merely goblins and trolls, witless adversaries.”

Eador and Raltiir snorted almost in unison, with Eador adding, “Contemptible creatures.”

“A team of knights shall be sent below to dispatch the mage and his minions. A larger force than before. Focus on sowing chaos among his lackeys first.” Dorna callused finger pointed to a steel door that marked an entrance on the map. “This is the first door thou shalt encounter.” He gestured to Banin with his other hand. “As it is incomplete, it shalt be easier to take. We have a ranged attack now, unlike previously, so as to combat the enemy’s sling stones.”

Banin bowed. “I am honoured to be a part of this quest.” he said coolly, voice seemingly indifferent to his selection. “I can strike five foes down in a matter of seconds without missing a shot.” Strangely enough, he didn’t sound like he was boasting, just stating a fact.

Dorna gave a shallow nod in agreement. “Thy tracking skills and sense of direction will also prove invaluable.” His gaze returned to the map. “Seizing the front gate should alert the mad mage. We believe he has placed wards throughout his domain to detect intruders. Thy interdiction should divert a good portion of his forces away from their other guard posts, which is why thy must use all due haste and head down to the prison levels.”

“Well, there is one easy way to get into the prisons…” Rodrick said, leaving the thought unfinished as he rolled his eyes upward.

Saloria snorted.

Dorna gave him a brief withering gaze, returning to the map after Rodrick’s defiance drained away and he could no longer stare his master in the eye. “From the prisons, you will take the route across the bridge to the hall near the Shrine. The quakes have caused a great deal of damage there, so don’t be surprised if it appears different to what you remember.”

“Won’t we be freeing the prisoners?” the knight Simmond asked.

“No time. Thou hast two key aims here. Sow as much havoc among the goblins and trolls as thou canst and kill the wizard.” Dorna replied. “I shalt provide thee with a map of what we know about the seventh level. Knight Vitalar will be in command.”

Vitalar looked at Dorna, vaguely surprised. Then again, he should have seen it coming. Vitalar was among the first knights to settle in the Abyss and his explorations were noted even in the Chronicles of Sir Cabirus. His years of experience, both before and after his subterranean settlement, made him an invaluable source of wisdom. The Knights of Crux Ansata - those that had survived the anarchy that had ensued after Cabirus’s death - looked to him for advice. They saw him as a repository of underworld knowledge, a warrior who had studied and fought the creatures of the Abyss for many years - well, all except for Rodrick did. That young one believed he knew everything and was as obstinate as the Serpent Spine. His deadly effectiveness with the sword mixed with his impetuous, rebellious nature made a volatile combination.

“Saloria, thou art a renowned paladin, a worthy personification of Honour and a representative of Trinsic.” Dorna continued, speaking to the fiery-tempered warrioress. She nodded her head in acknowledgment, green eyes scintillating in the light. “Your prowess with sword and skill with magic is vital to our mission.”

“I am honoured to serve under one as worthy as Sir Vitalar.” Saloria replied, bowing slightly to both Dorna and Vitalar.

Rodrick arched his eyebrow dubiously, regarding Vitalar with thinly veiled disdain.

“Simmond, thy steadfastness and sturdy ability make you an ideal candidate for second-in-command.” Dorna said.

The giant, dark-skinned knight bowed his head. Vitalar respected the man as a warrior. He was deft with his broadsword and always followed orders. He did not talk much but was an epitome of stoicism in the most heated of melees.

“Eador, you will join them. Your blade dances well.” Dorna swivelled his head to face Raltiir. “Strength of arms is required on this quest to cleave the skulls of many goblins and trolls.”

Raltiir smiled grimly. “I shall not fail, captain. Many of those scum will be cloven.”

“Davarius, sturdy and tenacious, thine axe is honed well, I trust?” Dorna asked the mountainman.

Davarius nodded. “Aye, sharp enough to hew tough troll hide and gangrel goblin limbs.” he said gruffly.

Dorna smiled. “Good. Your knowledge of the terrain on the lower levels is also invaluable to the party.”

“’Tis said that our ancestors made many of the passages in the Underworld. I canna guarantee that there have not been any alterations to the catacombs beneath, but I do have a reputable sense o’ direction.” the mountainman replied.

Dorna’s discerning gaze settled on Rodrick. “Thou, Rodrick, thou wilt also accompany them on this quest. Our numbers dwindle and this quest has need of as many skilled swordsmen as possible. Thou wilt show the proper deference to Vitalar and carry out his orders to the best of thine ability.” Dorna’s tone left no room for misinterpretation. “Is that clear?”

“Aye, Captain.” Rodrick answered, bowing slightly, although even that show of obeisance seemed vaguely mocking.

Saloria snorted, eyeing Rodrick askance. For that matter, so was Simmond. Vitalar himself watched the young hothead warily. Banin’s disconcertingly indifferent gaze viewed the exchange as he absently plucked at his bowstring.

“Sir Ferwyn will also be coming along.” Dorna added at the last.

Ferwyn had recovered rapidly from the poisoning after being administered a potion of Cure. Vitalar would appreciate his presence on this journey. He was a good soldier, one that he could trust in both prowess and loyalty. Scanning those at the table, Vitalar wondered who else he could trust.

Simmond most certainly he could. The man was honourable and had carved out a reputation for himself in the Abyss from the hides of countless dark beasts; he would do well as second-in-command. Saloria he did not know so well, but had seen her in battle on a number of occasions. She had a fiery temper to match her lethality with the sword, but Vitalar believed he could trust her. Ferwyn would blind him, for he would focus only on those things practical and necessary. Davarius, as gruff and brisk as he was, would do the job assigned to him efficiently.

It was the other four that concerned Vitalar. Eador was a knight renowned for his glorious inroads against the beasts of the Abyss, particularly the trolls, almost as greatly as he was known for his stubborn and sarcastic nature. Would he follow orders to the letter, or would he be presumptuous enough to go on his own quest for blood regardless of the consequences?

Raltiir was another worry. As far as Vitalar could tell, the fighter still held on to his insolence and contempt for all others who could not wield a weapon, preferably the sword. He often though his way was best, that being kill everything first and ask questions later, and woe to anyone who disagreed with him.

Rodrick was the weakest link in this delicate chain that made the party. While he an excellent sword fighter, arguably the best in the entire Order - and he knew it too - he was even more arrogant and impudent than the rest. Worse, he was beginning to show signs of contempt for all others that he deemed unworthy of his time, which was just about everybody. Vitalar feared that Rodrick’s unreliability in combat would make him more a liability than anything else.

Then there was Banin. Here it wasn’t a matter of presumptuousness or arrogance. Vitalar simply didn’t know the man well enough to endow him with his trust. Granted, he had seen the ranger fight on several occasions with a finesse that could make a knight proud, and he did not doubt his myriad of other skills, but who was the man? Taciturn, reticent, furtive - such words could be used to describe the ranger from Yew. Banin was stoic at all times, and on occasion possessed an indifferent countenance - like now - that irked Vitalar somewhat. Even stranger, or at least how Vitalar saw it, was the ranger’s adamant refusal to drink anything remotely alcoholic. In this vile mire of despair that was the Abyss, most would retreat to the bottle to escape their sorrows from time to time, but not Banin. He would head out beyond the guard outposts day after day, each time returning with a troll’s pelt or the head of a mongbat, seemingly none the worse for wear.

“All but Sir Vitalar and Sir Simmond are dismissed.” Dorna’s deep, assertive voice brought Vitalar out of his musing.

As the others filed out of the chamber, Vitalar and Simmond approached Dorna. There they discussed the finer points of the mission long into the night, if it really was night aboveworld. Eternal night was synonymous with the Stygian Abyss. Vitalar found himself thinking of the creatures of the night even as Dorna’s voice droned onward.

“Banin and Eador return.” spoke Ferwyn, gesturing with his gauntleted hand down the corridor where two figures silhouetted in the creeping shadows moved towards them.

Their features became more distinct as the light of Simmond’s lantern revealed them, the green-clad ranger and the chainmail-and-plate encumbered knight. Banin moved lightly, while Eador stomped about heedless of the footsteps and ringing armour echoing down the corridors. When Banin stood before Vitalar, it seemed that his manner was tinged with annoyance, although it simply could have been a trick of the light.

“You should have sent me ahead alone. Your knight makes enough noise to wake the dead.” Banin said wryly.

Indignation crossed Eador’s face and he gave a sour grunt. “Without me those trolls we encountered would have split you in two regardless of your pea shooter.” he said with palpable acerbity.

It was Banin’s turn to snort although he did not retort.

“Trolls?” Vitalar said, his heart sinking. They were still on the fourth level and already the party had run into complications. A bad omen.

Banin nodded while Eador sneered.

“A pack of ten have moved into the banquet hall. Dark trolls.” Banin said.

Dark trolls. A splinter group from the main troll community of the Abyss. The creatures were more rabid than a feral troll and were possessed of greater strength. Sighing, Vitalar realized that merely descending to the next level was not going to be easy.

“We slew three of the rebel scum before retreating.” Eador said triumphantly.

Vitalar glowered at him. “Thou wert told not to reveal yourself to any potential enemy. Now they will know we are coming!” His voice was level, even though inside he raged.

“Only because Sir Eador knocked a loose stone off the descending ramp.” Banin said dryly.

Eador looked at the ranger ruefully. “Bah! So what if they know if we’re coming? They’re rabble. We now have them disoriented. We can take them if we charge-”

“Eador!” Vitalar snapped, although not too loudly, as sound carried far in the Abyss and they did not want to attract any unwanted attention. “Hast thou brain become addled? Use thy senses!”

Eador’s eyes smouldered and he grimaced, but he held his tongue at Vitalar’s scathing reprimand. The others merely watched, Rodrick the most intently. The young knight had the beginnings of a contemptuous smile on his face.

“They shouldn’t be too difficult to dispatch, Sir Vitalar.” Banin interceded, referring to the trolls. “They are disorganized, testament to their reversion to their savage and primitive nature. Even now they are most probably feasting on their dead.

Raltiir spat in repugnance, while Davarius muttered something about “cannibalistic brutes with clubs”.

“Most probably?” Vitalar repeated skeptically. More likely than not that was what the trolls were doing, as his long years of experience fighting such beasts reminded him, but a commander did not risk his men on uncertainties unless he absolutely had to.

Vitalar did not want to take the stairway down to the ghouls’ abode - the wretches would react badly to such an appearance of armed warriors in their home, and the winding passages that followed would take too long to get through filled with undead as they were.

The party was well provisioned, each member, with the exception of Banin, wearing a backpack loaded with supplies. Rations, torches, oil flasks, candles, leeches, even a fishing pole and some gold. Banin had opted to carry only his bow, quiver, and shortsword, occasionally feeding off some dried meat portions stored in the puches hitched to his belt. Vitalar was dubious as to whether he wished to know where that meat came from; it did not look like it had come from the stores in the headquarters of the Order.

Well-provisioned or not, Vitalar was unwilling to challenge that which was unnecessary. It was either a choice between running through the ghouls or running through the trolls. He chose the trolls.

“Saloria, canst thou use thy magic in some way to conjure up a distraction?” Vitalar asked. A diversion would be necessary if the trolls were smart enough to prepare an ambush at the entrance at the banquet hall.

Saloria nodded her head slowly. “Perhaps.” she replied with a vagueness that irked Vitalar.

The old knight sighed. A ‘perhaps’ was better than nothing at all, he supposed. Directing his men ahead, the party progressed down the odious hall with ample caution, each member eyeing the shadows around them askance, their vigilance almost tangible. The silence only seemed to magnify the sinister nature of the Abyss. An incessant drip at regular intervals echoed down the tunnels, or the scraping of feet - more likely paws - that would sometimes scratch nearby.

Davarius grumbled something nearly inaudible in the tongue of the mountain folk. Raltiir scanned the hall ahead in scornful amusement. Rodrick was as tense as a startled cat.

The lantern’s light banished the shadows around them, only to reclaim what was rightfully theirs in this realm of eternal darkness when the party passed. The entrance to the banquet hall appeared ahead, eight paces wide and higher than two men, one standing on the other’s shoulders. As they came closer, what lay beyond was illuminated, but not without a tenacious struggle from the darkness. Here Vitalar stopped them a number of paces from the entrance, unsheathing his longsword. The others revealed their own blades, while Davarius grabbed the battle axe strapped to his back and Banin nocked an arrow, drawing the bowstring tight.

From the runebag hanging at her belt, Saloria pulled two obsidian black runestones, marred and chipped near the edges. She warily approached the entrance, softly intoning, “Wis Mani.” Her brow creased, and her eyes subsequently narrowed as she regarded either side of the entrance.

Turning to Vitalar, she performed as series of complex flickering with her fingers, emphasizing her point by jerking her head towards the entrance corners. At least two trolls were lurking around the corner.

Exchanging the runes in her hand for another pair, she faced the entrance and intoned, louder this time. “Ort Grav.”

A bolt of lightning gathered energy in her out-thrust hand, launching forward with a crackle. The bolt struck one side of the entrance, the blue tendrils of energy creeping around the corner, sizzling the air. There was a deep-throated howl as the tendrils met something unseen, and the sickly sweet aroma of burning flesh wafted on the air to their nostrils.

A troll stumbled into the open, tall and sloop of shoulder, one arm as thick as a tree trunk trailing steam where the bolt had burned the flesh. When it saw the intruders, its black-pupil eyes widened and its fanged maw opened to shout, but another lightning bolt took it in the chest, scorching fur and the leathery skin beneath. It stumbled back and fell into darkness surrounding the walkway it had stood on.

Another troll leaped from around the corner, a club - little more than a plank of wood with a nail shoved through - brandished in a meaty hand. Banin’s arrow took it in the eye, and before it even hit the ground Rodrick charge forward without Vitalar’s command, jumping off the walkway to face whatever was below.

Exhaling an exasperating sigh, Vitalar waved the others forward. They proceeded with little more prudence, rushing in with roars of bloodlust. Only Simmond and Ferwyn kept their wits, following Vitalar into the hall at a brisk but careful pace.

The banquet hall was a great chamber, the ceiling rising above beyond the lantern’s light. A stone walkway ringed the banquet hall, a ramp descending towards the central platform where magnificent feasts had been held. Now only debris lay strewn there, mixed with bones of dead. And the warring melee of trolls and humans, of course.

The ring of clashing metal and the distinctive whooshing thud of clubs had shattered the eerie silence of the Abyss. Rodrick twirled his silver blade, warding off trolls and cutting into thick hide while at hteh same time nimbly evading blows that were potent enough to concuss a man. From his mouth came taunts foul enough to shame even the most grizzled veteran.

Eador was fast and lethal in his forms of duelling, fluidly shifting from one stance to the other as smoothly as quicksilver, his sword already stained with blood and spraying more as it slashed and hacked. Raltiir was at his back, substituting speed with brute force and endurance. He showed the enemy no mercy.

Davarius’s stout figure belied his surprising swiftness and agility as he hewed through troll hide, sanguine-stained mangled bits of meat flying this way and that as the half-moon axe blade fed ravenously. Saloria danced with the trolls in her own pocket of the platform, deftly agile with her jewelled sword. It struck with unerring precision, slaying the beast forms like a scythe cut down wheat.

As Vitalar descended the ramp, he realized that there were considerably more trolls than Banin had reported. His sword flicked out almost instinctively, striking a blow to the side of one troll’s head and splitting its skull.

Shadows danced along the paved floor and walls as Simmond eluded the swings of voracious trolls and riposted with fatal efficiency. Ferwyn warded him; Simmond was their only source of light in this Virtue-forsaken hole, and if he were to be struck down they would lose a significant advantage. Trolls were more adept at seeing in the dark than humans, as they were born in dark caves and skulked in blackness.

Vitalar waded through the fight, senses honed in their alertness as they always were in the heat of battle. A troll rose before him, cudgel raised overhead to cave in the knight’s skull regardless of steel helm. Vitalar brought his sword up to parry when the troll suddenly jerked and froze, an arrowhead tip protruding from its throat and dripping crimson. With a groan the troll fell flat on its face, never stirring again, the feathered arrow stuck in the back of its neck.

Upon the walkway did Banin furtively creep, shifting through shadow’s the lantern could not chase away, drawing his bow and firing at another lumbering troll below. His head suddenly swivelled to one side and in the next instant his shortsword was in hand to combat a troll that had attempted to take him from behind. Speed won over brute strength, and in moments the beast fell form the walkway onto the paving stones below, disembowelled.

“How do ye like fine mountainfolk steel, ye beast?” Davarius yelled as he beheaded another troll with frightening ease, whirling around to bury the blade in a hairy belly. “Har! This is much more fun than slaying goblins!” He ripped out the axe none too gently, letting the mortally wounded troll fall to its knees, crying out in agony in its own guttural tongue. The cleavage of its skull put it out of its misery soon enough.

Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. All the trolls lay dead, a good fourteen of them, dark trolls everyone. No casualties had been taken, although Eador nursed a bruise on one arm and a torn portion of chainmail where the club blow had fallen. Saloria aided the stricken knight with a Heal spell, and the nasty purple faded away as if it had never been.

“That was exhilarating.” Rodrick said, an unnerving smile playing across his lips, complementing a feral light in his eyes. “They were only trolls, but nonetheless…” He gestured at the grotesquely sprawled bodies on the paving stones with his bloodstained sword.

“Dark troll scum.” Raltiir sneered at the bodies and spat. “Not much more challenging than a feral or…civilized one.” His tongue did not favour the word ‘civilized’ too highly. “Best if their whole kind was obliterated.”

Rodrick’s eyes were now on Saloria’s jewelled sword, the paladin sheathing it with a rasp of metal on hard leather. “That is a mighty sword.” he remarked.

Saloria’s frown came perilously close to a scowl as she regarded the knight suspiciously.

“’Tis the Sword of Accuracy, and don’t thou forget it.” she replied acidly.

Vitalar understood now. The sword’s deadly precision was not only orchestrated by Saloria’s skill but by the nature of its enchantment as well. He did not like the way Rodrick eyed the weapon. His gaze seemed covetous. Vitalar reassessed that initial observation, for now Rodrick’s gaze took in both the sword and Saloria. He coveted more than one thing, that was for certain.

Vitalar gathered his men at the centre of the hall where four pedestal stood, towering above into darkness to support the weight of the ceiling. Banin was the last to arrive, stepping lightly down the ramp all the while warily observing his surroundings. His bow was still in hand, shortsword resting in the scabbard by his thigh.

“We must move with haste.” Vitalar told his men. “Judging from this engagement, the dark trolls are migrating once more. There is no telling how many more are coming.”

“If they are coming at all.” Rodrick said pointedly. “Our thrashing we gave them is not one to be forgotten.”

“Quiet, upstart, and let Vitalar speak.” Raltiir said, surprising the old knight with his spontaneous intervention.

Rodrick sneered at him. “Go waylay a beggar, brigand.” he retorted smugly.

“Cur! I shalt make thee eat thine armour!” Raltiir snarled, lunging for the young knight with hands clawed.

Ferwyn stepped between them, frowning in disapproval. “Listen to thyselves! We must not bicker! The mission outweighs all other prejudices!” he said, voice stern and concerned at the same time.

Raltiir grumbled acquiescence and stepped back. Rodrick gave a small smile of triumph. Vitalar eyed the man disgustedly. His arrogance was going to cause more trouble than he initially anticipated. He had to assume control now, before his followers lost faith in his command abilities.

“Rodrick, that’s enough from you.” he said reprovingly, black eyes as hard as flint.

Rodrick glared at him as if to propose challenge, then gave a sullen look and forced down the insult on the tip of his tongue. Saloria sniffed in satisfaction.

Vitalar pointed to the small chasm that separated the wall and the platform. Another ramp twined around the platform like a snake and led into the black depths. Two stairways resided there, hence it was the path they would take.

Vitalar took them down the ramp, Simmond’s lamp lighting the way. Things crackled beneath their boots - bones, most likely - and they entered the chasm. Here too the walls were made of equally sized white brick, constructed with an impressive veteran’s touch.

“Among the finest achievements of the mountainfolk of the Abyss.” Davarius said, smiling solemnly as he regarded the narrow hall ahead. “Our ken of building is unmatched anywhere in Britannia. A shame that all that lurks these finely crafted corridors now is vermin.” His handaxe whipped out of its belt loop to hew through the abdomen of a venomous wolf spider that was lying in wait on the wall. The overgrown arachnid slammed onto the paving stones, thrashing and screeching as green slime poured from its rent, bloated body. Its eight spindly legs stopped flailing a few moments later, the light dying from its green eyes.

They passed over its body regardless, Davarius hitching the axe back to his belt. Eador marvelled at the smooth masonry of the hall, lifthing his head as the walls rose into darkness.

“Dwarves can certainly build.” he remarked.

Davarius eyed him disdainfully. “That’s mountainfolk to you!” he said sharply.

Eador’s face actually reddened. “Humbly do I apologize noble, mountainman.” Despite his typical sarcasm and cruel wit, there was no mocking tone evident. He actually sounded sincere.

Davarius snorted discontentedly.

Rodrick smirked. “A dwarf is a dwarf no matter what they say.” he mumbled.

Davarius’s acute hearing, honed over years of his race’s dwelling in and under the mountains, easily caught Rodrick’s disrespectful murmur. The party halted as the mountainman rounded on him.

“Ye be lookin’ for some conflict now, laddie?” he demanded.

Rodrick shrugged indifferently. “Thou dost do poorly at intimidation, dwarf.”

Davarius’s hand reached for the handle of his hand axe, teeth bared.

“Davarius.” Vitalar said, tone as hard and firm as hewn stone. “Davarius. Let go of the axe.” His voice left no room for argument.”

Davarius complied, hand reluctantly releasing his axe, but not without giving Rodrick one last baleful glare before turning around. Raltiir and Eador watched the altercation, unimpressed with Rodrick’s behaviour. Rodrick gave another arrogant smile, and it only broadened under Saloria’s disapproving stare. Ferwyn’s look was pure murder, while Simmond remained as impassive as a mountain. Banin’s attention was on the enveloping darkness to the rear of the party.

Vitalar had had enough of this. Approaching Rodrick with a cool calm surety, he looked him in the insolent eye. “It would appear more than a reprimand is necessary to get my point across.”

Rodrick snorted. “Thou old f-”

The mighty right swing took Rodrick entirely by surprise, sending him to the cold stones. He looked up, one cheek red and bearing the mark of Vitalar’s gauntleted fist. It would become a bruise enough.

“Thou shouldst know that the Order will inflict pain on those recalcitrant enough.” Vitalar said, looking down his nose at the knight leaning on his side. He almost seemed regal.

A hoarse roar from above interrupted all other thoughts of discipline.

“Dark trolls.” Banin said quietly, eyes fixed on the wall of blackness behind them. “There is a ramp some distance ahead as well. They can come from both directions.” He looked at Vitalar gravely. “Haste is imperative.”

“Let us go!” Vitalar commanded, leaving Rodrick on the ground and returning to the head of the group.

Ferwyn dragged Rodrick to his feet by his soiled tabard, none too gently either.

They pressed on with due haste, entering a passage that branched off into two different directions, each one leading to a descending stairway. Down the stone stairs they went, descending what seemed leagues as the way twisted and turned. Finally it spat them into the same barracks chamber near the place Vitalar had helped conceal the Ring of Humility a number of days ago.

The place was empty and destitute. A toadstool and a cluster of green mushrooms grew here and there amidst the rubbish of dilapidation. Leaving the barracks to enter the great hall, Banin and Eador fanned out to investigate the vicinity, while Ferwyn scouted the council chamber. When they returned, they reported the areas clear of any danger.

The party passed through the council chamber with haste, loath to be reminded of the colony’s former glory. Entering the central shaft chamber, they followed the corridor to another hall, this one’s walls incomplete and indicative of ancient workmanship.

Davarius felt the hewn rock wall of the cavern, running callused fingers along the grooves wehre the uneven round stones met.

“This is ancient mountainfolk work for certain.” he muttered to himself. “Old kin, where did ye go? To settle in this pit was madness. Dead are ye now for coming here so long ago. Dead am I now for following Goldthirst.” He hung is head and sighed. Vitalar wasn’t certain, but he believed he saw a tear trail down the mountainman’s cheek to disappear in his thick red beard.

Ahead was another descending stairway, and further down the hall was a pair of caved-in passages. It was here that the party made camp. Simmond set the lantern down and assisted Eador and Ferwyn in making a campfire. Saloria helped Raltiir unpack bedrolls and rations. Rodrick stood some distant away, absently fingering the darkening bruise on his cheek and scowling at Vitalar’s back. Davarius warily eyed the descending stairway, battle axe prepared.

They sat around the campfire to eat, but the food was meagre fare. Days-old meat, hard bread, some cheese. Only a few gulps of water could be taken from the few waterskins they had. Water would be hard enough to find in the scorched demesne below. Banin did not partake from the party’s rations. Instead, he left without light source into the darkness around them, to ‘hunt’ he said, although hunt what in this cavernous network of privation Vitalar did not know. He wondered whether it was wise to let him go alone, but then again, the ranger hunted best alone.

Simmond, Ferwyn, and Saloria were set up on watch while the others slept, although Vitalar could not sleep. He sat upright upon his laid out bedroll, watching the dancing flames and listening to them crackle. He hadn’t even taken off his armour; none of his members had. Sleeping without armour in the Abyss was sentencing oneself to death.

Simmond sat a number of paces away, his backpack and lantern set aside while he maintained his vigil. Vitalar rose and made his way past the sleeping forms of his men, some shifting in their bedrolls and mumbling in their sleep.

“Burning eyes in darkness…crystal splinters…treasure and evils beyond…” Davarius murmured.

What nightmares could he be having? Vitalar wondered as he stepped over his body.

A short distance to his side lay the sleeping form of Rodrick. He seemed tranquil in his sleep, oddly enough. Perhaps the onerous nature of the Abyss suited his own dark streak. For Vitalar - and many others it seemed - the Abyss only brought troubled sleep in the form of ominous nightmares. The Underworld itself seemed alive and vindictive in its malevolence towards the intruders that had come into its depths.

Vitalar sat by Simmond’s side, the giant man acknowledging his presence with an inclination of the head to one side. “How goes it, brother knight?” he asked.

“Mostly quiet.” Simmond replied, eyes fixed on the darkness, the limits of the campfire’s light. “Things prowl in the night, as always. This hole of eternal night.”

Something was eating at Vitalar’s soul. Doubt. Festering doubt in faith and righteousness. What was the logic of this quest? Kill a mad mage? So then another crisis could rear its ugly head to replace the predecessor? By how far could they mitigate their predicament? For how long could they prevent the inevitable?

“Sir Simmond…” Vitalar began, beating down lingering hesitation. “Dost thou still have…faith in the Virtues?”

Simmond allowed a second for his eyes to shift to one side to regard Vitalar, then they returned to their vigil of the darkness. “In these harsh times, it can be difficult. We have been abandoned by Baron Almric…perhaps by even Lord British.”

Vitalar could not help but wince at that last suggestion. But what other realistic explanation was there?

For a moment, Simmond’s usually impassive face betrayed a hint of bitterness, then it returned to its stony countenance. “I hear our own brothers lose faith. A waning of Spirituality. I see it. Sir Nolan, for one, and others begin to show the signs of his corruption.” He cocked his head pointedly towards the mound that was Rodrick’s bedroll. “The Abyss appears to scorn the Virtues and strip them from those that are Virtuous. There is no more Compassion between the colonists. Honesty is naught but a spurned dream now. Justice and Honour have fallen to the midden for desperation and avarice. Valour is scorned for cowardice. None Sacrifice for the greater good, seeking only their own gain. Humility is stomped down by arrogance and condescension.” Again, Simmond cocked his head towards sleeping Rodrick, and for a moment it seemed he would do the same for Raltiir. “The Colony of the Abyss has strayed far from the path of Virtue. Perhaps we have deserved such a fate.” Simmond looked at Vitalar solemnly, dark eyes grim. “As for my own faith, I believe that the Virtues is the only path I have left. To uphold them in this place of all places, where only evil resides…’tis a purpose, as I see it. ‘Twas the original purpose of the Colony, and without it, look what it has become. The Virtues are my only purpose in life now, for without them, I will be broken like the rest of the colony. To be bereft of the Virtues…to have Vices instead of Virtues is a fate worse than death. I will be happier dying to uphold the Virtues than knowing I was too spineless to follow them.”

Vitalar nodded slowly. He could not help but feel pride for this man, a true knight who stood only for Virtue. Yet he could not shake his own doubts. Could he find such purpose?

The blackness ahead seemed to move as a figure emerged from the insubstantial stygian curtain. Simmond was on his feet in an instant with broadsword in hand, Vitalar close behind. A presence behind him indicated that Ferwyn was also prepared.

The approaching figure turned out to be Banin, bow slung over his shoulder and as calm as the placid surface of a cottage pond. From his belt hung three small swarthy masses. Bats. The ranger walked past them, settling by one side of the fire where he was relatively alone. He nonchalantly unhitched a bat from his belt, drew his knife, and began skinning it.

While Simmond and Vitalar sat down, Ferwyn arched an eyebrow as he watched Banin’s activities.

“What art thou doing with those bats?” he asked the ranger.

“Sustenance.” Banin replied without looking. “Cave bats make good fare, although the vampire bats have more inherent flavour.”

Ferwyn went green.

Banin stopped skinning for a moment to look at him. There was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes. “What dost thou think Dorna Ironfist hast been feeding thee for the past month? Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Ferwyn made a sound in his throat and almost doubled over. Banin resumed his gory work.

An hour or so later - Vitalar could not tell in this infernal dungeon - found the old knight staring at the flames. He still could not sleep. The watch had changed. Raltiir and Rodrick replaced Simmond and Ferwyn, while Saloria vehemently insisted on remaining awake. She could be as stubborn as an oxe, that one.

Some time before, Banin had requested to study the map after roast bat. The ranger’s good sense of direction coupled with an awareness of his surroundings could only benefit the party, he saw a glint of gold in his hand. A small circle of gold. A ring perhaps? The glint was gone as quickly as it had come, the object in question disappearing into a pocket. The ranger returned to intently studying the ragged map.

Several minutes passed when Banin rose and returned the map to Vitalar. As the ranger stood looking down at the knight, his black eyes seemed to swallow the light of the campfire, black pools of foreboding.

“Done studying?” Vitalar asked, trying to sound as congenial as possible.

“I have committed it to memory.” Banin replied stoically.

Vitalar waited for him to elaborate. Moments passed, yet still Banin merely looked down at him. Suppressing a sigh, he realized that the taciturn man would not budge unless questioned directly.

“What difficulties dost thou foresee?” he asked the ranger.

Banin’s eyes twinkled for a moment. “The prisons, while incomplete, may be an impediment.”

An impediment? Possibly more than a dozen goblins and trolls stationed there, and he called it an impediment?

“Long-range attack to dispatch forward sentries and any goblin sling wielders should give us significant advantage, while thine knights and warriors deal with the strength of the trolls.” Banin continued.

Vitalar was mildly exasperated by the way the ranger put emphasis on ‘thine’. Didn’t he consider himself a true member of the party? His tenaciously aloof nature was beginning to cause irritation. The old knight unrolled the map and bade Banin to point out the trouble spot.

Banin’s finger came to rest on a bridge that led away from the prison guard chamber, spanning across a deep and wide gorge called the Chasm of Fire. Across the bridge was a hall and an incomplete section that linked to a myriad of passages and smaller chambers, most of which had been caved in or had never been finished by the mountainfolk builders. The ranger’s finger traced along the bridge and into the middle of the hall. Vitalar was interested in the fact that a Shrine was present, but the ranger interrupted his thoughts.

“’Tis the hall that concerns me.” he said. “Milius informed me that before the Seers’scrying was interrupted by the mad mage’s own negating powers, this hall was relatively free of sentries. I suspect habitation by less than mellow beast in any number of these chambers. A number of passages lead in various directions, although with the quakes who can say how many have been blocked? The goblins and trolls may also have set ambush platoons near this stairway - which I believe leads to the infamous mines - and at this passage to what is purported to be the mage’s quarters, old Sir Cabirus’s demesne.” His finger circled the black mark that represented the descending stairway and the entrance to the passage, both in close proximity to each other.

“We take the passage.” Vitalar said.

Banin’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Sir Vitalar, while it may be the faster route, it is more than likely to be heavily guarded. I believe we should take the stairway down and go through the mines. A stairway somewhere there can take us up to the mad mage’s experimenting chambers - ” He paused distastefully on the word “ - and straight to the heart of his domain.”

“And face the mine overseers?” Vitalar asked him incredulously. “Art thou stupid?”

Banin nearly sighed. “The mines are large and labyrinthine. Not all parts of it are guarded. We could easily slip by under my guidance, killing any sentries in our path.”

Vitalar shook his head. “No. Too dangerous. We take the passage.”

Banin’s lips thinned tightly, but he said nothing, nodding in acquiescent.

Vitalar’s finger came to a blank section of the map that was the route to the prisons. “Do we know anything about this?”

Banin shrugged almost imperceptibly. “’Tis said dread spiders dig pit-traps there. I know little more.”

Vitalar dismissed him. Frankly, the ranger’s aloofness seemed like some sort of defiance towards him and the purpose of the party. What lurked behind those dark eyes? A concern for later.

Weariness soon caught up with Vitalar, jaws cracking as he yawned. He lay down on his bedroll and assumed as comfortable a position as was possible - not easy on a surface covered with rocks and debris - closing his eyes and falling into a deep sleep.

It was not a pleasant one either. It was plagued with troublesome nightmares of demons of fire and creatures from hell, cackling mages of dubious sanity and beasts of shadow who lived for the blood of others. Who could derive their true meaning, so wreathed in mystery were they?

Vitalar rose and stretched, yawning again as Raltiir passed by gruffly waking all other members. The first thing he noticed was Saloria gesticulating to Simmond to one side while casting furious glances at Rodrick, who kept his distance and glowered sullenly. Interesting enough, he had an ugly black eye.

Vitalar decided to investigate. He approached Simmond and Saloria.

“Saloria, calm down.” Simmond said, patting her shoulder, but the paladin would have none of it.

“That lecher made a pass at me!” she hissed furiously, giving Rodrick a sidelong glare. “Canst thou believe the temerity of the man? I wilt not be looked at or treated like a piece of meat! If he gives me another one of those foul looks, he will be a knight minus his manhood!”

Vitalar nearly smiled. So that was where Rodrick’s black eye had come from.

Simmond gave up his attempts at pacifying the thoroughly piqued Saloria when he noticed Vitalar. He half turned to meet him, and the look in his eyes foretold of bad news.

“Someone has taken the oil flasks.” he stated simply.

Vitalar looked down at the lantern by the great knight’s feet, fearful for their light source. The fire within still burned brightly, but without oil who could say how long it would last?

“When didst thou discover this?” he asked.

“Nigh six minutes ago.” Simmond said. He had a penchant for being precise, and if that ideal could not be achieved, approximations would do just fine.

“And I’ll bet I can say who pilfered them.” Saloria grumbled, emphasizing her point by squinting at Rodrick.

The hothead glowered in her direction for a moment, but upon seeing her glare at him, quickly averted his gaze, having suddenly taken an interest in the dirt floor.

“That lubricious so won’t be bedding any maiden once I’m through with him.” she growled lowly, teeth clenched.

“How long will the lantern last without additional oil?” queried Vitalar.

“Perhaps another hour.” Simmond replied. “We will be passing the enclave of the mages on our way to the seventh level, will we not? We can barter for more oil there, should they prove to be uncharitable. The lantern should last long enough for us to reach their demesne.”

Virtues knew, desperation and privation made most denizens of the Abyss as uncharitable as a corsair out of Buccaneer’s Den - as just as vicious to boot - hence, he would not be surprised to learn the same avaricious frame of mind had befallen the seers. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised.

“On the lower levels lanterns more often than not will be unnecessary.” Banin’s voice made Vitalar start.

Glaring at the man who had suddenly appeared as if from nowhere - he was like a damn wisp at times - Vitalar harrumphed in disgruntlement. Banin noted the stares of the others with his trademark dispassionate disposition.

“How kind of thee to drop in unannounced, Banin.” Vitalar said irritably.

Banin gave a slight shrug. “Stealth must be second nature if one is to roam the Great Forest safely. Or the Abyss, for that matter.” he added with a touch of distaste. “Lava is hot enough to glow, Sir Vitalar. I only foresee the use of the lantern in a few places, if the map is to be believed.” He sounded like he was lecturing children. “Of course, should the seers prove avaricious for whatever reason, we could always ‘borrow’ the oil we need.”

Vitalar’s worn visage darkened, but it was Saloria who spoke, all acerbic in her tone, “Oh, and thank thee for allowing us to drink from thine fountain of wisdom, ranger. I suppose thou dost also know the identity of the culprit who thieved the flasks?”

The ranger’s dark eyes regarded her for a split-second before he responded, “I have but two suspects. Rodrick and Raltiir. The former is a rogue approaching imminent rebellion, while the latter…well, needless to say, never trust a man who was once a ruthless brigand.” With that, he turned on his heel and left them to their business.

“Never trust a man with virtually no past.” Saloria muttered under her breath, glaring at the ranger’s retreating back.

“In my line of experience, the ranger has always proven to be a trump.” Simmond said, glancing at her sidelong.

Saloria gave a most un-womanlike grunt. “I wouldn’t stake thy honour on it, knight.”

She stalked off in a huff, purposely passing Rodrick at a perilously close distance, who did his best to assiduously study his boots.

“Should we search packs, Sir Vitalar?” Simmond asked, neither expectant nor demanding.

“And spread distrust and dissention among the party?” Vitalar said. “No. This party is close enough to splintering apart as it is. One loose word of this incident and we’ll be lucky enough to reach the seers in one piece.”

Simmond appeared vaguely skeptical. “Thou dost propose something else then?”

“Aye.” replied Vitalar with a nod. “I believe we have a lit fuse in the make-up of this group. I begin to rethink my trust of the others. We need a close circle of only the most trustworthy to watch the actions of our companions. In this way, we may even find the thief, among other things.”

Simmond’s brow arched. “I take it that I am a member of this close circle since thou art discussing such a clandestine arrangement with me?” he said dryly.

“Indeed. You are on of the few I know I can rely on. Ferwyn shall too be a member of this circle.” Vitalar said.

“And what of Sir Eador?”

“No. He is becoming too friendly towards Raltiir for my liking.” Vitalar replied curtly.

“So be it then.” Simmond said, seemingly unfazed by Vitalar’s sudden distrust of the majority of his comrades. “I will let Ferwyn know of the circumstances.”

“Be furtive about it.” Vitalar warned him.

Simmond bowed his head and turned away to inform Ferwyn of his newfound ‘close circle’ membership.

In the subsequent minutes, the party had readied themselves to resume the journey and quickly broke camp, heading down the long and gloomy stairway. Vitalar made certain that he did not keep both Simmond and Ferwyn too close to him so as to allay any possible suspicions of their secret council, rotating them throughout different positions in the group. Eador held the lantern at his side this time, Raltiir and Ferwyn behind them while the others took the rear further back. The stairway’s descent was straight and steep, the steps and their constituent paving stones missing in places, testament to their incomplete status.

On the walls were scrawled strange runes, barely readable. Of those they could regard as legible, the words were certainly no source of inspiration, saying things such as, ‘Hell down below! Go back or die!’, ‘Vilus’s reign is one of blood and torture’, and ‘All who venture here of good intent are doomed to become prey of a malcontent!’ to name a sordid few.

They came into a twisting corridor that led into a greater hall, and it was then that the intense heat maligned them. Everyone instantly began to sweat from every pore in earnest, though none opted to remove their armour. The lower into the Abyss one plunged the more deadly the myriad of foes to be encountered.

If Vitalar recalled correctly, a large central chamber with the sealed off volcano shaft should have lain ahead, at which three main halls - one of which they were currently in - met. A fourth path led from the meeting chamber to the domain of the seers.

It was at this point that Banin took the lead - under Vitalar’s command, of course - quickening the pace of the party and entering the shaft chamber. It was here they had to be careful of step, for rivulets of lava had somehow found their way onto the scarred and pitted marble floor, flowing at a leisurely, almost languid speed that belied their deadliness. The chamber itself was surrounded by a nearly entirely encompassing trench between the walls and the floor where a stream of lava had cut into. Off to one side cascaded a lava fall, the source of the infernal heat.

“Even my kinsfolk would have been hard pressed to make anything admirable out of this hell.” Davarius said, wiping his sweaty brow with the back of his hand.

“It only gets worse the deeper you go.” Eador said.

He had blown out the lantern ever since first crossing over into the shaft chamber, as the fiery red glow of the lava around them provided ample illumination.

Banin pointed ahead. The sign of Sir Cabirus, the purple tapestry of the ankh, hung on a wall flanked by two entrances into what appeared to be a network of further corridors. This was the enclave of the Ancient Illuminated Seers of the Moonstone.

At last, they had made it a safe haven. It did not help to assuage Vitalar’s diffidence to know that this would be the last true secure reprieve before they plunged into the deepest nightmare of the Underworld.

Chapter 3
Where Honour Fails and Pride Prevails

It was a bent old seer in a yellow cloak and drawn cowl that met the party at the sign of Sir Cabirus, a man called Shelinor as it soon turned out. His wizened face regarded the band of warriors with amrked interest, scratching his short, pointy beard.

“A band of brothers this size I have not seen for many months, not since Cabirus’s death, Void rest his soul.” Shelinor said, his voice a stereotypical combination of archaic story teller and enlightened scholar. Such was the nature of the Seers. “Thou art brothers-in-arms, as it were. On some noble quest, I’d wager?”

“Not all are brothers!” Saloria interjected rather indignantly. “This band of adventurers has a sister as well!”

“And one I’d not like to tangle with.” said Davarius. “She be as a capricious as the north seas, and as beautiful as an ocean nymph.”

Some of the party laughed, with the exception of Rodrick and Banin. Saloria actually went beet red.

Shelinor smiled. “’Tis a good thing to still find mirth in a place as mirthless as the Abyss.” His discerning gaze fell on Vitalar, whom he rightly determined as the leader. “How can I help thee, sir knight?”

“We seek temporary shelter before we move on to the lower levels.” Vitalar replied.

“’Tis good to see there are those still fight for the Virtues here. Why, not too long ago five knights of the Order of the Crux Ansata came here to vanquish the dire forcing coalescing below. A valiant platoon of men if ever I saw one.” Shelinor’s brow furrowed. “Alas, their quest did not end in success. The red mage decimated them, I hear, in near entirety. Only two survived to return to the enclave.”

Vitalar’s eyes widened. A trace amount of hope found its way into his heart, and he eagerly began to pump the seer for information. “Knight Trevane’s party? Canst thou take us to him?”

“Aye, but of course.” Shelinor answered amicably.

The yellow-robed and cloaked mage led them into a series of twisting marble corridors, passing by a number of cramped sages’ quarters and closed doors. The dilapidation of the Abyss was slowly creeping into the Seers’ domain as well it seemed, as seen in the odd pile of garbage or item strewn here and there in their path. It was common knowledge that mages were very busy bees, to the extent of forgetting about performing menial tasks - like sanitation - but Vitalar could see that ruin and taint were inexorably seeping here too.

As if reading his charge’s thoughts, Shelinor spoke, “I do sincerely apologize about the current state of our abode, but our peers are rather occupied with their own studies and the sorry condition of this pest-ridden region at the moment. Most of our dependants fled in the post days of Cabirus’s death.” The old seer shrugged apologetically.

Vitalar was amazed the seers could so devotedly continue to pursue their studies in such dreary conditions as these. Unbearable heat, the constant threat of attack by prowling predators - it was then that Vitalar realized that he no longer felt any heat. Unusual, especially since they had just passed a wide gap in the wall that revealed a lake of bubbling lava below. Magic was at work here.

Again, Shelinor amazed the veteran knight with his astute observation. Lifting a grizzled eyebrow at Vitalar’s tinge of perplexity and said, “’Tis a spell one of our more promising mages, Vilus, created. Unfortunately, he went mad and did not deign to tell his fellow seers of the runic combination, and hence we only have a scarce few enchanted Frost spells left. Alas.” He added the last word rather unenthusiastically.

Other seers passed them by, impassive in both countenance and demeanour, moving about the enclave with a nonchalance that bordered almost on complacence. They seemed oblivious to the visitors passing through their domain, concerned only with their own tasks. Most wore red, yellow, or blue cloaks, trimmed at the bottom so as not to impede the feet.

At last they reached an open chamber, many paces long and wide, a mess hall of sorts where at a single elongated table sat a dejected looking warrior in beaten plate and torn chainmail. His head was wrapped in a bloody bandage, the weathered face focused on the blatant surface of the wooden table.

Vitalar knew who this was. Sir Trevane! But where was the second knight Shelinor had mentioned?

Shelinor himself seemed to frown upon seeing the knight, as if having noticed him for the first time. “Well, there thou art. I am sorry for my brusqueness, but I have to resume my thankless task of vigil at the main entrance. I will make certain that someone comes soon to see to thy needs. Perhaps we may even talk later. Thou dost have tidings of happenings above, I am sure.”

And with that, Shelinor left them with unprecedented haste.

By this point, Trevane was regarding the newcomers. He had a bleak look in his eyes, as if having drank all the foulness of the world and now spewing it out in the manifestation of despondency.

The look in his eyes frightened Vitalar. It was the look of a man who no longer had any care left in his being, a worse blend of cynicism and the backlash of some horrible revelation, a stony visage that told of a once proud warrior who now wanted naught but death. The cruelest part of this debacle of character was that Trevane had been one of the staunchest believers in the Virtues. But that was a long time ago. Was the same fate that had stolen Sir Nolan and so many others beginning to taint him too?

“So, Vitalar, thou hast come at last.” Trevane said, the words coming out like a croak. “Is Dorna with thee?”

“Nay.” Vitalar replied. He came closer, but carefully, as if approaching an agitated giant tan rat. “Trevane, how goes it? Where is the other survivor?”

Trevane didn’t appear to be listening. His eyes had taken an absent glaze, staring right through the party as if they didn’t exist.

“Trevane? Answer, please!” No response. “Trevane!”

“We struck them hard, oh how we struck them hard…but all for naught.” Trevane mumbled, oblivious to his surroundings. “There were too many. Too many. Gray goblins. Trolls, both dark and great. My men, they fought, oh they did, valiantly as befits a Knight of the Order. But naught did it avail…naught…” He paused, tears glistening in his pale blue eyes. “Koraci, Telmun, Fersgin…all gone…all gone down…” And silently the knight began to weep, cupping his forehead as his shoulders trembled and heaved with reticent sobs that never escaped his hoarse throat.

Koraci, Telmun, and Fersgin - in Trevane’s absent-minded grief he had given Vitalar the names of those who had died below. Prior to embarking on the quest, he had made certain to memorize the names of the members of the ill-fated party that had preceded them. If only two survived, as Shelinor said, that left Trevane here and another called Gustaro.

“Trevane, where is Gustaro?” Vitalar demanded more forcefully this time. There was too little time to deal with those stricken with compunction.

Trevane looked him squarely in the eye now, scrubbing away tears with the back of a scarred and callused hand. “He is gone. Left to fight the golem.”

Rodrick snorted while Eador exclaimed, “Is he crazy? He’s just received the routing of his life and then he goes off to fight a golem?!”

“Got a death wish has he, I’d wager.” Raltiir grunted dourly.

“Nobody has ever won against that creature before.” Ferwyn said. “He is a dead man if the golem decides against sparing his life.”

Vitalar turned for the doorway. “I must rescue him then. ‘Tis my duty.” He still remembered the way to the island in the lake of lava, near the shrine.

In an instant the controversy burst from a mere ember to a fully-fledged conflagration. Everybody seemed to be spluttering something at once. Banin actually reached out and grasped his shoulder.

“Commander, we have no time for this.” he whispered urgently into his ear, pressing close. “The red mage’s forces grow ever stronger. We have only a limited window of opportunity!”

“I am - no, we are honour-bound to help him! He is making a grave misjudgment by facing this golem in his current state.” Vitalar retorted aloud. The cacophony of arguing voices grew louder. “I seek to save as many of my Order as I can!”

Banin began to whisper something rapidly to him in reply about Gustaro and a ‘lost cause’, but Raltiir’s bellowing drowned him out.

“I say we leave the glory-seeking idiot to his fate! Let him be smashed into a pulp! Only a fool would seek to trouble a golem anyway.” Raltiir grouched.

“But he is our brother!” argued Ferwyn. “We are obliged to assist him!”

“Audacious is what he is.” Eador interjected. “Besides, does not the law say that fighting the golem is a one-versus-one match only? We would be dishonouring him and ourselves by rendering aid!”

“Thou art callous!” Ferwyn snapped. “We are honour-bound to help him!”

“Honour-bound! Honour-bound! SQUAWK!” Rodrick snapped, performing a fair imitation of a parrot. “Bah! Hail, Ferwyn! I’ve noticed how thou dost mimic Vitalar all the time. Maybe thou shouldst start perching on his shoulder!” He burst out into scornful laughter, though no one else laughed with him.

“Honourless knave!” Saloria spat and confronted the rogue, adding a lurid imprecation of her own. “Thou dost not know the meaning of companionship!”

“I will show you companionship!” Rodrick leered suggestively, taking a step towards her. His insolence was back it seemed, black eye or not.

“Fiend! Prepare to face my blade!” Saloria snarled, smoothly drawing out the sword from her scabbard.

Rodrick’s smile only broadened, and he unsheathed his longsword almost casually, handling the hilt with obvious deftness and experience. “I would rather caress thee in manners other than with steel, but if you so wish it, so be it. I will try not to hurt thee too much, little duckling.”

Saloria roared and raised her blade. Rodrick deflected the first blow, but before the second could land, Vitalar’s sharp bellow ended all arguments.

“SILENCE!!!” he roared.

All stopped and looked at him, even Trevane. Rodrick and Saloria sheathed their swords at his baleful stare. The silence was deafening.

“We will be going after Gustaro, and that is final.” he said, leaving no room for ambiguity.

“Oh, I would not advise taking that course of action, good knight.” said a withered yet wise voice.

Through the doorway entered a red-cloaked mage, followed by another mage in blue. Both were aged but somehow regal in their bearing, for the full knowledge of their vast power in the mystic arts made them seem almost conceited.

“For I have seen the look in this Gustaro’s eyes, and it was one of absolute bleakness. He had a death wish, good sirs. He wanted to atone for his failure below and alleviate his dire compunctions with one last valiant battle.” said the mage in red. “He did not wish to return. Trying to convince him otherwise would have done naught but waste thine breath.” He regarded the band of warriors before him solemnly. “Even if the golem decided to spare him, he had no intention of coming back alive.”

“Regardless, mage, I intend to recover his remains at the very least.” Vitalar said.

“Thou wilt not find much. This is what is left of him.”

The blue mage threw down a sword hilt onto the floor, a piece of jagged blade still protruding out of the pommel itself.

“Woe is me!” Trevane suddenly exclaimed. He seemed livelier in his sordid grief than ever. “’Tis Gustaro’s sword! Now only I am left…all alone…no one left…” His maundering trailed off.

“He fell head first into the lava surrounding the island. A shame, really.” said the blue mage.

“Alas.” Rodrick said, dripping with insincerity.

Saloria and Ferwyn both gave him looks that could have withered steel.

“I am Morlock.” the red mage said. “And my companion here is known as Dominus.” He gestured towards his blue friend.

“Well met.” Vitalar nodded in his direction.

Saloria had begun to regard to seers with no small amount of suspicion. She wasn’t willing to let the matter of Gustaro’s death drop so easily. “know thou didst not do Gustaro in thyself?” she demanded.

Morlock’s countenance was cool as he replied, “And for what gain, might I ask, would I wish to kill him for? We seers have long been allies of the Order of the Crux Ansata, even from the inception of the Colony. We seek no conflict, especially when we have enough troubles of our own.”

Dominus stepped in. “I was in the vicinity of the island cataloguing pests and various items when I sighted him duelling the golem. A riveting battle it was, but the golem was a creation of the seers that can not be destroyed.”

“Saloria, let the matter lie.” Vitalar told her sternly. “He has gone to the Void now. Let him rest.”

Saloria stubbornly bit her lip, but kept silent.

Dominus’s eyes fell on her jewelled sword. “Thou hast come across many strange and arcane items indeed. That is the Sword of Accuracy, I believe.”

Saloria was nonplussed at the mage’s sudden and spontaneous identification of her precious weapon.

Dominus’s discerning gaze then drifted to Banin’s bow, slung across the lithe ranger’s back. “Ah, a jewelled bow. Now that is a rarity if ever I saw one.”

Vitalar frowned and studied Banin’s bow hard; the mage was right, it was jewelled! A single crimson gem adorned its central section where the hand was to hold it. Strange that he had never noticed it before. The ranger himself started; now that was a rarity.

“If I recall correctly, it comes from a nomadic race that hail from a distant desert realm called -”

“Yes, it is a very fine weapon. The bowstring has not needed replacing once.” Banin said hastily. He wasn’t so stoic now.

Dominus looked a little piqued to be interrupted so, but Morlock rolled on nonetheless. “Well, I hear thy party seeks to go to the nether levels below. Thy choice, of course, but be warned that the denizens there are not very hospitable towards visitors.”

“We seek to destroy the despotic Tyball and eradicate his followers once and for all.” said Vitalar assuredly.

“Not any easy task.” Morlock replied. “Tyball was one of our most skilled mages. He trained the likes of mages like Vilus and the twin seers Sulor and Belor. It comes as little surprise that all three went mad in search of their own daunting quests, what with Vilus delving ever more into the darker arts and the twins seeking to find and harness the purported powers of the Key of Courage, wherever that may be. Tyball himself was something of a maverick, adamantly refusing to conform to our laws - set for good reason, mind you - and incessantly seeking out greater power, no matter how corrupt. He left us months ago, he and his brother Garamon setting up camp on the level below us in order to investigate supposed disturbances in the barrier fabric between dimensions. We believe it was somewhere there he lost his sanity, rallying all sorts of forces to his banner for reasons unknown. Of his brother’s fate we know nothing. It is said that Tyball discovered the ability to teleport in and out of the Underworld at whim, even without the aid of moonstones.”

“Zounds!” cried Rodrick quite sarcastically. “He should have taken his medicine, methinks.”

“Keep thy mouth shut.” Raltiir warned him menacingly.

“Yew Security anyone?” Rodrick retorted snidely.

“Whelp!” Raltiir snapped.

“What art thou going to do? Waylay me?” Rodrick snapped. “Ho! Here’s a good tale I’ve heard! Raltiir could cross any rural bridge he wanted, even if trolls lived beneath! It was he who demanded a fare from the trolls!” He chuckled smugly. “No, wait! Raltiir is a troll! Ha! Ha!”

“Thou dost attempt to taint my honour?” Raltiir growled. “Thou hadst better take that back, while thou still have teeth.”

With a wave of his hand, Morlock’s mysterious arts made it so that sound no longer came from the two antagonist’s mouths even though they mouthed the words. It took them a while to realize this, and very comical did they appear. To their great chagrin, the others were smirking at their newfound disability.

“Now that that slightly annoying altercation is muted, let us continue.” Morlock said. “Dost thou require anything from us before you move on to your daunting task?”

“Only a few hours rest and some light sources. Oil, perhaps?” Vitalar said.

“Rest you may have, for we will both benefit if you succeed.” Morlock placed unnerving emphasis on ‘if’. “As for oil, we have little to spare. We can offer you some used torches, but that is all.”

“Good enough.” Vitalar answered.

Discussion of events occurring above ensued over the next half hour, covering the increased presence of bandits and pests, the perpetual war between the Order and the trolls, and a number of other aspects of the breakdown of the Abyss. It was rather disturbing that absolutely nothing good and mirthful was brought up during the conversation.

When the party was ready to resume the journey, they assembled at the entrance to the descending stairway. Its dark, gaping maw reeked of a foul wind that howled faintly like a distant demon. They were outfitted with at least four torches, none of which were more than half-burned. The lantern had nearly depleted its oil supply. Simmond had resumed bearing it. This time, however, it was Ferwyn who held a lit torch, the shadows cast against the wall flickering erratically.

Upon Vitalar’s request, Knight Trevane had agreed to join the group, despondent even as he was.

“What does it matter? I’ll die anyway, sooner or later…” he had said dejectedly while picking up his notched longsword.

The Seers didn’t bother to see them off as they descended the long and gloomy stairway. Their footsteps echoed down it, bouncing off the gray brick walls. The ceiling sloped down in tandem with the steps, set uncomfortably low so that Simmond’s head nearly brushed it.

This stairway was even longer than the one they had descended much earlier in the day, and at points became so narrow that one man could barely fit through. Oddly enough, the deeper down they went, the more moisture was tangible. It was becoming dank. A stark contrast to the fiery conditions above.

“We are approaching an underground river.” Banin reported.

The stairway had once again become wide enough for two men to walk abreast with comfortable leeway for room.

Vitalar recalled tales from the days of Blackthorn, told by legendary warriors like Sentri and Maxwell, where the Abyss had spanned beneath the earth to reach out and touch the bellies of other despicable dungeons, and that massive subterranean lakes and rivers had been abound back then. Perhaps the river they were approaching was the remnant of one of those ancient waterways. Much had changed over the years since then, with quakes reshaping the underworld and destroying many of the vast vaults and galleries while cutting off the access routes to the other dungeon complexes. Vitalar wasn’t entirely sure that all the tunnels linking to the dungeons were entirely collapsed.

After what seemed a long time, they entered a chamber, one that appeared to be an up-thrust, broad pinnacle of rock connected to the cavern wall. A short distance off was a deep chasm where a river flowed, its current deceptively placid.

Davarius stood on the edge of the precipice, looking down at the river below. “Well, there’s more than enough water for everyone to drink should thirst ever become an issue. Unless, of course, Tyball’s used his magics to taint it somehow…” He left the morbid thought float on their minds.

“It appears peaceful.” Eador said, approaching the edge. “A good place to cool off.”

He picked up a stone and threw it into the chasm. It broke into the river’s surface with a splash, and suddenly a plethora of dark greenish tentacles burst from the water and viciously thrashed the location where the stone had hit.

“Deep lurkers.” Banin elaborated with him. “Very dangerous. Very aggressive.”

“I can see that.” Eador said dryly.

Across the chasm was a landing of shorter height, where a bridge connecting from an adjacent passage linked two platforms.

“It is there we wish to go.” Banin pointed across the chasm. “Near the mines that are said to be haunted.”

Vitalar ordered his underlings to secure the vicinity. Beyond a square column of brick was another passage that twisted off to the right.

Left from the stairway was another passage that led into darkness. He had Saloria and Davarius ignite another torch and investigate the leftmost passage while the rest of the party remained, keeping vigilant. They returned a few minutes later reporting nothing but a mossy-stoned chamber, empty and devoid of any interest.

“According to the map and my memory,” Banin began as the party prepared to take off, “there is a small goblin outpost beyond the passage ahead. I have a plan for how to deal with them quickly.”

“Go on.” Vitalar said, arms folded beneath his chest.

“We will need somebody to distract them, for there are a scarce few humans who serve Tyball. They will demand for me to show a medallion.” Banin explained.

“Send Rodrick. He’ll make good bait.” Raltiir said.

“I’ll tell thee what, Raltiir. Why don’t thou goest find thyself a sword…and throw thyself on it!” Rodrick retorted.

“I’ll throw thee on mine in a moment if thou dost not-”

“Quiet, you two!” Vitalar snapped.

“I will go.” Banin volunteered. “I have dealt with goblins before - they are none too bright.”

“I’ll second that notion.” Davarius grunted.

“No torchlight. They have their own at the outpost, and once they see a party of ten armed men they will rightfully assume that an assault is underway. I will need thee in shadow. I will talk with the guards for a few moments, and when I kill the leader, that will be the signal to charge. I will need Saloria to use her magic to confuse the enemy.”

The paladin nodded in acknowledgment, face grim.

When all was set, they snuffed the torch and, guided by what dim light there was present, headed for the passage. At the sharp turn the rest of the party stayed behind in a shadowy corner while Banin went on ahead to the outpost. A campfire illuminated the place, as did flaming brands in sconces on the walls, where at least six goblins resided. Most wore rotting leather vests and beaten ringmail, armed with scimitars and cudgels. One stood at a massive iron door, sling in hand. A sorry, sordid lot indeed.

The leader, a slouched, pockmarked face gray with gleaming red eyes was the first to notice the approaching intruder. His horned helm of iron nearly fell off his head when he started up suddenly, drawing a notched scimitar. His brisk action refuelled the vigilance of the others, their untrusting eyes all focused on Banin.

“Hey! Who you?” the leader demanded gruffly.

“One of Tyball’s spies from the upper levels.” Banin replied smoothly, stopping three paces away as the goblin pointed his sword at him.

“That’s close enough, man scum!” the goblin snapped. “You say you spy, eh? We get a few spies lately. Like some knights a couple days ago. Kill them did we.” The goblin started laughing and gestured towards an armoured corpse a few feet away. It was the remains of a knight.

Banin merely glanced at the body for a moment, then returned his unwavering gaze to the goblin captain.

“Yes, but they did not have ranger from you with them, did they?” Banin said coolly.

Half a second later, the goblin’s wrist was in Banin’s lithe hand that belied his strength so well. With a twist, he spun the goblin’s back to his face and put his other arm around the creature’s neck, manipulating his prisoner’s sword arm to cut down the first goblin that leapt into action. Reversing the blade and shoving it into the captain’s belly, he released his body as the other party members joined the fray. A sling stone flew by his cheek - the goblin at the door was frantically reloading his projectile weapon.

Fluidly did Banin draw his bow, nocking an arrow and taking aim before even the fumbling sling thrower could prepare himself. The clothyard shaft took the creature through the throat and it fell in a spraying fountain of his own sanguinity.

Vitalar roared as he waded into battle, his blade meeting with the scimitar of a sentinel. He spat profanities at him in his own hoarse tongue, pressing the attack with prejudice. What it lacked in skill it made up for in ardent aggression, and Vitalar found himself backed up to the wall on a desperate offensive.

“Vas An Wis!” Saloria’s strange blend of melodious and vindictive voice rose above the cries of battle.

Suddenly, Vitalar’s enemy blinked in confusion and began to stumble, swinging his blade at other targets in a desultory fashion without any hope of striking anything. His two companions did the same, and as such the outpost was quickly overwhelmed.

Injuries to the party were almost non-existent. Raltiir had suffered a graze to his left temple from a passing sling stone. Saloria’s ‘Mani’ spell was ample treatment for it. As they assembled before the iron door, adrenaline and the thrill of battle still coursing through their veins, Vitalar noticed Trevane lingering around the corpse of the nameless knight.

“Koraci…I’m sorry, old friend. I have no right to be living when you are dead.” he mumbled mournfully, hanging his head.

“Trevane! We must hurry!” Vitalar yelled.

The dismal knight started as if shaken out of a deep sleep, slowly plodding over to the group. Banin tugged on the pull chain and the door swung open.

A goblin gasped in surprise, but did not have a chance to cry out as Ferwyn’s sword took it through the heart. In the party stormed, down a corridor and around a corner till they found themselves on the bridge. It bent towards the left, kissing the edge of the next precipice. Across they went, barging into a main hall and coming tot blows with another band of gray goblins who had been busy guarding the construction of a portcullis some distance down.

Blood sprayed as the invaders struck with a vengeance, mercilessly slaying the stunned sentinels. Rodrick cut a swath with his wickedly fast blade, dodging crippling blows and riposting with deadly efficiency. Simmond lumbered in, Raltiir and Eador guarding his flanks, and together they hewed the resistance.

Ferwyn frantically warded off circling goblins, longsword in hand, striking his attackers with cold steel. It was not a pleasant experience, as indicated by the goblins cries of pain.

Vitalar ran to his aid, a sling stone bouncing off his horned plate helm, an arrow streaking over his shoulder in response and burrowing into the sling wielder’s chest. Vitalar exhaled a relieved breath and leapt into the action, cutting through a goblin’s spine with a vicious swing, jerking the blade out to seek another victim. Another goblin turned to face him, only to be impaled through the back with Ferwyn’s sword. Vitalar disembowelled the last goblin that had been harrying his fellow knight and together they plunged into the thicker melee.

Saloria was pressing forward, zealous in her virtual massacre of the goblins. Here blade was caked with coagulating blood, and it sprayed kegs’ worth more with its unnerving precision. Rodrick was the furthermost ahead, right near the entrance where the portcullis was being built, resolutely slicing a sentinel’s throat and thrusting his sword through another. An arrow took a second sling wielding goblin a few paces to his left, skewering him through the eye.

Vitalar ducked as a goblin swung a cudgel for his head, launching himself up and stabbing him in the crotch with little tenderness. His enemy went down with a horrible cry, but Vitalar ignored him and strode purposefully towards the gate.

The sentinels were close to being annihilated when finally the trolls came. At least two heads taller than the average man, the trolls - the feral kind from the looks of them - marched in without co-ordination, armed with heavy wooden clubs with rusty, twisted nails shoved through. They wore nothing but rags around their nether regions, their reddish-brown leathery hide serving as natural armour. Four of the looming beats, whose fangs dripped saliva and breath reverberated off the stone walls.

“Defilers!” Davarius roared, hefting his bloody axe threateningly. “Dare to spoil the beauty of the stonework of me folk with yer foul presence? I’ll show ye!”

He charged, shouting curses in his own alien tongue, and the others joined him. Simmond and Saloria, Rodrick and Raltiir, Eador and Ferwyn, Banin from far off, all of them plunging into battle against the trolls. Their giant adversaries were slow but nonetheless possessed of far more strength, using innate brawn to lend fearsome deadliness to their swinging clubs.

Davarius, as zealous as he was, scored a graze across one troll’s arm, but was struck in the chest and sent a number of paces back for his audacity. He rolled away with a grunt as the same troll crushed the stones of the position he had just vacated, quickly rising to his feet to tenaciously rejoin the fray.

Vitalar, positioned further back, met the attack of a goblin sentry, easily dispatching him with a slash across the chest. He saw Trevane cut down a sentry with a bloodthirsty scream, then freeze and turn to stare down the gaping maw of the entrance of what the map indicated to be the haunted mines. It was an ominous black in there, a hungry darkness that threatened to swallow all who were foolish enough to tread there.

“Trevane!” Vitalar called out.

Trevane wasn’t listening. His stare never wavered from the blackness of the entrance to the mines. His eyes were vacant.

“I hear them…my comrades. They are calling me…” he moaned. “I hear thee, brothers. I’m coming!”

With a mournful shriek, he dropped his sword and ran into the mines, quickly enveloped by the blackness.

“Trevane! No!” Vitalar cried.

He tried to give chase, but something grabbed his legs and tripped him, so that he fell flat on his face, losing his sword.

“I will eat you, nasty knight!” a goblin rasped behind him, crawling upon his back.

Vitalar could see nothing but the stone floor, but he heard the ring of the knife as it was hastily drawn out of its sheath. He awaited the painful stab in the back or cut across the throat, but all the goblin did was give a watery cry and suddenly a weight was lifted from the small of his back. Vitalar quickly rose to see Banin step away from the goblin, shortsword. The creature’s throat had been sliced open. It still convulsed on the ground, blood pooling around its head.

“Thank thee.” Vitalar said to Banin.

The ranger merely nodded as if it had been nothing and returned to the fighting. Once Vitalar had picked up his sword again, he saw that three of the trolls were down. The other was being driven into a corner by his companions, howling as it was repeatedly slashed.

Finally, with a furious roar Davarius brought down his battle axe upon its large skull, cleaving it in two. The monster slumped to the ground and moved no more.

The battle appeared at an end. Of the party, none appeared seriously injured, only tired, with the exception of Raltiir, who had had the wind knocked out of him by one of the trolls. Although dazed, he would recover quickly enough. Rodrick had disappeared for a while, but it soon turned out that he had gone on a reckless foray inside the outpost. He returned with the blood splatters to prove it.

The others ignored his obnoxious boasting. Vitalar’s eyes were focused on the mine entrance where Trevane had fled.

“He isn’t coming back.” Banin said.

“I must agree with Banin.” Simmond interjected. “We are at a critical point in our quest. To stop now and search or even wait for Trevane is folly.”

“In Morlock’s own words, he had the ‘look’ in his eyes.” Eador muttered ominously.

“Good riddance.” Raltiir grumbled, wincing as he touched the tender spot where his rib had been hit beneath his hauberk. “No need for a madman in this valiant band of adventurers.” He added the last with no small amount of sarcasm.

Vitalar gave acquiescence, although he felt that Trevane’s loss was his responsibility. That was one less knight of the Order of the Crux Ansata. They were being eradicated like vermin, and the annihilation was only gaining momentum. It was a not a very pleasant thought at all.

“Let us depart from here while the red mage’s forces are still unaware of their situation.” Vitalar commanded.

Boragosh nervously watched as the trolls and smaller goblins hurriedly worked to install the iron portcullis. Tyball had disappeared on one of his many esoteric errands, but had been courteous enough to leave him a note promising him horrid repercussions if the portcullises were not completed by the time he returned. The note itself was ample incentive for Boragosh to speed up the efforts of his indolent work crew, since it was made from the skin of his predecessor, a goblin’s name he had already forgotten by the mad mage’s decree.

“Hurry, you fools, or all our necks will be on the chopping block!” he snapped, brandishing his cudgel at the workers.

A troll was placing an iron bar vertically into the framework of the portcullis. By his stupidity alone he struck a bar already in place and the whole framework fell apart, bars clattering loudly to the stone floor.

“You fool!” Boragosh screamed and hurled his cudgel at the back of the troll’s head.

The troll grunted from the impact and whipped around to glare at him, lips curled back in a snarl that revealed glistening sharp teeth and fangs. All other goblins eagerly darted away from the gateway, watching the altercation ensue from a much safer distance.

“You throw stick at Grugg?” the troll demanded, black eyes like small swarthy pearls, gleaming with menace.

“Get back to work, you scum!” Boragosh snarled. “Or Tyball will have you for breakfast!”

“Breakfast?” Grugg blinked. “Me hungry! Me join this outfit for food. Me get no food in two days! Me want food!”

Boragosh snorted contemptuously. “You’ll get it when you do the job right.”

“No! Me want food NOW!!!”

Similar cries were voiced from the other trolls in the guard post. Boragosh was thankful that they hadn’t found out the goblins had eaten all their week’s rations. No one dared ask Tyball for more until he deigned to deliver on his own whim, not since the last goblin to ask him had been sent back…in pieces.

“You realize, of course, that the meat was made from the flesh of your companion trolls - the trolls who failed to carry out Tyball’s bidding diligently!” Boragosh growled. “Hence the disappearance of your cousins after they allowed those rats to nibble away our stores!”

Well, that was partially true. The meat was also made out of goblins who had displeased the mad mage.

Grugg hunched his shoulders defiantly, pondered for two minutes, then shrugged. “So? They taste good anyway.”

Boragosh sighed in frustration. Family values didn’t have much meaning to trolls at all. He rubbed his wrinkled, pockmarked forehead.

“I knew I should have stayed with that nice clerk job in Dungeon Wrong! I just knew it!” he groaned.

Grugg was asserting his brawny figure by assuming his full height, blocking most of the gateway as a result.

“Grugg is mad! Grugg wants better captain!”

Four other trolls, mixed with feral and great kinds, assembled beside him, grunting sympathetic sentiments. The goblins assembled behind Boragosh, although each and every one of them was apprehensive about the imminent confrontation.

Boragosh appraised the enemy. Five trolls against ten goblins, including himself. There was no way of diffusing the situation now, not with Grugg’s temper flaring as it was.

“Grugg for captain! Grugg for captain!” chanted the trolls.

Boragosh surreptitiously unhitched his sling from his belt and loaded it behind his back while the trolls got riled up with their cries for usurping his sovereignty. In the next second, his arm moved like a striking snake and the stone flew, hitting him between the eyes. He winced, for he had meant the shot to hit his eye.

The trolls had stopped shouting. Grugg stood frozen in a fit of pique. His lips trembled, drool dripping down his chin with barely suppressed rage.

“You try to hurt Grugg?” he growled.

The uppercut sent Boragosh flying back, the ‘supporters’ behind him party to allow him wide clearance to hit the wall.

Grugg was approaching the next goblin, Boragosh’s gangly ssecond-in-command called Griln. The goblin nervously backed away, eyes darting from side to side. His companions allowed him considerable leeway.

“Boragosh is a coward!” Griln cowered.

“So is Griln!” Grugg snarled, arms reaching out to crush the goblin.

“Yes, but I’m fast!” With a yelp, Griln ducked under the troll’s swooping arms and fled.

“Grugg is so mad he know not what to do!” Grugg growled, searching for a new target to vent his rage upon.

“That’s not surprising,” another goblin said snidely, his feigned bravery belying his festering fear as he stepped forward with shortsword in hand. His name was Smulge. “Grugg don’t know nothing!”

“Stupid goblin make fun of our leader!” a troll growled.

“Let’s stomp them!” another troll roared.

“Goblins stomp trolls first!” Smulge snapped.

“Me Grugg say no way!” Grugg snarled.

Blows ensued as the goblins and trolls collided with each other, the fight dissolving into a pitiful fracas of cries and shouts.

“Tarcon fight everybody!” one particularly large troll roared, turning on his fellow trolls, fisting trolls and goblins alike in wanton rage.

Boragosh looked up to see Grugg loom over him. The monster effortless picked him up, and the last thing to greet his eyes was the fast approaching stone wall.

“Watch Banin. He has been acting rather strangely lately.” Ferwyn whispered into Vitalar’s ear.

Vitalar looked behind him. The rest of the party was sloshing through ankle deep water. They had passed quickly through the outpost and down a high-ceiling corridor until they entered the main river cavern again, where the floor was sinking beneath the current due to the sporadic quakes throughout the Abyss.

Davarius reached the dry shore last, a trail of conspicuous ripples trailing behind him. A green tentacle whipped out of the water to lash his foot, but his hand axe came down to hew it in half. There was a roar and a domed head broke the surface of the water nearby, the enraged visage of a local deep lurker. An arrow appeared in its eye and it roared again, this time in pain, and sank beneath the water. A pool of crimson pervaded the surface moments later.

“Thank ye kindly, ranger.” Davarius said to Banin gratefully as a he joined the main party.

Banin displayed no reaction, merely checking his quiver to see that the feathers of his arrows were in perfect straight alignment.

Vitalar studied him as furtively as he could. Ferwyn and himself were at a bend in what was once a great hall, a number of paces ahead of the rest of the party. Turning to what lay before him, he made a show of quietly discussing the official plan with Ferwyn while in actuality he was receiving the clandestine report on the recent behaviour of the others.

“He is usually unreadable, but when I asked him about that bow of his, but when I asked him about that bow of his, he employed all manners of tactics to evade answering, even going as far to distract me as pointing out a vampire bat flapping far off in the distance.” Ferwyn whispered, casting the ranger quick scrutinizing glances. “This occurred shortly after we left the Seers’ demesne. I’d daresay he was nervous.”

“A distant desert realm?” Vitalar repeated Dominus’s description of Banin’s bow. “I only know of one desert in all of Britannia, and that is the one in the northeast. There is nothing there but the Shrine of Sacrifice.”

“Hmm…mayhaps he has travelled through the red moongates to other worlds.” Ferwyn suggested, although he didn’t sound like he believed it.

“What of the others?”

“Rodrick is growing more restless. He gives Saloria - and her sword - rather covetous looks, and she is beginning to bristle. There will be conflict soon. Raltiir appears to want to stove Rodrick’s head in as well, and seems to share an affinity with Sir Eador. Notice how they often agree on points. Davarius is becoming taciturn, but I have seen the looks he gives thee when thy back is turned. He doubts thine ability to lead.”

Vitalar almost laughed wryly. Was there anywhere in his party where doubt and simmering sentiments didn’t fester? Besides, who could blame the plucky mountainman, especially after the great job Vitalar had done in leading the party to victory?

Eador suddenly appeared beside them, scanning what lay ahead. For a short distance the hall led, until it came into the main river canyon again. Here the path was separated by the river itself and the waterfall that had spawned it. Further down was a narrower corridor where the walls were covered in moss, which had thrived in the dank conditions of the subterranean region.

“Rather tight. Can hardly fit two men abreast in that corridor.” Eador commented. “I love a tight, bloody fight.” His voice was laced with wry irony.

His helm was dented in one place form a goblin’s attempt to bludgeon his head, and his chain hauberk was torn near the torso and arms, several of the rings twisted out of place. Besides that, his indomitable fiery spirit had not been snuffed out in the least.

Raltiir snorted, coming up from behind. “Not enough room to swing a broadsword. I will be forced to box the gobs to death.” he grunted.

“Thou art a big boy, Raltiir. I am sure thou canst handle it.” Eador said with a light smile.

“We must cross the river first.” Vitalar said, pointing at a broad and flat stepping stone in the middle of the river between the two opposing shores. The jump between shore and stone was slightly less than three feet from shore to shore.

“The corridor runs straight to the guard post.” Banin said. “Strange that there are no scouts between posts.”

The party cautiously approached the shore. The path here appeared to have been brutally severed by the river.

“Let us cross!” Raltiir said impatiently.

“Let us not be impetuous.” Simmond rumbled solemnly, pointing towards the water near the stepping stone.

Tentacles swished just above the surface, the oily skin a familiar dark green. Another deep lurker. Two arrows in the water adjacent to the tentacles and crimson bubbles floated to the surface, life’s sanguinity diffusing seconds later.

“Does not thou ever run out of arrows?” Eador asked Banin dryly.

“I have twenty-seven remaining.” the ranger answered without even a glance at his quiver. He scanned the ardent current for a moment longer. “It is safe to cross.”

Simmond crossed first, deftly hopping from the shore to the stone and then to the opposing shore. Saloria followed, then Ferwyn. It took only a handful of minutes for all of them to navigate the river, with Davarius coming last. The stout, diminutive mountainman had the most difficulty with the task due to his size, nearly slipping on the edge of the stepping stone and falling into the water. He leaped to the other shore in the nick of time, for a trio of deep lurkers had become attracted to the commotion and were rapidly swimming towards the stepping stone.

Once that was done, the party hastily made their way down the corridor. Ferwyn had lit a torch to illuminate the encroaching darkness, but as they progressed down the narrow corridor another light source glowed. The guard post was near.

Then they heard the din of battle, faint at first, but growing louder as they gradually approached their destination. The shouts of the angered and pained, the roars of ferocious monsters and dull thuds of bludgeoning weapons.

“Dissention.” Banin stated simply.

“Terrific! All the easier for us if they are already fighting amongst themselves!” Eador said eagerly, readying his longsword. Its blade glinted in Ferwyn’s torchlight.

“Full charge. Take them by surprise.” Vitalar whispered through gritted teeth, sword in hands as they grew ever closer. “Fight with Valour and Honour.”

“Such creatures aren’t deserving of Honour.” Raltiir said contemptuously, drawing his heavy broadsword from its hard leather scabbard.

They drew right to the threshold of the gate, where a gray goblin lay sprawled in the middle of the way, its head twisted at an odd angle. The party poured into the main antechamber and were confronted by a scene of absolute anarchy. A number of Tyball’s lackeys lay on the ground, a good number of goblins and at least two trolls, all slain by each other’s hands.

One particular goblin had its head bored into the wall, bent over and being held in that awkward position by its neck alone.

Vitalar’s warriros took full advantage of the sentries’ distraction, hewing into their rears with honed steel and cold efficiency. Saloria’s sword was as precise in its bloody work as always. Eador, Raltiir, and the others dispatched the remaining goblins, then turned to face the three surviving trolls.

One troll, the mightiest of the lot of brutes, roared upon spotting the new batch of adversaries.

“Grugg no like humans!” he snarled, eyes flashing with unbridled ferocity. Then another look entered his eyes, one of savage hunger. “Grugg hungry! Grugg gonna EAT you! Bash man scum!”

Grugg’s companion troll lunged with him, but the third reassessed the opposition. He shook his head slowly as the warriors began to corral the two trolls in.

“Tarcon just remembered he had appointment with dentist.” the troll grumbled nervously, turning and fleeing for the nearest gate. He disappeared into the maw of cavernous darkness, abandoning his comrades.

Vitalar joined the ring that enclosed the two trolls. Rodrick struck first, slashing Grugg’s brawny arm and withdrawing with equal speed as the troll swung a blow at him capable of maiming. Next struck Saloria, then Banin, followed by Eador and Simmond. Each member of the party took their turn, cutting into the hides of the trolls callously.

Grugg’s companion was the first to fall, bleeding from multiple wounds. Grugg didn’t even notice the demise of his only ally, grunting in pain as Vitalar’s sword point raked across his broad chest. Attacked from all sides, Grugg pivoted about on his feet furiously, swinging first left, right, and centre. His defensive measures were futile.

It was Davarius who landed the killing blow. With his once gleaming half-moon blade, now soiled with blood and torn flesh, he charged with a hateful oath fit to put Astaroth to shame, impaling Grugg through the belly with the serrated pike tip of his weapon. Grugg gasped, spewing blood from his mouth, sinking to his knees.

“Grugg…feel…pain…” He vomited up a vile black liquid that permanently marked the floor. “Not…feel…good…”

Davarius jerked the axe out, and with a final resigned groan the troll hit the ground. The impact itself jarred the earth, reverberating off the stone walls of the outpost.

“Methinks this Tyball is mortally overrated.” Eador said, smugly regarding the dead guards that littered the ground.

“The hardest part is yet to come.” Banin said.

The gate one of the trolls had fled through led to the largely blank portion on the map, if Vitalar recalled correctly. From here, it looked dark and foreboding. Much like the rest of the Abyss. How much worse could it be?

For a moment, blackness took them as a torch went out. Ferwyn fumbled in the dark with a tinderbox and another torch, the third one now, and with a hiss of flame the chamber was illuminated again. Vitalar could not have helped but feel a little fear in that moment of total blackness. He wagered the others did as well.

Banin, Ferwyn, and Vitalar took the lead, while Simmond, Eador, and Raltiir guarded the flanks and Saloria, Rodrick, and Davarius watched the rear. They entered the darkness together, the torch’s flickering light appearing to wither in the face of such oppressive blackness. They found themselves in a network of long, twisting tunnels, some wide, but many more narrow and allowing for only one man through at a time. It was eerily silent but for the dripping of water from stalactites, the drips themselves achieving some sort of slow tempo, echoing throughout the labyrinth with no small degree of odium. Strange that such seemingly harmless drops could be so unsettling.

They progressed at a slow, cautious step, keeping a sharp vigil for any sign of movement whatsoever. The shadows danced on the cavernous walls, deceiving the eyes into the falsified perception of having spotted some encroaching threat.

The ambience was dire, smothering. Vitalar could feel his heart beating from apprehension. The blood was pounding in his ears. By Infinity, in all his years he had never felt this afraid. He had been in more holes and pits than he could count, from Destard to Despise, Covetous to Shame, having fought the creatures of the dark for countless years, and that wasn’t including the considerable time he had spent in the Underworld itself. Who would have thought doubt could be so crippling?

Banin was an epitome of stony stoicism - as great a surprise as that was - leading them through the twisting tunnels with unerring and reticent confidence. The others had not choice but to follow dutifully, including Vitalar. Sometimes a tunnel would bend back on itself or reach a fork in the road, as it were, but onward would the ranger press, treading over paths trodden only minutes before, seeking out that which would offer escape from this loathsome place.

Sometimes they would pass a pit filled with the bones of some unfortunate adventurer. At least twice they came across the desiccated corpse of a knight, judging from the broken sword or shattered shield located nearby. Vitalar thought he recognized one of them from the emblazoned golden hawk on a rusting curved heater shield. That was Sir Willomar’s crest. The knight had been missing for four months already. A chill entered Vitalar’s heart.

Either way, these pits gave credence to Banin’s rumour of pit-trap spiders having infested the region. Vitalar made an effort of studying the ground before them. The tunnel opened up into a wider gallery, where a number of passages wound away in entirely different directions.

Sweat beaded each party member’s forehead, and it wasn’t from the heat. Vitalar surveyed the walls and ceilings. They were perforated, dotted with dozens of holes, the egresses covered with layers of silky strand webs. Rotting corpses and entire skeletons were stuck to the walls, bound as tightly as iron. They gaped in horror, as if trying to tell the party to flee, to run as fast as their legs would allow.

“Virtues…no.” Eador grimaced in disgust.

Rodrick looked about nervously. He reeked of sweat.

“Welcome to my parlour, said the spider to the fly…” Raltiir whispered hoarsely.

“Stay together.” Vitalar said lowly.

Davarius was backing away to one of the walls, eyes apprehensively scanning his environment. His back hit something, and a bony hand fell upon his shoulder. With a cry he whirled around, axe instinctively whipping in a deadly arc to take off the head of a corpse that hung on the wall, wrapped in sturdy webbing.

The others started at his sudden cry, but the mountainman stood frozen, staring at the rigid corpse, two-handed battle axe held rigid. There was a faint scraping sound, the scuffling of something on rock. A tearing of meat and web. Davarius looked up into the shadows above. Eight green eyes stared back with malevolent intent.

“Arrrgh!” the mountainman roared, his axe cutting through the shadowing form with a splutter of green goo.

The party exploded into action. More bloated, eight-legged shapes crawled out from the holes in the walls and ceiling, dropping on their prey hungrily. They were a deathly gray or white. Dread spiders, the worst species of overgrown arachnid to proliferate in the Abyss.

More green slime flew as the warriors’ swords lashed out. Raltiir’s heavy-handed blows slew most spiders he encountered outright; the fighter stayed in the centre while keeping a wary eye above and around him. As always, Eador was close by, and he was no less deadly in his disposal of the vile creatures.

Vitalar crouched in combat stance, his sword already dripping with the bodily fluid of his enemies. One spider launched itself at him, and his blade slashed wide, cutting most of the monster in two.

Straightening to full height, he spun around in a circle to survey the positions of his companions. A mere flick of his blade ended the life of another arachnid sneaking upon his left flank. Ferwyn was bludgeoning a spider with his torch, setting it alight, while thwarting the attacks of another with his sword. That accounted for the erratic movement of the shadows. Simmond was nearby, stomping down a foul creature’s head and driving his sword through the carapace of its thorax.

“In Lor!” Saloria cried.

A luminous yellow-white ball of light materialized in her up-thrust hand, serenely rising to the top of the gallery to provide additional light to Ferwyn’s wavering torch.

“Fire is a useful weapon here, Sir Vitalar.”

Vitalar started and whipped around to see Banin at his side, cutting down spiders with his shortsword. His idea had merit. Vitalar remembered in his days exploring the Heroes Hole, fire had been very destructive to spider webbing.

“Saloria! Fireball the web holes!” Vitalar shouted, ducking as a spider leaped overhead.

“Vas Flam!” Saloria intoned, launching spheres of flame at the silk-covered egresses in the ceilings and walls.

They instantly burst into flames, along with any spiders crawling upon them. Soon it rained burning spiders.

Saloria ceased her fire, resuming her onslaught with her jewelled Sword of Accuracy instead. A figure crept up behind her - Rodrick. A callous blow to the back of her head with the hilt of his sword and she hit the floor, concussed. Smiling to himself, he appropriated her jewelled weapon and left his won beside her.

“Traitor!” Ferwyn cried, charging towards Rodrick with murder in his eyes.

“Thou wilt never take me, fools! The Chaos Knight is unstoppable!” Rodrick gave a wicked laugh and fled, disappearing back down the tunnel from which they had originally emerged.

“Thou wilt not escape, villain!” Ferwyn shouted after him.

Suddenly, the earth beneath him collapsed, and into a deep pit he fell, breaking his leg. Dread spiders were upon him in moments, and his ragged death cries split the air.

“Ferwyn!” Vitalar cried.

The globe of light flickered. With Saloria unconscious, it was rapidly weakening. Ferwyn’s torch lay at the edge of the pit, snuffed out. He had the remaining unused torch, but with his fresh corpse at the bottom of the pit, it was inaccessible.

“We must go!” Banin shouted in Vitalar’s ear, pointing towards one of the passages.

Simmond was already dragging Saloria’s limp body towards the passage, the other companions guarding his flanks. Vitalar ran with Banin after them, the flames that had engulfed the webbing dying with the arcane luminous globe in the air. Into the twisting passage they went, and a moment later, the globe winked out of existence.

Total blackness swallowed them.

Chapter 4
Rage of the Red Mage

In a chamber deep beneath the earth, a place both humid and warm, rivulets of lava flowed and boiled almost silently in a pit in the centre, at least eight feet deep. The lava surrounded a small dais, upon which rested a pile of strange gray rock. A small stone walkway led from the dais to a cramped prison cell. The portcullis was closed. Within, manacles hung from the moss-covered brick walls, as if patiently awaiting wrists to bind.

The air shimmered for a brief moment, and small black flecks of energy appeared and swirled, coalescing to take the shape of a cloaked and robed man. His eyes possessed a red glint - and it wasn’t from the reflection of the liquid fire that surrounded him.

In his gnarled hand he held a dirk. The blade was smeared with coagulated blood. A flick of his wrist and into the lava did the dirk go, disappearing forever in a brief spurt of flame and red globules.

Tyball wiped his hands on his red attire almost repugnantly. Despite his boundless immorality, he still felt a minute iota of guilt for the deed he had only recently committed. The murder of one’s own brother was not an act to be taken lightly, even by a power mad megalomaniac like himself.

Tyball pondered his vile transgression for a moment. The decision to kill Garamon had arisen on the spur of the moment. He knew he could not have kept him subdued indefinitely, and there would have been no chance whatsoever of turning the altruistic fool to his cause. Brother or not, Garamon had been too powerful an enemy to let live. In the end, that had been the deciding factor.

Besides, Tyball wasn’t entirely a callous killer. At least he had honoured his dead brother’s body and given him a proper burial in the tombs above - if dumping his fresh corpse in a sack into a hastily dug grave could be considered honourable.

The mage’s mind quickly focused on more important things. What he has doing was virtually saving Britannia from the clutches of a most horrible fate. That was an act befitting of an Avatar. Granted, he was going about the predicament in a manner that would most benefit himself, but he considered it his just reward.

Now it was time to check on the progress of his servants. With a wave of his hand, the air visibly trembled and wavered with an arcane shimmering light, assuming the form of a hovering viewing portal. What it displayed was not pleasing to Tyball’s eyes in the least. If anything, his eyes glowed even redder with ire.

The portal showed the first of his outposts, the one positioned closest to the stairway leading up to the enclave of the foolishly complacent Seers - or what was left of it. Dead goblin sentries lay everywhere, and the door was wide open.

Tyball frowned at the scene. At a mere whim, the view changed to that of the second outpost. The same scene once again. Dead trolls and goblins strewn about the floor. Some had arrows protruding from their bodies, but most seemed to have been hewed to death with sword and axe.

The third outpost - the one that guarded the way to the pit-trap spider caverns - came next. Slaughter.

A sizable force had done this, most likely the pestilent knights again. They were very persistent, Tyball had to give them that.

A light, cruel smile pulled at his lips. Despite the grievous losses of his goblin and troll minions - who were expendable anyway - the pit-trap spiders would not be so leniently disposed to this resolute band of invaders. If they managed to get through that labyrinth, there was the last guard post. The garrison there was formidable enough to deal with them. He hoped.

But why was he wasting time even considering the puny threat offered by these scummy knights? Tyball’s lair was impregnable. It didn’t matter if the Avatar in person was guiding that naïve band. None could survive his maze without the Crown of Navigation, and that had gone missing months ago.

Running his fingers through his beard, Tyball floated into the air and softly landed on the floor above. There was much work still to be done. Let the perils of his domain deal with the intruders.

They stumbled in the maw of darkness, tripping over the rocks and debris and things that crackled beneath their feet that Vitalar did not care to think about. The cries of his men resonated all around him, but perhaps it just seemed that way because of the echoing cavern walls.

Vitalar’s heart beat hard in his chest, trying to burst out from adrenaline neck and soaked his armpits beneath his armour.

They couldn’t be sure if the spiders still followed them. They couldn’t be sure how long they had ran blind through the tunnels or how far. The uncertainty was prestigious and palpable, blatant in its searing presence upon the warriors’ minds.

“Stop!” Vitalar yelled.

The dishevelled party came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the dark tunnel.

“Simmond, thine lantern!” Vitalar commanded.

Several moments later an aura of yellow light filled the dank tunnel. It seemed to fill the companions’ heart with hope and relief as well. At Simmond’s feet lay Saloria, unconscious. The survivors stood nearby, apprehensively, looking behind and ahead. Only seven of the party remained - Simmond, Saloria, Eador, Raltiir, Davarius, Banin, and Vitalar. They now looked a rugged bunch, unkempt and wary, weapons and armour dented and smeared with the gore of enemies.

“We must rouse Saloria.” Vitalar said.

Eador knelt beside the comatose paladin, carefully analyzing her head.

“She’ll have a nasty lump for a few days.” he reported. “But she should come to sooner or later.”

“Well, what do we do now?” Raltiir demanded, casting Vitalar accusatory glares. “Ferwyn dead and Rodrick fled like the coward he is! All on the account of thine brilliant leadership skills, Sir Vitalar!”

“I’d be more concerned with the spiders if I were ye. Ferwyn and Rodrick are gone. Let them be.” Davarius said gruffly. He still clung tenaciously to his battle axe.

Banin was peering back down the way they had come. “Dread spiders are capricious beasts. I cannot say whether they have resolved to persist in pursuing us.”

Raltiir laughed scornfully. “Ah, the ironies of life. The hunters become the hunted.”

Simmond, holding the lantern in his typical stalwart manner, regarded him stonily.

Eador was gently patting Saloria’s smooth cheeks, passing water through her lips with a waterskin handed over by Banin. Her eyelids fluttered and she gaped, spluttering water.

“Where…who…?” she groaned, gradually coming to. She looked around groggily from her supine position on the ground, the rest of the party staring down at her. “Oh…I have a splitting headache.”

“Thou wert struck from behind.” Eador told her. He then added rather dryly, “Thou art lucky thou hast a hard head.”

Saloria eagerly gulped down more of the water offered to her. She then listened to Vitalar’s telling of how during the battle with the spiders, Rodrick had crept up behind her and struck her down, stealing her jewelled Sword of Accuracy and fleeing. The paladin’s face grew darker with each consecutive word.

“That bastard!” she snarled in outrage. “That sword was given to me by Mayor Whitsabre of Trinsic in honour of my deeds in the War of the False Prophet! How dare he thieve what is rightfully mine! He has no honour!”

“We all know that.” Raltiir said wryly, rolling his eyes.

Saloria attempted to rise, but the sharp pain in her head along with an overwhelming vertigo sent her back down.

“Thou must not strain thyself too much.” Vitalar cautioned her. “Thou art still somewhat dazed from the clout.”

Saloria hissed, then regretted it as her head throbbed, each pulsation hitting her with the force of a sledgehammer.

“My sword! I must get back my sword!” Saloria protested, gritting her teeth.

“He is long gone by now. Either he had escaped or has now become fodder for the spiders.” Banin said. “We cannot pull back now in any case. I fear Tyball knows our location. Haste is imperative.”

Saloria was on the verge of protesting again, but a single look from Vitalar and she sullenly acquiesced.

“Thou hast no weapon but thine belt knife.” Simmond observed gravely.

“Thou canst have my shortsword.” Banin said, handing his blade to the paladin.

Saloria accepted it reluctantly at first, eyes narrowed with disgruntlement, but her countenance quickly changed to one of gratitude when she realized that the ranger was freely giving up his weapon for her safety. He was left with only his jewelled bow and a pair of knives for protection.

“Thank thee kindly, ranger of Yew.” she replied, nodding her head. Another wave of pain struck, and it took all her effort to prevent her face from transforming into a grotesque contortion. “Thine acts are befitting one of an honourable warrior.”

Banin nodded lightly in acknowledgment.

“Canst thou stand?” Vitalar asked Saloria.

“My head aches me gravely, but not for much longer.” she responded, inhaling a deep breath. “Mani!” she intoned, and a brief white glow of light surrounded her head before fading. Saloria gave a relieved sigh, though she appeared weary. Eador helped her onto her feet. “Much better. Alas, my mana is sorely depleted. I can cast no more spells for the next few hours.”

“No matter.” Vitalar said. “Simmond, how long will the lantern light last?”

“A half-hour is my most sanguine estimate, sir.” the giant answered.

This brought cries of outrage and surprise from the others.

“A half-hour?!” Raltiir exclaimed indignantly. “What in the blazes of Dungeon Hythloth happened to our oil flasks?”

Simmond, Saloria, and Vitalar exchanged resigned glances.

“They were stolen some time ago.” Vitalar replied.

“What? Stolen? By who?” Raltiir demanded.

“We know not.”

“Well, that tears it! I knew this quest would amount to naught! I just knew it!” Raltiir growled hoarsely. He actually appeared frantic, constantly peering over his shoulder at the darkness behind.

“Due to Rodrick’s actions, it would only be logical to assume that it was he who stole the flasks.” Banin said.

“So it would,” Raltiir snorted. “But now the fool has fled and we are lost here in this maze with waning light and absolutely no way out!”

Davarius’s eyes narrowed as he openly scrutinized Vitalar. “I wonder why we weren’t informed of this little theft beforehand.” he remarked.

Here was approaching a storm or Vitalar was a blind man.

“It was deemed too minor to concern the party with.” Vitalar said defensively.

Raltiir and Davarius looked at him incredulously. Even Eador was beginning to regard him in a dubious light.

“Well, ye’ve about fixed it now! What kind of stoneheaded leader are ye?” Davarius roared furiously.

Raltiir, on the other hand, wasn’t his usual tempestuous self. When he spoke, his tone was cold and vindictive. “Aye? Well, thou knowest what I deem? I deem that we need a new leader!”

Vitalar felt rage boil in his belly like an angry volcano at the impudence of the man. “Thou dost think thou canst usurp my authority? Think again!”

“I apologize, Sir Vitalar, but I believe Raltiir is right. Thou hast made a hash of this quest. Thou couldst not foresee the anarchy Rodrick would cause. Thou wert foolish enough to allow a grief-stricken madman like Trevane to join the party, and for what gain?” Eador condemned, standing behind Raltiir.

“My sentiments are likewise.” Davarius growled, joining Raltiir’s fast forming band of supporters. “Raltiir has more sense in his skull, and he won’t stand for dissention from underlings, unlike ye, Vitalar.”

Vitalar’s chagrin was flaring into a full-scale furnace. He would not stand for this!

Simmond and Saloria stood by his side, defiantly gazing at the glowering, disgruntled bunch standing several paces across from them. Banin stood apart, watching with marked disinterest.

“Thy temerity is admirable, Raltiir, but thou hadst best back down now before thou dost incur regrettable repercussions.” Vitalar growled menacingly.

Raltiir laughed deeply and with no shortage of scorn. “Thou art done, Vitalar. Thou wilt step down, not I.”

Simmond and Saloria drew their swords in exact synchronization with Raltiir’s supporters.

“Methinks otherwise.” Saloria grated, bristling with anger.

Vitalar knew that diffusion of the situation was the only way to ensure any remaining chance of the quest attaining success. He struggled to suppress his fury in the face of the audacious treachery of Raltiir and his friends, but the furnace in his belly only intensified with seething wrath.

“Raltiir, thou dost fail to realize that only united in will and diligence can we ever hope to achieve victory against the enemy.” he said, voice trembling with rage. He was holding it down - barely.

“Aye. Diligence.” Banin said spontaneously.

Raltiir snorted and laughed. “No, no, no. Vitalar. Mellifluous words won’t save thee, old fool!”

It was then that Vitalar snapped.

“Brigand! Thou shouldst have been hanged after all!” he yelled.

Too late did he realize that he had just lit the fuse for a bomb that would rip the group asunder.

With a roar, Raltiir drew his broadsword and lunged, face contorted with murderous rage.

Vitalar deflected the first blow, requiring the strength of both his arms to hold back the iron will of Raltiir, who channelled all his anger through his broadsword. The former brigand’s foot swung, catching Vitalar’s ankle and tripping him backwards. Even as he landed hard on his back, the old veteran delivered a powerful kick to his opponent’s groin. Despite the chainmail leggings Raltiir wore, the blow was enough to send him groaning to his knees, gripping his crotch.

The others surrounded the two fallen antagonists, eyeing each other askance.

“I nae want to do this, but desperate times call for desperate measures.” Davarius said, raising his axe to combat Saloria and Simmond.

Before he could lunge, a bottle hit his forehead and he fell back with a pained cry. The others whirled around to see a single green goblin lingering around the corner of the tunnel’s bend, swaying from side to side in a drunken fashion. The shouts of battle ceased abruptly as the warring companions turned to face this new threat.

If it could be called that.

“Gah!” The goblin burped as it stumbled towards them, nearly tripping on over its own feet. In the precarious grip of its gnarled hand was a bottle of port. “Ho! It’s humans…!” Another loud burp echoed down the tunnel. Drool dribbled down the creature’s wart-covered chin. “You come to join big party?”

Banin stepped forward to deal with the strange goblin.

The creature narrowed its bloodshot eyes. It was swaying about, somewhat intoxicated. It pointed a wobbly finger at the ranger. “Oh? Think you too good to answer, huh? You humans are all the same! Think you too good for us gobs and trolls! A pox on you all!” It burped and vomited upon the ground before Banin’s feet.

“The guard post must be nearby.” Simmond said. If he was amused in any way by the spectacle only a few paces before him, he didn’t show it.

“Hey, who asked you, blockhead?” the goblin demanded, voice slurred.

“This goblin, drunk or not, must be eliminated.” Banin said with soft, cold purpose.

“Hey, you!” the goblin maundered. “What are you, the Avatar? You never touch the stuff?”

“As a rule, I don’t drink.” Banin responded. A quick slash to the throat with his belt knife and the goblin went down with a gurgling cry. “The penalty for your lack of sobriety.” He sheathed the knife and turned to the others. “Goblins and alcohol make an excellent pair for blunder. If the guard post is manned by a pack of intoxicated sentries, all the better for us.”

Vitalar was on his feet again, as was Raltiir, although pain still lingered on his rugged visage. He glowered at the old knight.

“Methinks thou hast had thine rations for the day.” Vitalar said to him, slightly breathless. He could not help but feel a little smug at Raltiir’s discomfort.

“Bah…” Raltiir grunted. “Thou hast made thine point. I will follow thee…for now.”

The ache in Vitalar’s jaw was slowly fading. He turned to see Davarius rise to wobbly feet, a white cloth covering his forehead. It was quickly soaked crimson.

“I see the desire for insurrection has been snuffed out in thee too, mountainman.” Vitalar remarked dryly.

Davarius gave a blatant oath under his acerbic breath, which faded into a string of grumbling as Eador began to treat his wound. They waited until the mountainman’s head was sufficiently bandaged, then proceeded carefully down the narrow tunnel. It did not help that each member eyed each other with no small amount of suspicion. Vitalar was painfully aware of this intangible tension all the way.

Soon the stalactites on the ceiling disappeared, hewn off some time ago during the refurbishment of the level. The tunnel became a corridor, with white stone brick walls instead of rough-hewn walls. They warily turned at the corner, only to be confronted by the gruesome sight of a tattered banner. It was a sullied and ragged thing, a hideously leering skull with a pair of swords tearing up through the bottom to traverse each other at an angle to form an ‘x’.

Adjacent was a portcullis, firmly locked.

Simmond blew out the lantern to save oil, for lit torches burned in sconces on the walls.

From beyond the portcullis came a cacophony of sounds, mostly cries and hoots. The air was permeated with the reek of potent alcohol. There was a loud crash and drunken laughter, then the shouts reached an all new crescendo.

It was Vitalar who first dared to inspect what transpired within. Creeping slowly to the gate - if such stealth was necessary in the midst of such a loud raucous - the old knight witnessed a most peculiar scene indeed. If they had not been in such a dire predicament, he would have laughed.

From what Vitalar could fathom, it appeared Tyball’s sentries had found their master’s store of port and wine and were now rejoicing their discovery by proposing a toast. A very large toast.

Goblins lay on the floor, bottles of ale strewn about around them. Their troll counterparts, as giant as they were, seemed to be having as much success as holding their liquor - which was really quite none. The sentries had shambled over in the centre of the main chamber of the guard post and formed a ring around some obscured event. A sporadic cheer would pierce the air and surpass all other grunts and hoots, and bottles would fly and shatter against the wall, leaving dark stains on the once fine stonework.

Suddenly, the ring broke apart as two trolls tumbled through, grappling with each other and rolling on the floor. Vitalar snorted. A wrestling match.

He winced as a goblin materialized before him all too abruptly, pressing its putrid face between the square gaps amid the crossing bars of the gate. This creature too possessed an invisible swathe of ale and other things Vitalar did not care to think about.

“Who you?” the goblin demanded.

“Open up in the name of the Virtues!” Vitalar commanded officiously.

“Huh?” the goblin gaped, bewildered. “Virtues? Who’s that?”

Vitalar drew his sword. His companions formed behind him.

“Hey! You got no invitations! You can’t come in!”

“What kind of a travesty is this?” Eador demanded, bemused. “One goblin drunk goblin was enough, but an entire garrison…?”

The goblin was leaning on one of the horizontal crossbars of the portcullis, muttering something to himself. “Ah, those were the good old days back in the year of 137, when we didn’t have to sneak around and skulk from knights in tights with nasty swords who liked to start fights…” He hoisted a bottle of port towards the ceiling. “Faulinei! Here’s to you! The most snazzy of the Shadowlords, and a fine young lady at that!” The goblin suddenly noticed the party of warriors again, positioned precariously on the very threshold of the guard post. He pressed his face between the bars, smirking. “Hey, you, didn’t I tell you to scram? Beat it!”

Vitalar’s fist met his leering countenance, and the goblin went flying backwards. There was a cry of outrage and the portcullis was raised, and in barged the band of valiant warriors.

“Party poopers!” one troll cried.

“Get ‘em!” a goblin yelled. “They ain’t getting’ none of my grog!”

The crowd dissolved into a melee, the armoured interlopers cutting a swath through them in a desperate attempt to reach the other side of the chamber, where an ironbound door stood closed. Most of the sentries were too intoxicated to notice what was going on, but there were a few more violent ones that rose to challenge the party.

Vitalar’s blade flashed and the goblin that reared up before him went down minus his head. The companions behind him knocked the denizens aside, slaying any foolish enough to get too close. Raltiir was a demon, trailing his fellows and hacking apart foes with wild abandon, attacking so furiously as if he were trying to atone for his defeat against Vitalar. A swift kick and one goblin went crashing into a nearby campfire, screaming as it burned.

They reached the ironbound door. Yanking on the chain, Vitalar rushed over the now open threshold. The sentries were finally beginning to realize just who the enemy was despite their drunken stupor and were rising to pursue.

The party quickly bolted through the egress, Raltiir coming last as he severed the bone and sinew of a lumbering troll. Even as it fell back in a shower of blood, the former brigand retreated over the threshold, smashing the head of a gray goblin with the flat of his blade. Grabbing the door, Raltiir gave a powerful tug, muscles in his arm rippling from the strain, and slammed it shut.

The party was now at the edge of a chasm. Below, hundreds of veins of lava wove together to form a deadly pattern of molten rock that glowed with searing heat. A single wooden bridge provided safe passage across the gaping subterranean canyon; a rickety thing made of planks of wood of dubious integrity. There was no railing whatsoever. On the other side opened a massive cavern that was quickly swathed in blackness.

“Across!” Vitalar yelled.

Banin crossed first, leaping from foot to foot almost elegantly. Davarius followed him, then Saloria, and so on.

It was when Eador crossed that the iron door swung open, spewing forth a throng of irate - and drunk - goblins and trolls. Simmond stood by his leader’s side, but Vitalar slapped his shoulder and pointed to the bridge.

“Go! I’ll slow them down!” Vitalar barked.

Simmond was reluctant at first, but one glance at the charging horde of lackeys was more than enough incentive for him to traverse the bridge with much haste. Raltiir was next. He gave Vitalar an appraising stare.

“Thou art brave, I’ll give thee that.” he said, turning to flee.

Vitalar’s mouth went dry as he padded painfully slowly backwards across the bridge, sword at the ready to hold back the oncoming horde. If Banin was as smart as he seemed, he would do what he did best right about now.

A goblin with a morningstar brandished over his head was at the lead, screaming curses and oaths as it set foot upon the bridge. Vitalar was at the centre. The goblin charged. Ten paces. Eight paces. Six paces. Five. Four.

An arrow sprouted from the creature’s eye, and it fell shrieking into the chasm. Vitalar could barely savour the relief when the next goblin came, swinging a cudgel with maddened rage. He dodged the blow meant for his head and brought up his blade, but another goblin ran into the first and both staggered forward, landing upon his sword point. Both were impaled.

Vitalar struggled to pull his sword out, but it was stuck fast in the combined torso of dead goblins. A troll was fast approaching.

“Hurry, Vitalar!” he heard Simmond call.

Placing his foot upon the fallen foremost goblin’s shoulder, Vitalar wrenched the blade out in time to parry the striking stick of the troll. The monster grabbed his shoulder with a great hand, pulling him towards it. Naught but two paces to the side of the troll erupted a sudden great gout of flame, the force of the explosion knocking the creature off the bridge. Vitalar was pulled with it, plummeting into the deep chasm below.

“Vitalar!” Simmond cried.

From his vantage point, more fireballs were assailing those on the bridge. Goblins and trolls burst into flame, running and screaming, falling to their doom as explosions shook the bridge. The spheres of fire were coming from within the chasm itself, striking any to be foolish enough to step in their path.

“Run!” Eador cried.

Run the companions did, even the stalwart Simmond, as the lackeys of Tyball moaned in agony and defeat, victims of the indiscriminate explosions of fiery fury below.

The echoes of battle and fire faded quickly behind them as they ran into the darkness, Simmond’s lantern lighting the way - barely. Over chipped marble tiles and stone pavers did they run, passing by the shrine chamber heedlessly. Caved in passageways and staircases they ignored, focused only on reaching the inner depths of the massive chamber.

When finally the party stopped, they were breathless. Inhaling and exhaling heavily, Simmond took the time to observe his surroundings. There were a number of other passages and egresses that led away from the vault, but the place hadn’t been constructed with any coherent symmetry whatsoever. Parts of the wall had been built with brick and stone, while others remained bare and rough-hewn. Rubble was in no short supply either. The ambience was ominous.

“This place smacks of mountainfolk workmanship.” said Davarius, breaking the oppressive silence. His gaze swept the dimly lit grand chamber. “ ’Twould have been a junction point between the mines below and the above levels. A great many were the plans my folk had for this place. A shame they never came to fruition. The Great Stair of Korianus would have ended here, had it not collapsed.”

“Where to now?” Eador demanded brusquely, more concerned on the here and now rather than history.

“Vitalar’s gone, so that leaves Sir Simmond in charge.” Saloria said.

“Good riddance.” Simmond grumbled acidly.

Simmond’s usual stoicism was spoiled by an angry glare directed at the fighter. Eador intervened before the feud could bloom into a much scenario.

“Our course, Simmond?” he asked, slightly less impatient. “The itinerary?” It was more prudent to be gentle with the giant; the man was often calm and composed, but Eador was well aware of the fact that he had harboured a deep abiding respect for Vitalar. The veteran’s loss would have stung him, stone heart or not.

“Ahead. There is a passage that leads directly to Tyball’s lair.” Simmond replied. The fire in his eyes as he looked at Raltiir was small, but there nonetheless. “We must go. Now. We have little more than fifteen minutes of light left.” The lantern was still gripped firmly in one of his meaty hands.

“Directly, eh? How convenient.” Raltiir said snidely.

“Raltiir speaks truth. The passage is much too risky to take.” Banin spoke up suddenly. All eyes turned to regard him. He didn’t flinch at the unanimous attention. “It is only logical. Tyball would certainly know we are here by now. He would have set diabolical traps along the most direct route to his domain. It would be wiser to go through the mines. There is a stairway a short distance off. While there is a risk of encountering guards and beasts, the mines are a vast place. Stealth will guide us to victory.”

Davarius grunted his approval. “The ranger’s words certainly do hold a ring of discretion. It’s better than walking right into the arms of Tyball.”

“Vitalar’s command was to follow this specific route. We will continue to do so.” Simmond said firmly.

“No, we won’t.” Raltiir said defiantly. He stepped back away from Simmond and Saloria. “All who want to follow me with the ranger as guide, say aye!”

“Aye!” echoed Davarius and Eador.

Banin quietly stood by the fighter’s side.

Simmond and Saloria at them disapprovingly. Raltiir returned the stare with deep contempt.

“Oh, thou canst keep the lantern. We have the ranger.” Raltiir rasped acidly. “Come on, lads! We have a wizard to hunt! Lead the way!” he barked at Banin.

Banin simply turned on his heel and disappeared into the curtain of darkness. The others followed him eagerly, leaving Saloria and Simmond behind without a second thought.

The two warriors stood there, abandoned, comforted only by the soft golden nimbus of light provided by the dubious lantern. Unity was borken, and hope wavered like the little flame that waned so certainly within the glass case.

There was blackness, then heat. Searing heat, accompanied by a great bubbling cacophony, as if from a boiling stew. The dirt burned and sucked the moisture from the skin. It was in this heat that Vitalar returned to the world of the conscious.

He lay flat on his chest, arms stretched along either side of his head. With a groan, he picked himself up, coming to his knees. He was upon a ledge, a smattering of pools and veins of lava little more than eight feet below him. To one side, the towering precipice of the chasm loomed above him, stretching above into darkness. To the other ran the bed of the chasm, upon which flowed boiling molten rock. The place was basked in a red glare that emanated from the seething lava.

Gradually, Vitalar regained his senses. He recalled how he had fallen with the troll off the bridge after the unexplained explosion, and the ledge that had rushed up to meet him before the unending darkness came. He had been saved by pure chance.

The troll was no where to be seen. Vitalar assumed a crouch, staying low to remain as furtive as possible. He believed the fireballs to have been the cause of only two real possibilities: One of Tyball’s booby traps, or…

There was a perpetual hiss and crackle of flame, louder than the bubbling plethora of lava veins, and something flitted across the chasm floor unimpeded by the liquefied element. As it grew closer, the creature’s features became more distinct. A vaguely man-like figure of searing flame darted across the liquid rock with apparent ease, eyes and mouth black holes of malice. Short, stubby protrusions of flame for arms and likewise for the feet.

Fire elemental.

Vitalar tired to blend in with the ledge. Fire elementals were not renowned for their amicability. Not even the Seers knew of their true origins, only that they were infinitely hostile to all others not of their own kind. He personally had never faced such a monster in combat, but he had heard tales of those who had…and come back either with horrendous scars or in an urn. Sword alone - at least his mundane sword - would not reap victory against this form of adversary. Elementals of any kind were never Vitalar’s favourite sparring opponent anyway.

The elemental’s entire body crackled with heat as it marched beneath Vitalar’s ledge, pausing for a moment to survey its environment. No sound came from the monstrosity’s mouth, even though its black maw gaped, as if it were trying to shriek something. Its eyes were tilted towards where the nose bridge should have been, giving its fiery, almost featureless (but for the flickering fire) visage a greater degree of malice.

Sweat dripped down Vitalar’s nose, and it wasn’t just from the intense heat. He didn’t dare move.

At last, the fire elemental moved on, nimbly traversing - almost floating - across the lava, fading in the distance until it rounded a bed in the chasm and disappeared quickly. Exhaling a sigh of great relief, Vitalar rose to wobbly feet. It was then that he noticed he no longer had his sword. It was no where in sight.

Vitalar checked for his dagger. That at least was still in the sheath on his belt. He would have to worry about acquiring a better weapon later.

Turning to face the daunting precipice, he resolved to find a way out of the chasm. Comfort was no longer a privilege, what little comfort there had been before he had ended up in this predicament. His chainmail hauberk and late leggings absorbed the heat and only made the austerity worse.

Studying the precipice, Vitalar noted a number of clefts in the rock wall large enough to be used as hand- and footholds. There were a number of other ledges as well, but high above and to the side.

If he were to begin climbing, he would need to drop some dead weight. Removing his plate leggings, he kicked them into the lava. It was a terrible waste of precious equipment, but he deemed it a necessary precaution. Tyball’s lackeys were not to obtain formidable armour should they muster the courage to come down here in search for salvageable items. His backpack he still had, with a little food, some spider thread, and a few gold coins. It wouldn’t be too much of an encumbrance.

Vitalar placed his first hand upon one cleft, and his second upon the other, and began the rigorous climb. Slowly but surely did he ascend, leaving the ledge and the lava below him. With each inch upward did the climb become more arduous. A number of times rock crumbled in his grip, nearly sending him on a plummet towards certain death.

The handholds forced him to scale across the wall instead of up at one point. His position was precarious. By the time he reached the next ledge his arms felt like rubber.

Vitalar fell upon his knees, breathing deeply and erratically. “I’m getting too old for this.”

At least he was safe from the fire elementals…to a certain extent. It would have been perfect if he could have dodged fireballs, or been furnished with a Flameproof spell at least. Coming to his feet, he leaned against the chasm wall for safety. It wasn’t so hot up here. The sweat still flowed freely from exertion.

The ledge he stood upon was more than just a ledge. It was a pathway that had been carved from the wall itself, quite some time ago as well.

Following it carefully, Vitalar surmounted another ledge, at which junction the path suddenly turned into a short passageway cut into the chasm wall, which ended at an iron door. A wickedly grinning skull adorned the top centre.

Trying the handle, he found it to be locked. Out came the lockpicks to deceive the integrity of the lock. After several attempts, he heard a satisfying click and the door swung open. Beyond the threshold lay a languidly descending staircase, not the type that connected between subterranean levels, that led into what had once appeared to be a part of a mine shaft.

Vitalar warily drew his dagger and descended the short staircase, turning at a corner into a passage that ended at a stairway. This one led steeply into the shadowy depths. Hoping for some form of escape, although he sincerely doubted delving deeper into the Abyss would yield such an end result, he entered the gloom.

The cavern was wide and barren. A desolate subterranean landscape indeed. Most of the tunnels and passages here appeared to be either natural or hewn from rock long ago. The mines were not a benevolent place.

Twice they had nearly run into sentries, but only through Banin’s quick-witted skill in tracking and observation did they avoid conflict. Raltiir was reluctant to admit it, but the ranger was proving his worth. He just didn’t like silent types by default. They were usually hiding some dark secret.

Raltiir had once held on to his own dark secrets tenaciously so…secrets of murder and villainy. It had been Sir Cabirus who had saved him from the gallows. He helped him reconcile with himself and his past treacherous deeds. Yet even to his day Raltiir wondered whether Sir Cabirus had made the right decision in sparing his life. Perhaps he should have hanged for his crimes.

Of course, he never voiced such self-doubt openly. To do so was to display weakness. And he was not weak. Not weak like that old fool Vitalar, or his confidant Simmond. Even Sir Cabirus had been weak, or else he would not have died so piteously. Sir Cabirus, the man who had saved him…only to doom him to his damned fate, to die in some hole leagues beneath the earth! Damn him for that!

Raltiir reigned in his anger. The past was the past, done and gone. He had to focus on now. On the future. His past deeds still lingered to taint his honour, as seen by the exploitation of that snivelling rat Rodrick - how fitting it was that he had died at the mandibles of the spiders - but his companions chose to forgive him. To forget and accept him as whom he was. If they didn’t, well…they could go jump into the nearest lake of boiling lava for all he cared.

They were in a great cavern, upon a path that once had been a hall of sorts. To their right was a wall. To their left was a deep chasm, at the bottom of which lava flowed.

“Halt!” Raltiir commanded when they came upon a gorge in the path.

Quakes had severed the hall, so that beyond the gorge the hall stretched onward into darkness.

The gorge was deep, a sharp drop to seething lava. It bubbled and spurted sporadic gouts of flame. IT was perhaps eight feet wide; easily leapt across if one had a suitable run-up to suffice the distance. The only member that would have any problem with the jump would probably be the mountainman, Davarius.

“We’ll leap across.” Raltiir told the others.

“Where is Banin?” Eador asked.

Raltiir scanned the trail behind them. The darkness did not yield the ranger. He had purposely fallen behind to check that they weren’t being followed, but had promised to return within a matter of minutes.

“Bloody woodsman!” Raltiir cursed impatiently.

Cries suddenly rose from the darkness, and a mix of gray and green goblins burst out of the stygian mist brandishing cudgels and scimitars, rushing to engage them.

“Cut ‘em up, boys!” Raltiir roared, drawing his broadsword and recklessly bounding into the fight.

Eador and Davarius followed him, unsheathing their stained weapons and wading into the melee. The goblins were poor fighters and quickly became blade fodder, though the advantage of numbers was somewhat pressing. While Raltiir fought at the forefront, Eador and Davarius duelled side by side, cutting down their enemies with skill and wanton rage. Yet the instant one goblin fell, another sprouted to take its place, and slowly but inexorably the pair found themselves being pushed to the edge of the chasm.

“These gobs are like weeds!” Davarius grunted, taking off the head of another of the foul creatures.

Eador’s reply was an incoherent mumble as he thrust his sword into the chest of an enemy, quickly drawing it out again.

There was a momentary respite as the last goblin in the vicinity fell to the tenacious mountainman’s battle axe. The shouts of combat could be heard somewhere in the distance, indicating that Raltiir was fighting alone up ahead in the shadows.

“Let us help Raltiir!” Eador said.

There was a whistling sound, and the knight spun around with a pained cry and fell into the chasm. Davarius caught a glimpse of a feathered shaft sticking out from the knight’s shoulder before he plummeted to his death.

“Eador!” he yelled. Davarius turned. His eyes widened when he spotted the attacker. “Treachery!”

An arrow sprouted in his belly, and another took him in the chest, and the mountainman stumbled backwards, tumbling towards fiery doom below.

Raltiir, some distance ahead, clashed swords with a particularly tall and lanky goblin. His adversary was fast, and already he was bleeding from several small wounds, courtesy of the goblin’s nimble scimitar. Rage exploding, Raltiir launched into a furious assault, broadsword swinging and thrusting, the scimitar parrying each of his blows. He barely evaded a riposte aimed for his face, mustering the strength in both his arms to hurl his sword in overwhelming frustration at the enemy. All the goblin could do in the light of such an unexpected attack was give a surprised squeal before the flying broadsword cut into its chest.

Raltiir laughed and spat on the creature’s corpse, bending to reclaim his weapon. “Thou wert good, but I’m the best.”

A great piercing pain erupted in his shoulder and he stumbled back, losing his sword. An arrow was drilled into the bone, having passed almost clean through. Hot, stinging tears of pain blurred his vision as he clenched his teeth in agony. He could barely make out another figure clad in green approach him calmly, nocking another with such complacence that one would think he had all the time in the world.

A coo, dispassionate face regarded him with as much interest as one would an insect. It was Banin.

“Thou art a turncoat! Scum!” Raltiir spat hatefully.

A second arrow bored into his thigh, sending him to his knees.

“Why, thou scum?” Raltiir growled through gritted teeth. “Side with the gobs, wilt thou, thou treacherous filth!”

“There are oaths more binding than those to Lord British.” Bain replied smoothly, without discernible emotion. “And siding with the goblins? Not quite, although I have done so several times in my life. For duty and all. Frightfully stupid creatures. Anarchy must fester in this land to make it ripe for His taking. Pain and destruction. Horror and atrocity. British must fall. Tyball can achieve this end, though he thinks he benefits only himself.”

Raltiir looked at him as if he were a lunatic. “Thou art madder than Sutek himself!”

“You wouldn’t understand. You are an infidel. You don’t follow the Eight Virtues.” Banin said contemptuously. “You are worse than a desert nomad.”

Raltiir squinted. Banin no longer spoke in the Britannian dialect. He sounded…odd.

The ranger dropped his bow and quiver, now empty, and took out a belt knife. It was then that Raltiir noticed the gold ring on his finger. A gold signet ring, with the square-jawed, leering malevolent visage of some alien deity. It hadn’t been there before.

“It will be long before He comes, long after even my own passing. But I live to serve.” Banin said.

“Thou wilt not slaughter me like a lamb!” Raltiir rasped, rising to his feet. His thigh exploded into fiery pain, but through sheer effort of will he limped over to the chasm edge. Banin stalked him unhurriedly. The shouts of goblins and trolls echoed down the hall, signalling that more sentries were coming. It was either die at the hands of Tyball’s lackeys, or at the end of the knife of this fanatical maniac. Raltiir did not intent to die by either of these undeserving louts. “Only one thing can kill Raltiir, the most notorious brigand of Yew!” With that, he fell into the chasm.

Banin watched, expressionless. He turned casually to see the goblins and trolls charging out of the darkness towards him, intent on extreme death.

“Silence speaks no words of His Grand Agenda.” Banin said softly.

He paced backwards slowly, deliberately, reaching the edge. A short bounce and he followed Raltiir’s plummet, to be consigned to the hungry liquid fire.

The chamber was small. Ringed by a rim of lava veins, it was an underground pocket of sorts. It was home only to debris…and vermin. A giant brown rat, the Tan Rat as they called the overgrown rodents down here, patrolled the vicinity near a block of out thrust wall. Upon seeing Vitalar, it screeched in outrage and launched itself at him, leaping for his throat. Vitalar had dealt with giant rats many times before, hence his automatic response.

Leaning to one side, his dagger whipped out of its sheath to slash the pest. The vermin squealed as it flew over his shoulder, mortally wounded, and bounced off the rock wall, coming to a violent rest on the ground. It writhed for several moments, then lay still.

Vitalar headed for the block of out thrust wall. He reasoned that something may haven been hidden there. He was right; when he made his way around the bock, being careful not to step in the seething veins of lava, he discovered a small alcove where an ascending stairway resided. Upwards he ventured, thankfully leaving the claustrophobic ambience of the small chamber behind.

Light of an indiscernible source provided a beacon above and ahead. The stairway was straight, steep, and narrow. His footsteps echoed ominously. The knight hastened his pace. When he reached the landing, he entered another chamber, one a little larger than the last. The walls were constructed of blue-purple stone blocks, uneven, but undeniably ancient. On the other side of the vault, heaps of treasure had been piled. Gold jewels, precious regalia…enough treasure to make him a minor lord.

Yet this treasury was not unguarded. Three earth golems, brown and broad of shoulder, not unlike a man but visages strangely devoid of emotion, stood around the treasure, as stiff and straight-backed as statues. Their eyes, however, possessed a silvery glint, one that indicated intelligence, however faint. Most golems were mindless automatons of elemental nature, created and programmed as superior guardians by magical arts. There were some, however, that possessed varying degrees of intelligence, whether crafted by intent or freak accident none could say, except that they were old. Very old.

A slight flapping sound brought Vitalar’s head up. Small niches very close to the ceiling, positioned in the high corners of the vault, were home to diminutive, greenish winged creatures. Their purple wings flapped lazily as they launched effortlessly from their niches to scrutinize him.

Imps. A rarer species than that one couldn’t look to find. Virtually extinct everywhere else in Britannia, and rightfully so, the imps were apparently a conglomeration of the most vile kind, a damnable arcane coalescence of monkey, demon and part other creature or creatures unknown. It was said they were distantly related to the daemons, and as such had origins beyond Britannia. They were a most annoying pest either way, deserving only of utter extermination.

Vitalar held his dagger ready. The imps, of the three or four that were present, he could take with ease. The golems, however, he would be hard pressed to fight, even if he were furnished with a battle axe and a squad of seasoned knights. It was a good thing they were peaceful. He hoped.

A childish, high-pitched cackling pierced the air, and one of the braver imps dived in to flutter only inches before his face.

“He he hee!” the imp screeched, red eyes radiating naught but permanent mischief. “Welcome, says I to thee!”

Vitalar eyed the pesky avian askance. “What dost thou want, foul creature?”

And so the imp began to rant:


‘Hither another comes along

Seeking something

Pray that thou dost not tread wrong

Or it shalt be the song of death thou shalt sing!’


“What in the name of Truth art thou babbling about, imp?” Vitalar demanded.


‘To seek out the mad mage,

Brave and noble a knight you must be

To dare to face his rage

But it is his deadly traps that you cannot see

That wilt trap you in death’s cage’


“Traps? You speak of Tyball? How can I face him? How can I elude these traps? Speak, imp!”


‘Can you reign your avarice?

Gold and jewels lie here aplenty

But ‘tis the riddle you must also solve

You must use your resolve’


“Enough of this trickery! Speak clearly, imp, or I shalt remove thy puny skull and affix it upon the hilt of my dagger!”


‘He he he he he!

Temper, temper, Mr Knight

Or your health might succumb to blight!

‘Tis patience you need to win by the dark one’s maze!

Find the crown and the gold path wilt be in thy sight!

But thy must be wary of the dark one’s craze!’


“How didst thou obtain this crown?”


‘Master thief am I!

Snatched it from under the dark one’s nose

His minions did I deftly slip by

Foolish were they to doze

For their laziness did they pay the price

By horrible fate did they die

Oh, ‘twas a fate that was not so very nice!’


“Where is this crown?”


‘He he he he he!

Canst not just give crown to anyone

Must be worthy

Thus far the number that have proven worthy is none!

Must not be greedy

No need for such darkness seedy

Can you reign your avarice?

Much treasure lies here!

‘Tis the traps of greed you must evade first

Overcome that gold thirst!

Find the crown, then face your fear!’


“I fear nothing, knave!” Vitalar could not help but wince a little at that statement.


‘He he he!

Lacking of Honesty

One Virtue all good men should have

You doubt your cause!

A thing to which the Virtues cannot give applause!’


“Enough of these riddles! I see many crowns and many treasures! I might as well just take all of them to be sure!”


‘Can you reign your avarice?

Can you overwhelm the traps of greed?

‘Tis not good to be death’s feed!

Traps aplenty!

Temptations aplenty!

Can you weigh your greed against need?

Dost thou have the patience to survive?

The Virtue to leave this place alive?

Only the crown you may take

The one that reveals the golden path

Choose well, for your sake

Haste is such a waste, brave knight!

For much of the treasure in your sight,

Is ours that we wilt not give up without a fight!

Take the crown! Find it now in all this mess!

Which one is it, can you guess?’


“I suppose there is only one way to find out.” Vitalar said, resigned to his fate.


‘He he hee!

We’ll be watching thee!’

Vitalar turned to the pile of treasure. It glinted in the flickering light of the mounted torches. The golems stepped aside, ponderously slow. He eyed them warily. They stared back blankly, seemingly complacent, but Vitalar knew they were as vigilant as an eyrie of hawks.

So he was looking for a crown, was he? Well, at least that ruled out the coins, goblets, jewels and sceptres

piled all around. A greater myriad of valuables Vitalar had not seen since King Goldthirst’s treasury.

The problem was, there was more than one crown there. Crowns of different kinds. Gold crowns begemmed on the crenellations. Crowns of silver inlaid with old and vice versa. Jagged crowns. How in Lord British’s name was he to pick the right one from this plethora of regalia?

He based his decision on chance. Reaching out to grab an ornate crown adorned with a milky white gem encrusted upon the most prominent forward central crenellation, he approached slowly and carefully. He felt the eyes of the watchers intently on his back.

It occurred so suddenly that Vitlaar did not even realize he had been wounded until his blood started dripping onto the floor, warm and slick. In worrisome amounts.

A red bolt of arcane energy had shot from the crown, boring through the mail and striking a deep hole into his ribs. His entire torso felt as if it were on fire, and he hunched over, gripping his wound and gasping. The crown had been most deviously trapped.

“He he he!” the imp laughed behind him. “You lose! Wrong crown! You have fallen to our ploys!” The imp clicked its fingers twice. “Get him, boys!”

The golems closed in, intent on beating Vitalar to a pulp.

The old knight, breathing raggedly, saw that a section of the wall - a secret door - had opened. Why it had done so now, he did not care. It provided escape, and hence he limped towards it as fast as he could, his blood leaving a trail behind him. The door slammed shut right behind him, in sync with the imp’s muted laughter.

Gasping for breath - every gulp of air was unbearably painful - Vitalar looked up at the rising staircase before him. He was breathing profusely and becoming dizzy - vertigo was encroaching. He thought he could hear the roar of fire in the distance.

Slowly he climbed, each step an effort, growing weaker with every inch of ascent. Closer did the roars and hisses sound, until he reached the landing and literally crawled into a corridor. Down some distance, the back of a red-robed figure faced him. He launched barrages of fire and lightning at two armoured warriors, who haplessly ducked and dodged the lethal mystical projectiles.

Vitalar squinted. He thought he recognized them. Then it hit him. They were Simmond and Saloria! But where were the others? No matter. He had to help them against the red maniac. He began to heave himself up onto his knees, holding onto his dagger tightly. The hilt was slick with his blood and nervous sweat.

The red mage cackled as a stream of flame launched from the tip of his finger, aimed for the giant knight. Simmond dropped to the ground, the fire spreading across the wall behind him.

Saloria roared furiously and charged, brandishing her shortsword. The red mage merely smirked and contemptuously raised his hand, summoning a fireball. It launched with fantastical speed, engulfing Saloria and reducing her to ash before she could even get within ten paces of him.

Simmond rose to his feet, but a lightning bolt took him in the chest, leaving a deadly black scorch mark. A mortal wound. With the knight on his back gasping for breath, the malevolent wizard finished the job, consigning him to savage flame.

“Ah, roast flambe knight. My favourite.” the red mage said wickedly, cackling to himself.

He whirled around to catch Vitalar in the act of hurling a dagger at him. A simple flourish of his hand, and a wall of fire rushed towards the wounded knight. The flying dagger simply disappeared into oblivion as the unstoppable wave approached.

Vitalar could only sit there on his knees in resigned defeat, the fiery face of certain death rushing to meet him. It was in that half-moment that he finally realized that righteousness did not always ensure victory. The Virtues did not always prevail. In all his years of fighting against evil, he had always won, through Virtue and morality. It was quite a sobering revelation in that half-moment before death, and it was to be his last thought. No more fear, just acceptance.

The flames engulfed him, frizzled him away and turned him to ash.

Vitalar’s doubts, both in himself and Virtue, had been justified.


Tyball studied the outline of ashes that marked where the three knights had burned. He scratched his beard in annoyance. How could they have gotten so close to his lair? Even though only three of the piteous fools had made it through his gauntlet of death, it was still a worrying thought that his underground domain was not impenetrable after all.

It seemed that his lackeys, those who had survived the onslaught of the invaders, would need another lesson. No doubt once Tyball had expended his ire, very few would remain alive and unscathed. He would need to recruit more minions. The offers of gold would attract many of the decadent of the Abyss. The fact that the gold did not exist was immaterial. What the fools didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Yet.

Striding over to the entrance of his marble maze, he looked at the creation proudly. Without the crown, no one could get through that death trap. Not even himself. Hence his teleportation abilities. It appeared that he would need as many safeguards as possible now that the inhabitants of the Abyss were obviously prepared to rally against him with such tenacious force. Perhaps this latest defeat at his terribly powerful hands would deter further interdictions, perhaps not. It was better to be safe than sorry. All the more to hasten the manufacture of the Orb.

So many things to do and so little time to do it all. The Slasher of Veils was slowly breaking free from the Chamber of Virtue, further emphasizing the need for speed. He need an unspoiled virgin next. Baron Almric’s daughter looked like a promising candidate. Once he had finished the completion of his defences, he would turn to devising a means for her kidnapping.

Then another thought entered his head suddenly. Garamon.

Tyball was well-versed in the mysteries of the dead and undead. Garamon had died cruelly at his hands, and with his level of power, could easily rise in the spectral form and find a way to defeat his machinations. He could not allow that. But…shackles could be imposed upon his restless spirit if he were to be buried in a more desultory fashion.

Tyball did not relish grave desecration, especially those of his own relatives, but he had to do what he had to do for the benefit of Britannia. And himself, of course. They would all understand in the end. Rubbing his hands together in grim anticipation, Tyball turned his train of thought to returning to the tombs and digging up his brother’s body. Last he recalled, there was a nice secluded place on the eighth level of the Abyss where he could dump Garamon’s corpse, near a perfectly friendly stone golem.

Last of all, he’d need somebody to clean up these ashes. The lair of a mad tyrant had to spick and span, after all.

There was a time long ago

When knights both fair and bold

Braved a fate they did not know

‘Twas to death their souls were sold.


Many a peril did they face,

Beasts with teeth to rip flesh from bone

Creatures of shadow they could not race

Forever wary of that monstrous moan

Down they went into lands with darkness sown


They travelled afar beneath the ground,

Where foulness roamed and lurked abound.

Seeking out the evil one,

The man who hated all, loved none.


Many a chasm did they leap,

Over pits and holes where lava would seep,

Oh, those knights did plunge deep,

Seeking out the Evil One’s keep


They fought for Virtue

They fought for right

Oh, it was a quite a sight,

Faced with enemies of considerable might,

Onward they would fight!

Upholding Valour,

Brandishing Honour,

Banishing all that shed the light!

But ‘twas death they found in the Lair of Night!


Brave as they were,

Numbered with many a good sir,

They could not face the Evil One,

The fellow from whom they should have run


A powerful figure was he indeed,

Tainted with the darkness seed,

Dealer of vile demonspawn

Of all goodness was he forlorn.


An Evil One named Tyball,

Who had many minions in his thrall,

Black magics rife in his hands,

Spells numbered to rival the desert’s sands,

Fearsome in every way,

‘Twas madness he could not hold at bay,


He summoned the Demon from Hell,

Slasher of Veils, a creature so fell

Bound to it he wished to be

All his might he wanted the world to see.


The Knights outmatched in all ways save none,

Onward they pressed with temerity,

Slaying goblins with alacrity,

Deep were they in severity

Never again to see the sun


Deep in the dark did they war,

Courage beyond bounds did they soar,

But naught for all did it do,

Against the Evil One,

For he could be beaten by scarce few.


A sweep of his hand, a cast of fire,

Manifestation of his hateful ire,

Many a knight went to funeral pyre

And still the Evil One did not tire


Vitalar! Vitalar!

Oh, how he journeyed afar!

Deep in holes!

Saviour of souls!

Bane of the Evil One!

Never again was he to see the sun


Vitalar! Vitalar! Doubtful was he in his Virtue

Cabirus gone, tenets held by so very few,

Faced with doubt and uncertainty,

He faced Tyball with audacity


Betrayed by friends and foes alike,

Onward did brave Vitalar go,

Spitting defiance and pallid oath,

Resistance that Tyball did quite loathe,

A mighty fight did ensue

A battle for dearest Virtue,

A struggle for sacred good!

Avail Vitalar did it naught

Victory he sought,

Death he found,

Blazed away in flame and hate,

And Tyball’s wrath was placate,

Leaving naught behind of his foe,

Not even a burial mound.


Lost is he forever more,

Gone for good is Vitalar,

He travelled afar,

In Virtues did he soar,

Despite his doubt,

He came about,

To fight the Evil One!

-Journey in the Dark,

by Corby, Scribe of Sir Cabirus



‘Doubt only becomes justified when it is allowed to proliferate.’

-Ancient Gargish proverb, believed to

have originated from the

Codex of Ultimate Wisdom

in the days before the First Age of Darkness

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