The ground shifted as though it was floating on water as Drake surfaced from a sudden blackout. Groaning, he tried to rise to his feet. Then his body was yanked to the side. The ground was giving way. Or rather the mountain of debris he had been lying upon. It trundled down a deep dark hole that swallowed every noise as though it had no bottom.
Drake quickly caught his footing and jumped off, landing just out of reach. He still backed off further to avoid being pummeled by the rocks flying every which way. They did so for a minute longer. Then silence filled the void, giving Drake a chance to look around. Foreboding darkness stretched in all directions, only held together by a sea of cracked rocks.
“Where the hell am I?”
Somewhere in the World Below. Or so I would assume after falling all this way. Something seems ... off, though.
“What do you mean?”
Look around. What do you see?
Drake did so once more, seeing no difference to before. “Darkness.”
Exactly. But that shouldn't be. You're a vampire, not a human. Darkness means nothing to us. Or it shouldn't. Also, look to your left.
Drake turned and saw nothing, so he stepped a little closer. A rocky wall emerged from the darkness, small crystals jutting from within. They glowed like dying fireflies, incapable of piercing the darkness.
Those should be glowing much stronger, like a lantern at least. But something dims their light. Magic, most likely. One whose source I can't make out.
“Let's just be careful and find the others. They should be around here somewhere, right? The room we fell from wasn't that big.”
But we fell for a quite a while. Normal people would be dead by now.
“Even Maximilian doesn't count as normal, so shut up and let's move.”
Unsheathing Carrazon, Drake looked around, not sure where to go. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Calling for his friends while surrounded by ominous darkness did not seem like a bright idea. Therefore, he walked up to the wall, giving his eyes something to follow while reducing the directions he could have been attacked from.
“Left or right?”
Are you asking me?
“Do you see anyone else?”
Drake smiled and turned right instead.
Asshole! I should just take over right now.
“Because I went the other way? I just asked for your opinion. Nothing more.”
The beast didn't respond, so Drake finally moved on. It didn't take long for him to reach another wall, this one blocking his path. So he turned again and followed it toward the end. Doing so a few more times brought him back to the hole from earlier.
“What the hell? Why is there no exit?”
Might be like the forest with those giant spiders. Something to keep us trapped. There's just no enemies this time.
“So I should be able to break through, right?”
He gripped his sword, stepped away from the wall, then unleashed a wave of darkness that should have broken through easily. Instead, it simply faded like a bank of fog. He tried again and again. The result remained the same.
“Shit! What now?”
How about … you jump?
“Into a bottomless pit? Are you crazy?”
Might be the only way to leave this trap. One a sane person wouldn't expect, so they'll run around and around, wasting precious time.
“Hm...” Drake walked toward the hole and knelt down by its side. He then grabbed a rock the size of his fist and flung it down, watching closely. It simply vanished in the darkness like expected. Next, he conjured a fireball and dropped it slowly. It was snuffed out in seconds for no apparent reason.
See? Might be the threshold between reality and this construct.
“You better be right.”
If not, I'm done for too. And what else are you gonna do? Blast the walls till your powers are spent?
Drake sighed and sheathed his blade. Rising to his feet, he took a deep breath while eyeing the darkness. Then he jumped.
Stale air rushed past Drake's body, its consistency reminiscent of water. But the longer he fell, the more it pushed back, as though the whole thing had suddenly become alive. Drake stemmed himself against it, flailing around and shifting his weight until he suddenly came face to face with the ground.
He smashed right into it, having no time to even raise his hands. His head throbbed in response and a weird grating sound dug itself into his brain as though someone was grinding his skull into dust. The latter actually came from somewhere in the room, though. He realized as much when he pulled himself to his feet and heard it echo all around him, obfuscating its source.
Drawing Carrazon, Drake spun around. The room he found himself in looked identical to the one he had come from, up to the rubble flanked by the hole.
Jump again? offered the beast.
“First, I'll investigate this noise.”
He didn't have to look long. One of the walls had somehow come alive, its crystals forming eyeballs and sharp teeth. The latter were munching on the ground while giant, rocky hands dragged the creature along the floor. A crumbled body lay just out of reach.
Drake darted to his friend and pulled him closer to the hole. The monstrous wall howled in rage, then snapped its teeth together, causing a shockwave that rippled through the room. Drake stemmed himself against it and responded with a shockwave of his own. It fizzled out just like earlier, never even touching the beast.
“Dammit.” Drake lowered his gaze. “Maximilian, can you hear me?”
Maximilian could not. Blood trickled from his mouth and a dozen other wounds, but for now, he was still breathing. And it was certainly preferable to having his skull smashed in, which the fall alone should easily have accomplished.
What a shame. Guess distorting reality dampened his fall.
Drake ignored the beast and slung Maximilian over his shoulder. Holding him tight, he waltzed toward the hole while the wall flailed around, desperately trying to reach its prey. When that proved pointless, the creature raised its fists and slammed them both into the ground. The tremor sent Drake reeling forward and flung him into the darkness before he could prepare himself.
The next thing he knew was water clashing above his head. It wrenched Maximilian from his fingers and ripped them both apart. Drake sank into darkness while some kind of giant eel wrapped its fluorescent, pulsing body around his friend and dragged him away.
Drake followed swiftly, breaking the surface in seconds. The eel was halfway out of the water by then, its body worming its way into a hole that Drake could never have reached without a solid surface to jump from. Climbing would have been equally impossible as the turbulent water had made the wall all slippery. Therefore, Drake had no choice but to swing his blade and risk hitting Maximilian too. The end result couldn't possibly be worse than being swallowed alive. Or whatever else the creature had in mind.
Its upper body burst into a gooey mess while the rest slipped back into the water, flailing around as though it was alive. Drake paddled toward it and wrested Maximilian free, all the while slashing around to sever what little of the beast remained—not so easy with water dampening his blows and entrails obscuring his vision.
Eventually, they both surfaced again, Maximilian still unconscious and now with water filling his lungs. Drake held him tight and quickly steered toward a small protrusion jutting from a wall opposite the one the eel had tried to escape through. Shoving Maximilian upon it, he followed swiftly and began to resuscitate him. Half a minute later, Maximilian's eyes flew open and he spun himself around, coughing up all the water he had swallowed. His strength faded before he was done and Drake was forced to pull him back before he plunged into the icy current.
Propping Maximilian against the wall, he said, “Are you okay now?”
“Oh yeah,” croaked Maximilian, “if you ignore my stomach feeling like a bottomless pit and my head throbbing as though I've drowned in alcohol.”
“Could have been a lot worse given where we are.”
Maximilian blinked a few times, trying to focus his vision. “And where would that be? I only remember blinding light … and then me waking up here.”
“The World Below, apparently. Not a friendly place given that both a living wall and a giant eel were trying to eat you just moments ago.”
“Tell me when something is not trying to kill us for a change.”
Drake chuckled and rose to his feet. He then leapt to the top of the wall and had a look around. The cave they had landed in seemed undoubtedly real, with slopes going up and down, water gushing from above, stalactites hanging from the ceiling, and, most importantly, the darkness not being absolute.
The same crystals he had seen above cast pulsing lights all throughout the cave. Neither the ground nor the ceiling were spared, although the latter was mostly occupied by crystal shard left behind by mining operations. Some of the walls had also been plundered, leaving mortals like Maximilian blind every few steps.
“How's it looking?” yelled Maximilian just then. “Anything else trying to kill us?”
“A swarm of bats hanging from the ceiling, maybe.” Said bats hadn't budged an inch even when the eel was blown to bits, however. Which isn't to say they couldn't be dangerous. But sometimes, bats are simply bats. Even deep beneath the earth, where horrors beyond imagination have been slumbering since time immemorial.
“I can deal with bats. So help me up there.”
Drake did so and gave Maximilian a chance to look around. Darkness met his gaze in all directions, barely impeded by the light shining through cracks in the ground. Even Drake vanished from sight after taking a few steps away. Therefore, Maximilian drew Elegnis and raised it like a torch. Its blade flared up and cast pale light on his immediate surroundings. Drake spun around the moment it happened and cocked an eyebrow.
“You're using your sword like a torch?”
“It's either that or walking around blindly.” He swung Elegnis from side to side, stirring up a swarm of ant-like creatures who burst from the ground and scurried away, squeaking all throughout. Only when the last of them had vanished in the blackness did silence fall once more. Maximilian watched them till the end, then turned to Drake again. “So, any idea where the others are?”
“I haven't found them yet. And they don't seem to be nearby.” His eyes rose to the ceiling. “So maybe … they're still trapped above.”
Maximilian followed his gaze and raised Elegnis high, but its light was incapable of reaching the ceiling. “What are you talking about?”
Drake quickly recapped what had happened.
“So you think they're trapped on a higher layer and haven't found the way out yet?”
“Would certainly make sense given that the only other room I found was yours.” Images of Feyadal's corpse-like body flashed throughout his mind. “And Feyadal didn't seem like he'd be in any condition to escape.”
“Yeah … but how'd that happen anyway? I thought he couldn't use magic anymore.”
“Alyssa claimed it was Mimeidr's doing. Must have been a last ditch effort to stop Ri'zzar.”
“And it worked out perfectly!” He cast his gaze around. “Well, except for us being stuck down here. And Feyadal's body most likely going missing. But at least he went out fighting. That's all a warrior could possibly hope for.”
“So you'd rather die than spend the rest of your days with Jessica?”
“Of course not. But I'd rather die protecting those I hold dear than waste away like my grandfather did. He couldn't walk for five whole years. Could barely keep his food down. And eventually, he didn't recognize a single one of us. So he might as well have been dead already.”
“Oh … I'm sorry.”
“Don't be. He lived a long and happy life. That's all that matters. So let's make sure we do so too.” He swung his sword once more. “There has to be an exit around here somewhere.”
“Maybe. But let's look for Alyssa first. Perhaps she escaped ahead of us.”
Maximilian nodded. “After you. I'm still mostly blind here.”
So Drake took the lead and Maximilian followed. Their first destination was the nearby wall so Maximilian could see the path more clearly. From there, they moved toward the back of the cave, where a small corridor connected to an even larger cavern. Most of it was inaccessible, however, as the underground river flowed to their left while the other side dropped down sharply, revealing a whole network of floating bridges descending deep into the earth. All they could do was make their way to a fork in the road and continue from there.
Maximilian checked out both directions while Drake kept lookout at the fork itself, his eyes jumping from the water to the hole and back again. Not a single monster showed its face.
“This path seems to be going up,” yelled Maximilian from the leftmost path.
“But still no sign of Alyssa?”
“Nor of anyone else.”
Drake frowned and looked back to where they had come from. Another giant eel had surfaced in the distance. Its body was swaying from side to side, perhaps waiting for a large catch to make itself known.
“Perhaps we should head back and wait in the corridor,” said Drake. “Then I can watch the exit of the trap while you can watch my back.”
“And if no one shows up?”
“Then … we move on, eventually. But we have to at least make an effort.”
No we don't. If some stupid elves can't find the way out, then they're not worth our time. Especially in case of that rotting piece of meat that Feyadal has most likely become by now.
Drake didn't bother with an answer and together they returned to the corridor from earlier. Almost there, he stopped in his tracks and turned toward the darkness opening below.
“What is it?” said Maximilian.
“I think I saw something down there. Like a flash of—“
And there it came again: a streak of light zooming through the darkness. It was followed by three others, each appearing further and further away from the wall.
“Is that...?” began Maximilian.
“Arrows!” yelled Drake before jumping off.
“Hey, don't just leave me here! Drake! Goddammit!” Maximilian spun around and raced toward the rightmost path despite having no proof that it would lead to where he hoped.
Drake slammed down in the middle of a bridge and the first thing he saw was Feyadal—alive and well—retreating with Alyssa in tow. Having no time for questions, Drake spun around and raised his sword at whatever was chasing them. Said creature was a giant, floating mouth protruding from a swirling cloud of darkness. The cloud lashed out whenever one of Feyadal's arrows came within reach and flung them far away.
“Anything I should know?” yelled Drake over his shoulder.
“Don't fight it!” yelled Alyssa. “It feeds on pure magic and grows stronger every time.”
Drake backed away, his sword clenched tight. “Are you sure?”
“It wasn't this big when we found it. So yes!”
“What about Feyadal's arrows then?”
“They're solid enough to be seen as a threat. But as you can see, nothing gets close.”
Drake retreated next to the Feyadal while the beast inched ever closer, its teeth snapping loudly and mucus dripping down its flesh. The bridge crumbled from the shockwaves alone, slowly thinning around the edges.
“How about you get it behind it while I distract it from up front?” said Drake to Feyadal.
“Not going to work. The cloud isn't just a shield but also a weapon. Try to get past and it will skewer you like a slab of meat. Also, that thing faces both ways. It's literally nothing but a mouth wherever you look.”
“But you do have a plan, right?”
“Yes,” said Alyssa. “Keep running. It has to give up eventually.”
“Says who? Eating is apparently its only purpose. So why give up now?”
Feyadal unleashed another volley before turning to Drake. “You got a better idea?”
“I think so … yeah.” Waves of darkness leapt from his blade the moment he said so.
“What the hell are you doing?” yelled Alyssa.
Meanwhile, the beast's mouth opened far beyond reason and a sudden maelstrom sucked Drake's magic into the very depths of the creature's throat … or whatever else lay beyond its teeth. Its body rippled the moment it happened, momentarily appearing to have grown in size. The afterimage responsible for said illusion solidified in seconds, making it reality.
“See? What did we—“
Drake unleashed another blast and the beast grew again. Feyadal then threw himself into Drake's way and forced his sword down. “Stop it! You're only making things worse!”
“No I'm not! Just look at it! Do you really think a creature of such proportions could possibly fit through there?” He spun around and pointed to the corridor opening behind Alyssa. It was about as high as two grown men combined, far too small for a creature the size of a house.
“I'm not convinced that that will actually stop it,” said Alyssa. “But fine, let's try it out. Fey, keep shooting. Drake, you blast it again. But only once. Afterward, follow me.” And with that, she spun around and dashed toward the opening.
The beast roared the moment she turned her back on it, unleashing a flurry so powerful that Drake was nearly blown off his feet. He stumbled backward, flailed around, then gripped Carrazon and swung it forward. The suction was reversed as the beast absorbed his magic and Feyadal used that chance to blast it with a charged arrow—a futile effort, just like all the times before.
“It's big enough now, come on!” yelled Alyssa from behind.
Drake spun on his heels and headed for the opening. Once again, he was assaulted by a gust of fetid breath, but this time he made use of it by leaping off the ground and letting himself be flung toward his destination.
“Now you, Fey!” yelled Alyssa. “Just keep backing off so—“
The creature suddenly accelerated by blasting air from its unseen mouth. Feyadal was still too fast and reached the opening a second before impact. The whole cave shook when the beast slammed into the wall and a stalactite behind the group was ripped from the ceiling and drilled its way into the ground. Clouds of dust accompanied its fall, aggravating Alyssa's and Feyadal's throats. They coughed and retched and their eyes teared up while Drake just stood there, his gaze fixed upon the wall of teeth blocking the exit. They opened and closed every few seconds, filling the corridor with a snapping echo that started up again the moment it ceased.
“I think we better move before others of its kind come down here to investigate the noise,” yelled Drake to make himself heard. “Any idea how we can get up again?”
“Yeah, by going through this beast,” said Feyadal. “Apart from that, no idea.”
“Then let's just—“
A sudden hissing noise filled the air and something tugged on Drake's clothes. He spun around and saw the teeth open wide. The beast was trying to suck them in.
“Run!” screamed Drake.
“No,” responded Feyadal calmly, a smile on his lips. “This right here is just what I needed.” He reached for an arrow and held on tight, charging it up. The suction increased all throughout, consuming all the dust, tugging on their clothes and hair, and even making the fallen stalactite quiver in its hole.
“Any time now,” said Drake, his muscles all tensed up.
Feyadal ignored him and kept on charging for so long that his feet began to slither across the ground, barely able to resist the maelstrom now surging through the corridor. And then, just when Alyssa was about to open her mouth, he finally nocked the arrow and sent it flying faster than the eye could follow. It descended deep into the creature's maw and erupted into blinding flash of light. A wail of agony followed as the beast's body dispersed into thin air. Only a crumpled layer of flesh remained, which slowly floated into darkness. The bridge, on the other hand, was gone. The impact must have smashed it too.
“Did you really have to wait so long?” said Drake.
“It worked out, didn't it?”
Alyssa sighed and stepped behind him. “This time, yeah. But there's no need to be so reckless. Not after … it almost got you killed earlier.”
Drake frowned. “Almost? I'm surprised he's even standing. How'd you do that? Lots of potions?”
“No. And I'm honestly not sure. I just came to in these caves and was fine.”
“So he claims anyway,” added Alyssa. “But anyone who channels magic without their body being able to should have burned up without a trace, as their body becomes the catalyst to keep the magic going. Yet here he is, completely unscathed.” She walked around him and peered into his eyes. “That doesn't simply happen. Not without a miracle.”
Feyadal glanced just behind her head. “Perhaps Mimeidr saved me.”
“After pumping your body full of power and draining its own even further?”
“Yes?” replied Feyadal uncertainly.
Alyssa scowled and faced the broken bridge. “Whatever. Let's just get out of here.” And with that, she leapt into the air and made her way toward the other side.
Drake was about to follow, then looked over his shoulder. “You know what really happened, don't you? So why not just tell her the truth?”
“Because there is nothing to tell. I was dying and then I wasn't. That's all there is to it.”
Drake watched him for a moment longer before turning away. “Liar.” And so he too jumped the gap.
Feyadal bit his lips and waited till the others had vanished from sight. He then rolled up his left sleeve and gazed at a spot where his flesh was in a constant state of flux. One second, it looked perfectly fine, and then it would blacken and decay, only seconds from turning into dust. The only reason it kept regenerating was the Splinter of Desolation buried in his flesh. Not all of it, though, as the Splinter itself had cracked in two when Feyadal had struck it earlier. The other was still out there somewhere, calling to him.
But more importantly: it was also on the move, still buried in the flesh of its previous owner. Feyadal could see as much if he simply closed his eyes. So the battle wasn't over yet. It had simply moved beneath the earth, where Ri'zzar knew every corner. But he still had to stopped no matter the cost, because something was calling out to him. Something old and powerful. That's all Feyadal could make out without announcing his presence to Ri'zzar. And that's all he needed to know.
“Are you coming or what?” yelled Alyssa from afar.
Feyadal quickly covered his arm and made his way toward the other side.