~ Assembly of the Dead ~

The remainder of their journey was relatively uneventful, giving Alyssa, who had switched carts, the chance to stitch up Feyadal's clothes. She did so by unraveling her bag of supplies, as most of its contents had been ruined by the dragon's fire. Especially the meat, which now resembled rubber more than actual food.

“You really didn't have to do this,” said Feyadal when Alyssa was finally done.

“But I failed to douse your clothes in time.”

“There was a dragon after us. Erecting a shield was the best you could do.”

“Maybe. But if I'd been a little faster—“

“Well, it doesn't matter now.” He raised his arms and turned them over. While the stitching was well done, there was no hiding the fact that the material used was cheap and rough. He could feel it scrape against his flesh with every move. Only the area around the Splinter of Desolation was entirely unharmed. “I just have to replace them eventually. Until then, my bow will have to do.”

“I hope that's enough.”

Feyadal's muscles tightened. “I can take care of myself … even without magic.”

“I know. It's just—“

“I'm not going to die, if that's what you're worried about.”

“How can I believe that after you almost gave your life to stop Ri'zzar?”

“If I hadn't, we'd all be dead. But Ri'zzar has failed. We just need to put an end to him now.”

Alyssa bit her lips. “You make it sound so easy.”

“And why wouldn't it? He killed his only allies and lost most of his power. And now he's on the run. Not to mention far away from home. We just have to be careful.”

“Maybe.” Alyssa turned around and saw the end of the line up ahead. The carts were slowing in response. “But perhaps there's something out here. Something that would allow him to turn the tables.”

The vision from earlier flashed through Feyadal's mind. He knew exactly where Ri'zzar was going. But why, he couldn't tell. Perhaps the dwarves knew more. It was their homeland after all.

Oddly enough, the station seemed deserted, with no one waiting by the tracks. That alone was reason enough for everyone to draw their weapons.

“Shouldn't there at least be corpses here?” said Drake when they finally embarked. Yet no matter where he looked, no bodies could be seen. Nor any signs of battle. Just empty carts, abandoned crates, and a shipment full of weapons with a note attached.

Maximilian snatched the note and looked it over. “This came from somewhere else. Must have gotten here some time ago judging by the dust covering the shipment.”

“And yet it hasn't been unloaded,” added Feyadal.

“Yeah. Not a good sign.” He dropped the note and eyed every corner. “But who did this … whatever it is? It can't have been Ri'zzar. He would have simply killed them, judging by what happened in the mining camp.”

Feyadal crouched down near the gate leading outside and moved his fingertips along the ground. “Perhaps he erased their bodies so as not to leave a trace. But in that case, there should still be hints as to his presence. If only in the form of blood.”

“But there isn't any?” guessed Maximilian.

“Not as far as I can see. Looks more like everyone just left for some reason.” He rose to his feet and turned to the others. “Alyssa, how about you? Do you feel anything?”

“You mean residual magic? No, nothing beyond the norm. So there can't be have been a battle in the first place, unless Ri'zzar suddenly switched to using weapons instead of magic.”

“Which he couldn't have done, as there's no blood,” added Feyadal. “So … yeah.”

“Guess we'll have to go deeper to find out what happened,” said Maximilian and made his way toward the gate. It couldn't be opened by hand, as he found out after pulling and pushing uselessly, but there was a lever next to it. Shifting it down caused the gate to swing open. A long paved tunnel lay beyond. It was illuminated by lamps made of rock, each of which contained four small windows to allow the light to escape. Another lamp the size of a house rose in the distance, this one standing in the very center of the tunnel.

“Still no one to be seen, eh?” said Drake from next to Maximilian.

“Looks that way. So be ready for an ambush.”

They advanced slightly spread out, with Drake and Maximilian forming the vanguard while Feyadal and Alyssa covered their backs. Yet no ambush ever took place. And no living being could be seen wherever they looked. Not even something as ordinary as a bat. The same held true all the way until the end, when they came upon a fork in the road weaving around an underground wellspring. Two underground rivers branched from within, both of which were as deserted as the remainder of the tunnel.

“Now what?” said Drake and walked up to the central lamp, which also served as a signpost. “The right-hand path goes to the Bellator Valley and the other … is written in a language I can't read. How does that make sense?”

“Perhaps they don't want surface-dwellers to poke around down here,” offered Alyssa and stepped up next to him. “But it's Bel Ga'nahn, the last remaining capital of the dwarven empire. And since I doubt that Ri'zzar is traveling to the surface, that's also our destination.”

Drake eyed the road leading to the capital. It gradually sloped down, then swerved toward a larger tunnel opening toward the west. A massive dwarven statue flanked said tunnel, some of which was coated in flaking gold. Its gaze was fixed upon the fork, revealing a suspicious gleam within both eyes.

Drake cocked his head and focused his vision, instantly realizing that the eyes were empty holes with metal plates hidden beyond. He caught a flash of light whose source lay somewhere down below. Listening closely revealed a humming noise every time the light flared up.

“Something wrong?” asked Maximilian when he noticed Drake gazing into the distance.

“I think … that statue might be some kind of trap.”

“How'd you get that idea? Especially from all the way up here.”

“I'm a vampire, remember? I can improve my senses far beyond what a normal human is capable of. That's how I can see that the eyes are empty and that some kind of metal plates have been fitted behind them. And there's a weird light sparking up every second or so, accompanied by a humming noise. Reminds me of something … but I don't remember what.”

“Oh, I think I know what you mean,” interjected Feyadal. “There's these giant metal towers up in the Bellator Valley, each of which is paired with another. Lightning sparks in-between every time a non-dwarven creature approaches the gate to the World Below. And if any of these creatures prove dangerous, the lightning will burst forth and kill them on the spot. That's what the dwarves claim anyway. I've never seen it happen personally.”

“And you think this might be something similar?” said Drake.

“Certainly sounds like it. So the question is: will it fire upon us … or will it not?” He glanced at his messed-up boots. “I could normally have checked it out myself, but now...”

“Isn't there a spell to make you run as fast as when your boots were still working?”

“Sure, but a spell is something temporary and usually less potent than an enchantment that has been weaved into an object for hours or even days at a time. So I might not be as fast or accelerate too slow, which could be deadly where lightning is concerned.”

Drake turned from side to side, hoping for another way to reach the tunnel. But there wasn't. Even the one leading to the surface went straight up without revealing so much as a single opening. “What else do we do then? Except blow it up, which I'm sure the dwarves wouldn't appreciate.”

What dwarves? Have you seen any so far? For all we know, every single one of them has already been killed. So let's do as you say!

Before Drake could answer, his right hand was already moving by itself. A beam of darkness leapt from Carrazon and ripped the statue into pieces, unveiling a small metal tower hidden within. Another beam destroyed that too, silencing the lightning sparking in-between two metal balls.

“That wasn't me!” yelled Drake quickly, his eyes jumping from Maximilian to Feyadal and then to Alyssa. “The beast just thought it was a good idea. And then I couldn't stop it.”

Maximilian sighed. “Well, at least you were right. It really was a trap. But next time, don't blow it up. Or I'll punch you in the face.”

“I just told you it wasn't me!”

“I know. I wasn't talking to you.”

Drake frowned. “It's still my face!”

“Yeah, so you better keep that beast in check.”

He does realize that you being punched only makes me want to see it more?

Don't you dare!

Or what? You gonna punch yourself too?

Drake groaned and sheathed his blade. If need be, he could pull it quickly anyway. “Let's just keep going. And if someone shows up to complain, let's just say the trap malfunctioned, okay?”

“Sure, why not?” said Maximilian with a smirk.

Still, the caves remained deserted. Even when Bel Ga'nahn finally came into sight, which looked less like a city and more like a giant piece of art. While some buildings were anchored to the ground as usual, many utters jutted from the walls, sometimes merging with the normal buildings down below.

All of these spiraled higher and higher, making it seem like the city was folding in on itself. Only a small spot at the very top had been left untouched, allowing sunlight to filter through. It shone upon a crystal fastened to the very center of the cave with large metal chains, which in turn fractured the light and cast it all around Bel Ga'nahn.

“Must be quite exhausting to get anywhere,” said Maximilian, oblivious to a series of elevators scattered all around the city. None of which were moving at this very moment.

“And yet, even now, there's no one to be seen,” continued Alyssa. “But they can't just all have disappeared. Not the whole city. Not like this!”

“So you still feel nothing?” said Feyadal.

Alyssa shook her head. “But to be honest … it feels a bit empty here. And I don't just mean because there's people missing. It's like … the whole place has been drained.”

Maximilian scratched his head. “Which tells us … what exactly?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn't be so vague. But it's certainly not a natural phenomenon. It can't be.”

Drake pursed his lips and eyed the beam of sunlight far above. “Maybe … the city's fallen victim to the End of Time. But in that case, shouldn't all of it be gone and not just all the dwarves?”

Alyssa's mouth fell open and her head turned slowly. “Oh god … I forgot about that. We didn't stop it. So what happened … to my people? To the woods? To Mimeidr?” She closed her eyes and focused her thoughts, begging the World Tree to make itself known.

Silence was her only answer.

“It's not responding! Why isn't it responding?” She clutched her head and looked around aimlessly. “It can't just be destroyed. Not after we saved it!”

Feyadal grabbed her by the shoulders, very carefully, and looked her in the eyes. “Alyssa, calm down. We're halfway round the globe, so maybe it just didn't hear you. Or maybe it's too weak to answer. Wouldn't be surprising after what Ri'zzar did. Also, I'm sure we would have noticed if Mimeidr was gone. Or you, at least.”

She focused her eyes and forced a smile. “Maybe you're right. But we have to make sure as soon as possible!”

“Agreed. But first, we stop Ri'zzar. And maybe find out what has happened here.”

“Only question is,” began Maximilian while turning to the city and spreading his hands, “where do we start looking? If Ri'zzar is even in here somewhere.”

Everyone turned around, yet no one had a single solid idea. Observing the city for a minute straight didn't change that.

“How about we just climb down first?” offered Drake eventually. “We can always go higher from there.”

So they did just that by following the stairs at the end of the road. Still took them quite a while as the entrance to Bel Ga'nahn lay more than halfway to the top, giving visitors the perfect opportunity to marvel at the city's architecture before descending into its bowels. The elevator next to them could have cut their journey short, but its entrance lay hidden behind an optical illusion that caused it to look like the wall surrounding it—a fact many dwarves liked to point out gleefully when exhausted travelers complained about how difficult it was to get around.

None of these dwarves had survived whatever had happened, leaving the city an empty husk of itself. Every gust of wind now sounded like the wail of a ghost while any sort of movement drew the group's attention. Yet nothing they saw ever hinted at someone else being alive. It was just the wind or a tremor or a figment of their imagination.

Then suddenly, they heard the muttering of a whole lot of voices coming from all around them. Whatever they said was too muffled to be made out, like someone speaking through a wall. And then, out of nowhere, the city came alive. If you can even call it that when every single dwarf they saw was nothing but a translucent figure that could move through solid objects.

“Are those … ghosts?” said Drake.

A dwarf turned toward him, its eyes empty and its mouth opening wide. An otherworldly high-pitched scream escaped its throat and the air itself began to shudder. Other dwarves followed suit, their mouths growing wider and wider, opening to fathomless darkness threatening to devour everything in reach.

“I think we better run!” screamed Feyadal above the noise, but even he couldn't understand himself. Therefore, he waved toward a small passage between two buildings before running right through.

The others followed hard on, abandoning their supplies and keeping their weapons at the ready. Yet the only enemy they fought was the air itself, which had become like water, dampening their every move. They had to pull themselves around corners and put all their strength into every step to keep going. But the dwarves were simply everywhere. They made up a whole city after all. And with every scream that joined the chorus, moving became a little harder.

Eventually, the ground seemed like a swamp, each step taking seconds at a time. That's when the dwarves finally began to move. Not by walking, but by floating. Their bodies flickered as they did so, momentarily unveiling tentacles growing from their backs and lashing through the air. Their tips burst open and snapped at the group like snakes with razor-sharp teeth.

“Get in here!” yelled an unknown voice as a nearby door flew open. No one could be seen beyond, but the soothing light emerging from within returned the air to normal, allowing the group to move again. Feyadal tumbled as it did, almost taking Alyssa with him. She pushed him back to his feet and together they escaped into the light. The others followed in a blink and then the door slammed shut again, leaving nothing but a wall behind.

Drake emerged in a small room bathed in the light of Bel Ga'nahn's crystal, which could be seen hanging just above the window. He eyed it in confusion, then spun around, seeing that the door was gone. The only way to leave the room—which apparently belonged to a tower—was by climbing down a circular staircase next to one of the windows.

“Looks like I found you just in time,” spoke the voice from earlier. It belonged to a middle-aged man sitting behind a desk tucked into a corner of the room. Wild black hair and a bushy beard framed his pudgy face, and most of his body was covered by a garish red robe. A small cap lying in front of him would have completed the outfit.

“Who are you?” said Maximilian, one hand on the hilt of his sword. “And what the hell happened out there?”

The man rose to his feet and bowed slightly. “I am Darabon val Dalgo, a student of the Magic Academy. And before you ask: yes, the academy that's apparently gone missing during the War.”

“So you're saying it's still around after all?” wondered Feyadal.

Darabon shrugged and stat down again. “No idea. It hadn't gone missing when I left. Which I know seems like a very long time. But the thing is, I left a thousand years ago … and somehow skipped ahead.”

Feyadal cocked his head, his eyebrows raised. “You mean to say you traveled through time?”

“Apparently. Unless I was somehow frozen for all these years without realizing it. But whatever the case, I came here a few months ago. Everything was fine back then. For the dwarves at least. Not so much for me, as there was no going back. Neither in time nor to the academy. And not for lack of trying. So I tried to make myself useful in exchange for lodgings and permission to investigate some ruins down below.”

“And there you unleashed an ancient horror?” guessed Maximilian, his eyes trained on Drake.

“If only. “ He rose once more and made his way toward the nearest window. “Maybe then I could reverse this. If it even is reversible.”

“And what exactly are we talking about?” said Drake.

Darabon looked over his shoulder. “Stealing the essence of a living being. That's how the dwarves faded from existence. It happened slowly at first, so no one really noticed. And by the time they did, it was already too late.” He turned away and raised his right hand, wiggling its index finger. “Now all that's left are distant echoes fading in and out of existence. Ghosts, essentially. Ones that try to devour other living beings so they can be whole again. That's what I assume anyway.”

“Wouldn't you have seen this to know about it?” continued Drake.

“The draining part, yes, as not every dwarf became a ghost at once. Becoming whole, though … that's just a guess. And one I will never see confirmed. Because whatever has drained them is still doing so. Otherwise, they would be gone completely, never to return.”

Alyssa peered out a window and let her eyes roam across the streets. “But if their essence is being drained, it has to go somewhere. And it can't just do so instantly.”

“Indeed!” bellowed Darabon. “And I know exactly where it goes … or at least the way it takes. Because only a fool would investigate further.”

“And only a fool would stay here,” added Maximilian. “Which also begs the question: how did you not get drained?”

Darabon turned on his heels and flashed him a toothy grin. “Easy! By staying put. The crystal over there doesn't just amplify the light but also magic. In a very narrow radius. So I couldn't even climb down without risking my life. My clothes might protect me for a moment, but that's all. Just enough time to plunder the city so I don't starve to death.”

Alyssa looked at him. “But if you can open portals, why not leave entirely?”

“Because I don't know how far is safe enough. And I know too little about this place to not teleport into a wall. So staying here is the best option … at least for now.”

“I suppose … especially after seeing how empty the tunnels were.” With that said, Alyssa pursed her lips and walked to Feyadal, mustering his body.

He leaned back ever so slightly. “What are you doing?”

“Just checking if we have been affected too.” So she walked to Drake and also Maximilian, staring for a minute each. Afterward, she touched her brow and closed her eyes. This only took a second. “Doesn't seem to be the case. So it either takes a while to latch on or whatever is responsible doesn't care about us. Or hasn't noticed us yet. Something like that.”

“So what do we do about?” said Maximilian. “Make it stop or leave it alone?”

Alyssa crossed her arms. “Shouldn't that be obvious?”

“Normally, sure. Especially if the dwarves can still be saved. But it isn't our target. And it did devour a whole city. Might not be the kind of creature we can face.”

“But it might be one we need to face,” said Feyadal, remembering the vision he had seen above the dragon's lair. He then turned to face Darabon. “Did someone else pass through recently? A darkelf with a powerful shard embedded in his flesh?”

Darabon kneaded his beard and eyed the ceiling. “Someone did pass through, yes. And they did exude a certain kind of power. But the ghosts weren't active then, so there was no reason for me to get involved.”

“But can you tell us where he went?”

“Into the ruins, without taking so much as a single detour. Which seemed a bit odd at the time. But I didn't care enough to investigate.”

“Hm … so maybe whatever happened down here is connected to Ri'zzar somehow.”

“But how could it, when he was halfway round the globe?” interjected Drake.

“Well, it obviously didn't happen today,” said Alyssa. “And maybe there's an ally we don't know about. Like this other person Modera tried to meet.” She eyed Darabon while saying that, but he showed no response to Modera's name. “There's no reason they couldn't have joined forces after all.”

Maximilian leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “So you're saying he prepared another plan in case the first fell through?”

Alyssa shrugged. “It's certainly a possibility. Although I have no clue as to what he could possibly achieve down here. Using another person's essence might be capable of fueling dark magic, but it shouldn't be enough to get him back on track. Not unless he drained some powerful wizards too.”

“Which he most certainly didn't!” said Darabon as he jabbed a finger into the air. “Unless they somehow kept themselves hidden since the moment I arrived. Which wouldn't make much sense, especially since the dwarves requested my services like every other day.”

“Then let's go take a look!” said Maximilian with a wave of his hand. He then looked at Darabon. “I suppose you can erect a portal that can get us past these ghosts?”

Darabon nodded and turned toward the nearest wall. “I certainly should. And I'm relatively sure that you won't emerge inside a wall.” He slammed his palms together and closed his eyes. A soft glow enveloped his hands and a distant scraping noise filled the air as his palms shifted, one toward him, the other to the wall. The moment they were separated by ninety degrees, he thrust his hands away from him. The air trembled and the wall shuddered, and then the stones became a wooden door. It flew open when Darabon pulled his hands back, revealing a desolate ruin resembling a church.

The image flickered only a second later and suddenly the room was gone. It had been overtaken by a large round square with a pillar in its center. Four statues lines said pillar, each depicting a warrior of ages past judging by the one inscription visible from in the doorway. The statue it belonged to was holding a two-handed sword embedded in the ground, which was adorned with real gems gleaming on its hilt.

More importantly though, was the horde of ghosts crowding the square. There had to be like one hundred one of them, maybe even more. It was difficult to tell with their bodies overlapping and flickering all the time. One of them turned around, saw the door, and started screaming. That's when Darabon slammed it shut. The noise could still be heard echoing throughout the city, if only for a couple of seconds.

“What happened?” wondered Drake when silence fell once more.

“Someone redirected my portal before it could take hold. Guess whoever is responsible doesn't like uninvited visitors. Let me try again.” He repeated the spell again, this time moving slower and gathering more strength. The ground beneath his feet trembled in response and the energy trapped in his palms swelled quickly, almost erupting from his clutches.

Parts of the wall cracked as he summoned his door and a gust of wind blew it wide open. Alyssa clutched her hair so it wouldn't turn into a mess and kept her eyes upon the doorway. It rippled more violently this time, once again switching to the horde of ghosts. Their screams erupted in the blink of an eye and one of them slipped beyond the threshold before the door slammed shut. Its body was then torn apart, erupting into shards of light.

Darabon sighed and wiped his sweaty brow. “Well, at least the barrier's working. But it seems the portal just won't do.”

“Isn't there another entrance?” said Maximilian, who had pushed himself off the wall and was now grasping Elegnis' hilt despite the danger being gone.

Darabon nodded before returning to his desk and slumping down. “There is. All the way on the other side of the ruins. So to reach it by foot, without going through the ghosts, you'd have to take a massive detour through the western tunnels, which might take about a day, if you're walking without pause.”

Feyadal looked out the window to where the screams where slowly fading away. “Isn't there a way to stop these ghosts in their tracks before they do the same to us?”

“Not with any spell I've tried. Which includes stunning, freezing, confusing, silencing, and blinding them. But their presence is too fleeting for magic to take hold. However”—he jabbed his right index finger into the air—“one thing still works just fine. Destroying them. But in that case, they can never be saved. Neither in this life, nor the next, as destroying their spirit will erase them from existence.”

“It's still something to consider as taking the long way around is not an option, “ said Alyssa. “But can't we reach the entrance any other way? Like jumping from building to building so we can drop down next to it?”

Feyadal cleared his throat. “You do remember that my boots are ruined? So I won't be jumping anywhere. Especially not from building to building.”

“Wouldn't be possible anyway,” said Darabon while Alyssa bit her lips. “Because the square is located at the northern tip of the city, where there are no buildings you could jump from. Not ones that have a roof, that is. So the closest you could get is to the southern entrance of the square … which would be the same area where the ghosts are milling about.”

“Can't we run through quickly?” offered Drake.

“Never. Or have you forgotten what happens when they scream? They paralyze everything in reach. And the effect gets stronger the more of them are involved. So given by the numbers we saw … you'd be statues in seconds. Even I couldn't save you then.”

Maximilian exhaled loudly. “Guess destroying them is our best bet after all. For all we know, their minds are gone anyway. Being erased from existence can't possibly be worse. And if they aren't truly lost … then we did what was necessary to save the others.”

“So you're truly going to do this?” said Darabon? “Even if it means facing a creature that might be able to suck you dry in seconds?”

“We have to, or risk a monster being let loose. And the darkelf's dangerous too. Also, if this creature could just suck us dry, why didn't it do so earlier? Why waste all this time draining the city when it could have done so instantly?”

“Well, it did drain hundreds of dwarves. Might have taken some time. But there's just four of you.”

“Maybe. But that's a risk we have to take. Right?” He eyed the others and they nodded back. “So open the portal and let's do this.”

“Fine. But first you need to know that these ruins aren't normal. They're full of riddles, illusions, hidden passages, and also some traps. To make it worse, they're never quite the same. So I can't just give you my solutions.”

“And why is that?”, wondered Drake. “Are there hidden treasures down below?”

Darabon's face deflated slightly. “I wish I knew. But I haven't found anything notable so far. Just ancient books and scrolls, a few gemstones, as well as goblets made of gold. So if there's more, it must be hidden really well. Unfortunately, I also have no map. So I couldn't even tell if there's anything left to be found.”

“Well, you didn't find what drained the dwarves—“

“Unless it was invisible,” interjected Darabon. “Or hidden in plain sight.”

“Sure. Maybe. We won't find out unless we look.” Drake waved toward the wall. “So lead the way.”

Darabon stood up and took a deep breath. “I won't be dropping you directly in the square, though. Not if I can stop it.”

Returning to the wall, he summoned yet another door. It opened to a roof overlooking the square. Everyone watched it for a moment, expecting the scene to shift again. But this one wasn't displaced. And there weren't any ghosts in sight.

“Huh, I'm surprised it worked.” He turned around and raised his hands. “Now one more thing: the entrance lies hidden in the fountain in the back. Might feel real all around, but it's just a well made illusion. So step through the wall and then you'll be inside. Afterward, you're on your own. Unless I manage to make contact, but if the one responsible can redirect my portals, I'm sure he can block me too. So good luck! Maybe then I can finally leave this place again.”

“We'll try our best,” said Maximilian. “But first, one more thing. Who's gonna destroy the ghosts? Feyadal would take too long, so it's either me”—he looked at Drake and Alyssa—“or one of you two.”

Alyssa shook her head. “I'd rather not destroy innocent souls. Even if they're trying to devour us.”

“I see. So, how about it, Drake? Wanna throw a coin?”

“Not necessary,” replied Drake with a cruel smile and a rumbling voice. “I'll tear them apart without remorse. Should save us some time.”

Maximilian snarled. “I was asking for Drake's opinion, not yours. But fine, do whatever you want. As long as Drake doesn't complain.”

Darabon watched them in confusion, his mouth hanging open. Then he swallowed his question and returned to his desk.

“He's fine with it,” claimed the beast, showing no proof whatsoever. “So can we go already? All this talking has been really dull. Almost fell asleep in here.”

“I don't see why not,” said Maximilian. Then he turned to Darabon. “Or is there something else we should know?”

“Don't think so, no. Just stay alive!”

The beast chuckled. “A bit difficult when you're undead.” And then it stepped outside.

The others followed momentarily and stepped up next to Drake, who was surveying the square beneath him while twirling Carrazon with only one hand as though it was a toy.

“Shouldn't take me long,” said the beast, grinning wide. “So stay back and enjoy the show. Or look away. I don't really care.”

Alyssa raised her arm in front of his chest. “Wait. Something seems different now.”

The beast cast her a sidelong glance. “And why should that stop me?”

“I'm sure it won't … but there's children now, see?”

There were indeed. A few dozen at least. They had formed a barrier between the empty parts of the square and the throng of adults, each of whom had sat down to make themselves as small as possible. Some of them swayed from side to side, but otherwise remained stationary.

“This can't be a coincidence,” said Feyadal. “Whoever did this must have heard what we were planning.”

“And now they assume a few ghostly dwarf children will ruin our plans?” added the beast, a wide demonic grin deforming his face. “Such a fool.”

The beast jumped down and swung Carrazon the moment he landed, giving the ghosts no time to react to his presence. The wails of dying children filled the air, soon joined by all the others, whose bodies were torn apart by shockwave after shockwave. Alyssa had her back turned all throughout, even going so far as to cover her ears. But it hardly made a difference. Hundreds of screams swelling at once could not be blocked out so easily.

The central pillar crumbled moments later, 'crushing' what little of the horde remained. The whole square had literally been torn apart by then, now looking like a battlefield. Only the fountain Darabon had mentioned looked perfectly fine. And that despite a massive block slamming right into it.

“All done!” bellowed the beast while heaving Carrazon onto his shoulder. His body then trembled and his smile faltered. “And you left a real mess,” continued Drake.

At least I got thing's done! Leaving it to you would surely have wasted precious minutes of our time. And all that for creatures who were far beyond saving.

Drake opened his mouth as screams started up throughout the city, quickly swelling to a dissonance of rage. The air began to shudder and the ground did too, as though the earth itself wanted to avenge its children. Drake's body grew heavy and Carrazon slammed into the ground. His companions were equally affected, especially once they jumped down the roof.

None of the ghosts could be seen so far, which was about the only reason why the group wasn't frozen in place yet. So they used what little time they had left to march toward the fountain.

“I really hope it's safe in there,” said Maximilian through gritted teeth.

The others didn't reply, too focused on reaching their goal. Drake did so after only a minute and stepped into the fountain. Its water splashed onto his skin and soaked his clothes, feeling absolutely real and refreshing. That's why he stopped at the very back, seeing nothing but a solid wall.

Don't be fooled now. It's just telling your mind to believe something that isn't actually real. You'd realize that too if you focused just a little harder. So come on, move already! One more step will do.

Drake knew it had to be true, yet his body told him that even a vampire couldn't waltz through solid matter without further preparation—a conflict his mind just couldn't resolve. Therefore, he closed his eyes and imagined the opening that must have been there. It worked for about a second. Then the fountain manifested once more, accompanied by dull pressure permeating his skull.

This is really quite annoying. Move, goddammit!

Drake did so and the pressure erupted into a headache so powerful that it threatened to tear his skull apart. And then it faded just as quickly, swallowed by the darkness opening beyond the fountain.

“Thanks,” mumbled Drake and turned around. The square lay right before him now, with the fountain being nothing but a shimmering mirage that scattered the moment he reached through.

Maximilian arrived seconds later—proving how much time Drake had wasted just standing around—and Drake pulled him through to circumvent the safety measures. He still groaned in pain as his body passed the 'wall'. So did Feyadal and Alyssa who arrived moments apart.

All of them filtered into the room Darabon had shown them earlier, which looked even more like a church when entering the normal way. Smashed and rotten pews lined the aisle, leading up to an altar crushed beneath a massive cross. The latter had been fastened to the wall once, as was evident by the rusty mounting left behind.

“Is is just me, or is there something missing here?” said Maximilian after reaching the back and turning in circles for a couple of seconds.

“You mean … like an exit?” said Drake.

“Yeah. This is the chamber Darabon opened a portal to earlier, right? So there should be something in here … somewhere.”

“You better find it fast,” yelled Feyadal, who was standing in the center of the aisle, his bow raised high. Ghosts were already gathering in the square, floating around aimlessly, apparently oblivious as to where their prey had fled to. Their screams had no effect inside the church and could hardly even be heard, but their numbers rose at an alarming rate.

“Okay … Drake, you check the walls to the left. I take the other half. And Alyssa … you check the ground, I guess.”

So Drake and Maximilian went their separate ways, pushing the walls wherever they could and pulling on everything that seemed pullable. Candle holders; rocks; ancient, crumbling scrolls; as well as large paintings came loose in response, revealing absolutely nothing. Alyssa had about the same amount of luck, finding nothing but a crack in the ground, which she herself was responsible in causing.

“Guys, they're getting really close,” said Feyadal urgently.

Looking out the doorway revealed the ghosts milling around the fountain, their numbers now so vast that distinguishing one body from another was entirely impossible.

“Aren't there any hints here?” said Drake while turning in circles, his eyes jumping all around. “I thought this place was full of riddles. So where are they?”

Maximilian picked up the scrolls they had taken and looked them over, even turning them around. All they contained were religious texts with no significance whatsoever. Or maybe he just wasn't seeing it. He did the same with all the paintings, finding even less.

Meanwhile, Alyssa was standing by the cross, her right hand raised above it. As soon as her fingers moved, so did the cross, slowly rising from the ground, then slithering sideways. It fell seconds later, uncovering the shattered altar. Alyssa knelt down and wiped away the debris, first finding absolutely nothing. Then the fragment of a carving came to light. Might have been a hammer. Or a sword. Or another cross. It was impossible to tell with only fragments remaining.

“Find something?” asked Drake from over her shoulder.

“I'm not sure. But the altar should have been the focal point of the whole room, so there might be a clue hidden somewhere.”

“I guess, but shouldn't Darabon have laid it bare already if that's the case?”

“Normally, sure.” She picked up some pieces and held them together, turning them this way and that. “But he also claimed that these ruins are never quite the same. Which means the room might reset itself whenever someone leaves.”

A bright flash of light exploded behind their backs. They spun around and saw the hordes in disarray after one of Feyadal's arrows had burned a hole into their midst.

“Why'd you fire? They weren't in yet!” yelled Maximilian.

“Not yet. But almost. And now they're confused, see?” He nodded to the staggering masses. “For they all know—if they're even capable of thinking—the light came simply out of nowhere. So we still have time. For now. So find this exit already!”

Alyssa returned to assembling the altar while Drake walked around aimlessly, touching everything he hadn't gotten his hands on yet. Nothing made a difference. Maximilian was equally clueless and muttered magic words he might have read in a book. When that accomplished nothing, he demanded the walls to open themselves, or the ground to bare its secrets. None of it accomplished anything.

A rumbling scream erupted suddenly and was then silenced by another flash of light. But this one came too late. The ghosts had found the entrance. Oddly enough, they still didn't swarm the church. Perhaps because they couldn't, as the one ghost now trying to break in was jittery as hell, with its body spasming, billowing, and multiplying. All in all, the creature was a blur. And its scream was fragmented beyond recognition, annihilating its paralyzing powers.

“You might as well blow it up now,” said Maximilian.

“I could. But the whole city seems to have gathered outside. If we destroy them, there's no one left to save.”

“I know that. But it's either us or them. And they might already be a lost cause.”

The screaming swelled, almost reaching its original tone. The ghost slowed down in turn, its face nothing but a gaping hole now.

“Don't do it yet!” yelled Alyssa from behind. “I think I have something.”

Drake dashed toward her, once again looking over her shoulder. “What is it?”

“There's something written below the carving. Pray!”

“Well, it is a church.”

“Sure. But you normally don't need a reminder to pray in church.” She glanced over her shoulder. “And it's all we have.”

“So you'll just … pray now and hope that something happens?”

“I will indeed.”

She dropped the rocks and repositioned herself, now kneeling in front of the altar with her hands clasped together. Closing her eyes, she offered a prayer to Mimeidr and begged for a response, no matter how small. The ground rumbled in response, but the World Tree remained silent.

Alyssa opened her eyes and saw the altar sliding back. A narrow staircase lay beneath, its steps descending far into the darkness. Or rather into another small room, as a torch bursting into flames revealed a second later. A musty stench emanated from below, but it still seemed far more inviting than staying in the city any longer.

“It's open!” she yelled and then raced down.

Feyadal let go off the arrow he'd been holding to make sure the one ghost who was almost through the barrier couldn't give chase. He then spun around and followed the others, who were already running down the stairs at that point. The altar slid shut behind them, preventing the ghosts from giving chase.