Camon drew his sword and took the lantern from Jorn, who then removed his own sword with his one good hand. Camon looked about the room, noticed several doors, went around to each of them, and checked to see if they were locked. None of them were.
“Something seems off here,” Camon said. “They have to know we are here, but where are they? There’s no way they could have missed the ship circling about.”
“Perhaps they think they’re safe from any prying eyes given the hidden port and all?” Jorn suggested.
“That’s possible. But it’s as if they want us to come here,” Camon said.
“Then perhaps we should leave?” Jorn asked.
“No…” Camon said. He gestured to Jorn, indicating that they were the bait. Jorn nodded and then pointed his sword to one of the doors, indicating to Camon to lead on. Camon opened one, and it revealed a staircase going upwards. Camon, along with Jorn, climbed it slowly and cautiously, making as little noise as possible and listening to the echos of water and waves through the stone corridor above. The stairs ended at another broad doorway, and Camon opened it. It creaked slightly, then swung wide as a breeze pushed it back, and it slammed against a wall, sending an echo throughout the fortress that repeated many times over.
Camon looked at Jorn, and then they quickly darted through the door and down the hallway, then stopped.
“Do you hear that?” Camon asked.
“That sounds like animals…” Camon noted, pointing to another door nearby.
Camon walked over to the door and put his ear to it, then opened it, this time guiding it to its open position. He then went into the room, which was multiple stories. He looked around, seeing that he was on a balcony surrounding a pit below. He looked in the pit, and his face scowled. Jorn looked over in horror. Below them were demons like they had seen, perhaps dozens of them circling and leaping up in the pit at them, snapping their huge teeth, and clawing at the pit’s sides. Their grizzled quills and knife-like teeth scraped against the walls with their menacing yellow eyes glowing in a fury. Camon then looked up and saw several things that he thought looked like bats hanging above them, asleep only much larger and more mishappen.
“That’s got to be the thing I saw last night,” Jorn said.
“Let’s get out of here…” Camon said. They turned and backed out of the room. Camon pulled the door closed, and then they moved swiftly away from it.
“We’re never going to find Achara this way,” Jorn noted. “We should split up.”
“No,” Camon said. “We need to stay together.”
“I don’t see the logic in that, but you seem to have this all figured out,” Jorn said.
“Just trust me on this one. For once,” Camon said.
“I hope you’re right,” Jorn said.
They walked down the hallway, checking doors as they went. They checked room after room with no sign of Achara. Most of them were empty, while others had only modest furnishing. They searched for what seemed like hours with not as much as a hint of Achara or whoever kept her. They then came back to the stairs where they had come in. Camon passed it working his way down the hallway again, checking each door as they came. The hallway met another, and they continued to search. Eventually, they came to what Camon thought was the corner of the fortress and found another flight of stairs, going both up and down. He chose up. They climbed up to the next floor before Camon stopped dead in his tracks.
“What is it? Jorn asked.
“Did you feel that?” Camon said.
“Feel what? I felt nothing.”
“Achara… She knows we’re here. She’s…trying to reach me somehow.”
“Can you tell where she is?” Jorn asked.
“She doesn’t know… But they have her now…”
“Then, we’ve got to find her.”
“No,” Camon said. “They need to find us.”
“How?” Jorn said.
“A few upset demons would get their attention,” Camon suggested.
“I don’t like the sound of this,” Jorn objected.
“I know, but if they find us, then we find Achara. That’s how this is going to work.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Jorn said.
“So do I. So do I,” Camon muttered.
Camon went back down the stairs where they had come from and made his way back to the demons. He opened the door and looked at the beasts ravaging in the pit below for a second time. He didn’t like the look of them, but smiled and said. “Light them up.”
“Yes. Cook them!” Camon said.
“Whatever you say…” Jorn said as he closed his eyes. After a few seconds, he opened them and smiled. His eyes started glowing, and his hair stood on end, and the lightning started arcing across his body. He then looked down at the beast and extended his sword, pointing it at one of them. He unleashed the lightning, which struck the beast and then jumped from beast to beast, all of the writhing as the power shot through them.
“That should be good enough,” Camon shouted above the cacophony. Jorn withdrew the power, and they left the room and slammed the door behind them. As they did, they heard from the end of the hallway footsteps, then some figures in robes emerged carrying torches and bearing weapons of all sorts – swords, clubs, maces, flails – basically anything they could find to wield.
“You wanted a fight,” Camon smiled. “Now, you have one.”
“It’s about time,” Jorn said.
The two men squared off to face the oncoming robed figures. Camon ignited his sword as Jorn let lightning arc down the hallway at the approaching figures. It struck the first one as he fell to the ground. They then threw up a defensive shield as they approached. Jorn struck out with the lightning again, which hit the shield and deflected back towards them. Camon threw up his sword, which absorbed the bolt. Camon then advanced with his sword blazing white. The figures summoned an orb and cast it towards Camon, who did not try and block it but dodged it instead, letting it strike the wall behind him. It exploded, collapsing the wall and leaving a gaping hole. Camon then met the figures with his blade, swinging it widely as the arc cut through the shield and struck one of the figures, cutting him down.
More figures emerged from every direction. Camon continued to cut through them. Jorn had now worked himself into a fury, casting the lightning every which way. Everything it touched fell before him. He tried to constrain himself, but wave after wave of the figures kept pouring around them until they were on top of Jorn and had subdued him. Camon was still on his feet but was not fairing much better. They closed in around him and eventually managed to use a polearm to knock the blade out of his hand that clamored as it hit the floor, and it went dark. They then grabbed Camon and wrestled him to the floor and eventually had him bound.
They brought Camon and Jorn together now. Jorn’s face was lacerated and bleeding. He was covered in dirt, sweat, and blood and only barely conscious as the figures in robes held him up. Camon shook his head and noticed blood and sweat coming from his own brow. The figures forced them to walk as best they could, down the hallway where the battle had unfolded, up the stairs a few stories, then into a large, round torchlit room. Opposite where they entered, Camon saw Achara bound against a pole at her hands and feet. The figures forced Camon and Jorn across the room. They then struck them in the legs behind their knees, and they went down on their knees. Jorn howled in pain. A figure emerged from a room at the side and dropped his hood, revealing himself, the Gray Elf. He walked about Camon and Jorn. One of the figures brought Camon’s and Jorn’s swords and handed them to the elf. The elf tossed Jorn’s sword aside but kept Camon’s examining it for several moments.
“Such a remarkable weapon,” the elf said. “I must say, Paladin, you surprised me!”
“Camon?” Achara said as if she was dreaming.
“What have you done to her?” Camon demanded.
“Oh her? She’s fine. She’s just asleep now,” The elf said. “But unfortunately, she believes you are dead. And I would have to if you hadn’t shown up here today. I must say, it’s been quite remarkable how many times you have seemed to evaded death, even from your friend here who was supposed to kill you the first time. You’re quite resourceful. You must be to have been able to divine where this place was and then find someone crazy enough to bring you here. Was it the Sky Elves?”
Camon remained silent.
“No answer then,” the Gray Elf said. “No matter. Your efforts are in vain. Soon, I will use this sword to remove your heads. But I really did not want you to think that your efforts hadn’t gone unnoticed. Truly, you are amazing for a human anyways.”
The Gray Elf gave a signal, and his henchmen gathered up Jorn and Camon and moved them closer to the wall. The Gray Elf then signaled another group, who lifted plating on the floor, revealing a grated floor below the plating. They increased the torches, and they brought Camon and Jorn over the grates, and they looked down. They were staring into the pit of demons, and Camon could see them worked into a frenzy, jumping and leaping at the wall, trying to claw their way up. The bat-like demons were swirling about above the pit as well, shrieking and calling.
“I was impressed when you slew the first one I loosed on the world. It was so close to fulfilling its task, but you had to get in the way. The girl in the North was perfect, a seer who had just conceived, who’s son would carry out the reckoning your miserable race so badly needs. But you thwarted that. But that failure was also my greatest success. You see, Paladin, that is where you betrayed Achara. Her secret was no longer, and she became known to us. And your friends at the monastery – they betrayed her too. They told us everything.
“What did you do to them?” Camon moaned.
“What anyone does for information. Torture them. Well, it wasn’t me, but no matter. I got what I needed from them. But you didn’t give up – you had to find us, and you cost the old man his life in Rhatclang, and at every turn, a wake of destruction has followed you. But I thought the mages finished you in Muangnoi. But now you show up here, which explains why I have three more dead demons in the West. You have managed to cheat death for sure. But your failure is complete now, and you see no matter how many demons you kill, there is always another one to replace it. You only delayed the inevitable, Paladin.”
“I delayed nothing,” Camon said.
“What? Are you going to lecture me about how twisted my mind is? How demented and sinister I am and try and plead with me for the sake of the innocent lives?”
“No,” Camon said plainly. “Because clearly, you don’t care about what is right or good. You’d seek to destroy life indiscriminately. And your fascination with Achara is to mop it up when you’re done. There is no pleading with you because you lack a shred of decency. You are right – the Sky Elves did help me divine this location. They were also right about you. You aren’t the Aforim. You are the Shikutzim. The Abominable Ones. And an abomination you are.”
“It’s easy to talk boldly when you know you have nothing to lose and are about to die. No matter. I care not for your judgments. They mean nothing to me.”
Camon coughed up blood, then spit it on the floor. He began to hum in guttural tones, closing his eyes and focusing inwardly. He could feel the magic sweep over him. The pains subdued as did the bleeding. The color in his face returned, and he stopped humming.
“Magic without stones,” the Gray Elf noticed. “Most impressive. Not many priests can do that.”
“That’s not priest magic…” Camon stammered.
“Then what is it?” the elf asked.
“Paladin magic…” Camon said. “Just like this…” He then closed his eyes and hummed again, and then opened his eyes and gazed at his sword, which began to glow in the Gray Elf’s hands. The blade then burst into flames, and the elf dropped it to the ground and clutched his hands, seared by the white-hot fire.
“Clever, Paladin,” he jeered. “But you’re going to have to do better than that. You’re clearly outmatched here.”
“Maybe so,” Jorn’s voice murmured. “But you two are not the only one with clever tricks.”
“Oh, the wayward son is awake,” the Gray Elf said
Jorn closed his eyes and then opened them a few seconds later with his lightning starting to arc across his body. His captures loosened their grip on him. Jorn struggled to his feet and shouted. Lightning shot from his mouth and face towards the elf. It struck the Gray Elf, but it did not phase him. Jorn let out several more bolts at the Gray Elf, and he simply absorbed them.
“You merely managed to learn how to control what I gave you,” the Gray Elf commented. “I never expected that. Clever, but still quaint. You were supposed to kill the Paladin, but somehow he managed to turn you into a weapon. Now the Paladin and I share a common failure: you.”
“Jorn is no failure,” Camon said.
The Gray Elf laughed allowed, “And I suppose now you are going to tell me how I am going to die?”
“I don’t know how you are going to die,” Camon said.
“Then why defend the mercenary?”
“Because even he has more sensibilities than a boorish brute like you,” Camon said.
“Paladin, you of all people should know that the Light is not what you are told it is. Your highest thoughts of right and wrong? These are childish notions to men like us. You are just either too blinded by your sensibilities to see it, or refuse to for fear of losing yourself to what you know to be true already.”
“And what is that?”
“If you can’t see it, then perhaps you don’t deserve to,” the Gray Elf frowned. “But since I am going to kill you anyway, I might as well tell you. The truth is really quite simple – you know that humanity is weak because they cling to the Light. And I am here to fix that. Well, not me. I’m just the catalyst. Achara will be the one to fix that.”
“You have no idea,” Camon said.
“No idea about what?”
“Isn’t that what you told her? That she had no idea?”
“How do you know what she heard?”
“You obviously have no idea…”
Camon then closed his eyes for a moment and started humming then looked at Achara. The humming built.
“Whatever trick you are doing, it won’t work…” the Gray Elf summarized.
Camon stopped humming and looked at the Gray Elf, then back at Achara, then let out a yell that echoed through the room. It struck Achara, blowing her hair back. She stirred, then came awake.
“As I said,” Camon said. “I have no idea how you are going to die. But she does. And by the way, she has known I’ve been alive this entire time.”
“What have you done?” the Gray Elf screamed.
“I didn’t come here to defeat you. I knew I couldn’t do that. I came here to distract you. You should have kept your eyes on her, but it’s too late now. She will be your reckoning.”
“Impossible!” the Gray Elf screamed. Achara stirred to life and looked at Camon and Jorn. The Gray Elf summoned an orb and started casting it at Camon and Jorn, but went wide and smashed into some of his henchmen.
“I… I… I can’t…. control… my.. hands. What… sorcery… is… this?”
“Your turn to feel the burn,” Achara muttered. She stared at the Gray Elf with fury in her eyes as fear swept over the elf’s face. He turned about-face and, with a look of dismay, started summoning orbs and casting them at everything in sight. They exploded against the henchmen, sending them flying. Some of them raised defensive shields, but the Gray Elf summoned more powerful orbs, one after another sending them flying at the shields and blasting the henchmen into oblivion.
“Stop!” screamed the Gray Elf. “I will give you whatever you desire! Power! Magic! Riches! Name it! It’s yours!”
“No,” Achara said plainly.
The Gray Elf went back to summoning orb after orb, this time casting them into the pit. They impacted on the floor, causing explosions that ripped through the demons that howled in horror with each explosion. He did not stop until there was silence in the pit, and even then, he continued to cast until there was nothing left but heaps of smoldering corpses in the pit below. Their remains burned off like embers, crackling in the silence. The Gray Elf then stood alone. Silence fell over the place, and the Gray Elf looked about with fear and disbelief with his mouth gaping. He looked about the room littered with debris and the corpses of his henchmen. Nothing moved. Only a few torches remained lit that flickered, giving a somber light to the room.
The Gray Elf did an about-face and walked rigidly over to Achara and was standing mere inches from her as she stared him in the face. Her brown eyes went from fury to tears as they flowed down her cheeks.
“You are an animal, not worth the flesh you are made of. And I want you to know before you die that it was not you that freed me. It was Camon. He showed me what it meant to live a life of purpose. And he’s the one who provided me with what I needed to defeat you. And he’s the one who will walk me out of this dungeon, not in chains, but in freedom. And I choose to follow him, not because he makes me, but because he inspires me. And as he said, he knew he couldn’t defeat you. But I can, because he enabled me. You asked me what freedom is. And that’s my answer. And now, you know.”
“You are a foolish girl…”
“Maybe I am, but I am no fool trusting the Paladin.”
The elf then backpedaled and summoned an orb between his hands, growing it larger and larger until the light from it was nearly blinding to everyone in the room. It crackled and sparkled with intensity. The elf stared at the orb and at Achara. “No…No! Don’t do it!” he yelled.
“Goodbye,” Achara said bluntly.
The Gray Elf then turned his hands towards his face and released the orb towards himself. It exploded in a gigantic blast of light and sparks and sounded like thunder. The floor where he had been standing collapsed and fell into the pit below. Much of the surrounding structure too collapsed into the hole. It crashed below, and a billow of smoke and dust rose from the pit and then settled down, and the room was silent again.
Camon got on his feet and found his sword, picking it up the best he could with his bound hands. He leaned it against the wall and used it to cut his bonds, then he went to Achara and cut her loose, followed by Jorn. Afterward, Achara burst into tears, and Camon threw down his sword and embraced her in the low light as she wept violently while he held her amidst the smoke, dirt, and debris.