The Kyrian Chronicles

The Kyrian Chronicles are the next series of Fantasy books I'm writing. I will regulary publish a new chapter that you can access for FREE on this page. I hope you'll enjoy this new series. While the text on this page has been edited a few times, it hasn't yet been through the final copyedit phase, so the text in the final book might be different.

Temporary Artwork by Christian Kallias

 

C H A P T E R
I

 

     Laiyos could hear sounds of thunder strike in the distance and the feel of every raindrop against his face. He slowly opened his eyes. He was standing in a field of tall grass in the middle of nowhere. The sky was a very dark shade of blue. Flashes from thunderstorms illuminated the sky briefly and intermittently. The air was damp and heavy, and Laiyos couldn’t remember how he got here. Raindrops bounced on his face and wet his hair and ran down his face. He was wearing purple armor with a blazon on one side of the pectoral plate, it formed a stylized letter F. His very long black hair was flowing in the storm’s wind. His dark blue eyes were fixed on the horizon.

     I wonder where Dan is? thought Laiyos. One minute they were together in the forest and now he was in this strange, unknown place, all alone.

     What is this place?

     Then a deep resonating voice spoke, as if answering Laiyos’ thoughts.

     “Your Tomb!”

     Laiyos was startled and turned around quickly to see who had spoken. A dark figure was standing behind him. He couldn’t make out the face of the man, it felt more like a shadow, his eyes glowed red, which sent chills down Laiyos’ spine. He then looked straight toward the dark man and asked:

     “Who are you?”

     Another thunder strike split the sky in half, followed by a rumbling sound while the ground he stood on trembled. The rain intensified.

     “Laiyos!”

     “How do you know my name?”

     Laiyos started to feel a pounding ground in his chest. He didn’t understand how he was here and didn’t like the dark energy emanating from the shadowy silhouette facing him. But deep inside he felt that maybe he knew this man from somewhere, his presence seemed familiar somehow.

     “How do you know my name? Answer me!”

     There was a little pause.

     “Are you ready?”

     “For what?”

     “DEATH!”

 

     And as the shadow spoke the word he was already launching himself towards Laiyos at tremendous speed.    Laiyos tried to reach for his sword on his back holster, only to find that it was not there.

     “What the hell?” he said out loud.

     He barely had time to turn back towards his attacker and only to see the shadow throw a punch across his face. It impacted on Laiyos’ chin with full force. He was thrown backwards, pain radiating all over his head, and before he could blink, a terribly powerful kick sent him flying yards away and he crashed ungracefully on the tall grass and muddy ground. Both his cheeks were pounding with pain and his head was spinning.

     Laiyos still couldn’t fathom the sheer power of these two blows, he had never felt anything like this before.   He could feel blood running down his mouth. He wiped it with his fingers and looked at them. His lip must have been cut from one of the blows. When he felt the taste of blood in his mouth, he spit some on the ground. Only when he lifted his head back up did he realize how far away he actually was thrown from the kick he had received. The shadow was now a good ten yards away from him.

     Not really expecting an answer he shouted: “Why are you doing this to me?”

     The shadow started laughing. The sound of laughter echoed in the valley. There was something very ominous about that laugh too.

     “Ha ha ha, don’t you understand, you are the one doing this to yourself?”

     The shadow figured changed position and straightened up, then crossed his arms against his torso and continued talking.

     “And this is nothing compared to how your actions will reflect upon the fate of the universe. Your destiny lies in flames and blood, so beware the choices you make, as you might find yourself unable to bare all the pain and suffering you may inflict upon billions of lives.”

     Laiyos was baffled with what the shadow had just said. What the hell did that mean? He must have had him confused with someone else, because none of it made sense.

     “You’re insane!”

     The shadow didn’t answer.

     “And you’re not making any sense either. What is it you want from me?”

     The shadow looked straight at Laiyos, cocked his head a little to the left.

     “You’re not listening, and I’ve wasted enough time already.”

     Then something happened. The shadows’ eyes started to glow stronger, and a flame appeared out of thin air, engulfed him and started dancing all around his body. At first slowly, but then gaining speed and quickly taking shape.

     “What the hell is this devilry?” said Laiyos, terrified at what was unfolding in front of his eyes.

     “I am afraid you leave me no other choice but to send you back to where you came from.”

     The fire around the shadow grew bigger and brighter and soon took the shape of a dragon whirling around his body like it would be a part of him. It glowed intensely, and even from the distance Laiyos was standing from him, he could feel its sheer power as well as the heat emanating from the whirling dragon. Flames and embers where flying around the shadow now and Laiyos could hear the embers crackle in the wind. Another bolt of lightning briefly lit the sky.

     Laiyos got on his feet with a painful moan and could feel his heart beating harder in his chest. So hard in fact that it felt like it wanted to burst out of his ribcage. Sweat mixed with raindrops and blood on Laiyos’ face as he looked at the terrifying spectacle. He didn’t know what to do, he was paralyzed by fear, his brain unable to comprehend what sorcery he was witnessing.

     The energy dragon quickly gained in size and shone even brighter. That’s when the shadow changed his stance and put his arms on his side, making fists. The dragon started to whirl around him even faster now; soon the shadow took yet another stance and brought his right fist behind his shoulder, ready to launch another strike. Then Laiyos heard the deep resonating voice of his enemy as he threw his fist in Laiyos’ direction.

     “Dragon Flames!” shouted the shadow.

     The dragon aura whirled around his body and fist and launched toward Laiyos, flying through the air. It grew in size even more and opened his mouth. From it came the loudest, most daunting and terrifying growl Laiyos had ever heard in his life.

     In a split second the dragon traveled the distance between them, mouth wide open, ready to eat Laiyos. It had become so big, huge in fact, that there was nothing Laiyos could have done to try to avoid it. In a desperate move to try to shield himself from the horror coming at him, he crossed both his forearms in front of his face and started shouting as loud as he could while bracing for impact. He then felt an explosion within, an intense heat burning his flesh and excruciating pain radiating throughout his entire body.

 

C H A P T E R

II

 

     It was nighttime in the forest. A small campfire was casting subtle shadows of trees on the ground. Suddenly a terrifying scream of fear and pain broke the silence of an otherwise very quite summer night.

     When Laiyos opened his eyes, he was panting, sweating and could barely breathe. What had just happened? A nightmare? But it felt so real. He touched his arms and legs, but didn’t feel any pain. He was also wearing his armor, not that weird contraption from the dream. He could see his sword in front of him in its holster. He had been leaning against a tree in a seated position and must have dozed off. A great sense of relief emanated from within when he realized that he must have dreamed this awful encounter with the shadow. He couldn’t help feeling still shaken to the core by how real it had felt, much more than any other nightmare he ever experienced before. His thinking got interrupted by Dan.

     “You really have a rather strange way of guarding our camp.”

     “Dan! You have no idea how glad I am to see you my friend.”

     “It must have been a really nasty dream then, unless waking up half the forest was your idea all along.”

     Dan cracked a rather amused smile at Laiyos.

     “You have no idea Dan, no idea at all.”

     Laiyos then went on to describe the nightmare he just had with as many details as he could remember. Dan listened carefully.

     “Forgive me for saying this but it’s very worrying. Especially since you still haven’t told me where we are going nor why you need my help.”

     “I know, and I’m sorry for keeping you in the dark for so long. I was instructed to act with both caution and discretion. A few days ago I was summoned by the king to be briefed on current events regarding our war against the demons. Things aren’t looking so good, and unless something is done soon, we may very well be looking at the extinction of our race.”

     “This doesn’t sound good.”

     “I know. That’s why I was given a vital assignment, to find the secret hiding place of the dragons and do whatever it takes to rebuild the old alliance that once existed between our species. Only with their help can we hope to win this war and ultimately survive.”

     “I had no idea things were so bad. Did the king tell you why he chose you for this mission?”

     “I guess mainly because of my bloodline; after all it was my ancestor who brokered the first alliance.”

     “Makes sense. That is if we find the dragons, do you have any idea where to even start looking?”

     “Not really, that’s why I’d like to go see the oracle on the northern peaks of the white regions, deep into Elan’Fendor.”

     “That’s not gonna be an easy trip, the road to Elan’Fendor is long and sown with dangers. Are we supposed to do this alone?”

     “No, we’ll need a full party for this mission. Not to mention that the demons are probably aware we will try to find the dragons, and if that’s the case, they’ll do whatever they can to stop us from doing so. But we can’t afford to let that happen, there’s too much at stake here.”

     Both Laiyos and Dan let that last comment be the last word they spoke for the night. At dawn, Dan extinguished the campfire and they both got up and resumed their walk north.

     After a few paces, Dan looked at Laiyos.

     “When do we meet the others?”

     “They’ll join us half-way.”

     “Who is joining us?”

     “Sasha and Cep, and whomever we can enlist along the way I guess.”

     “Alright, how long do you think we have to find the dragons and convince them to rally to our cause? By t  he way, this is something I’m still trying to wrap my brain around. We’re not exactly in good terms with them.”

     “Not that long. It’s only a matter of weeks before the war escalates and the last battles are going to be fought... And yet more blood will be spilled in this endless war. We all lost already so many friends and family. It is our job, our responsibility even, to make sure their sacrifices were not in vain.”

     “You still blame yourself for Alan’s death don't you?”

     “Who else is there to blame Dan?”

     “The ones truly responsible: the demons.”

     “Perhaps… but things might have been different if I had been by his side.”

     “So that you could have been killed alongside him?”

     “I really doubt that.”

     “You shouldn’t think that way. First of all you can’t change the past and no ifs ever brought anyone back from the dead. You can only try to learn from the past hoping to build a better future.”

     “And what exactly have we learned from the past few decades? To suffer and to die? Every time I close my eyes I see friends dying on the battlefield and people crying over their loved ones, lost needlessly. So please tell me, Dan, what am I supposed to learn from such a dark past?”

     “I don’t have an answer to give you at the moment. But I’m confident that one day someone will, and that it will all make sense.”

     “I hope you’re right, in the meantime we’d better go, because we still have a long way ahead of us.”

     It took them two more days of travel to reach the Warlhan Mountains. Dan and Laiyos stood over a passage between two large mountain chains. The Warlhan Mountains where a beautiful landscape to look at. The reddish orange soil covering them, especially at dusk, gave everything a warm glow.

     Dan inhaled deeply. “Would you look at that view? I never get tired looking at this place. It’s truly beautiful.”

     “Yes, but it’s also the perfect spot for an ambush.”

     “So what? I wouldn’t mind the exercise personally. Walking five days straight isn’t really my favorite way of spending time.”

     “I bet it isn’t, but worry not, I have a feeling you’ll get some exercise soon enough. I am however wondering where our friends are? They should have rejoined us by now. I hope nothing happened to them.”

     “You worry too much my friend, they are perfectly able to fend for themselves, I’m sure they’ll catch up soon.”

     “I hope so.”

     We’re being watched, thought Laiyos.

     Dan felt something coming from behind them and pushed Laiyos out of the way, “Watch out!”

     A fire demon was rushing toward them at high speed. His entire body was covered in flames while its eyes where shining red. As he moved, he left a trail of flames in the air.

     He was almost upon them before either Laiyos or Dan had time to react. They both instinctively drew their blades at the same time and slashed the incoming demon in a reflex move, while getting out of the demon’s path. They both hit the demon on the torso. The blade cuts formed a bright light in the shape of an X on the demon as light bled through the wound. The demon gasped for just a moment but soon fell on his knees. Black blood started pouring from both the wounds and his mouth. Soon the flames around his demon body extinguished as his life force ended and he fell face down in the red soil of the Warlhan Mountains.

     Dan dusted himself off. “Are you alright?”

     “Thanks to you” said Laiyos. “I owe you one”.

     “Don’t mention it,” replied Dan, smiling.

But suddenly Laiyos was struck in the back by a powerful fireball. He dropped his sword and collapsed on the ground face first while smoke rose from his motionless body.

     “LAIYOS!” shouted Dan.

     The words echoed within the Warlhan Mountains.

     Dan turned and saw the demon who attacked Laiyos. He could feel anger invade his very soul. He briefly looked in the direction of Laiyos, but it was clear he had lost consciousness. His teeth clenched, rage coursed his veins like a deadly venom.  He drew out his second saber from his back holster  and faced his enemy, fully determined into cutting the demon to pieces.

     But before he could launch his attack, he felt another threat coming from behind him. Instinctively, and without thinking, he launched himself into the air performing a somersault. While in mid-air he could see from the corner of his eyes the two demons he had felt coming from behind. He crossed his arms and blades while at the highest point of his somersault and used his saber blades as mirrors to pinpoint the demons’ position accurately. When he was right above his enemies he unleashed his attack and slashed through them.

They were taken by surprise, clearly not expecting his backward jump and were both sliced in half. When he landed on the ground, he dropped one knee on the ground and skid backward for tens of yards, leaving a trail of sand in front of him. He saw the bodies of his defeated foes split in half, and almost immediately after, explode into a bloody inferno.

     There was no time to lose though, the demon who attacked Laiyos was already running towards him. Dan was still skidding on the red soil, still in the momentum of his previous attack. When he finally stopped, he put his arms behind his back and threw both his blades toward his opponent with all his might. They spun wildly in the air, rotating so fast they looked like two cyclones flying towards the demon still running toward him.

The eyes of the demon flashed yellow for a brief moment. “Overconfident are we?”

     And as the blades were about to reach him and slice his body, the demon disappeared into thin air, only to re-appear in front of Dan a split second later, his hand pointing at Dan’s face, palm open.

     Hu-ho, not good, thought Dan.

     A fireball started forming in the demon’s hand. At this range it could kill Dan and he knew it. In what was just a split second his thoughts were about how reckless that move had been. But then he was thrown out of the way of the fireball at the exact moment it shot from the demon’s hand. He fell on the ground, his face hurting from scratching it against the coarse red soil.

     He immediately turned around to see who had pushed him away from certain death. His dwarf comrade Cep still had a leg up, ending the kick that pushed Dan out of the way. He put it down, grabbed his axe off his back and adopted a fighting stance. He held it with both hands, murder in his eyes, ready to thrust himself towards the demon.

     Dan quickly glanced in the demon’s direction only to find him already on the move towards Cep. He was almost upon him when he was suddenly struck by a powerful beam of energy coming from behind him. The beam immobilized the demon for a second before it  tore through his ribcage. Black blood oozed from the round-shaped hole. The demon spat black blood. The flames that once danced around the demon withered away. Soon they were completely out and the demon’s burned flesh was all that remained. Another beam of energy hit him on the legs and ice quickly formed around them, rising from the ground to the top of the demon’s head, trapping him into an ice coffin in less than a second.

     Not losing any time, Cep launched himself at the demon and slashed his axe with all his might, exploding the iced demon into a hundred small pieces.

     “Hey! That was my kill,” said a female voice.

     Dan immediately recognized the voice of Sasha, their Elf Mage friend.

     “I was fully ready to finish him off, the way I see it, you’re the one who interfered. Not to mention I was closer to the demon anyway,” answered Cep.

     “Yeah yeah, you always have an excuse.”

     Dan stood up and they all ran towards Laiyos’ still motionless body. There was still a little smoke rising from his back. While most of the blast had been absorbed by his armor, the shock and intensity of the attack had clearly wounded him.

     “Sasha, can you heal him?”

     She nodded. “Move away.”

     Sasha was a beautiful forest elf mage, dressed in purple and gold attire that stuck against the skin and enhanced her lovely curves. She raised her wooden staff and a green spherical light emanated from its tip. Soon the globe of light left the staff and grew in size while in mid-air as it was approaching Laiyos’ body. It engulfed his body and started pulsating for a few moments.

     “That should do it.”

     Dan kneeled down next to Laiyos, as he slowly came about.

     “Laiyos, are you ok?”

     Laiyos moaned. He opened his eyes and got himself to a sitting position. He held his head and looked towards Dan.

     “I think so, what happened?”

     “You got your ass handed to you by a fire demon, that’s what happened. But Sasha got you back on your feet.”

Laiyos turned around and saw his other friends, a little smile forming at the corner of his mouth.

     “Thanks Sasha, really glad to finally see you guys, we were getting worried.”

     “Well actually you were the one doing all the worrying, if I recall,” specified Dan.

     Laiyos shot his friend a smile. “Right.”

     He turned towards Cep. “What took you guys so long?”

     Cep took a step forward.

     “Kinda the same resistance the two of you just fought, fire demons. They are everywhere these days. We had three encounters of our own, not counting the assist here.”

     “I see. How many did we fight? I only remember the one we dispatched before I lost consciousness.”

     Dan got up and started walking towards his swords on the ground a few yards away.

     “They were four total, the one we killed together, I got another two, and Sasha and Cep dispatched the last one, in the nick of time I might add.”

     Sasha smiled widely and said, “You're welcome.”

     Dan waved two fingers away from his forehead as a gesture of both approval and thankfulness.

     A few moments later he was back with both his swords and re-holstered them with a synchronized metallic sound. By then Laiyos was also back on his feet dusting off red sand from all over himself. Dan shot him a look.

     “Told you they’d be fine, didn’t I?”

     “And a good thing we were,” said Sasha, “or your sorry ass would be ash by now.”

     “What did I miss?” inquired Laiyos.

     “Well Mister great swordsman over here thought it would be a good idea to throw both his swords in the air, and almost got himself killed in the process.”

     “That sounds like Dan alright,” said Laiyos.

     “Alright guys, relax, I had things under control.”

     “Yeah right, sure looked like it,” snorted Cep.

     “Can we please change the subject? I believe we have a mission to complete.”

Laiyos decided it was the right time to bring the rest of the party up to speed as per the mission he had received from the king himself. Once they were caught up they resumed their travels toward Elan’Fendor.

 

C H A P T E R

III

     After a couple of days of uneventful traveling, the group arrived at Shadow Forest.

     Cep voiced his apprehension. “Laiyos, please tell me we aren’t going through the forest?”

     “Of course we are. Why wouldn’t we?”

     “It’s Shadow Forest. There’re all sorts of supernatural beasts crawling in there, and . . .”

     “And what?”

     “Well . . .”

     “Spit it out, will you?”

     “It’s haunted. That’s why it’s called Shadow Forest.”

     “Not that again. What’s with you and ghosts?”

     “Look, demons I can deal with, dragons even, but I tend to draw the line at immaterial creatures.”

     “Well, we need to reach the oracle fast, and we can’t lose three days by going around it.”

     “I miss the time we could ride on horses.”

     “We all do, but demons are sneaky bastards. Wiping out all the horses was a tactical strike. They knew it would slow us down.”

     “They’ll pay for this massacre,” said Sasha. “I will see to that if that’s the last thing I do.”

     “Yeah, but first we must make sure we don’t suffer the same fate.”

     Dan nodded in agreement. “Are we certain the oracle can lead us to the dragons? It’s been generations since anybody saw them. What if the demons killed them too?”

     “I don’t think the dragons are extinct. There have been a few isolated sightings over the years. They just decided to leave our continent, or went into hiding somewhere safe. As for the oracle, she’s our best chance of locating them fast, or at least give us a clue for doing so.”

     “Have you ever met the oracle before?”

     “No. I’ve heard of her but, like dragons, it’s been a while since anyone has seen her.”

     “Are we supposed to just knock on her door? I thought she lived in a remote location and has the ability to shield herself from visitors.”

     “I know the legend, Dan. I’m hoping due to the nature of our quest, she’ll grant us an audience.”

     Cep sighed. “Yeah, well, she’d better if we are to cross Shadow-damn-Forest to come and meet her.”

     Laiyos couldn’t help but smile.

     “Would you rather stay behind? We can pick you up on our way back.”

     “Very funny. If you intend to survive I believe you’ll need my help.”

     The group entered the forest. After half an hour’s walk, its density increased. Soon the vegetation grew so dense that it felt like nighttime, even though it was the middle of the day.

     “I don’t like this guys,” said Cep.

     “What else is new?” said Laiyos.

     “The vegetation does seem to be getting denser,” added Sasha.

     “Look! Over there,” said Laiyos.

     The forest was closing in on them, except for a clear path, leaving the group no choice but to take it. It led to an arched entrance made of tree branches. An inscription of symbols, burned into a crude wooden panel, was fixed atop the arch.

     “Sasha, it’s in mage tongue, isn’t it? Can you read it?” asked Laiyos.

     “I don’t read mage.”

     “What?”

     “Just kidding. Let’s see. Hmmm . . . ”

     “Is she for real?” inquired Cep, looking at Dan.

     “I think she’s just trying to break the rather cold mood.”

     “Oh . . . humor. Not my thing.”

     “We hadn’t noticed,” replied Laiyos with a friendly smile.

     “Alright,” said Sasha. “It says, ‘Only the mighty might enter the labyrinth.’”

     “A labyrinth?” said Cep, exhaling deeply. “Told you we should have gone around this place. Let’s go back. We haven’t walked far.”

     “I don’t think so,” said Laiyos. “We didn’t really take notice of how we came here. We might lose more time doubling back.”

     “Alright, but if we end up being stuck in there for days, remember that I didn’t agree to this course of action.”

     “Duly noted. Let’s go in, but stay sharp, everyone.”

     The moment they entered the labyrinth, branches around the entrance rearranged themselves and blocked the way out.

     “Charming,” said Dan.

     “At least we know we need to find the exit now to continue,” added Sasha.

     “Not if I have anything to say about it,” said Cep

     Without hesitation he grabbed his axe from his back and launched an attack upon the closed entrance. The blow was very powerful, but no damage was done to the tree branches. Instead, the intensity of Cep’s attack was reversed and he was thrown away at the moment of impact, landing on his back yards away.

     “Cep!” shouted Laiyos, running towards him. “Are you alright?”

     “Yeah, peachy . . . Awesome place.”

     “There is a strong spell in place here,” said Sasha.

     Cep got up and dusted himself off. “Now she tells us.”

     Laiyos waved his hand swiftly in the air, becoming irritated by the banter between his comrades. They seemed to get the message.

     “Alright, so we proceed carefully from now on. No more impulsive decisions.”

     The party looked at Cep. He nodded but was clearly irritated by the remark.

     The place looked creepy. The sides of the labyrinth were made of tree branches, but they looked almost as dense as walls, definitely supernatural in origin. It was very dark. Only a dim, unseen source of light illuminated the area. Here and there fireflies added a little of their own light. They seemed interested in the incoming travelers and gathered and flew around them, casting ever-moving shadows in their path.

     Laiyos looked up. “How high do you think these walls go? We can barely see anything in here.”

     “Yes, it’s very dark here,” mumbled Cep behind his beard. “I don’t like darkness.”

     “Was that a request?” inquired Sasha.

     She raised her staff and a bright ball of light formed at its tip, illuminating the area around them with a warm yellow glow.

     As their eyes adjusted to the change, they all looked up, as if to find an answer to Laiyos’ question.

     Dan was the first to speak. “I’ll be damned.”

     Even with the bright, new light source the party still couldn’t see the top of the branch walls. They seemed to go up forever.

     “Maybe one of us should climb up there?” suggested Cep.

     “Are you volunteering?” asked Laiyos.

     “Not really. My . . . Well, my shape isn’t exactly ideal for that type of activity, you know.”

     Dwarves were known for their giant appetite and the resulting round body shape that came with it.

     “I’ll do it,” said Dan.

     “Somehow, I’m not sure we should even try,” said Laiyos.

     “Why not?”

     “’Cause if there’s no light in the middle of the day, and we don’t see a ceiling, that means there isn’t one.

     “I think Laiyos is right. It could be part of the spell I’m sensing,” added Sasha.

     “So do I climb it or not?”

     “No. Let’s continue.”

     “Huh, guys?”

     “What is it, Sasha?”

     “Look, I don’t want to alarm you anymore than necessary, but I think the walls moved while we were looking at how high they go. I’m pretty sure the path turned to the right; now it turns to the left.”

     “I told you we shouldn’t have come.”

     “Not now, Cep!” Laiyos was becoming quite irritated with his friend. “So let’s sum up . . . ”

     “Impossibly high walls,” said Cep.

     “That move,” added Dan.

     “And god knows what other magic spells,” said Sasha.

     “Wonderful,” said Laiyos, not hiding the sarcasm. “Let’s go left then.”

     After another two hours of roaming through that dark place, the party arrived at a junction that looked different from anything they had encountered until now. There were two stone arches with symbols carved into them. Another wooden panel with an inscription stood in between.

     “It reads, ‘Choose your first challenge,’” said Sasha. “The symbols look like old runes. I think I recognize the first as some sort of insect, but I can’t for the life of me put my finger on what the second is.”

     “Insect or unknown,” said Laiyos.

     “I don’t like bugs,” said Cep.

     “What DO you like?”

     “Horse meat.”

     “Horses are for traveling, and if they weren’t extinct we would be riding towards our destination now, instead of thinking of eating them,” said Sasha.

     “Well, they taste good nonetheless.”

     Laiyos slapped Cep’s neck, probably harder than he intended, but decided not to add any verbal reproof. Clearly Cep was not at ease in this place, and his remarks were the result of anxiety. Cep had always deflected tension with complaints. Most of the time Laiyos thought it was endearing, but not today.

     “Sorry,” added Cep at Laiyos’ reaction.

     “It’s okay. Maybe we should have taken the long way. It might actually have been a shortcut. But now we’re here.”

     “I’m not a fan of insects either,” said Sasha, “but between them and, say, a vicious beast, I think I can deal with insects better. But that’s just me.”

     “Dan?”

     “I’m good with insects too.”

     “So am I, so let’s go through that gate. Or should we split?”

     “I think it’s best we stay together,” said Sasha.

     “You’re probably right. Let’s go then.”

     The moment the party passed through the stone arch, a sharp, metallic noise made them jump in surprise.  Behind them a metallic gate had closed the way.

     “No turning back,” Laiyos said.

     There were two torches, one on either side of the gate. Dan and Cep each took one. There were no fireflies in this place, so they would prove useful.

     The light the torches cast, added with Sasha’s spell, revealed a very big place. The walls made of branches disappeared into darkness on all sides. Sasha intensified her light sphere but that only confirmed that they had entered some sort of clearing, one so big they couldn’t see its boundaries. They resumed walking away from the gate. After a few moments the party noticed a strange echo to their steps.

     “What’s that sound?” asked Dan.

     “Okay, so I’m not the only one who noticed,” answered Cep.

     They stopped walking. All they heard was silence and the crackling of the torches’ flames.

     “This place gives me the creeps,” said Sasha.

     “You and me both,” answered Laiyos. “Can you actually throw that light ball?”

     “Yes, why?”

     “Just do it, in front of us.”

     Sasha waved her staff and sent the ball of light on its way. After a few hundred yards it revealed a terrifying sight, for a brief moment, until the ball disappeared into the darkness. Sasha immediately cast another one.

     “Were those . . .?” inquired Dan, his voice trembling.

     “Legs?” Laiyos said in response.

     “Any chance the symbol mentioned anything about the size of the insects?” asked Cep.

     “I’m afraid not,” answered Sasha.

     Then the weird noise the party heard before resumed. Clicking. Repeated clicking. Sasha intensified the range of her light ball to its maximum, hoping they had just imagined seeing giant insect legs moments earlier.

     “Holy crap,” said Laiyos.

     A gigantic scorpion was advancing towards them, the unsettling clicking noise made by its pointy legs hitting the stone ground. Soon it was only a few yards from the party, who were frozen by the sheer size of the beast. It was at least three times taller than Laiyos, black as the night, with red, glowing eyes and pointy, shiny, yellow teeth. It stopped and made a horrible screech that pierced the darkness and froze everyone’s blood.

     The light from the torches cast reddish hues against the polished and seemingly impenetrably thick carapace of the beast.

     “Eat this!” Cep launched his axe, twirling it directly towards the head of the beast.

     It reached the creature’s head and rebounded off with a metallic clang, falling to the ground between the party and the beast. The beast screeched even more loudly now.

     “Okay, not my best move,” said Cep, clearly terrified.

     Losing no time both Laiyos and Dan went on the offensive, drawing their respective sword and sabers and adopting a fighting stance.

     The scorpion stabbed the stinger in its tail towards Dan, but Sasha pushed him out of the way with a swift move of her staff, effectively saving his life. The stinger planted itself in the ground, shaking for a moment.

Laiyos attacked with his sword, trying the cut the tail off the beast, but upon impact he was rewarded only with a metallic noise. The strong vibration through the sword made him lose his balance for a moment. He managed to stay on his feet, but barely.

     The creature freed its stinger from the ground.

     Sasha raised her staff and fired a cold wave at the beast, hoping to repel it or freeze its carapace. The spell had absolutely no effect. Tension rose and fear became palpable within the party.

     The beast repositioned itself at frightening speed before launching its stinger towards Sasha. Ready for it, she raised her staff and invoked a shield spell. Upon impact with the shield, the stinger was repelled but the shield broke.

     “I can do this a few more times, but I will quickly run out of mana. We need a plan!”

     “Cep, what’s in your backpack?” asked Dan.

     “Food, mostly, blankets and torch oil.”

     “I need that oil.”

     Cep tossed the oil to Dan who immediately applied some to his blades. He then lit them with the torch that he then tossed to Laiyos. He took a fighting stance, with both his blades on fire, casting dancing shadows all around him.

     Then he sprang into action, flailing his swords around him as he advanced towards the beast. He was moving so fast that he resembled a walking fireball, spewing embers all around him. The creature screeched and for the first time took a step back.

     “It’s afraid of fire!” exclaimed Laiyos. “Cep, throw me the blankets.”

     Cep tossed them towards Laiyos, who soaked them in oil, set them alight and threw them at the beast that was now retreating.

     “Sasha, what fire spells do you have?”

     “Plenty of them. It’s mana that’s gonna be an issue soon.”

     “What about trapping the scorpion with a ring of fire?”

     “Alright, hang on.”

     Sasha took her staff in both hands, intense concentration on her face. She closed her eyes during the incantation, and when she opened them, a red hue flashed in her eyes. Her staff glowed red and she whirled it in a circle through the air.

     Flames descended from the sky and struck the ground in a circle around the beast. The ground shook upon impact. The scorpion now screeched continuously, trying to get away, but fire was all around it. It flung its giant tail and stinger around in an effort to extinguish the fire but it had no effect.

     “How long will the spell last?” asked Laiyos. When he didn’t get an instant reply he looked at Sasha. She was one one knee, her staff still up but her hands trembling.

     “Sasha!”

     “Not long Laiyos . . . Hurry!”

     “Cep, get ready to finish off this beast.”

     “Alright, just say the word.”

     Laiyos closed the oil bottle and ran towards the ring of fire.

     “Dan! Hit the bottle with your blade!”

     Dan nodded at incoming Laiyos. Laiyos threw the oil bottle atop the wall of fire, directly in front of the beast’s face.

     Dan threw one of his sabers and hit the bottle a split second before it hit the beast’s face. The result was devastating. When Dan’s flaming saber hit the oil bottle it exploded and a fiery shower of oil spilled directly onto the beast’s head, burning its face and eyes. Its screech of pain pierced the ears of everyone around it.

     “Cep!”

     The dwarf ran towards the beast, grabbing his axe from the ground on the way. Laiyos crouched in front of the ring of fire and Cep used Laiyos’ back to jump over the fire wall, axe behind his back, ready to split the beast’s head in two.

     In mid-air and almost upon his target, Cep was hit by the tail of the beast that was flailing in every direction. He was thrown out of the ring of fire and fell on the ground, knocking him out.

     “Cep!” shouted Laiyos.

     Laiyos looked at Dan. They would have to finish the beast before the fire on its face went out, but none of them had the thrusting blow of a dwarf’s axe. Before they could move, the beast’s stinger almost impaled Dan, and Laiyos pushed his friend away at the last second. The hideous screeching made thinking difficult. Laiyos looked at Cep, who hadn’t moved since he hit the ground.

     “Dammit!”

     “Laiyos,” mumbled a weak voice near him.

     “Yes, Sasha, what is it?”

     “I have an idea . . .” She gasped, almost at the brink of exhaustion.

     She rose painfully and twirled her staff in a circle in front of her. It was mesmerizing to look at, twirling so fast it looked like a solid shield at times. The ring of fire died off quickly. The beast, sensing the fire no longer around it, started to move erratically, still in pain from the burns on its face. It moved randomly, trying to find its bearings.

     That was when Sasha launched her spell towards the beast. A huge, icy beam shot from her rotating staff and hit the beast in the head with full force. It instantly turned its head into an icicle. The beast froze for half a second, and then its head exploded.

     “Wow,” said Dan when some debris from the head fell in front of him.

     “Fire and Ice,” mumbled Sasha. “Works every time.”

     The rest of the beast’s body fell to the ground, the impact making everything around them tremble.

     Then Dan ran towards Cep and turned him on his back. He was still breathing and slowly coming about. He grunted and soon opened his eyes.

     “What happened?” His voice was faint.

     “You were struck by its tail, pretty heavily,” answered Dan.

     “Is it dead?”

     “Yes. Sasha finished it up.”

     “Good, I hate scorpions.”

     “I think I speak for everyone when I say that we all do now. Can you get back up?”

     “I think so.”

     Cep rose with the help of Dan, while Laiyos tended to Sasha, who, after her kill, fell on her back, exhausted.  They all gathered to eat some dried food from Cep’s backpack and rested for a few more minutes.

     “Maybe we should get some sleep?” asked Dan.

     “That’s a good idea, but not here. We need to get out of this place first,” answered Laiyos.

     “Agreed,” seconded Sasha.

     “Let’s go then.”

 

C H A P T E R

IV

     Another five hours passed within the labyrinth.

     “We’re not getting anywhere; we have to find a way out!” blurted Cep.

     Sasha shot him a look conveying how annoyed she was with him; he had been particularly impatient in the last hour.

     “Look, Cep,” said Laiyos, “we’re all in this together. And yes, you told us we should have avoided this forest. Do you want me to say you were right?”

     Cep mumbled something incomprehensible behind his fuzzy beard.

     Laiyos raised an eyebrow, “What was that you said?”

     “Nothing . . . I’m hungry.”

     “We all are.”

     “There are not even any animals to hunt. We need to find sustenance.”

     “It’s only been a few hours. Surely you can wait. Right now we need to get out of here.”

     They kept walking until they reached another arch.

     “No no, these passages are traps. We shouldn’t go through another one,” said Cep before Sasha even had time to look at the ruins atop the stony arch.

     Laiyos sighed. “Sasha, what does it say?”

     “Here lie the dead at the end of the journey.”

     “I vote we don’t go through here,” said Cep.

     “Cep!” Dan had stayed silent for a long time but was also getting tired of Cep’s attitude.

     Laiyos raised a hand. “I don’t think we have much choice. Since this labyrinth seems to be reconfiguring itself as we go, we have to continue. This at least means we’re not just turning in circles.”

     “And the end of the journey might mean this is the way out,” added Sasha.

     “Or it could be the one trap we don’t get out alive from,” answered Cep.

     “Doesn’t matter now. We have to push through,” said Laiyos.

     “Very well,” said Cep as he grabbed his axe.

     As soon as they had walked through the arch, torches inside the giant room they stepped into burst into life. The room was as big as the last one they entered where the giant scorpion attacked them.

     “At least we see something in this one,” said Cep.

     The room was at least one hundred yards wide and kept going as far the eye could see, with more torches lighting up in the distance. On the ground lay hundreds of piles of bones, entire skeletons, and a lot of rusty weapons.

     “Definitely was the end of the journey for a lot of people,” said Laiyos.

     “I don’t like this,” said Dan. “Let’s pick up the pace.”

     “Agreed.” Laiyos started running.

     The party had run for less than a hundred yards when they heard cracking sounds all around them.

     They stopped and were horrified when a pile of bones in front of them levitated and reassembled into a skeleton. Its eyes sockets glowed red and the nearby rusty sword and shield levitated into its hands. It took an offensive stance.

     All around them the same happened with many of the bone piles, and soon they had three-dozen skeletons walking towards them, all armed to the teeth. The sound of their cracking bones made the party’s blood freeze.

     “This is not good,” said Laiyos.

     “That’s the understatement of the year,” added Cep.

     “Sasha?” inquired Laiyos.

     “Let me try to dispel them.”

     She took one step forward and held her staff with both hands above her head. It glowed blue while she cast her spell. A spherical wave of energy expanded all around them at great speed and soon engulfed the advancing skeletons.

     As it passed through them, they lost cohesion and collapsed again into piles of bones, with a satisfying, clattering sound.

     “Now that’s a spell!” cheered Cep. “Well done.”

     But before they had time to say anything else, the bones reconstituted themselves into fully walking skeletons.

     “What happened?” asked Laiyos. “Why are they reassembling?”

     Sasha couldn’t hide her fear. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s like the spell animating them was respelled somehow.”

     “Can you hit them again?”

     “In a minute, but I’m not so sure it’s a good idea.”

     “Why’s that?”

     “That spell consumes a lot of mana. If I redo it and the same happens, I might not be of much use to fend them off. I’m still quite depleted from our scorpion encounter.”

     “Then don’t,” said Laiyos. “We need to move, though. If we stay in place they’ll overrun us very quickly.”

     Cep didn’t wait and launched himself forward, both hands on his axe as he literally burst through the nearest skeleton in front of them by waving his axe forward as he ran. The skeleton exploded and its bones were thrown all over the place. Laiyos, Dan and Sasha followed Cep, and they dispatched the next incoming wave of skeletons with their weapons, slashing through only those that were blocking their way forward.

     Laiyos looked behind him and frowned. The skeletons they had dispatched were already reforming themselves, picking up their weapons and running after them. At least thirty skeletons were in pursuit.

     “I sure hope there’s a way out at the end of this place, or we’re done for because they keep reassembling themselves.”

     Dan checked behind him as well and suddenly stopped.

     “Dan! What are you doing? Keep running,” shouted Laiyos.

     “I’ll create a distraction. Keep going. I’m right behind you.”

     Laiyos also stopped and gestured his friend to keep going.

     “I told you to go!”

     “Dan, it’s not a good idea for you to face them all alone.”

     “Listen to me, my friend, you need to go. Don’t worry about me. I’ll manage to keep them at bay. I just want to buy us some time.”

     “Let me help you.”

     “Laiyos! You’re the only one that can make an alliance work with the dragon. You are not expendable.”

     “Neither are you.”

     “We don’t have time to argue,” said Dan as he took position with both his sabers in hand.

     He threw both blades in front of him, making them spin in the air as fast as possible. When the blades hit the incoming skeleton troops, they were shredded with ease. Soon Dan’s blade returned to his hands and the army of skeletons was turned into a long, bony trail.

     “Impressive,” said Laiyos.

     “We both know this is only temporary.”

     The bones started shaking and soon they levitated back into the air.

     “Let’s go. This has bought us a minute,” said Dan as he ran past Laiyos.

     Laiyos picked up the pace and ran after Dan. Soon they had rejoined the party who were engaging another dozen skeletons near a wall. The exit was protected by a blue energy field.

     Cep was smashing skeletons all over the place but they were reconstructing themselves almost as fast as he was taking them down. Laiyos and Dan added their blades to the mix and kept slashing skeletons for what seemed like hours. Soon they were running out of energy.

     “Sasha, any way you can push them back?”

     “Let me try something.”

     She spun her staff in front of her really quickly and created violent winds that sent the skeletons flying back for hundreds of yards. The skeletons that got the brunt of her spell full force exploded but even in mid-air they kept reassembling.

     “This is only a temporary solution,” said Cep.

     “We’ll see about that,” shouted Sasha as she slammed her staff in front of her and a tall wall of fire appeared between the party and their foes.

     Cep lost no time and ran toward the exit, slashing the energy field with his axe. Lightning shot from the field and sent him flying to the ground. Little bolts of lightning ran over Cep’s body as he lost consciousness.

     “Cep!” Dan ran to his side. He tried slapping him back into consciousness but it didn’t work.

     Laiyos looked at the wall of fire and was horrified when he saw the skeletons walk through it as if it wasn’t there.

     “We’re in trouble.”

     “That we are,” added Sasha.

     Soon close to one hundred skeletons approached their position.

     “How’s Cep?” inquired Laiyos.

     “He’s out cold,” answered Dan as he caught a glimpse of what was coming their way. He picked up both his sabers and stood next to his friends. “What do we do now?”

     “I don’t know,” said Laiyos.

     But then the skeletons stopped walking forward.

     Laiyos shot Dan a look. “This is odd.”

     That’s when Dan saw it. One of the skeletons had a massive blue gem that shone in place of its forehead.

     “See that one with the blue stone,” said Dan, pointing one of his sabers towards the skeleton. “I think if we destroy that stone it might render them back into bones.”

     “Worth a try,” said Laiyos as he ran toward that particular skeleton.

     Dan repeated his earlier attack and launched both his sabers spinning in the air, carving a path for his friend to attack the blue-gemmed skeleton. But when Laiyos slashed his swords toward the gem, the skeleton flexed his legs and jumped impossibly high in the air. He levitated about ninety yards above them.

     “What the hell?” exclaimed Laiyos when his slash hit nothing but air.

     Many of the other skeletons levitated as well. Some stayed at lower heights while others ran beneath them on the ground. Soon the army of flying skeletons merged into one impossibly giant skeleton beast, the blue gem now located in the center of the forehead of the beast. It opened its mouth and unleashed a growl that made the entire area tremble.

     “How are we supposed to fight something so massive?” asked Dan.

     “Yeah, the scorpion looks like a pet in comparison. But I think you had the right idea. We need to destroy this gem.”

     “Any idea how we can reach it? None of us can jump that high.”

     “Sasha?”

     “I don’t know. I could try my dispel again, but its range is nowhere near as big as this . . . thing.”

     “We’ll keep that in reserve,” said Laiyos. “Fire clearly doesn’t do these guys any harm. Let’s try ice?”

     “Very well.” Sasha prepared her next spell.

     She closed her eyes and a bright cyan aura soon enveloped her staff. When she opened her eyes, they were glowing bright blue. She aimed her staff at one of the beast’s legs and shot a powerful blue column of energy. On impact it froze the leg of the giant skeleton in place and the beast released an ear-piercing screech.

     “It doesn’t seem to like cold,” said Laiyos.

     Dan ran towards the beast’s leg while Sasha shot another column of energy towards its other leg, freezing it as well. Laiyos ran toward the second leg. Dan slashed both his sabers and hacked the giant skeleton leg clean off, and Laiyos did the same with his sword a moment later. The skeleton body started tilting forward.

Sasha watched in horror as she realized the beast was about to crash onto her. She could move out of the way but she wouldn’t have time to get Cep out of the way. She reacted instinctively and erected a shield bubble above them. When the skeleton impacted with the shield it sent many of its thousands of bones flying in all directions and bones fell to the ground.

     The gem hit the ground and rolled towards Dan, who lost no time slashing it with his saber, but something went wrong. His saber shattered upon impact.

     Sasha jumped towards Cep and used a healing spell to bring him back to consciousness, while Laiyos ran towards the gem, sword in hand.

     “Laiyos, don’t!” shouted Sasha, but it was too late, Laiyos had already swung his sword.

     Just like Dan’s saber, his blade shattered upon impact with the gem and the impact sent Laiyos flying backward and crashing onto the ground, with only half a blade left in his hand. The rest of it was scattered all around the pulsating blue gem.

     Laiyos got back up and looked at his broken sword. He felt sad as it was a family heirloom. It had been passed down through the generations, and Laiyos always felt he would one day give it to his offspring.

     Sorry, Father.

     Cep had recovered and was getting back up; he grabbed his axe and set his sight on the blue gem with hatred in his eyes.

     Laiyos gestured towards his friend. “Don’t! It will shatter your axe.”

     “There’s nothing more solid than a dwarf’s weaponry.”

     “It won’t matter. This thing is protected by magic. Keep your weapon. That’s an order.”

     Cep made a face but decided not to answer back. “What, then?”

     Bones all around started shaking and soon they started flying all over the place, as if caught in an invisible typhoon. They stopped in place to reform the giant skeleton. The gem shook as well and shot from the ground back where it belonged in the center of the skeleton’s forehead.

     Laiyos looked as his broken sword and threw it on the ground.

     “Sasha, be ready to cast your dispel.”

     She nodded in agreement.

     “Cep, I need that axe.”

     “No way!”

     “Cep!” insisted Laiyos.

     The dwarf grunted but threw the axe to his friend.

     The skeleton brought his head nearer to the ground and unleashed a deafening roar that sent everyone’s hair flying backwards.

     Laiyos caught the double-bladed axe. Something reflected on each blade. On one side, the top part of the blade glowed blue from the light the gem emitted. The other blade reflected another blue light, and Laiyos’ gaze turned to its source.

     The energy field blocking their way was emanating the same color and pulsated in sync with the gem on the skeleton’s head.

     Of course!

     “Dan, we need to get that gem again. I know what to do now.”

     “Mind cluing us in?”

     Laiyos pointed at the energy field blocking their escape. “It needs to go through there.”

     “You couldn’t have thought of that before this monstrosity reconstructed now, couldn’t you?”

     “Sorry, pal, I just figured it out.”

     “Let’s hope you’re right, or we die here today. What’s the plan?”

     “Sasha!”

     “I can either freeze one of its legs or cast a dispel, but I don’t have the juice for both.”

     “One leg won’t do it. Dispel on my mark.”

     “Very well, but I’m unsure I have enough energy to get the necessary range.”

     “We’ll bring that beast to you then.”

     “Not sure I like the sound of that,” said Sasha.

     “I’m with Sasha on this one,” added Dan.

     “You need to cut off one of its legs, and serve as bait. But be careful. Don’t let that thing hit you.”

     As an answer, Dan started running as he shouted with all his might. That got the skeleton monstrosity’s attention. Laiyos lost no time running in his friend’s trail, holding the axe with both his hands, a look of determination in his eyes.

     Dan arrived at the base of the beast’s right leg. He jumped as high as he could and slashed his remaining saber at the bones located above the skeleton’s ankle with all his force. It went through and broke many of the smaller bones and effectively separated the lower leg from the foot of the creature. Dan landed with a roll. A gigantic hand came for him.

     “Dodge!” shouted Laiyos.

     Dan rolled once more and barely escaped the giant fist. Laiyos, who was only a few feet behind, held the axe with only one hand now and used the other to grab one of the fingers of the hand that passed by him. The speed at which it swooped him off his feet almost made him drop the axe and he felt a tremendous pain in his arm. He pushed through the pain and climbed the hand, running on the skeleton’s arm.

     The red glow in its eyes intensified. It had seen him, he needed to act fast.

     He was near the shoulder when the skeleton’s other arm crashed on him. He somersaulted in the air to dodge the incoming attack and landed on the other hand. He instantly jumped towards the neck of the skeleton, who unleashed another roar.

     Laiyos grabbed the axe with both his hands and slashed with all his might at the neck of the skeleton. The axe slashed through the neck and shattered many bones in the process.

     The red light in the skeleton’s head vanished as it fell to the ground. It rolled towards Sasha and Cep.

     As Laiyos fell to the ground, he shouted, “Now, Sasha!”

     The mage raised her staff and cast her spell. A sphere of white energy expanded all around her and engulfed the head of the skeleton. The magic bond holding the bones together was removed and they came crashing to the ground, scattered all around. The gem rolled between Sasha and Cep just as Laiyos crashed to the ground with a thud, breaking a few ribs in the process.

     The pain was so strong he almost passed out. He tried to shout towards Cep but instead he spat blood on the ground. Bones on the ground nearby started to tremble. The beast was about to start reconstructing once more.

Cep saw the look of terror in Laiyos’ eyes and it hit him that his friend expected him to do the next part of the plan. He lost no time. He ran as fast as he could and kicked the gem, sending it toward the energy field some twenty yards away. The gem didn’t hit the energy field but passed through it. Almost immediately, the energy field collapsed and the light in the gem also vanished. The giant headless skeleton lost cohesion and for a few seconds, it rained bones.

     “It worked!” exclaimed Cep triumphant.

     Sasha was on one knee and Dan ran toward Laiyos to help him back up.

     “Are you alright?” asked Dan.

     Laiyos made a pained face, blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. “I’ll live.”

     “Looks like we all will. That was quick thinking.”

     “We were lucky, but we really have to get out of here. I fear our luck might eventually run out.”

     A bright, white light shone from the heavens and hit both Laiyos’ broken sword and Dan’s shattered saber. The parts glowed with a bright, white aura and the weapons reassembled themselves. They flashed so strongly that the party was blinded for a few seconds. When their sight returned, the weapons levitated back to their owners.

     “That’s so weird,” said Dan.

     “Uh-huh,” answered Laiyos as he grabbed his restored sword.

     He spun it and looked at it. He couldn’t believe it. Not only was it repaired, but also it looked better than ever. It looked brand new and was shining brighter than ever before.

     Cep dusted off his axe. He looked at Laiyos’ sword and then his axe. He grunted.

     “You wish I’d let you smash your axe so it would have been restored to its past glory as well, don’t you?”

     Cep didn’t answer.

     “Well, my friend, you shouldn’t feel sorry. It was your axe that saved the day. That and your great kick.”

     Cep’s entire face lit up, and then something caught his attention. He ran like crazy towards the exit.

     “Where are you going?”

     “I just saw dinner,” shouted Cep as he disappeared into the darkness beyond the now open exit.

   

C H A P T E R

V

     Laiyos launched after Cep who was already out of sight. When he realized he also had put distance between himself and the rest of the group, he doubled back.

     “What are you guys waiting for?” said Laiyos to Dan and Sasha.

     “We’ve just only survived a perilous battle. You’ll excuse us if we take a minute to recharge our batteries,” said Sasha.

     It didn’t occur to Laiyos that they could be tired, though it was only logical. The skeleton giant was a close call and Laiyos started second-guessing himself about whether he should have heeded Cep’s call to avoid this particular forest. How long would they be able to dodge the treacherous monsters in here before someone got hurt or worse?

     “Right,” said Laiyos not sure what else to say.

     “We really need to get out of this place,” said Dan.

     “On that I think we all agree.”

     They heard Cep shout from afar.

     “Now what?” said Laiyos with a sigh.

     He ran back toward Cep and this time Dan and Sasha were in his wake. When they arrived in a large open area, what they saw didn’t bode well for the party.

     Cep was being held by long and thorny branches by both arms. Little rivers of blood trickled where the vines held him tightly. His axe lay on the ground under him and his grimace made it clear how much pain he was in.

     “Don’t . . . come any closer,” warned Cep.

     “Always thinking with your stomach,” added Dan.

     “I don’t think now is the time to assign blame,” said Laiyos.

     Before anyone else could say anything, both Dan and Sasha were snapped up by incredibly fast vines. Before  Laiyos could react they were already being positioned next to Cep. They hovered, their feet dangling about one meter above the ground.

     Laiyos armed himself with his trusty blade and launched himself towards them. When he was near Cep, he jumped high into the air in an attempt to slash the thorny vines. He was about to slash Cep’s left arm free when the vines retracted and sent all his friends upward, out of reach.

     They disappeared into the shadows, and while Laiyos could still hear them suffering, he lost visual contact with them.

     “Sasha! Can you hear me?”

     “Laiyos, help us!” she answered.

     “Try casting a dispel!”

     “I can’t. I . . . I don’t—” a shriek of pain interrupted her mid-sentence “—have . . . mana.”

     Laiyos swore in frustration. They had been fighting one foe after another with little rest, and it was only a matter of time until they found themselves in such a dire situation.

     I should have listened to Cep. It was a mistake coming this way.

     But there was no way to change the past. Laiyos needed to focus on helping his friends and completing his mission. Before he could formulate what to do, a bright light shone upon him. A dark and deep female voice spoke.

     “Who dares look for the oracle?”

     Laiyos was surprised that whoever addressed him knew his goal, but he remembered the scorpion encounter. It had been created by their thoughts about what insect they feared the most. It made sense that whoever guarded this place could sense the adventurer’s intentions.

     “I do. My name is Laiyos. I seek the oracle’s wisdom in the hope of restoring the dragon alliance of old.”

     “This is a fool’s quest. Dragons care not about this world anymore. They have forsaken your kind and seeking to re-establish the old alliance will indubitably fail.”

     “Be that as it may, I request an audience with the oracle.”

     There was silence for almost a minute.

     “You should not have come here,” the voice continued. “This forest will be your tomb. If you truly want an audience with the oracle, you must be ready to sacrifice everything and everyone you hold dear. Such is the price of admission.”

     “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking of me.”

     The ground shook heavily and Laiyos lost his balance and tumbled forward to his knees. A square of white light appeared a few feet in front of him. From it a column of light shot towards the heavens. The light was so bright it illuminated the area where his friends were dangling, still prisoners of the thorny vines. Their arms where covered in blood and they all seemed to have lost consciousness.

     “What about my friends? Please let them go!”

     “They are not allowed to see the oracle. Only you can proceed from here. But beware, if you fail to prove your worth, not only will the oracle refuse to grant your audience, but your friends will die as well.”

     Laiyos didn’t like the sound of that. Not one bit. But could he afford to try to rescue them on his own? They were out of reach, and he would risk the entity retaliating against them if he did. No. He had sealed all their fates when they first stepped into this evil place. The only way to get them out now was to succeed in whatever trials awaited him and make sure he got his audience.

     “Will you release my friends if I succeed?”

     “If and only if you succeed will your friends be returned to you unharmed . . .”

     Right, except you’ve already harmed my friends.

     Laiyos was startled when the voice answered his thoughts.

     “That is nothing compared to what awaits them if you fail what’s to come.”

     The column of light died off to reveal a hole in the ground with stairs going down. Laiyos walked towards the subterranean staircase and stopped briefly, looking at his friends, hanging and unconscious. But without the light, he was mostly imagining them in the shadows. He ran towards the hole in the ground and then went down the stairs two by two.

     The stairs extended so far that by the time Laiyos reached the bottom, he thought he must have been at the center of Kyria. The view was breathtaking, even though it made no sense. He did not feel as if he was underground. There was a view of an island, with lots of vegetation and strong sunlight in a deep purple sky.

     Now what?

     That place had to have been created by magic. Laiyos didn’t believe such a place could exist underground. But it mattered not how it had been made; all that mattered now was to pass whatever trials awaited him so he could save his friends, and hopefully be granted an audience with the oracle.

     There was a stony path in front of him, with beautiful water fountains and colorful flower gardens all around. This was without a doubt the most beautiful place he had ever laid eyes upon. The air was fresh and there was a slight breeze that carried a pleasant flowery scent.

     The garden was huge. In fact, after a few minutes, Laiyos looked back to find the stairs he had come down had disappeared, which confirmed his suspicions about the magical nature of this place.

     He continued forward for a little while. Now there were fewer flowers around him, and the breeze carried another smell with each new step. Soon the plants around turned brown, dry, and their flowers were dead. The sun shone with a more crimson light, which gave the place a more dreadful feel. Dark clouds filled the sky, the temperature fell and the air was filled with a pungent smell. It had turned from paradise to a dark and muddy swamp.

     Laiyos didn’t like how it made him feel. Whatever sorcery was at play here was powerful and like nothing he had seen or experienced before.

     It’s just an illusion.

     He kept repeating the thought over and over inside his head but it did little to lower his anxiety in the face of the ever-changing, ever-darkening vista. What had been beautiful blue water ponds teaming with life were now puddles of bubbling, black, gooey semi-liquid. Each new bursting bubble added more stench to the already barely breathable air.

     What am I supposed to do? This is ridiculous. How am I supposed to pass trials when I don’t even know what those are?

     As if in answer, the black ponds on both sides exploded, sending the gooey substance into the air. When it splashed on the ground in front of Laiyos, it spelled a word: Survive.

     Then everything went to hell. Flaming meteorites impacted all around Laiyos, creating explosions and sending stones and mud all around. He turned around and saw red dots approaching from the distance. They were far enough that they shone through a veil of darkness. But soon loud howling was added and shapes started to form. The biggest, most vile and rabid horde of black wolves were running towards him. Their scarlet eyes shone in the depth of the night. Their yellow teeth were unnaturally large and he shivered at the thought of the damage they could inflict.

     Fear overwhelmed him. With the help of its accompanying adrenaline rush, Laiyos ran away from the horde as fast as he could. As fast as he had ever run. He didn’t dare look back but he could feel they were gaining on him.

     Laiyos’ heart pounded inside his chest at a rhythm he never thought possible. While he usually had a great deal of stamina, whatever boost the fear had given him was quickly dwindling.

     If I get out of this alive, I promise I’ll listen to Cep’s advice next time. Let’s just hope there is a next time.

     The horde of wolves was right at his back, their growling and howling so loud he could feel the sound with his entire body. That released another shot of adrenaline and Laiyos ran even faster, even though he thought it impossible. There were simply too many to fight. He would be torn to pieces in less than five seconds. That much his instinct told him.

     A new sound added itself to the fold. The clattering of teeth, followed by a blast of hot air from behind. Some of the wolves were jumping and trying to bite his head off. Illusion or not, this was beyond frightening. Each new clattering was louder; each blast of hot air warmer.

     He couldn’t keep it up. He was terrified to turn his head but felt compelled to do so while still running for his life. From the corner of his vision he saw a giant wolf head an inch behind his hair. The size of the wolf was out of this world. The evil in its eyes unfathomable. He was now running on mud. If he slipped and fell, he would be dead in seconds.

     Then Laiyos heard another unearthly sound. It captured his attention and forced him to look forward.

     “You’ve got to be shitting me!”

     Less than fifty yards in front of him, a large red dragon had its wings fully extended, its mouth wide open, unleashing the mother of all roars. It locked its gaze on Laiyos. At this speed, Laiyos would be upon the beast in seconds.

     The dragon’s eyes glowed, and smoke rose from its nostrils.

     Great! Eaten or burnt alive. Those are my choices here. Unless . . .

     Laiyos he had no choice. He kept running, hearing more wolves’ teeth clattering inches away from his head, even feeling their teeth on the tips of his long hair. He could see, from the corner of his eye, wolves running on both sides, ready to jump on him the moment he faltered.

     The dragon roared once more and breathed through its nostrils. Flames escaped its mostly closed mouth. Bright orange light glowed under its neck scales. It was about to unleash its fiery inferno. Laiyos was only a few yards from the beast and waited until the absolute last moment to act.

     He jumped forward and put himself in a horizontal position, feet first. As he did so, the wolves drew closer. A wolf’s head passed above him. Laiyos hit the ground and slid to less than two yards from the dragon when it unleashed its attack. Soon he saw only flames.

     Laiyos kept sliding in between the dragon’s legs and heard the moans and agonized cries of the horde of wolves as they were incinerated by the dragon’s fiery attack.

     Before Laiyos could breathe a sigh of relief, he realized that he was not only sliding on the mud, but he was accelerating. At his sides he could see dead trees, but their branches seemed to move, which shouldn’t have been the case. Two large trees in his field of view joined branches to create another word: Determination.

     What the hell does that mean?

     Clearly he was showing determination just by coming here. What else did whoever was in charge of these trials want from him?

     Branches started hitting the ground all around him at impossible speeds. Laiyos screamed at the top of his lungs. He was being attacked by the forest while still gaining speed. Mud splashed all around and on him, some hitting his eyes, making them burn. He even swallowed some and had to force himself to not vomit.

     For now none of the branches managed to hit him, but he had no control over the situation. He was sliding faster, the angle of the muddy ground increasing.

     Soon the attacking trees disappeared and a face made of dark grey clouds formed in the sky. It spoke with a low, echoing voice. “Trust in the future.”

     More riddles?

     Right now all Laiyos could trust was that he couldn’t keep accelerating as he was. He tried using his feet and hands to slow himself down but that only resulted in pain. Then he saw that the terrain was about to level, followed shortly by a chasm.

     Am I supposed to trust I will survive that fall?

     He didn’t have any choice, so he simply braced himself. He flew past the chasm into a dark void, yet not feeling the force of gravity take hold of him. For a while he closed his eyes, but then decided that wasn’t a good idea.

     When he re-opened them, what he saw made no sense. He was flying in the air, no ground in sight, nothing but darkness and stars all around him. He tried changing position and started spinning uncontrollably. His mind failed to comprehend why he wasn’t falling instead of floating aimlessly.

     A beam of scarlet energy passed in front of his eyes. Soon the sky filled with hundreds of them, some red, some blue. A loud explosion forced him to turn his head towards its source. A huge explosion had scattered what seemed to be pieces of metal.

     Something emerged from the dying explosion. Laiyos’ blood froze. The pointy metallic shape flew through the air at tremendous speed and passed only a few yards from him. The noise and energy in its wake was even stronger than the dragon’s breath.

     What is this devilry? What was that thing? A metallic demon?

     Another passed at slower speed, firing blue streaks of light towards other similar contraptions with a different shape. There was a man inside the machine. He was covered with a peculiar armor, but it was a man nonetheless. Could these be transporting machines?

     Whatever was happening all around him started to make a little sense. It was a war of some sort, but there was only void and the light of the stars around. Was this how the world looked when not on a planet? Was he in the heavens?

     The first flying machine that had almost hit him earlier received multiple scarlet hits. At first a blue shield illuminated its metal structure, not unlike the shield his mage friend Sasha was able to cast. But after too many hits the shields didn’t seem to work anymore and each new hit tore away the armor of the machine. Smoke shot from its rear and it spun on its axis, on a collision course with Laiyos.

     Laiyos tried to get out of the way but his movement seemed only to affect his rotational position in space. He couldn’t move the way he hoped. Something else hit the incoming machine, something not made of light, but that left a trail of smoke in its wake. It exploded on the side of the ship, stopping most of its spin as more parts of the machine floated away in space. The rest of the machine was on fire.

     The projectile that had hit the machine had not affected its trajectory enough and it was still coming at Laiyos, albeit with a slower speed and rotation. Soon it was on top of him and it was about to impact when he saw the face of the person inside the machine. A shiver of cataclysmic proportions ran through every nerve of his body. The face of the man inside the machine, it was his face.

     That is not possible! None of this is possible!

     Before the machine could crash into Laiyos, another similar machine passed by and grabbed the damaged one with a ray of light that seemed to affect its trajectory, as if by magic.

     Then everything changed. Laiyos felt the familiar force of gravity and started falling for what felt like an eternity.

 

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