I was helped roughly to my knees by a couple of Alec’s men. Sharp pains seared through my shoulder and it took almost everything I had to not cry out in pain. I wasn’t about to give Alec the satisfaction. His people surrounded me like hungry dogs ready to strike at their master’s command and I had allowed myself to become their prey. One of his people, a tall, lithe man took my dagger with a satisfied smirk as he tucked it into his belt. I shot him a murderous glare and his smirk fell immediately as he backed away warily.
“Lady Commander,” Alec spat out mockingly. “You are truly a thorn in my side.”
My lips curled into a wry grin. “I try,” I said, looking around. “Where’s Torx? I thought he’d be giving you a hand.”
Alec’s eyes narrowed sharply down at me and I could feel the piercing stab of his disdain. “Really? I would have thought humor would be beneath you in a time like this.”
“What can I say, without my weapons all I have to rely on is my wit,” I replied with a strained chuckle.
Taking a quick look around the cavern, Alec rolled his eyes. “I see you managed to get your friends out of here. You must be so proud of yourself,” he scoffed. “Doesn’t matter anyway. You’re going to give me what I want.”
A chuckle escaped my lips and as my body started to tip over, my physical captors straightened me. Another shot of pain travelled through my shoulder, eliciting a groan from me. “Is that so? And why would I do that?”
Crouching, Alec lowered himself until we were at a matching eye level. His cold eyes burned deeply into mine as he pointed his pistol at me and he spoke in such a cold voice it made my skin crawl. “Because if you don’t give me the piece, I will kill you and then I will track down every single one of your friends and kill them too.”
There was an emotionless sincerity in his tone that sent unpleasant chills up my spine to settle in my throat. I swallowed hard but kept my gaze locked on Alec. “They’ll kill you if I don’t first.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Alec mused with a chuckle. He let the barrel of the pistol graze to the side until it pointed at my shoulder wound. “It’s not like you all have done a great job of that so far.”
“You underestimate them,” I replied.
Suddenly, Alec shoved the tip of the pistol against the wound in my shoulder and all at once I was consumed by the mix of sharp and dull pain invading that side of my body. Bursts of electrical pain shot down my arm to my fingertips. I tried to stifle a cry through clenched teeth as I started to double over but Alec’s men righted me again. He pulled the pistol from my wound and as the pain started to wane slightly, I tried focusing on catching my breath and quieting my racing heart. My tunic grew wet with blood around my shoulder and as I looked up at Alec, I saw a crooked smile grace his lips as he reveled in my pain.
“Even so,” Alec began as he casually wiped the pistol barrel on his dark trousers. “Others will come.”
“Others?” I tried to still my shaky voice.
Alec’s smile turned into a wicked grin. “Did you really think the blade was a well-kept secret?”
“I’m beginning to think not,” I replied dryly.
He brought his face close enough to mine so that I could feel his breath on my cheeks. Tilting his head, he studied me with his cold eyes. “Why do you think your parents died?”
“What?” I breathed out erratically. “What do you know about my parents.”
“I know who killed them.”
I felt like my heart stopped suddenly in my chest and as I opened my mouth to say something, nothing came out. When the words finally came, they were unstable and harsh. “Who killed them?”
Alec’s smile grew smug as he rose to his feet. “Uh, uh. First things first, Lady Commander,” he said as he flashed an authoritative glance at the two holding me. “Get her up.”
They hoisted me up to my feet roughly and I bit back another cry of pain. My heart raced violently in my chest and a cold sheen of sweat covered my brow. My tired body started to shake and I had a hard time keeping myself upright but I did my best to root my feet firmly on the ground.
“This is an impressive cavern,” Alec observed as he gestured around at the walls. He stepped away and began walking a tight circle around us while he looked at the glowing marks. As he did so, his people slowly crept closer, filling in the open gaps around me. “Your own blood I don’t doubt. You’ve literally bled for this blade,” he mused. He stopped abruptly in the center of the cavern and turned back to me. “Now where is it?”
“I let you have it and you tell me about my parents,” I said. I wasn’t really banking on an honest deal from him, but if there was even a slightest chance I could find out what happened to my parents, maybe I could get a little semblance of peace.
I looked down at Alec’s feet. “Right there.”
Alec’s brow narrowed in confusion for a brief moment before he realized he was standing next to the spot. He bent down and with his free hand started moving away the earth, revealing carefully laid stonework in the shape of a circle. An elongated skull donned the red-hued center stone, a carefully carved sigil that matched the one outside. It sat quietly waiting with hollow eyes.
Alec looked up and held a hand out to a stout woman with short blonde hair. “Your hammer if you please.”
With one hand, the woman held out the heavy weapon with ease. Her defined muscles flexed as she held it out. Wielding a weapon like that, even for a short while, I wasn’t too surprised at her strength. Alec took the weapon from her and rose to his feet before swinging the hammer over his head to bring it back down hard upon the stone. A metallic sound filled the air and red sparks burst from the strike. He tried again with a frustrated growl but only got the same results.
“You won’t get in there with any weapon,” I noted with a smirk.
His dark greying hair slightly tousled and a light sheen on his brow, Alec tossed the hammer to the ground and it landed with a dull thud. “Let me guess. Blood.”
I nodded but remained silent.
“I should have known,” he grumbled and then gestured sharply. “Bring her here!”
I was crudely escorted to the seal where Alec was waiting. We had barely stopped moving when suddenly, Alec reached out for my cut hand. He squeezed hard to get the clotting blood to flow again. Reflexively, I tried to pull my hand back as soon as I felt the biting pain of the wound becoming fresh again.
“Convenient,” Alec mused as blood welled up from my cut and began dripping along my hand. Drops of red fell to the stone seal and found their way into the skull’s hollow eyes. Slowly, the eyes filled and was followed by a heavy hum and the sound of grinding stone. The seal cover pulled apart into three pieces, like slices in a pie, to reveal a small, dark chamber below. Alec looked hesitantly at it then turned aside to the blonde woman again and motioned to the chamber. The woman also had reservations but after a stern look from Alec, she knelt down and reached into the dark space.
And brought out a long broken blade piece.
“Finally,” Alec let out a deep breath of relief. “It’s complete.”
The blonde held out the piece to Alec gingerly took it from her, admiring the expertly hammered metal. Holding out his hand toward a man of medium build with long dark hair resting on his shoulders, Alec motioned for him to bring something. The man reached into his sleeveless cloak and drew out a saber. It had a gilded hilt that twisted at the handle and a ruby set into the end. Its blade had been broken off a few inches below the hilt.
“We made a deal,” I warned as I steadied my stance. “Tell me about them.”
Looking up from the two pieces in his hand, Alec smiled aloofly. “I’ve suddenly misplaced my memories.”
“You son of a bitch,” I growled as I pulled against my captors, but they held on tightly and I wouldn’t be able to free myself due to my fading physical strength. I’d have to resort to other means that I often tried to avoid.
Holding the broken blade pieces next to each other, the blade magically fused with a spark, making the saber whole once again. I knew I’d only have a few brief moments before Alec would figure out what was really going on. I needed to get to the walls.
As he held the blade up triumphantly, I took my moment and closed my eyes, concentrating on the beating of my heart and the rushing of my blood. I didn’t have a choice so I called to the darkness inside. I was answered with an emerging shadow, carrying whispers as it enveloped me. I could feel a dark charge and a renewal in my energy. Taking in a deep breath, I pushed the shadow outward, causing a brief wave of force against my captors. Stunning them, I thrust my boot against the knee of one and connected with the jaw of the other with my elbow. I broke free and even though my legs were shaky, I sped for the wall.
“What is this?!” Alec bellowed, holding the blade in front of him. His eyes were madly wide and a look of utter confusion and anger had spread across his entire face. “What kind of game are you playing at?!”
What little energy I had had spent itself and I emerged from the shadow, struggling for breath from exertion. I was nearly within reach of the wall before a shot rang out and I felt a sharp pain in my back near my other shoulder. My vision blurred and I fell forward, almost straight onto my face. I tried to push myself up, but both my shoulders radiated with such pain, it felt like I was being pinned down with a pair of spikes.
Alec threw the saber at the ground next to me and it kicked up a cloud of dust. “You’re just full of tricks, aren’t you.”
Coughing, I tried getting my arms under me to push myself up but the pain was too much. I fell back down. Blood had soaked down most of my arm on both sides now and my bloodied hand was now caked with dirt. It hurt worse than a wasp’s sting and suddenly a heavy sense of dread filled my heart. I wasn’t really sure I was going to make it.
I desperately dug my fingers into the ground, trying to pull myself to the closest cavern wall. I didn’t care about the pain anymore. I just needed to get to the wall. Suddenly, my head jerked back and my scalp suddenly felt like it was on fire. I immediately realized Alec had a hold of my hair. With all the strength I could muster, I tried pushing myself up again but he braced a knee firmly on my back. I heard the click of the pistol’s hammer and felt the cold metal of the barrel against my head.
“I’ll get it without your help,” Alec spat.
Just when I thought my time had come, a soft rumbling in the ground grew louder and louder. I felt Alec’s weight shift as he turned to identify the source of the sound and suddenly a furious roar broke into the cavern.
A roar I recognized.
“Just for the record,” Artis began with his hand resting on one of the locks. He shot the Adviser a weary glance. “I’m not thrilled with this plan, old man.”
Quint raised an eyebrow and flashed Artis a tolerating look as he stood next to the second lock. There was movement on the other side of the door that sounded like hooves digging into the ground and was followed by the occasional deep huff. The Adviser did his best to hide his growing anxiety from the sounds. At least one of them had to show confidence in the plan. “Duly noted.”
Following the trail of plasma down the main passageway and then along the side path they were instructed not to venture, Quint and Artis had discovered a trip wire hidden carefully along the ground about twenty long strides in. They followed the line, careful not to touch it, until they came to a metal door. The line split and was pinned along the edge of the door before it connected to two pin locks. It didn’t take long for the two men to formulate a plan with the rest of the group.
A sharp whistle pierced the air and a deep rumble answered from the other side of the metal door. Both men cringed through they tried to hide it from each other.
“They’re ready,” Quint said back down the passageway. He took in a deep breath and let it out as he readied his stance. “You ready?”
A loud roar erupted from the other side of the door and was followed by a heavy thud that shook the locks. Both of their eyes went immediately to the door.
Artis blew out a nervous breath and grasped the lock. “Ready as I’ll ever be I guess.”
Nodding, Quint started to count quietly. “One, two, three!”
They released both pins and sprang into a sprint. The metal door fell down behind them and a pair of hulking Aatxes were freed from their captivity. Letting out a rumbling roar, they charged down the path after Artis and Quint with bloodlust in their ghostly illuminated eyes.
“This better work!” Artis yelled as they neared the main path.
“Now Alena!” Quint called and just as he and Artis disappeared around the corner, a large minion of bone, ligaments, and tissue sped past on its thick two legs. It had club-like arms and a long horn of bone on its head but no eyes. It didn’t need eyes to know where its mistress had sent it. The large golem was followed by two smaller minions. Unlike their larger kin, these were the size of small dogs and where their faces would be, were pale skulls. They followed the golem into the fray at their mistress’ bidding.
Distracted by the movement, the Aatxes turned and followed the minions, leaving the others behind as they waited up against the wall with great anticipation. The group had relied on the Aatxes’ keen sight to follow the movement of the minions. The beasts’ sense of smell, while normally excellent for picking up the scent of dead things in the Underworld, was not as keen here in the living world. The Aatxes were calibrated for existence in the Underworld and here in the land of the living, their senses were thrown off, aside from their sight.
“Is it clear?” Alena whispered after the Aatxes had made it down the path far enough. “Did it work?”
“Only one way to find out,” Quint said as he pushed back strands of silver hair that had fallen into his eyes.
They had only made it a few steps before cries erupted from the chamber ahead. Startled by the cries, the group stopped on their heels for a moment and looked at each other before breaking into a run.
Dee tightened her grip on her greatsword as they ran. “Sounds to me like it worked!”