We Are The Gray

We are the Gray Ones.

We are those who stand in the doorway between the light and the darkness, the ones who fend off the things you fear. We are far from heroes; we are guardians, avengers, paladins. We are neither truly light nor shadow; we are phantoms, floating in the spaces between, defending the thin line that separates them.

We know that sometimes, war is necessary for peace. Sometimes what is right is not always what is best. Sometimes weeds must be allowed to grow and pests must be permitted to live. In order for crops to flourish, someone has to get their hands dirty.

We are those who take the fall so that others might stand on solid ground. It is we who carry the weight of the most difficult of decisions, that the minds of the masses may be at peace. Our kind live with bloodstains on our hands in order for others to maintain their innocence.

We are shunned, misunderstood, and despised. We are spit on, cast out, and beaten. Yet we persist. It is not for glory or recognition that we are this way. It is a duty that is bound up in our souls, and bred into our very blood, that we must do what is necessary, no matter the consequences.

Thus, we live in the places between the light and the dark, passing through each, but belonging to neither. It matters not, however; our lives are fulfilled. The balance is maintained, and that is all that matters. When we are needed, we are ready. Those who stand against us would be wise to tremble and retreat. We are not bound by honor, regulation, or protocol; we are bound only by the outcome. We are driven simply by the need to achieve the desired conclusion, regardless of personal cost. Our lives are guided by an all-consuming need to maintain the equilibrium, the symmetry, the harmony of it all; between light and dark, between yes and no, between black and white there is gray space.

We are the Gray.

For Fawkes Sake, Halt Your Revolution

For one day, silence yourselves. Get it all out of your systems today, if you must, but be quiet tomorrow. Give us one day of rest from your endless crusade, a solitary day of peace without your ruthless assault on our souls. Cease your insufferable, ignorant mouths and quiet your exclamations of perceived injustices. I don’t want to hear it. Have you not said enough already? What good will it do to interrupt a day of solace with your ruckus and racket?

Truly, what do you think you are accomplishing? I can tell you what is really happening, despite whatever your intentions might be. You are simply turning your cause into nothing more than a fly buzzing in my ears. If you truly want to be heard, learn to be silent for once in your life. Learn when to speak and when to shut up; learn when to whisper and when to shout. Learn when to fight and when to let peace lie; learn when to stand your ground and when to sit your ass down.

Most importantly, above how much I may want you to leave the airwaves alone, more than I want you to let everyone simply enjoy a day of rest, beyond all of that…learn to find peace within yourself. If you think that crying out about what ails you is going to bring you peace, you are dead wrong. If you think waging your war is what will grant you what you seek, you are sorely mistaken. Sometimes, wars must be fought and voices must be raised, but it is neither the fight nor the volume that brings about the desired result. It is the ability to transform what is without by the strength of what is within. If you harbor hate, you will produce violence and death. If you cultivate peace and truth, you will reap justice and rest.

For Fawkes sake, halt your revolution, if only for a few hours. Lay down your guns and lower your voices. Have some humanity; you’re still human, after all, aren’t you? Embrace the calmer side of your existence, and bathe in the absence of all this calamity; perhaps once you do, you might decide you’ve been fighting your battles all wrong, lining up your horses as you charge full speed at windmills, and hunting down devils in every doorway.

Put your weapons down; swallow your harsh words. Give yourself, and the rest of the world, a break. Let us all recuperate. Take some time to remember what is truly worth fighting for. Violence for the sake of violence is nothing short of evil; when the sun sets tomorrow, and you contemplate going out your door to return to your soap box, think long and hard about what it is you’re stirring up. If you are simply dredging up silt and muddying the waters, you’re not just part of the problem; you ARE the problem.

Shut your trap and think for a minute; just for one lousy minute. Think about what you have to say. Think about what you’re doing, and what it is that you stand for. If what you have to say ain’t worth listening to, bite your tongue; chomp down until it bleeds if you have to. Don’t be a menace, don’t become the disease. C’mon, now; you know better than that. We shouldn’t even have to have this talk in the first place.

Wrong Side of Town

Before we begin, I need you to know that I don’t make it out of this alive. I don’t mean that in a “I’m gonna build the tension and make you wonder” kind of way. I mean I’m telling you the story of how I died. I want someone, anyone, to know what it was like; I need someone to see my side of things. All the world is going to hear about is the circumstances and the people responsible; the headlines will fade, and my life will be forgotten the moment my body hits the pavement…

It’s not a long story; we only moved here a few months ago. My mom got a new job in a new town, so we had to move. We’re not very well off, so the places we could afford to live were limited. I mean, we’re not super poor or anything, we’re just not doing so great these days, you know?

Anyway, so we moved into this neighborhood that didn’t seem so bad. In all actuality, it’s not a bad place to live, it just happens to be a little closer to the bad side of own than we would have liked. That meant that we lived just barely far enough away from the “good” high school that I was out of district, whatever that means. So I wound up going to Central; let’s just say the student body there was made up of a more surely crowd…

This didn’t bother me too much, since I didn’t plan on being too involved anyway. I had one year left of high school, and then I was off to Berkeley. I’d be halfway across the country and living the college life before these people even had time to remember my name.

For the first semester and a half, things went according to plan. I made a couple friends, kids like me who wanted nothing to do with the whole high school experience, and we would hang out occasionally, but for the most part, I kept to myself. Every once in a while, we would meet up at each other’s houses to chill. We never did anything crazy; we’d smoke some bud, game for a while, raid the fridge, and then when the munchies wore off, we’d all go home. We had our routine, and it was kind of nice.

Towards the end of the school year, when the weather was getting warm again and the trees started growing leaves, things got a little scary. Given the fact that we went to Central, we were surrounded by gang culture. Everywhere you looked, there were tags on the walls and prospects walking the halls. Every one of them had something to prove; like a pack of wild dogs, each fighting for dominance and respect.

It was almost kind of a joke that as soon as things warmed up, the gangbangers crawled out of hibernation and started shooting people again. The facts didn’t lie; during the winter, they tended to lay low, and as soon as spring came, they went back to war. It was a dangerous situation, but all we could do about it was avoid them as much as possible and try to laugh it off.

There came a point where we couldn’t laugh it off anymore. When springtime came, they amped everything up to a new level. Drive-bys, gang fights, stabbings and shootings…they were on the news every night. People were dying, and it seemed like no one would, or could, do anything to stop it. We simply had to endure it and hope to survive it; not that we were all that worried about it. I mean, c’mon, we were seventeen. We saw what was going on around us, but never imagined that it would actually affect us in a big way.

I was over at Shawn’s house one day, hanging like we usually did, and it was a normal afternoon. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, and everything seemed peaceful. Shawn lived on the bad side of town, but his neighbors were mostly old people, so his block wasn’t bad. They were nice people, and the gangs typically left them alone. There was no reason to put any pressure on them, so it was pretty safe, all things considered. Or at least that’s what we all thought.

What we didn’t realize was that at the end of the street, about four houses down, a new family had moved in, and they had ties to some of the crap that was going on around town. The oldest two boys in the family were a part of one gang that was fighting with another. Apparently, some of the members of the opposing gang found out that they had moved to that block, and had been talking about teaching them a lesson when they least expected it. Now, I’ve always thought talk like that was just plain stupid; if you don’t want someone to expect something, why talk about it at all?

Anyway, so me and Shawn decided to walk down to the corner store that was across the street from this new family. Like I said, it was a nice day, so we didn’t feel like hopping in the car just to drive half a block to get something to drink. We should have taken the car.

We were laughing and joking about something stupid, and from down the street, we could hear an engine revving up and driving our direction. That’s not an uncommon sound around here, since everybody and their grandma drives an old hoopdie with a big V8 engine under the hood. We didn’t really pay too much attention to it. As we got close to the house, this ’87 Cutlass with big chrome rims and blacked out windows pulled up and slowed way down. In an instant, Shawn and I both knew what was going on, and time seemed to slow to a crawl.

The windows of the Cutlass rolled down and out popped three hands holding automatic weapons. I shoved Shawn to the sidewalk, and gunblasts ripped the quiet afternoon to shreds. The front porch exploded as bullets pummeled it over and over again. The shots slowly crept closer and closer to where we were, and I dove to the ground.

I wasn’t quite fast enough, and as they drove by, they gave me the same treatment they gave that family’s front porch. I hit the sidewalk and rolled into the grass. Shawn covered his head, and the Cutlass sped off. I could hear the passengers yelling and howling as they tore down the street.

The pain was unbelievable. I don’t know how many times I’d been hit; ultimately, I guess it didn’t really matter. I could feel my skin burning as blood spewed from the holes in my body and onto the dirt. I couldn’t breathe, and it felt like someone had poured a cup of boiling water straight into my lungs. I tried to cough, but couldn’t get anything to come up; I tried to roll over, but I couldn’t move.

My eyes started to go dark, and I saw someone run over to me. I could hear Shawn yelling for help. He grabbed my shoulder and shook me; god, that hurt like hell. I could hear him telling me to hold on, that everything was going to be okay, but it was like I was underwater; everything was muffled and garbled.

After what felt like hours, the pain started to go away. I felt really warm and tired. I closed my eyes, and I was gone.

You know, that family wasn’t even home. Those idiots shot up an empty house, didn’t even accomplish what they set out to do in the first place. I was dead as a doornail, though. The stereotype holds up; gangbangers never hit what they’re really aiming at. Those two guys who lived that life, the ones who were supposed to be the target? Yeah, they were fine. Those guys who shot me? Yeah, they got away. Me? I bled out in the front lawn of a stranger’s house, all because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I was supposed to be somebody, man. I was gonna go to Berkeley, get an education, and live as far away from that mess as I possibly could. I was gonna go somewhere I could make something of myself. Two weeks before graduation, I got gunned down for no reason whatsoever. I had nothing to do with that gang war. I never picked up a gun, flashed a sign, or tried to rep a corner. Yet, here I am, cold as ice and six feet under.

We should have taken the damn car.

The Coven (Alistair Chapter Five)

Clive rushed over to where Alice was one her knees cradling their elven friend. He was trying to remain calm, but his worries were bubbling just below the surface.

“Is she breathing?” he asked, with a note of panic sneaking into his voice.

Alice nodded silently, concern etched on her face. Clive approached and knelt down beside them. He reached over and brushed a lock of hair away from Cecilia’s face. She was still unconscious, but at least she was breathing. He attempted to lift her from Alice’s arms, but the woman growled defensively at him. He raised his hands in surrender.

“I’m not going to hurt her; you know that. The danger has passed, and we need to examine her for any wounds she may have obtained from hitting the wall. Please…let me take her from you, just for a moment.”

Alice glared at him momentarily, and her expression slowly softened from anger to gentle concern. She looked down at her friend and nodded again. Clive gingerly lifted Cecilia from Alice’s arms, and immediately noticed blood smeared all over Alice’s dark arm. He shifted the elf to look for the source of the blood, and saw a large gash on the back of her head. Her light hair was matted with blood where her skull had smashed against the rocks. Not seeing any other injuries, he laid the elf back in her partner’s lap and quickly removed his shirt. He wrapped it carefully around Cecilia’s head and stepped back.

“Keep some pressure on that wound; the bleeding should stop soon enough.”

Alice laid her friend’s head in the crook of her elbow and sighed. A single tear escaped her eye, and with her free hand, she angrily brushed it away.

“Don’t you go dying on me now, songbird; we’ve been through worse than this and come out of it no worse for the wear. It would be a crying shame if you went and left me now.”

Clive placed his hand on the woman’s shoulder.

“She’ll pull through. Once we find the coven, we’ll have a couple of them take a look at her; there are probably some things they can do for her to help speed up the healing process.”

Alice took a deep, quivering breath and regained her steely composure. She pointed to Alistair and Mordecai with her chin.

“Go,” she said quietly. “There is nothing more you can do here. They need you more than we do right now.”

Clive nodded and softly patted Alice’s shoulder as he stood up. He jogged over to where the men were searching the solid rock wall for an opening. With the exception of the door that led to the passageway they had entered through, there appeared to be no other way out of the arena. Alistair stepped back from the rock face, visibly perplexed. He glanced over to Clive as he approached.

“We must be missing something; there has to be a way out of here. There must be a lever or a handle here somewhere that we are just not seeing.”

Mordecai wiped a drop of sweat from his brow. The temperature inside the mountain was beginning to rise to uncomfortable levels, almost as if there were a fire burning deep underground, turning the arena into an oven. He stepped over to where the other two stood to make a suggestion.

“Now, I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but this whole area is steeped in magic.”

Clive and Alistair turned their gaze to the tracker, waiting for him to continue.

“So, since the people who built this place were so well versed in the arts, have you considered maybe we’re looking for a magical door of some sort, maybe one that can only be opened through the use of an incantation or a password?”

Alistair cracked a slow, sly grin.

“You may be on to something, my friend; I am somewhat ashamed that the thought had not yet occurred to me. We may have been looking for a lever when we should have been looking for something a little more ethereal.”

The man stretched out his arms in front of him and closed his eyes. Blue sparks arced between his fingertips, buzzing like a hive of bees as he focused his mind.

“Show us your secrets and reveal to us your pathways, ancient ones. Open!”

The sparks leapt across the room to the wall, striking the rock with vengeful force. The stones groaned, and a slab began to slide back and to the side, revealing a long hallway, lit by the same kind of torches at the entrance to the cave. Mordecai and Clive blinked and looked at one another, utterly dumbfounded. Alistair turned to them, with the same sly grin as before.

“Uh, well now…that was…surprisingly easy,” Mordecai stammered.

Alistair chuckled. “The natives were a strong people, but they liked to keep things simple. They found long, complicated spells and incantations to be cumbersome, so they tended to use simpler magic whenever possible. I imagine any number of revelation spells would have done the trick.”

Alistair winked, and Clive reached to adjust the collar to the shirt he had forgotten he was no longer wearing.

“I suppose we should be on our way, then,” Alistair quipped.

With Alistair in the lead, the three of them made their way down the long hallway. They quickly came to a fork in the road; one way led up a flight of stairs, presumably to the seats above the arena. The other sloped downward, and a wooden door was just barely visible from where they stood.

Glancing back and forth between the two, Alistair nodded to the downward path.

“Very well, it would appear that our way has practically been mapped out for us. Quickly, now!”

They broke into a trot down the hall, throwing the door open so quickly the hinges barely had time to announce their presence. Once inside the door, the hall continued on, winding and turning, with several offshoots leading in various directions. Before the three of them could decide where they would look first, a voice was heard from farther down the way.

“Leave us alone, you bastards! Haven’t you tortured us enough? What more could you want with us?”

Alistair cleared his throat. “Melinda, is that you?”

A shuffling could be heard as if someone had stood up quickly from the dusty floor.

“Alistair? Do my ears deceive me, or have you truly come for us?”

Without answering, the three of them ran down the hall towards the voice. They rounded a bend, and found a series of rooms that had been recently fitted with steel prison bars, forming large makeshift cells. In the first cell sat eight women, all in varying degrees of disarray. Some of them appeared close to death, while others, including Melinda herself, appeared to have suffered their captivity more gracefully than their sisters.

Alistair approached the bars and grasped the middle aged woman’s hand as she reached out through the bars of the cell. Her brown hair had streaks of gray running through it, her dress was tattered, and there was dirt on her face, but her steely gray eyes betrayed the strong defiance that had surely kept her alive.

“Fear not, my dear, we shall have you free of this prison in mere moments,” he said as he gripped her hand.

Mordecai loaded his revolver and spun the cylinder quickly.

“Y’all step back, now,” he grunted.

He stood to the side of the cell door and fired a round into the lock, blasting in clean off the door. The cell swung open, and the men rushed inside to help carry the members of the coven who were unable to walk.

As they got the wounded women to their feet, Alistair was shocked at the condition they were in.

“Dear god, what did they do to you, Melinda?” he asked in horror.

Melinda laughed dryly. “Trust me, old friend, you don’t want to know.

The group limped and stumbled their way out to the arena, where Alice still waited with Cecilia in her arms. Those who still had strength left in the coven saw this and walked over to see what help they could be after they set their sisters down on the floor. Melinda stood to the side with Alistair and watched as a couple of them uttered quiet incantations over the unconscious elf. After several minutes, Cecilia stirred in her sleep and mumbled something in her native tongue.

“She is going to live, but she is badly wounded,” one of the women said quietly. “we have done what we can to help her along, but now the best thing for her is rest.”

Alice snorted. “And that’s the one thing she won’t get; we have to get out of here and down the mountain first.”

“Pardon me, but that raises a rather important question,” Clive interjected. “How exactly are we going to get out of here? The path is blocked, and it does not appear that there is enough energy left among us to break the barrier curse and move the stone.”

Alistair turned and placed his hand on Clive’s shoulder. “I would not worry about that; I believe you have underestimated the power of collective magic.”

Clive was puzzled. “How do you mean, sir?”

Alistair motioned with his hand for Clive to look around the room. “As tired as we all are, I would still imagine that there is enough power and knowledge in this room to accomplish the task at hand. If given a moment, I am sure that the coven would be willing to help us, or at least some of them will. If we gather our strength together, there should be enough left within us that we can break the spell. Druid magic may be strong, but it cannot withstand the might of those gathered here. Even with Alice tending to Cecilia, we will find that our collective strength is more than adequate.”

Clive nodded, and after several minutes, Alistair gathered those who were able in front of the stone. Altogether, it was Alistair, Clive, Melinda, and two others from the coven. They all lifted their hands in the direction of the stone, ready to perform the necessary ritual.

“Close your eyes and try to relax; let the magic flow through you, let it wind around you and gather among you. It will be a strange sensation as it begins to flow, so try not to tense up. Remain focused on the task at hand; listen to the incantation as I cast it, and when you feel it start to pull on your strength, give yourself to it. Put all your strength into it. Once it starts to take effect, you must balance being both calm and forceful with it. Some of you have never done this before, so it will be uncomfortable, but trust your instincts. As wielders of magic, you will know when the right time to push and when to hold back.”

Everyone nodded and they closed their eyes. Alistair cracked his knuckles.

“Alright, old boy, let’s see what you’ve got,” he muttered to himself.

Mordecai looked on in wonder as the incantation began. Alistair started off with a whisper, and a slight wind picked up within the cave. He was uttering the same strange phrase over and over, but Mordecai couldn’t quite make it out. Slowly, Alistair raised his voice to a speaking volume, and purple smoke appeared, swirling and floating around the spell casters. Mordecai still was unable to decipher what Alistair was saying; as he spoke, the wind picked up more and more, carrying all but a few syllables here and there.

The wind whipped into a frenzy, howling all around the arena. The smoke grew thick and dense. Alistair’s voice lifted to a shout as he continued to chant the words of the spell. Suddenly, he pulled his hands in to his chest and violently thrust them back out in front of him. The spell casters were immediately enveloped in a smoke so dense that they could not be seen from the outside. From the swirling cloud of smoke burst five figures made of smoke and mist; a fox, a wolf, two does, and an otter rushed from the cloud towards the stone. They appeared to strike an invisible barrier just before they reached it, and they exploded into a plume of red and yellow sparks.

The wind picked up its urgency, somehow taking on even more fury than before, and the animals appeared again. Three more times they rushed the invisible wall only to be turned away. The fifth time, however, they burst through it, and they continued forward, striking the boulder that barred the way. The giant stone shattered with a loud crack, blown into millions of tiny pieces. The wind died immediately and the smoke dissipated; the spell casters fell to the ground, their strength spent.

Mordecai rushed over to them as they struggled to sit up. Sweat dripped down their faces, and they were out of breath. Each of them looked to where the stone had been mere moments ago and then glanced at each other. They had done it; they were free.

The group rested for several minutes until they had the strength to walk again, and then the coven and the Gatekeepers helped each other up. They slowly made their way out of the cave. Once they were outside, they paused to rest again. Several of the women wept at the sight of the early morning sky; most of them had wondered whether they would live to stand under the clouds ever again. When everyone was ready, they walked down the steep path back to the burial ground.

As they walked through the ring of stones, the guardian rose out of the ground ahead of them. They stopped, wondering if they would be forced to endure the trials once more, but after a moment, the guardian silently bowed his head and stepped to the side, allowing them to pass. Once they were beyond the cursed ground, the rest of the walk down the mountain was calm and peaceful.

They reached the base of the foothills just as the sun had fully broken the plane of the horizon. Alistair motioned for everyone to sit down and rest, and he gently laid the spellbinder that was holding onto his arm down in the grass. He then stood tall and raised an arm to the sky. A raven dropped from the clouds above and landed on his outstretched limb. He tenderly stroked its head with his index finger.

“Tell our friends that we have returned and we are in need of their aid,” he whispered. “Tell them to come quickly, as our strength is all but spent.”

The black bird tilted its head to the side and launched itself from his arm. Alistair collapsed onto his back, breathing a heavy sigh. Everyone sat without speaking, almost too tired for conversation, as they waited for the return of the Ravens. Soon enough, their friends arrived with their mounts. The leader dismounted quickly and approached Alistair. He saluted the Gatekeeper, placing his right fist over his heart and bowing slightly.

“Great One, Lucrezia has sent us in response to your call for aid. She has dispatched us to bring you back to our encampment. There, you will be fed and clothed, your wounds will be attended to, and you will be provided with a safe place to rest until you are well enough to travel to your homes.”

Alistair stood and smiled, returning the salute. “Your kindness is always appreciated. How far is your camp?”

“Not far; by horse, it is perhaps a ten minute ride.”

Alistair nodded and turned towards the group still on the ground. “Take those who are unable to walk by horseback and leave us one or two of your men to guide the rest of us on foot. Tell Lucrezia we will arrive shortly.”

“Very well; when we have dropped off your friends, we shall return for the rest of you. We shall not be gone long.”

The elf looked to his men and gave a sharp nod. They helped those too tired or badly injured into saddles and rode away. Alice refused to be separated from Cecilia, and thus rode with the advance group to the Ravens’ camp. This left Alistair, Mordecai, Clive, and Melinda to walk with two of the Ravens back towards the encampment. Ten minutes later, they were met once more by the mounted group, returning as promised. The remaining ride was short, as they had walked most of the way by the time the others had been able to come back for them.

When they dismounted, the camp was buzzing with activity. The wounded were being tended to, clothes were being washed and repaired, and food was being cooked. The next few hours went by like this, and by the time everyone had been properly been taken care of, the sun had passed high noon and was beginning to dip in the sky. They all found themselves around the fire at the center of the camp, each with a cup of hot soup in their hands. Alistair recounted the tail of their adventure to Lucrezia, and when he had finished, there was silence for a moment. There was one question that remained on everyone’s mind when all was said and done, but none seemed willing to ask it.

Their thoughts were disturbed by the sudden appearance of Cecilia stepping into the circle. She had awoken some time before, but had spent the last hour sitting behind everyone, listening to the tale be told. When she walked into the circle, she made her way over to Alistair. She looked very much like a small child, as the shawl that hung over her shoulders hung down almost to her ankles, accentuating her diminutive size.

She went and stood directly in front of Alistair, silently looking him dead in the eyes for a moment. After a moment, she smirked.

“Ali, I believe we are missing a key part of the story, one you have expertly kept hidden from us thus far. Yet, with all your storytelling prowess, you have been unable to hide its existence from us. There is a tale you have yet to share, old friend.”

She reached up and softly poked him in the nose. “What say you share the rest of the story with us?”

Alistair smiled softly. “It is good to see you up and walking again, Cece. You had us all quite worried there for a while.”

Alistair sat back and breathed deeply. “Well, I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you. It is a long story, though, so I suggest you settle in. You see, my connection to the Dark Druids goes back centuries, back to when I was still in Scotland.”

Cecilia sat down next to Alice, who hugged her firmly from the side. Alistair took a sip of his soup and screwed his eyes up to the sky as he thought.

“Ah, where should I begin…eh, I guess it all really began in 1299 or so. The Gatekeepers had assigned me to be the liaison between the Druids there and the Gatekeepers…”

Cave of the Dead (Alistair, Chapter Four)

The five of them reached the entrance to the cave and paused a moment to catch their breath. The way up had been steep, and passing through the trials had done nothing for their stamina. They passed around canteens of cold water, and when each had drank their fill, they silently nodded at one another, signaling that they were ready to continue. Alistair took a long, slow breath.

“Alright; onward we go, I suppose,” he murmured to himself.

They stepped through the mouth of the cave, and instantly whatever sense of darkness and evil they had before was exponentially magnified. The dark arts seemed to be oozing from the stony walls around them, filling up their lungs, attempting to drown them before they even reached their target. The Gatekeepers pressed on, unwilling to be swayed by the influences of the magic that swirled around them.

The path through the cave was lit by torches that burned an unnatural shade of green, adding to the sense of dread and foreboding that hung so heavily in the air already. The flames dances and flickered, casting eerie shadows all around. Mordecai found himself wishing that the cave had been without light entirely; he was on edge, jumping at every strange shadow that bounced around in an unexpected place.

Alistair led the way, as the trail led them further down into the mountain. The temperature steadily began to rise with each passing step, giving the Gatekeepers the feeling that they were descending into hell itself. They walked along silently, with the only sounds to be heard were the whispers of the torches they passed and the sound of their own feet as they walked. As they went along, they grew more and more uneasy, and the longer they went without encountering their enemies, the higher their anxiety went.

After what felt like hours of walking, Alistair held up his hand to stop the group. Without speaking, he pointed down ahead of them. It took a moment for the other four to realize what they were looking at in the shifting light, but eventually, a doorway came into view. A dull, orange glow could be seen bouncing off the rock from beyond the door; the kind of light only fire, true fire, would emit. It stood to reason that if there was a fire beyond that threshold, then there would be an open room in which it was contained. Perhaps they had finally found the dragon’s lair, as it were…

They quietly crept the rest of the way down the path to the doorway, and Alistair slowly peaked around the corner to see what lay beyond. He quickly darted back and looked over his shoulder at his companions, giving them a solitary sharp nod. It seemed they had found something worth noting, at least.

Alistair held up his left hand and began counting down from five with his fingers. The others eagerly fingered their weapons, and Mordecai nervously checked that his revolver was loaded once more. When Alistair reached zero, the five of them bounded around the corner and through the doorway. Once through, they found themselves in an auditorium-like space, with a giant inferno burning in the center of the main floor. Above them and slightly to their right, stood a host of twenty or more figures dressed in black robes and wearing masks painted like skulls.

Six of these figures were seated in front of the others, watching as the Gatekeepers entered; one of them stood and theatrically held his arms out wide as he began to speak.

“Welcome, travelers; now, please pardon me, but I have a few questions about your visit. I am quite certain that you are Gatekeepers, with the exception of the mutt, of course…”

The necromancer’s eyes could be seen lingering on Mordecai for a moment, and the black dog bristled at the term “mutt.” Alistair held out his arm, shaking his head ever-so-slightly, and Mordecai held himself back as the necromancer continued.

“…but what I do not know is why you have come. We are but mere mages, who have been without a home for some time. Now that we have found a place to call our own, you come barging in unannounced. I can only hope this is a house-warming party.”

Alistair gazed up at the robed figures for a moment before replying.

“You can drop the act, dark ones; you know why we have come.”

The one who had spoken before sighed and removed his mask. His face almost looked more evil without it, as the light from the fire created shadows on his face, but illuminated a star-shaped scar on the left side of his cheek.

“Good sir, I don’t have the slightest idea what you mean.”

“Do not toy with me, necromancer; you have taken friends of mine from their homes and brought them to this cursed place, though for what, I can only guess. Release them, and we shall let you go peaceably. If you resist, we will have no choice but to obliterate you.”

The man with the star-shaped scar cackled, his voice dancing eerily around them as it bounced around the cavernous room.

“Yet again, the Gatekeepers have only some of the information. You come here knowing nothing about those whom you face, nor what our purpose truly is. We wanted nothing from those useless spellbinders; it is you we have been after from the beginning.”

A large rock fell from the ceiling and blocked the door behind the Gatekeepers. They whirled around just as the way out was sealed, and then turned once more to face their enemies.

“Alistair, you think you know so much, yet here you are, just as confused as your compatriots. Sadly for them, you have walked them right into the mouth of a bear, and there will be no escape for any of you. Once we have finished with you, I will decide the fate of the coven; for now, we will thoroughly enjoy bringing about your demise.”

Suddenly, the entire host of necromancers leapt from the balcony where they stood and landed on the arena floor across from the Gatekeepers. The five of them huddled together and attempted to quickly assess the situation. Mordecai twirled his six shooter in his right hand and clutched his hunting knife in the other.

“So, do you feel like explaining one more time why you thought five of us could pull this off?” he asked dryly.

Alistair grunted. “I will admit, they are slightly more organized than I had anticipated.”

Alice coolly pulled the crossbow from her back and aimed it at the line of necromancers that faced them.

“There’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said through gritted teeth. “Now, if you children are finished with this discussion, I believe we have a game to play.”

Clive twirled his emerald tipped cane in his hands. “I do believe she has a point, gents; we’re in the thick of it now.”

Cecilia laughed softly. “Somehow, it always comes to this…” she muttered almost to herself.

With that, the five of them rushed their opponents, with enchanted crossbow bolts whistling through the air and bullets screaming across the gap between the two groups. There was a heartbeat of silence as Alice and Mordecai reholstered their firearms and they rushed towards the battle, and suddenly, the arena was enveloped in chaos.

Red streaks of smokey lightning arced across the room, narrowly missing their targets, leaving smoldering holes in the rock where they landed. Clive spun and fired off a series of green bolts of his own from his cane, knocking three of the necromancers to the ground. Alistair, brandishing a crusader’s blade, swung with vengeance, chopping down one black robe after another.

The necromancers were not without their own defenses, as they hurled every dark spell and evil incantation they knew at the Gatekeepers. Cecilia was struck by a stray bolt, and was launched to the far end of the arena. She hit the solid bedrock with a thud, and fell to the floor unconscious. Alice was instantly furious; the bond between Gatekeepers and their partners was strong, and to attack one was to incur the wrath of the other.

Alice dropped low and swept the legs out from under the necromancers who had encircled her. She leapt up, tucking and rolling into a sprint to where Cecilia had fallen. She cradled her friend for a moment, and then let out a great shout. Her dark skin glistened in the low light, and her eyes burned with a white-hot vengeance. She launched herself across the arena, tackling several necromancers as she flew.

She pulled two blades which followed the curve of her fists as she gripped the hilts from her boots and began slicing and shredding the robed men. Blood flowed freely along the stony floor, and she quickly stood to continue her rampage. By now, the necromancers’ numbers had dwindled to near half of their original host, and their confidence began to waver. They retreated to the back wall of the arena, and the Gatekeepers pressed in.

Alice continued her furious fight, while the other three pushed forward, boxing in the remaining necromancers. Finally, the only one who remained was their leader, the one who had addressed them mere minutes ago. He stood up on the balcony still, and began to clap slowly.

“Well done, Gatekeepers, well done indeed,” he mocked. “You have defeated my men, whatever shall I do?”

“Give up, dark one; your fight is lost,” Alistair shouted.

The necromancer’s face took on an even darker expression. “No! Not until you know why you have been brought here! Not until you realize that it is you who has lost. I want to look into your eyes as it dawns upon you that you are trapped here, and that there is no escape. Your rescue mission has been foiled by your own arrogance!”

The necromancer leapt down and rushed towards Alistair. Alice let loose a blood-curdling scream and stepped forward, slamming the tip of her blade into the necromancer’s chest. The man slumped to the ground, and Alice stood over him, with hate filling her eyes.

“Let’s see if your blood runs as black as they say it does, filth,” she growled.

Alistair reached over and calmly pulled her hand away from the man’s throat.

“That is enough, my daughter; go now and tend to Cecilia. She is in need of your aid. Her health is far more important than your revenge.”

Alice glared at the necromancer and slowly lowered her arm. She angrily shook loose of Alistair’s grip and jogged over to where Cecilia had fallen. Alistair knelt down and looked into the eyes of the necromancer. There was pity in his gaze, and it clearly infuriated the dying man.

“You have lost, I’m afraid; where are the women?” Alistair asked calmly.

The necromancer coughed and growled. “They are in the cells behind the arena. You may have freed them from their cells, but you have not won the day. You have simply changed the location of their slow, agonizing death. While you were busy fighting off my men, I laid dozens of spells upon the entrance; there is no escape, Gatekeeper. You will never break them all in time.”

Alistair sighed. “Why do you do this? Are you so uninformed about whom it is you stand against?”

“I know EXACTLY whom it is I fight, Alistair Mor! It is YOU who knows not that which stands against you!”

Alistair furrowed his brow. “What might that mean?”

The necromancer began to laugh, but was overtaken by a fit of coughing and gurgling. He was fading quickly, and he knew it. He spoke faster, rushing to his moment of triumph.

“You think you have been chasing necromancers all this time, but in truth, we are much more ancient than that. Our little disagreement goes back centuries, and now, I have brought balance to our feud. All this time, it has been the dark Druids who have been pulling the strings.”

Alistair went as white as a ghost, but quickly regained his composure. “No, this is impossible. Your bloodline was snuffed out hundreds of years ago.”

“That is what we have let you think, but we are many. Even if you find a way out of these caves, there will be no escape from our wrath. As long as there is still a single drop of our blood flowing in the veins of a dark Druid, Alistair Mor and the Gatekeepers will know no peace. You cannot run from us forever. We made an oath all those years ago, to find you and kill you for what you did to our ancestors; we fully intend to keep that oath. Watch your back, Alistair; we plan on showing the world that even the immortals can die.”

The dark Druid sputtered once more, heaved a loud, shuddering breath, and he was gone. Clive and Mordecai looked to Alistair.

“What does he mean, sir?” Clive asked tentatively.

Alistair shook his head. “Now is not the time; we must find the spellbinders and release them. We must ensure Cecilia is in good health. We must find our way out of this evil place. When we are once more underneath the open sky, I will explain everything.”

Mordecai walked away, looking along the wall for some sort of hallway or passage leading to the cells the dark Druid had spoken of. His mind was spinning. What sort of plot were they up against? Alistair seemed to believe what the dark one had said, so clearly there was truth to his words…

Mordecai shook his head, trying to clear his mind of the questions that swirled around inside. There would be plenty of time for that when they were free of this place. For now, their main concern was still escaping with the coven. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a silent prayer that they might still be alive. It would be utterly tragic to have come all this way just to find there was no hope in the first place…

You Be Tails, I’ll Be Sonic…

I’ve been wracking my brain for a while, trying to think of the right way to say this. I don’t want to sound like a world-class dick, but I also don’t want to tip my hand and reveal the fact that I’m a whiny little bitch either. So, in the end, I guess I’ll just do both and see what happens.

I’m angry. At you, at the situation, at myself…I mean, how on earth do I keep winding up in these ridiculous little games? I feel like a mouse that lives in a house full of cats; I get away from one, just to get caught in a corner by another.

You’re not really here; in fact, you never really will be. That’s the suckiest of sucky things, too; catharsis isn’t real. There is so much I want to say. I want to yell at you, I want to ask you a million different questions that probably all have the same answer, and I want to just…try to reconcile it all in my mind while you sit here quietly.

Instead, I sit on this park bench and watch as the kids across the lawn feed the birds, and the joggers pass me, oblivious to the stupid weight on my stupid mind, on my stupid day off, no less. What the hell.

I mean, I know things don’t play out in real life like they do in the movies. I know that there is rarely, if ever, a moment where everything is put out in the open, and everything is made better. Wounds don’t heal that fast. There are never those iconic moments in the real world; there is never the “I love you” from the balcony, or the “goodbye, old friend,” from the death bed. No, those things are left unsaid, unheard, or worse, both. Neither party benefits from the openness of simply saying those short phrases.

Instead, we lock ourselves away in our own minds, and sweat over a boiling pot of our tense thoughts. Mmmm, what a lovely stew it is; nothing gets the blood pumping like a full bowl of regret in the morning. God, what a joke this all is.

I suppose since the world doesn’t solve its problems in two hours like Hollywood does (let’s be honest, it hardly ever solves anything), there must be some other solution. I guess it’s kind of obvious when you look at life from a less angsty perspective. Simply…move the hell forward.

It’s going to be a struggle. The things I have to say aren’t going away. They may hide for a while, but they always resurface. It’s going to be a daily process; I have to drop your weight from my shoulders before my feet even touch the floor in the morning. Sometimes, I have to do that two or three times before I even get out of the house.

I know I’m never going to have any peace any other way, though. I’m never going to be handed a cathartic moment; I have to manufacture my own catharsis, I have to create my own peace. I must force the storms raging inside of me to be calm simply because I want them to be.

I know I have to start soon. As I get older, time seems to be speeding up; soon enough, I’ll be that bitter old man who feeds the pigeons and growls at children in the park. Hell, I’m halfway there already; I’m already in the park. I can’t be that, though. I have to be better. I can’t let this rob me of who I am. I can’t let this consume me, or all the stuff I went through before will have been pointless. If nothing else, I refuse to die without a purpose. I refuse to go out as a quitter. A failure? Maybe, but not a quitter.

So consider this the goodbye I never got the chance to have before. Consider this my new beginning, my return to normalcy. I’m going to have my rough days; I’m going to wind up back here more than once. I’m stronger now, though; I’m at least strong enough not to stay where I am. I’m done being tossed around and shaken like a dog’s chew toy. It’s time I evolved a little bit. Maybe grow some legs and get out of this stagnant little pond. There’s a whole world out there; a world full of disappointments I haven’t experienced yet, and hurdles I have yet to jump. I may not win, but I’m ready for that fight now. I’m ready to Rocky the shit out of this; I’m going the distance. there ain’t gonna be no rematch.

Cursed Places (Alistair Chapter Three)

The two-day ride was grueling, as they went at a full tilt, stopping only to sleep and to water the horses. The journey took them swiftly across the open plains, and as the terrain shifted around them the closer they got to the mountains, so did the air they were breathing. Not only could they feel the change in altitude, but the closer they came to their destination, the more they could sense the darkness they were approaching. It was palpable, hanging on the wind, feeling almost like a wet cloth being pressed against their faces, making every breath feel like a struggle.

Finally, they arrived at the base of the foothills. The moon was beginning to dip behind the mountains ahead of them, and the sun had just begun to crest over the horizon at their backs. The four on horseback stared in the direction of the burial ground as Mordecai shifted back into his human form. Alistair sighed and leaned back in the saddle, his eyes pouring over every visible inch of the low peaks ahead. A narrow trail could be seen winding its way up through the rocky ground, rising up, weaving in and out of sight.

“They are indeed here,” he said after several moments of silence. “Their darkness exceeds even the weight of the cursed ground upon which they have made their camp. We will rest here for several hours, and then make our way on foot up to the burial grounds. I do not wish to take the horses; what we encounter there could be enough to kill them.”

Clive looked around. “Sir, I don’t mean to question your judgement, but where will we leave them, then? There are hardly any trees around us to which we could tie them, and if we leave them loose, they will surely wander away.”

A sly grin crept across Alistair’s face. “I do not believe this will be a problem, Mr. Lugosi. Do you see the ravens flying overhead?”

The other four gazed above, and saw a flock of black birds circling overhead. They quickly returned their gaze to Alistair, who met their quizzical looks with a soft reply.

“Friends of ours already know we are here. They have been tracking us ever since we entered the territory. They will arrive soon enough, and we can leave our steeds with them.”

Alice furrowed her brow even deeper. “And who might these friends be?”

Cecilia’s musical laugh floated softly through the air. “Why, the Ravens, of course.”

Alistair arched an eyebrow and nodded slowly. “Indeed; the Ravens.”

Knowing that Alistair would not explain further, and that Cecilia would not spoil the surprise, the others settled in and waited for these unseen friends to arrive. They set up camp, built a small fire on which to cook a quick meal, and sat down in the sand to rest a while. After nearly an hour, a small cloud of dust rose up in the distance, quickly drawing nearer to their camp. As it approached, they could make out seven figures coming their way.

When their guests arrived, Alice, Clive, and Mordecai were surprised to see they were equal in stature to Cecilia. The seven of them were clothed in deerskin leather similar to those worn by the local tribes, riding in on what appeared to be wild ponies. Their hair shone like gold in the sun, and their skin was dark and tan; it was their piercing eyes, though, that set them apart, as they glinted and sparkled like diamonds under the moon.

Alistair and Cecilia greeted them warmly with embraces and handshakes all around.

“Greetings, brethren,” Cecilia said.

Their leader, a female with a pendant of a black bird hanging from her neck, grinned at them. “Though we may be an unkindness, we come not with unkind intentions,” she said.

Alistair laughed. “I would hope not; after all we have been through together, you are more like family to us than many of our own blood.”

Turning to the three very confused people behind him, Alistair gestured to the seven newcomers.

“My friends, this is Lucrezia, the leader of the Ravens of Colorado.”

Clive extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you; I am ashamed to admit it, but I have not had the pleasure of hearing about you before now. Please, excuse my ignorance; any friend of Alistair’s is a friend of mine.”

Lucrezia shook his hand and gazed up at him. “The blame for that lies squarely on Alistair’s shoulders; I am a somewhat offended that he has not told you of my people’s exploits with the Gatekeepers by now,” she joked.

As she continued to shake the hands of the other two, Alistair explained.

“The Ravens are a group of Cecilia’s people who have chosen to live in our lands and to assist us in our fight against the dark forces in any way that they can. Their help has been invaluable on numerous occasions, and their presence today is deeply appreciated.”

Lucrezia turned to Alistair. “So you do need our help, then? I figured as much when you five rode in the way you did.”

Alistair nodded. “It appears a band of necromancers has kidnapped a coven of spellbinders, and they are holed up in the caves above the burial grounds.”

The elf crossed her arms and shook her head slowly. “I would love to assist you, my old friend, but you know we do not disturb those who are at rest. That land is sacred, and we dare not cross the spirits who guard it.”

“I understand that; I would never ask you to come with us. Rather, we are in need of someone to watch over our horses while we are gone…”

Lucrezia smiled softly. “That we can do for you. We will keep our eyes on the hills until you return.”

Alistair bowed his head slightly. “Thank you. I would pay you, but I am afraid we did not bring any gold with us on this journey.”

Lucrezia laughed, a high, whimsical sound not unlike Cecilia’s. “You should know by now that we do not require any payment from you other than your continued friendship. We stand allied in the same cause, and we know you would do everything you could to give us aid if the tables were turned.”

Alistair smiled wide. “This is true. Over and over again we have traded aid and assistance. Your help today is still greatly appreciated.”

“Of course, Alistair; who wouldn’t appreciate our help?” Lucrezia winked at Clive, and motioned for her men to take the reins of the Gatekeeper’s horses. When the steeds had been gathered, she remounted her own pony.

“We shall take good care of your mounts; they will be well rested and well fed when you return.”

With that, she urged her pony into a sudden gallop, and the other six riders followed suit. When the dust cleared, the elves were nowhere to be seen, and the Gatekeepers collapsed exhausted into the red sand for a short nap.

They awoke shortly after noon, and they quickly gathered themselves for the last leg of their journey. Without speaking, they all checked their weapons and prepared themselves for the battle that surely awaited them. Cecilia performed protective incantations on them all, and they set off up the path that led to the burial grounds.

The trail rose sharply, much more so than they had anticipated. The way was much steeper than it appeared from below. Within minutes, the five of them were breathing heavily, with sweat beading on their foreheads, dripping down and stinging their eyes. Still, they pressed on. They needed to get through the burial grounds and up to the caves before nightfall. Whatever wards and spells stood between them and the caves would be better faced in the sunlight; there was no telling what kind of danger they would be in if they were caught standing among the graves after nightfall.

Eventually, they reached a flat clearing, surrounded by a ring of smooth boulders. The large rocks were arranged in a pattern; limestone, then sandstone, then flint, all the way around the burial site. The path led through a gap between the stones; across the clearing, the path led out through an identical gap in the ring. From there, it wound its way up to the dark entrance to the caves. Alistair glanced around at his companions and stepped through the opening and into the sacred resting place…

Immediately, the sky cracked with lightning and thunder, though no clouds could be seen above. A heavy mist formed at the center of the clearing; it rose and began to take the form of a man. When it had taken shape, a voice that sounded like a strong wind howling through a canyon shouted out to them.

“WHO DARES WALK AMONG MY RESTING PEOPLE?!”

Alistair raised his hands with his palms facing outward as he replied, “Alistair Mor, of the Gatekeepers; with me are my fellow Gatekeepers, and we have come not to disturb this place, but to rescue some of our own who yet live. Men who use dark magic have taken peaceful women from their homes, and they have hidden them away in the caves above. We seek only to pass through that we may reach them before it is too late.”

The guardian spirit rushed over to where they stood, stopping mere inches from Alistair’s face.

“I know of whom you speak, Pale Walker, and they are taken by evil men indeed. Yet, I do not trust your word. I do not sense darkness in your heart, but I cannot be sure of your intentions. These men who have taken your women have soiled the ground where my people were lain to rest. They did not pass through the trials when they came, but instead, they manipulated the air to their will, using force to make their way to the caves. I am the guardian of this place, and I cannot allow you to disturb the peace of those whose bodies rest here. If you are truly honorable, then you will subjugate yourselves to the trials in order to pass with my blessing.”

Alistair bowed his head. “We shall endure the trials.”

The spirit growled. “Very well; we shall let the spirits decide if you are worthy to cross. Long ago, when I was a warrior among the living, my people were massacred, and their bodies laid to rest here. A great man of magic in my tribe laid a curse on any who would place his foot upon the graves here. He spent many weeks alone on this hill, speaking in spells and shouting incantations. When he had finished, he called forth my spirit to be the guardian of our brothers. I am the keeper of the trials.

“Of the trials, there are two. The first is a measure of the character of a man. Each of you will come face to face with your greatest enemy, and you must overcome both the enemy before you, and the enemy within. If you succeed, you will meet the trial of the righteous warrior. You must defeat the hounds of hell, whose only wish is to drag men down to the depths of the flames for judgement and damnation. Do you still wish to face the trials?”

Alistair stood tall and gazed straight into the face of the guardian spirit. “We do,” he said coolly.

The spirit grinned and chuckled. “Very well. Enter the curse.”

The five of them were suddenly wrapped inside a great cloud of smoke and mist, and none of them could see the others. Mordecai stood stock still, waiting for something to jump out at him from the unseen. Soon enough, the cloud lifted, and he was standing alone in the cemetery. Night had fallen, and the moon was heavy and full above him. On the other side appeared a man with a wild and crazy look in his eye: his twin brother, the man who had taken everything from him.

Mordecai was shocked. “B-Ben…?” he asked incredulously.

In response, his brother howled at the moon and raced towards him. Mordecai barely had time to put his fists up before his twin tackled him to the ground. They rolled around for a few seconds before Ben wound up on top. He pinned Mordecai’s arms to his sides and began slugging him across the jaw. Mordecai felt several teeth pop loose, and he desperately struggled for a way out.

Finally, he was able to get an arm free, and he grabbed his brother by the wrist. Ben instinctively leaned over to try and pry himself from Mordecai’s grasp, allowing Mordecai to pull his other arm up. They grappled like that for a minute or two, with Mordecai holding onto Ben’s wrists for dear life, as his mouth filled up with blood and his eyes began to swell shut.

With a great shout, he heaved his brother off of his chest and scrambled to his feet. Ben regained his balance first, and swung a big kick at Mordecai’s chest as he stood up. Mordecai latched onto Ben’s leg; he absorbed the blow and flipped his brother onto his back. He stepped back and tried to catch his breath while Ben stood once more.

Ben rushed at him with a shout, and Mordecai threw all his strength into a haymaker that connected with Ben’s left temple. Ben fell to the ground and rolled onto his back. Ben reached for the gun holstered on his hip, but Mordecai drew his first. The brothers were frozen like this, gasping for breath, as Mordecai’s gun was shakily aimed at his brother’s chest.

“Don’t you dare do it, Benji,” he said quietly.

Ben grinned evilly. “Do it. Pull the trigger. You know you’ve wanted to for years.”

Mordecai spat to one side and wiped the blood dripping from the corner of his mouth with his free hand. He panted there for a moment before responding. “You know, for someone who ain’t real, you sure pack one hell of a punch. Now, I ain’t gonna shoot ya, and I’ll tell you why. Even though you burned down the house, even though you killed momma and daddy, and even though you tried to have me hanged for it all, I ain’t gonna kill you. You’re still my brother, Benji, and I may hate you some days, or even most days, that fact don’t change.”

Mordecai reholstered his gun, and he was immediately enveloped in the cloud once more. When it lifted this time, he was surrounded by his friends. He rubbed his jaw, and found that all his teeth were where they belonged, and he was no longer bleeding. The guardian spirit looked at them all one by one, as if admiring them.

“Good,” he said. “You have all survived the first trial. You have proven yourselves to be of great character. No one who has attempted the trials has ever made it through the first. They have all given in to their vengeful desires, destroying their enemies and, in turn, destroying themselves. Now, for the second trial…”

The five of them glanced at each other, bracing themselves for what was to come. Lightning struck the ground at the far end of the burial ground, and the guardian spirit faded away.

“Fight! Fight or die!” he commanded as he disappeared.

From the smoking ground where the lightning had struck appeared a pack of snarling three headed dogs. They bounded towards the Gatekeepers, who scrambled to pull their weapons free. Mordecai squeezed off three shots before the pack overran them. The five of them were knocked over, and the dogs began to drag them all away. Mordecai dropped his six shooter and began punching and kicking the dogs around him. Cecilia attempted to cast several spells, but they simply bounced off the hides of the hell hounds they struck.

A black hole opened up in the ground nearby, and the pack worked their way towards it. Just as Clive’s boots slipped through the gaping space, Alistair shook free and stood. He thrust his hands out before him and shouted out an incantation.

“Yerelem, feust asconta midicus!”

A giant ball of blue flame fell from the sky and engulfed them all, burning bright and hot for several moments. When the flame died out, the dogs were gone, and the five of them sat panting in the dirt.

Alice fell onto her back and sighed deeply. “Dear god, Alistair; why didn’t you do that right away?!”

Alistair shook his head. “I-I…couldn’t…remember the spell.”

Mordecai laughed heartily; it rose up from his toes and erupted out through his lips, echoing through the foothills. He didn’t even really know why he was laughing; the stress and the panic of it all seemed to just escape him at that moment, and all he could do was laugh. Apparently, it was contagious, as within seconds, the five of them were lying on the ground, rolling in laughter as tears poured down their faces.

When they were finally able to get ahold of themselves, they stood again and dusted themselves off, fighting back the lingering chuckles and giggles. The guardian spirit reappeared before them, much less aggressive than before. He smiled at them as he spoke.

“I am amazed at what you have done here today. You have proven yourselves pure of heart and worthy to walk among the graves of my people. You may pass through without fear, as the curse is not meant for you. I hope that you will return again soon, victorious in your quest. May the light of all that is good go with you, and may no force of evil stand against you.”

With those words, the guardian disappeared into a cloud of mist, and the five of them made their way across the burial ground. When they reached the other side, they looked back across the clearing; everything was calm and quiet, and there was no evidence of the great struggle that had just taken place. As one, they looked up to the mouth of the cave above them and stared at it for a minute or two. God only knew what was waiting for them inside the mountain…