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…