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…