"You want to help us?"
"You look surprised, Prince Maxthane," Dogo answered with a disarming smile. "I think we've already made ourselves quite clear. Your father risks bringing doom upon us all."
Dogo, Maxthane, Grim, and Madame Godani sat around an elegant table in the Inkblade guild hall. A full tea cup sat before each of them, and a plate of cheese and crackers sat in the center for anyone to eat from. It had remained untouched through the course of their discussion, though Grim and Maxthane had both thanked Madame Godani graciously for her hospitality. Even though Maxthane had gone most of the day without eating, the adrenaline of their escape was still with him, and he didn't have much of an appetite.
The gladiators were in another room being fed a large meal at Madame Godani's expense, awaiting the result of the discussion being held without them. Maxthane didn't think it would take much longer, though he was still bewildered that Dogo and Madame Godani had any desire to stop his father. Maxthane sat in the company of thieves, and thieves always looked out for themselves first.
"My motives are not so altruistic," Madame Godani admitted with a tight smile, "but I do agree with Dogo that we have to ensure this does not come back to harm The Shade. I still believe that this rebellion will not amount to anything, but we need to make sure that we cover our own interests."
"Spoken like a true thief," Dogo noted with a laugh. "You'll never change."
Madame Godani grunted as she glared at Dogo sitting beside her. "You were always too good for The Shade, Dogo." She made a shooing motion with her hand as she added, "What with how much you dislike our dishonorable ways, I'm honestly surprised you stick around."
Dogo glared back at her and opened his mouth to reply when Grim raised his hand to stop their quarrel. "Please, we appreciate any help that you have to offer," Grim interjected. "Can you get us to the surface?"
"Yes, though we will have to be more careful than we were when we helped Styx escape," Dogo explained. "Salidar is already suspicious that we had something to do with that, and I'm not certain we can avoid his attention if we act openly."
"So what do we do?" Maxthane asked.
"There is a fourth exit to the surface," Dogo replied quickly, drawing surprised looks from Maxthane and Madame Godani.
"What are you talking about?" Madame Godani asked suspiciously.
"It's located above the Black Lake," Dogo answered with a smug grin that turned Madame Godani's glare murderous. "The Ebon Pillar leads straight to it."
"The Ebon Pillar?" Grim asked, "I haven't heard of that."
"It is located in the center of the lake," Dogo explained, ignoring Madame Godani's glare. "It rises from a small island reputed to be the home of a terrible beast. Everyone in The Shade avoids the island."
"How did you find out that there was an exit to the surface at the top?" Maxthane asked in wonder.
"It's how I enter the Shade every time I come home," Dogo replied with a shrug. Madame Godani's glare turned thoughtful as her anger seemed to dissipate. She nodded slowly and smiled at Dogo, leaving Maxthane to wonder what thoughts were going through her head.
"So there is no beast on the island?" Grim inquired with another smile.
"I didn't say that," Dogo replied with a grin. When Dogo saw Maxthane's horrified expression he sighed and continued, "I don't know, to be honest. If there is, I've never seen it, but I have heard things from time to time. It could just be the tentacle beasts that live in the water."
"Great," Maxthane muttered, rolling his eyes as he digested the news.
"But we can reach the surface this way?" Grim confirmed eagerly.
"Yes," Dogo answered with a nod. "In fact it will be much quicker than dodging the patrols. All we have to do is find someone willing to take us to the island." Shaking his head he explained, "I'm afraid my usual vessel will not suffice. It's far too small to bring all of the gladiators along, assuming that they are going with us."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Grim asked as he rose to his feet. "Let's ask the gladiators and go."
"What are you going to do, Madame Godani?" Maxthane asked before Grim got too carried away with leaving. "You said you wanted to help as well, and though we appreciate you feeding us, I know you always have more going on than meets the eye."
Madame Godani regarded him carefully and said, "Your perception will take you far once you are in your father's position, Maxthane. I'll be speaking with the other guilds and laying down the groundwork for defense of The Shade should your father succeed and release the demons. We will want to be ready to defend ourselves."
"That's a good idea," Grim said solemnly, "We didn't have a plan when the demons first arrived on our world, and that nearly destroyed us all. I wish you the best of luck should the demons make their way down here, Madame Godani." He turned toward Dogo and insisted, "Now we really should get going. Time is of the essence."
The meeting adjourned, and they left to question the gladiators. Maxthane took a bit of cheese and crackers on the way out. With the pace that Grim was now setting he didn't know when they would eat next, and he knew he needed something to help him last through the day, even if his appetite had yet to return.
When they entered the dining hall that was filled with gladiators, Maxthane saw that the gladiators had no problems feasting on what was provided to them. Madame Godani knew how to treat her guests with respect, and the gladiators thanked her with loud cheers when she entered the room. Grim raised his hands above his head to indicate that he would like to address the group, and the noise slowly faded.
"We are about to embark on a dangerous mission," he began with a somber expression, "I am hoping that at least some of you will come with us."
Cheers erupted from the crowd, signaling that every gladiator had intentions to join them, but Grim wasn't finished. He raised his hand to silence the group again before he continued. "Before you agree, you need to understand what we're up against. Salidar and his soldiers intend to free several demons in Pentalus. It is our mission to stop him from doing so. Should we fail in that, our mission will be to stop the demons themselves."
"There are several different types of demons that we may encounter, and I'm afraid I don't have the time to explain every last detail, but they all share some similar traits. They will all be more powerful than you or I," he paused for effect, to make sure they all understood how serious he was. "They will be stronger, or faster, and certainly more deadly. You have to understand these foes, and what they're capable of."
"The demons first came here eight hundred years ago, and were a scourge that touched every corner of the world. They came from a realm foreign to ours, and their alien nature reflects their origin. We never learned their purpose, their motives for unleashing their wrath upon us all, but we do know that they are bent on destroying all that stand in their way," his eyes scanned the room, meeting every pair of eyes that looked back at him, letting them feel the power of his memory. He knew all too well the nature of the demons and how little respect they had for life, and he wanted to transfer that emotion to the gladiators who sat before him, so that they properly understood the choice in front of them. "They grow in power with every one of us that they kill," he went on, "feeding off of our very life essence. As they grow in power, they also grow in size, as if it is sustenance to them. Most of them can also use that power to heal their wounds if given time to recover."
"The one thing in our favor is that they are finite in number," he explained with a hint of a smile, trying to bolster the group's morale. "We have never seen signs that the demons reproduce, and we are certain that the gate which allowed them access is sealed shut. There will not be any more of them, and once they are destroyed our task is done."
"What manner of creature doesn't reproduce?" One of the gladiators asked, "How did they come into existence in the first place?"
"We don't know," Grim answered with a slight shake of his head, "but they are alien to this world, and they must be stopped. We may be the only ones who can stand in the way of the demons, and I certainly can't do it alone." He paused for dramatic effect before he asked, "Will you fight alongside me?"
Most of the gladiators pledged their loyalty to the Fedain with a round of cheers. Some answered that they would like to remain in The Shade, and these were allowed to leave without any hindrance. The rest picked up their gear and gathered at the entrance to the guildhall.
To Maxthane's surprise and delight, Madame Godani had something waiting for them; a varied selection of weapons with which to outfit them. Though some of the gladiators had already acquired some from Salidar's halls, a few minutes later everyone was equipped with a means of defending themselves, and Maxthane knew that their chances had just improved.
The group thanked Madame Godani again, only to have her shoo them out of her guildhall. They split into smaller groups to avoid detection before heading toward the Black Docks, intending to reassemble when they reached the pier. Maxthane and Grim traveled together, and upon their arrival they found that most of the group had beaten them there. Dogo was speaking to a bear of a man who stood a full head taller than him. The black tattoo of a giant sea snake covered his right shoulder, a traditional expression of ship ownership on these docks.
"You pay good coin, Dogo," The captain remarked as he crossed his arms over his chest, "but even that will not be enough for me to take you to the island. You're not going to find anyone that will, either."
"I came to you for a reason, Baggart," Dogo replied with a disarming smile. "I have news of Kutos."
"He died in the arena. What of it?"
"Are you aware of the circumstances of his death?"
"A pit fight is a pit fight," Baggart replied with a shrug of his shoulders while keeping his arms crossed. "If he wasn't strong enough to survive, then he didn't deserve to."
"No one could have survived against the creature he fought," Dogo explained, shaking his head at Baggart's indifference, "At least not without knowing what they were getting into. It was slaughter."
"What of it? That makes little difference."
"Is your brother's death truly so meaningless to you?" Dogo asked with an edge to his voice. Maxthane cringed as he watched Baggart stare at Dogo with a dangerous glint in his eyes.
"No. It is not meaningless," Baggart replied coldly, "but I fail to see what it has to do with me taking you to the island."
"If you take us to the island, we will be able to avenge your brother's death," Dogo replied without skipping a beat. "There is a route to the surface that we must take if we are to catch the man responsible."
This new piece of information seemed to work on Baggart. He lost his defensive posture as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. He stuck his hand out to seal the deal a moment later and Dogo clasped his arm and shook it.
"Very well, I'll do it for you," Baggart said with a grin, "but I'll take the coin as well. We can leave in half an hour."
"We appreciate your cooperation, Baggart. We will be waiting."
The ship was barely large enough for the twenty or so gladiators, and the creaking wooden frame set out, sitting lower in the water than it ever had. Maxthane glanced back at the crew, and noted that they, too, glanced at the water uneasily, with every stroke of their oars. Only Baggart, Grim, and Dogo seemed unaffected by fear, though it only took Maxthane a moment of looking at the captain's eyes to tell that his outer composure was a facade. He was just as uneasy as the rest of his crew.
The trip to the island went without incident, and as they neared the boulder-strewn shore the captain jumped to his feet to look for a place to tie up. Dogo moved up beside him and gestured to a large boulder sticking out of the water on the very edge of the shoreline. "You can tie up to that rock there," he explained quickly, "There is an iron ring I embedded into the stone so that I could moor here more easily."
"You come here often?" Baggart asked, with a wry smile, as he followed Dogo's instructions, hooking the ring with a pole, pulling the boat closer and then feeding his painter through the loop. In less than a minute they were tightly secured and floating less than ten feet from the shore. Maxthane was surprised that they hadn't scraped the bottom with the boat, but then he realized what that meant. The edge of the island must drop steeply toward the bottom of the lake. He looked up at the pillar that rose from the center of the island and noted that the entire slope was littered with boulders, as if the island had been formed by a collapse of the cavern roof above them.
"Every once in a while," Dogo said with a shrug, "I can't reveal all of my secrets, Baggart."
Baggart shook his head and lifted the gang plank, and rested it firmly on the boat and then the shore. Once it was secured, Dogo turned to address the gladiators. "All right, everyone off. We're headed straight for the pillar. Don't dally."
As the gladiators quickly filed onto the shore, Dogo turned back to the captain and said quietly, "Once we're off, I suggest you leave, Baggart. You will only be in danger if you stay here."
"Don't worry about me, Dogo," Baggart replied with an uneasy glance at the island. "I have every intention of leaving this place at once."
Dogo nodded and followed the others to the shore, joining Grim and Maxthane who were looking up at the towering pillar of stone a few hundred yards away. He motioned for them to follow and then started walking quickly toward the pillar, without sparing another glance at the ship or its crew. The gladiators followed eagerly, not willing to lose their guide in such unfamiliar and ominous territory. As they walked, Maxthane could hear the distant sound on something scraping against the stone, and from the look on his companions' faces they could hear it to. The source of the sound seemed to be moving; though it became more distant the further up the shore they went.
As they reached the pillar Maxthane noticed the winding steps cut into the stone. The torches held by several of the gladiators could only reveal a small area, but the stairs continued wrapping around the pillar to the end of the illumination. Dogo motioned for them to gather close so that he could relay additional instruction when a cry arose from the shore below them.
"What is that thing!?"
The group turned back toward the shout, and Maxthane saw a large form shuffling through the darkness. It was humanoid in shape, but it was six times the size of any man Maxthane had ever seen. It was shambling toward the boatmen, who still stood on the shore, despite Dogo's warning that they should leave as soon as possible. Thunderous footsteps echoed across the nearby stone, and a loud grating of metal against rock followed each step as if something was dragged behind it. Sparks sprang from around the form whenever it moved, temporarily casting it in dim light, revealing that it appeared to be covered in some black metal.
As the form came within the torchlight of the boatmen, the light illuminated its strange design. Humanoid in shape it may have been, but it was alien to Maxthane. It was not covered in metal at all, but rather forged of it. Its head was without nose or mouth, and the single piece that resembled an eye began to glow bright red as it turned its gaze on the men who stood before it. It continued to shuffle toward the boat on one massive leg, while its other leg dragged along the ground behind it. The dragging leg was a mangled mass of metal and mechanical parts, and that could only mean one thing—this was a golem.
He had only heard of golems from childhood fairy tales, and read about them once, in a tome of magic. It was said that people millennia ago had the ability to make contraptions of metal come to life, to serve their purposes. There was little doubt that this was what he was seeing now, and the thought filled him with wonder and fear.
Maxthane had become so wrapped up in watching the golem's approach that he failed to notice that Dogo was already charging toward it, kukri out and bola at the ready. It appeared Grim had noticed Dogo's action at the same moment, and without any hesitation charged toward the golem as well. The gladiators moved to follow their leader, leaving only Maxthane to stare down at the event in wonder. Even though every instinct told him to run, he knew he couldn't simply abandon his comrades, and he took a deep breath before running after the others.
The boatmen were scrambling to get back on the boat when the golem reached them, swinging one massive arm down at the boatman who was pulling the gangplank back onto the ship. The boatman screamed as he was crushed into the wood, but the blow continued downward, splintering the timber as the boat tilted into the air and flung the crew into the black water. Baggart and his remaining crew came up spluttering and quickly swam for the shore despite the presence of the golem waiting for them. Only five of the boatmen, including Baggart, managed to make it out of the water without being pulled back by dark tentacles dragging them to their doom.
"Dogo! You're going to pay for this, you bastard!" Baggart shouted as he climbed out of the water.
The golem was on the move again, aiming for the boatman nearest to it. Before the drenched boatman could even climb to his feet, the golem was already smashing down with its right arm, pounding him into the rocks. The four remaining boatmen scrambled to get their weapons out and then grouped together. Baggart brandished his large sword at the golem, the only one of his crew not shaking in fear. Maxthane couldn't make out the words that Baggart was shouting at his crew, but they formed into a tight formation as they faced the golem with their captain standing bravely at the front.
Baggart's position made him the prime target of the golem's next strike, but he had prepared for that maneuver. As the arm came smashing down at his skull, Baggart braced himself against the stones beneath him and caught the hand of the golem, his extreme strength managing to hold the arm steady. His three remaining crew members charged to his aid, hacking at the sturdy arm with all their might. Maxthane and the others watched in horror as each blow glanced off of the metal with little effect. Undeterred by its attackers, the golem swung at the men with its other arm and swatted them away. At the same time it lifted the arm held back by Baggart, pulling him from the ground with it.
Baggart let go a moment too late, and hit the ground without enough time to recover. The golem swung at him with a sweeping strike, sending him flying hard and fast into the rocks several yards away. Dogo reached Baggart soon after he crashed and checked to see if he was all right.
"Baggart? Why the hell did you stay?" Dogo asked as he helped Baggart to his feet. The rest of the crew were climbing to their feet at the same time, turning back to the golem which was once again lumbering toward them.
"I wanted to see your escape route," the captain replied breathlessly. "An entrance no one knows about would prove to be a very profitable bargaining chip."
"Only fools worry about profit above all else," Dogo scolded.
"Heh, have you ever known me for anything else?" Baggart replied before charging back toward the golem. There was now a dangerous gleam in his eye. He had felt the power of the golem and he now knew what he was up against. Dogo shook his head as he charged after Baggart, knowing that he would need all the support he could get.
Before they reached the golem it picked up a large boulder and tossed it at one of the boatmen, pulverizing his skull in a shower of blood. The horrific sight stopped the remaining crew members in their tracks. It wasn't until their captain rushed bravely past them that they regained their courage and moved to assist him.
Baggart dodged past two sweeping attacks and went straight for the golem's broken leg. Dogo saw what the captain had in mind and moved to draw the golem's attention by pulling a dagger from his belt and throwing it directly at the giant's eye. The strike struck the bright red spot and bounced off with a metallic clang, but it served its purpose. It turned its focus from Baggart beneath it, and picked up another boulder, aiming at Dogo.
Baggart took the opportunity that Dogo had given him and reached inside the wrecked appendage to take hold of the knee joint. Using all of his strength, he pulled on the piece of metal and ripped it out of the socket. The captain shouted in triumph as the leg came away entirely, until the cry was cut short by the golem toppling over on top of him, pinning him between the rocks and its massive bulk.
"Grim, kill this thing," Maxthane said as he caught up to Grim, who was looking for an opening to join the battle when the golem toppled over. The gladiators charged past him to aid Dogo and the two crewmembers still standing.
"I can't kill what isn't alive, Maxthane," Grim replied as the golem propped itself back up, leaning on its stub of a leg, the jagged ends of which it planted in Baggart's body. Even if Baggart had survived the weight of the golem falling on him he was surely dead now.
The golem was far from finished with the fight. As the gladiators moved in to attack, it rocked back and forth on its stub of a leg and took a several unbalanced swings toward them, driving them back. While the gladiators recovered it picked up another boulder and prepared to throw it at the nearest target.
"Dogo! Get the others to safety. I can distract it," Grim ordered as he charged toward the golem. He tapped the giant on the leg as he rushed past it, drawing its attention. It ignored the gladiators in front of it as it turned after Grim, shuffling on its stump before sending the boulder in its hand sailing through the air toward Grim. Grim danced to the side at the last instant, the boulder smashing into the ground and spraying him with shrapnel. Grim hardly lost speed as he charged through the resulting cloud of stone to tag the golem again, ensuring that its attention remained on him and not on the others.
"Grim! Don't be a fool! You just said that you can't kill it," Maxthane shouted and took an involuntary step after his friend. He felt helpless to assist, but he couldn't bear the thought of seeing Grim face the golem alone.
"No, he's right. We have to trust him," Dogo shouted before turning back to the two remaining boatmen and motioning for them to head toward the pillar. The gladiators all hesitated as if they were going to pursue it and come to Grim's defense until Dogo called out to them and waved them onward. Though they were obviously conflicted, they complied, abandoning the dancing Fedain to face the golem alone.
"Dogo . . .!" Maxthane began to protest but stopped when Dogo reached him.
"Come on, Maxthane," Dogo said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Every second we wait is another moment that Grim has to distract it. The less time he needs to do so, the higher chance that he'll survive."
As they hurried back up the island to the pillar, Grim continued his dance with the golem. Maxthane kept looking over his shoulder as the fight continued, wincing every time a boulder flew past Grim or a swing of the golem's giant arms came crashing to the stones beside him. If it weren't for Dogo pulling him along at those moments he wouldn't have made any progress toward the pillar at all.
As soon as they reached the steps Maxthane turned back to his friend and shouted, "Grim, come on! That's enough! Run!"
Whether he heard the shout or not, Grim complied and dodged away from his opponent again. He turned his back on the golem so that he could see the path ahead of him, and tore toward the group as quickly as he could. Maxthane shouted for Grim to watch out as the golem picked up another boulder but the cry came too late. Before Grim could turn and dodge appropriately, the boulder was sailing through the air toward him. Grim still managed to move to the side, but the boulder grazed his right arm and sent him spiraling to the rocks.
He rebounded to his feet quickly, but he was clutching his right arm tightly as he returned to sprinting up the rocks. Another boulder came flying toward him, but it fell short and clattered to the stones behind him. Knowing that he was out of the golem's range, Grim chose his path a little more carefully until he reached the group waiting for him at the bottom of the pillar.
Maxthane looked at Grim's arm with concern, seeing the blood that was now staining his sleeve. "Are you all right?" he asked as he reached toward the wound.
"I'll be fine," Grim replied, smiling weakly. "I've already stopped the blood flow. Now come on, let's go."
Without needing any more encouragement, the group turned and headed up the stairs. Dogo let the gladiators and the two boatmen move ahead of him, instructing them that it would be a straight climb to the top, waiting until the end of the line before ascending with Grim and Maxthane.
They climbed until they could no longer hear the shuffling movements of the golem below them. As soon as they escaped the sound the group sighed collectively and shared looks of relief that the ordeal was over. The rest of the climb became easier as everyone began to relax.
"You didn't carve out these stairs, did you?" Maxthane remarked in wonder after a while. He knew that it was impossible, unless Dogo was far more magically inclined than he appeared.
"Certainly not," Dogo replied with a chuckle at the outrageous question. "I'm sure that this route was used by people long before The Shade came to be what it was. You'll see when we get to the top."
They reached the top of the staircase a short time later. The very last step led to a doorway set in the pillar itself, a few feet beneath the cavern ceiling. They were still several hundred feet below the surface, and Maxthane realized that, despite the amount of rock which had fallen away from the ceiling to create the island, they were still at the lowest point of the ceiling in the entire cavern. With the amount of distance they still had to cover, there was sure to be another cave complex above them.
But when they stepped through the doorway and climbed up the short spiral staircase on the inside, Maxthane's jaw dropped amidst the gasps of those surrounding him. He would have never suspected the scene that awaited them.
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