A piercing scream echoed off the ancient stone walls. He repeated his question, taking his time, allowing him to recoil the full length of his whip. Despite the state the long interrogation had left her in, Alice rushed at him, as far as the fetters would allow, spitting curses and blood at the Tormentor. Although he did not get an answer, he was still visibly pleased. A demonic grin cracked beneath his mask as he sent another punishing lash. The girl was forced back against the dank, dungeon wall by the blow, clutching her bound arms over her newest wound.
"Your friends cannot last forever, precious," taunted the gaunt, pale, inquisitor as he wound up his weapon, "and neither can you. Tell me, where are they hiding?" When he saw the girl losing consciousness, he hooked her chin in a loop of the bundled whip, driving numerous thorns into her drenched neck, and lifted her up from the floor. The shock awoke her, face to mask with the fiend. "You cannot help them now. They will die just like you; they all will. Make their and your own deaths faster. Tell me where the remaining members of the Phalanx are hiding!"
Alice stared on hatefully through the long, splattered, once-golden strands that fell over her anguished face. She managed to raise her arms, weighted by the wrought-iron shackles, slowly to the neck of her captor. The Tormentor did nothing to stop her pathetic attempt to strangle him -- only looked down mockingly from behind his disguise.
A quick backhand left her on the prone on the wet, stone floor. The Tormentor left to a reddened table where the rest of his gruesome arsenal lie. None of ancient devices could make her talk any sooner, but they would make her die. He had done this long enough to know she would say nothing. As far as the inquisitor was concerned, she was beyond any use to the King; now, she belonged to the Tormentor.
The girl stirred, dazed. She reached a hand to her swollen jaw only to be stopped by the chains. Through the one eye Alice could still open, she saw the Tormentor's preparations being interrupted by a messenger. The ominous, black hood fixed on the poor girl, and he motioned the envoy away. Countless fears filled her mind as she tried not to imagine what grim news was brought and which of her allies it could have concerned.
The Tormentor approached unarmed. Pain was pain, to him. Whatever mental anguish he could bring would be just as satisfying. Maybe it would even get her to break. "There was just a skirmish outside the gates, lass," he stated toyingly. "One of your fellows from the Phalanx was involved." For the first time in all the days he had her, Alice showed fear. Those words had unlocked every worry and worst case in her mind. She could barely hear the masked man over her racing thoughts. "He is being brought down as we speak. It would only be courteous that you get one... last... chance... to see him." The captive began to tremble, something she had not even done after the worst of his sessions. "Y'know... pay your respects."
The Tormentor relished in her suffering. It was so rare that he could cause such pain without any of his tools. He lost himself for a moment, wondering what if the rebel had been taken alive. The pale one witnessed for himself just how much the news of her fallen comrade shook her; he could only -- and did -- imagine what plight could be wrought if his subject could see that fall for herself. The inquisitor could also avoid the petty self-sacrifice with a second captive, but getting information was the interest of the new King, not his own. Alas, he only had a corpse to work with. The creep returned to his bench, touching each of his demonic devices almost apologetically as he passed. The Tormentor would have to wait for the body to be dragged down into the dungeon before he could continue. He passed the time sharpening certain blades, dulling and bending others, all the while keeping one eye on Alice. She was far too weak at this point to pose any threat. He simply wished to savor her anguish while it lasted... while she lasted...
The fiend quit his work. His attention turned to the heavy, wooden doors meant to contain the screams. Alice could not help but to look on, too, knowing full well she did not want to see whoever was brought through. She finally heard the muffled footfall that came from the stairway on the opposite side that the Tormentor had become so eager and adept at detecting throughout his career. The footsteps became louder and louder, each sending more and more shivers through the girl. At last, the steps stopped. The girl lay paralyzed, still transfixed on the door, waiting in a poisonous silence.
"Get up, precious," the inquisitor torturously spoke through a crooked grin. "You have a visitor." And so they stared, waiting for a flicker in the scarce light that broke the cracks of the gate. A heavy thud eventually came, wood against stone. Then, something of a cracking. A commotion followed, but only briefly: a few confused yells, some snarling, and breaking. Lots of breaking. The Tormentor's demeanor quickly soured. He snatched a random weapon from his table and ran to the door. Although he never got close, the man in the mask fell backwards at the force at which the barrier was sundered.
Dim torchlight reflected off nearly every surface in the corridor -- all of it red. What remained of the King's soldiers was strewn about. Between them, a large casket lay, the lid to which was shattered. Rising up from it was a bloodied, built man with a hound at his feet. He let out a low growl, grinding his yellow, pointed teeth. Greasy, matted hair draped over his bulging, feral, red eyes. Muscles twitched and bulged beneath his thick skin to his heavy breath.
And his pet was frightening, too.
"Grunge!" Alice called out to her ally. "I... I thought..."
"Oh," Grunge mumbled in a voice just loud enough for his distant ally to hear, "I'm still alive." The Tormentor tried to use this moment to make his attack, but the massive beast tamer hurled an object at the fiend, forcing his knee backwards and him to the floor. The inquisitor now screamed for a change, cradling his destroyed joint, and looked back to see the weapon used; the head of one of the soldiers looked back at him with a white stare.
"Hey," the girl said deliriously to the man that ran to her aid, not sure if any of this was real, "nice shot." Grunge looked in disgust over Alice's assorted wounds. Before unbinding her, he took her up into his arms and began to concentrate. "How did you know they would bring you here?" she asked, distracting her friend slightly.
"If not here," he explained, "then they would've taken my corpse to the Earl as proof." He could have easily invaded the castle alive -- and was foolish enough to, as well -- but then he could not guarantee the girl's safety.
"Lucky for us," his familiar barked, "there are few sorcerers under the Earl's command. Otherwise, they would'ave known that monsters like me dun leave corpses."
"We only needed to look dead, which is where this thing comes in," Grunge went on. A small pendant around his neck began glistening. Its pale light washed over the youth. Wounds waned into scars; only her torn, stained robe was evidence to her mistreatment. "It isn't as strong as any of your magic, but it'll be enough until we find her." Alice suddenly looked distant. She could sense that her familiar was alive, but doubted her good health. Neither of them would be sound -- in spirit or body -- until they were reunited. Alice slipped out of the beast tamer's grasp as he turned to his attentions to freeing her. He had brought nothing to break the chains with; his fists were the only weapons he needed.
After a surprisingly unfruitful struggle, the maimed Tormentor spoke up. "Fool! Did you really think we would bind a member of the Phalanx is mere chains?"
Grunge dropped the links and turned a cold gaze over his shoulders. "Enchantment," he growled.
"You aren't the only ones with magic. Not every member of the Phalanx was loyal to the old king," the inquisitor stated with a smirk. "You will never break the girl free! Those chains were forged from the shadow of a star and..."
The fighter did not bother to listen to the fiend's ramblings. Grunge turned to his loyal, four-eyed pet. "You wanna take this one?"
"Wrong dog," the Garm replied. "I can break a lot," it said with a sniff, "but this one is beyond me."
"... and the mysteries found deep within the what are you doing?" the Tormentor abruptly stopped. Grunge had a firm grip on the fetters and a leg planted against the wall. With a yell that filled the lair, he tore the shackles and fragments of the wall loose. Alice was still bound in chains, but mobile at least. This was much to the disdain of the masked man. In a half-thought effort, he took his whip in hand once more and struck out from the floor. Immediately, Grunge was before his friend and pet, catching the winding weapon on his forearm. An eerie aura came out from a bracer, transmuting his skin into metal. With a newfound strength, Grunge flung back his iron arm, hurtling the Tormentor towards the group and sprawling him prostate on the floor. "Blasted Phalanx sorcerer!" he called out.
"Yeah, we're the bad guys," the fighter sarcastically responded, strangely as he snapped the Tormentor's arm in half.
"You will never escape!" the maimed man screamed between throes. "King will find you, and he shan't be as kind as I have!"
"Your king," the beast tamer corrected, stomping a heavy boot into the creep's spine. "The Phalanx is not loyal to that murderer."
"Murder?" Half of a vicious smile shined up from the floor. "I thought you -- his personal, most elite guard -- would have known," he cackled. "The old king fell on his sword. The Earl had no choice b-" The Tormentors words were cut short as his stolen whip was wrapped around his neck; Grunge would hear no more of it. Forcing his foot down and hold on the weapon up, the beast tamer slowly choked the torturous man, although it was his intention to loose the man's head.
"Stop," Alice whispered. Although he did not, Grunge did look over to his ally. She sent a teary, hurtful stare toward her partner, standing pitifully in her tattered robes and shackles. "Stop," she repeated, just over the struggles of the Tormentor. She lifted up one of the wicked, clawed contraptions from his bench. "He's mine."
Grunge sat with his Garm, Bain, propped against the dungeon walls. He tried to put his attentions away from the fate of the Tormentor. He held the pendant before him, the suspended crystal spinning in the air. Both the fighter and his familiar were far from a full recovery, even with as long ago as their mock-capture was. They would have to suffer their wounds until Alice could be reunited with her own familiar. Only then would her magic and full strength return. As she was, the girl was only a threat with all of the Tormentor's tools at her disposal...
"That didn't take long," the man told the girl, whose robe was now almost entirely crimson.
"Less time than you think," Alice replied, wiping her brow. "That creep was dead through most of it." She set herself next to the beast tamer, taking some of the weight off of her tired arms.
"You..." Grunge began, carefully choosing his words for the sake of his ally, "you didn't tell them anything, did you?"
"Just that I was gonna kill him," Alice answered almost lightheartedly. Grunge was obviously taking things harder than she was.
"They didn't... y'know...." he mumbled in his normal manner, diverting his eyes from her.
"What?" she asked outrightly, "waif me?" Grunge half shrugged his shoulders in response, still looking at no particular stone on the floor. "No," the girl stated plainly. "I wouldn't 'ave let the bastard off so easy if he did." The answer calmed the beast tamer slightly, but he still shifted nervously. As much as Alice delighted in how uneasy the massive man became from such talk, she decided to change the subject. "What now? How are we getting outta here?"
"Dunno," Grunge replied. "Never thought about it." She rolled her head over to him with a curious glance. "Me and Bain are goin' to the top."
Alice straightened up and looked on with disbelief. "The top? Of the tower?"
Grunge nodded. "The throne room. That's where the Earl is. That's where we're goin'," he explained. "It isn't even 'bout revenge anymore -- what he did to King Curtis, to the rest of the Phalanx. Now, all that matters now's that we stop him."
The girl shot her eyes down at their mention. "How... how are they?" she quietly asked. "The rest of the Phalanx?"
"Dead," he simply stated while tucking the pendant beneath his tunic, "for the most part. I've lost contact with a lot of them, but I'm assuming the worst." When he saw the crushed expression on the girl's face, he recanted. "'Course, if you didn't give up anything, some of them could be safe... somewhere. The only ones I know aren't dead are the ones I wish were."
She let out a disgusted breath. "The traitors."
"Worry not, my fair child," Grunge assured, lifting himself up off the ground, "they'll be protecting the Earl of Geamp. We'll hafta take down each one of those traitors before we reach the Earl." The fighter made his way to the stairs, carefully stepping over large pieces of the door and Tormentor. "It's gonna be a long way up 'til we get there, tho'."
"What? We're in the castle right now?" she posed, picking herself up with the help of Bain. "I don't remember the King having a dungeon."
"He didn't," Grunge told, "but the bloodline before Curtis's family was vicious, dark, evil..."
"Like the Earl?" the girl interrupted, slowly following after the fighter with his four-eyed familiar.
"Aye," he agreed, "and they had the same knack for abusing magicks that the Earl does. Early on in their reign, Curtis's family sealed the lower levels." Grunge took a look back, surveying the dark lair. "It wasn't just 'cause they had no use for torture chambers like this. All of old royalty's magical experiments had done things to the dungeon..." he mumbled on, "strange things... I doubt Curtis ever knew about this place. It was from beneath his very castle the Earl and other traitors plotted..." The fighter cast his squinting eyes up the blackened corridor.
"They were carryin' me an' Bain down for quite a while. They must keep the Earl's opponents in the lower levels," Grunge inferred, "beneath the tainted chambers. Keeps 'em from escapin'. I dun even see any of the effects of the experiments yet... We must be pretty far down..."
"We're in the bottom level," Alice confirmed in a lifeless tone. "He told me," she said with a gulp, "that I was far away from her... that there was no place lower..." Although strong throughout the ordeal, the girl's mind was much clearer now. She could finally take in everything that had happened to her in the recent days, and it was visibly disturbing her. "He said that I was in hell."
The open hand of the warrior was extended to her. Remembering his presence, she held back her tears and lifted her eyes to him. "C'mon then," he said. "Let's bring hell to them."
The heavy door creaked as the rusty hinges were forced to move again. Despite their recent usage, the ages of idle state remained more favorable. As red flakes drifted down the gateway, two heads peered into the opened area with caution.
"If openin' that didn't get their attention," Alice commented from behind, "then I'd suspect the way is clear. Let's just get movin'." Grunge was more worried than his companion. He and his beast had heard awful things when being passed to the inquisitor, and the transporters were quick to leave the area. The six eyes studied the area with the highest suspicion. There was nothing either could see, just a black expanse with a island of light at the end, surrounding another door, opposite to their own. Nothing stirred but the hair on the back of their necks.
"I got a bad feelin' 'bout this," Bain growled before Grunge wrapped a thick hand over his jaw. Silently, he motioned for them to advance. Pulling off one of the torches from the wall, and most of its holster, he led them down the way. Each of them was quick to notice they travelled down a set path. On each side flowed a stream of water. It looked to be pure and pristine, not sullied with wastes like a moat might, but they all knew how deceiving looks could be. It was the only interruption to the lay of the floor's blocks. Having no reason to go looking for trouble, Grunge could not let the unknown haunt him. Turning his gaze from the path placed before them, he looked out to what the chamber held. Empty space was most of what the torch's light was caught upon, but then he caught the room's purpose. The outline of machines, rigid devices, strewn with the bodies of the slain. Gutted, impaled, stretched, and skewered, the bodies were mutilated far beyond what even the Tormentor could accomplish with his wretched tools. Rows of racks and massive kissing maidens glistened with red as the light passed by. It was a torture chamber, without a doubt, still filled with the bodies of those who suffered its wrath. All of the carcasses, when seen, were ancient, withered to nearly bones. Why someone who loved to inflict pain with such a passion let such toys go ignored was not a question that weighed Grunge's thoughts. His eyes darted from side to side, beholding the rows of machines and spikes.
"Alice," Grunge mumbled, shaking his shoulder to stir the girl that leaned upon it in her weakened state, "do ya think ya can stand up on yer own for a bit?"
"Why? What is it?" asked Alice in a daze.
"Nothin' to be worried 'bout," he quaintly told, standing her up straight before hopping the channel.
"Dun give me that crap," she demanded, staggering to stay upright. "Now say, what is it?"
"It is it." The circle of light he carried with him rose up on the frame of some ungodly contraption. Strung on it with the thin, long since passed corpses was one too fleshy. His feet not even reaching to the ground due to his short stature, not even with the deep bow arched in the rack from his more than generous size. Snapping the beam into splinters with his bare hands, Grunge struggled to drag the unresponsive blimp along the course floor and had to call in the help of Bain to get him to a stream.
"What are you doin'?" slightly confused and a little preoccupied with keeping herself from falling over, if not from exhaustion then her massive bonds. The body they toiled with was nearly round, thickest at the bloated waist. Stumpy legs poked out from beneath many layers of tunics and robes of various makes and materials wrapped around the body. A loose, shapeless cap hung around the flat, pointed head of the figure.
"What? Dun this sack o' crap look familiar to ya?" Bain asked as Grunge struck the man on the face with a flattened hand, sending ripples through his flab. "Wake up, porky!" Grabbing the slipping man by the top of the head, the tamer dunked the unresponsive man into the stream for a moment until he began to stir. "Ah, good to 'ave ya back, Phlanle."
"You crazy bastard," coughed the obese man in between his gasps for breath. "And here I thought the Earl was doing a good job with killing off the Phalanx. I would not have thought you would join those traitorous scum, Grunge. I guess I will have to avenge my fallen brethren." Raising trembling fists with most all the life he had left in him, Phlanle finally cracked a smile and broke into painful laughter.
"Phlanle!" Alice cried, dropping besides him. "I thought you were dead." His jolly demeanor turned sour as he looked away from the young girl.
"In a way, I am, my fellows in arms," the fat man sighed with a stern weight upon his brow. "Genx... he... he sacrificed himself for me... A bold act, true, but a lot of good it does now..." He faced his comrades once more. "They got me after that and dragged me to this horrid place. They said I was going to see their specialist, their 'extractor' to get me to talk. That creep was already preoccupied, however, with some other unfortunate soul. The guards should have hulled my fat ass back to a cell, but they griped about not being paid enough for the heavy lifting and just left me here to wait. I would never tell them anything. None of us would, no matter what. Right?" His beady eyes shifted about. "Say, where are the rest of us? This is an all out raid on the castle? There are more of us, right? ... Right?"
"C'mon, we gotta get to the top," Grunge informed, lowering his eyes.
"What? Just the four of you?" The tub panned his gaze about once more. "Say, where is the doll's pet?" Alice sank deeper into self pity.
"Let's go," she whispered."
"To meet up with the others, right?" Phlanle insisted while rocking back and springing to his feet. "We are getting reinforcements, correct?"
"Hey, you ain't almost dead," noted the girl.
"Of course he ain't," Bain answered, not surprised by his condition. "Porky is just a deep sleeper. Ain't ya, fatso?"
"Seriously," Phlanle continued, ignoring the Garm's statement, "you plan to face the Earl like this? Do you have a death wish?"
"So... where is everyone else?" Grunge's body twisted around, thrusting a clinched first square into the fat man's face. The round body soared through the black veil and out of the light.
"Control yourself!" snapped Alice. "I know we've all thought about punchin' him in the face, but now is not the time!"
"That ain't our friend," growled the warrior, raising his fists on guard. In the shadows, the figure eerily rose, its eyes shining brightly in the darkness within the pale outline traced by the torch. The blow had knocked off its headgear, and two points sprung from the top of its head.
"An... imposter?" Alice choked. "Kumiho!"
"What else could I be?" hissed the figure as its shape dropped to all fours with an explosion of sweeping tails appearing behind it. "All apologies."
"No, no, no," chimed in a sweet voice, sweeter than Alice's. "That wasn't how it was suppose to go at all, Nin. You tried to hard. Shame." As footfalls approached, the Garm was thrown into a fury, snarling and dripping from the mouth as a foul presence was sensed. Grunge could feel it, too, and smell what accompanied it in the air: the smell of candy. As the sound drew nearer, the silhouette of a small girl could be seen joining the nine-tailed beast. Grabbing the Kumiho by the neck, she led it in circles around the two, drawing in closer to the light. She led the many tailed fox by a golden ribbon about its necked from which dangled a bell that did not ring. Its eyes reflected the light ever as brightly, as did the girls. Closer in the light, her long, crimson hair came into view, reaching down past her knees with its white tips, touching her big, black boots with thickly layered soles. An enormous jacket hung from her shoulders, dragging on the ground, covering her bare legs more than her short skirt did. Slung around her waist loosely was a belt filled with nine inch, steel spikes. Giggling innocently, she pulled one of the nails out, still marred with blood, and licked it clean.
"Grisi," Alice grumbled, "I didn't think you could 'ave gotten more despicable. Then again, I never trusted you."
"Now, now," she warned, waving the spike as she spoke with an angelic voice, "I'm just obeyin' the King's orders. In right, you are the traitors." Patting Nin on the head, it slunk off into the shadows. "We could end this now, as you know, but I think it would be a lot more fun if your presence was known to all the guards here. Don't you? Of course," she paused to retrieve another nail, "you'd have to stop me." Without a moment to give it thought, beast and warrior lunged forth to strike down the innocent looking girl only to slip through her. "Also, I would have to be here right now for you to stop me. Teehee!" The illusion faded away like smoke in the wind as, in the distance, the trickster spirit could be seen stopping to snicker before passing through the distant door.
"She would 'ave fooled one of us sooner or later," Alice stated, trying to cheer up Grunge, despite his mood appearing the same as always. "That was a trap waitin' to be sprung on any of the Phalanx. You're lucky you figured it out when you did." Driving his knuckles into the stone floor, denting it, Grunge recomposed himself.
"C'mon," he insisted, "looks like we'll 'ave some company waitin' for us.
The cold, steely eyes of Alice wavered in front of herself. She reached into the gentle stream once more to wash the collective blood from her face. She rubbed her eyes clean of their sting before looking again at her reflection in the dirty mirror. The bruised visage the girl saw seemed to have no connection to herself. Alice attempted to examine her swelled cheek in the ebbing waters with much frustration. Grunge was already further down the gruesome corridor, acting as though he had not noticed his ally remaining behind. Moments before he reached the threshold, the warrior could move on no more without her.
"Alice," is all he said.
"What are you doing?"
"What are you doing?" she returned. "If you step through that door, it's suicide."
"Nothing seems to kill me," Grunge told her, "no matter how hard I try. 'Sides, it'll take the news quite a while to travel to the higher-ups, and longer fer the reinforcements t'greet us." Learning that their doom was not imminent but still soon failed to comfort the girl as Grunge had planned. "Don't worry, there ain't nothin' behind this door," the fighter assured, applying a forceful push to the portal. It slowly creaked open revealing another dark expanse.
No sooner than it had opened did Bain's hair stand on end. Its normal, vicious demeanor grew into a drooling, tooth-bearing scowl directed at the shadows. "Trouble," the Garm barked in a low growl. "I can smell it."
"Since when can you sniff out trouble?" doubted the beast tamer. "Ya couldn't even tell that Phlanle was an imposter. The only thing you Garms have a nose for are..." His words stopped. The ghastly realization that overcame the fighter's face was quickly replaced with a grimace shared by his pet. "Alice... stay put fer a bit. We gotta take care of somethin'."
Alice was immediately and rightfully worried for her friends' safety. "Yeah right," defied the sour girl as she reeled in her chains, "what would you do if I followed you?" She gathered up her fetters and hobbled after her allies, who already searched the room by torchlight. Bain had led his keeper to a halt. Alice hurried faster to meet them and their discovery, spilling the bunched chains from her arms and dragging them across the cold, stone path. Paces away from the two, she could now see where their attentions lie. The quivering light illuminated the floors, all but a crescent cut before them. A pit swallowed up the torches glow, several yards around and far too deep to see the bottom from where she stood. She slowly approached her silent comrades, drawing nearer and nearer even after she could see the contents they saw.
Corpses filled the hole. Maimed and dismembered bodies were strewn over one another in various stages of rot. The gruesome sight and overwhelming stench alone could have unnerved the steadiest of minds. But they were not dead. They were moving.
"Meat puppets," the warrior hatefully muttered. The restless dead looked back, their lifeless stares filled with a sickly white reflection of the torch's glow and a crawl of worms. They uttered not a sound; the only thing the Phalanx members could hear was the quiet tearing of flesh from bone as the undead clawed one another, vainly attempting to ascend the steep walls of the wicked well.
"What are they doin' down there?" Alice managed to whisper. The light left the pit. Grunge aimed the torch to the center of the room. From the illuminated circle, there could be seen several other holes traced in the floor.
"Graves, traps, prisons, maybe even storage," reasoned the fighter. "I dunno if this was all a part of their 'xperiments or an unwanted result of. I dinnae think the taint from them would be so powerful yet," he continued, "but these pits..."
"We just came from down there," Alice completed his thought. "There was no where in that lower chamber for these pits, but how is that even possible?" This matter also concerned Grunge, but he heard her not; the fighter was already contemplating something else. The beast tamer wondered whether this was the work of the Earl or simply something left over from when he took control of the dungeon. Flashing in the torchlight, Grunge saw his answer. He stood with less life than those below, unable to accept the face he saw among the dead. Alice retreated from the hole when she too saw the damned state of their former ally. "That isn't... it couldn't be... Sysp?"
"Not anymore," Grunge corrected, angrily tearing a swaddle from his tunic. Alice questioned his actions as he brought the cloth to his flame. "He's gone now," he regretted to tell her, showing a slight break in his hardened facade. "What was lost can never be saved." He left before the burning scrap floated to the bottom, immolating the tangle of corpses.
Taking another shred from his tunic, he visited the remainder of the pits. With the last of them, not a shadow remained in the chamber. The entire room filled with a putrid haze, reddened by the lakes of fire in the floor. Grunge stayed only for a moment in the destruction he laid. Without a word, the warrior progressed through the pyres and to the exit; Grunge clutched the entire breadth of the gate in his wide reach and ripped the door from the wall. Not yet content, he smashed it against the ground and hurled what fragments were left in his grasp to the fires below. Grunge turned to the stairs, taking no time to rest. He was breathing heavily and sweating from the heat and exertion, but never faltered his wooden expression.
The next floor was dark as pitch. Its entrance was already open for them. They remained in the stairwell, not daring so much as to allow their heads to be seen. This was the response they were expecting. The enemy had found a perfect vantage point. The heroes would need to move through a confined area; the enemy, however, had an entire room to station soldiers and only one, narrow target. The Phalanx members were well aware of this, and softly strategized.
"They won't come in here ta fight us," Grunge mumbled even quieter than usual. "They'd only be able to fit 'nough men to make it a fair fight; they know they'd lose 'gainst us. You're still weak, so stay back," he ordered, much to Alice's discontent. "Let me see just how many we are goin' up against." He carefully crawled up, sure to keep his body pressed against the stairs. For only a moment, he raised enough to see into the adjoined chamber before returning to his ally, gripping his left shoulder which now had an arrow sticking out from it.
"So how many did it take to do that?" Alice asked with an uncalled for smugness.
Grunge growled back at the girl. "Dunno. Couldn't see a thing. The entire room is dark."
"Then how could they even see you?" she asked, visibly realizing the answer in the middle of her question. "... oh no."
"Oh yes," Zen informed his master, "ya got 'im in the shoulder." The bowman was not as content as his familiar. It did not please him to fight against those he once fought along side of. Ezra's loyalty was to the king, whoever and however it may be. He notched another arrow into his ornate longbow and took aim into the black.
"Where are they now," his gritty voice demanded more than asked. The lynx's eyes lit up; they were the only thing Ezra could see in the void. This was not the case for his pet. Everything Zen saw perfectly; the lynx could see through the shadows and through the walls. It saw the ranks of soldiers standing ready, poised against the walls, and the three huddled on the stairs, struggling to free the arrow. "Are they coming back?" he repeated.
"I don't think so," Zen told, "an' ya wanna go a li'l more to yer left." Suddenly, the beast was alerted. "Wait a sec, they're movin'..."
"You can't take Ezra on your own; you're hurt," Grunge insisted. Alice put one hand on the arrow, not even moving it but still causing more than enough pain to change the beast tamer's mind.
"I'm feeling a li'l better," Alice spoke, wobbling as she rose. "Besides," she said as the Garm caught her, "I'll have Bain with me." The hound carried the girl up, filling the corridor with its girth. She looped her shackles into Bain's clenched mouth and clung tightly to its matted fur.
"The others are comin' up," Zen told the waiting archer. "Get ready," it warned. "They're... ah nuts," it muttered as the Garm flew out from the stairwell and out of Ezra's aim. An unsuspected Grunge tossed the torch into the center of the chamber, vaguely defining the locations of the hidden soldiers. Bain's four eyes narrowed as it plummeted onto its first victims. It flung its head and chains and Alice with them across the chamber, finally landing and trampling most troops, but biting an unfortunate one over the head and most of his torso. The hound thrashed its massive jaws about, batting the rest of the rank with the troop it latched onto.
Alice went into a frenzied spiral after Bain threw her, aided by the weight of her fetters. The heavy chains continually beat upon the soldiers' mail armor until she reached the floor. She landed on only one foot, spinning off her momentum to place a hard kick with her other. The girl made a blind block against a sword behind her with a length of chain, then pulled wrapped weapon down and assailant into her waiting knee. Alice whipped one of her shackles around the neck of an approaching troop, and the other to a blade held opposite him. She ripped the weapon free, flinging it into the gullet of the suffocating man. With both arms, she pulled the barely living swordsman into a crowd of others, catching another on the sharp edge than ran through the corpse. She loosed the links and blade with a short tug, catching the shortsword soon enough to slice open a would-be surprise attacker.
Her massacre paused a moment as her eyes met Ezra's. His dark garments barely appeared in the scarcely lit room. A bead of sweat rolled from out his long, taut hair and down his exposed brow. His silvered bow was drawn back, finally aimed amid the short, violent confusion that was their entrance. Ezra did not move, waiting for his moment to strike. Alice sent back a mocking smile, lowering her blade long enough to finish one of the unconscious troops that surrounded her. As she slowly removed the freshly coated sword, the bowman let his arrow fly. A glint of steel shone in the flickering torchlight; Alice still stood. Her eyes rolled up to her former comrade, and, with impunity, she stepped aside to reveal another attack which had failed -- the legs of a soldier, who was taken out with the same stroke used to deflect Ezra's arrow.
"What is going on?" questioned one of the commanders. "I thought you said they were weakened?"
"I also told you that they were once part of the Phalanx," Ezra retorted, still carefully studying the battlefield. "This is weak."
The commander gave no response. Zen began to growl but did not move. His familiar had finally alerted Ezra to the beast tamer, emerging from the dark where once his commander stood. "You're going to lose," Grunge enlightened him.
"It is not for me to say what battles are worth fighting," Ezra responded, rubbing his grizzled chin.
"I can't believe that you're among the traitors, Ezra. I thought you were better than that. What about the King?"
"There is a new king now. Curtis is gone; what was lost, Grunge," the bowman gruffly spoke, "can never be saved. Let him rest in peace. Now, the new king is being threatened, and it is my duty to defend him. We both must do what we must..."
"So be it," Grunge concurred. Ezra swung the sharp edge of his bow toward the warrior, only to have it caught by Grunge's one good arm, which trickled blood from the freshly cut palm. Zen lunged while it saw the fighter prone, but the beast was rigidly batted away by his free hand. Ezra hastily loaded his bow, pulling the arrow from seemingly no where as he always did, attempting to aim a point-blank shot at the beast tamer as he restricted the archer's bow, but Grunge pushed him back before the Ezra could fire.
Alice continued her murderous dance among the swaying glow of the torch rolled out into the center of the floor. She lashed out her chains, successfully binding the arms of two soldiers. Both sides were joined by more, who not only prevented Alice from pulling the troops in, but also attempted to rip the poor girl apart. A swordsman charged her head on, not wishing to wait for her end, only to be snatched up by Bain. Gnawing away on his new bit, the hound rammed through one of the groups. A point found the great wolf's hide, causing Bain to turn to its attacker with a ferocious snarl.
With her arm free, she exerted all of her force to her one side. All but the one ensnared soldier let go, sending him stumbling toward her. In a swift, single motion, Alice flipped over her target, catching his neck between her knees and breaking it as she launched him, sprawled out before his deserting allies. They all soon fell victim to a wild, crushing swing from Grunge's mighty fist, that missed its intended target of the bowman but was more than enough to incapacitate them.
Little of his men were left, and although Ezra did not wish to harm his old brother-at-arms, it did not seem as though any of the soldiers would be able to do the deed. He was reluctant to use lethal force, but it was no longer just a matter of his duty, rather his life as well. Ducking and weaving from the punishing blows of the beast tamer, the archer rotated his bow, string toward his enemy. While still maneuvering safely, Ezra pulled back with no ammo. The multifaceted jewels began to shimmer and caught the warrior's eye. Grunge had seen this before in battle and certainly wanted nothing to do with it. He rolled through one of his own punches, tumbling behind the bowman as he let loose. A large, brilliant ray shot forth from the bow, swallowing the shade and rows of stone on the floor before him, leaving nothing in its wake.
The darkness returned after the thunderous spell, seeming colder than ever. The sudden dodge had stressed Grunge's wound, which the fighter now clasped to keep from bleeding more. Alice ran to her injured partner, ensuring that none of the blast had caught him. She looked back to the black-clad bowman, who turned a cold, emotionless stare to the two. With a twist of his wrists, another deadly arrow appeared in his slender hands.
"Well, what do you think?" Alice asked her injured partner.
Grunge considered the situation shortly. Then, he responded over his pain, "I think we've lost him.
The pair were fortunate this time as it was just a regular arrow. Ezra would have to buy some time before he had enough energy to repeat his devastating attack once more, and, without the assistance of the foot soldiers who were all slain, there would be no one to help him. Once was all he had planned for an encore. Missing twice was not his way, and they knew it.
The shaft flew true to his marks. As Alice tried to cover her fallen ally, Grunge pulled her out of the way, greeting the missile with an iron arm. Despite its newly metal form, the bolt still dove deep through the enchanted skin. Bearing through the pain, the fighter bound at the archer with fists raised before another shot could be readied. Hopping away from the tiles splintered by the heavy fists as his familiar moved in to the scene, the bowman's fingers reached for another deadly projectile, but his arm became pulled before its retrieval. Chains grasped his wrist as Alice tried to pull him down, but he was not one of the simpleton soldiers she had tossed around like toys. He was in league with her. The girl's pull was met with an equal amount of force as the two struggled against one another. The fates changed favor as Bain chomped down on the female's end. With a mighty pull, the taut links fell limp, and the two fell to the floor. However, the chains still clattered. Hurtling towards them, Ezra held the arrow he sought from before and drove it the bloodied beast's eye before rolling passed them. Stopping himself perfectly on his feet, from his crouched stance he could only see a large pair of boots. With a pathetic expression on his face, it rose to meet Grunge's.
"Not cool," grumbled the beast tamer as his fortified arm rose. Ezra was expecting something like this to ensue but had not calculated a swift thud to gut. Cringing and vomiting blood, Grunge continued pummeling the archer with his heavy footwear. Once more, Zen came to the rescue of its master, sinking fangs into the brute's biceps before being swatted away as the beating was revisited. The distraction the Lynx invoked helped enough to allow the bruised bowman to tumble away from his oppressor. Wiping off blood, rage over came the servant of the Earl as the bow flipped. Scanning through whom he wanted to die, the remnants of the loyal Phalanx scattered through the room, knowing nowhere to be safe. Grunge stood his ground, having nowhere to go. He just looked down, but then noticed the arrow still sticking out from his arm.
"I might as well finish off the mutt," sneered the archer as he kept the now three eyed hound in his sight. As he drew back the string, an arrow covered in blood and bits of metal struck the enchanted jewel but bounced off it. "Did you have any hopes of that being successful?" he scolded, turning to the volley's source. Apparently, it was as it bought the warrior enough time hurtle one of the rubbled stone blocks. Against every sensible fiber in Ezra's being, he placed the bow between the rock and himself. His sacrificed weapon was sundered by the mass, including the magic gem. The loss seemed too great for him to bear. That bow had been his pride for countless years of battle and hardship. In his crippled mental state, Alice charged, raking her bondage across the floor to ensnare some broken blades from fallen warriors. Wielding the metal nightmare, she lashed out at her former companion for the last time.
The clatter shook the archer from his daze as he found the girl bent before him with arms outstretched, chains lying at both sides of him. Quivering, he deemed that the situation called for a tactical retreat and stumbled off with Zen.
"Ya missed," Grunge pointed out, confused as well as slightly amazed, just slightly. "Ya dun miss."
"True," the girl agreed, winding back in her links, "I dun, but if I wanted 'im dead, he'd be dead." Screams sounded from the other end of the room, the end Ezra had escaped to.
"Please, no!" begged the bowman, brought to his knees. "I implore you. This is not necessary."
"Oh, but I believe it is," a voice disagreed, ringing from the darker shadows along with a sweet smell that could be sensed from the distance, cinnamon and sugary. "If they found it in themselves to let you live, why, then, there must be some shred of friendship left between you and your quarry. That could be a fatal risk in the future. Don't worry, tho', child. It's nothin' personal."
"Are... are you killing me?" the once brave man cowered before the emerging figure of the little girl.
"Oh, don't worry, Ezra, you aren't gonna die," she giggled between her softly spoken lies. Leaving the quivering man, horrors raced through his mind to what his fate would be. The fears did not last long as a scalding stream of acid came from above that was pouring like an avalanche coming down a mountain.
"Ya knew she was there, huh?" mumbled Grunge as he looked on to the now stripped skeleton.
"Yeah," Alice admitted as the Lynx faded from being with its bound human's demise, "I just dinnae have the heart to do it myself." Regardless of how either of them felt about Ezra's death, his passing meant there was one less to oppose them. Knowing the threats would not wait until their arrival, it was decided wiser to press on after dressing their wounds. Grunge seemed to bear the most, but Bain's was more severe, now missing his top, right eye. That was a useful one. Trudging through the dark room, they had plenty of time to think of what stood in their way next: a small army, horrid monsters, old friends, new foes, or certain doom. Pressing ears against the door, they heard no signs of life but did not let that get their hopes up. With a rationed strategy in mind, Alice was dismayed as the beast and tamer destroyed the portal in a violent rush. With fists and fangs readied, there was no enemy for their weapons to meet. The chamber was devoid of life.
"... Huh," barked the Garm, finding himself at a lack of better words. "Coast looks clear an' all," he went on to growl, "but I still dun like it. This place smells like death, an' I'm guessin' the'e's good cause." Despite the guardian's prediction, they could not see or hear anything to support his claim but proceeded with caution nonetheless. The room was wide with nothing in the middle of the vast floor. They seemed to be lost within the ever repeating expanse of block formations despite travelling in a straight line. Their trek was halted as Bain tensed up further, the hair stiffly raising from his back as he reared his stained teeth.
"Not good," whispered Alice, an understatement. A rain of bodies fell from the shadowed ceiling, crashing onto the stone floor. The ropes looped around their necks began to tighten, peeling them back off from the ground in basically the same condition they were delivered. Set back upright, the sins against nature had some form of advancement upon those still blessed with true life. Little hesitation separated their action as the still battered warriors threw themselves back into combat. Grunge tore through the secret detroyers, exploding rotten torsos with mighty punches or swinging halves of cadavers around like clubs while sweet Alice danced in her chains, wrapping them in her bonds before ripping them into bits, spraying the air with maggots. The hound was surprisingly less brutal, knocking away the abominations with his massive jaw and rending a few that were felled below him. The meat puppets were contained for the most part as long as they stayed on their leashes, but the canine felt a stronger presence. Amongst the battle, his remaining eyes caught a glimpse of a figure moving freely about their ranks. It stood out for they were not intelligent creatures who merely charged their targets head on. This new thing was slinking and showing cunning. A sharp wail caught his keeper's attention. Releasing a spun noose and letting a zombie soar, the fighter stumbled over pieces to his pet's side as a particularly putrid creature stared it down. This puppet was not restrained yet it stood its ground, looking on at the beast as though to study it. Its yellow eyes then darted to Grunge, and its reddened lips curled.
"... Thawerld," he uttered as he took a step back with his expression remaining unchanged.
"Thawerld is a vampire," snarled the raged animal, "sent to drain."
"Why, colleagues, 'thas been some time, ey?" the harsh voice of the dead one croaked as a sharp clawed hand raised, one of the few differences setting him apart from the others. Very little tattered rags clung to his browned and splotched skin, and his swelled belly protruded from these meager garments among his scrawny limbs. With a crooked smile, the undead leapt at the two, who made sure to keep their distance. One scratch would mean their fates would be the same as his after death.
"I never thought ya'd cross the Phalanx," confessed Bain. "What 'bout all that Curtis an' his reign has done fer ya?"
"An' what do I get fer m' pain, all m' cool an' cold-like job under Curtis? Betrayed desires! A foul pox that whithers m' very soul. M' soul!" the vampire screamed to the heavens, ceasing his assault briefly. "I dun wanna do this to ya, guys. I got no choice."
"Yes, ya do! Ya can stop it," roared the Garm. "Just stop 'ttackin' us. We can't save ya if we're dead."
"What is lost can ne'er be saved," Thawerld shrieked with another swipe of his wicked claws. "Now I'm naked, nothin' but an animal! Why does any o' it matter?"
"We may not be able to save ya," someone cried from above, "but we will stop ya." With a valiant screech, a crimson bullet streaked on into the undead and drove him to the floor. After a quick struggle, he was cast off, but the scarlet monster persisted. Buffeting the evil creation with razor tipped wings, several marks were scored, but it was all ultimately futile as the bird was cast back off. Crashing on the ground, the mutilated creature tried to right himself. His feet had no talons and his face no beak, but these were from birth, not battle scars. This was an Allerion that they all, in fact, were familiar with.
"Foul wretch," lashed out the blood sucker. "Why dinnae ya just part like all da others when I died? I dun want ya seein' me like this."
"Fer once, we agree on somethin'," squawked Butholserph as he guided a keen edge at his prior keeper before collapsing again. The wound went deep, but it meant nothing to the dead. Annoyed with their struggle, for now, Thawerld gave a single gesture, and all the nooses fell from the ceiling, freeing the meat puppets.