The door to their prison burst open, bringing the six men to their feet, Ezra helping Nathan to stand. An enormous demon, with one large baleful eye entered the cave, nine smaller demons standing behind it. The large demon gestured with his claw filled hand at the humans and grunted, "Vas hulle". Instantly the smaller demons moved towards the humans, holding rope, their intentions obvious.
JD was unable to put up much of a fight due to his broken arm and Buck bore the brunt of the demon's efforts to bind their hands. Ezra and Josiah allowed themselves to be tied without any fuss, hoping to ensure that they would be able to help Nathan and not be hindered by new injuries. A scaly little blood-sucker tried to slip a tentacle under Nathan's bandages and Ezra sent it flying with a well-placed kick. Nathan, overbalanced by the recoil, fell to the floor with a groan. Before Ezra could react, he found himself flat on his stomach, an impressive weight keeping him pinned.
Josiah watched as the demons dragged Nathan off the floor and roughly tied his hands in front of him. The occasional grunt garnered from the rough treatment only seemed to please the demons, who leered gleefully at the humans. The bloodsucker climbed to its feet and with a nasty glance at Ezra, lying on the floor, approached Nathan again. Josiah felt a small dagger prick the small of his back, as the demon behind him, warned him against any movement. The bloodsucker was about to attach itself to Nathan's wound when a loud snort of "Los dit!" from the large demon at the door stopped the vile creature in its tracks.
Disappointed that its meal was to be denied, the filthy scavenger kicked Ezra in the ribs as it shuffled by. The raucous coming from the corner drew both the demons and humans attention. Chris finally had an outlet for his anger and was giving the three demons sent to bind him, a serious run for their money. The black-glad soldier had been knocked down three times by the combined weight of the demons, yet each time managed to surge to his feet and lay in to the demons with a eagerness to do damage that had one demon already hobbling from a broken foot.
The large demon apparently wished to waste no more time and went in himself to subdue the resisting meal. Chris was currently holding one smelly demon in front of him, using it as a shield to prevent the other two from approaching. He was having difficulty in keeping his 'shield' still, as its various spikes and talons were shredding his leather armour and his own strength was fading. His demon shield was ripped from his arms, the demon itself screaming in protest at the harsh treatment. A massive fist landed on Chris's jaw sending him sprawling.
Shaking his head, trying to gather his senses, Chris vaguely felt his hands being bound in front of him, the ropes being pulled tight helped him focus his attention. He was pulled to his knees by a firm hold on his hair. Additional ropes were wrapped around his torso and arms, tight enough to bite into his biceps. The sensation of coarse hemp around his throat caused a flare of resistance which was shortly curtailed by the tightening of the noose. A sharp tug on the rope around his neck, had Chris staggering to his feet, hindered by the inability to use his arms. He noticed the others had been similarly bound, the grimace on JD's face proof of his broken arm garnering no consideration. Ezra and Josiah were trying to support Nathan with difficulty, as the sniggering demons holding their ropes kept on pulling them away from their faltering friend. Nathan was struggling to remain upright and the little bloodsucker had taken hold of Nathan's rope, its eyes lingering on the growing bloodstain on the bandages around Nathan's abdomen.
The massive demon snarled at its underlings, who immediately stopped taunting the humans and pulled their charges towards the door. The six were taken into a dark tunnel, with no light source save the flickering eyes of the demons. Their passage through the tunnels was anything but silent, with tired, wounded limbs faltering and stumbling in the dark, impatient captors yanking mercilessly on bruised throats, guiding them to an immanent death. Choked off oaths and curses filled the tunnel, as well as hitched breaths and gasps when injuries contacted walls or floors. Ezra and Josiah tried desperately to ease Nathan's journey but their own frailties usually ended with all three on the floor.
An impatient roar from the lead demon had the smaller fiends lashing out with talon and claw driving the six into a half run, or as fast as they could manage. The occasional torch was placed at infrequent intervals, providing brief glimpses of haggard faces and snarling demons before plunging into darkness again. Chris felt his own chest heaving painfully and wondered how Nathan was coping. He had tried to add his support but a malicious jerk on his noose, forced him to his knees, where a sharp blow to his kidneys had him struggling to his feet again.
The experience of being driven like cattle was not one Chris enjoyed and a slow rage began to build beneath the fiery embers of previous anger. He longed for a weapon to plunge into the heart of the demon chivvying him from behind like he was a dog, and he ached to be able to free his friends and let them rest just long enough to take them home. But most of all he needed to see the blue eyes of his soul-brother, who he could feel was coming ever closer.
+ + + + + + +
The feasting cavern rose to dizzying heights, its roof so high up it lay in a murky darkness, the light from the multitude of fires unable to pierce even its haunting depths. The heat that the cavern generated could be felt nearly 200m away in the tunnels that lead into the cave. Natural and unnatural furnaces lay on the cavern floor, which stretched 300m in diameter. Dozens of holes pocketed the floor, their purpose gruesome and diabolical.
The fearsome cavern was not empty, nor silent. On a raised dais near the back of the cavern, sat four incredibly massive demons, far too large to enter the cavern through the tunnels which their bulk dwarfed. They used dark magic to materialise in the feasting cavern, lording over the hordes of demons already present. Demons and fiends of all sizes crowded the cavern, no demon the twin of another. Wings, claws, talons and fangs were in abundance, demon clans and alliances circled each other, vying for the best pits and portions.
To a human that entered the cavern, it was not the sight of hundreds of demons that struck fear into their hearts. Nor was it the sight of large soul globes that hung on the walls, blue-tinged lights flickering desperately within their confines, that filled their souls with dread. Not even the sight on dozens upon dozens of pits with the sole purpose of cooking humans sent terrified men to their knees.
It was the stench that rose like a choking miasma from the depths of the pits that sent battle-hardened men on their knees, retching in disgust and absolute terror. It was the sounds of other prisoners being slaughtered in countless macabre ways that made grown men weep and stumble before they too were subjected to torturous deaths.
JD closed his eyes tightly, biting back tears of anger and fear as he tried desperately to ignore the sights and sounds which rose around him in a deafening cacophony of pain. He could not stop the smell that assaulted him, and eventually he could not stop the tears as they fell, leaving white tear marks down his ash covered face. He no longer even felt the rope biting into his neck, not even the constant pull on his broken arm, as his heart beat a staccato of fear, drowning out his pain, but not the unmanning fear that clawed at his stomach.
Buck had eyes only for JD, watching his trembling shoulders, and unsteady breathes, cursing himself for a fool. 'I should have forced that damn pod down his throat. No one deserves this, especially not JD.' The heat was making Buck sweat and he longed for something to drink. 'Strange longing for a drink and not the arms of some wonderfully lush nymph a hundred miles from here. Light this is a strange time to be thinking at all.' Buck refused to even acknowledge his own mounting fear as he focused solely on JD. 'Damn fool kid.'
Josiah stumbled and felt his knee burn on the hot rock beneath his feet. He surged to support Nathan who was fading fast. Josiah mumbled the few cantas he could remember, hoping it might be enough to protect his soul from the globes that hung on the walls. A soul unfortunate enough to be caught in a soul-globe faced many years of captivity, as its life force was slowly drained away.
Ezra was pale-faced and had a wild look about the eyes, his tongue darting nervously, licking very dry lips. He concentrated on helping Nathan, despite the tiny voice that shouted inside his head that there was no point in delaying the inevitable. They were all doomed, Nathan included. Ezra shut the voice up with a fierce desire to ensure that Nathan would at least be spared some agony, if not it all. Nathan was beyond feeling anything save the deep hurt burning in his stomach. But not even that intense pain could drive the feeling of sudden death from his heart.
Chris was oblivious to everything, deliberately ignoring the horrific sights and sounds around him as he was marched towards the raised dais. His eyes darted about the cavern, desperately seeking Vin who he could feel was nearby. Unbidden tears sprang to his eyes as a combination of smoke and un-registered sights plagued him. An unreasoning panic was beating in his chest that any minute now he would feel Vin's death pains and .. - he refused to allow that thought to continue. 'Where are you?'
The gaping pit that lay at the foot of the dais was big enough to fit all six men. A large flat piece of metal, large enough to cover the pit lay to one side. A thick metal pole strong enough to bear the weight of eight men, lay near the fiery pit. This puncture in the cavern floor was were the demons lead the six soldiers.
The four enormous demons on the dais, turned eager eyes to mark the arrival of the six. Unbeknownst to the six friends, they added their own glow to the cavern. Enhanced demon sight was drawn immediately to the incandescent auras of the six men. Unlike the usual human souls who were tinged a light blue, the six men possessed brightly coloured souls, souls the Demon Lords longed to feed on. Seven special soul globes were piled near the dais, ready to trap the souls of the unusual humans.
One of the Demon Lords, able to curb his appetite sufficiently to think beyond the feasting, noticed that one soul was missing. He was about to demand where the other one was, when its arrival at the far end of the cavern, drew the Demon Lord's attention. Several other strong demons noticed the late arrival and felt the four Demon Lords hunger increase as the last of their meal arrived.
Vin choked back a strangled gasp as Mangus dragged him into the cavern. He immediately sought out Chris, and while he could not see him clearly, his black clad figure was slightly visible near a raised dais. Vin carefully counted the other figures and felt a wave of relief wash over him as he realised all six where there. That wave of relief evaporated in a heart beat, as he saw the six forced to kneel. The ropes around their torso's were cut and his six brothers were forced to raise their hands. The long pole was picked up by two seven-foot demons, their huge arms lifting its weight easily. The pair of demons began to push the pole through the hollows of the six's arms, Josiah and Chris refusing to co-operate.
Mangus sensed Vin's distress. He had caught another magic demon before he and Vin had arrived, and its magic augmented his own sufficiently for him to feel Vin's emotions. Slicking his tongue out in pleasure he bent down and whispered in Vin's ear, "Any ideas on what's going to happen next?"
Vin vaguely shook his head, focused intently on his six brothers. "They're going to fire up that pit and then lift them up on the pole. And then, like meat hung on a spit, they're going to be lowered into that pit. It's deep enough that the fire won't actually touch them, but its going to be very hot."
Mangus studied Vin's face, watching the fear flicker in his eyes and relished it all the more. Eagerly he continued, "The pole will fit in two notches on the floor, leaving them hanging there. That piece of flat metal will then be pushed over the pit, closing it up and making a very nice - oven."
"Shut up!" Vin hissed, fear for his friends making his entire chest ache.
"Oh no, this is fun. It'll be slow and very, very painful and just when they want to die, they will - only as their puny souls flee nicely cooked flesh, those hungry Demon Lords are going to force their souls into those globes. And there for the next hundred or so years they will lie, feeding the demons who grow stronger and bring more humans here."
Vin's knee collapsed as he stumbled, his fear paralysing him as he felt an intense spike of panic from Chris. He watched as the two large demons succeeded in threading the pole through his brother's arms. Still on their knees, the six were tied to the pole, rope wrapping around their tied wrists, securing them in place.
"Your place is waiting," Mangus snarled, his tongue snaking out and touching Vin's face, tasting his fear. As if the touch had galvanised Vin's brain, he latched onto the only plan that sprung to mind. Mangus was about 100m away from the dais and was dragging Vin past sights that he knew would haunt him forever if he made it out of here alive.
"That bargain still open?"
Vin's voice was barely above a whisper, but Mangus heard it and it stopped him cold.
"What?" Mangus hissed incredulous.
"That bargain. I know what you can give me."
"I am not freeing you!" Mangus cast a nervous glance at the four Demon Lords.
"No, just shut up and listen. You 'take' them," and Vin nodded towards his friends, "far from here and I will .. - I will tell you my name."
Mangus stared at the human, wondering what game it was playing. He extended his magic, trying to find out what trick the mortal was trying to pull, but could sense only pure determination and honesty. It wanted to do this and would - freely give itself!
"The bargain is unfair - tell me your name and I will spare you, and only you, the pit."
"No," Vin spat out, "then it's no deal. I'd rather die with them then. This is the 'only' way you get anything out of me. You don't free them and take them somewhere safe, I will make sure you get nothing."
Mangus quickly considered his options, he didn't have much time, the Demon Lords were watching him, waiting for him to bring their last soul. If he obeyed them, he gained nothing. If he agreed to the human's bargain, he would gain a powerful soul to feed on but loose his place amongst the demons. That considered, he made his decision.
Vin watched in panic as the two large demons lifted the pole, the six dangling from it, helpless. He could see their faces from where he stood and felt as if his stomach had been pulled out, when JD screamed as a small demon pulled his legs to test if the ropes would hold. 'Damn, his broken arm!'
"Well!" Vin practically shouted at Mangus. The demon lent down to eyeball Vin, "I free them and you tell me your name."
Vin shook his head, "You take them away from here, to somewhere safe and - then I tell you my name and - let you do what you want."
Grinning evilly, Mangus exclaimed, "Done!"
The Demon Lords were stirring impatiently at Mangus's delay, their eyes focused on the lesser demon. Mangus bowed to them, and started to pull Vin towards the pit. Apparently appeased, the Demon Lords turned to study the show before them, their normally alert senses dulled by the anticipation of the coming meal.
Chris raised his aching head as he felt the bond between him and Vin strengthen and saw a demon dragging Vin towards them. Despair entered his heart then as Vin turned desperate eyes to his. Mangus was about 20 metres away from the pit, when he raised his free hand and shouted in the demon tongue, "Bheweegst". Too late the Demon Lords responded and could only howl in anger as the seven souls and Mangus disappeared.
+ + + + + + +
Seven humans and one demon appeared in a dark cave, deep within the tunnels of Kelltor. After the heat of the feasting cavern, the coolness of the cave caused a ripple of chills across the human's exposed skin.
"Kweeslig," Mangus commanded and a dull red glow filled the black cave. The demon forced Vin to his knees and he hissed, "Bekragtig wyser." Thick, metallic rope materialised around Vin's wrists and pulled his hands behind his back, tying itself around his hands and wrapping itself up Vin's arms until it reached his elbows. The unbearable pull on Vin's arms made him clench his jaw, as previously abused muscles protested the new binding.
Mangus then pointed at the remainder of the Seven and snarled, "Verander en verkeer!" The ropes that tied their hands in front of them, changed into the same metallic rope and separated the wrists, before pulling the hands behind their backs, and rejoining. Chris tried to resist the pull of the magic rope but found his hands tied securely behind him despite his efforts. The rope then tied itself around their torsos, becoming heavier and tighter. Apparently satisfied that the humans were immobilised, Mangus sat down on his haunches, keeping one eye on Vin.
Ezra studied their most recent captor, and did not like what he saw. Roughly eight foot tall, the demon was covered in scaly black skin, all his limbs at harsh angles and sharp edges to his body. A three fingered hand, retracted and extended long claws idly, while the demon sat in thought. It's face was featureless, tiny red eyes, pinpricks of intelligence against a blank surface. A long slit marked where its mouth appeared, but no discernible nose or ears were evident. A forked green tongue flickered out of the mouth in time with the retracting claws. Feet that ended in three massive talons, showed that this demon was not full grown. By its magical abilities, the demon was still learning to use its power, as Demon Lords simply gestured to work their magic, not requiring verbal commands. The demon was studying them with an intense stare, not looking at them directly per say, but more gazing at something about them. It would occasionally spare a glance a Vin, who knelt beside it, as if checking something.
Ezra met Buck's confused gaze, 'What had they landed themselves now?' Silence prevailed over the small group, the Seven taking deep breaths as they calmed hearts that had been in their throats. JD was slumped against Buck, focused on nothing save the fact that he was alive and not somewhere a whole lot less pleasant. His present situation did not even register with the young man, he was safe from the flames of a pit and that was all that mattered. Nathan had collapsed the moment they had arrived in the cave, the stress and strain of the moments before, too much for his wounded body. He rested against Josiah's legs, oblivious to the metal ropes around his arms and chest. Josiah, too had his eyes closed, taking each blessed cool lungfull of air with a thankful heart. He had lapsed into a meditative state automatically, part of his mind shutting down, escaping the memories of the feasting cavern, Josiah not prepared to re-visit those scenes just yet.
Buck was mouthing the list of everything he was grateful for. Not one usually bent on the religious side, Buck found himself thanking every single deity he could think of. The fear that had pounded in his heart at JD's scream in the cavern, was still coursing through his veins, stimulating a daze in the moustached man. Buck could not think beyond saying thank you to . whoever, that they were safe. Ezra's thoughts however were on something slightly different. His defence mechanisms relied on his clear thoughts and concise analysis of the situation. And Ezra was not happy. 'Why had this demon saved them?'
Chris had one thought in his heart, Vin was with them. And that was all that mattered. He ignored the aches in his arms, the burning in his chest as he struggled to breathe, and the nagging questions that demanded to be answered. As the silence in the cave stretched to half an hour, with no being saying a word or moving much, Chris eventually snapped to, and started pondering those nagging questions in earnest.
Vin had not looked at his friends other than a brief glance to ensure they were all there. His head had remained bowed all this time, resting on his chest. Chris at first thought that Vin may have been sleeping, too exhausted by his injuries. The blood stains on Vin's shirt and pants were numerous and judging from the amount of blood, serious. But Chris could see, after careful study, that there were no actual wounds beneath the blood. 'What was Vin hiding?' Chris didn't know how he knew that Vin was hiding something, but he did. Vin refused to meet his eyes, despite knowing that Chris was staring at him.
Mangus stood, stretching his long legs and canted his head to one side, as if he was listening to something. A fin-like ear extended itself out the side of his head, and Buck bit back a laugh at how funny the demon looked, standing akimbo, its head tilted to the side, and a fin sticking up. Vin had looked up at Mangus's movement and as he lowered his gaze, he instinctually sought Chris out, forgetting in the moment of habit why he had been avoiding Chris.
Their eyes met, blue on green, soul to soul and the message Vin had been hiding flashed across the cave to Chris as quickly as thought.
"YOU DID WHAT?" Chris shouted jumping to his feet, completing unhindered by his bonds. Vin sighed and shrugged, acceptance and resignation evident in his slumped shoulders.
"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR COTTON-PICKING MIND?" Chris's bellow startled the Seven yet again. What the hell was Chris talking about? Mangus, however, hissed in anger and rasped, "Stilete. Silence." Chris opened his mouth to demand an explanation from Vin and Mangus stepped forward, his fist knocking Chris to the ground.
"Silence!! They search!"
Instantly the cave was hushed, but even the Seven could hear claws scratching in distant tunnels, as demons on the hunt, sought them out, the recent noise helping their search. Vin had automatically stood when Mangus had attacked Chris, instinct to protect his brother over-riding any other. Mangus noticed his defiant stare and lashed out, catching Vin across the face, splitting his lip. "Your bargain, remember?"
"What bargain?" Ezra and Chris asked simultaneously.
Mangus merely growled in frustration and snapped, "We leave now." He gestured at the humans and again mumbled his magic and they all vanished.
As the cave fell into an empty silence once again, several demons appeared at the entryway, sniffing out the scent of humans. But the Seven were gone.
+ + + + + + +
The warm morning sun filled the small meadow, its golden light tinted the air with a golden haze. A gentle breeze stirred the tall grasses, turned yellow as summer wore on, ripening in the heat. The forest still stood in shadow, the sunlight cutting through leaves and branches, spears of light arcing through the shadows. Little dust particles danced in the light beams, stirred up by the breeze, engaged in a soundless display of beauty. The breeze whispered through the trees and grass, telling secrets no one heard. One fragile butterfly braved the early morning dews and alighted on a single summer flower, alone in a field of grass.
An expectant hush fell over the clearing, anticipation palpable. In a heartbeat, the butterfly was crushed beneath a smouldering foot, its delicate wings burned by the heat steaming from the talons. Mangus hissed at the wide area, dislike for open skies and bright sunlight, making him squint tiny red eyes to mere dots of colour.
The Seven had landed roughly, their abrupt departure and subsequent arrival had deposited them on top of each other.
"Get that fat boot off my face!"
"Watch it, will you!"
"OWW, that 'was' my eye you insisted on prodding."
Vin allowed a paltry smile to crease his lips briefly. No matter the circumstances, situation or timing, the boys were the boys. Argumentative, annoying and 'ill-mannered' as Ezra called it, the bonds that united their friendship were stronger than even the metal ones currently hampering their de-tanglement. Vin had no regrets about their safety, he would give his life for any of them, why not his soul?
Chris was unlucky enough to be at the bottom of the pile, and he was desperate to get loose and find Vin. 'And make damn sure he hasn't done what I flaming-well think the idiot's done.' Pushing on the weight trapping him wasn't helping, neither was trying to move out from under it, as Nathan's chest was right by his face. Feeling the beginnings of claustrophobia, Chris yelled, "Shut up! All of you!"
The five men on top of him, fell silent and heard a muffled, "Whoever the flaming hell is on top, GET OFF!"
"Ah Chris . that's going to be a problem."
Mangus ignored the arguing pile of humans and turned his attention on the one beside him. "They are safe now. Tell me."
"Ain't safe at all, " Vin interrupted, "You gotta take 'em a whole lot father away. Else them demon buddies of yours are gonna find 'em."
Mangus roared in frustration and grabbed Vin by the remains of his shirt and brought his face, eyeball to eyedot. "I have done enough! Now tell me your name!"
The moving pile had stopped arguing when Mangus's roar had echoed through the morning air. No longer fighting each other to get free, the six were able to role off one another and extract themselves. Shock clouded all their faces, save Chris who was furious, at the demand of Vin to tell the demon his name.
"No," came Vin's reply and five sighs of relief were exhaled.
"Not until you send them somewhere safe."
Ezra opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, his shock rendering him speechless. Judging by his companions silence, they too were flabbergasted. Chris, however, now that he knew for certain what Vin had agreed to, rolled onto his knees and knelt upright. He was about to shout his denial, when Vin's clear blue eyes caught his.
Determination gazed back at Chris. Complete and utter determination to get him, his friends, his brothers to safety. And nothing, not even Chris's anger and refusal to accept his decision, was going to stop Vin from doing this. Momentarily stunned by Vin's message, Chris rocked back on his knees, his heart skipping the occasional beat.
Vin turned back to stare boldly at Mangus, his tongue moistening dry lips and touching his split lip with a wince. "I ain't backing down on this. You do it and I'm yours."
Mangus blinked as if considering his decisions. "Fine," he growled.
Chris felt the bottom of his heart fall out as he realised what was about to happen. Vin looked at him, sending a final farewell that Chris quailed to see. Before Chris could voice his refusal, Mangus 'sent' the six humans away.
And across the dimensions of time and space, Chris's shout of, "No!" echoed in the vaults of eternity, as his 'feel' of Vin shuddered.
+ + + + + + +
Vin felt the gentle breeze caress his cheek, and blow his hair back, as if it were the fingers of a lover. He closed his eyes and felt the warm sun on his face, chasing the chill of the depths away for a moment. He opened his eyes and studied the bright sky above, knowing it would be his last view of it in this lifetime. For an instant he was back in his beloved mountains, surrounded by the life force of nature and completely at peace. His forests and mountains vanished as sharp pain dragged him back to his doomed present.
Hot fetid breath scorched away the warmth of the sun, and a sibilant voice ripped his hopes apart. "They're safe."
Mangus tightened his hold on Vin's chest and pulled him closer. "Now, what is your name?"
Eyes that mirrored the heaven's above, filled with resignation and doom, met Mangus's wickedly dancing ones. Lips bruised and cut, opened and let a desperate sigh out.
"Vin." The demon twisted and tasted the word, running it through his mind and savouring the power it brought.
"VVViiiiinnnnn." He said again, delighted as he felt the mortal's soul twitch in response, shuddering at the magic that called it.
Vin felt icy fingers run up his spine, as the demon said his name again, and a tight cold mass seem to form at the pit of his stomach in response.
This time Vin's soul fairly shrieked as physical claws pierced it for the first time and his moan of pain was music to Mangus's ears.
The small clearing was suddenly abandoned, leaving only faint demon laughter behind and two scorched talon-toed foot prints, smouldering in the grass.
+ + + + + + +
Two days journey from the distant clearing, a quiet forest lay. Grey mist blanketed the blue-leafed trees, laying a peaceful, tranquil calm over the world beneath it. A sudden burst of birds from the forest canopy announced the arrival of a disturbance in the forest. Quiet seemed to reclaim the wood, until a scream ripped through the air, as Chris felt Mangus tear a piece from Vin's soul and devour it.
Continued in Pro Patria Mori
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