The Reaper has ruled over Etias due to the longevity he has achieved through necromancy.
| Keogh would not relent on their travels as the group marched from the snowy regions of the north back down to the forest-filled south. It wasn't until Casimir convinced the ill-tempered Prince his human companions could not continue on without some rest that he allowed them to set up camp for the evening. Keogh growled and rolled his blue eyes at this information.
"Humans... Such a waste."
Casimir took nothing by his remark, considering the Knight was also human. He was used to the entire Royal Family holding a high prejudice against the human race. Casimir bowed to the Prince before he turned to inform the others they would set up camp for the night. Bleiz and Melina were the ones to pitch the tents since they were adapted to the lifestyle. Bleiz started a roaring fire while Melina put up each tent.
Prince Keogh ignored everybody, save for a few comments here and there. He sat on a nearby log, studying the book that Ivsaar had given to them. Keogh flipped through the delicate pages, trying to absorb any information he found. He did not aide anyone in setting up the campsite. Melina glanced at the man from the corner of her eyes, a bubbling annoyance building in the pit of her stomach. She didn't care how good looking this man was; to act so high and mighty was grinding at her nerves.
The young woman grabbed the Prince's bedroll before standing to walk over to him. He did not glance up at her or acknowledge her presence. Melina lifted the bedroll higher before she let it fall at the Prince's feet with a dull thud in the dirt. He stared at the thing before raising his eyes to glare up at the girl. Melina was undeterred, her arms folded over her chest as she narrowed her eyes down at the Prince.
"As important as the book is, I would think you can stop reading it for a moment to help your companions set up camp," said the woman.
"It is not my place to do anything of the sort. Such work is for peasants like you," he snarled back at her. Melina huffed as she planted her hands on her hips, her anger rising with each syllable that passed Keogh's lips.
"You may get away with that haughty attitude in the castle, but out here, you need to contribute just as much as everyone else. Everyone gives their own part."
Keogh let out something like a dry, humorless laugh.
"Excuse me, but I do not need some human girl to give me instruction. Take this as a command; your solicited advice will only be when I demand it. Otherwise, hold your waggling tongue."
Melina’s upper lip curled into a disparaging smile.
"Last time I checked, you're the one who has 'human tagalongs.' So, you will expect suggestions from us every now and again, including what needs to be done on your end to keep everyone else happy."
Keogh closed the book then as he stood straight and tall. He was well over half a foot taller than the young woman and carried an air of superiority. He did not look into Melina's eyes, although he considered it every time she argued back at him.
"If you cannot figure out your place as a woman and subordinate to the crowned Prince, then you should run off back into the forest with all the little birdies and squirrels where social pariahs like you belong!"
"Oh?" said Melina, turning her sharp glare at the black-haired man. "Maybe you should run off back in your ebony tower where you're better suited to keep the thick stick up your ass!"
Bleiz was suddenly beside his sister as he grabbed her by the arm to drag her away off to the side before Keogh could explode back at her.
"Enough!" Bleiz hissed under his breath, "I understand he's an asshole, but you cannot speak to him in such a way. That is punishable by law, if not death, and no one will do anything about it. Keogh could throw us into an alligator-filled pit."
"I don't care!" Melina snapped right back, the fire in her blue eyes making them burn like sapphires. "There isn't a damn thing any of them could do I would fear or dread. Pain does not deter me, and death does not scare me. The only thing in this world I consider torture is traveling with a self-righteous, pompous asshole like him! Let his world burn for all I care. Better that than to have him as our ruler. Maybe Xarsunon would be a better King after all!" And with that, she turned on her heel to storm off into the trees, disappearing from view.
Aneira let out a slow breath as Melina walked away, having witnessed the entire event. She sincerely hoped Melina was reacting out of emotion and didn't honestly think that way. Aneira stepped forward to speak to Bleiz.
"You need to speak to your sister. I like her, but she will get you both killed with that temper. We're with a Prince that comes from a family of human-hating shaydes. We need to keep our focus on saving the world."
"Mmh... Because it's not about us but about everyone, correct?" Bleiz responded with dripping sarcasm as he held his arms out to his sides. "And tell her what? 'Oh Melina, don't hate on the man who thinks you're a wasted breath of life, and whose family would prefer to see you eradicated.'" He spoke loud enough for Keogh to hear him. Keogh glared at the two from where he stood. Bleiz approached Keogh before he stopped parallel to the Prince, returning the glare tenfold. "He was just born an ignorant, arrogant ass... isn't that right, your Highness?"
Bleiz walked on, bumping his shoulder into Keogh's just as the Prince had done to him back at the castle. Keogh said nothing, only frowned at Bleiz as he stepped away. It was the first time anyone insulted him to his face, and in public, no less. Aneira watched the two siblings walk off before she turned to Keogh, bowing before him as she spoke.
"I still hold strong to my stance on the matter, your Majesty. We ought to think about a true alliance if we will ever face Xarsunon. Even he and his minions have a bond that can guide them to victory."
"I don't need the humans!" Keogh spat back.
"Yes, you do," the half-elf woman insisted, "You've no idea what you're doing. How long have you spent outside that castle? And what makes you think you could take on this feat of saving the world? You don't know the soils of the earth, nor are you educated on navigation. I understand the humans can have irrational behaviors, but you must let them help you. You witnessed all the awful things their kind has done. But I've also seen all the miraculous things they can do. Trust me when I say their race is capable of good."
For a long moment, the Prince said nothing, pondering Aneira's words before he glanced over his shoulder at the direction the siblings had walked off to through the trees.
Over the next several days, their travels remained uneventful, much to their relief. The mountain paths became narrowed in the rocky passes. A sharp right would have sent them careening off the cliff down to a raging river far below. The higher they climbed, the colder the surrounding air became. Frosted air stung their eyes and forced its way into their throat and lungs. They let their horses free as the beasts could not continue upwards anymore without their ankles breaking. The companions trodden slowly with piles of snow and ice covered the rocks with no trail for hundreds of years.
Keogh turned his head suddenly as he lifted a hand to signal the others, "Over here." He gestured to an unusual marking in the stone. It appeared to be a crumbled flight of stairs leading up to a landing far above them.
"This must have been the entrance to the city," said Casimir, looking up at the decay of the front pillars.
Aneira viewed up the nearly collapsed stairs with big eyes, "It doesn't appear stable, though."
Bleiz shrugged as he stepped forward, "Just step carefully."
They ambulated up the crumbling stairs until they reached the top of the landing. A gust of bitter wind hissed through the maze of ancient stone buildings where tattered tapestries of ancient doors blew in the howling wind. From whatever sunlight that could come through from behind the haze of the gray clouds, a heaviness hung in the air. There was no movement save for the winter wind. Everyone felt the hair on the back of their neck stand on end, their senses screaming at them that something was wrong. Far on the opposite side of the courtyard stood a large canopy that prevented snow from blocking two large oak doors. The doors were withered and barely held together.
"Looks like that might lead to something," observed Melina, walking forward towards the doors.
"Hold on," Keogh said, stopping her by the shoulder and walking ahead of her, "Let me see first." With a wave of his hand, the doors tore off and flew to the side, and he stepped forward to peek inside.
Darkness descended the staircase, the thick smell of decay looming in the air. Melina peered over his shoulder as she squinted, "I doubt anything good is down there..."
Aneira shivered, grabbing onto Casimir's arm, "What do we do then?"
Casimir looked down at Aneira, lightly patting her hand on his arm, "We have no choice... we have to go down there. It can be just as dangerous out here."
Bleiz pulled his longbow from his back, "Let's go then," with that, he brushed past Keogh and walked down the stairs, an arrow pulled taught at the ready. Melina pulled out her own bow as she stayed in practice coordination with her brother.
Keogh kept his scythe summoned while he lifted his free hand to cast a floating ball of light beside him, deeply frowning as he followed behind, "Casimir, what do you know about this place? What are we to expect?"
Casimir pulled a torch out from one holder against the wall, setting it aflame as he drew his sword out with his free hand, "I know little, Your Highness... I heard this place used to be where Xarsunon had his generals’ rule over the land long ago before the Reaper took over. They were involved in necromancy, so it's likely there are many evil spirits still lurking around the area."
Keogh rolled his eyes and shook his head, "Oh, well that's just great."
"So, what are we looking for?" Aneira asked quietly, keeping near Keogh, deciding he would be the best source of protection, considering that he was the one with a giant scythe. They reach the bottom of the stairs then, stepping out into a full cavern that had been carved out by man. Mummies half crumbled in their sarcophagus scattered across the edge of the room. Bleiz scoffed then as he carefully walked forward, Melina close behind him.
"We look for anything that relates to Xarsunon... and hope we don't run into any enemies," said Casimir, unsure of any other real answers. He held up the torch when they entered the cavern, casting deep shadows everywhere as creatures scuttled out of the light. Frightened, Aneira held on tightly to one of Keogh's wrists and closed her eyes, allowing him to guide her past all the preserved corpses.
"Open your eyes, Lady Aneira," Keogh said in his deep voice, his gaze still forward as he led the half-elf, "I have a feeling..."
A sudden roar thundered from underneath their feet. The ground trembled and cracked. Before any of them could stop to think, the floor crumbled beneath them, sending the companions tumbling and falling on a giant slide deeper and deeper into the earth below into complete and total darkness.
When the floor gave out, Aneira cried out, her eyes wide as they sped down the bumpy slide sucking them into a black void.
"What is going on!?" She shouted, looking up to see the only source of light disappear as they went down further and further.
During the bumping slide, they all broke through and landed in an underground lake with a loud splash. Bleiz was the first to resurface as he wiped water from his face. Glowing mushrooms littered the walls and ceiling, giving him some source of light to look for the others. He held his breath and ducked down under the water, swimming further into its murky depths in search of Melina. Meanwhile, Casimir and Keogh broke the surface of the water near each other. They approached the shoreline, coughing black water out of their lungs.
"Aneira!" Casimir called out, coughing out more water as he did.
Beneath the water, she couldn't hear him, several feet below from the impact of her weight going in. Nearby, she felt the warmth of another person, and she reached out to touch long waves of hair curl through her fingers, and she knew it was Melina. Grabbing her arm, Aneira used all the strength she could muster to swim upwards with her, lungs well trained to last long under the water, although they were much further into the lake than she realized. The moment she reached the surface, Aneira released a loud, desperate gasp, panting, and noticed that she'd accidentally let Melina go in her frantic try to make it up in time.
"Melina! Where are you, I can't see!"
Casimir turned then and stood up, having to squint in the dim light of the cavern to see Aneira in the water. Only then, Bleiz came to the surface of the water beside Aneira, holding an unconscious Melina.
"Come on!" he said breathlessly, spitting out water as he spoke, swimming through the water while carrying his sister with one arm. Casimir waded through the water up to his waist then to reach for the unconscious woman, pulling her to the shoreline to tend to her. Bleiz reached out with his hand for Aneira to help her the rest of the way onto the shore before he crawled up onto the rocky land on all fours, panting and coughing, "T—The nine Hells was that?!" he gasped.
Casimir paid no attention to Bleiz, looking over Melina, using the light of a nearby glowing mushroom to get a better view of her. Keogh knelt on the opposite side, eyes narrowed as he looked over Melina carefully, noting some blood leaking through the side of her tunic. She coughed and spluttered then, Casimir rolling her over to her side so that she could cough water up. Bleiz looked over at them and then stood up, looking around the large cavern. The entire place was closed, save for the opening in the ceiling they had fallen through and a large tunnel off to the side.
"That was a dragon. There's a dragon somewhere around here," Aneira panted. Melina took a few deep breaths as she pushed her soaking wet hair from her eyes. She attempted to sit up, flinching at the pain in her left side. Aneira walked over to her, lifting her tunic to examine the large gash on her side that reached from her hip up to under her left breast.
"You'll need sutures," Aneira explained as she pulled off her pack, digging through it to gather her materials. "Take off your shirt." Casimir stepped away to give them some privacy. Melina lifted off her tunic before she glared up at Keogh who remained standing in place.
"Do you mind?"
"I'm here to help," he said as he took a step forward. Melina narrowed her eyes further at the Prince.
"I sincerely doubt that."
Keogh's scythe appeared in his hand once again, and he slowly approached her, eyes narrowed, "I'm serious, I'm here to help you. You won't need the stitches. I need you at your best game if you will continue traveling with me."
Melina scrunched her nose as she gave him a skeptical look, leaning back, "You come towards me with a death scythe and tell me I don't need stitches... right after we have a dispute? Surely you can understand my skepticism? I thought you didn't believe humans had a 'best game,' nor did you need us to even travel with you."
"Is there an off button, sweetheart? Because I'd like to press it right now." Keogh drew closer, wearing a small, wry smirk, "Let me make up from earlier. I can fix you in seconds. You need not be afraid of me."
Melina stared at him suspiciously, but she didn't press the issue further. Without saying another word, she shifted to remove her shirt to allow him a view of the wound on her side. He rose his eyebrows when Melina took her tunic off her petite frame.
"So that's what's been hiding under those rags." Keogh did a quick once-over of Melina, admiring her womanly assets, then brought his eyes to her wound. "Okay." He tilted the scythe towards her injury so that the sharp tip was inches away. There was a gentle hum, and it lifted the blood, turning into red wisps sucked in by the scythe. Melina's wound rapidly closed, being eaten away by Keogh's weapon, until there was nothing left. Melina glanced down at her side, lifting her hand to run her fingertips across the area where the wound had been to see if it was gone. Satisfied with the healing, she nodded and looked up at him.
"Thank you," She slipped her tunic back on, putting her buckle back around her waist. Ignoring the burning in her cheeks, she turned to the others, "We all heard the dragon... but where is the dragon?" She looked towards the tunnel that Bleiz had walked.
"... You've got to see this," he said offering no further explanation.
Aneira leaned over to help Melina onto her feet, "Is your brother trying to get us killed or has he always been this curious?"
"He's not one to put himself on the line... this must fascinate him."
They all walked up to Bleiz and looked through the tunnel. The tunnel led to another enormous cavern with an entire civilization carved inside. Ruins of old buildings lined with old cobblestone streets filled the chamber. They could see machinery lining the ceiling and walls, pipes and cranks that wind and snake throughout the entire cavern. Surrounding the entrance of the tunnel were beautiful stone statues of the Dwarven gods. The entire place appeared as if it hadn't seen life in centuries though the structures had held up well. Melina's eyes widened as she stepped out further, looking around at the ruins.
"This is an ancient Dwarven civilization..."
Aneira's brows lifted, and her lips parted as she let out a faint gasp as the city came into their view, "What... How could this be?"
The group walked down the steps, passing by large metal statues that look like they were once giant guards for the cities. Most doors to various buildings still stood in their frames as if nothing had changed. A few were ajar, appearing to have been left open in a hurry. Due to its deep underground location, no vegetation grew around the cavern, save for the occasional glowing mushroom that sprouted here and there. The city was split into two sections, the areas divided by a deep cavern that held a running river down below a bridge that allowed passersby to cross over.
Casimir suddenly stopped, holding an arm out to stop Aneira and he slowly looked around, his eyes narrowing as his hand slid to the hilt of his weapon. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up on end, his warrior instincts telling him something was wrong. Casimir suddenly threw himself over Aneira, knocking her to the ground to shield her from flying debris as the wall beside them exploded. Dust and debris flew over them, rocks striking against Casimir's back. Aneira's head throbbed from her skull bouncing against the ground.
"Wh-what the hell..." she grunted, looking up at Casimir, "A trap?" She moved to help the Knight onto his feet, turning to look up at a black monstrosity above them. As the dust settled, the details of the dragon took form, revealing the horror before their eyes. White bone was visible between tattered and rotted patches of flesh. The sharp skull no longer held slit pupils, but rather empty sockets with pinpoints of red light burning in the empty holes. It opened its jaws wide, omitting a heinous hiss. Casimir pulled his sword out, looking towards Melina and Bleiz who had their bows and arrows out. Keogh stood with his scythe out which gave off an angry purple glow. The beast's tail slammed down below, obliterating the surrounding buildings again, sending more debris flying everywhere. What sounded like a chuckle came from its throat although it rang more like an evil growl. It spoke in a strange language unfamiliar to any of them.
"Hawrk'ghukech mabliki... Wux geou loreat tenpiswo!"
Keogh took a couple of steps forward, holding up his scythe forward as he pointed it directly at the undead beast.
"Xarsunon, Destroyer of Man!" He announced the monster's name out loud. Everyone's eyes widened in horror at Keogh's identification. It turned its massive head to look back at Keogh then, the dragon's otherworldly eyes locking stares with the Prince's pupilless orbs.
"Neban... Traitor... Heir to the Throne of Death. I will be sure your suffering is great," the dragon spoke in the common tongue. Its skeletal body arched towards Keogh, the enormous claws stomping into the hard earth below it. Keogh stood calm and ready, his eyes never parted the undead dragon.
"What is he doing?!" Melina hissed as she took a single step forward. Bleiz grabbed on her shoulder to pull her back.
"You won't last one second against that thing!" Bleiz growled at his sister.
With an outstretched hand, darkness crept over Keogh's eyes until they were solid black. In a language that no one from the group understood, he raised his palm high into the air. A glow appeared over his scythe, giving an unholy shimmer on its gleaming titanium blade. The ground shook and trembled before the soil split apart into several places. Skeleton hands reached up for the heavens above them before hoisting their remains out from their graves.
Each dwarf-sized skeleton still wore the armor they died in, their weapons at the ready as they stood. Keogh spoke again in the necromantic tongue. Being undead monstrosities, Keogh's servants showed no fear to the dragon before them as they lifted their weapons and charged, attacking Xarsunon with abandon. The dragon roared and slashed the warriors with his claws, teeth, and tail.
"How are we going to get out of here?!" Aneira shouted over the mix of screeches and roars in the background, narrowly dodging a huge boulder that nearly came down on her head. Casimir grabbed her hand as he darted towards the bridge, gesturing for Bleiz and Melina to follow. The siblings followed at first, but Melina suddenly halted as she turned to look back at Keogh who stayed behind in his trance. Bleiz turned on her, shouting at her over the fighting,
"Melina, let's go!"
"We have to get him!" she shouted back at her brother. Melina pulled herself away from her brother's grasp as she rushed back to the Prince in his spell casting. She grabbed his forearm, tugging him along. Her touch pulled him from his trance, his black eyes once again returning to normal. He turned to her in surprise but had no time for an explanation as she pulled him with her. They both sprinted for the bridge at high speeds, the rest of the group waiting across the way.
Xarsunon let out a roar that shook the entire cavern, the ceiling stirred as loose rocks fell from above, raining down on them. Keogh’s undead allies had all been obliterated by the dragon lich, pieces of bone scattered throughout the cavern. Several large boulders tumbled down and struck the bridge in front of Melina and Keogh, leaving large cracks in its structure. Keogh cursed under his breath as he hurried. As the two passed the half-way mark, a large tail suddenly swung down to crash into the middle of the bridge, crumbling it in two. The pair felt the ground disappear under their feet, both letting out a scream as they fell down into the cavern.
"Melina!" Bleiz cried out, attempting to lunge forward before a breath of purple fire threw him and the other two backwards into the exit tunnel. A loud rumble shook the ground as boulders came tumbling down, sealing the exit and blocking them from being able to re-enter the cavern. Bleiz rushed to the boulders, slamming his shoulder into them, crying out for his sister.