Its head lowered and its horns pointing forwards, the minotaur stampeded down the passage like a raging god of war. Its axe was forgotten for this was the final assault that would smash its foe into bloody paste.
Aefion tensed as the bloodthirsty titan bore down on him. Seconds before impact, he leapt into the air.
The elf twisted like a sea serpent, somersaulting neatly onto the minotaur’s shoulders. Too late the beast realised its target had vanished. The impetus of its charge carried it forwards to crash headlong into the door, splitting it asunder with a mighty crack. Ripped off its hinges, the splintered wreck was hurled aside as the beast thundered past before grinding to a halt in a cloud of dust and debris. Aefion paid no attention to his surroundings, instead pulling his sword from its scabbard.
‘Time for you,’ he snarled, twirling the sword, ‘to die.’ A downwards thrust into the minotaur’s neck quickly ended its life. The beast gave a roar of pain that came to a sputtering standstill as blood exploded from its wound and erupted from its jaws. Slowly, its burning eyes dimmed and the body came crashing earthwards. Caked in blood, Aefion leapt clear. Exhausted, he slumped to the ground and closed his eyes.
His powers as an Eldenian had only recently begun to develop. Reaching out to the immaterial Spiritscape, he relaxed and let his mind wander.
Before him stretched a vast, wind-swept plain. The long, yellow grass bent forwards as an invisible force swept through it. It was as if a hand was stroking it gently. The wind moaned a lonely chorus against the soft rustling of the grass. The sky above was dusky red, shifting constantly with amorphous, orange clouds.
Aefion could feel the cool touch of the wind on his body. He likened its caress to a girl’s touch, her hands soothing and yet exhilarating to his senses. Slowly, he held out his hand, palm up.
A tiny point of red light, with a long, drawn out tail like that of a fiery comet, appeared on the horizon and was drawn towards him. It streaked across the Spiritscape, a tiny wisp of energy until it reached his palm. There it circled around itself, twirling and twisting until it resembled a miniature scarlet pool.
Gradually, more small lights blinked into existence on the horizon. He reeled them in. Like water droplets they trickled into the central pool. One by one they came, adding to the concentrated gathering of energy. The pool of red light pulsated with heat and warmth. It sparkled with an eerie lustre, like a thousand living souls. Raising his hand to the sunburnt sky, he took the energy into himself, and, struggling to contain it, he unleashed it into the mortal plane.
The first thing he felt when he opened his eyes was the throbbing pain receding. He groaned as bones mended and flesh healed. It hurt like hell. Looking down at himself he grimaced as he saw the huge, crimson veins, pulsating like vulgar tendrils, spreading out over his body. Finally, with a bright pulse of pinkish light the veins vanished, leaving nothing but a dull ache. Healing was painful, and took a while. He knew he’d be a little stiff for a few hours. Foolish of him, he thought, getting himself struck like that. Ideally, he wouldn’t have got hit at all. It was bad enough facing a monster that was over four metres high and built like a Valhallan battle-suit. He made a mental note to avoid close combat and stick to fighting from afar.
Blinking, he stared around him. He was lying in a square chamber bordered by dark red columns of some sort of mineral. The domed roof above was cluttered with stalactites of the same substance, looking like a witch’s probing fingers. His eyes searching, he spotted a jagged, rectangular hole, high up in the wall. It could only be reached by a series of tumbled blocks and leaning pillars, like a bizarre sequence of giant, fallen dominoes. A faint grey light beamed down from the opening, a column of ever-shifting dust motes. He was about to consult the map when something clinked beneath him. As he shifted his body and looked down, he opened his mouth in astonishment.
He lay on a pile of golden coins. To his left and right, all around him a small sea of gold spread out from wall to wall, scattered in an untidy heap on the chamber floor. The scintillating carpet was punctuated in several places by clusters of gemstones like spiky glaciers. It demanded attention like a soaring mountain, towering and majestic in its splendour. Protruding from behind an outcrop of mouldering shields was an axe, bright and ravenous.
‘Perfect for breaking through wooden doors,’ Aefion murmured.
He picked himself up and, sheathing his sword, he struggled across the treasure, sliding on the golden masses. Taking up the axe, he hefted it in his hand. It was well made, with a heavy, steel head. The edge was still sharp. He glanced around.
On closer inspection he saw that the coins were embossed with no satyr visage, but the head of King Brock. They were Galladorian Floryns from Vigilance. This was proof that Tenegrin had indeed hired the Black Satyrs to do his dirty work. He sprinkled a handful of floryns into his belt pouch to take back.
But what of Cassandra, what did she have that Tenegrin wanted?
A twinkling of violet caught his eye. Crouching, he unearthed a ragged scrap of purple silk from where it lay half-buried amongst the floryns. Unfolding it, he found himself staring at a small, round copper artefact. It was a circle, with a vertical bar running through its centre. From this bar, a third of the way up its length, two smaller bars struck off, one on each side, downwards and diagonally. It was plain and simple; no writing or symbols adorned its burnished surface. Was this the artefact that had lured Malgareus into his current position? Wrapping it back up in the rag, Aefion shoved it into the back pocket of his breeches.
Turning his gaze to his map, he traced a path from the opening above to another tunnel that led to the cell corridor. There was also a further tunnel leading out to Darkroth Forest. Excellent, they could be out of here soon.
As he made his way over to the jumble of fallen stone blocks, he heard the grinding of stone against stone. A small slab was opening in the far wall and an evil snickering filled the air. Typical, he thought; good luck rarely blessed him with its blissful presence.
He backed off slightly, checking his vambraces. The bloodstones were not as bright as before; their power was waning. Quickly, he made a bolt for the nearest pillar. But the floryns beneath his boots were far from stable, and he slipped, coming crashing down in a chaotic spray of coins. Jeering laughter bounced around the chamber. Scrambling to his feet he turned to see Runehorn aiming a large hunting bow in his direction. The remnants of his warband were at his back.
‘Move elfling, and you’ll taste what bronze…tastes like.’
‘You can try,’ Aefion scoffed, rolling his eyes. ‘You couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.’
There came a twang as the bowstring spoke and the arrow slammed into the elf’s shoulder, throwing him backwards. Aefion gritted his teeth as his back snuggled against the cold skin of coins once more. What the hell? The satyr was a good shot. Luckily the wound was not deep, thought it still stung like the bite of a tree wasp. He made another mental note never to underestimate a foe, regardless of washing habits. It was a rather stupid thing he’d said too. A human child would have trouble missing the broad side of a barn.
’Loriell’s breasts,’ he swore. ‘You weren’t supposed to hit me.’ He spat at the satyr as he regained his feet, leaving the arrow protruding from his shoulder. It wobbled slightly as he moved. His comment was greeted with a cacophony of jeering laughter. Narrowing his eyes, he levelled his right vambrace at Runehorn’s head and fired. The arcane arrow crossed the distance between them and exploded in a shower of sparks on the satyr chief’s forehead. Within a second the satyr’s body had shut down and he dropped to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. The laughter trailed off into a rather embarrassing silence.
’Don’t worry,’ Aefion said casually, ’that’s what these girls do.’ He indicated his vambraces. ‘Send you off to baby-sleep for a good while. He’ll live. But by then I’ll be out of here.’ He grinned and began backing away towards the dominoes.
‘The elfling’s getting away!’ One of the satyrs shrieked, turning and waving his spear at something behind them. ‘Unleash the lion-eagle!’
With a bird-like shriek, a creature with the feathered head of an eagle, except for the strange, dog-like ears, burst through the doorway. Heavy chains dragged from its hind limbs. It sported the tawny, golden hindquarters of a lion. Feathered wings soiled with muck and dried blood had been tied down to its back, much to the creature’s obvious discomfort. A vicious jab from a satyr’s spear launched the creature forwards. Unwillingly, it lashed out with hooked talons, snapping spitefully with an aquiline beak big enough to tear Aefion in two.
He knew that Gryphons were often protectors of magnificent treasure hoards. This one may have once been such a keeper, soaring high above the Dragonspine Mountains, spying the foothills below for hapless prey. Normally Gryphons had thick, white, shaggy coats, to protect them in their cold, snow-bound environment. However, on the rare occasion that they descended from their mountain lairs into the warmer climes of Lightwood Forest the thick fur was shed, revealing the sandy colour beneath. But even with this change, a gryphon was always sluggish in the heat, making it less able to fight off a band of Black Satyrs. This one had served the Night Thorns as a plaything for their callous war-games, as the numerous scars and bruises on its body testified, and its wings were clearly broken. It had been blinded in one eye, the milky white orb staring sightlessly. Now it was merely a monstrous guardian, doomed to defend the satyrs’ stolen loot.
He wanted to communicate with it. It was well known that Gryphons had the strength of a hundred eagles, but judging from this one’s condition it might not have that sort of power at the moment.
The gryphon issued a strangled roar and stumbled forwards, its deadly beak slashing viciously. Curved talons sliced through the air and Aefion retreated before them, unable to parry such an attack. Behind the gryphon the satyrs spread out, waving their spears in a warlike fashion.
Ambling forwards as best as it could, the beast struck out again with its beak, narrowly missing Aefion. He dodged aside, but a leftward swipe from the great claws ripped through his jerkin. More coins slid and slipped down the sides of the mound as the gryphon kept shuffling towards him, lashing out half-heartedly. Aefion didn’t want to engage the beast, so he kept away. The satyrs watched the somewhat casual fight, their jeers fading as they realised this was a joke.
Eager to see some bloodshed, one of the satyrs stabbed the gryphon hard in the flank.
It was the satyr’s last mistake.
Although the spear did almost no damage the gryphon didn’t take the gesture lightly. Aefion took a small measure of delight as the beast turned suddenly and tore the satyr in half with a flash of its glittering talons.
‘No, you vile thing!’ A satyr rushed forwards, aiming his spear. The raider’s companions responded with a flurry of stabbing and piercing, their weapons penetrating the gryphon’s hide and releasing a steady flow of reddish blood. The gryphon snarled and twisted to face its aggressors, and soon satyr blood was spilling in equal quantity, the claws and beak of the gryphon flashing left and right in murderous arcs.
This was taking an interesting twist, Aefion thought. Not that blood flowing was interesting, but it allowed him to take advantage of the gryphon’s distraction. He could forsake his chance to speak with it and escape now…or he could aid the beast. It wasn’t much of a choice, he realised. Leaping to the gryphon’s aid, he plunged into the satyrs’ midst. Whirling his sword, he decapitated a satyr with a single cut. The next satyr was impaled and leaving his blade sticking from the body, he hacked at another with the axe, cleaving the creature’s head like a melon. He withdrew the blade then and deflected a spear blade with a ring of steel.
Ducking beneath the weapon and chopping down the satyr, he span around and blocked another spear with a horizontal swing, before casting aside the axe and grabbing hold of the spear shaft. Pulling it from the satyr’s grasp, he twirled the spear above his head before thrusting its point downwards through the raider’s skull.
A heavy blow from another spear knocked the back of his head. Turning, he seized up the axe and hewed the offending creature’s head from its shoulders. Blood gushed like a fountain and the coins were stained with gore. So much for staying out of combat, he thought, realising what he’d done. But sometimes the thrill of battle was too much to ignore!
Suddenly there were no more satyrs to fight. Aefion watched as the last two satyrs were sliced to bloody ribbons by the gryphon’s claws.
Before the gryphon could attack him, he backed off again and dropped the sword and axe disdainfully, spreading his arms wide. As the gryphon turned its steely, one-eyed gaze upon him, he tried his best at a charming smile.
‘Noble beast! I am here to help you.’
The gryphon paused. It slumped forwards, resting on the pile of gold. He could hear it breathing heavily, and see its blood turning the floor into a swampy mess.
‘Elf…’ It spoke in Alathaic, so that Aefion could understand. ‘You are here…to what?’
‘Well, actually, I’m here to rescue Princess Cassandra. But now that the satyrs are dead, I can free you. Don’t attack me. I’m your friend.’
‘Eldenian…now I recognise you.’ The gryphon blinked. ‘I…appreciate your offer. But I am beyond help now. The black demons have seen to that. I long for rest. Go, there is nothing you can do, elf. The Celestial Realm beckons. Do not trouble yourself.’ The gryphon laid its head down to rest. Its single eye closed.
Aefion sighed, his brow furrowed. The gryphon was in bad shape. Taking one last look at the creature, he scooped up his weapons and strode towards the pillars. His thoughts went out to the fallen beast; here was a fitting tomb for a noble guardian.