Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Decaying World - Chapter 9: Maze Of Shadows

This version is horribly outdated.
Revision 2 is in progress.


Chapter 9: Maze Of Shadows

After the swamp had vanished on the horizon Drake and Maximilian came to their senses and began to struggle in a vain attempt to break free, although that in itself might have been a sign of madness as they were located hundreds of meters above the ground. Drake might have survived such a fall but regenerating from a flattened heap of flesh was far from pleasant. And the worst case scenario would leave him trapped in a state between life and death for an eternity.
They didn't seem to consider such scenarios, however, and continued their struggle till fatigue caught up to them, which forced them to accept their inability to escape the claws of the winged beast.
It doesn't look like we'll get out of here anytime soon. We should preserve our energy and try to rest for a while. It has to drop us down eventually,” yelled Maximilian towards his companion, only to receive a quizzical expression in response. “Do you understand me?” he screamed louder this time.
No matter how much Drake concentrated, he couldn't pick up words that were carried away in an instant. Maximilian gave up after a couple more attempts and made himself as comfortable as possible before he closed his eyes and fell into a deep slumber. Drake's expression turned into one of incredulity at this absurd sight. Don't tell me he actually fell asleep in that position...
You might want to follow his example,” came a sinister sounding voice from above.
Drake's eyes followed their captors black and red-streaked skin all the way to its snout. Human-sized fangs protruded from its sides and some kind of slimy substance was running down its flesh.
You understand my thoughts?
How else could I have answered your question? But you can also talk to me. I can understand your words and language just fine.”
Who are you?”
I am Voluere, destroyer of dreams, although some records denote me as the fulfiller of dreams. Everyone with that misconception has been eradicated, though, unless I managed to twist their dream into a nightmare instead. ”
The demon roared with laughter and his gooey spit covered the entire upper half of Drake's body, which is all that protruded from its claws. Without access to his hands the vampire could only shake his head and try to spit and blow the substance in front of his mouth away.
And what do you want from us? We didn't summon you!”
I came to a repay a favor to a mutual 'friend' of ours. She gave you the gift of eternal life and you chose to repay her by fleeing from her grasp!”
Modera!” Drake remarked in disgust. “Why didn't she talk to me? I would have returned eventually. We just ran into a little problem.”
His eyes wandered to the pillar of darkness. Something seemed to be slithering along its edges but it blurred together with the background, making it impossible to confirm if the movement was real or not.
No one would return to that crazy hag unless they had a good reason to,” the creature laughed jovially before it continued, “And she couldn't talk to you. Don't you remember severing the connection?”
I did no such thing! How would that even work?”
Don't ask me. I'm not a vampire. It's irrelevant anyway. You'll be reunited soon enough. If only you could have seen what a mess you left behind. The last time I've seen her like this was when her husband died. She even blabbered some idiocy about a savior. I hope she wasn't talking about you.”
In the flesh...”
Splitting laughter cut through the air and the creature moved as if it was drunk, almost letting go of his captives in the process. Drake utilized that opportunity in an attempt to free his limbs, but the demon reacted too rapidly, only allowing him to raise one arm above its claw. “I knew that she was insane but this is just too hilarious! Does she actually expect you to succeed where she failed?”
Don't ask me. All I know is that she wants to turn Maximilian into a vampire too.”
He certainly seems like a much more reasonable choice!”
Drake didn't bother to respond. The pillar of darkness was rapidly approaching and he didn't know if he should warn Voluere or not. The prospect of facing Modera in their current state didn't seem very appealing. But there was no telling what would happen when the demon came within reach of Dorr'n Selkesch's power.
What about the pillar? Do you think such an outburst of magic could stop me? I can simply fly around it, you know?”
To emphasize his words he did exactly that. Drake's gaze was still focused on the darkness ahead, which seemed to pulse in a steadily increasing rhythm the further they got away from it.
Give it back!” demanded a familiar voice that cut through the air like a knife.
The pillar fell apart, revealing that it was made out of hundreds of thousands of tentacles. Every single one of them lunged forward, covering all possible escape routes the demon could take.
Not so fast!” Voluere roared.
He came to a halt in midair and opened his jaws as wide as possible. A crimson energy beam shot forward, severing the tentacles from right to left. The remnants evaporated in mid-air while the intact parts regenerated within seconds.
What did you say about it not being able to stop you?” remarked Maximilian who had finally woken up, if he had even slept in the first place.
Shut it, human!”
The demon covered its body by closing its wing and whirled upwards, engulfing himself in a barrier of wind. It shredded the approaching tentacles like a sawing machine. Voluere shot through the wriggling mass of darkness above him and continued to ascend long after leaving the tentacles behind.
Maximilian felt like his body was being flattened and it got increasingly harder to breath. Neither breathing in deeply nor breathing fast made much of a difference. The demon made it even worse by unknowingly pressing onto his captives. The royal knight's heart raced and he had to pull all of his willpower together to utter a single sentence as his body began to convulse: “Stop...i...t!”
Voluere ceased spinning and opened his wings, exposing his prisoners to the chilly air far above the earth. “Why do you humans have to be so fragile? But now it's time to rejoice! Only a few more hours till your transformation into a supreme being!”
The creature's attempt to laugh turned into a scream of surprise when a giant tentacle appeared from below, entangled his legs and pulled him downwards with breath-taking speed. The demon opened its jaws but it would have had to cut off its own legs to hit the shadowy tendril.
The moment they broke through the clouds they saw a giant maw of darkness above the mountain range—a maw that was once known as the abyss of Gana Borodem. It permeated the ground the land of shadows was built on and swallowed thousands of soldiers partaking in the final assault on Dorr'n Selkesch's castle. Even after Gana Borodem fell the land remained uninhabitable. It's as if the maw knew that its master would return from beyond the veil. Only after his second defeat did it finally fade away.
Let them go and I'll end your existence in a heartbeat!
A compelling offer but I'll have to decline!”
Rather than continue his futile efforts to escape the demon shot downwards instead, his jaw aimed directly at the center of the maw. The red lines edged into its body began to glow, encasing the creature in a billowing layer of air that flowed towards its head.
Maximilian's body had a hard time coping with all of these rapid changes in pressure and he snapped his eyes shut in a desperate attempt to ignore the blood that was now flowing into his head. Drake, on the other hand, was just a bit nauseous. He was more worried about what would happen next. Escaping would prove somewhat difficult if they died on impact.
The point of impact was rapidly approaching and the darkness was stretching as far as the eye could see, but Voluere didn't seem close to unleashing any kind of attack.
Don't you worry! The demon's voice echoed through Drake's head. I'm just waiting for an opportune moment.
That moment came when Drake spotted a swirling orb of darkness in the center of the maw. A sphere of crimson light appeared in front of Voluere's jaws and the darkness reacted by pulling its tentacles inwards, defending the orb with multiple layers of tendrils.
The beam of light shot downwards, filling the sky with a loud sizzling sound and creating just enough pressure to keep Voluere in place while the orb's barriers were shredded one after another. The air vibrated with power and what remained of the mountain range was slowly obliterated.
In ages past Dorr'n Selkesch had been powerful enough to rival the armies of an entire world but his imprisonment had reduced him to a mere shadow of his former self. A demon might be nothing to laugh at but getting defeated by one would have shattered the legend of the lord of shadows. Voluere got cocky, though, and ignored everything around him.
A fist made of darkness smashed into his back, pulverizing his spine. A roaring scream of agony thundered over the land while the beam of energy fizzled out of existence. The shadowy mass split apart, revealing two smaller hands that grabbed onto the demon's wings and plucked them right off, as if he was nothing but a victim to a child's curiosity. Voluere's screams became blood-curdling but were muffled as soon as he plunged into the darkness. The vampire tried to clamber out of his claws but the demon's grasp didn't weaken in the slightest.
From where he lay Drake had a relatively clear view of the orb but Maximilian was nowhere in sight. If I could at least pull my sword out! And then what? Your puny powers cannot compare to the might of Dorr'n Selkesch! But you wounded him in the caves! Yes, but not by using darkness! I still need my sword to use a different power! Are you really that stupid? The sword might be a perfect conduit for dark magic but it's irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. You didn't need it to blow up the swamp and you didn't need it to jump several feet into the air. Just concentrate and imagine what kind of power you want to manifest. Or stop resisting and accept me already!
Ignoring the last remark Drake closed his eyes, remembering the feeling from when he had redirected his energy into his feet. Since that would have been pointless under the current circumstances he focused on his hand instead. Imagine what kind of power I want... Something compact but powerful would be perfect. Something that contains the same kind of power I unleashed in the swamp. And lo and behold, when he opened his eyes he was holding onto a bright ball of fire. But he was also within inches of getting swallowed by the darkness, hence why he just hoped for the best and threw it into the general direction of the orb. It turned towards him, exposing different layers of gray resembling an eyeball. It grew as if in shock and extended small tentacles towards the magic missile, but it was already too late.
The world was bathed in an explosion of light.

When the light finally receded it gave way to pure and utter nothingness, as if the world itself had been annihilated. Whatever this place was, it was devoid of light, sounds and any material objects. There was also no trace of the demon, the tentacles or Maximilian. All that remained was Drake himself, who stood dumbfounded in the middle of nowhere.
Maximilian, where are you?” his question reverberated hundreds of times although there didn't seem to be any barriers the sound could have bounced off of.
His first impression was proven wrong when he ran headfirst into an invisible obstacle. What is this? He pressed his hands onto the wall-like structure and moved them in every conceivable direction. It was smooth but rough at the same time, as if it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. It's not like it was constantly changing, though. His hand would rest on a smooth spot, move towards one that got steadily rougher and then return, only to come back to an equally rough section.
He followed the barrier for about a minute before he stumbled upon an intersection. Instead of following the new path he only took a single step inside, turned his back towards the wall and walked forward with outstretched arms. One, two and three steps till he hit another barrier. This resembles a labyrinth but why would something like that be here? And how did I get into it?
The pitter-patter of footsteps cut his thoughts short. Drake stared into the distance and prayed that his imagination was playing tricks on him. He drew his sword nonetheless.

Maximilian found himself in a similar but ultimately different predicament as the darkness around him was not absolute. It seemed to be at first, till he discovered the glimmer of light coming from his scabbard. The darkness recoiled like a living being when he unsheathed the blade, revealing a stone floor beneath his feet. It was far from stable, however, as it constantly shifted between onyx-colored bricks and a rough stone floor reminiscent of the caves original form.
Maximilian swung the “Heavenly Blade” multiple times, scattering its light all around. The shadows attempted to flee but where unable to keep up with its speed. Shadowy tendrils were severed from their root by explosions of light. To a bystander it must have looked as if the entire region was illuminated by miniature suns.
In a desperate attempt to fight back the severed tentacles lunged towards Maximilian. Most of them were turned to ash before they managed to pose any threat whatsoever. They never had a chance anyway as their entire purpose was to transforming the mountain range into a recreation of the land of shadows. Such a task should not have required offensive capabilities.
Drake, where are you?”
Maximilian yelled into the corridors he had unveiled but there was no response. He scratched his head and chose one of the paths at random.

At least an hour must have passed since his arrival but Drake was still lost in a world of darkness. It should have been impossible but the shadows had gotten even thicker, impeding not only his sight but also his movement. The hand holding onto his sword felt unbelievably heavy, as if the shadows where just waiting for an opportune moment to rip it out of his grasp.
He hadn't heart the footsteps again but the atmosphere had gotten worse nonetheless. Indistinct whispers permeated the air, only to be drowned out by the sound of a beating heart that could be heard every few minutes. It sent a ripple of energy through the world, which Drake used to orient himself as it was the only clue he had.
I might be walking right into Dorr'n Selkesch's lair but we planned to destroy him anyway,” he said to himself. “I hope Maximilian notices these vibrations too, wherever he is...”
He hit another barrier and turned 90 degrees towards the left. He caught a glimpse of a gray and blurry being, but before his eyes could focus it had already vanished around the corner. Due to the composition of the area it looked as if it had been swallowed by the darkness. That didn't look like one of the gargoyles. I would have preferred to fight something that I actually know but I suppose that would have been too easy.
He breathed in deeply and concentrated on his sense of hearing, improving it to such an extent that he would hear even the faintest of footsteps. The moment he began to creep towards the corner he felt a bit light-headed and had had to press his body against to wall to stop himself from falling. Damn, I must have exhausted most of my reserves! I really need to take that into account before we confront Modera. A few bottles of animal blood should help me get by. Or you could find some whores and take their blood! It's not like anyone would miss them! I wouldn't miss you either but it doesn't seem like I'll be able to get rid of you anytime soon. You'll never be able to! Whatever...
When the dizziness had passed he pressed his back against the barrier and moved sideways. His steps were slow and deliberate. He also paused every few seconds to tip his sword against the wall to make sure that he hadn't reached the corner yet.
The moment it hit nothing but air something tried to rip it out his hands. Drake stumbled to the side but managed to hold onto the blade. He whirled around as soon as he regained his composure but the darkness was as deserted as before.
Show yourself!” his voice echoed through the corridor till it was drowned out by another heartbeat.
Shooow ourselvsse?” a high-pitched voice spoke right into his ear.
Drake's heart skipped a beat and he swung his sword in a wide arc around himself, almost stumbling to the floor when it it nothing at all.
Stop screwing with me!”
His demand was answered by mocking laughter, which came from multiple directions at once and varied in pitch. It was followed by the pitter-patter of footsteps. They didn't sound like the gargoyles he had encountered earlier, though, but rather like someone walking over stone with his bare feet.
Youuuu're itt!”
A cold hand was pressed against his face and he recoiled, swinging his sword around like a wild animal. “What are you talking about?”
One...twoooo...threeeee...youuuu'd betta hideeee...fouuur...”
You've got to be kidding me!”
He hurried down the corridor, wading through the cluster of shadows that was holding him back.

The corridor Maximilian had chosen grew wider by the minute, till he arrived at a courtyard without encountering any resistance whatsoever. As soon as he crossed the threshold the spiked portcullis fell while the shadows tried to hold him in place. They still couldn't compete with the “Heavenly Blade”, though, and burned away within seconds. Maximilian dove forward and avoided getting skewered. His desert robe was not so lucky.
You have to try harder than that!”
No one answered and none of the shadows followed.
He got to his feet and noticed a slimy substance sticking to his hands, which turned out to be the form grass took in this place. The trees reminded him of the deformed ones in the swamp, but instead of being black they were made up of multiple shadows of gray. Their leaves dripped oily substances onto the ground. Only the path leading from the exit to the center of the courtyard seemed to be made out of real stones.
Curious Maximilian held his sword into a treetop. He regretted it instantly. The shadows literally exploded in his face, covering his body from top to bottom in black goo. Part of it evaporated upon contact with the light but the rest remained. Disgusted he pressed his hands onto his face and removed as much of the substance as possible. All he accomplished was to look like a chimney sweeper.
I'd better try to find a lake before we get to Pagan. Can't have Jessica or any of the guards see me in this condition. I'd be the laughing stock of the city for weeks,” he grumbled and spit on the floor. “Where do I go now?”
He didn't have much of a choice as the only exit had slammed shut. A couple of windows lined the walls but they were entirely out of reach, even if he climbed upon the trees. There was an ominous winding staircase in the center, though, which disappeared somewhere in the darkness above. The beams of the “Heavenly Blade” weren't able to illuminate much of it.
The moment his feet touched the stairs a tremor went through the earth and he could hear the same heartbeat that Drake was already following. Unsurprisingly it came from above.

One moment Drake was running through the darkness and the next he was standing in a rickety old building that had no exit. The wood creaked at every step but the windows seemed to be completely impervious to damage. Aside from that there were a couple of book-shelves with blank volumes, a dilapidated couch , a clock that had no rhythm and a fireplace that was aflame with blue fire. It felt cold to the touch.
Where am I?”
95...96...97...” the voices were carried down the chimney, “98...99...100! Here we commmm!”
Dammit! Where do I go?”
There was not a single hiding spot in sight and he strode up the stairs, three at a time. The instant he arrived on the next floor something was blown apart below. He decided to skip this floor and hurried up the next flight of stairs. It didn't take long for him to realize that logic had no place in this world. He reached one staircase after another while the ceiling grew higher and higher till it vanished in the darkness. Every floor revealed a myriad of choices, as they contained two to eight corridors with dozens of doors within their walls.
Despite, or rather because, of such a ridiculous amount of choices he never changed his course. He could hear at least two dozen pairs of feet behind him, none of which ever disappeared, no matter how fast he ran.
What is going on? Shouldn't they be looking for me? You've chosen not to hide yourself so why should they? And since they have to creatures of darkness their hearing might be as good as yours, therefore hiding is already out of the question. I wasn't about to play hide and seek with who knows what anyway!
Something grabbed onto his legs and he fell flat on his face. A small amount of blood scattered over the floor as he bit onto his tongue. Another creature jumped onto his back, ripped his cloak from his body and tried to strangle him with it. Enraged Drake headbutted the creature and whirled around. There was nothing to be seen.
What do you want from me?”
Hide!” the voices contained a threatening undertone and sounded more mature than before.
Drake was about to get up when the floor vanished. He tumbled through the abyss for a couple of seconds before smashing onto a hard stone floor.
Goddamn creatures. If only they'd show themselves so that I can acquaint them with my blade!”—he gathered himself from the floor and his gaze wandered across the dimly lit room—“Where am I now? A warehouse?”
He stood in a corridor littered with crates of varying sizes and lined by dozens of gates, all of which led into even more cramped rooms. The ceiling was hidden in the darkness and the hole he fell through was nowhere to be seen. He did spot something more disturbing, though. Dark human-like figures had been impaled on hooks that were connected to the ceiling by chains. These creatures had bloated torsos that were directly connected to their unnaturally huge heads, none of which showed a single strand of hair, while their arms and legs looked ridiculously tiny. It reminded Drake of monsters he had drawn as a kid. Scary looking creatures that wouldn't be able to take a single step without being handicapped by their ludicrous anatomy. And yet they moved.
Hide!” whispered one of them as it made eye-contact, “Orrr die!”
Drake grabbed onto his sword but the body vanished in a puff of smoke.
Stop doing that!” Just play their game and let them come to you!
Drake reluctantly did so and squeezed himself into one of the store rooms.

Maximilian had ascended far above the ground, all the while trying to keep the shadows at bay. He had a hard time concentrating on the assaults, however, as the air got increasingly thinner. He was breathing laboriously but there was less and less air for his lungs to consume. His sides were aching, his feet were getting heavy and he had to rest once in a while to clear his head.
All of that changed when another tremor hit the staircase. It wobbled dangerously but nothing else changed at first. Only after walking for a few more minutes did the sound of cracking stone reach his ears. He parried another assault before focusing his gaze on the stairs below. The shadows were hiding most of it from sight but he notice that some of the steps were missing. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, only to see even more missing steps.
He didn't need a third glance and ran. He tried to, at least, but his body lacked the energy for more than a jog. Stupid armor! I should switch to a lighter model after all! With every step he took two, sometimes even three, steps vanished into nothingness. The shadows might not have been able to harm him directly but they weren't stupid. A mere human could never survive a fall from this height, magical blade or not.
Maximilian was about to think that the situation couldn't get any worse when black oil began to rain down on him, turning the stairs into a slippery mess.
Just wait till I'm out of here, Dorr'n Selkesch!” he yelled into the air and began to walk on all fours with his hands pressed against the sides of the steps to pull himself forwards even when his feet slipped away.

Drake hid himself between two huge crates and blocked the entrance with a barrel and two additional crates—one of them was positioned in front of the barrel while the other stood upon it—which allowed him to look through a small gap he himself was nearly impossible to be seen. And if something actually tried to take his “fortress” apart he could slip away by squeezing himself through the space between the big crates and the wall.
He sat on a smaller chest and played anxiously with his hands, unsure of what to do. Am I just supposed to wait and hope not to be found? I doubt they'd allow me to kill their...what? Father? King? Whatever... Just wait and kill them! They can't run away forever if they actually want to get rid of you! And I can't waste too much time! Who knows what Maximilian might have gotten himself into. What if this is a distraction to keep us apart, so that they can kill us one at a time? Stop yapping and listen!
Naked feet shuffled across the ground and crates were shoved across the floor. Most of the noise came from one of the adjacent room but one pair of feet was scuffling around in the vicinity. The creature seemed to wander around aimlessly and didn't bother to move any objects out of the way.
What is it doing? Drake gazed outside but the gap was too insufficient to see the creature. He grabbed ahold of the upper crate and pushed it as slowly as possible towards the side. A giant sunken eye appeared in his field of vision. Drake fell onto his back and his heart pounded painfully. He might have suffered a heart attack if he hadn't been immortal. He breathed anxiously, expecting the creature to burst through the barrier any moment now.
Nothing happened. That is until he leaned forward in confusion. Cold hands were flung around his body from behind, keeping his arms in place. Their grip was surprisingly strong for something so tiny.
Fouuund youuu!”
Drake was about to break free when two more creatures dropped onto him from above. Their bodies melted together, creating a similar but entirely inverted being which seemed to suffer from anorexia as its ribs were clearly visible. It reminded Drake of the maw he had seen from the air, but that one hadn't been lined by sharp bones. The creature's head was as tiny as a dolls while its limbs were twice as long as those of a normal human. It flung its legs around Drake's torso and its arms around his neck before it started to choke him.
Get off of me!”
He yelled and pushed against the creature's legs, creating a small gap between his arms and his sides, but before he was able to utilize it the legs snapped back like rubber. The creature proved to be more intelligent than its appearance suggested as its next move was to ram barbs into his torso that grew out of its skin. If he wanted to break free he would have had to draw his own blood, of which there wasn't much left.
Its arms remained unchanged but there was nothing he could do about them anyway. He didn't feel threatened at first as the pressure was barely enough to cut off his air supply. Either the creature didn't plan on killing him or it wanted to savor the moment by drawing it out as long as possible.
Another creature hopped over the crates and smiled stupidly at the sight in front of its eyes. It cackled loudly as it hobbled towards Drake and got onto its knees, not that it made much of a height difference.
Hey, what do you think you're doing?”
The monster was pulling at his scabbard but the sword wouldn't budge, which didn't make much sense given how strong these creatures were.
It'ss not coming offfff!” the creature complained as it pulled even harder.
How about you untie me and I unsheathe it myself?”
Youuu think we stupiddd?”
The creature got to its feet, climbed onto his shoulders and rammed its head into his face. He yelled in agony and felt blood trickle down his face.
The inverted one increased the pressure and his bones began to crack. He tried to cough but produced nothing except a loud wheezing noise.
Whyyyy won't it movvvv?”
More creatures appeared and the situation turned into a contest of strength. Initially they would take turns to try and pull it out alone. When that didn't work they chose pairs, which didn't pan out either. The last phase lasted barely a minute as they quickly realized that their anatomy was unfit for three people to pull on a blade. They never even tried to remove the scabbard, however.
Whatt have youuu done to blade?”
A cacophony of voices yelled at Drake but he was too dizzy at that point.
He's done nothing. You're just too pathetic!
The crates were chopped into a million pieces, covering the entire room in a cloud of dust. The creatures shrieked and climbed onto the walls while the armored figure of Dorr'n Selkesch emerged from the darkness.
Is that all you're capable of? You were able to pull out my sword but failed to defeat these worthless specters?
He stepped forward and squashed the only creature that remained, freeing Drake from its grasp. Its brethren howled fearfully and clawed at the walls while others attempted to escape across the ceiling. Most of them ended up getting skewered by spears made of shadows.
What's the point in creating those creatures if you're only going to destroy them?” uttered Drake in disgust.
The barbs disintegrated and the legs began to shrivel, but they were still as resilient as rubber. He strained his muscles over and over again, slowly moving the creature's remains upwards to slide them above his head.
They didn't have any right to exist in the first place. I only let them roam free to hunt down intruders. They would never survive in Gana Borodem, seeing as they're only specters instead of real shadows. Their essence isn't lost, however, as it will fuel the revival of the land of shadows. And so will yours!
Over my dead body!”
Drake freed himself at last and unsheathed his blade.
That can be arranged!
A flurry of movements later the shadow sword flew into the air while Drake hit the wall with a thump. Only after being blasted across the room did he actually see the scythe in Dorr'n Selkesch's hand.
It was foolish of you to return in your current state! I could have been trapped here for all eternity if you hadn't returned my blade on a silver platter!
He snatched the falling sword out of the air. It instantly grew to a size fitting his appearance. Uncomfortable silence fell over the room as Drake stared at the lord of shadows in horror. No, this can't be it! Wasn't I supposed to be some kind of savior? I doubt replacing a swamp with a desert counts...
His thoughts were drowned out by an vitriolic roar. Dorr'n Selkesch threw the blade onto the floor, stepped forward and grabbed Drake with his giant fists.
What have you done to my blade?
I've done noth—”
He was smashed into the wall once more, leaving behind a hole shaped like his body. Then he tumbled back onto the floor, coughing up blood in the process.
Don't play dumb! Where is the power that was sealed within?
I don't kn—”
The lord of shadows kicked him across the room, resulting in cracked bones and an unnaturally twisted head. His body had neither the time nor the reserves to restore the damage.
You will regret defying me! I will torture you for all eternity if I have to! And don't think I'll let you take the easy way out! I'll get you more than enough blood to keep you conscious!
But I dagh—”
A shadow lance tore through Drake's enchanted armor and the flesh beneath it. His screams became a gurgling mess as he was lifted into the air. His jaw fell open and his eyes rolled into the back of his head, revealing nothing but white. Dorr'n Selkesch picked up his sword, grabbed the lance and vanished in the darkness.

Only a handful of steps were separating Maximilian from the gaping abyss below and there was still no exit in sight. This can't be happening! There has to be a way out of here! His eyes shot from left to right, wandering over the walls to look for any kind of openings. The windows would have looked promising if he could have seen through the glass, but there was nothing but darkness, hence why he couldn't even be sure that these were windows in the first place. Perhaps it was just another part of the wall disguised as a glass in an attempt to fool his senses. He could already envision himself jumping against it only to plummet to his death.
He looked down. All the steps behind him had vanished and the one he stood on was already turning translucent. Given the choice between certain death and a slight chance at survival he jumped towards a window in front of him, surprisingly without slipping. The glass didn't want to budge at first but it exploded in every possible direction as soon as the “Heavenly Blade” came into contact with it. Maximilian's face was covered in cuts but he barely even registered them with all the adrenaline pumping through his veins.
He landed on his knees and pressed his hands onto the floor to prevent his face from smashing into the ground. Sweat dripped onto his trembling fingers—a motion that swept throughout his entire body as if he walked into a snowstorm without a single piece of clothing—and he felt a painful sting inside his chest every time he tried to breathe.
Something moved in his vicinity and his head shot upwards. He stared into the blank stone eyes of a gargoyle. “ again...”
Maximilian lifted one of his hands to draw his sword but it only lead to him losing his balance. He fell sideways against the wall while he tried his hardest not to lose sight of the creature, which is when he noticed a dozen more in the background.
Just let me rest for a moment...then I'll acquaint you with my new blade! I don't need Drake to get rid of your anymore!”
He was lying in a corner, panting and wheezing heavily. His gaze was focused on the creature in front of him but it began to move nonetheless. It cocked its head as something resembling a smile crept onto its face. And then it vanished.
What the...”—his gaze wandered from side to side in a hurry, only to see all of the gargoyles disappear—“What is this? You can't break your own rule—”
A rocky fist connected with his lower jaw and he fell flat onto the floor.
How dare yo—”
Three heavy objects fell onto his back. Without armor his spine would most likely have been pulverized. Waves of pain shot through his body but he bit onto his lips and pushed his upper body off the ground. The gargoyles crashed onto the floor while another one appeared right ahead and bit into his arm, ripping through his armor as if it was made out of paper. He howled in pain but instead of collapsing he propelled himself forward, ramming his opponent into the far side side of the room.
Finally able to draw his blade he spun around. It was too late to intercept his enemies but he had just enough time to jump out of the way. Two more gargoyles turned into dust but the waves just kept on coming. It wasn't much of a surprise as Maximilian had seen their sheer force inside the caves. He might have perished under the same circumstances but the room was too cramped for a real fight and Maximilian had walls all around him, making a sneak attack impossible.
I don't know why you're suddenly able to move while I'm looking”—he cut another gargoyle into two—“but it's pointless if every attack is the same!”
Their pattern didn't change, though. These creatures were nothing but animated statues after all. They followed a certain pattern and were too stupid to deviate from it. In the end the whole fight was nothing but a test of perseverance.
When the last Gargoyle hit the floor Maximilian put away his sword, bend forward and pressed his hands onto his knees. The fight might not have been much of a challenge but he was still exhausted after spending at least half an hour with these creatures.
I wonder where all our supplies went. I could really use something to eat right about now.”
He righted himself, stretched his arms and breathed in deeply when the wall behind him exploded. He whirled around, his hand on his sword, but before he could land a single attack he had already been pulled into the darkness beyond the hole.

A myriad of crystal shards were floating in front of Drake's eyes when he regained consciousness. Their movement wasn't random but focused on a shattered orb in the center of the room. Drake guessed correctly that this was the same orb he had seen in the maw of darkness. He could even see the starry sky through a hole above, although it was partially hidden, presumably by Voluere's corpse. Drake was too weak to heighten his senses and there was no point to confirm his suspicion anyway.
He found himself in a precarious situation as he was hanging from the ceiling with his limbs spread apart, which gave him an X-shaped form. Something furry and rotten was stuck inside his mouth but another tentacle had been wrapped around his head, preventing him from spitting it out. Another set of tentacles was hanging limp in front of him, all the way to the hole in his stomach.
His gaze wandered across the room. It looked completely deserted, unless something was lurking in the shadows. He pulled his limbs towards his body in an attempt to break free of the tentacles holding onto him, but that led to them pulling even harder. Waves of pain swept throughout his body and he screamed into his gag while his wound was torn open even wider.
Save your energy. They will never let go unless I order them to!
A handsome but pale man stepped from the shadows. His hair was even darker than Drake's and fell far across his shoulders, all the way to his waist. He flashed his prisoner a toothless smile as he walked forward, one hand on the hilt of the sword he wore in his glittering scabbard.
Don't look at me like that!” he said in response to Drake's confused expression. “It's just me: your old friend Dorr'n Selkesch!”—he rammed his fist into the vampire's exposed intestines, eliciting a wonderful scream of terror—“There's no reason to wear my armor when I'm about to torture you”—he stepped back, pulled a shadowy cloth out of thin air, and wiped the blood from his hand—“We can do this the easy or the hard way, of course. Tell me where the remnants of my power went and I'll end your existence in a heartbeat. Defy me and...well...
A menacing smile appeared on his face, but instead of attacking Drake once more he went towards the orb and put his hands onto it. A few hundred crystal shards shot forward, reintegrating themselves into it. When the lord of shadows turned around his teint had gotten even worse, creating a ridiculous contrast between his skin and the black clothes he wore. Sweat glistened on his skull and he wiped it with the same piece of cloth as before, smearing blood all over his face.
You really messed with my guardian, you know?”—he stroked it as if it was a living being, which it most likely was—“Nothing has ever damaged it this badly. It's entirely my fault, however, as I shouldn't have pulled it from the darkness before its completion. But who could have known that you would return this early, and in the company of a demon no less?
Drake mumbled something intelligible.
Swallow the rat I gave you and I'll remove the gag. Can't have you dying on me due to a lack of blood!
The young vampire stared at him defiantly. He really wished to get rid of the oozing mess inside his mouth but swallowing it was the worst possible solution.
Have it your way then!
The tentacle in front of Drake's mouth retracted itself. He was about to spit the rat onto the floor when an entire bulk of shadows were rammed into his cavity, pushing the rotten flesh all the way into his stomach. His eyes rolled around like crazy and he made horrible gagging noises. Foam mixed with blood flowed from his mouth when the intruders withdrew.
It wasn't so bad, was it?” these words were accompanied by vicious laughter that echoed back and forth, growing stronger instead of weaker in the process.
Drake blacked out once more.

Maximilian tumbled through the air while the hole he had come through grew smaller and smaller till it was swallowed by the darkness, leaving him trapped in a room that seemed to stretch into infinity. The darkness wasn't as absolute as he had thought, however. As soon as he hit the floor a ripple of light extended from his point of impact and turned it into solid rock. Giant walls grew out of the ground, trapping him in an oval-shaped structure. He could even see something like stands ascend into the sky.
What is this? An arena?”
He had barely gathered himself from the ground when he was forced to roll sideways to evade a fist aimed at his head.
A brutish gargoyle statue pulled its hand from the shattered floor. At full height it towered at least a meter above Maximilian but its movements were more fluid that one would expect from a hunk of stones. The human found himself flying through the air once more after the monster's knee connected with his stomach. He pressed his hands onto his belly and cut himself on the metal shards sticking out from his armor.
Don't you have any honor?” he yelled as he hit the floor once more. “Let me get up at least!”—he evaded another attack—“Or refrain from doing so! I hate monsters!”
The gargoyle threw his entire body at Maximilian's rolling form. The human whirled around and threw himself into the other direction. The creature crashed onto the floor, Maximilian jumped to his feet and smashed the “Heavenly Blade” into its back. The impact and the following vibrations nearly ripped it from his hands.
Come on! I was able to slice through your smaller brethren just fine!”
The gargoyle roared and threw himself backwards, nearly burying Maximilian under him.
If I can't cut you then I'll have to melt you down instead!” I hope the flame is hot enough. I didn't even feel the heat when I tried it out.
He pressed a finger onto the ruby and the “Heavenly Blade” was wreathed in fire. The gargoyle flew at him with an outstretched arm and Maximilian's attempt to parry it proved futile as he was blown backwards by the force. Hot stone dripped onto the floor and the beast smashed his fists together, destroying them in the process. They grew back within seconds and the beast flashed a sardonic smile before it pestered him once more.
Smile while you can! You can't recover forever!” I hope...

Drake looked much worse for the wear after being tortured for merely a quarter of an hour. His wound was pulsing and the flesh glowed bright-red thanks to dozens of cuts and tears. Teardrops were running down his bruised face and he howled with pain when the fist of Dorr'n Selkesch connected with it once more.
Where is my power?
I don't know!”
Drake screamed desperately but the lord of shadows didn't care. He grabbed a rat cadaver that fell into his hand from above and wrung it dry inside of the vampire's mouth.
What do you hope to achieve by defying me? Do you think your human companion will come to your rescue? He does not have the power to defeat me!
Why won't you believe me? I would have long since talked if I knew the answer!”
You were the one who unsealed my sword! Who else would know what happened to its power but you?”—Dorr'n Selkesch drew his sword and stared longingly at its sawtooth-shaped blade—“Do you know how long I've been searching for it? It took me centuries to escape my coffin and I could feel the sword's energy all around me, but it remained hidden no matter how long I scoured the caves.
I should have never pulled it out!”
Well, that's your kinds fatal flaw. All of you crave power, no matter the consequences!
And you don't?”
I'm only reclaiming what was mine to begin with! Therefore:!”—he tried to plunge the sword into Drake's wound but the blade rebounded—“What? Don't tell me you actually...huh, and you still couldn't deal with the specters? You're even weaker than I thought!
Dorr'n Selkesch put his sword away and discarded his mortal form, turning into nothing but a swirling mass of shadows. It hovered in front of Drake for just a second before it invaded his body through his eyes.
Drake gasped for air and he turned his head as far as possible towards the right and the left, in the hopes that Dorr'n Selkesch had simply moved behind him instead of into him. Those hopes were shattered when an ominous presence took ahold of his mind and began to wreak havoc within its depths.

The “Heavenly Blade” was swung upwards—one arm fell to the floor—and downwards—the second one crashed onto the ground—but Maximilian was kicked backwards before he could cut through the gargoyle's torso. Instead of regenerating its arms it simply shot towards the royal knight, ramming its head into his stomach. The cracks in his armor spread. One more impact and it was done for.
Would you be so kind to die already?”
He plunged his sword into the gargoyle's back while it carried him towards the wall. The stone melted, the beast roared and he was flung backwards when they finally reached its destination. The back of Maximilian's head hit the wall. Explosive pain shot though his body as if his skull had exploded. He fell onto the floor, robbed of his weapon which was still burning through the gargoyle's intestines. It moved one of its stone hands towards its back to remove the sword.
I wouldn't do that if I were you!” Of course I would.
The monster stared at him with a puzzled expression.
It...will blow up if you try to remove it!”
The thought was ludicrous and he didn't even know where these words were coming from. The gargoyle agreed with mocking laughter and grabbed the sword handle. The blade glowed with passion and a short humming noise reverberated throughout the air.
Maximilian was covered in a shower of dust as the statue was blown to smithereens. He involuntarily breathed it in and coughed wildly to get it out of his system. The thought of it regenerating inside his body didn't sound appealing at all.
He pressed his back against the wall and his arms onto his head as he tried to get onto his feet again. The room was hazy and seemed to be spinning but the painful throbbing inside his head prevented him from throwing up.
He staggered forwards and fell onto his knees when he finally spotted the “Heavenly Blade”. Its fire had been extinguished and he felt some kind of presence when he touched its handle, but it disappeared within seconds. Did you do this? I thought you were just a fake. There was no reply but it appeared as if the Seraphim had created something far beyond their imagination.
Rattling breath cut through the silence and the instant Maximilian turned around he was greeted by the impact of a fist.
He blacked out.

Dorr'n Selkesch stood in a circle of light surrounded by darkness. Apart from him there was just a single azure armchair. However, despite standing in the center of the area it was also wreathed in shadows.
Welcome to my humble abode!”
Who is this?
Dorr'n Selkesch turned 360 degrees without seeing anyone.
What are you looking for? I'm right in front of you.”
The lord of shadows cocked his head and threw himself forward, returning to his armored form. The armchair was cut into two but there was no one to be seen.
Hasn't your mother taught you any manners? You can't just come into someone's home and cut up is furniture. Wait, do you even have a mother?”
Are you too afraid to face me, worm?
The sound of footsteps on glass echoed across the area in response. Dorr'n Selkesch turned around and saw Drake walking towards him. He looked much more elegant with slicked-back hair and long robes embroidered with golden threads. Two scythes floated behind him, ready to strike at any minute.
I really liked the way you handled these, hence why I thought it appropriate to kick your ass with them!”
You're not human.
No kidding!”
The scythes shot forward while another pair appeared in “Drake's” hands. All three hit Dorr'n Selkesch's sword at the same time and he slithered backwards.
That explains a lot but you still lack the power to defeat me!
But I have the power that you're looking for!”
A cage filled with a wriggling mass of shadows dropped onto the floor. It wailed horrendously when it came into contact with the light.
And you locked it away instead of using it? You're just as stupid as your host!
Dorr'n Selkesch swung his blade downwards but it was parried by the scythes.
Drake can't handle this kind of power! It would rip him apart from the inside.”
The vampire jumped into the air, vanishing momentarily before he reappeared behind the lord of shadows, cutting huge gashes into his armor.
What kind of moron would admit that he can't use the power he would need to defeat me?
Dorr'n Selkesch whirled around but his attack was once again blocked by the scythes. His feet turned incorporeal upon impact, however, and shadowy spikes shot towards “Drake” from below. He jumped backwards and vanished again.
I never said that I can't use it. As long as I only borrow a fraction everything will be fine and dandy.”
A blood-curdling scream resounded through the darkness and the lord of shadows turned back towards the cage. The vampire was standing next to it, with one of his hands plunged into the shadows. His body pulsed with power and his eyes turned black.
Ready to die?”
I could ask you the same!
They flew at each other with lightning speed.
Drake screamed with agony when the forced within him clashed.

Maximilian's ears were ringing and his cheek was burning. Aside from that he felt fine, at least as fine as one can feel after receiving a beating by a statue. His eyes fluttered opened. He was still lying inside the arena but a part of the wall had collapsed, leading back into the room he had come from. Remnants of the gargoyle littered the floor, as if it had crashed through the wall and left while its body crumbled.
Why didn't it kill me? he wondered as he got back onto his feet. They felt like jello and he was surprised that he managed to climb over the rubble without falling onto his ass.
The room beyond the hole looked exactly like he had left it, apart from another hole where the door should have been. Maximilian grabbed the “Heavenly Blade” and brought light into the darkness, revealing yet another winding staircase.
He sighed in frustration before tapping his feet onto the steps. They seemed solid enough, for now. If they were to collapse he would have no escape route left as it was surrounded by walls. There was also no way but up as the rest had caved in. Or never existed in the first place. Who knows?
Maximilian uncorked one of his last potion vials and consumed it with a single gulp. Power surged through his body as he began to ascend the stairs.
To his surprise he arrived at the top in less than ten minutes. The stairwell opened into an empty room with three paths. It seemed to be the resting place of the gargoyle as a trail of stones led towards its shattered head, which was lying directly in front of the corridor on the left.
I hope you were trying to get to your master.”
Maximilian followed the path and arrived in an even bigger but equally empty room. Since it lacked any distinguishing features he had no idea how to proceed. Investigating the corridors did him no good either as they all looked the same. In the end he just went straight ahead from his original entry point.
He arrived at a junction with three paths. It was devoid of any distinguishing features, except for a trail of stones that led towards the gargoyle's shattered head. The creature must have died as it was about to enter the corridor on the left.
Were you trying to reach your master?” he asked himself as he stared into every corridor. They all looked the same to him. “No, it can't be that easy!”
He took the path directly opposite the gargoyle's remains and arrived at a junction with three paths. The “Heavenly Blade” glowed for no discernible reason but Maximilian barely registered it. He followed a trail of stones that led towards the gargoyle's shattered head, which was lying in front of the corridor on the left.
Where were you trying to go?”
Since all of the paths looked the same he decided to follow the one the gargoyle was about to choose. Shortly thereafter he arrived in an even bigger but equally empty room. The moment Maximilian stepped inside the “Heavenly Blade” emitted a blinding flash of light. He stared at his scabbard in confusion before he moved on. The light returned as soon as he reached the first corridor.
What do you want?”
He unsheathed the blade and a ripple of energy shot through the air, revealing a hazy mirror-like object in the center of the room. It reflected a myriad of glittering objects that were nowhere to be seen. Maximilian grabbed his sword with both hands and walked carefully towards the object. It didn't seem to be dangerous but he played it safe by touching it with his blade instead of his hand. It went right through it.
Is this some kind of portal?”
A few more and even smaller steps brought him right in front of the “mirror”. It felt like water to the touch but his hands remained dry. He breathed in deeply a couple of times before he plunged his head into it.

He saw a shattered orb surrounded by flying crystal shards and a human figure hanging from the ceiling. He didn't need to confirm who it was as Drake's hoarse screams reached his ears within seconds. Maximilian threw every caution out the window, stepped through the portal and ran towards his companion.
Drake, what is going on?”
Maximilian swung the “Heavenly Blade” four times and severed the tentacles holding his friend in place. He fell into his arms and they crashed onto the floor.
Drake, talk to me!”
The royal knight grabbed his companion by the shoulders and shook him until he saw the hole inside his stomach.
Oh god, what have they done to you?”
He took one of Drake's potions and poured its contents in the vampire's mouth. His screams turned into gurgling and Maximilian had to slam his mouth shut to prevent him from spitting out the liquid.
The wound refused to close. Only Drake's throat recovered, allowing him to scream with renewed vigor.
What is going on?”
Maximilian stared at his arm and replayed his near-death experience in the swamp. I can't allow myself to get knocked out again, therefore he filled a few ounces of blood into a vial and poured it into Drake's mouth, instantly retracting his arm when he was done.
Color returned to the vampire's face and threads of skin began to move on the edges of his wound, but something seemed to be blocking or consuming his powers as it took much longer than the regeneration of his damaged skin atop the mountains.
Stop screaming and tell me what's wrong!”
But Drake couldn't hear him.
Maximilian kneeled in front of his companion and searched through his assortments of vials till he found the one that contained the regeneration pill from the Seraphim outpost.
I hope this does the trick.”
He uncorked the vial and dropped the pill into Drake's throat.

A tremor went through Drake's mind as the pill forced his body to regenerate, but the creatures inside of him barely noticed as they spent most of their time flying instead of standing. The vampire had grown in size to accommodate for Dorr'n Selkesch's armor and so had his scythes, of which there were five now—four in the air and one in his hands. He still seemed to be fighting a losing battle, despite the influx a blood a few seconds ago. Fighting inside of Drake's mind might not be as taxing as fighting with a physical body but it didn't change the fact that their energy source was running dry.
You seem to be exhausted. How about we end it here and now? I could even offer you a deal!
And what would that entail?”
I'll destroy your host's mind and you join my ranks! You could even keep your physical body.
The vampire smiled at the thought of having a body all to himself.
A tempting offer but I'll have to decline!”
Their weapons clashed and two of the scythes broke apart.
Do you really want to serve a pathetic being like him?
I don't want to serve anyone, especially not someone whose goal is total annihilation!”
Meceruun is doomed one way or another! The Eternal Darkness is coming!
The scythes shattered and the vampire's body was ripped to shreds by Dorr'n Selkesch's sawtooth-shaped blade. His corpse turned to ash before it even hit the ground.
He actually accepted his death with a smile...
The lord of shadows hit the floor with a booming thud and the world was engulfed by darkness, making it all the more surprising that a single beam of light remained in front of the cage.
These words were not aimed at the light but at another version of Drake basking within it. His hair was longer, his facial features looked more mature, he wore a shining piece of silver armor and was holding a glittering sword in his hands.
This is not what should have transpired and I will not allow it to continue! Return to where you came from!” he demanded with a voice much deeper than Drake's normal one.
Make me!
If you insist!”
He gazed at Dorr'n Selkesch with malice as the air began to vibrate.
An ear-shattering bang resounded through the area as he disappeared, only to re-appear directly above the lord of shadows. Their swords clashed in an explosion of light.

Maximilian recoiled when a cloud of darkness escaped through Drake's mouth. Dorr'n Selkesch's human form hit the ceiling before it fell onto the floor, where it remained motionless. What is going on?
Drake sat up and pressed his hands onto his aching head. His wounds had finally healed. Maximilian walked towards him, keeping a safe distance to the person on the floor, and kneeled besides him.
Are you okay? What happened?”
I...I have no idea. I think Dorr'n Selkesch went inside my body...but everything after that is just a blur. Why is my throat so dry?”
You were screaming your lungs out. And if what you're telling me is the truth: does that mean that this guy is Dorr'n Selkesch?”
Drake's hazy gaze followed Maximilian's outstretched fingers. Every movement of his head created a blurry afterimage and it took a few seconds for them to collapse into their original form. “...yes...”
Maximilian got to his feet, pulled out his sword and swung it at their opponent with all of his might. He was flung away long before it could connect.
You're not...getting rid of me...that easily!
His body was wreathed in shadows as he returned to his armored form. He didn't even need to stand up as he could reposition his body in any way he pleased.
I don't know how you acquired such power but it appears that you cannot access it from the outside! I'll just have to rip you apart to regain what you stole!
You'll have to go through me first!”
Maximilian returned from the shadows and situated himself between Drake and Dorr'n Selkesch.
A mere mortal wants to defeat the lord of shadows? You must be suicidal!”—he laughed at Maximilian while the “Heavenly Blade” glittered in response—“So that's how you managed to get here. I wondered how you survived as long as you did. But your puny sword cannot compete with mine!”—the lord of shadows drew his blade, which proved to be about as long as Maximilian was high—“I'd wager a single hit is more than enough to turn you into mincemeat!
Then try and hit me!”
Maximilian's knuckles turned white with tension as he waited for Dorr'n Selkesch's first move. That did not entail a direct attack, however, as he turned incorporeal and re-appeared behind Drake's back. The blade hurled down but the vampire could hear it cutting through the air and evaded it by a hair's breadth. Maximilian turned around when the floor shattered upon impact.
Hey, he's not your opponent!”
The royal knight ran towards his enemy, his sword aimed at Dorr'n Selkesch's legs. The lord of shadows pulled his sword out of the ground and swung it sideways, forcing Maximilian to dive under it. Although he did not feel any impact his armor was finally shredded. Its remnants clattered onto the ground, causing him to slide uncontrollably across the floor, completely missing his target.
As soon as Maximilian came to a halt the shadow sword descended from above. With no time to evade he pressed one hand onto his sword's hilt and the other against the blade. Sparks flew as the swords clashed. Thanks to its unique shape Maximilian could not block the entirety of the attack and felt it rip into his flesh, which was nothing compared to the cut he suffered from his own blade.
Something shattered in the distance and Dorr'n Selkesch looked away, giving Maximilian the perfect opportunity to escape. “How dare you?
Due to a lack of weapons and blood Drake had decided to smash the orb in a desperate attempt to get Dorr'n Selkesch's attention. It was harder than it looked and the crystal shards cut deeply into his flesh, but he didn't care.
Just remodeling a bit. Don't mind me!”
But he did mind and turned into a tornado. Drake was hurled against the wall and Dorr'n Selkesch returned to corporeal form in mid-air to finish him off. His sword strike missed, however, as he was blown backwards by a wave of light. He repelled himself from the wall and lunged towards Maximilian while a sphere of darkness descended upon Drake.
You're mistaken if you think that I can only focus on one of you!
Their swords clashed and Maximilian slid across the floor.
Your companion will be turned into a bloody pulp within the next few minutes, unless you defeat me, that is! Fail and you'll have the honor of seeing my true power!
The shadow sword descended from above and Maximilian's body was rammed into the ground. His body vibrated and his knees ached but he still remained upright and even managed to fend off the attack. Dorr'n Selkesch's blade was swung sideways as the royal knight plunged the “Heavenly Blade” into his torso. Cracks of light spread into every direction but Maximilian was swatted away like a fly before he could finish him off.
Oh no, how are you going to fight without a—
The cracks grew brighter and a harrowing humming noise filled the air. Dorr'n Selkesch grabbed the sword's handle but it seemed to be stuck and he couldn't hold onto it for long as his hand started to smoke. A smile flashed over Maximilian's face, only to be replaced by agony when tentacles nailed his hands into the ground.
An explosion of light rattled the room and a hail of crystal shards cut into Maximilian's skin, increasing his pain tremendously. He lowered his head and closed his eyes in a desperate attempt to save his eyesight.

A muffled silence descended over the room. Maximilian's eardrums were severely damaged and he was bleeding from hundreds of tiny cuts. He hoped that Dorr'n Selkesch's death would at least get rid of the tentacles but they didn't budge an inch.
Cold fingers grabbed his cheeks and pulled his face upwards, bringing him face to face with the lord's human form. His red eyes seemed to penetrate Maximilian's very soul. “Interesting trick, underwhelming execution. You shouldn't tell your enemy what's about to happen. Too bad that you'll have no chance to learn from your mistakes.
Maximilian could barely hear his words but he saw something descend from the ceiling.
What are you looking at?
He looked over his shoulder, just in time to feel a giant paw upon his face that catapulted him towards the other side of the room. The tentacles holding Maximilian in place disappeared and so did the sphere entrapping Drake. It looked like he was pressing against the walls of his prison just seconds ago. Now he gasped for air and looked around in confusion, only to see Voluere in front of him.
Don't try to teach somebody a lesson when you completely forgot to finish me off! It was getting a bit lonely up there but my spine took it's sweet time to regenerate.”
I'm sorry. I rarely take small fry into consideration!
The lord of shadows took on his armored form once more. The demon still towered above him, however, and adapting to his height would have belied Dorr'n Selkesch's words. He jumped towards his enemy and cut through his belly without encountering any resistance. Blood splattered across the floor as the demon's paws closed around the lord's head, holding him in place.
The red lines on Voluere's body began to glow but Dorr'n Selkesch escaped in his incorporeal form long before the demon could unleash its attack.
Did you really think that you could hold a shadow in place? Your attack might have damaged my guardian but its utterly pointless in close quarters combat!
The voice echoed back and far and the demon was too distracted to notice the stinging sensation in its tail. Drake had seen Voluere's blood splatter across the floor and decided to borrow some of his power. He didn't hesitate for even a second as he had no qualms about consuming the blood of a monster. He would never be able to suck him dry anyway.
Meanwhile Maximilian was trying to recover his regeneration pill, which proved nearly impossible due to the extent of his injuries. Most of the wounds would have been inconsequential but the gaping holes in his hands were an entirely different matter. He was surprised that he could still move his digits, if only his thumb and small finger.
Voluere's energy beam carved a hole into the wall but Dorr'n Selkesch re-materialized behind him and rammed his sword through the demon's body. The moment it cut through his stomach Voluere grabbed onto the blade and whirled around. The lord of shadows had to let go and was smacked sideways by the demon's tail.
Maximilian had finally found the vial he was looking for, but he lost his grip upon the pill as he evaded the body of Dorr'n Selkesch. It wouldn't have been necessary as he turned incorporeal long before they would have collided. The royal knight cursed as he crawled over the floor in search for his salvation.
A few feet away Drake gathered himself from the ground. Since he had been hanging onto Voluere's tail he was flung into the same general direction as Dorr'n Selkesch. Blood trickled down his chin and he felt rejuvenated at last. There was also a strange feeling of liberation but he couldn't put his finger on the reason.
What are you doing?” he asked as he kneeled besides Maximilian.
What?” the royal knight yelled as his ears were still ringing, “Where did you come from?”
I flew in from the other side.”
You flew?”
Involuntarily. God, what happened to your hands?”
What?”—Drake pointed at his hands—“Oh! Tentacles. That's why I wanted to consume my regeneration pill but I lost it somewhere around here.”
We'd better find it before one of them is victorious.”
After throwing Dorr'n Selkesch across the room Voluere had consumed his shadow sword, sealing it within his own body after it had returned to its original size.
Show yourself! Or are you actually afraid of me?”
I am afraid of no one!
The lord of shadows reappeared right in front of the demon, his armored fist aimed at the spot where his sword should have been, but Voluere locked his paws together and smashed him to the ground, widening the cracks in his armor. Upon impact spears of shadows descended from the ceiling and tore through Voluere's back. The demon growled in pain and rammed his feet into the ground, but his target had already dissipated once more.
Stop running away!”
The lines on the demon's body flared up and a rotating sphere of energy formed above his head. Wriggling walls of shadows grew out of the ground only to be obliterated by a continuous burst of energy aimed in every direction.
I've got the pagh—”
Drake screamed and dropped the pill when a beam of energy hit him squarely in the chest, hurling him backwards against the wall. Maximilian scrambled towards the falling pill and managed to trap it within the floor and the hole in his hands. His next move must have looked stupid to any onlookers but licking it from the ground seemed like a more reasonable option compared to picking it up and inviting another mishap to take place.
His flesh began to regenerate within seconds and he was too fixated by this terrific phenomenon to notice the tornado of darkness that swept through the room, barely able to evade Voluere's attacks. Maximilian was whirled through the air and his head made contact with the shattered orb when the tornado made a quick turn to evade an attack from the other side.
The royal knight's head was ringing and bleeding once more, but all that really mattered was the “Heavenly Blade” that was lying only a few inches away from him. He grabbed its handle and followed the increasingly frantic movements of Dorr'n Selkesch's shadow form.
Time seemed to slow down when he finally swung his blade. A giant glowing image of the sword cut through the air, slicing the tornado in half and forcing the lord of shadows to materialize. He staggered backwards in confusion and was hit by the full brunt of Voluere's attack. His armor shattered and turned to ash. Mere seconds later Drake jumped towards him while a giant fireball formed between his hands. Dorr'n Selkesch looked upwards just in time to see it connect with his body. An enormous explosion ripped his form to shreds and hurled Drake away.
Hahaha, that was a great combination. Looks we'd make a good te—”
Maximilian sliced through the demon's body after switching to the blade's fire form. A shower of blood covered his body and Dorr'n Selkesch's shadow sword clattered onto the floor.
How dare you?”
Voluere growled and smashed his fists together. Maximilian dove under them, grabbed the shadow sword and turned in a circle, creating a ring of fire and darkness that cut deeply into the demon's flesh, eliciting screams of agony.
The energy sphere buzzed loudly and doubled in size before it shot towards the demon's feet. A blurry shadow grabbed onto Maximilian and pulled him out of harm's way before the sphere ripped a giant hole into the ground, covering the room in cloud of dust.
You okay?”
Yes. Here's your sword.”
Finally! I still need to work on my magic. Having a fireball explode right in your face is far from pleasant.”
And yet the only indication that you have been hit are your burned clothes. Where'd you get that energy from?”
I borrowed some blood from our demonic frie—”
I'm still alive you dirty rats!”
Voluere's tail appeared from the dust cloud. Maximilian threw himself onto the floor whereas Drake jumped onto it and rode it back towards its owner. An explosion of darkness later the air was clear once more while the demon hollered in pain. His severed tail slithered across the floor and Drake came flying backwards after meeting the demon's fist head-on.
Enough is enough! I don't care about Modera's orders anymore! Just die already!”
The demon screamed and created a shockwave so powerful that our heroes slid across the floor. They had to ram their swords into the ground to prevent themselves from being flung away. Voluere's entire body began to glow and the air vibrated with power. And then he vanished.
Where'd he g—”
Giant claws slashed through Maximilian's skin but he had stepped back just in time to avoid severe damage. Before he was able to retaliate the demon was gone again.
Where is he?”
He's running along the wa—jump!”
Drake leaped forward and Maximilian followed his example. The ground behind them exploded and two energy spheres appeared from the dust before they had any time to recover. After seeing that even Dorr'n Selkesch could barely escape them Maximilian went right for the kill. He ran towards the leftmost sphere, blocked two hits that nearly ripped the blade out of his hands and flung himself onto the ground from where he performed two quick slices that accomplished absolutely nothing. Oh no! The floor exploded once more.
Drake had chosen to flee and follow Voluere instead, but his steps faltered when he saw his companion blow up. “Maximilia—”
The demon's head connected with Drake's body, shattering every bone in his body and flinging him through the air like a broken puppet. “Worry about yourself instead, vampire!”
Our lone hero got to his feet and growled like a mad beast, completely oblivious to the pain his regeneration caused. His eyes had been engulfed by darkness and his sword pulsed with power. He turned towards the demon and disappeared with a loud bang. A giant cut appeared in Voluere's body, and then another and another. Drake was swirling through the air, turning and turning without stopping for even a second. To anyone who could actually see his movement it would have appeared as if his sword was pulling him along.
A pool of blood had formed on the ground before Drake was finally shot down by a dozen energy spheres. He fell on the demon before he rolled onto the ground, where he remained motionless. Voluere was breathing heavily and quivered from head to toe. His attempt to push himself from the ground ended in utter failure. Drake was nearly crushed when the demon fell again.
Enraged vampires...can be really scary...but you've still lost!”
The only one who lost is you!”
The demon looked over his shoulder and stared fearfully at Maximilian, who was about to raise his sword above his neck.
You should...have been dead!”
Sorry to disappoint!”
The “Heavenly Blade” cut through the air, creating yet another giant image of itself, and Voluere's head was severed with a single strike. His screams vanished in the darkness as his body turned into dust.
That's it! We've finally beat him...”
Maximilian plopped onto the ground and winced painfully. His hand moved involuntarily towards his hip but he stopped himself just before it came into contact with the burned flesh. The attack was originally aimed at the center of his body but he had evaded certain death by a hair's breadth, only to fall through a hole that led him back towards the junction with the portal. He could have returned within seconds but something had compelled him to enter one of the corridors and he nearly forgot about the battle altogether. It was only then that he realized that the chamber wiped his memory every time he took a wrong turn, which sent him back to the stairwell.
Are you done yet?
Maximilian jumped to his feet, completely ignoring the pain that stretched across his body. “You've got to be kidding me!”
What? Did you actually think I was done for? Where do you think all of this came from?”—Dorr'n Selkesch's human form appeared from the shadows on the other side of the room and he spread his arms—“I've consumed the mountain and turned it into a part of myself! That means as long as these mountains remain so will I!
Maximilian swung his sword at their enemy but he had already vanished before the beam of light could hit him.
I don't want to fight you anymore! I will simply collapse this chamber and turn you into mincemeat! You can try to stave off your death by using your sword but its powers will not protect you forever! Goodbye. Have a sweet death!
Maximilian didn't wait for the walls to start moving. He grabbed Drake's limp figure and ran towards the hole he had fallen through. The moment he caught sight of it the darkness thickened and closed it off.
Do you think I'm stupid? There will be no escape!
You might not be stupid but you're certainly a coward! You don't want to fight us anymore? Bullshit! You're just afraid of losing!”
I am not afraid of anyone!
Dorr'n Selkesch bellowed with rage and shot towards Maximilian. The royal knight ignored the approaching figure and turned on his heels while he swung his sword. His enemy staggered backwards, staring in disbelief at the cuts that spread across his skin.
How did you—
Know that you were trying to trick me? Don't create a doppelganger while you scream at me from an entirely different direction!”
He lunged forward, plunging the “Heavenly Blade” deep into the lord's chest, possibly destroying whatever shadows had instead of hearts. His arms and legs turned to dust while the rest of his body sank into the ground with wails of agony. The shattered orb echoed his movement and the chamber was filled with silence.
Did I do it?”
A tremor went through the mountain and the walls turned into wriggling masses of shadows. They were still closing in on their prey and their tempo increased.
Didn't you...listen? You might be hurt me, but entirely out of the question! Crush them!
Ominous and unintelligible whispering reverberated from the walls as one shadow after another turned into a sharp spike. Maximilian looked around in panic but the only possible escape route was the hole in the ceiling. He dropped Drake rudely onto the floor and smacked him.
Drake, you have to wake up. Now!”
But his companion remained unconscious, despite getting hit and rattled over and over again. It was only a matter of seconds before their intestines would color the walls red.
A loud crack echoed through the room and what little color there was vanished into nothingness. Maximilian moved his head but despite being able to think clearly his movements felt unnaturally slow. He had already reached the point he wanted to see in his head while his actual body had barely moved an inch.
...danger! Tell Dr....Emily...danger! ...ell...ake!” the Alp's voice was carried through the rift and repeated itself over and over again till Maximilian caught a glimpse of the hole between worlds.
The rift snapped shut, the colors returned and time resumed. Maximilian's thoughts were jumbled and the sight of the approaching spikes made his heart beat like a drum. What did he say? Tell Drake that...Emily is in danger? Was that it?
Drake, Emily is in danger!” he screamed directly into his companions ear.
The vampire's eyes snapped open and he swung himself upwards, nearly ramming his head into Maximilian's.
She is what?”
Just jump!”
He pointed upwards before he grabbed onto his partner. Drake looked around for merely a second and leaped into the air as soon as he saw the spikes that were about to burrow into their bodies. It was a very uncoordinated and weak jump, but it got them close enough to the edge to escape their doom.
What do you mean, Emily is in danger?”
I don't know. The Alp talked to me but I could barely hear him. I suppose it was similar to your experience in the castle.”
And he said that Emily was in danger?”
He told me to tell you that, but that doesn't mean that it has to be true!”
Like hell it doesn't! Modera must have expected us hours ago! Maybe she hopes that I'll return if she kidnaps my girlfriend.”
How would she even know?”
How does she know anything? She didn't wait 10 years because she felt like it!”
That's why you should have asked the Alp why you've been chosen!”
He wouldn't have told me.”
Then you should have forced him t—”
Could you stop yelling at each other? I'm not done with you!
The hole snapped shut and the ground arched upwards. Drake and Maximilian tried to grab onto something but the surface was too smooth and they had no time to plunge their swords into it. They slid a couple of feet before they fell into a depression. As soon as they hid the ground the spikes returned. They weren't moving, though, only preventing them from getting closer to the walls.
Did these goddamn mortals really have to lock me away and split my powers into two? And why did you have to bring a demon into my domain?
The seething shadows trembled with every word. If they hadn't know any better our heroes would have presumed that they were trapped on a boat in the middle of a storm.
But it doesn't matter anymore! You call me a coward? Then let us end this in a real battle!
A path formed in front of them, which lead to a steadily growing sphere of darkness. 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet. The bigger it got the more it changed, till it finally resembled Dorr'n Selkesch's armored form, just without a real bottom as that part of him was nothing more than a wriggling mass of tentacles.
Haha...ha...ha...” a hollow laugh escaped Maximilian's mouth as he stared blankly at the monstrosity in front of them.
We can do this!” but Drake didn't sound convincing at all.
...he has to have a weakness!”
He said he cannot be defeated as long as these mountains remain.”
A lance of shadows cut between them, forcing them to jump into opposite directions without leaping directly into the spikes.
Was he a giant shadow back then?”
Obviously not...”
Maybe that's his mistake. In order to defeat us he gathered all of his power in one place, which might have made him more vulnerable.”
Better than having not a single glimmer of hope, don't you think?”
Good point. Then let's do this...somehow.”
A hail of spikes shot towards them and the only escape route was towards their enemy. And so they ran.

The lord of shadows claimed that he wanted a real fight and yet he cheated from beginning to end. Not only did he attack our heroes directly, but so did the spikes that lined the walls. Sometimes they grew within seconds, nearly skewering one of the duo, and sometimes they would turn into a normal tentacle that would try to trip them up so that they could be hit by one of Dorr'n Selkesch's attacks. They either had the luck to avoid these surprise attacks or helped each other fast enough to escape certain death. They didn't remain unscathed, of course.
Their entire bodies were full of cuts and bruises when they finally managed to reach the wriggling tentacles in front of the giant. But there was no time for a breather as Dorr'n Selkesch had decided to cut of any and all exits. The path was closing in on them while the spikes grew longer and sharper with every passing second.
What now?”
We need to climb!”
Climb where?”
Anywhere! Create as much damage as possible to take him down! I might be able to do a bit of damage but your sword is much more suitable for that task, therefore I'll jump and you cut!”
Just don't drop me!”
Dozens of tentacles shot towards them but they were sliced apart in unison, followed by a blinding image of the “Heavenly Blade” that cut a giant gash into the monster's body. The earth shook as the beast screamed and even more tentacles lunged forward.
Drake grabbed onto Maximilian from behind, concentrated his energy and jumped far into the air while the ground below them exploded. There wasn't much to leap onto till they got to Dorr'n Selkesch's upper body, but the monster helped them involuntarily by creating dozens of additional arms to swat his enemies out of the air. He nearly succeeded a couple of times but they always managed to pull themselves back by clinging onto the arm that hit them.
Maximilian spread his attacks far and wide but the sword's image got weaker the higher they went. There was no connection between the height and its power, though, it just wasn't made to fight humongous shadow lords.
How's it looking?” Drake asked as they ran across one of the lord's original arms.
I don't think there's too much power left. Even the light of the ruby seems to have faded. I fear that switching to its other form will do us no good.”
Their conversation was cut short when their foothold burst into dust, which was followed up by a giant energy beam that the lord of shadows emitted from his mouth.
Throw me!”
Anywhere!” Maximilian screamed in panic and was flung away just in time to avoid oblivion. His hair and neck got singed, though, and he was left with a short and uneven cut.
Drake, on the other hand, was flung away by the sheer pressure and felt his skin burn away. He fell all the way to the bottom but turned around in midair to draw his sword and unleash a wave of darkness onto the spikes below. His power was not enough to destroy them but the impact slowed his fall and flattened the spikes more than enough to land relatively safely between them. Which is when his right shoulder was impaled by another spike. One more tore through his left knee and the final one would have split his head if he hadn't blown up the floor with another fireball. He was flung through the air and directly into the wriggling shadows at Dorr'n Selkesch's bottom.
Meanwhile Maximilian was clinging to dear life. His sword was buried in the monster's shoulders but due to its magical properties it was cutting through it at the same time, causing him to slide down- and outwards. His feet moved wildly, trying to find any foothold whatsoever. There was none. Adrenaline was still pumping through his body, but the way he was dangling from his sword send waves of pain through his side. His fingers almost slipped a couple of times. An explosion could be heard from below and as Maximilian tried to see what was happening he made eye-contact with the lord of shadows.
So there you are, you little shrimp! I hope you're not calling me a coward anymore!
His other original arm reached backwards and it didn't take a genius to figure out what would happen next. However, the expected result didn't come true as three more explosion sent tremors through Dorr'n Selkesch's body. Part of it sank into the ground and it was not the one Maximilian was dangling from. or never!”
The royal knight pressed himself upwards, if only by a few steps, gripped his sword's hilt with so much force that his knuckles turned white and then jumped backwards. The sword came lose, Maximilian whirled around in mid-air and despite jumping to certain death he still managed to swing his sword down. He knew that this was his final chance as all of the “Heavenly Blade's” energy was poured into this final blow. An enormous image of the sword appeared in front of Maximilian, and it even looked as if a similar image of himself was holding onto it, and it sliced through the Dorr'n Selkesch's head with a single strike. Since Maximilian was still whirling around it followed his movement, ultimately severing the creature's entire body from the darkness below.
The lord screamed in blood-curdling agony and all the shadows spread around the mountains came together to restore his form.
Drake's clothes were ripped to shreds and his body was burned all over, barely able to recover after all the energy he had exerted to topple Dorr'n Selkesch. He saw a blinding flash of light above him, as if the sun had burst through the night-sky, and the lord screamed like he had never screamed before. The shadows ignored Drake and tried to repair their master's damaged body, but that is when Drake's sword began to vibrate.
The young vampire pulled it towards him in puzzlement and he felt something call out from within himself—something that resonated with whatever was slumbering inside the blade. Drake gathered himself and held the sword into the air. High-pitched cries filled the sky as a vortex of energy began to pull the darkness into the shadow sword.
The blade vibrated stronger and stronger, making it nearly impossible for Drake to hold on. He used both of his hands, got to his knees, was pressed deeper and deeper into the ground till he couldn't contain it any longer.
He threw the sword away and the moment it left his hands the world was ripped apart.

The Alp had watched the entire conflict from start to finish and found himself in the unfortunate position of standing in a place where the barriers between worlds was thin enough to open a hole, if only to send small messages into reality.
The moment everything went to hell he erected a barrier that was destroyed within seconds. His body was flung into the furthest reaches of the Void while hundreds of tears opened right in front of his eyes.
A slumbering presence rose from beneath and even the most pleasant of dreams turned into nightmares so lucid that some people never woke up again.
Your chance has already come and gone! Go back to sleep!”
The Alp's robes burst into flames but no one would have been able to see his true form as all that remained was a hazy figure made of light.

Dorr'n Selkesch was slowly but surely fading away. He tried to restructure his body multiple times but the “Heavenly Sword” had severed too much of his essence. The night had finally ended and the first light of dawn made it even worse for the creature made of darkness. He could have cared less when he was at full power but now he was just a black splotch that burned away from the inside and the outside. The only useful deed he accomplished was to involuntarily dampen Maximilian's fall, preventing him from becoming a gory mess on the mountainside.
No! it should...have...ended! ... I don' go...back!
The ground burst beneath him as the veil between worlds was torn wide open. A mass of flesh beyond all description rose from the Void and consumed what little was left of Dorr'n Selkesch. It could have been described as an infinite wall of wriggling limbs that burned from within, but that description didn't capture the horror of what our heroes truly perceived. The enormous form of Dorr'n Selkesch was a joke compared to this.
They had no time nor chance to gather themselves as a ball of light burst right through its center and ascended far into the sky, focusing all attention on itself. The unknown creature growled, yelled, spoke...everything and nothing you could imagine. A cacophony of hundreds of thousands of voices, all talking at once, none listening to the others.
A ball of fire, comparable to the sun at noon but much bigger, appeared in the sky and returned to where it had come from.
Something grabbed onto Drake and Maximilian, depositing them far away from the impact zone. They didn't even notice as their eyes were still aimed towards the heavens. And then the world burned to ash.
The tears closed and all that remained was a crater that went on for miles as well as glowing orbs of light that ascended into the air. It would have been a beautiful sight if it hadn't been surrounded by destruction.
Is...that it?” asked Maximilian hesitantly.
I suppose...whatever that was...”

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