Tristan, the pale warrior, led the way up the ravine, his body giving dim illumination in the black badlands, his swords poised for action. Eddie followed.
"I don't just need to get out of here," Eddie said. "I need to find my friends."
Tristan didn't turn. He continued upwards, marching in firm careful steps.
"A tall man in a robe and a bunch of gurgs kidnapped them."
Tristan turned and frowned. He spoke silently, but Eddie read his lips. Gurgs?
"Yes, the little fish faced men. They took my friends and all of our gear down into the badlands. So I'm not looking for the quickest way out. I'm looking for the quickest way to them."
Tristan studied him. After a moment, he turned to the left and scaled the steep ravine face. Eddie sighed, hoping this new direction would take him towards his friends. He followed, climbing with hands and knees up the sharp incline.
They were nearly to the top of the hill when a giant centipede creature screeched and charged towards them. The instant it neared Eddie, Tristan's blade flashed, cutting the creature's body in two. Tristan continued over the ridge, not giving the creature another glance.
"Uh, thanks," Eddie said.
Tristan continued in the dark, moving as if all these black lands were lit in noon-day sun. His body gave only enough illumination for Eddie to see a few feet in any direction. They climbed, they descended, they crawled through tunnels and pushed through narrow passages. Hours passed, and Eddie feared he was descending deeper and deeper into a rocky labyrinth from which he'd never emerge. Tristan didn't explain where they were going. Clicking, snarling creatures crept in the darkness just outside their sphere of light.
"I need a rest," Eddie murmured as they neared the top of another steep tunnel. "And maybe a drink."
Tristan shook his head, not turning.
"Just a short break?"
Tristan turned. His eyes blazed.
"What is it?"
The pale warrior pointed his sword down to the side. Its brightness intensified, illuminating the glistening cave walls. Instead of bare rock, Eddie detected motion everywhere. He could not fathom what he was seeing. Teeth, tentacles, writhing hungry mouths and hollow eyes. But this was not the body of creatures poised to attack. This was the cave wall itself, a writhing, churning surface of grotesque faces twisted together, tongues lashing out. Most were alien, but as he scanned the horror that was the cave wall, he spotted what appeared to be the face of an infant, its mouth stretched wide in a permanent, silent wail.
"What the—" Eddie screamed. He stumbled backwards. Tristan dropped a sword and caught him before he fell into the opposite wall. Tristan turned and shone his sword. The faces were all around them.
"Did you bring me into hell? What is this?"
Tristan lifted his sword and motioned for Eddie to follow.
Eddie huddled closer to the warrior after that. They continued on their nightmare march for what seemed an eternity. Finally, they reached a tunnel of bare stone. Tristan pointed at a rock. Eddie examined it a moment and fell onto it. He was still shaken by the cave of faces, but exhaustion conquered his reluctance. It was time to rest.
Eddie glanced around. "Is that light up ahead?" he asked.
Tristan put a finger up to his closed mouth. Quiet.
Eddie nodded and whispered. "Are we close?"
When the blood stopped pounding in his ears, Eddie detected a dissonant echo in the distance. It sounded like TV static. "Is that a waterfall?"
Tristan motioned for Eddie to follow. Getting up was much harder than Eddie would have guessed. His legs screamed protest as they continued their march up the tunnel. It took two sharp turns, and Eddie found himself standing before a curtain of falling water. Beyond it appeared to be pale daylight.
"Is that water clean?" Eddie asked.
Tristan frowned and shrugged.
Eddie's thirst trumped his caution. He reached out and caught a handful. The water was refreshing and clear. He drank a few handfuls before following Tristan onward, as the tunnel curved into a passage running behind the waterfall.
The path skirted to the side. Beyond the waterfall, Eddie took a look at the new landscape. It was a huge cavern, more than a half mile across and several times as deep. Eddie craned his neck and found blue sky high above this column of open space. Sunlight slanted inward, illuminating much of the wall on one side.
"Is this a volcano tube," Eddie whispered as they skirted the side of the cavern.
Tristan didn't answer. He hugged close to the wall of the cavern, keeping out of sight of the bottom more than a hundred feet below them.
They were half way down to the surface when Eddie's phone beeped. Tristan turned, alarmed, swords held ready.
Eddie threw up a hand. "My phone," he said, pulling it out of his jeans. "I've got notifications."
He glanced down at the screen. Seven missed calls, all from Ruby. There was also one text message from her:
Look carefully at the sky tonight. There's more strange things up there than the moon.
Eddie tucked the phone back into his pocket. "Sorry," he whispered to the incredulous Tristan.
The floor of the column was a craggy jumble of volcanic rock. A shelf of granite jutted out from one side, obscuring an enclosure beneath it. Gurgs holding spears marched around the hidden space. Eddie ducked back as one looked up.
"Are they under there?" Eddie whispered.
Tristan nodded, not turning.
The path spiraled downward. Soon, they were on the surface, ducked behind a rock, sneaking glances down into the lower space under the granite shelf. Within, a few torches lit a hidden domed space, a ring of statues of dancing women ringed the perimeter. At the center stood a familiar statue of the hooded figure with the earth and the rat. It was another gurg shrine.
Bryce's car and Syd's dune buggy sat parked outside the circle. They couldn't have taken the same route to this cavern that Eddie took. Clearly, there was an easier road cutting through the underground. Two gurgs armed with spears stood sentry beside the vehicles. Other guards marched around the ring, stopping where it met the walls of the cavern.
"Rejoice, my children," called a voice from within the shrine. Eddie recognized Kardhoom's sneering drawl. "As sun sets, the dragons will arrive, and we will carry these vessels of power to the Gahn Shikvat, each a sacrifice to fuel his eternal glory."
The gurgs raised their arms and hummed in a broken harmony.
Eddie found the face of Kardhoom flickering in the light of a bonfire. He heard a muttering rebuke. Kardhoom turned and kicked. Bryce's voice groaning with pain.
Not far from Kardhoom, he spotted Barlow and Phyllis hanging upside down by ropes. Phyllis had lost both an arm and a leg.
"There's no one to help them but us," Eddie said.
Tristan shook his head.
"We can't help them?"
Tristan pointed at himself, then at the shrine, then shook his head.
"You won't help them?"
Tristan pointed at the statues. He shook his head again.
"You can't go into the shrine."
"Then I'm all alone."
Tristan shook his head. He pointed back to the trail and motioned for Eddie to follow.
"I'm not leaving here without them."
Tristan motioned again.
"No. Not without my friends."
Tristan gave him a hard stare and nodded. He crossed his swords together and began to fade.
"Wait. Isn't there something you could do? Is there a plan of attack I should try?"
Tristan continued to fade. Soon, Eddie was all alone again.