The Hero of Legend

Chapter 27: The Necrogond

Following a day of sailing, the Mad Hound reached the Valley of the Necrogond. After a short trek through the forest the four came to the foot of the mountain they were looking for. Alice had studied the maps of the valley and identified the volcano she thought would work best. The four readied their gear and began the climb. It took the rest of the day and part of the next but eventually they found themselves at the top.

"So this is a volcano," mused Suzanne. "As dangerous as this place is, it's beautiful in a way. No matter what artifacts and magic we come across, the world always has more power than any of them."

"Are you alright, Susie?" asked Alice.

"Yeah, I told you guys, I'm fine with my father's death," replied Suzanne. "Anyway, let's just review the plan quick. Alice, you begin casting the teleportation spell. I'll listen to your casting and when I can tell you're finishing it up I'll signal Ron to throw in the Sword. Thomas, you have a wing of wyvern ready if something goes wrong and make sure not to enter Alice's spell area until Ron does."

"We got it Susie!" said Ron impatiently, the Sword of Gaia already in his hand. "Let's get this show on the road!"

Alice began the incantation while Ron stood as close to the mouth of the volcano as he could without needing Thomas to constantly heal him of burns. Suzanne listened carefully to Alice's spellcasting; as she knew the spell herself she could tell when it was near its end. Thomas had a wing of wyvern out.

After some time Suzanne gave a wave to Ron. Ron took a few steps more towards the mouth of the volcano, taking some burns in the process, and threw the Sword of Gaia inside. As the Sword descended towards the lava it began to glow with a bright red light. As the Sword hit the lava great flames shot up, almost hitting Ron as he retreated from the mouth of the volcano. He and Thomas went into the area of Alice's spell in time for her to finish. The four teleported away without incident.

Back in Assaram the four watched the spectacle from safety. Even though the eruption took place miles and miles away flames and smoke could still be seen from the city. When the other people in the city saw the eruption they stopped what they were doing to watch the show. People left their houses and places of business to go outside. The streets of Assaram were filled with people watching the eruption coming from the Necrogond, many wondering if this was an ill omen.

"Trolls!" yelled Ron, pointing down the hill.

Running at the group were two huge, orange humanoids. Besides the different skin color, these trolls were slightly smaller than the troll who had impersonated King Crayton and they did not carry any weapons.

"Ha! I knew they were supposed to be orange!" said Alice triumphantly.

"Not the most important thing right now, Alice!" scolded Suzanne.

Having been sure to read up on trolls Alice knew that these beasts could regenerate just as the troll in Samanao had. Knowing that her staff did not have enough power she instead cast her strongest fire stream spell. A huge stream of fire engulfed the trolls, with an additional jet of flame bouncing up and down the stream. The flames did considerable damage to the trolls but the four could see they would have to be quick or even these serious burns would soon disappear.

Suzanne, Ron, and Thomas charged the beasts. Thomas fell behind the other two, chanting a spell as he ran. A large whirlwind engulfed the two trolls, giving them cuts large enough that the wounds did not disappear immediately. Suzanne and Ron made it down the hill to engage the two in melee. The trolls had the strength advantage but were clumsy and stupid. The two warriors made sure to position themselves to the right of the troll on the right. By doing this, the right troll's own body effectively blocked the left troll, and the two beasts were not smart or nimble enough to get around each other quickly.

Suzanne stabbed upwards into the troll's gut, causing a river of blood to fall out which covered Suzanne. The wounded troll swiped angrily at Suzanne. Suzanne tried to jump clear over the strike but could not jump high enough; the troll caught her legs. This caused Suzanne to fall hard on her back. Thankfully, Ron was able to use the opportunity to climb onto the troll's shoulders. He drove his sword deep into the troll's skull, dealing a mortal blow. He was then knocked to the ground himself as he was hit by the living troll as he tried to get off the dying troll.

With the two warriors in prone position Alice knew she had to act quickly or else either Suzanne or Ron would be in trouble. She recast her flame spell, once again engulfing the troll in the raging rapids of her fire river. Amazingly, the troll still stood. It was about to deal a terrible blow to Ron when Thomas made it into the melee. The troll abruptly stopped its advance towards Ron to try and swipe at Thomas but the troll's wounds slowed its attack. Thomas fell backwards to avoid the swipe and managed to escape untouched, though he was now also on the ground.

Nevertheless, Thomas' diversion gave Suzanne and Ron time to get back to their feet. They launched another double attack on the troll, this time with Suzanne going high and Ron low. They successfully felled the beast and got out of the way before its girth hit the ground.

"Damn, those bastards are tough to bring down!" cursed Ron after he had caught his breath.

"Yes they are," agreed Suzanne. "But we still have to be judicious with our resources. Alice, you can't afford to cast that spell so often. This journey is going to be an endurance test as much as it is a test of power."

"But Susie, you and Ron were sitting ducks!" protested Alice. "What was I supposed to do?"

"Tom was close enough to help us out," said Suzanne. "A shot from your staff would've been enough. But you bring up a good point. We all had a breakdown in that battle. We have to be in better position to help each other in the future. That way we won't have as many of those predicaments."

"Got it, Susie," said Ron.

The four continued their trek through the Necrogond Valley. On the first day of their march they went through a forest, over the new land bridge created by the Sword of Gaia, and ended the day in another forest. This was now the second day and they had quickly left the forest and made it onto a vast stretch of plains. They could have taken a more direct route to their destination by cutting through the hills to the west but Suzanne did not like that idea.

"It'll be easier for enemies to hide in the hills and as this area is their home, they'll have enough of an advantage as it is," she had said.

In comparison the plains had many smaller hills, such as the one the group had just fought on. Suzanne had been nervous that while they would find it easier to see enemies in the open plains that the four themselves would be easier to see. As it turned out, the plains provided a much better advantage for the group. The only enemies that the four came across were trolls and smaller green imps. The imps seldom appeared alone, preferring to work with the larger trolls as their brawn. And the trolls were large, orange, and stupid making them easy to spot on the open plains. The four were able to see most of the enemy parties and avoid them without conflict.

That did not make travelling easy, however. There was often little cover to conceal themselves with and so the four would have to take long, zigzagging routes through the plains. And all too often their efforts would be futile and their enemies would see them, causing a fight to break out. In one incident the four defeated a group of imps with a troll but were almost immediately set upon by another such group, as the other group had seen the fight and rushed over to join. Now the four had to find ways to end their fights quickly, using as few of their resources as possible.

At the end of the third day they came to another forest. They proceeded even more cautiously through the forest. The trolls were even easier to avoid in the forest as they were not experts in being quiet. However, smaller monsters proved to be tougher to avoid and much better at hiding.

"Behind us!" warned Alice.

Her warning came too late. Five strange blue clouds with faces had ambushed the group. Two of them let out waves of frigid breath. The other three converged on Alice, engulfing her with their equally frigid bodies. Fortunately, neither the monsters' breath attack nor their engulfing attack was very dangerous. Nevertheless, being pressed by three monsters in melee kept Alice from getting her staff out. Instead, she slashed at one of the cloud monsters. Her sword flew through the monster as though it were normal air, causing Alice to lose her balance. However, the monster recoiled and its face showed pain, indicating that Alice's attack had hurt it.

"Let's help Alice out so she can use her staff!" yelled Suzanne. Two of the three monsters that had focused on Alice renewed their attacks. The third broke off and unleashed another wave of frigid breath upon the four. The two other clouds floated over to Suzanne and Ron to cut them off. Suzanne and Ron both dueled their opponents and both landed a blow upon their gaseous foes. Seeing Alice almost fall over during her attack, the two warriors did not put all their might into their attacks in order to avoid the same mistake.

Thomas was able to make it to where Alice was and sent his blade through the monster that Alice had already wounded. The monster dissipated, apparently destroyed. With Thomas' arrival, Alice was able to avoid the other cloud and pull out her staff. She sent a stream of fire at Suzanne's and Ron's opponents, causing them to dissipate.

One of the remaining monsters continued the fight with Thomas. Thomas instinctively held his shield up at the creature's advance and was amazed to find that his shield was able to block its non-solid body. The other surviving cloud sent another wave of frigid air at the group. But as they no longer had a numerical or strategic advantage and since Alice now had her staff out, the two survivors were soon taken care of.

Thomas performed his usual healing routines after the four were sure that their enemies were gone. "Those monsters and their breath attacks add up," he remarked. He had to cast a healing spell on each one of the four.

"Alice, if we get ambushed by them again you need to cast one of your spells," said Suzanne.

"What happened to conserving my magic?" asked Alice.

"We all need to conserve our magic," answered Suzanne. "Thomas had to expend a lot to heal us after that fight. Those monsters weren't powerful but between their numbers and their ambush, we took some hits. You shouldn't need to pull out your most powerful magic but we'll need some help if we get ambushed again. On that note, we need to be more careful as we continue."

It took another two days before the group left the forest and came upon a cave leading underground. This cave would take them underneath the Necrogond Mountains and into a canyon, where the man from Billville had pointed Suzanne. Although they had covered most of the distance to their goal the four knew that the worst part could be yet to come.

"According to what I could find about the area, the caves of the Necrogond Mountains are notoriously dangerous," Alice had told them. "Even when there isn't an Archfiend residing in the region."

The four descended into the cave. It did not take them long to see that this was no ordinary cave. A large hallway just inside was decorated with emerald statues, one row on each side of the hallway. The statues were of valiant warriors, covered head to toe in heavy armor, armed with swords and each one in an identical battle stance.

"Wow," marveled Ron, looking at the statues. "I don't know what I expected from a cave in the Necrogond but well-made statues of human warriors definitely weren't it."

"This is surprising," agreed Alice. "I would've thought that any decorations we find would be glorifying monsters, not humans."

"They're not dressed like the people we've seen from around here either," observed Suzanne. "At least we have yet to encounter anybody from this region that wears armor. Alice, do you know of any tribes that used to live in the Necrogond that may have made these?"

"I know very little of the Necrogond tribes, period, Susie," answered Alice. "Many of the tribes took great pains to avoid outsiders."

"It seems that one of the most common themes among any nation or people is the unwillingness to work with other peoples," said Thomas sourly.

The four proceeded through the hall and turned a corner to the right. They were greeted with a wide staircase going upwards. They were also greeted with two monsters: a tiny green imp and a skeletal monster. The skeleton was similar to the undead the group had fought in Samanao except the bones on this monster were brown instead of white.

"Ron and Tom, we'll take on the skeleton. Tom has the zombie slasher so we'll try to open up its defenses for you. Alice, you take the imp," said Suzanne.

Either the imp heard what Suzanne said or it was just smart enough to know its partner was a better melee fighter. The imp took a step behind the skeleton as soon as it noticed the group. Alice countered the move with her staff, sending a stream of fire at the imp. But the imp gave no indication to have been hurt by the flames.

The other three ran into close quarters with the skeleton. This monster proved to be much more dangerous than its counterparts from Samanao. It was much quicker and clearly had skill in swordplay. Ron reached the creature first, sticking to its left side, but quickly had to fall onto the defensive against three of its blades. He blocked one but the other two snuck through to give him blows to a shoulder and a side. Suzanne focused on the creature's right and had two swords to block. She managed to block both of them but was unable to launch an offensive strike.

The idea had been for Suzanne and Ron to flank the monster and distract it which would give Thomas an opening in its middle but the creature had one more arm to spare and used it to block Thomas' slash. From over the skeleton's shoulder, the imp jumped up and completed a spell of its own, sending a fireball at Alice that exploded on impact.

"We need a good offense to hurt these guys! Fight aggressively and be ready to take some cuts!" yelled Suzanne. "Alice, use some of your magic!"

Alice began an incantation and when she finished, a large explosion engulfed the two foes. Both monsters survived the explosion but the skeleton lost two of its arms and the imp was in bad shape. Suzanne disengaged from the skeleton to finish the imp off. Heeding Suzanne's advice, Ron launched an aggressive series of moves on the skeleton. He received another two blows for his trouble but managed to take off another of the skeleton's arms.

Thomas tried to follow Ron's lead but before he could slash the skeleton his foe inhaled and then released a wave of red breath at the four. When the breath touched their skin it burned as though they had been set on fire, even though the breath was clearly not made of flames. Even after the breath dissipated Thomas' limbs felt like they were ablaze. He was unable to move. Fortunately, the other three were able to recover from the skeleton's breath and destroy it.

After the battle the other three checked on Thomas, who still was not moving.

"What was that breath?" asked Suzanne. "Why isn't Tom moving?"

Alice looked over Thomas and thought about his predicament. "I'm not exactly sure but I think he's paralyzed. Temporarily, I hope. I think I know a spell that can help him."

Alice cast a spell and Thomas was briefly engulfed in a blast of light along with several smaller bursts of light. Thomas immediately began moving his limbs and checking them over, as though he could not believe they were moving.

"Are you alright, Tom?" asked Suzanne.

"I believe so," answered Thomas. "That creature's breath made my body feel like it was on fire. The pain caused my body to lock up."

"I don't see any burns on any of us though," pointed out Ron.

"It wasn't fire, just some sort of gas that produces incredible pain," said Thomas. "I don't see any lasting damage on myself either. The creature's breath is likely for immobilization, not for killing. If all of you locked up like I did we would've been in a lot of trouble."

The four continued up the stairs and arrived in a large chamber. There was a single hallway connected to the chamber but that hallway had another hallway splitting off to the left almost immediately. The group decided to keep going forward. They came to another chamber with exits to the left and right. Alice guessed that the left exit would lead to the other hallway and so the four went to the right first. They came to a smaller chamber with a treasure chest in it. The four were fully expecting a trap and Alice made sure to check the chest with her magic.

They were surprised to find the chest was not a monster and opened it to find some gold inside. However, the chest still turned out to be a trap as the four were ambushed by four green imps. They were able to take care of the monsters but once again had to expend some magic to do so.

The four went back and took the left exit this time. This hallway would again split, a split which the group took this time. This split took them to the hallway they had first passed up. Thankfully, this hallway took them around in a half-circle, with some small chambers connecting to it, so they connected with the second split, giving a grand total of one path to take. In one of the smaller chambers there was another treasure chest. There had been another ambush of monsters, two imps and one of the brown skeletons, waiting for them but because the group had circled around the chamber by using the other hallway they ended up surprising the monsters. With the element of surprise on their side, the group dispatched their foes with few wounds and no magic.

Inside the chest was a beautiful looking sword. The sword had a blue grip with a golden pommel. The blade was mostly crimson but the entire edge was colored gold and there were vein-like gold strands going through the crimson. The blade was irregularly shaped: it was tilted and had two large spikes sprouting off it on the back end with a long spike coming off the front near the hilt. Ron and Alice both gave the sword a good looking over.

"Despite its weird shape you'll be hard pressed to find a better sword than this," Ron reported. "Its edge is just as sharp as our dragon killers. I would imagine that this is just as effective a weapon."

"I'm going to say it's even better!" exclaimed Alice, excited. "There is powerful magic inside this sword! It's like the magic that inhabits my staff: it'll allow you to manifest a spell on command. In this case, it'll conjure up a large explosion like the ones I've made from time to time."

"That sounds incredibly useful," agreed Suzanne. "Ron, you should take that sword."

"Me?" asked Ron. "Shouldn't you use it, Susie? You know much more about magic and all that stuff than I do."

"But giving you that sword would open up our group's possibilities immensely," explained Suzanne. "If I understand how these things work correctly, one need not be a spellcaster to utilize their magic potential." Alice nodded her head to confirm Suzanne's statement. "So if you use that sword than every one of us can conjure up a magical attack as the situation calls for it. It'll give us a great tactical advantage."

"But I wouldn't know when to use it," protested Ron. "I know my role on the front lines pretty well but I don't know when and where to sling spells."

"I'll tell you when the time arises," answered Suzanne. "When we're not in the middle of hostile territory we can do some drills to get you used to it more. Don't worry, you're still going to be relying on your swordplay most of the time."

"Alright," conceded Ron. He took the sword and gave it a few swings. The sword's magic caused it to leave a small gold and crimson trail on every swing. Alice theorized that the sword's magic augmented the damage its blade could do as well. Ron seemed to be satisfied with the sword's balance as well.

The numerous hallways had combined into one large chamber with only one other exit. That exit took them to a chamber with two exits: straight and to the left. They took the straight exit first and came to another treasure chest. Once again the chest was guarded by monsters: another gang of four imps. But the group was ready for them and the magic combination of Alice's staff and Ron's new sword tore the enemy group to pieces. Suzanne and Thomas cleaned up the rest and the fight was over almost as soon as it began.

Inside the chest was a suit of armor. The armor was made up of brown shoulder guards, gauntlets, and leg guards with blue chain mail to go over the torso. The interesting thing about this armor was the large spikes that covered the entirety of it. The spikes varied in size, shape, and direction.

Ron took a great interest in the suit of armor. "I never thought I'd see one of these!" he said.

"What is it?" asked Suzanne.

"I read about these," answered Ron. "It's a suit of swordedge armor. They were made for renowned warriors and generals in the First Great War. Even then they were rare and exceptionally valuable. It takes an exceptional craftsman to make one of these. Somehow, all suits of swordedge armor and the knowledge of how to make them faded long ago."

"Wow, you actually read books, Ron?" asked Alice.

Ron gave her a glare. "As a matter of fact I do. Just because I don't spend all my time studying magic doesn't mean I don't study or work hard like you do."

Alice backed off, "Geez, I was just kidding! So how good are these suits of armor anyway?"

"I'd wager this suit of armor is even better than the dragon scales Susie and I are wearing now," said Ron. "Besides that, the spikes on this thing aren't just for show. Enemies that attack with their own bodies are known to hurt themselves attacking someone wearing swordedge armor. That isn't of much note against other humans fighting with weapons but against monsters it's of great use. That's why these suits were so valuable in the First Great War."

"Well, package it up and let's get going," said Suzanne. "I don't dare leave one of us unarmored for the time it would take to change into that suit."

Monsters were not the team's only worry as they went through the cave. The cave itself began to work against them. The four found a descending staircase not far from where they found the swordedge armor. They were given two choices at the bottom of the stairs and took the choice on the left. The hallway they entered split once and then continued onwards for a long, long ways. The four continued on through the hallway, fighting through monsters as they did so, wondering when it would come to an end. After some time and several fights Suzanne concluded that the hallway would never end.

"Hey guys," said Suzanne, stopping the other group. "Can we try turning around for a moment? I want to check something."

"What is it?" asked Ron. Suzanne did not answer him but began backtracking. The other three followed her. In a short amount of time they came across the staircase they had used to get down to their current level.

"As I thought," said Suzanne. "The Navel of the Earth had similar trickery. The hallway we were just in never ends. We could have kept walking down it until the end of time."

"That's troubling," commented Thomas. "We're having enough trouble conserving our resources as it is. If we have to keep worrying about possibly infinite hallways…"

"Hey Alice," cut in Ron. "Is there any way to tell a never-ending hallway from a regular one?"

"Not that I know of, I'm afraid," Alice replied. "All we can do is try to judge when to turn back. Good call on that, Susie."

The four now took the other hallway, hoping that this one would end. They came across a chamber with several holes in the ground. A few steps into the chamber revealed that the ground in the chamber was unstable. The group tread lightly over the ground and stayed close to the walls where there were fewer holes in the ground.

The four had just reached the corner of the chamber when they were beset upon by monsters again. Two imps flew out of two of the holes in the floor. Another monster came from the chamber's exit. This monster looked like a shadow sprung to life. This shadow belonged to a being with large wings, horns, long wiry arms with long claws, and a lower body that disappeared into nothing. Unlike most shadows, the creature's color was turquoise with bright, magenta eyes. However, the strange coloration did not make the shadow any less menacing.

The group would have liked to rush the imps rather than let them fly back and cast spells but the uncertain ground kept them from doing so. To their surprise, the imps flew to them. The imps tried to fly at Alice but Suzanne and Ron were able to cut the off. The imps adjusted quickly and turned their forks at the two warriors' heads. As the imps had little in the ways of strength both Suzanne and Ron were able to block the attacks. The two warriors quickly returned blows and both made contact but their unsure footing worked against them, reducing the speed and impact of their strikes. The imps were able to pull away just enough to survive.

Thomas and Alice both tried to engage the shadow, which appeared to be casting a spell. Alice stumbled on the rough ground and Thomas was not fast enough to make it to the shadow in time. The monster completed its spell and each of the four was suddenly engulfed in clouds of thick, purple smoke.

Thomas knew what the spell was. He had cast the very spell himself. He had heard Suzanne's description of the spell from when she had had it cast on her in the Navel of the Earth. But none of that prepared Thomas for what was coming. Somehow, it made the experience worse. Thomas' mind knew that a horrible ordeal was coming and a part of him believed it was better to give in immediately rather than go through such horrible pain with no guarantee of success. That part of Thomas' mind was taking over, and the pain caused by the spell did not feel so bad, as though the spell was awarding Thomas for his obedience.

Thomas felt outside of his own body when he suddenly saw a bright light cut through the smoke. Any pain he had felt was completely gone now. He brought himself towards the light and out of the smoke.

As Thomas returned the reality it took him a moment to catch up with what was going on. Suzanne had apparently already fought off the powerful spell, though her slower movements indicated she had been quite shaken up by it. Alice appeared to have fought off the spell as well but was so stunned she almost fell over.

"Tom! Snap out of it! Destroy the shadow!" yelled Suzanne, her voice cracking.

Remembering that they had been in the middle of a battle, Thomas turned towards the shadow to find the creature reaching for his neck. Thomas reacted quickly and ducked under the shadow's hands. The shadow seemed surprised that Thomas had recovered from its deadly magic. Thomas took advantage of that surprise to stab his blade upwards. His sword entered the shadow at its midsection and he brought it out through its head. The maneuver was apparently devastating to the monster as it shrieked and dissipated.

Back towards the corner of the chamber, Alice had come back to her senses and she and Suzanne were able to dispatch the two imps. Thomas then looked towards Ron, who had not moved since the shadow had cast its spell. Realizing what that meant, Thomas ran towards Ron, only just able to keep his balance as he did so.

Thomas opened up Ron's helmet. Ron's face was locked in a horrible, silent scream. Though the shadow had been destroyed, its spell continued its work on Ron. Thomas knew he had little time. He cast a spell on Ron, summoning a beam of light from the ceiling down upon Ron's body. This time, Thomas was able to get the spell to work on his first try. Ron immediately fell to his knees and began coughing, as though he had just been choking. A few seconds later he puked onto the ground.

"Easy," said Thomas. "There's nothing wrong with your body. Your mind just thinks there is. Take a few deep breaths and sit in the corner for a moment."

"That was the most horrible experience I've ever had in my life," said Alice. "It's a good thing you were able to beat that spell so easily, Susie."

"Nothing easy about it," replied Suzanne. "I swear that was even worse than the first time I had that spell cast on me."

Ron, now feeling good enough to stand back up, walked up to Thomas and clapped him on the back. "You all did a good job of beating that spell. Especially you, man. If it weren't for you I'd be dead now."

"But I didn't beat it," said Thomas, confused. "A part of me wanted to give in and die and I let that part of me win. I shouldn't be alive right now."

"You're always being so hard on yourself, Tom," said Suzanne. "Nobody helped you beat that magic. You wouldn't be alive if you hadn't beat it."

"You misunderstand," replied Thomas. "I know how that spell works. And I know that I didn't beat it. I should be dead now. How am I not?"

"Hey, enough of that talk," said Ron. "That spell did a lot to all of us. I think we should head back."

"I couldn't agree more," said Alice. "I've had way too much pain for one day."

"When even Ron has had enough fighting that's probably a good place to stop," joked Suzanne. "I agree as well. We've made a lot of mistakes on this trip, myself included. I should've known something was up when the imps rushed us, something they haven't done before. This was a coordinated ambush. If we head back we can take some time to recover and work on what we've learned about this area. And when we return we'll do much better. Sound good to everyone?"

Ron and Alice both nodded their heads. Thomas, lost in thought over how he survived the deadly spell, did not respond at first but another prompting from Suzanne yielded a nod from Thomas as well. Alice began to cast a teleportation spell to whisk the four out of the cave. As she did so, Thomas suddenly had an idea. He reached into one of his pockets.

In that pocket his hand grasped a bunch of sand. Thomas now knew how he had survived. The Stone of Life had died in his place.

The group retreated from the Necrogond safely and returned to Assaram. They took four weeks to recover and train for another excursion. Suzanne had the group running drills to guard against ambushes and to fight with difficult footing. Ron was given ownership of the swordedge armor and worked on adjusting his fighting style for his new equipment. In four weeks he was unable to make many changes but Alice was impressed with the progress he made in using his new sword's magic. Thomas researched the death magic the group had faced and came up with some mental drills to help the four fight it. Alice did her usual magic research but also put an added emphasis on studying the monsters they had fought and analyzing their battles against them.

The group set out for the Necrogond with renewed confidence and energy. Their four weeks of preparation proved to be well spent. The four made their way through the Necrogond with much greater ease than on their first try. Although they still were surprised by monsters on a couple occasions the four did a much better job of guarding against ambushes.

The four found the cave that had repelled them four weeks ago. Using their map the team was able to make progress a lot quicker. As in the valley, they also fought much better. They even encountered another of the turquoise shadow monsters but were able to keep this one from using any magic.

The team proceeded past the room with the unstable floor and soon found an ascending staircase. The floor on the next floor was better than that of the chamber they had just left but it did have a few large chasms. The floor also had a few small ponds. Strangely enough there were few monsters on this floor. Those that were there the group handled with little issue.

However, exploration of the floor revealed that there was no easy way to proceed. The four found a hallway with an ascending staircase that they could not access; there was a chasm that cut the group off from the hallway. The chasm was far too wide to cross and so the team had to pull out their rope and drop down through the chasm. This brought them to a very large chamber.

"Something's wrong here," noted Suzanne as the four climbed down the rope.

"I know what you mean," said Ron. "Where are all the monsters?" The group could now see the majority of the large chamber. There was only one wall obstructing view of the chamber. From what the four could see, there were no monsters around.

"Cheer up, guys! This is a good thing!" said Alice.

"I concur with Susie and Ron," said Thomas. "I feel like we're being set up."

"Well I take it as a good sign," persisted Alice. "I think all the monsters decided to hang out around the entrance of this cave so they could turn away any adventurers like us that might come by. We've broken through the lines!"

"I guess that makes sense," conceded Ron.

"I hope you guys are right, but stay on your guard," cautioned Suzanne. "And I think we should try to move quietly for a little while. If there is something waiting ahead I don't want them to know we're coming."

Suzanne cast a spell on the group that helped them make less noise. They still had to walk slowly and carefully but without the spell the armor that the four of them wore would have made attempts at stealth futile. Weary of being ambushed the whole way, nevertheless the group was able to make it to an ascending staircase without incident.

The next floor was a good deal more scenic than the last few floors. A river ran straight through the cavern. Going across the river were several bridges. The bridges were decorated with emerald statues of human warriors, very similar to those in the cavern's entrance. The walls were gorgeous; there were jewels embedded in the walls in such formations that they made great pictures. The wall nearest to the four depicted a fierce warrior made up of various jewels. The group almost let out an exclamation but managed to appreciate the artwork in silence.

Although initially awed by the chamber, the four quickly regained their focus and proceeded with care. And it was good that they did for the trap they were expecting was sprung as soon as they stepped on one of the bridges. From out of nowhere a loud, screeching sound blasted through the chamber. Any attempts at stealth were broken by that noise. Across the river were three hallways. Out of two of the hallways came two lions with orange fur, purple manes, fierce red eyes, and wings upon their backs. From behind the group a turtle monster crawled out of the water. The turtle had dark orange scales and a green shell. It had grey frills on its head which resembled that of a dragon's more than a turtle's.

Alice drew a stream of fire in front of the two lions with her staff but the lions ran through it unharmed. Suzanne and Ron moved to cut the lions off but one of them took flight and went after Alice. Alice tried to duck under the lion's claws but the lion gave her a good strike on her back, the impact caused her to fall down. The turtle moved towards Alice, ready to chomp her head off, but Thomas stepped forward to engage the beast. The turtle rewarded Thomas' maneuver with a vicious snap to his midsection. Thomas' armor held but the impact still inflicted some pain.

Thomas thought he had an opportunity as the turtle had left its head exposed. The turtle turned its head causing Thomas' strike to hit it at an angle. Against most creatures the strike would have done considerable damage but the turtle had thick scales that caused Thomas' strike to glance off.

While Ron made his way over the bridge to help Thomas and Alice fight the two monsters, Suzanne dueled against the other lion monster. The lion that had stayed on land was noticeably more sluggish than the one that had taken flight. Noticing this, Suzanne decided to go for the wings to ensure it would keep that sluggishness. The lion pounced, bringing both its powerful paws towards Suzanne but it was too slow and Suzanne was able to roll to the side. With a couple quick strikes she shortened one of the lion's wings, rendering it useless, and removed the other.

Thomas' assistance with the turtle gave Alice the time to return to her feet. As the lion had proven resistant to her staff, was still in the air, and Alice wanted to conserve her magic she decided to help Thomas with the turtle. Alice tried to aim her strike in such a way that the turtle would give Thomas a great shot at its neck but it only took a subtle move from the turtle to make Alice's strike near useless. Another subtle move ensured Thomas' attack would be no more effective. The turtle then let out a burst of flaming breath upon the whole bridge. Towards the cave's ceiling the flying lion cast a spell, causing a stream of fire to run across the bridge. If the bridge had been made of wood the four would have been in bad shape indeed.

Ron fought his way through the flames and joined Thomas and Alice against the turtle. Having noticed that the turtle did such a good job protecting its head he decided to take a shot at one of its legs. His guess proved correct as he landed a direct hit on the creature's front right leg. Its scales still took a considerable amount away from the blow but Ron's magical blade found its way past the scales and drew blood.

"Withdraw from the monsters!" shouted Suzanne as she plunged her sword into the grounded lion. "We need to get out, more are on the way!"

The other three all heeded Suzanne's advice. The surviving monsters rewarded their prudence by covering the bridge in flames again. The three gritted their teeth and made it through. They soon saw what Suzanne had been referring to. Two of the skeletons were blocking one of the hallways.

"Break through the skeletons! Use your magic!" shouted Suzanne. There were two other hallways the group could go through but given the level of organization the monsters had displayed, Suzanne had a feeling that the path of most resistance was the right one. At least the four had fought these monsters already and so had a good idea what would work on them.

Rather than engage both monsters and face 12 swords Suzanne held up and chanted a spell. A bolt of lightning came down from the cave ceiling and struck one of the skeletons. The skeleton managed to resist the next magic attack, an explosion caused by Ron's sword. Its partner was clearly harmed, however.

The two skeletons bore down on Suzanne and Ron, who had now caught up to Suzanne. 12 swords pummeled the two warriors, inflicting numerous cuts and bruises. Alice conjured up a huge river of flames, with a jet of flame bouncing up and down the river, which consumed the two skeletons and destroyed them. The four were then engulfed in flames as the turtle had caught up to them and let loose its breath weapon again.

The four broke into a run forward, weary that more monsters would be on the way. Thomas and Alice began chanting healing spells as they ran as they had taken considerable damage in the encounter. The hallway ran straight ahead to another large river and also had a branch to the right. Suzanne took the briefest of moments to make a decision. Down the branch Suzanne could see some more monsters rushing for them. In front of them were no monsters and Suzanne believed the bridge would take them over the river and to the right. This would take them around the monsters but still get them to what the monsters were guarding.

Unfortunately this path did not prove any safer than the other. The four took the bridge but were given three ways to go from there. Turtle monsters swarmed towards land from the river. They were attempting to form a long line blocking access to the farthest hallway. Once again, Suzanne bet on the path of most resistance.

"Don't stop healing!" shouted Suzanne. She began chanting her own healing magic. The turtles were not fast enough to cut the group off but were able to subject them to a gauntlet of flaming breath. The combination of flames and spell-chanting made it almost impossible for the three spellcasters to breathe enough to keep running but their adrenaline kept them going. Ron began using his sword's magic in a desperate attempt to thin out the turtles' numbers but they proved quite resistant to the explosions and most did not take any damage at all.

The group took the farthest hallway and finally distanced themselves from the turtles. They were relieved to find the next chamber empty of monsters. Nevertheless, they kept their mad dash. As soon as they exited the chamber they found themselves next to another river. Turtles were once again rushing out of the water towards them and several flying lions were hanging around the cavern ceiling.

Although the lions had proven resistant to most magic thrown their way Thomas decided to take a chance by casting a spell. A large whirlwind appeared and engulfed the lions. Although the wind did not appear to have caused much pain directly it caused havoc with the lions' flight. Several were forced to land and those that did not were thrown away from the group.

Thomas' spell proved crucial as the four were able to close the distance and begin ripping through the lions. As before, the lions were much worse fighters while on the ground. Up ahead the group could see an ascending staircase with light shining through it; a beacon of hope that it was almost over.

The four were making great progress cutting through the lions but were not moving fast enough to avoid the coming turtle. Alice cast spells on Suzanne and Ron to boost their strength. Thomas and Alice then continued cutting through the lions while Suzanne and Ron fought the turtles. There were too many turtles for them to hope to kill but they needed only try to keep the immediate shoreline clear to keep themselves from being overwhelmed by flaming breath. The turtle monsters were clearly reliant on their scales to protect them. Their subtle moves were enough to keep them safe in most cases but Alice's spell made those moves insufficient. Suzanne and Ron were now able to cut the heads off the turtles with ease.

A group of skeletons had just turned the corner and was running towards the group when Thomas and Alice finally broke through the line of lions. Suzanne and Ron disengaged from the turtles and the four made another dash for the staircase. Flames appeared all around them, produced by turtles' breath and lions' flame but the four persevered.

Finally, the four left the cave, coming out on the top of a steep hill. The group did not stop there; they ran as fast as they dared without risking taking the steep drop. After a minute of running they realized they were not being chased. Their run finally ended and they took a minute to catch their breath. They had made it through the cave alive.

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