The rolling planes of the desert surrounding Shurheim had gradually begun to change into the acrid wastelands enclosing the Twinpeaks. No spindly trees or prickly plants grew here, and where the animals had fled Shurheim, none had ever dwelled in the wastelands. This was a place marked by the eye of Death; ruthless child of the Father and Mother.
As Shade ran, bare feet slapping against earth as unforgiving as steel, he thought of the Gnomte back home. The dominating resonance of the Reaver's presence had drawn Shurheim's residents from their homes. With worshipful eyes they had fallen to their knees and begged him for guidance. Shade had been despaired to learn that the traditional Reaveguard that had been formed and trained to fight the Dreadlords' armies, had largely been disbanded in Shurheim. The Gnomte had always been a ambivalent race when it came to religion, and prone to disregarding that which wasn't presently a concern.
Shade had spent half a day trying to organize the diffident Gnomte into a fighting force. From the surface of Pandemonium pods had flown over the great expanse of the wastelands to smash through the rounded rooftops and walls of the diminutive city. With knives in hand, he had led the charge against one pod nearly as large as the Epitaph. From the midst of flying scales, waves of Goblins had come hopping and screeching at them.
That was over a day ago, and Shade had wasted half that time trying to ensure his race would survive. If there were no Devout to pledge themselves to the Omnistone, Shade would not Awaken a thousand years from now. The priests depended on the residental Gnomte to provide food, shelter, repairs, and protection. This was largely why the races had built their capitals so close to the site of Pandemonium's landing.
Let the others be okay, Shade begged the Mother, who protected all her children. There had been disturbing feelings of panic, pain, and anguish emanating from the other Battlesworn. Had the other races disbanded the Reaveguard as well? Shade knew his comrades lived, but were they injured? Were they sane?
Without breaking stride, Shade glanced down at his bared forearm. The skin had begun to turn gray and stiffen. Two days left. Not even. The Battlesworn had less than two days to nullify the threat of the Dreadlords before they returned to stone. And the Gnomte had not been ready.
If she glanced back, Grim could still make out the curved form of Vorstheim's Epitaph. It stood as a black shadow against the red sky, just a hump in the land. She had been been flying nonstop directly towards Pandemonium for over a day now. Although the Reavers did not tire like mortals, even Grim would need to rest soon.
It's so close, Grim thought in exacerbation. She was unsure if she was thinking of Pandemonium, or the three-day deadline. Grim would arrive at the Twinpeaks first. The Feahe sensed that Airs was close behind her. Shade had been delayed in the city for unknown reasons. Ruin's progress was steady,.but his monstrous form was slow. Grim tried not to let her frustration cloud her already troubled mind. The Feahe had remained steadfast in their duty, and Grim had been pleased to find them fighting in tactical units, having erected barricades and set traps. It wasn't the cool-tempered Feahe's aptitude that worried her, but rather how few of her kin there were.
There was an uncharacteristic, sad determination about the Feahe when Grim met with the Council. She discovered that several packs of Skinchangers had taken hundreds of children during the last Awakening, and that the Rot had hampered their reproduction rates. Grim would have loved to have stayed and learned more, to sit with the Council and speak of possibilities. Grim though had sworn herself to the task of defeating the Dreadlords, and so she had left them with stoic faces and heavy hearts.
The Twinpeaks rose above the Reaver till they blotted out the perpetual red of the sky. One was a beautiful structure of diamond that reflected all shades of red across her skin, the other comprised of a blue ziron deepened to the shade of storm clouds. The mountains were ridged with spires, plateaus, old broken trails, and sheer drops.
And resting there between the two peaks, rested the hideous fortress Pandemonium; built of black stone striated with sickly green, poisonous yellow, and rusty brown. There was no visible entrances into the alien obstruction, but that didn't matter. Mevrule's Waystone sat buried beneath the point where the Twinpeaks met, and it was there she would find entry. Together the Reavers would ascend into Pandemonium together.
But first she would find a place to rest and await her companions. Feahe after all, possessed far more sense than brash Humans or vainglorious Elfer. Grim would sit and simply enjoy being alive for a time.
Bane was the last to arrive in the encompassing shadow of the Twinpeaks. There was a narrow opening at the base only visible from a certain angle, where the others would be waiting for him. The Reaver knew he had kept even slug-paced Ruin waiting for hours, but out on the wastelands it had suddenly occurred to Bane to stop running.
Why should I run to my doom? I am no errand boy to be sent traipsing off to die. 'Go ahead Bane, go get them. We'll put you back on your alter when you're done. See you in another thousand years!'
So when the last Battlesworn trudged into the darkness of the hidden cave, it was to meet the four angry faces of his companions. Grim was best able to mask her displeasure, her eyes were two furiously burning coals.
From the clicking of her heels before he entered, Bane knew that Airs had been pacing as she waited for him. He had hardly ducked into the alcove when she swung on him. "What have you been doing?!" Bane made a mental note of the stiffness of her left knee beneath her skin-tight leggings.
Ruin's heavy brow was furrowed in consternation. "Boy-man make us wait. Make Ruin wait." He slammed the heavy head of his mammoth hammer against the wall, loosing showers of debris. "No wait!"
Bane gave the Gientun a long, leveled look settling his attention on Airs. The Elfer was beautiful as always, even with open fury wrinkling her fine copper skin. Apparently as worried as she had been, she had still felt inclined to coil her long, silvery white hair into a braided bun. Fingering a lock of tactically loose hair, Bane noted bitterly, "I see your concern for me didn't keep you from tidying yourself up."
Swatting his arm aside flippantly, Airs replied dryly, "Well, we did have time to spare."
"If you are done," Grim interrupted with strained articulation. "We should be discussing more important matters." She raised her chin haughtily, and Bane saw that the flesh underneath had begun to petrify. The flaking, gray disappeared into the cleavage of her leotard. "Like the drastic decline of affairs in Mevrule."
Even seated in a musky cavern, the Feahe was prim and elegant. Bane's eyes rested upon the high cuves of her breasts and hips before disregarding them again. The Battlesworn had no time to enoy the simple pleasures in life. "The Reaveguard was almost a foreign concept to the Gnomte," Shade noted, visibly wilting where he sat cross-legged on the floor.
"So that's why you spent half a day in Shurheim," Grim noted. "The Feahe's numbers have dwindled, but at least their Reaveguard had not forgotten their duty." Shade bowed his head in shame for his people.
"What of the others?" Bane prompted.
Airs scowled and folded her arms. "The Elfer have long memories. Almost before I was out of that sty, they had assembled themselves. When the first wave of Skinchangers came, they were ready."
"Gientun always ready," Ruin's great voice boomed pompously. He pounded his chest with a fist as big around as his head.
Bane was already nodding before the giant-man had finished. "Good. Better than my kind. It seems almost the entirety of Niinheim had convinced itself that there would never be another Pandemonium." He paused before adding, "I corrected them on that."
Thoughtful silence lay like a heavy storm cloud around the five Battlesworn. Each was lost in their own thoughts and worries for their races, and for their task ahead. Once they entered Pandemonium, there would be no returning to Mevrule until they either died or turned to stone. They had barely a day and a half to stall the Dreadlords before their alien acropolis was sucked back into its own world. As long as the Dreadlords' minions didn't find and destroy the Omnistone's heart before those three days were up, the Waystone here beneath the Twinpeaks would banish them for another thousand years.
"Are you ready?" queried a raspy, wistful voice. Bane had just opened his mouth to ask his comrades the very same thing.
As one, the five Reavers rose and faced the slim passageway leading into the depths of the mountains. In brilliant flashes of light, their individual weapons fell into their hands. Once the familiar weight of the whip was in his hand, Bane snapped the coiled lash against the floor. It echoed against the walls with the sound of splintering wood.
"Who goes?" the Human Reaver demanded, stepping to the front of the group.
A dry crackling laugh came in answer. A pale, golden light inched out from around a bend in the narrow tunnel. The stone floor was ridged and grooved like scar tissue, as black and shiny as obsidian. A susuration of slow, shuffling feet followed that single light. Each Reaver held their breath, alert and ready.
At last a thin, hunched form appeared behind the light. She paused a safe distance from the warriors, raising the lantern in her hand to reveal a long thin face more wrinkled than a tree trunk. A sharp, crooked nose protruded from a long, thin face dominated by a set of wide lips. When the hag smiled, it was to reveal an empty mouth of gray gums. One large eye roved wildly from person to person, the other socket a black hole that sucked the warmth from her lantern. She was dressed in raggedy robes dyed a brown as dull as her gray skin. It wasn't quite the same shade of gray as stone. Her skin was dappled with shriveled patches of green and black and various-sized boils.
"Just an old woman, come to see who visits," the hag replied with imploring sympathy. "I am here to greet dear friends."
"We are no friends of yours," Airs huffed, pointedly angling her swords so that the light refleted off the blades.
The crone's one eye pivoted to fix the Elfer with sudden coldness. "A beautiful woman doesn't need to think, Meldina, and for one who isn't as smart as she believes she is, I would suggest you don't speak either!" The ferocity of the woman's words had a subduing effect on the Reavers. Shade had loosened his grip on a knife in preperation to throw it.
"I would not do that young Gnomte," the ancient woman advised in purring softness. Her careening moods had left the group further unsettled. One moment she was a favorable old grandmother, the next a warty hag ready to suck the happiness from the soul.
"Witch," Bane breathed quietly in sudden recognition.
The crone gave a ghastly smile, resting one long bony finger against her nose. "See? You know me after all." Her luminous yellow eye came to focus on Bane, the pupil expanding and contracting as it did. "Yes, I know you too, Zeuren. I know who all you were, back before you began slaughtering my kin!" These last words were punctuated with a sharp hiss that made Shade flinch violently.
"A Troll," Grim noted aloofly. "I say we cut her down now, before she warns the others we are here."
"Oh dearie, they already know," the witch cackled gleefully. "I am the youngest of my sisters, gifted with glimpses of the past." She jabbed her forefinger at each of them in turn. "All I must do is look into those soulless eyes, and I know all you have done, all you have said. Even that which you have forgotten yourselves."
Unaccustomed to feeling so flustered, and comprehending little of what the she-Troll said, Ruin demanded, "What you want?"
The crone tilted her head as she studied the Gientun, her voice dropping to a near whisper. "I came here to give you a gift; remembrance." With that, she opened the hood on her lantern and lifted it.
The golden glow from inside came from no flame. Instead it was its own source and fuel, and once released, it began to glare as bright as the sun. The Reavers shied away, releasing their mental hold on their weapons to shield their faces. There was a humming that grew so high in pitch it almost passed into the ultrasonic range.
In an unmeasured time, the blackness of the cavern once again swallowed the Reavers. It took them several minutes to reorient themselves, and for their night vision to return. When they lowered their arms and looked at each other, it was with expressions of wonder. Just as the Troll witch had promised, memory returned to the Battlesworn. In their mind bloomed images of family and friends long dead. Names that hadn't been uttered in thousands of years passed their lips. Last of all came the tally of the Devout and Mindless, innocent and guilty, as well as the Dreadlords and their minions that they had slain.
Shade fell to the ground and wept openly. Airs stood hugging her shaking body. Grim was chastened and forlorn, staring dubiously down at her trembling hands. Ruin seemed almost confused by the others' reactions, yet there were pinpicks of tears in the giant's eyes. Only Bane kept his composure. Of all the things he had forgotten, the fact that his hands hadn't been clean in 12,000 years was not one of them.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Bane summoned forth his whip again. "Let's go." Without waiting to see if the others followed, he disappeared into the darkness of the passageway, and into the core of the Twinpeaks.