Ga'briyel was outside long before first light. In fact, he had not slept at all. He knew that he needed sleep, but his mind would not shut down, and he had passed most of the night staring into the coals in the fireplace in the front room of the inn. The last two hours had been spent walking the few streets of Mirstone and gazing up at the mountains. They were only black giants in the night, looming over him and sending a shiver down his spine, and even when the sky began to lighten, they stayed that way. Dark, forbidding, hostile behemoths that seemed to suck the joy and life from the town.
He had asked Rewis about the clammy sensation he still had not been able to name, and the man had instantly identified it as resignation. When Ga'briyel had asked what they were all resigned about, Rewis had said, "You have to understand, Anmah. People from Mirstone and the other villages in the shade of the mountains go missing all the time. Sometimes we find their bodies during our searches, but most of the time, they simply disappear. Evil waits in these mountains for the unwary, and everyone in this village knows that any day, they might lose another family member, so they prepare for it by keeping their emotions cold and distant. Usually it is the children who disappear, but not always. Occasionally, a man or woman will get drunk on biyari or elako and wander off. Usually this is after a child has gone missing as one did just two days ago. A little girl only eight years old. We find the bodies of the adults, but we never find the children."
Ga'briyel thought about that as he stared up at the mountains that lay less than ten paces from where he was standing. To go through life accepting the fact that your child could vanish at any moment had to be an awful way to live. He could not imagine how these people managed to keep living their lives as well as they did. Perhaps while he was off battling whatever evil it was he would find next, he would also find out what had happened to the children.
He was still standing there, staring up at the mountains that were slowly turning from black to a dark gray, when he smiled. "How did you sleep, my heart?" Sophyra's arms came around him, and he placed one hand over hers.
"Not well, Ga'briyel. I missed you next to me."
"I am sorry about that," he said, his smile fading, "but I knew I would not sleep. I did not want to keep you awake, too."
She tightened her arms around him. "But you did, my love. I cannot sleep well when you are not with me."
He pulled her around himself and held her. "Forgive me, Sophyra. It will not happen again. I promise."
Stepping back from him, she said, "I was sent to get you, Ga'briyel. The others are ready to leave."
"As am I. My pack is in our room."
"Dinton already has it. We are just waiting for you."
"Tell the others to come, my heart. I will wait here."
She looked at him in confusion, but then she nodded and left him. He crossed to the place where the clearing ended and the rocks began. At this point, the rocks ranged from pebbles the size of a pea to rocks the size of a fist, but he knew that as they traveled, they would grow into boulders bigger than a house. He remembered that much from his trip over the Parbatas.
"Thank you, Dinton," he said without turning his head. He held his hand out behind him, and his friend placed his pack in it. He slung it over his shoulder so that it hung at his right hip. In it were several changes of clothes, his heavy cloak, the dried meat and vegetables that the men of Mirstone survived on when they went on their patrols, and two water bags. On his back was a thick, fur-lined cloak treated with some type of oil to make it waterproof. It was much warmer than the cloaks they had brought with them, for it also kept out the wind. He and the others were dressed in breeches and tunics of the same make, lined with fur and oiled. At his hip, of course, was his sword, which he fingered as the others came up behind him. His eyes never left the mountain.
Ga'briyel looked at the man standing beside him and handed him the map. "Lead the way."
"As you wish, Anmah."
Rewis nodded once and stepped from the grass to the stones. Ga'briyel was right behind him. The others followed closely with Sophyra in the center of the group, which now numbered eighteen.
"Keep your eyes open and your ears sharp," Rewis said quietly, and Ga'briyel knew he was not speaking to the men of Mirstone. "If you see anything, tell me at once. Even if you think it is nothing. Rarely is something nothing in the Parbatas."
The slope was steep from the moment they left the clearing, and the rocks made their footing unstable. Ga'briyel, the captains, and the men from Mirstone had little trouble keeping their feet, but Sophyra and the boys slid constantly, sending small avalanches of pebbles down the slope. At one point, Rewis stopped and glared at them.
"Quiet! We do not want to attract attention!"
After that, they stepped more carefully.
"Tell me about the things in the mountains," Ga'briyel said softly after they had been walking for about an hour and only crossed about half a league's distance.
Rewis glanced at him. "Why do you want to know?"
"I like to know what I am fighting. You said there were creatures."
"Yes, Anmah. Luten and Idajo and Sisuvu. All are spawn of Sayatan. Luten are small creatures, usually a pace or less tall with large hands and feet that would fit well on a human male. They have dark brown skin that is wrinkled like dried-out leather. Idajo are similar but are even smaller. Their faces are ugly and scarred and twisted, and their teeth could easily chew through a man's leg. Sisuvu are larger than the other two, but not by much, have wings with sharp claws at the tips, and red eyes. Their hands are also tipped with claws that could pierce skin as easily as a sword. All three are evil, Anmah. Pure evil."
Ga'briyel just nodded silently as his eyes scanned the barren slope. "And the animals?"
Rewis shrugged. "Baluka, sinha, bagha, chagala, you name it, there are animals out here who could tear a man limb from limb."
"I know." When Rewis glanced at him, Ga'briyel continued. "Which is like a large striped cat?"
"That would be a bagha. What do you know of that?"
Ga'briyel sighed heavily. "One killed me on my first trip through the mountains."
Rewis' eyes went wide. "How old were you?"
The man all but stopped walking as he stared at the Anmah. "Six years old? You crossed these mountains at six years old? Alone?"
"Yes, but I died nine times in the process." Ga'briyel glanced at Rewis briefly before once again studying the land around them. "It was not pleasant."
"No, I cannot imagine it was," Rewis said softly, and then the men dropped back into silence.
They traveled until almost last light, which came early in the mountains, stopping only once to have a brief, cold midmeal of dried meat and fruits. When they finally made camp, Ga'briyel estimated that they had only made it perhaps ten leagues toward their destination. At this rate, they might make it to the ruins in time, and he brooded about this as the others made camp behind him on a relatively flat piece of ground.
He stood almost ten paces from camp and stared into the rocks that surrounded them. His right hand was on his sword, and his eyes glowed dimly. He attempted to extinguish them completely, but there was still a faint light coming from them.
"There's something out there, Tero," he said quietly, "and it is not an animal."
"What do you feel?" the older man asked from behind him.
"Evil. I feel dirty, like I need a bath to wash away the scum covering me, but there is something beneath that. It is almost as if whatever it is wants help, as if it needs help. It is not a Daitya, and it is not an Azazil. I do not know what it is, and that bothers me."
"Well, whatever it is, I am sure the men of Mirstone have encountered it before. Have you told Rewis what you are feeling?"
"No. What good would it do? He does not know what Luten or Idajo or Sisuvu feel like. He might know what they look like or sound like, but he cannot tell me what it is by the sensation I have." His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. "I cannot fight what I do not understand, Tero."
"Yes, you can. You did it in Difeld, and you did it in Grama. You will figure out a way to do it again."
Ga'briyel said nothing more, and Tero slowly walked back to camp. Only moments passed before another man spoke.
"You should not be away from the camp, Anmah." Rewis sounded worried, and that was verified when the serpent slithered around Ga'briyel. "There are dangers here that you do not understand."
"I know I do not understand them, Rewis, but there is only one way to understand them. I must encounter them, and I must do it alone." Ga'briyel drew his sword, and it slid silently out of the scabbard. "Tell the others to stay here and to not follow me. Especially Dinton and Sophyra. Tie them up if you have to in order to keep them here."
"Where are you going, Anmah?"
"To find whatever it is I feel right now. It is east of us about a league."
"Will you kill it, Anmah?"
"Perhaps, if I have to. I want to understand it, though, so I may try to capture it."
"To what purpose? If it is Sayatan's spawn, it will not speak to you."
Ga'briyel took one step into the darkening night. "I hope you are wrong, Rewis."
He heard the man huff in frustration, but he kept walking, his eyes glowing brightly now so that he could see his way through the rocks. They were larger now, but not quite as large as a house yet. Several stood taller than himself, however, and he carefully peered around these before moving on. There was no question about where he was headed. He could feel the creature almost as if it were drawing him to itself. He knew when it was half a league in front of him and when it was a hundred paces ahead. It had not moved since he had started walking, and again, his hand tightened on his sword.
The light was completely gone now, and only Ga'briyel's eyes let him see anything. Even then, they only saw a pace or so in front of him, and he had practically no peripheral vision. He slowed his steps and held his sword at the ready, but the sense of needed help was getting stronger by the second. Unfortunately, so was the filthy, scummy feeling, and he shuddered as he carefully walked forward.
He had reached the largest boulder yet after more than an hour of walking, and he was just about to peer around it when he heard a giggle coming from the other side. It was not the giggle of a child, though; it sounded evil, and the sensations surrounding him intensified tenfold. He stopped and held his sword steady.
"Whatever you are, come out!"
The giggling grew louder, and several small, dark forms flowed out from behind the boulder to block any retreat by circling him. He slowly turned in a circle as his sword dipped to point at the forms, and he studied them carefully. Based on the oversized hands and bare feet, he knew these were Luten. They were ugly creatures, their naked bodies covered with brown, leathery skin that looked like it would crack and bleed at any moment. As he turned, Ga'briyel counted twelve males and twelve females, and it looked as if five of the females were with child.
"I do not want to hurt you!" he bellowed, and one of the males stepped forward and stared at his sword before raising his muddy brown eyes to the Anmah. When the Luten smiled, Ga'briyel tried his best not to flinch at the sharp teeth that shone violet in the light of his eyes.
"Ha ehe ta meho o kinao kia, Anmah?"
What business have you here, Anmah?
Just as before, Ga'briyel's mind instantly translated the language, and he answered, "I came to find you, I suppose. Unless there is some other evil out here that would account for what I am feeling?"
"No, Anmah, not at the moment. We are the only servants of Sayatan for several dozens of leagues."
Ga'briyel frowned as the Luten's grin grew larger until it seemed to split his face in two.
"Now, why do I not believe that?" he said dryly.
The Luten shrugged. "Perhaps because you know I would lie to you every chance I got," he said, his grin never fading.
The evil Ga'briyel had felt was almost overpowering now, but he ignored it and glared at the diminutive Luten.
"Someone among you wants help, Luten. Who is it?"
The creature's eyes went wide as the others started talking softly amongst themselves. "You know what we are, Anmah? How?"
"I was told." Ga'briyel pointed his sword at the Luten. "Do you have a name?"
The thing grinned again, and Ga'briyel held back a shudder. "I do. It is Andani. You may call me this if you wish."
"Andani. Who wants help? One of you?"
"Oh, no, Anmah. That would be the child."
Ga'briyel's eyes flashed brightly, and he growled deep in his chest. "What child?"
Andani gestured away from the camp. "Come, Anmah. I will show you."
The other Luten parted so that the two could pass through them, but Ga'briyel took a step closer to Andani, grabbed it by the throat, and held it up at eye level as it choked and spluttered. "Know this, Hellspawn. I will have no problem killing all of you if you threaten me or this child in any way. Do you understand me?" His hand tightened around the thing's neck. Its oversized hands wrapped around his wrist, but it nodded, and Ga'briyel dropped it to the ground. He was surprised to see it grin again.
"Do not be so dramatic, Anmah. This child is in no danger from us." Ga'briyel gestured for all the Luten to precede him, and they obliged, but Andani held back for a moment. Then the giggle he had heard earlier burst from the little creature, and Ga'briyel shivered. "Of course, that does not mean she is not in danger."
Before Ga'briyel could ask what it meant by that, Andani had joined the others ahead of him. He followed them perhaps a hundred paces straight ahead, and then the Luten in the forefront of the group knocked a complicated pattern against a large boulder that stood in their path. Ga'briyel was astonished to see a chunk of the rock slide to the side, revealing a black opening slightly less than two paces tall.
"You will have to duck, Anmah," Andani chuckled. "The paths we will take were meant for such creatures as we are, not for immense giants like yourself."
Ga'briyel growled as he smoothly sheathed his sword, knowing that he would not be able to use it properly in the tunnel he saw as he got closer to the boulder. Instead, he drew a dagger from his belt and held it ready.
"Remember, Luten, no treachery or I will kill you all."
They just nodded, and Andani giggled again, raising the hairs on Ga'briyel's neck. Then, one by one, they entered the tunnel. The Anmah paused briefly before following, but when Andani mentioned the girl, he took a deep breath, bent his head, and entered the blackness. Almost immediately, the rock door slid closed behind him. The feeling of helplessness almost overwhelmed Ga'briyel, but he just glanced behind him and noticed a lever on this side of the door, and he knew he would be able to get out again if it became necessary.
"Who is this?" A deep, grating voice sounded in front of the group of Luten, and as one, they whimpered and prostrated themselves on the floor, their arms stretched out in front of them. Ga'briyel felt another shiver run through him as he stared at the dark shape filling the tunnel beyond the Luten. The creature hissed in a breath, and a pale hand flew out and dragged Andani to his feet. "You dare bring an Anmah here, you fool? I knew you were an idiot, but I did not think you had a death wish! Ajingara will not be pleased with you."
"What are you?" Ga'briyel asked the dark figure, pleased that his voice was steady even though he felt like fleeing in terror. It was the first time in his life he had felt such fear, and he steeled himself against it.
The figure flung the Luten against the wall where it hit with a sickening thud, fell to the floor, and lay still. The other Luten whimpered again and tried to press themselves deeper into the stone floor of the tunnel. Then the dark creature folded its hands into the sleeves of its robe and moved toward the Anmah, flowing over the Luten as if they did not exist. As it got closer, Ga'briyel saw that it was robed in much the same manner as Kardag but without the sash. When its eyes met Ga'briyel's, the Anmah flinched at their blood-red color. There were no pupils, and the entire orb was a solid crimson. They were set in a face as pale as death, and Ga'briyel readied his dagger.
"I am a Takosa, Anmah."
"Do you have a name?"
The creature smiled, and once again, Ga'briyel was reminded of Kardag, but the feeling he got from the Takosa was one of bitter cold, as if the creature had walked straight out of an ice house after having stayed there for a sennight.
"I have a name, Anmah. Do you?"
"Of course I do, but I will not tell it to you."
The creature shrugged. "No matter. No one here needs to know your name to kill you." It grinned. "You do realize you are never leaving here alive, don't you?"
"I am here for the girl, Takosa, that is all. Show me where she is, and I just might let you live."
"Let me live?" the Takosa laughed. "You have no idea where you are, do you, Anmah?"
At this, Ga'briyel's hand whipped forward and grabbed the Takosa by the front of its black robe. He placed the dagger's blade against the creature's throat and snarled, "It does not matter where I am, Takosa. If one hair on that girl's head is harmed, I will slaughter all of you, no matter how many of you there are down here."
"Oh, she is not harmed," the Takosa sneered as it glanced down at the hand that held it. "Yet. Shall I show you?"
Ga'briyel slowly released the robe and nodded, his eyes blazing brightly.
"Get up, you cowardly fools!" the Takosa screamed at the Luten, and they all jumped to their feet, shaking violently. Andani lay where he had fallen, and Ga'briyel spoke.
"Is he dead?"
"Yes. The cretin should never have brought you here, and he paid the price." The Takosa turned its head toward the Anmah, and Ga'briyel held back another shiver. "But you are here, and I will lead you to the girl." The creature grinned. "I will show you what happens to children who get lost in these mountains."
Turning away from him, the Takosa herded the remaining Luten down the tunnel. Ga'briyel followed cautiously, keeping his grip on his dagger and drawing a second as he walked. The tunnel ran straight and flat without a single branching corridor or rise or fall of the floor. The floor that was smooth and without flaw as if it were made of marble or sanded granite. The walls, however, were what Ga'briyel expected being underground. They were rough-cut stone and packed dirt, and he could smell the earthy scent. It gave him some comfort.
They continued for several stades, never turning once, until the tunnel opened out into a large cavern. Steps spiraled down from the tunnel to the floor of the cavern at least a hundred paces below. Ga'briyel was able to stand straight since the roof of the cavern was another hundred paces above him. He could not see the far wall, but his eyes instantly went to the tableau in the center of the cavern floor.
A table stood there, and he could make out the girl lying still on it. Her eyes were closed, but her fear was stifling him. She was clothed in only a light, white tunic, and he frowned. Several Luten and other small creatures surrounded her, and a large being was at her head. Ga'briyel quickly sheathed one dagger and drew his sword.
"You cannot save her, Anmah," the Takosa jeered. "She is doomed to her fate."
Ga'briyel's head snapped to the left, and he was shocked to see the Takosa floating in the air beyond the stairs. The Luten were halfway down the steps, and Ga'briyel quickly ran after them. He caught up to them before they reached the bottom and roughly shoved them off the stairs as he rushed down toward the girl. Several fell, screaming as they plummeted down, the screams ceasing abruptly with loud thuds as their bodies hit the floor. Ga'briyel could not have cared less about them.
"Stop!" he yelled as his booted feet hit the cavern floor, and the large being's head swiveled slowly toward him even as the Takosa laughed as it floated over to the table. The creature stood at least ten paces high, and its face was not human. It was a cross between a horse and a serpent, and when its black eyes landed on Ga'briyel, a serpent's tongue flicked out from between its sharp teeth with a hiss. Its skin was made up of scales, and they shone with a black light.
"An Anmah?" it roared, and huge black wings snapped out from the back of the creature. One black-clawed hand flew from its side to wrap around the Takosa who instantly stopped laughing. "You dare bring an Anmah here?"
"Please, Ajingara," the Takosa whined. "It was that fool Luten, Andani. He showed him the way. I simply brought him to you to do as you please with him. Besides, he wanted to see what is going to happen to the girl."
Ajingara did not seem to care, and Ga'briyel watched as the claw tightened slowly. The Takosa squirmed and shook and shrieked, but the huge creature simply stared at Ga'briyel as it squeezed. Within moments, the Takosa exploded much as an egg would if one squeezed it too hard. Amazingly, there was no blood, but the creature kept its eyes on the Anmah as it slowly licked what remained off its fingers and palm.
"Where is Andani?" it called out.
"He is dead, your Eminence," one of the Luten said after prostrating himself in front of the being. "Jure killed him for bringing the Anmah here."
The being walked around the table, stepping on the Luten in the process, and then shook its foot to remove the gore from it. As it moved toward Ga'briyel, he could see that its feet were clawed just like its hands, and the claws clicked against the floor of the cavern.
"What is your name, Anmah?" The creature even sounded like a snake, and Ga'briyel set his stance as he felt a familiar tug within his chest. He also felt a pressure inside his head, but he just shook it slightly and shrugged off the sensations. "Tell me, Anmah, what is your name?"
"I do not think I want to tell you, but I would like to know what you are, Hellspawn."
The creature barked out a laugh. "Hellspawn, is it? Well, you are right about that. I was indeed created in Hell." He gestured behind him toward several openings in the wall that glowed with a reddish light. "I can take you there if you would like."
"No, I think not. What are you?"
"I am a Dirack, Anmah. One of Sayatan's greatest creations and the ruler of this place. My name is Ajingara. Will you not tell me your name?"
Again, there was pressure in his head, and again, he banished it. "Why do I not feel anything from you?"
Ajingara blinked, and if an animal could be said to frown, that's what the Dirack did. "I can hide my nature from you, Anmah. Why can I not control you?"
Grinning, Ga'briyel shifted his stance as he noticed dozens of Luten and what he assumed were Idajo and Sisuvu surrounding him. "I would say it is because of what I am."
"And what is that, boy?"
"Think hard, Ajingara. What do you think I am?"
The creature frowned again and closed its eyes. Within moments, they flew open and he roared. As it did so, Ga'briyel could see flames in the open maw, and he readied himself to jump. This Dirack breathed fire, and he had not yet died that way, so he had to be careful. The smaller creatures around him fell to the ground and cringed against the sound and the sudden cloying heat, and the Anmah felt the little girl's fear increase until he thought he would lose his breath from it.
"A Sainika! Here in my domain! Kill him!"
The little creatures jumped to their feet and rushed Ga'briyel, and he spent the next minutes cleaving his way through the first charge. Not a single one got through his defenses, but there were more coming for him, and, as he looked around the cavern, he saw even more flowing from the tunnels behind the table. He tried to keep his eyes on the Dirack, but he could not as the smaller creatures swarmed him. His head whipped around when he felt intense heat to his right, though, and he instantly dove left, rolling back to his feet in seconds. The Dirack's flame singed his exposed skin, but it blazed past him to incinerate several of the Luten behind where he had been standing. They screamed loudly and shrilly, but he ignored them. Again and again, Ajingara tried to burn him alive, but Ga'briyel was too quick, dodging left and right and left again, and the Anmah took advantage of the creature's rage, allowing it to kill its own followers until there were none left, only small charred bodies scattered around the cavern.
"Now it is your turn to die, Ajingara!" he yelled, and the Dirack laughed.
"You cannot kill me, boy! You don't know how! I can sense that much, at least."
Unfortunately, that was true, and Ga'briyel did not know what to do for a moment, but then a soft, calm voice filled his mind.
You must extinguish his flame, my son. You must drive your sword down his maw and pierce the organ that creates it. It is close to the back of his maw and easy to find, but he will probably use his flame on you first. It will be immensely painful, my son, but you must fight through it. This is the only way to kill it. If you do not, the Dirack will transform the girl into a Luten.
"Yes, Yisu," Ga'briyel whispered, and then he slowly made his way toward the stairs he had first come down. If he was to reach the Dirack's maw, he needed to be higher.
"What are you doing, boy? Trying to run? What about the girl? I thought you were here to save her. You wouldn't be abandoning her, would you?"
"No, Dirack. I am going to kill you," he answered as he climbed the steps. When he was at the level of the creature's mouth, he stopped and raised his sword.
Ajingara laughed again. "That sword is useless against me, tiny Anmah. Nothing can penetrate my scales, not your sword, not arrows, nothing."
"I know that, Dirack," Ga'briyel said, although he had not until that moment. "But you will die in spite of that. I do know how to kill you."
"How? You didn't a moment ago."
The Anmah grinned. "Yisu told me."
At the name of the Creator, the Dirack roared again, and Ga'briyel used that moment to jump from the stairs onto the creature's lower jaw. He looked down into its throat and saw a glowing orb less than a pace away from him.
"Foolish boy! I will kill you now!"
Ga'briyel knew that was true, and he stabbed his sword into the orb just as a blast of fire surrounded him. The pain was excruciating, and he fell backward out of the Dirack's mouth, losing his grip on his sword in the process. He hit the ground with a smack and the sound of several of his bones breaking, which only heightened the agony. He screamed as his flesh melted off his bones, and he kicked his legs in an effort to extinguish the flames, but there was nothing he could do. He vaguely heard a loud crash somewhere to his left, but he was too wrapped up in his anguish which increased by the second. He knew the moment he went blind as his eyes exploded within his skull, but he did not go deaf for several minutes, and his screams were in his ears until the fire reached his brain and he finally died.