Chapter 1: Freeing the Prisoners of Acheron
Hanna scanned the sanctuary grotto of the prisoners of Acheron deep beneath its citadel. The smell of her charred, bloodstained clothes and armor upset her stomach slightly as she looked around. The stinging of her burns, cuts, and bruises along with the aching of her chest and limbs reminded her of the hell she’d fought her way out of to get to the sanctuary grotto of Morpheus and his fellow prisoners of Acheron. The nightmarish memory of the climactic battle between her and the ancient demon lord Baal the Belrock, followed by her defeat and killing of the demon lords Dagos and the leader of the Devourers in the chasm outside the sanctuary grotto sent icy chills down her spine as well as puzzled her tremendously. Not only did she fight and kill these malignant demon lords in mortal combat, she used strange elemental powers to do it; powers she used by instinct. How she could use these seemingly magical elemental powers concerned her, but what puzzled and concerned her even more was the incontestable fact that three of most powerful demonic powers in all creation managed to manifest physically on our plane in all their malignant glory. This phenomenon caused Hanna considerable pause and great worry.
If Baal, Dagos, and the Devourer could physically cross over from their dimension into ours, then what’s to keep the others from doing the same thing. This worry became buttressed by Hannibal’s encounter with the physical manifestation of demons at Tiamat’s legendary infernal gate before he came to Amacia and was forcibly mutated into Hanna. The possibility that more powerful demoniac entities could cross over physically into this universe made Hanna shudder as she gazed across Morpheus’ sanctuary grotto. The gigantic draken Aeolus, his mate, Tethys, and their twenty-five offspring milled about to Hanna’s left while Morpheus and his fellow prisoners of Acheron gathered their belongings with the help of Hanna’s team: Enoch Caverias, his son Hunter, Elle the Ilmarinen, Harry Clint, Princess Amelia, Carver the Cimmerian, the Xenian prototype Magnus, Ned Slaughter, and Sam Harrison. The mutated cyborg Muriel stood close to Hanna, still not feeling safe despite having successfully followed Hanna and Elle out of her solitary confinement past the basilisk guardians. She held on to Hanna’s arm like a fearful child, giving Hanna a merciful diversion from her thoughts of what-ifs.
“This feels like a dream,” Muriel admitted to Hanna. “I fear I’ll wake up and find myself back in my house in the basilisk’s grotto.”
“It’s no dream,” Hanna assured Muriel, putting a friendly arm around her. “You’re free, and soon all of us will be out of this dismal place. You have my word on it.”
“I won’t feel truly free until I see my prison from the outside,” Muriel declared.
“And you will,” Hanna chimed. “I promise. As soon as Morpheus and his people gather their things, we’re leaving this grim dungeon.”
“Miss Hanna,” Aeolus intruded.
“Yes, Aeolus,” Hanna replied, turning to the ancient draken.
“You said something about having access to a portal generator that allowed you to escape the Devourer’s abyss,” Aeolus stated.
“I did, and I do,” Hanna stated. “Enoch’s brother Elias mans the portal generator at the Red Tower waiting for my signal. We shall use it to make our escape from this pit.”
“Will I and my brood be able to use it, considering our size?” Aeolus asked bluntly.
Hanna walked to Aeolus and touched him on the side of his giant face. “My dear friend,” Hanna chimed. “We can make the portal aperture any size, so you and your family shall surely be able to escape your prison with the rest of us. Trust me. It’s not a problem.”
Aeolus smiled in relief. “Thank you for alleviating my fears, Miss Hanna,” he rumbled. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me about such a thing.”
“Of course I wouldn’t,” Hanna answered. “The last thing I want to do is make a draken mad at me now that I know they’re not just a myth.”
Aeolus chuckled. “I can see that,” he stated. “You’re very wise to cultivate our favor. We can help you and your people in so many ways, but only if you respect us. We only help those who show us the proper respect and trust.”
“You have that respect, my friend,” Hanna stated, noticing Morpheus, Enoch, and the other prisoners of Acheron coming towards her with their belongings, “and more. Your vast life span and knowledge makes you an incredible asset to us. Only a moron would deny it. Well, it looks like it’s just about show time. Pardon me, my draken friend. It’s time I made good on my promise to free everyone.”
“Go right ahead,” Aeolus rumbled as Hanna walked towards Morpheus and Enoch.
“Do you have everything you want?” Hanna asked Morpheus.
“Yes,” Morpheus replied. “We didn’t have much to begin with so there’s not much to carry.”
“All right then,” Hanna chimed. “Just so you’ll know...we’ll leave the portal open long enough for you to bring everything you wish to take in case you can’t carry it all in one trip.”
“That’s very kind of you, Miss Hanna,” Morpheus replied.
“Please, call me Hanna,” Hanna insisted. “Now let’s get this show on the road. Enoch...call Elias and get him to open the portal over there.” Hanna pointed towards the main door away from the crowd, adding, “And when he opens it, he needs to open it large enough for Aeolus to comfortably get through it since he’s the largest draken here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Enoch replied, retrieving his communicator and calling Elias, relaying Hanna’s instructions.
Moments later, a ball of light fifteen feet wide appeared two hundred feet away from the group. Morpheus and his people looked in wonder as the ball of blazing light suddenly faded away to a ring of energy surrounding a translucent center. “Upon my word,” Morpheus breathed. What sorcery is this?”
“On my,” Muriel cried in delight. “It’s so beautiful.”
“That it is,” Hanna agreed, “and it is no sorcery, Morpheus. What you see is a portal gateway generated by the machines of the Red Tower...machines that were created in the 1st Age. Come. Let’s get a closer look.” Hanna led Muriel and Morpheus toward the portal as Elias walked through it. Gasps of astonishment raced through the prisoners of Acheron, including Aeolus and Tethys’ brood for they’d never seen such technology in action before.
“Oh, there you are,” Elias called out, seeing Hanna approaching with Muriel and Morpheus. He suddenly stopped, seeing first Muriel and Morpheus, and then the rest of the prisoners of Acheron, including the drakens. “Whoa,” Elias murmured, not believing his eyes. “Enoch wasn’t kidding that we were bringing drakens and hybrids to Antilla.”
“No, I wasn’t,” Enoch stated after walking up with the rest of Hanna’s team. “We need to get these people and these drakens out of here.”
“Elias, I’d like you to meet Morpheus...the elder in charge of those who live here,” Hanna declared, “And Muriel...the reason we came down here into this pit to begin with. Both are good souls and my friends.” Hanna then pointed at Aeolus, adding, “Over there is Aeolus, his mate Tethys, and their brood. Aeolus was the guardian draken of Amacia before the coup in the 1st Age. He’s been here for over twelve thousand cycles.”
Elias blinked and rubbed his eyes in awe. “Were you truly the guardian of Amacia in the 1st Age?” he asked Aeolus.
“I am, son of Caverias,” Aeolus replied graciously. “I was a close personal friend of your ancestors: Thoth and Ariel. Now, I’m Hanna’s friend and yours, if you’ll have me and my brood.”
The shock of seeing the prisoners of Acheron wore off quickly for Elias. “I am honored, wise and ancient one,” Elias replied with a dignified bow to Aeolus. “You are welcome in our home on Antilla. Hmmm, now that I see your true stature, I can widen the portal to accommodate you and your brood, my draken friend. Please, pardon me while I return to the Red Tower and adjust the machine so you can pass unfettered.”
Aeolus nodded. “Please, son of Caverias, go and make the necessary adjustments,” he stated. “We shall await your signal.”
Elias turned on his heel and sprinted back through the portal. The portal closed into the ball of swirling energy before expanding to one hundred fifty feet across and ninety feet high. Everyone watched with awe as the giant ball of swirling energy suddenly stabilized, becoming a swirling ring of energy with the same dimensions as the energy ball.
“I am officially impressed, Hanna,” Aeolus declared, feeling hope of escape rising in his draken heart. “Until now, I hesitated to believe it, but you have delivered on your promise. We can now leave this underworld prison. What’s that I see beyond the aperture?”
Hanna and Enoch looked through the portal, seeing the green plain outside of the Red Tower. “That’s Antilla just outside my front door at the Red Tower,” Enoch reported. “Apparently, Elias had sense enough to open it outside the Tower because of your size. We’d have trouble fitting you and your brood in the portal chamber.”
“That’s true,” Hanna agreed with a smile. “I think that’s why he came through initially. He wanted to get a sense of whom we were bringing home. It shows initiative and good common sense. I knew he’d be good at running the machine once he knew how to do it.”
Muriel and Morpheus looked through the portal aperture, staring at the green world beyond it. “Is it safe?” Morpheus asked, still hesitant of the ancient machine’s power.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Hanna chimed. “But to put your mind at ease, I shall go first. Enoch, could you and the rest of the team make sure everyone clears the portal before coming?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Enoch replied quickly.
“Oh, before I forget: one safety point on the portal,” Hanna called out to those gathered in front of the portal. “Do not touch the energy ring at the portal’s edge. It’s pure energy and will burn, possibly vaporize anything that touches it; however, the portal is safe where the aperture is stable and somewhat clear. Watch closely.” She walked to the edge of the portal just where the swirling ring became a stable gateway. Seeing a rock on the grotto floor at her feet, Hanna picked it up and threw it into the swirling ring. A loud snap followed as the rock vaporized on contact with the energy ring. Gasps of fearful astonishment rumbled through the crowd. “Now you see why I said don’t touch the ring,” Hanna stated. “It’s very dangerous out on the edge here, but over here where the portal membrane is stable, it’s perfectly benign. Again, watch closely, my friends.” Hanna moved well away from the energy ring, standing just at the edge of the portal’s aperture membrane. First, she held up her arm so everyone could see, and then she pushed her arm through the membrane up to her shoulder. Pausing a moment for effect, Hanna withdrew her arm and showed it to everyone, saying, “See, my arm is not damaged in any way. The portal is safe where the membrane is translucent to clear, but not where it’s opaque at the edge. When passing through the portal, just stay toward the middle and away from the edge for the safest transit.”
A smile crossed Morpheus’ lips. “You truly are a wizard of the machines, Hanna,” he stated. “I’m thoroughly impressed. I’d heard about the ancient portal generators from our traditions, but I never thought we’d actually see one in action.”
Hanna patted Morpheus on the shoulder, smiling broadly. “A wizard of the machines, no; but a master of them, yes,” she corrected in a pleasant tone. “And that’s only because of my repeated exposure to the ancient Teachers of Tiamat, Kaal Bek, and the Red Tower. Now, shall we finally leave this dismal pit?”
“Yes,” Morpheus replied. “Lead on, my friend.”
“Will you walk with me through the looking glass, Muriel?” Hanna asked, gently taking hold of Muriel’s hand.
Muriel shuddered, and then nodded. “Yes, I will walk with you,” she murmured.
“Then come,” Hanna ordered gently. “Freedom waits beyond that gateway. All who wish to be free follow me through to freedom.” With a deep sigh, Hanna led Muriel through the portal to the green field lying before the Red Tower. Hanna noticed Muriel closed her eyes when she stepped into the portal, feeling a bit of disorientation upon entering the portal.
A couple of seconds later, Muriel felt someone put an arm around her as a cool breeze blew in her face. “You can open your eyes now, Muriel,” Hanna said softly in her ear. “We’re through the portal.”
When Muriel opened her eyes, she gasped in astonishment, seeing the open sky of the caverns for the first time in six hundred cycles. The beauty of Antilla laid spread before her like a banquet of the senses. The cool fresh air stirred her hair. The beauty and color of the plain and mountains beyond tantalized her eyes while the pleasant fragrance of flowers in bloom on the plain tickled her nose. She scanned the horizon in all directions, taking in the glory of a paradise unspoiled by the evil of the Emperor. Tears welled up in her eyes as she broke into sobs of joy, overcome by the fact she was now free.
Hanna pulled Muriel into a caring embrace and whispered, “That’s it, Muriel. Let it go. Let go of all the hate and darkness that’s confined you for so long. Release it and know for true that you are now free.”
“Thank you, Miss Beowulf,” Muriel sobbed. “Thank you. What can I ever do to repay this kindness?”
“First, just call me Hanna,” Hanna replied, kissing Muriel on the cheek. “And second, you owe me nothing. Our God decreed your freedom. I’m just the messenger. If you must do anything, thank and worship the Almighty Ancient of Days for it’s He who allowed me to find and rescue from that outer darkness.”
“I will,” Muriel declared, choked with emotion. “And you are my sister forever, Hanna. If you need anything, just let me know. I will be there for you.”
“I know you will,” Hanna chimed, feeling a surge of euphoria from doing something good for someone. “Now, shall we beckon the others to come?”
“By all means,” Muriel answered happily.
Beneath the citadel of Acheron in the sanctuary grotto, Enoch and Morpheus stood three feet from the portal aperture watching Muriel’s reaction to her freedom with everyone else standing ten feet from them. As Muriel cried, a tight smile crossed Morpheus’ lips. With a nod, he declared, “If anyone should have seen freedom first, it was Muriel. She truly deserved it.”
“I agree,” Aeolus rumbled. “Even though Tethys and I have been here the longest, Muriel had a greater need to experience her freedom first. It does my old heart good to see her so happy.”
Enoch saw Hanna and Muriel turn and wave to them, beckoning them to come. When Enoch saw the smile on Muriel’s face, his smile grew even broader. “Well, my friends, it’s time to join them and share Muriel’s joy. Come. You are welcome in my home,” he declared pleasantly. A cheer rose from the prisoners of Acheron, including Aeolus, Tethys, and their brood. Enoch stepped through the portal to Antilla where Hanna and Muriel greeted them.
“Come, my children, let’s leave this grim dungeon for the last time,” Morpheus cried out, stepping boldly through the portal to join Hanna, Muriel, and Enoch. In moments, the rest of the prisoners of Acheron followed Morpheus to freedom through the shimmering gateway with Hanna’s team interspersed among them.
Aeolus and Harry chose to let the others go through first, making sure that no one was left behind. As Aeolus’ brood and the other prisoners of Acheron streamed through the portal, Aeolus took one last look at his prison. “I’ve been imprisoned for so long by these walls,” he murmured. “I’m not sure what I’ll do once I take the walk the others are taking.”
“I cannot comprehend being imprisoned for as long as you have, Aeolus,” Harry admitted as he rested his war hammer on his shoulder. “But I know that you will do okay. It’s just going to take some adjustment. It took me a while to adjust when I got swept up into this adventure. Now I cannot think of any other place I’d want to be. Hanna showed me the way out of the box of my mundane existence and showed me the true nature of the universe and what’s beyond. I couldn’t go back now even if I wanted to. There’s no way I’d leave Hanna’s side now, knowing what I do. She’s my friend whom I’d lay my life down for.”
“Miss Hanna did well in choosing you as a friend,” Aeolus rumbled. “I haven’t seen such loyalty since I was captured in the coup. The loyalty you exhibit is remarkably similar to the loyalty Ezra Karac had to Thoth. They were the best of friends to the very end, even though sometimes they vehemently disagreed on courses of action. Still, their disagreements never extinguished their friendship. Keep that loyalty to Miss Hanna, Master Harry. She needs it more than you know.”
“I realize that,” Harry stated as the last of the prisoners and drakens stepped through the portal. “Well, it looks like we’re all that’s left. Please, my magnificent draken friend, step through the portal to freedom with me. No one should be left alone in this darkness.”
“You honor me, Master Harry,” Aeolus replied graciously. “Come, let’s leave this grim dungeon forever.” Aeolus lumbered forward with Harry walking beside him. In moments, they’d passed through the portal to Antilla and freedom for Aeolus; freedom he’d waited twelve thousand cycles for.