RENOWN

Prologue

The massive boulder ground to a steady halt behind him, effectively cutting off the freezing arctic air. Stalagmites encased in sleeves of ice blushed with a crystalline patina. Dancing rainbows from his torch bounced off of them to scatter color upon the walls. The traveler didn't need to look up to know sharp, deadly, stalactites silently hovered above his head.

Pictures drawn by ancient men shifted in the shadows, eerily animated, dancing across the stone parapets. Ochre and blood hinted at forgotten hunts and rites of passage.

In his mind he could hear centuries of primitive music thrumming along the walls. Nonchalantly he stopped walking.

Mechanical arms descended from the ceiling to settle near him. With a slight of hand, light illuminated the dark recesses of the cavern.

The sinister figure stood tall, arms crossed; waiting. As if on cue, stone thrones slid easily through a split obscured by a thousand ton of rock. Unimpressed, a slight, mocking snarl lifted paper-thin, cold lips.

Riding machinery invented by him, the thrones twirled around to reveal mask covered faces. His black cape snapped behind him in the ensuing breeze.

The occupied seats halted to rest in a semicircle. Six pairs of eyes stared, probing the shuttered depths of his mismatched blue-green ones.

Deceptively at ease, the middle figure placed an elbow onto his leather clad thigh. He leaned toward the tall visitor. An expressive wrist twisted to his words, "We meet again, Phantom." The sound of Phantom, Phantom, Phantom, echoed across the frozen cavern.

Small brown bats dislodged from their perches keening erratically overhead, startled by the human voice.

A minute nod of a hooded head marked the man called Phantom's acknowledgement.

"Were you followed?"

The man's confident voice sneered, "As always."

The inquisitor nodded and sat back, "So you left witnesses to bear our message?"

Throwing his hood back, the Phantom purred silkily, "It takes only one to deliver a message."

A male to the left of the speaker sputtered, "The tribune has ordered you not to use undue forceā€¦ hmm, how many times now, Phantom?"

"I will not leave anyone to follow me back to my lair!" He snarled, turning to the new voice. The slight movement revealed a black Spanish-style mask extending from eyebrow to lips. "They live, but wish they did not."

Murmurs followed his revelation. The man in the middle raised a hand; silence ensued. "No matter. Our resources inform us that all is going as planned."

Impatiently the mysterious man stated, "You did not command the Phantom's presence to relay this, Brycefield."

"Indeed," The man pulled back his polar bear skin hood. He answered the dark man's observation by a loud clap of hands.

The returning bats darted en masse dipping close to his head. Senses alert to a sudden threat of danger, the Phantom dropped to a crouch.

Soldiers clad in unfamiliar armor stepped from behind the thrones. A dozen swords were drawn, the sharpened edges hissing as they left leather scabbards. Confident guards broke rank to step in front of the seated group.

Simultaneously ropes fell from the ceiling to dangle ominiously as dark clad figures nimbly descended. Lithe figures moved to encircle him. Silently they approached, katanas drawn.

Rage blurred his eyesight, the smell of eminent battle bitter. Twenty to one odds were a grim deterrent against reaching for his sword. The length of rope under his cape for the moment was useless.

Rising up with silent curses for his carelessness the Phantom threw his weapon to the ground. A metallic clatter ensued. Unusually long, glove-covered fingers clenched spasmodically at his side, "What is the meaning of this? You dare challenge me?"

From behind the thrones a familiar voice echoed, "Do you think you alone were entrusted to the Opera Populaire, and its secrets? Tsk. Tsk."