Rocks crashed down as several hundred men, women and children fled from the devastation unfolding around them, slavers and former slaves united in the Lost Shrine's moment of dectruction. No-one would be sorry to see this underground hell as it had become under Sanofainus and his slavers destroyed, but the last thing they wanted was to be destroyed along with it.
Running along the corridor that led from Sanofainus's quarters to the outside world, Leoric recalled his previous visit to the Lost Shrine. The Spectral Knights had been on the trail of the wizard Wizasquezar, another escapee from the Wizards' Jail, cursed never to tell the truth. Of the three rogue wizards the Spectral Knights had been sent to recapture, he had been the only one to reach the Lost Shrine. But, just as he was about to cast a spell to make Merklynn "grovel at his feet", Leoric had burst in on him and knocked the Shrine's orb out of his hands, shattering it and destroying the Shrine's magic.
Leoric had had much cause to reflect on those events lately; a nagging feeling that he should have destroyed the Lost Shrine completely while he had the chance had been echoing in his mind ever since his friends were kidnapped. So many had suffered under the evil regime that took over the Shrine after the Spectral Knights left, with many young people trapped in a living nightmare of forced labour and brutal treatment - and all for the sake of Seven Crystals. The worst thing was that so much of this horror could have been prevented.
"Leoric, what's wrong? You seem troubled," Galadria asked as she drew level with her leader.
"Sorry, I was just wondering if we should have . . ." Leoric began. But Galadria cut him short.
"No, Leoric," she said, shaking her head. "You weren't to know any of this would happen. What's important now is getting out of here."
A number of former slavers were quarrelling over whether or not they should trust Leoric and escape with the people they had abused so cruelly. They knew the Lost Shrine was doomed and so were they if they didn't escape fast, but many of them were reluctant to follow the one who had intruded on the underground realm and, as far as they were concerned, had contributed to the death of Sanofainus.
"I say we don't have a choice," one guard argued. "So what if we're on opposite sides? This Leoric seems to know what he's doing and I doubt he's the type to slay wantonly."
"You think he will leave us alone once we're out?!" Brother Turel countered. "He and his followers pursued us all the way from New Valarak and, if I know anything about Spectral Knights, he's not going to rest until . . ."
He was cut off abruptly as Brother Gudd pointed towards the rapidly crumbling ceiling, now sending large showers of dust and pebbles down on the heads of everyone in the Lost Shrine. "Er, . . . Turel? Don't you think we'd better get out of here before we're all buried alive?"
Turel snorted impatiently and pushed his fellow slaver-monk to one side. "You go if you want - and see what happens when the enemy catch you," he said shortly. "Meanwhile, since Sanofainus, Kromos and Bogavas have all been neutralised, I think that makes me the new ruler of . . ."
Before he could complete his sentence, the roof collapsed and his words were forever lost in a mass of rubble . . .
As the last of the freed slaves emerged into daylight, several of them blinking as their eyes, adapted to the gloom of the underground kingdom, adjusted to the brightness, the Spectral Knights watched as the Lost Shrine collapsed in on itself. Soon, there was not a trace of the place Sanofainus had made his realm; all that remained was an enormous pile of rocks too big and heavy to shift. Never again would an evil maniac try to use the Lost Shrine to conquer Prysmos; the nightmare was finally over. The Lost Shrine was truly lost.
Leoric glanced round at his fellow Spectral Knights to check that they had all made it out safely, before turning his attention to the handful of slavers, including ten from Bogavas's band of slaver-monks, who had managed to escape the cave-in. "Now, listen to me," he said sternly in a tone that clearly said he would not stand for any detraction. "Sanofainus is dead, as are all the rest of his followers, and Bogavas . . ." He nodded towards the captive wizard, whom Ectar and Witterquick had under guard. ". . . is our prisoner. No harm will come to you, but you must never ill-treat anyone ever again. And, above all, you must renounce slavery forthwith."
Brother Gawonde, surprised by the leniency Leoric was showing despite having lost his friends to the slaver-monks, raised his head. "Then we're not being sentenced to death?" he asked.
"No," Leoric said without looking at the former slaver-monk. "There has been enough death and misery here, so I am giving you your lives and it's up to you not to abuse that gift."
After the former slavers had dispersed, heading off in different directions, Leoric gazed round at the motley crowd of young Prysmosians. Many of them had not seen the outside world in months, a fact reflected in their sallow complexions, and they were all covered in rockdust from their flight from the cave-in. But they were finally free from Sanofainus's tyranny, the last remnants of the regime that had resorted to such cruelty in order to find the Crystals of Power having just gone off into the distance - under oath never to become involved in anything evil again. "Well, I don't know about anyone else," he told them with a slight laugh. "But I think we'd better try and get you back to your families; I'm sure they've been out of their minds with worry. And anyone who wants to join my comrades and I in New Valarak is free to do so."
In the crowd, Gawalar turned to Dagan and placed a paternal hand on the youth's shoulder. "Well, Dagan, I bet you can't wait to get back to Mecron after all that excitement - and neither can I."
But Dagan shook his head. "I - I don't think I'll be coming back with you, Father," he replied. "While I was on that slave-chain, I made a vow that - if I ever got free - I would start training to become a knight like Galadria, Arzon and Feryl. So, that means I'll be going to New Valarak."
Gawalar nodded his understanding, hating to part company from his son so soon after they were reunited but consoled by the fact that, this time, Dagan was going of his own free will. "If that's what you want, I guess it's not my place to stop you," was all he said. "But feel free to come back to Mecron any time you want."
"Don't worry, Father, I will," Dagan replied. Then, he turned to Atla who was standing beside Yilly, hovering over the girl as if she was afraid to let her out of her sight again. "What will you do, Atla?"
Atla rested her hand on Yilly's shoulder as she pondered what to say next. "I think I've had enough adventures in the last few weeks to last me a lifetime," she said at last. "All I want is to get Yilly home safe and put all this unpleasantness behind us." However, she decided that she and Yilly would not be returning home right away; she wanted to see Bogavas dealt with first and, until then, the two of them would be staying with Leoric.
Late afternoon in Dalevore saw a group of people assembled in the streets, all anxiously awaiting news of the knights who had taken it upon themselves to free their young people from the tyranny of Sanofainus. Several dozen men and women stood in silent hope, all praying that their sons and daughters, nieces and nephews were alive and well and on the way home. Too long had these people lived with their grief at losing loved ones, too long had they endured the uncertainty of not knowing if they were alive or not.
At length, a man with greying brown hair, who had been sent to scout round for signs of activity at the Shrine, came running back with the news that would renew the town's hope after months of fear and uncertainty. "I have news of Leoric and his followers," he told the eager crowd, now clamouring to hear his every word. "They're headed this way - and they have our young people with them!"
The effect of the man's words was instantaneous as the people of Dalevore rushed forward in unison, all eager to be reunited with the ones Sanofainus and his guards had stolen from them. And, among the throng of freed slaves, there was almost a stampede as they recognised the voices of family members calling out to them, voices they had long believed they would never hear again.
"Jonitrus! Jonitrus, are you among them?"
Jonitrus scanned the approaching crowd for the man who had called his name before running towards one of the two who had been in the Fullmoon on the night Leoric and his party had arrived in Dalevore. "I'm here, Father," he said as the pair drew level with each other, the first of many families to be reunited that day.
"Ubon? Ranita?" It was Zarla seeking out her son and daughter-in-law, whom she hoped might take over the running of the Fullmoon in the future. In response, a young man with medium-brown hair who bore a strong resemblance to Zarla's husband ran towards her, with a pretty redhead following in his wake. Both greeted the woman warmly, relieved to be out of the Lost Shrine and feeling an immense debt of gratitude to the knights who had braved the underground hell for the sake of those enslaved there.
At length, Zarla smiled at the Spectral Knights and their allies. "Looks to me like you won the day," she observed as those former slaves who had been taken from Dalevore continued to be reunited with their families.
Life and hope had been restored to the town of Dalevore with the return of the young people. Someone had climbed the belltower that stood in the town square and the melodic peeling of bells echoed for miles around for the first time since the night Sanofainus and his followers launched their raid. The bells had sounded then as well, but as a warning of attack with a sharper, more urgent, tone than the dulcet sounds which issued forth now. And, for the first time in months, the Fullmoon Inn was packed and filled with laughter. It was as if Sanofainus's raid had never happened, as if no-one in the town had ever been enslaved. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the once fractured community was revitalised and ready to begin rebuilding.
"Leoric," Zarla said as she drew level with the Spectral Knights, all seven of whom were seated round the table nearest the fireplace, "you and your knights have done more than I dreamed possible. I - I don't know how to thank you . . ." She trailed off, overwhelmed by gratitude towards the knight who had not only restored her loved ones to her, but had also brought down the evil regime which had stolen them.
"I do," Ranita said as she and Ubon joined Zarla. "Ubon and I have been talking. And we've decided that, if we ever have a child, and it is a boy, we will name him Leoric."
"It's the least we can do," Ubon added. "If you hadn't sworn to save your friends no matter what, all these people . . ." He gestured round at the liberated slaves, who were laughing and joking as if they had never been enslaved below ground. ". . . would still be in the Lost Shrine, forced to seek those Crystals Sanofainus wanted."
Leoric looked at the young couple briefly. He was flattered by their offer to name their first-born son after him, but he did not wish to make this too obvious. "Actually, Merklynn hinted that he'd been planning to send us to the Lost Shrine anyway," he told them. "Having Galadria, Arzon and Feryl taken just gave us even more reason to go there."
A few days later, the Spectral Knights left the Anarchy Zone accompanied by a number of former slaves. Of the combined total of forty-six Bogavas and his slaver-monks had brought back for their two slaving expeditions, all but four were still alive. It had been agreed that they should travel to New Valarak with their liberators and stay there at least until Leoric could find out where they came from. After that, it would be for them to decide whether or not they wanted to return to their own cities, towns and villages.
No longer chained together and constantly bullied and beaten, they began to relax and recover from their terrible ordeal. Indeed, after all the fears and uncertainties of the search for his friends, Leoric found that the time seemed to pass even quicker on the return journey, even though he and his party made sure to take a long detour around the Forest of the Strangle Vines. It seemed as if they had barely set out before a tall, majestic mountain loomed on the horizon.
"Is that the mountain you told me about?" Yilly asked Galadria as the crowd stood gazing awestruck at the magnificent peak dominating the landscape. To the casual observer, it seemed to be just another mountain, a monument to the awesome powers of nature, but there was an aura of magic about it that even those who had never been here before could sense.
"Aye, that's Iron Mountain," Galadria replied as she slipped her hand into Cryotek's.
"And is there really a wizard living at the top?" This question came from Casiusa, who had been fascinated by the tales the Spectral Knights told of all their adventures. She did not address anyone in particular, but it was Arzon who answered her.
Yes, Merklynn - he's the one who gave us our magic."
In the midst of the crowd, Bogavas stood looking totally subdued, though he was actually devising a plan to keep himself out of the Wizards' Jail. All his ambitions, all his plans to destroy the Spectral Knights had backfired on him and now he was standing once again on the threshold of Merklynn's domain. Still, he thought to himself, he had fooled Merklynn once before, so all he had to do was put on a show of contrition, swear that he would never kidnap anyone again. If necessary, he would even submit to the test he had bluffed his way through the last time he was here.
Merklynn looked up as the Spectral Knights entered his Shrine with Bogavas in their midst, escorted by Ectar and Feryl. He had been watching the progress of the battle in the Lost Shrine on his magical viewscreen and knew what the outcome had been. Sanofainus and most of his followers were dead; the remainder had been allowed to go free on condition that they renounced slavery. Somehow, Merklynn doubted that all of them would follow Leoric's orders, but the affairs of mortals, aside from the Visionaries, were not his concern. His main priority was to see that the wizard who had contributed so much to everything that had happened recently was suitably dealt with.
Bogavas bowed his head as he attempted to convince Merklynn that he had changed, that, if he was given another chance, he would not try to cause any more trouble. "Believe me, Merklynn," he said as the two wizards stood in the middle of the room. "I've learned my lesson and see now that I was wrong to . . ."
"Silence!" Merklynn shouted, cutting Bogavas off in mid-sentence. "Do not think that you can deceive me a second time, Bogavas. You are a danger to all free Prysmosians and . . ." He raised his Orb and pointed it in Bogavas's direction. ". . . I hereby banish you to the Wizards' Jail!"
A flash of light shot out of the Orb and converged on Bogavas, who seemed to flicker for an instant before disappearing from the Shrine, leaving no sign that he had ever been present. Merklynn inspected the seven knights standing before him, then nodded with satisfaction. "It is over," he told them, relieved that the last member of Sanofainus's inner circle had been neutralised. "The Crystals of Power are permanently out of the reach of mortal men."
"But what of Bogavas?" asked Feryl. "If he escaped once, there's a risk he may do so again."
Merklynn smiled at the young knight. "None of you ever need to bother about him again; I will personally see to it that he stays in the Wizards' Jail. For now, though, we have other business to attend to. I see that your Power Staffs have been used," he said to Leoric, Witterquick and Cryotek. "Normally, I would send you on a quest in exchange for more magic - but, this time, I'm prepared to make an exception."
As one, the three Spectral Knights moved towards Merklynn's magical pool and dipped the tips of their Staffs into the golden substance it contained. The Staffs slowly began to glow as the Powers of Strength, Speed and Wisdom returned to them ready to be called on again once they were needed.
The Spectral Knights stood in a v-formation with Leoric at its head. Feryl, Arzon and Witterquick were to his left, Ectar, Cryotek and Galadria to his right. Before them stood a small crowd comprising thirty-nine freed slaves, plus Gawalar and Atla.
"The one who stole you from your homes and families has been sent to the Wizards' Jail," Leoric announced, raising his Power Staff as he spoke. "So I think I can safely say that, as of this moment, you are all truly free!"
A wild cheer echoed through the slopes of Iron Mountain as those who had until recently feared all hope of freedom was lost to them finally heard confirmation that their nightmare was over. With one voice, all of the assembled crowd, shouted the Spectral Knights' sacred battle cry. "May the Light shine forever!"
And they had no doubt that, as long as the Spectral Knights continued to fight for justice and freedom, that Light would continue to shine.