There was a deathly science that met the five as they stepped out of the mouth of the cave and into the southern swamp. The unholy buzzing of those horrid, blood-sucking marsh flies seemed to have been silenced permanently. The ominous splashing of whatever reptilian terror dwelling in the mossy waters was replaced by some eerie stillness. There was no wind to blow those high, all-covering swamp grasses. No, this horrid place, known by Corg as the breeding ground of some of the most venomous and ferocious creatures on the surface of this strange planet, was overtaken by some tranquility that was everything but natural.
Nonetheless, the five warriors walked carefully, weapons in hand as they followed the edge of the low cliff to the opening of the other cave that they were seeking. They were Corg, Piotr, Jack, Mieu, and Wren. They were among the warriors who had tamed the valley some six months earlier, who had valiantly eradicated most of that feral race of beastmen and their human leader. They were seeking the legendary entrance to the legendary Scattenalfen Elven Realms.
However, their mission was one of a darker nature than simply visit a new people. No, their interest went far beyond any curiosity of seeing another people or establishing another peace treaty. What interested them was what lie beyond the limits of the subterranean city.
"Why did my husband have to go with them? What was so important that he'd leave me behind and risk his life?"
"You're husband has learned something important about existence, Christy. You see, we can't just live for ourselves, or even just our family. We have to live for the well-being of all people. If we only take care of our family while evil preys upon all those near and dear to us, what good are we? What are we teaching our children?"
"But what if something happens to him? What will happen to me? What will happen to our child?"
"Christy, don't worry. You're just as much our family as Corg was when he left us six months ago. We will take care of you."
"Me too. My beloved is there, too."
Corg walked in front of the party; he had come on the mission primarily as a guide, although everyone knew that when the fighting started, he'd be just as involved as the others. The bright sun shined off of his red-tinted plate mail and the long, thin chains forged out of laconium that were wrapped around his forearm. His dirty blond hair stuck to his head and his pale face glistened with sweat. In his hands was a book that he had taken with him on the long journey across the void. It was a strategy book for the game that was patterned after this world. God only knows how the people that had visited this land in dream or in reality had discovered enough to make it all so complete. Nonetheless, Corg knew the place well from his game playing as a young man.
Mieu walked two steps behind Corg. Mieu was a combat cyborg, albeit one built with the capacity for human emotion and feeling. She was practically human, only lacking in a few biological capacities like death and childbearing. Nonetheless, she had once been a mother figure to Sean, the great hero who had helped vanquish the evil entity known as the Dark Force. Six months ago, she met Corg while on a mission to investigate the Hollow Valley and the bond that formed between them had cemented them together as mother and son.
"Welcome back, my son, I missed you so much!"
"Mom! I missed you, too. Hey, I want you to meet my beautiful wife, Christy and our little daughter, Melissa. Christy, this is Mieu, my adopted mother here."
"Oh, how adorable! You're absolutely stunning! Oh, and look at this wonderful little child."
"Oh, you can hold her, mom."
"Thank you, my son. It's an honor."
Side by side were Piotr and Jack, Corg's most trusted friends. They had agreed to go on the journey not as a favor to their friend Corg, but as a demonstration of their devotion to their beloveds, Sari and Laya. They had begun a courtship six months before and were preparing to get married. A few days before the wedding, the "terror" began to strike in the hearts of the townspeople and leave them completely irrational and crazy. Knowing that they couldn't solve this mystery and protect themselves and their queens by themselves, they sent their minds through the void of time and space to bring Corg and his family back. They needed Corg's help; as soon as he arrived, he was able to explain what caused the "terror" and where to find it. Their journey would take them in the depths of the planet to a creature known as "The Burrower."
Wren and Mieu had accompanied the party under orders from Sean, who had come down to the planet from the Alis III with Kara, his new bride. Sean and Kara stayed behind to help protect the castle, should it come under any attack. Piotr and Jack had to plead with Sari and Laya not to go with them; finally they convinced their two fiancées that Christy needed their support more than they did.
"So when's the wedding?"
"As soon as our men return victorious."
"Yeah…I hope so."
"Well, fortunately, I love to organize these things and throw in my ideas. Please, let me help with your guys' wedding."
"Sure! We'd love that!"
"Yeah, you're probably better at fashion and stuff than I am."
"Hey, do you guys dance the waltz down here?"
"What's a waltz?"
"Hmm…any musical instruments at least?"
That strange, unearthly calm left the five very fearful of what might be lurking in those too-calm waters. They walked slowly around the edge of bog, their weapons ready to strike (or shoot) anything that moved. Corg informed the others that around the bend in the marsh and further down was the cliff in whose side the cavern entrance was to be found.
All of a sudden, Corg stopped in his tracks. He motioned for the others to stop as well.
"What is it, dawg?" Jack whispered.
Corg put his finger to his lips. "Listen carefully."
In the distance, the five heard a faint noise. It sounded like the squeak of a mouse. The five warriors listened for a few more moments. While the sound remained faint and distant, what initially appeared to be one squeak became many, as if, hundreds of yards away, there were hundreds of rats congregating in some strange pit.
"There's a cave south of here. Known as 'The Pits.' Basically one big rat nest," observed Corg.
Piotr and Jack shuttered.
"My censors indicate that the sound is coming from the east, not the south," Wren affirmed.
"Do you think they all vacated their nesting grounds?" Mieu asked.
"No, I think things are going to get a lot stranger in the next few hours," Corg said cryptically.
"What's wrong, love?"
"Piotr, it's the people—They're having strange dreams, getting anxious, some of them are even starting to lose it…"
"What kind of dreams?"
"Dreams of unspeakable things—strange horrors from some world unknown. People are waking up in fits of madness. Even I've had some strange dreams."
"Did you see the same things?"
"Not quite. I had some strange, queer vision of what appeared to be a city."
"From the Alis—"
"No, it was dark and deserted—I don't know…"
"It's okay. Jack and I are getting pretty freaked out about all of this."
"Is there anything you can do? Please, you said that all of your games back home were patterned after these worlds. Surely you can do something."
"But love, I didn't play the game. Only—"
"What? What is—"
"We need Corg."
As they followed the southern back of the marsh towards the east, they continued to hear that faint squeaking of rats in the distance. The three human members of the party were very uneasy; their hands trembled at the very thought of walking into the cavern and confronting any large contingent of rats. Mieu and Wren continued to be calm, almost unmoved by the queerness of what was going on around them. In spite of being a female cyborg, Mieu evidently did not carry that inborn fear of rodents that most women carried. She walked with her claws unsheathed, ready to hack to pieces any strange creature that awaited them.
As they reached the mouth of the cave, some fifteen minutes later, they heard the ominous noises of the marsh return some several hundred yards behind them. They turned and stared at the swamp. A thin layer of mist was rising from the black, marshy waters. They heard some faint splashing noises in the distance, as did they hear ominous bleeping and croaking of the large marsh toads and buzzing of the large mosquitoes that infested that accursed bog.
The five warriors looked at each other in perplexity. For more than an hour the swamp had been completely silent. No sign of life, other than that strange, distant call of rats, could be seen or heard. Even Wren and Mieu's bio-sensors could not detect any creature in the near vicinity. Now it was all back to normal. As they stood there observing the swamp, that grim feeling of doom hung upon the three men. Everyone knew that they were being watched and scrutinized—only Corg knew exactly what they were going to be up against.
"Sean, can I ask you a big favor?"
"Sure, Corg. What do you need?"
"I need your Nei Sword."
"Please Sean, you don't know what we're up against."
"Then tell me, what are you up against?"
"Can you imagine an entity so evil, so twisted, so terrible, that it's mere presence is enough to drive a mere mortal insane?"
"I fought something of the like."
"So, we can't win the battle without a little extra help. I promise you, I won't use it unless absolutely necessary. Heck, let Wren carry it on his back. But if we need it, we have to have it with us."
"Let me talk to Kara about this. You know that the Nei Sword isn't just any sword."
"I'm fully aware of that, Sean. Please, talk to Kara. Search, ponder, pray, whatever."
An eerie phosphorescence lit the cavern, giving it an eerie green glow. Piotr and Corg figured it to be some species of algae, at least if they had learned anything from Journey to the Center of the Earth. When they entered the cave, the chattering and buzzing of the marsh was replaced first by a sudden stillness, then by the high-pitched whistle of wind. Yet, no one felt any gust of air blow against their skin.
They followed the map found in the strategy book Corg had brought with him. They determined that it was best to head down the southern passageway and then straight across to the west. They moved slowly across down the corridor, their weapons gripped tightly in their hands. About every ten meters or so they would come across an intersection with another corridor which went in a westerly direction. The illuminating power of the algae, or whatever it was, was strong enough to provide sight in their immediate vicinity, but as they looked down the intersection, they saw nothing but blackness.
There were a few moments when Mieu or Wren thought they saw something move in the shadows of the cavern. In other moments, Corg and Jack thought they heard footsteps, or at least the pitter-patter of some vague creature running away from the five heroic explorers. Even Mieu began to feel uneasy, as if some strange eldritch influence began to work its influence over the human-feeling cyborg. It took them fifteen minutes to make their way down the corridor to final intersection that would lead to the entrance of the city.
"So what's our plan of attack, dawg?"
"Well, my fine friend, the thing we're after is located in a cavern."
"That's sounds pretty simp, dawg."
"A cavern beneath a subterranean city beneath another cavern—"
"Aw, that sucks."
"Well, if this is anything like the game, the city's going to be inhabited by an army of dark elves. And that's to say nothing of the final cave, which was home to some of the most destructive monsters in the game."
As they made their way across southernmost corridor, they formed a circle of attack to deal with any possible ambush. Wren stayed in front, pointing his Nei Shot into the darkness in front of him. Mieu stayed behind, ready to take on any creature foolish enough to attack from behind. Piotr and Jack took the sides, where as Corg was told to stay in the middle.
After about 150 yards, Piotr quietly called out for everyone to stop. They all stopped and walked over to the wall closest to him. Corg's heart nearly stopped beating at what he saw. There dozens of strange characters carved into the walls, but some of them seemed to be carved in the Roman alphabet. Corg became deathly pale when he saw the word "fthagn" in the midst of the words. He stepped a few paces and sat down.
"What's wrong, dawg?"
"Nothing, just a bit nervous."
Mieu let out a muffled scream.
On the other side of the wall were some humanoid figures sitting with their backs to the wall. All five members of the party were quickly on their guard and moved slowly toward the human shapes. The shapes remained immobile. Wren came in close and pointed his gun at them. As they looked closer, they saw the dessicated corpses of three Elven soldiers. Their faces were frozen in looks of horror; looks that seem to permanently stamp their face no matter how long they had been left to rot.
"There's something not right about this," Mieu whispered as she looked closely at the corpses. "There's no visible cause of death. They just seemed to have simply died."
"No, Mieu," Piotr said. "People just don't simply die. People just don't simply go crazy. People just don't simply have strange dreams."
"So Laya, how did Jack propose? Did he do it the traditional way?"
"Yeah? How does that work where you're from?"
"The guy usually just looks for some nice romantic moment: a moonlit walk or a romantic dinner, gets down on his knees, shows the girl an engagement ring, and asks her if she will marry him."
"Ah, that explains a lot. Most weddings between royalty are simply arranged. Sometimes if a couple already desires to be married, they hold each other's hands and declare publicly their desire to be married."
"Did he go the traditional route?"
"Yeah. Actually, him and Piotr proposed to Sari and I at the same time?"
"That's not the half of it. They actually had Wren fly them in the space ship to the other side of the plateau and landed in the jungle. There, they snuck into a pyramid belonging to a race called the Azcans, made their way through a trapped-filled temple, and found some legendary rings mentioned by Corg as being the rings of fire protection. They flew back and used those rings as engagement rings."
"Ya' know, Christy, guys go to hell for us. Then we complain and nag at the littlest things and they think they're failures."
As the five stared in horror at those dead elves, they began to hear a familiar sound. Somewhere at the distant end of the corridor, they heard that faint squeaking of rats again. It was a little bit more audible than it had been in the swamp. There thousands of them, or so it seemed. Wren pointed his gun into the darkness and motioned for the other four to stay behind him. They began to proceed cautiously forward.
With each step, the squeaking and squealing grew louder. But not only did they hear the multitude of squeaks, but they began to hear the sounds of the rats scratching and scuttling across the ground. The sounds seem to come from the walls that surrounded them. There were thousands, literally thousands of rats in the walls.
"Wren," Piotr whisphered. "Fire your flare down the corridor, maybe you can scare'em off."
Reaching down to this wrist console, Wren fired the flare. A bright ball of flame shot out of a small cannon built into his chest. The flame lit the corridor as it sped through the air, coming to a stop somewhere near the end.
"Hmm…this ponytail of yours will just not do."
"Whatever. Hey, I've been wearing my hair this way since I was a teenager."
"And now you're going to be a bride."
"So, now you gotta look like a lady and not a knife-wielding tomboy. Trust me, I know these things."
"Hey, you'll only have one wedding. One chance to look the most beautiful and alluring and seductive and ladylike—all at once—in your entire lifetime. Don't worry, when I'm done with you, even a quiet one like Piotr will have his jaw dropping in amasement."
Figuring that there was something beyond wrong happening in that hellish cavern, Jack and Corg decided that it'd be best if they simply "ran like hell" to reach the other end of the cavern. Piotr and Mieu agreed quickly.
The five dashed down the corridor with reckless abandon. Their footsteps were quickly drowned out by ever growing chattering and scratching of the rats. Wren occasionally fired shots at the ground, hoping to scare off any creature that'd be pursuing or coming towards them. The shadows of hellish and infernal beings danced in the flashes of light that accompanied the bursts from Wren's shot.
Within a couple of minutes, they had reached the edge of the corridor, which opened into a large, circular chamber. The sound of the rats ceased abruptly. The scratching. The squeaking. The scuttling. Nothing. Silence.
The flare had since worn off, leaving them in almost complete darkness. As they groped about the ground looking for traces of a door or stairway, Mieu heard a light wheezing sound. It was the sound of a muffled breath.
"Methinks were not alone," Piotr commented in a low whisper.
"Wren, get that flare phatty ready," Jack said nudging his cyborg companion.
Wren's flare quickly lit the entire chamber.
"Oh, my g—" Corg yelped.
"So tell me, what did you see in Piotr? Honestly, he's a bit of a quiet one and when you put him and Corg together, well—"
"I know, I know. It's kind of off-putting at first. But he's a nice and courteous guy. He's not full of himself like some royalty I've met over the years. He has a…well…unique sense of humor."
"Whatever floats your boat."
"I've never heard that one before."
"It means, 'Whatever makes you happy.'"
"Hmm…I like that one."
"Yeah, so, like, how was the courting?"
"I guess it was…normal. Wild flowers, breakfast in bed, love notes, etc. Beneath that quiet and logic-driven exterior, there's an adorable romantic hidden there somewhere."
The dead, expressionless faces of dozens of elves stared deep into the eyes of everyone present. They were everywhere: hanging from the top of the cavern, laying against the wall, propped up against each other. All motionless, their dried up, lifeless faces gazed deep into the souls of Corg, Piotr and Jack, filling them with a strange horror. Their gaping mouths revealed sharp, filed teeth. Their withered hands showed long, claw-like fingers. Their ears, which hadn't yet rotted away, were long and pointed.
Near the southwestern corner of the cave was hole that opened into a staircase leading down. Wren pointed it out to the others, who nodded, not taking their eyes off of the many horrors staring them in the eyes. They walked slowly toward the staircase, not knowing whether this was simply a way of scaring them away from their destination, or some undead army bent on their destruction.
A strange image flashed in Piotr's head, causing him to groan and stop. The others surrounded him. The image flashed again. And again. Elves were pouring out of the city into the cavern, running and screaming in terror. Their cries partially drowned out some awful moaning…a moaning which grew louder with every second. The elves spread out into the chamber and became silent. The moaning turned into an unearthly screech. One by one, the elves began to convulse and collapse, lying still and motionless as the others suffered the same fate.
"Piotr!" Corg yelled, shaking his companion. "Snap out of it!" Corg struck Piotr across the face with the palm of his hand.
Piotr calmed down and breathed deeply.
"Here, take this," Mieu whispered in her motherly tone, handing him a small vial of monomate.
Piotr gulped it down. "Sorry, dawg. That was pretty darn freaky."
"Hey guys, look around you again," Jack said in a warning tone.
Everyone looked up. The chamber was empty once again.
"Yeah, I must say that Jack is almost two different people."
"Doesn't surprise me. I think the three of them are."
"Boy I'll say. When they're together, they never stop laughing and saying unintelligible phrases and using expressions that Lord knows I don't know what they mean."
"And when they're with us, they all become sweet romantics with tranquil voices and the tendency to overdo it on the sweet nothings."
"Yeah, but at least they're as good to us in private as they are to us in public, right?"
"Yeah, I guess we'll keep'em."
A stale and musty stench emanating filled the corridors of the Elven City. It was a dilapidated network of decaying stone passages and chambers and rooms. The city had that dead silence that had spooked the party during their previous visit to the swamp and in the cavern above them. Every step echoed throughout the ghost town that was once the great Schattenalfen Elven Realm. Doors made from rotting wood stayed open and allowed easy entrance to thieves, had their been any in this dark place.
The streets were littered with the corpses and skeletons of a once prosperous, albeit evil, race. Their diminutive skeletons were covered by tattered, worm-eaten tunics and rusted armor. Their skulls showed no expression, neither horror nor peace.
"Look closely at the bones," Wren observed as they turned left to enter another corridor.
"What? What's up?" Corg asked, unable to see what Wren had noticed.
"The bones," Mieu whispered. "They've been chewed. The clothes, too."
"By what?" Piotr wondered aloud.
"I wonder if it was those phatty rats that we've been hearing," Jack mused.
As they turned right into another corridor, they saw a room with no door on it. A quick glimpse inside revealed a number of skeletons, one of which was on the table.
Corg's mind began to wander into those secret, eldritch worlds fantasized by Lovecraft. He remembered many a story telling of those family secrets, those evil family sins that seized control of and dominated the destinies of its descendents, driving them to madness against their will. He remembered the story of a strange picture in an antique book about Africa. He remembered the story, much like where he was at that moment, of an entire city located underground.
Like Piotr, those horrible images began to flash in his head. Corg saw those vivid images of the Dark Elves falling upon one another. He saw them hacking each other to pieces with swords and axes. He saw the strong invading the chambers and quarters of the weak and feasting upon the helpless. He saw the entire civilization be consumed and destroyed by its own madness.
"So what did you most like to do in your world, Christy?"
"Dance. I was an aspiring dancer."
"Did you do it as a profession?"
"Nah, I wasn't able to study it at the university as I had wanted to. Probably for the best?"
"Why do you say that?"
"I probably wouldn't have met Corg had I been a professional dancer."
"Fame is a rough thing in our world. Famous people get tempted a lot…drugs, alcohol, betrayal, that sort of thing."
"Why don't you dance here? I assume the dances you know are a lot different from those that are part of Palman culture."
"Well…I guess…you know…well…hmm…"
"You like the idea, don't you? Sari and I can make an arrangement."
Corg took a sip of the monomate and his nerves immediately began to calm. That evil air which all the denizens of the city were forced to breathe was taking its toll on the party.
Jack was the next one to feel those eldritch pangs in his soul. As they walked down the corridor that led the city's temple, he began to envision the corridor, as it had once been when the city was alive. But whatever beauty there was was desecrated by the hordes of large rats that invaded the corridors. The plague-infested vermin attacked the city's elven population and slaughtered them like one great feast. He watched in utter horror and loathing as he saw the legions of rats gnaw on the bones of man and woman alike, spreading pestilence and death throughout the city. All he could do is let out a scream of horror.
"Dude! Dude! Calm down! It's okay!"
Jack opened his eyes and saw Corg and Mieu shaking him. Mieu pulled out yet another vial of monomate and gave it to him.
"My supply won't last forever. C'mon, we're at the steps of the temple. We're almost at the end of our journey."
As they climbed the steps of the temple, they heard that ominous squeaking from behind. It sounded as if it came from thousands of yards away, but the sound echoed faintly throughout all the corridors. On top of the last step, Wren turned around and looked at the city one last time.
"I brought an escapipe with me. The coordinates are set for the entrance of the cavern above of us."
"That's a relief," Corg sighed.
"The voices have been getting to Mieu and I as well," he said in his distinct monotone.
Corg and Piotr looked at other and lifted a single eyebrow.
"We've been able to resist up until now, but I do not wish to have to go through the psychological ordeal of the last few hours."
"You talkin' about leavin' already, dawg?" Jack inquired.
"No, that's not quite what I have in mind."
He bent his body forward and pressed a button on his wrist console. A number of small rockets shot noisily out of his back weapons pack. They whizzed through the air like large red sparks in the middle of the blackness. They all exploded in large fireballs, completely destroying most of the living quarters and individual chambers, leaving only smoking rubble in their wake. Some of the rockets struck the ceiling, causing parts of it to collapse and completely bury parts of the city forever.
"Come," Wren said. "Our destiny awaits us."
"Was it true what you said?"
"That you'd take care of me if anything happened to Corg?"
"Of course. We'll all take care of you. But don't worry, they'll be alright."
"I can't bear to think of my life without him."
"I know. I've learned to feel that way about Piotr. If anything happens to him, I'll track his soul down to the very depths of hell itself if need be, and duel with the devil himself, if that's what it takes to bring my Piotr back."
"Both Piotr and I will go down to hell together to—Stop that! Christy! Stop thinking like that!"
"It just seems like it's taking so long."
"Don't worry. Soon the wedding bells will be ringing, the choir will be singing, and you'll be watching a double wedding…one that YOU helped put together."
Behind the altar in the center of the temple was another stairway that led down. There was no way to see what like beneath the lonely Elven city. All experience Corg had had with the game could not take away from that lingering fear that hung over the party. They had, up till now, encountered psychological horrors that had even shaken the logic-driven mentality of Wren. Now they were descending into those caverns, dubbed "The Immortal Caverns" by the book Corg held.
The silence which they had heard at certain intervals during their journey could not compare to that dead feeling which they felt as they entered the cavern. They had fully expected to hear the roars and bellows of some strange, heretofore unseen beasts. Corg had told the others stories of vampires, medusas, chimeras, and hydras that lurked in the depths of this evil cavern. But now there was nary a sound to be heard. No footfalls. No thunderous steps. No monstrous growls. The silence scared the party more than any roar could, as least they could know where their enemy was in relation to them, had they been able to hear something.
The darkness filled the cavern like a dark mist. There was nothing to light the corridors of the cave. Wren had switched on his flare to guide them through the cavern. The walls of the cavern were lined with strange carvings, different from those seen in the Elven caves. These carvings were of large creatures, monsters unknown to both the worlds of Phantasy Star and the Warriors of the Eternal Sun. The images of cackling monstrosities slaughtering other fantastic beings seemed to be the general theme of those horrid images.
Corg instructed the others to be on the lookout for any giant creatures. He mentioned that this cavern in particular was not a complicated one, as they would simply enter a large chamber from the initial corridor, then enter another corridor which would extend far to west, turn to the south, and then back to the east.
"Hey dawg," Jack whispered to Corg.
"Yeah? What's up?"
"You never did explain to us about the Burrower."
"Yeah, what's up with that?" Piotr ribbed.
"Yeah, I'll do that," Corg giggled.
"So, son, we haven't talked a lot these past few hours. Tells us about what we'll be fighting," Mieu said.
"The Burrower was a large, green, tentacled monster. Looked something like a squid."
"Ooh…so we'll be recreating the scene from 20,000 Leagues ? That'll be one for the books," Piotr commented.
"To tell the truth," Corg said matter-of-factly. "You don't actually fight the monster in the game. You reach it and your party automatically just calls down a god in the form of a T-Rex."
"Man, hecka the T-Rex," added Jack.
"Yeah, kind of a free ride," Corg said.
"I assume we won't be afforded the same privilege," Wren observed.
"What's your impression of Corg's wife?"
"Does he have another?"
"Very funny. What do I think of her? I don't know. She seems nice enough. I don't think she fully comprehends what's going on right now."
"That's pretty obvious. But then, remember when Piotr and Jack explained to us the whole truth. That was…what did they call it…a mind trip?"
"I think it was mind job."
"Yeah, but we thought they were just as crazy as they were weird."
"Uh huh. But then that one guy with slanted eyes just kinda…well…showed up."
"Yeah, that was kinda freaky."
"That was probably as much a mind job, as they would say, as their explanation. I mean, c'mon, figuring out that you're known to hundreds of people in some unknown world as being a game character? Doesn't get any weirder than that."
The intervals between each beep shortened. Mieu was using her bio-sensor to detect life. They had already left the large chamber and had entered into the long, winding corridor. Not fifty yards in had Mieu's bio-sensor to read something, first faintly, and then more strongly. The ever-increasing beeping set their nerves on edge as they readied their weapons for a confrontation.
"It's almost here…twenty yards."
Wren's flare only was able to illuminate about five yards at a time.
Nothing. Not the slightest hint of anything stirring.
"Wren! Open fire!" Corg barked.
Wren opened fire with his Nei Shot and sent dozens of greenish, bullet-like particles into the darkness.
"Bio-sensor reads negative."
No snarky comment could hide their shaking hands and worried looks. They stepped forward to see if they could find the body of whatever it was that Mieu had detected. It should've been in plain sight, but the corridor was empty, except for the five and the strange, deformed creatures that inhabited the carvings on the walls. As the flare flickered, those strange carvings and reliefs seemed to dance with unholy glee.
"Shouldn't there be like…something here?" Jack inquired.
"Mieu, I think our friend has been screwing with your mind, too," Corg said frankly.
"Even though I'm a cyborg?" she asked, surprised.
Corg said nothing, but simply rubbed his chin and quickly pondered what had just occurred.
"There's probably not going to be any giant hydras here, are they?" Piotr said. "You sure you weren't making this all up or on some sort of psychotropical drug?"
"My bio-sensors show that Corg is in perfect physical condition," Mieu defended.
"Uh, mom," Corg said. "Piotr was just being sarcastic."
Mieu threw her hands up in the air. "The three of you will be the death of me."
"Yes, my love?"
"I'm going with Corg."
"He needs me."
"I'm going with you."
"No. I don't want anything to happen to you."
"Nor do I want anything to happen to you. If anything does happen, I want to be by your side when it does."
"Christy needs you."
"Laya and Kara can take care of her. I'm going with you."
"Please, Sari. Nothing will happen. Wren and Mieu are going with us. We'll be okay."
"And why is it just you three guys? Did you all forget how strong and experienced Laya and I are? Are you out to prove something?"
"Than what it is it?"
"Speak up! Tell me!"
"I couldn't live with myself if something happened to you. Take care of Christy, she's in way over her head. She needs it."
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
Corg and the others rounded the corner and entered the final bend of the corridor. The previous stretch had been a gradual downward slope. The rough dirt ground had given way to a smooth stone floor, itself covered in the carvings of strange creatures with distorted faces. However, there was no sign of life in that corridor, save a very low, almost inaudible humming. They knew better than to let it scare them, for all of the terrors they had encountered up to that point had been all in their heads. There was no turning back now; they were read to face their destiny.
In the distance, some thirty meters away, they heard at first sounded like deep breathing, but sounded more like a low, deep growl with each step. As they approached the sound, they saw a queer, translucent green light in the far distance. When it first came into view, it looked almost like a flickering torch flame. But the closer they came to the object, the more it appeared to be some pulsating blob of light. The walls began narrow, bringing those nightmarish carvings with their canine faces and amorphous bodies and thorny tendrils closer to our heroes.
That translucent mass of glowing green matter stayed stationary in the corner of the large chamber that the corridor opened into. That lonely and silent chamber was overlaid with some strange obsidian-esque bricks, every one being filled with curious carvings of characters unknown.
Our heroes stepped into the chamber and stared into that silently pulsating blob. It remained motionless.
"So this is the Burrower?" Piotr asked.
"Yeah, I guess," Corg shrugged.
"What do you think we should—" Jack began to ask.
"Guys! Look!" Mieu shouted.
The green blob began to shift and wiggle. Tentacle-like pseudopods began to shoot out of the amorphous mass, only to be swallowed again by the whole. The amoeba-like creature began to grow in size, finally to a height of about twelve feet. Parts of the mass began to jiggle like chunks of flab. Two massive, flabby legs began to form at the base of the creature. The upper part of the creature began to form into what appeared to be a head and two arms. The ends of the arms took on the shape of monstrous claws. The head of the creature, which at first seemed to be just a spherical green mass, started spewing out pseudopods in all directions. The pseudopods grew in thickness and length, starting to look like an octopus' tentacles. Two large, glowing yellow eyes formed on the side of its cephalopod head. The monster let out a deep groan that ended in a high-pitched shriek.
"You'd better come back, ya' know."
"Yeah? Or what?"
"I'm gonna have to beat you down if you don't come back."
"Heh. Yeah well."
"But seriously, you alright? You worried?"
"Me? I'm okay. It'll be cool bust out another quest with the Corg."
"Why do you treat this all like a game? You've been doing this since I first met you."
"Dunno. I guess it's my way of not having to look reality in the eye. But, ya' know, I actually did think this was a game."
"But it's not. You know what happened to that kid that you and Piotr fought against. It's all real. If something happens to you, I'm not going to have you by my side for two more lives or any of that nonsense."
"I know. Sorry."
"Please, just come back. Take care of yourself and the others."
Corg and his friends confronted the Burrower with a ferocity more animal-like than the monster itself. Mieu leapt high into the air and landed on the creature's back. With deadly precision, she began to dig into its back with her claws. A dark-greenish ichor poured out of the monsters wound, filling a room with a nauseating stench. The bellowed and struggled to throw Mieu off its back, but was soon distracted by Wren, who was firing his Nei Shot into its legs. Although the blasts ripped effortlessly through its flesh, the Burrower showed no signs of slowing down. Wren had to leap aside to avoid being ripped to pieces by its large claws.
"Hey Mieu!" Piotr yelled. "Give me some space!"
Mieu did a back flip off the Burrower's back and Piotr pointed and aimed his wand of lightning at the monster, who was trying to focus its attention on Mieu. A large blue spark shot out of the tip and struck the Burrower's gelatinous hide. Its ichor sizzled and boiled on its back and that large cephalopod monster hissed and shrieked in horror.
Angry, the Burrower began to swing its large face tentacles at Piotr, trying to grab him. Corg, who had been observing the fight, searching for a strategy, started swinging his chain whips at dizzying speeds, lashing out at the Burrower's glowing green tentacles. In a moment of luck, one of Corg's whips struck and wrapped itself around four tentacles, temporarily neutralizing its attacks. The Burrower quickly reacted by trying to retract the tentacles, pulling Corg towards its maw.
A blast from Wren's gun surprised the Burrower, while Jack took advantage of its distraction to use his patented "Super Cyber Bionic Knee" technique and struck the monster in the back of the head, causing it to topple over. It rose to its feet quickly, but Mieu and Piotr were already hanging on its back, striking desperately at its head with their respective claws and batons.
When the Burrower tried to pull the two off its back with his deadly claws, Corg threw his chains, which wrapped around of its arms. Corg gave the chains a strong yank, pulling the claw away from Piotr, who had almost been hit. However, the Burrower swung its arm, throwing Corg across the chamber. Corg struck the wall and fell helplessly to the ground. Mieu and Piotr jumped off the monster's back and ran to Corg's side while Wren held it back with some more shots from his gun.
Clenching its huge claws into an enormous fist, the Burrower struck Wren and sent him sliding across the ground and into a wall. It started lumbering towards the other three. Thinking quickly, Jack ran and slid between the monster's legs, gyrating on the ground and using the momentum to push himself into the air and to a spinning crescent kick the monster's head. The Burrower lashed at Jack with its squid-like tentacles. Jack began to fire out dozens of kicks with his right leg to deflect the Burrower's attacks.
This gave the other three enough time to scramble to their feet and get out of the way. Corg ran to the other side of the chamber and picked up one of his chain whips. He began to whirl it around his body to build up momentum for his next strike. He swung the whip under his leg and the chain flew up towards the Burrower, hitting it just under the eye. The Burrower shrieked as a yellowish fluid began to flow out from the new wound.
Piotr and Mieu, seeing what happened, looked at each other and nodded. Piotr ran at the creature and Mieu caught his foot in her hands and threw him in the direction of the monster. Piotr landed on its shoulder and quickly jammed his lightning wand into the creature's eye. Sparks began to pour out of its eye and the Burrower began to convulse. Before Piotr could leap to safety, the Burrower grabbed him with one of its claws and hurled him into Jack, knocking both of them senseless.
"Stay back!" Wren shouted at Mieu, who was closing in on the blinded monster. Kneeling over, Wren touched a button in his console and screamed, "Gra!"
Several twirling bolts of energy, which looked like small rotors, shot out of a cannon on Wren's weapon back. They whizzed through the air and struck the Burrower, hitting him in the stomach and passing through it, hitting the wall on the other side. The Burrower paused and stood still for a few seconds. The rancid smell of its ichor began to fill the room once more as it bled profusely from its wounds. However, instead of rearing up to attack once again, the top half of that horrid monster simply slid sideways and fell to the ground.
Corg and Mieu looked up at Wren and gave him the thumbs up.
"Mieu, go see how Piotr and Jack are," Corg suggested.
Mieu nodded and ran to the other side of the chamber to check on the two, who were still dazed.
Suddenly, Corg felt something pull his feet out from under him. Before he knew it, his body slammed on the ground with a loud thud. He looked up and saw his legs enveloped by the Burrower's tentacles. The tentacles began to retract, pulling Corg towards its mouth. Corg screamed, calling the attention of the others.
"Wren!" Mieu screamed. "Do something!"
Wren fired some shots, hitting the Burrower in the side of the head, but to no avail. Corg clawed and struggled to pull himself away from the creature. He threw his chain over to Mieu, who grabbed it and started pulling. Jack and Corg joined in, and succeeded in pulling Corg away a little bit. There triumph was temporary, as more tentacles began to form around the Burrower's mouth and latched on to Corg's body. Corg desperately stabbed at the tentacles with the spear-tip of his whip. Although he cut away some of the tentacles, there were far too many.
The monster brought Corg closer to its head. He could now its mouth, a large, toothy beak with a long, thin proboscis-like tongue sticking out of it. The horror of what was going to happen to him struck him that moment. He knew that not only his life was at stake, but his very soul was going to be ripped screaming from existence. Corg began to flail wildly while shrieking in despair.
Suddenly, Corg felt something. It was another hand; it was Wren's hand. Wren had jumped into the mass of tentacles and was trying to wrestle them away from Corg. Wren fired some more gra blades, which sliced through some of the tentacles, causing the others to loosen their grip on Corg. The Burrower then shot out the other tentacles at Wren, which grabbed him and brought him unexpectedly towards its mouth. Out of its beak darted forth the creature's evil tongue, which pierced Wren's protective armor and dug into his cybernetic body.
Corg stared in fear and horror as a bluish light left Wren's body and started to be absorbed into the Burrower's. Corg came to his senses and reached over and pulled out the enchanted Nei Sword, which Wren had been carrying. With a mighty swing, he cut through several of the Burrower's tentacles and was able to move in closer. With all his might, Corg thrust the sword through the monster's tongue and severed it. Corg quickly buried the heavy blade into the Burrower's mouth.
The Nei Sword began to glow with bright blue light. Nearly blinded by the light, Corg lifted the sword up, splitting the Burrower's head in half. A green column of light shot out of the monster's open skull. Mieu and the other two watched from afar as the column of light went up towards the heavens. They saw what appeared to be distorted human faces in the midst of the light, screaming and howling with horror. From that column came a light blue ball of light, which circled the room a few times before touching the sword and being absorbed into it. After a few minutes, the pillar of light was a gone and the Burrower's body simply withered away.
Mieu, Piotr, and Jack walked over to Corg, who knelt over Wren. As they came closer, it was apparent that Wren was completely motionless. His eyes were closed and there was a peaceful look on his face. Corg looked up at them, tears running down his face. Piotr and Jack stayed where they were, not sure what to do. Mieu knelt down and caressed Wren's cold cheek. She was not programmed to cry. Instead, she wailed so loud that the sound was permanently imprinted in the souls of the other three.
"What do you and others believe happens to us when we die?"
"Well, we believe that the soul is separated from the body."
"It rests in a place called Paradise until it is reunited with the body once again in the Ressurrection."
"So you believe in life after death."
"Oh, of course. We all do…I mean…Corg, the others, and I…we're all from the same religion."
"So there are many religions in your world?"
"Yeah, and they all have different ideas about what happens to us when we die. And you?"
"I was taught back on Palma that the spirits of the great heroes would become one with the Elysdeon after dying—their spirits would join up with the sword and would continue to exist to inspire the next generations of heroes."
"Do you think they same thing will happen to you and the others?"
"Yes, I do. I think the spirits of Rhys and Lyle and Lena and Ayn and Thea and the others are already at peace inside the Nei Sword. I think they have met up with the great Orakio and Laya, my older sister. They are all at peace now."
Almost an entire day had passed since the Corg and the others had vanquished the Burrower. As they walked through the passageway that had connected the southern swamp with the castle, the sounds of their footsteps alerted the townspeople, who had all gathered at the entrance of the cemetery to greet them. It took them a little while to reach the stairs, but as they ascended to the surface they were met with cries of joy and triumph.
The cries of triumph soon died. Mieu had risen first, her beautiful magenta hair being matted with dirt and grime, her face carrying a silent expression of sorrow and lamentation. Piotr and Jack also carried some quiet sorrow in their looks, even as Sari and Laya ran over to embrace them. But what quieted the crowd was Corg, who had stepped out of the cave carrying Wren's body in his arms. The whole crowd became deadly silent, save a few whispers of those in the back of the crowd who were trying to figure out what was going on.
Everyone soon figured out what was going on and Sari and the others all knew that the battle had taken a casualty. Tears were running down their eyes as they, including Kara and Sean, had approached Corg to gaze upon peaceful face of Wren, that almost immortal combat cyborg, who had fought alongside his masters for more generations than a normal human being could imagine. They all looked at him, trying to hold back their sobs, caressed his all-too-human face and stepped back. Corg looked at Sean, shook his head, and handed Wren over to Sean. Christy, who had been watching all of this, ran over to Corg, embraced him, and sobbed uncontrollably into his shoulder.
Wren, in spite of being a cyborg, was given a hero's funeral. He was placed in the crypt reserved for royalty in the southeastern tower of the castle. Sean commissioned a statue to made in his honor and placed in the center of town. Wren's contributions to his people would never be forgotten.
In a few weeks, the tears of sorrow would become tears of joy as Sari and Laya walked down the red carpet in the castle hall. They were dressed in the most exquisite of white dresses, which had been prepared by the most talented dressmakers of Landen. Their hair, as done by Christy, was full of curls and all done up in a way that Sari and Laya had never imagined. They were carrying bouquets of the most beautiful blue wildflowers to found in the Hollow Valley. The melodies being played were of Orakian origin, as finding traditional Earth music for the musicians to play was simply out of the question.
Jack and Piotr had switched their usual combat outfits for white armor and capes and appeared to look just as much like Orakian and Layan royalty as Sean and his family did. They stood in front of the throne and waited patiently for their brides to approach them.
Sean and Kara sat on the two thrones, and the former was to perform the ceremony. Corg, Christy, and their child, Melissa, stood next to Piotr. Corg wore a suit of red armor with a white cape. Christy wore a light green dress in the medieval style that she worn at her wedding. Mieu stood next to Jack and wore a burgundy gown that complemented her magenta hair nicely.
The music stopped as Sari and Laya arrived by their grooms' sides. All turned to look at Sean. Sean began to speak:
"We are gathered here to celebrate the matrimony of four people…"
At the end of his speech, Sean said those immortal words: You may now kiss your brides.
Never more emotional kisses were seen in the history of the Hollow Valley than were seen as the two coupled sealed their vows that very moment.
And, unbeknownst to them, Sean's Nei Sword, which he wore by his side, was glowing softly inside its scabbard. The faces of several generations of heroes, including one black-haired soul, watched and rejoiced. It was a joyous moment for all.