Rugaba mulled it over a minute then shrugged, “Alright then. Laz would you scout a bit first? I’d like to know where the other team is at if you can manage it.”
Lazarus nodded and left.
They ate and his teammates got some much needed rest. Illyoten did not rest with them. He could pull the energy he needed from the power Lazarus fed him. It would reinvigorate his body but eventually he would need some true rest for his mind. That would be the wise thing to do.
Instead, Illyoten used his rest time to reinvigorate the bodies of his companions. He could not renew them the way he did for himself but he could cause their bodies to relax more fully as they dozed. He also encouraged their stomachs to digest the food quickly to replace the blood and body mass they had lost.
Healer magic was wondrous but it could not simply make something out of nothing. When you lose blood it’s gone. It can’t be replaced from thin air. It needs water and minerals and more. The same rule applied for closing up wounds. Just like a mason can’t build a wall without materials to work with, Illyoten could not cause skin to grow closed or a lung to function properly without enough of the body’s own flesh to work with.
In the moment the healing is needed, he pulled materials from various other parts of the body; minerals from the bones, skin from callouses, cartilage from the ears. Most of it was unnoticeable unless there was a lot of healing needed in a short amount of time. If that was the case then a good recovery period was needed as soon as it was possible. So now, while the team ate and rested, he hurried their digestion along and directed every scrap of it to refill the places he had had to cannibalize to mend their wounds.
Lazarus returned and Illyoten put a finger over his lips as he came into view. The team was asleep. Lazarus nodded and came over to sit down next to him. He ate ravenously and Illyoten went to work on him too. He tried to encourage Lazarus to relax and sleep but Lazarus held up a hand.
“I’d rather stay awake and alert so I can sense anything approaching us.” He said, keeping his voice low so as not to wake the others. “I haven’t been under as much strain as the rest of you so I don’t need it as much.”
“Alright,” Illyoten said. He paused then asked, “The battle mage we just fought, was it the one you were sensing earlier?”
Lazarus blew out a breath and said, “No, I didn’t sense this one until it was too late to point it out.”
“Yeah, battle mages are tricky to sense,” He said. “They have to be actively using their magic. The other branches of magic are easy. Mages in those areas are unconsciously touching roots all the time. To someone like me, that’s like tugging on a spider’s web. I’m the spider, I sense the vibrations. But a battle mage’s skills are mostly internalized. They enhance their own strength, speed, or what have you. They don’t always need to draw on roots for power so they’re not always reaching out to reassure themselves that there’s a power source nearby.”
“That makes sense. If they’re not touching the roots, you can’t tell if he’s a mage.”
Illyoten fell quiet for a moment then asked, “What did you find out about the way ahead?”
“It’s clear up to the tunnel merge. There’s a large cavern just a bit further with something big inside it. Probably the minor demon noble we’ve been looking for and likely the mage I’ve been poking at. I’ll take a closer look for more information when we join up with the other team again.”
“How are they doing?”
“Very well, despite some difficulty. I was able to get in touch with Mereb but I had to wait until their fight was over. They’ve had more rooms with more demons than we did. And many more mages on that side too. They were smarter, more coordinated and sent runners into the other rooms to get reinforcements and warn them. They’ve had to move cautiously out of fear of ambush.
“We only had to contend with this one mage and he was near the end of the tunnels. The other demons simply threw themselves at us, they didn’t think to send a runner to warn the others further on.”
Illyoten nodded, “Makes sense that there would be more mages over there since that’s where the useable roots are.”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” Lazarus replied. “Anyway, the other team is almost finished clearing out the demons on their end. Should be another hour or so.”
Illyoten glanced around at the team, “Should we wake them and go help?”
“Nah, let them sleep. Mereb said they were fine. You should rest too. I’ll keep watch and wake you in thirty.”
Illyoten nodded his thanks and laid down, cushioning his head on his pack. He was asleep in moments. It seemed like only a few minutes later when Rugaba gently shook him awake. He sat up, shaking his head and blinking rapidly to clear out the fog in his mind.
“Thanks,” He said to Rugaba who nodded then walked over to Lazarus and began speaking with him. The rest of the team was awake and were pulling on boots and strapping weapons back on. Illyoten stood too, stretched, then pulled his pack back on, securing it in place. They were ready in a few minutes and moved off at once.
The tunnel widened more and more as they got closer to the rendezvous point and after only fifteen minutes they reached it. It wasn’t a cavern but it was still very large, as if lava had pooled here before finding a new route to flow through. There were no more stalagmites nor stalactites here. And now that he thought about it there hadn’t been any since the first cavern. The tunnels were smooth free of rocks or other natural debris. There were three main branches that Illyoten could see; the one they had come from, another large one that presumably the other team would come from, and a small tunnel leading deeper under the mountain.
Only a few minutes later the other team appeared, Tophus in the lead. They were stained with the signs of battle but otherwise didn’t look too much worse for wear since Illyoten had last seen them.
Rugaba nodded at Lazarus who immediately commandeered Krolis and Mereb to accompany him to scout ahead. Tophus, Rugaba, and Shannon immediately sat together to speak of what they had learned of the demons and how they handled it. The rest of the team gathered around them, piping in with their observations as well.
Illyoten liked this guild and this team. It was unlike any of the other guilds he had considered joining. There was so little structure that, at first glance, he was certain it would not work. But it wasn’t true. There was structure. There were leaders. It just didn’t get in the way of the camaraderie. Illyoten looked at their roots and saw there was a deep connection there. It was more than just the magic that bound them. It was more than just simple respect for rules and authority. These people were friends. They were family. He wanted to be part of that too.
“How did you do, Illyoten?” Shannon asked. The whole team turned to look at him.
The question surprised him. Well, not the question itself but the fact that it was addressed to him. He expected her to get a report on his performance from Rugaba but instead she was asking him. Directness; that was another thing he liked.
“Good, I think,” He said, glancing at Rugaba. “I was slow, at first. I’m not used to your rhythm yet. The fights, and subsequently the healing, got harder the further along we got but it was well within my capabilities. The last fight with the battle mage was the hardest. I believe I reached my limits in that fight without magical gear to support me.”
Shannon nodded, “We’ll have to start working on some for you as soon as we’re back in Faelamont.”
“I’ve never used them before but I see why they are so popular now. I’ve never been in situations quite like this.”
“They are good for creating short-cuts for spells that would normally take a long time to cast. If you have the time, always go for the longer spell. Direct spellcraft is more potent. But artifacts are very handy when it all goes sideways.”
lllyoten smiled but it faded when he spotted Lazarus, Krolis and Mereb jogging back into the room. They looked grim. The team gathered around them and Mereb began to speak. No one interrupted.
“The tunnel winds for about a quarter mile. It’s narrow, we’ll have to go one at a time. Then it opens up into a huge cavern. Like a very large bend in a very large river. You can’t see the ceiling, it’s so high up, but it is lit like the rest of the tunnels have been. It’s all smooth, bare rock.
“It looks like the tunnel should have continued on, but there’s a cave-in blocking it now with only a small hole at the top. Lazarus said he could sense more demons further that way but I don’t think that’s our main threat.”
“That’s an understatement,” Lazarus said, taking up the report. “There’s a demon in the cave, currently asleep and laying in front of the cave-in. He’s a big one.”
“I think,” Laz swallowed, “I think it’s a demon lord.”
“What?” Rugaba asked sharply, “That’s not possible. They were killed or banished back to the chaos realm at the final battle!”
Lazarus held up his hands, “It’s not a powerful one, a minor demon lord perhaps. But it’s obviously been here a while. Smart enough to stay unnoticed until he was close enough to finishing it’s work that it needed more power from the locals.”
“What do you mean?” Rugaba asked.
Mereb answered him, “There’s a rudimentary portal core in there.”
The group gasped at that. Mereb nodded and continued, “It looks finished, or nearly so to me.”
“Wait,” Illyoten said. “Portal core?”
“Yes,” Lazarus said. “Whenever a new portal is created you first need a structure to hold it in place and keep it open until it’s stable. It’s called a core. You can’t use the portal until the core is removed but it’s a necessary part of creating a portal.”
“Maker preserve us,” Shannon breathed. “We have to stop them. They’re going to open new Chaos portals and start the war all over again.”
Everyone nodded grimly and Illyoten – connected as he was to their roots – literally felt their apprehensions rise.
“Tell us more about the demon lord,” Rugaba said to Lazarus.
“I believe him to be the source mage that I’ve been trying to pin down the location on almost since we arrived.”
“He’s a three-headed beast,” Mereb added. “There’s a closer resemblance to a wolf than a dog though. And he’s huge, perhaps the size of a large Inn. He’s asleep now but judging from the length of his legs I bet you could easily walk beneath him with a foot or two to spare.”
“So he’ll have claws, teeth, and magic,” Tophus commented, “What else?”
“Heavily muscled, thick skin,” Mereb said. “It will be difficult to penetrate. I think we’ll have to focus on bringing him down first; immobilizing him in order to deal a killing blow.”
They began to discuss strategies and Illyoten tried to follow it. It wasn’t something he knew much about but wanted to learn. Still, he was tired and couldn’t stay focused on the thread of discussion. The short rest from earlier seemed like days ago. His mind felt fuzzy. He shook his head to clear it then decided perhaps he needed to meditate again. He remained standing but closed his eyes and bowed his head. He took a few deep breaths, letting them out slowly and tried to let his mind go blank. It took longer than it should have. He had to chase and catch each random thought, pushing it to the edges of his consciousness.
Then that flicker of something danced across his awareness again. It was right there tickling the back of his mind. This time when turned to find out what it was he discovered it was a memory. Surprised, he opened his eyes and looked around.
This place, the tunnel and it’s smooth walls – if it was greener and less inhabited by voracious, man-eating demons – reminded him of the fertile milling tunnels back home. He loved those tunnels. So many flowers and thick ferns, all of it teeming with the world’s life energy. His clan used the tunnels to grow particular kinds of potent plants that were harvested, ground up, and combined with tallow to make millwax.
The clan has very little use for the millwax for themselves. They had little need for artifacts powered by it. But there was high demand for millwax in the cities and other countries. They traded and made an excellent living. It was enough to support them and their efforts to revitalized the abused and withered land.
Illyoten often went to the milling tunnels with the clan’s witchwoman and the few other life mages that were apprentices like himself. They tended the plants and spent many hours meditating and practicing their craft. But it wasn’t all meditation and work. Life was more than that, as their wise teacher showed them. The tunnels had also be a place of play, laughter and songs.
He smiled. Then remembered where he was and shook his head to clear away the memories.
Pay attention, He told himself. This isn’t the time to reminisce.
But… thinking of home was soothing. They had been fighting in these tunnels for hours and while it hadn’t been strenuous so far, it had been tedious, which was a whole different kind of energy drain. Thinking of those lush tunnels at home was nice. It was so opposite of these barren, old lava flows yet they held the same potential. This place could become a milling tunnel. It could be made like home. He wondered why the folk of Gibraltar hadn’t thought of it and acted on it. Volcanic soil was rich with the necessities of life.
He looked around, thinking that perhaps when they were done here, they could turn this place into milling tunnels too. If any country needed rich milling tunnels, this one did. He glanced at the group; they didn’t seem to need his advice for this part of the planning. His part of the fight would be relatively simple. Keep them all alive and fighting.
Illyoten turned and walked a short distance away. He bent to examine some of the soil, finding it fertile just as he thought it would be. But this wasn’t an ideal location. This area was small. They could only grow smaller plants which had less magical yield than bigger ones. A larger area would be needed. He glanced at the group again, frowning. They were engrossed in conversation. He could be very quiet when necessary, surely it wouldn’t hurt for him to check out the cavern ahead. Just a peek.
Briskly and quietly he walked ahead and was gone behind the bend of the tunnel before anyone knew. It reminded him of playing hide and seek with his fellow apprentices as a child. He smiled. With his eyes half lidded he could almost see the tunnel teeming with life, as if it was really there. When his friends had come looking for him, they couldn’t find him anywhere. They passed him four times and didn’t see him beneath the leaves of the big red fern.
He closed his eyes and thought he could feel the brush of the leaves against his head as it swayed ever so slightly in the breeze. That was odd. There wasn’t usually wind in the tunnels. His friends called for him, trying to trick him into revealing himself. But he wasn’t stupid. He didn’t make a sound. Maybe his hiding place was too good though. Eventually his friends stopped looking. It was quiet for a while and he got bored.
All the others probably left and went to play another game. They threatened that they would. He didn’t mind. He liked playing by himself. It was fun to sing to the flowers to make them grow. It was fun…
“Alright, it’s decided.” Rugaba said, “Before we go in, check and double check your gear. Make sure everything is charged up. This will be a very difficult fight so we have to use everything we’ve got.”
They all nodded. He glanced around at their serious faces and nodded back. “We go in five, be ready.”
Shannon spoke up, looking around.
“Um, where’s Illyoten?”
To Be Continued on 12/08/2014