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Dragon Hunters

Book Two: The Path of Honor

© 2001-2002 Draconus / Stratadrake of NEWST

Chapter Fourteen: Through The Caves Of Hell

As Aurex led the way down one path, the group ventured towards and into another large underground cavern. Strange types of crystalline rock, reflecting odd shades of green and purple light adorned the walls in this area. Aurex hushed the group as they looked around, speaking quietly. "We must proceed carefully."

"What type of area is this?" Kindra asked quietly.

Aurex pointed across the room to the other side. "We are not alone down here. There are many reports of strange areas, sightings of bizarre animals subterra, and other fears. Some say there are entire forests, veritable worlds lying down here in the caverns. We know many things about these caverns, but it's what we don't know that we should be cautious of."

Aurex noticed a symbol burnt into the near wall. "Our foe, Andrake, has been through here. We should go this way." Aurex pointed across to the other end of the room.

They made their way across the room. Near the other end was a strange sight. Some form of reptilian creature lay, dead, near the exit. Its scales were thick and sturdy, of a rather brown color. Its size was about three feet high (if it were standing, that is) and eight long from head to plated tail. Though roughly the same size as a drake or wyvern, this one clearly was not such a creature, for it lacked wings. Instead, it had a rather thick layer of plated scales around its neck, shoulders, back, and down to its tail. Several burn-marks scratched across its scales, the red color of the creature's blood now infused into its normal color of scales.

The creature was a basilisk, and Andrake had slain it on his way through. Basilisks are the type of creature that prey on fear and superstition; reports and stories about their abilities and prowess are widely inflated from reality. These creatures generally live in dark places such as the Shoshone Caverns, where almost no light penetrates. Though their sense of hearing is rather dull, they have a good sense of smell and exceptional night vision. Their vision, though monochromatic, also includes infrared, allowing them to see and discern objects in pitch black. Their eyes can also glow, similarly to dragon's eyes but with a much more pronounced, searchlight-like effect, to brighten the area for greater visual acuity in the dark. But since they are accustomed to total darkness, they can be easily blinded by any bright light or strong heat source.

In fact, the only real thing that basilisks can be feared for is their thick, scaly hides and their strong bite. Their bites carry a slight toxin that can cause paralysis, and their plated scales of their hide are difficult to penetrate with standard weaponry. No one really knows what basilisks eat, but few adventurers have ever wanted to find out, either.

"This is a Cave Basil," Aurex said, "the subterranean variety of basilisk. I...," Aurex paused to catch his breath. "I have not seen many of these creatures in my life, much less dead ones. Supposedly, the only weapons which affect them are those employing fire or ice."

"Like the Atom Blade," Kindra stated. "How many of these basilisks live down here?"

"They are without number," Aurex responded. "They are usually solitary, but reportedly they do sometimes hunt in groups."

Aurex motioned that they should continue, so he led the way down the next tunnel. This tunnel sloped downwards a bit, probably descending another thirty or forty feet underground. A sound of trickling water became audible as they proceeded.

They entered into the next larger cavern. An underground stream cut through the floor, from one area to the next. The walls here were lined with small bits of crystal and alexandrite rock. The combination of purple and green phosphorescence with the lights they carried with them gave the entire room a rather unearthly, blueish glow.

Aurex tested the water with a sniff and sip; it was clean water. "We may rest here for a little bit. But not for too long; places of water like this are frequented by basilisks and whatever else lives down here, and can be dangerous."

Aurex withdrew a map and examined it. "According to records from previous explorers, this stream of water offshoots from the Shoshone River. There is a larger cavern at the shores of the river, that way," Aurex pointed down a tunnel that led left relative to the way they had come.

After a few minutes rest, everyone was ready to continue moving, and Aurex led the way down the tunnel leading to the Shoshone River. The sound of the trickling stream faded as they approached the river. A few minutes later, they were there. It was a fair surprise for Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra to see an underground river. The surface of the water was so still that at first glance one would think it to be a lake.

The Shoshone River, as things go, is a large underground waterway between the ocean and several smaller bodies of water and streams near Calcutta. Presumably, if one could see in the dark and breathe underwater, this waterway could be used to swim back to the surface again. The Shoshone River's connection between ocean and lakes also has the effect that the bodies of water near Calcutta swell and sink in an echo of oceanic tides.

There was another noise in this room; it sounded like a type of hissing. Aurex shushed the group and pointed below; four basilisks were roaming about near the shores of the river. It looked as though they were feeding on something. But exactly what? Better examination revealed traces of blood lying on the floor, and a slain basilisk being pieced apart by the four. Apparently, Andrake had been through here, and basilisks have so little regard for their own species that they will even feed on their own dead. Aurex pointed across the cavern and identified another symbol that Andrake had burned into the wall: the lowercase letter epsilon.

"If we move carefully, we may be able to head that way without being noticed by the basils," Aurex said. "Cave Basils cannot swim, either, so if we must fight them, the river itself will offer protection.

Vrynn stumbled on a few loose rocks as they followed the path down; the rocks tumbled off the side of the path, bouncing off of the rocky floor with noise, down to the shore and then splunking into the water. Two of the basils noticed the noise and glanced at the river in curiosity for a minute before returning their attention to their meal. The other two, however, paid the commotion no mind and kept eating.

Everyone let out a sigh of relief. But they had been jinxed; the sound of a loud hiss filled the cavern suddenly, and they looked around to see a basil standing on the ledge above them and watching hungrily.

The other four basilisks stopped eating and looked in their direction as well. Thinking that this group would make an easy meal, they approached.

"Cover your eyes!" Aurex shouted. With a motion of his arm to the side and then straight up, a sudden flash of light exploded into the room, the basilisks letting out loud, hissing screams as they were blinded by the sudden light. In the meantime, Aurex led everyone down the path denoted by the symbol Andrake had carved upon the wall. By the time the basilisks had recovered from their blinding, Hunter, Marcus and Vrynn, Kindra, and Aurex were more than a safe distance away; the four basilisks returned their attention to their meal, and the one other basilisk lumbered off in one direction.

The room that Hunter and everyone found themselves in now was more interesting. It appeared that some sort of underground structure had been carved out of the rock some eons ago; a square pedestal sat in the center of this room, surrounded by four carved pillars, each about two feet thick, reaching straight up about twenty feet into the ceiling. A small pool of water was in the center of this pedestal.

"This is one of Shoshone's mysteries," Aurex explained. "There are reports of at least four other structures like this scattered throughout the caverns. No one knows who built them, nor why. No one is sure exactly what this is, either."

Kindra looked around. "I see Andrake didn't bother to mark this room. So which way did he go?"

Aurex examined one of five passageways leading out of this room and south. "Or perhaps he did," Aurex pointed out a lowercase iota burned into the wall. The mark was faint enough that it readily blended into the wall and was difficult to identify from a distance.

Kindra volunteered to lead the way this time, so he led everyone down the tunnel leading south. It seemed like forever before they reached the next sizable underground room. This one was another shoreline for the Shoshone River, but it was much larger than the last one. The water of the river was a bit murky but slow-flowing as well. Several small outcroppings of rock jutted out alongside the river like stepping-stones. The only natural light in this room came from phosphorescent rocks slightly visible through the waters of the Shoshone.

Slowly and carefully, they began crossing, one by one because the outcroppings running along the wall were big enough for only one person at a time. Aurex was first, crossing on land rather than gliding with his wings because he needed to show Hunter, Kindra, and Marcus that the rocks were safe enough for standing on. Hunter was second, followed by Kindra and then Marcus. Vrynn waited on the shore until Marcus began crossing, then glided across with his own wings and landed cheerfully on the other side. At about the same time, Aurex had finished crossing, and Hunter was not too far behind.

Hunter jumped down from the rocks onto the shore with skill and confidence. Kindra nearly slipped when he jumped onto the last rock before the shore, but once he regained his footing he was okay as well. Marcus was a few steps behind, but he had no fear of the crossing and hopped down with grace and style.

It was getting dark on the surface by about now; the only sign of this was that the current of the Shoshone River had stopped, indicating a change in the oceanic tides. "This is a safe place to set camp and rest for awhile," Aurex said. Hunter and Marcus agreed, and took a place on the sandy, stone floor in the area.

Kindra, however, remained standing, watching for something. "I hate the dark... Just how far do these caverns proceed?"

"A long distance in almost every direction," Aurex said, taking a map out of his harness and unfolding it along the ground. He pointed at one area near the north edge of the map. "That is the entrance near Sareille. This," Aurex slid his finger down a small, squiggly red line until it met up with a wavy, blue line. The blue line doubled back on itself twice near this area, forming an "S" shape. The red line continued until a second meeting with the blue line, where it stopped. "This is the path we've taken so far, and we are currently right here."

"Interesting..." Kindra said. "What sort of map is that?"

"It's enchanted," Aurex responded. "Magic maps are difficult to make and enchant, but are an invaluable help for those who are afraid of becoming lost. Down here..." Aurex pointed at a location farther down on the map. " another entrance to the caverns, not far from Khatalus."

Aurex scratched an imaginary circle into the map. "Allegedly, there is a strange crypt located somewhere in this area further south. No one can say exactly whose, or from when. In fact, no one has insofar been able to verify it with a second discovery."

Kindra returned his attention to their surroundings. "Aurex, exactly what types of creatures live down here?"

"There are bats, snakes, and other nocturnal creatures that live in the upper, near-surface regions of the caverns. Further down, where we are, there are the basilisks."

"What else?" Kindra inquired. There was a strange unquiet to his voice that put Marcus on edge.

"There are rumors and stories of other strange creatures living down here. However, none other than the basilisks have been verified true. Why do you ask?"

Kindra pointed his sword at a tunnel leading southwest. "I think that one of those rumors is coming this way...."

Aurex heard it as well. A faint clacking sound was echoing from that direction, and slowly growing louder. Aurex rolled up the map, put it away, drew and assembled one of his weapons, a spear. Marcus readied his bow, and Hunter stood up and armed his shield.

The sounds grew louder, and about one minute later, it arrived.

The behemoth of a creature sniffed the air as it entered then, focusing its attention on the group, let out a snarl and began moving forward to attack.

Whatever the thing was, it was huge. The quadroped was probably about ten feet high and twenty-five feet long. Verily, it was about the same size of a dragon, but clearly it was not such a creature. Sharp furs, the outermost layer mixed with dirt and sand to resemble the jagged edges of rock, covered its entire body. The head was triangular in outline, comparable to that of a shrew or possum, two small black-colored eyes following its muzzle to its pointed nose. Its mouth, while open, revealed a set of flat teeth for grinding and sharp teeth for cutting. Its four feet harbored large claws, with two retractable, pincher-like claws on its forelegs. Even its tail carried a set of sharp, quill furs, though these were longer than the rest of its coat. Overall, it looked like some mammoth blend between porcupine, shrew, and ugly.

The creature charged forward, and everyone scattered aside. Hunter ducked under as it swung around, its tail cutting slashes in the rock wall. Marcus fired an arrow into its hide, but that was not effective, for the creature's rocky fur was too thick. Aurex prepared a spell for use, and then in a quick gesture, unleashed a flurry of spear-like ice crystals at the creature. Their impact did little harm, but as they melted into water they softened the creature's coat in the locations of impact. Marcus took an opportunity and fired an arrow into one of the soft spots in its fur. The creature let out a short yelp of surprise.

"The water!" Kindra shouted, as the creature turned its attention to Marcus. "Lure it into the water!"

Marcus fired another arrow, this one hitting the creature to the left of its face, and the creature letting out a second yelp of surprise. Marcus took step after step backwards until one of his boots went splish in the waters of the river. Marcus fired another shot to anger the creature.

The creature took the lure and charged in Marcus's direction. As it rushed forward, it veered left so as to grab marcus in its right paw. Marcus ducked and rolled as the two claws of its right forepaw sailed over him, then rolled aside as the creature slowed to a stop. It whirled around counterclockwise, but in doing so its feet slipped on the rocks, and it fell over onto its side, then back onto its feet in the deeper midpoint of the river.

It wailed loudly, the dust and sand washing off of its fur and sinking into the water.

The creature, defeated, struggled to get out of the river on the other side. Perhaps it was the dirt and sand that washed off, but the creature seemed to have shrunk a bit from the bath. After moving about ten to twelve feet up onto the opposite shore, it shook its fur dry like a canine, drops of water flying everywhere from one side to another. It then laid down in a slightly curled position to stay warm.

Aurex looked back at the creature. "Calm as a family pet, now.... The story of the 'mega lisk' described such a creature. Terrifying to behold, yet it shrinks in the wash and becomes easy to subdue."

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Though the creature kept a longing eye on them, it dared not set another foot into the cold waters of the Shoshone, and Aurex recommended that they try to get some rest anyway.

The next day was a long one, and it was spent travelling farther south. Their path twisted and winded according to the tunnels of the Shoshone Caverns, going one way then the next, from one room to the next. The only two points of interest during the day were two sets of pillars and water fonts like what they had encountered early the first day. Nor did they have any troubles with basilisks or other underground creatures, though they did cross near to a basilisk nesting ground and were weary of any creatures (which, strangely and fortunately, there were none).

They travelled perhaps twenty or thirty miles that day, and about the time that dusk would arrive, they set up camp and reviewed their progress. Judging by how far they had progressed, it would be another day or two before they reached the entrance to the caverns near Khatalus.

They had found few signs to identify whether or not they were on the right path to chase Andrake, but by the end of the day they had found one -- a lowercase sigma -- burnt into one of the walls, and that was where they had set up camp.

The third day proved to be more interesting. At what would otherwise be noonday, the path they were on led to an underground room unlike any they had previously seen. The walls of this particular cavern had long been carved, smoothed, and almost polished to give the room a square shape, with the ceiling of this room about twenty-five feet up. A large stone boxshape, about four feet high, six wide and twelve long, lay in the center of this room. A set of eight stone pillars surrounded the boxshape, though their reach of only eight feet high and the cup-like shape at their top implied that they were probably torches.

Aurex looked at the shape and found an inscription. It was written in some form of draconic (dragon writing) -- no one would expect dragons to have a written languge, but evidently they, or perhaps the dracans, do indeed have one. Aurex looked back at the group. "According to the writing, this is the burial site for one of the legendary seven demon-monsters. The monster was captured, bound, and sealed away with a magical lock."

"Does it have a name?" Hunter asked.

"No..." Aurex walked about the block, finding another copy of the same draconic writing but not the name for the particular being sealed inside. However, on what could be the front of the block was an inscription with more information. Aurex read it to himself and then translated for Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra.

"According to this, this stone is sealed by the 'sword of the enemy'. Only that sword can re-open it."

"You certain about that?" Hunter questioned.

"Magical locks are analogous to physical locks. But whereas physical locks require a specific physical shape of key, magical locks require a specific type of energy as their key."

Aurex thought for a moment. "It is possible to 'pick' a magical lock open, but that requires an insane familiarity with the various types of magical energies and how they react. There has never, not in all of history, been a single soul to successfully pick apart a magical lock without the key. At best, all they have done is identify the type of energy required to unlock it."

"Sword of the enemy, you say...," Kindra thought out loud. "Wouldn't that be the Atom Blade?"

"No," echoed a dark voice, defeinitely belonging to Andrake. Everyone spun around to identify where Andrake was hiding, but no luck -- with the echo of this room, it was impossible to pinpoint where the response had come from.

"Andrake!?" Hunter called out. "Where are you? Show yourself!" "No indeed," came Andrake's echoing reply. "I already tried opening that seal, but it wasn't sealed with the Atom Blade, and would not open. It was sealed by a different sword...."

"The one called 'Dragon Buster', then?"

"Perhaps it was the Dragon Buster by which that chamber was sealed. If so, once I have the Dragon Buster in my posession, I can return to break the seal later. I have found what I came for."

Andrake suddenly dropped in, landing on the sealed tomb. The large burn mark on his shoulder from their previous fight was still visible. He stood up and looked at Hunter and Kindra as they drew their weapons for action.

"Tsk. Aren't you a long way from home?" Andrake jeered. "I wonder how that beloved city of yours is doing now?"

"What are you talking about, Andrake?" Hunter demanded.

Andrake let out a short but maniacal laugh. "It would be a pity for anything to happen to it...!" Andrake turned around and jetted off down one of the passageways leading south, kicking up a trail of dust in the dark air.

"What the...," Hunter said, somewhat surprised. A moment later he put the pieces together. "It's a ruse. He thinks he can use our home cities to get to us. And as much as I hate to say it, he's correct. We have to get back!"

"Then you four had better be careful," Aurex reminded them. "This enemy has a horrible lead on us. If he can level half a forest in a single night, he could do the same to a city within a day.

Aurex led them with a rush along Andrake's trail. Though Andrake had carved no further symbols into the walls to identify his path by, they didn't need them, for Andrake had left an easy trail of dusty air wherever he had went. The caverns seemed to fly by as they proceeded from tunnel to cavern to winding tunnel after. Kindra gave up trying to count each of the caverns they went through, and attheir pace there was no rest until the next landmark.

It was approximately midnight by the time Aurex had led Hunter, Kindra, Marcus and Vrynn back to the surface. According to one of Aurex's maps, they had arrived at the mountains near Khatalus. They had covered an exceptional distance that day, and no sooner had they reached fresh air again than they had set up camp and rested for the night.

On the next day, Kindra (seeming to remember some of this area) led them down the hills until they reached a small clearing. A cave was nearby. However, it was inhabited as well; Kindra spotted a dragon laying down for rest above its entrance. It snapped to attention as they drew close and kept watch.

Aurex told Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra to stay put, as he took a few steps forward and called out to the dragon with a draconic word that sounded to Hunter and Marcus like a cross between a roar and cough.

The dragon snorted back, and within a moment Aurex was negotiating with the dragon about something. The dragon was taken aback by one of Aurex's words, and scrambled to her feet. A small scar along her flank, underneath one of her wings told the story: apparently, Andrake had forced his way through earlier. A moment later, the dragon sat back down on her four feet, wings folded, and looked off in a skyward direction, as if trying to ignore them.

"Andrake has been through here," Aurex told Hunter, Marcus, and Kindra. "The dragon guards this cave as a lair, but we may pass through to find where Andrake went."

"May I lead?" Kindra asked. Aurex hesitated but agreed, and then Kindra led the way in. The first few rooms in this cave smelt a little bit like dragon, now that one thinks about it; but like all caves, things proceeded deeper and darker the further in they went. Kindra led around one turn, then another; it was after about seven or eight turns and passages, plus one tunnel that had been partially buried in collapsed rock, that they arrived at a dead-end.

At least, it seemed like a dead-end. Kindra looked around and noticed a pile of loose rocks that had fallen down, blocking something. "Over here!" Kindra began shifting through the rocks, pushing one after another aside. Hunter helped out, and after about ten minutes, a new passageway was open, and a white light was shimmering through.

Kindra led the way into this room. There, at the far end of the cavern, stood the portal against the back wall, surrounded by a frame of light. Aurex looked at it in amazement. "I don't believe it... so this is the portal of which legends tell. It is... beautiful...." Aurex approached it and examined it. The surface seemed like a vertical wall of shimmering water. Closer inspection revealed several arcane markings and symbols carved upon its frame. The image of another cavern projected through the portal.

"This is it. We're going home," Kindra said.

Hunter looked to Aurex. "It would be good if we could stay for awhile longer, but Andrake started this fight, and we need to finish it."

Aurex stepped back. "As honored as I would be to follow you, my place is here, in this world. I will go back and find Falknyr. If indeed the dark forces return to our world, as prophesied, we must prepare for their return and be ready."

"Very well, then..." Hunter said. "It's been an honor indeed. I'll see you again, I hope."

"And I you," Aurex replied. "even if that place should be the stars. Good luck on this journey, and stay safe."

And with that, although they had not committed much time to saying good-bye, Hunter, Kindra, Marcus and Vrynn stepped through the portal onto the other side, back into the world they called home.