By Alva J. Roberts
The Carcel was an ancient structure. The thick gray granite of the walls spoke of enduring strength, while the light killing shadows in the corners and on the ceilings spoke of something altogether more sinister. There was a weight to the darkness a palpable feel to it as if one could reach out and grab a piece of it and hold it in their hands. The structure was buried thirty feet below the surface of a mountain; the few stray beams of light that made it into the depths died there.
As Garron, the High Sentinel, walked the smooth paths worn into the stone floors by a hundred generations of Sentinels, he felt fear tearing at his gut. It was a familiar fear, one he had dealt with many times before. He fought it off with the sword of duty and the shield of determination.
Garron stopped in a doorway before proceeding. He was no longer what anyone would call a young man, and he was finding the preparations for using magic were taking him longer and longer. This was a part of the great balance; as his power grew, it became increasingly harder to use.
As he felt his power fill him, he drew in a breath and walked forward. Even after holding his position as High Sentinel for fifteen years, he still shivered when he entered the Chamber. The huge cavern stretched out in every direction, making it feel as if he was standing on a small island of light in a sea of inky blackness.
Huge, rough cut crystal pillars were spaced at irregular intervals around the cavern. Five of the pillars glowed with a faint green light, while hundreds more lay dormant. There so few left, so little magic remained. Once wells of magical power like the Carcel were every everywhere; those that had the skill could draw magic from them the way villagers drew water from a well. Those days were barely a memory.
Sometimes Garron wondered if his duties were still necessary. The Carcel could practically run itself.
Something inside one of the huge crystals moved and the light became noticeably brighter. This was what reminded him that a Sentinel was needed. This is why he had spent over a hundred years in the depths of the Carcel, the magic extending his life long past what it should have been.
Garron’s hand swept through the forms of magic and his mouth formed words in the language of the ancient Tholan Empire, the world conquerors. He felt the magic well up inside of him in the same manner as laughter bubbling to the surface. The magic wrapped around the creature inside the pillar.
Garron's hand reached to the stand in front of him to grip the Staff of Sentinels. The length of wood was one of the few magical artifacts that were allowed in the Carcel, but unlike the baubles that were created for the wealthy, the Staff created magic rather than using it. Over twenty past Sentinels had given their lifeforce to the staff. It was well of power, one Garron was loath to use if he did not need to. Once used, the magic would be lost.
There was a struggle then, a battle, a war. An observer would have seen nothing, just Garron standing in a circle of light staring intently at the crystal monolith. Had that same observer been able to see a physical manifestation of the battle of wills that raged before them, they would have seen two Titans that dwarfed the mountains laboring against each other.
Garron had the upper hand, by the very nature of the conflict. He drew his power from the demons imprisoned in the crystals, using them as a well to draw magic from. The vile beings captured in the crystals were fighting against themselves when they attempted to escape.
The war of wills raged on for the better part of two days. The creatures imprisoned within the pillars had only escaped three times since the founding of the Carcel nine centuries before. Each time it was by pushing the Sentinel beyond endurance. But there were many times that the creatures touched the world with their dark powers. That was the reason why the Carcel was never completely dark. Vile things could be born from the dark. But Garron did not allow this demon’s power to touch the world.
Finally the creature gave up its attempt and grew silent. Garron reached a hand out to another of the pillars to steady himself. Sweat rolled down his cheeks to drip off his chin. He was tired; his body ached and throbbed as if the battle had been a physical one.
“High Sentinel? Is it done? May I enter?” one of Garron’s apprentices asked from the doorway. Garron peered across the chamber. His apprentice was a young man, with thick brown hair and a slender build. Garron stared at the man; this was the apprentice's fourth year in the Carcel. Garron spoke with him every day, but right now he could not remember his name. He was just one in a seemingly endless stream of young men and women who worked with him in the Carcel.
He currently had six such men and women and at the moment he could not remember any of their names. Such things happened when you entered a mental battle with a demon, but it was still disturbing. The boy was a friend as well as a student. Garron should remember his name.
"Yes, it is over," Garron said. Was the boy's name Harold? Hemald? Harrin? Harold? Yes. Harold.
"Sentinel Marcus sent word. There are Hunters," Harold said in an awed whisper, stressing the final word, giving it special meaning, “they have a thousand men outside, but only twenty came inside.” Garron forgave him his excitement. No member of the Order of the Chase had come to Carcel in nearly seventy years. Harold had good reason to be excited and a little scared.
"Send word to the other Sentinels. There shall be an Algather. And send word to Marcus. Have him welcome the guests and let them rest from the rigors of the road. Food and other such things," Garron replied. A meeting of every Sentinel in the Carcel was nearly as rare as a visit from the Hunters. The apprentice quarters would be abuzz with gossip. "Now help me to my rooms. I need to prepare myself," Garron said. His left hand shot out to grab the boy's shoulder. Even with the messengers running, it would take some time for word to spread through the rambling vastness of the Carcel, then even more time for the Sentinels to come. Garron had at least four hours, perhaps more, to regain his facilities and preside over a meeting that could change his very way of life. Garron limped from the Chamber on unsteady feet.
The old man staggered from the room with his hand on a boy's shoulder. Nahl-thenor watched, a sneer of disgust crossing his ancient, ruined face. The human was getting old, just as hundreds of his predecessors had before. Nahl-thenor had tested the old man's will and found it as strong as ever, but this High Sentinel had never needed help to leave the Chamber before.
He had felt his plan coming to fruition and needed to test his opposition. The timing was perfect. There was no way the current High Sentinel could know of his plans; they had begun when he was a boy, a mere apprentice. Soon Nahl-thenor and his brethren that still lived would be free.
The Empire of Pain would be reborn. Even the mighty Tholan Empire had bowed down to them. The shattered remnant of the kingdoms that came after would provide little in the way of a challenge. The magic of this world was dead. Once he and his brothers were free, even the power the Sentinels siphoned off of them would no longer be theirs. It took Nahl-thenor a few moments to realize the death bone rattle of a sound he was hearing was his own laughter, which made him laugh all the harder…
The great hall gleamed with pure white magical light. The polished granite reflected the light, as if the hard stone from the Earth’s heart was trying to eject it from the cavern. Garron shaded his eyes against the glare with his hands. It had been years since the Hall had been used for anything. The immense size of the cavern only served to remind him of just how small the Order of the Protector had grown.
The huge room had been built to house the twenty thousand Sentinels and apprentices. Fewer than a hundred men and women were now standing in the enormous space. Garron felt a small sliver of uncertainty worm its way up his spine.
According to Nolan's Great Bureaucracy, the High Sentinel and the Grand Huntsmaster were equals, to be given the same honors and treatment. But Nolan's kingdom had succumbed to the ravages of time nearly two hundred years ago. There was nothing to hold the Hunter's to the rules laid forth in the seventy-nine volumes of the Bureaucracy other than tradition.
Garron could not even blame the Order of the Chase if they chose to conquer the Carcel and take it as their own. Of the twelve remaining Orders, the Order of the Protector was by far the weakest. If Garron had been the Huntsmaster, he was not sure if he would have allowed the Sentinels to continue in their duty of guarding the Carcel. Every Order’s wizards used the Carcel as a magical well of power. It was a valuable resource to all of them.
Garron jerked his hand away from his eyes as a group of men entered the room. The men towered head and shoulders above Garron, and they were three times as wide as he was in the shoulders. Thick black hair covered most of their visible skin, but a circle of weathered skin surrounded their eyes.
Garron tried to stand a little taller and forced down the slight tremor that ran through his arms. The Carcel still gave him power, power enough to destroy these men where they stood. Despite their size and their numbers, if they came to make war with the Order of the Protector they were in for an awful surprise.
"I am Garron, High Sentinel of the Order of the Protector, Lord Ruler of the Carcel. I give greetings and welcome to those that come in peace," Garron's voice echoed eerily through the chamber. The words, those that come in peace, seemed somehow amplified as Garron attempted to make the men wonder what would happen to those that did not come in peace.
"Well met, Garron. I am Gunthar, Huntsmaster of the Order of the Chase, Crown Prince of Lowfort, second born son of Grand Huntmaster Alric, King of Lowfort," one of the men said as he stepped forward. The man was younger than the others, but had an air of command about him that Garron could have only dreamed of at his age. Despite his growing respect Garron, closed his eyes and prepared to use his magic. If the Huntsmasters were claiming to be Kings and Princes, much had changed and Garron needed to be ready.
Perhaps the Huntsmaster could sense the power Garron called upon. His hands slipped down to rest on his Kalhi, the magical dagger-like weapons were sharper than steel and could launch beams of solid light far more accurately than any bow could shoot an arrow. The wizards among the Order of the Chase had always had a different outlook on the use of magic. Even in Nolan’s time, they had been famous the world over for the artifacts they created. Still, it was a surprise to see an entire group of men wearing the Kalhi. The weapons were becoming rare.
"Why have you come to the Carcel?" Garron asked. The power of his magic colored his voice making it sound strange and hollow.
"In accordance with the ancient laws, the Huntsmasters deliver this creature onto you. We have given chase deep in the night, and the hunters have captured their prey. Let the darkness fear the Hunt," Gunthar said.
"Let the darkness remain here, and no longer trouble the world," Garron replied formally. He had never thought he would have to say the words. The icy touch of fear grabbed ahold of Garron; it froze his chest and made it hard to speak or breath.
Low, incredulous whispers filled the hall.
But then a few breaths later, the Hunters stepped aside to reveal the being that hid in their midst the entire time. Garron sucked in a breath.
The thing was silmy green and appeared to be made of mucus. The green liquid seemed to flow from every part of its body, only to be drawn in again. It was a Plas-man, a minor demon, a relatively weak specimen compared the giant Daemon they had locked in the crystals. But Garron's magic hurtled forward forming a blue glowing rope made of pure energy that wrapped around the creature. It could escape any other bindings and, unless bound, brought disease and plague.
"How-,"Garron stopped. "No. Where did this thing come from? There hasn't been a free demon captured in over five hundred years."
"We found the creature in the forest. Three tribes were killed by this…thing. The men, the women, the children…the children I have never seen such-," Gunthor stopped and took a deep breath. "Fifty Hunters died to capture it and bring it here. As was agreed in the days of old, the Order of the Chase has brought the darkness to you. Now it is your problem." Gunthor turned and led his party from the hall as he spoke. Garron made no move to stop him.
Instead, he spoke a few simple words, “Huntsmaster, I invite you and your party to share our fires and food. You have traveled far; do not begin your journey anew without rest. You are welcome here. Please allow my apprentice, Harold, to show you to your rooms.” The offer of food and a place to sleep for the night could not be honorably refused. The Hunters would be staying. In the morning, after the Shackling, Garron would get the full story about how the creature was discovered.
"Sentinels, take over the binding. I have already overpowered a Daemon today. I am not at my full strength," Garron said to the chamber as soon as the Hunters left. There was no way they could let the Order of the Chase find out how weak he was.
A dozen bindings leapt from the crowd and a murmur ran through them. Most of them needed to rest for days after Reshackling a Daemon.
"Take this creature to the Heart and keep it bound. I will consult the wind and stars to see if I can find where this creature came from and see if any of its kindred are awake. The spirits of the wind cannot see through the crystal pillars. We will Shackle it in the morning." Garron could not help but smile to himself despite everything that was happening. The wind and stars could only be spoken to in dreams. He would be getting some sleep after all.
Garron leapt from his bed. “Lights,” he shouted. Orbs of light sprang to life at his command. They were one of the few enchanted artifacts in the entire Carcel. The Order of the Protector held that such things were too dangerous. Magic did not belong in the hands of those that could not cast a spell themselves. His tiny room was sparsely furnished. A bed, a table, a chair; there was nothing to mark his rank in the room. The only thing that distinguished it from a farmer’s home was the orbs, the lack of windows, and the shelf full of books.
Some of the volumes were old and rare; many of them were the last remaining copies of their respective text. They came from all over the world and had been gathered slowly over the past nine centuries. But the text he was looking for had not been written anywhere exotic. In fact it had been written right here in the Carcel, by the last High Sentinel. Garron sprinted across the room and jerked one of the larger more ornate volumes off the shelf. An odd looking fanged creature dominated the cover in shimmering gold etchings.
Garron literally threw open the book, flipping through pages as fast as he could turn them. He would have punished an apprentice who treated a book in such a manner, but there was no time.
He had entered the dream world and consulted with the wind and stars, and what the cosmic entities told him frightened him to the core of his being.
“Nahl-thenor,” he whispered out loud when he found the page he was looking for. The page was an account of Nahl-thenor’s last attempt at escape. The Daemon he had struggled against before had nearly escaped under the last High Sentinel’s watch. The creature had released dark magic in the forest near Lowfort. A party sent to investigate had found almost nothing, just a small patch of forest were the balance of nature had been corrupted.
Everything became clear to Garron. The powerful Daemon could touch the world but could not force his way past the High Sentinel. So instead of trying, he released his power into the world, knowing it would corrupt the balance of the world. And when nature reset the balance and thrust off the darkness a minor demon was created.
This new creature was nothing more than an extension of Nahl-thenor, and once they were in the same room… A tremor ran through Garron’s entire body as he reached out for his magic. Power flowed into him but it was just a tiny trickle where once there was a raging river.
Garron threw his robes of office on over his dressing gown and hurried to the hallway and opened the aged oaken door. The thick shadows of the Carcel filled the corridor with an almost tangible darkness. The Carcel was silent as a tomb.
Garron grimaced. The passageways of the Carcel were never completely dark. He whispered a word of magic and a small orb of light appeared over his head. Just hours ago, the same spell would have lit the entire hall. If there had been any doubt before, there was none now. Nahl-thenor was free, and Garron could no longer use him as a well to draw magical power from.
Garron ran through the halls, his footfalls the only sound. The High Sentinel could not see anything around him, but he could feel eyes staring... Hate filled eyes that watched his every move. There was no time. The creatures’ fear of the High Sentinel would soon be overcome by their hatred. If they tried to test him, he was not sure he would win.
He finally came to the door he was seeking and threw it open. “Harold, Elaina, Michael, David, Cara, Sara, to arms!” Garron shouted the names of each apprentice. There was no way to defeat the Daemon on his own.
The huge pool of blood cooling on the floor stilled his call to action. Blood was spattered over everything. Even the ceiling was painted with the crimson droplets. A pile of mangled flesh lay in the center of the room, the lone hand thrusting from the center of the pile the only indication that the mass was anything more than a mound of raw bloody meat.
Garron bent over double and emptied his stomach. He stumbled from the room, wishing he could burn the sight from his memory.
Something slammed into Garron’s back knocking him to the ground. A huge heavy body was on top of Garron. He couldn’t move, couldn’t draw enough breath to use his magic the massive creature had him at its will.
“Douse the light, quickly you fool,” a harsh voice whispered. Garron let out a gasp of relief when he recognized the voice of Huntsmaster Gunthar. He flicked his hand through a mystical motion and they were plunged into darkness.
"The monster and his minions hunt the halls for the living. Stay quiet and I will guide you from this tomb," Gunthar ordered. Garron pulled away from the big man.
"I am not leaving. This is no Plas-man able to kill fifty hunters. A true Daemon is loose upon the world. He will free his brothers if he is able. The wells of magic that remain in this world are few and far between. There would be no force that could stand against them. We must stop him now, before the other Daemon are free," Garron said.
"I watched the monster kill my entire party and two of your Sentinels as easily as I could kill a child. He left me alive, toying with me. He did it to another as well. The one you call Harold is still alive, at least he was. He has probably fled. I saw the demon's eyes. It longs for the hunt, to give chase. I am leaving before it can find me," Gunthar replied.
Garron turned his back to the Hunter. "Do as you see fit, I will do my duty." "Ahhcckkk. You know our ways. I cannot return home and tell my father that a bent back, soft robe, remembered his honor when I did not. Is there truly a way to defeat this thing and his minions?"
"If we can make it to the Binding Chamber there is a chance. The Staff of Sentinels is a well of magic. I may be able to defeat the creature with it,” Garron replied. He could not help but be pleased his manipulation of the Hunter.
"Then let us hurry to this Binding Chamber. Take these." Something was thrust into Garron's hands. It felt like a pair of spectacles.
"What are these?" Garron asked.
"As per our agreement of centuries past, the enchanters of the Huntmasters still use the Carcel as a well to create items of magic. These are growing rare and are desired by all."
Garron put the spectacles on and the room sprang into vision. Everything was tinted crimson but he could see. Garron spun around the taking in the caverns around him. The spectacles were not perfect — patches of darkness remained on the ceiling and in the corners of the room — but it was far better than his globe of light.
"Thank you," Garron said.
"Enough. We must move. The hunt has begun, the Shadows seek us as their prey. Let us become the hunters."
"Follow me," Garron replied and rushed down the hall. Garron had barely made it half the distance to the binding chamber when his lungs started to burn and his legs ached. Something darted down from the darkness near the ceiling. It swooped down slicing into the back of Garron's legs. Garron let out a scream, as razor sharp ice cold darkness sliced into his hamstring.
Gunthar leapt forward and a small beam of light shot from his Kalhi to smash into the piece of living night. The Huntmaster began an odd kind of dance as more and more of the creatures swept in from the ceiling. But the Hunter continued to dance and soon Garron felt the magic growing in the Hunter. His turned to stare at the man in surprise.
"They are drawn to my magic. Hurry, these little birds of prey are not our quarry. I will lead them away." Garron nodded and rushed forward, forcing himself to continue running despite his aching lungs and bloody leg.
His footfalls echoed through the Carcel, the noise mixing with the sound of Gunthar's battle and his own labored breathing. The sound followed Garron as he ran through the door into the Heart.
Four glowing pillars illuminated the room. Nahl-thenor had not been able to free the other demons yet. There was still a chance. He stumbled forward and grabbed a hold of the Staff of Sentinels. He stopped and stared upward. There was a man held to one of the pillars with magic. The man's body hung half in the shadows half out.
Before he knew what was happening, Garron was hurtled across the room to slam into a wall. His Spectacles flew across the room, disorienting him further as he bounced across the room. Somehow he held onto the Staff.
"Hello," a dark raspy voice spoke from the darkness. There was something unsettling about the voice, something that sent a shiver up his spine. Garron lifted his head to see a huge silhouette outlined by the green glow of the pillars. Even though he could barely see the creature, he felt fear filling his entire being. He set himself to fight the emotion; terror was just one of the hundred weapons in a Daemon's arsenal.
"Nahl-thenor. I know you. You will be bound once more!" Garron shouted surging to his feet. Magical energy slammed into Garron's chest, taking his breath and throwing him back to the ground.
"You live at pleasure. My servants have killed most of the other inhabitants of this structure, but I had them save you for me. The Masters of this prison have held me for over a millennium. Most are beyond my reach. You will suffer for them. And after many years, when you finally reached the afterlife, you will tell them tales of such pain that their spirits will be driven mad!" Nahl-thenor screamed, spittle spraying across the room.
The words to the binding spell left Garron's mouth and snaked their way around the demon. The monster's will pounded into Garron. He had never even imagined such strength could exist. He dropped to his knees, groaning.
"Did you really think you were powerful enough to do anything to me? Do you think I would have allowed you to live if you had the slightest chance of defeating me?" The demon laughed again; Garron wondered if his imprisonment had driven the creature mad.
Garron's mind reached into the staff to draw forth the power locked within. There was no way they creature could know about the other Sentinels’ sacrifice. The power of the staff gave him strength enough to stand and it was Nahl-thenor that was brought to his knees.
Garron's will slammed into Nahl-thenor's. They sparred, mental blades slashing against mental blades, unseen shields stopping invisible attacks. If their battle the day before had been two Titans warring this was two armies of Titans.
Nahl-thenor howled in pain as he was thrust backwards towards the crystal pillars. The green light illuminated the monster's face for just a second. Garron howled in unison with the monster as the sight burned his eyes. Smoke rose from Garron's face as his eyes liquefied and ran down his cheeks.
The entire world became a thing of darkness, and vile things were born in the darkness. They slashed and hacked at Garron, claws sliced into his shoulders and into his back. He screamed, the blood rolling down his body.
He could feel the demon rise to his feet even as he fell to his knees. The Daemon was to powerful.
"Master, do not give up. You are winning!" Harold' voice cut through the pain and the darkness.
Garron reached into the staff, drawing the last of its power, then he hurled all of it at the demon. There was a slamming noise, as if someone was shutting a door. The power within Garron surged; the demon was locked away once more.
"Master," Harold said. Garron's head was resting in the boy's lap. How had he gotten there? The pain seemed to be fading. He needed the staff.
"Accckk. Sentinel, what have you gone and done to yourself?" Gunthar seemed to be speaking from far away. His words were labored, as if he was injured, but Garron could not see how badly.
"He saved us, he saved us all," Harold murmured."Staff…need staff…" Garron croaked. He felt the staff thrust into his hands. He gripped it tightly with both hands, concentrating as best he could. He felt his power, what remained of it, flow into the staff. He would do his duty in the next world, just as he had in this one