Chapter 12
The Cave Dwellers

The Miner's Camp, Gladius

"On the whole, my journey made me a better man. However, there were times when my lesser half became dominant. Perhaps facing that other side of my personality is what made me stronger. Even so, it is no justification for what I did in those times."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Before the Unification, Eagle was vital to the League of Seven as the site where the bounty of the Crescent Mountains was processed before moving on to the markets of Corinth and the port of Sandstone. To preserve the heart of its economy, the miner's camp near the mountain was kept stunted as a temporary waystation for the miners during the days they worked. It would have been far easier on the miners themselves to turn the camp into a true town, but the patricians would never allow their influence over the miners to be diminished, nor would they dare to set up residence outside the safety of the city walls.
Because of this, the miners were escorted to the mountains at a relentless pace two times every fortnight. They were forced to make the journey on foot in a single day, the same amount of time it was supposed to take on horseback. Randwulf's rule had not changed this. If anything, the Gladian Guard drove the miners at a much harsher pace than their predecessors.
At the camp, the soldiers of the Guard kept a close eye on their charges, maintaining headcounts at dawn and dusk to ensure accountability for all who inhabited the camp. Nevertheless, Mark and the others succeeded in evading their watchful eyes by splitting up and regrouping near the ruins of Greystone, home of the former King of Gladius.
The toll of the war on the old castle was obvious even from a distance. Its thick walls had been breached in many places, its gates smashed and its towers broken. It was clear in numerous places that its masonry had been scavenged to make buildings elsewhere in the kingdom. Whatever majesty it once held was long since gone.
The group had barely assembled when Edward began to stalk off. It was an unexpected move that caught them off guard, but his angry words cut off any potential questions.
"We'll not stay here," he declared in an imperious voice. "Now leave!"
"Why?" Sonia retorted. "The ruins will be good shelter."
"I'll not have you defile the home of my ancestors!" the Prince snapped.
Before a fight broke out between them, Mark intervened, putting his hand on Sonia shoulder.
"There's no point in fighting him on this," he said. "You didn't want to stay at the ruins of your old home either, right? I know Edward can be disagreeable, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't consider his feelings." He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Let's abide by his wishes this time."
"Don't expect it to become a habit or anything," Sonia replied grouchily.
They traveled until they were well out of eyeshot of the ruins before setting up camp. Casting off their disguises, they changed into the new winter clothes Agatha had made for them. They then donned their gear for the first time since they entered Eagle and found various ways to occupy themselves before planning their next move.
Edward paced back and forth in agitation while nipping at his flask, Jasper played his lute and hummed some unfamiliar ballad, Sonia sparred with invisible opponents, Jill inspected her arrows and other gear, Teresa quietly read from a small prayer book, and Mark wrote in his journal. After several moments of this, Edward disturbed everyone's preoccupations.
"We're here to find the gear of the Guardians," he said, "but it could take weeks of searching. We don't even know if--"
"It shouldn't take that long," Sonia interrupted. "If Mark focuses his thoughts, the Gems should react and lead him right to them."
Edward frowned. "You're still assuming he's really the son of Luther, I take it."
"I can't believe you," Sonia grumbled, throwing up her hands in disgust. "After everything that's happened, you still doubt him?"
Thrusting out his chest, the Prince answered haughtily, "As the future king of this land, I can't afford to accept anything at face value. I need proof."
Mark was not particularly inclined to get involved in the discussion, but he could not resist saying, "It is written, 'Blessed are those who have not seen and believe.'"
"'According to your faith be it unto you,'" Teresa added.
"Oi luv a tres'in' fool," Jasper chortled. "Tres' uvahs, b'leev in th' guhdniss o' men boi owl meens. I' meykes meh th' mows' gald, i' duz."
Edward laughed aloud at Jasper's counter to the quotations of the two clerics. "For once," he snorted, "that good-for-nothing thief has a point."
Mark shook his head. "This bickering is pointless." Looking to Sonia, he asked, "How do I focus on the Gems?"
"I doubt your memory of the gear itself is good enough," Sonia said, "but the False Gems on your sword and dagger should help you." Drawing her main gauche, she stared deeply into the gem in its pommel. "They remember where they came from."
"I don't understand the significance of these gems," Teresa said.
"It's easy enough to explain," Sonia replied casually. "We have to go back to the end of the Great War. The world was finally rid of the nonhumans, but there was still another threat to humanity: magic. The Eight Stars, the hero generals who ended the war, were selected to preserve order. They made a blood pact with the mages of the Elemental Orders, an assembly of the world's most powerful elementalists. The mages then sealed their souls in the Elemental Gems and those gems were embedded in gear specially crafted for the Eight Stars, the first Elemental Knights.
"The Gems are the source of an Elemental Knight's power. The descendants of the Eight Stars can tap into that power only if the Gems acknowledge them as rightful successors to the blood pact. We can't wield magic by ourselves. We only borrow the power of the Elemental Orders.
"Each Elemental Gem embodies a single spell we can use. There are thirteen in all. In my case, there are four in my sword, one in the scabbard, three in my armor, and six in my buckler. My main gauche is the exception." She brandished the blade for effect. "It was forged after my ancestor Leander had created a False Gem.
"A False Gem is created when an Elemental Knight focuses all his energy into its creation. It retains the power of the Elemental Gem it was spawned from, but unlike the Elemental Gems, it can be destroyed. False Gems are used to give Elemental Knights an edge in battle and to prove the strength of the bond with their gear. But it isn't done very often because the slightest lapse in concentration can cause the Gems to reject the wielder, making him powerless."
"Ye meh fink i's an esy expl'neyshun," Jasper commented, "bu' i' seems owf'ly lang ta meh."
Ignoring Jasper's quip, Mark looked absently at his sword and was silent. While Teresa took in all the new information, Jill appeared out of nowhere. Not one to draw attention to herself, she crept behind Sonia and whispered something into her ear. Sonia nodded.
"Apparently we didn't sneak out too well," she said. "A detachment is out searching for us. I just hope it's not that damned Svenson again. Edward, you know any good hiding places?"
Edward looked to the peaks in the distance. "There is a cave in a mountain a few furlongs from here. It goes in fairly deep. I doubt they'll want to go too far."
"That'll work," Sonia said, returning her main gauche to its sheath. "Let's go."
The group doused the campfire and quickly packed. Guided by Edward, they soon found the cave. The mountain was different from the others in the range. The majority were relatively low-lying with a thick coat of vegetation. This one, called Mount Vulcan, rose above the rest and was almost completely bare save some scattered coverage by sparse and scraggly brush. Not having the leisure to freely examine their surroundings, they quickly lit torches and made their way into its depths before the Guardsmen took notice of them.
They had made it no more than a few fathoms when Edward's foot was caught in a snare. Mark drew his sword to cut the Prince free when a large net fell on the whole group. As they frantically worked to cut their way out, dozens of dark figures descended upon the trapped companions and mercilessly assailed them with blows from heavy clubs. They tried to fight back, but the heavy net prevented them from striking back at their attackers. It was not long before all of them were subdued and the figures dragged the net ever deeper into the dark cavern.

* * *

As Mark's eyes opened amidst a sea of pain and nausea, he focused his mind to take in his situation. He and the others were bound by crude ropes about their wrists and chest. Their legs were kept free, but their arms were not allowed much movement. They were being held in a wide chamber of the cave roughly two furlongs in diameter. And they were not alone.
Dozens of small fires dotted the chamber and huddled around each of those fires was a small cluster of people. Those closest to the group provided Mark with some idea of the people on the whole. They were garbed in hides and worn cloth, the men in mere loincloths and the women in simple garments that were little more than a length of fabric with a hole cut out for the head and girded at the waist. Mark noted that both the men and the women had feathers poking out of leather bands wrapped around their heads, apparently a status symbol. Some of the males wore mismatched pieces of rusty armor and were armed with weapons of stone or badly rusted iron.
Most of them were gathered around a central bonfire with several warriors enraptured in a ritual dance. Just beyond this throng, Mark could see the group's equipment lying in a great pile.
"I don't believe it," said Edward, mostly to himself. "The Inkari Tribe..."
"The Inkari Tribe?" Mark asked.
As he watched the tribesmen dancing around the bonfire, the Prince explained, "They were savages that lived in these mountains before the Unification. They were supposed to have been wiped out during the construction of Greystone, but rumors kept floating around that they'd survived. Every now and then a few miners or a small patrol would disappear. I never thought much of it until now...
"It looks like they live by scavenging these days. Those pieces I see date back to the war. The thought of those animals plundering the bodies of the King's men..." The Prince's bitterness choked off anymore words.
"Woi d'ye s'pose thay 'aven' gi'n us ouah plots yeh'?" Jasper asked.
"These heathens may intend to sacrifice us," Teresa replied with a strong tint of fear in her voice.
Inching her way over to Sonia, Jill whispered, "Sis, they've left our legs free. I can distract them while you escape."
Sonia's voice was low but harsh. "No, I won't let you. What would I say to Papa if I didn't bring you back with me? We don't need to resort to drastic measures yet."
"Well, what brilliant plan do you have in mind this time?" Edward asked sarcastically.
"Nothing," Sonia replied curtly. "Not yet at least." She paused a moment. "We have to get our equipment back if we want to have any chance."
"Any fool can point out the obvious!" the Prince growled.
"Enough," Mark intervened, not wanting another argument to break out while the group was in such dire straits. "Whatever we do, we have to work together. If they do intend to sacrifice us, it'll probably be done near that bonfire. We just need to wait for an opening."
As soon as he had spoken, the tribesmen gathered around the bonfire formed two loose files and marched toward the group. At the front and center was a muscular man of tawny complexion clad in full armor with a sword at his side, a shield tied to his back, and more feathers bristling from his headbands than any other. A mere gesture from this man brought the files to a stop a few paces from the group. Leaving the others behind, he approached them. His spidery black eyes glowed with a hungry look as he appraised his captives.
"I Mar Kurin, chief of Inkari" he said in broken and thickly accented Everardian. "You interlopers in Sacred Tunnels. You offering to Avasht-Kur."
Looking at Mar Kurin, Mark's eyes widened in slow realization. He was transfixed by the armor the chieftain wore. It had broad pauldrons and a cuirass covered in a layer of scales like feathers. The rust and grime caked on the armor rendered the intricate etching indistinguishable. The sight of it punched holes into the dam blocking the inner recesses of Mark's psyche. Distant memories seeped into his consciousness and visions of his father trickled into his mind. An inexplicable wave of emotion swept over him.
"Where did you get that armor?" Mark demanded, anger steadily rising in his voice.
"This?" the chieftain asked. "Trophy from dead man." He thrust out his chest proudly. "Make Mar Kurin powerful."
Mark was appalled at what he saw. The legendary gear of the Guardian had nearly become rusted beyond recognition and its gems were dim and lifeless. Mark could not believe what he was seeing. His father, the man so idealized throughout the kingdom, had been reduced to nothing more than a trophy for a savage.
Worse than the time in Corinth when Publius Juvenal insulted his mother, anger bubbled within Mark and the fires of rage burned in his heart. He could see nothing but red. Bloodlust overwhelmed him. With a great roar, he threw himself headlong at the Inkari chief, sending both of them crashing to the ground. They were back on their feet in no time and the two files broke into a circle, waving their weapons fiercely and cheering on their leader.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Sonia spurred the others to action. The group rushed around the circle and made their way to the pile by the bonfire. While they struggled to free themselves of their bindings, Mark continued to fight Mar Kurin like a rabid beast. The Inkari chieftain drew his sword and slashed at Mark, accidentally cutting the rope around his chest. When he swung again, Mark caught the blade between his palms and yanked it from the chieftain's hands. As the sword went clattering to the side, Mark clasped his hands together and used them as a hammer against Mark Kurin's head.
Seizing the momentum, Mark hooked his leg around that of the reeling chieftain and forced him to the ground. The frenzied swordsman wrapped his bound wrists behind Mar Kurin's head and proceeded to headbutt him in the face again and again without stopping. The chieftain shrieked and frantically clutched at Mark's gambeson, but the enraged warrior did not relent, not even after his opponent's grip tensed one last time, nor when his lifeless arms fell limp at his sides.
The cheers of the circle died out as the reality set in. The stunned tribesmen could do nothing but watch in horror as Mark continued to pummel their chieftain. An eerie silence enveloped the wide chamber, leaving only the sound of skull crashing against skull.
"Mark, stop!" Sonia's voice cried out as she forced her way through the circle. "He's dead, Mark! Stop it!"
Mark eyes widened as the red haze cleared from his vision. He gasped at the ruined face of Mar Kurin wedged between his forearms. He slid his arms out and rolled off the body. Lying on his back, he panted heavily, but his eyes remained wide open and fixed on Mar Kurin's crushed skull.
Sonia ran up to him and cut his bindings. Raising him to a sitting position, she wiped the dead man's blood from his face with her sleeve. She helped him up slowly, supporting him until his legs were steady enough to carry his weight. Mark stood there for several minutes, his eyes still wide and his breath ragged.
Once he had calmed down, he knelt over the body of Mar Kurin without saying a word. He unbuckled the scabbard, untied the shield and slid his father's armor off the body. Laying the three items beside Mar Kurin's corpse, he walked over to the place where the sword had landed and picked it up. Silently, mechanically, he donned the armor and strapped on the scabbard. In his left hand he took up the shield and in his right he gripped the sword.
He held the sword out in front of him, gazing at the rusted blade. This was not how it was meant to be. He closed his eyes and his body tensed. The Gems flickered and glowed with new life. A peal of thunder shook the chamber and a blinding light enveloped him. The group looked on in astonishment while Inkari covered their faces and wailed. As the light faded, the Guardian's gear shone like new, glittering as the light from the fire struck it. The sight too terrible to bear, the fear-stricken Inkari broke ranks and fled to the farthest reaches of the chamber. The newly transformed swordsman paid them no heed.
"Let's go," Mark said in an uncharacteristically cold voice.
The terrified Inkari did nothing to stop them and they soon found their way to the surface. At long last, Mark had succeeded his father and became the next Guardian. However, the ordeal had a profound impact on him. It would haunt him for the rest of his days.