Chapter 24

Ban Plateau, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"Have you ever looked into a man's eyes and seen nothing? Not burning anger or quaking fear... Neither joy nor sorrow... Empty eyes without a heart and without a soul... How would you face a man with such eyes?"
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Ban Plateau was said to have been created as a natural barrier against the nonhumans of Wyrd, the land to the east. It rose nearly five furlongs into the sky and extended the entire length of the eastern border. It would be impossible to scale if an intricate tunnel system did not run throughout it. As the five companions peered into the dark recesses of the nearest cavern, Stefan looked around suspiciously.
"How are we supposed to find this Pandemonium place?" he asked.
"I have touched Kyrios' mind before," Catherine replied. "I can seek him out wherever he goes."
That was not all. Deep down, she could sense an unknown power calling to her pendant. This more than anything else would guide her, but she did not want to reveal it to the others. She knew their confidence in her had been shaken after the incident at the castle and she did not want to reveal anything that might make them doubt her. With no further ado, the group entered the cavern and began their journey to Pandemonium.
They spent three days roaming in vast labyrinth of the tunnels. Whenever they stopped to rest, Catherine would insist on at least an hour's practice with their pendants, but they were making slow progress. During one such practice session, they sat in a circle while Ignatiy tried to start a fire in the center. A red flare began to transform into a flame, but it dimmed and vanished before it could take full form.
"You must concentrate harder," Catherine chided. "You love fire so passionately. Focus that passion into a flame. I know you can do it."
Ignatiy growled and furiously ran his fingers through the tangles of his hair. Resting her hand on his shoulder, Catherine tried to soothe his frustration.
"Your heart burns like the fire you must create. Calm yourself and rest for now." Turning her attention from him, she placed a bowl in the center of the floor and said, "Stefan, it is your turn. Fill the bowl."
Stefan clutched his pendant and began to meditate. A blue light swirled above the bowl, condensing into a stream of water that flowed into it.
"Very good," Catherine said, picking up the bowl and looking at the water approvingly. "Your concentration is nearly flawless. From now on, your exercises will be more active. You need to coordinate your new abilities with your combat skills."
She handed the bowl to Stefan and picked up a nearby dagger. Standing up, she motioned for Olofer to rise as well.
"You have been doing well," she said, taking several paces to widen the distance between them. She stopped about twenty paces from where Olofer stood and held up the dagger. "I am going to throw this dagger at you. I want you to deflect it." Her voice became more severe. "I may be able to divert it if you fail, but do not rely on that. Nod when you are ready."
Settling into a firm stance, Olofer met Catherine's gaze and gave the signal. Without the slightest hesitation, she took aim and threw the dagger. Before the dagger could reach its target, a strong gust of wind knocked it back to its source. Catherine did not even flinch when her powers stopped it in midair, only inches from her head. With a satisfied grin on her face, she snatched the dagger out of the air.
"Excellent," she beamed in a rare show of levity. "I am truly impressed with how far you have come. We are ever closer to our goal. Now it is your turn, Mark."
Mark stretched out his arm beyond the circle. His hand began to shake and the earth rumbled in tune with the rising of his voice. When his voice rose to a shout, the ground splintered and a shaft of living stone shot upwards, smashing into the ceiling. Exhausted from the strain, Mark's breath was slow and shallow, his hand still hanging in the air.
Instead of praising him aloud, Catherine smiled silently and spoke directly to his mind.
I would expect nothing less from an heir to the Elemental Knights. I know it was no easy task commanding your opposite element. You will be very formidable when you inherit your ancestral powers.
Mark returned her smile, but the mood quickly changed when Catherine was stricken by a look of shock. As she whipped around to face the new danger, Mark also turned to see Ignatiy enveloped in tendrils of red light. Only a reflex enhanced by their new abilities protected them from the waves of fire that burst around Ignatiy. The barriers that saved them dissipated as the fires died down and the red light dimmed. None of them could hide their surprise. Some of them were not just surprised, though.
"What the hell is wrong with you, man!?" Stefan snapped. "You could've killed us all!"
Stefan was furious, but still entirely too stunned to pummel Ignatiy for what he did. Before he could get the idea to do so, Catherine held up her hand to stop him.
"Congratulations, Ignatiy," she said, hastily recovering her composure. "You finally tapped into the power sleeping within you. Now you must control that power." Sighing briefly, she added, "It was a good test of our abilities."
"What about you?" Stefan asked, still eyeing the firebug irately. "You've spent all this time pushing us to master our pendants, but what are you doing? What test do you have for yourself?"
"The Heaven Pendant binds the other four," she replied. "My task is to unite all of us. I have spent my life honing the powers of my mind, but magic is not like psi. The spirit is unfamiliar territory for me and I have to admit my inexperience. It is less apparent, but I am making adequate progress." She sighed and looked down the tunnel. "We should reach the top by tomorrow. There can be no holding back."
They rested for several hours and moved on. Catherine's prediction was proven accurate as usual when they were greeted by daylight for the first time in so many days.
In the distance, they could see a great tower reaching into the sky. It was Pandemonium, the embodiment of Hell breaking free of its earthly chains. According to legend, it was originally the pathway into the Abyss, inverted as an unexpected side effect of raising the plateau all those centuries ago. It appeared to be nine stories high with heavy bases supported by thick pillars that bristled with hornlike projections.
In a matter of hours, they drew near to the entrance, a wide gate inscribed with horrific scenes in bas-relief set between two sculptures of menacing, open-mawed demons. Standing between the two demons was Captain Maksimov, waiting for them with his sword already drawn.
"You die here," he growled in a disconnected voice.
Mark drew his sword and raised his hand to the others.
"He's only a puppet of Kyrios," the young swordsman said, "but as a warrior he still deserves single combat."
Catherine's voice echoed in his head.
Do not be reckless. We cannot afford to lose you here.
Mark gave her an uncharacteristically harsh look. "Don't you dare interfere, Catherine," he said. "This isn't like the time I fought Stefan. If you try to take control of my body, I won't forgive you."
Acknowledging his resolve, Catherine simply nodded. It was enough for him.
Turning to Maksimov, he shouted, "Hear me, Vitaliy Maksimov! You, the scion of Saint Maksim himself, have you no shame? You who carry the blood of heroes, how far can you fall? Shake off your chains! Would your sainted ancestor surrender his will to this petty magician? Wake up!"
Maksimov replied in a voice not his own. "You waste your time, boy. This flesh is but a shell. You dare to call me a petty magician? All I see before me is a whelp. No, a worm."
Mark was not intimidated by the Omnimancer speaking through Maksimov, nor did he allow himself to be angered by the lowly insult. Following the standard of the warrior's code, he declared, "I am Mark, son of Luther, descended of the mighty Aran of the Eight Stars. With this sword I'll save Captain Maksimov's honor and then I'll rid this kingdom of your menace once and for all."
"Well said, young worm," Kyrios said through Maksimov. "This puppet did not become Captain of the Dragon Guard by his name alone. How about it, worm? Do you have the sword-arm to match him?"
Without waiting for a reply, Maksimov leapt from the front steps, bringing his sword down on Mark. Mark jumped to the side as the blade plunged into the ground. Maksimov shifted his momentum to swing upward, but Mark parried deftly.
Though Maksimov had the advantage in strength and reach, his tactical abilities had rotted away since Kyrios took control of his mind. After Mark easily blocked two swipes in quick succession, Maksimov raised his sword and performed an overhead chop. Mark braced himself to block the strike, allowing his opponent's sword to grind down the length of his blade. As it locked with the crossguard of his sword, Mark drew his arm back and thrust the point into Maksimov's neck. The Captain's breath gurgled in his throat as blood drained down the blade. When Maksimov's body went limp, Mark withdrew his sword and let it fall to ground.
Turning away from the body, Mark pulled a rag out of a pouch on his belt and wiped off his blade. As he returned his sword to its sheath, he heard a noise behind him.
"Mark, look out!"
Even without the warning, Mark whirled around to see that Maksimov had risen to his feet, but something was wrong. His head hung loosely and his eyes had the glazed-over emptiness of a dead man. The sight made the young swordsman's blood boil. Clutching his chest, he pointed at Maksimov and the ground collapsed under him. A gaping hole was all that remained. Still simmering in anger, Mark glared at the top of the tower.
"You monster! You'd rob a warrior of an honorable death!?"
As if to reply, the heavy gates of the tower creaked open. The tortured cries of lost souls filled the air. Catherine put her hand on Mark's shoulder.
"It will be over soon," she said. "Now we end this."
The five of them had come a long way. They faced the final hurdle before Kyrios. Pandemonium would put their bodies, minds and spirits to the test, driving them to the darkest depths of hate and despair. They had no choice but to go forward, and forward they went.