Chapter 5
The Underwater City

The Sea of Atlantis

"As a warrior, you always have to be ready for death. I have to admit, I did not like the thought of dying in a fight with mere pirates. I've come to realize that how you with died is less important than how you lived. I have no regrets. Do you?"
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark was certain he was dead, but it was not the first time he had thought so. He did not know how happy he was to be alive, though. The penalty of surviving is living with what nearly killed you. Though he was in quite a lot of pain, it did not feel like he had suffered any serious injuries. He would not know for certain until he opened his eyes. When he did, nothing would prepare him for what he saw.
It was dark, but Mark could make out the endless blue of the sea stretched out all around him. This would not be entirely unexpected, if not for one thing. He was not looking out from the surface of the water. He was under it.
He was wondering how he was alive or even how he was breathing for that matter. One of the things about being underwater is, of course, all the water. And yet he was clearly breathing air.
The answer came to him as he felt his body gently rocking to the ocean's currents and wondered about the surface he was lying on. It was firm to the touch yet pliable. It was also largely transparent, but as his eyes became adjusted to the low light, Mark could make out the contours of a tunnel nearly nine feet in diameter.
As the tunnel seemed strong enough to support his weight, first he sat up, and when that proved safe enough, he struggled to rise to his feet. It hurt, but Mark's original assessment seemed to be correct and his injuries were minor. With concern for his immediate well-being subsided, his thoughts turned to his companions.
At first, he had no way of knowing who had survived, if anyone had. However, he quickly reminded himself of the Gems, relying on their power to seek out Sonia. The two sets of Gems called to each other and quickly reunited Mark with his cousin. Jill soon joined them with Jasper and Teresa in tow.
The keen senses of both the archer and the thief were essential to finding the remaining members of the group. They found Edward and, shortly after him, Felix. They had to walk a fair distance before finding the next member of the group: Ignatiy. When they caught sight of him, he was lying on the floor curled in a ball. Bidding the others to keep some distance between them and the firebug, Mark went ahead by himself, knelt down beside the shivering ball and shook him lightly.
"Ignatko..." the swordsman said in a soft voice.
Ignatiy slowly peeked out over the cover of his shoulder and saw Mark. The fear in his eyes instantly melted away and he eagerly embraced his old friend.
"Mark!" he exclaimed. "I thought I'd lost you all! I was so scared!"
"It's okay," Mark replied, returning the embrace of his shuddering companion. "We're all here."
While he was trying to calm Ignatiy, Adrienne appeared. She was the last of them to be found. Everyone had suffered relatively little damage, but Adrienne seemed worse off the rest of them. Though her head was covered by her hood, Mark could see her face was wrapped in strips of cloth.
"Are you okay?" Mark asked. "Did the fire get you that badly?"
"It's as good an explanation as any," she replied curtly.
Mark would have spent the time to ponder her response longer if they were not met by someone. This someone was floating outside the safety of the tunnel. He had the tail of a fish, much like the merfolk of legend, but his upper half was rather fishlike as well. His entire body was covered in coppery green scales, his hands were webbed, and he had finlike crests on the top and sides of his head. He stared at them with large, unblinking yellow eyes. When he began to speak, his voice was unintelligible, but it transformed into something they could understand once the sound vibrated against the walls of the tunnel.
"Welcome to the Nereidium," the fishman said. "I am Nereus, lord of this domain. I do not usually save those the sea claims, but you seem special. There is potent magic in you, stronger than we have known for some time."
"Thank you for sparing us," Mark said. "Is there a way to return to the surface?"
"Do you wish to return?" he asked. "I see you are geared for war, but I would permit you to live out your days in the peace and safety of these tunnels."
Mark did not allow the offer to tempt him. "We are bound by duty to return," he replied firmly.
Although the rigid features of his face could not express his sentiments, Nereus seemed to approve of the young warrior's determination. "Such resolve is rare among fickle humans," he said. "Very well, I shall lead you out of this place, though I do not know the surface well. You will have to navigate from whatever land you arrive in."
Mark had no choice but to accept the condition. "We will do it."
"First," Nereus said, "let me take you to someone who has chosen to stay here. Perhaps he will find purpose with you."
"I don't think we should trust him," Edward grumbled.
"He could have killed us already if he wanted to," Mark said, "or he could have left us to drown. Though you may not be familiar with kindness and mercy, they do exist."
Edward grumbled more, but followed anyway. After a decent walk, Mark and his companions came across a man in full armor, with a pike resting on his shoulder and a bright shield at his side. Bands of leather crisscrossed in his hair, something Mark had seen before during the group's encounter with the Inkari tribe of Mount Vulcan. The only difference was that the bands of this one bore no feathers. Looking at the man, Edward hastily drew his axe and mace.
"What are you doing!?" Sonia demanded.
"That's one of Randwulf's Five Generals!" the Prince snapped. "No time for questions! He has to die!"
Unmoved by the sight of Edward brandishing his weapons, a grin appeared on the man's face.
"Commander of the Marauders' Pikeman Division... That's who I was..."
He gripped his pike and readied his shield. Getting up slowly, he eyed Edward.
"Why, if it isn't the Drunkard Prince!" he said in mock surprise. "It seems you've gathered a tougher band than those washed-out lushes we usually sport with."
"Damn you!" Edward shouted.
The man laughed. "Go ahead, kill me. My fate would be no different if the King's men find me."
Although Mark did entirely grasp the situation, it was entirely reasonable to assume this man was the person Nereus wanted them to meet. As such, this was no time for a fight. And as the tunnels were not likely to hold up so well against steel, it was no place for a fight either.
Before the situation could escalate any further, Mark forced himself between the two of them, shouting, "Wait!" To the pikeman, he asked, "What do you mean, your fate would be no different?"
"What do you care?" the pikeman snapped. "Whelp!"
"There's a reason you're not with the Marauders right now," Mark said. "I'm willing to bet that reason doesn't make you an enemy."
"It doesn't make him a friend either," a voice said.
It was Adrienne. The moment he caught the glare of her cold eyes, the pikeman recoiled, as if he had seen a ghost.
"The Darkling..." he gasped, disbelieving what saw. He looked at Mark in bewilderment. "She's escaped? She sided with you?"
"I knew you were the softest of the Five," Adrienne sneered. "Was the Byrn campaign too much for your feeble conscience?"
Mark turned to her in shock.
"Byrn!?"
"Yes," the pikeman replied. "The things they were doing in Byrn... It was too much for me. I, I couldn't handle it. They pushed me too far. I turned on my fellow Marauders and fled. I ran... I ran all the way to the sea. I thought I'd be safe as long as I got across the ocean. I stowed on a ship, but there was a storm... The ship sank. I thought was dead... The Nereids saved me, but I don't know why."
"You have a strong will and a good heart," Nereus said. "So do most of these people. They can help you make amends for your past transgressions."
"Anyone who stands against Randwulf's tyranny is an ally," Mark said. "What is your name?"
"I go by Giles," the pikeman replied. "They gave me the name along with this." He held up his well polished shield. "This shield has the power to deflect anything, even magic. I'd offer to demonstrate, but I'd rather not risk damaging these tunnels."
"I'll take your word for it," Mark said. "May you never need it outside of battle."
Giles grinned. "Well met. I don't like the thought of traveling with the Drunkard Prince, but you seem to be a cut above the usual. Who are you?"
"I am Mark the Guardian, the son of Luther."
Giles stroked his chin thoughtfully. "The son of Luther... I had heard the rumors, whispers that the King was looking for someone known as the son of Luther, even that it was one of his main reasons for invading Byrn."
Mentioning Byrn again made Mark's guts wrench. He remembered Ridley telling him about a prophecy of Randwulf's destruction, about an 'Eagle in the East' that was most likely him. That Byrn and her people had to suffer on account of him...
"What happened?" Mark asked. "What was happening in Byrn?"
The pikeman's features darkened. "Don't ask me that. I beg you... Don't ask me."
"I must know," Mark insisted. "If Randwulf's search for me played any part in his decision to attack Byrn, I have a responsibility to know what happened."
The pikeman sighed and hung his head. "Very well... In my training to become an officer, I was taught some of the history of Gladius. I knew there was bad blood between us and the Byrnans. I thought the campaign was part of a plan to expand the kingdom, to absorb new territories to support the populace. I was wrong.
"The King had no intention of conquering Byrn. He only wanted to destroy it, to keep it from allying with the rebel factions in Gladius. That's what he told us, that he was preparing the Marauders to wipe out the rebels.
"You must believe me," he pleaded. "I tried to save as many as I could, but the others... The others wanted nothing but slaughter...
"When they burned that cathedral with all those people inside..." The pikeman visibly shuddered. "The screams... The screams haunt me, haunt my dreams, haunt my every waking moment... I hear them even now..."
The only cathedral in Byrn was part of Whiteheart Abbey. Mark could feel himself go numb, but as painful as it was to him, he knew it was much harder on Giles. He put his hand on the pikeman's shoulder.
"That's enough. I'm sorry I made you dig up those memories..."
Mark stepped away from the others and leaned into the membrane of the tunnel. He felt hollow, as if someone had scooped out all his innards. All his brethren at the monastery were surely dead, and that was just the beginning. By now, even more had died. In a sinister twist of fate, Ignatiy was lucky to have been caught by the Guard and thrown into Darkwall's dungeon. His other companions would probably not be so lucky, especially...
The thought made him fall to his knees. If only he had left sooner, it would have drawn Randwulf to him in Gladius where he belonged. Or later, so he could be there to face the usurper when he arrived. He should have been there. No, he told himself, I would have only gotten killed, too. But dying alongside my friends would have been better than this, learning about their doom a hundred leagues away.
"Mark..."
The voice was Sonia's. She was standing right beside him, offering her hand to help him up. He accepted the gesture and got back on his feet.
The Guardian turned to Felix. If his resolve was iron before, now it was tempered steel.
"Teach us what we need to defeat Randwulf. This has to end."
There was a trace of a grin on the Crusader's face. "I was waiting for this moment," he said. "I was concerned when you first accepted my offer. I could see your heart was not into it. Now you are ready to receive my instruction."
Mark looked to Giles. "Will you come with us? Help us right the wrongs of Randwulf's reign."
"I have to make amends or the nightmares will never end," the pikeman said. "I am at your service, Mark the Guardian."
Nereus clapped his webbed hands in approval. "There may yet be hope for your kind," he said. "Now, come. I will return you to the surface."