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The River Styx
#11
Armande slept peacefully on the mat, dreams nothing more than feelings, whisps of smoke that scattered before they could be touched. A part of him was always still alert- enemies and evil did not respect the sanctity of sleep. But his mood was undisturbed.

And then something changed. His dreams began to coalesce, becoming more substantial, dangerous. Lights flickered at the back of his mind, reminiscent of fire- and then it was fire, the same fires that had burned the mansion. He felt the heat again, could taste the dry fire, smell the ash and smoke and burned corpses. His hair slicked with sweat that misted in the heat. He suppressed any sense of panic as he pondered his way through the flames. His path was blocked.

A bell dinged loudly, echoing far above the roars of the flames and the cracking of the burning wood. Louder. Louder, each time causing the image and pain to recede, as if it were drifting away from him, pulling taught. a balloon on a string-

Pop!

Suddenly he was on his mat, the warm swampy cave now cool in contrast to the heat from the dream. It had seemed so real, the flames so hot he could almost imagine his arms reddened, the memory of pain. There was no time, though, because the warm air carried a sulfurous scent, far stronger than what always lingered. He recognized the danger at once.

He rolled to his feet, grabbed his bags and pulled out the light armor he'd worn through these tunnels- still stained with soot and flecks of burned flesh- and quickly put it on, ignoring the sharp stabs from his still fresh injuries. The second skin was doing its job but the pain would remain until he palmed a few more tablets. He clipped his carbon steel telescoping sword to his belt and grabbed his pack, then rushed out the tunnels.

Commotion reigned as people ran about haphazardly. He ground his teeth at the lack of order? Where was Valeriya? Where was the Hand? The danger was real and if they stayed here, they would die. Already he was feeling an irritation in his eyes and nose, a slight cough in his throat, the rotten egg smell strong and putrid.

As if a summons, Matvei rushed to him from one of the tunnels. He looked angry. "Father Regus, the Eye has vanished."
He looked around at the people, some of whom stopped rushing about now that he and the Hand were there. [color=orange"]"We were packing your things, Father, when this happened."[/color] Armande narrowed his eyes- already irritated from the gas.

He had his suspicions. Not that he would blame her, not necessarily. Getting a group of 40 plus people to leave was not going to be easy, whatever he was to them. They had her word- and the picture on the wall, he had to remember. That was something. But they also had the Hand, Matvei. Their power struggle was real.

Those left behind would fall prey to him. But Armande had taken a side. She was his Oracle. He wanted her with him.

"We must leave. Now. This is hydrogen sulfide. It will kill all of us in moments." He glanced at the stacks of boxes. The jewels and gold and silver would come in handy, above. Money in its purest untraceable form. The people didn't have much anyway. And the map. He would not forget the map.

He played to Matvei's hunger. "Hand, have Timur and a few of the others grab the boxes. That one, that one, that one," he said, pointing out the ones he knew contained valuables. He would not be able to salvage them all.

"Tell off others to gather any provisions they can get quickly." He looked at Matvei intently, making sure he understood the seriousness. "Be my Hand in the this." The implication was clear.

A twitch of a smile told him that Matvei had taken the bait. Alliance with Armande- the one they believed was Rasputin reborn- was a chance not to be missed.

Quickly, Armande's commands were carried out. Soon, with Armande at the head, Matvei and the rest at his heels, their procession headed through the tunnels. Valeriya would appear soon, of that he had no doubt. She'd done what she'd done. Decisively.

And he very much approved. Orpheus was leaving the Hades with his prize. It would not be snatched from him.
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#12
The points and jagged edges of rock scratched at her skin through her clothes. Even turned sideways and feeling forward by the touch of her palms ahead, she squeezed through the crevice. The passageway became tighter and tighter like a rope tightening around her neck, until she wondered if they would ever make it back out. Behind her, Illarion grunted and eventually left his burden at his feet to carry on without the extra weight. Valeriya hated to leave it behind, but nobody would be foolish enough to go willingly into the Pits. It would be safe until they returned. If they returned.

The journey wasn't far, but her legs were wobbly by the time the passageway opened. Heat rose up to meet her, but so also did the smell of rot so familiar to what wafted into the Khylsty. Illarion popped out of the crevice behind her and shook out his limbs in the sudden freedom. Valeriya felt the same, but she kept her composure. Other than feeling a little light of head, the scent seemed to have lessened somewhat. Or maybe she was growing used to the smell.

The majority of her things were left behind in the crevice, but those were for Above. What she needed now she pulled from a fold in her belt. It was a small copper tube stoppered with a copper cap. She remembered her mother telling her what it was. It was the key to controlling the Pits, she said. The Khylsty know little of true fear, but only one thing will chill all their blood, to be chosen to go to the Pits. Its a sentence of early death, as life in the pits is intolerable, those that go there suffer immensely before they finally die. Therefore, those people must be controlled or they would rise up against the Khylsty. This copper tube was their leverage. When Valeriya asked what was inside, her mother pressed her lips together and shook her head so hard all the little bones in her whacked together. All she had to do was open it up, drop it down a shaft, and seal up the crevice and the Khylsty would be safe from the monstrous members of the Pits. But be careful to seal them inside with it, otherwise they might all die.

Valeriya always wondered what was inside the little copper tube. Now, she was about to find out.

She wrapped the rags tighter around her face as Illarion did the same. The small torch in his hand wafted a little tendril of smoke as they walked together. He stayed half a step behind her, yet kept a hand forward like he was going to protect her. He knew almost as much as she did about what was down here. They would both rather face the monsters above than the wretches below.

The smell wrapped itself around her eyes until they glistened with tears. The heat grew and she was slicked with sweat beneath her clothes. They were getting close. If dropping this vial down here was enough to kill everyone in the Pits, throwing it into the vast cauldrons of fumes could kill the entire Khylsty. Unless they ran for their lives - and that was exactly what she intended they do.

"Get ready," she whispered, clutching the vial.

They turned a corner and she beheld the cavern of actual pits for the first time in her life. She'd always wondered what they truly looked like, but no Khylsty hoped to actually behold them.

They oozed, like a thick and heavy fluid. Or like the inside of a beast cut open and she watched its heart beat from the inside. The fluid was alive. It lifted like it was taking a breath, only to smack apart with a pop and splatter onto the surrounding rock with a hiss and swirl of smoke. The thought of it splattering onto her skin made her cringe.

Illarion grabbed her arm, squeezing it tight, tugging. She started to wrench herself free of his grasp when she realized the reason for his haste. Two shapes were moving around the periphery of the pits. Splatters caught the bottoms of their legs, flaring the frayed edges of their pants a small flame before it extinguished itself. Their bare feet were silent as they padded quickly closer. Quicker and quicker, bare feet twisted, blackened and burnt, they hobbled as though in pain. She was too transfixed to move, though. The burns around their ankles were to be expected if the pits could singe stone. It was their faces, shadowed in the flickering light, that horrified her. The hair had fallen from their heads. Their eyes were sunken into skeletal sockets. Their cheeks had open holes through which she could glimpse teeth. Their skin wept with fluid thicker than sweat. She began to vomit, but Illarion's grip dug into her arm and literally yanked her from the stupor.

She remembered the copper tube. A flick of the finger popped the cap and she briefly looked at the contents before chucking it as hard as she could into the center of the closest pit. She spun on her heel, Illarion still hanging on, and ran back toward the crevice. Just before they turned the corner, she looked to see what happened. The tube landed on the top of the fluid in the Pit, sat there a moment and slowly sank inside. She wondered if nothing would come of this. Had her mother lied? Been wrong?

Then the fluid exploded. A stream spit upward in a flash of light. The very air lit on fire and the two shapes caught on the edge spontaneously combust from within. She couldn't tell whose screaming was her own. They moved so fast back up the crevice, she was only barely aware of the scratches bleeding from her face, arms, legs and stomach. The care she'd taken on the descent was gone. Yet the smell chased them. Her eyes burned so hot she wondered if she was about to combust as they had.

They fell out of the crevice at the top of the climb, choking. Her lungs burned hot, but little relief was to be found. Her heart was racing. She'd done it. She'd done it. They would go Above. To save their lives, the Khylsty had to leave. If she survived long enough to get there... With what strength she had left, she dropped the rags from her face and ran as hard as she could, not even checking to see if Illarion followed.

The tunnels were empty. Regus must have recognized the air was filling with poison and forced them out. Illarion caught up with her, finally, the burden of a bag dangling from his back. So he'd made it out of the crevice... with her things in fact. She nodded in approval, but thrust out her hand to stop him before he took another step.

"A shaft to the Pits is down that way. We must go another way." Her throat was sore, her voice cracked. His pale blue eyes nodded, but he did not speak. His throat was burnt too. An eerie silence followed them. She'd never known the tunnels to be so quiet, but for the sound of their footsteps.

They climbed out by longer paths, but eventually found the remnants of the Khylsty at the edge of their home. The smells were left behind by then, and the burning in her eyes and nose decreased. She was dying for water.

The group was smaller than she'd hoped it would be. Had that many really perished? Had they caught on fire as had the two wretches in the Pits? She shivered at the thought.

The Khylsty made way for her passage, Illarion right behind her as usual. The burning eyes of Matvei were the only ones that met her own, but she ignored the Hand and went straight to Regus, positioning herself before their savior. "Our home is poisoned. As has been foreseen, you returned just in time. You'll take us Above?"
The Eye of the Khylsty
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#13
The tunnel walls shimmered in the torchlight, condensation and mineral runoff sparkling. At times the tunnels narrowed considerably so that only two at a time could make it through. Those carrying the crates struggled
through the passageways so much Armande found it necessary to pause, so as to not get so far ahead.

Not that he knew the way, for all of this leading. Matvei- his hand, he though sardonically- was constantly pointing out branchings and forks. The tunnels were not all solid stone, either. Millenia of erosion had worn holes, some large and some small, connecting to other, far smaller tunnels and branchings. Some 'walls' were little more than stalactites or stalagmites, as if dripping molten wax had hardened.

In truth, those narrow openings and small tunnels concerned him more than the stench. Well, the same anyway. The tunnels sloped down at one point for hundreds of meters and they found themselves traveling through what had to be a cloud of whatever gases had been released. His throat clenched and eyes watered and he tried not to breath as he pulled up a side of his garment over his mouth.

"Tell everyone to cover their noses and mouths, he said, voice muffled. But Matvei understood and motioned for others to follow suit. As Armande waited impatiently- those crates, those damnable and precious crates!- he watched as the people coughed and wretched, as tears streamed down faces.

None were children. Valeriya and the Monk with her seemed youngest. The old ones, he thought grimly. He wondered how many would survive. The downward turn seemed to last forever. After some interminable time he whirled on Matvei, his irritation getting the better of his normal self control. "Why did you bring us this way!"

Matvei seemed to shy back, still calculating as always but ow showing fear.
"Great Father, this was the quickest shortest way,"
he said, the sound of his voice unapologetic through the folds of his cloth. He waved at the air around them. "I have never seen anything like this before!"
he said.

Armande steeled himself. The man was right. He would know nothing of the settling of heavy gases. Still, a part of himself- the animal part he usually kept a on a leash- was stalking about, a lion in a cage, wanting to be out, to be free of this trap.

"Keep going!," he turned, trying to choke down the pain and keep the tears from his eyes. He ignored the cries behind him. What happened happened. When they were safe, they'd know the cost of this exodus.

The tunnels widened into a larger opening and mercifully started upwards and the tension he hadn't realized he was feeling in his chest seemed to lessen. The air seemed clearer too. He turned for a moment as he moved ahead to give everyone room.

Just then something caught the corner of his eye, a dark shape- or shapes- faster than the shadows cast by the flickering torches. A scream ripped through the group, then another. He had his sword out, blade telescoping, pushing his way through but by then it was too late.

A woman- she could have been 40 or 70, for all he could tell- lay on the ground as did another man- this time more clearly old by the wisps of white hair fringing his bald pate. Massive bite marks in their legs and throats dribbled blood into a pool that grew steadily.

Not just their own blood. Three cherufe lay there, still twitching as holes in their torso and sides leaked inky black.

And Armande smiled as he looked up at the people. Four of the Khylsty stood there at the ready, eyes alert and scanning the darkness, stone and bone knives poised to strike again.

Khylsty. Deadly. His.

He did not need to tell them to keep alert. Just as his hands did not need to be commanded by his brain to wield a sword or fire a gun. They knew what to do.

He nodded to them- to all of them- with a hint of a smile. "You've done well. We must continue. We will meet the Eye soon." Some smiled- small smiles, to be sure. "We go above. To our destiny." For some, the smiles broadened.

And he felt pride in his chest.

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. The few cherufes that attempted to come after them claimed no more victims. He instructed Matvei to speak to the others and determine how many they had lost. It took only moments. Twelve. A large blow, to be sure. But the strongest had survived. And Armande had his core of iron.

Finally, light from ahead indicated they had reached their destination. There, slashes in her dress, scratches at her arms, dark mass of hair with bone and stone decoration, stood Valeriya. And for the life of him, she looked like a queen, a barbarian queen, eyes seeming to pass over her people.

Armande walked up to her and gave her a small nod of his head. He bent forward, his mouth almost touching her ear- her hair tickled his nose in a way he hadn't felt in years- and pitched his voice for her alone. "Well done My Eye. Well done Valeriya." He straightened and looked her in the eyes- green eyes- it was always the strong green eyes....

And for the first time in years, Armande Nicodemus, Vicar of Iscariot, Regus of the Atharim, actually smiled. Voice loud for everyone, he said, "Let us go to the Above!" He had crossed the River Styx into Hades, and now he was returning with an army behind him and Valeriya by his side. He had cheated Hades. To the surface. To meet his foretold destiny.
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#14
In the wake of Armande's body stepping away from hers and the smile of pride that touched her soul, the weight of fatigue settled into her bones. She longed to sink into someone's arms, whether Regus's or Illarion's, she didn't care. At that moment she might have sank to her knees and rest on her own squat. She could do neither of those things, though. The Eye could not be so weak. The Khylsty would devour weakness, perhaps literally, if they sensed it. Regus' favor may protect her, but it would not prevent her murder. There were going to be plenty of people ready to murder her after this. The fools didn't know she was leading them to their greatness, but they wouldn't care. Greatness was a time to come, and they only knew the foods in their bellies, the pains in their skins, and the fear in their hearts.

She sank a few steps behind Regus as he led them away from their ancestral home. For generations the Khylsty existed Below. Below what, the surface, none living could even fathom. The Eye had seen, of course. Wide open that stretched in all directions forever, colors that her eyes had never beheld, and so much brightness. She had seen, but never had she experienced. The fear of what that would be like crept slowly into her own skin, making her fatigue even weightier. Neither slowed her pace, but she did give Illarion both bags to bear as a burden. Her twin brother, pale of eye and hair where she was dark, was equally weary. But only in a way that a twin would recognize. He was part of her as she was part of him. His jaw remained tight, however. His eyes were pinched low. He spoke nothing of his inner turmoil.

They weren't alone in their suffering. She saw labored breathing, burn marks reddened flesh angry. Regus gave some salves as he could spare, but they would be forced to endure their physical injuries even as the people were forced to leave all they'd even known behind and march upward.

The Above was up there. Their road twisted this way and that. Regus, and others of strong arm and limb, cleared their paths of beasts that they met along the way, but such a large party thwarted most dangers by sheer number alone. There were times when she was sure she sensed their presence - beasts breathing in darkness, flashes of eyes darting, and clattering of claws drawn across stone. On one of their breaks to rest, she sat, leaning her head on the wall, and a thousand spiders crawled into her hair and across her face, biting and stinging as their legs pierced her skin. She gnashed them with her teeth but they penetrated her nostrils, ears, and mouth, stifling her screams.

When she woke with a cry, Illarion was at her side, clutching her hand. She had dozed off to sleep, she thought, only to discover later that most of the group had stopped to sleep. They had little to spare to eat, but she drank water greedily, still feeling the dream stuck in her throat.

"There are so many tunnels,"
she said to Illarion one time. Long ago, long before the dream, she'd become lost. The air felt no lighter. The smells were no less pungent. But perhaps she was colder. They were far from the heats of the Pits, far from home. "How much farther?"
Of course he had no answer, but neither would she allow herself to ask Regus for answers. She had to stay strong for all their sakes.

The Eye of the Khylsty
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