A few hours later, the party was carefully traversing the mud of the Great Savanna. Tufts of the once high grass could be seen as all the snow melted away. James knew the grass wasn’t new growth, but still found comfort in the fact that all the snow was beginning to melt. Sorrell lagged behind the rest of the party, and James seized the opportunity to catch her alone and ask the question that has been burning inside of him.
“So, can he fly with those things or what?”
Sorrell scoffed, “Not that I know of. They are just a side effect of his magic.”
“What magic gives you wings?” James inquired. If there was any body mutation that he thought he would be able to live with, it would be wings.
“All types I imagine,” the skeleton said as she kicked a rock in her path, “Abaddon is studying light magic though if that helps.”
James watched the rick skitter into his path and kicked it back to Sorrell, “I have a friend that is a light mage,” James began, thinking of Lilly, “she doesn’t have wings though.”
“Yea, I haven't met many mages that have them. Actually, I haven't met any at all,” Sorrell admitted, catching the rock with her metatarsals and giving it another push with her calcaneus, “my father is quite strong though. That is why he isn’t all skeleton yet. He is much stronger than I am.”
The rock skidded to a halt in front of James. He missed his kick and the two moved passed it, ending the rock's journey, “That’s scary because you seem pretty strong.”
The skeletal woman nodded her head.
James cleared his throat awkwardly, “So what is your home like?”
Sorrell’s skull bones brightened, “You’ll see, we are almost there.”
James looked around curiously but didn’t find any hints of a settlement. He pulled up his interface and opened up his map. He was northeast of his own town and north-west of The Outpost. Closer to The Outpost than his own home, a realization that caused a ting of homesickness to pulse in his stomach. James’s mind drifted off to Michael, Torunn, and the rest of his villagers that he had long since begun to consider family, as he gazed upon the mountain range he was walking under.
“Halt!” Abaddon called out, jolting James back to his current location, which was beginning to seem much further from his home than it actually was.
The formation of skeletal guards halted immediately. Omero and Alex had been walking close behind the guards and found themselves inside their formation by the time they processed the sudden order to halt. Omero tediously maneuvered out of the formation, doing his best not to touch elbow bones with any of the guards. Alex simply stayed in the formation and assumed a position of attention as he waited for further orders along with his military brethren.
James andSorrell caught up to Patrick and stood behind the formation. James could hear Abaddon barking orders at Alex and the rest of the formation. James turned his head to ask Sorrell what was going on and found the skeleton stretching her nonexistent muscles again.
“What are you doing?” James asked curiously. Patrick leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the skeleton bending in odd ways, but didn't make any verbal remarks.
“Getting ready to run,” Sorrell said with strain, “you should too. It is a long run, and if you slow down you will die,” Sorrell stood up and gave one of her playfully creepy grins.
James shook his head, “What? What kind of place do you live in?”
Patrick laughed as he checked to see if his maul was safely strapped to his back, “Definitely not the suburbs.”
Abaddon waved at Sorrell from the front of the formation, “Did you brief them?”
“Yup!” Sorrell called out.
James yelled that she did not, in fact, brief them about anything, but it was too late. His concerns were drowned out by a loud burst of magic from Abaddon’s fingers. The formation started to move forward, quickly building up speed. James looked at Sorrell, who was already far ahead of him. She looked back and winked at James. It was enough of a signal for James and Patrick to finally burst into action.
“What’s happening?” Omero yelled over the footsteps of the skeletal formation.
Patrick did his best to shrug while he ran, “I don’t know - we weren’t briefed.”
The party ran right towards the mountain range. Just as James started to worry that they were going to have to run up the mountain, he spotted a dark draw. The same sort of draw that could hide a secret entrance to somewhere. His thoughts were confirmed when Abaddon gave a signal from the front of the group and the square formation moved into a single file line. Alex wasn’t familiar with the command but did his best to adjust as he ran. He ended up at the back of the skeleton line, and right in front of James. The mountain range got larger and larger until it was so close that it seemed to loam over James. Then, Abandon disappeared into a hole. The single line formation continued on, and more and more skeletons disappeared into the darkness. Alex disappeared next, and then James plunged into the darkness. Before his eyes could adapt, his legs felt the floor slope downward beneath him. He was running down a dark, narrow tunnel in the mountain. He ran through multiple twists and turns. Many of those turns were so tight that James lost sight of his party, still, he ran on. Suddenly, the tunnel opened up to a large cavern. Stalactites sparkled and dripped a liquid that James could only hope was water.
“Keep running!” Abaddon commanded. James realized he slowed down as he took in the site of the gloomy cavern and picked up his pace. The skeletal guards were waiting right outside the tunnel entrance. Two of them joined James and ran along each of his sides. Jame’s looked ahead and could see that two guards were running on either side of Alex as well. At first, James couldn't figure out why the guards were running next to him, but he quickly found the answer lying on the floor of the damp cavern.
Bones were scattered everywhere, except in the path he and his party ran. James could see the bones jumping and moving just as they did in the Keep where he first met Sorrell.
Shit, he thought as he dug deep into his stamina bar and ran faster.
James ran and ran, throwing paranoid glances at the bones that stalked him just outside the path. Suddenly, a movement on his right caught his eye. James turned his head just in time to see a skull, full of sharp teeth flying toward him. He reflexively pulled out his Legion Commander’s Short Sword, but the skeletal guard on his right acted before he needed to. A blast of holy light sythed through the air, splitting the toothy head in half. James slowed to watch it fall to the ground, but the skeletal guard that protected him did not. The teethy scull rocked on the ground as other bones were drawn to it. James caught up with his two guards before he could see what the skull did next.
A dome of golden light came into view as James rounded a curve in the cavern. His eyes grew larger as more of the dome came into view. It stood out in stark contrast to the dark and death filled cavern. A horn resounded from somewhere within the opaque golden dome.
Another skeleton lunged at James’s face, only to be cut in half by the skeletal guard on his left.
Further down the path, James could see Abaddon slow. A contingent of golden robes materialized from the dome. Bones rumbled and formed into large beasts and attacked the contingent of gold, but was quickly sent back into the darkness.
Abaddon signaled for everyone to hurry up. A rumble echoed throughout the chamber, but James didn’t dare distract himself by searching for the cause. He could see that Alex reached the edge of the dome, where he was hurriedly thrown through the magical barrier. Another, larger mass of bones resembling a creature that James had never even imagined before, lunged at him and was subsequently cut into pieces by his guards. James decided right then that whatever was through the golden dome had to be much more pleasant than where he currently was. James sprinted past Abaddon, and ran straight into the magic dome, leaving the formless monsters of bones behind him.
James's skin was pulled taut. A light so bright that he couldn’t tell if his eyelids were closed or not emanated from everywhere. James felt an immovable surface impact his head. Soon after, he felt warm blood coat his face. His last coherent thoughts were;
Odd, I can still feel the warmth of my own blood...
James stretched lazily in his bed without opening his eyes and ran through his mental list of tasks for the day. Put some coffee on, get dressed, brush my teeth and hair, make sure Michael is awake, drink the coffee, wake Michael up again, head to work. James hated his job. His cubicle gave him no joy, and the work he did within it gave him no sense of accomplishment. Just keep plugging away, James told himself as he did every morning, soon enough we will pay off the debt from Mom and Dad. Then we will go from there. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. James gave his morning mantra life by opening his eyes and throwing his legs over the edge of the bed. His legs didn’t bend and his feet didn’t hover over his slippers like they did every other morning though. Strange, he thought, I must have rolled around a bunch in my sleep. James scooted closer to the edge of the bed, and suddenly realized there was no edge and that his bed sheets where green, as opposed to his usual checkered red.
A female voice pierced through James confusion, causing James to start. He jumped again when his eyes fell upon a skeletal figurine. It was the same educational figure that would see occasionally on visits to the doctor's office or a museum of human sciences.
“I said are you alright?” the skeleton asked.
A year of memories rushed back to James. Memories of checking his email and finding a strange message from a .mil account. Memories of opening that email and finding it intriguing, if not suspicious, that the military was offering him so much money. Memories of talking to his brother about the email and deciding that that money would change the course of their sad and lonely lives forever. Memories of being hooked up into a strange assortment of very serious looking machines and shortly after waking up in the Great Savanna. Memories of watching Torunn grow from a mischievous cub and into the clan leader. Memories of the Lich King’s Dungeon, the people trapped within it, and his village. James remembered that he was on a mission to save all those people. James remembered that he needed to talk to a Mystic to find a spell that will protect his soul from the Lich King. For the life of him though, James couldn’t remember what was supposed to happen after he did all that...
“Are you still dreaming?” Sorrell inquired playfully.
“Sort of,” James answered before standing up on the bed of moss he had been sleeping on, “where is your father. I want to talk to the Mystic.”
“He’s just on the other side of the dome, waiting for you!” Sorrell said before offering her phalanges to James. James took her hand and let the skeleton lead him through a wall of vines and into a marbled stone hall. The hall was long and without a ceiling. James could see the golden shimmer of the dome rising high above. The marbled pillars that supported the vine growth stretched on for almost as far as James could see. Every now and then gold cloaked skeletons would move in such a way that James could get a glimpse of a black cloak in between them. James picked up his pace and headed toward Abaddon, causing more than a few gold cloaks to sneer as he bumped into them, interrupting their work.
Patrick popped out of a wall of vines, “Oh hey dude, glad your okay. How was your nap? I just laid down on one of their moss beds, it was great. Much better than a fur pile.”
James was happy to see his old friend again and wanted to make a joke about how nothing was better than sleeping in fur piles, but he didn’t have the time. He wanted to go home. “Go find the rest of the party," James asked of the red-head, "I am going to ask Abaddon where the mystic is and then we will all have to go to her. Hurry.”
Patrick frowned, but still nodded and ran off to find the rest of the party.
“Glad you are okay, James,” Abaddon’s hood said by way of greeting.
James let go of the hand of the half-rotten man’s daughter that he had been pulling along behind him, “The mystic, where is she.”
“It is not a she,” Abaddon remarked with a pause, “I am the Mystic.”
James’s confusion and anger must have been evident on his face because the robbed figure immediately decided to elaborate, “Sorry, I didn’t tell you before. I still wasn’t sure if I could trust you.”
“Well, do you trust me now?”
“Not really,” Abaddon laughed, “but we are in my kingdom now, so it matters little.”
James looked around the nature-covered marble hall, “What is this place anyway?”
“This is the home of soulless, James. We all usually end up here, willingly or unwillingly.”
“And the dome?”
“The dome is a rather new construct, I am quite proud of it actually. It allows us to conduct our research without having to worry about being attacked by the feral soulless. You see, our research is exactly the type of thing you need... Omero told me you are looking for a way to protect your souls, is that true?”
“Yes,” James replied, “we want to fight the Lich King.”
Abaddon laughed, “The Lich King? That creature has been dead for a long long time.”
James didn’t join in on the laughing, and after a few breaths, Abaddon stopped laughing all together. “You are serious?” He asked.
“The Lich King is in a realm separated by a portal he cannot pass through, but he is very much alive. A Mystic named Salmaana impris-”
James’s words were cut off, “I know all about Salmaana, she is a legend. Tell me, James, do you have access to the Lich King?”
Reluctantly, James nodded.
Abaddon was quite angry at the fact that James had access to the creature that stole his and his daughter's souls. He was even more angry at the fact that James didn’t give up that information when they first met. James thought that was quite hypocritical, and told Abaddon as much. The words, ‘trust’ and ‘strangers’ were thrown around with accusatory implications from both sides. The argument became even louder when Sorrell told the two arguing men that they were exactly alike eachother. James didn’t like being compared to the stubborn undead hypocrite and gave Sorrell a piece of his mind for suggesting such a thing. When James realized that Abaddon was also giving a piece of his own mind to Sorrell, he turned back to Abaddon and started yelling at him again.
Luckily, Patrick showed up with Omero before James could come up with any unforgivable insults. He thought that they should be easy to come up with, especially since Abaddon wasn’t even human anymore, but that didn’t seem to be the case. When James finally managed to come up with some, Omero held a finger to his lips, before pushing James away. James was so confused by Omero’s actions that he forgot his insults altogether.
Voices eventually grew quiet. James had no doubt that it was because of Omero’s impressive mediations skills. Eventually, Omero and Abaddon decided that they all needed to conduct some “Trust Building Exercises” together.
That is how James found himself preparing to leave the safety of the golden dome in order to hunt the feral bone-monsters that plagued the Underworld.