Trey hung limply between Dawn and Liam as they struggled to run under his weight. Billy jogged behind them, his Onlasarian crossbow in his hands since there was too little room to draw a bow. He frequently looked over his shoulder to see if they were being followed.
A movement in the corner of his eye alerted Billy to danger. He span around to see a bolt splitting the dense air towards him. It seemed to fly towards him in slow motion. He looked past the bolt and could just make out the snarling face of a Forukk at the very edge of the candle light.
Without conscious thought he squeezed his own crossbow’s trigger. The two bolts met in mid air, sparks flying off in all directions. Shattered scraps of wood hit the ground mere feet from Billy. The boy stood in shock, staring at the destroyed bolts. Seeing its target still standing the Forukk readied another shot. It snarled as it released the projectile.
Blood splattered the walls. Billy snapped out of blankness. Zak was running towards him. He had cut down the Forukk without slowing and managed to catch the bolt mid flight. He did not stop even as he passed Billy.
“Hey! Where are you going?” shouted Billy at Zak’s back.
“Away from the scary rocks,” came Zak’s response from the distance.
“Scary rocks?” Billy mused. Only then did he realise the ground was shaking and thunder seemed to roll through the tunnels. The roof collapsed in front of him, crushing the Forukk’s dead body. Billy then followed Zak’s example and ran as fast as his legs would carry him.
By the time Billy reached the others he was exhausted but the tunnels were still falling down around them. To increase their speed, Liam had put Trey on his back and carried him in that manner as they ran for safety.
None of them knew where they were heading but were just following their feet while trying not to be flattened. The candle had long since flickered from existence but Zak’s axe once again lit the way forward.
“This way!” called Dawn from the front of the group. As she was the fastest she was a good few feet in front of the others. She darted around a corner through a strong looking entrance frame. The room inside also looked sturdy, or to be more precise, the cavern. The others followed her in, Liam just passing through the gap as rocks rained down inches behind him. The entrance became a solid wall of debris.
“Damn. How are we supposed to get out of here now?” asked Billy to no one in particular.
“Look on the bright side,” said Dawn. “We’re all still alive.”
“Yes. Instead of being crushed and dying instantly we can starve to death,” said Liam in a solemn voice as he lent Trey against a wall.
“No. We’ll die of dehydration before starvation even sets in,” Zak pointed out happily.
“Look,” said a slightly flustered Dawn. “You’re straying from my point. We’re all alive so we can find a way out of here.”
“Then walk straight into the Forukk’s lair,” added Liam with a shrug.
“Who are you?” asked a croaky voice from behind them.
Zak stepped forwards holding out his axe. The light revealed twelve men huddled in a corner. They looked like miners despite the fact that the mine had been closed for over two decades. Their work suits were ripped, many had lost their helmets and they had no visible skin through the thick layers of dust that coated them from their heads to their toes.
“Who are you would be a better question,” replied Billy to the men. “The mine is inactive.”
“Officially yes it is. To keep Pastrino self reliant, The Lord secretly kept the mine active on a small scale. We are the miners chosen to carry out this secretive task. What about you? You are all in the mine, heavily armed and seem to have knowledge on those monsters outside.”
“The short story is we’re just passing through here to save all the people taken as slaves when Pastrino was destroyed,” said Billy.
The closest miner let out a sigh. “So the city was destroyed. We figured as much from the sounds above us. Then those monsters started patrolling the mines. We all thought we would die here.”
“You still might if we don’t move all these rocks from the doorway,” said Liam in his usual uplifting voice.
“It could take days of solid work to clear the entrance and the passage beyond it. Then we’d have to deal with those monsters. Even if we can get out we have nowhere to go,” whined the youngest of the miners.
“Moaning isn’t going to solve anything.” From the place against the wall where his body had been laid Trey rose to his feet and began to move rocks from their place blocking the way out.
The others moved to help, including the miners but Dawn motioned them to keep back. She had to physically take Trey away from the blockage before he stopped moving stones. “The ground around here has a high sand density. We people of the desert can deal with sand.
She drew out her necklace and held it tightly with her left hand. With her right she placed her palm against the surface of the rocks and lost herself in a fast tempo chant. Sweat dripped from her forehead and her limbs shook slightly. As the chanting reached its climax, the debris before her began to vibrate then the next second the rocks disintegrated into flowing sand. She staggered back, laughed then collapsed.
“The way we came is blocked,” called Billy as the others fussed over Dawn. “Forwards is open though.”
“Do you miners know a way out of the mines that we can get to without going the way we came?” asked Trey.
“No. All the entrances are back east, we’re too far west to find any exits,” replied the young miner.
An ancient looking miner stepped forwards. He had not moved once up until then, only watched the teenagers with a careful eye. His body was large and very strong but his face was wrinkled and looked very fragile. “There is a way out we can take.”
A few of the other miners looked uncomfortable as their gaze fell upon the old man. One looked like he was about to speak but then looked down at his feet like the others.
“There is an exit that opens up straight into the Shadowlands. I do not like it but it is the only way out.” The old man stepped out of the room. “I will show you the way.”
The other miners formed up around him like guards, their pickaxes held ready. Liam gently picked Dawn up while Billy, Zak and Trey hung back to protect the rear.
No sign appeared that gave any mention of Forukks nearby. The only sounds were their own footsteps and heavy breaths. If anything it was too quiet. The Forukks should have been on their trails like cats on mice.
After hours of nothing but walking the old man, who had introduced himself as Oliver Bailey, head miner, called a halt at what seemed to be a dead end. In the light from Zak’s axe they could see that at the end of the passage was a slab of obsidian with a skull carved upon its surface.
“It’s time,” Mr Bailey stated as he took a mighty swing at the centre of the slab with his pickaxe. Both the obsidian and the pickaxe cracked. He swung again and his pickaxe shattered. He was about to swing for a third time with another pickaxe when Zak stopped him.
“Allow me.” With a flick of his wrist his axe met the slab which exploded outwards into the world beyond.
The stale air of the mines gave way to a tainted breeze as the group looked out upon a dreary setting. The exit opened out onto the side of a steep cliff with only a small ledge to step out onto. All of the trees were twisted husks with no leaves and everything seemed to have a grey tinge. Rain specked the sky giving the whole area a blurry look.
“We’re near the top,” called Zak, who had walked straight out to inspect the area. He reached above him and soon vanished from sight.
“All clear,” he called down to the group.
One by one everybody climbed the short distance to the top until only Liam and Dawn were left. She had regained just enough consciousness to grip onto his back while he slowly pulled himself over the edge. When he reached the top Dawn slid off of him.
“Shouldn’t you have carried her?” he asked Zak. “Considering you’re the strongest and have the greatest endurance.”
“Yeah but we need you to pull your weight somehow.”
“I don’t like the taste of the air here, we shouldn’t stay too long,” said Mr Bailey.
“As much as I dislike it, we are not soldiers, nor can we fight. For the most part we are battered and hungry and only have pickaxes for weapons. We cannot help you to save our people and that deeply grieves me. We will not be coming with you,” sighed Mr Bailey.
The other miners were visibly relieved at not having to venture further into Miankkuth. No sooner had the relief passed then shame hit their faces. They too wanted to save their friends and family.
“Good luck,” said Mr Bailey as he looked deeply into each of their eyes. “Kill some of those monsters for us if you can.” He turned, motioned his men to follow then headed off south, away from Pastrino.
“Now all we need to do is find our way to Lanstiro without alerting the guards,” said Trey to no one in particular. “Anyone have an idea which way to go.”
“I know!” shouted out Zak. “Let’s ask him.” He pointed to a Forukk stood directly behind Liam.
“Holy Sprite! How did that sneak up on us?” shouted Billy in surprise.
The Forukk was huge. It was bigger than the one Zak fought in the mines. It was like a massive blot on the landscape. One of its arms was a giant tentacle while it’s other had hundreds of spikes protruding from its flesh. It had a third eye on its forehead and had sharp bones sticking up from its knees.
Before anyone could react the Forukk had grabbed Dawn with its tentacle. She screamed out in pain as it began to squeeze her. Nobody had any Boom-balls left and Zak could not risk explosive Nimula as it could hit Dawn. Both Billy and Zak leapt forwards to attack as Liam rolled away from the beast’s spiked arm as it fell towards him. The Forukk swatted the two boys away using Dawn before firing a volley of spikes from its arm onto the battlefield.
“Damn it!” roared Trey as he yanked a bloody spike from his shoulder. “It’s too strong.”
The Forukk gave off a booming laugh that shook the ground then its mouth began to glow purple. An unbelievable heat rolled across the land that made everyone still standing sink down to their knees. Being hit by whatever the Forukk was about to do was certain death. There was no doubt about it.
A boom louder than thunder and a flash greater than lightning shook Trey’s senses. His eyes only saw white whether they were open or closed. A distant crackling was all he could hear. At first he thought he was dead but he was in too much pain to be anything but healthy.
As his vision cleared he was surprised to see the giant Forukk laying in two halves on the ground with a woman standing in-between the two. In one arm she held Dawn; in the other she loosely held a blood stained chakram.
“Hi,” she giggled. “Are you here to die like the big guy?”