"The underground cemetery" announced Gunnar as he emerged from the water. He shook his beard, splashes of water cascading back and forth. "I can't believe we've made it this far!"
Unhappily, Roka trudged out of the water. His robe was soaked, his lush canid hair plastered wetly to his head. "Piranha infested!" he grumbled. "Nobody said that it was piranha infested water!" He shook his foot, dislodging a particularly vicious looking fish from the heel of his boot.
Taking his helmet off, Gunnar tipped it upside down, spilling out a large quantity of water and several fish, which flapped on the floor. "They're called Razorguppies" he said.
Roka shot him a look of utter non-amusement.
"I forgot that bit" said Exra, squeezing her ears and wringing them free of water. "Well, no matter. Look."
The group turned, glancing down along the tunnel. On either side of them, tall sconces stood, terrible and haunting, as if they were carved of bone. The light was a haunting green, illuminated by fires that shone with an elfin glow. The tunnel descended downwards, spiralling into the distance.
Walking casually from the water, Sycorax stepped onto the cave floor. Casually he chewed on an appoberry, and grinned. "Well, that swim was easy" he commented.
The dog turned to glance back at him. "You're just saying that because undead don't have to hold their breath when they swim" he pointed out.
Sycorax took a bite of the fruit. "What breath?" he grinned.
Gunnar ushered the group onwards, and they stepped on through the tunnel.
They worked their way through the tunnels, their way lit by the fiery sconces that crackled as they passed. Their footsteps echoed throughout the cavern, a damp sound, and equal parts hollow and mocking. The pathway lead to the right, and downward. It was not long before they realised that they were traveling in a single great spiral, burying its way into the earth. As they walked their footsteps changed, shifting from the earthy timbre of the cave floor to a heavy sound, and they realised with a growing sense of foreboding that the ground beneath them was lined with large marble paving flagstones. Then, just as the dog thought that they could not possibly descend further, the light before then seemed to grow brighter and the cavern emerged into a large, terrible domed chamber.
They emerged from the mouth of the cave and stared around the room. Roka gaped, his mouth hanging wide. The chamber was nothing less than a great, vast cathedral.
Excitably, Gunnar turned to them. "This is it!" he explained. "This is the buried cathedral, Abbadon's resting place." The buffalo looked around, his eyes wide with excitement. "It's just like it was in the books!"
Nodding, Roka had to admit that it was an impressive sight. Around them, great thick columns reached upward. Each one was bedecked with spider webs. Roka followed the lines of the webs, looking around eagerly. As he looked at the floor, he stepped back. The ground below them was smooth, like polished marble, but it was no natural stone. The dog stood upon the flattened, crushed remains of feline skeleton. He let out a cry, and glanced around. Each of what he had assumed to be mere blocks of marble was, in fact, the pressed corpses of the long dead, the weight of ages having levered them smooth below his feet. The cleric looked around, and found that the floor was not alone. The walls themselves were decked with grim pieces of the departed. An arm there, protruding from beside the pew. Tiny broken skulls ran their way around the rim of the font. As the candlelight played across the columns and the walls, Roka realised that they were not simply decorations, but made up the entirety of the building materials for
the cathedral. Everywhere he looked, he was assailed by the sightless eyes of the skulls of the dead.
Nervously, he turned to Gunnar. "What the hell is this place?" he asked.
The buffalo, who had hurried over to the font and was busy, peering curiously inside, turned to him. "Abbadon himself constructed this cathedral to the dark powers" he said.
Behind him, Sycorax was grinning. "Nice place" he said, appreciatively.
Roka stuttered, "He built it out of dead people?"
It was Exra who answered. "Out of the nation of Tiras" she said. "Once he conquered them," she said, turning to Gunnar, "is that right?"
The buffalo nodded eagerly, "You read the book?"
Exra nodded. "Was the least I could do after you posted me a copy."
"U POST HER A BOOK?" asked Biggie.
Roka was no longer paying any attention to the conversation. His eyes were instead drawn upward, following the pillars into the shadows in the higher recesses of the cathedral. Above them, an enormous dome filled as far as the eye could see. The top of the done was etched in glass, thick and red and black. "What is that?" he asked.
Gunnar looked up. "Oh" he said. Then he said "Oh" again, a little more loudly. Squinting his eyes, Roka stained his vision into the darkness. Upon the glass, he could just about make out a single vast image. It showed a man, wreathed in flame, clutching his way out of a great pit, reaching to take the hand of a towering skeleton that stood at the top of the hole. Staring, Roka realised that perhaps it was showing the skeleton reaching down towards the man. The image brought to his mind his school trip when he was twelve, when he had the chance to see the image of the creation of Adam from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but this image seemed far more haunting and sinister. Roka turned to Gunnar and whispered, almost reverentially "What is that?"
The buffalo, not taking his eyes from the ceiling, replied "That is a very good question. The man in the pit is Abbadon, we know that much."
"And the skeleton?" asked Roka.
"That is also Abbadon" explained Gunnar. "When he was slain in battle by the warlords of light, Abbadon was resurrected as an undead lord, he had to leave his mortal form behind. That was the moment when he truly became Abbadon, but without his physical body he could never touch anything. So angered he was at this that he delved into the pits of hell itself to recover his mortal body. When he found it, he discovered that the strength of willpower that lingered within it was so strong that his corpse had been clawing its way back to him. He merged with it and became Abbadon as he exists now, a being of now-unfathomable power."
The dog nodded. "What a lovely story. The children must love it."
Aria drummed her fingers against the shaft of her daggers. "So where is he, then?" she asked, impatiently.
Stepping into the middle of the great chamber, Gunnar said "Below."
"BELOW DA CHURCH?" asked Biggie.
Gunnar nodded. "We need to find the way into the steeple, that will take us there. Everyone spread out, look for any kind of hidden trapdoors."
As the others turned and started to examine the darkest corners of the cobweb-ridden chamber, Roka stepped over to the buffalo. "Don't steeples normally go up?" he asked. "You said that this one goes down."
The buffalo nodded, tapping lightly on the floor as he went. "Yes, think about it. The steeple in a normal church rises upwards, towards heaven. Prayers said in the church can be said to go the same way, traveling up along to God." Gunnar paused, and said "Where do you think they would go if the steeple was built down, into the earth?"
Roka didn't answer.
For a few moments, silence pervaded the cathedral. The great room was still, but for the breathing and footfalls of the guild as they flexed their way around, exploring like deft fingers into the darkness.
"Got something!" called Aria first. The others turned, rushing through the vast bone cathedral to the assassin's side. She leaned back, her crimson leather armour shining in the lament flames of the candles. Beside her, hidden deftly between two sturdy stone blocks, stood a thin lever.
Exra hopped up and down, excitedly. "Pull it! Pull it!" she cheered.
The assassin did so, wrapping her fingers around the lever and pulling. It slid from its position with an ancient, echoing clunk. For a moment, all was still. Then, deep within the bowls of the cathedral, a dim rumbling started to grow. The adventurers looked from one to the other, the sound swelling like that of a waking dragon.
Exra glanced around. "There!" she called, pointing. Sure enough, a large slab of the cathedral's brickwork had started to move down, receding lower into the floor with a churning of cogs and a scrapping sound that threatened to pierce the air. Roka stepped hesitantly forward. The block of crushed bone sank lower, and then began to slide to one side, pulled by an array of ancient chains, revealing a narrow stairway below. He looked down, into the darkness beyond.
Taking a step closer, Biggie said "BAD GUY DOWN THERE?"
Nodding, Gunnar stepped eagerly forward.
The buffalo lead the way, down further beneath the cathedral. They walked down, step by step, with only a haunting flow from the distance ahead to light their way.
As they walked, Roka turned to look at Gunnar. The buffalo was alert, wide-eyed, like a child at Christmas. No, the dog corrected himself, Ferretsmas.
The light before then send a dim, flickering green hue around the stairwell, and it was not long before it grew brighter. They reached the bottom of the stairs, which ended at a huge bone archway. With a deep breath, Gunnar stepped into the chamber beyond.
The chamber was huge, but also curiously barren. Sets of pillars lined each wall, and on the far wall sat a large bone form, a statue set into the very wall itself. As the light played across it, Roka recognised it as the bare skull of a very large dragon. With a dim sense of realisation, the dog quickly understood that it was not a statue, but the bones of a living creature, encased forever in the wall. But this did not hold the cleric's sight long as he stepped into the enormous chamber and caught sight of the source of the chamber's green light.
In the very middle of the floor was a pit. Hesitantly, the group approached it. The flagstones around the rim of the hole were all crafted of skulls. Gunnar stopped by one, and peered down. The light that filled the chamber, and had lit the way down the stairway, all emanated from the pit. Looking down, the emptiness beyond seemed infinite, a vast swirling maelstrom. Sickly green light crept from the hole, sluggishly, as if straining to find its way out. Beyond, somewhere deep and further below, a vortex seemed to swirl, churning around and around like an infinite nothingness. Roka found himself wanting to look away from the hole, from the never-ending infinity that descended before him. He closed his eyes and stepped back. "What the hell is that?" he muttered.
Gunnar nodded. "That's the heart of Valeron. The very middle of the planet itself is down there."
Roka nodded, "I thought we'd walked a long way."
The buffalo stood by the rim, staring down.
Stepping close, Exra said "Be careful."
The buffalo didn't reply. Instead, he merely pointed. "He's down there. Right there, see? Right in the middle."
Standing beside the buffalo, Biggie unslung his bow. "CANT HIT HIM FROM THIS FAR" commented the golem.
The buffalo shook his head, "No."
Roka peered. Below, far below, he was sure that he could see a small, dark speck in the heart of the vortex.
"So what, we have to go down there?" asked Sycorax, "Into that thing?"
"We wouldn't survive" explained Gunnar. "Abbadon will sense our presence and come to us."
Roka blinked. He squinted his eyes. For a moment, it had seemed that the black speck had moved. And, he could have sworn, had growth larger as well.
Spinning a dagger in an almost bored fashion, Aria asked "So when does he do that?"
As the dog watched, the dark speck that he h had found grew larger still. That was when he realised just what he was looking at. He turned to Aria. "How about right now?" he asked. "Everyone get back!"
The party scrambled, moving as fast as they could. Exra leapt away from the pit, with Biggie in fast pursuit. Sycorax, who had hung near the back, staggered away a few steps further. Gunnar tore across the chamber at full speed, Roka quick behind him. Just as they made it away from the rim of the pit, the thing emerged, tearing through the air at a phenomenal speed. Glancing behind him, Roka barely caught sight of a single black shadow burst free from the hole with all the velocity of a bat out of hell. Then, immediately after it broke from the pull of the pit, the dark shape stopped and seemed to suspend there, hanging in the air before then.
One by one, the party turned. Floating before them, surrounded by a nimbus of dark fire, hung a figure almost twice the size of a mortal man. He was dressed almost entirely in black, his armour thick and strong, and his chestplate firm but cracked. The metal of his armour appeared corroded, thin veins of blistering fire seeping from the ebony like a network of red across the night sky. Behind the figure flapped the tattered ruin of a red cloak, torn and battered by the hellish winds. The man held in his paw a single staff, its branches curled and mottled like a barren winter tree that has all but cracked and broken under the strain of winters cold. But the thing that drew the attention of the party was the man's face, for it was naught more than a scarred, bleached skull.
Roka felt his paw moving toward his stave. He noticed that Gunnar was also clutching his weapon tight. Quietly, he whispered to the buffalo, "Is that...?"
In reply, the buffalo only nodded.
Without a hint of fear in her face, Aria drew her blade and stepped forward. "Let's do this, then."
Gunnar turned to her, mouth agape. "What? You want to fight him?"
"What were you expecting to do?" asked the assassin. "Ask for his autograph?"
The buffalo pointed, "That's Abbadon the Scourge!" he exclaimed. "The man who drank the soul of the six lost gods! Do you see that skull helmet he's wearing?"
"I thought that was his face" said Sycorax.
Gunnar shook his head. "That's the head of Helfast the Chosen, the man who was born to redeem the world and conquer all evil. Abbadon tore his head from his shoulders in the battle of the desecration and wears it as a helmet! Are you suggesting that we go up to him and just, what, start a fistfight?"
Aria shrugged. "He's just a boss" she said.
"He's THE boss!" started Gunnar, emphatically. "The biggest, most powerful one in the world."
"Still just a boss" said Aria. "They wouldn't have put him in the game if he weren't possible to kill."
Exra leaned closer, "So what do you suggest?" she asked. "Nobody has beaten him yet, there's no strategies for this fight anywhere on the internet. We're the first to get this far."
Aria flexed her neck from side to side. "At the end of the day," she said, "he's just the same as any other boss. Just a big, pretty piñata. All we have to do is hit it until treasure comes out."
Sycorax looked at her. "I like how you think" said the warlock.
"But we need some kind of strategy!" reiterated Gunnar.
Roka looked over. The dog had barely been able to pry his eyes from the figure, but now he looked his way towards the rest of his group. "We will never know until we try" he said. "Are we still saved to this dungeon?"
"Then the only strategies are the ones that we make ourselves" said the dog. "The only way to win is to throw ourselves into this and keep fighting until we win."
Exra cheered, "Sounds good to me."
"WE GONNA DIE" said Biggie.
Sycorax nodded, "But at least we'll be ready for the next time."
"And we're gonna keep trying" said Gunnar, confidently, "because Loser's never give up."
"Let's do this" said Aria, shifting into a battle stance.
Roka turned, and together the guild rushed onward, charging into the waiting jaws of Abbadon the Scourge. The floating figure raised his hands and a searing light filled the chamber, and the world turned white.
* * *
Roka picked himself up. His eyes felt muggy. He looked around, recognising the blue haze that seemed to permeate the world.
Beside the dog, Gunnar sat up. "How long did we last?"
"Twelve seconds" said Exra, hopping over.
"Not bad" the buffalo replied. "What do we have?"
"He opens with a spell, I think it was called Lightning Fork" said Sycorax.
Exra nodded, "We'll try again and see if we can pin down how that spell works. Then we can work out how to get around it."
Aria was already pacing, small wisps of smoke trailing from where the spell had struck her. "I think" she said "that the lightning jumped from Gunnar to the rest of us and back."
"AN GOT STRONGER EACH TIME IT JUMP" replied Biggie, rubbing his sore head.
Gunnar started to clamber to his feet. "So of we all spread out a bit..." he said.
Roka started to dust off his robe. "Great!" he said. He felt great. Dead, but fantastic. He looked around at his friends, and felt genuine optimism. This was achievable, he thought. Somewhere deep inside, he felt as if he were on top of the world. They could die a hundred times, at each step of the fight, but as long as they were together -as long as they were a guild - the feeling wouldn't die.
"Hey, Buddha Fox?" asked the dog, turning to address the short fat critter sitting beside him.
"You appear to be dead" said Buddha Fox. "Would you like a hand with that?"
The dog grinned. "You bet your ass!"