"Who... are you?" Athena asked, trying to stay under control.
"I am the only one who knows the truth. I am the only one with wisdom. I am Ashnard." His voice dripped with contempt. Athena had dealt with haughty lords before, but this Vail was different. He looked at those around him like they were dogs, held himself like he was the only intelligent being for miles. She could feel nothing but hate.
"Fools. You question what you don't understand. Your ignorance is pathetic. As is the world's."
"What are you even talking about, you scum?" she barked back. "If you're the one behind these twisted... freaks," she gestured at the lifeless assassins "we know all we need to about you."
"Don't presume that you can judge me by your weak morals. You are like children who need to be taught. And that is what I have done." Ashnard's gaze shifted to the Vail still under Athena's foot. "Look at him. He does not fear you. He fears nothing! He laughs in the face of your rage, your self-righteous fury. Because I have broken his mind and rebuilt it in the correct way."
Athena looked down. The Vail still had not stopped laughing. His voice rasped from exhaustion, his breaths were short, but still he laughed, the infernal grin never leaving his face. He was insane.
"What did you do?" Athena's voice was low and barely audible, but still had power behind it.
"I showed him how meaningless life truly is. The best way to do that is with its removal. People's minds are trapped. They are held down by the lives around them, lives they think they care about. I ended those lives. Oh, he wanted revenge at first. They all do. It's their foolish reaction to the death of their families. He came to me, wishing for my death. But I made him see that revenge would bring him nothing. Removing me from life would not bring back his wife, his children. The end is death, and it is final. Once he saw the light, I opened his mind. I gave him the ability to bring death to all others without remorse, to give up all the ridiculous pretenses you people cling to. Now he cares not for his own life or anyone else's. Finally he is free."
The assassin's twitching laughter slowed. His barks became choked. He wheezed and hacked, then breathed his last. Athena withdrew her boot in horror.
"You... you're a monster! You sick, demented freak! You haven't set anyone free! You've simply enslaved him to madness!"
"Insolent wench!" Athena flew backwards, struck by some unseen force. She scrambled to get back up, but was flattened against the dirt. "Idiot! You still cling to your naive morality! You do not understand the power I have uncovered, but you will!"
A javelin flew at Ashnard's skull. It shattered in mid-air. A guardian charged with his mace. His frame crashed to the ground, skin burning away to show the whiteness of his bones. Two assassins appeared at Ashnard's sides, claws poised to shred. They clutched at their throats, struggling for air that would not come.
"Yes, come at me! Rush to your death! You only feed my power! You cannot kill me. I have become death!"
Ashnard threw back his head and laughed. He laughed with not only his own voice. A thousand voices boomed out their joyless mirth. Athena's group of Nordein and Vail shivered in terror at the laughter of the slain.
* * *
Trogdor's eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he took in his surroundings. A strange greenish haze illuminated the long stone pathways. There was a constant sound in the background, one that didn't sound like anything in particular. It was just... sound.
Trogdor almost jumped when he felt Volke's hand on his shoulder.
"Don't get lost in it lad. This place isn't normal. Try to remember where you are. And who you are, for that matter."
Volke lifted his hand and strode forward. The front ranks of fighters were entering the first passageway already, led by Ike. Shinon's archers followed close behind, their sharp eyes scanning the darkness. Volke, Lily, and Trogdor made up the rear guard.
Several minutes went by as the company traversed the corridors, turning corners and trudging up inclines. Shinon stopped suddenly and raised a hand. "Ike! Stop your men."
Ike's fighters halted, wondering why but remaining alert. Shinon pointed forward into the murky haze. "Listen. Do you hear anything?"
Every ear strained to pierce the strange aura that hung around the ancient walls. Trogdor listened for the echoes of whatever Shinon was hearing. Yes, there was something... thumps? A clang or two... and... voices?
"It is the sound of battle!" Shinon and Ike spurred their men into action. The company charged down the halls, brandishing their weapons and preparing for anything. They rounded a bend and saw the source of the growing cacophony.
"I thought you said the Fury forces couldn't get in here!" Trogdor yelled to Volke.
"Not from our entrance, no. But perhaps there are others!" he replied. His face revealed he was as shocked as Trogdor.
Nordein and Vail forces formed a tight circle, defending themselves from their besiegers. As many as stood lay dead or dying. Surrounding the struggling Fury soldiers were hundreds of giant spiders and scorpions. The foul creatures dripped with venom; their poison elicited screams of agony as they injected it into defeated warriors.
Shinon and his archers drew their bows, preparing a volley. "Volke, Trogdor. What would you have us do? The enemy lies before us."
Some of the Fury soldiers spied the assembled Alliance force. They cried out: "Warriors of the Light! Please, we beg you, spare us! We gave up our fight with you long ago, we only wish to survive these beasts!"
"Your orders?" Shinon spoke again, gaze traveling down his arrow shaft to the frame of a Vail.
"Please! We beg y--" the voice was cut off and replaced with a scream.
Trogdor and Volke exchanged a glance. They said nothing, but communicated nonetheless. They nodded in silent agreement. With one voice, they said...
"We help them!"