"According to the map that was stolen from Merdock's library, we walk north of here to the base of mount Morgant, and then we climb three thousand feet to a small cave where the closest tunnel entrance is located east of the main entrance" Elera informed the others, while interpreting the map.
"Three thousand feet" Haylie exclaimed, "you didn't mention anything about a mammoth climb earlier"
"Not really, the first village in the Kruezeck Mountains we climbed was just under four thousand feet and the second was one thousand and fifty feet Hay" Ringmore reminded her.
"Oh yeah!" she sighed, realising that there was no way out of this now.
"Well let's get a move on before there's no one left to be a distraction" Adiana said sarcastically, but with a serious undertone in her voice.
As they approached the boarder, partially hidden by the thick grey fog, the fog began to turn to smog, rancid fumes began to rise from the ground and cries from unknown beasts reverberated through the emptiness. The sky above which had been clear and blue, was now dark like a disturbed muddy puddle, large black shadows circled over head, occasionally changing their paths to avoid enormous flaming boulders being flung from the castles defences down onto the masses below on the battle field. It didn't take them very long to reach the foot of Mount Morgan but then began the long, hard, gruelling ascent to the cave three hundred feet above their heads. They had left their supplies, cloaks and anything that might make them tire more easily, with the horses in Sherome, then they began to climb. It was tough to begin with, but once Haylie and the others had got themselves into a rhythm, they were well on their way. They stopped after a long stretch of climbing, on a thin ledge, just large enough for the five of them to sit with their legs dangling over the edge. They were out of breath but not downhearted.
"Well that... wasn't too bad!" Haylie joked dryly, her mouth starved of liquid.
"How much further from here Elera?" Aden asked slightly out of puff.
"Not far now; I'd say the cave is just above that ridge, that one sticking out up there." They all craned their necks to see where Elera was pointing, but Adiana, who had been at the back of the group, leaned too far and the seemingly solid rock beneath her began to crumble and gave way. She slipped from the tiny ledge and waved her arms around frantically trying to find something to grab onto, her searching hands found Ringmore's outstretched palm and she grasped it tightly as he hauled her up on to the ledge.
"Are you alright Adiana?" He asked, worried that she may not be able to continue.
"I'm fine, just a bit flustered is all" she reassured him.
They waited until Adiana had found her bearings and composed herself, then allowed her to take the lead for the final push up to the tunnel entrance. It had grown darker and more humid as they moved closer to the summit and they could smell the sulphur from the volcano below, like a groaning giant lost in sleep.
"Good thing this heap of rock is dormant ay!" Aden remarked, still slightly concerned at the fact that they were scaling the side of a volcano.
"Yeah then we'd be in real trouble" Elera replied sarcastically.
"Look I can see the cave," Haylie pointed to a dark hole in the side of the great monster they were climbing, "let's just hope we can enter undetected."
"Yes but where would be the fun in that!?" Aden said as he passed Haylie and moved to join his sister at the cave mouth.
"The cave was probably formed by an old lava output, where excess lava flows if the pressure inside the volcano builds too high." Elera explained, suddenly spotting some old torch stubs strewn around the mouth of the cave, " here," she handed out the stubs, lighting them with her magic, so as to light their way into the depths of the volcano. The cave was low and bone dry; unlike the one that had started Haylie's journey, the cave mouth was only a metre wide and only slightly bigger height wise, causing them to stoop down and squeeze in single file. They pushed and pulled themselves through the small cave until it gradually widened up into a curved corridor with plenty of head room for even the tallest of them, rocks and steel struts littered the floor around the join between the naturally hewn rock and the roughly cut walls of the tunnel.
"Merdock must have half heartedly tried to fill in the mouth of the tunnel" Elera stated
"Wonder why they stopped?" Ringmore asked making his way along the first stretch of the tunnel before them, his torch only illuminating a few feet in front of him. Every now and then they would come to a steep set of stairs; reminding them they were still climbing to the summit, after what seemed like a lifetime of wandering in the dark, steamy tunnels, the ground suddenly sloped steeply upwards and they had to crawl on all fours to reach the final stretch of tunnel.
"Well this isn't awkward and uncomfortable at all is it" Aden grunted breathlessly, crawling behind Ringmore, his boot in Aden's face.
"We're nearly there I can see a light ahead" Ringmore informed them, now almost at the end of the tunnel. Finally they reached the source of the light, a narrow shaft in the roof of the tunnel, rusted Iron ladder rungs screwed into the rock, and a heavy looking steel grate barring the way up. They sat and waited in the limited light of the remaining torches, while Elera tried to remove the grate with magic but after much shouting and mumbled words, she ran out of spells that could do the job and gave up. Haylie asked Elera if she could look at the map to see if there was any clue to be found there.
"Well I guess we know why they didn't bother blocking up the other end, you can't get in or out at this end" Ringmore remarked.
"Maybe you can, look," she pointed at a scribble on the back of the map, "it's the same shape as the grate, like a noughts and crosses board"
"A what?" Aden asked
"Never mind," Haylie giggled "look, the bars are numbered one to four, and maybe we just have to remove them all in the correct order."
"But the person who drew it could have been facing any direction when they sketched this" Elera reminded her
"Oh they must have left some kind of clue" she gazed up at their obstacle and scanned each of the solid metal bars. "Wait, look they all have markings on them, Elera can you make anything of them?" Elera moved closer to the grate and gazed up to where Haylie was pointing at each of the four bars.
"They're numbers, written in Sheromian, Aden can you translate these for us?"
"Of coarse I can" he replied enthusiastically, "anything that might move us out of this sweltering pit"
"Elera, Aden, use the numbers as a guide, use your magic on them one at a time one at a time, but quietly"
"Ok here we go" Aden translated the first symbol and directed Elera to the first bar, she aimed at it and fired a short blast of flaming lightening its way. It didn't seem to have done the job, but then, like a miracle the bar slid into the wall, out of sight. There was a quiet cheer around the group huddled in the dark as, together, Aden and Elera cleared the way for them to enter the castle.
They pushed and hauled each other through the grateless hole and emerged into a very dimly lit dungeon, no lighter than the tunnels they had been trudging through. The bars on the cells were gnarled and sharp, the black stone pillars were scorching to the touch and the gargoyles dotted around the corners of the oddly shaped room really seemed to glare at them as they passed the cells. Withered hands reached out through the bars grabbing at them as they walked on. Each cell was full of scared and exhausted faces, faces that had lost or never known the beauty of hope. Adiana and Aden ran to the other end of the room to a particularly dim and dingy cell, they knelt down on the ground and reached out to the skeleton-like figures before them.
"Mama, Papa?" Adiana whispered
"Adiana, Aden, my children" exclaimed a dry voice from the dark, "Haves look it's our darlings" the woman stressed to her equally frail husband.
"It's our parents, come help us get them out" Aden called to the others. But they did nothing, "what are you waiting for we need to help them?"
"We can't get them out" said Elera
"But we must, they are our parents" Adiana stressed
"We must complete our mission, then we can help all of these people together" Ringmore reminded them
"If we fail to kill Merdock what happens to them then, think about that, we have to stop him first" said Haylie
"You're right, we can't help our parents without taking the rest with us too, and we can't do that until that monster is but a stain on the floor" They agreed this was for the best and hurried quickly to the end of the dungeon.
They left the dark of the dungeon; Aden and Adiana promising their parents that they would help them out. They entered the dark and dingy castle and for a while they didn't see anyone until all of a sudden they heard footsteps ahead of them; quickly they dashed through a dark oak door hoping no one would be on the other side. Madelia strutted down the corridor a sense of urgency in every stride, kicking her pearl and crimson dress in front of her as she strode along the corridor.
"I say we follow her and hope she leads up to trouble" suggested Ringmore
"Why trouble?" Haylie asked slightly concerned
"Because that's what we're going to get when we find Merdock anyway, so we may as well try and find it before it finds us, because if that happens, we will have to work our way out of a whole different situation" he answered.
"Not sure I understood all of that but it sounded dangerous! Let's go" Haylie whispered.
Keeping to the shadows and hiding behind suits of armour and statues, they tailed Madelia through the maze of corridors until she stopped in front of two enormous black doors with a huge metal shield crossing over the pair of them, Merdock's crest of a blazing eagle and a torn piece of parchment embossed onto the thick black metal. The doors swung open without a touch and Madelia entered the throne room. The rebels were alone in the wide expanse of corridor and the humidity was affecting their train of thought.
"The way I see it we have two options," stated Aden, "charge in kill the first few guards who come our way and be killed by Merdock and Madelia's dark power, or we scope out how many are inside and somehow sneak in unseen."
"Well I know which option we're not going for!" Haylie said sarcastically.
"Ok so how do we find out what's in there waiting for us?" asked Adiana
"We use these," Elera pulled from her pocket what looked like five boiled sweets but they didn't smell too appetising, "how does an option three sound? We use the darkness of the castle to our advantage, sneak in and then we have the element of surprise on our side"
"Ok but what are those" Ringmore indicated to the orange-red, penny sized objects Elera was holding
"Vermarlion, they will make you invisible for up to five minutes, which should give us enough time to get in and place ourselves in a strategic position" she handed them one each and together they slipped them under their tongues. Haylie giggled as hers disintegrated and they disappeared.