Exan and company were traveling to the Spring of Rejuvenation. According to fellow adventurers, the Spring bore the ability to restore men and women to the prime of their lives, when their strength, vigor, and confidence was high and they felt most immortal in lieu of their humanity. Exan and his friends lost a battle to the Warlords of Wipson, where they were cast under a spell of accelerated aging. He, along with Iyra, Bergg, and Caas were forced to flee because their now sixty-five year old muscles and minds couldn’t support the speeds of wartime fighting.
In order to get there, they needed to pass through the Dungeon of Agony, a seemingly endless labyrinth of caged souls eternally trying to squeeze through the world of the dead back into living beings. It is said that their cries carry so much anguish that their sadness preys on every adventurers’ greatest fears and weaknesses. The pain grows so heavy that many kill themselves or literally fall into the reaching grip of those that died, only to join them in wailing death. The problems were that only a small handful of travelers around the globe actually survived the journey through the Dungeon into the Spring and those that did were viewed as cynical and crazy. Thus, the Spring of Rejuvenation was only a myth, a distant afterthought in the minds of the curious. Exan and his friends vowed to either regain their best abilities and reclaim their enslaved armies or to finish what the Warlords started.
There were only a few clouds in the sky and the autumn breeze cooled the company beneath what little armor they could wear. They set out as soon as they escaped from battle in the open plains due east of Lansur’s Keep, their former stronghold. After two hours of travel southeast, they nearly arrived at the Dungeon of Agony. All that remained was to cross the forest surrounding it.
“Where exactly is this place?” Bergg asked.
Exan stopped the group in front of the tree line at the forest entrance. “I don’t think anyone knows,” he said. “Travelers have reported hearing despondent voices in their heads while traveling through this forest. Maybe they’ve been the closest without actually going in or actively looking for it.”
Exan didn’t hesitate jumping into the forest. Time was essential to the survival of the armies in Lansur, so the others followed behind him. The dense trees mostly covered the bright sky above, so the forest had an eerie gloom to it. One or two birds rustled between the branches high above, adding to the effect of spook.
As the company traversed the depths of the forest, Caas would occasionally swing around his backside thinking he heard something dangerous in the near distance. And why shouldn’t he? They were heading off to risk their shortened lives to get revenge on the Warlords for the spell they cast. They were cheaters. They couldn’t rely on their own strength to find victory. Only magic.
But now they were the ones defeated. They had to run away to survive. They were just as cowardly as the Warlords.
“I think we’re near,” Caas said. “I’m hearing strange thoughts in my head.”
Exan stopped. “Imagine the expression on most travelers’ faces when they die from their own mental nightmare.”
The company came to a clearing in the forest. The towers at the top of the Dungeon of Agony were in sight just over the trees there. Exan moved forward cautiously and stopped in front of the dungeon’s entrance. A zigzagging staircase, some two or three hundred steps in length, led to a gaping black doorway.
“Don’t believe anything you hear in there,” Iyra said. She stepped forward and began walking up the stairs in twos. Her company, weary from the aches of age and the tires of travel, ignored the exhaustion and followed her. The large number of steps didn’t make the journey any easier on them, but they were at the top sooner than they anticipated.
“I just realized something,” Bergg said standing before the labyrinth’s foyer, a dark corridor lit by one torch on each wall. “If we do find the Spring of Rejuvenation, that means we’ll have to travel back through these depths in order to return home. That means more scary voices in our heads.”
“Yes,” Exan agreed, “but we’ll also have half our lives back, so overcoming them a second time should be easier with strength of mind.”
No one heard anything in the dungeon’s corridor. The main path broke off on both sides into many rooms and chambers, but the company maintained the direct path without diverging into new and unknown dangers. The dungeon was quiet. After half an hour of walking, the main path came to an ornately carved closed doorway. A single frieze was carved into the post and lintels, depicting kings in bejeweled thrones, knights standing victoriously in empty battlefields, and civilian workers helping each other along bustling markets. The company looked to each other in confusion, but Exan placed his hand upon the golden doorknob and turned.
Like rolling thunder, the cries of the dead spilled beyond the door into the labyrinth’s main corridor. Everyone covered their ears and fell to their knees and the door opened up the rest of the way on its own. The dead were waiting in cages on both sides of the hallway on the other side. Many hands and skeleton bones, covered in deathly brown cloths, reached out of the cages toward all of the companions. Each face of the dead didn’t have eyes. Their mouths dropped down to their chests and bellowed with revenge for the living.
“Maybe the fool before us should have left the door open as warning,” Caas shouted. “Even the quiet creeped me out.”
The hall of death stretched so far they could only see a tiny square of darkness on the other side. Iyra grabbed one of the torches along the wall and got in front of everyone. “The longer we’re here,” she said, “the worse this will get. Let’s move.” She strutted forward into the deafening wails.
The others didn’t want to abandon her, so they rushed out of the doorway. As soon as they did, the flame of Iyra’s torch blew out, then vanished from her hand and reappeared behind the doorway. Bergg, closest to the door, turned around to retrieve it, but the door slammed itself shut. The glowing corpses around them lit the hall. He swallowed and turned back toward his friends, who immediately resumed their pace onward.
Caas couldn’t resist looking to both sides of the hall out of both fear one of the hands might actualy reach him and pull him into death and lingering curiosity for what might deliver him.
“Best not to look at them,” Exan said. “It could make things worse.”
Caas nodded quietly and wrapped his fingers around his sword for safety. Though he knew it wouldn’t do him any good, it gave him a glimmer of safety. He wanted to give himself comfort. He was shivering from the howls all around him.
“It’s hard to imagine that people actually die like this,” Exan said. “This place is ripe with emotions; yearning, lust, hate, lost loves. Every one of these souls lost something important to them in their lives. And because they only desire retribution, the gods banish them into this place.”
“And what better place than the citadel protecting a treasure to steal from death and evade the gods’ judgment?” Iyra inquired. “Not all of us lead happy lives. There exist those of us who fall prey to inner demons. Turmoil amongst the grace of the world. It seems some people just have a hard time seeing through the black.”
“So, these are people who have died of suicide, homicide, and broken hearts?” Bergg asked.
“The worst things you could imagine,” Iyra responded.
Caas wondered if things could have been worse than this. He considered his loneliness. What did he have in his life outside of the army? A place to live in solitude where he could write his books undisturbed. But that was it. His family abandoned him by dumping him in the military to aid his maturity. That was seven years ago and no one ever wrote him since. Any friends he had all left him for the things he had to say. He never knew the touch of a woman, not to mention how he was too afraid to say hello and approach one. Who or what did he have in his life? Only stories to fill the voids in his own life.
He was alone. He was always alone. Maybe he was just too afraid to admit it to himself. Sure, he knew people from the army, but that security was fleeting. He didn’t have anyone to open up to. To share his immense pain with. How could he survive if he didn’t have any support? Who would help heal him? Even worse, what woman would even bear this calamity of a man?
Caas scratched his gray beard and looked off toward the walls of the hallway again. A bright white light emanated from each wall. Behind the cages were kings, queens, and sterling silver knights. Many had welcoming wings that kept them afloat and they all had orange halos above their heads.
Caas stopped and looked up in amazement. The others saw the awe in his eyes and shouted his name. They shook his body to wake him from his visions, but he began to walk toward the divine beings. With newfound energy, he dodged his enemies grips and was pulled in by the hands of his new friends. Friends. That comforted him.
Caas’s body squeezed perfectly through the cage bars and he smiled up at his new family. Just before the end, his eyes came clear and he saw what was really happening around him. When is body was fully ensnared by the demons around him, he died. In his final breath he screamed louder than any of the monsters around him.
Iyra, Exan, and Bergg all ran down the hallway now and stayed as close to the center of the path as they could. Exan, in the front, held Iyra tightly in his left hand and Bergg just as tightly in his right. All of them each heard their own voices in their head, same as Caas, but he was unaware they were communicating to each other what had been happening to them.
So they ran and ran until the hallway turned toward the left, where even more of the dead waited around the bend. After a much shorter amount of time, a white door waited for them at the end of the hall and sunlight eked through the creasing of the doorway. All three of them used their collective momentum and jumped for the door in one motion. Surprisingly unchallenged, the company flew through the door easily and landed in the forest outside. The door slowly closed itself because of the weakness in its hinges, but never locked. A powerful stream of water flowed directly in front of them.
“Do we drink or do we swim?” Bergg asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Iyra responded desperately. “Just jump in and do both.”
The company struggled to their feet and ran for the spring. There was no current, so everyone dunked their bodies into the water and when they came up, they cupped their hands and drank until they felt uneasy inside. They remained afloat for a time, but nothing happened. Disappointed, they all returned to flat land and sat upon the ground. All around, the dungeon’s walls encapsulated the section of forest they were in.
“This can’t be right,” Exan said. “This has to be the Spring of Rejuvenation. We’re still trapped in this nefarious dungeon!” He jumped to his feet and held his fist in the air.
Just as he was about to curse the gods, Iyra stopped him. “Look at your hand,” she exclaimed.
The gray hairs on Exan’s knuckles returned to a dark brown color. Inside, he felt warm, like he just drank a fine liquer. Slowly, his hair grew back to its previous length and strength returned to his jaw bones. He suddenly felt like his voice could carry through the forest around the Dungeon of Agony. He turned to Iyra, whose red hair regained its long, cascaded flow and Bergg returned to his former six foot four inch stature. The company looked around.
“It doesn’t look like there’s any way out other than back in,” Bergg said.
Iyra emptied one of her canteens and filled it with spring water. Bergg and Exan looked at her astonished. “We’ll need this if we are going to fight the Warlords again.” Agreeing with her point, they emptied a canteen of their own and filled it with spring water.
“Let’s head back,” Exan said. “This should be easier with our youth restored, but let’s do the same as the way in and leave nothing to chance. This time, just run through.”
Exan turned back toward the Dungeon of Agony. Before he could open the door himself, it swung open. Caas was standing before him, a walking corpse with holes in his skin and glowing yellow eyes. Behind him stood an army of the dead, all released from their cages. They stood tall and organized and were strikingly silent.
“The waters of life belong to the dead,” Caas said in a hollow voice. He licked his purple lips. “Return your preserves or suffer us.”
With their youth, magic, and minds restored, Iyra unsheathed her lance, Bergg readied his staff, and Exan drew his blade from his baldric. The company was forced to decide between being cheated by death through the Warlords and cheating death themselves.