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529 The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

    About a mile and a half from the cave entrance, was Daniel.

    He had been following the traces left by the retreating group of monstrous warriors for several minutes now, and yet, he had only been able to cover about half a mile of the way. To cause this delay were the various animals he encountered, which, contrary to how they had reacted to the marching group of the monstrous warriors Daniel was following, saw him as a prey they would not hesitate to attack.

    Even more problematic, were the several patrols that Daniel had encountered while following the trail, which he had no choice but to avoid by leaving the trail to hide in the shade of the standing stones. At first Daniel had thought that these small parties were simply hunting for prey, so he would avoid confrontation by keeping to the shadows, and waiting for them to walk past him.. but as soon as these patrols would disappear behind the stones he had left behind, he would inevitably hear the familiar sounds of battle.

    The urgency Daniel was feeling prevented him from taking the time to check who or what these monsters could be fighting against.. But even if he wasn't sure, he could still make an educated guess. In his mind no one but the painted warrior would have the skills to keep up with him, and even fight against several groups of warriors without rest, and the reason why he had thought of him and not of another person, was because of what he had seen in the man's hideout.

    The remains that Daniel had found in the second tower were proof that the painted warrior hated these monstrous beings with a passion, and since a large group of them had taken the time to follow him all the way to his hideout, it was clear that the sentiment was mutual.

    Unfortunately, while Daniel would have liked to verify this theory either by checking the injuries of the members of the patrol, time was of the essence, so he kept following the trail which, after another half mile, turned from one of footprints, into one of blood. "It's still humid.." thought Daniel after pinching a lump of reddish sand. Then, after making sure that there were no bodies in his immediate surroundings, he hastened his pace.

    -----

    After around ten minutes spent dashing through standing rocks and underground tunnels, Daniel finally found himself in front of a cave entrance, which was guarded by no less than a dozen monstrous warriors.. All armed to the teeth and ready to storm anyone who would dare approach. Behind these guards was a small entrance, inside which the trail of blood left by one of his companions continued into the darkness.

    Daniel was not too confident about challenging such a large number of warriors, so he began to wonder whether allowing himself to be captured earlier on by the party he had fought in the tower, would have been wiser. Unfortunately, the lack of a leader made him doubt that, if he did come out of hiding, these guards would calmly take him in and not kill him on the spot.. so he chose a different approach. He climbed onto the connected rocks that covered the entrance of the cave, and while making sure not to project his shadow anywhere these monsters could see it, he tried to find a second entrance.

    While moving as quietly as possible, and staying low, Daniel kept looking for a hidden entrance, but with no success. It was only when the sky began to darken, two hours later, that Daniel saw a red light shine through the crevice that separated two large rocks. Through it, he could see shadows walk back and forth, and hear grunts alternated with the noises of chomping through flesh and bone in a barbaric manner. The smell that came from this crevice was one of death and decay, one which Daniel had gotten used to a long time ago.

    Seeing how this passage was sealed off with relatively small and pickable rocks, Daniel could guess that this was once a natural entrance connected with the rest of the underground tunnels, and that had now been blocked off. A path that hopefully, he could open once again.

    With a good enough entrance, Daniel began to pick these rocks, and place them where they wouldn't roll down the side of the cave. One at a time, he lifted, moved, and put down, risking more than once to have the newly formed pile of rock fall from the side of the cave like the loudest avalanche ever, but after a few minutes, he was able to create a passage big enough for him to go through.

    The smell that came from the other side of this hole was strong enough to make Daniel's eyes tear up, and made him reconsider trying his luck with the monsters left to guard the entrance.. But not for long. It was the very source of this smell that convinced him of the danger his companions were currently in, so after mustering enough courage, Daniel focused on breathing through his mouth, and crawled through the entrance he had just created legs first, landing a few moments later into a dark room, and onto an irregular and equally soft and solid surface.

    The way the ground moved under his feet sent a shiver down Daniel's spine, making him wish that he could simply dash at full speed out of this room, and into the corridor from which the reddish light came from. But, alas, keeping what he was stepping on outside his mind was something beyond his capabilities, as the moment he moved away from the hole he had crawled out of, what remained of the daylight shone through it, and illuminated the area around him.

    What appeared underneath him could only be described as a nightmare. Human bodies at different stages of decay melted together into a puddle of semi-liquid substances, which reached from one end of the room to the other, covering the ground almost completely. Bones sticking out from ripped flesh, and poking out like dozens of little spears pointed at the ceiling.. With maggots festering on what hadn't been eaten.

    This sight, paired with the feeling of his feet slowly caving into what remained of the rib cage of a recently killed woman, made him want to puke.. It was only thanks to the effects of 'Time is Precious' that Daniel was able to stop his senses of touch, smell, and even taste, from affecting his mortal mind, and allow him to take the necessary steps to find himself at the edge of this mound of corpses.

    Once on relatively clean yet solid ground, Daniel turned to look at the piles of corpses, and noticed a few odd details.

    On the little bit of skin left intact on the most recent of these corpses, Daniel could see stripes of white paint over a dark brown skin.. A clue that led him to believe that these people were connected to the white painted warrior, and that they were most likely the reason why he hated these monsters so much.

    What was even more odd, however, was the fact that some of these bodies were deformed, with teeth slightly longer than those of a normal human, arms burlier and longer than the other, and for those who still had them, beady eyes that resembled those of a fish.. Details that connected these corpses to the monsters he had seen, as much as they did to the painted warrior.

    Daniel's first guess was that the monsters had kidnapped these people like they had kidnapped his companions, and forced them to undergo a transformation that would turn them into their own. However, what did not match with this theory, was the fact that some of those bodies appeared to have been there for several months, if not years, while others were only there for a few days.

    If these monsters were truly turning this world's inhabitants into their own until only a few days ago, why did the stone forest show decades of abandonment? Daniel couldn't help but feel that something was wrong, but the only way to find out what, was to move forward.

    When he turned towards the corridor that led outside of this hellish room and deeper into the cave, however, Daniel noticed a shadow appear on the illuminated stone wall, as well as heard the sound of steps moving in his direction. He instinctively moved to the side, and hid behind the wall by the right of the corridor.. His hand wrapped around the hilt of the sword, ready to strike whoever, or whatever came into the room.

    For a few moments he stood in silence, listening to the nearing heavy steps of one of the monsters, which instead of fully stepping into the room, remained at the end of the corridor, and after a few final crunching sounds, chucked what appeared like the half chewed head of a dark-skinned woman right onto the pile of corpses.

    Hopeful that he could maintain his presence secret, Daniel remained quiet, hoping to hear the monster leave from the way he had come from, but, alas, luck was not his side. The large silhouette of a muscular and tall man had appeared right behind the hole Daniel had created to enter the room, appearing in full view of whatever was standing in the corridor.

    The monster, clearly alerted by the shadow, moved further into the room to try and get a better look at it, but before it could realize what had happened, or even call for reinforcements, a blade slid past his chin, through his palate, and ended into his brain, causing it to completely to fall on the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

    When Daniel turned to look angrily at the silhouette, he realized that it was already gone. "Damn you.." he muttered, annoyed by the painted warrior's evasive behavior that had already put him in danger twice.

    Alone once again, Daniel dragged the corpse in a dark corner of the room, then walked into the corridor, which led him into a labyrinth of tunnels and passages.

    After about ten minutes spent in hope to avoid monsters, Daniel came to the realization that the luck boost of his system was probably not working, as he had been spotted several times, only escaping thanks to his abilities in assassination and hiding.

    The labyrinth was built in a circle, and despite which path Daniel took, every corridor either led him towards the exit of the cave, or deeper towards the core.. The further in he would go, the more monsters would appear, and the more danger he would be in, but he kept going regardless, fearless and motivated, until finally, the path he was following opened into a massive cave with a one mile-long diameter, a smooth and round ceiling, and an island in the middle of the lair that emerged from a lava lake.

    This island was several hundred meters wide, and was connected to the circular stone platform by several bridges from which hung hundreds of corpses, and chains that held cages filled with living humans just above the surface of the lava lake.. enough for them to feel the oppressive heath, and slowly cook from the inside.

    The walls of the cave were covered in corpses, either crucified or hanged, and on the stone platforms from which one could access the island from the bridges, thousands of monsters formed circles in the middle of which, animals, humans, or even monsters themselves were slaughtered, eaten alive, or tortured to death.

    Contrary to the chaos that ensued on the edges of the underground lair, the top of the island was very pacific.

    On it, thousands of people bowed, and prayed religiously to the giant dark red orb that floated right in the middle of the island as if their lives depended on it. Not a single monster, except for the shaman, dared to step foot on the island.. Showing that it was a sacred ground reserved for the prayers of the vast group of kidnapped humans, among which Daniel could see his five companions.

    Despite the astounding amount of chaos that ensued in this dwelling, Daniel's eyes had never moved away from the dark orb, towards which he felt a sense of familiarity that reminded him of his encounter with the other children of Iewah, as well as the aspects of existence. However, the feeling that this orb gave out was more innocent and pure, almost as it had never been touched by the world.. Or as if the entity was just being born.
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