chapter I 
 “Andor's dream”

A stranger regains conciousness near the ruins of a mysterious tower in a desert. He doesn't remember who he is.
However the Stronghold of the Ancients where he finds refuge is full of imminent mortal danger.

      Darkness was looming. Unknown incomprehensible thunder rumbled in the distant sky. One by one, the stars were extinguished. The world was bathed in absolute silence. Gone was the hooting of the owls, the screeching of the bats, the howling of the wolves. 

Was this death? His body showed no signs of life. His heart ceased to beat. Darkness caught him in a ravenous gust and everything lost its shape. Light became ghostly and pale. He fell out of space and time. 

But it was not the end. Some time later, the shroud of darkness lifted and through the fog one could see the outline of a structure. At first it seemed to be not a building, but an enormous stone mountain, or the work of giants that lived here eons ago. It was something so ancient, that it was difficult to say what it was made of. The central tower fused with the rock and was propping up the sky. Its top was perfectly dome-shaped and glittered in different colors like a gemstone. On both sides of the Stronghold stood two half-ruined towers, much smaller in size than the central one. They looked slightly ominous – with a black metallic gleam and, despite the influence of time, with a perfectly smooth surface, unblemished by the slightest hint of windows or loopholes.

All around was lifeless wasteland. It was a dull land of low hills and windswept plains. In some places lay the bones of whale-like creatures resembling leviathans; the land of cruel gods, deaf to prayers.

He wanted to remember his name, who he was, but suddenly, strength left him again. Everything was once more shrouded in darkness and only the mysterious Tower continued to glow with a ghostly, otherworldly light. It has become a living creature, as if having its own mind and power. This power pressed on him as if he were sinking deeper and deeper underwater. Against his will, his gaze began to skim over the Stronghold, until he found a window. Nothing could be seen inside, only individual sounds and voices were heard from the depths of the building. The voices were decidedly female. From the whole conversation he managed to hear a couple of phrases:

“Yes, Mistress?”
“At the door to the Tower you will find a man. Make haste to bring him inside. I have plans for this one. And I need him alive.”

      Gradually their voices became quieter, as though they were moving farther and farther. The picture abruptly changed and before his eyes arose a boundless white field with thousands, nay, hundreds of thousands of sleepers like himself… Once, they were filled with consciousness and will, they made plans and were upset by trifles, and now they were just empty shells, creatures lodged between worlds. The fog stifled them, rendered them ethereal, leaving only a blurred silhouette instead of a human. None of them moved and all their eyes were gazing into infinity.

Above this scene towered an imposing structure. The ziggurat was like a red mountain – a massively indestructible building with many long flights of stairs, straight lines and sharply defined corners everywhere. At the top, on four carved pillars, stood a stone throne, a coarse, rough, sharp shape of black obsidian. Above it hung bloodied bones, resembling giant devil wings. In this world of shadows, they looked the most extant.

On that throne sat a woman. A woman of rare beauty, something was unearthly about her, she radiated an aura of hunger for unlimited power. Her black dress was adorned with a silver corset, shaped like a spider or human ribs. The hem of the dress was decorated with a multitude of shrunken human heads. 

And she was looking at him! Her icy gaze pierced him and there was no looking away from her eyes. That gaze burned like the most terrible terror, more terrible than anything in the world and he wanted to scream. Scream until he could scream no more, but the gaze paralyzed him completely, stripped him of all power to resist. Gradually, the horror began to dissipate until all that remained were her red eyes. The torture was over and he could see mountains, white snow-capped peaks and strands of rivers in dark forests.  

      His soul traversed the boundless space until with his inner sight he discerned a subtle movement in the gloom of the moonless night. A group of people walked along a trail – three warriors in black outlandish armor and a stocky long-haired man in a light chainmail shirt. Here and there lay giant boulders: black, razor-sharp protrusions, they towered over the chasm as though they were trying to look down. The sun rarely shines here, a piercing wind is near-constant and danger is everywhere.

They travelled the canyon along the edge of the precipice, at the bottom of which were balding pines or crooked fir trees, mutilated by the icy wind. In the past, the canyon bed was vibrant and green, but then came the cold and the dark and now only decrepit tree husks reminded of the old times. Nothing alive was left here – only darkness and chaos; black cliffs and wastelands, seemingly man-made."

Some time later, he saw red lights high up in the sky. They looked like someone’s eyes, burning in the night. 

Mihail Zablodski - The Chronicles of Andor

Soon, his attention was drawn to another sight – through the night fog an outline of a lone mountain emerged. At its foot there was movement, lights and a barely discernible giant shape that resembled a statue with the wings of an eagle, the body of an ox and the paws of a lion. From this mysterious ensemble, shrouded in smoke and gloom, resonated barely audible sounds. The shuffling of boots and the distant voices of the guards of the gigantic complex inside the mountain.

Mihail Zablodski - The Chronicles of Andor

What was this strange place? It was almost like a relic of the past – from the darkest depths of ancient myth and legends.

The four men entered the mountain. Through the darkness of the night, one could see tall, stout pillars, dark polished walls and long halls, here and there were bonfires and warriors around them. In some places lay the wreckage of once majestic statues, and the walls were covered with mysterious drawings – strange creatures with human bodies and spherical headgear, as well as triangles flying through the sky.

Once through the corridor, the travelers realized that they were at the mouth of a giant well that plunged deep into the mountain. The other side of it could be reached only by traversing a retractable bridge. In the event of an assault, this castle would probably be absolutely impregnable - anyone wishing to cross the well would simply fall into the black abyss.

       Besides endless corridors they came across holes and fissures that had to be jumped across. From the depths of the fissures came a barely audible sound of running water. The passage wound deeper and deeper, reaching the roots of the mountains.

The path swerved several times and then opened up into another gallery. It was much taller than all the previous ones. Apparently, it was here that all the inhabitants of the underground city gathered in their time. Along the hall, supporting a dome ceiling, stood six rows of mighty pillars. All of them were inscribed with mystic symbols and showed strange creatures – with faces of women and hair like snakes. The air here became noticeably warmer, it was harder to breathe and from the far end of the hall came a heavy acidic smell. The noise was getting ever louder. 

Mihail Zablodski - The Chronicles of Andor

At the end of the gallery, the travelers saw a tall door. There was steam coming from the cracks in it. Suddenly it burst open and beyond it, bathed in bright light, they saw a huge lake. Now it became clear where the pungent smell and strange sounds came from: a weird mechanism worked inside the lake with an unvarying relentless wheezing, like the breathing of a monster hidden in the dark.

The colossal dimensions of this room exceeded the wildest expectations. Despite the fact that it was deep under the mountain, its domed ceiling contained a hole with a view of the star-speckled sky. The dome itself was held up by giants all around the lake perimeter. A man was no bigger than a pinkie of such a giant. A waterfall emerged from one of the wall cracks. The water jetted from it at such a speed that it appeared to dissipate into fog before even reaching the ground. 

Mihail Zablodski - The Chronicles of Andor

Both sides of the lake were occupied by squads of soldiers dressed in dark armor worn out from constant battles. But these were not regular men and there was something extremely unsettling about them – they all had the same white faces and white hair, and they showed no trace of emotion. They resembled sinister wax figures. There was something in their cold blue eyes, something outside of this world. 

An already familiar female voice was suddenly heard: 
- Bring him!

From the inner gallery they brought the same stocky man, but already without his chain mail, absolutely naked. He was in a daze and felt nothing. The faceless warriors began to immerse the man into the lake.

Upon touching the water, he started to regain his senses. His body convulsed, he screamed and tried to struggle to shore, but it was too late. Soon he was completely submerged in the strange white liquid that filled the lake. Above his head the liquid first roiled, then bubbles formed, which filled the air with a sharp smell when they burst. The lake surface surged with small bluish charges.

    Then he froze. Involuntary movements began – his body began to tremble, his fingers moved and twitched on their own. His limbs became as cold and hard as marble.

After a while, the man resurfaced. 

A slight tremor ran through his body; the eyelids parted, showing whites; his lips split reluctantly and he emitted a sudden bloodcurdling scream. His face began to change noticeably – muscles convulsed, producing alternating grimaces of pain and horror. A minute later, his eyes slowly opened, they rolled back into his head and his face became so pale, as though he stole it from a dead man at a cemetery and wore it over his own. It became identical to that of the other warriors that surrounded him – white, cold, with lifeless blue eyes and white hair.

In his glassy eyes appeared a look that was directed inward. From his mouth came a voice, but it was like from another world. The warrior was no longer alive nor dead – he became a mankurt, a creature with no memory or will – an absolute slave of the Mistress.

- It’s your turn soon, Andor. 
- Andor, Andor, Andor – came a deafening clamor from the faceless warriors. Gradually their voices merged into a vague, distant howl. Then even the howl died down.

The night consumed all senses - he was engulfed by complete darkness and silence. His own Self didn't exist. There no longer was any matter, not even his consciousness - he completely merged with Infinity in an untimely stream.

He imagined that he was falling for years and years. Suddenly there was a voice. It sounded as if from very far away, from the depths of his subconscious. It was a female voice. So captivating and charming, that it stilled the heart. It tethered to itself. Pierced through with fiery heat. Everything else in the world became superfluous and worthless. Time stopped. Everything was merged – dream and reality, life and death, eternity and moment.

That voice called to him: 
- Andor, Andor, wake up. 
And at that moment, Andor began to rapidly fall. The ground rose up to meet him. He once again saw mountains, wild vast wastelands, the tower… his body. The dream dispersed, and Andor opened his eyes. 

chapter II
 “​The Prisoner of the Gozo Tower”

михаил заблодский хроники андора

Strange singing, the pleasant touch of women's fingers, flashes of light, waves of energy coursing through his body and bursting out in bolts of lightning - all of these blended into a swirling haze of images, akin to a nocturnal nightmare. Shadows circled around him. He felt both cold and hot at the same time, as if he were seeing himself from a distance and then returning to his own body. Dark silhouettes darted past him. Numerous human voices could be heard. Everyone was deeply frightened. The surrounding darkness swirled. Strange animal-like shadows flickered in the encompassing gloom.

Suddenly, someone screamed piercingly, "Heavenly chariot!" Lightning flashed. People's faces became pale and somehow two-dimensional. Something whistled high in the sky, transitioning into a deep bass roar. Amidst the swirling gloom, a crimson fire ignited. It descended lower, raising clouds of dust into the air. Suddenly, a beam of blinding white flame struck from above. There was a deafening explosion, and everything became dust-laden. Black figures scattered in all directions. Trees fell, the forest caught fire. People panicked and fled from the light into the endless swirling darkness...

Suddenly, the heat and numbness in his body subsided. Andor felt as if he were inside a glass sarcophagus. His eyes widened on their own. Had he been sleeping all this time? Or was it even a dream? A sharp sense of uncertainty made his head spin. Andor felt a sense of unease, or rather fear—where was he? What was this strange place? It bore no resemblance to ordinary human dwellings. It was obvious that he would soon be sacrificed... Despite his weakness, he raised himself and removed the lid of the sarcophagus. Immediately, he felt something pleasant, magical, invisibly hovering in the room. The space was permeated with aromas. But they weren't the scents of fruits, spices, or fragrant oils he remembered from childhood. It was the scent of perfume. He had never before experienced such scents and couldn't even fathom their existence in this coarse world. They evoked a feeling of boundless reverence and astonishment.

The room itself elicited the same astonishment. Upon surveying it, Andor concluded that he had never seen anything like it—everything was new, exotic, and otherworldly. Half-forgotten legends of gods who once lived on Earth immediately came to mind. Ruins of their structures could still be seen here and there—colossal complexes, statues of giants. No one had ever seen these gods; their legends turned into myths, and myths into tales that no one believed anymore. The room was rounded, with a very high ceiling, and somewhat resembled an egg or even a cocoon. The walls were made of black metal, adorned with a rhythmic pattern of grooves; numerous snake-like protrusions extended towards his sarcophagus. The entire space was illuminated by a strange flickering light, although there were no windows. The light emanated from countless tiny creatures that flew across the ceiling. It was a greenish, phosphorescent light. Sometimes these insect-like creatures descended right onto Andor's face. Taking one of them in his hand, he immediately realized that they were not insects at all, and perhaps not even creatures—with no wings, limbs, or heads, yet they somehow flew in a magical manner.

Under the walls, in certain places, transparent vessels stood, in which bubbled colorful liquids, and bluish discharges struck in all directions from the glowing spheres. Everything he saw created the impression of a temple. An ancient temple? Could the legends be lying? 'Why me? What have I done to deserve something like this?' he thought in fear.

Shocked by what he saw, Andor didn't know what to think. His hands and back became covered in goosebumps. Tremors ran through his body, and even his heart beat stronger. And in that moment, he thought, 'What is my name? And who am I?... I don't remember.'

'Your name is Andor,' a voice sounded like music. It remarkably combined wisdom, cheerfulness, and the sorrow of centuries. 'Who is here? Who is in the room?''A friend...' A woman with a light step approached Andor's bed. She resembled a dazzling vision - with an elegant figure, thick black hair, and extraordinarily fair skin. Her large blue eyes shone, lending her features a special tenderness. She seemed truly otherworldly. This impression was accentuated by an unusual headdress and multilayered, seemingly floating white garments. Andor was shaken. Was she a human or an angel? He couldn't immediately determine.

-'Who are you? Friend? Do you know me?''I am Nionel, the guardian of the Gozo Tower. How do you feel? Apparently, you are a true warrior if you survived that battle, considering you suffered severe injuries. The plain near the Tower is littered with the fallen. You are the only survivor.'Andor looked at his body in surprise and only saw faint traces on his side.'I think you are much better now. You could have died if I hadn't taken you in time. Or rather, if the flying arachsamon hadn't brought you.''What is an arachsamon? Gozo Tower... is it the stronghold of the Ancients?'It is also known as Amon Run. That's what my people called it. So, where are you from, Andor? What happened to you?''I... I don't remember who I am. I don't remember anything.''Wait. Perhaps this will help you remember.' Nionel handed him a sword in its sheath. Andor slowly extended his hand and gradually closed his fingers around the handle, as if getting accustomed to the weapon. He examined the intricate design on the sheath intently and swung the glimmering blade through the air a few times. And in that moment, something clicked in his mind.

Images from the past began to flash like sparks. Squadrons of riders galloping along trails lost amidst sharp rocks. Following them were the silhouettes of heavy iron ships on large rusty wheels. The rocks parted, revealing a wide valley covered with shimmering metallic structures of an otherworldly appearance. There was something resembling enormous flowers in them, their gleaming petals unfurled and gazing directly at the sun."

We traveled on ships. Then we found ourselves in a strange valley. There were huge metal flowers there... I initially felt uncomfortable in that place. The hot wind scorched the skin and howled wildly among the rocks. These places held an ancient secret, and who knew what guarded it. Thirsty and curious, we wandered among the peculiar structures, peering into every nook and cranny, opened a hatch, and saw transparent tubes inside the metal stems. I remember, Alcuin shouted then, "There's water! Water! We're saved!!" The thought crossed my mind, "The mechanisms are still working! As if someone is watching over them..."

"Before you say, 'What a good day it turned out to be,' wait for the night. You need to be careful here." I tried to stop them, but they were so exhausted from the heat and thirst that they didn't listen to me. They began banging on the transparent tubes with rusty swords and cleavers until they broke and streams of water flowed out."Take your hands off! Don't you see that this was not made by humans?! No one knows how this might end!" The warriors eagerly rushed towards this strange well. They started collecting water in pots and jugs, completely losing their vigilance.

"...Soon the sun began to dim, and a dusty storm began..."

It seemed to me that shadows were moving among the rocks, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of hungry, ruthless eyes burning with silver fire were looking at us. The air was filled with suffocating stench. Some dark creatures jumped out of the mist and grabbed the warriors one by one... and in an instant, something black flashed... A beast-like silhouette emerged from the dust clouds and pounced on me. I tried to fend it off with my sword, but the beast knocked me down, and we both fell into darkness...
Nionel: (thoughtfully)
"You disturbed the forbidden lands... And the guardians of the Asuras attacked you..."

Andor: (surprised) 
"Asuras? Who are they?"

"Asuras... It's better that you don't know who they are. They have brought so much sorrow to me and this world! I become scared just mentioning them. It's a miracle that you're even alive..."

"And what about my people?! Did they all perish?"

"I believe so. They had no chance against the slaves of the Asuras. And even I cannot resist the Black Gods themselves, no one can!"

Andor bows his head in despair and clenches his fists.
"I don't even remember their faces... Where were we going? And what was our destination?"

Nionel looks at Andor with a gaze full of sympathy and sadness.
"You will remember. But will it make you feel any better?... The past cannot be regained. Memories sometimes only bring additional suffering..."
"I almost died. I am very grateful to you for saving me!"

- ​It is unknown where death would be scarier - among the Forbidden Lands or here. Do not dare to leave this room. This Tower is very dangerous. It is full of secrets.
- ​I'm accustomed to it.
- ​Your sword won't help you against the forces hidden in the Tower. The fortress is full of memories from ancient times and numerous strange things that you cannot comprehend.
- ​So am I now... a prisoner?
- ​No. But you are still very weak and don't remember anything about yourself. Stay here... As for me, it's time to go.

Nionel returned to her room. Suddenly, a crimson eye lit up in the black stone on her necklace, and above the altar, a flowing silhouette with feminine features appeared.

- ​I see the prisoner has already settled in the Tower?
- ​Yes, Mistress. Even faster than I expected..... 
- ​Well, entertain him... Enchant him. I know you're excellent at it. Keep him in the Tower until I summon him to me... And be careful not to disappoint me!
- ​There is nothing to worry about, my Mistress.
- ​Nionel, there is one danger - Prince Zaraxis is also trying to infiltrate the Tower. He cannot accept defeat and is pursuing everyone who fought under Menkar, destroying them one by one.
- Does the prisoner face danger?
- ​Mortal danger! And possibly you too if the Prince finds out that you're sheltering him. But that's not the main concern. What I fear the most is that the Prince will attempt to obtain the most valuable thing kept in the Tower...
- ​The Eye of Onuris?
- ​Yes... He has long desired to possess this great artifact of the Ancients. You know what will happen to us and the world if he gets hold of this Object. I have managed to hide it so far, but it seems he now knows where it is located. Sooner or later, he will be here.

Shortly after Nionel left, Andor approached the door leading to the gallery. The door was tall - over three meters. He tried to unlock it, pressing his entire body weight, but the massive black gates wouldn't budge. "Am I now a prisoner? Nionel locked me in. Is it to protect me or is there something else behind this?" Andor thought, "The doors cannot be opened by ordinary means - there are no handles or locks. It's as if magic holds them. These doors cannot be moved by force; there must be another way. Nionel opened them with a simple hand gesture."

Andor began examining the strange depictions on the doors. The author had created a true universe in relief, which shook with expressions of horror, fury, and irresistible power. Countless naked bodies seemed fused into a new whole, a chaotic whirlwind around the mysterious symbol - a star within a circle. This circle simultaneously resembled both a planet and the Sun, with rays of light extending to each body. Andor ran his finger along the symbol, and suddenly the doors parted in different directions.

He looked out of the room into the dark gallery. No one was visible. Along the wall, the lamps burned with a steady white light, devoid of any signs of living fire. "It seems I'll have to stay here for some time. Regardless of what Nionel says, I need to know what awaits me in this tower. I need to be prepared for any surprises," he thought. He drew his sword and took one of the lamps.

One gallery-tunnel was replaced by another, with an infinite number of branches. The tall black metallic walls had numerous niches that offered a view of the dark abyss. "Well... a 'cozy' place indeed. I've dreamt of being here my whole life," Andor chuckled. "Seems like a labyrinth. And how do I get out of here now?"

Endlessly wandering through the corridors, Andor entered a completely new gallery. It was considerably more imposing than the previous ones and was in a state of complete neglect. Some of the massive columns were destroyed, huge holes gaped in the floor, and metal debris and human bones lay scattered around as if some cataclysm had buried them alive. Along the walls stood menacing sculptures of ancient gods, the majority of which were also destroyed. Many had the faces of strange animals and large spheres above their heads. Each deity wore a diadem made of snakes and precious stones that flickered like dim, distant stars. In their hands, they held short metallic rods adorned with colorful crystals, from which five lightning-like spokes radiated on both sides. Suddenly, Andor's lamp went out, and he found himself in pitch darkness. He could feel the silence of this place with every inch of his skin. It was powerful and filled with Power. It was this Power that had brought him here, to the very heart of the Citadel, and it wanted him to find it.

Despite the danger of falling into the abyss, the depths of depths, something pulled Andor forward. He could no longer resist this desire. At the very end of the gallery, the heads of two formidable guardians glowed with an eerie light. Above them, the symbol with the star shimmered with a ghostly light, a symbol he was already familiar with. Andor felt that beyond the guardians lay the end of his familiar world, the realm of the unknown.

In an instant, the hollows in the sculptures' eyes ignited with a red flame. A profoundly unpleasant and deep sound resonated throughout the hall, emanating from the very depths of the gallery. Andor froze, listening to the sound... It was approaching.

It seems I'm not alone here," Andor assumed a fighting stance, brandishing his sword. A deep voice resonated, as if someone was shouting from a grave, "Andor... Andor... Leave this place... You are unwanted here... Leave!"

"Who's there?" he asked. A chilling breeze swept through, and a mysterious force began to affect his consciousness, triggering uncontrollable panic, anxiety, and nausea.

"Leave... Andor... Only death awaits you here," the voice continued. Tremors ran through his body. He felt utterly helpless, as if mad terror had immobilized him, rendering him unable to utter a word.

Suddenly, gates appeared between the guardian heads, which were previously unseen. A powerful wind, as if a mighty spirit had been locked here for millennia, nearly knocked Andor off his feet. But he stood firm. A strange material light, a gelatinous substance composed of light particles, enveloped him.

Inside Andor's mind, a voice resonated, "Why have you come here?..."

"​say the word, or you will die-e-e..." the spirit uttered.

Horror gripped the wretched man. "What word?" he asked.

The spirit responded, "WOOORD!"

Threads of infernal light began to create a peculiar luminous cocoon. Tentacles of glowing, translucent energy enveloped Andor, breaking his bones. The energy mass constantly changed forms. It was now evident that it had something resembling a head. From one head, another emerged, and another, and so on, infinitely. And, oh God, those were the faces of his deceased friends! They merged into one entity, consumed by wild agony.

Andor adamantly refused to believe what he saw. How could such horror be real? His consciousness plunged into darkness, deeper and deeper, as one horror compounded another. His eyes bulged, his hair stood on end, and he tried to scream with all his might, attempting to call for help, but the monstrous entity choked him. This was the end. Emptiness engulfed him. Suddenly, the heads began to change shape, transforming right before his eyes. And there, Andor saw Nionel's face. She appeared real, but her eyes held a lifeless void.

The creature, like a python, began to suck Andor inside itself. It slowly devoured him, splintering his soul piece by piece...

"​say the WOOORD!!!"

chapter III
 “​The Fall of Menkar”

михаил заблодский хроники андора

The valley had long been engulfed in darkness. The entire field was scattered with countless lights that covered the ground like fallen stars. Bonfires burned throughout the valley.

It was a warm summer night. The air was filled with the smells of blood, sweat, and roasted meat. There was an incredible silence, with only the occasional sound of hooves, horse neighs, and murmurs of people. But everything was permeated with a looming danger, the breath of the grave. It was only a lull before the storm, and, as Andor fervently hoped, a lull before the final hurricane.

The siege of Menkar had lasted for a long time, endlessly long. At times, it seemed like years had passed. During this time, many had already forgotten why this war had started. Dysentery, diseases, countless sorties by the Menkarians— all of this had become a true scourge for the besiegers. Sometimes people would see dark shadows flying above them, unleashing lightning and annihilating entire squads with a single strike. The mere sound of the flying demons would rob people of their ability to speak.

Climbing a small rise above the valley, Andor witnessed an unprecedented spectacle — a gathering of various tribes and peoples who had assembled here at the behest of King Amori. This gigantic anthill stretched to the very horizon, encircling Menkar. The power of the king and Andor himself could not resist it. Clad in peculiar armor or completely naked with blue patterns on their bodies, bearing swords or menacing sickle-like blades, every one of these people knew only one thing — killing other people, fighting, and conquering.

At some unknown signal, the entire army set in motion. A swarm arose, like bees in a hive, and waves of fire surged towards the citadel. Siege engines appeared — catapults, battering rams on wheels, siege ladders. Spears, swords, steel helmets, and chainmail were everywhere, warriors and horses clad entirely in metal. All of this was nothing compared to the aid Menkar received from the Black Gods. But the human spirit could not be broken. The thirst for victory and spoils burned in their hearts. They were plagued by a disease that could only be cured by gold. And Menkar was filled with gold, slaves, and mysterious ancient weapons.

The silence of the night was shattered by the increasingly loud noise of hoofbeats, drumming, and trumpet sounds. Orders, cries of wounded men and horses became more audible. Standing on the rise, Andor saw a multitude of riders, their ranks appearing endless. Holding torches in their hands, they resembled a gigantic fiery serpent. Red dragons flew alongside them. The tattered banners, sewn together like a horribly gaping monster's maw, created such an impression.

Suddenly, a detachment clad in dim-black steel, adorned with menacing spikes and spears, interjected into this fiery serpent like an iron fist. The black warriors easily scattered and trampled the lightly armed riders. The dragon seemed to writhe in agony from such a blow. The warriors lost their formation. Only for a moment did Andor catch sight of a formidable shadow among the black riders. It was Prince Izrahil, the son of the ruler of Menkar, his insignia on the armor unmistakable. He would get lost amidst the carnage, then reappear and vanish again.

At some point, Andor thought he saw dozens of shooting stars leaving Menkar and heading straight toward him. Long before they approached, panic ensued among the people. Many suffered excruciating headaches, and some dropped dead on the spot. In that moment, falling stars unleashed from the sky. With a wild whistle, they plummeted, exploded, turning the earth inside out—everything became engulfed in blazing fire. People in panic flailed about in the flames. Warriors ran past Andor with wild cries of "Vimanas, vimanas! The demons have returned!" Archers released a shower of arrows, but they all bounced off the demons, inflicting no harm.

"Hey, Arafern! They'll burn our entire army to the ground in no time. Where are the ballistae?" 
"Chief, it's pointless to try. Our spears won't pierce the iron demons, and my head is pounding horribly. What is that? Look, our troops are already faltering!" 
"Perhaps the odds are slim, but we must try."

Many siege engines had been destroyed or consumed by fire. The troops retreated in panic. After the fall of the fiery stones, the entire land was littered with craters. An unbearable stench filled the air—a smell of roasted human flesh, dead animals, and smoke.
"And here's the ballista."
The long-range weapon was buried under human bodies but was still functional. Spears with iron tips lay nearby, reaching the height of a human.

"They say strange people in white visited Lord Amori and handed him these tips," Arafen shouted. "According to them, these can pierce any material." 
"We'll see that now. Load it up!" 
Andor's bodyguard inserted a spear into the powerful ballista. Andor aimed it directly at a passing vimana and fired. It resembled a huge iron bird. The spear struck it and... exploded. The crippled bird soon plummeted. After some time, all the vimanas returned to the citadel. The final assault on the city was about to begin.

What struck them wasn't just the incredible thickness of the walls but the enormity of the entire complex. It appeared perfect and impregnable. The foundation of the fortress looked unbelievably ancient, grown from the depths of history itself, predating the existence of humanity—a creation of giants, connected to both earth and sky. The citadel resembled a monstrous beast, storming it would be pure suicide.

Warriors placed ladders and climbed the walls. Bronze tubes peered from the loopholes, seemingly harmless, but then they exhaled with thunder and smoke, releasing the breath of a dragon—streams of liquid fire that instantly ignited everything they touched, and nothing could extinguish them. On the contrary, water only intensified the flames, incinerating people. Heat spread through the air with massive red wings. Ladders turned into raging pyres, and warriors fell to the ground in unimaginable agony. The assault drowned in blood, and soon the ground beneath the walls was littered with heaps of charred bodies.

The troops retreated from the walls. Murmurs spread, followed by whispers. Some were filled with reverent astonishment, while others began to pray to their gods. But then silence fell. All eyes turned towards somewhere deep within the army. People parted, creating a wide passage, and from the depths of the troops emerged a figure in white. Tall, with a snow-white head and a face covered in deep wrinkles, their eyes gleamed with a dim light. The old man was older than time itself. In his hands, he carried an object, a sacred relic that could cause excruciating death to anyone who attempted to use it.

The creature in white placed a small black cube near the walls of Menkar, whispered a strange phrase, and departed.

By this point, the assault on the fortress had completely ceased. All activity came to a halt—flamethrower machines stopped firing, troops ceased their movement towards the citadel, even the distant rumbling of vimanas disappeared. A grave silence enveloped the scene, as the attention of all the people was drawn to the enigmatic cube. An hour passed, then another, and the morning sun pierced through the nighttime haze with its fingers. Everyone felt that something was about to happen.

Suddenly, everyone felt the air tremble, and with an incredible roar, a colossal rift formed in the impregnable walls. Soon, the wall collapsed, creating an opening into the city, revealing the terrifying sight of people crushed and dying under the rubble.

Andor saw a chilling sight. Slowly emerging from the rift were a group of cavalrymen on large disfigured horses, clad in armor and dirty white cloaks. They appeared as strange silhouettes against the backdrop of raging fire and smoke. Some of them were missing parts of their armor, exposing their legs or arms, and the first one among them had an uncovered head. They looked like an army of the dead—monstrous creatures, mutilated and disfigured as if tortured in hell. Some had fingers transformed into harpy claws, while others had their faces eroded, with hollows where their eyes used to be. Their bodies were covered in large ulcers and gray-purple spots of decay.

However, upon closer inspection, Andor realized they were "Menkar's Guard! His last defense." They purposely left their ulcers and sores exposed, fully aware of the terrifying effect it had on others and the potential to infect their enemies with their sores, turning them into outcasts like themselves.

A fierce battle ensued, and chaos consumed everything. Arrows whizzed past Andor, the dying screamed, and the army of the afflicted demons let out demonic cries. There were no defenders left around Andor; they had all been swallowed by the onslaught of the monsters. But he had no time for fear. It was time to act. Andor surged forward, striking the abominations off their saddles.

Steel sliced through bone and decaying flesh as the afflicted perished one after another. Suddenly, Andor felt something gripping his neck. Black fingers wrapped around it, tightening the grip. The face of a decaying corpse, with yellowed half-rotted teeth, approached him. Then another corpse lunged, and another. Andor's sword slipped from his hand. He opened his mouth to scream, but the corpses swarmed his throat, obscuring his world, turning everything into an endless chaos. Eerie light emanated from their empty eye sockets. Their bodies morphed into a grotesque entity.

A powerful energy vortex engulfed Andor. Reality around him blurred and distorted in waves. He found himself once again in the secret chamber of the Tower of Ancients. The walls lost density, becoming transparent. The air was filled with terror. The entire battle beneath Menkar turned out to be a vision. His life was fading. Andor was being drawn into a swirling vortex of light until suddenly, everything ceased. Abruptly and completely. The sounds, the smells, the sensations—all vanished. 

He felt himself somewhere, beyond the bounds of the Universe.