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Book 7, Chapter 52 - The Secret Beneath the Sand

 A wide open space stretched out before them.

How to describe it? It was like a huge underground public square, but inside an enormous creature. Cavernous passageways lead out in many directions like blood vessels and the entire thing undulated with a steady beat. The scene was both puzzling and incredible.

Thousands of ants shuffled in and out from the passageways.

Like coolies they used their powerful jaws to move hunks of shining material or carry other things on their backs. They made sure that systems providing food, water, heat and so forth all functioned properly in this underground chamber.

Cloudhawk looked over the equipment and materials and found them strange. They were unlike any earthly factory, so he figured it had to involve godly and demonic tech. He even saw something like assembly lines where mass numbers of relics were being produced.

Kesjir was a manufacturing base. Over hundreds of years Belial created these Eternals and used them to control the ants. Indirectly, he controlled a massive labor force which he kept busy day and night. All toward some unknown, nefarious purpose.

Two Eternals approached, flanking an old man with a long white beard. Cloudhawk was surprised to encounter an ordinary human in this place.

He figured this poor soul had been captured from the Elysian lands and brought here. Or perhaps he was a traveler that had found his own way to Kesjir. Whatever the case, Cloudhawk saw the fear in his face as the Eternal leader rasped something in his direction.

The old man looked at his escort, then toward the newcomers. It was then Cloudhawk understood - this man was their translator. So he wasted no time. "Please tell me, what's going on here?"

"They... they are the Eternal, changed by our master."

Cloudhawk's assumptions were proved correct. The Eternal were modified people, given immortality in much the same way as fiends. What made them different was that they maintained their own will and intelligence, unlike Blackfiend which only acted when given a command.

"What do they want from me?" He asked the question because it was clear these guys wouldn't have brought him here for no reason. Either they wanted something from him, or they wanted to help him accomplish something. The latter was more likely. If it was the former they would have just tried to take it - the Eternal were two thousand strong and Cloudhawk's party was just four people.

The leader responded in that guttural rasp. The old man heard something that turned his face sour, then in halting tones relayed the message. "T-they... they want fr-freedom. Liberation. To take... take the master's black heart for their own."

That took Cloudhawk by surprise. "Freedom? Black heart? I don't understand."

The old man explained. "The Black Heart is a treasure that controls the Eternal. So long as the master holds it they cannot leave. They will live forever in his service."

Cloudhawk pressed for more. "Aren't they afraid I will be their new master if I take the heart? Or use it to kill them?"

"The Eternal do not fear death. After the master changed them, they were given bodies that never aged or decayed. But they lost much in exchange." The old man's voice shook as he went on. "Like all feeling, full consciousness. They cannot taste alcohol or enjoy fine foods. They can't feel the wind on their flesh or the warmth of the sun. The only thing left to them is the desire for freedom."

It was a surprising revelation for Cloudhawk, but he understood. Although their eternal life seemed like a boon, it was actually a curse. When they lost the ability to feel they lost their souls. Every day they endured cold, pain, and servitude with no end in sight.

Fine wines, delicious food, warm women, soft beds... these simple treasures had been stolen from them. Their creator - the demon Elder Belial - compelled their bidding with this Black Heart. For centuries they'd been locked in this hell of endless servitude.

What they suffered went far beyond torment. They were desperate for liberation.

They had no way to rise up against the demon, no way to steal the Heart for themselves. So they searched for help, but all who found their way to Kesjir were too weak. Useless.

Cloudhawk, though. He and his crew were different. He was the only hope they'd known for a long time.

As for whether Cloudhawk would use the Heart himself, they hadn't given that much thought. So long as they could leave this prison, even if they were destroyed straight after, it was still a means of freedom.

Was this what everlasting life really meant? What was the point if this was the cost?

He had to ask himself, though, if what they were telling him was the truth. But after a moment he realized it didn't matter. IF they weren't going to get in his way then Cloudhawk was just happy to save his strength. If they were willing to help him bring Belial down then he didn't care what their motivations were.

Cloudhawk told his guide, Jara, to remain here. He then gathered more information from the Eternals.

The base had been constructed two hundred years ago for a singular purpose: So that Belial could collect Cursed from underground.

What was Cursed Spar? It was the best kept secret of the Cursed Desert!

Thousands of meters beneath the sands veins of the stuff slithered through the earth. It wasn't clear how these massive crystals were formed, but they were big and were spread all across the desert.

Strong ass drill tips and thick as a man, they were called Cursed Spar because they could only be found beneath the Cursed Desert. The crystals were unique in that they continued to grow bigger and stronger with time.

The Cursed Desert's sand ran deep and it was not a good environment for excavation. Only the mountains had solid enough foundation for Belial to dig out tunnels. It was for this reason he brought the Eternal to Kesjir, eliminated the natives then built this place over the span of two hundred years. He began to mine the spar and use it for energy to keep Kespir running.

All the ants and the Eternal were Belial's labor force. The undying humanoids in particular were useful servants. The oldest among them had served Belial for hundreds of years.

"What do you say?"

Cloudhawk shared a wordless look with his companions. With a hissing chuckle, Abaddon spoke up.

"What they call Cursed Spar is what we call 'Source.' The material needed to make new gods and demons. If it's growing beneath the desert, then the seed must be nearby."

"Source?" Cloudhawk asked. "What is it?"

The demon's red eyes flickered. "I know only a little on the subject. After all, there is no Source in Gehenna."

Cloudhawk frowned. Was this rat bastard hiding something from him? But whether he was or not, since they were here he might as well learn more.

Cloudhawk turned back to the Eternal's leader. "We came here to find Belial. Take us to him, I'll get the Black Heart for you."

They couldn't stand around and let the Elder of the Tenth Seal slip away. He might not want to get involved in the coming war, but he had skills Cloudhawk needed. Being the best artisan of his race, escape would not be so easy. What Belial wanted was irrelevant.

But there was another matter. He wanted to find proof that the gods were a threat to humanity. The answers to everything were buried beneath his feet, Cloudhawk just needed to dig it out.

1. Hey, where have we seen huge crystals before?

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