A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
Spira hopped down from the window, landing on the warped wooden floor, kicking up dust and dirt as she caught her footing. The other windows, still retaining their tempered glass after many years, seemed to catch the light from far above, leaving the wooden temple alight. It was the perfect way to see how badly time had treated the rest of the building, with nature reclaiming some of it in places, while decay and rot had taken others.
Spira thought of that balance, of life and death, and hummed when she thought that she and her companions were perhaps bringing more of it into the place.
There were, after all, the remains of some very old people said to be there.
“What do you see, Spira?” she heard from outside.
“I don’t see much,” she replied, whispering as though she knew that the place was owed some reverence. “Isn’t that why we brought Olarind?”
“You were the easiest one to lift through the window,” she heard then. The man’s voice was coarse and strong, and he cared not for limiting the power of it, even knowing where they planned to venture.
“Only by a bit,” she muttered. “He weighs as much dry as I do after a pouring rain.”
“Is that so?” Olarind said as he appeared in the window, balancing upon the ledge.
“You always sound so prim and proper when you speak,” Spira said.
“Well, I am an elf,” he stated matter-of-factly, as though that was reason enough for his measured words and even tone.
Spira placed her fists on her hips and tilted her head to the side.
“Fine then, half-elf,” he said, not bothering to hide his dual lineage.
“And while you only weigh a tad more than me,” Spira said, “you’re the same age as me, so your whole ‘sagely’ act doesn’t weigh as much as either of us. Besides, didn’t you just figure out you were part elf within the last couple of years?”
Olarind squared his jaw as he stepped onto the temple floor, the boards beneath his feet creaking under his weight—in a way that it hadn’t when Spira had walked upon that same spot, she noted.
“Don’t remind him,” the next member of their troupe said as he hoisted himself up into the window. A crack resounded as he balanced there, and while he looked as though he could care less about the old building’s weaknesses, Spira winced at the sound of it. The burly, red-haired fellow in the window thought she was reacting to something else, though. “Ah, don’t worry about it so much. Getting out of the military was a godsend to this one.” He punctuated his statement by dropping down into the temple.
Spira guffawed when the building held fast, and the man’s heavy boots didn’t crash right through the floorboards.
“A godsend?” Olarind wondered, his voice losing the stately sound he had forced earlier. “I wouldn’t say losing all my friends and a means of living was a godsend.”
The older, red-haired fellow puffed out his chest. “Don’t forget, a peaceful nature was what had people questioning your heritage in the first place. And I found you a place to live far from Peritas, where you wouldn’t be harassed. That doesn’t sound an awful lot like ‘thank you for all your help, Paulson’ to me.”
Olarind rolled his eyes. “Yes, you found me a place to live—an abandoned cottage off in the woods. I have to grow my own potatoes and turnips.”
“Right, and you love nature!” Paulson grumbled and waved his hand, absconding from the conversation. He turned around and reached one of his wide arms through the window, locking hands with the final member of their group. “Come on then, Takarno. And mind the horns when you’re on your way up.”
Spira caught herself staring as their final companion filled the frame of the window. She knew better than to gaze, slack-jawed, but she couldn’t wrench herself from the sight of Takarno. He was a fellow who had earned his sagely demeanor. And he had seen much worse than Olarind could have dreamed of.
“Take solace in knowing you so easily found your new home, child,” Takarno said. “My people were all driven out,” he reminded.
The old minotaur dropped from the window with almost regal poise. It was as though the robe that covered his back had somehow found its way beneath his hooves, for he made no sound upon the wooden floor.
Olarind offered up a subtle nod. “Blessings can be found in unforeseen places.”
Spira noticed that the measured cadence had returned to the half-elf’s voice then and failed to hold back a grin.
“Alright, enough of all that,” Paulson said. “We’re here for some treasure we can line our pockets with, not to sit around and play at whose had a worse time these past few years.”
“The duration of my life is not merely ‘a few years’,” Takarno quietly countered.
Paulson grumbled as he moved forward, but Spira was there an instant later.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You brought me here to make sure that you didn’t walk right into danger, and that’s what you were just about to do.”
“That’s right,” Olarind stated. “You don’t hire a thief and expect them to wait about.”
“I’m not a thief, I’m a locksmith,” Spira said, in a tone that indicated that she was quite tired of having to make that distinction. “And I could certainly benefit from a half-elf who has been learning magic in his free time. There isn’t exactly a lot of light in here.”
“Understood,” he replied. “That is something I can help with.” He grasped toward his hip, pulling on the woven rope that hung from there. In a moment, a tome sat within one of his hands, while a finger on the opposite one traced the words on the pages or flipped to later ones. “Ah, here we go,” he said. Under his breath, he muttered an ancient chant, and none of his companions could tell whether the words were spoken in the common tongue, or in elvish. Either way though, only a few moments later, light emanated from the pages of the tome, filling the room with a glow that a dozen torches would still have had difficulty competing with. The area around the tome wasn’t so awash with light that it blinded those near Olarind, and the other three adventurers nodded, intrigued by the magic in use.
Spira set to work, looking about at the pews that lined the temple. Most had fallen into disrepair, collapsed into the floor, or broken at their foundations. But a pair of them, the closest to the pulpit, stood standing, and as she drew closer to it, she sensed just how odd that was. She knocked on them, understanding that they were sturdier than the rest by far, as though they were made of stone, and just covered with a wooden façade.
She waved down Olarind, beckoning the half-elf toward her. “Tilt your book this way,” she said. “Something isn’t right about these things.” She pointed her finger at the benches as though she were touching them, but she knew better than to attempt a tactile test. Spira tilted her head then, and grabbed Olarind’s arm, tilting his hand until the light fell upon the pew in a way that confirmed her suspicion.
“…and this slot…” she muttered, stuck in her own thoughts, and offering up no explanations to the rest of her group. She knelt down, and pointed at another spot on the pew that was worthy of her attention, and then followed through with a folding motion with her other hand. Spira hummed when she rose once more, and she peered over toward the pulpit. Reaching back again, she moved Olarind’s hand back and forth, and she smiled at the sight of the glimmer near the floor.
Olarind looked at the other two adventurers, and shrugged in confusion.
“Alright. Thankfully, I get to prove my worth right from the get-go,” the eager locksmith and trap-spotter assured. “Paulson, can you get me a piece of wood that’s about, oh, this wide?” she asked, bringing her hands about a foot away from one another. “And then after that, I need everyone to take two big steps back.”
Paulson aided her as requested, providing a hunk of debris that looked like it might crumble in his hands before he could ever transfer it to her. Spira took hold of it though and slung it across the chamber. Even from afar, her three companions could see as a wire was displaced by the wood falling upon it. The benches reclined, and a sound like the cutting of air became apparent in the room.
The burly, former soldier folded his arms across his chest. “How’d you know those hidden blades would be there?” Paulson asked as the benches reverted back to their original position.
“Part of being a locksmith is looking for the things that don’t make sense. A lot of times, people don’t want their items found, and they go to terrible lengths to ensure that the things they care about are always protected.” Spira spun her fingers about as she indicated toward the pews again. “I think about this whole temple as one big treasure chest that someone really doesn’t want us to find.
“Although…” she went on. “Even as tucked away as this place is, someone would have found their way here. And not just anyone would have been ready for a trap like that.”
“So, you’re saying that someone must have found this place before us?” Paulson asked.
Spira nodded. “Finding the temple would be the easy part, if anyone had ventured down from the crater.” She walked across the room then, paying attention to her steps to ensure there weren’t any other traps along the way. As she reached one of the windows, she looked through the glazed glass, finding one that was colorless. There, in the distance, she could see the opening far above, where the sun shone through, although the stained glass obscured her vision enough that she couldn’t see the long stretch of rope that would help the group return to the world above. “Depending on the light, you could even see this place from up above,” she went on. “I’d find it hard to believe, after all this time, that none had found the place.”
Paulson folded his arms across his burly chest. “Well, I did hear word of it through a missionary at the temple in Peritas,” he admitted. “But they said they didn’t come inside. Perhaps they didn’t even venture down into the crater.”
“A wise decision,” Takarno said then. “There are far more dangerous things that reside on Ippius than weathered traps.”
“Weathered they may be,” Spira admitted, “but they have retained their edge, I’m sure. Whoever built them knew that there would be people looking to pilfer the place. What I’m surprised about is that the wires are still intact after all this time. And that’s to say nothing about the bodies.”
“What bodies?” Olarind wondered.
“Exactly,” Spira replied. “With a trap this refined and deadly, I would assume it’s claimed at least one victim.”
Paulson hummed to himself and ventured nearer to the wire. “Let’s not be too hasty in our speculation. There are plenty of things that could have happened. The longer we spend chatting, the darker it will be before we go down into the lower levels of the place and find our bounty.”
“And the greater the chance that someone discovers our presence here,” the old minotaur warned.
“Don’t worry, Takarno,” Paulson said. “Nobody knows we’re here.”
That did seem to placate the minotaur somewhat, and he drew his focus toward the pulpit.
Paulson glanced at Olarind and Spira then as well and waved them over as well. As they made their way toward him, he drew his sword and balanced it against the floor, just a few inches from the wire that would set off the trap.
Spira shuddered at the sight. If the sword toppled, or Paulson lost his balance, that could have been it for the lot of them. She shook her hands and forced out a delicate breath, but hurried along, stepping over the wire with an exaggerated motion to ensure that Olarind knew to do just such a thing as well.
A moment later, Paulson joined the companions on the other side of the wire, and the lot stepped beyond the pulpit.
“Alright, so the rumors are that some of the first men were buried here ages ago,” he said. “Well, there’s no burial chambers here that I can see. That must mean that there’s something hidden. And no one is going to go through all the trouble to plant a trap like the one we just saw unless it’s protecting something. So, let’s all keep our eyes peeled for—”
“Got it,” Spira said. She pointed to a bookshelf against the back wall, and began moving toward it, her digit seeming like an arrow flying through the air. As she reached the shelf, her finger brushed up against the spine of an old tome. The other three in her group noticed what had caught her attention then: the book had been put in its place upside down. “It looks like this was always the secret book, too,” she went on. “Look at the title: The World Below.”
Takarno passed a glance to Paulson then. “You’re certain she hasn’t been here before?”
The burly human smiled with pride. Bringing Spira along was a choice well made, and he was content just to watch her unravel one clue after the next.
“As best I can tell, there aren’t any triggers associated with any traps on this side of the room,” she said. “The lot of you might want to take a step back and another to the side, just in case.”
Her three companions did as they were requested, offering up some room, without venturing too close to the wire drawn across the floor beyond the pulpit.
Spira slid the peculiar book from the shelf then, and when nothing happened, she let her shoulders drop a little. She turned to Olarind, and pointed at his clerical manuscript then, and the half-elf hurried to her side. Without being pressed, Olarind allowed the light of his gods to shine through the pages, illuminating the rest of the bookshelf, including the recess where The World Below once sat. There, in the back of the shelf, a small switch had been fashioned. Spira reached inside, squeezing her narrow hand between the other books, and depressed the switch.
A moment later, the bookshelf lurched forward, sliding away from the place it looked like it had been set within.
“I’ll be,” Paulson said. “Finding the temple might have been a touch easier than it should have been, and folks may have laid eyes on it over the centuries. But I’ll doubt it if anyone besides the person who flipped that book and the four of us have ever ventured below the surface.”
Spira grabbed hold of the bookshelf, and slid it out, the piece of furniture rotating into an open position that displayed the descent the quartet was bound to take. For there, before them, was the entrance to an old stone stairwell, darkness spilling up from the catacombs below.
“Well,” the youngest adventurer in the group said then, “what are we waiting for?”
* * *
“…and they were never able to figure out why, but they would leave behind these tracks that looked like a wagon had pulled them. It never seemed to be to anywhere specific though. Just these big ol’ rocks in the middle of nowhere in the desert, looking like someone had gone and moved them in their sleep and moved on before they woke up, none the wiser for why it happened. Folks have come to call them “dragstones”, although to me that sounds a bit more akin to a dragon than I’d want to call them, especially since they’re so close to the Dragon’s Bane Mountains.”
When Olarind reached the bottom of the spiraling stone staircase, he practically ran ahead, and only slowed when he remembered the rest of the group would likely benefit from the light of his tome.
Besides, the sight before him had his heart in his throat, and he doubled back toward the stairwell.
“Alright then,” Paulson whispered as he reached the catacombs then. “Let’s cut the chatter.” He turned about just in time to stop Olarind from running into him, and he grabbed the lad with a steady hand.
“You don’t have to whisper,” Spira said from up above. “It’s not a library.” Even as she spoke though, she could feel the reverence that emanated from her companions. When she followed Takarno into the open corridor below, she understood the apprehension the others were saddled with.
There, embedded in the walls of the place, were dozens of skulls—perhaps hundreds, as the corridor gave way to shadow where Olarind’s book could not quite shine.
“Well, this is horrifying,” Spira said, matter-of-factly.
“I do not have a warm place in my heart for humankind,” the minotaur said, “but there is something about this place that chills it colder than I’ve ever felt before.”
“Do you think they were placed in there like that?” Olarind asked Paulson, the only one brave enough to draw close to the nearest wall. “Or do you think they were just…disembodied heads that rotted away.”
Paulson squared his jaw as he glanced at the heads that were closest to eye level with him. “No, this far down, you can feel it in the air, it’s not ripe for rot. Whatever would have been put down here would have been mummified. And if there was flesh, there would have been rodents, and they would have plucked them right from the walls.”
As Spira marched up beside him, he pulled a wineskin from his belt, and pulled out the stopper with his teeth. After taking a swig of his own, he held it out to the young locksmith.
She was already waving her hand though. “I don’t partake. I have to keep steady for locks and traps.”
“Fair enough,” he said, finally matching her volume. He looked at Olarind then and tossed the wineskin to him.
The half-elf caught it with a clumsy hand, tottering the drink and his tome for a moment before properly balancing the pair. In that time, Paulson’s gaze fixed behind him, and he turned to see what had caught his attention.
“Takarno,” the burly redhead said. “Do you think you can help me with that?”
The minotaur turned about then as well, and spotted the torch that sat within a sconce, just outside of the stairwell. It was wrapped in old linens and looked just as likely to crumble away as catch fire. Still, Takarno was not known to be conservative with his magic. He reached into his satchel, and pulled out a stack of flattened scrolls, peering through them until he spotted one of the ones that would help Paulson achieve his goal.
“Olarind, I shall need your light until I can create my own,” the wise old minotaur said. “Come this way and illuminate these words.”
Eager for any additional light to fill the corridor, the half-elf hurried to his companion’s side. His tome’s brilliant radiance shone upon the parchment, showing the words that the minotaur had previous inscribed there—a language that Olarind was unfamiliar with—as well as a picture that depicted the intended effect of the spellcraft. Before Olarind could inquire about the contents of the scroll, Takarno held it out, and read the words, a glance at the parchment unnecessary, as he had reminded himself of the chant he had once written.
“Ootevin y’atwa, kuvnyen tao okatadi. Avayaheytai atto tiaskai.” As Takarno spoke, his already wise and powerful voice seemed enriched by the magic he called upon. An otherworldly force empowered him, giving his lyrical intonations an echoing quality, which had even Spira looking this way and that as though it was too loud for comfort.
At once, a speck of orange light cast up and off from the parchment, landing upon the torch at the wall. In an instant, flames engulfed the linens, giving Paulson a tool which he could use to help brighten the catacombs.
Just as quick as the fire set upon the torch, so, too, did it seem to eat away at the scroll in Takarno’s possession. He remained unflinching, even as the parchment faded away to ash around his fingers. He needed not worry, for the flames did not linger long enough to hurt him.
“What was that?” Olarind asked. “Why did your codex just go up like that?”
Takarno hummed for a second. “Your book is a connection to your gods, and you use it to retain a stable relationship with them.” He let his words hang there for a moment, as though he wanted to ensure the first of his lessons had been well imparted. He tilted his head to the side then and looked down at the remainder of his stacks of parchments. “My work is chaos. The aether is unstable by nature, and we are not meant to keep it in perpetuity. Once my scrolls play their part, the magic returns to whence I called it forth.”
Olarind nodded, unwilling to press the conversation forward. The lad sent the old minotaur an impressed gaze as he stepped aside.
Spira was quick to fill in that gap. She was behind Takarno as he turned about, and he flexed his legs hard enough that he almost hopped in the air as a reflex.
“That was the minotaur language, was it not?” Spira asked before Takarno could right himself. “I’ve never heard it before, but it truly has some beauty in it, doesn’t it.”
As Takarno relaxed once more, he closed his eyes and bowed his head to the girl. “To be honest, it is a language that I do not hear very often myself. It almost seems strange to speak it. There are not many of us left in the archipelago. The prospect of being found did not sit well with my people. Being discovered would not mean a polite request to find some new home hundreds of miles away. But my grandfather was too old and too proud to venture far from where he’d placed new roots.” Takarno let silence fill most of the gaps of history, but he looked back to Spira, always trying to figure out the last pieces of whatever puzzle she tried to solve. He sent her a sympathetic gaze, then. “I have no one left to practice the old language with. When I pass, I may have been the last one in Ippius who spoke it.”
The girl bowed her head then as well, more in solemnity than as a show of respect. “It is a tragedy what happened to your people,” she said. She corrected herself a second later, though. “What was done to your people.”
“Greed will always drive those to seek more than they have, and more than they need. If anything, there is a bright spot in what I’ve seen in these twilight years of my life. When I was younger, the thought of sharing an adventure with the three of you would have been but a fever dream.”
Spira offered up a beaming smile. “I know it’s no consolation for what was done to the minotaurs, but for what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re here with us.”
Takarno shared in her positivity then. He stepped forward and placed his hand on her far shoulder, the pair taking time to find their way along the corridor.
Far ahead, the two who bore the light took care to watch their steps, and the walls around them. The skulls continued to lead the way, and whenever the torchlight passed a column of them, Olarind could not help but hurry his steps, drawing closer to Paulson.
“Do you think this place might be the tomb of Arthur Ipparius?” the young half-elf wondered, trying to draw his thoughts away from the more macabre surroundings.
Paulson shook his head emphatically. “First off, I don’t think Arthur was real. I think that was just a fairytale we were told as children to make us feel pride for driving out the lagano. I also think Argos still uses it to paint those of us in Peritas as descendants of Norkoth.” He waved his hand of that notion though. “That’s neither here nor there, though. Even if Arthur, Iona, and Norkoth were real, all of this seems to predate them. It may even be older than the culling. If it is, it could prove that humans found their way to Arthica in greater numbers than we’d ever believed. These could very well be some of the first men.”
“The Kalistrazi?” Olarind wondered aloud.
“You’ve heard of them?” Paulson asked. “They talk about them on the mainland a bit more often than here in Ippius.”
“I’ve had more time on my hands these days,” the half-elf reminded his former compatriot. “You really think this place could be nearly a thousand years old?”
Paulson flattened his lips and gave a shake of his head. “I think calling them the first men gives off the idea that they only existed outside the caves and mountains for a few years before they passed. But I’ve heard that some of them went on for decades, maybe even a century after the fact. They say the same thing that gave them their powers gave them longevity. Not all of them, mind you, but some.”
“And this could have been made in that time.”
“It could have indeed.” He chuckled. “Can you imagine? If we’ve happened upon a Kalistrazi tomb, and can prove it… Well, whatever we find here could buy us a palace.”
“Right on the water,” Olarind dared to imagine as well.
“For each of us,” Paulson said, the torchlight and illumination from the half-elf’s tome setting his widened eyes aglow.
A different sparkle caught his gaze a few moments later, however. After trekking down the length of the macabre corridor, they drew close to the end. While sturdy wooden doors began to interrupt the long stretches of skull-fixed walls, it was the open area at the end of the hallway that called to Paulson most fiercely. Even from afar, the torchlight and magical radiance landed upon piles of gold and gems and other treasures.
Before he realized it, Paulson’s pace increased threefold.
“Hold it!” he heard then.
Though Spira’s voice was a bit higher pitched, and she was far younger than he, Paulson still felt authority in her command. He stopped in his tracks, and turned sharply to his side, waiting for her and Takarno to arrive before him.
She paused and peered down the hall, finally understanding why her companion was so eager. Spira turned though and looked at the fellow who had brought the group together. An arching eyebrow demonstrated a bit of disappointment there. “You don’t think it’s rather suspect that the only way forth that doesn’t have a doorway is showing piles upon piles of riches?”
Paulson had to stop himself from countering with a protest. He knew right away that she was right. There was bound to be some sort of trap. Unless…
“Well, what if the blades upstairs were the only protection that they thought they needed when they created these catacombs?”
“It’s possible, but you didn’t bring me here to watch out for one trap,” Spira said. “You brought me here to spot all of them. Let me at least look.”
Paulson knew that she was right, and he swept his hand out to invite her to take the lead.
Spira didn’t stop there though. She reached up and plucked the torch from Paulson’s hand then. She held it toward the floor, trying to see if any of the carefully crafted stones seemed especially different to the rest.
“What are you looking for?” Paulson asked.
Humming to herself, Spira crouched low. “Well, typically a type of trap isn’t going to be used twice. We already saw a wire trap up above, and the only way to see down here is with a light source, and that would typically show a reflection in the wire. I’m thinking perhaps they went with a pressure plate of some sort, but nothing tells me that they went that route.” She looked to the columns of skulls that still lined the corridor between the doors. “Wait. Alright, you lot, take a few steps back, and Paulson, you take the torch again.”
“What are you up to, Spira?” the burly redhead asked.
“We’ve been thinking that the skulls are just a ghastly decorative style here, but what if there’s a functional reason for them as well?”
“Such as?” Olarind pressed.
“Well, if it was me developing a trap, I would have it so that there was some sort of light that crossed from a skull on one side to the other, and if the beam was broken, it would trigger whatever danger you could fashion. Go on. Let me stand in the darkness a moment to see if my suspicion is correct.”
Though confused, her three companions obliged, taking the torch and the tome, and heading back the way they came. Spira looked back at them, waving them back farther. If she could still see them, the light they cast might have gone too far.
But then, a quiet noise sprang up from the darkness.
“Huh,” Spira said. “There’s nothing that I can see. Sorry to have you stretch your legs a bit.” As the group returned to her, she nodded rhythmically. “Let me take the lead. If there was a trap that I missed, it should be on me to trigger it, not any of you.”
“You didn’t miss anything,” Paulson assured. “They only thought they needed the one trap up there. This place isn’t exactly on a map, and it’s remained hidden for all these years. I think the worst is behind us.”
Spira handed the torch back to Paulson, but stayed close to him, her gaze darting back and forth as they neared the end of the corridor. Eventually, even her focus drifted toward the treasure which was piled against the back wall of the last chamber.
The most plentiful riches were the heaps of gold coins. There wouldn’t be enough room in anyone’s backpack to carry as much as they wanted, and Spira could tell that Paulson was excited about the prospect of a return trip to collect as much as they could get their hands on. But interspersed with the coins were faceted gems, beautiful goblets, necklaces of pearl and malachite, candleholders, bowls, jars, and dozens of other attractive items that would certainly fetch a fine price at the market in Peritas.
As attractive as all the coins were, it was the mural painted onto the wall above that caught Spira’s attention soon after. Old as it was, she was unfamiliar with the style, but it seemed to evoke a feeling of heroism, of mighty deeds and quests achieved. She was so taken by the art, that she didn’t realize that there were a trio of sarcophagi in the chamber.
Paulson couldn’t take it any longer. He broke out in a cheer, and leapt into the air, turning about to see the mirth that his other companions shared. This was it—they knew. After that day, nothing would ever be the same.
While Takarno shuffled past, Spira reached out and grabbed Olarind by the crook of his arm.
“Hey!” he grumbled. “What are you doing?”
“I need some light up there,” Spira said, pointing toward the mural. She brought the half-elf’s attention to the artwork, but also the letters that were etched into the wall there. While the rest of the walls had been fashioned out of old, uneven material—likely whatever stone was already present underground—the mural was achieved atop finely hewn stone. Just above where the rest of the wall transitioned, words that she could decipher were present. “I can’t tell if that’s an unfamiliar language, or—”
“It’s just weatherworn from age,” Olarind suggested. “Here.” He unhooked the tome from his hip and handed it to his companion so that she could use it to discern the writing above.
As he drew near to Paulson, already digging through the piles of gold, he let out a guttural grunt of satisfaction.
“Can you imagine?” Paulson asked. “A palace by the ocean? Well fie on that. We’re going to have enough money that we could buy Risolde out of the castle if we want.” He leaned back then and glanced at his minotaur friend. “Takarno, we’ll build walls around your entire island. You’ll never have to worry about being found out there.”
Olarind turned around then and passed Spira a bit of a smirk. “Your days of thievery are long behind you now.”
For a moment, Spira seemed deaf to the comment, for she was so taken by the sight of the art and the message associated with it. Whether she was conscious of it or not, she said “I’m not a thief,” back to them, with very little conviction behind the statement.
While the others filled their bags with gold and trinkets, Spira continued to gaze at the mural. It depicted what looked like three great heroes, each represented by a separate section of the wall. On the left, a woman with a chalice seemed to float in the air, holding a sword in her free hand, which pointed toward the ground below. In the center, a man held a tome atop his outstretched hand, with magical energy emanating from it. On the right side, it looked almost as though the artist had failed to capture the proportions of the hero correctly, for their limbs looked longer than they ought to have been.
Shrugging off the strange art, Spira returned her focus again to the statement of the mural, holding Olarind’s tome aloft to better read it.
“A promise for her people. A pledge to the world. An oath for all time.”
Each sentence looked to represent the hero depicted in the art upon the same wall. A chill ran up Spira’s spine when she read the ancient writing, and she stepped back reflexively upon pondering on it. As the light shifted, she could see that there were smaller words etched beneath the previous words.
“Parasca Valerica. Hara-Alecsandrai. Thun-Sorin,” she said. “Their names?”
She glanced at her companions then, seeing that they were not so content with just the treasures that lined the floor. Instead, they turned to the sarcophagi, starting with the one on the left.
“Wait, what are you doing?” she asked. “We already have more than enough. We don’t need to disturb the dead any further.”
Paulson raised an eyebrow at the statement, but Olarind wore a mischievous grin. “If they’ve got these treasures outside their coffins, imagine what was buried with them.”
“Takarno?” Spira pressed.
There was something about the way she asked that seemed to appeal to the old minotaur. He gave a weary nod, and stepped away from the closest sarcophagus, returning to stand beside the girl.
With an otherworldly gasp, the stone slab atop the leftmost casket slid to the side, as though centuries of death and decay were finally able to escape after trying and failing. Paulson’s eyes went wide, reflecting the light of the torch and the tome. The burly fellow wasn’t frightened, but excited, and his companions realized why just a moment later. He reached into the sarcophagus and pulled out a magnificent sword—the same one that was represented in the mural, it seemed. Olarind spotted the other item that the woman was buried with, the gilded chalice, which was even more opulent than the image depicted. Gemstones were fixed between colorful inlays, and the half-elf legs wobbled at the sight of it.
“This is it,” he said with a chuckle. “This is how we start our own empire.”
“And this isn’t even everything,” Paulson said. “We’ve got all those rooms out there, and two more coffins.”
As far from them as he was, Takarno was able to see the tremendous avarice in his companions. He looked at Spira, who gave him a worried, knowing glance.
“Perhaps we are being too hasty,” the minotaur warned, softly.
If Paulson and Olarind heard him, they made no acknowledgement of the statement. Instead, they moved to the next sarcophagus, sliding the stone slab aside. Their eagerness betrayed them, and the lid fell off the top of the tomb, cracking into smaller pieces.
Spira shuddered and took a reflexive step back then. Even Paulson and Olarind seemed to pause for a moment, distracted by the cloud of dust that burst into the air from the damaged sarcophagus.
But as soon as the cloud dissipated, they scavenged like vultures again, reaching in to pluck the treasures away from the desiccated corpse that had been interred there. The tome that was represented in the mural was lifted from the sarcophagus—a leatherbound book with a beautiful golden circle upon it was held up, but it seemed to pale in comparison to all the other riches in the tomb.
As Paulson lay it back down, Spira thought for a moment that she saw an iridescent reflection cast out from its face. It made no difference though and did nothing to stay her worries. And as they reached toward the third sarcophagus, she could hold her tongue no longer.
“Stop. We don’t need any more than we already have.”
Olarind shrugged and began to push on the slab. “What are they going to do with it? We can change our lives with all of these.”
As the stone slid aside, Spira couldn’t ignore the subtle differences between that coffin and the other two. It seemed to move soundlessly to the side, there was no eagerness shown on the faces of her greedy companions. Still, Olarind wouldn’t be dismayed, and he plunged his hand into the darkness, trying to fish out whatever treasures lay hidden there.
He grimaced, for he felt the corpse within, and did not seem to be finding anything of value. His brow furrowed a moment later, and Spira and Takarno, looking on, froze in anticipation of what he’d found.
A cry rang out from past Olarind’s lips then, and he pulled his arm from the darkness, only to find that several of his fingers had been lost, a grievous wound marking their absence. Blood poured from the site of the injury as he stumbled backward, and he looked ready to faint at the sight of mangled hand.
Paulson gave him a firm shove forward then. “Get over there, lad,” he urged.
As the half-elf passed the coffin, a hand reached up out of it, slimy, fleshy fingers gripping the edge. The person who had been buried there sat up, greasy, black hair cascading down a face that looked like all the skin had been torn off. Instead, it looked as though only musculature remained, however the undead fellow’s vascular system, still under the fleshy outer bit, revealed that might have been a misinterpretation. While Paulson stared at the fallen hero in fear, the haunting being stared back, through milky white eyes.
For a time, it looked as though the creature was content to only study the crypt robber. But then, it opened its mouth, its jaw unhinging far wider than a normal person’s could, and it let out a blood-curdling wail as its tongue—easily a foot longer than was to be expected—slipped out of its mouth.
Reflexively, Paulson brought his hands to his ears. Whether it was his sudden movements, or an evil streak that was always present in the risen dead, the monster sprang out, reaching forth with its hand. Jagged fingers extended much farther than they should have, growing until they were the length of spears. Without warning, the monster jabbed them through Paulson chest, drawing a scream from him.
“Go, child!” Takarno warned Spira as Olarind shuffled their way.
Hearing the sounds of their fleeing, the woken dead turned about, pulling back the horrid lances that impaled Paulson. Spira could finally see him in all his grisly glory. The fellow shifted unnaturally, spurs and spikes seeming to protrude from his body, along his joints, his spine, even atop his head in what looked like devilish horns. As he stepped forth, Spira shifted the tome in her hands, and the light blinded the undead hero. Another bloodcurdling screech erupted from him, provoking Spira to turn on her heel and run.
She knew that there was very little chance for her to outpace the monster, especially if it could elongate its limbs, and stretch them into deadly weapons. Without being able to even see the spiral stairway at the far end of the corridor, she knew her chances of survival were bleak.
Spira couldn’t think about that much longer though, for she was grabbed around her side then. She let out a frightened cry.
It occurred quick enough that Olarind’s tome spilled to the floor, and just striking the ground seemed to diminish its power. That left the chamber that Spira was pulled into feeling much eerier and foreboding. As she calmed herself, she realized that it was Tarkano who tugged her to safety, wrenching her into one of the side chambers that they’d passed by earlier.
As her adrenaline subsided, time, which felt as though it had raced forth like lightning, began to slow. It was as though she was watching everything unfold from underwater.
“Bloody hell,” Olarind cried. “Those were my favorite fingers.” He hadn’t meant to say something so whimsical, but the shock had him unable to put words to sound with any manner of elegance.
Takarno leaned against the door, putting his heft against it. Perhaps when he was younger, he would have seemed as though he’d had the strength to hold out whatever foul creature was out there. But in his old age, it looked almost as though a strong wind could have blown the door open and bowled the minotaur over.
Fighting past her anxiety, Spira looked around the room, realizing that it, too, was meant to be an interment spot for the dead. Holes in the wall were fashioned that were larger than the holes that held the skulls in the corridor outside. Instead, old wooden coffins sat in those cavities. Spira breathed quick and ragged, worrying about any other risen dead that might have been waiting for them in those coffins. While her mind raced, it led her back to the monster outside. From there, she replayed the final moments of her friend in her mind.
“Paulson,” she lamented.
“Don’t let grief take you,” Takarno warned. “You must keep your heart strong if you mean to survive this day.”
Almost as soon as his words were spoken, a flesh-colored spike pierced through the area where the door met the frame. It was just above Spira’s head, the girl’s slightly diminutive stature proving to be her saving grace.
Takarno was quick to act again, shoving her aside.
“Quick, give me something to bar the door,” the minotaur cried. Spira was too shocked by the dead hero’s attempt to break through the room, and the half-elf was distracted by his pain.
But Takarno would not have any of it. “Olarind, get me a damned coffin.”
The firmness in the minotaur’s voice twisted the hurt half-elf from his state, and he growled as he looked around to find the closest coffin. He was not so worried about what might be inside as Spira was, but when he went to grasp one with his battered hand, he grunted in pain and confusion. He quickly turned and used his other hand, tugging with all his might. The coffin was old and crude, and whatever was once inside no longer held the same weight it once did. It would still allow Takarno some respite though, and Olarind was quick to fumble it awkwardly into place.
The minotaur let go of a sigh of relief then, the noise growing richer as the creature’s spike withdrew from the door.
Like an axe splintering wood though, it came back through, piercing the center of the door, dangerously close to Takarno. The minotaur gasped and hopped away, just in time to dodge a slash of the bodily weapon.
“Another,” he bade, waving Olarind on.
As Olarind grasped another of the lower coffins on his side of the chamber, Takarno hurried to the rows of coffins on his side of the room, pulling one out of a higher recess.
In time, the door was firmly blocked, and Takarno collapsed against the wall opposite the entryway. He never took his gaze from where the coffins met the door.
By then, Spira had wrestled away her shock, and attempted to help to move more coffins into place. A bit too short to reach the top row of caskets, she bowed her head, and fell to the floor as well.
Olarind took up a spot beside her, breathing in erratically through clenched teeth.
“Spira, I need your help. I can’t stop the bleeding.”
“What do you need me to do?” she asked. “I’m no healer.”
He nodded but grasped a handful of his robe then. “I need you to tear away strips of my outfit. Long strips. I have to wrap my hand before I lose enough blood that I pass out.”
Spira fumbled for her equipment, first reaching toward the hip that a small hand crossbow hung from, before reaching for the opposite side, where an equally diminutive knife was situated. She began by working at the bottom of Olarind’s robe, tearing an exceptionally long rotation of the linen that he was able to use. Spira helped him to wrap it tight, but then sat staring at the blood that found its way to her hands.
She would have remained fixed on it as well, had the undead hero’s spikes not pierced through the door again.
“The knowledge that it remains out there is of some relief,” Takarno remarked wearily.
“It would be better if he were in here, and we were out there,” Olarind said, forcing himself to stare at the ceiling, so that he would not blanch at the sight of the blood soaking through his wrappings.
Takarno nodded. “You heard what Paulson said,” he remarked, and the mere mention of their fallen companion’s name sucked the air out of the room. Still, he went on. “No one knows that we are here. If we mean to find a way out, we’ll have to discover it on our own.”
Every time the minotaur spoke, it seemed that the creature outside tried that much harder to push his way into the room.
“Thun-Sorin,” Spira said then. “I think that was his name when he was alive. He swore an oath of some sort that must have upheld through his death, and now he’s become the monster he is.”
“He is indeed a frightening thing,” Takarno said, and as he spoke, Olarind’s eyes grew wide—in anger—and the lad held up his hand to show the wound he’d incurred. “This world was lucky that he was locked down here, because if he ever…” The minotaur’s words trailed off, and he looked toward the ceiling then as well.
Spira realized that he looked beyond the earthen roof above their heads, to the world above. She gasped, realizing what they had done.
“He cannot be allowed to climb the rope to the rest of Ippius,” Takarno insisted. “While I have no doubt that some of your sorcerers could find some means to stop him, he would slay many before that occurred.”
“How are we to prevent that then?” Olarind asked. “I doubt he’d return to his coffin if we asked.”
Takarno hummed and looked past the injured half-elf. A few moments later, he nodded. “Spira, come sit beside me,” he said as he waved the young lady over.
She skittered over to him, her pace only quickened when Thun-Sorin’s blade came through the door yet again.
“We cannot trap him in these catacombs again,” the minotaur conceded. “These doors all open inward, so we could not even hope to block him inside one of these rooms if we dared to try. But we can keep him down here. Once you make it to the top of the steps, you can close the bookshelf on him, ensuring he is never a danger to the world above.”
“But how do we get him in a room if we’re trapped here?”
Takarno bobbed his head, eager to tell the next part of the plan. “If my suspicions are correct, the next room ought to be just like this one: rows of hollows, carved to hold the dead, just like they were here. If they are positioned the same way—”
Spira’s eyes widened as she understood his plan. “We could dig into the next room and try to escape from there.”
“The door from that room leads to the same corridor,” Olarind protested. “We’re just trading one tomb for another.”
“Right,” Takarno said. “One of us has to trap the fallen hero in here, with us.”
“And who would do such a thing?” Olarind asked.
The minotaur said nothing for a time, but Spira realized what he intended. “Takarno, you can’t.”
“I would never be able to race to the end of the hall,” he assured. “An escape attempt would be wasted on me. But the pair of you? You could make it out of this foul place. You could warn the others above, and they would listen to you.”
“I can’t leave you here,” Spira said, tears beginning to wet the rims of her eyes. “Especially after what happened to Paulson.”
“The alternative is us all joining these ancient people in this dismal crypt. Please, Spira. You were the one warning all of us. You knew better than any of us what dangers could lie in the shadows of this place.” He squared his jaw and looked at Olarind then as well. “And you, child. You’ve lost enough already. It is time for you to go home.”
“All the treasure—everything we sought to come here for—trapped out there with him.”
“Your life is worth more than whatever you had hoped to gain here,” Takarno said. He breathed out an anxious sigh then, and reached into his satchel, once more taking all the parchments out, and holding them in his hand. “I’ll need some of these, in order to distract the monster. But Spira, I want you to take the rest. As I said earlier, I might be the last one to speak my people’s language on the archipelago. Take my voice so that it may live on.”
She then sniffled and set her head on his shoulder. The tears were freely falling then, for she knew she was speaking to a hero in his own rights, someone who should have been interred in a place like the one they were.
“If you should need to use these scrolls, they have been fortified by the aether. Do you know what that means?” He gave her a gentle push to ensure she could make eye contact with her. “It means that you can say the words that activate the magic here. They’ll work for you as well as they would me.”
“But I can’t speak your language,” she said.
“Maybe not now, but some day,” he said with a weary smile. “You’re a smart girl. I know you’ll go far in your life. It is not meant to end here.” Takarno leaned over, and gave her a warm embrace, before struggling to his feet, and helping her arrive at hers. “I shall begin making some noise to keep his attention on this door. You two, start digging.”
Spira swallowed away the tension in her throat and blew out the solemn air that infected her lungs. Olarind was standing then as well, and he held up his battered hand.
“I think you’ll need to handle this task,” he said. “But I can hold up the tome and offer you some light.”
She nodded, readying her knife once more. He extended his leg, offering the girl a spot to step up from. A moment later, she was in the earthen cavity where one of the coffins once sat. The light from Olarind’s tome lit up the dirt around her then, and she could see the end of the hole.
Takarno began moving the coffins, slamming them against one another to produce a cacophony that would retain Thun-Sorin’s attention. Spira started to chip away at the sturdy earth one piece at a time, throwing little piles of it behind her as best she could.
The risen Kalistrazi sent another terrifying screech into the air, and Spira froze, clenching her eyes shut.
“Keep digging,” Olarind bade. “He’s frustrated. That means Takarno’s plan is working.”
She squeezed out an unsteady breath, and did as the half-elf instructed, digging her knife deeper into the earth. While she was worried that her tool would break, she was surprised to feel less resistance only a moment later. The light of Olarind’s tome showed that her last endeavor had cut away the dirt between the two cavities.
A new hope ignited within her, Spira reached through with her hand, pulling away bits of dirt to enlarge the gap.
Behind her, a loud thump resounded against the door. Takarno gasped, and Olarind looked away, moving the tome as he did.
“He’s breaking through the door,” Olarind said. “Spira, you have to move faster.”
Panicking, she rolled to her back, freeing both of her hands for the task. She began plucking palmfuls of dirt, knocking some down, and scattering it about. Some made it into her hair, but she was lucky not to have anything obscure her vision. Before long, she was certain she had made enough space to crawl through—if not for the coffin on the other side of the earthen wall.
“I can’t move this thing,” she said, struggling as she did.
Spira cried when she felt a hand wrap around her ankle and tug her back into the other room. Olarind caught hold of her and helped to land her safely on her feet then.
She was surprised by the chunk of wood that had been splintered away from the door. She could see Thun-Sorin’s frightening face, his milky white eyes peering into the chamber.
“K’puo vuxtas, k’puwoe tov aepa yth pouta yov.”
Spira turned just in time to see Takarno read off the last words of a scroll, and watched as it disintegrated into the air, a bluish tint to the fading parchment. At once, a frigid air filled the room, coming to a point just before the minotaur’s outstretched hand. A ray of blue energy shot forth then, blasting against the door, and forming a layer of ice atop the gap that Thun’Sorin had created.
“That won’t hold him forever,” Takarno said. “Go!”
Spira turned to see Olarind already climbing into the gap that he had pulled her out of. She offered her assistance, helping to push him into place.
A fierce growl rang out from within the hole then, and then a loud thud on the other side of the wall.
Takarno moved at once, throwing the coffins aside to create a louder cacophony in their chamber. He pushed one closer to Spira then and offered her an assuring nod.
She dared not waste the time that the minotaur gave to her. Spira hopped onto the coffin, and then jumped into the hole, watching as Olarind squirmed out through the other side. Light filled the other chamber, the half-elf’s tome still casting enough radiance to make it look as though it was a place filled with hope. Spira hurried along as well, taking Olarind’s hand when he offered it.
Once she landed on her feet there, she could see that the blood that soaked through his makeshift bandages dripped to the floor. But they had no time to reapply them.
She ran toward the door, but Olarind reached out, keeping her from charging through it.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“Not yet,” he bade. “If we go too soon, this is all for naught.”
Though everything in her was telling her to run as fast as she could, she understood the rationale behind the half-elf’s words.
Together, they listened as the noises on the other side of the earthen wall continued to ring out. And then, they stopped. They heard Takarno grunt, and groan, and move about in the room, and knew that Thun-Sorin had made his way inside.
“Ootevin y’atwa, kuvnyen tao okatadi!” Takarno cried. “Avayaheytai atto tiaskai!”
Spira recognized that chant as the same one that the minotaur had said earlier when he was lighting the torch for Paulson. A roaring flame in the next room confirmed her suspicion, and she heard as the risen hero cried out in fear or pain.
“Now!” Olarind pressed.
Together, both of them pulled the door open…
…only to see a large figure waiting for them in the corridor.
Paulson’s eyes went wide as theirs did, but he reached forth at once, covering their mouths with his hands, grimacing as he did. When he was certain they would contain their voices, he stumbled back, gnashing his teeth as he reached toward his injured shoulder.
“What?” Olarind said.
“How is this possible?” Spira asked.
“I hid in the sarcophagus as he pursued you lot,” Paulson said. “I’ll smell like dead Kalistrazi for a fortnight.” He looked past them then, realizing it was just the two of them. “Takarno?”
He was given his answer when the minotaur howled out in pain then.
“We can’t let his sacrifice be in vain,” Spira insisted. “We have to get out of here.” She didn’t wait to hear if there would be any protest, heading back down the corridor to the far end where the spiraling stone staircase waited.
Paulson hesitated for a moment, knowing that it was at his request that Takarno had ventured there with the rest of them. A quiet grumble was all he could muster before he took a few steps after Spira. But when he didn’t hear Olarind behind him, he spun about.
The half-elf hesitated longer, staring the other way, to where their lost bounty no longer sparkled, the torchlight long before dying out.
“Leave it, lad,” Paulson said. “There’s no way for us to get to it.” That was all that Paulson dared to warn before running back the other way.
Olarind lingered there a moment longer, wondering if Thun-Sorin would be distracted enough by Takarno to sneak by and retrieve his fallen backpack.
Another cry rang out from Takarno, one long note that rang out in the horror that preceded death.
It ended more abruptly than it began.
Olarind knew that his companion had fallen. Clicking his tongue, he ran back the other way, hurrying after Paulson and Spira.
As he ran, the half-elf could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and he realized that other footsteps rang out in the hallway behind him. He turned then, his tome illuminating the opposite end of the corridor.
There, he saw Thun-Sorin.
By reflex alone, he stopped in his tracks, and swung out with his hand. A divine light radiated forth, striking against the undead Kalistrazi. Thun-Sorin halted, stunned by the golden slash that drew from the aether.
Olarind’s eyes grew wide as he realized he’d inflicted what seemed like pain on his foe. He moved forth again, calling upon the light of his gods, and sending another trio of slashes in rapid succession. Thun-Sorin screeched, and withdrew, back into the shadows.
The half-elf grinned, counting his blessings, for he hadn’t considered such a victory possible. He turned about and ran again, knowing that he would likely have to call on the gods again. But knowing that the undead could be turned back toward the darkness instilled Olarind with hope that he had thought lost.
He heard the telltale thump of the monster’s approach again, and he turned around. However, when he brought up his tome to light the corridor, he couldn’t see the Kalistrazi anywhere.
Thinking it was just his mind and his nerves playing tricks on him, he turned again.
Thun-Sorin dropped from the ceiling, his milky white eyes drawn close to Olarind. Without pause, he reached out with his sharp, clawed fingers.
Olarind’s cry rang out through the tunnel.
* * *
Paulson waited there at the top of the steps for a moment, but he knew as soon as he had heard Olarind howl out that there was no saving the lad. He stepped past the threshold then, into the temple that they’d found their way to earlier that day.
Spira had already carefully navigated her way past the wire she had warned them about earlier, and she had her hands upon the window that would lead to salvation.
Paulson slid the bookshelf back into position, hoping that it would keep the monster trapped below for another five centuries. He hurried then, remembering to heed the good advice that Spira had offered when they were in the room earlier.
Spira hoisted herself up into the window and turned to ensure that Paulson was quick on her heels.
That was when they both heard the tremendous thud against the bookshelf.
Paulson skidded to a stop, and turned about, watching as Thun-Sorin’s tendril-like limb squeezed through the small gap he had made. Paulson turned and looked up at Spira then, and his eyes already told the story that he planned to tell her.
“You can’t,” Spira said. “If you stay behind, it’ll only be a matter of time before it gets to you.”
“I can barely lift my arm,” he said, lifting his hand toward the site of the injury. “There is no way that I would be able to climb that damned rope fast enough to escape our friend back here. But you can, Spira. You can make sure that nobody up above ever has to worry about the evil we awoke here.”
“Paulson, I can’t be the only one,” she cried.
“You have to be,” he said, beginning the short trek back toward the pulpit. “When you get topside again, pull the rope up and destroy it. We don’t want this creature to be able to follow you up.”
“Paulson,” she croaked.
“It won’t be long now,” he said. “Go before he breaks through.”
Spira couldn’t budge though. As Paulson made his way back to the bookshelf, Spira wept, tears blinding her to the sight of the monster breaking its way through from the catacombs.
Thun-Sorin charged into the bookshelf, again and again, until finally it budged far enough from its track, and swung open with enough ferocity that it collapsed forward. The risen Kalistrazi spotted Spira, ready to make a quick escape, and he stomped forth, extending his hand toward her.
He couldn’t stretch his limb far, for Paulson was there behind him, and he hopped toward him, wrapping him in a fierce bearhug.
“Remember me?” the burly redhead asked.
Though Thur-Sorin struggled against the hold, scratching, and chomping at Paulson, the would-be grave robber refused to relent. With his fate already sealed, the man ignored any semblance of pain as he walked the undead creature forward.
Spira understood what he was doing at once.
Paulson lifted his boot and slammed it down upon the wire that stretched across the area just before the pulpit.
The rearmost pews bent over, sending forth a pair of blades that cut through both combatant’s lower limbs.
An otherworldly screech, and a harrowing cry rang out in unison. Spira clapped her hand over her mouth at the sight of Paulson’s heroics.
Despite all the pain that he could no longer ignore, Paulson leaned up on his arms, making eye contact with the girl one last time.
She dared not waste her friend’s sacrifice. Spira leapt from the window, tumbling as she reached the ground. She looked up, knowing that the climb to the world above the crater would be a tremendous feat. The descent took a long time. The ascent would take longer and would require all the strength she could muster.
She sprang forward, grabbing hold of the rope, and wrapping her legs around it. Before she had even stopped swinging, Spira began to hoist herself up, one hand after the other.
An excruciated cry rang out from within the temple, and the girl chose to let it inspire her to climb faster, no longer pausing to lament.
She thought of all that she had lost in venturing there. Three friends, with whom she could see many more adventures, had all fallen to the darkness. They had given everything to ensure that the one who hadn’t strayed would not fall.
And Spira was determined to see their last wishes through. She climbed until her arms burned, and then she pushed past it, refusing to let weariness creep up on her. Spira looked up, seeing how close she was to climbing over the lush ledge that led into the forest.
But then, the rope began to swing again, and she nearly lost her footing.
Though she knew before she ventured a glance, she looked down, and her heart skipped a beat. There, at the end of the rope, Thun-Sorin began to climb as well.
His milky white eyes narrowed in the light of day, and when he was certain he had the woman’s attention, he cried out, exposing his long, thin tongue, and separating his jaws in a monstrous, unnatural way.
Spira reached for her hip, fumbling for her knife.
Before she could get a grip on it, it teetered from her fingers, sailing down to the ground, far below, past the climbing Kalistrazi.
“No,” Spira said.
Her heart pounding, with no idea what to do, the treasure hunter resumed her climb, invigorated by the sight of the monster below. She began screaming with every foot she ascended, the noise helping to push her further than she thought possible.
Somehow, despite all her fatigue, all her pain, all her torment, she reached the top of the rope, and pulled herself atop the ledge.
Upon arriving there, she rolled to her back, just trying to get the feeling back in her appendages for a moment. She didn’t know what to do anyway. Running wasn’t an option, she considered. Thun-Sorin was impossibly fast for a dead man.
She rolled to her side then and felt the hand crossbow along her hip. But as she slid her fingers toward it, she felt the parchments that Tarkano had given her—the last words of a minotaur in Ippius.
It came as suddenly and clearly as a bell, ringing in her mind. She remembered the words that the minotaur had chanted in the catacombs as though he was whispering it in her very ears.
Blowing out a steadying breath, Spira sat up, and sorted through the parchments, gazing at them all with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow. Takarno had drawn pictures onto the scrolls as well, helping to differentiate one spell from the next.
Spira’s heart fluttered at the sight of a flame upon one of the papers then, and she felt more empowered than she had ever been.
“Ootevin y’atwa, kuvnyen tao okatadi. Avayaheytai atto tiaskai!”
She gasped at the sight of the small spark that took shape before her hand, but she cheered as it roared forth like a dragon had breathed fire from behind her palm.
The rope ignited at once, and she finally felt ready to reach for her crossbow. At once, she had a bolt aimed at the burning, fraying rope.
She yelped at the sight of Thun-Sorin’s head poking up from the crater. On reflex alone, she swung her crossbow toward him instead, and her finger brushed against the trigger. With a resounding twang, the bolt fired, slamming against the creature’s skull.
Thun-Sorin’s fingers twisted, and he lost grip on the rope. He disappeared from sight once more, and a few seconds later, a sickening thud could be heard far below.
Spira hesitated but ventured to crawl to the side of the crater. She looked down, to the world below which she had escaped from, and saw the body of the fallen Kalistrazi. Thun-Sorin looked stranger than ever before, his body twisted and misshapen. The fall, it seemed, had finally put the hero to rest.
A crackling moan from below threw that notion into disarray.
Mangled limbs stretched and bent, and the monster labored to its feet then. Spira’s eyes went wide, for it seemed nothing could send Thun-Sorin to the Nexus.
A quiet snap reported beside her, and Spira turned to see the rope separate. Over fifty feet of woven cord plummeted to the ground below.
While the monster hadn’t been slain, he had, it seemed, been stopped.
Spira rolled to her back again, finally allowing all of the emotions she’d held beneath the surface to spill out. She wept, knowing that no one should have experienced what she had, and that the world had lost some good people that day.
Far below, Thun-Sorin moaned and bayed, as though he was some helpless thing that was worthy of sympathy. Spira grimaced though, knowing the monster for what he was.
With the sun beginning to set in the west, Spira struggled to her feet. Home was far to the east, and she could think of nothing she would rather do than put some distance between her and the frightening creature who had stolen her friends from her.
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