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Chapter 92

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 4 years, 12 months ago

Open skies were now behind and the orange glow of Rose's fiery tail replaced the pink glow of dusk. That tail of hers, our strongest and most reliable source of light, cast shadows onto the dreary stone halls from and I watched as they morphed into otherworldly beings that watched us from afar while we marched descended deeper into the earth. Their strange shapes were alien, unknown, just like the path ahead of us.

 

The darkness in front of us peeled back, but our surroundings never changed. An unending rectangle of stone stretched on for as long as we kept walking. We could be going in circles for all I know, I grumbled to myself. Minte must have picked up on what I thought I had said quietly to myself and began marking the walls with her scythes. We never encountered those gashes again, so settled that we were not stuck going in circles. It's a small comfort, because the alternative was that we were travelling somewhere far away and we still didn't have a clue as to how far.

 

That door served as the ideal gate, it locked this realm away and went so far as to sell the feeling we left for whole other world.

 

And I'd be considered an expert on that sort of thing.

 

Not a single root from that marsh's mighty trees managed to chew through the ancient masonry. That lush greenery and bounty of nature abandoned us as we delved deeper into the dead earth. I didn't miss the soggy ground though. I'd stick to this cold hard ground any day. However, the absence of birdsong, insects chirping and frogs croaking had been substituted with nothing, nothing but the empty and lonely echoes of our footsteps. It's only by the virtue of the girl's bursts of jovial conversation that keep the chill of the cold earth from squeezing my heart tight.

 

Rose and Chris exchanged stories about the daring heroes who had plunged into similar dungeons and catacombs like this.... A lot of the stories ended up being told from monster's perspective halfway through... With predictable results after their capture.

 

Ba'el kept going about the great treasures she hoped to find and what she could do with different palm fulls of gold and jewels... Some of them made me feel uncomfortable.

 

Minte kept quiet, but I could always feel her presence at my backside. Occasionally I could feel a poke or sudden strike of a finger, but when I turned around her expression remained blank, the same as always. That didn't mean her antenna were twisting, turning and pulling back as if they were silently saying, “Who? me?”

 

Besides Rose's tail, a steady chime accompanied a faint glow from Susan's golden staff. A sickly orb of light pulsated within the keyhole of her staff's crowning ankh. It gave enough light to illuminate what the priestess had been spending all this time reading with her head down. Her eyes poured over a weathered parchment which she struggled to hold, fold and rotate the map with a single paw. It reminded me of someone struggling with an oversized road map in the cramped confines of a car's passenger seat.

 

As amusing as it was to watch her stubbornly tackle it all by herself, I eventually found myself compelled to help her.

 

     “Do you need me to hold either of those for you?” I said, reaching out with a helping hand.

 

     “N-no, not at all!” She stuttered while hurriedly refolding the map.

 

Susan retreated from my approaching hand and attention of the other girl's locked onto us. A detente which has formed for the past hour nearly melted, but Susan waved it away in a hurry.

 

I should have expected that reaction. After we spent the first fifteen minutes with all five of them hanging off of me, but before it came to blows, I lost my temper. One slip or slow reaction while trying to get down those stairs with that much weight bearing down on me, or pulling me side to side, would have caused all five of us to tumble down the rest of the steps like a bucketful of Slinkys.

 

     “We've been going in a straight line for hours now.” Ba'el groaned, a barb hidden within her tone. “You should have figured that out by now, Miss Genius.”

 

There were better ways to break this rut, but not from Ba'el, I suppose.

 

     “This is but an axillary entrance!” she barked back. “A series of catacombs and crypts lay further within the labyrinth. Tis designed like a veritable colony for ants. If I fail to comprehend it now...”

 

She let out a heavy sigh.

 

     “I am a fool for not suspecting such a thing. All those hours on our journey here, wasted.”

 

     “In that swamp? With all the mud? If you walked it with only one hand and dropped it, we'd be in a lot more trouble than we are right now.” I said, trying my best to calm her down.

 

I only needed a quick glance at the map to agree with that metaphor and her pain. Whoever the cartographer was deserved to have been fired... But she only glared at me in response... Which she would, of course. How crass of me to point out that she might be absent minded enough to walk like she is now in ankle high muck that she took a couple spills over the past couple days.

 

     “Then it's not to scale?” Chris asked, her head looming above my own and looking down at the crumpled map.

 

I breathed a sigh of relief after Chris' save. That pulled Shoshanah's wrath off of me.

 

     “No, it's not,” she grumbled while tracing her index claw across the parchment. “By conjecture, I've determined that we have approached from this South-Easterly direction: Along this straightened path here.”

 

But that only took up a few centimetres from the edge of the map. It immediately broke open into a mess of what I could only guess were thousands upon thousands of room both large and small. And either those rooms were all massive, given how long we've been walking straight, or the map was an abstraction upon abstraction. Either answer would lead to trouble. The whole map is basically a blob of black ink on parchment. If I weren't looking at it from behind l would never be able to tell its age.

 

Making out one line from the next, where the outline of one floor or section began and the other ended, they all meshed together. Susan nearly went cross-eyed a few times trying to decipher tiny segments cluttering the piece of paper that unfolded to a width of nearly one and a half meters

 

That map was one of the few things stowed away in that purse that Hyria handed to after I accepted her request. After spending the money to resupply ourselves... Which I berate myself over because I didn't negotiate to have our expenses covered... The only other thing that remained is the mysterious emerald crystal. It looked so delicate, and so very expensive, that I loathed to expose it to the air any longer than I had to. I tied the mouth of the purse tighter and secured it around the loop of my belt.

 

     “Relax~,” Rose said, a chipper tone in her voice going strong. “We got supplies for a week... No, wait...”

 

She looked down at her burning tail.

 

     “Six days if I gotta keep this up,” she reassured us, holding her tail and presenting it to us in all its luminescence. “...No, wait. Six days if we go far enough to hit magma.”

 

I couldn't keep moving and came to a stop. Everyone else followed suit immediately. I rubbed my aching temples between my thumb and middle finger.

 

     “Let's hope it doesn't come to that.”

 

     “It would be a most unfortunate, but natural result of an erring in our journey,” Susan said.

 

     “You're joking... This place can't possibly go—“

 

Her all too serious eyes were same as always.

 

     I coughed the nervousness out of my throat, “You— you just keep reading that map...”

 

We needed to keep going, but my feet planted themselves to the ground as if kept there by a fly strip. The soles of my feet throbbed painfully and refused to go on one more step. A rolling stone with no more momentum to carry on now that I had stopped.

 

     “My feet are about to burst from my boots. It has to be well into the night by now. If this is gonna kept going can we at least start tackling it tomorrow?”

 

My gaze travelled across the semi-circle of the five girls, and every one of them didn't look nearly as beat as I was. Rose titled her head at me; she had far too much energy and was could barely contain her excitement. I couldn't read Minte's blank expression, but she could probably march on indefinitely without complaint until her body gave out. Chris and Susan suppressed a pair of frowns and averted their eyes, they finally remembered I didn't have the same kind of stamina finally dawned on them. Ba'el threw her head and stared up at the ceiling while letting a long disappointed sigh emptied her lungs.

 

     “I don't have the feet ta feel with ya—” Ba'el said while clopping her hooves on the floor. “—But I'm still gonna agree. This nothing but walking walking walking is driving me nuts!”

 

There was more impatience than sympathy in her voice... And the beginnings of a temper tantrum.. However, our supplies were limited as were our funds and that meant we were also short on time. If we didn't dive in headlong and make use of all our time, we'd be forced to backtrack. Our six days really meant three.

 

     “Hey hey—“ Rose frowned and planted her claws on her hips in protest. “We can't just turn in when we're still at the beginning of the beginning. That's for the end of the beginning.”

 

     “Thou art eager,” Susan sighed, “But Laven and the runt are correct.”

 

     “Hey!” Ba'el shouted.

 

Everyone ignored her though.

 

     “Cramped,” Minte said looking around at the passageway which wasn't wide enough to let us walk any more than three of us, shoulder to shoulder.

 

     “How about that spot then?” Chris chimed in while spreading a wingspan toward the darkness.

 

Huh?

 

Our collective grunt and stupefied expression echoed out into the darkness she presented to us. Susan clanked the bottom of her staff against the floor and the shining orb of light broke free and went racing down the hallway sending shadows flying in every direction. It didn't vanish after traveling laterally though. The wisp flew upwards and vanished. We all moved at once, with Chris and her wide grin followed us from behind.

 

Her smile's raison d'etre became apparent when Rose's tail no longer painted the walls orange. A large antechamber spread out in all direction with a darkness she could not piece. The light from Susan's staff flew in circle eights near the ceiling which reached upward ten meters above us.

 

The map in Shoshanah's paws unfolded in an instant. In her excitement she let her staff, so she could do it properly with both paws, which left me be the one who would grab hold of it as it began to keel over. Her roaming light orbited my head a couple times before returning to the keyhole of her staff and gave proper illumination to the map. The anubis' red eyes blazed a trail across the myriad of black etching until she jammed a claw onto a specific room.

 

     “This must be it!.. It could be no other,” She declared.

 

     “Hmm hmm hmm,” Chris chuckled from her throat. “Perseverance is the currency from which victory is bought.”

 

     “How long did you spend thinking that one up,” I quipped back.

 

     “About thirty minutes ago, when I saw this room up ahead.”

 

What?

 

Chris didn't respond to the look I had on my face, nor any of the others which looked similar to mine.

 

     “Damn... Right,” I groaned. “Your eyes...”

 

Chris had eyes as sharp as an eagle and as potent as an owl's. But that factoid wasn't going to stop me chewing her out.

 

     “Then why didn't you bring that up earlier!?” I shouted.

 

The last couple kilometers wouldn't have sucked so much if I had known we were on the final stretch! I was about to scream, but held myself back. There's no need to overdo my complaints.

 

     “Because of the dramatic reveal,” she bellowed and moved her wings in an act of theater. “The stepping out from the cramped corridors and the thrill of sudden victory: why would I trample on such feelings and deny those powerful emotions!”

 

Her wings dropped down to her sides and her excitement quickly bottled up again.

 

     “Opportunity missed. A shame,” she exhaled and shook her head.

 

I'd shake her by the shoulders or put her into a headlock for leading me on like that on purpose... If I were tall enough... However, a quick flash of her smile down toward me piled guilt on me. You just wanted to see that look on my face, didn't you? That's what the look on your face is telling me, right? I couldn't stay mad in the face of such an innocent smile and I was forced to swallow my anger. My inner softness made it bounce around a few times in vain before dissolving into the past.

 

     “It is confirmed,” Susan declared once more. “Given the contours of this room, tis laid on the top most floor for this entire region.”

 

     “A lotta doors...” Rose gasped..

 

She walked forward and spun herself around, the orange torch light scraped over each wall. Several dark openings were scattered across the room, both on our current floor and on stories above. There were also signs that plans existed to make many more. Among the dozen open passageways, two dozen more had decorated archways, but their entrances were closed off with uncut stone.

 

     “A lot more sealed doors,” I said, echoing Rose.

 

     “Whip out that crystal of yours and get to work then,” Ba'el said... Suggestively.

 

     “Let's not,” I declined. “I'd rather not test our luck. This thing could be glass instead of diamond for all we know, so let's not smash it against every locked door we come across.”

 

Ba'el let out harrumph and sulked her way toward the archways on her own.

 

     “Let no one else but you touch it. Under any and all circumstances,” Hyria's voice replayed inside my mind.

 

Those words of hers, retold by me, weren't quite enough to sate Ba'el's curiosity. The Anubis priestess, the only other girl who showed any interest, wasn't about to disrespect any ritual. Hearing that alone would be enough for her to give up. Susan wasn't about to foul up anything which had to do with honoring the dead. Convincing Ba'el, on the other hand, proved to be much harder. Her eyes, sharing the same color as the crystal, were drawn to its fine cut ridges. The emerald crystal looked a lot like key, and after the little hiccup at the gate, it ended up worked like one too. My heart nearly stopped when Rose grabbed me by the wrist and rammed it into the stone wall; I thought it would shatter like ice.

 

Ba'el, meanwhile, salivated over the thought of cracking the crystal open and spilling its insides. I too was curious, but we didn't have the time, nor the right to pry it open and figure out how it worked. Her rebelliousness almost carried her to defy orders, but after giving it a quick look-over beyond arms length, she sighed and lost interest. She grumbled something about, “Not a speck of mana”.

 

But something else had caught the baphomet's attention. She inspected each door in the room. Her cute little nose twitched each time she sniffed the air.

 

My eyes wandered away and across the room. I pondered aloud to myself.

 

     “This place looks... Unfinished...”

 

The murmurs of the girl's moving about and talking to one another continued, but I wandered out and looked over the room once more and let its atmosphere sink in.

 

     “And if this is a crypt. They were expecting a lot more dead people before the end.”

 

And the room went quiet. I didn't think I had said it that loudly, but my voice carried far and loud enough for the girls to look my way. Their expressions ranged from alarmed to aghast.

 

     “Well. No. That's not exactly what I—“

 

     Rose stroked her chin, “When ya put it that way...”

 

     “A great multitude of questions about the intentions and history of this place arises...” Susan brooded.

 

     “Like they left in a hurry,” Ba'el added.

 

Rose turned to the demon, and Ba'el turned toward the salamander.

 

     “That's quite the mystery they left behind,” Rose said.

 

     “Mysteries can't be all they left behind,” Ba'el replied.

 

     “It can't be helped if they dropped anything. Ain't like it's our fault they put it in the wrong spot and forgot about it,” Rose nodded in return.

 

     “Technically ain't stealing if it's lost and found.”

 

     “And if one came 'round to claim it...”

 

Rose and Ba'el came to an understanding with one another, their eyes glimmering. Shoshanah glared at them with fire in her eyes, but held her tongue. If those two teamed up, not even an enraged Susan could stop them.

 

     All the tension I had built up melted out of me with a sigh, “That's not what I was getting at.”

 

What interested me wasn't what treasures might have been left behind. I'm not immediately concerned with the why, how and when either. It's the what that worried me.

 

     “It's for what reason they made this place. What caused them to give up so suddenly and leave this place behind.”

 

     “Fear not, master!” Chris shouted behind me.

 

I shook violently and nearly jumped out of my skin. She somehow got behind me and into my blind-spot.

 

     “I'll protect you, no matter what or who appears,” she said with resolve as she pounded her clenched up foretalons against her, now bouncing, chest.

 

Chris hammed that line up so much that I had to look away and couldn't muster a thanks in response.

 

     “T-that just leaves where then,” I said to change the subject. “And for starters... Where did Minte get to?

 

I looked around for the assassin, which was usually a waste of time, but found her standing idle across the room. From her barely visible silhouette, she looked up at something. I slid up behind her and she didn't so much as turn to acknowledge my approach. An inscription engraved across the top arch of the doorway she stood before answered the first question: what's so fascinating that it can keep Minte in rapt attention.

 

Her antenna were stretched out as far as they could go and tapping up against the series of runes stretched along arch of the entryway. It wasn't bright enough for me to make them out, so I called Rose over and her tail lit the corner of the room up.

 

But the runes there were a completely different alphabet from the ones I've grown used to seeing throughout my travels. I still couldn't read those either, nothing more than the most elementary of elementary, but I could tell right away that these markings were different. I thought at first that perhaps it could be an ancestor of the current tongue, but that turned out to not be so, but these curves and dots on each line were a different language altogether.

 

     “Can you read that, Minte?” I asked.

 

She poked the pop-out stone runes a few more times and inspected it with her eyes now that there was proper light, but shaking her head is all she could do.

 

     “No,” she replied weak and curtly.

 

That left me to wonder why it had caught her attention.

 

     “It's a warning,” Ba'el said with half the heart needed to make such an important statement profound.

 

But her voice was uncharacteristically serious. A grim expression on her face highlighted her eyes as they scanned back and forth over text.

 

     “A typical 'abandon hope, all ye who enter' bullshit.”

 

     “And the literal translation?” I asked.

 

     “Hell if I know. Humans keep making up new languages all the time. You think I was gonna bother memorizing them all?”

 

She thrust her claw into the air and jabbed at each rune in proxy as she explained.

 

     “Some of these shapes are universal, ya see? All the languages on this continent, no matter where or far back ya go... They share some basic forms. It all shares some common origin, or something like that.”

 

     “Tis an older script of Yalerian,” Shoshanah said, approaching with the unfolded map still in her paws. “That would render these runes very old indeed. And I loathe to agree, but the demon is correct... Save for the hieroglyphs of the Northern Forgotten Kingdom”

 

     “That's because they weren't native to the region.”

 

Susan's tail went rigid and bristled with fury, the ears atop her hear perking up like the exclamation mark tattoos on her stomach.

 

     “Come again!?”

 

Ba'el jabbed her pinky claw into her ear and twisted it around to dig out the scream that was now bouncing around inside.

 

     “Ah~ I messed up... But if ya really wanna hear that story, ask me when the biased party ain't here,” she said while throwing me a bored sidelong glance.

 

She walked away with that cryptic message and melted back into the pseudo-darkness of the room, to where we had let our belongings slump to the ground. Her expression, a paradox of childish appearance with a mature woman's wisdom, winked at my suggestively. She layered it on so thick that it stuck to my ski... That might be sweat, actually.

 

     “Of all the—“ the anubis growled and bared her teeth at the retreating silhouette.

 

I made a desperate attempt to change the subject to something more productive.

 

     “You said it's Old Yalerian?”

 

     Susan sighed and turned back toward me, “That is correct. Before the last war against demon-kind, from before the various kingdoms of this land were united into The Empire, many languages existed. All of them shared a similar origin, as Ba'el said. Phonetically and grammatically they were similar. As were they structurally similar in alphabet... But they we originally distant in the construction of their vocabulary. An endless series of rearrangements, all from shared ancestral syllables.”

 

     “...And that means?”

 

     Chris' booming voice interrupted from behind, “This here was carved at least a thousand years ago... But no earlier than from three thousand.”

 

Susan and I's eyes nearly bulged out of our sockets.

 

     “Ahahaha~” Chris laughed and scratched the back of her head with one of her wing's talons. “Stop, really. That ain't too impressive... I mean, even I can spot a couple markings that look a lot like Old Verian.”

 

Domdracverian.

 

     Susan coughed and continued, “This is also correct. I learned this all myself during my brief tenure at the library within Castle Zern.”

 

Back when we were hired at Domdracveria's capital of Ifern.

 

     “With enough manuscripts at hand, given that they follow basic scripts with common ancestry, there are particulars which are ultimately ubiquitous. It is possible to 'reverse engineer' the current common tongue backwards...”

 

That needed some clarification.

 

     “Which means you can read whatever is—“

 

     “Negative,” Susan cut me off. “Yalerian is beyond me. I did not put it memory, nor encountered any such texts within that library. I can only recognize a minute sampling of significant strokes and specific runes... But that is enough to tell me no one is meant to pass beyond this point... For fear of retribution.”

 

Hyria's warning and her own fears came to mind.

 

     “Booby trapped,” I said.

 

     “Heh heh,” Rose chuckled.

 

     “Anyways,” Susan stressed her voice to silence Rose, “Beyond this point will lay danger. I fear our map doth agrees that this is the passage we must take to reach our destination... It would behoove us to be rested and in prime condition before tackling this challenge.”

 

     “Forty winks and a later second dinner it is then!” Rose declared. “Lost treasures, unknown depths, hidden dangers... I can hardly wait! All that's missing is a big old—”

 

     “Stop stop stop!” I shouted while waving my hands. “We don't have wood down here to knock on, so don't force that idea into my head.”

 

     “B-but...” Rose pouted.

 

I grit my teeth and struggled to pull away from her glistening eyes as she learned over and pressed her claws together in prayer... She looked like a lost puppy.

 

     “L-let's just focus on the problems we have and not go looking to create new ones!.. We can start by filling our stomachs and getting a good night's sleep for once.”

 

The other girls dismissed themselves went back to set up the camp in the center of the room.

 

Promises of a feast flipped Rose's mood a hundred and eighty degrees. Susan plopped herself down cross-legged to tackle the map another time. Chris and Minte took their turn to set up the camp while Ba'el sat alone in the back. She drew magic runes in the air. They were actual lines of light that hung briefly in the air before she swatted them away to reset her invisible calculation sheet. What she's up was beyond me, but she had whipped out her pipe out which billowed the smoke of oppugnant herbs. That's enough to tell me to stay out of her way for now.

 

I myself remained at the door to soak in that warning by myself. Those lifeless runes glared back me and I let an ominous feeling linger for few seconds longer. Eventually I turned my back to them and rejoined the others who set upon me with all their hospitality.

 

Meanwhile, Hyria's playful and refined expression bubbled back up from my memories. Far all the magic she could muster, she knew that this was a point she could not venture past. A large sum of money would have to deflect the lingering question as to why she'd seek me, and the girls, to do this little ritual on her behalf.

 

But as turned back to the door, and before I joined the others and their escalating festivities, an eerie chill bid me farewell.

 

***

 

It took a single night stand with the cold solid ground to fill me with regret and longing for the great outdoors. Stiffness and a terrible cramp overtook me the moment I awoke and found myself back in ghastly burrow someone dared deign as a crypt. Memories of a nice warm bed seemed like a distant memory steeped in delusion. Whole vertebrae along my spine felt out of place, the sleeping mat I laid out offered no preventive care.

 

We had yet to see any of the dead buried here and that was just as well, because not even the dead could find any suitable slab of tone to call their final resting place.

 

They hadn't even finished building the place. Whoever built this place gave up halfway through, leaving nothing but empty carved out tunnels in the earth. Beyond this room the majority of those tunnels were rough stone and totally unlike the smoothed corridor we had marched down last evening.

 

After my body finished registering the stiffness, a chill spread through my body and each joint creaked like an unoiled gear. The cracking of my joints acted as an alarm-bell for the other girls who roused lazily from their sleep. Except for Minte, who I didn't spot until I turned around and saw her sitting seiza immediately behind me where my head had been resting before.

 

I reached with my hand to the back of my head and felt a residual warmth. I craned my neck back and forth and noticed it didn't so much as creak or sting with pain. Her eyes stared up at me without a flicker of emotion, the only difference in her appearance would be the slightly blackened bags underneath her eyes: no doubt from her being charged with being the last one in rotation for guard duty.

 

My hair felt a little more tossed and ruffled than usual as well. Minte bowed her head, stood up and skittered away before I was awake enough to stop her.

 

The other girls fared better than I. Rose reignited after from being sluggishly cold blooded after that tail's flame sparked and her eyes shot open with youthful energy. She bounded her way over to me and gushed about her excitement about what today's expedition would turn up. Rose had yet to lose a single iota of enthusiasm. It's a blessing, because her vigor and smile rubbed off a bit on me too. Our journey had been marked with passive and reactive activities, but here we were, actively rediscovering something lost. It too was something Rose coveted, because her own experiences revolved around mercenary work and this is the first time she'd get to live out being one of the adventurers she envied.

 

All the other girls were more reserved, but I could spot excitement in their movements and in their voices. Shoshanah cracked a wry smile at the map now, she was apparently close to a breakthrough in deciphering the madness of ink. Her watch had been first and so she used the rest of the night in meditative state to refresh her mind which granted her a revelation.

 

Chris's minor stint of claustrophobia had mostly waned, but her sleep cycle got cut in half with her being stuck in the middle of the other four girls— especially when she refused to let me take my turn. “I cannot allow my master to stir while I sleep soundly,” is what she said. There was also the bit she added in the end with a troubled expression. Something about it being unknightly to watch over a bunch of girls sleeping— defenseless. I couldn't follow her logic at that point, in the middle of the night and decided to take her up on the offer rather than argue.

 

Ba'el remained— as elusive as ever; distracted and aloof while moving her paws as flapping her lips as if working with some invisible Rubik cube and talking herself through some manner of ritual. That didn't stop her from throwing out the occasional rude comment or sly smile when she caught me looking her direction. She's still far too detached and preoccupied though...

 

After a simple breakfast, we gathered up our camp and set out down the door which loomed over use the entire night before. Memories of stirring in my sleep and finding myself staring down into its inky darkness returned to me. So too did the chilling feeling that crept up my back no matter which way I faced it.

 

     “Come on, come on!” Rose shouted with glee as her vice grip seized me by the wrist.

 

She didn't get very far though. Chris appeared behind her and got her claws underneath Rose's arms and lifted the salamander's feet off the floor. Her legs flailed as if she were still running for a couple seconds before they began kicking back and forth and her mirthful chanting gave way to angered protest. The wyvern had to turn her face away from the furious burst of flame that erupted from Rose's tail, sweat already starting to pour off Chris from exposure to the heat.

 

     “We discussed this at length among ourselves,” Shoshanah said with a sigh as she stepped forward into Rose's field of vision. “Someone else shall relinquish you of serving as the vanguard until you are capable of demonstrating the barest modicum of restraint.”

 

Rose's legs stopped kicking and she stared back at Susan.

 

     “And cease with those pouting eyes immediately! I shall not allow you to connive your way out of this!”

 

     “Sorry,” Chris said with a weak chuckle while lowering Rose back down to the ground.

 

     “Chris will take the lead for now,” Susan dictated to the dejected Rose, “Her eyes are best suited to piecing the darkness and behold paths ahead of us the furthest. YOU, on the other hand, shall remain in the rear guard.”

 

A look of shock broke Rose's feigned expression like a hammer to porcelain. It nearly moved me to interject, but I couldn't quite disagree with what Susan said, or the spirit of what she's doing and what it hoped to prevent. Being rash, reckless and risk taking wasn't going to help any of us at this point.

 

Without any further interruptions we set off into the crypt along a pre-planned route that the anubis had slaved over the night before. The giant room gave way to a corridor which shared the same dimensions as the one before, but its construction lagged behind a couple years. Not even half of the walls had been chiselled out and smoothed down to the same level of artistry. Raw stone, carved out by manual labor instead of a skilled mason, spotted the ceiling and the floor.

 

The further down we went, the drier my nose became and my eardrums ached to pop. This whole place was bone dry, and the air pressure got stronger the closer we delved deeper into the ground. I could already feel the temperature rise a couple degrees too. We could already be half a kilometer under the surface by my guess.

 

Chris took the lead, as planned, with Susan following a number of footsteps behind her. Ba'el stuck to the center while I hang back with a dejected Rose and Minte whose presence I could feel solely by a tingling sensation on the back of my skull.

 

The more I moved and warmed my muscles the less sore I felt, but the eerie tension and chill never abated. Goosebumps crept up along my arms despite how far down we travelled or how close I strayed to Rose and her radiating body heat. It didn't help when our path suddenly became very complicated. Going forward had been our only choice for almost an hour until side rooms and countless narrow corridors starting springing up. Each of those rooms had dozens of holes dug out from the walls. All of them were deep enough, and wide enough, to slide a body into. Which way didn't matter, there were holes for all preferences.

 

Head first so your feet would stick out. Shallow, but wide enough to slip in and lay down as if it were a bunch.

 

Thousands of man hours worth of labor, but hardly any remains at all. My heart jumped whenever I actually saw a pair of bleached bone feet sticking out, but they were few and far between. Mounds of bones and skeletal remains were virtually nonexistent. After a couple of hours winding through the crypt I counted three complete skeletons and only about four times that in random femurs, skulls or a ribcage laying about.

 

Ash is what we found a lot of. Undisturbed mounds of ash, usually piled up in the center of each room.

 

There were too many of those ash piles; so many that it hooked onto Shoshanah's curiosity to the point that she could no longer contain herself. The priestess excused herself and cautiously veered off into an adjacent room along our path.

 

     “I sense no defensive mechanism here, worry not,” was her reply.

 

I could hear Rose huff and pout beside me over Susan getting her way when she could not. It could be that her own curiosity had been lit up that prevented her from protesting the supposed hypocrisy.

 

Susan approached a large conical pile of ash in the centre of the room that came up to her knees. She knelt down on the floor and poked hesitantly at the pile, and then let the pads of her paws run across it, then grab a handful of it to let it sift back down on top of the pile. The ash shone a brilliant white in the light of her staff, her red eyes narrowing and glinting in the darkness.

 

     “This had better be good,” Ba'el sighed and was the second to enter the room.

 

I followed behind her and stood in the corner to watch Susan work while Ba'el loomed over her shoulder.

 

     “Bone ash,” the anubis muttered.

 

     “It is a burial place after all,” Chris chimed in from the doorway.

 

     “One does not acquire such ash from mere decomposition.”

 

     “Bones are still twenty-something percent water...” I said, drawing Susan's attention away from the ash and into my eyes.

 

The expectant look in her eyes threw me off for a moment. There was a particular and peculiar intensity, but I pressed on.

 

     “I-I think? Pretty s-sure that's it.”

 

     “Come on now, Laven.” Ba'el chuckled lightly, as if I had said something painfully naive. “If it's bone, it's gotta be mostly earth with some fire in it... well, maybe not so much fire what with the body being dead.”

 

     “Shush!” Susan growled at the demon.

 

Ba'el must be talking about the four humours. An antiquated model, but not totally unexpected. My knowledge felt... limited. I'd never be able to prove what I was about to say in any way, and without a clue as to how, but I continued on because Shoshanah appeared hungry to know.

 

     “Calcium phosphate.”

 

     “Is what you'd have remain if you immolated human remains.”

 

Susan rose back to her feet and turned back to face the other four: Minte and Rose peeking their heads from behind Chris in the doorway.

 

     “Hey,” Rose piped up and slipped her way into the room under Chris' wing. “You don't 'burn' bones to ash. That takes a lot of heat... And I'd know.”

 

I bet she would.

 

Susan ignored the salamander proudly jabbing her thumb talon into her chest and flicking her tail back and forth and continued.

 

     “You said it was a cultural practice to... to...”

 

She still had a hard time imagining it.

 

     “Cremation,” I said to help her out.

 

     “That... If they did that... Then why would they have bothered to construct such a labyrinth? Why would there still remain a random assortment of intact remains?”

 

     “You can knock it off with the rhetorical questions and spell it out for the others,” Ba'el said, crossing her arms in front of her chest with impatience.

 

     “This purge is most likely a reaction... A reaction and potentially a great heretical act. Given the hints of more civilized burial rites I've observed here, the destruction of these remains appears unnatural.”

 

Her voice picked up the pace and got faster and faster.

 

     “Although I see no evidence that proper mummification took place. Such a waste. Such a crime. How else did these savages expect these poor souls to make it to their destined afterlife as their bodies rot away from them? Tis verily a simple procedure. Base slaves can be trained to perform is adequately on a mass scale. Given the desiccation of this locale, and in spite of bogland being suitable to preserve bone material whilst the living beings rife in the environment above would wreak havoc on the flesh; it is not unthinkable, given this apparent scale of scope of sophistication in architecture and excavation, that they could easily have-”

 

     “Whoa, slow down there now, Susie,” Rose said and waved her hands in front of Susi- Shoshanh's face to stop her rapid-fire rant.

 

The anubis was about to snap back with her usual, 'don't call me that', yet kept her cool and let her anger ooze out with a droop of her shoulders.

 

     “Ahem... What I mean to conclude is this: I'm lead to believe that was the de facto funeral and burial procedure. I am lead to believe otherwise. At least until recently... Relatively speaking.”

 

Chris answered first, but unsure of herself.

 

     “Because of the Brightwall?”

 

     “If that were true, why bother disposing of remains on this side in such a barbaric manner? I am lead to believe that wall acts as seal to keep its influence at bay and has remained particularly effective.”

 

     “Keep out cursed beings,” Minte spoke up.

 

     “...You remember which, right?” Rose turned to her and asked.

 

The assassin shook her head.

 

     “The undead,” Chris said in a dramatic and sinister voice. “That's the legend I know. The dead rise from the battlefield and shamble across it with single-minded purpose and ill intent. Hungry to feast on brains. Never tiring, never dying... They slumber beyond the wall, waiting for anyone foolish enough to stumble into their cursed realm”

 

     “Ah! Then maybe that's why they'd— ”

 

     “That is an insufficient explanation for the destruction of bone,” Susan interrupted.

 

     “Hey hey! You can create those too, dontcha' ya?”

 

     “I am someone proficient in the creation of mummified remains. They may be blessed with a semblance of life, but they are merely preserved corpses reanimated with a portion of the departed's spirit. One does not simply bring bones to life. Not without muscle, tissue, sinew.”

 

     “Oooh! I've heard another legend like that too. From the islands to the far South-West,” Chris said. “Zombies. Buried in the dirt, mouths stitched shut, afraid of salt—”

 

     “Do not conflate my divine rites with some backwater tribal shamanism!”

 

A ruckus sprung up between Susan, Chris, Minte and Rose. Bringing up that mummification usually involves removing vital organs which would make life impossible, but I decided against it. Her version of mummification could be completely different for all I knew. She hasn't exactly told me detail how it's done beyond applying a curse which forcefully bound the spirit to its body. There was also little reason to stick my head into the mess of that conversion. I decided on getting to the heart of the matter through another avenue. If there were anyone else who might be hiding an answer, it'd be Ba'el.

 

     “You're not holding out to watch them argue and reason in circles for your own amusement, are you?”

 

     “Laven, please. You wound me,” the demon replied, rather melodramatically.

 

That wasn't a yes or no answer. I would have also bought a roundabout yes or no.

 

     “...And?”

 

     “Look, given how hard the pooch has worked building all this up, I'd love to see the looks on your faces when I drop the bomb... But don't forget my memories are in as big a mess as yours. I don't ever recall having a single incarnation of mine being in this place or anywhere near a hundred leagues of it... I'm not exactly someone with a tourist's knowledge of the place. I'm still not sure what's got her worked over everything. Worrying about dead people ain't something I care about, or ever cared out. Their souls? Yes. But I never gave two shakes of my tail to their squishy bits.”

 

We stared at one another awkwardly for a moment. I had a sense of dread that—

 

     A sardonic smile spread across her face, “Except what was between their— “

 

     “Alright, I get it! Thank you!”

 

     “—Then we'll find all that out when we get to the bottom of this, right?” Rose said, bringing the other conversation to a halt. “That lady will know, right? She's gotta know something, just keeping mum about it. She'll have to show her face at least once and we'll know then.”

 

That would have to placate us for now. We ended up with more questions after leaving the room then we entered it, but the excitement of the unknown blew away from of the malaise and dullness of our march further into the crypt.

 

It would be only an hour later that we would have had that banished regardless.

 

Chris had been blazing the trail in front of us when one of her talons sunk suddenly into the floor. Subtle, suspicious, but outdone by the crack and rumbling all around us. We weren't afforded so much as a single second before the whole ceiling came crashing down... in front of us. A pile of debris, from boulders to pebbles, crashed down instantaneously before us. But one boulder, three times the size of our heads, slammed right into the top of Chris' head.

 

I screamed out her name in a panic, the other girls were frozen in mid dash, but still with both feet on the ground... But all for nought. The boulder rolled forward off her head, the edges of the roundish boulder following the curvature of her horns, and it crashed onto the floor in front of her. Ground beneath her talons had cracked under their collective weight, and the force at which the boulder dropped, yet the wyvern stood tall.

 

Chris turned around and couple trickles of blood began streaming down her face. Her lips were also quivering along with eyes that were watery and prepared to burst into tears. She typically had a permanent childish expression on her mature features, but this was a rare one.

 

     “Are- are you alright, Chris?”

 

     “I aM pErfecTly AlrIGht,” Chris' wobbly voice seethed through clenched teeth.

 

She was messed up alright.

 

     “Oi, bitch! What's the deal? I thought you were supposed to have a keen eye for these sorts of thing?” Ba'el yelled, chastising Susan.

 

     “I-I do!”

 

While Susan went to work investigating, I grabbed hold of Chris by her claw and led her away from the debris pile. She didn't offer any resistance and followed along and sat down against the wall to let me inspect the damage.

 

A rather comical sized bump formed on the top of her head. Some of the skin of her scalp got broken and caused the bleeding, dying her pink hair a shade of red. I saw no signs of fracture, but that didn't rule out anything less like a concussion. At least her neck moved just fine, so no damage had travelled down her spine and caused any serious injury. But that still didn't explain what brought her to tears when I had been with her when she fractured her arm... Perhaps it is down to adrenaline dulling the pain?

 

I could imagine a girl with as thick a skin as Chris might not actually be able to handle pain very well. She isn't the type who gets hurt easily.

 

     “This is not possible,” Susan gasped.

 

Ba'el sighed at the impasse and decided to start working on clearing the way. Rose joined in and the two of them used their strength to start digging a way through. Ba'el also pulverized the larger stone into finer bits with her bare paws and made quick work of the debris.

 

I fished out some relatively sterile linen and cleaned the wound on Chris' scalp. Minte joined in to help me. She wasn't the type who had brute physical strength to move any of those boulders, and no doubt she'd dull the edge of her blades trying to slice and dice a way through so much stone. She stood by and gave Chris a reassuring series of pats on the back. I didn't think much of it, but it appeared to calm the wyvern down, so I wasn't about to complain.

 

We lost about an hour digging our way through. I managed to seal up Chris' wound and stop the bleeding, but the psychological shock still had her in its grip. Throughout that whole time, Shoshanah managed to find remnants of the mechanism that caused the collapse, but was left baffled as to its construction and how it actually worked. It frustrated her to no end.

 

When we finally broke through to the other side, Ba'el climbed through and began marching forward on her own. We tried to stop her, but she stopped only to turn around and proclaim:

 

     “If it ain't the work of gears and levers, then it's magical. I can detect that no problem if I put my head to it.”

 

The tone of impatience and frustration in her voice twisted the dagger already sticking out of Susan's back, and pride.

 

     “We need to stick together, Ba'el!” I shouted back.

 

This time she fully stopped, offering me more than a passing glance.

 

     “I'm sick of relying on miss do-gooder there. You watch! With my magic I got this completely under—“

 

Schwing!

 

Two massive sharp blades of metal swung out behind Ba'el and closed like a pair of scissors a couple milometers above her head. Each blade swung out at anyone else's neck level and slammed into the wall. Sparks fizzled out in the space above her horns which barely scraped against the weathered metal at their tallest point before they turned back downward.

 

Ba'el stood frozen in place. Her claw pointing out toward me, her face stuck with her mouth still gaping. Whatever words she was about to speak next were caught in her throat. I watched as the corners of her mouth curved into a frown, her eyes empty of livelihood and her outstretched paw slowly drop down to her side. Finally, she sat down on the flat of her hooves, tucking her knees into her chest and curled up into a ball with her paws grabbing hold of her horns for dear life.

 

     “B-ba'el? Are you alright?”

 

She didn't respond, nor so much as move.

 

Everyone, besides the still shell-shocked Chris, shared the same surprised look on their face. I was the first one to crawl over the space we had dug out of the debris and rush over to Ba'el's side. The tiny girl, much to her credit and current survival, didn't respond to any outside stimuli. Minte had followed close behind me... Real close, almost clinging onto me.

 

     “Minte it's fine I'm—“

 

A blur streaked across my face. Had I been blinking, I would have missed it. When my eyes refocused, I noticed Minte standing at attention, motionless and as stoic as ever.

 

     “Minte?”

 

Yes?”

 

     “Was that you—?”

 

I needn't ask. All I had to do is look down and see a bundle of sticks tightly grasped in her right hand. Three long and thin shafts... with sinister pointed tips.

 

     “—Where did you get those?”

 

Her eyes glanced over at the wall, where there were a scattering of small holes I had not noticed before. I wavered on the spot when my knees went weak, but Minte acted quickly and held me still on the spot.

 

     “Darts? From when?!”

 

     “Now,” she answered. “Twenty meters back behind the blockage.... Hundred and forty behind that one.”

 

Then why wouldn't she have?... How did no one else notice?...

 

I give up.

 

The reality behind the danger that Hyria warned us about finally dawned on us. Rose's tempered excitement had washed away and a serious contemplative expression had settled on her face. Susan made her way through the gap next and went to work investigating the newest trap Ba'el had so blindly sprung. She cautiously tread her way across the stone floor to where the hinges of the blades were exposed.

 

     “Alright. No one move, AT ALL,” I commanded.

 

But one person decided to not listen. Rose climbed over the small mound of leftover debris from the collapse.

 

     “Ahhh, I think I get it now,” she said.

 

     “Get what?” Susan fired back, her voice heavy with scepticism.

 

     “Well, these traps are weird, right?”

 

An understatement. If Susan wasn't able to figure out how they worked, and Ba'el couldn't detect them if they worked by magic...

 

     “Please, Rose,” Susan sighed. “Go collect the large and the tiny idiot. I shall endeavour to—“

 

     “Nah, hear me out,” Rose said with a voice full of conviction.

 

It's enough to put Susan on her heels. Rose wasn't speaking in her usual flighty and her tone... fancy-free.

 

     “I don't know anything about mechanisms, or magic, or traps... But if I think of them like ambushes... Then it's simple why they don't look like they make any sense.”

 

Susan, Minte and I kept our mouths shut and let her continue without objection.

 

     “When your gonna stage an ambush, ya don't attack the front. Everyone's looking that way, facing that way. It's a bad idea. So that's why you trigger it from behind. They can either turn the whole thing around, or keep going forward, faster.”

 

Rose crossed her arms and tilted her head, her eyes narrowed and the gears inside her head straining to put her one of kind thought process into words.

 

     “Like dropping a bunch of rocks onto a formation going through a path... Why drop em on the ones going in first? You get one, the others dig their way through. You block em from going anywhere, attack from behind? Big deal, their formation's still working... Nah. You drop it in the middle or at the end. Cut em in half, spread panic. Isolate a part and pick em off.”

 

Her head rocked over from one shoulder to the other as she continued.

 

     “Firing a few arrows here and there don't do much but slow things down. Nothing but a skirmish, it doesn't decide anything... But the big scythes things... Why have the blade come out in front where someone can see it coming? It ain't much time, but it's some...”

 

Susan's eyes slowly began to open and her expression overtaken with shock and dread. I didn't know what she's thinking now, but I think it had to do with her figuring out exactly what Rose was thinking.

 

     “You're not proposing—?” Susan's voice was quiet and shaken.

 

     “Yeah. Traps are supposed to scare people. Make em give up and go back, right? Whittling down numbers is just a bonus. If that's so...”

 

I think I got it now too.

 

     “Then all this facing the wrong way. It's not to keep us out. It's to keep things in.”

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