“We are fragments of the past, Ceria Springwalker. That is all we are.”
Ceria sat on her great-grandmother’s lap and looked up. The small cottage was covered in hanging herbs, braids of garlic—every time she breathed in, a myriad of spices tickled her nose. She sneezed, and her great-grandmother laughed.
“No one has told you yet, have they? They just tell you to stay clear of Humans, which is true enough. But no one’s told you of your other half, your heritage.”
“I thought we were descended from Elves.”
“That’s true. But how much of us is Elf? No one even remembers who they were now, do they? They aren’t in any legends—it’s just a word. Even the oldest stories only talk of half-Elves, not Elves.”
“But they did exist?”
“Oh yes. But only Dragons would remember them, I think. And even then, only the oldest of Dragons. Yet, we still call ourselves half-Elves after all this time, even though thousands…tens of thousands of years have passed. Why is that?”
Ceria shifted. Her seat wasn’t that comfortable—her great-grandmother was too bony, and she was holding the young half-Elf tightly in case she slipped away, which is what Ceria wanted to do. She hated questions like these.
“I don’t know. Because we’re half-Elves? Half and half, right?”
“Not quite. How could we be half-Elves? Think about it. If an Elf and a Human had a child, that would be a true half-Elf. But their offspring—if they had a child with a Human, then what would you have? A quarter-Elf. And so on.”
An impatient sigh—Ceria felt her ear tips being flicked and she hunched over sulkily.
“Think, child. There are no Elves left anymore. Half-Elves either marry each other or they mix with other species. So many generations have passed—what part of us is Elf, do you think?”
“I don’t know. A quarter—an eighth? Less? Can I go now?”
The small child wriggled, but her great-grandmother was too strong for her.
“Not yet. This is important, so sit still or I’ll pinch your ears.”
Chastened by the threat, Ceria sat as still as possible, trying not to move. She heard a quiet sigh from above.
“You’re too young. But someone has to tell you and those prideful fools would never speak of this. Ceria, the truth is that after all these long years, our people probably have only a drop of Elven blood in our veins. Only a drop, the smallest fraction of fractions. Only that. We aren’t half-Elves. Not even close.”
The news didn’t disappoint Ceria, because she didn’t fully understand.
“So what? We’re all Human?”
“Again, not quite. Do you want to know something interesting, Ceria?”
“Yes? Is it a secret?”
“Only a small one. The interesting thing is this: when a Human and a half-Elf have a child, the child is always half Elf. Did you know that?”
“No. Why is it interesting?”
Another sigh, but this time Ceria didn’t receive a flick to the ear.
“The interesting thing is that this is always true, Ceria. No matter how many generations pass, a half-Elf with a thousand Human parents on one side will always produce a half-Elf child. No matter what.”
The young half-Elf sat pensively, and then looked up into the wrinkled face and white hair.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that our heritage cannot be erased, child. Not by blood or time. We are part Elf, and that will always ring true. Isn’t that amazing?”
Ceria’s doubtful reply elicited the first laughter from her great-grandmother she’d heard in a long time. The old half-Elf stroked Ceria’s hair gently.
“It might not seem like much to you yet, but it is something to remember. We are mostly Human, for all the others like to pretend we’re so much better. All we have is a drop of our heritage, Ceria. But it’s enough.”
“Enough. What runs in our veins is a fragment of what we were. An echo of legends past. But it is pure magic in our blood, Ceria. The purest. Even Dragons bowed to Elves as masters of magic. And though the Elves are gone, we remain. It is in our natures; magic. It comes to us easier than any other species, because of who we are. Who we were. The blood of Elves cannot be extinguished, and it calls out even after untold millennia. That which shall never fade.”
The child caught her breath. She didn’t understand fully, but what she did hear in her great-grandmother’s words called to her. The old woman continued, speaking softly in the quiet of her cottage.
“We live it. Breathe it. We are magic, and magic is us. So when a spell burns you, or you play with the fish or eat them, remember. The magic will never fade.”
“Never. Remember that, will you?”
“I will. But what does it mean?”
“It means…in the oldest of tales, the ones only our people tell, the ones I heard as a child from my great-great grandmother, the Elves were said to be immune to charms and curses. They were so deeply magical that any attempt to hex or bewitch them was impossible. Because they were too magical, you understand? The spells just burned away from them.”
“But half-Elves aren’t like that. You said.”
“I did. But we have a part of that in us, Ceria. Remember? Just a part, but that means in time, any spell holding you will fail. If I tried to put you to sleep with a spell, eventually you would wake up.”
“Everyone wakes up, great grandma.”
“True. But you would wake up no matter what. No matter how powerful the enchantment, on you it will fade. Slowly, yes, but there is no spell your blood will not break in time.”
“Really. But don’t you go letting people cast spells on you, Ceria. And don’t think this makes you better than the Human children. Don’t go near them. You can play with the others in the stream now.”
“Will you come with me?”
“No. I have work to do. Just try to remember, won’t you, Ceria? You’re the only family I have left.”
The young half-Elf didn’t even see the pained expression on her great grandmother’s face. She raced for the door, laughing.
“I’ll remember! I promise!”
“I will! I will, I will, I—”
Ceria spoke the words aloud. And then she woke up.
It was dark. That was all Ceria saw. But in the instant where she was not quite dreaming any longer, and not quite awake, it almost felt like she was dreaming still. The half-Elf tried to move her legs and turn her head, searching for her great grandmother.
Then she woke up a bit more and remembered that her great grandmother was dead. Nearly two decades dead and buried in her garden in a village on another continent.
And then she woke up further, and Ceria felt other sensations flooding in. The first was taste.
Taste. Ceria could taste vomit in her mouth, sour and vile. It was dried and made her gag—and she tasted blood as well. Ceria dry-heaved and scrabbled at her side reflexively. She had a flask of water—
No. She didn’t. And that was when the other feelings hit Ceria at once. She was hungry. In pain. Bleeding? No—but she could feel dried blood on her left shoulder, and cold air on her lower body. In fact…she was naked from the waist down. That was to say, she had her mage’s robes on, but someone had taken her pants.
What had happened? Ceria’s mind was still too jumbled for short-term memory. She only knew that she was in pain, and something was horribly wrong. She looked around for her pants, or for the water bottle, but she could see practically nothing in…wherever she was.
It wasn’t totally dark. Ceria could see outlines of something in the darkness. But whatever light source was providing the light, it was too faint. She had to see. Ceria raised one hand and croaked a word.
A glowing orange ball of pure light floated out of Ceria’s palm and she blinked, dazzled by it. But then her eyes adjusted, and Ceria finally saw the truth of where she was.
She was in the pit. The pit. The place she and the others had been teleported into after the trap. Yes. Ceria remembered. And she was lying on something. A pile of things that moved.
Ceria looked down. Something white, many white and yellow things shone in the light. She reached down to touch one, and stopped.
She was lying on a pile of bones. Bones, and horrible black filth. And some of it had been stained by her vomit. And blood.
She didn’t scream. Ceria didn’t scream, but she immediately rolled off the pile. She rolled down onto something hard and rough. Solid stone, crusted with more of that black substance.
For a few seconds Ceria just lay on the ground, trying not to react to the countless horrors around her. She breathed in slowly, trying to keep calm. The air felt dead and there was a horrible smell.
They were in the pit. Trapped. The half-Elf slowly got to her feet, holding her head. It was aching horribly, and she still felt disoriented. But more memory was coming back to her. Yes, they were trapped. There had been the spell and then—
Sound. Over to her left. Ceria spun, reaching for a dagger which again, she didn’t have. Her robes swirled about her as she spotted something that wasn’t bone or filth in a corner of the circular pit.
A…shape. A body. Ceria squinted and the orb of light at her side grew brighter. Then she saw who was sitting next to a pile of bones.
Ksmvr. The Antinium was moving. Ceria stumbled closer, head ringing, and saw he was moving. Rocking, rather. And then she heard the whisper, low and desperate. Ceria stopped as she heard what the Antinium was saying, whispering.
“no. nO. yeS. No. yES. NO. yEs, YeS—no—”
He was repeating the words over and over and he rocked back and forth in one corner of the room. The Antinium was bleeding, or he had been. Green ichor had dried around his left side, and it looked like something had smashed his carapace and ripped part of it away. A huge area was just…missing, exposing his vulnerable innards soaked with green blood.
Insanity. Now the rest of the pieces of memory fell into Ceria’s head and she remembered. She’d gone insane. Insane, just like everyone else. There had been the spell and then—
Her shoulder hurt. Ceria glanced down and saw a wound in her shoulder. It looked like someone had stabbed her with a dagger. Maybe she’d done it to herself. Ceria didn’t know.
The word was horrible in her mouth. Ceria nearly retched again as she tasted the foulness in her mouth. But the Antinium didn’t respond. Ceria raised her voice.
“Ksmvr. Can you hear me? Are you okay?”
Again, nothing. Ceria looked away. Ksmvr was lost, and so was Yvlon and Pisces, wherever they were. She had to get out of this pit, figure out a way to undo the spell.
The spell. Ceria looked around wildly and her headache grew worse. That was right. She had to disable the spell! Had she thought that before? No? Yes?
The mark of [Insanity] was on one of the walls. It was the other half of the light in the room, that faint, ghostly glow. Ceria caught sight of it as she looked around wildly. There. It was on one of the far walls, high up in the pit. She looked away the instant she spotted it, but too late.
Her headache grew worse. Suddenly, Ceria realized what was happening. Her innate half-Elven nature had helped her fight off the enchantment, but it was still active. And it was trying—
Trying to make her crazy again. Ceria lurched towards the sign and looked up again. It was high on the wall, too high to climb to. She caught a glimpse of the runes again and closed her eyes, but too late. The magic washed over her mind, trying to control her.
“Can’t. I need—”
Against her will, Ceria’s eyes opened. She twisted her head to stare at one of the filthy black walls, but now she knew the symbol was there. And she wanted to look. Had to look. She had to. It was the only thing that made sense.
The symbol flashed in her brain, and Ceria turned her head to look back at it. She couldn’t help herself. The magic runes bored into her retinas, overwhelming her senses. Ceria grinned, bit through her lower lip—
And went insane again.
He knew he was insane. It was the one conscious, deliberate thought in his head. Ksmvr rocked back and forth as he stared into the darkness of the pit. His trap. His hell.
The magic spell flashed in the peripherals of his vision. No matter how Ksmvr tried to look away, he couldn’t. The magic was too pervasive, and he was too weak.
He was insane. Ksmvr had to remember that. It was the only knowledge he could cling to. That, and his own nature.
He was Antinium, and so despite being insane, there was still a part of Ksmvr that could think, could try to act. The Antinium had no spell casters, or at least, none that Ksmvr knew of. But they were familiar with the dangers of enchantments and illusions, so safeguards had been build into their very natures when each Antinium was created.
One of those protections was an innate resistance to mental trickery. The Antinium had their own way of fighting off hostile enchantments. So it was that while Ksmvr was functionally insane, part of him was fighting back, trying to seize control of his body. It was an effective bit of mental conditioning that made the Antinium so effective in battle. It didn’t work in regards to Aberrations of course—
That was different. But Ksmvr could still think, as mired in the [Insanity] spell as he was. So he noted Ceria’s actions. The half-Elf had been stumbling towards the pulsing runes, but now she turned back and lay on the ground, laughing and choking on the blood gushing from her lip.
This was the third time the half-Elf had awoken and gone insane. Ksmvr had counted that. He had logged each occurrence in his mind. At first he’d thought it was just chance, but now he was sure. She could break the enchantment. She could, but within moments she would relapse.
Because of the symbol. It pulsed, and Ksmvr felt his mind being pulled to pieces again. He shuddered and tried to concentrate. He had to act.
But the insane bit of him didn’t want to. So Ksmvr was fighting.
“No. Yes. nO. Yes. on. Yes.”
He was weak. Ksmvr fought to stand up as the insecurities of his mind preyed on him with the effects of the spell. He wasn’t worthy of being a Prognugator. They’d been right to take that away from him.
Klbkch was superior to him in every way. His Queen was right to exile him. He was useless. He hadn’t contributed anything to the team. They’d only accepted him out of pity. If Klbkch was here, he wouldn’t have gone insane.
The knowledge haunted Ksmvr. He was pathetic. And yet, he still tried to stand up. He had to do something. He was the only one who could. There was no Klbkch to give him orders, no Queen to do the same. He had to do it himself.
One leg. Ksmvr twitched and shook horribly, trying to make his rusty limbs move. He’d done it once before. He’d taken Ceria’s pants and her belt. Hadn’t that been harder than anything he’d ever done before? But he’d done it. Now he had to stand up again.
Ceria’s magical ball of light illuminated a trembling form as, in the corner of the pit illuminated by the light, Ksmvr stood up. He shook, and then lurched towards Ceria, holding something in one of his hands. He tripped over bones, crawled—desperate to get to her in time.
The half-Elf was still lying on the ground, grinning upwards. She was spitting out blood into the air and trying to make it land on her face. Ksmvr ignored that and seized her head. Ceria made no move as he lifted her upwards.
Slowly, he tied the strip of fabric he’d cut from Ceria’s pants around her eyes, tying the knot securely to fasten the blindfold. Ksmvr’s hands shook as he finished the knot. He slowly backed away from Ceria and felt the madness overwhelming his conditioning again.
The part of Ksmvr that could still think steered his body away from Ceria. He walked back over to his corner and sat down. Then Ksmvr gave up and let the madness sweep over him again. His mouth began to chant, the distorted words echoing around him.
“Yes. yES, YeS, YES, yEs, Yes, yeS…”
His fingers scrabbled at the exposed chitin on his side. Ksmvr slowly, painfully, pulled part of his exoskeleton off, feeling it break as he ripped it from his side. He put the chip of black armor up to his mouth, and his mandibles opened. Ksmvr crunched the bit of himself down as he rocked back and forwards again. He slowly reached down and did it again. And again. And again—
Ceria remembered falling in love when she was twenty three. Trying to sneak off with the young half-Elf boy in her village—being caught. She had a dream where she ate her great grandmother and buried what was left beneath a blooming cocoon where something lived and tried to burst out.
Then she woke up. Again. This time, Ceria sat up and felt the pain of her lip first. She touched at it, nearly screaming at the pain. Then she realized she couldn’t see a thing.
She cast [Light] several times before she realized there was a blindfold on her head. Ceria reached for it. Her fingers scrabbled on the cloth, but they were too weak to undo the sturdy knot Ksmvr had tied. And before she could rip it off her face, Ceria’s memories came back.
The spell! The ward! It had made her crazy again. Again! Ceria remembered coming back into consciousness several times before that, but each time the symbol had—
The blindfold on her face. Ceria felt at it and realized something had happened. She wasn’t sure what, but this was the only thing keeping her from looking at the symbol and going insane. Her head still hurt, but it was bearable this time.
And now Ceria Springwalker knew exactly what she had to do. She had to destroy that damn symbol, or at least cover it somehow.
And she had to do it without seeing. For a few minutes, Ceria just sat on the ground, trying not to scream as all of these thoughts came crashing down. She fumbled at her broken lip and found the hole, touched the wound on her shoulder and realized she was half-naked again. At least she hadn’t taken off her underwear in her craze.
Not that it would have mattered. Ceria didn’t know where the other three Horns of Hammerad were. She knew Ksmvr was close by, but he’d been unresponsive last she checked.
“Okay, focus Ceria.”
She muttered to herself and spat out some blood as she tried to concentrate. The first thing Ceria did was conjure a stream of water out of the air. She washed out her mouth and spat several times until the worst of the blood and vomit was gone. She was terribly thirsty, but she knew better than to drink the magical water she’d created. It would just mess with her body and dissipate soon enough.
“Should’ve learned [Create Water].”
Ceria muttered to herself as she stood up and tried to find her way to one of the walls. It was horrible being blind. She kept running into piles of bones and things she wasn’t sure of, which was far worse. But Ceria moved forwards, climbing over bones, slipping, falling, getting back up until at last her fingers touched something hard and rough and flat.
The wall. It was coated with that same black, flaking substance she’d felt on the floor earlier. Ceria pulled her hands back in revulsion, but now she knew where she was. She remembered the symbol had been high up, but she didn’t know where.
How was she going to do this? The only thing Ceria could think was that she had to take off her blindfold and cast a spell as fast as she could, but even that felt like a mistake. At the very least, she could follow the wall. It wasn’t as if Ceria’s blindfold was perfect; she could still sense some light. And if she dispelled her [Light] spell and followed the source of that faint light…
Ceria stumbled around the perimeter of the dark pit, feeling her way ahead and kicking bones and other things out of the way as she held one hand to the wall. She was in a massive pit, at least forty feet across by her count. It was clearly meant to capture hundreds of people, and from the bones Ceria kept running into, it might have already served its purpose countless times.
The light, the piercing light that made her want to tear off her blindfold kept getting brighter and brighter. In the darkness, it was Ceria’s only guide. She stopped where she thought the light was the brightest—she couldn’t look in any direction without it growing dimmer.
Ceria raised her skeletal hand upwards, trying to figure out where to aim. She remembered…the symbol was about ten feet off the floor? Higher? Maybe a bit.
What spell should she use? Ceria was under no illusions. Anyone who could cast a spell like [Insanity] and anchor it here was probably a far better mage than she was, and they would have protected the runes with wards that her best spells—[Ice Spike] or [Fireball]—would fail to overcome. What should she do then?
Ceria remembered the black gunk that she’d touched on all the walls and the floor. It was everywhere. Maybe that was the answer.
Yes, if she covered the spell, it would lose a lot of its power. Ceria didn’t know any spells that could create smoke or fog, but she could always improvise. It wasn’t easy to make new spells, but altering existing ones…
First, Ceria made water appear out of the air. She held it in place, and then materialized earth, as if she was going to use the [Stone Dart] spell. Earth and water. She mixed the two together, and felt thick mud trickling between her fingers. She smiled, winced, as the pain in her lip flared, and lifted the ball of mud up.
It wasn’t even a spell, really. It was just using the basic theories of magic to create…well, an inefficient mess. If she’d known the spell—[Mud Ball] perhaps—she would have been able to use it far more effectively and with less mana.
But this would do. Ceria held the sloppy mess between her hands as she tried to figure out where to throw it. The spell would last for a while if she put enough mana into it, enough time to cover the damn rune. But where was it—
“What are you doing, boy? Shirking your duties again?”
The harsh voice in her ear made Ceria shout in surprise and jump away. But a cold hand caught her in a steely grip, and a sharp sensation from her side made Ceria freeze in terror. A familiar voice whispered in her ear.
“Trying to hide in the library? Not on my watch.”
It was his voice, but not him. Pisces would never have thrown Ceria backwards as the man did now, and he would never have threatened her with a weapon. The young man Ceria had known had always hated physical violence, regardless of how he had changed in every other respect.
This person was not the same. He held her in place, driving the sharp object into Ceria’s side, cutting into her flesh. What was it? A knife?
No—jagged edges. Bone. Ceria shuddered as Pisces’ voice grated in her ears.
“I’ve told you once; you get up and you do the practice every day, before dawn! Anything less and I’ll have your hide.”
Ceria held her breath. She knew Pisces was as deadly with a rapier as he was with spells. In his hands, the jagged length of bone might well kill her before she could take him out with a spell. Carefully, she tried her most soothing voice possible.
“Pisces, it’s me. Ceria—”
“What? What? You don’t get to call me names, boy. My name is ‘sir’ until you can prove you can handle a blade!”
The shard of bone dug deeper in Ceria’s side. She gasped—she could feel it piercing her skin.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Better! Now, why aren’t you in the training grounds?”
The pressure eased on her. Slightly. Ceria’s hands were clenched. She had no idea what to say to him. What could she say to a madman who thought he was his father?
“What? Stop talking nonsense!”
Ceria pointed to her blindfold. Pisces must have been able to see in the dim light, because he paused. His voice sounded approving.
“Blindfold, eh? Good lad. Helps with your reflexes. Now, dodge this—”
She only had a moment’s warning before the sharp feeling in her side vanished. Ceria felt air moving and ducked. But the blow Pisces gave her was a kick to the stomach. The half-Elf dropped to her hands and knees and wretched. Above her, Pisces laughed nastily.
“You’ve got to move faster than that if you want to become a true [Fencer], brat.”
The pain was nauseating, but at least she didn’t throw up; there was nothing left. Ceria gritted her teeth as she stood up. The mud was still in her good hand. If she threw it—
“Pis—sir, I need to get rid of that rune up there. Could you help me with that?”
“Rune? What rune? Stop talking rot, boy! There will be no magic in my household. If you’ve been making sparks—”
“No, that rune! There!”
“That? That’s just the moon. What, is it too bright for your eyes? Take off your blindfold and let’s begin already!”
Ceria let out a despairing groan. It was no good. Pisces was trapped in his imaginary world. She had to do something. But what?
“I’m waiting, boy. Don’t make me impatient!”
Ceria hesitated. She clenched her fist, and then heard another voice, growing closer. This one was dignified, and each syllable was carefully enunciated with a delicate inflection in the woman’s voice.
“What is this commotion all about? Do you people not know what time it is?”
It was Yvlon’s voice, raised to sound more high-pitched. Ceria groaned. Perfect. Another insane person was all she needed. Her first thought was that Yvlon might be persuaded to help even in her delirium, but then she remembered how most Humans treated half-Elves. And a second thought on the heels of the first: she had a sword. Ceria grew very still with fear, but Pisces raised his voice as he apparently turned towards Yvlon
“Well there you are, boy! Ready for morning practice at last, or do I have to burn all those damn books of yours to get you to pay attention?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Yvlon’s outraged voice gave Ceria hope. Pisces was snapping at her as if she was…Ceria? He wasn’t differentiating between Yvlon and Ceria at all. They were all the same to him. They were all ‘boy’, which was to say…Pisces. Ceria knew who the man she heard in Pisces’ voice had to be.
And he was trying to train Pisces. But Yvlon wasn’t cooperating. She gasped with indignation, and then, all of a sudden, her voice changed, grew deeper.
“I am Ylawes Byres, [Swordsman] and heir to the Byres name. Who are you to challenge me with weapon in hand, stranger?”
“Y—what? Are you pretending to be a nobleman? I’ll knock that arrogance right out of you.”
“You would do well to lower your weapon. I am armed—”
“I’ll take you on, old man!”
Ceria shouted the words and ducked away from the two, heart racing as she stumbled in another direction. She heard a grunt of surprise, but then a harsh laugh from Pisces.
“Challenging your old man at last? Fine then, I’ll draw your blood as a lesson!”
She heard footsteps, but not towards her. Yvlon’s outraged voice echoed off one of the walls as Ceria crept away.
“You dare to bare your blade against me? I’ll have your head for that!”
This time Ceria heard ringing metal as Ceria unsheathed her own blade. She heard another laugh, and then a grunt as she heart the thunk of something striking metal. Yvlon cried out in outrage as Ceria looked around wildly.
Her two team mates were about to kill each other. Pisces was a skilled fighter, but Yvlon was in armor. Either way, one of them would die unless Ceria hurried.
Where was the magic symbol? Ceria looked up and saw a glow around the edges of her blindfold. She raised the mud and threw it as hard as she could. She heard a splatter, but the light didn’t dim.
“Damn it. Where—”
More mud. Ceria slopped it into her hands and threw it again, but she sense the mud splattered in the air rather than stay in a ball. She cursed again and tried to mush the mud together. She threw wildly, but nothing changed.
It wasn’t working, and Ceria could heard Yvlon cursing as she struck the ground and Pisces taunted her. Ceria raised her arm, and then heard a voice.
She jerked, but it was Ksmvr. He was calling out to her across the room.
“To the left and down slightly.”
Ceria didn’t hesitate. She adjusted her aim and threw.
“You missed. A bit higher and more left.”
Desperately, Ceria poured earth into her hands and added water. She molded a sopping mudball and took aim. She heard Yvlon cry out in pain and aimed desperately. She threw into the darkness.
The light went out. Instantly, Ceria tored the blindfold away from her head. The world was absolute darkness.
This time, the flare of light was a dark green, and it didn’t burn her eyes. Ceria looked around wildly, and saw two struggling shapes fighting over a sword.
The magic had ceased, at least for now, but the others were still insane. Ceria ran towards both of them and cried out as she raised her right hand.
“Stop! [Stone Fist]!”
Yvlon turned and raised her arm for only a second before the stone hand smashed into her chest. She fell backwards and Ceria turned and knocked Pisces backwards with a backhanded swipe. He stumbled back, staring at the gauntlet made of rock that covered Ceria’s good hand.
“Magic? You dare? I’ll make you suffer for this!”
His eyes were wild and he had Yvlon’s sword. Ceria raised her skeletal hand warningly.
“Don’t make me do this, Pisces.”
“I told you, I’m not—”
Ksmvr appeared in a shower of bones. Pisces leapt back as a few flew towards him, and then narrowed his eyes at the Antinium. He said not a word, but charged with a wild cry. But Ceria was faster.
The frozen icicle that shot from her finger flew as straight as an arrow, but the difference in this one was that the head was blunt, rather than sharp. It struck Pisces squarely in the forehead as he leapt at her, and he staggered. Ksmvr shoulder-charged him to the ground and struck him with one hand. Pisces sagged, and he went limp.
Ceria took one deep breath and then another. Ksmvr lowered Pisces to the ground as Ceria sat down hard—on a piece of bone. She yelped and tossed the yellowed thing across the room.
“Ceria Springwalker, are you well?”
She could taste blood and her lower lip had a hole in it. Her right shoulder still burned and Pisces had drawn blood with that damn bone. She was not fine, but other things were more important.
Ksmvr pointed and Ceria saw Yvlon standing and staring blankly ahead. The woman’s blonde hair was matted with blood, and she had a deep cut down one cheek where Pisces must have struck her. But she didn’t appear to notice any of that. She looked over haughtily as Ceria and Ksmvr approached.
“I am Yelen Byres—”
“Rot, she’s still under the spell.”
Ceria sighed. Ksmvr looked uncertainly at Yvlon.
“Should we knock her out?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“No. I don’t think that’s wise. Let’s just tie her hands and legs up so she can’t hurt us if her personality changes again.”
“That is wise.”
Ksmvr approached Yvlon. The armored woman backed away, raising her voice in outrage.
“I’m sure I’ve never been so offended—unhand me, you—!”
She clawed at Ksmvr, but her two hands were no match for his three. In a few minutes he had her trussed up and lying in a clear part of the pit. Yvlon shouted angrily at them until Ceria stuffed her blindfold into the woman’s mouth. Yvlon spat it out and she began gnawing at the ropes like an animal. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it kept her occupied.
That done, Ceria had to take a few seconds just to breathe. While she was doing that, she finally took a good look around the pit she’d found herself in. The dark room was lit by her green light and it made the lurid piles of remains all the more disturbing.
Swords, bones, rotted fabric. The pit was a huge tomb of bodies, corpses and yellowed bones, all that remained countless adventurers who’d been trapped here. Time had eaten away almost all the details of these fallen people, but Ceria could still see some clues as to how they’d died. A skull split by the worn shaft of an axe, a skeleton cut in two here, and one whose bones looked scorched—
“What a nightmare.”
Ceria shuddered as Ksmvr came to stand next to her. She looked at the Antinium and saw that he was holding his injured side, where a good section of his chitin had been picked away.
“Are you okay, Ksmvr?”
“I am only moderately inconvenienced, Captain. As soon as you covered the magical symbol I regained use of my mine.”
Ceria breathed in and out a few more times. She could still remember being insane, remember the sensation of losing all the structure in her head. She looked at Ksmvr, and then remembered she was still half-naked.
“Where are my pants? And my belt—did you see them, Ksmvr?”
“I removed them to construct your blindfold. My apologies. They are over here.”
The Antinium retrieved Ceria’s possessions and she put her pants back on with a sigh of relief. The Antinium had cut a large strip out from one of the legs, but some clothing was better than none. She sat on the ground and began attaching her belt.
More importantly, with Ceria’s belt came her water flask and the healing potion she’d brought. She greedily drank water from her flask while she offered the healing potion to Ksmvr. He applied half to his torn-up side and handed it back to Ceria. She hesitated, and then drank the potion rather than apply it to each of her wounds.
“Gah! That’s foul.”
Ceria tossed the empty bottle to one side and winced as it smashed. Ksmvr hesitated, and then sat next to her.
“That was a most dangerous trap we were caught in.”
The half-Elf shook her head.
“We nearly died. If it hadn’t been for my heritage and luck—how long were we under the spell?”
“I cannot say.”
Beside her, Ksmvr shifted to look at Ceria. His normally impassive voice changed slightly, grew a bit uncertain.
“Do you believe that spell will affect Pisces and Yvlon for much longer?”
“I don’t know.”
Ceria rubbed at her face.
“Maybe? It might wear off soon, but you never know. At least it wasn’t real insanity that hit us, just the spell.”
Ksmvr looked at her. Ceria nodded tiredly, feeling the healing potion getting to work on the rest of her body.
“It’s just the magical effect. Real insanity—you’d have to be a better mage to really create madness in people. This is just…an approximation. The spell reaches into your head and messes up your world. It’s close, but not the same.”
“I see. That would explain my experience.”
The Antinium nodded a few times as he sat next to Ceria. He hesitated, and then cleared his throat awkwardly.
“If the spell had created true insanity in me, I would have become Aberration at once. And then I would have killed all three of you within seconds.”
Ceria just looked at him. How was she supposed to respond to that? But maybe that was Ksmvr’s way of saying he was glad things had worked out. She thought for a second, and then looked at the place where he’d sliced her pants apart.
“Ksmvr? You said you made the blindfold for me?”
He nodded. Cautiously.
“Yes. I was…unable to do more. I regret my failure to act, but—”
“Oh. Thank you.”
Ceria and Ksmvr sat in silence for over twenty minutes before Pisces woke up. He came to with a shout of surprise, which turned into a groan.
He didn’t appear to be insane, but Ceria and Ksmvr were ready for anything as he staggered upright. Pisces took one look around at them, at the bones, and the foul pit they were in, and then he asked if they had anything to eat. That reassured them he was back to normal.
Ceria had a thing about bones, in that she didn’t like seeing them, especially if they were her bones. Add that to the general unsanitary nature of the pit, with the black foreign substance crusting every part of the room, and she was feeling quite unhappy with their current predicament. But Pisces seemed to regard the dead bodies as mere furnishings, and he happily crammed some dried meat into his mouth.
“So you and Ksmvr eliminated the spell? Most efficacious. Allow me to congratulate the both of you. I was completely subsumed by the enchantment. What was my reaction to the [Insanity] spell, incidentally?”
“You thought you were your father.”
Pisces paused mid-chew.
“And you tried to run both me and Yvlon through.”
“I apologize for that. I am relieved I was so ineffectual.”
He chewed the rest of his bite slowly, and swallowed, no longer looking quite as pleased. Pisces glanced over to Yvlon. She was still drooling on the bindings on her wrist, looking more than a little rabid.
“…Perhaps we should leave before your mud wears off. I would not like to repeat such a harrowing experience.”
Ceria nodded. That was her first thought too, but…
“How the hell are we going to get out?”
The pit was dark, and as far as she could see, the walls extended upwards at least thirty feet. If there was a ceiling, it wasn’t within her [Light] spell’s cone of illumination.
Pisces looked up. He frowned and conjured a ball of light himself and threw it upwards.
“Let’s find out.”
His orb glowed with pure white light. Ksmvr and Ceria both saw it fly upwards, and then break—splash, really, the light becoming fading motes—across a dirt ceiling. Ceria groaned and Pisces made a similar noise of displeasure.
Pisces nodded, looking unhappy.
“Who knows how deep we are? We could dig up for years and not reach the surface.”
Both mages looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium nodded as he stared upwards.
“There must be an entrance higher up. Companion Pisces, if you recast your spell, I believe we may be able to identify an opening.”
“What makes you assume that, Ksmvr?”
Ceria looked curiously at the Antinium. He looked back at her without a shred of doubt as he replied.
“If this room were truly a sealed chamber, we and those who have preceded us would have quickly used up the supply of air within the room. The fact that we did not suffocate instantly indicates an air source of some kind.”
Pisces looked at Ceria and then both mages threw orbs of [Light] upwards again. After a minute of studying the ceiling, Ksmvr exclaimed and pointed.
Pisces squinted upwards, frowning.
“Are you certain? I cannot see anything.”
“My eyes are used to the dark. There is an opening there. If we dig, we will most likely find some sort of passageway.”
“So now we just have to get to it. Any ideas?”
Ceria eyed the smooth walls doubtfully. Aside from the black coating, the stone looked unblemished. Pisces just smirked as he stroked his chin.
“This issue should be easily surmounted. Allow me to rectify my earlier deficiency.”
He clicked his fingers, and Ceria felt the room move. Not the ground or the walls, but everything else in it. The bones of the countless dead began to shift.
He just smiled as yellowed bones began flying into the air and upwards. Ksmvr stared at the shifting bones without comment, but on the ground Yvlon stopped biting at her robes and screamed.
“Necromancer! Kill him at once!”
Pisces frowned and pointed at Yvlon. Two piles of bones stood up and became skeletons. They walked over to hold her down as she wriggled and tried to break free of her bindings.
“No! Don’t touch me! Stop!”
She wailed—Ceria had never heard Yvlon make any sound like that before—as the skeletons held her in place. Yvlon thrashed wildly, but she was unable to break free. The real Yvlon might have mustered the strength, but Yelen Byres, whoever she was, was a weak noblewoman who couldn’t do a thing.
And meanwhile, the other bones were floating in the air, rearranging themselves. They weren’t forming a creature—instead, Ceria saw with horrified fascination, they were forming a staircase. Small bones and big ones ordered themselves into smooth ledges, and, step-by-step, an ivory staircase built itself upwards, leading to the spot Ksmvr had indicated.
Pisces wiped some sweat off his forehead and exhaled a few times as the last bone flew into the horrific set of steps. He smiled cheerfully at Ceria and Ksmvr, both of whom were giving him the fisheye.
“There. We have a way up, and the means to dig as well.”
Ceria looked uneasily at the staircase. She did not like Necromancy, but neither was she stupid enough to turn down a good solution. Ksmvr just stared at the bones and nodded.
Only Yvlon was upset. She screamed at the skeletons as they lifted her up, staggering under the weight of her armor. Pisces frowned—he waved his hand and several more skeletons stood up out of the collection of bones still littering the floor.
“It appears that this trap, however temporarily detrimental to our health, has one unexpected benefit. I can conjure as many skeletons as I need to from this supply.”
“And you won’t run out of mana? I know you’ve got to be tired, and we don’t exactly have any mana potions to spare.”
Ceria looked doubtfully at Pisces. He hesitated.
“I have used quite a bit. But it seems wiser to expend my resources in creating more undead to aid us, especially given our weakened states.”
“True. Okay, summon as many as you can.”
“These five will do for now. I shall begin digging upwards, unless Ksmvr thinks it will cause a collapse?”
Ksmvr studied the dirt roof and shook his head.
“It should be fine.”
“Very well then.”
Pisces pointed upwards, at the small dark crevice in the ceiling. Two skeletons ran up the staircase and began digging energetically at the spot, showering dirt into the pit below. They were holding rusted blades and pieces of metal—the remains of some of the adventurer’s gear.
“It should take them just a little while to clear the obstruction!”
Pisces shouted down cheerily as he walked up to supervise his skeletons. Ceria shook her head as she found a place to sit on the now-cleared floor of the pit. She wasn’t going up that staircase more than once; solid it may be, but Pisces had opted not to build guardrails, and the bones hovered in the air without any solid supports. It was an amazing piece of magic, but it still made her queasy to imagine climbing it.
She’d have to in the end, but that was later. To take her mind off of that, Ceria looked around. Now that the ground was clear, she saw something that had been buried under a pile of bones. Cautiously, Ceria walked over to it. It was dark and bulky, and at first she thought it was a part of an adventurer that had yet to rot. But this wasn’t meat. Instead, Ceria found dark, rough fabric. She cast another [Light] spell and saw what it was clearly.
It was an adventurer’s pack, still neatly secured to the skeleton of its owner. Ceria hesitated, and then shifted the bones aside and lifted the bag. It was quite heavy.
“Ksmvr, here’s something else. Can you take it?”
The Antinium walked over and hoisted the pack easily. Ceria nodded to him, and then heard a shout from above.
“I see light! We’re right below the tunnel we uncovered!”
Both adventurers below sighed in relief. Pisces grinned at them from above, and then shouted.
They saw a skeleton falling from above, brought down by a cascade of dirt. Pisces blew away the dirt around him with a barrier of air and Ceria and Ksmvr covered Yvlon, shielding their heads as the skeleton struck the floor of the pit and shattered.
“Are you okay?”
Ksmvr shouted up as Ceria looked around. The flailing skeleton hadn’t done any damage to the staircase, but her blood ran cold when she saw something glinting on the side of the pit.
“Dead gods! Watch the sides!”
Pisces looked down and swore. The flailing skeleton had, in its fall, struck the black, encrusted wall of the pit. In doing so, he’d knocked some of the unnamed substance free, and glowing behind the covering was the unmistakable symbol of the [Insanity] spell.
Both Ceria and Pisces reacted with the speed of panic. She threw mud and he blew a cloud of dust in front of the spell before it could work on them. The partially visible runes disappeared as Ceria hurled more mud to cover it and stopped, panting heavily.
“That was quite dangerous.”
Ceria wiped cold sweat from her forehead as she stared at the spot. She looked around the pit and shuddered as she suddenly realized the true nature of the trap.
“Runes underneath…? All the walls must be covered in the [Insanity] spell.”
Ksmvr looked around.
“Truly? That would be a most dangerous effect. It is fortunate that previous adventurers managed to coat the walls.”
“You’re telling me. If we’d been exposed to the spell from all sides, we wouldn’t have had a chance.”
Ceria wondered what the black substance was. She looked down at a flake of it on the ground. It was almost like tar—although spread quite thin. It couldn’t be magic; even the best spells faded after time. An [Alchemist]’s concoction of some kind? Whoever it was, Ceria gave her quiet thanks to them for doing what they had.
“I see light! The tunnel’s wide enough! I’m going up!”
Pisces shouted down to Ksmvr and Ceria after a few more minutes of dirt falling. She raised a hand in acknowledgment.
Pisces disappeared above. After a few seconds, he poked his head down.
“Come on up! Ascend carefully—my skeletons will help you!”
Ceria and Ksmvr didn’t need the help of the skeletons to walk upwards, although they did move quite slowly and deliberately to avoid slipping. But Yvlon had to be dragged up by three skeletons, all of them holding her as tightly as possible as she cursed and struggled, oblivious to the drop.
It was a small tunnel that Pisces’ skeletons had dug upwards. They’d followed the already-existing passageway and broken into the very same tunnel where Ceria and the other Horns of Hammerad had been walking earlier. Pisces pulled Ceria out of the pit, coughing as she shook herself to get most of the dirt off. Ksmvr easily clambered out of the ground and helped the skeletons pull Yvlon up. She was still screaming curses at Pisces.
“Foul [Necromancer]! My father will have your head for your sorcery, do you hear me? If it’s a ransom you want, he’ll pay it. Only do not touch a hair on my head! The Byres family will not tolerate any—”
“I am concerned about comrade Yvlon’s mental state, Captain.”
Ksmvr calmly held a hand over Yvlon’s mouth. She shouted into his hand as he addressed Ceria.
“She has not awoken from the effects of the spell. Should we knock her out to aid in that process?”
Ceria shook her head as she looked around.
“She’s not a [Mage] like Pisces or me, and she doesn’t have…whatever you have, Ksmvr. The spell will take longer to wear off, but I’m sure it will in time.”
“I see. Then, what should we do? Press on or wait?”
“Can we just—wait a second?”
Ceria panted as she sat down on the smooth, wonderfully solid stone floor. Pisces sat down as well, and after a pause, so did Ksmvr.
“We’re alive. We were in the worst of traps but—we’re alive.”
Pisces and Ksmvr nodded. Yvlon drooled on the ground around Ksmvr’s hand. Ceria sighed. She lay back on the ground, stretching out. She wanted to shake and cry and laugh and vomit. They’d made it. It wasn’t the first time she’d gotten out of a hairy situation but this—
This had been one of the worst. And they’d done it as a team. No one had died. For a few minutes, ten, really, she just lay there. Then Pisces coughed.
“As unpleasant as that last obstacle was, it occurs to me that we must have been underground for a long time. Hours, perhaps.”
“Maybe. I cannot be certain. But it is clear that we have two options as of now. We can either retreat and regroup with the knowledge of these advanced deterrents, or…we can advance.”
He pointed. Ceria looked, and saw the door. The damn door. They’d come out in the last part of the passageway, almost directly in front of the door that had sent them into the trap in the first place.
“You’re telling me that thing just teleported us down?”
“It’s the most efficient use of mana. It only makes sense.”
“It is a formidable obstacle, but now that we have uncovered the danger, is it worth moving forwards? We are nearly out of food, and we all require rest.”
“What do you think, Ceria?”
The half-Elf looked up at Pisces. He looked down at her, quite innocently. But there was a gleam in his eyes. He knew what she was about to say. She sat up and stared at the plain wooden door. Then she looked at the other mage.
“Yes, oh Captain of mine?”
“Get your skeletons to grab whatever weapons they can and break down that damn door.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
An hour later, the door fell in. It wasn’t because the wood had been shattered by the constant hammering on it, or that the four adventurers had cast any particular spell to break it. No, the reason the door broke was simple: the skeletons had chipped away at the stone around the hinges set in the wall until the masonry cracked, and the door obeyed the forces of gravity.
The four skeletons that had done all of the work stepped back, rusted blades in hand as three adventurers peeked into the opening, coughing as the small dust cloud that had been raised temporarily obscured all vision.
Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr stood behind the wall of skeletons, ready for anything. They were exhausted, hurt, and hungry, but all were sure this was the final barrier, and they were determined to be here. And they were all alive. The only incapacitated member of their team they’d left a few feet away, wrapped up in a blanket.
Yvlon lay on the ground, shuddering. She was safe, but not up to any further exploring for the moment. She was still gibbering a bit, but she had stopped assuming different personalities and better, she had regained bowel control. It had deserted her in a rather unfortunate way as she slowly came out of the effects of the [Insanity] spell.
Now the three adventurers tensed, waiting for the cloud to clear. They expected another trap, or maybe an antechamber, the beginning of another part of the hallway, but then the dust cleared and they saw the light.
It wasn’t sunlight, or artificial light, but rather, the golden glow as the light from outside touched something in the room and made it shimmer. Ceria lowered her skeletal hand and breathed out. Slowly.
“Oh dead gods.”
The fallen door had revealed only a small chamber at the end of all these deadly traps. It was a small room. Yes, a small room, but one filled with one thing. The thing all adventurers dreamed of.
Pisces and Ceria gaped in wonder, their eyes nearly popping out of their heads. Peeking around one of the motionless skeletons. Ksmvr nodded in approval.
“I see quite a number of swords. This is considered good, correct?”
In truth, the room couldn’t have been more than twenty feet across, and it was certainly narrower than it was long. It was the storage closet of treasure vaults, but the quality set it apart. Ceria and Pisces could see it in the glimmering aura that manifested itself the instant they laid eyes on the treasure.
“Look at it!”
Ceria half-screamed as she pointed. The room was small, but it had a rack of weapons that first caught the eye. Glimmering weapons and metal that didn’t look like any ore Ceria had ever seen before hung in the form of swords, daggers, even a battleaxe.
On the other wall a bookshelf full of clearly magical tomes stood, a treasure in itself. A mage’s library. But that wasn’t all. Glittering gold coins and gems occupied the back of the treasure room glowing and glimmering in the adventurer’s light. But what drew Ceria’s attention was the small desk, the magical tome and small bag sitting next to it, and the staff almost casually propped up against the wall.
Any other eye might have been drawn to the gold, or like Ksmvr to the artifacts in the forms of weaponry. But both mages only had eyes for the staff. They saw what others could not; the magic that emanated from the object like a beacon.
“The staff. I can’t believe it! Can you see the aura, Springwalker? Can you see the power in it?”
“I can! I can! It radiates—just look, Ksmvr!”
“I see swords. Where is the staff?”
It was actually a staff in two parts. Twisted metal—or was it stone?—snaked upwards, dividing, becoming thin tendrils of metal which eventually tapered off into nothing. A foot of space, and then the tendrils reappeared, moving in the opposite direction, reaching the top of the staff which was set with a huge aquamarine gemstone. The two pieces of the staff were perfectly connected, as if there was steel in the place of air.
“It even looks magical. Ancestors, look at it.”
“I have to touch it.”
Pisces breathed the words and Ceria thought the exact same thing. Ksmvr looked doubtfully around the room.
“Should we check for traps first?”
Neither mage heard him. They ran forwards, jostling each other. Ksmvr walked after them, staring around.
“I would like to try one of the swords. Do you think that would be acceptable?”
Pieces and Ceria ignored Ksmvr. They practically fought each other to be the first into the room, both reaching for the staff.
The voice was soft, but full of malice. Both Pisces and Ceria froze, hands reaching for the staff. They looked around, and saw something appearing in the center of the room.
Flames licked into being, and then coalesced. Air became fire, and the fire itself knitted together to become a solid thing, a shape, a figure made out of the white-hot flames. A man, or what looked vaguely like a man stepped out of the air and stared at Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr.
“You are trespassing in the personal sanctuary of Warmage Thresk. Identify yourselves or be destroyed.”
Ceria breathed the words, her heart tight in her chest. They’d forgotten. In their haste, they’d forgotten the golden rule of adventuring. Never let your guard down at the end. That’s when the worst trap starts.
The fiery creation looked at her, eyes burning blue in its formless face.
“Who are you? Why do you enter this place? Answer, or I will burn you asunder.”
Something was burning in the center of its chest. A jewel? Ceria squinted at it as Pisces stammered a reply.
“We are ah, Wistram mages, here to consult with Warmage Thresk on a matter of great importance. We apologize if we are disturbing—”
The fiery eyes burned. The construct opened a mouth and showed them insides full of red flames that burned against his incendiary white-hot exterior.
“No one may enter this place save for Warmage Thresk or those of his blood. You are thieves. You will be burnt to ash.”
He raised a hand and extended it towards the three. All at once, the heat in the room grew until it was practically an inferno in of itself. Ceria shouted at the same time Pisces did. Both mages extended their palms out.
The spell blew freezing cold air towards the apparition for a moment. Just for a moment, that was all. It barely halted the rising temperature of the room, but it gave the two mages and Ksmvr the moment they needed to dash out of the room before they were cooked in their skins. Ceria gasped as she ran down the corridor; her skin felt burnt from the second they’d been in the room.
“Pisces! Use the skeletons!”
“Right. Defend me!”
He called out to the skeletons as the three adventurers rushed past them. The skeletons charged the fiery being—and immediately turned to ash as they got too close. Ceria didn’t even bother to swear; she just pumped her arms and legs faster.
“[Frozen Wind] had no effect!”
She screamed at Pisces. He shouted back, face pale.
“I know! That thing’s way too powerful! We have to retreat!”
“There is no escape!”
Flames burst out of the ground in front of them. Pisces, Ceria, and Ksmvr skidded to a halt as the fire wall blocked off their exit. This was no ordinary [Fire Wall] spell either; the flames were not just red or orange, but white-hot like the construct, and the stone cracked and melted where the fire touched.
They turned and saw the apparition of flames. It was walking towards them, slowly, nonchalantly, as if it had all the time in the world. Ceria grabbed Pisces’s arm.
“Do you have any spells you can use?”
“Me? You’re the ice specialist! You do something about it!”
Ceria gulped. The hallway was large enough to dodge the flaming being, but he was walking faster now. He was reaching out to them, and a sword of blue flames grew in his hands.
“Ksmvr, Pisces! Distract it!”
Pisces gaped at her. But Ceria was backing up. Ksmvr ran forwards and slashed at the monster—his sword melted before he got close and he stumbled away, keening in distress. Just the proximity to the fiery being had cracked his carapace with the heat.
He gulped but ran towards the fiery being. It swung the sword at him, but Pisces took a step and his form blurred. He dashed around the construct, nimbly avoiding it as it swung twice more.
[Flash Step]. It was one of Pisces’ old spells, and Ceria was relieved to see he hadn’t forgotten how to use it. Pisces danced back, keeping a very large distance away from the fiery being as he let it approach him. He dodged and wove back and forth with nimble steps, careful not to let it corner him in the corridor.
“A spell would greatly be appreciated, Springwalker!”
Ceria didn’t even bother to reply. She was focusing, trying to call upon all the mana she had left for an attack.
Her best spell was [Ice Spike], but if she concentrated, Ceria could fire one shot from all five fingers. She drew mana into her skeletal hand, calling on all her reserves.
The apparition lunged forwards, and Ceria heard Pisces scream. The fiery blade hadn’t touched him, but the creation had moved too close and Pisces had been burned by the heat emanating from the being. He leapt away with the [Flash Step] spell and then collapsed against a wall, moaning. Tendrils of smoke rose from his burnt side and hundreds of blisters appeared like magic on his arms and legs.
“You will be burnt.”
The construct walked forwards, blue eyes burning. Ceria shouted.
“Turn and face me, you damn Golem!”
It turned. There was no fear in the construct’s eyes as it saw Ceria approaching. It raised its sword and lowered itself to charge, but Ceria didn’t give it time to do so. She raised her hand and shouted.
Five wicked shards of ice, each as long as Ceria’s arm burst from her hand, shooting out like ballista bolts at the fiery apparition. The ice flew towards the flaming creature, struck his outer flames, and screamed as the ice evaporated into steam instantly. The fiery construct blinked once, his flames not even dampened by the spell.
Ceria backed away from him. The construct advanced, sword at its side. It had no fear of her, not even wariness.
“You will perish.”
“Not her. Turn and face me first!”
This shout came from the side. Ceria heard what almost sounded like a sigh coming from the fiery thing, and then it turned. Yvlon stood with her shield and sword in hand, facing the apparition fearlessly.
“Face me, thing. I will not run from you.”
Ceria’s heart leapt in her chest, but her mouth opened to shout a warning as she scrambled backwards, away from the fiery being.
“Don’t block its flames! It’ll burn through your armor!”
Yvlon heard the warning as the creation hurled white flames at her. She dropped her shield and rolled. The fire missed her, but from the way Yvlon cried out, Ceria knew she had to have felt the intense heat of the fire.
“There’s no way to block against it!”
Pisces moaned and Ceria saw that he and Ksmvr had pulled themselves into the small room. The construct froze, and then he seemed to grow larger, as if in rage.
“No one may enter the treasury.”
“Then come and stop us if you can!”
Pisces shouted, and the guardian obliged. He hurled more fire, but this time Ksmvr and Yvlon pulled the door up, the door that had proved unbreakable, and blocked the fire. The white flames dissipated as they struck the innocuous wood, and the guardian hissed.
It was distracted, and ignoring Ceria for the moment. But she was caught between a hot place and the wall of flames it had created. She glanced at them as she stared at the guardian. Nowhere to run. But she wasn’t about to abandon her friends.
Think. The construct had to be powered by something. No spell could ever power such a being for long, not without the mage supplying mana. Then where was its power source?
The thing she’d spotted in the chest. Ceria squinted as the construct advanced. Was it—yes there it was! She saw something glowing in the chest. Some sort of mana stone. But how could she strike it?
The construct hurled fire, but Yvlon ducked behind the wooden door she was using like a shield. She darted out, baiting the construct as it swung at her, but dove backwards again. She couldn’t get near enough to strike, not that her sword would have hurt the guardian, but she was occupying it as it advanced. In a few seconds though, they would be cornered.
If only they could bypass the flames—
“Use the door!”
Ceria screamed at the others. The guardian turned its head, but she pointed, heedless of the danger.
“There’s a gem in its chest! Use the door and smash it!”
The three adventurers backed away from the construct, holding the door as a shield in front of them. It hesitated, aware of the power of the door to mitigate its flames.
“You will not stop—”
All three Horns of Hammerad shouted as they rushed towards the construct, pushing the door forwards like a huge shield. At the last moment, before they got too close and were burnt alive, they let go of the door. Ksmvr kicked it forwards, and the massive wooden section of wood fell slowly towards the flaming guardian.
The fiery being took one look at the falling door—
And dodged. He stepped swiftly to one side, avoiding it. Not swiftly enough; the door crushed his left side and the guardian howled in what sounded like true agony. But he was not dead. Ceria saw the gemstone in his chest, a pulsating emerald stone the size of her fist. But already the flames were swirling around it, growing, rebuilding his body.
“For Byres and honor!”
Yvlon shouted as she charged forwards. Ceria saw Ksmvr and Pisces trying to drag her back, but the armored woman ran at the fiery guardian. It raised its flaming sword, but she cut through it. Her own silvery sword was mere metal, but for a brief second before it evaporated, the metal was still strong. And it struck the gem at the construct’s source.
Ceria heard Yvlon’s scream first, right above the crack of the gem breaking.
She howled at her silver armor glowed red. The sword melted as it dropped from her hands and she stumbled away. Her silver armor was melting over her hands, making the young woman scream.
And the construct howled too. It reached for the gem, and then it faltered. The flames in its eyes went out. It tried to step towards Ceria, stumbled. Then it looked up at her and roared.
“If the secret of this place cannot be protected, then everything will be destroyed. And you will perish with it!”
It stood up, and stumbled back into the treasury room. Ceria shouted.
But it was too late. The construct fell to the ground, and the white hot flames began to spread. It was engulfing the room! The flames were spreading, reaching outwards into the corridor. The guardian was trying to burn the treasure—and the Horns of Hammerad with it.
“Get away, everyone! We have to run!”
Pisces and Ksmvr ran away from the intense heat, shouting in pain. They grabbed Yvlon, who was still clawing at her smoking arms, and pulled her towards Ceria. She turned to run—
And saw the white-hot flames, still burning, a solid wall blocking their escape. The flames had diminished somewhat, but they were still so hot that Ceria knew touching them would sear her to the bone in seconds.
Pisces and Ksmvr stopped beside her, burnt and smoking. They stared in horror at the flames blocking the entrance, and then at the fire slowly engulfing the treasury room, making its way down the corridor towards them.
“What do we do, Captain? A spell?”
“One of the walls?”
“We can’t tunnel through that!”
“The trap below!”
Pisces shouted, and Ceria looked. Yes, there! The opening in the floor was still visible. She grabbed Yvlon’s legs—the woman couldn’t even move as she still screamed, and all three adventurers ran towards it.
Ceria nearly fell off the bone staircase, but Ksmvr caught her and they rushed down the stairs, already feeling the heat overhead. Ksmvr and Pisces laid Yvlon on the floor and she screamed again, trying to pull her melted armor off. But the metal had fused, and her arms were still smoking. Ceria caught her breath and reached for a potion, but Ksmvr was faster. He poured it over her arms and into her mouth while Pisces poured the last of their water over Yvlon’s arms. Steam rose and she stopped thrashing.
She was alive, for now. Ceria diverted her attention upwards. She could still sense the heat, and she knew the flames were spreading. And that fire—it was magical flames, of a Tier she’d never seen before. It would burn away everything upstairs. The treasure, the swords—everything.
“No, no, no! We were so close! It can’t end like this!”
Ceria shouted in despair, but she knew better than to go up. Ksmvr reached for her, but Ceria knocked his hand away. She hammered the ground as she screamed in desperation.
“It won’t end.”
Pisces’ voice made Ceria look up. The mage was standing, robes burnt, skin blistered, but determined. A fierce look was in his eyes and he raised both arms up, his voice growing deeper.
“Arise! Arise and heed my call! Go into the depths of flame and bring me a ransom of gold and magic! Go now, treasure seekers! Go, fallen comrades!”
The room trembled. Every bone in the room—from the staircases to the bones Pisces had left untouched, began to shift and come together. Skeletons rose up, and began running the instant they were formed, before they were even fully formed. Ceria stared as they dashed up the staircase of bone. Up.
She knew what they had to be doing. The skeletons dashed into the room and snatched up burning objects, heedless of the flames that cracked their very bones. Over half fell before they could return, their bones catching fire and literally disintegrating from the heat.
But some—yes, some made it out of the room, and what they took was scooped up by other bony hands, brought back. Burning skeletons fell down from above and Ceria and Ksmvr shielded their faces as burning bone fragments crashed to the ground around them. More skeletons ran up, and Pisces shouted, his hands pointed up as sweat poured from his brow. He gasped, pointing, as more skeletons emerged, even more burnt than before, falling into the pit.
And then the fire grew more intense, and not a single skeleton returned. Ceria saw the last burst into flames even as he climbed up into the tunnel above, and Pisces collapsed on the ground. Ceria rushed over to him and found the mage breathing hoarsely.
It was growing hot. So hot. Ceria lay down on the cool stone and saw Ksmvr cradling Yvlon. Her arms—didn’t look right. Melted silver intertwined with flesh, and she was unconscious. Pisces lay on the ground next to the burnt bone. Slowly, Ceria looked around.
Scattered objects. Burnt things, barely recognizable. A cracked sword, blackened by soot. A buckler almost cut in half.
Worthless things. And no staff. Ceria despaired, and felt her eyes stinging. If she had water in her to cry, she might have. But then she saw a skeletal hand, holding something. Ceria crawled over to it, and saw a burnt tome.
A book. Its cover was gone, and half the pages. Ceria brushed aside white ash and saw a page and glowing symbols. She clutched it to her, holding it dearly as the heat grew even worse, and air became a luxury, then a memory.
Slowly, Ksmvr collapsed to the ground, still holding Yvlon. Pisces didn’t move, and the stairway of bone fell to the ground. Ceria didn’t even look up as something struck her back. She couldn’t. She just held the book and breathed in. Out. In. Out. In—
It was so hot.