The door towered over them, large enough for even a giant Kar to walk through. Heavy wrought iron, it stood at least twenty feet. Across the width of the double doors, a thick wooden bar was wedged, inscribed with glowing silver writing. Catryn did not understand the language, but it was clear that they were wards of some kind.
“Who are you trying to keep out of here?” Tomas asked scathingly, as two of the Covenant stepped up to the door. Each presented a keystone, entering them slowly into openings at the ends of the bar. The runes faded, deactivated, and the men lifted it from its position.
Wolf could see the tension in their shoulders as the door creaked open. A gust of air and the stench of rot made her gag, even through her mask. This place had not been entered since long before the dead began to walk. Glancing at Ahren, she muttered “What are they trying to keep in?”
“Is there any information we should know, in order to ensure your protection as we proceed?” He asked the older priest, his calm tone betrayed by the steely glint in his eyes.
The priest smiled and replied evenly “Nothing of note. We simply take precautions in the lower levels, as a safeguard. The Ungarhek did not use the same methods to inter their dead, so we prefer to safeguard the area more thoroughly.”
“Precautions?” He replied sceptically. When he was met with an unflinching smile, Ahren sighed and shook his head. “As you say. Stay sharp.” He shot at the others, moving back to the front of the group to prepare.
At his words, Kihyun tightened the straps of his targe, the round shield fastened on his left arm. Tomas grumbled and tightened his grip on his warhammer. As the only members with shields, he and Kihyun had been stuck at the back with the priests, and Tomas was itching for some action. If he couldn’t crack some skulls soon, Wolf knew from experience that he would pick a fight with her. Frankly, she was surprised he had lasted so long.
As they stepped into the shadows, the fog curling around their feet with every step, the heavy doors creaked behind them. Plunged into momentary darkness, Tomas cursed and sharply turned, knocking into one of the thorns. A torch sparked to life, and Wolf flinched as her eyes struggled to readjust to the change. The first thing she noticed when they did was that Ahren’s sword was drawn.
The second was that the two members of the covenant with the keystones were no longer with them. Her racing thoughts conjured the reason quickly, though she prayed she was wrong. They had sealed the doors behind them. Trapped them in the bowels of the earth, surrounded by the mountain and the dead. Wolf tore her mask off for a moment, turning from the light, but the stale air only bolstered the feeling of being buried.
Steel sang as Ahren sheathed his blade in favour of placing a hand on Catryn’s shoulder. “Still with me, wildcat?”
His voice was low enough that only she could hear the words, especially over Tomas’ cursing. She nodded quickly, desperately scrounging back control from her screaming nerves. Without instruction, her magic surged, seeking out his aura. The scents of smoke, earth, and leather, and his eyes of molten steel, steadied her.
“Another precaution?” She growled with barely contained fury, glaring at the older priest who stood with his hands calmly clasper over his talisman. “A warning would have been appreciated.”
“Would you not have continued with your duty? The task has not changed, whether the door remains open or closed.” His blank face and polite smile did nothing to reassure her. If anything, the realisation that his expression has not changed since greeting them made her shudder. The Thorns might give up their names, but the priests clearly took it a step beyond.
Seeing little benefit in arguing further, Wolf took a position close to the younger priest and readied herself to continue. Rynir touched her arm as she passed him, and he moved silently to watch her back. Of all the mercenaries, he seemed the least bothered with the newest development. From the way he held himself, Wolf thought he was clearly resigned to whatever fate the Gatekeeper had in store for him.
Catryn could feel the cold clinging to Rynir, the last shred of entropic energy refusing to relinquish its hold. There was little they could do to help him, surrounded as they were. Still, she dug a shimmering golden tonic from her bag and pressed it into his hand.
At his questioning look, she muttered “Should keep the chill at bay, for a time.”
Rynir hesitated; such potions were difficult to come by, and often hinted at more dubious practices like magic. Seeing his apprehension, Wolf averted her gaze and said “Whether you drink it is up to you. But don’t leave your life in the hands of the Caretakers while you still have the power to affect change for yourself.”
With a furrowed brow, Rynir silently tucked the vial into the pouch at his side. Ahren managed to persuade Tomas to be quiet, and ensured that Kihyun was still willing to proceed, so they quickly moved out. Following one of the remaining Thorns, they walked with limited torchlight as their guide.
The tunnels ahead of them were far larger than those behind, and multiple paths branched from theirs as they descended. Every instinct Wolf had screamed that this would be an easy ambush. There were too many hidden paths for an enemy to sweep around to flank them. Yet, they had little choice but to continue.
Every flicker of the torch set Wolf on edge. Each step echoed through the once-grand halls, and she had to bite down on the urge to reprimand the others for their heavy footfalls. They may as well have brought a hulking war drum, with the noise they were making. The only way to draw more attention would be to bring the tunnel crashing down around them.
The talisman of the Gatekeeper hanging at Wolf’s wrist was her first and only warning of the attack before a thick rusted blade swung out of the shadows. She pulled back just in time, feeling the rush of cold air as the clumsy hunk of metal that passed for a greatsword rushed by her face. She instinctively struck out with her batons, aiming for the muscles that would force a release of the weapon, but the hollow sound reminded her it was futile. These were creatures of bone and magic. They were clinging to their weapons as resolutely as they clung to their unnatural lives.
Abandoning any attempt at stealth, Ahren shouted “Protect the priests; they’re your only way out of this.”
The mercenaries rallied to his call, and Rynir and Kihyun moved in tighter, forming a barrier with the Thorns around their charges. Wolf and Ahren used their mobility to draw the attention of the hulking remains, attracting their ire as best they could. Tomas charged in with a strangled cry, swinging his warhammer indiscriminately in both hands as he cast aside his shield.
If Wolf didn’t have her hands full, she would have stopped him. Destroying their bodies would do nothing when the foul energy could just pull them back together. He would only succeed in desecrating ancient remains and stirring more unrest. Seething, Wolf frantically danced around the swings of two skeletons twice her size. Ungarhek, she decided, were monstrous. For the first time, she was relieved that the only one she had met was a pacifist, and a bard.
Her jumbled thoughts quickly petered out in favour of staying on her feet as she parried and dodged. If she knew more about the layout of the catacombs, she would have tried leading them away through the tunnels but she had no idea what to expect. An arrow flew a breath away from her left eye, catching the edge of her hood, and she staggered back into something solid.
With a clatter and a creak, skeletal arms encircled her chest and pinned her in place. As the grip tightened, crushing her to the point she could no longer breathe, Wolf knew she did not have the strength to pull herself free. It was futile to struggle, but her arms were unrestrained so she pulled her best dagger from her boot and jammed it between the bones that imprisoned her.
A sharp, sudden twist shattered the dry bones into dust and Wolf stumbled away, gasping for air. Her chest ached, but she pushed past the pain and kept moving. It felt like an eternity for the priests to complete their incantations, calling on the Gatekeeper to release the trapped souls, but the bulky remains finally crashed to the ground around them.
“You certainly have the favour of the Fool.” Kihyun said quietly to her, as she dusted herself off. “That arrow should have taken your eye.”
Wolf bristled behind her mask, irritated that he would chalk it up to luck instead of skill. Though, she acknowledged quietly, she could not argue with his assessment. Brushing aside her misplaced anger, she scanned the group for injuries.
Wolf would have expected Kihyun’s javelins to be fairly useless, but he must have been more versatile than she realised. She had never fought with him before, but he was unmarked by the attack, as were the priests, so he was clearly skilled enough. Tomas, on the other hand, had taken a few blows and was bleeding. More disturbing was the spiteful grin on his face as he crushed a skull under his boot. Catching sight of the two of them, Tomas called “Better get away from the traitor. You might catch something.”
Tomas made no attempt to muffle his words, and his voice echoed through the cavernous tunnels. Before Wolf could respond, Ahren grabbed the scruff of his armour and dragged him aside, pinning him to the wall. “Traitor? We’re not the fucking Black Fang!”
“You don’t deserve to lead us.” Tomas spluttered swinging an elbow into Ahren’s face. Out of the corner of her eye, Wolf saw the haft of a javelin strike sharply towards her head and rolled away. She vaguely registered the burning at her wrist as Rynir staggered a few steps to the wall. One of his hand-axes clattered to the floor at Wolf’s feet as he threw it at her, his movement jarred as he battled with himself.
A panicked yelp drew her attention. In unison, she and Ahren leapt to the aid of the priests, who were being attacked by their guards. As a heavy club swung down, Ahren used his body as a shield and took the blow on his raised arm. Grunting with the effort, he shoved the thorn away and stood firm in front of the priests. Wolf was a heartbeat behind him, and she used her batons to trip the other temple guard before his mace could reach its target.
The thorns’ faces were contorted, and their eyes were misted over with a strange milky glow. As Tomas barrelled over, and another javelin flew into the wall, Ahren shouted “Do something, would you! They’re possessed!”
Looking around frantically, Wolf knew that her magic would be far more useful than her blades. Tomas charged straight for her, and she caught the shaft with crossed batons, the blow sending tremors sharply to her shoulders. The same manic grin she had seen earlier was on his face as he pushed down, and she took a knee under the pressure.
Using his weight against him, she rolled to the side and shifted to lift him with her. As he tumbled, she grabbed his hammer and twisted it to direct his fall into the side of the tunnel, cracking his head on the rock. Taking advantage of his momentary daze, Wolf grabbed his face and pushed her will onto him, commanding “Sleep.”
Ahren was holding off the thorns, keeping them away from the priests, so Wolf rushed at Kihyun as he raised another javelin to throw. The air around them reverberated with power as the priests chanted in unison, and their possessed companions began to shriek and howl. Wolf grabbed Kihyun as he twisted wildly, and forced him and the invading spirit to sleep.
Rynir was curled up in a ball, clawing at his braided hair, and Wolf ached to help him. But the thorns were ferociously tearing at Ahren to get a clear path at the priests before they could banish the spirits. She shouted at him to drink the potion and sprinted to Ahren, leaping onto the guard waving his club erratically.
The white robes made it difficult to get purchase; they were surprisingly silky, but she locked her arms around his neck. He flailed and thrashed wildly, smashing them both into the side of the tunnel. Dust and loose stones tumbled around them, and a sinister scraping sent a chill through her. She could not afford to release her hold, but her breath caught in her throat at the rumbling she could feel through the walls.
The body she was clinging to went suddenly slack, and she fell with him as he collapsed to the floor. Her head shot up to check on Ahren, and she saw that the man he had engaged suffered a similar fate. Relieved, she realised that the priests must have finished their banishing.
That relief was short-lived; a resounding crack echoed through the cavern as mace, shield, and man rammed into the wall. As rocks cascaded at the mouth of the tunnel, Wolf sprinted to the priests and unceremoniously tossed the closest one back towards the rest of the group. Satisfied that he was as clear as she could get him, she turned to find the other but froze in place.
The tunnel crumpled in around her, boulders slamming at her feet, with no clear way out. She choked as the dust overpowered her, even through the masks, and doubled over. She could hear Ric shouting her name, but she couldn’t see anything through the chaos. And then he was there. Without a care for his own safety, Ahren charged to her side and threw her over his shoulder easily.
By the time Catryn realised what had happened, the dust was settling, and they were in the dark. He had shifted her from his shoulder so that she was pressed against his chest, and she could feel his heart pounding an erratic rhythm to match hers. Without a care for what anyone would think, she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck.
“I have you, wildcat.” He whispered, gently moving his hand to the back of her head. Raising his voice, he called “Sound off. Who’s still with us.”
There was a painful, prolonged silence, and Catryn could feel him tense until Rynir croaked “Tomas and Kihyun are here.” The groaned groggily to confirm, and he continued “We lost both thorns. The priest is alive, but he’s out cold.”
Behind them, a small voice rasped “I am with you.”
Ahren glanced slowly to their right where the younger of the priests was sitting, pressed against the fresh pile of debris. His arm was bent at a strange angle, and his features were creased with pain, but he pushed himself gingerly to his feet. Reluctantly, he murmured “Though, I am not sure how much use I will be; I am not certain of the way.”
Ric hid his disappointment well, Catryn thought as he nodded slowly in response. He raised his voice again to call “Rynir, you know how to get back, I assume?” Rynir agreed and Ahren ordered “Get back to that door, meet with the Thorns guarding it, and see if they have a way around. I doubt we can clear this without bringing more down on us, and I don’t much fancy wandering aimlessly around these tunnels.”
“Sit tight, boss. We’ll be back before you know it.” They heard the others gather themselves on the other side of the mound of rock and stone. As the sounds died down and their footfalls faded, silence settled upon them once more.
Hello there! If you made it this far, consider hitting that Like button, or drop a comment to let me know what you thought. If you want to make sure you don’t miss the next post, click that follow button to get email updates!