The dust finally cleared, and Wolf realised with a start that Ahren’s arms were still wrapped comfortingly around her. She looked up to see him watching her carefully, checking her for any obvious injuries. At some point during the confrontations, he had lost his bear mask.
Remembering the priest standing nearby, Wolf lowered her gaze and murmured his name. He released her slowly, and she took a small step back to create space between them. “Thank you.” She felt his frown and looked back up at him, removing her mask, and clarified “You’re making a habit of saving my life. Thank you.”
“Any excuse to have you in my arms, love.” He winked with a roguish grin, but she could see the softness in his silver eyes. He glanced at the robed figure, shuffling awkwardly to the side, and sighed “Come on, let us take a look around.”
The priest turned sharply and winced, grabbing his arm. He looked between them and anxiously stammered “I thought you didn’t want to wander aimlessly?”
“Then we will walk with purpose.” Ahren replied calmly and lit a torch. As light flared around them, Catryn winced at the sudden bright spark and looked away. She busied herself inspecting the cave-in as Ahren asked “Can you contact the Gatekeeper, for guidance?”
Hanging his head, the priest admitted “Not alone. There’s only so much I can call on him; the human body was not built to withstand the power of a Caretaker.”
Wolf was itching to move, to get this over with, but it would do no good to rush ahead. With a quiet sigh, she turned to Ahren and suggested “We should rest.”
“We do not have time to waste.” The priest insisted, his frantic voice carrying through the darkness that surrounded them. The weak light of the torch barely kept it at bay as it struggled in on all sides.
“No matter how we fight, our weapons cannot release these spirits. Only you can do that.” Ahren explained slowly, with patience Wolf could sense he did not feel. Still, there was no sign of agitation in his voice. “Take the time now, while you can. We will scout ahead to get the lay of things and make sure you are not interrupted.”
With the assurance that they wouldn’t go far, the young priest perched awkwardly against the wall. He must have been exhausted; in moments, his breathing slowed and his head lolled awkwardly to the side. Wolf knew well that he would feel that when he woke, but the tunnel wasn’t arranged in a way that was conducive to a restful sleep.
Ahren struck up a second torch, planting the first firmly between some cracks in the rubble blocking their way out. With a glance, he suggested that they head out and Catryn gladly followed. With the unsettling flame flickering between them, they skirted around the area closest to their impromptu camp. Her ears and other senses were honed on their surroundings, but she couldn’t help but marvel at how gracefully Ahren moved.
He automatically skirted around some rocks in his path without a glance, and Catryn murmured “I forget how little the dark affects you.”
“Is that right?” He asked quietly. He kept his eyes fixed on the tunnel ahead of them, but tilted his head slightly in her direction, to show that she had his attention.
A bold urge came over her, and she lifted her chin. “You don’t need the torch, do you.”
Darkness enveloped them as the torch suddenly extinguished. Catryn felt something fly towards her face and did not hesitate in catching the pebble. Ahren chuckled, slowly stepping closer. “We all have our secrets, kitten.”
“Ric.” She breathed his name, her heart racing, and looked helplessly up at his face. Her eyes were drawn inexplicably to the small smile curling his lips.
“Don’t worry; I’m not looking for stolen moments in the dark with you. I don’t want this to be something you run and hide from when the lights turn back on.” Despite his words, his hand moved of its own accord. He slowly pulled the mask from her face and cupped her cheek.
Even as she tentatively lay her hand over his, savouring the warmth she could still feel through their gloves, a cold blue flickering light caught her attention. It flittered and danced at the edge of her vision, surrounded by strange, haunting whispers. Echoes of the life it had once led. Ahren felt the change in her and sighed with a small mocking smile.
Following her gaze, he saw nothing but the reflection of a glow in her eyes. He placed a hand on her shoulder and murmured “Do we follow, or fight?”
Follow. The word moved through her on an icy breeze, and her heart dropped. “It wants us to follow.”
“Then we will continue this another time. Perhaps in a more pleasant setting.” His low voice was a promise, sending a pleasant shiver across her skin despite the atmosphere. He had a hand at the hilt of his sword and bowed slowly. “After you, Wolf.”
She snapped the mask down at his reminder and cautiously walked forward. The wisp danced and jittered, darting back with each step they took. Wolf was worried they were walking into a trap of some kind, but this spirit felt different somehow. Less like a cornered animal. Its rage was not all encompassing. The spirit had…hope.
With a chittering sound, almost a giggle, the wisp veered left into a large cavern. It hovered hypnotically by what appeared to be a cart. As they approached, it shivered and disappeared in a puff of shimmering smoke. Wolf touched the pendants she wore under her clothes to steady herself and carefully moved to the cart. It was full of hunks of rock, from the cavern walls, but something distracted her before she could get a good look.
On the other side of the cart lay several bodies. Human men, all of them, and still completely intact. With a sinking feeling she couldn’t quite place, she muttered “These bodies are fresh.” Their attire alone made it obvious they were not priests, or temple guards. Wolf looked up from the bodies, asking “What were they doing all the way down here?”
“Certainly not lost visitors; not through that warded door.” Ahren said grimly. He looked around, taking in their surroundings, and his expression hardened. Wolf inspected the bodies and found the one nearest to her was collapsed on a heavy-duty pickaxe.
A sickly warmth rose through her chest and she swallowed, hard, as she frantically looked around. “The tombs have been disturbed. They were…mining?” Her weak voice faltered, knowing they were doing no such thing.
“Not with these, they weren’t.” Ahren held up a sack, still more than half-full of strange cylindrical objects. “I don’t know where men like this could get hold of explosives. They should have cut and run before using them somewhere like this.”
Another look at their surroundings painted a clearer picture. There were tools scattered about, some had been used against the men as weapons in the attack, but more were piled up in every nook. There were supports from floor to ceiling in strategic intervals, and scratches marked the walls.
“I don’t understand.” Wolf whispered, shaking her head. Her nerves were on fire at the possibility of what these men had been doing. What someone had hired them to do. “It isn’t possible.”
Ahren lifted a crumbling slab of masoned stone, smooth and even unlike the rough craggy walls, and hissed “They weren’t just excavating the entombed dead. They were blowing them to pieces.” With a loud thud, the tomb fragment dropped back into the cart.
“Do you think the temple sanctioned this?” She asked, mustering a strained whisper through her constricted throat.
Ahren sighed heavily and secured the bag of explosives over his shoulder. He took great pains not to let his anger get the better of him, taking care not to jostle the contents. The formula for the fire sticks had come from the Euntzar, deep in their burrowed caverns in the bowels of the earth. He knew little of how they worked, except that they needed a spark to ignite and had devastating destructive power. He also knew that they were expensive, even by noble standards.
When he turned back to Wolf, Ahren had arranged his face into a passive mask to conceal the rage burning within. The steely glint in his eyes and the hard edge to his voice gave him away. “That is a question for our young friend. Someone must have let the workers through that door.” He clenched his fists and added “We need to focus on our job here, wildcat. We’re here to clean up the mess and get the priest where he needs to be. The rest, we leave with the high priest when we get out.”
Anger seared through her, but she bit down on the emotion. Ahren was right; this wasn’t what they were being paid for. “One thing at a time, right?” She murmured, but she promised herself that she would find a way to get to the bottom of this. Whoever was behind this operation would suffer.
The fury boiling her blood startled her, as did the vow that came unbidden to her mind. She thought she had let go of that dark part of her when she relinquished the search for the bandits that killed her family. It hadn’t been easy, but she had worked to rise above it to focus on being there for Owain and Lissa. Still, the shadows coiled around and inside her, twisting themselves around her heart with an iron grip.
“Catryn, look at me.” Ric’s grip on her arm startled her. She only noticed the roaring in her ears when it was silenced by his voice. “We have to focus on the task before us, or we will fail. When this is over, we will find whoever is responsible for this.”
“You’re not going to tell me that we only work for profit?” She joked weakly to hide her racing heart.
“Officially, sure. And if I can get a pay-out, even better. But this, right here, is bigger than us. We will need to be very careful whose toes we are stepping on. By rights, we should leave it with the High Priest and walk away.” She could see in his face that he was no more able to do that than she was. Once Ahren set his mind to something, there was nothing that could stop him. His voice was barely a whisper when he added “I don’t want to lose you to the Gatekeeper. Not again.”
Ahren walked the path back to the priest, trusting that she would follow. His words echoed in her ears and relief flooded her, tinged with a bittersweet ache, that he had not given her the chance to respond. The words she longed to tell him died on her lips, so she whispered them in her heart instead, touching the spot a teardrop of amber rested at her chest. She unceremoniously yanked a pickaxe from the chest of one of the fallen workers and followed with her head down.
Wolf was surprised to see the priest lying on the hard ground, fast asleep. His skin was ashen, a shade lighter than his charcoal robes, and he looked exhausted. Their trials had drained him. It was strange to her, considering she knew priests had no magic of their own, that he should be so affected. But, she supposed, the strain of letting the power of a Caretaker flow through a body that was never built for magic must take a toll.
Ahren had no such qualms, shaking him awake as Catryn watched from a distance. His hood had fallen back while he slept, and Wolf could see that he was far younger than she had expected. Hardly old enough to be called a man.
“You came back?” He asked wearily. Even in his groggy state, the surprise was clear on his face. Before Ahren could reply, Wolf walked past him and embedded the pick in the floor at the priest’s feet. Nonplussed, he looked at it blankly, asking “What is this?”
“The reason we’re here.” She growled, her gut churning as her anger resurfaced. Even as she struggled to push it down, she heard Ahren explaining “Workers were removing the ancient Ungarhek dead entombed here. You wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”
“Workers?” He floundered for a moment, obviously confused, and Catryn felt her muscles relax. Whether anyone else in the temple knew, it was clear that this boy was unaware. “We sent a request to the Council of Jade to have the tunnels expanded. I wasn’t aware they had sent anyone yet, but they should not have been this deep either way. They certainly would not have been authorised to remove any of the interred. You must be mistaken.”
Wolf bristled, but Ahren’s hand on her shoulder steadied her. With a tinge of amusement, he repeated “Mistaken?”
“What you are suggesting is unthinkable.” The priest mumbled, looking at the pickaxe buried in the ground in front of him. Wolf silently agreed with him, and yet the unthinkable had happened. The dead were walking, in the Gatekeeper’s own hallowed halls.
The words hung in the air around them. Taking a deep breath, the priest drew himself to his full height, still a head shorter than Wolf, and insisted “We must push on. You can discuss this matter with the High Priest when our task is complete.”
Whispers coalesced in the air around them, and the priest tilted his head slowly. Holding his holy symbol, he bowed his head and murmured a silent prayer. The voices quieted and he looked up with the first smile she had seen him wear. It was serene and hopeless, found and lost. “He has shown me the way. Let us finish this.”
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