They walked in silence. Ahren left the sack of explosives by the rubble, but he and Wolf both stowed some in their packs. Not to use, but in case the sack was found. They both wanted to get to the bottom of this, and neither were willing to trust in the hands of a priest. Agents of the Caretakers did not always have the luxury of individual morality.
In any case, the volatile cargo they carried and the threat of the dead loomed over them. Gingerly, they made their way through the dark passages, wincing at every scuffle and sound from their charge. The priest’s movements were clumsy, and his muttered apologies only made things worse. Patience had never been one of Wolf’s strong points, and she was quickly reminded why she worked alone. Ahren was the only exception, being far more capable than her in almost every discipline.
Much to her relief, and likely for the priest’s safety, Ahren agreed that she should scout quietly ahead so they knew what they were walking into. She was certain she heard him chuckling behind her as she rushed away, but the warmth faded as the ground trembled beneath her feet. Heavy, slow thuds shook the loose stones from the walls.
A massive cavernous hall was ahead, and the booming footsteps were enough to tell her that they should not risk entering. Half a glance was all she dared, but it was enough. Three hulking figures, towering at least fifteen feet tall, stomped sluggishly around the chamber. Their tombs were shattered, and their armour had slouched from their withered forms. Yet the stories had not prepared her for the sheer size of the Kar.
The giants had become little more than myths since their exile from Lorien, and Catryn had thought the tales exaggerated. If anything, seeing them now, the stories fell woefully short. Even the intricately engraved breastplate, somehow still gleaming a brilliant silver, would be massive enough to hide her entire body if she was so inclined.
Wolf shuddered at the sound of bones grinding together as one of the Kar moved closer to the archway, where she hid. She was fairly confident in her ability to hide, but her pulse quickened as her senses picked up footsteps down the hall. Like a mantra, she repeated the advice Ahren had given her about moving silently in her head as she hurried to the source of the noise.
As expected, it was the priest. Ahren somehow still wore a reassuring smile, ever the face of the guild, but Wolf could see the strain around his eyes. As the priest opened his mouth to greet her, she quickened her pace and put her heavily gloved hand over his mouth. His eyes widened, and it wasn’t until he gagged that Wolf remembered that they were probably covered in various states of remains from their previous encounters.
She removed her hand, but kept a tight grip on his arm instead. Under her breath, she hissed “What is the chamber ahead?”
Hushed as her voice was, her tone was not lost on him and his eyes widened. Another shuddering step echoed through them, and he staggered back instinctively. Ahren looked at Wolf expectedly as the priest gathered himself, and she muttered “Kar.”
“Ancient heroes of their time. Blessed of Gunthaewylen, goddess of war.” The priest replied frantically. He took another step back, away from the mercenaries, into the cave wall. With clouded eyes, he stammered “If even their souls are not at rest…how could my lord’s ravens have missed so many?”
“Their bodies walk. There is nothing to suggest their souls are the ones inhabiting them.” Ahren said gently, his face unreadable beyond the reassuring mask he conjured.
Wolf knew that he was trying to comfort the priest, that now was not the time for him to lose his faith. Yet, something in his words rang true. There was no way so many souls were still sitting idle without being guided to the Gate. The spirits they fought must be from elsewhere. “Then they were called here by something else.”
“A necromancer?” Ahren suggested, meeting her eyes. A troublesome foe, to be sure. But preferable to spirits. A necromancer would at least be made of flesh. Would be mortal. Could be defeated by a skilled blade. Putting their lives in the hands of the priest was less than palatable, for either of them. An enemy they could face together would never be able to overcome them. If Wolf had learned anything in her years at his side, it was that.
Sensing their quiet confidence, the aura of calm Ahren radiated, the priest took a slow breath to regain his composure. “We must press on.”
To his credit, his voice was steady and even. Almost unnaturally so, Catryn thought. The scent of Otherness caught her senses and she shuddered inwardly; the Gatekeeper was infusing their follower with strength. If the stories were true, it would be unusual for them to act directly, but perhaps this was a strange case. As the tendrils of shadow curled questioningly towards her, she adjusted her hood and shied away. The last thing she needed was comfort from the newest addition to her nightmares.
The ground shuddered beneath them, bringing them back to the problem at hand. “I don’t much fancy facing those monstrosities head on.”
“Nor I.” Ahren admitted thoughtfully with a furrowed brow. “The Kar were fearsome warriors in life. I dread to think what foes they would make in death.”
Shooting him a curious glance, Catryn filed away that information for later inspection. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimmer of light flickering in the distance. Another shifting globe of unnatural blue, twinkling just out of sight. Ahren, ever tuned into her, sighed quietly and murmured “Lead the way.”
They ignored the priest’s quiet blustering, and Wolf pulled slightly ahead. Trepidation in her steps, she moved slowly towards the dancing light, not at all surprised as it pulled further away each time she drew near. A voice near her ear startled her as the priest murmured “You can see the wisps?”
A glance was the only answer she afforded him, keeping her attention on the flickering light she could sense more than see. “The mercenary with the face of a wolf. Never have we seen you in this temple, yet you hold a special place in the Gatekeeper’s affections.”
Wolf flinched at his unexpected words, but he seemed not to notice as he turned curiously to Ahren. “And you, Captain Ahren. You carry a sense of the Caretakers with you. Are you also a priest?”
“Perhaps it is simply that I carry my temple with me.” He murmured, touching the hilt of his sword briefly. He kept his eyes firmly fixed ahead instead of meeting the prying glance of the young priest, but there was no other sign of his unease. Catryn bit down on her curiosity; she could not pry into his secrets when she was unwilling to reveal her own.
Interest softened his features in the dark corridors and he strained to scan Ahren’s even face, asking “How is it that you both resisted possession when even our devoted Thorns lost themselves to the spirits’ rage?”
“You are the expert here, are you not?” Ahren replied lightly, brushing him aside. Ahead of them, Wolf held up a hand and tilted her head curiously, drawing his immediate attention. “Wolf?”
“It’s gone.” She whispered on a breath. “The wisp is gone.”
Straightening his robes, the priest scanned the tunnel and took a step forward. “I know the way from here.” He said quietly, a strained smile visible under his hood.
Wolf felt no comfort at his words; it was more than that the wisp had vanished. The spirit hadn’t just disappeared, it had been torn away somehow. Smothered. Snuffed out. For Wolf, things couldn’t disappear without a trace the way the wisp had. The energy would dissipate slowly, leaving a scent that a creature had been there.
Instead, in the wisp’s place, a sinister chill spread. It felt as though the little warmth left in the air was being sucked into the space the spirit left behind. Wolf staggered back a step as the emptiness reached her, probing against the warmth that suddenly surged around her. A strangled gasp behind her caught her attention, and her heart constricted as she saw Ric clutching his chest.
“Get back.” He choked, raising his head to show Wolf that his silver eyes were glowing with an ethereal blue light. Desperation she had never seen on his face contorted his features. “Catryn. Run.”
Hello there! Apologies again for the hiatus! I know this is a shorter chapter than usual but I couldn’t resist that cliffhanger!
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