Chapter 10: Infiltration (draft)

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Niht pushed himself up from the cold, dusty floor. Iarann and Amhran stood on either side of him.

"Are you all right?" Amhran asked, helping him to his feet.

“I have never been better. I take it you have each forge to relationship with your patron?"

"Yeah, but mine didn't set me on fire." Iarann said.

"That's because you are a much better student than I am. I think I know how we can sneak back in, without having to sneak at all."

Niht did not tell them the details of the plan, not because he didn't trust them, but because they had to be intuited at every step along the way.

The order prized its relationship with fate, and so only those who relied on the hand of Providence would find their way. This is what Zosia meant when she said the trial could kill them. If they have not owned their instincts, and learned to trust them, they would languish out here in the cold and die.

After they dressed in what armor they could, and chose weapons they felt comfortable using, the three crept out of the ancient shrine carved so lovingly into the walls of the cave.

The dark night clung to the valley beyond, filled with hunting shadows, and unseen threats. In the distance the lights of the compound glittered like scattered jewels, picking up the distant light of the stars and reflecting it back for all to see.

Niht led them on a circuitous route, as far away from the path they took to get to the cave as he could. If the soldiers sought them, they were more likely to be on the direct path. Their scanners would be able to pick up the faintest trace of the passage to safety.

In the shadows beyond their field of vision, armor clinked and rattled signaling the presence of their quarry. They weren't alone.

If anyone saw them, they would call for reinforcements. Stealth was their only real weapon. So long as they could return to the compound without being seen. They had a chance. If Niht were honest with himself it probably wasn't a very good chance, but it was all they had.

Iarann motioned for them to stop.

Soft, shuffling sounds slithered through the wastes ahead of them. This wasn't a soldier, but it could be some animal or machine they brought with them to secure the perimeter.

Niht drew his weapon, a sword forged in the lost kingdom. Its blade hummed with power, not from itself, but from the connection he felt with it.

In the distance, something moved, slithered ever closer. It had their scent. It knew where its prey was. It hungered for their flesh.

Intention filled the air with a cavernous malice. It smelled of old stale bread and meat just about to turn to poison. This beast was born from the shadows. No one brought it here, because nothing could control it. Nothing could tell it what to do.

Niht held his sword tight in his hand, and the blade flashed a blue light. He sparred with his brothers and numerous occasions, but never in a fight where his life depended on it.

Before him the blade illuminated the twisted form of the creature lurking in the darkness.

The beast coiled its body preparing to strike.

Beyond reason and comprehension, Niht leapt at the creature, and swung his ancient sword.

Pulling back, the beast hissed a gravelly roar and raised three spiked paws into the air.

Niht spun around.

Claws scraped against the back of his armor.

Amhran spun her spear between her hands, then charged past Niht.

Iarann ran at the creature from the other side.

The beast shuffled backwards.

Amhran's spear struck it in the arm.

Sickening yellow fluid gushed from the wound.

The beast howled in pain.

Iarann missed with his warhammer, and almost lost his footing in the loose gravel.

Niht watched carefully.

The creature divided its attention between the three of them. It couldn't keep track of them easily.

Niht retreated into the darkness, and waited for the beast to stop glancing in his general direction.

Iarann and Amhran harried it from either side. 

It dodged, or parried many of their attacks.

Niht hopped between the dusty voids in the gravel field. Each time he landed, he waited for the beast to ignore him again before jumping to the next. His foot thudded on the hard ground, but it made less noise than it would if he tried to walk through the gravel.

Once he was behind the creature, Niht studied its glistening skin. It hung like a tattered, moth eaten remnant of fabric soaked in a foul and loathsome ooze. Somewhere under its folds and wrinkles was the beasts rib cage.

Its skeletal structure wasn't easy to deduce from its mangled and twisted form.

Niht smiled. He lunged at the beast arcing his blade to come down near the creature spine,

The sword twisted and jerked in his hand as it slid between the bones.

A sickening pop, followed by a wheezing exhalation. Blood splattered from the wound.

The creature fell dead or dying onto the ground.

Niht stared down at the beasts broken body. A small part of him regretted having to kill the creature, but something else stirred inside him. A primal Hunter that wanted to howl his victory into the night.

He never killed anything larger than an insect before. It felt strange, enticing.

His brothers always warned him about the allure of bringing death to one's enemies. This strange satisfaction fueled him, and made him crave the sensation again. He didn't want to murder, but this wasn't murder. This was survival.

He shook the idea out of his mind. He didn't want to feel comfortable taking a life, even one the desired only the end of his own. He wasn't that person.

Silently, he motioned to Iarann and Amhran that they needed to continue on the path towards the compound.

Leading in the direction he felt drawn to most, Niht hoped they would find one of the passages down to the underground lake.

Niht almost saw the path laying out before him. It wasn’t a visual phenomenon or hallucination, but it was as real to him is anything that he had ever experienced before. Was this how animals tracked by scent? Did they see the trail in the wind before them guiding them towards their target?

The path ended. There was no hatch, no rock to push out of the way. Nothing.

Had he led them to a dead end? He was so sure this was the place. If it were, it should be marked by something that only a Phersu would recognize. Something only a member of the order would notice.

Like Amhran and Iarann, Niht searched the area for any sign that they were in the right place. It was a difficult task seeing how none of them knew exactly what they should be looking for. It could be anything. A rock out of place, a small plant that shouldn't be here. Anything.

Niht ran through the conversation he had with Avalyn, in case she gave him a clue to the entrance.

She had. It wasn't anything that she said, but something she did. She sent him the mask he now wore.

Night focused on his connection with the strange living wood. It whispered to him. But he couldn't make out what it said. The Ifreann Tan were known for the connections they forged with their masks and the spirits that resided within them, but his patron was still trapped in the compound with everyone else.

Niht stared at the fibrous lens over his eyes, hoping to read an answer in the faint patterns fading in and out in the hazy lines.

If all the gods really were within him, then how was it possible that his patron was trapped in an arcane circle within the compound?

“Rath.” Niht whispered under his breath. “If you are still with me, I need your help now. Please help me.”

Shadows crawled on the ground like millipedes fleeing the light.

Niht reached down and touched the ground. In his heart, he yearned to see the underground lake more than anything else.

The ground shimmered.

An old stone stairway cut into the ground descended into the gloom.

“How did you know that was there?” Iarann whispered.

“I was drawn to it.” Niht said.

He stepped into the darkness with a cautious gate.

While the light noticeably dimmed as he walked into the underworld, his mask compensated by highlighting details in a metallic gold.

Silence enveloped them the deeper they went.

Distant sounds of dripping water lured them further along the path.

Niht forced his doubts out of his head. They were distractions. Sure he didn’t know what they were going to do once they were inside. Obviously, trained soldiers would be much more of a challenge to take on than a hungry beast prowling a wasteland forfood.

Those were all problems to face when they arose. One evil at a time, after all, they had found a way to prevail over all the other challenges so far, hadn’t they?

Niht slowed his pace.

This had all been too easy. They hadn’t been pursued when they were cast out into the wilderness. That creature posed a risk to them, but it didn’t scratch any of them.

They made their way to the hidden door without a hint of trouble. Why hadn’t the soldiers tried to stop them?

No one could be this arrogant. They posted no sentries, they didn’t even set up patrols. Either this was a trap, or something else was going on.

He was convinced this was a test, but what were they testing?

It wasn’t their resourcefulness or knowledge… The challenges were too simple for either one of those to be the right answer.

He focused on his senses. There had to be a trick to this?

What were they doing here in the dark? What did they want them to do, and how would they know if they were doing the right things?


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