Chapter 8: The Weight of Decision

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Maeve and Jade walked in opposite directions around the walls of both rooms, seeking any sign of a false wall.

    Maeve reached out through the aether to find the air currents in the room. In the past, she had found false walls by tracking the draft leaking through the imperfect seal between the rooms. 

    Jade studied the way of the crooked hand. Deception and illusion spoke to him like kin. 

    Between them, no secret passages could hide.

    “Don’t stop till one of you finds it,” Sev said. “There is more here than we know. I can feel it.”

    Maeve stopped.

    Voices filtered in from the dark passage to the outside. Strange and indecipherable, but louder than the whispers that haunted her for so long.

    Light cast off the gloom at the end of the passage.

    Someone was coming.

    Maeve signaled for the others to hide.

    Jade rushed silently with Dream into the back corner, behind the many shelves.

    Sev hid himself behind one of the larger chests.

    Maeve snuck through the stacks and hid behind an amphora large enough to obscure her.

    Five figures entered the crypt in long, flowing robes, either black, yellow, green, blue, and red in their entirety. They didn't touch the ground. No part of them did. White, emotionless porcelain masks floated under the shadows of the hood.

    Why were the Vazra interested in the crypt? They were legendarily neutral in the affairs of mortals. Why would they support an invading power?

    The Vazra spoke to each other in a melodious language, reminiscent of chimes in the wind.

    Maeve grew up on stories about the Vazra. They were creatures made of pure aether that some believed were the incarnations of magic itself. Their power was second only to the deities.

    Spirits like them usually kept to themselves. Why were they in a crypt in Daskensian territory filled with stolen wares?

    They stopped their chattering and glanced around the room.

    Silence filled the space and crushed the breath in Maeve’s lungs. She dared not breathe for fear they would hear her. They weren’t a match for a single Vazra, let alone all five.

    One of them stared right at her. Its eyeless face betrayed nothing. Had it seen her?

    She slid down and pressed her back to the amphora, praying to anyone listening to prevent them from being found.

    One of them said something.

    Maeve peeked around the amphora.

    The other four nodded and followed them to the far corner of the room.

    The leader pressed their gloved hand on a stone high off the ground, and a portion of the wall melted away.

    They passed through and closed the passage behind them.

    Maeve waited for the Vazra to move a respectable distance away before she stood up. She turned to her companions. “We need to go now.”

    Sev shook his head as he and Jade came out of hiding.

    “No, we have to finish this,” Sev said.

    “We aren't prepared to fight off one, let alone five Vazra,” Maeve said. “Dying is worse than defaulting on a contract.”

    Sev walked toward the corner of the room without saying a word.

    Jade rushed over to him and grabbed him from behind. “Stop it. We stand together or not at all.”

    “We have to follow them.” Sev kicked and struggled to break free from Jade. “They know where all the secret passages are. How else are we going to find the other doors?”

    "What will it matter if they kill us?" Maeve asked. "If we die here, we cannot redeem our reputations. We will die failures. Sure, we will be disgraced if we abandon the commission, but we can earn our favor back."

    "Agreed." Jade nodded. "There's no point in rushing toward death if we don't have to."

    "And what about our contract with Garland? Do think he will be so forgiving?" Sev stopped struggling. "He could report us to the Admiralty Court, or he could just kill us. He doesn't strike me as the forgiving or accepting sort of person. Besides, we need the money. We can't afford to pay back what we've already spent for supplies, and we need whatever we can get if we want to keep going."

    It was at times like these Maeve wished she had the luxury to work for greed or adventure, but the constraints of a windjammer's life required them to get the jobs done. Maeve grimaced. “What do you think we will accomplish if we press on and those Vazra turn on us?”

    Sev stared into the wall. “Do you think the moon maiden named me her champion to just let me die in this crypt?”

    “Who knows why the spirits do anything?” Maeve said. “I am not willing to put my trust in a spirit that won’t even tell us her name.”

    “That’s not what I am saying.” Sev tapped on Jade’s arms.

    Jade turned to stand between him and the false wall before putting Sev down.

    “What I meant was, I feel something calling to me further in. I need to get there. I can’t tell you why, but I have to.”

    “You would risk all of us for your feeling?” Jade asked.

    Sev sighed. “If you want to leave, let’s go.”

    Maeve held her tongue. If they left, they would have to face Garland and possibly the wrath of an angry spirit. There was no way to escape the moon.

    Which would be worse, the Vazra or a vengeful moon? As much as she wanted to run, as long as they didn’t intentionally break the contract, they would have one less enemy.

    “I agree with Sev,” Maeve said.

    Jade’s black eyes widened. “Are you sure?”

    “What choice do we have?” Maeve asked. “Dangerous spirits surround us. It is better to not add a client and the admiralty court to that.

    Jade scowled at Sev. “Your rashness took the choice from us. I thought you were supposed to be the responsible one.”

    Sev didn’t turn to face him. “I followed my heart. Sorry if that wasn’t good enough for you.”

    Jade kneeled and called Dream over. “I need you to get out of here. Follow us above ground and if anything happens, get back to the ship as fast as you can.”

    The sharkhound pawed at him before nuzzling into his cheek. Slowly, he ambled out of the room and down the dark passage.

    Maeve wished she had a familiar. The only way to kill a Sadath was to kill both the Thegn and the familiar. So long as one lived, they both lived. It made Sadath formidable foes.

    “At least if the worse happens you will make it out of here,” Sev said.

    Was he being sarcastic or sincere? His face read genuinely, but his tone was mocking.

    “Have you ever had to fend for yourself in the reverie?” Jade glowered menacingly. “No? Then don’t speculate on how I would be.”

    Maeve held herself at the ready to jump in if their bickering descended into a fight. “Save it for when we are back on the ship. We have work to do.”

    This didn’t use to feel like work. Raiding crypts was a perk of the job. This contract wasn’t worth the cezri.

    Jade pressed the rock, and they crept down the passage.

    They walked through the darkness with a hand on the wall and the other on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Their light crystals would give away their presence, so they kept them in their pouches.

    The distant chiming voices of the Vazra haunted the shadows. Odds were slim as they stood in the gloom talking to each other.

    Maeve pressed on. 

    After the first turn to the right, Sev took her by the hand and whispered, "follow me, I can see the path."

    “How?” she asked in a hushed exclamation.

    The eerie music of the Vazras’ conversation filled the gap as Sev led them forward.

    “My rashness I suppose,” he said in a way that stabbed her in the heart.

    If they survived this, she had a lot of things they needed to talk about. She squeezed his hand, hoping he understood it as a silent apology. She was still mad at him but not enough to throw their friendship away. They had been through too much.

    The chimes grew louder, and the air took on the scent and flavor of old incense smoke, unable to free itself or settle. Cold air pricked her skin. The passage may not have dipped down, but the hills rose above them. 

    They followed the long passage through the inky darkness, eventually turning to the right. After a short walk, they stopped.

    Voices echoed from ahead, different from the chiming of the Vazra. Maeve couldn’t make out what they were saying.

    They faded.

    Who else was down here with them?

    Sev led them off to the right, toward the voices.

    They skulked down another long passage, stopping periodically when the clanking of chains rattled in the distance. 

    When the sound faded, they continued and turned to the left.

    As they crept down another long corridor, the ringing chimes of the Vazra ahead mixed in with a mortal voice. 

    Light bled across the path before them to the right, and they stopped to see the Vazra talking to a Tugwattle with black fur and a silver stripe running from the tip of his nose, up between his eyes to over his wedge-shaped head and down his back.

    Why was a Tugwattle here?

    The Vazra follow the Tugwattle into a room to the right and closed the door behind them.

    They glanced among themselves, attempting to speak without words.

    Since the passage continued on past the door, they slunk down, pausing for a moment to overhear what was happening in the room, before creeping further down the hall.

    After a left turn, they walked down a corridor to another left turn. 

    The light crystals hung in sconces embedded into the polished stone walls. Whoever built this place did so with care. After so much time in darkness, the light unnerved her. The floors were not tiled, but carved smooth from the same stone as the walls.

    Everything was so perfect, Maeve had to wonder if they used a Shamir to cut through the stone. It all had a preternatural perfection about it.

    At the end of the passage on the left wall, they found another locked door. 

    Jade worked on the wards.

    Maeve hated the expression on Sev’s face as he avoided looking at either of them. If only she had access to the arcana necessary to heal their friendship and restore everything to the way it used to be. She doubted such a power even existed. If anyone had that gift, they would rule the world, and no one would be able to challenge them.

    “Sev,” she whispered. “I’m sorry I judged you for your decision. Who knows, I might have done the same thing in your position.”

    “I understand. I broke the deal we had. You handled the clients, and I handled the business. I wasn’t thinking.”

    “Nothing we’ve been through could have prepared us for any of this. What was it your father used to say?”

    “Our business is facing the unknown with style.”

    He smiled, and she allowed herself to do the same.

    Understanding the wards better, it didn’t take Jade as long to open it.

    Jade swung the door open.

    Within was a chapel with a bloodstained altar and four aethereal pillars connecting it to the ceiling.

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