Chapter 7: The Path into Shadows

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Maeve opened the door slowly. Beyond this point, fear lurked in the shadows, ready to spring anything upon them. Garland gave them no description of the passages or the dangers within. They studied the drawing of the ark, and she hoped they would recognize it when they saw it.

    Sev grabbed her arm and said, "it is in there. I can feel its power. It isn’t alone. There are so many other things." 

    Maeve searched the yawning darkness for movement and grumbled under her breath, "why is it you never have a wizard with you when you need one?"

    Jade chuckled. “Because they are expensive and stay with their own.”

    Maeve and Sev locked eyes for a moment, and he released her.

    Maeve stepped into the Crypt. Retrieving a pouch from her belt, she slid the light crystal out of the bag and cradled it in her palm to illuminate her path.

    The passage brightened as Sev and Jade did the same. 

    Cautiously, they walked down the dark hallway.

    The shadows on the walls slithered like a generation of vipers away from the light.

    Flecks of quartz in the wall sparkled in the light like tiny eyes staring at them from the gloom.

    At the end of the crooked passage, they passed through a door into a room stacked with crates and other treasures. 

    A glimmery rindle ran around the periphery of the room, illuminating everything with a soft blue light.

    They split up to search through the contents of the room.

    As Maeve walked down the hall, the light from the gutter glowed brighter nearest her as she scanned down each towering shelf, looking for the arc.

    Few of the boxes were big enough to contain the arc. Given the dimensions of it, she presumed it contained the relics of a saint. It was too big to be an ossuary but smaller than a typical sarcophagus. It might have contained weapons or ceremonial artifacts, but she doubted that was the case.

    Maeve jumped back.

    She swore eyes gazed at her from over the lip of the gutter.

    There was nothing there.

    Continuing her search around the room, she monitored the gutter. Something wasn’t right.

    The thick luminous fluid erupted from the gutter and coalesced into a glittering mass of anger and rage.

    Maeve called out to the others. She popped the light crystal in her pocket and drew her cutlass from its sheath.

    The glittering horror oozed toward her as tendrils emerged from its body. They struck out toward her like a knot of serpents.

    Maeve parried each strike.

    Jade roared to her right, attracting the attention of some tentacles away from her. His sharp triangular teeth shone brightly in his wide jaws. 

    Sev ran in on her left and cupped his hands together, chanting in a language Maeve had never heard before.

    The glittering horror split itself from a common base into three seething lumps of shivering slime. Each lashed out of its own accord.

    Maeve rushed between Sev and a mass of tendrils, hacking them off before they hit him.

    Slithering on the stone floor, the detached ooze returned to the central mass.

    Maeve and Jade danced around the glittering horror, fending off its attacks.

    Jade stuck the central body a couple times, but the wound healed with no sign of damage to the creature at all.

    Sev shouted a foreign word, and silver light flashed from his joined hands in a beam into the center of the beast.

    A shadow fell within the creature like the eclipse of an inner light.

    Gray and motionless like stone, the once glittering horror evaporated into a cloud of shadows and faded into nothing.

    Maeve and Jade stared at Sev.

    “How did you do that?” Maeve asked.

    Sev rubbed his eyes and steadied himself. “Instinct. I simply knew what to do.”

    Could there have been a more unsatisfying answer? 

    Maeve huffed but said nothing. The mission came first. “Be careful in case there are other traps but get back to searching. We may have set off an alarm.”

    It wasn’t easy to keep an eye out for the arc. Maeve kept glancing at Sev. How did he speak a language so naturally that she had never heard before?

    Why did he have to make such a momentous decision after they set sail? She didn’t really want to ask the question. The moon maiden made the offer when she did, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence.

    What would the moon maiden want with this ark? Garland said nothing about the Nofraans worshiping the moon, and none of the symbols or sigils in the ark's sketch invoked the moon. A couple might have called on the sun, so there could be a rivalry at work, but there wasn’t enough to show they were a solar cult either.

    Nothing about this voyage added up to her. Twenty thousand cezri was a reasonable amount to pay to send a mission into Daskensian waters, risk the wrath of a deity, and make it back with the ark. Most of the first installment went to pay for supplies for the voyage.

    Maeve stopped and closed her eyes. It was too late to allow any of these doubts to creep in.

    The moon maiden and Garland had no connections. Anything else would be a baseless conspiracy theory.

    “The ark isn’t in here,” Jade said.

    Maeve opened her eyes and nodded.

    “I can feel it,” Sev said, “or something like it. There is so much power here.” He kicked the floor. “If they hadn’t stolen so many relics, this would be a lot easier.”

    “Imagine how much we could get for all this if we just looted the place,” Jade said with a sinister grin, accentuating his shark-like features.

    “We don’t have time for that.” Maeve moderated her tone. “We need to either find the ark or prove it isn’t here, then get home.”

    “If it isn’t here,” Jade asked, “do you think he will accept us not finding it?”

    Maeve shook her head. “If it’s not here, we will have to find it or return the funds he gave us.”

    Jade walked over to the other door in the room.

    “Don’t worry, Maeve.” Sev smiled. “We will find it. I know it is here.”

    Maeve smiled back.

    “It won’t take me long to unlock this door,” Jade said.

    Jade pressed his enormous hands against the door. His body shadowed the frame, and his head loomed above the lintel. He closed his eyes and light flashed from his hands, forcing the wards to become visible. He chanted under his breath.

    Maeve glanced over her shoulder. “You two stay here and be ready to hide. I think I heard something.”

    Sev and Jade acknowledged her with a nod.

    Maeve moved her head around to pinpoint the origin of the faint whispers filtering into the room.

    Stepping slowly toward the passage they followed into the crypt, the careless whispers grew louder. Whoever spoke didn’t want to be heard, but they also didn’t seem to know anyone else was around or they would have modulated their voices better.

    They spoke in an unfamiliar language. They disagreed over whatever they were talking about. She made out at least three voices, arguing in hushed tones.

    As she stepped out of the passage into the dark night, she scanned the surroundings and saw no one.

    “Spirits,” she huffed.

    If no one visible whispered, then spirits haunted the land arguing about something.

    Maeve rushed back to the chamber, where Jade continued to unlock the wards.

    “We are being haunted,” Maeve said.

    “Not necessarily,” Sev said. “It is possible there is so much power here you are hearing echoes of their past bleeding into the present.”

    Only two of the twelve wards on the door unbound and faded away.

    Maeve held her tongue. Rushing Jade would break his concentration and slow him down.

    The faint whispers reminded her of a beehive humming and buzzing at the edge of her hearing range.

    While she tried to limit herself to having only one thing to worry about at a time, fate had other plans for her. What was the name of the deity of fate? She would have to look that up and build a shrine to them in her room to curry favor.

    Sev stared off into the wall like he saw something.

    “What is it, Sev?” Maeve asked as she struggled with the worms of anxiety in her gut.

    “It’s nothing.” His voice was distant and distracted, as if he were listening to a conversation in another room.

    “Then what are you staring at?” Maeve insisted, hoping she rid her voice of that motherly tone he so often accused her of having.

    “I don’t know.” His voice trailed off.

    Before the moon maiden, he would have prattled on endlessly about what he was seeing or feeling. He used to share everything with her. Now he was so damned mysterious.

    Dream perked up and sniffed the air. He scanned around the room with narrowed eyes.

    Maeve glanced repeatedly from the direction the sharkhound looked and back to him, hoping to figure out what drew his attention. She followed him around the room as he traced the elusive sound or smell or whatever it was.

    He didn't react at all to the persistent whispering she heard, so it must've been something else beyond the range of her own senses.

    "I got it," Jade said as he swung the door open.

    Within the locked room, the violent blue light of a bone forge cast an eerie light on the stack of skulls and other assorted bones across the room from it.

    Why was such a vile instrument of necromancy secreted beneath a shrine to an unrelated God? In one way it made sense to invoke the deity of locked doors to keep people away from the monstrous arts practiced in this room. This was more than she expected to find.

    To Maeve at least, this proved the ark they searched for contained the bones of a saint. Such artifacts were precious to the devilish artificers who practiced such arts.

    The three of them fanned out to search the room for any sign of the cask.

    On a table near the forge, the bones had been crafted into some kind of enchanted masks. She grabbed a couple that appeared to be finished hanging from pegs on the wall. She had to find out what they were up to.

    If the Daskensians resorted to this form of Necromancy, the fleet needed to prepare for the horrors they might unleash against them.

    Multifarious bones and bottles of blood covered the tables and shelves throughout the room. Without labels or scraps of wood, it was impossible to determine if any of these bones belonged to the ark. They came from every sort of creature she could imagine.

    Her blood froze throughout her body. This sort of spirit magic lay so far beyond her ability to comprehend. The price one had to pay to perform such magic was so high, the practitioner’s core could never be cleansed or purified.

    Political ambition, imperial expansion, greed, and avarice pervaded the archipelago. This sort of darkness eluded her sight until now. There hadn’t even been rumors about such things.

    Whoever was behind this had enough power to keep such a secret.

    Jade and Sev met her at the door. They had found no sign of the ark, either. What had she gotten them into?

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