I trudged up the gravel path as the summer sun attempted to smother me. Sweat dripped down my brow and stung my squinting eyes. Shoulders aching, calves straining, I pushed myself forward. I wondered, as I often did, why the temple had been built atop a high hill rather than next to the well. Water sloshed inside the buckets when I jerked back from a flitting insect. I daydreamed of pouring the water over the top of my head.
The trail, bordered on either side by flowering bushes and slender beech trees, led up to the place I called home—a squat, columned temple built from beige stone. Mid-day glare radiated off its graceful curves, rounded pillars and bulbous dome. Beyond, puffs of cotton floated amid an endless azure expanse.
Mistress Eskelle stood atop the rise in her drab prayer robes, long white braids dangling at her back. Two strangers, one tall and one short, stood with her. “Lazio!” called Eskelle, her tone urgent. “Leave the water there and come greet our visitors.”
I lowered the buckets and wriggled out from beneath the bar. We rarely received visitors. Apprehension stole over me as I hurried over.
The first of the two strangers was a girl, roughly my age, which is to say newly an adult. Auburn hair, green eyes, and a freckled face marked her as an Easterner. She watched me approach, but looked away when I tried to meet her gaze.
The second was an older man. Tall and thin, he stood straight as a pillar. His long black beard hung clean and well-groomed. Thick eyebrows, beneath a wrinkled brow, strained to meet above the center of his eyes. A thin-lipped frown gave me the impression he was used to looking down his nose at people.
“Lazio, our esteemed visitors are from far Abados. This is Paltos Xerax-Thal and his apprentice Lanna.” Eskelle motioned to each as she named them.
My mouth dropped open and my heart skipped a beat. A Paltos. Wizard-councilor to the King. I knelt immediately, bowing my head. “Your lordship,” I mumbled, not sure if I’d used the correct honorific.
“You may stand,” Xerax-Thal said. His voice rumbled like a landslide.
I straightened, keeping my eyes fixed on the tops of my shoes. The girl snickered at my sudden submissiveness.
“Come inside and rest. We will talk as my boy prepares us tea,” Eskelle said.
I glanced up to see the Paltos nod. “That would be most welcome. We have travelled far, and could use a respite. Even so, events unfold as we speak.”
Events? What events? We lived simple lives out in the lowlands, far away from the machinations of the great cities.
“Of course, Paltos. Please, follow me.” Eskelle turned and strode back to the temple. She rarely moved with such purpose of late. Her joints had been giving her problems.
Xerax-Thal and Lanna followed, and I brought up the rear. It gave me time to appreciate the Paltos’s apprentice. She had a lithe, feline grace that brought a blush to my cheeks. I admired the hypnotic sway of her hips as we entered the temple, noticing too late that Lanna had glanced back. A private smile and an arched eyebrow told me she knew exactly what I had been doing.
“The Usurper has gained the support of several lesser lords, and somehow managed to harness the Trogs,” Xerax-Thal explained. “He is an ungodly man, using foul magics, and I fear for our King.”
Trogs. My blood ran cold. Twisted creatures, said to possess a dangerous cunning. I had never seen one, but I had heard enough tales to know they were real.
“This is terrible news,” Eskelle said, worry lines forming at the corner of her eyes. She set her teacup on the table at her side. “What can we do for you?”
“I read a cryptic and incomplete manuscript, written by the Ancients. It alluded to a terrible weapon stored in an underground stronghold in the southwest.” Xerax-Thal’s grip tightened on the armrests of his chair. “We must find this weapon and use it against the Usurper’s armies.”
They must be desperate if they were chasing legends.
I glanced at Lanna. The fear written across her face flared an unexpected sense of protectiveness in me. I hadn’t had much contact with girls since I’d been given to the temple. If this was a crush, I didn’t mind it at all.
Eskelle sighed. “I know what you read, and I would advise against it. The underground lair lies deep in The Blighted Lands. Few return from those swamps, and those that do are never the same.”
Xerax-Thal hummed and stroked at his beard. “Nonetheless, I believe we must press ahead. You must guide us to this lair.”
Mistress Eskelle’s eyes grew large. Her face turned ashen. In the seven years I had spent at the temple, I had never seen her look as frightened as she did at that moment. “My deepest apologies, Paltos, but I cannot. I am old and can no longer make long journeys. However, we have a small library here, and a collection of Ancient maps. With their help, you and your apprentice should be able to find the lair.”
The Paltos grumbled, perhaps unused to being denied. After a moment he nodded. “I would very much like to use your archives.” He unfolded from his padded chair, looming over us. “Come Lanna, you will make copies of everything we need.”
“Yes, master,” Lanna said.
“My boy will help you,” Eskelle announced. “He is good with pen and paper.”
My heart quickened. How would I concentrate on my work with Lanna by my side? One way or another, I would have to.
“You may stay here as long as you need Paltos,” Eskelle said.
“Two days should be sufficient. Thank you, Priestess,” Xerax-Thal replied.
Lanna and I copied dozens of documents, maps and accounts alike, during those two days in the dusty archives. I liked her immediately. She had a mischievous, playful quality fused with a quick wit and we flirted with one another as we worked. Furtive side-long glances, half-hidden smiles and suggestive tones passed between us. Her voice, musical and seductive, made my head fuzzy with lust.
On their last night at the temple, I shared my pallet with Lanna. She dragged me there, sure of herself in a way I wasn’t. It was my first time, but not hers. By the light of a full moon, I explored with an unexpected boldness. It was exhilarating beyond my wildest dreams. I will never forget her soft skin sliding against my own, our frenzied panting, and a deep yearning fulfilled in the midst of low moans. She made a man of me, and though I never told her I fell in love with her that night.
Afterwards, we lay in each other’s arms, cooing like doves. I was desperate to know if I had satisfied her, but was too embarrassed to ask. We giggled, touched, and whispered, but didn’t speak of the future.
The night had been too perfect to spoil with Xerax-Thal’s worries. A lethargy, born from warm content, stole over me. It was good to be alive.
I drifted off with Lanna’s bare leg thrown over mine, her head on my shoulder, gossamer hair caressing my cheek.
I woke startled, my mind slow. Had I heard someone cheer? Lanna’s body, pressed up against me, shifted as she raised herself on an elbow.
Then I heard it again. An animal’s high pitched whine knifing through the dark.
Lanna gasped as if she recognized the noise.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Trogs.” She scrambled out from under my blanket, and snatched her blouse.
“Here?” My stomach sank, fear overtaking me in the dark.
“They must have followed us.”
I dressed in record time, my hands shaking, my heart beating a mad rhythm. I lunged for the corner of my cell where my Nabow staff leaned against the stone wall. Mistress Eskelle had been teaching me how to use it. In the hands of a master, the simple polished wood would be a deadly weapon, but in mine … in mine it was a slim bludgeon.
“I need to find my master,” Lanna whispered.
“I’ll go with you.”
“No.” Lanna gripped my bare arm, fingernails digging into my skin. “Find the Priestess, make sure she’s safe. I can defend myself.”
I leaned in and gave her a hurried kiss. She smiled at me and dashed from my cell.
Mistress Eskelle would be in her chambers behind the altar room. I loped through the dark halls, boots clomping. My hands strangled the Nabow staff, ready to swing at anything that moved. I stifled the desire to call out to her, worried I’d bring the Trogs down on the two of us.
Varying shades of gray swirled past me, shadows within shadows.
Moonlight slipped through opened windows only to wither in the confined halls. I imagined an arm reaching from a black corner and yelped like a puppy. I swung at it, the staff flitting through empty air. I grunted, embarrassed, and was glad Lanna hadn’t seen me attack a phantasm.
A man’s rough shout, most likely Xerax-Thal’s, echoed about me as I rounded a corner into the altar room. The wizard had illuminated the chamber with a will-o-wisp’s ghostly blue light. He stood encircled by the strangest creatures I had ever seen.
Trogs looked like short, skinny men with prominent spines. Naked to the waist, skin the color of old moss, they crouched and bared pointed teeth. Greasy hair grew a long, lustrous black. One of them turned toward me and hissed. It’s eyes were bottomless pits of darkness.
Xerax-Thal shouted in a language I had never heard, and swept a wand downward like a blacksmith at an anvil. A sudden, intense flare of light scorched my vision, driving me to my knees. Gasping for breath, I rubbed an open palm against my eyes, terrified the Trogs would attack me while after-images flooded my sight.
I struggled to my feet, an uncomfortable tingling flowing through my body. The air stung with the odor of sharp vinegar and rotting eggs.
One of the Trogs lay an arm’s length away, it’s mouth agape, bony fingers covering its eyes. My mind stuttered, but fueled by fear, my body reacted. The Nabow staff smashed into its face. The Trog made a piteous whining sound, much like the one that woke me, and raised a clawed hand to protect itself. Mad from terror, I swung twice more. When next I drew breath, the Trog lay dead at my feet.
I saw another, disoriented just as the first had been, and put an end to it.
The Paltos used a slim sword to stab the Trogs before they could recover from his magic. Several did.
One leapt to its feet and tore at me. Sharp nails ripped open my tunic and raked my chest. The wounds stung. I managed to jab the creature in its stomach with the butt of the staff, and crack its clavicle when it staggered. It jabbered on the ground, words that nearly made sense, but didn’t. I put it out of its misery by bashing its skull.
When all was said and done, Xerax-Thal and I stood amid a dozen Trog corpses. The iron smell of blood filled the room. I stared in horror at the wreckage around me. Shattered pottery, broken chairs, toppled candle-holders, a cracked mirror. And pooled blood. So much blood.
I had never killed anything before that night, and the orgy of death before me caused my gorge to rise. Trogs aren’t people, I assured myself. And anyway they had snuck into our holy temple with murder on their minds. Assassins in the night. Kill or be killed. Sometimes it couldn’t be avoided.
I stumbled to a corner and vomited. Afterwards, I knelt there whimpering, spitting acidic dregs from my mouth, miserable to my core.
A comforting hand gripped my shoulder. “It’s alright, boy. I think we’re safe now,” Xerax-Thal said in a low voice.
I rose to my feet, and felt blood dribble down my chest. Wounds across my ribcage sent flames through me. “Mistress Eskelle … ” I mumbled through lips stained with the taste of bile. I started toward the door to her chamber.
“Stop, boy,” Xerax-Thal commanded as he reached for me again.
I brushed his hand aside and hobbled to the half-opened door.
In the faint illumination of the witch-light I saw Mistress Eskelle lying on the stone floor, clutching at terrible lesions in her flesh. Her life’s blood, dark and gruesome, pooled around her body. I let out a strangled cry and bolted to her side.
I sobbed into her neck as she clutched at me.
When I could form words I said, “Don’t leave me, Eskelle. Don’t leave me.”
It was the first time I had ever used her name without the honorific. She had taken me in after both my parents died of the yellow fever. She became my adoptive mother and I grew to love her.
Her wounds were mortal. Even I could tell that. I felt a portion of my soul begin to separate, drift away, leave an aching void inside my chest.
“Don’t fret for me, young one,” she said, her voice cracking. “God has a plan for everything. This is … this is his design for me.”
“No,” I wailed, feeling the hysteria build inside me a second time.
“I want you … I want you to … ” She coughed, pink spittle flying from her lips. “You cannot stay here alone. Not safe. Go with the Paltos. Help him find … the weapon.”
“No, I won’t leave you.”
“Go, Lazio. With good care … I might survive the day, but not into the next. Better to let me … let me slip away now. God awaits me.”
I turned from Eskelle, seeking Xerax-Thal. He was a wizard. Magic could save Eskelle’s life. But the Paltos was nowhere to be seen. A frustrated anger welled up. “Where is he?” I snarled.
“His magic could not reverse this, Lazio. In any case … he went in search of his apprentice. The girl you took to your room.” She gave me a warm, knowing smile. Embarrassment rippled through me. She must have read the emotion on my face. “My Lazio, there will be many others for a boy of your charms.” She reached out a bloodied hand and stroked my cheek. “My sweet boy … I am proud of you. Prouder still … help the Paltos. It is my last wish.”
Her last wish. How could that be? Earlier in the week we had planted herbs in the garden together. Row upon row of them. We did that with late summer in mind. We had a plan, a purpose. All of that scoured away in one night. My mind rebelled, skittish as a colt, thoughts skidding back to the herb garden. Purpose.
As always, if Mistress Eskelle wanted something, I wanted to be a part of it. For her, for us. So, if she wanted me to help Xerax-Thal with his crazy adventure, then that’s what I would do. Not because her life drained away before me, but because it’s what I had always done. With tears flowing down my cheeks, I nodded. I tried to speak, but inadequate words caught in my throat.
“Go,” she whispered. “I’m so tired. I think I might sleep now.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and I cradled her until she went limp.
I pushed myself up, the world blurred by tears, and went in search of Xerax-Thal.
The Paltos, grim and pale, met me in the hall leading to his guest room. He grabbed my arm, fingers biting into my skin.
“Where’s Lanna?” I asked.
Xerax-Thal shook his head.
“This can’t be,” I wailed. “This can’t be!”
All of it had to be a terrible nightmare.
“She was my apprentice long before she took you as a lover,” Xerax-Thal stated, eyes dark in the dim light. “In the end, she acquitted herself well. She was brave and strong, and fought to the last. The Usurper tried to kill us and failed. Though I mourn her loss, I am unbowed.”
I struggled in vain against the Paltos’s iron grip. “I don’t care about your Usurper!” I shouted. I hated him for bringing tragedy into our temple. I hated the world. I hated God. “Let me go!” I swung a fist at him. He flinched at the impact but didn’t release me.
“Failing our murder, this is what the Usurper wants. He wants us grieving and broken. He wants us weak for his next attempt.”
My rage melted away as his words sank in. I slumped back against a wall. If this is what the Usurper wanted, he had gotten it. I was broken.
Lanna. Oh God, Lanna. I should never have let her go by herself. “I want to see her.”
Xerax-Thal released me. “You don’t want to see her like that. Remember her as she was before the attack. That is my advice.” He stepped away to give me room to pass. “But do as you will.”
I took two shaky steps toward the guest rooms. Stopped as I remembered dancing, mischievous eyes and soft parted lips. A strangled sob forced its way out of throat. He was right. “Mistress Eskelle wants me to go into the Blighted Lands with you.”
“Yes. I thought she might. I’ve gathered the documents. The supplies meant for Lanna and I are waiting at the front entrance. We must leave at once.”
Was the Paltos completely heartless? “We can’t just leave them. We need to bury them, or make a cairn at the very least.”
“We must leave them. Both my apprentice and your Priestess would understand. There may be more Trogs lurking, and if they know we are here, then the Usurper will know by daybreak. We must be away under the cover of night.”
I closed my eyes and pushed the grief back. There would be time enough for it later. The holy texts spoke of detached souls drifting away from their corporeal bodies. That meant when someone died, their corpses weren’t them. What was had departed. Burials were for the living, and we didn’t have time for that luxury. “Alright, but I need to clean and bandage my wounds.”
Xerax-Thal nodded and strode ahead of me.
We travelled at night, putting as much distance between ourselves and the temple as we possibly could. I hauled both of our packs, muscles straining, as the cuts across my chest burned. I hardly felt them. Grief drowned out all other pain.
Sunrise glowed an angry red, then a bright orange, and last a piercing yellow. Birds of all sorts woke, invigorated, and began their incessant chatter. Fatigue hung over me like a sodden cloak, but Xerax-Thal forced us on throughout the day. We ate while walking, stopped to rest our aching feet on rare occasions, and spoke very little. I thought I saw the Paltos brush tears out of his eyes sometime during the afternoon, but I couldn’t be certain.
We halted at sunset, weary to the bone, and made a small camp. Raw blisters had formed on my feet. I cursed under my breath as I changed the dressing on my chest. The cuts stung horribly, but a salve seemed to have kept the wounds free of infection.
Xerax-Thal removed scrolls from his pack and examined them by the light of his wand.
Curiosity got the best of me. “How do you make the witch-light?”
“Magic. Obviously.” I scowled at his answer. Before I could compose a suitable reply he continued. “It is like a torch, boy, but only I have the capability to light it. Left alone it will produce illumination for the better part of a day.”
What a wonderful tool. “If I held the wand, it’d stay lit?”
Xerax-Thal gave me a hard look, eyes hooded by shadow. “Yes, but you will not touch the wand. Is that clear?”
I shrank back at the sudden hostility. “Yes, Paltos.”
Xerax-Thal went back to his reading, oblivious to my discomfort. A short time later, he raised a furrowed brow, gazing into the night. “If what I see here is correct, we will not have much time at the lair.”
“Why is that?”
“All accounts of the Blighted Lands agree. Man or beast, it makes no difference, if we spend more than two ten-day there, we will become sick and die.”
“All the more reason not to go,” I grumbled. “Can’t you just protect us with your magic?”
“That’s not how magic works.” His condescending tone nettled me. It seemed to say Lanna would have known that.
It was true. I was a poor replacement for his apprentice. Yes, I was strong. I could carry heavy packs over long distances, haul buckets of water and crack Trogs over the head with a short staff, but I wasn’t a wizard’s apprentice.
I had known Lanna for only two days, but we had bonded in that time, and I missed her terribly. I don’t know if true love had formed, but given time it could have. If I survived this, I might spend the rest of my life searching for another Lanna.
Xerax-Thal coughed. A gravelly eruption. “After we’ve retrieved the weapon, boy, you may return with me to Abados. I will make sure your needs are met.”
I spread a blanket out on the rough ground. “My name is Lazio.”
“Lazio,” he said by way of apology. “Do you read or speak any of the Ancient languages?”
Some of the oldest holy texts were written in them. Mistress Eskelle had hammered Engles into my head with all its strange rules. I might have been forthright with him, but everything about Xerax-Thal had come to irritate me. Perhaps it was the fresh grief. Maybe I resented being treated like an indentured servant. The most palpable reason was my heart-ache. Both Mistress Eskelle and Lanna were dead, but Xerax-Thal hadn’t said a kind word about either of them. Hadn’t even let us bury them.
“No, Paltos,” I lied.
“A pity. Do you know any languages beyond Monta?”
He grunted an acknowledgement, lips downturned. “Lazio is a Canno name.”
Not a question. A statement. As if I didn’t know my own heritage.
I stifled bitter sarcasm. “Yes, I’m Canno,” I finally said.
My head swam with conflicted emotions. I resented the upheaval he had brought into my life, but was it really his fault? He hadn’t known the Trogs followed him. He should have. He was a wizard after all and besides it was common sense. I’d have challenged him on that point, but I feared provoking his anger. More importantly, it wouldn’t bring Eskelle and Lanna back to me.
I forced myself out of silence so I wouldn’t wallow in grief. “Do you know why the Blighted Lands are blighted?”
“The Ancients had a war. A long war, from what I could glean. Terrible weapons were used and many people died. In the aftermath, ruined cities were abandoned. I don’t know what good came of their war. Most of us think of the Ancients as brilliant and wise, but they weren’t always so. They were just people. Like us. Fragile and flawed.”
I had never given it much thought. After a quiet moment I said, “It was foolish of them to befoul the land. More so because they couldn’t reverse it.”
Xerax-Thal gave me an uncertain hum. “It is more complicated than that, boy. Regardless, there are two questions I have not been able to answer.” He said it as if that were an oddity.
“Just two?” In the past two days, I had come a long way from kneeling before him.
He arched a thick eyebrow at me, but ignored the verbal jab. “Why would the Ancients create an underground lair for a weapon, and why would they leave it in an infected land?”
“Am I supposed to know the answers?”
He tugged on his beard, but didn’t reply. Instead he pulled out a thick leather-bound journal, an inkwell and a pen. He scribbled while crickets battled one another with their shrill songs. Our campfire snapped and crackled, sending smoky tendrils drifting skyward.
I rolled onto my back and stared up into the star-strewn night. Pinpricks of light dotted the heavens. Were my parents up there? Mistress Eskelle? Lanna? Could they see me now? Could they feel how much I yearned for them? Too many unanswered questions.
I was drifting off when Xerax-Thal said something under his breath.
“What?” I mumbled.
“I’m sorry,” the Paltos repeated and turned away from me.
Six days into our journey the landscape began to change, both within and without.
Lightly wooded grassland transformed into muddy swamp, but not the type of marshes at home. Swampland in the Blighted Lands didn’t teem with wildlife. No deer roamed between the trees, no rabbits darted through high grass. Birdcalls vanished entirely. I had taken their presence for granted, but once it became clear they avoided this area, their absence shouted at me. Insect life flourished. Biting, stinging creatures, bold and fattened. Some wore garish colors, others sheathed themselves entirely in black.
Our environs didn’t bother me nearly as much as my restless mind. I had entirely too much time to dwell on what happened at the temple, and the circumstances bothered me.
When I had rounded the corner that night, a semi-circle of Trogs had pinned Xerax-Thal into a corner of the altar room. Behind the Paltos was the door to Eskelle’s chamber. The Trogs ringed him, but hadn’t set upon him. What were the chances the entire group of Trogs would find and converge on Xerax-Thal at the same time? Trogs weren’t pack wolves, and from what Xerax-Thal said they were dangerously intelligent. So, why did they hang back? Why group around him and give Xerax-Thal time to defend himself?
And then there was the location of Mistress Eskelle. She had been brutally slashed by the Trogs but there were none in her chambers when I entered. All of the Trogs had ringed Xerax-Thal and it appeared, at the time, that the Paltos was defending the entrance to Eskelle’s room. If that were the case, how was it that she had already been attacked? And how was it that Xerax-Thal happened to be at the altar in the first place? It had been late at night. He should have been fast asleep in the guest quarters. Lanna had assumed he was. What had he been doing in the altar room? None of it added up.
On the morning of the eighth day, Xerax-Thal stopped me as I packed up our camp.
“We are nearly there. I want you to stay here with our camp. I will go ahead, and come back when I’ve located the entrance.” I began to object, but the Paltos held up a palm. “Don’t argue with me, boy. Do as I say.”
I nodded, hating him a little more each time he called me ‘boy’. After some time of slapping at endless buzzing insects, I decided to retreat into Xerax-Thal’s tent.
Each night, I slept under the stars, a free feast for the insects if I didn’t huddle deep under my blankets. But the Paltos wouldn’t think of sleeping in such an undignified manner. The tent took up a great portion of my time when making and breaking camp each day, and I had begun to despise it. Once inside, however, I knew why the Paltos wanted it—protection from the elements and privacy.
Privacy. I glanced down at his pack. His journal lay nestled within. Curiosity made me take out the leather-bound book, and open it’s secret pages. Words written in Ancient Engles flowed across the pages in smooth, precise script. Why would he write in the Ancient’s language? Probably to keep someone from reading his private thoughts.
He had asked me if I knew Engles. Suspicion prodded me forward. I flipped to a random page.
Beckand believes the coin came from Detrand, but that’s a ridiculous assumption. I placated him, of course. He is thin-skinned, and although useful, he is prickly when contradicted.
I groaned and flipped a few more pages.
Someone has spoken with indiscretion. I don’t know who, but they will suffer for their stupidity when I unveil them. One thing is for certain, I cannot stamp out all the whispers. The more I try, the more that will spring up.
Court politics, for sure, but what indiscretion? I skipped ahead again.
Lanna has begun to suspect my motives. I am fond of her. She has grown on me like so much tree moss, but I cannot allow emotions to cloud pure judgment. If I am to achieve my goals, I cannot have an untrustworthy apprentice by my side. I must consider this carefully.
Surprised horror overwhelmed me. Untrustworthy Lanna suspected his motives. Motives in what? Goals for what?
No amount of reason will budge them. I’ve tried everything. The Trogs simply refuse to go into the Blighted Lands. The more I press them on the issue, the more agitated they become. I will need to find assistance elsewhere, and not from Lanna.
The Trogs? He had been conversing with those … monsters?
Mistress Eskelle had told me once that the most believable lies were founded in truth.
What if Xerax-Thal had told the story true, but the King hadn’t sent him on an unlikely quest to find an Ancient’s weapon? What if he was the Usurper and he controlled the Trogs? Anger welled up from the pit of my stomach and heated my face. If that were true, he had murdered both Lanna and Mistress Eskelle, and duped me into helping him find a terrible weapon.
My suspicions made a nauseating sense.
He thought his secret safe nestled in a language I couldn’t read, in a journal I wouldn’t dare open. And the only reason I had found this was an idle lie. What would Xerax-Thal have done to me if I had told him I could read Engles?
I found the last few pages and read, determined to bring all of Xerax-Thal’s deceptions into the open.
Eskelle is skeptical, despite the resiliency of the story I told her. She has an intelligence that I hadn’t suspected from a backwoods priestess. Although her maps are invaluable, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that she must be silenced. It is a difficult decision, but a necessary one. I’ll have the Trogs do the bloody work and come to Eskelle’s aid too late.
There was more, but the fear of discovery overtook me. If Xerax-Thal was cold-blooded enough to kill a priestess who did nothing more than help him and murder a faithful apprentice simply out of suspicion, there was no telling what he’d do if he found me reading his private confessions.
A vengeful hate thrummed through me. Teeth grinding, knuckles white from the grip I had on the leather cover, I placed the journal back into the Paltos’s pack. Had Xerax-Thal appeared at the tent flap at that moment, I’d have launched myself at his throat, magic be damned.
As it was, I had time to calm my rage and consider my actions. The safest bet would be to pack up our gear and leave him out here, in a fetid swamp without provisions. But he had murdered both my adoptive mother and a girl I had fallen for. To add insult to injury, he had lied to me about their deaths and duped me into being his pack mule. No. Leaving him in the hope that the Blighted Lands would kill him was the coward’s solution, and I wasn’t a coward.
I wanted to see this Ancient weapon for myself, and use it against him.
Xerax-Thal led me through the marsh, moving quicker than I, unburdened as he was by the weight of our packs. Thick, brackish mud sucked at my boots and squelched with each step. Pools of stagnant, murky water, much deeper than they appeared, attempted to swallow me. Long, spiky vines, pale and surprisingly strong, lying in wait just beneath the surface, conspired to trip me. Buzzing insects, the black ones with the tiny orange stingers, took delight in diving into my hair and face. And through it all the cloying smell of rot permeated everything.
We came upon the ruins at mid-day with pregnant clouds above our heads. Miserably weary, with fresh welts on my arms and neck, I dropped our packs to the first dry ground I found. The Paltos frowned at me, but I ignored him.
The ruins were enormous. Cracked and broken concrete stretched ahead of me as far as I could see. Tree trunks and vines had forced their way up from below, shattering the man-made surface with patient ease. Walls had collapsed into rounded, crumbling rubble. Rust colored stains blotched the remaining concrete like a wasting disease on an old man’s skin.
“This must have been the biggest building ever made,” I muttered.
“It wasn’t one building, boy. The Ancient’s called it a complex.” Xerax-Thal pointed at our packs. “Pick those up and follow me. I’ve located the entrance to the underground. I want to be back at last night’s campsite by nightfall.”
He tromped ahead, and I was forced to heave the packs back onto my shoulders. I cursed under my breath as I clambered over a crumbling section of concrete, only to have a wiry tree branch slap me in the face.
We picked our way through the complex, backtracking several times when inconvenient walls and stubborn vegetation blocked our path. Finally, as a light mist began to sprinkle us, we came upon a narrow set of crumbling steps. At the bottom lay a sewer-cover large enough for a giant. The rusted hulk had cracked the outer rim and tipped downward. The opening yawned black as night.
“This is it, boy. Down there, somewhere in those subterranean catacombs, is our goal.”
I edged close to the precipice, not liking the look of it. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
Xerax-Thal snorted contemptuously. “No. Leave the packs here and get the rope out. Tie it to that out-cropping. You’ll be going down first.”
I would go down first. In case the wall gave way, or the lip crumbled to send the rusted behemoth crashing down on me, or a snake the size of a tree had decided to use the pit as its home. I considered trying to shove Xerax-Thal down the opening, but rejected the notion. I would only have one chance at killing him. I would need to choose it wisely.
I tied the rope to the out-cropping and my waist, knotting it as tightly as I could. Then I heaved the rest of it down into the dark. Xerax-Thal grasped part of the rope, but only as a symbolic gesture. If the jutting piece of wall fell apart the rope would be ripped out of his casual grip, and I’d fall. I squinted up into the light rain, sending out a quick prayer before lowering myself into the hole. Hand over hand, my thighs clenching the rough hemp, I slid down.
A shallow pool of foul smelling water met my boots. The drop was, approximately, five or six times my height.
“I’m down,” I called up, my voice echoing. “Your turn.” An involuntary shudder passed through me. If a tree-sized snake did live down here, I had just announced its meal time.
The Paltos came down much slower. My patience was waning by the time he hopped from the rope. He was right to bring a helper with him. I doubted he could have accomplished the exploration on his own.
Xerax-Thal produced his long, polished wand and waved it over his head. “Vo’sha!” he announced. My stomach clenched as the ghostly witch-light appeared at the end of the wand. With a flourish, he pointed it into the dark. Faint outlines of a rounded ceiling and walls unveiled themselves, glistening with moisture.
“Do you see those brown patches, boy?” he asked.
Grotesque slicks of greenish-brown slime slathered the walls. “Yes.”
“Don’t touch those. They are the expectorant of poisonous spiders. Touch them and your exposed skin will necrify.”
I had no idea what expectorant or necrify meant, but I got the gist of it. Don’t touch the brown patches. Bad things would happen if I did.
“Yes, Paltos,” I said, doing my best to sound subservient.
“Follow me, and don’t wander off.”
Sodden detritus swirled beneath our feet as we shuffled deeper into the lair.
The Ancients must have been masters of iron-working and construction. Rounded tunnels, smoothly sculpted from concrete and steel, turned and turned again. They led to intersections, stairwells and rusted, crumbling ladders.
Shadows slid along the walls, folding into corners, expanding along the dry patches of floor. Something with a long tail darted away from our witch-light as we rounded a corner, and a leggy spider the size of my hand sat amid a giant web in a room full of metal tables. The air lost some of its sulfurous odor to be replaced with a stale, tangy scent.
Xerax-Thal must have seen me wrinkling my nose at it. “That is the spider’s poison. Smells faintly appetizing, does it not? The rats agree. They learn to avoid it or they die.”
During our exploration, we came upon two snakes, the second of which was as long as I was tall, and did not flee our light. I might have heard a slight tremor in Xerax-Thal’s voice as he directed me around the pale creature.
After what seemed like an eternity, we came to a long curved room deep inside the catacombs. One side supported a series of sheer glass windows. The other held metal shelves sprouting with multi-colored studs and black glass panels. I gazed at them in wonder. I couldn’t imagine the skill and resources required to create such a thing. Nor did I understand its purpose.
I reached down to touch one of the studs.
“Don’t!” ordered Xerax-Thal.
I snatched my hand back.
“The Ancients called those ‘control panels’. They required a magical power that doesn’t appear active now, but there is no reason to take chances.”
I glanced up at a faded yellow sign. The letters were written in Ancient Engles. It read “Caution. Radioactive Materials Handling Area.
Potentially hazardous quantities of radioactive material are handled in this area.” The symbol of a pink sun threw out three equal curved blocks of rays.
This weapon, whatever it was, used something called ‘radioactive.’
“What does that say?” I pointed to the sign.
“Weapons storage. Authorized personnel only.”
I nodded, doing my best to appear awed. I knew he’d lie to me.
At the far end of the room I saw another sign, but this one was a small map of our area. We stood in a curved, semi-circular room painted in light green. Beyond, an isolated room filled with a garish yellow displayed a red exclamation point. There was only one way in and one way out. The Ancients must have been very serious about their secret radioactive weapon.
The Paltos pointed his wand toward a heavy metal door. A scarlet wheel had been mounted at chest level. “If my guess is right, the weapon will be in there. Stand back.” Xerax-Thal tucked his wand into his belt, strode forward, grasped the wheel and turned. I heard a hiss and a metallic creak. The thick door swung open and cool air washed over me. The room had been sealed tight, but no longer.
I glanced at the door. It was hugely thick. Pure steel, and the lock on it had three metal bars the size of my forearm. No one could break that door down. Turning the wheel must have retracted the bolts, and there was no corresponding wheel on the inside.
What would be the use of such a sturdy portal if someone could shatter the glass? The Ancients weren’t stupid. I must’ve missed something important.
Xerax-Thal edged into the room, wand extended forward like an alley-thief holding a knife.
I moved up to the glass, knowing Xerax-Thal’s attention was riveted elsewhere. I raised a palm to the smooth surface and pressed. It was solid and unyielding, much thicker than I had guessed, and not glass. Whatever its composition, the Ancients had known what they were doing. I bet if I swung a chair at it, it’d break the chair.
“Here it is!”
I jumped, Xerax-Thal’s exclamation startling me.
Through the glass, I saw the Paltos standing before a long workbench. The weapon didn’t look like a weapon. It was a long, curved tube with an open hatch. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see much of the insides, but it appeared to have more of those ‘control panels’. How in the world was he supposed to use that?
“Boy, come in here! I need you to hold the wand. This will require both my hands.”
The weapon was a disappointment. The only way to kill him with it would be to drop it on him.
But there was another way. A much simpler way.
I did as he said and backed away.
Xerax-Thal grunted as he heaved the contraption up with both arms.
Witch-light played with the shadows on his face, darkening the creases at his nose, chin and forehead. A wicked grin split his lips. He held the weapon as if it were a newborn baby. Delicate steps took him toward me.
Genuine fear coursed through me as I backed through into the room with the ‘control panels’. It was now or never. If I let the Paltos live, he’d silence me like Mistress Eskelle and Lanna. I was certain of it.
I dropped the wand to the ground, grasped the wheel on the door and shoved with all my strength.
“Boy!” Xerax-Thal shouted.
Metal screeched as the door slammed home. I spun the wheel, breath catching in my chest. I heard the massive door lock with a final click.
My heart raced. Exhilaration mingled with fear.
I had defied and out-smarted a King’s Paltos.
I expected the door to fly outward, knocking me back. Or the windows to burst. Or something.
Instead, when I peered through the glass, the Paltos’s wand held up for light, I saw Xerax-Thal standing in the center of the chamber cradling his precious radioactive weapon.
My guess was that he’d need his magic wand to activate the weapon, but the wand was safely in my custody.
Failing some other trick, trapped in the workroom, he’d either die of thirst or suffocate. I should have felt guilty, but I didn’t.
He shouted something, mouth working in a vicious snarl, but I couldn’t hear a word of it. The walls were too thick.
I smiled at him, satisfied with my work, and held up his magic wand. My voice cracked as I said “That’s for Eskelle and Lanna, you bastard.” I knew he couldn’t hear me, but it didn’t matter. I’m sure he guessed the meaning.
It took me the better part of the day to find my way out of the complex, Xerax-Thal’s wand lighting my way. I found the previous night’s camp at sunset and slept soundly for the first time since leaving the temple.
A week later, bedraggled and miserable, I arrived back at the temple. Kingsguards, swathed in azure and black, took me into custody. I told my story to a grim-faced captain. He didn’t believe me until I showed him Xerax-Thal’s journal and personal possessions. They treated me kindly after that.
Mistress Eskelle and Lanna had been buried before I returned, but I spent some time at their graves, presiding over my own personal funeral service. I cried, but felt better afterward.
The King’s men told me they’d take me back to Abados. The King would want to reward me himself. Crowds would cheer my name. The slayer of the Usurper. I would be celebrated as a hero, but I didn’t feel like one.
I couldn’t stay at the temple. Too many memories, both good and bad, so I agreed to go. Abados would be the start of a new life atop the ruins of the old.
No one heard from Xerax-Thal again. I imagined him, slumped over in his tomb, clutching his prize. Sometimes I wondered what went through his mind in his last moments. I hope he suffered.