Book II - Chapter 67

Chapter 67

 

[Eveth]

 

“I’ve been dreaming of an Adventure like this for years, you know?” Dren spoke aloud to no one in particular, as they walked deeper into the strange hall. “I thought of all the things I might want to know, or that someone could teach me. Stories, bard songs, books, Faith magics…”

“Sss.” Beside him, on Eveth’s shoulder, the Basilisk nodded along as the list continued.

“For all the things I learned, I just never expected the Dungeon to be… like this.”

“Sss.”

“I mean, this is ridiculous.”

“You’re not wrong.” Eveth muttered, raising her staff to guide the [Light] spells along. “This isn’t an ordinary dive, that’s for sure.”

“You know what really bothers me the most?” Dren asked, voice echoing off into the darkness ahead of them. “Out of all of this?”

“How we’ve been walking for ages, and not one monster has come out to greet us?” Eveth asked. “Because that’s been bothering me.”

“No, not… well, maybe that, too.” Dren replied. “Other than that, though.”

“Do tell.”

“I can’t shake the feeling that they’re watching us.” Dren nodded towards the statues. “Those giant eyes, and…” He frowned. “Multiple heads?”

“That is new, now that you mention it.” Alem agreed, stopping to inspect the most recent examples. “Two heads now.”

“Really, these bother you?” Eveth raised an eyebrow, looking up at the latest set of oversized stone frogs to grace the oddly-ornate, Dungeon hall. Each had two heads, and stoic stares. “Huh… you’re right.”

“Ssss.”

“Laugh all you want, but I swear we’re being watched.” Dren replied, raising his mace. “This place is giving me the creeps.”

“Not just you.” Alem spoke softly. “I’ve the same feeling.” To Eveth’s right, watching their rearguard, the large man turned to look behind them. “Pretty sure there’s more than just nerves to it, if I’m being honest.”

“Think something following us?” Eveth asked, lofting another set of [Light] spells around them, for good measure.

“Aye.” Alem turned about, eyes peering into the shadows behind them, past the reach of Eveth’s spellcasting. “Back there a good ways.” He grumbled. “For awhile now... there’s something tailing us.”

“Ssssss.”

“Where?” Dren stopped, turning around to join him.

“No need to make a commotion, Dren.” Alem pushed the boy back to the front, urging him to keep walking. “Whatever’s out there is cautious. If it’s a monster, I’d say it’s a smart one.”

“Sssss.”

“Quiet, too.” Eveth muttered, slowing her pace. “The snake said he didn’t hear anything, you’re sure?”

“Very.” Alem nodded. “Maybe forty feet back… ten to the left, if you’re facing.”

“I trust you, but…” Eveth paused to squint into the distance. Behind them, the latest frog statues sat silently, ushering in the inky blackness of pitch black. If there was something there, she couldn’t see anything. “Should I try to shake it a little? An [Eclipse] spell?”

“Might be worthwhile.” Alem shouldered his hammer, considering. “If only to see what we’re dealing with.”

“Hmm.” Eveth tapped her staff, uncertain. Beside her, Alem stared into the darkness, too, but his eyes seemed to be locked to something invisible to her own sight. Unless she counted the brooding miasma of ambient mana, Eveth couldn’t see much of anything. “Alright.” She agreed, crouched down. Quickly, she ran her finger along the stone floor in a practiced motion, before standing back up. “Just let me know when.”

“Will do.” Alem nodded, as they began to move once more.

Eveth directed their entourage of [Light] spells forward with an artistic flourish, drawing them up to spin in a silent orbit as up ahead, another set of statues approached.

This time, the frogs were a bit larger, and had three heads.

“More heads?” Dren asked, worried. “Why three?”

“Three, now?” Eveth noted, pulling a [Light] orb to circle one. “Definitely got three heads… strange.”

“Ssssss.” The Basilisk bobbed its head.

“That’s a sign, huh?”

“What’s it saying?” Dren whispered, nervously. “Did it say something?”

“Keeps calling them signs, or flags… I don’t know.” Eveth sighed. “Honestly, he’s been talking to himself a lot recently.”

“Ssssss.”

“Well, you have.” She replied.

“Ssss.”

“Do you want me to carry you, or not?”

“Sss…”

“Couple more steps, Eveth.” Alem interrupted. “Two… one… go for it.”

“Alright, don’t look back until it goes off.” Eveth muttered, raising a hand.

The rune she’d left in the distance detonated with a loud “Crack” and a brilliant flash of light. As it began to dim, Eveth turned and threaded three spears of frozen air.

“[Barrage.]”

Whistling with a vengeance, they caught the arc of momentum, soaring off towards the distance. Dust and mana scattered with bright, secondary, flashes, as they impacted the area around her trap.

“I thought we were just trying to get a look.” Dren gasped in surprise, raising his weapon. “Are we fighting?”

“Anything following us in the dungeon isn’t just trying to get a look, Dren.” Eveth replied, coolly raising another layer of [Barrage] into form. The faint outline of the frozen air began to crystalize, already moving forward to gain momentum. She threw her staff forward again, thin outline of frozen air solidifying mid-flight to scatter about the distance. “Why should we?”

Just like the attack before it, these exploded in puffs of dust and smoke. Still, as the sounds settled, all that greeted them was silence.

“Alem?” Eveth asked. “Did I hit it?

“It’s… odd.” Alem mumbled. “I could have sworn, just a second ago...”

“What?” Dren whispered.

“I’m not sure.” Alem narrowed his eyes. “The danger is almost gone, but…”

“Sssss…” Around Eveth’s neck, the basilisk aligned itself. “Ssssss.” It puffed a small plume of green smoke.

“Give us some more light.” Alem motioned. “Whatever has been following us, I think it’s not going to stay shy much longer.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, closely.” Alem nodded. “Right… there.”

Eveth squinted.

Just at the edge of her line of sight, something… stood.

Perfectly still. Almost invisible, it was so motionless, but it was there: a faint outline in the drifting dust kicked up by the ambush. Cautiously, Eveth broke away a single orb of [Light] from overhead, sending it drifting back down the hall. She slowed it down, as it crept closer.

“Is that…?” Dren trailed of, astonished. In the distance, a slender figure stood in perfect silence. Features hidden beneath a thick cloth hood, they held an almost familiar shape. “Imra, is that you?” He asked. “I thought you said you couldn’t come?”

“Clack.” The solitary sound answered. Distant but sharp. “Clack.”

“Ssss…” The snake raised up, head hovering beside Eveth’s eye level as Dren took a step forward. “SSS.” The serpent hissed again, louder this time.

“Stop, Dren.” Eveth put her staff in front of his path, cutting him off. “Hold still.”

The serpent puffed further smoke, head bobbing aggressively.

“Snake says to be careful.” Eveth stopped, considering. “That’s not Imra.”

Moving another [Light] spell forward. Anxiously, she split the few remaining overhead, intensifying them until the dungeon’s gloom fell back.

Waiting silent and still, the person in the distance didn’t move as the [Light] spells settled above them. Cloaked in cloth and hood, they simply stared straight ahead, but with features hidden.

“It looks like her, though… if it’s not her, who is it?” Dren whispered. “Who else would be down here?”

“Don’t know.” Eveth replied.

“Another survivor, possibly.” Alem muttered. “Someone else from the group Varar put together?”

“Following us in the dark?”

“Could be half-starved and going mad. Lost in the dark, maybe?”

“Oh, sure.”

“Sarcasm is not appreciated, Eveth.” Alem grumbled, stepping up front of the group, before cupping a hand to shout. “Hello!” His voice boomed, echoing down the way they had already travelled. “I apologize for the attack, we thought you were an enemy!”

The looming figure remained silent, even as the [Light] spells intensified. Wearing a ragged cloth cloak, they seemed almost spectral, deep shadows cut from the orbs of mana floating to peel them away from the darkness of the hall.

No answer returned.

“Did Varar hire you?” Alem shouted. “We’re here to help!”

“Clack.” The figure remained silent, except for that noise. That same crisp, sharp, “Clack.”

The stand-off continued, with a more… uneasy, silence.

“What are they doing?” Dren whispered. “Why won’t they say anything?”

“I don’t know.” Alem frowned. “Maybe they didn’t hear me?”

“Maybe you should try again, but louder?” Eveth readied her weapon.

“Eveth, what are you doing?“ Dren sputtered, as Eveth raised her staff. Another row of [Barrage] spells came into form, launching forward. “Stop, you might kill them!” Dren shouted.

“I highly doubt that.” Eveth growled, humor forgotten as she watched her attack. “Starting to get real worried about the opposite, though.”

As she expected, the figure moved, ever so slightly.

Twisting their body, they casually let the three new spears of frozen air pass by harmlessly. Their cloak lifted, ever so slightly, in their wake. Just enough, so the hood came down.

“Shit.” Alem sighed, already lifting his hammer.

Slender and pale, a woman stared at them with pure white eyes. On her forehead, a stain of drying red seemed to clash with the light blond hair just above it.

They smiled, with a hungry expression. Slowly, their jaw dropped, then snapped back up with a sudden “Clack.”

“Light.” Eveth muttered, adjusting her stance. “That’s a ghoul.”

“Must be fresh, considering.” Alem murmured. “Unusually careful.”

“Careful, Alem?” Eveth carefully began to pull an array around her, morphing several [Light] spells into shape. “She was stalking us.”

“I didn’t know ghouls were that smart.” Dren swallowed, nervously. “The Church always taught us that they were mindless.”

“Most of the time that’s true.” Eveth replied, cautiously. “But there are some exceptions. If they were particularly strong, or…”

“If they died very recently, they still retain some of their previous traits.” Alem finished. “Must be the scout they mentioned, earlier.”

“Whoever they were, I really don’t like the way she’s looking at us.” Eveth muttered. “Like we’re slabs of meat.”

“Clack… clack… clack…” Distantly, the ghoul’s smile grew wider. Teeth, once white, seemed stained a rusted crimson, as their jaw worked that awful noise.

Still, they didn’t move from where they waited.

“Soon… they’ll come soon.” Alem spoke quietly. “Even the most cautious ghouls will attack, eventually. I’ll try to block.”

“Is she waiting for something?” Dren asked, glancing about. “Could that be it?”

“Maybe.” Alem acknowledged. “If they retained any traits from when they were alive, it’s possible.”

“I think she just wants to talk.” Eveth replied, drawing up another set of spells into an array above her. “Ask for some directions to the nearest inn.”

“Clack.” The ghoul stepped forward.

“Damn.” Eveth pushed her staff forward, throwing her attack out early, only half-formed.

Rotating on the ball of its foot, the attack was dodged effortlessly. In the ghoul’s hand, a short-sword drew with an elegant flourish. Immediately, the blade began to glow.

“Alem!” Eveth raised her voice, as she readied another set of spells.

“I’m on it.” Hammer lofting, Alem took another step forward, defensive in posture as the ghoul continued towards them- increasing its pace. First one step, then two, then almost gliding: soundless, it drew closer at a disturbing speed. The distance fell away in seconds, as their smile grew ever-wider.

Yet, for an instant, Alem moved just as quickly.

With a grunt of effort, his weapon swung out- blocking an almost invisible swing with a flash of sparks. In a practiced motion, he followed it with a heavy kick to the ghoul’s midsection, sending their smaller frame flying back several paces.

As it landed, Eveth attacked again.

“[Barrage]” She spoke the command, as another bout of frozen air shot forward, each one casually deflected by the short-sword. “Gods, she’s got some sort of [Parry] skill- Dren, get healing ready! Alem, get down!”

“On it!” Dren shouted, quickly rushing into a chant as his weapon glowed with Faith magic.

“Sss.” On her shoulder, not willing to wait any longer: the Basilisk opened its jaws.

Alem dived to the side, as a swath of flame rushed out to meet their assailant with enough pressure to force Eveth back a step.

The hall lit up in a vibrant shade of green.

Reacting immediately, though, the ghoul dashed backward

Cloak spinning as the flames enveloped it, Eveth caught a glimmer of its sword as it rolled left- then a heavy “stomp” as it shattered stone to jumped up and away from the Basilisk’s efforts to track the flame after it.

Springing from Eveth’s shoulder, the blue serpent moved rapidly to pursue: sweltering wave of heat ripping along the dungeon’s hall. Around its small body, Eveth saw mana and dust lifting in a spiral, as Earth magic tried, and failed, to manifest. Distorted patterns of mana, twisting and turning, rapidly enough to make Eveth’s head spin.

Still, the Basilisk pressed the attack.

Eveth watched as fire came in a torrent. Everywhere the ghoul dodged, the flame followed. Rapidly moving in as the serpent slithered forward, completely unrelenting. Soon as one breath ended, another began anew.

The sword, swung in, was melted to slag: speckles of burning metal scattered to the wind and stone. Countered, a dagger thrown was caught mid-air, then thrown aside- covered in ice. The ghoul left forward in a sudden swing, only to retreat from an undirected burst of radiant healing magic.

Then, the fire was back.

Shadows and smoke, flames roaring in explosions of energy. Dren was forced to raise a fragile [Barrier] to keep their vision from being impaired by debris, as Eveth shielded her eyes.

The calm came abruptly, as the magic ceased.

“Sssss…” Staring up towards the ceiling, the Basilisk eyed the figure now perched out of reach atop one of the statues.

The ghoul clacked its jaws as it smiled down.

“Clack… clack… clack…” It’s smile faded, pure white eyes narrowing in on the small serpent, as if deeply considering something. The ghoul let out a low sound, like a humming growl, as its throat worked, ever so slightly shifting.

“Ssss…” The Basilisk puffed green smoke as it arched back. Readying for another attack, more Earth magic began to spin.

With one final snap of its jaw, the ghoul’s odd growl adjusted. The body seemed to seize, mucles and tendons flexing beneath pale skin. Part wheezing-howl, part groan.

It remained where it was, atop the statue.

“What is it doing?” Beside Eveth, Dren let the [Barrier] fall away, as Alem rose back to his feet to join them.

“I don’t know.” Eveth answered, summoning further spells in her array. She had about seven now and was adding an eighth: all [Barrage] attacks formed in a framework of Soul. Forming them this way, she could be ready to be complete the full spell on an instant’s notice.

“Don’t let your guard down, we just need to wait for our chance.” Alem instructed, once again resuming his defensive stance. “It’s quick for now, but the longer this goes on, the more it should slow down. No matter how strong an undead might be, they always run themselves out sooner or later.”

“You say that, but-“ Eveth stopped, as the ghoul’s wheezing cut off, and white eyes turned towards them. She saw Alem react almost immediately: muscles in his arms growing visibly taunt as he gripped his hammer. He looked nervous.

The ghoul clacked its jaws, smile growing wider. Perhaps, sensing their fear.

“Ssss.” The Basilisk spit another bout of flame, drawing the ghoul’s attention, once more. “Sss.”

She watched as the ghoul glanced back down. Chest wheezing, almost experimentally, its lips moved, catching as the air rushed out, tuning the strange growl. Slowly it worked until the noise began to form something almost familiar.

“Little… little… serpent…”

Eveth froze, as the words came out: cold, emotionless, but all too recognizable.

“Did it just say something?” Dren whispered, eyes wide. “Can fresh ghouls do that?”

“No.” Alem replied, readying his hammer. “They absolutely cannot.”

“Little… tiny… serpent…” From its perch upon the statue, the ghoul’s smile was growing wider than ever, as its mouth formed the words. Slowly, its devilish smile formed once more. The ghoul’s bloody teeth seemed to glisten, as it grinned as it drew breath, only to heave the air back out with a cackling laugh. “Forgive me… I was… too slow… I did not see… even here in… my own domain…”

“Ssss…” The Basilisk eyed the ghoul, uncertainly hissing a small trail of smoke. “Ssss…”

“How… it… hates you… even now… as I hold… it back… Loathes you… who is lost… and broken… yet… free…” The ghoul croaked as if a parody of language. With each portion, it shook, visibly struggling to control itself. “It tries… oh… it tries… The cursed blood… mixed… with that… of forest… however faint… gives it… strength…”

In sound, they were words, but in texture, they made Eveth’s skin crawl.

“Ssss.” The Basilisk responded, another warning puff of smoke rising.

“Questions… yes… There will be time… for questions… soon…” Voice breaking, it began to chuckle, wheezing out a horrible mockery as its shoulders shook from the unnatural motion: sentence puffing out between the laughter. “I have waited… I have watched… for so long… yet… as predicted… you have… finally arrived…”

The ghoul let go of its hold on the statue, dropping down in effortless silence back to the darkness of the Dungeon’s hall. Not ten paces from the basilisk, there it began to slip back into the murky black of the shadows. From the darkness, the unnatural voice echoed through the hall.

“I welcome you… my kin… my fellow…” The words faded off to the distance. “I will see… that your journey… might continue… unhindered…”

With that, it was gone.

A moment passed.

Then, another.

Cautiously, the serpent turned and slithered back towards them, once again establishing itself on Eveth’s shoulder.

“What was that?” Eveth asked, quietly.

Alem and Dren both shook their heads.

“Whatever it was, it’s dangerous.” Alem answered, inspecting his hammer. The metal had a visible cut, where he’d blocked its attack. “Fading off now, a hundred feet… more...” He frowned. “Hard to say if it’s gone.”

“Ssss.”

“That’s not a sign.” Eveth muttered. “Seriously, what the was that?”

Sssss.” The snake replied.

“Can you ever give a straight answer?” Eveth asked. “How the does Imra do it?”

“Sss.”

Eveth sighed, pulling back some of her [Light] spells. Then, she stopped, staring curiously to guide one overhead.

It might just be her imagination at work, but she could have sworn that all three heads of the closest statue were looking in different directions before… hadn’t they?

Eveth eyed the statue, uncertain, but the feeling lingered. Try and she might to shake it, maybe Dren was right, after all.

“This place really gives me the fucking creeps.” She muttered.