Howl of the Carrion King – Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-six
The Chamber of Choices

Nes led the way into the next chamber, with his brother struggling to keep up with him, a first as far as Bree knew.

A sense of restrained power permeated the dusty air of the dimly lit room. It was the first roofed portion of the ruin they had come across and looked to be in fairly good shape, considering. A series of carvings on the walls depicted a radiant figure. He was shown commanding legions of elementals to build cities, forcing raging seas to calm and intimidating warring armies to cease their hostility. One of the arms on the carving moved erratically, banging its tiny stone blade against the wall. To the west, through a gaping hole in the wall, four falcon-headed statues stood guard over a broad flagstone which stuck up into the air awkwardly.

Nes strode triumphantly through the room, straight to the side of the flagstone. He eyed it for a moment before raising a manicured hand.

“Fudin, Santon,” he said regally. “Lift this.”

Bree frowned, but Santon and Fudin moved ahead and hoisted the stone up from the floor with a great heave.

Bree strode up to Nes. “Quit being so rude! If you want to get under there lift it yourself.”

He turned to her with exasperation. “You need to learn your weaknesses and strengths, Bree. I know mine and they know theirs. Leave the grunt work to those who will not tire from it.”

Bree scowled. “Are you saying you asked them because they’re big and strong, and we’re not?”

He smiled at her with condescension thick in his gaze. “Perhaps you could aid them, but you would wear out far faster than they. Best leave it to them. And while we’re debating this topic, best you leave the planning to me. It’s not your best skill.”

Bree eyes widened. “Excuse me?! What exactly are my strengths?”

Nes quirked an eyebrow. “You are an emotional being, which is not only your greatest strength, but also your greatest weakness.”

“That’s it? I have feelings?”

“You grate on my nerves. Enough talk. Let us be off!”

Bree frowned as Santon and Fudin moved to follow him. “We’re not finished with this, Nes! You’re the leaky keg! Not me!”

Below the trapdoor was a shaft at least thirty feet deep, covered with bas-relief carvings of men and beasts.

“Plenty of handholds.” Fudin pointed out. “Climb upon my back, brother, and I will carry you down.”

“Agreed. I know my limitations.” He climbed atop his brother’s back.

Bree frowned at him as she watched Fudin descend the shaft with ease.

Santon smiled at her. “I bet you wish you had kept the ring now.”

Bree raised an eyebrow at him, but he made no further response. He simply leapt off the edge of the stone floor. Impossibly, a torrent of feathers exploded below him, causing him to drift softly to the ground below. As he landed they soared back into the ring, disappearing in a matter of moments.

Santon smiled up at her and she gazed back down in awe. Maybe she was a little jealous…

“Oh, wipe that smile from your face!” she called down to him. She sat down carefully upon the lip of the shaft then turned and reached one of her feet down, over the edge, placing it in between the carved figures. She shifted her weight onto it, carefully, and then slowly swung her other leg over the edge until it, too, found purchase upon the wall. Sweat beaded up on her head as she clung to the edge of the shaft. She swallowed her nervousness and frowned, imaging Nes watching her smugly from the ground below.

“Here I go, my lord,” she prayed. “Cayden’s luck find me and help a fellow avoid a fall.” She descended the shaft slowly. As she neared the bottom she leapt the last five feet to the ground.

“Way to slow us down,” Santon said with a smile. He clapped her on the back and pulled her close. “Let me ferry you down next time, yeah?”

She smiled and shook her head then punched him lightly in the chest. “How about you keep your hands to yourself?”

“Alas,” he cried halfheartedly. “You’ll fawn for me yet! And you, Fudin, climb better than those spiders we passed.”

Fudin smiled slightly and nodded.

Nes crouched at the bottom of the shaft with glowing eyes, inspecting a shattered stone slab. It was decorated with images of eagles and feathers. “This temple was truly a wonder for its age. This platform would have magically levitated up and down the shaft whenever one had use of it.”

“It flew?” Bree asked.

He paused for a moment, but then nodded his head. “You could call it that, I suppose, albeit quite slowly. It was an elevator.”

“A what?”

“An elevator. It elevated and descended the shaft with people standing atop it. Quite ingenious, really. It would have taken rather powerful spells to create.”

He stood, blew the dust from his hands and continued down a short hallway into a large, high-ceilinged room. Ceramic lamps hung from the walls, illuminating it with a cadaverous blue light. To the southwest, in a curved niche, a baboon-headed stone figure crouched menacingly. Across from it, in the northeast niche, a stern-looking pharaoh glared. Carved folds of well-sculpted cloth enshrouded the northwest statue and in the southeast niche the pharaoh was again depicted although this time his face was scarred and twisted with anger. Three arches led from the chamber. Fragments of shattered doors were strewn across the floor. The room was heavy with the harsh scent of bitterbark.

Bree stepped into the room and approached one of the statues.

Nes raised an arm, barring her way. “No.”

She batted his hand out of the way.

“The statues depict rather obscure destructive magical spirits,” he explained with a sigh. He rubbed his arm where she had slapped him. “They are wrapped in evocation magic and will pour flames upon you for touching them.”

Bree scowled and mumbled an apology under her breath.

Fudin walked to one of the archways and crouched above the broken remains of its door. “Something with great fangs tore this down and ripped it apart.”

Through the southern archway drifted a lonesome piping sound. Nes cocked his head and smiled. “Another illusion,” he said gleefully. “The remains of once powerful arcane magics hang about this place like a veil. Their powers have faded over time, leaving only fragments behind; half formed music, light and other effects. I admit to some professional jealousy.”

Santon laughed. “Let’s see what else we can find, shall we?”

Nes smiled and led the way into the southern archway which Fudin crouched before.

Bree followed closely behind them. As she passed into the next room a foul, metallic miasma assaulted her. The vast chamber she found herself in was some sort of worship hall. Frescoes depicting radiant figures destroying worlds, fighting wars and causing havoc covered the walls. Some of the carvings sparked with red, crackling electricity.

The lofty ceiling was supported by large square columns which were covered in strange runes and glyphs. The entire room was lit by a series of glass lamps which dangled from the roof on green chains. They radiated a pallid, bluish light that pulsed and flickered. Strange shadows danced about the chamber.

Across the room, at the far end, stood an alabaster altar carved in the shape of winged, scale-covered bulls. It radiated an eerie blue glow.

Bree frowned. This place was ominous.

Nes eyed the pillars in awe. “These contain spells.”

“Are they dangerous, brother?”

He shook his head. “No. They are like my spellbook. They hold knowledge for those who can discern their secrets.” He traced his hands along the first of the pillars with care. “This one is a spell I know well. If its essence could be forced into words it would be translated as Burning Hands.”

Fudin cocked an eyebrow. “No knowledge you do not possess, then?”

“Some, I know. Others I do not.” He traced his hands along another pillar reverently. “I will come back after we have delved deeper into the complex. I would learn the knowledge stored here.”

Bree frowned as she eyed the carvings upon the walls. They were all of death. “Maybe you shouldn’t. It looks like these might be evil spells.”

Nes shook his head. “Magic is not neither good, nor evil. It simply is. Those who know how to wield it, how to tear its essence from its natural state and manipulate it to ones own whims can cause it to manifest in a myriad of ways. It is the user who bends the spell for good or evil, not the magic itself.”

Bree shook her head. “No. A spell which heals cannot do evil in the hands of an evil man. It heals. It is naturally a good spell, just as one which kills and maims can only bring death.”

“And what of that sword at your hip, then? What evil does it wreak?”

“It is for protection.”

“It is a tool made to kill and therefore, by your own logic, can only do evil, no matter the user.”

“No.” Bree answered, raising her voice. “A sword is not the same as magic.”

“What do you know of arcane spells, woman?” he spat, obviously upset. The magical glow left his eyes, leaving them a dark brown. “If you were to maintain your path with a steadfast faith, and continue your worship of your drunken, accidental god, you would access divine magic. Power granted by the whim of the gods. That is not what lies here. Here lies the successive knowledge of men who spent their entire lives in pursuit of enlightenment. They worked for all they gained and were able to shape the world itself.”

“They did so only with the blessing of their god.”

“A god who was once mortal, and achieved godhood through his own powers. A god who taught that magic could be used for both good and evil. Both. At once.”

Bree shook her head. He just didn’t understand! “One cannot be both good and evil! Once evil has been done, it is done. It taints the soul. One can no longer be good, no matter what other deeds they have done previously, after an evil act is committed!”

“The people who made this were neither good, nor bad, but both. As are we all. Do not diminish their life’s work with your naive ideals.”

“We are all of us, either good, or evil. Not both.”

Nes laughed. “Not even the gods are simply one or the other. We are all shades of grey.”

Santon frowned. “Enough talk. You two won’t agree and neither will either of you give up. We’ll be here until we starve.”

Fudin nodded. “Leave her, brother. We will return here afterwards.”

Nes sighed, though his eyes bore deep into Bree’s own. “You are a fool.”

Bree growled. The man was infuriating! “May all the hangovers of all the drunks in Absalom be upon you!”

She stalked past Nes, back into the room filled with niches and through the final archway. As she neared it a lush, silken curtain shimmering with golden embroidery materialized. She ignored it, pushing her way past it’s illusory folds into the room beyond.

The floor was covered with inches of untouched dust. The walls were covered with cobweb-strewn frescoes. In the west wall, a pair of niches held painted wooden statues of female sphinxes. They glared at Bree with menace from beneath layers of ancient filth. A third niche stood empty to the south, while a fourth, filled with rubble, lay to the north.

Bree eyed the room with confusion. That was it? Some magic temple! She stalked forward, to the sphinxes, with anger.

With a great creak, they shook their tails, sending a shower of dust flying at Bree. She backed up a pace as they stepped forward on four wooden legs, towards her.

The statues were alive, and they did not look happy to see her.

Perhaps she should have let Nes go first…

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