Targa slipped on a loose stone, but Freja caught him before he could slide off the little path.
“My gratitude.” He dusted himself off. “We’ll rest a moment, then press on.”
“Fine by me.”
Freja scratched at the blood itching on her neck. With dirt and water, she’d managed to get the worst of it off her face and hands, but the remainder demanded a vigorous scrub in a soapy bath. Until then, it would stick around to remind her—the blood, and also the dagger she’d taken off the Caliban who attacked her. It was good steel—stolen from some long dead adventurer, probably—and if the ambush had taught her nothing, it was that her guns weren’t always the solution.
Against Freja’s judgment and Gryn’s objections, the four of them had set out down a rocky path into the hollow among the mountains. The sun had not yet risen fully beyond the peaks, offering a jagged maze of light and shadow that made the trail ahead treacherous. She’d seen several more trail markings denoting Caliban territory, and she kept her guns handy for an attack.
“It’s not too late to turn back,” Chenoa Gryn said. “Come back after we’ve rested and my power has returned. Until then, my words are just words.”
Targa laughed off the suggestion. “You worry too much, my scholarly friend.” The veteran explorer fairly vibrated with excitement. “The P’Tan will warn of waiting foes.”
“Garrull?” Freja looked up to where the wiry scout lurked on the edge of a cliff, about a dozen paces ahead, keeping just within sight. She remembered the hesitant look he’d given the other P’tan when they left, but he’d gone along with Targa’s instructions.
“Right,” Targa said. “No fear. Our gunslinger protects us.”
In response to the Prymidian’s uncertain look, Freja patted the butt of The Last Word holstered at her hip. She’d worn her half-dozen loaded guns and had plenty of cartridges. That didn’t make his doubts wrong, though. Her bruised neck ached terribly, and she wore plenty of blood already.
“Until your power returns,” she said to Gryn when they started moving again. “You mean no spells until then.”
“Call them spells if you must.” The Prymidian seemed too distracted to offer a derisive scoff. Seeing him nervous made her nervous. “Power flows through the words, but I can only stand so much at a time,” he said. “Try not to get yourself hurt—no more healing until tomorrow.”
“Right.” Freja shrugged. In her experience, every spellslinger in Exodus had a different explanation for how it all worked. One metaphor was as good as another.
It was slow going. About two hours in, as the sun crested the ridge, they had traveled about half a league. Garrull had insisted they move slowly, giving him time to scout ahead. Ancient stone steps cut into the rock made for easy enough going. Targa suggested this was part of an ancient Sorcerer-King’s kingdom, and the crypt—discovered by a previous expedition—might be that of the ruler itself.
“This could be the most significant find in the region in centuries.” Targa opened and closed his hands anxiously. “The name of Targa Voshtet will be known throughout Exodus!”
Freja gave him a nod, but she was barely listening. Instead, she noted all the sprung or disabled traps in their path: a tripwire here, a deadfall there, and the like. Once, they skirted around a pit set at the bottom with rusty knives thrust hilt-first into the thick dirt. She assumed Garrull had disarmed these hazards before they arrived, but it made her wonder.
“All this to protect a tomb?” she asked.
Targa shrugged. “The party that discovered the crypt thought it might have some religious significance to these savages. A place of worship, perhaps.”
“If it’s so important to them”—Freja glanced around—“why haven’t we seen any sentries?”
“Perhaps our P’tan is simply that effective,” Targa said. “No corpses, though.”
“Exactly.” Freja kept one hand on the butt of her favorite gun. The Last Word reassured her.
They came to a cavern opening, which was covered over with a network of tree branches, stones, and rusted metal. It was crude, but looked solid. Someone didn’t want them to go inside. Garrull perched on a stone next to it, looking puzzled. Targa’s face brightened.
“This is it,” he said. “The entrance!”
“Why seal it, if they go in there to pray?” Gryn asked.
Freja bit her lip. She’d been thinking the same thing.
Targa waved away the objection. He drew a necklace hung with rubies out of his shirt—a piece of jewelry Freja had noticed several times before—and plucked one of the stones from its gold strand, which promptly corroded away and disintegrated as though it had never been. He held the stone between his thumb and forefinger. It glowed with inner power.
“I’d stand back, were I you,” he said.
Targa flicked the stone at the gate. It struck with a soft plink, then erupted in a concussive blast of flame that blew the barrier off the cave entrance. Freja had instinctively covered her ears, and she looked up as the smoke cleared to see Targa smiling wildly, Garrull hissing like a spooked cat, and Gryn wiping dust from his face and glaring at their employer.
“I am certain no one heard that,” the Prymidian said.
Targa beamed. “I’ll go first, if you’re worried.” He pulled a torch from his pack along with a flint. “Lady Gunslinger, you follow next. You can shoot whatever pounces on me.”
“Fair enough.” Freja double-checked The Last Word’s cartridge before she followed him.
Beyond the destroyed barrier, the yawning cave led down along a tunnel reinforced with relatively fresh wood buttresses. The sunlight dropped away after three steps, so Targa lit the torch and swept it through the dusty gloom. Garrull followed them, his feline P’Tan eyes glittering. Gryn came last, a hooded lantern held up high. It shone with much better light than Targa’s smoldering torch.
About a dozen steps into the darkness, they encountered a series of spider-webs heavy with dust. No one had come this way in quite some time. The tunnel had still partly collapsed, it seemed, and Freja had to squeeze through a tight spot to follow Targa at one point. Gryn, with his big Prymidian frame, barely made it. As they went, Freja noted the mark of picks and axes on the walls, and she saw burn shadows around piles of rubble. If she had to guess, she would have pegged this as a former excavation site. Targa had apparently guessed her thoughts, because he chose that moment to speak.
“The explorers who discovered this cave brought a healthy supply of explosives to aid in the excavation,” he said. “They got a certain distance in, before Caliban attacks made them call it off.”
“You knew about the Calibans?” Freja asked. “And you didn’t warn us?”
He gave her a sour look over his shoulder. “I warned our sentries, and they warned us about the attack before it befell. I expected you to perform, and you did so--admirably. What’s the problem?”
“No complaints, sir.” Freja bit her tongue. Targa seemed supremely indifferent to the death of one of his own--she doubted he would respond well to the reminder. Perhaps it was for the best nothing had passed between them.
Somewhere ahead, Freja heard rushing water. She’d glimpsed a waterfall up the mountain, which she had assumed fed a small lake at the base of the rocks. Maybe there was some sort of underground river in the mountain.
“Almost there—ah.” Targa held the torch aloft, and the muddy light showed a smooth straight line cut along the floor. A smile brightened his face. “We’ve found it.”
The tunnel emerged through a hole into a smooth chamber about ten paces on a side cut out of the stone. Two massive pillars in the middle of the room vanished up into the darkness. Freja made out movement in the far corner of the room: a waterfall sparkling in Targa’s torchlight. The stone had broken away in some sort of collapse, and now a waterfall raged through the chamber down a wide gap into the depths. It was the river she’d heard before, though it seemed particularly fast and precipitous. Dust choked the room, trailing from thick cobwebs in the corners of the chamber. It lay so thick on the pillars and some sort of object in the middle of the room, it resembled sheets of white silk.
Targa held the torch aloft, making something sparkle to life in the shadows behind him. Freja drew her gun in surprise before she realized the source of the light: engraved and inlaid designs and runes that traced the walls, revealing a haunting forest of faces and claws looming around them. Fortunately, they did not spring to life and attack.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Targa asked. “Look at the artifice!”
“Right.” Freja holstered the gun but kept her hand on the butt.
The P’Tan, who padded into the room after her, looked even more nervous than she felt, offering a faint whine that drew out like a nervous breath. The way he held himself, Freja almost thought the place caused him physical pain just by his presence.
Chenoa Gryn was the last through the hole in the wall, and he looked up at the walls and pillars with genuine interest. “These markings are old,” he said. “Definitely dating from the time of the Sorcerer-Kings, if not before. Yes.” He ran his hand along the wall. “Ancient. Primordial.”
“What came before the Sorcerer-Kings?” Freja asked, shedding her pack.
“The First Ones, of course.” Gryn looked at her as at a child asking a very stupid question.
“Fascinating, yes.” Targa moved deeper into the room, casting around the torch. “Can you read them? Gather any hint about this place? ”
The Prymidian frowned. “It would take some time and study,” he said. “These runes here--they resemble old protection wards. I’d learn more if I had any of my power to call.”
“They haven’t immolated us yet,” Targa said. “Whatever warded this place, it’s long dead--probably when the chamber broke open.”
Freja wasn’t too sure. She didn’t feel alone in this place.
Targa had moved into the center of the room, where his oily light exposed a massive stone block, like an altar to some ancient deity. It looked like a piece of the mountain itself, shorn off by some unfathomable power from deep in the earth. It resonated with power: Freja felt warm and tingly just being near it. By contrast, Targa approached as though invited, reaching out to touch the dark stone.
Every instinct in Freja screamed at her to stop him. “Wait—”
Targa brushed cobwebs away from the black stone and laid his hand on it. “It’s warm,” he said. “Something . . .” His words trailed off as his whole body convulsed, jerked taught as though stabbed.
“Voshtet?” Gryn asked.
The explorer made no reply. His brown face had gone pale. A web of red light spread across the stone outward from his hand, growing wider and more complex as he lost more and more of his color.
Garrull reached for his master, but Gryn held him back. “Touch him and you’ll be caught too!”
With a groan, Targa fell back, shivering and pale, into Gryn’s arms. Whatever it had taken from him remained, continuing to spread across the stone slab. The lines of light crossed over and around one another, forming a spider’s web of crimson veins. The light spread until it encompassed the entirety of the black stone, which became a brilliantly shining star in the center of the chamber.
Then the light suddenly vanished, leaving them alone and dazzled in the dark chamber.
Garrull growled low. Eyes gradually adjusting, Freja leveled her guns on the stone she could only partially see. The world slowed around her as she focused.
Nothing happened, and nothing continued to happen for several long breaths. The stone slab stood in the center of the chamber, as unremarkable as before.
Targa coughed. “You see?” He stood up shakily and reclaimed his fallen torch where it guttered on the floor. “Nothing to be concerned about.” He took a step toward the slab. “We—”
The slab abruptly shattered like glass, sending shards of black stone flying in all directions. Freja managed to duck behind a pillar and pull her coat over her face, stopping the worst of it. Stone shrapnel bounced off the pillar and cut through the thick leather. Garrull cried out in pain, and she saw him go staggering past, clutching at blood trickling from his cut open torso. Chenoa Gryn loosed a grunt of pain, and she heard Targa make a strangled noise that made her blood run cold. She whirled around the pillar.
What she saw made her hands tremble.
A creature stood amongst the ruin of the stone slab: a woman taller than most men, all jet black flesh stretched over wiry muscle and sinew. A silver circlet sat atop her bald head but otherwise she was naked, and she looked not at all inconvenienced by that fact. Targa Voshtet stood—or, rather, hung in the air next to her, dangling from her left hand that was thrust through his chest like a pin through an insect. Blood flowed from his mouth and his eyes had rolled up to the whites.
“Ex—”Gryn was slumped against the wall, obviously hurt. “Exodite—”
Why hadn’t Freja fired? Why was she hesitating?
With a maniac howl, Garrull leaped at the woman, blades extended, but she casually reached up with her free hand and caught him by the throat. As Freja watched in horror, she squeezed with seemingly no effort, and his head popped off his body like a grape from a stem, blood showering.
The woman dropped both corpses and stared wordlessly at Freja as though at a curious butterfly she had not noticed before. She smiled like a predator, revealing a set of jagged white teeth.
Freja squeezed the triggers, and her pistols resounded loudly in the mountain crypt. But the woman was gone—vanished into the darkness before the bullets could find their mark.
Freja slammed a fresh cartridge into the Last Word.
Hot breath fell upon Freja’s neck, making it tingle. She started to turn, but the Exodite caught her neck and gun wrist in a grip like iron. Freja’s bones felt like they would shatter.
“Thank you, child,” the woman said, in a voice like grinding boulders.
Freja palmed the pistol in her left sleeve and fired right into the Exodite’s face.
With an inhuman shriek, the creature lifted Freja and hurled her bodily across the chamber into the waterfall. She crunched against the stone and started to fall, her arm smashing into the lip of the chamber.
Then she was sliding down through dark water.