“Guideline XLII: Take utmost care when things seem simple.
After all, the greatest Demons dwell in the tiniest details.
-Ars Mechanae: Elementary Mechanics
Somewhere outside of Hadrian, my brief attempt at sleep was interrupted, Richter shaking me awake. A nearby porthole, iron shutter propped open, allowed dim morning light to bathe the wall we leaned against. The others were already awake, Grail working the edge of a knife with a whetstone while Ialae broke her fast on hardtack, both sitting across from us. The rest of our fellow passengers seemed to still be in slumber.
“Good morning to you, Saga,” Richter chirped. His perpetually sarcastic undercurrent, as always, kept it from sounding genuine. He handed me a pouch of the same dreaded hardtack. “If you’re feeling up to it, we should discuss our final moves in this endeavor.”
I nodded with a notable lack of enthusiasm. Lack of rest and maddening dreams left me doubting my ability to contribute to a tactical discussion. I couldn’t deny the need to have our course fully mapped out, though. We would have to hit the ground running when we reached Artemis.
“Very good. We are only days out from our penultimate destination, and from it a day to Amn-Feng. There are lesser concerns that need addressing first, however, before we can proceed to the crux of this discussion.” Richter waved a hand at Grail, who had just slid his weapon beneath his coat and secured his whetstone.
“Aye. As I’ve explained ta’ tha’ young master, I can find lodging fer’ the four o’ us free o’ charge, or as close ta it as ye’ll see shy of Valhael. There’s still a few who owe me favors an’ tha’ like.” The old man’s face twisted into a sour grin, “Though, ta’ tell ya’ true, we’ll be havin’ ta’ clear off right quick. Some owe me a bit meer’ than favors… things I would ‘na like to have back, ya’ ken?”
I nodded at that. “All we really need is a few hours off our feet. I’d like to be as fresh as possible before charging into this.” I veiled a yawn with my hand, illustrating my point. I hadn’t slept in a bed since we left the City of Light. “Any idea of what we’re headed into yet?”
Richter drummed the brown-leather binding of the codex sitting across his knees with his gloved fingertips. “In verity. Though Amn-Feng collapsed under siege a short time before you and I were born, the underground ruins should still be quite whole.” He made a circle with his hands. “The fortress was built over, and even into an aquifer, into which the keep collapsed. Networks of tunnels connected the main tower with outbuildings in a web rivaling the size of the fortress itself.”
“So, you’re saying the vault is hidden somewhere in the labyrinth beneath the ruins?” Ialae had stowed the rest of her meal and joined the discussion. “But why would it have escaped the notice of both the Illuman army and the soldiers who razed Amn-Feng?”
“An excellent point, fair knight.” Richter shifted his hands, now tenting his fingers. “The key lies, of course, in how very old the fallen fortress is. This codex is a copy, or a copy of a copy or something twenty times that, of one of the first blueprints sketched by the Masons who founded Hadrian. The original, had it survived the ravages of time, would predate the Wars of Resurrection, like Amn-Feng itself.”
“So, you’re telling us the keepers of Amn-Feng just forgot to tell their successors about the spoils of war hoarded beneath their feet? And neglected to mention the mummified shard of undiluted evil sealed with it?” My words felt harsher coming out of my mouth than they had in my head, but there was a logical gap here I just couldn’t leap.
Richter didn’t seem to mind, though. “Ah, but that is just the point. Amn-Feng was originally one of the temples of the faith of the Sword, attended by the now near-extinct Myrmidons. When the mystery cults arose and the faith dwindled, the warrior-priests began sealing up their shrines or taking the secrets of them to their grave.”
“An’ quite right o’ them, if’n ya’ ask me,” Grail muttered. “A bunch o’ people willin’ ta’ bend knee ta’ spirits o’ desire or envy would’ na thought twice ta’ pray to a piece o’ a Demon, if’n it could answer them. When I was a lad, no meer’ than a year ‘d pass without rumor o’ one cult or another findin’ Demon worship in their midst.”
“Quite so, Grail. As such, the Myrmidons of Amn-Feng could not trust those who came after them with their greatest secrets, with the vault left forgotten and sealed.” The invoker tapped the book in his lap again. “Until now, that is. Based on these schematics, I’m fairly certain of the location of the treasury.” He spread the book, angling it into the pool of light about us. With one finger, Richter marked a corridor. “Here, on the third sublevel, running beneath what used to be the temple granary.”
I peered down at the parchment, ink purple with age. The notations and symbology were meaningless to me, but the stretch of hallway under Richter’s finger was heavily marked. There were no adjoining corridors or chambers nearby, however… certainly nothing like the vault that had been described.
“I wager by your puzzled expression, Saga, that this passage does not meet your expectations?”
I gave a shallow bob of my head, knowing a thorough explanation would be forthcoming.
“Indeed, the corridor would be an awkward placement for hidden lucre and a blasphemous object. That is why it lies beneath it.” The scholar’s finger traced a section of gibberish notation. “This indicates a section of blue granite flooring about thirty spans in length tiled in the opposite pattern from the rest of the hallway. When a pair of carvings on opposite sides of the hall are simultaneously depressed, the block beneath the slab should sink, providing access to whatever lies below.”
“Whatever lies below? Doesn’t it say?” Ialae had caught a note of uncertainty in Richter’s voice.
“…Not as such. The dimensions of the hidden chamber are briefly referenced, but the sketches of that hidden sublevel are conspicuously absent from the codex. Still, this is the only concealed chamber of appropriate size located in still extant portions of the fortress.”
I blinked a bit at that. “So, you’re saying that the whole vault could be somewhere at the bottom of this…what did you call it? ‘Well of Souls’? What do we do if the heart is somewhere down there?” I shuddered at the thought of trying to plum those dark and watery depths. It seemed a quick path to Death and nothing more.
Richter actually laughed at that. “If that is truly the case, then Kage will have just as hard a time of it as we. A few thousand talents of stone and a sea’s worth of water should keep it out of his grasp for quite some time, never mind the trapped spirits that give the sinkhole its title.”
We were all silent for a moment at that, Richter’s unexpected revelation giving us pause.
“What trapped spirits?” My voice was like the surface of a frozen lake: cold, hard and even.
Richter’s eyes were fixed on the text in his lap as he coughed nervously into his hand. “You could not have thought the name ‘Well of Souls’ to be sagacious hyperbole, could you? As I said before, whatever happened during the fall of Amn-Feng left a depression in warp and weft of the local ley-lines. Anything that perishes within the confines of the ruins cannot escape.”
“So, all the soldiers and crusaders who fell with Amn-Feng…” Ialae trailed off, unable to voice the blackness in her thoughts.
“Yes.” Richter looked up, meeting her eyes. “All now swirl somewhere in the depths of that pit.”
“Aren’t they going to just rise up and slay us the moment we arrive? The Shrouds beneath Brunt were certainly happy to oblige Kage’s wishes.” I wasn’t even trying to keep the shock from my voice. How had Richter overlooked this?
“They will not, if only because they are not Shrouds. These are not the cursed shades of necromancers denied the peace of the grave by their own hate. They are the confused and lost essences of normal and, for the most part, goodly folk.” Richter shook his head, “No, even maddened as they must be by their imprisonment, they are no bondsmen of Hell.”
“Mad spirits they still be, lad!” Grail came dangerously close to shouting, now, risking the pseudo-privacy we had amongst our slumbering shipmates, though the creak of the hold and the rumble of the paddlewheel kept it from carrying far. ‘If’n they decide ta’ tear us apart fer’ our trespass, what then?”
I nodded to Grail once again. “Yes, Richter, what then? Can they even be banished, trapped as they are?”
Richter frowned, shaking his head. “I…I cannot say for certain, Saga. With geomantic harmonies warped as they are in the Well of Souls, the sympathies of lead or salt may not resonate with Death there. My research in the Imperial Library found only secondary references to the thaumaturgical conditions in the ruins.”
Unsurprising, considering the Illuman distain for lay practitioners of invocation. I doubted cadres of priests would have bothered to investigate unfriendly territory either, though there were still enclaves of their faith like we had seen in Hadrian.
“It is not truly a point of concern, though,” Richter continued, ignoring the incredulity on my face. “According to the few field reports I could find in Illuma, the trapped souls congregate near the bottom of the pit itself, well below the tunnels we intend to visit. They will not even take notice of us.”
I frowned at that. This was quickly turning into another situation like that at the Barrow Lands, with too much assumed and not enough facts. This time there was no turning back, though. We had been forced into that trap. Now we walked willingly.
I said as much. “Nothing can be done for it, besides try to keep a clear shot to the exit if it all falls apart.” I put a hand to my jaw, suppressing a yawn. “But what comes after this? What do we do with the heart after we have it? Having it and us in the same place is going to draw Kage like lightning to an upraised rod.”
“Since cementing our course, I have often troubled my thoughts in contemplation on just that concern.” Richter folded the codex closed and placed it back into his satchel. “The way I see it, once we have the heart, we still require the claw unless we desire Kage’s undying pursuit. So, we shall have to use the combined presence of it and ourselves as bait, allowing us to ensnare Kage and…put him out of his misery. After that, we have three options.”
I wasn’t enthusiastic about being bait, as I doubted Richter would be the one in the jaws of the trap, but I let my friend continue numbering his ideas on upraised fingers.
“First, and least likely, we take the cursed artifacts and wander for the rest of our days, keeping them from the hands of those who hear their siren song and trying to resist them ourselves. Hardly how I would like to spend my prime, let alone my dotage. There is also the sticky question of what happens when we finally pass on, unless one of us happens to be an Immortal.”
Richter paused with a grin. “More feasibly, we could separate them again, finding more deadly and heavily guarded locations. Again, we run into the issue of trust, just as the Myrmidons did. Who will be ever vigilant over the relics of the Damned, and indeed, who should be?”
Ialae tried to speak up then, but Richter did not even look in her direction as he raised his final finger. “Lastly, rather than find a new hole in which to bury the sins of the past, we could find some way to expunge them. Rather than worry about who will carry our burdens when we are dead and gone, we attempt to destroy Baphomet’s link to this world and go on with our lives.”
“Aren’t you missing something, though,” I interrupted. “If these pieces of the Black King could be destroyed, why wouldn’t the Ancients have done it?”
Richter released a long-suffering sigh. “So very hidebound of you, Saga. Everyone thinks of the Ancients as some kind of pinnacle of learning and might, while scholarship shows that this is not the case in many, perhaps even the majority of occasions. Yes, the kingdoms of the post-Interdiction were shining examples of justice and right, and full of wonders still lost, I freely confess… but as much as I would love to see them, they are not the summit of man’s accomplishments.”
I had to admit, he had a point there. Man had been forced to dig free of the ruins of its own hubris, but that nearly a millennium ago. To believe we had not, in some way, regained our former place or even surpassed the Ancients was ludicrous. Progress always marches on.
Richter, not privy to my internal acquiescence, stormed onwards. “Perhaps, then, we should debate this? I assume no one is in favor of wandering the earth, forever burdened by the chains of Hell?” When we did not respond after a few short breaths, he continued. “Then, of the two remaining choices, perhaps we can each voice our preference? Would you like to start us off, Grail?”
The old Artemisian waved both his hands before his face in a dismissive gesture. “I dun’na’ have a dog in this scrap. So long as ya’ give me me cut of what ‘er else is in tha’ vault, ya’ can throw tha’ damned things into tha’ sea fer’ all I care.” Grail gave a suspicious glare. “But there best be meer’ in that hole than jess’ a Demon’s heart, like ya’ promised. I find ya’ve handed me a bag o’ shite an’ told me there’s a pony about tha’ corner, Malachi will be out a son, ya’ ken?”
Richter gave him a look somewhere between frustration and apprehension. “As I have said on countless other occasions, goodman Grail, I have no intention of cheating you. Your sacrifices on behalf of this endeavor will not go unrewarded, I promise.”
I cringed internally at that. It was a promise Richter had no way of keeping if we found nothing but an empty room. If Grail were truly intent on avenging his loss on Richter, supposing we had no way to repay him, stopping him would be a most unpleasant task for me. I had begun to like the surly old man.
“What say you, Saga? Shall we seal up the Demon’s corpse or find a way to obliterate it?”
My hand slid up my face to my forehead. “It’s not that simple Richter. On the one hand, I want as little to do with the Demon as I can. Part of me just wants to find the deepest, darkest hole we can find and drop those things down it. But,” that same prickling sting of conscience that had been driving me of late began to burn inside me again, “another part says we should purge those things, no matter the cost…I just don’t know, Richter.”
“Why do we have to decide?” Ialae interjected, voice surprisingly firm. “The Church has centuries of history dealing with heretical relics like this claw and heart. Why not just hand them over to them?”
Richter actually stammered for a few breaths, then spat his reply. “Have you forgotten that we,” he halted and lowered his voice to an angry whisper, “that we have been branded heretics ourselves? Coming to them with unholy objects in hand would be folly akin to bringing a corpse to a man who thinks you a murderer! Can you really be so pox-blasted foolish as to still trust in the kindness of your glass-cut mother Church?”
Ialae did not rise to the invoker’s barbs. “You’re the one opposed to spending the rest of his life running. Do you think that, simply because we’ve left the Empire, the Inquisition has stopped hunting us? They’ll find a way to come for us, even here. Handing over these blackened things is probably the only hope we have of purchasing mercy.”
“Mercy?” Richter’s voice had gone from red-hot frustration to a cold rivaling Fimbulwinter. “Like the mercy Ayden Mercer showed you after giving him Saga and I?”
“That’s the line, Richter.” I wasn’t willing to let this go any farther, knowing the next exchange would have to end in blows. “This has to stop before anyone else says something they can’t take back. I’ve made my decision.” I paused to glare at the both of them, assuring their continued attention. “We should take them back to Luxor, Richter, and let your father and the other Librarians find a way to deal with them. If the University fails, then they can take it to the Illumani and let them deal with it.”
“But Saga,” Richter cried in protest. “The amount of goodwill awaiting us at home is hardly better than in the Empire. And aside from bridges burned, do you not recall the fact that someone in the University wanted that tomb opened in the first place?”
I could only growl my reply. “The Librarians don’t want us dead, Richter. I’d say that’s a sight better than the Empire. As for whatever would-be necromancer who set us up, well, we can use Baphomet as bait for him, too.” I forced my teeth to unclench. “And still-”
Richter threw his hands up in the air. “And still, but still. All those words ever tell me is that you plan on ignoring reason and keep bickering. They are not a shortcut to forcing my agreement.” The word fell from his lips like a curse. “Have it your way. Your plan is the best we have… for now.” My colleague folded his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling. “Luxor would probably be the best place to find out what has already been tried to destroy things like these, anyway.”
I turned my head to face the Templarae fully. “Do you have any issues with that? Or do you have some other reason why we should place ourselves into the hands of the Church.” My words held more venom than they should have, but this whole conversation had my hackles up. I had spent so much effort convincing Richter that the knight had left her Church duty behind her, that she was as much an outsider as us now, for naught. The wound between Richter and I had reopened, and my trust in Ialae was now stinging as well.
Ialae looked away, unwilling to meet my glare. “N…no. Going to Samarkand would be as meet as any other plan.” She rose to her feet, steadying herself against the rocking of the ship with a nearby wooden brace. “I need some air, I think. Please, excuse me.” The lady fairly dashed away at that. I started to rise and follow, but Grail’s outstretched arm pulled me to a halt.
“Nay, lad,” he said, shaking his head. “Ya’ can’na jess tear after tha’ lass after sayin’ things like that. She’ll throw ya’ over tha’ rail, she will.”
Richter, surprisingly, said nothing, not even jabbing me with a snide remark. He was instead staring past Grail to the opposite wall, eyes focused as if on something a thousand leagues away. Some thought had disturbed my friend, and done so greatly.
“What is it Richter?” I nudged him with my elbow. “Ialae can’t have made you that upset.”
The invoker glanced over at me, dread darkening the grey of his eyes to almost black. “No, Saga. The resurgence of her former loyalties was not unexpected, though certainly unwelcome.” He diverted his gaze to his feet. “What has disrupted my spirits is a musing most morbid in nature. What if, kind Saga, Kage’s shambling minions were not merely chasing us, but attempting to forestall our arrival at the Well of Souls? What if Kage awaits us in that darkened pit?”
It was the greatest lack of confidence I had ever heard from Richter. I could not blame him: the thought of facing Kage as the Demon reborn rather than merely the Demon’s puppet left me with a graveyard of worms dancing in my bones. We’d have to face him on his terms and, more than likely, die on them as well.
I leaned my head back, trying to drive such grim fancies from my mind. “That, Richter, is a bridge we’ll have to burn if we come to it.”