Ch. 2: Into the Dungeon

One step into the Pyramid took Rin into the heart of darkness. No light. No wind. Even the smell of the jungle had vanished, replaced with musty, still air. Behind him the entrance was gone, eaten up by the pervasive darkness.

Tentatively, Rin stretched his hand back to where the sunlight had just been. The tips of his fingers brushed rough-hewn stone. Guess there’s no going back.

“It’s never the same,” his mother had warned him. “Stay out of the open hallways as much as you can.”

Rin sucked in a shaky breath, and trailed his fingers across the wall behind him until he found the corner. Then, hugging the wall he’d just found, he set off down the corridor as quick as he dared.

Walking in the dark was difficult. Even with a solid support directly to his left, Rin constantly stumbled over loose flagstones and sent pebbles skittering noisily ahead of him. Every sound echoed terribly in the otherwise desolate hallway.

“Remember, not a word inside. Understand?”

He’d never thought it would be so dark. Terrifying? Yes. It was supposed to be. Monsters and traps filled the Pyramid. But this darkness made it so much worse. His arms weren’t long enough to reach the other side of the hallway while keeping contact with his wall. If the other side even existed. It was entirely possible he was walking along the edge of a chasm.

Rin froze at that thought, staring hard towards the right. Was it darker than the surroundings, hinting at some unfathomable depth just beyond?

And how do I tell? If he tossed a stone, maybe he could hear it if it hit something. Or drop down into a chasm.

He slowly stooped down, never dropping contact with the left (possibly only) wall, and fumbled for any small, loose stone on the ground.

Cold stone greeted his fingertips. Rin flinched at the rough sound of his fingers on the smooth surface. A kind of slithering he associated with snakes and…

No. Rin told himself sharply. There’s no hydra.

But if there was a chasm…there might be a hydra.

He swallowed hard, trying to get his heart back down to its proper position, and stared rightwards. Not seeing anything wasn’t much of a relief.

There’s no chasm. And there’s no hydra.

Now why didn’t he believe that?

A desperate fumbling took over his actions. Fingers raked over the ground until nails caught on a small angular pebble broken from the whole.

Rin grasped the rock and threw it rightwards, fear powering his strength. A heartbeat later, it hit something hard, and the resulting sharp crack echoed repeatedly up and down the corridor.

Rin breathed again once the sound finally faded. Okay. There’s two walls. But let’s not do that again. Feeling foolish but more than a bit relieved, he continued walking.

It was difficult to tell time in the Dungeons, but the darkness made it pointless to even look back to see how much distance he’d covered.

If I spark at all, now is the time, he told himself. Light would be nice.

It was a common enough mana in the Pyramid. So was darkness, now that he thought about it. And that was a very unpleasant thought. Was the darkness around him natural? Or magical? He had no way of knowing.

Even knowing that another wall was there, just on the other side of the hall, Rin couldn’t tell if he’d passed any turns or doorways on the right side. He could only feel one rough wall.

And then it abruptly ended.

Rin froze, fingertips just brushing past the unceremonious end of the rough stone, every muscle seized up. His mind raced.

The wall just…stopped. What could end a wall like that? Did that mean the floor ended too?

A glance to the ground, of course, revealed nothing.

Stop it, he scolded himself. Walls don’t just end. But things were different in the Pyramid. Maybe they did.

He felt along the edge of stone for a moment before determining that it was just a corner. A harsh right-angle turn into a hallway to the left. Is it a turn? Or an intersection? Or maybe there was no other side, just a drop into a chasm. 

No, he stopped that thought there. There’s no chasm. He was not going to let that get to him again.

But there could be a door. Rin couldn’t tell. Not unless he wanted to let go of the only solid, known thing he’d found so far.

But it could be worth it. Maybe it wasn’t another turn on the other side, but a door. A door out of the open hallways. A door that led deeper into the unknown of the Pyramid.

Rin leaned against his wall and chewed the inside of his cheek. What should he do?

Weigh it out, came the thought, sounding very much like Azti, Rin’s eldest sister.

On the one hand, there was a known, solid wall behind him in a very unknown part of the Pyramid. Right then, at that moment, he was safe. Not any closer to finding the first ring, but safe. Leaning across could mean falling off a cliff. Or into a spike trap.

On the other hand, if he just wandered around without actually investigating anything he might never find any of the rings. And he had to find the rings to get out. So, leaning across could find him a door, which could find him a ring room, which could get him out of the Pyramid. It could also kill him. But so could wandering around aimlessly.

You’re being dumb, muttered Azti’s voice in the back of his mind. Rin could almost feel the flick to his ear. Use another pebble.

The breath in his lungs tumbled out in a relieved sigh at the obvious solution.

He slid down to the ground. There he paused and just…rested, letting his wall support him as he hugged his knees to his chest. His forehead dropped to his knees, curls flopping over his ears.  He breathed in. I can do this. He sighed out. Just have to stop panicking.

With a final nod to himself, he stretched out his fingers along the ground. Grit and dust mingled with a myriad of loose pebbles perfect for the job.

One was tossed through the air and struck the other side with a dull clack. Another, just to satisfy his remaining paranoia, was slid across the floor. One pebble clattered to the ground and skittered off back the way Rin had come.

Okay. It’s safe.

It still took a few moments to peel his back from the comfort of his wall and edge out into the open space of the corridor. One hand stayed pressed against his wall as long as possible while the other stretched forward.

Two steps took him away from his wall. The three steps that followed had to be faced without any support whatsoever.

Then, abruptly, his reaching hand met another ruggedly cut section of stone. Another corner, actually. The hall he’d been traversing continued, with part of it branching to the left. Some more very tentative investigation revealed another path towards the right as well.

On the inner corner of the right side, between the right and central paths, Rin found a smooth flat surface with three etched lines of some kind of inscription he couldn’t make out. The top line was short, only a few characters. The second was the longest, nearly spanning the entire surface, and broken into three distinct sections. The third had two sections to it, with an awkwardly large, smooth space between them.

Which way? One hand on rock, Rin considered his options. Left, right, or straight?

If he took the top inscription to relate to the left path (reading left to right, top to bottom)…maybe that pointed to the exit? Surely any other place that would be marked would need a longer description then just exit.

Idly he wondered who had placed a sign in the depths of the Pyramid.

Rin abruptly became aware of a breeze, carrying a foul smell towards him from the left. A low rumbling sound accompanied it.

Earthquake? He cocked his head, listening hard. No, the sound was more…guttural.

A faint hissing overtook the rumbling. 

It’s the wind, Rin whispered to himself, staring down the left way. Ah, yes, because wind sounds so much like snakes, came the darker thought. Every hair on the back of his neck stood at attention.

Then the sound of something hard rhythmically tapping against the stone floor echoed down the hall towards him.

It was coming closer.

Fear overriding everything else, Rin turned and shot down the right path. Rancid breath blasted across the back of his neck as something big collided with the corner he’d just been standing at. Teeth snapped at the empty air behind Rin. An angry snarl cut through the darkness.

Feet stumbled underneath him, carrying him in any direction that was away. Outstretched hands groped in the darkness. One hand hit a stone wall, and the rest of him followed.

Behind him that rumbling growl entered his ears and clawed down his spine. Images of long, yellowed teeth flashed through Rin’s mind, pushing him faster.

While Rin’s body took care of running full-tilt down the hallway, the rest of his brain struggled to piece together a picture of whatever in the six hells was chasing him.

Teeth. Definitely teeth. Teeth that clacked together rapidly far too close behind him. 

Claws. Claws tore into the stone, and drove the creature after Rin.

A mighty bound of powerful legs crunched the stone beneath the monster’s feet.

Big! Bigger than me!

Hissing? There were so many creatures that hissed. So many snakes and hydras and even birds that hissed.

Rin’s mind scrambled, hunting clues to what the creature could be. And it was all too happy to latch onto each sensory detail the creature provided.

The ground shook under Rin’s feet with every bound the monster made. The snarling and hissing was rapidly gaining on him. Teeth snapped at his hair, yanking strands free.

It’s right behind me! Rin screamed internally.

Acting more on instinct than anything else, he darted to the right, slamming into the opposite wall. The air rent beside him as the creature’s pounce landed it where he’d just been. Hot breath surged across his shoulders. Jaws snapped as the monster crashed into the stone wall. The large body thrashed and hit the walls with ground shaking thuds. Claws raked across stone in an ear piercing screech. The corridor echoed with frustrated yowls.

Rin took the moment and pushed himself back into a dead run. A second later, he ran headlong into another wall. Dizzy, head ringing like a palace gong, he stumbled and nearly fell.

Left? Right? He’d lost all sense of direction. Indecision briefly held him immobile. Keep moving! Guessing, he frantically dashed to the left, right hand running along the wall, and thanked the stars when he didn’t run headfirst into stone. 

A sharp right gave him another precious second as the creature, as big as it was, didn’t correct its path as quickly as its much smaller prey. Claws screeched along stone, throwing up brilliant sparks, as the creature skidded around the corner, slammed into the adjacent wall and tore after Rin.

For one terrifying moment, six pairs of red eyes gleamed in the darkness, weaving about a larger set of golden eyes. Then the sparks died out. The afterimage seared into Rin’s brain.

Nekhesa.

A nekhesa was a large, spotted, feline creature with two to six snakes sprouting from the back of its neck and shoulders. It was a natural predator in the jungles of Izzia. Not very common in civilized areas, but it was a definite threat in less populated places. Izzia had long prized and feared the nekhesa for it’s dignified appearance and lethal efficiency. All this to say it was dangerous.

Rin’s fingers abruptly slid off rough stone and across something smooth, almost polished. He frantically scrambled across it, feeling desperately along the surface with both hands. He found a circular recess at chest-height, with five smaller divots set at its edges.

A door! Finally!

He shoved his fingers into the divots, then yanked counter-clockwise. When that didn’t work, he changed hands and yanked again. The door rolled to the side, revealing light. Without another thought, besides teeth!, he threw himself inside, ducking into a roll to minimize the target he made. The door slid closed behind him with a ratcheting sound, cutting off the snarls.

Danger!

Rin was up and out of his desperate roll in a moment. Not that it helped; so long in utter darkness had left him blind against any light. He blinked rapidly, desperately trying to clear his vision. It took an agonizing moment for his eyes to adjust, but when they did, his dark gaze darted first to the door he’d come through, mercifully closed, then around the room, searching for any movement whatsoever.

He found none. Instead, he saw a perfectly square room, the smooth walls were a pearly white to contrast the pitch black floor. It was utterly empty except for the large ring of dark blue-gray stone rising unsupported up from the floor to just scrape the ceiling.

The ring room! Rin’s knees gave out. He sucked in big lungfuls of air, as his brain struggled to convince his heart to tone down the rapid-fire beat. Did Aapo face that thing?Was it why he never made it home? The thought of Aapo, older, wiser, gone, facing a nekhesa in the confined space of the stone corridor… bile built in the back of his throat. Head shaking, eyes squeezed shut tight, Rin forced it back down.

Eventually, he sat back on his heels to take a proper look around.

The ring occupied the center of the room completely, its diameter nearly the length of the room. The very top of the ring was set into the pearly ceiling, while the bottom arc was somewhere beneath the void floor. Runes etched into the dark stone glowed with a silvery light bright enough to illuminate the entire room. Six runes etched over the entire arc, runes even Rin knew. Air, light, stasis, death, darkness, and illusion. The six most common types of mana found inside the Pyramid. The six most common types to spark during an Izzian Questing. Not the only types, but the most common.

Two sigils were what someone normally earned from a Questing, and that meant the mage could channel the two associated types of mana, weaving them into spells. Because most received two sigils at the same time, having only one sigil was rare. It meant the mage was specialized, stronger in that one mana type than normal people were with two.

Most sparked people settled with just the one Questing, with just the one or two sigils. But anyone could go back into a Dungeon to try to get more sigils and wake up more mana.

Rin imagined willingly venturing back into the Pyramid. Back into the nekhesa’s jaws. Or something unimaginably worse.

A shudder tore through his frame. Guess there’s a reason most people don’t.

Rin traced over the air rune with a finger. He could get one or two of these runes, somewhere on his body as sigils. If he sparked. If he survived.

And that means going through that thing. He studied the ring properly. Other than the runes, there wasn’t anything about it that looked inherently magical. No mist swirling about. No ominous sounds. No mystical surface inside the arc. It looked more like a decoration than anything else.

Just a big empty ring.

Standing there.

Rin took a breath. Then another, which he held as he stepped through the ring.


Thoughts? Insights? Comments?

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