Chapter 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. “But 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 followed along it 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.

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 dropped 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 rock 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?

His legs shook as he bent to the ground. Fumbling fingers raked desperately 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. The resulting sharp crack echoed repeatedly up and down the very-definite 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 my mana sparks at all, now is the time, he thought. Light would be nice.

It wasn’t one of the more common mana types within the Pyramid, but it was still possible. But, now that he thought about it, darkness was common in the Pyramid. 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. His wall was at least solid, comforting even.

And then it abruptly ended.

Rin froze, fingertips just brushing past the unceremonious end of the crudely cut 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 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? A niggling suspicion dropped him to the ground. Very carefully he stretched out a leg and swiped his foot forward and across.

A whoosh of breath escaped him. Solid ground. He glanced away from his wall and the corner he’d found.

There could be a door on the other side. Rin couldn’t tell in the darkness. Not unless he wanted to let go of the only solid, known thing he’d found so far.

But it could be worth it. There could be a door, as the more desperate part of him hoped. 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. He automatically sat up straighter, nodding at the thought.

On the one hand, there was a known, solid wall behind him in a very unknown part of the Pyramid. For the moment he was safe. Not any closer to finding the first ring. But safe.

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 those 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 legs 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 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 embarrassing moments for him 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 into the unknown.

Two steps broke that last connection. 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. Further tentative investigation revealed another path towards the right as well. But no door.

On the inner corner of the right side, between the right and central paths, Rin found a smooth flat surface jutting out from the corner. Upon first running his fingers across it, he thought there was some kind of geometric design etched into the surface. The grooves, wide enough to fit his littlest finger in, were oddly irregular; too much so for any kind of pattern.

Then what is it? Rin frowned through the darkness at where he supposed his fingers to be.

Was this his first puzzle? Mum said her first puzzle had been in a room. It had been a choice of combat.

He bit his lip and fumbled further at the etching. His nail caught at the edge of a groove, and he frowned.

Sharp. Like a spear tip. It was an angular notch in the stone, completely separate from the rest of the design.

Wait a beat! Rin hurriedly ran  his hand over the “design” again, carefully tracing every bit of it.

It’s an inscription! Disjoint, angular characters made up three horizontal lines stretching across the surface.

So, it’s some kind of sign. Rin rubbed his chin, one hand resting lightly against the stone wall for moral support. Maybe a way marker?

With that thought in mind, he took his time feeling out every etched line. The top line was short, only a few characters, with an angular notch facing left at the end. The second was the longest, nearly spanning the entire surface, and was broken into three distinct sections. It ended with another notch pointing right. The third section had two sections to it, with an awkwardly large, smooth space between them, ending with yet another notch, this one facing up.

Okay. If this is definitely a way marker…now, which way do I go? One hand on rock, Rin considered his options. Left, right, or straight?

If he took the ending notches to be directions…maybe the left pointed to the exit? Surely any other place that would be marked would need a longer description than just exit.

But if this was indeed a puzzle…maybe I need to go straight. After all, that line had a suspiciously absent section, as if an important bit of text had been removed.

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

Rin abruptly became aware of a breeze carrying a smell of old cheese and rotting meath 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 joined the rumbling.

It’s the wind, Rin whispered to himself, staring leftwards with rapidly widening eyes. Ah, yes, sudden wind where there was none and it just happens to sound 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 darted 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 empty air behind Rin. An angry snarl cut through the silent blackness.

Feet stumbled underneath him, carrying him in any direction that was away. Outstretched hands groped in the darkness. One shaking 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 even as every limb trembled. Breath came in gasps too short to fuel a scream.

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 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.

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

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

It’s right behind me!

Acting more on instinct than anything else, Rin darted to the right, slamming into the opposite wall. The air rent beside him as the creature’s pounce landed 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 – shaking hand skimming the wall – and thanked the spirits 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, illuminating sparks as the monster 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. Long white fangs flashed from half a dozen snake heads in the fading flare. Corded muscles rippled under golden fur blotched with charcoal spots as the whole of the apex predator bristled in pure feline fury.

The sparks died out, but the afterimage had seared into Rin’s brain.

Nekhesa.

Rin’s feet worked even as his brain sputtered incoherently. He stumbled backwards, fingers clawing along the wall until they suddenly slid off rough stone and across something smooth, polished, metallic. 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 along its edges.

A door! Finally!

He shoved his fingers into the divots and yanked. The door rolled to the side, revealing light. Without another thought, beyond teeth!, he threw himself inside, ducking into a roll to minimize the target he made. Something ratcheted behind him.

Rin was up and out of his desperate roll in a heartbeat, momentum carrying him up into a defensive stance. Every muscle tensed as he caught sight of his foe.

The nekhesa’s vengeful gaze met his just as the door ratcheted shut between them.

He was safe.

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. His hands shook as he pressed them against stone, tremors echoing up his arms into his jaw.

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. Shuddering, eyes squeezed shut tight, Rin forced it back down.

He spun around to check the rest of the room, but flinched back at the bright, silvery light behind him. So long in utter darkness had left him blind against any light. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision, but it took an agonizing moment for his eyes to adjust. Eventually, he sat back on his heels to take a proper look around.

It was a large room, several paces square, and seemed to be a perfect cube, equal in every dimension. The smooth walls were solid slabs of green jade, contrasting with the polished obsidian of the floor and ceiling.

It was utterly empty except for the large ring of blue-gray stone sitting unsupported in the center.

Is…is that the ring the guard was talking about? Rin slowly stood and cautiously stepped towards the ring.

The room was large, but the ring managed to fill it, physically and with sheer weighty presence. The very top of it vanished into the ceiling, while the bottom arc grazed the floor with a single step leading up to it. Five runes etched into the dark material glowed with a silvery light bright enough to illuminate everything. They were runes – sigils – even Rin knew. Life, death, water, darkness, and illusion. The five most common types of mana found inside the Pyramid. The five most common types to spark during an Izzian Questing. Not the only types, but the most common.

As if drawn up by a meddlesome spirit, Rin’s gaze climbed the arc to the death sigil near the top, mirrored by the life sigil. Every single mage in Mum’s family had earned that rune as their mage mark, and usually as the primary of the two possible sigils that could be earned in a Questing. The mark let them channel death mana, weaving it with their secondary mana into spells. Death sigils were so common in Mum’s family that there had been not one but two death specialists, mages that only received one sigil, but were stronger in that one mana type than others were with two.

Water sat midway up the right hand arc. Rin reached up hesitant fingers to lightly touch the carved sigil, the stone ring cool to the touch. Mum was the only mage he knew with an elemental mark. Her primary sigil was air, letting her manipulate the wind around her. Her mark was a single swooping iridescent spiral midway between her shoulder blades, directly above her death sigil. In contrast, the water sigil was three separate lines like river currents.

What sigils could I actually get? Rin stilled at the thought, teeth biting into his bottom lip. His eyes lingered on the darkness sigil. His namesake had been a darkness and death mage. And what warrior wouldn’t aspire to the legendary emperor slayer? His gaze drifted to the life sigil, gleaming like a small moon, before guiltily glancing away.

No use dreaming. He shook himself sternly and purposefully dropped his gaze to the floor. It’s not like I get any say in the matter.

Sigils could run in families, everyone knew that. It’s why bloodlines were so important. But you never knew for sure what sigils you’d get until you had them.

If you got any at all. But there was always the option of going back in.

Rin imagined willingly venturing back into the Pyramid on only a chance for additional sigils. 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 water rune again with a finger. He could get one or two of these sigils somewhere on his body. If he sparked. If he survived.

And that means going through that thing. He studied the ring properly. Other than the sigils, 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?

Edit: updated August 1, 2022

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