Chapter 5

A Golden Trap

Elation and relief still streaming through his veins, Rin hauled himself to his feet with a weary but satisfied smile.

The smile fell when he turned and came eye to eye with a spirit statue. Not just any spirit statue, but Kinzi, guardian of the boundary between life and death. Sages carved her feline countenance into every fresh funeral sapling. Healers kept her sign on their most potent potions. For Rin though, she was even more. She was the patron spirit of Mum’s whole clan, watching over them all.

And here she was, chiseled in stone within the Pyramid itself.

A grave sense of weight passed over Rin as he met that steady stone gaze. He bowed low before the spirit statue, hands gripped tight in keiken to hide the lingering tremors. Thank you, he whispered. And hoped She wouldn’t hold his last choice against him.

Glancing over the ears and snakes of Kinzi’s statue, Rin found the polished smooth surface of another door. To either side were tall niches in what sat a slender white stone pedestal. The left pedestal held a dark wooden bowl the exact same size as Rin’s fortune bowl. The other was empty.

I think I know where this is going.

First Rin tried the door. To his surprise, it opened with ease.

Outside was a dark corridor of rough-hewn stone. Glancing up and down the corridor revealed, as expected, nothing but blackness. But it was a familiar blackness.

Rin let the door slide closed without stepping through. He glanced down at the fortune bowl where he’d dropped it; the last two stones still inside. He glanced back around at the pedestals.

I wonder… He fingered the lip of the bowl, picking it up as he considered the empty pedestal. With an automatic head tilt to Kinzi’s statue, he skirted the effigy and placed the pale wooden fortune bowl on the waiting pedestal.

Thud.

Something small fell into the other bowl.

Rin scurried across to the left pedestal and stood up on his toes to peek over the rim of the dark bowl. Inside was a smooth, flat river stone, about the size of his fist. Its dull brown color was flecked with bits of white crystal, and the light sigil was etched deeply into one face. It was glowing.

Rin’s eyes widened. _A light source! _Without thinking he reached in and snatched the light stone. Just as swiftly, he flinched back as he realized what he’d just done. Fortunately, nothing happened.

He hugged the stone close, then happily proceeded out the door and into the dark corridor. The soft white light didn’t illuminate more than a pace ahead of him, but it was oh so much better than the complete and utter darkness of before.

The corridor stretched away in both directions. The only door Rin could see was the one he’d just exited. It ratcheted shut behind him with a sound that echoed faintly up the corridor. Suddenly curious, he tried the door again. It opened without any issues.

So backtracking is an option, Rin mused to himself. Mum had never mentioned retracing her steps in her Questing. But Mami Kaira said it was important to know where you’d been if you wanted to figure out where you were or where you were going.

Rin spent a moment memorizing the shape and placement of the door. Just in case.

After another moment’s consideration, he decided to make his way down the left hall first.

***

Rin walked along the corridor, the fingers of his left hand trailing against the wall out of habit more than necessity. The light stone gave off just enough to see a small circle around him, which helped him avoid the sharper pebbles and jagged pieces of shattered flagstones. He’d been running around barefoot most of his life, but some of those stones were dagger sharp.

The flagstones. Those were…something.

The corners of some flagstones were softer, more rounded than others; definitely work down with age. Others were nothing but powder. However, huge central sections of the hall floor where shattered, the jagged cracks spiraling out from a single point of impact, spreading across most of the wide corridor. Each side of the hall sloped down into craters a good two hands deep.

During his first journey through blackness, Rin had thought the flagstones were just broken with regular wear and age. The Pyramid was ancient. It had been old and abandoned when his people had discovered it centuries ago. Age seemed a reasonable enough suspect for breakage.

Now that he could see the floor…he had to wonder.

Multiple huge crates ran down the center of the corridor, each slightly off-center from the one before it and the one after it; first left, then right. Almost like footprints along the riverbank. But in stone…and big.

Just to be on the safe side, Rin stuck to the walls of the corridor as close as possible. He wasn’t chancing that the floor would finally give in to gravity with him on it.

The walls of the corridor remained the same. It was still that rough-hewn rock wall, with particularly jagged edges where a tool had carved it. But with his newly acquired light Rin could see that it wasn’t simply a single mass of gray. Horizontal layers of blacks and grays striped the wall. Every now and then a large, irregular rest red splotch broke up the natural pattern.

Rin let his fingers graze of the wider, black bands as he walked, following it down the corridor and around a gradual turn. Interestingly, while the other stripes occasionally dipped down half a hand then rose again, the black band Rin trailed stayed consistently as a comfortable height at his shoulders/

It was his fingers that found what his eyes couldn’t: tiny pocks in the black stone band. One was merely interesting. The next one, two hands down the corridor, was a curiosity. The third divot, another two hands along precisely, was suspicious.

The pocks were barely the size of the pad on Rin’s pointer finger, and light refracted off a reflective surface from within the small hole. Rin crammed his pinky finger into the hole and felt something as smooth as glass. Or a gem.

Rin stared back down the corridor. The door was long behind him, and he couldn’t even see the beginning of the gem-studded divots. Although, now that he knew what to look for, he caught glimpses of refracted light as he shifted his light stone up, down and around.

Why would there be gems set into the wall?

Letting his hand fall back to his side, Rin shook his head and resumed walking. It wasn’t important.

The sudden appearance of a right-angle corner brought him up short. A harsh edge of shadow ran across the hallway beyond, cutting off any line of sight.

At the ache in his lungs, Rin forced himself to breathe, the sound sharp and sudden in the otherwise silent gloom. Another breath in and out, he crouched by the very edge of the corner. He listened.

Nothing.

A timid peek around confirmed it. Nothing.

He let the relief sigh out in a soundless whoosh. He was alone. Nothing on the other side. No nekhesa.

Feeling a bit foolish, he rose back up, letting his fingers find the left wall for some semblance of comfort. He took a few steps forward. Then he stopped. Retraced his steps and stopped once more. His fingers slid over black stone. No gem holes.

Rin took a step back and compared the two walls. One had small, gem-studded divots set into it at regular intervals, one just before the harsh seam of the corner where the two walls met. The other wall…didn’t. Why?

Glancing around, in search of some kind of answer to the abrupt end of a rather insignificant if peculiar quality to the walls, Rin found something that drove every other thought from his mind.

Writing!

Ancient, maybe even archaic, characters had been engraved deep into the stone near the ceiling, about twice Rin’s height up the wall. In contrast to the aged surroundings, the white pigment filling the engravings was still faintly visibly.

Rin had never seen anything like them. He craned his neck and followed the white writing down the hall.

The etchings weren’t continuous. More sporadic. Here and there at the top of the corridor wall. Just…random words, not complete sentences. Maybe place names? Or directions?

The longer he followed them though, the more he leaned towards directions, especially when he come to an intersection of hallways. Hallways where each corner was clearly labeled with those ancient, white characters. His light stone made them almost glow against the dark rock.

But Rin had learned his lesson. He didn’t venture out into the openness of that intersection immediately. He crouched by the corner where his corridor turned and listened. Nothing. He scooted across the hall to the other corner. And listened. Still nothing.

Okay, no nekhesa prowling around this time. He slowly stood up, ears still strained to catch any hint of claws on stone or hissing that would be his only warning.

Without a handy way marker, he took his time examining the other corners, trying to find any hint as to where each of the halls led to.

Well, there is a hint, he thought, craning his neck back to loop at the white runes just below the ceiling. I just can’t read it.

Each corridor was marked by one word, each nearly the same length. Except the one that turned left, which was marked by two words, a handspan of empty space between the sets of characters. And, with nothing else to go on, that seemed as good a choice as any.

One hand trailing along the wall, Rin set off down the left hallway, the little light stone gripped tight in his other.

***

Rin didn’t know how long he walked – long enough that the pain in his wrist dimmed to a dull ache – before he finally found anything else that broke up the rough rock wall. But it wasn’t a door. Or intersection. It wasn’t even a corner.

It was a huge, jagged hole. The rubble from whatever had broken though the wall lay scattered about the corridor; piles of huge, broken blocks strewn about like so many storm leaves.

Rin eyed the crate-tracks in the floor, which suddenly veered into the wall, specifically the hole. He took in the size of the hole, twice as tall as he was and roughly circular; it went entirely through a wall as thick as his forearm was long. His gaze traced the crumbling curve to where the rubble of the blast lay on his side of the hole, then followed the trail of debris back down the corridor the way he’d come.

Something big was hunting, he realized, swallowing against his suddenly dry throat. He shook his head to clear it. Whatever had been through was long gone. And, more importantly, had left here.

He turned his attention to the other side of the vertical crater. Water slowly dripped from somewhere on the other side, collecting in a little stream that ran alongside the wall, in the direction Rin had been walking. Poking his head in cautiously revealed that it wasn’t another corridor like he’d first suspected, but a large room.

Room might not be the best word, Rin thought as he tipped his head to look up towards the ceiling. But he couldn’t find it, not with his little light stone. However, he could, just barely, make out the tips of several very large stalactites. And the shatter remnants of those that had fallen under their own weight to the worn floor. He couldn’t see any far wall, and he didn’t like how the dripping water echoed in the…place. Cave might be the word.

Rin stepped back into the relative…wall, safety probably wasn’t the best word either. The corridor had, at least, known dangers…one known danger…how many unknown… Really, there could be anything in the Pyramid!

Rin purposefully let that thought die.

He took a deep breath and winced hin it stretched his sore side. Rolling his shoulders, he ventured a little farther down the hall. The cave was an option if he didn’t find anything else soon.

Fortunately, not much farther down the corridor, Rin found a single door. He sped up when the very edge of his little circle of light reflected off the polished surface.

In size, shape and material, the door was identical to the last door he’d seen in ever way. How am I supposed to tell them apart? He glanced over his shoulder into the darkness, then back at the door, studying its frame. Is it labeled?

It wasn’t labeled.

It’s the same style, at least. Maybe it goes somewhere similar? Shrugging, Rin slid the door open.

The light stone illuminated what was unmistakably a cavern wall that blended with the rough stone of the corridor in a slow, creeping build up of bubbly calcium. At least the ceiling was visibly in this room, a few small stalactites dripping from it. The sound of dripping water echoed from far away.

Rin took a few hesitant steps into the cavern and held up the light stone. He spun slowly in place, taking in the cavern walls and trying to judge if there was any way forward. Darkness stretched away to his left, along with the sound of trickling water. A small puddled filled a patch of worn stone.

I wonder if this is part of that other cave. Maybe its a whole sys-

A pair of glowing, yellow eyes opened in the darkness.

For a moment, Rin froze, caught in that predatory gaze. Six smaller pairs of red eyes swiveled towards him, and a rumbling growl shook him through to his bones. The creature stood up. Red eyes bobbled into place even with Rin’s own head as the nekhesa woke up.

Rin stumbled back through the door, his eyes still locked with the nekhesa’s. The door slid shut. And, for one singular sweet moment, he felt safe.

Then the roar echoed down the corridor towards him.

The hole in the wall!

The sound of claws on stone scored lines of terror through Rin as he scrambled backwards. His back hit the rough wall and he twisted sideways. Light careened chaotically across the walls and floor as he swung around and bolted.

Streaks of pain flared along his side, sparking tears as he ran. Rough stone collided with his forearms as Rin took the first sharp turn that presented itself.

Claws scarped along the stone as a grating yowl echoed up to him.

Teeth snapped audibly somewhere behind him, far too close for comfort.

A choked scream was all the response Rin’s lungs could allow. One little nick was all it would take; the venom was fast.

Need a door!

Then, as if spirits blessed his plea, his lightstone glinted off polished metal.

Hand pressed to his screaming side, Rin managed a desperate last burst of speed, closing the gap between him and the door to a pace.

Claws crunched into stone.

Just a few hands!

The whole corridor shook as a powerful body slammed into the ground, teeth snapping at prey just out of reach as Rin reached the door.

He wrenched it open and darted through, ducking low. It clattered closed behind him, and Rin pressed his back against it, a hand supporting his injured side.

A breath later something slammed into the door, jolting him back, heart in his throat. A muffled yowl sounded, but then nothing.

Rin was safe.

A ragged sigh tore from his lips, and he dashed away the tears of pain and fear that hung heavy on his eyelashes. Deep breaths, Rin, he reminded himself, taking such a breath. Immediately he winced and gingerly applied further pressure to his side. Maybe not that deep.

Contrary to his own advice, he took another handful of slow, meditative breaths, waiting out the pangs in his side after each. He let his head tip forward against the solid door, swalling a few times to ease a too-dry throat as his heart finally began to settle.

Hold on. He blinked and cocked his head at the wavering shadows along the wall. That’s firelight! He spun around, looking about for the source of flickering light.

Rin was in a long room, dimly lit with a dozen torches set high on the walls, just beneath the tiled ceiling. Basalt columns flanked the torches, framing a half-dozen marble statues that lined both long sides of the room.

The statues were tall, and masterfully worked into the shapes of men in loincloths and feathered headdresses, the traditional kind sages sometimes wore for festivals. Some of the large, long-fingers hands held spears or spiked clubs, while other hands were missing entirely. The eyes of the statures were set with gems as big as Rin’s fist, though a few of them were missing one or both.

Three waist-high pedestals, glittering like gold in the firelight, stood in a line in the center of the room. The gold motif continued down at the opposite side of the room where a large, circular archway of golden bricks led deeper into the Pyramid.

Between Rin and the archway was a floor littered with bones and broken marble.

I don’t like this. Rin gulped at the sight of the bones. There were femurs mixed in with what looked like the remains of hips, all scattered about with skulls. Human skulls.

Those are human bones! His breath came in sharper and quicker as his eyes skipped from one battered pile to another. Among the mess of yellowed bone, Rin began to pick out bodies. Bit of bone that still wore traces of matching rotted cloth and leather.

Slowly, every nerve still alight with adrenaline, Rin stepped deeper into the room. He slipped lightly between the old, broken bones, eyes darting around the room, constantly scanning for any movement. Particularly the bones. Even out under the sun, bones left without funeral rites had a tendency to…rise back up. In the Pyramid, where death man was even more common, skeletons could stand at any moment.

Though, now that Rin was looking, he saw that most of the bones were shattered in some way, as if under great force. In fact, nearly all of them were in pieces. His gaze pulled from a bashed in skull to the studded greatclub held by on the nearby statues. From there he glanced down to the bits of marble and the odd fist-sized gem mixed among the bones and rotted armor, and gulped.

The statues attacked, Rin realized with a sinking feeling. He began moving again, alert for whatever had triggered the violence. He was so preoccupied with his search that he almost tripped over the outstretched femur of a skeleton slumped against one of the central pedestals.

Not outstretched. There was no way that leg had been connected to the skeleton. Not with a gap of six hands between the leg and remnants of the hip. The skeleton’s battered skull rested in its lap. Along with a pistol.

Rin blinked down at the unusual weapon. It looked like it was made of brass and a yellow wood, but he couldn’t be sure. Firearms were masterclass artisan weapons, usually only own by the wealthy. Though, he supposed dungeon delvers would have to be wealthy. And crazy and stupid.

Rin didn’t have any training with a firearm. They were too new to Izzia, and still had to be imported from Solia. He had only ever seen one close up, and that was when he and Azti had gone snooping through Dad’s warehouse.

But Mum had trained him in every other weapon, focusing on ranged since that was Mum’s specialty. And it can’t be more difficult than throwing knives, he though hopefully, picking the weapon up. Uncertainly, Rin sighted down the short barrel. It took him an embarrassing amount of time to figure out how to open the thing to check the ammunition. He pointed ignore Nika’s voice in his head that told him that this was a sign he shouldn’t be messing with a firearm.

It turned out to be pointless anyway. He sighed as he stared into the pistol. Empty. Across from he stood a statue riddled with little round holes. Yeah, Rin thought wearily. That makes sense. He tucked the pistol into his sash anyways. If nothing else, he could throw it at the nekhesa.

He shifted, and the skeleton, no longer precariously balanced by the weight of the pistol, slowly slid down and sideways with the jarring sound of clattering bones. In the skeleton’s lap, beneath where the pistol had been, was a small leather bag, rotted with age. Something inside jingled when he shook it. For a brief moment, hope welled up in him. Then, like a soap bubbled from Mum’s washing, it popped after he pried open the tie. Instead of the lead pellets he was hoping for, the bag contained thick shavings of some yellow metal.

Gold? Rin upended the little bag onto the floor, scattering golden metal shavings all over his and the skeleton’s legs. Gold.

Shadows in the golden pedestal before him drew his gaze. Still half hidden behind the skeleton were deep gouges in the metal, as if from a sharp knife. Based on their depth, from what Rin could see, the pedestal was solid yellow metal – gold! – all the way through.

That’s the trap, Rin thought and swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. He gingerly eased up from his crouch, very carefully not touched any of the gold – blood and bone, that’s solid gold! – shaving new strewn about his feet. He didn’t make any sudden movements, eyes darting from statue to statue. None had moved. Yet.

He tiptoed out of the room, skirting bones and gold alike, and didn’t pause until he’d made it to the archway. Then, and only the, did he glance back.

Nothing had moved. Not the statues. Not the skeletons.

He briefly contemplated at least making a round of the room, if only to see if any of the other skeletons still had any gear. There had to have been twenty dungeon delvers in there, some of them had to have been at least reasonably equipped. But that might leave him open to an attack. By skeletons or statues. Better not chance it.

Rin stepped through the archway…and immediately fell to his knees, retching. His vision swam and blurred into a swirling mess of colors. That gash in his soul wrenched open anew as liquid fire poured in. His skin erupted with sweat even as every vein froze. Something flayed the flesh from his bones as something else used his brain as a festival gone, and it was all too much.

As suddenly as it had begun, it all stopped.

He was left lying on the cool stone floor, shivering hard while sweat dripped into his eyes. Every miniscule movement sent waves of agony through his chest. It took sheer stubbornness and several tries to push himself up, arms trembling under the strain. Struggling to suck down air, he stared back at the ring of dark blue-gray stone that had been hidden, embedded into the wall, on the other side of the circular archway.

The sigils along the ring glittered malevolently down at him.

It struck Rin that he could still see the gold pedestals in the previous room. So, he hadn’t been teleported this time. But it still felt like he’d been washing in a monsoon and hung out to dry.

Will that happen again? he wondered, even as he hissing out a long breath and tried to cradle his throbbing chest and side with the same arm. The smiley guard had said he need to step through three rings. Would it count if he went through this one again?

With that thought Rin pushed himself to standing and staggered back into the golden trap room. Nothing happened. He went back through. Nope. Still nothing. He sighed. It’d been worth a shot. Nothing for it but to keep on going.

The only other exit was another archway across the room from the ring, so he took it.

Two rings down. One to go.


Greetings once again! Yeah…I finally got around to polishing the beginning chapters (1 – 4). The good news is that I’m a lot happier with them! You may want to go reread the previous chapters since some of them went through drastic rewrites.

Sorry, but updates will probably be scattershot at best. This is definitely a work in progress.

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