Chapter 8

Escalation

As he explored the other hidden rooms, Rin found himself much more subdued than he had begun. He barely ducked into any other rooms, giving each a mere cursory glance before moving on.

He’d warred with himself over taking anything from the stone chest, but practicality had won. The girl was dead. By the Pyramid or age, it didn’t matter. She was dead. Rin wasn’t.

Not yet, at least.

So, a yellow not-sari went over Rin’s head and wrapped around his waist. It wasn’t much, but another layer of clothing was another layer of some kind of protection. He tied down the extra fabric with his sash before securing the empty firearm at his hip. Just in case.

The doll Rin had reverently re-wrapped and packed back into the chest with everything else. Then he had spent several minutes staring at the collection of personal belongings, wondering if asking Kinzi to keep the ancient girl safe was a waste of a prayer.

Rin peeked into yet another tiny room. His gaze flicked over a partially collapsed desk to the desiccated pair of sandals under it. Sandals. As if whoever had used this room had meant to come right back but never had.

People lived here.

The statement still shocked him. But the realization had given him new insight into the area.

This was probably a dormitory. His first thought had been a barracks, but nothing in the little rooms hinted at anything remotely warrior-like or militaristic. But there were scrolls and parchment and ink and little desks for brushwork, along with bed rolls. And, of course, there was the massive mosaic, which added to the scholarly atmosphere.

A hall of sages? was his second thought.

In Izzia, warriors held a high status in society, second only to the ruling caste. In a region where even the plants wanted a bite out of you, those that fought — and survived — were well-respected.

Sages were a different caste entirely, but no less respected. Scholars, shamans and healers were all sages; people that studied and knew things, like healing or history or magic.

Unlike the other castes, sagehood wasn’t passed down through families. Well, it could be. Mami Kaira’s mother was a healer, and that was how Mami had learned. But sages were usually apprenticed very young and sent to one of the city-states to study and live with other potential sages. Shima happened to be one such city-state.

So…sages trained here. Even girls could be sages, usually healers. Maybe that’s what she was doing here, Rin thought, mind wandering back to the ancient girl and her doll. I wonder if she finished her apprenticeship.

You’re sap sucking again, muttered Azti’s voice in his head. He huffed out an exasperated sigh, shoulders slumping back. He continued down the hall, pulling braziers out of place along the way.

As Rin progressed, the hidden room grew. They approached a pace, then two paces, square. The braziers sat further and further apart, decreasing in number until large sections of hallway were enshrouded in black. A blackness only broken by Rin’s little light stone.

The mosaic now depicted some kind of city with blue-gray walls and gardens everywhere. In the background, a fully constructed Pyramid towered over everything else. The inscriptions along the city walls and obelisks looked like old Izzian but read as absolute gibberish.

Something about pools… and dryness… maybe dry lakes? Reflections… and… plantains? Clearly Rin hadn’t read that right.

The grime had been cleared from the inscriptions, and a long chisel and a wide brush lay on the floor beneath the mosaic. A muddy boot print covered both tools. It looked fresh.

A dungeon delver! Rin’s head swiveled around. It was rare to encounter anyone else in a Dungeon, but not impossible. Sometimes Questers ran into each other.

On the other side of the wide hall, a lone brazier sat beside a revealed door. Its twin lay several hands away, dented and unlit.

Rin ducked down low to the floor and moved as quietly as he could. His blood pounded in his eyes. Without taking his eyes off the open doorway, he scuttled in a wide arc towards the toppled brazier. He set his fingertips against it. Cold. And dirty. Another muddy boot print streaked the metal frame. It had long dried and gone flaky, but wasn’t dusty enough to have happened years ago. Maybe a few days. Possibly a week. Definitely not the last few hours.

Rin let out a silent sigh and stood up. The Pyramid was getting to him. Shaking his head, he made for the open doorway. He approached it from the side. Just in case.

Peaking around the doorframe with his light stone raised, Rin found a narrow hallway. It lacked all the ornamentation of the mosaic corridor, and the only light came from his stone.

He glanced between the dark hall and farther down the mosaic hall. He could keep going and, if he found no other exit, he could double back to this one. Or he could just take the darkened hallway now.

His rumbling stomach made the choice for him. Dark path it is.


The walls were sturdy, well-formed bricks, not rough-hewn stone, but Rin still caught himself listening for hissing or sharp claws as he made his way down the narrow hall. It might have been the uncovered walls. It might have been the darkness. It might have been the way even his breathing seemed to echo in that place. Whatever it was, it set Rin on edge.

It didn’t help that the light of the mosaic hallway quickly fell away, and Rin was left with only his light stone once more.

Alone in the dark. Somehow, he always wound up back in the dark. Only this time it was of his own volition.

Gradually, the hall sloped up until Rin was hiking along quite a bit of an incline. So focused on putting one foot in front of the other, he tripped and nearly fell when he encountered the first of the steps, half buried in dirt and crumbled brick as they were. Upon glancing up, he found himself at the beginning of a staircase that jutted up from the incline. With nowhere else to go, he shifted his grip on his spider leg and started climbing.

It turned out that climbing steep stairs wasn’t all that much better than climbing a steep, unfinished slope.

Hunger and exhaustion found Rin resting against the wall. Exhaustion slid him down the wall to slump on the ground. Hunger forced him back up and moving once more, searching for some way out. Or food. Whichever came first, Rin wasn’t picky.

Wrapped in the thoughts of roasted beans and honey buns and fried fish, Rin nearly ran right into the end of the staircase. Smooth metal slid across the tips of his fingers and dimly reflected the glow of his light stone.

A door!

Rin twisted the latch.

The door didn’t budge.

He twisted the latch the other way.

The door didn’t budge.

He twisted the first way again, yanking and forcing the opening gear to rotate. The door ground in its groove, opening the barest crack in the darkness with a rattling scrape.

Warmth flooded the space, soaking deep into Rin’s bones, and he pressed closer to the opening. He shook in surprise and relief, basking in the heat. He hadn’t even realized how cold he’d become.

He pried his eyes back open and took in the warm glow emanating from the next room. He couldn’t make out much more beyond that. So, he squeezed his fingers into the gap between the door and frame and yanked. The squeal of metal on stone went straight through his bones and set his teeth on edge. But a few good yanks widened the gap to a hand. Not quite enough for Rin to squeeze through, but more than enough to see.

The room sounded large, but Rin could only see the wall just before him. Or rather, the pile of rubble from a long ago structural collapse. Rocks and shattered brick blocked what might have been an impressive archway, still glittering gold here and there where the paint hadn’t flaked away entirely. The walls surrounding the blocked arch, although streaked with mud and soot, reminded Rin of the mosaic hallway.

An orange glow cast from somewhere to the right of Rin illuminated a large rock at the base of the rubble. Scrawled across it at a variety of angles were a handful of runes. Rin couldn’t make out most of them, and the ones he could he didn’t recognize.

Except the central carving. It was a curling, twisting rune with one flourish that swooped up and around in a semicircle. A sharp downward stroke slashed through the whole thing to form a cat’s eye and snake’s fang.

That’s Kinzi’s mark. Rin blinked, rubbed his eyes, then looked again. That’s definitely Kinzi’s mark!

Okay. He leaned against the door frame for a moment’s rest and to gather his thoughts. With his patron spirit’s mark before him, he now wasn’t quite sure what to prepare for.

Kinzi watches the barrier between life and death. The old saying combined with Her mark lit by some fiery glow sent shivers down Rin’s spine.

He eyed the mark again. Why are you here? Sure, Kinzi was one of the old spirits, but it seemed odd that he’d seen two depictions of Her. Mum hadn’t mentioned any sighting of Her anywhere during her Questing. So what does it mean?

On one hand, Kinzi’s mark meant the area was free of undead. Probably. That was what shamans and elders said, at least. On the other, it could be a warning that death lay ahead.

Or maybe it’s a safe area? The thought perked Rin up before he ruthlessly squashed it. Mum had said that safe rooms were rare. He shifted the spider-leg-turned-staff in his grip before pressing against the door gap and listening.

He made out a soft, bubbling sound. Nothing else.

No hissing. No chittering. No stomping. Hopefully, that meant no monsters.

With another heave and grunt of effort, Rin shoved open the rusty door a bit more. When nothing came charging towards him, drawn by the sound, he squeezed through the gap. It was a tight fit, and his spider leg staff needed finagling to get through, but Rin finally found himself on the other side.

Now, for a proper look around.

Rin turned towards the light source. And promptly froze.

The source of the light couldn’t have frozen anything if it had tried. Because it was a giant pool of lava.

The room was rectangular, long and wide and a definitely regular room shape. It had an impressively vaulted ceiling, and a floor cobbled in hexagonal basalt tiles. The walls were seamless white stone streaked with soot and cracked here and there from age and heat. All-in-all, it was a pretty standard room for the Pyramid.

There was just… a lava lake… in the middle of it.

Blackened stone pillars rose from the bubbling lava. None of them actually held up the ceiling, but rather stopped without ceremony at varying heights, capped only with small platforms. A few pillars still had the remnants of crumbling supports jutting out from their tops; all that remained of whatever structure they had once held up.

On the far side of the room, across the lava lake, was a raised floor with another door. The only other door. The door out. It was three paces above Rin’s head.

The spider staff clattered to the tiles as Rin slumped against the wall. How am I supposed to get there?! he thought incredulously, wide eyes staring out over the lava. Two torches glimmered to either side of the far door, illuminating a large pile of crumpled fabric or leather off to one side.

Rin sat down hard, scrubbing a hand over his face. After a moment, he glanced back up over the lake. He bit his knuckle to keep from screaming.

I could go back.

Back down the staircase.

And the dark hall.

Then the mosaic hall.

And hope to find some other way forward.

He didn’t even know if this was a way forward. That door could be locked for all he knew.

“Forwards, Rin. There is no going back.” Mum’s crooked smile was gentle in his memory, but her tone was firm.

He dropped his gaze to the stone floor and swiped both hands back over his hair, smearing sweat with dust. Fingers clamped in his curls, he tilted his head back up. Gaze flitted from the lip of the lava lake to the nearest pillar to the door and back again.

I hate this!

The lava hissed and popped.

The pillars gleamed in the orange glow.

Rin eyed the pillar nearest him, only a few hands from solid ground and not too much taller. I might be able to jump that. Dark eyes squinted as he considered the thought.

A second pillar rose a pace from the first and a hand or two higher. Then another a bit higher, and another pace from that one.

Rin’s gaze bounced from pillar to pillar across the right side of the room. Then back down the left side. He straightened and rubbed his chin. A few of the pillars along the left side were more decayed, making some vertical jumps more difficult. But the right arc of pillars were, more or less, intact.

I might be able to do this! He shoved himself up.

Then slumped right back down as he realized another problem.

He needed to traverse a bunch of stone pillars set into boiling lava. And he was barefoot. The groan of frustration bubbled up and tore out of his throat.

So, not only do I need to be careful, I also need to be quick. Rin released the sudden snap of anger with a fist slammed down onto the tiled floor. Because he couldn’t immediately feel the pain of the impact he did it again, just for the hell of it. With a huff and a groan, he set to tearing the not-sari into wide strips and wrapping his feet and hands.

Should’ve taken those sandals in that dormitory area, he berated himself. Even though the sandals had been falling apart, and, besides, he needed something form-fitting enough that it wouldn’t slide around while he moved. That could lead to falling.

The visceral thought of falling into the lava made Rin shudder and bile rise in his throat. He forced it down and focused on the crumbling mortar between two bricks until he felt like he wasn’t about to collapse. It took longer than he cared to admit, especially as the fiery glow kept dragging his eyes towards it.

What even is this place? His eyes skimmed over the two arcs of pillars, for the moment avoiding the lava below. The line of pillars curved towards the outer walls, then midway curved back inwards, converging on that high door.

Those pillars had clearly held something up at one point. But whatever that was had long disintegrated. Maybe stairs? Rin tried to picture a big, sweeping staircase like the ones in the palace. He huffed, then immediately coughed as the too-hot air caught in his throat. His next breath was shallower but less searing.

Eventually, limbs wrapped and spider leg securely tied in his sash, Rin stood up and faced the lava lake. Ignoring the sensation of his stomach dropping to his knees, he considered the fiery obstacle course.

Then he stiffly marched towards the edge.

The liquid fire drew his gaze inextricably down to where it bubbled against the blackened tiles. The world tilted and spun before he yanked his face back up and away from boiling death. Big eyes found the first pillar, and Rin let out a rough breath. He sucked in another to replace it as he lined himself up with it.

He shook out his fingers and took a few steps back. Then a few more. Then a few more. Until his back pressed against the wall.

“Fear is the enemy,” Mum whispered from a dozen different lessons.

Rin swallowed hard and retraced the route with his eyes. He licked his too dry lips and swallowed again. Abyss. This won’t be easy.

When is it ever easy? a dark voice muttered from the depths of his mind.

It’s not supposed to be easy, he replied.

It’s easy for Nika. After all, Nika didn’t have to do a Questing. Lucky, lucky Nika.

With ruthless intent, Rin took that voice and shoved it into the darkest, most cramped metaphorical box he could find inside his head.

Then he charged forward.

At the very edge of the pool he jumped, pushing forward and up towards the pillar. For a singular moment, he was airborne with nothing between him and the fire and heat and very unpleasant, instant death.

Then he was atop the pillar, hot stone slamming into his feet. Impact and the sudden adrenaline rush brought him to his knees. Near-boiling air whooshed into his lungs as he gasped in, then coughed out. I made it!

Rin pushed himself up and recoiled with a wince as a hiss of steam gusted over his toes. He shifted uneasily on the pillar, heat washing over him as lava boiled not far below. Sweat already poured off him, making every limb slick.

Fast. Be fast and get out. Rin nodded to himself as he eyed the next pillar. He drew in another too-warm breath and jumped for it.

Standing jumps were harder than running jumps. They required more power in the legs than reliance on momentum.

And the pillar was a pace away.

Rin dropped past the pillar, screaming. Hands scrabbled for purchase along the sooty stone column and slid down.

Fingers found a protruding metal rod and instinctively closed. Heat seared through mere flesh, and Rin could feel it melt.

His shoulder wrenched then went numb as he jolted out of freefall. But there wasn’t any pain. Oh, that’s definitely not good!

He hung there for an infinite heartbeat by one hand, staring down at boiling, too-hot, too-close, absolute death!

I’m dead.

Fear tore through the numbness. He twisted and kicked, swinging against the body of the pillar. His flailing hand found the capstone, and he hauled himself over and onto it.

Panting and crying and not-dead-yet, he stared down at the raw, red welt that now slashed across his right palm. Closing it crunched skin like dead leaves.

On the other side of the room something clunked into place.

The lava began to rise.

Rin sat there, rooted with fear, staring down at the rising liquid fire. Sweat poured off him only to immediately steam. Distance seemed to stretch and waver. Or maybe that was the heat.

“Keep moving,” Mum said from memory, voice even. “Maintain motion, maintain momentum. Or fall.”

Rin shuddered and snapped into motion. He launched himself at the next pillar. He caught the pillar cap this time and dragged himself atop it.

Just in time to see lava reach his previous pillar.

It churned around the column. Cooled black spots rose from where it made contact with the slightly cooler stone. Then it boiled up like a sentient spell, enveloping the very top of the platform, and gurgled out a contented hiss.

It continued to rise.

Keep going! Rin told himself, scrambling to his feet. Just keep going!

He jumped. His fingers grabbed the capstone’s edge as his chest slammed against the soot streaked body. Heat licked at his heels, and he struggled up, fear pumping adrenaline into straining muscles.

A brief glance back revealed he’d widened the gap. If only the slightest. Even as he watched, his lead shrank.

He jumped again.

And again.

Each time was a scramble to the edge of his current platform to leap and grab the next platform edge by his fingertips, slam into the pillar and heave himself up.

But each leap gave him back the tiniest of heights over rising death. Every pillar narrowed the gap between him and the exit door.

Rin’s gaze locked on that door. Halfway there. He swiped his hands over his face, wiping buckets of sweat which he shook off to the bubbling lava right below. Keep moving!

So he did.

A numb type of panic spread over his mind. All that existed was the rising lava and the next jump. Nothing before. Nothing after. Not even the door. Nothing else.

And then there was only one jump left.

Rin blinked, breathed shallowly and shoved back soaked curls, his elbow hitting a sticky spider leg. The lava bubbled a few hands under him, but the door was right there!

“I can do this, I can do this, I can do this!” he chanted under his breath, shaking sodden sleeves from his wrists and swallowing.

Rin leapt, ducking into a roll. Slick fingers slid across stone, then the rest of his weight crashed down. He fetched up against the far wall in a graceless heap. I made it. He blinked open dark eyes and grinned at the crumbling mortar above him. I made it!

“Hah!” He spun around and gestured victoriously at the conquered lava lake.

But it wasn’t there.

The pillars still stood, tall and slender, rising up from a basalt tiled floor. Strewn between and underneath them was the crumbled remnants of stone stairs.

But there was no lava.

Not so much as a heat waver.

What? Is… this a trick? Rin edged forward, carefully toeing the floor as he went, confusion scrunching his sweat-drenched face. He paused at the edge of the raised floor, wiping drying sweat from his brow. The pads of his fingers still stung from where he’d grabbed fire-licked metal.

But there was no mark. No burn scar to denote the area. Just a vague sense of over-stretched skin. Even that was fading.

It… was an illusion, Rin realized, eyes widening. He stumbled back towards the exit door, heading whipping about the room. Half of him worried the lava would return in an instant.

Illusion was a common mana type in the Pyramid. Rin’s uncle had illusion mana. He made pretty butterflies pour out of your ears.

Not… rising lava that felt real.

Rin clenched and unclenched the fingers that his mind screamed should be burnt. They still tingled. The skin felt… crunchy… too tight to stretch well.

But as he studied his fingers intently… there’s nothing there.

His gaze flicked from his hand to the floor below to the walls. His brain kept telling him that he was burned, was burning. That it was too hot to breathe even as dry-but-cool air flowed over his skin.

A pile of fabric on the floor caught his eye, and all his focus snapped to it with the full force of escalating panic.

It was a body. Fresh, no more than a few hours cold. A boy no older than Rin. Black eyes stared sightlessly at Rin from a small face. A single plait of cinnamon brown hair coiled along the ground beside the still form. His skin was too pale, highlighting the dark green bile mingled with blood that still slowly dribbled from one corner of his mouth.

Poison fumes? Rin’s gaze darted to the lava. But… of course, nothing was there. How’d he die? Then his breath stopped as another thought burbled up. Can illusions kill? Could an illusion of toxic fumes still convince the mind that it had died?

Rin stumbled back, heart stuttering, until he ran against the metal door. Spinning around, he scrambled for the latch, desperate to get out! He needed out! He needed air! He needed—

Click.

The door didn’t open.

But the floor did.


How’s that for a twist ending?

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