Familiar rough-hewn stone walls awaited Rin on the other side of the fountain door. The darkness was thick as ever. Perhaps worse, because now Rin knew what lay in wait for him.
He skulked along the right side wall, keeping low to the ground to minimize whatever target he might make. He grasped his spider staff lightly in both hands, ready to swing if anything so much as twitched in the darkness.
His eyes finally adjusted to the gloom – what little they could with the light stone smothered in his pocket. His ears caught every scuff his bare feet made against the stone.
Ahead, he could just make out where a natural alcove had formed in the rough worked wall. He made it his next goal. With a shaky breath that seemed to echo chillingly down the hall, Rin scurried as silently as humanly possible towards his objective. Even taking care, his toes set tiny bits of shattered stone skittering across the flagstones, their collisions raising every hair on the back of his neck.
Too loud, too open, not safe! spun on loop through his mind. His breathing shifted, increasing in pace to match his frantic thoughts. Then his heart sped up to match his breathing, and his thoughts sped again at the thunderous pounding of his heart—
Rin pressed himself as far back into the shadows of the alcove as he could. Then he slapped a hand over his mouth and nose and forced himself to breath–long and deep–past the obstruction. His thoughts finally peeked back out from under the oppressive terror that had settled over him once he’d stepped out of the fountain room and found the door locked behind him.
“There is no going back,” Mum had told him.
A breeze stirred the air of the hall, and Rin froze, cocking his head towards it. A cloud of dust twisted around on the ground, pushed by the stray breeze. The scuffling sound it made raised birdbumps along Rin’s skin.
Most of the dust and tiny pebbles vanished down a blackened metal grate opposite Rin’s alcove. It was a hand and a half square and solidly set into the base of the stone wall.
At every echoing clang of stone on metal, Rin couldn’t not glance up and down the corridor, absolutely certain such a loud sound would call the nekhesa running.
In that case, don’t stop moving.
From his new vantage point, Rin could see the point up ahead where the wall he was following abruptly ended, engulfed by blackness. A turn? He stood on tiptoe for all the good it did him.
It was some kind of corner, at the very least. It looks like it just… ends. The more rational side of him argued that he’d been over that enough to know better. The part that flinched at even his own harsh breathing remained unconvinced.
With a deep breath that he was sure could have been heard leagues away, Rin slipped out of the alcove and slunk towards the corner.
Nika had once mentioned that the trick to solving a maze was to always go right, and you’d eventually find the way through. Well, Rin was no expert, but he was pretty sure that the Pyramid counted as a maze. So, ever since he’d exited the fountain room, he’d stuck to the right wall at every opportunity. He saw no reason to stop. He just needed to keep moving. It no longer mattered if a corner was a turn or an intersection, only if it had teeth hiding on the other side.
Speaking of which… Rin crouched down by the corner, low enough so, if his memory served him correctly, he would be below the nekhesa’s eyeline. Initially, at least.
Hearing anything over the pitter-pattering of his heart was difficult. Made more so by his heavy breathing. But he could definitely smell something. A damp, organic smell wafted from around the corner. Faint. Not nearby? But it was an odd enough scent that he made a mental note of it.
After all, he didn’t have a clear direction. He needed to find the third ring. But where was it? No idea. Following a random smell was at least better than wandering around lost.
Wandering bait. Rin shivered at the mental image of the nekhesa emerging from the gloom as he meandered without direction. Shoving the image away, he peeked one eye around the corner.
His heart stuttered to a halt at the large, darker-than-dark lump that lounged at the base of the left wall, not even a pace away. It stretched over a pace long and stood a good five hands high.
Rin didn’t move.
Neither did the lump.
Tension buzzed along his skin, every muscle taut with compressed energy, but Rin couldn’t move. He certainly couldn’t take his eyes off the lump. He couldn’t even breathe.
Had it twitched? Just then?! Had he imagined that?
Rin swallowed and inched back around the corner. He let the rough-hewn wall break his eye contact with the dark lump before pressing flat against it.
Okay. Oh… kay. Okayokayokayokayokay!
What was he supposed to do now? There was a reason no one hunted nekhesas!
Get a grip! Rin strangled his thoughts back down before the chaos could swallow up the last of his sense. It might not even be the nekhesa! He gulped and tightened his already pale knuckles on his spider leg. But it might be. The unknown shook him like a felizard with a fledgling in its jaws.
Rin had been lucky in his last two encounters with the nekhesa. He knew that. But he wasn’t stupid enough to think that luck would last. Not in the Pyramid. He had to be smart. He had to be careful.
But I’ll take some luck right about now too. Swallowing another too-loud breath, Rin edged his way past the corner.
The lump was still there. Was it closer?
His fingers blindly felt along the floor and grasped a small pebble, never taking his eyes off the darker splotch.
With a precision born of fear, Rin pelted the lump with the stone and darted back behind the corner.
Rin peeked back around the corner.
The lump was inert.
Not letting his guard down, Rin slowly edged closer to the lump. But only close enough to poke it with the clawed foot of his spider leg.
The claw sank into a strange, squishy… something. That doesn’t feel alive.
Curiosity compelling him, Rin tiptoed closer. Close enough to see the thin fibers rising from the lump to brush against the stone wall; too much like hair — fur — for his comfort.
The soft glow of the light stone revealed the lump to be just a pile of plant matter. Moss and mulch, oddly a vibrant green without sunlight, with the tiniest tendrils of vines poking up here and there. Nothing more.
The instantaneous relief was so powerful that it knocked Rin to his knees. He could have sat there forever, basking in the afterglow that had chased away some of the ever-present fear.
But any prolonged halt cost him time. The safe room had extended his time, but he would need food and water at some point.
There’s also the nekhesa… somewhere. Rin staunchly ignored that particularly hysterical thought. Instead, he scurried past the moss pile.
Another stretch of not-quite-cave corridor greeted him as he stepped fully around the corner. But his light glinted off another metal grate, this one a bit more polished than the previous. It set into the wall opposite the lumpy bush.
Rin squatted down to investigate it. Like the other grate, it was less than two hands square with gently rounded corners. Rin couldn’t make out what type of metal it was, but it glinted a bit like copper beneath the dark matter layer. A swipe of his thumb completely blackened the pad, as though he’d run it against leftover charcoal from the kitchen fire. And whatever metal it was, the bars were thick.
And stuck fast, he learned after a sharp yank on the bars. He wiped his hands on his trousers, smearing the black across them like spilled ink. The rustle of the cotton jerked his head up and around to stare owlishly down the hall.
Rin began breathing again. He really had to stop jumping at every little thing. He returned to his study of the grate. He shone his light through the bars, but it revealed nothing. Just more darkness.
Maybe it’s just a hole? Rin thought. Which, he supposed, made sense if it was a drain of some kind. It just seems… suspicious that it’s so big. If he could get the grate loose, he was fairly certain that he could squeeze inside.
Which isn’t necessarily a good idea, Nika’s voice muttered to him.
But it is an idea.
The breeze returned then, stronger than before. It whistled down the corridor to tug at Rin’s hair and clothes. The tails of his sash fluttered about him like a particularly sentient shadow.
Something rustled right behind him.
Rin jerked and twisted around, bringing his spider leg up in a block even as he pressed his back flush against the wall. His heart tried to escape out through his throat as he wildly scanned the corridor.
The vine tendrils trembled in the wind, rustling the moss and mulch they grew from. The movement of the greenery revealed its unusual origin: a skull devoid of any flesh and peppered with root bores. Its fellow bones rested deeper within the bush, revealed by the passing breeze.
Nikushoko! The carnivorous plant was supposed to be in swamps clogged with water and death mana. Not the Pyramid!
You forgot again, chuckled the dark voice at the back of Rin’s mind. Darkness, illusion, life and death, and water.
Rin swallowed and edged down the hall as quickly as he dared. He kept his back flat to the wall and his spider staff barred across him, ready to block. Saucer wide eyes remained locked on that innocuous greenery, so uncommon in the Pyramid.
The breeze drifted away, and all sound settled into silence once more. The plants fell back into place, harmless.
Rin didn’t stop moving backwards until he lost sight of the moss. Even then, it was only the sensation of the wall turning another corner that shifted his focus. With his eyes taken to watch ahead of him, his ears strained to catch the slightest hint of organic rustling behind him.
Teeth ahead, plants behind, Rin thought, perhaps a touch hysterically. Spirits, I hate it here. The fountain room felt long ago. Ages since his heart had been slow and steady. Unlike the very irregular thing beating its way out of the cage of his chest.
Shhh, Rin tried to comfort himself, fingers clenching reflexively around the spider’s barbed limb. I’ll get out of this. Just got to stay safe and sane. Two words had never seemed so far apart and unattainable. Shhh. Just keep moving.
With no other option, that’s what he did.
The floor began to tilt, imperceptibly at first, then steeper as Rin progressed. The ceiling followed at a slightly greater angle. The farther down Rin went, the more rounded the walls and ceiling became until they were one rough-hewn arc encircling his journey ever downwards.
What had once had been shattered but recognizable flagstone flooring degenerated into loose gravel and sand. The mixture stuck to his toes, scattering in a rush whenever he took another step.
I’m being buried alive. The thought bubbled up and burst at the top of Rin’s mind, and he gulped down the impulse to scream.
Another black grate surfaced from the shadows. Not only blackened like the others, it was also dusty. A fine white layer coated the black gunk, making the grate appear shiny, almost silvery. From a distance, at least.
Rin ignored the grate this time and walked on, the fingers of one hand trailing against the rightmost wall as a constant reminder of something solid in the darkness.
Once more, the wall fell away.
Once more, Rin crouched down as low as he could and peered around it.
This time the sight made him want to cry with relief.
It was the only one set into the left wall next to an otherwise dead end of collapsed rubble. The frame surrounding the door was gone, making the door appear too deep-set in the wall.
Rin bit his tongue and edged slowly around the corner. No sounds. Stay patient. He made himself keep his back pressed against the right wall when all he wanted to do was sprint for the door and throw it wide open. Instead he studied the surrounding shadows. Just in case.
Carefully, constantly scanning with all his senses for absolutely anything, Rin crossed the hall.
No hissing. No rustling. No weird smells.
Tentatively, he pulled on the door.
It slid open smoothly and without a sound.
Beyond the doorway was a vast, expansive cavern.
Darkness enshrouded nearly everything so deeply it seemed to consume the matter around it. The air whistled through the space, echoing off high ceilings and jagged outcroppings. A single pebble rolled across the solid stone floor and resounding echoes bounced back to Rin. He could also just make out the tinkling of a small stream.
That wasn’t to say the cavern was completely unlit.
Not so much cutting through but definitely splashing up against the darkness was a dull glow cast by a fluorescing purplish-green fungus. It littered the cave floor in low-lying patches of soft fuzz, particularly around the narrow stream that slithered over loose rocks before dipping down beneath the stone floor and out of sight.
From the high, high ceiling dangled glowing blue-white strings of…something. Something fine like hair but as phosphorescent as the fungus. Smaller, shorter clumps of the something fuzzed over nooks and crannies, lighting up the rocky ceiling like so many stars. Other, longer strands dangled down from stalactites, stretching as if to kiss the ground.
It was pretty. For a cave.
Cave. That rang a gong.
The nekhesa sleeps in a cave! The image came to Rin with such force that he nearly spun around and slammed the door closed behind him. But there’s nowhere else to go. He hadn’t found any other door. True, he had probably missed an alternative somewhere along the way. He could go back. Because I’m so good at backtracking.
Hesitantly, part of him screaming incoherently while another part tried to persuade his legs to bolt back the way he’d come, Rin stepped into the cavern. He moved slowly and carefully, trying to prevent his footsteps from echoing.
The ground was cold and smooth and all-of-a-piece. The waxy sensation of it was jarring as he tip-toed across the stone and felt it almost…cling to his every step.
Here and there, dotting the landscape, were tall, reaching stalagmites and the very tips of stalactites. Occasionally one of each would reach far enough to touch, resulting in a column of sickly gray, bubbly stone. Each finger of stone was damp as water dripped from somewhere up above. Each drop echoed through the massive space.
Cutting through it all was the stream. It was small and rather shallow. Not very impressive for someone who’d grown up on the muddy banks of the Inanishi. What it was, though, was incredibly clear. Rin could see the entire bottom of the little creek, every rock and smooth stone, with crystal clarity.
Is it also healing water?
Experimentally, he dipped a finger in.
Of course, the finger wasn’t injured.
Rin cupped a hand in the stream and sipped. It tasted like rain water, but chalky instead of earthy, and a little… tangy?
Where do you come from? He traced the stream back along the rocks and sloping cavern floor until it vanished into the ever-present darkness. Water didn’t just magically appear in the world. It came from rain, which then dripped down the mountains until it formed rivers and streams. So… if I follow this stream, will I find a way out?
A scraping sound behind him instantly set Rin’s heartbeat into a frenzy. He whirled around, bringing his spider staff up in a threatening stance.
There was nothing there. And the light stone combined with the glowing fungus ensured Rin could see quite far along the ground.
There’s a big rock pile over there. Maybe something shifted around? Rin eyed the precarious pile of boulders that loomed up deeper within the cavern. The rocks shifted all by themselves… right. With the strange shadows cast about by the equally strange light sources, he couldn’t tell for sure if something had moved or not.
Keep moving, he reminded himself, and set about doing just that. With no direction, Rin took a chance and followed the stream deeper into the cavern. If nothing else, I’ll have water.
He kept as close to the stream as he could. However, the glow fungus occasionally clustered around the stream. And since Rin didn’t really want to walk barefoot through a possibly poisonous fungus, he circled the glowing patches. The deeper he traveled into the cavern, the bigger yet more sporadic the glow fungus became.
The terrain also changed.
There were still lots of pointy, drippy stone and damp rock. But the further in he went, the more traces of ruined walls and random spots of cobbled flooring he found. Everything was broken and disjointed. The tallest wall he’d seen so far had only been hip high, and most of that could be attributed to the stalagmite that it was slowly morphing into. Most of what he found were the faintest remnants of a wall. A half hand of basing here. The outline of some worked stone over there. Things that more hinted at a building than were actually anything that could be considered proper architecture.
What happened? Had the cavern always been there and then something happened to destroy the hallways? Or were the remnants unfinished to begin with? Maybe an extension had been planned but never completed. If so, why?
Rin pulled up short at a hole that missed the stream by a finger width. It drilled down into a perfect sphere of air several hands across. Several other holes — all strangely spherical — connected to it, all boring deep through solid stone. Like a string of bubbles… like… mana explosions…
Rin swallowed against his tightening throat and backed carefully away. He glanced up and around. He couldn’t be sure, what with all the stalagmites and stalactites and random collapses, but the cavern’s overall shape seemed spherical now that he looked.
Only sages messed with mana explosions, the resulting blasts of raw energy that resulted when two opposite mana types annihilated each other. It didn’t happen often in Izzia. The only pairing Izzia had was life and death, and they just didn’t cross that much. But when they did, you got places like the Koki sinkhole: a perfect sphere of matter that was just gone.
But… sages prevent this stuff. Rin paused as he crossed the stream. He glanced back at the bubble holes. What happened here that they didn’t? Or… couldn’t?
Whatever happened, it happened a long time ago, he thought. It’s not important right now. I have to get out.
With a resigned sigh, Rin followed his own very-good-but-not-satisfactory advice. He crossed the stream to be safe from the holes and whatever structural instability they had caused and began to scale a hill of boulders. The stream cut through a tiny crack beneath the rock, splashing down in a white spray before settling. But it was too tiny for Rin to fit through, so he had to either climb over or skirt around.
Of course, he chose to climb rather than possibly lose his stream.
Bouldering over damp rocks with only dim, discolored light was tricky. Rin tied up his spider leg again to free both hands, but even then he wasn’t used to clambering over rocks. Trees, roots, and adobe walls, sure. But you didn’t find many true boulders in Izzia. Let alone a pile of them all cemented together with deposits from cave water. But Rin took his time, moving slowly and carefully.
At least, he thought he did.
He shifted his weight to his left leg as he stretched to reach a better handhold. His foot slipped. The shocked gasp cut from his throat when he slammed down against the rock face. Then he slid down. Dislodged pebbles cascaded past him as gravity threw him towards a drop only Kinzi knew how deep.
Fingernails scrabbled against shifting stone as Rin fell. His left hand caught a small stalagmite as he dropped past. He scrambled for purchase on the damp stone. Then his toes curled into a cleft, and he clung to that outcropping of stalagmite with all his strength.
The final pebbles bounced to the ground. The last echoes of his scream faded away. Rin realized that he’d squeezed his eyes shut at some point and pried them back open. Wet gray stone met his gaze. Another long instance passed before he realized he needed air. So he sucked in a lungful. Then he shivered and just clung to the rock face.
“Strength doesn’t last forever. Move.”
Rin shook Mum’s voice from his head. Not helpful! He was fine. He wasn’t cold or tired or weak. He just didn’t feel like letting go just yet.
Gradually, he pried up his fingers from their death grip on the stone. Extra carefully this time, he began again.
The back of his neck prickled. Rin stilled. “Your instincts exist for a reason,” Mum muttered. “Listen.”
Trying to avoid another fall, Rin tipped his head back and twisted.
The gray stone stretched out until it faded into black. The stream cut across it, glittering in the purplish-green light cast by the cave fungus.
But Rin could feel eyes on him. He was suddenly very aware of how exposed he was out in the open, up on the face of a cliff.
Get off the rock!
Rin swung back around and clambered up. His feet slipped, but he hauled himself up and over the top of the boulder stack.
He immediately ducked back down and held his breath, cursing every loosened pebble that echoed below him as it fell.
Once all was silent once more, he peeked back over the top, just to make sure he’d seen right.
At the base of the rocky slope, down by the stream, was the nekhesa. It crouched by the water’s edge, drinking.
What do I do?! Rin ducked back down and tried to breathe around the vibrating lump stuck in his throat masquerading as his heart. Blood and bloody bone, what do I do?!
He peeked back up.
The nekhesa continued to lap at the water, the regular slurping echoed around the space.
Rin took the moment to scan the landscape. A boulder here. A bit of wall there. And there, at the very edge of his vision, was a stretch of actual corridor.
If it was possible, Rin’s heartbeat redoubled. Maybe that leads back inside? Out of the cavern. Into closed spaces. But there might be a door. Not to mention that getting out of the nekhesa’s territory seemed to be a very good idea right then.
It was a convincing argument he’d made for himself.
He just needed to get there.
Rin stole another wide-eyed glance at the monster. Not even a snake head twitched in his direction.
He took the chance.
Crouched low to the ground, Rin tiptoed down the slope to the nearest stalagmite big enough to hide behind. Oh, this is a bad, bad, bad idea, Nika sang out in his head. But Rin didn’t stop moving. Not until he had safely ducked behind the stalagmite.
There, he took a moment to breathe. His heart thundered in his chest, but he could still make out the nekhesa’s slurping. It’s still drinking. How long does it drink for? It didn’t matter. He peeked around the stone protrusion to find his next hiding spot.
Once more, darting lightly over the rocks and down the slope, Rin scurried behind another stalagmite.
Down and cover. Down and cover. Meanwhile, the monster’s slurping echoed through his brain.
Until Rin reached the ground level with the stream.
Then the nekhesa raised its head, and Rin ducked down behind a bit of crumbled wall.
Don’t see me don’t see me don’t see me!
If it had seen him… Rin shoved the thought back. Hidden in the shadow of the stalagmite, he bit his lip and listened.
Claws scraped over stone in long, drawn out swipes, the grinding whine itching down Rin’s spine. He flinched hard as a series of cracks and clicks split the air. Then something heavy plopped to the ground. Daring a glance, Rin found the nekhesa sprawled by the stream. Muscles bulged in its neck as it twisted and slurped a thick, pink tongue over a golden furred shoulder. The rasp of feline tongue over hair itched into Rin’s ears. Was it… grooming itself?
Rin glanced from the beast to the next stalagmite. It wasn’t that far. He could make it. Probably.
Blood rushed in his ears, nearly drowning out the pounding of his heart.
Tentatively, Rin slid out from behind the stalagmite. Hunkering low to the ground because it felt vaguely safer, he slunk to the next spike of rock.
Once behind it, Rin pressed too-tense shoulders against the bubbled stone. A shuddering sigh escaped. He was still alive.
Don’t celebrate yet, he thought as he eyed the distance to the corridor. It was definitely nearer. Not by much, but a noticeable distance closer than before.
He took a shuddering breath and glanced over his shoulder at the nekhesa.
It faced away from him, preoccupied with licking its tail. A disturbingly gentle rumbling emanated from its massive form.
Go! Rin dashed to the next rock.
And so it went. Ever so slowly, in fits and starts, Rin made his way towards the corridor. The stalagmites grew closer and closer together, forming small clusters of short spikes of stone. Rin, crouching as he constantly was, disappeared into them.
But they also hid the nekhesa from easy view.
Every time the creature shifted, its claws rattled across the stone, and Rin froze wherever he was. He couldn’t even breathe until he heard it stop moving.
But now he was halfway there.
He slipped sideways between two spikes and crouched across the space to the next clump of stalagmites.
A pebble connected with his foot and skittered across the ground, bumping and clattering noisily along its fated path.
Rin dove for the stalagmites and curled into a tight ball of fear and anxiety.
The pebble fetched up against a limestone column with a clamorous crack that rebounded violently across the cavern.
I can’t hear anything… He scooted sideways just enough to look through a gap between two stalagmites. The white tip of a tail thumped against the ground, but he couldn’t make out anything else.
The rumbling purr continued, heedless of the sharp clack of stone on stone that still echoed through the cavern. As if the nekhesa was completely unconcerned.
Which, in turn, made Rin very concerned.
Rin pulled his knees under him, every muscle taut and primed for flight. But he forced himself to wait. This feels like such a trap.
For long moments, Rin watched the nekhesa’s tail. It flicked and swept across the ground, but didn’t seem angry. The creature remained oblivious.
With a shaky breath, Rin pulled himself together and crawled out of his hiding space and to the next clump of stalagmites.
Ahead of him was a ruined wall, parts of the tiled floor still intact.
Behind him, the nekhesa moved on to licking its scales. Long fangs scraped over serpentine heads. The contented rumbles continued.
Rin swallowed dryly. I want out, he whined. I want out, and I never want to come back.
But in order to get out, he had to focus. So, he quietly made his way to the ruined wall.
Back pressed against the damp bricks, Rin sucked in a lungful of air and shakily tucked a stray curl behind his ear. Then he glanced over the top of the wall, back towards the stream.
His heart stopped.
The nekhesa was nowhere in sight.
Dun dun DUN!