Chapter 12

What Choice

Rin staggered back as the door slid closed and collapsed in a crumpled heap on the floor. His heart pounded out on erratic, unsteady rhythm, and his breath came in sharp, uneven bursts. Every muscle trembled uncontrollably.

I’m alive, he thought. I’m alive. It didn’t feel real, though. He wrapped his arms around torso, trying to hold himself together and breathe at the same time.

He’d walked through the nekhesa’s domain. And then audaciously tailed the monster back out.

And he was still alive.

Something wet slid down over his lip and fell to the floor with a plop.

Enough crying! he snarled at himself. Warriors don’t cry. He roughly wiped his face with a hand. It came back lightly streaked with blood. His nose was bleeding again, apparently. As if he didn’t have enough on his mind.

Something scraped and rattled behind Rin. He scrambled around, shoving his back to the door at the same moment.

The skeletal remains of a warrior stood to one side of the room. Bits of leather and canvas armor still hung off its frame. As Rin stared, it raised a heavily chipped hunting scythe over its skull and lurched towards him.

Adrenaline surged through Rin’s body. He bolted upright, fumbling with the spider leg still knotted in his sash.

Weapon! Leg! he thought frantically, rolling to one side to put extra space between him and the death mana enriched bones jerking towards him.

As if drug on puppet strings connecting it to him, the skeleton spun after Rin and lunged.

Rin ducked behind a large bronze well set into the center of the room. He nearly tripped over a large pile of bones leaning against the well. As he skipped back, a second skull turned up towards him. One bony arm thrust up from the pile, a worn shortsword grasped in finger flanges.

Nope! One’s enough! Rin kicked at the skull before the bones could rise to its feet, knocking it clear of the spine. He wrangled his spider leg free and brought it down hard over the skull, shattering the calcium. The rest of the skeleton settled back into the pile with a clatter.

Air shifted behind him, and Rin moved on instinct. He hit the floor and rolled onto his back a moment before the scythe slammed into the wall of the well. The resulting sonorous clang reverberated through the skeleton, shifting all the tinier bones out of place.

The skeleton yanked at its weapon a few times, but it was stuck fast. Rin took the opportunity and scurried farther back, glancing around briefly.

The room was fuller than he had expected, lit with painted light sigils. There was the well in the center with its pile of bones, and dark red shelves lined the blue stone walls. Rin registered the etched sigils and ancient runes that littered every surface before his gaze snapped to the dark blue-gray ring set into the back wall.

The third ring!

He took a step towards it, but whipped around at a rushing clatter behind him.

Unable to free its blade, the first skeleton had commandeered its companion’s weapon. It lurched towards Rin with murderous purpose.

Rin slammed up the clawed foot of his spider staff, swinging it up and into the skeleton’s ribs, knocking a few loose.

The skeleton stumbled back, then careened forward with surprising speed. It struck at Rin’s head, thrusting the notched blade point first.

Rin ducked back and twisted sideways.

The skull rotated around to stare sightlessly at him as the body continued forward under the momentum of its strike. With a shudder at the unnatural motion, Rin hit the skull with his staff, knocking it clear of its spine.

The skull soared through the air off to the other side of the room. The body turned and slashed wildly with its knife.

Rin dodged back out of range, then thrust up and out with his staff, blocking the next strike. He twisted and jerked before the body could react, and the wrist snapped under the pressure.

Then he screamed as the body continued forward, careening into him and knocking them both down. Bones jabbed into his stomach and chest. Nearby, bone and stone clanged discordantly against the marble floor as the wrist flopped persistently.

Rin bashed his knee upward in a move that would incapacitate a living foe but only succeeded in bruising his knee. He struggled underneath the bones, screaming again until the breath was knocked from his lungs by a closed fist slamming into his side. Tiny finger bones inched along his shoulder towards his throat.

With a panicked twist and heave, Rin broke his spider staff free of the bones pinning it and slammed it repeatedly against the skeleton’s clavicle. The body rolled off him, pinning its wrist and sword. He scrambled out from under it, grabbing the edge of the well and pulling himself upright with it.

The body staggered onto one knee, brandishing its own femur in several directions before landing on Rin. It shuffled towards him.

A blur of bone white hurtled out from behind a vase. The skull slammed into Rin’s thigh, teeth chattering and slicing through the fabric.

With a panicked yelp, Rin shook his pants leg viciously as the skeleton’s bedraggled body lumbered closer, swinging its latest weapon menacingly.

Rin grabbed the pistol from his sash and chucked it at the skeleton. He dodged around the well, still jerking the fabric trapped in bone jaws and whimpering. Blood welled up along stark white teeth.

The pistol hit the body’s cracked clavicle and clattered down into its ribs. The jolting and snapping of bones brought the body up short. Confused, it twisted and turned before raising its arm, foot in hand, to rummage in its chest.

The skull somehow launched itself higher up Rin’s leg.

With a strangled squeak, Rin beat at the skull with his staff. It chattered malevolently against his leg. With a grimace, he slammed his hip into the side of the well, shattering the skull.

Lifeless bones tumbled to the ground, immobile once more.

Rin slumped against the well, breathing hard. That… wasn’t too bad. He choked back another cry at the sight of the jaws still clamped to his leg. He yanked the jaw off and threw it across the room with a shiver, then picked out the bone shards from his torn and bleeding thigh.

As he cleaned up, he eyed the bones still piled against the outer wall of the well. They hadn’t risen up… yet.

He took a deep breath. He took another after the shaky exhale of the first. Slowly his heart rate descended back down to something approaching normal.

With a wince, he limped the few steps to the still motionless pile of bones. If it’s a trap, I just want it sprung. And if it’s not, I want their stuff.

He methodically smashed every skull he came across. More than a few were disturbingly small. Closer to his own. Don’t think about it, he thought. They’re just… don’t think about it.

That done, Rin huffed out a breathy sigh and rolled his shoulders. Then he eased down to his knees and picked through the pile. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice and just leave whatever useful gear they might have had.

That’s… a lot of bones, he thought, his stomach clenching unpleasantly. Why?

Sure, some people died in the Pyramid. He knew that. Aapo… He shoved the thought away.

But all in the same exact place? In the exact same room? A room that just happened to contain the third ring?

Gingerly, Rin disengaged from the jumbled mess and eased away. He studied the bones, then the well they haphazardly heaped against. Water to rival the murkiness of the muddy Inanishi filled the well, almost milky and undisturbed for spirits knew how long. As with everything else in the room, the rim of the well bore a ring of runes etched into its surface. He leaned over the bones to read it.

Lay down your head and join the dead.

Rin took a careful step back. Then he took two more. Because that’s not ominous at all.

He glanced up and found the third ring judging him from where it stood against the back wall. Thank the spirits! He rushed around the well to the ring, but slowed upon closing the distance.

The ring wasn’t just set against the back wall. It was embedded into it.

Rin hesitantly stretched out his fingers to the surface, brushing smoothly from ring to solid blue brick without encountering anything so mundane as a seam. Experimentally, he pressed against the bricks inside the ring with hands, then arms, then torso.

Nothing happened.

He slammed his fist against the brickwork and dropped his forehead to the stone.

That’s not fair. What am I supposed to do with this?

Here he was. At the last ring. And it was blocked up!

It’s not fair! His other fist drove into the brick. Pain flared across his newly bruised knuckles.

Rin spun and glared around the room. There’s a trick here, somewhere. He ignored the doubting little voice that whispered there wasn’t. There’s got to be.

And if he could just find it… then he could go home. He swiped his sleeve across his eyes and nose and shook out his arms and wrists.

The bronze of the well gleamed in the arcane lights. It was certainly a central fixture. Rin approached it cautiously. There was more script on this side of the well.

Wake the gate and find your fate.

Rin felt his shoulders sag. Well, that’s even more confusing.

Wait, actually… He glanced over his shoulder at the giant ring. Is… Could that be the gate? It was big, but round. But one of the rings had teleported him elsewhere. He looked back down at the inscription. Wake the gate… He looked back at the ring. Is it asleep?

He approached the ring and tentatively pressed his hands flat against the blue-gray material. It was cool to the touch. Smooth. And just as mysterious as the first one he’d seen.

Rin huffed.

Then he investigated the ring, every hand of it. He fingered every raised edge and every sigil. He pressed his ear to it and listened for any kind of mechanism contained within. He examined every bit of both the exterior and interior rings, at least those parts of it he could reach. He kicked it a few times too.

Finally, Rin took a step back. Then a few more to get the entire ring in his view. One more pressed the low of his back to the well. One hand wiped the sweat collecting under his fringe, the other propped itself on his hip.

What am I missing? Rin considered the ring. There had to be something. There couldn’t be a puzzle without a solution. Probably.

His gaze drew to the other side of the well, where the bone pile rested. “Lay down your head and join the dead,” the inscription had read. It sounded like a threat. Or… Rin circled the well to the bone inscription.

Or a choice.

“Wake the gate and find your fate, OR Lay down your head and join the dead.”

Either solve the puzzle… or die. His chest constricted, and he gasped air into leaden lungs. What killed them? Rin shook his head to clear it, then bent over the well. There had to be some clue here.

The dark water revealed nothing. Not so much as a ripple broke its placid surface. He couldn’t tell how deep it went. Or if anything lay just beneath the surface.

Rin pulled back, suddenly conscious of just how far he’d leaned over. A glint, half-hidden under the inner lip of the well, caught his eye. It was a chain, maybe silver, the end hooked into the bronze of the well while the rest dangled down into the water.

Brow furrowed, he tugged it up. And up. And up. Hand over hand, flicking milky, filmy droplets from his fingers, Rin drew up the surprisingly light chain. Until the end broke through the surface.

A ladle? Rin let it spin on the end of its chain as he examined it. Like the chain, it was small and light and possibly silver. Big enough to hold a mouthful or two. A cramped line of script was engraved along the handle.

Poison pressed, you join the rest. The line ended in a sigil Rin knew well: death.

With a cry of alarm, he dropped the ladle and chain. He wiped his fingers vigorously against his pants. Poison! He glanced down at the bile of bones, which sat in line with where the chain attached to the rim. You poisoned yourselves? Why?!

He scrubbed his hands against his clothes again, overly aware of the grimy sensation the water — poison — had left against his skin. They drank it, he thought, half incredulous, half to comfort himself. The ladle meant it wasn’t contact based. They had to have drank it. As long as he didn’t drink it, he was safe. Hopefully.

He deliberately turned back to the ring, shivering at his latest discovery. Mum always said poison was a last resort. Something to carry in case a mission went very, very wrong. Not… whatever this was.

He shook his head and refocused. He had to solve the puzzle and get out.

Wait. There was something there. Something about that thought. He breathed deeply, held it for a count of two, before slowly breathing out. There it was. Out.

He approached the door and jiggled the opening latch. It doesn’t feel locked. Of course, he might as well be locked in, with the nekhesa right outside.


Rin glanced back at the bones and their chosen resting place. How many others had been chased into this room and faced this choice? Painful death blocking the only exit, an unusable ring, and promised oblivion?

From that pile of bones: many.

Was Aapo among them?

Breath stilled in Rin’s lungs. He stumbled forward, pulled towards those too small skulls. The crunch of bone echoed through his mind, accompanied by the jolt of the impact between his hands. Oh spirits, I smashed him!

Aapo was so smart and so brave. He’d chosen this, the Pyramid. To be the first Khet mage. He’d studied so hard just to know what he was doing. He’d chosen it.

Would he… did he… give up? Here? Right at the third ring?

Rin whirled to the ring, frantically searching for something, anything.

If Aapo hadn’t been able to solve it… what chance did Rin have?

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