By sundown, Fudan's party had penetrated from the catacombs into the central cathedral. Their progress had been quick but not reckless, for they had paced themselves between each section, ambushing bands of patrolling Trolls while digging for treasure. In between the battles, the party recuperated just long enough to keep up the momentum.
Through each engagement, Petra took notes on how her cousin's unique physiology excelled against numerous foes rich in vitality. With her Chakram, Void Bolts, Seekers and the occasional Dark Tentacle, the Troll's regenerative qualities had been rendered null even as they fed Gwen's vital stores.
"This should impress the proctors and deter detractors," Petra observed. "Well done, cousin."
"We're not out of the Troll lair yet." Gwen replied with undisguised smugness. "Say that after we defeat the Arch-Hag and the chieftain."
Near the catacomb's centre, where the 'Hanan Pacha' awaited the party's plundering, the team's progress grounded to a halt.
"Hold up! My Gwen-senses are tingling," Fudan's vice-captain relayed an insensible Gwenism. "If we punch through this door right now, I am going to be in a world of hurt."
It was a curious prediction.
Gwen's bargain Divination lacked the capacity for foresight. Instead, her Gwen-tingles had been interpreted by Mayuree into five tiers. ONE implied, "this might hurt real bad," while FIVE represented, "I may die if I stand still and do nothing." Usually, Gwen's portents were ineffectual, as they only activated seconds prior to becoming mangled in exotic and exciting ways. As for their present predicament, the sorceress had made the call a second before Lulu Stone Shaped through a dormant gate.
"My apologies. I should have been using Scry and Arcane Eye." Petra produced a spell cube. "The fault is mine. Our risk level has been too low, and I've let my guard down."
Petra's remorse was well-founded, for the party had so far garnered considerable success, recovering no less than three golden idols placed in inert wards where the tunnels met. Two of the relics had been defaced, with the 'head' of Amaru removed. The third, uncovered when Lulan Shaped into a gateway, was a crude carving involving Inti riding a Cloud Puma. What was disconcerting, however, was that someone had indeed looted the place long before Fudan and Cuzco had arrived. At a prior shrine they had uncovered, the golden murals had been scraped clean. When Petra performed forensics on the damage, she noted that magic-tools such as the Stone Cutter's Cunning Blade had been used to remove the Glyphs wholesale.
"No, the responsibility lies with me." Tei shook his head. "The constant battle has dulled my senses too. As Captain, I should have been the one to intervene, not Gwen."
"How about we see if there's anything in there first?" Rene felt for Tei, who had been dragged along by Gwen's infectious enthusiasm.
"Arooo?" Astro looked at Buck.
"Woaroough?" Buck wagged its tail.
Ariel whined from its pocket dimension, comforting the alphas.
Presently, the party had reached the end of a section marked by tight tunnels opening into a larger chamber. At the end of the room, hewn from bedrock, laid the door Fudan had almost tunnelled through.
"Arcane Eye!" Petra crushed her nephrite cube, freeing Mayuree's favourite spell. "Give me a second to get adjusted. Double-vision is disorientating when you're not a Diviner."
After a minute fiddling with the spell's mechanics, Petra sent the eye through the wall. "HOLY—"
The Russian held her lips.
"What is it?"
"St Peter…" Petra murmured. "We found the temple's centre."
Silently, the rest of the team waited while Petra's invisible eye made the rounds. When she finished, the spell fizzled.
"Thank 'Inti' that the door is immobile," Petra said as she conjured a rough map using her crystals. "I wonder how the Trolls got in? Here's what we're up against…"
The final cavern was enormous, easily the size of an international duelling field and just as high. The cavern was roughly oval, with a sharp decline in where Fudan's party now situated, rising to almost fifty meters near its zenith. What was strange was that there was natural light refracting from above. Furthermore, there was a tiered mechanism akin to a reverse pyramid, in the midst of which a triangular crystal-cap dispensed a moon-like radiance. In a way, it reminded Fudan of the Geofront under Shanghai.
For Fudan's amateur historians, it made sense that the home of Mama Killa, the Moon-mother, should possess a "moon" lit sanctum.
"I don't think its moonlight," Petra corrected the party's hypotheses. "The illumination was reddish."
"What else could it be?" Gwen asked. "Something wrong with the light Glyphs? Fungi on the lens? Rusty scum water?"
Petra shrugged as she added more details to her model. "Don't know, but the Trolls are transfixed by this thing. There's something to the colour, I think. Also, they're brewing something foul."
"Dinner? Even Trolls gotta eat."
"The centre of the chamber holds a six-tier ziggurat." Petra pointed to the cavern's centre, where she constructed a pyramidal hill. There are Troll structures all over the place. Atop here is where I saw the Chieftain and the Arch-Hag. There's a bubbling cauldron, though for now, they're much more interested in the pink light."
Tei counted Petra's crude figurines.
"Thirty Warriors..." He grimaced. "And a Hag, an Arch Hag, the Chieftain, and four Shamans. TWO Brutalisers- plus a hot pot full of Mao knows what."
"I'll re-conjure the pack." Gwen immediately set about her work. "I feel Cali is about ready as well. Can we wait?"
"We'll wait as long as you need," Tei stated affirmatively. "There's no rush. Is Inti out of contact?"
Gwen checked her Message bangle. "I sense no signals other than our own."
"How about we collapse the cavern?" Rene butted in. "Why fight the Trolls when we can pick up the loot later?"
"I don't think Cuzco would like their religious site destroyed," Gwen intruded. "We'd be worse than the Trolls— hell, we'd be worse than the Spaniards. Also, what if the relics inside are delicate? I mean, a crystal skull isn't out of the question."
"Why a Crystal Skull?"
Gwen stopped herself from saying "Aliens" because not even Harrison Ford could save the fourth instalment from the critics.
"How about Cloud Kill? We have plenty of pyrite bars." Petra flashed her ring.
"The cloud shifts and may be moved, making it unpredictable," Tei shook his head. "The cavern is also too spacious for Rene to use Magma Wall, AND there's Shamans as well as Warriors, not to mention their leader. If just one of them knows how to manipulate the Cloud Kill with wind spells, we'll be caught up in it."
"How about the alternative? My Void dogs are immune to the effects of my Void cloud," Gwen offered another possibility. "And to my knowledge, the Void mass remains stationary. I can make a 'ring' around us if we want to keep the melee away."
Tei gave the strategy some thought. "How about Void Swarm? Or Conjure Elemental?"
"If I can sustain my magic, it could work." Gwen crossed her arms and hugged her chest. "Do Hags know how to Banish?"
"They shouldn't." Petra shook her head. "However, you'll be stationary while maintaining the swarm. If the Trolls start hammering you with projectiles, not even Tei can shield you. Moreover, what happens if we're cursed?"
Their vice-captain pursed her lips. The "Curse" had been terrifying. If only she possessed Sobel's all-consuming egg, Gwen lamented her lack of dedicated Void Spells. Sobel's magic possessed both an ironclad defence and a self-sustaining offence.
"Maelstrom?" Rene recalled their opening act. "The big one. Can't Gwen do two at once with Ariel?"
"Doubt the cavern can take it," Tei refuted the possibility. "How about this? Rene and I control the Warriors, Lulu goes after the Shamans. Gwen, you and Petra attempt to silence the Hags. One of you can open with a disabling spell, say an Ariel-fed Flash Bang..."
"Brutaliser first or Hag first?"
"Hags. I'll stun them with Hold Monster," Petra suggested. "Once we liquidate the curses, our chances improve. Most of us can fight the brutes head-on, but if we're blinded, we're sitting ducks. Get Cali to Consume them while they're held— its Naga form has multiple heads, right?"
"What abilities does the Arch-Hag possess?"
"More Curses?" Rene shivered.
"And other new tricks." Petra wasn't one to take their enemies lightly.
"Then I'll keep it quick," Gwen replied. Closing her eyes, she focused on her Conjuration Sigil. "Gogo, are you there?"
"Where's he gone?" she fumed. "He must be out of range. Maybe I can D-D out and get him real quick."
"Never mind Golos. It's too cramped to fly in there," Petra advised. Turning her intelligent eyes, she then affected a strange smile. "How about your one-eyed Shoggoth? It's now or never. If you're keen, I can draw the Mandala."
"There's no Divination signal for us to beg for permission," Gwen suppressed a smirk.
"So, we wait for Cali?" Lulan wetted her lips as she gazed at the mass of crystalline figures milling about in Petra's diorama, already planning the best routes.
"That or wait for Inti to pop in and start the fight," Rene snorted. "What the hell happened to those guys, anyway? We haven't seen or heard from them since early afternoon. Maybe they all died?"
"Woa!" Gwen shirked back from their crow-mouthed Magma Mage. "Knock on wood!"
Unfortunately, the temple was wholly wrought in stone.
"INTI! Cover me, Tupaq needs help!"
"CLOAK OF RADIANCE!" Inti set the Soul Eater aflame even as its wings grazed his forearm, threatening to turn the wound necrotic before the prince's Faith expelled the Negative Energy.
"Inti above!" Cuzco's captain grunted, suppressing the livid agony tearing at his flesh. Divergent from the searing pain of steel or fire, a Necrotic strike froze the blood and jarred the liver, engendering a simultaneous fever of the nervous system.
The Blood Harpy retreated.
"Mark of the Sun!" Inti's hands were a blur, firing a second spell even as he fought down both nausea and fatigue.
"KREEEAAAGH!" A brand appeared on the Soul Eater's torso. Before it could take a step further, the Glyph erupted, gouging a deep gash into the creature's abdomen, exposing its innards.
Bundles of intestines and festering organs, freed from the constraint of the Harpy's profaned form, polluted the sacred stones of Mama Killa's abode.
Inti was dismayed.
The Troll Slave had perished in two blows.
Comparatively, the well-fed Harpy made for a hardy combatant.
Glaring at Kusi with hatred filled eyes, the unbound slave chose to retreat.
"After it!" Musi twirled her daggers, then launched herself, transformed into a humanoid puma. "Sister, I'll recover its head for you! Your match hasn't ended! Fudan hasn't bested us yet!"
"Musi! Careful!" Kusi called out, though she knew there was no holding back her sister. When her precious relics flamed amazement with consumptive smoke and cinder, Kusi's heart had suddenly seized. After that, her Undead dolls had turned. That was when Tupaq took a blow meant for herself.
"Is Tupaq going to be alright?" The corner of Inti's eyes twitched. "Mallqu?"
"I… I am alright," a bloodless Tupaq gurgled from the floor, coughing blood from his corrupted lungs. "G-give me time to rest… More healing!"
"Remain silent and keep your Bear-form active." the unfazed Mallqu activated a flesh-stitching incantation. "Sir Tupaq, my recommendation is that you return to Cuzco."
"No! I FIGHT… cough!" Tupaq's eyes rolled toward the ceiling.
"Tupaq, calm yourself. You're not going to die yet," Inti placed a hand on Tupaq's head so that he could circulate a gentle stream of Faith energy from his depleted relics. "By the sun, we shall persevere, brother."
At his lord's assurance, the giant's breath finally returned to a gentle cadence.
"I'll need some time to fix Sir Tupaq." Mallqu looked to where the Harpy had fled. "But first, I need Musi. She needs to cut away the necrotic tissue with her Flesh Borers so that I can regrow…"
Tupaq's wound cauterised at once, cleansed of the embedded necrotic energy.
"Musi!" Inti's voice grew hoarse. Left alive, the Soul Eater would continue to be a menace, but his Faith Magic countered the servants of the Shaur. For now, it was the health of his best friend that concerned him.
Instead, what answered him was a clattering din, followed by an explosion of animal noises.
"Huacas' bloo—" Inti held back a curse. Losing his cool wouldn't help.
Different to Fudan's Gate of the Moon, the Gate of the Sun lead to the upper sanctum of Mama Killa's abode. When they had passed the Chamber of Radiance earlier, Inti saw that the abandoned sanctum had been left unmolested. Though the place was ankle-deep in moss and fungi, Cuzco's prince knew that there should exist a network of crystals marked with ancient Glyphs below the vegetation. There, the moonlight collected by the temple's exterior could be refracted into the 'underworld', illuminating the inverse sanctum.
"Kusi, you stay here with Tupaq and Mallqu." Inti materialised a mana injector. "I'll retrieve her."
His reserves reached just half.
Unfazed, Inti injected another, then drunk a potion of Heroism to dispel his mental and physical fatigue. In the alchemical aftermath, the prince of Cuzco now brimmed with power, though his future injections now suffered from radically reduced efficacy.
Kusi nodded, then produced her last totem, this one possessing the face of an old Shaman of her tribe. With it, she could conjure souls friendly to her bloodline to defend the wounded.
"Lord Inti, I know you're upset, but please understand what has happened isn't my fault." Kusi gazed up at the glowing form of her future husband. "As Musi said, there was an intruder, more than likely— it was Fudan..."
Before she could finish, Inti Blinked.
When Inti opened his eyes once more, he wished he hadn't.
In the Sanctum of the Sun, the cold air of the exterior had mingled with the odour of panicking, frothing, maddened Magical Beasts rioting against the walls in general mayhem. From what he could see, the fauna of the forest had broken through the central structure's crystalline pinnacle, a magically warded segment at the ziggurat's apex.
"Inti! Help me!"
In one corner, Musi was fighting for her life, buried under tooth and nail.
In another corner, the Soul Eater scythed through the tide of screeching minions, turning itself crimson from head to toe. From what Inti could see, the Essence provided by the dying beasts had elevated its power to the next tier.
"KREEEE!" The Blood Slave howled at Inti. The creature's face had also regenerated, once again assuming the striking visage it once possessed in life. However, despite its restored beauty, the avian's glare remained full of madness, its eyes twin pools of depthless darkness.
Crimson swirls of stolen Essence suffused the Soul Eater as it deeply drank the draught of life.
Above the combatants, a blood-red moon glowered, turning Amazonia's emerald sea incarnadine.
The prince's heart seized.
A Blood Moon?
If so, then understandably, that was why the monsters were crazed.
But a Blood Moon was something his father, not to mention Uncle Amaru, should have predicted if not outright prophesied.
A dozen hypothesises raced through Inti's becalmed mind. The prince lacked the acumen of the Inca Sapa and the wisdom of the Tower Master, but even he knew that higher forces were now in play.
If so— particularly so— the proctors would not intervene.
A slow calm circulated through Inti's mana conduits.
He had to survive.
If he could drag his team back to Cuzco, things could be salvaged.
The weight of his kingdom, the crushing responsibility of Tawantinsuyu, now threatened to overthrow Inti, son of the Sun. His father was right, he should have left Tica with a child before he ventured into Amazonia.
Bathed in the Blood Moon, Inti wondered if the IIUC even mattered.
Dead heroes led no nations just as barren thrones engendered no dynasties.
"Inti!" Musi's cries grew desperate.
Inti began to chant; there was no rush.
The agony would teach Musi the importance of following orders.
"RADIANT BLESSING!" Inti invoked his unique magic. Instantly, the chamber flooded with his latent energies, searing the rampaging tide of flailing fauna, charring the Soul Eater's feathers and Musi's fur. Around and above them, the moss, the vegetation and the smothering mould burned away at once, utterly incinerated by the spell's orange light.
"ARRRRGH!" Musi howled.
"KREEAAA!" The Harpy withered.
PING! P-PING! PI-P-PING! The floor began to turn.
To Inti's complete surprise, the Sanctum of the Sun came to life as its murals were bathed in a blood-pink effulgence.
Ancient Glyphs long starved of moonlight, thirsty for the magical power of radiance, fired up one by one, fuelled by ancient mandalas no longer dormant.
Inti's eyes widened when the floor began to shake. Slotted stone long at rest suddenly split and cracked, bringing the temple's ancient designs to life.
"By Viracocha!" The prince was in awe as long-forgotten puzzle-pieces clicked into place; both physically and in the recess of his mind. "This... this is the Rite of Dusk and Dawn!"
The proctors stared slack-jawed at the glowing projection.
"So that's how the damned things work…" Auberon felt suddenly enlightened.
On one screen, from a bird's eye view, the examiners observed the protruding temple's slow and ponderous movements as the pyramidal cap lowered itself.
"What of our Void sorceress?"
Their eyes shifted to Fudan's vid-cast.
The students from Shanghai were being tossed about like peanuts in a can, bouncing against the jittering walls of their tunnel. Dogs and Mages flew and flung as "Amaru turned in his sleep".
Abruptly and without warning, the stone door which they had failed to breach activated, exposing the team to an equally shocked brigade of Trolls.
Before either party could act, from the cavern's zenith, a platform descended. The ponderous mass moved with an agonising shudder before it dislodged entirely, crashing into the Trolls below.
Before the tribe could react, a flood of Magical Beasts in the form of hooting simians, screeching harpies, venomous lizards, mucus coated frogs, anacondas and quill-studded hogs fell into the cavern. Some went splat, falling instantly to their deaths, others more resistant to rapid descents survived to fight like drunks on Takanakuy.
With a shudder, the ziggurat the Trolls had been using as their base likewise elevated, erecting itself so rapidly that the toppled cauldron sent a great splash of sacrificial gumbo cascading down the sides. On the lower slopes, rolling boulders the size of cars mowed through demi-humans and animals without mercy.
Cuzco's Melee Mage, Musi, fell with the Beast Tide, though expectantly, she landed on all fours, just like a cat.
"THERE!" a proctor denounced the vision now coming into view.
The Soul Slave, now fully regenerated, took to flight, harvesting Essence from the falling and the dying.
"There's Inti!" another proctor marvelled. "Wow."
A line of radiance obliterated a hundred lesser creatures, carving a path of molten stone through the monsters, clearing a space around Musi.
Auberon gently set down his tea.
If Inti could open these temples up, then Inti needed to live for all their sakes.
"An unexpected escalation," the Baron of Shenfield drily observed. Ignoring his earlier treaty for inaction, he gave the order. "Call Cuzco and ask if they forfeit. Tell the Inca Sapa we have a situation, and that he'll need to commit his best Mage Flights if he wants his temples back."
Hardin Smith swallowed a mouthful of cocoa leaves when the temple began to shift.
Safely hidden against the underside of a great tree, he had been calmly observing the decline of Inti's party when the prince accidentally unravelled a persistent mystery of the relic-temples.
Hardin was impressed by the prince's luck. So much lore had been squandered by the Spanish Inquisition. Losses like the reading of Quipu, the code language of the Empire's administrators, had left the temples' puzzles indecipherable. At least until now.
That Mama Killa's sanctum possessed magical mechanisms was a fact Hardin knew - for how else could the vaults be sealed or opened? But what Hardin had not anticipated was the serendipitous convergence of the Blood Moon, Inti's bloodline element and the Rite of Dusk and Dawn.
If indeed Inti was key to the lost temples, then the prince was worth his weight in mithril. If Inti's blood, his element, his faith or whatever mix of physiologies Inti possessed were capable of opening the old vaults, then Dark Water would have infinite uses for the young man, Amaru be damned.
BUT— Hardin sighed wistfully. That was wishful thinking.
It wasn't as though any one Mage currently present could pull the prince from danger. By what means could anyone concurrently battle the Trolls, the Beasts and the Undead now thrown into this churning soup of carnage?
"Here lies Inti, Prince of Cuzco," Hardin lamented the loss. "Sweet dreams, scion of the Sun."