“Idris, calm down!”
Silas and Emrys clung to my arms, keeping me from tearing into Derog. I strained against them, snarling. “You expect me to believe this brat has nothing to do with Cerys’ and Bruce’s disappearance?!”
“I wish I had!” Derog snapped, clutching his bleeding shoulder. “Fucking champions will be the end of—”
“Silence!” Adara snapped, slapping the impudent brat. “A king’s loyalty is to his queen first and foremost! Even if you had nothing to do with her disappearance, you should show respect for your king and his soulmate!”
“Idris, he’s telling the truth,” Silas murmured by my ear. “Good as it’d feel to tear him to shreds, it won’t help us.”
After a moment, Silas and Emrys released me and I straightened my clothes.
“Derog, Adara, the two of you are going to tell me everything you know about the trap they sprung,” I stated calmly, tugging my gloves into place. “If either of you refuse, I will carve the flesh of every last member of this enclave until I have my answers.”
“I know nothing, my king.” Adara turned and bowed to me, her forehead touching the floor. “In my years here, I’ve never seen or heard of trainees going missing or tripping such a trap. Had they tripped any traps we already knew of, you would still be able to oversee them, and you would still have your telepathic link with Lady Moonfire.”
Silas nodded to me to indicate Adara was telling the truth. A sigh escaped me. “Then you will permit me and my entourage to enter the dungeon with our strongest of proficiencies. We will retrace every step Bruce and Cerys took in an effort to trigger the same trap they did.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Adara kept her forehead to the ground. “I will gladly make an exception to the rules in this time of crisis.”
“If you can’t hear her thoughts anymore, she’s probably dead!” Derog scoffed. “Good ridd—”
I spun my sword and drove the tip through the mouth bastard’s thigh, eliciting a scream of pain from his treacherous lips. “Elidyr, save this one for Cerys’ return. His suffering shall be my gift to her.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Elidyr bowed to.me as I turned and strode away. “And what shall the rest of us do? Who will you take with you?”
I continued walking past the terrified Shadowdancer students and the enclave’s servants. “We will go in pairs, as they did. Silas, with me.”
“Oh? Diving into damp, dark places? Just like old times!” Silas chuckled, falling into step with me. He took a long draw of his pipe, his expression immediately turning serious once we were outside and alone. “They’re both telling the truth. We don’t have many options left. An undiscovered trap, a malfunction in the lift system, or deity interference are the only causes I can think of for how we lost contact.”
“Derog needs to learn his place.” I shook my head. “Let us fetch supplies and change into armor. You remember the steps they took?”
“Of course.” Silas nodded. “I’ll meet you by the dungeon gate.”
Not long after, I met with Silas, Elidyr, Emrys, Drysi, and Seren by the dungeon. Everyone had donned their armor and were checking their weapons when I arrived.
“Have you determined who you will be working with?” I asked them.
“Seren and I will go after you and Silas,” Emrys stated, shouldering his great hammer. “Elidyr and Drysi will go last so they can provide us with support if either of our pairs run into trouble. Silas gave us all instructions on the path Cerys and Bruce took. We’re just waiting on Alek to bring us the last of our supplies. Kitchens’ve got him playing errand boy.”
“If he does not come back soon, we will leave without his supplies.” I shook my head. “There is every possibility that I cannot contact Cerys because she is not conscious. She and Bruce could both be severely injured if the issue was a malfunction of the lift.”
“Rushing headlong could result in the same happening to any one of us,” Seren pointed out with a sigh. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t look, I’m just saying we need to be careful—especially you. Nabyr-zahn needs its king.”
“And it needs its champion.” Silas raised his hands, shrugging. “I’ll keep His Stubbornness safe. We should worry about what we’re going to do once we find Cerys and Bruce, especially if their lift wasn’t the issue. A trap, deities…we can deal with the former but not the latter. We may have to call on our own deities.”
“Whatever the cause, we will deal with it appropriately.” I shook my head before glancing over my shoulder when I heard the crunch of snow. Aleksander flinched when my gaze fell on him. “You brought the supplies? Good. Then Silas and I can get going.”
We took our share of the food and drink from the nervous man, shoved it into our inventories, then made our way into the dungeon without another word. By now, new monsters had taken the place of the ones Cerys and Bruce had slain. Silas and I ignored the creatures, allowing his twin smoke and ink beasts to decimate the creatures in the same order Cerys and Bruce had.
“You really intend to act out against the enclave if something happened to Cerys?” Silas asked me after six floors of pure silence.
I scoffed. “Of course. Even if they are innocent of attempting to kill Cerys, they have neglected their duty as safe keepers. At the very least, Adara should know the full depth of the dungeon’s secrets.”
“What if even her predecessors knew nothing of it—or swore secrecy to the gods?” Silas countered, narrowing his eyes at me. “The Shadowdancers are one of Nabyr-zahn’s crowning achievements. If you slay them there will be an uproar.”
“Slay them?” I smiled. “Such an end would be too easy for anyone who wishes to bring harm to Cerys.”
Silas sighed. “I’m just worried your…fierceness, regarding Lady Moonfire could cause the people to turn against you or her. If you turn your anger toward citizens of Nabyr-zahn, you’ll betray their trust and they’ll begin considering leaving—or overthrowing you.”
“You just want to avoid becoming the next king.” I chuckled, shooting him an amused glance.
“Idris.” Silas narrowed his eyes at me.
“You know as well as I do that Cerys is our last chance to stand against the Issradians.” I sighed and crossed my arms, turning to face Silas fully. “Should we lose her, delivering death to our own people would be a mercy. Then, at least, they will be saved from the rape and torture the humans are so eager to inflict.”
“Even with so many of our deities returning?” Silas shook his head slowly. “They’re returning for a reason. Maybe her presence gave them more strength, or maybe they are planning something. Cerys wouldn’t want you to end the people of Nabyr-zahn.”
“If the humans win, death will be our only savior.” I shrugged, an amused smile playing on my lips. “For someone who loves death more than me, you are certainly trying hard to be a voice of reason. Are you growing soft?”
“Aye, all this talk of killing the Shadowdancers and our people has made me soft!” Silas replied cheerfully, a suggestive smirk spreading across his face. “Taking out your rage on the humans would be much better, don’t you think? At the very least, we could go out in a blaze of glory.”
“Except the humans take prisoners and have made it rather clear what they intend to do with ‘former royalty.’” I shot him a foul look. “Focus on the task at hand. If something had happened to Cerys, a Soulburn would have let me know. For now, at least, she is still alive.”
“We still need to find a better target for your wrath,” Silas pointed out with a sideways look. “I know you love her, but I’ve never seen your control slip so much or so often. Nabyr-zahn needs a stable ruler. Firm but kind, as you have been in the past. Don’t let love, or the fear of losing it, turn you into a cruel man.”
“You are lecturing me about cruelty?” I raised an eyebrow at him as he puffed his pipe. He smirked at me again before summoning another beast of smoke. “Enough of this, we have far too much progress to make. Talk while you…”
“Kill?” Silas finished, laughing, as he kicked a monster’s corpse out of his way. “The path to the next floor is clear, Your Majesty.”
I let out an exasperated sigh and stalked past Silas. By the time we caught up to the place we had last heard from Cerys and Bruce, any remnants of patience were gone. Silas hummed cheerfully to himself while he repacked his kiseru with herbs, two of his beasts sitting by his feet. The dungeon looked much the same as it had before our quarry had disappeared. Traces of Cerys’ shadow magic, butterflies and all, lingered in the corners of the room.
“Something is different,” I muttered to myself, crouching by one of the corpses.
“Mmm?” Silas strode over.
“I have never seen creatures with light crystals this high in the dungeon before,” I stated, opening my hand to reveal a small crystal I’d taken from the fallen monster. “This floor of the dungeon is meant to be aligned with earth. Light is one of the deepest floors, deeper even than darkness.”
“Well, they certainly didn’t have the appearance of light monsters.” Silas tilted his head. “You think perhaps we’ve managed to replicate Cerys and Bruce’s steps sufficiently?”
“We can but hope. Let us move on and find out.” I rose to my feet and turned to walk toward the lift, but Silas put a hand on my shoulder, stopping me.
“Keep in mind what I said about that temper of yours.” Silas gave me a warning look. “If they were seriously injured and required feeding…”
“Cerys would not betray me.” I brushed Silas’ hand off. “She would have to reach the point that her body wrests control from her.”
“What do you think she would do if she reached that point?” Silas questioned.
“…that is why we should stop dawdling.” I shot him a threatening look before walking away. “Cerys may not have yet made a decision regarding what she wants, but she is fiercely loyal regardless.”
Silas joined me on the lift, his expression thoughtful as he examined the glowing glyph beneath us. “The previous ones were purple, weren’t they?”
“Indeed. I have never seen a glyph like this one in the dungeon before.” I shifted so my feet were no longer covering the glyph. “I am still unclear on what we did differently—and how the enclave never discovered this.”
“I am going to guess it has something to do with our dear champion, or the gods who brought her to our world,” Silas remarked after exhaling a stream of smoke. “The gods have woven their game so deeply into our world, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s all sorts of secrets even the Issradians don’t know.”
“Perhaps.” I pressed the switch that would begin the lift’s ascent. “I am still inclined to believe it is a—”
“…trap?” Silas raised an eyebrow as we descended into a bright place built of blue crystal. He lifted his nose and sniffed. “I smell our dear missing comrades. Do try not to make a ruckus and awaken any lurking nasties?”
“If someone draws the attention of enemies, it will not be me.” I gave him a pointed look and stepped off the lift. Two distinct sets of footprints in the thick dust confirmed the presence of our comrades. When we reached a plaza with branching pathways, I grimaced. “Which way do you think they went last, Silas? It appears they are sticking together.”
“Smart of them, if you ask me,” Silas murmured, tilting his head. “This place appears dormant or abandoned, but that doesn’t mean much considering that’s essentially the description of any dungeon. Still…these markings.”
“Send your beasts searching for Cerys and Bruce if you are uncertain of what path they took.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “It would be best if we left a distinct trail for the remainder of our comrades to follow once they catch up. The less wandering we do, the better.”
“Fair enough.” Silas jerked his head in one direction and both his beasts darted off in separate directions. “I’d wager they’ve been looting as they search. It looks like there used to be more things laying around in all this dust.”
“In which case, they cannot have gone far.” My gaze drifted to the nearby markings again, a frown forming on my mouth. The disrupted dust in the engravings gave me the feeling that Cerys or Bruce had already made the connection to Rehlr-saffir. Cerys, can you hear me?
“Idris, look.” Silas nudged me and pointed upward, back the way we had come.
I gave him a foul look before obliging him. Twenty crystals hung above the lift, each containing several of Cerys’ dark butterflies and wisps of shadow magic. Each crystal appeared to be gradually shifting from clear to black, starting at its point. Grooves ran from each crystal, filled with dark magic, and ran to the lift itself.
“You think someone planned this?” I growled under my breath.
“I think a god is playing with us, yes. One of ours.” Silas scowled. “Whether this was a recent plan or one set in motion long ago…”
“What is it?” I frowned at him when he remained silent.
“My pets found the path they took—and an exit,” Silas stated, pointing toward a path to our left with his kiseru. “You wanted to hurry, didn’t you?”
“I will lay a trail for our comrades as we walk.” I nodded to Silas before muttering a verse of song under my breath, conjuring a series of flaming orbs. “We should catch up to them before they find something troublesome.”
“More troublesome than an angry, possessive king?” Silas shot me a doubting look. “I half expect you to put her on a leash the moment you find her.”
“Tempting…” I murmured, considering it. “I am not certain what she would think of such an idea.”
“You’re hopeless.” Silas shook his head.