The world was a whirlwind of rocks, fur, pain and vertigo.
Alex and Thundar slid into the deep for what felt like hours, but must have only been a few heartbeats. The one thought on Alex’s mind was that he didn’t get impaled on Thundar’s horns as they tumbled down.
Finally, the two screaming wizards burst out of the slide and freefell through the air before slamming to the ground in a tangle of limbs.
Thundar landed on Alex, blasting the breath from his lungs. Rocklike protrusions jabbed into his back.
He groaned weakly.
“Oh shit, Alex!” Thundar cried, grabbing at his head. “Are my horns broken? Are my horns broken!?”
Alex haltingly shifted position until he could see the minotaur’s skull. “No,” he groaned.
“Thank my ancestors…oh shit! Are you broken?”
Alex shifted his head until he was looking down at himself. “Yes,” he groaned weakly.
The minotaur clambered up to his hooves while Alex lay on the ground, willing his way past the pain that felt like a hundred thousand fractures throughout his body.
From his supine position, suddenly all he could see were three canine faces and three tongues licking at his face.
“Oh, hey boy…” he groaned, trying to raise his arms to pet the enthusiastic cerberus. “Glad to see you too.”
As he slowly found his way back to his feet with Thundar’s help, Rayne came floating down the tunnel-slide, his panicked face paler and tight. “Thundar! Alex!”
“We’re alive,” Alex groaned as he willed his forceball and Wizard’s Hand down the slide. “No thanks to this big bastard here.”
Alex waited for Thundar’s retort, but found him dead-silent.
“Thundar?” he said, turning.
His friend was transfixed, staring at something that lay against the wall opposite the slide. Alex squinted at it, then cursed. Leaning against the wall were dozens of sharpened spikes projecting upward at least as tall as the minotaur’s height.
Each of them had a clean break near the bottom.
Alex looked down at the floor.
Stone stumps—remnants of the spikes—rose from the floor slightly. This room at one time must have been the final part of a deadly trap: the slide would open under unsuspecting travellers, sending them plunging into the room where they’d drop onto the spikes and be impaled.
“Baelin,” Thundar said. “Maybe Baelin sheared away the spikes.”
“Geez,” Alex murmured. “If he hadn’t then we’d all be dead, except for Rayne that is.”
He glanced at Brutus. He was sniffing and licking the tops of some of the spikes.
Alex took a better look at them. Many had tips that were coated in a dry darkened substance. It looked like old blood. He shuddered, looking around the rest of the trap room.
On one of the walls was a smooth structure about six feet wide. It looked like a doorway with a massive slab of stone recessed within a frame. On either side, as if standing guard, stood a scythe-wielding skeleton like they’d seen earlier. Their empty eye sockets seemed to glare at the four intruders. If it was a doorway, then the slab of rock would have been a way in or out of the room—unless it was another trap—but he couldn’t see a door handle or latch to open it with. Not on this side anyway.
He looked for any sign of a switch or a secret panel along the walls, like he’d done in the temple in The Cave of the Traveller, but he couldn’t find any.
Next, he looked up at the ceiling, which rose at least fifteen feet high.
“Oh shit, nobody move!” he cried.
Both Rayne and Thundar froze in place, but Brutus turned at the sound of the distress in his voice.
“Stay, boy! I know I’m not Theresa, but I’m begging you, please stay. Just for a second.”
Brutus paused where he was, cocking all three heads.
“What…what’s wrong?” Rayne asked, floating a little above the ground.
“Look up,” Alex said. “Make sure not to shift your weight, Thundar.”
“Gotcha,” the minotaur said slowly. “What’s wro-what in all hells are those?”
Carved into the huge stone panel above, were dozens of holes, each going so deeply into the ceiling panel, that they disappeared within the darkness. Alex willed his forceball up to the holes and shone the light into them.
They reached deep: he could barely see where the holes ended. He looked for any clue as to their purpose. Gas, maybe? Would a hidden switch or trigger make gas or something else flood the room. Would the holes spray fire? Would sand pour down and bury them? Would the room be flooded with some sort of acid? All kinds of horrible possibilities passed through his mind, but he couldn’t confirm a purpose for the ominous ceiling holes.
“Hey,” Thundar said, staying in place and glancing down at the floor. “Am I imagining it or are those holes in-line with where the spikes were on the floor?”
Alex looked down and back up at the ceiling. “I think you’re right.”
He looked around the room and considered the situation. “I’m thinking…the spikes impale anything that falls into the room, but if anyone survives, then something else triggers the ceiling causing it to lower. I think the holes are so the spikes can fit into the ceiling once it comes all the way down to the floor. Then, splat, you’re a pancake!”
“Shit, that’s what I was thinking too,” Thundar grunted. “So….what’s the trigger?”
Alex squinted. “That’s what we’ve gotta figure out. Do either of you sense any strange magic in the air?”
Both wizards shook their heads.
“Neither do I...” Alex said.
“I could float around and inspect things,” Rayne said. “I won’t touch any of the floors or walls.”
“Good idea,” Alex agreed.
He was glad that Rayne seemed to have learned some lessons since that first class where he’d joined Minervus and abandoned his group. Or maybe Minervus was a bad influence and Rayne had been a follower. Alex had no idea.
He glanced up at the opening in the floor above them where the slide began. It would have been very easy for Rayne to just float back up and go on alone, leaving them to fend for themselves, but he didn’t seem to be even considering that. He was pulling his weight now, and that’s what mattered.
The skinny wizard floated around the room, his build in some ways reminding Alex of himself when he’d first arrived at Generasi. A lot had changed since then.
While Rayne floated around and examined the room, Alex began to scan the stone using The Mark—learning the characteristics of the surfaces by running his eyes back and forth.
“Wait, there’s something weird here,” Rayne said, floating down in front of the skeletal statue on the right side of the stone doorway. “The upper part of the stone is a slightly different colour than the lower parts, and a couple of areas on the lower part look different, like they’re discoloured or something.”
Alex scanned the area Rayne was pointing to, using The Mark. Even at his distance, it soon pinpointed the differences in colour between where Rayne was pointing, and the rest of the stonework.
“Huh,” Alex said. “I think you might be right.”
His eyes narrowed, looking back at the slide. The stones there were very smooth. Chances of him and Thundar being able to climb back up were slim, while Brutus would have no chance at all.
He looked back at the skeleton statue.
“Does either part look more worn to you?” Alex asked.
“Um,” Rayne squinted. “The lower one. Why?”
“I’m thinking that one part might be the one to press. Someone’s gotta clean this room of, uhm…stuff. So, maybe the area is worn because it’s used or touched a lot.”
“That’s a big maybe,” Thundar grunted.
“It is,” Alex said. “…but I can’t think of anything else, can you?”
“I could go back up the slide and check to see if there’s a passage that leads down?” Rayne said.
Thundar paused. “Naw, forget it,” the minotaur finally said. “You could get lost or jumped by skeletons up there by yourself. You might as well go ahead and push it.”
“Yeah, we’ll get ready to jump for the slide if the ceiling starts dropping,” Alex said. “And if worse comes to worst, I’ll grab Brutus and we activate Baelin’s spell-marks to get us out. Deal?”
“Deal,” Thundar and Rayne agreed.
“Alright, here I go,” Rayne said. He reached out and gingerly pushed one of the worn spots on the statue.
The stumps from the stone spikes slid into the floor, startling the already nervous group.
“Okay,” Rayne said. “That wasn’t it. If the spikes disappear into the floor, though then-Yeah, you’re probably right. This place would need to be cleaned.
He pressed the other spot.
An ancient mechanism started grinding, shaking the room as stone dust drifted into the air around the massive stone door. The slab of rock filling the doorway slowly heaved up, sliding into the wall above, and revealing another room beyond the scythe-wielding guards.
“Voila!” Rayne grinned as Alex and Thundar exhaled in relief.
“Let’s get out of here,” Alex said. “We don’t want to push our luck.”
“Don’t gotta tell me twice,” Thundar said, approaching the doorway as Rayne floated through.
Alex looked at Brutus. “C’mon, boy, we can go now.”
He began following Thundar.
One pace in front of the doorway, the minotaur’s hoof stepped on a pressure plate. Alex blinked in shock. It looked like Thundar’s foot was sinking into the floor, instead of the floor sliding down.
An illusion! The pressure plate had been hidden in an illusion!
Grinding filled the room.
Brutus cringed low, barking in a panic.
The floor shook. The stone door began sliding down. The ceiling began its descent. And it descended steadily—though it struggled as its ancient mechanisms ground against each other. They’d already be flattened if the mechanics had been maintained.
Thundar uttered a deep cry and ducked under the falling door-stone. He braced his shoulder against it, spitting out his body enhancement incantation to halt it from falling as his muscles swelled with mana. “Go!” he grunted at Alex and Brutus even as the ceiling and door slab continued their descent.
Alex rushed forward, stopping in the space beneath the slab and pushing against the stone like Thundar. His built up muscles tightened with effort as he strained against the rock with all his might. It paused, just for moments.
“Come Brutus! Come!” his voice was forced.
The cerberus charged toward the doorway, slamming his massive body into both wizards, knocking them through the door and sprawling into the other room as the ceiling hit the floor. The stone of the doorway dropped, slamming shut.
Alex heaved a heavy sigh of relief from the floor. “Hooooly shit was that ever close. Fast thinking, Thundar.”
“Thanks,” the minotaur panted, reaching a hand out to Alex and another to pat Brutus who was shaking himself free of dirt. “Good thing you started working out.”
“Yeah,” Alex chuckled weakly. “Hell yeah.”
Rayne was simply staring at the doorway in stunned silence.
Then a high pitched whine from three throats stopped their words.
Brutus suddenly started whining, growing more agitated by the moment. He sniffed the air excitedly, wagging his tail and jumping in place.
“Brutus?” Alex looked at the cerberus. “What’s going on? What do you-Wait! Brutus!”
The cerberus suddenly bounded from the room, running into a hall and around a corner at full speed.
“Wait! Brutus!” Alex cried, terrified at the thought of him running into another trap. He dug his heels into the stone and sprinted after the dog. Something was strange. Brutus was cautious and well-trained. Sure, he’d harassed Alex back when he didn’t like him, but he was always well-trained, well-behaved and not the type of dog to just take off on his own. Especially when danger was around.
“Alex wait, what’s happening?” Thundar demanded from behind. The sound of hooves slamming along the tunnel floor pursued Alex down the passageway.
He could also hear Rayne shouting from the back.
He kept his ears open, listening for Brutus’ scrabbling paws ahead, following the sound through weaving halls and passages.
Then he heard them stop and squinted as he ran after him.
Some sort of light was coming from the passage ahead.
It was dim, but it was steady and coloured like sunlight.
Alex burst out of the tunnel and into a massive chamber and stopped with a sharp intake of breath. The walls must have been twenty feet high and lined with row upon row of skeletal statues.
“Don’t come any closer!” a familiar voice shouted.
Brutus had stopped ahead, staring at the disheveled figure on the other side of the room.
Alex’s eyes widened.
“Theresa?” he cried.
She’d obviously been in a fight, judging from how pale she was and the red staining her clothes. Clearly something with claws had come after her. She was leaning against an enormous set of double doors on the opposite side of the massive chamber while holding a reddened area on her right side and panting for breath.
“Stay back!” she ordered Brutus, who looked at her with his heads cocked while remaining perfectly still.
“Theresa?” Alex called as Rayne flew into the room followed by Thundar, who gave a strangled gasp.
“Alex, there’s something wrong,” she said with fear in her voice. “Something’s in here with us. It’s hunting us. It got Rhea and Shiani.”
Alex’s blood ran cold.
“I think, I think it let me run in here,” she said. “It’s making a trap. You should go! Get out of here!”
“Theresa, you know I’d never go without you-”
“Just listen to me!” she said quickly. “Go!”
He took a step forward. “Theresa, you-”
He looked at his best friend closely.