Alex thought back to the illusion that hid the pressure plate in the spike room. He also remembered what Baelin had said about haunts.
He glanced around. There were no other entrances to the room, so why would a wounded Theresa drag herself in here and stand beside some ominous giant doors.
“What are you?” he asked suddenly.
“Wait, what? Alex, that smells like Theresa,” Thundar said. Then he paused. Sniffing. “And no one else…” He lifted his mace.
‘Theresa’s’ expression shifted slightly. “I got separated early. I-”
“Would still have some of the others’ smell on you,” Thundar snarled as Rayne looked on in surprise. “Since you’re always with Brutus, you should at least have his scent. But, the only thing you smell like is you, blood, and nothing.”
“That’s not true. Alex, you need to get out of here-”
“Ask her something only you and she would know, something from deep in your past,” Rayne suddenly said to Alex.
“What?” Alex asked.
“It’s a haunt, I think,” Rayne said, clutching his book. “They mine information from surface thoughts to try and trick you, but they’re not able to reach deeper thoughts or memories that someone keeps to themself.”
Alex paused, looking back at Theresa. “Tell me what I set aside for you during the Festival of Ghosts.”
She paused, her eyes narrowing. “I-”
“If you even have to think about it, then you’re not Theresa,” he said. “It’s not a bad impression you’re doing, haunt: I dunno if you’re trying to make us leave or approach you. You might’ve been thinking you’d look too obvious if you just made us come over to you.”
He watched her expression change.
“So you try to get us to leave, which would probably get you what you want. But, if we didn’t listen and just ran up to you to help our injured friend, we wouldn’t be paying much attention to our surroundings.” Alex paused.
“There’s a trap in the floor somewhere up there, isn’t there?”
Her lips tightened.
“Right, so we leave, and we’re screwed. We approach you too quickly, and we’re screwed. Now, why are you standing by the only door in the room? Guarding it for some reason?”
He glanced at his spell-mark. It’s colour was greener than it had been in the trap room—and that room had a slide that led from the floor above. “Hmmmm, I’m guessing whatever’s behind those doors leads up, doesn’t it? And you’re trying to keep us from going up there by sending us deeper into this place, or by getting us smashed by whatever trap’s in this room. That about right?”
She paused, then finally sighed. “Clever little human-things,” she looked at them with malice in her eyes. “But what if I just wished to keep you here, hmmm? Maybe I’d also get what I wanted if you stood there like the clever little human thing you are?”
Something moved in the hallway behind them, and the young wizards whirled around and gasped. Something was coming for them. What it was, Alex couldn’t say. It was humanoid in appearance, but crawled on all fours as if it couldn’t quite decide if it was humanoid, serpent, or beast. Its movements reminded him of the Bone Drinker.
It wore thick, bronze armour polished to a shine that hugged its skeletal form. Its body was thinner than any humanoid Alex had ever seen.
The young wizards and cerberus backed away as it crawled into the room. Upon entering, it paused, rising to its full height of at least as tall as the twenty-foot skeletons behind them. The creature didn’t stand erect, instead, it hunched over like a vulture, with arms that were far too long for the rest of its body. Its chain mailed hands clasped the air, and Alex didn’t want to know what would happen if they caught him or one of his companions in a grip.
“Raaaayne?” Alex asked. “What in the absolute hell is that?!”
“I have no idea!” Rayne said.
Alex glanced at the floor.
“There’s no way we’re outrunning it. If it’s anything like those muupkara skeletons, it’s going to be fast and we probably have traps in here to worry about.
“Intruders!” the thing-that-was-not Theresa laughed. “Despair! You face this stronghold’s most powerful guardian! Fling yourselves at its feet and grovel and your lives might be spared!”
In time with her words, the creature reached out and grasped one of the stone scythes held by the nearest statue. The scythe released from the statue’s grip and shifted, morphing into metal. With the weapon’s length, one swing of it could sweep a quarter of the room.
“Oh my gods!” Rayne cried. “My spell-mark! It’s gone!”
He was looking down at his hand in shock.
Both Alex and Thundar looked for theirs and they were gone.
Where their spell-marks had been, there was now only unmarked skin.
“I’ve dispelled your leader’s protections,” the creature sneered. “And now, I’ve dispelled yours!”
With a wave of her hand, Alex felt mana surge through the air and his magic circuits unravel. The force shields surrounding him and his companions disappeared, and Wizard’s Hand and forceball winked out.
Fear gripped him now.
“Yield, and perhaps I will see that you are spared,” the haunt rose into the air, shimmering until it was no longer Theresa, but the ghostly apparition of an ancient looking man in some sort of priestly garment. A symbol of a skull hung from his neck.
The giant skeleton approached slowly and terribly, driving them back toward the floor trap.
Brutus was barking madly as he backed away, Thundar was loosing a stream of curses as he cast another body enhancement spell on himself, while Rayne let out a cry and flew across the room, keeping far from the skeleton.
He spat out an incantation and fired a long, white beam at the skeletal giant, but the beam bounced off of its bronze armour.
Alex’s mind raced as he tried to find a way out of the trouble they were in. He considered his options, and found each one he came up with more useless than the last.
The way it stalked toward them so slowly—drawing out their fear—reminded him of the hive-queen in the Cave of the Traveller. She also stalked them slowly when she knew they were at her mercy. She drew out their fear, fueling the dungeon core from it.
They needed to escape! They needed to escape!
His thoughts were frantic and bent on two things; getting them out of there, and The Cave of the Traveller. Suddenly, he was hit by a wave of vertigo. The giant chamber seemed to spin around and around—and for an instant—Alex felt he was reliving glimpses of the strange sights he’d seen when they passed through The Traveller’s gateway.
What was happening? Why was he seeing deep memories that the haunt shouldn’t be able to find? Maybe it was his fear-addled mind playing tricks on him.
He shook the thoughts away and focused.
Just like the hive-queen, the skeleton seemed to be taking its time with them so that-
His mind paused.
So that what?
Why wasn’t it attacking? Its armour had deflected Rayne’s spell, yet, it hadn’t attacked them.
“Surrender now!” the old priest cried. “I will spare you, if you surrender!”
No, no, no this wasn’t right.
It had them at its mercy. Their protective magics were gone and so was Baelin’s magic…or was it? Why would Baelin’s magic be gone? He’d seen the chancellor handle a powerful demon with no effort. Why would some random haunt in a random tomb that Baelin had led them into be capable of dispelling his monstrously powerful magic? That didn’t make any sense.
And the chancellor might have been…well, the chancellor…but would he lead them into a threat that could destroy even his magic?
And why wasn’t it killing them?
Even now, the group continued backing away from the approaching skeleton, staying well out of reach of its scythe, while approaching the centre of the room-
Alex’s eyes went wide.
“Thundar stop!” he shouted. “Brutus stay! Nobody move!”
“What, are you out of your mind?” Thundar demanded.
“No! I’m actually finally back in it!” Alex snarled at the skeleton giant. “It’s trying to drive us into the trap or get us to give in to it!”
The spectre behind them went silent and Alex realized he might have the truth of the situation.
“Think about it, why would it be taking its time to kill us if it could just do it?” Alex said. “It’s another illusion meant to drive us into the trap! The thing’s all bark and no bite!”
Alex took a deep breath, engaging in his meditation techniques, acknowledging his fears and letting them pass. He reached deep into himself, then focused his mind.
‘It’s like The Mark in some ways,’ he told himself. ‘It’s showing you things that aren’t really there. It’s trying to trick you. Acknowledge the images and let them go. See what’s behind them.’
After two meditative breaths, he felt the familiar energetic sensation of his own magic circuits. They’d never been dispelled. Then the entire illusion fell apart.
Baelin’s spell-mark returned on his hand, and his force shield winked back into being. The spells around Thundar, Rayne and Brutus also rematerialized before his eyes. The skeletal giant was still there, but now it looked like the priest: somewhat hazy and indistinct. It became slightly transparent, and Alex could see where Rayne’s beam had punched into the stone wall behind it.
He yelled in triumph. “Our spells never went anywhere! Focus like during the Cleansing Movements, Thundar, and you’ll see them!”
The minotaur glanced at him, then took a deep breath. He suddenly shouted in surprise. “Well, I’ll be damned! Rayne, it’s true! The whole thing’s as fake as the monster's face on a mask at the Festival of Ghosts!”
Rayne blinked for a moment, shook his head and then let out a huge sigh of relief. “I see it too.” He examined his hand with the spell-mark like it was a long lost friend.
Alex turned to the priestly apparition. “It’s all illusion: just trickery.”
The priest’s teeth ground in his mouth. “Filthy interlopers!” he cursed, raising his hands.
Skeletal warriors materialized around him—each with bony wings—and surged across the chamber.
“They’re not real!” Thundar shouted, now as sure as Alex, and boldly stuck out his chest.
The skeletons’ scythes passed through him, leaving no wound or mark while the haunt howled in frustration.
“Alright, let’s not push our luck,” Alex said. Moving his forceball forward, he began the same strategy he’d used in the trap room of The Cave of the Traveller—he sent the forceball ahead, slamming it into sections of the floor while the haunt shouted curses at them in a long-dead language.
As he pressed his forceball down on one spot, the floor in the center of the room opened, revealing another ramp that slid further down into the dark. Rayne flew over to take a look in the hole and said that it was also lined with spike stumps. Alex continued testing the floor from a safe position, finding more pressure plates section by section.
Another trap brought tiny darts shooting from the ceiling with enough force to prick their flesh. These hadn’t been removed or blunted, and he wondered if that was because—unlike the spiked pit—they wouldn’t have been fatal. That was...unless they were poisoned. Alex doubted that they were poisonous though, and he also had a pretty strong feeling that it was Baelin who’d cut the spikes off.
The final trap saw two skeleton statues raise their scythes in both hands and swing the blades into the path of anyone who would have been on that side of the room.
“Oof,” Thundar grunted. “That one would have been a pretty nasty slice of life...so to speak.”
With each trap revealed, the haunt howled in its malice, and Alex began taking regular glances at the tunnel at their backs. Those screams would likely bring more skeletons, and who knows if there actually was a giant, armoured skeleton around somewhere.
“Alright, Brutus, follow me boy,” Alex said as Rayne floated ahead and he and Thundar picked their way across the room—skirting the trap areas—and passed through the illusions of winged skeletons.
They passed the haunt, who continued to curse at them, especially when they reached their goal and stood looking up at the massive double doors.
“Well,” Thundar said, eyeing them. “Not sure how to get them open. Don’t really see a handle or a mechanis-wait a minute,” he reached toward the door, then made a face and glanced back at the haunt. “Oh you lifeless bastard.”
His hand passed through the doors, revealing them to be just another illusion. The surrounding wall shimmered and disappeared, displaying a staircase.
“Alright, let’s get going before he actually thinks of a way to kill us,” the minotaur said.
“Yeah, agreed,” Alex said as Rayne floated down beside them.
Leaving the howling haunt sobbing in rage, they made their way up the stairs and out of the unnatural light of the haunted chamber. As they did, the spell-marks on their hands glowed greener. They were getting close.
The last part of the journey wasn’t long, and thankfully, no more skeletons attacked, and no more haunts materialized to trick them with illusions. Their movements were cautious in case of traps, but those too seemed to be absent in this part of the complex.
At last, they came to a crossroads of passages that had a glowing green circle filling the floor. Alex could now feel the teleportation magic emanating from close by, and he could almost feel the powerful magic circuit pulsing in the circle.
Exhaling in relief, the young wizards stepped into the circle as Alex coaxed Brutus onto it. The magic circuit fired up once the cerberus entered the circle and soon, Alex felt that familiar feeling of Baelin’s magic.
As they were teleported out of the underground complex, the last sound Alex thought he heard was the haunt’s enraged howling fading in the distance.
Alex was the first of his group to appear, but he saw that the group: made up of Eyvinder, Grimloch, Svenia and Rhea were already on the escarpment where their after class discussions were held.
As Alex’s companions materialized around him—with Brutus quickly looking for Theresa—he saw Baelin standing nearby, floating slightly above the stone.
A look of concentration was on his brow, and there was a stiffness in his demeanour. He seemed troubled. He turned slightly toward them.
“Hello, my young friends,” he said. “Tell me…before you rest, did you see anything…strange in the underground?”
The students paused. There was a gravity in his voice that was rare for him.
“No,” Alex said. “Well, yeah, we saw skeletons…traps and a haunt.”
“Right, did you see anything appear or disappear?” Baelin asked.
Alex, Thundar and Rayne looked at each other, and shook their heads.
Baelin again turned toward the horizon and Alex saw that he was staring in the direction of the underground complex. It was almost as if he was trying to see across the miles and peer directly into the tunnels beneath the earth.
“What’s wrong?” Alex asked, looking at the other group.
“It is…strange,” Baelin glanced back at them. “For an instant…a mere instant, there was a flash of transportation magic: the beginnings of a teleportation or perhaps a summoning spell in the labyrinth.”
His eyes narrowed at the horizon.
“And it wasn’t my magic.”