“So you don’t have any magic?” Shadow seemed surprised, somewhere behind his normal tone of resigned annoyance.
“No,” Safira shook her head, not in agreement but because he was wrong. “I wield no magic, but I know mysteries that have been passed down since the time of the Djinn. I have never cast a spell, this is true, but I understand how magic works.”
Shadow gave a grunt, clearly not convinced, then turned his attention back to the magically sealed door that had started the conversation in the first place. It was made to look like the rock walls it was set in, but Shadow had still found it when they moved through the passage.
Safira sighed and looked down along the tunnel. It seemed natural, with its rough walls and varying width, though it showed touches of craftsmanship in the stone squares of the floor and the occasional torch-holder in the walls. Shadows danced all around her, the flickering light of their lanterns putting on quite the show.
It reminded her of the veils, sashes, and curtains that featured prominently in the court of the Sollim. The more acrobatic of her fellow entertainers would climb the curtains, roll themselves up in them, and perform a variety of dazzling moves as they unwound. She had never done more than dance, swirling her veils around in a mesmerizing whirl of colors.
It was a tradition dating back to before the Sollim enslaved her people; a dance to honor and mimic the Djinn. Now performed right under the noses of their old foes, and even many of the performers did not the origins of their dance.
A movement at the edge of the light drew her from her reverie, but before she could figure out what it was she felt a hand firmly grab her wrist and pull her through the suddenly open door.
The husks shuffled before him, lifeless forms silhouetted against the dimly lit cave walls. They made for effective servants: no hunger, never tiring, and not complaining when a piece of the ceiling took out a limb in a sudden collapse. Effective and temporary.
Coming around a bend in the tunnel he saw a large rectangular hole in the wall for a moment before a door slammed shut. The husks had not even been close to reaching it in time to keep it open. Slow, temporary, and occasionally effective.
He strode over to the door and ran his fingers along its edge. He could feel the magic holding it shut, inefficiently fueled by the power of the sacred nexus. The ward held the door shut, certainly, but so much magic leaked from the channeling that it was no wonder something had been trapped within.
“Perhaps it was the banshee,” he mused. The husk stared blankly back at him with empty eye sockets. “Whatever it was, it is out now and will not be providing us with answers any more than the defilers will.”
The group closed ranks around him as he held his chain against the door, the words of an ancient prayer forming on his lips.
Shadow had barely closed the door behind them before he felt Safira falling down, dragging him with her. They slid down a slope of gravel and rocks, tumbling into a large cavern amidst a cloud of dust. He could barely make out the walls in the dim light of the lone lantern that had survived the fall, but it was enough to tell the door was firmly shut above.
“What was that?” Safira’s fear was evident even past the thick layer of dirt that had collected on her bruised face during their tumble.
“Smugglers,” Shadow replied with a shrug. There was no point in telling her they were the same smugglers they had already killed once. With the door closed behind them, the two were quite safe from the zombies. Their main interest now would be figuring out what the door was supposed to protect.
“There is magic here,” Safira said as she finished brushing herself off.
“The dead do not rise of their own accord.” If she took it as anything other than the ancient haunting of the Isle, she hid it well. Shadow turned away from her and began scanning the chamber in search of some clues. Obviously the passage had originally lead to a room much different from this, as the empty shelves lining the walls were set near the ceiling, almost two stories up.
Jagged edges suggested a floor had at one time been at about the same height as the door’s threshold, though the only debris Shadow could see was the pile leading up to the entrance. A collection of bones rested in the middle of a shallow pit near the center of the chamber, part of a skull sticking out to look back at him.
“No!” Safira stepped right in front of him with an angry gleam in her eyes. “There is magic here, in this room. Magic that I might be able to use.”
Something felt wrong about the room, though Shadow could not say what. It could be the smoothness of the walls or the mysterious presence of a skeleton in an otherwise empty chamber or the rustling of pebbles-
“Then use it!”
Shadow drew out his dart, sending it flying back up the slope to strike a zombie square in the shoulder. A quick tug on the rope had it headed back to him, and the already unbalanced zombie tipping over to slide face first down the gravel.
He whipped the dart around his wrist, slinging it forth so the blade buried itself in the zombie’s skull while it was attempting to stand up.
He could already see another two trying to push past each other in the doorway, a skeleton still partially clad in burnt flesh stumbling down the slope in front of them with minimal grace.
The downed zombie began to rise, only to earn a heavy stomp on its upper back from Shadow’s sturdy boot. At the same time he looped the rope around its neck and yanked hard, more out of frustration than expecting it to do any damage.
The move was rewarded by a sickening crunch as the charred flesh gave way and allowed the rope partially through the creature’s throat. Not that it seemed to slow the zombie down in its struggle to get back on its feet.
“Stop gawking and do something!” He hissed at the wide-eyed girl. Safira held her hands out, apparently at a loss. Still staring at him with fear and surprise.
“You’ve got the-” He pulled the rope loose and leapt off the zombie, somersaulting partway up the slope. “Knowledge! How do you fight undead?”
She blinked a few times, the urgency of his demands finally reaching through. “I- I don’t know…” She backed away from the zombies, stealing Shadow’s light as she went. In the gloom of the lantern he had been able to see where to put his feet. Now, he would have to rely on other senses to keep his balance.
Unable to afford the distraction of the distant light, he closed his eyes and focused. He felt the ground shift beneath his feet as he swung his blade around, sending it flying toward the two zombies making their way in through the door.
He almost lost his footing, cursing under his breath as he felt the skeleton’s unnatural claws bite into his shoulder; he followed the blow into a roll.
He was a slayer in the night, a disciple of the shadows, with decades of training and twice as many of real experience. He was a whisperling, born of darkness, child of the dusk, and heir to the Obfuscated. He did not need to see against foes like these.
He came up on his feet, feeling the uneven ground beneath them immediately begin to slide away. His dart flew once more, this time flying past the skeleton only to suddenly angle to the side. The rope became taut as it wrapped around the skeleton’s ribcage, though Shadow was already moving.
He rushed up the wall, pushed off to gain height, and then crashed down onto the two zombies just inside the door. He worked his hands furiously, threading and weaving the rope around limbs and necks, then launched himself backwards down the slope.
Opening his eyes and gazing up at his handiwork, he found the three undead hopelessly tangled. Whatever power was driving their mindless assault led them only to hinder each other and in their struggle to attack they brought the debris pile down around them.
Shadow turned, thinking to rush after the first zombie and save the apparently helpless Safira. A most comical sight greeted him. The abomination’s head was rolling against its back, barely attached to its shoulders. One leg lay on the ground, half-buried under a rockslide, and the zombie would drag itself to its foot only to fall over with the next step before repeating the process.
Safira seemed unconcerned by the whole affair, her attention fully focused on some magical ritual she had begun to enact at the same time as she drew on the ground with the aid of a bone.
“That is a first,” he stated calmly, dismissing his spiritform after emerging from the mound of rubble. “I was not aware other groups practiced such techniques.” He held out his chain, an hourglass set in a silver frame now dangling at the end. “Though ours are perhaps more blunt.”
He let the hourglass fall, shaking the chain loose from his wrist as well. It never hit the ground, instead caught by spectral hands to be swirled around him.
The one dressed in garish clothing paused her rite to stare at him, likely sensing that he had disrupted her attempt to seize control over the nexus. The shady figure dropped into a defensive crouch, but seemed wise enough to await his next move.
He watched them quietly for a few moments, measuring them up. He could feel the underdressed one attempt to reach out through the nexus again.
Feeble, rather hamfisted, and wholly amateurish as her attempts were, they would hardly succeed in summoning whatever it was she was attempting to bind. At best they would give him more work, at worst they would allow something that should be very dead back into the world of the living.
“Enough, tyro.” He severed her connection to the nexus, content that her efforts had done no harm. “The Black Gate is not for you. Even if I were to allow you its use, your meager skills would be overwhelmed by its power.”
“Safira,” the whisperling urged. “We need to leave.” Whatever objection had begun to cross the girl’s lips died at the sight of her companion’s grim expression. “Now.”
He watched the two clamber out of the chamber, then turned his attention to the pile of bones on the floor. Perhaps he might yet find someone in this decaying corpse of a castle that could give him some answers.