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Jul 21

A Beating Heart of Stone Part 6

As they continued through the tunnel, the glittering light that surrounded them seemed increasingly oppressive. One could get lost in the darkness and be afraid, the Captain realized, but being lost in the light brought a different kind of fear. Not the fear of the unseen, but the fear of the all-too seen. The fear that there was no where to hide, even within oneself.

There was an open space ahead, like a miniature version of the chamber they had been in the day before. As they entered the Captain noticed four pedestals in the room’s corners, each one topped with a crystal orb.

“Be careful,” he said, “We don’t know what those do.”

They crept through the room, giving the orbs as wide a berth as possible. They had made it halfway across without incident. Just when it seemed nothing would happen, one of the orbs came to life.

Blue lightning crackled around it before forking off and forming shapes in midair. Pieces of golden armor coalesced from the liquid light until the orb sat at the center of hulking figure of metal.

Alexia quickly drew her staff and bathed the thing in a torrent of flame. But when it cleared the armored giant was untouched.

It came toward them, a sword held at the end of each arm.

“What do we do?” Alexia asked.

“Run,” the Captain said. He turned, only to be met by three more armored giants, their blades crossed to block the exit.

“Do you have a backup plan?” Maria asked as the guardians closed in around them.

The captain drew his sword. “We fight.”

A sudden tremor shook the room, throwing the Captain off balance. He struggled to regain his footing on the shaking ground, looking up in time to see a gold edged sword coming down on him.

– –

Gehard had just finished binding Carter’s arm when the tremor hit. He pushed himself off the ground when the shaking subsided and surveyed their surroundings. The tunnels hadn’t seemed to change this time, not that they could be told apart from one another to begin with.

After the tunnels shifted they had gotten as far away as they could before Carter’s injury forced them to stop. Of course, if they were lost before, they were hopelessly lost now.

“What was that?” Adrian asked as he picked himself up.

“Maybe a minor earthquake.”

“They don’t have earthquakes around here,” Carter said, cradling his arm. Gehard had noticed most mages had remarkably low pain tolerances.

“It sure felt like an earthquake.”

“Quiet,” Gehard said, “I think I hear something.”

“Goblins?”

“Shh.” Gehard listened carefully, straining to make out what he thought he heard. He caught the sound of small feet across metal, echoing down the tunnel from somewhere far away.

“Goblins,” he hissed as he drew his preferred goblin killing blade and took off in the direction of the noise.

As he pursued the sound it grew louder and less discrete. His own footsteps must have made him easy to hear, but there was no need for stealth when one’s quarry was so close. And so easily outrun.

The path forked into two, forcing him to stop as he determined which to take. He caught a glimpse of something moving down one of the tunnels, the back of a leg disappearing around a corner.

“Gehard, wait,” he heard Carter pant behind him as he resumed his pursuit.

Let them catch up, this is more important.

Gehard knew that, should the goblin make it back to its horde, it could lead them to what remained of the crew. As much as he would have liked another chance to fight the wretched things, he couldn’t handle a whole swarm of them alone. He hated admitting it, but mages like Alexia were useful on occasion.

He rounded a corner and finally got a good look at the thing. It was repulsive, as all goblins were, but what intrigued Gehard was what it held in its hand. It looked like a lump of crystal, similar to the one he had seen on their way in.

Something about this struck Gehard as wrong, causing him to falter and almost let the goblin get away. As he tried desperately to catch up, the full implications struck him.

Carter had said that thing was an Order enchantment breaker, used to get through the magic seal on the door. But what would a goblin be doing with something from the Order.

Unless . . .

He rounded a corner and stopped dead.

Carter finally caught up to him. “Gehard,” he managed to say through deep breaths, “You have to stop doing that.” Then he noticed what was in front of him.

The passage ended abruptly in a room like the one they had slept in. The goblin cowered in one corner, behind three people in Order uniforms.

“Carter,” one of them said, “Is that you?”

– –

The remains of the crew and the three Order mages were gathered around the beginnings of a fire, using their backpacks as seats. The group’s leader, and Carter’s apprentice, Menlas was explaining what had happened to them. Gehard wasn’t listening though, he was too amused by one of the mage’s attempts to light a fire with pieces of flint.

“At first it was great,” Menlas was saying, “Mazanc could control the ruins. And that device behind him!” she said in a reverent tone. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We all wanted to know how it worked.”

“I take it that’s when things went wrong,” Carter said.

“Very wrong. When we asked him to let us see the crown he became hysterical. He accused us of trying to steal it from him. Something about us usurping his kingdom. Then he banished us.”

Gehard stifled a chuckle as the man managed to get the kindling lit, only to blow it out by mistake. Mages were always fun to watch when they tried to do something without magic.

“The same thing happened to us,” Carter said.

“So you’ve seen Mazanc.”

“You mean Mr. Crazy?” Adrian asked as he picked through a bag of dried fruit. “Yeah, we’ve met.”

“Then he hasn’t improved,” she sounded distraught.

“I’m afraid he may have gotten worse. He now calls the goblins his subjects.”

“Any idea what caused this?” Adrian asked.

“That crown probably. If it was designed to be used by Ancients, it might be too much for the human mind to handle. It’s only a theory though.”

“Speaking of goblins,” Gehard said, pulling himself from his entertainment. “What’s that one doing here?” he asked, referring to the creature that sat huddled in the corner.

“She’s been helping, guiding us around the tunnels.”

“How did you get a goblin to help you?” Gehard asked, half in disbelief, half in disgust.

“They’re not as unintelligent as you might think,” the third mage, Exas, said. He was sorting through the supplies they had brought, determining how many more days they would last. “This one’s remarkably bright for a juvenile. She knows her way around despite the ruin shifting.”

Gehard got the impression that Exas was one of those people who found every unsightly or unpleasant creature fascinating and couldn’t understand why the rest of Creation didn’t share their obsession.

“How do you communicate with her?” Carter asked.

“She seems to have a rudimentary understanding of Gallini. I think it’s because Mazanc speaks it to them.”

“And that crown or the device behind it allows them to understand,” Carter said.

It always concerned Gehard how Order mages finished each other’s thoughts, like they were all different bodies for the same mind.

“What was she doing with that enchantment breaker?”

“We were hoping it would disrupt Mazanc’s control.”

“Did you think it would work on Ancient technology?”

“Apparently not, seeing as nothing happened.”

Gehard, growing disinterested in the conversation, returned to watching the third mage, who by now was frantically pounding the two stones together. Unfortunately, Carter noticed and got up to help the man.

“Why don’t you just light it with magic?”

“No!” Menlas shouted suddenly. “No magic. He knows where you are when you use magic.”

“It took us a while to figure that out,” Exas said, indicating a bandage wrapped around his arm.

Adrian abruptly looked up from the date he had been contemplating. “That’s why the tunnels shifted on us. Maria had just used that spell.”

“There were others with you?” Menlas asked.

“Three, but we were separated when one of the tunnels split in two.”

“And one of them is a mage?”

“All three of them are actually.”

“That might work against them,” Exas said. “If they keep using magic, Mazanc’s going to keep harassing them.”

“And there’s no way of letting them know?” Adrian asked.

“Not that we’ve found.” Menlas leaned forward abruptly, as though sharing an intimate secret. “We have found something else though.”

“What?”

“You’re going to want to see it for yourself.”

– –

The Captain winced as another sword swung toward him, only to be stopped by the dome of shimmering light overhead. They were huddled together under Maria’s barrier, surrounded on all sides by the armored sentries. The giants had begun pacing around them slowly, their feet striking sparks when they hit the ground, like a wolf pack waiting for their prey to tire.

“Please tell me you have a plan,” Alexia said, her back pressed up against the Captain’s.

“I’m working on it.”

He watched the sentries as they paced. There were no weak points in their armor he could see, not that there was anything underneath that could be cut even if there were. The crystal orbs at their centers likely powered them, and possibly contained their instructions, but were protected by a double layer of armor.

Their only hope was to somehow dislodge the crystals from their housings. Doing so would incapacitate the giants, or so the Captain hoped, although it would also require a tremendous amount of force.

Thankfully they had a pyromancer with them.

“Alexia, have you ever read Wizard Aerichon’s essay on point of focus magic?”

“No. I don’t even know who that is.”

Another impact reverberated around them. Maria gritted her teeth as it struck, visibly fighting to reinforce the barrier.

“It doesn’t matter,” the Captain said quickly. “Actually, it’s pretty boring. But in it he proposes a method of using containment to condense the power of a spell.”

“You can’t be thinking . . .” Maria said.

“We don’t have any other option.”

“But that is a very risky technique.”

“Well, we’re in a very risky situation.”

“But what if the containment fails?”

“I think we can pull it off.”

Alexia suddenly exploded. “Could you please tell me what you’re talking about?”

The Captain leaned over and whispered in her ear.

Next

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