Silence fell upon the groups, and they stood to attention as a figure in simple grey robes stepped out from the depths of the temple’s shadows. The talisman at Catryn’s wrist pulled magnetically towards the figure. Despite the plain robes, she knew beyond a doubt that this was the High Priest. His mask, a burial shroud concealing his features entirely, was the only proof she needed. But the echo of something greater followed him, like a cloak.
Her heart clenched painfully in her chest as his power slithered over her, curling around her shoulders and down her arm. It lingered at the talisman, approval echoing through the commanding presence that surrounded her. Her clenched fists trembled at her sides, and she could feel Ahren’s muffled concern. He always did see too much. But she latched onto his essence like an anchor, tethering her to Forlarion.
Her rapid breathing slowed, and the pain reluctantly eased as she brought her heart back under control. As her hazy vision cleared, Catryn saw two guards in white robed uniforms standing at the High Priest’s back. He silently beckoned the group to follow him into the temple, retreating back into the long shadows cast by the dawn.
Ahren’s gruff voice surprised her, breaking the unnatural silence, as he called the others to follow. “With me. Keep your hands to yourselves.”
He pulled his bear mask down over his face, the additional cloth layer Catryn had given him already secured and ready. Wolf followed his lead, pulling her hood up to mirror his, and stepped hesitantly under the grand stone archway and into the bleached temple.
The Iron Marauders’ armour echoed against the white marble floors that met them inside. The main area of the temple, for mourners and worshippers, was a massive cavernous space. If it had originally been part of the catacombs, carved from the mountain, the renovations were astounding. The walls were covered with mosaic tiles, showing sweeping landscapes and renderings in shades from white to black from floor to ceiling.
The temple was a maze of archways and tunnels, a reflection of the catacombs below. It was imperative that visitors be accompanied by priests at all times. Alone, the unanointed were certain to be hopelessly lost in the labyrinth. Catryn pitied any thieves that tried to take advantage of the seemingly lax security outside.
Each grand mosaic on the walls of the chamber held a single raven, messengers of the Gatekeeper. The scenes sent chills down Catryn’s spine, though she could not explain why. They were simple landscapes, misty representations of forests and cities. And yet, the trees were hollow and the streets were empty. This was the world between. The Gatekeeper’s domain, where spirits wandered until he guided them through the Gate.
Her muscles locked up as she fought the instinctive need to flee. Her body urged her to escape, before he could find her again, but she knew it was too late for that. It had been too late ever since he had graced her with his presence and sent her back from the precipice of death.
As the High Priest turned to the group, Catryn took an involuntary step back and bumped into one of the guards. A woman in white robes, with grey thorns twisting around the crown of her hood, touched her back. The Covenant of Thorns served as guards for the temple, and frequently patrolled the catacombs for wayward souls. Living and dead.
When Wolf flinched at the contact, the guard lowered her hand with a gentle, knowing smile. Many visitors to the temple were uneasy, at best, by the presence of the void. The Gatekeeper was often the most feared of the Caretakers, even though he was also the most Neutral.
Wolf positioned herself at Ahren’s side, keeping her chin firmly raised. The High Priest clapped twice, the sound resonating around the cavernous space. All eyes snapped to him and he held out his arms, declaring “I thank you for your timely assistance in this sensitive matter. Your silence is a part of this contract, so please keep this situation to yourselves.”
“Your task will be to escort my priests to the areas we must cleanse, so that we may gain control over the restless spirits once more. Each of your groups shall be assigned one of the points of convergence within the catacombs. It is essential that you remain with your priest, and the thorns, lest you be lost amongst the wayward souls.” His voice rang clearly out to each of them, echoing on that final menacing note. Despite his obvious blindness, his unseen gaze rooted them in place.
Ahren alone was unshaken, turning to his people to firmly reiterate the message. “You heard him. Protect the priests, do not touch anything, and keep the damage to a minimum. And by the Warrior, do not wander off. I am not brave enough to come looking for you down there if we are separated.”
Catryn stifled a smile; she sincerely doubted that he would leave anyone behind. If it meant running into the dark, he would absolutely do whatever he believed necessary to find any one of them. His words had the desired effect on his underlings, who immediately tightened ranks.
The High Priest moved fluidly, especially blinded as he was by the shroud he wore. He approached their group first, striding smoothly over to where Catryn studied him. “You are Wolf, I take it?”
“Sometimes.” She replied tensely, clenching her jaw against the unnatural power that called and whispered to her.
The High Priest bowed his head deeply, a show of respect, and she shook her head in surprise. He did not register her response, simply turning to Ahren to say “Aeric Ahren, of Iron and Bone. Your presence here is appreciated.”
In response, Ahren nodded respectfully. This was not a place for idle chatter. Behind the High Priest stepped two priests and four temple guards. “May the ravens guide your path.”
The two priests stepped forward as the High Priest moved on to the Iron Marauders. Rynir, the fifth member of their group, was a follower of the Gatekeeper, and seemed to know them well from his frequent visits. The temple guards remained where they were, attentive and patient. The older of the two priests explained that they were to accompany them into the catacombs.
Before Ahren could reply, Tomas laughed and pointed at the younger priest. He was a little younger than Tomas, hardly old enough to be called a man, and he had visibly paled at the mention of their task. “I thought you people weren’t meant to be afraid of death.”
His quivering gaze sharpened, flashing to Tomas’ face. “I do not fear death.” He replied, his thin voice quiet but assertive. “I fear the consequences for the city and the balance if we fail in our task.”
“Then we will succeed.” Ahren interjected and stepped forward. Kihyun wordlessly pulled Tomas back and Rynir sighed deeply. Tomas was a skilled fighter, but he was dense and thoughtless outside of combat. “I am sure time is of the essence. Shall we depart?”
“Yes, of course.” The elder priest nodded reverently and proceeded to pull his deep hood over his head. Is counterpart followed suit, and their faces were obscured in deep shadows. At his gesture, one of the temple guards led the way to the entrance they would be using. Catryn stayed close to Ahren as they navigated the cramped, dizzying halls, with the final temple guard at her back.
To Catryn’s surprise, there was no door separating the catacombs from the rest of the temple. In the archway hung a thin grey curtain instead. It shone like gossamer, gently swaying in a breeze that belied the thick still air. Above the archway, another raven had been intricately carved, embossed with tarnished silver.
She had expected more embellishment. Something to mark this place as significant, somehow. She rarely set foot in temples, but she knew that many spent more time squeezing coins from their followers than praying for them. Yet, this place was solemn and quiet. The mosaics and tapestries were understated in their magnificence.
The group halted a moment before the heavy curtain, and the priests murmured a quiet prayer. Summoned by their hushed words, a breath of wind fluttered around them. As the drapery fluttered, Catryn took a moment to steady herself. Then, as a group, they plunged into the darkness of the catacombs.
Silence wore them like a cloak. Every step, every whisper of fabric, was unnaturally hushed as they snuck through the hallowed chambers. Ahren had instructed Tomas and Kihyun to stay with the priests, to prioritise their protection and defence. Wolf and Rynir accompanied him to scout the passages ahead.
Wolf had been a mercenary since arriving in Mar K’shinta. When she had arrived, they made quite the scene at the gates. When Jared had finally come for them, Ahren and his predecessor had been right behind. Her scavenged knives were already drenched in blood. To keep her family safe, and fed, what was a little more? Still, this was completely different to her other jobs.
Usually, Wolf was the one hunting. She rarely took work to protect people; she was hardly suited after failing so miserably to keep her parents safe. Walking through the darkened passages, every one of her senses was heightened. Her magic slipped through the shackles she usually forced around it, feeling the air. For once, she did not fight the instinct; any advantage would be sorely needed. The dead did not simply walk. It was a fact that souls did not escape the Gate once they crossed over. There was no coming back from Valonde, or the unknown expanse that lay beyond.
The walls of the well-travelled catacombs were lines with sconces, giving off warm flickering light. Wolf would have preferred the dark, but there was security and solace in the safe and familiar torchlight. The dead were entombed within the walls, purified and wrapped tightly. Wolf did not know the processes involved, and she did not care to.
Despite the lack of disturbances, the air was thick with unnatural pressure. It was the sensation of thick fog pressing in on all sides, yet the path was clear. Wolf found herself longing for something to leap out, to break the tension smothering them.
Scurrying met their ears. Wolf’s first instinct was rats, not uncommon in tunnels, but the sound was hollow. Wrong. She reached out towards the sound and felt a void where there should have been warmth and life. A coldness pulled her closer, pulsing hypnotically.
A crunch wrenched her back, and the negative energy retreated into the air around them and dissipated. She whirled around to see Rynir staring in distaste at the bones of an animated rat, long departed from the world. Snarling quietly, she bit down on her anger. To her surprise, Ahren quietly sighed “A little respect, Rynir.”
Taken aback, Rynir stared a moment before whispering “It was a rat. A dead rat.”
“I will not ask again.” Ahren replied, his hushed voice lined with a warning. Catryn never knew how his voice could be so calm and yet so unyielding. Still, she was uncomfortable lingering there and their voices were disturbing something in the air around them. The impermeable silence rejected their invasion.
Wolf hurriedly put a hand on Ahren’s arm, and he turned to inspect her. His mask covered his face, as hers did, but his eyes narrowed as though he could see her panicked expression. The way her grip was too tight on his arm, the way she shook, the pleading in her eyes. With a solemn nod, he indicated that they should pull back to regroup with the others.
Catryn was used to the dark; she was used to prowling the under city for her targets for as long as it took. But the catacombs were something else entirely. All sense of time and direction was distorted, and Wolf couldn’t tell East from West. They could have been creeping through the tunnels for hours, or even days, for all she knew.
More rats crept out of the woodwork, some alive and others in various states of decay. The smell was the worst part; death was not new to any of them, but the corpses they usually dealt with were much fresher. At Ahren’s quiet urging, they left the creatures to their own devices; the cleansing would ease their suffering.
As the chill in the air grew more pronounced, the priests quietly chanted. They burned their incense and cast their holy symbols in every direction. Though they were certain it was helping in some way, it did nothing for the stealthy approach the mercenaries had hoped for. The overwhelming sense of dread pushed in around them, and they soon pressed forward again. If they were to have any chance of keeping the “undead” away from the priests, they needed to scout the passages ahead.
To their dismay, they soon found what they were looking for as several larger bodies lurched and shuffled into view. Hollow moans sent shivers down Catryn’s spine. Their soulless screams were inhuman.
Beside her, Wolf saw Ahren falter. It was barely perceptible; if her senses hadn’t latched on to his distinctive aura, even she wouldn’t have noticed. But his hesitation gave her pause. They had faced down many foes, they had been outnumbered and outmatched, and they always prevailed. Not once had she seen anything but calm certainty on her captain’s face. Beyond anything else she had seen, that slight misstep screamed that they were in over their heads.
“Rynir, get the priests.” She muttered, grabbing his shoulder and yanking him out of the path of the howling creatures. “We’ll hold them off, right Captain?”
A quiet chuckle echoed through her as Ahren stepped to her side. “Any excuse to get me alone, Wolf?”
“Just like old times.” She replied, drawing her batons. Once, she would have launched forwards into the fray. But these were not simple bandits. They looked like men, until their hunched and distorted forms scuffled into the torchlight. What was left of their faces twisted with rage, and their bodies were decomposing with every step.
In unison, Ahren and Catryn pulled their cloth masks up over their mouths. Even the overpowering lavender-soaked material could not fully smother the rotting stench, but it helped. Wolf wanted desperately to take solace in their stuttering movements. A slow opponent was easier to hit, after all. But these poor creatures would not fall to crippling wounds.
The talisman at her wrist burned her skin, as if trying to warn her that there were restless spirits. She would have laughed if every nerve in her body wasn’t already screaming. Seeing the meat sloughing from their bones, the sinew snapping, turned her stomach. Their wrappings had unravelled and hung off them, along with strips of skin, fluttering in a breeze Wolf could not feel.
The horror in front of her was paralysing. Every new image froze her mind as it struggled to process the abhorrence of the shambling corpses. These detestable creatures rejected the natural laws, and it could not continue. With Ahren at her side, Wolf drew her strength from the knowledge that these things were not strong enough to take them down. They could slow them down long enough for the priests to release their souls from their trappings. To set them free.
The thought came unbidden to her mind, and she faltered again. The long hallway ahead of them echoed with their howls and Wolf reluctantly drew her batons. They were so angry. If the dead were unsettled, there had to be a reason. “Ric…let’s try not to damage them if we can avoid it.”
He nodded firmly, pulling out a large net from his pack. It shimmered with strange magic, unlike the one he usually carried, but Catryn did not have the mind to inspect it. At his signal, she grabbed one edge of the net and flung it with him, covering the creatures. To her surprise, the fabric rushed to the ground and rooted the shuffling dead to the ground.
The iridescent glow intensified, but another corpse shambled around the corner, drawn in by the haunting cries of its fellows. The others had been slow. Hardly a threat as they struggled onward. This one, however, hunkered to the ground in a jarring movement. Its knees and elbows stuck out at odd angles, and an unearthly shriek rang through the air.
It scurried on all fours with lightning speed, twisted and hungry. Ahren could only equip his shield by the time it lunged over the thrashing bodies. Her mind fractured at the way this thing moved, but Wolf did not need to think; she reacted on instinct alone. Two silver batons sang through the air at her slightest whim, finding their mark.
Her first strike tore a chunk of flesh from its femur, which splattered the hard stone floor with a sickening wet thud. The bone splintered and cracked, tipping the creature off balance. The second baton followed within a heartbeat and shattered its shoulder. It toppled onto the writhing pile of undead, biting and scratching at each other to escape their entanglement. Without hesitation, Ahren grabbed one of the flasks of blessed water and flung it over the lot of them.
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