The rest of the night passed uneventfully, though few were able to sleep, and by morning the entire expedition was visibly tired. Ayodeji’s quick actions meant that only two of his warriors had been slain, with another four having been slashed by the ragged claws of the creatures. They stitched up the cuts and bandaged them, and none were deemed life-threatening, though none of the four Charnai would be fit for battle for the next few days.
Shortly after dawn, they backtracked up the path they had hacked to the lake, and continued northward in the direction of the temple. Ayodeji said little, only speaking to give direction to his people. Ho’gheysh as well seemed lost in his own thoughts, and Kaus left them alone. He considered the Charnai magician, and wondered at the man’s reaction to saving the expedition.
It was known that true sorcerers gave up their humanity to embrace the power they sought, but Kaus knew little of the ways of magicians. Theirs was considered a “lesser” form of magic—at least compared to sorcery—and it was a mixture of personal power and the use of physical items and what was often called potions, which were concoctions put together by the magicians themselves.
And yet, the sorcerers of the Undying Empire treated the Charnai magicians with utmost respect, and even the Emperor himself received emissaries of the Charnai and signed treaties with them ensuring that the two civilizations would never find themselves at war. There was something about the Charnai that demanded respect—not fear, despite their obvious power—and Kaus wondered at Ayodeji’s sadness at the loss of life at his hand.
Could it be because the magician had used his arts to slay the batrach, rather than killing them in direct combat? Kaus didn’t know, but he felt he had caught a glimpse of something important about the Charnai people. He hoped he would get a chance to discuss it with Ayodeji once this expedition was over.
Within the first hour of resuming their trek, word was passed up the line that the wounded warriors were having difficulty. Ayodeji moved back to see to his people and shortly after a couple of the trailbreakers were summoned. Kaus could see that the trailbreakers cut down some branches and then there was a flurry of activity.
When Ayodeji returned, he was frowning and Kaus could see the tension in his body.
“Are your people all right?” he asked the magician.
Ayodeji stopped and looked into Kaus’ eyes.
“Their wounds grow septic and none of my remedies seem to work. If we were on my ship, there are other things I could try. Out here, though…”
He let the thought hang in the air, and Kaus knew the men were likely to die.
“Perhaps something in the temple…” he suggested.
Ayodeji shook his head.
“Unlikely, though I believe we will see soon enough. For now, the injured are on litters and hopefully resting will give them more time.”
He turned back to the trailbreakers and signalled them to move on.
Shortly after, there was a loud clang as one of the trailbreakers swung her machete and connected with something solid. Ayodeji and Kaus moved up to see that she had discovered a stone pillar overgrown with vines and moss. They pulled away the vegetation and Ho’gheysh came forward to examine it with Ayodeji.
“Look at this writing!” Ho’gheysh exclaimed, all traces of exhaustion gone from his voice in his excitement. “It matches that found in the Book of Iskosia.”
“It is a warning,” Ayodeji said. “It tells us not to disturb the slumber of the God Who Dwells Below.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” Kaus muttered and Ho’gheysh barked a laugh.
“Primitive people see every creature more powerful than them as a god.”
“Sometimes they are correct,” Ayodeji said in a low voice. “Nonetheless, this marker means we are almost there.”
A renewed energy seemed to infuse the members of the expedition as they pressed on. Less than an hour later, they found the jungle growth thinning. One of the trailbreakers pointed through the trees and shouted, and Ayodeji once again moved forward. Kaus looked out toward where the trailbreaker pointed, and thought he could see what looked like a wall of dark green stone.
Ayodeji came back, an intensity in his eyes that Kaus had not seen before.
“We have found it. The temple is just ahead.”
He turned and gave orders to his warriors to move up and form a defensive ring around the wounded. They moved forward and came out into a small clearing, and before them squatted a dark stone structure of strange design. The walls curved slightly outward from their base, and the pillars set into the corners of the structure seemed lopsided and uneven. Three low, stone steps lead up to a door of black iron with no visible handle or means of opening it.
Carvings danced across every visible stone surface, cause Kaus’ eyes to ache as he looked at them. They were not images as such, but neither were they some form of writing. The design seemed vaguely familiar to Kaus, though he could not place it.
“Do not look too long up on the walls of this place,” Ayodeji told him. “Lest they draw your soul from your body and trap you here forever.”
Kaus turned away and closed his eyes until the ache subsided.
Ayodeji motioned for his trailbreakers to accompany him as he crossed the open space and mounted the steps to examine the iron door. Ho’gheysh started to move forward, but Ayodeji, still facing the door, held out his hand to halt the alchemist in his tracks.
“Please stay back,” he called out. “I do not know if there are any traps upon this door.”
The magician reached out and touched the door, and then ran his palms over its surface, moving slowly and carefully. Finally, he laid both hands flat on the door’s surface and touched his forehead to the iron. He was silent for a moment, and then he stepped back and spoke in a low voice to the trailbreakers.
They drew pry rods and small hammers from their packs. They placed the tapered ends of the pry rods at the edge where the door met the stone, and began to hammer the rods into the tiny gap. Finally, when the rods were fully seated, they pushed sideways against them. A thick, grating sound came from the door as they slowly pried it away from the stone.
As the door came free from its stone frame, a gust of dusty air billowed out from the crack. The trailbreakers staggered back, coughing and choking. Ayodeji moved forward to check on them, but it was nothing but stale air and thick dust they had inhaled and they soon recovered.
Moments later, the door was shoved wide, to reveal a dark opening into the temple interior. The trailbreakers stepped back and began preparing torches. Ayodeji returned to the main group and checked on the injured Charnai. When he was done, he walked over to Kaus and Ho’gheysh.
“They have lost consciousness and I cannot rouse them,” he reported. “They will likely die soon and there is nothing I can do.”
Ho’gheysh nodded absently, his gaze on the dark doorway into the temple.
“I’m sorry for your people and I admire the bravery they showed in the battle with the batrach,” Kaus said to the magician. “They will not be forgotten. Still, there might be something inside the temple that could help them.”
“Yes, Kaus is right,” Ho’gheysh said. “We should proceed into the temple.”
Ayodeji gave Ho’gheysh a look of such disgust it was good the alchemist didn’t notice it. But the magician thanked Kaus for his words.
“I will set my warriors to protect the injured out here, and it would be prudent to have some extra sword arms with us as we explore the temple. I would like your crewmembers to accompany us inside.”
Kaus did a quick mental calculation—this would leave ten Charnai outside with the four wounded, and nine to explore the temple. He gave instructions to his crew, who took the four lit torches from the trailbreakers. The Charnai moved up near the entrance to the temple and set up in a defensive position with the temple wall to their backs.
Ayodeji led the way back up to the doorway, Ho’gheysh on his heels. The magician took one of the torches and stepped through the doorway into the darkness beyond. The alchemist followed, then a couple of Kaus’ crewmembers, Kaus himself, and then the remaining crew.
Kaus found himself in a long chamber with a high ceiling. The walls to the left and right were pierced by three open doorways on each side, and a larger doorway sat in the short wall at the far end of the room. A scent like a mixture of dust and mold hung in the air. At the very edge of his hearing Kaus detected a faint, high whine coming from somewhere deeper in the temple.
“Good place for an ambush,” Kaus said to the others. Ayodeji nodded. He moved over to the first doorway on the right and looked inside.
“A small antechamber, empty,” he announced. He proceeded to the next.
“A passage leading to a further room beyond.”
He moved to the final door on that side.
“A staircase leading to an upper level.”
One of Kaus’ crew did the same on the opposite side, and found an identical layout.
Kaus motioned for one of the crewmembers with a torch to accompany him. He proceeded down the passage on the left, his sword drawn, and found a large room at the end. The walls were of the same stone as elsewhere, but here their surfaces had been smoothed out and they glittered as if covered with moisture. What appeared to be a large open pit occupied the center of the room, and Kaus estimated that if he stood on the bottom the edge would be just above his head. A set of marble tiles carved with strange runes were set around the outer edge of the pit, and the interior walls were covered with patches of black mold. Kaus guessed that it had once been a pool of some sort, now dry.
But as the room was otherwise empty, there was no threat from this direction. Kaus did the same with the passage on the other side, and found a similar room. This pool, however, had perhaps a hand’s span of black water in the bottom, and a jumble of what looked like human bones were scattered across the bottom surface, though not nearly enough to make up a full skeleton.
He returned to the main chamber and told the others what he had found.
“Let us finish exploring this level before we proceed upward,” Ayodeji suggested. Kaus tasked two of crewmembers to guard each of the staircases in case the creatures were waiting above to attack from behind. Then he and the others proceeded through the large doorway at the end of the chamber.
They proceeded down a short hallway that led to a set of a dozen or so stairs. As they ascended, Kaus noticed the high-pitched whine increase in volume.
“Whatever’s making that noise is up ahead,” he told the others. Ho’gheysh grunted and kept walking, but Ayodeji stopped and looked back at the others.
“If we find the gem, or any other treasures, touch nothing until I tell you it is safe.”
Everyone agreed and they moved on down the hallway to another large door of black iron. This one pushed inward, and moved with slightly greater ease than the door at the entrance to the temple. Once the door was pushed open enough to pass through, Ayodeji went first, still holding one of the torches. Kaus followed next, and then the alchemist followed by the rest of the crewmembers.
This chamber was hexagonal, with thick pillars in each of the six corners, each carved in the likeness of a robed figure. The walls were inset with bricks of jade that flickered in the light of the torches, and the floor was covered with a tattered and rotting carpet of what had once been a dark green.
All eyes, however, focused on the altar at the far end of the room. Carved from some sort of black stone, the altar was a large block upon which sat a golden frame, supporting a perfect emerald larger than Kaus’ clenched fist.
For a moment, no one moved as they all stared at the prize they had come to retrieve. Then Ho’gheysh began to walk forward, and Kaus stepped into his path. The alchemist grunted and looked up into Kaus’ face, his scowl deepening, but Kaus did not step aside.
The high-pitched whine was loud in this room, obviously coming from the gem on the altar. Ayodeji moved forward to within a few paces of the altar and stopped, and Kaus heard him chanting softly.
“Don’t insult my intelligence,” Ho’gheysh said to Kaus in a low voice. “I just want a closer look.”
“I mean no insult, Ho’gheysh. Just make sure your intentions are clear to our host.”
The alchemist considered Kaus’ words and gave a short nod. Now that they were within the presence of the gem, Ayodeji might not be inclined to maintain his friendly demeanor if he thought Ho’gheysh was trying to cheat him out of his prize.
Ayodeji’s chanting fell away and he turned back to the others.
“There is great power here, and it is active,” he said. “The gem is maintaining something, some web of energy, and it is likely it may be disrupted if it is moved.”
“Do you mind if I approach?” Ho’gheysh asked, and Ayodeji motioned him to come closer.
“I would be grateful for your evaluation,” he told the alchemist.
The two of them stood before the stone, speaking in low tones, while Kaus moved back to the doorway and gave a sharp whistle. It was answered almost immediately by two short whistles from his crewmembers, indicating that all was still well in the first chamber.
A few minutes later, Ayodeji and Ho’gheysh came back to the rest of the group.
“We believe the web of energy maintains this temple. Should it be disrupted, the entire structure may collapse.”
“Then there’s no way to remove it?” Kaus asked.
“I do not think the collapse will be instantaneous. Once I remove the gem, the structure will likely settle, and begin to fall apart. I should have a few moments to exit.”
“That’s pretty risky.”
“The pursuit of power is never without risk, my friend. However, I think you should all leave the temple and wait outside. I will dismantle the web of energy and grab the jewel. If I am able to race the destruction of the temple and win, I will meet you outside. If I am too slow…then my people will escort you back to the village, and then they will return my ship back to my homeland.”
“That’s it?” Kaus asked. “You just have to grab the emerald and run? There’s nothing you can do with the power you already have?”
“I am afraid I possess nothing to assist me in this endeavor beyond my own physical skills. But I am fit, and I can move with speed and agility when it is needed.”
Kaus didn’t like the idea, but he understood he didn’t really have any say. Ayodeji was solely risking his own life, and that was his choice.
“What about the rest of the temple? Do you want to finish our exploration?”
“I will remain here and study the web of power that emanates from the gem. Call out if you encounter anything and need my assistance, but I believe there is nothing living within the temple.”
He turned to Ho’gheysh.
“As agreed, anything you find is yours to take. I have found what I came for.”
As they left the chamber, Kaus turned back to Ayodeji.
“When we are done and have reached the outer door, I will signal you with two short whistles, and one long.”
He looked at Ayodeji and wondered if this was the last time he would see the magician.
“Run quickly, and we will see you outside.”
Ayodeji bowed to Kaus, Ho’gheysh, and Kaus’ crewmembers, and then turned back to the gem.
Kaus and the rest of the group returned the first chamber and joined up with the four who had been left behind. They chose the right-hand staircase and proceeded up, Kaus in the lead with his sword in hand.
On the upper level, they explored chamber after chamber, but found no living creature. Most of the rooms were empty, with only the occasional pieces of a broken table, or a scattering of bones, or rotten and ragged tapestries or carpets on the floor. Ho’gheysh’s scowl continued to deepen as he realized that there was no other treasures to be found in this temple besides the single gem that now belonged to Ayodeji.
It took them less than an hour to explore the upper level, returning back down the opposite stairwell they had ascended. They proceeded outside and rejoined the others, explaining what Ayodeji was going to do. The entire group moved away from the side of the temple and waited while Kaus returned to the door and gave the whistled signal for the magician to proceed.
He returned to the main group and spoke to Chajanos, the man who seemed to be the leader of the warriors in Ayodeji’s absence. Chajanos told him that the injured warriors were still alive, though they had not regained consciousness. Kaus no longer had any hope of finding a solution in the temple, and it would likely take many months of studying the gem for Ayodeji to be able to access its power.
The group waited for the first signs that the temple was going to collapse, and Kaus watched the door, waiting for Ayodeji to emerge. The magician was risking everything for this gem, for this power he wanted to possess, and while Kaus did understand the choice, it was not one he would have taken, himself.
And then, in an instant, his breath was pulled from his lungs as a strange pulse spread outward from the temple. He gasped for a moment, before sucking back in a lungful of air, as everyone around him did likewise. The clouds blanketing the sky over the island turned black, and it was as if night had suddenly fallen, though by this point it was just past mid-day.
A strong, warm wind arose and the jungle vegetation began to shift and sway in the gusts. Kaus looked around, but in the dimness he could see no more than a dozen paces in any direction.
“Ho’gheysh,” he yelled over the blowing wind. “What is happening?”
The alchemist clutched his walking stick and leaned into the wind.
“Ayodeji must have unraveled the web of power, but this is not what we expected to happen! It was woven into the fabric of the temple—it should not have this effect out here.”
A scream sounded from behind, and Kaus spun in time to see one of the warriors fall forward, a batrach driving him into the ground, its claws dug deep into the man’s back. More of the creatures emerged from among the trees and raced towards the group.
“Fall back to the temple!” Kaus yelled as he rushed forward to engage the first of the creatures, taking off its head with a swipe of his sword.
The Charnai immediately formed up into a defensive ring around the wounded and began to move toward the temple’s entrance. Kaus kept close to the group so as not to let himself get surrounded by the creatures. He could see little, but it seemed like an endless wave of the creatures were pouring from the jungle.
But the defenders had reacted quickly and reached the temple before they could be cut off. As they moved up the steps toward the entrance, Ayodeji appeared in the doorway, the gem in one hand.
“Inside, quickly!” he shouted, and the group passed the wounded inside and then made a fighting withdrawal. Kaus was the last to enter, and he saw that there was a metal rod attached to the inside of the large iron door. He grabbed the rod and heaved, pulling the door closed. Chajanos leapt forward and drove his spear into the chest of a batrach that had emerged from the darkness ready to tear Kaus open with its claws.
The creature fell back, taking the spear with it, but Kaus tensed his muscles and heaved, and with a great grinding noise, the door slide closed.
The last two Charnai spears were slid through the handle of the door to brace it from being pulled open from the outside.
“Will it hold?” Ho’gheysh asked in a tight voice, his perpetual scowl now replaced by a wide-eyed look of fear.
“There’s no handle on the outside,” Kaus replied. “Maybe they can use their claws as we used the pry bars earlier, but it’ll need a great effort to pull the door open that way. I think we’re safe for now.”
He turned to Ayodeji.
The magician was breathing heavily and took a minute to regain his ability to speak.
“When I figured out how to unravel the web of energy from around the gem, I waited for your signal. Once I knew you had safety exited the temple, I worked to release the emerald, and I was ready to run the moment it came free. But when the energy released, it did not flow into the walls and ceiling like we had anticipated. Instead, it flowed downward, into the ground below the temple.”
Ho’gheysh grunted in surprise.
“Why would it do that?” Kaus asked him.
“I realize it now,” Ayodeji answered, his voice barely above a whisper. “The energy wasn’t keeping the temple standing. It was using the solidity of the temple to reinforce itself. The energy web was focused downward. It was holding something in place, something under the temple.”
“The God Who Dwells Below,” Kaus said, his blood running cold as he realized the truth.
“The gem wasn’t a focus of worship,” Ayodeji said. “It was keeping whatever is down there asleep.”
“I don’t understand,” Ho’gheysh argued. “This was built as a temple, a place of worship. Why would they imprison the very god they wanted to elevate?”
“Look around you,” Kaus told him. “This place was cleaned out. I’ll bet the original worshippers were killed by some other group, who figured that putting the ‘god’ to sleep was the best way to keep it contained. The gem wasn’t part of the temple, it was added later by whoever wiped out the worshippers.”
“Is that what those creatures are?” asked Chajanos. “The original worshippers who now have their god back?”
“Most likely,” Ho’gheysh answered. “They must not have known how to release the web of energy powered by the gem.”
Something about that didn’t sound right to Kaus.
“Remember what Ukalu said? It was only after he invited Ho’gheysh to come to the island to recover the gem that the batrach became active again. They’ve been trying to prevent us from reaching the temple since the first night we arrived. I don’t think they’re the original worshippers.”
He looked at Ayodeji and Ho’gheysh.
“I think they’re here to prevent the god from being released.”
The walls of the temple shook as a low rumble came up from the ground.
“How long does it take a god to wake up?” Kaus asked.
“I’d rather not find out while we’re trapped in its temple!” Ho’gheysh snapped. “What do we do now?”
The alchemist turned to Ayodeji.
“If you replace the gem in its holder, will the energy web come back?”
The Charnai magician shook his head.
“No, the energy has dissipated. With time, I may be able to figure something out, but…”
Kaus could hear a renewed assault on the door by the batrach outside the temple.
“We need to move,” he said. “That door should hold th—”
Kaus suddenly threw himself to one side as a figure leaped up from the shadows, claws raking toward his face. He came up in a roll to see three more of the creatures attacking the Charnai and his own people.
The one that had tried to take his head off spun to face him, and Kaus let out a shout of horror. The face was that of one of the Charnai warriors who had been injured at the beach, and who had lain unconscious as they were dragged into the temple. Now, the man’s head seemed to be sagging as if it was melting like a block of ice under the hot sun, and his fingers had turned into a set of elongated claws.
Kaus did not hesitate, but plunged his sword into the creature’s chest. The former Charnai let out a howl that was a mixture of human and inhuman voices. Kaus yanked his sword out and swung it around in a chop that took off the creature’s head.
Two more of the Charnai were dead under the claws of their former comrades, along with one of Kaus’ crewmembers. The other Charnai were holding the remaining creatures at bay, but seemed hesitant to slay them.
Kaus barked an order, and his crew waded in and cut down the creatures with no mercy. He turned to Ayodeji.
“We need a plan now or we’re all dead.”
The magician looked around the room and came to a decision.
“Back to the room with the altar. I will figure out what to do.”