Kaus led the way to the altar room and found it just as he had last seen it, minus the large emerald that now lay in Ayodeji’s possession.
“All the power was focused in this room, and the gem was at the center of it,” the magician explained. “But it was being directed downward, to something deep beneath the temple.”
“So?” Ho’gheysh asked. “What good does that do us now?”
Ayodeji opened his mouth, but then seemed at a loss for words. Kaus looked around the room and then approached the altar.
“If there were worshippers here, then there must have been some kind of priest leading their rites. And priests value their privacy when they’re not preaching to their flock.”
He stepped to one side of the altar and began to examine the wall, pushing and pulling on the jade bricks, searching for something that might indicate another, hidden, passage. Ayodeji immediately understood what Kaus was doing and began to search the wall on the opposite side.
But Kaus had guessed correctly and he found a brick that seemed loose. He shifted it slightly to one side and found a hidden latch in the gap. He gestured for his crew to ready their weapons, and then he flicked the latch and shoved on the door.
A blast of stale air blew out of the gap as Kaus stepped back, drawing his own sword. The door swung open perhaps a hand’s span and then stopped. Kaus grabbed one of the torches and stepped up to the opening and peered inside before shoving the door fully open.
He stepped into a square chamber, perhaps a couple dozen paces on a side. The rotten remains of a straw bed occupied one corner, and the skeleton of a roughly humanoid creatures was sprawled out across the floor near the middle of the room. Kaus looked around at the decayed tapestries that covered three of the walls and grimaced at the scenes depicted there.
All three tapestries had been done by hands that were not fully human, and all showed terrible acts of depravity by creatures that vaguely resembled the batrach, only larger and with less human features. Kaus looked away, not wanting to examine those images and the horrors being enacted within them.
“The priest wasn’t killed with the rest of the worshippers,” he told Ayodeji as the magician entered the room. “Otherwise this place would have been ransacked like the rest of the temple.”
Ho’gheysh stepped in and then shouted “Kaus, look out!”
Kaus spun, his sword raised to see one of the tapestries bulge outward from the wall…and then fall back into place. He stepped forward and used the tip of his sword to draw back the fabric. A doorway pierced the wall behind the tapestry, leading away into darkness. A foul smell, of dead and rotting fish and something worse underneath, filled his nose and he stepped back, letting the tapestry fall across the opening.
“Another room?” Ayodeji asked.
Kaus shook his head.
“A passage of some sort. It curves away and downward.”
Kaus and Ayodeji met gazes and both knew what the other was thinking.
“I’ll go first with one of my crew,” Kaus said. “Then your three warriors, followed by you and Ho’gheysh, then your trailbreakers and the rest of my crew.”
“I’m not sure I agree with this,” Ho’gheysh said in a low voice. “We may be walking into the very jaws of whatever it is that lives under this temple, just in time for it to wake up.”
“What other options do we have,” Kaus asked him.
“We don’t!” the alchemist snapped. “That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.”
“Perhaps you will find something that will make this journey worth all the hardship it has brought you,” Ayodeji suggested. Ho’gheysh scowled at him but said nothing else.
The party formed itself up and Kaus led the way into the passage, a torch in one hand and his sword in the other. The walls were lined with a different type of block than that in the rest of the temple, darker and grayer. Moisture dripped from the stone and the air was thick and humid. Every few moments, a slight breeze wafted up from below, bringing with it the smell of death and decay.
The passage turned to the left and sloped downward, straightening out for a few dozen paces before turning once more to the left. As they proceeded, Kaus realized that they were descending a great spiral, and after a few more circuits he believed they were now underground.
“How long do we have with the torches?” Ho’gheysh asked from behind.
“We carry enough for perhaps another eight hours, no more,” Ayodeji replied.
Once again everyone fell silent as they walked. Kaus felt an increasing tension as they descended, and realized that he was holding his sword with a white-knuckled grip. He forced his hand to relax and rolled his shoulders, but he was aware of a growing sense of doom among their party.
After perhaps another dozen rotations on the downward spiral, he noticed the smell was now present even without the sporadic wafts of air coming up from below.
“We’re getting near the end,” he announced. “Be alert, but don’t rush into a fight unless I give the order. We don’t know what we’re going to find down here.”
What seemed like ten or fifteen minutes later, the passage leveled out. Kaus saw that up ahead it opened out into a larger chamber of some kind. As they neared the end, he motioned for the others to wait as he moved ahead to the edge and looked out.
He stood at the opening to a large cavern, the walls to his left and right curving away into darkness. The ground ahead appeared to be a pebbled beach, the shore of an underground lake that began perhaps fifty paces from his vantage point. The smell of death and decay was strong here, and the humid air clung to his skin like a wet blanket wrapped around his torso and limbs.
He motioned the others to approach, and he heard Ho’gheysh give a grunt as the alchemist saw the cavern.
“What do you think, my friend?” Ayodeji asked Kaus.
“I think we can be sure this isn’t another way out. Beyond that, I get the feeling that there’s something out there, somewhere in the darkness.”
“I feel it, too,” the magician replied.
“Are we up to fighting a god?” Kaus asked, half jokingly.
“What is a god, really?” Ayodeji asked in reply. “Do you know there is a race of primitive people far to the west who believe we Charnai are gods?”
“Does that mean you can take this thing on yourself?”
Ayodeji smiled at Kaus’ jest.
“I merely state that what some people call a god is merely a being—or beings—who hold more power than they themselves possess. And power is relative.”
“So you think we should move ahead and see what this God Who Dwells Below really is.”
Ayodeji considered the question and then nodded.
“I do not see that we have much choice in the matter. Retreat does not leave us with a solution to the problem of the batrach, and there are no other reasonable options of which I am aware. We do not know what is out there, and the sense of dark power it gives off is not promising, but it is still a path that is open to us.”
“Better to act than to react,” Kaus agreed. “I can’t say I see any better choices myself.”
Kaus stepped out onto the pebbles and slowly walked toward the edge of the water. The others followed, spreading out as they emerged from the passageway.
“Ayodeji, look here!” Ho’gheysh hissed as they came into the cavern. Kaus turned to see the alchemist staring at the wall to the left of the opening, where the torchlight revealed writing carved into the stone.
The magician joined Ho’gheysh and together they examined the writing. Another torch was lit, and they moved along the wall, revealing more and more of the alien script. Between the two men, they appeared to be able to decipher the writing, and they whispered back and forth as they read passages out loud.
The lake was as still as glass, and Kaus’ torchlight reflected off the surface. The water itself was dark and Kaus could not see the bottom more than a pace or two out from shore.
Ayodeji came over to where Kaus was standing and spoke to him quietly.
“The carvings were not done by the original inhabitants of the temple,” he explained. “They are incantations, part of the ritual that bound the energy from the emerald to the temple and down to here.”
“But if those who killed the worshippers and bound their god were down here, how come they didn’t ransack the priest’s quarters upstairs? It’s the only room that wasn’t emptied out.”
“Perhaps they entered this cavern by another route.”
Kaus turned his head and looked around.
“That means there may be another way out of here, instead of having to go back up through the temple.”
He felt the warm water lap at the soles of his boots.
“Okay, let’s gather everyone up and start walking along the beach. We’ll stay near the wall and keep moving until we find another passage, or some clue to another way out.”
Kaus looked down as another small wave spread up over the pebbles and he suddenly realized what the waves meant.
“MOVE!” he shouted. “Back to the wall!
Kaus took off sprinting for the passage entrance as something huge erupted from the water behind him. As he ran, he glanced back and in the flickering torchlight he caught a glimpse of the creature. It was perhaps the twice the height of a man, a great toad head upon a chitinous, crab-like body. Where its eyes should have been, two long, whip-like tentacles sprouted from its head, each ending in a trio of ragged claws. The beast scuttled up out of the shallows on its dozen or so crab-like legs.
Ayodeji reached the wall and grabbed Ho’gheysh, who had been taken by surprise at the appearance of the creature and now stood, mouth gaping. The beast turned to face the pair, and Kaus knew it was going to rush them.
Hefting his torch, he ran forward and threw it over the pebbled beach to crash into the side of the great toad-like head. It spun back to face Kaus and the tentacles shot out at him. He managed to parry one with his sword while throwing himself to the side to avoid the snapping talons of the other. He rolled and came up on his feet in time to parry again, and again.
Two spears sailed through the air and embedded their points in the creature’s head. Kaus did not hear so much as feel the sound as the great beast screamed, a noise so low that he felt his teeth ache and his heart stutter in his chest.
The tentacles pulled back as the huge mouth opened and the creature’s tongue emerged, thrusting out and stretching a hundred paces to slam into the chest of one of the Charnai warriors. The man was not thrown back by the blow, but was ensnared as the tongue withdrew, pulling the hapless warrior with it.
The entire attack took perhaps a second, as the tongue grabbed the Charnai warrior and yanked him back across the intervening space into that open maw. The mouth snapped closed, crushing the bone of a protruding leg, and Kaus knew the man was dead.
A green glow erupted from where Ayodeji and Ho’gheysh stood, and Kaus saw the magician hold the emerald aloft. Ho’gheysh was yelling out something in an alien language, and it appeared he was reading from the carvings along the wall.
The beast turned back to face the two men and Kaus charged forward at one of the creature’s segmented legs. He thrust his sword point into the unprotected spot where two segments met and felt the blade sink into the soft mass underneath. A gout of black ichor spouted from the wound, and Kaus dodged out of the way and yanked his blade free.
Once again, the creature’s scream nearly sent him sprawling, but he kept his feet as it turned its attention back to him, the eye-tentacles shooting out and trying to impale his face with the wickedly-pointed talons. His crewmembers rushed to his aid, hacking at the thing’s legs but doing no serious damage. One of the tentacles switched targets and hammered into a crewwoman’s face, the talons plunging into her skull from three directions. Her body went limp as she died, and the tentacle flung her corpse away to crash among the pebbles.
Kaus aimed once again at the spot he had already wounded and slashed through the soft tissue. The leg went limp as it hung from a few remaining threads of flesh. The creature used another of its legs to impale one of his crewmembers through the chest, pinning the man’s body to the ground.
The green light from the emerald was now accompanied by a keening pitch that rose on the air around them. As the beast turned back to face Ayodeji and Ho’gheysh, Kaus saw it open its mouth and the tongue emerge. An instant before it shot out, one of Ayodeji’s trailbreakers threw himself in front of the magician. The tongue caught the unfortunate man and yanked him into the creature’s mouth, but his sacrifice had saved Ayodeji from that terrible fate.
The tentacles grabbed another of Kaus’ crewmembers by shoulder and hip and tore him in half, and Kaus redoubled his attacks, targeting another leg. He barely managed to avoid being skewered by the pointed appendage as the creature suddenly lunged in his direction. He threw himself to one side and was forced to keep rolling to avoid a second and third leg that stabbed down at him.
The remaining six Charnai, trailbreakers and warriors both, crowded in front of Ayodeji, protecting the magician and the alchemist from the beast’s attacks. The creature consumed another Charnai but was unable to reach Ayodeji, who held the emerald high in one fist and chanted in counterpoint to Ho’gheysh.
Kaus reached his feet in time to throw himself aside once more as the creature appeared to stumble backwards. The gem was too bright to look at directly now, giving off a light that was nearly white, and the high-pitched whine was ear-splitting.
The creature began to back away into the water, and Ayodeji ran forward, his warriors keeping pace with him. As the ritual reached a crescendo, the creature opened its mouth one last time. But before the tongue could emerge, Ayodeji flung the emerald up into a high arc that sent the glowing gem right into the beast’s open mouth.
The pulse of the creature’s scream knocked Kaus and the rest of his companions off their feet. The world spun around him and in that moment he was helpless before the God Who Dwells Below.
But Ayodeji and Ho’gheysh had completed the ritual, and the creature stumbled back into the water and sank out of sight.
The sudden absence of the emerald’s brightness made the light from the one remaining torch seem like the darkest night.