Though we were already a fair clip ahead of our pursuers when they stumbled into my Thamaturgy, the first of the Anathema's “bad traps” proved to be worthy of my full attention. At first I let Yurasu lead the way so that he wouldn't slow us down by keeping his distance from our still-glowing companion but when I began to feel that something was not quite right, I pushed him behind me and hesitated for a moment as we were about to enter into a seamless white marble corridor.
Kneeling down, I drew a deep breath and then blew all the air out of my lungs. It scarcely disturbed the stillness of the place, but it was enough to trigger something.
“Uhoh.” The Anathema paled.
I picked up a little rock and tossed it about three feet. There was a sound like a hissing snake and the faint but unmistakable scent of a certain oil that a old friend of mine had often used on his firewands.
“Down!” I ordered, seizing Yurasu's belt.
A sheet of blue fire filled the corridor, burning my little rock black and then evaporating into nothingness.
“Sifu, we can't go through that!” Yurasu protested. It was the first he'd said in some time. The realization that we were both in very far over our heads had doubtless occurred to him.
“There's no other way!” The Anathema protested.
“You said “bad traps”! In my book, that means traps with the potential to maim or kill! But that there? That is incineration! Which is, to put it nicely - insanity!” I pointed to the singed rock.
“Ugh! Damnit, Devil! This is your old house, isn't it?” The Anathema glared at me, her hands on her hips. I could not shake how familiar she seemed every time she spoke to me in that casual manner, as if we were old friends.
“My old house?” I echoed. Yurasu raised an eyebrow at the demon.
“Nevermind. Look, if you did set something like this up, how would you plan on getting around it?” The Anathema demanded.
I considered what she'd said for a moment, not wanting to admit that I was starting to feel a little more comfortable with this particular Anathema tomb than I should have, especially since we were currently being pursued by an army of the dead.
“I'd have a way to disarm this thing from either side. Here.” I decided, pushing Yurasu aside. As I'd suspected, hidden underneath an unobtrusive floor tile in the corner was a little gauge. As I tightened it closed with my bare hands, the hissing sound of the air and the smell of firewand oil began to fade.
“That's all?” The Anathema frowned.
“Something that deadly had better be easy to shut off.” I replied, trying to underplay what I had just done. For good measure, I casually tossed two more rocks to test my theory. The jets that had spewed fire before made one last valiant belch after the first rock and then only a slight puff of smoke on the second. I put the floor tile back in place.
“We'll also be able to turn it back on from the other side.” I informed her. “That's what really makes something like this worth the effort to put in.” Yurasu stared at me in disbelief as I stepped into the corridor and motioned for him to follow me.
Sure enough, on the other side of the corridor was an identical tile. I opened the gauge as wide as it would go. The sound of footsteps fast approaching warned me that we'd made our way through only just in time.
“Run, idiot!” I scolded Yurasu.
He didn't hesitate, despite the fact that the Anathema had taken the lead. Where she was going I couldn't begin to guess... but the light that still radiated from the brand her brow made her fairly easy to follow. After snaking effortlessly through a maze of twists and turns that would have made a fae creature dizzy, she skidded to a stop before a very dangerous-looking stone bridge that crossed a burbling river of plasma.
Yurasu glanced hopefully in my direction.
“It's a puzzle.” I informed him, surveying the pattern on the bridge. “Simple enough. Step on the correct stones and you cross safely. The wrong ones... and you fall in.”
My student grimaced.
“So which are the correct ones?” The Anathema demanded.
“There's only one way to find out.” Choosing a stone marked with the Old Realm character for “compassion” I stepped out onto the bridge.
“All right, boy... this is why I insisted that you learn Old Realm. The first one is compassion.” I informed Yurasu. He nodded, watching me nervously as I chose my next mark. It was a bit of a jump to the stone marked “temperance” but I still managed to land soundly on my feet. “Ahah! The four virtues!” I exclaimed, seeing a stone further out marked “conviction”.
“Ooh!” The Anathema exclaimed. “I got it!”
She followed me with the grace of a dancer, hopping effortlessly from one stone to the next all the way over to the opposite bank. Yurasu hesitated for a moment and then firmly planted his feet on the first “compassion” stone he saw. The roar of fire and a chorus of inhuman screams carried very well through the labrythine tunnels as some of our pursuers stumbled into the trap I'd re-set for them. Clearly distracted, Yurasu stepped just slightly too far to the left, overstepping the “temperance” stone I'd used. I saw what the character beneath his foot read only a moment too late. It was very similar to - but not the same as the other stone and could be taken to mean either “peace and quiet” or “a good cup of tea”.
“Yurasu, no!” I shouted, not even considering how idiotic I probably sounded. “That's tea! Tea! Wrong stone!”
The section of the bridge beneath him immediately gave way. He barely caught himself and clung to the nearest swinging portion of the metal railing that remained intact with one hand, the other still clutching the hilt of his great-grandmother's sword. His legs dangled only a few feet above the burbling plasma. Leaping to a stone marked “valor”... the closest I could get to him, I tied my own belt to a section of the railing on the opposite side of the pit that my student had made.
If Yurasu could manage to get the sword in his grip up pointed in my direction, I could almost certainly catch hold of it. And if he pushed very hard off of the stone support pillar nearest to him, the loose railing could prove strong enough to put him back on the bridge. Of course, it would all have to be timed perfectly.
“See that pillar? Swing a little and kick off of it. Try to put that blade up here in my hands!” I ordered, tearing the sleeves off of my shirt and wrapping the palms of my hands.
Yurasu gritted his teeth and did as I instructed. His first swing fell slightly short, but I still brushed my fingertips across the weapon's blade.
“All right. Now kick off as hard as you can and as soon as I've got your sword, let go with your other hand!” I ordered.
Yurasu gave another good push and swung slightly in my direction, but refused to let go. When the momentum of his swing started to carry him back, he let go of the sword instead. The weight of the red jade wasn't inconsiderable, but I had a decent enough grip on it that I didn't stumble and fall into the plasma when I was left holding the thing all by myself.
“Damnit, boy!” I rolled my eyes. “Now you're really going to have to jump! Come now, I'll catch you!”
“It's no use! You'll only fall in with me. You can't pull me up!” He protested. Technically, he was right about that. Even young as he was, Yurasu was a good foot taller than I was and probably weighed more than twice as much.
“Like hell I can't!” I retorted. “Damnit, demon! Get over here!” I ordered.
The Anathema leapt back to meet me, a very broad grin on her face. She stood on the temperance stone about three feet away and I tossed her The Scarlet Empress's sword.
She set it down as if it were no great thing and came to stand beside me.
“The both of us can definitely haul you up!” I ordered Yurasu. “Now swing!”
I barely caught his hand as he came flying across the chasm and only the Anathema's hold on my legs kept me from toppling right after him as he'd suspected I might. When the three of us were all on solid ground again, Yurasu stared at me in disbelief.
“How did you do that?” He wondered incredulously.
“Tenacity.” I replied. “But let's not waste any time.”
I took the lead. Truthfully, I was beginning to wonder about all of the strange things that the Anathema had said when we first met her. Had she and I crossed paths before? More disturbingly still, did she know more about me than I wanted to admit?
Since I'd regained consciousness after our battle with the enormous construct, I hadn't even noticed any pain in my knees. I'd stopped asking myself how I knew the nature of each trap we stumbled upon.
I was perfectly willing to admit that my memory had become somewhat foggy with age, but I'd never really stopped to consider how many blank or incoherent pages I had in the book of my life, far too many for even a very good scoundrel such as myself.
I didn't know how far back our pursuers had fallen, but I doubted the shattered bridge would hold them up as long as the firetrap had. We navigated through another labyrinth, this time with myself in the lead and the Anathema skipping along on my heels, her brand still illuminating the path in front of me.
Not that I needed any light. I knew where I was going, somehow. The darkness wasn't a barrier to me. Like the fox in my peculiar dream, I was a creature of the night.
An explosion of pain shot through the back of my skull. I crumpled to my knees.
For a moment I thought that I was dying, but then Rhapsody's arms were around me.
Rhapsody? Where had I gotten that name from?
I didn't know. The Anathema had never given either of us her name. And yet I knew that it was her I saw in my distant memory.
When my legs gave out from under me, she heaved me up from the ground as I'd heaved her up out of the sea and on to the deck of my rickety little fishing skiff so long ago.
In my memory of our meeting, her lungs had been full of water, but I knew well enough how to get it out of her. Soon she was spitting and hacking at my feet. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief as she stared up at me, a mad, heretical word frozen on her lips.
But why would a demon call me Anathema?
That was when the pain dissipated and I slowly began to return to the present. I blinked several times, seeing Yurasu's blurry, obstinate face only a few inches away from my own. My ability to focus slowly returned, but I didn't really know how much time had passed. The three of us were tucked into a tiny little alcove not large enough to stand inside. A sheet of old wood had been drug in front of our entrance and the only light inside came from Rhapsody's demon brand.
“I'm getting too old for this.” I said for what felt like the hundredth time. Very slowly I sat up.
“Sam said there might be consequences.” Rhapsody admitted, rubbing her nose. “I'm sorry, Devil, really I am... but Sun-in-Glory I came running when I heard you were in trouble... I left all the way from Coral and oh, I never thought! I never thought that wench would get to you first or that she'd dare try to do something so unforgivable!” She sniffled, wiping what seemed to be a genuine tear from the corner of her eye. Her glowing mark had faded somewhat in the time that had passed and only flickered a little in the darkness. “And I know you don't know what I'm talking about because you've had a whole different life for these past seven years but someone hurt you and they are going to pay for it!”
Yurasu nodded in agreement. If he'd been torn about the Anathema's presence before, my second fainting spell seemed to have turned them into staunch allies.
After checking to be sure that the hall was clear, we slipped out of our hiding space. “All right. What's the plan?”
“Well, Obsidian Heart of The Void is ahead of us now, so we're going to have to tread carefully. He'll probably lose a dozen zombies trying to sort out Pandora's exploding Go board, but he'll know we're headed for the exit. And if we don't want to fight him, which we don't, not with the condition you're in currently... we're going to have to take our chances with... it.” Rhapsody explained.
I assumed by “Obsidian” she meant the pale-faced man who was pursuing us and I'd long since figured out that Pandora was the name of the Anathema whose tomb we were currently staggering through. “It?” I whispered uneasily.
“You know. The killer construct.” She clarified. “This way!” She chirped, opening up a very nearly invisible door.
“You seem to know an awful lot about this place.” I observed, following close behind her.
“As do you.” She retorted. “But don't think too hard on that, dear! We can't have you fainting again!”
I twitched a little at Rhapsody's overly patronizing portrayal of my unusual condition. As I saw it, the only thing worse than being weak was someone noticing that I wasn't able to keep the pace. I considered swatting her with my tail for the insult.
I didn't have a tail. Or at least, I didn't think I had a tail. The thought made me increasingly uneasy. Though it was not the sort of question I was prone to pondering over, I found myself wondering if I was truly human or not.
“So what's this construct we're looking for? If it's anything like the last one, I don't want anywhere near it!” Yurasu argued, probably a bit louder than he should have.
“Which was the last one you ran into?” Rhapsody wondered.
“The giant machine tender?” I supplied.
“Oh no. It's not that big. It's just...” Rhapsody began.
A greenish glob of something oozed down from the ceiling just in front of Yurasu and landed with a plop on his foot. He grimaced and shook it off.
“Disgusting?” I suggested, smiling a little despite myself. Rhapsody only rolled her eyes.
“You just wait til' you see it!” She warned ominously. “There are no words in any language that will ever do it justice, and I can say that with authority, my friends – because I am a bard!”
“A bard, eh? Is that what got you into this mess? Go into a demon tomb looking for stories?” Yurasu suggested, not sounding at all convinced by her claim. Though he'd warmed up to Rhapsody somewhat, he clearly didn't trust her. Truthfully, I wasn't sure why I trusted her myself... but for some reason I did.
“Nah, you pick up good stories in bars!” Rhapsody laughed. “You pick up treasure in monster-infested hellholes like this one! Eh, Devil?” She elbowed me and then realized what I was staring at.
The narrow corridor we were passing through opened up into another large workspace, but unlike the one that the bandits had pilfered through, the room we entered into then was very nearly pristine, a forge from the glory days of the First Age that looked like it had been abandoned only yesterday.
Yurasu whistled, clearly impressed. Not for the first time, I felt a strange sort of kinship with the ruins. I ran my fingertips slowly across a tabletop, picking up not the smallest particle of dust.
“Someone's been here recently. Everything's clean.” I whispered fearfully, thinking we'd just stumbled into a trap.
“This is what you call clean? Yeeuuch!” Yurasu grimaced, shaking out his hand furiously. Apparently he'd found another repository of the same greenish ooze that had dripped on him before and had very nearly sat in it.
“No, Devil's right.” Rhapsody leapt to my defense. “Someone has been here.”
“And you know who?” I pressed, reading the expression on her face.
“Sidereals.” She said, as if the word was a curse. It made me feel cold to the bone.
With a heavy sigh, she sat down in a nearby chair and buried her face in her hands. I noticed that Yurasu was in the process of filling his pockets with interesting tidbits and decided not to begrudge him the one small boon he was liable to glean from our whole ordeal beyond the largely symbolic recovery of his great-grandmother's sword. After what felt like an excruciatingly long time, Rhapsody kicked her chair back and folded her hands behind her head.
The smile on her face suggested that she didn't want to be smiling. I said nothing, though I was more frustrated than before by my own inability to sort out all of the things that I was suddenly “remembering” that felt more true than any of the experiences of my life. As caught up in my own thoughts as I was, I barely noticed a something creeping towards us out of the dark. It barely made a sound, but its smell was altogether indescribable, like a dead animal left to rot days in the hot sun. And then it came into the light surrounding Rhapsody.
“Well, on the up side, if the Bureau of Destiny has already sent agents in here, then maybe we won't have to deal with...” Rhapsody trailed off into silence, noticing that I was staring with my jaw dropped in disbelief.
It was all I could do. Looming over the chair she'd been so idly rocking was the most horrific monstrosity I'd ever had cause to imagine, a blood mess of metals and flesh that seemed to be comprised of the decomposing remains of several different creatures, at least one toothy reptile, some sort of spiny sea creature, an embryonic pig and what marginally resembled a human being, its face contorted into a permanent mask of agony.
Yurasu screamed like I'd never heard him scream before. Rhapsody flipped right out of her chair and had barely gone for her blade when the monster planted one of its mouldering appendages down on her chest, studying her momentarily with a wheezing, disjointed sort of laughing noise that made me feel even sicker than I'd felt when I'd first witnessed the abomination coming out of the dark.
Before I realized that I was about to do something truly insane, I drew my dagger, braced myself and charged the monster. I didn't have any salt or chalk left for Thamaturgy and I only belatedly remembered the prayer strips I still had stuffed inside my shirt where I couldn't reach them, not when both of my hands were busy trying to parry and dodge the monster's flailing limbs. A good solid blow from the beast caught me in the gut and sent me sliding into the wall. Yurasu hacked his way to my defense, but I barely even saw him.
My world had gone completely red.
I didn't know where I was or truly, what was happening to me. The time I remembered seemed like very long ago. I didn't look any younger when I saw my reflection in the cup of wine that was offered to me, but I felt like a child... my eyes only just opened to a vast new world, one I had never imagined being a part of.
First I'd been a thief and then an organizer of thieves, as I often liked to say “an all-around scoundrel” in Chiarascuro, the city of my birth. That much I remembered.
But then something had happened to me. A simple heist had gone horribly awry and I had undertaken a dangerous rescue mission to retrieve my underlings. Any other villain of my stature probably would have left the careless kids to pay the price of their failure, but it wasn't in my nature to do something like that. Not when I knew I should have stopped them first!
Despite being past my prime, I'd attached myself like a sand burr to the underside of the slave caravan and hidden for weeks within sight of my enemies, sleeping in the dunes and keeping company with the snakes and the foxes until I'd rescued all of my people... except for one, the youngest.
The boy was an orphan, not more than eight years old. His ears were too big for his head and he had no proper name. I called him “Pup” at first but after I'd taught him how to bait and mislead dogs, he'd decided he ought to be named for “a clever-er animal”. Hearing one of my underlings profess that I was “sharp, like a fox” - he then dubbed himself “Kit”. And damn it all if I hadn't gotten attached to the little mongrel.
Kit would have been easy to spirit away, if the slavers had not become wary and suspicious after so many of their captives had mysteriously gone missing and several of their caravan guards had turned up dead with daggers in their backs or the cuts of razor wire across their throats.
My Kit was shot once in the shoulder before I ever picked him up and I was shot many more times than that, but somehow I still found the strength to elude my pursuers and carry the boy for miles while bleeding out my own life's blood all over the desert. When I came within sight of the place where I'd led all the others, I bound him well enough that he could hobble to safety and prepared myself to die before I retreated one single step.
But I did not die.
Someone was giving me wine. I looked at my own reflection in the glass as if I were looking at a stranger. I was used to being older and more experienced than any of the scoundrels around me... even excellent thieves seldom lived to retirement. And yet somehow, I had found myself under the wing of a woman infinitely cleverer than I was myself... full of secrets and odd little tricks, some of which I could scarcely wrap my mind around.
At the time, I hadn't known what a monster Pandora really was. Laughing Mask trusted her, and I trusted Mask.
He and I... we were the same. Both dupes.
A familiar hand... a paw - came to rest on my shoulder and a voice asked if I was ready.
It was Laughing Mask. I'd been expecting a stranger. Knowing that I was in the hands of someone I loved, my fears dissipated.
A peculiar, heady combination of pain and pleasure overwhelmed me as Mask took his up his finest needle and began to give me my first tattoo.
“What does it look like?” I asked him, though I knew I wasn't supposed to speak.
“It looks like Luna kissed you on the rump! Probably the only place she could get hold of, what with your squirming! Honestly, Devil, how old are you? Sit still!” Mask ordered, laughing. I couldn't see his face without turning my head, and I didn't want to move in any way that might muddle his important work. But I did smile despite myself.
I came back to my senses on my hands and knees in a puddle of gore with absolutely no recollection of what had happened. Rhapsody was standing over me and Yurasu was guarding the both of us, poking his blade several times at what was left of the horror that he seemed to have slain. It twitched sporadically and seemed to be dying, though even total dismemberment seemed insufficient to render it completely dead.
My head still pounding from everything I had seen, for the briefest of instants I thought that I saw a silver curl on the top of my left hand, gracefully joining with a stronger, thicker line that spiraled around my arm. And then it was gone.
“I'm all right!” I cursed under my breath as I tried to stand. Rhapsody propped me up.
“You're not all right.” Yurasu informed me. “Sifu, there is something wrong with you.”
“I keep passing out, you mean? It's called being old. Can't run from armies of the dead and kill abominations like I used to.” I replied, sounding far more sarcastic than I'd intended to. Yurasu was right. Since we'd come into Pandora's box, I'd felt it. At first I'd brushed it off as typical jitters – a supposively inaccessible trapped demon tomb inspires a little fear in the heart of any scoundrel. But that initial sense of paranoia and vague familiarity had faded. I was certain that I knew the place we had come to inside and out, or rather, that I had known it intimately in the life that I'd known Rhapsody, the one that had been coming back to me in disorienting flashes that always seemed to result in me waking up and wondering how much time had really passed.
I was beginning to believe that what I'd actually stumbled into was far more serious, and that the Scarlet Empress's long-lost sword hadn't been placed in such a peculiar resting place as a golden opportunity for my student... but as bait for me.
“Yurasu, go watch over by the door.” Rhapsody ordered. “I'll get Clever Devil cleaned up.”
As soon as my student turned away, Rhapsody stripped off the little blue hapi coat that she was wearing and used the white linen shirt she was had on underneath as a rag to wipe some of the blood off of my face. I stood there like a doll and let her fuss over me. It wasn't as if I had the strength to do anything else.
“How do I know you?” I asked her, hoping that I'd managed to mentally squeeze some of the emotion out of my voice before I spoke.
“We're sisters.” Rhapsody told me, sighing over the condition of my shirt. Between Yurasu's near death experience at the puzzle bridge and my own recent bout with insanity, I was starting to look like a walking corpse myself.
"No we're not." I informed her. "I'm too old to be your sister."
"You're not, and yes we are." She replied, undeterred.
“Better keep wiping yourself off or we'll mistake you for one of Obsidian's ghouls.” Rhapsody advised. She gave me her shirt and put her coat back on, buttoning it only halfway. If he hadn't already seen that she was Anathema, I didn't doubt that I would have caught Yurasu staring at Rhapsody, who casually wore that single article of boy's clothing in a way that would have made a prostitute blush.
“You're not going to tell me what's going on?” I demanded. “Why not?”
“Devil, you'd never believe me!” She retorted, turning on one heel.
“Damnit, Rhapsody!” I cursed out loud before I could stop myself.
Yurasu turned to me in confusion. Then he turned to Rhapsody. “Ping?” He wondered.
I gathered that “Ping” was the name that Rhapsody had given him, probably while I was unconscious. Really, there was no explaining how I'd come by the name Rhapsody myself... unless if everything I was remembering had actually happened.
Rhapsody stared at me in disbelief. Then her expression of shock became a smile and she looped herself around my neck, bouncing around gleefully.
“I knew it! I knew it! It's coming all back to you, isn't it?” She pressed.
“If you mean, am I having skull-splitting visions of things that make little to no sense, then the answer is yes!” I replied, rubbing my temples. “Now I don't know what you've done to me, but I strongly suggest that you undo it before we go any further! It seems to have the result of knocking me unconscious for prolonged lengths of time and I cannot find traps for you if I can't see straight!”
Rhapsody's face fell. “I didn't do anything to you! I've just been trying to help!” She murmured, saying nothing. “I thought for certain that once Luna heard what had happened she would be absolutely furious! How could one of the Incarnae not care about some rogue fate-mangler undoing her very own work? And she's been ahead in the Games for so long now that... I thought that maybe a very, very well-written petition might just be enough. Sun-in-Glory, I gave away two undisclosed favors, and one of them to Quill! I've practically sold my soul to Oversight for the next five centuries to get them to man up on this and... well, damnit! I can't just out-with-it! This kind of thing has never been attempted before and no one knows what the consequences might be. I mean, we're playing with Adamant Circle Sorcery and Sidereal Martial Arts... among other things. Although just those two alone, that's pretty much a reality-detonating explosive right there.”
I said nothing, still absolutely baffled by everything she had said. Yurasu only stared at me.
Not bothering to explain myself, I followed Rhapsody where she led, into yet another labyrinth. We walked for a good portion of an hour without speaking a word to each other, Yurasu still tagging along on my heels. I felt the nagging sensation that we were getting closer to something, but when I tried to guess where we needed to go next, the furious pounding in the back of my skull rose up again with new fervor.
Rhapsody paused to consider something written on the wall and that was when I heard it. Not the sound of voices or tramping footsteps, but the much subtler whisper of men dressed for battle standing motionless at attention as only an army of the dead possibly could.
There was a faint light coming from up ahead... natural light, it seemed. We'd found the exit.
Yurasu noticed where we were about a moment after I did. “The sun” He exclaimed and very nearly started running.
“Open your ears, boy!” I put my hand in front of Yurasu. “Those ghouls have beaten us here!”
The three of us stared out from the darkness and listened. Though it was sorely tempting to crane my head out just slightly and get a reasonable count of how many of our enemies were still pursuing us, I decided that an estimate was better than the risk of being seen.
After ten minutes or so, I decided that we probably had fifteen or twenty dead left... and of course, their master. The odds were significantly turned against us. Yurasu was a good fighter and could handle five or so himself, but I didn't have any real appraisal of Rhapsody's skill beyond the fact that she was an Anathema and my instincts seemed to tell me to stay behind her. I knew better than to count myself in for the fight. In my current state it would be a blessing if I could even manage to remain conscious for most of it.
“How long are we going to wait?” Yurasu hissed.
Rhasody hesitated. “If we step out there, we'll be caught immediately.” She whispered.
“They're not moving, they're only waiting for us! We can't hide in here forever.” Yurasu retorted. “We've run as far as we can! The traps have cut down their numbers. We can take them now!”
“The boy's right. There's maybe twenty and we have the element of surprise. Yurasu will be able handle most of them and I think you can mop up the rest.” I gestured to Rhapsody's sword. “It's now or never.” I nodded, noticing how my student beamed as I informed Rhapsody of his prowess. “The exit's right ahead of us.”
“I don't know what good it will do, honestly.” Rhapsody admitted. “That door's probably un-openable.”
“No door is un-openable!” I replied. “Now are you with me?”
Yurasu nodded readily. Rhapsody sighed.
“You're still you all right.” She informed me.
“I'll take that as a complement.” I replied. “Let's finish this.”
Very quietly, I stepped out into the light. Rhapsody and Yurasu followed me. Neither of them made much more noise than I had, but that didn't matter.
We were standing on a balcony perhaps twelve feet above a little entry hall with a beautiful mosaic ceiling. A spiderweb of cracks in the stone let the sun from outside, but none of them looked promising enough to crawl through. The restless dead looked unsettled by their orders to remain where they were. They avoided the spots where the light burned brightly, a small concession to their otherwise perfect military poise. Below us were no fewer than twenty ghouls and the pale-faced man, the Deathknight that Rhapsody had called Obsidian Heart of the Void.
He evaluated the three of us with his arms crossed and a smug expression on his face.
Clearly, we were expected.
I stared right through the Deathknight. As terrifying as he'd seemed before, I couldn't even bring myself to look at him then.
He was standing in front of the most staggeringly complex, impossibly beautiful door that I had ever seen.
It was made of solid silver and engraved with every kind of animal imaginable all climbing and crawling around the branches and roots of an enormous old oak tree. A woman sat at the base of the tree with her hands outstretched and a serene smile on her face. All around her, the creatures moved and changed shape before my eyes, even at such a distance. One animal became another and all flowed together into the roots of the tree, then out again through the branches and back into the sky in the forms of birds and insects. I knew at once that what stood before me was not only a work of art but a masterwork of sorcerous locksmithing.
Rhapsody's “un-openable door” wasn't just any door. It was Luna's Menagerie!
As I considered the name of the ancient device in front of me, I knew that I'd pored over it before, countless times. I remembered it as I'd remembered Rhapsody and the firetrap and the construct... as something from another life.
And I knew with a sick sort of certainty that I was looking at the ultimate puzzle... a puzzle that could take centuries to solve when I didn't even have a minute.
A single coiling serpent, nearly invisible amongst the roots of the tree caught my eye. When it opened its mouth to swallow a darting mouse, it slowed for no more than a heartbeat and I saw the hidden mechanism within it, the secret key to cracking Luna's Menagerie.
Whatever the Deathknight had said first I missed entirely, but Yurasu's reaction jarred me out of my hypnotized state. As quiet and uncertain as he had been since our first tussle with the tiger construct, I'd almost forgotten how pigheaded he could be. The way he'd been clutching the hilt of his great-grandmother's sword since we'd retrieved the thing should have been a warning to me that the boy's Dragon blood was boiling up for a fight and now that he was afforded the opportunity to take the offensive, he was not about to run like prey.
With an incoherent roar, Yurasu leapt down from our perch and started tearing into ghouls left and right with a fury that would have made his illustrious ancestor very proud.
Rhapsody drew her blade and went for the Deathknight herself, dispatching the dead with an ease that made Yurasu's inexperience all the more obvious. Her apparent youth was clearly an illusion. When she ran her sword through someone, she stopped looking like a cheerful young girl and began to look like what I was beginning to suspect she truly was, an old, tired crusader driven by an unbreakable vow.
More than before, I wanted to be down there beside her, guarding her back. I worried for Yurasu holding his own against the ghouls, but he was nearly an adult and he barely needed his sifu.
And I suspected it was also true that Rhapsody didn't need me to protect her or teach her any more than Yurasu did. She needed me because everyone in Creation was terrified of her and her heart just couldn't stand the strain of being reviled and feared when she was trying so desperately to do good.
It had never occurred to me to ask what had brought Rhapsody into Pandora's Box or why she'd felt it necessary to keep the Scarlet Empress's sword out of the hands of The Mask of Winters and his servants. I suspected that in a way, I'd always known the truth. That was why I'd felt so compelled not to leave her for the dead.
Rhapsody was doing what she was always doing in one way or another.
She was fulfilling her promise to the Unconquered Sun, the God she so often invoked.
She was saving the whole world.
Still, I was all too painfully aware of how badly my last attempt at holding my own in a fight had gone. There was something buried in the back of my mind that had been screaming for release ever since I'd first drawn blood defending Rhapsody and it was definitely getting stronger. I suspected I'd probably knock myself senseless again if I started tearing into our enemies as I had before, like a mad fiend with my razor wire. More importantly, my dagger was a lousy weapon for dispatching armored ghouls and certainly no match for a sword.
I decided to take the revelation of the snake as a sign to trust my companions to handle the ghouls and work on our exit.
A few ghouls attempted to stop me from reaching my destination, but I was ready for them. I dispatched the first two and let the third and fourth skewer each other. Kneeling down before Luna's Menagerie, I whispered the first few words of an old prayer that I'd heard my first teacher use when he fell into something far beyond his skill. It seemed only appropriate to ask Luna herself for a little help with the appropriately godly trap that had been named for her.
The serpent slithered within my grasp and I caught it by the head, just as I would have if it were a real snake. It struggled briefly and I pressed at the base of its jaw to force the creature to open is mouth. Then I began to work.
I can't honestly say that I noticed the fight going on around me... that is, until my pick bumped into something strangely soft inside the mouth of the silver snake.
I poked hesitantly at the unusual obstruction and to my surprise, whatever it was grabbed hold of my pick, very nearly tearing it from my grasp.
There was something alive inside the lock – something that definitely didn't belong in there!
A faint prick warned me that I'd been too hasty in trying to get after the wriggling thing. I grimaced as I saw that my mistake had caused a tiny poisoned needle to emerge from the fangs of the silver snake. It hadn't broken my skin, but it very well could have and might yet if I continued to let my frustrations get the better of me.
Rhapsody noticed my expression of shock. Yelling obscenities in Old Realm and warning the ghouls to stay back, she jumped to my aid. I noticed that she did a lot more shouting and insulting than actual killing, but I suspected that her words and the blazing brand on her brow were as effective a weapon as any.
“I've got this!” I told Rhapsody, pushing her slightly away from the door. “This lock might kill me for cracking it, but I know how to get it if I have to. This door will blow open like a hurricane and it will give you less than a minute to get out before it slams shut again and can't be opened for another five days!” I explained.
“But I want you to promise me something first.” I looked back over my shoulder. “If I don't make it out of here, you need to get that boy to safety.” I nodded in the direction of Yurasu, who stood staring in disbelief at the ghoul he'd just cleaved down. He recovered quickly enough to run his blade through another that charged him.
“Damnit, Devil... I'm supposed to leave you behind and take that Dragonblood?” Rhapsody protested. “I'd rather cut off my own arm!” She vowed.
“Yurasu is a good kid. Probably one of the best the Empire has.” I informed her.
“He's still a Dragonblood.” Rhapsody snorted with disdain. “One day he'll be just like the rest of them.”
“I wouldn't be so sure about that. Do you think he's going to forget this mess we've gotten ourselves into? Never! He has his whole life ahead of him and it starts now, with the three of us about to die and you fighting right beside him! Maybe he's been taught his whole life to hate your kind but you're the first he's ever met and you are proving that every damned thing he's ever heard about Anathema dead wrong!”
“And what about you?” Rhapsody pressed.
“I'm not important.” I told her. “Remember what I said. When the door blows open, you've only got a minute.”
“We can't get through the ghouls that fast!” Rhapsody protested.
“Don't worry about the ghouls. I'll keep them off you.” I replied without considering how I planned to do such a thing.
I turned my focus back to the door, the poisoned needle barely brushing the skin of my wrist but not breaking it as I seized the elusive, wiggling mechanism inside. I was a little disgusted but not entirely surprised to see that the thing that had consistently eluded my grasp was a tiny constructed, made of silver and black metal meshed with the inside-out corpse of a mouse. Without hesitation, I crushed the little monster under my boot and set to work.
My hands moved like lightning... I couldn't even recollect whether I had actually moved any of the tumblers of the lock or simply desired that the door in front of me would open.
I saw in the space of a heartbeat Rhapsody with her sword drawn and Yurasu about to behead another ghoul with his great-grandmother's blade. I saw the Deathknight too, standing a few paces behind his mindless minions and suddenly a solution occurred to me. It was so simple I was at a loss to guess how I'd failed to notice it before. As she'd promised to, Rhapsody would get Yurasu to safety. He could return to the Blessed Isle with the sword and become the pride of House Mnemon, not to mention a permanent thorn in the side of The Mask of Winters, which was a prospect too delightful not to imagine. And perhaps someday when he became old and gray, my student would tell his great-grandchildren about the last stand of Clever Devil.
Holding the last tumbler with one of my lockpicks, I reached into my shirt and produced the sweat-stained remnants of all of the prayer strips I'd prepared before Yurasu and I had begun our little adventure. I clenched them in my teeth and without hesitating for a moment, I opened the door.
The sound of the pressure changing was exactly as I'd anticipated it being, as if I'd suddenly opened wide the mouth of the Underworld... except that it was midday outside and the sun was shining brightly. The dead shrank away from the light, howling in terror. Though there weren't many left after Yurasu and Rhapsody had each taken their share, some of those that remained fled. The rest crowded around their master who said nothing but looked extraordinary displeased by my success.
“Go!” I ordered. Rhapsody seized Yurasu's arm and dove for the opening. I wrapped my section of razor wire around both of my hands until my palms bled.
As if demon-possessed, I went straight for the Deathknight, filling the air with a flurry of prayer strips and blood. The pale man's sword buried itself up to the hilt in my leg but I had also struck my intended mark. With all the strength I possessed, I drew my razor wire around his neck and pulled it tight. More blood flew everywhere. The undead scattered, howling in horror and the Deathknight got me again with his blade before he fell, gurgling at my feet. Just before he died, he gave me a new look... one of recognition.
Though I'd been a stranger to him when we'd first crossed paths, at that moment we were old foes again, and the fiend smiled slightly, despite the blood that flowed from his slashed throat, conceding his defeat. “Clever. Devil.”
I collapsed to my knees, certain that I was about to breathe my last.
But then a hand came to rest on my shoulder. I didn't have the strength to turn and see who it was behind me, though I first I suspected that it was the demon girl who had not run far enough. If I'd learned nothing at all about Rhapsody, I'd learned that she was even more stubborn than Yurasu.
“Oh no, Clever Devil.” A voice laughed, a voice that reminded me at once of my mother.
“No dying for you! Not today!”
“I'm old.” I protested weakly. “It's time.”
“It's not time. Not yet. Your work has barely begun, my dear!” The woman replied.
“And just who the hell are you?” I demanded, turning to face the woman behind me.
When I did see her surrounded by a corona of silver light, I fell flat on my back. She was impossibly beautiful and at the same time I sensed that she was more frightfully intelligent and calculating than anyone I had ever known – which was what really left me in awe of her. Her eyes reflected things that there were no words for. They were as old as the stars in the sky.
I did not doubt for an instant that she was a Goddess.
“I should think it would be obvious, daughter of mine.” She replied with a mischievous smile. “I'm Luna.”