The Fire & Ice Chronicles - THE COLOUR OF AMBER, part 4
The sight of so many scattered and broken bones put Lady Mercury on edge. The rounded passageway that opened out onto a ledge before her betrayed no physical dangers, nothing that could immediately explain the presence of so many fallen souls. But as she was rapidly learning from her travels within this labyrinth, illusion could prove just as fatal as the tangible.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, allowing her mind to calm. She reached out with her mind along the passage, sensing every flagstone, every bone, even the half starved rat that nibbled on a skeletal finger in the shadows to her left. She probed for any possible trace of deceit, any shred of magical involvement that could be triggered by her presence. Finally, she blinked. Nothing.
Satisfied, Lady Mercury stepped on and through the bones, trying to avoid them where she could out of a subconscious respect for the departed. Reaching the end of the passage, she looked down into the chamber below from her hiding place upon the ledge. There, in the middle of the room on a small marble column stood a bizarre device, the shape of which was reminiscant of the offspring of a magistrate's globe and an apothecary's crucible.
The Amber duplicator.
"Hurry up, Leytan," she said under her breath, as one of her hands clasped firmly around the spy glass while the other moved delicately over its surface, sending the signal that would allow Leytan and Wren to home in on her position.
So engrossed in both looking at the prize and sending the signal she didn't hear the rattle behind her until it was almost on top of her. Her head snapped round and she found herself face to face with a monstrous sight.
Lumbering towards her were two skeletal figures, fallen warriors perverted by Lord Fear's twisted experimentations in the art of reanimation. Beings without emotion, thought or feeling, operating on only one instinct – to kill anything that wasn't known to them.
"Oh. Great. More of his Lordship's abominations," she sighed, in a tone that was more annoyance than fear. But privately she cursed herself for not suspecting earlier as to this reason for their dormant state.
One of the skeletrons suddenly reached out and grabbed Lady Mercury's wrist, causing her to stop transmitting the signal.
"Hmmm, my my. We are forward, aren't we?" Lady Mercury said with a defiant smirk on her face. She carefully laid the spyglass down on the floor, hoping that the skeletrons were as mindless as ever and would consider such action an irrelevance.
Her gamble paid off. Without any thought about the spy glass or her free arm, the skeletron pulled Lady Mercury up and towards it.
"Oh now, really! What kind of girl do you think I am?" Lady Mercury said with a dangerous glint in her eyes.
"Firstly, I don't like being manhandled without a formal introduction..." she said, her free hand disappearing behind her back and uttering a quiet word of power under her breath. "And second-"
Her free hand flew round, the dagger she had conjured up grasped tightly in it. There was the sickening crack of bone as the dagger embedded itself in the skull of the skeletron. With a fizzing of disrupted techno magic, the skeletron crumpled into a heap of bones and transistors on the floor.
"- I like my men with a bit of meat on their bones."
Lady Mercury turned around and saw the other skeletron advancing on her. Quickly she dived for the spy glass...
"Are you sure you can walk? You"ve been coughing your insides up for the last five minutes now."
"For the last time, Leytan I am fine," Wren growled. "I"ve walked away from far worse, as you know very well. I was just... caught by surprise, that's all."
"But what by? You haven't said a word about who or what did this to-..."
"Please, Leytan" said Wren, and this time there was a genuine pleading in his voice. "Believe me when I say that whatever it was I faced is the least of our problems. I'm as eager as you are to leave this pit behind us, so let's just concentrate on finding her ladyship."
The Alterian returned his attention to the spyglass in his hand, respecting Wren's insistence to avoid the subject of his recent distress. "Not too far now. No less than ten minutes walk by my reckoning," he concluded, idly tapping its wooden rim to dispel the warning signs of interference flickering across its image.
"It's been doing that far too often these days," said Wren. "I really need to have words with that urchin again."
"You really don't like Jan-Jan that much, do you?" asked Leytan, a slight frown appearing on his pale complexion.
"I didn't say that at all! Of course I like her, but... well, you have to admit, she is a little..." Wren paused as he grasped for the appropriate term.
"I'd settle for 'dangerously unhinged' myself."
"All right, I'll admit that her mannerisms are not what ordinary people would consider the norm-"
"Squire," sighed Wren, "her idea of recreation is to spend hours upon end doing handstands. With her nose."
"...-and granted, such behaviour is odd in certain cultures–..."
"...-all cultures, yes, but surely that's understandable given her upbringing. And they do say that the line between genius and insanity is a thin one. You can't deny what a mind like hers is capable of."
"You're right", said Wren. "It's that exact thought that worries me."
"I'm more worried about this spyglass myself," said Leytan, giving its rim a much firmer tap than before. His efforts were rewarded with the image he was using to guide their journey through the maze of passageways breaking down completely, replaced with an erratic multitude of flashing colours. Cursing under his breath, he tapped again, then finally bringing the entire flat of his hand against it sharply.
As if sensing this was the most appropriate moment to do so in accordance with the laws of cosmic irony, the spyglass's ethereal patterns vanished entirely, returning it to its otherwise transparent and decidedly useless state.
"Ebbira's sake," Leytan glowered. "things really can't get any worse at this point."
"Don't tempt fate," warned Wren. "With everything else that's happened today, I think that's the last thing we should be doing."
"Now is hardly the time for superstitious nonsense," Leytan snapped, a little sharper than he intended. "Quite frankly I'd challenge every single deity they have a name for if it will give us a direction. I refuse to end my days dying of exhaustion in the lair of a twisted maniac."
Feeling his companions restraint failing, Wren attempted to gauge their surroundings. They were in a long narrow corridor with no visible side exits or doors for as far as the eye could see. He briefly considered the worrying possibility that this was one of many identical corridors they had already traipsed for what had seemed like an endless night now, but cast such treacherous thoughts from his mind.
"Let's be sensible about this. Our only direction right now lies straight ahead, correct? So, might I suggest that perhaps it would be best if we continued on until another option presents itself? There's every chance that her Ladyship may recommence her signal."
Leytan looked up at the stretching corridor and then down at the still silent spyglass with increasing agitation.
"I don't like it. If we go too far ahead, we risk going out of range of the spyglass signal and missing her transmission altogether."
"I suggest we do something," Wren quickly countered. "If we linger, we risk being found by some of his lordship's less civilized house guests. Hardly an appealing notion, I think you'll agree."
Leytan made to respond when a sudden shrill tone emitted from the spyglass. Both of the mercenaries attention immediately focused onto it.
"Finally!" exclaimed Leytan, barely disguising the overwhelming sense of relief he felt.
Leytan nodded. "A strong one, too. She's definitely nearby. I'd say two minutes distance in... wait. There's something else..."
As he watched, the glass began taking on an oddly discoloured hue. Its edges began darkening as tendrils of sudden light began snaking their way towards its centre. Where they joined, they started to gradually brighten, and began admitting the faintest traces of...
"What's happening to it?" asked Leytan. "It's almost as if the glass is burning..."
"Leytan, drop it. Now," breathed a suddenly panicked Wren.
"FOR GOD'S SAKE MAN, DROP IT!"
Without a moment's hesitation, Leytan cast the spyglass to the ground, where it clattered to a halt several feet away. With a titanic roar, the air around it was engulfed by a torrent of fire that poured from the device. The two mercenaries were forced to shield their eyes from the fantastic heat of the fireball as it launched itself upwards. It embedded itself in the ceiling, finally exploding in a burning rain that fell to the ground, instantly charring the stone into puddles of ash.
For a full ten seconds the two stood there, shocked and breathless. When Wren finally spoke, there was an obvious waver in his voice.
"I'd always heard stories that Lord Fear could curse any spyglass within the lower levels to kill anyone who tried to use it for too long. I never believed them... not for a second-"
"We are leaving."
Wren turned to Leytan, and saw in his face a look of sudden and determined rage.
"We are getting what we came for and we are leaving. Right now."
Without waiting for a reply, or any acknowledgment of his words at all, Leytan immediately broke into a run and set off in the final direction the spyglass had indicated.
"Hey! HEY! DONT LEAVE ME HERE!" shouted Wren, taking off after him. Behind them, small piles of flame on the marble floor continued to flicker, their light shining in the cracked surface of the ruined spyglass.
Lady Mercury's eyes widened in alarm as her spyglass immediately stopped displaying the signal she was sending. She was forced to roll to avoid the sword blade as it was thrust down towards her. She leapt to her feet in a low crouch and kicked out sharply with her boot. The skeltron, possessing an unexpected nimbleness, dodged the kick with an alarming ease.
Having misjudged the force of her defence, Lady Mercury attempted to stand, but her assailant had already exploited her brief moment of vulnerability. It instantly shot out a gaunt arm and wrapped its skeletal fingers around her throat, applying a pressure that was unbecoming for something with such a frail appearence.
Lady Mercury's mind whirred, trying to think of any spell she knew that would be safe to her in such close quarters. But all she could do was choke helplessly under the skeletron's terrible grip, and watch him raise his sword once again...
Leytan's mind was registering a vague awareness of Wren shouting behind him, urging him to wait. He ignored it. Right now, anything Wren had to say was unimportant compared to the thought coursing through his mind.
"She's in trouble," he thought bitterly to himself. "I know it."
Up ahead the passageway suddenly curved right. Leytan barely managed to make the adjustment and avoided smashing face first into the wall, but was unable to avoid scraping his right shoulder along the rough stone. He grimaced, but forced himself to shut out the pain. Right now, his mind was locked on one sole purpose, and nothing was going to deter him from it.
Leytan continued on down the passageway until suddenly it snaked off in two directions. Confused and desperate, Leytan tried to figure out which way to go, trying in vain to recall the last clear signal the spyglass had shown prior to its sabotage.
Think, THINK! Left, or right?
As if answering his question, a scream echoed down the left hand passageway. Without a second thought, Leytan launched himself down it.
He hadn't gone very far when he came to the end of the passage way and was confronted with a scene that made even his blood run cold. Before his eyes stood Lady Mercury, struggling with a lone skeletron who was in the process of choking the rapidly dwindling life out her and preparing to slice downwards with its already raised sword.
The sight caused the normally self-controlled Leytan to see red. Very few things in the world instilled such an emotional reaction into him but seeing his lover in such clear distress was one of them. Completely disregarding his own personal safety, he lunged at the skeletron with out so much as a thought.
The skeletron, sensing the obvious danger presented to it, released Lady Mercury who crumpled to the ground gasping for air. It swung out an arm and caught Leytan hard in the side.
Leytan winced but the adrenaline fuelled rage within him overrode any sense of pain he may have felt. He dove shoulder first into the beast and locked his arms around its waist, then hoisted the thing off its feet and sent it crashing to the ground.
"Isabel!" he said, turning his attention to the crouching figure of Lady Mercury. "Isabel, are you-"
He never finished his sentence before the skeletron, which hadn't been destroyed by the fall, reared up and struck him again. Leytan flew forward and hit the stone wall headfirst, sending tendrils of agony coursing through his body.
He blinked, fighting every urge he felt to pass out. He could make out colourless shapes surrounding him, but the force of the impact had addled his senses. One shape was growing in his field of vision, and he was vaguely aware of the scraping of metal on stone as it bent to retrieve its weapon. He willed every fibre of his body to move, to put up any semblance of a fight. But anything now would be too little, too late...
"Squire? Are you down he- what in blazes?! YOU THERE!"
Disregarding Leytan entirely, the skeletron instead turned around to face a furious Wren who had appeared beneath the archway of the passage.
"Get away from him this instant, you wretched abhorrence!" he yelled, gripping the last of his throwing daggers between his fingers.
The skeletron came for Wren who nimbly darted away from its grasp and slashed at it with a dagger. He caught it on the shoulder and the dagger caught in the bone and was yanked from Wren's grasp as the beast pulled away. As it did so, Wren hurled his remaining dagger and struck the beast dead centre of its skull.
The skeletron brought its hand up to its frontal lobe, where it regarded the dagger potruding from it with an almost comical curiosity. Finally seeming to realise what was embedded in its skull, it wrenched it free with a unpleasant crack and held it aloft in its free hand.
Not the reaction I was hoping for, thought Wren to himself.
The skeletron bore down on him, armed with both its sword and now Wren's last throwing dagger. The assassin instinctively reached for his silver pomelled stilettos, his primary weapon for close quarter fighting, but in his panic found himself fumbling clumsily at his belt.
Keep it together, his mind screamed at him as the parody of humanity bore down on him. This is no time to start losing your grip. He's seconds away from slicing you into pieces, draw your weapon now-...
"Not this time, you bony bastard," growled a voice from behind.
Leytan, now having pulled himself up, seethed and struck out at the skeletron with a spinning kick to the side, catching it in the rib cage. There was the sound of breaking bones as the metal tip of his boot connected, but the skeletron merely stumbled, regaining its composure quickly. The two mercenaries began circling the stunned creature, trying to find the opening they needed.
"Bony bastard?" asked an incredulous Wren.
"You can either get rescued, or have a decent quip. I can't do both at once," grumbled Leytan.
"Whatever you say. They seem to be quite nimble, don't they?" Wren said, dodging to one side as the skeletron slashed forward. "I'd always heard of them as being somewhat oblivious creations."
"His Lordship's clearly managed to iron out some of their flaws," Leytan inferred, barely managing to dodge a swing at neck level. The creature now seemed to be lashing out wildly, as though it were a cornered beast. Although it was now fighting without any sense of timing or strategy, the possibility of a lucky and fatal blow finding its mark was still very real.
"Right. While it's focused on me," panted Wren as he bent to retrieve his fallen dagger, "pick it off with your Repeater. A couple of bolts to the skull should put it down for good."
Nodding, Leytan took a few careful steps back and unhooked his Repeater crossbow, a nasty piece of Alterian engineering that sidestepped the tedious reloading that was such a burden of the original model. Checking the bolts were in place, he felt instinctively for the trigger-
But found only empty space.
"Come on! He's all yours!" Wren gasped, catching the edge of his attacker's sword with his dagger.
Leytan looked down in horror. The tiller of the bow had been cleanly sheared off, leaving the firing mechanism useless. The only use it now had as a weapon was of a blunt instrument, and it was of questionable usefulness even in that regard.
"When you're ready!"
"I can't!" shouted Leytan! "It must have been damaged back at the blades!"
"Well, do SOMETHING!" Wren screamed as he slashed at his opponent's ribs and succeeded in only cutting air. "Christ's teeth, throwing it at his HEAD would..."
In that instant, both Leytan and Wren were almost blinded by a bright flash of light as the skeletron was struck from behind. Right before their eyes its body seemed to erupt into white flames, turning black and twisting in the most unnatural manner. With the horrific sound of bones cracking, it crumbled to the floor.
"Or that," conceded Wren. "That works too."
Leytan and Wren looked up from the rapidly disintegrating pile of bones. There stood Lady Mercury, with her arm still outstretched to where the skeletron had stood but a few moments ago, her eyes still ablaze with the energy and fury that had burned in them.
"Abomination," she said in a deadly tone that oozed with suppressed rage. "You dare to put your hands on my friend..."
"Isabel..." Leytan said, moving towards her.
"You dare put your hands on me..." she continued, her voice getting louder, her rage intensifying.
"Milady..." began Wren, stunned by what was happening before him.
"You would DARE to put your hands on MY LOVER?!?" Lady Mercury screamed at the pile of dust that had once been the skeletron.
"Isabel, Isabel... it's over," Leytan said, taking Isabel's outstretched arm and gently lowering it. "It's dead. Nothing but dust now."
She looked from the pile, then to him, as if her mind had only now fully registered his presence. Without a word of warning, she slapped him hard across the face.
"Don't you ever be such a bloody fool again, Leytan! That thing could have killed you!"
Wren looked on in shock at this outburst from Lady Mercury. In all the months he had known her, Wren had never seen her so vulnerable, so emotionally exposed. They had seen each other in the midst of fatal danger before, but they had always managed to brush it off as a necessary part of the life they led, or belittle it afterwards. But seeing her like this was, in his eyes, a sight even more terrifying than the Skeltron had been.
"I thought you had more sense than that!" she raged. "I thought you would know better than just to charge the bloody thing! WHAT DID YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE?"
"Milady, I'm sure that it wasn't Leytan's intent to-
"It's fine, Wren," said Leytan, beckoning him silent with a small wave of his hand. Although he had been taken aback by the force of her blow, he had known he would get some sort of dressing down for rushing into battle so rashly. He just quietly stood before her and took her anger without a single word.
Lady Mercury seemed to sag slightly as her rage finally subsided, leaving her exhausted and empty. Leytan put his arms around her as she felt herself slump forward against him.
"I'm sorry, Leytan... I don't know what-"
"Don't, Isabel. I understand. It's this place that's doing it. It taps into the vulnerabilities in us - the panic, the fear of death, the loneliness. And it brings to the surface that which you would bury deep down inside you. But we're safe now. This will all be over soon my love, and we'll be as far from here as is humanly possible to be."
As Isabel looked up into his comforting eyes and felt his reassuring embrace, she once again realised why she belonged to this man in both body and soul.
Leytan and Lady Mercury jerked up sharply, the exclaimation breaking their brief moment of respite. The expression on Wren's face was flickering schizophrenically between embarrasment and quiet amusement.
"Don't get me wrong, all very touching I'm sure, but we DO have a job to do... remember?"
"Yes, of course Wren. Did you find the machine Isabel?" Leytan asked, regaining his focus.
"It's down there," Lady Mercury said, pointing to the drop at the end of the corridor. The three of them walked over and peered over the edge - and there, in the centre of the circular ante-chamber below, stood the duplicator device.
"Right. Now the problem is how do we get down to it," Wren said. 'there's a doorway down there, but I'm not taking my chances with those corridors again."
Leytan looked at Lady Mercury. "A FLOAT spell would come in handy about now Isabel."
"Yes Leytan, the thought had occurred to me," she replied with a sarcastic smile. She stepped back from the two and again stretched on of her arms out.
Almost immediately the two mercenaries rose up into the air and floated out of the passageway and slowly down to the ground below. They touched down gently, all but a few feet away from the duplicator. Leytan was the first to approach the object sitting on its cylindrical plinth.
"Such a strange device," he said, almost transfixed by its light refracting angles.
Gently touching down behing them, Lady Mercury was unimpressed. "Creations of Technomagic are unencumbered by the limits of the Dungeon Dimension. I wouldn't be surprised if elements of this creation occupied an entirely different plane of existence. One I have no desire to learn of..."
"We can admire our prize when it – and us – are far from here as we can be. For now, lets just grab it and make a quiet departure."
"Before anything else happens, right Wren?"
"Have you learnt NOTHING?!" Wren hissed, resisting the urge to flail his arms in panic. "Whenever one of us says those words down here, something terrible ALWAYS befalls us! What are you-"
"Relax Wren," Leytan said as he reached for the duplicator. "It's plain sailing from here on out."
"STAND FAST, DUNGEON SCUM!!" a gruff voice yelled from behind them, quickly followed by the sounds of at least two swords being unsheathed.