The first room of the temple resembled a church. A long hallway lined with smooth pillars holding the ceiling aloft led towards an altar, which was flanked by two blazing braziers made of gold. An inverted cross hung on the wall, partially obscuring the painting of a pentagram. Ten red dots had been splashed onto the painting, one onto the tip of each of the stars, the others onto where the connecting lines crossed another.
“Welcome to the Temple of Doom!” bellowed Assar from far above.
Maximilian gripped his blade and raised his eyes, but all he found was the featureless ceiling. “Temple of Doom? What is this, a trashy adventure novel?”
“A tacky title, I know. But I came up with it just now, and it seems fitting enough. You're supposed to die here after all. One way or another.”
“We will see who's going to die soon enough,” said Drake. “Even sooner if you stopped delaying the inevitable.”
“No can do. I mean … I could. But I won't! If only to drive you nuts. Also, the first time we met, we solved riddles together. So why not do it again, for old time's sake?”
“Because this time, there's no point!” yelled Maximilian as he blasted the ceiling.
“Even more of a reason to make you do it!”
A light descended from above and revealed letters glowing in a sickly green that had been carved into the altar. “Show that you care!” was all they said. Three more lights appeared, two drawing circles next to the altar, another in front of it. One of these was red, another yellow, and the last brown.
Everyone turned from circle to circle, bewilderment washing over their faces. None of the circles held any sort of clue. At least not as far as anyone could see. And nothing else had changed since the lights descended.
“Show that you care … about what?” asked Drake.
“Wouldn't be much of a riddle if I told you,” spoke Assar. “But the mechanism should be obvious, so why not give it a try?”
Drake grumbled and headed for the nearest circle, the one gleaming yellow. He walked around it for a while, his fingers tracing the shimmering outline. Then he stepped inside—a bad idea. His skin grew scalding hot, his insides seemed to boil, and pressure built up in his lungs, threatening to pop them like balloons.
When he leapt away, his body recovered instantly. Then a pillar of fire engulfed the light, hot enough to be felt by Maximilian and Alyssa despite them standing nowhere in range. Beads of sweat even formed on their heads, slowly trickling down.
“Oh, did I forget to mention there would be consequences for choosing poorly?” said Assar and cackled manically, his voice bouncing off the walls and firing itself up.
Drake raised his legs one by one, then turned over his arms, making sure he hadn't gotten caught in the flames without realizing it. “I'm still here, aren't I? So I'll just try again.”
“I don't think so. Because surviving the flames once allowed me to adjust their timing. So the next time you fail, you won't get away. Feel free to try it, though. Even if you choose correctly, Alyssa or Maximilian could still end up as piles of ash.”
“So each of us has to stand somewhere?”
Assar didn't respond, perhaps cursing himself for saying too much.
Drake sighed. “So … either of you got an idea? Brown or red is apparently my color, but I've no idea why I would care about any of these.”
Maximilian shrugged. “Would have been easy if one of these was blue, because in that case they could have corresponded to our favorite colors.”
“But blue is mine too,” said Alyssa. “These, however, I couldn't care less about.”
Drake scratched his head as he looked about, hoping for any sort of clue to have materialized somewhere. But that seemed not to be the case. Instead, the entrance had vanished, trapping them inside a massive tomb. Drake walked to where the opening had been and touched the wall. It was cold to the touch and didn't budge under pressure. And judging by his previous attempt, it was also impenetrable.
“You couldn't have left anyway, as I already explained earlier. So start solving the puzzles already,” yelled Assar, clearly agitated.
“If you're so impatient, just come down here already!” bellowed Maximilian.
“No!” his denial thundered through the room as though a giant had smashed his fist against the wall. When the echo was about to fade, Alyssa nocked an arrow and fired into the brown circle.
Maximilian turned to face her. “What did you do?”
“I poured some of my essence into the arrow. Because if they react to each of us, why not to parts of us too?”
“Adrammelech really should have killed you instead of that brainless dwarf!” spoke Assar, a mixture of anger and disappointment resounding in his voice.
Memories of what actually had happened flashed through Alyssa's mind, eliciting sadness, fury, and then understanding, causing her eyes to open wide. “Drake, what hair color did Emily have?”
“What does that...” His mouth stayed agape and his eyes mimicked Alyssa's. “Red!”
Maximilian looked to each of them, then turned his eyes toward the yellow circle. “Really? They represent the hair color of the people we care about the most?”
Needing nothing else, they stepped into their respective circle and were yanked off their feet. For a moment, it seemed like they would be squashed upon the ceiling. Then round holes spun open, paving the way toward the second floor. They closed the moment everyone was through and gravity returned to normal.
A never-ending cacophony of swishing noises echoed through the room. The reason why was obvious: spinning circular saws were swinging and emerging all around, surely cutting through flesh as easily as a knife through butter. The only other feature of this room was a checkerboard pattern on the floor, which fell apart upon closer inspection, as black and white were not placed evenly. The former was the dominant color, entrapping rows of white in an ocean of darkness.
“How nice, another death trap. As if my own room hadn't been enough,” grumbled Maximilian.
“But now the others can join in on the fun!” said Assar with glee in his voice. “And no, Drake, you cannot blow these up. So don't waste your strength, unless you want your own attacks reflected back at you.”
Drake took his hands off his blades, feeling almost like a child caught with his fingers in a cookie jar. Maximilian smirked next to him and stepped up to the first row of obstacles. A saw emerged from the ground every second or so, its size too big to be jumped over. Walking around should have been child's play, but Maximilian didn't trust the field of black speckled with solitary squares of white. No one would build a trap that could easily be circumnavigated after all. So he could either step past the saw at just the right time, or he could try to jump a distance that only Drake and Alyssa could easily have crossed, all while trying to land on a square just big enough for one of his feet.
He waved a hand across the blackness.
Next, he swung Elegnis and jabbed a black square.
At last he knelt down and touched the very edge of black with the tip of his little finger. A massive spike with jagged edges burst forth and scraped open his flesh. Had he pulled back any slower, his nail would also have been gone, as the skin around it was bleeding from the pressure.
“I knew it,” he said while sucking on his finger. “So the 'safest' way is still through all these saws.”
“Anything else would have been boring. So amuse me! I'm watching every second with delight.” Assar's laughter reverberated back and forth, slowly sliced to pieces by the spinning saws.
“Wouldn't jumping allow us to skip some of them?” wondered Drake.
Maximilian nodded. “Sure, if you can jump farther than a normal human. And no, I don't want to carried. That's far too risky with these spikes bursting forth at the slightest of pressure. So let me go first, and follow a few steps behind. Then you can still provided support if I screw up.”
He didn't wait for their reaction and focused on the saw instead. It whirred, and whirred, and whirred, providing only the tiniest of openings. He imagined stepping across at the different moments, replaying each and every scenario vividly.
Then he moved and was behind it, still feeling the deadly pressure wheeze past his back.
Another saw passed by his face just one step away. It swung in a low arc that assured that the saw never left the field open for too long. The saw behind it was a bigger problem, emerging from the ground exactly like the first and offering no space to stand between it and the previous saw. Jumping was therefore the only option—not an easy feat with both saws moving in different rhythms.
“Are you sure you can—“ began Drake.
“Shut up! I have to concentrate.”
Looking from side to side, he got a feel for the movement and eventual patterns. Every two minutes, an opening presented itself, one where the first saw spun left while the other vanished to the right. He let it pass three times before taking the plunge.
His chest ached as he crashed onto the ground. He could feel his heartbeat in his head and realized his skin was feverishly hot. The black square next to him didn't make it any easier, as he hadn't realized how close it was from behind both saws. Using even a little more strength would surely have killed him for certain. These squares also blocked the way forward, forcing him to swerve to the side. But that direction was also drowning in black. And the white path beyond was only one square wide.
Maximilian tottered to his feet and breathed in deep, looking at the blackness and the small pier of light. “Jump and balance. Easy, really, if I don't screw up the landing...”
He jumped and jumped, each time landing on the other leg. His left seemed shaky, so right it was. Now he just needed to cross the gap while resisting the urge to steady himself with both of his legs.
The jump was over quickly. Then he wobbled and swayed, his breath stuck in his throat and his heart seeming to stop. Alyssa was suddenly in front of him, her lithe figure resting easily upon the path. Her hands grabbed both his arms and raised them to the side as though he was balancing upon a plank. “Now put your other foot where mine is. I'll step back accordingly.”
Maximilian followed her advice and steadied himself upon the tiny path. The moment he did, the blackness surrounding them started to glow red, pulsing angrily.
“Let me tell you!” interjected Assar. “By jumping over the traps, Alyssa used up your one and only chance to do so. Any further attempts that aren't strictly required will see you impaled from top to bottom. Of course, perhaps I'm bluffing, so why not try it out?”
Alyssa glanced over her shoulder, spotting three pendulums swinging back to back, each moving with a small delay compared to the previous one. The path beneath was spotty, going white-black-white, so rolling through would have spelled her doom. While certainly not impossible, she still spun around and raised her right hand. Shuttering her eyes, she reached out with her mind, invading the structure of the pendulums. She beckoned them to stop, or maybe to shatter.
Searing pain rippled back and flung her to the ground. Maximilian standing just behind her was the only reason she avoided being skewered. He slung his arms around her waist and pushed her to her feet again.
“Did you really think you could manipulate my traps so easily?” bellowed Assar.
“It was worth a try.”
“Oh yeah? Do it again and I'll crush your brain where you stand! The same applies to any further trials. No cheating allowed!”
“You take this way too seriously,” interjected Maximilian. “Are you so afraid to face us in battle that you need these trials to finish us off?”
The room shook as if rocked by an earthquake and a handful of spikes burst from the ground. “If that were the case, I would have made these trials impossible to overcome. Or hell, I could have killed Drake when he made his way to Modera's tower … but there's no fun in killing weaklings. So get up here already and present me with a challenge. Maybe then you can die quickly instead of suffering at my hands.”
“Yes, let's do that, please!” proclaimed Alyssa, stopping Maximilian with his mouth half open. “I'd rather not stay in this deathtrap for too much longer.”
Assar chuckled from above. “Ha, you'd first have to pass through—“
Alyssa wasted no time and hopped from square to square. The saws missed her every time, passing by so close that the pressure yanked her dress to the side. Upon reaching the final obstacle, which consisted of two saws covering the very same square, one from above, the other from below, she suddenly spun sideways, her body tilting diagonally. A few drops of blood sprayed from her feet, then her body realigned itself and she set down softly. Dropping to her knees, she covered her flesh wound and closed it right up.
“Huh … that was certainly … impressive. But still so very close,” said Assar. “So I do have to wonder how Maximilian will get through. He isn't quite as delicate as you are, after all. No offense.”
“None taken,” grumbled Maximilian and stepped up to the first line of obstacles. They swung so quickly that passing through seemed close to impossible, at least without losing a limb or two. But Maximilian wasn't one to back away from a challenge. Especially not if said challenge had already been beaten. The victor might have been an elf, but if they could do it, so could he. That's what he told himself, anyway, ignoring all the warning bells ringing in his head.
Then he stepped and stepped and flailed to the side, the sound of metal hitting metal resounding through his head. The last saw had slammed into his armor and sent him spinning in a circle. He turned on only one foot and moved his arms as quickly as someone imitating a bird. No one else could held him despite seeing his predicament, so Alyssa covered her mouth while Drake balled his fists.
Wheezing loudly, Maximilian slammed his other foot down. The impact traveled through his bones and made him feel like being hit with a hammer. The room spinning for the next few seconds didn't help, so he squeezed his eyes shut and breathed in deep, banishing the queasiness forming in his stomach. Doing so made him more aware of the blades whizzing past his front. He could almost see them in the dark. And that image didn't bode well, as the opening Alyssa had used did not allow for someone to jump through with the whole length of their body. Only by reducing the potential points of impact could death be avoided.
“How long are you planning on standing there?” said Assar with annoyance in his voice.
Maximilian opened his eyes and raised his head. “Just tell me one thing: is using magic the only thing that constitutes as cheating?”
“How else could you possibly influence these traps?”
Elegnis flared to life and Maximilian rammed it into the pendulum swinging from above. It resisted the impact for a second, suspended in mid-motion. Then it bounced back, swinging even higher than was meant to be possible. Maximilian used that chance to jump over the bottom saw while Alyssa retreated to a larger square made up of white tiles.
Sheathing Elegnis, Maximilian flashed the ceiling a smile. “Like this, for example.”
Assar growled as invisible fingers moved the upper saw back into place. “Fine, I'll give you that victory. But using your weapons is also forbidden now!” Which ultimately didn't make a difference. The chamber might have held a few more tricky traps, but none demanded that Maximilian try to cheat the system again. And Drake, being what he was, didn't have much trouble either. He simply copied what Alyssa showed him and half an hour later, they had reached the other side. Exhaustion gripped Maximilian's limbs at that point, so he quickly downed a potion before another magic beam took hold off their bodies and yanked them up a floor.
The next room they found themselves in was a featureless white void whose size could not be measured without anything to compare it to. While “as wide as the temple” would certainly have been a sensible answer, there was no way to actually be sure. For all they knew, the beam they had been trapped in had also flung them to a different dimension. Such transitions were not always noticeable, after all. Especially if someone tried to lay a trap. Or wanted to make sure that the secret opening that had just been uncovered did not actually connect to whatever lay beyond.
Maximilian spread his arms and spun around, his eyes facing the ceiling. “So, is this the stage of our final battle now?”
“Would certainly seem fitting, doesn't it? But it's not. It's just the final stage before the top. Make it through alive and you can have your final battle. And all the answers you desire, of course. But that's a really big if.”
“And why would that be?” wondered Drake, his eyes jumping from white to white, finding nothing of importance.
“Because here there are no riddles, no secret mechanisms, no trap doors … just death drawing closer.”
That proclamation caused everyone to turn in circles, their weapons drawn, their eyes squinting, their hearing strained. But the sea of white remained deathly still, offering no sounds, no changes, not even a feeling of dread.
“Did our cheating piss you off so much that you decided to remove whatever test was in here?” said Maximilian with a snarl.
“Not at all. This is how it's always been. And I can guarantee that there's a way to leave this chamber that doesn't involve suffering a horrible fate. If you don't find it, that's a shame. But at least I'll hear you scream.” His laughter seemed so close now that part of his speech appeared to resonate with truth. But the danger he spoke of still remained hidden. As did any way to leave this room.
“Should we split and look around?” said Drake.
“And risk loosing sight of each other?” replied Alyssa.
“How? We're all that's in here.”
“That doesn't mean this place is just an endless plane. There could be walls all around us, perhaps even a maze. There's no way to tell when everything's just white.”
Drake swung Carrazon and darkness leapt in all directions. He never saw it stop. It simply faded into oblivion. But that's all he really needed. “No maze here, as far as I can see. Or even any walls.”
Alyssa scowled at him. “And you want to bet your life on that? Perhaps magic can pass through. Or maybe Assar just moved the walls aside. Or let them slide into the ground.”
“We have to do something!”
Alyssa's eyes popped wide open and a screech came over her lips as her body toppled forward. She caught herself before hitting the ground, then stared straight down, her upper body trembling. Drake and Maximilian dashed toward her, but neither knew what to do. So all they did was stare, both at her and at each other.
“Uhm … is it because of what I said? In that case, we can just walk together,” said Drake.
“No,” she whispered almost silently.
“Then what's going on?”
“I felt … death.”
Drake gripped his blades and spun around, scanning the void once more. “Where's it coming from?”
“Not here … Mimeidr's … I heard it scream and despair … and then … silence.” Tears gushed from her quivering eyes and her body seemed suddenly so frail, as though touching her would make her snap in half.
“Oh...” Drake lowered himself to his knees and reached toward her, stopping only inches from her shoulders. Going any further just didn't feel right. Not for someone whose name wasn't Feyadal. “I'm truly sorry for your loss. But … we have to keep going … or it's only going to get worse.” He swayed toward the side, focusing upon her empty gaze. “You can keep going, right? You're not … powerless now?”
She turned her head ever so slowly, looking into his eyes and yet somehow through him. Then her head moved once more, first left, then right, then left again, denying his statement. Her mouth opened afterward, yet no sound came.
“Was that a no?”
“Yes,” she whispered like a ghost. “Mimeidr does not grant us power … not usually, that is.”
Her gaze returned toward the ground, and then, for no obvious reason, she lowered herself and pressed her ear against it. Her eyes narrowed and her body stopped trembling.
“What now?” asked Maximilian.
“The ground is shaking. Something's coming.” And so Alyssa pulled herself up, still shaky on her feet. She nocked an arrow and fired in a straight line. Contrary to Drake's attack, this one actually hit something: an obstacle that couldn't be seen
“What was that?” said Drake.
Alyssa didn't answer and nocked another arrow. She held it for a moment, then fired in the same direction as before. The arrow erupted even earlier this time. Drake dashed to where it had vanished, yet retreated even sooner, yowling in pain. Blood was spurting from his arm when he joined the others once again.
“What happened?” said Maximilian, his eyes jumping from Drake's injury to the featureless void.
“There's hidden walls after all. And they're moving … and covered in spikes, or something.”
Alyssa fired arrows in all directions and confirmed that the space was shrinking all around them, the sole exception being the ceiling. That last discovery didn't help one bit, as the ceiling was too far up to make out any hidden features.
“How much time do we have left?” yelled Maximilian.
“Judging by the arrows I fired … perhaps a minute. Two at the most.”
Maximilian growled and raised Elegnis. “Awesome! Drake, fire darkness at the wall!”
“But it didn't work outside.”
“You'd rather end up as a vampiric meat skewer?”
Drake pressed his lips together and spun around. Light and darkness streaked through the void, erupting into massive explosions painting the sky gray. Yet all it accomplished was to show their death drawing closer by the second.
“Do it again!” yelled Alyssa anyway.
“What's the point?” retorted Drake.
“The point is to see what we're dealing with! So fire in all directions. Now!”
Drake and Maximilian eyed each other, then spun toward the same direction, firing blast after blast until the sky was gray. They did so again and again, until a myriad of spikes could be seen bearing down on them. They were long and sharp, easily capable of impaling multiple bodies at once.
“Anyone see a way out?” yelled Maximilian, hoping that his own human eyes just weren't good enough to spot an escape route.
“No!” screamed Drake, whose eyes were scouring every inch of the walls, seeing nothing but spikes and yet more spikes.
“Here neither, but you missed the most important part!” Alyssa's right hand shot skyward. “Shoot the ceiling!”
They did so quickly, covering as much space as possible. Yet the ceiling offered no salvation, only proving itself as smooth as the ground.
“Now what?” growled Maximilian, both annoyed and agitated.
“There's something up there!” said Alyssa.
“No there isn't!”
“I don't mean the ceiling. There's something underneath!” She thrust her arm into the air, pointing to a small gray splotch hanging in the middle of nowhere. “Can you shoot around it?”
Firing in the general direction, they uncovered something long and small that started a few steps away and connected all the way to the ceiling. It was a ladder. One in danger of being torn down in the next few seconds.
“Get him up there!” yelled Alyssa to Drake. Then she leapt into the air, took hold of the ladder, and used it as support to propel herself even higher.
“I'm sure you don't mind,” said Drake as he wrapped his left arm around Maximilian and carried them both skyward. The walls were almost upon them at that point, their spikes scraping against the other side of the ladder.
Alyssa reached the top as her foothold was yanked free and smashed her head against the ceiling. It flew open in response and her body was sucked through, landing upon solid ground. Drake arrived a second later, having propelled himself through the open hatch just as the spikes were trying to conceal it. Blood glistened on his right cheek and arm as he had spun around in mid-air to shield Maximilian from being skewered.
A horrid screeching noise revealed the room below crushing itself, forcing everyone to cover their ears. And then, without warning or discernible reason, their strength was sapped. They toppled to the floor, unable to move even a muscle, and their vision became unfocused, first blurring, then fading completely. Their hearing followed suit until nothing but a faint beeping noise remained. It scraped across the insides of their skulls, filling them with pressure, causing agony beyond belief.
Their bodies suddenly dropped, landing on cold, hard rocks. They belonged to a small, dark room with a throne standing on an elevated and pulsing platform. A figure was sitting there, its upper body veiled in shadows and its head propped upon its right fist. Waving its left hand caused Drake and the others to see again. They stumbled to their feet as a beam of light emerged from in the platform, revealing Assar in all his glory, a wicked smile on his face.
Slumping back, he raised his hands and clapped slowly. “Well done on surviving all my challenges. Almost thought you wouldn't make it.” He rose to his feet and drew his blade, aiming at Drake's face. “So welcome to the end, where either you or me will fall. There's no in-between, no matter what happens. So ask all the questions you still have. It'll be your one and only chance to grasp the truth, so don't waste it.”
And so he slumped down once more, his right foot resting on his left and his blade piercing the platform underneath, ready to be drawn at the slightest provocation.