The room at the bottom of the stairs continued for only a few feet before splitting into two directions. Each of them connected to the very same chamber, with one minor caveat: a thick metal grate prevented passage from one side to the other. It melted together with a triangular wall as though both were one and the same. A bloody scrawl had been left on said wall, which could only be read by combining the fragments on each side.
“Only two may advance or no one will?” spoke Maximilian out loud. “Did the room actually change to accommodate our numbers?”
“The room above apparently reset itself, so I don't see why not,” said Alyssa. “It seems a bit weird that only two of us would be allowed to continue, though. Why have a door on each side if only one can be used?”
Said doors were located opposite the grate, with two faceless statues flanking both. Long winding tongues emerged from behind the creature's bloated lips and descended halfway to their swirly navels. Fiery murals had been drawn behind their bodies, depicting wings that didn't actually exist. One of each crossed another, painting a large X on every door.
“One thing's for sure,” said Drake, who had crossed the room and was stemming himself against the eastern door, “this one is locked. And it doesn't have a keyhole or even any handles.”
“Same over here,” yelled Feyadal after trying the door on his side.
Meanwhile, Alyssa looked at the only other objects in each room: two stone coffins resting on elevated pedestals. They formed three corridors leading to the grate and could be accessed by a small set of stairs on each side.
Alyssa climbed the one closer to the entrance and pushed the large stone slab covering the coffin. The first few inches were the most difficult as the slab barely moved no matter how Alyssa pushed. Then the inside became visible and the rest was a breeze. She didn't push it all the way, however. Just enough to peer inside.
“Anything in there?” said Maximilian, who was poking the grate with Elegnis. Neither its flame nor its light managed to pierce the metal.
“No, it's completely empty.” She coughed and waved her hands around. “Except for lots and lots of dus...” Squinting, she leaned closer, almost slipping her head into the coffin. “Wait, there's something written at the bottom. Yet every...”
“Every what?” continued Maximilian.
Alyssa swiped around for a moment, then emerged with a shrug, her face now dirty. “That's all there is.” Her eyes jumped to the bloody scrawl. “But it might be only part of it. Check yours too!”
The full message was assembled within minutes: Yet every single one is needed to proceed.
“Isn't this a continuation of the first message?” wondered Drake. “Only two may advance … but every single one is needed?”
Feyadal nodded. “Could be. So we cannot advance all at once, but we have to … somehow.” He rubbed his neck and looked around. “Would be nice to know how we could proceed in the first place. Pulling the tongues and pushing the murals didn't work, and I don't see anything else of note.”
Neither did Drake or Maximilian, as both sides of the chamber were mirror images of the other, except for the writing. And they also looked surprisingly clean, as though someone had cleared out all the rubble before they came here. Hidden mechanisms seemed therefore unlikely, unless one of all the bricks could actually be pushed or removed. Trying each and every single one could have taken hours, however.
“Are you sure the tongues are useless?” wondered Drake after looking around for a bit. “I mean, if only two of us can supposedly advance and there are two tongues, maybe we have to pull them at the same time?”
“Easy to find out,” said Maximilian and joined him by the statues. “On three. First, we pull, and if that doesn't work, then we try to push them in.”
Drake nodded and took hold of the right-hand tongue. “One,” he began.
“Two.” Maximilian's grip tightened.
“Three!” And both of them pulled.
“Stop!” yelled Alyssa almost instantly.
They both let go and spun around, catching just a glimpse of fiery breath that came from the statues on the other side. The entrances opened soon after, which none of them had noticed falling shut.
“Huh, so it's some kind of trap,” said Maximilian and returned to the grate. “But it shouldn't be a problem if you retreat all the way here, right?”
Alyssa shook her head. “I don't think so. It might have only been a moment, but I swear their mouths were growing wider. So they might be more than capable of dousing the whole room in flames. Would also explain why the exit was closed.”
Drake joined them by the grate. “Can't you just leave the room until our door has opened?”
“Maybe. But what if the rooms stay locked afterward? Then we'd be trapped under a horde of ghosts while you might be unable to proceed.”
“But there has to be a way,” said Feyadal, his eyes wandering once more. “The coffins … could just be it.”
Everyone responded with confusion, so he climbed the stairs, jumped into a coffin, and tried to pull it shut. It took him close to a minute, as he couldn't get it lined up right. Then the thing slammed shut and he was trapped. Alyssa rushed to his aid, but the lid rose before she could get there. Seconds later, Feyadal was free again.
“See what I mean? We climb inside while they open their door, and then we hope the fire actually dies down.”
Alyssa eyed the coffin skeptically. “And if this doesn't work, then we're getting cooked.”
“Certainly a possibility, yeah. But these are the same coffins that told us that all four of us are needed. So they might protect us too. And if it truly doesn't work, you can always try your magic.”
“That's true … but what about you? I can't just leave you here.”
Feyadal flashed her a smile. “I'll be fine. Don't worry!” Especially since he knew that the Splinter of Desolation wouldn't let him die so easily. “So are we gonna do this, or...”
Alyssa sighed. “Sure, why not? There's just one more thing I need to do first.”
Alyssa grabbed Feyadal from the side and flung him right into the coffin. He was too surprised to react in time and almost knocked himself out by hitting the coffin with the back of his head. Alyssa climbed in after him, somehow managing to squeeze both their bodies into the narrow space. She then peered over the edge and yelled, “Open your door when this falls shut!”
“No, don't listen to h—agh!”
Alyssa covered his mouth and forced herself back in. Afterward, she beckoned the coffin to close itself by means of her magic. It did so with ease, slamming shut within seconds. Feyadal's screams then started up again, but the coffin remained closed.
Maximilian smiled in amusement and spun around. “I think we better act fast.”
“Agreed.” So Drake turned too and together they returned to the statues. “On three again?”
“Why not?” Taking a deep breath, Maximilian clutched the tongue and watched Drake do the same. Nodding at each other, he began with, “One.”
They pulled and also turned around. Alyssa had been right. The statues were opening up wide, spewing their flames all over the room. The grate was the only thing standing in their way. And even that began to glow after only a few seconds.
A loud click echoed through the room and the doors flew open with a deafening bang.
Wasting no time, they dashed inside. Yet the flames kept going.
“Let's try to force it shut!” yelled Maximilian and took hold of one of the doors. Drake clutched the other and they pushed at once.
The doors refused to move.
Drake groaned and spun around, checking out the corridor. Two torches flickered on each side and a lever could be seen sticking out of the back wall. Racing to the latter, he pulled it down.
“I think we better return for now!” yelled Maximilian and stepped through the doorway.
Drake followed close behind and together they tried to push the tongues back in. Unfortunately, both seemed to be locked in place, no matter if they pushed them together or one at a time.
“Argh!” Maximilian kicked the statue and spun in circles, trying to ignore the inferno consuming the other half of the room. “What the hell are we missing?”
Drake returned to the corridor and looked around once more. Something instantly seemed off, but he couldn't quite tell what. Focusing his vision didn't help, except in banishing the darkness.
It's the torch. The one to your left.
“Huh?” Drake's eyes jumped to said torch and then to other. “Oh, they're slightly misaligned.”
“What are you saying?” yelled Maximilian from the doorway.
“Come back here! I think I got it.”
I got it! Not you.
“Yeah, yeah, the beast did. Whatever.”
Maximilian returned and Drake pushed the torch back into the wall. The door slammed shut as soon as he did, preventing either of them from seeing if the flames had stopped. And now they couldn't leave, as there was no other door. Additionally, the torch was stuck. And the other couldn't be moved either.
Feyadal had eventually stopped his struggle and fallen silent instead, now listening to the fire raging outside. But he couldn't quite ignore Alyssa's body being so close. Her chest was pressed against his, her breath tickled his neck, and the warmth of her body seeped into his flesh. And to make things worse, he could feel her leg pressing against his groin. Distracting his mind with random thoughts made it somewhat bearable, but he still begged the flames to die down soon.
“You seem a bit uncomfortable,” said Alyssa with a smirk.
“We're squeezed together in a goddamn coffin. Against my will, no less!” He wiggled from left to right, but his situation didn't improve one bit. “So how do you expect me to feel?”
“But isn't this what you always wished for? Without the coffin, I mean?”
He turned his gaze toward the side. “Now really isn't the time to talk about this.”
“So when will ever be the time? When all this is finally over? If you manage not to get killed?”
“I don't know,” he responded meekly.
“Then why not now? You don't have to prove anything anymore.”
“Don't I? I stopped Modera by begging Mimeidr for power, which I paid for with what little magic I had left. And with Ri'zzar, I begged again, despite knowing it would kill me. So really, what have I achieved? With my own power? Nothing! That's what.”
“I don't care about that!” yelled Alyssa, then pressed her lips together.
“But I do!” screamed Feyadal back, instantly regretting the tone of his voice.
“But it doesn't change who you are.”
“But it changes how I see myself.”
They stared into each other's eyes for a good whole minute, never speaking another word. The blaze roaring outside then finally calmed down, without its heat ever having penetrated the inside of the coffin.
“So, would you mind getting us out of here?” said Feyadal. “The air is getting thin.”
Alyssa nodded and turned her right hand over, slowly moving the lid aside. It did so for about two seconds and then crashed down, shattering loudly on the floor. Alyssa flinched and closed her eyes until the echo had faded away. Afterward, she rose to her feet and looked at the mess. “Sorry about that. Didn't account for the edge.”
“At least we're free. Although the air is even worse out here.”
Alyssa helped him up and together they looked around, confirming that they would have died no matter where they stood. Everything was scorched beyond recognition, leaving only the statues as a marker as to where the exit lay.
“Let's get out of here then,” said Alyssa and pulled herself onto the stairs.
They carefully approached the statues, not wanting to get burned. So Feyadal inched closer with only one finger, only to realize that the tongues weren't even warm. Alyssa followed his example and the door swung open soon after. Flames still erupted on the other side of the room, but since they had no need to worry, they never closed the door behind them.
“Huh, there's nothing here,” said Feyadal upon crossing the corridor. “Just a lever. Might as well push it, right?”
“I don't see any other way to proceed. So go ahead. But let me summon a shield first. Just in case.”
The shield turned out to be useless as pulling the lever only caused the wall to swing open. A small room covered in rubble lay beyond, containing only two objects worth of note: paintings depicting large, rectangular towers being blown to smithereens, with a torch hanging in-between. Nine circles had been drawn across both images, each containing a solitary black dot. Oddly enough, both paintings looked exactly the same. Feyadal tried to lift them, without result. Forcing a dagger behind the frames proved equally useless.
“There seems to be a hint down here,” said Alyssa from behind him while using her magic to clear away the rubble. A large plaque lay hidden underneath, covering almost half the room.
“What's it say?”
“The labyrinth is shaped by memories and power and desire, all of which are trying to lead you astray. It can show you what you need, if you try to persevere, but reaching its true destination isn't as easy as following the clues. So turn around if you don't want to get lost. Otherwise, uncover the one who took the reins. He will be different from the others.”
“The one who took the reins of what? And uncover him how, when all we have to go on are two identical paintings?”
“Well, I would assume the paintings are somehow connected. So let me have a look.” She walked up to the paintings and studied them both, switching every few seconds. “The hint said he will be different from the others, so maybe there's a minor difference in both paintings?”
Searching for such a discrepancy turned out to be daunting task, as neither of them could see one at a glance. Therefore, they looked them over stroke by stroke, each taking one half of the paintings. Sounded like a good idea, but switching back and forth with the other only feet away caused them to run in circles all the time, especially when both tried to switch simultaneously and then wanted to evade the other in the very same direction.
Minutes passed as they shuffled around, barely speaking a word to the other. Then Alyssa stopped in the middle of the room, sniffing loudly, her body seemingly frozen in place.
“What's wrong?” said Feyadal as he turned to switch paintings.
Instead of answering, she stepped up next to him and moved her head really close to the painting, squinting hard. Her eyes then jumped all around, focusing on a multitude of spots. Moments later, she repeated the process with the other painting, now also scrubbing her index finger over it.
“Alyssa? What are you doing?”
Stepping back, she showed him her finger. Fresh paint was stuck to it. “It's a trick. The difference isn't actually visible. It's hidden under a fresh coat of paint.” Scrubbing some more, she revealed that eight of the nine dots had been crossed out on the painting to the right. Only the last dot on the innermost circle looked the same on either painting.
“Huh, so that one is certainly different. But you scrubbed it just now and nothing happened.” Feyadal looked around just to be sure, but the room hadn't changed at all. The same applied to the corridor as well as the coffin chamber.
Alyssa pushed more deliberately this time, yet the dot refused to move. Switching to the painting where all the dots were the same didn't make a difference. “Why isn't this working?” She returned to the plaque and read the hint again. “Hm … there's nothing written about pushing the dot … but I did uncover it. Didn't I?”
“I'd say so, yeah. But we still have no idea who or what this represents.”
“True. But there aren't any names hidden in the paintings … unless those have also been painted over.” Testing her idea, she rubbed her left palm all across both paintings, without result.
Feyadal knelt down and picked up a large slab of rock, turning it over. It seemed to be quite ordinary, but one fact told him otherwise. “The ceiling isn't damaged.”
“So where did all these rocks come from?”
Alyssa turned around, her gaze wandering all over the room. “That's a good question. Might be another puzzle like above. Just with way more pieces...”
“Let's get to it then. I'll take the left, you the right, and when we hopefully find something, we just place it in the center and assemble it later.”
And so they did just that.
Meanwhile, Drake and Maximilian found themselves confronted with a vastly different location: a library stretching not only from east to west but also many stories up. Sunlight was streaming in through a multitude of colored windows even though it seemed impossible that the building could be larger than Bel Ga'nahn itself. Said light being visible starting on the ground floor called its origin even more into question, but try as they might, neither Drake nor Maximilian could determine what lay beyond. Maximilian wanting to shatter a window might have helped, if not for Elegnis bouncing off as though the glass was made of rubber.
Another oddity were the hundreds of thousands of books stacked far into the sky. Because not a single one—as far as they could tell—had anything written on its spine. Also, they couldn't be removed, making them appear to be glued together.
“Maybe they're all fake,” said Maximilian after trying multiple rows of books worth.
“But why have a library full of fake books?”
“Perhaps to hide the one isn't fake?”
“Wouldn't lots of real books hide it better than thousands that are obviously fake?”
Maximilian opened his mouth, then looked around, throwing his arms into the air. “I guess. But there has to be a point to all of this.”
Exploring the remainder of the ground floor eventually brought them to a door that couldn't be opened, with an elevated desk standing next to it. A massive book that a single person could never have lifted was lying on top. A bookmark could be seen poking out from somewhere deep within, attracting Drake's attention. He forced the book open and its cover slammed down with a thud. A shockwave erupted the moment it did, which traveled visibly all throughout the library, stirring up dust everywhere.
Drake watched it till it ceased, wondering if something else might happen. When that was not the case, he focused on the book instead. The following was written within:
Now that the pages have been opened, the magic of this library has been unleashed. Three books will be waiting somewhere deep within.
One will tell you something that you want to know. But you might not get exactly what you need. Not your first time anyway. And maybe not your second. So try to persevere, if you truly need said information.
The second book will tell you something about the master of the labyrinth. You will need said information somewhere further on, unless you simply want to leave. That's all the hint you will be given. So keep an eye out, if you care.
The final book will grant you passage to another section of the labyrinth. Once through, you cannot return. So make sure you got everything you need.
Maximilian furrowed his brow after Drake read the text out loud. “Well, that's nice and all … but there's still a whole lot of books here.” He walked to the nearest bookshelf and looked it over. “And they all have titles now. So … good luck finding just three of them. Especially without any real hints to go on. I mean, who's this master? And what else could we possibly want to know? Except who made these ghosts.”
“Maybe these books will somehow stand out.” Drake raised his head and looked as far as possible, but there were no beams of light or glowing bookshelves guiding his way. He did notice something else, though. Every floor had been marked with a number. But not in order. The first was number three, the second number one, and the last number two.
After letting Maximilian know, they decided to split up, so that each could check a separate floor before they joined forces to escape the library. Drake took on the task of finding the first book and did so by weaving from row to row, letting his eyes wander from side to side. Still, he couldn't possibly check every single book without anything to go on. One shelf alone must have held hundreds of books after all. So he just gave them cursory glances and hoped that something would jump out at him.
A few of the titles he came across were “The Complete History of Asselion”, “The Fate of the Seraphim”, “A Guide to the Horrors of the World Below”, “The Founding of Pagan”, and “Grim Memoria”, none of which really piqued his interest. The first that did was “The History of the Mad Queen”. But Modera was already dead, so he didn't see much point in reading it.
Many rows later, something caused him to freeze in his steps. It sounded like voices, but there weren't any people present. He made sure of that by jumping on the nearest bookshelf and looking around. So he followed those voices and came upon a shelf like any other. A thick green book was protruding from within, golden letters adorning its spine.
“About the Asen,” read Drake out loud and yanked the book free. He then opened to the first page and started reading.
The Asen are powerful creatures protecting Meceruun from evil. Or so most people would tell you. But it isn't quite that easy. There are more Asen out there than just the ones we know of. Hundreds of thousands of them. Unfortunately, they can't replace the ones that have been destroyed. Not anymore. The Cosmic Game has cost them too much strength.
Only two remain to hold the balance, but it won't last much longer. And when darkness falls upon the world, Regkier Nhoell will rise at last. The End of Time will follow in his wake and then this game will finally be over. There will be no more life, no more death, and nothing in-between. Just pure and utter oblivion. And this time, there won't be any do-overs, as the Spark of Life has already been spent.
Drake flipped the page and found himself confronted with a blurry mess that looked like something a farsighted person would see. Everything beyond the page was clear as day, however. And the previous page was still just fine. Flipping some more showed him one blurry page after another.
“Come on! You could at least have mentioned if Assar is one of the Asen. And how not to kill him, if that's the case.” He closed the book, then opened it again. Nothing had changed. So he put it back and sighed. “Maybe I should have read a different book. And maybe I still—“
A flash of light enveloped the room and robbed the books of their spines, returning them to how they were when Drake first entered the library. Pulling them out was therefore impossible. And the book about the Asen was gone entirely.
Maximilian didn't have the slightest clue as to what kind of book he was looking for, so he walked around aimlessly, hoping for some kind of sign. What he didn't expect was said book leaping out at him, its pages flying open and sharp teeth bursting through its cover. Stumbling in surprise, Maximilian crashed into the nearest shelf, sending dozens of books trundling onto his feet. He yelped in pain and fell to his knees, just in time to avoid the teeth aiming for his flesh. They dug into the shelf instead and tore a huge chunk out of it.
With sawdust raining onto him, Maximilian drew Elegnis and swung an arc above his head. But the book had somehow vanished from sight. Through a hole in the back of the shelf, as Maximilian soon found out.
Backing away, Maximilian turned in circles, Elegnis ready to strike. His eyes jumped from the shelves to the corridors to the ceiling, finding absolutely nothing. Therefore, he listened closely, still turning and turning, his knuckles white with tension.
A slithering noise suddenly reached his ears. He spun around and dropped his gaze, noticing the book crawling on the ground. It lunged at him the moment he saw and he quickly swung his blade. The book swerved sideways in response, expertly dancing around Elegnis, before going for his face once more. Maximilian ducked and lost his balance, falling onto his back. The book followed instantly, its pages snapping in excitement. Elegnis then came rushing from above and tore through the creature's spine. Smoke erupted from within and a normal book dropped out, its pages scattering all across the corridor.
“Great, even the books are trying to eat us now.”
Clambering to his feet, he gathered up the pages and looked them over. Most of them were written in a runic language that he couldn't make sense of, but one looked strangely different, as though the runes had faded into the background while their meaning had been written on top.
The last of the nine guardians is slumbering beneath, its wounds still deep from long ago. Only the Heavenly Blade could have finished it off, but Cardul failed his duty and then he failed his race. And now they're all that's left, each trapped, each undying, both waiting to bear witness to Meceruun's final hours.
“There you are!” yelled Drake suddenly. Maximilian raised his eyes and found him standing on a bookshelf. “Is that the book we need?”
“I think so. And the contents are certainly … interesting.”
Drake jumped down and closed the gap. “How so?”
“Whatever's lurking down here is apparently some kind of guardian. One that should have been killed by the Heavenly Blade. The real one, I guess. Also, look at this.” He handed Drake the tattered pages and pointed to Cardul's name.
“Huh? Modera's husband wielded the blade? And he's trapped? But I thought he was dead.”
“Apparently not. Which means you getting turned into a vampire, and everything that followed, didn't have to happen at all.”
Drake eyed the pages for a little longer, then crumpled them into a ball that burst into flames without him ever letting go. “Awesome. But what's done is done. And I already took revenge.” Emily's body being turned to dust told him otherwise, but he couldn't take revenge without knowing against whom. If that's even how it happened.
Maximilian watched the ashes rain toward the ground and decided to switch topics. “So, what did you find?”
“A book about the Asen, which claimed that someone by the name Regkier Nhoell will rise when they are gone. But it didn't mention if Assar is one of them. Only that two are still left.”
“Which could be Mimeidr … and Assar.”
“Could be, yeah. And I guess we could find out for certain, if we came back over and over again. But I doubt we have the time. So let's go find this final book.”
They didn't have to look for long. Or even listen for suspicious noises. The book in question was simply lying in the corridor, its golden cover glowing from within. Getting closer made it pulse and shake as though something had been trapped within.
Maximilian drew Elegnis just in case they were attacked again and slowly inched closer, his blade encased in flames. The book shook harder and harder, almost lifting off. The ones around it followed suit, sounding like an audience stomping with their boots. Drake also drew his blade, spinning left and right.
A flash of light blinded them both and a golden door emerged within. It had no handle or a keyhole but it opened nonetheless. The room beyond flickered for a moment, then steadied itself. Another flicker followed, but still there was no change.
“I think we better go through before it throws us back onto the streets,” said Maximilian.
Drake nodded and they dashed right through.
The door slammed shut behind them and the book reappeared where it belonged. A gust of wind then tore through the room and the sunlight faded away, leaving absolute darkness in its wake.
While Drake and Maximilian were flung to a different part of the labyrinth, Alyssa and Feyadal had made great strides with their piece of the puzzle. Only a few center pieces were missing, and they couldn't be far off. But just as Alyssa was about to float another piece into its slot, a massive tremor rocked the building. It was followed by two others, each of which seemed to be coming from a different direction. Dust rained down in response while pieces of the puzzle came undone, sliding to and fro and messing up the middle.
Dropping the piece she had been holding, Alyssa focused on the others, keeping them from shifting too. The Splinter of Desolation burned all throughout, its presence almost visible through Feyadal's clothes. He fell to his knees and covered it up, hoping it would look like he was steadying himself. Vague images flashed through his mind as he did so. None of them stayed long enough to focus on, so he didn't even try. But the presence of the beast he had seen was unmistakable. As was that of Ri'zzar, somewhere deep beneath their feet. They'd finally made contact and Feyadal still couldn't ascertain as to why.
“What just happened?” said Feyadal to preempt Alyssa's own reaction.
“Powerful magic was discharged down below. But it seems to have stopped for now. So I hope we're not too late … for whatever's gonna happen.”
She looked around and realigned the scattered rocks, one of which had broken into many pieces. Must have been the one she dropped. Moving it closer, she tried to reassemble it, but parts where missing here and there, robbing whatever was written of half its letters. Crawling on the ground to find the missing pieces didn't help, so she had to make do with what she had.
Moments later, the puzzle was finally assembled, revealing a list with cracks all around. Most of it was still perfectly legible, however, and read as follow.
Guardian of the First Circle: Valv*lis
Guardian of the Second Circle: Sca*migl*on
Guardian of the Third Circle: Rubi*ante
Guardian of the Fourth Circle: Racenge
Guardian of the Fifth Circle: Kagletekk
Guardian of the Sixth Circle: Kaina**o
Guardian of the Seventh Circle: Calcabrina
Guardian of the Eight Circle: Bar*ariccia
Guardian of the Ninth Circle: Adra**elec*
“So one of these must be it,” said Feyadal and glanced at the paintings. “Perhaps the ninth, due to it being the innermost circle. Adra...elec? Really? Why's it damaged so much?”
“Because I dropped it … I think.”
Feyadal groaned. “And I don't suppose this name rings a bell?”
“Not at all. And neither do these circles they are guarding. So we'll just have to guess. Should be easy back here,”—she pointed to the very end—“which can only be an h. I suppose.”
“Still leaves two more.”
“Yeah. But maybe they're the same. Like in Kagletekk and Bariccia. So let's just try every letter.”
“Let me. You already assembled them.”
Alyssa eyed him for a moment, her lips forming a thin line. Then she nodded and said, “Go ahead.”
Feyadal took a deep breath and focused on the name. “Adraaa— yeah, I doubt that's it.”
Alyssa couldn't help but chuckle.
“So, how about Adrabbelec?” he yelled the name out loud, then waited for a moment, his eyes scanning the room. When nothing happened, he continued, “Adracceled. Adraddelec. Adraeelec.”
Nothing continued to happen until he reached “Adrammelech”. Both paintings swung inward when the last syllable left his lips, each unveiling a corridor fading into darkness. A second later, the ground collapsed, giving neither Alyssa nor Feyadal any time to react. Freezing water dampened their fall and dragged them into the unknown.
Alyssa paddled to regain control, but the opening she sought for had already vanished, leaving them in utter darkness. Her lungs ached, her clothes grew heavy, and something appeared to be dragging her down. She flailed around to escape her captor, but it only made things worse. Her arms were pressed against her chest and her legs were robbed of any space to move. Then her body broke the surface and someone gasped behind her. Reacting on instinct, she jerked her head back and slammed it against her captor's. He yowled in pain and revealed himself to be Feyadal.
“What are you doing?” he yelled.
Alyssa whirled around, seeing only the vague outline of his body. “I didn't know it was you! I thought it was a monster dragging me down or something.”
“Even after I pulled you to the surface?”
“I wasn't thinking … exactly. Sorry.”
“And you won't be thinking for much longer!” blared a deep, echoing voice directly in their heads. “Or did you really think you could just solve waltz around and solve some puzzles while I sit around and simply wait for your arrival?”
“Adrammelech?” guessed Feyadal as he paddled in circles.
“The one and only. Not that it matters to you. All you should be worried about is the water flooding the room.” Unseen sluice gates opened as he spoke and water rushed in from every side. “So good luck with your imminent demise. And should you survive nonetheless … well, we'll see about that if it comes to it.”
Laughter rippled through the room and was soon drowned out by the increasing pressure. It filled the room so quickly that Feyadal and Alyssa were only moments away from hitting the ceiling. The only reason they didn't worry about that was the fact that they couldn't see it. They also had no idea how far they'd actually fallen. Which wasn't far at all.
“Any plans?” yelled Feyadal, but it didn't sound like Alyssa could actually hear him. So he grabbed some arrows while he still could and fired them in all directions. They showed him walls, walls and even more walls, none of which reacted to being fired upon.
“The gates!” screamed Alyssa suddenly, with her mouth so close to Feyadal's ear that he couldn't possibly miss it.
“Where the water comes out of!”
That was enough to make it click inside his head. Firing more arrows, he looked around quickly, but none of the gates revealed themselves. The ceiling, on the other hand, was drawing dangerously close, counting down the seconds till their bodies would submerge.
“Alyssa, give me some light below the surface!”
Alyssa nodded and summoned a small sphere of light. It sank into the water, shot toward the nearest wall, then started circling the room, descending with each revolution.
Feyadal dove under and forced his eyes wide open, following the sphere as quickly as possible. The water stung in his eyes and caused them to itch, but he focused as long as possible, not wanting to miss what might have been their only chance.
Eventually, his vision blurred and his lungs screamed for air. He ascended, then stopped, forcing just a few more seconds out of his body. That's when one of the gates finally came into view. It lay halfway submerged by now, at about the same height where their bodies had first landed.
Rising quickly, Feyadal filled his burning lungs and grabbed Alyssa's right hand. “Come on, before it—“ His voice failed and he choked on his own breath. Coughing and gasping, he wasted precious time while the ceiling drew ever closer.
“Just swim!” yelled Alyssa, unsure if he could actually hear.
Feyadal took one more breath and then dove down again. The opening had once again been swallowed by the murky blackness, but he still knew where to go. So he paddled and descended, clutching Alyssa's hand as firmly as possible. Within moments, the rushing water pushed him back.
Wresting herself free, Alyssa closed the gap and extended her right hand. A translucent shield popped into being, instantly trembling under the water's pressure. Alyssa pushed on regardless and made it to the opening. The pipe beyond curved upward after only a few feet and was just wide enough for one person to pass through. Getting past the pressure put a lot of strain on Alyssa's arm, however. Using both made it slightly more bearable, but her strength faded nonetheless.
Feyadal pushed her from behind so she could focus on the shield alone, but even after more than a minute must have passed, an end was not in sight. Bubbles of air escaped Alyssa's mouth and her shield flickered for a second, almost pushing them back. She blinked and steadied her arms, both of which were shaking and also going numb. The endless pipe didn't make it any easier, as they couldn't actually tell if they were moving or simply treading water.
Feyadal's legs stopped moving for a moment, so he forced them back to action. But they too were failing quickly, almost robbed of all sensation. Additionally, Alyssa had started to feel like a rock, what with all the pressure pushing her back.
Suddenly, without any sort of warning, gravity reverted and the scenery changed. Alyssa slammed upon the ground, her arms serving to cushion the fall, and Feyadal fell on top of her. A ton of water followed in their wake, quickly forming a puddle encompassing the room.
“Did we … make it? Or am I just … imagining things?” groaned Alyssa.
Feyadal tottered to his feet and raised Alyssa along with him. Her arms were all scraped up, but she wasn't in any condition to fix them right now. Or even to notice the pain.
“It certainly seems so. Although I'm not sure how it happened.”
“The magic of the labyrinth would not let you die,” bellowed Adrammelech from out of nowhere. “As if solving one puny puzzle made you worthy of gaining an audience with me. But fine, keep wasting your time then. Although I would advise you to turn around. For all our sakes.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” said Feyadal.
“That this won't end well no matter the outcome. So believe me, or don't. It doesn't matter in the long run. And now I've got to go. Maybe Drake and Maximilian will be easier to kill.”
“I doubt it!” screamed Feyadal.
He received no response.
Drake and Maximilian stumbled from a fireplace built into the side of what seemed to be a dining room. A large table stretched through its center, with dozens of chairs surrounding it. The one at the back of the room was bigger than the others and had been decorated with carvings of battles long past, surely fitting to seat a king. A painting showing the room a second time had been hung behind the chair. Even there the table was empty despite the candles being lit.
Five corridors led out of the room, two flanking the fireplace, two directly opposite, and one at the lower end of the table. Each was occupied by a billowing cloud of darkness that crackled like a simmering fire and obscured what lay beyond.
“Huh, no riddles this time?” said Maximilian as he looked around. “Guess I'll just break through then. Any preferences?”
“The solitary exit seems promising.”
Maximilian nodded and stepped up to the cloud, raising Elegnis for a downward slash. The moment it touched the darkness, his feet were yanked off the ground and his body was pulled through. He didn't even have time to scream.
“Maximilian!” yelled Drake and closed the gap.
Maximilian then came flying from another corridor, his arms flailing about. His body hit the table and slithered right off, sending him face-first to the ground.
“Okay, maybe there's more to this room after all.” Groaning, he pulled himself up by using a chair as support. Then he looked around once more. “But there really isn't much in here. So maybe … the exits aren't real and the one we need lies hidden behind a wall.”
“Didn't work back in the church.”
“You got a better idea?”
So they circled the room twice over, pushing and pushing and pushing some more. Not a single wall relented. And there wasn't anything else they could have pushed or pulled, apart from the painting, of course. Drake stopped there the second time through and gave it a closer look, occasionally peering to the actual table.
“Looks quite detailed, wouldn't you say?”
Maximilian stopped what he was doing and turned his way. “You mean the painting? So what?”
“Well, I'm not a painter myself, but I think it looks too real. More like a mirror than an actual painting. Or perhaps some kind of gateway.” With that said, he reached toward it carefully, only using the tip of a finger to make contact. All he found was a rough, leathery surface perfectly suited to make a painting. “Or maybe it's just a painting...”
Maximilian turned away, then stared at nothing in particular for a second or two. Turning once more, he walked up next to Drake and studied the painting too. “Or maybe it's a hint. See the candles? They're lit in here, but not in actuality. So what would happen if we lit them too?”
Drake spun on his heels and walked along the table, a small flame flickering on his right index finger. Lighting every candle only took him a few seconds. Then the chamber rumbled and the chairs rattled while derisive laughter filled the room. Maximilian spun around and Drake did too, both noticing a gaunt figure sitting in the king's chair.
Its shape was vaguely humanoid, with a bony frame covered in violet skin, claws for nails, and large eyes resembling a fly's. A grotesquely stretched mouth opened wide, revealing sharp teeth going two rows deep.
“I wouldn't do that if I were you,” rattled the creature as Maximilian raised his blade. It jerked a finger upward and his body was flung toward the ceiling, sticking there as if trapped in a spider's web. Another finger shot in Drake's direction, looking so frail that a single mistake could have snapped it in half. “Stay there, if you don't want to join him. And don't think of unleashing your magic. Otherwise, I'll snap his neck.”
“Why not do so right now, if you can?”
“Because that would be just boring.” A small cackle emerged from the creature's throat. “So sit down and let's talk. Maybe then you can leave without anyone getting mangled.”
“Just strike it down before it can move!” yelled Maximilian while struggling to get free. But he couldn't make any headway whatsoever. Even his hands were glued to the ceiling, making him unable to move even a finger.
The beast chortled as it sized him up. “Do you really have so little regard for your own life? I flung you to the ceiling with a single move. And I can kill you just as easily! So don't put stupid ideas into your companion's head.”
“Fine,” said Drake and pulled up a chair. “Then what do you want?”
“To be honest, I want nothing. And I've actually been instructed to kill you both.” The creature raised a claw and tore open its own cheek, drawing blood as black as oil. It seeped right back into the beast's flesh and the wound vanished from sight. “But as I said, that would be just boring. So let me see if you can solve another riddle after failing the first.”
“Failing? You mean the candles weren't it?”
“Not at all. They're just the most obvious solution. And normally, you could have tried again. But I won't let you. Not until you've solved a more interesting riddle. One with your very life at stake.” The creature tapped a claw upon the table and three wine bottles manifested in front of Drake. “By the way, I'm Ashrak, a demon ripped from the bowels of Hell, condemned to serve a creature that's been lying dormant for ages. So you see why I have to do this, don't you?”
The demon sighed and was suddenly right next to Drake. He flinched at that, one hand resting on Carrazon. But he didn't actually strike. “Because I haven't had the chance to torture anyone for hundreds of years. So if you fail, one of you will suffer unspeakable agony. And then I'll tear the other into pieces.”
“And these bottles will determine that?”
“Indeed!” Ashrak grabbed a bottle and gave it a good shake. “Because one … or maybe two of these are poisoned. And don't worry, it's a poison that will kill you too. More slowly, given your abilities, but that just makes it more enjoyable.” The demon cackled and slammed the bottle down. “As will the fact that I myself will take a bottle too. So if you're lucky, I will die and you will not. Would certainly be one way to be freed from this burden.”
“You could just take a sip right now and be done with it.”
Ashrak clicked his tongue and tapped his claws upon the table in the very same rhythm. “You really think I'd still be here if it was that easy? I'm bound by a contract. One that forces me to serve until the end of days. So I can't just kill myself. Dying in the line of duty, however, is a different matter. But I'm not sure you could win a fight, so this riddle will have to do.”
“Then how does it go? How do I find out which is poisoned and which is not?”
“That,” began Ashrak, his thin lips rising to a manic grin, “is the riddle you have to solve. So tell me which glass you will drink from. If you don't, I'll slice you open from bottom to top. And I'll keep doing so until your powers are finally spent. Which could take a while. Far too long for your friend to survive without food or water.”
Drake slammed his fist upon the table. “You can't just give me a riddle without hints! That's nothing but guessing.”
“Really? And what's so interesting about being fed all the pieces? Where's the excitement, the fear, the elation when you're finally victorious? Or, of course, the utter realization that you're doomed?” Ashrak flashed a toothy grin, saliva glistening on his fangs.
Drake scowled and picked up a bottle, turning it over, looking for … something … anything that might given him a hint. But of course, he didn't know what. So he turned it and touched it and smelled it, finding nothing that seemed promising.
“Can I open them up?” he asked eventually.
“Sure. Do whatever you want. But I doubt it's gonna help.” He then grabbed the bottle before Drake could force it open. “Do not think of spilling it or I will assume you're giving up! And then I'll kill him first”—he jabbed a claw at Maximilian—“before getting back to you.”
“I wasn't planning to. So let go already!”
Ashrak complied and Drake popped the cork. Leaning closer, he took a deep whiff. A sweet intoxicating smell entered his nose, urging him to empty the bottle. He quickly thrust it away and put it back down.
What do you think? Poison, or not?
How should I know? I'm a vampire, not an alchemist.
But you've seen a lot over the ages. And surely smelled lots too.
Still doesn't make me an expert.
And you're not just trying to get me killed?
And get killed too? Are you stupid? Hell, why am I even asking? Of course you are! Otherwise, you'd be done already.
What is that supposed to mean?
Find it out yourself!
Confused, Drake turned back to Ashrak. “Could you … repeat the riddle, please?”
“Really? You already forgot what little information there is?”
“Of course not. I just want to make sure I'm not missing anything.”
A momentary smile flashed across the demon's face. “Fine. At least one of these bottles is poisoned—“
“That's not what you said earlier.”
“But it amounts to the same.”
“No it doesn't. Earlier, you claimed two might be poisoned. But now you say at least one, which could also mean all three.”
Ashrak turned toward the bottles as though only now realizing the implication of his words. “Could it now? But that wouldn't be fair, would it?”
“Not at all.”
“Anyway, choose what glass to take and if you're correct, you win! And perhaps I'll die too. If you fail, you're gonna suffer, and so and so forth.” His claws clicked with every word. “So go on already! I should have been done ages ago.”
Drake bit his lips and studied the remaining bottles. All of them seemed to be identical, both in touch and in smell. And they also weighed the same. Additionally, Drake couldn't see anything floating within.
“Tick, tock,” made Ashrak, his fangs clicking together, “time's running out!”
“Don't rush me! I have to think.”
Ashrak jerked his head between Drake and the bottles. “About what? There aren't any clues. Just choose and survive or choose and die!”
“Wait!” bellowed Maximilian from above. “I think I got—“
Ashrak's left hand shot up and Maximilian's mouth clamped shut. “Please be silent. He's the one who has to solve the riddle, not you. I know, I know, your life's at stake, but isn't that exciting?”
Maximilian groaned and tried to force his mouth wide open, but all he managed was to strain his muscles.
“Come on now,” growled Ashrak, “don't you want to free your friend? Or do you want me to call this off? I could certainly do so. At least then you'd have a fighting chance.” He vanished just like earlier, reappearing upside down upon the ceiling, his claws tracing Maximilian's flesh. “After I snap his neck, of course.”
Drake scrunched up his face and reached for a bottle at random. Ashrak reappeared the moment he did, a wide grin plastered on his face. Watching him, Drake returned the bottle and took another. Ashrak's expression didn't change.
“So, is this your final choice then?” asked the demon.
Drake thought for a moment, opened his mouth, and then said nothing. He furrowed his brow and lowered his gaze, a memory flashing through his mind.
Oh, did you finally realize it? Took you quite a while.
Ignoring the beast, Drake turned to Ashrak. “I have to ask you something. Did you actually say glass earlier? Not bottle? Because in that case, I choose nothing.” His muscles remained tense, unsure if that was truly the answer or if Ashrak had simply misspoken.
The demon kept smiling, maybe even wider than before. His hands then moved to clasp a bottle and bring it to his lips. “Then I will choose this one, although it makes no real difference.” He gulped it down quickly, spilling half the wine. Yet before he was done, his body convulsed and the bottle shattered on the ground. Foam clogged his throat and spilled from his lips as all his veins pulsed and popped. Maximilian fell when it happened, hitting the table hard. Groaning, he rose to his knees and watched the demon's final moments.
Seconds later, Ashrak stopped moving and his eyes turned a dull gray. Only his muscles twitched for a little longer. And then his body scattered into dust.
“I really should have noticed sooner,” said Drake as he rose to his feet.
Yes, you really should have. So next time, pay attention!
“Well, you're not the only one who took some time to realize what he had said. But I was also kinda preoccupied.” Maximilian stretched his body, which cracked here and there as though his bones had snapped. “Now let's solve this puzzle and move on.”
“I don't suppose you've found the answer to this too?”
“Sadly, no. But maybe the painting holds more hints.”
So they returned to the painting and gave it a long hard look, studying every single brush stroke. The table was the same, the chairs were the same, and so were the ceiling and the ground … but not the walls. Because there was no fireplace. Would have made sense if the image had been mirrored, but it wasn't.
“Really?” said Drake frowning. “The way we came from was the exit all along?”
“Not a bad hiding place. If it's actually true.”
But at first glance, the fireplace was simply that. So Maximilian swung his blade around, searching for a hidden passage. Yet all he found were walls and ash and a long shaft going up.
“Wanna try climbing?” said Maximilian.
“Seems a bit excessive for an exit.”
“That doesn't mean it isn't true.”
Drake sighed and climbed into the fireplace. “Guess I'll have a look then.”
Or so he would have done, if the back of the fireplace hadn't swallowed him whole the moment he leaned against it. He stumbled and flailed backward, all the while making senseless noises. A stair then tripped him up and sent him flying to the ground. Which was luckily not far. His back still cracked when he slammed down.
Maximilian followed a second later and saw Drake lying motionless, a blank expression on his face. “You okay?”
“Sure. But couldn't you have actually checked the wall before I leaned against it?”
“I could have … but it seemed solid enough.” He looked over his shoulder and saw the dining room as though looking through a waterfall. “But I guess it wasn't.”
“You think?” Drake heaved himself up and propped his arms upon his knees. “So how about you take the lead now? Just in case there's more surprises.”
“Fine with me.”
And so they advanced in reverse order through a long dark corridor that slowly wound down, only to end up at another wall. Maximilian poked it with Elegnis, but the blade wouldn't go through. He then tried a finger, with the same result.
“Okay, this one is most certainly solid.”
Drake walked past regardless and pushed his hand against the wall. “Huh, you're right.”
“Why wouldn't I be?”
“Just checking.” And then he swung Carrazon and tore the wall down.
Maximilian chuckled. “Already tired of looking for hidden mechanisms?”
Instead of answering, Maximilian pushed Drake out of the way. An arrow flew right past, almost grazing Drake's flesh. It lit up the corridor like a miniature sun when it slammed against the opposite wall.
“It's us!” yelled Maximilian. “Stop firing!”
Feyadal made his appearance moments later, his arrow still raised. Only when he saw the others face to face did he actually relax. “That's quite the entrance you made. Wasn't there a switch or something?”
Drake shrugged. “Maybe. But we've already wasted too much time. Like with a demon trying to poison me just now.”
“Sounds more pleasant than swimming for your life.” Even now his clothes were still wet.
“But Alyssa made it, right?” said Maximilian while glancing behind Feyadal.
“Thankfully, yeah. She's just waiting by the fire to dry her clothes. So it might be better if you leave her alone right now.”
Maximilian smiled cheekily. “Oh, so you get a nice view and we don't?”
“Exactly!” replied Feyadal without missing a beat, momentarily rendering Maximilian speechless.
“Fine. What else are we supposed to do then?” said Drake in his stead.
“Help us get out of here. Come on, I'll show you.”
Feyadal led them through a small corridor connecting to the room where Alyssa was in. She nodded when they saw her and then they moved on, down a set of stairs and through another corridor. This one opened to a large circular chamber whose exit was blocked by a golden gate. Sixteen shimmering crystal rods had been set into the ground, all of which were arranged in rows of four. Some of these were halfway submerged and pulsed rhythmically, while the others seemed dull and lifeless, their tip reaching a grown man's chest.
“I think to open this door we need to make all the crystals light up. But they keep resetting after I try a few times. To make it worse, there's a time limit of only a few seconds in which a crystal must be moved. Wait any longer and the whole thing resets again. So there's hardly any time to think.”
“But why bother when we can simply break through?” said Drake as he raised Carrazon. A wave of darkness leapt from within and smashed against the door, causing it to flare up brilliantly, if only for a moment. When the light faded away, no damage could be seen. Frowning, Drake tried again, but he couldn't even scratch the gold.
Maximilian smirked. “Yeah … so much for that. So let's solve this. Shouldn't be too difficult with all of us combined.”
Unfortunately, all of them messing around at the same time screwed up every attempt to find a solution as the crystals kept resetting every few seconds. Pushing a crystal also caused the ones surrounding it to switch into their opposite states, which made things even more chaotic. One of these switches sent Maximilian flying to the ground as the crystal he was trying to push suddenly moved itself out of reach. Feyadal suffered the other way around as a rising crystal smacked into his elbow, numbing his left arm for more than a minute.
“Okay, stop, this isn't working!” yelled Maximilian after wasting too much time achieving absolutely nothing. “How about only one of us pushes the crystals while the others stand aside to get a better handle on this puzzle?”
Both shrugged in acknowledgment.
“Good. Then let's make sure of something first.”
He touched the nearest crystal and waited for it to click into place. Then he walked down the row and touched every crystal to his left. Turning at the end, he repeated the same procedure with another row. But he only got up to the third before every crystal returned to its original setup.
“Okay, so the puzzle resets once seven crystals have been touched. Which could indicate that the solution can only be found after using every single turn.”
“Still leaves a lot of possible combinations,” said Feyadal.
“Obviously. So let me see where to start.”
He returned to the entrance of the room and circled the crystals in each direction, burning their layout into his mind. The ones already active were shaped like an N lying on its side—if seen from the entrance—except that the second crystal from the bottom right hadn't been activated yet. The one behind it was the other way around, as was the one to its right.
“Okay, so how about I start up here?” He moved to last row on the left and the second crystal from behind. “That way, three crystals will be activated while only one will be turned off.”
“Which means that said crystal will also have to be activated again,” added Drake. “So there's your second step.”
Maximilian nodded and did just that. Afterward, he made his way toward the center and looked around. “Okay, we went from five crystal down to four. And we still have five turns left.”
And just as he was done, the room returned to its original state.
“There's really no time to think, eh? Would be nice to have some paper, so we can try the different combinations in advance.”
“But we don't have any,” said Feyadal. “So how about you try those four you mentioned? Maybe then the pattern will reach a stage where one more turn will be enough.”
But it wasn't, as it made things even worse than at the start, with the right side almost entirely deactivated. So Maximilian let it reset and returned to the top.
“Might be better to continue where I left off.” With that said, he pushed the second crystal in the topmost row, so the only one that wasn't activated yet. The ones surrounding it were turned off in result, so he moved one row down and touched the first crystal again. “Great, four crystals yet again. So this can't be it.”
Drake cocked his head and replayed what had just happened, only taking a different turn than Maximilian had chosen. “How about you touch the crystal one row down as your third choice instead? That way, all the deactivated ones should be close together.”
Maximilian followed his instructions and the deactivated crystals formed a tiny question mark with three pulsing crystals in-between. Grasping that took long enough for everything to reset, however.
“Looked nice enough, but then we have five crystals remaining,” said Maximilian.
“Yeah, but with all of them so close together, a few more turns might be enough to solve this,” added Feyadal.
“I see you're having fun without me,” came a sudden voice from the entrance. Alyssa had joined them, her clothes now dry.
Maximilian groaned. “I wouldn't call it that. But we might be almost done. Hopefully.”
And he wasn't so far off, as a few more minutes made them realize that all the crystals they had to touch were actually connected. Starting from the top left, they went one row down, drew a line all the way across—also touching the third crystal in the second row from the bottom—and then they went up again, finishing the puzzle opposite to where they started.
Maximilian backed away as the crystals emitted bright beams of light connecting to another crystal descending from the ceiling. It was held in place by claws made of stone and condensed the light in such a way that looking into its core would have burned someone's eyes after only a few seconds. The light was then expelled again, this time redirected at the door. Instead of opening like normal, the gold actually melted away, its essence pooling into circular grooves embedded in the ground, each of which connected to another, smaller circle.
“Uhm … shouldn't there have been opening beyond the door?” said Drake when the light receded, revealing nothing but a wall where the door had been.
A sudden tremor gripping the room cut off any response, after which the walls themselves appeared to move. Turning to the entrance revealed a different truth: the room itself was descending, as no opening remained. It did so at a leisurely pace and with enough grinding noises that no one could understand even a word. So they watched and waited, their weapons at the ready, almost certainly expecting to come face to face with whatever had drained Bel Ga'nahn.
What actually came to light appeared to be the lobby of a rustic mansion. It connected to a dining room, a kitchen, a bathroom, some kind of training hall, a large living room, as well as to a second floor with multiple bedrooms lined up in a row. Contrary to normal buildings, the exit could be found on the very same floor in the form of double doors. They opened to a long tunnel containing a sign pointing back to Bel Ga'nahn.
“But this can't be it,” said Drake. “Where's Ri'zzar? And whoever drained the dwarves?”
“Maybe somewhere down the tunnel?” offered Alyssa. “Sure, the sign points back to the city, but maybe there's other tunnels in-between.”
Maximilian leaned against the railing and crossed his arms. “Maybe. But what if this is truly the end of the labyrinth? Darabon did claim there was another entrance, so this could certainly be it. Might not look that way, but neither did the church.”
“But there has to be more to it,” said Feyadal. “Adrammelech certainly made it sound like we would be able to meet him somewhere in here.”
Drake spun around. “Adrammelech? Is that the creature's name?”
“So it claimed anyway. And that very name was the solution of a puzzle we had to solve.”
Scratching his head, Drake turned to Maximilian. “Isn't that the creature this guardian mentioned? Back in the swamp?”
“Certainly sounds familiar. But I'm not sure. And it doesn't really help us, does it?”
“I guess not. It just rang a bell. Must be really old though, if even the Seraphim knew about it.”
“Yeah, and it's supposedly wounded, as you read yourself. But that still doesn't tell us how to find it.” Maximilian turned around and let his eyes roam across the lobby once more. And that's how he noticed something that he couldn't have seen from down below: a mural stretching all across the lobby. He couldn't tell what it was supposed to depict, however. So he waved the others over and said, “Does this seem weird to anyone else?”
“It seems … cobbled together, with lots of different pieces that don't mesh well,” said Feyadal.
“Yeah, but other pieces do seem to belong together,” added Alyssa while pointing to different corners. “And see that by the elevator? It looks like a jumbled name. So maybe there's a way to make sense of all this.”
Climbing down, they inspected the ground from up close and found a dozen tiny holes just big enough for a finger to slip in. Pushing these down caused a nearby piece of the mural to flip over, depicting something else.
“Okay, let's try the name first,” said Maximilian. “Does Adrammelech come up?”
Drake went through all the buttons, flipping the mural over and over. The end result was as predicted. But nothing happened yet.
Maximilian eyed the name, then checked out the remaining mess. “So … what do we do with all this? Just try to make something that works?”
“Would certainly be a start,” said Alyssa. “We can always keep trying afterward. One of us should watch the mural from above, however. Otherwise, we won't get anywhere.”
Feyadal ended up being chosen and watched them fiddle around, occasionally barking orders like “Drake, stop! You just removed a number that might help us solve the rest.”
Therefore, Drake kept pushing the same buttons over and over, until finally a giant nine took up a quarter of the lobby. Using the surrounding area as hints, they slowly reconstructed the likeness of a giant winged beast with ringed horns turning back towards it face. Massive golden rings were strapped to its muscular limbs and innumerable runes had been carved into its bluish gray flesh.
“So that's Adrammelech,” said Drake when they viewed it from up high.
“Yeah, the Guardian of the Ninth Circle … whatever that's supposed to be,” added Feyadal.
“I guess we could ask … but nothing's happened yet. Did we miss something?”
All of them checked the mural one more time. But at first glance, nothing seemed amiss. So they combed it back and forth, searching for the tiniest irregularity. Finding it might have proven impossible, had Drake not remembered the signpost pointing to Bel Ga'nahn. Because another dwarven name had been written on the side of the mural, facing a different direction from Adrammelech's name. The image of a sword could be seen next to it, far too small to be noticed from above.
Waving Alyssa over, he asked, “Could you tell me what this says?”
“Looks like … Fargodon. Which means nothing to me.”
Drake knelt down and looked for another button. Finding two, he pressed them each, creating a whole new word with identical surroundings. “And now?”
Only flipping the first word, he asked a few more times until Alyssa told him what he suspected: that the name he needed to form was Cardul. Doing so was the final piece of the puzzle, as the mural itself opened up with loud thumping noises, revealing a long spiral staircase winding into darkness. Feyadal was caught upon its steps and lost his footing, almost rolling all the way down. Maximilian grabbed his arm before it could happen and swung him back to solid ground. Then they waited for the mechanism to stop, which took more than a minute despite the stairs appearing in rapid succession.
“A word of advice: don't come down here looking for me,” spoke Adrammelech from down below, his voice booming like thunder. “Just take the tunnel and return home. I will even call off the 'ghosts' so you can leave unhindered.”
Maximilian chortled. “You really think we believe the words of a monster?”
“I'm more than just a mindless beast, as should be obvious. So do as I say and enjoy what little time you have left. If you don't, it won't end well no matter the outcome. Believe me, I know so for a fact.”
“Even so, you killed hundreds of people for who knows whatever reason. Do you really think we could just let that go?” said Alyssa.
“They were destined to die anyway. What difference would a few more months have made?”
Drake balled his fists. “Destiny can be changed!”
Venomous laughter surged up from below. “Can it now? Then where's your father, Drake? Where's Emily? Where are all the other people who died in Arlington? Oh right, they're dead. Just as they were destined to be.”
Drake scrunched up his face, a scream on his lips. But Maximilian gripped his shoulder and spoke in his stead, “But you just admitted to changing destiny. You killed the dwarves before their time. So just because Drake … failed, that doesn't mean his words are false.”
Adrammelech cackled for a moment. “I guess you could see it that way. And it might be for the better … but still, you are better off leaving. Because you cannot win even if you do.”
“That doesn't even make any sense,” said Feyadal.
“Of course it does. And I might explain why if you actually come down here. But then you leave me no choice but to kill you. So don't do it, for all our sakes.” And with that, Adrammelech's presence faded away.
Maximilian stepped forward and swung Elegnis onto his shoulder as he turned to face the others. “So, who of you wants to leave right now so this beast can do whatever it wants?”
No one raised their hands.