The Darkened Room
Isa swore vehemently as the door clicked shut, leaving the group in darkness. The stream of invectives subsided when Trentor gave a cry of pain. “What is it?” Rika yelled, turning towards the sound of his voice.
“Stubbed my toe…”
“Everyone be quiet,” Syd ordered. “Rika and Isa, light! The rest of you, stand still and try not to move, we don’t know if there are other traps here.”
“The door shouldn’t have shut like that,” Isa muttered. There was a muffled thump as she set her pack down heavily, followed by rustling noises as she rummaged through it. Rika did the same. The room was utterly black -- she couldn’t see a hand in front of her face, let alone the contents of her bag. Still, there weren’t too many hard objects shaped like crystals in her bag. She had no idea what had happened to pull the energy from both of their torches, but it was a decided inconvenience.
“Ah ha!” Isa crowed in triumph as she found and activated a small crystal from her bag, filling the room with a soft, orange glow. Compared to the previous, crushing darkness, the low light seemed extremely bright, and it looked like Isa held a campfire in her palm. The shifting of the light through Isa’s fingers gave Rika a headache, but being able to see her friend’s faces heartened her. With the aid of the light, she was soon able to pull her own spare crystal from her pack and brighten the room further, enough so that Rika and Isa could examine the doorway.
“Is it locked?” Trentor asked several minutes later. He was perched on the empty plinth where the Foinse-stone should have been. Simon, Syd, and Sean were all standing around too, Sean especially looking bored. The interior looked much the same as the heavy, iron outside, but without the Fòrsic lock. The lock had been in the center of the door, but from this side there was only smooth, black iron. Rika could not even see where the two doors split apart to open. Her first trick had been to push against it with all her might, to no avail.
“It might as well be,” she answered Trentor. “I see no lock, no door knob, nothing.”
“Could you blast it open?” Syd said.
Isa shrugged, looking around the small chamber. The back of the room was lost in darkness, while cloth sacks and wooden cabinets, presumably full of gold, precious gems, and other valuables, cast odd shadows in the light. “Probably not without killing us all.”
“Depends on how big the room is and how we direct the back blast… but we would likely die, yes.”
Syd frowned, thinking. “Is there a way to open the door without all of us dying?”
It was Rika’s turn to shrug. “You see those raised bumps in the corner of the door?” She pointed, and Syd nodded.
“Are those hinges?” Simon asked.
“We think so,” Rika replied. “If we could destroy them, and found some proper blasting equipment, we could blow the doors out and away from us.”
“We’re in a vault full of everything the Crystalis mines consider valuable,” Sean put in. He’d been watching the conversation with an aloof expression on his face, but now he smiled a toothed smile. “We should see what we can… appropriate.”
“Do that,” Syd ordered, nodding her head in agreement. “Look for anything useful.”
“Or small and valuable enough to take with us?” Trentor interjected.
Syd frowned him, and then shook her head in resignation. “Fine. But if you weigh yourself down too much, we will leave you behind.
Trentor grinned, and the group split up to investigate the chamber. Rika and Isa placed their lights on the empty plinth and set to rummaging through crates, bags, and cabinets with a will. The sacks were indeed filled with gold and precious gems, but the cabinets had a much wider range of implements and devices, the value of which were not immediately obvious. “Wait a moment,” Isa said. “There’s something strange about these cabinets.”
“The glass fronts?” Simon asked.
“Are they trapped somehow?” Said Syd.
“No,” said Isa, “or at least not that I can tell. I think that this room is a museum.”
“Who builds a museum in a vault?” Trentor Said.
“It’s not a museum, anymore,” everyone’s heads whipped around to stare at Sean as he stepped out of the darkness at the back of the room. He was carrying a thick sack made up of burlap. It looked… wet, in the dim light.
“Explain,” Syd’s tone was flat, but Sean’s expression didn’t display any nervousness.
“It was a vault, first, and then the Overseer had a fit of vanity, and repurposed it.”
“When was this?” Simon asked.
He waved a hand airily. “Soon after you left. This vault became a repository of everything the Overseer wanted to show off, all the wondrous crystals they’d dug up from the mine, and the Fòrsic technology they built with them.”
“Including the Foinse-stone, I assume. What’s your point? Where is it?” Isa said.
“Five years ago, things began to change. The quality of the crystals mined began to degrade, and more and more crystals reached Fòirceann even before we could ship them out. The Overseer began to get desperate. If production failed, he would lose his position.”
“So he covered it up,” Trentor said.
Sean nodded. “Yes, the museum was shut down, and the failing crystals were hidden away in the vault.”
“Wait a second,” Isa frowned. “This doesn’t make any sense. If production of usable crystals had fallen significantly, we would have heard! At least through our spy-networks, anyway.”
“So how could we not know?”
Sean didn’t answer, he just stared fixedly at Simon.
Simon’s eyes were widening. “The reserve!”
“What?” Rika and Isa both asked.
“If more crystals are dug up than are used, the mine keeps what is left over, as a reserve for hard times,” he looked back at Sean. “The Overseer’s really spent down the reserve?”
Sean nodded. “It’s almost gone. The situation is so severe, in fact, that there is a rumor he had turned to other methods.”
“The rumors are that he began experimenting with blood magic.”
“Impossible,” Rika said, just as Isa exclaimed, “That’s a myth!”
Syd looked at Rika and Isa. “One of you, explain,”
“Go ahead,” Rika said.
“You’re the Theorist, you do it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she looked out at the rest of the group. The Fòrsic crystals on the plinth gave off a strong, steady glow, but she could swear the shadows they cast flickered. This was not a topic she wanted to discuss while trapped inside a sealed vault under a mountain. Isa gave her an encouraging look, and she took a deep breath and began. “You remember our discussion of Roshan’s theory, returning energy to crystals using the Foinse-stone?”
“It’s not the first time that someone has tried something like that, or so the story goes. It doesn’t make sense using regular crystals, because you simply sacrifice one crystals’ energy for another. However, according to some of the older scrolls on Fòrsic theory, a Theorist many, many years ago claimed that you could use life energy to recharge crystals.”
“Blood sacrifice. Of the glyphs we use channel physical, mental, or spiritual types of energies, the last type is often misunderstood. It seemed as if the Theorist thought it was theoretically possible, but in the story, he was never successful. When the Dakian authorities traced several murders back to him, they put a stop to it, and that was the end of that.”
“Unless,” Isa said, turning to look at Sean, “what you say is true.”
“I assume you have proof?” Syd asked.
In response, Sean turned and dumped out his sack on to the empty plinth. There was a wet thud and Rika gasped, while Trentor swore vociferously.
“Where did you get that?” Simon demanded,
At the same time Isa asked, “Is… that a human head?” Her voice gave nothing away, but Rika could tell that she was shaken. Rika herself was, too. It certainly looked like a severed head, and one recently separated from its owner. The neck was encrusted with dried blood, and the head’s bald pate shone in the Fòrsic lamplight. The skin was shrunken and waxy, and the thing smelled abominable. However, most disconcerting of all was that instead of eyes, the head stared out at them with two large crystals. Both were milky and inert, and spotted with brown blood. Painted in blood around the eyes, on the cheeks and the nose, were a multitude of tiny, intricately detailed glyphs. Rika even recognized a few of them, some pertaining to spirit energy and others to guide the path of Fòrsic energy.
“I found it in a pile at the back of the room,” Sean’s voice was level, but he was staring fixedly at the severed head. “There were others. This is… beyond what I feared.”
“How many other people know about this?” Syd asked.
“For that matter,” Simon added, “whose head is this, brother?”
“There were rumors, but…” he gestured at the head, “this will be the match to the Overseer’s funeral pyre. The head’s identity, I am not sure about, but miners have been known to disappear of late. Especially the ones who have caught the displeasure of the Overseer,” he shrugged, a fatalistic tone to her voice. “We had thought it was just the Overseer cracking down, such events are not uncommon, but this…”
“Alos guide us,” Rika whispered. If true -- and the head certainly looked like what she had read of blood magic, although she had no desire to inspect it any closer – the implications were horrifying. The need to escape this vault was ever more pressing. The Don and the Resistance had to be informed!
“Rika, can you identify the glyphs?” Syd asked.
Rika shot her a pleading look, but their leader was unmoved.
“We must know what they were attempting. You are our Theorist.”
Rika gave a heavy sigh and stepped slowly up to the plinth. Isa followed on her heels. There was no real need for her to accompany Rika, but Rika knew Isa’s curiosity would let her do nothing else, and Rika took comfort in her friend’s steady presence behind her. The head was lying on its side, and, suppressing a surge of nausea, she took a pair of examiners gloves from her belt pouch, slipped them on, and carefully lifted the head up and set it down on its stump of a neck, right side up. Up close, she recognized more glyphs. Use of spiritual-focused glyph sets was uncommon, but all Theorists had to have at least passing knowledge of the field. These ones seem focused on channeling energy toward the two Fòrsic crystals embedded in the eye sockets. She gasped as she deciphered the activation sequence, and turned away. Bent over with her hands on her knees, she channeled all of her energy into not vomiting on the vault’s floor. Isa put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and Rika pulled herself together with deep, gulping breaths.
“What did you find?”
“I can explain,” Isa said, but Rika waved her off.
“I can do it,” she turned to Syd. “It is definitely blood magic. The runes are set up to channel energy into the… eye crystals. Clearly it did not work, as the crystals are inert. However,” she paused, gathered herself, and continued. “The runes were drawn to activate upon the death of the wearer. Which means…”
“The crystals were inserted while the man was still alive,” Isa completed, and Rika nodded her thanks.
“By Dar-Alos himself,” Syd swore, but before she could say anything else, a commotion arose behind Rika.
“Look!” Trentor said, pointing at the head.
Rika whirled around. The head, and the plinth, were glowing. The source was hard to discern, but the dried blood of the runes were being traced in copper fire. The crystals in the eyes were glowing too, their opaque milkyness brightening into white fire. The room was brightening noticeably until it seemed brighter than midday in summer. Rika stepped back from the head and raised an arm protectively over her eyes, just as two massive beams shot forth from the newly activated crystals. They slammed into the iron door, leaving two large dents and an echoing ringing sound that forced them all to cover their ears. Just as quickly as it had begun, the glowing faded away. The room seemed dimmer now, duller, save for the two bright crystals now shining in the head’s eyes, now blackened from the force of the blast.
“What in the world was that?” Trentor said, blinking the light from his eyes. It was difficult to hear him over the persistent ringing noise in Rika’s ears.
“I…I don’t know,” she said, “It shouldn’t have been possible.” She stepped forward to examine the crystals. They had definitely been inert when she examined the head just moments earlier, but now they were infused with Fòrsa. She stared at the Crystals, baffled.
“Did the blood magic work, after all?” Simon said.
Rika shook her head. “No, there was no provision in the runes for a delayed reaction. Whatever happened, it was not the blood magic.” She was sure of that. At least, she thought she was sure.
“I recommend you find out what did happen, and fast,” Trentor said. “Others will have heard that ringing blow against the door.”
“Oh, no,” Rika, distracted, hadn’t considered that aspect of their predicament. She bent to examine the crystals more closely. They were definitely charged again, despite having clearly reached Fòirceann and been inert before….whatever had happened….
Meanwhile Isa was staring intently at the plinth below the head. The plinth itself was about a foot on each side, the top was three feet off the ground, held up by a fluted column carved to look like a furled scroll underneath the top piece. Rika had assumed it was made of marble, with its milky-white finish, and had not paid it much mind at all, except to be disappointed when the Foinse-stone wasn’t resting on it on a velvet pillow.
“Huh,” Isa said, and bent to examine the scrolled carvings underneath the base. Rika followed suit, as Isa’s hunches were usually correct. “Look at that,” Isa pointed at the scroll carving, and Rika nodded in acknowledgement. The carving was asymmetrical. On one side the ‘scroll’ was filled with a smooth rod, while on the other, the rod was missing.
“Is that what I think it is?”
In response, Isa just grinned fiercely. She reached out, and tugged the rod free of the scroll. It slid out into her hand with minimal effort, and she held it up triumphantly. “Behold!” she said, “The Foinse-stone.” The rod wasn’t marble at all, but a foot long length of crystal, about the width of two crystals in diameter.
“Or part of it, anyway,” Rika added.
“There is more than one?”
Rika and Isa nodded. “Looks that way,” Isa said. “This plinth is not marble, it’s crystal. I think the whole thing is the Foinse-stone, carved to disguise it. Someone must have removed the piece that lay here,” she indicated the cushion, but they forgot this other one,” and she waved the rod she’d claimed.
“But how do you know it is the Foinse-stone?” Simon asked.
“I am guessing, but the lore around the Foinse-stone is sparse,” Rika said. “All depictions of it since its discovery hundreds of years show it as a single, fluted rod. It’s possible whoever took it from the room didn’t know any better.”
“But why do you two think you do know better.”
“The glyphs on the head were rather vaguely written,” Rika said. “They were supposed to draw energy from the death of the person, but they weren’t limited to that,” she shrugged. “When I set it right-ways up on the plinth, they must have drawn energy from the Foinse-stone, instead.” She shook her head in amazement. “This proves Roshan has the right of it, at least.”
“If the runes were correct,” Trentor asked, “why didn’t the Blood Magic work?”
Rika shrugged. “Who knows? Blood Magic is not exactly common knowledge, it is only told as a cautionary tale to Theorists and Engineers who have completed their training. Maybe it requires a different set of runes?
“We do not have time for a discussion on Fòrsic theory,” Syd said. “We have what we came for.” She looked at Rika and Isa and smiled. “Can you get us out of here?”
“With this?” Isa gestured with the rod. “No doubt about it.”
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
The next quarter bell went by swiftly. As Rika copied down the runes on the head onto a blank scroll, Isa carefully removed the now fully charged crystals. Sean placed the head back in its sack, and she expertly etched a series of glyphs on both of them, and used paints that Simon had found to draw a third set onto the Foinse-stone rod. It was the only portable piece of the Foinse-stone, which, as far as they could tell, extended deep into the floor. The miners must have carved this vault around it, and since the group could not take it with them, they couldn’t afford to etch runes into the rod, not when those runes might have to be changed later. Besides, with the Foinse-stone’s peculiar properties, the lack of efficiency from using paint wouldn’t matter in the slightest. While the two of them worked industriously, Simon and Trentor kept their ears to the door, listening as best they could for noises outside the chamber.
After she finished etching the two eye-crystals, Isa started using them to melt the hinges off the door. Moving as carefully as possible, she produced an intense flame from each of the crystals that ate away at the iron lining the hinges, and then the hinges themselves. The doors sagged, held in place only by the frame and each other. She attached the crystals, still full of energy, to the center of each door, and stepped back. “Done,” she said, keeping her voice to a whisper. Simon and Trentor indicated that there were people outside the doorway now. They were running out of time.
“Done!” Rika said just a few moments later.
Syd beckoned them all over, and they put their heads together. “This information must get out. If the Overseer is doing crazy experiments in the name of the Prime, people must know. If we are separated, make your way back to our camp, but don’t look back,” she paused. “You have done good work. Now, let us go.” She nodded at Isa, who took a strong stance several paces back from the iron doors while the others clustered behind her. She lowered the Foinse-rod, holding it two-handed like a sword, and activated both the rod and the crystals attached to the doors simultaneously. The crystals on the door exploded outwards, the force driving the doors, no longer secured on their hinges, out into the corridor beyond. Then, the blast wave from the Foinse-rod reached the doors. The wave had protected the group from the back blast of the crystals, and now threw the doors further down the corridor. Rika thought she heard surprised yells from beyond the flying doors as they flattened the group gathered outside of them.
“Take that, you sick, blood magic using bastards,” she muttered, and Isa grinned back at her.
Then there was no more time for banter. As the doors exploded outward, Syd shouted “GO!” and the group charged in behind them, Isa in front, keeping the blast wave moving down the corridor. They stepped quickly over the downed bodies. With a resounding crash, the door slammed into the far wall, and the group were out of the hallway and down the corridor in a flash, running flat out back towards the entrance. It was far too late for stealth. Speed was now all-important -- speed, and the glowing rod firmly clasped in Isa’s hand. Rika heard her wild laughter as the power rushed through her, and answered with her own. They were free.
Chapter 19 is here.