by Nikolas Everhart
The rogue dragged the small boat ashore, and hid it among the boulders littering the craggy beach. Drayse drew out the map, laughing to himself that something so precious was won in a backroom card game, but the gods moved men in strange ways. He just hoped the worn vellum was as genuine as it appeared. His mouth watered as he imagined holding the fabled gems of the Guardians. With those gemstones he could buy his own duchy.
Long fingers swept his shoulder-length dark hair from his eyes. His angular features animated with amusement and more than a little anticipation. Drayse threw back his head, and laughed, his black leather trousers and white silk shirt out of place on the stony beach. He smoothed his dark vest as the wind blew in from the tumultuous sea.
Turning inland, his hand fell to the slender long sword belted to his waist. The gray sand shifted beneath his tailored boots, crabs scurrying underfoot. Silver rings glittered in the noonday sun as he hitched the pack higher on his shoulders. Sighing, he followed the map inland, cutting through vines that encroached upon the fading trail. After a few hours he cursed the oppressive heat, tangled flora, and buzzing insects. It would be a long journey to the tomb.
Heedless of the beauty that rose around him in colorful jungle flowers, he did notice a curious lack of animal life. Drayse wasn’t certain whether that boded fair or foul. The swordsman made camp after a long day of hacking through the dense underbrush, his limbs leaden. The coming of darkness brought with it a biting chill he combated with a fire that threw up green smoke.
Morning came, finding Drayse stiff after a restless night of sleeping under the stars. He was no lover of wilderness even under the best of conditions. Renewing his trek inland, he frequently referenced the tattered map. Midday came and went without incident, but shortly afterward Drayse heard a clamor in the brush. He crashed through the foliage to find a tall beauty entrapped by vines as thick as his wrist. Overwhelmed by her predicament, he doubled over laughing, his sides threatening to burst. Pale blue eyes glared at him from a face contorted with fury. A northern barbarian wench, she was tall and lean, with ivory skin and as muscular as any lancer.
His laughter evaporated, however, as Drayse noticed that the vines writhed with a life of their own. The gambler felt his stomach lurch as he saw barbs twisting into the flesh of the pale haired woman. Anyone else might have surrendered to the inevitable. From the woman’s fury, he doubted she knew the meaning of the word. Drawing closer, he could see that the savage bled from scores of puckered wounds. Her lips curled in a snarl, refusing his aid. Drayse was never one to swoon over a maid in distress and he turned to walk away. Most of those maids would put a knife in his back as soon as they were rescued and this one seemed more dangerous than most of the men he’d crossed steel with.
Frowning, he turned back to the woman. Despite his better judgment, he couldn’t leave anyone to die alone in the jungle. He stepped forward, leather hissing against steel. He raised the thin blade and a look of fear stole over the woman’s face. Sinuous muscle rippled beneath his shirt and the blade came down on one of the tendrils, cutting through it easily. It was short, unwholesome work with sap spurting as he struck at the rubbery vines. He cursed as he continued chopping and finally the vines sought easier prey. She flopped to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and Drayse wondered if his efforts had been in vain. He noticed the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest though, and fell to one knee to tend her wounds as best he could. As he cleaned blood and sap, he was struck by her beauty. She was a full head taller than any woman he had ever seen before and her arms bulged with hardened muscles. Her face was a plane of angular features that seemed angry even in unconsciousness. Even more shocking was her lack of clothing. She wore only the briefest of leather garments, barely covering her ample bosom and waist. No woman of his lands would ever walk the streets in clothing like that, but then again she was a godless savage. Shaking his head, he tried to put thoughts of the odd woman out of his mind as he sponged blood from her pale cheek.
The young gambler’s thoughts were interrupted as a calloused hand snaked upward to seize his throat in an iron grip. He had time to mutter one strangled gasp as the air was forced out of his body. Her pale eyes snapped open to gaze into his own darker ones with the anger of a wild beast. He found a round-bladed dagger thrust under his chin as she forced him to his feet. She released her grip and air surged back into his lungs.
“Well, I now see where the phrase, ‘Hospitality is a red blade in the north’ comes from,” Drayse said, his mouth turned upward in a sly grin. His humor was lost on her as he only found her dagger shoved that much further into his throat. He gave way before it, until the woman had him backed into the base of a broad tree.
“There is never hospitality for a thief!” She spat, shoving her dagger into his throat till a drop of blood trickled down his chest.
Drayse brought his knee up into her abdomen and then punched her in the jaw. The woman sank to her knees, clutching at her mouth. Smiling to himself, he sauntered over and delivered a lazy kick to the side of her face. The barbarian woman was thrown up and over by the force of the blow. She did not attempt to rise. Satisfied that she was out cold, he retrieved her strange weapon.
Clucking to himself, he stuck the dagger, along with its mate into his pack while retrieving several thick strips of leather. Rolling the inert woman onto her face, he bound her wrists. Yet again he was given reason to regret his soft heartedness.
When the savage woke, she maintained a cautious silence, eyeing her captor. Drayse felt a small measure of guilt for the ugly bruise that crept from the base of her neck to her high cheekbone but it was short lived. He remembered her dagger digging into the flesh of his neck. For her injuries she gave no regard, but only spat a desperate oath at him, which he didn’t think was altogether possible, even for an agile man. Drayse smirked. He grabbed her silken braid and pulled her eyes close to his own dark orbs. His face darkened as he demanded her name and the reason for her coming to the island. As if he didn’t already know.
“Kesira,” she grunted, and spat in his face.
The infuriated rogue wiped saliva from his face as he resisted the urge to cleave her head from her shoulders. Instead he pulled her to her feet. It was a shame he was without a steed. He’d relish dragging this hell cat over a few leagues of rough ground. Not that there was a league of land on the whole of the island.
“Come on then, wench, we’re only hours away from the tomb,” he said as he consulted his map again. From her surprised expression, it was evident that she had no similar guide. Most likely he’d been betrayed by one of the cartographers he’d consulted to find the location of the island. It was getting harder and harder to a buy a man’s loyalty these days.
“You should kill me, thief!” she snarled, stumbling before him.
“If I wanted your death, I’d not have saved you from the vines. After saving your life, I would expect a little appreciation,” Drayse murmured.
“Appreciation? For a thief? That’s grand. What respect is there for a greedy burglar or a cutpurse, or footpad? You’re no better than any other.” She spat on the ground as she sidestepped a root.
“So you berate me for being a treasure seeker, eh? To what great and noble purpose would you ply the gems of the Guardians?” He asked her, layering his words with the proper amount of sarcasm.
“Revenge!” the pale barbarian snarled as she trudged on without missing a step.
“You buy your revenge with jewels?”
“Spoken like a true thief!” she exclaimed. “My village was sacked by a rogue who pressed my entire clan into slavery. It was there they died. I have sworn to take his life, but he is too well guarded. However, I found the legend of the Guardians when I studied on the eastern islands. With them I can tip the scales in my favor.”
“How so?” he inquired, his curiosity piqued.
“Whosoever wields the stones, will also wield godlike powers. It was said that swords broke on the Guardians’ skins, their weapons clove through armor and stone alike, and they could rain fire from the sky. With the gems I can crush Balthis’s horde. That is if not for your meddling.” Scorn dripped from her lips like a stream of venom.
“You are young for a heart so cold,” he said, his voice tinged with regret. Kesira lapsed into a sullen silence that the rogue was loath to break.
Finally the grim duo arrived at the sepulcher which was little more than a long low slab of granite. It was set with a door leading down into the earth, covered with thick rope-like vines and dense lichen. Rats scurried along the top of the age old stone. A thick bodied serpent, roped in broad orange bands, slithered off as they approached. The young man swore, raking a hand through his shoulder-length ebony hair.
“If I cut those bonds, will you give me your word not to slit my throat until after we recover the gems?” He turned and asked the woman, as he unsheathed his dirk. “I’ll walk with you as an ally, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave you at my back as an enemy.”
She looked at him, her pale eyes shifting from his face to the glittering blade. Woodenly, Kesira nodded in assent. His eyes betrayed just a hint of uncertainty before sawing through the leather cords. He took a step back, tossing her daggers to her. She caught them and slid them into her boots in one fluid motion.
“Aye, but after we are safely away, we battle for the stones! I’ll hear nothing of splitting them between us. One stone is useless to me without its mate.” She massaged feeling back into her hands as she spoke and Drayse did not doubt the sincerity laced in every syllable.
They grunted over the panel for several minutes before managing to heave it free. As they laid it aside, Drayse found himself mesmerized by the intensity in the pale woman’s eyes.
The pair looked down into a ten-foot drop to a bare stone floor layered with dust. Drayse withdrew a knotted rope from his voluminous pack and lowered it into the inky darkness. Together they scurried down, and lit torches.
The air in the dank tomb was fetid and despite years of experience wandering similar haunts, Drayse’s nose wrinkled. Kesira’s more acute senses left her choking in the foulness. The swordsman swept cobwebs from his dark hair. Drayse had expected to find the walls washed in gold and jewels but this seemed more like a dreary corpse hole.
The light of their torches revealed a squat stone room with rough hewn walls. The only exit seemed to be the hole above. Kesira snorted as Drayse swung his torch around the room. They faced three blank walls, while the fourth held an austere seal of corroded metal. Frowning, Drayse leaned forward to inspect it. The seal was encrusted with lichen and verdigris but it clearly depicted a thin-bladed sword. Coiled around the blade was what appeared to be a snake. He cleared his throat, thinking that he’d seen enough snakes already to last a lifetime. Looking more closely, he perceived glyphs scrawled in an inexpert hand. The symbols etched onto the wall did not seem as old as the seal itself, and unless he missed his guess, they’d been inked in blood or some other viscous liquid. Touching the greenish seal, he felt the aged disk give beneath his fingers. He rotated the disk to the right with no results and then turned it to the left.
Drayse took a cautious step back while Kesira eyed him as the chamber began to vibrate. The wall with the seal shook and sunk into the floor with a crash. Drayse smiled, but his blood turned to ice as a mechanism shot down from the ceiling. Kesira dived at him, carrying them both to the floor as something whistled overhead.
Drayse got to his feet and inspected the passage that had opened up before them, while the barbarian sighed, holding her torch to the opposite wall where dozens of barbed darts were embedded.
“Something is out of place, thief.” The pale northerner commented, and she pulled one of the projectiles from the stone. Drayse glanced at her curiously, as she continued. “These darts are like new. That launcher is a few years old at best. This tomb has been entered since the Guardians were laid to rest.”
Drayse only nodded and held his torch before him as he started to descend through passage. Kesira followed, as he proceeded by the steady light of his torch. Gray walls crowded the pair, capped by a low ceiling that barely allowed them to walk erect. The rogue frowned, thinking it more like a dungeon than a tomb.
Hours slipped by while the pair wandered the cramped tunnels skirting pitfalls and traps designed to deter treasure seekers. Dusty stone crowded them on all sides as their progress came to a crawl with each dead-end. Curses filled the age-old passageways as they were forced to turn and retrace their steps dozens of times. Soon even Drayse was daunted. In a half day of searching they had yet to find even a single clue that these dank walls held the bodies of the ancient rulers.
Just as the duo was near surrender, they came upon a wide room decorated with vast friezes running from floor to roof. Misty red swirls marred the ancient artwork as Drayse ran a probing finger along their surface. The immense renderings were of such intricate detail that a single handspan held centuries of lore. The rogue exhaled at the beauty of the etchings. Behind him, the pale barbarian gasped, drawing his attention from the antique mural. She pointed to the fore of the chamber and Drayse felt his breath hitch in his chest.
A large bronze disk the height of a man bore the same seal they saw in the entry room but in finer detail. The serpent he thought coiled about the blade was actually a whip. Even the savage gaped in awe. The stone was seamed and on either side of the broad disk was a life-sized depiction of one of the guardian. Dalan was on the right and Sepsis on the left. Beside each startling image was a palm-shaped depression. The intention was clear; he pressed his palm to the space beside Dalan’s head, motioning Kesira to follow suit. She did as he asked, but not without complaint.
The stone behind the seal rumbled and rose into the ceiling. Kesira threw herself to the floor in preparation of an attack that never came and Drayse bent double grinning at her. She kicked at him playfully after she had risen to dust her self off. The rogue’s mirth died down to a few stifled chuckles as he gazed into the darkness.
Then, they heard a soft slithering behind them followed by an angry hiss. The two whirled to face six creatures cast from the mold of a nightmare. They stood a head and a half taller than any man on elongated tails. Each had four sinewy arms with hooked talons in the place of fingers. Their skin was a pasty grey, like the underside of a snake’s belly. Set upon bony shoulders, they had spade-shaped heads ending with snake-like snouts, forked tongues darting in and out of their lipless mouths. Hell had spewed forth its demons to protect this foul place.
Kesira faced the serpent-men, brandishing the torch in her hand, but they paid it no more mind than if it was a burning twig. Like lightning a barbed tail shot out, sending the lanky woman flying through the air. A snake man darted at her, eager for the kill, but her arm shot up, dagger in hand, to impale it through the chin. It thrashed in its death throes, chaos erupting among its brethren. Drayse lunged into action, drawing his blade and spearing one monstrosity through the eye while Kesira crawled to her feet. He withdrew his sword a moment too late, as its talons raked furrows in his chest.
Drayse and Kesira fought for their lives against the serpent men. Drayse distracted one with his blade, while Kesira leapt to its back like a mad woman. She sank her daggers into its tough hide until it shuddered. Another lost his head to Drayse’s blade, though it cut the thief with a wide gash along his torso. Exhausted the warriors backed toward the yawning doorway, seeking a respite. The serpents spat and hissed following them as Drayse swung his blade in wide arcs, his left arm hanging limp at his side. Nearly beaten, the pair retreated through the open doorway.
Almost before their heels crossed the threshold, the enormous stone rumbled and slid back into place. Drayse sighed with relief in the darkness as he put his back to the wall, blood flowing from his arm. This was more than either of them had bargained for. Leaning against the cold stone, Drayse thought he could feel a slight tremor and hoped that the serpents didn’t have a battering ram.
Piercing the black veil before him were dual glimmers of light and he felt his skin prickle in response. Beside him, Kesira muttered a prayer, while Drayse uttered a few less pious epithets. His hands shook as he drew the last torch from his leather pack, cursing as he dropped the tinder and had to stoop to fetch it. Light soon flared in the small chamber illuminating it with flickering flames. Kesira gasped as the bare walls of the room leapt in stark relief to the figures on the floor.
A man and woman lay bound with hundreds of chains designed to restrict even the most basic of movement. The two were beautiful beyond description, bronze with golden hair and frosty eyes. They were laid side by side, with barely a hand span between them but instead of serenity those bronze faces held agony. On the brow of each tortured visage was a glittering gem, one an emerald, the other a ruby. Garish light spilled from the jewels even as his torch showed walls, ceiling and floor of featureless stone.
“Thief, what deviltry is this? This is no tomb but a prison.” Kesira breathed in a whisper. Though the guardians appeared as alive as she, they neither moved or drew breath.
“Gods that I knew, woman. Gods that I knew,” was his only response, as he inched forward, sheathing his sword. Behind him, came the rasp of Kesira replacing her weapons.
Drayse knelt beside the silent pair reaching out to touch them. At his back, the faint vibrations behind the hidden door had become steady hammering. He jumped with every crash, as if the stone might give way at any moment.
Steeling his nerves, the young gambler wiped perspiration from his brow and reached out again to touch the golden brow of the male guardian. The flesh that his fingers found was like nothing he’d encountered in his entire life. It was warm to the touch, but felt hard as steel. Drayse shivered, as the ruby on the man’s brow pulsed with a life of its own. When he looked over his shoulder, he thought he could perceive a faint tracery of cracks spreading from the top of the stone wall.
Kesira knelt over the woman, evidencing none of the wonder that befuddled her companion. She perused the golden woman grabbing a length of chain in her pale fist as if to pull the Guardian to her feet. Though the northerner’s muscles bulged with strain, the dead woman did not raise so much as inch from the floor.
Kesira might have been tugging on a slab of granite as the body of a woman. Grunting her frustration, she withdrew a dagger from her boot and waved it at the unseeing eyes of the Guardian. Drayse raised a gloved hand to reprove her, but the words died on his lips as Kesira struck the statue-woman’s cheek with the pommel. The sound of metal on metal rang through the room like an iron gong. The warrior woman shook numbness from her arm. When she checked the head of her dagger it was warped from the impact, but the smooth face of the long dead woman was unmarked.
Drayse shook his head at the barbarian and turned back to Dalan, the male Guardian. A chuckle escaped him, as he ran his leather clad hand over its skin with the texture of metal and the feel of a boiling sun. His hand trailed past the chained chest, along the smooth neckline to the high forehead as he ignored the cursing savage. His finger caressed that glittering jewel that broiled with the fire of a sun at Dalan’s brow. His entire body was enveloped in scarlet light that burned his senses and he fell to the ground. The warrior woman screamed beside him as her own body was wreathed in emerald flames. In moments the light withdrew to leave them both shuddering.
Shaking like a leaf on the wind, Drayse rose to his knees, barely noticing the blows which now rained on the door outside. Cracks crawled from floor to ceiling but he had no mind for them. Kesira gasped beside him, fighting to draw breath. He saw two glowing forms rising over the bodies of the Guardians. Illumination wreathed them as if sunlight given life. Their brilliance blinded the treasure seekers.
“Malah’s ghost!” Kesira exclaimed, as she scuttled back on her palms. Behind her, the cracks widened in the time worn stone. The ghost-like form of the woman snorted, as she gazed down at her body. Her paramour bore into Drayse with luminescent eyes that peeled away flesh and blood, to regard his soul.
“Silence!” He commanded. “The gauntlet has passed.” His words were like the rumble of a god. Drayse felt his heart thundering in his chest. He and Kesira were like gnats to these beings who had lingered here for centuries.
“That which you sought, will now be yours,” the female said and laughed. “The gods have mercy on you.” As the woman spoke her final words, the pair drifted into nothingness. They were left alone in the room as chunks of stone fell onto the floor.
Drayse rubbed at a painful swelling in his wrist, only to find the glittering ruby embedded in the underside of his forearm. Shocked, he looked over to see the emerald pulsing at the base of Kesira’s throat. She clawed at its eldritch glow, trying to pry it free to no avail. He wondered how he’d ever manage to fence this lot but it would give him an excuse for separating the woman’s head from her shoulders.
Kesira shook his arm, pointing to the bodies on the floor. The pounding of the serpent-men was like a drumbeat in his mind as he saw the bodies crumpling to dust beneath their heavy chains. In moments there was no sign that they had ever been there, except for two fine weapons left in their place.
He crept forward by the glittering light of his torch, to withdraw a magnificent rapier from the pile of chains. The fetters fell away with the sound of broken crystal, as he brandished the weapon in the dim light. The sword was a dazzling blade of some metal as dark as night with glittering flecks of silver. A sword of the night sky. Beside him, Kesira uncoiled a glittering whip of interwoven silver links, crisscrossed with filaments the color of blood. She flicked her wrist and twined the whip around her arm.
Rubble crashed to the floor and serpent men slithered into the chamber, like death’s harbingers. As they saw Drayse and Kesira, they drew up short, hissing and spitting. The swordsman fell back, mindful of the ferocious speed of the serpents.
“’Ware! The Guardians are reborn!” The serpent spoke as if venom dripped from its darting forked tongue. The rogue crouched low, his blade outstretched.
Drayse felt power flowing through him and he swept his blade in a broad flourish, slicing the creature’s arm from its body. Beside him, Kesira’s whip was like lightning and a moment later the spade shaped head tumbled across the floor. Smiling in unison, they advanced on the remaining serpent man who screamed, hurling his blade at them. Drayse parried the spinning sword without even thinking. The creature began to speak in a series of clicks and gasps that made little sense to the advancing warriors.
By the time they had backed the creature into the large anterior room, realization dawned on Drayse. Snakes, by the hundreds, converged on the serpent man, who laughed with a fury that made the swordsman’s sweat run cold. Soon, the creature was covered in thousands of writhing serpents that doubled its mass, insuring no bite of blade or whip would reach it. In turn, every square inch of its body was alive with a hissing, spitting mouth.
The adventurers now began a wary dance with the beast, one they seemed fated to lose. Drayse whirled and cut at the creature like a dancing butcher, his blade raining gore throughout the spacious chamber. Kesira’s whip sang like an angel’s fury slicing snakes from the writhing reptile fury but like her companion, she couldn’t harm it.
Drayse parried a blow from the creature, only to find tiny fangs trying to wrest the blade from his hand. Infuriated, he struck with his other fist but his arm was scored by dozens of tiny mouths. Screaming in pain, he ripped his blade free and hacked with desperation, while Kesira looked on grimly.
For hours the battle was waged like that, with their strength waning by the moment, until Drayse noticed something that took him by surprise. While dodging away from the monster’s tail, Kesira brushed his arm and he felt a rush of power. Startled, he jumped back, but then gave a wondering glance to the ruby at his wrist. Biting back his dislike for the woman, he grabbed her hand and felt wonder like never before. The pair was suffused in boiling light. She looked at him with terror in her eyes, but didn’t try to break away.
Energy burst from them, a maelstrom of scarlet and green that arced toward the serpent creature. Flame, hotter than any natural fire, burned flesh and bubbled blood. Snakes fell by the score from the writhing mass. Charred and blackened, they continued to fall, as the energy came brighter and hotter from the two who now flowed together in an unearthly gestalt.
The last snake fell from the serpent man, still boiling in its skin, and the duo struck as one with blade and whip, until there wasn’t a body that could be recognized. They made short work of the remaining serpents in the catacombs who threw themselves against the pair in hopes of overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Like dervishes of myth, the Guardians reborn swept through the tomb, leaving a trail of blood and severed limbs in their wake. Hours later, the pair crawled from the tomb covered in blood, sweat, and stinking green ichor.
As Drayse got to his feet, Kesira eyed him in deadly earnest. He returned her gaze, as he fingered the hilt of his newfound blade. The rogue attempted to brush past her, but found himself shoved to the ground. He clambered to his feet, burning with embarrassment.
“I’ll have that gem now, city man. Give it freely or I’ll carve it from you,” she said, fingering her whip. Drayse gaped at her. “That bauble at your wrist holds the key to my destiny, and I mean to have it, one way, or another.” The whip uncoiled from her arm.
“Witch! Do you miss the very point of the Guardians?” he said, sweeping his blade before him.
Almost quicker than thought, the silvery links of the weapon flashed, but just as quickly his blade parried in the fading sunlight. A twist of his wrist twined the glittering weapon around his own and a fierce tug of war began. Lightning raced along their weapons to envelop them in an explosion that sent them hurtling away from one another. A dozen times they tried and a dozen times they were rebuffed in the same way. Drayse sat up and regarded his unwilling companion.
“Looks as if we are stuck with one another, barbarian.”
“Do not speak to me! Do not look at me! Oh the gods, but I am cursed with this lout!” She retrieved her whip from the ground, grinding her teeth. Drayse bent to fetch his own blade with a wry grin.
“The Guardians are dead. Long live the Guardians!”
As they made their way back to the beach, and an uncertain destiny, the sound of the woman’s curses mingled with the laughter of the dashing rogue.