Within the chapel at the heart of the crypt, the pillars of the altar twisted and turned like colored smoke trapped in glass tubes. Four-pointed stars were emblazoned on each wall with a strange birdlike glyph in the center.
"This isn't an altar to Oanh," Maeve said, taking a step backward.
"No," Sev said, "but it is why were are here."
“What do you mean?” Jade asked.
“It is everything I can do not to attack the altar.” Sev shook with rage.
“The mission comes first,” Maeve said.
“The mission,” Sev seethed, “comes first.”
“You all can’t be serious,” Jade said. “This mission has been one mess after another.”
No one argued with Jade.
Maeve pointed to either side of the room, and Jade entered to the right and Sev to the left.
She walked up to the altar. Only a fool would touch a ritual object they didn’t understand, especially when it was charged and active like this one.
The altar bore none of the runes or glyphs she expected to see. In fact, the altar itself was carved from the same stone as the room when this chapel was cut out.
“It’s not here,” Jade said.
Sev walked up next to her and kneeled before the altar. He reached out to it without touching it. A strange light glimmered from his eyes as he stared at the stone and spiraling aether.
Maeve kept a close eye on him. They weren’t here to interfere with whatever it was the Vazra were up to. They came for the ark and that was it. She hoped to keep from making more enemies.
A strange breeze wafted from the altar that reminded her of a fall day after the Sandvons Woods burned. The blood shone a vibrant red, even though it had congealed with age. What were they doing here?
Sev murmured softly, as if talking to someone else. He was too quiet to understand.
Jade stopped at the left corner of the room on the other side of the altar, holding both hands up to the wall.
“There is another passage here,” he said. “They just placed a simple glamor on it.”
Maeve tapped Sev on the shoulder.
He continued his muttering and ignored her.
Rolling her eyes, Maeve shook him until he broke out of his trance.
“What?” Sev said.
“I was about to ask you the same question. Jade found another passage.”
Jade pushed his hand through the illusion and stepped into the unknown.
Maeve followed. The curtain of deception felt like pressing through a cold waterfall. Turning to watch Sev pass through the glamor, she screwed her face up.
The illusion didn’t touch this side of the passage.
Sev stepped through as if he were afraid to slip on a patch of ice on the other side. Her view was dim, like looking through a screen. The fake wall was a one-way illusion.
They must not have expected the uninitiated to find this place, or they would have put in more effort to secure it, like they had with the other corridor.
After a short walk, the passage turned to the left into a hall lined with shelves, each with a different crate.
“Double check each other,” Maeve said. “If the ark is here, we have to find it.”
The other two nodded.
Each box bore a script from a distinct language and more crests, glyphs, runes, and sigils than she ever imagined existed.
The first box she encountered without markings stopped her in her tracks. It was so out of place amongst the others.
She carefully pried it open and peaked within. It contained an odd staff with a stone embedded into the top of it.
A sharp sting on her arm, and she pulled it away from the staff and out of the box.
“We don’t know what that is,” Jade said. “No touching.”
She hadn’t realized she reached into the box at all until she pulled her arm back. If Jade hadn’t smacked her shoulder, who knows what that staff might have done to her.
Some artifacts possessed the minds and wills of their owner. They were the most dangerous sort. Why had it taken till now to remember her mother’s admonition against working with cursed artifacts?
Twenty thousand cezri blinded her to a lot of the concerns she should have had about this mission.
Maeve monitored herself closer as she opened the second and third unmarked crates they encountered but experienced the same attraction to the odd assortment of artifacts within them.
Several of the boxes were the right size, but none of them had the markings on them from the picture Garland gave them.
As she pried the next crate open, her breath caught in her chest.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out the image and checked the markings on the top of the ark within.
“I think we found it,” she said.
Jade took the picture from her hand and checked it with Sev.
“That’s it,” Jade said.
Sev stared into the box. His lip quivered.
Maeve wondered if he felt the same call she had.
Jade picked up the crate. “It’s not as heavy as I thought it would be. Do you think they emptied it?”
“And put it back in the crate and put it away nicely?” Maeve raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not empty.” Sev pressed his ear against the side of the box. “I can hear something within it, feel its power flowing through me.”
“That’s not creepy,” Jade said sarcastically.
Maeve ushered Sev away from the crate and they walked back toward the hidden door.
Chimes rang out from the chapel.
Slowly, she walked toward the illusory door into the secret passage.
Five Vazra entered the chapel with the tugwattle they saw earlier.
Maeve motioned for Jade to get ready to run. She hoped he understood her intention. With any luck, they would finish whatever they were doing and leave so they could sneak out without a problem. If they were noticed. She and Sev would distract them, so Jade could escape with the ark.
From the grave expressions on their faces, they understood her well enough.
She crouched down and rested her hand over the hilt of her sword so she could draw it and slash up in a single motion.
The Vazra in a black robe placed the Tugwattle's lantern on the altar. Light flickered in the lantern. The four other Vazra chanted like the tolling of many bells.
Shadows moved in the aetheric columns on the corners of the altar. Strange faces and shadowy hands faded in and out of the colored smoke whirling around.
The Tugwattle approached the side of the altar opposite the black-robed Vazra. He chanted an accompanying chant in Hight Apesh, the language of the rites performed by the priests of the Holy Lieges of Mount Ameslin.
Such a sacrilege would never be tolerated if word made it back to the holy city of Lightfell. The holy language was never meant to be spoken outside of sacred rites or the holy precincts beneath the mountains.
He spoke with such fervor, his eyes bulged out of his head. Moving his arms with slow, deliberate motion, he made signs and sigils with his fingers and his whole body. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he chanted with even more zeal than he did before.
An odd energy filled the room as they worked together to perform whatever ritual this was.
Maeve’s hairs stood up, and the sweet smell of thunder poured into the room.
As they chanted, the air grew brittle and thin, like it might shatter with each breath.
Its sharpness burned in Maeve’s lungs like she rubbed sandpaper within her chest every time she inhaled or exhaled.
Her eyes grew heavy.
She fought off sleep.
If they could have stood their ground against so many Vazra, Maeve would have led the charge into battle, but nothing would have come of it but their death.
The air around the lantern cracked, and a dark fire seeped through the breeches.
Sev lurched towards the door.
Jade grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“Let me go,” Sev hissed.
“What do you think you can do?” Maeve whispered.
“We can stop or at least slow them down.” His face twisted with unrecognizable rage. “I have been blessed by the argent court. She gave me her power. I can stop this.”
“And if you can’t?” Maeve asked. “What good will it do if we all die here, and no one learns what happened here until it is too late?”
“Who do you think we can tell? The Mancai won’t do anything. The Aplani are too pious. The Proitanians only care about themselves. The Ceshain keep to their mountains. The Nadee Jheel is too far away. Who do you think we can tell?”
“Anyone who will listen,” Maeve said. “We need to find someone who understands what they are doing. We cannot spot something we don’t understand.”
“Unless we stop them now.”
“And what if we make things worse?”
Sev fell quiet and stopped struggling.
The problem with magic was how much it relied on symbols and elements invested with meaning. If one thing was off, only the fates knew what would come of it.
Sev seethed. His eyes shown a brilliant silver, like a torch shimmering in a mirror. A white iridescence crept across his skin to where he almost shone from his own light.
If it weren’t from the reflected colors on the altar, Maeve would have sworn he glowed.
Jade didn’t let go of him.
Upon closer examination, Sev’s muscles twitched as he tested the Sadath’s hold on him.
Maeve agreed with his intentions but didn't believe it was worth the risk. She was not about to sacrifice their lives to a god without a much better reason than her friend had an intuition.
The black-robed Vazra thrust a blade through the cracks in the air through the lantern flame.
The fire turned black.
The Shadow Phoenix Saga is a free publication, if you enjoyed it consider tipping the writer or subscribing to the publication.