A Catacomb of Lies
By Dennis Detwiller
Night had fallen over the canyon pass of Mahtis, cloaking Archa and Pilu’s advance over the rocky terrain. The Durani were in retreat from their failure to capture Two Rock, but that didn’t make them any less deadly. The Empire’s rearguard would almost certainly have patrols seeking out any overzealous Gudanna force that ventured out alone after them in the darkness. The darkness held more than war though; it held the mystery of the Khan’s death, hiding somewhere in the ancient, ghost-filled Caves of Mahtis. A powerful sorcerer, the murderer of the Great Khan of the Gudanna Dominion, had run here, and Archa knew this would be his last chance to catch them. The jagged mouth of the Caves yawned only a little ways ahead, beckoning them into its depths.
A Harpy flew almost silently overhead. Archa grabbed Pilu by the shoulder, and despite her silent protests, dragged her closer just as the men rounded the corner.
Soldiers now were all around. They wore the blood red armor of the Gudanna army, but something was wrong. Pilu and Archa should be hours ahead of the Gudanna vanguard. They held themselves wrong, too, not the powerful primal stance of a Gudanna soldier, but regimented and strict.
They were Durani knights masquerading as Gudanna warriors.
Only the night’s darkness kept them from a full-on slaughter. The cave entrance hung above the imposters like the mouth of a beached behemoth. Above it, the sand-blasted sky was a black-grey. There was no moon.
“Adhika, you saw something?” A voice, far too close, said from the black in the sing-song accent of the Durani. Archa’s hand fell to his blade without a sound. He had tied it with the tight knot the Khan had taught him, ages past. He felt Pilu’s movement behind him as she prepared herself for the fight. She slowly stepped from him, and hunched, murmuring an almost breathless chant.
What is that smell? It seemed strange he had not noticed it before. Something like summer, drifting in the air. A field of wild flowers. Something in the back of his mind told him to be wary, and he glanced at Pilu.
Together, in the cleft of rock, they were nothing but the glint of eyes. He felt his old bones start to shift, in preparation for the fight ahead. Her spell created a small light around her hands, slowly growing in strength.
“Now,” Archa mouthed and then leapt forward.
There were nine soldiers, and then there were seven. Pilu ran one through with her blade without hesitation, moving quickly despite her false leg. Archa brought his sword down on the neck of the man with the torch, as if chopping at a stubborn sapling. He fell, and the torch sputtered angrily on the ground in a puddle of blood.
There was a pause where it seemed the fight might end; if not from fear then from confusion. The moment passed, and six more men came from behind them. Men wearing the gem eyes of the Durani High Guard. The first among them, intricate golden details etched on his armor, grinned at Archa, spit on the ground, and drew his sword. Despite the grandeur of his armor, the sword was not a grand affair. It was a stubby, well sharpened Asir, the sword of a criminal conscript. Archa’s gaze hardened to see it; for a man of such background to rise in the ranks probably meant he had made extra effort to destroy whoever the Durani saw as enemies. The eyes of this killer shone; he liked being a soldier.
The High Guard squared off against Archa, who raised his sword in return, feeling all of his years weighing heavily in his shoulders as he prepared himself for the onslaught.
Then, Pilu was shouting.
Archa felt the ground shift, and saw the men around him stagger and fall. But the ground had not moved. The world had moved, as if a disinterested giant had given it a swat. The sky pulsed a blue green, but not really, and after-images of the men as they stumbled and quaked around him traced in the darkness. The power of magic had been given form; Mana, concentrated and visible. One man, Archa saw, had the floating face of a screaming child embedded in his chest—a ghost—making no sound. Shapes swam through space and time and weaved in and out of the world, becoming real, but only for a split second before vanishing into the ether from which they had come.
Then, in his disorientation, Pilu was with him, pulling him along. Hands implacable.
They ran into the cave; a hole in the world, alive with the ghosts of dead generations.
“A Zri Spirit dwells here—my spell was disrupted.” Pilu said, trying to explain the madness to Archa as they stood in the tunnels. The mana overflow had abated somewhat, but after-images remained, ghost-figures moving in the corners of their eyes. Pilu’s vision was clear while Archa’s remained clouded by the visions.
Something brushed by him, an imagination, a spectre, invisible and then gone when he looked, but he saw in Pilu’s eyes that she had seen it as well. The Zri spirit? Was it here, now?
“Tell me what we must do,” He knew Pilu had encountered such a spirit before, and the experience had almost cost her life. Archa was out of his depth, but he did this for his Khan, and he would do anything for his Khan, even give his own life.
“We must proceed,” She turned and tilted her head. “The spirit moves to find the doors to our world and, in this place, there are many. Trust nothing you see,” Pilu looked confident as she took the lead. She pulled the torch from her pack, struck the flint to light it, and the room leapt to life with shadows. She slid forward into the darkness.
From behind him suddenly came a voice, smooth and perfect, that said his name. He jumped with a start and turned slowly. The words that followed were melded together like tallow wax. Words he had heard in or out of sequence hundreds of times, in a voice which had directed him more than his own, internal voice. But the voice was not HERE. It could not be. It was a sound and not a sound. Words that once heard, a moment later, were uncertain in their source or reality.
Behind him, instead of finding the Khan, the owner of that perfect voice, he found his dancing shadow on the cave wall.
“Caution here, my friend,” the voice had said to him.
He turned to find the light of the torch well ahead of him in the dark.
Perhaps, Archa thought, it was the Khan beyond the grave giving his last command.
“My lord,” Archa said, and just in case, bowed, and ran after the light.
I was a fool, Archa thought, as he saw the torchlight recede along the tunnels. He ran until the world swam in front of him, his breath drawn in gasps that felt like shards of glass shoved in his throat. Had it been a glamour? The mana? The Khan?
Whatever it had been, it had separated them most effectively.
“PILU!” He shouted down the tunnel. His voice, disinterested and faint, doubled back.
The light dwindled, first, and then faded. Then, the sounds of distant splashing.
His hands found his knees and he drew wheezing breaths until he caught his air, and his eyes adjusted to the shapes in the dark. Glints and highlights. Nothing more. He marched slowly up the corridor as it resolved itself into the outlines of a cavern, filled with water rising to the knee. There, then, a ball of light, dim at first.
It gathered light from the air around it, a ghost light, casting a glimmer on the water, pulling a spirit-chain from the surface. He froze, waiting for its next move.
Lazy lightning rushed past him to lick at the sphere. When the ball grew to the size of his chest, it drifted off down the corridor, towards where the torchlight and Pilu had gone. Reluctant, Archa followed it, slowly.
The corridor was occupied, he saw. A ghostly procession of people, each secure in some moment of their life. Certain in their existence. Walking, killing, kissing, screaming. Dead. Long dead.
Some turned to look at him as he passed, and the look on their grey, faded faces were all the same. Wonder and fear, intermingled. Archa realized, then, that each of them saw him as he saw them, a spirit, wandering in some nightmare world. To the spirits that saw him, he was the ghost.
He found her collapsed, black with blood, thrown to the side of a corridor. The ball of light seemed to expand and lose coherence here, illuminating the chamber in a glow which was so subtle it might not even be there.
He said nothing, and lifted her to her feet. Her sword tip was broken, and covered in a yellow ichor. Her eyes fluttered open, and he saw in her eyes that whatever it was, the attack had not been mortal. She stood a little shakily on her own, balancing on her only real leg, and silently did up the clasps on her armor.
It was only then that she drew her sword.
Archa stood by, uncertain.
“Is the sorcerer near?”
She looked up at him, then, her face blank. A moment later, she pulled her scarf over her face. Now she was only eyes, judging him.
“I will ask the questions.”
It had been years since he had been talked to in such a manner.
“So it has come to this. I find you are the killer. It was you who killed our Khan,” she said, stepping back, moving into the first position of the old martial dance.
He stood for a moment, stunned. Water dripped down his armor. Even now, the glow in the room seemed to increase.
“Pilu, the magic of this place has warped you,” he warned, hand on his hilt. The insanity of her statement left him numb. A madness had taken her—or perhaps, not her at all, but something else.
“Do you think I do not know of your covetous nature? Your lust for more? Your selfishness?” She said, quietly. Her sword moved to the first position.
“You know better than that.” Archa growled through gritted teeth. He could now see the roof of the chamber, lit with a ghost-light. The light, it seemed, was growing with each passing moment. He remembered a moonlit night, long ago.
Archa stood and held his hands out, palms-up. “You know I cannot fight you.” he said, and suddenly the light drained from the world, leaving, once more, only shadows and glinted highlights. Pilu’s face under the scarf began to warp and strain.
“You do not make this easy,” the Pilu-thing croaked, and then began to laugh. The laugh was vast, and barrel-deep. Chugging and thick, like the last gasps of a man consumed by the plague.
Too slow, he drew his blade and swung at the spirit.
Pilu exploded before him, before his blade could touch it. A spray of black shapes and wiry obsidian chains of ichor intershot with yellow. The thing swept past him, nearly knocking him off his feet, and drained down a corridor into the black, trailing that horrible crackling laughter. Despite the fear, Archa followed.
The old man did not run into the corridor, even as he saw what he believed to be Pilu on the ground, attended by a figure in Gudanna robes; a mage by the look of it. Whether an imposter or not, Archa couldn’t tell. Or could it be the Zri spirit that attacked him…?
“Hai!” Archa shouted, instead, and the robed figure leapt up. “Stand away!”
Sword out, he advanced, sure-footed and finally with a clear-mind.
“Do you serve the Spider?”
The mage said nothing in return. Face invisible beneath the hood. Eyes shaded.
“You serve Nandanna.” now, it was not a question.
The mage gathered power and launched it forward, a bolt through the air, something like lightning, but Archa was not there. The next few moments were a blur of fury. A blackness descended on the old man, and his blade moved as if pulled by invisible puppet strings. Every strike, every turn, as perfect as when he as a man of twenty. Better.
Better than he had ever been. He felt the Khan there with him, he thought, as his body danced and spun and dodged. But never to a certainty. Perhaps, after all, this was only him, at the last extremity.
The mage was swift, but he could not withstand Archa’s onslaught forever. Injured and bleeding, the mage fled down one of the corridors.
Archa collapsed into the shallow water. Arms and legs shrieking. Chest spasming uncontrollably. He shook, tears streaming unbidden down his face. The Khan—or whatever had given him such strength—left him spent and weary.
Pilu struggled for breath in the black.
It was her. He knew it was her, and for this fact, he was sorry. He wished some other horror was here, in her place, pretending to be her, something he could fight. Not this death. Not here. Not now.
Pilu’s chest poured a black stream of blood, and her mouth bubbled with it. Each breath was a heave, with the sound of liquid at the end. Wet and thick. Somehow she was able to speak, in gagging gasps.
“Archa. The Khan’s killer. A woman. The magic. Has limits. A woman. Do you see?”
“Yes, Pilu, the killer was a woman. I promise…” He said.
“No promise. Find the killer. The woman. This shall be. Our reconciliation.”
Then, Pilu was no more. Her withered corpse a mere echo of the woman that Archa had once loved.
He closed his eyes and held her. In his mind’s eye, in the palace, years before, he sat. Pilu stood in the hall in all of her youthful elegance. The Khan stepped to him and lay a sword upon the crown of his head, gently.
“Rise, servant, and in my name, never fail,” the Khan said, and even now, his voice was indistinct. Every day, it grew further from him.
Archa let Pilu down into the water, until it covered her face. He stood with effort, wet, old, and exhausted. He sheathed his sword and fixed his chest plate, and turned back the way he had come.
“I shall never fail you, my lord,” and left, to find and slay the woman that had killed his Khan.
Illustration by Joel DuQue