I crouched behind a wide grouping of blackberry bushes across a pool of murky water from the entrance and watched the surrounding area for movement. The muscles in my legs burned from my quick escape but I ignored the aching and focused on the mission at hand. I could not allow my personal bodily pain get in the way of what I needed to do. Time was now becoming a resource I had little of now.
All had remained quiet for some time so I slowly crossed the calf-high water so as not to make too much noise and ascended the steep hill to the stone ledge. A flash from something shiny caught my eye and as I neared, the curve of a large spiked pauldron came into my view. It lay haphazardly tossed aside in a shallow pool that was fed by water dripping down from the massive roots boring deep into the hillside. The afternoon sun glinted off of the scuffed silver metal and immediately I knew who it belonged to.
It was Sir Fendall’s.
My breath started to catch in my throat and anxious tingles traveled up my spine. Sir Fendall would not just toss aside a piece of his own armor by choice. He loved those plates of metal more than anything he owned and I had seen him often sit by the fire, polishing it tenderly and imbuing so much pride with each rub of the cloth. Now, here it lay, ownerless and fueling my concern for my fellow founder.
Pushing aside the overgrown flowering vines covering the entrance, I stepped into the dark opening in the hillside and paused to allow my eyes to adjust to my shadowy surroundings. In anticipation for any unexpected guests, I soundlessly drew my axe and dagger from their holsters as I stepped quietly along the cavern. The gentle sound of trickling water echoed off of the bare walls and I followed the sound until I came to a wooden railed walkway crossing over a small stream. However, instead of crossing, I turned left and hopped over the small stream. With my hand, I felt for the slender opening of the side corridor and slipped through once I found it.
A soft, orange light filled the rocky corridor and grew brighter with every step. Someone had lit the torches. I wondered if Sir Fendall had found out about Rhys’s death and come here to check on this location. As pleasant a thought as that was, it did not explain his pauldron tossed aside so carelessly. My knuckles ached from my tightening grip on my weapons. Sir Fendall or not, the situation needed to be dealt with.
I stuck close to the rough wall of the corridor, watching the path ahead as well as taking the occasional glance behind me. Shadows flickered along the walls from the torches’ lights, playing tricks with my sight so I relied more on my other senses. Intently, I listened but all I heard was the gentle roar of the torches and my own boots on the dirt and rock floor. No other heartbeat could be heard either, aside from mine. Whomever had come might be further down in the chamber or maybe they left already. I would soon find out.
The corridor widened once I reached the fifth torch. I holstered my dagger and grabbed the torch, pulling it free from its iron cradle. If I had walked past and not taken it, two plasma field panels would have dropped, trapping me where I stood. A series of unimaginably hot lasers would then activate and slice my body into pieces as easily as a knife slices through butter. I shuddered at the thought and clutched the torch as tight as I could. This technology was thanks to Torx, an Asura from the College of Dynamics whom Sir Fendall had hired on as a consultant. I had questioned the move, unsure of whether we could trust the engineer or not, but Sir Fendall had spoken for him and had assured Rhys and I that he had thoroughly vetted the Asura. We chose to trust in Sir Fendall’s choice and let him bring in Torx, only giving him limited information about the job.
As the corridor curved, I edged around the corner slowly and craned my head to get a better view. I dropped the torch next to the wall since there was enough light now coming from the chamber ahead. The light had shifted from the soft orange glow from the torches to a cool blue illumination from the pole lamps that I knew were ahead. My heart pounded in my chest as I rounded the corner. I feared what I might find in that large chamber or whom I may find. I could not help from fearing the worst.
A sudden sound of crackling electricity and a loud cry caused my heart to jump into my throat. A loud rattling followed and I reached for my dagger as I quickened my steps. A racing heartbeat filled my ears but it was not my own. A strong, deep voice uttered a sharp curse as I entered the chamber. My eyes saw the long, stark white hair first and suddenly I realized whom I was looking at.
“Nienna,” Sir Fendall beamed, relieved. He called to me from behind a series of electrified bars that made up a large square cage. I could see the red threads of electricity jump from bar to bar as I neared. They cast a ghostly purple hue when mixed with the blue light from the tall pole lamps in each corner of the large chamber. I remembered the cage as part of the original set up but I never remembered it being electrified. It was meant to contain while the charged node on the enclosed roof of the cage delivered a quick and relatively painless shock to the system, rending the subject dead. However, the node had been disabled and parts of it had been tossed side. “It’s good to see you.”
“Gods it is good to see you too,” I replied, glad to see him still alive. I gave the chamber a quick look around to make sure no one else was in here with us. We were indeed alone from what I could tell. I crossed the space of the cavern to the cage with quick, sure steps as I holstered my weapons.
“What are you doing here?” Sir Fendall asked as he stepped closer to the bars. He was careful not to get too close. His long, white hair had been stained red along the left side of his scalp and his blood smeared along the dark skin of his forehead. His armor plates had been dented and scratched up and the joyful light in his dark eyes seemed dimmed now, despite the smile on his lips. Even his usual tall, proud stance now appeared diminished.
“Someone is after the pieces,” I gravely informed him as I examined the cage and the attached console just to the left. The original equipment was still here but there were more wires than I remembered. “The first location has been ransacked and the piece gone.”
” I guess that was kind of a silly question. Of course they’re after the pieces. I must have gotten hit over the head harder than I thought.” Sir Fendall replied. He started to chuckle but then stopped as he clutched his side. His smile faded. “I overheard them talking about Rhys. I wish I could have been there. Maybe he’d still be alive and the pieces still safe. I never should have left.”
“Do not blame yourself,” I urged, trying not to let my voice shake from all the adrenaline coursing through my veins. This was never his fault and I did not want him taking on false blame. If anyone was to blame, it was me. “We will make sure they get theirs. Do you know who did this?”
“Not really. There were a lot of ’em. Some of ’em Inquest, but none of them seemed to be in charge. They kept talking about a ‘Him’ though,” he said as he rubbed at the stubble on his chin. He winced and stretched his jaw slightly. “A few of ’em were stronger than they looked.”
So the Inquest was involved somehow. “I’m so sorry Fendall,” I apologized solemnly as I made my way over to the console. It was emitting a low hum that I did not recognize. I raised an eyebrow as I studied the machine. I did not know if the sound was abnormal or merely a side effect of time. This was more Sir Fendall’s expertise.
My friend let out a pained chuckle. “You’re slipping.”
Sighing heavily, I placed my hand on the screen and the first prompt appeared. “Too much stress,” I replied simply as I concentrated. “They managed to find my tracks.” I focused on the intricate sequence he had taught me years ago and I keyed in each segment with a touch of my finger. The console hummed for a moment and then grew louder before it sputtered and went quiet.
“I bet it was Quint,” he guessed. A proud grin grew on his lips as he paced around his place of confinement. He undid the buckles around his remaining pauldron and took it off to stretch his sore shoulder. “That man can track a fish in water.”
The sequence failed.
Ignoring Sir Fendall, I stared at the glaring error message on the screen. I tried it again. Surely it was a mistake. The sequence was burned into my memory and had been for years. I entered it again, slowly keying in each part this time just to be sure.
It failed again.
I slapped my hands on the machine hard enough that they stung. How could this be? The console’s humming grew louder and a sharp crackling sound now erupted along the new wires.
“Nienna,” Sir Fendall called out to me. “Stop. It doesn’t matter. It won’t work.”
I looked at him incredulously. “How can you say that?” We need to get you out.” I entered the sequence again, but like before it failed. A frustrated growl escaped my throat. “How is this not working?!”
“They rigged it,” he explained, his tone full of surrender. I have never heard him speak like this before. “Must have bypassed the sequences and security with their own cipher.”
The wires crackled and the ground began to suddenly shake. Sir Fendall’s dark eyes widened and I could see the look of panic in them as he looked at me.
“What was that?” I asked, startled. I swept my gaze around the large, open chamber, trying to find the source of the vibrations. Crackling near the console caught my attention again and I turned to find some of the connected wires buzzing and shaking with life. I peered over the back edge of the console to find a strange cubic component pulsating with red light. A wire from the console fed directly into the strange cube and from what I could guess, the cube was acting as an additional power source. I traced the length of the other wires with my gaze as they ran along the ground and then up the back wall behind Sir Fendall’s cage and into the ceiling overhead. One wire branched off and connected into the base of the cage, electrifying the bars.
The wires crackled louder this time, causing the ground and the walls to shake violently for a few seconds. Small rocks and pebbles fell from the ceiling and clattered off of the console and cage. Searing pain shot through my head as one large pebble struck me on my head. As I reached up to touch the wound, I struggled to stay on my feet and managed to do so but Sir Fendall was not as lucky. He fell into the cage’s electrified bars and the charge caused his body to convulse until he managed to push himself away with his boot. He gasped for breath as he lay on the ground, clutching at his chest.
I ran to the cage, careful not to touch the bars. I could feel the sharp crackling slightly on the skin on my face as the red ribbons of electricity jumped from bar to bar. Pushing himself up to his feet, Sir Fendall offered me a weak smile. It was then that the harsh realization hit me. I was at a loss as to how to save my friend.
“You need to go,” Sir Fendall urged as he observed the rough walls and ceiling. “This cavern isn’t going to hold. The vibrations are getting stronger and they’re going to bring this place down.”
“No!” I shot back. “Not without you.” I looked around for anything I could use to pry the bars apart. “I’m not leaving you behind so ideas on how to get out of this contraption would be welcomed.” I found a pile of scrap near the console. My hands shook as I searched through it. However, it was all metal and if used, would allow the charge on the cage to travel into me, sending my body into convulsions before I could make any progress.
“The wires are shooting repeated charges into the walls, Nienna,” Sir Fendall noted calmly. The matter-of fact change in tone made me stop. “The walls are getting weaker. You have to go.”
Angrily, I shoved pieces from the useless pile of scrap away and stumbled back to the cage as another charge was delivered into the walls. My head swam. “No! I-I,” I stammered. “I can’t do this by myself. I’m not as strong without you and Rhys.”
“You are strong, Nienna, and you aren’t alone,” he replied. He tried to reach to me through the bars but jerked his hand back away when caught by the flickering electricity. “You have them. They’re good people and they will do right by you if you give them the chance.”
I shook my head and tried to still my quivering chin. Pebbles and chunks of rock started falling around us steadily as the crackling grew louder and the vibrations more violent. I stepped down purposefully with my right foot, calling to the shadows around us. A dark glyph formed on the ground under me and energy spread out in a large circle on the ground around us, solidifying the connection between our feet and the ground. The pulsating energy feeding our bodies was also a relief but did nothing to calm the pain in my heart.
“I can’t,” I started to say, my voice strained. “I can’t, Fendall.” My whole body started to shake as I tried to hold back the waves of emotion pounding at my insides. “They could die too just like the rest. And what if they find out everything? The outcome may not be pleasant.”
“They can help,” Sir Fendall urged. “It’s time we told them. The three of us were never going to be enough.”
The ground shook again and larger chunks from the ceiling fell just to the side of me. A loud metallic clang rang out loudly throughout the chamber as a large chunk of rock hit the top corner of the cage, denting the corner. The wires crackled again and the chamber shook, loosening even more rocks.
“Go Nienna,” my friend pleaded with me. “Get to the last location and stop them. It’s time to end this and let it all go.”
Shaking my head, my eyes welled up with tears and threatened to spill over. I had lost so many people dear to me already. I could not bear to lose another to this life of mine. Yet, I stood helpless outside this cage, unable to get my friend out. I had been able to find my way out of many tight spots but there was no key to steal, no person to take down, and no angle to play. I had failed.
“Gods it was good to see your face again.” A warm smile formed on his lips as he regarded me from behind those bars. It was the same gentle smile he gave me the day we met and many days after. For a moment, I felt myself back in the Leap staring up at the fearless warrior for the first time. “I am ready to join Balthazar’s ranks in the Mists,” he said, proudly straightening his shoulders. He stood tall and proud as he held his closed fist over his heart. “It was an honor to be a Warden with you and Rhys.”
Warm tears ran down my face as I returned the gesture. “And I you,” I managed to say despite my wavering voice. It took everything I had to still the growing tremors in my body. “You will have retribution, my friend. I swear it.”
Another shot of electricity crackled and Sir Fendall’s smile fell. Panicking, I stepped down again, spreading out another well of power, granting us stability to guard us against the strong tremors. Above, large boulders loosened from the ceiling. I looked back down at my friend just as he thrust his strong hands between the bars, despite the electric charges, and connected with my chest. The force pushed me back hard from the cage just as the boulders came crashing down upon it. The cage and my friend inside of it were crushed. I tried to cry out but the air in my lungs had been knocked out of my lungs. My chest felt like it was on fire. I forced myself to gasp in air until I managed to fill my lungs with enough air to function. Scrambling to my feet, I allowed instinct to take over and I ran for the entrance into the hillside as the rest of the chamber started to come down behind me.