Rhys winced as he watched me run the blade along my palm. He ran a shaky hand through his recently teal dyed hair. “Is that really necessary? You have been here for almost a week and I am surprised that you haven’t bled yourself dry yet.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Whatever is the matter, Rhys? Afraid of a little blood?” I teased him as I held up my red covered hand and wriggled my fingers. It didn’t bother me much at all, but I knew how much Rhys hated the sight of blood. He took a step back, his wary eyes locked onto my extremity as his face took on an unusually pale shade. “It is quite necessary, I assure you, and is the final step in sealing this place up. Sort of like a key to a lock. After I attune these sigils, the energy in my blood will be the only thing that can charge the seals and open the way. If someone else manages to find this place and get in using whatever method they choose, the fail safes will lock in place and they will meet a quick end.”
“Better quick than slow,” Sir Fendall pipped up as his broad frame emerged from the opening at the base of Grenth’s statue. Quickly, the warrior ascended the steps, his long, white hair swaying behind him. He leaned against the pale stone and crossed his arms over his chest. “Still, I sometimes wonder if we’re going about this the right way.”
I considered this for a moment in silence as I looked at the three sets of carved lines. It had taken me the better part of a day to finish them and a lot of physical and mental power. The top sigil had a twisted band with a vertical line underneath, signifying the blood bond on the seal. For the second sigil, I carved a series of vertical lines all connecting into the palms of a two hands reaching for the sky, representing the acceptance of my god given power. The last sigil on the bottom was the most difficult to carve. It wasn’t because of its intricacy, but it was the most powerful carving and if I were to screw up the design even slightly, I could end up very dead when I charged them. The lifeless eyes of the elongated skull stared back at me, waiting. I checked the angles of the diamond shaped enclosure around the skull and the perpendicular lines.
But it was nothing compared to the inner chamber.
“Grenth warned me that a corrupted want for power would always seek it out. It may seem excessive but someone coming to look for this much power should never be allowed to have it. Ever. And it should never be brought out into the light,” I said.
“And somehow you knew Rhys and I weren’t corrupt?” Sir Fendall asked, though his tone seemed to imply more of a statement than that of a question.
“You and Rhys never held onto it longer than you had to,” I noted. “Also, neither one of you ever appeared comfortable with it while it was in your possession. I could see it in your eyes.”
Rhys shuttered. “Very true.”
“Your speech seems to be improving, Nienna,” Sir Fendall commented and then added with a chuckle. “You could almost pass as a respectable noble woman.”
I flashed him a playfully wicked smile. “Almost?”
“Good,” I replied, trying to ignore my anxiety soaked anticipation. I pressed my hand on the third and final sigil. A soft red glow emanated from beneath my hand and immediately, I felt a surge of energy connecting the sigils. I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. “I wouldn’t want to grow dull.”
One by one, the sigils began to charge and lock together by the binding of my blood. I channelled the energy in my veins to flow through me and into the final sigil, calling upon Grenth for strength. Although I felt the world start to spin, I held on until I felt the power connect the third sigil to the second and then finally to the first. With a labored breath, I took my hand off the sigil and stumbled away from the statue. Sir Fendall rushed to my side to brace me as Rhys immediately reached for his traveling bag. Carefully, they sat me down in the snow.
“You give so much of yourself to this, Nienna,” Rhys noted, concern lacing every word. He reached into his bag and handed Sir Fendall a few clean strips of cotton cloth for bandaging and a full bottled skin of water.
I wiped at a cold sheet of sweat that had formed on my brow while Sir Fendall started dressing my wound. The whole process had taken more out of me than I had anticipated. “I know,” I replied, letting my disguised voice fall. “It’s all I’ve got left. Aside from you two.”
“Oooph,” I grunted, hitting something large and soft. I landed hard on my back, cradling the controller against my stomach in my firm grasp so as not to hit any of the switches. Suddenly, the surface I had landed on began to move and rumble with a deep growl so I quickly slid down onto the hard ground. “Sorry Clarkus,” I apologized as I struggled to my feet in the dark.
“What in Balthazaar’s beard is this?” I heard Artis ask indignantly. “Who’s hand is that?”
“Wait, is that-,” Seren asked hesitantly. “Ugh, get off me!”
There were other muffled voices and sounds of scuffles in the dark but I had ventured away from the group, searching for the wall nearby. I tried to get the image of Liliana’s blood covering the snow out of my head but it stuck there and added itself to all the others that haunted me. Perhaps I’d hear her voice in the dark now too.
My fingertips found the hard, lumpy surface and I let my bloodied hand rest against it. In an instant, warm sunset hues of soft light began filling the room to reveal a large excavated cavern covered in red markings. There were no lamps, no candles, and no braziers. The light itself came from the walls, from each line and stroke of red, from each sigil painstakingly marked with care throughout the entire cavern. I could feel each of them pulsating with energy. My energy.
“Oh my ears,” Alena muttered a she studied the walls. Her eyes were wide and filled with amazement as she turned her gaze to me. “The markings. The energy. It makes more sense now, why I’ve rarely seen you use your gifts.”
“What do you mean?” Clarkus asked as he dug his back claws into the dirt ground and clumsily pushed himself to his feet with a grunt.
I focused my attention to the controller and turned it over in my hands, examining the body and the few installed switches. “It doesn’t matter right now,” I replied, trying to quickly dissolve the topic while focusing on the contraption. There was a lone switch on the side, very likely on its own wired connection so I flipped the switch and thankfully it elicited no response from the others. Breathing a sigh of relief, I bent down and cut Alena’s bonds and she rubbed at her tiny sore wrists. “The collars should be inactive,” I announced as I helped Alena with her collar and it came off without any repercussions.
“I-I can’t b-believe he shot her like that,” Tuborg stammered as Dee wrapped a strong arm around him and helped him up to his feet. Gently, she wiped Liliana’s blood off of his head and face before helping him with his collar and bonds. “That man is truly mad.”
“He’s more than mad,” I added, looking up at the closed doorway. I pushed back strands of hair from my eyes that had come loose in the fall. “He wouldn’t have let any of us live after he got what he came for. Now that we’re separated from him, you have a chance to get away.”
“And you,” Quint added as I set to cutting his bonds. He removed the collar, tossed it to the ground and thrust his boot heel upon it with enough fervor that he nearly buried it in the earth.
I stayed silent and avoided his concerned gaze as I made sure everyone else’s bonds had been cut and collars removed. Once done, I sheathed my dagger and made my way past the group to the back wall. My cut hand throbbed mercilessly, so I closed it into a fist and cradled it against my stomach. It stifled the pain a little for now but not by much.
“You’re coming with us,” Alena said as she followed me. “Right? I have so many questions. So many things to learn!”
I looked down at the little Asura as she looked back up at me, knowing she was expecting a yes. I had to look away, knowing it was an answer I couldn’t deliver. Instead, I looked back up at the whole group. “I need you all to remember this sequence,” I said loud enough for the whole group to hear. “Left, left, right, left, right, left. Got it? There are many paths but these directions will lead you out to safety.”
“And if we make a mistake?” Clarkus asked gruffly as he eyed me suspiciously and swished his striped tail nervously. “If we get off the path?”
I clenched my jaw. “Just stay on the path.”
A muffled thudding could be heard now from the closed doorway above us. Alec and his men must have been trying to get through the door on their own. Luckily, the sigils down here had already been turned on. Even if they did break through, the fail safes wouldn’t be triggered in case I hadn’t been able to make it out yet.
I flexed my hand to get more blood flowing but tried to hold back any audible groans from the pain. I didn’t need them to focus on me; I needed them to focus on getting out of here. I scanned the various markings until I found a symmetrical set of intersecting lines that created a geometrical pattern. My hand wet with fresh blood, I placed it over the image and felt a surge of energy leave my body to charge the sigil. Immediately, the wall began to vibrate and separate, shaking the cavern and creating an opening.
“There,” I said pointing. “There’s the way out. Remember the directions and the path will lead you through the mountain and out near a Priory camp south of here. Make your way back to Lion’s Arch from there. What you decide to do after or where you decide to go is your choice. You’re all free to go and I urge you to do so. For your own sakes.”
“We should leave,” Seren spoke up urgently amongst the silent group. “There’s only death for us if we stay.”
“But it’s not her fault,” Alena pled as she turned to the guardian. “Nienna wasn’t the one holding the gun to Liliana’s head.”
“How can you say that after everything that’s happened,” Seren asked as she stared incredulously at Alena. She pointed an accusatory finger my way. “He came after us because of her and this ridiculous thing she has!”
“She’s right Alena,” I confessed loudly, cradling my closed hand against my stomach again. Warm blood slowly started dripping down my arm as I looked at each of them. Their faces were all touched by sadness, pain, and some with anger and all I could think was how I was to blame. “It is my fault. It’s all my fault and I am truly sorry. I got caught up in being someone else for a while, someone I really wanted to be but truly wasn’t. Someone I shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t meant to lead you all, but I got greedy and wanted a life that wasn’t promised to me.”
The thudding above grew louder and more persistent and I could have sworn I heard the stone above us crack. Time was running out.
“Go,” I said firmly, ushering them to the opening in the wall. “Let me make this right. Go and don’t wait for me.”
Without hesitation, Seren stepped through the group and made her way to the opening. But it was then that she did something I didn’t expect. She stopped and turned back to look at me. There was something in her hazel eyes, something sad, and I wondered if somewhere deep inside, she was starting to forgive me. Maybe it was a foolish hope.
As the rest of the group started to move toward the opening, I grabbed Quint’s arm. He stopped short, lowered his head slightly, and turned his back to everyone else but me, as he often did when we spoke in confidence.
“If I don’t make it out of here,” I started to say.
The Adviser shook his head. “Don’t start like that.”
“If I don’t make it out of here,” I said, more firm this time. “Get them safely home, please.”
Quint looked down at me with his steely eyes full of concern as he furrowed his brow. I could tell he didn’t approve but I couldn’t let that matter to me right now. Letting out a heavy sigh, he started to say something but stopped and instead nodded before leaving my side to rejoin the others who were starting through the opening. Dee stayed behind and ushered them through until she was the last one. Then, she turned to me and smiled warmly.
“You still owe me the full story,” she said. “Preferably over a couple full mugs of ale.”
I felt my jaw tighten but I returned the smile all the same. “Of course.”